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Purgatory's Shadow

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There was an old saying on Earth that the mirror never lies. While the meaning of that adage had initially been lost on Elfangor – as it would have been on most Andalite nothlits trapped in human form – it has never been clearer to him as stands contemplating his reflection in the waters of the lake.

Years as a human, no matter the time that has passed since, has forever altered Elfangor’s body language, and he bends at the waist until his face is mere inches from the lake’s surface. His spine, already aching from the last battle, protests, but Elfangor merely shifts his hind legs and tail to compensate, and continues his contemplation.

Not for the first time, Elfangor wonders what others see when they look at him. Have the years of hero propaganda fed to the populace by the War Council seeped in? Do they see the strong, brave, unbreakable War-Prince Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul of legend who never really existed, or do they see the dried-up husk with the hollow eyes that greets Elfangor? An Andalite male, in the prime of his life, exhausted and gaunt and covered in the scars of battle that would disappear if he could be bothered to morph them away. The angry part of him – that started as something small, dark, twisted, hidden in the very depths of his soul, but has become an all-encompassing monster under the constant stress and strain of battle and bloodshed that it frightens Elfangor down to his core – wants to keep the scars as long as possible. To remind both himself, and everyone else, of his mortality, his vulnerability.

“You’re only human, Elfangor…” she smirks, her eyes dancing with affection and good humour. “Well, almost.”

All these years, and I can still see you, hear you, like we’ve never been apart. The artificial breeze – another crowning achievement of Andalite technology, Elfangor thinks bitterly – picks up, and for a moment, Elfangor is certain he can smell her shampoo, that scent of fruit and herbs that clung to her golden hair…

Grimacing, Elfangor slashes at the water with his tail; the blade lands with a splash that has Elfangor shaking himself off like an Earth dog, and cursing himself for drawing the attention of the military types around him.

Perhaps coming to the Dome at the busiest time of the day to reflect was not ideal, Elfangor berates himself.

But then his only other option is to admit that he desperately needs rest, and to retire to his quarters. But the exhaustion that racks his body so badly he can feel himself shaking slightly is far preferable, in Elfangor’s mind, to the awful dreams he knows will haunt him the moment he closes his eyes. Those swirling images that never fail to swim to the surface of him mind, especially after battle. The pain, the terror, the blood – the mere smell of it is enough to make Elfangor feel violently ill – and the terrifying visage of his most powerful enemy. The enemy he helped to create, through his own youthful arrogance and stupidity…

Elfangor has already lost so much, had to leave so much behind, and for what? The Visser is there, always there, thwarting him at every turn. The universe reminding him of his mistakes, his losses, his regrets.

My wife, my son…please, Ellimist, keep them safe…

Elfangor wishes he knew if the meddling old bastard could hear him. And, more to the point, would grant Elfangor his wish. After all I’ve done, and will do, it’s the least he can do!

The water is clear and cool, refreshing to his tired body as he drinks. He is sorely tempted to throw himself into the water and swim around, and while he’s fairly sure War Hero Elfangor would be allowed such a luxury to swim in water others drink from, he doesn’t want to over-step the boundaries of modern etiquette.

Instead, he watches his face in the water, his reflection distorted by ripples and shadows.

For a face he barely recognises anymore, Elfangor thinks it’s rather fitting.

~*~

In all her years as a military doctor, Forlay-Esgarrouth-Maheen has seen few cases like it.

Although she doesn’t always like to admit the fact that she can still clearly remember what it was like to operate on war injuries before the morphing technology made it all so much easier for all, that is purely vanity. What were once life-threatening, or even fatal, injuries became something that could be morphed away into oblivion in a matter of moments.

While some Andalites are bafflingly allergic to Escafil’s great discovery  – the great Prince Mertil-Iscar-Elmand is one example, although Forlay is sworn to secrecy, something she is unlikely to violate, especially when Mertil’s mate Prince Gafinilan-Estrif-Valad is as terrifying as he is – more than ninety-nine percent of Andalites are not.

And within that ninety-nine percent is her son, War-Prince Elfangor-Sirinial-Shamtul. So why exactly he is covered in more than a year’s worth of battle scars when he could easily morph them away is both confusing and painful for Forlay. Elfangor is her baby, her first born, her little one. She never wanted him to join the military in the first place.

And as she looks at his face as he walks towards her through the busy, over-crowded space-dock terminal, she is reminded as to why. All his life, Elfangor seemed strange and apart from those around him. Not so odd or eccentric as to draw negative attention, but still, he stood apart. In a time of a war so desperate that the freedom of all races with Yeerk reach depends upon its outcome, her son has been thrust into the centre of it all, his sweet and gentle nature battered and reshaped into something hard and ruthless and unforgiving. It shows in his body language, in his eyes, in those awful scars that Forlay is almost certain is a reminder to everyone of Elfangor’s inability to always cheat injury.

And death…

Forlay shakes her head, trying to clear it, as he approaches her. Why she could see him so clearly through the crowd of very similar Andalite warriors should probably be a mystery, but Forlay has always known her son, whether he is a foal, mere hours old, or the little boy who was so fascinated by what he could see through her microscope, or the overly-troubled young man who now approaches her.

< Elfangor, > Forlay says quietly, stepping forward.

< Mother, > Elfangor replies, his tail reaching forward for hers.

Smiling, she touches her tail blade to his. She knows that they are surrounded by arrogant, swaggering fighter pilots, self-proclaimed military masterminds and the very war-mongering War Council members who have built her son into the determined, damaged man who now stands in front of her, but she doesn’t care. As if he were still a small child, she reaches for his face with her hands, and presses her palms against his cheeks.

To her joy, he neither flinches away or feels shame or embarrassment at her very public display of affection. He leans his face into hers, until their foreheads rest against each other, their stalk eyes tangling in a way that makes her laugh.

Her son – her poor, bruised and battered son, shaking with exhaustion and suppressed emotions that Forlay can only guess at – wraps his arms around her torso (Don’t only bipeds do this? Forlay the Scientist asks, before she is quietened by Forlay the Mother), and stands there with her.

Forlay can feel the eyes of curious onlookers – and furious onlookers, if the four-eyed glare Lirem-Arrepoth-Terrous himself is shooting her is any indication; but he’s always been a snivelling imbecile, since they were at the crèche together as yearlings, at least, Forlay recalls with a smirk – but she doesn’t care. Like young Aximili and even Noorlin (not that he would admit to that!), Forlay is always there for her boys, just as they are there for each other. Whatever it is that haunts Elfangor will probably never be known to her, or anyone else. But she can support her baby in his hour of need, just as his father and brother will.

She knows they must be impatient to see Elfangor, waiting at the scoop as they are. But they chose to avoid the crowds.

They can wait a while longer.

~*~

Esplin 9466 has always admired the waters of planets like Earth and even the Andalite Homeworld. He would never admit it aloud – the very fact that Alloran knows humiliates him no end – but their clear, reflective surfaces have always appealed to him from an aesthetic viewpoint. And what a novel notion, to be able to see oneself in the surface!

Although the Andalites would perhaps one day be loath to admit it, the humans were rather like them, with their love of vanity objects like jewellery and mirrors. Both races had a seemingly endless affection for shiny objects, which Esplin both mocks with relish (and quietly agrees with). Why should one not adorn themselves with gifts from the planet they have conquered? Humility gets you nowhere, in Esplin’s opinion. These humans – these Americans, as they call themselves, although why humans insist on defining themselves by geography escapes Esplin; they would be a far more formidable species under a single leader and title – are correct when they proclaim, “Advertise Yourself! No one else will do it for you!”

Beast Elfangor certainly knows how to advertise himself, with his dizzying rise in the ranks of the Andalite military and the minds and heart of his fellow Andalite filth. Oh, yes, he is their all-conquering hero, after all! He is the Light and the Way into a Yeerk-Free Future, so says the cowardly Lirem and his War Council.

The day will come when Elfangor will be deafeated, Esplin thinks, a slight smile showing on Alloran's face. I will defeat him! He may be strong and brave and an incredible fighter, but the day will come when I will crush him like the slug he thinks I am. A slug, am I? Ha! I'll show you, Beast Elfangor!

And Esplin can almost see it: Elfangor - strong, brave Elfangor - facing up to him. Tail flashing through the air, seemingly faster than light, muscles rippling, fur gleaming in the light, determination colouring his face as he lunges towards him...

< If I didn’t know better, Esplin, I’d say you were in love with him, > Alloran sneers. < You spend so much time thinking about him! >

< Silence, slave! > the Visser snaps, but Alloran’s mocking laughter drowns him out. < He’s nothing but Andalite scum, like you. He’s the one that delivered you to me! >

Esplin had hoped that would silence Alloran; he was very much mistaken.

< He’ll also be the one to defeat you, you’ll see, Visser. Your defeat lies tied to that poor creature. The Andalites have promoted him to a heroic position far beyond even his simple-minded childhood dreams, but it hurts him, Yeerk. It hurts him, just as it hurt me. To be young and promoted before your time is worse than being ignored. > Alloran laughs again. < But then, you already know that, don’t you, Visser? >

And despite himself, the Visser is silent.