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Bird in a Cage

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My name is Tobias.

I'm a red-tailed hawk. And I don't mean that it's my spirit animal or that I work as a mascot. I mean that I have talons instead of toes, wings instead of hands, and when all my friends are at school, I'm in the sky, riding the thermals like they're the biggest roller coaster in the world.

I also have a girlfriend. A human girlfriend, I mean.

My life is a little weird.

 

Three years ago, a dying alien named Elfangor gave me and four other kids the ability to morph into animals so that we could fight back against the invasion of Earth by an alien race of parasites called Yeerks. The only catch? If you stay morphed for more than two hours, you get trapped. You become a nothlit, stuck in the that form for the rest of your life.

There's six of us now, counting Ax, an Andalite who is also Elfangor's little brother and my best friend.

But I'm the only one of us who ever stayed in morph past the two-hour limit. It happened on our very first mission. No one else. Just me.

No one's asked me directly yet, but I know the others sometimes wonder if I let myself get stuck on purpose.

Here's the secret: I don't know.

I remember knowing I was running out of time. I remember Controllers running around, searching the Pool as they looked for us. For a while, I had to wait, because trying to leave would have meant certain death. But I waited until I was completely safe. Even when I knew I had to be almost out of time, I kept waiting.

Anyone else, with the clock ticking down, I think they would have taken more risks.

I don't regret it, though. Even before the Ellimist gave me back the ability to morph and let me acquire my old body again, I didn't regret it. I had always felt caged before. The others don't understand. They never felt the way I did. They have friends, parents who love them, somewhere to call home.

But me, I didn't really have any of that. The first time I caught a thermal and spiraled upwards into the air was the happiest I'd ever been in my life. Two hours at a time never felt like enough and when I was flying, having thumbs hardly seemed worth it if it meant getting my head shoved in toilets or having to clean empty beer cans off the counter if I wanted to make dinner.

So, that's the truth. I don't know if I got stuck as a hawk on purpose. But I know if I hadn't become a nothlit in the Yeerk pool, eventually I would have done so in the air, with the sun on my feathers and the clock on my nightstand counting down the seconds.

 

There was a bald eagle flying over my meadow.

Normally, I'd be annoyed at another bird of prey flying into my territory and potentially eating my prey. But I knew this eagle and even though she sometimes hunted, I knew from experience that if she made a kill she'd give it to me.

<Hey,> I said. I hopped off my branch in case she wanted to go for a fly, but she was already landing on the large oak log in the middle of my meadow. I glided down to join her on it.

It hadn't been there originally. But Rachel came to my meadow often enough that she'd wanted more to sit on than just grass. She'd found it on the forest floor and had morphed elephant to drag it over. There used to be a big gouged-out scratch in the grass where it'd happened, but it'd grown back by last summer.

That's the sort of thing Rachel does. If she sees a problem, she uses force on it until it's fixed.

She was already demorphing by the time I landed. No one really knows why morphing never looks the same twice and this time, her feathers went first, slurping back into her skin like the world's grossest spaghetti. She was growing while she did it too, so by the time all of them were gone, she was a big, vaguely bird-shaped thing with raptor feet but toes instead of talons. Horror movies had nothing on us.

<Ugh, that is really gross,> I commented. She rolled human eyes at me as her beak melted into lips.

"Says the guy who eats dead rats," she said when she finished. She got back on the log and patted the space next to her.

I walked in that awkward bird way down the log to where she'd indicated. When I was there, she touched my back, stroking gentle fingers through my feathers. The hawk part of my brain, all its instincts, didn't like it. The hawk didn't know why something was touching its back. The hawk wanted to fly away from the contact and get back in the sky where it belonged. But the human part of me, Tobias, liked it. I leaned into the touch and preened my feathers happily.

"What's up? What'd you do today?" Rachel asked.

<Not much,> I admitted. <It took longer to get breakfast than I expected and then I went to the library for a while.> I couldn't exactly turn pages with my talons but the weather was nice enough that there'd been lots of people reading outside. By now, I was an expert at reading over people's shoulders while coasting in the air. <What about you?>

Rachel told me about her day. Her sisters had been bothering her so she'd gone to the mall for a while but hadn't seen anything she'd wanted to buy. We hung out in silence for a while, not really chatting except to sometimes point out an interesting cloud.

It's something we do a lot, but I never get tired of it. I liked to think we were past talking, by now.

 

"It's getting kind of cold." Rachel rubbed her hands vigorously against her arms, then blew on her hands.

I fluffed my feathers. I still felt perfectly fine, but hawks were built for handing cold evenings and Rachel was wearing only her morphing outfit. It wasn't exactly warm. <Yeah, the sun's starting to set.>

"I don't mind staying out a little later," Rachel said, looking at me. "My mom's working today anyways, so she won't notice if I'm not back for dinner."

<That's good,> I commented, then realized how that sounded. <Not about your mom. I mean about staying later.> I was glad hawks couldn't blush.

A few minutes later, Rachel blew on her hands again and nudged me with her elbow. "You should morph," she suggested with a teasing half-smile. "Then we could huddle for warmth."

<Morph into what?> I asked. Part of me knew what she meant, but my first instinct was to play dumb. <Polar bear? It might still be too warm for that.>

There was a pause. "How come you don't like morphing human?" Rachel asked and something about the way she asked made it obvious that this was a question she'd wondered before.

I wasn't sure how to answer. I had answers – weaker senses, not being able to fly, no shoes, but even though those were all true, they weren't the truth. If Marco asked, or even Ax, I would have made a comment about not being able to see well enough.

But this was Rachel and if there was anyone I could be honest with, it was her.

<I don't know,> I admitted. <I just don't like it.>

Rachel bit her lip. It would have looked weird if anyone else could see us, a beautiful girl in a leotard and bike shorts having a serious conversation with a bird standing on a log. "Is it because of us? Because even if you go human, we don't have to do anything. I just want to do stupid girl stuff like lean on your shoulder or hold your hand. It's okay if you don't want to." She looked suddenly unsure.

I felt like a jerk. <It's not that. I like being with you. I want to be with you.>

I walked on my awkward hawk legs until I was standing closer to her, then opened my left wing and turned sideways, offering it to her. She gingerly wrapped her fingers around my primary flight feathers for a few seconds before letting go. It was weird and definitely not comfortable, but it made her smile.

<When I morph human,> I began, then stopped. I didn't have words for what I wanted to say, but I tried anyways. For her. <Before I could morph, I felt trapped. All the time.>

Her brow furrowed. "Trapped how?"

<I don't know how to explain it. Don't you ever feel... wrong? Like there's something wrong with you that isn't wrong for anyone else.>

"But morphing won't change that," Rachel said. "You'll still be the same person on the inside."

I knew immediately that we were talking about the thing we didn't talk about, the way Rachel seemed the most herself when she had Hork-Bajir blood on her paws. The way she wasn't the only one frightened by how far she might go. How far she might want to go. But she'd never seemed tempted to become a bear forever. Not like me.

<That's not what I mean.> I looked away under the guise of straightening some of my feathers. <I guess I just never really liked being Tobias the human. I never felt right.>

"But you still morph human sometimes," Rachel said. "We saw that movie the other week. I thought you had fun."

We did. I had. In the dark theater, with just Rachel sitting next to me, the movie on the screen, and a bag of candy shared between us, being human hadn't been so bad. Going human was worth it, more than worth it, if that was what it took to go to a movie theater with her.

<I did. I like watching movies with you and going to dances. But that's because morphing human's the only way I can do it. It's just that if I could, when I morphed human I wouldn't be-- > I stopped talking. Saying it would make it real.

"Wouldn't be what?"

I hesitated. My secret, my deepest secret, the one I had worked so hard to make sure no one knew, sat on the tip of my tongue, closer to the surface than it'd been ever since I'd last gotten smacked upside the head for hinting at it. Fear choked me. I was already a freak. I didn't want to be even more of a freak. I didn't want her to be disgusted with me.

Rachel watched me, patient. But I couldn't say it.

"It's okay. You don't have to tell me," she said when I didn't answer her.

I felt a sudden rush of love towards her. That was what decided it for me. I loved her and somewhere, part of me wanted her to know. If it didn't, I would have lied when she'd asked, the same way I did whenever anyone else teased me for spending so much time as a bird instead of a boy.

<Don't tell the others,> I warned. <I don't want them to know.>

"I won't," she promised solemnly. She stuck her littlest finger out and shook pinkies with an invisible hand. "Pinky promise." It looked funny, but I knew she was dead serious. She would guard my secrets with her life, the same way I guarded hers.

Even after making the decision, it took me a minute to work up the nerve. <If I could, I wouldn't be a boy,> I finally admitted in the equivalent of a thought-speak whisper.

Rachel didn't understand. She tilted her head slightly. She wore a puzzled frown on her face as she tried to work it out. "What would you be instead?"

I told her.

She looked at me blankly. "But you're not a girl."

<I know,> I said. <But I want to be.> I couldn't look at her any longer. I couldn't bear to see her face twist in disgust as she figured it out, so I stared instead at ants crawling on a tree on the far side of the meadow. Their tiny antennae waved in the breeze as they followed their sisters. Part of me, part of the human me, wanted to spread my wings and fly away. But I wanted to stay, too.

The seconds dragged on like eternities.

"I don't know why you'd want that but you can, you know," she said eventually. "Try being a girl. If that's what you want."

I didn't know what she meant at first. But when I turned my head to look at her, grateful for the hawk's inscrutable stare, she was holding her hand out to me, palm up. From there, it wasn't hard to figure out what she meant. She looked serious, but kind too. She wasn't making fun of me. She wouldn't do that.

My heart pounded in my little bird chest. I dipped my head and touched my beak gingerly to her life line. Her breathing slowed as I concentrated. I focused on her long, blond hair and confident, toothy smile and felt her DNA becoming part of me. She blinked quickly and shook her head when the acquiring trance wore off.

I fluffed my feathers, then preened them. It was a nervous habit. <Do – should I –> Now? Part of me fluttered with nervous anticipation.

Rachel shook her head quickly. "No clothes," she explained, cheeks pink.

I immediately felt a rush of embarrassed guilt for not thinking of that. This was her body we were talking about and even though she was my girlfriend, we'd never done – that. I'd never seen her with her clothes off before.

"Come over tomorrow morning," she said. "My mom's super busy with work right now, and Jordan and Sara have a sleepover tonight so no one else will be home." She bit her lip and looked at the setting sun. "I better go before it gets too dark."

Before she morphed eagle to fly back home, she hugged me. It pinned my wings against my body and crushed me against her chest. Her chin blocked out the sky above me. Uncomfortable as it was for the hawk, I cherished it.

As she flew away, I watched her outline shrink smaller and smaller in the sky until it disappeared from view.

 

The next morning, I seriously considered not showing up to Rachel's, maybe pretending the day before had never happened. But her DNA was in my blood now and I knew there was no way she'd let me chicken out forever.

She was waiting for me when I flew into her room a couple hours after dawn. "Hey, Tobias."

<Hey.> I shuffled nervously on her desk and preened my feathers. <Did you still wanna do that thing we talked about yesterday?>

Rachel smiled at me. "Yeah," she said. "I have some clothes you can wear." She picked up a leotard and bike shorts that, aside from the color, were virtually identical to her own morphing outfit. She looked at me expectantly.

<You don't mind? You don't think I'm a freak or anything?>

She shrugged. "You're already a freak. We're all freaks here. What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Rat guts?"

Vole, actually, but point taken.

I closed my eyes and focused. I'd morphed human before and when you get right down to it, a human girl isn't that much different from a human boy, compared to cockroaches or seagulls. My feathers disappeared. My bones lengthened and popped as they rearranged themselves. My beak softened and pushed into my face. My wings stretched into arms and split into fingers at their ends.

Soft, stretchy fabric was shoved into my hands. It wasn't easy getting dressed with my eyes closed, but Rachel helped.

"This is weird," I said when I was done and could open my eyes. Her voice sounded weird coming out from my mouth.

"This is really weird," she agreed, staring. But then she nodded and adjusted her clothes on me.

They were tight in places I wasn't used to and I wobbled a little when she turned me to face the mirror. Rachel's twin looked back at me. Rachel put her arm around my shoulders in the exact same way as I'd seen her do with her sisters. She smiled at the mirror and it was the sort of over-the-top fake smile people made when told to "say cheese" for a picture.

"I always thought having a twin would be cool. What do you wanna do now? Do you want to go to the mall? There's a sale on at The Gap and I need new pants."

"What if someone sees us?" I wasn't used to speaking out loud. I wasn't even used to having fingers. I looked at my nails. They were short, blunt, and perfectly manicured. Very Rachel. I raised my hand and one of the Rachels in the mirror raised her hand too. I touched my hair, trailing my fingers down it's length. My real hair had never been this long. I'd always been forced to cut it when it got past my ears.

"I already thought of that," Rachel said, smiling brightly. She showed me a newspaper. In it was an ad for a mall in another city. "You can fly and I'll take the bus with our stuff. It shouldn't take too long to get there and look! They completely redid the first floor. It only just finished. A bunch of stores are having their grand opening sale right now. You can help me try things on."

Leave it to Rachel to learn my deepest, darkest, most terrifying secret and turn it into an opportunity to go shopping.

 

"This is the weirdest date I've ever been on," Rachel declared several hours later.

We were sitting in the food court. We already had bags from The Gap, Forever 21, and had spent nearly half an hour at The Limited but ended up not buying anything because apparently, the sales weren't "on sale enough", whatever that meant.

I'd had to demorph once so far and was going to have to demorph again after we finished our smoothies. I took another sip of mine, savoring the sweet citrus flavor as it burst on my tongue. "So you still want to be," I hesitated, "you know. Together? It's not too weird."

Rachel looked around us quickly, then leaned in. Her lips and tongue were dyed artificial blue from her drink. "I'm not going to lie to you, Tobias," she said in a voice pitched low so we wouldn't be overheard. "Yeah, I think it's kinda weird. But I don't like you for how you look and if you'd rather be a girl when we hang out as humans together, then whatever, you can be a girl." She paused. "Just maybe not me next time. That's too weird."

I could agree with that. Looking in the mirror and seeing Rachel's face, having shop assistants assume Rachel and I were sisters, that was too much. I could tell Rachel had enjoyed it the first few times, treating it like a new game, but it was wearing thin for her too. And I still didn't feel right. I didn't want to be Rachel. I wanted to be me, just... different.

My heart soared at the words 'next time'.

"Do you remember the thing Ax did? When he first morphed human?" I asked.

Rachel knew what I was thinking about immediately. "You mean when he mixed all our DNA to make his human morph?"

I nodded. "Do you think it'll work?"

Rachel grinned. "We can try."

 

In the end, it wasn't very hard to acquire more people.

The next weekend that we didn't have a mission lined up, Rachel borrowed a leather glove and some jesses from Cassie's barn. We went to a park far enough away that we wouldn't be recognized – not by someone who recognized Rachel and not by a Controller that might suspect the red-tailed hawk she carried on her fist was an Andalite bandit.

We played fetch in the park and when people came by to watch, Rachel talked about how her dad taught her how to train hawks and offered to let people pet me. It was even kind of fun.

When we were done, we flew back to Rachel's. I waited for her to demorph, then hopped from her desk to the ground in front of her mirror.

Rachel dropped another morphing outfit on the floor next to me. We'd picked it out together at the mall. "You know what to do now, right?"

<Yeah. Ax taught me a few days ago.> I hadn't told him why I wanted to know how to perform the Frolis Maneuver, mixing the DNA from multiple acquisitions together into something unique instead of an identical copy, and he hadn't asked. I visited him in his scoop regularly. It wasn't unusual for us to spend entire days just talking about what life was like on the Andalite homeworld or the things he'd learned about in school that we didn't have on Earth.

"Then let's do it. I wanna see what a girl Tobias looks like."

Yeah, me too.

I closed my eyes, thought hard about who I wanted to be, and felt my body start to change.