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Things Hidden, Gifts Given

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My name is Tobias. That Tobias; the Tobias who helped win the biggest war that’s ever threatened humanity. The Tobias who put his name in the top ten list for new babies every year after the end of the war; there were more Jakes and Marcoes, but less Aximilis. At least if we’re talking boys’ names.

How long my name stayed in that list, I don’t know; I didn’t pay that much attention.

And if you’re being told this story, she must have decided to share it with someone. I guess it’s her story too, in a way. It never belonged just to me; Jake was part of it, and Cassie. Marco. Ax. And Rachel. Of course, Rachel. Always Rachel.

But it also belonged to my father, Elfangor, and the Yeerks we met, bad and good, and all the other aliens, and the Ellimist. And her. My mother. Loren.

That’s who I was flying to see. I’d cased out her house. Watched her coming and going. My mom wasn’t one of the Animorphs, the big heroes. But she was the mother of a war hero now, so she had a nice house. No security. Who was gonna go after the disappeared Animorphs’ mother? No more seeing eye dog. I guess she’d passed Champ on to someone who needed him more. No contact with the Andalites as far as I could see. They were always kind of weird about treating nonAndalites with the respect they deserved; that was one thing to dislike about the alien half of my heritage.

Anyway. She had a nice house in a gated neighborhood. One that I’d been staking out. I’d been alone in the woods for a while, letting the hawk sweep over my mind and trying to forget about my humanity. I didn’t want to see Jake or the others, although Cassie knew the secret of where I was since I knew I could trust her to keep it.

Cassie was the last human I’d talked to. The last connection I had to the species I’d fought to save.

The last connection except for this one.

-

There was a tree down at the end of my mom’s driveway. From the tree I could see into my mom’s living room. The living room wasn’t personalized much; it had been pre-furnished when she moved in, with a nice flatscreen TV and a big landscape painting on the wall, over the couch. It showed a rowboat dragged up onto a beach, blue-grey sea foaming behind it. I wondered if she’d keep it or replace it with something else. What would her taste in pictures be like?

I had no idea. There was a lot I didn’t know about my mom, and just as much that she didn’t really know about me, even though she’d lived in the woods with us while the war heated up and then burned itself out.

I waited. That was something I was good at by now. Just like in the good old days, spying for the Animorphs. There’d been a lot of waiting involved with that.

This was a cinch compared to stalking Yeerks. I knew her schedule by now, part-time work and volunteering with groups that gave me the idea she and Cassie could’ve been friends.

I waited until I was sure she couldn’t hurt herself if I surprised her, and then I said [Hey.]

She jumped, but didn’t move otherwise. Then her face turned towards the window. Smart woman. I saw her mouth shape the words: Tobias?

[That’s my name, don’t wear it out.] Dumb joke. I ruffled my feathers – I guess I was more nervous than I thought I’d be. [… So, if you want, I’ll morph human. Can you let me in?]

She nodded.

Two minutes later, I was standing in my bike shorts and ringing the doorbell.

-

Tobias!

I had thought I’d never talk to him again. After the last battle, after he disappeared with the ashes of Rachel, the girl I’d hardly known – I hadn’t talked to him in months. As far as the world knew, no one had. And now here he was at last, on my doorstep, and I had no idea what to say to him.

First things first, always. I went to the door and let him in, stood back so he could come inside. I felt almost dizzy with excitement and nervousness. Tobias was my son, and yet I barely knew him. But he’d chosen to come to me.

“I’m honored,” I said, trying to sound calm. The Animorphs had been closemouthed even with their families, but I knew that he’d blended a lot with the hawk in some ways. Birds spooked easy, and I didn’t want to scare him by being too effusive.

Then again, it seemed silly to worry about scaring him. He’d been through so much with the Animorphs… how could I possibly be scarier than that?

“Why don’t you sit down?” I said. “I’ll get you a glass of water… or a snack. Would you like anything?”

“Water would be good.” There he was, in the flesh, looking at me with grey-blue eyes as opaque as a storm cloud. He didn’t speak with much inflection; it made him hard to read. “Should I just sit on the couch?”

“You can sit wherever you’re comfortable. The couch… the kitchen table…”

“Let’s sit at the table,” he said. He moved very quietly. The house wasn’t that big, and if he was approaching me now, my guess was he’d been observing the place for a while. I decided to let him get situated.

How I wanted to offer him food! Something more than a simple glass of water. But that was what he’d asked for, so that was what I got him. At the kitchen table, I had another dilemma: sit next to him, or across from him? But he’d said no to the couch, where we’ve had to sit next to each other. Maybe that was why he’d said no. I went with the safe option, and sat facing him, not crowding. “So, Tobias,” I said, hardly knowing what I’d ask, “I’m very happy to see you, but this is a big surprise.”

“Ha ha.” His laugh was flat, not natural, and I could see he had to work on his facial expressions, but he did smile. “It must be. Sorry for dropping in with no warning like this, but I couldn’t call.”

Of course. He had no human amenities. “How long will you stay?” I hardly knew what to ask him. “You’re welcome for as long as you want to be here… I won’t tell anyone you dropped by… but I don’t have many things for – a young man your age.” He still looked thirteen, a little gangly but with some puppy fat still on his cheeks.

“I’m just dropping by for a short while. I wanted to see how you’re doing.”

“Things are good. The media’s left me pretty well alone after they realized they wouldn’t get to you or any of your friends through me.”

“It’s good you’re in a better neighborhood. When we found you I was worried.” He sipped his water and suddenly I wished I had a glass too, just so I had something to do with my hands. Then he set the water down and made a face, and I realized he felt as awkward and vulnerable as I did. “I’m here because… Rachel would have kicked my butt if she knew I didn’t talk to you, after everything we did to make sure you were safe.”

Rachel, who’d died. I felt my throat tighten a little. Though she and I hadn’t precisely been friends, I knew a bit of what she’d been to Tobias.

“Anyway,” he said. “I’m just saying hi… I can’t stay the night or anything. But I’ll come back later.”

“Would you like to watch some TV?” I blurted. It seemed stupid the moment I asked, but at the same time, like something easy and low-commitment to do together.

He thought it over for a few seconds. “I’ll have to demorph,” he said. “But I’ll stick around for an hour or so.”

So, with a red-tailed hawk perched on the arm of my sofa, we watched an hour and a half of bad daytime television. Soap operas and Jerry Springer. We didn’t talk, but the silence was less awkward with the TV chattering at both of us.

“This is terrible,” I had to laugh eventually. “I’m sorry for inflicting it on you.”

[It’s okay. It beats watching mice run around in the grass all day.] His hawk face was very unfriendly, but somehow his tone was light, in spite of how he spoke only in my mind. [I should get going, though.]

Where did he really have to go? But I didn’t ask that. It seemed like it would have been trying to trap him with me, and I didn’t want to do that. Instead I let him perch on my arm – he was careful with his talons, and I was wearing a long-sleeved sweatshirt anyway – and carried him to the door. “Come back soon,” I whispered to him before I opened it. “Please.”

[I will,] he said finally. [Watch the skies for me.] And then, once the door was open, he was gone.

-

Visiting Loren – impossible to think of her as “mom” - threw me off more than I realized. It was a few days before I could think about being a human, being with humans again. I prowled my meadow and the skies and didn’t think of person things. Then, when I opened my wings to fly again, I didn’t go to Loren’s house. I flew to Cassie’s place.

She was finishing the last of her schooling through college classes and self-directed learning, so she still lived with her parents, and still tended to the animals in the barn. I knew her schedule too, so I knew she’d be there. I perched outside my window and peered into her bedroom.

Cassie came in wrapped in a towel and nothing else.

Oops.

[Cassie,] I said at once. [It’s Tobias. Sorry, I wasn’t planning this. I’ll give you a few minutes. Open the window for me?]

She looked briefly embarrassed but nodded. I flew to perch on her roof, waited until I judged she’d be ready, and then flew down and perched on her windowsill. She was completely dressed. [Sorry,] I repeated.

“It’s okay. These things happen.” She grinned wryly, sitting in her desk chair. She was still toweling off her wet hair. On the desk was something that Cassie hadn’t owned when we were Animorphs: a small, souped-up computer powerful enough to reach the Andalite fleet, wherever it now was. Specifically, the fleet where Ax was stationed. “You want me to set up a chat with Ax?”

[Not now. I wanted to tell you… I went and talked to Loren.]

“That’s great,” she said sincerely. “How was it?”

[Weird. But she’s nice. She’s living alone, though. I guess it would be awkward if she wasn’t.]

Seeing her had brought back all kinds of memories. I didn’t miss the war, exactly… but I missed Rachel, the golden-haired ghost who danced in the air between Cassie and me, although neither of us had said her name. I missed all of us being together. I missed not hating Jake. Loren was blonde and blue-eyed too. Maybe a taste for blondes was like father, like son in this case too.

[I don’t know how much to tell her,] I said. It sounded painful to me. I had no idea how much of that came through. [I don’t even know what to talk to her about. She wasn’t a part of my life for most of it, you know?]

“She must be curious about you,” Cassie said quietly. “She probably wants to know more about the war, but Loren seems smart. I don’t think she’ll ask about that if you don’t volunteer information.”

[I don’t want to talk about the war. I don’t know why I even went and saw her.]

“You’re allowed to see her just because you want to. Even if you’re just curious.” Cassie shrugged. “The war isn’t going on anymore. You’re allowed to follow some impulses for no reason.”

[I guess.]

“You want to talk to Ax?” Cassie knew when to change the subject.

[Not tonight. He probably couldn’t talk tonight, anyway. He’s probably busy. What’s the time difference like right now?]

“About twelve hours. I can message him and set up a time for you guys to talk. Maybe in three days? I’ll write the day and time on a notepad and leave it on my desk. You can check by for the details.”

[Sounds good.] In a way I didn’t want to talk. It was going to be weird. But Ax had been - Ax was – my closest friend, the person who got me in a way no one else ever had, before or since. I knew he’d probably understand if I never spoke to him again… but it would hurt him.

“The others would like to see you too, I know that,” Cassie said. “Marco asks about you.”

No word on Jake, and with a hard surge of bitterness in my heart, I was glad she knew not to mention him.

[Marco, ew,] I said instead. [I’ll drop by to see that guy only if I get to crap on his head.]

“Don’t tell him I said this, but he might be glad to see you anyway.” She smiled a little. “We miss you, Tobias.”

I ruffled my feathers.

“I’ll talk to Ax when I can. Be safe, okay?”

[You too,] I said. There were all kinds of things that could happen to someone, even not in wartime. I knew that much. Look what had happened to Loren: a car accident, amnesia, blindness and boom, no mom for me.

I flew from Cassie’s house back to my meadow without thinking of anything.

-

For many years, I’d had vivid dreams. Most of them I’d chalked up to lost memories surfacing in their own strange way. I’d forgotten all about going to high school, but I had naked high school dreams. I’d forgotten how to drive a car and never had the opportunity to relearn, but I still had dreams where I was stuck in a car rolling faster and faster, out of control.

And some of my dreams were about space. The beautiful stars, spread out like white flowers against black water. Great billowing dust clouds that a little questioning had eventually revealed as nebulas. Scary dreams, with giant worms that slavered over my soft skin, being helpless inside my own body as I was puppeted by a forced outside my understanding. The flash of blue fur, and reassurance.

For a long time those dreams had seemed like the usual nonsense, just some weird fixation. But now I thought there might be more to them.

My son was the special one, so it seemed like an arrogant thing to think. How many heroes’ moms get to be heroes in their own right? And yet…

In this dream, I wandered through a strange world with my friend. I barely saw him, barely remembered him; only the edges. A long tail, blue fur, a kind voice ringing in my mind. The world was so like one I knew – so familiar – but it was as remote as an island in the middle of the sea, and a powerful evil pursued us through it. Three worlds melted into one! My friend and I and a great evil that exerted a pressure on my mind like strong wind met at one point. I was on the pitcher’s mound, just like where I used to stand – I wound up my pitch and threw as hard as I could! The rock bounced off our enemy’s face with a satisfying crack. Then we were chased by small wheeled cars - wait, I realized, this is a dream, and suddenly I was fighting to wake up – and my friend struck at them but it was useless. We were outmatched after fighting for so long. Alien vultures with blood-dripping heads dove through the sky, talons outstretched to slice us. I screamed. Then suddenly it was all gone. I was floating in blue-tinted darkness. After a second I identified it: the inside of my own head. Reassuring and familiar.

You do remember many of the details, a voice said. The voice was of a man’s, but it wasn’t deep or threatening; rather, he spoke in a light tenor and good humor resounded from each word. That was a battle well-fought, even if you had to flee in the end. Congratulations, Loren.

“Am I still dreaming?” My own voice echoed too, to the ends of the darkness. “Are you me?”

I am not. I woke you from your nightmare so we could have a small chat. Allow me to show myself. And in my mind’s eye, an old man materialized. He wore long robes, and a long beard flowed over his chest almost down to his feet. After a moment I realized we stood facing each other, because I was there too: Loren, my adult woman self.

“Who are you?” I said, and then, beginning to feel very angry: “What are you doing in my head?!”

“Please, be at peace.” He spoke less strangely now, raising a thin hand. He was so old, it was hard to be angry, but I was going to manage if he didn’t explain himself soon.

“Tell me what you’re doing here first.”

“You are so alike to the girl in some ways…” His small smile became for a moment very sad, and he lowered his hand. “I am a friend to your son, and a friend to all his friends as well. As for why I am here, I can only say I wished to speak personally to the woman who survived much and made many things possible with her existence.”

“You couldn’t call me on the phone or write me a letter?” I wasn’t ready to be calm yet. Being the hero’s mom, as much as I wanted to be a good mother to Tobias now, wasn’t the greatest accolade either. I folded my arms instead. “Where have you been all this time if you’re a friend of theirs, anyway?”

“My power according to human perception may seem limitless, but ironically, I am limited. Not by my own will, but by the actions that others would take if I chose to freely exert myself. I have enemies, Loren… enemies who would tear the fabric of space-time asunder to punish me if I interfered as much as I might wish. And some of those enemies are yours as well, albeit their interest in you may have passed.”

“The Yeerks were my enemies.” I didn’t want to show it, but I was actually beginning to feel insecure. I scowled to avoid showing it. “What do you mean, I have more? Do we have to stand around and talk in a place like this?”

“Not at all.” The man waved his hand, and suddenly we were in my living room. He took a seat in my armchair, moving with a strange grace. “You have many reasons to be angry with me, Loren. Justifiable ones. But rest easy knowing that I never used my power to support enemies of you and yours.”

“Why don’t you tell me why I’d be angry at you, instead of giving me this crap? Because I’m already a little mad at you for invading my head like this.”

He inclined his head. “As you wish. I am the Ellimist, and I have been observing your son and his friends for a long time. You, for less time, although my involvement with you and your husband began much earlier.”

I finally took a seat on the couch. “Could you get to the point?”

“I have been observing your dreams lately. From the contents, I can see that your repressed memories are beginning to surface. I am glad about this, but I will take responsibility: it is my fault more than anyone’s that your amnesia was such a great infliction in the first place.”

For a second, I couldn’t make sense of those words. Then I sat very still on my couch, staring at him and imagining throwing every picture and vase in the place at his stupidly calm head. “What?

“Your husband was destined to be a great prince and hero amongst his people,” the Ellimist said. “He fled to Earth in shame and desperation to escape the war, and made a new life with you. But his people struggled. Without his presence, his combat expertise, his heroics to support the war effort, they began to founder in the war against the Yeerks. Without him, the young heroes who defended Earth against the Yeerk threat would never have come to be.”

Although I felt like an ice-cold vise was closing tighter and tighter around my heart, I got the word out: “Elfangor.”

“The very same.” The Ellimist bowed his head. It seemed like grief overtook his face for a moment. “It was necessary that Tobias grow up as he did. His solitude made him perceptive. His abuse endowed him with an innate sense of justice and a sensitivity to the plight of others. As difficult as his human life was before the war, he was well-prepared to battle to save his species.”

“That’s bullcrap, and I hope you know it. Plenty of normal humans grow up perceptive and sensitive and want to make things in the world right. He could have done the same things he did if I was there to be his mother!”

“I cannot take his suffering back now. And, though I strove to see a way where he could live more happily and still be forged into the hero the world needed, I found none. You may choose not to believe me in this. I accept responsibility for his suffering, but it was needed.” The Ellimist bowed his head.

I was so angry I couldn’t even think of anything to say. I just sat in place, gripping the fabric of the couch tighter and tighter. “You don’t have the right to call him your friend,” I finally managed.

“You may be right.” At least he sounded sad, but that didn’t make up for anything, in my opinion. All that my Tobias had suffered! Everything that was so needless! Words seemed to shake and jitter inside me, but didn’t arrange themselves in any ways that made sense. While I sat stunned, the Ellimist continued. “I accept that I have done him great harm. I have as well benefited him, but those benefits would never have been necessary in the first place without me. Even so, what is done is done and earth is saved.”

He raised his head. “Which brings us to the present, and your situation.”

“Are you back to erase my memories again?” It turned out I could say something. Even if it was something mean and spiteful. “Next time I see him, will I even remember his name?”

“On the contrary,” the Ellimist said with a sad smile, “You deserve to have your memories now. It will do no one any harm for you to remember these things, and perhaps they will bring you some happiness. I will help you begin, but they will continue to emerge on their own, in your dreams and waking life.”

At least there was that. I nodded, but I glared at him, heart beating fast. Was that really all, for the years Tobias – and I – had suffered?

“What’s more, I will give you two pieces of advice. There is one creature on earth who remembers even more about your husband than Tobias or the other Animorphs. At the moment, he is imprisoned and awaiting his trial, but with the help of your son and his friends, you may be able to speak to him and glean more insight about Elfangor. As for the other… Tobias can give you much relating to both Elfangor and himself. At the moment he met Elfangor, he was given this gift. I doubt Tobias will remember the event clearly. It was an emotional time for him. But if you ask him about it, I am sure he will try his best.”

It wasn’t enough, and could hardly ever be enough. I glared at the Ellimist with fire in my eyes. “That’s it?”

His smile did seem very sad, although I wasn’t inclined to give him any credit for it. “That’s all. I cannot interfere to change anything for you, but you have the power to control your fate with your own actions.”

He didn’t reach out at all, but I felt something I could only describe like a tap on my forehead, between my eyes. The last words he said to me were “Wake now, Loren.”

-

I flew in to the tree at the end of the drive and watched the house for a few minutes before I made contact. Just habit, by now, checking out the lay of the land before anyone dove in. Would I ever get over the paranoia of the war? I doubted it.

This time, I was glad I’d decided to watch before, because Loren was pacing around the house with a stormy face. I debated leaving. I wasn’t sure how ready I was to deal with someone being angry, even if it wasn’t at me. Eventually I made up my mind. I could always just fly away if she was so angry it was scary.

[Hey, Loren?]

She jumped and I saw her head whip back and forth. Heheh. Humans always did that. It actually amused me for a second before I just felt tired and maybe a little nervous again.

[I’m here. Um, is it a bad time?]

She must have guessed I could see her, because she shook her head and went to the door.

I took that as an invitation, and glided down to land on her doormat. Then I hawk-walked on in and began to demorph. She stood back and watched with an expression of morbid fascination. It seemed like she was already letting go of the bad mood a little, that was good. “Sorry,” I said, once I was human. “It’s always kind of gross. Except if you see Cassie.”

“It’s all right,” she said instantly. Awkward, because I knew it was gross. Nice, because she wanted to spare my feelings about it. “Would you like to sit, Tobias? Would you like… anything?”

“Let’s sit in the kitchen.” Just like before. As I made my way there, I said, “Is something wrong?”

“No. Well, yes. But it’s kind of – well, it’d sound crazy.”

“My life was crazyville for three years.” I made my mouth form a smile as I sat down at the table. “Try me.”

She went and bustled in the kitchen without saying anything. I waited. With Rachel, sometimes, it had worked to just let her think about things and move before she talked, and I guess the same thing worked on Loren, because after she found a cup for me and went to the sink to fill it she spoke. “I had this dream. Does the name ‘Ellimist’ ring any bells for you?”

It sure did. I felt myself tense at the table. “Yeah,” I said. “We were never sure if that was his name, actually, or the name of his species, or what. But it does.”

She came over and set the glass in front of me. “Was he your friend?”

I took a sip of water to buy time. Watched her settle down across from me with her own glass, wishing I had hawk eyes to gauge her mood. “Yeah,” I said eventually, “I guess. I mean – he was always kind of talking in riddles, you know? He helped us, and he helped me a lot, but not in ways that were always easy to understand.”

“For example?”

“Well… I can morph because of him. But when he offered me the power back, I kind of thought I’d have my human body again and be a morph-capable human. But instead, I ended up as a morph-capable hawk and he gave me the chance to acquire my old human body.” I drank more water and watched her face. She looked mad. Not at me. “Why do you ask?”

“Would it sound like I was losing my mind if I told you he talked to me in a dream and that – my amnesia, and everything – it was his fault? So you’d have the life you had, and grow up into…” Her face twisted a little. “The hero you needed to be?”

The weird thing was, I couldn’t even feel anything about that. I just drank more water and stared at the table. “I guess he was always like that,” I said after a while. “He’d do something bad if it totaled up to the greater good. Whatever that means.”

Kind of like someone else I knew. A human who’d sent his cousin to kill his brother. I couldn’t even hate either of them in that moment. My heart just felt heavy.

“I’m so sorry, Tobias,” she said softly all at once. “I don’t even know what to say. I wish I’d been able to be your mother. Your life could have been so much different.”

A single mom sure would have been better than what I’d had, and at least Loren wanted to care about me, which was more than my aunt and uncle could say. I wondered if they’d gotten in touch with her after the story about the Animorphs came out, but I didn’t really feel like asking.

“At least we’re here together now,” I said instead. It felt like an empty platitude, but it was something. “I know you would’ve wanted to be a good mom to me. It was just we weren’t allowed to be.”

And the world had been saved with my sacrifice. That was something, too.

She reached across the table and put her hand on mine, squeezing gently, and suddenly I wanted to be out of there so badly I could taste it. “Hey,” I said, instead of just getting up and running. “You know what always makes me feel better when I’m mad? Even now.”

“What is it?” Her voice was soft.

“Flying.” I pulled my hand away from hers, not looking at her face, and pushed the glass into the middle of the table. It was only half empty, but who cared. “You still have a hawk morph. Remember how to do it?”

“Of course…”

“Then let’s get ready.”

“Tobias,” she said, as I stood up.

God, no, I didn’t want to wait. I didn’t want anything to slow me down on the way out that door. But I paused with my back to her. “What?”

“You want pizza?” she said. “I’ll order some. We can get it delivered two hours from now. You like Domino’s? You like garlic bread?”

I tried to think of the last time I’d had pizza. Did I like it? Did I like garlic bread? “Meat lover’s,” I said eventually. “I love garlic bread.”

-

And then! Finally! At last!

A red tailed hawk and its twin brother flew out the window together. [All right, Loren!] I called to her. Couldn’t help myself from getting a little enthusiastic. I could imagine Rachel winging through the air next to us. How she would’ve loved this, she would have laughed, egging us on. [Don’t forget the two hour limit. We can take a break and you can demorph if you need to. Better safe than sorry. And don’t get nervous. The hawk knows what to do.]

[Whatever you say,] she called back. She did sound nervous, but she was already banking into the wind, flaring her tailfeathers. I caught the breeze and cocked my head to watch her.

[Hey, relax. You’re a natural. Well, the hawk is a natural. Maybe that makes you a natural morpher.]

[Wooo-ooo-oooah!] She shot by underneath me, riding the wind – I could see her wings vibrating, caught in the air current. She sounded happier too, lighter than I was used to hearing her.

[Take it easy and ride it out. If you crash, you can just demorph. You won’t get hurt.]

[You’re the expert – Tobias, this is crazy! How did you ever get used to it?]

[It’s the best thing in the world,] I said. I could hear the smile in my own voice, and for these few moments at least, my heart felt lighter. I didn’t have to think about the Ellimist, the war, everything I’d lost. [Just think of it as a rollercoaster with no cars and no rails.]

[Not helping! Whoo!] But I could see her getting the hang of it, and I followed her.

[Save your energy, don’t flap so much. The red-tailed hawk is a soarer. Find a current and surf.]

Moments passing, passing as she tuned her wings and followed my directions. Then - [WOAH!] Suddenly she was riding fast, on the same current as me.

[That’s it. You got the hang of it?]

[I think so…]

[All right. So, let’s go.] All at once I had a destination in mind. [We can check out the Hork-Bajir valley. Say hi to the old stomping grounds.] Toby and the other Horks were gone, already relocated to the redwood forests where they’d begin their new lives as the best and weirdest park rangers humanity had ever met, but a lot of the old signs of them were still there. I missed them, but I knew they were better off in their new home. Still, I liked to see where they used to live. It was weird, but some of my best memories were of spending time with the free Hork-Bajir.

[You lead, captain,] Loren said. Her voice had already lightened up. I guess Bird-boy still has some good ideas. Who knew?

It didn’t matter if we were birds of prey flying suspiciously in formation now. Without bothering to be subtle, we flew for the valley.

The Ellimist’s misdirection was gone now. I tried to put thoughts of him out of my mind – the weird revelation hadn’t come as a surprise, but I still felt betrayed, in a way. Stupid. I’d always known he couldn’t really be trusted.

Anyway, now it was just a normal valley. Easy to see, easy to find. We glided in together for a smooth landing, Loren only with a little coaching.

[I’m going to demorph,] she said, and in a few minutes a human woman was standing on the forest floor, wincing as pine needles poked her bare feet. I perched on a branch and looked down at her. She did look so much like Rachel, Rachel if she’d had the chance to really grow up, that it made my heart hurt again…

“Tobias,” she said. “I did want to talk about a couple of other things.” And she told me the whole conversation with the Ellimist, just about word for word. In my hawk form it was easier to ruffle my feathers up and listen to her, since my human face couldn’t betray any tears.

A prisoner to visit: [Visser 3,] I said, feeling cold. The only person it could be.

And the other thing… I hadn’t thought of, weirdly, in a long while.

[Elfangor… dumped a bunch of his memories into me, at the construction site.] The cold feeling transmuted into just – a weird chill. That portentous night that had started so many things. And how he’d seemed to recognize me… it had never been a coincidence. [Yeah, I don’t know how he did that. He knew all kinds of things, you know? He was trained, we never were. But… I guess I could try to figure out how to do that.]

“Thank you, Tobias,” she said, and smiled at me. It was a sad smile. I think Loren knew she had a lot ahead of her. But she was trying, and besides the world existing and my life having good memories, that was something, too. I didn’t have nothing. It was good to remember that.

I flew down and morphed Hork-Bajir. We walked together amongst the trees, which were still marked with slashes where Toby’s people had gathered bark. The shelters we’d lived in in the last days of the war were still there too, some of them with some graffiti – lowlifes coming up to drink beer and get high where the famous Animorphs had discussed their final strategies. Empty now, a ghost town except for the two of us.

Then it was clouding over and Loren and I flew back to her house and ate pizza together. I did like garlic bread, I’d remembered right. We watched bad television until my head wanted to explode. Then I flew to Cassie’s house. My chat date with Ax had finally come up.

-

Cassie had found somewhere else to be and her room was empty, the window open enough for me to slip in and then demorph. I was familiar enough with her setup to work it. It was basically a laptop set up with a connection to Ax’s home computer, wherever he was. On board a dome ship somewhere. There was a though-speech-to-voice transducer setup too, like the one Rachel had spied on Visser 3 using to talk to Chapman, so long ago. Long, long ago…

I didn’t want to think of Rachel now. I focused on my human form. Feathers melted away into skin. My vision and hearing dulled. I lost all my senses when I became a human. Hands and fingers made up for it a little. I turned on the computer and navigated through setting up the connection.

It took a few long minutes, waiting, waiting, for the line to go through. Then finally a window opened up on the screen and a familiar Andalite face made the strange eye smile I remembered. “Tobias, my friend. It’s good to see you at last.”

“Hey, Ax-man. Long time, no see.” My throat felt tight and I swallowed hard. I wished I’d thought to ask Cassie to leave a glass of water. “How are you doing?”

“I am well, my shorm. I have been busy since the end of our war. My people had many questions for me and many things at last have come to light, things everyone was afraid would destroy my people’s spirit. Fortunately, this did not come to pass.”

“Yeah, that’s fortunate, all right.” Good old Ax, master of understatement. I could guess a lot more things had gone down than he was telling me. “Did you find… um, that girl, what was her name… Es-something? Estreen?”

“Estrid.” Ax’s eyes closed and he bowed his head. “Their ship was unable to return to Andalite territory.”

So, dead in action. Way to be a downer, Tobias – both of us didn’t need to be thinking about our dead girlfriends. “What about your mom and dad?”

“They are well, and instructed me to give you their well-wishes.” Ax seemed to perk up. Maybe he was faking it for me, or maybe it was his real optimism bubbling through; Estrid had been a long time ago, after all. “They are interested in talking to you. I informed them that your response would be a ‘maybe,’ which I hope was not presumptuous.”

My Andalite grandparents wanted to meet me. My heart twisted a little. Some of me said [i]yes,[/i] the rest of me thought I wouldn’t be able to stand it. “No, man. Maybe was a good answer. Maybe with something like this? I’ll think about it.”

“I am glad. They are eager to speak to you. You are the new sapling on our family line, you know. At least until I take a lifemate.” His eye stalks bobbed in what I recognized as an awkward gesture.

I surprised myself by laughing. I’d missed my shorm, the friend who could put his tail blade to my throat and I still wouldn’t worry. It was uncomfortable for a few seconds, it felt unnatural to feel happy… but maybe Rachel would have smiled too. I knew she’d have razzed Ax. “So,” I said, trying to do my part for her, “are there any cute recruits you have a stalk eye on? Somebody who isn’t scared off by the great Prince Ax?”

He blushed in the Andalite way, turning a shade darker and purplish, blood flooding his skin under the fur. “If I find one,” he said primly, “you will be the first of my friends to know.”

I laughed again, and his green eyes opened wide, then he did the strange Andalite smile just with the eyes. He’d been worried, of course. I’d known that, I just hadn’t thought… “I talked to Loren,” I said abruptly. “Would your mom and dad want to meet her?”

“I am sure they would. Loren was a strong woman.”

I wondered if they really would. A nothlit for a grandson and a woman who would’ve been deemed a vecol for a daughter-in-law – Andalite society didn’t seem that forgiving. But then again, I thought Ax would stick up for me, and the knowledge warmed me up inside. “Thanks, then,” I said, and managed to make it sincere. “I really will think about it.”

He bowed his head. “What more has happened in your life, my shorm? I have victories that I may share with you, but I wish to hear more of you first.”

I knew what I had to tell him. “More about Loren, I guess. I mean… jeez. Everything’s about Loren, I guess.” I paused. “She dreamed about the Ellimist. It sounds like he actually talked to her. She told me all about it.”

“What did he have to say?”

I described the dream as Loren had described it to me. For a while after I finished, Ax was silent. He stared off into space with his stalk eyes lowered. “I am sorry, my friend,” he said at last. “I understand it must have been difficult to learn these things.”

“So you think it sounds legitimate?”

“Andalites have always known that the ways of the Ellimist are mysterious.” His eye stalks drooped. “It pains and angers me to know that he manipulated your life in such a way to cause you suffering. What do you think of what you have learned?”

“I guess it doesn’t surprise me. We always knew he wasn’t our friend in the way, you know… that we’re friends. If he did it, he probably did think it was for the best in the long run. I guess I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t grown up like that. It’s just… I feel like there should’ve been another way, you know?”

“I understand. Do you remember the Yeerk Visser we pursued through time? The Visser who chose to use the time matrix to attempt to destabilize human history to make earth an easier conquering ground through the Yeerks?”

“Hell, yeah, I remember that.” And the memories made me shudder. Time travel was always a bad time for us.

“The power to influence history is a precious one that must be wielded with care. Those who use such power are, perhaps, different from a common person. Perhaps they see more.” Ax looked, not at me, but at the space in front of him. I could imagine his slender fingers fiddling with each other. “Who can say what would have come to pass if Elfangor hadn’t joined the war… if you hadn’t grown to be a warrior…”

Forget the world, I thought. I wanted a family. I wanted Rachel.

I knew that was selfishness talking.

“Yeah,” I said, after a couple minutes of dead air. “I guess… I don’t know. I wish we could’ve lived like that, you know? I mean, I guess without the war Elfangor and Loren wouldn’t have met and fallen in love. I wouldn’t have been born. We wouldn’t be shorms. Maybe it would still be a better place, you know?”

“War is a great evil,” Ax said softly. “But I cherish you and the other Animorphs and honor Rachel in spite of that. Perhaps both of us should wish the war had never happened, but an attachment to your comrades is only understandable.”

“Yeah.” It was something I just needed to think about. Something I didn’t want to talk about. It was complicated, thinking of all I’d had, all I’d lost. I used to look up to Jake. He was the kind of guy you just wanted to emulate. And then there was Rachel, dangerous and magnetic. And now…

“There’s something else.”

“Go on.” All four of his eyes focused on me.

“Loren… well, she wants to visit Visser 3.”

“She what?

Good old Ax. It was the first time he’d sounded surprised since our conversation began.

“She says the Ellimist mentioned him to her, like I said. She thinks he’d know about Elfangor.”

Ax’s big green eyes narrowed, one of the few displays of temper I ever saw from him. He looked away from the screen and stayed silent for a long time. I knew not to rush him, and it paid off because eventually he looked back to me. If I wasn’t his shorm, I knew, that would’ve been a lot bigger deal. “A warrior’s enemies have a perspective on the warrior as no other person does.” It sounded like he didn’t want to admit it, but there it was, the tough truth. “If she wishes to petition to see him, I will lend what support I can, if you and she wish it.”

“We do. Thanks, Ax. I know that – it’s a big deal to you.”

“It is. For you, my shorm, I will do it.” All at once he seemed to calm down. Some kind of Andalite mind technique of letting the rage out at work, probably. “Now let us speak of other things.”

I was glad to oblige him.

-

They were keeping Visser 3 – still referred to by his former rank, although he was no longer a Visser – under armed guard in an earth prison, in spite of the fact that in his natural form he was just a slug. When I thought about it, it made sense, though. Maybe he was a morph-capable Yeerk. Some of them had been granted the power. It would’ve been smart for both him and his host body to be morph-capable, and probably wouldn’t have cost Yeerk forces anything once they had the blue box. And maybe there were forces out there who would be desperate enough to try breaking him out. Rogue Yeerks or something still in the conquering mindset.

So the heavy security made sense.

I was nervous, though. Tobias hadn’t agreed to come with me, and I’d had multiple briefings from men in suits after all the paperwork went through and the squabbling about whether or not I should even be allowed to see the Visser was finished. He was still awaiting his trial, and no one wanted me to muddy the waters.

Somehow he’d caught wind of it too, apparently, and surprised everyone by saying that he wanted to meet with me. And Visser 3, who would’ve been the creature who stripped Earth of its natural species and formed it into another barren ground for Yeerk forces to form as they wished, had some of the most high-powered defense lawyers anyone could find to argue for him being treated fairly as a prisoner. In the end all that won out, and I was briefed not one, not two, but three times before being led into a bare little room. It was familiar in a way, from crime shows and various movies.

There were no windows. It was very lightly furnished, with an ugly table and uncomfortable-looking chairs. Then there were two armed guards attending. Ready to deal with me if I tried anything, I guessed.

I had worn a long, conservative skirt and blouse. I sat in the chair and waited.

After a few minutes, two more people carried in a lavender-painted box. A prototype, some official-looking type had explained to me, to allow the Visser to communicate. There was a speaker on the front. It would pick up his thought speech. The Yeerk was in there, somewhere. I stared at the box, wondering what I’d do if I could get hold of him. Crush him in my bare hand? Or leave him alive to stand trial?

There were a few seconds of silence. I cleared my throat.

“So.” The voice emerged from the box. The Visser’s voice in my memory was redolent and dripping with menace. This voice was just a bit mechanical. Neutral. Don’t be fooled, Loren, I thought to myself. “You’re here after all,” Visser 3 continued.

“I asked to meet with you.”

“I know. I am curious what you want with me, human.” The mechanical voice couldn’t reflect weariness but I wondered… those seemed like weary words. “There aren’t many people who want much to do with the Abomination, these days.”

“What would you expect? You tried to enslave our entire species. That’s the kind of thing that tends to make people angry.” I paused. Swallowed. “I didn’t come here to debate the morality of what you did with you.”

“For a moment, you almost sounded like the girl with the nerve to throw a rock and hit me in the face.” I was reading all the tone into it – and I needed to stop. I mentally slapped myself, lightly, on the cheeks. [i]Focus, Loren,[/i] because that had sounded darkly humorous to me.

And that, now, was an event I vaguely remembered. At last. It made me shiver. These memories now were only shared by this wicked creature, and by me.

“It’s been a long time since then,” I said carefully.

“Long indeed.” Again that strange flatness. It must have been the box; he couldn’t roar or speak in the voice of assured, oily menace that I remembered. “And many things have changed, you not the least of them.”

I’ll say, I thought. “Anyway…”

“What brought you here to me? Were you hoping to pick my brains? Hear my account of the great Prince Elfangor’s last moments, perhaps?”

“If you wanted to share them,” after a moment. My face felt hot, flushed not with shame but anger. “And anything else you had to say about him. You knew him, didn’t you?”

“And why should I share that with you? A human, beloved of my mortal enemy?”

“Who else is going to talk to you?” I said after a moment. “You’re the only one who remembers all of those things. At least I also knew him.”

“A childlike logic from a childlike species.”

“Those children managed to defeat you,” I shot back, and then took a deep breath. The guards looked at me, but didn’t move. Calm down, Loren. “And it’s true, anyway. When was the last time you had a conversation?”

Silence trickled out, grains of sand like an hourglass. I didn’t like being patient. The queen waiting for her husband’s return, the princess in the tower – I was realizing more and more that wasn’t really my style. But I kept quiet for those moments until eventually he did speak.

“I suppose you are right. And you, of all the people on this miserable planet, might be the only one who will remember. Chapman, perhaps… also Chapman… but you. You who knew Elfangor’s other half. You who spawned the warrior who was his son.”

I could imagine, now, his musing voice. As if being stripped down to his real body had restored him to the wily young officer I was only hazily beginning to remember. The Animorphs had talked about Visser 3, about his great evil and how terrifying he was, but also about how his lack of subtlety was his downfall. I couldn’t imagine that devious creature lacking subtlety. And it seemed that, outside of Alloran, his nature had quieted somehow.

“I’m proud of Tobias,” I said. Apropos of nothing, but it felt right. “He’s done great things. Elfangor would be very proud of him.”

“Do you remember, human, when Elfangor refused to kill the Yeerks that were helpless in the pool ship? He was a softer person at that time. And then Elfangor’s minted war-prince, faced with the same decision, hardly hesitated in condemning seventeen thousand of my people to death. The Elfangor I knew would have been proud of that as well.”

I felt the hairs on my arms prickle. “He never had a taste for violence or sadism,” I said. “The Elfangor I remember was a dreamer. Compassionate. Tobias has so many of those traits from him.”

“Do you know the nickname my people gave Elfangor? We didn’t know the kind, gentle Elfangor, the lover of peace. No. We called him the Beast Elfangor, for the thousands of Yeerks he slaughtered.”

“It’s a soldier’s job to kill his enemies.” My mouth felt dry. “He didn’t enjoy it.” Wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

“Perhaps he didn’t. But nevertheless, he did his job very well. He was a terror upon my people the likes which haven’t been matched.”

“He did what he had to do.”

“Don’t we all, human? I am proud of him. Don’t mistake me for that. I made Elfangor as much as anyone. I made him to be a match for me, and oh, he was. Until the end.”

“Tobias said you tried to capture him. With your lawyer and your letter…”

“Ah, your son. I am proud of him too. Does that seem contradictory to you?”

“Yes,” I said. “It does. If you’d caught him then, maybe you’d be on the victor’s side now.”

“But he was a son worthy of Elfangor,” the box said insistently. “At last, he was a son worthy of that warrior. To sit! Without an expression on his face! With my forces waiting all around him, ready to infest him if he showed even the slightest hint of recognition. And he convinced me that he was just some worthless street rat. A delinquent who was Elfangor’s son in nothing but his blood. But no.”

“He was what the war made him.”

“A true warrior. Worthy of Elfangor,” Visser 3 repeated. “Do you know, in retrospect, I should have taken Elfangor. Infested him. I took Alloran because he was a mature, adult warrior. He was tested against war. He was reliable. But Elfangor became a kind of genius.”

I felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t identify it, pushed the sensation away so I could listen better.

“We could have had some interesting conversations. I admired your husband. Elfangor and I couldn’t have been friends. We didn’t see eye to eye… on so many things. But I admired him. He was a worthy enemy and a superb soldier. A relentless fighter with an instinct for fleet formations.”

“Why did you kill him when you had him, then?”

“And show him mercy? In front of my assembled troops who’d seen so many Yeerks die at his hand? Impossible.”

“You could’ve infested him instead,” I said. And then I shuddered. How unimaginable that would have been for the Animorphs. For Tobias, if he’d had to learn all that he learned… and then fight his own father, puppeted by a slug, relentlessly trying to kill him…

“Do you remember the time matrix world?” I said recklessly. The guards right there on the wall, I just bet they were listening with bated breath, but I didn’t care. If it could change anything, the Ellimist wouldn’t have told me to come here, right?

“I do. Strangely. As if in a dream. But I do. That is the one time I have set foot on any part of the Andalite home world. And it was a fabrication created from Elfangor’s memories. Beautiful, wasn’t it?”

“It was. I remember the sky the most. Do you remember how it blended colors? I never thought a sky could look like that.”

“A rare and powerful weapon to create such a world,” Visser 3 said distantly. “Did you know that Andalite trees have rudimentary sentience? Each baby Andalite has a guardian tree planted upon its birth. They will learn to nurture and tend to that tree as they grow until it responds to them. Some trees have even been known to produce words. Very, very slowly, of course.”

“I didn’t know that.” I wondered if Tobias had a tree planted in his honor. A tree he’d never tended to or come to know. Would it have spoken to him?

“Elfangor had one of his own, of course. And Alloran. It’s a very old tradition from a farming society, which was what they began as. Of course they didn’t stay that way…”

Was he dreamy? I swallowed hard. “Tobias must have one of those.” I was suddenly sure.

“I am sure Elfangor planted one for him,” the Visser said. His agreement surprised me. “That is doubtlessly the kind of gesture he would think of.”

“He was a kind man.”

“To his friends and family, perhaps. And noble in his way to his enemies. However it cost him. Elfangor, the noble prince and defender of freedom who created the Abomination.”

“Not on purpose.”

“One of many things I have to thank him for,” the Visser brooded. “And it took his son and his brother to unmake the Abomination. This family…”

I realized suddenly what I was feeling, knotted up inside me like a parasite hollowing out my stomach: it was pity. With a tight throat and my head starting to pulse with pain, I closed my eyes. The Visser was still talking but I didn’t listen. He talked like, in another reality, he’d have wanted to be Elfangor’s friend.

Or just Elfangor’s owner.

“I have to go,” I said abruptly, before it got worse. The pity nibbling at my bones and filling up my throat slowly. “I’m sorry.”

“Did you just apologize to me?” And in those words he sounded like a Yeerk Visser again.

“Yes. I’m sorry.” I found myself standing up. I had no things together, so I moved towards the door. The guards jumped. I wasn’t a prisoner here. I could let myself out anytime. And just now I needed to be out. “I’ll… come talk to you again about him,” the words jumped out of my throat without me thinking, “once I remember more again.”

If he said anything else I didn’t hear it. I was out of the room and out of the prison and free under the sun and the blue sky.

-

I hadn’t thought specifically about my confrontation with “Aria” – Visser 3 – and the lawyer – DeGroat? Or was it DeGroot? – for a long time. But as Loren explained her conversation with the Visser to me, the memories came back: the heat of the office, the dustball smell of it, Aria’s pretty human morph. Visser 3’s weirdly dreamy words and how I’d struggled not to cry.

[Yeah,] I said, when Loren was finished. [He was pretty weird about Elfangor. Got all dreamy about him. I think… it was like he’d admired him, for a long time. It didn’t stop him from wanting to kill Elfangor, of course.]

Loren nodded mutely.

[I wonder if I have a tree. I’d like to see it. Maybe I’d be too old to be its friend, though. Haha. Tree friend.]

“I know you have a tree. I’m sure of it. Elfangor would have made sure, Tobias.”

I ruffled my feathers. I was perched on the back of her couch, the TV turned on with no sound. It was still light outside, the light of mid-afternoon. [Yeah,] I said eventually. [I guess you’re probably right. He would’ve thought of that.]

Loren fiddled with a half-eaten breadstick. She’d started working it down and then stopped. The demolished remains of a large pizza and a liter of coke and a box of breadsticks were set out on her coffee table. Mom-kid pizza lunch date, and now we were watching TV, like a normal son with his single mom. The normal son and mom we weren’t.

She’d been quiet since visiting the Visser. I wasn’t in favor of her having done that, and I didn’t like what it was doing to her now. He’d messed with her head somehow, I was sure. Visser 3 could be devious.

But what was done was done. She could make her own decisions. And as inadequate as I felt for being helpful, I was there for her if she needed me.

[Hey, let’s go flying,] I said. [Let’s get out of here. I want to show you something.] An idea I’d had cooking for a while, I felt like now was the time to use it.

“Oh yeah?” She sounded a little perked up for the first time that night. Victory for the bird-boy. Heh heh heh. [i]Do it![/i] Rachel would have said. [i]Go, Tobias![/i]

[Yeah. Get on your morphing suit, get outside and let’s go. This is going to be more fun if we have some space to move around.]

“What is it, Tobias?” She twisted to look at me and grinned a little. In the low light and with that look on her face, she reminded me enough of Rachel to hurt my heart. At least it was in a not-so-bad way this time.

[It’s a surprise. You’ll find out when we get there.]

Soon enough we were in the air, riding wind currents. I took us towards the mountains. It could be tough flying, since wind currents squeezed themselves through mountain passes and then wanted to push you away, but I knew how to fly against them like a ship tacking against the wind. And I knew enough to lead Loren.

Speaking of Loren: [Woah!] she called to me. Her red-tailed hawk form was struggling; I could see her flapping a lot. [This is tough, Tobias. I wish the workout I get in morph could translate to my human body!]

That actually made me laugh. [Don’t talk like that. You look great. Just follow me. Move behind me so you can watch what I do.]

She moved backwards and overshot a little; it was windy enough that it was way easier to fly away than towards. But she’d practiced enough to get in line behind me and from then on the going was easier… and no view was better, as we made our way further into the mountains. Past the Hork-Bajir valley this time, where we usually took our day trips. It was remote but not enough for my taste, not for what we were doing.

We moved on upwards instead, past the treeline but still where there was plenty of greenery coating the mountain slopes. There was a certain plateau I liked for this, mostly flat and covered with hardy lichens and little flowers. [There!] I called to Loren, and in we swooped. [Now you can demorph.] I stayed in my hawk form, waiting for her to be fully human.

In a few minutes there she was, clothed in a black leotard with long sleeves and legs and crouched down next to me, panting. “What now?”

[Now you stand back,] I said, flaring my wings. [Watch this.]

And after she’d stepped away, I began my own morph.

First, all my feathers kind of split apart. Morphing is hard to describe at the best of times, and that’s the best way I can put it. The filaments on each feather split and then the quills too. I was suddenly a very furry hawk.

I felt weird, distant grindings inside of me and then suddenly two legs burst out of my chest. My normal hawk legs were appropriated, sliding backwards and lengthening, talons fusing. Then I shot up in height, growing until I was at least waist-height on Loren. The structure of my wings was also changing, changing into arms. My torso lengthened and my skull structure started to change. I was getting a more domed skull and the big brain to go with it. Eye stalks. I’d been red-brown and now all at once I turned blue.

I was almost fully Andalite now, except for one very important part.

Then: SPROOT!

There it was: the Andalite tail, curling reflexively to be carried over my back, and the sharp tail-blade.

For all appearances, now Ax stood on the mountain plateau.

Loren stood with her mouth open, staring. “Tobias?!”

[Yeah, it’s me.] She looked kind of gobsmacked. She’d seen me morph before. Maybe it was just that I’d morphed an Andalite this time. My voice was still mine at least, some weird thing where Tobias’ thought-speech voice came out of Ax’s body. [You okay?]

“Yeah…” She came closer. She had to look up at me a little to see into my eyes. I kind of liked it. My human body had stopped aging; I always went back to my thirteen-year-old DNA. I was never going to be taller than her like that. But here I was. I straightened up.

She reached out and stroked her fingers lightly over my flank. It felt a little weird, but I didn’t move. Had she touched Elfangor like that when they first met?

“It’s just weird,” she said. “Did you know… who is this?”

[Ax. Aximili. Elfangor’s younger brother.]

“He’s the spitting image of Elfangor at this age.” She stepped back, looked me up and down, tears in her eyes. “He looks just like him.”

Wearing my uncle’s skin and my father’s face, it was like Elfangor ran, a ghost in the wind, across that mountain plain. Did Ax know that, I wondered. That once, he and Elfangor had looked so alike. I could imagine him getting older and looking more and more like his brother…

That evening I learned: Andalites also shivered.

-

Time passed.

Time passed, and I was happy; it was strange, since it wasn’t quite the life I used to envision for myself, with a loving husband and a family, or a career… but it was a life and it was mine. I had Tobias and I had the forest of memories that, once the blockade was gone, sprawled out like a vivid garden.

Precious years with Tobias. Flying with my son, watching him run as an Andalite and knowing that was the kind of creature I had fallen in love with. Actually, I could see why. They were so graceful, so alien.

I visited Visser 3 a couple more times and Tobias and I watched the televised trial together. I saw Jake Berenson’s face for the first time in ages. He looked drawn and old, and the poor kid, I pitied him. Tobias didn’t say a word about it and we didn’t talk about it.

There were things that he was angry about that I wasn’t. I hadn’t experienced the same things he had, the same perspectives. He had reasons for his anger, I knew, and I had the freedom to feel pity. It was a luxury since I’d been spared so many of the cruelties Tobias suffered.

My sensitive, intelligent son, he understood and didn’t ask me to change my feelings for him. But I was glad for the chance to get to know him and be there for him at last.

Time passed, eking those precious years away.

-

I went to see Marco after Cassie pointed Jake to me. Marco and I had never been exactly what you’d call friends, but…

All of us Animorphs had been closer than friends in some ways. Marco had almost died for me plenty of times. We’d done missions together and fought side by side. I trusted him even when he was annoying and full of bullcrap, which was always.

So. Not that it was hard, but old Tobias put his super-sleuth skills back to work. Marco lived in a big old mansion now like he’d always dreamed of. I did a flyover when I knew he’d be home. [Hey.]

He couldn’t reply, since he wasn’t in morph, so I just kept going. [Meet me in five. I’m gonna wait in the big Laurel tree. You know, the one that’s at the end of your drive.]

I perched there and I waited, watching the house. Eventually I saw an osprey fly out of one of the windows and circle. Scanning, not coming towards me. I took wing too and flew towards him. [Hey, man.]

[Hey, bird-boy. Jeez, you were hiding. You think I know the names of the friggin trees that are planted around here?] He banked towards me. [It’s been forever, dude. What are you doing here?]

[Let’s fly.]

He followed me as I circled, catching a thermal. Elevator up, and in a minute it looked like Marco lived in a Lego mansion far below. His swimming pool was shaped like a lima bean and bright blue. [Nice house, dude.]

[Yeah, awesome house. I rock. Tobias, what the hell? Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to see you. But it’s been literally years and you’ve been living under a rock. What gives?]

This was what Marco sounded like when he was worried. It made me laugh a little, suddenly nostalgic. Ax should’ve been with us too, the three of us flying a mission together, the dream team. [I wanted to know if Jake talked to you too.]

Marco was silent, but only for a second. [It's about that, huh?]

[Let’s fly. How long has it been since you’ve been out to the Hork-Bajir valley?]

[Ages. Some of us have busy lives.] But he followed me with a minimum of grumbling. I thought about that, ignoring the whining as we went. Marco was a complainer but he’d open a vein for you if it was necessary, and he’d get the job done.

It was nostalgic.

[So,] I said at last, interrupting some grumble I wasn’t listening to when we were finally over the valley. The scarred places on the trees were growing over now. The Hork-Bajir hadn’t lived there for a long time; they were redwood-dwellers now. It suited them. [Space. Another mission.]

[Ax is in trouble.]

[You don’t know that.]

[Come on, man, yes I do. When has space been anything but trouble?] Marco circled lazily in the air. I circled the other way, watching his head turn, keeping an eye out but also watching me. Fair enough, I was watching him.

[So,] he said, [are you in?]

[I’m thinking about it.] I knew. I knew that wasn’t going to be my final answer at the end of this conversation. But I spit it out there. [Are you in?]

[Hell yeah.]

[What about your mom?]

[She isn’t coming.]

[You know what I mean, dude. You worked so hard to get her back, and now you’re leaving her on earth? To go on a mission you could die on? She’s your family.]

[Yeah she is.] Marco’s wings moved in the wind. [I know you hate Jake forever now or something, and, dude, I’m not gonna tell you how to feel about him. I’d be pissed too. But he’s also my family. ]

I banked abruptly down towards the valley, going in for a landing. Marco followed me without my asking.

Once I touched down on the pine-needle-covered forest floor I began my morph into human. Marco did too, and we stood facing each other. He was taller than me now – than my human form, at least. I wondered if I’d have grown taller than him if I’d had the chance. I could trap myself in human form and find out someday, but I wasn’t sure I wanted that many more years of life – even with Loren. Even with everything.

He was looking me over. He wasn’t a big guy, hadn’t gotten bulky, but he was tight with muscle. “I never thought you’d get off your lazy butt to go to the gym,” I said.

“You noticed?” He grinned. Winked. “I’m not pumping iron, dude. What do you take me for? The ladies keep me fit.”

After a second I laughed. He looked around. “Why’d you bring me here to talk, Hawkman? This place is really falling down now.”

“Does it take you back? Remember how we all used to live here, and your mom and my mom were here… and Rachel’s parents…”

To his credit, Marco looked serious. That was one thing I could always count on him for. I felt a sudden tightness in my heart for him. I’d missed Marco and now it was coming back. Marco the realist who’d give you a reality check like snorting Tobasco sauce up your nose. We’d needed him. And they’d needed me.

“Seriously, though,” I said. “You’re leaving your mom? After everything? What if you never see her again?”

“Believe me, dude. I’m gonna hug her as hard as I can before I go. Something happens to me, all the money, all the stuff I own, it goes to her. And my dad. And, okay, I have some money earmarked for gorilla conservation, but don’t tell anyone. I don’t want to ruin my coolkid rep.”

“But that won’t stop you.”

“I’m going for her, dude. If something is going on out there, you think Earth is gonna be safe? We’re on the map now. You and me and all of us, we put it there.”

“Fair enough,” I said at last, because we had. “So you’re in.”

“I’m in. Jake’s in, of course.”

“Cassie?”

“Not in. Jake vetoed it.”

No Cassie, no Rachel, no Ax. We were down a big chunk of the team. Jake, Marco, and me…

“Anyone else?”

“Jake has some new recruits, I think. We’ll see how they are.” He looked at me, dark eyes calculating. “Are you in, man?”

“I’m thinking about it.”

He said the question that must have been on his mind: “Is it about Loren?”

I looked away.

“Look, dude.” He sighed, put one hand on his hip, scratched his head with the other. Turned away, turned in a circle, looking over the valley. “This place is falling down now, huh? It kind of looks like a dump. I can’t believe people came up here…”

“They mostly stay away. It’s too far unless you’re dedicated.”

“Yeah, man. Okay. Let’s stay on topic.” He turned back to me. “You know, if you don’t come along, I get it, right? You do you, bird boy. If you want to stay for your family, that’s a pretty legit choice. You know me. I argued for that for a long time.”

“… What you said about Jake,” I said. “Ax is my family too.”

“Yeah.” He grinned, an expression that crimped his face almost painfully. “Yeah. You know, I couldn’t say no to him for anything. I’m absolutely in. And, dude, we could use you.”

Goodbye to the earth, I thought. Goodbye to Loren. Back to the old dangers and struggle and – well, who knew what?

“I’m still thinking about it.”

“I’d be happy to see you on board,” Marco said. He came towards me and I watched awkwardly. Then I tensed as he locked one arm around me. And then I got with the program as he gave me literally the most awkward hug I’d ever gotten, one fist thumping on my back. I hugged him back.

Before anyone else, the Animorphs had been my family.

No matter what, you don’t forget things like that.

-

I was making dinner – a simple stovetop soup – when Tobias called to me from his usual perch in the tree at the end of the driveway. At least, that’s where I guessed he was. He liked that tree. He told me it gave a good view of his surroundings in all directions. From sitting there as a hawk myself, I guessed I’d agree.

[Loren? Can you let me in?]

Out of morph, I couldn’t reply. I went and opened the door anyway. Tobias was confident enough in me that he was there already, and almost all the way human. He looked at me with wide eyes, face thirteen and still so young that I wanted to ruffle his hair hard like he really was a little kid.

“I’m making soup and I have snacks,” I said instead. “Come on in.”

In he came. Not relaxed. I knew his body language by now. He didn’t like to be stared at, so I watched him from the corner of my eye as I went back to the kitchen. “What’s up?” I was in the middle of sautéing the vegetables for the soup, so I kept that up. They hadn’t burned.

“I have to tell you something important,” he said bluntly. “Jake found me. He has another mission for us. It’s Ax.”

“What happened to him?” I stirred the vegetables. The smell of garlic and onion filled the air. Chopped carrots and tomatoes waited to be poured in.

“He was out with an Andalite fleet or something. Well, they got attacked by some mysterious thing. The whole fleet disappeared and there’s only one survivor.” Tobias paused. “So Jake wants us to go on a rescue mission.”

“So you’re leaving,” I said. I already knew, and I felt tears prickle at my eyes. That was fast. I could chalk it up to cutting onions, at least, maybe – my perceptive, smart son would certainly see right through the lie.

He was silent for a long time. Then, in a soft voice: “Yeah.”

“It doesn’t come as a surprise,” I said softly.

And really, I was proud of him. So proud of my brave, ferocious, loyal son, who’d put aside his anger at his former leader for the sake of his other friends.

And I was afraid for him, all at once: a familiar fear, one I’d felt every time he’d gone on a mission with his friends, back when they were years younger than they were now.

But he wasn’t even twenty yet! He’d been in far too much danger for someone so young…

“I wish I could go with you,” I said. Concentrated on stirring the vegetables more. They were just about ready. The lentils were soft enough to add, I knew. Then it would just be letting the whole thing simmer.

“That means a lot.” He stood near the cutting board and stared down at it. “It does. But you can’t do that.”

Which I had known.

“Bring those over here and pour them in,” I said, and Tobias did. Steam and hissing rose up from the hot pot. I stirred the vegetables and ramped up the heat. The kitchen smelled like good, solid food. Outside the window, over the sink, I could see my lawn and a bit of my neighbors’ house. Who knew how much they’d noticed over these years of our comings and goings. But who cared?

“I have something for you,” he said, backing off again, “Before I go. I think I have to morph to do it. That’s what I’m going to do, at least. You might not like some of it, but – some of it’s important.”

My throat felt tight. I swallowed and nodded. My baby boy, off into danger again. Just like Elfangor.

“Let’s do this now.” He was doing this fast, like it hurt. The rustle of him growing feathers again and then shrinking so quickly. I left the spoon in the pot and bent down to let him step onto my arm. He was very careful with his talons and didn’t leave even a tiny scratch. I stroked the soft feathers on his breast, looking down into those fierce yellow eyes that I knew very well by now.

After a moment, I felt whatever he was doing start to happen: first as a soft touch on my mind, and then something like a deluge.

Thoughts. Memories. Impressions. Alien from me. The thrill and terror of battle. Fighting to save his comrades. It was a bizarre rush in my head and I closed my eyes, wobbling on my feet. Memories of blood and flight. Memories of swimming deep, rising up towards the top of the water and leaping free of it, a feeling of deep joy. Alien vistas and fields full of stars.

Beyond all that, something deeper: something further away. Something even more alien. Groves of trees that looked like outsized stalks of asparagus – alien trees that I instinctively knew were trees. Purple and orange skies with double suns. Landscapes I recognized.

Walking through an ancient grove, surrounded by the telepathic network of the trees. Dipping a hoof into cool water, feeling that cooling sensation flowing up my leg. And echoing that coolness the feeling of a tail blade pressed against my forehead. An unfamiliar voice saying, [You have entered a great lineage of warriors.] Pain and fear and a vast desert. Information. Strange ideas and so much information, flowing into my head.

The connection broke and I swayed on my feet, gasping. I bumped the counter and Tobias fluttered off my arm, the great noise of wings filling the room all at once.

[Sorry,] he said. [I know that was a lot. Are you all right? I’m sorry.]

Shaking, I realized; I was shaking. I touched my forehead with my hand. “What was that?”

[Something that Elfangor did for me, a long time ago.] He perched on the counter easily and watched me. [Something he did when we met. He poured a lot of information into my head all at once. It was tangled and confused, and it took me a long time to separate it all… but I got most of it eventually. You should be able to do the same thing, I think. There are some of his memories in there. Experiences.]

Elfangor’s memories and many of Tobias’ too, I realized.

A gift in case he didn’t come back.

A gift that was intimate and personal: so much of everything he was.

The vegetables were starting to singe. I reached out and stirred the pot absently, blinking away tears. Be strong-! Courage. I needed courage to endure this. The first, maybe the last gift he’d ever given me, the most thoughtful gift anyone had ever given to me.

[Sorry I didn’t warn you more.]

“It’s all right.” I cleared my throat. Swallowed again. “… Will you stay for dinner? Overnight?”

[Yeah. I’ll do that. You can ask me questions if you want. We’ll deal with anything that needs dealing with.]

So much I had never known about my husband and my son, and now the opportunity to learn it.

I wished there’d been another way to do it. But there was no changing time for us, and now my heart was full of something thick and painful, the love you felt when you knew you were going to lose what you loved, and my head was full of memories: things I’d never known but now could learn. It would have to be enough for me for a long, long time.