The valley they were all living in wasn't much to look at, compared to the houses, stores, and paved streets just a short flight away. The tall, dinosaur-looking aliens known as Hork-Bajir didn't need much in the way of shelter. Left to themselves, they seemed content to live in caves and trees, going about their business and coming into the more open parts of the valley only to interact with humans.
It was harder for the rest of them. It was harder, especially, for Loren.
Nothing that had happened in the last few days could have fit into even her wildest dreams – except, maybe, the glimpse she'd had of Aximili, the blue-furred alien centaur (Andalite, and something about the word made her think of a deeper voice, almost familiar).
Her entire world-view was shifting. How many times had her life turned upside-down? Who had she been before the accident? She'd known she'd had a son but only abstractly, the same way she'd known she'd had a sister who had disappeared before Loren could even get to know her and an entire past, somewhere, that had been locked away from her.
Everything felt like some sort of crazy dream or psychotic break. Part of her half-expected to wake up in darkness again, disoriented and lost, with only Champ there to guide her.
"What are you looking at? Do you see something?"
Loren startled, tearing her gaze away from the trees at the edge of the valley.
Next to her, having come up when she was lost in her own thoughts, stood Eva. She had been a Controller before, and apparently a very high-ranking one, until the children had somehow managed to rescue her and kill the Yeerk that had enslaved her. She was the only other adult who'd had a connection to the aliens before and as such was the only one not still reeling from all the information the kids had dropped on them.
Loren wished that one day she could deal with everything a tenth as well as Eva was.
"Oh, nothing like that," she admitted. "I was just..." Staring at the trees and thinking about how amazing it was that she could see again, long after she'd given up hope that a miracle would happen and she'd one day regain her vision. Well, that miracle had happened and now she could admire the colors she used to have only vague memories of. She shrugged helplessly. "I was just looking."
Eva's eyes met Loren's knowingly. "It doesn't quite feel real yet, does it? Being here."
Loren smiled sheepishly. "I guess it's obvious, isn't it? I keep expecting to wake up back home and part of me thinks, I won't even mind as long as I get to remember this dream."
Eva gave her a small smile then looked away, into the trees. "When I first became free again," she began, "I would spend ages – hours, just doing little things. I'd look at every leaf on a tree, one at a time, and count each one. I'd wiggle my fingers for no reason," she held her hand up and demonstrated, "or hold my breath for an extra second every time I breathed in. Just to prove I could again and that I was the only one in here." She tapped her temple with a finger.
"I have a son," Loren said. It still didn't sound real. "I have a son and two weeks ago, I wouldn't have been able tell you anything about him but his name even if my life depended on it. And now I'm here and I can see again, and it turns out aliens are real, and I'm not actually crazy, they really are out to get me. And my son is here too, a teenager fighting off an entire an alien invasion with his friends. How do you do it? How do you deal?"
Unspoken, at the end of that, What do I do? How do I deal?
Loren took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Deep breaths, the therapists had told her when she'd first woken up and the panic had threatened to overwhelm her.
Eva put a hand on her arm. "I do what I have to do. Maybe the Andalites are going to end this war or maybe the Yeerks are going to find us and slaughter us all before they can get here. I don't really know. I haven't gone a single night yet without my nightmares waking me up in the middle of the night. But I have my family now. I have my freedom, I have my husband, and I have a son who finally has his mother back," Eva said. "That's what matters most in the end, isn't it?"
Loren took another deep breath. She nodded, letting Eva's calm wash over her. "Right."
One of the boys came to Loren while she was brushing Champ. She could see the nervousness in the way he gnawed at a corner of his lip and hesitated a couple feet away before stepping in front of her. His resemblance to Eva was unmistakable.
"Marco, right?" she offered when he didn't say anything first.
Her encouraging smile seemed to give him courage. "That's right, Mrs., uh –" he faltered.
"Just Loren is fine," she said. Of the children, he was the one who seemed happiest. She'd noticed him trying to cheer up the other parents, telling jokes and getting underfoot whenever people or situations got too tense. He was a good kid. She could tell he was bracing himself to try something out on her now too. "What is it?"
"It's about Tobias."
Her son, who had found her like a part of her had half-hoped he would then blown all her expectations out of the water by bringing her (back?) into this crazy world of aliens and shapeshifting and war. He'd given her back her life but she still saw a stranger when she looked at him. He wanted a mother, she could tell. If only she knew how to be one. To anyone, let alone to him, this boy who was really a hawk and looked at her so intensely.
"What about him?"
"His birthday's tomorrow," Marco said. "He doesn't really celebrate it because hey, what kind of presents can you buy for a bird anyways? It's not like he has opposable thumbs most of the time. But maybe you can bake him a cake or something. And it's okay if you're a crappy baker, just make sure Ax is there. He'll eat anything."
Loren stared at him, unsure how to respond.
Abruptly, Marco cupped a hand around his ear. "What's that? Oh, I think I hear my mom calling me. Bye!" he said, then turned and ran off before she could reply.
It wasn't subtle but it got the point across.
Champ whined and nudged her hand. She let the brush fall to the ground and rubbed his ears. "Well? What do you say, boy?" she asked. "You think we can figure out how to bake a cake with no oven?"
In the end, she admitted it was not possible to bake a cake with no oven (and no cooking tools, and no raw ingredients, and no kitchen). But she talked to Eva, who talked to Marco. Between him and Rachel, Tobias' girlfriend, who had heard what they were doing and insisted on helping, Loren was able to get a cake from a supermarket. They were even able to set everything else up by the time Tobias arrived the next day.
She was watching the skies, which was how she saw him when he tumbled suddenly in the air, then righted himself and angled towards them.
<Wh-what's this?> he asked.
"It's a cake," Loren called to the sky. "I hear it's your birthday today." Champ sat obediently at her feet, tongue lolling.
Sitting to her right, Rachel waved at him. "Happy birthday." The rest of the children – the other Animorphs and Rachel's little sisters, who had seen the cake and insisted on joining the party, waved and shouted their greetings to him as well.
<You got a cake? For me?>
"Marco told me about your birthday," Loren explained as Tobias landed on the perch that had been set up for him. "I wanted to bake a cake but there's no oven here and we didn't think it'd be a good idea to return to someone's home to use one there."
The cake didn't look nearly as nice as it had at the store. It was squished on one side and some of its layer of icing had been smeared away in places from when it'd bumped against the walls of the box on their way back to the valley. She tried unsuccessfully to stick a fallen chunk of it back onto the main body, but it crumbled back onto the cardboard serving platter as soon as she pulled her knife away.
"Sorry," she apologized. "It got knocked around a little on the way."
<We have candles as well,> Aximili said. <For each year you have been alive. Would you like us to place them now?>
Tobias was staring. Loren wondered if hawks had expressions other than "staring" and tried not to let her anxiety get the better of her. Was this too much? Did he hate the cake? Were there too many people? They hadn't invited the Hork-Bajir or the other parents, on Rachel's advice. But maybe even being the center of this much attention was too stressful.
"Come on, Bird-boy," Marco teased, lightly tossing one of the plastic forks at Tobias. It tumbled in the light breeze and landed on the table with a clatter. "You're not gonna eat it like that, are you?"
At the hint, Tobias hopped down from the perch and onto the grass. Soon his body was shifting, crunching and bulging as human parts expanded out of his hawk form. It looked agonizing and even though Loren knew firsthand that it didn't really hurt at all, she had to look away.
When the noises stopped and she turned around, both Tobias and Aximili had morphed into their human forms. Tobias looked at her. Aximili looked at Jake, who looked at her.
It was a little awkward. Before – and that used to represent the terrifying blankness that meant before the accident, but now meant before finding out about aliens and getting her eyes back, she'd never really babysat or looked after anyone. But now, she was the adult and ostensibly in charge.
Thankfully, she still knew how to throw a birthday party. She set up the candles and lit them, then led everyone in an off-tune rendition of the birthday song. Everyone sang except Aximili, who didn't know the words and instead watched them all with wide eyes and an air of fascination.
"And now the birthday boy cuts the cake," Loren announced.
Tobias took the knife from her hand. He didn't have a very expressive face, but the shy smile he gave to her and everyone else seemed genuine. "I don't know what to say," he said, looking down at the cake, then glancing back up. "I guess just thanks. Everyone."
Honestly, Loren thought as she tasted a forkful of the slice on her plate, the cake probably wasn't that great. But after having had a breakfast of canned ravioli, it tasted absolutely amazing. She took her plate and moved to the ground to eat, wanting to feel the cool grass beneath her.
A couple minutes later, Tobias sat down next to her. It gave them both a good view of the others. Rachel laughed with her sisters, Jake and Cassie sat next to each other, heads down and angled together, and Marco cut Aximili a second helping of cake as Aximili licked frosting from his cheap paper plate. It looked a little chewed on around one edge.
"No one's ever thrown me a birthday party before," Tobias said.
"I'm sorry," Loren answered. With all the time she'd spent with Marco and Rachel yesterday, she'd managed to get a pretty good idea of what Tobias' home life had been like. It'd been nothing like she'd imagined or hoped. She'd wanted so much more for him. "I really thought they were going to take care of you."
Tobias plucked at the grass with his fingers. "It's okay," he mumbled.
It wasn't okay. Even though she knew that there way no way she could have cared for him, part of her felt like she should have tried harder, done more. But she'd been young then and her sister had agreed to take him. When she hadn't heard anything after that, she'd just assumed. She'd told herself that he was happier without her. Maybe she'd been wrong.
Which brought her here.
She didn't know how to be a mother to someone who was practically an adult already. She didn't even know if he even wanted a mother anymore. How did people even do this? But she could try her best. "I mean it," she said. "I know I haven't been there for you before, and I understand if it's too little too late, but I want to be part of your life now. If you'll have me."
"You really don't remember anything from before the accident." It was almost, but not quite, a question.
"No," she said. She waved her hand vaguely through the air. "Sometimes when I dream, I see bits and pieces. Just images. I used to think they were all in my head but now," she shrugged. "How can I know if something I dreamed really happened?"
"I know it sounds messed up, but I'm glad that's why you left. Knowing it was because you had to and it wasn't because of -" he cut himself off.
"It wasn't because of you," she reassured him. "If I could, I would have kept you. I promise." She'd thought about it, before. She'd regretted it sometimes, even though she'd made the only choice she could with all the information she'd had.
He turned his eyes to hers. They were blue, not like hers. "Is it okay if I ask you something?"
"Sure. What is it?"
"Does the name Elfangor mean anything to you?"