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Girl In A Glass Bell Jar

Chapter Text

My name is Loren. No last name, just Loren. That is, I have a last name, but it’s not one that I’m particularly attached to. It doesn’t feel right. My old last name, from when I used to be married, that one didn’t feel right either so I changed back to my maiden name a few years after the divorce, but that didn’t solve the problem.

Have you ever felt like you’re missing a huge, important part of your life? I feel like that almost all the time. I think the disconnect with my surname—no matter what surname it is—is part of that. I don’t feel right, don’t feel whole, so my name doesn’t feel right, either.

Or maybe it has something to do with my son. He still has my ex-husband’s last name (which people seem to find inexplicably confusing no matter how many times I tell them that, yes, he’s my son, and no, that isn’t my name). So perhaps that’s where the disconnect comes from: I didn’t feel attached to my husband’s name after the divorce, but now my son and I have different surnames so I don’t feel properly attached to my surname either. It’s not like I’m close to my old family, after all, so that could be it. Our names are supposed to tie us to our family, right? My name doesn’t match anyone who matters to me, so I don’t feel connected to it.

It feels like it’s something more than that, though.

I have feelings like that a lot. My memory is somewhat…shaky. Not like there are holes, but more like there are patches. Places where the holes were paved-over inexpertly, so I can feel the spackle wiggle when I prod it, but not loose enough that I can pull the patch off and find what’s missing.

Do I sound crazy? Well, you wouldn’t be the first to think it of me.

Turns out if you go around talking about meeting aliens, people will call you crazy for some reason. Go figure. But it’s all right, I’ve had years to get used to the furtive looks and the whispers behind my back and the fake smiles and hurtful comments. I mean it isn’t pleasant, but I’m used to it. And lately it’s gotten a lot better.

My son believes me again, you see.

Because now, he’s met aliens too.

Chapter Text

It was my fault for being distracted. I should have known better—did know better. But I still let my mind wander.

In my defense, I had a lot to think about. For one thing, my friends and I had just been flying, and it’s always hard for me to come back down to earth after I’ve been riding the thermals. I spend a lot of time up there, as much as I can get away with between school and homework and trying to re-bond with my mom.

My mom...that’s a long story. To sum it up: all my life she’s been the crazy lady who claims she met aliens, and I got sick of being treated like a freak because of her. So we kind of drifted apart, or at least, I drifted away from her. Only I recently discovered that she isn’t crazy and she wasn’t lying. So I’m not too proud of how I acted these last few years, and I’m trying to make up for it.

See, I’ve met some aliens as well now, and they were definitely real. That’s how I could be flying on thermals, my friends and I: we can take on the form of any animal we can touch and acquire. In my case, that meant turning into a red-tailed hawk. How do I describe the feeling? Well, the morphing itself is...disturbing, to say the least. Imagine your whole body, right down to your organs and eyeballs, twisting around and reshaping itself. It doesn’t hurt, but you know it should. Once you’re done, though…

Wow. There are no other words for what it feels like to fly, under your own power, using your own wings. It’s a freedom, an ecstasy, the likes of which I’ve never even imagined. There is nothing in the world that feels as great as flying, nothing.

But coming back down to earth, putting on this heavy, clumsy, ill-fitting human body again, well...that’s less awesome. But see, you can only spend two hours at a time in a morph, or else you get stuck permanently. So I had no choice but to land and trade my wings for these weak, dull eyes and soft, sad lips and big, clumsy feet and arms. I had to stop being Tobias the hawk, and become Tobias the boy again.

I’ve never really liked being Tobias the boy.

And, lucky me, lots of other people don’t much like him either. Case in point, these two jerks named Andy and Tap-Tap. (Yeah, I know, but I’m not the one who gave him the nickname, okay?) They weren’t any of my usual bullies, but they’d started harassing me lately and I’ve had enough years of being one of the school’s favorite punching bags that kids like that have become pretty interchangeable to me. Rick, Steve, Jesus, Dan, Andy, Ricardo, Ted, Mitch, Tap-Tap...it doesn’t make much difference what their names are once they start pounding me.

It’s funny, because you’d think that after what I did a few days ago I wouldn’t be afraid of jerks like that anymore. It’s not everyday you walk downstairs into Hell and fight for your life against a bunch of ferociously dangerous aliens. And compared to a Hork-Bajir or a Taxxon or especially to Visser Three, two dudes who wanted to give me kidney punches and a swirly should have seemed like so much chopped liver. But I guess being afraid of guys like that was habit by now.

You ever hear of a guy named Pavlov? I guess Andy and Tap-Tap were my version of the bell, because the minute I realized I’d walked into their ambush, I froze-up.

“Hey there Tobias,” Andy said. “Did the loony bin let out early today?”

Tap-Tap chortled at this exceptionally witty observation and said, “Yeah man, what are you doing walking around our streets on a Saturday, huh?”

I, like an idiot, mumbled, “They’re everybody’s streets.”

That set them off, like I knew it would.

“Uh no, dude,” Andy corrected me, “they’re every normal body’s streets.”

“Yeah do you see a lane marked ‘whackjob walking path’?” Tap-Tap asked. “I don’t think so!”

The two jerks high-fived each other and I ducked my head, letting my hair slide forward like a curtain I could hide behind. I have really plain, dirty-blonde hair that I don’t get trimmed often enough and that never wants to stay in place, but it’s long enough that when I drop my chin it flops forward past my nose. I knew it doesn’t actually help, but it makes me feel better to have any layer of protection, no matter how flimsy, between me and everyone else.

“I’m just trying to get home,” I mumbled.

“Well you’re going the wrong way,” said Andy. “Area 51 is that way!” He pointed off in some random direction and they both laughed again.

“Hey,” Tap-Tap said suddenly. “Hey, why aren’t you laughing, weirdo? Don’t you think we’re funny?”

“You’re hilarious,” I said obediently.

“Nah, I don’t think he means it, Tap-Tap,” Andy said. “I think he’s lying to us.”

“Oh man, are you lying to us, Tobias? Tobias the weirdo, Tobias the nutjob, are you telling lies now? Just like your mommy, you’re gonna start making up stories too now, huh?”

I don’t know why I did it. I really don’t know why I did it. I never fight back. I learned long ago that it doesn’t help, that it just makes things worse; learned that when I fight back I’m the one who gets in trouble instead of them. Granted, I’m usually the one who gets in trouble either way, but when I fight back I get in more trouble. And I’m not much good at fighting, anyway. So I don’t know why I did it…

But all of a sudden, I’d had enough. My mom wasn’t crazy and she wasn’t lying and I should have believed her. I, of all people, should have had faith in my mom. But I hadn’t. I’d let what other people thought matter more, and I’d betrayed her. I was sick of it. I was sick of all of it.

So I punched Tap-Tap right in the face.

“Ahh!” I cried, and shook my hand. Punching people hurts.

“Ahh!” Tap-Tap shouted. “What the hell—he hit me! The little freak attacked me!”

He was clutching the side of his face and glaring at me like I’d just done something outrageous, like he and Andy hadn’t each hit me half a dozen times before, like I was the one in the wrong.

But I didn’t care. When Andy lunged for me I swung for him, too. I missed and he punched me in the stomach.

I bent over, all the air leaving my body suddenly in one great rush. Tears pricked my eyes and I didn’t know if it was because of the pain or because of how angry I was—angry at Tap-Tap and Andy, angry at the world, angry at myself.

This is for you, mom, I thought, and I head butted Andy in the chest. He fell over backwards into the gutter and groaned, cradling the elbow he’d cracked on the curb.

“The little freak’s lost it!” he snarled. “Get him, Tap-Tap! Kick the stuffing out of him!”

I guess at this point I should have run, should have taken advantage of them being off-balance and gotten out of there. But I didn’t.

“That’s right!” I yelled instead. “I’m a freak, and I’m done getting kicked around because of it! You want some more?”

They did. And like I said, I’m not actually much good in a fight. And now the surprise of me fighting back was passed, and they were both on their guard again.

So I got the crap kicked out of me. Like usual.

In a few minutes I was curled up on the sidewalk, hands over my head, gasping and heaving as the round rubber toes of their sneakers slammed into my back, my ribs, my shins, again and again and again. The world shrank down around me until the only things I could hear were my own ragged gasps and their cruel, cheerful laughter. Then suddenly, a voice—

“Hey! Hey you dweebs, yeah you! Get off of him!”

“What the—?”

Andy and Tap-Tap turned to face the new threat, or more likely the new target. The world was swimming from the tears in my eyes and my head was ringing. I just lay where they’d left me, panting on the sidewalk, wondering if I’d be able to summon enough energy to stand up and stagger away before they got bored and came back for more. I could still hear them laughing, and I wasn’t sure if it was my ears or my imagination.

“Are you kidding me? Hey, Andy, is this dude kidding me?”

“He’s gotta be kidding, Tap-Tap. Hey, bozo, you’re kidding right?”

“Nah, dude, that’s not kidding.” The new voice...it was familiar, somehow, but who…? “I heard that the circus was going to be in town this week, but you know they aren’t going to let you two join, right? Their monkeys have to be attractive enough to be in show-bizz, and their freak show requires an IQ of at least five, so you’re out of luck.” A pause, like a showman waiting on his audience. “That’s kidding.”

The words were followed by a sharp, clever laugh—and suddenly an image formed in my befuddled head to match the voice: Marco. A short, smirking, cute Hispanic boy with black hair a little longer than mine and a lot neater. He was, like me, an Animorph, but that was where the similarities ended. Marco wasn’t some incredibly popular jock, but he wasn’t a bully-magnet either. He was a class-clown, if you needed a label for him, but he was a smart class-clown not just some dumb jerk who thinks that fart-jokes and armpit squeaks are the height of intellectual comedy. Marco was way too smart to pick a fight with two muscle-bound idiots like Andy and Tap-Tap...so what was he doing?

I forced myself to push off the concrete and open my eyes. The world swam around my head a few times before I could focus, squinting, on the sight of Andy and Tap-Tap looming in front of me, their backs turned as they sized-up Marco. He was standing half a block away holding a plastic bag, the kind you get at a cheap convenience store that can’t afford their own branding.

“Marco, get…” I had to stop and clear my throat before my voice would come out as anything more than a harsh whisper. “Marco, get out of here. This doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

Marco glanced at me and shrugged, then returned his attention to Andy and Tap-Tap. “You done?” he asked them coldly.

“Nah,” said Andy, starting forward. “I think we’re just getting started.”

Tap-Tap laughed and followed him.

I expected Marco to turn and run. It would have been the smart thing to do. It’s what I would have done, if I’d been in his shoes. I think. But he stayed right where he was. He was smirking, so I figured he had a plan, but then I noticed the way his eyes were darting around nervously above the smirk. That was when I started to worry.

This wasn’t the first time that one of the other Animorphs—that’s us, the five kids whose morphing powers were the only weapon that Elfangor could leave us to fight the Yeerks with—that one of the others had stood up to my bullies for me, although the last time had been before the fateful walk through the construction site that had forever changed our world. Last time it had been Jake telling two jerks giving me a swirly to back off. They’d backed off, but...well, Jake Berenson is almost as different from Marco as I am. They’ve been best friends for longer than I’ve known either of them, but Jake is—well, he’s the type of guy that weasels like Tap-Tap and Andy would never stand up to. He’s big, but not scary-big, and his size isn’t the reason that bullies crumble in front of him. Jake just has this...this presence about him. He’s not super popular or the star of any sports teams or anything like that. He’s just not a dude you mess with. Not because he’s mean. Not because he’s violent. Just because you don’t.

Marco...well, he’s not a loser like me by any means. He isn’t the sort of person that Andy and Tap-Tap would ordinarily go after. But he also isn’t someone they’d be afraid to mess with, if he got in their faces. He isn’t Jake.

Instead of walking away, Andy and Tap-Tap walked over to Marco.

“Did you say something to us, squirt?” Tap-Tap demanded.

“Yeah,” said Marco. He had to crane his neck to look up at them but he didn’t stop smirking. “I said you’re both uglier than a monkey’s butt and half as smart. Do you need me to put that into smaller words so you can understand it?”

Tap-Tap lunged. Andy swung. Marco ducked. Instead of punching Marco, Andy hit Tap-Tap in the ear and he went sprawling, howling and clutching at his head. “You hit me!” he cried, over and over. “You jerk, you hit me!”

“Like I said,” Marco smirked, “stupid.”

The next punch Andy threw connected solidly with Marco’s face and he fell back, stumbling. As Andy moved for a follow-up blow, though, Marco thrust his arm out and swung like he was doing a shot-put for gym class. The plastic bag in his hand hit Andy right in the face and the carton of milk inside the bag burst. Andy staggered back, milk-drenched plastic covering his head. He flailed around wildly but he couldn’t see anything. Marco ducked under the blows easily. He hopped over Tap-Tap, kicked him lightly in the other side of his head to make sure he stayed down, then sprinted over to where I was still sitting on the pavement, staring at them dumbly.

“Come on!” Marco snapped at me. He grabbed my arm and hauled me to my feet. “Are you waiting for a permission slip? Let’s get out of here!”

We ran. I ran kind of hunched over, clutching at my sore ribs, and Marco ran beside me, one hand on my shoulder, kind of pushing me along. He kept looking over his shoulder to make sure neither of the bullies were behind us. After we turned down a few corners and ducked across a couple of alleys, he slowed down.

“Th-thanks,” I panted.

Marco was prodding gingerly at his left eye, which was already starting to look kind of puffy. He grunted absently.

“You didn’t have to do that,” I added softly. I was hiding behind my hair again, not wanting to meet Marco’s gaze. I felt pathetic enough without him looking at me pityingly.

Instead he shrugged. “No big deal,” he said. He sounded a little funny, like he couldn’t quite believe he’d just done that himself and was trying to act cool.

“Well, thanks,” I mumbled again.

Marco shrugged. He looked uncomfortable. “I just thought—hey, what would Jake do?” He laughed sharply. “Maybe I’ll get a bracelet. WWJD, right?”

I tried to smile. “I bet those would be big sellers,” I said.

We walked in silence for a few minutes. I’m not sure if Marco was going any place in particular; I wasn’t. I was still trying to get my breath back from the beating and then the sprinting.

“So who were those two jerks, anyway?” Marco asked eventually. “What’d you do to get their panties in such a wad?”

I shrugged. “Andy and Tap-Tap. They’re eighth graders. I don’t think I had to ‘do’ anything, they just think hitting me is fun.” I winced; it wasn’t until the words came out of my mouth that I realized how self-pitying I sounded.

Fortunately Marco was focused on something more important. “Tap-Tap?” he repeated. “That dude’s name is Tap-Tap?”

I smiled. “It’s probably not the name on his birth certificate,” I said, “but it’s the only one I’ve ever heard anyone call him.”

“Man!” Marco complained. “I can’t believe I wasted a monkey joke on somebody named Tap-Tap! There’s like, a billion pages of material in that name, and I defaulted to ‘you look like a monkey and also you’re dumb’?” He threw his arms up in the air, like he was pleading for pity from an uncaring universe. “Ugh! I’m so disappointed with myself!”

I laughed a little. I stopped pretty fast because they’d split my lip open and it hurt, but it was still nice to laugh.

Marco sighed and shook his head. His complaints subsided into unhappy grumbles and we headed back to the main street together, where the buildings weren’t so close together that they stopped any trace of sunlight from reaching the ground. I still wasn’t sure where we were going, but I was content to just walk. It wasn’t as good as flying of course, but it was better than getting kicked in the stomach.

“Ugh,” Marco said after a while, poking gingerly at the bruise forming under his eye, “Why’d that jerk have to hit me in the face? I can’t go home with a black eye. My dad’ll think I’ve been fighting.”

“You have been fighting,” I pointed out.

Marco grinned. “I know that, and you know that,” he said, “and even Andy and Tap-Tap know that, but there’s no reason why my dad has to know it.”

I hesitated, then said, “Do you want to come to my place?”

Marco looked at me oddly and I hurried to say, “To do something about your eye, I mean. We always have plenty of ice packs in our freezer.” I laughed, like it was no big deal, but I think it came out kind of bitter.

I grimaced, afraid of what joke Marco was going to make at my expense, but he just said, “Yeah man, that’d be cool. Thanks.”

I shrugged awkwardly and ducked behind my hair again. “Least I can do,” I mumbled.

“No, no, that’d be cool. Cool. Because it’s an ice pack, yeah? An ice pack? ‘Cool.’ Get it?”

Chapter Text

I followed Tobias back to his crappy apartment. Fortunately we weren’t too far away, because my eye was already starting to swell. By the time we mounted the squeaky metal steps up to his front door, I could barely see out of that side of my face. I don’t know what I’d been thinking, tangling with those two jerks. Obviously spending so much time with Jake was a bad idea. He was rubbing off on me, making me do stupid things. Making me get involved in other people’s problems. Yeah, I know everybody has problems. But that’s the crux of it: they’re their problems, not mine.

Unless, like some kind of idiot, I decide to make them mine.

Well, that was enough of that. Tobias Whitman was not my problem. If Jake wanted to take on that charity case, bully for him. I had better things to do with my life than try and solve the world’s issues. I had plenty of issues of my own, I didn’t need to go looking for more.

All I needed right now was an ice pack, a few minutes to take the swelling down, and a new carton of milk. Man, I can’t believe I wasted the groceries like that. What was I thinking?

I flopped onto Tobias’s couch as he went into the kitchen to root around in his freezer. The apartment he shares with his mom is pretty small, smaller than the one my dad and I live in and we aren’t exactly living in a palace, either. It’s also really old and shabby, it having once been part of an old townhouse that had been portioned-out into rentals as the neighborhood it was in slowly decayed and fell into neglect and disrepair. The carpet was almost worn through, there were water stains on the ceiling, and a fuzzy layer of cat hair covered everything.

It was also, in a strange and run-down way, kind of beautiful.

See, Tobias’s mom had kind of gone all-out decorating the place with colored glass mobiles and bits of sculpture and dozens of paintings. She’s an artist. Not a famous artist or anything, but she paints on the regular and even does a few commissions for people who want portraits of family or loved ones but don’t want to pay a professional’s prices. I guess she probably works other jobs, crappy part-time stuff or temp jobs like my dad, but I don’t know. I’ve never really talked to Tobias before. I mean, everybody at school knows who he is, but he and I aren’t friends. I’m not sure the boy has ever had friends, actually.

That’s because everybody knows him as the boy whose mom believes in aliens.

Yeah. A total nutjob. One of those tinfoil-hat, conspiracy theory whack-a-doodles. Little green men from outer space, flying saucers, crop circles, all the jazz. Somebody call the men in white coats to take the lady away, she’s certifiable!

Or at least, that’s what we all used to think. But that was before the alien spaceship crashed in the construction site while my friends and I were walking home from the mall. That was before we met this dying Andalite named Elfangor and discovered that Earth is being invaded by these totally gross alien slugs called Yeerks. They slither inside your head and take control of everything—and I mean everything. Blinking, breathing, eating, sleeping—all of it. Every word you say, every move you make, all of it is at the Yeerk’s command. Every memory, every thought, all of that is theirs to use against you and everyone around you.

Anyone can be a Yeerk. Cops, reporters, gas station attendants, vice principals, brothers, parents. Anybody. So we can’t tell anyone what we saw, can’t tell anyone what we can do. I mean, that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned; we don’t want to end up lumped into the same category of crazy as Tobias’s mom. I’m not sure all of the others agree with me, though. Rachel, for one—the girl is gorgeous, but something about her makes me edgy. She seems a little bit too excited by the whole thing, you know? And then there’s Cassie, who just wants to use our powers to save the whales and bond with the beavers. Boring!

Admittedly, our little trip around town on our borrowed wings this morning was pretty cool—but cool enough to risk dying for? No way. We were better off just forgetting any of it had ever happened. The hard part was convincing the others, especially Jake, but I figured that if I went along with things for a little while eventually I’d be able to bring them around to see sense…

My musing was cut short when Tobias shoved an ice pack at me. “Here,” he said gruffly. He was looking away from me, hiding behind his hair again the way he does when he’s feeling nervous or sad or uncomfortable or...basically, feeling anything at all. It kind of gets on my nerves. The world isn’t going to go away or get better just because you don’t look at it. Might as well face it head-on and find something to smile about, that’s what I say. It’s either laugh or cry, and I really don’t like crying.

“Hey,” I said to Tobias. “You ever think about, you know, fighting back?”

He shrugged, not meeting my eyes. “Doesn’t really help,” he mumbled.

I shrugged too. What did I care? It wasn’t my problem. “Okay then,” I said.

We sat there in silence for a few minutes, me on the couch with an ice pack over my eye, Tobias perched on one of the kitchen stools with another ice pack held to his bloody lip. After a while he started to chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said quickly, and chuckled again. “Just—it’s just, the sight of that milk exploding all over Andy? The look on his face, when he found himself with an eyeful of milk?”

I started to chuckle too. “That was pretty good,” I agreed. I put on my best Announcer Voice and boomed, “Milk! It does a body good!”

Then we were both laughing in earnest, guffawing really, Tobias clutching at his side like it hurt but still laughing away, like it was the funniest thing he had ever heard. We were still laughing when the front door opened and Tobias’s mom walked in.

I shut-up fast. I feel a little weird around other people’s moms sometimes, and Tobias’s mom is a whole bushel of weird all on her own. For one thing, she doesn’t dress like a grown-up. She dresses like a college kid who really likes thrift stores and she’s always got paint splotches on her clothes and face, sometimes even in her hair. For another, there’s the fact that she likes people, even kids like me, to call her by her first name, like she’s a regular person instead of a parent. Then there’s the way her eyes shift between being these soft, dreamy blue orbs that look like they’re focused on something a million miles away that nobody else can see, and being as sharp and immediate as the blade of a knife. And of course, there’s her stories about aliens, which are enough to weird anybody out.

Then there’s the fact that she’s, well, a mom.

I shifted on the couch, wondering if my eye was recovered enough that I could ditch the ice pack and get out of there. Before I could make a move, Tobias’s mom—Loren, as she preferred to be called—looked curiously at me and said, “Oh, hello…?”

“Marco,” Tobias supplied. He was suddenly no longer laughing either. “His name’s Marco. You met him before,” he added tiredly.

“Oh,” Loren said again. She gave me a strained little smile, like she was struggling to place my face, then gave up and shrugged. “Well, hello again Marco.”

She moved into the kitchen and started unpacking the bag of groceries she was carrying. I was a little curious myself, and I sat up on the couch to see better. It wasn’t the bags of rice or the boxes of instant potatoes I was staring at, though. I was watching Loren, wondering when she would say something about the ice packs we were both holding, and the fact that Tobias was all over filthy from lying on the pavement. I mean, we had obviously just been in a fight. It was so obvious a toddler could have figured it out. And yet, Loren said nothing.

I transferred my gaze to Tobias. He looked uncomfortable now, but not the kind of uncomfortable that comes with waiting for the other shoe to drop; just like a kid who wasn’t comfortable having someone else his age see his mom. I knew a lot of kids like that, kids who were embarrassed by their parents (and oh boy, there were times I could sympathize), and Tobias had more reason to feel that way than most—but while he looked uncomfortable, he didn’t look like he was trying to make up a story to explain why his lip had bled all over his shirt, or why he had some other kid sitting on his couch with an ice pack over his eye. They both just took it in stride.

Like I said, weird.

After a few minutes Loren gently took Tobias’s ice pack away and replaced it with another one she pulled from the freezer. “Is your ice pack thawing, Marco?” she called to me. “Do you want a fresh one?”

“Uh, no,” I said. “No thanks. I’m good.”

“Okay,” said Loren. “Help yourself whenever.”

“Uh...thanks,” I said. I didn’t say anything else as she finished putting her groceries away. It reminded me a lot of the kind of stuff my dad and I ate, except that there were fewer frozen pizzas and more Asian sauces. I squinted at Tobias, wondering if that was something Loren had picked up from Tobias’s dad. I’d always thought he looked like a bit of a mix ethnically, despite his floppy blonde hair, but I wasn’t sure what his heritage was exactly. I’d never seen his dad—as far as I knew, he had been gone for years by the time we started going to school together—so I wasn’t sure what kind of ancestry he had. Me, I’m Hispanic on my mom’s side but my dad’s white, so I’m pretty basic; there are lots of kids like me in our town. Not enough to keep me from getting flack about it sometimes, but enough that I’ve never felt like I was “in a minority” or whatever. Tobias on the other hand—well, I had a feeling that it wouldn’t matter what his ancestry was; he’d have been an outcast even if he’d been as white-bread as his mom.

After all, she was the one that was the real weirdo. Tobias just got to inherit the fall-out from her crazy.

That’s when it clicked: Tobias’s mom wasn’t asking about him being in a fight because she was used to him coming home looking like he’d had the crap kicked out of him. They’d probably had the conversation so many times that they didn’t bother repeating it anymore—or maybe she was just tired of hearing that her kid had gotten beat-up because of how people felt about her.

I winced. That had to be it. How much must it hurt to be a mom and to know that the reason your son was the school punching bag was because he was your kid? Talk about unpleasant.

“Did you ever think about just, like, not telling people about it?” I blurted out before I could stop myself.

Loren wandered out of the kitchen, a box of off-brand macaroni and cheese in her hand, and tilted her head at me. “Not telling people about what?” she asked.

Tobias was glaring at me. I struggled to think of something else to say. “Um—uh—you know, um—” I looked wildly around the room. “Artist’s Statements!” I cried. “Like, aren’t people always asking you, um, what your art ‘means’ and stuff like that? Our art teacher at school always makes us write these stupid Artist Statements to go along with everything we draw and like, it’s so totally bogus, right? Sometimes a dinosaur is just a dinosaur.” I gave a frantic little laugh. “Do you, like artists like you, do you ever think about just not doing those?” The grin on my face felt stretched and horrific, but Loren just smiled at me.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Actually those aren’t really mandatory, outside of school and a few of the stuffier galleries.” She laughed cheerfully. “I mean, people ask me what my paintings ‘mean’ sometimes, but nobody makes me write a paragraph about it.”

“Oh man,” I babbled, “I knew it was a total rip-off. Wait until I see Mrs. Dobbins on Monday. I am so going to give her a piece of my mind. Ha ha ha!”

“Ha ha ha,” Loren laughed back at me, and floated back into the kitchen. Tobias was still glaring at me. I wiped sweat off my brow, fumbled my ice pack, and had to lunge halfway off the couch to catch it.

I missed. “Oh, man,” I grumbled. When I picked it up again, the ice pack was coated—absolutely coated—in orange cat hair. I stared at it and sighed.

“Would you like to stay for dinner, Marco?”

“Um, what?” I asked, distracted. Loren repeated the question. “Oh, uh, no—no thanks,” I said quickly. “I have to get home soon. My dad will—my dad will be waiting for me,” I lied. In truth I rarely had to worry about what time I got home, because my dad didn’t pay enough attention to the clock to care, but I didn’t like telling people that. I didn’t like telling them that he only made it to work on time when I got him out the door, or that I was the one who did most of the grocery shopping—hence that carton of milk that I’d busted open all over Andy’s ugly face—or that if I didn’t remind him to eat, my dad mostly just sat in his chair and stared at nothing. The good days were when he sat in his chair and stared at The Simpsons on the TV because at least he was looking at something, but that was as good as it got.

My mom had died two years ago, see, and my dad...my dad had kind of fallen apart.

I don’t like thinking about that, though, and I definitely don’t like talking about it, so all I said was, “I need to pick up some milk on the way home, too.”

I glanced at Tobias to see if he was grinning at the memory of me milk-bombing Andy, but he was hiding behind his hair again.

Okay, I was seriously getting tired of that trick.

“Hey Tobias,” I said challengingly, “do you think if I told your mom I’d met some aliens, she’d buy me a ticket out of town? I’d really rather not have to take that math test on Monday…”

“Oh, you’ve met aliens?” Loren asked before Tobias could respond. “Were you with Tobias last week, or was this a different time?”

I jerked forward to glare at Tobias. I dropped the ice pack again, but this time I didn’t bother trying to catch it. It thumped dully on the thin carpet. “You told your mom about that?” I yelped. “You told her about—about Visser Three and Elfangor getting eaten and the blue box and everything?”

Tobias sighed. “No,” he said patiently, “I didn’t. I just told her I’d met some aliens, like the ones in her paintings. And I told her that Alice had met some other aliens who weren’t so nice, and she’d needed help getting away from them.” He pointed at me. “So no, Marco, I didn’t tell her about Elfangor…you did.”

“Oh,” I said. I winced.

“Elfangor…”

We both turned to look into the little kitchen, where Loren was standing in front of the stove. She had the open box of macaroni in her hand and the pot of water was boiling, but she was staring blankly at the wall in front of her. “Elfangor,” she said again, softly, like she was turning the word over in her mind, trying to sound-out the meaning. “Elfangor…”

“Mom?” Tobias asked. He sounded a little worried. “Mom, are you okay?”

Loren didn’t say anything, didn’t move. I was starting to feel a little bit freaked-out.

“Mrs. Whitman? Loren? Can you hear us?”

“Elfangor…” Loren frowned, suddenly, shook her head, and rolled her shoulders like she was stretching out a bad cramp. She looked up and saw us both staring at her. “Sorry, boys,” she said, with a little laugh. “I guess I must have drifted off for a minute there!” She poured the macaroni into the pot and stirred it a few times.

I kept staring at her. So did Tobias. After a while he sat back on his stool and said, “Okay, then…”

“Uhhh, right,” I said as well. “Look, I—I think I’m gonna go…”

Loren gave me a bright, cheerful smile. “If you’re sure you won’t stay for dinner?” she said.

“No,” I said quickly, “no, I—I should get home. Check on my dad…”

“Okay,” she said. “It was nice to meet you, Marco. To meet you again, I mean. Come over any time. We can talk about those aliens you met.”

“Sure,” I lied, “sounds fun. Thanks for the ice pack.” I set it on the counter, gave Tobias a stern look, and left as quickly as I could. For some reason, the way his mom had gone out-of-focus like that had given me the willies. I couldn’t explain exactly why; she was a crazy lady, even if she’d been right about aliens being real (that didn’t make her sane, because only a crazy lady would tell people they’d met aliens), and so I expected her to act a little bit nuts.

So why had her reaction to Elfangor’s name freaked me out so much?

Chapter Text

On Sunday we all met up and went flying again. Maybe it sounds kind of pathetic to you, that we didn’t have anything better to do than sneak off to an abandoned church tower by the beach and turn into birds for eighty minutes—but if you’d ever been flying, you would know better. Flying is such a…well, not to be cheesy, but it’s a real high. And not just because you’re dozens of feet up in the air. It’s just this total, complete rush, being held aloft by nothing but the wind and the power of your own wings.

Besides, we’d only had the morphing power for a little more than a week, at this point. We were all still a little drunk on the possibilities, I guess.

And not just the recreational ones. I sneaked a glance at Jake as we were demorphing. He was bright-eyed and flushed with excitement, just like the rest of us, but as soon as his feathers were gone he got serious again. I had a feeling that for Jake, flying wasn’t just fun, it was more like…practicing. Preparing.

Jake wanted to go back to the Yeerk pool—no, “wanted” isn’t he right word. He needed to go back to the Yeerk pool. That, or find some other way to get Tom out.

Tom’s his older brother, and he’s also a Controller. He’s who we’d gone down into the Yeerk pool to rescue in the first place, but we hadn’t managed to bring him out with us. Fortunately we hadn’t managed to get him killed either, or to expose ourselves to the Yeerks; Visser Three and his goons all think we’re Andalites who survived the destruction of our spaceship. I guess that’s a good thing, because if he knew we were just kids—if he knew which kids we were—well, then Jake would probably be the first to be grabbed, since there’s a Controller sleeping in the room right next to his. But the rest of us would follow suit soon enough, dragged back down into that hellish cavern, marched along that cold metal pier by implacable Hork-Bajir guards, our heads shoved under that viscous gray liquid and…

It gives me the shivers to think about it even now, in the middle of the afternoon with the sun out. The nights, when I was trying to sleep, were a whole different matter. I wondered sometimes if I’d ever stop having nightmares about that place, about the way the helpless hosts would scream and scream and scream and then go silent as the Yeerk crawled back into their head, taking over again. I’d sooner be dead than have a Yeerk in my head, controlling me.

Fortunately I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. I knew that I could count on Marco, at least, to have my back if the worst came down to it. I wasn’t sure about the others—they hadn’t said anything one way or the other when we’d made our little pact, down in the Yeerk pool—but I knew that Marco would kill me before I could be taken, and I’d promised him the same.

Marco was Jake’s best friend and he could be a real pain in the butt, but he was starting to grow on me.

I guess that’s why when he started talking about the show-bizz career he could have if only the pesky Yeerks weren’t around to spoil everything, I smiled at him and said sweetly, “Uh-huh, lots of women love animals. But sooner or later you’d have to change back into your actual self, Marco. And then, boom, they’d be out of there.”

Marco laughed along with the others; another nice thing about him is that as much as he loves making jokes, he doesn’t mind when those jokes are at his expense. Lots of people who think they’re funny can’t handle it when the tables are turned, which makes them pretty annoying in my opinion. Like, if you can’t take the heat don’t be the one who lights the match, you know? But Marco, well, he was annoying to be sure…but he could take the heat, and dish it right back out too.

It made him fun to talk to, when I wasn’t wishing I could strangle him.

I was also hoping I could tease him enough to get him to tell us the story of where he and Tobias had gotten the bruises they’d showed up sporting this morning. Of course they were gone now, because morphing heals whatever injuries you had before the morph—since it restores your form based on your original DNA, which doesn’t carry the wounds along with it—which was handy, to be sure…but I was still curious. I didn’t think they’d been fighting each other, but it was possible; like I said, Marco is annoying. Tobias isn’t really the fighting sort, though, and Marco is more the type to slay somebody with a witticism than a left-hook, so I was pretty sure they’d been fighting with somebody else. They both shrugged the questions off when we tried to ask about it, which irritated me.

I mean, I’m not Jake, I don’t go around telling bullies to mind their manners and expecting them to listen to me—but Tobias and Marco were my friends, dang it. Or at least something like friends, being that they were fellow Animorphs. Either way, I didn’t want some bunch of losers thinking they could go around beating on them with impunity…even if people had been beating on Tobias with impunity for as long as I’ve known him.

The boy just attracts bullies, like how a rose attracts bees. Only the bees don’t sting the crap out of the rose in the process of getting their pollen.

Maybe I was just jittery, spoiling for a rematch with Visser Three and the rest of the Yeerks. I’m sort of competitive and I don’t like losing, don’t like getting my butt kicked. And we had had ours kicked—hard. I mean, we did some good too; we saved at least one woman that I know of, and Cassie swears there were other people on the stairs ahead of her who also made it out. She doesn’t know how many, and we don’t know if they made it far or if they were dumb enough to go home and get snatched right back up again—but we did something, that night we went down into the pool.

Just not enough, in my opinion. So maybe I was looking for an excuse to take my temper out on some jerks, since I couldn’t really get to the Yeerks.

Oh, we knew how to get back into the pool: there was an entrance right in the janitor’s closet in our middle school. But until we could come up with a better plan than “run in, break some cages open, and try not to get killed on the way out,” we weren’t going back. Especially not now that the Yeerks would be on their guard for the “Andalite Bandits” who had raided their pool a few days ago. Yelling at some bullies would have made me feel a little less useless, I guess…

But then Jake came up with an idea for how I could be useful, and I didn’t like it one bit.

We were standing outside the construction site where we had met Elfangor, where we had been given the power to morph, where we had seen the Yeerks for the first time. We were all feeling a little sad and deflated, I guess, because we just kind of drew to a halt and stared at the place for a while.

Cassie started to cry, so I gave her a hug. I think Tobias was crying too, but he walked a little bit away from the rest of us and hung his head so his hair hid his face, so I pretended not to notice. Boys can be weird about crying, and while Tobias was probably the least ridiculous boy I’d ever met, he still got silly sometimes. I swear, whoever invented the term “macho” should be tried for war crimes against the entire male gender. It makes me glad I’ve got sisters. They can be even more annoying than Marco at times, but at least they aren’t brothers.

That made me think about Tom again, and I eyed Jake balefully over the top of Cassie’s head. He was staring blankly at the abandoned construction site, his face tight and his eyes shadowed.

“You okay?” I asked him quietly.

“No,” said Jake. “Of course I’m not okay.”

Cassie broke from my hug to walk over to Jake and put an arm around his waist. “Someday we’ll save Tom,” she said.

Jake kind of stroked Cassie's head. I guess he got embarrassed when he realized he’d done it, because he instantly pulled away. Cassie didn't mind. She knows how dumb boys are about feelings, too.

“We shouldn’t just stand here like this,” Marco said after a while. “The Yeerks are probably still looking for the kids who set off those ‘fireworks’ in there the other night. We don’t want them getting suspicious it might have been us—or any more suspicious than they already are, anyway.”

We started walking again.

I think all of us were leery about asking Jake if he’d noticed anything about his brother acting weird, or paying more attention than usual; we knew Tom would be on the look-out for any evidence that it had been us there that night, since he’d mentioned to his fellow Controllers that he suspected Jake of being one of the hapless kids spotted after Elfangor’s death. At least it hadn’t been Tom who suggested they go ahead and just kill us, to be sure—or at least, I didn’t think it had been Tom. Cassie had been the one to eavesdrop on the Yeerks, and she’d overheard something that she’d told Jake alone, something she hadn’t wanted to share with the rest of us…but surely Tom wouldn’t suggest killing his own brother, even if it was the Yeerk in his head talking, right?

I shook off my gloomy thoughts and searched for something else to say. “We need to find another way to get at them,” I growled. It bothered me, that I lived in a world where I had to wonder if one of my cousins was plotting to murder another. It bothered me that Tom wasn’t free.

“Get at who?” Marco asked skeptically.

I rolled my eyes. “The French, Marco,” I retorted sarcastically. “Who do you think? The Yeerks, duh.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Marco said. “We tried that, remember? We went down into the Yeerk pool after them and got our butts kicked. Yeerks ten, humans zero.”

“I don’t think the lady we rescued would put it that way,” Tobias said sharply. “More like Yeerks ten, humans one, at least.”

“That’s right,” I agreed, nodding. “We saved at least one person. Probably more. That’s not exactly a total defeat.”

“We still got our butts kicked,” Marco insisted. “And we didn’t do what we set out to do.”

“We did do some good, though,” said Cassie.

“And we gave the Yeerks a reason to be afraid, too,” I said.

"Yeah, they're terrified of us. Visser Three probably can't sleep at night, he's so worried about five kids," Marco said sarcastically. "Look, Visser Three doesn't think we're a threat. He thinks we're lunch."

"He doesn't know who—or what—we are," I pointed out. "The Yeerks are convinced that we're Andalite warriors because they know that we can morph. And they know that we found the Yeerk pool, and infiltrated it, and took out a few of their Taxxons and Hork-Bajir while we were at it. I think they're probably a little nervous, at least."

Jake nodded. "Rachel's right. But we need a better plan before we try again. We need more information.”

“So we follow Tom,” I suggested. “Spying on him worked out okay last time. We just trail him for a while, and see what we can see.”

“No,” Jake said, with surprising vehemence. “We leave Tom out of this.” He met my eyes, his brown gaze dark. “If we call attention to him in any way, the Yeerks may decide he’s too much trouble for them. They may decide to kill him.”

I looked away. That possibility was too real, and too ugly, to argue with.

Marco gave me a sour look. "This is what you want to keep doing? Risking our lives and the lives of everyone we know? For what?"

"For freedom," Cassie said simply.

“For Elfangor,” said Tobias, his voice soft.

Marco didn't have a smart answer to either of those statements, although he did shoot Tobias a dirty look.

"There's still Chapman," Jake said.

Chapman is our assistant principal. He's also one of the most important human-Controllers. He runs The Sharing, the club that helps recruit unsuspecting kids into being hosts for the Yeerks.

"If there were some way for us to get close to Chapman…" Jake let the words hang in the air. He carefully didn't look at me. But I knew what he meant. He'd obviously been thinking about this for a while. He just didn’t want to actually say it.

"Melissa?" I asked.

He nodded. "It's a possibility."

“Who’s Melissa?” Tobias asked.

I grimaced. “She’s a friend of mine,” I explained. “Maybe my best friend, after Cassie. We’ve known each other for…gosh, forever? She does gymnastics with me. We started because we thought it would be fun to do together, you know? Anyway, she…she’s also Chapman’s daughter. Melissa Chapman.”

“Oh,” said Tobias. He grimaced too. “I see,” he said.

What I didn’t tell him, what I didn’t tell any of the others, was that Melissa and I hadn’t been as close as we’d used to be, these last few months. She’d been acting distant, disinterested, like she didn’t care about anything anymore—or at least didn’t care about me. Every time I suggested we hang out, she brushed me off. So eventually I’d stopped asking, and now I could barely remember the last time we’d done anything together outside of school or practice. Even in gymnastics class, she barely spoke to me. But she was still my friend.

“I don’t know, Jake,” I said, turning to frown at my cousin. “I don’t like using a friend that way.”

"Oh, suddenly the mighty Rachel is weaseling," Marco crowed. "You don't like using your friends? You're pretty willing to risk my life."

I smiled at him sweetly. "Sure, Marco, but who said you were my friend?"

"Very funny," Marco said. But at the same time he looked a little hurt. I was almost touched; I hadn’t thought he’d have cared. And he was growing on me.

"Kidding, Marco," I said. "Just kidding. Of course you're my friend. But you're an Animorph. Melissa is just an innocent bystander."

"I wish I had never come up with that word," Marco grumbled. "Animorph,” he sneered. “Gimme a break."

"Rachel, Melissa's father is one of the main Controllers," Jake said gently, ignoring Marco. "She's in this whether she likes it or not."

I felt a bitter taste in my mouth. Jake was right, of course. Chapman was the logical lead to follow. And Melissa was our way to get close. It made sense. It made sense for me to betray one of my oldest friends.

It also made me feel like dirt.

I didn’t feel like going straight home, after that conversation. I had too much restless energy to burn-off, too many unhappy thoughts to stew over. If I went home I’d just snap at my sisters and sulk.

“Anyone up for some shopping?” I asked. I was looking at Cassie when I said it, but she squirmed under my gaze, looking everywhere but at me. It reminded me of how some of the wounded animals she and her parents rescue act sometimes.

“I don’t know, Rachel,” she said, “I have a lot of homework I haven’t done yet, and I still have to clean the cages…”

“You also still need a new jacket,” I reminded her. “To replace the one you destroyed by turning into a horse inside, remember?”

Cassie looked even more uncomfortable but she said, “It’s only September, I won’t need a new one for ages yet. Besides, I have other jackets…”

“I’ve seen your other jackets,” I pointed out. “They’re no better than the one you shredded. You ought to let me replace your whole closet, but I’ll settle for that one. To start with.”

“Not today, Rachel.” Cassie shook her head. “I have too much to do. Really. Homework and chores and stuff.”

“Don’t you have homework too?” Jake asked.

I rolled my eyes at him. “Who are you, my dad? And no, I finished most of my homework yesterday. I have, like, maybe three questions for math yet to do. That’ll take ten, twenty minutes tops.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. Maybe a little optimistic, but not a lie. And come on, who would rather do math than go to the mall?

Jake shook his head. “Well, I’ve got more than three questions waiting for me. Sorry, Rachel.”

“Don’t even,” Marco said quickly, holding up a hand.

“Like I was asking you,” I sneered back.

He grinned at me. “Good, then I don’t need to come up with an excuse to say no,” he said smugly.

I stuck my tongue out at him.

“I can come along,” Tobias said quietly. His cheeks flushed as I looked at him. “Um, if you want me to, I mean. I don’t have anything to do, but if you’d rather not, I mean, that’s totally cool…”

“Great!” I beamed at him. “A volunteer!”

“More like a victim,” someone muttered so quietly that I barely heard them. I chose to believe it was Marco speaking, rather than Cassie. At any rate, as Tobias and I turned to double-back to the mall it was definitely Marco who called, “Be careful what you tell blondie there, Rachel! He’ll spill it all to his mom the minute your back’s turned!”

“Marco!” Cassie said, her tone scolding. When I spun back around to glare I was surprised to see that she wasn’t actually shaking her finger at him. It would have matched her tone perfectly. “Be nice! What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about Transparent Tobias over there blabbing to his mom all about you-know-what.”

“You told your mom about—?” Jake began, aghast.

Tobias shook his head. “All I told her was what it had been like to meet an Andalite,” he said, and I saw the tension start to bleed out of Jake’s shoulders until Tobias added, “It was Marco who told her everything else.”

Jake spun around. “You did what?” he demanded.

Marco put his hands up, palms turned out defensively. “Only because he made it sound like he already had!” he said.

For a minute I thought Jake was going to take a swing at Marco.

“Is that what you guys fought about?” I blurted.

Now it was my turn to get stared at, Cassie looking anxious and Marco frowning with disgust.

“You think the wuss there gave me this shiner?” he asked, poking at his recently-black-eye. “Please,” Marco sneered. “He can’t even look at the world, let alone punch it.”

It was true that Tobias had drawn in on himself, head hung so that his hair had slipped forward in front of his face again, but Marco was way out of line. Tobias was shy, sure, but he was no coward. I mean, he hadn’t hesitated to go down into the Yeerk pool with us, had he?

“Watch it,” I growled at Marco. “Maybe Tobias is too nice to hit back, but—”

“Who did, then?” Cassie interrupted. She sounded worried. “Who did you guys fight with, if it wasn’t each other? It wasn’t…Controllers, right?”

“Don’t be stupid,” said Marco, earning himself another black mark on my list. “It was these two losers named Andy and Tap-Tap, all right? They were beating on Tobias and I decided to be an idiot and get involved. Don’t worry,” he added harshly, “I won’t be doing that again.”

He was glaring at Tobias, who was still hiding behind his hair. “I didn’t ask for his help,” he mumbled.

“Tap-Tap?” Jake snorted. “I’m sorry—this guy’s name is Tap-Tap?”

Marco’s frown started to crumble. “That’s what I said,” he muttered, his mouth curling reluctantly in a smirk.

Jake sighed. “Right,” he said, “let’s all just take a breath here, okay? Marco, I know you’re just grumpy because you’re mad that you screwed-up and spilled the beans to Tobias’s mom, but stop being a jerk to Tobias over it, okay? And Tobias—maybe you’d better tell us all exactly how much your mom knows.”

I sighed too. I was starting to get the feeling that I wasn’t going to get to the mall today after all.

Chapter Text

We kept walking while we talked because, as Marco had pointed out, it looked bad for us to linger outside the construction site where the Yeerks had recently spotted a bunch of kids spying on them.

Tom already suspected me of being one of those kids, and I didn’t want to give him—or the Yeerk in his head—any more reason to think he was right. I couldn’t forget what Cassie had told me she’d overheard that night on the beach, that it had been Tom’s Yeerk who had suggested that they kill the five of us—kill me—just to be safe.

I shuddered and did my best to shove the thought out of my head. Fortunately, Tobias made for an easy distraction.

“I mean, she knew I’d pulled that painting out to show you guys,” he was explaining nervously, “and after I brought home a lady who said she’d been kidnapped by aliens and I asked her to help, well…I had to tell my mom something.”

“You didn’t have to tell her the truth, though,” Marco pointed out. He sounded sullen. Probably because he was angry at himself for slipping-up.

“I’ve spent too many years thinking my mom was crazy, too many years telling my mom I thought she was crazy, for me to lie to her about it now that I know she isn’t,” Tobias said flatly. “You got a problem with that?”

I was surprised to hear such vehemence from meek, shy Tobias. I think we all were. Cassie and Marco gaped and Rachel grinned. I’m pretty sure I gaped, too. Tobias’s cheeks turned steadily pinker, but he didn’t duck his head or scuff his feet or mumble an apology.

“So there, Marco,” Rachel said sweetly.

Marco shrugged. I knew it was as close as he was going to get to admitting Tobias might not be wrong.

I wasn’t so sure he was right, myself, but I understood his point too. I couldn’t imagine what his childhood must have been like, gradually growing aware that the whole rest of the world thought his mom was nuts, gradually coming to the conclusion that they were right and she was wrong—and then bam, all of that changed in one horrific night.

I grimaced. “All right, so you told your mom you met an Andalite,” I said. “How much did you tell her about—you know, what happened that night?”

“Mainly just how it…you know…how being around Elfangor felt.” Tobias cleared his throat, sounding embarrassed. “And, you know, what he looked like. Um…we might have, you know, done some sketching together. But not of, like, anything identifying. Just general Andalite sketching.”

“That’s sweet,” said Rachel. I almost tripped over the curb, distracted by the lack of sarcasm in her voice.

Tobias blushed furiously. Fortunately he didn’t see Marco grimacing with disgust and mouthing the word, Sweet? at me behind his back. Rachel did, and she punched Marco in the shoulder. He rubbed the spot where she’d hit him and grinned ruefully as she tossed her hair and brushed past him to walk by Tobias instead.

“My mom, um, she doesn’t actually remember too many details about, um, about when she met…you know. Her aliens.” Tobias hunched his shoulders up, like he was bracing for an attack. “That’s why there were never any paintings of, like, a full-bodied Andalite. Just bits and pieces. So, um, so she wanted me to draw him out for her…”

All of a sudden Marco sobered. “Wait, she doesn’t even remember what the aliens she met look like?” he asked. “How does that work?”

Tobias shrugged. “My mom doesn’t have the greatest memory,” he said tonelessly. “Not since she met her aliens, anyway. Like, her childhood she remembers pretty well. It starts getting hazy for her around high school, I guess, and then there’s a few years there that are basically useless, and then her memory kicks back in, but…not all the way. She’s…forgetful.” His lips pressed together in a thin line and I got the feeling that Tobias had said all he was going to say on that subject.

I saw Marco open his mouth, his brows drawn in a curious frown, and I shook my head at him. Marco pressed his own lips together unhappily, but he continued to watch Tobias with a thoughtful look on his face.

Cassie stepped forward and took Tobias’s hand. “That must be tough,” she said softly.

Tobias jumped at the touch, then relaxed when he saw who it was. “It’s fine,” he said gruffly.

“Did you ask her about the Taxxon she painted?” Rachel said. I wasn’t sure if she was genuinely curious or if she was just trying to change the subject for Tobias’s sake. Personally I could have stood to never think about those gross, giant worms ever again, but I made myself listen to Tobias’s answer.

“No,” he said, and my shoulders sagged a little with relief. I looked around guiltily to see if any of the others had noticed, but they were all watching Tobias. “No,” he continued, “like I said, I didn’t mention too many details. I didn’t even tell her Elfangor’s name.”

Marco winced. “That was me,” he admitted. “Of course, I wouldn’t have said anything if I’d known that Tobias had only given her the Cliff Notes…”

“Yeah Marco, we get it,” Rachel snapped. “It wasn’t your fault, blah blah blah. Skip to the important parts.”

“You want important?” March retorted. “How’s this: Tobias’s mom got super weird, I mean weird even given her normal level of weird, when I said Elfangor’s name.”

I laughed; I couldn’t help myself. “Marco,” I said, “I see what you’re getting at, but get real. What do you think the odds are that of all the Andalites there are in the galaxy, Tobias’s mom met the same one that we did?”

“Impossibly small,” said Marco. His voice was grim.

I gave him a funny look. It sounded like he was getting at something, something important, but he just shook his head and fell silent. “Oh-kay,” I said slowly. “So…what else did you guys tell her?”

Tobias laughed harshly. “Oh, not much,” he said. “Aside from Elfangor, Visser Three, and the blue box, that is.”

We all stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stared, first at Tobias and then at Marco.

“You. Did. What?” I hissed.

“Oh, man,” said Rachel. She shook her head from side to side, like she couldn’t believe the level of stupidity she was hearing. Frankly, neither could I.

I could feel my temper boiling up again and fought hard to tamp it down.

“I told you,” Marco pleaded, “I thought she already knew! The way she was talking—”

“What were you thinking?” I exploded. “You know the Yeerks are already looking for us! You know they think the pool was attacked by Andalite Bandits, not by some kids in morph! Do you have any idea what they’d do if they found out we and they were one and the same? Do you have any idea how fast they would be all over us if they found out who were are—what we can do—?”

“Yes!” Marco shouted back. “Yes, I do know! That’s why I was so angry with Tobias when I thought he’d told his mom all about it!”

“Well that’s just great, Marco, because guess what? It turns out you’re the one who told her, not Tobias! Congratulations!”

“Guys!” Cassie shouted, and we both flinched. Cassie isn’t much of a shouter, usually. “Guys, shut-up!” Her eyes were huge in her dark face. “What if somebody hears you?”

Marco laughed harshly. “Somebody already has, Cassie. Did you miss that part? That’s why we’re shouting!”

“Shut-up,” Rachel repeated, her voice a growl. “Cassie’s right, you’re both being idiots. Anyone could hear you right now.”

I flinched, realizing how stupid I’d been.

We all looked around nervously, but the sidewalk we were on was empty. On one side of us, a street on which a car or two whizzed by every two minutes. If any of the drivers had heard us, they hadn’t been interested enough to slow down and listen. On the other side, a crappy athletic park and field. The nearest people were a pair of old dudes playing tennis on one of the rubber courts. If they’d heard us, they were doing a great job of pretending to be concentrating on their match. On the other side of the park a woman was walking two Pomeranians, but when I squinted at her I was pretty sure I saw a walkman clipped to her belt and a pair of headphones over her sweatband. Nobody else was close enough to worry about, even if they had hearing better than my dog, Homer.

I breathed a tiny sigh of relief, but my nerves were still humming.

What was I doing yelling at Marco, anyway? Where did I get off acting like I had some kind of authority here? Sure, I was the only one of us who had a Controller in my immediate family, but that didn’t mean I knew more about how to handle this insanity than any of the others—as I’d just so admirably proved by losing my cool out in the open.

“You’re right,” I said. I shot Cassie an apologetic look and she smiled back at me. “That was stupid. We need to be careful, not just about what we tell other people but about where we discuss things among ourselves.” I smiled ruefully and added, “And careful about how loud we get during those discussions. I promise I’ll behave now.”

“Good,” said Rachel, flipping her hair back over one shoulder. “I’d hate to have to deck you for your own good.” She grinned at me and I rolled my eyes at her.

“Anyway,” I said sternly, “getting back on track: Tobias, Marco, one of you tell us all exactly how much you told Tobias’s mom about Visser Three and the blue box. Quietly.”

Marco shrugged. He still looked grumpy, but now that I wasn’t shouting at him, he wasn’t shouting back at me. “I just mentioned them,” he said. “Like—I was yelling at Tobias for telling his mom about it, not giving a book report. I got out of there before she could ask any questions.”

I nodded. “Okay, that’s good,” I said. I hoped I sounded encouraging. “Very good.” I turned to Tobias. “And did your mom ask you about anything after Marco left?”

“A little, yeah,” Tobias said. He met my eyes briefly, then ducked his head and looked at his feet instead. “She was curious what he’d been talking about. I tried not to tell her too much, though. I told her I wasn’t really in the mood to talk about it.”

I tried to give him a heartening smile, but his hair was in my way. “Okay,” I said again, my voice as soothing as I could make it, “okay, that’s good. So what exactly did you tell her?”

“Just, um, just that Visser Three had been the name of someone else who’d been there that night, and that Elfangor had had a weird-looking blue box with him.”

I felt my heart stutter in my chest, like it was about to seize up. “And…” My mouth was dry. I licked my lips. “And what did you tell her about the blue box?” I asked anxiously. “Did you tell her about…you know, about what Elfangor did with it? Did you tell her what we can do?”

I held my breath. I think the others did too.

“No,” Tobias said. “No, I didn’t say anything about that.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Great,” I said, “that’s great, Tobias. Awesome. The fewer people who know about that, the better.”

* * *

After school the next day, I found myself right back in the uncomfortable situation of having to yell at one of my friends again. We were all in Rachel’s room, with the door locked so her little sisters couldn’t wander in. Given that I’d seen them parked in front of a re-run of Thundercats on our way upstairs, empty pizza boxes on the kitchen counter, I didn’t think they were likely to come bother us for anything.

We were all crowded into Rachel’s bedroom, Rachel and Cassie and Tobias piled on Rachel’s bed like it was a couch, Marco in the chair at Rachel’s desk, and me half-perched on the lip of her windowsill. Rachel’s room looked like something out of a catalog and being in it had always made me feel like a slob, even when I was a little kid staging battles with my G. I. Joes and her Barbies (and no, I don’t want to talk about how often her Barbies won). I was expecting Rachel to tell us how her talk with Melissa had gone, and she did—but then she told us about her walk home and about the guy she’d scared-off by turning into a partial elephant.

This time Marco started yelling before I had to. I tried not to feel relieved. Why did I think it was my responsibility to keep the others in line? We were all in this together, and I was no one’s dad. It wasn’t my job to yell at my friends…especially not when Marco was doing such a good job.

“Oh, that was dumb!” he exploded. “Dumb! DUMB! What if that guy is a Controller?”

“He wasn’t a Controller,” Rachel replied scornfully. “Why would the Yeerks want to make a Controller out of a punk? They want people in positions of power.”

I glared at her. “We don’t know that for sure,” I said. I could feel my blood boiling and tried hard to keep a rein on my temper. Still, I couldn’t keep myself from hoarsely reminding her, “Tom isn’t in a position of power.” How could Rachel not get this? I thought that of all the others, she would be the most likely to understand; after all, Tom was her family, too, even if they weren’t exactly close.

Instead, it was Marco who saw it all, saw all the dominos poised around us. “And how about people driving by in their cars, or looking out the windows of their homes?” he asked harshly. “And what if he runs and tells someone about this girl who suddenly sprouted a trunk and tusks?”

“No one is going to believe a lowlife like that,” Rachel snapped.

“His friends wouldn’t believe him,” Marco said in a low, dangerous voice, “but a Controller would believe him. A Controller would know what it meant.”

That sunk in. I saw the annoyance in Rachel’s eyes fade to regret, to dismay. She looked down at the ground, her face pale. “Okay,” she muttered reluctantly, “I screwed up.”

“You sure did!” Marco crowed. “You screwed up so—”

“Marco, let it drop,” I said. I was tired of yelling, tired of hearing it and tired of doing it. “Rachel knows she made a mistake. We all make mistakes.”

Marco rolled his eyes.

Tobias leaned forward so he could look Rachel in the face, around the curtain of hair hanging down her shoulders. “Are you okay?” he asked quietly. “That must have been really scary.”

For a moment, something almost like uncertainty crossed Rachel’s face, like maybe she hadn’t thought about being scared until Tobias brought up the possibility. Then she scowled and flopped back on her bed, crossing her arms tightly in front of her. “Of course I’m okay,” she said sharply. “I’m not the one who ran away screaming.”

Guilt pinched me suddenly. I had been so concerned with the possibility that Rachel had given away our secret that I hadn’t even thought about why she had been in that position; hadn’t thought about what might have happened if she didn’t have the power to turn into a horrifying half-elephant creature and scare that scumbag off…

Tobias didn’t look like he was offended by Rachel’s harsh tone. He just nodded dolefully, and I remembered suddenly that he lived in a very different part of town than the dull, boring, smotheringly safe suburbs where my house and Rachel’s house were located.

I stole a glance at Marco before I could stop myself, wondering what kind of an adjustment it had been for him when he and his dad had had to move. Did he have to be careful about walking home alone at night now? The biggest thing I had to worry about in my neighborhood was tripping over somebody’s forgotten soccer ball, or upsetting some grumpy old man’s dog, but I guess there were things other than Yeerks to be afraid of, out there in the world. It was a strange thought.

I mean, sure, everybody’s heard stories about some kid going missing, or seen the messed-up headlines on supermarket tabloids—but you don’t really think about it, do you? At least I hadn’t, before. And maybe that dude had just wanted to cruise around town with a pretty girl in his car, show Rachel off like she was some kind of living trophy…or maybe my pretty, stubborn cousin had just narrowly escaped being the next photo on the cover of the National Enquirer or Star.

I guess Cassie must have noticed my sudden discomfort, because she gave me a warm smile before turning to Rachel and patting her knee. “It was dumb putting yourself in that position, Rachel,” she said kindly. “You need to be more careful. But still,” she added with a grin, “I’d have paid my next ten allowances to see the look on that guy’s face.”

I took a deep breath and did my best to shake it off. “The important thing,” I said gruffly, “is that it doesn’t sound like Rachel can use Melissa to get close to Chapman. Not if she's a Controller herself. And not if she's going to continue being weird to Rachel."

“I guess we’ll have to find another way,” Rachel said. I guess she must have felt as uncomfortable as I did, because she was talking fast, like she wanted to change the subject. “I mean, we know where Chapman’s office is. We know where his house is. Maybe we could just morph into some small animals and hide out.”

"Small animals like what?" Marco asked. "When Jake turned into a lizard he got stepped on.” I sent Marco a glare that said, Thanks for the reminder, but he was looking at Rachel, not me, and didn’t notice. “He lost his tail. Besides, what are you going to morph into? A cockroach?"

We all shuddered at the thought. The smallest, strangest thing anyone had morphed so far had been when I’d done the lizard, and I still had nightmares about eating spiders. A roach would be even worse.

"The problem with being a cockroach," Rachel said, somehow without shuddering, "aside from the fact that it is too gross to believe, is that roach senses might not even be useful to us. Can a roach ‘hear’ in a way that would make it possible for us to understand what we're hearing?"

We all looked at Cassie. She's sort of our expert on animals.

Cassie held up her hands. "Oh, come on. Like I know how a cockroach sees and hears? We don't take care of roaches at the rehab clinic."

We all sat there feeling glum for a few minutes. Marco looked like he wanted to make a dumb joke about cockroach hospitals, but was too bummed to come up with anything. Tobias was still watching Rachel, like he was worried about her or something. And Rachel—Rachel looked kind of weird, like she was feeling guilty about something. I wondered if I should say something to reassure her that we weren’t still angry about her mistake with the elephant and the scumbag, but before I could, she stood and walked over to her desk.

She leaned right past Marco, who looked a little nervous at being approached without warning like that, while Cassie stared after her with concern. Tobias’s expression was impossible to read because when Rachel had stood up, he had ducked his head quickly like he was afraid she was going to catch him staring, and now his hair was hanging in front of his eyes.

Rachel didn’t look at any of them though, or at me. She was staring at this big, six-picture frame that was hanging over her desk like she had never seen it before. She pulled the whole frame off the wall and stared at it, hard.

When she didn’t say anything I asked, “What? What is it?”

“It’s me and Melissa,” Rachel replied. Her voice seemed to come from a long way away. “It was like her twelfth birthday, or some birthday, anyway, and we were out on her lawn playing with the present her dad gave her.”

“So what?” Marco demanded.

“So…” Rachel slipped one of the pictures from its frame and passed it to Marco. His eyes got big. “So her present was a cat,” Rachel finished.

Marco silently handed me the picture. We passed it all around, all of us staring at a photograph of two blonde girls cuddling a black-and-white kitten with way more intensity than such a banal, ordinary image deserved. I expected Marco to make some smart-aleck comment but all he said was, “Oh man.”

I looked at him. He was shaking his head and he was wearing a frown, not a smirk. “Oh man,” he said again.

I couldn’t think of anything to add to that.

“So,” I forced myself to say, after a few minutes when no one else spoke, “I guess we have our way inside.”

Chapter Text

There wasn’t much else to say, other than to choose a time for us to meet-up and go to the Chapman house. Jake and Marco took off right away, Jake looking awkward and Marco looking unhappy. Cassie gave Rachel a hug and whispered, “You sure you’re okay?” in her ear before she left.

I looked away quickly and pretended I hadn’t heard.

“Oh my god, I’m totally fine,” Rachel snapped, but she hugged Cassie back despite her harsh tone. “You don’t need to baby me.”

Cassie laughed. “Okay, well just be careful.”

“Okay, mom,” Rachel retorted, and Cassie laughed again and left.

That left me standing there dumbly in the middle of Rachel’s bedroom, feeling totally awkward. It hadn’t really sunk in that I was in a girl’s bedroom until the others left, I don’t think; it had just been a room with a bed. Now I couldn’t help peering around furtively, feeling out-of-place and almost claustrophobic—but it wasn’t the room that felt too tight; it was my skin, my body, screaming at me about how wrong I was in this environment.

I took a deep breath and tried to shake the feeling off. I didn’t succeed, but I managed to push it to the back of my mind and ignore it, or at least to tell myself I was ignoring it. “Hey, Rachel…” I said. My voice came out low and gruff, and I cleared my throat.

“What’s up?” she asked, flopping down to sit on her bed again. If she felt awkward about having a boy in her bedroom, it didn’t show. Then again, she had male cousins; probably I wasn’t the first boy who’d been in this room. I didn’t think Rachel was the sort of girl who had a lot of male friends, though, so I might have been the first who wasn’t related to her…but if Rachel wasn’t going to be awkward about it, then neither was I, I vowed to myself. It’s just a bedroom, Tobias, I scolded myself. Everybody has one. Why are you being so weird?

I shook my head and forced myself to meet Rachel’s eyes. “Look, I just…I was just wondering if anything, you know…if anything else happened today?”

I was glad I hadn’t hidden behind my hair again; if I had been looking down at the floor, I wouldn’t have seen Rachel’s eyes suddenly go wide or her tan cheeks whiten.

“What are you talking about?” she snapped.

“I don’t know,” I said. I retreated to the desk chair, thinking that I would seem less confrontational if I was sitting down too, but not daring to join her on the bed without Cassie there too. “I just thought, you know…it seemed like maybe there was something else. Something you maybe didn’t want to talk about with everyone?” I shrugged. “You don’t have to talk about it with me either, if you don’t want to, but…”

For a long moment Rachel just glared at me, then her frown snapped and she sagged back onto her elbows. “Okay, fine,” she spat. “But you have to promise not to tell the others, okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

“It was Chapman.”

I blinked. “What?” I said.

“It was Chapman,” Rachel repeated. “After the creep ran off, I mean—Chapman gave me a ride home.”

I gaped at her, I couldn’t stop myself.

Rachel grimaced. “Melissa was in the car, you know? He must have just picked her up from gymnastics, and they passed me on their way home. He offered me a ride, I tried to beg off, he insisted.” She shrugged. “What could I do? It would have been totally suspicious if I’d refused. I mean, Melissa and I are friends, it’s not like it’s the first time he’s given me a ride home from gymnastics…”

A frown flickered across her face and she added softly, almost like she was speaking to herself rather than to me, “Although it’s been ages since he did. He used to pick Melissa up almost all the time, but lately it’d been her mom coming to get her instead.” Rachel’s eyes refocused on mine suddenly and her mouth twitched sideways into a crooked half-grin. “I guess Chapman’s been too busy with Yeerk stuff to keep his usual schedule,” she observed wryly. “Not that anyone would notice, as long as somebody shows up to get Melissa after class ends…”

I nodded thoughtfully, trying to hide how freaked-out I was by what she’d told me. I guess I must have done a pretty bad job of it, or else Rachel was just feeling guilty, because she said, “Look, it wasn’t a big deal, okay?” in a sharp voice. “That’s why I didn’t say anything to the others, because I knew Jake and Cassie would freak for no reason.”

“Marco too, probably,” I added with a smirk, then blushed when Rachel laughed instead of telling me to shut-up.

“Probably,” she agreed. She sobered quickly. “But look, Tobias—it really wasn’t a big deal. Chapman didn’t notice anything, I’m sure he didn’t.”

“You mean about…you know…the morphing?”

Now it was Rachel who wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean about the morphing. They were so far away they couldn’t have seen anything. They just saw the jerk go running off, then I guess Melissa recognized me so they stopped and gave me a ride. Nothing sinister about that.”

“No,” I agreed, although inside my stomach was doing flip-flops at the thought of what might have happened if Chapman had been driving just a little bit faster. “No, you’re right, that’s totally normal.”

“See?” Rachel gave me a bright, dazzling smile. “No sense getting the others worked-up over nothing.”

* * *

The next night found the five of us crouching behind a hedge that bordered the Chapmans’ lawn. They lived in a pretty normal-looking suburban home. It was a nice place, the kind of place you saw in sitcoms and storybooks. The kind of place I used to dream about living in with my mom, someday. You know: two stories, a garage, a neatly-mowed lawn. Nothing to make you think that the person who lived there was part of a huge alien conspiracy to take over the world.

I was a little jealous. How sick is that? These people were slaves to alien slugs, and I was jealous of how nice their house was. I tried to push my stupid, petty envy aside.

Fortunately, the others were there to distract me.

"Let me just ask you this," Marco whispered. "Why did it have to be Chapman? I was afraid of Chapman even before we found out he was a Controller."

"You're not still upset over that detention he gave you?" Rachel scoffed. Somehow she managed to look less out-of-place than the rest of us, like she was only hiding in the foliage for a magazine photoshoot or something. She smirked at Marco. "Look, if you're going to listen to your CD player in math class with an earphone hidden under your hair, you have to remember not to start singing along."

"Yeah, that was only slightly stupid, Marco," Jake agreed, and even I had to smile.

Marco glowered. "I still say Chapman never would have given me a whole week's detention if he was totally human."

"I have a question," Cassie said, interrupting their banter. "How do we get Melissa's cat to come outside?"

We all looked at her.

Rachel grimaced. “Good question,” she said.

"I mean, we could hide here in the bushes for a long time. But sooner or later the neighbors are going to notice."

“At least it’s an indoor/outdoor cat,” I pointed out. “It could be worse. Lots of people don’t let their cats roam outside, but you don’t have a cat door like that unless you mean for the cat to use it, right?”

“I didn’t think of that,” Rachel admitted.

Cassie was frowning. “Actually it’s not really a good idea for people in neighborhoods like this to let their cats run around outside,” she said earnestly. “Not only could the cat get hit by a car, or hurt by some other animal, or even by another cat, but it could get exposed to some really nasty sicknesses. Even worse than that, domestic felines do a huge number on the suburban environment, from the damage of their unnecessary predation on local prey populations to the toxic effect of their feces—”

“Cat poop?” Marco interrupted. “Are we really going to sit here outside Chapman’s house and talk about cat poop?”

We all laughed a little, nervously.

“Besides, Cassie, your lecture’s wasted on the audience.” Marco jerked a thumb over his shoulder in my general direction. “Tobias here is the only one of us with a cat, and I’m pretty sure that orange tub of lard has never been outside a day in his life.”

I had to grin. “Actually, Aragorn was a stray when we found him,” I said, “but he stays inside now.” I waved my hand at the neat houses with their neat little lawns and their neat, empty streets. “This environment may not be great for cats, but my neighborhood would be a dozen times worse.”

Cassie nodded sympathetically. “Well, it’s good that you keep Aragorn inside,” she said. “But Rachel, you should really talk to Melissa about her cat—”

“Is that really what we should be focused on right now?” Jake interrupted gently.

Cassie winced. “I guess not,” she admitted. “Sorry.”

"You know what we need?" Rachel said suddenly. "We need another kitty. We should have thought of that. Then we could have the second cat call out to Fluffer."

Marco turned to stare at her. "Meowfluffer, comeoutmeow, meow come and play meow?"

“What about Cassie?” Jake said. “She could morph Tobias’s cat again…”

Cassie smiled at Jake but she was shaking her head. “It doesn’t work like that,” she said. “Cats don’t work like that, I mean. Cats aren’t pack animals. A wolf we could probably lure out with another wolf’s howl, but cats? No way. Cats won’t even come if you call their name, most of the time.”

“Hey what is this fluff-butt’s name, anyway?” Marco asked. “Is it seriously Fluffer, or were you just making that up?”

 “I’m pretty sure it’s actually Fluffer,” Rachel said. “Yeah, Fluffer McKitty.”

“You’re got to be kidding,” Marco said. His face was curled up in dismay. I smothered a laugh in my hand.

Jake sighed. “Well what are we supposed to do?” he asked. “We really can’t just sit here all night.” I could hear the frustration in his voice.

“Let’s look around,” I suggested. “Maybe the cat’s already outside.”

“You want to go traipsing around in the dark trying to spot a cat out on its nightly ramble?” Marco asked. “In a neighborhood that not only has probably a half-dozen cats wandering around, but twice that number of nosy old ladies who would love nothing more than the excitement of getting to call the cops on a bunch of juvenile delinquents?”

I ducked my head shyly, but I was grinning. “No,” I said. “I was thinking of looking around with some better eyes than what we’ve got now.”

It took the others a minute to get it. By then a feather pattern was already starting to spread across my skin.

Rachel’s eyes lit up. “Oh man,” she said, “good idea!”

She bent over and started to unlace her sneakers, but Jake said, “Hang on. Let’s not go overboard. We’ll give Tobias a few minutes to look, then if he doesn’t find anything, you can join him. But there’s no sense both of you looking.”

“We could split up and cover more ground,” Rachel pointed out.

Jake shook his head. “And what happens when one of you spots the cat? The other one would be off flying in the wrong direction for twenty minutes while the rest of us stand here waiting for you to get back, in which time the cat could run off again and we’d have to start all over.”

“Spoilsport,” Rachel pouted, but she shoved her feet back into her shoes.

I was hurrying to pull my shirt off over my head before I got trapped in it, or before my hands turned into wings and I lost the ability to use my fingers. Being a bird is unbelievably awesome, but opposable thumbs are nothing to sneeze at either.

Jake helped peel my clothes away as my bones hollowed out and I shrunk toward the dark grass. My skin itched like a thousand mosquito bites as my feathers sprouted, and suddenly I was wobbling forward as my feet curled into talons inside my shabby sneakers. Jake caught me by the shoulder before I could fall flat on my face, but I was still shrinking, and he had to let go quickly. Fortunately by then my wings had formed and I could spread them wide to give myself some balance.

Morphing is always weird and always different. This time, I kept most of my human face—plus feathers—nearly until the end of the process, leaving me a disturbing creature with the body and head of a bird but with an eerily human nose, lips, and eyes peering out. I looked like one of the sketches of an ancient Greek Harpy from this old mythology book my mom had gotten me several birthdays ago back when I’d been going through a phase on gods and goddesses. I would have laughed at that, and at the looks of horrified dismay on the others’ faces, but just then my lips hardened and shot forward into a sharp beak, merging with my nose and solidifying with a wicked hook on the end for tearing in my prey.

My eyes changed last, sharpening to the intense glare of a bird of prey, and I pushed off the ground. It was hard work, beating my wings to gain altitude from that dead air, but once I got up above Rachel and Jake’s heads, where the soft night breezes were, it became easier.

<Okay,> I said, trying to sound confident, <back in a jiff!>

Flying was harder at night than it was during the day, I discovered. Not that it was all that late yet; maybe eight o’clock? Late enough that everyone was home after a long day of work and school, but not so late that the Chapmans would be asleep yet. If we were going to spy on them, it wouldn’t do us much good to go in when they were curled up in bed, would it?

But it was late enough that most of the light was gone, and the air was cooling down. The warm thermals that were so great at lifting anything with wings during daylight hours were gone or going, and my eyes, I discovered, were not nearly as great at in the dark as they were during the day. In daylight, I could see well enough to read a book from a mile up in the air. At night…well, my eyes were still sharp, I just didn’t have great night vision to go along with that sharpness.

I guess this explains why the hawk is not considered a nocturnal hunter, I thought to myself.

I flapped for more altitude then let myself descend in a slow, soaring spiral over the neighborhood. It looked just as nice, just as neat, from above and I fought a fresh wave of envy. It was easier to ignore this time than it had been before, when I’d been on the ground; it was hard to sad about anything when I was up in the air, hard to be jealous of anybody when I had wings instead of the clumsy, awkward human body that felt increasingly like a prison and—

Was that a cat?

I flapped across the street, then spiraled back around. It was a cat, but it wasn’t Fluffer McKitty—or if it was, then someone had given him one heck of a dye job, because this gray-striped tabby looked nothing like the kitten in the photograph that Rachel had shown us.

I spotted another half-dozen cats and three dogs happily romping in their fenced-in yards before I finally saw the black and white patches of Melissa Chapman’s cat. I looked around, getting a fix on the location—things looked different from the air than they did the ground, and it was difficult sometimes to translate directions from one viewpoint to the other—then flapped my way back to the others.

<Got him,> I announced. I settled on a branch over their heads, not wanting to put myself through the struggle of lifting-off from ground level again if I didn’t have to.

“You’re kidding,” Rachel said. I couldn’t tell if she was impressed that I’d done it so fast, or disappointed that she now had no excuse to use her eagle morph and join the search. “You found Fluffer?”

<Hey, it’s easy,> I said, unable to resist the urge to brag a little. I so rarely got a chance to show-off at anything that mattered to anyone. <Spotting prey is what I do. Or what a hawk does, anyway. Actually, there are maybe six or eight cats running around the neighborhood. Also, three dogs and an amazing amount of rats and mice.>

"Rats?" That got Marco's attention. "Rats? Here? This is suburbia. I mean, it's a lot better than where I live. They have rats?"

<There are rats everywhere,> I said sharply. I knew the apartment complex where Marco lived, and he wasn’t lying about this being a better neighborhood than his. But his neighborhood was still a step-up from mine, and I didn’t like being reminded of that—not tonight, when I was surrounded by all these perfect little homes with their perfect little families inside. <Come on, I’ll take you to Fluffer.>

I flew off again, a much easier prospect when I could hop out of the tree and let my wings catch air on the way down for a nice smooth glide. I kept low so the others could see me. Marco was carrying the cat carrier we had brought along—borrowed from Aragorn, who liked to nap in it when we weren’t shoving him inside to drag him to the vet—and Jake had my clothes and shoes under one arm.

I realized quickly that even flying at my slowest, I was still too fast for them to keep up with using their clumsy, earth-bound human legs. I flew in lazy circles instead, perching on occasional fences or tree limbs to give them a chance to catch up.

“This doesn’t look too strange,” I heard Cassie joke. “The four of us running down the street looking up in the sky.” Her voice was distant, but hawk’s have good hearing; the hard part for me wasn’t staying near enough to overhear, it was tuning out all the other noises that the hawk part of me cared about more than some human talking. I had thought it was quiet before, in my human body; now I realized that I just hadn’t been listening right. The night was alive—and I could hear all of it. From the rustle of leaves against the faint breeze to the swish of grass as some other predator or prey ran through it, to the noises of those creatures themselves, I could hear it all! It was glorious…and also distracting.

I barely remembered to direct the others to turn at the right street.

<There,> I said quickly. <See that yard with the two trees?>

“Yeah,” Jake said. “Just to our left?”

<That’s the one,> I told him. <The cat you’re looking for is stalking a mouse, right behind the trunk of the nearest tree.>

Rachel grinned up at me, then said, “Okay, we can’t all go traipsing over some stranger’s yard. I’ll go with Cassie.”

“Do you need this?” Marco asked, holding up Aragorn’s cat carrier.

“Not yet,” Rachel shook her head. “I’ll grab Fluffer and bring him back over here. You two—three—guys just wait here, looking casual.”

“Oh right,” Marco said under his breath as Rachel and Cassie walked away around a thick green hedge, “just us with our cat carrier, spare clothes, and pet hawk. Yeah, we look totally casual.”

Jake laughed.

I settled down on a tree branch over their heads. <Careful,> I teased. <Your “pet hawk” may decide he needs to let nature call, and guess who’s stuck underneath?>

Marco looked up at me and winced. “You wouldn’t,” he said.

<Try me,> I teased. It was so much easier to talk to people in my hawk body! I didn’t have to worry about what to do with my hands, or whether I was shuffling my feet too much, or smiling the wrong way. I didn’t have to worry about forcing myself to meet anyone’s eyes; as a red-tailed hawk, I had the fiercest gaze in the group. Other people had trouble meeting my eyes, rather than the other way around! If I’d had lips, I would have grinned.

Then I jerked my head sideways, the unmistakable noise of an angry cat issuing a threat catching my sharp ears. From my high perch I could see over the hedge with ease, and what I saw didn’t look good. <Uh-oh,> I said in quiet thought-speak to Jake and Marco, <it seems like Fluffer doesn’t like this plan.>

They looked up at me, then Jake edged forward a little and cupped his free hand to his mouth. “How are you guys doing?” he asked in a sort of stage-whisper that would carry to Rachel and Cassie, but not much farther.

“Wonderful.” Rachel’s retort sounded strained. “I’m bleeding and Fluffer is up the tree.”

Marco started to giggle, then Jake joined in. I laughed too, but only inside my own head.

“This was supposed to be the easy part,” Rachel complained in a low voice. “I figured, okay, we go and acquire Fluffer's DNA, and then the hard stuff begins.”

“We have a cat up a tree,” Cassie said dolefully. “You know how hard it is to get a cat down out of a tree?”

“I have a plan,” Rachel announced. “Tobias, are you up there?”

<Right above you,> I said balefully from my perch. <But I'm not going to try and snatch an angry tomcat down out of a tree.>

“That's not what I was going to ask,” Rachel reassured me. She took a deep breath then said, “What I need is a mouse.”

<Oh man,> I said.

“Mouse barbecue,” Marco whispered, and started giggling hysterically. I heard Jake give him a shove, but he didn’t stop laughing. It didn’t matter; I was hardly listening. My little hawk heart was pounding. In spite of myself, I was excited by the prospect. After all, what was a red-tailed hawk made for, if not hunting?

<Okay,> I told the others. <Okay, no problem. I can do this.>

Rachel just nodded, her gaze fixed on Fluffer, but Jake and Cassie were both looking up at me with expressions of matching uncertainty. Marco was too busy laughing at his own joke to pay attention as I flapped my wings and soared out of the tree.

No big deal, I repeated to myself. It’s just a mouse. How hard can it be for a hawk to find a mouse? Just trust the instincts and let the bird do the flying. No big deal.

Now if I could just stop the hawk from doing what it did best before it actually killed the mouse I was hunting, we would be golden.

Yeah. No big deal.

Chapter Text

I stood in the dark in the middle of my vice principal’s neighborhood, feeling useless and awkward as I waited for a boy I barely knew to bring my best friend a mouse.

I felt like a complete freak, even though I was still wearing all my clothes as well as my usual body. I felt like I should have been the one up there, looking for a mouse, even though it would have been silly for me to take the time to morph when Tobias was already in his hawk’s body. Still, I was the one who “knew animals,” wasn’t I? If anyone was going to get us a mouse, it should have been me.

Heck, it should have been me who’d already found a mouse and acquired one ahead of time. Or at least come up with some other fool-proof way of luring Melissa’s cat out to us. But cats weren’t among the animals that we dealt with at the clinic, at least not domestic cats. We saw a fair amount of bobcats, but I wasn’t sure how fine the line was between bobcats and housecats.

I wasn’t sure what I’d have done to lure a bobcat either, to be honest, but at least I didn’t have to admit that to my friends. They thought I was some kind of animal expert and I guess compared to them I was, but all I really knew was what I’d picked up from my parents. I hadn’t studied veterinary medicine yet, or even had any advanced biology classes. I was just a kid.

We were all just kids. What were we doing here?

<Got something for you,> a voice said suddenly inside my head, making me jump. <A baby mouse. A mean baby mouse. It keeps trying to bite me.> Tobias flew in a low, tight circle overhead, disappearing behind the tree branches, then reappearing. <Are you ready?>

I was standing close enough to Rachel to see her take a deep breath, bracing herself. Then she gave Tobias a cocky smile and a big wave, as if to say, Sure, why wouldn’t I be ready?

I winced and watched anxiously as he flew in low and slow, gliding instead of flapping, the mouse held tight in one talon. Rachel cupped her hands together and held them out and then, with terrifying precision and timing, Tobias deposited the mouse right in her hands.

“Don’t let it bite you,” I said quickly, mentally kicking myself for not thinking of that earlier. “Rabies.”

“Wonderful,” Rachel muttered darkly. “Just one more fun aspect of this night.” She closed her hands around the mouse anyway, as though she wasn’t worried, but I knew better. I could see the way her shoulders stiffened and her eyes went hard.

“You should all get rabies shots,” I said. I was trying to strike a balance between impressing them with the importance of what I was saying, and not actually scaring them. I was also trying to make-up for the oversight of not taking care of this in advance, too. “Seriously. I already have mine. But if we're going to be handling wild animals . . . In the meantime, be careful to keep his teeth away from you.”

"I wasn't planning on feeding him my finger," Rachel retorted, but I wasn’t really listening. I had noticed something about that mouse—or I thought I had, anyway, but I had to check to be sure.

“Hey, wait,” I told Rachel, and pulled her cupped hands open enough that I could peer in at what she was holding, without giving it enough room to escape.  "That's not a mouse,” I told the others. “That's a shrew. See the eyes? They're too small. And the tail is wrong. That's not a baby mouse, Tobias, it's a full-grown shrew."

<Sorry,> Tobias said, sounding guilty. <Is that bad?>

“I don’t know,” I said honestly, shrugging. Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered saying anything; would a cat care about such a distinction between rodents? I didn’t know that, either, and so much not knowing when my friends were counting on my “expertise” made me antsy, desperate to show-off whatever I did know…whether it was relevant or not. “I just know it isn’t a mouse.”

"Wait a minute," Marco said, beginning to grin. "Rachel is going to become a shrew? How will we know when she's changed? How do you become what you already are?"

I glared at Marco, not thinking that was a very nice joke to make, although Rachel didn’t seem bothered. But then, she’s always been better than me at telling when somebody is being mean in order to be mean rather than just kidding around (well, at least until she loses her temper). I usually think mean jokes just sound cruel, so I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt that they don’t, well, mean it that way—sometimes more than I should, according to Rachel. But isn’t it better to assume people are being too nice than too nasty?

"Okay, I have to concentrate on acquiring, so everyone shut up," Rachel snapped.

Acquiring is what we call it when we absorb a sample of the animal's DNA. The DNA is the stuff inside the cells that sort of serves like a how-to manual for making the animal. The information gathered by the morphing technology is a little more complicated than that—it has to be—but I’m not an expert in alien technology either, so I’m not sure how it works. I just know enough—just enough—about what DNA actually is to know that there’s got to be something else going on…but I don’t know what.

I guess the more important thing is knowing how to use the morphing technology; it’s not like we’re trying to reverse-engineer it. When you acquire, you have to think hard about the animal, focusing on it and blocking everything else out. Then the animal kind of goes limp, like it's in a trance. It takes just about a minute.

We all watched Rachel as she stood there with her eyes closed on somebody else’s lawn. I guess it probably looked pretty weird, but what else could we do?

Rachel opened her eyes when she was done. "Okay, little shrew,” she said, “thanks for your help. You can go now." She bent down and released her captive. The shrew raced out of there like it had rockets on its tiny little legs.

"I'm not sure this is a good idea," Jake said doubtfully.

"Really?" Marco was sarcastic. "You're not sure it's a good idea for Rachel to turn into a shrew in order to lure a vicious cat down from a tree so she can morph into that cat and sneak into the assistant principal's house? What worries you about that plan?"

I was worried too. “You know, Rachel,” I said nervously, “usually a cat will play with a mouse a little bit. But sometimes they don't. Sometimes they go right for the neck bite. The mouse—or the shrew—dies instantly.”

<Not all cats. I mean, Aragorn’s a terrible hunter,> Tobias chimed in, probably hoping to make Rachel feel better. <I don’t think he’s ever managed to kill a mouse. Of course,> his cheerful tone wavered in our heads, <Fluffer McKitty is an outdoor cat, so he’s probably a little more experienced in actually hunting prey…>

I guess Tobias realized that his attempt at reassurance wasn’t all that reassuring, because he stopped quickly. Rachel looked up and gave him a little wink, saying “thank you” anyway. I might have thought that was sweet, but I was too sick with nerves about what Rachel was about to do to pay attention to anything else. I barely even noticed Jake and Marco walking around the hedge to join us.

Rachel started morphing and I wanted to look away, because watching someone turn into a shrew was not a pretty sight, but I made myself watch. I don’t know what good I thought it would do, but for some reason I felt like I had to. Like I owed it to Rachel. I wasn’t morphing a shrew; the least I could do was watch my best friend while she did.

The sight—gross as it was—was actually less disturbing than when I’d watched her morph elephant down in the Yeerk pool, but maybe that was just because the shrew was so tiny that I couldn’t see all the details of the changes, once Rachel shrank down. From her perspective up close and personal, I’m sure it looked much more horrific.

Her clothing descended around her like a tent, blocking the last stages of the morph from the rest of us. After a few anxious minutes, when I was sure that she must be done morphing, I reached down and lifted her abandoned outer clothing away.

“Rachel?” I asked. “You okay down there?”

The shrew—Rachel—was standing frozen on the grass between her two sneakers. Then, suddenly—the shrew was gone, running like a starting gun had just been fired! I knew instantly what had happened: the shrew instincts had overwhelmed her. She was lost in the animal’s mind!

“Rachel!” I called after her, speaking as loud as I dared, trying to sound soothing even as I was half-shouting at her, “You have to get control!”

Jake was the first of us to move to chase her, but the little shrew was too agile; she shot under a bush and darted back out the other way while he tried to turn and resume the chase. I winced; the last thing I wanted to do was to chase Rachel, which would only frighten the shrew more, but it was too late now. She was already off and running, and the more of us there were running after her, the better the odds were that one of us would catch her—but I knew our odds weren’t good. Three big, clumsy, heavy humans trying to catch a speedy little shrew barehanded? Good luck!

Thankfully, we had more than three humans with us: we had a red-tailed hawk. And Tobias had just wracked-up some experience shrew-hunting, even though he’d thought at the time he was going after a mouse. Maybe to most predators there isn’t much difference between rodents…or maybe the fact that Tobias was really a boy in a bird’s body meant he lacked the proper nuances of predation.

He had the important parts down, at least, and I watched with mingled fear and awe as he dropped out of the sky over Rachel’s little shrew head and caught her up in one sharp talon.

<I have you, Rachel. Try to be calm. Think about something human. Think about school. Remember school?>

My heart was pounding, less from the effort of chasing the shrew than from fear. What if Tobias dropped her? What if his talons stabbed her? What if Rachel couldn’t get control of the morph? What if—?”

<I'm okay, Tobias,> Rachel said. <You can set me down.>

He circled around and landed with perfect gentleness on the ground.

<Did my talons hurt you?> he asked her. He sounded at least half as nervous as I felt, which made me feel a little better.

<No,> Rachel answered immediately. <I don't think so. I'm fine.>

"You okay, Rachel?" Jake asked as we all walked, very slowly, toward her and Tobias. He sounded worried too, although he was doing a better job of hiding it.

<Yes. Boy, that was totally different than the elephant brain,> Rachel said. Her thought-speak voice sounded rattled. <Or the eagle. They're both so calm and mellow compared to this mind.>

“It’s like Jake’s lizard,” I said, my relief making me speak hurriedly. "He had a panic reaction, too. The other animals we morphed were all kind of big, dominant animals—gorilla, tiger. And Tobias’s cat, even though he’s small, is a predator too. My horse was skittish, though.”

<Look, let's just do this and get it over with, okay?> Rachel said. <I'm not enjoying the shrew experience.>

"Are you sure you're going to be able to maintain down there?" Marco asked. "You still look a little nervous. Your tail is twitching and your little nose is sniffing like crazy."

<Yeah, I know,> Rachel said. <I'm still nervous. Let's just do this.> She paused and added grumpily, <You'll have to take me back to the tree where Fluffer is. I don't know what direction it is.>

Before any of the rest of us could move, Marco leaned over and scooped shrew-Rachel up in his hands. I drew in a sharp breath, but he held her gently on his cupped palms and raised her up to eye level. "I've never seen you look lovelier, Rachel,” he told her sincerely. “Very cover girl.”

The fact that Rachel didn’t shoot back some sharp retort told me better than anything else how scared she was in that shrew, but to his credit Marco didn’t take advantage by needling her further. I decided to revise my opinion of Marco a little; his humor could be cruel sometimes, but clearly he wasn’t. That was good. I could get used to sharp-tongued banter as long as it wasn’t cruel, I figured; after all, I’d been friends with Rachel for years.

We walked down the block, back to the tree where Fluffer was still perched. Marco placed Rachel down among the roots.

<You guys had better back off a little,> Rachel said.

"Not too far," Jake argued, before I could. "We have to be able to get between you and Fluffer fast."

<Oh, I can kick Fluffer's butt,> Rachel said. I was pretty sure she was joking. I hoped she was joking. You can’t always tell with Rachel, though. She doesn’t accept limitations lightly.

“Uh-huh,” Marco said dryly. “Cat versus mouse. Who would you bet on?”

“Haven’t you ever seen Itchy and Scratchy?” I said somewhat desperately, trying my best to bolster Rachel’s spirits—and my own. I hoped no one else could hear the edge of hysteria tingeing my words. “Mouse, definitely. Besides,” I reminded them inanely, “she’s not a mouse.”

We backed up, none of us happy about it. I caught a glimpse of Tobias coming to roost in a nearby tree but he wasn’t looking at me: his eyes were fixed on Fluffer with the intensity that only a born predator can display. If that cat so much as tensed a muscle, Tobias was going to see it.

I breathed slightly easier, just slightly, seeing that he was on guard. A red-tailed hawk was not big enough to safely take on a tomcat, but he wasn’t small enough that Fluffer would be able to shrug-off an attack from him either. At the least, Tobias was sure to be able to distract the cat long enough for Rachel to get away—providing that Fluffer didn’t go straight for the kill, of course…

Waiting was agony. I’m sure it was worse for Rachel, using her own body as bait like that, but it was horrible for me too. Just standing there, helpless, waiting to see if my best friend was about to become Meow Chow… When Fluffer moved, I wasted precious seconds gasping and pressing my hands fearfully to my mouth, like an idiot.

Fortunately, Jake and Marco didn’t hesitate. It was Marco who caught the cat in mid-pounce, moving faster than I would have given a lazy class-clown like him credit for, but Fluffer’s claws met flesh anyway and Marco yelped, nearly losing his grip. Jake was right there next to Marco, though, and he caught Fluffer by the nape of the neck—the best place to grab a cat by if you want to avoid getting scratched, although not a good way to carry around an adult cat; unlike kittens, you can seriously hurt a grown-up cat by holding them like that.

Fluffer didn’t have to worry, though, because after my second of dismay I had jumped into action too, grabbing the cat carrier from where Jake had left it sitting next to Tobias and Rachel’s discarded clothes. I ran up and together we managed to get Fluffer into the carrier, although we all got several scratches for our efforts.

“I’m bleeding!” Marco announced, as if this was a surprise to anyone.

“We’re all bleeding,” I told him, calm now that the danger was over and we were back in my element: dealing with unhappy animals. “I told you guys: Kitties can be nasty when you get on their nerves.”

Rachel was already in the process of demorphing when I turned away from setting the now-securely-caged Fluffer McKitty on the ground.

“Ugh! Ugh!” she said, before she’d even finished. “I’m never doing that morph again.” She looked herself over nervously, as though to make sure that every last trace of the shrew had successfully disappeared back into her human body. She looked pale and sweaty, like she was coming down with the flu, and I felt a pang of guilt. I was the one who knew animals the best; shouldn’t it have been me who had played bait for the cat? But I hadn’t even thought about offering; had just stood by and let Rachel take the risk instead…

Jake was staring at Rachel and shaking his head like he was sharing my thoughts. “I should have done it,” he said. “I should have used my lizard morph to lure the cat down from the tree.”

Rachel shook her head right back at him, and I was struck suddenly by how much alike they looked at times. “No,” she said. “That freaked you out.”

"And now you're the one who's freaked out," Jake said. "But don't worry, you'll get over it. Mostly. At least you didn't eat a spider."

"Yeah. Look, I'm just tired, okay?” Rachel grumbled. “Let me acquire this pain-in-the-butt cat and get on with this."

"Are you still up for it?" I asked. "Acquiring two new morphs in one night?"

"I shouldn't have let you do the mouse. Shrew. Whatever," Jake said. He was still looking guilty.

"Look, it was my idea, right? Besides, since when do you let me do things?” Rachel demanded. “What are you, my master? I don't think so. Come on." She treated us all to one of her trademark, dazzling Rachel smiles. "Let me see how Fluffer likes me, now that I'm bigger than he is.”

We all walked over to the carrier—well, except for Tobias, who was still hanging out in the tree. I waved that he could come down and join us now, but I guess he didn’t see me, because he stayed put. I shrugged and leaned down to look in the carrier and couldn’t help but smile. Fluffer was curled up, totally asleep in that cute little semi-colon shape that cats like so much.

Rachel reached a hand in to acquire him and I frowned, suddenly.

“Are you sure you should do this?” I blurted out.

Rachel turned to stare at me. “What?” she said. “Are you kidding? After all the trouble we went to in order to catch this dumb cat, now you think we shouldn’t go through with it?”

I shook my head. “No, I just—I was just thinking…” I hesitated. I was remembering when I had morphed Tobias’s cat on the beach that night when we had been spying on The Sharing. It had felt good—great, even—to be a cat. Aragorn had felt no fear, no doubts, no worries of any kind. A cat was pure, unadulterated confidence, and Rachel…well, Rachel already had confidence in spades. Was it a good idea to mix her boldness with a cat’s total lack of concern? Especially going into Chapman’s house, where she would have to be on her guard as never before?

I didn’t know how to say that that it wouldn’t just make Rachel more determined to go through with the plan, so I hesitated. It was Tobias who came to my rescue:

<Rachel, I know you want to be the one to do this,> he said, <because Melissa is your friend—>

“Yeah,” Rachel said. Her pretty face started to settle into a belligerent scowl. “So what?”

 <So maybe it should be me,> Tobias said hurriedly. He fluttered down from his tree branch and started to demorph. <I’m the only one of us who actually has a cat, so I know how they act better than any of the rest of you. No offense.>

“He has a good point,” I said, trying not to sound too anxious.

Rachel rolled her eyes but her scowl shifted to something that was almost a smile. “It’s just a cat, Tobias,” she said. “Everybody knows what cats are like.”

<True,> Tobias agreed as his bird body grew up larger and larger until he was taller than me again, his feathers fading back into his skin and his fingers stretching out from his wings. <I know, but…well, Chapman’s a Controller. So if he sees an animal acting even just a little bit weird…>

His thought-speak voice faded as he progressed farther into the morph, but I picked up the thread where he’d left off: “Chapman would know right away that an animal acting un-animal-like is a threat,” I said.

The smile was gone. Rachel was scowling at all of us now. “I can handle it,” she said. She shoved her hand into the cat carrier.

I winced and looked at Jake, silently pleading with him to do something, to fix it somehow.

“Hey, you know what,” Jake said brightly, “it’s late. We’ve all had a tough night, first chasing Tobias then chasing Rachel, and Rachel, you’ve had a tougher night than any of us. Let’s put a pin in this for now.” He turned to look at the rest of us. “Why don’t we all acquire Fluffer, just to be on the safe side? It can’t hurt for us all to have cat morphs, especially a cat that can move around under Chapman’s nose.” He shot Marco a look, somehow anticipating whatever Marco was about to say, and Marco grinned ruefully and didn’t say it. Jake looked back at the rest of us, but mostly at Rachel. “How about we reconvene tomorrow when we’re all fresh? We can figure out who’s going into Chapman’s then.” He smiled. “I mean, there’s no need to rush, right?”

I expected Rachel to argue and I took a deep breath, getting ready to back Jake up, but instead she said reluctantly, “Oh, fine then. If you’re all tired, we can do it tomorrow. But I’m still the one going in.”

Jake nodded. “Maybe,” he said. “We’ll talk about it later when we aren’t all so stressed. In the meantime—” he pointed at Rachel, then jerked his thumb at Tobias “—why don’t you take advantage of the delay to get some lessons on cat-isms from the expert here?”

Rachel looked at Tobias speculatively. He looked a little awkward, a little sad even, like he always did when he was back in his normal body, but he gave her a weak little smile. Rachel sighed. “Oh, all right,” she snapped. “But I still say you’re all making this a way bigger deal than it is.”

None of us argued with her; we just silently acquired Fluffer, one by one, then released him back out into the night. We watched him saunter away out of sight, none the worse for wear for his unusual night.

Marco caught Rachel’s eye and gave her a grim smile. “Probably going off to kill your shrew,” he said.

Surprisingly, Rachel didn’t smack him. I guess she really was tired.

Chapter Text

The next day was a school day, which was a bummer, but it was the kind of bummer I was used to. Most days of my life are school days whether I like it or not, and mostly I don’t. This one wasn’t so bad, though. I’d managed to get all of my homework done, both before and after the fun little escapade with the shrew, or at least all of the homework due today. The cafeteria was serving tacos, which were absolutely one hundred percent not actual tacos, not even close, but were nonetheless a good dozen steps up from most of the slop they served us, and I’d managed to make several pretty girls laugh in math class that morning with my witty comments about ratios and fractions.

I was thus feeling pretty good when I hit the lunch room, tray full of definitely-not-actual-tacos in hand. I looked around for Jake but I spotted his cousin first. Rachel looked like any one of a dozen other mall-crawling airheads on first glance, and maybe even on second or third.

Rachel, tall and pretty and tall and blonde and sharp-tongued and tall. That was Rachel. Did I mention that the girl is tall? She’s also one of the more popular girls in school. Not the most popular, no; but a combination of good genes, good luck, and a good enough allowance to let her afford the clothes that her good sense of taste told her would look good on her had given her a certain position in the school hierarchy without her having to work for it. It was almost enough to make a boy jealous, even if he didn’t care about either clothes or popularity. It was enough to make other people fall all over themselves to spend time in her presence, even if it meant they got cramps in their necks from having to look up at someone so ridiculously tall.

I’d never given her much thought before that night in the construction site; she was just Jake’s freakishly tall, exceptionally pretty cousin. But I’d started paying a little more attention to all the Animorphs since we’d become a group

Not that we hung out as a group in school, of course. I mean, I still hung with Jake because we’d been best friends since forever, and Rachel and Cassie were the same, but we didn’t want to suddenly start moving around like a unit of five. We didn’t want to raise anyone’s suspicions. Which I guess left Tobias kind of on his own, because he’d always been a loner. Having a mom whom everyone knows is nutter-butters puts a damper on your social life, you know?

Whatever, Tobias wasn’t my problem and I’d learned my lesson there.

However, Rachel had not. Because now she was sitting at a lunch table smack in the middle of the cafeteria with Tobias sitting next to her, hunched low over his tray of tacos and looking like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world. I easily spotted at least a dozen boys staring their way who all looked like they’d rather Tobias was anywhere else too, especially if they could then take his place. It wasn’t just boys who were staring, either, but while their faces were a uniform mix of envy and outrage, the girls were mostly divided between amusement and confusion.

Rachel, of course, couldn’t have cared less. She was casually chowing-down on a taco, somehow managing to keep her cheap hardshell from splintering in her hand and spewing cheaper chunks of overcooked beef all over her tray, as inevitably happened to the rest of us mere mortals when we tried to eat school lunch tacos. If Rachel knew she was the center of the attention of half the student body, it didn’t show on her face. She was laughing and chatting with Tobias like whatever he was mumbling into his hair was absolutely fascinating.

I paused and looked around the room, and I couldn’t help grinning at the jealousy and bewilderment I saw. Like I said, Rachel wasn’t the most popular girl in school, but she was in the upper echelon and had been pretty much all her life. There wasn’t a single person at our school who didn’t know her name and face, I figured, even if half of them had probably never actually talked to her. And Tobias—well, everybody knew who he was too, but not because he was popular. Quite the opposite. Tobias wasn’t famous, he was infamous. He was the kid whose mom talked to aliens, the school weirdo.

And now here he was, sitting in the cafeteria next to Rachel the Tall.

I started to laugh, I couldn’t help myself. I caught sight of Cassie where she was sitting several tables away, watching the Rachel-and-Tobias-Show with bemusement on her face. She met my eyes and lifted her shoulders in a silent, helpless shrug. I laughed harder and went to claim a seat across from Cassie.

“Okay,” I said, in between cackles of laughter, “explain.”

Cassie sighed. “Well,” she said, “you know how Jake told Rachel she should get some tips on acting cat-like from Tobias?”

“Yes,” I said. I saw where this was going and I started to grin. I picked up one of my tacos and took a big bite. The shell splintered and suddenly I had more of a taco-salad than taco. I sighed and picked up my plastic fork to shovel the rest of the taco into my mouth. “Go on.”

“So Rachel spots Tobias in the hallway on her way into lunch and grabs his arm, starts babbling about how she just found out he has a cat, and she wants to hear all about it.” Cassie shook her head, her expression a rueful mix of admiration and incredulity. “Rachel says that Jordan’s been pestering her mom to get them a cat all of a sudden, so she wants to hear what it’s like to own one.”

I started to laugh again, which involved snorting a few globs of crappy beef out my nose. Cassie made a face and turned away to watch Rachel instead, but she kept talking.

“Anyway, at least six girls start babbling about how they’ve got cats, why doesn’t Rachel ask them, but she just brushes them off and keeps walking. Says that she’s met most of their cats, and they aren’t that impressive, but she saw a painting that Tobias did of his cat for art class last year, and that’s the kind of cat Jordan wants.”

“A fat, lazy orange tabby that sheds on everything?” I said.

Cassie smiled. “I guess so,” she said.

“And let me guess,” I said. “Tobias goes all deer-in-headlights and lets her just drag him along?”

Cassie nodded. “Of course,” she said. “When Rachel gets the bit between her teeth, there’s not much you can do but go along with it. So she tells her friends that they’re too annoying and she can’t hear Tobias talk, can they all back off and give her some room?”

I was now laughing too hard to eat safely. I put my fork down. “Oh man,” I said.

“By this point Tobias is the color of a tomato,” Cassie continued, and I could hear that she was struggling to hide her own laughter behind her “sympathetic” voice. “Everybody else is pissed at Rachel, and she clears half the table so she and Tobias can talk about his cat in peace.”

“Oh man,” I said again.

I spotted Jake walking past, looking curiously toward the cluster of seething students surrounding Rachel and Tobias, and I waved him over. “Oh man, Jake!” I called. “Come here, you have to hear what your cousin just did!” Jake heard me and changed direction, veering our way with a tired look on his face that basically screamed, What now?

He gave Cassie a dorky little smile as he sat down next to me, but I was suddenly too distracted to tease him about that. I left Cassie to tell Jake the story while I stared across the room at another blonde girl eating a taco, this one sitting by herself at the end of one of the tables along the wall. She was watching Rachel and Tobias too, but the look on her face was different from the rest of the spectators. She didn’t look confused or jealous or annoyed; she looked small and sad.

Her name was Melissa Chapman.

I got a funny feeling in my stomach, looking at her. Or maybe the tacos were off today. Personally, I’d prefer to blame the tacos. I didn’t let myself look away, though. I studied Melissa. I wasn’t worried about her catching me staring; she had her gaze fixed on laughing Rachel and moping Tobias with all the intensity of a kid staring at the arcade game on which she’d just spent her last quarter.

It was funny, I mused, how little Rachel’s friends looked like her. I mean, you expect a certain uniformity from girls of that type, right? And yeah, most of the girls Rachel hung out with had a basic interchangeability of look, style, and attitude. It had taken me considerable effort to learn to tell all of the pretty, popular girls in school apart. I still wasn’t sure if they did that on purpose to make life harder for us guys, or if that was a byproduct of some strange feminine urge toward stylish camouflage.

It was a subject Jake was useless for speculating with. I think the only reason he wasn’t as fashion-compromised as Cassie was because the universe refused to allow anyone who shared Rachel’s genes to be a total clothing dud. Well, that and guys’ fashions were a little easier to keep up with.

Anyway, so Rachel’s friends: I guess girls like her are supposed to travel in packs, all gossip and giggles and clothes on the cutting edge. And a lot of them did blend together pretty easily. For example, the only way you could tell Dahlia and Darlene apart was by remembering which of them was white and which was black, because everything else about them was identical right down to the breathless way they laughed. But man, did you want to make sure that you didn’t get their names confused, because the whole group would laugh at you for three days if you mixed them up.

Not that I speak from experience or anything.

Neither Darlene nor Dahlia seemed to be especially close friends of Rachel, though. They all hung out together, but Rachel’s best friend was Cassie and she was not part of that crowd at all.

I sneaked a glance at Cassie. She was trying to look mature and disapproving as she explained Rachel’s stunt to Jake, who had his elbows on the table and his hands over his face, but her mouth kept twitching as she tried not to laugh. Cassie wasn’t my type either, and I don’t say that just because my man Jake had a tragically, pathetically, embarrassingly, disastrously huge crush on the girl and you do not like the same girl as your best friend. It wasn’t because she wasn’t pretty, either, because she was definitely cute even with her dorky old jeans and probably-poop-stained The Gardens t-shirt. The problem with Cassie, in my mind, is that she was way too earnest and way too nice. Both major turn-offs for the Marco. I wasn’t entirely sure that Cassie fully knew how to use sarcasm, to be honest…

But Cassie wasn’t the question right now. Melissa Chapman was.

And before you get the wrong idea, I wasn’t ogling some pretty girl. Not that Melissa wasn’t pretty, although not exactly to my taste; too pasty and waifish for me. No, I was staring with a purpose.

Melissa, like Rachel, was a seventh grade gymnastic student. She was also a white girl with long blonde hair, like Rachel, but the similarities ended there. Rachel was the sort of girl that the ancient Greeks would have carved out of marble and called the goddess of a hunt—all strong jaw and sharp brows, nose and chin jutting forward stubbornly and her shoulders squared. Melissa had a soft, dimpled chin, faint brows, and round cheeks. Where Rachel was tall and tan, Melissa was pale and washed-out. Her hair was a subdued straw color, thin and flat. Her eyes were a gray as sharp and vibrant as a bank of clouds while Rachel’s blue eyes were like a river full of rapids, and probably just as likely to leave bruises. Melissa’s skin was the unfortunate pallid color of a white girl who lives her whole life indoors, and the faint dusting of freckles across her nose was probably the closest she had ever come to a sunburn. Melissa stood like she was trying not to take up too much room; Rachel walked through the world like she owned every inch of it.

Of course, I probably shouldn’t judge Melissa too hard: she was the daughter of our Vice Principle, which doubtless put a damper on her coolness factor. Or maybe the reason she faded into the background so easily was because the Yeerk in her head had better things to worry about than middle school popularity, and she preferred to go overlooked so she could do…well, whatever it was Yeerks did with twelve-year-old Controllers.

Did she have a Yeerk in her head like her dad? That was the big question.

It occurred to me that Melissa might be better off if she was a Controller. I had a feeling that the Yeerks considered every human being who wasn’t currently playing taxi to an alien slug to be expendable—certainly Chapman hadn’t seemed too bothered by the possibility of five frightened kids winding up dead when he’d told the Hork Bajir to bring him just our heads—which meant that Melissa might be safer around her dad if she was a Controller, too. Otherwise if she got in his way, she might be killed by her own dad for the sake of convenience.

Isn’t that a pretty thought?

My happy musing was interrupted by Jake kicking me in the ankle.

“Ow!” I complained, and turned to glare at him. “What was that for?”

“You were staring at Melissa,” Jake hissed.

“Uh, duh,” I said back. “I know.”

“Well stop it,” Jake ordered. “Somebody’s going to notice.”

I snorted. “Are you kidding?” I said. “With Rachel over there holding court with her sad new jester? Please. I could jump up on the table and do a tap-dance rendition of I Will Always Love You and nobody would notice.”

“Okay,” said Jake. He nodded. “Go ahead.”

“What?” I said.

“Go ahead,” he repeated. “I want to see this tap dancing.”

I glared at him. Cassie started to giggle, so I turned to glare at her too.

“Traitors,” I told them both, and picked up my second taco. It fell apart, just like the first. I transferred my glare to my lunch tray. “I am surrounded by traitors,” I declared, and picked up my fork.

* * *

If I had thought that after Rachel’s spectacular brush with social suicide, lunch couldn’t get any more exciting, I would have been wrong.

The bell rang, dismissing us all to more fun and exciting classes. Of course, since we all had to exit by the same pair of double doors, there was something of a bottleneck situation by the exit, just like every other day. This time, we had some additional entertainment as we shoved and jostled our way into the hallway.

The press of the crowd had squashed Jake and Cassie and I close enough that we could all hear when a girl’s shrill voice rose above the sounds of shoving and squabbling: “I should have known you didn’t mean it! I should have known you didn’t actually want anything to do with me!”

I didn’t really pay attention—there’s always some girl shrieking something at the end of lunch, usually about some guy or some other girl’s hair—until I heard a more familiar voice respond.

“What are you talking about, Melissa?” Rachel said.

I craned my neck, cursing all the tall people I went to school with, trying and failing to see through the crowd. I could hear Melissa, though, even if I couldn’t see her. “You just wanted to pump somebody for information about the stupid cat your stupid sister wants, and you thought I’d be an easy mark, huh?”

“What are you—? No, Melissa, no, I just wanted to hang out with you again. It’s been forever since we did anything, and I—”

“Oh please!” I still couldn’t see her face, but I could tell that Melissa wasn’t buying it. “You know,” she snapped at Rachel, “if you’d just asked for my help, I would have told you what you wanted to know. You didn’t have to run a smokescreen about going to the mall. You didn’t have to pretend you wanted to be friends again. You could have just asked me. I’m not a jerk. I’d have t-told you!”

“Are you serious right now?” I couldn’t see Rachel well either, but her head stuck out over the top of the crowd like a daffodil in somebody’s yard. And I didn’t need to see her clearly to know that she was starting to get angry. “I invited you to the mall because I wanted to spend time with you, you dummy! If all I’d wanted was to ask you some questions about stupid Fluffer, I would have just asked after practice!”

I wasn’t the only one watching the show, of course. Rachel was the kind of girl who attracted attention even when she wasn’t getting shouted at; even when she hadn’t just had lunch with the official school weirdo; even when she wasn’t blocking half of the doorway that every student in the school was trying to shove through. The audience didn’t stop the two girls, though; it didn’t even slow them down.

“Oh yeah?” Melissa shouted. “Well then why didn’t you? Huh? Why’d you ask him about his stupid cat, instead of talking to me? If I’m your friend, why not ask me?

Jake started shoving his way through the crowd toward Rachel and Melissa. I wasn’t sure what he thought he’d do when he got there—try and get them to cool off before any teachers came to break things up? Stand back and watch the show?—but I tucked in close behind and followed, using his bigger bulk like I was a Nascar driver drafting for speed. I saw Cassie reach for Jake’s hand (because she wanted help getting through the crowd, or because she thought pretending she wanted help to get through the crowd would be a good excuse for holding Jake’s hand? I smirked but saved my clever observations for later) but she missed and three girls from my Language Arts class shoved between us before she could try again. We left Cassie behind and kept moving.

“Um, because you blew me off maybe?” Rachel retorted. “Because Tobias was right there when I was thinking about it, and I knew he had a cat?” I could see her face now, if I jumped up onto my toes to peer over Jake’s shoulder, and she was scowling but it was a scowl of confusion as much as it was annoyance. She didn’t understand why Melissa was so upset, I guessed, but I thought I did.

“So do I!” Melissa said. “You were there when I got him, remember? But maybe you don’t. I guess you stopped caring about me too, huh?” There were tears in her pale eyes and her cheeks were red and splotchy. She was on the brink of a full-out meltdown. I glanced at Jake, wondering how he wanted to handle this. If we got involved we might only make things worse, and we definitely couldn’t do it without getting noticed…

“Melissa what are you talking about?” Rachel burst out. “Of course I care about you! You’re one of my best friends—”

“Bullshit!” Melissa cried, and everybody gasped. I did too. I didn’t know Melissa Chapman well, but even I knew she wasn’t the kind of girl who said words like that, not in the school hallways anyway. I think even Melissa was surprised with herself, because her face went dead white and her eyes went wide.

She opened her mouth again, and I wasn’t sure if she was going to apologize or keep yelling at Rachel some more, but before she got a chance to do either, a deep male voice said, “Okay, which one of you said that?”

It was one of the teachers who had been on lunch duty—Mr. Halloram—and he sounded both bored and annoyed. I guess maybe not all teachers get off on catching kids stepping out of line; maybe some of them would rather just keep their heads down and get through the day, like us. But being bored and annoyed wasn’t going to stop Mr. Halloram from handing out the necessary punishments and lectures.

All of a sudden, everybody found something better to look at—like the tops of their shoes. For once being short worked to my advantage, because I could tilt my head up enough to keep watching the show without anyone noticing that I wasn’t cowering and sulking like everybody else.

I saw Rachel glowering at the floor, like it had personally offended her, her hands clenched into fists. I saw Jake next to me, the half of his face I could see pinched in a worried frown. I couldn’t see Cassie, but I did spot Tobias far down the hallway, turned back to watch through the curtain of his stupid hair. I guess he must have bolted from the cafeteria the minute the bell rang, to get that far ahead of the rest of us. Coward, I thought, and smirked. Cowardly and clever: I would have left at top speed too, if I’d been in his position.

“All right, I know what I heard,” Mr. Halloram was saying impatiently. “Somebody fess up now, before you’re all late to class.”

That was an interesting prospect: if three-quarters of the student body showed up to class late, would we still get in trouble? Or would the teachers have no choice but to overlook our tardiness on the grounds of majority rules?

My existential musing was cut short by Melissa Chapman. I could see her, too, looking down at the floor like everybody else. But unlike everybody else, her lip was quivering and her shoulders were heaving, like she was about three seconds away from bursting into tears. She slowly raised her head and I could see that she was trembling. I could see her open her mouth, see her lips start to form the word me

“Me!” I shouted it. I wasn’t entirely sure why. Everybody turned to look at me, including Jake. Including Mr. Halloram. I grinned. “It was me, Mr. Halloram. Sorry. My boy Jake and I were taking bets, you see, on who would win in a fight, and Jake here said that Melissa would kick his cousin’s butt and, I’m sorry, but that’s just insane.” I laughed, and several people laughed with me. “No offense, Melissa,” I said, and winked at the girl who was gaping at me like I’d just grown a second head. “So yeah, as you can see, Mr. Halloram, that was such a crazy idea that I just couldn’t help myself. I confess, it was me. I said it.” I held my hands out in front of me, wrists pressed together like I was ready to be handcuffed.

“I should have known,” I heard Mr. Halloram mutter.

Excuse me? I thought, but was smart enough not to say aloud. What’s that supposed to mean?

What I said was, “I’m just too honest, that’s my problem. Always has been. When I see bull, I have to call bull, and I think we can all agree, that was bull. Sorry Jake, man, but you’ve clearly been eating some of that Coocoo for Cocoa Puffs if you think that there is any situation in which Melissa could possibly kick Rachel’s butt. Again, no offense Melissa.”

I winked at her again. She didn’t react; just kept staring at me.

“All right, all right,” Mr. Halloram said. “That’s enough, Marco. Everybody else, clear off. Show’s over and you’ve all got classes to get to. Not you, Marco. You and me need to have a chat.”

I stood there next to Mr. Halloram, feeling awkward, while everybody else shuffled away. Jake looked at me, shook his head, and walked off. Cassie patted my arm discreetly as she brushed past. I caught Rachel’s eye before she left. The look she gave me was inscrutable.

And I’m not trying to be witty, I mean it was genuinely inscrutable. Was she grateful? Was she annoyed? I couldn’t tell. I was unable to scrute the expression on her face.

After a minute she left too, and Mr. Halloram treated me to a lecture about appropriate language, and what would my dad think if he found out I was using words like that, and this school expected certain standards of behavior, and blah blah blah. It all sounded very standard, like he’d memorized the spiel years ago and could now do it on autopilot. I tuned him out, answering on autopilot too—uh-huh, of course, sorry, I get it, yeah—while I waited for him to finish.

I wondered if he would give me a pass for my next class if he kept me past the bell. Somehow I had a feeling that “receiving lecture from other teacher in response to inappropriate language in the lunch room” wasn’t an excuse for tardiness that most teachers would accept.

I nodded along to Mr. Halloram’s speech, spewing very sincere promises about never ever doing anything like that again, but the whole time all I could think was, Why did I do that?

As the last few students finished changing their books in their lockers, I caught sight of one of the stragglers staring at me from the far end of the hallway: Melissa Chapman, looking small and confused. I gave her a cocky smile.

She ducked her head and slinked around the corner.

I sighed. So much for chivalry.

Chapter Text

When the last bell of the day finally rang, I got out of there as fast as I could move. It wasn’t fast enough to avoid all the things people had been shouting at me since lunch, and it wasn’t fast enough to avoid Jake, who caught up with me on the way to my bus.

“What was that about at lunch?” he hissed at me.

I shook my head and looked at my feet.

“We can’t attract that kind of attention,” Jake continued. “It isn’t safe.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” I mumbled. I could feel my eyes stinging, and I blinked rapidly.

I didn’t like the idea of Jake being disappointed with me. Even before we’d all become Animorphs, he had stood up for me when nobody else would. He’d let me hang around him without calling me out for being a pathetic hanger-on, had even invited me around to his house once or twice without letting on that he was doing it only out of pity. All that made him probably the closest thing I’d ever had to a friend, and even though I knew I wasn’t anywhere near his level, even though I knew there was no way that I could help but come up short in any comparison, I still wasn’t happy about disappointing him.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

Jake sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “Don’t be sorry,” he said eventually. “I know whose fault it was, and it wasn’t yours. I ought to be chiding Rachel, not you.” He clapped me companionably on the shoulder. “Sorry, man. Anyway, I’ll give you a call when we’re ready to try that thing again, okay?”

I nodded. “Sure,” I said. “No problem.”

I stood there and watched Jake walk away, thinking that if the Berenson cousins kept this up people were going to start wondering if I had some kind of dirt on their family. What other explanation was there for two incredible kids like that to suddenly start paying attention to a loser like me? That is, if you didn’t believe in aliens of course.

I shook my head and forced myself to stop staring wistfully after Jake and trudged to my bus. I did my best to ignore the less-than-witty comments people were shouting at me about Rachel and my cat and Melissa Chapman, but two feet from the door of the bus it became too much. I swerved away and let four sixth graders climb on ahead of me. I stared up at the fluffy clouds overhead for several minutes before I realized what I was thinking: how much nicer it would be to fly home instead.

As soon as that thought coalesced in my brain it became almost overpowering. The temptation to ditch my backpack, my books, my body, my clothes and shoes and just fly, fly away was so strong I actually bent down and started unlacing my sneakers before I thought better of it.

Someone pushed past me in a hurry to get to their bus and I wobbled, steadied myself with a hand on the pavement, and realized suddenly what I was doing. It was like being doused with a bucket of ice water.

I stood up, cheeks flaming, and looked around. Nobody seemed to be looking at me funny—or funnier than normal, anyway—so I guess they all assumed I’d been tying my shoes, rather than on the brink of kicking them off in order to turn into a hawk in the middle of the sidewalk. Of course only a nutter would think that something like that was a possibility—a nutter, or another Animorph.

I caught sight of Marco through one of the grimy windows toward the back of the bus. He didn’t meet my eye, but I had the feeling he’d been watching me. I ducked my head quickly, as though afraid that he’d be able to read my intentions on my face, and reluctantly boarded the bus.

I took a seat near the front of the bus, where the little kids and the losers sat. I didn’t look around for Marco; we rode the same bus route, but we didn’t hang out. Even when Jake had been letting me tag along I had understood that Marco was tolerating my presence out of affection for Jake more than from pity for me. The incident with the milk carton was the first time the two of us had had any direct one-on-one interaction outside the other Animorphs, and I had the feeling that it was going to be the last, too.

Marco wasn’t a Berenson. He wasn’t going to stick his neck out for me, just because we had both been in the same construction site when the secrets of the world had cracked open in front of us—and why should he? I wasn’t his problem. I hadn’t asked to be Jake or Rachel’s problem, either. I could take care of myself…even if the others clearly didn’t think so.

I sighed, leaned my head back against the insufficient padding of the stiff green seat, and closed my eyes. I realized that I was going to have to prove myself to the rest of the Animorphs, to prove that I wasn’t the weak link of the group.

All I had to do was figure out how.

* * *

I was lucky on my way home: nobody was waiting to pound me. I was a little surprised by that, after the scene in the lunch room, but I wasn’t going to complain. Maybe the bullies were all in detention, or maybe they had just found better things to do today. Maybe the story of Andy and the milk carton had gone around, and no one wanted to risk getting dairied.

That didn’t seem likely. First because I couldn’t see either Andy or Tap-Tap spreading a story that made them look bad, and I knew (hoped) Marco was too clever to self-sabotage like that, and second because if all it took was a little milk to scare bullies off, they’d have stopped bothering me years ago.

I walked fast anyway, because I didn’t want to tempt fate and because I felt too antsy to walk slow. I was hoping that I’d be able to find some time to fly, to ditch this clumsy human body for an hour and a half and soar free, leaving my problems behind for a while.

I was trying hard to think about flying, instead of all the problems I had down here on the ground. In my distraction, I didn’t realize mom was there until after I’d dumped my backpack unceremoniously on the floor and slouched into the kitchen for a glass of water. When she said, “Hi sweetie!” I jumped and half the glass went up my nose.

Sputtering and wiping my face on the tail of my t-shirt, I moved out into the living room to join her. “Hi mom,” I said, clearing my throat a few times to get all the water out. She was perched on the stool by her easel, paint on her face and a brush in her hand. She had another two brushes tucked behind her ears, where she had probably forgotten about them, and Aragorn had claimed the corner of her stained dropcloth for a bed. He didn’t look like he had any wet paint on him right now though, so I ignored the cat.

To tell the truth, I probably would have ignored him even if he’d been covered in ultramarine and fuschia; I was too busy staring at the half-complete painting in front of my mom.

It was, as usual, of an alien--but not one of her aliens. This was Elfangor--Elfangor standing tall and unhurt, his green eyes gleaming and that impossible little smile on his face. Mom hadn’t painted enough of the tail for me to tell what she was going to do with the blade yet, but that didn’t make much difference to the overall subject of the piece, and that subject was unmistakable.

I swallowed. “Um...mom?” I asked.

She grinned at me. “Do you like it?” she said. “I pulled out your sketches without asking, I’m sorry. I just couldn’t get the image out of my head. Are you mad?”

“No,” I said, “no of course I’m not mad.” I was still staring at the painting. “I just...uhh…”

I wanted to know why she had painted Elfangor, not one of her Andalites--and it was unmistakably Elfangor. I didn’t have a very large sample of Andalite appearance to base things on to be fair, but there were distinct differences between Elfangor and the only other Andalite I had ever seen, the one Visser Three was using as a host--and not just the sense of dark menace that wafted from the Yeerk commander like a cloud. They were visually distinct...so why had mom painted an Andalite that looked exactly like the one the other Animorphs and I had met in the construction site that night?

I could have told myself that it was because she was using my sketches as a reference--and now that I was looking at more than the canvas, I saw several of them taped to the walls around her, and others stacked on the floor, the sketches that she and I had both done when we’d finally talked about her aliens, and mine, for the first time--but I would have been kidding myself. I know I wasn’t that good of an artist, not yet anyway; mom claimed that I was really talented for thirteen, and I guess I believed her because other people said the same thing, but I was still nothing compared to her...and more importantly, I could see the results of what I drew. And what I had drawn wasn’t nearly accurate enough for mom to turn those sketches into an unerring painting of Elfangor.

There was another, even bigger question I had to ask first, though.

“Why did you paint him standing in front of our house?” I blurted.

Mom turned back to blink at the painting in front of her. “I don’t know,” she said. “It just felt like the right place to put him.” She shrugged and flashed me a grin before swirling her brush through the globs of blue on her palette and adding a few more quick, graceful strokes to the lively canvass.

I couldn’t stop staring. I didn’t remember much about the house we had lived in when I was little, before mom and dad had split-up, but I knew what it looked like both from my memories and from mom’s photographs. The yellow siding, the green shutters, the gray roof...the garden. That was the part that was really unmistakable. The little yellow house could have been any of the dozens of cookie-cutter suburb neighborhoods all over California. The garden, though--I remembered the garden. It had been weird in retrospect, since neither mom nor dad had been big gardeners, but we’d had all sorts of strange trees and flowers and ferns. It had always been a little overgrown, a little underkept; I guess it must have been left behind by whoever had owned the house before us. The point was that no one else I’d ever seen had a garden like that, which meant that mom hadn’t just painted the Andalite in front of a house; she had painted him in front of our house.

Why?

I perched on the edge of the couch and sipped the rest of my water, watching mom work. It was soothing, familiar--but in some ways, completely different from the norm. This wasn’t her usual half-glimpsed, half-remembered fragment; this was a full-bodied, unmistakable Andalite...and a chill crashed over me as I suddenly realized how dangerous that was.

“Mom, don’t show that one to anyone!” I said. She turned to look at me, a curious frown underneath the smear of green that crossed her pale forehead. I swallowed. “Please,” I added, a little less frantically. “I don’t...I don’t think you should show that one to anyone else. Anyone but us.”

Mom tilted her head, her hair slipping from the accidental pin of her forgotten paintbrush. “Why not, Tobias?” she asked me. “Now that I know what my aliens look like better, maybe I can find someone else who recognizes--”

“NO!” I shouted, coming up off the couch in a rush. I didn’t notice the half-empty water glass spilling from my hand across the rug; barely noticed Aragorn streaking past me out of the room, his tail puffed out like a feather duster. “You can’t--mom, it isn’t safe.”

She stared at me. “What are you talking about?”

I hesitated...but I had to tell her something. “It’s Mr. Chapman,” I blurted. “He’s been asking questions again. About your...your mental fitness.” I winced and avoided her eye, feeling a clammy flush of guilt slide across my skin as her paint-smeared cheeks went pale. For almost as long as I could remember, people had been threatening to take me away from my mom on the basis of her being too mentally unstable to take care of a kid. Throwing that at her now that I knew she wasn’t crazy made me feel sick, but it was still a real threat: just because I knew mom wasn’t imagining her aliens didn’t mean the rest of the world suddenly knew the truth--and those who did know were the most dangerous of all.

“Mr. Chapman,” mom snarled, and the vitriol in her voice made me blink. I’d never heard mom sound that venomous about...well, anyone. Her knack for seeing the good in people no matter what annoyed me sometimes (like when she stopped me saying mean things about the social workers who were “just doing their jobs” when they looked for excuses to take me away from my mom) but I was also used to it. Mom was nice to people even when they didn’t deserve it...so what had Mr. Chapman done to get on her bad side?

I mean, I didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about my assistant principal, but what kid does? Maybe honor roll students or star athletes I guess, but I’ve never seen “the good side” of Vice Principal Chapman and now that he has a murderous Yeerk in his head, I doubt I ever will. Mom, on the other hand...what did she have against him?

“Uhhh,” I said dumbly, “yeah. You know, the assistant principal?”

“Oh I know who he is,” mom said, still in that tight, unfamiliar angry voice. “We’ve had several conversations.”

I knew that. No parent whose kid gets in as many fights as I do--or whose kid gets beat-up by so many bullies, at least; I didn’t think I could fairly say they’d been fights when I never did much fighting back -- doesn’t end up having more than a few talks with their vice principal. But I’d always assumed that’s all their talks had been about, and that mom had been in a bad mood afterwards because she didn’t like the idea of me being bullied, and maybe because Mr. Chapman probably treated her as dismissively as most other adults did.

Now I had to wonder if it was more than that.

I remembered, suddenly, the way she had told me to stay away from The Sharing. At the time I’d been focused on the fact that mom disliking the idea of me hanging-out at the Yeerks’ big recruitment organization meant that she wasn’t a Controller, but now that I was thinking more clearly I realized that it had been Mr. Chapman’s association with them that she had objected to.

That was interesting.

“He’s a jerk, huh?” I asked, trying to coax her into telling me more details.

Mom shook her head, still frowning. “He’s just...not a nice man, Tobias.” Mild words, but there was nothing mild about her tone. “Selfish, untrustworthy, dangerous…”

Dangerous? I raised my eyebrows. Could mom know more about the Yeerks than even she knew she knew, maybe?

“Yeah,” I agreed a little too fervently for someone just talking about a mean-tempered assistant principal, “yeah exactly. So you should keep that painting out of sight.” I hesitated again, then said slowly, “In fact, it’s probably not a good idea to talk about Andalites specifically at all, you know?”

Mom’s frown shifted, lightened from fury and frustration to a look of confusion. “Why not? It’s a little late to try and pretend that I’m not looking for aliens, Tobias.”

“I know,” I said, “but...uhh...you remember hearing about those fireworks in the construction site? And the kids the cops were looking for?” She stared at me blankly. “You remember Alice?”

That triggered more of a reaction; her cloudy blue eyes cleared and filled with sad sympathy. “Poor Alice,” she said. “I hope she’s okay.”

“Me too,” I agreed, “but that’s my point, mom. The Yeerks are going to be looking for her. That’s why she had to run away, remember? And that means they’re going to be looking for anybody who helped her.”

Mom’s frown deepened. “You think they’d come after us?”

“Oh yeah,” I nodded grimly. “In a heartbeat.”

“We’ll have to be careful then,” mom said. Her voice was firm. She didn’t sound scared.

Come to think of it, I couldn’t remember many cases of my mom actually sounding scared. Worried, sure, frantic even sometimes when she thought some social worker was going to find an excuse to steal me away; hurt and confused when her memory failed her or when I was being a jerk for not believing her...but scared? Genuinely, truly scared? Not so much.

“Right,” I agreed, shaking my head to try and clear it. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. We have to be careful, and that means not letting-on that we know too much about Andalites and Yeerks and Taxxons and Hork-Bajir and everything.”

Mom’s gaze on my face was thoughtful and tight, studying me like she was cataloging details for her next painting. What she said was, “I’ve been chasing after my aliens all my life, Tobias. If I stop now, that’ll look even more suspicious.”

My stomach gave a lurch because I knew she was right. “Well..okay,” I admitted, “but just be careful about it. Don’t use any new information--like Elfangor’s name.” I pointed. “Or that painting. Stick to the same questions, the same clues, you had before I...before I met them, too.” Before I knew you weren’t crazy, I didn’t say.

“That’s going to put a crimp in actually finding them,” mom pointed out.

I grimaced. That’s the point, I didn’t tell her. That’s the point, because if you find them, they’ll kill you--or make you a Controller. “Maybe now isn’t a good time to actually find them,” I said instead. “Wait until they’ve given up on finding Alice, on finding those kids.”

“What kids?”

“The five kids who were at that construction site that night. The ones they said were playing with fireworks.” I sighed. “You know...the ones who actually saw the aliens. Me and my friends. The Animorphs.”

“Animorphs?” mom repeated and I winced. I hadn’t meant to use that word in front of her, but it had slipped-out. It was easy to not talk about all of this secret alien invasion stuff with anybody else--firstly because I didn’t really have anyone else to talk about it with , but also because just not saying anything wasn’t a hard thing to remember. It was more difficult with mom, trying to walk the tightrope of what she knew and what she didn’t.

“That’s, uh...our nickname. For the five of us. Just a dumb thing we call ourselves, you know…kid stuff.” I shrugged like it was no big deal.

Mom’s face brightened and she smiled. “Animorphs,” she said. “I like that.”

I knew what she meant was, I like that you have friends.

I didn’t say that, though; just smiled back at her.

I wasn’t sure how much any of them were really my friends yet...but I kind of liked it too.

Chapter Text

We couldn’t go to the Chapman’s that night because Rachel and Marco both had papers to write. And the night after that was Cassie's dad's birthday, which Cassie couldn’t exactly skip out on.

But finally, there we were again on the street outside the Chapmans' house. It was a little before eight. 

Tobias had morphed hawk again and he’d spotted Fluffer smelling a fence post four blocks over. Now Rachel was taking off her shoes while the rest of us stood around, feeling antsy.

“I don’t like this,” I said.

“Well gee, Jake, it’s not exactly my idea of a good time either,” Rachel drawled sarcastically. “I mean sure, I like hanging out with Melissa, but usually I like doing it when I’m a human being, I’m not worried she might have an alien slug in her head, and she knows I’m coming over.”

“You know, we don’t have to do this tonight,” Cassie pointed out diplomatically. “It’s not like we’re on a deadline, right?”

I was ready to agree, but Rachel said, “The sooner the better. We all know something is wrong in that house. Melissa is still my friend. Maybe somehow I can help her.”

“Your job is not to help Melissa Chapman,” Marco pointed out, which I thought was rich coming from a boy who had just risked detention to get Melissa out of trouble, but I didn’t say anything. Hypocritical or not, Marco was right. “You’re supposed to be spying on Chapman. You’re supposed to be finding some way for us to get at the Yeerks, so that we can all turn into wild animals and get ourselves killed.”

“I know why I’m doing this, Marco,” Rachel snapped.

“No,” I said, “you know why someone has to do this. Why does it have to be you? We all acquired the cat.”

Rachel’s eyes met mine and narrowed. “It has to be me because I’m the only one of us who’s friends with Melissa.”

“That is exactly why you shouldn’t go,” I said. “You’re too close to this.”

“Oh, like you were too close to Tom to go into the Yeerk pool?” Rachel snapped.

Cassie gasped. Marco winced. Even Rachel looked sorry the moment she said it, but she didn’t take it back. I guess maybe she had a point, but I was too angry to see it. Besides, we’d all made it out okay, hadn’t we?

“Raiding the Yeerk pool was a combat mission that needed all of us,” I said stiffly, trying not to let on how furious I was. “This is just surveillance. A one-man operation. Any one of us could go.”

“A one-woman operation, thank you,” Rachel retorted.

“It doesn’t have to be, is my point,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be you. And I don’t think it should be.”

“Tough,” said Rachel. “You’re not the boss of me.” She seemed to be backing away from me, which I thought was strange for her to do in the middle of an argument, until I noticed the fur sprouting from her cheeks.

“I am if you’re about to do something stupid which could risk all our lives,” I said. “Rachel, stop.”

Rachel glared at me with eyes that were slowly turning from blue to yellow-green. “Have you ever been inside Chapman’s house, Jake?” she asked me. “Have any of the rest of you?”

I got Rachel’s point immediately. I looked at Cassie, hoping that she at least had gone along with Rachel for a sleepover or a birthday party sometime, but she was shaking her head along with the rest of us.

“I know the layout,” Rachel continued. “I know where the stairs are, I know which rooms are whose bedrooms, where Fluffer’s food dish is kept. I know where his litter box is. I know what belongs in that house, and what doesn’t.” All the while she was speaking, she was shrinking, her bones shifting and her ears sliding up the side of her face. “You want to send somebody else in, somebody who’s never been inside there before, and hope they can find their way without Chapman getting curious why his daughter’s cat suddenly can’t remember its way arrrrou?” Her mouth melted into the sideways-three grin of a cat and she switched to thought-speak as she continued the morph, her bright cat-green eyes fixed on me. <Or do you want to trust me to get the job done, like we all trusted you when we followed you into the Yeerk pool?>

Well, when she put it like that

I sighed. 

“How does it look up there, Tobias?” I asked the empty air. 

He’d remained as a hawk to give us some cover, and to keep an eye on the real Fluffer McKitty. I suspected he’d also stayed as a hawk because he preferred being a hawk to being a boy. I wondered when that was going to come back to bite us all, but I pushed the thought out of my mind. One disaster at a time, I told myself.

Like I’d hoped, Tobias had stuck close enough to hear me. Now he swooped down, opened his wings to slow his speed, and settled on the fence beside us.

<Looks fine. The cat is nowhere near the house. And fortunately, nobody was close enough to catch sight of Rachel morphing over the hedges.>

Did I imagine the note of censure in his voice? Certainly Rachel didn’t imagine the pointed look I shot at her, but she also didn’t seem to react to either. Then again, how can you tell what a cat’s feeling? My family have always been dog people. Cats seem aloof and lazy to me. I can’t figure them out.

I decided maybe I’d try morphing Homer, my dog, when I got home tonight. It would be interesting being a dog, wouldn’t it? And having a morph more innocuous than my tiger, but less helpless than my lizard, would probably be a good idea.

Now wasn’t the time to think about that, though. I refocused on Rachel—on the mission.

She was fully cat now, sitting in the semi-circle of our feet and looking just like Fluffer.

<Whoa!> she yelled. <Suddenly it isn’t nighttime anymore! I mean, wow. Talk about night vision!>

“A cat’s vision at night is about eight times stronger than a human’s,” Cassie said helpfully. “I looked it up.”

“Eight times?” Marco repeated. “Not seven, or nine? How do they measure that?”

I shook my head. I was staring at Rachel, not really listening. She was sitting strangely still, except for her head, which kept turning to look at things I couldn’t see.

“How are you doing?” I asked her anxiously. Had she lost control of the morph? Cassie hadn’t seemed to have trouble when she’d morphed Tobias’s cat, but Rachel had freaked out when she’d morphed the shrew, just like I had the lizard. She didn’t answer and I started to worry. I exchanged looks with the others. Tobias had managed to snatch her when she’d run off as a shrew, but he couldn’t exactly scoop a cat up in one claw. What would we do if she lost it in Fluffer’s body?

Cassie met my eyes, looking scared. She leaned down over Rachel a little and said, “Rachel, can you hear us? It’s me, Cassie.”

<Yes, I can hear you.> Rachel sounded annoyed. That was a relief. Annoyed I could deal with. <I just can’t seem to concentrate very well on you. There are so many other things to hear and see and smell.>

“Well, at least she’s not running around out of control,” Marco muttered, and I nodded.

Cassie, however, was grinning now. “I know,” she said. “It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” Then her smile faded a little. “But Rachel—be careful. When I morphed Tobias’s cat, I felt like nothing could touch me, you know? Like I was invincible. But I, um…” She glanced at me, winced, and continued quickly, “I kind of almost got caught by the Controllers I was spying on, because I forgot to be afraid of being seen. You can’t let the cat’s instincts lull you into a false sense of—”

Suddenly Rachel spun around! Her ears went back, her tail bushed out, and she let out a furious “Hhhhhiisssss!”

I looked around frantically for whatever had upset her, but Cassie had already figured it out:

“Rachel, take a pill, girl,” she said. “It’s just Tobias.” She looked up at Tobias, who had glided over from his branch for a closer look. “Tobias? I think maybe you’d better stay away or morph out. Cats are genetically programmed to be afraid of large birds.”

<Sorry,> Tobias said. He flared his wings, cutting his speed. <Um…I should probably stay up here to fly cover until Rachel is inside, don’t you think? I can keep my distance so I don’t freak her out…>

“That’s a good idea, Tobias,” I said reluctantly. I was starting to get a bad feeling about how much Tobias liked to be in his hawk morph, but we really did need somebody up there keeping an eye out, and he was already morphed. “As soon as she’s inside, though, morph back. If she needs to bail in a hurry, we don’t want to have any unfortunate confrontations.”

<Okay,> Tobias said. His thought-speak tone was flat, giving me no clue what he was thinking.

I ground my teeth and looked down at Rachel, whose fur was still on end, but starting to flatten as Tobias banked away over another yard.

“Rachel?” I said.

<I’m okay,> she said quickly. <I think I’m pretty much in control.>

“Can you do this, do you think?” I asked.

<Oh, yeah. I can do anything.>

Cassie and I exchanged a worried look.

“Don’t let the cat’s arrogance get you in trouble,” Marco advised. “Keep a little of your good old human fear.” He paused. “Oh, I forgot, mighty Rachel doesn’t have any good old human fear. So here’s what you do: Borrow some of my good old human fear. I have plenty to spare.”

“He’s right, Rachel,” Cassie said earnestly. “Keep focused. Between your own natural attitude and the cat’s ‘tude, you could get cocky.” She scratched her arm and looked at Marco and I sheepishly. “I did. And I’m not nearly as confident as you.”

<It’s not a problem,> Rachel insisted. <I’ve got this.>

“Just be careful in there,” Marco agreed. He grinned. “That’s an assistant principle you’re dealing with. He finds out you’ve turned into a cat and gone sneaking around his house, that will be after-school detention for like a year.”

Cassie and I laughed nervously, but it didn’t feel all that funny. Detention was the least of what Rachel would have to face, if Chapman caught her.

“We’re here if you get into a mess,” Cassie said reassuringly.

I nodded, but I wasn’t sure what we would do if Rachel needed help. Morph into a tiger, a gorilla, a cougar, and a horse and bust into his house? Ring the doorbell and somehow keep him talking long enough for Rachel to sneak out? I started to get a very bad feeling about this mission. Why hadn’t I come up with a back-up plan ahead of time?

<I’ll meow if I need help,> Rachel said drily. <Don’t worry, I’m in control now. It’ll be fine.>

Cassie and I exchanged another anxious look, like we both wanted to say something to dissuade Rachel from going through with this stupid idea but weren’t sure how. In the end all Cassie said was, “The morph clock is ticking. It’s quarter to eight. Remember that.”

Rachel trotted off down the street. We all watched her go.

“Hey,” Marco said, “do you think Chapman keeps any of blank permission slip forms in his house?”

“Marco,” I said warningly.

He held up his hands in protest. “Hey, I’m just saying, a booklet of those could be handy. Then all you need to do is pick a teacher who’s got sloppy handwriting, forge their signature, and bam: you’ve got a get-out-of-detention free card all ready to be used…”

His voice trailed off as we watched Rachel jump up onto a fence as she passed. She sauntered along the wooden railing like she was in one of her gymnastics exhibitions.

“Um, Rachel, what exactly are you doing?” I asked.

Rachel froze. <Just practicing,> she said hurriedly and jumped back off the fence.

This time Marco joined Cassie and I on the exchange of worried looks.

Rachel started toward the Chapmans’ house again, but stopped to sniff at a telephone pole.

“Oh yeah,” Marco whispered, “this is going great.”

We watched as Rachel gave a sudden start, like she’d suddenly realized what she was doing—or more likely, like somebody who was currently soaring overhead had just said something to her in private thought-speak. After a few seconds she started moving toward the house again.

Cassie’s face seemed to have settled into a permanent frown. “When I was a cat, I kind of…used the cat’s confidence to cover for my own fear,” she said quietly. “Like, I didn’t really want to get that close to Chapman and the other Controllers, but the cat didn’t care. So I sort of…let it lead me. It was easy to be brave then, but hard to remember that there was stuff I should still be afraid of.”

“So do you think it’ll be better that Rachel doesn’t need the cat’s fearlessness, so she won’t have to use its instincts, or worse because she won’t have any instincts in her head saying stuff like, ‘hey maybe it’s not a good idea to go pick a fight with something five times my size’?” Marco asked.

Cassie didn’t answer; just shook her head and stared anxiously into the night.

* * *

I was pacing. Back and forth across the next door neighbor’s lawn; back and forth, back and forth. Cassie was standing under their oak tree, worrying nervously at her fingers. Marco was sitting against their fence, arms splayed across his knees, trying to look relaxed, but I could tell he was tense. Tobias stood perfectly still in the empty space between them, his hands locked in fists by his side, alternately staring between me and the house. I knew he was upset that I’d made him demorph, but what good could he really do Rachel as a hawk?

“How far do you think thought-speak reaches?” he asked suddenly.

“What?” I said, startled from my thoughts.

“Thought-speak,” Tobias repeated. “If I morphed back to hawk—”

“Tobias, forget about the hawk for once—”

“No, listen.” He flinched when he met my eyes, but he didn’t look away. “If I morphed hawk again, and I flew up onto the roof or whatever, do you think Rachel would be able to hear me inside?”

I shook my head. “Too risky,” I said automatically. For some reason, I didn’t want Tobias turning back into a hawk tonight.

“There’s no risk,” he insisted. “And Rachel’s been in there for over an hour with no word. What if something’s happened? What if she’s calling for help right now, and we’re too far away to hear her?”

I shifted my weight. “Okay, so I morph lizard and I sneak in—”

“What good are you going to do as a lizard?” Tobias asked.

“What good are you going to do as a hawk?” I retorted.

“If all you’re doing is getting close enough so you can talk to Rachel, it doesn’t matter,” Marco pointed out, “since neither of you will actually be doing anything until you come back for the rest of us.”

“Okay,” I said, “fair enough…so I’ll go and—”

“I’ll be faster,” Tobias said. His face looked funny until I realized that he had already started morphing. “No offense, Jake, I’m sure your lizard can motor, but there’s no way he can run faster than the hawk can fly.”

I wanted to argue but I knew he was right. I also wasn’t eager to morph the lizard again, but I couldn’t admit that aloud—could barely admit it to myself—so I glared at him to cover my relief. “Okay,” I said grudgingly. “But remember, you’re just getting close enough to get in touch with Rachel so you can find out what’s taking her so long. No stupid heroics.”

<Of course not,> Tobias said. <Reconnaissance only.> Since his eyes had already darkened into the sharp, expressionless eyes of a bird of prey, I couldn’t tell if he meant it.

I grimaced and watched him go.

The minutes passed slowly. I was filled with a restless energy and I wanted to pace more, to try and burn it off, but I couldn’t tear my gaze away from the house. I waited, shifting unhappily from foot to foot.

“I wonder if there is a limit to how many morphs we can acquire,” Cassie said suddenly. She sounded as nervous as I felt.

“If there is, we’ll probably find out at the worst possible time,” Marco said darkly.

I sighed and ran my hand through my hair, making it stand up in awkward clumps. I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to fix it, even though Cassie was standing barely five feet away.

Suddenly I heard a voice in my head: <Jake, Rachel’s okay…but she isn’t ready to come out yet.>

“Tobias?” I said. He couldn’t hear me. I swore and got ready to morph so I could reply, but then I noticed a dark shape gliding toward me against the clouds.

<She says Melissa “needs” her. I’m not sure what she means by that.>

He settled on a branch overhead. I glared up at him, but I wasn’t angry at Tobias. “Get her out of there,” I snapped. “Get her out of there right now.”

Tobias ruffled his feathers. <I can’t exactly go soaring in the window to drag her out by the scruff of her neck,> he pointed out reasonably.

“I don’t care,” I said. “Tell her to get back out here right now. Remind her that she’s in there to do a job, not to play Dr. Phil, Feline Edition with Melissa Chapman.”

<I’ll tell her,> Tobias said, and winged away before I could say more.

That was probably for the best. Nothing that I wanted to say just then was very nice.

Cassie came over and stood next to me. She didn’t hold my hand or anything, but I felt a little better having her there beside me.

But just a little.

We waited for what felt like forever. Cassie kept checking the watch on her wrist when she thought I wasn’t looking at her. Tobias didn’t come back. I hoped he was arguing with Rachel, trying to make her see sense and come back. I hoped he hadn’t gotten into some kind of trouble. I hoped Rachel hadn’t, either.

“How long?” I asked Cassie. My voice croaked, like it had been hours since I’d used it last.

“Half an hour,” she said.

The minutes passed. Marco started plucking blades of grass and shredding them between his fingers. I stayed where I was, feeling like a tiger pacing in a tight circus cage. Cassie looked at her watch.

“How long?” I asked again.

“Twenty minutes,” she whispered.

At fifteen, Marco rose and dusted himself off, walked over to stand next to us. None of us said anything for a long time. I saw Cassie looked at her watch again. “How long?” I asked. I felt like I was about to explode.

“Fifteen minutes,” she said.

Time passed at a crawl. None of us spoke.

Finally, finally , just as I was about to ask Cassie for a fourth time-check, a black and white cat came bounding toward us across the grass. I could vaguely make out the silhouette of a bird soaring overhead, but I only had eyes for Rachel.

“You only have ten minutes to spare, Rachel,” I said sharply to her. I was sure I sounded furious. I felt furious. “I hope it was worth scaring us all half to death. Did you at least discover something useful?”

<Yes,> Rachel said. Tobias fluttered to the ground behind her, but this time her cat instincts didn’t seem to care. She stared up at us, at me, her gold-green eyes bright. <I discovered plenty. I discovered that Chapman has a way to communicate directly with Visser Three. I discovered that Visser Three is pretty hot to catch us, although he still thinks we’re Andalites. And I decided something, too.>

I raised my eyebrows, but before I could say something snappish about Rachel picking a great time for some introspection, Cassie asked simply, “What?”

<I decided that I don’t care what it takes, or how many risks I have to run.> Rachel’s thought-speak voice was tight and sharp. She was starting to grow now, abandoning the morph, but she continued to thought-speak as she shifted. <I don’t care what happens to me. I hate these Yeerks. I hate them. I hate them. And I will find a way to stop them.>

“Oh, well, as long as you’ve decided, ” Marco began to say snidely, but as she was demorphing I saw Rachel’s face emerge from the fur, saw an expression similar to the expression I’d seen in the mirror on the morning after our fight in the Yeerk pool. Saw an expression similar to what I felt inside every time I looked at Tom, and thought about the Yeerk in his head, controlling him.

“Marco?” I said. “Shut-up.”

Chapter Text

That night and the next morning, I barely got any homework done. In math class that day I got the first C I’d gotten in a long time. My grades were starting to fall because I was busy trying to save the world. Or at least to save my old friend.

I knew now what had happened. Why Melissa and I weren’t friends anymore, at least not close friends. Something had gone terribly wrong in her life. Her parents no longer loved her. They pretended to, they sounded like they did, but Melissa knew it was all wrong.

Every time I thought about it, I felt like my insides were burning up from the anger. I guess I knew a little bit about what she was feeling. When my parents got divorced, I worried that maybe that meant they didn’t love me anymore.

I was wrong. They still did. I don’t see my dad as much as I would like to, but he does love me. My mom loves me. Even my sisters love me. Love is pretty important. It’s like wearing a suit of armor. It makes you strong.

Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of love going around our middle school that day. What there mostly was, was gossip. Ordinarily I didn’t mind gossip, even enjoyed it most of the time—I wasn’t an addict, like people like Elizabeth or Darlene or Allison, but some of the stories were fun—but today all I could think about was how stupid it all was. Did people really not have anything more important to talk about than who I’d chosen to talk to about their cat?

Apparently not, if the idiots surrounding me were any indication. The fact that at least half the idiots in question were my friends did not make the constant whispering, tittering, giggling, gasping, and prying any less annoying; if anything that made it worse, because while I could shut-down everyone else with a sharp comeback or a pointed eyeroll, tricks like that wouldn’t work on the people who actually knew me.

“Yeah, Brittany,” I said for at least the sixth time that day, “I have definitely heard that his mom believes in aliens. That is a thing that I know because I am, like, not a feral child who just crawled out of the cave where she was raised by a family of bears.”

“Um, isn’t it usually raised by wolves?” Brittany asked, because apparently she was some kind of idiom-pedant all of a sudden.

I rolled my eyes for at least the twenty-sixth time that day. “Yeah, usually,” I said, “but wolves are social animals, while bears aren’t so much. Plus they hibernate which is, like, the ultimate form of tuning-out on the world.” God, Cassie was rubbing off on me. “So I figure that being raised by bears would mean someone would be even more out of touch than if they’d been raised by wolves. And you would have to be that out-of-touch to not know about Loren Mullins and her aliens.”

“Who?” said Brittany.

This time I didn’t roll my eyes; I closed them. I couldn’t stand looking at Brittany’s face any longer. “Loren Mullins. Tobias’s mom,” I said through gritted teeth.

I could practically hear Brittany’s nose wrinkling in confusion. “Uh, I thought Tobias’s name was Williams or something?”

“Whitman,” I said. I was going to crack a tooth at this rate. “His name is Tobias Whitman.”

“Okay but then like, why does his mom have a different name?”

“Because we live in a patriarchal society,” I shot back automatically. I grimaced at myself as soon as the words were out of my mouth; I hadn’t meant to quote my mom, but I’ve heard her rail about the sexism of surnames so many times that I guess it popped out before I could help myself.

Mom’s bitter over the fact that she’d established her career using my dad’s last name, which meant that she couldn’t change back to her maiden name after the divorce without losing some of her clout and recognition in the courtroom. For a while I’d been glad that she’d kept dad’s name just because I didn’t like the idea of more things in my life changing , but now I was kind of ticked-off about it on my mom’s behalf. Like, why is it automatically assumed that the woman is going to change her name when she gets married? It seems kind of stupid to me for anyone to change their name, because isn’t it confusing for everybody to suddenly start going by a different name midway through your life? But add to that the fact that everyone just assumes that girls will do it automatically, well…maybe I’ve spent too much time listening to my mom, but that kind of pisses me off when I think about it. I like my last name. Why should I have to give it up just so I can make it easier for people to figure out what man I’ve “given” myself to—given, like I’m a Cuisinart or a Cadillac? No thanks.

“Huh?” said Brittany.

I shook my head and stormed away. “Forget it,” I snapped.

Storming away didn’t actually help me much; it just got me to Social Studies faster. Ms. Paloma was out sick so we had a sub, which meant a short video from Schoolhouse Rock and a cooperative worksheet. Ordinarily that would have meant a pretty chill class, but today?

Today it just meant more opportunities for people to pester me.

“Psssst…Rachel!”

I ignored the whisper as well as the smothered giggles that followed it.

“Rachel! Hey, hey Rachel! Hey!”

I glowered at my worksheet until the point of my pencil snapped off and went skittering across the floor. Grumbling uncomplimentary words under my breath, I headed to the front of the room and the big metal pencil sharpener bolted to the wall over the trash can. The sub looked up from his book, eyeing me curiously, but when he figured out where I was headed he dropped his gaze again. He’d said so little before starting the video and passing out our worksheets that I couldn’t even remember the dude’s name, but what did it matter? Ms. Paloma would be back tomorrow, and this substitute certainly wouldn’t remember any of us even if he ended up in our classroom again. Unless they were filling-in for long term issues like pregnancy or cancer, subs never did.

I glanced at him on the way back to my desk and did a double-take. For a second, I thought the title on his book had read The Sharing—but no. It was The Shining. Everything was fine.

My heart was pounding in my throat anyway. In my head, I could hear the screams of the Yeerk Pool again. When I sat down to a renewed course of “Hey, Rachel! Pssst, Rachel! Hey!” it was too much to swallow.

I spun around in my chair and glowered. “What?” I snapped. The three girls and two boys in the desks behind me giggled into their hands and sleeves, and I glared harder. I’d kept my voice low out of habit, but part of me wanted the substitute to yell at us all for talking too much. At least it would shut them up for a little while, even if it would be embarrassing to be called-out like that.

“We were just wondering,” Hans said, “if Tobias asks you out on a date, would he pick you up in a flying saucer do you think?”

 “Better than your mom’s crappy minivan, Romeo,” I sneered. “At least a flying saucer would be able to get above twenty miles per hour without a downhill slope.”

Hans blinked at me, his mouth dropping open in shock and hurt, while the others “Ooohed!” at him and laughed.

I flashed them all a tight, strained smirk and turned back around.

I tapped my pencil on the edge of my worksheet but I wasn’t seeing it; I was seeing the pool and the Hork-Bajir and the humans in the cages. I was seeing the voluntary Controller area, set up like a cute little food court in Hell. I was seeing Tobias blushing in that half-finished warehouse, more concerned over the possibility that people might think he was trying to compete with Jake by morphing a cougar than he was with the idea of risking his life for people he didn’t even know. It was different for me and Jake, of course: Tom was family, even if I wasn’t anywhere near as close to him as Jake was. And Marco had been Jake’s best friend since they were in diapers, so Tom might as well have been a big brother to him, too. Cassie was my best friend and she had a massive crush on Jake, so—basically, we all had reasons for going into that pit to save Tom. Tobias hadn’t, but he’d still gone without a word of complaint. And now these morons were laughing about him, were laughing at the very idea that somebody like me might find somebody like him worth talking to.

It made my blood boil.

I could hear them whispering again and I did my best to tune it out. I still kept catching words like “space case” and “nutjob” and “weirdo,” though. It wasn’t until the pencil snapped in my hand that I realized how tightly I’d been gripping it.

Growling quietly, I returned to the front of the room to sharpen the half-a-pencil I had left into a point. The substitute watched me suspiciously. I probably should have smiled at him; I can usually get most adults to melt with a big, bright, toothy grin without having to try too hard, but I didn’t feel like it just then. Let him write me up; what could he say? That I’d had to sharpen my pencil more than once? Ms. Paloma wouldn’t even bother to roll her eyes over that one. Compared to some of the kids in this class I was practically a saint. I could sharpen a whole box of pencils and she wouldn’t care.

I stomped back to my seat and threw myself into the chair hard enough to rattle the attached desk. I picked up my worksheet and glared at it, trying to will the jumble of nonsense words and dates to make some kind of sense. Behind me, the whispering continued.

They were all snickering now, and shooting looks across the room toward the desk in the back corner where Tobias was sitting, his blonde head bent low over his own paper. I think that was the worst part of it, really: they were teasing me, sure, but they were doing it at his expense. Because I wasn’t the weirdo; I was the nice, normal girl who had made the mistake of treating the school freak like a person for twenty minutes.

Right, I thought darkly, the nice, normal girl who can turn into an elephant and use you for a field goal.

Picturing that made me feel a little better, but it didn’t do anything to get my worksheet finished. Oh well. My grades in Social Studies were great; I could survive a botched worksheet or two, and everyone knew that the classroom assignments given out on substitute teacher days were make-work to keep us out of their hair anyway. I hoped, anyway; I didn’t need to get two Cs in one day.

I yanked my backpack onto my shoulders, handed in my three-questions-completed-out-of-thirteen worksheet, and breezed out the door as though I’d never even met Hans before, let alone spent the last fifteen minutes imagining using him as a pachydermal football.

My fake-careless attitude shattered two minutes later when I crossed paths with Melissa on my way into Language Arts. She took one look at me and turned around, heading back the other direction as though I was some kind of plague carrier, but not before I could see how red-rimmed her eyes were.

She’d been crying, and recently.

My heart sank. I knew she wasn’t a Controller now—if she’d been a Controller, she would have known why her parents had stopped acting like they loved her, and she also wouldn’t have cared—which meant that she was a prisoner in her own home and didn’t even know it. She was caught up in a war that refused to name itself, her parents helpless victims who weren’t even allowed to send messages to the people they loved.

And I, somehow, had made it worse.

My stomach turned over and I decide to skip Language Arts in favor of making a run to the restroom. It would mean trouble if I got caught, I guess, but I wasn’t the sort of kid who faked-sick to get out of tests or due dates. If I went to the Nurse’s Office complaining that I didn’t feel well, she’d probably let me lay down on the weird brown plastic couch in there for a class period without much objection. I could always get the notes from Cassie. She didn’t take great notes, but her handwriting was clearer than mine—even if she did have a habit of doodling flower petals sometimes when she dotted her i’s.

I dropped my backpack on the floor of the farthest stall, sat on the toilet with my jeans still up, and rested my head on the cool metal wall next to me. I closed my eyes and waited for my stomach to stop cramping.

I hadn’t meant to hurt Melissa. That was the worst part: that I’d upset her again, without noticing again. How had I missed realizing we were drifting apart? How could asking Tobias to tell me stories about his stupid cat have turned into Melissa and I shouting at each other in the lunchroom doorway? We’d been friends almost all our lives. How was it that our friendship could have fallen apart without me noticing?

Was I a bad friend?

My eyes shot open again as I contemplated this new possibility. I’d always thought I was a pretty good friend, when I’d thought about it at all. I teased people, sure, and I guess I picked on people’s clothes a little if I thought they were wearing something dumb or ugly but I did that to help them, not to hurt them. I didn’t blow people off or talk about them behind their backs—well, not much, not any more than anyone did—and I didn’t play stupid games to score laughs at other people’s expense. I didn’t go out of my way to hurt people in order to make myself look cool.

But did I ignore other people’s feelings when they weren’t convenient to me? I hadn’t thought I did, but I hadn’t noticed Melissa’s pain until now…and that seemed like a lot of pain to ignore.

I closed my eyes and pushed the heels of my hands into them, as though I could shut out the memory of the hurt on her tired, sad face. It didn’t work, so I dropped my hands and sighed.

“Why do I keep hurting the people I like?” I asked the restroom at large.

Fortunately, nobody answered me. Bathrooms gaining the ability to speak would have been one level too weird for me to process, I think.

* * *

That afternoon after school we met up again—the other Animorphs and I, I mean—which made for a great excuse to ditch my other friends, who were still teasing me about talking to Tobias. Not that I could tell them that’s what I was doing, of course. “Sorry guys, can’t hang out today, I need to turn into a bird so I can go plot how to stop an alien invasion with my other friends,” just doesn’t roll off the tongue, I guess. Plus there was always the chance that one or more of the girls giggling about how weird Tobias was might be a Controller.

That was a really fun new addition to my life: wondering which of my friends could be enslaved by an alien slug who would kill me if they found out who I was. Suddenly “Truth Or Dare” had spiked to life or death levels, how awesome.

It was hard to sulk while riding the thermals, though. By the time I reached the meeting point I was feeling a little better. I saw one of the others—Tobias, I guessed, from the flash of red feathers in his tail—angling in to the old bell tower. The bell was long gone, but there were big open windows that birds of prey could soar into easily, and the tower was far enough off the ground that no one was going to be casually peeking inside to see us morphing.

Ten minutes later we were all there, all back in our human bodies, and listening to Marco whine about our unfashionable attire. I couldn’t deny that Cassie’s decision to pair a purple stretch top with patterned green leggings had been an even bigger mistake than Jake’s terrible bike shorts, but when Marco started to pick on Tobias for still wearing his mom’s baggy blue leggings I lost my temper.

“Marco,” I said, “I think you’ve been reading too much Vogue lately. The perfume samples seem to be dissolving what few brain cells you’ve got left.”

Cassie giggled and even Jake’s mouth twitched. Tobias was sitting hunched on a windowsill, his hair hanging forward to hide his face, but the bone-white strain of his clenched knuckles eased. I felt a little better. Maybe I couldn’t do much to stop the idiots at school from teasing him, but at least I could make Marco shut-up when he went too far.

“I guess that explains what happened to your brains,” Marco shot back at me, and I actually grinned. It was so nice to actually banter with someone, compared to what I’d spent the day dealing with at school, that I didn’t even bother with a comeback.

Jake cleared his throat. “Speaking of brains…” he said.

We all turned to look at him. “You’re finally going to write to that mail order company I told you about and get yourself one?” Marco guessed.

I snorted. Jake was so used to Marco that he hardly even bothered to roll his eyes. “No,” he said. “They sold their last model to you already, remember? No,” he continued, his voice going flat and serious. “What I want is for us to start using ours more—all of us.”

He said “all of us,” but he was looking at me .

I looked back. “What do you want?” I said. “I already apologized for morphing to scare off that creep, and I’m not going to apologize for spending a little extra time at the Chapmans’ house.”

A muscle twitched in Jake’s jaw, like he was fighting to resist the urge to point out that it had been more than a little extra time—but what he said was, “I want everyone to remember that we need to be careful when we’re in public.” His eyes flashed to Marco for a moment before coming back to rest on me again. “Like at school,” he added grimly.

I could feel my face heating up. I didn’t dare look at Tobias.

“We just talked ,” I said. I knew I sounded like I was whining, but I couldn’t stop myself. “About how cats act, like you told us to. It wasn’t a big deal. I don’t know why everybody decided to make it a big deal.”

“Bull,” said Marco bluntly. “Look, I’m not saying that I think it’s a good thing that there are so many weird social divisions in school, but there are. You know there are. You have to; you’re at the top of the heap.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” I said.

“Well then I’ll spell it out for you, perfume-brain,” Marco said, his eyes narrow. “You—“ he pointed at me like his finger was the barrel of a gun “—are a queen bee, a goddess among mortals, a shopping mall princess. One of the pretty, popular people. And Tobias here—” the pointing finger shot sideways “—he is at the bottom of the social pecking order. A guppy, a minnow, a tadpole. When someone like you —” the finger swung back around “—makes a big scene out of having lunch with someone like him —” he pointed at Tobias again “—people will notice. People will care . People will talk.” He shrugged. “I’m not saying it’s right, I’m not saying it’s cool. I’m just saying it’s a fact.” Marco’s voice softened as he added, “No offense, Tobias. But we all know it’s true.”

I glanced sideways in time to see Tobias’s head jerk in a tiny nod, his face hidden all the way down to his chin. His hands had gone tense again, so tense that I could practically see the bones of his knuckles protruding through the skin. My stomach felt like it was tying itself in knots and I wanted to throw up.

Instead I said, “It isn’t right. And I’m not going to let some…some stupid idea about who’s ‘cool’ and who isn’t dictate who I talk to.”

Marco’s laugh was bitter. “If you don’t want to cause a scene you will,” he told me. “And we can’t afford to cause scenes these days, can we?”

I glared at Marco through narrowed eyes, wondering what everybody would do if I just stepped forward and punched him in the jaw. Before I could decide if I wanted to or not, Jake spoke, snapping everyone’s attention back to him.

“Neither can you, Marco,” he said. “What were you thinking, taking the fall for Melissa swearing?”

Marco looked a little flustered but his voice, when he spoke, was smooth. “I was thinking that me getting in trouble for saying a bad word would attract less attention than Chapman’s daughter getting in trouble for saying a bad word. I was thinking that having Chapman wonder why his daughter had gotten into such a nasty fight with one of her closest friends that she was swearing in the school hallways might inspire him to start looking at Rachel.” His gaze slid sideways from Jake’s face to catch my eyes, and stayed there. “I was thinking,” he finished darkly, his eyes glittering, “that giving Chapman an excuse to make sure that Melissa’s friends weren’t causing any problems is the last thing we need.”

I felt cold all over, even though the breeze off the beach was still warm from the afternoon sun. I didn’t think Marco had been thinking any such thing when he’d lied to Mr. Halloram about Melissa swearing, but he’d obviously thought about it since and even if he’d just come up with all of that in order to cover his butt when Jake inevitably called him out, that didn’t mean he was wrong.

I broke our staring contest, looking down at my feet. For a while nobody said anything, not even Jake.

Eventually he cleared his throat again. “Okay,” he said. “Well, that’s…that’s something to consider, definitely. So let’s all just try and be more careful in the future, okay?”

“Okay,” I mumbled. The others chorused a ragged agreement, no one sounding very enthusiastic.

“Right,” Jake said. “Right. Well…I guess we should decide what we’re doing next. Yeah?”

Marco shook his head. “I want to decide what we’re not doing next. I should be spending more time with my dad. You know, he’s still messed up over my mom….”

Marco’s voice always cracked whenever he mentioned his mom. He’d start out sounding tough and all, but his voice would end up with that little break, that little wobble. It had been two years since his mother disappeared. They said she’d drowned, although they never found her body. His father had fallen apart. I knew it was the main reason Marco was so reluctant to be an Animorph. He was worried that if anything ever happened to him, his dad would just give up totally.

Suddenly, I couldn’t feel impatient with his refusal to face our new reality. Jake looked away, and I did the same. I didn’t know what to say.

Fortunately we had Cassie with us. She put a hand on Marco’s arm. “Don’t ever let any of this get in the way of spending time with your dad,” she said earnestly. “He needs you. We need you, too, Marco, but your dad comes first.” She looked at Jake, then at Tobias, then at me. “There isn’t much point in doing any of this if we forget why we’re doing it.”

I thought about Melissa. And I thought about my mom and dad and how great it was to have them, even when they got on my nerves.

“Cassie’s right. When you get home, tell your dad you love him, Marco.” I blurted it out without thinking about it. It wasn’t the kind of thing I normally say.

“Thank you, Doctor Rachel,” Marco said.

He said it snidely, but I could see he knew what I was talking about. Then he was suddenly all business. He rubbed his hands together. “Okay, let’s get serious here. How are we going to go about getting ourselves killed next? Turn into flies at a frog convention? Morph into turkeys at Thanksgiving?”

“I want to go back in,” I said. “Back into Chapman’s.”

“Why?” Jake asked. “We learned a lot already. We—”

“We didn’t learn the location of the Kandrona,” I pointed out. “That’s what we need to do, sooner or later. The Andalite made it pretty clear to Tobias that the Kandrona is the weak point for the Yeerks. The Kandrona sends out the rays that are concentrated in the Yeerk pools. If we destroy the Kandrona, we hurt them bad.”

“That’s true,” Tobias said. His voice was soft, little more than a mumble, but I took it as a good sign that he was participating in the conversation again—that he was backing me up. Maybe he would eventually forgive me for putting him through all that crap at school with my stupid idea of eating lunch together.

Marco raised a skeptical eyebrow at the both of us. “Excuse me, love birds, but what is a Kandrona? I mean, we know what it does , but what does it look like? How big is it? For all we know, the Kandrona could be the size of a lighter and be in Visser Three’s pocket.”

“That’s not the impression I got from the Andalite,” Tobias said. “Besides, Visser Three doesn’t wear clothes. He doesn’t have pockets.”

“Okay, Andalite nudity aside,” Marco said impatiently, “the point is: How do we destroy something when we don’t even know what it is?”

“That’s why we have to follow the one lead we have,” I said. “Chapman. Chapman communicates with Visser Three. The two of them know where the Kandrona is. If I can spy on them, maybe I can figure it out.”

They were all staring at me. Marco looked at me like I was crazy. Jake looked thoughtful. Cassie looked worried, like she wasn’t sure about what I was saying.

Tobias had raised his head up through the curtain of his hair, and he was staring at me unhappily. “That sounds really…risky, Rachel,” he said softly. I had a feeling he wasn’t just talking about getting caught by Chapman, but I decided to ignore his subtext.

“No riskier than it was the first time,” I bluffed.

“Untrue,” said Marco. “Every time you repeat an action, the odds of discovery increase.”

“Like you’re some kind of statistics genius,” I started, but Jake interrupted me.

“I don’t think you should go back in there,” he said. “And definitely not alone.”

“Just because we can all morph Fluffer doesn’t mean we can have multiple versions of Melissa’s cat show up in the house at one time,” I said. I even managed to laugh. “If anything is going to make Chapman suspicious of his daughter’s cat, it would be that.”

See…I hadn’t told anyone about Visser Three telling Chapman to kill me. I knew it was wrong to keep secrets like that from the group. But if I’d told them, they would have never let me go back in.

“No, Rachel, of course we can’t all go charging in as an army of Fluffers,” Jake said. He sounded annoyed, like I was being stupid on purpose. I bristled. “But that doesn’t mean you have to be the one to go back in.”

I started to feel panicky. I couldn’t have any of the others going in there in my place. Not with my friend being the one who was trapped in that house, and definitely not with Visser Three already suspicious of the cat. But what could I say?

“Did you forget the part where I’m the only one who knows the layout of the house?” I pointed out.

“I think I’ve got a general gist of it,” said Tobias. I spun around to glare at him but he was looking at Jake and avoiding my eye. “I mean, I peeked in the windows a little bit when I was trying to get you to come out. And it sounds like the room where Chapman talks to Visser Three is the only place that really matters. I think I can manage to find the basement if I try real hard.”

He had a little grin on his face, like there nothing to worry about. My heart skipped a beat in my chest and I had to swallow hard to fight back the urge to just blurt out the whole story. I bit my lip instead and forced myself to speak calmly, saying, “But I’m the one who’s been there already. It makes more sense for me to be the one to go back in.”

Jake shook his head. “No,” he said, “I think sending someone different is a good idea. A second pair of eyes gives us more of a chance to notice something different—something that you might not notice, Rachel, precisely because you are familiar with the house.”

 “I’ve morphed a cat before,” Cassie said. “Maybe I should be the one to go.”

My heart didn’t skip a beat this time; it started sinking, dropping slowly from my chest toward my shoes.

“But didn’t you say you’d almost gotten in trouble because of how confident the cat was?” Marco said. “Probably not a good idea for you to risk repeating that, not in Chapman’s house.”

I could see Cassie blush. Her complexion is dark enough that most people—like Jake, I presume—don’t usually notice when she blushes, unless it gets really bad, but Cassie has been my best friend since I was a baby. I noticed the red flush of mortification blazing on her cheeks, the way she ducked her chin toward her chest and her shoulders twitched in the faintest hint of a shrug.

I breathed a private sigh of relief. If Cassie was embarrassed, she wasn’t likely to press the point.

“I’ll do it,” Tobias offered again. He glanced at me. “As we’ve established, I’m the only one who’s really familiar with feline behavior.” Was I imagining the little smirk on his face? Was he really joking about the scene in the cafeteria?

I was so pleased at the thought that he might not hate me for putting him through all that that I forgot to keep arguing about who would morph Fluffer, and smiled at Tobias instead.

“Great,” said Jake, jolting me back to reality. “It’s settled then. Tobias will go in, and the rest of us will play backup—just like before. Now I don’t know about the rest of you,” he pushed off from the salt-faded windowsill he’d been using as a seat, “but I have a pile of homework waiting for me. If we’re going to go back to the Chapman’s tonight, I need to go get started on that asap. We’ll meet outside Chapman’s house same as last night—does that work for everybody?”

One by one we all agreed, although I could barely force the words out. What had I done? I couldn’t let Tobias go in there in my place, I couldn’t—but if I told the others why not, they’d never let any of us go back in there. And I couldn’t abandon Melissa, not again.

My head was spinning as we all geared up to leave. We had to go back to the school to get out things, our clothes and our book bags and our shoes; not even my bald eagle morph was big enough to carry a backpack, especially not one that had been stuffed full of textbooks for homework that I already knew I wasn’t going to be able to make myself focus on.

I could barely manage to get into morph. I was glad that we all had different bird morphs—well, except for Marco and Cassie; they had both morphed the same osprey. But it meant that we didn’t all fly at the same speed, and we couldn’t exactly hang-out in midair. Even birds of prey of the same species don’t spend a lot of time just flapping around together; they aren’t social animals. We spread out wide and all took the journey back at our own pace, which gave me a chance to think without being distracted by a bunch of thought-speak chatter.

Unfortunately the flight didn’t do much to help me figure out what to do. By the time I landed, I was just as panicky and just as lost as when I’d started.

I walked around back behind the bleachers where I’d stashed my things and pulled my clothes on over my morphing suit. I trudged toward the front of the school, where another block’s walk would take me to a regular bus stop where I could get a ride home. The bright afternoon sun was fading toward the rich glow of evening, but I didn’t think it was dimming sunlight that had goose bumps running up and down my arms. If anything happened to Tobias, it would be my fault…

A flash of motion caught my eye, and I realized it was Tobias, walking off in the other direction with his head down, heading for the apartment he shared with his mom.

“Tobias—wait up!” I blurted. He turned around, spotted me, and paused beside the “Tobacco Free Zone” sign. The sunlight caught his hair like a crown, making it hard for me to see his face, but I thought he might be smiling. I jogged over to him. “I have to—there’s something I need to talk to you about,” I stammered. My heart was pounding, but not from the short run.

He smiled at me. “It’s okay, Rachel,” he said. His voice was gentle. “It isn’t a big deal, seriously. It was kind of nice to eat lunch with—with somebody else. Besides, everyone will forget in a few—”

“It’s about Chapman’s house,” I interrupted. “You can’t go in there. It’s too dangerous.”

His smile soured, drawing into a frown. “I can handle it,” he said shortly. “I don’t need to be protected like a—”

“Visser Three noticed me last time,” I said. I knew if I didn’t get the words out fast I wouldn’t be able to, and Tobias had to know. “He told Chapman to kill me. In case I was an Andalite in morph. Chapman talked him out of it, but—“ I fell silent, swallowing hard.

Tobias stared at me. His face was slack, his blue eyes wide. The silence felt like it stretched forever. When he spoke again, his voice was tight. “You should have told us about that,” he said.

I hung my head, hunching my shoulders. “I know,” I said miserably. “I know I should have. I’m sorry. I just—I knew there was no way that Jake would have agreed to my going back in if he’d known that. But don’t you see?” I looked up again, meeting his eyes, searching them for—what was I looking for? Forgiveness? Understanding? Fear? Whatever it was, I didn’t find it. “That’s why I have to be the one to go back in, not you. I can’t ask you to take that kind of risk.”

“Then I guess it’s a good thing you don’t have to ask,” Tobias said simply. He turned and started walking again, leaving me to gape after him.

By the time I could get my feet to start moving again, he was halfway down the block. I raced after him, shouting, “Tobias—!”

He shook his head at me without turning around. “I’m doing it,” he said. His voice shook a little but his shoulders were squared against the weight of his ratty backpack and he walked without hesitation. “Please don’t try and stop me.”

For a long moment I paced behind him, hesitating, one hand fluttering uselessly in the air between us as I struggled between grabbing his arm and letting him go. Finally I managed to say, my voice little more than a whisper, “Okay.” I swallowed. “Just be careful, okay?”

Tobias paused and looked back to face me. “Like it’s my middle name,” he promised. He gave me a weak grin, then turned and started walking again.

This time, I let him go.