Author: D.M.P PM
The usual romance... with a twist...Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance - Words: 12,632 - Reviews: 35 - Favs: 3 - Published: 12-07-99 - id: 3952
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Beware all you HR fans, because your sacred relationships are going to be messed with again! No, it's not Cassie/Tobias, Marco/Rachel or even Jake/Rachel (ewww!) Guess what combo that leaves....
Now to all of you Ani-love fanatics read this with an open mind or not at all. I'm just being a little creative here. By the way, I know L'Angel has written a story based on the same concept entitled Snow, but I assure you that this piece is totally different. I'd like to thank L'Angel for editing, reviewing, and giving advice for this piece. Oh, and I'd also like to thank Amy Sophia Gorbo for being the one who made this writing challenge on October 7, 1999 (I know that was quite awhile ago, but I write serious stories very s...l...o...w...l...y... )
Anyway, read on, and enjoy! :-)
To him, the sky was an indescribable color. A faded yellow orb sinking below the harsh barren earth. Blackness had just begun to peek out, and intermingled with the blue of the ending day. Sharp stars high above made their silent appearance high above; the night was coming fast. Yet the colors lingered along the horizon, blurring it so that there was no boundary between heaven and earth. This spectacle was so beautiful yet plain, rare yet common, unnoticeable in its passing yet individual with each coming. Winter twilight had come upon the land.
That lone figure stared up at that sky. It was probably one of the only times he had looked upward and not wished to be home. He knew that he can't never go home now. He didn't want to; the ignominy within himself would be too great.
The Andalite didn't turn around, but an eye stalk looked back to see Rachel, standing just a few feet away. A wind wounded around the skeleton trees of the forest and past the two. The breeze blew against stray lock of golden hair that poked itself out from the hood of Rachel's parka. It fluttered carelessly in the wind before she tucked it back in.
"You didn't show up for the meeting, Ax," she said quietly.
He was silent for a long time afterwards. Rachel glanced down as if her words flawed the bitter stillness. Finally Ax spoke. I apologize, Rachel, he whispered. Just Rachel, he had said. He could never call her Prince.
Then he stood up and looked at Rachel full in the face. She looked straight back at him and for ten seconds none of them spoke. Then Ax moved and silently entered his scoop.
Rachel turned around and waited until her friend was ready. It had gotten colder now, and Ax had acquired heavier clothing to acknowledge the fact. When he was ready, both walked out of the forest, one walking ahead of the other, each not exchanging another word. The only sound that broke the silence was the stiff, crunching noise the snow made underneath their boots.
Rachel didn't like the way Ax had looked to her. There seemed to be something barren about him. Even when he walked behind her, the emptiness shown through. At most, the expression consisted of the look in his eyes. Not his face, for even after his long stay on Earth, he had not mastered all of human facial expressions. His eyes were what held the most life in him, and now that life was gone. All of his interest, his curiosity, his intellect, even that spark of Andalite arrogance that Rachel had despised so much was gone. Only one thing remained in those eyes. Shame.
At the edge of the forest, Rachel saw the stark field of white that lay before them. They were part of Cassie's property: the horse pastures. Over the distance, the light blue shade of her house was seen, along with the brilliant red of the barn. For a moment, a little voice went off in her head. C'mon, the voice said, isn't this why you came here in person instead of sending Tobias to fetch Ax? Didn't you want to try to talk to your best friend again?? Look, even from a far, you can see the light to her room is on. Why don't you try again, Rachel, just try. Can't you be the one reach her?
Rachel took one long look at that house, with the light in the bedroom. Then she sprinted across the pasture and down the street, never looking back. Ax silently followed in a slow, depressed stroll, not even noticing the house as he passed.
Rachel didn't stop running until she turned the corner onto the main street and got to her car that was parked on the side. It was only three months ago that she received that second-hand Honda Civic in celebration of getting her driver's license. However, the first time she drove it was to her cousin's funeral.
She slipped into the driver's seat while her hushed companion took the passenger one beside her. While starting up the car, the guilty thought crossed her mind of giving up another chance to talk to Cassie. But she tried, Rachel reasoned; she tried so many times before during the last three months. She came to the house, and tried to speak to Cassie. It wasn't her fault that Cassie was so still and silent all the time, was it? It wasn't her fault that Cassie had that blank look on her face, was it? It wasn't her fault that Cassie shut herself in her room all the time, was it?
So it was Cassie's grieving taciturnity had driven away her best friend. Rachel felt horrible about this. I'm suppose to be the strong one. Why can't I even confront her?
It took three times for the rusty engine to start up. Rachel pounded on the dashboard a few times with a clenched fist, to keep the motor from stalling and to vent her pent-up frustration. Damn it, Jake, she cursed. Why can't you be with us now? Why can't I deal with this the way you did, in that calming, commanding way? Why can't we just go on with our damn lives?? Why?
Rachel felt a lump in her throat rise up over the thought about her cousin. Tears stung her eyes, and she quickly blinked them away. She had somewhat prided herself of being the stable one in the group and will not fall apart now. She had to be strong; she was now their leader.
Thinking about it as she steered through the snowy streets, Rachel reflected that their plan seemed to go smoothly. Jake had heard from their Chee allies that the Yeerks were planning to build a special satellite; the A666 Satellite. When launched, not only will this satellite be able to manipulate and control other Earth satellites, but it would also be able to transmit a high frequency radiation wave so fine and sophisticated that it would be able to penetrate into human brain waves. The Yeerks were planning to use this satellite to direct other Earth satellites in giving off this hypnosis ray too. In other words, if their scheme was successful, all humans would be brainwashed to serve them, and the invasion would be complete.
According to the Chee, the plans for this device was still in its infancy, and the Animorphs aimed at destroying those blueprints before the Yeerks can carry out the construction of this doomsday device. Their destination for this was at a laboratory at the local university campus.
Executing the mission seemed simple. Ax and Jake were going to sneak in through a side entrance while the rest created a distraction at the front. Tobias was flying correspondence between the two groups. However, in the middle of the fight, amid the blood and screams, Rachel was the first to see Tobias flying above yelling, Retreat! Now!
Rachel looked up at the frantic cry. The Hork-Bajir she was fighting with slashed at her with its blades. Dodging the blow, Rachel made on of her own with her grizzly paw and aimed to strike again.
People! Tobias cried. We gotta leave!
She wanted to asked why, but Tobias's tone was so urgent that she didn't question it. Nodding her bear head in agreement, she bounded on all fours out of the building after the others. As Rachel left, her sensitive nose caught the sudden whiff of smoke and burning chemicals in the air. Where did that smell come from?
The explosion caught her off-guard and the impact force threw her several feet. She landed tumbling on the grass to a stop. Hot pieces of falling ash and debris from the eruption fell to the ground and bits of the stuff caught in Rachel's dark brown fur.
Rachel! Tobias swooped down and landed by her.
I'm fine, she rasped. Let's go! Tobias looked at her again for a moment, and waited until she got to her feet before he took to the air and continued the retreat.
They met Marco and Cassie in the woods about a quarter mile away from the campus.
Cassie looked around with golden-yellow wolf eyes. Where's Jake? she asked worriedly.
Don't worry; he'll be here, Rachel reassured quickly. She looked out toward the bright red and orange flames that stood out in the fall landscape. The time of the dying day had come; the merge between night and day was just beginning.
The small group stood there, as the sun set before them. Twilight came and went, and when the dark night finally settled upon them, a lone figure was seen walking toward them. It was Ax.
No one spoke when he came. Cassie looked behind him in hope that another might be coming. Then she turned to Ax for some kind of an explanation when she saw that he was alone. Ax voiced nothing but his eyes said it all. Jake will not be coming back.
Unconsciously, a tear slipped down Rachel's cheek. She wiped it away with a quick hand before putting it back on the steering wheel. And that was how it all happened. Jake died that night. She tried asking Ax what had happened exactly, but he would never say. Maybe it was because he blamed himself for his Prince's death. Even now, with him sitting beside her, Rachel could sense the bitter regret that came from him.
Covering up Jake's true death had been complicated, but it was done. Eerk had been a big help in it all. He and the Chee made it possible to make his family believe that Jake had passed away in a hit-and-run accident. Eerk himself had used his holograph to play the part of he friend. Everything from the ambulance drivers to the doctors at the hospital who made the final verdict were part of the secret Chee network of the town. Even the mock funeral afterwards was conducted by a very sympathetic priest aka Mr. King.
Though it was necessary, Rachel and the other Animorphs each felt a wave of sorrow and shame to be covering up the death of a friend with this facade. Rachel herself had looked into her aunt's tear-stained face and thought with anger and sadness that she would never know the real cause of her son's death. And as the casket was lowered into the frozen ground, Rachel knew that within the mahogany wood was an empty void. Jake's mother had threw a delicate rose in as the coffin hit bottom, and Rachel wanted to scream the truth at her. They were saying their final good-bye to no one; they were attending a grave without a body. The casket is empty, Aunt Helen! Why can't I tell you that??
Rachel looked up with a start to Ax. He had his fist against the dashboard, the dashboard still vibrating from the sudden impact. The engine then started up again.
"It stalled," Ax said flatly. "I have seen you maneuver this machine and I believe this is how you would have fixed it."
Rachel looked at him and nodded. "Thanks," she said dryly, then crossed the intersection with abrupt speed.
Arriving at Marco's house, they got out and enter the living room. Marco's dad was out, and Marco and Tobias were lounging around in silence.
"I have a plan," Rachel started. She sat next to Tobias, who was in his human morph, and he slipped his hand into hers. "The Yeerks have already finished planning and are now starting construction. We have-we have to try to stop them. Eerk told me yesterday his people discovered the new location."
No one made any interjections to this.
"We don't have to start on this now," Rachel added hurriedly, like they all held some grudge against their latest mission. "The launch won't take place for another four months. But we have to plan something."
"How can we do anything?" Marco suddenly spoke up. "It's only the four of us. We need more help than that." He looked to his fellow team members and they all got his message. They needed Cassie. Without her help, they had already failed.
The silver moon rose up into the inky darkness of the night. Cassie sat on her bed by the window and stared out into the black. Had it only been three months already? Time seemed to drag on forever to her.
Cassie closed her eyes and hugged her knees tight to her chest. A quiet tear brushed down her cheek. With her eyes closed, she saw Jake. She felt his arms around her and she heard him whisper softly in her ear that everything was going to be all right. That was how Cassie passed her nights; it was what kept her alive. But then came the time she would have to open her eyes and realize that Jake wasn't there to be with her, to comfort her and to hold her. And those were the times when she wondered why she kept herself alive.
For Jake was always the one who stood by her side. He alone supported her and her views when she faced the others with her concerns about morality. She always thought of herself as the "weak link," but with Jake she became strong. She loved Jake; he was apart of her. Without him, it was like living without a soul, surviving dismally in a dismal world.
Cassie closed her eyes and saw him. But after only a few moments, he would vanish and she would again be alone.
Cassie wanted to close her eyes forever.
Carefully, she slipped out of bed and stood up. With soft, paced steps, Cassie walked to the door to her room and opened it. The hall was cast in an eerie glow as the moonlight from her window reached out and spread like a mist through it.
Pausing, Cassie could heard her father's snores from down the hall. The walls were thin in this house; Cassie had heard other things from her parent's bedroom talks. The last she heard was not too long ago; her parents discussed the possibility of giving Cassie anti-depressants. Her dark grief has taken far too long, they said, and the psychiatrist they had taken her to suggested medication. Cassie was appalled and disgusted by such a thought. No, how could a shrink could ever feel the pain she was going through! How dare he even say such a thing!
Now Cassie made her was down the hall and down the steps. She came to the second to last stair and jumped over it, for it was always the one that creaked.
Stepping outside, Cassie felt the harsh cold on her skin. But the frigid temperature was nothing compared to the coldness that wrapped itself around her heart.
She walked the few yards between the house and the barn and unlocked the padlocks that kept the door shut. Sliding it open, the moonlight fell upon the cages of treated animals. She hadn't been here since Jake's death, and many new patients lined the walls. About half were sound asleep in their cages, while the nocturnal ones stared at the newcomer with glowing yellow eyes. Cassie approached a locked cabinet at the far end of the barn. In her hand was the key to open it; a key that she had stolen from her father without him noticing.
Cassie put the key into the lock and it made a soft click as it opened. Her father trusted Cassie and usually all of the closets and cabinets in the barn were open to her. But he always kept this one locked for a very special reason.
When the metal doors swung open, the rifle was seen in full view on the top shelf next to a cartridge of lead bullets. Cassie only seen her father use this gun once, when a rabid wolf had broken into the barn, but she still remembered how he had used it. With trembling hands, Cassie picked up the double-barreled rifle off the shelf along with two bullets. Using unknown skill, she turned off the safety lock and loaded the two bullets into the chamber. When all was finished, a dark presence seemed to emanate from the weapon, like it knew what was about to happen and anticipated its use.
Cassie stepped out of the barn and headed out to the back. Leaning her back against the barn wall, she held the rifle at an angle to her head. Then she closed her eyes. She knew now they would going to be closed forever.
Ax glanced around suddenly, his eye stalks swinging about frantically. No, please don't say the sound was heard again. Yes, there it was, there it was! A moaning from the dark. Ax got to his feet. Stop it! The moaning grew louder. Ax took a few steps in one direction, then another. The rubble- everywhere- by yeolin shouldn't he have known that explosion was going to happen??? And he was there, oh yeolin, there in the rubble with the dead Hork-Bajir and the dead human controllers and the dust and the grime and the flames. Why couldn't he get to him??? Why couldn't he help his Prince!? The sound grew louder. The sound of Jake's last moments. Oh yeolin! Why can't it leave! Go away, go away! But the sound the smells the noise and the crying and all the pain wouldn't leave. Instead the fire grew worse and the smoke thickened and the death seemed to grow larger and more looming. Larger and so overpowering until, until-
Ax's woke up gasping as his eyes burst open to greet the dark. Was that a dream? No, it was worse than that; it was a memory. The memory of the incident that occurred just three months ago, when Ax had failed his Prince.
Shame and regret had fallen upon the Andalite since that night. How could he overlook those chemicals in the next room? He should have known that one of them could have caused an explosion if a stray Dracon beam should hit it. He should have known and should have told his Prince. How could he have been so ignorant?!
Even after the initial explosion occurred, he could have saved his Prince. They could have made a run for it. Jake knew what was going to happen; he sent word to Tobias for the retreat. But the second burst of flame was so huge and overwhelming... It was all his fault. He shouldn't have gotten knocked out by the blast. He was an Andalite; he should have been able to help. But it was too late when he awoke. Why? Oh, yeolin, it was all his fault!
Since then, the vision that haunted him in his dreams was now invading his waking hours as well. Every thing he saw reminded him of the incident. His friend's grief-stricken faces, any reference to the lab in human news, even the scent of gasoline started the horrible nightmare all over again. Everything reminded him that he was the one to blame.
Ax rose to his hooves and breathed in deep draughts of the chilled night air. Putting a hand to his head, Ax exhaled, sending a puff of water vapor smoke into the night. Breathe, Aximili, breathe, he thought to himself. He must regain his composure. He looked into the dark at the silver moon that hung above the trees. He had to run. He didn't know why and he didn't know where, but he had to. Now.
Bounding into the oblivious night, Ax ran head first into nothing. He didn't care about anything at the moment. He just wanted to run and run fast; it helped with the pain.
Over the fallen logs, around the thorn bushes, and through the grassy patches he went, but ultimately away he went, away from it all. Past the trees, skirting the ponds and totally avoiding Tobias's meadow, he ran. Ax ran so fast and so hard that every part of him was focused on nothing but the speed the strength and the stamina of running. He ran so hard that he forgot. And that, actually, was the whole point of the run. It was always nice to forget.
He ran so quickly that soon the only thing he could process was the immediate ground in front of him. So it came as a surprise to him when he nearly tripped over the water trough in the horse pasture.
His eye stalks were what spotted it first, and Ax had built up so much speed that he almost didn't stop in time. Usually, the trough was covered, but since Cassie's father used it that day when excising the horses, he forgot to re-cover it afterwards. So when Ax made that sudden stop, he did it so quickly that he tumbled head first into the ice-crusted water.
A cold beyond cold shocked his lungs, and Ax burst out of the water gasping. The temperature outside was so frosty that his wet fur quickly metamorphesoed into a stiff, frozen blanket. The good thing about this incident, however, was that it woke Ax up and made him more aware of his surroundings.
Looking around, Ax realized that he stood on the edge of Cassie's pasture land. The house and barn that stood about two hundred yards off was now only a jagged figure on the horizon at night. Yet looking at that those dark buildings, Ax noticed that a person slip out of the barn door and head out to the back. Wondering who that person was and what that person was doing, Ax trotted over to investigate.
Behind the barn, Cassie had the rifle muzzle aimed at her head. From her sitting position on the ground, Cassie looked up and saw a faint star above. The starry heavens were downgraded to one single point of light. Cassie stared at the shining speck glowing faintly down upon her. I'm coming , Jake, she cried out silently to that lone star above. I'm coming.
Ax ran to Cassie and kneeled down by her side. His sudden outburst was what saved her life; it surprised her so that the rifle slipped from her fingers and out of position when she accidentally pulled the trigger. The bullets were shot harmlessly into the air.
Cassie. Ax took her by the shoulders and looked at her full in the face. What were you doing??
The dazed girl stared blankly ahead and let the gun fall by her side. Finally, she felt the fear of death that was upon her, for it is only after the attempt will a victim start to realize how close to death she was and how much she truly wanted to live. After the initial shock, Cassie shivered and started to sob.
"Oh, god, oh god, oh god!" she screamed. Her face was contorted in agony and her hands seemed to tremble even more. "Oh my god!" she gasped before another paradoxym of tears burst out of her.
Ax stared at her in disbelief. What was going on? But Cassie continued to sob and shiver. Ax carefully got up and brought Cassie back in her feet. Then he lead her slowly back inside the barn. All the animals were awake now, and causing a cacophony of sounds as they entered. Ax went over and took an old horse blanket to wrap around the distraught girl's shoulders. He then sat both of them down again by the bales of hay.
Cassie, he tried again in a more gentle tone. please, tell me what just happened.
Cassie faced him and coughed a bit. "I-I-I," she started. "I'm so sorry."
Ax regarded her in confused for a moment.
"I know, it's not the right way, and I'm sorry," she continued in a shaky voice. "Oh god, I'm so sorry." Then the tears came again.
Ax knew that whatever Cassie was saying, she wasn't saying it to him. He began to feel uncomfortable about that. But he looked at the sadness Cassie had within her, and felt totally helpless about what he should do. Then, after a few moments of hesitation, Ax wrapped his arms around her. He had seen humans do this as a way to comfort one another, and Cassie seemed to welcome this. She embraced him and started to rock back and forth with her sobbing.
For a few minutes, both held each other. When Cassie started to calm down, Ax let go and brought her back into the house. Even though the commotion the animals cause could wake the dead, inside the house all was silent. Ax led the hysterical girl up the stairs, down the hall, and into her room.
"Oh god," she whispered. "I can't- I almost-" she shivered and groaned in dismay. "I'm-I'm so sorry."
Quiet, Ax told her. You need to rest now.
Upon entering her room, Cassie suddenly felt worn out and tired. The emotional trauma she went through had used up the little energy she had and Cassie soon fell asleep.
Ax stood by her bedside until she was fast asleep. When he saw that her eyes were closed in slumber, he left the house quickly and silently. Going inside the barn he saw the open cabinet at the far end. After taking the cartridge of bullets off the shelf, he locked it, then left the barn and put the padlock back in place. Then he proceeded around the corner to where the rifle lay. Taking that in his hands, he sped across the ground away from Cassie's home. This time, he ran with a purpose.
About a half-mile off, Ax came to the side of a fast-flowing river. The dim waters bubbled and sang as it ran past his hooves. Then, without hesitation, Ax dumped the cartridge with its missiles of death into the water and dropped the rifle in after that. The two objects sunk lower and lower into the murky depths and disappeared. After all that, Ax took one long look at the final resting place for the inanimate killers, then backed away from the bank, turned around, and headed back to his scoop.
The next day the doorbell rang at Cassie's home. Her father opened the door to see a strangely handsome boy waiting on the doorstep.
"Hello," the boy said. "My name is Philip. I am a friend of Cassie's."
John raised an arched eyebrow at the introduction. "Say, I remember you. You're that, uh, Canadian, right?"
The boy nodded. "Yes. May I go up and see her?"
"Well, um, sure." John let him in and watched as he went up the stairs to his daughter's room. Funny, he always had that strange feeling when he saw that boy. The father decided that he might as well keep his eye on him then.
Ax knocked on the door to Cassie's room. After a few moments, it opened a crack and Cassie peeked through at him. "Ax?" she asked. "What are you doing here?"
"I've come to see you," he said. "To check upon you after what happened last night." He looked at her and she opened the door to him. He stepped through and sat on the bed. "Why did you try to shoot yourself?" he questioned blatantly.
Cassie paused for a moment at the abrupt question. She sat down at her desk and sighed. Her hands started to shake again. "I.... I didn't know what came over me," she said softly. "It's just that.... the pain... god, I loved him so much." A tear fell down across her cheek. "It all became too much."
Ax knew how she felt. He nodded and put a hand on her shoulder. "Prince Jake meant a lot to all of us," he said. Cassie noticed how Ax didn't play with his sounds when he said this. That just showed how serious he was.
"And-and after he died, I just thought.... I couldn't be able to see him again, and..." Cassie quickly wiped another tear from her face. "I'm so sorry." she gasped.
Ax felt that his soul was being cut in half. "I am the one who should apologize," he started sadly. "It's all my fault. I-I should have saved him." He looked at her grieving face and felt the darkness descend on him again. He was there at the lab again. The smoke and the flames and the voice, oh yeolin... "It's all my fault..." he cried again, but this time, he lost some of the strength that he had before.
Cassie looked up at him. "How could you say that?" she asked. "You tried to save him, right?"
"I couldn't. I didn't even have the chance to try. I failed." Ax cast his eyes downward and felt a lump in his throat. "I failed my Prince and you almost died because of me."
"No!" Cassie took his hand. "You saved me, Ax. You saved me from killing myself."
"But I was the one who led you to-"
"I was the one with the gun," Cassie interjected. "And you were the one who took it away." Cassie wiped her face again and looked at him. "Thank you."
Ax rose to meet her eyes. Suddenly, a bit grief and the shame that was inside of him melted away. "Your welcome."
Cassie nodded and the two said nothing for a long time. At that precise moment they both discovered that they mourned the same thing and silently appreciated that they both exactly knew how the other felt. Finally, Ax got up to his feet. "I have been in human morph for almost two hours. I have to leave." He let go of Cassie's hand. "Should I tell the others?"
"Don't," Cassie said. A frightened look crept into her eyes. "The others can't know of this. Not my parents. Not even Rachel. If they knew what I almost did..." She trailed off then finished what she said. "I-I don't want to worry any of them more than I have already."
Ax nodded in understanding. "So it is our secret then." he stated. "I promise I won't tell this to another soul. Warrior's honor."
"Yes." Cassie nodded back. "Not to another soul, Ax. Not to another soul."
After their secret pact was made, a special bond seemed to grow between the two over the next two months. Occasionally Ax would stop by Cassie's home and they would talk about how each other felt about since the incident and how it affected them. Ax felt that these discussions helped lessen the guilt he had inside him. He was sure that him being there helped Cassie as well.
Preparing to leave for one of these talks, Ax leaned by the side of his scoop. Tobias was off hunting for the afternoon. He looked up at the sky. No one. For some strange reason, Ax always made sure that Tobias was gone before he left to talk to Cassie. He didn't know why. It was almost like he was venturing out to do something secret and forbidden.
Yet why wouldn't he act this way? The other Animorphs had seemed to have given up on her long ago. He believed that even Rachel feared to confront her best friend. The only way that Ax knew the others were still concerned about Cassie was Tobias's daily flight around her home, a request made by Rachel. In this manner, it seemed like Cassie's friends were guarding her more than caring for her.
So Ax visiting Cassie seemed to violate this unspoken taboo. As he got into his human morph, he wondered if that was the only reason he felt so odd about these circumstances...
Cassie was sitting in front of her desk when Ax entered her room. She was holding a white folded sheet of paper in her hand, looking at it with a detached loneliness. Looking up, she quickly shoved it into a desk drawer.
"Hey, Ax," she greeted.
His eyes were at her desk. "What was that?" he countered.
"What?" Cassie's eyes darted to the drawer. She didn't answer when Ax opened it and took out the sheet of paper. It was a note from Rachel.
Scanning it quickly, he asked, "Why don't you ever speak to her?"
"Why don't you ever speak to Tobias?"
Ax slid the letter back into its apartment. This time, it was his turn not to answer. She couldn't have known that he didn't, could she? he thought. He took his seat and waited for Cassie to explain herself.
"You know why." Cassie stared down at her hands. "It's funny, how they say that grief brings people together. But every time I try to talk to Rachel-she's my best friend, isn't she? I- I don't know... I freeze up. It's like... I look at her and she's so strong and brave about all this. God, did you even realize that I have never seen her cry, not even once, not even at-at his," she choked a bit at the word, "his funeral? She carried on when I didn't. And then I think, 'How can I talk to her? She would never understand how I feel.'
"It's the most horrible thing," she continued. She was wringing her hands now as she spoke, and her breath caught a bit after every other word. "To see her at school, down the halls, in my classes. She laughs, Ax. Did you know that? I saw her laugh once while joking with some of the other kids. And I think, 'How can she?' So I envy her, and I don't talk to her. She calls sometimes, and I would hang up the phone. Other times, girls would give me notes from across the room with those pathetic looks in their eyes and say that the note's from Rachel and how bad she wants to talk to me again. I read them, keep them," Cassie glanced back at the drawer, "but never answer them."
Ax looked at Cassie, then out the window, then back again. Then he looked down at the ground for awhile before he started to speak. "Tobias is my shorm, one of the truest of friends. Yet I don't believe he really understands what me when it comes to Prince Jake's death. I'm not sure if any human would understand. A warrior is always loyal to his Prince; a warrior is always there for him. And I was there," he paused for a moment and closed his eyes. "I was there," he repeated, but in a much more fragile voice. Ax paused again and didn't speak for a couple of minutes. Cassie didn't urge him to go on. That's how it always was with their talks; one would bleed while the other let the blood. It was better to have a wound bleed instead of scabbing and trapping the cancerous emotions within. Suddenly, Ax took a deep breath and continued. "However, I couldn't help. I had broken a warrior's code of honor. I couldn't save my Prince."
He looked up at Cassie. Their wounds seemed to have bled enough for now, and they felt better for that. Then, in a split second decision, Ax got up to his feet and put a hand on the back of Cassie's chair. His eyes were on the blue sky out the window. No one.
"How long have you stayed in here?" he said, changing the subject.
"What do you mean?"
"Weeks? Months?" Ax pulled Cassie out of the chair. "I believe the animals in the barn need to be checked upon. When was the last time you cared for them?"
Cassie looked into his face to see what he was trying to get at. "I don't know," she started, but then Ax opened the door to her room and led her out.
The two walked down the stairs and out the front door. In the kitchen, John was reading the newspaper. He looked up when they passed. "Where are those two going?" he asked his wife. He put down the paper and started to rise from his seat, but Alisha put a hand on his shoulder. Her eyes were filling up with the salty drops of happiness.
"It's been almost five months," she said in tearful joy. "Five months since Cassie practically locked herself up in her room. Now, she comes out of that room willingly. Let them go, John. Let them go."
The door to the barn was already open. Ax and Cassie stepped through the wooden opening with a kind of silent awe and fear within them. Everything seemed the same; the same cages still lined the walls, the same bales of hay were still stacked in the corner, the same horse stalls with the same old white mare and the same young black gelding were still standing in the back. Yet all of the animal patients were new, and the clean concrete floor seemed to feel different from underneath their feet, and even the smell of the place seemed to have changed. In the pale sunshine of the day the barn was cast in a whole new different light than the one it had before when the two last saw it a couple months ago.
Ax watched Cassie curiously to she how she reacted. She seemed to look around this place as if she were a stranger to it. She breathed in the deep scents of the barn, scents that she had forgotten. Then, slowly, Cassie stepped forward to one of the cages. A young white duck lay inside with a broken wing. Instinctively, Cassie undid the lock and carefully brought the duck out into her arms. She then held the bird, stroked its pure feathers, and felt life's breath rise and fall from its chest. Cassie picked up one of the charts on the side of the cage and seemed to focus on it for a bit, then changed the bandage and gave the bird its medication. Putting the bird back into its proper place, Cassie then looked around this at this new yet unfamiliar world for a second time.
Ax still watched her, never moving from his spot by the entrance. Cassie looked back at him and asked one question. "Why?"
"I don't know," he answered slowly. "It was what you wanted. I think," he moved to the cage Cassie was standing at and slipped his fingers through the bars. Carefully, he moved his fingers across the duck's snowy back. "I think I wanted this too."
He took his fingers back out of the cage and turned around. Something was flying about in the azure heavens above. Ax couldn't tell exactly what it was. These human eyes were too weak to tell. After a moment, however, Ax recognized the bird in the sky. "My time in this morph has almost ended," he said hastily. "I have to leave."
Cassie tried to look and see what Ax was looking at, but he turned to her and she met his glance instead. She nodded in farewell.
Ax hurried out of the barn and leaned his back against the side of it. Could it be...? No, it couldn't be him. But using extra caution, Ax ducked behind a nearby bush. Could hawk eyes see him crouching there? Ax felt his single human heart beat fast.
Tobias's shadow marked the ground below him as she soared over Cassie's home for his daily lookout. The seconds seemed to drag on forever. Ax's breath came out in deep gasps as his wretched human eyes tried vainly to look above. When will he leave??
But, after what seemed like an eternity, Tobias's flying form veered to the left, back over to the forest, and was gone. Ax got up from his hiding place feeling relieved and confused. He then questioned his actions. Why did he hide when Tobias came around? Did he not want Tobias to see him and Cassie together? A new realization dawned on Ax as he got up and ran back to the forest, and a new guilt, worse than the one he had now, began to grow within his heart.
A few days later, Ax stopped by Cassie's home again in his human guise. Instead of being locked up in her room, however, Cassie was discovered tending to the animals in the barn. "Cassie," he said, surprised, "you're here."
"Of course I'm here," she laughed, something she hadn't done in months. "I've been thinking about a lot of things these past couple of months. I've decided that I shouldn't be locked up in my room anymore. You showed me that the other day, Ax." She casually stroked the injured duck that she had cared for earlier. "It's time for me to start living again," she ended softly.
Ax nodded. "I'm glad you think that, Cassie." He looked at her. "I have told Tobias about you."
"What??" Cassie looked up in alarm.
"No, not that," Ax corrected. "I told him that you might be ready to fight again soon."
"Fight?" Cassie put the duck back into its cage. It settled down in a fluffy white ball and started its noontime nap. "Me? Fighting?" She sat down on a stool by one of the medical tables. "I don't know about that."
"The Yeerks are in the middle of constructing the A666 satellite now," Ax explained. "We have to destroy it before the launch. And we need your help."
Cassie gave a few deep breaths. "I-I can't." she shuddered. "Please. Not now."
"There are two months left. You still have time." Ax hesitated then spoke again. "Come on." He walked out of the barn and out into the open air. Cassie put the duck back and followed him. "Look up."
Cassie did and saw a red-tailed hawk soar through the skies above. "Tobias?"
Welcome back, Cassie, Tobias called down. It's nice to know that you're still with us.
"What?" Cassie looked ahead and saw Rachel and Marco climb out of an old, beat-up Honda Civic at the end of the driveway. "Guys?"
Marco grinned as the two loped toward her. "Long time, no see, huh, Cassie?"
"Cassie!" Rachel ran up to her and embraced her in a warm hug. "Ax just told us how you were doing today. God, Cassie, you scared me the past few months. I thought that you were gone for sure."
"Rachel...." Cassie hugged her best friend back. "Rachel, I'm so sorry for not talking to you for those past months there. I should known how scared you were!" She blinked quickly; her vision was starting to blur.
"That's okay." Rachel let go and Cassie could see that Rachel's eyes were misty too. "I'm just glad that you're okay now. Oh, Cassie, for a few weeks there I thought you were going to go and kill yourself or something!" Rachel gave her friend another tearful hug and Cassie exchanged a nervous glances with Ax over Rachel's shoulder. "Thank God you're okay!"
"I know. Let's go inside." Cassie walked the three into her home and they all sat around the living room. Tobias came in a few minutes later in his human morph.
There, they talked, or at least four of them did. Ax was content with just watching them chat. Curiously enough, none of them mentioned anything about fighting or the Yeerks. The topics ranged from school to sports to the upcoming dance. It was like they were trying for catch up for all the lost time where teenage life was the only life.
Ax left early, not because the time in morph restricted him, but because it felt like that right thing to do. He often felt out of place during these times.
Upon exiting the front door, a voice called for him to stop. He turned around and saw Cassie standing there. She smiled at him and her eyes sparkled. Ax looked at those warm chocolate eyes and briefly thought that it was as close a human could ever get to an Andalite smile.
"I see that you're leaving," she murmured.
Ax nodded. He thought of excusing himself because of the time duration, but realized that Cassie could tell by referring to Tobias that he was lying. So he didn't say anything.
Cassie looked as if she wanted to say something, but then stopped herself. "See you around then," she said instead and went back into the living room with the others.
Stepping out the door, the new guilt suddenly rose within him. What was he doing??? He didn't know for sure. The relationship he had with Cassie was much different than any others he had experienced before. Why did he think that?? He reached the forest and kicked a sitting pebble in his path. Why?? The new guilt pressed against him. He was doing the unthinkable! Not only is she of another species, but she was the love of his dead Prince! A knife of betrayal stabbed through him. I am a warrior, he thought bitterly, and a warrior is always loyal to his Prince.
He quickly demorphed and stood in the stark forest as his true self. He looked at his many-fingered hands and clenched them tightly together. I am a warrior. I can never care for Cassie. That would be worse than dishonor; it would be a monstrosity to myself and to my Prince. He kneeled down and stared at his hands. A sick feeling between shame, disgust, and regret tumbled within his stomach. He felt as if he were going to be sick, yet he wanted to be sick. A part of him wanted to admit the tiny thought that roared in the back of his mind, but at stake for that thought was all the integrity and honor that he thought he had.
Ax sat on the cold, rough winter soil and made a solemn promise to himself. I will not fail my Prince again, he whispered into the harsh stillness. And I will never betray him.
Later on after the others have left, Cassie sat by the window and watched the cold sun set below the horizon. The colors flowed into one another, as the clear blue of the day faded into the black night. She loved watching the day pass, especially during the winter. Everything seemed purer and clearer when the cold came.
In her hand was a picture of her and Jake. It was taken a long time ago during the summer. The warm sunshine reflected on their happy faces and beaming smiles. Cassie touched the image of Jake with gentle fingers. She still loved him, she thought, as her fingers stoked his face. And she still missed him.
Cassie put the picture down on her bedside dresser. Yes, she still loved him... and yet.... Cassie folded her hands and tried to make out her feelings. She cared for Jake, but didn't feel the painful longing to be with him anymore. She missed him, but not in the throbbing bouts of misery as before. And she felt that... that...
She got up from her bed and started to pace the room. Could it be the passing of time that was eroding away her love? Was it natural to feel this? Or was it something else...?
But what could that something else be? Cassie didn't dare to even think out the possibility in her mind, but deep within her she knew. She did care for someone else.
That thought broke the emotional dam within her, and all of its feelings flooded out. Why was she feeling this?? A cold feeling of shame and betrayal swept through her. Cassie fell upon the bed and stared out at the sky above. No, she couldn't-just couldn't- care for another. I can't; I don't want to, she pleaded with herself. Yet Cassie knew she was lying when she thought this; she was already starting to love again. She closed her eyes and felt Jake with her again. But even that feeling seemed faded. She opened her eyes and looked out the window. A single star shone in the sky. Cassie looked at that star with all the strength and love she had for it. She couldn't love another; she just couldn't. "I won't forget you, Jake," she whispered. "I won't forget."
Rachel planned for another meeting that day. It was now less than a month before the launch of the A666 satellite and the Animorphs had to do something. Cassie had finally decided that it was her time to act, so now was even a better time than ever. Rachel paced the room as she started off with their plan.
"The Yeerks had changed the location of the project," she was saying, "to the Hallsworth Institute of Science and Technology. That's about twenty-five miles outside of town." She turned to her friends. "The Chee estimate that there would be three dozen Hork-Bajir guards, six or seven Taxxon workers, and twenty-four human-Controllers. At least." She took out a piece of paper from her pocket and unfolded it onto the coffee table. It was safe to be so open with their plans because even though Marco's father works at home sometimes, he was at his office now. "This is a basic overview of the place I got from Eerk."
Ax and Cassie sat at opposite ends from each other. They both looked at the layout with avid interest, partly because they truly were involved with this, and partly because they wanted to avoid each other's eyes.
"So what are we suppose to do about this?" Tobias asked. Both he and Ax were in their human morphs.
"I'm planning that were should attack by nightfall," Rachel said. "Since the launch is going to be soon, I think the security would be beefed up more at night. Before sunset is usually when the Yeerk forces switch shifts, anyway, so that could work to our advantage also."
She pointed to the ventilation system that branched out through the building. "Since the Institute is a public place, the Yeerks couldn't put up as much of a defense to protect their work. The vents should be free of any traps or detectors. I was thinking that we could all go into an insect or a rodent morph and travel through them. The main vent," she pointed to two parallel lines on the map, "go right over Lab 4, where the satellite is being kept."
Her team members nodded in agreement. Rachel looked at Ax. "Is the bomb finished?"
"Yes, Rachel." the explosive, actually, was in his coat pocket. Tiny yet powerful, Ax had created it with supplies bought from regular materials at a human hardware store. Tobias once told him how crazy geniuses were able to build bombs that could blow up an entire city block with just some lead pipes, baking soda and C-4. Ax wasn't sure if what Tobias said was true, but nonetheless, the explosive he had could rival the ones made by criminal maniacs.
Rachel exhaled and made one last address to her friends before she ended the meeting. "I know this will be hard, guys," she said. "I-I don't really want to do this myself, after, after what happened last time we tried this mission. But we have to do this. Not only for the world, but for ourselves." Rachel's eyes searched for any doubt or fear in her companion's faces. "And for Jake. Always for Jake."
Cassie and Ax both lifted their eyes toward each other when Rachel said his name, then averted their glances just before they met. Cassie quickly turned her attention to the ground instead while Ax focused at the blueprint.
Rachel finished and took a final overview of the situation. "That's it then. We go in, set the bomb, and get out. Pure and simple. The bomb is self-detonating. So as soon as the switch box to it is opened, it'll blow." She sighed. "We'll meet about three miles away from the Institute an hour before sunset. At the cross section median in the highway A87. Got it?" No one said a word, but no one protested either. "Okay, then." Rachel folded up the paper. "Meeting's over. See you all tonight."
Ax flew on northern harrier wings as he glided in with Tobias. They circled a bit when they reached the designated spot, trying to find a good place to land. The median strip was a wide space between two main highways. Small trees and bare bushes thickly covered the expanse, making a good place to hide despite the limited area. A layer of clean white snow covered the whole scene like frosting on a cake. They both landed discovered they were the first to arrive on the scene.
Tobias turned to Ax. Hey, Ax, I was wondering... he started.
What? Ax was busy handling a small package between his talons. This was their explosive. Even though it weighed only a bit under one pound, it was quite cumbersome for a bird of prey to carry.
Maybe it's just me, but it seems like you and Cassie have been hanging out together a lot recently. Is there something going on between the two of you?
Ax paused and blinked his predatory eyes. It was a good thing that birds cannot express outward emotions very well. What do you mean, Tobias? The relationship between Cassie and I is purely platonic. And it would always be, he thought, feeling relieved and bitter at the same time.
Soon, Rachel's golden eagle form was seen swooping down upon them, followed by two ospreys.
Ready guys? Rachel asked as she landed.
You can bet I'm ready, Marco joked. in fact, I'm so ready I'm over-ready. Perhaps if I just go now and un-ready myself a bit, and I can just join you guys later.
Ha ha ha. I'm just rolling on the floor now, Tobias commented dryly. Yet they were all pretty nervous. This was their first mission after the loss of their leader. But Marco joking was a sign of a brighter outlook to them all; it was the first time he had done so after his best friend's death.
Well, then, Rachel flapped her wings a bit and took to the air. Let's do it!
Guys, I can't see a thing. A little help here?
It's called using you whiskers, Rachel nudged Marco a bit with her white snout as the group made their way through the vents.
Sorry, Marco scurried forward and started counting the branching openings that lay to each side. One, two, three, four, five-
Six. Cassie gestured with her long hairless tail to the vent grate next to her. This is it. She stood next to Rachel and tried hard to avoid looking at Ax. She was afriad her feelings for him might slip with one glance his way. Ax didn't notice; he was too busy doing the same.
Tobias sighed. Lab 4. With pale mouse eyes, Tobias looked down through a grate hole to the lab floor below. The instincts were still buzzing around in his mind; this was a new morph that he and Ax acquired for this mission. They were the only ones on the team who didn't have a rat or mouse morph.
Rachel looked down also. I see it. She looked up. C'mon. Let's drag that thing over here.
All six rodents dragged the hand-held explosive down near over the grate. It was slightly too large to slip past the cover holes, which was good, because one slight jar could accidentally trigger it.
Okay, now I'll go down first, and then open this vent cover, Rachel started.
Maybe I should, Rachel, Ax interrupted.
She turned to him. Why?
You would have to demorph in order to open the vent. In your human form, you would be defenseless if any of the Hork-Bajir guards should come. It may be time for the shift switch, but you can't be too careful.
Fine then. Go ahead. Rachel tilted her furry white head to the side a bit in though as she watched Ax slip though the grading and balance dangerously on the edge outside. Ax would have never interrupted Jake like that. Maybe it was because he had more reverence for him.
Ax took a deep breath as he set his sights on the lab counter five feet below. Flexing his back legs as he got a better grip on the metal, Ax then took a flying leap into the air. He landed safely onto the lab countertop on all fours. After slipping a bit on his paws, Ax started to demorph.
His tail started first, growing larger while the sharp blade poked out from the end. Next was the blue fur, sweeping over the changing mouse body. Then, came the spindly eyes stalks and the lengthening legs and arms.
As soon as he grew large enough, Ax leaped off the counter and onto the floor. Landing on his still forming hooves, Ax looked around. A primitive human security camera was positioned in the corner. With one sweep of his tail blade, it was gone. That out of the way, his attention turned to the center of the room.
There lay the skeleton frame of the A666 satellite. The outer metal panels weren't even built yet, but the main computers and controls have just been installed. A steel box contained these controls. Ax approached it cautiously and tapped his fingers on the keypad displayed on the outside. The keypad didn't respond with a negatively or positively to the random touch; the power source wasn't hooked up to it yet.
Ax turned to the vent and opened it. Rachel pushed the explosive toward him with pale pink paws. Remember, do do it quick and then we're all out of here, she told him.
A slight sound was heard outside of the door. One of Ax's eye stalks turned toward the noise. A Hork-Bajir grunt was the sound. The shift switch was done; the guards were now on duty outside. Now was the challenge. Ax had to be careful not to make a single noise. Hork-Bajir hearing was sharp and one wrong move could ruin the whole mission.
Taking the explosive in his hands, Ax quickly unhinged the cover of the main control box with the tip of his blade. The metal cover came off to reveal a confusing mass of wires, circuit boards, computer chips and controlling devices. Ax looked at the puzzle array and gingerly slipped his fingers into the mass, carefully shifting through the cords and control chips. After several minutes of searching, he found two specific wires in the jumble. These led to the A666's main computer core, where all of its plans and directions were programmed. Connecting these wires into the bomb, Ax tucked it in and picked up the metal cover.
Outside the room, a Hork-Bajir took a whiff of the air. He signaled to his partner and a low exchange followed. Hork-Bajir senses were very keen, and that guard had detected the scent of the enemy.
With one final tuck, the panel was back in place. Backing away from the half-made contraption, Ax gave a sigh of relief. The work was flawless; not even he could tell the of the sabotage. Ax signaled to his friends waiting for him in the vent. It was finally done with. Now all they had to do was leave and-
The door burst open, rammed in by Hork-Bajir claws. Two of them stood in the doorway, with three more behind, all with Dracon beams in their grasp. Instantly, Ax's tail blade hovered above the satellite control box. One move, he threatened. And all your work will be in ruins.
The guard in front hesitated and put his Dracon beam back into its holster. He was about to say something, but then the crowd shifted as the leader of the pack took his place. The leader barked a few indecent comments in Hork-Bajir tongue to his underling before he eyed his opponent.
"Do it," he snarled in Galard. The crowd murmured at this bold statement. "You're cornered. If you destroy that device, I can always turn you in to compensate for it. If the satellite is fixed, you wouldn't dare tamper with the A666," the leader commented logically. "And if you do it anyway and it blows up in all our faces, at least I won't be around to feel the Visser's wrath. So go ahead."
Ax's stalk eye quickly darted to the vent opening. It was empty.
"We're waiting." The leader grinned and turned up his Dracon beam to maximum power. "Or should I just end your pathetic life now?"
A red-brown blur flew past and a red laser shot through his chest.
Tobias swooped by, the leader's gun in his talons. Go! he cried.
Ax backed away at the light with wide eyes. Smoke, did he smell smoke?
Marco dragged a couple of Hork-Bajir out into the hallway with gorilla fists. C'mon, he said quickly.
Smoke, was it smoke? Chemicals, why were they here? He couldn't see. Noise. Fighting. Smoke. Burning. Smoke. Chemicals. Ax backed away against the wall. Smoke. Fire, fire, it was everywhere. Where was everyone else? Where was his Prince? A sound. He turned. Falling rubble-
Ax felt himself being pulled back into reality. There was no smoke or falling rubble, only the fighting that was going on around him.
Ax! Cassie was there, in her wolf morph. What? he thought in confusion. Where was he? He thought he was back- back before-
Hurry! she told him. He looked back at her, his eyes now sane. And then they ran. Marco was already ahead of them, clearing their path of Hork-Bajir by brute force.
Fleeing through the twisted hallways, they all ducked into the lab next door. Tobias was already there waiting for them. Where's Rachel? Cassie asked breathlessly.
Peeking out of the door, Ax saw a grizzly bear clawing at a Hork-Bajir.
Fwap! The decapitated Hork-Bajir fell to the ground, leaking green and purple blood. Rachel took one look and galloped inside. Through the window! she ordered.
Near the ceiling on one side of the room, a narrow line of windows looked out to the fading day. Rachel bounded forward, took one effortless leap into the air toward the window in the far corner, and crashed though the glass. Outside, she limped a few feet before picking up her speed again. Let's go!
Marco followed her lead, then Tobias. Cassie jumped upon a lab table, the crouch down for the jump.
A Dracon beam was fired, just grazing the gray fur on her back. Cassie let out a yowl and jumped. Her balance was off, and her paws grasped onto the window ledge. Bits of broken glass pierced her fore legs and she winced, slipping.
Cassie! Ax slashed at her attacker, who let out one more Dracon blast before he fell dead. Ax turned and saw Cassie awkwardly climb through the window. She fell about ten feet out the open window to the ground below. From inside Ax heard her shout his name.
Ax struggled up onto one of the lab tables by the wall and grasped the side of the window with both hands.
"No, you're not!" hissed a Hork-Bajir voice.
Ax turned just in time to see the Hork-Bajir guard that he first confronted. His Dracon beam aimed and ready. And before Ax could mave a move, it fired.
In moments of pure blood-pumping adrenaline everything usually blurs in front of a warrior's eyes, going to fast and furious for his brain to register it correctly. Yet there are those moments where time seems to stop, where every little detail could be recognized and remembered. Those are the moments that occur right before disaster.
And so that red flash flew, barely missing Ax's side. That streak of blood red went past him and through the wall to the lab next door - Laboratory 4. That shot hit the satellite straight on - and the explosive that was hidden away inside.
Then there was a great whoosh and felt a sudden blast of force and heat. Ax let go of the window ledge and seemed to fall into nothing, remembering nothing and feeling nothing.
From far, far away, he then heard a distant thump and felt a distant ache. And after what seemed like an eternity, a sharp, stabbing pain started up his shoulder. Ax opened his eyes and saw blackness. Slowly, the blackness faded into vision. In his vision he saw twilight.
Ax?! Ax?! A distant, screaming voice shook his thoughts.
He turned his head slightly. The sharp pain in his shoulder was still there, but he could not even feel the rest of his body. That did not matter anyhow. Everything was already very, very far away....
His deep green eyes came to focus on a pair of yellow wolf eyes. What was going on? Ax tried to see with his eye stalks, but he suddenly realized that they were blind. Yet that did not matter anyhow, either.
Cassie was dragging Ax away from the burning building, pulling his broken body the only way she could: by tugging on his shoulder with her jaws. His blood stained her gray fur. Ax, Ax, can you hear me? she pleaded.
Ax looked up. A dying sun hovered over the cold, winter horizon. Twilight was ending. And in the distance, a faint star, the first one of the night, was shining faintly.
I'm apologize, he whispered, his eyes turned upward. I'm apologize.
What are you talking about? Cassie looked around frantically. Where were the others?? Oh, God, they already left for the meeting place. No one was there to help them.
Ax then turned his head to face Cassie. If only he could tell her- no, he couldn't. His dying hearts ached. He had to; oh yeolin, he just had to! His warrior's honor didn't matter to him now. Just now he was forgiven by his Prince. He must tell her now, even if she didn't care for him in return.
Cassie.... he whispered. Her lupine eyes turned to him. They were growing distant too. No! Not now... he cried silently. She was moving so far off....
Ax, you have to do something! Try morphing, Ax! God, please try!
He didn't try. To him, it didn't matter. He couldn't see the blood or feel the pain anymore. Those things were now miles away from him. Cassie.....
Ax, please! she cried. Her voice was breaking, filled with sorrow. Just try, Ax!
I love you.
As Cassie paused in shock, and the last bit of strength was squeezed out of him. His eyesight blurred as his hearts broke. No, it couldn't be! Why does she look at me like that?? Is it horror, disgust?? Please... no.... My eyes... I can't tell..... Why is she looking at me like that??? Say something, Cassie! Please!
Cassie herself was struck dumb. He did? What did he say?? A wave of happiness and anguish swept past her. He cares! He cares for me! Yet she hesitated. It was then she realized whom Ax apologized to. She apologized to him once too, outside the barn when the gun was at her head. And then she apologized again. I'm sorry Jake, she thought. I'm sorry.
Ax gasped as he felt his hearts begin to fail him. Then the pain of pains hit him in the chest. Why isn't she saying anything...? Then came the last thought Ax ever had. No....it can't be, but what else could it be....? She does not care.... I am a fool... Finally, he closed his eyes for the final time; Cassie and the rest of the world had faded into the distance.
Ax, Cassie finally whispered. God, yes, I love you, Ax! His head slumped to the side. Ax, can you hear me? Ax?!
Cassie gently licked his cheek with her wolf tongue. Ax, please.... god, no.... Her voice shook with invisible sobs. If only she had known! If only she hadn't wrestled with her conscience so much! She shouldn't have kept her feelings back! She loved him! But now it was too late. No......
Cassie looked up at the sky, her inner tears staining her soul. Twilight was gone. Night had fallen upon the world.