Hey you guys, I am sorry for the delay between last chapter and this one. I'm actually getting ready to move from Colorado to Seattle, and it's taking a lot of my free time. Hopefully this chapter doesn't suffer too much from it. To make up for the delay a little, it's an extra-length chapter, almost long enough to be two normal chapters for this particular series. Plus there's a bit of a development that I truly hope you'll enjoy seeing play out.
Belle, as Aeroway noted, Loren showed up in The Pretender, where her connection into the Animorphs lives was established. I've been waiting for a chance to use her again, and this seemed right.
And yeah, you're probably right. Rachel likely does know some of what's been going back and forth between Melissa and Marco and is doing her level best to play the 'if I ignore it, it'll go away' game. Then again, after this chapter, that might be harder...
A few minutes later, the Chee had been sent off to do their part, and the rest of us were on the ship. Loren took her place at the pilot's seat. If we survived this little errand, I was going to have to talk to Ax about converting the controls in this ship to something more suited to humans. Right now, she was just going to have to use the Skrit Na controls as best as she could.
Tobias had morphed from hawk into his human form (Do not ask me to explain how he managed to acquire himself after regaining his morphing ability. It has something to do with the Ellimist, and just the name of that guy gives me a headache.), and took the seat next to the controls. I guess he wanted to be human for this short chance that he had with his mother.
I couldn't exactly blame him. Not with what I was willing to do to get my own mom back. Not with what I was willing to risk.
"You sure you know how to fly this thing?" Jake asked from nearby. "Ax can take over if there's any issues."
«I could not do so while participating in Marco's plan.» Ax pointed out. «But I would be able to teach you what to do on the way up to the target ship.»
I couldn't resist speaking up. "Sure, it'd be a bonding experience between our resident alien and his brother's human wife. The hijinks potential is amazing."
The second I'd said it, I felt crappy. Elfangor was dead, killed by Visser Three in a horrible way, and I had just blatantly reminded the two people on the planet who had cared for him the most. I really had to learn to shut my mouth sometimes.
Rachel was openly glaring at me, and for once I couldn't blame her. "Sorry." I muttered and looked away.
After a brief (but not brief enough) uncomfortable silence, Loren answered Jake. "Don't worry about it. Elfangor sort of gave me crash course lessons before... before everything else that happened, and I've been learning more since I escaped from the Yeerk control." She paused before amending. "Since you saved me from the Yeerk control."
It was true. In our very first outing as a team, when we'd gone into the Yeerk Pool to save Cassie from the policeman-controller who had become suspicious of her and wanted her infested to find out what she knew, when Tobias has become trapped in his hawk form, we had managed to save a single woman. She had disappeared, and we'd had no idea what had happened to her.
Until we found her again, and she ended up being Tobias's long lost mother.
If we could find some way of getting energy out of coincidence, I swear we'd all become billionaires inside of a week.
Loren put her hand on the pulsing blue orb that was apparently the ignition for the ship, because I felt the ship start to hum a little as the engines came to life.
"Everyone better find a place to sit down." Tobias's mother warned us. "Because as good as these Skittles ships are in atmosphere, they still give a rough ride blasting off."
«Skrit Na.» Ax corrected automatically while the rest of us took the nearest seats we could find. All he did toward that end was shift his legs a bit to balance better.
After adjusting the loose ponytail in her hair, Loren took a moment to look back over her shoulder at our resident Andalite, winking while her hands moved on the controls. "I know."
An instant later, the ship launched itself skyward. The view on the screen ahead of us showed the tops of trees before orienting upwards just in time for everyone to yelp at the sight of a bird coming right for us. It wasn't going to get out of the way because we were invisible. Undetectable. Or we would be until the bird became a smear across whatever passed for a windshield in this thing.
Instead of letting that happen, Loren's hands danced over the controls once more, and the view spun as our saucer-shaped ship flipped end over end so that the right side was pointed down and the left side was pointing straight up. This lasted long enough for the bird to fly through the area we had just been in before the spin continued the rest of the way around to put us back in the position we had started in.
«Impressive.» Ax managed, once we were pointed upward again.
"Like I said," Loren replied while her hands moved again, apparently setting the course to leave the atmosphere. "I've had a little practice."
Ax did that smiling with his eyes thing that Andalites did. «And you learned from Elfangor.»
For a moment, there was no response. Then I saw Tobias's mother put her hand on his while she nodded, her voice quiet. "Yes." She turned, and I tried to ignore the look in her eyes, the knowledge that the person she loved so much was never coming back. "I learned from Elfangor."
Once we had been rising for another couple of minutes, I got up and stepped up to the front screen to watch the sky. "How long until we can see them?"
"Another five minutes or so before we break through the atmosphere." Loren answered, glancing at the sensors that were gibberish to me. "After that, it shouldn't be hard. They're hiding from human sensors. Skittles are primitive by galactic standards, but still good enough for our purposes."
It was Tobias who spoke next. "So, did... Elfangor have a ship on Earth to teach you this stuff with?" Apparently he wasn't quite comfortable calling the guy 'dad'. Not that I could blame him. The weirdness of this whole situation was off the charts.
I recognized the look that crossed Loren's face then, brief as it was. It was the 'how do I explain this without taking six hours and being committed to a padded cell' look. "Not exactly." She settled on. "We didn't have a ship, but we had computers. Even more advanced computers than the ones NASA was using. Leagues beyond what anyone else could make, even with the primitive supplies he had to work with. And Elfangor didn't want to forget his old life entirely, so to remember it, he taught me. He even made a simulator in order to keep in practice."
"I'm... I'm not entirely sure why he wanted to stay in practice when he was here on Earth. Maybe it was just a way of maintaining a hold on his old life. Or maybe he knew that someday he'd have to go back, and he wanted to be ready."
Maybe he'd known that he'd have to leave her, she meant. I could read between the lines on that one.
Tobias was glaring at his mother. It took me a moment to realize that he wasn't doing so on purpose. It was just that his default form for so long had been the hawk, with its intense stare, that it was now his default expression. I knew that ever since he and Rachel became a whatever-they-were-calling-themselves, he'd spent at least a little time each day as a human in order to be with her. But that still left the majority of his time as a hawk.
He spoke up, the gentleness in his tone at odds with the fierceness of his expression. "No, mom. He wouldn't have chosen to leave you. He wouldn't have planned for it."
For a moment, mother and son looked at one another. I could see Loren's own expression soften, and she laid her hand against Tobias's cheek. "We did used to go flying. He had a plane. Even if it was only in atmosphere, Elfangor still loved to fly."
"So we went up every weekend, to fly. Elfangor used to say that flying made him feel like he was in control, even when everything else was different, or out of control, or wrong. When he was piloting, when the two of us were in the sky, he was in control. It made him feel safe, in a world that wasn't really his. He was away from everything else he had ever known, he chose to become a human permanently, so he didn't even have his Andalite form. But when he flew, it was a connection to what he'd been before. It was a link between his new life and his old life."
Her hand moved, gently stroking the hair on his face. In any other situation, I would have made a crack about embarrassing the poor guy in front of his friends.
Now, I kept my mouth shut.
"I think that's why you were drawn to flying." Loren's voice was so soft that I wasn't positive I'd heard right. "I believe that when you fly, it connects you to your father, even subconsciously. It was such a large part of what made him feel safe and in control, that as soon as you could do it, it probably felt..."
"Right." Tobias supplied. "It felt right. It felt like something that I was supposed to do, something that was missing for a long time. Like everything bad that had happened my entire life would be fixed if I could just fly forever."
Fly forever. I'd wondered for a long time if Tobias had gotten himself trapped as a hawk on purpose, to escape what had, at the time, been a downright terrible home life, shuffled back and forth between an aunt and an uncle who didn't give two shits about him.
If he had chosen it, I wondered how long it had taken him to regret the decision. I also wondered if it had been something like suicide without the death part. Technically, he had thrown his human life away, while remaining alive.
Sometimes I hated the way my brain worked.
Either way, it felt like to listen to any more of this would be even more of an intrusion than it already was. Instead, I moved to sit by Jake so that we could go over the mission plans, contingencies, and everything else that had to go into making sure we got out of this alive.
« » « » « » « » « » « »
"I'm telling you, you're crazy. You're just flat out crazy." I informed my flat out crazy best friend a short time later, after Loren had begun the final approach toward the gigantic Yeerk vessel that was their command ship.
"Me?" Jake shot back. "You're the one that's crazy, okay? There is absolutely no way that Spider-Man would ever, ever in a million years, ever beat Batman. It's just not gonna happen."
"Oh please!" I protested, because clearly Jake had lost his mind. "Look, Batman's a great fighter, one of the best, I'll give you that. But he's still human. He's not in Spidey's league as far as reflexes go. The dude couldn't land a hit on Spider-Man if he had all day to try. Spidey's got him in agility and reflexes. Plus there's the danger sense. You combine Spider-Man's reflexes with his spidey-sense, and Batman's whiffing all day long."
Jake's eyes rolled. Clearly he was unconvinced, the plebeian. "Batman prepares for everything. He plans out for every conceivable situation."
I kept my own voice as dry as possible. "I guarantee you he hasn't set up a battle plan for a guy who was bitten by a radioactive spider, gained all their strengths, and can now sense every attack that Batman throws at him before it comes. Batman's good, but he's not fucking psychic."
"Is this normal?" Loren interjected. She was talking to her son. "Do they always talk about things like this before going on life and death missions?"
It was Rachel who answered her. "It's usually worse. You should hear the way they babble on about this crap when we're not about to land in Yeerk central headquarters. It's insane."
I chose to ignore her to focus on Ax. "So remind me of how this works again?"
«The same way that you created your Andalite morph. Simply acquire the DNA from each subject. While doing so, focus on a single idea or concept and hold that single thought in your head while acquiring each piece of DNA. Once you are done, morph while keeping the triggering thought in your mind, and it should link the acquired DNA into a single form. The Frolis maneuver.»
Once we landed on the Yeerk ship, we were going to need a way of getting around without being found out. Flies or other tiny bugs were possible, but it'd take entirely too long to get where we needed to go, and we'd probably get lost inside of five minutes with the way fly senses worked.
So instead, the plan was that one of us would use the uniform that Loren's own work had procured, and would serve as a taxi for the others in bug morph. That lucky someone was me, since it was my plan.
But obviously I couldn't go as myself. That was just entirely too suicidal. I was going to acquire Jake, Rachel, Melissa, and Loren instead, and sort of combine them into a single form. Tobias and Ax were out because 'partial bird'' didn't exactly scream subtle, let alone anything that looked at all like an Andalite. I needed human DNA only. Apparently even acquiring from their human-morphs was out, since whoever invented the morphing technology made it impossible to acquire DNA from a morphed creature. Because, you know, that would just make things too easy, and we couldn't ever have that.
Once I acquired each bit of DNA, I focused on the single morph. Remembering what had happened to Jake when he'd chosen his Andalite morph, I made sure to picture a male result.
Eventually, I had my new temporary body. I was as tall as Jake, though not as well built, some of the girls's slimness getting in there. I'd gained Rachel's long hair (and likely its supernatural imperviousness to getting dirty or even slightly mussed in any way that made it look even slightly less than perfect), and my facial features were pretty much a blend of my own and Loren's. The eyes, when I looked in the mirror that Rachel provided, were all Melissa's.
"It was creepy when Ax did it." Jake informed me. "And it's even more creepy when you do it. It's like looking at all of us at once and squinting at the same time."
"As long as it works." I reached for the uniform. "You guys should morph bug. Invisible or not, I'm pretty sure Loren shouldn't keep this thing in the docking bay any longer than she has to."
The others began their own morphs, while I pulled on the uniform, which looked a little bit like the ones in Star Trek only made mostly of a single color, black, with a little bit of blue piping on the side and over the collar, and watched the viewscreen as we flew past several pairs of Bug Fighters that were clearly on the lookout for any kind of intrusion.
Luckily, we were the kind of intrusion that they couldn't detect. I hoped.
By the time an opening on the Yeerk's launch bay had appeared long enough for Loren to bring the ship through and settle into an empty corner so that we could get off, the others had all become flies. I scooped them all up and put them on my shoulders, hidden by the hair (the main reason I had chosen to make it long).
"Wish us luck?" I asked the only adult in the world who had a single clue what we were doing.
She regarded me for a moment, considering her words before she spoke. "Stay on the line."
I blinked. "On the line?"
"Between careful and careless." Loren explained. "You can't be too careful, because this is dangerous work. Being careful would mean not having anything to do with it, and that's not possible. But you can't be too careless either, because you have people who love you, people who need you. Even your mother. If you saved her but lost yourself, that wouldn't be saving her at all."
"So remember the line between careful and careless, and stay on it. Don't fall off."
I hesitated. This was where I should give a smartass remark, maybe add a wink or something. Instead, I found myself nodding. "Right. Staying on the line. Hey, we'll see you soon. And we'll have my mother with us. You guys can compare notes about giving birth to idiot teenagers with a deathwish."
With that, I pivoted and made my way to the ramp. Loren had put us down so that the exit of the ship was hidden by some machinery. Hopefully it would be enough that my sudden appearance would go unnoticed.
I walked out from behind the machinery, pausing to take in the sight of the bustling docking bay. There were mostly Humans and Taxxons, those nasty, cannabalistic, many-legged freaks with the bottomless pits for stomach wandering around, doing maintenance on the various ships that I could see. Interspersed with the obvious mechanics were pilots, soldiers, and officers. The noise level was almost deafening with all the shouts back and forth, chatter, and various engine noises.
Good. It meant I could probably get away with muttering to the others. "Heading for what should be the exit, if Tobias's mom's intel is any good." I walked, doing my level best to look as though I knew where I was going.
Tobias answered from somewhere up behind my ear. «It'll be good. Just let Rachel and me know when it's our turn.»
We were splitting into pairs. It was the best way of getting everything done that we needed to in the time frame that we had. We needed everyone to be in position. Every single domino was going to have to fall just right if we were going to pull this off and get away with it.
I kept walking, passing one of the slimy Taxxon-Controllers as it skittered over a half-assembled Bug Fighter on those dozens of legs, picking at exposed wiring. With heroic effort, I restrained the urge to shudder. It would have been a dead giveaway.
Passing through the set of doors that Loren had indicated from the plans she had apparently stolen some time ago, I found myself in a grey, slightly rounded corridor with simple white lighting along the floor and ceiling. After taking a brief second to get my bearings, I continued on toward a four way intersection. A Hork-Bajir and a Gedd, one of the monkey-like creatures that had been the Yeerk's first species conquest back on their own homeplanet, were chatting at the intersection. They looked like they might try to involve me in their discussion, so I picked up the pace.
"You know the Visser." I said with a shrug as I passed them, nearly trotting. "Can't keep 'em waiting."
The mention of the Visser, and I had been careful to avoid indicating which one, stopped the pair from doing anything to slow me down. They just looked glad that they weren't in my position.
They really had no clue just how glad they should be.
Turning right at that intersection, I went on toward another. Straight through that one, then left, then straight, then right. I'd had to memorize that. Right, straight, left, straight, right.
Waiting until a pair of human-controllers had passed, I stepped toward a small vent on the floor. Glancing around to make sure the coast was clear, I crouched and extended my right hand. "Rachel and Tobias, this is your stop, guys. Go straight off my fingers and into the vent. You know what to do from there."
«Yeah.» Rachel replied while two of the flies on me buzzed down and through the tiny slits. «Try not to get killed. Or captured.»
Tobias agreed. «Definitely. Not getting killed or captured is a solid Plan A. Don't worry, man, we'll hold up our end. Just do what you gotta do. We'll be ready.»
I moved on, winding my way through the maze of corridors on my predetermined route. Honestly, for an alien mothership, it didn't look too out of the ordinary. There were a few of those invisible elevators that I passed by, and of course there were the aliens everywhere, but other than that, the place almost could have been any other military facility.
Except for the feeling that at any given moment, I was going to be jumped by a dozen walking salad shooters so that a slimy mind controlling slug could be shoved into my head.
I dropped Ax and Jake off at their location. Then it was just me and Melissa. Me walking along a corridor filled with aliens that wanted to enslave our entire planet, while she was a fly currently tickling the bottom of my right ear.
I tell you, Animorphs romance spares no expense.
After another ten minutes of walking, I checked to make sure no one was looking, then slipped through a doorway into a supply closet. We just had to hope that no one came looking for replacement bulbs or whatever they stored in it while we were here.
"We're good." I told her. The fly left my ear, and immediately began to grow as Melissa resumed her normal form. I started my own demorph. We couldn't risk being ourselves for very long, but the risk of being trapped in morph while this was going on was too great. We had to reset the morph clock before really getting into this.
Once we were ourselves again, and taking a few moments to breathe (morphing was like sprinting, you didn't want to do it too often in too quick of a succession), I spoke up. "You never said who your favorite was."
Melissa had been looking away from me, examining one of the strange red crystal ball things that were on the shelves in this storage room. "What?"
"Batman or Spider-Man." I said, offering her what I hoped was a charming enough smile. "You never said who you thought would win. Who's your favorite in that fight?"
She hesitated. "Rachel would say this is completely pointless and stupid."
Rather than respond to what Rachel would say, I just remained silent and watched her patiently.
After another moment, she shrugged. That cute little blush came. "Spider-Man. Batman gets too much credit."
I grinned then. "See? I knew you were as smart as you are hot."
Her eyes widened at that, and as soon as I realized what I'd said, my own blush matched hers. Smooth, Marco, real smooth. Just blurt it out like an idiot.
"You, umm, did you say..." Melissa hesitated. It seemed like she wasn't sure if she wanted to bring it up or ignore it. "I mean, I'm not Rachel. I'm not a model. I'm small and umm..."
"Favorite character?" I interrupted.
She blinked, caught off guard. "What?"
"Who's your favorite comic book character? Not the best, not the strongest, your favorite."
Melissa looked uncertain at the apparent subject change, but she dutifully answered. "Spoiler."
Now it was my turn to look confused. "You don't want to spoil something?"
She giggled, head shaking back and forth. "No, Spoiler. Stephanie Brown. She's my favorite."
"Oh, oh!" I got it then, coughing. "Right, sorry. She's your favorite character?"
"Yeah..." Melissa paused, looking down for a moment before raising her gaze again. "Her dad was a villain, a bad guy. She found out and she decided to do something about it. I can sort of relate. Not completely, you know, because he was really bad and not just taken over by an alien parasite. But still. And she screws up a lot, but she keeps trying. She's not perfect, she hasn't trained her entire life, she's human. But she keeps trying to help."
"You are definitely, definitely hot." I told her then. I made myself not look away as she stared at me with those wide eyes. "Don't put yourself down again. And stop comparing yourself to Rachel. There's more than one kind of attractive. You're adorable, and trust me when I say that's sexier than it sounds. You're funny, and you're smart, and you like things that guys like. You like movies and you like comic books. You know who Carrot the dwarf is, for crying out loud."
"So just shut up about whether you look exactly like Rachel or not. You're you, and as far as I'm concerned, I'd rather date you than Rachel any day."
For a long moment, she just stared at me. I was afraid her brain had locked up. Or that mine had. Finally, she spoke. "D-date?" Her eyes began blinking rapidly.
I let out a breath, realizing exactly what I had said. "Right, shit. See, I was looking for the single most unromantic place in the world to ask about that. Like maybe a garbage chute like the one in Star Wars, or a room that is currently on fire. But umm, yeah. Yes. Yes, Melissa, I like you. I think you're cute. I think you're funny. And I think that you're a lot of fun."
She bit her lip, looking like this was the most embarrassed she'd ever been. Yet I don't think it was a bad kind of embarrassed. "You're really asking me out? Like, out, out?"
I rolled my eyes and snorted in spite of myself. "Yes. Right here, right now. I am asking you to give me a chance. I really, really like you. I'd like to get a chance to like you even more."
"You realize that we're probably standing in one of the most dangerous places in the entire galaxy right now?" She asked, fidgeting with her hands.
"Well, you know, I wasn't exactly planning on just blurting that right out. But it was either here, or any place that Rachel had the slightest chance of overhearing." I pointed out.
Her eyebrow raised at that. "You think Rachel is scarier than the Yeerk mothership?"
"Damn straight." I answered immediately. "Have you met Rachel? She's terrifying. I give her three to one odds versus almost anything this ship has to offer."
She giggled, and it was a nice sound. "You know if we're dating, you'll have to face her sometime."
I couldn't help it. My smile broadened. "Dating?"
That blush of hers deepened, covering her face as she quickly ducked her head to stare at the floor. Her nod was almost imperceptible. But I saw it.
Slowly, I reached out with two fingers and tucked them under her chin. My own hand was shaking a little from nerves, from excitement, from everything. Her skin was soft, yet somehow electrifying in a way that I had never really understood up to that point. I lifted her chin so that I could see her face again. "Hey," I told her quietly. "Do me a favor? Don't hide from me. I kind of like to make people smile, and I especially like yours."
That smile that I liked so much came back. It was the smile that she gave during those rare times that she stopped thinking so much, stopped worrying about what people thought of her. The private, fun smiles when she was talking or thinking about something that she really liked.
And this time, the smile was there when I had just talked to her about dating, about the two of us being together, dating. The thought made my throat freeze up, and for a moment I forgot about everything except for one thing.
We must have stood there, frozen, for a long time. Finally, the spell was broken as Melissa made a face and scrunched down a little, scratching her leg. "Stupid itch." She complained. "Sorry, I didn't mean to ruin it."
I shook my head, promising, "You didn't ruin anything. Trust me, given another moment and I would've broken it too. I was just... thinking."
"Thinking?" Her chin lifted as a look of curiosity crossed her face. "Thinking about what?"
This time it was my turn to blush. "Nothing."
"Oh no." Her hands came up to clutch the thin collar of my tight white tee-shirt. "If we're umm, if we're dating-" Her voice rose at the end, almost giddily. "Then you're not allowed to say nothing after something like that. Tell me what you were thinking. Tell me tell me tell me tell me tell me."
I did. Not through words, but by leaning forward and kissing her. It was brief, the taste of her lips shocking me almost as much as the kiss seemed to shock her so that it only lasted for a second.
We stared at each other for a moment after that short, barely there kiss.
"That, ahh, that's what I was thinking." I all but stammered. "I know. I know you just said we could try dating and that doesn't necessarily mean anything more than that, and it was really forward and everything, but I just thought if we do happen to die up here I'd rather die after kissing you than die without kissing you and god damn it that line sounds stupid now that I say it out lou-"
Her mouth was on mine. I stumbled a little, surprised by the sudden contact. She was there. She had kissed me that time. She was still kissing me. It felt... it felt like nothing I could describe. My arms seemed to automatically envelop her slightly smaller form, and I pulled Melissa against me, wanting her closer. I wanted to envelop her entirely. I wanted to protect her in a way I'd never really thought about up until then. The kiss was electrifying, and my brain seemed to simultaneously run a million thoughts at once, and stop entirely.
I felt her arms come around me, as though Melissa wanted to be as close to me as I wanted to be close to her. There was nothing, nothing at all, that could have ruined that moment. Visser Three himself could have opened the door and I would have told him to fuck off for two minutes.
Finally, it ended, because we both had to breathe. Pulling back just a little, I pressed my forehead to hers and muttered, "Holy shit."
Her face was warm against mine. "Was it good?" She asked, hesitantly. In contrast to that fierce, hungry kiss, her voice was as uncertain as ever, as worried about dismissal and rejection. This was a girl who had spent years thinking that her parents didn't care about her anymore. There were deep-seated rejection issues there, even after she had found out the truth.
They were issues that I was willing to work through, in a way that I'd never been before. For her.
"It was amazing." I assured her, breathing out before bringing a hand up to cup her cheek. I pulled back so that I could smile at her. "You're amazing." This time, I kissed her cheek. I wanted to kiss more than that, but I was pretty sure that if I started again, I wouldn't be able to stop.
"Well," I finally managed to say, clapping my hands together like it was time to get to work. "Now that we're through the scary part, let's morph and go do that little abducting the highest ranking Yeerk military commander in the galaxy thing."