By The Steel Angel

Authors Notes - Another mid-Space Jam break for me. I'm gonna churn out my yearly holiday fic, full of romancy goodness. And before all you slashers jump for joy, I think it's only fair to tell you that this fic is neither Marco/Ax, nor Jake/Tobias. Rather, it's my personal favorite couple, and one that I've neglected recently. Of course, I'm talking about Jake/Rachel. So for all of you who haven't clicked the back button yet, enjoy!

My name is Jake.

And I hate Christmas.

I know what you're all thinking. "How can you hate Christmas?" or "Christmas is the time for families to get together and be thankful that they all have each other". Wrong. That would be Thanksgiving, which I enjoy. Is there a better combination than a thanksgiving meal and the traditional NFL game? I think not.
But let's all face the reality here. Christmas stopped being fun once we all hit thirteen. Remember how fun it was, back when we were kids? We'd all go to sleep really early, and grandma would tuck us in, and tell us not to open our eyes, or else Santa wouldn't come. Then we'd get up the next morning and run through the house, waking up everyone we could, shouting "It's Christmas! It's Christmas!" Then all the adults would sit in the living room and take pictures of you opening your dozens of highly priced toys.

That was then.

Now, it's a completely different story. Once you become a teenager, everything changes. You transform from the entertained to the entertainer. Your toys somehow modulate themselves into thermal socks and flannel sweaters that are three sizes too ugly. And now you're the one being woken up at the crack of dawn by snot faced little kids, of whom the only reason that you allow them to live is because of the fact that they happen to share your bloodline.

What's more, is that now you're expected to buy some of those presents for your younger cousins to demolish. Yeah, because a fifteen year old kid with no job has a positive source of income. Right.

Sometimes I wonder what it'll be like if we actually win this war. Are we actually going to come out and say that it was us six who've been fighting for the last two years against an evil galactic empire? Would anyone actually believe us? And even if they did, would we get the recognition we deserved?

We'd probably go down in the history books. That would be an honor I guess, but I'm getting too far ahead of myself when I start thinking about the next human generation. After all, if we don't win this war, the next human generation will be born into slavery. Puppets used by Yeerk masters.

"Jake! Can you come and help your father move the tree?!" My mom yelled from downstairs. I sighed and closed my math book. What kind of kind of teacher would assign math homework over a two week christmas break anyway? Didn't she know that this is the time for family, not homework?

"Let Tom do it!" I shot back. I really wasn't in the mood for any heavy lifting. I was literally exhausted. We'd just gotten over the biggest mission we'd ever had, and on top of that, had to deal with an Animorph gone AWOL. I could still hear his screams as Rachel and Ax carried his permanent Rat body away...

"He isn't here! Now come help your father!" My mom yelled again. I sighed and stood up, stretching my still-tired limbs. Hadn't I earned a little rest and relaxation? No, not to the common public. To the world, I was just another lazy teenager who put off homework, watched too much TV, and refused to get a job. It was only to a select few, that I was so much more.

My best friend, Marco, was one of those few. He'd been my best friend since we were three days old. We were in the maternity ward together after we were born, right next to each other as a matter of fact. That's really the only reason that I can think of that explains why we're friends. If you look at us, we're almost like complete opposites. He's funny, I'm serious. He's irresponsible, I'm the opposite. But regardless of what it is that made us best friends, the fact remains that we are. I'd give my life for Marco. Not that I'd ever tell him that.

Rachel too, is one of those select few. My smart, witty, beautiful cousin Rachel. She was with us when we ran into Elfangor at the abandoned construction site, and it's almost as if the entire war has been a blessing in disguise for her. I always knew the was bold, now I think she's reckless. I always knew the was strong willed, and now I think she's fearless. The war has been a way for Rachel to unleash the amazon warrior hidden deep down inside of her. And that's just what we need sometimes, to get us out of a tough situation.

I guess there's a part of me that's almost afraid of Rachel. Sure, I'd been appointed the leader of our group by everyone unanimously, which would include Rachel, but sometimes she scares me. Maybe because I know that because of our shared blood, that there's a part of Rachel hidden deep down inside of me. And that one wrong move could let that side of me out. I don't want that to happen.

At least, that's what Cassie tells me. Cassie is the last human member of our team. She's the anti-Rachel, though her and Rachel are best friends for reasons unknown to me. It's kind of the same thing that makes Marco and I friends. Opposites apparently attract, in the best friends category. Cassie gives us moral conviction. She allows us to retain our humanity throughout all of the bloodshed we've been through. She can see things deeper than most people can.... she can almost see what people are feeling.
I guess you could say that I kind of like Cassie. You know, like.

The last original member of our group isn't human. At least, not anymore. Tobias is a red tailed hawk. You see, morphing is like a double barrelled gun, with the second barrel pointed straight back at you. It's a great weapon, but it can destroy the one who weilds it. Tobias overstayed the two hour time limit and was trapped permanently in his Red-tailed hawk morph. I guess I can sort of see myself in Tobias. Kind of like, if he had the right upbringing, the same one that I had, that he would be exactly like me. A lot of the characteristics of Tobias' personality I find that I have as well.

Tobias, though, is one of the strongest, most righteous people that I know. He didn't call it quits when he was trapped in his hawk morph. Just the opposite. He fought harder, trying to prove to the rest of us that he was useful. A big step up from the bully magnet that I knew him as before the whole war started. Maybe it was that encounter with Elfangor that changed him. Out of all of us, Tobias was the one who stayed behind with Elfangor the longest. I guess he wanted to make sure that Elfangor's gift and sacrifice wasn't in vain. I had the utmost respect for Tobias. Moreso than anyone else in the group.

Then there's Ax. We found him a few months after our encounter with Elfangor after Tobias and Cassie started to have strange dreams. Dreams which we later found out, was Ax's distress signal from under the ocean. Ax, who's real name is Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthil, is an Andalite. Not just any Andalite, but Elfangor's little brother. He isn't a soldier, not really. In Andalite terms, he's a cadet. A kid. Just like us.

In all honesty, Ax is still an enigma to me. I don't know what he truly wants. Where his loyalties really lay. He says that he's loyal to me, but he changed his loyalties to an Andalite Traitor not too long ago. I know that I can depend on him in a fight, however. And whether or not he sees the rest of us as children playing at war, he's always in the thick of it with us. And for that, he gets my respect.

That's our team. Me, my best friend, my cousin, the girl I like, a bird, and an alien.

I wonder what the Vegas line would be. Six kids vs. a Galactic army of Space Slugs. I don't think a single person alive would bet on us. But you know what? The underdog in sports wins sixty perecent of the time. Too bad this isn't all a game, huh?

I walked downstairs with all of this on my mind, wondering what the Yeerks would do next. I tried to take my mind off of it when I saw my father trying to drag the huge christmas tree in through the front door. The bottom of the tree's trunk was caught on the doorstep, so pulling would only hurt his back, not bring in the tree.

"Dad, hold on a sec." I said, and walked around to the doorway. I grabbed the base of the trunk and lifted straight up, jarring the tree loose from the doorstep. Unfortunately, I didn't take notice of my father wearing gloves. The trunk wasn't smooth. So lifting up caused the rough pine wood to scrape against my hands. "Agh, damn!" I yelped and dropped the trunk. It landed on the tile with a thud, cracking one of the tile squares. I looked down at my hands, which were covered with splinters.

"Jake!" My mother cried. I thought she was coming to my aide, until she pushed me out of the way. "Look what you did! This is brand new tile!" She scolded. Was I hearing straight? Here her last born son was obviously in pain, and all she cared about was her new tile?

"I'm sorry," I said. It was all I could say without using a few choice words that would get me into even deeper trouble.

"Watch what you're doing next time. Do you have any idea how much this tile costs?" She demanded. I shook my head. "Well, I'm taking the money out of your allowance to fix it." She said. Great. At least my parents were in the christmas spirit. I sighed.

"I'm going to go upstairs and de-wood my hands." I said softly, and headed upstairs. My hands felt like they were on fire. The slivers of wood seemed to be touching every pain sensor in my hand. I closed the bathroom door behind me, and grabbed a pair of tweezers out of the medicine cabinet. It was almost unbearable to clutch the tweezers with a splinter filled hand, but I made do, my eyes watering slightly as I slowly plucked the splinters out of my flesh.

It took me the better part of two hours to completely remove all the splinters from my hand, but it was well worth it. With every splinter that I took out, it was like a wave of relief passed over my body. At the end, my hands were red and sore, but wood-free. I could ball my hands into fists without passing out. I walked back downstairs, where my parents had finally gotten the tree set up. My mother was busy decorating the tree with hundreds of useless ornaments, while my father was stringing out the lights that he was going wrap around the tree and narrowly escape setting the house on fire, just like every year.

"What do you want for dinner tonight, sweet heart?" My mom asked, looking over at me as she took a brief pause from her obsessive decorating. I shrugged slightly.
"I'll just catch a burger at the mall with Marco." I said non chalantly. My mom just glared at me.

"Jake, it's Christmas Eve. Having Tom out doing community service with The Sharing is bad enough, but it's at least a good excuse. Hanging out with Marco doesn't cut it." She said. I rolled my eyes. Sometimes I just wanted to grab either one of my parents by the shoulders and tell them what Tom was really doing with the Sharing. Of course, I have a little bit more self control than that.

"Mom, I've been up in my room doing homework all day. I just want to relax a little, okay? I'll be home before eight." I said, and grabbed a light sweater as I walked toward the door. Thank god we lived in Southern California. No snow is good snow, the way I see it.

I stepped out of my house, and into the crisp breeze with the setting sun as a background. It was a bit chilly, so I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my black pants. Why did Christmas feel so different this year? Last year I felt a bit silly still trying to do all the things that I used to, but it did bring me closer with my family, even though the war had already begun. This year was different. What was there to celebrate?

I passed a group of carrollers on the sidewalk. There were about ten of them. Adults, seniors, and kids. Must have been a single family. They were all wearing Santa Claus hats and holding candles. I could see their collective breath come out as a light fog as they sang.

I wanted to tell them the truth. That their lives were in danger every waking moment. That the only thing that stood between them and slavery was a group of kids playing at war. That perhaps two or three of the people in that very group were controllers. But I didn't. Like I said, I have self control.

It wasn't a long walk to Marco's place. Not since his dad had regained control of his own life. I'd always felt a little sorry for Marco since his Mom "died". His dad couldn't handle it. He quit his job, and lost all grip on reality. Of course, Marco and I both knew the truth. That Marco's mother wasn't dead. No, she was the host to the yeerk Visser One.

Recently though, his Dad seemed to have gotten over the supposed death of his wife. He had gotten a job as a software engineer at a local technical coorperation, and they'd moved into a house that was twice the size of the small appartment that they had shared for the last two years.

"Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jingle all the way..." A collective voice sang. I looked behind me. The family of carrollers had followed me the three blocks I'd been walking. I sped up my pace a little bit, but I kept hearing the voice, and it wasn't growing any distant. "Oh what fun, it is to ride, in a one horse hope and sleigh, hey!" I growled slightly. I wasn't in the mood for touchy, feely christmas songs right now. I stopped at Marco's doorstep, and knocked on the door, ignoring the incesant Jingle Bells tune blaring behind me.

Marco opened the door a few moments later, wearing a Santa hat and holding a large glass of what looked like egg nog. "Hey Big Jake." He said friendly, and stepped aside to let me in. I stepped inside warm sanctity of his home, and he shut the door, though the singing of the carrollers could still be heard. "What's going on?" He asked, giving me a meaningful look. I shook my head slightly, letting him know that there wasn't any Yeerk activity going on. He sighed in relief. "Good." He said, and led me to the living room, where his father was sitting in his LaZboy arm chair. There was another chair across the table, anda few shot glasses on the table.

"Hey Jake. You're just in time for a game of Quarters." His Dad said. I arched an eyebrow.

"With what?" I asked.

"Egg nog, my boy." his dad said. "Non alcoholic for you and Marco of course. First one to pass out or vomit loses." He said jokingly. I smirked. Marco leaned over to whisper in my ear.

"I swear, my Dad used to be a booze hound. He's made every shot. I've downed ten shot glasses of the Nog. I think my stomach is going to explode." He said. I chuckled lightly.

"It's been a while since I've seen you, Jake. How've you been?" His dad asked. I sat down on the couch that was adjacent to the coffee table.

"I've been good. I don't think my parents have seen the new place yet." I said, looking around the living room.

"Maybe your parents, you, and Tom should come over for Dinner tomorrow night. It'd be nice for all of us to get together again, like old times." His dad said. I nodded.

"I'll run that by them." I said. Marco's dad stood up, stretching out his back.

"I'll be right back. I need something to munch on before I start cooking." He said, and, walked into the kitchen. Marco looked over at me.

"What's up?" He asked. I shrugged slightly.

"Just needed to get out of the house. I turned my hands into swiss cheese earlier, trying to lift the Christmas tree by the trunk with no gloves." I said.

"Do you want me to call you an idiot now, or later?" Marco asked.

"Yeah yeah, make fun of me all you want. Let's go grab a burger." I said.

"No can do. Dad's making the traditional Christmas Eve chicken." Marco countered. "That'll be ready in about two hours. For some reason, it always takes longer to cook everything in December." He said.

"So come with me so I can grab a burger. I'd feel weird walking all around the mall by myself." I said. Marco batted his eyelashes at me, almost seductively.

"Why Jake.... are you asking me on a date? I never knew you cared about me like that." He said, and gave a mock sniffle. I leaned over and punched him in the shoulder. "Hey! Stop the violence. We should make love, not war." He said, and held his hand out in a peace sign. "Groovy man."

"Whatever." I said with a smirk. Even when I was in such an irritable mood, Marco always managed to bring a smile to my face. "Let's go." I said, and stood up. Marco stood up behind me.

"Dad! I'm going to the mall with Jake! I'll be back before chicken!" He called, and then escorted me out of his house, where the carrollers had dispursed, thank god. Marco walked beside me with his hands stuffed in his pockets. He was wearing a pair of black slacks, and a red long sleeve shirt, which matched the color of his Santa hat to a point.

"I never remembering you being this into Christmas." I commented.

"I took a break from Christmas Cheer after my mom..." He said, letting it hang. He didn't have to finish the statement. We both knew what he meant. For the past three years, Marco's mom has been dead to the world. To us too, until we got involved in this war. Then we learned that she hadn't died.... she was the host body to the Yeerk Overlord, Visser One. We both grew silent after that. There wasn't anything I could say to console him, I wasn't Cassie after all.

We walked toward the mall silently. The air was crisp and cold, and strangely quiet, which seemed to fit the mood that I was in. As we approached the mall, I began to smell the different odors that were common in the building. Fried food from the food court seemed to mask everything. It was the world we knew. The world that humans....Americans at least, called home.

"You finish all your christmas shopping already?" Marco asked, breaking the long silence.

"Christmas shopping? Oh, yeah. A while ago. Mom, Dad, Tom, you. A few little cousins here and there." I said, as we walked into the mall.

"What'd you get your honey-muffin?" Marco said with a sardonic grin. I felt my face flush.

"Wh....wh....what? Honey-muffin? I don't know what you're talking about." I insisted. Marco rolled his eyes, nudging my shoulder lightly. He rolled his sleeves up since we were in the artificially heated mall.

"Please, it's only obvious that you and Cassie have a thing going on. You guys are even more obvious than Rachel and Tobias." He said. I blinked.

"Rachel and Tobias? Really?" I asked. Marco stood there, staring at me for a few minutes.

"...Duh. Well, that's depressing. Our fearless leader is completely clueless to things going on in his own squadron. We're doomed." He said.

"Shut up. Just because I don't pay attention to who's doing who, doesn't mean I'm clueless." I insisted. I glanced around the mall. Everywhere, people were getting their last minute shopping out of the way. These store owners must have been making a fortune. We walked past a few stores on the lower level, until we reached the nearby KB Toys. I looked inside, and saw a rack of medium sized white teddy bears, with small Christmas trees on their chests. "Hey, come on." I said, and veered into the store.

"Why're we going into a Toy Store? Like you or I have three hundred bucks to spend on a Playstation2." Marco complained, staring at the Sony display as we walked into the store. I grabbed one of the white teddy bears off of the shelf.

"Yeah, well, blame the liberal administration for raising taxes. That's why you having no money." I said simply. Marco rolled his eyes.

"You are SO jewish." He said. I smirked, and walked over to the clerk to pay for the bear. "You buying that for Cassie?" He asked me as we stood in line behind a gaggle of stressed out mothers and a flock of screaming, whining children. I looked back at him.

"Nah," I said, and grabbed a red teddy bear from the shelf as we approached the front of the line. "Just a couple of presents for Rachel's sisters. I guess I forget sometimes that they're my cousins too." I said, looking down at the bears. "I think Sara is ten.... so Jordan must be around twelve or thirteen." I said.

"Thirteen.... damn. Just a year out of my age range." Marco said. I looked at him silently for a few moments. "...Whaaat? If I can't have Rachel, I should at least be able to go after one of her sisters!" He said defensively. I reached over and smacked him in the back of the head.

"Careful. The FBI is probably listening to every word you say right now." I said.

"Nah, if the FBI was monitoring me, we'd all be slaves right now," Marco muttered under his breath.

"...You know what? Let's cut the business stuff for at least today and tomorrow. We've all earned a vacation." I said. Marco sighed.

"Yeah, you're right." He said, shaking his head. "What'd you buy for Rachel, anyway?" He asked.

"I didn't buy her anything. Rachel and I aren't on the best of terms with each other recently, in case you haven't noticed." I said.

"Duh. How do you think you're supposed to get a woman to forgive you? Presents, man. Lots of high priced, fancy, classy presents. A diamond bracelet. Diamond earrings. A diamond studded bikini. Something with diamonds. Or chocolate. Chocolate works too." Marco said.

"I am not buying diamonds for my cousin." I countered.

"Hmm.... good point. She IS your cousin, so it's like you're trying to score makeup sex. And it IS Rachel, so knowing her, she'd probably think that diamonds are too girly. But then again, she IS a girl. And like the commericals say, diamonds are a girl's best friend." Marco said.

"I can deal with Rachel. Besides, it isn't like she got me anything anyway." I said, and paid for the items up at the counter. Marco chose to abandon the conversation, and just leaned against the doorway of the store, waiting for me. I walked over to him with the two stuffed bears in tow. "Now, let's hit the food court." I said.

"Sure. For once I'm glad to go to the food court. Normally, I'm with someone who doesn't understand the concept of being full." He said. I smirked. He was talking about Ax, of course. See, in their natural form, Andalites don't have mouths. So the concept of taste is overwhelming for them. Especially around Cinnamon Buns for some strange reason.

We walked through the mall, dodging homicidal shopping carts, screeching children, and parents that were nearing the boiling point. Some of them had passed the boiling point, and chose the middle of the crowded mall to vent their frustration at their children, or their spouses. "Hey Marco," I asked thoughtfully.

"Hm?" He asked, looking over at me.

"I know this is gonna sound corny.... but what do you think the meaning of Christmas is?" I asked. He stopped in the middle of the mall, looking at me. I stopped as well. He looked like he was thinking. I expected some sarcastic remark, but to my surprise, it didn't come.

"Presents." He said with a nod, and then started walking with me again.

"...Presents?" I asked.

"Yeah. Not necessarily getting them, but giving them too. It's the one time of the year when people get each other presents to show them how much they care about each other, or some jazz like that, right? Commericalism meets the Hallmark card, which coincidentaly, you can't send someone without paying for the card and postage. So you see, it's all one big circle." He said.

"...Did you just come up with that?" I asked.

"Yeah, was any of it plausable? Because I could totally use that in my next english essay." He said. I chuckled, and headed into the foodcourt with him.

We didn't stay long. I ordered a burger from Burger King, and got it to go. Marco had to get back to his house anyway. I grabbed my food when it arrived, and we headed outside. It was colder than it was when we had entered, and a light breeze had stirred up. Marco folded his arms across his chest.

"Anyone with hispanic blood is not built for the cold." He said, shivering slightly.

"It isn't that cold, you wuss." I said, nudging his shoulder lightly.

"Easy for you to say, you Northern European, you. Your people are built for snow." He said. I shook my head lightly. Up ahead, I spotted a group of people. I recognized them almost immediately.

"Oh no...." I groaned. "It's those stupid carrollers again." I said, as we passed them.

"Rudolph, the Red-nosed reindeer! Had a very shiny nose!" They sang.

"Like a lightbulb!" Marco added good heartedly. I rolled my eyes. "Whaaat? Gotta have some fun on the holidays, big man." He said, as we approached his house, the played out Rudolph song blaring in my ears. I swear, those stupid carroller's voices were following me. "Well, I guess I'll see you tomorrow Big Jake." He said.
"Yeah, I'll be over here tomorrow afternoon. I still have to give you your present, after all." I said. Marco clasped his hands together.

"Is it a diamond, Jakey? You know how much I just adore diamonds!" He said in a feminine tone. I rolled my eyes again.

"You'll see." I said, and turned to walk away. I heard the door shut. I was still carrying the two teddy bears, and another small box in my pocket. My present for Cassie. I figured that now was as good a time as any to swing by the barn and give it to her. I looked up at the sky. It was growing grey. Darker. Night was coming.

I couldn't morph. Not out in public. And even if I could, I couldn't carry two stuffed animals along with Cassie's present. Not with my tiny Peregrine Falcon body. So, I had to walk. It was a much further walk than I remebered. Cassie only lived a mile or so outside of town, but to a human, a couple of miles was a half hour to an hour walk. I was much more used to flying, where the trek too mere minutes.

By the time I got there, the sun had long since set, and the street lights shone their eternal eerie glow throughout the dark streets of the city. It was a somber evening. Everyone was home from work or school, huddled together in the sanctity of their houses, bathed in firelight, pine scent, and re-runs of bad Christmas specials on TV.

It made me wonder what my family was doing at that exact instant. We had a typical nuclear family before I got involved in this war, and probably still appeared to have one to everyone except myself, my friends, and Tom. My mom was big on Christmas. She always had hot chocolate at the ready, overflowing with marshmallows. My dad would sit quietly in his chair with his reading glasses on, reading the paper like it was any other night. The fireplace would be roaring with orange-yellow flames, even though we lived in southern California. Tom and I would lounge on the couch or near the fire, flicking marshmallows at each other or commenting how warm it was outside compared to the rest of the known world.

I missed it, I really did. Ignorance really is bliss. Now I knew, that the person flicking a marshmallow at me, was being controlled by a Yeerk. I knew that my parents could be Yeerks. I don't think that they were, though. If they were, then I would have been infested in my sleep a long time ago.

As for my own private life, no one in my family could find out. Ever. Living with the enemy is hard enough, but it's even harder if he knows who and what you are. I couldn't let that happen. Not here, not now, not in a war that we absolutely HAD to win.

Cassie's house was no exception to the rest of the houses in the city. The dark night outside was contrast to the bright lights that lit up the living room, which was visible though the front porch window as I approached the front door. Cassie's mom and Dad were sitting on the sofa, their arms wrapped around each other's shoulders, and Cassie was sitting on a chair adjacent to the couch, watching the television. It was some sort of documentary, I think. I saw lions on the screen.

I knocked on the door lightly. Both Cassie and her parents looked backwards toward the window, trying to spot me. I think Cassie was the first to do it, because she hopped up quickly, and walked through the kitchen, and over to the door, which opened a few moments later. "Hey Cassie." I greeted.

"Hey Jake. Merry Christmas." She said with a smile. I smiled back. She moved aside to let me into the house. It was refreshing. Passing from the chill of the outside atmosphere to the warmth of the inside of Cassie's home. She shut the door behind me, and led me through the house, to the living room, where her parents were still sitting on the couch, staring the at the television set. They looked up at us as we entered the room.

"Oh, hello Jake." Cassie's mom said with a smile. I smiled back. "Merry Christmas to you." She said.

"Merry Christmas to you too." I said back, and gave a slight nod to Cassie's father. He nodded back. We all stood there for a few moments of akward silence, before I felt a tug at my arm. I looked over at Cassie, who was holding my upper arm with both of her hands. I raised an eyebrow at her questioningly. Her eyes darted toward the kitchen. I took the hint, and went along with her, letting her literally drag me back into the kitchen. I was sure that I heard the faint giggle of her parents as they dissapeared from view. I looked back at Cassie once we were alone in the kitchen. "What's up?" I asked softly.

"I should be asking you that. What're you doing here? It's almost six oclock, Christmas eve. Shouldn't you be at home?" She asked. Typical Cassie.

"Nah, I had to get out of the house for a bit. Plus, the whole Tom thing is getting to me," I said. She didn't say anything for a few minutes. Tom was a controller. My own flesh and blood, a slave to the enemy. To our knowledge, Marco and I were the only ones that had controllers in our immediate family. Tom with me, and Marco's mother.

"Well... do you want to stay and have dinner with us?" Cassie asked. I looked down at her. There was such sincerity in her eyes. They say that the window inside the mind, is through the eyes. And what I saw in Cassie's eyes, humbled me. I saw a bigger person than I could ever imagine. Someone so good and wholesome, that she'd make Mother Theresa look like a sinner.... yet.... at the same time, I saw something else.

I saw a wolf. Cold, ruthless, instinctual. Doing whatever it has to do, to survive. Kill or be killed. I saw blood on its fangs. Her fangs. Things that she'd done. Things that she'd done at my command. That's right, I'd made her do this, hadn't I? Many times, I'd given the order to attack. And many times, blood was spilled. Many times, this beautiful, wholesome, caring girl had transformed into the bloodthirsty wolf, and destroyed life. Destroyed the life that her very soul cried out to save....

"Jake?" She said, squeezing my arm. I snapped out of the trance that I was in, shaking my head lightly.

"...No, that's okay. I should probably keep tradition and eat with my family. Wouldn't want them to think I don't care about them and all. You know how it is." I said. She seemed to buy it, but I knew that she didn't. Cassie wasn't tricked by words. She could read people. See people. She could tell what they were thinking.
"All right..." She said.

"Oh, before I forget." I said, and reached down into my pocket. I pulled out a small box, covered in wrapping paper. I held it out to her.

"For me?" She asked, and took the box.

"Mmhmm. Merry Christmas." I said, and looked on as she tore off the wrapping paper. Inside, was a grey box. She opened it slowly, revealing a small unicorn attached to a silver chain. It wasn't that expensive at all.... I'd found it at Walmart on sale for thirty bucks. But hey, when you've got no source of income, a thirty dollar present is top dollar.

"Awww, thank you Jake. I love it." She said, and took it out of the box, slipping it over her head, and let the unicorn dangle around her neck. She looked beautiful, with or without the necklace. I leaned over, and gave her a quick kiss on her right cheek. I felt my face flush, and I saw Cassie's face redden slightly. She smiled, and kissed my cheek as well. "We should all get together tomorrow. Rachel and I went shopping and got a few things for Ax and Tobias.... so I'm thinking we should go out to the woods tomorrow afternoon."

"Sounds like a plan." I said, and smiled. "Call me."

"Will do." She said, and kissed my other cheek. I blushed again. "See you tomorrow, Jake." She said.

"Yeah.... see you." I said, and made my way, stumbling, toward the front door. Why was one little kiss making me feel like jelly? My mother kissed me on the cheek all the time, but it had never made me feel like this. Girls had strange, strange powers.

The breeze outside cut right through my clothing, and seemed to pierce my skin, chilling me to the bone. I looked down at my watch. The temperature had dropped below fifty degrees. Not a good thing for a desert. With my teeth chattering inside my head, I tightened my grip around the two stuffed bears I was carrying, and began the long trek back to the suburbs. I had one more stop to make before I went back home.

As I made my way to Rachel's house, the silence was all encompassing. No cars were on the streets. I walked along the sidewalk, looking into the lighted windows of each house I passed. Almost always I saw a family. Maybe not a conventional family, but a family none the less. A mother and her children. A father and her children. A home with a mother and a father. A home that looked to have two mothers. Family, family, family. Was family the real meaning behind this holiday?

"Hark the Harold, Angel sing...." I heard. I looked up ahead. Standing almost directly in front of Rachel's house, were the carrollers. I growled, and walked past them, trying to drown out the incessant screeching. But it was no use. I snapped, turning around, and glared at them.

"You know, if Jesus was here right now, he'd have all you people sent to hell in his place!" I screamed, then almost immediately wished that I had the words back. The carrollers just stared at me in horror, like I was the Devil himself. We all just stood there for a few akward moments, staring at each other. Then, one of the children looked up at who I guessed was her mother and said,

"He's a scrooge! He's a scrooge!" She whined. Scrooge. Cute. This scrooge might just save your life in some future battle, kid. But I wasn't interested in debating my holiday spirit with complete strangers. I turned from them, and walked up the sidewalk to Rachel's doorstep. Her house was much like the others, the inside lighted up. The porche smelled of Cinnamon and Pine Needles. I knocked.

The door opened a moment later. I looked down. "Cousin Jake!" A voice squealed. It was Sara, Rachel's little sister. Eight or nine, by the looks of it. I felt kinda bad not remembering her exact age. "Mom! Jordan! Rachel! Jake's here!" Sara exclaimed happily. Ah, the eyes of a child. So innocent and pure.

"Hey Sara. Merry Christmas." I said, and handed her the white Teddy Bear. She engulfed it, squeezing it tightly in a hug.

"Awww, he's so cute! Thank you Jake!" She said happily, and jumped up, kissing me on the cheek. I smiled. Even though Rachel and I weren't on the best terms with each other, family was family after all. Sara was always cute, from the day she was born. She's always been able to make me smile. "I'm gonna go put him upstairs so he can meet my other stuffed animals!" She said, and took off down the hallway, and up the stairs. I shook my head, and stepped inside.

"Kids," another voice said. I shut the door behind me, and looked toward the kitchen. Jordan was standing there, leaning against the doorframe. She had just begun her teenage years, which meant that she was trying to seperate herself from all things childish. "I wouldn't be caught dead swooning over a stupid stuffed animal. What do they do, anyway?" She asked. I rolled my eyes, and held out the red Teddy Bear.

Jordan stood there for a few moments, but then grabbed the bear, tucking it under the sweater that she was wearing. She looked at me. "You will speak of this to no one. No one!" She hissed.

"Yeah yeah, I got it." I said with a smirk. Jordan had always been fun to tease. "Where's your sister?" I asked.

"Sara or Rachel?" Jordan asked.

"The one who didn't run up to her room to put her Teddy Bear away." I said.

"Rachel's in the kitchen with Mom. They're baking something, pies I think. I wanted to help.... but they said that I was too liitle. Hmph, I am NOT too little to help. I'm not a little kid like Sara. Besides, Rachel's a teenager, just like me. Why should SHE get to help, and not me? It's blatant favoritism." Jordan complained.

"Rachel gets to help because she doesn't complain about not getting to help. It's not only your age that matters. It's the maturity that comes with age. You'll be an adult soon enough. You've got sixty or seventy years of adult hood, but only eighteen years of childhood, so enjoy them. Now, go play with your bear." I said.

"...No one!" She reminded me, and walked past me, toward the stairs. I chuckled to myself, and walked toward the kitchen, lured by the scent of apple, cherry, and lemon pies. Rachel's mom always made the best pastries. I entered the kitchen through the doorframe that Jordan had been leaning against.

Rachel's mom was hunched over the oven, looking into it, observing the pies that she'd set in for baking. Above her, was a pie crust and what looked like cherry filling. Rachel was on the other side of the kitchen, a mixing bowl in hand. It looked like she beating meringue for one of the Lemon pies. Her mother stood up, and looked over at the doorway. "Oh, hello Jake." She said.

"Hey Aunt Naomi. Rachel." I said. Rachel looked up at me, and gave me a friendly nod. That was just to appease her mother, of course. Rachel's eyes gave me nothing.

"You're just in time to help us. Go help Rachel beat the meringue. I think her arm is getting tired." She said to me.

"I'm fine, Mom. I can handle it." Rachel said.

"Nonsense. You've been beating for twenty minutes. Let Jake take over. Put those big, strong, male arms to work." Aunt Naomi said jokingly. I sighed, and walked over to where Rachel was standing. She handed me the bowl and the beater. I started to stir absentmindedly.

"What are you doing out this late, Jake?" Aunt Naomi asked.

"I was already out at the mall with Marco, so I decided to stop by and give Jordan and Sara their Christmas presents." I said.

"How thoughtful." Rachel said mockingly.

"Rachel, be nice." Naomi warned.

"The mighty male ego can survive a little taunting." Rachel said, then looked at me. "Gimme that back. You're doing it all wrong." She said, and yanked the bowl away from me. I shrugged. I didn't want to beat meringue anyway. She went back to stirring, switching back and forth between her left hand and her right hand.

"That's good, Rachel. I can handle the rest from here." Naomi said after a few minutes. "Why don't you and Jake go for a walk or something? I need you out of the house for a little bit so that I can wrap all of your presents." She said. I groaned internally. Alone with Rachel is one of the last things I wanted to be a part of.

"Whatever. Sure, why not?" She said non chalantly. I calmly followed her out of the kitchen. She held the door open for me. "Wow, you've got more nerve than I thought, coming over to my house." She said, once she'd closed the door behind her. I rolled my eyes as we began to walk.

"Are you still in a tantrum because of what happened with David?" I asked.

"Don't talk to me like a child, Jake." She said threateningly. "And no, I'm not in a tantrum. I've just come to the realization that you don't give a damn what anyone else is feeling." She said.

"Don't feed me that bullshit." I said.

"It's true. You just use all of us for our strengths. You don't care about what each of us is feeling." She said.

"I don't have the time to worry about every little concern, Rachel. You know that. You're right. I do use all of you. That's what a leader does. He uses the weapons that are at his disposal. Marco's ingenuity. Cassie's ability to read people. Tobias' eyes. Ax's intelligence." I said.

"And what about me, Jake? What am I good for? Come on, you can tell me. We're family, right? Tell me, how do you see your cousin?" She demanded.

"I've already explained this to you, Rachel. I already told you, that in a fight, I'd rather have you next to me than anyone else." I said.

"That's the most backhanded compliment I've ever heard." She said.

"Maybe, but it's true. You're stronger than the others. Stronger than me. Without you, none of us would have the courage to go into a hopeless situation. You're the spark." I said.

"But I'm also the gasoline tank, right? A ticking timebomb, ready to explode? A bloodlust? Do you really see me as some raving lunatic who just wants to smash heads all day?" She asked.

"...At times, yes." I admitted. She grew silent. "I'm afraid of you sometimes, Rachel. I'm afraid that one day, during one of these battles, that you're going to snap. That nothing is going to stop you from killing anyone and everyone who gets in your way. That you'll attack anyone, human, yeerk, or Animorph. That you'll be lost to the darkness that exists deep down inside your heart." I said.

"I have self control." She countered.

"Do you now? You lost it in the cafeteria with David." I said.

"Because YOU let me go! You KNEW what I would do!" She screamed.

"Nothing I said was going to stop you." I said calmly. "I know you, Rachel. I know your tendencies, your habits, all of your little idiosyncracies."

"Everyone has something dark in their hearts." She said.

"Everyone else is afraid to become you." I said back. She didn't say anything. We were walking at a brisk pace now. I slowed it down a little. We were walking further into the city. Past the mall. Toward Hotel Circle. Fast Food lane. We were nearing the police station. Fire station. City hall.

There was a big Christmas tree in front of City Hall. It must have been fifty feet tall, easily. There some benches flanking the trees, which I was going to take advantage of. I sat down on a bench, underneath some of the pine sprouts. Rachel sat down next to me, still unspeaking.

"Rachel?" I said after a few minutes, breaking the tense silence.

"What?" She asked, frustration and disgust still in her voice.

"What's the meaning of Christmas?" I asked. She didn't say anything for a few minutes. We just sat there on the bench, looking out at the dark city. One by one, lights were going off. Children were being tucked into their beds, and bedtime stories about Santa Clause were being told. The breezer shook the limbs of the great pine tree over us, causing a few pine needles to fall onto both mine and Rachel's head.

"Talk about a change of subject...." She said dryly. Her voice was more subdued than before. More subtle. It wasn't the Rachel I was so used to dealing with. It was a gentler sounding Rachel. "The meaning of Christmas.... barring the whole Jesus' birthday thing.... I think, it's Memories." She said.

"Memories?" I asked.

"Yeah... I mean, look at us. We're both fifteen... and every year, another Christmas passes.... and every Christmas, we all gather around the tree, and talk to each other about the memories of past christmases. It's like a tradition. THe one time of year when we're all equal. No one is better, stronger, smarter, or superior to anyone else." She said. I smiled slightly.

"I remember one year.... I think we were about seven, maybe eight.... My parents got me a new bike. One of those state of the art ones at the time. It had all the bells and whistles..... your parents got you a mini-makeup mirror and kit." I said. Rachel chuckled lightly.

"I remember that.... I hated that kit. All I wanted to do was ride that bike of yours. But you never let me." She said.

"I know. That bike was my pride and joy. I didn't even let Tom or Marco near it." I said, then looked over at her and smirked. "But you stole it." I said.

"I didn't steal it. I borrowed it. I was gonna bring it back.... if I hadn't run it into the side of that UPS truck." She countered. I smirked. "That hurt, too. I broke my leg. I was in the hospital for a month. And every time you and your parents came to visit, all you talked about was that stupid bike." She said.

"Yeah, well, you never DID pay me back." I said.

"Oh shut up." She said, and gave me a light punch in the shoulder. I wrapped an arm around her. "It's nice out here." She said softly, leaning her head on my shoulder.

"Yeah, all we're missing is the Mistletoe." I said jokingly. She smirked, and looked up at me.

"Who needs it?" She asked. I raised an eyebrow.

"....You're joking, right?" I asked.

"Do I joke?" She asked.

"...You wouldn't dare." I said. She grinned, and leaned up, and kissed me lightly on the lips. It wasn't a romantic kiss, just a friendly kiss. A kiss like you'd give your mother, or sister. But it was still a kiss. A sign of affection from Rachel. A sign, that our relationship hadn't completely dissolved yet. She pulled back.

"Since when have I ever ignored a dare?" She asked. I smiled slightly, and pulled her closer, just relishing the moment. And that's when I heard it. The carrollers again. They were behind us.

"Silent night.... holy night..." They sang. I looked down at Rachel, who returned the look to me. We both nodded, and stood up, facing them.

"All is calm.... all is bright.... round yon virgin mother and child..... holy infant so tender and mild..... sleep in heavenly peace.....sleep in heavenly peace...." We sang. And in that moment, I found that all three of the people that I'd asked that day were right... Christmas is about presents, like Marco said. The joy of giving and recieving. Christmas is about family, as Cassie said. Even though Rachel and I were at each other's throat a lot of the time, we were together now, and that's all that mattered. And Rachel herself was right..... Memories are what make Christmas so special. And tonight, would form a memory that I'm sure would be remembered for Christmases to come.