Summary: "Look, Pinocchio," she whispered. "You're a boy." Tobias/Rachel, Animorphs. ONE-SHOT.
A/N: Old story, new upload.
His days had become a routine.
Mind numbing, even, if he'd been trapped inside some other animal's body. But there was a never-ending thrill to predation – his way of life, his way of survival. He lived and breathed it. The rush of the wind, the glorious thermals, the intimate attention to detail, the diving for the kill. He circled the skies and fought off others that intruded on his grounds. He feasted like a proud predator would – just like any other hawk. Any other hawk that had never been a teenage boy.
He lost track of days. Weeks. Months. Time. Time was lost on nature and its natural inhabitants – seasons came and went not by tick marks on the calendar, but by the blossoming of the flowers, in tiny vivid clusters, multiplying, and the roaring of resurrected springs. Or when the trees began to shiver and their leaves began to turn color, hues of deep reds and browns, before the trees eventually lost its clothes, bare and alone, frigid and miserable.
No, not frigid and miserable.
Just waiting. Just sleeping.
He had no desire to keep track of how much time had gone by, but once a long time ago he'd tried to keep count of how many sunrises and sunsets he witnessed. He enjoyed watching the blushing extravagance of the sky, its rosy cheeks extending far beyond the horizon. The sky was so endless, and its color never waned. Sometimes there were streaks of fiery orange, and at times it even looked like the end of the world – so intense, so brilliant that it was almost terrifying. He'd try to fly out to meet whatever was at the end, like a fish swimming toward the light reflecting off of the surface, but he did this only out of amusement. He knew perfectly well there was no end. The sky was as honest as it was abundant. If you saw no end, there was no end.
The sunsets. The sunrises.
He'd lost count.
He went to the park sometimes. He watched the children play and old couples walk down the dirt path in tacky jogging suits. Sometimes couples had picnics in the most remote parts, and he'd perch in a branch hidden in some tree somewhere and listen to them. He might have lost all contact with humans, but that didn't mean he had completely shut himself out from their world. There were times when he felt infinite, soaring amidst the majestic sky, weightless and carefree. But there were also times when he felt that hole inside his chest – a hole he was certain no other hawks felt – and couldn't help the impulse to fly over a busy street, to hear the roar of cars, to see people. Sometimes he did it to remind himself, because deep down inside of him, past the hawk instincts he'd so willingly immersed himself in, he knew that he was always still going to be a boy. A boy that longed for contact, and conversation, and sometimes, though rarely: touch. He might have never known love, real love, but that did not mean he stopped longing for it.
That was a lie.
He'd known real love.
It was the one thing that stopped him from escaping from inside the cages of the forest, and stopped him from flying elsewhere to find someplace new, someplace unfamiliar. Because his home had now become a prison, no matter how free he was. He was restrained by all four sides – but not by physical beings. Not by guns, or hunters.
He was imprisoned by her.
At first he thought he could forget. He'd assumed it would be an easy thing to do, considering he struggled to remember even his name, and had long forgotten now how old he was, and his birthday. He'd forgotten the TV shows he used to watch, the cereal he used to eat for breakfast, and what his favorite color was. But he should have known; it was easy to forget the things that meant nothing. His favorite superhero. The name of the teacher he hated the most. The color of his hair. The way he looked. Everything that had been engraved in his head, everything that he'd thought he'd never be able to forget, had been swiped clean. A clean slate.
A new beginning.
Those were the exact words he'd told her. A new beginning. It seemed right at the time, even though he'd wrestled with the voice he felt gargled in his chest, rioting. That was the last time he'd been human; the last time he'd had toes and feet, and had spoken, or had even heard his own voice. But certainly not the last time he saw her.
It was a compulsion. An obsession. Sometimes he'd have the sudden urge to fly out of his safe haven and out into the bustling city, flying high enough that no one would ever notice. He usually did this in the middle of the night, when he'd think about her the most. He'd fly to her window, just like the way he always used to. Except this time, unlike all of those other times before, the window would be closed. Locked. And he would perch silently on a branch, looking in. Sometimes she'd be there. Sometimes she wouldn't. The nights she wasn't home he'd stay outside her window until morning, irritated to death, even though everything inside him told him that he had no right to be annoyed. She was moving on with her life, just like he'd told her to.
He should be happy, like he told her he would be.
For a time she'd left her window open. She'd left it open all through spring, even when she was gone, and he'd stare at it. On some days it looked harmless, and familiar, and friendly. But on others it looked like a mouth waiting to swallow him up, because he knew that if he ever went in he'd never be able to come back out. She'd keep him there forever. Not by force – she'd never trap him in a cage. But because he'd want to drink her up and take her in, memorize her face and everything about her. The softness of her cheeks, the blueness of her eyes, the way tiny slivers of her hair shimmered golden when it caught a stray beam of sunlight.
He was convinced he would never want to leave her again.
But then winter came. She'd tried to keep it open as long as she could – even when there'd been terribly chilly drafts and she'd have to wear a thick coat just to study in her room. From some unseen place nearby, he watched her. Sometimes she would turn on the radio and sing, and he'd listen. Every time he heard her voice, so familiar and warm, he felt exactly the way he'd felt when he was Tobias. Tobias. Boy Tobias, with Rachel. Even with the minimal education he'd had, he knew enough to know that what he felt when he saw her was nothing the average hawk went through. It was far beyond what the animal kingdom knew. Passion.
It was like taking the first sip of hot chocolate after spending hours in the cold – the way the warmth caused his whole body to shudder and shiver, and filled his lungs with something that felt remarkably close to sunshine. Pure sunshine. His heartbeats, dulled by the cold and shrunken into mute submission, sprang back to life. Blood flowed to his face, and his eyes sparkled. Tingles ran like a river from the very tip of his head to his toes.
It was not just his heart that was affected by Rachel.
She dominated every single vessel, tendon, and cell.
Any other hawk would have been ashamed to admit it, but Tobias knew he was not just like any other hawk. On the days he remembered his name, he was Tobias, who flew to the window of the girl he loved. Rachel.
He remembered the day vividly, even though he'd sworn to forget it. Forget her. Just like every other remnant of his human life. But it had begun to rain – the water sliced through the frigid air, brutal and fast. It pelted her window and shot into her room, soaking her floor and her curtains. And he remembered, watching from a distance, seeing her there. Standing in front of her window. She was wearing nothing but a shirt, and she was looking out of her open window, the water soaking her through and through. She looked out like she was waiting. He'd been so shocked; Rachel had never been one for patience.
Her eyes were far away and distant. Not searching, not urgent. But as if she was looking somewhere beyond he could see – the end of the sky, maybe. And he knew that she could not see him, but suddenly he'd felt like she could. Suddenly, he'd felt naked. Not hawk. Not boy. But naked to his very soul.
It was a terrifying feeling.
Thrilling, but frightening. As he watched her, still and frozen, letting the rain pelt him, he could not take his eyes off of her. She was so beautiful. How had he ever let her go? His talons gripped the sturdy branch, his breath hilting in his throat. He felt the pull of his body, so strong and forceful, like gravity itself. He was going to go to her. Through her window. He would go to her.
He watched, as if time had suddenly broken all of its preset barriers and slowed, as she took her shaky hands, and with a pained look, finally shut her window.
The harsh rain clattered against the glass. Loud, noisy, ruthless.
It was the worst noise he'd heard in his entire life.
He happened to be flying by when he saw the U-haul truck parked outside her house. That was when he began to panic. Hawks rarely ever panicked, so this new emotion caused him to swerve and nearly do a head-dive. He quickly flew to the same place he'd always perched, peering through her window. At first he couldn't see her, and then he saw a flash of blond hair. She was taking something off of her desk, wearing a light jacket, with a duffel bag and a backpack. Her hair was up, and she looked happy. Excited.
He was confused at first – the sort of confusion that was so severe that it was almost painful. He didn't know what was happening. His head spun. His heart thumped against his tiny ribcage. Was she moving away? No, that couldn't be. He saw her sisters and her mom out on the lawn, talking and laughing.
And then he remembered. Slowly at first, like peeling back paper from a wall, but then it struck him like lightning.
College. Rachel was going away to college.
His body tensed, and the branch nearly snapped under his tightening grip. He'd forgotten – of course. Of course he'd forgotten. And now she was leaving, and he didn't know when she'd be back. If she would even come back. For a moment he thought about what would happen if she went away to college and never returned. If he would spend the rest of his nights waiting, just like she had for him. Waiting, and waiting for something that would never come.
His eyes shining with anger, Tobias let go of the branch and flew away. He planned to fly for hours, until he could no longer. Fly until he knew nothing else. Fly until he was swallowed up by the sky.
A face peered out of the glass, with distinct bright blue eyes and soft cheeks. She looked to the neighbor's tree, watching as she thought she saw a little motion there – a branch swinging, the leaves bouncing. Her heart stopped, and she looked for a red-tailed hawk in the distance, but was only met with the vast blueness of the sky. Cloudless just as it was empty. Nothing.
Sighing, expertly masking the pain she felt inside, she grabbed her things and plastered on a smile, hearing her mother and sisters call for her downstairs.
He lost himself for a while. He'd flown far away, to a place he didn't know, and he'd claimed it as his new territory. He took in its new scent – woodsy, stronger than his previous home. It was strange, and dangerous, and new. He devoted his energy and time to scouring the grounds and finding out each one of its secrets.
But one day, he woke up to the sound of roaring and buzzing. He looked down and saw large white trucks with men dressed in bright orange wearing hardhats and gloves. He'd failed to see the sign in front of his new home christening it as the new Valley Lake mall site. He watched as they took the trees down, clearing the way. Soon, he knew, everything would be gone. The trees would be cut, every single one, and the dirt would be paved and cemented into shiny marble floors. Parking lots, ice cream stands, people. It all made him so angry.
He began to fly around, looking for other territories – but they were all taken. He had to force himself to return to his old home, and once he'd gone back he'd looked to see a new hawk had taken his place.
So they fought. Hard.
And he got his home back.
His days had become a routine.
He woke, hunted, and preened. Sometimes he flew around for hours – in tireless circles, until he made himself dizzy and had to settle down in some tree. He became desperate for contact and resisted the urge to morph back into Tobias, boy Tobias, just to walk around and see how it was to be human again. To talk to people. To sit in the grass. To swim in the lake. Maybe even to hear his own voice, or see his face reflected in a puddle of old rainwater.
He resisted it. Flying to her window to check if she was home yet. He had to anchor himself to the sturdiest branch to keep himself from going to her house, but no anchor, none at all, could keep him from missing her.
He should have followed her, he thought. He should have followed her where she'd gone – he'd follow her anywhere, he knew, anywhere she could possibly want to go. He would watch over her. But could he bear it? Could he be able bear it when he saw her talk to other boys, and watch her as she fell in love with somebody else? Could he bear it when she smiled at them, or held their hand?
Could he bear being so near, yet so far, all at the same time?
He promised her he would start new, just like she would. Immerse himself in nature, kill and hunt. And he did all these things. But his heart – oh, his nimble, broken little heart. How it wrestled and writhed and pined. He'd never heard or felt anything so vocal, and it tangled up everything inside of him. He confused night with day. Morning with twilight.
Nature, with its brilliant vividness, lost a little bit of its color.
He feared sleep, so he tried to fend it off by flying hours on end. Once he collapsed from exhaustion. Hawks did not have nightmares – but he did. He remembered the day she died – and had been dead, for a few minutes. But she wasn't, she'd come right back to life again (typical Rachel, he remembered thinking, but had never been so angry at her in his life) and he remembered that feeling he'd felt, deep inside himself, tightening his tendons and the strings. As if he'd wanted nothing in the world but to cling to her and never let go. He'd transformed into his human form when he'd seen her crumpled form on the ground, and for the first time in a very long time, he remembered his vision had been cloudy. He looked at her face and he'd only seen her skin, smeared in with the floor. He'd hastily wiped his face with the back of his hand, feeling the odd moisture that it left behind.
He remembered the fissure in his chest, splitting him right down the middle. A perfect ruined half. And he'd felt his head, disconnected from the rest of his body, as he'd descended. He hardly even felt himself transform – didn't hear those sickening noises of bones and organs readjusting, only a white noise cupping his ears, threatening to pull him away. And his lungs – something had happened to them. A dark, cold had enclosed around his heart. It was like being underwater. Sinking, and sinking, and trying to swim back to the surface.
He didn't know how she did it, but he knew she was a fighter. Could Rachel, the warrior queen herself, fight off death? It seemed impossible. Ridiculous.
But it happened.
That day he'd realized how important her life was. To her. To him. To everyone else around them – people she knew, people she didn't. And he'd decided that she had too much to give than to give it all to a hawk. That day, as he held her, he knew that he could not live without her, but had instantly begun thinking of what she hadn't had a chance to do yet. Too early, he'd yelled. It's too early.
Rachel was too good for this.
He remembered that night well – he still thought about it, and relived it through his nightmares. The way she'd kissed him after she'd gotten well, and the way he felt as if he couldn't breathe. His heart had swelled up. Like the Grinch. It'd gotten too big to fit in his chest.
She held him close, closer than he remembered anyone ever holding him. She loved him; she made sure he knew. She said it over and over, her lips brushing against his forehead, his cheeks, his eyes. She said it so much that it had burned right into his heart and had left scald marks on his soul. How could he forget when she'd made sure he'd known? She'd said herself before that their relationship was complicated – past anything the world had ever known. Past Capulets and Montagues. Past lover and enemy. Past distance. Impossible, almost, but she never said it. Sometimes he wanted to say it, just to get over the fumbling and the torturous things they left unsaid, but he couldn't bear to hurt her.
There was nothing so painful for Rachel as to hear the word "Impossible."
He'd told her that night; the same night she'd died and came back to life. Impossible. It was impossible.
He was right.
He saw it right on her face – the way confusion flashed through her face, then understanding, then pain. Her eyes glossed over but she forced the tears back, and he wondered if she could drown that way. So he left as quickly as he could.
She fought for him. Told him she loved him. And he yelled at her.
His voice was loud and livid. Like an angry sea. Why do you keep saying that? Why do you have to keep repeating it?
Because it's true, she said. You're just scared, Tobias. No one has ever – no one has ever loved you like this before. And you're scared, but you shouldn't be. So just stop being stupid. Okay?
I'm the one being stupid, Rachel? Would you look at our situation correctly? I'm a hawk. You're a girl.
You're wrong. You're a boy who just happens to spend most of his days as a hawk, but you're just as much of a boy as I am a girl.
You're in denial.
We can't do this, Rachel. We can't.
Are you kidding me? We just fought off body snatchers and you're telling me this is something we can't do?
He remembered she was angry at this point. Her face was flushed red, and her eyes gleamed.
Rachel… this is impossible. With the Yeerks gone, we can start new. Both of us. Me as a hawk. You as a… girl. We can both be happy.
Once she'd asked him to stay in his human form for more than an hour – so that he could be a boy again, forever. Permanently. But that had been before they'd defeated the Yeerks, and he'd loved it too much to give it up. Even for Rachel.
She'd never asked since.
He turned and walked away. She called out his name. He didn't turn around. She yelled it. Tobias. Her voice shook. And he'd always remember, right then, the sound of her heart shattering. It echoed. It clanged. It did a million other things.
He heard it every night in his sleep.
There was something in the wind. He jerked awake, but he found the breeze as quiet as the night itself. Still, peaceful. But something had woken him. He looked around. Nothing. Darkness. He tried to go back to sleep, but he was restless now. There was something beckoning him.
He extended his wings, stretching, before he took off into the night sky, dusted with stars.
He flew over the buildings and the roads. The streetlights looked like tiny glowing dandelions, and very few were awake. One or two cars drove by. There were a few teenagers out on the street, drunk and loud. He spotted a man sneaking out of his house in his pajamas, slipping into his car and quietly driving away. One house over, the sprinkler was on.
This time, he could not help himself.
He flew down, perching on a branch in an unseen place. What he saw then made everything inside him go still. He thought he was hallucinating – maybe he'd eaten a rabbit that'd ingested some kind of toxic chemical. But he stared ahead for a few minutes, shaking his head, blinking.
Every time he opened his eyes, it was still there. Unwavering.
Her window was open.
He remembered the sound of the rain against the glass. The way it'd torn at his soul and had driven him so far away. He remembered the white U-Haul truck, and the days he'd spent flying to try to forget.
He should've known. It was easiest to forget the things that did not matter.
And without thinking, without hesitation, he'd spread his wings again and had flown straight through.
At first he'd expected to hit glass – some kind of shock, or pain. But he'd flown through without a fumble and landed right on her chair, looking around. It was dark. Then, suddenly, the cloud covering the moon passed. Milky, glorious light shone through. He gasped.
There she was, sitting on the edge of her bed. She was wearing nothing but a thin camisole and shorts – so delicate, and for some uncanny reason, so did she. He watched her for a second, waiting for her to move – it was terrifying to see her so still. He almost felt as if he was reliving that day again, the day she'd died.
She did not look up.
Finally, after so many years, he closed his eyes and tried to remember.
Deep inside his chest, he felt a tumor of fear. What if he'd forgotten? What if, after all these years, he no longer had the ability to morph back into a boy? What if he was in fact doomed to be a hawk forever, without respite?
And why was that so damn frightening?
He concentrated. Please, he silently begged. Please. Give this to me once.
And then it happened. He felt it. The stretching of skin, the molting of feathers, the rearranging of bones and organs. It was indescribable. He grew, and grew. Arms popped out, and his legs sprouted from his knobby claws. His eyes were closed as he did this, as if focusing on what was happening.
Suddenly, he was firmly on the ground. His heart, steady now, beat inside his chest.
He opened his eyes, looking down.
He was human again.
He counted his toes – inspected his arms, his fingers. He ran his fingers through his hair – it had grown. He'd grown taller, too. He didn't know how he knew this; he just did. But he only took a second to marvel at the transformation – which he beheld something like a miracle – before he looked up, settling his eyes on Rachel.
She was looking at him now. The noises must have gotten her attention.
He stared at her, forgetting how to breathe. Hi. Hi, he wanted to say. But he'd forgotten how to speak. His tongue felt clumsy and heavy and sticky inside his mouth. He tasted paste. He cleared his throat, trying to remember again. His face felt confused but blank.
"Hi," he was finally able to say. His voice was a lot deeper than he remembered. Then, as her eyes pierced through him, his voice sank into a whisper. Inside his chest, something was melting – warm and quick. Hot chocolate. "Hi, Rachel."
She didn't say anything for a long time, and this made him anxious. Desperate. Suddenly it took everything inside him not to run over to her and sweep her into his arms. I love you, he wanted to say. I couldn't bear to watch you leave. But you're back. Why are you back?
These were all things that he could not say. Not yet.
He cleared his throat. He wasn't used to this, so he coughed. "Your window was open," he said lamely.
Then, finally, she said something. His heart jumped at her voice – but it was a feeling he welcomed.
"Yeah. It's nice you finally got a clue."
She was grinning a little. At least, he thought she was. He was hoping she was.
"What took you so long?" she asked, her voice quiet. Her words fluttered in his ears, and he clenched his fists.
He took a step towards her.
"I'm sorry," he only said.
"I've moved on, you know," she suddenly said, her words quick and abrupt. Like a whiplash.
He stopped, frozen.
She sighed, looking at him from her bed. "His name is Daniel. He's nice. Funny, too. Took me to some karaoke bar on our first date and sang to me. I got drunk and threw up on him, and even after he'd had to dry clean his clothes and clean up his car, he still asked me out the next day."
He felt an angry gurgling in his chest. What was this? Jealousy? Whatever it was, he didn't like it. She was looking at him, as if trying to figure something out, but he knew his face couldn't emote emotion. He'd forgotten how to.
And for once, he was glad.
"I've missed you," he told her, but his words were left in a standstill in the air. Hanging. On a balance beam. Was it going to make it across or collapse?
"I waited for you, Tobias," she said. "For a long time. And I know you know this. I left my window open, even in the winter. I almost got pneumonia." She was smiling as she said this, but only a little. "But then it got to the point where I felt like I was waiting and waiting for something that would never come. You.
"So I thought about what you said that day. Do you remember what you said? I do. I said it to myself everyday. Impossible, you said. It was impossible. Start new, and be happy. So one day, I finally did."
She was whispering now. He could barely hear her.
"But now you're here."
"Your window was open," he said, and he felt a fire rising up his gullet. Was he really angry with her? With Rachel? For doing exactly what he'd told her to do? "Why did you open your window if you didn't want me to come?"
"I don't know," she answered, glaring at him. "I don't know."
Silence fell in between them like a veil, a flimsy wall that either could sweep away if one of them could just muster up the nerve to reach out.
"Are you happy?" he asked, his throat parched and smoldering. His heart wailed, thrashing against its closing walls.
Don't, he thought. Don't be happy. Because I'm not. I'm not happy at all.
"Yes," she said, and when she said it he could tell that she was trying to be strong, and certain – but there was something that slipped through. A crack in her voice, a miniscule hole that he'd caught, a torn loose seam. For a moment he was confused, battling with the voices inside his head that were louder now than ever before.
"Given the current situation, Tobias? I'm as happy as a girl can be."
"What current situation?" he asked, confused.
"Grandma Nell died."
He blinked. "Oh. I'm sorry."
"That's why I'm here – for her funeral. My mom's taking it pretty hard, always talking about how they'd never gotten along and how she'd always planned to make amends somehow, but now she's dead, and, well, you know." She was looking somewhere else, a somber smile on her face. "You can't really make amends with the dead. My mom's just having a hard time trying to accept everything. The guilt, mostly." She shrugged, and a stray beam of moonlight made her hair glow. "Look, I—"
"I missed you, Rachel," he suddenly blurted, because he'd started to feel the pressure building up in his chest. The tension, the awkwardness – it was like someone had made him swallow an anchor. He didn't know why he was acting like this – so rash, and impulsive – but he just couldn't help it. He saw her, and suddenly he was a stranger even to himself.
She smiled. "I know. You already told me."
He nodded, swallowing hard. "When you went away, I…"
"Oh? You noticed?"
He frowned, and she still had a lingering smile on her face. Mocking.
"Hey," she said, shrugging. "You left me first, remember?"
"You're wrong," he snapped. "I never left."
"Really, Tobias? Then what would you call that little disappearing act you pulled? We aren't just talking about you taking some two-week vacation in some island in the Bahamas, you know. You were gone for two years." She stood up, nearing him, and his heart began to race, its erratic tempo thudding in his ears. He watched her as she walked towards him, and his head spun.
She stopped just a foot away.
"I never left," he repeated quietly.
She shook her head. "No, you just left me."
Guilt made something on his face twitch, and his vocal chords became tied up with the plethora of words that rushed from inside him, cramming to be the first one out.
"Why was your window open?"
A lazy, cunning smile spread across her face. Tobias recognized this smile – and he couldn't believe he'd lived for this long without it. It was the smile she'd put on before they went on a dangerous mission – half thrill, anticipation, fear. Mystery.
She answered his question with another. "Why not?" she said. "What would you like to hear, hawk boy? That it was a nice enough night, and I wanted to feel the breeze? Or that deep down I still wanted to see if you'd come back?"
The look on her face taunted him, and the fact that she could joke about this – though, no doubt there was still that frosty hint beneath her amused smiles and smirks – stung a little.
"Or C: all of the above?"
"Rachel," he snarled.
"Just answer the question."
"You answer mine first."
"You left me, remember? I'd like to think that I deserve my answer a little more than you deserve yours."
He tightly sighed. "The second one," he grunted.
Her smile widened, rolling across the glorious plains of her face. Her eyes sparkled with victory. He wondered if she'd ever met a boy she couldn't conquer. "Good. See? That wasn't so bad, was it?"
She was silent before she finally answered. "C. All of the above."
She was too far, he realized. Step towards her, Tobias. Get closer. Closer. She's here now, and you've waited too long. Touch her skin. Smell her hair. Is she still as soft as you remembered?
He remembered it came as the biggest shock to him when he'd first touched her – the softness of her skin, and of her. Knowing Rachel, it just didn't match up.
It was perfect.
Slowly, he closed the distance between them. The air became heavy, deluded. She didn't look surprised, and she didn't step away. He took one step. Then another. Foot by foot he was erasing the gap, and his heart danced faster – with fear, trepidation, anticipation. He kept his eyes on her face, wary. Please don't turn away.
Finally, they were so close there was nothing left in between them. His face was just inches from hers, and when she breathed he could feel the warm air, brushing against his face. He could smell her, and she smelled the same as she'd always smelled: vanilla.
His skin burned, and his fingers suddenly buzzed at his side. He wanted to reach out and touch her.
"Are the skies still as great as you said?" she whispered softly, her voice like broken velvet in his ears. "Do you still feel infinite?" Her eyes lowered, her blond lashes casting shadows across her cheeks.
"Is it still worth it?"
His heart froze, jumping up to his throat. No, everything screamed inside him. No. It hasn't been worth it for a long time.
He answered her question with another. "Do you love him?"
Her lips quirked into a faint smile, looking up at him again. "Is a girl allowed to love another boy that doesn't spend most of his days as a hawk?"
He felt a pang of pain, but he only repeated his question. He heard white noise but he struggled to hear her, his heart standing on a balance beam. Will it make it across or will it collapse?
"I could. I could really love him, Tobias." She paused. "Maybe not as much as I loved you, but close. Really close."
"Rachel, the reason I came… I…" He closed his eyes. "I needed to see you. You left so suddenly, and—"
"Karma," she said. "It bites you in the ass, doesn't it?" She looked at him thoughtfully. "You didn't have to leave, you know. We could have still been friends." And there, he saw her vulnerability – even if it was just a flash. Her hurt.
"No," he told her. "No, we couldn't have. You can't just be friends with someone you love… like the way I loved you."
"Loved?" she asked, a fleeting emotion passing through her eyes. "Past-tense?"
He swallowed hard, looking into her eyes. "Love," he corrected. "Present."
He heard her laugh, and he felt warm tingles all over him. Then, suddenly, she'd closed the distance, and she kissed him. Typical Rachel, always making the first move. He was relieved, but he froze, because he'd long forgotten how to kiss – beaks had a very limited number of movements, unlike lips. So he just stood there as she kissed him softly, before he sighed into her mouth, wrapping his arms around her waist, and began to kiss back the best he could.
Once he did, however, their mouths clashed against each other's, urgent and deep. The bird he'd lived as was suddenly so far from his mind it was as if it never existed – all he could feel was her warm tongue against his, and her hands fisting themselves into his hair. He began to feel things he'd forgotten about – it exploded inside him, like new.
His hands roamed on their own accord, hugging her shoulders, tracing her collarbone. She whispered his name. Tobias. And suddenly he could not remember why he had stayed so long as a hawk in the first place – could not remember why he had never flown through her window until now. Everything inside him hummed, his head finally breaking through the surface. It was glorious.
He lost track of time. His thoughts had been disconnected, every one of senses pounding and pulsating to the same exact rhythm of her heart. His hands brushed against her skin, bare and soft, and she shuddered. He heard his name, soft, but it rang in his ears like a song. Over and over. She made sure he knew. Tobias.
His breaths collided with hers – the room spun. Suddenly they were in a frenzy of motion, of skin against skin, in a tangle of sheets. He watched her face, afraid that if he looked away she would suddenly disappear. He memorized her face, the crook her neck, the valley between her breasts. His hands traced every curve, twining inside her hair. He saw spots of color – colors he'd long forgotten the names of. The air became hot and muggy, their bodies fluid in motion, and he dug his face into her hair. Her nails bit into the flesh of his back but he could not bring himself to care. It'd been so long since he'd felt pleasure, and pain. He embraced it all.
He saw stars more brilliant than the ones he recalled seeing every night. Explosive. The friction had made their bodies slick, and their skin feverish. Breathing heavily, he kissed her again, holding her closely.
She was smiling against his lips. "It took you awhile to remember, but you still kiss the same," she told him quietly.
"No. Just… not terrific."
She laughed, her chest heaving against him. He laughed, too, and it was strange to hear his own laugh again. It was so unfamiliar.
They were silent for a few moments.
"Rachel," he said. "Since you went away, did you…"
"Did I what?"
He sighed through his teeth. "Nothing."
She propped herself up on her elbow. "Ask it."
"Your question. Ask your question."
He sighed. "Have you… been with anyone else?"
"You mean have I had sex with anyone?"
He cringed. She laughed.
"Why? Did you want me to wait for you? I mean, let's be honest here, Tobias. For all I knew, you were going to stay a bird forever."
He scowled. "So that's a Yes. I get it."
She laughed again, and grabbed his hand. "Close. I was close. Because for all I knew, maybe you weren't going to stay a bird forever. One point in the optimism department, huh?"
"Oh." He licked his lips, his heart thudding against his throat. It swelled at the thought of them being each other's first. "Well, thanks."
"Is it supposed to be this weird? After two people have passionate sex for the first time?" she asked. "Here I am. Naked. You. Naked."
"I don't know," he said truthfully. "But I think we're supposed to be asleep."
He felt her hand brush against his. "Are you sleepy?"
"No. Not in the slightest bit at all."
"We can talk. We haven't done that in a while."
"Good. That sounds… really good."
So they talked. Mostly about Rachel, and college, what had happened since they'd last seen each other. Then she asked about him, and he realized he had nothing important to tell her. So he told her just that. Nothing important. And he looked at her when he said it, and she blushed and looked away. She knew exactly what he meant. He brushed his hand against her cheek, rosy, and she laughingly waved it away. Rachel didn't blush. Not until tonight.
He leaned in and kissed her again. Slowly. Everything inside him pulsated. Warm.
"I've missed you, Tobias," she told him. "I'd always thought you'd come back, but deep down… I wasn't sure, really." Then she smiled. "I even went to the library to look up the chances of you coming back to me. Birds of prey. Sometimes they're really predictable."
He stared at her.
"I love you, Rachel."
"I love you too, hawk boy."
He heard the quiet rustle of the sheets as she turned her head. Then she froze.
"Tobias," she said, her voice tight.
She turned back to him, pointing at her electric clock. "You have five minutes, Tobias."
He looked at her, his heartbeats stilling. In the darkness he could still see a little of her face, and while he could see her concern, he could also see something else… familiar. The look she always had when he transformed into a human. It was something she could never hide, no matter how hard she tried.
He sighed, starting to untangle himself from her.
Her voice was a little shaky. "You flew into my window tonight. Are you really going to head back out there?" She was angry. "I won't settle for just half of you, Tobias. I'm not going to settle for human you while I'm here, and then watch you leave as a hawk." Her voice cracked. "Did you mean it? When you said you missed me?"
"Then why are you doing this?" She grabbed his arm, her grasp tight and strong. "Two hours, Tobias. After two years, I won't settle for just two hours. Will you?"
He swallowed hard. Where did this jagged stone in his throat come from?
"Tobias. I'm asking you this time. Stay."
The red numbers flickered, vivid.
It was 2:01.
Four minutes left.
He turned his head, looking at her. Rachel. With her glorious blond hair and blatant beauty. She was fierce as fierce could be. Xena. Warrior Princess. Just like Marco always said.
And him. He. Tobias. Boy.
Rachel. Holding her hand. Kissing her. Running his fingers through her hair, brushing his palm against her skin. Hearing her laugh. Making her laugh.
It. Tobias. Hawk.
The skies, the thermals. Flying over buildings and mountains. The peace of nature. The control of predation. The smell of pine. The thrill.
He sunk back into bed with her, wrapping his arms around her slender frame. He felt moisture against his neck, but the curve of her lips against his shoulder. He kissed her forehead.
They waited in silence, counting down.
He held his breath. Would he feel it?
The red numbers flickered. He sighed, and she kissed his lips.
"Look, Pinocchio," she whispered. "You're a boy."