August 18th, 2008

I can't believe how long it's been since I updated this. I deliberately disregarded it at first, but it didn't take long after that for me to forget it entirely. My life became so immediately overwhelmed by an endless deluge of tasks, meetings, goals, and inconveniences that grief was no longer solely needed to keep me from examining the events of my life through written word.

Reading back through some of these entries is insightful. It's amazing how shameful I used to be, how secretive. How much I looked down upon myself for wanting a family, how much I let that self-loathing compel my decisions. I was young, though, and still so unsure of whom I was, whom I wanted to be. And of course, that was before Hayley, before Jara and Bug. Before so many friends, so many successes, so many failures.

My priorities are different now, to say the least.

I suppose it's best to start at the beginning. Less than eighteen hours after I negotiated the Yeerks' surrender, twelve covered army trucks came by the valley to set up a 15-foot high chain link fence topped with spirals of razor wire around the valley. They said it was for our protection, more to keep curious civilians out than to keep us in, and though I thought of about forty better ways to accomplish this besides razor wire and armed guards, I didn't resist. They only fenced in about twelve acres, which was an inadequate amount of space for the number of Hork-Bajir already there, let alone the thousands I knew would be streaming in soon.

I didn't say anything. The humans were nervous, adaptive but rightfully cautious, and I've learned very well that we Hork-Bajir are not considered cute, so I didn't want to make them feel threatened. It didn't really matter, since the trees were higher than the fence anyway, but I was still very new to peace back then. I'd been born under terms of war, I was used to weighing losses against gains, assets against liabilities. I had become a very arithmetic thinker. Now I had to consider the precarious, newborn relationship we had with the humans. Now, I had to consider politics.

In many ways, maintaining conflicts is easier than maintaining friendships.

And friendship was all I could offer in those weeks following the war. Dozens of government officials on the state, federal, and even international level came to me to discuss the task of consolidating all Hork-Bajir on and orbiting planet Earth in that horrible little cage they'd built for us. Hork-Bajir, at that time, had no Earth citizenship, nor were they under any one political entity's jurisdiction, so much of the inception of my relationship with the humans dealt with mediating deals between different countries and municipalities to bear the feeding and transport costs.

Once the newly freed hosts started streaming in, though, I did start to feel the gain from that pain.

We were diligent, at first. We kept detailed tallies, not just of the number of people emigrating to the valley, but of genders, ages, heights, weights, even of departure city and Yeerkish occupation, as far as my people could convey. All residences were temporary, and most freed hosts tended to clump together in pockets of people they had worked and dealt with every day, but I'd planned to ghettoize them, keep the familiar together anyway. I knew it would be difficult to then integrate the members of my community with the newly liberated, but I also knew we would be very quickly overwhelmed in numbers, and the few years of advanced freedom we got were fair payment for being marginalized in peace. As tempting and deluded as it is to view a large group of homeless refugees as the ingredients for a summer camp, I knew random placement would cause tension.

Even that was a rather idealistic plan, though.

Within two weeks, we'd stopped taking any kind of detail in our censuses, and had one human assigned to tic off how many Hork-Bajir were in each of the trucks. That turned out not to matter, however, since groups of unauthorized Hork-Bajir were sneaking their way to the valley as well, swinging in over the fence. Hiding by day, traveling by night, a good number of my people found the valley without the assistance of human bureaucracy.

Besides that, I am glad about one thing I accomplished. I banned the use of Hork-Bajir DNA for the Yeerk POWs who had accepted the terms of forced nothlitism.

I realize it may be considered hypocritical to do that after negotiating those terms in the first place. And I admit a large part of my reasoning was merely contempt. The idea of our former slavemasters masquerading as those they oppressed sickened me, and imagining some shrewd Yeerk starting a family with the host he'd abused was the least of the grotesqueries I could conjure.

Along with my personal disgust, however, I knew it was something my people wouldn't stand for. Even the few who, like myself, had never borne their own parasites would react violently, and the task of stoking peace between the valley residents and hosted Hork-Bajir whom they'd fought just weeks before would be enough of a challenge.

Fortunately, the humans didn't try to guilt me into it. I think they were uncomfortable with the idea themselves, and many assumed humanity wouldn't ratify permission for their own DNA to be auctioned off either. Yeerks would be forced into the bodies of non-sapient vermin, and all the better as far as I was concerned.

Those first two months were difficult. More difficult than I admitted at the time. Telf and I were still in the midst of heat, and resisting those urges nearly destroyed our relationship. There was a lot of disagreement, a lot of shouting. He didn't (or refused to) understand why we couldn't make kawatnoj now that the Yeerks were defeated, now that we were free. Weighed down with leadership obligations and my own innate desire to surrender to him, I couldn't find the words to tell him how much there was still to be done, how uncertain our futures still were. It got violent sometimes. Lots of posturing, lots of arms and legs thrashed in rage. I hit him once, but not hard, and not on purpose, and was so immediately remorseful that it nearly led to another encounter. The only thing that could distract me from him, that could keep our love from disintegrating entirely was the amount of work we still had to do—a couple of weeks after her trip to Washington, Cassie came back to the valley to begin the arduous task of figuring out to do with all of us.

I felt helpless a lot of the time for those first few months. I still do. I feel like I'm less a leader and more a hand to be coerced into signing treaties and documents. After the majority of my people were settled, I felt helpless when she and a few congressional aides and lobbyists from Washington flew in on helicopters and unfurled maps in front of me, gabbing about subsidies and economic incentives, about legislation needed in addition to wildlife protection laws already in place. I felt helpless that I could not say no, let us stay here, haven't we been through enough? I felt helpless when they picked three or four potential locations, all within federally protected parks and preserves, and loaded me up on helicopters to tour them.

This did not please Telf.

"Machine make noise! Machine come, everyone scream, make windstorm!" He cried to me, clinging to one of my hands, pulling me back to the heart of our tree. "Toby not go, not in noisemaker."

"I have to, Telf. We have to trust the humans now. They don't want to hurt us."

"Humans not mean to hurt Toby, can still hurt Toby," he whimpered.

He was not good about me having to be gone so much. Not that I blamed him. After all the violence of the last few weeks of the war, how could I blame him for worrying about me?

I thought about him a lot when I flew. It helped keep my mind off the flying itself. Hork-Bajir are arboreal creatures, certainly more than accustomed to great heights, but I developed bouts of severe vertigo while in transit. The sensation of flight without weightlessness was disorienting to me. Things in the air without flapping wings should fall.

I don't know how many hands I shook in that first year. Thousands, probably. Perhaps more. Politicians and park rangers, journalists and world leaders, celebrities and activists. All professing conscription to our cause. Loyalty. Friendship. I didn't remember anyone's names; I had to start keeping a binder with pictures and info cards with names and first impressions just to keep everyone straight.

But, after two months of exhausting trips and countless sales pitches, we found our home. Yellowstone National Park.

It was my second choice.

The shortest trip I took from our old valley was to the protected redwood forests along the northern California coasts. And as soon as I stepped off the truck, as soon as I breathed in that air, that fragrant scent that lingers, that arouses, that relieves, that brings a rush of wonderful, untainted memories, I finally knew where the tree Telf had found was located. Perhaps not in the park itself, but in a vein of the same forest. This was where the sequoias were. This is where Hork-Bajir belonged.

The National Park Service, due to hard lobbying of local preservationists, denied our request.

I don't blame them. And it was probably a truth best learned early.

It was as I'd assumed so long ago. We Hork-Bajir were a novelty, but they treasured those rare, wonderful trees. Ecologists and dendrologists didn't know the effect we'd have on the ecosystems, the trees. Didn't know what kind of parasites we carried. Wouldn't admit that they considered us parasites ourselves.

I still don't blame them. And like I said, it was a valuable truth to learn.

That doesn't mean I was happy about the situation.

But, as with so many things after the end of the war, I had to fake understanding, to express forgiveness. I had to lie. I had to play the part of gracious-yet-protective Toby Hamee, leader of the Hork-Bajir. Thank you for your generosity, dear humans, but please don't neglect the needs of my people.

Yellowstone isn't so bad. It gets cold in the winter, and we've had to adapt a number of lifestyle changes to account for it, but the air is clean, the geography is beautiful, and the trees…the trees are okay.

The diaspora itself was one of the most stressful things I've ever undertaken. The humans insisted that they move us themselves, although we were more than capable of traveling the nearly 1000 miles on foot when necessary, by tree the rest of the way. Yes, it would have taken days, and yes, I would have accepted help for the elderly, infirm, and children, but I didn't trust the humans to keep track of us as well as I could. Perhaps that was arrogance. Perhaps it was foolishness. Or perhaps I simply still didn't like the idea of my people packed into trucks and cargo planes.

In the end, they relented. In hindsight, it may have been a battle I would choose not to fight, but it served the purpose of showing the humans that I wouldn't lay down for every disagreement. I'm glad I asserted some dominance that early in our relationship.

Telf and I traveled together, though Mother and Dude—oh, it's been so long that I nearly forgot.

Amazing how that works. How his blindness defined me in those few short months, how completely my heart had broken because of it, and how now, looking back, it seems like nothing but a minor inconvenience. Time really has a way of siphoning the drama out of memories.

About six weeks after the end of the war, before we moved to Yellowstone, a few Andalite shuttles landed to work out whatever limited, irrelevant treaty was needed between our peoples. I knew they considered it more a political gesture than a genuine attempt at reconciliation, but they underestimated me. There was a low-ranking political advisor named Pyottem from the Elfangor, in addition to a couple of gruff, disinterested War-Princes to assist with the negotiations. From what I could tell, their sole purpose was to intimidate me.

By that point I had gained some skill at negotiation. Many humans were difficult, directly and indirectly manipulative, simpering and bowing and driven solely by personal agenda. However, a few of the humans from Washington had been kind enough to bring law textbooks, political doctrines, manifestos, and all sorts of other rhetorical texts to accelerate my education. It was some of the most difficult reading I've ever accomplished, but by the end of about a month, my skills at negotiation had improved considerably.

They expected only a smile and a signature. But I had very specific demands for them.

I knew even at that point that the tenuous peace and mutual curiosity shared between us and the humans were temporary at best. Perhaps the most frightening thing about that first year was how closely it followed my expectations and predictions. I knew that sometime soon in the future, we would be pariahs, outcasts, orphans, refugees, again and again.

I wanted our home back.

I had two demands. I called them "reparations," though I knew holding the Andalites responsible for acts committed by the Yeerks was unfair. I wasn't sure how they'd take it. They weren't happy, but they didn't walk away.

First, that a sizable portion of Andalite biotechnology funding go to research devoted to neutralizing the effect of the Quantum Virus on my homeworld.

Second, that the other damage my homeworld had suffered—industrial externalities including deforestation, carbon emissions, and other pollution and impurification—would be cleaned up to the best of the Andalites' abilities.

Their counter offer almost ruined me.

(We understand that many of your people have sustained permanent injuries fighting bravely in a multitude of outnumbered battles,) Pyottem said. (We are willing to offer our finest medical experts and technology available in state-of-the-art Dome Ship facilities to help them. As new friends, we'd love to undo the lingering damage your people have suffered from our war.)

I refused.

I accused them of manipulating my personal investment with Telf. I think I called it bribery, or maybe emotional coercion. I got angry, much angrier than advice in those human texts recommended. I told them that conceptualizing me as a weak-willed, corruptible leader was a mistake. That I would not give in so easily to temptation, and that manipulating me in such a base, unforgivable way was not how I thought Andalite chivalry was supposed to work.

It meant Telf would be healed. It would give me my most pressing, immediate desire, and I would probably be dead before any of those horrible consequences I'd imagined would come to pass. I could live a very full, very happy life on Earth.

But that's not the leader I wanted to be.

I wept, when I refused. Well, after I got home. The abstract generosity and selflessness that I'd afforded my people meant nothing, what mattered was the blind man in my tree, the blind man who had my heart, whom I'd betrayed. Broken a promise. Neglected his need in favor of politics.

They let me sweat for a week. For a week negotiations were stalled. Human news affiliates hovered a few dozen yards away from the card table we'd set up to perform the negotiations, holding boom microphones and portable satellites, making frantic calls to headquarters every quarter hour. For a week the Andalites stayed on their ships, keeping out of sight, doors closed.

But in the end, they agreed to my terms.

I did not let my relief cloud my strategic judgment. I insisted that a copy of our treaty be made a matter of public record on Earth, I pushed for every shred of transparency I could get. As terms of the treaty, I was to receive monthly updates on the status of the research, satellite photographs and testimony from experts on the state of my homeworld's environment. I tried to push for biannual tours of my home planet for myself, but I had to compromise on that. Once every four years.

I probably won't get another trip in.

Of course, that particular story ends happily. The Andalites were upset, to say the least, after we officially signed the treaty: those threatened, prey instincts exacerbated by the claustrophobia of flashbulbs and boom microphones and buzzing human reporters, so I decided to let them leave without a final, private consultation. By the time we'd signed the treaty, I'd accepted my personal failure with Telf, though I hadn't told him that he'd never see again yet.

But they did not retreat to their base in orbit right away.

After the reporters left, I returned home to be with Telf for a while, try not to mate with him. A self-imposed punishment. Maybe a premature pregnancy would be fair recompense for his now-permanent blindness. But he was asleep, and I was frustrated in more ways than one, so I returned to the hearth (though perhaps by that point it is better referred to as "downtown") to be with my people, introduce myself to as many of the newly freed hosts as possible.

The Andalites were unloading lots of off-white, aesthetically benign technology. Some of them went about the forest, scanning with handheld scanners and marking off areas for some indiscernible reason. It wasn't immediately apparent, but they were setting up a hospital station.

(Ah, Toby,) Pyottem said, stopping me. (I didn't get a chance to speak with you after the signing. I hope it's all right if we set up here.)

"Set up what?" I asked.

(We've chosen to uphold our original offer to your people. Though I realize you view our species with a perhaps justified amount of skepticism and disbelief, and a perhaps unjustified amount of contempt, we are desperate for you to believe our intentions of friendship are pure. We would like that friendship to be forged in as much trust and mutual benefit as possible. Please, accept our assistance. Let us heal your people.)

I wept again. Emotions were volatile in those first few weeks.

It was a public relations stunt. I knew that then, I know that now. The clean-up effort on my homeworld is not photogenic, nor are a handful of pale Andalite scientists generating an antidote to the Quantum Virus in a lab somewhere. But a bunch of humanitarian (I'm not sure what the Hork-Bajir equivalent of that word is—and believe me, I could spend thousands of words writing solely on that subject) doctors treating the poor orphaned children of the war would make great press, both on Earth and all the way back on Andal. The military was accountable for than they were willing to admit.

Of course, I imposed triage, and of course, Telf went last. I didn't even allow him to have a preliminary consultation with the Andalite physician until everyone else (including Walp, whose numerous surgeries took a combined total of more than 45 hours) was healed. I convinced myself this was out of selflessness, but I knew that it was partly because I didn't trust that the Andalites' remedies would actually hold.

The doctors were not as well-versed in politics as the diplomats. I remember how they laid him down on their L-shaped gurney, grumbling about a lack of effective tools as they scanned his face to make a sort of antibiotic force field shield, grumbling about "sterile Earth" being an oxymoron as they prepped and washed him in antiseptic, grumbling about how sour the Earth grass was and how they just wanted to be done so they could go home, grumbling about everything.

Telf was nervous, as was to be expected. Though he'd seen the effect the Andalite doctors had had on our compatriots (Teb and Brik's full-limbed reunion had…or at least would have brought him to tears), he didn't understand the healing process, and any lack of information when it comes to medical procedures causes a fair amount of anxiety. Of course I was just as nervous for the exact same reason, but in these sorts of circumstances he looked up to me for reassurance, and he held still, as I encouraged, but he never let go of my hand.

"You're scaring him," I told the physician as he stretched and pawed at the ground, holding the scanner boredly against Telf's eyes.

"Telf not scared," Telf mumbled beneath me. I squeezed his hand and turned back to the Andalite. The Andalite scoffed in disbelief.

(That's no surprise. Most inferior species are terrified by advanced technology.)

"I think your bedside manner is upsetting him more than your trinkets," I snapped back. The Andalite turned a stalk eye to me.

(Then what would you suggest, O Wise One?)

"Tell him what you're doing. He'll calm down if you talk him through it."

The Andalite chose to glare at me with a stalk eye rather than to honor my request.

A little bit later, after I presume he was happy with the scans, he began to pack up his equipment.

"That's it? He's incurable?" I said, trying to keep the desperation and panic out of my voice but Telf visibly stiffened and whimpered.

(These were just preliminary scans, antsy. I've got to forward these on to our primary ophthalmology clinic on the homeworld.)

"How long will that take?"

The Andalite crossed his arms and flexed his tail in impatience. (Look, this entire process is going to take at least a week. You do us the great favor of saving the patient with the most delicate treatment for last, so instead of asking me every two minutes what I'm doing and when I'll be done, why don't we agree to make this process go as smoothly and quietly as possible, all right?)

I glared right back, waiting for an answer.

The Andalite rolled his eyes. (The communication is instantaneous, but the clinic's not going to open for another three hours. Beyond that, it should take about a day for them to map out a recovery plan.)

"Thank you," I said as sincerely as I could. The Andalite scoffed.

(I take it you can care for him until I get back?)

"Go feed and mope, Andalite. We've come this far without your help."

I'd been civil with them until that point. Perhaps we were all just exhausted, and reaching such a tedious hurdle penultimate to the finish line was irritating to us all, but I considered that the last straw. Fortunately, though undiplomatic, the physicians were perceptive enough to stay out of our way until there was news.

(We've set up the initial surgery for 0600 tomorrow. Make sure he's clean.)

"And you'll be performing it?" I asked.

(I'll be prepping him, but I'm a general physician by trade. And, due to the…sensitive nature of the particular patient, the clinic has decided to grant you the expertise of one of our planet's top ophthalmologists.) The Andalite's posture straightened in pride, in the pleasure of being the bearer of good news, but I slumped.

"Isn't it a little optimistic to assume he's going to get here by 6:00 tomorrow morning?"

The Andalite was confused for a moment, then chuckled in that horrible arrogant way that they do. (He's not coming here, Toby. He'll be performing the surgery on the homeworld.)

I pressed my fingertips to my temples. "You're saying you're going to be operating on Telf remotely?"

(I know this may be scary to you Hork-Bajir, but we've been doing this on the homeworld for centuries. Don't worry. We'll heal him.)

I felt like crying, I was so stressed, and though this was only a minor unexpected detail, I just wanted to be done with all of this. "Don't patronize me," I said instead. "I insist on being there for the surgery."

(Yeah, I figured you would.)

I brought Telf to the hospice at around 4:30, after a couple of hours of tossing and turning followed by resigned sleeplessness. The physicians had already unloaded most of the equipment, the centerpiece of which was a large, intimidating apparatus that resembled a steel spider—the thing grabbed onto his mandible, a series of 3D high-definition cameras dilating and focusing, forceps and scalpels and other sharp unidentifiable objects all pointed directly into his eye sockets.

I gripped his hand tightly as the Andalites drugged him. They didn't anesthetize him entirely, but it was enough that he slumped and hee-hawed and said "Why Toby always so worry?"

The thing looked much more intimidating than what it did. There was sort of a pink haze as it worked, a laser scanner sweeping back and forth for hours as Telf nodded in and out of sleep and the quiet drone of the tool made my ears buzz.

After about eight hours, they stopped. The scarring had decreased, and the skin looked sallow, dying, and loose, hanging from his face like some scaly yellow fabric. I panicked again, demanding explanations from physicians even more irately, and there finally came a point they simply banned me from the hospice.

It almost became physical, but Telf was actually the one who talked me down. He said I still had lots of work to do with our people, that he was okay, that I could come back in a few hours. The Andalites approved with smug smiles, and I glowered as I left.

I checked back frequently, from a distance, of course. For days that horrible tool sat on his face like some artificial insect, the laser sweeping back and forth, the skin becoming more sallow, dead looking, and detached, pruning like fingers left to soak in warm water too long. For days Telf laid there patiently as we both waited at the mercy of the Andalites.

And finally something changed.

I returned early one morning to find Telf sitting up on the gurney, a primitive blindfold tied around his face. The Andalite physician was sterilizing instruments and almost curbed my approach.

"What happened? What did you do?"

(Toby, we need him to stay calm. Come back just before sunset.)

"No! Tell me what you did to him!"

I could have cursed myself for sounding so petulant and immature, but the Andalite just sighed and drew me away.

(We cleared out the last of the scar tissue and foreign matter last night. Jallafax applied the morphing technology to Telf's stem cells this morning, which means he's regenerating ocular tissue as we speak.)

My stomach leaped to my throat. "You mean, he's…he'll…"

(He should have new eyes by this afternoon at the latest. As long as his immune system doesn't reject the organs, we'll be out of your way by tomorrow.)

"And if it does?"

(We'll grow him new ones. If the first set doesn't take, the second usually does. Of course two sets of eyes are a privilege few outside of the Andalite race are honored enough to get.)

I think it was supposed to be a joke, but I glared. "Can I see him?"

(Yes. Tell him not to touch. It will just take longer and I assure you he will not like what he feels. Keep him calm, don't excite him, and you can stay. Actually, you know what, I don't care. I need to go feed anyway. If anything goes wrong, I'll be back soon.)

I huffed as he took off at a trot, and walked over to Telf.

"How are you feeling?" I asked, taking his hand.

"Toby! Telf miss Toby, good time Toby to come," he said, groping forward cautiously with his head blades to kiss me.

I pinched him in the shoulder. "Isn't any time a good time for Toby to come?"

He hee-hawed and brushed my hand away, then embraced me around the waist. "Hruthin left?" He whispered.

"Yes, he's gone. Thank goodness."

"Toby make promise to Telf," he said, expression serious.

"Um…yes, all right."

"Promise keep hands around Telf," he said.

I wrapped my arms around him and interlaced my fingers. "As long as you don't touch the—"

Telf reached up to the blindfold and tugged gently. I panicked, not sure whether to berate him or curse the Andalites for tying it so loosely, and in my confusion Telf achieved his objective. It all happened so fast, I couldn't withdraw my arms to stop him, and before I knew it, it was hanging loosely around his neck.

"Telf! You can't just—"

But then I stopped. I stopped and stared, and it took me longer to see than it took him.

"Telf?" I asked, grabbing his face as he grimaced into the sun and blinked, as those beautiful, hauntingly green orbs watered and focused and darted around. "Telf, can you—"

"Toby?" He whispered, turning his gaze to me.

His gaze.

His eyes.

I dug my claws into his face, pulled it close, so his eyes were centimeters from mine.

"Telf, can you see me?"

He pried my hands off of his face and pushed me back a little. Then he smiled, covered his mouth with his hands, and started to cry.

"Telf forget how beautiful is Toby Hamee," he sobbed.

My knees wobbled and gave way and I fell forward. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and he did the same to me, and we fell to the ground in a sobbing, overjoyed pile.

"No, Toby, move back, let Telf see—"

"I have to look at them, let me see what they gave you, just wait and—"

"Toby stay still!"

"Stop wriggling!"

We struggled for a few minutes, him pushing me away to get a better look and me pulling him closer for the same reason, until finally he relented, he let me touch his face and inspect the new organs. I ran my fingers around them, I prodded and gently stroked and wept as tears gathered at the corners and he laughed and sobbed beneath me. Then I let him hold me at arm's length and observe. He told me to stop crying but I couldn't, and neither could he.

"Where Dude? Telf want to see Dude."

"I don't know, I'll have to go to my mother's tree, and—"

"No, Toby not leave!"

"You can come with, Telf, you can come with. You can climb and swing and find good bark and avoid roots and everything, you can do everything, you can do whatever you want."

We were big, stupid, blubbering messes until the Andalite got back and muttered disapprovingly, but told us we could go. And I let Telf go on ahead, and he agreed only so he could swing a few branches away and get a better look at me, but it left me a few moments alone to ask some questions I didn't want to ask in Telf's presence.

"Why are they like that?" I asked, hastily wiping the tears and mucus away, pretending like I was as impassive and cold as the Andalites.

(Like what?)

"His left eye has a cloudy film in it. It looks like a cataract, but he says he can see clearly out of both of them."

(Oh, that's a shame. It's not an uncommon side effect of the process. I should have warned you, with his cellular regenerative rate it was likely to happen. Just leftover proteins with nowhere to go. His body will continue to cycle them out, but in all likelihood it will also continue to produce them.)

"But it won't impair his vision?"

(Well, not according to him, at least.)

I frowned, and looked down. "There's crinkling, too. Like the skin around his eyes lost its elasticity. Crow's feet. It makes him…"

(Look older?)

I sighed, unable to find any rational reason for my dissatisfaction. "Yes, I suppose."

(If that's seriously your only complaint, I consider this particular operation a success.)

I nodded, choking back tears, unwilling to sacrifice my dignity in front of my grudging benefactor. "A perfect success. Thank you for not making me a liar."

The Andalite scoffed at me. (And it's Andalite pride everyone faults.)

So, not long after that came the overwhelming task of organizing and educating my people for the move to Yellowstone. It was stressful and high-tension not only because of the sheer volume of work involved, but because now that Telf had his sight again, all he wanted to do was fondle and caress and seduce me. I admit that I found him orders of magnitude more attractive now that he had eyes again, and that my own mating season hormones were raging beyond self-control, and that there were several instances when I was so close to succumbing that I had to cut him to stop him.

Fortunately, that torture only lasted two weeks or so after he got his eyes back. I was surprised to find that the mating season did not last the entirety of winter—by the end of February, I woke to find Telf crouched a few feet above me in our tree, arms crossed, staring out at the hearth that was abandoned due to the moderate yet windless rain.

By that point, my mind was swimming in numbers, weights, complaints and requests. Hundreds of people would be loading onto dozens of vehicles, and we wouldn't encounter most problems until the act of loading them up. Pages and pages of travel documents, permits, and contracts lay disheveled and held down by any rocks we could find as paperweights under a canopy designed for weddings the humans used as base camp, and I'd finally managed to sneak away for a full-night's sleep, something I hadn't gotten in almost two weeks. So when I awoke, I was surprised to see that for once, he was awake when I wasn't.

"What's wrong?" I asked him, though that was as condescending and belittling as asking a burn victim if his skin hurt.

"Winter over," he said, crossing his arms more tightly either for warmth or in anger. I frowned a little.

"Are you sure?"

He turned to me and glared, then looked down in disappointment.

I sighed. "Come here. You look cold."

He obeyed my request immediately, and snuggled his way within me so my arms were around him, his back to my front.

We were silent for a while, simply letting our body heat radiate and multiply, before I asked, "Are you sure? About winter, I mean?"

"Yes, Telf sure."

"All the same, I think we should wait just for—"

He ripped himself away and turned to me. "For what, Toby? For Telf be so…so…" he gestured wildly, expressing how he felt better than words could. I frowned.

"All this time we've invested, I would hate for it to be ruined because your prognosis was premature."

"Toby only talk like that when she want Telf," he huffed, resuming his crouched and angry position.

I sighed. "You're right. Which is why I can't indulge it, I'm still so uncertain that—"

Suddenly Telf thrust forward, and his hand was cupped around the intersection of my legs, applying the perfect amount of pressure that he'd learned only from ample practice. I gasped in surprise, bit my lip, and knew he was right.

"Toby believe Telf?"

If he'd done that while we were in heat, I would be seizing and moaning uncontrollably, and Telf's hand would be covered in my instinctive and uncontrollable assent.

"Yes," I whispered. "Yes, you're right."

He leaned over me slowly, nudging himself in between my legs, and though my arousal had died down it certainly was not gone altogether, and I felt the fires in my belly swell as he crawled forward.

He put his lips against my ear as he draped his torso over mine, nudging it slightly with the tip of his beak. I whimpered beneath him, furled my arms around his waist as he breathed steadily.

"Telf not have kawatnoj for many more seasons," he whispered. "Telf very sad about this."

"I know," I whispered.

"Telf not have Toby for two moons," he continued.

"I know."

"Telf please, please have Toby now?"

I turned my head and looked down at the hearth, which was still devoid of any activity. The fire had gone out but was whispering curls of silver smoke, and it was still early enough in the morning that families were probably asleep and huddled together for warmth. Surely the humans wouldn't arrive for at least an hour. This was my favorite kind of weather, because it discouraged intermingling. I was left alone. Rain enforced boundaries better than any rule I invented ever could.

"Yes please," I whispered, adding "please," as an afterthought. Telf hee-hawed and bent forward, but I stopped him. "Telf? Can we never, ever be celibate again?"

"If selly-but mean no Toby for Telf, and no Telf for Toby, then yes, Telf never want do that again."

"You look well-rested," Cassie said to me when I met the humans later that morning. It was still raining, but I was not attempting to hide from it. "Get a good night's sleep?"

I smiled at her mysteriously. "Let's get to work, shall we?"

Within two weeks, I was overseeing many of my people being loaded on cargo planes and trucks lent by the army and Federal Express, criticizing the ventilation and lighting and space allowed by the transport, pontificating about the selfishness and greed that I claimed defined humans. Within two more, Telf and I had established a home tree in Yellowstone, deciding again that it was best to hang directly over the hearth, and I'd set up the community in the infrastructure I'd designed—citizens who had been freed before the end of the war were interspersed evenly within Hork-Bajir who had only been freed recently and were still pouring in from all corners of the globe. It was an imperfect system, and I tried to keep some of my more trusted compatriots settled around the borders as unofficial guards, but everyone was sick of wartime occupations and wanted the freedom I'd promised them for so long. There came a point that despite my compulsiveness and tendency to overprepare, I told everyone to do whatever they wanted and stay out of trouble.

I thought once we got settled, I'd have a break for a while, to spend time with Telf and my mother and Dude, but the humans' demands were incessant and accelerating. The Hork-Bajir community was still off-limits to civilians, but human entrepreneurs and government officials wanted to open the gates at vastly overpriced admission as soon as possible. There was still a lot of conflict regarding who the money would go to—a sizable portion was to be fed directly back into the park itself, but once figures and forecasts came in about the expected first year's earnings, more and more sponsors and investors came pouring forth for a piece of the pie. It was an issue I had less than no interest in, but unfortunately one I ultimately decided. This, in addition to the multitudes of issues that did concern me, including establishing boundaries and tree harvesting limits, legislating rights for Hork-Bajir who broke borders and punishments for humans who hurt them, and compromising on exactly what degree of privacy I could expect to earn for my people, made me decide to hire a human staff.

It was a privilege I'd been offered merely days after the end of the war but one I'd put off for as long as I could, because honestly, I still didn't entirely trust the humans. I trusted Cassie, and she seemed to have a stable degree of authority over the congressional aides, volunteers, activists, and security detail that were already established in the valley, but they simply were not enough, nor were they ever under my direct command. As much as I hated it, I needed a force to delegate work to. And that force needed to be comprised of humans.

Of course, at that point we were still delusional and rather cut-off from the opinions and perception of the country and world at large. Cassie put an ad in a few publications, made some phone calls to receive resumes for recent law school graduates, those with limited experience in the non-profit, human rights sector. We expected to meet with a few qualified yet inexperienced individuals and spend the next few weeks training them. What we did not expect were over 7,000 resumes and phone calls in volumes so overwhelming that we had to dedicate two lines solely to redirect them to voice mail.

There was no way to parse through the volume of interest we received, so we ended up choosing a staff based on recommendations from high-ranking government officials and lucky cousins and acquaintances of the staff already working with us. We hired just over a dozen incredibly experienced and passionate individuals, and though doubt was the emotion I felt most at the beginning of the process, by the time I'd shaken all of their hands, I actually did feel relieved.

It took a while for us to achieve efficient harmony, but once we did, we worked together so well it was like we were all from the same family, let alone the same race. Marcia, who'd been a human rights lawyer in Nepal, specialized in writing legislation and lobbying for Hork-Bajir rights, and stated her ultimate goal was American citizenship for every member of the park. Marcus, who was the financial advisor of a very successful tech firm, dealt with all applications for investments in the park, sponsorship agreements, licensing rights, merchandising contracts, things of that sort. They performed their work well, and the more I let myself trust them, the more they accomplished and the better they got at their jobs.

There weren't many events of note in the ensuing months. A couple of things worth writing, I suppose. First, of course, the first kawatnoj was born into peace time in early June. And though I wouldn't have minded adding that title to the others I've earned, it was Brik who obtained it after all.

She and Teb, in fact, were the only couple to conceive during that first winter. I assume it was merely because the small size of our wartime community discouraged any additional couplings, and the newly freed Hork-Bajir were still getting used to their freedom, so no one else paired off by the end of that mating season. Brik, of course, received a lot of attention and adoration, not only from my people but also from the humans. A couple of news affiliates requested doing a story on her, but I refused. She was allowed to swell in the relative peace and quiet of her own oft-visited home tree.

More than that, on a personal note, of course, was that her birth was the first time I got to see Telf's experience with midwifery first-hand.

Once again intent on keeping me from sleep, Brik went into labor at about 7:30 on a Wednesday night. Telf had already met with her and Teb a few times, but Teb was panicked in that way new fathers often are, so Telf was forced to perform many of the preparations himself.

He put a few small, smooth stones in the fire and a few more in the river. He filled a number of containers with fresh water from a mountain creek, again letting a few warm over the fire, keeping a few cold. Teb sat idly next to Brik, stroking her hand and looking sick, while I acted as Telf's assistant.

"Toby make Brik drink all of this," he said, thrusting a pot of cool water at me. He leaned close and said, "Telf squeeze two dandelions in, to make Brik calm."

"You've done that before?" I asked.

"No. It be good, Toby trust Telf." He said with a smile wide enough to make his eyes crinkle. I nodded and carefully climbed the tree.

Brik's contractions started worsening about two hours in, so Telf took some of the hot stones and placed them against her hips, rubbing them against the base of her massive belly. He soaked a rag in hot water and laid it over her womb, applying gentle pressure. Teb tried to do what Telf taught, wedged between Brik and the branch behind her, hands massaging her belly from behind, but it didn't seem to be helping her at all. Telf huffed, said "Let Telf do it," and slid behind her himself.

It was a compromising position, to say the least, with her backside wedged between his legs and his arms secured snugly around her swollen midsection. Teb and I both glanced at each other in mutually acknowledged jealousy, but Telf leaned his head back, relaxed, and began stroking her belly slowly. She whimpered in anticipation of an oncoming contraction, gripping the bark beneath her hard in her hands, but Telf shushed her and splayed his fingers over her belly in what seemed to be an incomprehensible pattern. He applied pressure, stroked gently, purred against her back, and she relaxed with a heavy sigh, slumping against him, reaching back and caressing his face in what I immediately forgave as a powerful instinct.

Teb slumped in some mix of sympathetic relief and resigned inadequacy. I squeezed his shoulder and gave him half a smile. Telf just sat still, too experienced to be congratulating himself, wiping away the contractions when they occurred and muttering calm, quiet instructions to Teb and me when needed.

Finally, however, sometime around 4:00, Telf extracted himself from behind Brik, saying she was too far along for his hands to help anything. He swung nimbly around, now massaging her thighs, smiling comfortingly, readying to deliver the cub himself.

"What do you need?" I asked him.

"Pot of hot water, three rags if you find them. Water for Brik." He glanced up. "And Teb. And Toby," he leaned in, pulling me close by the back of the neck, "make his warm, put dandelions in. Teb's stress makes Brik stress." I nodded in understanding.

"So I guess the ethics of drugging people are voided in medical emergencies?" I asked with a nervous laugh. Telf stared hard at me.

"Toby need dandelions too?"

"No, no. I'll be right back."

When I returned, Brik was in the midst of another powerful contraction, thrashing and crying out as Telf cooed and hushed her and Teb paled and stroked her hand. After administering everyone's drink order, Telf quietly, calmly, and excitedly informed Brik that she could start pushing whenever she was ready.

"Are you sure?" I hissed to him. "Isn't it kind of early for—"

"Toby the assistant," he reminded me. "Telf is seer today." I held up my hands in surrender as Brik steeled herself for the task ahead.

I immediately understood why Telf had told her to start pushing prematurely. Brik was still young and scared, and though Telf was great, Teb's whimpering panic was only scaring her more. It took her another half hour before she felt ready, and by that time, she was physically ready as well. He'd estimated and accounted for the amount of time it would take her to prepare psychologically for the new reality of motherhood.

I was impressed.

The actual birth, therefore, was a smooth affair. Telf delivered the cub, a little girl they named Stek, but let Teb cut the cord and present it to Brik. He pulled me away as the newborn family curled into each other, as the two new parents worshipped the thing that was simultaneously part of them both and totally unique.

"Look at them," I said more to myself than him. "It's kind of sad in a way. Almost melancholy. The death of a lifestyle in exchange for the birth of a new life, you know? It's…I don't know, complex."

"Toby scared?" Telf asked. I turned my head and only just noticed that he had an arm slung around my shoulder.

"Yes, I am. But certain, as well. For the first time." I turned to face him. "I want to have kawatnoj with you, Telf." He smiled and slowly embraced me.

"Telf know," he said.

Of course, a small crisis the following month would make that a less certain pronouncement.

Ever since we'd made our home in Yellowstone, and I'd applied for and been granted the correct number and type of permits, I'd made it a small side project to have Story Nights in the hearth. We were normally only allowed to have fires in certain months and in designated areas, but I was intent on making Story Nights a weekly affair. For one thing, I was correct in assuming that most of my people were still suffering from post traumatic stress, and many of them were having trouble acclimating to the limited freedom of the park. For another, I still had very little idea of the number of people actually living in the valley, and what kinds of people they actually were. Brad and Nina had taken it upon themselves, as a Statistician and former Census Director respectively, to take a detailed census, but that was proving to be a pointless task since groups of Hork-Bajir were still trickling into the valley even eight months later. All the same, I thought this would unify my people a little bit, both for statistical purposes and more important morale ones.

The first Story Night was a limited success, but as they went on and word spread, I got a better idea of what my people responded to. It turned out everyone in the valley was as anxious to meet others as I was, and the story became less and less important to the events as time went on. Mostly they were social gatherings, opportunities for couples to meet, families to be reunited. That only happened a couple of times, but it certainly improved morale when it did.

I just never thought it would happen to us.

I had just finished a stirring rendition of the story of Tobias' capture and torture when I felt Telf, who was sitting at my side, jerk suddenly and whine a little. I was smug enough to assume it was from my superior storytelling skills at first, even though I'd only just recounted what the playground equipment looked like, but he clutched my hand through the remainder of the story and wouldn't let go. There was a smattering of applause when I finished, although the ending was sort of ambiguous and unclear because of my growing concern for Telf.

I got up to release everyone's attention and encourage them to socialize, but Telf gripped my arm hard and wouldn't let me speak with anyone. I finally looked up at him and saw that he was staring at someone, so I followed his gaze and spotted a very strong, attractive woman staring back.

Telf tugged my arm to guide me back home but I stopped him. "Who is she, Telf?" I asked. I looked back and saw that she was coming towards us. Telf looked sick, guilty, anxious. I held his hand as she approached.

"Hello," I greeted her. "My name is Toby Hamee."

"Odeb know Toby Hamee," she said with a smile. "Toby Hamee very good story telling."

"Thank you, that's very kind. Let me introduce you to my kalashu"—Telf twitched at the word—"Telf. Telf," I said to him, whispering, "are you all right?"

"Telf know Odeb," he muttered. I glanced back at her curiously, but she was just smiling.

"Odeb very happy see Telf happy," she said.

Now I was curious and upset, because there was clearly something going on that I wasn't aware of, and I hate being in the dark. Odeb took Telf's hand and held it for a moment, sandwiching it between her own.

"Odeb very happy see Telf happy," she repeated. He looked in her eyes and seemed about to burst into tears.

"Find Reeb?" Telf asked. Odeb's smile faltered and she shook her head. Telf bowed his so deeply that his chin pressed to his chest.

The truth occurred to me in that poignant moment of mourning and I almost ruined it, but just as I was going to blurt it out I bit my tongue. I stayed still as the pair of them exchanged whatever silent eulogies or prayers they did, and Odeb finally turned to me with another sad smile.

"Odeb want thank Toby Hamee, for saving Hork-Bajir. For saving Telf," she said. "Odeb very happy when Telf no more visit."

I forced a smile and nodded. "Please make yourself at home, Odeb. You're free now, so please don't limit your happiness on anyone's account."

I turned away a little when I said that, swallowing, horrified by what I meant. I don't know if Odeb read anything into that statement, but she smiled one more time and walked away.

Telf and I both watched her go, and he was no longer trying to pull me home.

"She was your mate," I said. Telf sighed. He stood still, not chasing after her, not turning towards me.

I gulped and tried again. "How many kawatnoj did you have with her?"

"Boy cub, girl cub. Boy cub born too soon, died. Girl cub made Yeerk."

"Reeb," I said. Telf nodded, still staring after his old mate. "Reeb Getrin."

Telf finally turned to me. "Telf so..."

I looked up at him, shaking my head, diffusing the need for apology, for explanation, for rejection. "You want her back." Telf shook his head.

"Telf want Toby Hamee. Telf get what Telf want, then not change mind."

"That was before you found one of your old kalashi, Telf. One you've already had kawatnoj with. I won't…I can't interfere with that. I'm less to you than she is."

"What Toby Hamee saying?" Telf sobbed, shaking me by the shoulders and leaning in to kiss me. "Toby not want Telf? Telf too much past?"

I slid my arms behind his back and pulled him close, pressed my cheek against his chest, memorized the texture of his skin I was so sure I would never feel again.

"I want you always, Telf, but I don't know if that matters in this case. I want you to be with whom you want to be with." Telf opened his mouth to speak, but I shushed him, acting like I was making a point but secretly terrified of what his answer would be. "I want you to go to her for now. Speak with her tonight. Comfort her, she's probably in a lot of pain and you're the only one who can empathize. Think about what you want. And if it's her…I won't…I can't interfere. If it's her, you have my blessing."

Telf sighed and frowned but knew better than to contradict me. He moped after his lost kalashi as I held in my tears long enough to get home.

I sat awake and alone all night with only my rampaging imagination for company. He didn't return until sunrise, and when he climbed into our tree I burst into tears.

He put his arms around me as I shamefully wiped my eyes and tried to stop crying, feeling so stupid and self-indulgent when he should be the one grieving this circumstance, I should be comforting him, but he shushed me and I gave into the tears, wept into his chest.

"Telf want Toby Hamee. Telf get what Telf want, then not change mind," he assured me.

"Okay," I sobbed into him, hiccupping in breath. "Okay."

It didn't take long for Odeb to find her own mate, and though I initially panicked, the whole thing made me realize what little cause I had to doubt Telf's fidelity. For he, unlike me, was a true Hork-Bajir, which meant precisely what he said—he'd chosen a mate, that night months ago when he'd grabbed my tail and pressed me into my tree. Nothing could undo that in his mind.

Save those couple of interruptions, time flew by so quickly that first year that I could barely recall the seasons having cycled at all. I spent as much time as I could in the park, overseeing the humans, resolving any petty conflict arising between different communities of my people, holding story nights, and expanding our domain as physically and politically carefully as possible, but the demands of my position also required extensive travel. I was officially appointed Governor of the Hork-Bajir valley in late October, so there was an overbudgeted ceremony and plenty of parties to attend. I would have much rather stayed home with Telf, but the humans hold very high expectations of people they celebrate. They flew me out to Washington in a luxurious private jet, which made no lick of difference to my claustrophobic, acrophobic anxieties.

The party was a whirlwind of introductions, loud music, perfumes, alcohol, and pungent animal-based foods. The hosts were kind enough to put out a table of pre-cut bark, but as with most well-meaning favors the humans do for us, it was dry and inedible. Though most of the patrons focused their gossip and conversation on me, which never does much good for my insecurities, both Bono and Angelina Jolie were in attendance, which slightly diffused the attention. Marco had RSVPed yes, which would have been a great relief, but backed out and decided to go windsurfing with Gisele Bundchen in the Caymen Islands instead. Cassie had asked if I wanted her to accompany me, but I thought it better to leave her to supervise our respective staffs.

So of course, without the security blanket of the world-famous and universally adored Animorphs to protect me, the president decided to make an appearance.

I can't describe exactly how I felt around her. Starstruck. Charmed. Threatened. Some combination of the three. I knew she wasn't trustworthy, but I felt the strong compulsion to trust her regardless. Perhaps because I felt I needed to. She'd gained a great deal of mythos since addressing the American population as California governor directly following the Animorph's warning to her, and it suited her well. I watched her as she mingled and gladhanded, glancing up at me every few minutes. She never came around to say hello, but reports the following day said nonetheless that we were as chummy as old friends. That was her way, I suppose.

I'd shaken her hand on a couple of separate occasions, mostly for photo-ops. My visage was gruesome and demonic compared to her motherly, warm complexion and smile, but she gave the great impression of easy comfort and charisma that made me look all the less threatening, I think. Those picture are the only ones I don't hate looking at, out of the millions no doubt that have been taken of me by this point. I don't know if she's just incredibly good at her job, but she looks sincerely glad to be standing with me, and I look half as stiff and guarded as I usually do.

That didn't ameliorate some of the troubling things she muttered to me before those pictures were taken. "Cold winters in Yellowstone. Hope you've got that all figured out." "Can't wait to see the park when it's ready." No offers of assistance, no sincere sympathy or insinuations of sorority, just a sort of removed interest, like she was watching some death-defying acrobatic act from the concessions stand.

However, other than those pictures, that trip was the first time I actually got to speak to the woman.

The morning after the party, a couple of hours before my flight back to West Yellowstone was scheduled to depart, the president invited me to the Oval Office for a private meeting. "No cameras, no reporters, and no goddamn celebrities," she told me. "Just pleasant company and no shop talk." I didn't feel like I had much of a choice, so of course I agreed. Hard to refuse the four-car escort capped with American flags that showed up to my hotel, either.

I remember sitting awkwardly in the tight-fitting chair inside the Oval Office, hoping I wouldn't have to pry it off of my rear like I did a little over half the time, still not quite sure what to do with my tail. I folded my hands in my lap and avoided eye contact with her as she considered me, cradling her chin in her hand, slouching against her desk, wrinkling her suit.

"I just don't know what to make of you, Governor Hamee," she finally said.

"Please, call me Toby," I responded automatically with a modest smile and hand wave, accustomed enough with pointless human etiquette to do what was expected of me. She smiled a little and shook her head.

"Are you going to lead an uprising?"

I was a little shocked by her forwardness, having expected a sprightly game of human politics, but I felt my anxiety ebb. I was much better with open conflicts than with covert scheming.

"Not during your term."

She smiled. I relaxed. There was a sense of diffused tension, now that we honestly acknowledged each other as rightful antagonists.

"I don't know. I was governor of the conflicted state at the end of the Great War, I ushered in the Great Peace, I was there for the Great Treaty. Lots of Great things happened in my presidency. Hell, they used an emergency congressional vote to move up my inauguration because of my experience. What if they change the Constitution, extend my stay?"

"You did not strike me as an arrogant woman, Madam President."

She smiled. "You think I got here without being a little arrogant? Come on. Not all of us are appointed to leadership positions. Some of us have to campaign."

I uncrossed my legs, stood up. Towered over her. Had to shimmy the chair off of my hips.

"I don't fit in your chairs," I said.

"You're not human."

"So you did notice?"

I stopped myself, thinking I was getting angry. I wasn't. The president was still considering me, eyeing me, still lost from conclusion.

"You're not really Hork-Bajir though either, are you?"

I slumped a little. The woman was more insightful than I'd thought. I hate underestimating people.

Her smile became a little more certain. "That address to the state was one of the hardest things I've ever done, you know. My poll numbers dropped almost instantaneously, my staff doubted me, I thought I was going to get overthrown by my lieutenant. And that was nothing compared to the threats, the phone calls, the constant paranoia that the Yeerks would find me, infest me, or just make it easy and kill me. That was the scariest month of my life, and the thing is, I didn't regret it. I've never been prouder of myself. Even if I wound up dead, I knew it was the right thing to do, and there is no better feeling than that."

"They already gave you a medal, you know," I scoffed.

"Yes, but that's not my point. I'm not talking about the acclaim, which gets redundant rather fast, as I'm sure you're aware. I'm talking about the solitude. The alienation. The knowledge that you are the only person with the power to make things right, and if you do it, you have to keep doing it. There is no finish line, no happily ever after. A hard decision is usually rewarded with an even harder one, ad nauseum. It's...it's lonely, Governor. It makes me feel alone."

"Alone," I repeated.

"Yes. I think we both are, aren't we?"

I felt a swell of emotion in my chest. All the humans who'd spoken with me, interviewed me, admired my bravery and strength, questioned my politics and actions during the war, and the first who truly understood would undoubtedly be a political opponent in near the future.

"So what?" I asked, scoffing a little, "you want to be friends?"

"I don't know, Toby. I know you're an alien. And I'm a human. And the odds of us understanding each other aren't great. I just thought that maybe we could forge something powerful and long-lasting for both of our peoples through that one thing we share. You know?"

"Cooperation through solitude," I said. "I don't know what kind of headline that will make."

"Let me worry about the headlines," she said, reaching up and patting my shoulder. "Just try thinking of us as the same every once in a while, all right? Maybe we'll postpone that uprising for a few more years."

On the flight back, I wondered if she had manipulated me, if her goal was to make me feel comfortable and familiar so that I would be easier to pacify and use in the future, because she was a smart woman and a shrewd politician. But for that flight, I decided not to worry, to let myself feel like I could belong to some community, even if there was only enough room for two of us.

Despite my work and traveling, Telf and I saw each other as frequently as possible, of course, but I was busy and he was quickly learning where he ranked in my life. He spent a lot of time with my mother and Dude, since besides me, they were really the only family he had, and I know he saw Odeb as much as possible, and he slowly became one of the more popular fixtures in the hearth.

That first year, I still sort of hid him away from the humans, ashamed of my attraction to him. I'm not sure exactly why, but I still identified more with the humans than my people, and a marriage to one of them felt unnatural and perverted. There were times we were forced to work through the night, and our catering company brought twelve packs of beer and greasy junk food to fuel them through our work which encouraged conversation that edged on the personal, but any time the humans asked about him, I would abruptly change the subject or redirect their curiosity to something else. I didn't like talking about him, and though at the time I justified it as protecting his privacy, the truth was that I was ashamed of my relationship with him.

Of course, by late November, I awoke one morning to find my legs wrapped around one of his, rubbing myself against his sharp hipbone, moaning half-conscious into his chest. I pulled away in shame and stuttered out an apology, but Telf only hee-hawed and took me by the hand. He stood me up, pulled me close, and, in what I finally discovered was his rigorous test for discerning my reproductive state, cupped his hand firmly around my genitals. I let out a shrill moan and melted in his hands.

"Toby sooner than Telf this year," he whispered, kissing me, wiping his damp hand on the tree. "But Toby not worry, Telf sure Toby not have to wait long."

I could barely think through the arousal offered by his kiss, but I managed to pull away for a moment.

"Telf…" I said. "I don't know if I can…" I trailed off, unwilling to utter the words to break my promise to him, but so terrified of fulfilling it.

Telf looked infuriated for a moment, shaking with an oncoming tantrum, but shook his head and forced a smile. "Toby Hamee different," he said, almost like a chant. "Telf sometimes have to remember that Toby Hamee different. Not mean Toby Hamee bad, just Toby Hamee different."

I swallowed hard and could almost taste the arousal in my throat, it infected me everywhere. There was no way I could survive another winter without enjoying him. Even if I wasn't sure I wanted one, I was sure I wouldn't escape this season without kawatnoj.

"I'm sorry," I whispered. "I didn't mean to upset you. I just meant to ask, since you, you know…you've done this before…is there a best time to conceive? Is it better to wait until later, or is it all right to start immediately? Do we need to prepare at all? Is there a certain type of bark I should be eating more, should I drink more water? I can't sleep more, but is there anything else I can do to compensate for that?"

Telf just stared at me with a distant smile on his face. I bent over on my wobbly knees and laughed. "Telf, I don't know what I'm doing."

Telf kneeled and took me by the wrists. "Toby worry about so much. About humans, about trees, about Hork-Bajir. Toby let Telf worry about kawatnoj, okay?"

I looked up to him and smiled. "Okay."

"Now," he said, leaning forward, slipping into that easy kiss with the grace that was his trademark, "even though Telf not ready, Telf think take care of Toby, yes?"

I don't even know if I articulated my consent, but it was more than clear.

Looking back, I think Telf might have actually played me quite adeptly. I think he knew I would resist if I was entirely aware that conception could be taking place, if I could add the parts together in my head as they were happening in real time. I think he predicted my unwillingness. So instead, he started the winter under terms of uncertainty. Was he still sterile? When would he not be? I never knew which encounter actually did it, I still can't say when my son was conceived. In short, I think he was lying when he said he hadn't achieved his own reproductive heat yet.

Or perhaps I'm just feeling unoccupied and therefore paranoid. I give him both too much and not enough credit.

I can't even begin to describe how steeply our affair escalated, how quickly the number of encounters per day skyrocketed. I suppose I was lucky that we were in something of a professional lull—the park had opened three months prior, closed a month ago for the winter, and a magnificent quarterly statement was keeping all of our investors quiet, not to mention that after a year we'd finally managed to obtain a partially accurate census—because Telf and I could not leave each other alone. We were disciplined at first, squeezing in at least one tryst immediately upon waking, meeting up again at home during the humans' lunch break, and spending no less than three hours before bed drowning in sweat and hormones, but within a couple of weeks he was interrupting me every forty-five minutes at work, complaining about imaginary splinters and making up minor emergencies to pull me from the humans. I didn't indulge him every time, but I refused much less than I should have. There was even once that the best excuse I could come up with was that I'd dropped a paperclip about a hundred feet away, and Telf and I climbed a tree and made love in a branch forty feet above the humans' heads.

I liked the element of risk, and though Telf was indifferent, he was happy to accommodate me.

I'm resistant to write any more about it than that; I feel as though getting this personal is irrelevant. Painful to remember, I suppose. I learned a lot during that period, about our relationship, about myself, about my body. I'd professed to feeling sexual pleasure long before that winter, but I was surprised to learn I hadn't even scratched the surface of what I could feel.

I guess the feeling started about two weeks into our heat. A rush of pleasure, like a current running through me, but for the first time since I'd felt it, it seemed as if it was taking me somewhere. Like deeper pleasure lay beyond it if I would just let it pull me along. I'd stepped in the stream and had been compelled down it. The first time it happened, I froze and quashed it, disrupted enough by it for Telf to ask if I was all right. After he finished, of course.

The second time I felt it, I didn't expect it, but curiosity outweighed fear, and I permitted it. This time I let the current rock me twice, finding that the second rush was much more intense, spreading out, incapacitating, overwhelming, promising something beyond anything I'd experienced if I let it bring me to fruition. Waist-deep in the creek now, I suppose. I quashed it again.

This went on for some time until I finally gave in. I'm not sure exactly what caused it—perhaps I was just so drenched in hormones that I had little choice or self-control—but I like to think that it was Telf. I believe my anxiety had to do with feeling uncertain about giving him so much control over me. About not trusting him with the feelings I was having. And I still don't know why I chose that particular time to let myself go, but I remember that we were in the same position as our second time together, which was certainly one of our favorites, the first I remember enjoying, his knee blades embedded deeply within our tree, and as the current tugged harder and deeper, as my moans and gasps became higher pitched and more intense, I remember him leaning forward and hooking his wrist blades into the tree, binding me, buckling me safely so I wouldn't fall.

His motion caught me off guard, a sudden, arrhythmic thrust that finally pulled me completely under, drowned me, revealed the magnitude of pleasure that my body had been hinting at, like a dam had burst and washed the river away. The sensation surprised me so much that I stopped breathing, my voice went silent. My legs thrashed, my toes curled, my abdomen contorted like an accordion and unfurled outside of my command. I wrapped my arms strongly around his shoulders as he held me tight, as he achieved his own much quieter, more subdued climax.

It was only then I let out an extremely satisfied wail. The come down was even better, in a way, because I finally had a portion of my cognition back, I could finally control my body, I could finally lean back to see the somewhat pleased and congratulatory expression on Telf's face as I heaved and stuttered through the remainder of my ecstasy.

"Toby feel good?" he hee-hawed, kissing me deeply. I only grunted out a single laugh in response.

"Telf wait long time for Toby do that," he said, still catching his breath. "Telf wonder something wrong with Telf, maybe wrong with Toby."

"No," I sighed. "Nothing wrong with that at all."

We heaved in air and kissed for a good deal more time, for the exact length of his refractory period, of course, before I felt him grow and he finally asked if I'd like that to happen again.

What kind of person would I be if I refused?

It was a wonderful time personally, though I cannot remember one professional goal I accomplished. I think that's when we started hearing reports of local radio shows and internet forums expressing ire and bigotry about us, but my staff was universally dismissive. I trusted them. I was distracted.

But I was warned.

Of course, everything began to unravel much sooner than I thought it would, even though I knew it would unravel eventually. By the middle of January, I felt strange. Not bad, not sick, just sort of restless, plagued by some indescribable, sensationless pain. It awoke me late one evening, and though it was cold, I crawled out of Telf's arms and found a higher branch in which to suffer in solitude. Waking up and sleeping alone was something I only did occasionally, but Telf never took it personally and always let me go. This time, however, I found it difficult to nurse myself back to sleep until he followed me and rubbed a horseshoe-shaped spot above the base of my tail, offering me exquisite relief from that painless pain. I was too drugged by exhaustion to give it any thought until the next morning, when my eyes snapped open and I sat straight up.

"Telf," I hissed, shaking him by the shoulders. Since the end of the war, he'd become the heaviest sleeper I'd ever known. That man could sleep through an air raid if he wanted to. I shook him more violently, growing desperate, ready to slap him if I needed. "Telf!"

"Mm? Toby finally awake?" He groaned blindly, groping forward until he pulled me into an embrace. I wasn't sure whether to let him or not, and sort of froze, hunched in a forty-five degree angle above him. He opened his eyes, the smile dropping from his face when he saw mine.

"No," he said. "No, Toby not scared. Toby not scared for this."

"Why didn't you say something?"

"Toby so tired, Telf thought to wait."

"Wait? You thought something this important could wait?"

Telf got an amused, confused look. "Toby surprised?"

I unfroze, slumped. "No."

Telf got that angry look like he does sometimes, but he knew me well enough by now to shake it off and smile. "Toby make kawatnoj," he said, cupping my lower abdomen in his hand. "Toby Hamee not different. Toby Hamee be happy. Make kawatnoj is happy."

"Yes," I said, permitting a smirk, though fear congealed thick inside of me. "Yes, it is."

"Well!" Telf said, hopping to his feet. "Go tell Ket and Dude! Telf tell everyone else!" He started walking to the end of the branch, but I grabbed him by the tail.

"I don't know if I'm ready," I confessed.

He stopped, turned around, bent down. "Telf make many kawatnoj, Toby. Telf very good at make kawatnoj. But Telf never have kawatnoj either. Telf scared too! Telf not ready!"

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?" I demanded.

"Supposed to make Toby feel not alone," Telf said, kneeling down and stroking my cheek with his knuckles. "Why can't Telf be scared?"

I let go of his tail and retreated into our sleeping spot, grunting with another invisible cramp. "Fine, go. I'm going to try to sleep this off." Telf sighed and followed me.

"Rub Toby's back until fall asleep, then tell everyone," he amended, sidling in beside me, pressing his hands to the base of my tail. The minute he started his massage, I felt a little better about everything.

As soon as I drifted off, Telf kept his promise. By the time I woke up a mere 90 minutes later, there were piles of government-issued blankets at the base of my frozen tree (not that I considered that a particularly selfless gift—the things were insubstantial as tissue paper and my people much preferred using the geothermal springs to keep warm during the extreme winter months), slabs of bark symbolically cut into adult-sized and infant-sized chunks, and, most touchingly, a few bouquets of withered summer flowers people had saved for just such an occasion. The beauty from them may have gone, but the fragrance was as sweet as ever.

As soon as I climbed down to the hearth, more people than ever came up to me, but now their disposition was less humble and less restrained. People I'd never spoken to before touched me, held me, rubbed my belly which was still weeks away from showing any sign of being occupied. I was a little taken aback, but surprised to see that I smiled when they touched me, I hugged them back. I'd cloistered myself for long enough, and if this was the event that unleashed my warm, maternal side…well, I supposed that would be appropriate.

Telf caught up with me about an hour later, having to claw through a group of three or four female adolescents who were gabbing about what time of day was luckiest to conceive a kawatnoj. After shooing them away, he grasped my hands. "Toby tell Ket and Dude?" I shook my head, still smiling, and leaned in to embrace him.

"No, let's go do it together," I said. He slowly returned the hug, bowing into me.

"Toby happy now?" He asked.

"Less scared, at least," I said. He pulled away and I saw there were tears in his eyes, which I gently brushed away. "The war is over," I said to him. "I guess I just forget that sometimes."

When I told my mother, she leaped up and flung her arms around me, tackling me to the branch we balanced on. Telf laughed good-naturedly but her action terrified Dude, who was still too young to understand where kawatnoj came from or how I knew I was different than before when I looked exactly the same. I spent some time with them as mother yammered about what I needed to eat and where to find salt deposits now that we weren't by the ocean and Dude interrupted hesitantly when he could, trying to clarify how I knew or how it had happened. But, sometime around 2:00, one of the unofficial messengers of the humans (my people needed to stay occupied as well, after all) swung into my mother's tree and said the humans were getting worried.

And that's when I froze again.

As we made our way slowly to base camp, Telf gripped me more and more tightly the more he recognized how scared I was. I stopped and pulled away from him about fifty yards from the cabin, wringing my hands, but Telf just smiled and grabbed my shoulders, saying, "Tell humans today. Toby make kawatnoj even if not tell humans."

I nodded, gripping his hand as we headed into the cabin.

Since this was our second winter, the National Park Service had permitted us to build a small structure that included a septic tank and generator so that the human staff could work year-round, even through winter's inclemency. It was by no means luxurious—a 3500-square foot space that housed almost two dozen staff members—but the humans had personalized it with a number of trinkets and stress-relievers, and photos of their families and loved ones covered the entire back wall. As Telf and I stamped off our slushy feet, he gestured subtly to the wall, reminding me that there was nothing wrong with what I was about to tell them.

"Come in out of the cold, you must be freezing!" Melody, our overworked receptionist, exclaimed. She almost slammed the door on Telf, who thrust out his arm to catch it. "Oh, I'm sorry, you're…he's in here with us today?"

"For a little while," I said.

"Telf stay every day," he corrected.

"Every day?" Melody asked. Everyone glanced up from their work, even Dan and Kyle who may as well have been glued to their telephones.

"Every day," Telf said unwaveringly. I felt my pulse quicken, but I couldn't help but give a small smile at his resolve.

"What's going on? Why weren't you here on time?" Brenda, the office administrator who didn't mind being thought of as everyone's "boss," walked forward. "And what's he doing here?"

"We have an announcement to make," I said quietly. Dan and Kyle abruptly ended their phone calls. This was an event unlikely enough to be justify rudeness to donors and political representatives. Everyone scooted forward on office chairs, and Cassie watched me with narrow eyes, a gaze I could not hold, too filled with uncertainty and shame.

I tried to find the right words to tell them, opening and closing my mouth a few times, but I couldn't figure out how to soften a blow I felt was so massive. "Well, what is it?" Brenda blurted.

"I—"

"Toby Hamee make kawatnoj," Telf offered for me, pulling me beside him and putting a hand over my belly. I pushed him away, crossing my arms, wishing now I'd left him outside.

"Make what?" Brenda asked.

"What's Kawat Noge? Is that a person?"

"Will be," Telf smiled proudly.

Everyone was sort of quiet for a while, a few groups hissing urgent guesses to each other, until Cassie, with that quiet yet powerful voice she'd earned among humans once the war had ended, finally said, "Toby, are you going to have a baby?"

I finally looked up to her with my lips pursed, frowning, an expression that lasted less than a moment but one she recognized, returning a mild look of distress. Then I forced a smile. "Yes. Telf and I are expecting our first child."

To my surprise, everyone exploded in applause, congratulations, and whiny, high-pitched human sounds of adoration, but Telf leaned toward my ear and said "Bay-bee? That is human kawatnoj?" That's the only actual dialogue I remember, and the only that made my smile genuine.

The rest of the day was light, and we got very little work done, because it was winter in Wyoming and the humans were rather desperate for a distraction, perfectly happy with using my news as their excuse. They were saving a couple of bottles of Moet in the mini-fridge for Kyle finally securing the votes necessary to pass HR-2410, a bill that established prison sentences for illegal Hork-Bajir trafficking, but they decided to delve into those prematurely to celebrate. Telf and I, of course, are immune to the powers of human alcohol, and dandelions were out of season, so he stood there, rubbing my stomach and purring into my back, stuck in the walled-in room as the humans got more and more unhinged.

It was well after 11:00 when the humans all went back to their living quarters, keeping Bob, the poor bus driver, waiting for almost two and a half hours, but before she left, Brenda drunkenly pulled me aside.

"So Telf says he's going to be here every day?"

"That is what he says."

"And what do you say?"

I sighed. "I don't know. He can be very persistent."

"Well, Toby, I'm the friendliest, handsiest drunk alive, and even now I'm not sure how I feel about that."

"He just wants to make sure I take care of myself. He knows when to keep quiet. Let's try it out for a while, all right?"

Brenda sighed heavily. "You just keep making my job harder and harder, you damn space aliens."

Telf and I walked slowly through the frigid landscape, him holding me close for warmth. I didn't resist much anything he did then to make me more comfortable—I did have to carry the child, after all—and besides, in addition to the back cramps, water retention, and other effects of the pregnancy, I felt an incredibly strong trust and desire for him to be around all the time. I blamed it on the hormones, on some evolutionary trait that was impossible to resist, but now I'm not so sure it wasn't just my own insecurity and neediness. Whatever it was, Telf seemed just as eager to be with me, so in fact, my pregnancies were the times we were closest, even more so than our brief periods of heat.

"Humans not so bad," Telf said.

"Did you really mean you'd be coming to work with me every day?" I asked.

"Yes."

I waited for an explanation, but he seemed to think it was self-evident, continuing on in silence.

"You're not going to interfere with our work though, right?"

"Telf there for Toby."

I frowned at the ambiguity of his statement. "I understand. You don't trust me to take care of myself. I haven't done a very good job of it while I've been with you. But you don't have veto power. I still need to do my job, I still need to be governor, to be seer, even though I'm almost a mother, all right?"

Telf hee-hawed gently. "Toby is kalashi. No almost." I shivered against him, and he held me tighter.

"Winter's almost over," I said quietly.

"But not bad thing this year."

Telf came to work every day like he said he would, and was dedicated enough to the idea that he deferred to me in almost any conflict of authority. Most of the day he spent climbing dozens of trees to find the ripest bark despite the cold, or bending to my every minor craving, even concocting something as difficult in the frozen winter months as "oak bark covered in moss with salt." Part of me wished he was that servile all the time, but even so, I felt guilty any time he smiled hugely at one of my impossible requests. Maybe he was as terrified of feeling ineffectual as I was of the foregone result of all this pandering.

Though I started feeling worse almost immediately after we announced it to everyone (those sensationless back cramps quickly became outright painful), it was six more weeks before I noticed an actual visual change—just a slight arc in my abdomen, nothing intrusive or inconvenient, just enough to give my condition away. I spent a long time feeling it, tracing the slight swell, trying to reconcile the physical change with the personal change it heralded. I hadn't yet conceived of the random assortment of symptoms as an actual person, and I was desperate to figure out how.

And that's when everything else started going wrong.

Now that my body had acknowledged it, other parts flared up in protest. Blisters and boils that made it nearly impossible to walk or climb up to our nook covered my feet. Telf spent half an hour each morning and nearly forty-five minutes each night heating up mud (which was starting to melt by itself) in his hands or by the fire, mixing it with a particular kind of tree sap, and covering my feet in the mixture until the mud dried, soothing the sores. Afterwards, he'd take a pine cone and slough away the mud flakes and dead skin to invigorate new growth. In addition to that, my back cramps were a nearly constant pain, and I could have laid there in our tree letting him massage me for months if there wasn't so much to do.

For the first two months, I balanced it. I knew I was on the brink of losing control, but for that time, I got work done with him there, he took care of me, and I took care of myself, all to a mildly successful degree. I never felt rested, and I never felt comfortable on the ground, exacerbating my back cramps and blistered feet by standing around all day, and each day that passed made Telf look a little more sick and worried, made him usher me home a little more urgently.

I felt even then that it was all leading to some fantastic blow-up, that each day was another second ticking off the timer. And though I predicted the magnitude of how wrong things would go, I never expected the breadth.

I was almost exactly halfway though my pregnancy when it happened. It was now late March in the park, which meant wildflowers struggled through the white landscape, and the sun stayed out for a much longer period each day. Telf was relieved about that, but it did little to help the stress he felt otherwise. He'd been quietly requesting that we return home much more often, even going to lengths as to tug at my arm and rub my swelling belly, which made me feel more guilty and angry than loved. It was late in the afternoon, and my going-on-13-hour shift on the ground was making my hips ache, making it hard to breathe through the back cramps, making my feet throb in hour-long cycles. I was just about to make up some excuse to go home when Kyle slammed the receiver down on his phone and scrambled over to the muted TV which constantly played CNN.

"Jesus Christ," he muttered, clicking off the mute button.

Everyone's gaze turned to the TV as "BREAKING NEWS" broke out across the screen. It was a mish-mash of random information, photos taken from someone's personal website mixed with irrelevant opinions of experts and viewers, like all human news broadcasts were, but the events became clear very quickly.

Two adolescent Hork-Bajir had escaped the confines of the park. That wasn't the bad part; that sort of thing happened all of the time. Though I had to discipline them, and in person as often as I could, I didn't particularly blame them—the winters were cold and the trees were unsavory, why wouldn't they want to leave?

They'd made their way west onto a rather large sheep ranch. The report blamed "misinformation of Hork-Bajir diet," as the cause of the event, but it very soon became clear that was not the motivation.

Two ranch hands had spotted the Hork-Bajir youths, in clear light of day, and killed them both with shotguns meant to ward off wolves.

It wasn't the first unnatural death in the park, nor would it be the last. Plenty of Hork-Bajir with poor judgment had found themselves lost, succumbing to the elements, or hunted down by packs of wolves or riled-up elk. I hated hearing news like that, but I couldn't blame myself for the brutality of Earth. The only thing I had any degree of control over was the brutality of humanity.

That was the first time their hate had directly harmed—no, directly murdered—my people.

I felt myself grow faint as more details emerged. Once the Hork-Bajir were dead, the ranch hands had constructed crude crucifixes and hanged their mangled bodies upon them, perhaps as a message to the rest of us, perhaps as an act of defiance, I don't know. Though the wild of the northwest was a remote, desolate place, dozens of other ranch hands had come to share their frustrations, throw a sort of hate rally to voice their dissent. Pitchforks, torches, burning crosses, all the sort of devilish iconography that had come to define human hatred. Dozens more were driving in, my two dead people a symbol of their contempt.

My staff flew to the phones. I had to sit down, putting a hand on my belly, only now feeling the gravity, the meaning of that strange, intrusive lump, thinking how I'd feel if it was my child strung up on that cross. Telf was focused entirely on me; I doubt he even understood what had happened, let alone what it meant.

"I can't breathe," I gasped to him.

"Toby Hamee come outside."

"Toby! I've got word from Idaho state officials. They're sending squad cars to the ranch right now, but…hold on…"

Telf scrambled around looking for a glass large enough for me to drink from, finally settling on the pitcher itself, filling it clumsily in the sink before scuttling back, sloshing it to me.

"You son of a bitch! You stupid fucking son of a bitch!" Dan yelled into the phone. He slammed the receiver down once, again, a third time, finally ripping the phone from the wall and throwing it across the room. Everyone paused to stare, the tension palpable.

"Give it to us lightly, at least," Brenda said quietly.

"They can't be prosecuted for murder. There's no law on the books in Idaho that Hork-Bajir are anything but nonhuman. The most they'll get is illegal poaching, which only carries a sentence of three to five years."

"I can't breathe," I sobbed, curling my fists against my temples. I felt everyone looking at me, felt everyone waiting for me to react, waiting for me to decide how grave and important this was, but all I wanted to do was faint, was let Telf carry me home and hum me to sleep. Cassie, please say something. Please do this, please be the face of this, please.

"I thought we'd taken care of that," she whispered, sounding just as sickened as I felt. No, Cassie. Not enough. Everyone's sick, we need rage.

It needs to be me.

"Why didn't we?" I roared, rising to my feet, throwing the chair off of my rear end. "Why wasn't this the first thing we did when we set up this office?"

"We did, we got laws on the books in Wyoming, but—"

"But not Montana. Not Idaho. Not California, not Washington, not Canada, not Mexico, not anywhere but this mountainous hell you condemned us to," I seethed. "No, Hork-Bajir aren't sapient, aren't human anywhere except Wyoming. Killing a Hork-Bajir isn't murder anywhere except Wyoming."

Telf was at my side, the only one in the room not staring at me in terror. He kept trying to thrust the water back at me, and I was too angry to throw him aside.

"This is the precedent we set," I raged to them all, turning to each in turn, glaring, even at Cassie whose intentions were only ever pure. "This was a foregone conclusion; we all knew this would happen eventually, that you petty, violent, stupid humans were capable of something like this, and the only thing we had control over was how we got to present it. And look what we did. Killing a Hork-Bajir is no worse than shooting a duck out of season."

"Maybe this is good. Maybe this will curb favor—"

"Good?" I screamed, too enraged to even acknowledge who had said it. "How can this be good in any universe? My people were murdered and your backwards human laws call it hunting. No, this is not good. This can never happen again. This is not a state issue, not a federal issue, this is a human rights issue. This is not something dictated by United States law. This is United Nations. I want a sanction. I want the Universal Doctrine of Human Rights rewritten to include us. I want…I…" I stumbled, the air stolen from my lungs, cold sweat breaking out across my brow.

"Toby Hamee go outside," Telf entreated, catching me beneath the shoulder. "Toby Hamee come home,"

"No, Telf, don't you understand how important…what this means…"

"Toby Hamee is sick, needs rest."

"I can't rest right now!" I screamed, wresting my arm from him. "This isn't about me, this isn't about our child, and it's not about you! There are things more important than your obsessive desire to have a family! None of that matters if humans are free to kill us with minimal penalties. Making life doesn't matter if we're not allowed to live it."

"Telf stand by, let Toby work all day, say nothing. Now say something. Toby need rest, need rest. Toby come with Telf now."

It was the first time he'd done more than make more than a whiny request. His grip on my forearm was tight, his resolve as strong as ever. He wasn't going to give up.

But neither was I.

"Go home, Telf. You're not allowed here anymore. I revoke permission."

"Yes, Telf go home. Go home with Toby."

"No, Telf, you don't get it. You can't be here anymore. Go home and stay there."

"Only with Toby!"

"Get out of here! You stupid idiot, you hee-haw, hee-haw fool! You simple moron, I don't want you here anymore! Go home!"

It took almost three seconds before I actually heard what I'd said.

I released hold and backed away, humans behind me scattering like field mice. I covered my mouth with my hand and stared at him. He didn't look hurt, not even disappointed, just scrunched up in worry. "Telf go," he said quietly, following me, taking one of my hands in both of his. "Toby please come home soon." He made his way to the door, not ashamed in front of the humans, not desperate for their approval like I was. He was only worried about one thing in this room, and I'd stubbornly kept him from caring for it.

I swallowed back my acidic guilt, feeling another flare of pain from my feet, another cramp crackling through my lower back. I recovered my chair, set it up, and sat down. The humans all stared at me, waiting for me, waiting for my word when all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and cry, massaging the little thing growing inside me that might never see the light of day.

"I'll fix that later," I said lowly to them. "We need to make lots of calls, and we need to make them now. I need to release a statement, and I should probably do so live. Paul and Tina, you'll need to write me up a draft and I'll revise. I want this to be personal. Humans need to see us as people, not as aliens, not even as foreigners. Not as refugees. As equals."

"Your pregnancy will probably help," Cassie said. "If people see that all you want is to have a family…well, that's something we can all relate to."

I covered my face with my hands. "I don't want them to target it," I sobbed. "Oh, it can't be me."

Everyone was quiet for a long time. Cassie made her way over to me and placed a gentle hand against my forearm. "Toby, go home. We'll do everything we can. We'll work through the night. But Telf's right, you need to rest."

"I can't, I have to be here if it happens again, I have—"

"Toby, do you know how much I care about your people?" She whispered to me. "How much this hurts me?"

I looked up at her, nodded slightly.

"Do you trust me to make this right?"

I thought back to when we were both younger, children by our respective society's terms but no children at all. How many times she helped my people when I was too weak or limited. How many times she had risked her life simply for my people's well being.

"I do," I whispered. "But I want a full report in the morning. First thing. I'll be back by first light."

"You better be," she said. "Go make up with Telf."

I rushed home as fast as I could, on my sore feet, on my sore back, desperate to resolve the argument, desperate to have him hold me so I could crumble without risk of being seen as weak. He was waiting at the base of our tree and embraced me so tightly I thought I would suffocate.

"I'm so sorry," I sobbed to him. "I didn't mean it."

"Telf know," he said, focused simultaneously on comforting me emotionally and physically, rubbing that spot on my back so expertly that my sobs turned into purrs. "Telf know."

He helped me up the tree and as far as I know, spent all night awake rubbing my back so I would sleep as soundly as possible.

I woke up well after first light, though I doubted even before I returned to base camp that the humans would care. I was sleeping on my side, Telf pressed up against me from behind, his arm draped over me, shielding my belly with a flayed out hand. I yawned when I awoke, and Telf said, "Shh, Toby."

"What is it?"

"Toby feel?" He applied slight pressure to the side of my abdomen. I sensed it, feeling a series of bumps against his finger.

"Is something wrong?" I hissed.

"No, Toby," he laughed. "Toby want know what is kawatnoj?"

"What?"

"Toby say, Telf, kawatnoj boy or girl?"

My hearts leapt. "Boy or girl?" I whispered.

"Count head blades," he said. "Only bumps now. How many Toby feel?"

I closed my eyes and focused on the pressure of his finger against me. "Three," I said with a faint laugh. "I count three."

"Toby have boy," Telf confirmed, nuzzling my ear. "Toby have son." I put my hand over his and smiled as our son rolled inside of me, closing my eyes and enjoying that moment of domestic peace in the eye of the hellstorm that swirled around me.

Things weren't really as bad as I thought they were. Marcia had taken the first available flight to Washington, and by 2 o'clock the next day was arguing in a split-screen on some network news channel with the conservative representative from the ranch hands' district and was thoroughly "wiping the floor with him," to borrow a human phrase. The outpouring of reinvigorated support was staggering—in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Miami, there were simultaneous candlelit vigils and marches. There was also a pledge drive where a number of famous actors and personalities answered the phones, and Elton John sang one of his songs, though I can't remember which one. In fact, the one thing that became more than clear after the murders was that far more humans approved of us than hated us.

That didn't keep me from flying to Idaho to reclaim their bodies. One of the only things I did during that pregnancy without protest from Telf.

I was worried about any humans besides the few who worked with me knowing that I was starting a family. I knew there was a certain degree of mystery surrounding me—just how alienated from my own people was I?—and I sort of preferred it that way. Outside of the park, the humans assumed I was celibate. I didn't want the humans to know about Telf or my children, because though well over 99% of them were perfectly decent and humane, or at least uninterested, that left more than enough who weren't.

All the same, I doubted the ranch hands even noticed my pregnancy. I stepped off the helicopter, walked right up to them (I'd requested the police hold them under house arrest until I could speak with them, which they were quick to acquiesce to), and asked "where are they?" I didn't yell, I didn't growl, I spoke like I always do. But neither of them could look me in the eye, and one of them pointed to a tree with a two 2x4s nailed to it, hanging off of which were the grotesque, decomposing bodies of my people.

"Help me take them down," I said to them. The state patrol officers pushed them toward the tree with their rifles, and within ten minutes I was kneeling over their bodies, trying to identify them.

I don't know everyone in the park. Probably a little less than a quarter of the population, and at the time that only included the 6,500 or so we'd actually tallied. It just worked out that I could identify both of them.

"Do you know his name?" I asked the ranch hands, one of whom was closing his eyes tight, the other's bottom lip quivering. "His name was Gurb. He didn't have any family in the park, but that didn't mean he wasn't popular. Almost every girl his age had a crush on him.

"And him, do you know his name?" I asked them, staring, awaiting a response, until they finally glanced at me and gave a slight shake of their heads. "His name was Nevv. Nevv wasn't as outgoing as Gurb, but they were good friends. Nevv and his mother were both Controllers—you know, people who had Yeerks in their brains? During the war, Nevv was stationed on Visser Three's Blade Ship, while his mother was assigned to guard one of their low security off-site facilities. It wasn't until after the war that they were reunited."

I leaned down close to the pair of them, more than aware that I'd won this conflict, more than aware that intimidating them did nothing but please my own temper, but I loved the way they cowered and wept.

"Now I have to go back to the park and tell his mother that, despite the fact the war is over and we are at peace with the humans, two of them decided her son was not worthy to go on living. I have to go and inform her that whatever nightmares she thought she escaped have indeed come to pass."

"We don't want your goddamn—"

"No, human. No, you've made your position very, very clear. Now it is my turn to speak," I said. "How long have you humans hoped for the existence of other species in the galaxy? How long have you fantasized about sister and brother races to curb your own relentless loneliness?" I paused for a moment, letting the message seep in. "Does this tell you why so many of them stay away?"

I carried Nevv back to the fuselage over my shoulder, despite the protests of the patrolmen and my escorts from the park. A couple of them handled Gurb. I finalized the draft of the statement I wished to give to the humans and delivered it that night.

What I said isn't important, and I can't remember it anyway. The only thing I really remember is demanding to be filmed from the chest up to conceal my pregnancy. The response was overwhelming, universally positive, and I believe I was nominated for some kind of humanitarian award. I didn't really care. All that mattered to me was that the door had been opened.

Violence against my people was more than a theoretical concern.

I spoke at their combined funeral. I held Nevv's mother for hours as she wept and wailed and expressed without words her frustration with how thoroughly the Hork-Bajir had been oppressed, enslaved, and subjected to cruelty we couldn't defend ourselves from. Or maybe I imposed all of that on her grief. That's how I felt.

That's how I feel.

Even so, when she'd wept all she could for that night, she grabbed my belly and bowed her head low, and said, "always new Hork-Bajir. Always new Hork-Bajir." Then she hugged me one last time and went back to be comforted by her friends.

I didn't have much time to think on that. There was too much to do.

In addition to lobbying for more human rights, to expanding my people's privileges in the park, to resolving any issues within the community itself, and to scheduling and administering my many obligations as leader and figurehead of my people, my staff had to work with various law enforcement officials and start a branch devoted to investigating issues of cruelty against the Hork-Bajir.

I was working eighteen hours a day, and I was still growing. Telf was always there, bringing in food which, thankfully, was easier to procure now that the last of the winter snow had melted, forcing me down into a chair every fifteen minutes or so, and always, always, always insisting that we return to the tree for a little while, just a half hour, just so Toby get nap, just so Toby be in tree, and it became an endless barter with him which he never won. By the end of my pregnancy, my feet were shredded, I was hunched like an elder, and my hips would never quite feel the same again.

When Telf wasn't huffing impatiently at me, he was busy improving our living situation. Since we lived in the middle of the hearth, finding unoccupied, suitable trees in direct proximity to ours in order to expand our own domicile was nearly impossible. Telf had no problem bargaining away what few personal possessions he had in order to purchase the two trees right by our own. Partly because his offers were more than generous, and partly because, according to him, at least, people were eager to do a favor for their very pregnant governor, they were simple transactions.

For a few hours each day, while I was bent over tables humans designed, reading font suited best for human eyes, in a cabin built by humans lit to a level that humans found comforting, Telf worked on our home. Somehow, perhaps with the help of friend, maybe Dude, maybe my mother, or maybe some companions he made in my interminable absence, he managed to lash the tops of the three massive evergreens together to create a sort of single dwelling that created a perfect canopy over our living area. Once he had the trees tied together, he spent the rest of his time making a platform from tangled branches and pine needles, glued together with tree sap, softened with dandelion down and dried grass. After that, he scraped away all of the scratchy twigs and pine fronds above the platform, making a dome-shaped living space. Then, he stripped the three trunks of bark, sanded them down, made them smooth, and covered them in some mixture of tree sap and mud as a sort of lacquer. He'd even etched some patterns into the wood, and though they were simplistic, the effort melted my hearts.

It was art, really, the purest expression of his ideal home, the most comfortable tree I'd ever been in, and the envy of everyone who walked or swung by. It was his project, his obsession, and a couple of weeks before my due date, he decided it was complete enough to give me the grand tour.

"See, this where kawatnoj stay," he said, fluffing a small nest of pine needles and wild grass. "At least, when not sleep with Telf or Toby. Here," he said, running over to an area he'd managed to pack down into almost a level surface, "is where keep tree bark and water. Telf need find something that hold water."

"I'm sure we can get the humans to donate an old aquarium. Or a few empty jugs," I said. Telf's jaw clenched. He didn't like accepting any charity from the humans. He shook his head and scuttled over to another area of the platform.

"This where Toby and Telf sleep," he said. "But Toby know that already." I smiled. Telf would tend to me there nonstop if it was up to him.

"It's perfect, Telf. I couldn't...well, I wouldn't have done any of this without you."

"Telf not done, Toby," Telf said, taking my hand. "Show one more thing."

He began ascending a branch I assume he'd kept just because its shallow angle of ascent made it easy to climb. "Toby okay?" He asked as I started shimmying up.

"I'm pregnant, not crippled," I grunted, though I was huffing and readjusting myself within a couple of meters. Telf came down and helped me up.

"This for after kawatnoj come," he said. "This for when kawatnoj sleep."

He pulled me above the canopy of the three trees, which I saw he'd reinforced with long strips of weather-cured bark. Above the canopy was a sort of domed platform, compacted and flattened, that seemed just big enough to safely contain the pair of us. Rung around the circumference were a circle of Indian Paintbrushes, and the top of the canopy was taller than the rest of the trees, making a perfect little secluded sanctuary.

"For Toby and Telf. So don't wake kawatnoj."

"You've thought of everything," I said, leaning into him. "Should we give it a try?"

"No, Toby too big."

"So sensitive of you," I said, turning away, genuinely hurt.

He grabbed me under the arm, placing his hand upon my stomach. "Telf think Toby beautiful, but kawatnoj come soon."

"So?"

"Kawatnoj not ready."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "You think you'll send me into an early labor."

Telf nodded, his left eye catching the moon, creating a sort of sinister expression. "Very bad, make kawatnoj come early."

"Well that is sort of noble after all," I said. He turned to me and smiled, wrapping his arms around my waist, pulling me toward him until my interfering belly touched his.

"Toby come down, Telf rub feet?"

"That sounds better anyway," I agreed.

Telf ran around, fluffing up grass and down and making a soft bed for me to recline in. I actually found it sort of uncomfortable, but it did take the pressure off of my back and hips, and I sighed in relief once he started slathering fire-warmed mud over my feet with one hand.

"Toby feel good?" He asked once he'd masked my feet, turned me on my side, and started rubbing my back.

"You know the answer to that," I moaned. "Never stop doing this."

He kept rubbing but seemed distracted. I craned my neck to look up at him, and his eyes were crinkled in worry. "What is it, Telf?" I asked.

"Kawatnoj not ready, but kawatnoj come soon," he said.

"Yes, we established that."

"Telf need make sure Toby ready for kawatnoj."

I strained and gripped a handful of dried twigs, pulling myself to a sitting position. "How soon, Telf?"

Telf's clean hand was on my belly, a place I often found it, but he reached down so his fingers were right at the intersection of my legs. "Okay?" He asked. I gave a slight nod, and he slid his fingers inside me.

He looked away as he examined, but turned back as soon as he was done. "Not too soon. More than week. Kawatnoj due in two."

I sighed in relief, only then realizing how terrified I was he'd say it was tonight. "Okay. So we have some time."

Telf kept his hand on my belly, investigating, applying pressure at various spots, looking away but looking worried. "Some time," he said. "But kawatnoj come soon. Toby need practice. Telf feel Toby."

Telf scuttled around me, settling behind me like he'd done with Brik. "Lean back," he said, and I felt flutters of arousal run through me as I settled against his broad chest. He wrapped his arms around me from behind and pressed his hands against my burgeoning flanks.

"When kawatnoj come, Toby feel very hurt, here," he said, running his fingertips forwards from my hips toward my anterior. "Telf do this." He flattened his hands against my hips, curling his fingers under the dome of my belly. Then he gave a slight simultaneous push. I grunted from the pressure, but gave no other reaction, so Telf said "hmm" and readjusted his hands. He pressed again. Now, I sighed and gasped, the sensation was something like sexual pleasure, stretching, and a relief of congestion all at once.

"Make Toby feel good?" He asked. I moaned out a long "mm-hmm," reaching up to caress his face.

I relaxed against him as he repositioned his hands and did it again, sending another warm, pleasurable pulse through my pelvis. He continued for a while, loosening my muscles, turning the infant inside me, long enough for me to lose track of my worry and turn to jelly in his arms.

"Telf do that when kawatnoj come. Make Toby hurt less." He said, leaning forward and kissing me from behind.

"How can you keep surprising me?" I sighed, turning around to see in his eyes. He smiled.

"Need other things," he said. "More people. When kawatnoj come, who Toby want here?"

"I think my mother would kill me if she couldn't be here," I sighed. "And…I…well, I can't think of anyone else."

"Toby sure?"

"Is she enough?"

"Two good for have kawatnoj," Telf said diplomatically. "Three better."

"Dude, maybe Dude could be here."

"Dude too young."

"Oh, well…I don't…"

"Maybe Cassie changer could—"

"No, no. No. Maybe Brik, she just had a kawatnoj, she would know—"

"Two good, Toby. Telf and Ket. Telf and Ket help Toby have kawatnoj." He kissed me again.

"Two weeks?" I asked, a little desperately.

"Maybe. Telf never good to guess."

I laid there, slumped in his arms, thinking too hard about the future. "Telf, I'm scared."

"Telf is too."

"How badly will it hurt?"

"Hurt bad, but worth it. Toby see before, knows how much hurt."

"I know. I just never…I don't know, before Dude came I never really thought about it from that perspective."

Telf was quiet for a long time, then chuckled. "Toby Hamee so different," Telf said. "When fight Yeerks, not scared. But scared of have kawatnoj. Scared of what all kalashi do. So, so different."

A week and a half later, and barely even able to walk myself there, I went to base camp and told the humans I would be starting my maternity leave.

"Surprised you stayed as long as you did," Brenda said. "When I had my kids, I was out of there at 28 weeks."

"I hate to miss any of it," I said.

"That'll change," she replied. "Take as much time as you need, Toby."

So I spent a couple of days alone with Telf, in our tree. My mother came to visit me frequently, as did Dude, and a few others I'd permitted entrance into our home. I'd like to say that it was a very relaxed time, that Telf and I lay together and whispered sweet nothings and fell even more deeply in love than we already were, but I was restless. I had a few books that I hadn't read, some favorites I didn't mind rereading, but that only got me so far. My due date approached and passed. Mother came more often and stayed longer, the entire hearth was teeming with people whispering to each other and staring up our tree for some sign that it was time.

I was miserable. Still aching with echoes of the stress I had put my body through for six months, just wanting the thing out of me so I could reclaim my prior form and stamina, I could do nothing but lay there. Telf did what he could, finding the ripest bark, the coolest, freshest water, running around even more frantically than he had been, making me even more nervous. I knew even then how upset he was, how anxious, and I knew he was trying to hide it from me, but what could I do? I was pinned under a more-than-fully grown Hork-Bajir newborn and all I could do was wait.

I was lying in our sleeping area in the middle of June, following the creature rolling inside of me with a claw, when Telf sat down at my feet, lifted them up, laid them in his lap, and started to rub.

"Not now, I'm not in the mood," I snapped, continuing to trace my huge belly. All the same, I closed my eyes in relaxation as Telf's hands worked. He started at my toes and slowly crept upward, working his way down my calves, toward my thighs.

"Telf, what are you doing?" I whispered a few minutes later.

My left thigh was in his hands, and he was leaned over me, sort of propped up by my belly. "Telf just think today, Toby. Could be last day without kawatnoj."

"I sure hope so," I grumbled. Telf smiled, fingers creeping higher.

"Telf want Toby one more time with no kawatnoj. Not be quiet, not be careful. Be Telf and Toby like Telf and Toby are now."

Thick pregnancy hormones were begging me to acquiesce to him, I could feel the pressure of his hips against mine, but his eyes, even crinkled and cataracted, were terrible liars.

"You're seducing me so you can induce me, aren't you?" Telf's wicked smile faltered.

"Toby need to move, stretch. Can't lay in tree all day." He leaned forward and grabbed me by the forearms, pulling me in a standing position. My back already whined in protest. Then he leaned forward and kissed me. I pulled back at first, embarrassed, insecure, but he pushed farther, purring and stroking, and my desire for him beat out my desire to protect my ego.

"All right," I gasped. "Let's do it before I come to my senses."

"Toby follow Telf," He said, climbing a few feet up one of the trunks that supported our home. He performed his patented move, staking his knee blades into the smoothed wood, holding his hand down to pull me up.

I shook my head, holding my belly protectively, embarrassed, afraid of looking ungraceful, afraid of not fitting. "I don't know," I said.

"Toby sit," he responded.

"Telf, I've gained at least a hundred pounds since the last time we did this," I said.

"Toby sit." I sighed and reached up. I held his hand tight as he pulled and I shuffled. He grabbed my other arm and heaved. My toes slipped on the bark as I climbed, and even though I had broken out into a sweat I knew he was doing most of the work. He had to pull me about three feet above him, resisting the urge to strain his voice, so I could swing a leg over him despite the interference. I slid down, facing him, pressed up against the back of the tree, my stomach so huge that it pushed into his. I squirmed, feeling unattractive and inadequate. Telf watched me, his hands pressed against the side of my belly, giving a knowing smile.

"Toby Hamee never more beautiful," he said, rubbing his cheek against mine, interlacing our head blades. "Toby Hamee make kawatnoj. Make free kawatnoj. Nothing more beautiful."

I leaned back, staring off into the distance as his hands continued to rove, his kiss deepened, trying to give into the intimacy, but feeling disconnected and insecure. Telf pulled back and looked at me.

"Toby not believe Telf?"

I sighed. "I do. I just don't feel it."

Telf smiled sympathetically. "Let Telf make Toby feel," he said, embracing me as tightly as he could, running his hands down my back, forward to my knees, up to the orb between us.

The child rolled when Telf pressed against it, and I put my hands over his.

"He knows when you touch me," I whispered to him. "He already knows when it's you."

Telf hee-hawed and smiled mischievously. He stroked me for a second, then suddenly grabbed me under the thighs and yanked me forward, thrusting my belly skyward and making us crash in a delightfully rough way. I screeched with sensation as he slid smoothly inside, throwing my arms behind my head, groaning and laughing, grabbing the smooth limb hard, shutting my eyes tight to focus, distracted from everything else.

"Toby not think," Telf said as he began to thrust into me deeply, and I had no idea how he achieved such range of motion beneath my weight, but I begged him for more regardless. His breathing became heavy as he labored and my mind wandered to days gone by, when the war threatened our lives, when I was young and uncertain and in love, when I half convinced myself this day would never come.

Telf gave me one of the most intense climaxes of my life, one so overwhelming that I flung my arms around him and stabbed him in the shoulder with my wrist blade. He cried out in pain but covered it with a gentle hee-haw. He leaned forward, pressing his beak to my ear, whispering a message so private that even the seclusion of our tree wasn't enough to ensure its secrecy.

"Telf love Toby so much, so happy for kawatnoj, for Toby have kawatnoj. Telf so happy, forever. Telf happy forever."

"Forever," I confirmed.

We sat in deeply affectionate silence for about twenty minutes, until Telf finally grunted in discomfort and helped me off of him. He brought me back to our sleeping nook, laid me down, and settled with me. We slept back to front, like we usually did, but that night he slept with his hand tucked between my legs.

It was almost morning when it happened. I'd actually slept more soundly than I had in months, but I awoke sort of stiltedly, in stages. I was aware of the pain at first, but didn't acknowledge it with consciousness until I felt Telf stir beside me. When I opened my eyes, he was smiling down at me, holding up his hand which was covered in a pungent, purplish gel-like substance.

"What is that?" I moaned.

"Toby calm," he whispered. The smell of ammonia filled the tiny space of our tree, and I almost gagged from my own secretion. "Toby wait here, Telf go wake Ket, Telf be back."

"It's time?" I asked stupidly. Telf hee-hawed.

"Toby be happy," he said, pressing his clean hand to my belly. "Telf be back, Toby not worry, yes?"

My bottom lip quivered. "I don't want you to go," I said.

"Telf know. Toby be brave, like go to Yeerk Pool. Not many kalashi do that."

I smiled a little. "Don't dawdle, okay?"

"Telf be back."

I had my first contraction while he was gone, surprised by the intensity, quickly learning I wouldn't be able to navigate the task ahead with my usual disaffectedness and composure. I gripped a handful of bedding and twigs tightly in my hands and let out the quietest cry I could, and as soon as it began to pass, Mother came into the tree.

"Finally, Toby Hamee," she crooned, sitting me up and embracing me. "Take so long!"

"Sorry I kept you waiting," I grunted and smiled. "Where's Telf?"

"Telf coming!" I heard from somewhere below our tree. My mother sat behind me and let me sink into her, humming and suppressing giggles, rubbing my back with one hand, gripping my hand hard with her other.

I grunted as an echo of the contraction passed through me. "Ket know, Toby," she whispered. "Ket know."

Telf returned about five minutes later, somehow carrying a pot of hot water, a number of rags, towels, and four different-sized drinking jugs all strung together, sloshing water. He laid everything out slowly, methodically, standing apart for a moment, stretching and breathing deeply. He covered his face with his hands, holding a deep breath, and I felt panic surge through me. But then he turned to me, crouched to his knees, smiled comfortingly, and started examining me.

"Toby hurt bad yet?" He asked, rubbing the sides of my thighs.

"A little bit," I said. Another contraction started to crackle through me, and I winced and held my breath, gripping my mother's arm.

"No, Toby breathe," Telf said, continuing to rub. "Fill all the way here with air," he said, pressing his hand to the base of my belly. I tried, opening my lungs, but a pathetic whimper interfered. "Good," he said. I shut my eyes tight and tried again. "Good, Toby. That Toby's job now, Toby breathe."

That carried me for a couple of hours, as Telf loosened the muscles with rags soaked in hot water, with stones heated by a fire bringing warmth to our tree from just below, as Mother sat behind me and whispered comforts only comforting because we'd shared them for years, as Telf designed a rotating system of two pots to ensure the water was as hot as possible. He was stoking the fire, finding dry twigs and grass to make it big, and my mother cradled me while I whined through another contraction.

"Toby Hamee born very different," she said, gripping my hand. "Only Ket and Jara there, not so many people."

I swallowed hard as the pain began to subside. "Tell me about it, Mother." She lifted one of the jugs to my mouth and I drank deeply as she began.

"Toby was very small kawatnoj, but still very hard to make born. Make Ket hurt very long time."

I waited for her to continue, but sighed when I recognized the usual Hork-Bajir brevity and ambiguity. She continued to stroke my fingers with hers.

"I apologize for making you feel this way," I said. "I never knew it would be like this."

"Toby not sorry," Mother laughed. "Toby best thing come from Ket and Jara. Best thing come to all Hork-Bajir."

The contraction completely ended and I slumped in relief. Mother hummed her lullaby to me.

"When did you know I was different?" I asked. "Just in case, you know..."

"Toby only two days. Jara give bark too big. Ket say, 'Jara Hamee, Toby not eat that!' Ket try to take from Toby, but Toby stabbed bark through knee blade, pulled. Cut so small. Ket not learn do that until free. Toby knew right away. Jara say, 'look, Ket Halpek. Toby different, just like Dak Hamee.' Jara tell story to Ket many times. Jara's favorite story. Toby just like Dak Hamee."

I stiffened in fear. Something so simple, so mundane to me could give me away. Even something as insignificant as that set me apart from my parents. I was so scared how little I could relate to my child, how alienated from me he would become.

I got up between contractions, walked around, but always collapsed back to my mother when they started up again. Every once in a while I looked down to see an audience beneath my tree, crouched by the fire. They'd always scatter and look away in embarrassment when I caught them, but there were a few more every time.

I tried to be strong for them. I tried not to scream, to keep the pain out of my voice, but within a few more hours it reached the point that I couldn't control it anymore. When it changed from the severe but vague cramping feeling to the precise stabbing sensation, I had to voice it. Moans and whimpers at first that devolved into cries and yelps. That's when Telf decided to take my mother's position behind me.

"Toby move very fast," he said. "Kawatnoj come soon."

"I'm still not ready," I sobbed through a contraction that pushed past prior thresholds as his hands dammed and siphoned away the multitudes of pain, his fingers pressing undulating, masterful patterns into my flesh. "Make it stop, I don't know how."

"Shh, Toby not think," he whispered as he netted and redirected another surge. "Toby not think now. Toby just breathe."

Once the contraction ended, Mother knelt beside Telf and whispered, but the pretense only annoyed me since she knew I could hear and understand.

"Toby feel hurt many times in short time," she said. "Start soon?"

Telf reached down, moving his hands over the entire surface of my belly. "Not soon," he said.

"When?" I whined.

"Telf say. Toby breathe."

The windows between my contractions became narrower and narrower, and I was just as certain with each one that I couldn't survive another. I had to get up, rove around, falter and stumble just to keep my mind off the pain and squirm through the trauma, which Telf encouraged, following me, holding and supporting me, whispering wordless encouragements, which helped even when he could do nothing to ameliorate the pain. All the same, with every word of encouragement I could hear the edge to his voice sharpen, I could hear the urgency and fear unmasked.

Hours more passed, and getting up to squirm away the pain became too much work. My breathing was labored, sweat poured out of me faster than Telf could pour water back in. I was lying on my side, panting as he tried to force some more into me, when I finally grabbed him by the wrist.

"Telf," I gasped, "what's wrong with me?"

"Toby just breathe."

"Stop saying that!" I shouted which encouraged the pain to reach up and bite me. I shrieked and squirmed and Telf leaned down to stroke and hush it away.

Hours more crawled by and nothing improved. My mother grew nervous and Telf's hands began to shake when he touched me. My screams grew surer, longer. It was late evening and I blacked out a couple of times from the pain, waking with my mother leaning over me, shaking my shoulders. Telf pulled her off and whispered to her sharply a few meters away, but I was too affected to eavesdrop. They shouted a little, but Mother looked at me once more, covering her mouth with both hands, and descended the tree. Telf came over and took my hand, making soothing yet wordless sounds. I let him attempt to comfort me for a few moments, then I turned to glare at him.

"You haven't…" I gasped, gritting my teeth, "answered my question."

He frowned, wringing his hands nervously. "So Telf's fault," he said. "Toby so hurt because of Telf."

"So something is wrong!" I cried, punctuating it with a groan. I threw myself forward in an attempt to reign it in, and Telf knelt forward and caught me, holding me tight as the unbearable pain dissolved every shred of self-control and dignity I had.

He sighed. "Toby not so different from Telf other kalashi," he started, embracing me and stroking my back, "but also very different. Other kalashi think this normal. Think pain normal. Toby see free kalashi. Know this different."

I seized forward, overcome with an urge to push. Telf pushed me back down. "Not yet, Toby Hamee."

"When?" I cried, gasping for air, sweating. "What's wrong?"

"Kawatnoj not ready."

"Stop being cryptic!" I yelled.

He pulled away and sat beside me, saying "Toby look at Telf." Then he put his hands together, the tips of his thumbs and forefingers touching, flaring his hands upward so they made a sort of bowl with an open triangle in the middle. "This Toby," he said. He leaned forward and touched my hips. "Toby here."

"My pelvis?" I asked.

"Yes. This Toby." He made the gesture again and thrust it forward, sort of like a punctuation. "This kawatnoj." He took one hand and folded it down, the kind of thing humans put in sock puppets.

"His head," I clarified, turning away as another contraction ripped through me. Telf took my hand and shushed me, wiped away sweat, kneaded the muscles in my back, nursing me through it, pausing the lesson. When it passed, he turned me to face him.

"Kawatnoj should come through Toby like this," he said, making the pelvis shape again, reforming his right hand, and pushing the sock puppet snout-first through the pelvis. "Toby's kawatnoj like this," he said. He turned the sock puppet sideways so the snout was pointed towards the left. "Kawatnoj stuck."

I seized forward again in expectation of an oncoming contraction but sobbed now in guilt and remorse.

"This is my fault," I wept. "I did this."

"No, Toby," he said, grabbing me by the shoulders and giving a little shake. "Telf's fault. Telf knew."

"Why did it happen to Yeerks and not free Hork-Bajir?"

"Toby not think, just—"

"I am breathing!" I screamed, throwing myself to the floor and writhing through the pain. "Tell me why, Telf!"

Mother, having heard my shouting, returned from Telf's exile and sprawled forward, grabbing my hand, crawling behind me to hold me. "Telf Getrin do something!" She cried. She held my hand and I squeezed hard, diffusing the pain through her. She frowned and stroked and shushed me, and Telf just sat beside me.

"Happen to Yeerks because Yeerks stay underground," he said. "Hork-Bajir need stay in trees."

I froze.

"You liar, this is my fault," I sobbed. "I did do this. Why didn't you tell me why? Why didn't you make me come with you?"

"Telf's fault," he confirmed. "Telf knew. Telf should make Toby stay in tree. Telf should try harder."

But he had. Every minute of my pregnancy he'd been tugging at me, trying to take me home, to be where I belonged, and I'd refused him. I'd mocked him to his face, in front of the humans. I was so desperate to be accepted as one of them under the pretense of working for my people, who, for the most part, were perfectly happy without my interference, that I'd complicated the birth of my child, and he might not even survive. I might not. Telf was taking responsibility for something I'd very consciously and deliberately decided.

This was not his fault.

"You have to say that," I said, and I really was sobbing now, bombarded with so many conclusions and consequences now that I knew the truth. "I can't do it all. I can't lead and mother. It's not physically possible. This was folly since the beginning. This was never meant—" and I screamed as my body tried again to expel the square peg through the circle hole, and Telf shushed and comforted and denied, but there was nothing he could say. He'd confirmed it. My role as seer made it impossible for me to do well for my children. I'd failed my offspring before they'd even been born.

"Telf Getrin, please," my mother begged, supporting my slumping, heavy, defeated form from behind. "Help Toby Hamee." Telf looked at her.

"Toby Hamee is mother," he said, moving towards my front, lifting my legs despite my whimpering protests and placing them over his hips, sitting in between. "Because Toby Hamee is leader. So many the same thing," he said. "Ket hold Toby, do anything for Toby, like Toby do for people, because Ket is Toby's mother." He put his hand on the warm, swollen place between my legs, the thing overprepared and throbbing in pain. "Even let Telf do this."

And he started to rub.

It was instantaneous. I moaned in relief, melting in my mother's arms, clutching her right arm loosely in my hands. Mother clucked indignantly, but leaned forward and kissed me, gripping me tightly.

"Ket love Toby like Telf love Toby," he continued, applying perfect pressure, randomly changing his range, his pace, until he settled into a rhythm that made my hips thrust along with him, turning all the coiled up, explosive pain into pleasure of the same magnitude. "Ket do anything for Toby, even let Telf do this Toby when Ket here."

"You're embarrassing her," I sighed, biting my lower lip. "You should stop."

"Should Telf stop, Ket Halpek?" He said lowly.

Mother was quiet for a while as I whimpered and moaned, holding me as I gripped her right arm tighter for anchorage. "Telf help Toby," she conceded.

"No," I said. "No, this is improper. This isn't—" I let out a high-pitched whimper "—dignified."

"Jara Hamee do for Ket when Ket have Toby," Telf assured.

"Jara Hamee did not," my mother grumbled.

Telf was slow in his application, extending the length of my relief, before finally bringing me to a subdued, calming orgasm. I cried out again, not embarrassed, because the only people who knew that cry was any different from the others were in the tree with me. He leaned forward and kissed me as I loosened my hold of my mother, and for that half hour or so, I was calm. Smiling, even. Relieved enough from the pain to take a short nap, which let Telf and Mother recharge as much as me.

Of course, the reprieve was temporary, and only the intermission before the final act.

I don't have many specific memories of those last few hours. I remember images, mostly. That pale look of terror on my mother's face, accented by the graying light of dawn. Telf pacing back and forth, rubbing his hands together, lost in thought, in guilt and uncertainty. I remember that the pain was terrible, but trying to recall specific sensations, draw accurate parallels is difficult. Pain like that is always unbearable in the present, but in hindsight it is only abstract.

That is not to say I did not suffer. That is not to say that experience did not cause lasting consequences. To this day I have not entirely recovered. I don't think I ever will.

I don't remember much specifically until the very end. I remember the devolution into hopelessness, I remember very well that feeling of complete and utter defeat, more potent and poignant than anything I'd felt before, even moreso than sitting bound and planless in Visser One's office. I remember not thinking but knowing that I was going to die, that there was no way to recover from being so entirely sapped of energy, that it had happened to people better than me. I remember acknowledging it as one of the first situations in my life I could not think my way out of. I was no better than normal here.

I remember telling Telf, I remember the specific words: "Just cut him out of me. I've lived enough. Give my life to him." So few periods of lucidity in those hours but they were among the sharpest of my life.

That shook Telf. The recognition that his prided expertise might not be enough to save both his son and kalashi. He'd been waiting up till then. Biding his time, hoping my own contractions would naturally force the child into the correct position. But when I said that he took my hand.

"Telf not lose Toby," he vowed. "Telf help Toby."

My mother, who hadn't moved or adjusted her uncomfortable position in hours, lending all her strength to me, gripped my hand tightly. She nodded to Telf who moved carefully to my front, inserted two fingers into my dilated entrance, and pressed his hand hard against the bottom of my abdomen. I whimpered in pain, even his light touch was unbearable, but making sounds to express it took so much energy.

"When Telf say three, okay Toby?"

I sobbed in assent, in protest, in indecision.

"One…"

Mother gripped my hand and shushed me.

"Two…"

I looked overhead, through Telf's canopy. Saw the crescent moon fading into morning light, dying to bring in something brighter and more comforting into life.

"Three."

With his enveloped hand, he thrust his fingers to the right, creating a sort of vacuum. And with his hand on my stomach, he pushed down.

I screamed. I screamed louder than any self-indulgent scream I'd emitted that night. I screamed so loud that even the humans at base camp heard me.

They never told me that they had, of course. But they didn't need to.

I was reinvigorated with some primal survival instinct, aversion to pain, or perhaps some deep reservoir of love, of need to see my son born. Mother supported me as I groaned and screamed, and Telf muttered encouragements that perhaps weren't meant to be heard, only meant to fill some strange void that required them. I was delirious from the pain but so desperate for it to be over. He said, "Toby rest, okay Toby to rest," but I couldn't. I couldn't resist the urge to commit every last shred of my life force to the act, and I pushed with more vigor and force than I think I'll ever be able to replicate. I pushed not as though my life depended on it, but having already accepted that it would kill me.

Obviously it didn't, but I was so certain it would. I pushed and strained, so sure I was dead, I surrendered, I told Telf I'd given up. I laid back, certain that I'd feel his wrist blade cut through me, certain that my strength alone could not give life to my child. But Telf had scattered off somewhere, crouched down, working feverishly at something that seemed so insignificant, so inconsequential. Mother stretched to see.

"Toby Hamee," she whispered. "Look."

Telf turned to look at me, his eyes crinkled in the widest, most honest smile he'd ever given me. It was the pinnacle of his trials, the culmination of his hope and struggle. It confused me, seeing him so happy. I was still awaiting my death sentence. Telf stood up, and in his hands was my son.

"Oh, he's not moving," I whispered so softly that I didn't even hear myself.

"Okay, Toby," Telf said. He crouched down next to me and carefully handed me the child, positioned my arms so I could hold him. "Kawatnoj is okay."

I don't know what happened then. Something in a place so deep I didn't even recognize it changed forever, some invisible knife stabbed and twisted into my heart. I felt his chest rise and fall against mine, I felt him shiver in the cruel morning air, I felt the vibrations of a quiet whine against me, I felt him clutch me. He clutched tighter, he curled into me. Already claiming allegiance, trust. Already I was his fortress.

That feeling alone saved me from the brink.

"He's alive," I whispered just a little more loudly.

Telf's hand was on my shoulder, and my mother's chin rested on the other, all of us staring at my son but all I remember was him turning his tiny, problematic head up and looking at me. And that clinched it.

That clinched my unmitigated love. And that made the unforgivable choice.

"I can't," I whimpered to Telf. He turned his gaze to me, looked confused.

"Can't?" He asked.

"I can't do this. I can't bond with him like this. I won't be here the way—I won't—I can't, Telf. It can't be me."

"What Toby saying?"

"I'm not his mother," I said, tears welling and spilling from my eyes though my voice remained steadfast. "He's not mine, Telf, he's yours. I don't want him trusting me like this. I can't disappoint him. You have to be his mother. These moments are yours."

I thrust the infant back at Telf who shook his head. "No, Toby, Telf can't—"

"Yes you can! This is all you wanted, Telf!"

"All Toby want!"

"It is," I said. "This is all I want, but I can't have it like you do. I am still seer. I am still Governor. I'm still the human diplomat. I won't be here like you will. I want him growing up loving you more than me."

Telf's smile had vanished, but he nodded. He took the child from me as my mother cried and embraced me, as I curled into her like the infant had curled into me.

Telf stared hard at him, but I couldn't watch. They bonded as I stared off into space, already hating myself for the choice, already heartbroken.

Some time later, Telf, not brilliant by any means but still perceptive enough to understand the weight of my decision, the impact it had on me, and the fact that it was not as terminal as it felt, sat beside me and spoke quietly, forgivingly.

"Kawatnoj need name, Toby," he said.

"Jara," I whispered. "Name him Jara Getrin."

"Jara Getrin," Telf whispered, settling in beside me, carefully laying our son between us.

We slept through that day, and most of the following night. Jara woke frequently to feed from me, which I indulged in a sort of alienated, delirious stupor. My mother tended to Jara when he got fussy, but by the following morning, Telf awoke and had expectations.

"Toby should go speak people, speak humans," he said, putting a hand on my waist. "Toby and Telf show Jara trees, show Jara people."

I didn't respond.

He didn't push the matter, and until noon, he looked after Jara, already teaching the sapient, responsive creature language, about the bark of the trees in the park. I listened, of course, but didn't interact. I didn't feel like doing much of anything.

He put Jara down for a nap and focused again on me. "Toby Hamee okay?"

I didn't respond.

I wasn't okay, but he already knew that. He'd bloodied a number of terry cloth towels, and had shoved another tight up between my legs, catching the blood from the wounds Jara had inflicted on me. I was in a great deal of physical pain, but he already knew that.

The birth itself was more damaging than what Telf did to me, even though what Telf did hurt more. Telf had been completely averse to the cub coming early, but it turned out a cub coming late could be even more dangerous. He'd already let it go too far when he'd seduced me, trying to prevent this.

Hork-Bajir newborns should be delivered with nothing but the roots of their blades exposed, for much the same reason that elephants and rhinoceroses are born without tusks. But Hork-Bajir need their blades sooner than those creatures. A Hork-Bajir without blades is like a bird without wings; we're defined by them. We need them to survive. Hork-Bajir mothers are given a very narrow margin of error for delivering fully-developed cubs before their blades start growing in. I'd always wondered what had possessed our makers to give us accelerated regeneration rates, which seemed to be the clinching variable in making us such effective killers. It wasn't until then that I realized why they did.

The Hork-Bajir race wouldn't have lasted two generations without them. I was alive even though delivering my son should have killed me.

It was strange, but I found myself wondering what would have happened if he had. What would be different? What would be worse? I'd freed an entire colony of Hork-Bajir and maintained their liberty throughout a transition from Yeerk oppression to human oppression, and I couldn't even hold my son after he was born.

No, I was most definitely not okay.

It was a number of things, looking in retrospect. Years later, when the humans started analyzing that period in history, I was sure they'd call it postpartum depression, but they've shown admirable restraint in diagnosing Hork-Bajir with human physical and psychological maladies. All the same, I don't think that particular diagnosis is inept.

My superior intellect has a way of gumming up my thought process rather than streamlining it, and for the first few days, I spent a large amount of time second-guessing my decision to make Telf Jara's primary caregiver. I couldn't forgive myself for abandoning my child so soon after his birth. I'd convinced myself that it was the most informed, generous decision I could have made, but it didn't feel so. All I could feel was the gaping hole of guilt and loss in my chest that seemed too expansive to be filled by anything. All I knew was that I'd failed as a female, as a Hork-Bajir, as a mother.

But that wasn't all. That was, as the humans say, the straw that broke the camel's back, but certainly not the only straw that mattered.

I'd gotten very good at repressing psychological burdens. Dealing with loss and failure felt like a privilege too pedestrian for me. I'd seen my fair share of traumatic events in the war. Before Jara's birth, I'd kept them all battened down, controlled and conquered. But he'd eaten through every last defense mechanism. He'd changed me too fundamentally to sustain those systems. Everything about me was crumbling.

I felt in some ways responsible for what happened to Tobias immediately following the end of the war, but I saw him so infrequently that I could not even partially convince myself that I was doing anything to help him. He decided to live in Yellowstone, which I took as a clear sign that he needed my companionship, but I had no time to go out and see him, and he was too proud to ever seek me out himself. He was an insubstantial part of my life, but a constant ache in my heart, and I could no longer pretend that I wasn't worried about him, that he wasn't irrevocably damaged.

There was more, of course. Every leaderly decision I had made with even the slightest negative consequence bruised my hearts. The injury that led to Telf's blindness, though I hadn't actually witnessed it, replayed in my head over and over. The results of the attack on the valley weighed heavily on my conscience. The substantial losses my people had suffered through the war all bore down on me, everything felt like my fault. And I let it all compound on top of me, I let it pin me to that corner of our tree, I let the sorrow suffocate me.

Above everything, however, was my father.

It had been over a year since his death, but that was the first time I'd been still long enough to let it impact me. I saw him die. I was there when it happened. It was not climactic or cathartic. I didn't get to say good bye, I didn't hold him as he told me how proud he was, as he assured me how ready he was, how pleased he was with how he'd lived his life. He was standing there one moment, and then he wasn't. Simply vaporized out of existence by one of the last shots fired.

It was the kind of death that takes so long to even acknowledge that by the time you're ready to grieve it, you convince yourself that you've already moved on. I knew I could afford no such luxury either way.

I told Mother and Dude myself.

After the battle, when I ascended their tree both determined and alone, she clutched him close, and when I saw that look of precarious worry and hope on her face, I knew I'd hate myself for having to shatter it. I did hate myself. I didn't say anything, just shook my head and opened my arms, and they collapsed into me, wailing away their grief in such a shameless, honest way that I felt compelled not to. I punished myself by repressing my own. They cried for hours, and I held them as they did, but I didn't indulge myself. I couldn't. I sat steely and impassive as they wept into my armpits, as they wrapped their arms around me so strongly that I had to resist the urge to grunt. I did nothing. It would take too much time to grieve him properly, and time was a resource I didn't have in those first days after the war.

So I didn't. I didn't even put it off, I just chose not to.

But now, having delivered my own child, understanding from a different perspective the choices my father made, the risks he took just to ensure that I could be born, I couldn't deny it anymore. And now I hated myself for refusing to mourn him properly, for dishonoring his memory. All he'd done for me and I couldn't even cry for him. Naming my firstborn after him was a cheap gesture. Jara's name is the least of what I would have traded for my father to see his first grandson, born free.

Telf was worried by the second night. I hadn't eaten and I was, as I'd discovered, vigorously lactating. I'd been so naïve to assume that Hork-Bajir were made without a way to nourish their young. Even though Jara had fed from me already, I felt too tired and hopeless to continue offering it to him. Two large walnut-sized glands at the back of my throat swelled, pulsed, and ached. Telf tried to sit me up, tried to hold Jara so he could feed from me, but he was too small and by that point I was too uncooperative. Telf tried to hold my mouth open on the ground so Jara could delve inside, but the angle was too shallow and I wouldn't move. Finally Telf fed from me himself, filling his mouth with that horrible, cloying secretion, letting Jara feed from him instead.

It hurt. Even after normal milk replaced the thick colostrum, my throat was horribly sore. I couldn't swallow anything, so I just kept letting it drool out of my mouth like I was braindead. It crusted on my lips, oxidized in my mouth, made my breath taste and smell rancid. I couldn't chew for the aggravation it caused my throat. I didn't eat. And I didn't want to anyway.

Days passed. Jara only knew me as a stinking, unmoving piece of furniture in his tree. Telf cared for him and worried for me, but was so overwhelmed by his responsibilities that his attention was pointed more towards our son. I didn't blame him, and I wouldn't have had him choose differently. I don't think there was anything he could have done for me anyway.

I was empty. Sad is not how I would describe my condition, nor would I say I was hurt. I just felt entirely spent, like every bit of fire and passion had been sapped away. It wasn't Jara's fault, it wasn't the needs of my people, it wasn't any one thing in particular. I just didn't feel like anything anymore, and the only way to cope was to do nothing.

That did not mean, of course, that nothing would happen to me.

It was extremely late at night or extremely early in the morning. I was lying next to Telf, who had Jara wrapped in his arms, purring soundly, but was facing the other way. I shifted a little to work out a cramp in my abdomen when I heard someone scaling our tree. I wasn't surprised or nervous. It was a common enough occurrence to ignore entirely.

Besides, due to sleeplessness and malnutrition, my brain wasn't working quite as well as it usually did. I didn't put the fact that I had a visitor together with the fact that it was a time no visitor should call until he was standing before me. Silhouetted by the moon, but an unmistakable silhouette nonetheless.

My father.

Like he had never left.

I turned my head towards him a little bit. He stood tall and proud, filled with that quiet, humble dignity he had, like he'd just laugh if you'd rightfully suggest he was the savior of the Hork-Bajir people. Yet somehow seeing him standing there, what I thought was my greatest desire granted, froze me, shut me down. My throat clenched shut, I stopped breathing. I could only stare at the apparition, begging silently that it wasn't real, waiting to wake up from this nightmare.

"Toby?" He asked.

Run, I thought to myself. I tried to move, but my body had stiffened, paralyzed with fear. Then I remembered Jara, my Jara, my son, and tried to turn to shield him from whatever this ghastly abomination was, but I still couldn't rip my eyes from the figure, even my maternal instinct wasn't enough to override the sheer terror coursing through me. I could only stare at him, approaching, holding his hand out toward me. I managed a whine, but it seemed muted by some supernatural force.

"Toby, are you all right?" He asked.

I couldn't think. I couldn't resist him, I couldn't banish him, I knew no Hork-Bajir prayers or exorcisms, and I'd felt no inclination until that moment to believe in them. All I could do was lay there, stiff with terror, watching him approach, waiting for my sentence.

"Jara Hamee?"

I glanced back at Telf, who was awake, somehow, twisting his neck around, blinking away sleep.

"What?" My father asked. And he paused, looked down at himself, ran his hands over his chest. "Oh no. Oh, I didn't realize. Toby, I'm so sorry, I totally forgot."

A vague curiosity was sponging up the terror, but I was still too frozen to respond. Telf had sat up, leaving Jara asleep, leaned over me. "Toby okay?" He asked.

(So sorry. I can't believe I forgot...I didn't even think! God, I can't believe I did that. I am so sorry, Toby.)

He was changing. Diminishing. Burning back to the dust from whence he'd emerged.

"Wait," I rasped out.

(It's Cassie, Toby. It's me. I'm so sorry.) She finished the transformation to human, left in nothing but her dark morphing outfit. "We were all just so worried, I wanted to help. I wanted to see if I could help."

I coughed out a sob.

"But I've only made it worse, haven't I?" She asked, leaning forward and taking my hand. "God, I am so, so sorry Toby."

"Cassie changer," Telf whispered. "Changed to Jara Hamee."

"Please go," I said.

"I'll tell them you're still hurt. I'll say not to bother you, they'll listen to me. I'll...oh, Toby, I'm so sorry."

"Please just leave," I whispered, finally feeling the competing timpanis in my chest, feeling the white heat bleeding from the oven of my grief she'd thrown open. I wanted to curl into a ball and cry but I still couldn't move.

"I'm so sorry," she said, descending the terrific height of our tree in her unsuited human form. "God, Toby, I wish I could take it back."

Telf was propped up by an elbow now, watching her go. "Cassie changer become Jara Hamee," he summarized, proud of himself for figuring it out.

I shielded my eyes with the pit of my elbow and tried to breathe again. I didn't sleep for the rest of the day.

Mother came by the next morning to see that I hadn't moved and wept for me. She took my head in her lap and chewed bark for me, tried to get me to swallow, but I didn't want to. A part of me felt like I should tell her what had happened, but I knew I would only scare her, that I couldn't make her understand, and that made my hearts ache even more. She rocked back and forth holding me in her arms, cried, and hummed that simple melody she used to sing to get me to sleep when I was a child. Some deep, hidden part of me wanted to respond, wanted to be comforted, but I couldn't. So I laid there as she acknowledged defeat.

Days were worse than the nights, when I heard Telf whispering to Jara, as he laughed and squealed when Telf swung him around, when I heard mutters of gossip from beneath our tree. Nights were at least quiet. Telf made sure to include me when he and Jara slept, laying our son between us, but Jara always curled against Telf instead of me. Why wouldn't he? I'd offered him nothing. I'd given him up. Telf was the only one who'd shown any interest in him, so it was only fair that he receive interest.

Mother and Telf did that hissing whisper thing with each other a lot. I was disengaged but not stupid. Surely my people were worried about me, and the humans were probably concerned, questioning my strength as the anchor of my people, questioning my stamina, questioning my motivation. It was the reason Cassie had come to see me, and just because she'd been averted didn't mean that would temper their concern. More trauma to deal with, more stress, more duties. Maybe more of my people had been crucified during my maternity leave.

Every time I felt like I'd made some internal breakthrough, another memory would come and tear it down. Every time I felt like sitting up to hold my son or eat something, I'd think, what's the point? Where is all of this headed? To another war, more oppression. My people would never be free, and I was the greatest fool of all to believe I'd done anything positive for them.

I felt entirely hopeless.

Mother and Telf whisper-hissed with each other one more time, which ended with Mother tucking Jara tightly against her and swinging away. I wanted to protest, but all I could do was follow her with my eyes. Telf turned back to me and sighed. He walked over slowly, sat cross-legged next to me, lifted me gently and pulled me into his lap.

I'd stopped bleeding by that point and felt no more physical pain, but his action made me wince and whine anyway. He sat still with me for a while, my head propped up on his thigh.

"Toby need tree," he said. "Waste away."

I sighed. Telf pulled a big wicker basket close to him and pulled out a strip of bark. He chewed it to a pulp, took out the cud, and pressed it to my lips.

"Stop," I whispered. Telf forced it harder. "Telf, stop," I said, turning my head, weakly grabbing his wrist, wresting it from my face. Telf sighed, and we stayed still in silence for a while as he reformulated his strategy.

"Toby know how Telf get name?" He asked. I couldn't help myself. I sat up a little and turned to look at him.

"What?"

"Telf just think, Toby so smart, why never ask how Hork-Bajir with Yeerks get names?"

I turned my head back around. "I…never thought," I said.

"Telf mother give Telf name," he said.

"How?"

"Toby think kalashi have Yeerk when have kawatnoj," he said. "Toby wrong. Have kawatnoj hurt, Toby know that. Yeerk know that."

"The war is over," I said. Telf pushed the cud against my lips again, but I brushed his hand away.

"All Hork-Bajir have name because kalashi give kawatnoj name before Yeerks go back in," he said. "Telf mother have Telf, scream 'Telf Getrin! Call you Telf Getrin!'"

I didn't respond at first, but then I gasped in a breath. "You remember that?" I asked.

"Telf remember," he said. "All Hork-Bajir remember." He pressed the cud one more time against my lips. I didn't resist him, but didn't take it, either.

"That was only time Telf ever saw mother," he said. "Infested later, when big enough for Yeerk. Kept in dark cage with other kawatnoj until big enough. Ate dry ground up tree wood. Stuck with needles. Arms and legs hurt, grow too fast. No mother. No father. Scared, all time scared."

I could tell it hurt him to remember. He never talked about his past. Whenever I tried to bring it up, he usually just broke something and growled.

"Toby think Toby do bad for Hork-Bajir," he said, stroking my cheek with his finger. "Toby not know how bad things were, how good she make them."

"No," I said. "You can't compare me to what the Yeerks did."

"Why? Toby first person do good for Hork-Bajir since war started," he said. "First person who make better. Toby not perfect. But Toby very, very good."

He continued to stroke my cheek for a few minutes as I digested what he'd told me, analyzed what he was trying to do, decided that his intentions had never been anything but pure and that I should concede to him. "Does he even know I'm his mother?" I asked.

"Jara know. Even better what Jara don't know." He pressed the cud to my lips one more time and I opened my mouth to accept it.

"Ugh, what is this?" I asked, rolling onto an elbow, scraping the bitter, grainy paste off my tongue. "This tastes terrible."

"From basket," Telf said, gesturing.

"What basket?"

"From human changer. Marco. Funny Marco."

Telf put the basket in front of me and I looked inside, seeing a wide selection of bark, most of which I didn't recognize. There was a card attached to the handle, so I sliced the ribbon and read it.

Hey Toby,

Heard about the baby from my publicist. Don't worry, I know you're trying to keep it under wraps, but it's her job to know these things. Congrats. I had no idea what Hork-Bajir give each other when they have babies, but I thought this might do the trick. I have more money than God and I like making my lawyers fill out paperwork, so enjoy the bark of all the forests of the world. Even some from the Amazon. I had to get the president of Brazil's direct permission for that. I think this gift is worth like $75,000. Not that you or I care about such things.

Love, Marco

"Well he didn't change," I sighed. "I'm not hungry."

"Toby need eat," Telf pressed. "Want normal bark?"

"Later," I sighed, turning over. Telf sighed, disappointed that he hadn't got through, but quit bothering me.

I spent one more day in my self-reinforcing stupor. Mother brought Jara back sometime late in the morning, and Telf instantly pulled me up to extract more milk. I cooperated a little bit, but shirked when Telf held Jara up to feed directly from me. Telf kissed me, more patient with my affliction than I'd been with his, and climbed with Jara up to the canopy of our home.

It was that night when something finally changed.

I'd be wrong to say that I was better. I wasn't better, and I wouldn't be for a long time. But in that day I thought a lot about what Telf told me, and why he had. My emptiness came from an expectation of perfection, which was unattainable, and made me ignore the real work I had done for my people. I was worthy if I was perfect, nothing if I wasn't. The two youths killed by humans didn't invalidate the thousands I protected on a daily basis, and the fact that I'd assigned myself to the junior parenting position did not mean I didn't love my son. The Yeerks were a powerful enemy, and the Andalites such an ineffectual ally that they probably did more harm to us than the Yeerks, but through both of their oppression I had come through the other side with a population of free, living Hork-Bajir. No, it was not all because of me. But some of it was.

Enough of it was.

I opened my eyes late at night. I don't think I was sleeping, but I wasn't awake either. I turned to look at Telf and Jara. Telf's head was tucked against his chest, his chin pressed to his breast plate. Jara was draped over him, resting his own chin between Telf's eyes, arm slung around his snout. It made me smile. I wondered if they'd grown exhausted playing some quiet game, or if Jara had simply finished eating and curled up on the spot to sleep, Telf too indulgent even to move him to the platform.

The image itself may have been what convinced me to sit up. For the first time, I felt a strong compulsion to be a part of it.

I reached forward and touched my son who squirmed but did not wake. I smiled. Not a heavy sleeper like his father, but didn't wake at the slightest breeze, either. I wondered what else had averaged out.

I pulled my hand away and saw that Telf's affected eye was staring at me. He was still, afraid of waking Jara, but smiling.

"Can I hold him?" I asked. Telf's eye smiled more. He nudged Jara, who moaned in protest, but blinked and pulled himself up to see why he'd been woken.

Telf scooped Jara into a sitting position and leaned him toward me. Jara looked at me curiously, but reached out with a little encouragement from Telf.

"Hello," I said to him. Jara looked uncertain, glancing back at Telf to make sure I was okay, and Telf kept a hand on him until he was settled in my arms.

"Jara say, 'hi Mama,'" Telf instructed.

"Mmmaah," Jara said. I laughed.

"You got so big," I said, bouncing him a little in my arms. "How long…"

"Five days then five days, Toby." Telf said, holding Jara's foot.

"Oh," I said. I thought back to Dude, how far he'd come in those first ten days. He'd doubled in size, learned to speak. Already had such a solid perception of his world.

"Is he different? Is…is he like me?" I asked cautiously. Telf shook his head.

"Jara very good Hork-Bajir," he said.

Jara slowly relaxed in my arms, pressing his head against my shoulder. I leaned back slowly, trying not to disturb him, but he sat up a little when he smelled my breath.

"Jada ungee," He said, gripping my lips gently with his claws. I smiled.

"Is it all right to feed him now?" I asked through clenched teeth that Jara futilely tried to pry open. Telf smiled.

"Feed kawatnoj when kawatnoj hungry," he answered.

I breathed in deeply through my nose, leaned back some more, and opened my mouth. Within seconds Jara was inside, lapping greedily at the glands at the back of my throat.

I tolerated it when Telf did it, but now that it was Jara I felt that deep relaxation seep into me again. I slumped into my sleeping nook and draped a hand over Jara's back, stroking absentmindedly. He gripped my face hard, holding so tightly I wondered if he thought I would take it from him again. I decided I didn't blame him for thinking that, and let him anchor his wrist blades into my cheeks. He ate for almost half an hour, until his distended stomach pressed warmly into my chest and he curled into a heavy ball and fell asleep.

Telf watched the whole time, sitting apart, letting us bond but ready in case something went wrong. I looked up to him when Jara finally fell asleep, held out a hand inviting him over.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"No, Toby. Not Toby fault."

"I'm glad he had you," I said as he lay beside me. "I love you so much."

And Telf let out a gentle hee-haw, carefully rolling his arm around my shoulder, pressing his other hand against Jara's back. "Telf wait very long time to hear Toby say that."

For that evening, things were perfect. I wasn't cured, and Jara didn't trust me entirely, and Telf was still worried, but for that moment in time, everything was eventually going to be okay.

As usual, however, the humans had to ruin it.

No, that's not fair. It was a combination of things, many of which were my fault, none of which I could foresee causing what they did. If I could redo it…

I am not without regrets. I am not perfect, but I do wish things had turned out differently.

The next morning, the mild stimulus that woke me up was human conversation. Telf was still out cold, lolling backwards with his mouth open, but I strained my neck to peer beneath the platform.

"No, this is totally justified. Stop asking that, we're allowed to check up on her."

"I just mean, if she's still recovering…we can't even climb—"

"Yeah, we'll have to get one of the messengers to go up there, bring her down."

Jara had woken up, propping himself precariously on the bridge of my nose, peering down the side of the tree. "Mmah," he said, gesturing down.

"Yes, I know," I said. "Go wake Father."

"Dah stay seep," Jara said. I smiled a little.

"I know. Just try." Jara crawled over to Telf and burrowed himself beneath his arm, shaking and scratching at his chest. I climbed carefully to my feet, almost stumbling from disorientation. I grabbed a hold of one of the sanded down tree trunks, caught my breath, almost stumbled again.

"Toby need eat," Telf said. I looked back. He had Jara, squealing, wrapped in his arms, but was watching me carefully. "Eat, then go talk humans."

"No, this will only take a minute," I said, regaining myself. I walked toward the edge of the platform and started climbing down.

"Toby—" Telf protested, but I was halfway down the tree.

"Oh, Toby," Dan said, stepping forward, shielding Melody behind him. "You're up."

"What are you doing here?" I demanded.

"We were worried about you!" Melody cried. "Oh God, look at you, what happened?"

"What are you talking about?" I snapped. Dan gestured to me, up and down.

"Have you seen yourself?"

I held my hands out in front of me and scoffed. Then I peered closer.

All the flesh looked deflated, like it had been vacuum-sealed. Veins and bones were geography covered by a thin, translucent atmosphere of skin. The tops and bottoms of my arms were separated by a canyon, my wrist blades were flaking and dry. I touched my abdomen, ran my hands all over my flesh, felt the fragile, depleted muscles beneath. Not that I had stayed in as prime physical condition as I had been when Telf and I were traveling to our tree four times a week, but I would never had guessed I could deteriorate so quickly.

I pressed my hands to my belly, already flattened back to its pre-pregnancy state. I sighed, hating the fact that my body could recover from the birth more quickly than I could.

"I…I've been distracted," I said, looking back up to the humans. I felt a hand on my shoulder, turned to see that Telf had come down with Jara. "What do you want?"

Dan waved me down, sensing I was getting upset. "We just wanted to check up on you. There's a lot of work that needs to be done, and we wanted to see when you thought you'd be back."

"Ugh, men, you're so insensitive," Melody snapped. "We were more worried about you than the work."

"If you're worried, then send one of my people to check up on me. Why did you come here yourselves?"

"We didn't mean to overstep bounds," Dan said.

"But you did," I insisted. "I've made it very clear that humans are restricted from the hearth, yet here you are."

"Toby, we really didn't mean to insult you or break any rules. We were just worried."

"Did Brenda send you?" I asked. Telf had stepped beside me.

"We…no, she…well…"

"She said I could have as long as I needed," I pressed. "And Cassie...It's been less than two weeks. How long is maternity leave for humans?"

Dan and Melody balked, glancing at each other. "We thought it would take less time for you, since, you know…"

"Since I'm not human," I finished for her. "You hold us to different standards than you hold yourselves. It is why you trespass. Why you assume."

Melody stuttered out the beginnings of a few sentences, but Dan hushed her. "Toby, we're all part of a team. We all want what's best for your people. We're all working for you."

"Your people," I repeated. "You fight for equal rights and you still consider us separate. Equal, and yet we are not allowed the privacy you humans demand in your homes."

"What do you want, Toby?" Melody asked.

"I want you to leave. I want you to go back to the cabin and tell everyone that they are guests in our home, and I expect them to behave as such in the future."

"Now, wait just a—"

"Human go!" Telf raged beside me. Jara clung close to him, burying his face in his chest, as Telf stood on his tip toes and flared out his blades. "Toby say human go, so human go!"

I gestured for him to calm down, but he'd unleashed that animal side of him, huffing in air like a bronco, growling deep within his chest, and it certainly wasn't unhelpful. The effect on the humans was immense.

"Now Telf, we don't respond to conflicts with violence or threats anymore, isn't that right?" I said, pressing my hands into his chest, glancing back at the humans. "No, we live in an era of peace now. An era of freedom. Of mutual respect."

"Okay, Toby, Jesus. All you had to do was ask."

"No," I said. "No, that's not all I need to do. Humans are henceforth banned from the hearth, and anywhere half a mile outside of it. A private sanctuary away from prying eyes is not a privilege; I consider it a right, especially if our presence is being used to earn profit. I want us to have our own space. Will you bear witness to this?"

"That sounds like a lot of paperwork," Melody huffed.

"Yeah, Toby. We bear witness. Come on, Melody."

I sighed as I watched them leave. "I'll be back tomorrow," I called. Dan waved his hand at me.

"Are you all right?" I asked Telf. "And you?" I said, stroking Jara's back. He was whimpering against Telf. I breathed in deeply, only now recognizing how dizzy I was, how much my mild exertion had exhausted me.

"Toby Hamee?" I heard from above me. I glanced up to see at least two dozen people hanging in the trees above me. They'd heard everything.

"Take him back up the tree," I said to Telf.

"Telf stay with Toby," Telf said, touching my shoulder again, adjusting Jara against his hip. I wanted to make him go, but my people were shifting, the humans still close enough to hear. I stepped forward cautiously, hoping to end this soon so I could catch up on some sleep.

"Brothers and sisters," I began, stepping forward. I collected my thoughts, put my hands on my temples to gain focus. I breathed and stood straight. "If you ever see a human anywhere near the hearth from here on, I want you to report it directly to me. They're no longer allowed to interfere in this space."

"Toby Hamee have kawatnoj," a voice called out.

"Mother Toby now," another voice said.

"Mother Toby," a few agreed.

"I…yes, I did. He's fine. He's healthy."

"Want see Mother Toby kawatnoj!" Another voice yelled out. "Show kawatnoj!"

Telf stepped forward to unveil Jara, but I stuck out my arm. "Toby, what wrong?" Telf asked.

"I don't want him to…just…" I glanced back up at the dozens of people staring down at me, waiting and gossiping.

"Toby Hamee, people okay," Telf said. "Love Toby Hamee. Love Jara." He smiled and stepped forward, shifting Jara forward so everyone could get a good look at him.

"Good kawatnoj!" A voice from behind me yelled. I spun around, feeling threatened, surrounded by an enemy hidden just out of view.

"Yes. Yes, he is. Yes. He's a very good kawatnoj. Just please tell me if you see humans here. They're not allowed anymore."

"What kawatnoj name?" Another asked. "Good kawatnoj need good name!"

And then I did it. I ruined everything right then.

I reached toward Telf and took Jara in my arms. I wasn't feeling threatened on my behalf—my people were demanding, but I'd learned by then how to handle them. I clutched Jara close to me, terrified of what they'd expect of him since he was my son. I wanted none of that. I wanted Jara to mature as any normal Hork-Bajir youth would. I propped him on my hip and faced the people trickling in from hiding places behind trees, among branches.

"This is Jara Getrin," I said. "And he is not like me. He is not a seer. He's like the rest of you."

Everyone smiled and cooed. I felt relieved after I said that. It seemed like a perfectly benign thing to say.

"Jara Getrin free Hork-Bajir!" A voice cried. "Jara Getrin free!"

"Free!" Everyone started chanting. "Free! Free!"

"Let's go home," I whispered to Telf. He took Jara and followed me up our tree.

It wasn't until that night that I realized how horribly I'd erred. Telf had fallen asleep, and I was gazing down at the hearth, watching the last of the summer fire collapse into embers. I turned back to Jara, who was watching me.

"Time for sleep, little one," I said, settling in next to Telf, sandwiching our son between us. "I love you. Good night."

Jara stared at me for a few seconds. He looked troubled.

"Good dite, Mudder Tody," he said, yawning wide, turning into Telf.

I froze. Realized what I'd done in that one horrible moment, and every moment since then has only reinforced it.

I never should have called him different. I never should have said he wasn't like me. Of course he's like me, he's half me. I should have never separated myself from him, but that's what I'd done. In that one moment, I'd alienated him from me. My action at his birth had been reinforced, and now that he was old enough to understand it, it structured our relationship.

Telf was his father. But I was Mother Toby.

I hate it. I've tried, since then, to bond with him, to earn the kind of trust only shared by parent and child, but he always pulls away. He's ashamed of being afraid or sad, being anything but a good citizen and follower with me. I sneak him bark from ripe trees we're not supposed to harvest and he thinks it's some kind of test. He stiffens when I chastise him for petty childish misbehavior; he swallows back tears and laughter when I'm around. I make him feel uncomfortable. I make him feel stiff and unrelaxed in his own home.

It would be entirely unbearable except for one exception. Only one thing makes him act like my child when I'm around.

Thunderstorms.

He was about six weeks old when I discovered this exception, and it came at an absolutely critical time. My depression had manifested itself as severe headaches that I could barely work through, that were worsened by the humans' artificial lighting. Most moments in a day were spent resisting the ever increasing urge to break down into sobs. When I heard that the weather service had predicted severe thunderstorms that night, I had to leave the cabin to compose myself. How could I deal with another catastrophe of that magnitude?

I didn't tell Jara or Telf. I didn't want to scare them. For Telf, it didn't even matter—once he was asleep, nothing would wake him, least of all torrential rain, high winds, or lightning and thunder. It didn't matter for me, either. I wouldn't sleep. The thunder and lightning had little to do with that. I just didn't sleep much at all anymore.

The rain started early, but Telf and Jara were both asleep by then. I watched the storm growl and grow angry, I watched it whip the forest around, I watched it tear the hearth apart.

I assumed Jara was still asleep, since he was huddled so closely against Telf. I was watching the rain from beneath the canopy, the way it twisted and changed in every strobe of lightning. The wind howled, the boughs moaned and creaked with the weight of their shoots holding water, and our entire domicile shook and swayed in the gusts of wind and rain. None of us were very dry, but moisture isn't something that makes Hork-Bajir as uncomfortable as humans.

I'd seen a couple of bad thunderstorms in the valleys back in California, but that weather was mild compared to this. I sighed as a bolt of lightning illuminated the sky, growing despondent at imagining the clean-up this would require tomorrow.

I felt his hand on my hip before I heard him. He was sobbing. "Mama," he whimpered.

"Oh, Jara. Shh, come here, you're all right." I turned and lifted him, pulled him to my front. He clung deeply to me, driving his stubby wrist and knee blades into my skin, burying his face into my chest. I wrapped my arms tightly around him as he sobbed.

"It's all right," I assured him. "I won't let it hurt you. Shh, my love. It's not going to hurt you. I'm here. Nothing will hurt you as long as I'm here."

And I held him and hummed my mother's lullaby until he fell asleep, and he did so before the rain stopped.

He and I slept well into mid-morning, and when we woke, Telf was already patching up the holes with mud and twigs and reinforcing the canopy from the weather damage it had received.

"So much water and wind," he commented. "Jara get scared?"

"Jara not scare," he said, pulling away from me. "Jara good." He walked over to where Telf had prepared some strips of bark and started gnawing on it. I sat up and sighed, fingering the wounds Jara's terror had inflicted on my chest.

Telf walked over to me. "Toby okay?" He asked. And I smiled at him.

"I'm going to be home for every thunderstorm for as long as I live," I whispered to him.

And I have been.

Well, I might have missed a squall in July last year, but I've done pretty well. I always check weather forecasts before I go on flights to Washington or New York. And I always plan my trips around them. Fortunately, the humans haven't questioned why I plan to go home to intercept weather rather than avoid it.

Even though it kept me from crumbling, it was such an unsatisfactory way to bond with my son. Jara was growing so fast. Too fast. His head blades were up to my thighs, and he was too heavy to carry around all the time, and too proud to be carried. Telf had started teaching him how to swing through the trees. He had friends with whom he played pranks on some of my people, but I let Telf punish him for that. He was a child, I wanted him to be a child, and he couldn't be a child with me telling him he was wrong.

Sometimes I just sat apart, watched him with Telf, because they were so much better together, and if he forgot I was there he often dropped the shield, so I could enjoy him at least remotely. Telf was an even better storyteller than I was, nursing Jara to sleep with chapters out of some epic he made up on the spot, starring a tree shepherd named Bok who was searching for his long-lost family. Once Jara was old enough, we did send him to the school tree, which only had five students (even a year after we'd settled, only a dozen other females had conceived, and Stek was old enough to cut class often), and gave Telf and I late mornings and early afternoons to ourselves.

We didn't use them like we used to. My sex drive had all but collapsed since Jara's birth. Telf expressed frequent interest, and regular frustration, but I usually sighed and slumped until he gave up. I let him mate with me once, and just because the whining sounds he was making annoyed me so much, and though he finished, he seemed disappointed when it was over. He kissed me, said "Toby be happy like before," and I asked him if he would get off of me so I could get back to work.

I was still working with the humans, but most of the immediate and one-time tasks had been accomplished. We had three hard-working lobbyists in Washington who were making good relationships with senators and representatives, all of the treaties and permits had been signed and ratified, and profits from the park were still streaming in at an accelerating rate. We had to start limiting the number of visitors and make a waiting list, which caused black market prices, and some criticism, to skyrocket. Relationships between my people and the parkgoers were great, though I could feel interest decelerating, I could sense us becoming common and mundane. Cassie had decided to hire a wilderness guide to look into expanding the borders of our domain, a former park ranger named Ronnie. Dan and Melody and I had hashed out our conflict. Brenda had profusely apologized for sending them in the first place, despite Cassie's promise to me.

I had talked with Cassie about the incident in my tree. She'd almost broken down, and even though I knew she was genuinely remorseful, I hated how she could always deflect my concerns with her self-indulgent guilt.

"I know your intentions, Cassie, and I appreciated them," I had told her. "But we have to confront the issue that you were so removed from the morph of my father that you only categorized it by his race, not by what individual it represented."

"I know, Toby, I feel so terrible."

"No, Cassie, listen to me. If I acquired you, I would not just consider it a 'human' morph. You would be insulted by that, and you would have every right to be. The fact that you did not consider my father's morph a 'Jara Hamee' morph reveals a significant issue."

"I know."

"Not about you, though. No, Cassie, this is about how humanity regards us. Besides me, are any of the Hork-Bajir individuals to any human outside of the valley? Or are they all just anonymous representatives, parts of some inconceivable, threatening, imminently dangerous whole?"

Cassie sighed, relieved, finally turning her thought to the legislation this would impact, rather than soothing her own guilt.

"It's even a human problem," she said. "It's always easier to sympathize with someone who's more like you. It's easy to brush off thousands of starving people in some country whose name you can barely pronounce, but if your mother gets cancer..."

"How do we fix it?" I asked.

She looked up to me with an expression that revealed her desperation at being unable to solve any problem she came across, even as one of the renowned Animorphs. Even Cassie, with her millions of dollars and ubiquitous fame, could not repair every ill in the world. What little her fame had ultimately earned her.

"I don't know."

It was a problem I knew needed to be addressed eventually, but fortunately, terrorists and malcontents seemed to be foiled for the time being as well. We received the occasional anonymous death threat via e-mail or telephone call, and one had gone to the trouble of sending a letter written with cut-up magazine letters that read "WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE," to which Kyle responded, "yeah, it's only one of the most highly publicized facts in the country," but there had been no more incidents of violence since Gurb and Nevv had been killed. All the same, I felt as though something terrible was about to happen, and I couldn't help but rub my hands together as we held our weekly meeting in the cabin.

"So I can tell we're all kind of bored, since we're only working sixteen-hour days now," Brenda joked. "I have a few ideas of new challenges we can take on if you guys are willing to hear me out."

"As long as I don't have to beg for money to fund them," Dan sighed.

"No, we'll have people coming to us for this, thank God, and the NSF is taking care of funding," Brenda said. "They're calling them 'Extra-Terrestrial Research' grants. We've received applications and précis for academic papers and books since well before the park opened. Professors and academics from all over the world have been begging me to let them come here and study."

"Study what?" I asked.

"You, of course. Anthropologists, economists, sociologists, biologists. Political theorists, even literary geniuses and artists all want to come here and watch you live."

I swallowed hard. As if I wasn't already under enough scrutiny.

"I have piles of this stuff in banker's boxes, Toby. I think we should start to take a look at it."

"Let's first discuss what effect this will have on my people. And on our operation," I said.

"Well of course, I send a form letter back to all of them, you know, 'blah blah blah will we take you into consideration but please note that there are areas of the park restricted to all humans.' You'll still have the hearth, and I think any involvement with the research should be voluntary on your people's behalf."

"Yes. I agree," I said.

"You're still not comfortable with this," Cassie said.

I sighed. "I don't know about it. I think achieving a deeper understanding of how my people operate is a genuine goal, but I fear…what if we invite a biologist, and he decides to write a paper on how my people are negatively impacting the ecosystem of the park? What if an artist paints a picture of some game that appears violent and makes it seem moreso? I fear misunderstanding. I fear contempt. I fear…fear."

"We could stipulate that any resulting projects have to be positive in nature," Marcia suggested. "Keep any negative discourse about the Hork-Bajir out of academic works. Or maybe we could demand final edit."

"No," I said. "I haven't been to nearly as much school as the rest of you, and even I know that's not how it works. They will have perfect freedom of expression. I just worry what they'll say."

Everyone was quiet for a moment. Considering. I looked up at them all.

"Understanding will foster friendship," I said. "The more humans know about us, the more they will see how similar we are. Besides, I haven't had the pleasure of meeting with many human intellectuals yet."

"Now there's an oxymoron," Dan said. Everyone laughed. Self-deprecation was a universally admired and appreciated trait, even when the jokes weren't funny.

"So that's settled," Brenda said. "I also thought fall semester's starting up here pretty quick, maybe we should talk about taking on a couple of interns. Just for a couple of months. I have a feeling it will be an even more competitive market than finding all of us, but none of us will last at the pace we're going. We've got to start training the next generation."

"Yes, please," Melody huffed. I nodded in agreement.

"Good. All right, I'm starving, and we ordered Thai today, right?"

I went home for lunch to find Telf cutting a sheet of bark into bite-sized squares for Jara. Though I was ready to plop down and attempt to reclaim some sleep, he leaped up and wrapped his arms around me when he saw me.

"What's got into you?" I asked, forcing a smile.

"Toby, winter come soon," he said, holding me in a tight embrace, leaning in to kiss me. "Jara at school tree." I laughed nervously, shimmying free from his grasp.

"It's already been that long, hasn't it?" I asked. Telf kept his smile, but watched me carefully.

"Winter mean make more kawatnoj, Toby. Toby want more kawatnoj?"

I bent my head forward, running my hands over my belly, long since deflated and fallow. Was that the part of me that was empty?

Telf stepped forward and put his hands over mine. "Toby so different," he whispered. "Feel so sad, but still work so hard. So hurt. Like Telf without eyes, but still pretend to see."

I looked up to him, forced another smile. "We did good with Jara. We should do it again."

Telf smiled back, a reassuring, decided, martyred expression. "Make more kawatnoj," he said. "Only Yeerk make kawatnoj every year. Telf not machine. Toby not machine. Make kawatnoj next year."

I pulled away from him, almost angry. It was so clear he was saying this to appease me, and pity was the last thing I wanted. "What, and go through another entire winter without touching each other? We were hanging on by a thread two years ago."

"Toby not make milk two years ago," he commented.

"What?"

"When kalashi make milk, kalashi don't make kawatnoj. Why Yeerk made Telf eat ground up trees, why Yeerk took Telf away from mother."

I fingered the still-swollen glands under my jaw, even now tender and throbbing. Telf stepped forward, cradling my head in his hands.

"That sounds very unreliable," I said. "Jara only feeds from me once or twice a day now, anyway."

"Telf feed from Toby," he said, leaning forward. I pulled back, turned away. Telf let go.

"Toby okay," he said. "Many kalashu drink from kalashi." He leaned forward again but I broke free.

"What wrong, Toby?" He finally asked.

"I just don't want you to do that again."

Telf sighed. "Toby still so, so sad," he said, slipping his hand in mine. "What Telf do make Toby happy?"

I felt a swell of emotion inflate in my chest, but I repressed it, felt that emptiness float back in like an autumn fog.

"I don't know, Telf," I said.

Telf wrapped me in his arms then, in one of those rare embraces I knew he had no intention of letting me escape from.

"Telf love Toby so much," he said. "Want Toby be happy."

"I know."

"How, Toby?"

I sighed. "I don't know."

Once Brenda posted the intern notice on a number of college boards, we had floods of resumes come in from all corners of the country, and even some from overseas. It was more difficult to pick qualified interns, since they were all limited in experience by their youth, but I let Brenda, Melody, and Dan take charge of inviting a dozen or so to the park to interview. It almost turned into a sweepstakes, since the winners got to come and tour the park, meet a number of Hork-Bajir, and be interviewed exclusively by me, which, to them, was like meeting some kind of mythic figure or celebrity. The level of idolatry to which they held me made me uncomfortable. I still refused to read most articles or hearsay about me which left me tragically unprepared at dealing with the human perception of me.

I had just about had it with their nervous, stuttering praise by the time we interviewed the eighth candidate, a girl named Marie from rural California. She had experience raising livestock on a dairy farm, and though I was tempted to be insulted by that detail on her resume, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. She was the only candidate who didn't attend some top-tier university with aspirations of politics, nor did she come from some wealthy family on either coast, and I was eager to see how that affected her demeanor.

"So what do you think makes you qualified to work with Hork-Bajir, who are classified as an endangered species and who are routinely threatened by terrorist attack?" Dan asked as I sat back, watching the girl and twirling a pen in the air.

She smiled comfortably, and when she answered, she looked me straight in the eye. "I don't think I am qualified. But that doesn't mean I won't be."

I clicked the pen in my hand, narrowed my eyes at her. She didn't avert her glance.

Dan huffed a little haughtily, Melody took copious notes. "How often do you—" Dan began, but I held up my hand to interrupt.

"What qualifications do you think you'll need?" I asked her.

"I don't know, but I'm sure they'll be totally unique, totally irrelevant to any other line of work. I don't really want to get into politics. If I did, I probably should intern at a law firm or senator's office. I don't want to learn about law-making or anthropology or zoology or anything else that this internship could apply to. I just want to learn about the Hork-Bajir. I want to work with them. I want to understand them as a species, on an individual level. I want to learn about your people," she said, punctuating her answer with a rather chilling smile.

"And what do you know about us?" I asked.

"Not nearly enough."

"I see," I said. "And why are you so intent to know us?"

"Because you fascinate me. The fact that humans aren't the only intelligent life in the universe fascinates me. Your whole species narrative fascinates me, and I only want to know more."

"So what?" Dan asked. I glanced at him, not quite sure why he was getting annoyed. "How does that make you different from more than half of the human population?"

I was annoyed at his interruption. "Because the rest of them won't look me in the eye," I answered loudly for her. "Dan, Melody, can you please step outside for a moment?"

"But Toby, the notes—"

"I'd like to speak to Marie off the record, Melody. I'm sure she won't mind."

Marie's jaw seemed to tighten as Dan and Melody shuffled out of the door. Dan offered a look of encouragement before he shut it, but I wasn't sure if it was meant for me or Marie.

I stared at the girl sadly for some time. Yes, Marie was different from the other applicants, but her differing social class and nonexistent connections were only a symptom of the true reason. No other middling, average individual would have gotten this far without a great deal of passion and force. And I suspected what exactly that was caused by.

"Why do you look me in the eye?" I asked. She blinked.

"It's only polite to—"

"Of course it's polite, but no one else does. Even Melody, who's worked with me for over a year, can only manage it occasionally. What makes you different?"

That's when she glanced away.

"How long?" I asked.

"How long what?" Marie asked, clearing her throat nervously.

"How long ago did it happen? How long did it last? How long before you told anyone?"

"About three years ago. For about nine months. And I still haven't told anyone."

I swallowed. "That is not wise. I am no direct expert on the matter, but I know that recovery generally includes a number of counseling sessions."

"Yeah, well, maybe I don't want to recover!" She shouted, rising to her feet. "Maybe I don't want anyone to label me, to push me off in some corral so they know how to deal with me. Maybe I just want to be treated normally."

"But you are not normal," I said. "Such a huge threat, the Yeerks posed to you humans, and yet such a small minority of you were directly impacted by them. At the height of their power, there were only thirteen thousand human hosts. Among humans, you are a rarity."

She scowled and sat back down, crossing her arms hard across her chest. I got up and stood before her. Any other human would be cowering beneath me, but she was just annoyed at my proximity, huffing like any human teenager would.

"Among Hork-Bajir, however, you are standard. Perhaps more able to relate to them than even me."

Her eyes slowly turned up towards me.

"None of my staff are former hosts. They're all self-righteous, staunchly anti-Yeerk, of course, and many of them did risk much to help out, in the ways they could, during that short span of time when Yeerk hegemony and human awareness of it overlapped. But they are not like my people, Marie. My people, who were forced to do unspeakable acts, murder and rape often the least of the crimes their bodies committed. My people, hundreds of thousands of whom were born, lived, and died under complete Yeerk control. Your nine months of experience in that matter is worth more to me than a human rights lawyer with twenty years behind a desk."

Marie's expression brightened "So what are you saying?"

"I'm saying welcome aboard, Marie."

Marie shook my hand hard, even though she could barely get her grasp around two of my fingers, and headed back to her tent she shared with two of the other candidates.

"I don't know," Dan sighed, after I invited them back in. "She's vastly underqualified compared to Ashley and Vinay. Ashley's high school team won Model UN. I didn't even know there was a competition, let alone a winner."

"And I'm sure she will go on to do great things for you humans," I said. "But her place is not with my people."

"Why are you so sure about this?" Dan asked. "I don't get it, even when we talk about simple shit in the park like what color the road signs should be, you always demand days-long deliberations."

"Because she's the only person we interviewed who spent more time talking about the Hork-Bajir than herself," I said. "I don't want this internship to become some prestigious means to an end, some resume padding, and that's exactly how the other candidates view it. For her, I believe it is an inception point to a prolific career of working with my people, and they deserve someone who cares as much about them as she does."

"Her essay was like that, too," Melody said, crossing her arms, tapping ash off the end of her cigarette. "Everyone else talked about all the things they'd done that made them worthy of being here. She's the only one who talked about what she wanted to do when she got here."

"I want her," I said to Dan.

"Fine. We've got three more interviews, and we've at least got to uphold the illusion of impartiality."

I sat grudgingly through the other interviews, which at least offered me the comfort that no one else could compete with her level of dedication and interest. Later that evening, I went to her tent, asked to speak to her alone, and ratified my offer.

"As you know, the position is unpaid, and we will evaluate your performance at the end of a three-month trial period. At that point, we may offer you employment. We may not. In either circumstance, you will spend the next three months in the relative seclusion and isolation of the park. It will offer you the opportunity to see if this is something you could do full-time."

"One winter I had to live in the milking barn," she said. "I think I can handle it."

I smiled to her. "I really look forward to working with you, Marie. Most of the work will be unglorified, but I really do look forward to having you on board."

"Me too, Governor Hamee."

For some reason, I was less optimistic about the academics.

There was a sense of innocence and uncorruptedness about the interns I interviewed, because for them, the most I could fault them for was ambition and selfishness. By the time we interviewed the equivalent of those children plus twenty years or so of field experience, and a perhaps unjustified amount of career acclaim, I was disappointed to see that most never learned humility or the value of interdependence.

Hayley's told me that it's unfair to judge her colleagues that way, that their career aspirations and goals were formulated before their entire framework went through a rather massive paradigm shift, that it's difficult even for humans who consider themselves "intellectuals" to reevaluate their own methodologies to that degree. I know she's right, but that doesn't mean I wasn't severely disappointed with the quality of researcher and philosopher that Brenda invited to the park.

There was Professor Barnard from Oxford, who wore an ugly tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and insisted on being called "Doctor." He ambled around the perimeter of the hearth, fingering slashes made in the wood, muttering notes to his two laughably overworked assistants who scrambled around collecting samples and transcribing his disconnected, stream-of-consciousness thoughts with almost zealous commitment. I accompanied him on his trek, and though I persistently reminded him that his acceptance to study at the park was not a guarantee, he seemed entirely disinterested in impressing me. He seemed more to be wondering if we could accommodate him than if he would accommodate us.

Then there was Queue. That was his only name, the only way he introduced himself. He gave me a business card which was black with silver writing and gave no other contact information but QUEUE. I admit I failed to hold back a laugh. He brought along a faithful and more relatable cinematographer who seemed to do most of the actual work while Queue proselytized about the "inner eye" and the "perspective of the oppressed." I let them capture about five minutes of film which was less than tourists to the park got, but it was easy to convince Queue I'd done him a great favor.

Finally, there was Professor Igor Stakinov from the newly-founded Institute for Extra-Terrestrial Study at the University of Moscow. He wore a long, bristly beard and a number of bulky fur wraps, and though he and I had a good conversation about the struggle of inter-species relation and understanding, he scared my people too much to permit efficient study. After eighteen interviews, he was the best I had met and I was sorry to see him go.

I am very glad I waited just a little bit longer.

After three weeks of almost non-stop introductions and that subtle, horrible candidate-interviewer power dynamic, I was ready to give up on the whole venture and just let Brenda choose three or four. She had decided to start inviting two and three people a day to see the park, hoping, I suppose, that a greater volume of people would inspire competition and weed out those not truly interested sooner. To me, it was just exhausting, and there were times I just wanted Telf to mate with me so I could use a new pregnancy as an excuse to stay home. At about 3:00 in the afternoon, already growing dark in the early December weather, my breath an intermittent blast of fog from my nostrils, I was ready to turn in when Brenda brought one final candidate for me to talk with.

"Toby, this is Professor Hayley Markowicz from the Center of Anthropological Study at the University of Pennsylvania. You remember her précis, right?"

"Yes, you wanted to write a book about Hork-Bajir family life, didn't you?" I asked, holding out my hand for her to shake. She did so with a woolen-gloved hand, smiling, her shoulder-length white and silver hair falling straight and unstyled against her simple navy blue hooded sweatshirt and thick winter vest. "I liked your take on it, but I'm afraid we don't allow any outside visitors into the hearth."

"I'm aware. I've read all the material Brenda sent. It's wonderful to meet you, Governor Hamee."

"Please, call me Toby," I said with a forced smile. "Would you like the grand tour?" She smiled and nodded.

"Do you mind if I record you, as you speak?"

"Not at all. If I reject your application, you should at least be able to give something to your department board."

"Ah, you've gotten some feedback from my colleagues, I take it."

"What have they said about me?"

"A few of them were a little...perturbed, shall we say, about how quickly you seemed to dismiss them."

"A few of them deserved it," I grumbled. "But I suppose inviting such a wide number of intellectuals to our park provides an opportunity I ignored. You should be able to write on what you see here, even if now is the only opportunity you get to see it."

"Enough about that. Tell me about these markings," she said. She walked up to a tree which had a few fleshy slashes.

"I believe that's the result of some children's game," I said. "A version of human hide-and-seek. The person who is, forgive me, I believe you refer to them as..."

"It?" She asked.

"Yes, 'it.' The person who is 'it' must attempt to locate and tag all of the other players. The players are allowed to claim momentary sanctuary at unmarked trees. He who is 'it' must both locate players and deface trees so they are forced to keep moving."

"Sounds fun," she said. "Mind if I take a picture?"

"By all means," I said. Hayley removed a digital camera from her pocket.

"Is it okay if I use flash? I wouldn't want to scare anyone."

"If flash photography scared my people, I doubt we would have made it this far," I sighed. Hayley gave me a knowing smile and took the picture.

"Where are all the children, anyway?" She asked.

"Probably at the springs. Today's the first below-freezing day so far this week, and cold is relative to my people. They're more bothered now than they will be in the middle of January."

"I see."

We continued to walk in silence for a while. "Tell me a little about your credentials," I said. "I understand you work in the anthropology department, but doesn't that apply strictly to humanity?"

"Yes, it does, but my focus has never really been absolute. I studied gorilla and bonobo mating practices for a few years during my post-grad work, but mostly I work with native societies in New Zealand and the Easter Islands."

"I see," I said. "And how do you think that..."

I stopped dead in my tracks, some combination of simultaneous, microscopic events all sending me into a mindset I hadn't experienced in years. That slight whiff of sulfur, that slight change in air pressure accompanied with an invisible tug backwards, that sudden, morbid silence that screams tragedy is about to strike.

"Get down!" I shouted. She dropped to the ground and I dived over her just as the explosion rocked a tree about a hundred feet away.

Fire and wind burned over my back, but I would recover much faster than this flabby, insubstantial human would. I bore my weight carefully with my forearms, creating sort of a shield around her, more than aware that my weight could be just as destructive as the blast. I shut my eyes tight, terrified of the destruction I would see when I opened them.

The silence permeated for a few moments after the noise and wind died, leaving only the roar of the remaining fire, and then cries. Children, hidden up in the trees, their parents screaming for them, wailing and howling. I rose quickly to my feet and nearly yanked the professor to hers.

"Are you all right?" I barked at her.

"Yes, oh God, I'm fine," she said, shakily brushing herself off, patting body parts to make sure they were intact. "What happened?"

"That question will have to wait." I turned around and started running to the source of the explosion.

"Wait, Toby! What can I do to help?"

I stopped and turned to her. Stopped and really looked at her for the first time.

"I need to look for survivors and triage the ones I find. I'm sending the uninjured to you. Just keep them here, keep them calm, and keep them quiet, all right?"

"Okay."

"Mother Toby!" I heard a voice from above me. I scrambled up a thick pine tree covered in rapidly melting frost and extracted an unharmed but shivering adolescent from the branches.

"Pulk, you see that human there? Go to her and stay with her. Be brave, and help her look after the others I send, all right?"

"Mother Toby," she sobbed. I held her for a moment, shushing her, tucking her against my chest, feeling a sudden anxiety rise within me, wanting my son to be tucked against me instead of this random girl who wasn't mine.

"It's all right, Pulk. It will be all right. Do you know where Jara is?"

Pulk wiped her eyes and shook her head. "Not see Jara Getrin today." I gave her a quick kiss for courage and sent her down the tree.

"Be brave, Pulk. Be brave and help Hayley Markowicz."

I worked my way toward the tree, an ethereal, deathly source of light in the misty, twilit dark, trying to follow skittering shadows and ghastly sourceless cries of terror and pain. I came across a number of crying Hork-Bajir, mothers cradling and shushing children who weren't theirs, fathers and the unmarried climbing trees to extract the injured, search for the dead. They all looked to me for approval and instructions which I barked out unconsciously before moving on. The fact was, even so long after the war, we were all still well-trained at the art of reacting to violence.

"Mother Toby!" One of them called. I scaled the tree, feeling waves of blinding heat pour from the fire, sweat roll down my temples, eyes and sinuses burn from the smoke. I found Yert, holding a wailing female I couldn't identify. I gasped and gagged when I saw that half of her left leg was charred, oozing blood and slick discharge, revealing just the flush, white line of her femur.

"Let's get her down," I said. I grabbed her calves, trying to keep my hands off of the wound but she screamed and thrashed nonetheless. "Calm," I purred to her as Yert and I drew her from the tree. "Calm."

We placed her on the ground and smeared and clumped her wound with frozen topsoil for immediate relief. "Stay with her, and as soon as I'm able, I'll send someone with fresh water and bandages."

"Mother Toby, why?" Yert asked.

"Who first," I said, coughing out a lungful of smoke. "Then why."

The fires continued to rage as I climbed up all of the approximate trees, most of which were thankfully empty. There was little risk of the fire spreading with the amount of moisture in the trees and air, but I couldn't survive with the guilt of additional casualties due to a careless oversight. A few of them did contain huddled, terrified children and elders who were too scared to even chirp out their presence. I was the only one with enough clout and importance to convince them to climb down, but my vision grew fuzzy and my head grew clouded with smoke and fumes the more time I spent by the blaze.

Ferk, Korg, and a couple other members of the valley community met up with me to assist in the evacuation. Before long, we had everyone out of all the trees surrounding the one that had exploded, and all but eight of the people who lived in that section of the forest were accounted for. I imposed a makeshift boundary, telling everyone to stay behind it while I continued to scan the trees for petrified, terrified Hork-Bajir.

We were nowhere near the hearth, but along with my eyes and lungs, my hearts still burned in uncertainty. Telf and Jara...where would they be this time of day? At home, taking a nap? Would Jara still be at the school tree? It was close enough to here that he should have come by to let me know he was all right, unless Telf was with him, keeping him from the danger. But Telf would know I would worry, and he would know the only place I'd allow myself to be. Wouldn't he? What if Telf was killed and Jara didn't know what to do? What if Jara was killed and Telf was still screaming inconsolably over his body? I chewed on my claws and fidgeted as I stood to keep all the curious and distraught from the blaze, imagining both my son and kalashu dead and hanging from the branches of that tree that was still too hot to climb. I stared into the flames for any familiar shape or silhouette that would confirm my greatest fears.

"Mother Toby, all hurt there. Unhurt with human," Ferk reported to me, gesturing to the makeshift hospice where the injured and dead we had extracted were being tended to.

"Good," I rasped out, grabbing his shoulder to support a coughing fit. "I'll stay here until the blaze dies."

"No, Mother Toby. Let Ferk stay. Toby breathe too much smoke."

"Are you sure?" I asked him.

"Ferk breathe good. Toby need normal air. Toby go," he assured, giving me one of his patented smiles.

"Thank you, Ferk. You haven't seen Telf or Jara, have you?"

Ferk's smile faltered. "Sure Telf and Jara safe, Toby, stay away from fire."

"Yes. You're probably right. I'll go."

I jogged away from the tree, adrenaline still crackling through my veins. I found the same tree Hayley had questioned, marked by some child's wrist blade, and I slumped against it, my eyes too dry for tears, but I cried nonetheless.

It didn't last long.

I wiped the soot and ash from my sweaty face, I breathed comparably clean air in three deep breaths, and I headed back into the fray.

I went back to the hospice and bestowed that particular brand of leaderly comfort onto the injured. There were several burns, a twisted ankle when someone jumped in surprise at the explosion, a broken wrist when someone fell out of a tree. A couple of injuries that I saw already would be untreatable, would cause lifetime disability. Three dead already, a number I was sure would soon be outdone. And we hadn't even scaled the affected tree itself yet.

I waited, tingling with fear and anticipation as we did. A few nervous kalashi and kalashu came over to ask if we'd seen their children or spouses, and I told them they should go back to the human and wait until we had news.

My team and I regrouped. I was formulating a bad, expedient strategy about policing the boundaries I'd set when I heard a cry from the tree.

"There's someone still up there," I said, gazing through the flames. "Someone alive."

Ferk grabbed me by the upper arm. "Toby Hamee, no. Too much fire, too much smoke."

"Then what do we do, just let them die?" I rasped out. I clutched my throat, already damaged by the exhaust.

"Wait for humans to stop fire," Korg suggested. "Too much fire for Toby Hamee."

"Have all of you lost your edge since the war ended?" I cried. "You're all being cowards!" I yanked my arm from Ferk and quickly approached the tree.

With every step I took, the temperature seemed to jump 10 degrees. Heat poisoned the burns I'd already received, my throat rasped, sapped of moisture, my head grew woozy and full of smoke. I put a hand over my nostrils to filter in clean air but it did little good. I finally reached the tree, touched the trunk, and snapped my hand back.

I couldn't climb it. It was too hot, too smoky, too dangerous. I felt faint, on the verge of collapse, I knew I had little time before my consciousness gave out and I'd just become another victim of this attack.

I retreated back to my group, shaking, chills running through me, sweating. Ferk came forward and caught me under the shoulder; let me rest some of my weight on him. Purb handed me a damp dishtowel which I immediately folded over my nostrils, putting the edges in my mouth and biting down to hold it in place.

"I'm sorry I called you cowards," I said, sinking to the ground.

"Korg help Ferk get Toby away from fire," Ferk said, nudging his shoulder again beneath my armpit. They took me a couple hundred feet away, sat me by a tree, and got me some water from the hot springs which tasted like alkaline but cleared my head. Ferk sent the rest of our team to patrol the tree but stayed with me to make sure I was all right.

"I didn't mean to call you cowards," I rasped. "That couldn't be farther from the truth."

"Yes," Ferk agreed. "Toby be too brave sometimes."

I looked over at him and smiled. "How's your kalashi, Ferk?"

"At home. Sleep. Ferk hope."

I reached over and took his hand. "They're all right until they're not," I said. "We can't assume the opposite. We'll drive ourselves crazy."

"Yes, Mother Toby," he said, squeezing it back. I wasn't sure if he understood what I meant, but I was too exhausted to push it.

I sat and caught my breath for a few minutes until we both heard the roar of a helicopter, and a few moments later, a loud hiss and burst of white steam from the tree, followed by a large puddle of water that rolled in over our toes.

"The humans," I said. "Help me up."

Ferk and I splashed our way to the tree which was out, but steam still curled and billowed from the top. I looked to Ferk who smiled encouragingly and nodded.

"If I'm not back in two minutes, come get me," I told them. "And...thank you all. For your help."

"Go, Mother Toby," Korg said.

The trunk was slimy and hot to the touch. I climbed carefully, uncertain about its structural integrity, but soon I reached an obvious living area, hollowed out from the branches, within which were the charred, mangled skeletons of a kalashi and kalashu.

"Oh, why were you here?" I whispered. I entered the quarters, choking again on the fumes, until I heard another whimper.

"Where are you?" I cried out. "You have to help me find you!"

"Mother Toby," a voice whimpered. I brushed the smoke away and hunched down, searching, trying to get below the smoke so I could locate whoever was still here.

"Keep talking, I can't see anything," I said. "Where are you?"

"Help." A faint voice, barely a whisper, making sounds from smoke instead of air, but it snapped my head around, focused my sight on the pair of corpses.

"Okay," I said, heading over. I breathed deep, put my hands on the flesh, shifted one of them, and it smelled awful, burning meat and charred remains, making my hands sticky and black. I shifted the bodies carefully and saw more burned flesh underneath, more necrotic tissue, but it was trembling. It was alive.

"Oh no, come here, I won't hurt you," I said. I shifted the other corpse, gagging on the smell, until I freed a small child, an orphan, so hurt and broken that he might not be one for long.

"Mother Toby?" The child whispered, lolling in a frightening, tired way. I shimmied him free from the protection of his parents, clutched him tight in a protective, promising hug.

"Good boy, I've got you. Come down. All right." I held him tightly against my front and started scaling down the tree. "Is anyone else inside?"

His breathing had already slowed. He didn't respond.

"No no, please stay awake, please don't die," I said as I reached the ground. I pulled him away, looked him up and down, cleared the soot from his face. He coughed a little, but nothing more. Ferk ran forward.

"We have to get him to the hospice, and then we need to find Cassie."

"Cassie here, Toby. With hurt."

"Let's hurry. Korg, check if there's anyone else up there. If not, take his parents down."

Ferk ran ahead of me and I carefully cradled the dying thing as I hurried. When I got there, Ferk had already cleared a place. I knelt beside it and laid him down.

Cassie was there, with a few supplies, but when she bent over and inspected him, I knew it was too late. She pulled back after a few minutes of inspection, checking for a pulse, shining a flashlight in his eyes. She looked up at me and did nothing more than purse her lips.

"Okay," I said. I didn't know what else to say.

"He was just a kid," she said.

"Does that really make it any worse?" I asked.

Cassie stepped over to me with a large bottle of water. "Drink this, take a minute and relax. There are some wildfire fighters on their way, and Dan and Kyle have already called every media contact in their rolodex. This is going to be a long night."

I put the top of the bottle in my mouth, wrenched off the top with my teeth and guzzled down the contents. It barely made a mark on my thirst.

"You want another?" She asked.

"I have to go speak to my people," I said, disengaging from her. I was glad she was there, but Cassie makes me feel inadequate, like my time would always be better spent doing something else.

The first break after a tragedy rarely calms me down. That's the time when the rage begins to churn, the slow fires momentarily distracted by duty begin to be stoked again, the injustice, the wretchedness, the unfairness of it all begins to become apparent. I glowered as I marched back to where I had deposited Hayley, too distracted with my own rage to even realize what my task was when I got there.

I was confused by the order of it, expecting a large group of clamoring people, writhing with fear and grief, barely contained by the tiny, elderly human. Instead, I arrived to find a large group of children and adolescents surrounding Hayley, all making confounding, complicated patterns with their hands. "Down came the rain," she prompted, "and washed the pider out!" The rest of them responded. I breathed deeply, relieved by her competence. She glanced up at me and gave me a grave nod, gesturing to a larger group of adults who were all staring at me, barely holding back questions, demands, tears. I gulped, headed over to them, and guided them all away from the children.

"Mother Toby okay," one of them said, thankful, reaching out and touching my shoulder. Another burst into sobs. I shushed her, realizing that my sight was still hazy, my head still clouded with smoke. I had to formulate some kind of process, some way to inform the parents and loved ones of the deceased without causing chaos, but nothing came to me. I was spent. Churning with rage, exhausted beyond belief, covered in ash and soot.

"Sita, Mog, and Purt are dead," I said. A female fell to her knees and began to wail. Another bent down to hold her, but I couldn't see faces, I couldn't identify individuals. "Go to them, please." A few people rushed past me, heading towards the hospice. The rest all stood in quiet anticipation.

"Any more?" Another voice asked.

"I don't know the others," I sighed in defeat. "I have to get someone to identify them, before..."

I held my hands up to my eyes and pressed hard against my sinuses, which were screaming at me in pain for putting them through such an inhospitable atmosphere. It was blinding, white-hot, like a pair of trowels in my eye sockets. I couldn't think, couldn't answer my people, couldn't do anything but make them stare at me in hope and uncertainty.

"Why doesn't everyone go home for the night," Hayley said, coming up behind me. "Toby will put together a task force to identify the dead and inform their families. If no one comes for you by morning, then you can assume everyone you love is all right."

I turned around and blinked. It was the kind of level-headed, reasonable compromise I would make under normal circumstances, and I couldn't help but be disappointed that I hadn't thought of it myself.

"Yes," I said, blinking away the pain. "Everyone go home. I'll come for you myself if your children or families were hurt or killed." People were disappointed but obeisant. As soon as the adults had cleared away their children, Hayley sighed.

"You handled that well," she said.

"No, I didn't. I'm out of practice."

"People are alive that wouldn't be if you hadn't intervened," she said. She wrapped one of her tiny, precise human hands around my index finger and gave it a squeeze. "You handled that well."

"Thank you for your help," I said with a smile. "This would have been impossible if I had to account for frightened children and worried mothers in addition to everything else."

Hayley waved her hand in dismissal, but coughed and started brushing away smoke. "I would have been climbing smoky trees with you if I could. Kind of hard without any—"

"Toby?" Telf's voice. I snapped my head around and cried in relief, rushing over, completely oblivious to the human standing beside me. I charged through the smoke until I found him, sweaty but clean, Jara wrapped tightly in his arms.

"Oh thank goodness," I sobbed, tears made from the moisture of some mysterious reserve pouring down my cheeks. I wrapped the two of them tight in my arms, and Telf could not return the favor but Jara turned into me, wrapping his arms around my neck.

"Big thunder," he whimpered and cried, "Big storm," and I dropped to the ground, shushing and holding him, making sure he was real.

"I know," I said, I sobbed, I stuttered, stroking his headblades, running my hands over every inch of him, authenticating his survival. "It's all right now. It's over, we're safe. You're safe, thank goodness, oh thank you."

Telf knelt beside us and touched my shoulder. I looked up at him as Jara continued to cry.

"Where were you?" I asked.

"Home. Telf know fire too dangerous. Mother Toby smart, stay safe." His face was strangely impassive, but his eyes sparkled with something only just concealed.

I nodded slowly. "Yes. Good. That's what I want you to do if it happens again. Just get away from it. Keep him safe." I squeezed him a little tighter.

"Telf know." He smiled and pinched me.

I rocked back and forth with Jara for a while, shushing him, telling him it was all right, until sobs stopped wracking his body, until he calmed and turned back to his father. Telf accepted him into his arms and stood up.

"Telf take Jara home. Want to make sure Toby safe."

"Yes, I'm fine."

"Toby safe," Telf said. "Toby not fine." He pressed a palm to my chest and pulled it back. It was covered in sweaty, black ash.

"I didn't scare him, did I?" I whispered. Telf smiled and shook his head.

"Toby go talk to human, then come home. Telf make Toby clean."

"What human?" I asked. I glanced behind me and saw that Hayley was watching me. She gave a little wave.

"Oh." I sighed. Telf squeezed my hip reassuringly. I gave him a quick kiss and headed slowly back towards her.

"I didn't know you had a son," she said.

"You weren't supposed to," I said.

"I probably wasn't supposed to see a direct terrorist attack against your civilian population, either," she said. "Just one of those days, I guess."

I barked out a laugh, then covered my face with my hands.

"He's a good-looking kid," Hayley offered.

"He gets that from his father."

"You should go. I'm sure you've got a lot of work to do. I'm going to head back to base camp, if it's all the same to you."

"Yes, that's fine. But Hayley—Professor Markowicz—" I said, touching her shoulder.

"Yes, Governor Hamee?"

"I'd like to offer you a position studying my people," I said. "Consider yourself selected for an honorary ETR grant."

"I hope not just because I know about your secret love child," she said.

I smiled and shook my head. "I know few humans who would do what you did today," I said. "Petty jealousy and self-interest is so often your default. I sometimes forget you're capable of great courage and selflessness as well."

"Well, I don't know about all that. I volunteered with a kindergarten teacher as part of my master's thesis. Kind of comes naturally. Stay safe, Governor, all right?"

"I'll try," I sighed. "Good night."

It was a few more hours before I was able to head home. Cassie got to the valley so quickly, I later discovered, because she had flown, but the rest of my staff were not far behind. A lot of indignant posturing, a few well-performed tantrums and diatribes, a lot of empty promises. As angry as we all were, I knew deep down that this attack meant nothing in terms of progress or regress in our relationship with the humans. They'd suffered terrorist attacks for millennia and had yet to curb them. It was a mere symptom of our plight, nothing we could fix until we left Earth. But I clenched my jaw and nodded and pretended to be moved by their words, letting them release their vitriol and anger so we could work more efficiently tomorrow.

It was almost dawn by the time I got home, but Telf was awake, waiting for me. Jara seemed more deeply unconscious than I'd ever seen him before, with an arm slung over his eyes, snoring soundly. Telf pulled me up to the platform and wrapped me in a tight, frantic embrace as soon as he heard me scaling the tree.

"You did a good job holding it together for him," I said as he cried into my shoulder. "I'm very proud of you for that."

"Telf so scared," he whispered. "Telf know Toby with humans, know by fire tree, not know if Toby hurt."

"I'm all right," I assured him. "It's all right."

"What if Toby not?" He asked. "What if Toby not?"

I shushed and stroked him for a few minutes more as he cried in relief, but finally he pulled away, wiped his nose, and cupped my face in his hands.

"Toby smell awful. Come with Telf to warm water hole, Telf make Toby clean."

I was too tired to resist, so I smiled as he helped me down our tree.

"What about Jara?" I whispered.

"Jara okay, Toby. Telf ask Ket come help Jara wake up for school."

"Is school even going to happen today?" I asked. "I should probably go talk to Murk, see if she's up to teaching even though—"

"Toby stop," Telf said. "Get clean first, then worry."

I didn't realize how sore and hurt I was until Telf tried to heal me. I couldn't enter the springs due to the superficial burns that screamed when the basic, hot water touched them, and the touch of his hands aggravated my cuts and bruises. He finally settled on sponge-bathing me with some moss he scraped up from the rock face, scrubbing all of the soot and ash from my sweat-stained skin, wiping a rag he'd left to cool over the burns to soothe the pain.

He worked slowly, inefficiently, a pace inspired by an intent it didn't take a genius to identify. My libido still hadn't returned yet, and for the most part, Telf had stopped searching for it. But for some reason, that night, he revived his search, and for some reason, that night, I felt a murmur of it return.

He'd mostly cleaned me, and gave me a long kiss to signal that he was done. I rubbed my throat, which was still scratchy with smoke and ash, but that reminded Telf of one last chore he had to finish.

"Oh, Telf so forget," he said, slapping himself in the forehead as he snaked over me, pushing me back down by the shoulder. "Not drink from Toby in very long."

"Wait, Telf, I—" I began to protest, but Telf gently ignored me, nudging my head back with his beak, teasing open my mouth with his tongue. He pried his way inside, interlocking our mouths at perpendicular angles, and began rubbing his tongue against the back of my throat, stimulating those troublesome glands.

I felt as exposed and ashamed as I always did, but there was a deeper anxiety rumbling within me. A renewed acknowledgment of my mortality, perhaps. Worry that Jara was not safe, alone in our tree. But something inside of me was quaking, awakening, responding to his touch.

Telf was involved. I felt the frequency of his lapping increase, I felt him shift into a more comfortable, engaged position, I felt him grow erect against my inner thigh.

It was the middle of winter, after all. I didn't blame him. Because of the glands he was directly invoking, and the hormones they produced, I didn't feel the normal winter fire and thunder that he did. I was flattered that after all this time of refusing him, after all the difficulty I'd caused, he was still attracted to me. Flattered, then pitying. He'd been dealing with these urges for almost a month and he was so good at suppressing them that I'd hardly noticed.

Something else, too. Something different. Something new. Something that, for the first time in months, made me react with arousal of my own.

I raised my arms, ran them around his body, running my fingertips across muscles that even after all these years were supple, smooth, strong. I rubbed his neck. He shifted closer, deeper, unconsciously moving into position. I spread my legs a little in encouragement, let him sink slowly down between them. He grunted deep in his throat and continued to lap, shoveling small quantities of milk out of the corners of my mouth that ran back behind my eyes as we came closer and closer to coitus. I spurred my wrist blade beneath his hip and finally pulled him that last small distance, moaning as he achieved it, scooting down a little to simulate that first thrust, and he took it from there.

It was only a couple of minutes before he seemed to realize that he'd finished his chore and moved onto the reward, and he disengaged himself from my mouth so he could swoop down for a kiss, but I pulled him back.

"No," I sighed. "Keep going."

His pace slowed, and he glanced down at me, confused.

"It's okay," I said, opening my mouth.

Neither of us was thinking clearly, but Telf hesitantly obeyed my request. Something about what he was doing suddenly felt intimate rather than invasive, sexual instead of medical. After a few cautious laps he found a rhythm we both found agreeable, and I began reciprocating. Tracing the shape of his tongue with mine, exploring his mouth with mine like we had with our headblades. This went on for a few minutes, as we overcame the impropriety, as we discovered the inherent pleasure, as we gave in to each other. Telf's pace grew frantic, he moaned in urgency, and finally he put a hand on my face and violently withdrew himself. I felt a warm, gluey impact directly between my legs.

"No!" He cried, garbling, strands of thick saliva and milk running off his beak, down his chin, "No, Toby, no, no, Telf forget, Telf so bad forget."

He was scrubbing me between the legs with his bare hand, whimpering to himself and simultaneously coping with the final pulses of his ecstacy as I bubbled up to the surface. He scratched my skin and drew blood before I finally caught up with his thought process.

"Oh, it's okay," I said sitting up a little. "Telf, it's fine."

"No no, Toby stay lay back, better for Telf clean up."

"Telf, it's okay. That's why you still drink from me, right? In case something like this happened."

Telf gave me a glance that, for a moment, was a different kind of concern.

"Yes, but not so good. Toby maybe still make kawatnoj. Oh, Telf so bad, Toby, Telf so sorry."

"It's okay," I leaned back and looked away, patting the hand he was using to support himself as he wiped his ejaculation off of me. "If we make another kawatnoj, it's okay. We'll be okay, Telf. It will be okay."

Telf continued to work, but his pace became less feverish, less dedicated. He finally sighed and wiped his hand on the mossy rockface we'd just made love on. He held it forward and helped me to my feet.

"Telf sorry, Toby. Telf just so..."

"Eager?" I offered with a forgiving smile. "It's all right."

Telf turned forward and looked down for the walk home while I smiled stupidly from the hormones.

Telf slept off in a corner of our tree alone that night, moping and worried, while I snuggled next to Jara for warmth. He was big enough now to provide his own, so it was a collaborative effort, but for the first time in a long time, I smiled as I fell asleep.

I was frowning when I snapped awake two hours later, though.

Telf was still punishing himself, arms wrapped tightly around his back, huddled in the fetal position, and Jara was clutching me close, but I was awake so suddenly that it didn't matter how comfortable my family was. I had to get up.

I sat up as Jara adjusted unconsciously and wiped the cold, sudden sweat from my brow.

What had I done?

I had to get up and pace, walk around the bottom of our tree, pretend to patrol the hearth in case I ran into any other early risers. Every time I felt a pulse of milk flow from those glands, I spit it out furiously. How had I found that arousing? That strange, twisted, backwards thing Telf had to do only because of my poor cooperation after Jara's birth? How had that suddenly stopped being such a deep shame and become selfish pleasure?

I disgusted myself. Is that where I went to in the heat of passion? Somewhere even Telf found unnatural and disturbing? He had the tact not to say anything yet, but he'd bring it up eventually, wouldn't he? Or was he just so happy that I was offering sex again that he'd put up with any strange, fetishistic requests?

That is what it was. A fetish. But of what? What was the cause?

"That's how humans kiss," I said outloud.

"Mother Toby?" A voice from behind the dwindled fire, plainly in view, but I'd been too distracted to notice him.

"Go back to your tree," I snapped. He scuttled away before I could identify him.

That's how humans kiss, I thought.

So was that it? I wanted to be human? But why now? Why hadn't this manifested before? Telf had been drinking from me for months, was it just that tonight was the first time I'd made the connection? Or was it something else?

I put my hands on my head and grunted in rage. As if I needed something else to set me apart, sexual deviance of all things. I headed home and tried to put it out of my mind.

When I climbed the tree, Jara was shivering, though the first gray rays of dawn cast beams through the canopy. Jara's shivering had woken Telf, who still only let one or two things rouse him from deep stupor. Telf had his arm tight around Jara and looked to me when I entered.

"Toby okay?"

"Yes," I whispered, diving for Jara's other side. "Go back to sleep."

Telf did, I didn't. I lay in a self-reinforcing cycle of disgust and shame for about another hour.

(Hey, Toby.)

I thought I was imagining it at first, so I stayed with my head curled up and tucked under my arms, Jara breathing slowly beside me.

(I know you're awake. Stop faking.)

I pulled my head up and swiveled it around, finally spotting a bird-shaped silhouette against the eastern sky.

"Tobias," I gasped.

(Hey, kiddo. You hanging in there?)

My bottom lip quivered, and I managed to shake my head slightly before tears began tumbling out of my eyes.

"Come with me," I hiccuped, leaving Telf and Jara as quietly as I could. I descended the tree and Tobias followed.

There were a few people milling about the hearth, some gathering wood and kindling for that day's fire, but I brushed past them with compulsory greetings before leading Tobias to a small grove of saplings my people had planted. He perched delicately on one, bouncing a couple of times, before he fluffled his feathers and looked back at me.

(God, you've grown. You must be a foot taller than the last time I saw you.)

I wiped my face and laughed. "Have I? I haven't even noticed. I've been so busy."

(Yeah, I know. I didn't get a chance to see your live statements and interviews, but they're all I ever hear about. From campers and stuff.)

I nodded, overcome by another sob.

(I'm sorry, Toby. I didn't mean to upset you.)

I waved my hand at him. "No, no. I'm very happy to see you, Tobias. It's been a very long time."

(Yeah, it has.)

"But surely your visit has some other motive than catching up."

Tobias nodded a little, causing the branch he was perched on to wobble. (I just wanted...well, I needed to tell you what I saw yesterday.)

"An explosion, I presume."

(Hah, yeah. But something more. That kid who lived in the tree that blew up. The one who...who died?)

"Yes?"

(He was by the cabin earlier in the day. I was flying by, because, you know, I like checking up on you, even though I don't...)

I cleared my throat and glanced away.

(I just mean...the kid was by the cabin. There was a cardboard box, just a little one, like a package, by the door. He took it, Toby. I think he took it back to his tree.)

I glanced back up at him.

"Did you see who the package was addressed to?"

(Not a name. Well, there might have been one, but it was obscured. But I did see "The Dept. of HB Affairs and Internal Security.")

I nodded solemnly. "Thank you for telling me, dear friend."

(No problem. I wanted to be of whatever help I could.)

I shook my head sadly. "You could be of so much more help if you wanted, Tobias. You know I would never refuse you."

Tobias bowed his head. (There's just a lot to get over. A lot I...I don't know, Toby.)

I nodded, gesturing surrender, though I felt like a coward for doing so. "It's your life, Tobias. Live it whichever way you want."

We stood for a while in silence, long enough for me to realize how nervous I was about this encounter. Tobias finally broke the silence by losing his balance and flapping his wings to regain it.

(Listen, Toby, I hate to make this a give-and-take, but could I ask you a favor?)

"Of course."

(I, um...well, as much time as I spend just looking for food and staying away from predators, I'm bored a lot. Would you mind getting some reading material for me? You can bring it to my tree, just leave it by the roots. I'd really appreciate it.)

I smiled. "Certainly, Tobias."

(Thanks. I also...I saw your kid. What's his name?)

"Jara."

Tobias paused for a moment in consideration. (Second generation born free,) Tobias said. (That's not nothing, you know.)

"No, it's not."

(I'm glad you found something good after the war, Toby. I'm glad one of us did.)

I frowned. "You still can, Tobias."

(No. But I'm glad you did.)

Tobias awkwardly excused himself a few moments later, leaving me stranded in the grove. I sighed, turned around, and saw that Jara was watching me.

"Hey, you," I said with a smile. "You hungry?" Jara smiled back and took my hand as we made our way back to our tree.

Dealing with the aftermath of the attack with Tobias' information did make everything run a little more smoothly, put me a little bit more back in control. The humans were fully prepared to deal with this as an attack explicitly against my people—the fact that they themselves, too, were now a target unsettled them, perhaps gave them an additional perspective. I wasn't particularly upset about the revelation—yes, if the child hadn't let his curiosity get the better of him, some of my people might be alive today who aren't, but I cannot value Hork-Bajir lives more than human ones. At the very least, it gave them incentive to attempt some more radical solutions to the issue of terrorism.

A week later, a few trucks with National Guard troops rolled into the park.

I am still averse, as I was so many years ago, to militarizing any civilian area for my people. However, my staff knew me well enough by that point to ensure that the troops would be an invisible presence to us, that they would never interfere directly with any Hork-Bajir affairs, that they were meant as nothing more than a deterrent against violent impulses. I would be remiss if I didn't admit that particular solution worked wonders. It didn't end the threats or attacks against us, but we haven't been victimized as severely as we were by that bomb.

For that week or so while I installed the troops, I saw Hayley mill around a lot. I watched her sketch children as they played together, parents doing the kind of slow-paced, gentle chores that now defined their daily lives, adolescents flirting with each other, practicing for the following winter. I liked watching her. It reminded me that my work was not as insular as I thought sometimes, that there was a real, valuable purpose behind all my concern and petty power-grabbing.

After I was done with the troops, the majority of which I stationed around the entry points to the park (I had a couple on active patrol, but that was more as a threat than a legitimate counter-terrorist measure), I had the first of my weekly meetings with Hayley.

It was a non-negotiable stipulation of the grants that we'd offered Hayley and two other scientists—Brian, a former veterinarian who wished to embark upon the brand new discipline of xenobiology, and Jeong, an ecologist/dendrologist who wished to epitomize the relationship between Hork-Bajir and the park. For each of them, I had to meet once a week for an hour and discuss both the progress of their research and answer any questions they had.

I hated the idea at first. But I've since realized that those meetings, especially with Hayley, have saved my life.

"Are you still shaken at all? From the blast?" I asked as I sat across from her inside the cabin.

"Are you really comfortable in here, Governor Hamee?" She asked, crossing her legs, sipping some steaming liquid from a mug. "Don't conduct this meeting in here for my sake."

I stuttered out a few syllables, then stopped myself and smiled. "Very well. Walk with me."

We headed out into the chilly late-December air. It was daytime, and a rather bright day, but still cruelly cold. I crossed my arms across my chest and tried to keep from shivering as I spoke.

"Are you finding my people agreeable and cooperative in your studies, Professor?"

"Your people don't like the cold, do they?"

"No, not at all. I thought that would be fairly obvious."

"Hmm."

"Does that surprise you?" I asked.

"A lot of the news stories...well, you probably already know."

I shirked. "I really don't pay attention to the media's views about us."

"It's pretty standard knowledge that Hork-Bajir prefer it a little cold is all. A few animal rights groups were concerned that Yellowstone would be too cold for you, but they were reassured. Very publicly."

"I'll talk to Kyle about it. He's supposed to attend to those kinds of things. No one's died, though, if that's what you mean. As long as they stay within our boundaries, at least. Earth is a harsh place, I can't change that."

"No, but people could know. Could stop comforting their consciences with lies."

I shook my head, a chill ran up my spine. "I take it you've overcome the shock from the blast, then?"

"What? Oh, of course. Some of your people ask me about it, I hope I don't overstep any bounds by answering them."

"What do you tell them?"

"That the losses they suffer are tragic and unfair, but that doesn't mean we can't work to change the way these humans feel about them."

I nodded. "Seems fine."

We walked for a while in silence. This wasn't exactly going as I had planned it.

"Do you mind if I ask you some questions, Governor Hamee?"

"Please, call me Toby."

"Actually, that's one of my questions. Governor Hamee is what humans who don't know you call you, and Toby is what you insist we call you out of politeness. But how do your people refer to you?"

"If you've spoken to them, you should know."

"They call you Mother Toby conversationally, but sometimes refer to you as seer. What does that mean?"

"It's just a title. It doesn't mean anything."

Hayley stopped and laughed a little. "I guess I should just stop now, if even something this simple is going to make you lie to me."

"It's...it's hard to explain," I said.

"The media knows you're some kind of anomaly, Toby. Is that just how your people refer to it?"

I swallowed hard. "What else does the media know?"

"See, this is what you get for not paying attention."

"I can't read everything they say about me. I'd drive myself crazy."

"That's because you assume it's all bad."

"They hate us enough to kill my people, send explosives to my staff. Some of it has to be bad."

"But even the majority of humans think people who do those things are bitter, closed-minded buffoons. You should read an article or two. I can cherrypick some of my favorites if you want."

I sighed. "Do they know it's generational? Genetic?" I asked. "Do they know it's passed down?"

Hayley balked. "No, I don't think they do."

I nodded. "I want to make sure Jara...you're still one of the only humans in the world who knows about him."

"People speculate about that too, you know."

"Let them speculate. I'll confirm nothing."

"We're not the enemy, Toby."

"No, you're not. But you don't speak for all of humanity."

"I can't speak for them, no. But I can speak to them."

I looked over and smiled to her. "You have more questions?"

"I always have questions."

We spoke about dietary habits, mating rituals, all of the boring little details that anthropologists obsess over. Sometimes the conversation veered back towards my personal life, which I always tried to divert, but even then, for some reason, I felt comfortable talking to Hayley.

"So, your husband. Or, mate, sorry, you don't have a rigid marriage ritual. How did you meet?"

"I rescued him from a Yeerk base in one of our raids."

"Fascinating. So easy to forget what your role was before the war ended. Were you attracted to him that soon?"

"No, not yet. Not till later. Not much later, but later."

"And at what point were you mated for life? At what point in the courtship are a Hork-Bajir pair considered monogamous?"

I laughed a little, embarrassed. "After the first time."

"He must have been something spectacular," Hayley said with a smile, nudging me with her elbow.

"Oh, no. I was terrified. But I...I still let him do it."

"Why?"

"I really still can't say. I wanted him, I suppose, even though I didn't think it was appropriate."

"The id versus the superego. A classic battle, but the id always wins."

"Pardon?"

"Not well-versed in Freud then, are you? Not that I think that's bad, the guy was a crackpot."

"I don't know him."

"I'll bring a couple of his books. I realize you're not made of free time, but—"

"No," I said, putting a hand on her arm. "I'd appreciate it." Hayley smiled and nodded.

"I think he has a good effect on you," Hayley said as we continued. "Well, your people do, at least."

"Do they?"

"Oh, yes. Even though he's not Father Telf. Your hierarchy is dissimilar to the lineage-based monarchies of human antiquity. Even though he married the queen, that doesn't make him king."

"What do my people say about him?"

"Toby, I'm an academic, not a gossip. Though I suppose those two things are in many ways similar." She smiled. "They think he loves you, and you love him, and that's good."

I nodded. "Yes, that is what they would say. Or at least, how they would say it."

"I am a little confused about some of the language they use to denote mated pairs, though," she said.

"What in particular?"

"Kalashi and kalashu," she said. "Kawatnoj I get. I think it translates pretty synonymously, just means 'child.' But there seems to be something more to those two words."

"Slightly, I suppose. Very simply it just means husband and wife. But it's an honorific that's not truly gained until a pair has produced offspring."

"Sort of like mother and father, then?"

"I suppose. Not really. A human can be a mother and not a wife, or a wife and not a mother. The terms are not interchangeable. Kalashi covers and requires both, really. No Hork-Bajir pair off merely because of love or pleasure, and once they've decided to mate, they won't split up. Potentially temporary conjugal relationships are a human concept. We truly mate for life."

"I see. So you weren't really Telf's kalashi until you had Jara, then?"

"Well, no...the intent was there since the beginning. At least for him. I suppose I took a little convincing."

"What about widows and widowers?"

"They do not remarry. Though my people are very good about helping out in those circumstances."

"Hmm. It's sort of romantic, in a way. That kind of security."

"Really? I believe it works precisely because of the lack of romance. It's purely utilitarian."

Hayley's eyes narrowed and she smiled. "You really think Telf is just a sperm-donor-slash-child-rearing-partner?"

I sighed and smiled. "No, I suppose I don't."

"Sorry if I'm getting personal. I get the sense a lot of people are pairing off now, and I'm just trying to understand it."

"Yes. We have mating seasons, and winter is generally when we conceive."

"Ah, I see. Good to know. Well, that's all I have for you now. I've got to go transcribe some notes, so I'll get out of your hair. Or, scales. Whatever."

"Thank you, Professor Markowicz."

"Hayley, Toby. Just Hayley."

"Yes, Hayley. And—Hayley," I said, touching her arm gently as she turned around.

"Yes?"

"I am serious about that book," I said.

"Yes. Freud. Sure. Let's introduce you to the study of the pathologies of the human mind with the craziest research."

Hayley and I met weekly, and she always came with more specific, incriminating questions, many of which edged up on implicit vows of secrecy I had taken with the Animorphs.

"So I'm trying to understand exactly how this community began," she told me one day as we walked around the circumference of the hearth. "The way I understand it, what I can glean from the people I talk to, is that your parents somehow escaped the confines of the Yeerk pool and successfully evaded the Yeerks, until...now, I guess."

"That's the gist of it, yes," I said.

"Not quite enough for me."

I cleared my throat. "What's unclear?"

"Well, everything, really. How did they evade the Yeerks once they escaped? Why did the Yeerks give up pursuit?"

"The Animorphs helped them," I said. "It was a good plan. They used their power to fake my parents' death."

"Ah, I see. And they're the reason they escaped in the first place?"

I stopped in my tracks. "Yes," I said.

"Really?" Hayley asked. "Well, why stop with those two, then?"

"They didn't. Our community had over a hundred people by the end of the war."

"Thanks, according to both Marco and Jake's books, solely to you. If the Animorphs were so good at freeing Yeerk hosts, why did they stop with your parents? Why didn't they keep freeing hosts the whole time? And not just Hork-Bajir, but humans? If it was so easy to go down there and free your parents, why didn't Jake free his brother?"

"They had...other concerns," I said.

"It just seems illogical, is all. They could have been building numbers from the start, and yet you're the only one who did that over the course of the whole war."

I looked down, picked some crud out of the root of my wrist blade.

"You're keeping something from me," Hayley said, putting a hand on my forearm.

"Yes," I conceded.

"Why?"

"There are many things I simply cannot tell you, Professor."

"Why not?"

"I let the Animorphs decide that," I said. "There are details exempt from all of the books they've published so far, and I'll abide by those censors."

Hayley sighed. "Well, I suppose it's for the best."

We didn't talk much for the rest of our walk, and I did feel guilty, but knowledge of a supernatural force that could bend the very fabric of space and time was not something I trusted the humans with. Hayley certainly wouldn't use it for ill, but—

"So how's Jara?"

"He's fine," I said automatically. The truth was I hadn't really spoken to him in days, but he was healthy, as far as I knew. "Why do you ask?"

"Just curious, is all. He's a kid, your people love talking about their kids, I figured you wouldn't be any different."

I smiled. "You may find, Professor, that I am not like my people in all respects."

Hayley nodded slowly. "It must be hard. You're away from him so much."

"It is," I said, and felt a surge of sudden grief within me. I stopped and swallowed it away. "It really is."

"I traveled a lot, when my kids were little," Hayley said, not missing a beat. "Here." She pulled a wallet from her back pocket, unfolded a series of photographs. "That's Lisa. She's going for her MBA at Wharton. And that's Charlie. His wife is pregnant with my second grandkid."

I took the strip of photos in my hand, ran through them slowly. Images of two children seated at a Christmas tree, playing tug of war with some stuffed animal. Two children wearing backpacks and school uniforms, rolling their eyes at their nostalgic parents. A young man in a cap and gown, his sister sticking her tongue out at the camera, their parents standing proud and only slightly more dignified behind them.

The instantaneous history made me emotional, and I wiped a tear from my eye. "They're lovely," I said.

"It goes fast," she said. "Even faster for you. How old is Jara now?"

"Seven months," I said.

"Jesus," she said. "He must eat nonstop. How long until he's fully grown?"

"Children normally move into their own tree by their fourth birthday. Second at the earliest."

"When did you move out?"

"Sooner than that," I laughed.

"I imagine that killed your parents. You Hork-Bajir get so little time with your kids, no wonder they're all you talk about."

I shook my head, feeling guilt from that for the first time. "They knew I was different," I said. "It wasn't personal. I would have stayed, if..."

"If there wasn't so much to do."

I nodded. "That's where I'd be now."

"Well, don't let me keep you from him."

"No, I mean...it's not you. It's not the cabin, it's not any one thing in particular. It's just all of it together. I'm lucky Telf loves him so much, I'm lucky they're so good together."

"Tell you what, Toby. That thing about your parents was really the only question I had today. And we've got another forty-five minutes scheduled, right? Go see Jara and Telf. I know you usually get home after they've gone to bed, and leave in the morning before they wake up, so go spend some quality, conscious time with them now."

"Are you sure? I don't mean to sound arrogant, but my time is valuable and I don't know that we can reschedule this."

"I don't need to reschedule it. I'm giving it back. Go see your family, for God's sake."

I smiled, handed back her wallet. "I do wish you will take this opportunity to call your daughter-in-law. If human pregnancy is anywhere near as uncomfortable as Hork-Bajir pregnancy..."

"Well, it's bad, but I doubt it's that bad. But yeah, I'll give her a call. They ask about you all the time."

"I hope you have good things to say."

"Always. Go see your family."

I leaped up the nearest tree and swung home as fast as I could, invigorated with affection, more desperate than I had been since the fire to see my son. When I got in, Telf was in the middle of the latest chapter of Bok's story, and both were shocked and delighted that I was there.

Jara stayed still until I opened my arms in invitation, and gave me a dignified hug, which I seflishly overextended. He pulled away and gave me a comforting smile. "What Mother Toby doing home?" He asked.

"I'm here to see you," I said, tugging him closer by the elbow blade. He giggled a little, a higher-pitched version of Telf's hee-haw, and took my face in his hands.

"Jara very glad Mother Toby home," he said.

"So is Telf Getrin," Telf said, leaning in and kissing me. "Toby feel very...back hurt?" He whispered.

"What? Oh, no, not at all."

"Tell Telf if back hurt," he said seriously. Then he turned back to Jara. "Where Telf stop?"

"Bok try to cut bark from sunlight tree," Jara said, sinking into my lap as I held him, leaning against one of the support beams.

"Yes, so Bok put wrist blade in bark, but so bright and warm, make Bok sweat..."

It wasn't much, and I only got to stay long enough for Bok to grow knee blades and wrist blades made from sunlight bark in order to defeat the Jabba Yeerk monster threatening his home tree, but it was the first time in a long time I'd felt that domestic peace and contentment that I'd promised my people for so long. Jara sank deeply into my lap, and started to nod off, and right as he fell asleep, I shifted him gently to Telf.

"Toby stay," Telf said after he laid Jara down, taking my hand.

"I can't. I have a conference call with the Department of the Interior scheduled in twenty minutes, and I haven't even prepped yet."

"Toby please stay," he said, slinking in to embrace me, kissing me tenderly.

"How I wish I could," I said, squeezing him back.

"What if Toby do make more kawatnoj," he said, pressing his hand to my womb. "Will Toby still work so long?"

I sighed, closed my eyes, let him hold me. "I don't want to," I said.

"Then stay."

"I love you," I said to him, pulling back so I could look in his crinkly, frosty eyes. "And I love him. And I'll be back."

He smiled sadly. "Telf hope soon. Miss Toby," he said.

"Me, too."

The next few weeks drew slowly, but they were a remarkable metamorphosis, looking back. My meetings with Hayley quickly became my favorite parts of the week. I don't know if it was the topic of her research, or the manner in which she conducted it, but she was a constant, guiltless, warm reminder that I had built a healthy, happy family for myself just as surely as I had built a strong, fortified community for my people, and the more time I spent with her, the more time I wanted to spend with Telf and Jara. My fear of losing them, fear of inadequacy slowly melted away as she told me stories of missed birthdays, leaving her children stranded without a ride at the school gym after a dance, time outs and spankings and all the shame and trial and error that went with parenthood. I began sharing my own stories, first of Dude, since he was more remote, but then of Jara, of all the wrong things I said, the times I made him shut down emotionally. I told her about thunderstorms, and how they were the only time I really ever felt like his mother, and how much I was looking forward to spring solely for that reason. I told her about my mishap with Telf, that I might be pregnant again, how terrified I was at failing with another child.

"You know, that's why any parent has more than one," she told me. "The ones that do just want to do better than their first, and the ones that don't just don't want to mess another one up."

"That's a rather generalized statement," I said.

"And it's true. I don't know of one parent who didn't decide on a second kid based on how much they think they're screwing up the first. No one is certain about their parenting abilities, and even worse is almost no one is right about them. We all make mistakes, and we all succeed and fail in ways we don't notice. You love Jara, and that's more than lots of kids get."

I opened up with her more than I had been able to do with any of my people. More than Telf, more than Cassie, more than Tobias. I told her things I could barely admit to myself.

I told her about the human kissing I'd done with Telf.

"Well, it's just a little thing," I'd began as we sat at the edge of the forest, on a fallen log, facing the mountains, watching the snow melt. "Just something I think might be of interest to your sociological—anthropological—"

I stopped and paced myself as Hayley regarded me, amused.

"I'm a little embarrassed," I admitted.

"Well, if you don't feel comfortable, don't feel pressured," she said, rubbing my arm.

"No, I want to tell you. It's the kind of thing that, a year ago, I wouldn't have even admitted to myself, but I don't want to be like that anymore."

"That's quite a lot of responsibility you're putting on me, Governor Hamee," she said with a wink.

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to overburden you. I just...it's...I consider you—"

"A friend," she said. "As do I. My mentor would probably kill me. Non-involvement was one of her most closely held tenets. But she's in the Congo jungle right now, and she's not me."

The title touched me, and I felt my chest swell in certainty.

"I kissed Telf like a human," I said. "He nurses from me, as a form of contraception, but the last time he did it, I...I liked it. And I think that's because it felt like we were kissing like humans."

Hayley removed her hand from my arm and stared forward, eyes narrowed in consideration. "I don't think it's particularly strange," she said.

"That's because you're a human."

"No, I mean, even in that context...I mean, I wouldn't particularly judge anyone if they liked nursing from a mother, or being nursed from by a lover, who am I to decide what's right and wrong? It sounds like that bit was just more circumstantial, anyway, to the...human thing."

"It's not natural."

"It's not natural for humans, either. You think we gain anything from rubbing our mouths together? Natural and culturally acceptable are not the same thing."

"Well, it's not culturally acceptable, either."

"See, that's where I think you're wrong, Toby. I think you're a unique case, in the history of humanity, perhaps even in the history of the universe. Is there any other being that has to equally subscribe to their own culture, and an alien one? Sure, you're the foremost postergirl for Hork-Bajir, but you probably understand and exist within human culture more than many humans do."

I sighed, thinking of my great-grandmother, thinking of Elfangor. Thinking of Aximili and Tobias, even. "I'm not that unique."

Hayley watched me for a while. "More stuff you can't tell me?"

I smiled at her. "Perhaps someday. Not today."

"Well, regardless, I think you were just experimenting with your human side. And I think that's perfectly okay." She fiddled with her gloves, avoiding eye contact.

It was my turn to watch her now. "No you don't."

She laughed a little. "Well, Toby, if I can be brutally honest," she said.

"Please."

"I haven't known you for long, but I have known you long enough to make some observations," she said. "I think you are intrinsically Hork-Bajir, because you are a Hork-Bajir. I think you're intrinsically human because you feel like you have to be."

I furrowed my brow. "I don't understand."

"For two years now, the majority of your time has been spent with humans. Coddling us, working for us, trying to carve a little space of your own in a people that don't look like you, don't act like you, don't particularly want or need you here. It's racial tension on a species scale. It's an uphill battle and it will only ever get worse.

"I don't think it's a pointless battle. It's a very necessary one, and one that I don't envy you at all for having to fight. But I think it's easy to lose the distinction between the need to do something and the need to do it perfectly. And I think, right now, you're too close to the second."

I sighed. "So what should I do? Quit?"

"No. I wish I could tell you yes, because I think all this time you're spending with the humans is slowly killing you. But you are the link between humans and Hork-Bajir, and without that link, what hope is there for either of us? I'm just saying, maybe it doesn't have to be so absolute. You are Governor Hamee, after all, even to us. When's the last time that meant you were in charge of your people, and not a human staff?"

I looked at her. "I tried, for a while. I had story nights, I comforted those who'd lost loved ones, I was there for the few births that have happened..."

"Those are the things people expect you to do. And by people I mean humans. I think you need to involve yourself more with your people. I think you need to be more Toby the Seer and less Toby the Diplomat. Does that make sense?"

"It seems so simple," I said, shaking my head. I curled my hands into fists and pressed them to my chest. "I feel so much more than that."

"I think you'd be surprised at how easy it is to fix insurmountable problems sometimes." She said with a wink. "We commit ourselves to such narrow, flawed groves, running around in a circle we just make deeper with every pass. Sometimes if you just hop out of that pattern for a little bit, the world can be a whole new place."

So I tried.

The following day, I informed my human staff that I would be delegating much of my daily work to them. Cassie and Ronnie were out on a scout, and Melody was filing her nails, waiting for the phone to ring, so it didn't even seem like I was disrupting that much. Marie was working diligently on updating a database of fast food places within 50 miles of all the entrances to the park, a task I felt was tragically beneath her, but her dedication outstripped anyone else in that cabin. Brenda got me to sign a few papers, but even she seemed unfazed by my decision.

"I figured it would happen someday," she said. "Plus, that professor gave me a call. Told me to go easy on you. So what will you be doing instead?"

"I think I need to reintroduce myself to my people," I said. "There's work to do in the park, more nuanced work than what I've been doing. I think I just need to be a presence for a while. Remind them they're not alone."

"All right. As long as you can stay in contact. Maybe we should get you a cell phone. Or one of those long-range walkies."

I went back to the park that day. It was late February, warming, but most of my people were still by the springs, so I just sat apart and observed for a while. I noticed a few patterns I liked to see, others I found troubling. Noticed a sort of border creeping among all the different hot springs, groups of people who sat apart from others. Noticed young men holding young women by their arms, touching their bellies. I smiled. New mothers only recently aware of the fact that they would be. I noticed things I hadn't been able to notice in months, the way they interacted, the way they operated.

And I went to work.

I confirmed the pregnancies of over a dozen females that day, almost all of them young, new mothers. At about midday, I noticed Telf going around to most of them, and I smiled to him, realizing he was finding his own niche within our community, his own role and purpose as obstetrician. I talked to the groups that avoided each other. No pressing questions yet, but I began the slow process of working my way to the heart of the problem.

And, at about 3:00, I went home.

I spent two hours with Jara and Telf. I brought bark that was as ripe and soft as I could find, I cut it for Jara who let me, even though he was old and sharp enough to cut it himself. I sat and talked to him for the longest period of time I ever had. I discovered the names of his two best friends, a fact I had been completely unaware of until that point. He talked a little bit about Stek, in an admiring way, and when he did, Telf looked to me and gave me a knowing smile. I had to resist rolling my eyes, and I refused to believe that meant anything yet.

This went on for a long time, and after about a week, I noticed physical manifestations of my anxiety melting away. My right eyelid twitched involuntarily sometimes, often right before bed, and that quickly stopped. I stopped compulsively picking at my claw and blade cuticles, I stopped chewing on my lips until they bled. I slept more soundly than I had in years.

The attitude in the park seemed to shift as well. Some people, of course, were not thrilled about the fact that I was a much more visible presence, but those they tormented and teased were openly thankful. As time went on, I began to realize the tension in the springs was due to former hosts who had victimized members of the valley community, and vice versa—something I'd been entirely unaware of, something I hadn't even considered. I knew it would take time to fix, but both groups were willing and excited to work with me to achieve peace.

Telf and I were getting better, too, collectively recovering from the impact my depression had had on us. Hayley had encouraged me to discuss the kiss with him, though I was not thrilled to. I sat down with him in late March, in a small meadow bustling with brand new wildflowers and grass stalks.

"You know it's not winter anymore," I said once I was sure we were alone.

"Yes. Winter over. Toby back still not hurt?" He asked.

"No, I don't think we'll have another kawatnoj this year," I said with a smile, taking his hand. "All the same, I would like to talk about that...that tryst, if you don't mind."

"If Toby want," he said.

"I, um...I think I made you uncomfortable."

"Telf not uncomferble when make sex with Toby," he said, smiling a little, squeezing my hand.

"No, I know. Just, when I made you...when I asked you..."

"Asked Telf what?" He was scooting closer.

"Asked you to keep drinking from me." I said. Telf had slunk over me, put a hand on my hip.

"Make Telf uncomferble?" He asked, perplexed. "Why that make Telf uncomferble?"

"I don't know. You reacted...strangely. I don't want you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable."

"But Toby like it," he said. I blushed.

"That doesn't mean anything if you don't."

"Don't like it?"

"Yes, Telf." I sighed. I was on my back, and I looked behind me, ashamed.

"Telf not not like it," he said. "Toby like it, so Telf do it."

I shook my head. "You have to stop being so selfless with me," I snapped. "It comes off as obsequious."

Telf looked troubled. "Toby like it, so Telf do it," he repeated.

"At least...there has to be something you like, that we haven't done yet. Something you've never asked me to do before. I want to be fair, so if there's anything...anything different, I want to give it to you."

"Different like what?"

"I don't know, Telf, anything you want to do that we haven't done?"

"Toby do everything Telf want," he said.

"Yes, but—"

He put a finger at the tip of my beak. "Toby Hamee is different," he said. "That all Telf want."

I smiled. "Are you sure?"

"Well, want Toby, and want Toby now."

And, for our first post-winter encounter, he made love to me on the meadow floor, and though my glands had healed by then, and it served no real purpose, he kissed me with his mouth.

Things were good, and they were improving, but that does not mean they were perfect. Jara and I were building the foundation of a relationship, but it was still much more precarious and distant than I wanted, and the frequent spring thunderstorms only reminded me how much ground we still had to cover. Hayley and I met often, but with the amount of research she'd already procured, she had to start leaving to process it, form the structure of a thesis that could carry a whole book. She asked if she could have a couple of research assistants, which I agreed to, and they often came to the park to observe, take notes, draw sketches instead of her.

All the same, her influence on me was profound and permanent. I only went to the human cabin a couple of times a week, but I'd trained my staff so well that most of the decisions they made were the same I would have.

I was happy.

The summer was excellent, though Telf was busier than he ever had been, now with a burgeoning occupation of his own. He'd spent the late winter and most of the spring tending to the over 200 pregnant women strewn throughout the park. He commended Jara and me often, citing us as the reason that so many couples were comfortable now with starting families of their own ("Toby Hamee show people have kawatnoj is good!"), but I think he was being rather presumptuous. Even if their libidos were half as strong as mine and Telf's, I doubt they could have remained celibate for three winters in a row.

He tried to assist with all of the births, but multiple overlaps and large population dispersement prevented him from doing so. I helped with the backlog when I could, but there were a few that occurred unassisted. A few of those ended in the deaths of the children, more than I would have ever liked to see, which devastated the parents, caused Telf endless guilt. I told him that Earth was still a foreign, harsh place and that he couldn't blame himself for things like that, and that he should be proud that he'd protected the lives of all the mothers, but after two in a row that he'd witnessed directly, there was a couple of days that he lay in our tree, quiet and inconsolable, and it made me mournful for the time I'd spent like that.

Birth, even when covered in blood and discharge and threatened by death and complication, is always a beautiful thing to witness, and from late May until the middle of August, all of our conversation revolved around it. We never stated it directly, but it was clear to both of us that we were going to try for another kawatnoj the following winter, and perhaps that hope was what finally snapped him out of his grief.

Of course, there was a lot of work to do in the interim. Almost five months after the bomb, the president decided to make a highly publicized and personal visit to the park, along with a number of senators and representatives, all of whom had seats of the Committee on Extra-Terrestrial Affairs and Diplomacy.

It irritated me, because it was completely out of my control and forced me to work in the cabin for almost six weeks in a row in the loveliest weather that we got in the park, at the peak of my sterile period with Telf. He was rightfully relaxing after the last of the new kawatnoj was born, and now over a year old, Jara was resisting our daily structure for him with that particular brand of adolescent angst and vigor. He snuck off with his friends and Stek a lot, I think on an unofficial mission to map the borders of our domain, and perhaps play doctor. By that time I'd accepted that he and Stek would pair off, and I'd grudgingly come to acknowledge that Teb and Brik would soon be in-laws. However, Jara's new habits and Telf's well-deserved vacation left me to my human side for well over a month.

The trial for Visser One had come and passed, which made Cassie a little less tense, a little warmer and less judgmental, but there was always the rumor and fear that Jake would decide to make an appearance, now that he was active again. My staff was horribly intimidated by him, and gossiped stiffly whenever Cassie and Ronnie left on another scout or errand. The talk pained me, but I let it continue.

It reminded me of Tobias, whom I hadn't seen since the bomb, but still left books for on a diligent, weekly basis. I tried to read them before I did so, in case he was in his tree and wished to discuss them, but he never made his presence known if he was, and I respected his privacy too much to pry.

The truth was, for the most part, I was glad that the Animorphs had not involved themselves with my people, my life. Even before the war had ended, knowing the weight of their burdens burdened myself. And none but Tobias and Cassie were ever concerned with fostering a friendship with me, so I was more than content to leave them in my past.

Even so, I agreed with the gossip. I knew Jake would come eventually, and I wondered if this unofficial international conference would be the opportunity he would take.

After ramping up security; doing background checks on the caterers, tent renters, and string quartet; carefully sanctioning off the media area, the restricted area, and the tour all participants would take; and informing my people of where they should go and not go for the following three nights, dozens of helicopters and limousines found their way into the park.

I was terrified that terrorists would take this as an opportunity to attack us again, but along with National Guardsmen and Secret Service, a fair number of Marines armed with assault rifles and undercover agents patrolled the periphery of the festivities. Each entrance into the party tents was manned by a federal officer and metal detector, and any number of contracted security agents patrolled the borders of the park. Once everyone was in action, I was less afraid of terrorists harming my people and more terrified of a trigger-happy guard doing so.

However, I put those fears out of my mind as I mingled at the opening night banquet dinner, meeting in person the people who openly debated and decided the future of my people, eating a better selection of bark than the last party I'd attended, since it was harvested a little more recently. I was just scraping a series of spider eggs of a piece when I felt someone poke me in the shoulder.

"So they let trash like you into a fancy party like this?" I heard.

I turned around, seeing the brightly smiling face of my sole human friend in a pretty pink satin dress. "Hayley, I didn't know if you would make it." I said, touching her arm. "You look beautiful."

"Well, I'd be out here in my jeans and sweatshirt if I could. Curse whatever man invented 'dress code.'"

"No, it suits you well." I smiled, taking a bite.

"I miss anything exciting?"

"Not yet. The president plans to make an opening speech, and I believe I'm expected to close the festivities."

"You nervous?"

"No, just annoyed."

Hayley laughed. "All right, don't work too hard, Governor. And don't correct me, that's what you are tonight."

I was glad to have a life raft in this sea of unfamiliar, self-serving, powerful faces. Hayley spent all night muttering sarcastic quips to me, making everyone else in the room supremely jealous. I was good, and for a few periods during the night I left her side and made my rounds, but she was always there, waiting with a glass of champagne for herself and another strip of bark or dandelion-infused water for me. I was a little lubricated and light-headed by the time the president finally took the stage.

"Representatives, volunteers, professors, activists, friends and family, humans and aliens, welcome. Thank you all for coming here tonight. I know it's a big trip for most of us cityfolk, and a huge sacrifice for our local friends." The crowd applauded, and I watched her, captivated by her slow, honest sincerity.

"Thanks to the long, dedicated hours of the staff here at the park, and the absolute devotion to Hork-Bajir equity of Governor Hamee, I am thrilled to see that the population of our alien friends, once on the brink of extinction, already fully overtaken by a dominating force, is thriving, innovating, making a new life for themselves."

Another light smattering of applause. The logical part of my brain heard and resented her words, as if we'd achieved some acceptable state of being, but her oratory prowess was pacifying all of my discontent.

"Though I love seeing that a species, victimized by such unforgivable violence and overwhelming slavery, is finding its footing in a modern world, I am absolutely averse to repeating the mistakes of our ancestors, of making the Hork-Bajir victims of a new human hegemony. Hork-Bajir will not face the kind of brutality that blacks, Native Americans, women, and countless others have faced. I won't stand for it."

Now I was getting angry. Even with the lead that Tobias had provided for us, the investigation of the February bombing had stalled and was in danger of getting closed altogether. Her words were next to meaningless.

"In order to ensure that this kind of marginalization does not happen again, I have called this convocation for a very specific purpose. Governor Hamee—Toby—"

I glared, but tried to conceal my contempt from the general group. I shifted to make myself apparent.

"Come up here, Toby."

I walked toward the stage, through the wide passage that the humans left. Peace or no, I was still covered in blades and they made sure to get out of the way. I climbed the stairs and stood off to the side.

"Toby Hamee, you're a fantastic leader, a loyal diplomat, a hero from the war that has changed the face of Earth forever, and, most of all, a dear friend. As President, I'd like to appoint you to the House of Representatives, as a non-voting delegate."

I blanched. The humans applauded, but Hayley covered her mouth with a hand.

"It's an important position. You will have voting authority on the Committee on Extra-Terrestrial Affairs and Diplomacy, and will have the right to listen in on any meetings of the full house that you'd like. You can start immediately." She held out a strong, defiant hand. "Congratulations, Toby."

I stepped forward to carefully shake it. "I really don't know what to say, Madam President."

"Well, I can help you there. Say yes!" The crowd chuckled, still applauding this meaningless and thus exceptional gesture.

I hated her. Right then, I decided I hated her. So soon after I'd concluded that my happiness, mental well-being, and effectiveness of my authority depended on close proximity to my people, the president offers to send me away. Makes it a selfless gift, a minimal offer of equality and representation. If I rejected, I would come off as insular and ungrateful.

But oh how I wanted to.

"Thank you, Madam President."

The President gestured for everyone to calm down. "Now, I realize that the majority of your work is here, with your people. The Committee on Extra-Terrestrial Affairs and Diplomacy meets quarterly, and the government will of course cover any travel expenses. For now, everyone eat and drink, and enjoy the festivities!"

The President grabbed me by the hand and introduced me to the other members of the Committee I'd be sitting on. They discussed the recent release of Andalite air purification technology into fair use, and how firms in Los Angeles, New York, Mexico City, and Beijing had already opened up plants, they discussed the most recent tally of Taxxon nothlits in the rainforest, they discussed proposed Yeerk nothlit registration programs. I nodded when I could and offered one-word opinions, my head was still swimming in rage and helplessness. About twenty minutes later, Hayley came by with another glass of dandelion extract.

"You all right?" She asked.

"How can you say no when every force in the room is compelling a yes?" I hissed, gulping down the liquid.

"She can't appoint you to the House. You have to be elected."

"Even I know that detail doesn't matter. Who else are my people going to vote for?"

"I'm just saying, you could throw it."

I scoffed. "To who?"

"Toby," she said, putting her hand on my forearm, in the place she always did, "you don't have to do this. You're not a slave anymore."

I sighed and frowned. "I never was."

I gave my prewritten closing speech despite the surprise. The applause was much lighter, the atmosphere more confused as I drilled through the words. I finished and stepped from the podium before the applause died.

Hayley was outside the tent, and I found her, smoking what appeared to be a cigarette. "THC isn't poisonous to you, is it?"

"I don't care," I said. "Let's go to the hearth."

"Really?"

"I want to talk to you, and that's the only place everyone else isn't allowed, right?"

"Well, all right then."

I walked briskly, and though Hayley tripped frequently on her dress, she seemed desperate enough to keep up with me that she didn't bother trying to preserve it. We passed a couple of dozing sentry guards, whose blades flared up when they heard the distinct sound of human footfalls but relaxed when I waved them down.

As soon as we passed the boundary, I calmed down. Being among my people automatically siphoned the anxiety of impressing the humans, of being considered a part of them. Hayley was right. There was a horrible, necessary part of me that longed for their approval, but resented them when they gave it. Humans only ever expect more from you. They would continue shoveling responsibilities on to me until I cracked from the burden.

"Beautiful," Hayley said, fingering a sketch of a girl that some lovestruck adolescent male had made. "And this, they dig down to the roots of the trees, extract bark from there. Is it better beneath the root line, or is just because they're running out?"

"Hayley, please. You've broken the boundary once, I won't revoke permission now."

"You mean I can come here whenever I want? You sure you want to open that can of worms?"

"It will be for ETR recipients only. Brian only comes once a month for tissue samples, and Jeong is working in a totally different section of the park right now. If he insists, I'll relent."

"Just so you could talk to me in private?"

"It's very important," I said, and my voice cracked on the last word. I raised my hands to my eyes and began to cry.

"Oh, Toby," she said, stepping forward. Through my fingers I saw her trying awkwardly to find a path through which to hug me, but then she just huffed and gave up. I laughed at her.

"Well, as long as I made you feel better," she scoffed. "You really shouldn't let this hurt you. Quarterly, Toby. Once every three months."

"And what I already have is too much. I can't take on another responsibility."

"Sure you can. And, for the record, you're totally ignoring the positives."

"What positives?"

"Well, for one, you have the power now to influence legislation directly, and not just through lobbyists. Think of all the time and money you spend instructing them, now all of that can go away."

"We still need them. We can't give up our partnerships with Chang and Polaski in the Senate."

"And they'll finally get to meet you in person."

I sighed deeply. "Have you ever been to Washington? It's horrible."

"Only for everyone working there." She smiled. "This does not undo the decision you made," she said, leaning in and taking one of my hands. "You can still spend more time with Telf and Jara. You can still get out of your groove."

I smiled and squeezed it back. "You want a tour?"

"I would love one."

"Toby?" I heard from above. Telf dropped from about twenty feet over our heads a safe distance away.

"Telf," I laughed a little, stepping forward as he stood tall. "How long were you listening?"

He looked down, bashful. "Not so long. Telf not like to break in."

"Oh, you wouldn't be interrupting, my love. We're in the hearth now, this is our place."

"Toby come home soon?"

I glanced back at Hayley. "Right after I introduce you to someone." Hayley stepped forward cautiously, smiled at Telf. "Telf, this is my human friend, Hayley Markowicz."

"Hayy-leee," he repeated, drawing out the syllables, punctuating it with a quick hee-haw.

"Hayley's the one drawing pictures of the kawatnoj, talking to many of the new kalashi and kalashu."

Telf took my hands and glanced slowly, thoughtfully between Hayley and myself.

"Do Hayley walk with Toby?" He asked me.

"Yes, you know. We meet every Wednesday afternoon."

"Wenzzday..." Telf repeated, the word meaningless to him.

"Come on Telf, you know. I come see you and Jara afterwards."

Telf again glanced between Hayley and me, then smiled brightly, dropped my hands, and swooped toward her.

She shrieked as he scooped her up in a strong, dedicated hug. I scrambled right behind him.

"Telf, no! She's a human, she can't—"

"It's all right, Toby," Hayley assured, gesturing me down, and Telf swung her back and forth a few times.

"Hayley make Toby so, so happy," he said, and I took a step back. "Toby was so sad. Hayley make Toby happy."

I felt a stab of guilt. I hadn't even realized my friendship with Hayley could influence other areas of my life, nor that her influence would be so noticeable.

"You make her very, very happy too, you know," Hayley said, ringing her arms around his neck.

They embraced for a while as I stood back, a little embarrassed, a little comforted. Telf put her down and then hugged me just as vigorously.

"Human party good?" He asked.

"We can talk about it later," I said. "Is Jara asleep?"

"Jara snore, make Telf awake," he said.

"That I don't believe," I teased.

"No, Telf just wait for Toby. Very glad he did," he said, smiling back at Hayley.

"I'm glad you did, too," she said.

I gave Hayley a quick tour of the hearth after that, and she met with a number of my people, who were confused about the presence of a human, but just as kind and welcoming as they always were. It was dark, and she didn't have her tools, so she couldn't do that much research, but it was a good trial run.

Later that night, after Telf and I made love above the canopy, watching the stars slowly rotate into day, Telf kissed me with his headblades.

"Toby is happy now, with Hayley."

"She helped a lot. You did more."

"Telf not fix Toby like that," he said, his voice a little forlorn.

I flipped over and rose to my elbows. "You can't hold yourself accountable for how I am on the inside, Telf."

He frowned. "In Yeerk Pool, Telf's job to make kalashi happy, so they make kawatnoj. All Telf know," he said. "But Toby Hamee is so different."

I sighed. "I know. I'm selfish. I need a little bit more than that."

Telf smiled and touched my face. "Telf think that okay."

I left for the first session of Congress something like a month later. The committee meetings had the rare, wonderful distinction of being simultaneously stupefyingly boring and necessarily enraging. Most of the members, I quickly gathered, were on the committee mainly because news channels obsessed over it, and very little of the legislation it wrote was received poorly by the public. Eight of the nine committee members had seen double-digit approval rating bumps since its inception, and all were on track for reelection.

That didn't mean, of course, that they did anything productive. For the four days we were in session, I spoke very little unless I was directly addressed, and when I was, I tried my best to form my responses without revealing the anger I felt at their clear dismissal of the very real issues they should be dealing with. Most of what we discussed had to do with quickening the pace of releasing Andalite technology to computer, medical, and industrial firms, because the business sector was eager for the increased profits they would provide and the representatives were eager for the kickbacks those profits would inspire. The whole thing sickened me.

That is not to say, of course, that I hated everyone on the committee. They were all constantly strategizing about reelection, but a couple were secure enough with their constituents that they decided to attempt some real, positive change. Representative Denmark from New Hampshire had discussed writing a bill that would clearly define our legal status as United States territory, now that I was an official delegate, and she assured me that her ultimate goal was citizenship for my people. Another congressman, Paulson from Colorado, wanted to discuss starting a new colony in the Aspen forests of the Rockies, and was collaborating with Denmark to ensure that they would receive the same rights.

Despite the clear advocacy they offered, I still felt somehow dissatisfied with the tone and level of their discourse. It wasn't until I got back to the valley that I understood why.

I landed in West Yellowstone sometime around 3:00 in the morning, though I'd actually arrived almost nine hours early, due to a favor the vice president granted in lending me Air Force Two. I decided not to wake Jara or Telf, and returned to the cabin to find Marie, reorganizing the filing cabinet.

"Are we paying you yet?" I asked, startling her so much that a file folder full of invoices burst and fluttered around her.

"$600 a week," Marie answered, clutching her chest. "You really scared me."

"That's wretched. You work harder than anyone here. Then again, I can barely take care of my own people's problems. I don't think human income disparity is one I'm qualified to tackle."

"Well, hearing that from you is certainly worth something," she said with a smile, stooping slowly to reorganize the folder. I walked to Brenda's desk and sat heavily down. "Long flight?"

"Always," I sighed. "I thought I'd work on the next session's proposal draft until the sun came up, but I kind of just want to put my head down."

Marie scoffed, more bitter than amused.

"What?" I asked.

"Oh...nothing, Toby."

"No, tell me. Like I said, you work harder than anyone here. I think that gives you undervalued insight."

"Well...no, it's stupid. I should mind my own business."

I stood up and helped her pick up the last of the pages. "The way I understand it, we are your business. Unless you've had a change of heart."

Marie tapped the folder on a desk, making the pages fall in line. "No, I just...I'm kind of wary about expressing opinions here."

"I don't come off as that evangelical, do I?"

"A little bit, I guess," she shrugged, looking down.

I crossed my arms. "Try me."

"It's just...I hate when everyone thinks the ultimate goal for the Hork-Bajir on Earth is American citizenship," she began. "Like that's the greatest thing we can offer you. A chance to vote in meaningless elections and pay taxes."

I narrowed my eyes. I considered even that to be a rhetorical pipe dream, but Marie wanted even more.

"So what is the ultimate goal, then?" I asked.

"Isn't it obvious?" She asked. "Sovereignty. A sovereign, independent, autonomous Hork-Bajir nation."

I wanted to bark out a laugh, scream in anger, and burst into tears in such equal portions that all I could do was continue staring at her, barely supporting a vague simper.

"You think it's funny," she guessed.

"No, not funny. Just unexpected," I said.

She shrugged, surrendering for now. "It just makes me mad, I guess. Being so dedicated to going in the wrong direction."

I nodded. "Thank you for telling me."

Marie scoffed again. "Don't even worry about it, Governor."

Marie went back to organizing her files as I processed the thought she had unloaded to me. "It's entirely infeasible," I said. "There is no physical land for us to occupy."

"None unclaimed and habitable, no. That doesn't mean you don't deserve it."

"Deserve," I repeated. "If I made goals based on what we deserve."

"I'm not saying that it's not idealistic. But come on, Toby. You really want to be under the heel of Uncle Sam until the Andalites fix your homeworld? You really want to obey laws written for an entirely different species? Even if this volatile political climate somehow magically gives you citizenship, makes you the 51st state or whatever, you're still a state. It's not enough. It's doomed to fail. The only way Hork-Bajir and humans can be at peace is if there's legal, defined borders between our people."

I clenched my jaw, and in my hearts I knew she was right.

"You made the right decision keeping Yeerks out of here," Marie said. "Sure, desegregation is an honorable goal amongst humans. For us, it's better to force our similarities than our differences. But I think when it comes to aliens...oh, I don't know. I know how even though that Yeerk was inside my head, he couldn't understand the half of what it means to be human. That's more than enough to convince me that we should all stay separate. And come on," she said, getting serious, "if those Andalites ever do fix your homeworld, and even scrape up the transports to get you there, whose flag do you think will be planted on your homeworld first?"

My breath caught in my chest. I hated her, in that moment, for unveiling one of my greatest, most deeply guarded fears.

And I trusted her completely.

"I...well, it's certainly an interesting theory," I said diplomatically. "I'll be sure to keep it in mind, in future meetings with the Committee."

"I bet you love that circlejerk. Sorry, I should get out of here. I've been in this cabin for about eleven hours too long."

Marie brushed past me and left me alone with my thoughts.

The truth was, I was so unsettled by her suggestion merely because I implicitly, automatically, deeply agreed with her. I always felt like any treaties or meetings or committees I worked on with the humans were a farce, an exercise in self-delusion, some kind of political theater. I understood it, of course. Humans feel that if they're not working towards something, then that means they're working against it. If they hadn't been writing legislation, even legislation that would turn out to do more harm than good, then it meant they were against our cause.

But Marie was right. And when I went home that morning to take a nap before tackling the day that followed, I couldn't help but view myself in a way that I hadn't in years.

Warrior. Freedom fighter. Maybe the Hork-Bajir would fight for their independence from an oppressive force once again.

I thought about it a lot over the next few months. In fact, it would probably be accurate to say that I thought about it more than any other one thing until that winter.

Telf was distracted by something else, though.

"Telf not want forget anything," he said to me as we sat in our tree one chilly October afternoon. "Think, do what humans do. Humans good at not forget. But Telf scratch burned twig on birch. Not help."

"What?" I asked. "What were you...oh, you were trying to write. Write what?"

"Scratch so birch remember, not Telf," he said, tapping his temple. "Write...write..."

"A note?" I offered. "A reminder? A list?"

"Yes! Telf write list."

"What did you want to put on the list?" I asked.

"Put what need to do so Toby more comferble. When have kawatnoj, not want Toby be so hurt, like with Jara."

I smiled to him. "That's very sweet, Telf."

Telf smiled back. "Make kawatnoj soon," he said. "Do better this time."

I smiled sadly, wanting to disagree, but I decided not to. "What sorts of things should we put on the list?"

Telf sat me down, put his hands on my shoulders. "Telf learn much these seasons, Toby. Learn better if kalashi sleep on belly before belly grow."

I dug up my diary, turned to the last page, and wrote it down. "I wonder why that is," I said. Telf shrugged.

"Telf also learn that too much time in springs make kawatnoj turn yellow when born." I dutifully transcribed the note.

"What else?" I asked.

"Telf learn...Telf learn..." He covered his eyes with a hand and started to cry.

I dropped the notebook and headed over to him. "What did I do?" I asked. "Telf, what's wrong?"

"Telf not know everything," he sobbed. "Toby so different, so sad after Jara, when kawatnoj make kalashi happy. Why Toby get sad?" He asked, turning up to me.

I shook my head. "It's not your fault. It's...it's complicated."

"Not want Toby be sad again," Telf cried. "Want kawatnoj, but want Toby happy more."

"Telf, I tell you all the time. I want another kawatnoj, too. Another child will make me happy."

"No, Telf know Toby say that. But Toby say that before Jara, too."

I sighed, rubbing him on the back as he continued to cry.

"Telf doesn't trust Toby anymore," I posited. Telf turned around.

"Telf trust Toby," he said, taking my hand. "Telf just think...Toby Hamee so different, maybe Toby Hamee not even know how much."

"I think you're right," I said. "But I know this, Telf. I know this much. I will be happy with another kawatnoj. I won't be sad like with Jara."

"Why Jara Getrin make Toby so sad?" He pressed. "Why should kawatnoj not make kalashi happy?"

"It's very complicated, my love, but the simplest way I can explain it is that it wasn't about Jara at all. Jara didn't make me sad. Things Jara made me realize made me sad."

Telf frowned. "How Toby know won't happen again?"

"I just do, Telf. Please don't be sad about this. I'm happy, and you should be too. We're going to have another kawatnoj. A brother, maybe, for Jara."

Telf gave me a very unconvincing smile. "Maybe Toby make girl kawatnoj," he said.

"Well, those are the two possibilities."

I knew I hadn't convinced Telf entirely, and that was only because after all this time, he'd actually managed to get to know me. The truth was, I wasn't sure what would happen with another child, and I couldn't say with certainty that he or she wouldn't decimate me just as much as Jara had. I thought they wouldn't. I thought my work with Hayley about who I was had helped me, but I didn't know for sure. And Telf wasn't a genius, but he was smart enough to look for patterns in the chaos. The one I'd begun with Jara was scary enough to assume it might repeat itself.

That didn't stop me, once my winter hormones kicked in, from seducing him.

Or at least attempting to.

"What do you mean, 'stop?'" I squealed, opening my palms as Telf crossed his legs and rolled onto his stomach, all but fortifying himself against me. "Mother's got Jara, we're all alone, and I've told the humans not to contact me for anything tonight! What is wrong with you?"

"Toby say no to Telf before. Telf not get so mad," he grumbled, trembling beneath my touch.

I humphed, pulled away, moved away from him, knowing full well that distance wouldn't solve anything. "I'm sorry. You're right. I just don't understand why is all."

"Toby will," Telf assured. "Maybe Toby go stay with Ket too. Keep Jara warm."

"So what, we're sleeping in different beds now? What a wonderful development in our relationship."

"Toby," Telf chided, glaring at me. "If Toby here, Telf make sex with her."

"And why is that a bad thing?" I squealed again.

"Toby, please."

"You still don't believe me," I guessed. "Telf, I want another child with you. Please believe me."

"Toby!" He cried, thrashing around. "Please go!"

I could barely contain my rage as I climbed down the tree. Mother was glad to see me, since Dude had found his own tree several months ago, but I was a rather poor houseguest, so she spent most of her time playing with Jara. Telf continued refusing me for almost two more months, and I was just about on my last particle of patience and self-esteem when he finally came and found me at the cabin during a rather violent snowstorm in the middle of December.

"Toby Hamee, can Telf Getrin come in?" He asked, poking his snout through the cracked front door to prevent curls of snow from blowing in. The humans all chuckled at his over-politeness, but it only served to better break my hearts.

"What do you want, Telf?" I asked, going over to the door. "and for God's sake, come in out of the cold."

Telf stepped inside, stamping off his feet, and even the sight of snow and slush sliding down his body made me swoon from hormones. He put a hand on my waist and leaned in to whisper in my ear.

"Toby please come with Telf," he said. "Telf explain everything."

"Out in this weather?" I said after a few moments of startled joy.

"Yes, ice-rain maybe make bad, but Toby need to come now."

"I...I have work to do," I said pathetically. I looked back into the crowded cabin. Jeong and Brian were on the phone, frantically trying to salvage their travel plans, and Hayley was sharing Melody's cubicle, sipping her hot something in a mug. She winked at Telf.

"No, Toby not have work. Telf make sure for that."

I turned back to him. "You what?"

"Please come with Telf," he said, taking my hand.

"Go on, get out of here, you crazy lovebirds," Hayley said.

"I...I don't understand," I said.

"Well, I'm not going to ruin it. Telf, get her out of here before she starts thinking too hard."

Telf tugged my hand and I swallowed hard as we headed out into the storm.

"Where are we going?" I shouted over the howling wind and screaming snow. Telf held me close, and his body warmth, in addition to a glimpse I caught of him below the waist, almost made me throw him to the ground and take him right there. But Telf was steadfast and led me blindly through the storm until we reached an open field with a helicopter parked in it.

"What is this?" I asked. A man in a jumpsuit and headset jogged out to us once he spotted us.

"Come on, we need to leave now if we're going to take off tonight. They're keeping the runway clear for us, but this stuff keeps coming down harder and harder."

"Runway?" I asked.

"Toby not think," Telf said as he headed over to the helicopter. He put a foot on the runner and started to climb inside.

"What is he doing?" I asked the pilot. "He hates when I fly."

"I don't know, Governor. But you really need to get on board if we're going to get to the airport in time."

I was angry, confused, and very, very horny. I got inside the helicopter. Telf had just finished drying himself off, and moved over to me with a slightly damp towel.

"I'll do it," I snapped as he started to dry me. He smiled and handed me the towel.

"We're not seriously flying somewhere, are we?" I asked. The pilot was in the cockpit now, separated from us by a rather thick plastic window. He ran quickly down his checklist, fiddling with controls and switches. I looked back at Telf, who had his hands on his knees and his back pressed deeply into the seatback, eyes closed, breathing steadily.

I put a hand on one of his. "Are you all right?" I asked. Telf's lip quivered, but he nodded.

"Telf fine, Toby. Telf do like Toby when have Jara. Just breathe."

"Telf," I said slowly, with an edge I hoped would convey not taking no for an answer, "where are we going?"

He opened one eye and smiled to me. "Toby see."

We took off shortly after, and though I myself was rather nervous about flying in the weather, I spent most of that time keeping Telf calm. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, actually. With all of my efforts focused on him, I couldn't expend the brainpower to figure out what he had planned.

We got to West Yellowstone about an hour later, which was a smooth landing despite the snow. The pilot opened the hatch, and Telf got out first, still a little panicked and clammy. I squeezed his hand as I looked around the airfield, but he slipped away.

"You're charter's over there," the pilot said. "I'd walk you over with an umbrella, except I'm not a chauffer."

"Thanks a lot," I barked back. Telf started walking toward the plane in a stiff, jerky way. I took his hand and slunk beside him for body warmth.

"You sure you're okay?" I asked. Telf gulped but smiled again reassuringly.

"Yes, Telf okay."

We boarded the plane and I saw that it was one of the luxury versions, with big leather seats separated by a bottle of champagne on ice. I rolled my eyes as Telf nervously jerked himself to a seat. He brushed off the rose petals that someone had sprinkled on.

"Seriously, Telf, what is going on?"

"This is your captain speaking," came over the intercom. "The weather in Yellowstone is frightful, but I assure you that we'll take off on time and reach our final destination of delightful...oh, wait I'm not supposed to say. Very well. Buckle up your seatbelts, enjoy the amenities our wonderful crew has put out for you, and we'll reach out final destination in about three hours."

I walked up to the cabin door, knocked a few times and jiggled the handle, but it was bolted shut. I scoffed in frustration and headed back to Telf.

"Are you sure you're okay to fly for three hours?" I whispered. "And...Jara! Where is Jara, is he coming with?"

"No. Only for Telf and Toby."

"Only for..." I said. I looked again to the champagne, the rose petals. Entirely pointless concepts for Hork-Bajir, but the dear humans had tried to set the mood for us. "Oh, this is something romantic, isn't it?"

Telf smiled. "Telf sorry to keep Toby away so long. Telf want Toby very bad too."

I sat back as the jet engines whined and hummed, wrapped my fingers around his, relieved that Telf's self-imposed abstinence was not due to waning attraction. "You planned this for that long. So this would be what makes our next child." I put a hand over my heart and looked at him. "Telf, I'm really touched."

"Toby just wait," Telf said, squeezing my hand. He whined a little as the plane started moving.

"Don't worry, this part is scary, but it doesn't last long."

The flight was long, since Telf was barely containing his terror, and he swooned in nausea a couple of times, but keeping him calm now with a more tender heart was actually sort of pleasant. He held my hand, and I rubbed him just below the sternum to calm his stomach, and the flight attendants brought tiny bottles of water which I fed him diligently, and trying to relax him as he counted out his breaths served as decent foreplay.

We landed at the edge of a forest that some deep part of me recognized. We'd flown out of the weather, so the sky above us was clear navy blue painted with glittery stripes of stars and the temperature was on the verge of warmth. They loaded Telf and me onto an open-roofed Humvee with seats large enough that we were actually comfortable. He put his arm around me and I lay against his shoulder as we completed the penultimate leg of our journey.

"All right, this is as far as I go," our driver said as he hopped out of the driver's side, running around to open our door. I noticed he wore camouflaged fatigues and bore a firearm.

"Thank you, officer," I said, climbing out of the truck, Telf not far behind. "I can't get you to tell me where we're headed from here, can I?"

"Sorry, Governor Hamee. I am under a strict oath of secrecy." He smiled at Telf. "Here's a walkie, and a GPS programmed with these coordinates so you can find it after...well, after you're done. I'll be on channel three back at base. Call me when you're satisfied, and I'll come get you." The officer drove away after that, leaving Telf and I stranded on the edge of a massive forest.

"Toby okay?" Telf asked, putting a hand on my shoulder. I looked into the forest, and then back at Telf. As soon as I was sure the car engine noise was out of range, I grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him up against the trunk of a nearby tree.

"I want you now more than ever before." I thrust my headblades forward, but he was pulling away, hee-hawing indulgently.

"Toby stop!" He said, laughing, rolling out from beneath me. "Not there yet."

I pressed my cheek to the bark and caught my breath. "Where are we going?" I whined.

Telf clipped the walkie strap around his waist, hopped a few feet up the nearest tree, and held out a hand. "Toby follow Telf," he said. I sighed and took his hand.

I didn't really pay attention to direction, changes in course, anything like that as we swung. I let Telf take the lead and pretended I was chasing him, trying to catch him so he would finally give me what we both wanted. He had to stop a couple of times to reorient himself, and I only tried once more to mate with him, but he was so much better at refusing me than I am at refusing him, so much more graceful at laughing and pushing me away. After a couple of hours, he finally stopped, breathing hard, sweat running between the creases in his muscles, and waited for me to catch up.

"Toby close eyes," he said. "Telf climb, so Toby trust Telf."

I reached him and took his hand. "Are we there?" I asked.

Telf smiled. "Yes."

I closed my eyes as he slowly drew me up the tree we clung to. I felt us brush past leaves, branches that dwindled and fractaled into twigs. I felt my head clear the canopy and I asked if I could open my eyes.

"Yes, Toby. Open eyes."

I did so.

Standing before me, seemingly multitudes huger than I remembered it, was our tree. That massive sequoia, and even this far away, I could see the scars from Telf's knee blades, the bare, weathered strips where bark we'd eaten had once been.

"Oh, Telf," I said. My throat clenched and tears started pouring out of my eyes, and I barely even felt it. I covered my face in my hands and started to bawl.

"Toby," he said with concern. He held my jaw with his hands and made me look at him. "No, Toby not sad."

"I'm not," I cried. "I just...I never gave you enough credit, for...for..."

"For?"

"For your sense of direction!" I sobbed. Telf wrapped his arms around me and nudged me forward.

"Come on, Toby."

We leaped to our tree, and for about twenty minutes, we just hugged it, recalled its texture, reminisced about particularly memorable trysts, fingered the long scabbed-over stab wounds we'd inflicted upon it. We ate heartily, feeding each other, letting that potent aphrodisiac poison and overtake us. Slowly, the proximity to our tree became a proximity to each other, and before I knew it, Telf was hanging over me with my back to the tree, hooked by my wrist blades, working his way between my legs.

"Telf know Toby want kawatnoj," he said as he kissed me, as he teased me. "But want hear Toby say it one more time."

"I want another kawatnoj," I said. "More than anything." He moved his hips forward and pushed inside of me, and I could have melted from the sheer relief of that feeling.

Time quickly lost its meaning. The next time I looked up, the moon was overhead, and the time after that, the sky was overcast but light. We broke apart infrequently, and only to eat or relieve ourselves. After a couple of days, we got very thirsty and went to the nearby creek that trickled between the giant trees. Telf took the opportunity to wash the stench and sweat of lovemaking off of him, and I took him right there in the creek. I'd never been so aroused, so driven, so consumed by my lust for him. It made me remember those first few weeks of our relationship, when I was stressed and overextended in every meter of the valley except that tiny bubble we made for ourselves. Somehow, he'd managed to make this entire forest like that bubble. I could think of nothing but making love to him.

Though the power of my lust didn't taper off for days, before long, my rational mind bubbled up and decided to play along. Telf and I spent the lengthening periods between our trysts collapsed together, mostly being quiet, sometimes talking about the future, the past. We both knew that the practical purpose of our trip was complete, but neither of us were satisfied with that. We were searching for something more, though we couldn't put our finger on what it was.

"How did you plan this, anyway?" I asked, breaking a comfortable silence, on our second night. "That helicopter, and that plane...I understand the humans do a lot to accommodate me, but I don't think they'd do all that."

"No, Telf give pay."

"Pay? Money? You paid for it?"

"Hayy-lee help."

"Oh, Telf, why did you make her help?" I moaned. "Her grant's not supposed to go toward anything but research. If she gets caught, she might—"

"Hayley not use Hayley pay. Hayley use Toby pay."

"My money? I...oh, right." I vaguely remembered some discussion of compensation when I was appointed governor, but I reacted with the usual impatient hostility that I did when encountering any human chore I found sufficiently pointless. Marcus had volunteered to set up some kind of retirement account to feed my salary into, and I'd signed the papers without looking at them. Though I had little experience with human money and how they valued things, I remembered the salary $82,000, and that it was considered rather high. Two-plus years of that plus interest would more than buy Telf a couple of charter planes and helicopters.

"So I paid for this little getaway, did I?" I asked, pinching him on the chest. He hee-hawed and interlocked our hands.

"Toby pay, Telf do," he said, gesturing to our tree. I hugged him close as thanks, he leaned forward to kiss me, and just as quickly as I'd remembered, I completely forgot about my worth in dollars.

Altogether, we stayed at the tree a little over a week. Neither of us even mentioned returning to Yellowstone until Telf said he missed Jara, and I agreed.

"We should have brought him with us," I said, sitting in his lap wedged between the roots of the massive tree, tracing the indents of his abdominal muscles.

"Telf love Jara very much. Almost more than Toby," he said, "but Jara not good for this."

I smiled a little. "No, we certainly wouldn't be this...unguarded, if he was here."

"No."

I sighed deeply. "All the same, I would have loved believing I didn't have to go back."

Telf rested his chin on my shoulder and sighed. "Toby not like the park," he guessed.

"I just wish I could pretend like I wasn't chained there. Like we could run away forever, hide in some trees, never look back. But back is all that's ahead of us."

Telf pulled me tighter, scooted me further down his lap. The fact that he was ready and waiting came as no surprise at all.

"Toby not think," he said as lay himself over me, spreading my legs for the thousandth time, yet it still felt like the first. "Toby just be."

By the end of our trip, we were sleeping and eating more than we were mating, laying warm, full, and relaxed over each other until we regained the strength to mate. On the fifth night, he had staked himself high in our tree, so we could see the sparkling arm of the galaxy above us, the moon casting silver light and close shadows. Somehow, we'd managed to prolong our foreplay, and I rocked back and forth in a rhythm on his thigh as he caressed my headblades to the same beat. My arms were secured loosely around his waist, but my heel was embedded in his hip, giving me the anchorage to move. He whimpered and whined beneath me, running out of patience.

"Telf, I...wait," I said. I put my hands on his shoulders and pushed myself back. He sighed and untangled our headblades.

"Toby," he said, taking my hand. He pressed it to his cheek.

I wiped my other hand over my face and tried to clear my head, but his proximity was making it impossible.

"What wrong, Toby?" Telf asked, running my fingers around the edge of his beak.

"I just wanted...wanted to say..." I was amazed at how sensual an organ the hand was, how much blood flowed from my head elsewhere just due to that simple touch. Perhaps we'd simply used up everything else.

"Yes, Toby."

"This is it," I said. "We've mated several times over the past few days, but this is when our child will be conceived."

Telf pulled my hand away and looked up. He seemed confused. This was different than last time, when I didn't want to know.

"Okay," he said. "But why?"

"Because I need to say it. I need to hold myself accountable. I want...I want things to be different than last time."

Telf had let go of my hand, sitting back, disengaged but attentive. "Different how?"

"I'm taking the next six months off," I said. "Officially. You know as well as I that I'll still have duties, work to do. But as far as the humans will know, I'll be on sabbatical."

Telf smiled.

"And I'll listen to you this time," I said. "You be in charge. Not me. You know more about this than me anyway. If you tell me to do something, I'll do it."

"Even eat pond moss, if Telf say?" He asked. I swallowed back a sudden flare of nausea. He'd only tried to get me to eat algae once during my last pregnancy, and I'd nearly vomitted on his feet.

"I'll try," I said. "I want this to be different."

"Okay, Toby," he said as he pulled me closer and we began.

I know it may sound sentimental and perhaps even revisionist, but I do remember that tryst more than all the others. If I recall correctly, he made me climax twice, in two particular, complementary flavors, and I may have even cried when we finished.

Maybe.

We spent one more day in our tree, since he was getting restless and I could tell. I was being truthful when I said I would run away with him, away from the humans, away from my people, away from everything, just to be with him and Jara, if I could. I think he thought I was exaggerating, but I wasn't. And for a moment somewhere in there, I was totally convinced by the idea. Hork-Bajir aren't like humans. We don't require vast amounts of infrastructure for comfort. Telf, Jara, and I could have swung in any direction, found a good tree, and lived the rest of our lives in solitude and harmony. And a part of me wanted it deeply.

But on the seventh day, early in the morning, I woke to find Telf twisting the dial of the walkie talkie, pushing the button, making it chirp static. I rolled over to him, set it to the right channel, and summoned our ride.

"They'll be at the rendezvous in three hours," I said.

"Enough time for one more sex?"

I grinned mischievously. "I think there might be enough time for two."

We were back at the park by late that afternoon. Jara ran up to us and into Telf's arms as soon as our helicopter landed, and hugged me as well when I asked him to. Mother wasn't far behind, and touched my stomach before she even said hello.

"Yes, Toby make kawatnoj," she said with a warm smile. "Ket can tell."

"I brought you this," I said, holding up a slab of bark. Mother took it and offered it to Jara. "No, he gets his own too." I smiled, knelt in front of him, and held it out.

"Thank you, Mother Toby," he said, picking off shards of wood and a ladybug before sniffing it and taking a bite. I held his hand and waited until his attention turned back to me.

"I love you very much, Jara," I said to him, "and no matter what happens in the next few months, I don't want you to forget that."

He smiled. "Okay, Mother Toby." I resisted a frown at his formality and hugged him anyway.

"I have to get back to work," I said, rising to my feet. "But I want you to spoil him rotten today. Take him to the springs, find him a maple, see if there's any syrup left in any of them. Treat him like the king he is."

Telf pulled me into a close, intimate embrace and whispered in my ear: "When Toby feel back hurt, come tell Telf, yes?"

"Of course," I whispered back, kissing him. "Go have a good day with our son."

Maybe I should have gone with. But I headed back to the cabin instead, happy to find Hayley inside.

"Isn't Christmas in three days?" I asked her.

"Come on Toby, you know that makes no difference to me," she said. "But I'm actually headed out on the red eye. I just wanted to see you before I left."

"Well, here I am," I said with a big smile.

"Look at you, you're glowing," Hayley said with a laugh. "Pregnant already?"

"Inseminated, at least," I said candidly. "I think I just needed a vacation."

"Desperately," Hayley agreed with a laugh. "I'm glad you're feeling better. I want to talk to you about some things, when I get back."

"Should I worry?" I asked.

"No, not at all. I just want you to think about whether you'd be willing to give me permission to study you, as your pregnancy progresses."

I flushed, put a hand on my belly. "I don't even know if I am yet."

"Oh, I think you are. If Telf fulfilled even half of the plans he had for you, you are. Or you will be. Don't feel pressured, and don't answer yet. I want you to feel absolutely free to say no and I want you to think about it. But there, I asked."

I smiled and walked her to the access road where her ride to the airport was waiting. "Have a good holiday, Toby. I'll be back in a couple of weeks."

"I will, Professor."

I did as I told Telf I would. The next day, I officially took a leave of absence from my gubernatorial responsibilities. The response was basically a shrug, since it was not a true gubernatorial position, and I had no lieutenant, and everyone knew I would still fulfill most of the requirements of the job anyway. I just wanted to extricate myself from human expectations and focus on the growth my body and family would soon be experiencing.

It was three weeks later that my pregnancy was confirmed.

I was hanging around the springs, trying to settle a minor dispute about whether specific springs were subject to ongoing property rights (let's face it, I had to decide whether individuals could save their place), when I felt a sharp pain run up my flank.

"Mother Toby okay?" The young girl who had just been whining to me asked, reaching out. I doubled over, grabbed onto a boulder to steady myself.

"Yes, I'm fine. Just a cramp."

"Hot water good for that," the male she was quarreling with offered.

"Yes, but not this hot water," she said.

"No, this for Drak."

"For Reen!"

"DRAK!"

"Settle down, the both of you, or neither of you will get it," I snapped, leaning on the rock, trying to work out the kink in my back. I knew what it meant instantaneously, and was surprised that the pain was so much more severe and acute. "Share for now, or I'll let the children have it, and you know how little they respect the purity of this water. I need to go home."

I swung home as fast as I could, and flung myself feet-first onto our platform.

Telf was home, slicing out loose twigs from the platform and weaving them back in, and he smiled when he saw me.

"Toby okay?" He asked.

"I was...I was wondering if you could..." A giggle caught in my throat and interrupted me.

"Rub Toby's back?" Telf asked. I nodded and smiled, eyes watering, as he headed over and embraced me.

Telf didn't run around and tell everyone as soon as we knew like last time. In fact, he didn't spread the rumor at all. The pair at the springs leaked the tidbit, and the following morning, my mother swung into my tree and hugged me for almost ten minutes straight.

"Toby, can Ket ask something?"

I was laying on my stomach, purring, as Telf kneaded my back into liquid and my mother rubbed my feet. I was not used to being pampered in such a way, but I was not averse to it either.

"Of course, Mother."

"Dude meet kalashi, but they not make kawatnoj yet. Ket very alone," she said.

I swiveled my neck around. "You want to move in?"

"Just until Toby have kawatnoj," she said. "Just so Telf and Toby not so busy, with Jara and new kawatnoj."

I smiled at her. "You're always welcome here, Mother." The fact was I'd been taking care of her since the moment I was born, but now that she was in my tree, instead of me being in hers...well, it was both troubling and sort of conclusive. Mother was no longer a member of the dominant generation. I was, but it only served to remind me that I wouldn't be forever.

The first few weeks of my second pregnancy were among the most comfortable and blissful of my life. The stress from work was a void factor, and I kept my promise to defer to Telf in any question of authority. He was honorable, and decided to continue working with the other seventy or so other pregnant couples in the valley, but the majority of his time was spent with me. He rubbed my back, my feet, my shoulders whenever he suspected my discomfort (and no one could read me better than him). He prepared all sorts of food with rare embellishments (salt, pine sap, even some cinnamon and pepper he'd found somewhere) to satisfy all of my cravings, in exchange for feeding me the food that tasted terrible but did settle my stomach, calm my nerves, give me fullness. He continually told me how much he loved me, filling my mind and hearts with the same sort of necessary nutrients and vitamins. When he sensed I was feeling self-conscious, or when I whimpered from a hormonal surge, he'd smile, wink, and send Mother and Jara on some harmless errand for something only we two could share. Mother, meanwhile, helped me with preparations for the birth, told me more nostalgic stories about my childhood, held me as I napped. I was spoiled rotten during those first few weeks.

And I slept.

I slept so much.

I didn't remember being so exhausted during my first pregnancy, but that's probably more due to my excellent skills of denial than the fact that I simply had more energy. I was younger then, and I hadn't suffered too much from the ordeal yet, but now that I was sleeping between eight and fourteen hours a night, I felt amazing. When I fell asleep, at least one of my family was huddled up against me, usually Telf, stroking the front of my abdomen, purring against my back, and when I woke up, he was either still there, or my mother was holding me, or even Jara sometimes found his way in my arms. I was never alone, and it made me feel more secure and loved than I ever had before.

I still worked about six hours a day, resolving conflicts, investigating crimes or any strange occurrences, visiting the sick, pregnant, dying, giving my blessings to new couples, working with Cassie about expanding the borders of our domain, and overall being a visible presence to my people, but my main priority was the child growing inside of me.

We told Jara right away, though he didn't understand till much later. When we said he would have a new brother or sister in a few months, he sort of looked around and said, "where he come from?" Telf laughed, and I said, "We'll tell you when you're older."

I decided to agree to Hayley's request to observe my pregnancy, with the right of absolute refusal. She weighed me, measured me around the midsection, my thighs, my arms, took blood and saliva samples, made me answer long, rigorous questionnaires about my emotional state and confidence about the future. I put up with them impatiently, but as she started sharing the results with me, I got a little more excited about them.

I didn't notice the pregnancy this time until about seven weeks in. I'd just woken after eleven hours of sleep, and when I sat up on our platform, I felt the movement impeded by some obstruction.

"Oh," I said, putting a hand on the bump, "I'm pregnant."

Telf was awake, and scuttled over to me with a hee-haw. "Telf notice," he said, putting a hand on my belly.

"How didn't I?" I asked. "How did I miss this happening? What else have I missed?"

"Telf just see today," he assured, caressing my bump. "Kawatnoj moved, just so Toby and Telf could see."

I put my hand over his and squeezed it. "I can't wait to meet her."

Telf hee-hawed. "Her?"

"Just a guess," I said. "Help me up, would you? I'm not so spry anymore."

The rest of that day was rather light in workload, but saturated with the fawning congratulations and adulation of my people, which only proved that my belly was a brand new feature. I won't lie, I adored the attention. For some reason, the acclaim and praise from my shrewd leaderly decisions, my hard-edged, no-nonsense demeanor in Congress, my negotiational prowess was so much more demeaning and insulting than a bunch of my people praising me for a completely biological function. Praise for doing something completely average felt sincere, but humans and Andalites pointing out my obvious, immeasurable differences felt like pandering. Maybe it was just my deep desire to be considered normal. Maybe it was that part of me felt like my work as a mother was so much more vital than my work as Governor Hamee or Toby the Seer. Whatever it was, I stayed longer in the hearth that day than I did most.

Which only made me that much easier to find.

Cassie rarely visited the hearth, so when I saw that familiar narrow shadow of feathers and tail, I was immediately distracted from one of the other pregnant women talking to my belly. I excused myself and walked over to where she was demorphing.

"Something going on?" I asked, slouching, already a little sore from the load, rubbing my hip with a fist. Cassie's human eyes emerged from the emotionless hawk ones, and in them I only saw warning.

"Hey, Toby."

I stood straight, hunched my shoulders, and sort of inverted my hips to hide my pregnancy. I turned slowly, and standing before me was the boy all of us were so frightened to see.

I admit I was a little surprised by how unsurprised I was. Not only that he was there, but that he'd barely changed at all. He'd grown a couple of more inches, I suppose, and a vague shadow of facial hair covered his jaw and cheeks. His shoulders carried the breadth of a man rather than a boy, and his voice was a little deeper, but I couldn't believe how much more I'd aged than him. He looked almost exactly the same. But when I looked in his eyes, I still saw that arrested child, that forced man, that gaze that held so many terrible memories and so many silenced hopes.

"Hello, Jake," I responded.

"I should have warned you we were coming," Cassie said once she finished demorphing, toeing her way over the sharp, cold ground. "He didn't give me much of a chance, though."

Her voice conveyed no bitterness, only the same disconnected submission that we all showed him. Jake asked, so Jake received.

"It's all right," I responded. "I take it there is something I can do for you?"

"Where's Tobias?"

I felt my breath catch in my throat. I'd forgotten beating around the bush was only something politicians did, and I hated myself for a moment expecting it from him. I hunched a little more, turned a few degrees away, terrified he would notice my state.

But no, Jake had a plan, which made everything else irrelevant.

"Haven't you hurt him enough?" I whispered. Jake's jaw tightened, Cassie shirked a little.

"Toby, just tell me where he is."

"Why?"

"Because Ax needs his help."

I unconsciously scratched a nonexistent itch on my belly, either as a feeble protection against the hell the Animorphs had always carried in their wake, or a reminder to myself, a grasp at the life beginning inside of me, already ongoing with Telf.

I wasn't a part of them anymore. I never really was, but now we shared nothing in common. No political motives, no combat strategy. We were as good as strangers.

So what did I owe to Jake?

Or Tobias?

"What happened to him?" I asked.

"He's been taken prisoner by the Blade Ship that got away at the end of the war."

Again, my breath caught in my chest. "Is he alive?"

"We don't know."

Tobias would want to be told that his shorm might be dead.

"No," I said. "No, Jake, you've taken enough from him. Leave him alone now. Let him die in peace."

"Peace?" Jake said. "You think living a lie is peace?"

"I think you guilting him into another hopeless battle is worse than lying to him, yes," I snapped back.

"That's really not up to you to decide, Toby," he responded.

"Of course it is. You don't know where he lives."

Jake's jaw tightened again.

"What do you think you're protecting him from, Toby?" Jake asked quietly, now with a performative sort of power that was certainly a new addition since the end of the war. "The Yeerks? The Andalites? Me?"

"Perhaps all three," I said.

"He doesn't need to be protected from me. If anything, he deserves his shot. Far as the Andalites and Yeerks, he never really needed protection from them, either," he said. "So what are you really protecting him from, Toby? Or are you trying to protect something else?"

I pulled my hand away from my belly.

"I don't want anything bad to happen to him," I said. "And you only ever bring death and pain into his life."

"And his life now is full of rainbows and sunshine?"

"Don't do this, Jake," I said. "Don't hurt him again."

"I never meant to, Toby. I never did it on purpose, and I'm not doing it now. But you know just as much as I do, he deserves to know. He deserves to fight for who he loves now when he couldn't before. When...when I didn't let him, before. So I'm going to ask you one more time." He clenched his teeth. "Where's Tobias?"

A part of me wanted to strangle him, a part of me wanted to weep. All of me resented him.

"Follow me," I said.

I began swinging before Jake even began morphing, but it didn't matter. His wolf olfaction allowed him to follow my trail just fine. I vaguely wondered if he could smell my hormones, detect my pregnancy, then decided it didn't matter. I swung slowly, indecisively while I waited for him to catch up. Perhaps I could lead him astray, protect Tobias' privacy. But I could only uphold that charade for so long. Jake would get what he wanted in the end. He always did.

He chose not to embark on any kind of conversation as we traveled. Cassie chose not to accompany us. I agreed it was better that she didn't. Tobias would feel more than imposed upon, and it would probably make the confrontation go more smoothly if he wasn't addled both by Jake's appeal to his love for his uncle and Cassie's sympathetic, motherly assurance that he had done his part.

I wasn't quite sure what I would say yet. I didn't know until we got there.

I noticed a couple of human campers but thought it best not to acknowledge them. I did shift my approach a little so my front wouldn't be as visible, but I spotted Tobias, he spotted me, and we converged on the edge of his meadow.

(Hi, Toby. Long time, no...)

Jake trotted in behind me, and I pretended to catch my breath, slouching to preserve the secrecy of something else.

"Hello, Tobias," I said in too-polite a tone. "I hope you are well."

(Tolerable,) he said guardedly. I sensed the tension immediately, and was both nervous about the inevitable conflict and happy that their attention would more be pointed to each other than me.

"Tobias, I have done something you may not approve of," I warned. Tobias still stared at the wolf, daring him to demorph or announce himself.

(All right, who is it?)

I listened as Jake embarked upon his hesitant, emphatic story. I watched as Tobias stared, his yellow hawk eyes as flat and unreadable as ever. I waited for them, inconspicuously brushing my knuckles against my flanks, hushing the quiet thing inside of me for my own comfort. Before long, a silence broke out. I glanced back at the humans watching us. The female had her hands clutched around her male counterpart's forearm.

(Yeah,) Tobias finally said. (Okay.)

"We have to get Marco. I've got a flight chartered for Santa Barbara at 10:00 tonight. Back at West Yellowstone. Do whatever you need to till then."

(Yeah,) Tobias said again.

"Sorry it had to be under these circumstances, Tobias," he said. "We need to...well, we will, someday."

He morphed again to follow his own trail back towards camp.

(I hate that I can't hate him,) Tobias said to me.

"You don't have to go," I entreated.

(Let's get out of here. Ken and Barbie apparently have nothing better to do but eavesdrop,) he snapped as he took wing. I glanced back at them in something between a glare and apology, following Tobias about half a mile away towards the banks of a medium-sized creek. I sat on the edge, stuck my feet in the water, and drank heartily as Tobias stared off into the wilderness.

"I'm sorry," I finally said after I finished, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. "I wanted to keep you out of it, but..."

(Not really up to you, kid. I don't blame you, if that's what you think.)

"You don't have to go," I repeated.

(Yeah, I do.)

"The war is over, Tobias. You have no more duty to him. The peace freed you all from any obligation to each other. He made his choices, you made yours."

(You know that's not how it works.)

I clenched my jaw. "You don't have to go," I said, nearly begging.

(What do I have here, Toby?) He asked, looking down at me sadly. (A distant hobby watching your people do their boring jobs, raising their kids and cutting bark? An annoying need to spend hours a day staring at grass, waiting for something to twitch so I can eat dinner? And maybe a couple hours a week reading those books you bring?)

"It could change," I said. "You could let this change you for the better, rather than letting it drag you off to get killed." My voice cracked on the last word, and I turned down to look in the creek.

(You think it's your fault that I'm messed up, don't you?) Tobias asked quietly after a short time.

"I don't know," I sighed, breath hiccuping. "I thought I could help you. I wanted to, very dearly."

(You're a pretty strong person, Toby. But I'm pretty sure I'm more stubborn than you are strong.)

I leaned over and cradled my forehead in my hands, overcome with a sudden bout of nausea and exhaustion. I would be taking a nap now if Jake hadn't interfered with my day.

"You're my connection to this world, Tobias," I said. "You're my anchor. You saved me, you made me, you understand me in ways no one else can. How can you just leave?"

Tobias was quiet for a while. (That maybe was true three or four years ago, Toby,) he said. (But I'm not an idiot. And I'm not blind. That's not true anymore.)

I put a hand on top of my belly, leaned back so it protruded unambiguously. "Don't tell Jake or Marco. Or anyone else you meet."

(Your secret's safe with me, kiddo. And Toby?)

I mustered a smile and looked up to him.

(I really mean it. What you've got makes me totally obsolete. Don't you spend one second regretting me when you've got Telf and two kids. They're worth more than a million of me.)

I wiped my eyes. "I just wished I could have all of it, I suppose."

(We never can. But, trust me. You're losing the right part.)

A week later, they were gone. There were no whispers or gossip until Marco failed to show up at call time a week after that. The tabloids were the first to report on the disappearance, insinuating that Marco had absconded on some romantic escape with a secret girlfriend. Then, slowly, the legitimate news organizations followed suit, their hypotheses more sinister and accurate. Their updates came more slowly and hesitantly than usual. I think they were reluctant to admit that their heroes had abandoned them.

By about a month later, however, everyone had acknowledged it. Reporters started trickling into the valley to talk to me, and I dutifully avoided them. Cassie was supposed to be in Washington, so some went there, but she was hiding out in a tent at the top of a rather inaccessible ridge. I didn't blame her. I went to her a couple of times to get our story straight, but she seemed rightfully withdrawn.

"We could say it's temporary," I said. "That they took the ship for a joy ride."

"No one will believe that. They may have if we hadn't all published memoirs, but they know us now. Stupid decision."

"So what then, the truth?"

"Some version of it. Maybe that they got a distress call from Ax, took it upon themselves to check it out. 'We don't know more than that.'"

"All right," I said.

Cassie was huddled in front of a small camp fire, wrapped in a blanket. Her tent unzipped from the inside, and someone stepped out.

"Hey, Toby," Ronnie said.

"Ronnie," I said. I looked between them, recognized a bond I hadn't noticed. "You two should take a couple of weeks off. Legitimately. I'll go down to the cabin and announce your leave. Get out of this country. Go somewhere remote."

"More remote than Yellowstone?"

"Somewhere with no aliens," I responded. "Somewhere that won't make you think of Hork-Bajir or Andalites or Jake."

"I don't know if there's anywhere like that," Cassie said.

"Cabo," Ronnie responded. "I never think of Hork-Bajr in Cabo. We could go wakeboarding."

"Yeah. All right."

They left the following day, and when they returned two weeks later, they announced they'd eloped. I was surprised, but looking back, I shouldn't have been. It perhaps wasn't love that brought them together, but a need for stability. Cassie may have appeared together on the surface, but having lost now all of her compatriots, I didn't blame her for needing something a little more permanent.

Hayley continued her examinations of me, taking her measurements and readings, but our meetings became very quiet and terse once news broke. She slapped me in the pit of the elbow to make my veins show, stuck me with a needle, and took my blood when she finally confronted me.

"You knew they left, didn't you?" She asked quietly. I nodded, too tired to lie anymore.

"You knew where Tobias was this whole time," she continued. I nodded again.

"Never felt like telling anyone. Like getting him the help he needed."

"He wouldn't take it," I responded.

"Yeah, well. No one tried, and now he's gone."

I watched her carefully as she pinned a piece of gauze on my puncture wound and wound medical tape around it roughly.

"Let's get to the questionnaires, then we can both go home." She picked up a boxy, plastic clipboard and roughly flipped through the pages. "One. Describe your emotional and physical state now compared to our last meeting."

I sighed, resting my hand on my belly.

"Markedly worse," Hayley mumbled, scribbling something down on her sheet. "Two: Is this feeling acute, or has it lasted since our last meeting?"

"Is this really necessary?" I snapped.

"If I want this data to be rigorous, then yes," Hayley snapped back. "Answer the question."

"It's lasted since they left. As if that wasn't perfectly obvious."

Hayley scribbled harder on the clipboard. I peered at what she was writing.

"'Obstinate and uncooperative? This may be a symptom of second trimester hormones?' You call that rigor?"

"I'm doing my best," she sing-songed.

"You're angry at me," I said.

Hayley finally sighed, removed her glasses, and put down her clipboard. "No, Toby. I'm just kind of sad."

"Why?"

"Because you may not realize it, but I've observed you as well as your people all this time I've been here," she said. "You're an object of my study too. And I've noticed a lot of things that really upset me."

"Like what?" I demanded.

"That you don't trust anyone," she said. "That you carry around all of this knowledge and guilt and hold onto it like a millstone. I've tried again and again to give you an outlet, to let you talk about it, but you refuse. And now those poor kids are gone and you're all alone and you're acting like it doesn't bother you at all."

"What, you think some wallet pictures and sympathetic nodding is going to make me open up to you?" I said, voice rising. "You think you can understand me just because you're so compassionate? You're right, I am all alone. My people are idiots, your people are selfish and insular, and I'm left with no one to identify with. Of course I don't talk about anything. How can I use words you will understand? You're not like me at all, you're some suburban human who reads magazine articles and pretends to care so deeply about things you will never experience. You're a fraud, Hayley, and one I only keep around so I can pretend that I actually get along with humans."

Hayley's lips pursed, but she pressed on. "Yeah, you're right. I do pretend to understand. You don't give me enough information to understand, so I have to pretend."

"So what, I should just tell you everything? Just so I have a confidant? You think that's all I need?"

"I think it will help."

"You think I'm an idiot!" I said, rising to my feet. "That I don't see what you're doing! That all of this pandering is really just an attempt to get secrets and confessions for your book! You're worse than a leech, worse than the gutter press. I can't believe you're so shameless."

I sat back down hard, but didn't demand that she leave, didn't revoke permission for being in the hearth. I wanted her to defend herself.

"I'll burn it, Toby. All of it. I don't care about the book. I'll be sad about losing the grant, losing the privilege to see you, but this isn't about some stupid research project," she said. She knelt next to me and clutched my giant leather hand in her miniature rodent ones. "This is about you, about the helplessness I've felt permeate from you like radiation since we met. You don't have to feel that way anymore, Toby. They're gone, and it's the worst thing ever, and you don't have to pretend like it's not."

"What recourse do I have?" I whispered. "I planned everything on the contingency that they had to be there. Told none of them, of course, but once our homeworld is fixed I need their help. They'll always be impossible to refuse. You humans will deny them nothing. But you'll deny us. And he won't help us this time."

"He?" Hayley asked. "I thought the Andalites—"

"The Andalites have a very storied history of backing out of things once they get too hard," I yelled. "I knew the minute I signed our treaty that it was next to pointless. They'll find some way to invalidate it if it inconveniences them too much. And without the Animorphs to back me, I doubt you humans will care. We will just go on continuing to fulfill our purpose and you will go on trying to search for yours."

"What do you mean, purpose?" Hayley asked, thrilled that I was opening up but struggling to keep to my pace. "Toby, what are you talking about?"

"Exploitation," I said. "Our purpose is to be exploited. You want to know things I can't tell you, Hayley? Let's start at the beginning. Hork-Bajir are not a species that spawned from the mud like you humans. We are the products of genetic engineers. You humans have pontificated for centuries, what is my purpose, what is the meaning of life? You don't know how privileged you are to ask those questions, to believe there is some deep, metaphysical meaning behind your existence. You want to know why Hork-Bajir were made?"

Hayley had gone pale, but she gripped my hand steadfastly.

"To be organic, self-perpetuating air processors. To sustain the atmosphere of our injured world by harvesting her gargantuan, oxygen-bleeding trees. And now look at us. Clowns to fill your vast and beautiful forest for the price of concessions and sponsorship deals and merchandise and other horrible human exploits. Artificially created, dumbed-down, designed to be stupid and controlled and profitable. I don't even know if we can evolve past our original programming. Or if we will be stuck in our pathetic cycle until some new alien menace comes to our world and kills us once and for all. Everything I do, Hayley, every step I take to protect the well-being of my people is an exercise in self-delusion and futility. Our story can only end in extinction."

"Oh God, Toby," Hayley gasped. "I didn't know, but God, can't you see how untrue it is?"

I frowned at her.

"Look at you, Toby. You yourself are the evidence that you can exceed the programming of your makers. They didn't mean for you to happen, did they?"

I shook my head. "No, the seer gene is anomalous."

"That's exactly what evolution is, Toby. Mutation, anomaly, working its way to improve your species. No one can contain life, no one can design and unleash it and expect it to remain constant. You're alive, Toby, all Hork-Bajir are alive, so their destinies are just as uncertain as ours. If as wild a variable as you can come out of all that cold rigor and calculation, imagine what else can come from it."

I finally broke down, ripped my hand from her, and turned to sob to myself.

"I was not anomalous," I said. "It's a lie, it's a lie, it's all a lie. It was all impossible without him, he did it all. I am nothing but a pawn in his game, just like them, just like so many."

She let me sob for a long time, letting my temper settle. "What did you mean when you say 'he,' Toby?"

"The Ellimist," I said, turning up towards her. "It was all him. You asked me once why the Animorphs never went back to free more hosts after my parents. They didn't because it was impossible. The Yeerk pool was a military stronghold, the Animorphs were six human children with limited powers they hardly understood. The only way my parents got out was through the help of a higher power. An invisible, omnipresent, time-and-space bending entity who deigns to intrude upon our pathetic existence when he feels we're not headed in a direction he finds pleasing. And Tobias posited, and I have come to believe, that he chose to free my parents so they could make me."

She rubbed my shoulder with her palm and stayed quiet for a long time. I wept under her touch, feeling empty and uncomforted, feeling horrible for bringing all of these poisonous thoughts and conclusions back to the surface.

"He was like me," I finally said. "Tobias was like me. The Ellimist interfered with his parents, too. Elfangor. You remember Elfangor."

"Of course," Hayley said.

"Elfangor was his father."

Hayley paused for a moment, processing all of my confessions. "This Ellimist sounds like a pretty big asshole," she said. And my sobs turned to guffaws and I reeled from the polarity of the emotions.

"He's gone now. They both are. He won't help us get back to our homeworld. It's an irrelevant incidental to him. A sacrificed bishop or rook, nothing more. He got what he needed from us, so he discarded us."

"This is heavy stuff," Hayley sighed. "But I can't believe that after all this time, you still insist on attributing credit to other people for work you do yourself."

"I know I have done good things," I said. "I know I've made a difference. But the future is just so huge an undertaking. And I have to die at some point. I can't fix everything, especially when everything I have been able to fix is due to someone else's direct intervention."

"That's not true, Toby. God, I could tell you 500,000 different ways that that's not true."

"I suppose I'll have to take your word for it, then."

"Fine, let me just give you one example."

"And what is that?"

"Telf."

I scoffed, rubbing my eyes.

"Did the Ellimist make you go to that base and rescue him? Did the Ellimist compel you to give into him when he asked? Did the Ellimist tell you to choose to let Telf fight so he was blinded, which forced you to go to the Yeerk Pool, which led to thirteen more of your people being freed? Are you really going to let this Ellimist take credit for all that? Did the Ellimist negotiate the peace treaty between Yeerks and humans? Did the Ellimist make sure that your people would be treated humanely in the move to Yellowstone? Did the Ellimist save the lives of no less than half a dozen Hork-Bajir when that bomb went off? Did the Ellimist make you have a beautiful, free son who brings joy to his father's life, who makes friends with other liberated Hork-Bajir whom you protected and freed? Did the Ellimist put that kid in your belly? Is the Ellimist really responsible for all the things you have done? Toby, that was all you. If you're going to believe in some kind of hard deterministic, depressing philosophy, I can't stop you. But I'm not going to let you paint the Ellimist as your master puppeteer."

I sighed, tears crusty on my face, feeling more tired than I had in weeks. I just wanted to curl up and go to sleep.

"Thank you, Hayley. I'm sorry I said you're a fraud."

"Well, you were right up until about two minutes ago. And I don't get all of it, and I'm sure there's more to tell. But my God, Toby, you're not alone. Not at all."

I hiccuped out the last of my tears as she continued to rub my shoulder, and we sat thinking quietly until Telf finally came by about a half hour later to see why I hadn't come home yet.

"Toby not take nap today, Telf get very worried, so Telf—Toby," he said, kneeling in front of me, sensing my state, growing more concerned. He turned to Hayley. "What happen to Toby?"

"I just remembered how much I love you," I said, wrapping my arms around his neck. "Please take me home."

"I'll see you tomorrow, Toby."

"With more tests to run?"

She smiled. "Always."

"Thank you, Hayley."

Telf stood me carefully and walked with his arm around my waist until we got home. I smiled at Jara once we were inside, but even he noticed my emotional fragility. Telf carefully, without signal that anything was wrong, told him to go find his friends and look for good pine cones so he could exfoliate my feet, though I'd only gotten a couple of blisters so far throughout my entire pregnancy. When he was gone, I finally told Telf what had happened.

"Marco? Funny Marco leave?" Telf asked. He frowned a little.

"Yes, my love. They're all gone. All except Cassie."

"Toby so sad, even though changers come back soon?"

I shook my head. "They won't come back."

"Changers say not come back?"

"No, but they won't. This isn't the kind of mission you come back from."

Telf frowned more, looked up to protest a couple of times, then sighed dejectedly. "Toby seer wrong before," he said.

"Yes, I have been. I hope I am again."

I knew I wouldn't be.

Telf was sad for a few days, but did his best to keep that fact to himself. He never had a particularly close relationship with any of them, of course, but I think to him, the fact that they were gone marked the end of an era. The beginning of our relationship, the inception of a life after the war, without Yeerks. Now we were truly on our own. The children had to leave the nest because the parents had flown away.

He couldn't articulate all of this of course, and I fear that I'm simply repeating my frequent mistake of imposing my own feelings onto him. But it didn't matter, because our life had always moved along without them, and the hollow sadness we felt was nothing more than an acknowledgement that we hadn't needed them for quite a long time.

An event a couple weeks later seemed to cement that fact permanently.

Telf always kept himself busy doing little chores and tasks around our home—shaving down any growth from the trunks within our domicile, packing down the platform, keeping our supply of water and bark fresh and clean, fluffing up Jara's bed though he was old enough to do it himself, and indignant and hormonal enough to resist being coddled. I was passive, refusing involvement in their squabbles, which Telf did not always handle with the level of expertise that he showed to newborns and expectant mothers. However, they were both noble, attentive, sensitive people, and whenever I gave the slightest sign of discomfort, it usually diffused the tension.

Mother had gone to sleep early in the corner of our tree, having spent all last night nursing me through a rather intense bout of nausea. Jara was huffing petulantly at Telf's refusal to let him and Stek go off on some new adventure while I paid intermittent attention, more focused on the life inside of me, congealing and coalescing, making itself known. Now about halfway through my pregnancy, there was no way to hide my bump simply by sucking in or slouching, and I could sense bits of anatomy within my swollen belly that seemed Hork-Bajir. I was following something moving across me laterally that I expected was a hand when I winced and sucked in a breath through my teeth. Both Telf and Jara turned to me.

"Toby okay?" Telf asked, rushing over quickly yet nonurgently, putting his hands on me as I teared up from the pain.

"She just kicked me, really hard, right in the cervix," I hissed out, cradling the base of my belly with both hands. Telf's eyes turned up in worry, and he examined me, but then smiled and hee-hawed softly.

"Is my suffering funny to you?" I snapped.

"Not she," Telf said. "He kicked Toby."

Telf lifted my hand and pressed it to my left flank, looking slightly away as he searched for the evidence. When he found it, he turned to me and said, "Toby feel?"

I rubbed against the ridges, counting three once again. I smiled hugely, filled with an ambivalent feeling of both warmth and love, and a sense of disappointment, now that my unverified yet totally believed theory was disproven. "Yes, there are three."

Telf leaned in and kissed me, and I drowned in the contentment from knowing now for sure, until I glanced past Telf and saw Jara staring at me, troubled.

"Are you all right?" I asked him. He avoided eye contact and shrugged. "Jara, come here." He breathed in deep and duckwalked over to me.

"You've been acting so distant lately," I said. "What's wrong?"

Jara looked down, shrugged again, wrapped his arms below his knee blades.

"Jara just..." He started.

"Tell Mother Toby," Telf encouraged.

Jara breathed deeply. "Mother Toby is...different from before," he said carefully.

I tried to smile warmly. "Yes, I am."

"Jara scared," he said. "Think Mother Toby get so big, fall over, break open, maybe." He looked down, ashamed.

I took his hand carefully in mine. He was an adolescent now, maybe a foot shy of full size. Tall, strong, handsome, ideal, like his father, but still he needed reassurance. He was still so uncertain. So combative, so desperate for independence, yet still so innocent and childish, a child who felt he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, so much my son.

"Do you know why I'm getting so big?" I asked him. Jara looked in my eye, shook his head, looked back down. "Remember when your father and I told you that you would have a little brother or sister soon?" He nodded.

I pressed his hand to my belly. He recoiled, but I held him tight, refusing to let him go.

"He's growing inside me. Just like you did," I said. "He's inside here. Feel," I said, moving his hand over the bumps Telf had pointed out. "That's his head. His blades."

"Inside Mother Toby?" Jara asked. "But if little brother inside Mother Toby, that means Jara was...inside Mother Toby too?"

"Yes. You grew up inside of me, just like your little brother is now."

Jara's nervousness and shame melted instantly, and he bent over me, entranced. He pressed his other hand to my belly, introducing himself to his brother by touch, carefully investigating the orb that separated us.

"Brother come from inside Mother Toby, like Jara," he said, running his hands around the surface of my belly. Telf crouched beside me, settling down, smiling. I took his hand, rested my head upon his shoulder.

Jara touched me in a state of engrossed captivation until he finally turned up to us, an obvious question upon his face.

"How Jara get in there?"

I laughed heartily, moaning from the cramp it caused in my back, but Telf just smiled and adjusted me so he could rub it away.

"Telf put Jara there, and brother," he said.

"Well, you helped," I corrected. "Your father put a part of him to join a part of me which made both you and your little brother."

Jara leaned back, rubbing his chin in deep thought. "Jara from both Dada and Mother Toby," he summarized. "Come from inside Mother Toby. Part of Mother Toby."

I smiled at him. "Yes. So I'm not just Mother Toby to you. I'm Mom, too."

"Mama," Jara said. "Jara come from Mama." I smiled, leaned forward, and kissed him, while Telf laid back and put a hand on my belly.

"Jara is like Dada," Jara said. "So is Jara like Mama, too? Like...like Mother Toby?"

The smile dipped from my cheeks, but I refused to abandon it altogether. "In a lot of ways," I said. "Not that way, though."

"Jara never be like Mother Toby."

"No, not like that. In other ways, though. You like bark from maple trees, just like me."

Jara smiled, content with that for now. "Yes. Jara like that very much."

"Jara go get maple bark for Telf and Mama, too," Telf suggested. "Then go sleep." Jara smiled and headed for the edge of the platform.

"He's grown up too fast," I sighed, resting a hand on my belly.

"Yes, all kawatnoj do. Even this one." He put his hand over mine. "Boy kawatnoj."

"I guess I was wrong about that."

"Toby Seer not right always," Telf said a little triumphantly.

It warmed me, that Jara was finally trying to understand and accept that though we were so different, we were still a family, still a part of each other. I think it hurt him that he wasn't like me, that though we were the same we saw the world very differently. But he was asking, he was trying to tie us together rather than keep us apart, and that made all of the pain from losing Tobias melt away.

"I don't mean to offend your femininity, Toby, but you're growing at almost an exponential rate," Hayley said to me a couple of months later. I was due in a month, but facing none of the horrible symptoms I had with Jara. I slept a lot, stayed mostly in our tree, kept my weight off my feet, and followed every little instruction Telf gave me, so I was feeling restful and healthy.

That didn't mean I was comfortable. It was late May and getting hot, and I was thirsty all of the time. Telf tried to keep up with me, but he was often gone when I woke from my naps, tending to the other females in the park who were coming to term. Two had already delivered, both when I had some stupid request I had to wait hours for him to fulfill.

He was getting stressed, and my oft-expressed, immature feelings of abandonment weren't helping. Mother was there for most little things, but she just couldn't rub my feet or make Oak and moss toast the way he could.

"How much weight have I gained now?"

"115 pounds. Up from 350 to 465. Almost a 33% increase, which I have to be honest, I have no idea if that's healthy or not."

"Telf always says I was too skinny before."

"And he knows way more about this than I do. You are my first case study, after all."

I smiled, rolled a kink out of my back, and sighed. "There was something I wanted to talk to you about, but I have to wait for Telf to finish with Delk. She went into labor early yesterday afternoon, so she's got to be close."

"Well, I've got to go do your blood work, so if he's back in less than an hour, we can talk today."

He wasn't. And when he returned home late that evening, dragging long rings beneath his crinkly eyes, I could tell the last thing he wanted to do was go find Hayley.

"I'm getting close," I told him. "I don't want to spring this on her the day of if we can avoid it."

He smiled patiently, stifled a yawn, and squeezed my hand. "Make Toby happy?"

I smiled. "Endlessly. Get the harness."

The whole errand would have taken less than twenty minutes if I was light enough to swing, but Telf walked the whole way with me, stopping with me every ten minutes or so to let me catch my breath, slake my thirst. We reached Hayley's cabin near midnight, and we had to wake her up to share our news.

"What is it? You're not in labor already, are you?" She asked, huddled in a fleece robe, groping around her front table for her glasses.

"No, not yet. Telf and I have something we'd like to share with you."

"No one's dead, are they?"

"No, it's good news. I'm sorry we had to wake you, I just don't know how much time we have left."

"All right, what is it?"

Telf pulled the bark, rope, and wood harness out from behind his back.

"What is that, some kind of trap?"

"Let me start from the beginning. When delivering a kawatnoj, Telf thinks it's best to have three people present."

"One for kalashi. One to help kalashi helper. One to go out, get things," he explained.

"When I had Jara, I only had Telf and my mother present. I don't think that's what caused it to be so...so..."

"Make Toby very hurt," Telf offered.

I looked down, put my hands on my belly. "Yes. I don't think that's what caused it. But we're trying to do things strictly Telf's way this time, and I still had trouble thinking of a third person."

"You want me to be there when your kid is born?" Hayley concluded.

I smiled. "I hope so."

Hayley looked troubled. "So what's that?" She asked, pointing to Telf's harness.

"The part that may make you refuse," I said. "This is something Telf and I have been putting together for the past week or so. It's crude. It wouldn't pass the most lax safety regulations of any human government agency. We're not even totally sure it will work. But, if it does, it will get you up our tree."

Telf slipped the harness on, like a baby carrier, over his chest. He held the latches open, modeling how Hayley would slip into it so he could carry her up our tree.

"Wow. I don't know, Toby," she said.

"Think about it. But I do want to say that I know I've been generous to you. Don't misunderstand, I don't feel that you owe me anything. You've seen my people in their native habitat. You've seen them play tag, pick flowers, tell stories, all on the ground. I've invited you to the hearth, where they socialize and barter. But you haven't seen them in their natural element yet, Hayley. You haven't seen my people where they really live."

"Hayy-lee not be in trees," Telf concluded for me.

Now I saw her eyes narrow in consideration.

"Once everyone's delivered their kawatnoj, Telf's schedule frees up considerably. And, as a favor to me, he's agreed to give you a number of tours throughout the trees. Show you how things work. I can, too, once I recover a little bit. I want you to understand us, Hayley. I want your book to be accurate, and you haven't seen a fraction of how we live yet."

Hayley looked down. "Well, what kind of scientist would I be if I refused to experiment?"

For the last month of my pregnancy, I stayed in our tree, watching Telf and Hayley practice awkwardly when Telf wasn't helping kalashi deliver, when Hayley wasn't running tests and doing research. They were hesitant with each other at first, in kind of a sweet, overpolite way, laughing awkwardly and making jokes neither of them could really understand, but very soon Hayley could tuck herself up against his chest as securely as a kawatnoj could. I applauded after both of them spent two weeks working up the courage to let Telf leap from our tree to the one adjacent to it, and once he released Hayley, she bowed, though she was shaking as she did so.

"You'll be an honorary Hork-Bajir in no time," I told her. "Telf, why don't you take her to the school tree to celebrate?"

"Oh no, God, I don't think I could handle that twice in a day, let alone twice in a row."

"Fair enough. I'm just glad you'll be able to be here for the birth."

Telf held her hand as she crawled back into the harness. "Wouldn't miss it, Toby."

Mother stayed with me almost constantly, providing a sort of barrier between me and the outside world. Telf would have, of course, but he was gone almost all the time now, delivering kawatnoj, visiting those still on his docket to make sure everything checked out, hopefully catching the spare nap between deliveries. Messengers from the humans stopped by intermittently throughout the day, as they had throughout my entire pregnancy, but Mother was starting to grow impatient with them, turning them away. I never let her if I was awake, but I was finding fewer and fewer contracts, messages, and news articles in my "to do" tub when I awoke from naps. I tried to talk to her about it, but she either didn't understand or was too stubborn to change, so I let it go.

Pumb came by my tree late in June with a new draft of the provisional Yellowstone contract that, by law, needed to be renegotiated every four years. We were still in the preliminary stages, but as I flipped through it I noticed several changes that I hadn't approved or even seen (they wanted to triple campsite prices? Permit what kinds of vehicles into the park?), and felt a spike of contempt and impatience toward my mother.

"I have to go and fix this right now," I told her, slamming my wrist blade into a central support beam for leverage to rise to my feet.

"No, Toby Hamee, get so big! Have kawatnoj so soon!" She said, climbing to her feet to curb my advance. "Let Ket fix it."

"You're the reason it's broken. Let me go."

"Toby—"

"Mother, I appreciate the help, and I understand the sentiment," I said, "But if I am going to have this child any second, then I'll forget about these...somewhat egregious mistakes and they'll be included in the final contract. I can't let the humans commoditize us like this. We're people, not a zoo."

"Toby," she protested somewhat pathetically, resorting to a sad little pout to make me feel guilty.

"I'll be right back," I said. "I promise."

I climbed slowly down our tree, sort of shimmying with my right hip pressed against it, my bulbous belly too big to let me climb down normally. It was early evening, so the hearth wasn't totally empty, but most people were up in their trees with their families, indulging in that day's take from the trees.

The human cabin and most of their infrastructure is about a mile and a half away from my tree, which even hugely pregnant wasn't much more than a twenty-minute walk. But I was feeling rather more sluggish and resistant to the exercise than usual. There was a strange sensation emitting from between my hip bones, not quite pain, certainly not contractions, but a sort of humming, anxious awareness that made me nervous.

I thought about turning back. It wasn't some unconscious fear; I realized that my mother could be right and I could be stranded in the long meadow that separates the hearth from the humans, betrayed by my own body into an unprepared labor. However, I continued on at a brisker pace, finally catching the root of some long dead tree and stumbling for a moment when I felt a sort of sickening snap from deep inside of me.

I denied it for a few seconds, but as soon as I felt that warm, wet sensation rush between my legs and get cold fast, as soon as I smelled that horrible, organic, ammonia smell that I felt too pretty to be able to produce, I had no choice but to revert to panic.

"You've gotten yourself into worse messes than this," I whispered to myself as the only kind of encouragement I could summon, pressing my hands hard into the base of my belly, trying to find whatever pressure points Telf had used to divert the pain with Jara. "Now, there's no contractions yet, so you don't need to—"

As soon as I said that, a wave of pain rocked through my mid-section, breathtaking, shocking, crippling pain. I fell to a knee with no tree or boulder or anything to support me, now realizing it was very possible that I'd be forced to deliver the child myself, all alone, on the ground. I whimpered a little, running through unworkable plans in my head, drawing the slow conclusion that I was simply not physically able to escape this.

"Telf," I whimpered, looking around, realizing it was almost sunset, that there was no hope of a human travelling in the meadow, that my people had always been early sleepers and therefore there was little hope of one of them crossing my path. I pressed a hand into the ground and tried to rise to my feet, but as soon as I did, another wave of pain crashed down upon me, sending me to the ground.

"I'll never be pigheaded or arrogant again, just please let someone find me," I cried to no one.

"Mother Toby?"

I craned my neck to peer above the grass, seeing a male come towards me. He broke into a jog, and right as he stooped down next to me, I realized who it was.

Bek.

"Oh thank God, Bek, I'm so glad to see you," I said. "Can you please help me?"

"Mother Toby...have kawatnoj?" He squealed, his tone somewhere between glee and panic.

"Yes, I'm such an awful mess, aren't I?" I said with a bitter laugh. Bek took my hand and squeezed it, gave me a big smile.

"Mother Toby not worry. Bek is here. Can Toby walk?"

"Yes, I think so," I said as he picked me up beneath the shoulders, let me use him as a crutch.

We limped along for a while, and every step we took made me a little more uncomfortable. Not only was I girding myself for whenever the next contraction decided to pounce me, but Bek's arm around my waist, and his hand over the one I'd slung over his shoulder were making me remember all those years ago, when he'd given me flowers so that the child in my womb would be his.

"You can just let me off at the edge of the forest. I'll find my way home from there."

"Bek not leave Mother Toby until she with Telf," he vowed.

"No, no, it's fine, Bek. I'm fine. I'm not even that far along. It won't be that difficult for me to—"

Just then, of course, another contraction pounded through my pelvis. I squealed in the back of my throat and bit my lip, which did not avert Bek's suspicion.

"Get Mother Toby up her tree," he said. I winced and whimpered, and he asked, "Need to stop?"

"No, for God's sake, let's keep going."

Getting up my tree was much more difficult than getting down it, even though that exercise itself took almost ten minutes. Through a combination of careful acrobatics, patient encouragement, overt manhandling, and sheer force of will, Bek managed to dump me onto the platform of my tree, which had never been more welcoming. Mother helped him, once she heard us coming, of course, but I was still such a heavy load that the two could barely shuffle me to the center.

"Look what happen, just what Ket say!" Mother chided impatiently as I heaved and moaned and Bek tried to catch his breath. "Maybe Ket Halpek is seer and not Toby Hamee!"

"Thank you, Mother, for your gloating when I'm about to give you your second grandchild." All the same, I leaned against her like a chair as she purred against my back and stroked my hand.

"Where Telf Getrin?" She asked.

"I don't think he's finished with Odeb yet," I said.

"Bek, go get Telf Getrin," she said.

"No, if Odeb's not done, then I don't want to cut in front of her."

"Telf Getrin is Toby Hamee's kalashu! Telf Getrin need be here!"

"Mother, please don't argue with me about this," I moaned.

"Bek, go get Telf."

"Maybe Bek go...tell Telf Getrin, let Telf Getrin choose," Bek said, nodding to himself, pleased with his compromise. I humphed against my mother and gritted my teeth.

"Toby feel better when Telf get here," she reassured.

"Please just stop talking."

As upset with her as I was, I did feel multitudes of relief when he swung onto our platform and rushed over to me a few minutes later. I perked up, grinning like an idiot, too overwhelmed with his presence to immediately notice that Bek had followed him inside.

"Telf so sorry, Toby," he said as he bent over me, examining me almost without sensation, pressing his fingertips into my belly. "Time go so fast when kalashi have kawatnoj."

"I'm just glad you're here," I said. "If you need to go finish with Odeb, it's fine. I'm not even that far along yet, am I?"

"No, Toby, Telf not leave. Odeb have kawatnoj. Boy kawatnoj. Name him Telf."

I'd been convinced that he was lying up until he told me the name. That part seemed so egregiously false that it had to be true.

"So you're saying Bek found you right after Odeb delivered?"

Telf looked down in shame. "Telf so tired, Toby, ask if Telf can sleep in Odeb's tree."

I felt pity for him then and took his hand. "Sleep some more, my love, it will be some time before—" I gripped his hand tightly and he shushed me through my contraction.

"Telf feel fine, Toby. Help Toby have kawatnoj."

I breathed through my teeth until the contraction passed, and then I looked up at him. "There's still one thing you have to do, Telf."

Telf smiled sort of sadly, more than exhausted. I sensed his nap at Odeb's tree had not lasted very long.

"Telf go get Hayy-lee," he said. "Ket okay with Toby?"

"Ket and Toby okay," Mother said with a big, toothy smile. Telf leaned forward, gave me a long kiss, and brushed past Bek to grab the harness.

My eyes lingered on Bek as Mother whispered giggling encouragements and rubbed the base of my back with her hand, and he smiled at me. "Have good kawatnoj, Mother Toby," he said.

"Thank you, Bek. For everything." He smiled again and pulled a fully bloomed Indian paintbrush from behind his back, securing it in the joint of two branches. Then he left.

Telf and Hayley were back about a half hour later, Hayley carrying a big duffle bag full of all kinds of human games and medical supplies, twittering with nervous energy.

"You know, call me crazy, but I had the feeling when I woke up this morning it was going to happen today. I just thought, 'man, Toby's getting so big, and I just can't see her getting any bigger.' Then for some reason I remembered I had this in the trunk, from my daughter's old room—" she produced a small-sized boombox, "—and I thought we could play some nice, relaxing classical music to keep everyone calm. How do you feel about Debussy?"

"Let's give him a try," I said. She popped in a CD that started some atmospheric, slow-paced music that I found neither comforting nor distressing, so I decided to smile and thank her.

Telf gently extracted my mother from behind me to help him boil water, fetch dandelions, fold blankets and towels. He laid me down carefully on a pillow from Hayley's cabin and told me he was just going below the tree to start a fire. I swallowed down the nauseous pain from a dying contraction and smiled at him.

"How are you feeling? Can I do anything?" Hayley asked as I tried to adjust so I was as comfortable as possible.

"No, no, Hayley. I'm fine. To be frank, I don't want you getting too close to me as this goes on."

Hayley seemed offended. "Why not?"

"You're just a human. I'm sinew and blades and armor, and I definitely lashed out last time."

She nodded slowly, a little disappointed. "You don't want to have to worry about me when everything else is going on."

"I still want you here. Just...out of arm's reach, I suppose."

"It's your day, Toby. Whatever you want."

I smiled. "What else is in your bag?"

"Well, I did bring a digital camera. I hope that's okay."

"Pictures for your book?"

Hayley blushed a little. "More for you. You know I'm keeping the identity of my pregnancy case study anonymous."

"I appreciate that."

"It would ruin the data, anyway, if they all knew I was focusing on a unique specimen like you instead of an average one."

I sighed, leaned my head back, stroked my belly. "I suppose you're right."

Before long, Telf and Mother started taking trips from below our tree to the platform, taking pots of hot water, steaming tea, hot rags, and other necessities up with them. Once they were finished, Mother moved in to cradle me again, but Telf stopped her.

"Telf do that this time, Ket Halpek," he said with a respectful smile and bow. "Will Ket get things when Telf say?"

Mother glanced slowly between the two of us, and when I nodded my permission, she smiled back. "Ket help however Telf say."

Telf crouched behind me, extending both of his legs on either side, scooting forward a little. As soon as he was settled, I relaxed against him, let his chest and spine support my overwhelming weight.

"If I get too heavy, tell me," I said to him.

"No, Toby Hamee light as air."

"Now that I know is a lie. You're not as charming as you believe."

He slowly stretched his hands over my arms, stroking me gently with his knuckles, flattening them over my sides, investigating slowly, reacquainting himself with my stretched out belly, plucking points of relief with resonant accuracy, turning me to mush within seconds.

"Telf never lie to Toby Hamee."

Once Telf got me seated, still, and restful, my contractions started coming at a much more slow-paced, predictable rate. He sat straight and tall behind me, heralding them with better accuracy even than I could, pressing and massaging them away when they occurred.

"Toby just breathe, right?" I winced as another one started up.

"Toby breathe, yes," he whispered in my ear. "Toby breathe with Telf."

"What..."

"Toby feel," he said. He flared his nostrils and breathed in deep, his chest pushing into my back. "Breathe with Telf," he said on the exhale.

On his next breath, I breathed deeply with him, held my breath longer than I wanted, released it slower than I would have. Tingles of relief worked down into my pelvis. We breathed again, slowly, held it, exhaled. I gave a little moan of approval to him.

"This isn't so bad," I said after a while. "Not nearly as bad as last time."

"Telf learn very much since Jara," he said slowly, taking another deep breath. "Want that never to happen to any kalashi again."

"What did you learn?" I said, wincing, as another stifled contraction pumped through me.

"Learn that Yeerks know much about kawatnoj," he said, "But that not mean Yeerks use what they know for kalashi."

"Go on," I said, glad for the distraction.

"Telf's Yeerk use hands to make kalashi have kawatnoj fast, not good. Very hard for kalashi. Too fast."

"But efficient," I said.

"Telf use hands like that for Jara," he said. "Make Toby go fast, not good."

I nodded, slouching against him some more. "You didn't know any better."

"Telf so sorry," he whispered.

"No, Telf, it's all fine now. You learned better, right?"

He grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. "Telf deliver many more kawatnoj. Yeerk teach Telf, but then Telf teach himself."

"Slow is better," I said.

"Toby say how fast now, not Telf."

"Okay," I said with a satisfied sigh.

Telf just sat stroking me for a few hours as Hayley and Mother talked, as a few people stopped by to check up on my progress, offer congratulations. Mother continued to act as gatekeeper, squawking and throwing her arms in exasperation if they came too close. She let Dude in, though.

"Toby okay?" He asked, taking my hand.

"So far, so good," I said with a smile. "How's Jara doing?"

"Ask many questions, but Taff play ring game with Jara to make forget."

I smiled. "This will be Taff someday, so you'd better pay attention." Dude nodded.

"Dude know that Taff be much worse than Toby," he said. "Taff cry for splinters!"

I laughed a little, then moaned from the cramp it caused. "I'm sure she'll toughen up before then."

The truth is, I was glad for the distraction, because though it hadn't gotten much worse, and was certainly progressing at a much slower rate than last time, I knew that very soon I'd be in a similar position of inescapable discomfort as I had been with Jara. Telf could curb the acceleration, but he couldn't stop it altogether. I was terrified that delivering my child would be as damaging to me as last time.

Telf seemed to sense my growing anxiety. He leaned forward and kissed me with his headblades.

"Toby not breathe so deep," he said.

"I'm sorry. I'll do better."

"Toby is scared."

"I...no, I'm fine, Telf, this is great."

Telf adjusted a little bit, keeping this conversation as privileged as he could. "Toby tell Telf," he whispered directly in my ear. The tingling sensation seemed to run a direct route from my head to my genitals, and I couldn't decide if he'd meant to arouse me or if it was just an unfortunate consequence of his otherwise perfect brand of comfort.

"Is his head lodged in me wrong again?" I asked.

"No, kawatnoj head is good."

"If something was wrong, would you tell me?"

"Telf not lie to Toby," he assured.

"Is anything wrong, Telf?"

He moved his hand from my belly to under my forearm, running his fingers down its length until he interlocked his hand with mine.

"No, Toby."

I relaxed against him and synced up our breathing again. "Okay."

The truth was, Telf was making it all but impossible to panic, dampening any flare of anxiety that came from me, Mother, or Hayley. When Mother whined a little, "been so long, is Toby okay?" Telf said, "Toby go slow is better than Toby go fast." When Hayley yawned and said "At this rate, I could be up this tree for a week," Telf said, "Ket help Hayy-lee down if take so long." No one could really argue with his quiet, level-headed ultimatums, least of all me. Perhaps it was because I hadn't really seen him in a long-term capacity for a couple of weeks now, but I adored the attention and ceded completely to his authority.

The hours drew much more slowly than last time, but before long it was morning and nobody had been able to get much sleep. Telf's breathing intermittently slowed and then hiccuped back to consciousness a couple of times, and I tried to convince him to get some sleep before I had to deliver, but he would only keep repeating "Telf good, Toby, Telf stay here for Toby."

Meanwhile, we did our best to keep ourselves occupied. Hayley brought a couple of time-passing human games, like mad libs and a deck of cards. Mother and Telf didn't really understand the concept of mad libs, and though Mother tried to learn how the cards work, Telf showed no interest, so much of that time was spent with me and Hayley playing war while Mother fetched fresh water and dandelion tea, and Telf continued to massage away contractions and purr against my back.

Every once in a while, he'd lay me on my side so he could get up, stretch, check on his supplies, or examine me. While he had me prostrate, he'd rub my back, apply a warm rag to any cramped muscles, rub me beneath the tail so I'd be prepared. He'd help me to my feet so I could stretch my muscles, though I found that comfort much less helpful than last time.

Cramps flared up between and within contractions, some too specific for his mitt-like hands to work out, so he enlisted Hayley's tiny hands to help.

"Is that good?" She asked, rhythmically squeezing a strand of sinew in my back.

"It's not not good," I moaned absent-mindedly. Hayley laughed.

"Well, at least I'm helping now," she said.

"Mm hmm."

For the most part, to be honest, I wasn't particularly aware of the passage of time, except for glancing up and noticing it get brighter and brighter. I was taking short, intermittent naps, but I was getting impatient. Telf's acute exhaustion was manifesting in more frightening ways—he lost his footing near the edge of our platform and nearly tumbled off, he looked clammy and pale. At around 2:00 the following afternoon, Hayley finally spoke up.

"Listen, Toby, I know this is the least convenient thing to tell you right now, and I really didn't think about this half as hard as I should have, but—"

"What is it, Hayley?"

"I really, really have to pee."

I felt Telf moan a little bit behind me, and I laughed. "Mother can take you down."

"But she—"

"No, Telf will help Hayy-lee. Telf need go too." He shimmied out from behind me, lay me gently and deliberately on my side, and popped up to get the harness.

"Stay safe, you two."

I don't know where Telf took her, but it caused his longest absence through my entire labor. And it was the only thing that allowed me to finally realize just how much control over it Telf had.

Within about three minutes, another contraction started up. And though he'd lulled me into a false sense of security, though I expected this one to be no worse than the ones that had come before, it felt like it was tearing me apart. My eyes grew wide and I tried to keep the pain out of my voice, but there wasn't much else for my mother to focus on besides me.

"Toby Hamee," she shushed, giving me some dandelion tea, but I was too shocked by the severity of the pain to take it. Another wave rolled in, and I grunted, and she took my hand and let me squeeze it.

"Where Toby hurt?" She asked.

"Please just—" I said before moaning and thrashing in pain. Mother scooped me up and held me in her arms, cradling me, rocking me, humming me her lullaby.

"Ket Halpek not so good as Telf Getrin," she mourned. I gripped her hard around the waist and pressed my face into her chest, kicking my legs out behind me, trying to shake loose any bit of the pain, but it had me tight in its grasp.

"He did all this," I managed to choke out as it began to subside. "He took it all away. No wonder Odeb named her son after him, I should have—" and then my body, unsympathetic and treasonous, sent me through another contraction that almost made me lose my grip on reality.

Telf and Hayley were back within fifteen minutes, but in that time I'd gone from calm lucidity to thrashing, crying agony. Telf almost forgot to unlatch Hayley before rushing over to me, squeezing behind me as Mother shifted aside and covered her face in her hands in worry.

"Shh, Toby," Telf whispered as he ran his hands over me slowly, trembling with exhaustion and frantic worry, breathing now stuttered and afraid. "Telf so sorry, not think Toby so far, oh Toby, Telf so sorry."

I whimpered as he worked, but as he did, I felt the swells of pain and urgency die, I slumped against him, and I breathed deeply, setting the rhythm for both of us.

"Don't say you're sorry," I said. "Say, 'you're welcome.'"

Telf kissed me from behind.

I relaxed against him for a while, thankful for the reprieve, but the relief got me thinking. I shifted a little so I could turn my head and see him out of the corner of my eye.

"Telf, am I ready to deliver this child?"

"Toby tell Telf."

"No, I'm asking. Am I physically ready to give birth?"

Hayley and Mother both shifted. Hayley opened her bag and started removing towels and gauze.

"Toby not worry, just tell Telf when ready."

"Telf, that's what I'm saying. If my body is ready to do this, then I don't want to sit here and waste time any longer."

Telf sighed deeply against my back. He strummed out a few more patterns on my belly, then rose to his knees, held me beneath the shoulders, and invited my Mother to take his place. He shuffled around me, facing my front, worming his way between my legs, draping them over his hips.

"Toby is ready," he said. I leaned back against my mother and scrunched up my face in worry and anticipation, taking several deep breaths in preparation.

"Will you tell me when I'm about—" I didn't get to finish my sentence, as another contraction leaped up and seemed to pinch my hips together. I winced and threw my head back, Mother catching my momentum, shushing me.

"Ket help Toby breathe," Telf said. "Deep in hold, two, three, slow out." Mother obeyed him diligently, and it made me feel a little better, but without his perfect hands there was still so much pain.

And yet, it was different this time. Overwhelming, all-encompassing, definitive, but not senseless. Not cruel, not greater than me. It was awful, but cooperative. Efficient. Productive. Pain that I could tell was working for me, not against me. Pain that I could think and reason through, pain that I could grab a hold of and control.

"Good, Toby, push hard against Telf," he crooned as the contraction tapered off and died. My toes uncurled and I slumped in relief. I heaved in air, sweat congealing on my forehead, as Hayley came forward with some cool water.

"Just until the next one starts up, then I'll get out of the way," she said with a smile, tipping the jug in my open beak. I took three big gulps and smiled back.

"Thank you for understan—" I opened my mouth and emitted a sharp cry as another sledgehammer made contact with my pelvis, as Telf soothed and comforted in registers lower than my cries. I pressed my chin into my chest and I pushed for him because he asked, for me because it hurt, and for my child, because I was so desperately excited to meet him.

It was so different than last time. So much more positive. I heard the cheers and encouragements from my small coterie of supporters, and I internalized them. I felt proud now, not ashamed or inconvenienced, but like this was exactly what I should be doing. I pushed and tore myself apart and invested every ounce of oversleeping I'd saved over the past six months, and before long, Telf was hissing orders to Hayley who scrambled around in a servile, undignified way. I was barely aware, but she covered me with a towel as I whimpered in pain.

"So close, Toby," Telf said with a big, crinkle-eye smile. "Head is out. One more and then Toby have kawatnoj."

I panted against my mother and tried to return the smile, but it was interrupted by a final burst of pain like someone had grabbed my legs and was ripping the rest of me in half.

"More, Toby. More, yes, more..." he trailed off, and I leaned my head back and relished the sudden relief and release of congestion. I felt some warm weight on my chest and looked down.

"Toby," Telf said warmly, positioning the tiny, wet thing on my chest. I raised my hands to touch it, to validate it, to greet it.

"Oh," I said, and tears welled up in my eyes, and again that knife slid into my hearts, like a key in an engine I didn't know I had, an engine that sputtered to life and overpowered me.

And I felt the choice again, the need to decide, and logic came up again but this time there was no way it could defeat the overwhelming need to hold my child.

Telf rubbed it with a terry cloth towel vigorously, and I felt like protesting out of fear that he was hurting it, but I let the logic win that battle, deciding he'd learned how rough he needed to be in his hundreds of births since Jara.

He scuttled around me to get a better look as I felt its tiny claws dig through the towel Hayley had laid over my chest and into my skin, as it shivered and worked on the very new and very necessary art of breathing. Telf dried it off, finally rubbing the towel around its head, and he pulled it away.

"Oh," I said again. Telf stopped, examined it, scuttled again to lift up a leg.

"Toby have girl kawatnoj," he said, kind of confused.

"It was a girl," I sighed. I lifted a finger to touch her cheek, and she blinked at me through sparkling, intelligent eyes oppressed by that heavy brow. Then she sneezed, and that was when I loved her.

Telf came around again to look at her as my mother crooned and tutted on my shoulder, as I stroked her tiny face and examined the way her brow came to a tip in an unattractive, masculine way, seeing how that served as the mistaken third head blade that Telf had diagnosed. And I loved her even more for surprising me, and even more as I realized even then that her life would be different, and not easier because of it.

"I love her so much," I said. I had to say it. It was too explosive just sitting inside of me. "Have you ever seen a prettier kawatnoj?"

"Never," Mother agreed. But Telf was still investigating her, holding his fingers to his lips, troubled.

Hayley shuffled over, crouching next to me, taking notes on a legal pad without looking down.

"Alert, motile. It even has blades already," she said. I looked down and saw that she was sketching my daughter, a quick, impressionistic thing that actually conveyed her helplessness and yearning. "That must have hurt."

"It was worth it," I said.

"Is it all right if I measure her, weigh her, take a foot print?"

I felt a deep aversion to letting her go, but I swallowed it down and shifted her to my arms. "All right. Telf," I said, and he came over carefully, still a little confused, and scooped her in his arms.

Hayley tared the scale with the towel on it, and Telf gently laid her down. She squirmed, flinging her legs and tail, finally burying her face in her hands, and my hearts broke a little from the discomfort she was displaying.

"Twenty-four pounds, 12 ounces," Hayley said. "Damn."

She was two feet, two inches from headblades to the tip of her fetal tail, and her footprint was three and a half inches long. Telf continued to wipe her off and tend to her as much as he could as Hayley took some pictures, measured her from fingertip to fingertip, measured her inseam, handled her with a tender yet scientific coldness.

"She seems healthy," Hayley said. "Though I am a little confounded by this formation on her brow."

"Let me hold her," I moaned unconsciously.

"Hayy-lee is done?" Telf translated.

"Yes, oh, I'm sorry, Toby. Go on, Telf, let her see Mom."

Telf scooped the child, quickening and acquiescing to life, up in his arms. He dropped to his knees to hand her to me, but then something frightening happened.

His eyes got sort of big, and his shoulders seized up, and his arms shook, and he tilted forward like he was going to fall.

"Telf," I said, reaching up to retrieve her. The moment passed, and Telf shook it off, putting a palm to his temple.

"Telf Getrin so tired," Mother said, hugging me around the waist.

"Yes," he said, still a little shaky.

"Are you all right?" I asked, shifting one arm to embrace my child and reaching out to him with the other.

"Yes, Telf fine. Telf tired. Like Ket say."

"Ket is right very much," Mother said proudly. I frowned a little, unconvinced, but my focus was quickly stolen by my child.

"Here, it's clean," Hayley said, laying another towel over my shivering child, tucking her in tightly against my chest. "Snug as a bug in a rug."

"Bug," Telf repeated, seated now, recovering.

I ignored him for a few moments, bonding with my child, touching the tip of my beak to hers, smiling and clucking at her until she responded with a smile and cluck of her own. Then my ear perked up and I turned to him.

"What?" I asked.

"Bug," Telf repeated. "Kawatnoj need name, Toby. Toby name Jara. Telf name Bug."

"We're not—no," I said automatically.

"Toby be fair," Telf warned.

"Yes, but Jara...it's a bug, Telf. An insect. It's not..."

"Bug good name," Mother said behind me. "Bug Getrin."

"You picked Dude of all things. I don't think you're qualified to vote on this," I said, getting a little upset. I looked at Hayley for help, who was holding her hands up in surrender.

"I didn't say anything," she preempted.

"What do you mean, you didn't say anything?" I said, voice rising. "I can't believe that—all of you must—"

Telf smiled and sat next to me, putting a hand on the covered infant's back, leaning forward to kiss me tenderly. "Bug Getrin," he said.

I was physically spent, too tired to resist. And I was too in love with both of them to turn this into a fight.

"Bug Getrin," I conceded with a sigh, snuggling against him.

Mother ended up taking Hayley down, though she hadn't been trained with the harness. I chose not to worry about it, and the lack of a snap and scream on their way down allayed most of my fears. Telf, Bug, and I slept well into the next morning, when Jara finally came home to meet his sister.

Mother was off announcing the arrival of her first granddaughter, and Telf was snoring next to me, an arm slung over his eyes, but he was in one of his wake-up-for-nothing states so Jara and I spoke without inhibition.

"But Mother Toby—Mama—say that Jara get brother," Jara insisted.

"We were wrong," I told him. "You get a sister instead."

Jara looked sort of disappointed until Bug sat up in my lap, climbed to her feet using my knee blade as a support, and reached out toward Jara with a big smile on her face. He cautiously offered her a finger, which she grabbed onto and bit down hard enough to draw blood.

"Ow!" Jara cried, recoiling, cradling his hand. Bug giggled gleefully and I couldn't help but smile in approval. I looked at Jara, who seemed betrayed.

"She didn't mean it," I said. "Are you okay? Let me see."

"Jara fine," He said, pulling away. I frowned a little bit, scooping Bug up in my arms so I could confront her.

"We don't bite people." I told her. "No teeth." I mimed the gestured with my mouth, clacking my jaws together, then shook my head.

"Doh," Bug said, then giggled again, covering her mouth with both hands. I cooed indulgently.

"Try again," I said to Jara. He frowned but sat close to me.

"Bug," I said quietly. "This is your brother, Jara. You don't bite brothers."

"Duddah," she tried to repeat.

"Jara," I encouraged.

"Da-dah."

"No, 'Da-dah" is your father."

"Da-dah."

"She's getting there," I said to Jara. "Introduce yourself."

He recoiled a little, but when Bug reached her hand out toward him, he carefully pinched it between two of his fingers. "Hi, Bug," he said.

"Da-Dah," Bug responded. She shrieked again and buried herself in my lap. Jara smiled a little bit.

"I need to feed her," I said, trying to adjust her, though she wormed away from my hands in some kind of game. "When your father wakes up, can you tell him I went to the maple grove?"

"Yes, Mother Toby," Jara said.

"You look so tired. Did you sleep at all at your uncle's?"

Jara looked down and shook his head. "Jara very excited for brother," he said.

I scooped up Bug, packaged her tightly against my chest, and leaned forward to kiss Jara. "Sister is really no different, Jara. It just means she has two head blades instead of three. Are you still going to be a good big brother?"

"Yes, Mother Toby," he said again.

"Get some sleep." I squeezed his shoulder, rising to my feet.

"Mother Toby—" Jara said, grabbing for my arm.

"What is it, Jara?"

"Mother Toby bleeding," he said, pointing between my legs. I looked down. A couple of rivulets of blood were certainly winding down my thighs, one had reached my knee, but I'd already flattened so much and felt so much better that I felt compelled to ignore it.

"I'll be all right. It's not that much. Thank you, though, Jara. I love you."

Jara looked sick, but nodded, knowing better than to contradict Mother Toby when she'd made up her mind. I kissed him in assurance that I appreciated the concern, secured Bug to my chest, and swung from our tree.

I'd fed Bug a couple of times already during the night, when I felt her whine and tremble against my chest, but my mammary glands still ached at the back of my throat, swelling as they worked up to full production. I stopped about halfway to the grove, climbed high into an unoccupied spruce, delved deeply within the branches, and fed her for about twenty minutes.

It was a much different experience than feeding Jara, who'd had no reason to trust me when I started feeding him regularly, since I'd refused to for the first ten days of his life. Jara ate apprehensively, greedily, digging his wrist blades deeply within me to make sure I wouldn't steal it back from him. Even so early on, he didn't trust me. Bug, on the other hand, laid herself over my chest lazily, cradling and rubbing my jaw gently, which offered relief from the pressure and swelling, encouraged me to give her more. She lapped at a leisurely pace, savoring rather than scarfing. I purred soundly below her, stroking her back, stopping her every once in a while to pat loose a burp. When she finished, she propped herself up on the bridge of my nose and looked down at me.

"Are you still hungry?" I whined through my nasal passages. She smiled, then, a smile full of meaning and depth, like she knew that this interaction was rare and beautiful in the context of our people's history, like she knew a mundane question like that meant multitudes more than merely what it signified, like she knew our bond was permanent, at no risk of being severed, and that gave her security. I smiled back at her, knowing myself that this moment secured something vital between us, that she loved me, that she trusted me, that she knew I would never betray her. At that moment, I'd earned more with Bug than I had with Jara.

Then she belched, vomiting up a moderate quantity of half-digested milk, most of which spilled onto my face.

She started to sob, but I shushed her and wiped the secretion out of my eyes, patting her on the back to ensure that she got all of it, tucking her tightly against my chest as I cleared the rest of it from my face. She burped once more, then was satisfied, and almost immediately fell asleep with her face in her hands against my chest.

I could have returned home, but I decided to stay there with her, to lie awake with the weight of my daughter on my chest, to stroke her back as she purred and breathed soundly. I liked the solitude, I liked that it was just us, I liked that neither of us needed anything but each other.

After about a half hour, she woke, hungry again. I decided to start teaching her about the trees.

"Ungee," she said, grappling my lips with her claws.

"Not yet," I said through clenched teeth. "Tell me what kind of tree we're sitting in, first."

"Tee," she said.

"No, what kind?" I asked, hitting the trunk with my hand. "I told you when we got here."

"Tee!"

"Bug," I encouraged.

"Poose," she said.

"Yes, good. Spruce. Do you want to taste spruce?"

"Ungee," she repeated.

"I know. But I want you to have some bark, too." I sat up, holding her tightly against my chest, and sliced free a swatch of bark from behind my head. I put it in my mouth, chewed slowly, then opened. She glanced at me uncertainly.

"Eak," I said, mouth open. Bug hesitantly bent forward and started lapping at the glands at the back of my throat. I cleared my throat a couple of times, encouraging her forward, until she started nibbling the pre-chewed wad of bark on my tongue. Before long, she was focused on it exclusively, and before much longer, it was all gone.

I swallowed down the rest, smiling. "Good. Do you want more?"

"Ungee," she confirmed.

"Let's go try a different tree."

I swung with her to an oak, which she ate more quickly. She spat out the birch, seemed uncertain about the elm. I thought it was because she was getting full, so I stopped by the hearth, just to introduce her to more of her people, to reassure them that I was all right, better than I was with Jara. When we finally got to the maple grove, she inhaled deeply, smelling, and smiled.

"Good," she said.

"These are my favorites. I think you'll like them too, especially if we can find one that's still got some sap."

We were lucky. I secured myself vertically to a tall sugar maple, leaves whispering in the breeze, and jammed my wrist blade into it. Immediately it began to bleed that clear amber liquid, and I smiled.

"Try some," I said, taking it onto my finger tips. She cradled my finger, smiled, and bit down hard, drawing blood.

"Bug!" I cried. "No biting!"

She stopped and looked up at me, surprised and remorseful, but when I sighed in forgiveness she licked away the rest of the sap, and I sucked on the wound, scooping up some more syrup with my other hand.

"Don't bite, just lick," I said. She whined in contentment and licked my entire hand, even delving between my fingers for any particle of sap she may have missed.

"Good," she repeated, resting a hand on her swollen belly.

"Yes," I said. "I'm going to take some of this for later. Watch how I cut." I jammed my wrist blade in the bark again, and placed her hand on the back side of my wrist. "Feel how I pull," I said. "It's easier to cut through maple if you wiggle your arm back and forth a little bit."

Bug seemed uninterested, watching a cardinal and his mate sitting in a branch a few feet above us. I sighed, cut a long swatch I'd cut smaller later, and tucked Bug against my chest again.

"Let's go see if your father is awake," I said. I secured Bug tightly to my chest again, her stubby wrist and knee blades puncturing my torso. I looked down at her for a long moment and smiled.

"Nonny?" She said. I bowed my head and touched my headblades delicately to hers.

"I love you very much, Bug," I said. She smiled and sighed, pressing her cheek to my chest.

We got home about ten minutes later and found that Telf had left. Jara said that Jerp was having her kawatnoj, but that Telf would be back in a few hours, once he got her ready. He wasn't, and in fact, Telf saw very little of Bug for the first couple weeks of her life.

He didn't even get to hold her in a mutually cognizant way until she was three days old.

It was after sunset, and Bug had just finished eating the last of the maple bark I'd gotten and was ready to curl up against me to sleep when Telf swung into our tree. He saw that she was awake and hee-hawed.

"Telf hope Toby and Bug still awake," he said. He stooped a little, holding out a hand towards her. Bug retreated to me, gazing at him uncertainly. She glanced back at me and Mother for signals on how to respond.

This warmed me, that I was the parent she looked to. I encouraged her forward, pushing her a little. "Go say hello to your father," I said.

"Da-dah?" She asked. I laughed a little.

"Yes," I said.

Telf crouched down and let Bug approach. She was still hesitant, but I kept encouraging her, and before long she was hunched in front of Telf, who opened a palm to reveal a strip of oak bark. She playfully grabbed for it, but he shook his head, turning both his hands to fists. He hid them behind his back, and she chased them around, but he winked at me and brought them back to his front. He held out both, and she picked the left, opening his empty hand. She pried open the right only to be disappointed as well. She frowned and pouted, but Telf scooped her up and opened his mouth, revealing the moist but unchewed piece of bark. She squealed in delight and grabbed him by the jaw, holding him steady so she could feed.

After, Telf had her in a deep embrace, hee-hawing deeply against her. She was giggling brightly, and I melted in relief, my mother holding me close. It hadn't taken her more than three minutes to trust and love him entirely. After all, even my levels of caution and self-consciousness weren't immune to the powers of his charm. She didn't stand a chance. She fell in love with him in an instant, and any apprehension he had about her slight deformity seemed to melt away just as fast.

I stayed home for a week, living in myopic, domestic contentment, ignoring any duties or responsibilities I had. Though Telf was still at the peak of his busy season, the five of us, and even Dude and Taff sometimes, spent as much time just sitting at home telling stories, going out for bark and water, finding heaping quantities of dandelion down for our beds as we could. It was uneventful, selfish, mundane.

It was perfect.

Messengers came by, of course, with memos and notes from my staff, which I dutifully ignored. And when I told a few of them to just stop coming, it was no issue. My people have always listened to me over the humans, and it was an abuse of power I didn't mind indulging so that I could watch my daughter cut through her first puhram twig.

At the end of the week, though, one of them brought a walkie-talkie.

"I said only before noon on Wednesdays," I snapped.

"Yes, Mother Toby say only before noon, then only after one. This make Vark confused, and humans say very important."

I sighed, feeling a little guilty for deliberately confusing one of my people, so I stood up as Telf tickled Bug and took the walkie.

"This is Toby," I said after clicking the button.

"Look down, Governor." I stepped to the edge of the platform and obeyed.

Brenda was standing, arms crossed, glaring up at me.

"Who said you could be in the hearth?" I asked through the walkie, climbing down to meet her.

Brenda sighed. "I'm trying really hard not to be upset here, Governor."

"Stop calling me that. What are you doing here?"

Brenda thrust forward a large packet of papers covered in sticky notes and colored tabs. "Have you looked at this at all?"

I took it from her. It was the provisional Yellowstone contract. "Oh, I meant..." I flipped through it slowly, catching several phrases that made my blood boil. "Mandatory medical check-ins," "Dissemination of birth control and reproductive education pamphlets," "Compulsory elections to reinstate the leadership of Governor Hamee with at least 25% voter turnout required to ratify reinauguration."

"This is a joke," I coughed out. "How could you agree to any of this?"

"We've been working on this day in, day out, Toby. We've been pushing back. We knew you'd hate the allowance of motorcycle and ATV permits within Hork-Bajir boundaries, so we got it removed, but they sense we'll compromise so they put stuff like this in there."

"They're trying to control us," I said, gripping the contract so tightly in my hands that it crumpled and tore. "They're trying to limit my power and advocacy, they're trying to make us sub-human." Brenda put her hands over mine.

"We're on your side, Toby. But they think since you're not here fighting this, you must be okay with it."

"Why are they using this stupid provisional contract as a means to further political agenda anyway?" I cried. "This is corruption and systemic manipulation of the highest order, they should be put on trial for treason!"

Brenda sighed. "I know, but we can't convince anyone of that if you're not speaking the words."

The anger sat heavy on my chest like lead, and only then did I glance up and see Bug's head hanging over the edge of the platform, watching me.

"I haven't left her since she was born," I whispered to Brenda.

"I know."

"Can I bring her with?"

Brenda shrugged. "I don't care. Hayley will be happy to see her again, all she talks about is how adorable she is."

I managed a laugh. "I guess that trait of ours rubbed off on her."

I climbed up, retrieved Bug, and left the walkie with Telf just in case.

"Telf come too?"

"You can, if you want. I just have to take care of this one little thing. It shouldn't be long."

"Toby do...materny leave."

I stopped and sighed, shifted Bug to my hip. "I know."

"Still take it?"

I sighed. "I just have to do this, Telf. I'm sorry. I'll be back."

Telf got up and wrapped Bug and me in his arms. "Telf love Toby and Bug so much," he said, giving us each a quick kiss. "Hope Toby and Bug back soon."

"Dahdah," Bug said, reaching out for him. He took her hand and pressed it to his cheek, crossing his eyes so she giggled. I didn't want to leave.

"The sooner we go the sooner we can come back," I said, making my way for the edge of the platform. "I love you."

Telf smiled. "Telf know."

As I marched to the cabin, I felt my rage start to grow and my tunnel-vision narrow to the point that I'd almost forgotten I was carrying a child against my hip.

"Where go?" Bug asked, readjusting her wristblades uncomfortably in my chest and back.

"Remember Hayley? The human?"

Bug leaned in and pressed her head to my chest.

"We're going to go see her again," I said. "And some more humans, too."

"What's yoonan?"

"You'll see soon, my love."

The minute I walked inside the cabin, Bug tightened herself against me, and the humans clustered around me, thrusting forward faxes and rewrites, pages covered in red ink. Voices overlapped, gestures became violent. We were all angry, and now that I'd actually decided to grace this crisis with my presence, a sense of urgency had overcome all of my staff.

And yet, all of my concern was pointed toward my daughter, how terrified and panicked she was by all the screaming.

"Can we all please just quiet down?" I said, raising my voice above the ambient level, making Bug shiver against me even more. I waited for the shouting to die, then adjusted Bug against my hip again. She was already getting heavy.

"We will fix this whole egregious abuse of power, and I'd like to set the goal that we finish it by tonight," I began. "However, I don't think shouting and stressing ourselves out it going to make this process any more efficient. We'll wear ourselves out and we won't have the clear-headed, unemotional, logical mindset to do this right. So please, everyone take three deep breaths, and let's get to work."

"Dug go," Bug said against my chest. I sighed.

"We just got here," I whispered to her.

"Dug go Dahdah," she whimpered, burying her face in her hands and into my chest. I felt a stab of guilt, but readjusted her again and began reading a clause that Kyle had thrust at me.

We worked well for about a half hour, with each of my staff members addressing their problems with the contract in turn, the others yammering into phones and typing madly at their computers to ameliorate the injustices. At that point, Hayley walked in with takeout for everyone, smiling brightly when she saw me.

"I was hoping you'd come by one of these days!" She said. "I was too nervous to go up and see you, and besides, Telf has been just as scarce as you."

I smiled. "I wanted to do it right this time is all," I said. "Bug, you remember Hayley, right?"

She whimpered in response to her name, but didn't look up.

"She's a little...overwhelmed, I think." I bent my neck forward, trying to read a third draft of subsection 8 out of the corner of my eye, and caressed her headblades with mine. "It's all right, Bug. No one here is going to hurt you."

She peeked through her fingers and glanced up at me.

"Dese are yoonans?" She asked. I nodded slightly.

"They're good. Not scary."

Bug removed her face from her hands and wrapped her arms around my neck. I lifted her so she could sit curled up against my chest.

"How's she doing?" Hayley whispered to me.

"Okay for now, I think," I said.

"Ungee," Bug chirped up.

"Well, not totally okay," I corrected. Hayley smiled.

"I have a little bit of um, I think it's elm? A couple I was interviewing offered it to me as thanks. Imagine if humans were as thankful about being interrupted by pesky investigators. Maybe I could afford to move out of my apartment." She pulled a bit of stale, chewy bark out of her bag and I offered it to Bug.

"No!" She whined after she bit into it. She spit it out and banged her headblades gently but painfully into my chest.

"Bug, don't do that," I coughed. Bug pressed her cheek to the wounds.

"Bug is ungee," she whimpered a little more pathetically. I knew she was manipulating me, I couldn't help but admit that it was working.

"I'm just going to take her out for a little while," I told Brenda.

"Toby, we've got to get this done tonight. Let's work for a solid hour, then we'll all take a break."

I sighed, adjusted her in my arms. "We'll get some food in a little while," I whispered to Bug. "Just try to relax for a while."

"Bug is ungee now," she said.

"Shh," I said, bouncing her in my arms, unable to think of anything else to placate her. She harumphed, acknowledging that she'd lost, and I refocused on rephrasing a particular clause to clarify that "funding parties" were explicitly American taxpayers.

After a while, the atmosphere of rage and tension died down, when we all realized our task was not insurmountable and we were actually making rather good progress. Melody started a game of peek-a-boo with Bug, who bashfully turned into me when Melody's face popped out, and giggled indulgently when Melody stuck out her tongue.

"Feeling a little better?" I asked her. She sighed into me.

"Here, maybe this will keep her occupied," Melody said, holding out a novelty pen made of bumpy, brown plastic in the shape of a twig. Bug's eyes got big, and before I could stop her, she reached out, yanked it out of Melody's hand, and shoved it in her mouth.

"Ehhhyahh!" She whined when the pen burst in her mouth, ink coating her teeth in a ghastly blue-black color, tongue wagging side to side.

"Oh, Bug!" I yelled, letting go of the stack of papers in my hand, watching helplessly as they fluttered haphazardly to the ground. Immediately, Melody stooped over to fetch and reorganize them, apologizing profusely, Marie not far behind. I sat Bug on the edge of a desk and tried to stick my fingers in my mouth though she bit down hard in protest.

I winced away the pain and turned around. "Does anyone have any water?"

"Here," Kyle said, thrusting me his thermos. I screwed off the top and poured a little luke warm water in my hand.

"Stay still, I'll get it out," I cooed to Bug, who was thrashing and moaning from the taste. She knocked over a mug full of pens, stabbed into the plastic case of a computer monitor. I held down one of her arms to give her the water, but she'd hack and spit and fling the other. Eventually she sliced me cleanly in the cheek with a wrist blade, and I couldn't help but snap back and cover the wound with a hand.

This made her stop for a moment, but her shock from hurting me, coupled with the inky saliva still spilling from the corners of her mouth, made her start screaming loud, curdling sobs.

"I'm going to take her outside," I tried to say above the wails, but I don't think anyone heard me. I jerked toward the door and started jogging away from the cabin with Bug in my arms. I found a comfortable little spot for us, sat down on the peat, and laid Bug on her back in my lap so I could attend to her.

"There you go. No, don't swallow, just swish it around and spit it out," I instructed, holding Kyle's thermos so she could drink from it. The water hit and cascaded down her beak as she scraped her tongue with her claws, still coughing out pathetic, horrible-sounding sobs.

"Don't do that, you'll hurt yourself," I said, trying to swat away her hands. We struggled back and forth for a few minutes until she finally took some water and rubbed her tongue in the palm of my hand.

"Toby," I heard from behind me. Telf was approaching quickly.

"Amazing how you just know when I've messed up," I said a little bitterly, voice cracking. Bug popped up, despite her discomfort, and smiled big, revealing her ink-stained teeth.

"Dah," she said, standing up, opening her arms for him. He bent down and scooped her up, wiping a little blue drool from her chin.

"Human call Telf on this," Telf said, helping me to my feet, handing me a walkie-talkie. "Say, come get Bug."

"Oh," I said. I frowned, a little disappointed.

"Toby okay?" Telf asked.

"I..."

"Nonny cunn," Bug said, the tears all but dried.

"I can't come home yet," I said to them both.

"Nonny," Bug repeated, growing a little despondent, reaching out toward me. I looked at Telf, who was frowning.

"I have to finish the revisions to the contract," I said to him, almost begging. "I can't come home yet."

"Bug can't stay," he responded. And my throat tied in a knot, and I knew he was right.

"Nonny," Bug repeated again, now desperate. I dove for her and cradled her tiny face in my hands, pressed my headblades solidly against hers.

"I have to go," I said to her. "I'll be back as soon as I can. But be good for—"

"Nanaahh!" She cried, flinging her arms around my neck. "Nonny cunn, Nonny peese cunn!"

"I can't," I said, holding her as Telf frowned but squeezed me encouragingly.

It was a horrible feeling, her clutching me tight, willing me home while I felt the simultaneous tug of duty from the cabin. It was everything I'd dreaded, everything I'd overcontemplated. I felt unwept tears gather and coalesce like a lead weight at the base of my jaw, I felt my head start to pound in pain. I held her tight against me, convincing her as much as I could without words that this had nothing to do with a desire to be apart from her, that our separation killed me as much as her.

And then I let her go.

"No! No!" She scrabbled and clung, but I pried her loose and Telf pulled her away, and she started screaming again, horrible, blood-curdling screams that even without such emotional attachment would have been unsettling.

They almost killed me.

Telf gripped her hard and swung away with her quickly without saying good bye, but I wasn't insulted. I heard her screams echo for almost a minute before the forest swallowed them up. And I took four more to compose myself before I headed back into the cabin.

Everyone was quiet when I stepped back inside. I walked over and placed Kyle's thermos back on his desk with a trembling hand. Then I pulled a stool from the wall, dragged it toward the middle of the room, and sat down carefully.

"The way I see it," I said, "we can do this both quickly and right. Let's pick up where we left off, and everyone take a clause. Prepare as I work with people in front of you, and I'll get to you in turn. Is anyone ready with anything right now?" Marcia stood up and waved a thick packet of papers.

"I've gone through clause eight once. Ready to have you look at it."

"All right. Let's get started."

We ground through all 480 pages of the contract in just over nine hours. A pot of coffee was constantly brewing, and one of the messengers brought in more pine bark for me, which has a similar stimulating effect, every hour or so. I went to each of my staff three times, rewording every ambiguous or troubling phrase in the contract, adding our own stipulations and restrictions, squeezing out any loophole or exploitable snag.

Finally, Brenda slammed the last page face-down on a pile of the rest of them, and thrust them to Melody to transcribe into something that didn't look like it had been "mugged by an Office Max," as Brad had put it. Everyone gave a light smattering of applause and started to pack up for the day. I bolted for the door.

"Wait, Toby, don't leave yet," Brenda said.

"I have to go see if Bug is okay," I told her, hand on the doorknob.

Brenda blew the bangs out of her eyes in a loud sigh. "Fine, go. But we've gotta talk about the upcoming Committee on E-TAD session tomorrow. I think you should present the changes we made there."

I felt my blood run cold. "I'm not going to Washington, Brenda."

"You called in sick last time, and that invited enough suspicion. You want me to go get the six separate articles that correctly guessed the reason for your absence?"

I swallowed, letting go of the door knob.

"She's still so young," I whispered. "I can't leave her yet."

Brenda stepped forward. "I'll talk to Chairman Paulson's staff, see if I can't maybe convince him to convene in three days instead of five. That's a five-day trip, if you include the travel days. But you've got to go, Toby. If you don't go, that is just the beginning of a long line of attacks on Hork-Bajir freedom." She gestured freely to Melody, who was scratching her head at the convoluted changes we had made to the contract.

I felt like I was going to cry. "How am I going to tell her that I'll be gone for five days? You saw how she reacted when I had to leave her at all."

"I know the feeling, Toby. But kids are stronger than we give them credit for. Let her prove you wrong."

I wiped a tear away from my eye hastily, hating to appear so stupid, sentimental, maternal. Brenda put a hand on my arm and smiled.

"You're doing this for her, too. For her, for Jara, for Telf. Protecting them sometimes requires a little sacrifice."

I breathed in deeply, composed myself. "I don't want any layovers on either flight," I said with a little more gusto. "Let's get it down to four and a half if we can. Four, even. I'll fly red eye."

"I'll charter a flight straight from the hearth itself if it makes you go."

I headed home after that.

It was already about 10:00 at night, and Bug had been going to sleep at sundown her whole life (which, granted, was only about eleven days), but I couldn't refuse the hope that she would be waiting for me at the edge of the platform, smiling and screaming in glee when I appeared. I climbed our tree hastily, but as quietly as I could, just in case anyone was asleep. When I reached the top, I saw Telf sitting, waiting for me, and Mother asleep with an arm around Jara and Bug wheezing with her hands in her face against her chest.

I was about to break down into tears, seeing her so vulnerable and so hurt, but Telf got up, took my hand, and led me to the canopy so we could talk.

"Is she all right?" I asked, sitting cross-legged across from him.

"Bug very funny," Telf said. "Cry so hard, make Ket and Telf so scared, then laugh when Jara come in tree. Laugh, hug him, dance. Play so long with Jara and Ket, get so tired."

I sighed in relief, filling in the gaps of his truncated story. "She's not like Jara at all, is she?"

"Jara like Jara. Bug like Bug," Telf agreed.

I sighed and let him rub the top of my thigh with his hand. I was very tempted just to cede to the obvious request, but I gripped his hand and looked into his eyes instead.

"I have to go to Washington next week," I said.

Telf's milky eye became cloudier, filling with tears. "Telf remember. Five days, then two days, like normal?"

"Brenda's going to see if she can get the whole thing down to five," I said. "Maybe four, but I'll be tired."

Telf nodded obediently, looking away.

"Will she be all right?" I whispered. "Will you?"

Telf turned back and smirked to me. "Telf want make kawatnoj with kalashi so long," he said. "Want have kawatnoj. But have kawatnoj so different from make kawatnoj."

"Harder," I agreed. "But better."

"Very better."

I smiled again and replaced his hand on my thigh. He got the hint, rolled on top of me, kissed me deeply, and we made love quietly as our family slept below.

That particular trip to Washington was one of my favorites. Not only were most of the members of the committee a little more patient with me, since they hadn't seen me in six months, and thus a little bit more generous in acquiescing the floor, but it was most productive because I finally had something to say.

I held the floor for seven and a half hours straight as I read through a laundry list of every injustice that had been shoved into our provisional contract. I read slowly, letting the words seep over the Committee, glancing at the C-Span camera every couple of minutes with a growing look of bitter disgust. At the end, in a four and a half minute speech that got replayed, replicated, and reappropriated so much that even I got sick of hearing it, I let out every frustration and grievance I had against the humans. I spoke of the challenges and hardships of being a minority group with no intrinsic human rights, of the inevitability of our oppression, even with the best of human intentions. I spoke of our uncertain future which was really more certain than anything, given the current path we were on. And, most effectively, I spoke of my father, and his fight, and his eventual demise, and that his life better symbolized the current plight of my people than anything else.

At the end of the trip, after my speech had permeated the political landscape a little bit, I learned that Paulson had actually had a very big hand in writing the contract itself. He'd received donations and pressure from various corporate interests in Colorado, and was doing his best to make Yellowstone as unpalatable a place for us to live as possible so we would want to move to his state instead. Confidential e-mails and phone records showed that a Hork-Bajir colony in Colorado would have created thousands of jobs in tourism and park upkeep, would have reappropriated half a billion dollars in government subsidies, would have almost doubled Colorado's budget. It was quite the political scandal for a few weeks, and after his constituents called for his immediate resignation, there was a bit of a shake-up in the Committee, and Denmark became the Chair in his place.

Of course, writing about political squabbles interests me little. I won that battle, which is really all that matters, but I suppose what I find most interesting is that I don't blame Paulson at all for what he did. As a leader to his people, he only ever wants what is best for them, and an attack and forced migration on us would have served them very well. I suppose that he could have been more above board with it, and it was the duplicitous, secretive nature of his conspiracy that got him removed from office, but if I were in his position, I couldn't see myself acting very differently.

It was better than paying for prostitutes with his expense account, at least, as far as scandals go.

Six days later, I was home.

Bug had stayed up all night waiting for me, and when I climbed into our tree at 7:10 in the morning, she stumbled over to me and I fell to my knees and let her sob into my chest, cutting me with her hardening head blades, and she pounded me with her fists, punishing me for leaving her alone so long. I cooed and shushed and apologized, stroking her back, until she finally wore herself out and fell asleep curled up tightly inside my lap. I hadn't collapsed in a very comfortable place, so I could only sit there and pet her as she purred and wheezed with her face in her hands, but I let her sleep soundly for four hours before she roused in hunger and pulled herself up to my mouth by my cheeks.

I knew six days without feeding her might be long enough for my mammary glands to close up, and on my trip I sort of figured out how to nurse from myself, putting pressure on my left gland with my tongue and sucking from my cheek, after asking Hayley and Telf for any suggestions. The right did end up healing, since I couldn't manipulate my mouth that way, and Bug wept again when she found out she could only feed from half of me. At that point I was a little bitter and told her that maybe she was simply old enough to eat bark exclusively, but she shook her head and cried and seemed so betrayed that I wrapped her in my arms and cried along with her.

I realized, when she wore herself out again (this time in Telf's lap), that Bug was indeed different from Jara, moreso than I could have ever predicted. If I'd have threatened Jara with that, he probably would have swallowed and nodded in a resigned way and never requested it again. But Bug only lapped that much more vigorously and devotedly to her remaining source of nourishment, professing her love and apology and overwhelming need for the comfort, kissing me and thanking me and punishing me for hurting her. Bug was never shy about letting me know how she felt, how much she needed me, how much my abandonment hurt her. She wasn't proud. Jara was austere, collected, cold, and self-sufficient, while Bug was needy, emotional, big-hearted, sensitive, and warm. Bug was tethered to me, and rather than testing the strength of the rope, rather than trying to pull away, she could only grab onto it with all of her strength.

A part of me knew that their inherent personality differences were strictly my fault. I've talked to Hayley about it, of course, and she exonerates me every time, saying that even humans haven't agreed on whether nature or nurture plays a bigger part in determining who we become, but I still think Hork-Bajir are different. Bug had the capacity for personality the moment she was born. Humans don't develop theirs until years later. It's so much harder for them to track the course of cause and effect, to wonder if dropping their children from the changing table, if that time they didn't go to the hospital until morning affects their maturation. But I could very easily connect what I did to whom they became. There was no tether at all between me and Jara. I'd refused him his. If I hadn't fallen into that depression, I could see nothing but a more intimate, loving relationship between him and me, and a more loving, interdependent, warm son.

And perhaps I'd spoiled Bug. Perhaps the desire to rectify my mistakes with Jara made me too smothering, too intimate. But I know that when she's upset and turns to me for comfort, I can't refuse her. I hate seeing her cry. My only choice is to do everything in my power to make her feel better.

That has helped in a number of situations, however.

A couple weeks later, Bug awoke me with sounds of whining and sobbing, holding her hand against her jaw. She'd woken me up the past couple of nights, complaining about bad dreams and spiders crawling over her, so I wasn't in the most generous or comforting mood. However, after her moans and cries woke up Mother and Jara, and finally even Telf, I had no choice but to respond to her.

"Mouf hurt, Mommy," she cried, rubbing the corner of her jaw.

"Bug make teeth," my mother said. "Make Toby cry too."

"But Jara didn't," I said, sticking my fingers in her mouth, which she responded to with a moan and recoil. I sighed, chewing some dandelions that we kept just in case of such an emergency.

However, when I tried one more time to examine her, I felt a hard, hot little boil on her gums, and my slight touch made her wail in pain.

"Bug, stay still, let me look," I said, and she whimpered as I pulled back her cheeks and saw the tooth coming in 90 degrees crooked, poking out into her cheek.

"Bad tooth," Telf said, blanching a little bit, looking in over my shoulder.

"Look, it's all infected," I said, growing a little more despondent, trying to stay calm to keep her calm. "We have to do something."

"Jara help?" Jara asked behind me, looking nervous.

"Can you chew some more dandelions for her? See if we can't numb it up. Telf, we're running a little low, so why don't you go find some fresh ones for her. Mother, stay here with Bug, I'm going to go find Brian."

"Braane?" Bug asked as Mother cuddled her.

"He's a human, sweetie. I think he might be able to help." She sobbed a little more as Mother rubbed her back, kissed her from behind. I looked back one more time, frowning a little, and headed to the human researcher's campsite.

Hayley was already awake, drinking coffee and scratching something out on a legal pad, and got up when she saw me approaching.

"What are you doing up?" I asked.

"Couldn't sleep. I can never sleep when I'm in the middle of writing," she said. "What about you?"

"Something's wrong with Bug," I said, much more calmly than I felt.

"Oh, no. Anything I can do?"

"No, I just need to talk to Brian."

"He's inside."

I started knocking on the door, squirming in worry, and when he didn't answer after about ten seconds, I pounded on it. Hayley came over and said, "Jesus, Toby, give him a chance," right as Brian opened the door, rubbing his eyes and already wired with adrenaline.

"What is it?"

"Bug," I whimpered. "There's something wrong with her."

"I…I'm not a doctor, Toby, I can't—"

"I know, but please. You're all I've got."

He sighed, rubbed his shirt around his glasses, and nodded. "Bring her here, I'll take a look."

I retrieved Bug and brought Telf with me, encouraging Jara to go back to sleep, asking Mother to look after him. Neither of them seemed very happy with my request, but they obeyed.

Bug was sobbing in a weak, whimpering, pathetic way as I carried her back to the campground. We laid her on a picnic blanket, and she cried and whined when the humans came close.

"No," she moaned in fear when Brian knelt down next to her.

"Bug, look at me," I said to her, holding her face in my hands, feeling her heartbeat beneath her cheek. "I know humans are scary, but you have to let him look. He's going to make it feel better."

"Well, I'm going to try," Brian said. "Could you hold her still? I'm a little…" He shrugged, indicating his defenselessness against her blades, if she chose to thrash and throw herself around, and I nodded.

"Just hold her tight. Not painful, but tight," I said to Telf, who put one hand over her legs and gripped her wrists together in his fist with the other. Bug cried more, now feeling punished and captive, but I cooed and comforted as I held her mouth open for Brian to examine.

"Yikes. That doesn't look very good at all," he said. He fingered it with a rubber glove, and I felt her jaw resist the force of my hands, and I tutted at her to stay still. "It's going to keep growing in that way, and it'll shred her cheeks as well as infecting her gums, and maybe her whole jaw."

I felt my bowels liquefy in fear. Telf saw my reaction and frowned.

"What should we do?"

"Extract it, I'd say."

"Is that what you'd do to a human?" I growled, a little bit defensive. Brian sighed.

"Yeah, Toby. For something like this, yes." I sighed and tried to smile at my daughter, but she could see how troubled I was.

"Ohhhnn," she moaned in protest. I let go of her jaw and she rubbed the tooth.

"When can you operate?" I asked. Brian shrugged.

"It'd be better sooner than later." I nodded.

"Let's do it now, then."

"Toby?" Telf asked. He looked just as pale and sick as Bug. I picked her up and led Telf away for a private meeting with my family.

"Bug, you're going to have to do something special for me," I said, glancing at Telf, letting him know that this was all I was going to say on the matter and he better listen closely. "You're going to have to be brave. Brian is going to make the tooth stop hurting, but in order to do that, he has to make it hurt more for—"

"No," Bug moaned, clutching me close as counterargument.

"Just for a little bit, sweetie." I lifted her up so I could see in her tiny, bright, squished eyes. "Do you trust me, Bug? Do you know that I'll make it better?"

"Telf trust Mother Toby," Telf said with confidence, putting his hand on Bug's back. "Mother Toby is seer. See much more than Telf, know what is best."

I frowned at him for bringing that up, but Bug was considering. She touched her pulsing cheek, then leaned into me again with a whine.

"Let's do this now, so you don't even have to think about it," I said to her. "It will hurt for a second, and then it will be over."

We headed back towards Brian, who had brought out a few tools. "I found some oil of cloves, miraculously. I'm not sure if it will work on you guys, but it's worth a try."

"I can chew some dandelions, if it will help," I offered, trying to cover up my anxiety with action. Telf squeezed my hand in comfort.

"Nah, I've got plenty of dandelion extract that's sterile. No offense, but I don't want to introduce any more bugs if I can help it."

"Only one Bug is best," Telf said, squatting down and touching Bug's cheek. She gave him a mild smile as Brian prepped for the extraction.

We convinced Bug to hold tightly onto Telf's hands as a sort of game, that the bravest thing she could do was squeeze him as hard as possible. I sat on her other side, a hand on her legs, in case she tried to kick Brian away, and he delicately sterilized the site, numbed it with a topical analgesic of dandelion extract and vanilla (which the Yeerks had learned served as an anesthetic as well), which made her a little woozy, and while he told her a silly joke about chipmunks and magic genies, took the tooth in his forceps, rocked it back and forth, and popped it out.

Blood began pulsing from the crater, and Bug moaned, not in pain, but in awareness that something bad had happened, and Brian shoved a few pieces of gauze between her gum and cheek.

"Not so bad," he said with an air of relief, and I realized this must have been his first Hork-Bajir operation. "Real shallow roots. That tooth might even grow back." I smiled at him.

"You did wonderfully," I said. "Any post-operative care I should know about?"

"Keep that sore clean," he said. "I've disinfected the area, but there's still an infection, so you'll have to be very careful. My staff and I have been looking into antibiotics that work on your physiology with no luck yet, but you do have remarkably adaptive immune systems. All the same, be careful with that. Clean it with warm salt water, and if anything looks worse, come to me right away."

Bug was whimpering, rubbing her hand against her jaw, while Telf bounced her on his knees and laughed, cooing about how proud he was, what a brave little kawatnoj she was. I sighed and nodded.

"I appreciate the help, Brian. Doctor."

"I'm not a doctor, Toby. I'll do what I can, but…"

"You did more than enough. Thank you so much."

Bug's had a lot of health problems. More than Jara, whose perfect genes seem to form some kind of shield around him, and one I took completely for granted. But Bug gets sick, gets sores, infections. She broke a finger when Telf was teaching her how to swing, she had a bad allergic reaction to a red ant swarm. And, later that winter, when the fever spread throughout the hearth…

I hate thinking about it. It was one of the worst times in my life, and I try so hard to forget it, but if I push it from my mind entirely…

Telf caught it first, and he shook it off the quickest. He gave it to Jara, who slept it off in one night and morning, who gave it to me, and I spent about eighteen hours in a frigid, colorful delirium huddled tightly against my similarly incapacitated mother. I recovered, and Bug was still unaffected, and I let myself believe that this would be when she would beat us all with her superior constitution, that all those other emergencies were payment for her immunity to this.

But they weren't.

It was the middle of December, and colder than I'd ever remembered it in Yellowstone, and Bug spent two weeks shivering in a frozen, clammy slime that seemed to squeeze from every pore. She turned a ghastly gray color, breathing shallow and stiff, and the humans donated thick, woolen blankets that gave us hives but I wrapped her up as tightly as I could and never let her go unless Telf or Mother was going to take my place. I hummed to her as she suffered, I fed her from me when I could, willing her all of my strength, I made sure she drank at least a liter of water every time she returned to lucidity for even the briefest of periods. There were a couple of times, oh, when I was sure…when she went all stiff and still, and I shook her and started screaming and it took Telf shaking and screaming at me to get me to calm down. I carried her to the humans twice, but both times Brian said there was nothing he could do, that he'd tried treatments with others, but they hadn't responded, and a dozen had already died, and I asked him if they were like her before they did, and he just stared at me and sighed.

I was so sure. I was so sure she'd never wake up again, and it was a pain I could never have prepared myself for. My people recognize that I am different because I can interpret the world on a deeper level than they can. I can see things that they can't. They call me seer, they think I can see everything. And I can see a lot. I know I can.

But I couldn't see that. I couldn't imagine it. I couldn't even pretend to know what losing my child would feel like, and I couldn't face the fact that it became a likelier and likelier possibility with every hour that passed.

Telf tried to be strong for her, and for me, but there were a couple of times I caught him chewing his fingers and crying. I don't think he slept at all during those two weeks. And Mother could only sit in still, helpless worry, doing as much as she could for me by taking Jara out of the tree to get bark when my self-control started to slip.

It was late one night, and Mother was cooing and singing to Bug, who shivered and kicked under her gray, shroud-like blankets, when I heard Telf above the canopy. I climbed up there and found him staring at the moon, shivering in the freezing cold, without so much as a blanket over him. I went back down, retrieved one, and wrapped it around his shoulders.

"I can't risk losing both of you," I said, sitting next to him. He turned away, hiding his tears from me.

"Does Toby see?" He sobbed when I took his hand.

"See what?"

"Telf do everything wrong with Jara," he said, hiccupping through his chattering teeth. "Toby not sleep, not eat good, stand on ground. Jara make Toby so hurt, but Jara come out so good."

I looked down. "But we did everything right with Bug," I said.

"Does Toby Seer see?" He repeated, looking at me with hope and dread in his eyes.

I shrugged, feeling tears well up inside me. "Sometimes things just don't make sense, Telf. None of this is our fault. Sometimes things just happen."

"Bug come out with face squished, Telf think very bad. Think make Bug bad," he said, and I could tell this was a confession, that he'd fostered guilt over this.

"You thought she was ugly," I said.

"Bug not ugly at all," he sobbed. "Bug so good, so beautiful. Maybe Telf's thinks made Bug sick."

I shook my head and embraced him. "None of this is your fault. None of this is because of us. You love her more than any other kalashu loves his daughter. You're the best father in the whole hearth, Telf, and she's lucky to have you."

"Please make Bug better," he said, turning and wrapping his arms around me, and I went stiff with the responsibility, a little betrayed that he'd turned to me as Mother Toby and not his kalashi, but I held him until he let me go.

It was another eight days before anything changed. I was asleep with my arms around her, holding her naked body tight to my chest, both of us wrapped up like caterpillars, but I felt her claws clutch my chest and I opened my eyes.

"Mommy," she said, clearing her throat, and her lips were parched and her mouth entirely devoid of moisture, but she was smiling.

"Hey," I whispered to her, touching her face. I loosened the blankets and put my hand to her chest to check her temperature, found that her fever had broken. She was alert.

"Thircky," she said, coughing a little, smacking her lips to water her mouth. I sat her up and brought forward an old milk jug full of cold water. I raised it to her lips and let her drink until she was satisfied. It was almost empty when she pulled away.

"How do you feel?" I whispered to her.

"Hungry," she said, throat a little clearer.

After nursing her for a few minutes, I woke Telf, who wept in relief, and Mother, who brought forward some bark for her and chewed it as I gave her a cursory examination. She was emaciated from dehydration, bones that should never be visible protruding through her flesh, shivering from cold and hunger, the color of cold granite, but she was more alert and mobile than she had been in days. Telf held her close to him and rubbed her in the blanket, almost like he was making sure this wasn't some dream. When she felt healthy enough, I brought her to Brian again, who verified that the danger had passed, but prescribed four weeks of bedrest to bring her to full health again.

That itself became almost harder than the sickness, because after a week she was restless and relentlessly whiny and tried bribing us into letting her out, but I would have accepted any immature punishment as long as she was alive to deliver it.

The new school session started a couple of weeks later, while Bug was still bedridden, and it took a little bit of administrative oversight to get everything going. I left as seldom as I could, but now that there were almost three hundred children to be taken care of, we had to divide the labor a little bit. Hayley suggested modeling our school system after the humans and divvy everyone up by age, but that made little sense since over 200 of them were born in the same summer. After consulting a few of the adults who had volunteered to teach, I decided to let it be a more student-driven enterprise, that students would be able to choose the focus of their study, dabble in a number of areas, or even self-educate if they wanted.

There were a number of disciplines, including tree harvesting, tree cultivation, hot springs management, child care, cartography and exploration, animal biology, human studies. Of course they all had simpler names, but those were the subjects that we identified and made distinct, and it wasn't long before subsets of those, more esoteric interests emerged.

Bug was eager to go to school, begging me to let her cut short her bed rest and join up, but I was resolute. She stayed in our tree the whole month, and by the time February rolled around and her four-week sentence was up, I walked her to the school tree myself.

"You can come home anytime, you know, if you get homesick or hungry or scared," I said, kneeling in front of her. She'd regained all of her color but was still a little skinnier than I wanted her to be. "This doesn't have to be permanent if you don't like it."

"I be okay," she said, touching my face, and I smiled, putting my hand over hers.

"I love you so much," I said, embracing her. "I'll see you after school."

Bug ran off, not even glancing behind her. And as hurt as I was, I was thankful she didn't see me break down into such an irrationally emotional mess.

I was, of course, distraught, as all parents are on the first day of school, that my second child was mere seconds ago a helpless infant, and mere second before that a particularly productive orgasm, but that was an emotion I found cliché and knew I could overcome if I wanted.

I was more terrified of how the other children would treat her.

Telf had already scheduled a number of playdates with other children born in the same summer as Bug. Even though my deliberate and often distressing insistence on involvement in her upbringing already made her childhood nearly oppositional to Jara's, there were so many other ways Bug grew up differently than he did.

Unlike Jara, Bug had peers. Lots of them. Peers who formed social hierarchies, cliques, gangs. Some more troublesome than others. And minimal evidence from Bug's various playdates showed that most were skeptical of and exclusionary to her.

She was too young to understand, which was a mild consolation. Telf, sometimes, even expressed naïve misunderstanding as to why parents would politely refuse when he asked for second or third meetings. But he would frown when I got all stiff and worried when Bug would tell me how she'd try to play pinecone tag with some unaccepting child who would forfeit instead of engaging with her. I'd say that's just because they knew she was too deft a player, and she'd giggle, but I knew those lies wouldn't work forever.

So I was rightfully worried how the children would treat her in the first day in an environment not presided over by one of her parents.

I worked at the cabin, and although I worried every second what I'd find when I got home, I did get more work done that day than I had in weeks. I went home at about half past three to find Bug lying over Telf's lap, and him rubbing her back.

"Everything okay?" I squeaked in an obviously terrified voice. Telf looked up, sort of with conflicted worry, and Mother got up to confront me.

"Bug want talk to Toby," she said to me. "Has questions."

"All right." I walked over and sat next to Bug, scooping her head into my lap. "How was your first day, sweetie?"

Bug looked up to me, her eyes glazed with tears, and just as I was about to sweep her in an embrace and ensure her that she would never be unloved as long as I was alive, she blurted out a giggle.

"Are…are you okay, Bug?" I asked.

"I not know," she said, giggling again, though for a second I was sure it was a sob.

"Tell me about your day," I said with a light tone, but one that I hoped conveyed enough authority to make her respond.

Bug sat up straight in Telf's lap, looked up at me. "Other kawatnoj be at school tree many days, Mama."

"Yes, I know, sweetie," I said apologetically. "It was because you got sick, we couldn't bring you until now."

"They know more than I."

"That won't be for long," I promised, stroking her face with my fingers. "They got a little head start, but you'll catch up to them in no time."

"Other kawatnoj…" she looked away, a surge of manic glee and obvious hurt flowing through her almost simultaneously.

"Tell me, Bug," I said.

"Have game. Called, 'dark kiss.' All kawatnoj get in circle, close eyes, kiss everyone, try to guess who they kiss."

I balked a little at that information. A part of me couldn't help but regard that game as some kind of childhood orgy, but I realized that was the human part of me thinking. No, a Hork-Bajir teacher would not see intimacy as dangerous, only a good way to get the children to engage with each other on a trusting, physical level. But I sensed the next part of her story before she told it.

"I try play," she said. "But when other kawatnoj kiss I…"

"Oh, sweetie," I said, pulling her into my lap. She put her hands on my chest and refused the embrace I offered.

"They pull back, guess right away. Say, 'Bug is different. Bug is ugly.' I cry. I try run home, but teacher won't let I. Then…"

"Then what?" I whispered.

She curled her hands into fists and held them at her cheeks, like her face was insufficient to support the nuclear smile this emotion necessitated. "Radi kiss I," she said with a giggle. "Then say, 'Bug is different. Bug is not ugly.'"

"Radi," I repeated. I vaguely remembered the name, one of the births Telf helped with. I looked up at him for confirmation, but he only bore a bemused, pleased smile.

"Bug love Radi," he said, and I was a little shocked at his flip acceptance of it, but Bug leaped out of my lap and struck him on the chest in mock embarrassment. I sat back, a little overwhelmed with it all.

"I not," she said. "I…maybe…but if I is different, will Radi love I?"

It was a difficult question, but Telf was quicker on the uptake than I was.

"Mother Toby is different," Telf said. "Telf love Mother Toby."

I smiled a little at him, then smiled bigger at Bug when she turned around for explanation.

"People all over the valley know that I am different, Bug," I said. "If there's one thing I know better than anything else, it's what it's like to be different."

"But Mama is good-different," she said. "All kawatnoj say, Bug have Mother Toby for Mama. Mother Toby is good. Say, Bug is bad."

"Do you know how I'm different, Bug?"

"Mother Toby is seer. See things no one see."

"Yes, that's right. I see things in ways no one else can," I said. "I see when things are different. I see how they're different. Sometimes, they're only bad. Sometimes, they're only good. But usually, it's a little bit of each."

"So I is…a little bit of each?"

I leaned forward and kissed her. "You are much, much better than you are bad," I said. "You are even a better good-different than I am."

"Then why kawatnoj say—"

"Because they don't know you yet," I said. "They don't know that what's on the inside matters so much more than what's on the outside, and they only think you're bad because they don't know the inside yet."

"Radi knows," Bug said. And she blushed and grinned again, and I knew that Telf was right, and I hoped it wouldn't end in heartbreak for my child.

"Which is why you should keep him around," I said. "But don't dismiss the others yet. Radi is just smarter than all of them. That doesn't mean they're bad."

"Just like I is not bad. A little bit of each."

"A little bit of each," I confirmed. Bug smiled and snuggled in Telf's lap. "So…you want to go back, right?"

Bug giggled. "I can't wait."

"Can't wait kiss Radi again," Telf teased, receiving his just desserts when Bug tackled him to the platform. And I smiled, letting myself believe that whoever Radi was, he'd follow up on his initial kindness to my daughter with sincere friendship.

The next few months were remarkably uneventful, at least as far as politics and human business. We signed the revised contract early that summer, to little media attention or fanfare. There were a couple of staff turnovers, and Marie finally got promoted to something above "glorified servant," becoming our local media contact, basically serving as Dan's immediate inferior. A couple of arrests were made by the National Guardsmen patrolling our borders, but both had to do with public intoxication or lewdness, nothing sinister. It left me a lot of time to focus on my family.

Which did, unfortunately, require a little bit of work.

A friendship between Bug and Radi did develop, and she brought him home to play a little more than a week after her first day of school. Radi was an incredibly good-looking kid—tall for his age, blades sharp and smooth, broad and a very ripe color of green. The epitome of health, where Bug was the epitome of imperfection. He actually reminded me of Telf, which worried me. Certainly he'd find someone more attractive than Bug, certainly he'd betray her once puberty hormones set in. But at least during their childhoods, his opinion of her allayed most of my fears. It did seem like he legitimately liked her.

Radi and Bug often came home to review their lessons from that day. Both spent most of their time in the animal biology class, mostly starting their own discipline which I called "wildlife exploration," but really seemed to be "terrorize as many animals as possible." The instructor didn't mind the two of them going off on their own, but I did when they brought a handful of brand-new baby squirrels into my tree and asked if they could study them.

Another development I'm a little resistant to write about is that Jara finally found his own home tree.

I would have been blind not to see the burgeoning relationship between him and Stek. I often caught him kissing her below our tree, saying goodbyes that lasted so long they seemed more like hellos, and she seemed just as infatuated with him as Bug was with Radi. It was late March when he finally brought all of us together to announce it.

Mother had moved into Dude's tree, once they'd confirmed that Taff was pregnant, but Jara made sure that even she was invited. She cried when he announced it, hugging him tightly, saying "time go so fast now Ket so old," but I could only sit there and stare at him in a mild state of shock.

"Mother Toby…okay?"

"I…of course, yes," I said, forcing a smile. "Congratulations. I'm so happy for you." I wondered if he could hear how synthetic my opinion was, but he smiled back and hugged me. "Jara, is Stek pregnant?"

I covered my mouth after I spoke it, ashamed of my forwardness, but Telf hee-hawed. "Stek and Jara barely kiss, Toby. Stek is scared of have kawatnoj."

I sighed a little in relief, momentarily sharing Mother's worry about how old I was getting. "This is better," I said. "Establish a home, get to know each other a little better. Really see if it will work."

"Jara love Stek," he said defensively, getting upset. I smiled and waved him down.

"I know, Jara. I'm happy for you. I am. Do you know where you'll be staying?"

The abrupt topic change lightened his mood. He was drunk from being in love, and it wasn't hard to keep him happy. All the same, I couldn't change my opinion. I didn't like Stek for some arbitrary reason. It may have been as simple as the fact that she was taking my first baby away from me, into adulthood, and no amount of resistance could change that.

All the same, we visited his tree as much as we could. Sometimes Radi came with, and I noticed and immediately disregarded the disdainful looks that Jara shot the two of them. Stek was always eager to please me, anyway, which usually averted any concern about any malicious feelings between my children.

And for a few months, that's all life really was. Telf would bring ripe bark he found to Jara and Stek's tree, he and Jara would check up on pregnant women around the valley (Jara had become Telf's apprentice, franchising Telf's enterprise), Bug would yammer about her day, about some observation or discovery of some new wildlife that she and Radi had made, and every once in a while, we'd get together for story nights. Make a big, nightlong bonfire beneath our tree, and Telf would continue his Bok epic. We drew spectators, earned fans and enthusiasts, and soon dozens of people were descending on our weekly, intimate stories for their own entertainment. Story nights had returned, except now Father Telf was the presider, and not Mother Toby.

And it was fine. It was perfect. It was a period in my life full of an emotion I could not name, a feeling and contentment I never knew I would experience. My family was growing, maturing, learning, expanding, and love is the only self-perpetuating force I can think of that can expand so far beyond the value of its inputs. I could not believe that in so few years, I could go from a hardened warlord, skeptical about even a purely sexual relationship with Telf, to the matriarch of a burgeoning family full of children and games and bedtimes and lullabies. It was a metamorphosis that seemed both unlikely and somehow unearned.

I thought about them, sometimes. I wondered where in the galaxy they were, if they were a ship full of corpses yet, or even just a few random atoms weaving through the infinite void of space. I prayed for Tobias, in my own nondenominational way. That even if he was dead, he'd found some kind of closure and relief from his pain before he died. But mostly the Animorphs were a distant memory, a period in my life that I'd put to rest. So few of them had learned to let go of the war, but I had. And I was happy I did.

Hayley got around to finishing her book right before summer. She brought me an advanced copy, and I flipped through it, repressing tears from the accuracy of her observations, the way she managed to capture my people's love and hope and optimism along with their grief and heartbreak and implicit acceptance that our race and culture were dying. She had a chapter on our native language, full of words I'd never seen, syntax and morphology she had deduced that I had never had the time to figure out myself. And then there was the chapter of Hork-Bajir mating and gestation, about her anonymous Patient T, and the sketch of my daughter that she'd cleaned up, perfected. It was beautiful. And there was only one thing I could do.

"It's not perfect, I know," she was explaining. "And that's fine, because my publisher doesn't think it's going to get much mainstream publicity. There's a bigger demand for novels and tabloids, tourist photoblogs and things like that. No one really wants scientific rigor for light reading, what with the flooding of the market with these kinds of things. And I don't blame them. This is more an academic book. They're going to market it towards anthropology departments, make it a textbook. Which is good. If it catches on, we can start updating volumes, adding info to keep the profits coming in. It's less money upfront and more in the long run."

"That's not why you wrote it," I said.

"Well, no. I think it's better just in that it keeps me here, though. If I hit over 15,000 sales in the first year, they're going to subsidize my research. I might be able to afford a space heater for the cabin."

"15,000?" I asked. "That's sort of a low figure, isn't it?"

"Well, they're a little skeptical, and rightly so. They think the whole alien fad is dying."

"It's not," I said. "But this book certainly doesn't address what everyone is really curious about."

"And what's that, Toby?"

"Me. People want a book about me."

Hayley looked a little shocked. "You…didn't eavesdrop on phone calls I had with my publisher, did you?"

I smiled and shook my head. "I am not an idiot, Hayley. That's one thing that everyone knows about me."

Hayley sighed. "I didn't want you to worry about it. There's a lot of pressure, but it's not like they have the right to some intimate portrait of Toby Hamee."

"You're right. They don't."

"I vetoed it upfront. They were still interested, so they accepted my version."

"Why didn't you ask me about it?"

She shrugged. "I figured you'd say no."

"And I would have, before."

"So I was right, and this discussion…wait, 'before?'"

I flipped to the gestation chapter again. "I don't want to be referred to as 'Patient T,'" I said. "As if no one would question that, anyway."

"It's just an advanced copy, Toby. I already talked to my publisher about that."

"Change it to 'Toby Hamee.'"

"Really?"

"Yes, really. I still distrust you humans, don't misunderstand that. But I can't expect some trusting relationship to spawn from nothing. And you've nailed it, Hayley. Your representation of us is perfect. I want to give it my seal of approval, and I don't know a better way than to admit my complicity. I was your patient. I had a child, and I love her, and that's what Hork-Bajir, even cold, pessimistic, overintelligent ones like me do. They love their children, and they want what's best for them. Just like humans."

"Are you sure, Toby?"

I smiled. "Yes, Hayley. I want people to know that I have a family. That I am not so different from them. And I want them to see how beautiful Bug is. Isn't she just perfect?" I said, admiring the sketch again.

Hayley smiled. "This is very brave of you, Toby. Brave and maybe foolish."

"I trust that you'll implement this change well, Hayley. I trust you entirely with this. And I hope it will boost sales."

"They'll remarket the whole thing. 'An intimate portrait of the enigmatic Hork-Bajir leader.' They'll probably even ask you to blurb it."

"If it will help," I offered.

Hayley and I worked through two or three more drafts, making sure every word choice was right. Then, on June 8th, it got published.

Obviously there was something of a media firestorm. And I decided to humor most of the reporters that came to the valley. I answered intimate questions, though I refused to let either Jara or Bug be filmed. I asked Telf if he wanted to be, and he said yes until he understood what it meant. I never thought he'd be shy about anything, but he seemed to believe being filmed would remove some part of himself, like the camera had to take something away from him to gather its image. I didn't correct him, mostly because I didn't want him to be a part of it, anyway.

I was nervous about all the attention, of course, and frequently reconsidered my somewhat spontaneous decision to give them partial access to my private life. Not only was my concern for my family's safety and well-being as high as ever, but it felt sort of like cheapening our love by commoditizing it. I had to remind myself why I was doing it—that human and Hork-Bajir cooperation and cohabitation required a sense of trust, of openness. That as long as I remained aloof and unrelatable to them, so would all Hork-Bajir. But most of all, and perhaps most selfishly, I was doing it to help my friend. I wanted Hayley to stay around, and the most direct path to ensure that was to give her information no one else had.

So in the end, I didn't mind the ten-hour days of answering the same fifteen or twenty questions that human journalists all asked. I didn't mind press junkits, a few promotional book tours with Hayley, a few highly-publicized broadcast events. I didn't even mind the slightly more intimate, insulting questions that reporters of a higher caliber asked when given longer interview windows with me. I didn't mind insinuations of betrayal, of having a more hedonistic concern for my own fulfillment than concern for the prosperity of my people. After all, those were questions that had plagued my mind for years. I had good answers for them.

I did mind being away from Bug, who was starting to accept my frequent absences as a fact of her life, from Jara, who was old enough now not to need me during thunderstorms, but whom I still visited every time there was one, and Telf, who was always patient with my work, grateful when I came home, never bitter or angry or disdainful. Who always, always, always kissed me when I came back, even if it was just for a couple of hours, and told me that he loved me.

A couple of weeks after the book came out, the publicity started to die down, and I was thankful for it. It got a few high-profile, positive reviews, and sat on the top of a number of bestseller lists with no direct rival in sight. It would make Hayley a good deal of money, and as far as I knew, most discussion of my personal choices was supportive. Humans expressed both curiosity about my life, and respect that certain aspects be kept private. No one tried to trespass into the hearth and find our tree or anything. Though I'm still not sure whether to attribute that to some chivalrous human quality or just the threat of arrest by the National Guard.

With little to do in the cabin, and no interviews scheduled for the day, I decided to spend some time with Telf, who was likewise miraculously free from any of his gynecological duties. Almost three hundred women were pregnant that summer, but now that Jara was helping with that workload, along with another grateful father from last year who wanted to offer his own services, Telf had a little bit more free time on his hands. And on his back.

We decided to take the day and retreat to a secluded tree miles away from any known human activity, where my people who liked a quieter, more intimate atmosphere could escape to. We found a beautiful, broad, soft Hickory surrounded by nothing but whispering leaves and warm sunlight. We spent hours feeding each other, kissing, lolling, snuggling. The once immediate nature of our attraction had slowed after all these years, thickened like cooked syrup. Sweeter, denser, more saturated, and ultimately more satisfying.

"No matter how many times we do this, it never, ever gets boring," I said as he rubbed me between the legs, straddled over him, bending over and kissing him.

"That because Toby is always so beautiful," Telf purred. He shivered a little and moaned.

"I think it's because you're so good at it," I said, biting my lip as he swirled his finger in that one particular way. "And as repetitive and uncreative as we Hork-Bajir can be in other occupations—"

"Mm," Telf responded, not really listening, moving his other hand behind my hip to guide me down on top of him. I forfeited the end of my sentence and complied.

After, I stretched my neck and rested my chin over his shoulder, purring freely against his chest, as he drew careful lines over my back with his claws. His breath was stuttering a little bit, and his shoulders jerked occasionally, but I wrote it off as his own expression of satisfaction in an aging body.

"Have I told you today that I love you?" I asked him.

"Toby say three times. Not remember?"

"When was it?"

"When Telf make good sex with Toby."

"I don't remember saying anything. It must have been very good."

"Telf think so," he said proudly.

"Well, let me say it lucidly, too. I love you, Telf."

"Telf love Toby. Telf love Toby. Telf love Toby. Telf love—"

"All right, I get it," I giggled, pinching him in the flank.

"—Toby," he said. "There. Now Telf say four times."

I turned my head so my headblades brushed against his.

"I love you," I whispered again.

"Fine, Toby have to win," he sighed. I nudged his scar and sighed, still amazed that after all these years, after two children, I could still be so in love with him.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in similar romantic, saccharine honeymoon bliss, and only at the end did I realize that my need for today extended directly from all the publicity I was getting because of him in the first place. There was guilt, I suppose, a sense of holding him responsible for a choice he had no role in making. I wanted to thank him, reward him, and most importantly, make sure that he held no bitterness over how I'd imposed that sentence onto him. The truth was, he probably didn't even realize how I'd endangered him and our children, but I felt guilty about it nonetheless.

We headed home when the midday sun bled into twilight, though it wouldn't get dark for a couple more hours. We were flirting and giggling on the way back like a couple of teenagers, but all of that stalled abruptly when we reached sight of the cabin.

I don't know if blue is a color that offers camouflage on their planet, but it does nothing to conceal them on Earth.

I hadn't seen a live Andalite outside of Washington or New York in years—the first couple of seasons the park was open, we had a few groups of Andalite tourists, but they quickly learned how the Hork-Bajir felt about them, that they would not be greeted as benefactors or friends. Perhaps military Andalites had grown used to their galactic stereotype as oppressor and intruder, but civilians still thought of themselves as philanthropists and allies. As genuine as their curiosity was, so was their pride, and they knew a lost cause when they saw one.

And it was clear that this Andalite was no civilian. Broad, rippling muscles coated his torso, his flanks were scored with scars from dozens of different blades over the course of at least as many years. An old burn over his haunches gave the impression of mange, and there's just a way they hold themselves even without all the etched-in trophies, an infuriating swagger that just can't be reasoned with. Whoever he was, he wasn't here to debate or request. He was here to command.

I was so shocked that I didn't tell Telf to go home or stay quiet. In fact, I gripped his hand as we made our way down the rise toward him. He was standing alone, fiddling with a communicator, watching us approach warily with a stalk eye. I glanced around for any of my staff, but they were nowhere to be found. Perhaps they'd left for the night. But if he was here…had he just gotten here?

I stepped up closer, and Telf gave me a tug back, shaking his head, looking worried. I smiled, gave him a kiss, voicelessly assuring him it was all right, that this would only take a moment.

"Hello," I said as I stepped up towards him. The other stalk eye swung around, but he was still fiddling with his communicator. "Is there something I can help you with?"

He was silent for a moment, then said, (Governor Hamee, I presume.)

"Yes, though I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage."

He finished fiddling with his communicator and placed it back in his utility belt. (My apologies. I am War-Prince Tardit-Putillim-Rezzim. I am here with a rather important message for you.)

"You always are," I said with a simper. "Have you been here long?"

(The humans told me to wait here. I believe they were annoyed with me, as I would not deliver the message to them unless you were here.)

"Are they inside?" I asked. He nodded, gesturing with his eyes. I made my way for the door, then looked back at him. "It's probably best to just tell me now, if it's so important."

(Yes, I believe I agree. There is a fleet of Yeerk ships in orbit right now, requesting audience with you.)

I felt my stomach drop out beneath me. I must have turned stark white, because Tardit immediately began gesturing me to calm down.

(Confound it, I'm sorry. I don't know why they send me on these errands, I am no good at clear, concise messages. Not that there's much left to do in deep space besides delivering them.) He breathed in deeply and sighed. (Yes, they are Yeerk ships, but they do not berth Yeerk soliders. They are full of free Hork-Bajir, like your people.)

My rational mind calmed down a little, but my hearts were still hammering frantically. "I'm afraid I don't yet understand," I said. "Why don't you just be as slow as you can? Pretend I know absolutely nothing about what you're talking about."

I'd meant to insult him, but my condescension seemed to focus him. (Very well. Let me start…ah yes. Right at the end of the war…you're aware of the treaty our people made with the Yeerks, correct?)

"The one I negotiated?" I asked.

(Oh yes, that was you, wasn't it? I'm afraid that detail was left out of most news articles and history books.)

"By that I am not surprised," I huffed.

(Yes, well, as you may recall, Prince Aximili was given the use of four morphing cubes to use at his discretion at the end of the war.)

"Vaguely," I said.

(It was to uphold the terms you negotiated, and the humans ratified, to the Yeerk prisoners of war they'd captured.)

"To make them nothlits," I said.

(Yes. Precisely.)

"So you're saying those ships are full of a bunch of former Yeerks?" I asked.

(No, not at all. Any Yeerk who chose that fate was apprehended and relocated by the Andalite who granted him the power. Those ships are full of the hosts that the Yeerk prisoners left behind.)

I paused for a moment, considered. "How many are there?"

(Just over a thousand.)

I winced. With the three hundred new kawatnoj expected over the next couple of months, our borders were already experiencing strain. Ronnie would have to log a lot of overtime in order to make room, and the property owners, backed by Congressmen from bordering districts, might…

I blurted out a giggle and covered my mouth.

(Something wrong, Governor?)

"Nothing at all. I just never expected an Andalite to deliver good news," I said. "When can they come down?"

(The humans have rather rigorous immigration policies for off-worlders,) he said. (You can get your staff started on the paperwork for that tonight, but it probably won't be processed for another couple of weeks.)

"So they're stuck?" I asked. "Who's looking after them? Who's been taking care of them this whole time? You?"

(Absolutely not. That honor remains with the man who requested audience with you.)

"So I've got to talk to another Andalite, do I?"

(He's not an Andalite, Governor. He's a Hork-Bajir. Like you.)

"Like…me?"

(Like you.) He held out the communicator to me. (And he's been waiting to speak with you for almost an hour now.)

My hand was trembling, mind swimming as I reached out for the arbitrary piece of Andalite technology. I breathed deeply twice before pressing the activation button.

"Hello?"

"Governor Toby Hamee," a low, gravelly sound came through the communicator after a few seconds. And though the speaker was definitely Hork-Bajir, the voice was not quite.

Not quite Hork-Bajir. Definitely Hork-Bajir.

Just like me.

"It is such a distinct relief to finally hear the voice of Toby Hamee," he continued with an embellished sigh. "It is a voice Wotch Hepper has been waiting a very long time to hear."

"My reputation precedes me, I gather," I said with a nervous laugh.

"That it does. Wotch would very much like to meet Toby Hamee as soon as possible. Wotch thinks there are many important issues for the pair of us to discuss."

"Yes. Definitely. I agree. Let's make a meeting for tomorrow morning, first light over Wyoming. I'm afraid I'll need to request our Andalite benefactor's help in getting into orbit to see you," I said.

"Yes. War-Prince Tardit has been most helpful since Wotch and family intercepted his ship just outside Neptune's orbit. Tardit escorted us the final small distance to the safe haven of Earth, which Wotch has been travelling to for many years. Wotch and family have been waiting for this day for a very long time, Governor Hamee. All are thrilled that it has finally arrived."

"As am I," I said. "I look forward to meeting you tomorrow morning."

"Good bye, Governor Hamee. And hello."

I handed the communicator back to Tardit. My hands were shaking even worse.

(I apologize for unloading this all on you in such a sudden fashion,) Tardit said. (I'll come down with a shuttle at 5:30 tomorrow morning. Will you be prepared?)

"I am positive the answer to that question is 'no,'" I said. "But I'll be here."

Tardit left at a canter after that, and for a moment, I just stood dazed and confounded.

What had just happened?

"Toby," a meek voice sounded behind me. I glanced around and saw Telf, looking sheepish and terrified.

"Telf, I think you should go home to Bug," I said. "School let out a couple hours ago. She's probably wondering where we are."

"Toby," he said a little louder, a little more uncertainly.

"I'll be home in a few hours," I said. "I just have to get my staff working, and then I'll come home."

Telf surged forward and wrapped his arms around my shoulders, giving me a deep, panicked kiss.

"Telf love Toby," he said.

"There," I said with a laugh. "Now we're even."

Everyone in the cabin sort of stood still and shocked after I relayed the news, not sure whether to be confused, ecstatic, untrusting. Eventually they all settled on half pleased and half wary. We all agreed that it was best to keep the media releases vague, since, after a little bit of conversation, we realized we had no idea what the intent or opinions of our visitors would be. I had assumed they'd come to stay, but perhaps that wasn't the ultimate goal at all.

Even through all the work, I was in something of a delirious stupor. I couldn't believe what had happened, I couldn't even accept that it was real, that it could be real. For some reason, I'd never even thought or pretended that there were any other Hork-Bajir like me in the galaxy. For some reason, I needed to be all alone to get anything done. If I'd allowed myself the hope of companionship, of fraternity…

No, even now, it was unlikely. So many other possibilities, so many other potential explanations. He hadn't even used the word seer, and yet…

I knew. The moment he said my name, I could hear it. That particular, unique kind of relief, that all his hopes and worries were confirmed. Relief combined with defeat, almost. Resignation and contentment, a particular kind of ambivalence that perfectly mirrored what I felt. It was a tone I recognized, one I could have imitated perfectly. It was no trick, no forgery. There was no way he could have faked it. I knew it was real because I was the only one with enough expertise in the matter to confirm his authenticity.

But all of this was premature. I hadn't even met the man yet, and I was already fantasizing about him being my soul mate.

I twitched when that phrase passed through my head. Is that where my mind was going? To some kind of romantic affair? Is that where I thought this was headed?

That question plagued my mind after my staff decided to call it a night, that they'd do more once they had more information. It continued to plague me as I walked home, as I climbed our tree, as I reached the platform and saw the same question was plaguing Telf.

"Hey," I said to him with a smile as he helped me up. "Are you okay?"

He wrapped me in his arms as soon as I was on the platform.

"It's okay," I whispered to him. "Come on, let's go up to the canopy to talk."

Bug was asleep in the corner with her face in her hands, and I gave her a quick kiss before we climbed. Telf went up ahead, and when I reached him, he was sitting cross legged with his head hanging down.

"Sorry it took so long," I said, touching him on the shoulder. "The humans weren't totally sure how to spin this, nor could they predict what the media's reaction could be, so we all had to figure out how to react before we could do anything."

"Telf not know what Toby mean," he said bluntly. I frowned, knowing that I should not doubt every previous time I'd told him something outside of the realm of his understanding, but that this was his own way of breaching the issue.

I sat down next to him, shoulder to shoulder. "You have nothing to worry about, Telf."

"Toby is different," he said. "But not alone anymore."

"I've never been alone," I said, gripping one of his hands in both of mine.

"Telf love Toby," he said, "but Telf not different."

"You are, my love," I said. "You're different to me. This development changes nothing between us."

Telf sighed. Not smart, but perceptive as always. "Telf will see," he said.

We sat in silence for a while, before Telf got the courage to speak again. "Telf just want Toby to know, Telf love her very much, very happy for Toby, for kawatnoj, for Toby give Telf eyes, for—"

At that moment, Bug sleepily trudged up from behind us as slumped in my lap, silently protesting of the noise we were making. I shrugged and smiled to Telf, picked her heavy form up, and headed back down the platform to sleep.

But I didn't sleep at all.

I spent that entire night with Bug tucked tightly against my chest, face in hands, while I indulged in all sorts of shameful, selfish fantasies about Wotch Hepper. He was probably tall, handsome, charming, well-read. I imagined him recognizing and elaborating on any stupid little piece of trivia or knowledge I could give him, like a know-it-all academic who would fascinate me rather than irritate me with his limitless knowledge. An oh, the things he'd probably seen, having spent so much time in space, the stories he would tell. Yes, he'd be very charming, no doubt. And not afraid of a little flirtation, too, which I would indulge out of politeness, of course. He would be attractive, but not perfect. He wouldn't have escaped the war without some scar, and he wouldn't be interesting without something like a verbal tic to make him unique. He was probably lonely, up in space, without companionship. He may have taken a wife. I hoped he had. But even so, without a Hayley, there was certainly a part of his life that was missing. A part he may have been hoping I would fill.

I imagined scenarios, conversations, quips and comebacks. I spent very little time thinking about political necessities, limitations and rules I would have to necessarily impose. For that night, the truth of the death of my aloneness overwhelmed all other truths.

Wotch Hepper was just like Toby Hamee.

I was giddy when I got up the next morning, Bug snoring beside me. I left her as quietly as I could, but Telf was waiting at the base of our tree. He gave me a long kiss, managing a sad smile, and let me walk to the cabin myself.

Tardit was a little bit late, saying he was still acclimating to California time, and that he'd actually just completed his afternoon ritual. We boarded the shuttle, and within fifteen minutes were docked to a small Yeerk transport that looked like it had seen better days.

"Did he brief you at all on what we'll be talking about?" I asked as Tardit fiddled with the atmospheric controls, compensating for the slightly denser Hork-Bajir air. "Did he say I should prepare anything?"

(A little late for that now,) he said. (I believe his intent was just to get to know you. Sort of an opportunity for both of you to, um…gauge expectations?)

"I see."

(You appear nervous,) Tardit noticed.

"I am."

(You shouldn't be. Wotch is a very patient man.)

"Is that the main word you'd use to describe him?"

(I don't know him that well, Governor.)

I sighed. "How much longer?"

Tardit smiled. (Just let me announce you.) He suddenly opened the hatch, inviting in a rush of cool, humid air, which made me jump, and headed into the transport.

I sat in silence for a moment, twiddling my thumbs, before Tardit's head appeared in the doorway again. (He's ready for you.)

I stayed still for a moment, composing myself, then got up and headed onto the transport.

I was a little amazed by the smell as I breached the threshold. It was an organic smell, a smell I didn't remember from the few ship trips I took. I remember the smell of bleach and cleaning solution, the slick and sticky feeling of sterilized things. The windows shone, even the grass on the Andalite ship seemed clinical, somehow. But this ship was very obviously lived-in. Not held to the rigorous militaristic standards of the Yeerk and Andalite empires.

This was a Hork-Bajir ship.

Tardit seemed to recognize the same quality as me, and turned his nose up a little as he led me through the narrow, winding hallways. I ran my fingers along the bulkheads, which were dented, scraped, victimized by Hork-Bajir cabin fever. We came to a bulkhead with a narrow doorway cut out, too small for a Hork-Bajir to walk through comfortably, widened haphazardly by Hork-Bajir blades. Tardit gave me a curt nod, ushering me through.

(Good luck, Governor,) he said. I smiled and swallowed.

Wotch was sitting before me. And in an instant, all of my fantasies about him evaporated.

He was very, very old.

Older than any Hork-Bajir I'd ever seen before. Older than Gersh had been, and Gersh had been old. Wotch's lips curled into his toothless mouth, his eyelids wrinkled and sagged so much that I doubted he could see through the folds of skin at all. His body was peppered with blueish age spots, accented by a kind of ancient translucence that made veins and other internal landmarks visible. His head blades were dull, flaking, poorly upkept, and all the other blades were a sickly sort of yellow color. And his hands were perhaps the only comforting indicator of his age—thin, dehydrated-looking, so crinkly that his reptilian skin seemed almost crispy. But he rose slowly to his feet, approached me, and took one of my hands in his.

"Governor Toby Hamee," he said, and his wide smile, revealing just the flush roots of his teeth, made his eyes wrinkle even more. "What a pleasure it is to finally meet you in person."

"Likewise," I said with a sort of relieved smile. "Please, let's sit down. Don't stand on my behalf."

"Yes, very polite. Wotch is not so young anymore."

"Well, I'm not, either," I said with a quick laugh.

"Governor Toby Hamee is an infant," he said with a laugh of his own. "She…you…you are an infant." I gave him a quizzical look.

"Wotch is sorry," he said, shaking his head. "Earth languages are among the only ones in the galaxy that use personal pronouns. Wotch does not…I does not…do not…quite have the hang of it."

"Your mastery of English is…"

"Disappointing?"

"Unexpected," I said. "How long have you been studying?"

"Since Wotch…I…first heard of Governor Toby Hamee," he said. "Roughly three Earth years ago."

"I see," I said. "Well, without cultural immersion, I think your work is tremendous." Wotch smiled.

"You are not that impressed," he said. "For if it was you, you would have learned just as fast. Probably faster, being so young."

I shrugged. "I only know one language," I said. "I never even bothered to learn Galard, or our native tongue."

"Galard is easy. You should have no problem, if you decide to learn. And our native tongue…still exists?"

"Barely. A human researcher has done remarkable work piecing it back together, but most of the citizens of the park speak English conversationally."

"Pity," he said. And there was no sincerity in it.

There was a slightly awkward silence as we both worked to redirect the conversation.

"I wanted to—"

"I was so surprised that—"

"Please, go ahead," Wotch said.

"I'm sorry," I laughed a little. "I was just going to say how surprised I was to find that there were Hork-Bajir still left in space. And led by a seer, no less."

"Seer?" Wotch asked.

"Yes…that is what you are, correct? Forgive me if I assumed—"

"I did not know there was a name for what I was," he whispered.

I gave him a sympathetic smile. "You were even more alone than me," I said.

The smile seemed to dip from Wotch's cheeks a little bit, and I got the impression that he hadn't intended this meeting to get so intimate so fast.

"Toby works with humans, correct?"

"Yes," I said, backing off a little bit. "Very closely."

"Have the humans given Toby any indication that they will not accept Wotch's people on Earth?"

"No, I'm fairly certain they're happy about hosting more lost children from the war," I said. "The profits that Andalite and Yeerk technology have given them make them mostly philanthropic. For now, at least. You came at a good time."

"Good," Wotch said with a sigh. "I was very worried about this."

"You have no need to worry. If Earth is the home you've chosen, welcome home."

Wotch sank down in his chair a little, his eyes glistening with tears. "Four and a half years has Wotch been traveling the galaxy, looking for lost Hork-Bajir to add to his fleet," he said. "Four and a half years wondering if we would ever find a planet to call home."

"You were in space this whole time?" I asked.

"Yes. We travelled far and wide, searching for our happy ending. Then we heard of Governor Toby Hamee, and Earth, from a passing Andalite trade ship. They gave us coordinates, and we have been winding our way here ever since."

"It must have been a fantastic journey," I said. "I've only made it off-planet a couple of times."

"Oh no, space is no where near exciting as being grounded," he said. "Though I do envy your home, and the fact you've gotten to establish one, I do not envy the power struggles you've had to navigate on a planet that was not yours."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "How much have you read about me?"

"Everything that the Andalites felt obliged to post on their intelligence grid," he said. "I don't believe the Andalite press secretary to Earth actually cares about reading the content of the articles that humans write, so he doesn't filter much. I have a rather extensive, if not necessarily accurate, portrait of you."

I tried to smile, though I found the information somehow distressing. "You really do have me at a disadvantage, don't you?"

Wotch smiled and shook his head slowly. "I hope you don't think of this as a competition. I was curious about you. I recognize our similarities, and, having been thrust into a position of responsibility much like me, I wanted to see how you'd react. I assure you Governor, I have been most impressed. I believe I would have done a much poorer job."

"I don't believe anyone knows how they'd perform in a position like this until they've tried it," I said. Then I looked up at him, inspired with a new idea, but Wotch sensed my thought and frowned.

"I hope you don't think I've come here to usurp you," he said.

"The thought hadn't occurred to me," I said. "Not until a moment ago, at least."

"Wotch brought his family here for shelter, not for conflict," he said. "I never intended for you to feel threatened by me."

"I don't," I said. "Not threatened. Hopeful, I guess."

"About what?"

"That you'd want to take over," I said with a sad smile. "Maybe I want to be usurped."

Wotch nodded. "Wotch understands," he said. "Wotch's family tells Wotch that he is good, he helped them, he made their lives better. Sometimes these things make Wotch feel like he's fulfilled some purpose, like he's doing good work. Other times…"

I looked down. "I know what you mean." We were quiet for a moment, until I looked up at him again. "The humans will be happy, at least. I think they were a little worried about some kind of power struggle. They're used to dealing with me, so the fact that that won't change should relieve them."

"And it's all about keeping the humans happy, correct?"

"For the most part. For now, at least." Wotch nodded grimly, glancing away for a moment. "Well, since that's now settled, tell me a little bit about yourself. Let's try to settle this imbalance of information."

"What does Governor Hamee want to know?"

I smiled. "Everything."

Wotch told me the story of the last four or five years of his life—immediately after the war, Wotch's Yeerk had been stationed on a troop reserve in deep space, a sort of insurance policy the Yeerks had taken out in case they ever experienced higher casualty rates than birth rates of new hosts. It was a large decommissioned Pool Ship which had mostly been stripped for parts, but it housed about 500 hosted Hork-Bajir. Wotch was of an age that should have gotten him euthanized—after about eight years, he told me, Hork-Bajir hosts were considered to have "done their duty"—but he and his Yeerk brainstormed ideas to postpone his sentence.

"You worked with your Yeerk?" I asked.

Wotch shrugged. "The Yeerk was as much a part of Wotch as anything," he said. "I could resist him no more than I could resist hunger, or a leg cramp." Wotch's eyes narrowed as I glanced away. "Governor Hamee is upset by this?"

I shook my head. "No. I don't know. The war's been over so long, and my role during it was so specific, that I never really stopped and thought about other…narratives, before."

"You think Wotch is a traitor?"

I looked up at him. "No. I don't…I don't know."

"Wotch hated his Yeerk, Governor. More than anything. Wotch would scream, cry when freed. Not all of it was an act. But Wotch also knew, as well as his Yeerk, that Wotch was different from other Hork-Bajir. And if the Yeerks knew that, Wotch would not be allowed to live."

"So you had to cooperate," I said.

"Yes. Yeerk knew that Yeerk would lose a host if Wotch was killed. We both thought it best to keep Wotch's secret to ourselves."

I nodded, still not quite satisfied with the answer, but unwilling to announce my doubts. "What happened at the end of the war?"

"Yeerks did not accept surrender for two weeks after surrender was announced," he said. "But then, a small Andalite shuttle came with the morphing cube. Some Yeerks mounted a resistance. Wotch's Yeerk did not."

"So he's a nothlit somewhere, then."

Wotch stared at me for a few moments. "No. I killed him."

I was a little taken aback, but I felt my lips curl into a smile. "I see."

"Governor Toby must really hate the Yeerks," he intuited.

"I won't be writing them fan letters anytime soon," I responded. Wotch looked confused, and I laughed. "I just mean, the Yeerks had a bigger impact on the beginning of my life that any other influence. I feel sometimes as though I was born to fight them, that they decided the course of my life more than any other factor. And yes, that upsets me. Beyond that, there is a righteous hatred, I suppose. I still can't forgive them for what they did to our species. Orphaned from our homeworld, exterminated almost to extinction, and even now, barely eking out what can hardly be called a life on some arbitrary, cold planet lightyears from where we belong…yes, Wotch, I really hate the Yeerks."

He watched me carefully for sometime, reaching some conclusion I couldn't see. "But the Yeerks are gone," he said. "And we waste time discussing them."

"You're right. We should discuss what to do with—"

"Porrit!" A voice called from outside the door. Wotch gestured to excuse himself, getting up slowly to intercept, but a young female, chest heaving, flung herself in the threshold.

"Wotch garfat barka crooge porrit!" She cried. "Wotch devreen porrit!"

"Fragart warted porrit," Wotch responded, hushing her, holding her waist. "Porrit cringle Toby Hamee," he said, looking back at me.

"Oh," the girl said, looking inside. "Perd til ramma…ramma." She let go of the door jamb and retreated, looking embarrassed, but he grabbed her by the hand, pulled her back, and kissed her. She smiled to him and left shortly after.

"Anything I can help with?" I asked after she was gone.

"No, not at all. My apologies. My family grows impatient. It was her day to spend with me, but I had to postpone for you."

I was about to forgive him, but curiosity got the better of me. "Who is she?"

"My wife," he said. I smiled.

"She's beautiful."

"Yes, and young. Too young, I think, sometimes."

I thought on that as he returned to his seat, moving slowly, with exaggerated caution, careful not to strain anything.

We spoke for about another hour, as I described the community and culture of the park, outlining the history of some of the features, such as the hearth and my human staff. I brushed upon what expectations his people would be held to, but I also emphasized that I'd done my best to give my people the maximum amount of freedom possible. He seemed to grow a little wistful as I described the different types of trees in the park, the variations in the weather, the way the sun felt on my skin.

He told me he'd only felt sun on his skin twice his entire life.

It was a little emotional, just having that warm, philanthropic feeling that his people would finally reach the end of their own struggle very soon, and I got to see that happy ending without having to suffer through any of the painful middle. I told him that I'd do my best to earn the clearance for his people to land as soon as possible—waiting two more weeks to set foot on solid ground seemed like unnecessary cruelty, and I was vaguely certain I could convince the humans to agree with me. He thanked me profusely, and by the end of our meeting, both of our faces were a little moist with tears, now that we were comfortable enough with each other to let them fall.

"So I'll bring up some Lodgepole samples—believe me, they're not the best the park has to offer, but they are most common and should get everyone in your complement fed."

"Wotch appreciates it very much, Governor Hamee. Wotch and his family have been eating Yeerk nutritional supplement for four years, which is bland and tends to wear on the bowels."

"It's no problem at all. If anything, I think it will get my people excited about the new friends and neighbors they'll soon be meeting."

Wotch was walking me towards the docking hatch where Tardit was waiting. He put his hand on my shoulder and guided me through the winding, narrow halls of the ship.

"Wotch very much looks forward to seeing Governor Hamee again, and on solid ground. When is a good time for Wotch to come down and meet your staff?"

"Kran-ma!" A voice called out behind us. Wotch's eyes got big and he spun around, blocking me from view. I glanced around his shoulder and saw two females, one with a young child against her hip, barreling toward him. "Kran-ma torrif mangart hah-lee!"

"Henner jawa trudil," Wotch growled, and it was a strange sound, because my first impression of him did not include the capacity for anger. But his eyes were downturned and he was hunched, almost defensive. He wasn't just angry, he was furious.

The woman with the child adjusted him against her hip, reformulating her approach. "Kran-ma trudil Wotch," she said quietly, but with power. "Wotch hah-lee."

Wotch's lips crinkled into a grimace, and he turned back to me. "Governor Toby must forgive Wotch," he said. "He expressly told his family to give him privacy."

"It's all right," I said with a laugh. "They're antsy. They have every right to be."

"Hah-lee Toby Hamee," the woman with the child said, nudging her way around Wotch, approaching me with a warm smile. "Toby Hamee…be…"

"Henner reffin progit!" Wotch bellowed, jutting himself in between us, a gesture that was almost motionless but totally violent. The woman turned and glared at him.

"Wotch batrit Fard," she huffed, unloading the child into his arms. Then she stabbed her pointer finger into my chest, glaring at him straight in the eyes. "Hah-lee Toby Hamee. Porrit."

The child whimpered and whined a little, but quickly got comfortable in Wotch's embrace. He sighed, rocking him slightly. The two women stormed away, the second looking apologetic and fearful as she was dragged off by the other.

Wotch glanced at me and sighed. "They are rather…how did you put it…"

"Antsy," I said.

Wotch stroked the back of the child, looking down guiltily. "That wasn't supposed to happen yet," he said. I watched him for a while, wondering why he was so ashamed, seeing that he was just waiting for me to uncover whatever secret had just been revealed.

"This is your child," I finally said. Wotch looked up at me sadly and nodded. "But it's not Perd's."

Wotch stared at me in wonder for a second. "Did you lie about being able to speak Galard?"

I didn't smile. "No. But you lied about something."

Wotch sighed. "Toby and Wotch have a little more to talk about, I think." He shushed the child, who was already asleep, and headed back to his small office with me in tow.

"There are many reasons Wotch is impressed with Governor Toby," he said as he invited me to sit down again, pacing and soothing the child against his shoulder. "Toby fought in the most desperate battle at the end of the war, fought on the most important planet in the galaxy, led her people with next to no resources and the simple expertise of five human and one Andalite child. How you did it, how you survived with—"

"At this point, flattery does nothing but make me impatient," I said. "What did you lie about?"

Wotch sighed and turned to me. "Wotch did not lie," he said. "Wotch merely omitted some facts.

"Toby Hamee, as Wotch was saying, fought and won battles Wotch could never dream of fighting. And even more, after that, Toby was a powerful enough figure that all Hork-Bajir, no matter if they were already freed and living in the valley, or recently liberated hosts, or even members of rival Yeerk factions, could unite under her leadership. Governor Toby Hamee brought all Hork-Bajir together in peace without hardly even realizing she'd done it."

I glanced away. "It wasn't a difficult task. People wanted peace at the end of the war. Some of them just needed to be told that it was okay."

"And that quality, that kind of power and trustworthiness, is something Wotch did not have. Our ship was in chaos for weeks at the end of the war. Territorial squabbles, random teams and groups that constantly formed, disbanded, combined, split apart. Lots of violence, so much disorder. Food supplies were dwindling, sleeping quarters became toilets, everyone reverted to an uncontrollable animalistic state, now freed but still filled with the years of rage their Yeerks had given them. Wotch could do nothing but watch in horror. Wotch could do nothing but hide."

He continued to stroke the child in his arms, almost as a self-comforting tic, until I spoke.

"So what changed?"

Wotch gazed into the wall.

"Wotch made the most important, hardest decision of his life," he said. "Wotch took control.

"It was difficult, at first. Wotch was old, and hosts had learned from their Yeerks to disregard the elderly. But some listened. Some followed. And when others saw that some were being protected and cared for, they listened too. By the end of a couple of days, there were twenty-five Hork-Bajir in Wotch's family."

"But that wasn't enough," I said.

"No, no. And not everyone was so trusting. Younger males had families of their own, but they were not like Wotch, they could not care for their families. But they were proud, desperate for self-sufficiency. Wotch had to convince them."

Wotch paused for a moment, shushing the quiet child in his arms.

"How did you convince them, Wotch?"

Wotch turned and glanced at me. "It took a few days to understand the group psychology," he admitted. "I didn't at first see what aspect of their groups they viewed as their property, what they thought gave them power. Wotch thought it was strength in numbers, wotch thought as the Yeerks thought. That they were preparing for some kind of battle, trying to gain as many troops as possible. But that wasn't it. They were not armies. They were families. Led by a male, a father, paired with a female of immediately inferior rank. And the others, even if they weren't related by blood, were their children."

I felt myself go a little stiff.

"The males did not want power. They just wanted families, they just wanted the security and stability offered by that kind of structure. So I made them a part of my family by their own definition." He breathed deeply. "I married their wives."

"You…you forced…"

"No, Governor Hamee. No. The wives, in fact, held the true power. Only by their consent would their family truly become mine. Many of their husbands tried to interfere, of course, but the decision was ultimately not theirs. When the wives agreed to become Wotch's wives, then their families assimilated. Within another couple of weeks, the entire ship was Wotch's family."

I was shaking a little, disturbed by his story, by the perversion of the natural order of things. But I thought it best not to make any judgments, at least not yet.

"How many wives do you have?" I asked.

"Then, only four. But as Wotch and his family traveled, as we met more adrift ships full of abandoned hosts, Wotch gained more wives. The system only works because everyone believes in it, you see, so it must be maintained. No group can be exempt from it, or else conflict will ensue. When Wotch meets a new family, he must marry the highest-ranking female so they become part of his family. There is peace. Wotch gives the wives children, which makes the families happy. The wives speak for their groups. It's a sort of representative democracy, in a—"

"How many wives do you have now?" I asked.

"Eleven," he said. "And eight children. Two on the way."

I couldn't help but grimace in disgust. Not entirely at him, at his total disregard for how Hork-Bajir marriage was supposed to work, but that based on his story…

I was disgusted that Wotch's mutation kept him from the simple courtship and marriage privileges he deserved. I mourned the fact that he could not choose a wife simply based on how much he wanted to be with her. I was angry that he'd had to turn something personal and fulfilling into something shallow and political. And most of all, I wasn't sure I would have done any differently.

"Governor Hamee is upset," he guessed.

"No. I—no. I'm glad you told me. I'm just…this is not the way…"

"Wotch knows," he said. "That is why Wotch did not tell Governor Hamee right away. He was going to, please believe that. This was not a secret he intended to keep."

I nodded. "It's all right. I understand. There's no need to worry."

Wotch smiled then, big, revealing his short, worn-down teeth. "Wotch was very worried about this," he said with a relieved guffaw. "Thank you, Governor Hamee, for being so understanding."

I smiled a little self-consciously. "Did I come across as that closed-minded in all the articles you read?"

"Sometimes," Wotch said with half a shrug. I thought on that for a while as the child in Wotch's arms woke up and smiled up at his father.

"Wotch, what did those two women at the docking hatch want?" I asked.

"Toby should know," Wotch said. "Henner and Kayah were reminding Wotch to ask Toby Hamee to be his wife."

My face flushed and I burst out laughing. Wotch smiled with me, a little self-aware, a little disappointed.

"I'm sorry," I said, catching my breath. "I don't mean any disrespect. I just—"

"Toby has a husband," Wotch guessed.

"Yes. Two—I mean, a husband and two children. A son and a daughter."

"Toby is very lucky," he said. "There is nothing better than our children."

"No," I said, a little guilty then, feeling like I'd betrayed them somehow. "No, that is true."

"Wotch would very much like to hear about them soon," he said. "But now there are many children here that need to be told they are loved."

"Yes, I should be getting back. Telf is worried sick. He thought that—" I stopped myself, rising to my feet.

"Thought that Wotch would make an offer? And that Toby might acquiesce to it?" He asked.

"He just worries."

"Then he must know you very well."

Wotch walked me back to the hatch, where his two wives from before were waiting. Wotch informed them of my refusal, and though the younger looked sort of distraught, the other walked up to me and hugged me tightly.

"Toby Hamee hah-lee porrit," she said. "Wotch devreen singhah." Wotch smiled at her and ushered me inside the Andalite's ship.

"What did she say?" I whispered to him.

"She said, it does not matter what Wotch says. Toby is his wife." I opened my mouth in protest as Wotch waved good bye and Tardit closed the hatch behind him.

(How did everything go?) Tardit asked as he warmed up the normal space engines.

"Why must you ask such difficult questions?" I shot back.

When we landed, there was a fairly large group of humans—my staff, some reporters, some government officials—who all demanded to be dealt with, and was there a sizable group of my own people, curious and bored enough to snoop. I was distracted as I worked with them—my staff needed me to sign and initial what seemed like thousands of contracts, releases, and letters of intent; detectives, military officials, and various bureaucrats all had their own questions about the impending emigration; and after all that, I held a small but frantic press conference answering any questions about the fleet that I could. The press, of course, bruised that I saved them for last, asked questions they knew I couldn't answer and then acted annoyed when I didn't. I was irritated by that point, and tired from the sudden stress this development was having on every facet of my life, so I was not nearly as guarded as I should have been.

"Governor Hamee, thank you for accommodating us despite the short notice, but you're really not giving us that much to work with."

"I've told you the number of individuals in the fleet's complement, given you the estimated costs to American taxpayers based on some preliminary calculations performed by my staff, and elucidated the next steps we plan to take. What more do you want to know?"

"Forgive us if we're a little confused about how your people could survive in space this long without supervision. How did they do it? How did they get here?"

"First of all, I must reiterate that I find your insinuations of my people's complete helplessness insulting," I said. "We may not have split the atom yet, but that doesn't mean we haven't survived one of the most brutal and decimating wars this galaxy has ever seen, without any help from humans or Andalites or other humanitarian, intelligent races." I made a sarcastic little pout as I let the humans take notes. "Second of all, to even consider the fact that my people got here without help shows your own mental limits."

The crowd began to mutter and gossip, and I realized I'd just let something slip that I hadn't meant to.

"So who helped? Was it the Andalites? Some Skrit Na scientific expedition? Have the Animorphs returned?"

"No. No alien races have come to the rescue of the poor, pathetic Hork-Bajir. We don't always need your help."

I stormed away from the microphone as soon as I realized that they had enough information to make an educated guess. And when four separate articles came to the same frighteningly accurate conclusion the following morning, I had no choice but to address it.

And invite Wotch Hepper down to the surface so he could meet them himself.

Wotch was wringing his hands on the flight down as Tardit, who was already growing impatient of his role as chauffer, muttered to himself (and by occasional and purposeful extension, us) and piloted the ship.

"Are you all right?" I asked him.

"This sort of thing may be something Governor Hamee…you are used to, but Wotch—" he winced in frustration at his linguistic gaffe, "—I am not. I am not a diplomat, a spokesperson. I do not fill this role among my people."

"It's not hard," I said, laying my hand gently over his. "Don't worry about the pronouns, just speak as yourself. Humans really are pathetically easy to please, habitually prone to forgive. Just be honest."

"I cannot tell them about the polygamy," he said. "If you reacted that way, they would—"

"Be…emotionally honest," I amended. "As long as they sense that the feelings you're expressing are the ones you're actually feeling, they will want to trust you. The details can be vague or even omitted entirely. Be yourself, and I'll be standing right next to you. You really have nothing to worry about, Wotch, they're all excited about this arrival, not dreading it."

"I'm dreading it," he mumbled.

(And I'm sick of it,) Tardit added.

Ultimately, however, Wotch had nothing to worry about. I think the humans sensed his nerves, and he was better at expressing his utter exhaustion and defeat from his journey than I thought he'd be, so they were rather softball with him, setting him up for reader sympathy and affection with the skill that only the best human journalists could. When I sensed he'd had enough, I stopped the questioning, saying that I needed to give Wotch a tour of the park and hearth so he could relay to his people what they should expect.

I walked with him slowly around the hearth as he gazed around, somewhere between reverent and intoxicated. People stopped their chores and watched us in fascination, whispering to each other and clearing the path in front of us. I don't know if we just exuded that much power, or if they were worried about what this coupling would bring.

"It smells wonderful here," he said. "Does that smell ever diminish?"

I shrugged. "When you're born with it, you never really notice it. But if you've never smelled it, something tells me you won't ever forget it."

Wotch smiled and continued walking.

"Did your people like the bark?" I asked.

"Yes. Too much. I had to distribute it myself, and my family kept trying to cheat, coming back for second and third slices."

"So it turned into more of a hassle than a gift," I sighed.

"No, Governor Hamee," Wotch said, touching my arm. "It was a very thoughtful gift, one my people were most thankful for. Be sure to tell anyone who helped harvest it how much it was appreciated."

"Well, soon your people will be able to eat all the second and third slices they want," I said with a smile. Wotch turned and continued walking.

"This one smells different," he said, stepping up to an old oak that had once been a popular source of nutrition, but had mostly been stripped dry. He put his hands against the smoothed wood and pressed his face into the tree. "Yes, this one is much different."

"There may be some new growth at the top," I said. "You want to see?"

Wotch shirked back. "See…how?"

I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it, cursing my own insensitivity. "I didn't mean—"

"Toby wants Wotch to…climb?" He asked, and I realized he wasn't averse, just nervous. I stepped up to the tree and drove my wrist blade into the wood, which made Wotch jump, hopping up a couple of feet.

"Yes," I said, giving him the mental push I sensed he was asking for. I held my hand out to him. "Come with me. I won't let you fall." His eyes lightened, he grabbed my hand, and hooked his wrist blade into the trunk.

It was slow going, since Wotch was old and inexperienced, but soon he was moving rhythmically, using blades and strength harnessed and reappropriated by the Yeerks for the things they were made for. His eyes twitched back and forth, looking for footholds and solid branches, and soon I could hear laughter under his winded breath, a sort of freedom and glee that only children exhibit.

There wasn't any bark left at the top of the tree, but it didn't matter. Wotch lolled on his stomach on a long, smooth limb near the canopy, his head hanging over the side, watching the people pass below. I sat wedged in between the joint of two branches, nibbling on some twigs.

"This won't ever get old," he said.

"Kind of hard to find the motivation to get up after a while, isn't it?" I asked.

He flipped to his back, making me a little nervous being so careless so high up, but his smile was too big to disappoint with some patronizing correction.

"I can't wait until Reed sees this," he said giddily. Then his smile dipped for a second, but he sat up and reached out towards a Monarch butterfly sitting on a twig above him.

"One of your wives?" I asked.

"Yes. She has expressed great interest in the outdoors, moreso than the others. Some of my people could adapt to that hermetic cage the Yeerks called a ship, but she never could."

"I don't blame her," I said.

After Wotch had his fill of nature, it was time to send him back up to his ship so he could organize his people for the trip down. We had managed to cut the paperwork process short by eight days, but it would still take four or so to get everything in order. As I ushered him back to his ship, I promised I would help with the pilgrimage when it happened, and that if he needed anything, just to have Tardit call my staff.

"I appreciate the tour very much, Governor Hamee," he said. "A part of me was still cynical that this was any kind of happily ever after, but you have convinced me entirely that I was wrong."

"It's nothing at all, Wotch. I'm glad you enjoyed it." I reached out to take his hand, but he grabbed it and pulled me into a sudden kiss.

"It is not nothing," he breathed, and I couldn't stop the butterflies from rising into my belly, or the flush from filling my cheeks. He pulled away and headed into the transport as Tardit grumbled in behind him.

I walked home slowly, wondering how to interpret the kiss and the feelings it unearthed. I didn't think it was attraction—I didn't feel physically attracted to him at all—and was trying to convince myself that any kiss would make those feelings bubble up. But kissing my children didn't make me feel that way, nor did kissing the elderly before they passed, or young children who weren't mine but needed the comfort. Nothing, in fact, made me feel that way except for Telf.

I didn't love Wotch. I didn't want Wotch. So what about him was my body responding to?

The physical betrayal made me nervous to return home, so I wandered around for a few hours before I did. Tardit had a couple of checklists to run through with me, and a few of my people came up to question how this change would impact their lives, so it wasn't as if my absence from home was conspicuous.

Telf's, however, was.

When I finally climbed our tree at around 8:00 at night, I found my mother singing to Bug, who looked nervous. She got up and flung her arms around my waist, clawing up my arms to be held. I crouched down and lifted her up.

"Where's Telf?" I asked. Mother frowned.

"Telf say need be alone. Say get good bark for Bug," she said. And though her voice sounded chipper, the frown in her eyes told me all I needed to know.

"Well, we all know how seriously he takes keeping Bug happy," I said, bouncing her a little in my arms. I smiled big at her, but she wasn't buying it. I gave her a gentle kiss and carefully seated myself in our sleeping nook.

"He'll be back," I said. "He just wants to make sure he gets all the best bark before so many new people come to live here. All his favorite secret trees might not stay secret for long."

"Get I good bark," Bug tested in a mournful voice.

"Yes, sweetie. He wants to make sure you eat good bark, especially now that I have to help our friends in space come down to the park. Mother Toby is going to be busy, so Dad wants to make sure you get taken care of."

"And Ket be with Bug until Telf gets back," Mother said with a satisfied nod.

"Yes, see? Everything's okay, sweetie."

"Everything okay," Bug said, a little bit more relieved. She wrapped her arms around my torso and fell stiffly asleep after a while.

"What did he really say?" I whispered to Mother after I felt Bug's breathing deepen and slow.

"Not say much. Stare down at hearth for long time, then say need be alone. Bug got sad, so Telf hugged Bug and say find good bark."

I nodded. "I don't know what to tell him," I said. "He thinks I'm going to leave him, but I'm not. I don't know how to convince him this is a nonissue."

"Does Toby love Wotch?" My mother asked, insightful. And I looked at her, surprised by her conclusion, thankful that though she couldn't give me everything a mother should, she could still give me that safe, nonjudgmental, external conscience that I could trust above all others.

"No," I said. "I love Telf."

"Then say that," Mother giggled at my incompetence. I sighed and rocked Bug in my arms until I passed into an uncomfortable, incomplete sleep.

The human Air Force and Alien Immigration Commission permitted Wotch's ship to land the following day, so there was something of an informal ceremony and press conference once it set down. The ship looked even worse on the surface than it did in orbit, like an old, rusted submarine vessel that had then been microwaved for a few minutes. He stepped out with Perd on his arm, waving to the humans and a large group of my people who had congregated, delivering a short, heartfelt statement. Perd fidgeted nervously, obviously overwhelmed with the number of people, the alien look of the humans, and the openness of the outdoors, but Wotch held her close and seemed able to sense when she needed his comfort.

For the rest of the day, Wotch and I worked in the cabin with Cassie and Ronnie, who still behaved with a perfectly professional demeanor though they'd been married now for a year and a half. My staff sometimes teased them about having children of their own, but they were still young, and I was vaguely certain they never would anyway. Cassie had more than enough work to keep her busy, and I don't think she could rationalize bringing potential life into the world when hers had been so consumed by hatred and violence, especially at such a young age. They haven't propogated yet anyway, and I could be wrong. I hope I am, sometimes. Having children is never quite what you think it will be. Humans have much more time to change their minds about those kinds of things than Hork-Bajir, so I'm not disappointed yet.

Anyway, the four of us pored over topographical, population density, moisture density, military, and geothermal maps, trying to figure out in which direction it would be best to expand. In the end, we decided that cutting deeper north towards Montana would be best, for though it would certainly be colder, there was a greater density of springs to stay warm in, and since no one liked venturing north because of the cold, the trees were fresh and untouched. Wotch, in an effort to keep his family from becoming second-class, challenged the idea, worrying that they would be left there and forgotten, and I ceded to his concern, saying that we'd talk to the park service about instituting some kind of incentive for people to move north now that we were opening our borders.

It was really the only time he resisted our plans, and it was a solid point. I was happy about our progress, and I was eager to forge our relationship in as close to perfect peace as I could. I didn't want him to feel marginalized or unrepresented, so I offered to hold weekly meetings with him and the humans, just to address any inevitable issues that came up. Brenda suggested that we bring in a judge or representative to mediate, just to make sure that human legislation was kept in the loop, and it seemed like a good idea.

At that point, I really was just eager to make everyone happy. The thought that this whole enterprise could devolve into civil war did creep into my mind unconsciously, but I had to speak as though the thought hadn't even occurred to me. I ruled out the suggestion to form states or provinces of different social groups, worried enough that my people would ghettoize themselves. Dozens of different groups had come together at the end of the war and molded into one united people. I'd nursed and rejected the fear that so many different people with disparate experiences brought together would be like gasoline and sparks, but due to the broad and numerous experiences of Hork-Bajir at the end of the war, there were no set ideologies for people to pander to and support, no majorities to coalesce and subjugate everyone else. But now, with two very distinct groups coming together as one, I was a little afraid that friction would ensue. At the very least, the language barrier would cause rifts. It reminded me of that quote by Voltaire: "If you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each other's throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in peace."

I knew the secret was the relationship between Wotch and me. If we were not friendly, it would only serve to show our people that they could not be, either. And it had to be as sincere as possible. One thing I have underestimated far too frequently is the Hork-Bajir's capacity for intuition. The only way to show my people the sincerity of my acceptance and happiness of Wotch's arrival was to believe in it myself.

And yet, a nagging uncertainty about this approach lingered until I went home again that night.

Telf was back. And he was all alone.

If I'd done my job well, then Telf too would believe how happy Wotch made me.

"You shouldn't leave like that," I told him. "We can have our problems, but you can't make them so obvious to Bug."

"Telf know," he said.

"Well? What did you find?" He held out a piece of moist, fresh maple that seemed like the virgin cut from some pristine, far-away tree. "You must have traveled far," I said as I bit down into it, feeling the sweet, tingly sap seep from the wood. "This is delicious."

"Yes, Telf go far. Think long."

I looked back up at him as I savored the bark. "About what?"

Telf breathed in deeply, and his breath stuttered a little on the way out. "When Odeb come to park, Toby say, 'Telf, go to Odeb.' Say, 'Telf already love Odeb, have kawatnoj with Odeb.' Say, 'Odeb is more to Telf than Toby.'"

I swallowed uncomfortably, letting a moment pass before I responded. I'd avoided this conversation as long as we could, but that didn't mean I was going to let him dictate it. "That was different, Telf. We weren't really mated yet, since Jara and Bug weren't born, and—"

"Telf remember this, when Wotch come," he continued, ignoring my protests. "Remember and think, 'Telf never do that to Toby.'"

I frowned at him. "I didn't mean to make you feel rejected. I thought I was—"

"No, Toby." He kneeled in front of me and took my hands in his. "Telf mean, even if Toby want someone more than Telf, Telf never say 'okay.' Telf love Toby too much, want Toby too much. Telf is shell fish."

I smiled a little. "I don't think that's selfish."

Telf sighed, squeezed my hands again. "Telf is very bad to think that," he said. "Very bad to think that Toby should not get what Toby wants."

"I have what I want, Telf."

"No, Toby. No. Toby say, 'Telf go see. Make sure.' Telf say, 'Toby go see. Make sure.'"

"I don't need to. I already know."

"Toby has to go to Wotch."

I scoffed. "I'm not going."

"Toby go."

"Telf, this is ridiculous."

"Toby please go."

"Telf, just stop. This is stupid and—"

"Yes, Toby. Telf is stupid." He was still clinging to my hands, looking up at me hopefully, and I felt the color drain from my face. I frowned.

"That's not what I meant, Telf."

"But Wotch is not stupid."

I shook my head. "I'm getting a little insulted."

"Why?"

"That you don't believe me. That you think I've secretly been tolerating you for the past five years. That I'm the kind of person who only sticks around until something better comes along."

Telf sighed. "That not how Telf think of Toby," he said. "Telf just want be good, like Toby was. Want Toby be sure. Please go, Toby. Go for Telf, if not for Toby."

I glanced away. "He has a wife, you know."

"Yes. Telf see."

"So when do you account for her in your brilliant, selfess plan?"

Telf shrugged. "Telf not love Wotch's kalashi. Love Toby."

I stared at him for a few moments, then leaned forward and kissed him. "You better make this up to me when I get back," I said, deepening the kiss, unmasking my intentions. "And that's when. Not if."

"Go, Toby."

I left slowly, grudgingly, making it more than plain that this was an unwilling favor I was doing for Telf, but the truth was, I was apprehensive as I traveled. I'd made up my mind, I know that, but at the same time, I was worried that this meeting would cause me regret. Wotch was happily married to more than enough kalashi, and I loved Telf more than I'd once thought possible, but could I have been happier with someone like me? Should I mourn the lightyears and war that had separated us? Should I wonder what life with him would have been like?

When I reached eyeshot of his ship, I stopped and wondered if I should continue for a long time. Long enough for one of his young wives to find me.

"Kanami Toby Hamee," she said, dropping lithely but loudly out of the tree I was leaning against.

I gasped and started, putting a hand over my chest. "God, you scared me," I said with a weary laugh. "I didn't know anyone else was here. I didn't mean to disturb you. I'll just be going."

"Porrit ungah myar reem," she said, putting a hand on my arm, giving me a small smile. I looked up at her and realized she was the one who'd been dragged to confront me by Henner, looking sick and guilty the last time I'd seen her. "Illa fern Wotch Hepper. Wotch agreen." She gestured toward the southeast.

"He's that way?" I translated. She smiled in the moonlight, revealing her shiny, pretty teeth.

"Kayah devreen porrit Wotch Hepper. Toby Hamee…and…Kayah Homm."

"No, no, really, it's fine. I just meant…I came…"

"Toby Hamee," she said, taking my hand, speaking with force. Her eyes narrowed a little. "Wotch parrat gugrin remmer tah. Farjah Kayah…Toby to Wotch."

I frowned a little at her. "We didn't have anything scheduled. He doesn't know I'm coming. Are you sure he told you to bring me?"

"To Wotch," she repeated, giving me a little tug. "To Wotch."

I sighed and let her guide me through the forest which, though my home for the majority of my life, suddenly felt oppressive and unfamiliar. She navigated through the dark trees expertly, squeezing and ducking and sidestepping with the expertise of a natural-born forest citizen, not the pent-up livestock she'd once been. She giggled as she moved, glancing back at me every few moments like I was the one struggling to keep up.

After a while, she seemed to slow down, grow cautious. She put her finger to her mouth to shush me, and I nodded, not sure what we were hiding from but deciding it was better to keep quiet anyway. A low moan came from a tree high above us and a little to the southeast, and a vindictive smile came to her eyes. She gestured me closer, but I shook my head, and she rolled her eyes, dragging me along.

She brought me right to the bottom of a tall pine tree, standing still and pleased at the bottom, as two people very obviously made love above us, fronds rustling, trunk creaking. I squirmed uncomfortably as she gazed above her, smiling in a darkly satisfied way.

After a few more minutes which felt like hours, there was a sort of low ululation followed by a groaning "there it is, Reed." A feminine giggle followed, and Kayah approached the tree.

"Not totally useless yet, am I?" the female voice responded in perfect English. Without thinking, I snatched forward and grabbed Kayah's shoulder. She turned around, troubled, and I shook my head, holding her there for a moment.

"There's nothing about you that's useless," the male voice said, and to my horror, I realized it was Wotch. I looked to Kayah for confirmation, and that strange, vindictive smile returned to her lips.

"Tell that to me when I'm too swollen to get out of bed in the morning," the female responded. "Though I do hope that will get better, out in this dry, cool air."

"Your skin has already cleared up," Wotch said to her. "You look years younger."

"You don't," she said with a light giggle.

"I don't think any amount of nature can clear the weather from my visage," he said. "But you may recover yet."

"All pronouns," the female responded. "You're doing much better."

"Well with you it's easy," he said. "But the humans, and the governor…they make me nervous."

"They shouldn't. They worry more about keeping their own secrets than uncovering yours. Just focus on bringing us home, not on worrying about them."

"You're right," he sighed. "You're right."

I felt kind of blank as the conversation continued, and I could only watch Kayah, whose thrill at my arrival, I realized, was not due to her respect or admiration of me. She'd wanted to show me this. She'd wanted me to know. She and Henner both, I realized. They'd developed their own agendas, their own plans. Perhaps they'd meant to summon me themselves, once they figured out how. My showing up here unannounced was simply a serendipity to her.

What did it all mean?

Kayah stood still as Wotch and his other wife finished up above us. Finally, we heard him say, "Slowly, slowly. I don't want him to get hurt."

"Or me," the female responded.

"That goes without saying."

Before long, they were sliding down the broad canopies of pine shoots, wincing from the prickly needles, gracelessly landing on the ground.

"Ooh, oww, that one hurt," the female, said, hopping on one foot. "I shouldn't have—"

She turned around and gasped. She'd landed not ten feet away, but quickly hopped behind a branch, concealing herself.

It was too late. I'd already seen.

She was about three months pregnant.

"Are you all right?" Wotch asked, landing as gracelessly as she did, but unlike her, his focus was devoted entirely to her. He put his hands on her tenderly, touched her lovingly, and caressed the child she carried. "Anything I can do?"

"Wotch," she hissed, staring at me. Wotch followed her gaze, and when he saw me, his expression turned from drunken contentment to blank defeat.

"Governor Hamee," he said, trying to keep his voice light, but it only made him seem more ashamed and aggrieved. "What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to speak with you about…something," I said. Kayah stepped up beside me, and Wotch turned to her, that same unlikely rage coming up.

"Kayah devreen magort fallah keen," he hissed, turning on her, flaring his elbow blades. I stepped in between as Kayah shirked back nervously.

"I asked her to bring me here," I said. "I convinced her it was urgent. It's my fault, not hers."

Wotch snorted and stepped back, but Kayah still trembled beside me. I took her hand and looked at her, giving an implicit promise that she would be protected from whatever consequences this meeting unleashed. She squeezed my hand back.

"Well, what do you want?" He asked.

"I think it best if we speak privately," I said. But then I looked past Wotch toward his other wife. "I don't think we've met."

"No, my apologies, Governor Hamee. This is Reed."

"Hello Reed," I said, approaching her. She smiled, though her eyes were terrified.

"Ranma, Toby Hamee," she said. "Wotch mepreet illis porrit." She stepped out, with fake dignity, from the tree, and headed back towards the ship.

"Kayah barta Reed," Wotch said, not breaking my gaze. Kayah swallowed and followed after her.

Wotch and I stared at each other for a few moments as Kayah and Reed left, Kayah holding her sister wife beneath the elbow. For several moments after they were out of earshot, we continued to stare, and Wotch's gaze got angrier and angrier until he finally sighed.

"What was it you wanted to talk about, Toby?"

"It's not important anymore," I said.

"Then perhaps you should leave."

I might have let it go until then. I might have accepted that I would never fully understand. But my ego, my entitlement, and my arrogance all snarled at his disrespect and I had to know.

"She's not Hork-Bajir," I said.

Wotch sighed.

"So what is she? Is she a seer, like us? That is so unlikely, especially when the number in your complement is a fraction of the number in mine and here, I am all alone."

"Maybe she just wanted to learn the human words with me. Maybe I taught her, because I needed a conversation partner to improve myself."

"I don't doubt her ambition, but I don't doubt any of your other thirteen wives', either," I said. "Why did she succeed when they could not?"

"Are you sure you want to know the answer to that question, Governor?"

I watched him sadly for a while, double- and triple-checking every possibility. An Andalite would never cede to a Hork-Bajir superior, even a seer like Wotch. My great-grandmother had, but not without friction, not without claiming control and finally compromising on equality. Could she have been human? What humans besides the Animorphs even had the opportunity to use the Escafil Device?

I'd exhausted every alternative explanation. I'd avoided the only conclusion that made sense because I didn't want to believe it. But there was no where left to turn.

"She's a Yeerk, isn't she?"

Wotch had slouched in defeat, but his back straightened and his shoulders squared. "No, Governor. No. She is a Hork-Bajir, and she carries my Hork-Bajir son."

"But she was a Yeerk."

Wotch glanced away.

I couldn't contain my disgust. I gagged at the rush of thoughts and ideas that came to me—the choice he had to make, the forgiveness he had to bestow, the acceptance he had to grant. And then to marry her, mate with her, spawn with her…to love her?

"You love her," I said, and all of it came out in my voice, the betrayal, the shock, the disbelief, the revulsion. "You tolerate the rest of them because your politics requires it, but she's the one you love."

"Yes, I do."

"Was she your Yeerk?" I said, voice rising. "Did she corrupt you this badly?"

"You really don't want to work yourself up over this," he said, coming forward and grabbing my arm. "For the sake of both our peoples, there is no reason for you to indulge some petty rage and intolerance on her behalf."

"Petty intolerance?" I scoffed. "She enslaved our people! Performed medical experiments on them, killed them when they barely reached middle age. Tore infants from their mother's arms and sent them to die on the front lines. Raped them, kidnapped them, murdered them. Committed cultural genocide! How is refusing to ignore any of that petty?"

"She did none of those things, Governor."

"Did she have a host?" I asked. Wotch furrowed his brow and frowned. "If she had a host, then she complicitly supported all of those acts, all of that evil. If she reaped the fruits of her race's injustice, then she's a part of it. There is nothing ambiguous about this, Wotch. This is treason."

"How easy for you to make such a claim when you never bore a Yeerk yourself," Wotch seethed. "How easy for you to sit in your moist, darkwood forest and make moral judgments of anyone not born free like you. Yes, Governor Hamee, please tell me that I am wrong when you never once knew the horror, the self-loathing, the fear, the loneliness, the hopelessness, and then the compromise, then the acceptance, then the need. You never reached the point when you felt incomplete without that slug because the only way to go on living was to make it a part of yourself, to make its presence natural and good. You never felt the Yeerk slacken his control as he sensed your defeat, and you never felt grateful when he did. You never laughed at a joke your Yeerk made and then cried for hours after when even the mere act of feeling relief, feeling humor, feeling peace made you a traitor to your race. You never had to choose between claiming autonomy by resisting everything or feeling contentment by surrendering everything. You know nothing, Toby. You are as ignorant as a newborn and as bigoted as an Andalite."

"My lack of experience may leave me with little perspective, but that doesn't pardon the crime you've committed."

"Crime?" Wotch laughed. "You really want me to hold me responsible for a hard decision I made entirely outside your jurisdiction?"

"What could be hard about a decision to protect your people from another invasion of Yeerks?" I asked. "How could you just give up the identities of your own people to the same oppressors that kept them infested for all those years?"

"I didn't give up anything," Wotch said. "We found them adrift orbiting a free asteroid about fifteen lightyears from here. They'd run out of fuel and had rationed their remaining supplies so meagerly that most of them were malnourished. Two had already starved to death."

"And they were already—"

"The Andalites had found them, offered them the terms of surrender, and they'd accepted," he said. "I don't know why they offered Hork-Bajir DNA. Perhaps they were unaware of the decree you made at the end of the war, or perhaps they chose to ignore it. Either way, I had no say in that decision. The only say I had was what happened to them after."

"You should have left them," I said, and even I hated the coldness in my voice. "You should have let them starve."

"And perhaps I would have," Wotch said, "if they hadn't already given birth to three free Hork-Bajir children."

For the first time in our argument, I stepped back. Blanched a little.

"Yes, you see, Governor Hamee? You already know this. I don't need to teach it to you. Nothing is ever that simple." He stepped up very close to me. "But in my mind, killing three innocents is worse than rescuing forty of my oppressors."

"You could have just taken the children, you didn't have to—"

"I considered it," he admitted. "But I knew the only way for the former Yeerks to assimilate into my fleet successfully was if no one knew their true lineage. If I'd just have taken the children, there would have been questions I'd have to answer, and then there would have been demands. And perhaps I underestimate the capacity for our people's forgiveness—" he shot me a critical glare "—but I didn't want to risk someone suggesting that the children themselves were impure and worthy of execution. Like I said, Governor. A difficult decision, but one I do not regret in the slightest."

I looked away. My rage had not vented at all, my temper had not cooled, and I couldn't forgive him.

But once again, I was struck with the thought—what would I have done?

"So yes," Wotch continued. "I accepted them into my family the way I had accepted all others. And, per terms of the arrangement, I needed a wife. Reed volunteered. I told her then that I would probably never touch her, that she would be my wife in name only, expected to fill the same roles and duties as the rest of them, that I could never bring myself to love her." He breathed deeply. "I was wrong."

I felt utterly exhausted. It was like the irresistible, long-festering hate I'd held onto had met this unmovable, equal-but-opposite alternative, and all they could do was pound each other inside me. I hated the Yeerks for causing all of this confusion and moral ambiguity, I hated Wotch for surrendering the strength and pride I wanted to define Hork-Bajir, but most of all, I hated myself for feeling any empathy for him. I hated being conflicted, I wanted to be sure, but all I felt now was lost and confused.

"So now that we're here, now that you know, make a fuss about it. Kill Reed, my free, unborn child, and all the others aboard that ship. I'll give you their names, I'll give you the ship itself. If that's the price of peace between your people and mine, then so be it."

"No," I said automatically, feeling a hot tear tumble down my cheek as I ceded to his bluff. "No one has to die."

"Then you will accept them in the park without condition or stipulation?"

I turned my eyes back up to him. "I hate you," I said.

"That, I suppose, I will deal with."

"Kayah and Henner know," I hissed, wiping my face. "They suspect it. They wanted me to see."

He nodded grimly. "Yes. Our people may be slow, but they do not altogether lack insight."

"I can't hate you to them," I said. "Any of them. We can be personal antagonists but we must be public friends."

"Publically I adore you," he simpered. "I still do, and I always will. I feel endless admiration and gratefulness for the work you have done for our people. But personally, I think you are a stubborn, prejudiced, short-sighted bigot. And that doesn't matter to our work at all."

"Then we agree," I said. "I'll convince Henner and Kayah that their suspicions are unfounded. And as far as the humans and the rest of our people are concerned, nothing has changed."

"Nothing has changed," Wotch said with an angry smile. "What was it that you wanted to talk to me about anyway?"

"Nothing. I have my answer."

I held in my rage until I got home to find Telf nervously twiddling his fingers.

"What Toby decide?" He asked. And when he did, I burst into tears.

I didn't realize until after, but Telf didn't understand anything about what my grief meant. I might have been crying out of guilt, out of shame for hurting him, out of the horrible dignified pride of rejecting him in person. Until I told my story, he had no reason not to believe that I was leaving him for Wotch. Nonetheless, he wrapped me in his arms and shushed me until I was calm enough to speak.

I told him everything. Maybe it was just that I'd been caught at a rather vulnerable moment, or maybe I knew I shouldn't tell him but did anyway just to spite the complicit agreement I'd made with Wotch. But I sobbed out everything to him, watching as his eyes narrowed and his expression became grim.

"Yeerks will live in park," he growled.

"Yes, and they'll pair off with our people. They'll breed and infect us once again with their hatred and evil."

I squeezed my eyes shut in shame for my self-righteousness, burying my head under his shoulder. Telf stroked my neck and growled some more, trembling, but he kept his voice soft and comforting, putting his concern about me before his own rage. "Toby okay," he said.

"I'm sorry," I said, pulling away, wiping my hands down my face. "I'm sorry for putting you through all this. You shouldn't have to worry about this."

Telf held my shoulders and kissed me. "Telf is Toby's kalashu," he said. "Worry for, worry with Toby."

"Thank you," I said, collapsing into him. "Thank you for loving me despite me."

"Love Toby because Toby," he assured.

Later that week, the rest of Wotch's fleet landed near the border of our domain and emigrated north. Wotch and I oversaw the colonization, with the aid of Cassie, who morphed to my father and led some of his people into the forest, but she realized that her role was really as a buffer between human skepticism and the truth of our own burgeoning population and didn't stay long.

I was actually happy to see that most of my people were welcoming, and many even offered their own trees and surrounding land to their new neighbors. The language barrier was also often a completely void concern—I hadn't even realized that the majority of my people were bilingual, their sufficiency in English grounded by fluency in Galard. Telf himself met Kayah and Perd on the second day of the landing and held what seemed to be a long, detailed conversation from which I was entirely excluded.

I don't know what he told them. Kayah didn't seem to react with any sort of validation that her theory had been verified, so I don't think he told them the truth about Reed and her people. I hoped not.

And I simultaneously hoped he had.

I tried to remain impassive as the Yeerk's ship unloaded. They were easy to identify, based solely on Wotch's descriptions—most of them were skinny and hunched, and the only three vocalizing it, of course, were the purely Hork-Bajir children. The rest stared at me nervously as they passed, dreading that I would announce their true identities or attack them. I wanted to. I could have taken them all, or at least held my ground until reinforcements arrived. Wotch led them to a far northwest corner of the forest, built them a little community, and never spoke another word about it to me.

I couldn't help but feel a little grim satisfaction that this was all that had survived from their war, these dirty, smelly, malnourished rats. So much death and pain they'd caused, so much fear and hatred, and their only spoil of war was themselves. Forty abused bodies living at the margins of a vast winter wasteland.

I hated my vindictiveness. I hated that it bothered me. They clearly wanted nothing more than to live and be left alone, yet I let myself grow angry, feel violated, that they were taking up a dozen or so acres of forest that no one else wanted to live in anyway. I hadn't really hated the Yeerks in years, but I was morbidly surprised at how quickly that hate could return.

I talked to Hayley about it. She'd been doing some book signings on the East Coast, so I'd had to clear out the cabin so I could speak with her privately on the office phone.

"Wow, Toby, that's tough," she said. "Does your staff know?"

"I haven't even decided whether to tell them," I said. "What good would it do? They'd get self-righteous and reinforce their own anger and do something about it. Which is why I want to tell them, even though it will do nothing constructive."

"Yeah," Hayley said kind of absently. "This is tough. I don't know."

"What would you think?" I asked. "What do you think?"

"I really don't know," Hayley said. "I mean, I get it. My great aunt died in a concentration camp. I've been taught for years how evil and unforgivable some people are, just because they believe in something, or were related to people who did something. And even later, when you find out thinking that way is wrong, it's hard to shake."

"So thinking this way is wrong?"

"My liberal ethics are clashing with my more visceral demands for justice right now," she said. "But we can't hold individuals responsible for the crimes of an entire nation, Toby, let alone an entire race. If those people Wotch brought are guilty of any war crimes, then yes, they should be punished."

"And investigating any of that is impossible," I said. "He pardoned them unconditionally. I don't even think he took down their names or ranks before he gave them food and fuel. He didn't ask them for anything. He just let them off."

"Yeah. I guess he made a judgment call."

I scoffed irritably. "And now I have to deal with it."

"No one said your job was easy."

I banged the receiver on my head a few times. "How do I stop feeling so disgusted about it?"

"Just let it go, Toby. You can't change it, you don't want to kill them, and they're going to stay out of your way. Just let it go."

It was hard, and even to this day, remembering that they're here offers me nothing but disgust. Fortunately, or…I guess that's one way to look at it…I wasn't consumed by it for too long.

Reaction to the rescue of 1104 new free Hork-Bajir was not universally positive.

We really hadn't heard that much from terrorists and radical political groups in the years since the bombing. I think it had shaken everyone. It was too big, too ostentatious a display of the level of human hatred and frustration at our presence to encourage continual discontent. Even the most vocal of our opponents were hesitant to accept responsibility for it, resistant to label it justice. The humans had been too recently victimized themselves to engage in that kind of congnitive dissonance.

But Wotch had reawakened their hatred.

I can't say for certain what upset them. The simple assumption, now made fact, that Hork-Bajir would never remain in the constraints the humans had given them. The fact that Wotch himself was another example of the limitless Hork-Bajir potential, that if there were two of us, why not thousands? We scared the humans. I can't blame them for that. But the way they could rationalize so much hatred and anger built from a little bit of anxiety scared me more than we scared them.

It was different this time, too. They were organized. Before, all letters and threats and even acts had seemed to be the work of disgruntled individuals who were mostly written off as insane or disturbed. But now, they had a name. They called themselves Earthers, and though all they had at that point was a poorly designed website and error-riddled press release, it was more than nothing. LONG LIVE THE HUMAN RACE, DEATH TO ALL INVADERS crawled across the top of their site. A purification movement that demanded the expurgation of all alien individuals from Earth. Just what I needed when we had no where else to go.

So I worked closely with the National Guardsmen in the park and with the FBI about any threats we received. It was hard work, because unlike the work with Wotch, there was very little promise of progress. Always the illusion that there was some mastermind to contain, that investigation and effort would lead to peace. It was work none of us wanted to do, but the only thing worse than doing it was refusing to.

Wotch helped with the load, too. My discovery of his defection didn't affect his dedication or leadership at all. I wanted to believe it was some kind of overcompensation, like he was only working so hard to prove something to me, but I started to get the sense that his effort was sincere. He really just loved his people, and was willing to sacrifice stress and time away from his family to ensure their well-being. At least that was something I could relate to.

It was a hard problem to resolve in my head. I didn't understand how someone who cared so deeply about his people could also care so deeply about their greatest enemy. I couldn't imagine the hypocricy necessary to keep those two things simultaneously resolved, or what kinds of lies or delusions were necessary to combine them into one reconciled worldview. However he managed, he knew I couldn't, and he didn't ask me to keep trying. We had a good professional relationship precisely because we didn't pry too much into each other's personal lives.

That was, until Wotch asked me for a favor three months later.

"Can't you do anything?" He begged, grasping my hand like Bug when she wanted to go for a swing with me. And though I hated seeing him so debased and humble, there was no other way to look at it. It was begging. He was not trying in the slightest to contain his dignity. I half expected him to fall to his knees and start wailing and ripping at his chest. "They listen to you, can't you postpone for just another week?"

"If you think the humans do anything I say, then you understand this situation much less than you profess," I said calmly back. I looked at him a long time, truly empathetic. "Believe me, Wotch, if I could do something, I would."

His bottom lip quivered, and he had to lean into a tree to support his grief and worry. "She's terrified," he said. "She's so stressed. I'm afraid if I'm not here…"

I looked away, tried not to grimace.

"If she is truly a Hork-Bajir as you say, then she will manage on her own." I sounded cold, and I only half-regretted it.

Wotch frowned. "I was there for the birth of all of my children."

"And you may be yet," I said. "Telf says she still has some time. You could still make it back."

"Telf," he almost spat. I glared, and Wotch glanced away.

"He knows these things," I said. "He'll take care of her."

"I would really love for you to expand upon exactly how much Telf knows," Wotch said lowly.

I shrugged. "He knows. He's my husband. Or are you the only one who gets the privilege of full disclosure with your spouses?"

"I don't trust him."

"You don't have much of a choice."

"What if I didn't go?"

"Congress takes its subpoenas very seriously. If you ignore one, they can arrest you. And I don't know where they'd put you, but it wouldn't be here."

Wotch looked down. "These are the decisions that truly define what we are," he said, sounding significant. I gave him a sympathetic smile, though the statement sort of annoyed me.

"We will take care of her. You have nothing to worry about. Go impress the humans and make my job easier."

Wotch frowned. "I hate that I'm not the only one that gets hurt because of what I am."

"I know what you mean."

Wotch left the following morning, and only Perd farewelled him from the helipad. To this day, I don't know why he chose her as his public wife. Three months in and he'd managed to keep his polygamy a secret, but it all seemed like such a fragile enterprise since Perd was so bad at filling the role of First Lady of the extra-terrestrial Hork-Bajir.

At least, she didn't behave that way in public. In private, she did seem to be the moral center of Wotch's wives—she could always cheer any of them or the children up if there was a problem, she resolved conflicts more smoothly and seamlessly than even I could on my bad days, and she always seemed genuinely happy any time I saw her.

That actually turned out to be a problem, since I thought that meant she'd keep an eye on Reed, too, but she left Reed's care to Telf. Summer was over, so he had very little else to focus on other than Bug's quick descent into adolescence (while Jara got even more austere and self-sufficient in puberty, Bug's hormones just made her whinier), so he checked up on Reed at least once a day. Every time he came back, however, he was a little surlier, and the length of his visits diminished until it was clear he was turning around almost directly after arriving. Telf was one of the most patient, level-headed, consistent people I knew, especially when it came to the volatile emotions and irrational needs of gestating mothers. Imagining how she treated him to make him act that way only enraged me.

Wotch had been gone three days, and from what I gathered from e-mails and communiqués, impressed the humans in Washington. I had just finished giving an in-depth tour of the new park borders to a number of police officers, journalists, state representatives and senators, and park officials when I swung in our tree to find Bug fashioning a simple doll out of sticks and strips of thick bark, and Telf stewing, rolling two of his warming stones together in his hand. When I touched his shoulder, he flinched back like my hand had been in the fire as long as one of those stones.

"Is she ready?" I asked. "Do you need help bringing things to her tree?"

Telf shrugged.

"Have you seen her today?"

"Reed say, this tree too dry. Telf help her move. This tree too wet. This tree too tall, too sunny, too cold. Telf move Reed one more time and leave."

"When was that?"

"Two suns passed."

I sighed. "I'm going to go check on her."

"Toby—"

"I really appreciate you doing this," I said. "I know how hard it is."

Telf sighed and squeezed my hand. "Telf come too."

We swung together and didn't even need to make it to her tree. The shrill howling and three or four concerned people congregating at the roots told us everything we needed to know. As genuine as her cries sounded, I couldn't help but sneer at them, self-indulgent and overamplified. I sent Telf back to take Bug to my mother's and entered the tree alone.

"Where is that half-wit?" Reed cried and thrashed, thighs sticky with amniotic discharge, drenched in sweat. "That fool has done nothing but interrupt naps and bowel evacuations and now when I need him—"

Another contraction seized control of her and the content of her voice ceded to the texture, an agonized howl more animal than civilized. When it began to subside, she whimpered and moaned in a pathetic way that seemed to shame her, making her turn away from me and bury her face in her elbows.

I knelt beside her and gently took her hand, keeping my own voice steady and soothing. "Listen to me carefully, for I will only say this once," I began in a low whisper. "I don't care how much you hurt. I don't care that he embarrasses you, or that he does things you find undignified. Telf has been delivering infants his entire life, and he's done so without complaint or demand for compensation. You are the first of his patients that has made him turn away."

"That's because he hates me," she whined. "He wants me dead."

I turned away for a moment, finding that difficult to contradict. "Telf cares only about your child. He would bring him no harm, and Telf knows more than anyone how necessary a mother is to the health of a kawatnoj." I gripped her hand a little tighter and leaned down. "If you insult or degrade him once throughout this process, I'm telling him to leave, and I will be right behind him."

"Why did he leave me?" She sobbed quietly.

I gave her an angry smile. "Because you're not the only person he matters to."

I forced myself to hold her hand as she complained while we waited for Telf. He returned twenty minutes later, his arms full of all his tools and containers.

When he entered the tree, he only gave Reed a cursory glance, handing me a bottle full of tepid water. "Make her drink," he said, immediately heading down to start a fire.

I sighed. It was clear he had no plans to give her emotional support, and someone needed to.

Or not.

I unscrewed the cap and handed the bottle to her. She sucked on it deeply, emptying the thing in three gulps, making the thin plastic crinkle and collapse on itself.

"Is there more?"

I shrugged.

"I'd, um…I'd like some more, if that's possible."

"All right."

I wrenched the bottle back and headed down the tree. Telf was slowly striking a flint stone, not even aiming toward the hapharzard pile of dry grass at his feet. He glanced at me as I headed past him, but I made myself stop. I breathed in deeply, wanting to indulge my own contempt, and headed back towards him.

"We need to take this seriously," I said, crouching beside him. "We can't treat her differently. She may not be Hork-Bajir, but her son is, and we can't separate any of their children from the rest of us by treating their parents badly."

"Yeerk never feel have kawatnoj," Telf said, striking the flint again, eyes narrowed in a cold glare. "Let Reed feel."

"Believe me, she will," I said. I leaned closer, so I was speaking directly into his ear. "I hate this too. But there's much more at stake here than a little bit of labor pain."

Telf sighed, sparking the fire once more, and the tinder caught and began to smoke. "If Toby say."

I went to the creek and filled three bottles, damping a couple of cool rags as well. When I got back to the tree, the fire was crackling at the base, a few of the women tending pots of water and steaming rags. I climbed to find Telf nursing Reed through another contraction.

"Just let go of me!" She shrieked. Telf refused, holding her across his torso, massaging the front of her massive belly. After a few more moments, she relaxed, slumping, trying to wriggle away from him.

"Better if Reed stay still, just breathe."

"Get your filthy hands off of me and I will," she snapped back. Telf glanced up at me and I nodded. He gently laid her down and rose to his feet.

I headed towards her slowly, nonthreateningly. "Drink slow," I said, uncapping the water again. Tears glittered in Reed's eyes and her bottom lip quivered.

"I can't do this," she said as I knelt beside her.

"Yes you can."

"No, I can't," she cried. "You don't get it. When I had a host, I injured my back, and it was so awful, and they wouldn't anesthetize me, and…I couldn't deal with the pain. I couldn't cope, so they put me back in the pool. They euthanized my host and took away my freedom. I failed, Toby. I couldn't bear the pain of having a body."

I broke eye contact with her, disgusted with her for daring to elicit sympathy for enslaving and murdering an innocent Hork-Bajir, for violating him as cheap labor. Then I looked down at her with fury.

"You chose to accept surrender, to take this body, to be Wotch's wife and bear his son," I said. "The true challenge of being alive is not dealing with pain. It's accepting the consequences of your choices. Now do it." I handed her the water and climbed a few yards into her tree.

Telf followed me, put a hand on my lower back. "Reed is not very far," he said.

"I know."

After a couple more hours, thankfully, Reed stopped resisting or insulting us. She quietly accepted water, warm stones against her hips, gentle back massages, a compress on her brow. She still shirked from Telf's touch, but he laid her heavily between my legs so I could support her like he'd supported me, consigning himself to most of the external chores. He was down at ground level, retrieving some warm water when Reed stiffened and winced with another contraction.

"Focus on your breath," I said to her. "Breathe slowly. It won't kill you. There's nothing to fear."

"I'm not afraid right now," she whined. "I'm being punished."

"I have no problem with you thinking of it that way."

Reed clenched her teeth and sucked in a breath until the contraction began to pass. "Is it always like this?"

"Always," I responded. "But it will hurt less if you don't hold your breath."

Once Telf had completed all his preparations, he really had no choice but to sit in the tree with us, curled into himself and stewing quietly. Reed spent most of the time between contractions lying flat against me, her head lolling off to the side, staring out beneath her tree. I sat behind her, toes and fingers numb and tingling, still trying to ignore my disgust and comfort her as I would any other new mother.

"When will Wotch be back?" She asked.

"Thursday."

"What time Thursday?"

"His flight is scheduled to leave Washington at 10:00. So, noon here, with the time difference?"

Telf glared at me.

"He'll miss so much," Reed said. "The children on the ship grew so fast, even though they're all stunted."

"Yes, they grow fast."

"Tell me about yours," she said, clenching in preparation for another contraction.

Telf continued to glare, growling a little bit.

"I…I can't really describe it," I said, resenting the need to compromise between the two of them. "You'll see how it is soon enough."

Reed humphed disappointedly.

With nothing else to do, Telf began to attempt examining Reed a little more frequently, but still let her push him away. Before long, though, she started straining and pushing during her contractions until Telf pushed her back.

"Don't push," he said. "Too soon."

"Then when?" She roared. Telf knelt in front of her, grabbed her hip, and reached forward to check how dilated she was.

I'd only been holding her loosely, getting exhausted myself, so I had no chance to restrain her. She leapt forward, wrenched her arms free from mine, and punched Telf, who was mere inches away, right in the snout.

He jerked back and covered his eye with a hand, rolling backward to survey the damage. I grabbed her upper arms hard, pulling them back, bringing her ear in reach of my mouth, meaning to her hurt her.

"What did I say to you?" I growled in her ear. "What was my one provision?"

"I didn't insult him!" Reed gasped. "I didn't say anything! I told him not to touch me!"

I yanked myself out behind her and let her fall against the branch. I went over to Telf, pulled back his hand. He winced when I checked, but I was tender, and his look was apologetic.

"You gave him a black eye," I said over my shoulder. "It's already swelling."

"I…I didn't mean to hurt him."

"No doubt you meant to hurt no one," I growled. "Come on, Telf. We're done here."

"Please, Toby, wait—"

"No, Toby," Telf said, fingering the wound again. "Telf never leave kalashi alone. Never."

His face couldn't shake the look of revulsion, but his voice and posture were resolute. You are the seer, Toby, I said to myself. You don't get to make this choice.

"All right," I said. "All right. But not until she apologizes to you."

"I'm sorry Telf," she gasped in pain. "You can examine me. I'm sorry."

Telf knelt before her and attempted a smile. "Only take short time," he said, leaning over her. She gritted her teeth and shut her eyes, and Telf pulled away, smiling a little more genuinely.

"Reed is ready, Toby."

She coughed out a sob while I slithered behind her again. "Just do what he tells you, all right? And no more punching."

"No more punching," she confirmed.

Telf brought a couple of water bottles, warm rags, cool rags, and dry ones to me, so that I could give her whatever she needed in between her work. Within a couple more minutes, Reed was straining and groaning against Telf's encouragements while I wiped sweat from her brow, poured cool water into her mouth, padded it against her face. After an hour of that, she was weeping freely, begging for death, for an end to her suffering, for anything. Telf insisted that nothing was wrong.

Another hour passed with no more progress. A look of curiosity replaced the look of fury on Telf's face, and he very deliberately asked permission to examine Reed again. She was almost beyond consenting, panting heavily in a completely prostrate position. I rubbed her back gently, searching for seized muscles, but she was as limp as a dead fish.

"Is Reed asleep?" Telf asked.

"Reed is not," she whimpered.

"Reed rest for a short time," Telf said, patting her belly. "Go slow is better than go fast."

"No!" She shouted, thrashing suddenly. "No! I want it out of me! I want this to be over! Toby, pick me up."

"You don't have to prove anything," I whispered to her.

"Pick me up, Toby!"

I sighed and pulled her up against me.

"How soon until the next one, Telf?" She asked, voice steeled.

"Short time," Telf said, checking her.

"Couldn't you be any more—ah!" Her legs thrashed in front of her, she threw her head back, and jutted her hips into Telf's hands.

"Good, Reed. Very hard, just like that. Push more."

Tendons in her neck stretched so hard they stuck through her skin, tears streamed freely from her eyes, her face blanched, her arms convulsed.

"Okay, good. Slow now," Telf said. "Wait for next one."

It took an hour more, and by the end, Reed was hiccupping from the stress of merely drawing breath, her whole upper body was trembling and clammy, and the only thing holding her up was me.

"See head, Reed. See boy kawatnoj," Telf said gleefully. "One more big push, Reed have son."

She dug her claws into my thighs and screamed in the back of her throat. Every skin cell was trembling against mine.

Then she went slack. Her bent legs straightened and her arms fell limp. Telf's eyes got big.

"Is it over?" I asked.

Reed gasped in a lungful of breath, breathing shallow at the tops of her lungs. "Oh, it's over," she sobbed. "It's over. Oh, thank you both so much, it's over. Let me see, Telf. Let me see my son."

I looked up.

Telf had rolled back into a squatting position, holding the child in one of the most inhumane ways I had ever seen. The child's tiny ankles were pinned together and ringed by his massive fist, and he cradled his unsupportive neck by the forearm so that his wristblade curved threateningly over his neck. Reed froze, and I froze behind her.

Thousands of thoughts all careened through my head at once. Thoughts that moved backward, trying to connect the dots of Telf's recent behavior with this massive betrayal. Thoughts that moved forward, picturing the child's tiny neck gurgling blood, watching its twitching, flailing, newborn limbs thrash in death throes. And thoughts of Telf, that for all the years I'd known him, I would have never imagined he was capable of this.

The boy was still connected to his mother, and Reed clutched forward, grasping for her child, but she was too weakened from the ordeal, too far away. And I was just as defenseless, pinned under her helpless weight.

"Telf have many kawatnoj, Reed. Yeerks make Telf have kawatnoj, then take kawatnoj away to fight in war. To die." He pulled the infant apart a little, so that it cried in distress and Reed gasped.

"Yeerks kill many of Telf's kawatnoj," he said in such a low voice that it sounded like a distant rumble of thunder. "Telf still very hurt, still very angry."

"Please," Reed whispered, only a hiss of air, that made me start to squirm out from under her. But I froze. If I tried to stop him…

Telf's wrist blade was against the child's neck, and with the slightest twitch, it would all be over. "Yeerks make revenge to hruthin, when hruthin tell Yeerks what to do. Then, Yeerks tell Hork-Bajir what to do."

"Telf," I hissed. And his gaze darted to me, and he smiled.

"Telf is not Yeerk," he said, kneeling again, carefully handing Reed her child. She accepted him ravenously, leaning down to shield him with her head blades.

"Telf for-give."

"Oh," she moaned, and the tension was dispelled as quickly as it had come up. She wept to her child, who stared up at her in that overpowering way they do, and bent down to kiss him. "Oh, what is this?" She said, sniffling a little. Then she sat up and turned to me. "Is it always like this?"

I gave her a tired smile. "Always."

Telf finished up with Reed as I cleaned up, and I gave her a short, informal lesson about infant care. A couple of her sister wives came by to coo at the child, and Telf and I left them with her shortly after dusk. We walked far apart at first until I stopped him.

"Why did you do that?"

Telf shrugged. "Telf not hate Yeerks anymore, Toby."

I opened my mouth to object, but realized I had nothing constructive to say. "Did you have to make such a show of it?"

He shrugged again. "Hard to get kalashi having kawatnoj to listen."

I crossed my arms. "I didn't like it."

"What Toby not like? How Telf said, or what Telf said?"

I frowned. "Both. Neither. I don't know."

Telf stepped in front of me and wrapped his arms around my waist. "Toby still hates Yeerks," he said.

I couldn't look him in the eye. "So what, are you going to get smug about it?"

Telf smiled. "Toby bad to hate Yeerks because of Telf," he said. "If Toby hates Yeerks, hate for what Yeerks do to Toby."

I looked down. "They killed my father."

"Still make Toby sad?" Telf whispered.

"I'll miss him until the day I die," my voice cracked, and tears welled at the back of my throat.

"But Reed not kill Jara," Telf said, gently caressing my face. "Reed did nothing but be Yeerk."

I looked up at him. "I can't force myself to like them."

"Not have to like Yeerks. Telf not like Yeerks. But Telf not like many people. Hate is too much. Hate worse for Telf than for Yeerks."

I pressed my ear to his heart. "You're right." He held me there for a while until he leaned down and kissed me.

"Telf almost forget one more thing," he said. "Forget how good have kawatnoj is."

I smiled. "It is good, isn't it?"

"Very good."

I didn't realize what he really meant until later that night. We were both utterly exhausted, so we began to doze off well before the sun had completely set, him pressed into my back, breathing deeply, arms wrapped around my waist. Once Bug had introduced her to doll-making, my mother had been unwilling to surrender her, so though it was a perfect opportunity for us to have some time to ourselves, I assumed he was too tired to take advantage of it.

When he ran his claw down my inseam, I thought it was a mosquito and tried to brush it away, but he grabbed my hand tightly, making my hearts flutter and my cheeks flush. Slowly, carefully, pulled it back and pressed it to his hip. Then his hand returned, gently stroking me between the thighs until I let out a whimper.

"Have kawatnoj is good," he whispered directly into my ear, the combination of touch and meaning making me throb in anticipation. I clutched his hip as he began to peel back my knee, leaving the rest of me exposed and waiting.

"Very good," I said for the second time that day.

"Telf think, one more kawatnoj for Telf and Toby," he said. "Think, Yeerks and hruthin kill many Hork-Bajir. Telf and Toby make more. Show Hork-Bajir is good to make more."

His hand moved up towards my womb, and he pressed his hand against it. "More," I moaned.

"Yes, more. Toby still good. Still ripe," he said, giving me another squeeze. "Toby still good to make kawatnoj." He turned his hand down and rubbed me until I greased his fingers.

I grabbed blindly behind me and pulled his face forward until his headblades found mine. I bit my lip as he slid his fingers inside me, let out a soft cry when his claw put pressure on that tiny spot that made it all worthwhile. Telf hee-hawed into my ear and peeled my knee back the rest of the way so that I was lying on my back with my legs spread eagle, disarmed to him. Telf rolled on top of me, smiling.

"Toby want more kawatnoj?" He asked.

I was staring at him with an absent smile, but as I thought about it, it only got bigger. "Don't let me answer for real until tomorrow," I said. "But yes. Yes, yes, I do."

And it was the truth. Bug wasn't really a child anymore, and seeing Reed with her son reawakened that love inside of me. I loved Jara, and I loved Bug, but they would both be grown within a couple of years, making families of their own. I loved what they did to me, I loved that I had a family, and I wanted it bigger. I wanted to give them another sister or brother, I wanted to grow big and fat and not be able to get up on my own, I wanted to be kicked so hard that I urinated, I wanted Telf to sleep with his arms around me and know what was going on inside of me better than I did. I wanted to hold that ugly, wet ball of limbs and tail for the first time and feel that knife slide into my hearts, to be changed forever. I wanted another child.

It wasn't much longer before we were mating. And it was fantastic. I remember it well. It started rough and competitive, rolling around our platform, biting and growling, something between love and wrestling. But we wore ourselves out before finishing, and at the end, I straddled him, dampening the pace, as he ran his hands up and down my thighs and purred beneath me. I drew it out, curling my claws into his chest, arching my back, trying to rub him against that one spot that he had found so effortlessly. I couldn't help but laugh at how much better he knew my body than I did.

He whimpered and snorted beneath me, getting closer, but I ignored him, close enough now to focus on my own pleasure instead of his.

"Tob—" He gasped.

"Wait…"

"Hhng—"

"Just wait…"

I was so close, feeling the waves gather at the shore, clenching and releasing him rhythmically to help it along, when Telf bolted upright and wrapped me tightly in his arms, winning the race by a nose.

At that exact moment, I was disappointed. Hopeful that I might achieve my own climax in the time it took his to cycle through, but mostly just ambivalently satisfied that one of our finest unions had ended.

I leaned down and kissed him as his climax continued. I stroked him as he continued to buck and whimper, and I let my disappointment distract me from the fact that he should have finished moments ago.

His wrist blade sunk into my back, and I wriggled to free myself, but he wouldn't let go.

"Telf, I—"

I pulled away far enough to see the look of horror on his face.

"Telf?"

His teeth were gritted, his whole body convulsed. Foam had begun to leak out of the corners of his beak.

"Telf!"

He flung himself backwards, wrenching his blade hard from my shoulder, and I could barely feel the blood pour from the wound I was so terrified. He landed hard on his back, throwing his arms straight out, jerking by the shoulders, hips, head. Everything was shaking frantically, like he was being electrocuted with me sitting on top of him.

I put my hands on his shoulders to hold him down, but his arms still flailed beneath me, I pushed hard and staked my knees into the platform to keep him from hurting himself, but his convulsions continued, his body seemed stuck in an endless cycle of orgasm.

What if he dies this way?

"No, please, not like this, not now," I begged, already sobbing. "Telf, please stay with me, please don't go."

He continued jerking, flinging bits of spiddle back and forth. I leaned forward and held his face still, forced him to stare at me.

"Stay with me," I begged. "Not yet." And then he retched and vomited, and I turned his head to the side to make sure he didn't aspirate.

The whole episode lasted no more than two minutes but it felt like hours. At the end, only his left shoulder was twitching, but his eyes were glazed and lifeless and vomit leaked out of the corner of his mouth.

I finally dismounted him to check for his pulse and breath. His hearts were hammering frantically, and after a long exhale that I was so sure was a death rattle, he gasped in a huge lungful of air and coughed deeply, rolling onto his side, curling up into a ball and hacking as I patted his back.

"What was that?" I demanded after a few moments, my voice high and shrill. "What just happened?"

"Telf—not—know—" he managed between coughs. He was still trembling, his legs were unsteady, but I managed to pull him to his feet.

"We're going to Brian right now," I said.

"No, Toby, Telf fine," he said, grabbing onto a support beam to steady himself. "Telf—" He squeezed it more tightly as another spasm ran through him, followed by a severe bout of coughing.

"Don't argue with me. I'll help you down."

Telf swooned and staggered the whole way to the humans, and though I held him beneath the shoulder as a crutch, I felt like I was doing most of the walking. We crossed paths with a few of my people, some of whom offered to help, but I was deflective and private, too harsh with them. After a few minutes of walking, the offers of assistance disappeared, and Telf seemed to regain his footing.

"Toby, Telf is fine, please go home and sleep."

"You're not fine, Telf, whatever that was is the exact opposite of fine."

We reached Brian's cabin a little after 10:00.

"You just can't come see me during normal hours, can you?" He asked. "What is it this time?" He cleaned his glasses, put them on, and looked at Telf. "Oh."

He sat Telf down, took his pulse, blood pressure, did some other exams that seemed unique to us, testing the firmness of his blade roots, feeling some glands at the base of his jaw and under his knees. Slowly, he eased the series of events out of us.

"It sounds like he had some kind of neurological episode," Brian said after I described what happened. "What brought it on?"

"I…um…"

"What human say?" Telf asked, tugging at my elbow blade.

"He just wants to know what we were doing, before—"

"Toby and Telf make sex," he said cautiously. "Toby think do something else too?"

I blushed, staring at the ground, glancing up at Brian who looked a little embarrassed on my behalf. "No, that was all," I confirmed.

"I see," Brian said. "Has this sort of thing…happened before?"

I swallowed back my shame and shook my head. "Not to that degree."

"But there have been…precursors, shall we say?"

"He, you know, shakes a little, when he finishes," I said, clearing my throat. "It didn't seem outside the realm of normal reactions."

"I see," Brian said again.

"And when Toby have Bug," Telf chimed in.

"Oh, right," I said. "Yes. We thought it was acute exhaustion. We didn't think anything of it."

"Don't blame yourself," Brian said, touching my arm. "You did the right thing bringing him here. For tonight, I'm going to take a blood sample, but I really think we need to get him an MRI to see what's going on beneath all those head blades."

"Yes. Of course. Anything. I'll spare no expense."

"You won't have to. Public servants get pretty good health coverage. And come on, it's you, do you really think anyone would leave you wanting?"

Three days later, the initial test results inconclusive, Telf and I were on a bus with all the seats removed to the closest human hospital, which was about 70 miles away. He hadn't had another episode, but with all of the travelling and stress he certainly didn't seem healthy. I hated having to leave Bug with my mother again—it felt like I hadn't really seen her in over a week—but this was no errand to drag her to. Brenda had tried to force me to take a cell phone with, but I'd refused. My family's health came before everything.

Getting Telf into the hospital, into the waiting room, into the labrynthine hallways, into the exam room, and finally into the MRI machine without killing any of the nurses, orderlies, doctors, or patients was a delicate undertaking. He understood, of course, that he was fiercesome, that an innocent misstep could leave a comparatively defenseless human injured or even killed, that many of the patients in the hospital were weak and feeble and his mere presence could cause them harm. That didn't mean he was perfectly calm. That didn't mean he was rational and patient and quiet.

But we got everything accomplished.

On the busride home, we were both too exhausted by the chore to stay awake, and I let him rest his head in my lap.

Three days later, there were results.

"You see the scar tissue, all around the base of his skull and upper spinal column," Brian was saying, but with the ringing in my ears and the harsh fluorescent lights, I was finding it difficult to focus. "I spoke with a couple of neurologists on staff at Johns Hopkins, went over the results with them. I also talked to Hayley, and she provided some valuable insight."

"Where is Hayley?" I asked, rubbing my eyes.

"She said she'll be in tomorrow," he said. "She told me to watch some video of a young Hork-Bajir swinging through the hearth, and I did. Come here."

We walked over to his laptop, where he had a Quicktime movie paused in the middle. He got it started again, and it was glitchy and pixelated but I watched carefully. "She noticed that when you swing, you extend your neck and jaw as much as your arms. Maybe to get a better look at upcoming branches, maybe just to make yourselves as aerodynamic as possible. But that, combined with the compression that your skeletons experience when you reach the nadir of any leap, maybe just naturally, maybe due to Earth's gravity, causes constant internal injury. You're pulling and pushing yourselves apart every time you swing."

I stared at the MRI results again, looking for the scars he was talking about. I couldn't see anything but a vague gray blob surrounding a vaguer light gray blob. Maybe I didn't have the expertise to decipher them, or maybe the contrast in color was just too subtle for our poor eyes. I blinked and stretched and finally surrendered.

"So why doesn't this happen to everyone?" I asked.

"I think it has to do with his accelerated regenerative rates," Brian said. "The keloiding. He's basically grown internal keloids, if that makes sense. His body strains, gets hurt, overheals, and over the years, the scar tissue has built up until it impedes communication between the brain and spine. He…short circuited, I guess."

I would have taken offense to comparing Telf to a machine, if I was younger, if I wasn't so tired. I looked back at Telf, who had his hands politely folded in his lap, waiting patiently for us to finish so I could explain it in terms he would understand.

"So what do we do?"

"I'm afraid there's not much we can do," Brian said.

"Can't we try to remove the scar tissue?"

Brian sighed. "If I had any more expertise about this particular ailment, you bet we would. But Telf is an alien. Nothing about his anatomy is comparable to anything on Earth. I can't predict what will happen with anything we do. If using scalpels treated with a certain process will burn his flesh, if Chinese-manufactured antiseptic is poison to you. And this could be the most common thing afflicting elderly Hork-Bajir, but it's the first I've seen of it."

"What do you mean, elderly?"

"I didn't mean to offend you," Brian said. "I gave him a dental exam and checked his blade density and compared it to a few other samples I've taken, a few that had been salvaged from the Yeerk's medical records. Telf's twelve years old."

"Twelve?" I laughed. "That can't…"

I looked back at him, and he was staring into the wall.

"That makes him…old," I said.

"When people get old, things start malfunctioning," Brian said.

I couldn't help it. I broke down crying. I let out one sob before I swallowed it back and held my breath so I could do it without scaring Telf.

"Toby?" Telf asked fearfully, staying seated, knowing me better than I wanted him to. I shook my head at him, trying to swallow back the tears.

"No, my love, it's not about you," I said, breathing deeply and holding my breath. "You're going to be okay." Brian frowned.

I knelt in front of Telf and took his hand. "Can you go see if Bug and Mother are all right?" I asked. "I just have to talk to Brian about how to treat your injury."

"Telf hurt bad?"

"No, no. You're going to be fine," I said, smiling only with my lips. "I'll be home soon."

He hesitated, but Brian gave him a little smile of encouragement and he slowly shuffled out the door. I closed it behind him, my fingers wrapped around his until the last moment.

I leaned on my forearm for support as Brian shuffled papers and x-rays behind me.

"How long does he have?" I asked.

"No longer than ten or fifteen years," Brian responded. I glanced back, infuriated. "I just mean I don't know," he continued after a self-conscious chuckle. "Like I said, Toby. He's my first case study. Other than the neurological degradation, he seems perfectly healthy. Healthier than most twelve-year-olds I've checked up on, anyway."

"I had no idea," I said, shaking my head. "I mean, I knew he was older, but not that much older."

Brian shrugged. "The heart wants what it wants."

I sighed. "Well, is there anything we can do? If I do nothing I know I'll just blame myself if something goes wrong."

"When something goes wrong," Brian corrected. "It's never 'if.' Something always goes wrong eventually."

"I commend your bedside manner, Doctor."

"Never said I was a doctor, Toby. And the answer to your question is yes, but you're not going to like it."

I headed home a little after that, decisive in giving him the bad news as soon as possible.

Bug was dozing off with her little doll, now clothed in untreated squirrel pelt, but gave me a kiss before snuggling against Telf again. He looked pale and nervous when I sat down next to him.

"What Brian say?" He asked.

I'd held it in until then. I knew it would destroy him, but it's not like I wasn't affected by it. My façade crumbled and I started to cry.

"Shh, Toby," Telf said. "Telf never mean make Toby so sad."

"We can't have sex anymore," I blurted in a sharp whisper. "He says we can't do anything that might hurt you."

Telf didn't move at first, then slowly slumped.

"Just for short time," he guessed. "Just for short time, until Telf better?"

I hiccupped. "I don't think so."

"Maybe…maybe if Telf go on top. Or Telf's knees in tree. Or—"

I sidled in on Bug's other side and stroked her shoulder. "We've made two wonderful children," I said. "We should be proud of them. Are you proud?"

"No new kawatnoj," Telf translated.

"No. No new kawatnoj."

Those were a rough few months. It didn't take long for me to realize that a large portion—if not the majority—of our relationship, even after all this time, was physical, and now that our little interactions and flirtations could not lead to eventual release, we were awkward for a long time. Awkward, but still as enslaved by our desires as ever. Winter crept up on us, and having spent last winter celibate, our bodies were begging us to give in, our hearts just as desperate to expand our family. The heart, libido, and mind are always at odds, but holding the former two back with the latter is often an exercise in masochistic self-delusion.

We made it, somehow. I won't lie, it helped that Telf slipped into something of a mild depression in early December and slept through many of his daylight hours. Bug was thoroughly ensconced in school, distracted by her deepening friendship with Radi, but she noticed. Of course she did, I was a fool to hope she wouldn't. He'd smile and tickle her, of course, any time she checked on him, but he couldn't fool her. With her worried, and with him depressed, many of our household tasks fell to me to complete.

I was ready for that situation to become permanent. Telf trapped by self-pity, Bug and I bonding even more as I helped her with doll-making, as she told me about new species and pets she was discovering with Radi, as her stories and descriptions of him became infatuated and vulnerable. I'd feed them both, hum to Bug before bed, try to encourage Telf to continue his story about Bok, though his imagination seemed to have stalled now that all powers of creation were stolen from him. I thought that would be the rest of my life, and though I convinced myself it was better than so many alternatives, I was not satisfied. I was sad.

I didn't have to be for long, however.

Jara visited periodically, as he always did. He was old enough now that Telf and I could tell him the cause of Telf's disappointment, and Jara expressed regret as well that he would not have the young brother that he'd always longed for. His visits over winter did diminish, and I was too distracted by Telf to realize why until that February.

Bug and Radi were huddled beneath a blanket together, trying to piece back together a duckling skeleton they'd found and destroyed in transit with half-frozen sap. Telf was lying prone, arms folded beneath his chin, and I was adjusting a wool blanket over him to make sure he wouldn't freeze. Bug would run up to me and ask if what she was doing looked right, and though I told her a few times that I didn't know, it finally occurred to me that she just wanted my approval and not necessarily 100% accuracy.

I was working with her and Radi on aligning the ribs correctly when Jara swung into the tree, glowing despite the cold. Telf perked up a little bit, and Bug ran over and gave him a hug. To my surprise, though, Stek followed him, and he released Bug to help her climb up.

"It's been so long," I said to her as I leaned in for a kiss. She reciprocated shyly, grabbing for Jara's hand as soon as she pulled away. I glanced at Telf, who'd at least turned over and sat up, but he wasn't being as gracious a host as I'd expected him.

"It's not often you come unannounced at this hour," I said to Jara, who was still smiling drunkenly. "What's the occasion?"

Jara pulled Stek close to him, affectionate, obviously in love. And I predicted the announcement just before he made it.

"Stek is going to have kawatnoj," Jara said, and Bug squealed, and Stek buried her face in her hands in mock embarrassment, and I hugged them both.

"I should have seen this coming," I whispered as I held her around the waist. "I was too worried about myself, I'm so sorry I wasn't there."

"Mother Toby not be sorry," Stek giggled. "Just promise to help Jara, is so scared."

"Scared? This Jara?" I moved over to him and took his hand. Now that he was taller than me, he had to glance down to make eye contact, but his gaze was still filled with the same self-conscious shyness, the same yearning for approval and pride.

"Kawatnoj aren't scary," I told him. "They're the best thing you'll ever do."

His smile faltered for a moment, but he leaned down and kissed me. "Mother Toby soon be Mother-Mother," he said.

"As if I needed to feel any older," I said with a laugh. I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around, seeing Telf standing and smiling for the first time in weeks. I stepped aside and let him embrace Jara, hee-hawing quietly.

"Toby was wrong," he said, turning back to me after a moment. "Always new kawatnoj."

"So have you told Teb and Brik yet?" I asked, inviting everyone to sit down. Bug crawled in my lap, bouncing with extroverted energy.

"Jara want tell Mother Toby first," Stek said. "And Telf."

"Good to tell Telf," Telf said, approaching her with a smile. "Jara and Telf make Stek not even feel make or have kawatnoj."

Jara pulled her closer, an act that seemed a little defensive. "Jara know how do that," he said. Telf seemed about to object, but I shook my head a little, and he shrugged, sitting back down beside me.

"We'll be of any help we can, of course," I said.

Stek shook her head and giggled. "No, Mother Toby very busy, and make kawatnoj not hard."

"There are harder things," I said diplomatically, "but trust me, you'll want all the help you can get. And this is my first grandchild, you couldn't keep me away with fire."

"Bug can help, too," Bug said, turning and clawing at my chest for attention. I brushed her hands away, but she kept clawing at me. "Bug very good with pets, Bug can—"

"I know, sweetie," I said. "Have you two thought of any names yet?"

That question seemed to stump both of them. "Name?" Stek giggled. "Not even know if kawatnoj is boy or girl yet."

Jara seemed a little bit taken aback, glancing at Bug for a moment. "Jara not even remember that," he said.

"Well, it's all right. You've got plenty of time. Your father and I didn't even talk about either of yours until—"

"Bug would name kawatnoj Bird," Bug said. "Bug likes birds."

"Well that would certainly make it a trend," I said to her. "Do you both need any help getting your tree together?"

We talked for a little under an hour, discussing preparations interspersed with Telf and I telling embarrassing stories about Jara and Bug when they were little. Jara was getting a little flushed and self-conscious when I started telling Stek what it was like to get him to eat birch bark for the first time, but she was loving and forgiving of his brattiness.

"Bug eat birch bark good first time!" Bug yipped. "Bug love birch bark!"

"Oh, trust me, sweetie, it was as much a struggle with you," I said, giving her a quick tickle. She giggled and crawled out of my lap towards Radi, who was still fiddling with the duckling skeleton.

I looked back up to see Jara glaring at her coolly, but when he noticed me looking he glanced away. I was curious about it for a second until I heard a soft snap beside me.

"Oh, Bug broke it!" Radi mourned. "That go there, that go there." He huffed as he started to piece the delicate thing back together, and Bug looked distressed.

"It okay, look," Bug assured him. Stek stretched out and lay back against Jara, who looked like he didn't want to get any more comfortable. The children fiddled with the skeleton while I stretched and yawned.

"It's getting late. You two should probably get going if you want to see Teb and Brik tonight."

"Yes, get very late," Jara said as he shifted Stek aside to get up. "We should go—"

"No, Jara stay, Stek so tired," she said, looking behind her. "Sleep here, then see Ma and Da tomorrow."

"Stek sure?" Jara asked after looking to Telf for approval.

"Stek very sure."

"Let me go get a couple of extra blankets," I said. I climbed down the tree to the midpoint of the three trunks, where we kept some extra supplies, and heard Bug chirping and Jara impatiently indulging her. When I went back up to the platform, Bug was poking him while Stek smiled tiredly and tried to brush her away.

"I be good to new kawatnoj, Jara let I play with kawatnoj!"

"Yes, Bug, but be quiet, because—"

"If Jara is Dad, what that make I?"

"Make Bug quiet would be best."

Stek and Radi laughed a little, but Bug was furious. "Jara so mean, I be best friend to kawatnoj. I be good…good…"

"Aunt, sweetie. You'll be its aunt," I said.

"Yes, I be good aunt," Bug said with a proud smile.

"Very good aunt," Stek said, nodding off against Jara.

"Yes, Bug be good aunt, now be quiet?" Jara huffed.

"Bug be best aunt, get good bark for kawatnoj, play with kawatnoj, make dolls for kawatnoj—"

"Yes, Bug, now quiet, Stek want to sleep," Jara said.

"Bug be better to kawatnoj than everyone! Even Jara!" She screamed, throwing her arms out. Stek jerked back suddenly, putting her hand over her chest, and blood dribbled through her fingers.

"Oh, I sorry, Stek, I not mean—"

Jara slid out from behind Stek and grabbed both of Bug's hands so quickly that no one could have stopped him, though Stek did try to reach out. "Bug so stupid," he seethed, his teeth bared, his eyes wide. "Bug so stupid and ugly, only want Jara's kawatnoj because Bug never have her own."

Bug was shaking her head, wrenching her arms back, but Jara wouldn't let her go. I had no choice. I had to intervene.

"Stop it," I told him, prying his grip free, shuffling Bug behind me. Bug tumbled back, eyes glistening with tears, and nothing more than a quick glance was needed to see that Jara had struck a deep nerve.

Everyone was silent for a moment, watching him, and he glanced around nervously, but his rage was not yet satisfied. "Radi knows," he cried for support, saturated with long-festering emotion, and Radi perked up and shirked, not wanting to be put in the middle more than anyone would want to be. "Do Radi think Bug is pretty?"

Bug's saucer eyes turned bigger, turning to the friend she loved, and Radi shrugged. "Bug not pretty, but Radi not—"

Bug started sobbing and dove out of the tree, rapelling her way down. Telf looked to me for instruction, for my lightning intellect to have an answer, and I glanced back at Jara, who looked shocked and remorseful, and then to Radi, who was already climbing down after her.

"Stop him," I told Telf, and Telf grabbed him by the nape of the neck, which Radi protested kind of pathetically. I helped Telf pull him back up and calmed him.

"Radi not mean—"

"I know, it's all right," I said. "We're not mad. And as much as I know you want to apologize, you need to let her be upset for a while, all right?"

"Make Bug so sad," he said, covering his mouth with his hands.

"Yes, you did," I said, "and you'll have the chance to make up for it. But not today. Tomorrow, when she's feeling a little better. Stek, would you mind taking Radi home? He only lives a dozen or so trees away, and you can come back here and rest if you'd like, or go home yourself."

Stek had been staring at Jara in some mix of sympathy and disbelief, but nodded and took Radi by the hand, heading out of the tree.

"Telf, why don't you find Bug?" I said. "Find her some maple if you can, see if you can't calm her down."

"No, let Jara go, Jara will—"

"No," I said, putting my hand on his chest, caressing his face. "No, you and I need to talk."

Jara sat back down heavily, looking like a child about to be disciplined. I waited until everyone was out of ear shot and sat down next to him.

"That's not like you," I said quietly.

"Jara not mean it," he said.

"I know you didn't. That had nothing to do with Bug."

Jara turned away.

"You've been angry at me for a very long time," I said, "and it's not fair to take that out on her."

"Jara not mad," he said feebly.

"Yes you are. And you might not be able to put to words what you're mad about, but you're mad."

He shivered a little when I took his hand.

"You're not a boy anymore," I said. "But you still tremble when I hold you. You still avert your gaze like some spectator in one of my overtheatric speeches. Why is that? Why can't you just let yourself be angry at me?"

"Jara not mad," he reiterated.

I sighed, squeezing his hand. "I never thought about it from your perspective when we started. All I ever worried about was how I could relate to you, not how you would relate to me. Only how I could love you, not how I could show you it was all right to love me back."

Jara looked at me for a moment, frowning.

"You have every right to be mad at me," I continued. "You should be. I was never there for you the way other kalashi are. I never gave you that permission to be sad or hurt or vulnerable. I was Mother Toby, and as my blood you held yourself to my standards. You were an apprentice, a disciple more than my son. I wasn't really a mother until I had Bug, and you hate me for that, don't you?"

Jara was looking down, but his jaw was clenched.

I breathed in deeply. "I can't redo it, Jara. I wish I could. I want you to know that I always meant it, I always would have done anything you asked me to. I'm sorry I never let you believe. I am sorry for so many things. And maybe, one day, you will forgive me. But for now, hate me. Insult me. None of the animosity you feel is your sister's fault, and I won't let her be punished for my mistakes."

Jara nodded slightly.

"Tomorrow, you will apologize to her, and she will forgive you, because that's who she is. And I think her desire to bond with her neice or nephew is sincere enough to keep her grudge short. And, someday in the future, we will talk again, when you're ready. All right?"

"Yes, Mother To—" He stopped himself and sighed.

"Someday," I said, smiling to him, giving him a kiss. "Go home to Stek, and be sure to tell your grandmother your news sometime within the next couple of days or she'll take it out on me."

I was alone for almost a half hour, and the longer I sat alone in our tree, overthinking and overcontemplating, the sicker I felt. This was the result of what had been building for years, the collection on the debt of all my mistakes. I thought it would end with Jara throwing some tantrum at me; that's what I'd been preparing for subconsciously all this time. He might even hit or hurt me, and I'd let him, because I deserved the punishment. I never thought he'd hurt something that wasn't entirely mine to soothe.

And how would I? What could I say that would unbreak Bug's heart?

Telf brought her back, and it was so clear that something in her was broken forever. Lots of things break growing up, only for stronger things to grow over the old, but it pained me to see she was a different girl than the one who'd woken up that morning.

"Bug not hungry," Telf said, "but find this for later." He showed me a few strips of maple bark, and I smiled at him.

"Good," I said. Bug was still standing, holding his hand, slouching and sapped. I stepped in front of her, dropped to my knees, and wrapped her in my arms.

She tried to pull away at first, gently, then more violently, but I didn't let her go. She whined then, and screeched, and yelled at me and called me names, and sobbed, flailing and pulling and thrashing, but I let her hurt me. And finally I felt her collapse, I felt her arms reach up and encircle me, and I pulled her face into my chest.

Telf knelt beside me and stroked her back as she continued to sob. I knew she'd wear herself out soon, so I rocked her uncomfortably and held her as tight as I could.

"As long as we are alive, you will be loved," I assured her. Telf leaned down and kissed her, and we sat like that until she was asleep.

Radi came by the next morning with a bouquet of decayed wildflowers and a field mouse he'd nearly crushed to death, but she pretended to be asleep and I gently sent him away. A messenger came by from the humans around mid-morning, but I decided to stay with her for a while. By noon she told me she would be all right, and that I should go to work, but I made sure she ate some of her bark before I did.

"Are you going to be okay with her?" I asked Telf as he saw me off at the base of the tree.

"Toby not worry. Telf always good with girls in hurt."

I smiled a little. "This may be worse than labor pain."

Telf kissed me. "Bug be all right. Come from very strong kalashu and kalashi."

I leaned into the kiss a little too eagerly, and Telf jerked back. "Toby is not hurt," he said.

"No, you're right. I'm sorry. Send back one of the messengers if you need me. I don't think today will be very busy anyway." I turned to head off, but Telf grabbed my hand.

"Telf love Toby."

"I love you, too."

I spent all day worrying, and though there wasn't much business within the park, it turned out to be a rather stressful day nonetheless.

"Did you have a good night, Governor?" Wotch said to me as I stepped into the cabin. I resisted the urge to glare at him. Every time he said my title now, I always detected a slight sneer, especially since Reed had delivered her son. Of course, she had told him what Telf had done immediately after delivery, and of course, Wotch had blamed me. We were not exactly on good terms.

"I've had better," I said. "Yourself?"

"Bilm insists that she's pregnant, but I don't believe she's totally on Earth's rhythms yet," he said candidly. "Perd, Kayah, and Valk have already confirmed that they are, and that will be more than enough to deal with. They all want babies now that we're here."

I glanced around the cabin, shocked by his frankness, sure that I'd seen someone when I walked in, but sure enough, it was empty. I closed my eyes, acknowledging that I knew the cabin was empty, and that I simply didn't want to look at Wotch out of anger and jealousy. He had fourteen wives, all fertile, he was overwhelmed by his growing family, while even wanting just one more child was an impossible endeavor for me. I shook it off and opened the folder of articles and press releases that Marie laid out for me when she left each evening.

"Something the matter?" Wotch persisted.

"That will be a handful," I said. "I hope, for your sake, she's not, but if you need any assistance—"

"I will be quite capable of caring for my family on my own," Wotch snapped.

I gave him a simper. "Not a great start to the morning. And I don't see silence-filling small talk on the docket for today, unless you wanted an addendum?"

Wotch smiled coldly back. "Not at all, Governor."

We worked in grudging, awkward silence as the cabin slowly filled with my staff. Marie came in looking pale and nervous, and so, desperate for a distraction from Wotch's cold fury, I asked what was wrong.

"Have you looked at the Earthers' site yet today?"

I gulped. "What did they do?"

We all gathered around her laptop while the page loaded. I glanced at Wotch, who had lost his look of fury and now only seemed curious and sick. Marie clicked a video link that depicted a man in a black hood, speaking with some kind of electronic distortion disguising his voice.

"We have been silent long enough. We have been merciful long enough. We have been generous for long enough. The time to reclaim our planet has come. The time to purge the disease that has settled and multiplied has come. They have exploited our generosity, exploited our natural resources, exploited us, and the time to take back what is rightfully ours has come.

"This is your warning, Governor Toby Hamee of the Hork-Bajir, and her toothless lackey from outer space. Get off our planet. We don't want to hurt you, but we will defend what is rightfully ours with immediate and violent force, if necessary. Get off our planet and leave in peace. If you don't, you'll see first-hand just what kind of resilience and power humanity is capable of. You have two weeks."

The video ended, and I just continued staring at the screen. I should feel sick, petrified, stiff with fear, but the directness of it all only made me tired.

"Toothless lackey?" Wotch said with a nervous laugh. "Was he talking about me?"

"Dan, Marcia," I said softly. "You know what to do. Marie, help Kyle call his list of media contacts. Brenda, I'll need you to contact the National Guard. We may need assistance from other military branches, just for the next month or so. Let's be as above-board and compliant as we can."

"Why?" Marie asked. I shot her a glare.

"What do you mean, 'why?'" I asked.

"Compliance is exactly what they want," she said. "They want you to go through all the standard bureaucratic channels because they know how those channels operate. They'll exploit that. They'll exploit every loophole that our laws have generously afforded them. They might even be able to come here and commit acts of violence legally."

"What other choice do we have, Marie?" I sighed.

"Fight back!"

My staff erupted in discussion, argument, some of it cold and logical, much of it loud and self-righteous. I rubbed my temples, already done with today.

Marie stepped forward and grabbed my arm, all of the other discussion irrelevant to her. "Listen to me, Toby. I've thought about this all night. We've been wrong. So wrong. Why do we depend on American protection when you guys are more than capable of protecting yourselves? Why do we ensnare ourselves in bureaucracy and government when your people were trained as soldiers before the war ended? If you had the right to defend yourselves, would you be afraid of this fringe movement at all?"

"Yes," I said. "We don't have guns."

"You will still win, though. You've got a loyal, unified whole, fighting against a few crazies who have to work through human measures that directly disempower them. You'd win and you know you would."

"Not without casualties," I said. "We've lived through one war that nearly destroyed us. I'm not so eager to jump into another."

"Bending to the whim of anyone who could directly oppose you in order to avoid war is not peace," Marie said. "You deserve autonomy, Toby. Take it now or you might always be stuck in this zoo."

I sighed and gently pulled my arm back. "Help Kyle with his contact list, Marie."

It was a long day, and though I didn't want to, I had to agree to a couple of interviews just so our viewpoint on the threat was clear. I finished up with those well after dark, and spent some time alone with Wotch so we could go over how we were going to communicate this threat to our people.

"I find it best to convince them not to change their day-to-day routines too much," I said. "It's worth worrying about, but not worth fixating on."

Wotch nodded, looking away. I touched his arm. "Are you all right?"

"They addressed us directly," he said. "What if they follow through? What will happen to my family if they kill me?"

I shook my head. "We're figureheads to them. We're just symbols; of course that's what they'd target. Realistically, they probably wouldn't be able to pick us out of a line-up."

"It just caught me off-guard," he said. "I came here to protect my family, not put them directly in danger's sites."

"It is tempting to view any kind of progress as the finish line," I said. "But there is still so much left to do."

"What?" Wotch asked. "What do we need to do, Toby?"

"Protect ourselves," I said. "Using the only resources we have."

"And what is that? The humans?"

I sighed, feeling just as unsatisfied with that answer as he was. "They want to help us, and they've done good for us. You can't all lump them into one category and write them off as universally good or harmful. Humans are as diverse and uncategorifiable as—"

"As Hork-Bajir?" Wotch asked. "Is that what you were going to say? You expect me to believe humans are anything like us? No, we are simple, predictable. Homogenous. Humans are complex and hypocritical and deceitful. They want us dead, they yearn for our prosperity. They appreciate us as allies, they decry us as enemies. Yes, they have done good for us, but only at the expense of their patience and concern for us. The good they do is a debt, not a gift." He sighed. "I'm sorry, Toby. I've known all along that this is the best situation we can be in, but it's so frustrating. Trusting them is the right choice, but so is not trusting them. There is no right answer."

I stared at him for a while, moved by his words. I thought my frustrations with them had been some implicit flaw in myself, the result of my own impatience or combativeness. Yet Wotch, peaceful and conciliatory, different in all the ways I wanted to be, had reached a similar conclusion.

"I'm sorry," he said. "You're right. Your staff has our best interests at heart, and we should trust them. Anything else is folly. I'm just exhausted." He touched my arm and headed past me, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

It was horrible timing to say the least. There were already too many people I wanted to devote all of my time to without having to deal with another vague threat of violence. I'd thought I could facilitate between Bug and Radi, rebuild their trust and companionship, because I believed he could love her and I wanted to grant her heart's desire. The moment Jara had announced Stek's pregnancy, I'd vowed to see her every day, both for her comfort and security and for the purely selfish desire to watch my grandchild grow inside her.

But as I walked home, I knew none of that would be allowed to happen.

I was lucky for Telf, once again, that he could serve those functions when I couldn't. Reaction to the video was swift and demanding. The following day, we coordinated with the Pentagon to begin an investigation on identifying the makers of the video. After hours of phone calls and e-mails spent trying to classify the video as a terrorist threat, we spent hours more on the phone, getting bumped up and down the chain of command of the Army, Navy, and Air Force to install battalions in and around the park.

I thought we'd be done once they arrived, but there were all sorts of security measures they wanted to implement once they set up camp. Infra-red scanning equipment was installed around the perimeter of the hearth, hidden cameras inside many of the nooks and crannies in the trees. A few random areas were booby-trapped with trick wires and nets, but relaying proper procedures in avoiding them to my people just made them abandon those areas, thus rendering the need to defend them pointless.

It wasn't until they were almost done that I realized I'd finally done what I vowed never to do again. Our home, deliberately civilian and domestic, had been militarized beyond recognition. Even the tops of the trees were not exempt. Lookouts set up crow's nests in periodic unoccupied trees throughout the hearth and beyond, and many of them brought small personal radios or walkie-talkies that disturbed the silent serenity of the canopy. The only thing I wanted to do after all the precautions were taken was to undo them entirely.

Over a dozen armed officers were on active patrol now, including three Navy SEALs. There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't hear gunshots, and though it was always just target practice, every one inspired an image of Hork-Bajir heads bursting and liquefied, and most of those heads belonged to my family.

I barely slept for those two weeks, and the night before the deadline, I sat with Wotch in his grounded ship, which he'd kept as a sort of personal sanctuary.

"Well, whatever happens tomorrow, I would like to say that it has been an honor serving with you." He gave me a handful of dried dandelions and ground the rest in his water.

"No need to pretend you like me," I said.

"I may not like you, but I'm being serious," he said. "We have our personal differences, but I do respect you, and it has been an honor."

I smiled a little. "Likewise."

Wotch and I drank our dandelion tea in silence, and I left before long, stopping by Jara's to touch Stek's belly before heading home myself.

Telf knew about the threat, but not quite what it meant or why I was so nervous. He assured me that as long as his arms were around me, I wouldn't be hurt, that nothing bad would happen.

And nothing did.

We were wary for a few days after. Uniformed officers stalked around the park, guns drawn at all times. My people stayed quiet, still, taking refuge at the tops of the trees with their families. Wotch and I did as well, after being advised by the National Guard CO that since we'd been directly threatened, he wouldn't be doing his job if he allowed us out of the hearth. It felt like imprisonment, but I didn't want to contradict someone whose presence I'd expressly requested.

It was a blessing in disguise, since I got to spend time with Bug and Radi, who were slowly beginning to trust one another again. She was quiet around him, and he seemed to understand that their friendship was on precarious ground, so he stayed quiet, too. Telf spent a lot of time with Jara and Stek, and I stopped by a few times as well. She wasn't feeling well at all, which gave us all something else to focus on. I brought her dandelion tea brewed in the springs, which helped her sleep, but she was still almost constantly nauseated. Jara was worried and more upset than I'd ever seen him. I was sad to see him that way, but glad that he did not fake calmness just because of my presence.

It was another week before the National Guard said it was all right for Wotch and I to leave the hearth. Some of the media stayed abuzz for a while—MSNBC had created a new programming segment called "Battlefield Earth: Countdown to Terror," sensationalizing the story to the point that I think they were disappointed when nothing happened. They kept a corner of the screen strictly devoted to updates, but after a few more weeks, it also went away.

Wotch and I kept our staff on alert, but we couldn't devote all of our time to worrying. Months past, winter bled into spring, and with Bug still growing, Radi still trying to reclaim her broken trust, Telf overseeing his team of doulas and midwives as bellies started popping out all over the park, and Jara devoting himself to his single, beloved patient, I started to let go of my worry and fear. Stek was showing, fawned over by both her parents, whom I forced myself to spend time with since we'd soon be family by blood, and the rest of the community, who considered Mother Toby becoming Mother-Mother Toby sort of symbolic and auspicious, and could barely respond to all the love and approval she received. Telf and Jara butted heads a few times about how best to treat her, since they both had vested self-interest, but mediating those conflicts only gave me good excuses to spend time with all of them.

The number of armed officers in the hearth and surrounding dwindled but did not disappear. They seemed to be a permanent presence, and the more they interfered with our lives, the angrier I got. There were occasional surprise raids, regular sweeps, constant target practice. I woke at night often from nightmares in which Stek screamed from labor pains and they executed her as a wrongly perceived threat. All this time, and all this work, and Hork-Bajir as a people had not yet achieved peace.

Summer soon was upon us, as was the busy period in Telf's work year. He took on a few young women as nurses to assist with the 60 births, which, after a couple of baby boom years, were achieving some regularity. Wotch and I went to our quarterly E-TAD committee meeting, where we gave a dual presentation on projected Hork-Bajir population growth for the next ten years. Telf and I were both too busy to mourn the loss of our sterile period, but I actually found that with so much else to focus on, I was easily filling the void in my life that sex used to fill. It wasn't the same, and it wasn't always as good, but it was enough.

I was with Korg when it happened. That mere fact may be the only thing that saved my life.

He was nervous about his kalashi, who was due to deliver her first child in about a week. She hadn't seen Telf in over a month, since he'd deemed her healthy enough to make do with the expertise of one of his apprentices, but Korg knew he was the best and thought his relationship with me might help.

"You should know better than to try to appeal to me to get through to him," I said. "When it comes to child birth, he outranks even me."

"Just short visit," Korg was saying. "Just make Lyree feel safe. Lyree so scared."

"Wasn't she the host of a fleet scout before Wotch found her?" I asked. "How can she be scared of having a child when she literally used to fly straight into Shredder fire?"

"Toby know better than Korg," he said, giving me a stern look. I sighed.

"You're right," I said. "I'll talk to Telf. We had dinner planned tonight, but he can probably stop by for a few minutes beforehand."

Korg laughed gleefully and grabbed my hand. "Mother Toby so good! Korg thank so much!"

"Yeah, well, just tell her that I…"

Something red caught the corner of my eye. I turned slowly. A human wearing a red sweatshirt, hood pulled up so a shadow masked his face, and baggy, wet, dirty jeans was slowly approaching.

"Are you lost?" I asked him. "You're dangerously close to breaching the borders of the hearth, and I wouldn't want you to have to pay that fine. Korg, why don't you—"

A sound so loud it seemed to split the air erupted. A sharp, hard impact against my shoulder, strong enough to throw me to my back. It felt like I had been jabbed with a broom handle.

I lay back for a moment, dazed. I heard a howl, pained and desperate, I thought someone was being killed. I was only confused then. Why did it sound so angry, so betrayed? Why were memories of war rushing back to me?

"Mother Toby!" I heard. I looked up, but a burst of pain from my shoulder stopped me. I ignored it, rolling to a sitting position. Korg had the human's sweatshirt in his grasp as he thrashed back and forth with all of his might, and the sight unsettled me, but a human against Korg was like a Pomeranian against a Wolfhound. Korg's other arm was stretched behind him, holding something away from the human.

It was a gun.

"Mother Toby okay?" Korg asked. The human roared again, starting to sob, kicking his legs forward and trying to shimmy out of his sweatshirt.

"I'm fine," I said, trying to rise, but I couldn't put weight on my right arm, so I awkwardly rolled to my feet. I jogged over to Korg. "Have you got him secure?"

"Mother Toby!" Korg said, staring at my shoulder. I followed his gaze and touched it. Blood slicked my fingers.

"Oh," I said, only now looking closer, seeing the trail of blood weep down my chest, focusing on the pain, which suddenly felt deeper than just surface level. I fingered the round wound for a second, verifying that I had been shot.

"Not so strong!" The human shouted, throwing his head back, which made the hood fall. His eyes were electric blue, maniacal, mouth agape so his back molars were visible. "Just blood and meat!"

"What Korg do?" Korg demanded as the human threw himself around, laughing and howling and crying. "Mother Toby!"

"Give me the gun," I said, and Korg handed it to me. It was a 9 millimeter semi-automatic handgun, something that guards at the Pentagon wore on their hips. When I'd been a commander myself, I'd taught my people to regard these as the lowest firearm threat. I cradled it gently for a moment, then tightened my grip and turned to the human.

"Do you know what you've done?" I growled to him. He only smiled again, giving a sick hee-haw, and I was so sure he was mocking Telf that I backhanded him in the head with his own gun which made him crumple comically on top of himself.

"Hold him here," I told Korg. "I'll get reinforcements."

"Mother Toby," Korg said once more, looking worried. "Mother Toby hurt."

"It's nothing. I'm all right."

"Not all right!" Korg shouted. "All wrong!"

The howling had alerted a number of people, which had brought the attention of Ferk and a couple other members of my squad, so they were not difficult to mobilize. Within a half an hour, I'd meted out a guard schedule with them. None of them seemed happy about the work, but none of them resisted it, either.

Telf found me shortly after that.

"Really, I'm okay," I said as he cried into his fists, staring at the wound.

"Toby could be dead!" He wept.

"But I'm not," I said. "It will be fine. Look, I can still move my arm and everything." I was a little too eager to prove my health and winced when I tried to rotate my shoulders. Telf coughed out another sob but grabbed my other arm.

"Toby come to Brian right now," he said.

"But I have to make sure that—"

"Toby not argue! Right now!"

Brian sterilized the wound and stopped the bleeding, covering the entry site with a large sheet of gauze and medical tape, constructing a sling for my arm. After a short examination, he decided it was best to leave the bullet in.

"You're lucky it missed the ball-and-socket," he said. "Hell, two inches the wrong way and he would have missed you entirely."

"Thank you for that optimistic outlook."

"Come on, this same wound could have handicapped a human, but for you it's a bug bite. This kid was one unprepared assassin."

"Assassin?" I asked.

"What, you think he wasn't aiming to kill you?"

"I don't know what he was aiming to do."

"Aiming his gun, and badly, at the very least."

I glanced at Telf, who looked pale. We left shortly after.

"Brian says I need to keep the wound clean. Would you mind helping me with that?"

Telf stared at the ground as we walked.

"Are you all right?"

"Telf hate this," he said. "Hate that Toby so important. Hate that humans hate Hork-Bajir, but only know Mother Toby."

I reached across my body and squeezed his hand. "I hate that what I do worries you so much," I said. "But I have to go guard him for the night shift."

"No," Telf said simply.

"Telf, you can't—"

"No," he repeated. "If Toby say no more sex to keep Telf safe, Telf say no more work to keep Toby safe."

"I'm sorry," I said lowly. "I can't do that." Telf's jaw clenched and he kept staring at the ground.

Ferk had the idea of constructing a narrow holding platform at the top of a very tall, very unstable tree. On the ground, the human might be able to escape, but any attempt to climb down that spruce, with all branches within ten feet cleared away, would probably result in death, and I partly hoped that the slow rocking back and forth would discourage any recklessness on his part. We didn't really even have to watch him, but I decided to keep him under surveillance at all times.

The platform was completed within a half an hour, and the human was carried up immediately following. Fifteen minutes after that, the others started arriving.

"Mother Toby," one of the messengers dropped in front of me as I was going over some rules and procedure with Ferk and Korg. "Humans want see you. Say, very important."

I nodded. I was nervous, for some reason. I felt like I'd done something wrong. I walked to the borders of the hearth and met with about fifteen people, four of them uniformed, the rest my staff and a couple reporters.

"Oh my God," Melody gasped. "We thought they were only rumors."

"I'm all right," I assured them all. "I'm fine."

"Where is the bastard who did this?"

"We've got him secured and disarmed." I handed Dan the gun. "See if you can't track the registration. Don't worry, he's not going to hurt anyone else."

"I can't believe they actually went through with it," Melody said, holding her hands to her lips in a steeple. "I can't believe they actually followed through."

"We'll take him off your hands, Toby. Just lead the way."

One of the Army Patrolmen crossed the invisible line that separated our domain from the humans'. I took it as an insult.

"He's up a very tall tree, I don't think—"

"Got it." The Patrolmen clicked on his radio. "We're going to need close air support in here. Do you have the coordinates of the tree? That would make retrieving the suspect a little easier."

"Suspect?" I said. "Retrieving?"

"The Governor is a little dazed. Recommend additional medical or psychological treatment before we collect her statement."

"Stop," I said loudly, holding out my good arm. "Everyone just stop."

"What's wrong, Toby? We want to get the ball rolling on this."

"I haven't even spoken with him yet," I said.

"You don't need to put yourself through that. We'll take care of questioning the suspect."

"I want to talk to him," I said. "I don't need protection from him. We've subdued and incapacitated him ourselves. Why do you think we need your help now?"

The humans seemed to shirk back for a moment. "We didn't mean—" Melody started.

"I don't want all of you to wait here," I said. "Go back to the cabin."

"But, Toby—"

"Fine, stay here, if you insist. But don't you dare cross that line." I jabbed my finger at the invisible barrier between the hearth and outside of it, turned around, and headed back up the spruce.

It was difficult to climb with one arm entirely crippled, but I managed to find a rhythm once I acknowledged my rage and let it start to flow. All of my work, all of the long hours I'd stolen from my family to build relationships, play politics, try to frame our presence on Earth in a positive life, and none of it mattered. All it took to fail was one deranged human to slip through the cracks. All it took was one bullet buried in my shoulder to make none of it worthwhile. I'd wasted more than half my life fighting an unwinnable battle.

The human was huddled against the trunk, his knees pulled into his chest, head bent forward, when I pulled myself up. He glanced up for a moment but turned down once he saw me.

I straddled the branch carefully and watched him for a while. He picked at the dried mud on the cuffs of his jeans, tried to find a comfortable spot on the narrow limb, which was covered in sharp little knots where Ferk had cut away branches and twigs. With it getting so cold at night, and with the weather becoming more tempermental as we drew into summer, it would be an uncomfortable prison cell.

"What's your name?" I finally asked. He looked up in response, another wide, crazed smile etched on his face.

"My name is justice," he said. "When you don't come to me, a lady sits on a chair with scales. She has sunglasses."

I sighed. I reached forward into his jeans pocket and pulled out his wallet. When I began pulling it away, he pulled his leg back and kicked me hard in the bullet wound.

I could have screamed from the pain. Bursts of yellow and pink stars impaired my vision. I felt my flesh go cold and then squeeze sweat from my pores.

But I kept quiet. I swallowed back the sensation. My body had already begun mending itself, tying new flesh over the oozing sore. A human may have been rendered unconscious from the pain of aggravating so fresh a critical wound, but I was much farther along my convalescence than he predicted.

I gave a single grunt of dissatisfaction. His eyes were wide when I pulled back, his wallet in my hand.

"Does justice know the force it has chosen to oppose?" I asked with as steady a voice as I could muster. I scooted back a few more inches and opened the wallet.

I thumbed through the contents slowly. A frequent eater card with four holes punched from Subway. A gift card with a new total of $5.32 from Best Buy. A library card from Scottsdale Public Library. An Arizona non-drivers ID card. A Student ID from Scottsdale Community College. A dollar bill and a folded $20. I looked more closely. Both the presidents' portraits were completely blacked out.

"Your name is Patrick Rodgers," I said. "Why couldn't you just tell me that?"

"It is not literate…" he said in a low, sinister voice, followed by a high giggle.

"It seems sort of strange to bring these indisputable ID cards with you," I said. "When you seem to want to remain anonymous."

"Cringe for all-mighty force that ensnares you," he seethed. "The trigger finger fails to learn, but the hand that follows is fallen farther."

"Yeah, yeah," I said, thumbing through the rest of the wallet. "What else did you bring with you?" I leaned forward to pat him down some more.

"Touch me and I'll kick you," he growled.

"Kick me and I'll push you," I responded. He sneered as I lifted his sweatshirt, patted him around the waist, ankles. His t-shirt was black except for a small silk screen on the right breast which depicted a small Earth encircled by a white shield.

"So you're an Earther," I said. "Or at least, you bought one of their T-shirts."

He looked away.

"Did they send you here?"

"Earther mourns the free tire in range," he said. "More than enough ground to be tread, yet too much ground to be shared."

I leaned back a little bit. "Do you know who I am, Patrick?"

"Mother of whores and thieves," he said. "Mother of death, the end of Earth."

"Hmm."

I sat with him for a while, fiddling with his wallet again and again so I didn't have to look at him. I listened to him babble for almost a half hour. He became emotional at a couple points, shouting for a few moments at one, breaking down into tears at another, but once he continued, it seemed he had entirely forgotten whatever upset him.

"Colonel Rickertt hands the death to the trigger finger, makes gone the whores and thieves," he said at one point. My ears perked up.

"Colonel Rickertt?" I asked. "Who is that?"

"Long land loves lingering, loser leeps lithely loose lewd…"

I couldn't take it for much longer than that. I climbed down the tree and finished up my shift at the base, hearing him ramble and cry and shout from a less direct perspective.

Korg came to relieve me at dawn, at which point I had gotten no sleep and had been urinated on twice that I knew of. I was looking forward to going home for a short reprieve, but two messengers intercepted me before I could.

I met some law enforcement officials at the border and gave them the wallet as evidence. They asked some questions and we chatted a little bit about ongoing procedure, but I didn't give any definitive answers.

"Also, he said something about—" A yawn stifled the beginning of my sentence. "Colonel Rickertt," I finished. "Do you know—"

"You want me to get him?" One of the officers asked. "He's down at base, overseeing the Air Force we've got installed here. At least, I think he's on duty now."

I froze. "Um, no, that's not necessary," I said. "I'll let you know if I need to speak with him."

"Should I tell him to prepare the 'copter to pick up the suspect?"

"Not yet," I said.

I headed home after that, troubled. I felt a strong need to go to Hayley's cabin and discuss the situation with her, but I had the strange sense that any human infrastructure was off limits.

After all, I was holding one of them hostage.

Fortunately, I didn't have to breach the borders myself to find Hayley.

"My God, I refused to believe it," she said, running up to me. "I can't believe…I'm just…"

"I'm all right," I said for what seemed like the thousandth time that day. "It's really not that bad."

"Toby, you were shot. It was bad. You know I try my best to frame these things accurately for you."

I sighed. "Did you come just to check up on me?"

"Well…no…"

Wotch dropped out of a branch and slowly approached us. "I asked her to come, Toby."

I glanced between them a couple of times. "This feels like an intervention."

"Does it feel that way because of how it seems, or how you feel like it should be?"

"Say what you have to say, Wotch."

"I know what you're planning," he said. "And I want to say as soon as possible that I don't agree with it."

"What am I planning?"

"You're planning to use him as a bargaining chip," he said. "You're planning to hold him for ransom. You're going to start another war because one sociopathic human was deranged enough to breach the hearth."

"I have no plans to start another war," I said.

"Toby, I get it," Hayley said. "The worst thing that a human could do to you happened. You've experienced the worst of what we are capable of, so now you feel like you need to separate from us permanently. But what about all the good things we've done? What about the donations, and the kindness of the tourists? What about me?"

"You both reach these conclusions how?" I asked. "Because I haven't given him back yet?"

"There is no reason for you not to," Wotch confirmed.

"I'm not done questioning him yet."

"Questioning him about what?"

"He implicated one of the military commanders in his attack!" I shouted. "His periods of lucidity are infrequent, and I can't even tell if they're sincere or just an act. I need to figure out what he knows."

"Then let the humans interrogate him," Hayley said. "You know we have your best interests at heart, and you know we agree he's dangerous. Why are you willing to sacrifice all of the political relationships you've worked so hard to build on a hunch?"

"Because I don't trust them!" I shouted. "He's implicated one commanding officer, and even if I keep him out of the investigation, who's to say more aren't involved? Who's to say there's not some huge conspiracy that my cooperation will directly assist?"

"You sound paranoid and deluded," Wotch snapped. "Perhaps you've been on duty a little too long."

I counted to ten and held my breath. "I am sorry to hear I won't have your support in this, Wotch. I must assure you that I have no plans to start another war. I just want the chance to figure out exactly what is going on before I surrender my only intelligence resource right into a potential enemy's hands."

Wotch sighed. "Are you doing this because you think you're right, or because it's been too long since you had a good fight?"

"I'm doing it because I want it never to happen again."

"But what if you're wrong, Toby?" Wotch asked. "Is the risk worth the potential reward?"

He slinked around me and disappeared up a nearby tree.

"And what about you?" I asked Hayley. "Do you think I'm making a mistake?"

Hayley sighed. "I think you've never betrayed your people before, and you deserve to be trusted now as well. Having said that, I don't like what you're doing. I can't see this leading anywhere constructive. If you don't give him back soon, people are going to start taking it personally."

"I know."

"Just treat him humanely, whatever you do," Hayley said. "Feed him, water him, give him somewhere clean to use the bathroom. You wouldn't want anyone to start labeling this 'torture.'"

"That's good advice. Thank you."

"I don't want this to end in me never seeing you again, but if it does…I'll miss you, Toby."

"It won't end that way. I've got this under control."

"And somehow, you needing to say that makes me less sure."

I headed home after that, a little surly, a little hurt that two of my closest allies were so unsupportive. Telf was tickling Bug when I got there, which did take the edge off.

"Mommy! Stek say felt kawatnoj kick today, right here." She pointed straight into the middle of her abdomen. "Say, very strong. Say mean kawatnoj come soon."

Jara had been very forgiving of Bug's constant visits, and Stek was sweet and motherly with her, so Bug spent a lot of time with them, helping to prepare for the baby. I smiled at her and took her in my arms.

"You're going to be a very good aunt," I told her. She giggled and embraced me.

"Stek ask where Mother Toby is all day," she said, and I felt a pang of guilt.

"I'm about to head over there now. I'm just very busy, with the humans."

"Yes," Bug said diplomatically. I glanced up at Telf, who seemed concerned, but he smiled when he caught my gaze. "I come with Mama to Stek, then stay with Stek and Jara."

"Oh, sweetie, I think you should leave them alone at night until the baby comes," I said. "I'm sure they'll be more than happy for the help after, but—"

"Why?"

"They, well, you know…"

"Jara and Stek need know how to be Jara and Stek," Telf said, and Bug nodded, and I had no idea what meaning was exchanged between them. "Just like Telf and Toby did."

I smiled weakly at him.

"Bug go ahead to Jara, Telf and Toby come soon." Bug hugged and kissed me and started swinging towards their tree.

"Toby," Telf said, taking my hand. "Bug is right, Toby be here more for Stek."

"I know," I said, feeling a deep anxiety well up in me. Telf frowned and gently touched the wound on my shoulder.

"Toby not worry," Telf said. "Stek know Mother Toby have much more to do."

I shook my head. "It's not an excuse. This is my first grandchild, and I want—"

"Telf just mean," he said, shushing me, taking my hands, "Stek know Toby want to be with Stek, but have to be other places," Telf said. "Toby not worry what Stek think, or Jara, or Telf, or someone else. Hork-Bajir know Toby always do what is best."

I nodded. It made me feel a little better.

"Toby ready?"

"Let's go."

We spent a few hours with Jara and Stek, who, having reached the end of her pregnancy, was constantly exhausted and hot and took two naps while we were there. Polite as ever, she tried to resist, but I told her I wouldn't let etiquette keep my first grandchild from all the sleep he was asking her for. Everyone was antsy and impatient, watching her closely, waiting for signs, but I was distracted by the knowledge of that poisoned human atop that tree. What was he waiting for? What was he planning?

I excused myself and went to check up on him.

"I brought you some food," I told him, offering an old Tupperware full of an assortment of berries. "I've picked up over the years which flora in the park is edible for humans. It's not much, but it will—"

He slapped his hand forward and knocked the container out of my hand, unleashing a cascade of berries to barreling down the tree. I sighed, holding forward the bottle of water I'd brought. "I suppose I should just dump this on myself and save you the trouble?"

He reached forward and started chugging it down.

"No, you wouldn't refuse a chance to reload your only remaining weapon," I sighed, getting comfortable. "I think I'll guard you up here from now on."

"Murderer and thief," he muttered, pulling his knees to his chin.

"Yes, I know," I said. "Listen, I don't think you and I are going to have much more time together, so I was wondering if you could answer a few more questions of mine."

"Colonel Peter T. Rickertt, graduated cum laude Air Force Academy Colorado Springs, officially commissioned 1992. Several tours of duty in Germany and Japan. Awarded Medal of Honor 1997 by President William J. Clinton for valor in direct combat from commanding a battalion of damaged helicopters to safety and personally rescuing three soldiers from behind enemy lines."

His eyes rolled slowly, lifelessly to me, icy and bright and haunting.

"Captain James R. Hubbard, graduated summa cum laude Naval Academy Annapolis 1963. Awarded Navy Cross 1975 for valor in Vietnam operations. Daughters Kelly and Anne both received Master's Degrees in psychology from public universities in Minnesota."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Commander Julian L. Brink, graduated MIT University 1982, conscripted into the army for Operation Desert Storm. Quickly rose through the ranks, adeptness at command fostering continuous promotion. Famously interviewed on CNN by Anderson Cooper 2003 regarding," he took a big breath, savoring the information, "the growing Hork-Bajir logistical problem."

"They're the Commanding Officers here," I said. "You read up on them before you came."

"Guns and bullets and fire and hate," he said. "But information is most great."

I changed my mind about staying up there with him and went down to the base of the tree to pace.

Maybe Wotch had been right. Maybe I was only keeping him here to satisfy my own contempt, to keep from feeling as ineffectual and helpless as I probably was. It was the illusion of action, the illusion of progress. Especially considering I was probably wrapped around his finger.

Did Colonel Rickertt assign him the mission? Was he an agent of legitimate channels who had their own prejudices and contempt, their own motive and reason to hurt us? Or was he just manipulating me into worsening my already tenuous relationship with human government for his own ends?

What are you going to do?

"Mother Toby," Korg said, putting a hand on my arm.

"Oh, you startled me," I said. "I didn't think your shift started for another few hours."

Korg frowned and took a step back. "Korg think…Korg want…"

"What is it, Korg?"

"Lyree have kawatnoj very soon," Korg said. "Lyree's first kawatnoj. Korg need be with Lyree all time. Not leave Lyree alone."

I sighed. "Someone needs to watch the human."

Korg kicked the dirt, staring at his feet, and gave half a shrug.

"I'll stay. You're right. There's nothing more terrifying than going into labor thinking no one is going to help you. Be with your kalashi, Korg."

Korg looked up and gave me half a smile. "Mother Toby be with Stek, too."

I wanted to get angry at him, but I had no right to resent him for refusing to obey me when we were no longer at war, when I was no longer his commander. I gave a curt nod and he took that as his subtle clue to leave.

I stayed with Patrick for another sleepless night, as he screamed and sang and urinated and moaned. The next morning, Ferk came by to relieve me, but he was likewise unenthusiastic about the chore. I felt the guilt and urge to relinquish him of the responsibility, to give him the option to go home, but I thanked him and brushed past him without giving him the opportunity to see my indecision.

As more time went on with Patrick at the top of that tree, I became more uncertain about why I was doing it, what point I was making, what I was trying to accomplish. Maybe Hayley and Wotch were right. Maybe it was some kind of self-indulgent vengeance, watching a human who personified all of their hate and prejudice suffer the way we did. I did a lot of pacing, on my own, often getting distracted with the thought of Stek seemingly hours from going into labor. I couldn't make good decisions about either problem while the other one remained unresolved. Something needed to happen. Progress needed to be made.

I couldn't force Stek to deliver, and I had no idea what to do with Patrick.

Give him back, Toby.

"I can't do that," I hissed to myself as I made nervous laps around the base of his tree. "That's the easy thing. Surrender."

But is holding him the right thing?

"I don't know," I moaned to myself.

Dirk, another of my squad, came by to relieve me, but asked if he could only work half a shift. I snapped an angry yes, feeling the support slough off of me like dead skin.

I knew it would be only me watching him soon, and what could I do to stop that?

I went to Jara's tree. Stek look miserable, huddled against her mother, and gave me a pathetic smile when I climbed onto the platform. Jara looked expectant.

"Mother Toby stay now? Stek make Jara ask," he said.

"I can't," I said with a heavy sigh.

"When can you?"

I gave an angry shrug. "I don't know, Jara. I want to be here permanently but—"

"Jara understand, Mother Toby."

"Don't do that," I begged him. "I'm sorry, Jara, but please, tell me you're angry if you're angry."

Jara looked down. "Jara just want Mama here," he said. "Jara scared, but can't be scared for Stek. Have to be strong for Stek."

"And I'll be strong for you," I said.

"How if not here?"

I wracked my brain, turning away, then I looked up at him and smiled.

"Walkies. There's tons at the cabin. You know how they work, right?"

"Yes, but—"

"If you need anything at all, you can just call me. If you just need to be reassured. If you need to talk, or if Stek needs anything, or if she goes into labor. I can be here without being here."

"Mama—"

"This is the best compromise I can offer, Jara. I can't be in two places at once, and I have to keep watch over the human."

Jara breathed deeply and pursed his lips, more used to accepting all of my poor compromises than he should be. "Okay."

I gave Stek a long, comforting kiss, told her she was the bravest person I knew, which felt a little condescending but made her smile, and took off for the cabin.

I had to be quick. If the humans knew I had crossed the hearth's threshold, they may use it as an excuse to detain me, question me. I hadn't spoken to any of them in a couple of days, and I had absolutely no idea how my actions were being construed by the media.

I swung quietly, carefully. Slunk through the meadow, climbed the first tree outside of it, landed on the cabin's roof, and eased my way over the gutter, creeping along the wall to the door.

The lights were off when I entered, which was a distinct relief. It was late evening, which meant everyone had gone home.

Or maybe they weren't allowed anymore. I had no idea.

I flipped on the light switch and headed over to the walkie chargers.

"Nice of you to drop in," a chillingly familiar voice rang out.

I froze. Turned slowly. Sitting in one of the office chairs, dressed in an unnaturally casual way, was the president.

I held my breath, expecting a dozen secret service agents to burst in at any moment and tackle me to the ground. That familiar rush of crippling images—rotting in a prison cell as my family waited for me to return home, or just being executed without a trial or even announcement as a traitor—seemed to pin me to the ground.

I had no idea what to do.

A static chirp broke the tense silence and made me jump. "Mother Sky, this is the 8:15 check-in. Please respond with verification code."

"Foxtrot-India-Niner-Niner-Eight. All's quiet on the western front," she responded into the device, staring at me coldly.

"Code verified. Talk to you in fifteen."

She clicked off the walkie.

"It's been months," she said with a breathy, relieved sigh. "How have you been?"

"Why are you here?" I asked.

She shrugged, losing her insincerely polite expression. "I tend to take an intimate interest when members of my population are held as political prisoners."

I shook my head, felt my frozen face melt into something like a smile. "That's not at all what we're doing."

"And you wouldn't care to educate me, would you?"

I breathed deeply, pulled up a chair, and set it down in front of her. I opened my mouth to speak, but couldn't think of a great way to articulate my thoughts.

"What were you doing in here with the lights off?"

"Yes, let's establish the validity of the record. Good point. Just so you know, the media isn't aware that you're holding a human hostage."

"We're not holding him hostage!" I cried.

"They're not aware of anything, actually. We decided to keep this conflict entirely classified. I told them I'm taking a week at Camp David and sincerely hoping we can get this resolved before I'm 'back' to work. I would like at least part of that time to be spent legitimately."

"Are you even aware that he shot me?"

She looked troubled. "Of course we are, Toby."

"Then how can you possibly label what we're doing to him as 'holding him hostage?' We are simply detaining a man who committed a crime."

"And then what?" She asked. "Are you going to try him? Assemble a jury of his peers? Uphold his constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair and speedy trail?"

"You know there is nothing like that in the Hork-Bajir constitution."

"Oh, so we're going by yours now?"

"Why wouldn't we? The crime was committed on Hork-Bajir soil."

"No, it was allegedly committed on federally protected American soil," she said.

I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees. "So we've finally come to it, have we?" I asked.

"After all the hurdles we've overcome together," she said. "After everything we've worked for. After everything our citizens have given you, after all we've done."

"All you've done," I repeated. "You have done a lot, Madame President. I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that. But bestowing charity is not an unbreakable excuse to treat people however you want. Your previous kindness does not give you dominion over us. We are still, and have been since you first signed the treaty, our own people with our own rights and agency. And we cannot be that if we don't have the sovereignty to decide what those are."

She sighed. "Look, Toby, there is a time for this conflict to get its due focus. I want this issue to receive the attention and dedication it deserves. There is a time for the political process. There is a time for Congress to debate, for town-hall meetings, for people to assemble and protest and support and—"

"Of course," I scoffed. "There is a time for humans to decide what is best for Hork-Bajir."

She balked for a moment, leaned back. "That's not the issue," she whispered. "The issue is that you're unlawfully holding an American man prisoner, and we want him extradited back."

"An American man who committed a crime against us within our borders," I said. "If it had happened in France, or another nation you recognized as sovereign, would you still be demanding his return?"

"We have a very long, specific extradition treaty with France. You wouldn't be interested in—"

"So why don't you have one with us?" I asked. "Tell me, Madame President, what the procedure would be if it was a Hork-Bajir who committed a crime against an American on American soil. Would you surrender him back to us, or would you feel the right to try him yourself?"

"That's not what happened, though."

"No. A human man tried to assassinate the leader of the last free Hork-Bajir people in the galaxy, and if he'd had any better aim he very well may have succeeded. The fact that you think we're politically unable to detain, try, and punish him on our own speaks volumes as to how you consider us as a people."

She frowned. "Toby, you're really turning this mole hill into one hell of a rhetorical mountain. This issue is not about philosophical rights and hegemonic phantoms. It's about one American citizen and the—hopefully—shared desire to maintain peace between our people."

I shook my head slowly. "I cannot express just how much I disagree with you, Madame President. This is a concrete example of the imbalance of power that is inherent in our current treaty. This is about all of that abstract, philosophical rhetoric, because that rhetoric defines how we mutually behave in our relationship, how humans feel compelled to treat us, and what we can do to change what we think is wrong.

"This is wrong. What he did was wrong, and I don't think demanding the right to try and convict him ourselves is some egregious abuse of power. If we don't have the right to try our own criminals, then we don't have the right to uphold our own laws, to define what we want our society to be. We're just some pathetic, amorphous offshoot of humanity, some lower class that's going to suffer, perish, and probably die out because our benefactors were too myopic and selfish to let us define our own needs and wants.

"Is that what you want, Madame President? To be the leader who subjugated and enslaved the Hork-Bajir people in a way different than, but just no less surely as the Yeerks? Who turned them into the main attraction at some petty zoo, who had the opportunity to accept them as equals but instead defined them as sub-human? We're not human, but that doesn't mean we're less than you. That doesn't mean we don't deserve to make our own rules, to write our own story. We have just as much philosophical right to determine our own destinies as you do, and the only thing keeping us from that is you."

I leaned back and crossed my arms. It felt better to get all of that off my chest, though I wasn't sure how much I'd convinced her.

"This is a conversation that needs to be had in the public sphere," she said. "And, believe me, I want it to be had sooner than later. But for now, I can only give you an ultimatum. Surrender Patrick Rodgers within the day, or we're going to come and get him."

"And if you do that, I may very well consider it an act of war."

I got up and walked over to the walkie chargers and took two. "My son's wife is going to have her first child any day now," I said. "And this is where my focus lies instead."

"I don't have any children," she responded. I glanced back at her.

"Perhaps that was the wiser decision."

I returned to Jara's tree and delivered him the walkie, and though he sensed something had happened, he also had to sense not to pry. I selfishly wedged myself between Stek and her mother and pressed both of my hands and my snout to her warm, swollen belly. My action seemed to unsettle everyone except Stek, who took my face in her hands and said, "Mother Toby do anything for Stek's kawatnoj. Stek know."

I went back to the human and was happy to find that he was sleeping. He'd found a somewhat stable, if not comfortable, position on the limb, lying straight upon it with his chin tucked down against his chest and one leg swinging slowly back and forth towards the ground. I didn't realize, however, that his peacefulness would only give me the opportunity to think about what I had just done.

I wasn't worried about my people losing faith in me. Wotch would not be doing his duty if he did not vocally denounce me, and I expected that his family would follow him in his discontent, but everyone originally from the valley still considered me their leader. They would follow me to the ends of the earth if I asked them, and it wasn't until that moment that I considered that fact anything more than a troublesome burden.

I could make an army. The generations were shifting, but that did not mean that former soldiers, weapons experts, tacticians did not roam freely and within the grasp of my command. I myself had ample experience commanding a battalion, fighting just enough within the bounds of the rules to exploit loopholes and snags. I did not know if we could win, but we could give them one hell of a fight.

Oh, who was I kidding? Of course we wouldn't win. Seven billion humans against just over ten thousand Hork-Bajir was enough of a fact to cement that reality. Humans were our protectors, our guides, our benefactors, our guards. Every piece of defense we had against anything that could harm us came directly from them. In fact, the only thing my people had on their side that did not depend solely on the philanthropy of humanity was me.

What had I done?

All they had to do was capture or kill me. Kill, if they wanted to send a message, and capture if they wanted to do something a little more sinister. Surely I would be labeled an enemy of the state, and it was more than clear from their history how humanity treated people they considered sufficiently dangerous. I don't know whether their goal would be to simply silence me or convert me entirely, but I had no doubt they would succeed. And then, without their only advocate, what would happen to my people?

I'd done it. With a simple statement made to the president mostly out of anger and spite, I had condemned my race to extinction.

A sudden chirp of static from the walkie talkie nearly gave me a heart attack. I glanced up to see that Patrick's leg had stopped swinging.

"Of all the times…" I grumbled as I reached toward it.

"Toby?" A feminine, human voice came through the speakers. "Toby, are you there? I'm trying each channel, so please just respond if I've got you."

"Who is this?" I responded.

"Oh, thank God. Listen, I don't know how much time I have. I kept meaning to return this after accidentally bringing it back to my sleeping quarters, but—"

"Who is this?" I repeated.

"Marie, Toby. It's me."

"Marie?"

"Yes, I wanted to get a hold of you. They're probably listening though, so I have to keep this short. I just wanted to tell you that I support what you're doing."

"How do you even know what I'm doing?"

"We all know. They're holding us all under house arrest until they can figure out what to do with us, depending, I think, on what you do. I snuck into the bathroom, just because I wanted to talk. I support you, Toby. You have to know that a lot of other humans do, too."

"I don't know that will mean much except your guaranteed imprisonment once all this is over," I said.

"I know. That's how sure I am. You deserve what you're asking for. You deserve to make your own laws and punish your own prisoners and lead your own kind. Anything less than that just shows that the government doesn't think of you as people." I got the sense she was no longer talking to me and gulped. "Patrick Rodgers tried to kill you, and the worst part is I wonder how different our reaction to it would have been if he'd actually succeeded. The fact that he didn't just shows how much your people need you."

"I appreciate that vote of confidence, Marie. You should head back to your cabin."

"If it comes to it, I'm going to find you," she said. "I'm going to find you and help however I can."

"You'd betray your own race?"

"It's not about race, Toby. It's about right and wrong. And I will fight for right, whether it's for humans, Hork-Bajir, or even Yeerks."

"That means a lot, Marie. Thank you."

"Just know that if—" There was the sound of feedback, then static, then nothing.

I gulped and placed the walkie gently beside me. I heard Patrick laughing above.

I didn't get much sleep that night, still trying to decide what I was going to do when the president came to retrieve her citizen. It was a quiet night—clear skies, dead air. Even the crickets seemed to be stilled into silence. I was deep in a contemplative cycle that was no where closer to reaching a satisfying conclusion when something brushed against the side of my thigh.

"What…" I whispered. It was an empty plastic grocery bag. I scoffed into myself, feeling a little indignantly satisfied by having another piece of evidence, however insignificant, that proved the humans' dismissal of us, but then I had the sense to check inside.

There was a small piece of receipt tape inside, with a single phrase written on it in marker.

Good luck.

I couldn't stand to worry about something else and chose to shrug it off as an innocuous piece of litter. At dawn, no one came to relieve me, and I realized that I was all alone, both figuratively and literally.

At around 9:30, the walkie chirped again.

"Needed another bathroom break?" I preempted irritably.

"Mama," a voice returned.

My hearts leapt. "Jara?"

"Stek is…Stek will…"

"She's in labor?"

"Stek have kawatnoj soon."

I sprang to my feet. "How far along is she?"

"Not far, just spill water. Dada says kawatnoj looks good, but go slow."

"I'll be there as soon as I can."

"How soon?" Jara was trained enough to ask.

"Now. I'm leaving now."

I heard him giggle. "Bring Gam Mama."

"Oh, of course. We'll be there soon. Tell her we'll be there soon."

I released the button and had to bite my hand to keep from laughing. I glanced up at Patrick. His leg was swinging again, but he hadn't moved otherwise.

"He'll be fine," I said to myself. "He's not going anywhere."

I started to jog in the direction of my mother's tree.

You'd be a fool to leave him totally unsupervised.

"No, no. He'll be fine. I'll stop by Ferk's on my way, send him over. Just for now, until Stek delivers."

That's too long a window to leave him unsupervised, Toby. You know it is.

I shook my head and quickened my pace.

Mother had been feeling sort of excluded from Brik and Teb's, which I hadn't had the focus to understand until she wrapped me in her arms and thanked me profusely for retrieving her.

"Ket is so old," she cried to me, wiping her face. "But not sad now, not sad for Jara and Stek."

"I'm getting old, too."

"Toby not so old as Ket."

"Oh, Mother, it's not a contest. Let's go and mourn our youths together."

I felt it, even then, the way I feel when anything goes wrong. Those prickles at the back of my neck, that cold sweat that breaks out across my brow, that strong yet nonpresent vibrating at the base of my gut. She gripped my forearm as we travelled, and though she didn't yet appear as elderly as she felt, her pace was infuriatingly slow, and I was too caught up with everything to leave her behind.

I stopped by Ferk's, but he wasn't home, so I decided to drop my mother off and swing by to get Korg on some run for fresh water that Jara and Telf would undoubtedly send me on. When we finally got to their tree, there was a lot of hugging and a lot of tears and there, for perhaps a moment too long, I smothered myself in the love and joy that this union of families, this generation of life was bringing.

I kissed Stek, and she grabbed onto me as a contraction started up, and I wiped her brow and whispered a few platitudes and encouragements. Once it ended I kissed her and looked up, expecting Bug to be there, intrusive and curious and encouraging as ever.

"Where is Bug?" I laughed, glancing back towards Jara.

Jara looked confused, but Telf's face blanched. "Telf send Bug…"

The smile slipped from my face. "Where did you send her, Telf?"

"Toby…"

I rose to my feet and approached him. "Where?"

"Send Bug to get Toby," he said.

"Home? Do you mean you sent her home?"

"Mama," Jara said, tugging at my hip, but I could only stare at Telf, whose look was now bordering on the panicked.

"What did you tell her to do, Telf?"

"Telf told Bug to find Mother Toby," he said. "Too happy…too…"

I covered my mouth with my hands. I felt my stomach drop out beneath me, all of those little warning feelings now amplified by a hundred. Jara was ushering me out of Stek's eyeline, and Teb, Brik, and my mother were all distracted enough from their conversations to look over.

"It's fine," I said, ignoring the sinking feeling, ignoring all of the signs. "He's trapped up there, and even if she was foolish enough to climb there's nothing he could do to her."

"Then why Mama look so scared?" Jara asked, still clutching my hip.

"It's fine, Jara. You have a place to be. I'll go get her."

"Toby—" Telf said, looking guilty. "Telf come with, get Bug."

"Yes, all right."

"Jara come too."

I laughed a little. "This is perhaps the most important moment of your life, Jara. I won't let you sacrifice it for something that's probably not even a problem."

But he looked determined. And in a flash of his gaze, I saw the guilt he still bore from insulting her in our tree when he announced the conception of the child he was now preparing to deliver.

"Jara is coming," he swore.

I nodded solemnly. "All right. But when I send you back, you go back. Understand?"

He nodded. "Go tell Stek," he said with a gulp.

Stek, as generous as ever, kissed him and approved of his choice, though Brik looked appalled. We stayed long enough to cheer Stek through one more contraction, and then we slowly climbed down the tree.

"Check home tree first, then go to human's tree," Telf offered. I felt another prickle of panic and shook my head.

"If she's home, then she's in no danger," I said. "You two lag behind. He's used to dealing with me."

I signaled them to hide out behind a couple of nearby trees as soon as I reached the base of the human's tree. The sun was bright, and I looked up to his branch, but I couldn't tell if he was up there.

"Patrick?" I called. "Are you there?"

A sinister chuckle emanated from the other side of the tree, from beneath me, from all around.

I swallowed back the growing fear and headed around the circumference of the tree. I looked up and sensed movement, his leg swinging back and forth.

"Governor Toby Hamee," the sourceless voice rang out again. "Born July 13th, 1997. Worked under no flag, commanded no conscripted army, and yet she is rightfully considered one of the primary heroes of the Great War. Freed 157 distinct individuals during her time as leader of the valley, and buried 97. Led a team of her people in the final battle of the war, led by the Animorph Jake Berenson. Negotiated the same surrender treaty with the Yeerks that was later ratified by both humans and Andalites. Married Telf Getrin, former AA-grade sire of the Yeerks, date indeterminate. Delivered son, Jara, June 23rd, 2001. Delivered daughter, July 2nd, 2003. Bug. That's a pretty name, isn't it? Bug."

I'd been climbing his tree as he spoke, but froze when he said her name. My eyes glazed over, I felt faint. I forced myself to continue.

"What's wrong? Didn't your mother teach you to respond to someone who's addressing you?"

"That filth," I growled to myself as I shimmied up the trunk. I caught a flash of movement from inside the branches, saw Telf climbing a tree parallel to mine.

"Bug not know," I heard her respond, and I searched her voice for terror or vulnerability but could only detect a faint annoyance. Maybe he hadn't hurt her yet.

Maybe he wouldn't.

"That's the right answer, Bug. You want to know what bugs are? Bugs are little vermin that work their way into places that don't belong to them. Bugs are poisonous little creatures that infect and breed and fester, like an open wound. And you know what happens when wounds are left open and untreated? You have to take off the whole limb."

"Bug not fuster," she responded indignantly, and I felt the tree shake as he reached forward and slapped her. She whined irritably.

"All right, Patrick. All right, I'm here." I pulled myself up to the branch below theirs and stuck my head through the pine shoots. I saw Bug, laying sprawled on a large frond that hung toward the ground, Patrick sitting above her, tucked up against the trunk.

He was pointing a gun at her.

Bug looked at me with a questioning expression. Not scared, not helpless. More just like she wasn't sure what the etiquette in this situation was.

I'd never let her meet another human besides my staff.

"You got me here," I said to Patrick. "Now tell me what you want and let her go."

"Aw, Toby—I'm sorry, Governor—we're just getting started!" He laughed. "Bug, count to one million for me."

She turned to him pleadingly, then sighed and laid her head upon the branch.

"She can't do it! How about a thousand? A hundred? Let's make it easy—ten. Count to ten."

"If you read Hayley's book then you know my people can't count past five."

"She can't even count high enough to graduate kindergarten and people love her more than me," he said, and a tear collected on his lower eyelid. He furiously wiped it away. "Like treating cancer as the patient and the patient as cancer."

"We are not cancer, Patrick. We're people, just like you."

"No." Another tear spilled down his cheek and he raised the trembling gun to point at Bug again. "No, you are not just like us. You are scum that dripped off an asteroid and are taking over our planet. You are a disease, and I am the cure."

"We no more dripped off an asteroid than you crawled up out of pond scum," I seethed. Patrick glared at me, cocked his gun, and fired just past Bug.

She yelped and covered her head with her arms, and I nearly slipped off the branch I was perched on. "All right! All right, calm down. I'm sorry. You're right, we're a disease, is that what you wanted?"

"No. Admitting it to me does nothing. I want it cured."

He looked down at Bug again, reached down, and stroked one of her arms. "You see, when you exterminate pests, you can't just kill the infestation. Like hair lice. You've got to kill the lice, and wash away the eggs."

He raised the gun again and aimed it straight at Bug. She turned up and stared at him.

"Patrick, listen to me. This isn't about her. If you have some grudge, then kill me. She is innocent. You wouldn't kill the son of a criminal just to stop the bloodline. Turn that thing to me and leave her alone."

"No, Governor. You'll be much easier to finish if I cut you at the legs first."

He cocked the pistol. Bug whimpered. And I felt time draw impossibly slow, I realized that there was no way to appeal to the humanity in a human entirely devoid of it, and for a terrible moment, I knew that Bug was going to die.

Superpowered strength roared into my shoulders, and I ground my way towards the human, cutting through branch and needle like a woodchipper. At the same moment, I heard a feral yell, and the tree plowed toward the right. I couldn't see, I reached out, I felt his extended arm, and then two gun shots shattered the universe.

A scream, external at first, then I realized it was coming from me. All the world was a scream, a scream within and without, one that would never end.

I twisted around, somehow. I wrapped her body in my arms and I promised that I would never let her go. Was she dead? Was she breathing? I couldn't sense anything except for that never-ending scream that now defined my world.

"No no no," I heard myself say, and there were other people all floating within that scream, all resisting it, and all I could do was hold her tight and shield her from it. Protect her from everything I couldn't protect her from, after the fact, when it didn't matter anymore. When there was nothing left to protect.

"Mama come down," another voice the scream couldn't penetrate, and I felt hands on me, pulling, trying to rip her away from me. I screamed more, and it curdled, but there was ground beneath my legs, and the hands let go and I pulled her closer.

"No, no, please, no, please," I begged. "Stop it, make it stop, please."

"Toby let go," a sharp voice said, and I felt Telf's hands, and I knew it was him but I couldn't obey, I couldn't let him make it real. "Toby calm."

"Please, no, God, no," I continued to whimper. And I kept crying, and the scream kept going, until it broke.

In that horrible moment, I came to the only conclusion I could. Bug had escaped death once before, and I still don't know why we received that blessing. I knew, at that moment, that she was dead. Those kinds of mortal acrobatics were not something she was capable of performing twice. I knew I was holding a corpse, I knew that we'd have to bury my daughter, and I knew that I could never live again if she was dead.

And then, Bug took a huge breath of air.

I started bawling in gratitude, in relief, and I held her close, and I cradled her, only now feeling her claws rip into my skin, her knee blades dig into my hips, the trembling horror of something traumatized and alive. I rocked her back and forth and cried, shushing her and thanking her and holding her so tight as I finally acknowledged Telf kneeling beside me, trying to examine her, to check that she was all right.

"Bug not hurt," Telf said over her ear-numbing scream, strangely impassive and determined. "Bug not bleeding."

"Sweetie, I have to put you down," I gasped right into her ear, and she dug her claws deeper inside of me, and I held her tighter, just as averse to my statement as she was. But I stopped, counted to five, and laid her on the ground.

Telf and Jara helped pry her loose, and Jara and I took each of her hands as she thrashed and Telf examined. He searched and confirmed that she was unharmed. I scooped her back up in my arms and cradled her again.

"Why is she screaming like this?" I finally asked. I leaned forward and kissed her, and sensed something wet and warm on my headblades.

"There," Jara said. Telf kneeled beside me again, and pulled her head toward him.

Right in the middle of her second head blade, a hole had been punched clean through, no bigger than a centimeter in diameter. A little blood was leaking from both sides, smeared by my kiss.

"He got her," I said, and my fear and mourning were suddenly dwarfed by my unbelievable rage. For the first time since it had all happened, I acknowledged the scene outside of my daughter, and I searched for the blight of a human who had caused it.

There was a pile of jeans and red sweatshirt. A femur stuck up through the jeans, and the red hood was stained with darker red. I craned my neck and saw a mangled face pierced by a bullet gazing deadly straight up through the hood.

"Toby give Bug to Telf," he said, reaching the conclusion faster than me for the first time ever. "Mother Toby have work to do."

"What? No, I—" And then I looked past him, and I saw the president standing with her arms crossed next to a very tall, incredibly armed Navy SEAL holding a sniper rifle.

I scowled and turned into Bug, now desperate for the protection I was giving her. Then I took a deep breath. Prolonging my sentence wasn't going to change it.

"I love you so much," I whispered to her. "Be good for your father."

She'd reduced to sobbing but let me go. Telf scooped her up, and though she was very nearly full grown, she wrapped her arms and legs around him, and he carried her away.

Jara helped me to my feet. "Mama okay?"

"I'm all right," I said. "Thank you for your help. You saved your sister's life."

"No, Jara don't think—"

"You did, I saw you leap from that tree and distract the human, and I'm the seer, remember?" I snapped. I sighed and pressed my face into his chest. "Go help your kalashi deliver your son, Jara. And smother him with love, and tell him I love him."

Jara hugged me back. "Mama tell him herself," he said, giving me a kiss. Then he glanced back at the president and headed past me, toward his tree.

I stood my ground. The president and I watched each other, then she smiled and made the first move.

"Will you walk with me?" She asked.

I looked back at the Naval officer whose gun was armed but not aimed. "Is he coming?"

"Oh no, I think we can leave Scott behind. You'll be all right on your own?"

"Sir, I highly recommend you travel with an escort. You are unarmed, and the Governor is not."

I sighed and looked down at my blades. "He's right, you know."

"I think we can trust her. Hold down the fort. Um, tree. We won't be long. Come, Toby."

She started heading deeper into the forest, and I followed at a medium distance behind. We walked for a while in silence. I could not help but write a hasty surrender in my head as we moved. There was no other choice at this point. My risk had failed, and all I could do was lose with as level a head as possible. What would I need to ensure for my people? What possible powers could I demand at this point?

It didn't matter anymore. None of my work mattered if my family could be targeted like they were. They came first. The rest was pointless if I couldn't even protect my family. Yes, Toby. Give in to the humans. Let them win. Let them take me away as long as it protects Telf and Bug and Jara. Focus on what really matters and let the humans control the rest.

I opened my mouth to speak when the president interrupted. "Will your daughter be all right?"

"I hope so," I said, swallowing. "He shot her through the head blade."

"And we shot him in the head."

She stopped and turned to me.

"They're erogenous."

She frowned. "I didn't know that."

"What if she loses all feeling? What if she can never kiss anyone again?" I heaved a sob and swallowed it back. The president sighed and stepped forward.

"She never should have been collateral."

"You're right. It's all my fault."

"That's not what I said," she hissed. "This whole situation should never have been allowed to happen, is what I mean. That human shouldn't have been able to get anywhere near the hearth, and you shouldn't have been forced to keep him at the top of a tree totally unguarded."

"It was a terrible decision," I agreed.

She scoffed. "And I thought I was bad about only blaming myself. Toby, listen to what I am saying: You were right."

I stared at her and wiped my brow. I pulled my hand back and saw it was spattered with human blood.

"Right about what?"

"You were right about your people deserving sovereignty."

I breathed a few times and stared at her in confusion. "You're not arresting me?"

"What? God, no. You were right about Patrick Rodgers. My only regret is that we didn't pull the trigger sooner. Then your daughter…well, she's alive. And he's not. The SEALs would call that 'mission accomplished.'"

I walked to a downed tree and sat down upon it. "I don't understand," I said.

The president sighed and sat beside me. "I thought about our last conversation a lot," she said. "I went through every argument, every philosophical treatise, every angle. And every path I took led to the same conclusion.

"If we're holding you here as guests, then that implies you're allowed to leave. And since you're not, I can't call you anything except prisoners. And no one thinks of you that way. Everyone considers the Hork-Bajir our national pet. And you're right, Toby. That is no way to consider a race of equals."

I didn't know how to feel. I was tired from the ordeal, sick from what happened to Bug. Too distracted by all my worries to even think about how this would impact us.

"So what are you going to do?"

"It'll get passed through legitimate channels eventually. But I'll worry about that. For now, I think an emergency order issued by the Department of the Interior. The park will be closed indefinitely."

I couldn't help but smile. "That won't earn you any political points."

"See? Why is that the first thing that comes out of your mouth? The fact that you can even recognize that just proves how much we need to get the Hork-Bajir out of Washington."

"I'm serious. You're going to make a lot of people very angry. A lot of people depend on the profits we bring in."

"Well, I've got three years left on this term, and I doubt they'll get the votes to impeach me. Then, if Ron can whip me up something fervent and impassioned enough to deliver during prime time...guilt has been an incredibly underutilized emotion when it comes to policymaking, especially since the end of the war. If I devote all of my resources to this, I think I can get it passed within three years."

"You'd sacrifice your career, your presidency for us?"

And then she smiled. "Remember what I told you all those years ago in my office? I forgot that in our last meeting. I thought my job was to do what was best for my constituents, for American taxpayers. But that's not my job. My job is to do what is right, even if I'm the only one who thinks so. And I think this is right, Toby. So even if I'm standing alone, either in front of a camera that every Yeerk on our planet is watching me through, or in front of a public who wants least of all to give up their favorite alien pets, as long as I'm doing the right thing, I can't regret any of it."

"You're a very brave woman."

"So are you."

I rubbed the back of my neck, and it was slick with something, though I didn't want to check what. "I'll have to fly out to Washington. Help out. I should talk to someone about getting clearance, or maybe—"

"Toby," the president said softly, laying one of her hands over mine. "You will. This isn't a 'no.' But my vacation lasts three more days, and I intend to hold to that deadline. Nothing about what happened here will come out for three days. Take care of your family, and then, together, we'll take care of the rest of them."

I looked down at her and couldn't help but shed a tear of something between relief, defeat, exhaustion, and triumph.

"Thank you," I said.

"There was a joke we all had in the White House, right when Yellowstone was chosen as your people's sanctuary. Something about there being a huge volcano below the surface, simmering in wait, that some day soon threatened to destroy half the country, even human civilization as we know it. I'm sure you can fill in the punchline."

I headed back home after walking the president back to the cabin. I wanted to go back to Jara's tree and see my grandchild be born, if I hadn't already missed it, but there are some responsibilities that overwhelm others.

Telf had her tucked up against him. She wasn't quite crying, and not quite sleeping, but whatever it was I knew she shouldn't be alone. As soon as she heard me coming up, she got up, trudged over, and wrapped her arms around me. I sank to the platform with her, stroking her back, kissing her, just being with her while the horror of what happened dissipated from the present and bled into horrible memory. I saw that Telf had patched the hole in her headblade with mud or sap, and when I put my fingers on it, it was hot to the touch. I laid there with Bug for almost a full day, until Jara came into the tree early in the morning. Quiet now, changed.

Bug's head was against my lower abdomen, and she turned a little to watch him approach. There was something small tucked up against his chest. I continued to stroke Bug until Jara knelt beside me and deposited the warm thing onto my chest.

I stared at it absent-mindedly for a few moments, until I said, "Were you ever so small?"

Jara smiled and adjusted the infant, which turned up to look at me. I smiled at her. She smiled back, and nuzzled her cheek against my chest.

"What's her name?" I asked.

"Stek want to pick. Jara say, yes."

I looked up at him.

"Name is Toby," he said, touching her, admiring his handiwork.

I breathed deeply. "That's very sweet, Jara."

"What Stek want. Jara can't say no."

I spent some time quietly acquainting myself with her. She was one of the quietest, most peaceful kawatnoj I'd ever seen. Calm, curious, gentle. She gripped my finger so hard it almost hurt, and fussed after a while to be fed. I adjusted her a little and saw Bug watching her quietly from below.

"Say hello to your niece, Bug."

She put her hand on her back and smiled. "Hello."

"We thought you were a boy, too," I said to her as Bug scooted up to engage the child who had now turned to her. "In fact, I'm beginning to think Telf's methodology doesn't work much better than flipping a coin."

"Little Toby," Bug said.

"Toby Junior," I said.

I looked down at Bug, over at Jara. Marveled at how gracefully my people could adapt to new circumstances, how fatherly Jara already seemed, how much Bug had already recovered from being shot in the head. I'd tried kissing Bug every fifteen minutes or so, to check if the feeling had come back to her headblades, and she kept denying that it had. But Radi came by a couple hours later, having heard the gossip, and when he kissed her it was clear that the feeling had returned.

After a few hours of quiet introduction, I rose to my feet and returned Toby Junior to her mother with Telf and Bug in tow.

I vowed to Stek that I would spend the rest of my life making up for missing the birth of my first grandchild, but Stek, forgiving and gracious as ever, and perhaps drunk from her first taste of maternal love, only smiled and giggled and snuggled against her tiny child. For the next few days, we all spent most of our time at their tree, waiting patiently for our turn with the kawatnoj, dreading missing anything that could conceivably be considered a "first," even events as mundane as her first hiccup, her first yawn. The achievements moved quickly, though, and we all stressed how important it was to keep close attention lest anything be missed.

Jara gave me a searching look when we passed through that conversation, and I returned an apologetic smile. Yes, perhaps worst of all in those first few short days is recognizing that you won't be the only one who remembers them.

At the end of the three days, which felt like moments, the president kept her promise to address the country and announce the events that had taken place over the course of the last week. I couldn't bring myself to watch the actual address until weeks later, partly because of the diversity of response, partly because I was too busy. Mostly, perhaps, because I still felt that the entire outcome was my fault. I'd always been able to claim victimization or pressure before, but holding Patrick prisoner and demanding the authority to try him myself was my act alone, and my responsibility alone. Wotch did stand by my side as the country entered a difficult, controversial discourse, and Hayley published a couple of op-eds in widely read periodicals in my defense, and their support did make me feel better.

It was difficult, perhaps most of all, because it never really ended. Even now our legal status is somewhat nebulously defined, not quite sovereign nation, not quite United States territory. But really, the legal definition is of least importance to me. What matters is the reality my people experience, what becomes of their day-to-day routine, what kind of safety and prosperity they can expect at the mercy of the humans.

It's not perfect, and I would be a fool to try to write this as some kind of happy ending to our political struggles.

But it is much, much better.

The borders of the Yellowstone plateau became our somewhat-legal borders as well, and, just to make a show of how serious they were, the government installed a militarized fence, which, many critics loudly claimed, kind of ruined the point of national parks in the first place. But the president handled even that criticism with aplomb, stating that the point of national parks was to protect that which couldn't fight back against human intervention, and we Hork-Bajir fit that definition just as much as any breed of flora or fauna or geological majesty. There was anger, of course, and among a minority of extremists, Patrick became a martyr and rallying figure, but the president was right. Appealing to the guilt in them kept them submissive, and appealing to the guilt in the apathetic and supportive made them vocal.

There was a short inquiry into the origin of the weapon that almost killed Bug. Colonel Rickertt was held for questioning, but the resulting investigation was classified, and, since the Hork-Bajir had no more claim to American resources, I couldn't review the evidence. And though a conclusion was never made public, Rickertt was condemned to a desk job in Washington and offered no additional promotions.

I'm sure I can draw my own conclusions from that.

However, now that we were independent, there were some issues when it came to funding. Since the Hork-Bajir were technically no longer under US jurisdiction, we had no legal right to funding from the NSF or Department of the Interior to pay our staffs and keep the National Guard on patrol. There were a few emotionally draining weeks when Hayley's research was going to fold, as she was frantically trying to find tenure at some institution that would let her continue researching without forcing her to teach six months out of the year. We brainstormed for days, trying to think of enough different funding bodies that would agree to foot her, Brian's, and Jeong's sizable bills without conflict of interest, until the answer came to her in a moment of simplistic insight.

We Hork-Bajir were setting out on our own. Why did that not mean we could not also earn our own funding?

I am still, and will always be, uncomfortable with being such a figure of interest to the humans, but the truth is, that kind of notoriety is not difficult to monetize. It started with a subscription e-mail that I wrote once a week, offering whatever update or news I wanted to write about, but we quickly found that demand was high and people were willing to pay much more than $.99 for a poorly written e-mail. We ended up selling it as a syndicated column in a few notable periodicals, and that led to book deals and a few public appearances that I've indulged, in small venues with outrageously priced tickets. After the success of that, we opened a very small tourist department that gives three-day, comprehensive tours to a small number of overprivileged, overwealthy people that do it more because of its exclusivity than genuine interest. I do dislike adhering to some of the more troubling rules of human economics that reward people with money instead of people with more admirable qualities, but it gives us the means we need to continue our operation, and if there's one thing I've become expert at over the years, it's cognitive dissonance.

Wotch and I still had to go to Washington four times a year for our E-TAD Committee meetings, but there were not many other trips besides those. The occasional UN summit, a couple of inter-planetary conferences hosted by humans, attended by Andalites and Wotch and me, obviously put on more for show than substance. I didn't leave much to do promotional work—we invited a couple of documentary film crews to film the park, but we'd been doing that all along.

Really, I'm looking for things to complain about. Life has taken a remarkable turn for the better since the park was closed. I earn enough from the column, appearance fees, and royalties from my books to keep Marie as my personal assistant (she had been arrested immediately following her defection, held in captivity for three days, and unconditionally pardoned by the president after that) and keep a sizable private security team stationed throughout the park. Cassie, who did everything she could for us from Washington while Patrick was under arrest, continues to work for our cause, though the politics has forced her to make Washington a more permanent home. Hayley's enterprise is partly self-sustaining, as she takes in profits from her own series of books, and I cover the difference. Brian and Jeong, likewise, are on my payroll. All the people I need are still here, and the ones who interfered are, to borrow a human euphemism, seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Obviously, this has given me a tremendous amount of time to spend with my people.

Toby Jr. may not seem like much of an achievement to my people, but to me she is the true symbol of the culmination of our struggles. On the day she was born, the Hork-Bajir truly stopped being slaves, and the war was truly over.

And she wasn't alone for long. Stek loved being a mother, and Jara loved being a father almost more than he loved indulging Stek, so by the next winter, she was pregnant with her second, this time a boy they named Hug. Junior (they had to drop the "Toby" because people kept getting confused) is strong, and outgoing, and popular, as much a leader as her namesake (or so some people say), while Hug is small, quiet, introspective.

I like Hug very much.

He and I go on walks a lot through the hearth. He doesn't speak up much around his peers, but he does have a fascinating view of the world. He asks me questions and I can't even fathom where he gets them from. Are trees made of ground, and if they are, does that make them ground, or are they still trees? If birds can swim, do they stop being birds? Are Hork-Bajir humans, since they talk like humans? Things of that nature. I don't wonder why these philosophical tangents alienate children his age, but I love indulging him.

Telf, as well, flourished in his role as grandfather. He spent a large portion of his time working out twists and turns in his Bok epic while simultaneously keeping it simple enough for anyone to jump in at any point, since it seems we can never be sure when we'll get another addition to the family. The rest of the time he was usually begging Stek and Jara to let him babysit so they could go off and conceive more grandchildren for him to spoil.

Bug and Radi didn't quite resolve their issues so they could move on to the next obvious step in their relationship. She'd given up her grudge, but he still fostered guilt over it, and she read his reluctance as a desire to seek another girl as kalashi, though he'd never given any indication of that. Their friendship was still strong—in fact, it was entirely exclusive—but there was still some obstruction keeping them from giving Telf and I even more grandchildren to spoil. Telf tried to intervene a couple of times, but I stopped him. It was not our responsibility or right to tell them what to do.

But, for the most part, life had finally achieved a sense of regularity and routine. My days were filled with patrolling the hearth, being visible in case of any problems, disputes, interruptions, visiting different sections of the park on a weekly basis, and dealing with whatever problems or requests the humans had. Telf oversaw his small-but-growing team of doulas and midwives, assisting the more difficult births himself, and spent his winter months with our family, telling his stories, socializing with his friends.

There were very few interruptions in these three years since the park closed, but the ones that happened were devastating.

Wotch died in his sleep almost two years after the park closed. It was more than he'd expected, I know—he used to tell me that he'd always assumed his curse would be to deliver his people to the safety and vitality of Earth without being able to enjoy it himself, but he ended up lasting just long enough to lull us all into a false sense of security. We never forgot how old he was, of course. It just seemed that he would be able to transcend his own mortality.

He was with Perd when it happened, which at least precluded the precarious issue of explaining why he was sleeping with some woman who wasn't his "wife," but Perd was so shocked by it that her hysteria almost revealed their secret for good. Kayah and Henner managed to calm her down as the rest of his people congregated at their tree, distraught, shocked, mournful.

As per Hork-Bajir tradition, we buried him after two days of mourning at the base of his home tree, and the funeral itself lasted all night. Each of his wives and many of his children took an opportunity to say some parting words to their patriarch, and though Hork-Bajir are, by definition, laconic, there were a lot of wives and children to get through.

It seemed as though all of his people, and a majority of mine, attended the funeral. Wotch had touched a lot of lives in his brief tenure as Governor Hamee's counterpart, and a lot of people needed reassurance after his death.

Including, as it turned out, me.

The day after the funeral, I went to the little slice north of the park that Wotch had delivered the former Yeerks to so I could speak with Reed. She normally stayed in the small grove where Wotch's nuclear family had settled, but she'd been spending some time with them to get their story straight, make sure everyone was taken care of. I had a feeling she'd become the de facto leader of their people, and I wanted offer whatever alliance I could to make sure the transition would be smooth.

She was walking with a couple of children when I caught up with her. One was a young adult, and the other seemed to be about a year and a half old. It didn't take me long to deduce that they were hers. The oldest was holding a sleeping yearling over his shoulder, which I also deduced was hers. Not only that, either. She was pregnant, and though it was only late March, she seemed big enough to be full term.

I hadn't kept intimately involved in Reed's life, but there had been enough gossip to keep me vaguely informed of her comings and goings. Reed hadn't skipped a single year without calving, and in fact had conceived her second three months after delivering her first. I wasn't sure if all the children had been a byproduct of uncontrollable lust, if Wotch had some ulterior plan to populate the park with his offspring, or if something else was causing the extreme fecundity, and I really hadn't had the opportunity nor desire to ask. All the same, it took a little effort to conceal my shock as she wearily trudged up to me.

"Governor Hamee," she said with a tired smile. "I never thought I'd see you around these parts."

I took her hand. "I just wanted to speak with you, if you're not too busy."

"I'm always busy, as you can probably tell," she said, gesturing to her brood, "but you're someone I can always make time for."

We started walking over the snowy, trampled ground, Reed moving slowly, stopping every few moments to catch her breath. I waited with her, offered to fetch her water, offered myself as a crutch, but she waved me off. "What was it you wanted to discuss, Toby?"

"I suppose I wanted to see how you were doing," I said. "Offer any assistance I could for you in this difficult time."

She leaned against a tree and glanced back at me suspiciously. "That's very kind."

An awkward silence followed, and I did my best to redirect it. "How are the children doing?"

"They're devastated, of course. He had thirty-two, but he always managed to make them each feel special and loved."

"How are you doing?" I asked.

She stood straight and huffed out a laugh. "I think it's too early for me to give an honest assessment."

I don't know why, but I smiled to her. "The beginning is confusing because you're never sure whether the worst has already passed or is yet to come. But please believe me, Reed. The worst is over."

Her chin trembled and she wiped a tear away. "I know. I'm just worried for the children, and for…" She looked down and passed her hands over her belly. "They'll never know him. He'll never know them."

"Them?" I asked.

She laughed again, wiped another tear. "I've been meaning to ask you, actually. Or Telf. Wotch wasn't sure." She looked up to me "Do Hork-Bajir ever twin?"

A chill ran through me. That wouldn't be an easy birth, and I couldn't bear the thought of her other three losing both of their parents in so short a time.

"Not that I know of. I'll ask Telf, though. I'm sure if we do, he has experience with it."

"I would appreciate that."

We stood for a while as she caressed her belly and I watched her in worry, until her eldest came up.

"Sorry," he said as he passed me, averting his gaze. Reed bent down a little to speak to him. He whispered to her and she sighed.

"Chew some bark for her. We won't be much longer, I promise."

The kawatnoj in her brother's arms turned and started clawing at Reed's face, whining to be fed. Reed rubbed her throat and swallowed, which made the baby whine some more, but her brother held her and shushed her and headed off.

"You're still nursing?" I asked in mild disgust, heavy sympathy.

The whining seemed to have invigorated her glands, which made Reed rub gently and swallow frequently. She laughed a little again. "I've been nursing for the past three years, Governor."

"I'm sorry," I said quickly.

"What for?"

"I just…you look…"

"Miserable?"

I gave an apologetic smile. "I don't mean to insult you."

"You didn't," she said. "Do you mind if I sit down?"

"Not at all," I said, rushing over to help her to a tree stump. "Can I get you anything?"

Once she was settled, she took a deep breath and grabbed my arm with both hands. I didn't try to pull away, only looked her in the eye as she turned up to me.

"He was very fond of you, you know," she said. "I got jealous sometimes."

"He loved you very much," I responded automatically. "I think he loved you the most."

She scoffed again. "I hated whenever he told me that," she said. "It felt so contrary to the point." She shook her head. "I just mean…I appreciate you coming here, Governor. I know we had our differences, and I wasn't…I didn't want to understand, at first, but I do now, and I'm sorry for everything." The grip on my arm loosened. "It's very selfless to come here and make sure we have everything we need when I sense you're just as lost as the rest of us."

"What?" I laughed. "No, of course not. I'm fine. I think we were all a little shocked by it, and it will be strange not working with him anymore, but…"

Reed stared at me dubiously.

"I just mean…you know…" I laughed again.

"He was very fond of you," she continued, patting my hand, "because he liked not being alone. You had your disagreements, of course, and I think you both resented each other on my account, but there was a change when he met you. He opened up a little bit. It's hard to know how to behave when you're the only one of your kind. So yes, on a very big fundamental issue, you disagreed, but that doesn't mean that you still didn't have more in common than not."

I winced a little bit.

"He loved me because I could understand the things that troubled him, I could offer my own viewpoints and suggestions. He let me in. But there were some doors I could not open no matter how much he wanted me to, Toby. Those were the parts of him that only you could understand."

I looked down.

"And I don't think he was ever able to tell you this, but that was very important to him."

For some reason, I was reminded of my father. How I repressed feeling anything for him, and how much it damaged me later.

I started to cry.

I turned away, embarrassed, feeling defeated somehow, like I was still at war with this Yeerk, but she touched my arm and pulled me into an embrace.

"I feel you bear the worst burden of us all," Reed said to me. "Wotch's family are all connected by him, and we will all drown each other in support and love while we cope with his death. But you? Toby Hamee, savior of the Hork-Bajir people, an outsider, will still only be allowed to give love and support. You will ask for nothing in return, even though your bond with him was perhaps most precious and mournable of all."

"I don't," I said, hiccupping, wiping my face, pulling away. "I'm not. It's not—"

"Toby," Reed said softly, smiling, comforting, maternal. "Let me give you this now, please. I fear it's all I have to give." I sighed and leaned into the embrace, pressed my cheek to her shoulder.

She held me for a while, until she jerked in discomfort. "Oh," she moaned, putting a hand on her flank. "They're fighting again."

I looked down and watched her stomach twitch and dance. I smiled. "May I?"

"Here, this is where…no, wait…" she said, guiding my hand over the surface of her belly. "Sometimes I swear I can feel both of them. I think they're embracing, and one keeps waking the other up."

I touched her for a while in captivation, in envy. Then I looked up to her, perhaps taken in by her kindness, perhaps selfishly trying to placate my own curiosity as I sensed how generous motherhood had made her.

"Why did you have so many?" I asked. "Why put your body through this?"

She smiled again, hand resting on her squirming womb. "Because it's my body," she said. "And I'm lucky enough to be in the minority of my race who can say that." Then her face got serious. "Because I am directly responsible for at least one Hork-Bajir's death, and that guilt will drive me to my end. The only thing I can do is give back as many as I'm able. Ray, Tim, Maya. And whatever their two siblings turn out to be. They're my penance."

I smiled at her. "Human names?"

She shrugged. "I like human names. And it's not like 'Toby' is authentically Hork-Bajir. Cultures change on account of their people. And I think ours is changing for the better."

Perhaps it was a test, to see if I would contradict her claim to belonging to our culture. But I leaned in and kissed her and told her to send for me if she needed anything, and that I would make sure Telf visited her within the week.

Though Telf could not confirm with certainty that multiple cubs were gestating, he did decide to make her one of his priority patients. She delivered in early June, as most kalashi did.

Telf assisted that birth alone, though I was required to finish up. And it, perhaps, was an even more important event than Wotch's death.

One of my messengers retrieved me shortly after dusk. Flocks of insects buzzed and bit and hummed and glowed as I made my way to Reed's tree. When I got there, I sensed the tension, though it took me a few moments to figure out its source.

Reed was curled into herself tightly, knees pulled to her chest, rocking back and forth, humming a melody that was intermittently interrupted by sobs. Telf was sitting on the ground, arms crossed, looking impatient and worn out. Three other Hork-Bajir males were standing around him.

They were guarding him.

I had a choice over which situation to investigate first. I didn't realize it then, but deciding which more deserved my attention is perhaps the reason everything ended the way it did.

I kneeled beside Reed.

I didn't say anything at first, just touched her, comforted her. She gazed down at the newborn girl buried in her arms, dangerously ambivalent, in mourning and jubilation.

"What's her name?" I asked.

"June," Reed said. "Because all life begins in June." She snuggled her tighter and started rocking faster. I put my arms around her and looked around a little more closely.

A bloodstained blanket was covering something a few feet away.

I glanced up at the guards who watched me carefully, their eyes full of fury. I slowly bent toward the blanket, gripped the corner, and pulled it back just enough to see what was beneath.

A stillborn boy, gray and blue. He'd been dead long before Reed delivered him.

"Oh Reed, I'm so sorry," I said, returning to her, wrapping her in my arms.

She kept rocking for a while, resisting my embrace, but slowly she leaned, she succumbed. Soon she was holding me just as tightly, her girl snuggled between us, squirming and alive.

"I can't look at him," she sobbed. "I can't even say good bye."

"It's all right," I said, shushing her. "No one will make you."

"I want to," she sobbed. "I can't, I want to, I have to."

"Do you want me to—"

"No," she sobbed, gripping me tighter. I held her for a while, shushing her, as the looks on the faces of the three males watching changed from fury to pity.

I didn't really know what to say. Reassuring her that it wasn't her fault couldn't possibly ease any of the pain from losing something she never should have been able to have. I knew she had coped with Wotch's death by depending on the hope growing inside of her, and now that half of that had been dashed as well…

"We'll bury him with Wotch," I said. "I'll put him in Wotch's arms myself. Wotch will look after him."

She turned her bloodshot, tear-filled eyes to me, surprised. I thought for a moment that I'd offended her. "Wotch will know him after all," she agreed.

"Yes," I said, relieved.

"Wotch will get one, and I'll get the other."

"He'll keep him safe until you are reunited," I said. "And you know Wotch loved nothing more than his children."

More tears spilled from her eyes, but they were different. Grateful, relieved. Still so sad, and it would be a pain that would perhaps never entirely heal, but she would recover enough to be there for her daughter, and hopefully the rest of her family as well.

As she cried into my chest, I looked at Telf and silently asked him what was going on. He sighed and gestured irritably to his guards, one of whom kicked him gently in the ribs to keep him still.

"Ow!" Telf whined. "Telf not do anything wrong!"

"Sensit, will you give it a rest?" Reed said, wiping her face. "It wasn't his fault."

"I refuse to accept that based solely on his testimony," Sensit said, jabbing a finger in Telf's direction, and I suddenly sensed what this was about.

"Then accept it based on mine," Reed said. Sensit responded with a stubborn huff.

"Is it all right if I let go?" I asked Reed. She nodded and readjusted her daughter, who reached up with a tiny newborn arm for her jaw.

"She's hungry anyway," Reed said. "Tankirt, could you go get Maya? It's about time to feed her too."

Tankirt looked at Sensit, who gave him a curt nod. I slid slowly out from behind Reed and gestured Telf to come over. He looked dubiously at his captors, but Reed glared at them until they let Telf pass and hold her as she nursed.

I walked up to the male who gazed at me challengingly. "You're Sensit?"

"Not all of us succumbed to the names of simpletons," he seethed.

"That is unnecessary," Reed snapped, a little bit of milk drooling from the corner of her mouth as her daughter protested the interruption. "You treat her with the respect your leader deserves."

"She is not my leader," Sensit responded.

"No, I am. And she is my leader. You remember the transitive property from all those awful lessons in the pool, don't you?"

Sensit's gaze turned back to me.

"Let's go down to ground level to speak," I said. "I'm sure we can resolve this feud ourselves, without forcing any additional burden on Reed." Reed sighed and turned back to her daughter who dove greedily into her mouth.

I climbed down the tree, and Sensit followed grudgingly. When he got to the bottom, he started to growl.

"I'm sure my testimony is no more valuable then Telf's, but Telf doesn't let his politics into his work."

"That may be entirely true," Sensit said, "but you will never make me believe it. He knows what we are because of you. He hates us. And he was put in charge of a very delicate task none of the rest of us have any expertise in. I cannot believe he didn't abuse his power."

I crossed my arms and stared sadly at the former Yeerk for some time. Yes, the war was over. But this wasn't peace.

"What are you?" I asked.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, what do you identify as? A Hork-Bajir, or a Yeerk?"

"I cannot ignore my past," he said proudly.

"I'm not asking you to. But I am asking you to be a Hork-Bajir now."

Sensit crossed his arms tighter.

"Sensit, I know I haven't been the most welcoming host to your…your people," I said. "And there was a time that I would have refused you permission to be here if I could. But that's not the case anymore."

"You want us here?" Sensit scoffed.

"I want Hork-Bajir here," I said. "Are you a Hork-Bajir?"

Sensit considered me carefully. "That was the stipulation we agreed to when Wotch refueled our ship and restocked our supplies."

I smiled. "Good. I'm glad," I said. "Because there are a few things that Hork-Bajir do simply by nature of being Hork-Bajir. One, they love their brethren unconditionally, and may even risk their own safety and prosperity for the safety and prosperity of others. Two, they accept help when they need it. Three, they trust each other." I stared at him. "I am a Hork-Bajir, Sensit. So is Telf. We don't operate under the kinds of rules that Yeerks or Andalites do, or even the kinds of rules I did when we were at war. Yeerks and Andalites abuse. They exploit. They disempower and enslave. They might take advantage of their knowledge over your ignorance to bring you harm. But me? Telf? Those are actions we are no longer capable of."

"I am not taking on one of your inane monosyllabic names," he growled.

"Having a monosyllabic name is not a requirement," I said with a handwave. "Toby has two syllables, after all. But if you want to call yourself Hork-Bajir, you have to earn it. Hork-Bajir is not just the lowest level you defaulted to when you couldn't be a Yeerk anymore. Hork-Bajir requires sacrifice, requires trust, requires humility. Hork-Bajir requires you to drop your suspicion against Telf, because Telf, as a Hork-Bajir, would never do what you're accusing him of. Telf, as a Hork-Bajir, devotes his time and energy to making things better for our people. And, as a Hork-Bajir, the same is expected of you."

Sensit sighed. "One of our people is dead," he said.

"Yes. And it's awful that such terrible things are allowed to happen despite our best efforts," I said. "But somehow, if you haven't been convinced already, I think Reed's stillbirth may show you just what kinds of people Hork-Bajir are. And perhaps…hopefully…they can set an example for you. Reed will need a very specific kind of support through this. I hope you will be willing to give it to her."

"Of course I will," he sighed. "I just can't bear the thought that someone will get away with this."

"Evil is only one cause of pain, Sensit. Sometimes pain happens all on its own," I said. "But don't do things that cause more pain and negativity. Do something good. Make things better. That is what a Hork-Bajir would do."

Sensit laughed a little bit. "I always thought you were so full of it," he said. "This whole speech would have infuriated me if you'd given it when we first arrived. I hated your simpering politics, your overt hypocrisy. Toby Hamee, butcher of the Yeerks, speaking about requisite peace and interdependence." He sighed and looked up at me. "But you went to her first. You went to see if Reed, your former sworn enemy, was all right before checking if your own mate was."

I stared at him. "We understand each other, then?"

Sensit gave a bitter laugh. "Our corporeal imprisonment is not a punishment, it's an aspiration," he scoffed. "I suppose there's not much of a choice, at the very least."

"I wouldn't ever announce you. I won't ever exile you," I said. "There's always a choice. But don't expect me to humor these kinds of antics. As a Hork-Bajir, I will protect my family with violent force. As a Hork-Bajir, however, I would hate for it to have to come to that."

Sensit nodded, looking a little apologetic. "It won't," he said. "We want peace here, too."

"Then let's state it overtly," I said. "This is peace. You have everything any Hork-Bajir is entitled to, including the acceptance and cooperation of everyone else in the park. And I will set that example for everyone else."

Sensit nodded. "And we will protect our people with the utmost vigilance," Sensit began, and I wondered if he was going to insist on making this a conflict. "But you're right. Our people are Hork-Bajir."

"We are all Hork-Bajir."

Reed was asleep when we returned to her platform. Telf carefully extracted himself as Kayah adjusted her, made her comfortable. Sensit oversaw for a moment, but nodded to me and disbanded his small group. Reed's other children had returned, and huddled against Henner, who told them all a poor imitation of one of the earlier chapters of Bok's story.

I don't know why I think this way, but it's hard not to. Part of me didn't really feel like the war had ended until the humans gave us the park for good. And part of me didn't really feel like we were at peace until that day.

It may just be that I've been thinking a lot about Reed this past week. I've been thinking about a lot of things. Looking back. I suppose that's all this diary writing is, an excuse to examine that past few years of my life in order to know how best to look forward.

Because it's time to look forward.

Well, almost. The time between Wotch's death and Reed's delivery of June was a time of great tension among my people, and that treaty seemed to dispel it. Wotch's people and my own had always looked at themselves as separate entities, and though I'm sure that self-identification will not completely bleed away for a couple more generations, I think everyone felt a little more unified after I assured them that I wouldn't treat them differently. Perhaps one of us just needed to die for everyone to feel conscription for one leader. Or perhaps the lingering antagonism between Wotch and me was not as invisible as I'd hoped.

I miss him, despite my need to see his death as a positive for our people. Perhaps that's why I view it as a sacrifice instead of an outright loss. I can't bear to view someone's death as something absolute. I can't bear the thought that the people who have passed on leave nothing positive behind.

I miss him so much.

June was born last summer. And the year following her birth was the best of my life. Stek had gotten pregnant with her third two winters ago, but had miscarried early in her pregnancy. We were all devastated, of course, but Stek has always managed to turn things that should cripple her into hopeful platitudes. She just told everyone matter-of-factly that this meant her next kawatnoj would be twice as good.

I don't know if that's true, but she did give Telf and me a third grandchild two months ago, and though he is wonderful, I doubt she and Jara are done yet.

I thought our home tree would empty now that Jara and Stek had their own family, and I was sure Bug would decide to move out, but she's stayed with us, and Jara and Stek spend a large portion of their time here anyway. Junior and Hug love being here, and though Teb Jr. (we've been calling him "Little" to keep from confusing him with Toby Jr.—and I'm beginning to realize the pattern of names cycling every two generations due to children honoring their parents, however flattering, is causing some real logisitical problems) is still rather new, his first full phrase thirty hours after his birth was, "Dis tee good."

I sleep in a pile of children and grandchildren every night, purring and cuddled together for warmth and security. Their parents and grandparents take shifts going out to hunt for bark while the rest stay and play, train, tell stories, teach. They go to the school tree, of course, but there are no set hours so at least one of them is here most of the time.

Telf and I eventually grew past our forced abstinence. We never stopped wanting each other, of course, but we managed to turn all of the coiled, explosive energy into love for our family, focus on their happiness and well-being. He and I take walks every day throughout the hearth, and they're normally quiet, though we discuss whatever needs or wants our family has and how best to go about delivering them.

Hayley's still around most of the time, though she's on a lecturing tour right now. We take walks as well, and those are usually fuller of conversation. Her research has become far more nuanced the longer she stays. She's on the third volume of her original book, and has two more in the process of being published—one is an account of Hork-Bajir history, told from our perspective (she's interviewed a lot of former hosts, and I admit I learned a lot more than I thought I had to), and the other a more personal account of her time with us, what she's learned, how she's changed. She's often considered the foremost human expert on Hork-Bajir, and that is a title I trust her with completely.

Though Marie is still technically my personal assistant, she's started her own projects and has begun to branch off onto her own career path. She's sort of become the human liaison to my people. She teaches a class about humans at the school tree which has become rather popular with a lot of our young men and women, and Telf used an improved version of our harness to commute her every day. She shows our people human clothing, human food, human media. She even brought up a small portable DVD player and showed a nature documentary with a segment devoted to every continent one day that captivated my people until it ran out of batteries. My people love her, and though I'm sure I will find it impossible to continue my work without her dedication and attention to detail supporting me, Hayley's been encouraging me to allow her to relinquish her of her personal assistant duties and let her finally become the mentor and humanitarian she was always meant to be.

The president's final term is up at the end of the year. I'm a little nervous about the transition, but mostly optimistic. She did manage to convert most of Congress to her side regarding our independence, and though there are a few holdouts, none of them are in a serious position to succeed her. Hork-Bajir rights are one of the more popular platforms, in fact, that her party successor and opponents are running on, and the only thing that separates them is how much they support us. She's done remarkable work in constructing the political landscape to make our future as bright as possible.

Perhaps, after all this time, I've learned to trust the humans. Or perhaps I'm just trying to be optimistic. Because, despite all their philanthropy and the fact that the majority of them have been remarkably supportive, there are always outliers, extremists, and the fear that those antagonists will become the majority is a fear shared between me and the humans. The Hork-Bajir will be on Earth for a long time yet. And as long as we are, we will be at their mercy.

Of course, I can't worry about that all of the time. The majority of my time now is spent with my family, and that's exactly where I want it.

My walks with Telf quickly became the anchor in my life. Don't get me wrong, I love walking and hypothesizing and arguing with Hayley, but that takes more out of me than it replenishes. Telf always managed to fuel me, to nourish me, and even as we walked slowly and in silence, I could feel his love and support permeate.

That continued even as his condition degenerated. I'm still amazed by how large a portion of his life he spent in youth—he gave no outward indication of his illness besides the occasional exhausted jerk and stutter until last autumn. Then, his internal scarring started to manifest as a mild palsy that made his hands shake, his head wobble. I walked with one arm under his, supporting him as we moved slowly through the hearth. His muscles began to deteriorate, he began to age rapidly, and climbing became so much effort that he started spending most of his time in our tree.

I made sure I was there for him as much as I could be, even though I am not exactly young anymore either. My shoulder never quite fully healed, mostly, I assume, because the bullet is still inside. It was fine for a while, and I could laugh off any concern by reframing the wound as a positive—it became a particularly accurate barometer for predicting sudden rain and snow storms. However, within a few more months, I couldn't lift my right arm much higher than 135 degrees, which made swinging nearly impossible. I wasn't even ten years old and I'd already lost the trees.

Of course, I was still younger and healthier than Telf. I'd taken care of him when he'd been disabled once before, and though I'd had a very good excuse for my absences then, that was not something I wanted to repeat. He'd always encourage me to go out, walk my winding path around all of the neighborhoods and subsections of the park to be visible, to solve any problems that needed solving, even just to give my people the visible message that I was healthy and active, but I did as infrequently as I could. After all, we'd managed to create a fairly efficient messenger system after all of this time, and I prided myself on responding to any of them within the day.

And for a year, that's all life really was. Lullabies and stories and love for our family, walks with Hayley, walks with Telf. Sometimes even just sitting in trees and watching the leaves change, fall, sprout again. It was slow, restful, peaceful. Perfect.

But the best of things must always end.

I brought Telf to Brian's occasionally. He'd found his own success, of course, publishing his own book and starting his own column in the New England Journal of Medicine about Hork-Bajir comparisons to human medicine and evolution (he published a remarkable series just last December about whether Hork-Bajir should be categorized as reptiles or mammals, and whether those distinctions even had any relevance on planets other than Earth.) Though we could offer no human compensation for his medical expertise, it turned out access to our physiology was the most precious thing we could offer. He kept detailed accounts of all illnesses that we came to him with, and after all those years he found four other cases like Telf's.

Unfortunately, that didn't bring him any closer to a cure.

So he gave Telf regular check-ups, partly to advance his own studies, partly to placate me, and the news only got progressively worse. I took Telf back to the hospital for two additional MRIs, but all that did was show how his condition was accelerating. Brian talked about potential changes in diet, maybe avoiding any water that came from the springs, maybe not swinging anymore, because the continuous impacting of his skeleton may be expediting the condition, but it all seemed more psychologically comforting than anything.

To his credit, Telf's attitude never changed. He always went on the check-ups willingly, and though my spirits were crushed a little more each time, Telf always left with a smile. He tried talking with me a couple of times about what we'd do when the illness finally won, but I shut those conversations down immediately.

I wonder if indulging them would have made it any easier.

He fell three weeks ago. He shouldn't have been swinging, and he knew that, but Little had asked him for some maple bark while Telf was watching him, and Telf never refused to appease the children. I'm grateful that Telf left Little at the tree, because I don't think a child that small could have survived what happened. A seizure gripped him at the apex of his leap and he fell almost forty feet. There was no fortunate snatch of underbrush to break his fall this time. His femur snapped in two and his hip shattered. Hork-Bajir, no matter how old they are, regenerate more quickly than almost any Earth organism, but he didn't walk again.

Jara helped me carry him back to our tree, and we made him comfortable. Brian offered a bed pan, and I spent most of my time nursing him.

It was a quiet time. Jara and Stek moved in semi-permanently, and Radi never left Bug's side. She wept, of course, as soon as she heard, and he hushed her and stroked her and comforted her like only he could. The children were a little more difficult, since they didn't quite understand what it meant. They had no concept of death, which was both an accomplishment I valued and an obstacle none of us had any idea how to confront. When he wasn't sleeping, or when I wasn't feeding or cleaning up after him, Telf spent most of his time bringing his Bok epic to a gradual close. He finally ended it last week.

"So Bok take Yaloo, and friendly talking squirrel, and Paka and Meeb tfo the wizard-cave. Show wizard most strong force of all, wizard is scared, crushed, changed forever."

"What is strong force?" Hug yipped, gripping Telf's crippled thigh in captivation. "What they do?"

"Show wizard love," Telf said, and I could have scoffed from the sentimentality but I felt tears creep out of the corner of my eyes. "Show that best thing is to love people. Wizard get sad that he have no love. He undoes spell, releases Bok's family."

"Then what?" Junior demanded.

"Bok go home."

"Then what?" Junior said, raising her voice. Telf laughed a little bit.

"That the end, Junior. Bok found his family. That what Bok wanted all along."

Junior slumped, disappointed, Hug looked contemplative. Jara had Little in his lap and he seemed like he was about to cry.

"That ending boring," Junior said, crossing her arms in a huff. "Boring ending, boring story."

"That is Telf's end," Telf said. "If Junior think boring, Junior can keep story going. What Bok would do."

I looked around at my family, each clinging desperately to each other as we all quietly accepted that more than just Telf's story was coming to an end. Junior and Hug seemed disappointed, perhaps finally recognizing what all of this waiting and hoping meant. Jara and Stek were doing their best to comfort the children while coping with the stress and grief themselves. Mother was there, too, for me, perhaps, or perhaps just as desperate to be with Telf for his last few days as the rest of us.

And Telf, looking bitter, looking self-doubting, looking like he'd failed comforting his family with what he'd been working on for almost a decade.

I couldn't bear all the grief we were trying to suppress. I couldn't bear that horrible silence, that contemplative pain.

"I have a story," I said, my voice cracking a little, and I cleared my throat and composed myself before I continued.

"Mother Toby tells bad stories," Junior said with a raspberry, but Hug shushed her.

"I know. This is a new story. It's not mine, so you might like it more."

"What story?" Hug asked.

I looked to Telf, who was smiling at me proudly. "Your grandfather knows it as well," I said. "So, at the parts where I can't…where I'm not…"

"Telf will help," he said.

I swallowed again, doubting myself for a moment. But this was important. My family's happiness and comfort was more important than some silly grudge I had against the dead. I looked at my mother, and she smiled.

"Well?" Junior asked.

"It starts on a far away planet. The planet Hork-Bajir originate from. Our home planet. It's a gray rock with deep valleys that are flush with life, with the tallest, most succulent trees you've ever tasted."

"Suck-you-lant mean good?" Hug asked.

"It means the best. Sweet, moist, ripe. And there was a young Hork-Bajir named Dak Hamee, who was a seer like me."

It was slow going, and there were parts I couldn't bring myself to tell, but Telf had always been a better storyteller anyway, so he tempered the pace, built up to an astounding climax, and let me finish.

"Toby like that story," Junior said when it was over a few hours later. "Very sad."

"Yes, it was."

"Yeerks are very scary," Hug said. "Are they real?"

I took him in my arms and embraced him. "Not anymore."

I looked around the small circle of my family, Bug huddled up sleeping against Radi, Junior and Hug contemplating the end of my story, Little sleeping soundly in his mother's arms, who herself was asleep in Jara's. And Jara, staring at me sadly. That was the first time he had heard that story as well.

The waiting didn't last much longer.

Last week, Telf had another seizure. Fortunately, Jara had taken the children to visit their cousins in order to give Stek some time alone with Little, and Bug and Radi were asleep on the canopy, so Mother and I nursed him through it. I brought Brian to the tree with the harness, and he only needed to give Telf a quick once-over to confirm that he didn't have much time left.

"How long?" I asked.

"The reflex test in his spine shows that the communication is all but severed, Toby," he said. "As soon as that last nerve goes quiet, his brain won't be able to control his breathing anymore. That will be it."

I didn't really know how to take the news. I couldn't cry, I wasn't angry. It felt sort of like a buzzing haze that encapsulated my head.

"Do you want me to tell him?" Brian asked.

"No, I should do it. Is there anything we can do to make him more comfortable?"

"Dandelions. They're in season, so we're lucky there, even though finding them might be hard with that storm front to the west."

Telf was quiet when I relayed the news. I didn't dumb anything down, I didn't try to soften the blow. I knew him well enough by then to know that honesty was the most generous thing I could give him.

The children cried when they came back, and Telf held them and shushed them. Little didn't understand why everyone was so sad, but he cried and clung to Telf too. Jara looked like he was barely holding it together, and Stek took him out of the tree to comfort him alone.

For the past week, Telf took visitors, discussing his business with Jara and his other doulas, wrapping up his affairs. I helped however I could, of course, and whenever I sensed him getting tired or overworked, I stepped in. And though he let me, it was more than clear that I wasn't in charge of this.

I couldn't be.

Then he moved onto the children. He took as much time as he needed with Junior, Hug, and Little, telling them how happy they'd made him, how proud he was, how much he loved them. Then he moved onto Jara and Stek, and most of their conversation was filled with nostalgic stories, sad laugthter, comforting embraces.

Bug trudged up after they were done, but he stopped her.

"Go get Radi," he said. He glanced at me, and I sighed and shrugged. I wasn't going to stop him now.

I watched from a neighboring tree as they talked for a little over an hour. At the end, I watched as Telf held Radi's shoulder and squeezed and whispered in his ear. I watched as Radi bent down in grief, in guilt, and started to cry. But Telf smiled and hugged him, and Radi laughed and hugged him back, and looked to Bug, who was standing back, and leaped up and hugged her.

He held her by the shoulders, and kissed her, and she seemed confused but then elated and hugged him back. And then she went up to Telf and hugged him and cried for a few minutes, and swung off with Radi.

I went to Telf after a few minutes of digesting this. He appeared to be waiting for me.

"What did you tell him?" I asked.

"Say, life too short to wait so long, Radi. Go be Bug's kalashu."

The lump in my throat overcame me. I collapsed into his arms.

"They're going to have so many kawatnoj," I said. "Every summer until one of them dies."

"If it make Bug and Radi happy, then yes," Telf agreed.

"And you won't be there to help her," I sobbed. "She'll have to do it all alone, without your perfect support and love."

"Jara know how do that, Toby. Jara will help Bug."

I sniffled and wiped my nose. "Was it really so easy? After all this time?"

He put his finger beneath my chin and lifted my head to his eyeline. "Sometime, people just need a little push," he said. "Or, for Toby, a little pull."

"I was wrong," I said. "I should have let you do that years ago. You'll never get to see them. You'll never get to see all of Bug's children. Or Toby's, or Hug's."

"Yes, Telf know."

"Doesn't that make you sad?"

Telf stared at me a little longer with the same kind of resolved smile, the smile of a man who had come to terms with his fate. It made me angry. How could he accept this? How could he just give up?

"Telf mean to ask, Toby. Well, ask Mother Toby."

"Ask me what, Telf?"

"What Mother Toby think happens after we die?"

I laughed and wiped my nose. Of all the silly comforts I had to give my people, this was one I had never mastered, and one I honestly hadn't expected him to spring on me.

"I don't know, Telf."

"Telf knows. Or, Telf thinks."

I sat back a little. "What do you think happens when we die, Telf?"

"Think, wake up on Big Tree. Big Tree is warm, ripe, soft, good to eat. Wake up feel so good, so alive. Big Tree so big, have no top, have no bottom. Tree go on forever. Warm sun, cool air. Feel so good, so safe. Easy to cut, fills up stomach without aches. Good to sleep in. No bugs, no birds. Only Hork-Bajir.

"Tree so big because full of all people Telf ever know. Telf's mother, Telf's father, Telf's mother-mothers, father-fathers. All the way up. Telf's brothers and sisters who Telf never met. Telf's aunts and uncles. Everyone ever bound to Telf."

"Can I be there?" I asked.

Telf hee-hawed. "Very much yes, Toby. When Toby die, Toby wake up in big tree. Telf help her stretch, get used to new tree. Toby meet Telf's mother, all of Telf's family. Jara Hamee already there too, waiting, with Seerow Hamee his father, Dak Hamee his father-father, Aldrea the hruthin. Toby can see Jara, can show Jara Getrin to Jara Hamee. Jara Hamee can see Bug Getrin, and Toby and Hug and Little. Bug's kawatnoj, too, when they come."

I pressed my ear to his chest, listened to the hearts beating within. "But won't it hurt to wait so long for them? For me?"

Telf laughed. "Telf will wait. Live is good, Toby. Telf wait for that."

I looked up at him. "I think I would like that very much," I said, and my voice strained, and tears spilled from my eyes. Telf wiped them away and embraced me.

We sat for a few hours in silence, watching the afternoon sky surrender to night. And then Telf looked down at me.

"Telf want one more thing, Toby," he said.

"Are you hungry? I can get some bark, if you—"

"Telf want Toby one more time before go to Big Tree," he said.

"But that will kill you," I said.

"Yes," Telf said. "Telf want to choose. Yeerks are gone so Telf can choose."

I stared at him for a moment. Even the mere suggestion of finally ceding to the urges that had plagued us for seasons made me throb and moisten in anticipation.

"Telf choose this."

He laid me back slowly, eased into the kiss hesitantly. I wasn't sure if it was because he was sensing my undercover resistance, or because it had been so long since we'd made love that he wanted to err on the side of caution, but I wasn't being exactly sensual. My hips ached with age as he spread my legs, and I trembled in worry that any particular advancement toward coitus would send him into his final seizure. I monitored him ceaselessly as he worked his way inside me, as he began to move, slowly at first, but then with the rhythm we'd long since agreed on and perfected. I stared into his eyes and didn't enjoy a moment of it because I was too worried that I'd lose him once and for all as soon as he finished.

When I finally felt him buck and clench, I shut my eyes and let the tears fall, heaving out a sob, but he finished with a deep sigh of satisfied relief and said, "Shh, Toby. Telf only get started." And then he nuzzled my snout with his, nudged his way inside my mouth, and kissed me the way he knew I liked, rubbing my glands that, after all this time, responded to the stimulation by releasing floods of endorphins into my bloodstream.

I was resistant to the seduction, but Telf was not only adept at the act of seducing me, but also knew me better than almost anyone, could sense when I needed a push, could tell when he needed to pull back and give me a moment. He sat back and let me control the pace the second time, seated in his lap with my legs and arms wrapped around his waist, and he stood and scooped me up beneath the thighs against the trunk of the far support for the third.

By then, I had almost completely forgotten that this was our last night together, that we both planned for this exertion to kill him, that I was old, that I had grandchildren, that there was anything besides me and him. The borders between each encounter started to blur, and despite myself, I started to vocalize my assent, I started to move in ways I hadn't thought about moving in years. He grunted and growled and I moaned and barked in harmony.

It continued for hours, until he had me on all fours pressed up against the center support, my hand in front of me, and I watched it as my body liquefied, I fell against it as all context was erased from reality, as I regressed into primordial ooze, ascended as a non-corporeal entity. It was the highest act of life, it was the closest thing to death. It was my first time, it was my last time.

I wailed when he finished, face collapsing against the platform, as the orgasm that he'd been teasing and constructing since nightfall pounded through my entire body, cycling so fiercely I thought it might kill me. But it began to recede, and I realized Telf was sprawled over my back, working furiously to catch his breath. I turned my head to watch him as he removed himself, fell backward, and rolled onto his good hip, shiny with sweat, looking fresh and rejuvenated enough to be unmistakable from the man I'd first met almost a decade ago.

I tried to speak, but I was still too obliterated from the ordeal. We didn't need to congratulate each other, anyway. We both knew what it meant.

We took a few minutes to compose ourselves before I rose shakily to my hands and knees and turned to look back at him.

"Do you want to go once more?" I asked.

"Telf is tired," he said, patting me gently on the rump. "Time to sleep." I nodded fearfully and turned to embrace him.

He laid against my chest on the platform, arms wrapped behind my back, mine around his shoulders. He breathed easy for the hours he slept.

I didn't sleep at all. I held him in wakeful silence until I felt his breath stutter, until his abdomen seized up, until his grip around me tightened, until his teeth clenched and he whimpered.

"I love you, Telf," I said, pressing my lips to his ear. A tear spilled from my unblinking eye. "I'll see you at Big Tree soon."

He exhaled slowly and went quiet and limp after that. And by morning, he still hadn't gotten cold, and I didn't want to let go, but the children would be coming by soon and I had to prepare for them.

I gently extracted myself out from under him and laid a blanket over his body. I climbed down the tree and headed towards the cabin.

I opened the door and was surprised to find Marie inside.

"What are you doing here?" I asked.

"Couldn't sleep."

"You've been sleeping in here all week," I said. "Just because I'm not here doesn't mean I don't know these things."

She shrugged in response. "How's Telf?"

Now I looked down, unwilling to articulate.

"Oh, Toby," Marie said. "I'm so sorry. Do you…do you want me to call Hayley?"

I looked back up at her. "Yes, we should probably let her know. Brian, too."

"I'll get her on the first flight out of Baltimore. At least I think she's in Baltimore today."

"No, no, that's unnecessary," I said. "She doesn't have to truncate her tour for my sake."

"I think she'd want to, Toby."

I sighed. "Whatever she wants." Marie gave me one more pitiful look and picked up the phone.

"Marie," I said, walking over, putting my hand on the receiver and gently laying it back down on the cradle, "I'm going to use the restroom."

She stared up at me. "Okay."

"If anyone comes in, send them out again. And don't bother me for any reason."

"What if your kids come looking for you?"

"I won't be too long. Send them back home, and I'll be there shortly."

She picked up the phone again and watched me as I shuffled into the small human room and locked the door.

I stood for a while, in the dark, focusing on the feel of my body without the distraction of sight. Rubbed my inner thighs, which ached from the work Telf had put them through last night. Fingered my loins, which were also sore from Telf's particular abuse. Felt the raw, swollen congestion in my belly indicating the seed Telf had deposited there.

I put my hand over it, willed it to take root. But that was folly. I was too old, it was too early. Even if a miracle occurred, did I even have the strength to carry a new kawatnoj into life? And did I want to bring it here if Telf wouldn't be there to help me, to love him?

No. The last bit of Telf's life was inside me, but it would die along with him.

I turned on the light and bent over the sink so I could look into the small mirror. I gripped the sides of the porcelain and stared at my reflection.

I was no child anymore. I hadn't been a child for a very long time. Wrinkles gathered and rolled around my eyes, the edges of my lips. My headblades were yellowed with age, my beak flaking and grooved. I put a finger on the small, dark green circle on my shoulder, pressed down. It still hurt after all these years. Raised my arm, felt the familiar jolt of pain when the two bones crushed into the bullet lodged between. I bent back down, gripped the porcelain again, and continued to stare.

There is an important detail I have left exempt from my diary until now. The one that, at this point, I am most conflicted about.

I've written about Jake. Marco. Cassie, Tobias. The children warriors who, perhaps more than any other force, made me into the person I became. Those that survived each impacted my life in unique ways after the end of the war. I will always treasure and resent their influence. And I will always miss them.

It happened a mere couple of months after the end of the war. They all had their own duties and obligations to attend to, as did I, and their schedules were likewise frantic and uninterruptible. Until that moment, I didn't ever expect to see him again, and I wasn't exactly upset by this fact.

We hadn't even moved to Yellowstone yet. I'd only just negotiated our peace treaty with the Andalites. Telf hadn't even had his new eyes for three days.

My human assistant at the time told me I had a visitor, and that he was waiting in the open field just over the ridge. It was quite a trek, and I was annoyed at having to make it.

But I did, and standing in the middle, recovering from his run, was Aximili.

I remember scoffing. He'd been made a prince right after the war ended and was now one of their most prominent public figures. What did an Andalite of such caliber need with a leader of such meager influence like me? Had he come here just to gloat?

I swallowed back my discontent and made my way toward him. He saw me, but stood his ground and watched me approach. They all do that. I hate when they do that.

(Hello, Toby,) he said. (I hope you are well.)

"As well as anyone in nascent peace can be," I said. "Congratulations on your promotion."

(Thank you.)

He stared at me with his haughty, self-satisfied gaze until my patience started to thin.

"I'm sure you are just as busy as I am, so why don't you tell me what you need?" He continued to watch me, tilting his head a little as if making a judgment.

(You and I never constructed the kind of relationship that you did with Tobias,) Aximili said. (A part of me has always regretted that. Personally, I mean.) He breathed deeply and straightened his posture. (I do hope that you will look after him. He will need someone nearby, even though I'm sure he will actively reject you.)

I swallowed and lowered my voice. "I know."

(Despite my personal failure at offering you friendship, I believe it is necessary for us to concretely define our relationship.)

I couldn't help but scoff. "I'm not really sure I see how that's necessary."

(I believe the humans view each of us as representative of our respective races,) he said. (And I believe they will view how we treat each other as a microcosm of how the Andalites and Hork-Bajir races relate to one another.)

"You don't think we treat each other well?" I hummed mockingly.

(Toby, you scowl every time my name is mentioned.)

I scowled.

(I do not blame you, of course,) he said. (I wasn't exactly the most gracious person to you. I apologize for that.)

I watched him for a moment. He did seem legitimately humbler, less nervous. Perhaps it had come to him with the end of the war, perhaps being reunited with his people had forgiven him of his self-imposed duty to defend their honor with every word and action.

(And I would like to offer what the humans refer to metaphorically as an "olive branch.")

He held out a small, glowing blue box.

"Telf's sight has been returned to him," I said, recalling the request I had made of them mere weeks earlier. "That was part of the treaty I negotiated with your people."

But then I stopped myself with a jerk of my head. That wasn't part of the treaty. They'd offered that unconditionally. I looked up to him as he let me come to the correct conclusion.

"You did that, didn't you?" I whispered.

(The diplomatic team asked me for advice in dealing with you,) he said, waving his stalk eyes back and forth in a gesture of dismissal. (I may have offered a humble suggestion.)

A little of my indulgent air of insincerity sloughed away. I averted my eyes and slouched a little.

"That was very kind of you," I whispered. "Thank you."

Aximili breathed deeply and stepped forward, presenting the morphing cube to me.

(This isn't for your mate, Toby. It's for you.)

I looked up to him. "What could I possibly use this for?"

And then he smiled, and it was genuine. (Believe me, Toby. I asked the same question when they presented the cube to me on my first day of training.)

I could have refused him. Maybe I should have. In general, I see no point in indebting myself to anyone for irrelevant reasons.

But I pressed my hand to the cube and accepted the gift.

(You remember all of the restrictions, of course?) Aximili asked, and I grinned a little from the satisfaction at knowing that he hadn't totally changed.

"I think I can manage it."

(And perhaps now you will remember me with at least a minor degree of fondness?)

I watched him for a while. "You don't ever plan on coming back here."

And then there was conflict in his eyes. Pain. Regret. (I will go where duty takes me, Toby. I doubt there will be much need for me to return to Earth in the future.)

I smiled and nodded. "No more scowling when discussing you."

(Good. I believe if the humans believe you and I are at peace, they will want to keep it that way.)

He began walking and brushed past me.

"Aximili?" I said. He turned a stalk eye but continued walking. "It was an honor fighting with you."

(The honor was mine.)

So I stared at myself in the mirror in that tiny human bathroom, with a ceiling too short to contain my massive Hork-Bajir frame. And I recalled the way the cube felt like a minor, pleasant shock of static electricity. And I remembered telling the only person who knew that I had the power, and I remembered her offering her hand to me, "just in case you ever decide to try it out."

And I pictured her.

And I began to change.

It was gradual. I shrank first, had to stand straight to continue watching myself in the mirror. The armor-thick green skin covering my body dissolved, turned into something soft and sensitive and vulnerable. Gray-white hair sprouted from the top of my head and fell around my shoulder in straight, stringy strands.

I turned down to watch my hands. Watched my wrist blades recede into my flesh, watched my thick, sharp claws flatten and disarm into blunt, pointless fingernails.

I turned back to the mirror. Saw a dark silver spot grow and expand on my shoulder. A point of something emerged. I reached toward it and plucked it out—a half-inch compacted piece of lead. I placed it gently on the edge of the sink as I felt a sudden loss of balance as my tail receded into my body.

I closed my eyes for the rest. And when I opened them, Hayley stared back at me from the mirror.

My sight was greatly improved, even though Hayley wore glasses. I'd always thought the human cabin and most human structures were unbearably dim, but I could see perfectly. I could see freckles and age spots around Hayley's temples, imperfections on her teeth, things I'd never had the capacity to notice with my inferior native eyes. I looked down and saw her nude body, and I felt like I was invading her privacy.

Then I looked up back at myself, at the foreign reflection standing back at me, the imposter.

And I started to cry.

I sank to the floor and wrapped my arms around my legs with the care and attentiveness I didn't need since I no longer had the means to harm myself. I pressed against the stem of the sink and wept for Telf, for my love, my mate, the father of my children, I cried foreign tears that fell too easily, and I sat there until I found the strength the get up.

I'd lost track of the time and panicked a little until I saw the changes that indicated I hadn't overstayed the time limit. I demorphed and looked at myself in the mirror again. Raised my right arm as high as it could go, and then the rest of the way, now that the years-old wound had been healed. I exited the bathroom. Marie had just finished a phone call and hung up the phone.

"How long was I in there?" I asked.

"I don't know, like three minutes?"

"Oh."

"There's a tropical storm on the eastern seaboard, so all flights out of Baltimore have been cancelled. Weather's sucky all over the country. Hayley's going to keep working to get on the first flight she can."

"All right," I said. "I need to go home and see to the children."

"Here, take this," she said, handing me a walkie-talkie. "I won't bother you with anything, but in case there's anything I can do for you…"

"Thank you, Marie." I opened the door and began to head out, but stopped myself and turned back to her. "Thank you for everything." She returned a comforting smile and I returned home.

Everyone was there when I climbed up. And they were already crying. I opened my arms and let them collapse into my armpits.

But I didn't sit there stoic and unmoved this time. I wept with them. I had to be strong for my family, but suppressing and denying my emotions was not the way to do that. I'd learned that the hard way.

I made sure everyone ate, drank. I kept everyone talking. I held all of the children until they didn't want to be held anymore, I hugged Stek, Jara, Bug, Radi. I watched those two for a little while, noticed how their body language had changed. Last night they were best friends, but today they were kalashi and kalashu, and I hated that their union had to be marred by mourning.

It wasn't long before visitors started dropping by with food, water, gifts of gratitude and compassion. Friends and neighbors, and even complete strangers started taking on the chore of planning the funeral, informing the public. I let them, sitting with Hug sleeping in my lap and Stek with her arms wrapped around me.

It was a long, tedious day, and I was exhausted by the end of it. I fell asleep in the middle of my family, who was surrounded by piles of top-grade bark and bouquets of flowers. And I woke up against a young, fit, male chest. For a moment, dizzied by the haze of sleep, I was sure that Telf's death, the funeral, everything had been a vicious dream, that he was here, beneath me, with his arms around my shoulders, that we were still young and at the beginning of our affair, and I'd tell him about the dream and he'd hee-haw and promise we had many years to go before having to worry about that.

I pressed my hand to his pectoral. He inhaled sharply and yawned.

"Mama okay?" He asked, and I felt the vibration of his voice through my hand.

I looked up. Jara was smiling down at me.

"I'm sorry," I said, pulling away, but he touched my face and held me there. I looked around and saw that everyone else was gone.

"Where did they go?"

"Stek take everyone to take bath in river," she said. "Said it smells too bad."

I sighed. "She was right."

He stroked my back as I snuggled beneath his chin. I got the sense that something had changed between him and me.

"How are you feeling?" I asked.

"Okay, Mama."

"So I'm 'Mama' today?"

"Mother Toby is never hurt, never scared, never sad," he said. "Mother Toby is not Hork-Bajir. Mama is."

I cried again, quietly, but no longer because I was afraid of distressing him. All this time, all this worry, and all I had to do to earn Jara's trust was be vulnerable and imperfect, was to have the fits and indulge the emotions I never thought I could, was to be Hork-Bajir like him. It had taken the death of his father, but he could finally see how alike we were.

A rumble of thunder echoed through the western sky. Jara jerked a little in response, and I embraced him tighter.

"I love you, Jara," I said.

"Jara love Mama, too."

Those two days of mourning passed both instantaneously and at a grindingly slow pace. Telf's funeral had even more attendants than Wotch's, and I was selfish enough at first to think they were there for my sake, but as I looked around to all the mothers and their children, I realized that my people had their own gratitude and grief for losing the man that had delivered all of their kawatnoj safely into life. The purveyor of birth had died, and it was an event that echoed through the entire park.

Jara said a few words for his father, but Bug didn't want to, and no one made her. I stepped forward after Jara finished and collected my thoughts.

"I usually prepare a little bit more for this sort of thing," I began. "But it's been a tough couple of days. I, um, I guess I just want to say that I loved Telf with all of my hearts. I didn't think I could, for a long time. I thought the fact that I was a seer meant I wasn't capable or allowed to love anyone, that it was my curse and duty to go through life celibate and alone." I felt a lump rise in my throat, and I took a moment to swallow it back down. Mother put her hand on my shoulder.

"I'm very glad he showed me that wasn't the case," I said, and I couldn't stop the tears, so I let them fall. "I'm very glad he showed me that I could love him, because I did. I loved him so much, and I miss him so much, and I'll miss him until I can join him again. And Telf, I told you as often as I could, whenever I remembered, but I just wanted to tell you again. Thank you for everything you gave me. For Jara, my brave son, for Bug, my loving daughter. For Junior and Hug and Teb, for the kawatnoj I know Bug will have soon." There was a light echo of laughter throughout the audience, and Bug looked down sheepishly. "Thank you for showing me that it was not only all right to love you and have a family, but how absolutely wonderful and necessary it is. Thank you for your patience for all the times I had to leave, for all the things I couldn't do. Thank you for being the best kalashu I could have wished for."

I crouched next to the grave Jara, Bug, and I had dug at the intersection of the bases of the three trees that comprised the home he'd built for us. His shrouded body was already interred, and I took a handful of dirt and sprinkled it over him. "Someday I'll join you here," I said. "But I'll make sure everything stays good until then."

The funeral was two days ago. After it was over, Jara came to me and said, "This is a good tree, but very hard to keep clean and good. Jara think, Jara and Stek and Toby and Hug and Little move in, keep twigs in platform, keep water and bark clean and fresh. Stay with Mama." And I smiled and hugged him and thanked him.

I only went home for a moment, however. I found my diary in the bottom of the tub of work I kept in our tree, and I realized I needed a little bit of time to think.

"I'm going to go to the old, dead oak tree. The one about a two minute swing from the broken lodgepole?" I said. My family stared at me. Hug looked distraught.

"Can I come?" He asked.

"If you want," I said. "But you have to be quiet. I'm going to need to think, and if you want to stay, it has to be under my rules, all right?"

He nodded and tagged along.

He only stayed for a few hours. I've been here since then.

I feel bad for leaving them so soon after Telf's death, but I haven't made myself totally scarce, after all. I'm only a half mile away. I needed some time to think, to remember, to reminisce. To really understand what the last few years of my life have been about so I can make the right decision going forward.

Because when Telf died, even before the funeral, I started thinking about my own mortality. That no matter how much I know I'm needed, I won't last longer than twenty years. No Hork-Bajir can. I need to know how to make sure my people are taken care of once it's my turn to take the trip to Big Tree.

So I've been thinking a lot. And somehow, in the last few days, all of the wriggling, disconnected strands of truth in my life have woven together in a pattern. Somehow, I know exactly what will happen. All I have to decide is how I will get involved.

Once Hayley gets a flight to the park, I plan on discussing a new project with her. Now that her books are being published, she needs new research to focus on, and I think I can keep her and Brian employed with it simultaneously.

I want a full genome of my DNA. A full Hork-Bajir seer genome so I can understand how my mutation works.

I am no expert in genetics, but I think I understand enough. The seer phenotype is both rare and anomalous, and only occurs in one out of ten thousand births. According to legend, at least. We may need to verify that with more rigorous data. This leads me to believe it is not only an incredible rare allele in the population, but a recessive one. A pair of them is necessary for an individual to exhibit the seer traits.

On my father's side, of course, this allele descended from Dak Hamee. And I'll ask my mother, of course, but I see no reason why she would refuse a DNA analysis of her own tissue. I'm quite sure that we will find a recessive seer allele in her DNA. Perhaps it's been passed down for dozens of generations without finding another lone pair to complete the gene. Perhaps there hasn't been a Halpek seer for hundreds of years.

We'll need the evidence to confirm it, of course, but I'm already sure this is the truth.

It was two generations between Dak Hamee and myself. And I know just as surely that, when needed, another seer will be born.

One of the recessive alleles, of course, will come from me. And the other, I know just as surely, will come from Wotch.

That spark, when he kissed me, that feeling...it has to mean something.

Besides, he has thirty-six children. All of them are carriers. And yet I know, just as surely, which of his wives will be the next seer's progenitor.

There have been patterns, you see. Small things I have been compelled, perhaps by intervention, to ignore. Wolf migration patterns have altered ever so slightly since the Hork-Bajir were introduced to Yellowstone. The last eight or so winters have been uncharacteristically mild. The temperatures in many of the hot springs around the park have dipped below the volatile boiling point so Hork-Bajir can use them to keep warm. The very flow of magma beneath the crust of the park seems to have been altered solely for our benefit.

These are the reports and studies I used to find a waste of my time. And of course, all of these things may just be coincidences.

Yet I know, just as surely, that they're not.

I used to think the Ellimist would abandon us at the end of the war. I used to think he had. That once the Yeerks were no longer a threat, we would be of no interest to him.

But I no longer believe that is the case.

He picked my mother and father to be the founders of the free Hork-Bajir for a very specific reason, so that those two lonely alleles could come together in my DNA and make me. I used to resent him for this. Now I understand. I am not his tool. No, that is the wrong way to view his gift. I am not accountable to him. That does not mean he did not play a hand in my birth to elicit a desired outcome. And that does not mean he won't play his hand again.

The Ellimist prefers a kind of poetry in his intervention. The kind that kept Elfangor on Earth just long enough to sire the son who would later save it from annihilation. The kind that brought five seemingly random children with hidden connections and power together to win the cosmic, incomprehensible game he plays with his nemesis.

The kind that made the first seer born in generations the first free Hork-Bajir born since the Yeerks had enslaved them. And of course, the next seer, my successor, will be Hork-Bajir.

But she will also be descended from Andalite and Yeerk.

The winding together of three conflicted races in the form of one vital individual would please the Ellimist very much, yes. That would be the kind of event that could ratify the peace that we've been fortunate enough to forge. The next seer, my great-granddaughter, perhaps, will embody the power of the three races who had once thrown our corner of the galaxy into violent conflict.

The Andalite, of course, will come from my great-grandmother. And the Yeerk, I know just as surely, will come from Reed.

I hadn't realized what it meant, but I've noticed that June and Hug play together at the school tree. And something about that pairing seems just as poetic. June, an incomplete half, the survivor of a dead twin brother. And Hug. Something seems incomplete about him, too. His little insights into the world, a severed perception that needs a partner seer allele to be complete.

This is what I've decided, at least. I could be completely wrong. The friendship between June and Hug may be just that. It may be centuries before these two bloodlines meet. It may not even matter at all.

But I was not wrong about my assumptions when I negotiated the peace treaty with the Andalites. I was not wrong about thinking that Bug was a girl even though Telf had diagnosed her as a boy. And I was not wrong about holding Patrick prisoner in that tree, thinking that I had to assert independence through my actions to earn it from the humans.

The things I know often scare me. And this I know.

The only question that remains is, what will I do?

A part of me will always resent Dak and Aldrea for dying. It's a silly, awful thing to resent, of course. No one has any control over their mortality, least of all Hork-Bajir, with lifespans designed to keep them static, passive, unthreatening. Dak and Aldrea had to die, because they did not have the means to stay alive and keep fighting, to mentor me.

But I do.

Aximili's gift…his burden…has given me the means to extend my life, to be there for my granddaughter, to mentor her through her work. My work is not done, of course, but I sense where it will end. The amorphous legal status of the Hork-Bajir territory will need to be defined, and that will be my work. But once that is complete, there is one more job that needs to be done.

A couple years ago, Hayley, Marie, and I took a month-long tour, sponsored by the Andalites, back to the Hork-Bajir homeworld. They'd postponed it for two years, which led me, at the time, to believe that they'd renege on our treaty. But then they came down with one of their deep space transports, loaded us up, and took us back to my native planet.

It was better.

It was not healed, of course. There is plenty of work left to do. But the air smelled different from the first time, the trees tasted sweeter, and they looked fuller and more flush with life. The sky was no longer scored with black clouds saturated with pollution. The rain no longer burned my skin. Much of the mess the Yeerks had left behind was gone.

There will be a time when our planet is ready to harbor us once again.

I know this entire thought experiment is predicated on when the Andalites complete the restorations to our homeworld. There is no need for a messianic deliverer of my people to the promised land if the promised land is not yet ready. It may be in a decade. It may be in a century. It may not occur for thousands of years.

Yet I know that will be my granddaughter's job. Overseeing the exodus of the Hork-Bajir back to Mother Sky and Father Deep will be the task assigned to her. That will be her work.

And I am faced with a choice.

I no longer feel any conflict over what I identify as. Over the years, that existential angst has settled and resolved itself without my permission or even direct involvement. I am a Hork-Bajir. That is how I was born. And perhaps that is how I am meant to die.

But…

But.

If I die a Hork-Bajir, I won't last longer than five or ten more years. Not enough time to help my granddaughter with her work. Enough time to meet her, perhaps, but not enough time to mentor her, to assure her she is not alone, that she does not need to be infallible, to show her that she can love, and that I will support her and love her in any way that I can.

But if I change to human…

If I change to human, I will surrender everything I hold dear. My body, my identity. My life in the trees. My family. I could try to explain to them, but I know, just as surely, that though they will try to accept me, they will not be able. The only one with the capacity to understand my decision, that I am not, in fact, abandoning them, that I am doing it for them, will be my granddaughter, who, I am still capable of admitting, may not even be born within a human lifetime.

I used to think I would gain more than I would lose by becoming human. That by becoming one of them, I could be a member, and not just an honored guest, of their culture. I could find a husband, start a family, fall in love, have friends and acquaintances. A career that is not dictated by my people's needs. A social life that is not contingent on politics. I used to think that becoming human would be an escape, and one I was desperate for.

I do not think so anymore.

No, becoming human will be a substantial sacrifice. One I may never recover from. I've had my husband. I've had my family. I've fallen in love.

And I am Hork-Bajir. We only get that once.

I may give up my body, my life, my identity on a bet that will never pay off.

But if she is born, if I do meet her, I could be there for my granddaughter. I could nurse her through all of the pain and angst that I know better than anyone. I could make her not alone like I was. I could love her the way I could never be loved.

But is that necessary? Am I any less of a person, was I any less happy, because I didn't have that?

What is the right answer? Which is the right choice?

I don't know.

I don't know what I'm going to do.


*Author's Note: Thanks everyone for reading this behemoth. It really does mean a lot to me that you took the time to read through the whole thing. I never meant for it to get this huge—when I started the last chapter, I was convinced it was going to top out at 25,000 words—which is also the reason I owe you all an apology. I never meant to make you wait an entire year for the conclusion, but I'd write a sentence in the story and realize I needed an additional sentence of lead-in and follow-up. It was the narrative equivalent of a hydra. That, in addition to starting a full-time job almost right after posting chapter 30, kept me from finishing this in as timely a manner as I'd planned.

Anyway, I do hope you enjoyed it, and you don't hate me too much for leaving you hanging as long as I did. Now all I can do is thank you all for reading, and encourage you to let me know what you think. If you hate it, tell me. If you love it, tell me. Tell me anything, any author on this site knows how wonderful any kind of constructive feedback is.

Looking forward, I'm not sure where I'm headed. I've been toying with some ideas for original work as I've been writing this, so I think I might start working on those. If I do write something original, I'll definitely post it somewhere on the internet that won't be here. If you're interested in that, please visit my Livejournal—there's a link on my profile page. I update that frequently, and I'll be sure to promote the hell out of anything I do end up self-publishing.

I know a few of you are excited about sequels and other fan fic I've teased at, which I still want to write, but I'm not sure when or if I'll get around to that. I've been toying with an idea for a sequel to THIS, too. Ideas I'd be willing to write far overwhelm the means I have to write them. I am even just glad that I wrote something about Hork-Bajir—for a long time I thought I'd only ever write about Andalites, and I'm glad I'm not an Ani-racist. Thank you all for sticking with it, and thanks again for your EXTREME patience. I hope you enjoyed it!

*I wanted to add this as its own chapter to maintain the illusion of the story, but I guess that's not allowed. Oh well. Sorry that this was kind of jarring.

Disclaimer: I used some dialogue from #54 in this. I don't really think there's a legal point to this disclaimer, but I'd like to give credit where credit's due if I can. Also this whole fic is based on Animorphs.

ETA 10/5: Thank you dogman15 for all your little typo spots! I've cleaned up everything you noticed. If anyone notices anything else, let me know! I obsess over flawlessness and perfection!