I.

(Set between books 8 and 20)

Tobias and I were in the woods near Cassie's barn, reading.

We often read books together. The other Animorphs lend us money. I morph to human and Tobias pretends to be my dæmon. We go to the bookstore and agree on a book. Then we take it back to the woods and read it. I hold the book and turn the pages, while Tobias perches in a tree branch overhead and uses his hawk eyes to read. I typically read faster than him, but I always wait for him to finish before I turn the page.

The book we were reading was written for humans of my friends' age group. It is called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It is about a boy named Harry Potter and his dæmon, Hedwig, who discover that they have magic powers. They become part of a secret community of magical humans and go to a special school called Hogwarts.

«I do not like Draco Malfoy and Tirzah,» I said to Tobias. «Their family name may earn them prestige, but it cannot win them honor. They must earn it for themselves. They do not seem to understand this.»

«Spoken like a true Gryffindor,» Tobias said. I believe he was teasing me.

«These Gryffindors do not have the makings of true warriors. They are supposed to be brave, but most of them behave foolishly, except for Hermione and Zanazan. Foolhardiness is not to be mistaken for bravery.»

«Maybe you're right, but the Slytherins are way worse. I don't like Malfoy and Tirzah either.»

«You have read many books. Tell me. Who is your favorite book character?»

Tobias paused as he considered my question. «I think my favorite's always been Harriet and Sterling, from Harriet the Spy. Harriet is always quiet in school, so people underestimate her, but then after class she and Sterling go out and explore their city. Sterling is usually in blackbird form so he can fly overhead and look into windows and stuff, and Harriet carries around a notebook and writes down everything they see. They know about things that no one else at their school does. I used to carry around a notebook just like her, and Elhariel would be a blackbird like Sterling.»

«What this character does seems more like anthropological inquiry. What you do now is true espionage.»

«Espionage is definitely not what I thought it was. But I kind of miss it, you know?»

«Miss what?»

«Playing spy. Noticing interesting little things on the street, and believing that's all spying is. Discovery.»

I thought about this for a moment. «When I went for a run into the national park yesterday, I found some evidence that one of the caves might now be occupied by a mountain lion. We could investigate.»

«Playing spy on a mountain lion instead of the Yeerks?» Tobias laughed inside my head. «I'm game, Ax-man.»

II.

(Set between books 22 and 23)

When Abineng and Quincy settled upon the forms they would take for the rest of their lives, nearly simultaneously, I spent some time contemplating dæmons, and what their choices of settled forms meant. Perhaps it is impossible for me to understand, as I do not have a dæmon. Still, my very ignorance was what drove my curiosity.

«A dæmon's settled form is not entirely based on the human's personality,» I pointed out to Tobias that evening, as the light slowly faded from the sky. «I have been given to understand that dæmons very rarely settle in shapes like a killer whale, because they pose such serious difficulties for the human. There are practical considerations, then.»

«Yeah. And on the other end of the spectrum, you don't really see flea or mite dæmons much. But mostly, dæmons show you who you really are, whether you like it or not. Some people end up as hamsters who wish they were cheetahs. But that's not how it works, and it isn't healthy to think that way. If you don't like your dæmon's form, then that means you don't really like who you are, deep down.»

«If I had a dæmon, what form do you think she would take?»

«You should probably ask Cassie that question, not me. She's the animal expert. I think that's part of why she's so good at figuring people out, actually. She can probably tell a lot from a person's dæmon, since she's a walking animal encyclopedia and all.»

«You are my shorm. You know me better than Cassie does.»

«I wouldn't be so sure about that. I think Cassie knows more about us than we realize. All of us. I mean, have you read up on her settled form yet? That should tell you all you need to know.»

«I ask you because your opinion is important to me.»

«Oh,» said Tobias. I think my remark may have surprised him. «Well. You definitely feel at home in a hierarchy. You like to know your place in the system. You're an aristh, Jake's your prince. Kind of like a wolf pack, except sometimes wolves challenge the alpha for dominance, and you wouldn't challenge your prince unless you were absolutely sure he was unfit for the job. So a more rigid hierarchy, like in ants – except you're not like an ant either, because they attack their enemies in swarms, and you kind of have this flair for getting into one-on-one showdowns with Visser Three. Besides, there's something – I don't know, playful about you. A goofy streak. A stronger one than most of the rest of us have, even. But I can't really think of an animal that combines all of that.»

Tobias was very insightful about my character. What he said helped crystallize my own thoughts. «I can.»

«Okay. What is it?»

«A flaar. It is an animal from the Andalite homeworld. They are furred and have wings, like Earth's

bats, but larger and with somewhat weaker flight. They live in flocks with a dominance hierarchy, and

leadership only changes when the alpha dies or is too old and weak to lead. They forage as a tightly

organized flock, but at night there is only one sentry, who fights off intruders alone but with no less

valor for that.» I smiled. «The young ones are also famous for their play fights. There is an herb called

shorf faneer that stimulates them to tussle with any other flaar in sight. Sometimes captive flaar are

given shorf faneer and displayed as a form of entertainment.»

«Well, there you go, Ax. You answered your own question. You'd be a flaar.»

«I could not have found the answer on my own. You are very insightful, Tobias.»

«I try.»

III.

(Set during book 25)

Ax and I were in one car of a freight train heading down along the west coast of Canada, while the other Animorphs were in the one behind us. I'd kind of maneuvered it that way. I wanted some time alone with Ax. Earlier I'd flown next to Rachel for a while, which was really nice, but being around Ax makes me feel like I can really be myself in a way I can't be even with Rachel. I've always felt that way, but ever since I found out that Ax is my uncle – sort of – I've felt that connection even more strongly. I've never had a family before, and even before I found out about Elfangor, if I'd gotten the chance to pick anyone in the world to be related to me, it would've been Ax.

Getting into the freight cars was always kind of harrowing. It was bad enough for me, having to morph cockroach on top of a moving train at midnight so I could slip through a seam in the metal, but even worse for the others, who had to demorph first. When Ax demorphed inside the freight car, he was wiped from doing so many morphs in a row.

«Canada is very large,» he remarked. «And cold.» The breath from his nose-slits steamed white in the freezing air. I could see it even in the dimness of the freight car.

«You were lucky to crash-land off the California coast,» I joked. «It never really gets cold. I've lived in the Northeast before. It can get almost as cold as Canada, sometimes.»

We lapsed into silence for a while, drifting in and out of sleep, though it was hard to get any rest in this cold. Red-tailed hawks do well in all kinds of environments, but not so much out here. I wondered how I'd like the Andalite home-world. Could I hunt and eat the animals there? What was the weather like? If we won this war, I wanted to visit Ax's home someday. Meet my grandparents. I had grandparents. What were they like?

You could ask, Elhariel suggested.

For the dozenth time, El, I'm not ready to tell him yet.

Tobias, we were just chased across the North Pole by the Abominable Snowmen From Hell. You're never ready. Life just happens.

«Visser Three wasn't lying,» I said.

Ax stirred from his half-doze and gave me a quizzical look. Don't ask me how it was quizzical. He does this thing with his eye stalks.

«He told me I had a family. He wasn't lying.»

«Aria was a lie.»

«Yeah. She was. But why lie to me? As far as he knew, I was just some street punk. He was lying to me for a reason. He knew the truth. My father left me a letter. The lawyer was a Controller and showed it to Visser Three. Then he read it to me.»

«What did it say?»

«It started…» I choked up. How could thought-speak choke up? I was a hawk. I couldn't shed a tear. «It started: "Dear Tobias."»

I knew the whole letter, word for word. It had been burned into my brain forever. But I didn't think I could have quoted the whole thing. It was too raw. The sight of my father dying in my arms would have run through my head in technicolor, his eyes a green so painfully bright and full of hope. Elhariel would have remembered the shape of Elfangor's shoulder beneath her talons, and cried within the prison of my mind. I said, «He barely met me. I didn't even know. But he said, "Dear Tobias." He said he wanted to love me, even though he never got the chance.»

«I do not understand.»

«Did you know Elfangor spent years on Earth, before the Yeerks invaded? He lived as a human. Permanently. Until the Ellimist gave him a chance to join the fight again, just like he did for me.»

«He did not - » Ax began, but then his main eyes widened, and his body went suddenly totally slack. Even his tail blade drooped nearly to the floor, which he hardly ever lets it do. After a silence, he said, «My brother disappeared, when he was an aristh like me. Before I was born. My parents thought that he had died in the Taxxon rebellion. They mourned for him. Then, years later, he reappeared, without any explanation of where he had been. The only reason he was not cast out of the military was because of his valor in combat immediately following his return. My parents begged him to explain. I asked, too, when I was small. He refused to speak of it to anyone. But how…»

«He told me.» My thought-speech shook. «The Ellimist gave him one chance, I guess, to leave a message for his son, before he was torn away from his family and zapped back to his Andalite life. He left me, so he could be a hero. But he wanted me to…» Now my wings were trembling, and it wasn't from the cold.

«Tobias.» There was something in Ax's green eyes I couldn't read, something warm and huge and beyond my understanding, like the whale who once saved us all from death in the vast cold ocean.

«He left me, Ax!» I shouted. I couldn't keep it together. Ax looked so much like his brother. I could see it now, more clearly than I ever had before. «He could have stayed with me! He could have loved me! But instead he fought, and he fought, and he died right in front of me!»

Ax reached out and steadied me with his delicate hands. That made me go still, fast. Ax isn't a touchy kind of guy. «That's not what I meant,» I said shakily. «I'm not mad at him for choosing to go back to the fight. It was the right thing to do. But I watched my father die, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.»

A long silence passed. Breath swirled in white clouds from Ax's nose in the achingly cold air of the freight car. The train rattled along the track. He didn't let me go. «We would have celebrated, if we had known. There is a wishflower ritual, to wish an infant's safe arrival into the world. There is a ritual for new life rising, at dawn, to welcome the new addition to the family.» Ax pointed a stalk eye at the seam around the door to the train car. The faint pink light of sunrise shone through, just barely enough to see.

«I couldn't do that,» I said. «I'm not an Andalite.»

«You can, if you would like. Acquire me.»

«What?»

«Acquire my DNA. Morph me. You have my permission. I can perform the ritual.»

«I think it's fourteen years too late, Ax,» I said.

«Don't listen to him,» said Elhariel. «He wants to. He's just weirded out by the idea of morphing into you.»

«If you were an Andalite,» said Ax, «you would look very much like me. You are the equivalent of my age, and you are my nephew. I think it is fitting.»

Elhariel began the acquiring process, bending her thoughts towards Ax's hands on our wings. I pictured him running through the meadow, and imagined what it would be like to run like he could. Ax's eyes glazed over as I acquired the DNA that was, in some strange way, mine.

The acquiring trance broke, and Ax stepped back to give me room to morph. I focused on him, and even though it was my first time with the morph, the changes began swiftly and immediately. The eye stalks came first, and suddenly I could see Ax in front of me and the crates of freight behind me and the dawn's light leaking through the door's edge all at once. My legs lengthened until I was at eye level with Ax. My Andalite body grew, filling out with muscle. My feathers withered away. A tail lengthened from my spine, filling me with the assurance that nothing could harm me and survive. I loved the feeling of it: the easy strength, the confidence, the poise, and beneath it all the wellspring of optimism, bubbling away like bright laughter beneath my melancholy.

Ax turned his stalk eyes toward the faint spill of light coming from under the door, keeping his main eyes on me. I turned my stalk eyes too. This vision, this complete knowledge of my surroundings, was a miracle on par, in its own way, with a hawk eye's laser intensity.

«As new light gathers on the horizon, so we gather to welcome new life,» Ax intoned. He reached his right foreleg out and hit his hoof against mine, producing a hollow knocking sound. «May your hooves run swiftly.»

He reached his blade forward and touched it to mine. «May your blade stay sharp.»

His head leaned toward me, and he twined his eye stalks around mine, like snakes embracing. «May your eyes see truly.»

He reached out to my chest, pressing his palm so he could feel my hearts pulsing there. «May your hearts beat the song of your spirit.»

«As your ancestors before you once roamed the Paths Sirinial, and your father before you walked his first steps on the Plain Shamtul, and your mother before you walked her first steps on grass unknown, we invite you to walk with us always, however far we may wander. Now we take our first steps together, Tobias-Sirinial-Canada.»

Ax turned to face the dawn, and I with him. We took our first steps together as family, toward the light of the morning.

IV.

(Set immediately after book 33)

It was three days since the torture, and Ax still hadn't slept.

Don't let Ax fool you. He needs a lot less sleep than humans do, but he does need to get some shut-eye

eventually. Three days was definitely too long for him to be awake. I could understand why, better than

anyone, but nightmares were probably preferable to hallucinations brought on by sleep deprivation.

It was sundown, so I knew Ax would be down by the stream, finishing up his evening ritual. He stood there, completely still, in what seemed on the surface like the contemplation that's supposed to end the ritual. I knew differently. Meditation is supposed to be in the moment. You feel present and grounded in your surroundings. I could see that Ax's mind was far, far away.

I circled overhead, and it took him much longer than usual to notice me. Andalites aren't easy to sneak up on. We'd barely seen each other since the torture.

«It ought to have been me,» he said. «Only me.»

I knew what he was talking about right away. «Couldn't have been. We had to prove that the intercision guillotine didn't work. I had to be there.» I could still remember that silver blade lowering between us, inexorable as death. Even though we weren't human and dæmon, and didn't have a psychic connection between us to sever, it still haunted my dreams. I still feared, as that guillotine lowered, that somehow it would take Elhariel from me, even though she was only in my mind.

«I could have occupied her attention, so she focused it on me and not on you. I was trained as an aristh on how to withstand torture. There was no way you could have been prepared for what she did.»

«I volunteered. One of the other Animorphs could have pretended to be your dæmon, but I chose it. And if my being there meant that she tortured you for even a second less than she would have, then it was worth it.»

«I could not bear to watch her do that to you, Tobias. It was worse to watch than it was to experience it myself. I am your uncle. I should not have allowed such a thing to happen.»

«You were trapped in a box. So was I. If there's anything I could have done, I would have, and I know you would've done the same.» I landed on the branch of a nearby tree and looked at Ax directly in the main eyes. «You need to get some sleep, Ax.»

Ax averted all of his eyes. «I do not need sleep.»

«Yes you do. I'm going crazy, Ax, bit by bit. I know that. I mean, I don't think I've talked to anyone but you since… it happened. I'm losing it. But I can't watch the same thing happen to you.»

«Tobias…»

«Don't tell me I'm not. We both know that's not true. I've been a bird for over a year. I only get to see my own dæmon for two hours at a time. Now I've been tortured by a psycho-Controller with a robot arm and I'm going crazy. But it doesn't have to happen to you. Get some sleep.»

I took off from the branch and circled toward the forest.

«Wait!» came Ax's faint thought-speak cry. I wheeled back toward him. «I will sleep, Tobias. I promise. But… would you stay with me?»

«I need to sleep too, Ax. I can't watch over you or anything. Sorry.»

«No. That is not what I want. I wish to be sure that you are safe.»

Ax sleeps with one stalk eye open, always. As he slept, that one eye stalk gazed at me, giving Ax the certainty that I was still perched above him, alive if not quite well.

V.

(Set in the universe of book 41)

I walked a leisurely circuit of the Yeerk pool, looking ahead of me with my main eyes and scanning all the cages with my stalk eyes.

The EF would question my judgment as a leader if they found out I came here. I was taking a stupid risk, and I knew it. I was one of the Yeerk Empire's most wanted terrorists. Everyone knew what I looked like: a twin to the host body of Visser One, the conqueror of the Andalite home-world. I'd taken precautions, of course. I'd stolen top-secret nanotechnology from research and development and used it to temporarily alter my face. I had contacts that darkened the green of my eyes, and I'd carefully trimmed my fur. Still, I shouldn't have been there. But I had to be. Visser One was visiting Earth. He was feeding on Kandrona rays in the pool right now.

It might be my only chance to speak to Ax without a Yeerk in his head.

The hosts in the cages were desperate, defeated. Except for the youngest ones, they didn't even shed a tear. Maybe you just lose the ability to cry, after you've shed one tear too many. I don't really remember; it's been ten years since I was last human. They didn't even bother using reinforced cages, even for Hork-Bajir, Andalites, and humans with potentially dangerous dæmons.

As I scanned the cages, I saw one exception to the rule. A box, made out of clear plasteel, completely sealed. Inside, an Andalite, his stance utterly empty of defiance or any other emotion, but for the fire in his green eyes that burned invisibly like acid. The Andalite whose body I'd worn for ten years, in honor of him.

I stopped walking and pretended to check my wrist computer. My stalk eyes scanned, pausing to rest their gaze on Ax as often as I dared. To my surprise, it was Elhariel who spoke first, her private thought-speech reaching his mind through the walls of his impenetrable prison.

«Ax. It's us. Tobias and Elhariel. Don't look now, just scan with your stalk eyes until you see us.»

Ax stiffened, almost imperceptibly, and one of his stalk eyes pointed up at the grey of the New York sky.

«Not a hawk, Ax. Behind you.»

Ax scanned his stalk eyes slowly, calmly, until he saw me. One eye froze, while the other swiveled in a different direction. «Tobias,» he said. I don't think I've ever heard my name spoken with so much emotion. «I had heard you were dead.»

«They found out where I fed,» I said. «The place where the Bronx Botanical Garden used to be. There was a raid. But I escaped. Don't believe what the Visser tells you.»

Ax turned his eye away, so as not to draw attention to me. «You should not have risked coming here. When the Yeerk is back in my head, he will know all I have seen and heard.»

«I'll be gone by the time he's done feeding,» I promised. «I had to see you. I need to know you haven't lost yourself. If the Yeerks managed to break you, even after all these years, I don't know what I'd...»

«I have never been kept as a host by a Yeerk for more than one year,» Ax said, a dark steely edge to his thought-speech I'd never heard before. «I fight every moment, and sooner or later, the Yeerk assigned to me applies for a transfer to a different host. I am never designated as unfit or insurrectionist because I am considered too valuable, and there is always some new fool who thinks he can tame me. But no one can withstand sharing my mind for long. It has become so frightening a place that I think if I had a dæmon, even she would have fled in terror by now.»

«No,» I whispered. «She would be proud. She would fight with you. Your soul could never be a coward.»

«I think of you as my ghost, at times,» said Ax. «I am a shell of myself, nearly gone, but a ghost who wears my face runs free, fighting the war I failed to win.» His stalk eyes, doing another slow circuit, paused on me. «You do still fight. You and all the Animorphs who remain.» There was a note of pleading in his thought-speech now. «You fight still. Don't you?»

«Yes. We fight. And we remember.» I allowed one of my eyes to meet his, just for a moment. «Give the Visser hell from me, Ax. And I… I'll tell them stories about you.» I didn't dare tell Ax about the children the EF had freed, for he couldn't hide my words from his Yeerk. But I would tell them.

«I do not think we will meet again, my shorm,» said Ax. «One day, soon, they will decide I am more trouble than I am worth, and dispose of me. I do not fear that day. But the thought of never seeing you again fills me with sorrow beyond my powers of expression.»

«I took my first steps as an Andalite with you, Aximili. I'll take my last with you, if that's what you want.»

«No. Even when I die, the fight must continue. Take your last steps defending freedom, Tobias, as I will take mine.»

«I will.» I turned away without saying goodbye. No better goodbye could have been said. Words like "goodbye" are empty, and fade as quickly as they're spoken.

(I.)

(Set during book 54)

Are you sure you want to go in here without checking first? said Elhariel, flying above and ahead of me toward the cave.

You are checking. That's why you're going first, I said.

A few feet ahead of you, and I don't have raptor eyes or ears. I still say you should demorph first and make sure there isn't a mountain lion or something.

No, I said. I don't care.

All clear, said El. We got lucky. She perched on a stalagmite, and I sat with my back against it. What are you doing, Tobias? No one cares anymore what you use the morphing power for. If you need to be a hawk to check for mountain lions, be one.

Sometimes I need wings, I thought, and sometimes I need you. That has nothing to do with mountain lions.

You've been choosing me over wings more and more, said El. She fluttered down from her perch to land in my lap and pressed her head against my chest. I used to think that Rachel helped us be human. Now I think she helped us be the warrior we needed to be.

I laughed humorlessly. Yeah. But now we're not a warrior anymore, and we still need her.

El had nothing to say to that. The afternoon deepened around us, lengthening shadows and ripening the sky's pale blue to sapphire.

If I had been in hawk form, I would have sensed him long before he found me. As it was, El heard him first. Something's coming, she said. Not human. Smaller.

The smart thing to do would have been to demorph to hawk. Instead, I stalked slowly toward the mouth of the cave. For the last week or so, I'd only been a hawk once every two hours to demorph, and at night as I slept. It was just too painful to give Elhariel up.

In the dimness of the cave, El's vision was no better than mine. We saw nothing but a silhouette against the afternoon sunlight, and I pounced, my hands extended like claws, giving a high shrill shriek like a hawk's battle cry. I didn't care who or what it was. If it was a predator, I'd kill it or it would kill me.

It was only when I had my hands around its neck and my nails digging into its skin deep enough to draw blood that I realized it was a dog. A bloodhound, to be exact.

«Tobias,» said the dog. «I feared I might not find you in time.»

I let go of him and leapt back as if burned.

"Ax!" cried El, flying forth to meet him, leaving me no choice but to follow. I was mad at him for tracking me down when it should have been obvious I wanted to be alone, but El wouldn't turn her back on him now that he was here.

«It is good to see you, Elhariel,» said Ax.

I folded my arms. "I hid in these woods on purpose, Ax."

«I am aware. You secluded yourself well. I have been repeatedly informed that you spend all your time as a hawk now. That would have made it difficult to find you. It was your mother who believed it more likely that you would be human, so as to have your dæmon at your side. I acquired this morph, and Loren gave me your clothing so I could track your scent.»

"Fine," I said. "You found me. Now what? You're going to hold my hand and beg me to come back to civilization? You should have asked Cassie, she's good at that."

«That was not my intention. I simply wanted to talk with you. You are my friend.»

"That's what Cassie said in public thought-speak when she flew all around the national park in osprey morph looking for me. 'I just want to talk to you, Tobias. I'm worried about you. You're a friend.'"

«Very well. I will not talk at all if that is what you prefer.»

What I really wanted was for him to go away. Or at least, that's what I thought I wanted. But Elhariel said, Would it really be so bad just to have him around? You know he'll keep his word. You don't need to talk if you don't want to. But it might be a comfort, just to know he's here.

So I let him stay, figuring he'd leave on his own once he figured out I wasn't going anywhere.

Four hours of silence later, he was still there. Serves me right for underestimating him.


Tobias did not speak until the next morning.

Elhariel did speak, but only to ask when it was time for them to demorph. Except when they flew out to hunt, they did not leave the cave. I stayed there too, except for brief intervals to feed and to perform the evening and morning rituals. I said nothing, for I did not wish to speak words that might anger Tobias and cause him to send me away. I was glad enough to see him, even in this state, that his silent company did not grow stale.

When I returned from my morning ritual, Tobias said, "You're leaving." It was a statement, not a question.

I had not told Tobias that I was to depart for my home-world soon, but the purpose of my visit must have been clear to him by now. «Come with me,» I urged him. «I have spoken with your grandparents. They wish to meet you.» I did not mention how long it had taken me to reconcile them to a grandson who was part Andalite, part human, and part hawk. They were apprehensive, yes, and confused, but they would see why I had found a true shorm in Tobias. I was sure of it.

"I can't." Tobias stared at the floor of the cave, but Elhariel looked at me. When he is in human morph, Tobias has four eyes, as an Andalite does.

«I understand your reasons for secluding yourself, Tobias. You do not desire fame, and you fear that you might encounter Jake, or that someone might ask you of him. But I offer you an opportunity to put half a galaxy between you and all of this. If you do not accept, I fear what may become of you. If you do not wish to speak to anyone, you may keep your silence. But your mother worries for you. I mourn Rachel as well, but you must not forget that there are others who live who love you still. I do not ask that you do anything that would bring you further grief than you already carry in your heart, but your mother now suffers as a result of your desire to make yourself suffer, and that must not continue.»

"You didn't call him Prince," said Tobias. "You just called him 'Jake.'"

I felt a flash of annoyance. Had Tobias not listened to anything else I had said? «This war is ended. He is no longer my prince. In peace, every warrior must find time to return to his garden and his field and lay aside what he knew during war. I cannot lay aside all my burdens, but I can relieve Jake of his duty as my prince.»

Tobias looked up. All four eyes were upon me. His face was still, but his eyes, all four, had a manic edge. His voice came out a snarl. "How can you just stand there and talk like that?"

He leaned forward, his voice rising and face reddening with every word. "You pushed the button to set off those bombs in the Yeerk pool. You threatened to nuke the city to get Visser Two to call off World War Three. You were tortured with me. I was there. I didn't just hear you scream, I felt it! And you stand there, and you tell me what's right, when I'm just trying to survive! I do whatever I have to, to make it another day. This," he said, gesturing around to the cave, "is what I found. I've tried going back to Loren's house, but when I so much as see another thinking being, I feel live I'm going to self-destruct. I found something that keeps me from self-destructing and I can't give it up. Do you even understand what I'm saying?"

I understood. In the months following the torture, my mind could find refuge only in ritual. I would perform every ritual I could remember, no matter what its purpose or context, and when I ran out of rituals I could remember, I began to invent my own. Tobias knew them all. So in reply, I set the edge of my tail blade against the inside of my left foreleg and dragged it slowly upward, so that my skin peeled from my flesh a little at a time. Blue blood welled up and pooled on the stone below.

"Stop!" Elhariel cried. I did.

"Don't," said Tobias, voice shaking.

The self-flaying ritual had always been the one that frightened Tobias the most. I would flay off my own skin until I could bear the pain no longer, then morph and demorph to heal the gruesome wounds. Finally, Tobias had morphed a polar bear, fought me, and held me down until I promised never to do it again. But it was no more than I had done for him, in those dark days. One day I found him in the woods in human morph, with Elhariel pecking at his face and screaming, and then it had been my turn to stop them.

«I understand,» I said. «Do what you must for your pain, but do not make Loren suffer for it.»

"He wants to be human," said Elhariel. "For good. He won't admit it yet, but he will when he's ready, and we need Loren there for that. She'll be there, for the two hours. And after."

«You will stay on Earth so that you can learn to be human again,» I said.

"Yes. I don't know when, or how," said El. "Even I've forgotten, and I remembered for longer than he did. But we will."

Tobias said nothing, but I could see it in the way he looked at Elhariel. He wanted to have her. Forever. Without Rachel, he needed the comfort of her at his side much more than he needed the escape of his wings. And he was a warrior no longer.

He stepped toward me and took my hands in his. I was taken aback. Touch is not given freely by Andalites as it so often is by humans; we kiss with our hands, our palms the place where one soul can come in closest contact with another. Tobias knew this well.

"Promise," said Tobias. "Promise you'll come back for me, and I promise I'll stay with Loren and learn to be human again."

I did not hesitate. «I swear it by wind and water and the first light of morning. I will return for you, my shorm

"I swear on my father's name. I won't let my family down."

It was my last promise to Tobias – and the only one that I never kept.