When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

– 1 Corinthians 13:11

I. Marco & Diamanta

(Set during book #9)

When I came downstairs to the breakfast table, eyes bleary and head pounding, I saw that my dad had made pancakes.

He hardly ever wakes up early enough to make a nice breakfast like that. Usually he rolls out of bed, grabs a cup of yogurt, and heads off to work.

"What's the special occasion?" I said. My words came out a mumble, slurred by sleep. I'd gotten maybe five hours of sleep, and every minute of it filled with screaming nightmares. When I'd woken up, I hadn't been sure whether I had four legs or six. I'd thought I might be a termite again, until Diamanta bit my hand to remind me she was there.

My dad served some pancakes onto a plate and set it in front of my favorite chair. "You woke me up early. You were having a nightmare. You kept screaming, 'I won't do it, don't make me.' And I thought, well, as long as I'm up…" He shrugged. "I thought pancakes might help you feel a little better, at least."

I knew which nightmare my dad was talking about. In that dream, I'd demorphed from termite form, but the termite queen still controlled me. She tried to make me kill Jake. I screamed and pleaded with her not to make me do it. She didn't care. I was nothing to her, just another soldier crushed by her will.

"They're blueberry," said Diamanta, perched on the edge of the table as a gray parrot.

I looked at the pancakes. She was right. Blueberry is my favorite kind of pancake. My dad had no idea what I was going through, or how to make it better, but he'd done this one small thing to cheer me up.

"Thanks," was all I could say. This time the word didn't come out mumbled. I cut off a piece of pancake and ate it. IHOP could have done it better, but IHOP wasn't my dad. I ate the pancakes, loving every bite.

What if he notices more? What if he starts to worry? said Dia. If he really thinks we're cracking up, he won't let us come and go without explanations like we always do. We can't let that happen.

So you're saying it's a bad thing that he cares, I thought, taking a vicious stab at a pancake.

It's not bad. But it makes things more complicated. We have to hide it better. We can't let him really see what's happening.

It's not worth it, I thought, desperately. We need Dad to care. Without that, we're just like Tobias, and look what happened to him. That termite queen freaked me out so much I forgot I even had a family until I came downstairs and saw Dad with the pancakes.

We won't forget, Dia promised. I didn't forget. I reminded you. I'll always remind you. She paused. But yeah, I wouldn't be able to. Not without this. But it's just too hard to juggle it all. We need him to care, but not too much. What kind of a life is that?

"Want some more pancakes?" my dad said.

"I don't know if I'm still hungry," I said.

"Marco, I hopped all over the kitchen this morning to make these."

I just stared at him for half a minute, then burst out laughing. "That," I said, "was the lamest pun ever."

"You laughed. It's not lame if it makes you laugh." My dad smiled, and Mirazai pulsed sunbursts of orange just beneath her skin.

I have no idea what kind of a life this is, Dia, I said silently. All I know is that it sucks, it's eating my soul, and I'm going to keep laughing at it anyway.

II. Jake & Merlyse

(Set after book #10)

"One of the reasons behind the American militias' success against the British was their effective use of guerrilla tactics," said Mr. Feng, switching to a picture on the overhead projector of red-jacketed British soldiers standing in neat rows contrasted with a group of rugged American outdoorsmen. "The militiamen knew the terrain and used that knowledge to ambush the British troops, who were overly reliant on traditional battle formations."

I looked at Erek King, sitting two rows ahead of me. Beside him sat his "dæmon", Damaris, in collie form. She'd only taken dog forms for almost a year now, and everyone guessed that she would soon settle as a dog. I didn't have to guess. I knew. The Chee only ever settle as dogs, as a tribute to their Pemalite creators. Not that they actually have dæmons, but I guess it's the symbolism that counts.

It was only by sheer dumb luck that we'd discovered the Chee. There was a Sharing event on a yacht out in the ocean, and we'd followed the yacht in dolphin morph to find out who the special guest speaker was, who we thought might be an influential new Controller in the state government. A bunch of the younger crowd had taken the opportunity to go swimming, including Erek, and with our dolphin echolocation we'd "seen" his true android form. If we'd been in any other morph, we wouldn't have seen it; the Chee shield themselves from the senses of every form that dæmons take. But there are only a few dozen people in the whole world with dolphin dæmons, and so Erek's hologram didn't hold up to our echolocation.

But now that we knew the Chee, we had a resource. As I sat there in history class with him, I wondered what Erek thought of this lesson. Had he been there, during the Revolutionary War? Was he correcting Mr. Feng, in his head? What did he know about those battles long ago that the teacher didn't? And as I wondered, I had an idea of how I could use Erek as a resource without violating his programming.

I need you to talk to Damaris, I told Merlyse. Ask if we can have lunch together after class.

Merl had to be careful to make sure Mr. Feng didn't notice her talking in class, so she became a desert locust and hopped toward Damaris, staying low to the ground. When she was close enough to hear, she whispered the message to Damaris' fluffy tail. Through her, I heard the holographic dæmon say yes. Merl hopped back, accidentally landing on the paw of the dæmon sitting in front of me, which earned her a glare.

When class got out, I waited by the door for Erek. Damaris came out first, giving Merlyse an amused look. "Armadillo," she said. "That's new. What happened to the jackrabbit you always used to be in class?"

I started to say that I had no idea, but Merl said first, "Rabbits freeze in the face of danger. We don't."

"Oh," said Damaris, her tone no longer teasing. "So we're talking business."

I shrugged. "Nothing urgent. I just had a few questions."

Erek raised an eyebrow, but said, "All right."

We stood in line together for food. Marco spotted me from his table and waved, but when he saw who I was with, he stopped waving and raised his eyebrows. Merlyse flew over to him as a cactus wren to tell him not to worry.

"Good grief," I heard Diamanta say. "We've only just met him and already we've filed him in our minds under 'bad news'."

"Your mind has a filing system?" Merl said, then flew away to avoid a punch from Dia's monkey fist.

Erek and I found a table for ourselves and set down our trays. "What's up?" said Erek, digging his fork into something that might have been creamed spinach. I wondered what happened to the food when he brought it to his mouth. He definitely didn't eat it. Maybe he just incinerated it.

"You were there," I said. "The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, all of those. Or if you weren't, then at least one of your people was. We're not the first people ever to fight for freedom."

Erek "ate" a forkful of the maybe-spinach, then set the fork down, his hologram seeming to chew the food. "No, you're not. I was a typesetter for an abolitionist newspaper, once."

"Mr. Feng was talking about guerrilla tactics. That's us, right? We're on our home territory, and we're fighting sneaky against a superior force."

Erek nodded.

"Are we doing it right?" I leaned forward in my chair, vaguely aware that Merlyse was beside me as a coyote, ears pricked. "You know what works. You know what makes guerrillas win or lose. Are we like the American revolutionaries, or one of those slave rebellions that never made it?"

Erek shoved food around his plate with his fork, then looked up at me. "If anything, you're more like the Viet Cong. The Americans came to Vietnam with the best military in the world. They'd conquered half the world already, one way or another. They didn't give the Vietnamese much credit. They were weak. They'd fall without too much effort, and the American superpower would march on to the next battle against the Communists. But that's not what happened. The people gave shelter to the Viet Cong. In the great war between America and the Soviets, the people of Vietnam were the true casualties, but they kept fighting. I think you, too, have allies wherever you go, even if it doesn't seem that way. Humans will always fight for their freedom."

"So who won?" I asked.

"After years of heavy casualties and huge expense, the U.S. finally left Vietnam. They decided it wasn't worth it anymore. It became a Communist country. It still is, in fact. But the Communists didn't really win, and the worst losers of all were the Vietnamese." Erek smiled wryly. "Not very encouraging, I know, but I think the Vietnam War helped the U.S. learn to be less imperialist. You can't just go in and change the fate of a country. It's not the last time the U.S. has tried that, but now, at least, they think twice before they do."

"So we kick the Yeerks out, and they'll do a little soul-searching before they conquer the next planet." I shook my head a little. "Marco would call that a win, as long as they leave us alone, but Cassie wouldn't. She'd say we lost, so long as the Yeerks are still out there doing the same thing to other species."

"Maybe the story will turn out differently this time. I can't tell you that. I can tell you that the world won't be the same, after. Even after the Yeerks are defeated, everything will change."

The thought scared me. I try not to think too often about what life will be like after the Andalites come to beat the Yeerks. I guess I always thought I'd just go back to school and go back to the way things were. But Erek made me realize that that wasn't going to happen. The arrival of the Andalites, the discovery that humans aren't alone in the universe, would change everything. Sure, it might be for the better, but I didn't want it to change. I just wanted to be a kid again. Finish high school, maybe go to college. Would I still be able to do that, after?

"I'm not George Washington," I said, my voice a humorless laugh. "You know that, right? I don't actually know how to lead a guerrilla band. I'm a kid pretending to be a general."

"Kids your age fought in the Revolutionary War," said Erek. "I remember. I was a fourteen-year-old boy in Massachusetts named James. I had a schnauzer dæmon, Tabitha. They told me I had to fight. When I said no, the minister said I was a coward. In the end, I ran away and ended up living on the streets of Boston."

I stared at him. I didn't realize that the Chee lived such rough lives. I figured they'd all rather be in comfy suburbia like Erek was now. "Why didn't you just change your hologram? Why live on the street like that?"

Erek shrugged. "It's not bad, for me. I don't have to eat. I don't get cold or sick. Besides, I think it's important to remember the consequences of choosing pacifism."

I wondered if I really understood the consequences of the war I was fighting. Erek knew what his choices meant. Did I?

"Any more questions?"

I had a lot more, but Erek probably wouldn't know the answers. I wanted to understand strategy, tactics. What worked in the past and what didn't. But the android wouldn't know; he'd never fought.

"How about a reading list?" said Merlyse to Damaris. "You'd know which books are accurate and which aren't. We want to learn what other guerrilla leaders have done."

Erek took a notebook and a pen from his backpack, tore out a sheet of paper, and wrote down some titles. "I'll write them in order from least technical to most technical. Go in that order, or you'll be over your head in military jargon."

I envisioned a book full of Ax-speak, and nodded. I folded up the sheet of paper and tucked it in my pocket. "Thanks, Erek."

Most kids in our class think history is boring, I thought. Irrelevant to their daily lives.

Merlyse sounded grim. Not for us.

III. Rachel & Abineng

(Set during book #12)

It was nice having dinner with my dad, with everything that was going on. We were in the hotel restaurant together. My dessert, an ice cream sundae, had just arrived, and my dad was eating from a cheese platter. It was easy to be calm and relaxed around him. I didn't have to be constantly on my guard, trying to keep my emotions under control so I wouldn't start morphing like crazy. My dad and I didn't talk as we ate, but on the floor under our table, my dad's Havana Brown cat dæmon, Gheselle, cleaned Abineng's fur with her tongue as he lay on his back in golden marmoset form.

My dad had the slightly distant look in his eyes that people get when they're seeing through their dæmon. "What happened to Abineng's cat form? He used to be a Bengal cat all the time. But he hasn't taken cat form once these last couple days."

"I'm branching out," Abi informed him, primly, from beneath the table.

"It's just…" My dad shrugged. "His Bengal cat form was so you. Half-wild, proud, beautiful. I always thought he was going to settle as a cat. Like Ghes."

Yeah, me too, Abineng thought. I loved having claws, feeling that grace and power and beauty. To know I look good and defend you at the same time. But now we can become a grizzly bear, or a wolf, or an elephant, and that's not important to me anymore. I don't have to prove my ferocity with claws. Now I know it's just the way we are.

Looking through Abi's eyes, I could see that Gheselle had stopped grooming him. He drew himself into a seated position, shaking out his long golden fur. I felt a fierce pride in him. He was beautiful as a marmoset, and as the magpie he'd become lately to replace the kestrel. Marmosets don't have claws, and neither do magpies, but marmosets are clever, and magpies drive away and even kill birds of prey that enter their territories. And besides, if Bengals were half-wild, they were also half-tame. I was growing less and less tame all the time. It was so hard to keep a rein on my emotions. They were my weapons, as much as my morphs were, and I never kept them far out of reach.

No anger, Abineng reminded me. You know he doesn't mean to hurt you.

He didn't mean to hurt me. But he did. I feel like I've disappointed him.

Abi climbed up into the booth next to me. It doesn't matter. He'll learn to love whatever form I end up with.

So I put aside my anger and said, "You can't always tell in advance. Maybe I'm just a wild card."

My dad laughed. "Yeah, that's you, all right."

I finished my dessert and we went back up to the hotel room. I got in the shower, Abi perched as a magpie up on the curtain rod. As the hot water flowed over me, I let the bitterness wash over me too, for just a moment. I'd put it aside for a while, and I'd do it again, until this hereth illint thing was over. But I needed to feel it, just a little. I'd thought, too, that Abineng would be a cat. I'd imagined myself swinging on the parallel bars at a gymnastics meet, Abi perched with a cat's balance at the end of the bar, human and daemon alike in grace. I'd imagined Abi and Ghes curled up together as cats on the floor while my dad and I watched TV together on the couch. But it wasn't going to happen. Both Abi and I knew it.

I lifted my hand to adjust the water a little cooler, to see that my hand had become a cat's paw. I froze. Then Abi laughed, a shrill magpie's laugh. I shook my head, streams of water lashing from my hair against the shower curtain and the tiled wall. It was silly, after all. That life I'd imagined was gone, and Abineng's form was only the least of it.

I washed my hair, got out of the shower, towelled off, and put on my nightgown. By the time I was done brushing my teeth, the fog on the bathroom mirror had cleared. I saw Abi's little marmoset face beside mine.

No emotion, he said.

"No emotion," I echoed.

IV. Cassie & Quintavion

(Set after book #12)

I stood in front of the mirror and let out a long breath. It trembled a little as it passed through my throat. I wore the only dress I had, one that Rachel had left at my house after a sleepover that she'd never gotten around to reclaiming. It came to just above her knees. On me, it was somewhere around my calves. It was white trimmed in blue, the back a deep V that exposed my shoulder blades. I looked like a kid playing dress-up with her mom's clothing.

"Just do it," said Quincy. He was a pangolin, sitting up on his haunches, long armored tail curled around his feet. "If you wait too long, you'll just psych yourself out."

"We shouldn't be doing this," I said.

"We have to. How else can we help her? Ask what's wrong? She'll only get angry. You know that. This will help us understand what's going on."

"Fine," I said. "But you start."

Quincy started the morph. I forced myself to watch the transformation in the mirror. The first to change was my height. I grew taller by about six inches. My figure shifted from stocky and muscular to lean and curvy. My hair grew and grew into a dark mane past my shoulders. For a moment I looked like a supermodel version of myself, as if I'd melded bodies with Beyoncé. Then the bone structure beneath my face changed, the rich color of my skin and hair drained away, and my eyes paled and cooled from dark brown to blue. Quincy disappeared, though I could feel his presence still.

In the mirror stood Rachel, barefoot in her dress. She didn't have makeup on, but I'd always known she didn't really need it. The only part that was truly was missing was Abineng.

I didn't know what I expected to feel. I'd only been in this morph for a few minutes at the Barry and Cindy Sue studio, and I'd been so nervous about fooling people into thinking Marco and I were Abineng and Rachel that I hadn't paid attention to what her mind was like. That was what I had to do now, if I wanted to do something about the changes I'd already seen at work in Rachel. She was starting to lose control, and I had to know why.

I don't know how long I stood in front of the mirror like that, staring at Rachel. Nothing changed. Quincy said, We're never going to know what it's like to be Rachel if we just stand here. She doesn't stand around. We have to do something.

Rachel was at some kids' movie with her younger sisters. I didn't run any risk of seeing her if I went out. I felt guilty. What if someone figured out that "Rachel" had been in two places at once? I'd have to go somewhere I wasn't likely to be seen. I decided to go on a walk along one of the trails in the national park. I strapped on my mom's Birkenstocks (mine wouldn't fit Rachel's feet), then went to the barn and got out the emergency insect dæmon lanyard we keep around for Ax when he's in human morph during our meetings, in case my dad walks in. Then I walked out to the national park.

What if Tobias or Ax sees us on the way there and calls us out? This is stupid, I told Quincy.

It's sunset, Quincy pointed out. Tobias likes to be in his tree by the time the sun starts to go down. He's scared of the owls. Ax is much less likely to spot us.

All the same, I took care to avoid the stream where Ax told us he did his evening ritual. It felt strange, walking along in Rachel's body. Fallen logs that I'd normally walk around I could now step over in one stride. I could feel Rachel's dress flowing around me as I walked. It made my movements feel freer than they did in jeans, but it made me uneasy. What if the hem of the dress caught on something? I knew Rachel would never let her dress get torn up, even if she were walking through a thorn thicket, but I wasn't Rachel.

I made it to a trail that curved around a pond. The sky was darker now, but I knew the trail well enough that I wouldn't lose my way. All around me, crickets, katydids, and frogs chirped and rasped in noisy chorus.

I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw another hiker walking along the trail in the opposite direction. He was a broad man with a beard. His dæmon, a sturdy little donkey, trotted on the path beside him. I didn't know him. I wasn't afraid – running into strange men in the dark isn't scary anymore when you're an Animorph – but I was thrown off guard.

"Evening," said the hiker. The donkey leaned her head forward to look for my dæmon, until her eyes settled on the lanyard around my neck.

"Um, hi," I said. I tensed, ready to bolt behind a tree and demorph if this guy was a Controller, or just some creep.

"Are you lost, young lady?"

"No. I'm fine."

"You sure? A pretty young girl out alone at night in that dress – you could come into some trouble."

"It's no trouble at all, sir," I said, glancing at his dæmon. Her ears were pointed toward me, but she didn't bare her teeth or scuff her hooves in warning. Probably not a threat. I relaxed. "I live near here. I know my way around."

"It's getting dark. You might bump into something and trip, and scuff up that nice dress of yours."

"Excuse me," I said. I could feel my face heating up. "My dress has nothing to do with whether I can take care of myself. I could hike through this park blindfolded whether I was wearing a dress, overalls, or a dental floss bikini."

"Don't blame me if you end up falling in the pond, young lady," said the hiker. "Stay safe." He kept walking, though his dæmon shot me one last disapproving look as they passed.

I stood there in the twilight, amazed at myself. I would never have blown up at that man, if I'd been myself.

That man wouldn't have said that to you, if you were yourself, Quincy observed. He seemed to think less of you because you were walking around alone in a pretty dress.

Rachel hears stuff like that all the time, I realized. Sure, some kids in school probably think I'm a loser because I wear overalls, but she opens herself up to this, because she dares to be feminine, and still be Rachel. No wonder she developed defenses like that. Becoming an Animorph didn't make her this way. It just brought out what was already there.

There but for the grace of God go we, said Quincy.

I let out a breath. I focused on my own face, my short hair, my broad shoulders. Rachel's form fell away from me like a poor disguise. I was myself again, in a dress and shoes too large for me. It would be more comfortable to walk back in clothes that fit, but I didn't want to morph Rachel again. Not ever.

In the dark beside me, Quincy was a hyena. A social animal, aware of the ranks of all its packmates, scrounging food when it could and killing when it couldn't. His eyes glittered.

"No," I said. "Not that."

"You know what Dad says," said Quincy. "Hyenas are one of the most unfairly maligned animals in existence. They're smart. They take care of each other. Lions will kill cubs fathered by a different lion, and they're called noble."

"I know," I said. "But I'm not a predator."

Quincy wrinkled up his snout in distaste. "Don't stereotype, Cassie. You know better. Abineng doesn't take predatory forms anymore. That doesn't mean Rachel's stopped enjoying the fight. Predators don't enjoy fighting. They kill to survive. That's what we do. We fight the Yeerks because we want humans – and the Earth – to survive."

"Not now!" I said, half-shouting. "You're right! I know you're right! But I don't want you to be that right now. Remind me that I'm different. Remind me that I don't want any of this. Remind me that I care about peace, and family, and helping animals."

Quincy changed into a sheep. He looked up at me and said, "You're going to have to face it, one day. You know that this isn't what we are, even if we want it to be."

"I know," I said, starting back the way we'd come. "But I want to believe I am, for as long as I can."