Chapter Four

Disclaimer: I do not own Animorphs or A Christmas Carol.

"This isn't right," I said, frowning. "I'm nearly positive that the shock of seeing my own grave is supposed to come at the very end of this. Unless this is a very very short trip to the future, I guess. Is it?"

I glanced around me. There was someone new here but I couldn't tell who it was or if I even knew them. They were about human-sized, I suppose, but covered al in a large, formless black cloak.

The…spirit, for lack of a better word, stayed silent for so long that I began to get very uncomfortable before it slowly raised its sleeve (well, arm, but I could only see the sleeve) and gestured to my right.

I followed the motion and saw a future version of me. I didn't look that much older but I had grown somewhat. The older me was sitting quietly on the ground and staring up at a headstone. And not just any old headstone, either. This was a fancy headstone; this was Rachel's headstone.

I watched my older self for awhile, waiting to see if he'd do anything to make me understand why we were here. He didn't, though. I guess I haven't given up my habit of just sitting at her grave. In fact, it might have gotten worse.

I finally tore my eyes away from the sight and back at the spirit and then the world changed.

I saw Cassie looking a couple of years older herself. She was nervous as hell but trying not to show it, determined to get through whatever she had set her mind on. Her parents weren't there but mine were along with Marco's parents and Loren.

"You said that you had information about where Marco is," Eva said, sounding almost accusing.

"I do," Cassie agreed hesitantly.

"And Jake?" my dad pressed.

"Did something happen to me?" I asked, alarmed. "And to Marco?"

Cassie nodded. "And Tobias."

"Is he missing?" Loren asked, somewhat bitter. "I wouldn't have noticed."

Cassie winced that time. "A month ago Jake came to me. He told me that Ax – that Prince Aximili – had been tracking the Blade Ship and that he finally found it. Most of the crew of his ship was missing or dead. Only one Andalite made it back to Earth to warn us. Jake and Marco and Tobias went after him."

My breath caught in my throat. Ax. Something had happened to Ax and we were once more rushing into danger and putting our lives on the line, it seemed. It didn't seem fair, really. But then, at least it's better than just sitting around waiting for life to start making sense again.

"Why all the secrecy?" my mom demanded. "If they were going to rescue their friend then why did they just disappear?"

Cassie took a deep breath. "They suspect Ax of being in Kelbrid territory." That clearly meant nothing to them (it meant nothing to me) and so she elaborated. "The Kelbrid are a powerful race that controls a large section of the galaxy. They and the Andalites have an agreement where they'll just stay out of the other's territory. The Andalites can't be involved with this. That's why they had to steal a captured Yeerk fighter and go after them. Well, I say steal but they had unofficial sanction."

"Why didn't they tell us?" Peter asked, looking lost.

"I-I don't know," Cassie admitted. "Maybe they thought you'd try to stop them. Maybe they didn't think that they could bring themselves to go if you did."

Did I even think to ask Cassie to tell my parents? I can't imagine that I'd put that on her. She was taking the initiative so that our families would have just as many answers as she did despite knowing that she wouldn't be thanked for it. It made me remember all over again just how amazing Cassie can be.

"They told you," Loren pointed out.

Eva jumped on that. "Why aren't you with them?"

Cassie looked away. "Jake told me. I guess he wouldn't have felt right not telling me. Ax was one of us, after all."

The look on my parents' faces at that…

"I offered to go," Cassie insisted, sounding almost desperate to be believed. "I did. Jake told me to stay. He didn't…I don't think that he expected to come back."

That was when the tears started.

I turned away, finding it strangely difficult to swallow. "Let's see something else. Please. Anything else."

We were back at my house.

My parents, both looking lost, were sitting across the table from each other.

"Are we just bad parents?" my mom asked suddenly before starting as if she hadn't really meant to say it aloud.

My dad raised an eyebrow. "What brought this on?" he asked carefully.

My mom looked almost wistful. "Five years ago, did you ever think that it would end up this way? That we'd lose both of our children at nineteen?"

I winced. Only two years left, it seemed. I felt a sudden irrational surge of anger towards my older self for putting my parents through that. I felt a familiar layer of guilt settle over me because I knew that one day this would be me. What had happened? Did we die out there with Ax? Did my parents even know what had happened to me?

"We don't know that Jake's gone," my dad pointed out.

"And we may never know," my mom said bitterly. "How much time will need to pass before we accept that he's dead or will we be waiting for him to come home for the rest of our lives?"

"Longer than a year," my dad said firmly. "You know what Z-Space is like. They might not have even reached the Blade Ship yet." The Blade Ship where Tom died remains unspoken, as does the fact that he died a snake and was probably either fed to a Taxxon or disposed of as waste.

"And when they do, what then? It's one little ship against an entire Blade Ship," my mom pointed out. "They can't possibly win."

"They couldn't possibly win before and yet Earth was saved all the same," my dad countered.

"Yes, because that worked out so well for them, didn't it?" my mom asked sarcastically.

"I think I know where this is coming from," my dad said slowly. "This isn't about Jake going off on a suicide mission, is it? I think we both know that he would have gone even if he had been perfectly well-adjusted after the war-"

"Which he wasn't," my mom interrupted. "He was hurting and guilty and depressed and we didn't help him."

But earlier they had been talking about therapy. Had they not followed up on that? Had they tried but I wouldn't hear of it? I didn't quite know what had happened to me or why I had made the decisions that I did but I do know that I would never have wanted them to blame themselves.

Was that how Tom and Rachel had felt about me?

"We did the best we could," my dad disagreed. "And I'd like to think that we did help him. He just had some very serious problems and our support couldn't make all that go away. Maybe if he had sought help but he didn't want to and we couldn't force him to."

"We didn't even notice," my mom whispered, near tears.

My dad nodded. "It always comes back to that, doesn't it?"

My mom looked stricken. "One son became a slave and the other a battle-hardened general and we didn't even notice."

"What were we supposed to think? Yes, Tom was getting distant and then Jake started always being gone but they were teenagers. It was supposed to be normal," my dad said reasonably.

"It wasn't," my mom responded flatly.

"We know that now but who would have looked at the distance, at the being gone, at the exhaustion and realized that aliens were not only real but were invading and Jake and Tom were caught up in that?" my dad demanded. "Jean, honey, you're expecting too much of yourself."

For a moment it looked like she was going to argue before she slumped abruptly. "You're probably right," my mom admitted at last. "But still, we should have thought that something was up! Peter said that he used to worry that Marco had joined a gang."

"And what do you think would have happened if we did get worried? We would have had to have tried to intervene," my dad pointed out. "If we got in the Yeerk's way then we probably would have only gotten infested sooner and endangered Jake and the whole resistance. If we started paying too much attention to Jake then we might have compromised his ability to sneak off and fight and maybe even alerted Tom to the fact that something wasn't right."

"So you're saying that it was for the best that we were so blind?" my mom said, sounding incredulous.

My dad hesitated before nodding. "I am saying that. I know that it makes you feel like a horrible parent and to be honest sometimes I get that way, too. But as hard as it is to accept, everything depended on that."

"I never wanted them to think that this was their fault," I said hollowly. "I never thought that my…difficulties after the war would make them start questioning themselves. My dad's absolutely right; their not noticing was the best thing they could have done. The only thing, really."

Still, the spirit said nothing. I was starting to think that it never would.

"So…that's it then? It doesn't matter what I do because I'm just going to disappear and probably get myself killed in three years?" I demanded. "There's nothing to be done about it? And before that I never start 'living' again like Rachel said? What was the point of me surviving if I'm doomed to that?"

The words hit me harder than I thought they would.

What was the point?

I'm not the self-destructive type so it seemed like there was only one way to fix that.

"Alright," I said quietly. "I think I get it."

I watched the world once more reform around me and this time I was back in my bedroom, back in my bed.

Had it been a dream?

I'd been saying that the entire time and yet somehow it was surprising to think that it was.

But that didn't really matter, did it? Because even dreaming it was still my subconscious telling me to get my act together.

Although I really should talk to Ax and see if Kelbrids are a real thing. If they are, it's only fair to warn him. Maybe it'll even be enough.

I felt…I don't even know. Not ecstatic but certainly better than I had before. I seem to recall old Scrooge being a bit happier. I feel kind of cheated actually that I'm not. But I guess something is better than nothing.

I laid in bed for a little while longer as I waited for my head to clear and to be properly awake. Once that was done, I got dressed and head downstairs.

My mom was cooking while my dad was emptying the dishwasher.

"Merry Christmas, Jake," my mom said brightly when she saw me.

I managed a smile myself. "Merry Christmas, Mom. Merry Christmas, Dad."

"Hey listen," I told them. "I was thinking that maybe we could stop over at Marco's today."

After all, if he'd follow me on a suicide mission once more (this time when the fate of the planet wasn't at stake) then the very least that I could do was take time that I wouldn't have been spending doing anything important anyway and spending it with him.

My parents exchanged surprised but delighted looks.

"That's a wonderful idea, Jake," my dad said enthusiastically.

"And…" I trailed off.

My parents waited expectantly.

I didn't know why this was so hard to say. It was just a few simple words, that's all. I didn't really want to do it, true, but I didn't want that future to come to pass even more and so I had to make a choice. At this point it was worth a try, at least.

I took a deep breath and started again. "I think that I want to look into therapy. Maybe after the holidays you could recommend someone?"

I wasn't about to go back to Dr. Greyfield. I didn't care if it wasn't his fault that he couldn't help me because I was the one who couldn't tell him anything; I had bad memories of those sessions.

"Absolutely," my dad agreed, looking like a weight had been lifted off of his shoulder. "I know just the person, too."

I excused myself and headed back to my room. I had a cell phone now even if I never used it. Well, I'd use it now. It had been a year since I'd last dialed this number but I still knew it by heart. I probably always would.

"Hello?" Cassie answered on the first ring.

"Hi, Cassie," I said quietly.

There was a clanging noise like she'd dropped the phone. Was my calling her really such an unexpected event? I guess Rachel might have been right about that. Or Marco but I'm never going to tell him that.

"I'm sorry," she said when she was back on the line. "Jake?"

"Yeah, it's me," I agreed.

"I haven't heard from you in a while," she said carefully.

"No, you haven't," I said, sighing heavily. "I've been…busy."

"I've been pretty busy, too," Cassie replied, either not realizing that I was lying or being too good to call me on it.

"Can I see you?" I asked her, trying not to sound too eager. "We can go out for coffee or something."

"Of course we can," Cassie sound, a smile in her voice. "How does tomorrow work for you?"

"Tomorrow would be perfect," I said, smiling myself. "I'll meet you at your house at, say, three?"

"Three's good for me," Cassie confirmed. "And Jake? Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Cassie."

Even before we got there, I was glad that I had decided to go if only for my parents' reaction. I didn't realize that they'd been holding back for my sake but their enthusiasm at going to the house of a friend of mine made that quite clear. Part of it, I suppose, was also the fact that I was actively 'showing an interest.'

It occurred to me when I rang the doorbell that I should have called first. But oh well, it was Marco. The day that I need to call before dropping by is the day that I know we've really become estranged. Besides, when was the last time Marco called me?

I had understood (from Marco's occasional musings about the matter) that he had hired a butler and was insisting on calling him Wetherbee so I hadn't been expecting to be greeted at the door by Marco himself.

"Jake?" he asked, shocked. He covered it quickly. "Ha! I knew you'd come. No one can resist me for long!"

"Yes, that's exactly it," I deadpanned. "No, wait, I lied. I actually came because I was dying for a fire but it's too hot without any air conditioning."

Marco laughed. "Ah, you know me too well! Come in, come in. Mom! Dad! Jake's family came!" he called over his shoulder.

Eva and Peter appeared in the doorway.

"Steve, Jean, how good of you to join us," Eva said, smiling warmly at them. "Why don't you come this way? Marco's determined for this to be the best Christmas ever and ordered some of pretty much every kind of cookie you could think of."

"I thought I smelled something good," my dad said as he and my mom followed them into the kitchen.

That just left me and Marco.

It's not that guys are physically incapable of talking about their feelings, of course, it's that Marco and I might as well be. And frankly I already had a mushy enough dream in addition to talking to Cassie (which always gets mushy when we're not talking about killing things which, since the war is over, we wouldn't need to do. And come to think of it sometimes it got mushy even then).

"I didn't expect you to come," Marco said with carefully constructed indifference.

"Oh, was that a token invitation then?" I asked innocently. "Because if you want I can always lea-"

"Don't you dare!" Marco ordered. "I need someone on my side about the fireplace!"

As I laughed and allowed Marco to lead me to whatever cookie fetish he had going on, I considered that he might have a point. This certainly couldn't be half as good as any pre-war (or rather, pre-infestation) Christmas' but that didn't mean that it couldn't be pretty damn amazing. Far better than any of the ones I've had recently although that might just be damning it with faint praise.

Still, I had gotten a wake-up call of sorts even if I wasn't quite sure how that had come to be. I was worrying my parents less and I was going to – ugh – seek help. I was reaching out to my best friend and the girl that I loved and I might even be able to change the future.

My thoughts drifted to Tobias. Rachel seemed just as upset about what he was doing as what I was. Well, I was getting my life back on track – or attempting to – and she kind of had a point about guilt. If you can't escape it then you might as well do something with it.

I think I'm going to be paying him a visit soon.

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