Sins of our fathers
Characters: Steve. Features Jake, Tom, Dan, and Jean.
Summary: "Hope is an incredible delusion." Steve Berenson reflects on fatherhood. During and post 54.
Word count: Around 1,500
Author's note: The Ani parents don't get nearly enough love as a whole, IMO, but that goes double for the Ani dads. Written for Father's Day, with no claims of ownership. Feedback much appreciated!
Steve couldn't have known. But he should have.
He was a pediatrician, after all. He had spent his life advising parents as their children grew from infants to toddlers to school children to pre-adolescents to teenagers. He knew about the tell-tale signs of drug abuse, of sex, of dating, of eating disorders, of rebellion. He knew what was developmentally appropriate. He knew what to expect.
But who expects an alien invasion? Who expects a civil war? It wasn't his fault, he told himself.
Still, he should have known. He was supposed to save children, to help them, to catch them when they fell. He was supposed to keep them safe.
What is it they say about the cobbler's children?
If you look up the war, the first thing you will see a picture, almost always the same one: three teenagers, an Andalite, and a hawk—the self-titled Animorphs standing in front of a spaceship, fresh off saving the world. It is, arguably, the most famous photograph on Earth. Steve never looked at it; he didn't need to.
That moment was burned into Steve's memory. Not just because it is the moment or because it was on every newspaper and every TV news show for days on end, but because it was one of the first things Steve Berenson saw as a post-Yeerk man.
He and Jean had been the first freed. It had been a non-negotiable part of Jake's deal—that his parents come out alive. The Andalites had threatened the Yeerks with a combination of tailblades and outmeal until they had slithered out of the crevices of their brains and into separate bags of water. Steve had felt his legs under him, under his control, as he nearly fell to the ground. Jean ran toward him, her gait wobbling, and they embraced.
Hours before, under Yeerk control and raging helplessly in their minds, they had watched as a grizzly bear bit down a snake. Now, on the same screen, they watched as Jake and the others entered the world anew.
Dan arrived late. He had come out of Boston on a media convey after the major action had happened. He had been one of thousands upon thousands of reporters in that giant mass of flashblubs as the remaining Animorphs had exited with ship. It was there, in the most impersonal of ways, that Dan Berenson learned that his daughter was dead.
Steve had first seen Dan in the White House room where they—the families—all waited. Naomi had gone out somewhere with Jordan and Sarah—whether to remove them from the grief or immerse them in it, Steve couldn't be sure. Dan was staring, unperceiving; Steve was crying. Jean was crying; Michelle was crying. Walter, Peter, and Loren all sat in quiet states of shock. Eva sat in grim reality. Each family left the others alone.
Steve broke the code and walked over to Dan, who stood in the center of the room, eerily still.
" I'm… I'm sorry for your loss," he said. The worlds were bullshit, and he knew it. Every single thing you say to a parent who has lost their child is bullshit, he realized, because there are no words that can ever capture that unspeakable grief.
Dan turned to him and stared.
" My daughter was good. She did what was right," he finally said, his voice frigid.
She killed my son! Steve wanted to scream, but he didn't. Couldn't. Because Dan was both perfectly right and utterly wrong. Tom had been a Controller, the enemy, someone who had to be taken down. He had also been Steve's son. Neither of those could cancel each other. Neither would ever stop being true.
Silently, he moved away.
Everyone jumped as the first bang sounded, sure they were under attack already. But when they regained their senses and looked around, they realized it was no alien attack.
Even now, if you go that room in the White House, you can see the impact of Steve Berenson's fists on the wall where he imagined the face of his brother to be.
In the months after the war, Steve tried so, so hard. He went to Jake's award ceremonies and watched as Jake looked at the medals with an accursed horror spreading across his face. He took his son to courtside Lakers games where they decided to leave after the first quarter. He dragged him to look at Stanford, which, like every other school, offered Jake a full-ride scholarship with no application needed and no questions asked. He took him to EA and E3 and any other place that, in the old days, might have caught his eye. He offered to talk, he offered not to talk, to listen, to pay someone else to listen… Whatever you need, he said, and he meant it. But Jake never asked.
Jake, of course, was polite. He went along on the trips and tours. He attended the award ceremonies. He smiled at the right moments, said the right things, was gracious, and was kind. It was obvious to Steve, though, that a light had gone out in Jake; every time he looked in his son's eyes, he saw that something was missing. Still, Jake was alive, at least. That was something, and it was wonderful.
Had he been a patient, Steve would have known the answer. Clinical depression, he would have suggested, as he handed out a pharmaceutical company-produced pamphlet, perhaps co-morbid with PTSD. He would have explained about serotonin. He would have talked about SSRIs and therapy. He would have referred out. He would have assured them it would be okay.
With Jake, he did none of that. He didn't push him to therapy. He didn't drag him to a doctor. And he certainly didn't believe that everything—or anything—would be okay.
How could he tell Jake what to do? Jake, boy commander? Jake, leader of the Animorphs? Jake, child who had saved the world? How would therapists even start with a client who had ordered the deaths of thousands before he had owned a car? How would serotonin reuptake inhibitors work on a brain that had been a tiger, a dolphin, a fly, and so much more?
To be honest, though, the question that troubled Steve the most was How do you help someone come to peace with sending his cousin to murder his brother? Should you?
Because even though he knew about the Controllers and about the Yeerks, even though he understood, even though he believed Jake did the right thing, he was not just Jake's father.
He was also Tom's.
On the anniversary of Tom's and Rachel's deaths, the world threw a party. There were fireworks and speeches and parades and Cinnabons galore. Marco did publicity like a pro, Cassie made a few brief appearances on behalf of the government, and Jake made one short, solemn speech.
As the Earth celebrated, the Berensons sat inside with their shades down and tried to forget.
After Jake disappeared, Steve went back into practice, although under a different name. There were some changes, of course, with the rapid but controlled rise of technology. Largely, though, things were the same. Infants cry, children get colds, teenagers rebel. Some things never change.
His office was flooded with Marcos, Cassies, Tobiases, Rachels, and, of course, Jakes. There were even a few Axmilis, Elfangors, and Aftrans in the mix, for those parents willing and able to step outside the planetary box. There were very few Toms, not that that surprised Steve. Very few people name their child after the fallen enemy.
He wondered—but never asked—why they so readily named them after the fallen heroes. All but one of the Animorphs were dead or presumed to be so. Their lives had not been peaceful. Their souls had not been clean. They had not lived the lives you would ever wish on your children. Steve would know.
He never quite got used to it. Every time he saw the name on his chart, his breath hitched. It was stupid, of course; a name did not make a person, and the Jakes he saw varied so widely in appearance and personality that the thought that one of them would have been just like his was laughable, verging on insane. Of course, so was the idea of aliens from outerspace.
He and Jean both worked long hours. He loved her and she him, but the time between them was rarely ever truly theirs. The sons who had been able to live such masked presences left loud absences in their wakes. It was best not to dwell in the past, they both decided, and so they worked unceasingly towards the future.
Still, every night when he left the office, Steve Berenson couldn't help but glance up at the stars and wonder if somewhere up there, his youngest son lived on.
Hope, it turns out, is an incredible delusion.