Author's Note: You may wonder where the Saddler subplot went. Well, in this 'verse, David was never going to be able to replace Saddler, because he couldn't impersonate Saddler's dæmon. So let's just say that Saddler has a horse dæmon, so he rides her instead of a bike, and voila, no bike accident.
Fear an ignorant man more than a lion.
– Turkish proverb
Her name was T'Shondra, and she had the most beautiful dæmon I've ever seen.
Maybe you're thinking, "Marco's just exaggerating because he's got it bad for this girl." Well, you're wrong. I did have it bad for this girl, but I'm not exaggerating. He had just settled as this huge moth, bigger than my hand, with a gorgeous geometric pattern of orange, white, and purple on his wings. I didn't know his name, but I hoped I'd get the chance to find out.
Dia was perched on my shoulder, all dressed up as a sun-bright parakeet. I leaned casually against the locker next to hers. "Hi, T'Shondra," I said.
"Hi, Marco," she said.
Dia watched her dæmon, and I watched her. "You've got a beautiful form," I said.
Her hands flew to her waist self-consciously. "A beautiful form? Ugh, you are such a perv!"
"That's not what I meant," I said. "I meant your dæmon is – "
"Oh, yeah, sure, cover it up by saying you were talking about him. You're a pig, Marco."
"There's nothing I can say to save this conversation, is there?"
So I walked away. What can you do? Sometimes you just have to cut your losses. At least I try, unlike a certain best friend of mine who just makes gooey eyes and pines.
"What does it take to get a girl's attention anyway?" I muttered.
"No idea. If a girl had said that to me, I'd be flattered," said Dia. "Oh, shit."
No one hesitates when their dæmon starts cursing out of the blue like that. I followed Dia's line of sight down the hallway. That's when I saw it, too: the blue box.
I'm great at plans. Give me time to think about it, and I can find the solutions to some seriously thorny problems. Trust me, it's been battle-tested. But when something totally random and crazy comes up out of nowhere and I have to make a snap decision, I end up doing some stupid crap. Like blurting out, "Yo!"
The kid with the blue box turned around. Only then did I register what he looked like. Blond, brown-eyed, average size. His dæmon was looped around his waist and shoulders as an anaconda. That made Dia tighten her grip on my shoulder. She thinks of dangerous snakes as her thing.
"What?" he said.
"Um... I don't know you, do I?"
"Ah." My brain was a total blank. I wished Cassie had been the one to see the box. She would have known what to say to get him to give it to her. I couldn't think of anything. "My name's Marco," I finally said. "And Diamanta."
"I'm David," he said. He didn't volunteer his dæmon's name. Bad sign. Introducing your dæmon is a way to show you're friendly.
"David! OK. Good name," I said, saying words just to give myself more time to think.
"Later," he said. I swear his dæmon's eyes rolled at me.
"Hey, David!" I yelled after him. "What's that blue thing?" Dia drew herself up on my shoulder, trying to look more dignified – as if that was going to work, after I'd already made a total fool of myself.
He stopped, but didn't bother turning around. His dæmon watched me over his shoulder with yellow slit eyes. "I don't know. My dæmon spotted it while we were taking a shortcut through the construction site across from the mall. It was in a hole in the wall, in a cement block. Like it was put there or something."
I tried to think of something. I really did. But my grand plan was to try to buy it off him for $1.32. I told you, I need time to think. Our attempted theft of the blue box that night might have gone better if Jake and Cassie had gone instead of me and Rachel. Maybe they're better at that kind of thing. Or maybe they aren't. I just can't help thinking, looking back, how it all might have gone differently. If only Tobias had stolen the box instead of coming back to report to Jake. If only I had said something, anything, in that hallway that might have convinced David to give me the box. I know it's pointless, because that's not the way it went. But maybe if I understood what went wrong, it'd help prevent something like this from happening again.
Anyway, the point is, Grand Theft Blue Box didn't go so well. And worse, I had to hear David tell me about it in the lunchroom the next day.
When I saw him again, his dæmon was a pit bull. A pit bull. What with that, the form she took last night, and the anaconda, I couldn't help but wonder if he was compensating for something. Not to mention how utterly moronic it was to take a form like that in the middle of a middle school cafeteria. Have you ever been to a big public school's cafeteria? It's a zoo. Kids shoving each other out of their places in line, bullies roaming around looking for lunch money to steal, bird dæmons chasing each other around the ceiling, girls moving around in packs and sneering at anyone who gets in their way, and the poor dæmons who settled as anything bigger than a breadbox that can't fly or latch onto their humans trying to find a path through the crowd without bumping into anybody. Forcing other people to walk around you when you could be staying out of people's way as a bird or something means you are in need of an attitude adjustment.
And before you look at me, let me add that Diamanta was a corn snake coiled around my arm, because she's not a dick.
"You said your name is Marco, right?"
"Yeah, Marco. David, right?" Play it cool. Play it cool.
David stared at a steaming vat of green glop. "The food was better at my last school."
Was he trying to make me feel sorry for him? Fat chance, after last night. I cracked a joke. He didn't laugh. I'm usually good at that.
"I don't have any friends here yet," said David. "Something really weird happened to me yesterday. Very weird. Want to hang?"
Yesterday in the hallway he couldn't wait to get away from me, and now he wanted to hang. Why couldn't he have been friendly when I asked for the blue box? If I didn't need to get on his good side, I would have told this kid to get lost pretty much as soon as I met him. "Sure. So what – "
The lunch lady's duck dæmon clucked at me disapprovingly. "Cauliflower or green bean casserole?" she asked. "Come on, little Marco, let's keep it moving."
All right, fair enough. I cracked another joke, to no response from David. I have no idea how to deal with this guy. People are so much easier to deal with when they laugh at my jokes. It means they've got their guard down.
Trying to find an empty table in my school cafeteria is like trying to play King of the Hill with five-year-olds on speed. Two kids in front of me started shoving each other, their dæmons snapping their jaws at each other, and David and I had to find another way around. His dæmon nearly got hit by a girl running, shrieking, past a table, and she was forced to take a form that took up less space, perching on his shoulder as a falcon.
We sat down across from each other at an empty table. David speared a forkful of cauliflower and chewed. Then he told me about the attack by "trained birds." Diamanta didn't even look at him, scanning the cafeteria through her slit eyes, like we were bored. David sounded genuinely freaked out by what happened last night, and I couldn't blame him, but I still don't think it justified his reaction.
"Two birds flew in my bedroom window and tried to get away with the box. So Kirianor turned into a wildcat and attacked them. That made them drop the box, but they got away."
Hard to forget that. David's dæmon didn't know that we were anything but birds, but from my perspective, it was super freaky to be clawed by a dæmon. I was sharing the osprey body with Dia, but it still felt wrong. We've been attacked by human-Controller dæmons before, but those dæmons didn't have any choice. They were puppets of the Yeerks. A dæmon attacking me of her own free will – well, it gave me the heebie jeebies. Rachel, too.
So her name is Kirianor, eh? Dia mused, giving the other dæmon a sidelong look. Suddenly we're good enough pals to know her name. Guess we earned it, after getting mauled by her.
Well, we got away, didn't we? She didn't really know how to fight. Not like we do.
Got away without the box. The Animorphs, brought low by a kid with a baseball bat. We are so lame.
"Trained birds?" I said. "Are you serious?"
"Yeah. They had to be. One of them opened a sliding glass door."
"Why would anyone go to all the trouble of training birds just to steal some stupid box?"
"I don't know. But it must be valuable, right? I'm going to try and sell it." Kirianor's yellow falcon eyes lit as David went on. "I bet it's worth so much money. I could get my own Playstation. And my dad's wanted a new grill for ages. I could get one for him."
"Sell it where?" I said.
"Online," he said.
Again, I can't help but wonder. What if I'd ditched school earlier instead of waiting to tell Jake? What if I hadn't bothered to get Ax and just unplugged David's computer myself? I made so many mistakes, early on. Mistakes we would all pay for later.
But I guess it's no use asking "What if?" now.
I stared as Marco withdrew the Escafil Device from David's backpack. My brother's Escafil Device. Elfangor had used it on the arisths he had trained. He had held this blue box in his hand and asked my human friends to put a hand on each of its faces. He had died without giving away its secret to Visser Three.
I had faced the Abomination once more today, and once more I had failed to avenge my brother. I stared at Elfangor's Escafil Device, longing to hold it. It was a foolish wish. The blue box did not hold any of his lost essence. It was identical to any other Escafil Device. It did not belong to me any more than it belonged to any of the other Animorphs. But still my human hands twitched with the held-back impulse to reach out and touch it. I wondered if Tobias, perched on my shoulder, noticed the subtle movement.
I repressed my foolish impulse. Nonetheless, perhaps the device could still do what it was meant to do. What Elfangor had used it for.
"There is, perhaps, an alternative," I said.
"What alternative?" Prince Jake asked.
"We have the box. Box. Box-uh. We could use it. The box-uh."
The humans had clearly not even considered the possibility. They all reacted strongly, and mostly as I would have expected. Marco was immediately skeptical. Cassie was clearly excited about an alternative to leaving David to the Yeerks. Prince Jake and Tobias were thoughtful. So was Rachel, which I found surprising. Normally she likes to come to a firm decision as quickly as possible.
I looked at the human who lay unconscious on the dirty ground. If I were in my own body, I wouldn't have been able to readily distinguish him from other humans. When I am my Andalite self, humans look similar to me. It has only been with practice and familiarity that I have come to view my human friends as distinct, as well as other humans I see regularly, such as Chapman and Visser Three in morph. In human morph, however, I could instinctively discern David. He had fair coloring, like Tobias, though his build was more solid, and the fine hairs around his eyes were very pale, almost translucent. His dæmon was wrapped around his neck, a dark furry creature with sharp teeth and claws.
He seemed to me like a normal young human. He had seen the blue box as an opportunity to advance his interests. He had defended his home last night when Marco and Rachel had invaded it. He had been terribly frightened by Visser Three and his Hork-Bajir. I believe that most humans would have reacted to all of these events the same way he did.
Would he make an effective addition to our team? It is not my place to judge a human's character. But in this case, my human friends were not well-equipped to make a judgment either. In my training as an aristh, I had learned about guerrilla warfare strategy. Coordination and trust within guerrilla bands are paramount.
It had been a combination of luck and desperate circumstance that had brought the Animorphs together as an effective team. David presented an unacceptable risk to our group's dynamic. Better to wait and watch, to take the time to choose the best possible additions to the Animorphs.
However, it was not my place to state this opinion. "Prince Jake should decide," I said, in agreement with Tobias.
But Prince Jake decided that the responsibility should be collective in this case. That disquieted me. I did not think he was wrong to suggest a vote, but I do not like to interfere in human affairs. Surely the other Animorphs would understand David better than I.
«Yes,» Tobias said. «Can't just leave him to Visser Three.»
Tobias, my shorm, is not the ruthless predator whose form he has adopted as his own. At his core, he is a storm petrel, a bird that spends months at sea, but always returns to the place of its birth to join its colony and raise families together. He is distant from other humans, yet deeply compassionate. It is not in his nature to abandon another to a cruel fate. I did not agree with him, but I respected his choice.
"I vote yes," Cassie said. "We have to make a leap of faith here and hope it will work out." Though she looked at Prince Jake as she spoke, her dæmon, bat-formed on her shoulder, studied David intently.
"I should not vote," I said. "I follow Prince Jake. Jay-kuh."
Prince Jake shook his head. ""Nope. You are a part of the group, Ax. In battle, maybe there isn't time to vote on everything, but this is a democracy."
I understood the concept of democracy, of course. It has much in common with the government of my homeworld, though we do not think of it in terms of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." To us, the People is a whole much greater than the sum of the individuals who comprise it, and to corrupt or suppress the will of the People is to corrupt the will of family and every other unit of society. Other Andalites might scoff, but I believe that our group, the Animorphs, has a will greater than the sum of its parts as well. So I said what I thought would best serve that will.
"Then I vote no."
The humans seemed surprised. Perhaps they thought that I supported the idea simply because I proposed it. But I had suggested it as an option for Prince Jake, and out of respect for how my brother had put the Escafil Device to use.
The Animorphs – the greater whole that we made up – decided, in the end, to give David the morphing power, and the terrible knowledge that came with it. But that did not make him part of the Animorphs. To merge with the consciousness of the group is a process that takes time, and is not always successful.
Soon, we would see.
David was subdued as we walked to my house from Cassie's barn. Being told that aliens are invading Earth and that they've taken your parents will do that to you. I hoped he'd stay quiet. I really didn't want to host this sleepover, but Jake asked me to, and I don't say no to Jake unless there's a seriously good reason. "This guy who just lost his parents to the Yeerks gives me the creeps" wasn't a good enough reason, though I almost said it to Jake anyway. So I was stuck with him for the night.
I stopped by a pay phone, dropped in a quarter, and called home. "Hey, Dad."
"Hi, Marco. On your way home?"
"Yup. Say, could you make something extra for dinner? There's this new guy at school I've been hanging out with, and he wanted to stay over tonight."
"Oh, you have a new friend?" My dad sounded... pleased. I guess he'd noticed that I'm not a social butterfly, like I used to be before Mom was taken. As far as he knew, my only friends were Jake and "Philip," Ax's human alter ego. He was mostly right. Jake is the only person I'd call a friend. Not that I'm not close with the other Animorphs, in a weird way, but friendship isn't the right word for that. Comradeship, maybe. Whatever it is you call the bond between soldiers fighting in the same trench.
"Yeah." I thought for a moment. "His name's Steve." There would be a missing person report for David soon, and I didn't want my dad make the connection.
"All right, I'll pop in another chicken breast," Dad said. "You know where we keep the air mattress."
"Yup. Upstairs closet." We'd only moved from our crappy apartment into our new house a few months ago, so I remembered where we'd unpacked everything. "See ya."
I stepped out of the phone booth. "Your name's Steve for tonight," I told David. "Make up some name for Kirianor. If my dad sees your name in a missing child alert in the newspaper, we'll be in trouble." I started walking again. David followed.
After five minutes of silence, David asked, "How do you know what it's like? Being a Controller?"
He was probably thinking of the Technicolor description I'd given of life with a Yeerk in your head. Probably hoping that I'd exaggerated how bad it was. I could see his pit bull dæmon staring off into space. Imagining what her parents were going through? Just lost? Who knew?
"We've been to the Yeerk pool. We've seen them enslave people." I looked at the sidewalk ahead of me, but Diamanta, a bright blue poison-dart frog on my shoulder, fixed David with a steady black stare. "Jake and Cassie have been Controllers themselves."
"How did they escape?"
I decided to gloss over Cassie's story, because David would grab onto the stupid hope that his parents had "good" Yeerks. What happened with Aftran was a freak accident that won't happen again, unless she really has been making converts to the Peace Movement like Cassie says. "The only way to be free of a Yeerk is to starve it out. They have to go to the Yeerk pool every three days to feed on Kandrona rays, this kind of radiation that comes from the sun on their home planet. If you trap a Controller without Kandrona for three days, the Yeerk dies."
Another silence passed, longer than the first. Then David said, "So, that Andalite. What's his name, Ax. Is he really one of you?"
"Uh, yeah." I raised an eyebrow at him.
"But he isn't, like, a real person, is he? I mean, it makes sense with Yeerks, because they're evil. But Ax doesn't have a dæmon."
"Hey," I said. "Just because he doesn't have a dæmon doesn't mean he's not a real person. Think of it from his perspective. To Andalites, we're the weirdos, because our minds are split into two bodies. They just have it all in one body."
"Like an animal."
"He's not like an animal. He has thoughts and feelings just like us. Look, I know it's hard to get used to. But aliens just aren't like us. We have our thing, Andalites have theirs. And the Yeerks have their thing too, I guess, but their thing is enslaving people."
"I guess." Kirianor became an anaconda and coiled around him in tight loops. It was a familiar gesture. Diamanta does it too. The pressure of her coils soothes me.
By then, we were almost at my house, thank God. My next-door neighbor was out on her porch reading. Her cockatiel dæmon saw me and whistled at me. He always does that when he sees me. He thinks it's cute or something, or maybe that I'm eight years old and I find that kind of thing funny. It's embarrassing. Fortunately, David was too wrapped up in his own problems to notice.
We got to my front door. I didn't have to use my key, because we don't live in a bad neighborhood anymore and don't have to lock the front door when one of us is home. "Hey, Dad," I said, turning left from the front corridor into the kitchen. My dad was standing by the kitchen island, tossing a salad. The room smelled like my favorite brand of sauce for chicken.
My dad looked up, smiled, and put down the salad tongs. He wiped his hands off on a rag and stepped around the island to greet us. "Hi, Marco. And you must be Steve. Nice to meet you," he said, extending a hand. "I'm Peter."
"Mirazai," said my dad's cuttlefish dæmon from her tank, hanging on its strap from his shoulder.
"Thanks for having me," David said quietly.
Kirianor loosened her coils so she could extend her head toward Mirazai's tank. "Hello, ma'am. I'm Erinys."
I don't know what I was expecting from David, but I definitely didn't expect him to be so… polite. My dad was impressed. "It's no trouble at all. Welcome to town, by the way. Marco said you were new."
"Thanks," said David.
"Marco, why don't you set the table? Dinner's almost ready. The plates are out, we just need cups and silverware."
I went to get the glasses and silverware. I overheard Dad saying, "You didn't bring anything, Steve. Won't you need a change of clothes? A toothbrush?"
"I guess I just forgot," said David. "It's fine. I can just borrow a T-shirt from Marco for pajamas and wear the same clothes tomorrow."
I missed the rest of the conversation as I went to the dining room to set the table. David seemed to be improvising pretty well. Good thing he wasn't like Cassie, who couldn't lie her way out of a paper bag. Not that Cassie deserves to be compared to David, but he was decent at lying. I had to give him that much.
"Table's set," I called.
"Just a minute," my dad called from the kitchen. Then he came in with a plate of chicken breasts covered in sauce. David had the salad bowl and a bottle of seltzer. My dad is addicted to flavored seltzer, and I don't mind it, so we drink it with dinner every night.
My dad served David a chicken breast and some salad. "So, Steve. How do you like your new school?"
"It's all right, I guess," David said. "I haven't been here long."
I didn't like the way this conversation was going. I couldn't let my dad ask David too many questions. "Hey Dad," I said. I had no idea what I was about to say, but if there's one thing I'm good at doing at the drop of a hat, it's being stupid and distracting. "What kind of compliments do you think girls like?"
Mirazai flashed red and pink, which I knew from long experience to be her colors of amusement. "What kind of… Marco, is there someone I need to know about?"
"No!" Diamanta shrank into a tiny red frog, and I could feel my face heat a little. "It's just that girls always seem to take compliments the wrong way."
"You're probably saying the wrong kind of compliment," my dad said. "Here's something that works on everyone, boy or girl. People want compliments on things that matter to them. If a girl doesn't care about fashion, then there's no point saying her clothes look nice. Look at what people really care about. If someone is into basketball, compliment their jump shot." He smiled faintly. "That's how I got your mother to notice me."
I shot a sideways glance at David. He was focused on his food, cutting his chicken into smaller and smaller pieces. Kirianor prodded at pieces of lettuce in the salad with praying mantis pincers.
"Oh," I said. I wanted to hear this story, but not with David here.
"Yeah. Maybe I'll tell you about it sometime," said Dad. "Say, Steve. Do you follow any sports teams?"
David answered my dad's questions politely but briefly. It wasn't a bad tactic. My dad would think he was just shy. I changed the subject by bringing up the X-Files episode from last night. My dad's a total dork for the X-Files.
"Can I help with the dishes?" David said when we were done.
"You're a guest," said Dad. "Marco will help me with the dishes. Why don't you just relax."
"Are you sure?" Kirianor, a pit bull again, looked… eager. She was looking up at my dad with that expression dogs get when they really want to go somewhere with you and they can't understand why you're leaving them behind. That's when it occurred to me. David was completely shook up. His world had been turned upside down, and his parents weren't there to help him through it. Maybe a parental figure of any kind at all was better than nothing.
"You can help clear the table, if you really want. I'll get started washing the pans."
David and I cleared the table. I helped Dad wash dishes while David dried them and stacked them.
When we were done, I took the air mattress out from the downstairs closet, along with some sheets. Diamanta became a capuchin monkey and took a pillow from a couch in the living room. David followed me upstairs, Kirianor a wary wildcat.
I started inflating the air mattress. "You can take the bed," I said. I could tell he was exhausted. I still didn't like him, but I couldn't help but feel a little sorry for him. "I'm going to do some homework by flashlight. I have some clean T-shirts, uh…" I checked through my dresser drawers until I found one that actually had clean clothes in it. "Here."
We took turns using the bathroom to brush our teeth and change. When I got back from the bathroom, David had already fallen into a fitful doze, Kirianor twitching and snarling a little in the grip of a dream. I got out a flashlight and worked on algebra homework for a while. Then I switched out the light and went to sleep.
Good thing I'm a light sleeper these days.
If David had seemed exhausted the first time he went to bed, he was a hundred times worse now. His eyes were rimmed all around with red. His face was pale, with blue circles showing under his eyes. Kirianor kept flicking from form to form, each one with matted fur or missing feathers. He crawled into my bed without a word, drawing the blankets up over his head.
It took me a long time to fall asleep. Seeing David's dad like that reminded me of all the times I've seen my mother under the control of Visser One. The cruel words the Yeerk has shaped with my mother's kind mouth. The way Mercurio never touches her anymore, because to the Yeerk, that doesn't matter. Not that I really know if she's still alive. Would it be kinder, in the end, if she had drowned deep in the ocean? At least she would be free from that total slavery. Finally, the gentle pressure of Diamanta coiled around my chest lulled me to sleep.
I woke up to the sound of the hall phone ringing. I wanted to roll over and put the pillow over my head until it went away, but it might be Jake calling. I couldn't miss it. I got up and answered the phone.
"How is everything?" said Jake.
"Fine. No more incidents."
"Cassie said he can come to her place later."
"All right. I'll give him breakfast, then walk him over."
I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and shower. When I got out, David was awake, sitting on my bed in his jeans and one of my T-shirts, which was too tight on him and rumpled from the night's events. Kirianor was still a wildcat, her fur sticking up in all directions.
"Bathroom's free," I said. "I'll be downstairs with breakfast. My dad's probably still asleep."
David left the room. I got dressed, went downstairs, and got out some milk and cereal. He came downstairs in the same set of clothes. Kirianor was an alligator, taking up most of the space under the table as David sat down and poured some cereal into his bowl. He took a spoonful and stuck it in his mouth, only then realizing that he'd forgotten to add milk. He added the milk, then chewed more spoonfuls mechanically. Dia, jackal-formed next to my chair, could see Kirianor curled against David, her eyes wary as a hunted animal's.
"Look," I said. "They're still in there, somewhere."
David stared at me dully, his spoon paused mid-journey between his bowl and his mouth. "Huh?"
I'm not sure why I bothered. It wasn't much use. But I'd been through the same thing David was going through, and some part of me wanted to try. "You might see them again. Your parents. Whenever I see my mother, like that, I think about how she's still in there. And maybe she's still fighting."
David kept staring. Kirianor made a low rumbling noise and shot Dia a sullen glare. Then he went back to eating his cereal like a zombie.
So much for trying.
David and I demorphed near the Gardens, while everyone else stayed as birds overhead. They'd let us know if a known Controller came by so I could keep David from being seen by someone who might recognize him. The staff at the Gardens know me, so they let us in without any hassle.
"What morph do you use in battle?" David asked as I steered him toward an employee entrance to the area behind the exhibits. Kirianor flew beside him as a golden eagle, mimicking the morph they'd just been in for the first time.
"Moose," I said. "That's recent, though. I used to use wolf."
Kirianor gave me a startled look. David said, "Why would you trade a wolf morph for a moose?"
I raised my eyebrows. "Moose are deadlier than wolves. On its own, a wolf isn't much of a hunter. It needs a pack to really be effective. A moose can do a lot of damage by itself." I didn't try to explain that I'd picked wolf on purpose because it wasn't deadly. David would see that as weakness, and he would be right. All I'd ever done in wolf morph was make sure that the Hork-Bajir I fought suffered from their wounds for hours, maybe, before they died at the hands of an empire with no use for maimed soldiers.
"But I thought wolves hunted moose," said David.
"They hunt the weak, the old or the sick. Why waste the effort on a healthy adult, when the hunt will take days? We like to think that wolves are brave and powerful because they're hunters, like we used to be. But those are just stories we tell ourselves. Predators go after easy prey. But prey? They'll stand and fight, no matter what, because they're the ones who'll get torn apart if they don't." I almost pointed out how I'd held my own in moose morph at the battle at his house, but it would be cruel to bring up what might be the worst moment of his life. Besides, he probably hadn't been paying attention to me anyway.
"A wolf would be a good morph, though," David said thoughtfully. Kirianor became a wolf, his thoughts made form. "Strong, with teeth and claws."
Where does he get his ideas about animals from? Kids' books? Quincy wondered.
Probably, I thought, laughing silently. That's how it is with most people.
"I don't think the wolf exhibit would be a good idea right now," I said. "It's really popular, so there'll be lots of people there."
"And they don't hang out enough near the staff entrance for you to just slip in and acquire one," Quincy told Kirianor.
"I can acquire DNA too?" Kirianor said.
"Sure," said Quincy. "Oh, here's the lion exhibit on the left. Some of them like to sleep near the staff entrance. Though if they aren't close enough for you to acquire, you could always go for the buffalo we have sedated in the medical bay."
David stopped by the door. Kirianor instantly became a lioness, watching the door to the exhibit intently. "Don't lions eat buffalo?"
"Sometimes. And sometimes buffalo gore lions through the neck when they go after their young. Buffalo are tough."
"Tell me about the lions," David said, intent.
"They'd make a good morph too," I said. "Lazy as anything, but they make quick, neat kills. One blow from its paw or bite to the neck, and it's over." I'd considered lion as a replacement for my wolf morph for that reason, but I decided against it. Teeth sinking into an enemy's neck: too personal. Too intimate with death. I prefer the distance of horns and hooves.
David reached out and sank his fingers into Kirianor's fur, steadying himself. His expression was distant, hers focused on the door to the lion exhibit. She bared her fangs, trying out the shape of them. Imagining what it would be like to fight that way, maybe.
"I'll do it," said David. "I'll use lion as my battle morph."
I nodded. It didn't surprise me. David was going through the roughest time imaginable. Becoming a lion meant security to him. Protection. Power. "Stand right up against the door, close as you can," I said. "You want to give Kirianor as much range as possible."
"Be a fly," Quincy advised Kirianor. "Flies land on them all the time. They won't even notice. I'll come too."
I pressed my back up against the door next to David. Quincy buzzed as a fly at the gap between the door and its frame. A moment later, Kirianor joined him. Quincy slipped through first. I saw Kirianor follow.
Through Quincy's fragmented fly vision, I saw that the lions were far enough from the staff entrance to the exhibit that it would be a strain for Kirianor to reach. Through my own eyes, I saw beads of sweat gather on David's hairline as his dæmon flew closer to them in slow spirals.
"Come on, David," I said. "Almost there."
Then his face took on the concentration of acquiring, and I knew Kirianor had made it. Quincy flew back to me and became a bat on my shoulder once more.
When Kirianor returned, she became a lioness and licked David's face. He smiled and rubbed the top of her head.
"You're set," I said. "Just remember, the first time you morph the lion will be like when you morphed the eagle. New instincts. So be careful."
"Uh huh," David said, but he didn't really seem to be listening. He held Kirianor's head in his hands, staring at her tawny form and her amber eyes.
There's something about the idea of being a lion, Quincy mused. Something that captures his imagination.
I couldn't really put myself in his place. My parents had taught me facts, not myths and stories, about animals since I was a little kid. Not that I don't have my own ideas about animals, but there's something in the way that children see wolves and lions and eagles that I never experienced. When David looked into the eyes of a lioness, I didn't know what he saw.
There are many, many ways to be tired, and as an Animorph, I've come to learn them all.
There's the zombie kind of tired, where your brain shuts off but your body keeps on going. There's painful exhaustion, where the effort to keep going is so great that your entire body hurts and your head feels like it's on fire. There's apathetic tiredness, where your brain and body work but your emotions are burned out, and you can't feel anything anymore.
Right now, I was giggly-tired. I was delirious with it. I couldn't stop thinking about how I'd seen the President. The President of the United States! I've seen things that no human being has ever seen, but for some reason my mind boggled at seeing the President, even if it was through cockroach eyes. I'd been on his leg.
But it wasn't time for silliness. I had to set up a place for David to sleep in the hayloft without my parents noticing. Then I could sleep. Except even then, I'd have to get up and check on David every once in a while. Jake and I had agreed on that, after what happened the night he stayed at Marco's.
So after dinner, I offered to take care of all the cleaning up. My parents thanked me and went to the living room to watch the news. I put all the leftovers from dinner in a Tupperware, grabbed a fork and a bag of chips from the pantry, and brought it up to David in the hayloft. "I'll be back with sheets," I told him.
I went to the guest room closet and dug around until I found some a blanket, some sheets, and a pillowcase, all with a pale floral pattern. My parents, wrapped up in the news, didn't notice my comings and goings, and I took a route into the barn that avoided Emeraude's pulley platform.
"I feel bad for him," Quincy murmured, perched on my shoulder as a bat so he could echolocate through the darkening evening. "Sleeping up there in the loft. As soon as this mission is over, we should go to the Chee and see if they can put him up. With their holograms, they'll be able to shelter him for as long as he needs."
"Yeah. We really should. I guess there just hasn't been time. It would be so much easier to help David out if we didn't have such an emergency hanging over our heads."
I climbed up to the hayloft. David had finished his dinner, though he'd left the chips untouched. I put the sheets and blanket over some hay bales. "There," I said. "Not the most comfy, but it's the best I can do. I'm sorry about this, David. We'll try to figure out a more permanent arrangement. Do you need anything else? You can't really brush your teeth up here, but I could get you some mouthwash and a damp washcloth to wash your face."
"No thanks," David mumbled. He didn't make a move toward the bed. Kirianor might as well have been a statue of an alligator.
While I stuffed some hay into the pillowcase and straightened out the sheets, Quincy fluttered down from my shoulder and became a rat, scurrying up to within a foot of Kirianor's nose. "Your father was very brave," he said.
David flinched the tiniest bit.
"I remember. When we came to fight Visser Three," Quincy went on. "He was scared – he'd have been crazy not to be scared – but he faced down the scariest things he'd ever seen in his life, to protect you. The way his dæmon went after those Hork-Bajir – he'd do anything for you. And I bet if he knew you were fighting the Yeerks, he'd be proud. He'd be glad to know his son would do the same thing for him."
"You don't know my father," said Kirianor, quietly.
"No," said Quincy. "But my dad loves me, and I know how he would feel."
I put down the makeshift pillow. David was watching me. "You're a decent person, Cassie," he said. "You're not like the rest of them. At least you try. But you can't fix this." He turned away and punched a hay bale. "I miss my room. I miss Spawn. I miss just hanging out and watching TV. Without TV, all I can do up here is… think."
"I'm sorry," I said. I didn't know what else to say. I didn't have any way to distract him from all the thoughts that must be going through his head. I took the empty Tupperware and the fork he'd used, but left the chips in case he got hungry later. "Goodnight, David."
He was back to staring off into space. Kirianor made a tiny motion of her head that might have been an acknowledgment toward Quincy, but probably meant nothing. I climbed down from the hayloft and turned off the light in the barn.
It's not your fault, Quincy said as I washed the Tupperware and the fork in the sink. He was back to being a bat. If we hadn't saved him, he would be a Controller now.
Somehow, that choice doesn't seem as kind as it did when we made it. Who are we to play God with his life? It was either leave him to the Yeerks or conscript him into a guerrilla war living the life of a fugitive. I thought it would be better to choose freedom, but David isn't free at all. If he makes a break for it again tonight, we'll have to hunt him down, just like the Yeerks hunt down runaway hosts.
It's not the same. At least he has his own mind. He can make some of his own choices.
Yes, I thought as I left the kitchen and headed up to my room. But under these circumstances, what choices will he make?
I did homework for a while, not that it was much use. My computer screen kept fogging in and out of focus in my tired eyes. I dozed off for a little while, and dreamed a little, of predators' eyes gleaming among muttering shadows. When I woke, I suddenly remembered that I never got around to the last chore on my list today. I gathered my scattered thoughts and got up to give the injured deer her meds. As I approached the barn, Quincy echolocating through the dark on my shoulder, I hoped David was a deep enough sleeper that he wouldn't wake up when I turned on the lights.
But when I opened the barn door and turned the lights on, David wasn't there.
I went back in my house and looked all over to make sure he hadn't come inside. I went to my room and morphed bat, flying a circuit around my house. Nothing. I even I flew out toward Tobias' meadow. Still no sign. I flew back to my room and demorphed. Rain was starting to come in through the open window. I closed it.
Time to call Jake.