Instead of biking straight home after school, I decided to go out to Tobias' meadow. He saw me long before I saw him, of course. As I propped my bike up against a tree, he said, «Hey, Rachel.»
I looked around, but couldn't see him.
«Up here,» he said.
I turned toward the woods. Tobias was up in a tree just behind the treeline between meadow and forest.
"Can you be human, Tobias? I want to talk."
Tobias glided down from his branch and morphed human. His legs shot up into scaly stilts, then thickened. His fierce yellow eyes softened into hazel. The bones in his wings crunched as they changed direction and became more like arms. His spine straightened and lengthened. His feathers began to melt away, and his talons softened into feet. As he reached his human size, Elhariel appeared on his newly formed shoulder. His feathers ran together into skin, and his beak retracted into his face. The only sign left of the morph was the scaliness of his legs, and soon that faded too.
"Let's walk," I said, turning toward the forest. There wasn't a path, but the woods held no dangers for us.
I glanced sidelong at the blank mask of Tobias' face. Except for the expression, he looked just the same as he had the night we walked through the construction site. The rest of us had grown a little, got haircuts, maybe the traces of sleepless nights beneath our eyes. But Tobias wasn't human much, and he had been preserved through time. Elhariel, too, was the same shape she'd always been. But that was the nature of settling.
"What was it like when you settled?" Abi asked El.
El looked a little surprised. It wasn't the conversation she'd expected to have. "Well, I guess I liked bird forms for a long time. Tobias used to sit on a bench in the playground and I'd fly from the jungle gym to the seesaw and back. We always wanted to settle as a bird. Some people hope to be a bird end up as a beetle, but we got lucky. Or, I guess, Tobias was the right type of person. But I took this form one day, and we knew."
"And what did you do? When you knew?" Abi said.
"We didn't tell anyone. People figured it out at school soon enough. Even Uncle Leo figured it out eventually."
"That's not what I meant. What did you do for yourself?"
"Oh." There was a hint of a smile in El's voice. "We went to the park. Tobias ran across the grass and I flew over his head, as high as I could. I settled as something with wings. I guess we wanted to celebrate that."
"Let's do it," Abi said. "Right now. Let's run across the meadow."
Tobias laughed sheepishly. "I haven't run on two legs in ages. I'll probably fall flat on my face like Ax."
"No you won't. You'll remember," I said. "Let's go!"
Abi took off toward the meadow. I had to run flat out to keep our bond from stretching to its limit – he was so much faster than me. When the trees opened out into the meadow, he slowed down deliberately. In the trees, he was fast. In the open grass, running wasn't even running anymore, for him. It was a state of being, no less natural than standing or sleeping. My hair came loose from its clips as I ran. I looked up, saw Elhariel above me, and knew Tobias wasn't far behind.
Abi's mane streamed out behind him. His muscles flexed beneath his dark coat. I wanted to catch with him, but I knew he wouldn't let me. That was the point. His body was for running. Mine was for eating and writing. That was what they were shaped for.
Suddenly, Abi came to a halt and rolled on his back. I pounced and rubbed his pale belly with my hands. Abi squirmed and waved his hooves in the air wildly, making little chuffing noises in his throat.
I rolled over on the grass, breathless, and saw Tobias sitting cross-legged with El tucked in his arms. Normally Tobias' face was blank and distant, but now there was an upward curl to the corner of his mouth. El hopped forward so she stood on the grass, tiny next to Abi's bulk. The pattern of her feathers was oddly similar to the markings on his coat.
"I like it," she said.
Abi looked at her as if he had no idea what she meant. But I found myself smiling a little too.
Then it all came back to choke me. I had killed a boy yesterday, and here I was, smiling. What kind of person could do that?
The kind of person who can go through something terrible and still be able to smile afterward, Abi said silently. We're a murderer now, but that doesn't mean we didn't come out with some scars. That we didn't suffer.
"I don't want to be the kind of person who smiles after murdering people," I said. It wasn't until I saw Tobias flinch that I realized I'd said it out loud.
"This isn't all on you, Rachel," he said. "I was a part of it too. We all were."
"I think you're brave," said Tobias, "to still be able to smile."
That embarrassed me, so I didn't try to respond. "What did you do today?"
"Ax and I talked some. He had a – a ritual he wanted to show me. Then I went to visit the Hork-Bajir."
I raised an eyebrow. "You do that a lot, huh?"
Tobias hunched his shoulders. "Yeah, I do," he said defensively. "They're good company. Remember when Jara told us that story about Dak and Aldrea?"
"OK, yeah, that was pretty cool," I said. I hadn't realized the Hork-Bajir were so important to him. But then again, he was the one who rescued them from death and worse. He was the one they regaled with stories from their history. Maybe it was nice to spend time around people who saw him as a hero, not a murderer.
"I morphed Hork-Bajir," Tobias said, "and Toby – Jara and Ket's daughter – gave me climbing lessons. The instincts are good enough for the basics, but the Hork-Bajir can do so much more with practice. She liked being able to teach me something, for a change."
"That – does sound nice, actually." I gave Tobias a considering look. I definitely didn't know he was teaching anything to the Hork-Bajir. There was a lot more to his life than any of us knew. I guess he had to do something with all of his free time besides hunt and spy on Controllers. I felt stupid, even guilty, for never thinking of that before. Was I so wrapped up in my own life that I didn't think of anyone else's?
Speaking of other people's lives, said Abi, isn't it time to tell Mom?
I wriggled uncomfortably. I wanted to put off telling Mom and Dad and Jordan and Sara about settling. But they were bound to notice sooner or later, and it was probably better to come to them with it instead of the other way around. As far as they knew, I had nothing to be upset about.
"I should go," I said. "I need to be with my family."
"OK," he said.
On impulse, I reached out and took his hand. "Thanks, Tobias."
I walked back to my bike and headed home, Abi keeping pace beside me. I put the bike back in the garage. My mom was home. No excuses. It was time to face the music.
I kicked off my shoes when I came through the door. My mom was at the dining room table with some paperwork spread in front of her. Jordan was at the other end of the table with a textbook open under her elbow, eating a PB and J. In the living room, Sara was playing with a toy horse on the carpet while Zyanya clung to its back in mouse form. "Could you change into a bird or something before you come in?" Caedhren said to Abi. "Or at least wipe off your hooves first. You're getting dirt in the foyer."
"Hello to you too, Mom," I said. I propped the front door open so Abi could step out and wipe his hooves on the doormat.
"I'll keep it in mind," Abi told Caedhren, sounding casual, "since I think I'll be sticking to the hooves."
Caedhren flew from his perch on the back of Mom's chair to a lampshade near Abi's eye level. "What does that mean?"
By now, Sara had stopped playing with her horse to listen. Jordan was pretending to read her textbook, but shot covert glances my way.
"Probably just what you think it means," Abi said quietly.
Mom scooted her chair back from the table, stood up, and turned to face me. She looked – expectant. "Honey?"
I placed my hand at the base of Abi's neck. "Yeah, Mom. This is it."
She rushed forward and folded me into a crushing hug. Caedhren flew in a joyful little circle around Abi.
"What's going on?" Sara demanded.
"Rachel settled, you stupid!" Jordan said.
"Oh my God, Abi!" Zyanya shrieked, turning into a wolf pup and running into his legs.
"My baby's all grown up," Mom said tearfully into my shoulder.
My face went hot and my belly went queasy. My family thought this was a great day. Normally, I'd agree with them. I do like the way Abi is. But it was a terrible day. It was the first day of the rest of my life as a murderer.
Tseycal stalked his way over as a lynx. He said, "What are you?"
"A sable antelope," said Abi. "It lives on the savanna in Africa."
"Wow!" said Sara.
Mom pulled out of the hug, but kept a firm grip on my shoulders. "Sounds like you've done some research," she said, beaming.
"Well, yeah," I said, willing my nausea not to show. "We had to know what it was all about."
"What does it feel like?" said Zyanya, wide-eyed.
Abineng laughed weakly. "I mean, it's not like a bolt of lightning or a tingling feeling or anything. I just didn't feel like changing anymore. It's like when you find a really comfy position on the couch and you don't want to get up again."
"That's silly," Zya said. "All forms are comfy."
"Now they all are," said Caedhren, "but when you get older you'll find that some forms are comfier than others. And then you'll find the comfiest of all."
"Come over here, Jordan," said Mom. She moved toward her armchair. "Rachel, why don't you tell us all how it happened?"
I found a spot on the couch near the foyer, where Abi would have room to stand. I should have thought of this before, Abi thought. We can't tell them about how we really figured out I was settled.
Sara sat in front of me on the carpet, a worshipful expression on her face. It stung. I wasn't a good role model for Sara. But she didn't know that.
Tell them something close to the truth, so you won't slip up, Abi advised. That had worked for us before, when we had to lie about why we were so tired or where we went after school every day.
"There was this jerk bullying some other kids. Abi was like this, getting all tough – " Abi settled into a caricature of the posture he'd taken in front of David, scuffing his hoof and tossing his head, an utter joke compared to how he'd really been. "And I told him to back off. He walked away, and I was about to go to the cafeteria and told Abi to be something smaller, so it'd be easier to walk down the hallway. He said – "
"I don't want to," Abi finished.
"So we talked about it a little," I said, "and I guess that was it."
"Did the bully stop?" Jordan said.
"Yeah," I said, in a flat tone that I hoped would cut off any more questions.
"You're so brave," Sara said. "I bet all the bullies are scared of you."
"That's my Rachel," Mom said fondly. "So what did you find out about sable antelopes?"
I summarized the research I did in terms that Jordan and Sara would understand. "Though I'd like to find out more," I added. "Say, Mom, shouldn't I call Dad?"
"Oh, of course!" Mom said. "How could I have forgotten? Let me get the phone." She took a wireless phone from its cradle and passed it to me.
I dialed my dad's number. He picked it up after the second ring. He probably saw my name on the caller ID and rushed to get it. I felt a rush of affection for him. "Hi, Rachel," he said. "How's my girl?"
"Pretty good, Dad," I said, and I almost wasn't lying. It was more of a comfort to hear his voice than I would have imagined. "Actually, I have some big news."
"What kind of news?" Excitement warmed my dad's voice.
"I've settled," I said. "As a sable antelope."
"Oh, Rachel, that's fantastic!" Dad said. "You'll have to tell me everything. I'll book a flight and we'll go out for dinner tomorrow."
Suddenly, I was less excited. I pictured all of us going out to a restaurant, my parents heaping congratulations on me I didn't deserve. But then again, I'd get to see Dad. "Sounds great," I said. "I'll pass the phone to Mom."
Mom and Dad talked about where we'd meet for dinner. She passed the phone back to me. "I'm proud of you," Dad said. "I can't wait to see you tomorrow."
"Thanks, Dad," I said, and hung up.
"Dad's coming, Dad's coming!" Sara said, prancing around the living room, Zyanya clinging to her back as a little monkey.
"So why did you wait so long to tell us?" said Tseycal. "You've been a sable antelope for a few days now."
"I wasn't ready," Abi said. "I wanted to be sure. Like I said, you don't have a magic moment when you suddenly know."
"I guess," Tseycal said.
"I'm going to draw a picture of you, Abi!" Sara declared, running to her room for crayons and paper.
I was getting a bit overwhelmed. I just wanted to be alone, away from all this joy I didn't want or deserve. "I should start on my homework," I said.
"Go ahead, honey," Mom said. "I'll make your favorite tonight. Pesto chicken."
I kissed her on the cheek. "Can't wait."
It wasn't just an excuse to get away. I really did need to catch up on my homework. It wasn't like I'd had the energy to do it, the last several days. Of course, it wasn't much easier now, when the image of David's limp body appeared whenever I closed my eyes. I opened my backpack and got out my English class binder, flipping to the poem I had to write about for tomorrow.
Our Dæmons shuddered – feathers met –
As we Embraced at last –
And Found within each other's Wings
The many Years – that passed –
Since You and I last pressed our eyes
Upon each other's Souls –
And claimed – from Grasping hands of Time –
The Hours that he Stole –
I pushed aside everything in my mind, and forced myself to think about metaphors.
It was the worst day of my life.
Well, no. That's not quite true. That first terrible battle at the Yeerk pool was probably the worst. But I was so immersed in pain and regret that I could scarcely remember that night. There was no past or future. There was only the murder, and my part in it. In history class, we watched a video about the Lincoln assassination. When the video came to the re-enactment of that terrible moment on the balcony of the theater, I had to ask for a bathroom pass. I splashed water on my face, breathing hard, thinking of the actor who played Lincoln in the video sitting slumped in his seat, fake blood flowing from the bullet wound in his head, his dæmon dissolving in a burst of cheesy special effects. There hadn't been any blood, when David died. But he'd gone slack in my arms, just the same way, as Kirianor melted into golden hrala that was all too real.
I had to visit his grave, soon, for my own peace of mind. But I didn't want to do it alone. Aftran would be there, but she wasn't a part of it, not the way my friends were.
"Ask Rachel," Quincy said.
I looked in the bathroom mirror and felt a dull wave of nausea at the sight of the vampire bat on my shoulder. It didn't feel like it belonged there – except it was Quincy, so it did.
"You think she'll say yes?"
"I do." Quincy stared at his reflection. "Cassie, this isn't going to change."
He meant that his shape wasn't going to change, but he also meant more than that. He meant that this wasn't the hardest decision we'd ever have to make. It would never stop until we died or we won this war.
I went back to class. We talked about why John Wilkes Booth and the other conspirators wanted Lincoln dead. It made it all so cut and dried, their motives. Nothing about what goes on inside your head when you make the decision to kill someone. Nothing about what it does to you, after. Just reasons.
At lunch, Rachel revealed that Abi had settled. It didn't surprise me much. It was scary to think that the same terrible choice had cemented us into who we truly were. But it was also a relief, in a way. My best friend was going through this too. She felt the same doubts I did, even if she seemed to be dealing with them better than me.
When I got home, I went straight to the barn to do my afternoon chores, only to find that they'd already been done. The charts showed that all the animals I was supposed to treat were up to date on their meds. I slung my schoolbag back on my shoulder and went in the house. I dropped it next to the front door with a thump when I realized that my parents were in the living room, waiting for me, just as my mother had warned me over breakfast. They each had a magazine, but as soon as I came in, Emeraude and Dashiell swiveled toward me and pinned me with expectant looks.
"Hi, Dad," I said nervously. "Hi, Mom. What's up?"
"Why don't you sit down," Mom said, patting the cushion next to her on the couch, across from Dad's armchair.
Fear flooded me, despite Mom's reassurances in the morning that I wasn't in trouble. Had they somehow found out that I was gone last night? Did they have questions about the missing boy?
I sat. Quincy dug the little claw-fingers on his wings into my shirt.
"Relax, Cassie," Dad said. "You're not in trouble. We just want to talk."
I tried to make myself relax, but couldn't. "About what?"
Dashiell said gently, "We've noticed that you've been taking this vampire bat form a lot lately. In fact, you've been taking it almost exclusively. Do you have anything to say about that?"
My swirling thoughts stuttered to a halt. This wasn't about last night. It was a whole other nightmare. I didn't want my parents to know what I'd become. But I guess they would have had to find out sooner or later, and the time had come. What should I say? How could I make up for their inevitable disappointment?
"Sorry," Quincy blurted.
Emeraude leaned her head in further through the window. "Sorry? For what?"
"For settling like this," he said. "I didn't mean to."
"Honey," Dashiell said, "there's nothing to apologize for."
"But vampire bats," I said, "they suck blood, and spread disease among livestock, and – "
"Quintavion. Why don't you spread out on the coffee table so we can have a look at you?" Dad said, indicating an empty spot on the coffee table between books of wildlife photography.
On my shoulder, Quincy quivered.
Mom scooped up Dashiell and put him on the coffee table. "Bats are beautiful," he said. "All those delicate bones in their wings. I just want to see."
I scooped Quincy off my shoulder and put him on the table. He spread out his wings. The membranes stretched between his long bony fingers were translucent enough that I could faintly see the grain of the wood through them. Dashiell reached out a paw and touched the pale fur on Quincy's tiny legs. "It's common vampire bats that do most of the disease-spreading," he said. "You're a hairy-legged vampire bat. They feed from birds only."
I imagined Quincy burrowing between a bird's feathers, sinking his teeth into the pink skin between.
Dad must have read my thoughts on my face. "Whatever you think about vampire bats, put it aside. People say all the time that pigs are dirty, but you and I know that's not true. Adolf Hitler's dæmon was a goshawk, but that doesn't make the bird itself worth any less respect. So put it all aside. Can you do that for me, Cassie?"
And of course he was right. I had said as much to David only a few days ago. Just because we tell ourselves grand stories about lions doesn't make them any more noble than moose. The reverse had to be true for vampire bats.
I guess I'm just not ready to believe that I might be worth the benefit of the doubt, Quincy thought.
And maybe we're not, I thought back, but maybe we should listen to what they have to say and decide for ourselves.
"OK," I said. "I'll try to have an open mind."
"Good," Mom said. "Actually, we wanted to celebrate your settling with a little ceremony, but you've been so moody lately we thought that maybe you were upset with the way you'd settled. So let's talk first, and we can do the ceremony later."
I was curious. My parents aren't religious, so it wouldn't be a ceremony like that, but they are spiritual in their own way. If they had a ceremony in mind, it would be one they'd either made up themselves or had been passed on from family or friends. Something meaningful, something ours. I didn't want to spend that time staring into the middle distance and trying to feel elsewhere, but I also didn't see that I had much choice.
"Not many people know this," Dad said, "but vampire bats are the great altruists of the animal kingdom."
"Altruists?" I'd gotten so used to kill-or-be-killed that I'd forgotten that kindness, too, was natural.
"Yes," Mom said. "Not like ants, that are all sisters to each other and daughters to the queen. They help bats outside their families too. That's what makes their lifestyle possible. Blood is mostly water, so vampire bats need to feed a lot every night to survive. But they don't always eat enough blood in a night. Every evening they fly out is a leap of faith. But they can make that leap, because if they don't get enough, other bats will feed them. They regurgitate any extra blood they get into the mouths of other, hungrier bats. They remember who returns the kindness and who doesn't. Within their caves, they create networks of social support.
"That's why they can survive on a low-calorie, unreliable food source. That's why they can keep flying out every night." Mom reached over and squeezed my hand. "And I'm proud to have brought up a young lady whose soul can be summed up by an animal like that."
My mind reeled. How had I never known that about vampire bats?
Because we were too scared to look up anything about them, Quincy said.
"But what about the blood sucking?" I said.
"Vampire bats don't suck blood," Dad said. "They make a bite and lap up the blood that spills out. And yes, sometimes they'll get close to a bird by nuzzling her in the same spot her chicks would nuzzle her, so she relaxes and lets them come in for the bite. That's what they do to survive. And maybe that means you know how to get people to do what you want. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing. I know what you want. You want to heal animals and make the world a better place. And some people, well, they don't see things your way. If you can get those people to do what you want – to believe in what you want – I see that as power. Power you can use well."
My eyes, welling with tears, spilled over. "I don't deserve this."
Dashiell rubbed his head against Quincy's neck. Mom said, "Don't deserve what?"
"You see so much in me," I said, my vision blurring. "I can't live up to that. I haven't lived up to that."
Mom wrapped her arm around my shoulders. "You're so young, and you've already learned so much. You'll learn more, in time."
I didn't have time to make youthful mistakes. Not when there were lives in the balance. But my parents didn't know that. So I leaned against my mother and cried, not because I hated Quincy's form or because I was ashamed, but because the world demanded so much of me, and I could give back so little.
Mom showed me pictures of vampire bats while Dad made dinner. I knew what Quincy looked like, of course, but it was cool to see pictures of them in flight through the night sky, roosting in small colonies in their caves, and carrying around their babies on their backs.
Dinner was my favorite: mushroom risotto. Dad had pulled out all the stops, cooking the rice in homemade vegetable stock. We ate earlier than usual, so that there was still plenty of light in the sky when we finished washing up.
"Get your hiking shoes on," Dad said. "We're going for a walk in the park."
That's always been Dad's little joke, referring to the national park like it was a well-trimmed city park that people go for strolls in. The three of us have hiked the park's toughest trails. I went up to my room and changed into my hiking boots.
I love hiking with my dad. I love it with my mom too, of course, but it's special with Dad because Emeraude is completely at home in the forest in a way she rarely is anywhere else. On the city streets, she disrupts foot traffic, her bulk dwarfing pedestrians and cars alike. Very few buildings can hold her. But in the woods, she doesn't have to worry about traffic or ceilings. She's just herself.
Quincy launched off my shoulder and flew beside me as we hiked uphill. This trail was less familiar than some of the rest, but I still recognized landmarks: a fallen log, a clump of wildflowers, a fir where we'd seen a spotted owl once. Then, near the end, my parents started to veer off the trail.
"Uh, are you sure it's OK to go this way?" I said. We've gone off-trail before, but only with great caution.
"Don't worry," Mom said. "We've been this way before."
Emeraude's hooves were sure on the rocks and slick rotting leaves. I followed her. The trees grew sparser as we climbed. Finally, we emerged on a bluff as the sun began to slip beneath the horizon. Ahead of me, my parents stood at the edge of the bluff, where a rocky overhang jutted out over the forest below. I joined them.
Dad took my right hand and Mom took my left. Quincy landed on Emeraude's head, next to Dashiell's usual perch.
"Now is the hour of the bat," Mom said, "and Cassandra and Quintavion call upon the bat as their guide into the fullness of adulthood."
"Quintavion calls upon the bat," said Emeraude, "who has given him shape and new purpose."
"Cassandra calls upon the bat," Dad said, "who will reveal to her her path as a woman."
Somewhere below the rocky overhang, the evening's first bats began to emerge from their colony's roost, spreading their wings to catch the night breeze. I saw them silhouetted against the sky, fiery with sunset. My breath caught. They weren't vampire bats – they don't live in North America – but I was forcibly reminded of how beautiful they were. It was a beauty that I hadn't yet been able to see in Quincy.
"They call upon your sureness, your wings' steady beat through the night air," said Dashiell.
"They call upon your kinship, your gathering together in the fastness of your roost," said Mom.
"They call upon your clarity, your vision that echoes in even the deepest dark," said Emeraude.
"They call upon your freedom, your flight that lets you wander anywhere," said Dad.
The remainder of the sunlight was dimmed by hundreds of small shapes taking to the sky. The sound of wingbeats filled the gathering dark.
"And now they make their own plea, to ask you where they would be guided," said Mom. She turned to me.
I quailed. My parents had already said so much. I didn't know what else to add. Where did I want to go that I needed guidance to get there?
Finally, Quincy spoke. "Guide me to the hearts of my enemies."
Dad nodded and smiled. That was the power I had, that he'd spoken about earlier. I wasn't sure yet if I could change the hearts of my enemies. But the least I could do was come to know them, before I had to destroy them.
It was the dream again.
My mother was in her usual chair, book open in her lap, gently scratching Mercurio's chin. Except it wasn't her. It was Visser One whose fingers pressed between dense black feathers, Visser One who leaned into the touch with soft churring noises. Standing before them, ghostly, were my real mother and my real sire, staring and shivering as touch was taken away from them, perverted by a Yeerk who used it only to keep up the facade of humanity. The ghosts of my mom and her dæmon didn't touch each other. They couldn't, not by their own choice, not until the next time Visser One went to feed.
I was in bed. My mother came to tuck me in, but it wasn't her. She pulled the covers to my chin and whispered goodnight. Diamanta was curled up on the floor as a fuzzy little wombat. Mercurio reached out with a flipper and stroked her. But it wasn't Mercurio. The real Mercurio was a ghost standing in the doorway. It was Visser One. Visser One was touching Diamanta. She was touching her. The ghosts Mercurio and Mom watched, hollow-eyed, as the monster who'd enslaved them touched Dia, like she had the right.
"Stop," I moaned, too sick at heart to even scream. "Please, stop, get off her. She doesn't want you to do that. She wants my sire to do that. You don't belong there. She's not yours!"
I woke up. Diamanta was wombat-formed on the floor, squirming and thrashing as if a thousand cockroaches were crawling all over her. A second later, she woke, but she kept squirming, to get the phantom sensation off her. It didn't work. We knew too well what it felt like. The alien touch lingered.
"It's worse than cockroaches, though," said Dia in a tiny voice, as she became a hummingbird and flew up onto the bed. "It burns. Like acid from someone else's vomit, but you can't wipe it off. And the hands, rubbing it deeper into your – "
"We need to get out of here," I said flatly. "We need to do something. We're not going to sleep and I don't want to spend hours staring at the ceiling thinking about that."
Dia snorted. "What's the point? We'll keep thinking about it no matter what we do."
"Not if there's someone to distract us," I said. I rolled out of bed, changed into my morphing outfit, and opened the window. I focused on the owl and began to shrink.
"It's two in the morning," Dia said. "He'll be grumpy."
"What if he tells to fuck off so he can go back to sleep?" said Dia, just before she disappeared into the morph.
He won't, I said. He's Jake.
We flew. The image of my mother's ghost watching as Visser One stroked Dia's fur played on repeat in my brain, but I knew the way to Jake's house so well, both on foot and on the wing, that I got there without having to think about it. I landed on the edge of his window and rapped lightly at the glass with my beak.
Merlyse, curled up with Jake on the bed as a coyote, woke instantly. Her ears pricked and swiveled toward the window. Jake pushed back the covers, got up, and opened the window. They had their leader faces on, both of them, his features tight and composed and her eyes piercing me with yellow keenness. "What's wrong?" he said.
«Nothing,» I said. «I want to play some hoops.»
The leader face evaporated. Now he just looked confused. "Hoops?"
«Yeah. Basketball. The courts by the community center aren't fenced.»
"Marco," Jake said, lowering his voice to a little above a whisper. "It's two in the morning."
«I know.» I felt a pang of disappointment and, if I'm being honest with myself, loneliness. But I forced myself to say, «You know what, forget it. I'm sorry I woke you up. I'll go home.»
Merlyse made a soft sound in her throat. "Wait," Jake said. His hands tightened on the windowsill. "Demorph behind the trees in my backyard. I'll bring my basketball and some shoes."
Relief electrified me. I felt alive again. I hadn't even realized how dead I'd felt until that moment. I glided down from the window and demorphed in Jake's backyard. When I came around to the front, he was waiting. His shoes were too big for me, but he brought thick socks so my feet would fill them out better.
We walked toward the community center. The streets were empty, but that didn't creep me out. I'm used to the way my city looks at night. Besides, I know better than anyone that far worse things can happen behind closed doors than anything that goes on in a dark and silent street.
"So," I said. "Seen any good TV lately?"
Jake was startled for a second, so much that he nearly dropped the basketball tucked under his arm. Then he got it. All of us want to be distracted sometimes. Usually I'm happy to be the distraction, but this time it was his turn.
The corner of Jake's mouth twitched up. "Actually, my dad taped the Saturday Night Live from last weekend, and there was this skit with Will Ferrell in a bear costume…"
I used to spend Saturday mornings in my pajamas, eating cereal in front of the TV with Tom, watching cartoons. Tom doesn't do lazy mornings anymore. There's always something going on at the Sharing. As for me, this Saturday morning, I strapped on my sneakers and went outside, a printout of Cassie's emailed directions to Delia Nguyen's house clasped in my hand.
"To tell you the truth," Merlyse muttered, walking beside me as a scruffy dun-colored horse, "I'd rather be watching cartoons. Or even better, in bed."
"You have a point there," I conceded. I'd barely gotten any sleep during the extended train-wreck that was David and the world leaders' summit – and damn if that didn't feel like a year instead of less than a week – then Marco had come over, sounding as desperate and raw as he had when he thought his mom had died, asking him to come play basketball at two in the morning. I was happy to be there for him, of course, but after all that sleep deprivation it took a lot out of me. The two nights since then, I'd had to stay up late to catch up on all the work I'd fallen behind on in the last week. "But I can take a nap later, Merl. This is important. I mean…" We ought to be there for Cassie and Rachel. We ought to look at the grave of the boy we murdered. It's only right.
"Yeah," said Merl. I reached out and tangled my fingers in her uneven mane.
When we got to Delia's house, I rang the doorbell. It was answered by a young woman with a silky sheet of black hair past her shoulders and a wrinkly Shar Pei dæmon. Of course, she was a being far stranger than she looked, unique in all the galaxy: a symbiosis of a Yeerk and a Chee. "Hello, Jake," she said. "Come in."
Merl changed from a horse to a tortoise, and we followed Delia in. Her house was just as normal as the Kings', if much smaller and shabbier. My dad would have called it a fixer-upper that just needed a handyman's touch. The smell of grout came from the bathroom, and paint thinner from behind another door. But there was nothing ramshackle about the elevator behind her basement door that brought us down into her private doggy paradise.
We were immediately swarmed by dogs, who threw themselves at my legs and sniffed Merlyse's shell. I petted as many as I could reach. It's hard not be cheered up by dogs. Their attitude toward life is infectious. Delia got on her knees and pressed her nose to theirs. They smiled and licked her face. I wondered, vaguely, if Aftran enjoyed it too, or just took it as a part of her life sharing a body with a Chee.
Cassie and Rachel were already there. I could see them talking in the shade of a tree. Abineng was still in that antelope form, Rachel's arm curled around his dark neck. Behind them, I saw a stone rising up from the earth. The grave marker. That sobered me right up. I left the dogs behind, though a few of them still trailed after me. Merl became the scruffy desert horse again, and I quickened my pace.
"And then my dad lit some candles and tried to sing a psalm," I could hear Rachel saying. "You know, from the Torah. It's about when King David's dæmon, Adara, settled. It's a Jewish tradition to sing it for a settling, but my dad hasn't been to synagogue in, like, ever, so he forgot half the words and just hummed through the parts he forgot. It was so embarrassing. Oh, hi, Jake."
"So you told your parents?" I said.
"Yeah. My dad flew in. Big celebration." Rachel grimaced. "They kept telling me how proud they were, and reminiscing about their own settlings. I think Dad was a little disappointed, though. It costs a lot more to book tickets on planes for people with big dæmons. My chances of coming to visit him are approaching zero."
I studied Rachel. I'm not an expert at reading people like Cassie, but I know my cousin. I saw the way her fingers ran through Abi's mane. She was embarrassed by the way her parents reacted. She felt as if she didn't deserve the big fuss they'd made. But on the most fundamental level, she was at peace with the way she'd settled.
"Have you thought about what this means?" Rachel said to me. "For our missions, I mean."
At first I didn't know what she was talking about. But then I looked at Abi, really looked. He's big. Hard to overlook. Can't fit in tight corners.
"I see what you mean," I said. It was an advantage, too, in that Rachel could defend herself out of morph against just about any human, especially if she kept up her self-defense classes with Mike. But we don't fight out of morph. When we're human and we're on a mission, we want to hide. I turned to Cassie. "Does the Gardens have a sable antelope?"
"No, but there's a zoo not too far away that does," she said.
"One of us will acquire it," I said, "and use it in a couple of missions. That way, if the Yeerks see a sable antelope when you demorph to heal, they'll assume it's one of us in a battle morph."
"That still doesn't help when I have to demorph in a tight place," Rachel said.
"I know. We'll just have to be careful. I'll keep you out of situations where you might have to do that." I couldn't guarantee that, and Rachel knew it. But she nodded. She just wanted to make sure I kept it in mind. I could do that much.
Rachel leaned back against the tree. "So, how about you, Cassie? How'd it go?"
"How'd what go?" I said.
Cassie and Rachel exchanged a look. I had a feeling it might be a "boys are so stupid" look.
"You haven't looked at Quincy lately?" Rachel said. "What kind of boyfriend are you?"
I opened my mouth to say that I wasn't Cassie's boyfriend, but then I worried that Cassie might take that the wrong way, so I closed my mouth and looked away. Merl, though, peered at Quincy. He's a bat, she said. Come to think of it, he's been a bat a lot lately.
I glanced back at Cassie, startled. Both of them settling at the same time? It wasn't a coincidence. This experience – this murder – had affected them deeply. It shouldn't have surprised me. It was Cassie who planned it out, and Rachel who dealt the killing blow. Some part of me wished I could have shielded them from that, but that wasn't fair to either of them. They could have let me take the responsibility, but they chose this burden. I'd have to let them bear it.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I should have – "
"It's all right," Cassie said. "I didn't want to believe it myself. I had some hang-ups about vampire bats. Still do, but I'm working on it."
Quincy bared sharp fangs. Merl became a fly and buzzed around his mouth, inspecting them. I didn't know what to make of it. All I knew about vampire bats came from Goosebumps books.
Cassie said, "I'll tell you more about it, but first we should do what we came here for." She knelt in the grass in front of the grave marker. Rachel sat to her right, knees drawn up to her chest. Abi touched the tip of his nose on the top of her head. I knelt at Cassie's left, and put a hand on the shoulder where Quincy wasn't.
The grave marker was plain, uncarved stone. It was pale and glittered with bits of quartz. Delia must have etched in the epitaph, because the letters were neat and crisp.
1984 – 1998
There was nothing more. Delia and Aftran didn't know him, after all. Perhaps to them, he was just another victim of our war. To us, though, he would always be more than that.
After a moment of silence, Rachel said, "I don't regret what we did. I mean, I regret voting to give him the morphing power in the first place. But I don't regret killing him. I can't. Rapists are supposed to go to prison. That's the way justice works. I get that. But there's no prison that can hold an Animorph. Our justice was the only one with any power over him."
"Justice?" said Cassie. "Is that what this is?"
"No," said Rachel. "But real justice doesn't work anymore when you're at war. David was a rabid dog. He raped Marco, he almost killed Jake, and he would have hurt my family if we hadn't killed him. So I don't regret it." She gave Cassie a level, almost defiant look, while Abi bared his teeth at David's grave.
"I know that," Cassie said. "I wouldn't have planned it that way if I thought there was anything else we could do. But I can't help but think, what if? What if we'd treated him differently? What if we'd broken the news more gently? What if we'd let him stay with the Chee instead of sleeping in my barn? I can't help but regret."
"If we'd let him stay with the Chee, then he'd have had even more valuable secrets to sell to Visser Three," I said.
"I know," sadi Cassie, "but maybe he wouldn't have sold us out at all. Maybe he wouldn't have been so resentful of us, so angry. What if we'd waited until after the big mission to give him the morphing power, so we could focus on teaching him how to use it? What I'm trying to say is – are we sure he was a bad person? Or did we and the Yeerks turn him into one?"
Rachel shook her head. "No, Cassie. It's one thing to want to use the morphing power for yourself. I can see why that's tempting. I can even see why David might have tried to sell us out to Visser Three to save his parents. Maybe he really thought he could cut a deal. But what he did to Marco? What he almost did to my sister? That had nothing to do with being scared and alone and confused. That had everything to do with wielding power over us. It was about fucking with us just because he could. That's sick. That's a disease that goes deep. That's a person who'll use any power he has to make himself feel bigger. He was never the kind of person who should be trusted with the morphing power. We just couldn't see it."
It was then that I realized how lucky we were. Elfangor hadn't known the five of us when he met us in the construction site. He took the same gamble we did when we voted on whether to use the blue box on David. But unlike us, he guessed right. All of us choose to fight the Yeerks. None of us use the morphing power to make ourselves rich or hurt people. But Elfangor had taken a huge risk. He could have unleashed five Davids on the world. Had he somehow known that we were the right kids for this war? Or had he just taken a shot in the dark and hoped for the best?
"David was a mistake," I said. "Even if he wasn't a nice guy before, by giving him power, we made him worse. What I want to know is what we can learn from our mistake."
"Don't trust anyone," Rachel said. "Don't forget that our families can get caught up even deeper in this war if we're not careful."
"Consider the consequences of power," Cassie said. "We have a lot more of it than we think. We used it wrongly, and a boy ended up dead by our hands. But if we can figure out how to use it right…"
I thought about Marco the other night, how the thought-speech had come out of him like blood from a wound as he asked me, in the only way he knew how, to comfort him. "I think you're both right," I said. "Except I have one correction, Rachel."
Rachel looked at me over Cassie's head. "What's that?"
Merlyse leaned over and rested her head on Abi's. "Don't trust anyone else." I squeezed Cassie's shoulder. "But trust each other."