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When I woke up, they’d all left. I thought it was a dream, but no - the Valley was empty of anyone. All the Hork-Bajir gone to fight, and all the humans were gone too.

The big last push, and I was left here alone.

Jake! You know, I had thought we were on the same wavelength. All that BS about the mission, the one different from everyone else’s. Freeing Tom in the only way that was left.

Guess he’d stopped caring about that. Let what happens to Tom happen, and focus entirely on the battle. That’s fair enough, but then why leave without me? It’s not like any of his plans couldn’t use another body to fight. If I was good enough to die taking Tom to one path to freedom, surely I could have joined James and his poor doomed kids.

Or - what, he wussed out of having his brother killed and couldn’t say as much to my face? Maybe he’d had an attack of conscience and couldn’t look me in the eye as he spelled out what a monster I was to agree to go on a suicide mission to kill my own cousin.

Maintaining my anger was harder with that thought bouncing around in my skull, so I made a face and started searching the valley - no one was here at all. Surely they didn’t take Sara and Jordan into battle? Or all of the parents - no matter how fierce my mother was in wielding a spice rack against a bear attempting to swallow one of her daughters, I couldn’t see her in a battle.

I mean, Loren or Eva? Yeah, they’d kick serious Yeerk ass given half a chance. My mom and Peter should probably be tucked away with Walter and Michelle. I don’t know how much fight they had in them if it was needed, but Cassie’s parents didn’t seem settled with the idea of fighting. The thought of them fighting anyone was strange to contemplate, anyways.

So they had to be here somewhere, maybe with a few Hork-Bajir with them.

Somewhere.

But not up trees, not in any of the hastily built buildings, not within range of my shouting…

We didn’t have a place outside of this Valley to hide, unless I’d missed something.

It was… quiet. Wind swept through the grass, leaves rustled in the trees, and my hair blew back over my shoulders. The wind didn’t make much of a dent in the early morning fog, gently rolling through the valley. It was almost peaceful.

Gross.

There was no fighting with my mother or hearing her try and work through legal documents with the Hork Bajir. No hearing Marco whistle while he whittled. No noticing Loren watching the sky with a wistful expression.

There was a fight to be in, even if they’d left me here for whatever stupid reason.

By the time I’d morphed bird, the fog had grown dense, and transitioned neatly to a thick cloud bank as I climbed into the air. I flew in what I was sure was the right direction, kept going until my wings ached. The misty fog never let up once.

A thermal would be appreciated right now, but none were forthcoming, and I soared back down to the ground to alight on a tree branch and rest. I must be outside the Valley now, in some of the forest that surrounded it.

Getting through all this fog so I could work with some landmarks and get where I needed to be would be a pain.

With a mental sigh, I took off from the branch and beat my wings so I could climb through the air.

Maybe an hour later, I descended to demorph. Weirdly, I was still in the forest when I found a landing spot, and when I demorphed, I saw a bipedal shape just barely visible in the fog.

“Hey! You!” I shouted when I could, shifting quickly from malshapen hawk-person to my usual self.

The figure turned to me and made a motion, as if gesturing for someone else to follow them and I tensed for a moment before I heard them.

“Rachel! Where did others go?” It was a Hork-Bajir named Mab, who I’d spoken to before, and a handful of others falling in behind her. Some of the free Hork-Bajir.

“You must have fallen behind on the way to the fight and gotten lost in the fog.”

“Rachel ran away?”

I scowled. “No, Jagil, I did not run away. I was ditched. Left behind. Discarded. I was following behind and stopped to demorph.”

“No.” Mab disagreed, shaking her head.

“You can’t exactly stop me.”

“No. Rachel not follow.”

“I am going after them!” What was Mab’s problem? I put my hands on my hips before I started to morph again.

She reached out and tapped a nearby tree. “This oak tree. Good, tasty tree, best oak in valley. Rachel not follow others.”

“Oh- oh my- are you kidding me??” I dragged my hand down my face like Jake with a headache. I must have gotten turned around and ended back up in the Hork Bajir Valley, like an idiot.

“Rachel want to go?” A third Hork Bajir asked, one I was less familiar with.

“Yes, Rachel wants to go. Rachel wants to fight.” I responded with the same kind of grammar, and yeah, it was a little mean to mimic them like that. Especially when my grasp on grammar in their language wasn’t much better. I was worked up, so sue me.

“We follow.” Mab said, and I had to say that I wasn’t unhappy about that decision. Going on foot might be slower, but the Hork-Bajir could at least tell their favourite trees apart from others, so they’d know if we started to get near to the Valley again. We turned and left on feet, them on their own two, and me on the four of a wolf. The Valley vanished behind us in the fog.

The third time we arrived back where we started, I demorphed and kicked a tree. “It’s one of them again, I know it. SHOW YOURSELF!”

I had to explain to the Hork Bajir repeatedly who I was shouting at, and in that entire time no one froze, there was no mocking laughter or weird old elf-man. It was just… time marching on. I rubbed my forehead. I was jumping to conclusions, and it wasn’t helping. The Ellimist either changed things right away or stopped time and spoke to us, and the Crayak had the Drode taunt us when it wasn’t turning things into a nightmare. This wasn’t a nightmare; it was just dull.

It was just fog and a dense forest that we couldn’t navigate in these conditions.

Mab frowned (and let me tell you, Hork-Bajir frowns are scary) and bent down to look at a small sapling, touching it with the blade on one arm. “New.”

“Yes, it’s a sapling, it’s a baby tree, it’s new. Not helping us get out of this Valley, Mab!” I growled in frustration and walked away before I started cussing out one of these gentle giants.

Attempts continued, and while we ran into more small groups of Hork-Bajir, the fog never let up, and we always circled back to the Valley. Eventually, when the sky darkened, I gave up and raided the food storage for something to eat. I wasn’t exactly good company as I stayed up, waiting for the return of my friends. I had enjoyed a long day of letting my frustration and anger build up inside me and it was going to be just great to let it all out in a very long ...discussion with all of them.

Eventually, I fell asleep, with no one having returned.

We searched again when I awoke. The fog still slunk around trees, reflecting a dour and unfriendly sky. I walked, I flew, I ran. I got lost and always came back to the Valley.

Something was up, but I couldn’t know what. Nothing happened, things were just still and dull.

Whenever I returned to the Valley, the Hork-Bajir checked in with me. More came out each time - they must have been getting more worried.

Mab brought a friend to me and told me that he’d been to the battle. “What? Where’s everyone else then? What happened? Did any others come back with you?

Nor looked sheepish, for a Hork Bajir. “Fought yeerks. Fought for freedom. Got hurt.”

“And then you came back. Good on you for getting away.” I touched Nor’s arm and tried not to show my frustration.

That confirmed that I’d been ditched and they went on to a battle without me. I’d known as much, but it just sucked to know that for sure.

“I’m trying to go find wherever they are again. Wish me luck.”

I still couldn’t find my way out of the Valley, but I found something else instead.

James, who had been wandering the way I was going. “Rachel!”

“James! Where are the others?” He looked around, and his fists clenched. “I… It’s just me. The others went on without me.”

“Me too. We can shout at them together when they return.” He shot me a look I didn’t understand - angry and confused and almost accusatory. Well, it’s not like I didn’t understand displaced anger, especially at being left behind.

“Are you so sure they’ll return?” James asked.

“They have to. If they die without me there, I’ll never forgive them.” I tried to say it lightly, as if I wouldn’t die before any of my friends a hundred times over, despite my simmering anger at them.

I didn’t ask myself if I’d do the same for the new Animorphs. I’d fight for them, I’d protect them if they falter, but it is war. I knew some of the plans we’ve spoken of weren’t…. Well. They’re not planned with survival at the forefront. Not for them, and not for us.

“...Do you want company?” He asked and fell in beside me. We walked in companionable silence for a while.

“I’m surprised I’m just running into you now. This fog is awful, but I’ve been searching and searching to try and get out of the Valley.”

“I… guess I was just elsewhere. Looking at other ways out.” He shrugged, and I raised my eyebrows at his vagueness. “I was heading back to the Valley to take a look at it. See it one last time, you know, before we go forwards.”

“If we survive this war, we can always go back! It’s not like it will vanish.”

“That’s a big if, don’t you think?”

“Don’t be a downer, James.”

“Sorry.” Well, he didn’t look sorry. After a while, he spoke again. “Do you think we’ll survive? You and me?”

I hesitated. I wanted to blow it off, but… I looked at his face, and there’s something hard there. Something hurt. “...You’ve heard some of the plans, haven’t you?”

We stopped moving. “You recruited us! We’re children! We’re children who’d been treated like shit by everyone already, patronized and isolated and abandoned! And now you want us for cannon fodder! You line us up with real soldiers and you’ll send us all together to die as a distraction!”

I winced. There’s no defence.

“Well, fine! If that’s what the fight for our planet needs, that’s what we’ll do, that’s who we’ll be! But there’s more respect due to us then that.”

“I can’t make you any promises, James.” I spread my hands out. “It’s Cassie or Marco you’d want to talk to. I’m not the most likely survivor.” I’d promised Jake that I’d end his brother’s time as a host one way or another. I’d promised I’d stop his yeerk’s plans in it’s tracks. And we knew I’d die.

“...Yeah. I know. But they’re not here. It’s too late to talk to them, now isn’t it?”

“They’ll come back.” I told him stubbornly, wanting to touch his arm though I did not let myself from do so. He didn’t need pity, not from me. He didn’t deserve it either. “Tell them when they do. They’ll make sure you and yours are honoured. Remembered.”

He snorted. “Yeah. Well, time will show that.”

“You know Cassie wouldn’t lie about that.” I told him, frowning.

He shook his head. “I don’t know what I thought coming here would solve. What talking to you would do. We do what we do, we fight for freedom, and that’s it’s own reward. If we get the accolades we’re due, well, that’s what’s right. If not - we’ll know our own sacrifice.”

He turned and walked away. I followed, but he just walked faster. “James! Just stick with me, we’ll wait for them together!”

“I don’t need to wait. I’m going to them.”

“What are you talking about? You’ll just get lost in the-” He disappeared into the fog I’d tried to warn him about.

I couldn’t find him again, though I searched and shouted for hours.

The weather seemed like it would never change again. Always dour and foggy and miserable. I was surrounded by Hork-Bajir whenever I returned to the Valley. But I searched and searched. For a way out, for James, for my friends.

I lost track of time.

I started finding things in the Valley. Trash. The Hork-Bajir who ventured out like I did must be… bringing back evidence of the world outside when they got fall enough to find human litter? I didn’t know. I never saw any of them leave it.

I helped the Hork-Bajir that disliked it to gather it up and deposit it at the edge of the Valley. Never the same place twice, the fog still confused our steps.

I found a baby bird on the ground, a nest above my head. I crouched down to examine the small, pathetic creature, and tutted. Naked with just pinfeathers - I’d spent enough time with Cassie over the years that I knew this little guy shouldn’t be out of his nest. No injuries or anything - must have just fallen out. He was a little chilly, but being returned to the nest with his siblings should help.

I cupped his little body with my hands and climbed the tree to put him back. Then I dropped back down to the ground, watched until I saw a parent bird swoop in, and went back to the business of trying to escape the valley.

I resolved not to turn around - just one direction until I found something new. I slept out there, leaving signs for myself to know which way to go each time I rested. I ran as a wolf, to go quicker.

I ended up rolling over on the signs I’d left for myself, and smudging them out of recognition - and eventually trudging back into the same valley I always ended back within.

Meaning to make sure that the baby bird I rescued was doing okay, I went around the circumference of the Valley, trying to locate the nest again. I found a few nests, but they were all cold and empty, abandoned. I guessed it’d been further from the Valley then I’d remembered - I hadn’t paid that much attention.

Nor did I care that much to hunt out one particular loud nest of birds.

Another time, I morphed to bald eagle to try and fly away, and I saw a red-tail. My heart constricted. <Tobias!> I shouted. No response. No reply. My beak opened and I screamed an eagle scream, but the bird didn’t react.

I chased the hawk for as long as I could before I had to land to demorph, screaming Tobias’ name in thoughtspeak over and over.

I morphed back to eagle as soon as I could, but I’d lost the hawk. He was gone again.

“Tobias.” Mab told me later, and I nodded and told her I’d seen the bird and tried to flag it down in case it had been him.

“He didn’t stop no matter how much I called. It was just a bird.”

Mab shook her head and repeated, “Tobias.” I didn’t argue with her - if thinking it had been him made her feel better, that was fine. I just wished it had been.

Fog can’t last forever, I knew that objectively, but the fog didn’t seem to have been sent the memo. The weather never changed, never lightened. It was dull and boring and made my endless searching for a way out monotonous.

I wished that if either the Ellimist or the Crayak had created this situation, they could just come out and say what they wanted.

It wasn’t like them to wait this long. But what else could explain the situation I found myself in?

I pondered that again as I walked through the forest by foot, hearing the crunch of autumn leaves under my feet.

<Rachel?!> The sound of my own name in my skull surprised me so much that I slipped as I spun around. I only saw a blur of blue as I went down, staring up at the crowns of trees, blurry with the tears in my eyes.

I heard slow steps towards me, and I sat up to see a delicate creature with dainty hooves and a long tail with a wicked hook. Four eyes, no mouth, and too many fingers.

“Ax?” I whispered.

<What are you doing? Are you alright?>

“Rachel, where have you been?” More footsteps. I looked over my shoulder, and Marco’s got his hands in his pockets and a strange smirk on his face. “Jake’s been worrying.”

“Shut up, Marco.” Jake’s voice was strange as he dropped to the ground, demorph from falcon almost complete. He reached out his hand to me, and I took it to stand up.

Then I punched him.

<Hey, Rachel, calm down-> This voice is one I’ve longed to hear for so long that it hurts. Tobias.

“YOU ALL LEFT ME. WENT TO FIGHT WITHOUT ME! AFTER- AFTER ALL THE PLANS, AFTER EVERYTHING!” I was loud and upset, with tears prickling my eyes, and I spun to shout at whoever I could see first- Cassie, Ax, Marco, whoever. Maybe to punch Marco if he got within reach, the crack against Jake’s jaw had been very satisfying.

“Hey, Xena, no one meant to leave you behind.” Marco said, taking his hands out of his pockets to hold them in the air.

His calm tone did not soothe my temper. “Well you DID! I’ve been here with Hork-Bajir and no one else. I can’t find a way out of this Valley, and I had no idea if you idiots were dead or alive!”

Jake actually laughed at that, if ruefully, while he rubbed his jaw. “I missed you, Rach.”

I turned and lifted my fist again. “Shut up, Jake!”

I might have hit him again, but arms went around me from behind, and I recognized that Tobias had demorphed. Against the wishes of my temper, I softened. “Rachel.” He said my name and I put a hand over where one of his rested.

“I’m still mad at all of you.”

“We’ve learned to live with that, Xena.”

I looked them all over and realized- someone wasn't not there. “Where’s Cassie?”

Everyone paused.

<She’s… not here?> Ax said slowly.

“...She’ll turn up. This weather is hell for navigating your way around.” Jake said, and despite myself, I snorted. He didn't know the half of it. He picked himself up from the bright green grass he’d been knocked down onto when I hit him.

“Cassie will make her way to us when she’s ready. You know her, Rachel.” Tobias told me, and I rolled my eyes and wriggled out from his hold.

“So she’s in a snit about something violent that was suggested again? Ugh. I would prefer to shout at all of you in one go for ditching me instead of having to repeat myself when she makes her entrance.”

“Let’s head into the Valley proper. Maybe she’s there.” Marco suggested.

That’s better than no plan at all. But she wasn't not there when we arrive.

Mab’s almost smug though, and put a clawed hand on Tobias’ head before looking at me. “Tobias.”

“Yes, Mab, this time it’s actually him.”

“Hi Mab. Been a while.” Tobias patted her arm and Mab looked between us, her shoulders slumped a little and she went off to a little group of Hork-Bajir. “She sounded like she was making a point?”

“I saw a red-tail a while ago and she thought it was you.” I explained.

Ax had taken an awkward seat on a little grassy hill, four legs folded underneath him. One of his back legs twitched to touch the ground- I guessed so he could do a bit of snacking. Tobias pulled me over to settle in next to his shorm.

I had to admit, I didn’t mind making him feel guilty about ditching me if this was how clingy he got. It was nice, to have him as a human for a while, which let me lean back against his shoulder.

Marco hooked an arm around Jake’s neck, towing him in. “Marco-! Let me go, I should- talk to the Hork-Bajir, see if anyone else-!”

Marco plopped down on the grass near us and took Jake down with him. I plopped my feet into his lap before he could jump back up.

“No one else has shown up, they would’ve told us by now. It’s just us.” I told my annoying cousin, wrinkling my nose at him. “Now make yourself useful and be still like a good footrest until I forgive you.”

He groaned and let his head drop back to hit the ground. “So I’m a footrest for the rest of eternity, then.”

Marco adjusted himself until he was lounging properly, leaning his head back and putting his arms behind his head. His head was close enough to Ax that curious blue fingers started to braid together thin locks of long dark hair.

I shuddered to think of the mess of knots Ax would leave. I leaned my head against Tobias’ shoulder and let him run his hand through my own hair. (I managed not to be reminded of a bird’s beak grooming feathers for more than the first few moments.)

“This is nice.” I admit quietly. “I’ve missed you idiots.” All that was missing was my best friend, but if they all came back, so would she.

As time went on, I was reluctant to let all of them out of my sight at the same time, for fear they’d vanish. They mostly seemed to feel the same way - Ax always had an eye on me, and I kept catching Jake staring at me.

“A picture would last longer!” I finally snap at him. He blinked and winced, looking far more hurt than a stupid comment like that warranted.

“Xena!” Marco gasped, coming up behind us and slinging an arm around Jake’s shoulders and my waist. “To suggest that some meager mortal technology like photography can accurately capture the grandeur of your beauty in any meaningful sense!” He hammed it up all he could and there's not a pair of eyeballs in the entire animal kingdom large enough that could be worth rolling at him.

I shoved at him and make a face. “If Jake is admiring my beauty, I’ll be happy to detail our family tree in more detail for the both of you.”

“What, one can’t simply admire the platonic ideal of beauty before us?” That was just too ridiculous, and the conversation devolves into an extremely satisfying noogie being delivered to Marco while Jake helped hold him still. Platonic ideal of beauty my butt, these boys get way too carried away describing me sometimes.

Jake’s staring wasn’t forgotten, and later I pulled him aside. He shifted awkwardly, and his eyes look slightly shadowed, as they often did. “Hey. I think I know why you keep - staring at me like that.”

His head jerked up and he stared at me with wide eyes. “I- Rachel, listen-”

“Hey, hey. Shh. Lemme talk. I’m still not exactly happy with you about the whole thing.” His hands were in tight fists, and every line of his body was tense. I grabbed his hands and forced them to unclench. “But, look. If you’re feeling bad about that- plan we had, about sending me off to take care of Tom. It’s not like it happened, right? You came up with the idea, I agreed, and then you changed your mind. Nothing happened. You don’t have to keep feeling like shit.”

Tension slowly drained out of his face, and his hands gripped onto mine. “What…” He licked his lips. “What if we’d gone ahead? What if it happened?”

“Well… you wouldn’t hate me, right? For doing it?” Despite myself, I know my voice wavered a little.

“No! No, never. You would just be listening to me. You’d die listening to me. Wouldn’t you hate me?”

He looked absolutely devastated, and I only hesitated a moment before hugging him. “You muffin-headed idiot. If I wasn’t prepared, I never would have agreed, I’m not some mindless idiot.” He’s snivelling into my shoulder, and I don’t mind this time. “I didn’t… and I don’t want to die. But some things are worth it. Not letting Tom be taken out into the stars on his yeerk’s crazy plan is worth it. Setting him free in some way is worth it. Maybe it’s not what would have decided the battle, but it’s deciding the fate of our family, you know?”

“We could have figured out another way.” He mumbled.

“Maybe. But there’s a lot going on at the end of the war, current circumstances aside. What we decided was what we decided. You made the call and I took the order.” I frowned a little. “Except… then I was ditched. You jerk.” He stilled a little in my arm. “I remember heading out, and…”

“Rachel.” He pulled back from the hug and wiped his eyes dry. “I’m so glad that we’re all here now. Together. And we have time now. To think.”

“Yeah.” I smiled at him. “We can come up with better plans this time while we wait for Cassie to show up.” I punched him in the arm and walked away.

His whisper of, “yeah. Better plans…” is almost inaudible as I crunched through thick piles of autumn leaves.

I found Tobias talking to Ax- I don’t hear what Ax said, but Tobias squinted up at him. “Tell her what?”

Ax’s main eyes widened, but a stalk eye turns and saw me and I gave a little wave. “Hey guys!”

<Rachel!> Ax greeted. <I was just suggesting to Tobias that we might want to tell you that I,> He paused, his other stalk eye looking at me as well. <...I morphed a while ago to fly up and take a look at the weather patterns. I think I might have seen a break in the fog, but that was just as I needed to demorph and was flying back down, so I could be wrong. I didn’t want to raise your hopes if I was.>

“Oh. Well, let’s get everyone together and head out in that direction. If you’re right, it might be our chance to get out of here and see what’s up - and if not, oh well.” I shrugged and flashed him a smile. His hand was worrying at the bottom of his face. pressed into the smooth skin there. “I’ll go get the others! Be right back!”

Rounding up Jake and Marco didn’t take long, and I towed them back to Ax and Tobias, explaining what Ax had said to me.

Tobias blinked at them when we came to a stop. “What?”

They had both stopped looking either at me while I was talking, or where they were going, and were instead staring at him. Marco looked away first. “Just wondering why Ax was the only one up in the air, dude.”

“I was just grabbing a bite to eat while Ax went up.” Tobias rolled his eyes.

<Shall we go ahead and morph?> Ax asked, already shrinking in stature. The rest of us started turning into our own chosen bird forms, feathers bubbling up in skin, lips hardening into beaks, legs getting heinously unmoisturized before turning into scaly talons.

As we climbed into the sky, I in no way saw any sort of break in the fog. I screeched in frustration, the bald eagle’s cry immensely satisfying. <Ax!> I complained.

<I told you that I might have been mistaken.> He said apologetically.

<Let’s try and fly out of the fog anyways. We’re already up here.> Tobias suggested.

<Just warning you guys, it doesn’t seem to work.> I said, but I wanted to try again anyways. Maybe I just needed some of the others with me.

We flew and flew through the skies, and I felt hopeful. Ax could keep track of time, we could all work together to make sure we didn’t change direction - we could leave the Valley!

It felt like days had passed by the time Ax said it had been two hours, and we landed, demorphed and didn’t recognize where we were. We went wolf this time, and ran as far as we could-

But we’d gotten turned around again, because we could see the Valley in the distance, and an old Hork-Bajir peering down out of the branches of a tree near where we stopped.

<I don’t remember ever seeing a Hork-Bajir look that old before.> Marco said, and I waited for Cassie to scold him for being rude before remembering that she wasn’t with us. I demorphed, trying to ignore that gap in our group.

The old Hork Bajir went to the ground as we demorphed, inspecting us closely. There were only two horns on her head, so I was guessing this was an old lady Hork-Bajir. Her skin was very dry looking, and there were patches where it looked kind of like she was molting. Her eyes were more sunken than I was used to seeing in Hork-Bajir, and she was a little skinny.

As soon as Jake had a proper mouth, he spoke. “Hello ma’am,” ugh, he was so polite. “Sorry to bother you.”

She stared a moment and then her mouth opened and she huffed a pleased little sound. “I wasn’t expecting this sort of greeting from you, Jake Berenson.”

“You know her, Jake?” Tobias asked, and both Jake and the older Hork-Bajir shot looks at him.

Jake looked at her, and gave one of his blandest smiles. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. Can we help you into the Valley, ma’am?” He offered his arm to her and she took it, laughing in amusement, and minding her armblades on his tender human skin.

<Why didn’t anyone tell us that there was an older Seer then Toby?> Ax wondered as we started to follow.

“Maybe they just rescued her from the Yeerks and hadn’t realized she’d aged so much? You remember how fast Toby grew up, who knows how quick they go from adult to elder.” Tobias answered, taking my hand in his.

“I… think that makes the most sense.” Marco said from behind us, and I turned my head to look at him. His voice was just a bit strained, and he was staring at the back of Ax’s head, and not a single eyeball of Ax’s looked at him. Had they had a quiet mindspeech fight while we were morphed, just between the two of them?

“So you’ve found Rachel. Mab mentioned that there was some confusion?” The old lady Hork-Bajir said to Jake.

“We left her behind when we went into a battle, and got lost on our way back. We haven’t been able to leave the Valley since then.” Jake said, and he sort of sounded like he used to if we were talking in code on the phone, worried that relatives might overhear. Overly careful and deliberate and very genial.

Weirdly, the old codger just stared at him for a moment, focused and lucid, then shook her head slowly to each side. “Well, that explains the state she was in. Poor Mab got stuck babysitting Rachel on her own, and then had to take in you four?”

“No one was babysitting me,” I spluttered, outraged, and Tobias squeezed my hand.

We were in the Valley, and the Hork-Bajir put a hand on Jake’s head. “Don’t linger too long. You don’t have to be lost.”

It was Mab, and she looked surprised to see us with the elder. “Toby!” She said after blinking at us for a moment, turning her attention to the Seer. “Come greet human.”

“Human? Do we have a visitor?” The old Hork-Bajir asked.

Toby was greeting another human? Or wanted to greet us? She had no reason to be shy of talking to us, even if she’d been ignoring us for a while.

Mab looked at us, then back at her, and rasped out a few words in their language. Something about a friend? I still wasn’t good at their language.

“Stay here.” The old Hork-Bajir told us, and followed Mab where she led. So it was a visiting human being greeted by Toby, and not Toby wanting to talk to us.

“She does not know us well enough.” I laughed, smirking a little as I looked around, and nodded. We all had the same thing in mind, it was clear.

“Or too well.” Marco mumbled, but we were all morphing already, becoming a little group of forest critters, following the two Hork-Bajir women to the ‘human friend’ they went to see.

How did a human even get here? We’d tried to escape for so long, and a human just… showed up?

I was Fluffer McKitty, and fearless as I ventured closer. They were talking to… someone, but I didn’t see any other human or Toby. That didn’t make sense.

<Rachel…> Jake said, a lizard in the grass that the cat mind was tracking even as I licked my paw. <Maybe we should leave them alone.>

<What? Why would we do that?> I asked, surprised.

Before Jake could respond, Ax spoke up. <Does Cassie have a female family member older than her mother?>

<Uh, what? I think she’s got a Grandma in the north of the state, why?> But even as I ask, the human shifted their weight, and I guess that drew the cat’s eye to them. I must have overlooked them before.

Not her Grandma. Cassie’s Grandma was skinny as a rake, and was determinedly stylish in a classic way. She’d been stern and snappish with everyone but me and Cassie the last time she visited, when Cassie and me were ten. She spoiled us silly.

This woman had a lot of Cassie’s features, but was slightly older than her Grandma was last time I’d seen her. Or, at least she had more wrinkles.

Cassie’s Grandma had bragged about her lack of wrinkles and told me that no matter what I did then, Cassie would have fewer wrinkles than me when we were old. I’d furrowed my brows at her and she’d poked my forehead and said that was why, and hooked Cassie into a hug and teased her about being so sweet-natured that she’d never get worry-lines.

This woman- maybe an aunt of Cassie’s? A great-aunt? Had worry lines in plenty, and laugh lines too. She held her head high, despite the long dreadlocks down her back which must have been heavy for an older lady. She put a hand on the Hork-Bajir elder’s arm and I revised that thought. The lady had some guns. Clearly, age hadn't slowed her down at all.

<Is that…> Marco said slowly, perched next to Tobias on a branch, like two birds of prey would never actually do.

She was wearing jeans and a jacket, like a politician trying to act down to earth. Ugh- the jacket had shoulder pads. That was so like Cassie.

<Who is it?> Tobias asked.

“Oh my god.” I whispered, human again without meaning to be. The demorphing process must have been so quick I hadn't been aware of it. I sat down on the ground and gripped a handful of my hair. “Oh my god.”

<Rachel? ...Why did you demorph?>

“Shut up, Jake. Shut up! Oh my god, were you lying to me? This whole time?” I got up and walked over to the Hork-Bajir. Mab noticed and touched the elder’s arm, but I saw now.

I waved a hand in front of the woman’s face. She kept talking. “...Would you believe that the buffoon thought I was going to vote to continue to allow their homeworld to be under such close guard? They’re sentient beings!”

“You did fight them.” The Hork-Bajir (...Toby?) said to her, glancing at me for the barest moment. “I suppose he forgot you helped start their Peace Movement.”

“...It is her. Oh my god, it’s Cassie.” She was so… so OLD, her hands showing little fine wrinkles and loose skin as she talked. She… she was grown up. “...You’re Toby, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Toby said, turning her head to look at me. “You took long enough to know what’s happening here.”

“Toby?” Old Lady Cassie asked, looking confused. “What are you talking about?”

I backed away.

You were brave.

No.

You were strong.

“No!”

You mattered.

I ran.

The others chased me of course, but I ran and I ran and I didn’t stop. It wasn’t like I could get tired, I was… I was dead.

I was dead.

I only stopped when I just… needed to process it.

Jake was the first one to catch up, but he hung back once he had, guilt-ridden and anxious. Good.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded, and rubbed fiercely at my face, refusing to start bawling like a child.

“I didn’t want it to be true.” He said helplessly.

The others, all human but Ax, caught up after. “Why didn’t any of you tell me?!”

<I… forgot. This place seems to make that easy.> Ax said slowly, his tailblade lowered enough to touch the ground. <At first I just followed the lead of the others.>

“Of Jake.” I corrected with a slight growl.

“I forgot too. I just… liked the story better.” Tobias admitted, squaring his shoulders and looking hawk-blank, almost unreadable. He didn’t feel bad. I guess I could understand that. I could still remember how he looked, morphed human as I-

“And you, Marco?” I snarled, distracting myself from memories.

“Of course I remembered. I’ve always seen things the way they really were.” Marco shrugged. “You would get there in your own time.”

“I’m dead!” I howled. “I’m dead, and you all lived!”

“I’m sorry!” Jake said, and grabbed his head. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. You, and all those yeerks, and I just did so much wrong.”

His voice sounded like it was torn from his throat. I was a maelstrom of emotions - I was furious, miserable, horrified, and-

And that was my cousin. And I had meant what I said about being willing to do it. He was pathetic and grieved and ugh, he’d spent years after I died like that, I could tell he had. I remembered how broken he was after losing his parents, how we pushed him back into the role of leader.

And he’d led. And we’d followed. I’d followed, knowing what I was doing.

“Turn off the waterworks,” I grumbled with a sigh, getting close enough to him that I could punch him in the arm. “You’re dead now too. You’ve had longer to get used to the situation, there’s no need for this.”

He grabbed onto me and sobbed into my shoulder. “I don’t want ghost snot on my ghost clothes, get off! I’m still mad at you.”

Before I knew it, Marco had brought everyone else into a group hug despite my protests. “You’re all lying jerks, and I hate you all. Get off!”

The afterlife was better now that I knew it was the afterlife. We didn’t have to try and escape. Mab could stop pointing out all the little hints that she’d spent most of her afterlife doing.

After a while she disappeared. Moved on, I guess.

We stayed. We talked, lazed around. I started to realize the Hork-Bajir we saw were a mix of living and dead, and the living sometimes saw us, and sometimes didn’t.

I learned what I’d missed.

“It’s just, going lobster for some keys, Marco…”

“Bite me, Xena!”

I learned how they died.

“Awwww, you named your suicide space ship after me? You guys are so lame!”

But mostly, we just… waited.

And finally, we were done waiting.

“It took you long enough!” I ran ahead of the others and grabbed her hands. Cassie looked my age again, and the sun was rising behind her, the fog starting to clear away.

“We have so much to catch up on.” She told me with a laugh, smiling around at the others. “You’ve waited a long time for me.”

“We’ve been divided long enough.” Jake said awkwardly.

“Were you happy, Cassie?” Marco asked her.

“Were any of us?” She shrugged.

<Cassie. We want to know.>

“The real answer.” Tobias added, arm sliding around my waist, casual and comfortable.

“Alright, alright.” She held up her hands in surrender, and I snagged one to hold when she put them down. “I made a difference. I had children and grandchildren. I was godmother to Jordan’s eldest. I missed you all…. but I was happy.”

“One out of six isn’t bad.” Marco mused, and Tobias elbowed him in the side.

“C’mon.” I said, pulling Cassie and Tobias away. “We’ve waited long enough here.”

<You want to move forwards?> Ax asked, startled.

I grinned and looked over my shoulder at him. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”