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Most Humane of Princes

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When the war is over, and the dust has settled, and all that is left is cleaning up the aftermath, there is time for many to discuss that odd group that called itself the Animorphs. A group which has done much to make the world as it is now, which was the one to unite rebel Yeerk and Controller movements with Andalite forces, undermine many Yeerk efforts, and slaughter thousands of Yeerks with only the resources of five human teenagers and an Andalite. People start looking at those five teenagers and Andalite. Well, three teenagers now. War takes its cost.

A lot of the scrutiny, of course, falls to their leader. Cassie.

Or, as the Andalites choose to call her (and many humans and Yeerks and even Hork Bajir have chosen to follow suit) Prince Cassie.

Some humans only call her that ironically, finding it a funny name for a girl not yet turned twenty. Human or alien, most do wonder that a girl of her age, a pacifist teenager whose goal is to become a veterinarian, managed to lead an amazingly successful guerilla force against an entire race with far better technology and far greater numbers.

When they ask her how she managed to lead the other Animorphs, how she managed to even keep her head afloat in the chaos, she will smile politely and answer as briefly as possible. She doesn’t blame them for the way they see her. It’s how the other Animorphs used to see her, how she used to see herself.

///…///…///

They didn’t realize Cassie was the leader until they met Ax. Ax, an Andalite who didn’t even know any of them, somehow understood the dynamics of their group better than them within minutes. He had it figured it out by the time they had him on shore after rescuing him from his underwater refuge turned prison.

{You are the leader,} he said to Cassie as he dried himself off. {Yes?}

She laughed, a bit nervously. “No. We don’t have a leader.”

{There is always a leader in a well organized military force,} Ax said. He sounded like he was reciting something out of a textbook rather than coming up with an idea of his own. {You were the one to receive my message, I believe. And you led the effort to rescue me.}

“He’s pretty right, Cassie,” Rachel said at that point, before Cassie could protest. “You kind of do lead us. Like, you and Jake always are the ones making the plans. And you’re always the one deciding what’s ethical and what are acceptable risks.” She rolled her eyes at that last part. Rachel didn’t believe there was such a thing as an unacceptable risk, which Cassie supposed was a good reason for Cassie to be the leader rather than her. Not that Cassie was the leader. Not at that point, not yet.

“Hadn’t figured it out?” Marco said. “Come on, Cassie. You know you’d love to do the whole responsibility thing.” He grinned. “Besides, you have the whole morality thing going. You know you could handle it.”

She couldn’t tell how much of his tone was sarcastic and how much it was serious. “Jake has as much to do with the plans as I.”

She turned to him for support, but he only shrugged.

“Come on,” she protested, a small smile spreading on her lips. “You can’t seriously say I’m the leader, Jake.”

“If you’re not,” Jake said, more seriously than either Rachel or Marco. “Then you should be.”

“Come on,” Cassie repeated, the smile fading.

“We’ve been avoiding it, but we’re going to need a leader eventually,” Jake said. “I know you can keep a grasp of what’s right more than any of us. You’re smart, and you know what you’re doing. If I had to choose a leader…” He shrugged again. “You’d definitely do better than me.”

Cassie would have protested after that, would have said that really she wasn’t a leader, even if she had been making a lot of the choices so far, calling a lot of the shots. But it was then that Ax spoke up again.

{So you are the leader, Cassie?}

She looked at Rachel, and Rachel nodded. She looked at Marco, and Marco shrugged with an ironic lift of his eyebrows. Certainly he wouldn’t protest—anything to escape getting stuck with the position himself. Tobias, who had landed in the area just recently, nodded his hawk head with a piercing stare.

And Jake met her eyes and smiled, and she knew that with his support she could be anything.

“I guess I am.”

{Then, Prince Cassie, I must thank you and your team for rescuing me from my quandary,}

“Prince?”

She had to stop herself from laughing at the title then and there. She and Jake had a good long laugh about it later, when the battle was thoroughly won and Ax safely hidden in the woods.

“It could at least have been princess,” she said.

Jake shook his head. “Oh, I don’t know. I think you make a pretty good prince. In fairy tales they always go around rescuing everyone, right? Isn’t that pretty much what you want to do?”

“But if I was a princess I could commune with the animals,” she said with the most serious face she could muster. “Call the birds to my fingers. Paint with all the colors of the wind.”

“Good point, good point,” Jake said, nodding with an equally serious expression. “Should we tell Ax to change the title? I’m sure he could get used to it.”

Cassie poked him in the ribs. “Hey. It’s his tradition. I’m not going to object.”

“I’m sure he’d be fine with it.”

“I don’t mind it,” Cassie said. “Besides, prince can be something of a gender neutral term. I’m sure that’s what it is for him.”

“But on Earth things are a bit different.”

“No, sometimes prince just means a leader who is a noble. Machiavelli uses it that way, I’m pretty sure. And sometimes it just means a reflection of quality,” Cassie said.

Jake smiled. “Well, you certainly are noble. And you do have quality.”

They looked at each other for a moment, and Cassie could feel a million things she wanted to say rising up in her throat. Like, was she really the best choice for leader? Yes, she would take the role on if she had to, and yes, she could probably handle it better than Rachel and definitely better than Marco, but putting it so definitively, calling herself a prince…The term felt awkward, didn’t seem to describe her right. A prince could be admirable, she knew. A prince was dependable, saved the day, stood for his people, used both wit and force to defeat an enemy. It wasn’t a role she denigrated. But she wasn’t sure it was a role she wanted either, or one she fit.

And did he believe she could be their prince? Rachel would stand by Cassie and her judgment to the bloody end, she knew—and with Rachel of course it would be bloody—and the others seemed to want any leader, as long as there was someone. But Jake, she felt, was the heart of their group, the most focused, the one she herself relied on. What he thought of her mattered perhaps more than anyone else’s thoughts. And of course his opinion mattered to her for other reasons too, which had less to do with the Animorphs and more to do with the boy she had known long before they had ever met up with Elfangor or become aware of the Yeerks.

And she wanted to ask him, did he think she could do this? What did he think of her as a leader? Heck, what did he think of her as a friend? Or as a girl?

He broke eye contact and patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t over-think it. Leader or not, we all take part in decisions and we all have responsibility for our own actions. It’s no big deal.”

“No big deal,” she echoed. “Of course.”

“And if it starts getting to you,” Jake said. “I’ll be right here.”

///…///…///

When the dust has settled, the humans are probably the most sexist about believing a little girl like Cassie could be the leader. A black teenage girl. She’s not the kind of hero they expect to be leading the front of a famous fighting force, and she can’t help but think they would prefer Jake.

But there are still a lot of people who take her as some kind of role model. Tumblr pretty much worships her, and she finds herself unable to go online there anymore. She is loved by all kinds of activists. Pacifists, feminists, nature lovers, and most particularly hipsters follow every word she says in every interview she ever gives. They call her an inspiration.

It’s not a bad thing. She’s able to call attention to a lot of political issues. Issues that are old and familiar, like preserving nature and ending global warming. Issues that are entirely new where she can break new ground, like relations with Hork Bajir, Andalites and Yeerks who have immigrated to Earth. Her fame gives her a voice, which is more than she ever had before becoming a “prince”.

///…///…///

Admittedly, the side missions were entirely voluntary, but then, so were all their missions, even those that were most essential and dangerous.

No one ever refused (except Marco). Even though the missions were frankly, whenever Cassie looked back on them years later, fairly ridiculous. One day they’d be talking about how to sabotage the Sharing’s latest recruitment strategies or bomb one of their bases and the next day Cassie would walk into the barn and ask, “Anyone up for helping the animals?”

They pulled some crazy stunts. They set loose cats and dogs with abusive masters, cared for animals with broken bones and infections, unleashed karma on hunters who hunted out of season, sabotaged construction sites too near to natural habitats, left mysterious and threatening messages in the rooms of high school bullies and those who misused animals, and even freed certain animals from zoos that did not have conditions as ideal as those at the local zoo where Cassie’s dad worked.

Rachel, of course, was up for anything. The second Cassie said, “I have an idea,” she would be on the edge of her seat, eyes glowing with anticipation. Of course, she preferred escapades with actual stakes and actual battles, but Cassie thought she would do anything for an adrenalin rush (which honestly was fairly concerning but at least these missions were good healthy fun, not insane and life risking like most).

Jake would roll his eyes at her idea, but he would ultimately agree to whatever she wanted as long as she looked at him in a particular way. Softie—clearly he did care about the animals deep down, he just didn’t want to admit it. Besides, even he needed a break once in a while, and the side missions were fun.

Tobias, of course, was all for saving the animals and preserving nature. They had many fruitful discussions about the matter, when Cassie was working with animals and Tobias had nothing better to do. He would only object when Cassie wanted to interfere with what he called “the natural order”, saving rabbits from predators, for example. Predators needed to eat and live as much as anyone else, and the fittest lived in the wild, he told her many a time. And she ought to keep that in mind.

Ax had no opinion on preservation or animal abuse, but he liked the adventure with lower stakes, and besides, he claimed it helped him to learn more about human culture.

And that left only Marco.

“You haven’t been hanging out with us much lately,” she said to him one night, when the rest of the team had just returned from a side mission he had skipped.

He rolled his eyes. “Missing one of your little soldiers?”

 “Missing one of my friends,” she said, shocked. “Marco.”

“Ever since Ax declared you prince you sure act like one,” Marco said. “Listen up, princess. I’m in the fight against the Yeerks. I don’t like it, but I am. Aliens invading our planet. Pretty important. Saving the animals?” He shook his head. “Sorry. I’m not part of your little crusade.”

“We do good things,” she said.

“There’s a difference between saving the world from invaders and saving it from itself,” Marco said. “I’m good with the first. Not so much the second.”

“I never said you had to join,” Cassie said. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to. But we do good work and it’s good stress relief. And you’re our friend. We’d like to have you along.” She bit her lip. “I’m not trying to force you into anything. We just miss you sometimes. You’re part of the team.”

“For someone who claims not to set much stock in the whole prince thing, you’re very manipulative.”

“I’m not trying to be.”

Marco smiled bitterly. “Yeah. I guess not.” He stretched. “Well, maybe next time. If I’m going to go down, it might just as well be for the animals as for the humans, huh?”

“Marco,” Cassie began. But he was already walking away, and she knew he wasn’t going to listen.

He didn’t understand.

///…///…///

If Cassie is popular with any demographic, it’s with Yeerks and Hork Bajir. Both have been so often vilified by the Andalites, and can be still so easily vilified in the media, that they greatly appreciate her stance on them, that as long as they abide by the terms of the treaty with the humans and Andalites they are the equals of any other sentient creatures despite what deeds they may have committed in the past. And they appreciate her actions.

She’s well known for helping with the negotiations that led to giving Yeerks access to morphing technology so that some of them might choose to become nothlits. She’s even better known for the colony of free Hork Bajir she started up in the mountains and for her work with the Yeerk Resistance Movement. And no matter how much she credits Tobias for the former and Aftran for the latter, no one wants to hear credit claimed for a hawk nothlit and a Yeerk who decided to run off into the oceans as a dolphin halfway through the war.

She still mentions them whenever she can in interviews. But they’re never available for comment—Aftran’s long gone, lost somewhere out in the Pacific, and Tobias has been flighty ever since that last battle, when victory came at far too high a price. He has forgiven her. He’ll talk to her. But he doesn’t like talking about his experiences in the war, and he spends much of his time as a hawk. And who is she to judge?

The Hork Bajir remember Tobias, at least the ones who were freed during the war rather than afterward. But they still revere her more, as some sort of goddess who led the force that freed them. They find it incredible that she managed to look past their appearance when so few outside their race do, incredible that she should offer them the gift of freedom. Cassie accepts their adulation with fondness.

The Yeerks respect her more grudgingly, which is understandable. Her strategies were a major reason they lost the war. But she wishes they would consider just how much work she’s done for them now that the war is over, and just how much she did for their race even in wartime.

///…///…///

Marco, Rachel, and even Jake wanted to throw maple-ginger oatmeal into the Yeerk pool. Cassie was against it.

The whole situation was ridiculous.

“It’s oat-freaking-meal,” Marco said. “Not exactly heroin.”

“It is an addictive substance that drives them insane,” Cassie said. “Why are we even discussing this as a possibility? It drives Yeerks insane and leaves the hosts with a Yeerk permanently stuck in their head and insane.” She crossed her arms. “No.”

Rachel was laughing because yes, they were having this argument over oatmeal. This whole war sometimes seemed like a farce dreamed up by the Ellimist and Crayak.

Jake said, “Okay, fine, so we don’t give any to the human Controllers. I can see how that would suck. But if we threw it in the Yeerk pool, most likely the Yeerks affected would never end up entering a host body again—Visser Three wouldn’t allow it. Or we could just force feed it to the Hork Bajir.”

Cassie stared at him. Most of the time she felt like she was on the same page as Jake but sometimes, “Do you even hear yourself talk?”

“I hear him,” Marco said, raising his hand. “And I second the motion.”

{It is a good plan,} Ax said. {And we don’t have to get any human Controllers involved, as he said.} He cocked his head. {But what is oatmeal?}

Everyone ignored him.

Cassie said, “Just because they aren’t human doesn’t mean they don’t have rights. We’ve met free Hork Bajir, and they don’t choose to be controlled.”

Tobias, perched in a corner of the barn, said, {Fair enough. Just the Yeerk pool then.}

“And Yeerks have rights too,” Cassie said. “As many as us. Would you like it if someone put heroin in our drinking water? I don’t think so.”

“Cassie, if they’re in the pool then they’re soldiers,” Jake said quietly. “They signed up to fight us. To enslave us.” He clenched his fists. “We give back only what we get.”

“In the pool, they’re defenseless. It’s unjust.” Inhumane.

“Come on,” Marco said. “We have enough blood on our hands by now, don’t we? Isn’t the princess over her qualms?”

“Do it if you must,” Cassie said. “You can count me out.”

Of course the plan fell through. They needed her. She was their leader.

Still, they were all right with her telling them to be more merciful. Perhaps it made them feel better. Perhaps it helped Rachel to be instructed, when fighting the Hork Bajir and Taxxons, to kill them as quickly as possible since it was unethical to prolong the suffering of any creature, human or no. Perhaps Jake and Marco liked being held back from some of their more vicious schemes for mass murder of Yeerks and nonhuman Controllers. No doubt Tobias and Ax appreciated it when she stood up for the humanity and rights even of the inhuman.

What they hated was the reflect side of her philosophy.

“We’re going to have to kill them,” she said one night when they were discussing some human Controllers that were gaining far too much influence in the area, becoming far too inconvenient.

Jake, Marco and Rachel all gaped.

Jake was the one who took her to task. “Cassie. These are humans. They’re people’s fathers and mothers and husbands and wives and…” He trailed off, but stared at her pleadingly.

“They’re Controllers,” she said. “So are the Hork Bajir, and we kill them all the time.” She shrugged. “We can try to minimize casualties. We do. But these people need to die, and we need to be the ones to kill them.” She met his eyes, tried not to flinch at the pain there, the disbelief. He was thinking about Tom.

Marco broke the silence with a slow, sarcastic clap. “Just when I think I have you pinned as a tree hugger it turns out you’re actually a psycho. But hey. If it needs to be done.”

Rachel cuffed him on the back of the head. “I’ll do it, Cassie. If you need me to.”

“No,” Jake said. “I will.” He smiled shakily. “It’s not a hard job. They won’t even see me coming.”

Ultimately it was Jake who did the job. And it was Cassie who held him later, still trembling from the deed he had done, and told him it was okay to cry. Assassinations in cold blood were different from killings in the midst of battle, even if the final result was the same, even if assassinations were probably more painless anyway. She stroked his back and waited for the tears to come, murmuring comfort about how it was no different from killing a Hork Bajir, really, how someone needed to do it, how everything would be fine…

He stayed with her for an hour before running off. He never did cry and he never spoke a word about how the killing was done, and Cassie never did find out. But the Controllers never turned up again, and she saw no reason to plague Jake about it. What was done was done.

Natural, to feel more guilt after killing a member of your own race. Cassie was sympathetic, even if a small part of her whispered that it was hypocrisy.

///…///…///

Andalites are the hardest demographic to reach for Cassie. They don’t like how often she’ll side with the Yeerks, even though she is one of the people who assisted in defeating them. She can’t see the Yeerks as monsters. They can’t see the Yeerks as anything else, and they take it as a personal offense that she does.

And yet, even if they don’t agree with her, there is one thing that they do respect about her. And that is her morphing capability. {Estreen,} they dub her time and time again, and what had once sounded exotic and beautiful coming from Ax becomes a bit off putting and wearying after a time. They see her morphing as something mystical, something greater than a mere human should be able to do. They see it as a good reason for her to have been leader during the war.

When people ask her how her particular skill with morphing served her during the war, she says it served her no better or worse than anyone else. If they ask further, she says it was mostly useful because it allowed her to infiltrate, to fight with greater efficiency, and to heal her own injuries after a battle. Beauty had nothing to do with it.

///…///…///

If there was ever beauty in a morph, Cassie thought, it was not in her but in Jake. He wasn’t elegant about the morphing process, often awkward. But he was good at maintaining control in any morph, and in the body of a tiger he seemed almost more at home than in his own body, so much so that the Visser was said to be more afraid of the Andalite with the tiger morph than any of the others.

His tiger form was beautiful, even when it was half ripped apart and covered in blood.

She ran her fingers through his fur. They had dragged him off the scene of the battle and into the woods; there were no Controllers here to attack or to see her at home in her human form, talking to one of the Andalite bandits. Beautiful fur, and so soft. She had never taken the time to appreciate his grace in this body before—he always put it on before a battle, and there was never time.

“Jake,” she said. “You need to morph back.”

A growl rumbled in the tiger’s throat, half-heartedly.

She lifted his head, looked into his inhuman eyes, hazy with pain. “Jake. You need to morph back.”

He didn’t even growl. And he didn’t answer her in thought speech either. Slowly, his eyes were dropping closed. She shook his head. Not angrily—no, she could never be angry at her Jake, her greatest support, her most reliable comrade—but carefully, efficiently, trying to keep him awake. “Jake. You need to morph back.”

He wouldn’t open his eyes. She repeated the words over and over again, waiting to get through to him. He’d been in morph too long. If he waited another twenty minutes he wouldn’t be able to demorph at all. And his wounds had to be paining him, and if he would just morph back to human, everything would be better. He was beautiful as a tiger, but oh, how she loved his human face.

And then someone was pulling her away from him, and she was in Rachel’s strong arms and Marco was crouching beside Jake, feeling at his feline neck for a pulse. He looked up. Shook his head.

With a sharp, brief cry Rachel let go of Cassie and lunged towards the tiger, embracing it and getting blood all over her morphing outfit. Cassie winced. It would hurt Jake if Rachel squeezed him too tightly. She opened her mouth to warn Rachel to be gentle, but no words came out.

{This is a terrible thing,} Ax said, and when did he even get there? His voice in Cassie’s mind was solemn, quiet.

Marco sat on the grass cross-legged, staring at the ground. He did not respond to Ax. No one did, except Tobias, who said, {Yeah, Ax. Yeah, it is.}

The hawk landed lightly on the tiger’s shoulder. It bowed its head, so very human for a moment it was unlike Tobias. It said, quiet even in thought speech, {We all return to dust.}

“I’ll kill them,” Rachel said, her voice breathy but hard. “I’ll kill them all. I’ll…” Her fingers, buried in Jake’s fur, tightened and wrinkled his coat, a coat that seemed loose on his body.

Someone was supposed to pull the group together, Cassie remembered distantly. Someone was supposed to calm Rachel down and get Marco off the ground. The thing was, someone was also supposed to be holding her right now, and she was pretty sure that someone was supposed to be Jake.

She took a deep breath in. Jake was…She couldn’t think it. Take it incrementally. Jake couldn’t take care of them right now. Jake trusted her to be the leader. She had to lead.

“Rachel,” she said, in a voice that was too calm to be her own. “Get up. Marco, get up.”

They responded automatically to her voice, although their eyes never left Jake. They were standing.

That was good. That was one step. What would Jake do next? (Although of course Jake wasn’t the leader, she was the leader, she had to…)

“Ax. Tobias,” she said. “Bring the body somewhere no one will find it.” They knew the woods well enough for that, she was sure. “We’ll bury it later.”

Tobias flew off Jake’s body to the nearby ground and began morphing into his human form, a form more suited to drag bodies around than a hawk.

Ax said, {Yes, Prince Cassie.}

The title had never grated more. She still didn’t object.

She grabbed Rachel and Marco’s hands. “We’re heading home,” she said. “We’ll figure this out later.” What to tell his family, where to bury the body, how to fill up the gap in their teamwork. They would have to work it out. But none of them could think about such things right now.

They all morphed birds to fly home. Cassie morphed back in the privacy of her room, watching her face emerge in the mirror. An easy morph, as always. She used to tease Jake sometimes about how his morphs were more awkward than hers, tease him about not measuring up to her own skills.

But his death tonight wasn’t his own fault. It was hers. She should have planned better, should have fought harder, should have somehow kept him safe.

She was the leader.

///…///…///

She doesn’t much like talking about morphing in interviews. In the abstract, she’s fine with describing how it feels for those who have never done it, the challenges involved with the morphing process and controlling the animal brain. But the line of questioning always moves on to her own expertise and how morphing has served her in missions, and she doesn’t like to brag even though the interviewers always seem to want her to. Nor does she want to be the one to advertise morphing as a novelty when she has always seen it as something more serious, a weapon, perhaps, and also a way of life. They ask her out of idle curiosity, and it makes her tense to describe something so intimate, in some cases even painful, to satisfy the public.

Luckily, the interviewers always have other things to ask her about, even if her evasions disappoint them. She’s a girl, so sometimes they ask her about stupid, sexist things like how she kept in shape enough to fight the war (answer: a combination of working at an animal clinic and, well, working as part of a guerilla force to fight a war. She didn’t diet. She didn’t have an exercise regimen). Or they ask her about fashion, which forces a painful smile out of her as she wishes Rachel were still alive to take the question. But Rachel died not long after Jake, and Cassie can’t rely on either of them anymore.

When she’s lucky, they ask her political questions. She’s always happy to endorse peaceful interspecies relations, give her opinion on various bills and acts being passed by Congress or even discuss global warming. Her favorite is when they bring up the subject of nothlits.

They ask her whether she considers becoming a nothlit, like many Yeerks have chosen, to be a violation of the Yeerks’ rights, to change who they are as people or as a race. They ask her whether nothlits ought to be treated as their former species or their new species, which they would prefer. They ask her about the science of becoming a nothlit, the political and personal and moral implications, even the romantic implications. She never flinches away, but simply smiles and tells them that, of course, every case is different, but…

///…///…///

Rachel was dead and Jake was dead and Cassie didn’t know how she kept going.

Jake had been her crush for the longest time. In her head, she had called him the one she loved, even, when she was feeling daring, her future boyfriend. And she had always depended on him to help him with her plans and judgment, and he had always been there for her.

And Rachel had been her best friend, the one who understood her best even though they were so different. The one who kept things light (even though Marco was the joker), who kept Cassie sane and gave her some sense of normality, who connected her worlds—kept her attached to her former life even while she planned increasingly dangerous missions and made increasingly dubious choices for the team.

Rachel and Jake had been her supports, the two sides of her heart.

Now they were gone, and Cassie wasn’t sure how or why the team kept on going but somehow they did. Marco and Ax and Tobias were still there, and while Marco had grown so bitter that his jokes were no longer even jokes anymore, but merely acerbic barbs pointed in every direction while his eyes screamed accusations at her, and while Ax had grown closed off and solemn, no longer the dorky teenage alien they had first met underwater a couple years ago, they knew that no matter how much the war had hurt them they had to keep going. Ax had become a hardened warrior, dedicated to the battle against the Yeerks. And Marco now kept Jake and Rachel as the center of his motivation rather than his mother, and it made him fight all the harder.

Cassie hated to admit it, but the two had grown more reliable, and honestly it made planning their battle strategies considerably easier, knowing that they were both ready to kill and die without question, knowing they no longer cared about such things as morality or fear. They followed her orders without question, even though Marco had always been the questioning one (at least, he and Jake had questioned together, but Marco always more vehemently). They no longer winced at the consistency of killing humans and Hork Bajir and Taxxons equally, no longer called her cold blooded when her plans more and more often included covert killing and quick hits and bombs instead of large scale face-to-face confrontations. Much more practical for a guerilla squad. And Ax didn’t complain about allying with the Yeerk rebellion, willing to follow her lead even though she could tell it went against the grain. Prejudice was losing its part in him.

Perhaps Cassie had changed too. She knew there would have been a time she wouldn’t have liked some of these missions either, would have seen her methods as overly Machiavellian, in some cases almost terrorism. And there were no more side missions, no more attempts to escape the war they were fighting by facing smaller injustices—those were too great a risk now, with only four of them left, and besides, Cassie was losing the spirit to fight except when she had to.

Tobias, on the other hand, hadn’t changed much at all.

Cassie found that strange.

“Don’t you miss her?” she asked Tobias one night when he was perched in the barn after a war meeting but everyone else had headed home.

{Miss who?}

She wondered if he actually needed the clarification. But she allowed him to pretend. “Rachel.”

{I feel like a piece of me is missing,} Tobias said. {I always will. And for a solid week I tried to contact the Ellimist, get him to fix things. It was like praying, I guess.}

He had gone missing for a week after Rachel’s death, Cassie remembered. She had been half surprised that he had returned at all. But he had barely ever mentioned Rache again after that.

{I knew she was going to die, though,} Tobias said. {She was too strong, too much of a warrior. She lived by the sword, and it was bound to kill her. I hoped it would take longer, but we can’t always get what we want.}

Cassie said, “I didn’t. Know she was going to die.”

 {I know,} Tobias said. {You didn’t think Jake was going to die either. You still think it’s your fault.}

She shook her head. “No.”

{No?}

“I led, but it was their choice to follow.” She’d had to accept it, eventually. You couldn’t lead a guerilla force if you kept on dwelling on guilt. “I made the best choices I could based on the option available at the time. And we all shared the risks.”

Judging by Tobias’s brief silence, he had expected her to say something placing the blame with the Yeerks. But Cassie couldn’t do that, couldn’t say that it was their fault when she had been the one to order the attack. They were fighting for their people as much as the Animorphs were, as much as Jake and Rachel had been. She blamed the world, a world where everyone was forced to fight and kill each other and die to keep their freedom and stay alive. A world that was so vicious and beautiful and complex, that made her want to cry and give up all the time, and then, by its very beauty, pushed her to keep on going. The world had killed Jake and Rachel, but it had also created them.

{That’s good,} Tobias said. {That you know that. Keep it in mind for when I die.}

Cassie froze. Tobias usually wasn’t so caustic—sarcasm in particular was more Marco’s ground than his—and she had been trying to be sensitive…

{I’m serious,} Tobias said, seeing her reaction. {We’re all doomed, Cassie. We should have died in that construction site.} He flew down and perched on her shoulder, tugged at a strand of her hair comfortingly. {So when you lose us, you’re going to have to realize it’s not your fault. And keep going.}

“Maybe I’ll die first.”

{I hope not. Imagine me and Marco and Ax trying to fight the Yeerks alone. Wouldn’t that be a mess?}

She laughed and pretended it was funny.

But Tobias wasn’t always fine or accepting. Sometimes he would fly to her windowsill, needing to talk to someone about Rachel, sometimes even about Jake (and he told her it was harder to believe Jake was dead—Rachel had always seemed half unreal, but Jake had been so solid, and it was when he died that Tobias had realized that this was a game they played for keeps) and sometimes just about being a nothlit, life as a hawk.

“You can morph now, at least. You can be human.”

{Not really.}

“Well, not for more than two hours, I guess.” She gave him a sympathetic look. “It must be hard.”

{It’s not that,} Tobias said. {It’s…Well, you know how in morph the animal brain is like half of your thought process? I’m like that, except, all the time. So even when I’m in human morph, it’s still just another morph. The hawk brain never really leaves.}

She had known that on a certain level. Hearing him say it was painful, though. “You know I’ll always see you as human.”

{I don’t mind that part, usually,} Tobias said. {I like being a hawk. It makes me strong. But I wonder sometimes if I’ve lost part of who I used to be.}

She smiled bitterly. “I think we all have. It’s called innocence.”

{Yeah,} he said. {I guess so.}

///…///…///

And then there’s the other subject that always comes up when people talk to her—the life she lives now. It’s all very well to talk about the past, but interviewers like to end on a happy note, a note of change. And Cassie’s current life, while a curiosity to most, is definitely an uplifting note to end on.

Most people find it odd that she doesn’t choose to capitalize on her fame. She was awarded millions of dollars for her role in the war, and was offered permanent living provisions from both the Andalites and several human governments. She was also offered about a hundred different job opportunities in politics, diplomatic relations, military, even as a motivational speaker. And there are still new offers every year, practically every week to be honest. She politely declines them all, and she thinks by now they already know she will, and merely offer out of some mix of courtesy and optimism (maybe this time will be the exception, maybe this time she’ll finally see reason, see that she’s too important to just…)

She donated all the money she got off the war to various charities years ago. It felt too much like blood money. She works at a small animal clinic in a corner of a city, a veterinarian. Half her patients, she suspects, only come because they heard she works there, but she puts up with them patiently as long as there are no reporters or psycho Yeerk nothlits blaming her for someone they lost in the war. For the latter, she has a personal bodyguard, the only provision she did accept from the Andalites, and a stack of pamphlets about grief counseling and reputable therapists. For the former, she still has the bodyguard, but considerably less respect. If they want an interview they can schedule it with her publicist (okay, the bodyguard wasn’t her only concession, but she shares the publicist with Marco so she figures it’s not such a big deal).

Most people consider it an act of great humility, choosing such a simple lifestyle of service after becoming a famous war hero. Cassie knows it’s neither humility nor selflessness, because if she were really selfless she would take one of those job offers, work where she could actually make a difference.

But she’s tired, and she isn’t sure she trusts herself in a position like one of those, trusts herself not to mess the whole leadership thing up all over again. And they all had plans, back in the day, plans of what they would do when the war was over, and sometimes Cassie feels obligated to live the life she really wants, a life with less cares and worries, obligated to the girl she used to be and to her comrades who will never have the chance she does.

///…///…///

“You’re going to be a veterinarian?” Jake said.

It wasn’t the evening after a battle meeting or an actual battle, for a change. No. They were sitting in the barn, but it was just the two of them, just Cassie and Jake, and they had brought sandwiches and lemonade. It was a picnic. It was (Cassie was pretty sure, at least) a date.

“I’ve always wanted to work with animals,” she said. “Morphing will probably only make me better at it.”

Jake snorted.

“Come on,” she said. “Morphing isn’t all body horror and losing your mind. It has its good points.” She squeezed his arm, thinking about that tiger form that looked so natural on him, sinuous and beautiful, wondering whether the mental state of the tiger suited him as well as its physical form. In later years, she would not be able to think so fondly of the tiger form anymore, but back in the day she found it so alluring, the side of Jake that was more beast than man, a side she might never have gotten to see if not for their becoming Animorphs. Heck, she might never have gotten to know him that well at all. The war had given them some good things, even if it had taken far more away.

“Oh, I know,” Jake said. “Just…Animal doctor Cassie. It’s so normal.” He lifted an eyebrow. “That’s not how most princes end their fairy tales.”

She laughed. “Fine, Jake. Tell me about proper fairy tale etiquette.”

“Well, first you defeat all the dragons. Bring justice to the kingdom and all,” he said, waving a hand in the air.

“Of course.”

“And then you find your princess and ride off into the sunset,” he said. “Or possibly rule the kingdom. Maybe both.”

“Not really interested in ruling anything,” Cassie said, because whatever Marco said, she wasn’t all that into being a leader, she was just the default option. (And it would still be a few years before she was even used to it, really, before she realized Ax’s title of choice was a burden more than a novelty, before they started depending on her to lead as if she had absolute authority instead of a bit more common sense than the rest.)

“Princess option, then. Although I’m not sure Rachel would be into that.”

“Hm. Yeah, it could be tricky convincing her to ride off on a white horse with me,” Cassie said, stroking her chin meditatively. “Although she’d totally rock a princess dress.”

“She rocks anything,” Jake said.

“She really does.”

There was a brief moment of silence before Jake said, “I guess I couldn’t pull off the dress as well, never mind the tiara. But I’d be willing to be your princess. If the position’s open.”

His tone was light and he was smirking, but his eyes were serious.

Cassie smiled back. “Yeah, you’d be a sight in a ballgown.”

She didn’t quite dare to kiss him on the lips (she never would get up the courage, would see him die first, would get her first real kiss years later from someone rather different and end up running away afterwards and hiding in the bathroom, unwilling to explain why such a simple thing was enough to make her cry) but she leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead, only an inch shy of his hairline, and hoped that would be good enough for now.

“All right then. When it’s over, we can ride off into the sunset together on a white horse,” Jake said. “I’ll find a tiara for the occasion.”

Cassie rolled her eyes. “I’ll keep it as a second option.”

But Jake died, and the second option never really panned out. So veterinarian it was.

///…///…///

The public thinks her life is quaint, a fitting if anticlimactic happily-ever-after for a hero like herself, a pacifist and a “tree hugger”. She thinks perhaps they can tell that it isn’t so quaint or happy, that all its sweetness has a bitter edge, but no one talks about that. Everyone has suffered after the war. These days people have become fond of happy endings, and hers at least maintains the appearance, and she supposes it’s kindest not to break that illusion.

In any case, Marco is the real media baby. He’s not the hero, not the leader, but he still did his part in the war and he has a lot more to say for himself than Cassie, and says it with a lot more style. Cassie thinks he feels guilty about stealing the spotlight, but she tells him, whenever he brings it up, that she’s only too happy to allow him to take the attention.

For herself, she allows the mantle of prince to slip silently off her shoulders, and she focuses on a life that is simpler, kinder. She has the animals, the customers at her clinic, her new city friends who try to ignore her famous and infamous past. She has Tobias, who lives most of his life in the forest now but flies into the city to visit her once a month to talk about things deep and trivial and everything in between. She has vacations and sick days where she drives into the country, morphs into a horse or a wolf and allows her animal instincts to take over for two hours at a time.

She has a nice memorial erected in the woods where Jake’s body was buried, small so as not to disturb the natural habitat (he would have liked that as little as she) but elegant and often visited. She has letters passed on from her publicist thanking her for her efforts in the war, telling her how they were Controllers for a long time, how only the Andalite bandits gave them hope of freedom. She has yoga classes and chai tea and calming classical music, five million ways to distract herself from nightmares and flashbacks of the people she’s killed.

And she doesn’t have the weight of a crown on her head anymore, and that is perhaps the greatest relief of all.