❯ Camouflage – Chapter 1
Response to the prompt: Non-Christmas holiday fics. Give me Valentine’s Day, give me Fourth of July, give me ANZAC Day. How about dashing through the snow to a lovely St. Paddy’s Day or going over the hills to a scary Halloween party? I don’t care, I want some other holiday!
It was autumn and chilly, and Rachel appeared in the woods on Tuesday while he was eating entrails, which actually seemed to be par for the course these days. That, or approaching him when he had blood dripping from his beak or chunks of flesh and fur jammed under his talons.
She also came up to him in bald eagle morph, swooping in like feathery, screeching death, so it was only after he’d finished yelling and his heart rate had returned to normal that she managed to get in edgewise, <Jake’s calling off tomorrow’s raid on the pool.>
<Okay,> he said. His hawk instincts were still screaming bald eagle and bad. At his response Rachel’s fierce eyes turned to him, which did nothing to soothe his nerves. <Sorry. Why?>
<He says that everyone there is too keyed up over what happened last week. The park officials, I mean. They’ve upped the security there because of the vandals last week. He thinks we can probably assume the staff’s made up of controllers, so he doesn’t think that it’s worth the risk when they’re clearly expecting trouble. We all have midterms anyway, so he thought we should just cool it for now.>
<You’re okay with that?>
He felt the mental echo of a shrug. <We can just as easily crush them next week. And I really do have studying to do. Math is killing me.>
There was maybe an issue of being polite here and maybe not. Honestly he was… still plenty mad, but it was Rachel, and entrails didn’t stay warm forever. Trying not to hunch his wings over the kill, he sought to find an angle where he could eat and not gross out his sort-of-girlfriend at the same time. <Oh, stop it,> she said. <Just eat it already. You know it doesn’t bother me.>
<You want some?> he asked, because that’s what gallant sort-of-boyfriends did. Considering how much squirrel was left, he figured it wouldn’t cost him too much to be generous.
The bald eagle’s head turned again, fixing him with unblinking scrutiny. In his head, the human called Rachel laughed. <No thanks. Squirrel goes straight to my hips.>
Fine by him. He took the rest of the squirrel apart briskly, efficiently, taking care not to miss anything. It was gone in under a minute.
He could feel Rachel watching him. <Hungry?> she asked, when he was finished.
<Just trying to fatten up for winter.>
<Why? It doesn’t get that cold.>
<Yeah, but the field changes. It gets harder.>
<Really? I thought mice were out year-round.>
He considered trying to explain, but ultimately decided it was too hard. Rachel got it, probably more than any of the others, but it was impossible to communicate the concept of deficit to someone whose food supply wasn’t subject to the weather. Californian winters were mild, so most of the game didn’t hibernate – and actually, with the snakes underground, the competition for the mice went way down. But the rains that came with the change in weather could usually be counted on sending that game into hiding, which often made for lean days or even weeks. <So you’re going to study, then?>
<Yeah. Cassie and I are in the same English class, so we’re going to try to tackle it all together.>
<You are Marco are in the same math class, right?>
<Yes,> she said, in a tone that conveyed that was the end of that topic forever. <You know, if you run into trouble with food, you can always come to me or Cassie. We have raw meat in the outside freezer. When was the last time you took down a deer?>
<Thanks,> he said, and had to laugh. <I’ll keep that in my back pocket.>
<Or we can just go get some burgers on Saturday. Raw or cooked. Your choice.>
He stopped laughing. <After I take Sara around the neighborhood,> Rachel said. <And maybe beat up some kids for trying to take her candy. And probably beat up some other kids for trying to steal some other kid’s candy. You know, the fun parts.>
Candy? Thank god for hawk form. Flustered and confused, he’d have been scarlet by now if he’d been human. Her eagle eyes were on him, and he saw himself in them. They were doing… something. Flirting as birds. Flirting as humans flirting as birds. It was weird. <Okay,> he said.
<Great.> Rachel as usual exhibited zero embarrassment about anything whatsoever. <We’ll be back around eight, if you want to show up then. Mom gets nervous if Sara stays out much longer, even if I’m with her. Jordon is old enough to go with friends.>
<I’ll tell Jake you got the message,> she said, and spread her wings. <See you later.>
The leaves barely twitched as she took off, heading for the sky.
That night, fluffed against the wind on his usual perch, Tobias realized, very belatedly, oh, that’s what she meant.
<Ah, I see,> Ax said. <You had this last year, if I recall correctly.>
“Yeah,” he said, trying not to feel awkward standing up. And talking with his mouth, because at one point in his life he’d done both every day, with varying degrees of success. “I hadn’t realized how late in the year it was getting.”
<You did not participate in last year’s hunt.>
“It’s not really…” Roots. There were so many roots in the forest. “It’s more like begging, if you want to be accurate.”
<The way it is described sounds more like hunting,> Ax said. <Disguising oneself to avoid being recognized as a threat. Staking out appropriate territories so that you may maximize your gain. Returning home once the goods are received, so that none else may take it from you.>
… actually that made sense. “Yeah, I guess.”
<A very sensible tradition, this Halloween> Ax said. <Disguising a training exercise in the form of a children’s holiday. It shows foresight and subtlety – rare for your planet.>
“It’s actually kind of a North American thing, not a planet-wide thing. And uh, it is for kids. Well, usually.” Standing. Tobias windmilled a little and tried to figure out when this had gotten so hard. It’d been months since he’d morphed into a human for any appreciable amount of time, but apparently that was enough to put him off-balance. He felt blind and deaf and strangely alone without the hawk brain sitting next to his, telling him what to do next and how to do it.
<It sounds very much like our Falgrouth. With the exception of the candy, of course.>
“You guys have holidays?”
<Of course,> Ax said, sounding a little affronted. <You act at times as though we are mindless warmongers. We have days of rest and celebration like any other great race.>
“Sorry, Ax.” At one time he would have shrugged. Now he twisted his face around, trying to imagine what he’d see if he had a mirror, relying on muscle memory to tell him what he was doing. These muscles for smiling. These muscles for frowning. “Did you guys dress up?”
<The purpose was more for concealment than disguise. It was… it started as a military training exercise, but it eventually became a game, sometimes to the point where we had gatherings where everyone came shielded to participate.>
“Oh, yeah?” His attention was momentarily diverted. “How did it work?”
<We would use a curtain to conceal our faces and torso. Only our stalk eyes would be visible. For the duration of the game we weren’t allowed to speak, but instead would wander about the room, trying to recognize each other by our eyes alone. Whoever could reveal the most identities was declared the victor.>
Tobias tried to imagine it. He was pretty sure it was insulting to ask, ‘How do you tell each other apart anyway?’ but all the same, he privately wondered how it worked. Elfangor and Ax were brothers, so seeing both of them hadn’t really provided them with a lot of ideas of what Andalite diversity looked like. He wasn’t even sure if all of them were blue. <It was entertaining,> Ax said, apparently reading into his silence. <We had to pay attention to eye color, eye shape, expressions. How quickly our eyes moved, and to whom they moved to. Everyone was different. It was just a matter of knowing where to look.>
“And you said this started as a military exercise?”
<The morphing technology and the nature of our wars sometimes places our identities into question,> Ax said simply. <The ability to recognize abnormalities in thought-speak and physical appearance has the potential to save lives.>
That made sense. <What you doing?> Ax said.
“I’m practicing,” he said. He turned to Ax. “How do I look?”
“That’s good.” Really it was. Something in him always doubted the strength of the illusion, like it would break apart if someone examined him too closely. “How about this?”
He flexed the smiling muscles. Ax looked at him. <What am I looking for?>
Ax continued to look at him. Then, slowly, Ax’s stalk eyes curved upward into an Andalite smile.
After a moment, unbidden, Tobias’s own eyes followed suit. <Much better,> Ax said.
The last Halloween he’d participated in had been in first grade. He’d stolen two bags of pipe cleaners from the art room, a roll of duct tape from the janitor’s closet, and had spent that evening taping the pipe cleaners up and down the sides of his body.
His uncle had been snoring in front of the television and hadn’t stirred when Tobias retrieved a pillowcase from the linen closet, nor when Tobias had taken the half-empty beer bottle next to him and tipped the rest of its contents down the sink.
He hadn’t gone far – just a few blocks, a little deeper into the suburbs. The first door he’d knocked on had opened up to reveal a middle-aged woman, who’d blinked down at him. “Trick or treat,” he’d said.
“Oh, goodness,” she’d said. “And what are you dressed up as?”
“I’m a centipede,” he’d said, and, because he liked to be accurate, “But I lost two so now I’m a ninety-eight-ipede.”
“You look like a cocklebur,” she said. She looked out past him. “Do you have someone with you?”
“Yes.” Now that he thought about it he vaguely recognized her. Maybe a parent of a classmate? It didn’t matter. He’d held out his pillowcase. “Trick-or-treat.”
She’d invited him inside for cider. While he was sitting at the table, watching the television on the kitchen counter, she’d called his uncle. As it turned out his uncle was a frequent customer at the diner she owned, and Tobias had seen her around because his uncle was a frequent customer of other things she owned, and in less than ten minutes his uncle had showed up looking fit to kill. Tobias had gone along with him without a word, and trick-or-treating had been over.
In the meantime he didn’t tell Jake any of this, even when Jake asked him point-blank when he’d stopped trick-or-treating, because he didn’t think he could handle the look Jake would have given him. Not pity. It was the same look Jake always gave him in these kinds of situations – a mix of concern and vague frustration, like Jake really wanted to give him an order but couldn’t figure out what it should be. “I can’t remember,” Tobias said. “Not long ago. Sure it’s okay?”
“It’ll probably be baggy,” Jake said. “I mean, it’s okay, sure. But it’ll fit weird in the shoulders.”
“Let me see what I can dig up. You want a coke or something?”
He shook his head. Jake crouched and began digging through his drawers. The room hadn’t changed from last year – maybe more posters and fewer dirty clothes. The bed that had felt so comfortable last year now looked squishy and rickety. Tobias flexed his toes in his shoes and itched to curl them around something. “Here,” Jake said, surfacing. “How about these?”
Tobias took them. Jeans, a belt. A button-down shirt. “Sorry, most of my dress-up clothes look like I’m going to an away-game,” Jake said. “But these should fit, if they’re not too lame.”
“These are great.” Jake still looked uncertain. Tobias realized belatedly that his voice had held no inflection. He cleared his throat and tried again, trying to give his response a little depth. “Seriously, thanks. I mean it. I really owe you one.”
“No, it’s okay. If it’s any of my business, where’d you get the clothes you have on?”
“Cassie packed some of my stuff away in a tub by Ax’s place last year. Most of it’s kind of small, though. But it was small in the first place.”
Jake, excruciatingly decent as usual, said, “You can keep those. I’ve outgrown them.”
“Seriously, man. Take them. It’s either that or Goodwill.”
Tobias took them and hid them in Cassie’s barn. That night it was cold, the coldest night so far, and he felt what was probably hunger gnawing at his stomach. He morphed out, feeling the branch creak ominously beneath him, and listened to the night sounds fade around him and the darkness deepen until he couldn’t tell if it were fingers in front of his eyes or wings.
He set out early on Halloween, thinking it was better if he tried to find his way around in the daylight. Even in human form, his instincts battled against him as he walked down the streets, feeling the sun decline behind him, telling him to get off the ground. Get up high. Call it a night.
He reached Rachel’s house by the time the sun was touching the horizon, dodging a few early flocks of trick-or-treaters. The air smelled clean here, rife with contrasts – warm cider and candlelit pumpkins and the cool, brisk scent of dead leaves. It was brightly lit and lavishly decorated. As he watched, the trick-or-treaters rang the doorbell and the door swung open, revealing Rachel’s mother in a witch’s costume.
He stopped for a moment, letting another flock stream around him. Naomi was laughing, dropping candy by the handfuls into buckets. She said something he couldn’t pick up, something animated, and the children laughed and ran away.
After a while he turned and continued down the street. The sky gradually dimmed further, giving the signal for the streetlamps to flicker on. As if a switch had been flipped, colors abruptly became dazzling: bright-eyed flashlights, grinning porch displays, white and silver and black and pink and yellow sequins and fabrics and faces. Everything seemed foreign, the familiar shapes of the day warped by shadows, trees monstrous in the dark.
It took him nearly twenty minutes to find Rachel, even though he’d been pretty sure she wouldn’t have wandered far with her sister being so young. Upon spotting her, he abruptly and unceremoniously lost his nerve.
Veering off the sidewalk, he ducked behind some bushes on the property line of the neighboring house so he could collect his thoughts. She was standing alone on the sidewalk, arms crossed loosely over her chest. She looked to be wearing a cowboy hat and some kind of neckerchief, but otherwise didn’t seem to be in costume. From the way she was standing, she was obviously waiting for her sister to get done with the current house.
The material under his knee was getting wet. They must have watered the grass. His mouth was dry and… this was stupid. He’d faced down hordes of controllers and a flurry of Dracon beams coming from every direction and more near-death experiences than he’d had birthdays and this was stupid. If Marco’d been here he’d have never heard the end of it. Standing, he brushed the grass off of his pants and came out of the bushes.
Rachel’s head turned immediately at the sound. Her eyes sought his in the dark, narrow and dangerous; recognizing him, she relaxed, lips settling into an exasperated line as she faced the house again. “Sorry,” he said.
“You’re early,” she said. “You know, there was a distinct reason I said eight. A distinct reason that is probably becoming even more distinct the longer you look at me.”
He stopped next to her, a little gingerly. Rachel was intimidating enough when he was in hawk form. Standing next to her as a human was an entirely different experience. This close there was warmth and some kind of coconut smell and clouds of gold hair – things he could observe clinically as a hawk and decidedly less clinically as a human. “I think you look good in it,” he said. “Like a young Belle Starr.”
“Jordon’s class put on a play about the making of the railroad,” Rachel said, adjusting the brim of the hat. “I wouldn’t have dressed up, but Sara said it’s cheating if you trick or treat without a costume.”
“It is,” he said, affably hypocritical. “That’s why I dressed like Jake. I even combed my hair.”
She tilted her head on her shoulders to look at him, eyes glinting. “You look better in it than he did.”
Tobias was saved from having to come up with something coherent when Sara ran back across the lawn, candy bag bouncing against her leg. She was dressed head to toe in something pink and frothy, three parts lace and probably at least one part dress. “You’re slow,” she said impatiently. “Hurry up!”
“You know what would be a lot slower? You staying at home and trying to trick-or-treat from your room,” Rachel said. “Calm down. We have until eight.”
Sara squinted up at Tobias, who tried to look invisible. Evidently he wasn’t successful, because Sara turned to Rachel again and said, “Is this your boyfriend?”
“Actually, I’m thinking we should just go home,” Rachel said to Tobias. “Sara’s little and her legs are probably hurting.”
“Poor thing,” Tobias said, picking up the cue, and they both turned to go.
Sara grabbed Rachel’s hand and dug in her heels, squealing no no no and Rachelll why are you so meannn. “Fine,” Rachel said. “You better hurry up. It’s cold out here and I want to eat dinner.”
Sara took off, little pink shoes clapping against the sidewalk. Rachel watched her go, sighing. “I wish I could get that excited over candy.”
“Come on,” Tobias said. “It’s not that bad.”
“I feel like an idiot,” she said, but he saw the faint curve of her smile in the dark. “I haven’t done this since fifth grade.”
“I saw some high schoolers trick or treating a block or so back. You could still get away with it.”
She shook her head, but she looked thoughtful. The action sent the coconut smell back to him like a last breath of summer. “Let’s get going, or she’ll leave us behind.”
They walked for a long time. Sara flitted back and forth over the street like a hummingbird, sometimes mingling with crowds of other children and sometimes peeling off to go ahead.
Tobias felt strange. Despite his training, he still hadn’t gotten used to being awake at night. Colors and depth were both off-kilter, like he was looking through glasses with the wrong prescription. “Are you cold?” Rachel asked. “You didn’t dress very warm.”
“I’m okay,” he said. “So what’s the deal? You have trick-or-treating duty and your mom mans the house?”
Rachel laughed a little. The sound was echoed by an eerier cackle from the display in the next yard, followed by an artificial clap of thunder. “Honestly, it’s sort of rare. Mom’s usually still working this time of night. Last year we had to set up a bowl of candy outside with instructions to ‘please take one’.”
“I’m guessing that didn’t go well.”
“Actually, the kids around here are pretty good. We still had some left by the end of the night. It’s the high schoolers that come by that’ll clean you out if you’re not careful.”
“She’s cute,” Tobias said, watching Sara run back towards them, laughing breathlessly.
“She’s a brat,” Rachel said, but it was without heat, and by the time Sara reached them she was smiling. “What did you get me? Something good?”
“Reese’s Pieces, and they’re mine,” Sara said, and then another girl was coming towards them, dressed in a calico cat costume. “Can I go with Stephanie now? Please?”
“Fine,” Rachel said. “You can do this block all the way to the end. You go any further and I’m taking half of your candy. All the good stuff. All you’ll get is the toostsie rolls. Got it?”
The two girls giggled, then ran off hand-in-hand.
Tobias felt the twist in his stomach again. “So, Jake, huh?” Rachel said. “Why not aspire to something greater? Why not a president, or someone who remembers to put on deodorant?”
“I thought it would impress,” he said, turning his attention back to her. “Really, my real costume’s a lot more subtle. I had to work a long time on it.”
Rachel didn’t answer for a long minute. They walked silently, letting light and shadow wash over them intermittently. “You look fine,” she said.
“It’s not as easy as it looks.”
“You’re human, Tobias,” she said. “I don’t want to hear any crap about this. You were born human. Inside of that hawk body, you’re still a human. It doesn’t matter what you look like outside.”
It probably would never be a good time to tell her that no, he wasn’t, not exactly, but Rachel didn’t do shades of grey very well. She was beautiful and brilliant and could kick his ass and she had no concept of subtlety. “I guess.”
“How much time do you have left?”
“A little over an hour.”
She nodded and said nothing. Tobias looked around at the meticulously laid streets and clean sidewalks and wondered if this was all it was, all he’d missed out on as a kid, or if there had been something else there at some time. Some kind of magic only kids could access, and now he was trying to come in, too late, to get an aerial view.
He was jarred from his thoughts when Rachel said, “Screw this, I’m hungry,” and suddenly he was being yanked. He managed a brief “Wuh,” and then they were tripping over the edge of the sidewalk, shoes squeaking in the grass.
He had barely enough time to register that there was a crowd of kids at the door, and then the door was shutting and the kids were swarming out around their legs and Rachel was clambering up the stairs, still tugging his hand. “Rachel,” he hissed, way, way too late.
“Hold on a second.”
Then, to his horror, she punched the doorbell with her index finger. After a few seconds, the door opened. “Trick or treat,” she said cheerfully.
The blood was rushing in his ears. Words. Someone was talking and there were voices and words and he couldn’t hear any of them. Face burning, Tobias only looked up when something jarred his ribs. The woman was looking straight at him. “Huh?” he said stupidly.
“I asked you what your costume was.”
He swallowed hard. The smells coming from the hallway of the house were dizzying, flooding out with the warmth, blueberries and apples and cinnamon and cloves. “Um,” he said. “Um. I’m.”
“He’s disguised as a responsible adult,” Rachel said. “I’m his sidekick, Sidekick Ann. I do sidekick things.”
“He should at least have a tie,” the woman said, but she was smiling. She reached into her bucket and pulled out two bite-sized Snickers, one of which she dropped into Rachel’s hand. Tobias stood there dumbly until Rachel gave him another jab with her elbow, then mechanically held out his own hand. The candy bar dropped onto his palm with a quiet crinkle of plastic. “Scoot,” the woman laughed. “Go and rob no more.”
“Thank you,” Rachel said, and dragged Tobias away before he could get out another word.
There was too much blood in his head. Tobias stumbled along until they reached the sidewalk, feeling the cold air rush against his cheeks, feeling his heart pound and his legs go numb and Jesus. “Okay, that was fun,” Rachel laughed. “I haven’t done that in forever. And we lucked out, usually that lady gives Sara like two Jolly Ranchers.”
“I can’t believe I did that,” Tobias mumbled. He didn’t realize his hand was in a fist until he felt the candy bar begin to smush. He loosened his grip. “I can’t believe I just did that.”
“Oh, calm down,” Rachel said. “You just said high schoolers were out. Compared to them we’re babes in the park.”
“Come on, I’m starving. Sara won’t be done with this block for another ten minutes. We should hit at least another couple of houses.”
“Oh, that’s right.” Suddenly she was turning again, energized and dangerous in a manner usually reserved for the times they were about to dive-bomb a yeerk pool. There was a row of trees just along the edge of the nearest property line. Pushing him lightly, she backed him up against them, under their shadows. “We have to fix this costume thing. Make you more presentable.”
“I’m not sure this was part of the plan,” Tobias said.
“Yes, Jake,” she said. She was wild and laughing and smelled sweet and warm and even in the dim light her eyes were the color of the sky. He could hear trick-or-treaters laughing somewhere to his left, little feet slapping the pavement in staccato. Her fingers rose to her throat, jerking at the knot on her neckerchief. He watched them work their way under the fabric, slide it out from behind her neck, making her hair shift in a wave.
He was pretty sure he was supposed to be breathing. He felt the material settle behind his own neck, and then Rachel was inches away while she tied it, and his IQ dropped a solid forty points. “There,” she said. “Now you’re a bandit. A professional bandit. Jake would be proud. It’s probably the best these clothes have ever looked.”
He was supposed to be saying something here. Maybe protests. “I’m hungry too,” he said instead, and that, right there, was probably the sound of him giving up.
She took the bite-size Snickers from her pocket and unwrapped it, and said, “Smile.”
He smiled. She poked his cheek, stuck the candy bar in his mouth, and he chewed, letting the nearly-forgotten chocolate flavor explode over his tongue. She was grinning. Slowly, fingers clumsy from disuse, he unwrapped his own and held it up to her. She took it, teeth glinting in the dark.
Trick or treat.