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Book 31: Tom's Story

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My name is Tom. Just Tom. I can't just go around giving out my last name, or not around here. Three months ago, I wouldn't have considered myself to be all that important, except maybe as a host body to my awful Yeerk. But things have changed since then. I'm no longer an involuntary Controller, but a member of the Peace Movement, a host body and friend to Aftran Nine-Four-Two of the Hett Simplatt Pool. Since I wasn't officially assigned to her, and the empire claims that she's dead, it would be kind of fatal if this information got out. Not just for me, but for my kid brother, his friends, and the planet as a whole.

If you're reading this and understanding it, you already know about the Yeerks. I already told my story about how Aftran became my Yeerk that you can read here. No offense, but I don't want to delve into all of that again here. Mostly because I've already told that story, and don't want to tell the same story twice.

Aftran's been with me for three months. The first half of that was a trial period, a way to see if I could actually have a normal life with a Yeerk in my head. It was that, or fake my death and live with the Hork-Bajir. Aftran wasn't exactly a necessary evil, but she was an unknown, and after being an involuntary Controller to two horrible Yeerks in the span of over two years, I was pretty skeptical about what having a "nice" Yeerk in my head would entail. Good thing Jake and I laid out the rules to Aftran before I let her into my head. But, looking back, it was probably better for me than for her. Knowing her as well as I do now, she would have done everything I asked her even if it wasn't spelled out as part of a deal to let her into my head.

It wasn't easy, in the beginning. I was still trying to recover from the two Yeerks who felt it was their calling in life to break me as a host. Cruelness, from a Yeerk, I understood. Kindness felt-well, alien.

It took time. Patience, on her end, I'm sure. Of course, Aftran was decent and kind to my from the start, and a lot more gentle with me than either of the other two had been. She didn't mind my honesty, didn't punish me, or threaten to. Her main goal, it felt, was making sure I got better.

With that in mind, I don't remember when, exactly, I went from seeing Aftran as an ally to a friend. Or, when I went from accepting my new situation as the best of two possible less-than-horrible, yet clearly less-than-ideal, options to-if not exactly a long term solution, at least something that was decent.

After all, in the beginning of this new reality, this new normal, the fact that Jake trusted her meant that it was okay for me to do so. Granted, I knew that he wouldn't let Aftran in his head under any circumstances short of saving either of their lives, and maybe, not even for hers. There are allies, and then there are friends. Aftran was an ally. Maybe, Cassie saw her as a friend-okay, Cassie definitely saw her as a friend, but the others didn't. I couldn't blame them, entirely. They had been fighting the Yeerks for almost two years, by now. There had to be some rule that when you fight against an entire race of people, you had to ignore the idea that there were individuals who didn't adhere to the standards of the group you were fighting against. If everyone, or mostly everyone, in a race was evil, then it was perfectly acceptable to kill civilians. And besides, were there really Yeerk civilians? Sure, maybe the ones who were just swimming around in the Yeerk Pool, the ones without hosts. But, even then, they were still potential enemies. The Yeerk Empire kept a strong hold on its people, telling them that all races were beneath them, just a bunch of host bodies to be infested so that Yeerks could take their rightful place as rulers of the universe.

For the first couple of weeks after Aftran became my Yeerk, I wondered whether it was worse to be an involuntary host (like myself) or like my brother, or even one of his friends. They weren't personally infested, but they must have felt like the weight of the planet was on their shoulders. It was, too. At least, until the Andalites came back to fight the Yeerks. That's what Jake told me. Keep the Yeerks from doing as much damage as possible until the Andalite military came in and fought them off. Jake and the others were defense. The Andantes, they were the offense.

And here I'd been, for the past two and a half years, barely even existing as an involuntary host, believing that the only ones who knew what it was like were those in my exact situation. Ones who were hardly in the position to provide any kind of support, except maybe emotional support, every three days in the cages.

So, yeah. It was, in the beginning, difficult to see Aftran as much more than an ally. Someone who would take up residence in my head, give me more freedom than my other Yeerks had-which had been exactly none-and try to be a source of understanding while still a Yeerk. Moreover, it wasn't like she'd been a civilian. Aftran had taken involuntary hosts before, including a small kid who was probably still traumatized by the whole experience, and didn't see much that was wrong with it until Cassie came along and tried to show her why her actions had been wrong.

Not that, as Aftran had told me and as I would have guessed on my own, she'd known all along. I mean, if you were a Yeerk and lucky enough to receive only voluntary hosts, then sure, you could probably buy the empire's logic. Other species were weaker, and wanted to be controlled by Yeerks. You could probably make that argument for the Taxxon's, except for the fact that no one who didn't have a Hork-Bajir or Andalite body didn't want to stand within ten feet of a well fed Taxxon, much less a hungry one. Even Yeerks couldn't do much to control their hunger. I figured that if they had been involuntary, the Yeerks wouldn't have utilized the resources to take them. Class 1.5-able to be infested, but their bodies were way more trouble than they were worth.

Anyway, I'm rambling. What I mean is that, at some point, Aftran became more than an ally to me. Part of it, probably, was the proximity to her, and the fact that we knew we had to be honest with each other. We kind of depended on each other-or at least, each other's cooperation-to remain alive. Safe from the empire. Besides, based on what Jake and Cassie had told me before I agreed to let Aftran in my head, she'd be way kinder than Temrash or Gariss had ever been.

So, yeah. We'd been allies, at first. Sharing a body, with Aftran giving me control whenever she didn't need it for Sharing meetings or trips to the Yeerk Pool. It felt a little strange, at first, being able to move and speak without her doing it for me. I knew that some Yeerks with voluntary hosts gave them some control, even when they were still there. Or, well, had heard of it, from Temrash. He'd tried to bribe me with it, to stop fighting him, in the beginning. But by the time I would have considered accepting a deal from that jerk, I was too broken to fight, and he hadn't been the type to do anything for a host unless there was something in it for him. So, maybe, he'd been bluffing the whole time. But Aftran confirmed it-well, as much as she could.

(The Peace Movement isn't just about only enslaving hosts that don't mind it, Tom,) she'd told me, about a week into our alliance. (It's about sharing control. Sharing a body.)

Still. There was a big difference between what maybe a hundred Yeerks-most of them who didn't have hosts-believed about infestation, and what those who actually had voluntary hosts thought. On the other hand, humans were voluntary for a reason. Sure, there were some who would have been content to give up everything to their Yeerk with the exception of a couple of hours every three days. I imagined that they thought their lives were so bad that if someone else wanted to live it, even a parasitic alien, then they were happy to be just an observer. All the same, I had trouble believing that all of them were like that. The Sharing's official statistics for voluntary humans was close to 50%. Either they were just that good at picking people who had horrible lives, or some felt that there was something in it for them. I figured that their Yeerks had to give them some level of control. Even an hour or so a day. Enough so that they didn't feel like a complete slave, like they actually had a say in the matter.

Probably, their Yeerks didn't emotionally abuse them, either.

So, like I said, I couldn't tell you exactly when I stopped seeing Aftran as a necessary ally and, instead, as a friend. I know it happened after I agreed, officially, to let her remain in my head until the war ended.

Otherwise, I wouldn't have missed her so much when she had to leave my head for four days. For Grandpa G's funeral.

Chapter Text

That way, Aftran and I decided to walk home from school, instead of taking the bus. It wasn't too far of a walk, and it gave us a chance to talk without either of us worrying about keeping my facial expressions under control. There were several Controllers in my grade who knew Gariss, so there was always an act to keep up.

Anyway, we were only a few blocks from the house when we noticed Dad's car. I didn't think too much of it, and so, neither did Aftran. After all, he was a doctor. Probably had to drive to another hospital or something. Maybe, he was taking a late lunch. So, without any commentary from either of us, I kept walking.

Dad must have seen us-well, technically me-because he slowed his car and lowered the window. "Hey, Tom!" He greeted, stopping entirely.

"Uh, hi, Dad," I replied, stopping in my tracks. "Everything okay?"

He gave a little laugh, but it sounded off. "Hop in. I'll give you a ride the rest of the way home."

It was only another four blocks or so to our house, and besides, why was Dad headed home this early?

(You'll have to ask him that,) Aftran told me, laughing a little.

(Yeah. Guess so,) I agreed.

Outwardly, I shrugged, then headed into the street around the car, and opened the passenger side door. Dad waited until I had put my bag on the floor in front of me and buckled myself in before shifting the gear back into "drive".

"Thanks," I smiled, glancing at him. "You know, for the ride."

"Oh, it's no problem. I had actually wanted to talk to you about something, so I'm glad I ran into you." Dad then laughed. "Not literally, of course."

I forced a laugh at the obvious dad joke. "I'm not in trouble or anything, am I?" Then, after a second, I added, "Or Jake? He's okay, right?"

Dad laughed again. "No, neither one of you boys is in trouble. Unless there's something I'm not aware of?"

(Oh, nothing, we're just fighting off an alien invasion,) I told Aftran.

(That's hardly something he would punish your for,) Aftran replied, sending me a mental eye roll.

(Right. Just stick in the looney bin,) I remarked, a little darkly.

Realizing that Dad had asked me a question, and not wanting Aftran to need to take over, I forced myself to shake my head. "I mean, I got a C on a math quiz, today, but it was a pop quiz, so that should hardly count."

It was true. Granted, with Aftran's help, I could have gotten an easy A, and Gariss or Temrash probably would have had me score at least a B. But I didn't want her extra help when I didn't-well, not deserve it, exactly, but need it to seem human. I was sure that there were Controllers who would be happy enough to let their Yeerks earn all A's on their behalf, but even if our vice principal was infested, the Yeerks had to take on the semblance of their hosts. If every Controller started getting all A's, there would probably be rumors about The Sharing getting access to all of the tests, and a so-called cheating scandal would ensue. They couldn't have that.

Dad shrugged, even though a C in our house was hardly cause for celebration. In fact, it was hardly considered an acceptable grade, at least on most days. "Well, you'll do better next time, I'm sure. Pop quizzes may aim to keeping students studying the latest material before the test is announced, but on the whole, they're a poor judge of knowledge."

I just nodded. "Okay. So, Dad, what's up?"

Dad pulled into our street. "It's your great grandfather."

"Grandpa G?" I asked. "Is he okay?"

He'd pretty much lived by himself for awhile, but he had to be ancient. I wondered if they received word that he'd fallen down the stairs at his house, or something like that.

Dad didn't respond immediately, just maneuvered the car into the driveway. "He passed this morning. Mrs. Molloy-"

"Wait, who?" I interrupted.

"Mrs. Molloy," Dad repeated. "She was his housekeeper. She found him on the floor. He'd just started to make himself breakfast, she told the doctors. Toast and jelly. He hadn't even had a chance to take a bite out of it." Dad swallowed. "I mean, he lived a good, long life, Tom. I guess we knew it was only a question of when. Still, it's always a shock when you hear the news."

I took his hand, squeezed it. "I'm sorry, Dad."

He looked at me, tears in his eyes. "Thanks, son."

We sat like that for a little, then he unbuckled his seatbelt. "We better get inside. Your mom knows already, since I found out from her." He forced another laugh. "She's going to head up first. Talk to your grandparents and make the funeral preparations. I need to clear my work schedule, since we'll be down at the cabin for a few days."

"A few days?" I repeated, hoping my voice sounded normal enough.

Dad nodded. "Yeah, remember, Tom? The cabin's nearly a day's drive away. Even if we had the funeral the day after we arrived, which would be unlikely, we wouldn't be able to leave the following day. Probably, the one after that. I imagine that if we left on Saturday morning, we wouldn't be able to leave before Monday. Or Tuesday. I'm sure that you wouldn't need to miss more than two days of school, though. Even two days would be a lot for you and Jake to catch up on."

I nodded, like my main concern was making up classwork. "So, we'll be away for at least three days, then?"

"Well, four, to be safe," Dad answered.

I nodded, like it didn't matter, but inwardly, I was trying not to panic. Aftran couldn't survive four days without Kandrona rays, and there was no way that we would be able to get a portable Kandrona for her to bring along. Maybe, had she-or Gariss-been a sub-Visser, it would have been possible. A Visser-sure. But even though Gariss had been on good terms with my brother's vice principal's Yeerk, that didn't exactly translate into rank.

(Okay. What in the world are we gonna do about this?) I asked her, as we walked out of the car. Aftran, I noticed, had not exactly taken control from me, but I could feel her move alongside me. Sort of like helping limping person by giving them an arm to lean on.

She also reached out to me, inside my mind, tentatively initiating a hug. At my mental nod, she wrapped herself around my mind, pulling me into what I'd learned-several weeks ago-was a "mental hug". I let out a sigh-audible and mental-and hugged her back. Of all of Aftran's calming techniques on my still not recovered mind, this was one of my favorites. Having my mind, my consciousness, wrapped in the "arms" of a caring Yeerk was sort of like sinking into a warm bath or shower. Her presence, her affection, surrounded me, protected me. When she held me this way, I felt completely safe and at peace.

We couldn't stay like that for very long, not in front of my dad. Maybe, if Aftran had taken over my body completely, but I still wanted to be in control, and that overrode any enjoyment I received from her mental hug. So, we both let go sooner than we normally would have, and Aftran didn't speak for several minutes.

Even though I'd have preferred that she speak to me, I drew some relief in the fact that her emotions weren't panicked. She seemed reflective, more than anything else. And this was her life at stake.

Finally, after we'd left the car and headed into my house with my dad, she spoke up.

(I could probably stay with Cassie while you were gone,) Aftran told me, her voice gentle. (The Chee could get someone to play you when I would normally feed.)

(That doesn't change the fact that we'd be gone for four days,) I pointed out. (You heard my dad. We're leaving on Saturday, and he's getting us excused from school on Monday and Tuesday. Chapman will know.)

Aftran gave me a mental smile. A rather sly one. (Not exactly, Tom. All he'll know is that you will be out of school for two days because of a family funeral.) She paused for a moment, and we headed into the kitchen, where I saw my mom's note. (It's not necessary for us to inform him that the funeral is several hours away by car. As far as your principal, and The Sharing, is concerned, your family funeral is on a Monday, and you be in class again on Wednesday.)

I frowned, considering this. It certainly made sense, and if the Chee were willing to fake a Yeerk feeding in the meantime, and we could get Aftran Kandrona rays by another Chee during that same four day period, it could work.

(Exactly. Besides, even if we were forced to admit that the funeral required travel time to excuse you from a Sharing event over the weekend, you could say your parents were relying on you for preparation purposes. As long as "you" made a trip to the Yeerk Pool on Sunday evening, or afternoon, and then again on either Tuesday night or very early on Wednesday morning...)

(Right,) I agreed, now following her logic. (It'd be pushing it, especially waiting until Wednesday, if "you" fed on Sunday afternoon.)

(Yes,) Aftran admitted, (which is why we should ask for the Chee who's playing you will appear at the pool on Sunday evening, and again very early on Wednesday. Or Tuesday evening.)

I nodded-for real. Fortunately, no one was in the kitchen with us, so it hardly mattered.

Aftran voiced what I was not saying. Because, if there's one thing I knew about Yeerks, it was that you didn't have to say anything for them to know exactly what you were thinking.

Even the thoughts you tried not to think about.

(Tom. I'd stay with you if I could,) Aftran told me, and I knew she meant it.

"So, Dad told you?" I asked him.

Jake nodded, eyebrows furrowed, no doubt in concern. Dad placed a hand on his shoulder.

"He lived a good, long life," he told us. "Of course, it's still natural to mourn. To be sad that he's gone."

"Yeah," Jake agreed, giving me a quick glance. "Well, I should get started on homework, especially since we're going to miss school soon. Hey, Tom? Do you still remember pre-calc at all? There's something we covered today that doesn't make any sense."

"Sort of," I replied, knowing this had no relation to math. "Let me grab my book, and I'll meet you...in your room?"

At Jake's nod, I grabbed my bag from the floor. "That okay, Dad?"

Dad nodded. "Of course. Oh, kids? Your mom's probably not going to be up for cooking tonight. How about pizza for dinner?" Dad asked, just as we were out the doorway.

"I have no problems with that," I told him, laughing a little.

"Yeah, pizza's always cool," Jake added, grinning back at Dad.

Upstairs, under the guise of doing homework, we spoke quietly in Jake's room. His door was closed, which was hardly unusual. While we could speak openly among ourselves, now, we still couldn't let our parents know that anything was up. A few days after Aftran first began living in my head, my kid brother had pulled me aside one night and asked, in a sort of panicked voice, if either of my Yeerks had planted bugs in or around our house.

Given that we'd spoken openly enough up until then, he must have forgotten his fear, or figured that I would have said something if it wasn't safe to talk openly.

It showed the mental state I was still in that it was Aftran had to remind me about listening devices. Before I'd gone ahead and said something stupid about Yeerks not wanting ticks or roaches in the houses of their hosts. Granted, had I said something like that, Jake might have just laughed it off. Anyway, he'd been very reasured, even surprised, when I'd told him with certainty that neither of my Yeerks had placed any bugs around our home. Looking back, I figured that it wasn't because they couldn't have managed to get some, but, well, let's face it: neither of my Yeerks had had the faintest idea that Jake was part of the tribe of "Andalite Bandits", and my parents were just regular, ordinary humans. It would have been boring and time consuming to listen to everyone's conversations every day, and besides, knowing what I did now about how Jake and his friends operated (in complete paranoia, to be totally honest), a total waste of time. Maybe, in the case of Aftran spying on Karen's dad, there would have been reason enough to do this. She'd been assigned Karen in order to spy on her father, after all. My parents didn't merit that kind of attention.

Still, I was proud of my kid brother for his caution.

Of course, even now, we probably still acted like we were being observed. At least, by our parents. Temrash and Gariss had broken off the close relationship that Jake and I had shared throughout our lives, and if my parents noticed anything, they probably figured that we were growing apart as we grew older. Now, suddenly, we were friends again. Did they notice? Did they think that we'd had some big reconciliation, and not want to draw attention to it? I could tell that they were relieved that we were on good terms with each other, even as they acknowledged it without acknowledging it directly.

Even so. While it might have been overkill, we were definitely careful about anything we said to each other when they were at home that was even remotely related to the Yeerks. And on the phone? Jake and his friends practically spoke in code. I mean, if you bugged their conversations, they were probably all about school, and never revealed much in the way of that. You wouldn't even know what classes they were taking, based on how they spoke on the phone. Not that the Yeerks-if they bothered to bug phones-would have noticed, or cared.

Jake sat on his bed, me on the chair by his desk.

"Wow. Four days," was the first thing he told me, after closing the door.

"Yeah," I agreed, taking a deep breath.

"How-how are we going to manage this?" He wondered.

I was glad-as was Aftran-that he said "we".

"She says that Cassie can take her," I told my brother, paranoia keeping me from saying the name of my Yeerk. "Erek can handle her diet then. If she agrees."

"Can't imagine she'd say no to at least four days with her," Jake remarked, smiling a little.

I grinned back. "Well, yeah."

"But the other part. You know," Jake told me, giving me a hard stare.

"We can ask Erek, but I bet one of his friends can handle it. Like before?" I asked.

Jake nodded, then spoke up again. "Okay. But what if they need you on the weekend?"

I shrugged. "Can't make it-family funeral prep comes first. As long as..." I swallowed. "I mean, the funeral isn't until Monday."

I hoped Jake got what I meant. If he didn't, we'd find an excuse to go outside.

Fortunately, my kid brother was smarter than I was.

His eyes widened-in understanding.

"Do we need to have a group project meeting now?" I asked him.

"Yeah," he agreed, nodding his head. "Look, I can call Marco and Cassie. See if we can meet tonight at her place."

"In the meantime," I remarked, glancing at our book bags, "we should probably get as much homework done as we can before Mom gets home."

Jake gave me a half smile. "You want to work here?"

"Might as well, since Dad thinks I'm helping you with math," I told him, ruffling his hair. I paused. "Do you? Need my help?"

He shook his head, running a hand over his hair to mitigate the damage I'd caused. "Well, not right away," he added. "I'm going to head downstairs and call them."

"I'll be here," I promised, giving my kid brother what I hoped was a reassuring smile.

Then, Aftran and I got down to work.

Even though I'd effectively missed out on over two years of education, what with being a slave in my mind and having other things to think about besides classes, I'd managed to catch up since my time with Aftran. Part of it was that Yeerks were naturally good at math and science, so she could teach me what I'd missed in class, and in a way that I understood it, so I ended up learning the material way faster with her than I would have in class. Or, even, with private tutoring. Which would probably be what most humans who were involuntary Controllers would need to do after Jake and the others finished kicking Yeerk butt. As for the other classes? As long as we paid attention, between the two of us, we managed to keep up. English and history didn't exactly build on each other the way math and science did. Spanish could have posed a possible concern, but that's where extra study and Yeerk tutoring kicked in. During the first several weeks, it took me a little longer to finish work than it would have had I never been infested. By now, I was completing assignments as quickly as half my normal time.

This also meant that we could help Jake with his work. I'd known his grades had gone down a little since the war started, but if my parents complained, he could now attribute that to having entered high school, and the work being a lot harder. I, of course, was all too willing to vouch for this. Even Gariss had done so, back when he'd been my Yeerk. As much as he disliked my family, he had needed to play my part, and I'd always had Jake's back. While I still had Sharing meetings, Aftran and I made it a point to spend time with Jake, and that involved making sure he didn't fail out of high school.

Without being too obvious about it. Or a jerk.

I was sure our parents noticed that we were hanging out together more, now. Temrash hadn't really been playing my part when he acted like a self-righteous jerk for not spending time with Jake after it was clear he would never join The Sharing. Then again, I'd kind of let that, and my crush, get in the way with my entire family life. So, it probably hadn't been completely out of character for him to avoid spending time with Jake.

(You can't blame yourself, Tom,) Aftran told me, as we scribbled down an answer to a math question.

I sighed. (Hard not to.)

It was, of course, a conversation we'd had before. On more than one occasion, really. Usually, at night, when I couldn't sleep, when I'd lay awake, worrying about Jake and how he was handling everything, and how my Yeerks had made things that much harder for him over the past two years. I knew that Aftran was right, and there was no going back in time to prevent myself from going to that first Sharing meeting, or any of the others after it. Still. If I could have just prevented myself from being so reckless, from busting into that full members only meeting.

Aftran tried a different approach, this time. (You wouldn't be fighting with him if you'd remained oblivious to the Yeerks. He might never have joined the fight, if it hadn't become personal.)

(True,) I allowed.

Marco's mom had been infested long before me, but as far as he and his dad had been concerned, she'd drowned a couple years back. If they hadn't gotten involved in the war, he wouldn't have learned the truth. Cassie, Rachel, and Tobias didn't have any other close family members who were slaves to the Yeerks. Jake never told me exactly what made them decide to fight, just that he'd entered the war in order to save me.

Had I remained free, and they'd gone on living their normal lives, there would have been no resistance. Probably, the majority of the planet would still be free, thanks to the empire's idea for a stealth invasion and Visser Three's overall incompetence, but it would have only been a matter of time. Unless, of course, the Andalites arrived in time to fight off the Yeerks. They sure were taking their sweet time with that. Yeah, I knew that they were busy fighting the Yeerks in other parts of the galaxy, but hadn't they gotten the memo that humans were not only Class Five, but that there were several billion of us?

Anyway. What had happened, had happened. We were all dealing with the aftermath of things, and I was glad that my brother and his friends were on good terms with at least one Yeerk.

(Two, if you include Illim,) Aftran reminded me, smiling as she finished the math assignment.

I made a face. Jake and I had both had him for History. Well, Tidwell, anyway. Decent enough at teaching the subject, but the strictest teacher in the school. Not that he had been cruel to either of us, and you couldn't get away with corporal punishment anymore, thank God. Still. His class wasn't one I had enjoyed.

(Tidwell was voluntary, then?) I wondered, as we switched to-appropriately enough-History.

Aftran shook my head. (Illim was one of the Yeerks who heard about the Peace Movement, about Yeerks who felt it was cruel to take unwilling hosts, and slowly had a change of heart. That's how he described it, anyway. To be honest, I learned more about it from Cassie's memories that she shared with me than what he told me directly.)

(Yeah, but he's still infesting Tidwell,) I pointed out.

(Only because Illim has his consent,) Aftran clarified, her tone reassuring, as it so often was. (Initially, your teacher thought that they could do more for the Peace Movement as Yeerk and host than he could on his own. Besides, freeing his host would have presented similar problems to the ones you would have faced. Although, I suppose, Tidwell could have fled the country to escape from the Yeerks. Anyway, after they reached an agreement, it appeared that they became friends. Cassie says that he prefers Illim in his head to him not being there.)

That made me shiver, a little, even though I knew it wasn't Aftran's intention. How would I manage, if humans won and infestation became outlawed? Or, if there was no way to know which Yeerk was decent, except by waiting out a whole feeding cycle?

(He joined The Sharing after his wife died, Tom,) Aftran explained, soothingly. (She died of brain cancer a few years after their wedding. Before they were able to have any kids.)

(Well, he was lonely, right?) I guessed. (Which is probably why he'd rather Illim be in his head than not.)

(Yes,) Aftran agreed.

I couldn't believe that living with a Yeerk in your head could be anything like having a spouse. Okay, maybe a nothlit Yeerk as a human, but even that would be really weird. Still. It made sense, that after Illim rejected the whole mentality about hosts being inferior forms of life that the Empire spewed, he and Tidwell could form a friendship.

(Tom, after the war, if I survive, I promise not leave you until you're ready,) Aftran promised, once again hearing what I wasn't thinking verbally. (If you would prefer to take on another Yeerk, we'll ensure that he will be good to you.)

I closed my eyes, reaching out to hug my Yeerk in thanks, which she returned.

We remained like that for a long time, and I could feel myself smile contentedly. Aftran, too, in our mental shared space.

Dinner was kind of a sober affair. Dad confirmed that we would be leaving on Saturday morning, first thing, even though the funeral wouldn't be held until Monday. The wake would be on Sunday, and on Tuesday, we would head back, and arrive home around eight hours later. Which meant that, if anyone asked, it would be completely reasonable for Aftran to be able to feed on either Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.

As her feeding schedule worked out, she was supposed to go to the Yeerk Pool on Friday after school. Going again on Sunday would mean going before she was hungry, and this was frowned upon. The great Yeerk Empire had to ensure that their Yeerk soldiers went as long without feeding as possible, as long as they didn't actually enter into Kandrona starvation. At least, that's how it worked with Yeerks with non-human hosts. Aftran had a little more leeway, because as a Yeerk infesting a human minor, a lot of factors in her host's life were out of her control. So, if it came down to feeding more often than was considered standard, or outright starvation, obviously, the empire preferred the former.

In all likelihood, Aftran and I would head down to the Yeerk Pool on Friday afternoon. Then, probably, we'd hand her over to Cassie or a Chee for the next several days. Neither of us could imagine Cassie not wanting, or being able, to host Aftran for that long, but hey, stranger things had happened before. We needed to be prepared.

Under the guise of dropping Jake off at Cassie's for a school project, and me notifying Chapman that I would be unable to participate in The Sharing that weekend, we headed off in my car. I would tell Chapman, or his Yeerk, but not until the next day. Probably.

(It might seem odd if he suddenly saw you with your younger brother,) Aftran had pointed out. (And we don't want him to think that Jake is suddenly interested in joining The Sharing.)

To keep up with appearances, Jake brought his school bag with him, even though he'd (for once) finished his work earlier that day.

"You know," he told me, after we'd buckled ourselves in and the car was at a red light, "This would have been more difficult had you not been on our side."

"The bag?" I asked, imagining him trying to morph with it. Next to impossible, of course. Jake had told me that he and his friends could only morph the basics as far as clothing went. Not even shoes. Forget carrying stuff like backpacks.

I saw Jake nod from the review mirror. "That, too, but I mean...all of this."

Oh. Yeah.

"He'd have done everything he could to wheedle his way out of it," I told Jake, my tone bitter. "Which never would have worked. He'd probably have gotten our parents infested."

I felt Jake grab my shoulder. Thankfully, we were at another red light. "I'm glad it's not like that, anymore."

I made a sound resembling a snort and a hiccup. "Yeah. You and me both, Midget."

Chapter Text

We were the last to arrive. Probably, everyone else had flown. Come to think of it, I could have stopped by Rachel's to give her a ride to this "group project meeting", but neither of us had thought of it. Probably, it didn't matter.

Like I said, we were the last to arrive at Cassie's barn.

Erek, of course, was there was well. His hologram of a regular teenage boy was up, disguising the fact that he was an android. Lodged in his head were two Yeerks, but rather than controlling him, they were completely trapped in his brain. Moreover, he had access to all of their thoughts and memories. I didn't know much about the one who had been there before, but I knew that this fate was way better than what Gariss deserved.

The Yeerks couldn't communicate with each other. Erek had told me that they attempted, on a couple of occasions. There would have been no real harm in it, really. It's not like they could have escaped and reported him, or us. Still. The idea of being prevented from communication by a high pitched tone that would sound whenever either of them made a noise was satisfying. Okay, maybe I was being petty and vindictive, but it felt satisfying, all the same.

Cassie smiled when she saw Jake enter a few seconds before seeing me, then tried to act as though she was smiling because she was happy to see both of us. I knew better. Even without Aftran telling me anything, or Jake, it was clear that they liked each other. It was also clear that they were in the middle of a war, so pursuing a romantic relationship at this time wouldn't be ideal. I mean, imagine if they broke up. I'd heard that people who worked in the same company were discouraged from dating, probably for that reason. They'd still have to see each other every day if things didn't work out. But when you're fighting a war for the fate of the human race? Yeah, probably better to wait until after that was over.

Then again, Jake could just be too scared to ask her to be his girlfriend. Aftran had told me that the whole group had gone to a dance together the night Ax got really sick, and that he and Cassie had danced together. Still. To my knowledge, there hadn't been any dates since that night. Group or otherwise.

Aftran heard all of these thoughts without responding. To be honest, I didn't really expect her to. She spent at least a few hours a week inside of Cassie's head, so whatever her thoughts were on the matter, or even towards my brother, Aftran knew them. Even if she didn't search her memory, Yeerks can still get a good idea of what their host is thinking just by sharing the same mental head space. She definitely knew more than I did, but I wouldn't butt in and bug her for details. Because it was none of my business, and, besides, Cassie deserved her privacy in her friendship with Aftran, even if we kind of shared her.

Everyone else exchanged verbal and thought speech greetings as they saw us, breaking off whatever they had been talking about beforehand. I noticed that Rachel was standing close to Tobias, who was still in his hawk body. Ax and Marco stood next to each other, but Ax was watching the animals, and standing a little off to the side from the rest of the group. Cassie, as far as I could tell, had been feeding the horses. She set down the pail, now, wiping her hands on her jeans.

"Hey. Great, we're all here," Jake announced, setting his bag on the floor.

No one pointed out that we had been the last to arrive, but I guessed that this was his way of starting the meeting.

I gave a little wave and leaned against one of the tables. Even though I'd been attending their meetings since teaming up with Aftran, it still had a very strange feel. Maybe, it was because I was still getting used to the fact that my kid brother was in charge of a group of kids set to take down this alien empire. Or, maybe I just felt like an outsider, being the only one who couldn't really do anything, except provide information. Not that this wasn't valuable in and of itself, but it wasn't like I could physically kick Yeerk butt.

We'd unofficially agreed to not make me (or Aftran) morph capable, at least for the time being.

"The thing is, our great grandfather just died," Jake explained.

I could tell he was about to say more, but stopped when the others began murmuring condolences. Jake tried to do the whole smile and nodding thing until everyone was finished with that. I mean, sure, we both appreciated their sincerity, but that was hardly the point of the meeting.

(They're your friends,) Aftran pointed out. (They can't just let what Jake said go unnoticed.)

(Yeah, you have a point there,) I conceded.

"He lived pretty far away, in a cabin that's an eight hour drive. Our dad says that we'll be leaving on Saturday and coming back on Tuesday." He added, in case anyone missed what he had been getting at, "We'll be gone for four days."

Eyes, of course, turned towards me. Well, more likely, they were looking at Aftran, who was not visible to them, but still an active part of every meeting we attended.

Marco swore under his breath.

"Exactly," I spoke up. "We're thinking, though, that with the help of the Chee, this might not be a huge deal."

Erek's eyes turned towards us. "I take it you want one of us to play Tom sometime before the end of that time period and stage a feeding?"

I felt Aftran nudge at my mind before I could respond. (Can I speak, Tom? I'll just use your body, I won't take control away from you.)

She knew my answer, but I was glad she'd asked. Which, of course, she knew as well. (Yeah, go ahead.)

Yeerk control is kind of weird. I mean, obviously, there's the type that all hosts know about. Where you're locked in a corner of your mind and can kind of feel things, but everything is a lot less vivid than if you were in control. Well, unless your Yeerk disconnects enough for you to experience everything, while still maintaining full control. But most don't. In fact, some Yeerks take it to an extreme, preventing their hosts from experiencing any part of their senses, except vision. Even my Yeerks weren't that cruel, most of the time. Then, there's when the Yeerk is connected enough to your brain so that they can be experience your senses, but they're not doing anything. You might not even be aware of the Yeerk, except even when a Yeerk gives their host control, you still feel like they're there. Finally, there's the way that Aftran was talking about. The Yeerk is using the body, like they're driving the body, but the host isn't locked away. It's this weird sense of dual control.

It's not something Aftran and I do very often, because it gives me a headache. Frankly, it's easier if she's in complete control of my body, while still giving me complete access to my senses, or I'm in control. But, like now, if she has something she wants to say and doesn't want to lock me up in my own mind when there's no reason to (like Sharing meetings or Yeerk Pool visits, where only she can really act like Gariss, and both of us agree that it's better for me to have no control than to risk saying or doing something to damage our cover), then we'll do the dual control thing.

So, as soon as I gave Aftran my permission, I felt-not a loss of control, but a sort of transfer of it. I knew that I could still talk and move my body on my own, but I was also fully aware of my Yeerk using it. When she spoke, I could feel myself saying the words, even though I knew that it was her speaking.

This time, I also felt Aftran hugging me in my mind, as she spoke. I sent her a mental smile, which she returned.

"It's Aftran, now," she told the group. "Tom's letting me speak."

Since this wasn't a totally new occurrence for them, there were a few nods, but no shocked stares or anything like that.

"Yes, Aftran?" Erek asked, pleasantly.

"As you pointed out, the time frame that Tom and Jake will be away requires Chee intervention as far as staging a feeding. Additionally, though, I would need to be able to feed from a Kandrona source during that time. Tom and I believe that it would be best if I remained outside of his head for the duration of the trip," Aftran continued, and I felt my arms fold across my chest.

"If Erek or someone was willing to stop at the barn for a few hours during that time, I could take Aftran while Tom and Jake are out of town," Cassie volunteered, smiling at me. Well, probably, at Aftran.

I could feel Aftran's nod. "Currently, I'm scheduled to feed on Friday. It was supposed to be in the evening, but I can go in the afternoon, and then stop by your barn to-"

"Facilitate the transfer of Yeerk custody?" Marco spoke up, grinning at his joke. "Temporary, of course."

That got a snicker out of me inside my mind, as well as Aftran, outside of my mind. I noticed Jake and Rachel rolling their eyes.

"Essentially," Aftran allowed. Then, with a smile, she added, "Even though, Marco, that was an exceptionally bad joke."

"No kidding," Rachel agreed, giving him a shove in the ribcage.

Cassie turned her face towards Erek. "You think you could stop by on Sunday afternoon for Aftran to feed again? It wouldn't be a whole three days, but it's better than Monday morning..."

Erek nodded. "Certainly. I will make the arrangements for Arthur to play Tom for the feeding in the mid to late afternoon on Sunday. I will arrive here around the same time on that day."

"And since we'll be back on Tuesday, probably in the evening, Tom can pick up Aftran from you, and then either go to the Pool then, or on Wednesday morning before school," Jake added. "If that works?"

Aftran and Cassie both nodded their heads.

"So, just to summarize this whole charade," Marco spoke up. "Tom and Aftran feed on Friday afternoon. Normal enough. Then, Tom stops by Cassie's barn to drop Aftran off for a weekend with her bestie, which is totally not normal, but that's besides the point."

"I am Cassie's 'bestie'," Rachel retorted, using air quotes.

"Sure, her human one. Who knows how many Yeerk friends Cassie has?" Marco explained. "There's Aftran, and then there's Illim and Tidwell..."

"That's two," Cassie replied, rolling her eyes. "And Illim and I are hardly 'besties'."

(Aww,) I told Aftran, in an exaggerated sweet voice. (She's not denying that you're her Yeerk bestie.)

Aftran snickered in response. (Out of a possible two Yeerks she knows.)

"Okay, okay," Marco raised his hands in surrender. "Rachel's the human bestie, Aftran's the alien slug bestie. Anyway. After feeding and infesting Cassie, Aftran will feed again on Sunday, thanks to Erek's Chee Kandrona rays. Meanwhile, this Arthur guy will play Tom and pretend to feed at the Yeerk Pool. Aftran won't starve, and the Yeerks won't think that Tom's Yeerk is starving. Then, after Jake and Tom get back from the funeral on Tuesday, Aftran will switch hosts and then feed for real." He glanced around the barn. "Everyone got the plan?"

The rest nodded, even though their involvement would probably be nonexistent. It was not exactly a mission as much of a coordinating of feeding schedules and charades, and we'd all have to keep track of what was supposed to happen when, or there'd be trouble. Still, the Chee had never let us down in that sense.

"Just for the record, and so that it's official, this is insane," Marco concluded.

There were spurts of laughter at this remark. I was, momentarily baffled, until Aftran let me in on the joke.

(He says that before every mission,) she explained, her voice soft, gentle. (Granted, this mission, if you could call it that, is likely among the least insane.)

(Yeah, I'd think so,) I agreed, shaking my head a little.

(Freeing you was one of the more-) Aftran paused, searching for the right word.

(Risky?) I asked.

(Yes,) Aftran admitted. (Not so much because your former Yeerk was likely to escape, but based on what would happen next. There were, after all, a couple of options at your disposal.)

I sent her a mental eyebrow raise. (That's one way of putting it, Aftran.)

Faking my own death, or making Jake and the others do it, was something I would have only seriously considered if there had been no other choice.

At least, that's how I felt about it now. Having experienced a real friendship, a symbiotic partnership, with Aftran.

"Hey, Aftran," Marco was saying, and my eyes turned towards her.

"Yes, Marco?"

"Doesn't stuff like this happen a lot in the empire? I mean, people needing to be away from the Yeerk Pool for more than a few days?" He glanced at her. "You had Karen before Tom. Her parents were super rich. Didn't they ever take her on vacations or something?"

Aftran nodded my head. "It's more difficult if the host is involuntary, but yes, there are times when human obligations make it all but impossible for a Yeerk to make their feeding. In Karen's case, I was rather fortunate. Her parents took her to Disney World every year, but the last trip was two months before she was infested. Had I still been assigned to her when the next trip was scheduled to take place, I would have needed to fake an ailment. Even then, they could have rescheduled the trip, and faking a sickness regularly would have caused other problems."

"They don't have portable Kandronas and a gag or something for the host?" Rachel wondered.

"Yeah. They do," Marco stated, darkly. His hands formed fists, then suddenly relaxed. Probably a reflex. "I saw my mom's Yeerk feeding with one. Oh, there wasn't a gag, but her head was in a restraint. Only the Yeerk could release it."

Aftran nodded again. "Yes, they provide those for very high ranking Yeerks. Vissers can use them when necessary, without question, but they are not meant for long term usage. Sub-Vissers...on occasion. But for low level Yeerks like us? Like Tom's old Yeerk? It would next to impossible to obtain one. At least," Aftran added, smiling a little, "officially."

(There's a Yeerk black market?) Tobias spoke up.

I realized that I'd nearly forgotten he was there. Aftran, too, judging by her mental start.

"Probably." Aftran shrugged our shoulders. "I mean, so much of what the higher ups do is illegal. Nearly no one advances without committing some sort of atrocity that would result in an execution sentence. I imagine that a Yeerk who knew someone who knew someone high enough, and owed a favor..." She shrugged my shoulders again. Changing the subject, a little, she added, "Anyway, the hosts who need to be away and their Yeerks aren't high enough, but they're voluntary-they usually allow them to go on the business trip or family vacation or whatever for the duration. With dire threats if they do anything to escape, or blow their Yeerk's cover, or do or say anything that could draw suspicion to them, or their Yeerk, later."

"Basically, we can't rule out all people who have taken family vacations for more than three days as free humans," Rachel concluded, with a slight frown.

Aftran laughed. "Well, it's as likely as not that at least 90% of human vacationers are free."

The meeting concluded around then, and Jake and I headed back home. There was definitely a feeling of relief at everything being handled this easily, but I still felt wary about spending four days without Aftran.

Not that we could do much about it.

It wasn't exactly late when we got back-just after nine-but I was exhausted from all of the emotion. With my homework for the next day completed, I told Jake and my parents that I was going to turn in for the night.

"I think I will, too," Jake told them, then gave me a quick look.

Probably wanted to know if I wanted to talk more.

I didn't want to hurt his feelings, but really, all I wanted to do now was sleep. Have Aftran tuck me into bed, the way she always did, and hold me in a mental hug until I fell asleep.

Still. If he needed to talk, I'd be there for him. I was his big brother, after all, and we had a lot of lost time to make up. So, once upstairs, I gave Jake a bear hug. "Thank you," I told him.

He squeezed me back, and we stayed like that for a good minute. We'd always been closer than most brothers, but not very "touchy feely" before I'd become a slave to the Yeerks. Now, it seemed, we hugged at least once a day. We both needed the closeness, and Jake didn't have the benefit of a Yeerk in his head to reassure him, the way that I did.

I ruffled his hair. "Sleepy?" I asked him, putting an arm around his shoulder.

He shrugged, seemingly embarrassed. "Kinda. It's been a pretty long day."

"Yeah, I noticed." I laughed a little, ruffling his hair again. "Hey, did you want to..."

Since our beds were pretty big-at least full sized-we'd often slept together as kids. After teaming up with Aftran, we'd started this up again, usually after one of us had a nightmare. If Mom or Dad noticed, they didn't say anything.

Jake looked a little surprised, like he hadn't thought of it. "Oh. Sure, if you do, Tom."

(Well, this is awkward,) Aftran laughed.

I gave her a mental eye roll.

"I figure we'll have plenty of one on one bonding time at the cabin," I replied, diplomatically.

Jake nodded, then pointed to my head. "Hey, Tom? Does she help you sleep better?"

It was my turn to nod. "Definitely. Remind me to tell you about it when we're there." Out of Mom and Dad's earshot. "It's pretty cool, what the good ones can do to help."

Jake reached out, hugged me tightly again. "I'm really glad, Tom."

I held him close, wanting to reassure him, but not sure how.

"Sleep well, Midget," I managed.

I brushed my teeth and exchanged my clothes for pajamas. Then, as usual, Aftran took over, using gentle control. She walked me over to my bed, turned out the lights, and carefully wrapped the covers completely around me so, to an observer, I must have looked like a huge caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon. I never used to sleep this way before. I always preferred to have the blankets loose around me. After about a week into my time with Aftran, she'd asked, almost shyly, if she could try having me sleep in a different way.

I'd given my consent for a trial run, as long as I could still sleep on my side. The first day felt a little weird, but not confining, like I would have expected. Aftran sang me a Yeerk lullaby for the first time, that night, and I'd fallen asleep to the strange, beautiful Yeerk music. I'd woken up without nightmares, feeling truly well rested and safe, and agreed to let her have me sleep the same way the next night.

It became a sort of sleeping ritual. Aftran would take control-only gentle control-after I finished brushing my teeth and getting dressed in my PJs. She'd walk me to my bed, and tuck the blankets completely around me. Sometimes, she'd sing a Yeerk lullaby. Other times, we'd talk. Whatever we did, I always fell asleep to the sound of her voice.

I had way fewer nightmares after the first week, and I was sure this was a contributing factor. I felt safe, warm, physically and mentally. Protected by my Yeerk, instead of the other way around.

About a month in, I'd finally asked Aftran how she'd even thought to do this with me.

As though she'd been waiting for me to ask-and she probably had been-Aftran had told me that Karen used to sleep this way, that her mother would tuck her in like that. Even after Aftran took over, a part of Karen still felt safe when her mom would tuck the blankets around her, "away from the monsters", as she'd teasingly put it.

(She didn't think of me as a monster,) Aftran had told me, after relaying the story. (Even though she cried, even fought me for control, Karen mostly felt sorry for me. Which was even worse.)

Maybe, this was her way of atoning for taking Karen against her will. Even if she had freed her at the risk of her own life.

I recalled this memory now, as Aftran finished tucking me in to her-our-satisfaction. Under the warmth of the covers, and with Aftran hugging me in my head, I felt safe and secure. Cherished, even. As more than just a compliant host body to an alien. I knew that Aftran cared about me, just like I cared about her. We were friends, and I would miss her when she was absent from my head for four days.

(Lullaby, tonight?) She queried. (Or, we could talk.)

Yeerk songs/lullabies were part of the home world culture. Most of their traditions had been lost or altered, probably because most of the Yeerks were still on their home planet. But Yeerk songs remained fairly in tact. They were wordless, or didn't have any translation in Galard, consisting solely of musical notes that Yeerks could replicate in the pools, and then to their hosts. Oddly enough, Yeerks were encouraged-or, at least, not discouraged-from singing them to their hosts. Part of the whole process of calming a new host mind, keeping them compliant. A host mind distracted by Yeerk songs wouldn't fight for control, and certainly wouldn't scream. Maybe, it was a form of hypnotism.

Not that Temrash or Gariss had bothered with this. Maybe, they thought it would be too kind. Or, they didn't know the songs. There were so many, but Yeerks learned them fairly early on, and the longer they went without a host, the more exposure they would receive to the different ones. Aftran, having freed Karen, would have spent months in the Pool, and couldn't have passed the entire time recruiting other Yeerks to join the Peace Movement. She must have spent a lot of time learning, or trying to learn, about the Yeerk culture before the empire took over.

(Lullaby,) I told her, giving my Yeerk a mental grin. (Which you already knew.)

(Yes, Tom, but it's always your choice,) Aftran replied, hugging me more securely. (All right. I don't think you've heard this one before...)

I felt my eyes close, again, as the new beautiful, almost haunting, melodic notes began. Within minutes, I was fast asleep.

I woke up before my alarm the next day. I felt well rested, and safe, but then, remembering the events of the previous day, my mood was darker than usual, but still nowhere near what it had been before Aftran.

(We still have two days left,) she reminded me, softly. (I'll help you, prepare you, during that time.)

(Let's not,) I suggested. (I just...)

Wanted things to be normal. To feel safe, protected, while Aftran was still there.

(Of course, Tom,) she promised. (Whatever you need.)

Since I didn't stop at Chapman's on the way back, I stopped at his office when I was at school the next morning.

Aftran, of course, had taken full control for this visit. While I understood that this was completely necessary to the survival of the Peace Movement and the Animorphs, a part of me always smarted when Aftran needed to put me in a mental prison. Maybe it was a little better than when Temrash or Gariss controlled me fully, but the fact remained that I could do or say absolutely nothing on my own.

(I'll never get used to this,) I complained to her.

(I know, honey,) she soothed.

Maybe she would have said more, except Chapman had just started to speak.

I shut up.

"Ah, yes, Tom," he greeted, using my name in case any members of his staff were able to hear the conversation. "How are you? I heard the news about your great grandfather. So sad. My condolences."

(You know,) Aftran told me, cheerfully, probably in an attempt to distract me, (he probably would sound just as fake if it wasn't a Yeerk speaking to you.)

(Probably,) I allowed, smiling a little inside my head. (He's hardly a people person.)

(Now, he's a Yeerk person,) Aftran told me, giving me a mental grin.

I groaned in response, but I probably would have laughed in different circumstances. (We've-and I mean you've-been spending too much time around Marco.)

"Thank you, sir," Aftran replied, and I felt her mental focus transfer entirely to Chapman. "I came to explain that, due to the funeral preparations, I will be unable to assist with anything Sharing related over the weekend."

Chapman nodded. "Yes, your father faxed in a note excusing you and your brother from class for Monday and Tuesday." He furrowed his brow. "Will there be travel involved?"

Aftran hesitated for a second before answering. "Yes, but Sunday afternoon will be free for the essentials. We will return on Tuesday."

Chapman nodded again, relief visible in his expression. "I suppose they believe that you both will need the weekend to prepare."

"And complete our homework assignments," Aftran replied. "Since we will be out of school for two days."

Chapman stood up from his seat, glancing at the clock. It was nearly the beginning of the school day, after all, and I guessed that from what Aftran said, there was no immediate cause for concern.

"Yes, good. Glad to know that that won't be an issue. You'll let us know if you need anything else?"

Aftran nodded rising from our seat. "Thank you for understanding, Mr. Chapman."

"Of course. Have a good day, Tom."

Immediately, Aftran dropped her control the second we were out of the office. I wiped my sweaty hands on my jeans.

(Thanks. Oh, and that wasn't nerve wracking. Not at all,) I told her, as I grabbed the books I'd need for my morning classes from my locker.

(Tom, he's nothing compared to Sub-Visser Nineteen,) Aftran informed me, shuddering slightly. (Besides, your old Yeerk was practically his best friend. There was nothing to worry about.)

(Yeah, but that's the problem,) I pointed out. (Because whenever we talk to him, or any of the Yeerks, I'm terrified that they're going to notice something's up.)

Nothing had happened. Not even close. Besides, even if Aftran said something slightly out of character, how would they even begin to guess why that was? Aftran the Yeerk was, officially, dead. She'd escaped questioning, but without a Kandrona source, she would have died after three days. Even if she was suspected of being alive, who except a couple of members of the Peace Movement-and very trusted ones at that-would even think that she wasn't just alive, but living in the host body of a teenager at the local high school? Right. Say that, and you'd be asked if you've been ingesting instant ginger flavored oatmeal.

Not that the empire would admit to the fact that this substance could cause most Yeerks to become insane. That was an urban legend brought on by fear when the first Kandrona had been destroyed. Officially, no Yeerk whose host body had ingested this type of oatmeal had become insane.

Aftran didn't answer, immediately. I was sort of glad. If she told me that she was terrified whenever she spoke to a fellow Yeerk who wasn't part of the Peace Movement, well, I guess I would be glad that she was cautious, but also more worried that she'd say the wrong thing out of nerves. They say that some fear can be a good thing, but too much and you're too paralyzed to do anything. Since I knew that there was no way I could play Gariss without Aftran, I was happy to let her take over during those times. Still, I hoped that she was more confident in her abilities than I was in my own.

(You're fine, Tom,) Aftran finally reassured me. (Just trust me.)

I gave her a mental nod. (Believe me, Aftran. I do.)

(Yes,) she smiled, (I know.)

I tried to savor Aftran's presence in my head during those next couple of days. After I'd decided to trust her, several weeks back, she'd been easy enough to like. Still, it had been kind of easy to take her presence, and her helping me, for granted. After awhile, I'd almost come to expect her mental hugs, her kind words, her Yeerk songs before I went to bed. The way she would control me enough to help me when I needed it, but never completely if it wasn't entirely necessary. When it was, during those long Sharing meetings, she'd tell me stories, holding me in my mind. Sometimes, even, I'd become so relaxed and entranced that I'd fall asleep in my head, coming to mentally only after we had started walking home. It would always take me a little longer than normal to get my bearings, and Aftran knew this. She'd give control to me gradually, then, speaking to me as I reoriented myself. She'd tell me, or show me, what I'd "missed" during those meetings, which even Temrash and Gariss believed were mostly a waste of time.

Over time, these-to her- small acts of kindness became expected. Not that I appreciated them any less. After two years with cruel Yeerks, you don't take any act of kindness from one for granted. Still. So, strange as I might have found it a year ago, I found myself appreciating my Yeerk being in my head. I could tell that she was pleased by this, even if it felt like, maybe, I was trying to make the most of the last days of summer before the school year started.

Or, to be more accurate, a period of final exams stretching for ninety-eight hours straight.

Anyway, the next two days passed way quickly between school, homework, a Sharing meeting, and the final feeding on Friday afternoon. Before I knew it, we were sitting in the car on the way to Cassie's barn, and I was facing the reality that I wouldn't see Aftran again until late on Tuesday.

I had been avoiding thinking about that. Sure, Aftran left my head for a couple of hours every two and a half days to feed, and for another couple of hours at least twice a week so that Jake and I could hang out one-on-one. But, she always returned in a matter of hours.

Even after the first few times she'd left my head, I felt empty. Not myself. Like, there was something missing, something everyone else had, but I was missing. I even wondered if the humans who were voluntary felt like this. Cassie had told me that Tidwell did. It had to be some kind of dependency that resulted after being with a Yeerk for too long. Voluntary or involuntary, cruel Yeerk or kind Yeerk, your brain somehow adjusted to having this other creature living there, practically 24/7.

The feeling was starting to fade as the weeks became months. I no longer felt a sense of loss, of disorientation and feeling of something being missing, when Aftran left. Still. That was only for a few hours at a time. This would be for four days. Might as well be a year.

(Tom,) Aftran told me gently, as I felt my heart racing, beads of sweat forming around my forehead. She took control, not forcing me into a corner, but simply operating my body. (You're going to do fine.)

(What if I don't?) I asked her, practically wailing. Feeling like a five year old off to school for the first time. (What if they think something's wrong with me?)

(Jake will be there,) she assured me. (He can cover for you, to an extent. Besides, this is a funeral. If you start crying or shaking or something, they're likely to attribute that to grief.)

I nodded, physically.

(Careful!) she warned, keeping my eyes on the road.

(Sorry.)

Aftran hugged me, tightly, securely. (Tom, you know that I've seen all of your memories, heard all of your thoughts. I know everything about you. I am sure that you will do fine this weekend. But, most importantly, if you make any mistakes, try not to dwell on them. Just let Jake take control, so to speak. If things get to be too much, excuse yourself. Say that you need to get something to drink, or you need to use the bathroom. Even if you just manage to look somber and sad most of the time without saying much, that will probably be enough for your parents and the other mourners.)

I gave her a mental nod, and Aftran kept me in a hug until after we arrived at Cassie's. By the time we had arrived at her barn I felt, if not completely myself, at least not like I was about to have some kind of panic attack.

"Want me to come with you?" Jake asked, once we left the car.

I nodded. "Yeah, Midget. If you don't mind."

Then, he hugged me, suddenly, and fiercely. I squeezed back.

(You're getting a lot of hugs today,) Aftran teased, clearly attempting to lighten my mood.

(Yeah,) I agreed, laughing a little.

We walked towards the barn, and noticed Cassie's figure in the doorway. A feeling of amusement came over me when I saw that she had almost gotten dressed up for the occasion. For other girls, this meant a dress or a skirt and a nice shirt and nice shoes, even heels. Not Cassie, of course. Still, I could tell. After all, while Cassie was still wearing jeans, but they didn't have any mud or animal deposits on them, which was practically unheard of for her. Additionally, instead of a plain t-shirt, she wore a bright green sweater. Her shoes, I noticed, didn't have much mud on them.

Aftran noticed this as well, and I felt a wave of affection, or perhaps protectiveness, pass through her emotions.

(She's been looking forward to this,) I noted, trying not to sound bitter.

(Yes, Tom, but not at your expense. That's not like her,) Aftran told me, her tone certain.

(Yeah. I know, Aftran.)

I did, too. Really, we were both lucky that Cassie was willing to be Aftran's host for four days. Besides, it wasn't like she had anything to do with my great grandfather dying.

Still.

"Hey, Jake. Tom," she greeted us, holding the door open.

We stepped inside, and then she shut the door behind us.

"Everything okay? You're ready for the trip tomorrow?" Cassie queried, and I noticed that she was careful to avoid stepping in any muddy areas in the barn.

Jake nodded. "We finished packing last night, and got a pretty good start on our homework assignments. I figure that since the wake isn't until Sunday and the funeral will be on Monday, we'll have some time to work on them. If not..." He shrugged.

"Yeah, I don't think our teachers will expect them to be finished the day you get back," I added, smiling at Jake. "It would be pretty insensitive, since it's our great grandfather who died. Not like we're out with the flu and don't have much to do except rest and watch TV."

Cassie nodded, shifting her glance from Jake to me. "And Aftran? She fed earlier today?"

"About an hour ago," I confirmed, even though a part of me thought that Aftran would have been able to tell her this once she was inside her head.

Well, maybe it was just to have something for Cassie to say to me.

Jake nodded again. "Right. So, you're still up for this, Cassie?"

"Definitely," Cassie replied, smiling. "Like Marco said, she's my Yeerk 'bestie'."

That got a good natured groan from all of us, which was probably the point.

"Okay, let's do this," I announced, wanting to get it over with as soon as possible. Knowing that I'd miss Aftran either way, but prolonging it wasn't doing much for my sanity.

(I'll miss you, Tom,) she told me, and I could tell from her emotions that she meant it. (See you soon. Stay safe.)

(Yeah, you too, Aftran,) I answered. (See you...soon.)

Cassie took a few steps towards me, standing so that her ear was next to mine. I felt Jake take my hand, and it made me think of when we used to get shots or need to have blood drawn as kids, and one of our parents would hold our hand as soon as the doctor or nurse would take out the needle.

I felt Aftran disconnect from my head. Since she hadn't been in control, I didn't feel the slow return of control that I did when we were at the Yeerk Pool. Still, I did feel a sense of pressure as she moved from my brain to my ear canal, even though she was probably utilizing the same painkiller anesthetic that she always used when she climbed inside. A minute later, I felt her wet body leave my ear completely, and I imagined that it would only be a matter of seconds before she was inside of Cassie's head.

I waited a few seconds before, cautiously, turning my head. About half of her body still hovered outside of Cassie's ear, but almost immediately, it was disappeared inside. I knew that it would be at least a few more minutes before she connected with Cassie's brain. Longer if she opted not to take control immediately. It was, after all, possible for a Yeerk to connect to their host's mind without taking control. Aftran always did this after she reinfested me after I spent time with Jake. But never, of course, to do this at the Yeerk Pool. Way too risky.

Jake's hand, I noted, was still folded around mine. I gave him a reassuring squeeze, then let go. Almost at the same time, our arms dropped to our sides.

A minute later, Cassie or Aftran spoke. "Okay, she's connected to my brain."

Cassie, then.

We nodded, again. "So...we'll see you Tuesday night?"

"Yeah," Cassie agreed. "Why don't you call when you get back? In case of traffic or something."

"Sure, we can manage that," Jake told her, smiling. "Thanks again, Cassie."

She smiled back. "It's no big deal, Jake. Tom."

The other Animorphs, my kid brother included, would have disagreed. Probably, Aftran would have found herself in a glass of water for those four days, swimming around by herself. The idea made me depressed on her behalf. Sure, she'd made a deal with Cassie-at one point-to free Karen and not take another host for the duration of her life. But, even then, she'd been with her fellow Yeerks.

It made me wonder, very briefly, if Gariss' fate was too harsh. No, I knew, it wasn't. Maybe it was unfair of me to be happy that my former torturer was enslaved to a Chee, but we could hardly release him back into the Yeerk Pool without giving the rest of us away. And I wasn't going to kill him and be guilty of murder.

We said our goodbyes, and headed back to my car. I was very much aware of the fact that I was empty in my mind. No Aftran to take over in case things got rough. Or even to talk to, joke with.

"Tom? You okay?" Jake asked me, putting an arm around my shoulders.

I forced a smile. "Yeah, I'm fine."

Chapter Text

Once we arrived at home, Jake asked me if he could spend the night in my room.

"You know, a sleepover. Like old times," he explained.

"What, you're afraid I'll have a nightmare and start screaming?" I asked, giving him a playful shove.

Jake forced a laugh, but I could see the hurt look in his face. Which, of course, made me regret having just joked about nightmares, and made me wonder how I was going to survive the next four days without seriously ticking off everyone in my family.

"I'm sorry, Midget," I told him.

"It's okay," he answered, managing a smile.

I reached out to hug him, and he wrapped his arms around me, holding me tightly.

"I am sorry, Jake," I repeated, once we'd let go.

"No." He shook his head, a little more fiercely than he would have, normally. "I mean, yeah, I know that's possible. Especially now. I just-figured you could use some company."

I reached out to Jake again, and playfully tousled his hair. "Sure. Company would be great, Midget."

Mom might have noticed, not that she would have said anything. Anyway, she was already at the cabin, and Dad was going over the directions to the cabin when we said goodnight. Jake and I changed into our PJs separately, used the bathroom, and then got into my bed.

I didn't bother with the wrapping myself up in a cocoon ritual. Without Aftran there, I knew it wouldn't give me the same feeling of safety. I felt almost physical ache at the knowledge that she wouldn't be there for the new few nights, either.

Of course, Jake would be. We'd probably share a room during that time. That would help. Somewhat.

"Tom, your feet are freezing," he complained, after a minute.

"Nah, they're just bigger, so there's more cold surface area," I explained, rolling my eyes at him.

He reached for the light. "Cold surface area?" he asked, doubtfully. "I don't know, Tom. Is that even a thing?"

"Has to be," I insisted. "I mean, they are larger than yours, so..."

We went on like that for a little, talking about nonsensical things as Jake lay curled up against me, even wrapping an arm around my shoulders. He did, though, keep his feet away from mine. Even though, by now, they were probably warm from being under the blankets.

The silence in my mind reminded me that there'd be no Yeerk songs from Aftran tonight.

Jake was there, though. It wasn't the same as Aftran, but it helped.

"Midget," I whispered.

"Yeah, Tom?" he answered.

I hesitated, but only for a second. "If I have any nightmares...wake me up, okay?"

He squeezed my shoulder. "You got it." Then, he added, "Me too, okay?"

I nodded, then spoke. "You bet."

Jake wrapped both arms around me, resting his head against my shoulders. "Night, Tom," he whispered.

"Sweet dreams, Jake," I told him, smiling a little.

Maybe it was because I was so tired, but sleep came a lot faster than I would have expected. The next thing I knew, it was morning.

My night had been without dreams, and, even better, without nightmares.

Of course, the lack of Aftran's voice in my head, usually greeting me as I woke up each morning, was another reminder that she would be gone for the next few days.

That kind of darkened my mood, and I tried to hide it. To stay hopeful.

She's not gone forever, just for the next three and a half days, I told myself, firmly.

I turned on my side, and saw Jake smiling at me, a little sleepily. He had woken up before me, but he was still holding me like a big stuffed animal.

"Hey, Midget," I greeted, smiling at him. "Sleep well?"

He nodded, loosening his arms from around me. "You?"

"Yeah. No nightmares."

He smiled, sympathetically. Neither of us were exactly strangers to them. "Same here."

"Well, we're off to a good start, with that," I noted, giving his shoulder a squeeze. "Want to grab breakfast?"

"Sure." He entangled himself from the mess of blankets, and after just a moment's hesitation, I followed him.

The plan was to leave early, but not like 5AM early. The wake wouldn't be until Sunday, after all. Saturday would mostly consist of us settling in and spending time with our grandparents. So, after breakfast and hauling our bags into the trunk of Dad's car, we were all set for the eight hour drive.

"Either of you want to sit up front with me?" Dad asked, looking way too happy for this early on a Saturday morning.

We shrugged at each other.

"I'm still kind of tired, and it'd be easier to nap in the back," Jake pointed out.

I nodded. "Yeah, same here, Dad. Unless you need someone to read you the directions?"

Dad, looking unperturbed, just shook his head. "I remember the route pretty well, and went over it again last night. Tom? You sure?"

"I'm good," I replied, smiling. "Jake's right, you know. It's easier to fall asleep in the back, and it's a pretty long drive."

It was Dad's turn to shrug. "Well, we'll probably make a pit stop about halfway in, so if either of you change your mind, we can switch things up then."

I was relieved that Dad didn't mention me driving part of the way there. Sure, I didn't know how to get there, but he or Jake could hold the map and tell me what turns to take. I guessed he figured that stopping halfway in would give him enough of a break so that he could make the full eight hour trip.

Too bad we couldn't have flown. But driving was a lot cheaper, and I guessed that after the drive to and from the airport and the security lines, you wouldn't end up saving that much time.

To Dad's credit, he tried to make the drive interesting, asking us questions about school, which was kind of a bust, because we pretty much answered that school was going okay and our grades were fine. So, we ended up playing those corny car games for most of the first part of the trip. We tried spotting out of state license plates, and the ones with the most absurd configuration of numbers. Even, checking for the strangest personalized ones, which Jake and I had both claimed we'd never get.

After Jake stopped making contributions to the game for five minutes straight, I turned and saw that he'd fallen asleep. When I pointed this out to Dad, he laughed.

"Just as well. I should probably concentrate on the road, or this eight hour drive will end up becoming twelve." He glanced at me in the review mirror. "You look kind of tired, too, Tom. Why don't you try taking a nap? We won't be making a rest stop for another two hours, unless it's urgent."

I nodded. "Yeah, I think I'll try to get some sleep."

I didn't think I was all that tired, or looked it, but I couldn't see my face, and maybe the stress of the past few days was getting to me. Also, even though I'd managed not to think about the war or Aftran since-well, okay since waking up this morning-it now hit me, hard.

It wasn't like she was dead. Really, it was more like Aftran was on vacation, hanging out in Cassie's head until I got back. Probably, they were doing homework and chores together. Maybe, she would hang out at Rachel's later, where Homer was staying until we got back. I imagined that Cassie would do some more morphing, just for fun, so that Aftran could experience flying again, or running through the woods at breakneck speed.

I'd known that Aftran had been looking forward to this. It was a fact that Cassie's mind was a lot easier to handle than mine. And while I had-at first-just taken her in because it was that or live out the next couple of years in isolation, Cassie actually wanted her in her head. 'Course, after a few months of living with Aftran in my head, that became my viewpoint. She wasn't just a necessary Yeerk semi-overlord anymore. We'd become friends. Maybe, we weren't as close as she and Cassie, and might never be, but still. I knew that she cared about me, and I cared about her.

Selfishly, probably, I was grateful that this was likely to be a one time thing. My family didn't take a ton of vacations, and my other grandparents were in good health. Besides, they lived close enough that, even if they did die before the end of the war, I wouldn't need to rely on Cassie or the Chee to rescue Aftran from Kandrona starvation. I needed to get through the next four days, and then she'd be back in my head, and things would go on as before. Well, as much as "before" as was possible, in this world.

I knew the trip would pass more quickly if I slept, and I was feeling a little tired, so I closed my eyes and leaned myself against the window of the car. The cool glass felt good against my skin, even though it wasn't like I'd thought to bring a pillow for the drive up.

I must have slept for awhile, because when I opened my eyes next, we were parked next in one of those rest stop centers with a bunch of fast food stores and gas stations aimed at hungry tourists and drivers who needed to refuel. I imagined that we were both. Our car, I noticed with some amusement, was parked in a McDonalds parking lot. Not that asking for a "happy meal with extra happy" would do much, here, except give you some strange looks and, maybe, a forced laugh.

"Hey, Midget," I spoke up, giving Jake a gentle poke. "We're stopping."

His eyes opened, slowly, and he looked around, clearly disoriented. "Huh?"

"We're at a rest stop," I explained. "Gonna grab some food."

Jake nodded, but still looked disoriented. Sleepy. Still, he started to move, unbuckling his seat belt and stretching.

Dad already had his seat belt off and was in the process of getting out of the car. By the look on his face, at least one of his legs had fallen asleep.

"C'mon, kids. Lunch calls," Dad told us. "I'll refuel the car afterwords."

Jake yawned, then unbuckled his seat belt before opening his door and heading out. I followed on the other side, and we headed inside to the fast food place.

"McDonalds?" Jake asked, giving me a look.

I rolled my eyes and tousled his hair. "The food's not not bad," I told him.

Of course, I knew what he meant. Ironic, that four hours outside of our hometown, we were still being reminded of the Yeerks. Well, indirectly. It wasn't the chain's fault that some of their stores were a front to the Yeerk Pool.

The food wasn't as good as I remembered. The burgers were kind of lukewarm, and the fries tasted like they hadn't been cooked all the way. I didn't say anything, but based on my glances at Jake, he wasn't exactly enjoying the food, either. At least the milk shakes were good.

Dad drove into one of the gas stations and remained outside to fill the car up, while Jake and I waited inside.

"Tom? You okay?" he asked me, seeing as we were in private.

I shrugged. "I feel like I'm at about 60%. Hopefully, that's enough to get through the weekend. Anyway, we're supposed to be in mourning, so..."

Jake nodded. "Yeah. It's not like we're hosting a party."

"Can you imagine what this would be like if it wasn't her? You know that Dad would never have let me get out of it."

Jake nodded again. "I try not to, but yeah. It's crossed my mind a few times."

I squeezed his hand. "I'm hoping this won't happen again. I mean, not until..."

We both nodded, this time, not wanting to say anything else. Even though I was confident that we'd win the war at some point, especially if the Andalite army stopped dragging their heels (hoofs?), Jake was clearly less certain. This was probably good, because a military leader needs to have a sense of pessimism. Realistic pessimism, anyway. I didn't want Jake to become hopeless, since we needed him and his team for the fight.

It was all about balance, probably.

Dad opened the front door, then, so if Jake was going to tell me anything else, he didn't get a chance. Still feeling tired, I curled up against the edge of the window frame, and from the corner of my eye, I noticed that Jake had done the same.

Four hours later, Dad parked the car outside the cabin. The last part of the road was all gravely, and I hoped we wouldn't end up with a flat tire.

"Finally," he announced, forcing a smile. "Everybody out."

I could see the lake, as well as the path to the house. Our relatives must have been watching or listening for the car, because they all came pouring out of the house. Even though this was family, I felt anxious, like there was a physical pit in my stomach. There was no Aftran there to take control, if needed, to reassure me that everything would be okay, that she could handle things if they got too difficult for me. I was on my own, there.

Jake, however, remained close to my side. That helped.

After lots of hugs and being fawned over, told how much we had grown and asked about school, we were led into the kitchen, where the table was piled with food. I noticed that pretty much everyone else had either eaten or was in the process of eating. Fortunately, it turned out. The meal wouldn't be a sit down, traditional one. After the three of us loaded our plates with food, our family ushered us onto the porch. We just sat there for awhile, eating and listening to our parents and relatives talk, as we enjoyed the sunset.

Mom commented about how she was sad that Grandpa G wasn't there with us. Grandpa told us that after Grandpa G came back from the war, he was a different man who just wanted peace. I felt like I could relate. Jake and I were, after all, fighting our own war. Moreover, it was a hidden one. The Yeerks hadn't come with guns or tanks or even atom bombs. They invaded through The Sharing. Oh, sure, they weren't all bad. Aftran and Illim were among the good ones. Besides, even though I'd never been into the voluntary area, I couldn't imagine that those people felt that they were slaves. Probably, a Yeerk who was fortunate enough to be assigned a voluntary human would do anything short of outright treason in front of Visser Three to keep it that way. Few Yeerks actually enjoyed the pain they caused. They just...tuned it out. Told themselves that we were inferior. After all, humans were far from perfect. We killed far more of each other than the Yeerks had of their own kind. Even so, it was our planet, and didn't we have the right to defend it?

Every so often, I'd glance around at my family. Jake, I noticed, was keeping an eye on me, and mostly staying out of the conversation. Or, taking bites of food as an excuse not to have to talk. I'd been kind of stupid and eaten everything at once. The food had been good, and I guessed I could have gone back for seconds, but I wasn't that hungry, and I didn't want to draw too much attention to myself. Anyway, my family mostly talked amongst themselves. Mostly, it was Grandpa G stories, but they'd talk about what was going on with their jobs or their kids as well. That made sense. Even though we were preparing for a funeral, I guessed we couldn't talk exclusively about the deceased.

After an hour or so, Jake asked if he could be excused to turn in. Mom and Dad nodded their agreement, even though it was earlier than either of us went to bed on the weekend. Still. It had been a long trip, and piggybacking on Jake's request, I put my own in.

"I'm pretty tired, too. Mind if I turn in?" I asked.

"Sure," Dad told me. "Your bags-"

"I already took them upstairs," an aunt, whose name I couldn't place, interrupted. "You boys will be staying in the attic bedroom. There's a set of bunk beds for you to use. The sheets are clean-Mrs. Molloy changed everything when she came over last."

"In that case, you kids can head on upstairs," Mom told us, smiling.

After another ten or so hugs, we escaped back into the house.

Twenty minutes later, after a shower and changing into my PJs, I felt closer to 70% myself than the 60% I had been feeling earlier. Even though this might be the easiest of the four days, there was a huge sense of relief in knowing that the first day was almost over.

I could tell that Jake felt it, as well.

"So, you want the top bunk, or the bottom?" he asked me, after returning from the bathroom.

"Bottom. You know, in case..."

"Yeah. Good idea," he acknowledged.

"I mean, not that you don't get nightmares," I added, lest he think I was overlooking what he'd been through. "You can use it, if you want."

Jake shook his head. "No, I get it, Tom. It's better that you get it. Besides, I don't mind being high up."

I grinned, sitting down on the bottom bunk. "You know that they now make those bunk beds with only the top bunk? You can put your desk and stuff underneath. They're called lofted beds. Andrew was telling me about them last week, at lunch. His older sister just started at college, and with the size of those dorms, practically everyone is putting in requests at the housing department to turn their bed into a lofted one. Sounds like it will be weeks before everyone will have one. Especially since they need to order the supplies from a warehouse."

Jake sat down next to me. "Yeah? That's actually pretty creative. Could work with small bedrooms, too. Not that ours are that bad."

I agreed. "Our bedrooms are definitely better than college dorms."

Jake looked thoughtful. "Have you thought about what to do about college? Does The Sharing have an in with the local ones?"

"Yeah." I paused, trying to remember. "It's better if you go to the community college, for them, because you can live at home and recruit the students on campus. They get a lot of members this way. But, pretty much any college or university within forty minutes of The Sharing is okay. They have auxiliary Yeerk pools in other states, only ours is the main one. At least, that's what they claim. I've heard rumors that they're running a few Sharing groups on the east coast, since they have cities like Philadelphia, Washington DC, and New York City."

"There are others?" Jake asked me, voice cracking ever so slightly.

I put an arm around his shoulder. "Just auxiliary ones, Midget. The main invasion takes place here, but even they know that some Controllers can't stay in the state forever."

"Oh." Jake still didn't seem exactly happy about this, but maybe, reassured.

The truth was, I didn't know much about what was going on outside of the state, as far as Yeerks went. Aftran had heard rumors that there were smaller ones taking place in other areas, led by other Vissers and sub-Vissers, but that's all they were. Rumors. Maybe, if there was anything concrete, I would have told Jake, but there wasn't, so I was going to stay silent about that.

We could have talked for a lot longer, but I was starting to feel exhausted. A combination of the trip, the worry about not having Aftran for three more days, and actually not having Aftran there.

I could still function, kind of. I hoped so, anyway. Even so, it was definitely catching up with me.

I knew that night time would be the worst. She wouldn't be there to talk to me, to take over, if I had a nightmare. Or, just to talk to me before going to bed. Joke with me. To hold me, sing me Yeerk songs. Maybe, I'd become too dependent on her, but still.

I missed her.

Jake yawned, and I realized that he had probably been worried about me during the last couple of days, too. I felt a little guilty, like I had been selfish for thinking about myself and how Aftran not being in my head would affect me. After all, Jake had to deal with it, too.

Of course, it would have been an absolute nightmare if it had been my old Yeerk, and not Aftran. I didn't want to think about what he would have done to avoid going on this trip.

Pushing these thoughts out of my mind as best as I could, I turned to Jake with what I hoped was a real smile.

"Mind if we go to bed, now? It's kind of late, and-" I trailed off, not sure how to finish the sentence.

Jake nodded, looking almost relieved. He stood up, and I did, too. We hugged for a good minute.

"You-you'll be okay?" he asked when we had let go, and I'd reentered the bottom bunk. "I could stay with you, Tom, if you want."

I glanced at the remaining space on the bed. "I think we're too big, unfortunately," I answered. "See?" I gestured to the few inches of space between me and the edge of the mattress. "Thanks, though."

"Yeah," he agreed. "Well, if you have a bad dream or anything, I'm up there."

For good measure, he pointed, which made me laugh.

"Yeah," I echoed. Then, I added, "Hey, Midget? Same here, okay? I mean, if you have a bad dream. I-I'm here, if you need to talk. Or, you know. Not talk. Whatever you need."

Aftran, I knew, would have been able to say it better. But, by Jake's nod and his smile, I figured he got what I meant.

Then again, he probably wasn't a stranger to bad dreams. Neither of us were.

Still. It helped to know that someone else would be there, even if they couldn't stop them.

It took ages me to fall asleep. I almost wanted to just start crying. My mind felt so empty, so lonely, that it was almost a physical ache. But, I also wanted to tough it out. Pride, maybe. Stupid. Jake had seen me cry, before. Still.

At last, though, sleep must have come. There were no nightmares, and when I woke up, I actually felt fairly well rested, even though I had a definite sense of dread. Today would be the wake. Grandpa G hadn't been Jewish-Jews don't do wakes-but it must have been included in his will, or he'd talked about it with my grandparents, or something. Because, according to how things were done around here, we'd be having the wake today and the funeral tomorrow.

It still would have been safest to involve the Chee and give Aftran over to Cassie. Mom and Dad wouldn't have left until Monday, and by the time we got back, it would have been nearly seventy-two hours since Aftran had fed. Of course, we could have gotten up super early on Saturday and she would have been able to feed then...

It didn't matter. Like all of "what if" scenarios, they were just that.

I just lay in bed until I heard Jake wake up, since I didn't want to join the rest of my family without him. It was kind of an unspoken agreement that we'd stick to each other's sides during this whole thing, and since we'd been close up until the last couple of years-but then again over the last couple of months-it wouldn't look too strange. I hoped, anyway.

I wondered about Aftran. She and Cassie were probably up by now. Did their family attend church on Sunday? I didn't think so, but I'd have to ask. Not that her being Christian and Jake being Jewish would stop them from dating or eventually getting married, if that's what they wanted. Anyway, I knew that Aftran was having a good time, whatever they were doing. Most likely, they'd spend some of the weekend morphing. Flying, probably.

My thoughts wandered for awhile, thinking about morphing. Aftran had shown me some of her memories when she and Cassie had morphed together. They either shared control, or Aftran flat out took a back seat and enjoyed the experience while Cassie took over. She told me that Cassie had this weird talent for morphing, that she was something that Andalites called an "estreen", or some word like that. I'd seen the "Andalite Bandits" morph when they had first attacked the Yeerk Pool. Back when Temrash had been my Yeerk, and I'd been his slave for about six months. He'd almost had me beaten, back then, but I'd managed to take control for almost a full second when Jake had attended his first-and only-Sharing barbecue, and really enjoying the experience. Temrash had been elated and began to talk about the process of become an associate member, then a full member. Somehow, I'd found the strength to fight back, to give Jake a warning. I hadn't managed to say anything before Temrash took over, but I had managed to move my facial muscles enough for Jake to suspect something was wrong. It wouldn't have been enough, probably, if he hadn't already known about the Yeerks. If he became a full member and got infested, maybe then, he would have looked back and realized I had been trying to warn him.

More likely, his Yeerk would have replayed that memory, to taunt him.

If he'd been involuntary, anyway.

Even though Temrash had punished me worse that night, and the days that followed, worse than he ever had before, something in me must have woken up when I'd made a successful rebellion against his iron clad grip on my mind. Because, when Jake and his friends had attacked the Pool, I'd actually gone face to face with Visser Three. I really, honestly believed that I would make it out of the Yeerk Pool that night without a Yeerk. Not just me, either.

Jake told me, a few weeks after Aftran and I had teamed up, that one person had made it out. A woman. They didn't have the blue box then, and they didn't know what happened to her. Maybe, the Yeerks recaptured her. Or, maybe, she'd managed to escape before anyone noticed that her Yeerk didn't show up for a Sharing meeting or was still in the Pool. If she'd been smart, she would have fled the state. The country, even. But, until the war's over, it's really unlikely that we'll ever know if she'd even still alive.

Then, I forced my thoughts back to Aftran and Cassie, which had to be happier than thinking about Temrash and Gariss. I remembered Aftran showing me through her memories morphing, letting me experience it as vividly as she did. I always felt a little envious that I couldn't morph, even though I knew that it was probably safest that way. Not being able to morph meant that, if anything happened to Aftran and I was reassigned, at least I was just a human body with information. Not being able to morph also meant that I couldn't be used in combat. They couldn't make me kill my brother or his friends. At least, not in that way.

I rolled over on my side, wondering if I should try to go back to sleep, and not knowing what time it was. But, really, I wasn't tired.

After several more minutes, I heard Jake move around in the bunk above me, making what my mom referred to as "waking up noises". Stretching, yawning, that kind of thing. Being on the bottom bunk, those motions felt magnified, and I couldn't help but grin. I poked my head out from under my bunk.

"Morning, sleepyhead," I told Jake.

He rubbed his eyes. "Morning, Tom. Is it really that late?"

I shrugged. "Got a watch on? There's no clock in this room."

Jake shook his head. "Can't be that late, since Mom and Dad haven't woken us up." He climbed out of the top bunk and made as if to sit next to me.

I nodded, shifting so that I was sitting in the middle of the bed, like it was some kind of couch. He took a seat beside me, over the blankets. "Do you know what time the wake is?"

"I figure it's going to be most of the day, but I didn't ask," Jake admitted. "It's not exactly a service, I don't think. More like people show up when we want and see Grandpa G's body."

"Yeah, probably. Not something I've ever been to before." I shrugged. "I mean, he wasn't Jewish, and that's not something we do. Pretty sure we have a viewing beforehand, though."

"Yeah, I guess."

Aside from Sadler, neither of us had ever been to the funeral of a family member. Not that I remembered too much of Sadler's funeral, having been Gariss' slave at the time. Since that was when Jake and his friends had been dealing with David, he'd probably had other things on his mind, too. Sad to say, but Sadler and his siblings weren't exactly our favorite family members.

We were quiet for awhile. It wasn't awkward, just us sitting together, thinking. In a lot of ways, it was an escape from the whole invasion for a few days. While Visser Three and his yes-men didn't plan something stupid every weekend, it had to be enough for Jake and his friends to always be on edge. Their main source of information, before me and Aftran, had been the Chee. We had more information now, arguably, but even though Gariss had been important enough, he definitely hadn't been a sub-Visser.

"You okay? Without her, I mean?" Jake asked me, studying me.

I shrugged. "I know I'd be okay if she was there. She could take over if it became too much...I mean, you and he were closer than I was, but still. And with all of the people around, and needing to keep up the act..." I shrugged again. "I won't lie, Jake. It's not going to be easy. I'm just hoping that we won't be surrounded with people all day today and tomorrow."

"I doubt it," Jake answered, seeming certain. "We can say that we need some time for homework, if nothing else. But I'm sure there will be down time."

"Yeah." I was quiet for minute, then added, "I'm sure she's happy. Both her and Cassie, I mean. This is probably like a vacation for both of them. And I'm glad that she has someone, you know? Because, it's not like I'd be glad if she was stuck in a glass of water for the whole trip."

Jake didn't reply right away. "Is it weird, that I still don't get how-?" He trailed off, not looking at me.

I knew what he meant. In the beginning, when he first freed me, we saw infestation by Aftran as necessary but far from ideal. If we didn't want to fake my death, I had to stay a Controller. While Aftran was probably as nice as Yeerks got, for me and Jake, the idea of any Yeerk in my head was...again, necessary, but almost a necessary evil. A few months later, I was actually missing my Yeerk. And, then, there was Cassie, who looked forward to Aftran being in her head the way a kid might look forward to a trip to get ice cream or a candy bar. At the same time, we were killing Yeerks, trying to defeat the empire.

Talk about mixed realities. Cognitive dissonance, I think, was what it was technically called. Holding two opposite facts in your mind without going crazy.

"It's not," I assured Jake, putting a hand on his. "She's kind of the exception. Believe me."

Granted, she was the third Yeerk who'd been inside my head, and maybe three different Yeerks wasn't a good representation of the empire. On the other hand, while Aftran and I both agreed that there were a lot of regular Yeerks who just wanted to be able to experience life beyond the limited senses of a Yeerk body, the risk of possibly death from defying the empire wasn't enough to refuse to take an unwilling host.

"That's..." Jake shrugged. "I mean, I'm glad that she's decent to you. I guess, I have a hard time with seeing them as anything but the enemies."

I could relate. "I figure they're brainwashed by the empire to think of themselves as the overlords of the universe. Makes taking over bodies easier, especially if they don't want you there." I paused before adding, "Thing is, if they were all like Aftran, and were actually kind to their hosts and shared control, there wouldn't need to be an invasion. Sure, a lot of people would still run a mile in the other direction, but it's not like they actually need all six or so billion of us."

Jake shook his head, but more like he was trying to figure out what I meant than like he was disagreeing with me. "I'd never agree to it."

I took his hand, squeezing it reassuringly. "You don't have to. That's why I'm here, right? As the official liaison to the Peace Movement. Between the two of us, the empire doesn't stand a chance."

He laughed then, and looked like he might say something else, but suddenly, there was a knock at the door.

"Come in!" Jake called, a little louder than necessary.

The door opened, and I could see my mom standing in the doorway, already dressed.

"Hi, boys. Sleep well?" At our nods, she continued. "Good, that's good. We're having breakfast, and then getting ready for the wake. You can come down in your pajamas, if you want."

"For the wake?" Jake joked.

Mom laughed. "For breakfast," she corrected herself. "You don't need to get dressed up for the wake, but I want you both dressed, all right?"

We nodded, and then followed her downstairs, Jake leading the way.

Chapter Text

It was both a relief and a pain that the wake was at the house. A relief because it meant that we didn't need to go anywhere and be stuck in a small room in case I-well, in case I couldn't keep myself together. A pain because there were going to be a bunch of people coming and leaving throughout the day. Even though Jake and I weren't expected to be present and be the hosts during that time. That role, thankfully, fell on my parents and grandparents.

Grandpa G had had a lot of friends and relatives who were still alive. Our grandparents, his kids, were the obvious ones. Plus a couple of other "kids" who I'd only seen a handful of times in my life. Great aunts and uncles, who had come with their kids. Were they my aunts and uncles, or did that only apply to when it was your parents' siblings? Maybe, they were "removed", like when people a hundred years or so ago would say, "My great uncle twice removed." You never heard that term anymore. I couldn't ask Aftran, even if she'd been there, because she probably wouldn't have known much more than me. Certainly not from her time with Cassie or Karen. To be honest, I didn't even care that much about what these people who I'd rarely seen were called in their relation to me and Jake. They were just distant family members, really.

Some kids my roughly my and Jake's age had also shown up. Second or third cousins, most likely, and the kids of nearby neighbors. It was that kind of a place. Rural, so everyone had a lot of land, but at the same time, there was probably a greater sense of community than we had. It was also a town too small to be targeted for a Yeerk invasion. Whatever the problems the people here had, having your brain and body taken over by an alien because you joined the wrong club wouldn't be one of them.

Jake squeezed my hand, and I realized I must have been staring too long, probably zoned out. I turned to him, forcing a smile.

"You okay?" he asked me.

"I am now," I reassured him. "Thanks."

Jake remained close to me, after that.

As it was Grandpa G's viewing, the focus was on him and his life. I saw his body, and while it was probably the makeup done by the funeral home, he looked peaceful. Like he was just taking a long nap. There wasn't exactly a formal talk or eulogy-that would come later. But, people I didn't know would say stuff about him being in Heaven and looking down on us.

Hearing that didn't exactly make me uneasy or uncomfortable, but it did make me think about my own beliefs. Jake and I were Jewish-well, technically, half-Jewish, but in Judaism, they don't say that. If your mom is Jewish, you're Jewish, and if she isn't, then you're not. I guessed that meant that if your grandmother was Jewish, but married a man who wasn't, and they raised their kids Christian, and one of those kids was a girl, you and your siblings would still be considered Jewish. Anyway, Jake and I were raised Jewish, to an extent. Orthodox Jews would probably say that we weren't observant, since we didn't keep the Jewish laws of kashrut (or "keeping kosher"-basically, the food dietary laws), and we definitely used electricity on Saturdays. At the same time, we went to synagogue on occasion, and we had gone to Hebrew school for awhile. Even so, if someone asked me what I believed, I would say that I was Jewish, and leave it at that. I wasn't even sure if Jews believed in Heaven or Hell. Now that I thought about it-and here, I could have really used Aftran's help with locating lost memories-I kind of remembered reading somewhere that they did believe in Hell, since we definitely prayed for the dead, but that it wasn't like the Christian view of Hell, because it didn't last forever. Or, not for most people.

I was pretty sure that Temrash would be an exception. Same with Gariss, when he eventually died. Definitely Visser Three, and Visser One. Aftran? She'd go to Heaven, for sure. I didn't know, as much, about some of the other Yeerks.

What did Yeerks believe, if anything? Were they as varied in their own beliefs as humans were? Or, was the empire so powerful at indoctrinating Yeerks that following the empire was a type of religion? Like, even if you never ended up getting a good host, or any host, if you believed in the empire dogma and obeyed as well as you could, you'd end up with an amazing host in the afterlife?

I'd never asked Aftran about it. Not because it was something we avoided talking about, as much as I'd never thought to bring it up. Had she? Was it something we'd end up talking about when she came back into my head?

Suddenly, I noticed Jake staring at me again, shaking his head ever so slightly, and I forced a smile. He smiled back, looking tentative, and he nodded slightly towards the door to the porch. I shrugged and gave a slight shake of the head, figuring he was asking if I needed to talk, or take a mental break from all of the people.

Of course, it wasn't like most of them were focused on me. The day was more about Grandpa G's life and seeing him before he would be buried than spending time with his great grandkids. Not that people didn't go up to me and Jake and say hello, but we were sort of all fellow mourners. The ones who got the whole "I'm sorry for your loss" speech were my parents and my grandparents.

During a lull in the visitors, maybe an hour or so into the wake, Dad went up to us and quietly told us that we could take a break.

"You probably know that this will go on for the rest of the day, but you've seen most of your family members at this point," Dad told us, when it was just the four of us in the room containing Grandpa G's body. "If you want to take a break for the rest of the day, go ahead."

"You sure?" Jake asked, turning towards Mom.

Mom nodded. "You've paid your respects, and besides, I'm sure you have a lot of homework to finish. It's fine, boys. Really."

We shrugged a little, then nodded and each gave our parents a hug. Mom held us tightly, which made me think of Aftran, and I had to fight hard then, not to start crying or something. Granted, it probably would have been normal enough to do so.

"The attic?" Jake asked, once we were out of hearing range.

"Yeah," I agreed.

We climbed up the stairs, headed to the small room, and shut the door behind us.

"Tom. Are you okay?" Jake asked me, taking a seat on the bottom bunk.

I nodded. "Kind of." I shrugged. "The second time, I was thinking about death and what comes after, and then I started wondering what Yeerks believed. You know, light stuff."

Jake managed a laugh, squeezing my hand. "I hadn't thought much about it. With the Yeerks, I mean. For us..." He shrugged. "I guess, if you're good, you go to Heaven. And the bad people go to Hell."

"Think most Yeerks are there?" I asked, tentatively.

Jake shrugged. "More than humans, I'd bet. Your first Yeerk, definitely."

There was something about the way Jake said it that threw me. I hadn't given Jake much in the way of details about my time with either Yeerk, and even with Aftran, I was careful not to say much that would let him in on how bad it was. It wasn't just that I didn't want my kid brother to feel sorry for me, or anything like that. I honestly believed that, until you were a Controller, you couldn't have any idea what it was like. The Yeerk had complete power over your body, and just short of that over your mind. Sure, Temrash and Gariss couldn't actually control what I thought, or whether I screamed or begged or anything like that. But they could play my worst memories in such vivid detail that it was like going through the experience again. Not just my memories, either. Gariss and Temrash hadn't had any voluntary hosts before me. Temrash had even crushed his Gedd host, who had never actually fought him. I felt his fear, his complete bewilderment, when Temrash had first entered his head. Temrash hadn't done or said anything to reassure him, simply crushed him with the pleasure of the sadist that he was. Same with the Hork-Bajir. And me. And-I was certain-if he'd been able to infest the governor, he'd have done the same. Host minds were just playthings to him.

Gariss had been even worse. Temrash, at least, had more or less stopped when he'd broken me. Oh, he'd replay awful memories a few times a day, just to keep me in line. In spite of my begging. But, really, next to Gariss, he'd been gentle. Temrash's cruelty, I realized later, had a point. It was like he was a hunter who shot an animal a few times to make sure it was dead, and then give the meat to his tribe, or his family. Gariss would disembowel the animal while it was still living. Light it on fire. Pour acid in its face. Make it suffer as much as possible, far past any real need of just killing it, simply for his own pleasure.

Jake couldn't know what hosts like me went through. There was no way.

I must have looked confused, or shocked, or something.

"I mean, Tom, he broke you," Jake told me, matter of factly. "He should suffer forever, even if how he died was pretty bad."

I shrugged. "Getting boiled in a pool isn't the best way to go, but it's probably way less painful than Kandrona starvation. Aftran thinks that, depending on where he was in the pool, he might not have felt anything when he died."

Jake watched me for a second, like he wanted to say something, but he suddenly turned away.

"Midget?" I asked him, putting a hand on his shoulders.

I felt him stiffen at my touch, then saw his hands forming fists, then letting go. Clenching them again, then letting them go, again. He did this a few more times, keeping his back to me, but I could hear him taking deep breaths.

Okay. Whatever was going on, he didn't want to talk about it. I could understand that.

Jake turned back to me, his eyes wet.

"Midget?" I asked, again. When he didn't say anything, I held a hand out, and he took it. Held onto it like we were in the lake and he couldn't swim, and I was the only thing keeping him from drowning.

"I-" he began, then stopped. "Never mind."

I wanted to say something, not exactly to press him to talk, but maybe to reassure him. Then, an idea came to me. Maybe, he wanted to keep it together on his end until Aftran was back in my head. It was no surprise, after all, that she gave me a lot of emotional support. Or, maybe, it had nothing to do with that.

I mean, hell, being a leader is hard even for adults. But a kid at fourteen? Fighting to save the world, while your older brother was on the other side, and still having to pretend to be a normal kid? It was a small wonder he hadn't had some kind of mental breakdown.

"Okay," I told him, nodding in what I hoped was a reassuring way. "Look, Jake, it's fine. I'm here, if you need me. If you want to talk, I mean. Or not talk. Or, if you want to just do some homework or read or whatever. Whatever you need."

He forced a smile. "I never thought I'd say it, but let's just do homework. At least, for now."

I squeezed his hand. "You got it, Midget."

Mom and Dad left us alone for the rest of the day, and we actually managed to finish everything. In all fairness, I'd gotten most of my work done when Aftran was still in my head. Which, as I mentioned earlier, wasn't exactly a remarkable feat, because math and science was extremely easy for her, and she was able to teach me it in a way that I understood things far faster than I would have on my own. If we ever won the war and defeated the empire, Yeerk tutoring-only with the decent ones, and only with kids who really wanted it-could be a new way of learning. Maybe.

After I finished the rest of the work, I had plenty of time to help Jake, which was great, because it gave me something to concentrate on. Also, since Aftran and I had been helping Jake with studying, it didn't take as much time as it had before for either of us to finish our schoolwork. Granted, Jake would never consent to letting Aftran into his head, which would have been the fastest way to learn and study, but even so, she had a pretty good idea of how to teach him stuff so that he'd remember.

It helped, probably, that we were similar learners.

A few minutes after Jake had finished his last pre-calc problem, Dad knocked on our door to call his down for dinner. I hid a mental groan. More time with relatives, more time socializing and making small talk.

Not to sound self absorbed or anything, but I had enough going on until we could return home.

Okay, yeah, that was definitely self absorbed.

As it turned out, though, dinner was a relatively quiet affair. I didn't mind this, because it was an excuse to be quiet and eat the good food. Even better, we ate on the porch, again, even though it was a little colder than it had been the previous night.

Once again, my mind turned back to Aftran. I wondered what Cassie and Aftran were up to. It being a Sunday night, they were probably finishing up her endless chores early before going to bed. I couldn't imagine the Yeerks-well, Visser Three-being up to any last minute havoc. Erek's robot friend would be feeding now, or soon, pretending to be me. I never understood how that worked, only that it was okay to use an android to play me if it was absolutely unavoidable, but it wasn't something they go do regularly, or long term. Was it because the Chee were nonviolent and wouldn't be able to do anything if the guards became too rough with me? Or, did they simply have other tasks to occupy their time?

"Tom, honey?" Mom was saying, and I turned in my seat to look at her.

"Yeah?" I asked, blankly.

"I was just saying," Dad answered for Mom, "that it's a shame it's not warmer out. You boys could have gone swimming in the lake."

"Oh," I answered. "Yeah. That's too bad."

"Maybe tomorrow?" Jake piped up, looking at both parents as though this was important to him.

Maybe it was. We had both packed swim suits, anticipating some down time to go swimming. But, I knew that it was more likely to remove the attention from me.

"Maybe. We'll see," Mom answered, her tone a little doubtful. "If it's not too cold, and we get finished packing before it gets late. It'll be a long drive back, and I know your father and I will want to get an early start.

"Are we all going back together?" I wondered, more to have something to say than out of any real curiosity.

"Yes, that's the plan," Dad confirmed.

We remained out on the porch for awhile, until it became so dark that you could see the stars.

That made me think of Aftran, again. How she'd told me that the home worlds of the Yeerks and Andalites were too far away to be able to be seen with the naked eye. But that didn't mean there wasn't other intelligent life on the stars we could see. Aftran had told me that of all of the planets she had been to or seen images of, Earth had the most beauty and diverse life. Not that most of the empire cared about that. Temrash had told me, often enough, that once Earth had been conquered, the Yeerk empire would eliminate all life that was not essential for human survival. He'd claimed that no planet needed as many as a hundred different types of life, much less the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, that Earth had.

It was a reminder that we weren't just fighting for the humans. We were fighting for the animals. The plants. Even the oceans and the seas. For the outcome of nearly all of life on Earth.

Jake seemed like himself when we got headed upstairs to turn in, but I could see, by now, how good he was at pretending. He had to be, I guessed. He never would have lasted this long, otherwise.

"One more day left," he told me, as we changed into pajamas, each looking in the opposite direction.

"Yeah," I agreed. "Then, we can go home."

There was a slight pause before Jake spoke again.

"You're hanging in there, Tom. Really."

I nodded, even though he couldn't see me. "It's not something I want to make regular, but thanks." It was my turn to pause, before blurting out, "Are you okay, Jake?"

I turned around, slowly, just in case Jake wasn't fully clothed. Fortunately, he was.

"You mean, about earlier?" he queried, forcing a laugh. "Yeah, I'm okay. I just-I hate to think of what they did to you."

I wrapped my arms around Jake, pulling my brother into a long hug. "Hey, it's over now, okay?"

He didn't speak, just squeezed back, holding me tightly for long time. Longer than I would have, under regular circumstances, whatever those were. However long Jake needed me to hold him, I would. Especially since it wasn't exactly awful for me, either.

After awhile, Jake let go, slowly. I watched his face, but it seemed normal. "Midget? You sure you don't want to talk?"

Jake shook his head, then watched me. "Did you?"

I ruffled his hair in response. He made a long suffering face, like he did when we were kids, and I was at least a foot taller than him.

"You know, I could do the same back," Jake told me, grinning. "I'm about your size now, even if you still call me 'Midget'."

I rolled my eyes. "I have a few inches on you, Midget."

Granted, Jake might still be growing. He might end up getting even taller than me. I had stopped growing the year I'd been infested.

"Right. Sure." He yawned. "I'm going to sleep."

"Same here," I admitted, trying to swallow a yawn of my own. "Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite."

"Ha ha."

I took the few steps required to get into the bottom bunk, and heard Jake climb up the ladder to the top.

"Hey, Tom?" he asked, a few minutes later.

I turned so that my head was beneath his bunk. "Yeah?"

He paused, then shook his head. "Never mind. Night!"

"Night," I echoed, crawling back onto the bed, under the blankets, tucking myself in the way Aftran would have.

Sleep came easier that night, and for the second night in a row, my sleep was sound. Dreamless.

Until I woke up to the sound of screaming.

Jake screaming.

I sat up so quickly, I banged my head on the bunk. It would have been comical, had terror not overtaken me.

"Midget?" I called, scrambling out of bed, turning on the light on the table next to us.

The screaming stopped, abruptly, followed by my brother's voice from the top bunk. "Sorry, Tom."

It was raspy, probably from the yelling, but also sounded so young. Jake was fifteen, sure, but at that moment, I felt like he was five and I was seven.

At least he was safe. I let out a breath that I hadn't realized I'd been holding. "Are you okay?"

I heard him take in a breath, then release it. "Bad dream."

The way he spoke those words, I got the feeling this wasn't an unusual occurrence. Partly because he'd told me so several weeks ago.

I climbed onto the top bunk, joining Jake in the twin sized bunk bed. As soon as I sat down next to him, he curled up against my shoulder. I wrapped an arm around his shoulder, the other one running my fingers along his hair. He seemed to settle down, relaxing against me. After a few minutes, he lay back down, and I followed, twisting myself in a sort of sideways position, leanining against the wall, all the time holding Jake tightly in my arms, just in case he fell off the narrow bed. Somehow, I'd managed to pull the covers over us. To my surprise, it was actually pretty comfortable, wedged between the wall and Jake, and I could have fallen asleep, except between the nightmare and Jake's reaction earlier, I felt like I needed to bring up the topic. His bad dream.

"Jake," I murmured, still holding him.

"Yeah, Tom?" he asked me, his voice just as quiet as mine.

"Do you want to talk about it?" I asked him, gently, still running my hand through his hair.

"The dream?" Jake asked, and I felt him turning his head just enough that he was facing me, even though I doubted that he could actually see me in the dark room.

"Sure," I replied, hoping my tone was casual enough, while still remaining gentle. Approachable.

"It's not a new one," he began, "but I stopped having it after we saved you from your old Yeerk."

I nodded, which was pointless, because he couldn't see me. I just squeezed him tighter against me, and he let out a little sigh. "Sorry. Am I hurting you?"

"No," Jake reassured me.

After a minute, I spoke up. "So, I take it that my old Yeerk was there, in your dream?"

"Yeah. In the dream, I was in my tiger morph, and I was stalking you. Not you, you," he corrected himself, taking another deep breath before continuing. "The Yeerk."

I hugged him even tighter. He didn't complain, just squeezed me back. "I'm so sorry, Jake," I murmured.

When he didn't respond right away, I added, "Hey. You know you don't have to worry about that anymore, right? I promise, Aftran would never turn on us."

I felt his head bobbing against my shoulders. "Yeah, I know. The thing is-in the dream..." He took another deep breath. "Things would turn. Like they did tonight. You became the tiger, and you were hunting me."

I let out a deep breath of my own, suddenly understanding. Of course, Gariss and Temrash weren't morph capable, and never would become that way. Gariss because he was locked in Erek's mind, and Temrash because he had died nearly two years ago. Still. In the sense, until I was freed, I had been hunting my brother. Not directly, of course, and if there was one thing I was grateful to Gariss for, it was that he didn't try to recruit Jake to The Sharing. Not out of any sense of sympathy for me, I was sure. More because he had seen from my memories that Jake was flat out unwilling to have anything to do with the group. He would do better serving the empire by spending that time and mental energy recruiting other humans who, in all likelihood, would complete the process and become full members.

Unlike Jake, who would not have gone willingly.

It wasn't like the empire was opposed to involuntary infestation. Far from it. But, the whole point of The Sharing was to find people who were less likely to resist.

Jake was watching me, and I realized that I had lapsed into my own thoughts again, letting too long pass without saying anything.

In response, I squeezed him tighter. "It sounds awful, Midget. I know. I'm here now, okay? I promise, you're not going to have to kill me, or hunt me down to starve my Yeerk." In an attempt to inject some humor to the conversation, I added, "In case you forgot, you kinda already did that. Gariss wouldn't have made it much longer if Erek hadn't been there. He was probably so hungry that he didn't even notice he was trapped in an android until that piggy Yeerk had gorged himself on the Chee rays."

Jake managed a laugh. "Yeah. I know."

"I'm safe, now," I added. "Okay, not, like 100% safe. We haven't won the war, yet. But as far as Aftran betraying us, the chance of that is zero. And, in case you couldn't tell from how I've been this whole weekend, we're friends. She's been really good to me."

Jake laughed again. "Right. I don't know her like you and Cassie do, but clearly, we can trust her." He yawned. "Thanks, Tom. That helps."

"I'm glad," I told him, yawning, attempting to stretch my legs before they fell asleep.

"Stay with me?" Jake suddenly asked, almost pleadingly.

He must have thought I was going to get up, now. Return to my bunk.

"You bet, Midget," I agreed. Jokingly, I added, "Not that I was going to leave. Even if I wanted to, I think that I'm pretty much lodged between you and the wall, anyway. When we get up tomorrow, you better leave the bunk first, or we'll both hit our heads on the ceiling, or the ground."

Another laugh, and I felt him reposition himself, probably trying to find the best way to curl up against me. "There's something like six inches of space between me and the edge. It's not that tight of a fit."

Okay. Or check to see how close I was to the edge.

"Yeah, well. I don't want to risk it," I told him, even though, out of the corner of my eye, I could almost see what he meant. If I squinted hard enough. "As your big brother, I'm going to protect you from falling and the nightmares, okay?"

"Sounds good," Jake told me, smiling. "Mind if I do the same, as the midget?"

I laughed. "Yeah. You better."

Chapter Text

This time, at least, sleep came more easily. Still, I was the first to wake up the next day, and just watched Jake for several minutes, enjoying seeing him looking so peaceful. He looked a lot younger, too. Did we all look that way, when we slept? Not something I could ask Aftran, since she couldn't see my face when I was sleeping. I just lay there on my side, preparing for the final full day, hoping I'd be up to the task.

When Jake woke up, I got up for real. I noticed that my back did feel pretty stiff, and I was looking forward to a hot shower to ease some of that. Still. It had been nothing, since it meant that Jake felt safe. Well, safer.

And, okay, if I had to be completely honest-if I couldn't have Aftran in my head, spending the night curled up against my brother wasn't the worst alternative.

Breakfast was normal enough. I tried to look engaged in the conversation, and answer questions when necessary. Jake did the same, keeping his eyes on me.

We dressed in suits, afterwards, and headed to the church. At least, the funeral was fairly early in the day. Right after that, the burial. It felt surreal, watching Grandpa G being lowered into the ground, his body covered by dirt. The other option for people, provided there is a body, is cremation. A lot of Jews don't go for that. Too much like the gas chambers during the holocaust. Even if being buried felt weird, at least it seemed more natural than purposely destroying your body and then either buying those remains or scattering them somewhere. When it came my time to go, hopefully not for at least eighty more years, I'd opt for burial.

Afterward, we returned to his house. I had expected to surrounded by people. Most of the neighbors who had been at the wake attended the funeral and the burial, so it was a large crowd. When you live that long, you must find yourself with a lot of family. Friends, too. But, maybe because Grandpa G's house wasn't exactly built with the intention of housing over fifty people, most said goodbye after the burial. Mostly, it was just family who came back to the house with us.

I managed to make myself focus during the whole time. There was no Aftran to take over, after all, and I couldn't expect Jake to cover for me indefinitely. I made myself take in the details of everything, cataloging everything in my mind.

We talked. Ate. Remembered. Mourned. Eventually, we packed up his stuff. Jake noticed a locker in our attic, containing his medals and-somewhat disturbingly-a Nazi dagger. Then again, I guessed, better him than the Nazis to be in possession of that.

As we packed everything up and decided who should take what, and what could be donated, it made me realize just how true the saying was that you couldn't take stuff with you. Not unless you had it buried with you. Maybe, Grandpa G could have done that with his medals. No one would have faulted him for it. But he left them in the locker, stowed away in the attic, for someone like Jake to find.

We decided to donate the dagger to a museum that had a collection for that kind of thing. We just didn't want them in the house.

Jake wanted to keep the medals, though. Mom and Dad thought that was fine. I figured they assumed that Jake wanted them because he'd been close to Grandpa G, and, being a teenager, he thought it would be cool to have a war medal as a piece of memorabilia.

I knew otherwise.

When the war ended, when we won, Jake would be given his own medals for saving the planet. Him and his friends. He'd probably keep all of them together, maybe in a locker or a trunk in his own house, hidden away, just like Grandpa G. When he became a dad and his kids were old enough, he'd show them the medals. Tell them how they came from a line of people who fought for the freedom of our country.

First, from the Nazis. Then, from the aliens.

I hoped that, by then, the Yeerk empire would just be the Yeerks. That those who wanted them would be symbionts, and that Jake would tell his kids that we'd fought a war back when the aliens were part of this awful dictatorship. Sort of like how the everyday German wasn't necessarily a Nazi, and we managed to take down that regime without destroying their country.

Turns out, oppression isn't just a human thing.

But, I hoped, Jake and I would tell them that we won. Both times. And, there would be others. Maybe, they'd enlist in the army. Maybe not. That was fine, either way. But they were part of an important legacy that helped play a deciding part in the fate of the human race.

Plus, when the war ended, when Jake and Cassie got married, Aftran would be there to tell their kids about the role she played in saving humanity. They'd see firsthand that Yeerks weren't, by their nature, evil.

I hoped I'd be there, too. Not with Aftran in my head, I knew. She'd go on to live with Cassie. But, probably, I'd choose with another Yeerk from the Peace Movement over being alone in my head.

We finished with everything just before dinner, and the weather was considerably warmer than the previous evening.

"Can we go swimming in the lake, Dad? Mom?" Jake asked, as we ate.

"Yeah, can we?" I echoed.

Mom and Dad glanced at each other for a minute, speaking in their own parental language.

"Yes, but wait a half an hour until after you finish, just in case," Mom told us, smiling. "It's probably an old wives tale, but just in case. Then, yes. Until 8:30."

"We have a long day of driving back," Dad reminded us. "And you kids still have homework to finish."

"Oh, we got that done last night," Jake interjected, grinning at the shock on their faces.

"And I helped Jake get ahead in his math class," I added, giving him a gentle nudge on the arm.

"Wow. I'm impressed," Dad admitted. "Okay. Until 9:00, then. Jean, that sound fair?"

"Very," Mom agreed, smiling. Then, like she couldn't help herself, she added, "You boys have been getting along so well, lately. I'm glad you managed to work things out."

Jake and I didn't say anything, just looked at each other.

"Yeah, well, kids have a way of growing up," Dad answered, laughing a little. "Pass me that pie, would you?"

An hour later, we were in our swim suits, swimming in the lake. As much as I enjoyed going to the beach, the water was always cold, and the lake, probably being enclosed, was a lot warmer. Not like shower warm, but still. You didn't think you were going to lose all feeling when you first got in.

We didn't speak much, at first. I swam some laps, or what would be laps, if the lake was a pool. I dunked Jake a couple of times, but stopped after he retaliated when I least expected.

"Okay, okay, truce!" I managed to get out, laughing and coughing, after the second time that happened. "Man, Jake. You're sneaky!"

"You started it!" he retorted, snickering at me, then, swimming just out of distance, probably fearing that I would change my mind after hearing that.

When I caught him, of course, I was forced to give him another dunking, but I was nice and didn't put him in a headlock when he emerged.

Partly, because when he emerged from the lake, he raised his hands and yelled, "Truce! I give in-for real!"

"You promise?" I asked, raising my hands just above his head in preparation for my next attack.

"Yes! Really, Tom, I promise!" he laughed, holding his hands, too, but in the universal "surrender" gesture.

"Okay," I agreed, lowering my hands. "Truce."

Battle over, we just swam around for awhile. We didn't talk about the Yeerks, or nightmares. We just swam. Played. Rough housed-a little. It was like old times, before both of our lives changed.

For about two hours, I even forgot about how much I missed Aftran. When we got out of the water, and I remembered how soon she'd be back, and felt really hopeful, looking forward to having her back and telling her everything.

I thought that she'd be pretty proud of me.

After we showered and put on our pajamas, Jake and I got into the shared bottom bunk, since I wasn't going to risk either of us breaking our neck a second night in a row. As I held Jake, protecting him, my thoughts turned back to Aftran. Instead of sadness, though, I felt anticipation.

I'd have her back tomorrow. I'd made it almost four days without a Yeerk in my head. And, well, if I hadn't seemed like myself during this time, at least it could have been a lot worse. After all, as much as it seemed callous to think this, a funeral weekend would be the best time not to seem like myself and avoid calling attention to it.

Then, I wondered how was Cassie feeling, knowing that after four days with her Yeerk best friend, this wouldn't happen again until after the war? She was probably dreading Aftran leaving her, even though she would feel guilty about wanting her to stay. I imagined that Cassie could talk to Illim and join the Peace Movement...no, then, she'd have to attend Sharing meetings and risk her family being infested. Besides, it wouldn't be Aftran. It wouldn't work.

I couldn't fake Aftran's presence once we got back, either. Couldn't let her stay with Cassie and pretend to be infested.

We'd go back to calling up Cassie twice a week or so, having her take on Aftran as a host while Jake and I spent time together, with just us. Maybe, though, we could make it longer than a couple of hours. Maybe, even, Cassie could take on Aftran for a night every once in awhile. It wouldn't be that strange to see all of us together, or at least her and Jake. Most people, I gathered, thought that they were kind of a couple.

We'd figure out a way to make it work for all three of us. Until the war ended.

In my bunk, I held Jake close to me. He'd fallen asleep first, and was muttering something in his sleep. Nothing war related. Sounded more like it was homework related. I had to fight to hold back laughter. At least, it wasn't his dream about stalking me as a tiger. That part of the war, at least, was behind us.

Before long, I fell asleep, and woke up around 7:00 to a sunny day, and, of course, a long car trip home.

"Ready to head home?" I asked Jake, as we headed downstairs.

He nodded, eagerly. "Yeah. You must be, too."

"Yeah," I agreed.

"Think it'll be tonight?" Jake asked.

I hoped so. "Probably," I answered. "A lot depends when we get home. If it's too late...Cassie might want an extra night, but it would mean making one of them-you know. Stage another appearance."

"She'd probably feed with Erek already," Jake pointed out. "Better than being hungry."

I just shrugged. "Guess we'll find out when we get back."

We ate quickly, and since there was leftover food, Dad suggested we take some of it for our lunch, and avoid a rest stop if at all possible.

"It might not be," he allowed, "but this way, we won't need to stop for fast food."

Since our parents were far from health nuts, even though Dad was a doctor, I took this to mean that he hadn't enjoyed the food at McDonalds on the trip up.

We'd all packed up the car the night before, minus our pajamas, swim suits, and the clothes we were wearing for today. The first two were now in a large trash bag and in the trunk of the car. Somehow, everything fit.

"You kids will sit in the back again?" Dad asked. "And Jean, you can help me with the map, if I need it."

We nodded, and Mom voiced her agreement with this plan. It wasn't even 8 in the morning before we had left the cabin.

I wondered if we'd ever go back. Mom said that it had gone to her parents, but they might decide to sell it, especially if they could get a good price for it. Too much of a hassle to drive back and forth to maintain it, I guessed.

Even though Jake and I weren't very tired, we tried to sleep for as much as possible on the drive back. There wasn't much else we could do.

We did have to stop to go to the bathroom, around 12. Dad announced that he had to go, and we all figured that while we were there, we might as well make the use of the facilities. Plus, it was a chance to get up and walk around.

No stop for food, though, which meant it only took about ten minutes instead of nearly an hour.

There must not have been much traffic on the way back, because we arrived at the house a little after 3:30. The entire trip had taken about seven and a half hours, instead of over eight. I felt excited, and oddly enough, a little nervous, as we pulled into the driveway and unpacked the car.

"You want to call, or should I?" I asked Jake, once everything was in the house, albeit in piles.

"I can do it," he told me, giving me a smile. "Want me to come with you?"

"Sure. It'd look weird if I went by myself, you know," I pointed out.

"Right." Jake headed to the kitchen, picked up the phone, and dialed Cassie's number. "Hey, it's Jake. Yeah, we're back. Okay, how about in a half an hour? Sure, we'll see you then." He hung up the phone. "You'll drive?"

We had bikes, and Jake could morph. But I couldn't, and driving would get us there faster.

"Yeah, just gotta borrow the car." I frowned. "We can say it's school related, if they ask."

It also would have made sense for Cassie to come here, but we'd have more privacy in her barn.

"Dad?" I called into the hallway. "I'm taking Jake over to Cassie's. We'll be back before dinner, okay? Except, I might have a Sharing meeting, so I might miss that."

"How's Jake going to get home if you have a Sharing meeting?" Dad asked me.

Fly, of course.

"I'll bring my bike," Jake offered.

Dad shrugged. "Okay, just be careful. Have fun."

"I hope I don't," I told Jake, once we were in the car. "Have a 'Sharing meeting', I mean."

"I can get home by flying," Jake reassured me. "Dad won't notice if the bike's in the car when you come back."

True enough.

Cassie was waiting by the barn entrance when we arrived, concern etched into her brows. "Hi, Jake, Tom. How did everything go?"

"About as well as we could have expected," Jake answered for me. "Thanks for doing this, Cassie. Really."

She smiled. "Like I told you before, Tom. It was no problem."

She closed the door, then spoke up again. "So, Erek's friend is going to pose as you again this evening at the Yeerk Pool. The appearance on Sunday went off without any hitches, according to the report he gve to Erek."

"Which I relayed to you," came a familiar voice.

Jake and I turned around to see Erek. Not just Erek, but beside him, a container of water, containing a Yeerk.

"What's this?" Jake asked, his tone indicating confusion, rather than anger.

Cassie smiled. "We figured that you, Tom, would appreciate having Aftran back well fed. And not have to go back to the Yeerk Pool tonight or tomorrow. Erek and I spoke yesterday, and he agreed to come over as soon as I came home from school. She started feeding about thirty minutes before you called." Glancing at her watch, she added, "which means that she's got about an hour left."

It was my turn to grin. "Thanks, Cassie. That's great news. I wasn't looking forward to going back there tonight, or tomorrow morning."

Jake nodded, smiling as well in both of our directions. "There will still be a Chee playing Tom, though? I don't know how closely they keep track of a Yeerk's feeding cycle..."

"Yeah, they definitely keep records," I reported. "They sign in, I think."

"Arthur will make an additional appearance," Erek promised.

Cassie looked a little mystified. "Wait, signing in? I didn't do that when I morphed Illim."

I shrugged. "Maybe they just track the Yeerk's DNA? I don't know, exactly."

"Probably doesn't matter, as long as a Chee playing Tom's Yeerk a few times doesn't raise any red flags," Jake pointed out. "And since Aftran has different DNA than the old one, and they haven't caught on..."

"Additionally, my Yeerk has not actually entered the Yeerk Pool for nearly three years, even though they believe that they see him entering and leaving every three days," Erek added. "Their system must not be foolproof."

We sat down, except Erek, who remained in place.

"How did everything go with Aftran?" I asked Cassie, after a minute.

Now that I was on the verge of getting her back, I kind of wanted to hear about her time away from me.

"Really well," she told me, smiling. "Rachel and I went to see a movie on Saturday night. She loved it. Her first non Disney movie ever."

"I hope you gave her the full experience," I replied, imagining the scene. "Popcorn, candy, the whole deal."

"Naturally. Two kinds of candy, and a bucket of popcorn," Cassie told us, laughing. "Of course, we didn't finish even half of it that night, so we brought it back with us, and finished it over the next couple of days."

I smiled. Aftran wasn't the typical Yeerk who refused to allow their host to consume junk food except when absolutely necessary to maintain their cover. She was almost human in her appreciation for snacks and candy.

"Were you-?" I began, then stopped, fearing it was too personal a question.

After all, while Aftran never took control from me unless it was really important to maintain our cover, I didn't know how things went with Cassie. Maybe, she was happy with Aftran being in charge the whole time. Or, perhaps it was a 50-50 deal.

Somehow, it felt intrusive to ask.

"In control while she was there?" Cassie finished, gently.

I glanced at Jake, briefly, who gave me a shrug.

"It's okay, Tom," Cassie reassured me, tentatively putting a hand on my shoulder. "Mostly, we split control. When she does use my body, she doesn't take control away from me. Even when she enters my head."

I nodded in understanding.

"Wait-Cassie, you mean, even when she enters your head, you don't lose control?" Jake asked, clearly surprised by this.

"Well, yeah." She paused. "Well, after that first time. Now, she just connects to my brain and can experience my senses without taking them over."

"It's not exactly easy that way," I explained. "She told me once that it's not so much physically hard, not to take control. But it goes against the Yeerk instinct. After awhile, it's got to get easier."

Maybe.

"Probably. I can ask her. Or you can," Cassie offered, with a light laugh.

I shrugged. "It's definitely way less horrifying when she does it like that. 'Course, she can't at the Yeerk Pool, but everything about that place is awful, so why shouldn't infestation be?" I pointed out.

I didn't add-probably didn't need to-that a part of me was always scared that it wouldn't be Aftran who came back into my head. In the first few weeks, as soon as I came back from the pool, Aftran would leave my head in front of Jake, so we could confirm that it was really me. We'd stopped after awhile. But, maybe, we should start it up again. We couldn't be too careful, after all.

Cassie and Jake didn't say anything, but I felt Jake's arm squeeze my shoulder. I turned and managed a smile at him.

"Hey. I'd probably be worse off if she wasn't there. Especially if I'd had to go into hiding," I finally stated. "This was definitely the better choice."

For everyone.

After awhile, Aftran swan to the edge of the container, the signal to Cassie that she was finished with feeding. Cassie looked at the container, then at me.

"You can take her now, if you want. She knows that it will be you, and not me, this time," she told me.

"Oh. Okay." I stood up, suddenly just a little apprehensive, even though I'd been looking forward to this for the past four days.

Carefully, I lifted Aftran from the container, and held her against my ear. I felt a faint pin prick of a sting before the anesthetic took hold, and pressure as she made her way inside.

Aftran didn't take control as she connected to my brain. She knew, after all, that we were away from the empire. That I would rather retain full control, in these circumstances. I felt myself relax as Aftran made full contact with my brain.

I'd missed this.

(Hello, Tom,) she greeted, her voice gentle and reassuring.

(Hey,) I answered.

She hugged me. I could feel my entire body relax, and my mind become completely at ease.

Aftran kept holding me like this for a good minute before asking me if she should take control.

I mentally shook my head, forcing myself out of my near doze.

(So,) I replied, sending her a mental grin, (have fun these last few days?)

(I enjoyed my time with Cassie,) she answered, returning my smile, (but I missed you, as well. I worried about you.)

I took a deep breath. (I missed you, too.)

She could see how much.

(Can I look at your memories?) she asked, and I could feel her hesitancy. (Not now, of course. But, perhaps, later?)

(Okay,) I agreed. Glancing in Cassie's direction, I saw her smile at me, albeit less enthusiastically than when I'd seen her four days ago. I wanted to address this, but saying something like "she misses you" felt trite.

Fortunately, one of the advantages to having a Yeerk in your head is that they know all of your thoughts.

(She'll be fine, Tom,) Aftran reassured me.

I sighed, mentally. How much I'd missed this when Aftran had been gone. Knowing this, of course, Aftran held me more tightly. It was like being reunited with a close friend after a long trip.

Which, of course, Aftran was.

I wanted to withdraw into my mind, let her take over, and take a long nap, but there was still some unfinished business here. Or, it felt that way.

(Do you...I don't know? Want to hug her, or something?) I asked Aftran.

Aftran shook her head, mentally. (No, I already did. Better if we leave soon, and not drag things out.)

That was true. Even though I didn't want to think about that now, having just gotten Aftran back, I knew that Cassie must be missing her.

(Maybe Friday, you two could get together? Have a sort of sleepover?) I suggested. (I was thinking, you could stay with her until Saturday afternoon, if we don't have any Sharing stuff that morning?)

I could feel Aftran considering my idea, seeing how I'd thought of it. I was her host, after all. She knew everything about me. Nothing that I could say or do would ever be a surprise for her. With my other Yeerks, this had been a depressing realization.

With Aftran, it was reassuring. Because, after all, she knew me as well as I knew myself, and she would never intentionally hurt me.

(Yes, Tom. That's a good idea, and I think Cassie would enjoy that,) she told me.

(So would you,) I pointed out, smiling mentally.

Aftran laughed. (I'm not opposed to it, Tom.)

(Yeah.)

I could feel exhaustion starting to set in. Oh, it wasn't physical, but it was still definitely there. Now that Aftran was back, it was like all of my energy had been spent, and I just felt drained.

(Aftran,) I began, (could you take over now? Like, take full control?)

I'd never actually asked for this before, but I figured it would be easier to nap in my head with her tapping off most of my access to my senses.

Nonplussed, she sent me a mental nod. (Of course, Tom. If you change your mind, though, just let me know.)

I managed a mental smile. (Thanks.)

I felt control slip from me, and Aftran hugged me, again, easing my way into the beginning of what felt like would be a long sleep.

For a little, I was awake enough to hear the conversation around me, though. The familiar voices, including my own.

"It's Aftran," she told Jake and Cassie, "Tom's very tired, and asked if I could..." She trailed off, probably not wanting to use a term like "take over" in front of my brother.

I was aware of Jake nodding through my opened eyes. "Right. We'd better be heading back. Thanks, Cassie. And Erek, you too."

"You're welcome," Erek told us, smiling.

"Also," Aftran continued, before Cassie could add anything, "we thought that Cassie might want to spend time with Aftran this Friday, into Saturday sometime. Possibly, the afternoon, if we don't have Sharing obligations."

Cassie's eyes, of course, lit up. "Definitely!" she replied.

"Great. We can let Jake know if anything changes before then," Aftran told her, and I could feel my mouth turn into a smile. "See you soon."

We headed out, then. Aftran drove, while I felt myself still in that stage of half sleeping. Still aware, or partially aware. Aftran had my eyes open, after all, as she focused on the road. I knew that I'd lose my consciousness soon enough, even as I was still hearing-but too sleepy to process-Aftran talking to Jake.

"Aftran?" Jake asked, at one point.

"Yes, Jake?" she answered, turning our eyes to see him.

"Is he okay?"

"He's fine," Aftran answered, and I felt her smiling through my mouth.

"Cassie's okay, too?" he pressed.

"Yes," was Aftran's reply. "She's fine. She's very strong, Jake."

"I-I want to talk to him about something. Not now. You already know, though." Jake's voice was quiet, and I was aware of the fact that he'd turned away from Aftran.

"I do?"

Even now, as my sense of awareness lessened, I could feel her confusion.

"About what happened to Temrash," Jake explained, his voice almost a whisper.

I could feel Aftran understand, even though I couldn't. And it wasn't because I was only half aware.

"If I can make a suggestion..." she offered, and I was aware that my voice was quieter than usual.

"Go ahead."

"Wait a few days." She paused.

"How long?"

"That's up to you, Jake. Tomorrow, perhaps?" Aftran suggested. "Or the day after. Not Friday. I assume you want me there?"

"I do." Jake was silent for a few minutes.

"I could tell him, Jake. If you'd prefer," she offered.

"No." I could hear the firmness in his voice. "Thanks, Aftran, really. But, no."

"All right." Her tone, I could tell, was conciliatory. Her emotions-cautious.

Even as I heard the words spoken by Aftran and Tom, I couldn't make much sense of them. I wasn't asleep, yet, but I was almost there.

(Aftran?) I mumbled. (Jake say something?)

I felt her hesitate, just for a second or two.

(Nothing to worry about,) Aftran assured me.

I gave her a brief mental nod, then surrendered to sleep.

Chapter Text

Sleeping when my body was still awake, under Aftran's control, wasn't something I considered unusual. Dreaming was. Maybe it had something to do with REM sleep. Sharing meetings, for full members, never lasted much longer than an hour. I remembered learning in class, or maybe just hearing from somewhere, that deep sleep took longer than that. So, if I fell asleep when Aftran was listening to Visser Three or Chapman's Yeerk or one of the Sub-Vissers drone on and on, it was usually more of a doze. A way to pass the time in my head. Sure, Aftran and I could pass some of the time talking, but she might have to pay attention to some details, and when you spend nearly all your time with your Yeerk, you're not going to want to talk all the time.

Anyway, dreaming during those naps was rare. This time, though, I did. It was kind of weird, but most dreams can be like that. This one felt almost like it took place in the future. Yeah, weird. Anyway. Grandpa G was talking to Jake and me. We were walking along the beach, our feet in the water, but the water wasn't cold. Sand didn't stick to our skin, either. Two figures walked with us-one was male, and one was female. Grandpa G was much younger, like how he looked in pictures when he was a few years older than I was. Early 20's, tops. Jake looked about his age, and even though I couldn't see myself, I thought that I must look like him. The male and female who were with us didn't speak in words, exactly, but they were familiar to us. I knew, then, that we were in Heaven. Which must have explained why the water wasn't cold, and the sand didn't stick to our feet. Why Jake and I were older, but Grandpa G was younger.

He told us how proud he was of us. That was the last thing I remembered, before I woke up.

Awareness came over me. Not like when you wake up from a nap or after you've fallen asleep for the night. It was more that my mind was suddenly aware of my body again. My senses amplified as Aftran released control over me. Well, full control, anyway. I was aware that I/we were standing in the bathroom I shared with Jake, and Aftran was brushing my teeth.

(Hello, sleepyhead,) she greeted, her tone affectionate.

(Hey,) I answered, trying to get a hold of my surroundings. I still felt...groggy. (Man. How long as I out for?)

Aftran spit out a mouthful of toothpaste, then glanced at my watch. (Approximately five hours,) she answered, gently. Affectionately.

(Wow,) I murmured. (Longest ever.)

(Well, it was a long four days,) Aftran reminded me, gently, as she gargled some warm water.

True enough.

(Did Karen ever...?) I began, then stopped. Well, sort of. Aftran knew all of my thoughts, after all.

(Oh yes, often,) Aftran replied, gently. (It was easier for her to-to cope. And for me, naturally.)

I could imagine. Aftran had told me that she never "disciplined" Karen the way that Temrash and Gariss had done to me, but still. No matter how gentle Aftran's treatment might have been in the eyes of the empire, Karen had been involuntary, and, besides, a very small child. I could only imagine how awful the experience had been for her.

We'd talked about this, before. Mostly, Aftran was the one who brought it up. Even though she'd freed Karen and given her control for a lot of the time in between deciding to free her and actually doing so, she still felt very guilty, now, about having taken her as a host. Or, since she'd known that Karen would have been infested regardless, having not treated her the way she now treated me. Aftran hoped to be able to reconcile with her former host completely after the war ended.

In the beginning, in spite of the rules we'd set in place, I half feared I'd receive similar treatment as Karen, before Aftran became part of the Peace Movement. I mean, if Aftran ended up being kind of a jerk, the only other way to handle me was to fake my death and keep me hidden. Which no one really wanted to do, for the reason they hadn't done it before. It would create too many problems.

Obviously, Aftran hadn't abused me. She'd helped me become more of the Tom I'd been before Temrash had claimed me, then Gariss.

Ironically, maybe, I felt more like myself with her than without.

Which had made those last four days something that I never wanted to go through again.

(Tom. I'm here, now,) Aftran reassured me.

We were still in the bathroom, standing at the sink. I saw myself in the mirror. Just another teenage boy with an alien in his head.

(Yeah.) I was quiet for a minute, as Aftran had left the bathroom and exchanged my clothes for pajamas. (You probably already saw my memories from the last few days?)

(Yes,) Aftran confirmed. (You did well, honey. Especially with Jake's nightmare. I'm proud of you, Tom. You've come so far since...)

(Since you came along?) I asked, teasingly.

(Well, not to brag, but...yes,) she admitted.

(Thanks. And, anyway, you can brag a little, as long as you don't get all empirey on me. It's true, you know. That you've helped me,) I teased her. I paused. (About Jake...)

(He'll probably explain everything when he's ready,) Aftran reassured me. (Most likely, in the next couple of days.)

I gave her a mental nod, not wanting to push the issue.

Well, not completely.

(He's not joining the Peace Movement, is he?) I ribbed at her. (Because, if he wants partial custody of you in addition to Cassie, that's going to be a hard schedule to keep track of. Not to mention that you'll go crazy from living in so many different heads.)

Aftran laughed, now moving my body into bed. (No, Tom. He's certainly not going to do that.)

I sighed with a mixture of relief and contentment asAftran went through the familiar motions of tucking me in, then turning me on my side, holding me in a strong mental hug the whole time.

I'd missed this. I closed my eyes, letting the mental and physical warmth flowing through me.

(What would you like, tonight?) Aftran asked me, smiling. (Story, talk, or lullaby?)

I remembered, now, how the very first time Aftran had made that suggestion, I'd actually laughed. Yeerks had songs-and what was more, lullabies? But, it was true. Songs that they sang to their hosts, mostly from the time that the Gedd was their only available host body, that they had passed down over the generations. I guessed, since the purpose was to relax your host's mind and make them more compliant, it wasn't considered treasonous or host sympathy to sing them. Anyway "sing" was kind of a misleading term. Most were kind of wordless, using various tunes and notes that could probably not be reproduced outside of a mind. Minds. Whatever. Aftran had "sang" ones to me on a few occasions, and while there was a somewhat haunting element to each of them, mostly, it was just relaxing and-well, all right, kind of beautiful.

Awe inspiring, even.

(Hmm. Yeerk lullaby,) I answered, burying the side of my face into my pillow. (Please.)

The music began, and I felt my mind relax again, my breathing become slower and steady.

My last conscious thought, before falling asleep, was how right everything felt, now that Aftran was back.

The following day, I woke up and felt almost joyful at the knowledge that she was still there.

(Good morning, Tom,) she greeted, cheerfully.

(Morning,) I answered, grinning inside my head.

We'd be returning to school today. Believe it or not, I was kind of looking forward to it, since it meant an official return to normalcy. Well, whatever "normalcy" was when there was a secret alien invasion going on, your vice principal was a fairly key player in it, and you were supposed to be a beaten involuntary host to a sadistic and highly ambitious Yeerk.

Thankfully, the last part of that equation had changed nearly three months ago, for which I was extremely grateful.

I couldn't thank Jake and his friends enough, really.

Naturally, I was in a fairly good mood when we rose from my bed and got dressed. In school, Aftran generally operated my body without taking control from me, except when we had to face anything directly related to the empire, like Chapman's Yeerk. It was a decent enough arrangement, allowing me to sleep in class when necessary, while not feeling anything resembling a prisoner in my own body.

About a third of my teachers were Controllers, but they were low ranking enough that we didn't interact very much outside of class. While Jake and his friends might be cautious to the point of paranoia that people would think their social circles had changed if they were seen together, it presented a real problem if teachers and students spent too much time together alone. Never mind the fact that it was all related to an alien invasion. Parents and others would draw another conclusion.

This meant, then, that I had to work for my grades and that, for the most part, we had limited interaction between us, outside of Sharing business. This suited me and Aftran just fine.

Instead of paying attention in Calculus, I thought about Jake. Specifically, what he wanted to tell me, that he hadn't been able to, before. Or, perhaps, it was new? Whatever it was, he'd addressed Aftran about it before me. That stung-just a little.

I felt Aftran grow uneasy as she heard my thoughts.

(Tom, he'll tell you when he's ready. Try not to dwell on it,) she reassured me.

I gave Aftran a mental nod. (I know. I get it. It's just...well, you know, Aftran. Whatever it is he wants to tell me, he's making me nervous. Why can't I just approach him about it?)

I knew what Aftran's answer would be. Knew it was right-factually, and ethically. Because, he had trusted Aftran, and hadn't wanted me to overhear. Because he would tell me, soon, and on his own terms, and I shouldn't nag him before he was ready.

(Exactly.) She gave me a mental smile. (You've prevented me from having to tell you this, you know. Anyway, you're correct. Just, try to be patient.)

(Yeah.) I gave a mental nod. (Okay. In the meantime, what do I do? Spend more time with him one-on-one? Leave him alone? Or, just, you know, the status quo-whatever that is?)

Aftran didn't reply immediately, but her emotions indicated that she was thinking over my question. (I suppose, some type of combination. Be there for him, as you always have been since I joined up with you. Don't hover, of course. Try to err on the side of keeping things normal, I suppose. I imagine that he'll want that.)

(And you think it will be today or tomorrow, whatever it is?) I pressed.

(I do,) she answered, with some certainty. (He doesn't want to wait very long.)

(He's waited this long,) I pointed out, not without some bitterness.

(Tom.) She hugged me. (You've been through so much during these past three years. He's trying to help you.)

Even as I relaxed into the hug, something Aftran had told me bugged me. (It's not good, then.)

(Tom...) Aftran sighed.

(Please, Aftran.) I needed to know. She knew I did. Whatever Jake was going to reveal, big or small, it wasn't anything good.

(Tom,) Aftran answered, speaking gently, but also a little firmly. Then, as though thinking it over, she relented. (No. It's not.)

I closed my eyes, thinking of anything that could have happened to Jake that would have made him hide it from me. Well, not tell me. Was it school related? Had he been responsible for Tobias' being caught in a hawk morph-even though, now, he could morph again? Did he feel like it was his fault for not rescuing me during the first battle at the Yeerk Pool? Or not doing so, earlier? I tried to go through every memory I had of every time the "Andalite Bandits" had thwarted Visser Three's plans. I drew a blank.

Finally, I decided to wait it out. Jake would tell me when he was ready. Whatever it was, like Aftran had told me, he had survived. Besides, maybe it wasn't related to the Yeerks at all. Maybe, it had happened long before then.

Probably not.

The rest of the day passed as normal as could be expected. A couple of my teachers let me know they were sorry about my great grandfather's loss. I took notes in classes, participated on occasion. Wrote down homework assignments. Just another day in the life of an eleventh grade high school student.

Jake met me at my locker at the end of the day. He'd only started high school this year, so it was kind of nice that we were in the same general vicinity. Especially now. Still, I was a little surprised that he was there, especially since his classes ended a little later than mine on most days.

"Hey," I told him, as I unlocked and opened my locker. "You're early. Everything okay?"

He nodded, but looked a little more tense than usual. "Yeah, classes were fine. Math got out early. We had a test, and we got to leave when we were done. And, well, thanks to your help, it was pretty easy."

I smiled at him. "Great. Want to walk home together? Once I figure out which books I need, that is."

Another nod. "Yeah. Sure."

I grabbed the books for the classes with homework-which was most of them-and relocked it. Locker theft wasn't a big thing in my school, but it still happened, and leaving your locker unlocked was pretty much asking for trouble.

"Okay. All set," I told Jake, slinging the bag over my head.

"Great." He smiled at me, but it looked a little strained. "You don't...do you have a Sharing meeting today?"

"That's not until tomorrow, according to Chapman. It's going to be a long one." Meaning, of course, that in addition to the full members only meeting, Aftran would need to feed afterwards. "You already got everything you need?"

Jake pointed to his backpack, which probably weighed close to a hundred pounds. "I'm good."

I mussed up his hair as we began the walk. "You sure?" I teased. "There might be some books left in the library you could need."

Jake straightened his hair, rolling his eyes at me. "Yeah, seriously," he grumbled. "High school is no joke around here."

Especially with fighting to save the world in your spare time.

"Yeah, I remember that. It gets a little easier in tenth grade, once you know what to expect," I reassured him. "And you've got me for extra help."

That got a real smile from him. "Yeah. Thanks, Tom. It's already easier...than it used to be."

I could imagine. Between homework help and a shoulder to lean on, his life must feel a million times easier, now, than it had just a few months ago.

Aftran wasn't just helping me.

We set off towards home. I wondered-as did Aftran, I was sure-if we were going to receive some big information from my kid brother. Of course, I couldn't ask him until we were home. Maybe his paranoia was getting to me, but I imagined that even empty streets could have ears. Besides, ours were never entirely empty, except maybe late at night.

Jake spoke first. "You ever feel like this is never-ending?"

I knew what he meant.

"Yeah. Sometimes," I admitted. I put an arm around his shoulder.

I half expected Jake to want to make a detour into the woods or something, to reveal whatever's been on his mind. Instead, we just headed home. Greeted our parents, who were standing together. Not that this was unusual, but it wasn't exactly normal, either.

"Hey, kids," Dad began, "your mom and I were thinking of going out to dinner tonight. Just us. There's still food leftover from the funeral, or I can give you money for pizza."

"Pizza!" we both exclaimed, grinning at each other.

Our parents both laughed, and Dad put up his hands in mock surrender. "Pizza it is, then."

"What time are you heading out?" I asked, accepting the bills from Mom.

"Around 5:00," she answered. "Our reservation is at 6, and it's a bit of a drive."

"Yeah, no kidding," Jake commented, "since it's not even 4 right now."

Our parents went out to eat fairly often, but they tended to stick to places close to home.

I wrapped an arm around Jake's shoulder. "Aww, midget, you finally learned how to tell time," I teased.

Jake disentangled himself from me, giving me a glare that--I knew--he didn't mean.

Dad just laughed. "When three people tell you in the span of a week how great a place is, I figure it must be," Dad explained, shrugging.

"Not counting two of my friends," Mom added, smiling at Dad.

"Oh, they were counted among the three," Dad laughed. "The third was my coworkers."

"Cool," Jake told them, smiling. "Well, homework calls. I've got a ton today. Tom, can you order the pizza, and let me know when it's here?"

"I'll order it, but it's up to you to get your butt downstairs before I eat the whole thing," I teased, ruffling his hair.

Dad rolled his eyes at us. "If you're that hungry, there's enough for two pies."

"We'll start with one," I promised.

"Anyway, I'll hear the doorbell before you can scarf it all down," Jake pointed out. To our parents, he said, "Have fun. We'll see you later tonight?"

"Yes, we should be in before you go to bed," Mom promised.

"I should get started on my massive homework pile, too," I added, with an exaggerated sigh, as I headed towards the stairs. "You two have fun."

I wasn't sure about Jake, but I had been exaggerating about the pile of work waiting for me. Or, maybe, it was because I had Aftran's help, now, and it rarely seemed like a huge amount. Whatever the reason, I was just finishing up when my parents left. I headed to Jake's room and knocked, even though the door was half open.

"Hey, Midget? Want me to order now, or wait?" I asked him, standing in the doorway.

He looked up from a half completed sheet of what looked like math problems. "Up to you."

I rolled my eyes at him. "Well, are you hungry?"

He put his pencil down on top of his paper. "Not really."

"Okay. Me neither, so we can wait. It only takes them like twenty minutes to deliver, anyway, so..." I made as though to leave.

"Tom?" Jake suddenly spoke up, his voice cracking a little.

"Yeah, Midget?" I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. Gently.

"C-can we talk?" His voice sounded shaky, and he looked down at his math homework immediately after speaking. Like, he didn't want to look at my face.

So, this was it. Probably.

"Sure." I smiled at him, hoping it didn't look fake. "Um, just us, or do you care if Aftran's listening in, too?"

Jake glanced at my head. "Oh, she should stay. I wanted to tell you over the weekend, but I couldn't. Not without her there."

I frowned. "But not before?"

Jake sighed, then stared at his homework. "I guess I've been putting it off. But when I had that dream, I knew I had to tell you what happened," he kind of muttered.

Gesturing towards his bed, I asked, "Can I?"

Jake looked around the room. "How about downstairs, instead? In the living room?"

"Okay. Sure," I told him, a little confused. What difference did the location make? Or, was Jake just trying to give himself time to figure out what to tell me? Or to put it off for a few minutes?

Either way, I promised myself to give Jake whatever I could, whatever he needed from me, to make this as easy as possible for him.

Aftran, I noticed, was being especially quiet. I didn't think she was hiding anything from me, or anything beyond what she flat out refused to tell me. Just-observing.

(You're welcome to give advice, you know,) I told her, after a minute.

(Tom, you're doing fine,) Aftran reassured me.

(Still,) I pressed. (You know what's going on, and I don't. If I need help with it, then...) I trailed off.

I wasn't sure what I was asking. Take control? Help me understand? Hug me? Some combination of all three?

(All right,) Aftran promised.

We walked downstairs and settled ourselves down on the living room couch. It might have seen better days, having been a part of the home for as long as I could remember, but it was still extremely comfortable.

I wanted to put a hand around Jake's shoulder, or even just hold his hand. I didn't, though. It seemed right for him to make the first move.

He tried to speak, a couple of times. Began sentences with half words, only to stop abruptly.

"Hey," I finally spoke up, trying to keep my voice as gentle as I could. "It's me, Midget. It's okay."

He nodded, then reached out for my hand, and I took it in his. "Okay."

"Okay," I repeated, squeezing his hand.

"I know that you had two Yeerks before Aftran," he began. "And one of them died."

"Yeah. Temrash 114. Just got promoted from Temrash 252 the day before he left me. His next assignment was to infest the governor, who was going to undergo this low risk operation in a new clinic. Check in free, check out infested," I recalled, recoiling a little at the memory.

"And they were going to do that to thousands of others," Jake explained. "Which we couldn't let happen."

I nodded. "From what Gariss heard, you guys basically boiled the Yeerk pool down there. No one survived, and the governor got to leave the place free. Not that he knew what their plans were for him."

Jake looked down at his shoes. "One survived. Your old Yeerk."

I frowned at him. "How?"

"When we were boiling the pool," Jake began, "Controllers came in. During the battle, I fell into the pool."

A feeling of disorientation, of half dread, crept over me. "Okay, but Midget, weren't they all dead by then?"

"Dying, probably. Not dead. Temrash-he escaped death by crawling into my head." He looked at me, briefly, then looked down at his shoes. "So, Tom, I was a Controller for three days. With your old Yeerk."

The End