Disclaimer: Animorphs was created and is owned by K.A. Applegate. It is published by Scholastic, Inc, though they only seem to own the copyright to franchise material and Alternamorphs. No copyright infringement is intended, nor is this meant to imply any intention of future books by K.A. (though I won't object to proof that I'm psychic). Please do not post this to any other site or server without my express permission as this story is copyright 1999 by Beth Epstein where it doesn't interfere with other copyrights.

Thanks to Ariana Brill and Wendy Kelley for beta reading and Becky Weisgerber for alpha-reading (and lending me all her books).

The Tocsin
by Beth Epstein

My name is Tom.  I'm not going to tell you my last name.  Frankly, I don't matter, but if you get my last name people I care about are going to be hurt, probably killed.  I'm sure that if you're reading this you know about the Yeerks.  And you know I have one wrapped around my brain most of the time.  So why, you must be wondering, am I telling you this?  Good question.  An imaginary audience is something to focus on, I guess.

It's better than sitting here listening to the sounds of the Yeerk pool.  I will never get used to this.  A lot of involuntary hosts spend the whole time in the cages shouting, crying, and screaming.  I gave up screaming ages ago.  All it did was give me a sore throat.

"How are you doing, Tom?" I hear from the next cage.

It's Dr. Kelley, the Junior High counselor.  Counselor as in shrink.  Since the Yeerk seems to have taken over for him, it's like the rest of us captives are his only chance to practice or something.

I bet that Yeerk tells all the kids to join The Sharing.  I'm glad my brother Jake's a good kid, I'm afraid to think about him becoming a Controller.

"The leg's better.  It'd probably be completely well  by now if that stupid slug would walk on it more."

"That's not what I meant."

"I don't want to talk about it."

"You need to..."

"I don't want to talk about it!  I stood from a window and watched Brill and Chapman almost gun down my father and my little brother.  Watched!  I couldn't break through.  Not for two lousy seconds.  So I don't want to talk about it.  I don't want to think about it.  I just want to curl up in a corner and forget about this whole stupid invasion.  There's nothing I can do.    Only bad construction work kept my hand from plunging a dagger into my Dad's back.  So if you don't mind, I'm gonna go take a swim in the river Denial before Kalbroun 6642 crawls back in my head and makes me live through it again, all right?"

"It's not your fault, Tom."

"Like hell it isn't."

"It's not your fault."

I cover my ears and start humming the most annoying song I can think of.  I'm glad none of my friends are around-- if they heard me humming 'N Sync, I'd never live it down.

All of that nonsense was just so that stupid slug in me wouldn't have to miss its Kandrona feeding in the Yeerk pool.

Kelley's sort of right, it's not my fault, but there should've been something I could have done.  Called out  a warning.  Somehow alerted Jake to the Yeerk's plan when the midget found that Nazi dagger in Grandpa G's footlocker-- not that he could've done anything about it.  If I couldn't clue Jake in, I should have at least kept the Yeerk from dashing his optimistic views of war--about honor and courage.  It amazes me that the Yeerk's  cruel words didn't keep him from staying with me when I broke my leg.  I was in charge then because the cowardly Yeerk was retreating from my brain as much as possible.  That way it wouldn't have to feel the pain.  I tried to send Jake away from me, afraid that at any moment the Yeerk would take control again and try to hurt him.

If it weren't for this whole invasion in the first place, those events would have proved to me there must be a G-d.  If the dock had broken a moment later, if I hadn't been bashed hard enough to break my leg, if the fracture hadn't been bad enough for them to take me back home.....  It was as if someone up there doesn't want me any more messed up than I all ready am.  Thing is, why am I a prisoner then?  Is it someone's master plan?  Or maybe this higher power is more like Q than G-d.

Hork-Bajir come to drag me to the infestation pier.  Oh no, not another new Yeerk!  What a chicken Kalbroun is, doesn't want to live with the memories-- or maybe it's just sick of my bum leg.  I still think it would be fine if it were walked on more.  There are times I want to curl up in a corner and die.  Not that I could tell Kelley that, I'd have gotten more of his head shrinking nonsense.

Don't give up, Tom.  Don't ever give up.

The voice from a couple months ago rings in my ears again, haunting me.  Why is it so familiar?  Sometimes it's the only thing that keeps me going.  I know it seems ridiculous, to be driven on by some strange voice, but there's just something about it....

The Hork Ba-jerks dangle my head over the pier and a slug swims into my ear, squirming.... Well, I'll spare you the gory details.  I'm just glad they secrete pain killers to numb the ear canal.  Ouch.

<Go to hell, Yeerk.>  I want to make my position clear from the outset.

<That's where your last captor will go, I assure you.  If the place really exists, I'm sure there's a special corner for war criminals like that.  We Yeerks don't have the same attachment to our families you do-- our parents merge and die to create many children at once-- but from what I have learned from my previous hosts, it must have been awful for you.>

An empathetic Yeerk.  This is a new one.

<If you wish me to leave at the end of my feeding cycle I will find some excuse to not return.  I wish I could tell you I wouldn't be replaced, but I will.  I am here to offer you an opportunity,>  the Yeerk says.

"Do you require a ride?" Chapman's mouth asks, interrupting the conversation with my new captor.

I'm off the crutches, the cast is gone, but still everyone seems to be babying me.  Mom's the worst, but Chapman's Yeerk is also being a pain.

"I believe it would do this body some good to walk,"  the Yeerk replies.  My legs start climbing the steps to the Yeerk pool, pass through the Gleet biofilters, and start the walk home.

<Opportunity for what?> I ask.

<Some of us don't like being invaders.  Our race is becoming cruel and heartless.  This is no longer about learning or bettering ourselves.  It is about conquest and power.  Some of us have decided to only take voluntary hosts; some of us want peace.  And with the progress of the invasion, we are beginning to fear that it may be too late when we are ready to move against those who favor invasion.  We have decided to help those who oppose the invasion in an effort to slow it down until our numbers are sufficient to make a move.>

<You want me to help the Andalite bandits?  How do you expect me to help?  What lead you to all this?  And why me?>

I get the bizarre feeling that my recruitment, so to speak, wasn't exactly an accident.  Not by a long shot.

<We want peace because believe it or not, some us of feel pain at the pain of other sentient creatures.  Your people have taught me, and others of my movement, love, compassion.  We cannot continue as we are.  And the Yeerks will suffer for injustices if we continue down this path.>

I don't believe it.  A Yeerk worried about karma.

<You only answered one of  my questions,> I complain.

<I cannot answer the others unless you agree to help us.  If that information got into the wrong hands-- the proverbial ones of most of my brother Yeerks, for example-- it would be the end of hope.>

The end of hope has been and gone.

<I can offer you hope again, Tom.  More than that, but only if you can just bring yourself to trust me.  How rude of me, I haven't introduced myself.  I am Nestreen 476.>

My feet turn the corner into my street, walk down it, and then turn into the driveway.  Jake, my little brother, shoots hoops in the driveway.  He's intent, involved.  He doesn't notice me approaching.  His dribbling's high and wide.  Careless.  It would be so easy to swipe the ball, even with my bad leg, and take a shot.  I can't remember the last time we shot hoops together.  Seems like ages.  I miss basketball.  I miss Jake.

<Go ahead, I'll watch,> Nestreen says and retreats somewhat from my brain, letting himself see and feel, but allowing me the ability to move and speak of my own accord.  A big risk on his part.  I could start screaming about  the Yeerks and  the invasion.  But that would only end up with me dead or in a loony bin.  And he knows darn well that I know that.

I sneak behind Jake, and steal the ball from his careless dribbling;  then I take a shot.  My leg complains a tiny bit, but it's not too bad.  I knew some exercise would do it good.

I miss the shot by a mile.

"Hey, midget," I smile meekly.

Jake's looking at me like I'm nuts.

"What's the matter, you never see a guy miss a shot before?"

"You haven't wanted to shoot in ages, Tom," he replies, his voice almost cracking.

When did it start changing?

I roll my eyes.  "Well, duh.  I broke my leg, remember?"

"Even before that."

I shrug.  "How's that jump shot of yours?"

We spend the next half hour or so shouting and tossing the ball around.

<Your leg will probably be throbbing later,> Nestreen chides me.

<No pain, no gain.>

"Jake, Tom, dinner," Mom calls.

How'd she know I was home?

Jake starts trotting in, sighing deeply.  Is he relieved?  Why?  Is he afraid I'll hurt myself again?

I grab his shoulder.  Not that I'm insulted, but I want to give der uberslug the ultimate test.

"Jake, this is going to sound completely nuts, but take it seriously.  I want you to promise me you won't join The Sharing.  No matter how much I pester you, don't join.  Do you promise?"

He let me say it.  Could he actually be for real?

<I assure you, Tom, I am not trying to mislead you,> Nestreen says.

<But you won't tell me the whole truth, either.>

<Others' safety is at stake.>

Uh-huh.  Sure, that's what they all say.

Jake's mouth is hanging open.  His eyes are wide, and, this is bad, I'm not so sure he's breathing.  He's in shock, complete utter shock.  Suddenly he recovers and does something I never expect.  He hugs me round the waist; I wrap my arms around his shoulders and squeeze back.  I've needed this, ever since he was almost gunned down not 30 feet from where we're standing now.  Ever since the dagger....

"I promise, Tom."

"Boys!" Mom calls from the back door.

"Coming," I respond, reluctantly prying Jake away.  "C'mon, midget, before Mom's meatloaf gets cold."

We go inside.

"Did you two have fun?" Dad asks as Jake sits at the table.

I can't help myself.  I hug him.  "I love you, Dad."

Dad jumps, then recovers and squeezes back.  "I love you too, son."

I release him and head for my seat.

"I don't know what brought this on, but it's certainly a welcome change.  I haven't seen you two doing anything together in ages."

"Well," Jake grins, "between his leg and all those Sharing picnics, Tom's really slowed down.  He can't shoot anymore.  He's ashamed to be seen with me 'cause I can beat him with one hand tied behind my back."

He dares to say this just as I'm walking behind him to my seat?  Uh-uh, he's not getting away with that.  I catch him in a head lock, and start giving him noogies.  "Oh, you can, can you?  Can you get out of this?  Huh?  Huh?"

Jake's laughing so hard he can't cry uncle.  I glance up and notice Mom and Dad are beaming.  I guess Kalbroun has been acting adversarial towards Jake lately.  I don't know what the rest of the family makes of it-- and I'm not too sure I want to know.

"I take it back!  I take it back," Jake finally manages to cry out.

I let him go, and we all sit down to dinner like nothing happened. ***

Later, in my room, I think at the Yeerk again.  <If I help you, can I have this?  Be a part of my family again?  Not have to....>

<I promise, Tom, if you agree to help, no matter the risk to my life, there will be no more Yeerk attacks on your home.  You will never have to watch, unable to warn an unwitting family member of impending danger>

Why did that last sentence seem so carefully worded then?

<Will I be able to interact with them?  Play basketball with Jake?> I push him for more details.

<Yes, but you won't have time for the team.>

How's he reading thoughts I don't even know I'm having?

<I want time for Jake,> I clarify.

I haven't wanted to notice for some reason, but something's wrong.  He's... different somehow.

<Time for him is definitely a part of the plan,> Nestreen replies.

Hmm, some freedom, no more helpless standing by while Yeerks try to gun down my family, fighting to make sure no one else goes through that....  why wouldn't I be in?

Could it be some kind of trick?

For what?

Besides, something about this Yeerk is different.  Understanding.  Or at least trying to be.

<I like to think of myself as curious,> Nestreen corrects.

<Any way you can quit reading my thoughts like that?>

<I don't think so.  I'm sorry.>

<OK, I'm in.  What's the full story?>

<Unfortunately, the militant segment of our people is moving on the invasion relatively quickly.  We need to stall them until we can gather more support.  There is all ready a force trying to fight the invasion...>

<You mean you want me to help the Andalite bandits?> I interrupt.

<Not so much help as provide with intelligence.  And support.>  He didn't mean military support.

<Support?>

<You see,> Nestreen continued, <the "Andalite bandits" are really one Andalite, one human stuck in red-tailed hawk morph, and four human children.>

<Human children?  Some of those battle plans came from children?  And what's this got to do with me?>

<They call themselves Animorphs.  Their leader is your brother, Jake.>

<Jake?  Animorphs?  Hey, wait a minute, how do you know all this?>  I don't like this.  I smell a trap.

Nestreen explained everything to me.  A Yeerk controlling a very young human body following Cassie and seeing her demorph.  A confrontation between them that resulted in Cassie allowing that Yeerk to infest her in the hope that somehow, they could make some sort of peace between them.  And then that same Yeerk, Aftran 942, giving up her life to protect the movement months later, having been rescued from Visser Three's interrogation by the Animorphs.  Unfortunately, there's no known way to rescue a Yeerk from lack of Kandrona rays.  No rational course of action, anyway.

<No, oatmeal was definitely not the way to go,> Nestreen agreed.

I shudder.  Having a crazy Yeerk in one's head is worse than an evil one.

<Do I qualify?>

I don't know how to answer that one.  A small part of me wonders if this is a set-up, a way to get me to betray Jake. But somehow, I'm sure if the Yeerks really knew who the Andalite bandits were, they wouldn't need little old me to do them in.

<Exactly,> Nestreen responds to my thoughts again.

<Ok, so what's the game plan?>

Nestreen outlines his strategy.

<That's it?> I don't like the sound of this.

<Do you have a better idea?>

<No, not really.>

<Here's where I need your help: we need to ensure we have privacy.  That Jake won't just... "bail", as you would say,> Nestreen requests.

<You could just search through my memories for that.>

<Yes, I could.>

He didn't.

* * *

I walk down to the kitchen, where Jake is starting his homework-- on a Friday night, no less.  Mom is just finishing the dinner dishes.

<Hey, how come none of the Yeerks' so-called "bandit" experts have noticed that they mostly attack on weekends?> I inquire.

<Ever notice how most of our initiatives happen over weekends?  Hosts have to work or go to school too, you know.>

<Oh, right, I forgot about that.>

"Hey midget, you want to camp out in the backyard tonight?  It's too nice out to be cooped up in here."

It was a gorgeous May evening: not too hot, not too cold.

From the look on Jake's face, you'd think it's the middle of January or something.  He looks like a deer trapped in headlights.  Of course, he knows.  He's probably afraid I'll try to infest him.

"Sounds like a good idea, I'll make you boys some lemonade.  Jake, help your brother find the tent," Mom says, swiping Jake's math books.

Sorry midget, you're being railroaded.

"It's in the garage where he left it after the last Sharing camp out," Jake sighs.  "I'll get the sleeping bags, I think they're in the attic."

Jake dashes upstairs, and then pauses by the phone.

Probably calling some back-up; I can't say that I blame him.  I dig the tent out of the mess in the garage and start to set it up in the back yard.  I notice a bald eagle perched in a tree, watching me intently.  Jake's back-up was fast.

He comes out a couple minutes later, awkwardly managing the two slick sleeping bags, one blue, one green, rolled into tight wads.  Or, at least, they're supposed to be.  One slips out of its roll and uncurls towards the grass.  Fortunately, I'm done with the tent.

"Here, midget," I say gently, grabbing one, and trying to wrest it from Jake's grasp so I can carry it to the tent.

"I've got it, Tom, really."

"All right, I'll go see if Mom's got the lemonade ready yet."

I walk back towards the house, knees shaking just a bit.

<Relax, we can do this,> the Yeerk assures me.

<It's sort of nerve wracking to see your little brother genuinely scared of you, y'know?>

<Not first hand, but I'm beginning to see why that might be the case.>

I enter the kitchen.  Mom's stirring the lemonade and filling two glasses with ice.

"Thanks, Mom," I give her a peck on the cheek and reach for the tray.

<You're forgetting something,> Nestreen takes over, and changes the direction of my hand.

He takes a glass from the cupboard and fills it with lukewarm water and places it on the tray.

"You're not planning on soaking him again, are you, Tom?"

"I'd use a water pistol, Mom," he relays my reply, laughing for both of us.

He-- we head out to the tent, and enter.

"Fresh lemonade, get it while it's sour," Nestreen jokes.

<We're gonna have to work on your sense of humor,> I tell him.

Jake is cowering in the back of the tent, his legs against his chest.  He looks at me warily.

Nestreen tries to give him a reassuring smile.  He fails miserably.

"Relax, Jake, my name is Nestreen 476, I'm a member of the Yeerk peace movement.  I have no intention of infesting you."

Jake gives me his best "are you nuts" look.  I know it's an act, though.  He's not that good an actor.

"I didn't think you'd believe me, but please consider this.  We've been maneuvering for one of us to be able to... team up with your brother for months now.  We need to be able to coordinate our efforts and you... you need someone you can trust.  Being the leader of the Animorphs must be a lonely task indeed."

Jake's mouth drops open.  He looks even more surprised than he did in our driveway earlier.  He shakes his head incredulously.

"Maybe what you need right now is a private chat with your brother, hmm?"

With that, Nestreen wriggled out of my ear.  I drop him into a glass of water.

Jake hasn't closed his mouth yet.  He gingerly takes a glass of lemonade and sips it tentatively, as if trying to find his voice.

"That-- that was you earlier.  Playing one-on-one, and at dinner."

"Yeah," I nod.  Things are awkward all of a sudden, strained.

Are the events surrounding Grandpa G's death swimming through his thoughts as they are mine?  Did he know what he was doing when he drenched Chapman's car with the hose?  I don't want to talk about it right now, but sometime I'll have to bring it up-- if he knew, I'm gonna have to smack him silly for being so stupid.

"Look, Tom, I know this isn't your fault, that... well I have to ask."

I steel myself.  Not sure how to respond to the questions I'm sure are coming.

"Can we trust it?" Jake indicates Nestreen swimming in the water glass.

That wasn't the question I was expecting.

Maybe he's not ready to talk about it either.

"He's not like the others, Jake.  He's... not arrogant.  Sort of joking and curious.  Well, he tries to joke, but let me tell you, Marco at his worst is funnier."

Jake cracks a grin.

I continue, "He's the only one I've run into that doesn't just go digging around in my memories.  This," I indicate the tent, "was all my idea."

Jake stares into his lemonade.  This wasn't exactly the reaction I was expecting.  He's still scared!  Then again, we've been dealing with the bandits for months, I imagine he's had to be.

Jake looks at me, then the Yeerk.  Then at me.

Tears start streaming down his face.  I reach out to put a hand on his shoulder, arm around him, something, and he grabs me in a terrified embrace.

Be strong, Tom, Jake needs you now.

I hug him back, running a gentle hand over his hair.  "It's all right, now, Jake.  I'm not the enemy anymore."

"You were never the enemy.  But the Yeerks... the nightmares.  I used to dream..." He sobs some long sentence.  All I can  make out are "tiger morph", "dock", and "real".

"Huh?"

He takes a breath and tries again, pulling away from the hug, but still sitting close.  I put an arm around his shoulders.  He needs the support.

"I keep having nightmares about stalking you in tiger morph.  Even if I don't have to.  I was constantly afraid that I'd have to kill you or watch you die-- I still am.  But at Grandpa G's... on the dock, when I saw the dagger, I morphed tiger," he pauses, taking a sobbing breath.  "If Cassie hadn't rammed the dock when she did... G-d, I don't want to talk about that weekend."

"I don't think either of us is ready.  Plenty of time..." I squeeze him with the one arm.

"I still can't decide which part of that dream is worse," he goes on, apparently able to talk about the dream, "stalking you or the part where the tiger leaps and suddenly I'm the one being leapt on by a tiger."

I search for the right words for a moment.  I couldn't tell him that it was OK.  Until the Yeerks are gone, or at least not intent on infesting all the Earth's humans and killing off most of its wildlife, things will never be OK.

"We're a team again, Jake, unstoppable.  No one messes with the _________ brothers, no one."

And then the tent lifts above us.  I snatch Nestreen's glass, saving it from being tipped over, only to find myself staring at an elephant with the tent in its trunk.

"Sorry, Rachel, I got sort of distracted....  No, that's Tom's Yeerk in the glass.  He's a member of the peace movement....  I think so...."

"Midget, have you snapped?"

<Sorry, Tom, private thought speak.  Didn't mean to leave you out,> my cousin Rachel's "voice" sounds in my head.

I jump.  More from habit than anything.  The only thought speak I'm used to is Visser 3's, and it never occurred to me that the Andalite talent for psuedo-telepathy would transfer to humans with their morphing technology.

"Rachel, you haven't suddenly been taking random dips in the South Pacific, have you?" I ask.

<Huh?> she asks.

"Bad joke, never mind," I reply.  Clearly my cousin never watched that show about kids with psionic powers from a few years ago.  Oh, well.

Rachel puts down the tent and starts shrinking.  Her trunk sucks into her nose like a big string of spaghetti.  I turn away in disgust.

"Is it always like that?" I ask.

"Sometimes it's grosser," Jake replies.

"You can turn around now, Tom," Rachel giggles.

I turn around to face my cousin.  She's wearing a tight black leotard.

"Hey, look, it's Mary Lou Rhetton," I can't help but crack.

"We can't morph anything but minimal clothing.  Not even Cassie," Jake explains.

"Jake!  You shouldn't be telling him all this," Rachel protests.

"I told you we can trust him," my brother retorts.

"We need to have a meeting."  Rachel frowns.  It's clear she isn't as ready to believe me as Jake is.  "Usual spot in 20 minutes, and leave Tom behind."

With that, she starts changing again.  Jake's right, morphing gets grosser.  The beak forming out of her lips is one thing, but the sight of talons shooting out of Rachel's toenails will give me nightmares forever.  Once she's fully eagle, she flies away.

A part of me is jealous.

Jake shuffles from foot to foot.  "Um, think I can sneak away without Mom noticing?"

"No problem."  I wink, fish Nestreen out of my glass, and stick him back inside my ear.

I go inside the house.  "I'm taking Jake for ice cream, we'll be back eventually," I inform Mom.

"Tom, honey, are you sure your leg is up to it?  Maybe you should take the car."

"It's never gonna get better if I keep babying it, Ma," I sigh.

"All right, have fun dear.  Call if you want a ride home.  It's nice to see you two getting along again.  Things have been pretty tense around here."

So that's why she pushed him into the camp-out.  She thought I was trying to declare a truce.

I go back outside.

"Cassie's barn?"  Nestreen asks.

"How'd...?"  Jake begins.

"Aftran.  A martyr to the peace movement."

"Aftran's not dead.  She's a nothlit, trapped in humpback whale morph.  We didn't want to let her die, so we let her choose a new body," Jake says.

Nestreen cheers in triumph, drowning out what Jake's trying to say.

"...shouldn't come.  You heard Rachel."

Guess he means I shouldn't come.  Heh, appeal to his ego, Tom.  "I thought you were the leader."

"Not like I asked for it or anything.  They're being paranoid.  We're all paranoid," Jake pauses, mulling over what to do.  "Give me about 10 minutes' head start, then come over on your bike.  The difference should be enough time for me to convince them.  If your leg is up to it, that is.  Maybe you should..."

"It's fine, really!"

Jake sighs and slips out of sight, pulling off his shoes, shorts, and large t-shirt to reveal biker shorts, and a really tight t-shirt.  A feather pattern starts appearing on his skin and I turn around, not really wanting to see the rest.

* * * About 40 minutes later, we pull my bike into Cassie's driveway.

<OK, Nestreen, now what?> I ask.

<You can come in, Tom,> thoughts I don't recognize come into my head.

Darn, I was hoping we'd have to wait.  I'm not ready to go in yet.  I just want to rest awhile.

<Just a precaution,> Rachel this time.  <I'm not attacking unless one of us is in immediate danger.>

What's a precaution?  Guess I'll find out.  At any rate,  I think Jake's right, they're paranoid.

I walk into the room.  I'm greeted by three boys: my brother, Marco, and a boy who looks strangely familiar, yet so... not.  Cassie, a hawk, and a grizzly bear round out the other beings in the barn.  Nestreen told me on the way over that Cassie and Jake like each other.  I'm going to have a little chat with him later about telling me these things.  I'll say this much: he's got interesting taste.  She's cute, and she's feeding this wild wolf like it's Homer.  Cute and brave; way to go, midget.

<Should I tell him you approve?> Nestreen asks.

<Not in front of her, you'll embarrass him!  And is Rachel the grizzly bear? > I should probably distract him from Cassie.

<Yes, that's Rachel's favorite morph.>

<Aftran told you a lot, huh?>

<Someone had to know this stuff,> Nestreen explains.

<Good thing you're not on Visser Three's side.  I just hope the midget remembered to feed her.>

"My name is Nestreen.  I know you all must be scared," he begins, "but I assure you that I am indeed a member of the peace movement."

The strange boy shakes his head without saying a  word.

<We know, Ax-man,> thought speak from the hawk (I think).  <He's a Yeerk, he's not to be trusted.>

The boy must be Ax, the only real Andalite, in human morph.

Nestreen tenses a bit.

"What's the matter, don't you like Andalites?" Marco taunts.

"I am nervous.  There is... a lot of animosity between our people," Nestreen replies.

"You want to infest him," Marco goes on.  "Or any of us.  You want to be the second morph capable Yeerk and then get a promotion..."

"Do you think I'm that stupid?" Nestreen snaps.  "You six have been a thorn in our side for months.  You've accomplished some pretty impossible things.  Do you really think I am arrogant enough, stupid enough to think that even with Tom's help I could defeat you by myself?  No, the smart thing to do would be to tell Visser Three immediately, to attack your homes while you slept and infest you right away.  If that was what I wanted, you would all be dead or Controllers by now.  You are not, and we are here, talking like reasonable beings.  Would you like to speak to Tom?  He helps me quite willingly, I assure you."

Nestreen starts wriggling out of my ear.

Cassie hands me a glass of water, I raise an eyebrow-- she's prepared.

"I do not believe it.  ieve.  leave.  A Yeerk who refers to its host by name.  na-m-uh.  muh.  Such interesting sounds," Ax says.

It's so familiar, that way of speaking.  My mouth drops open.  "Jake, you were talking like that for a few days a couple of months back.  And then you stopped..." I trail off as a ton of bricks hits me.  Ax must have been impersonating Jake for a few days, but why?  Wait, not a few days, three days.   Jake was... "Oh my god, Jake."  I pull him into a hug, not mindful of anything or anyone; it's a miracle I don't spill the water.

Cassie picks Nestreen up from the floor, and puts him in the water glass, taking it from me.

Jake tries to pull away, muttering, "Not in front of everyone."

I don't want to let him go, not yet.  I squeeze tighter, keeping him close.

"The Yeerk exiting is not a trick.  tri-kuh. kuh."

<No kidding,> the hawk adds.  <Even if a Yeerk were hugging Jake, he'd have let go just now.  Wouldn't want to scare us off.>

Rachel swims into my vision.  Fully human.  "OK, Jake, you're right.  It's really him."

"Will you let go, Tom?" Jake asks, his voice full of exasperation.  He tries to pull away again.

I guess I'm feeling a little overprotective.  It's just the thought of Jake being a Controller....

Reluctantly, I let him go.  "Sorry," I mutter, but I'm not, not really.  Well, not much.

"Now what?" Marco asks.  He's still frowning, but it's clear he's the only one not convinced.

Cassie hands me the glass.  I slip Nestreen back into my ear.  The Animorphs all shudder.  I guess they don't like the thought of anyone doing that voluntarily.  Frankly, it's still weirding me out a bit.

"Ok, Nestreen wants to talk to you now...."

He takes over.  "There is not much currently going on, no real missions, but I and my brother Yeerks will be watching and I will let you know if there is something major going on or if we need your help."

<OK, my turn all ready!> I complain.  I suddenly realize that there's something they need from me as well.  All of them, not just Jake.

"Tom's pestering me for control again," Nestreen says.

<You think that's pestering?> I ask.   <Oh, dear, wait 'til Jake gets in a stubborn mood.  Then you'll see pestering.>

Cassie picks up the glass.

"Not necessary, Cass, he can let me talk whenever he wants."

Cassie puts down the glass, her nose sort of wrinkled.  I make a mental note not to call my brother's girlfriend "Cass" again.

"First of all, you should know that the involuntary Controllers I've talked to in the Yeerk pool.... well, I won't lie, things are bad, but since the 'Andalite' bandits came on the scene, there's been a lot more hope, and a lot more screaming at the Yeerks.  This isn't something you should probably act on right away, but it could be an ace in the hole.  Also, you are doing some good, you are helping, even if it doesn't always feel like it.

"The other thing, is, well, I know most of you don't know me as well as Jake does, but if any of you need someone to talk to, need help working things through, you can all come to me," I finish.  I'm not sure if they'll take me up on it, but it's out there.

Things sort of degenerate into side conversations from there.

Marco takes me aside.

"Tom, about Visser One, with the Hork-Bajir valley..." Marco begins.

"We never found her, Marco, your mom might still be alive."

He gulps.

"What is it?"

"She knows.  About us.  I tried to keep her from recognizing me that day, but it didn't work."

"If she was gonna do something soon, she would've by now.  Visser Three's forces have taken over a lot of hers, but we haven't found Visser One.  Try not to worry too much, huh?"

He nods.  He seems unsettled, though.  Facing her must have been awful for him.  I guess if she was dead, at least he'd know he'd never have to go through that again.

Jake and I make our good-byes, and then, for the sake of appearances, or maybe just for the sake of ice cream, we agree to meet at Dairy Queen.

* * *

I pull up at the restaurant and find Jake all ready waiting outside for me.  That bird morph of his is fast!  We go inside, and I order two cones-- when I told Mom I was "taking" Jake to DQ, I meant it.  (Besides, one of the advantages of all those Sharing meetings is I never seem to have time to spend my allowance.)

I pay for the cones and we find a table out side and sit down.

"So, Jake, how come you never told me about your new girlfriend?" I tease.

"Cassie's not my girlfriend," Jake replies, a little too fast, too gruff.

"Aw, midget, don't tell me you've been too chicken to ask her out?"

Jake mock punches me on the arm.  That's Jake-speak for "yes, but if you're going to be a jerk about it I'm not telling you".

***

We sit in the tent, sipping lemonade; it's starting to get dark, the sun dipping below the horizon.  I won't tell you what time it was, it'll tell you how far north we are.

"You know, Tom, we've been talking about me, but I can't be the only one who needs to talk about stuff," Jake says, quietly.

"Is this your bizarre way of asking how I became a Controller, midget?" That could be it.  Or it could be Grandpa G's funeral.  I just know which one I'd rather talk about.

<He knows how you became a Controller,> Nestreen says.

<How can he know?>

"Um, I sorta know," Jake tells the top of his sleeping bag.  "You joined the Sharing to be with some girl, and burst in on a 'full members meeting' thinking she was seeing someone else.  But what you saw was Visser Three in his natural body.  They had to infest you to protect the invasion."

Maybe he's the one who's been to the island in the South Pacific.  "But how do you..."

"The Yeerk, the one who infested me, was Temrash 114-- might've still been 252 when he left you."

"Hospital dork?  I thought he got boiled waiting to get stuck into the governor."

"No such luck, he had to die the hard way."

The fugue.  Poor Jake, I heard some nasty tales of it after the oatmeal incident.  And Temrash.  Ugh.

"He was an obnoxious one, not as bad as Kalbroun-- the one before Nestreen.  The one who made me... made me..."  I choke.  I can't say it.  Not to Jake.

"Made you watch while Chapman drove by and tried to shoot Dad and me?" Jake finishes quietly.

"Yeah.  Did you know what they were doing when you turned the hose on him?"

"Yeah.  That was pr... ouch!  What was that for?"

Jake objects as I smack him upside the head.

"You idiot!  You could've been killed."

Jake stares at his sleeping bag again.  "If I hadn't Dad would be dead right now!  And you would've had to watch.  I wanted to kill that Yeerk for what it put you through.  I wanted to yank it out of your head and pour salt on it and stomp on it and...."  Jake looks at me, and doesn't like what he sees.

My mouth is hanging open in shock, my eyes wide.  My little brother who not three months ago was talking about honor and courage in war is speaking of torturing another sentient creature?

Jake nods.  "It scares me too.  When I first found out that we were going to Grandpa G's cabin for four days, I was gloating that the Yeerk was going to die.  I was so full of hate, it terrified me.  I wasn't thinking clearly, that whole weekend.  At least not until Marco and everyone showed up and broke the dock and all that I had to do was pull you onto shore.  I knew you'd broken through then, that it was you trying to send me away.  But I knew why, and I just... had to be there.  Had to make some small part of it a little better, had to feel that there was something I could fix."

I put a hand on his shoulder.  "I clung to that.  Part of me wondered if you saw, but I thought if you had, you wouldn't have stayed like that.  I felt awful, Kalbroun had been a real jerk to you that evening, and there you were, sticking by me....  Man, that night was so lucky, if the dock had broken one second later..."

Jake interrupts, "If it hadn't been old enough for Cassie to break it, if they'd been just a little later, if they hadn't found us after I told them we were leaving in the afternoon when we really left in the morning, if....  You can pile if upon if, Tom, it'll just drive you crazy.  I did for a couple days, and then I decided to stop it, it'd make things worse.  The bottom line was that I was lucky, and I still had both my father and my big brother."

He stops, sniffing a bit.  I put an arm around his shoulder.  "Almost makes you wonder if there's a higher power, doesn't it?"

"Aw, man, let's not even get into the Ellimist and Crayak," Jake nearly whines.

"Ellimist?  Crayak?"

Jake yawns.  "Sort of like Q, but worse.  I'm not gonna try to explain it all tonight."

"I think it's time to go to sleep," I say, gently, "it's been a long day."

I climb into my sleeping bag and settle back, trying to relax.

"Aren't you gonna tell me a ghost story?" Jake asks innocently.

<He's gotta be kidding me,> I tell Nestreen.  <I always scare him to death and we end up sharing a sleeping bag.>

<Why do you two need an excuse for that, anyway?> Nestreen laughs.

<Good point.>

  "Let's not and say we did."  I move over towards the fold, holding the sleeping bag open.

Jake climbs in.  "Why do we have two of these things anyway?"

I shrug, as he settles against me, and I move onto my side with one arm around him as if he were a giant teddy bear.

"'night, Tom," Jake yawns again.

"'night, midget," I reply.

I just lay there for a few moments, letting my mind wander, start to slow down.  Jake's breathing slows and becomes shallow, his eyes start moving beneath his eyelids.  I move a tuft of hair away from his eyes.  "Sweet dreams, midget, no more nightmares," I whisper.

I close my eyes, feeling truly safe for the first time in a long while, and slowly drop off for the first sound sleep I've had in ages.

The End

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