A/N: A bit of a long one here! I hope still interesting enough to justify the length!
The wind flew against Kalran's hair, whipping her ponytail to the side as she got off the bus at the mall and headed towards the entrance. She'd deliberately got here earlier than she needed to, even though it had involved dragging herself out of bed on a Saturday morning. She wanted to be absolutely certain of arriving first. She was intent on buying Akhir breakfast, after everything the other Yeerk had done for her, but she knew from experience how stubborn Akhir could be about things like that.
Having previously checked with Jasmine what her Yeerk's preferences might be, Kalran ordered a stack of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup for them both, paying at the counter before making her way to a booth seat at the side of the café.
The timing went perfectly, Akhir arriving a few seconds after the food did. Her punctuality could almost always be relied on.
"Kalran?" Akhir questioned, as she slid into the seat opposite her. "What's all this?"
"I hope it's what you want," Kalran said anxiously. "I wanted to treat you, and I knew I had no chance if I waited until you were here. Jasmine said…"
"It looks delicious." Akhir smiled at her. She had the kind of smile that lit up her entire face, making anyone who received it feel uplifted with its warmth. "You're very kind. I should be treating you to breakfast, after everything you've done for me."
Kalran frowned, picking up her fork. "Such as? You're the one who's been supporting me. You've been invaluable."
Akhir shook her head slightly, still smiling. "Not once but twice have you helped my Jasmine through something that could have been awful and made it easy. You deserve about a hundred breakfasts for that." She hesitated. "Especially as I know how difficult things are for you, at the moment."
"How is she?" Kalran asked, putting her fork back down. She could hardly agree that her presence had made anything easy for Jasmine: she'd ended up running out of one meeting and nearly ran away from the birthday meal, too. "I did my best, but it was so hard for her. For all of them, really." She sighed. "I'm sorry about Sara. She hasn't had the best time herself in the last couple of weeks."
She felt her stomach twist as she said it. She'd called her host the day after the meal. It had been obvious something wasn't right with her and Lee, by the reaction Sara had given when she'd tried to ask after him, but she'd not expected to be told her host had been dumped. Kalran gritted her teeth: why in the Kandrona's name would anyone do that? Sara was wonderful, a perfect partner for any human, surely? Sara'd muttered some lie about 'we're just not right for each other' but there was something else going on, Kalran could tell. It was hardly her business, though, and she'd known better than to try and probe any more.
Akhir's face twitched for a moment: a flash of irritation, quickly overlain by empathy. "I'm sorry to hear that. It must have been very difficult for them all."
Kalran smiled slightly. "It's okay. You can admit you're angry with her. Even I was, at times."
Akhir shook her head. "It's just instinct," she admitted. "I can't bear anyone thinking ill of Jasmine, even though I can understand where Sara's coming from. It must be very difficult for her." Akhir shook her head as she began to cut up her pancake. "You must feel the same, though, that's why I should be thanking you. Jaz told me you stuck up for her, with Sara. She was very touched you did that when it was your own host."
"I'm upset for Sara," Kalran admitted. "I'm not angry with Jasmine, though, how could I be? I've hurt Sara far more than she ever could," she added guiltily.
"Oh, Kalran," Akhir said softly, reaching across the table for her hand. "You were so incredibly brave, you did everything you could. She's forgiven you, hasn't she?"
Kalran hesitated. She hadn't discussed this with anyone except Tilniss, but it was so easy to confide in Akhir that she found herself saying: "She has. It's difficult, though. I feel so much… closer… to her than she does to me, and I don't think she likes that I feel that way. I… I can't help it. I try to hide it, but it slips out sometimes."
Akhir nodded empathetically. "I think it is normal, to feel that way about them. Much as the Empire tried to convince us it isn't."
Kalran sighed. "It freaks Sara out," she confessed. "And… and that hurts." She shook her head, realising this was turning into her own personal counselling session yet again. Akhir was such a good listener that it was easy for that to happen, but she deserved more than just to hear all Kalran's problems. "Anyway, that's enough about me. How is Jasmine? Is she okay?"
Akhir hesitated. "I don't think she knows how she feels, right now." Her face had fallen, suddenly, and Kalran's stomach twisted with concern at the distress on it. Akhir's fork clattered as she put it down at the edge of the plate, her pancake almost untouched. "I… oh, Kalran, I… I understand if you have little sympathy for this, by the Kandrona I've brought it on myself, but… I think she's not sure how to feel about me, anymore. She's trying to hide it, but I know her well enough to tell."
Oh, poor Akhir, Kalran thought. Jasmine was the most important person in Akhir's world, it was impossible to miss that. She must be in so much pain.
"Oh, schrellatie," Kalran said softly. "Oh, of course I can sympathise with that. Akhir, it's not your fault, of course it isn't."
Copying Akhir's earlier movement, she reached for the other Yeerk's hand. It was a poor substitute for sending courage, warmth, and support through a palp-to-palp connection, as her natural body could so easily have done, but it was all she had.
Akhir shook her head. "It is. I… I should have done what you did, in the war. I was a coward."
"Don't judge yourself," Kalran said softly. "It was only the pain of… everything with Sara… that pushed me into it. The others… well, I wouldn't have taken the risk just for involuntaries in general, for strangers I didn't know. If I'd had a voluntary I would have been like you. Not happy with the Empire, but not joining the movement either. Trying to do what I could to make life comfortable for my own host."
Akhir met her eyes, finally. "Thank you for saying that, Kalran. It helps a little, but the fact remains that I personally forced Jasmine's best friend's head into that Pool, many times. And hundreds of others. And I think Jasmine is beginning to understand what they went through more fully than she's ever done before. I kept things from her, in the war, shielded her as much as I could. I'm worried that she's starting to hate me. Which I deserve, but… it hurts. More than anything."
"She doesn't hate you," Kalran said softly. "I know you know her very well, of course you do, but I think you're judging yourself so harshly that you're exaggerating it. I've heard her say, I've seen her do, so many things that show how much she cares about you. While I've been with her, I've watched her defend your character to Elsa… the only time I've ever seen her angry, actually… refuse to get a lift home from Kelly to protect you, and all but come out and say she'd happily be referred to as 'Akhir's Jasmine' in front of Kelly, Elsa and Sara." Kalran smiled ruefully. "If anyone addressed my host as 'Kalran's Sara' she'd have their eyes out."
"Oh, no!" Akhir murmured, burying her forehead in her hand. "I bet they reacted badly."
"They didn't really react at all, actually," Kalran reassured her. "They were a bit preoccupied with something else at the time, but that wasn't my point. Jasmine doesn't hate you, schrellatie. You're very important to her, and she's proud of you. Proud enough to be called yours."
"I'm not sure that's entirely healthy," Akhir murmured, worriedly.
Kalran gave her a soft smile, squeezing her hand again. "Come on. Usually I'm the one finding fault with myself like this."
Akhir shook her head. "I'm sorry. I should be supporting you."
"No," Kalran said quickly, cursing herself. She was glad Akhir felt she could open up to her and very happy to listen: she hadn't meant to shut her down. "I didn't mean it like that. I want to help you. If I am helping."
"Very much," Akhir said softly, managing a brief smile before her face clouded with misery again. "It's just that Jasmine, she… she sometimes gets upset and she won't let me comfort her. She always used to take comfort from me, always, but lately she's started asking for some space. I'm sure it's when she's upset about Elsa, or the other involuntaries. I know she's feeling guilty." Akhir sighed. "It hurts, to see her in pain and not be able to help."
"It must do," Kalran murmured, rubbing her thumb across the back of Akhir's hand. She waited a few moments, in case Akhir wanted to say anything else, then asked: "Have you spoken to her about it? How she feels, I mean?"
Akhir shook her head. "I don't think she wants me to ask anything like that. I don't think she feels she can talk to me about it." She sighed. "I'd be less bothered if I thought there was someone she could confide in. She obviously can't discuss her feelings honestly with Elsa, and there isn't anyone else. Well, there's Carla, but they just don't get on, do they? And I think Carla's in quite a different place, right now, so she wouldn't welcome it even if they did."
"Would she talk to me, do you think?" Kalran asked. "I know I'm a Yeerk, but…"
"I'm sure she would," Akhir said instantly. "She really trusts you. Oh, Kalran, I… would you? I know how difficult things are for you at the moment, I'd understand if you said no."
"It'd be a joy to talk to Jaz," Kalran murmured softly. "If she wants me to." She glanced down at Akhir's plate. "Can you eat, schrellatie?"
"Sorry," Akhir murmured, flushing. "You buy me a meal and I let it go cold, I… that's so ungrateful, I'm sorry."
"Stop apologising. It's okay. How many times have you listened to my problems?"
Kalran began to dig into her own pancake again, and felt a warmth spread through her stomach when Akhir did the same, looking a little more cheerful. She finally let herself savour the burst of taste on her tongue: the pancakes here were delicious. She poured a little more syrup over hers.
"How were they all at the meal?" Akhir asked, after a few minutes of enjoying her own food. "Jasmine says they were fine, mostly, but I'm not sure if she's telling me the truth."
"I think that's pretty accurate. One person snapped at her, once, and Sara made a couple of comments that were less than civil, but everyone else was fine. Kelly was so friendly to her, and Elsa was over the moon to see her."
Akhir breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, thank the Pools. I was so worried."
"It must have been terrifying," Kalran acknowledged. The meeting with Elsa in the café had been one thing, but the meal was quite another, and she honestly didn't know how Akhir had managed to go through with it. She could see how much the other Yeerk worried over her host.
Akhir gave her another warm smile. "It was so much better knowing you were there. How are you, Kalran?"
The tone of her voice made clear this was far more than just a casual enquiry. It took Kalran a few moments to gather her thoughts: her emotions were so complex and confused that it was hard to make sense of them herself, let alone explain them to anyone else.
"I'm… I'm doing okay. Honestly. It still hurts, of course it does, but I'll get through it. I went to the Pool this week, I spoke to Oglud, and they seem okay, as far as I can tell." Kalran dropped her eyes, a storm of emotions swirling inside her. "The others they mentioned last time… Oglud's spoken to them. They're ilsh'nish, now."
"Oh," Akhir said softly. "Oh, that must be hard."
"Yes and no," Kalran admitted. "I'm glad Oglud's happy. It's better for them than being with us. They can touch, touch properly… we'd never have been able to do that again. They can reproduce, eventually, if they want to. We should have told them months ago. I just… I feel left behind, but I'm not ready to move on yet, either." She sighed. "Ilkiss wants me to go for dinner, with him and Tamhet. I've got a feeling they might ask-"
She broke off, unable to quite put it into words. The idea of being asked to form a new tripartite so soon, let alone one including Tamhet, was deeply unpleasant. "Kandrona, that's always going to be a no, even if I was ready. I don't want to hurt Ilkiss, though, and I don't know how to handle it."
"You really don't like Tamhet, do you?" Akhir asked, with a slight smile.
Kalran lifted her eyes to meet the other Yeerk's, surprised. "Do you?"
"Not particularly," Akhir admitted. "It was a stressful situation for her, though, she might be better another time."
"You're very generous," Kalran said. "She was so rude to you." Her face tightened. "The more I think about that the angrier I get."
Akhir looked confused for a moment. "Oh. The rank thing. Oh, Kalran, that doesn't matter. I'm sure she did outrank me, anyway, and if she wants to keep tradition that's up to her, even though almost no-one bothers anymore."
"It felt like she was putting you down," Kalran muttered, venom in her voice at the thought.
"I was a Pool guard," Akhir said, with a slight smile. "I'm used to that. Most Yeerks think it's little better than cleaning the toilets."
Kalran frowned. "That's just stupid. Both those jobs are important, though being a Pool guard is clearly much more complex. Certainly more distressing," she added with a wince. "Anyway, it doesn't reflect well on how those Yeerks think about the hosts, does it?"
"No, I suppose it doesn't," Akhir said quietly.
The topic was an uncomfortable one, and Kalran hurriedly cast around for a way to change it. "How's work?"
"It's good," Akhir replied. She smiled. "They've begun to ask me to help out with fundraising projects, as well as the administration work I was doing."
"A promotion?" Kalran clarified. "Congratulations!"
"Well, not really. There's no more money, at least not yet, and they haven't changed my job title. They just asked if I wanted to do some of the organisation."
"They probably should pay you more, if they're asking you to take more responsibility," Kalran pointed out.
Akhir shrugged. "We're a charity. It's not exactly a strict hierarchy, and I'd rather the money go to the people we help. Unless I can convince Jaz to go to college, then I might need the money, but in that case I'd probably have to change job entirely."
"I tried to make the college case, at the meal." Kalran shook her head. "Her face lit up when she spoke about the subjects she might want to major in, which sounded like about half the sciences. But she kept saying she couldn't do it."
Akhir smiled fondly. "Welcome to my world," she said wryly. "That's an almost daily struggle."
"What about you?" Kalran asked. "You mentioned you wanted to train as a counsellor to help more directly at work, do you still want to do that?"
"Once Jasmine's done whatever she wants to do, then I might train. We can't afford to both be studying. Jaz managed a couple of courses before I became a nothlit, but she was barely sleeping, she was working so much to make up for the fees and the time she'd lost at work."
Kalran felt another wave of admiration for Akhir, a feeling that was becoming quite frequent. She was so incredibly kind, so willing to put everyone before herself. Kalran knew that from her own interactions with her: she'd done so much to help Kalran and asked for nothing in return, or at least nothing that didn't involve helping Jasmine.
"You're wonderful, you know," Kalran murmured.
A blush crept over Akhir's cheeks. "Not really. She's my host, or she was, anyway. I'd do just about anything for her."
Kalran nodded, understanding the impulse. She pushed her plate away, having scraped it entirely clean of syrup.
"That was delicious," Akhir said softly. "Thank you. Will you at least let me get you a coffee, or do you not have time?"
"Plenty of time," Kalran replied. "I'm hanging round here till lunchtime, I'm meeting Elsa and… well, probably our most surprising potential campaign helper so far."
Akhir frowned, looking curious. "Who?"
"Guess," Kalran returned, surprising herself with her playfulness.
It had only been a few weeks, but the breakup with Oglud had already become much less painful. Perhaps it was something about it being finally, officially over, instead of the strange half-state they'd been in for years, that gave a level of relief among the pain of the loss. She hadn't really realised until she'd visited Oglud the other day how hard it had been, pretending she and Ilkiss were still together, lying to them, trying to keep the mate-bond alive through nothing more than lines of text on a screen. All of that strain was gone, now.
Akhir looked a little surprised, too, before her face settled into a similarly lively smile. "Visser One?"
"That's good. I think it's safer for everyone if he stays firmly in prison. Erm. Sub-Visser Fifty-One?"
Kalran laughed. "Are you just going for the most ridiculous answers you can think of? No, it's not a Yeerk."
"Human?" Akhir asked, more sensibly, but looking pleased with herself about something.
Kalran shook her head. After a while of Akhir going through every single species she could think of, Kalran gave in. "None of them. So far you've probably been closest with Visser One. He really, really likes this species."
Akhir's eyes widened. "Andalite?" she whispered. Her face suddenly lost its playful expression, and she looked horrified. "Kalran, is that safe?"
Concerned, Kalran leant towards her, the smile dropping from her face. "Sorry, Akhir, I didn't mean to frighten you. We're in a public place, and he'll be in human morph. I'm sure it's fine."
Akhir still looked terrified. "Kalran…"
"Hey, it's okay." Kalran cursed herself: she hadn't meant to scare Akhir like this. "It's Fendarin, the one who gave us the extra time the other day. He's very kind, he was very kind to Alniss, too. I trust him, Akhir. Not all Andalites are monsters."
"I'm sorry," Akhir said instantly, though the fear hadn't gone from her eyes. "I don't mean to be prejudiced… it's just the ill-feeling between our species is so high that… it makes it hard to believe there's no risk…"
"Oh, no, I wasn't judging you," Kalran said quickly. "I'm sorry, I- human communication is too limited. How do they cope? No, I understand how you feel. That's what I've been telling myself, I'm nervous about it, too."
"Okay," Akhir said worriedly. "Just… will you be careful?"
"I promise," Kalran replied, touched by her friend's concern.
After a couple of hours spent talking and shopping with Akhir, which were enjoyable despite Kalran's usually dull mood these days, she said goodbye to her friend and made her way to the Pizza Hut where she was due to meet Fendarin. It hadn't occurred to her until she was browsing through a rack of dresses in a store that she actually had no way to recognise him: she assumed he'd be in human morph.
Her worry was over nothing, though: it wasn't particularly difficult to spot the only person in the restaurant sitting alone with a huge pizza, two garlic breads and an overflowing bowl from the salad bar, making his way through one of the garlic breads at astonishing speed. He was watching the door as he did so, though, and thought-spoke to her as soon as she came in.
(Kalran, I realise you probably cannot tell which human I am. I should have addressed this issue at the Pool, I am sorry. I am the human male with the red hair, sitting at the table on the left side of this establishment, nearest to the entrance. I am moving one of my limbs side to side in the human greeting gesture.)
Kalran tried very hard not to laugh, instead smiling at the Andalite who was now waving his garlic bread back and forth in one hand. (Yes, I see you, Warrior Fendarin.)
She made her way over to him. "Hello," she greeted again when she arrived. "How are you?"
"Mmph-mmph," Fendarin murmured verbally, through another large mouthful of garlic bread. Smiling, Kalran took a seat opposite him and waited for him to finish chewing.
"I am very well," Fendarin managed eventually. "It is a great enjoyment to sample human food. Their sense of taste is wonderful. How are you? I hope you are feeling less distressed than you were." He took another massive bite of garlic bread.
"I'm feeling a little better, thank you." Kalran said softly. "I'm so grateful for your kindness, it made things so much easier."
There was a short silence as the next piece of garlic bread disappeared. "Most of it was not kindness, except perhaps giving you a few moments more time. It was my duty. I feel ashamed that my fellow warriors often do not do their duty as they should."
Kalran smiled slightly. "I understand that. I regularly felt that way, in the Empire. I felt so powerless to stop any of the awful things that were happening, although they were worse, of course, I'm not saying the other warriors are…" she trailed off, realising that drawing paralells between their situations was probably not the wisest move. Andalites did not want to be compared to Yeerks.
Fendarin didn't seem offended, though. "You were in the Yeerk rebel movement, were you not?"
"We called it the peace movement, but yes. I was."
"That was very courageous of you. I imagine the penalties were substantial, had you been caught."
Kalran was taken aback. "Yes," she replied, trying not to think too hard about that. "But what the Empire did… it was dreadful." She shuddered.
"That does not negate your courage," Fendarin said quietly.
The seriousness of his tone was somewhat lost when he immediately followed the sentence up by stuffing another large piece of garlic bread into his mouth. Smiling, Kalran turned her own attention to the menu, choosing a margherita and a coke.
Fendarin had demolished both garlic breads and was starting on his pizza by the time Elsa arrived.
"Hey, Kal," she grinned, sliding into the third seat, facing Kalran with her back to the window that looked out into the mall. "Hello," she added, watching Fendarin chomp his way through his latest large slice. "You must be Fendarin. Do I call you that, or am I supposed to call you Warrior or Prince or something?"
Fendarin made a series of completely incomprehensible noises around his mouthful of pizza. Eventually, he swallowed and responded: "I am content with Fendarin. I know humans often like to be informal. How do I address you?"
"Elsa's fine," Elsa responded, with a smile. "Thanks for offering to help. This is kind of exciting, I've never met an Andalite before. Well, I guess I've met War-Prince Alloran, in a way, but I don't know if it really counts. I don't count people who've only met me as a Controller as having met me, usually, so I guess he might feel the same."
Kalran tensed: the subject of the galaxy's only Andalite-Controller was probably dangerous ground, with an Andalite. Again, though, Fendarin seemed undisturbed.
"That is certainly understandable," he responded. "I have not spoken in detail to a human before, either."
Elsa grinned. "First thing you gotta know about human culture is that you should share your pizza."
"Should I?" Fendarin looked deeply disappointed. "Is it definitely a cultural imperative?"
Elsa nodded. "'Fraid so."
Kalran shook her head incredulously, smiling. "Elsa's teasing you."
"Hey, we do often share stuff like that. I'm not entirely wrong."
"You can have a piece if you would like one," Fendarin said slowly. "You do not have to invent social norms to obtain it."
"Cool," Elsa said. "I don't think I can deprive you of it, though. You're eating even faster than I do."
"You can't talk, Kal. Innis used to have this thing about our tablecloth. He could stare at it for hours. I'm sure you have something similar. I'd ask Sara, but she probably shouldn't tell me, really. You keep her secrets, after all."
"Have you seen her, since the meal?" Kalran asked hurriedly. "I… I haven't… is she okay?"
Elsa nodded. "Yeah, she's doing okay. She told me about Lee, though… narrow-minded bastard."
"Narrow-minded?" Kalran frowned. "In what way?"
Elsa's expression froze. "Um. Oops. I thought you knew. Look, you… you'd better ask Sara."
Kalran nodded, feeling her stomach knot with worry, along with a sense of loss that Sara had felt more able to open up to Elsa than to her. There was something in her that made her want her host to tell her everything, to let her be her confidante, but she knew that wasn't how Sara wanted things. "Yes, of course. Sorry."
"You don't need to say that," Elsa said quietly.
The waiter soon arrived with Kalran's order, and Elsa took the opportunity to order a pepperoni pizza and a diet Coke.
"So," she said to Fendarin, who had now demolished his pizza and was starting on his huge bowl of salad, "Kalran told me you want to help the campaign?"
Fendarin nodded, his mouth full of potato salad. (Yes. Part of it, at least. I am not sure I wish to support the Yeerks taking humans as hosts. But conditions at the Pool could be drastically improved.)
Elsa laughed. "Are you seriously using thought-speech so you don't have to stop eating?"
(It is a major flaw of human evolution to use one organ for both those functions,) Fendarin replied, taking another massive forkful of salad.
Elsa rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, humans are a bizarre and inferior species."
(I did not say that. I greatly admire your species.)
"That's a first," Elsa muttered.
Fendarin swallowed and didn't take another mouthful. "I will speak using mouth-sounds, if it is considered more polite. I apologise if I've caused offence."
"No, you're fine. It's probably better if you're concentrating on the campaign, though, so maybe finish your salad first."
Fendarin obeyed her, with some gusto. Once he had finally finished eating and pushed his bowl to the side, Elsa spoke again.
"Okay, so you're not on board with the hosting bit. That could be tricky, supporting the campaign but only part of it… people might not always be able to tell you only agree with half of what we're saying. Mind telling me why?"
Fendarin glanced, nervously, at Kalran. "I mean no offence to Yeerks," he began. "But I am uncertain about how healthy infestation can be for humans. I would accept the Yeerks taking Gedds."
"What's different about Gedds?" Elsa asked curiously.
"Coevolution," Fendarin replied. "Yeerks and Gedds are meant to share minds. Humans are not meant to share minds, and I'm concerned it could be harmful to them."
"And the reason why you don't think we can decide that for ourselves as a species is…?" Elsa asked, looking a little irritated.
Kalran hastened to keep the peace, a role she'd expected Elsa to fill in a meeting with a Yeerk and an Andalite. "Elsa, you've mentioned yourself that ensuring true consent could be difficult."
"Yes, as something that we as humans will need to discuss and work out. I'm not asking Andalites to host them, and if they wanted to then they can decide those issues for themselves. I don't assume to be so much of an expert on the psychology of other species that I can make their decisions for them."
Fendarin looked taken aback. "That was not my intention. I just do not wish to put my name to something I do not agree with, that I think may be harmful. It would be dishonourable. But I would like to improve conditions in other ways. The current situation is a source of great shame for me… I would like to help to change it."
"Okay. Sorry if I've misunderstood you. Let's focus on conditions for now, then. Kal, you talked about that at the last meeting, didn't you? What could be changed for the better?"
"You already improved one thing for us, Warrior Fendarin. Those extra few minutes you gave us were very generous. That's one thing I'd like, the opportunity to request a longer slot to talk, at least occasionally, when there's something serious to be said."
"More terminals could be created," Fendarin contributed. "That would allow more frequent communication of longer duration between the pool-bound Yeerks and their fellows. We have more than sufficient resourcing to police it, and the cost of putting in the terminals is not prohibitive. I have raised it with my Prince and the human authorities already, but they have chosen not to do it. I cannot do it myself."
Kalran felt a twist of pain and anger in her stomach. It was what she'd suspected, but to hear it confirmed still hurt. It was far from Fendarin's fault, though, and he'd hardly have made himself popular by raising the issue. "Thank you, Warrior Fendarin. That was very brave of you."
"You may just call me Fendarin," he said gently. "The title is unnecessary." He turned back to Elsa just as her pizza arrived. He appeared to fight the distraction of the food for a few moments, before adding: "It also would easily be possible to connect the Pool terminals to the human internet. It poses more security risks, but the activity could be monitored. Or at the very least more content could be provided within the Pool intranet. The computers there have not been updated, what is there is only what was present during the war. I imagine the pool-bound Yeerks rely on their nothlit fellows for news of any kind."
"Kalran mentioned that," Elsa replied. "It would mean they could potentially contribute, too, do some work that they don't need a body to do."
"Like data analysis. I work in research linked to common human diseases. The potential for benefits to human life would be substantial, if the trained scientists in the Pool could engage in relevant work. Not just in my field, of course, but in others. And it seems an appropriate reparation for us to make, to try and support human scientific endeavours."
"Indeed," Fendarin replied. "Although it will be a difficult issue to get my people to support. They are already very concerned about the pace of human technological progress."
"We're smart cookies, huh?"
Fendarin frowned. "I do not think my translator chip tackled that utterance accurately."
"It's just a saying," Kalran said quickly. "Elsa's saying humans are intelligent."
"Yes," Fendarin agreed. "I believe they'd be concerned about the potential of them allying with Yeerks to attack our people."
"But we already have Yeerk nothlits working in scientific research now," Elsa pointed out. "What's the difference?"
"Probably little," Fendarin admitted. "I am happy to support your proposal, Kalran. I just wanted to make you aware that it may be difficult."
"How come it's even up to your people, anyway?" Elsa muttered resentfully. "This is our planet."
Fendarin glanced uncertainly at Kalran. "I did not mean to offend you," Fendarin said quietly. "You're correct, of course. And it is a wonderful planet."
Elsa seemed to realise, then, that she was being unfair. "Thanks," she replied, forcing a smile. "I'm sorry. I just get a bit twitchy when another species tries to tell us what to do. I had a lot of Yeerks who thought they knew better than me about my own life, and it gets to me, sometimes."
"I'm sorry," Kalran said gently.
"You're fine, Kal. You don't do that." Turning to Fendarin, Elsa added: "Okay. So, you're with us on updating the computer terminals, on making more and longer visits possible…"
"And improving the behaviour of the majority of my fellow guards. Although I am uncertain how to do that."
"Kal, you also wanted to touch them, didn't you? The Yeerks, I mean. Fendarin, how d'you feel about that?"
"It would be a valuable goal to aim for, I am sure," Fendarin said softly. "I have a wife back on the homeworld, so I understand the pain of being physically separate. However, I am concerned about ensuring security. Yeerks in their natural form are very vulnerable, and we have prevented a number of terrorist attacks already."
Kalran was taken aback for a moment: she hadn't really thought about Fendarin's wider life, away from Earth. "I'm sorry, War- I mean, Fendarin, I didn't realise. You must miss your wife very much."
"Yes," Fendarin admitted. "I do enjoy exploring other planets, though, and meeting other species. It is fascinating. But it is difficult being away from home for so long."
"It must be," Elsa added empathetically.
"I will think about the security concerns," Fendarin promised. "I will see if I can think of a way to make it safe." He looked towards Kalran. "The Yeerk you speak to… is it your mate?"
Tears pricked Kalran's eyelids. "They were," she said quietly. "But we… the day I was there… didn't Carla tell you?"
"She said you were having a conversation that was upsetting and you needed more time, if I could possibly offer you any. She did not explain the circumstances."
Kalran felt a wave of gratitude and love for Carla flow through her body. "Carla's wonderful," she murmured, before she could help herself. "I- we were breaking up. We tried to stay together, but it wasn't working, with being so separate. My other mate, Ilkiss, he'd met someone else, and…"
Fendarin nodded. "That sounds very difficult. I am sorry."
"You spoke to Carla?" Elsa asked, with a low whistle. "That was brave of her. Look, Fendarin, I don't know how definitely you've made up your mind about the hosting thing, but maybe you should talk to Carla about it. Do you actually know anything about the views of humans who want to be hosts?"
"No," Fendarin admitted. "I did not realise Carla wanted to be one."
Elsa nodded. "Like, I know it seems weird. It seems really weird to me, too, I hated being infested. But maybe you should talk to them before you make a judgement about how it affects humans. After all, you don't know us that well, do you? As a species, I mean?"
Fendarin hesitated. "No, I suppose not. I did not mean to be judgemental. I would be glad to speak with Carla if she wishes."
Elsa grinned. "I like you. You're a fast learner, and you're not afraid to admit when you've got something wrong." She paused, to take a few more bites of pizza, seeming to think for a while before she added: "Your help's going to be really valuable, Warrior Fendarin, I really appreciate it."
Kalran had half-opened her mouth, to second Elsa's sentiments, when she felt eyes on her. She turned her head to see two familiar figures looking directly at her through the window of the restaurant. It was Ilkiss and Tamhet, their fingers intertwined while their other hands held an assortment of shopping bags from expensive stores. Tamhet smiled at Kalran, then turned to say something to Ilkiss, and much to Kalran's dismay the two were soon making their way into the restaurant and towards their table.
"Kalran," Tamhet greeted in a low voice, once she was close enough not to be overheard, giving Kalran a syrupy smile. She was impeccably groomed as always, her clothes tight-fitting enough that a few of the human males in the restaurant had followed her with their eyes as she'd entered the room. "How wonderful to see you. How are you feeling?"
Ilkiss smiled too, more genuinely, from his position close to Tamhet's side, his eyes sad as he looked at Kalran. "I'm glad to see you. I hope you don't mind us coming to greet you, we both wanted to see how you were."
"I'm okay," Kalran said, quietly. She dropped her eyes to the floor, unable to meet their gaze. She'd feel unforgivably rude, asking Ilkiss to leave her, and she didn't want to hurt him, but the awkwardness was almost intolerable. "How are you both?"
"I'm okay, too. It isn't easy, of course, but-"
"Goodness," Tamhet said suddenly, interrupting Ilkiss. "Is that the time? Sorry, Kalran, we need to go. I'll be late for my manicure."
"Any chance of an introduction to your friend, Kalran?" Elsa said, equally suddenly. Her voice was the kind of falsely cheerful Kalran usually associated with interactions with Akhir. Kalran looked up, surprised.
"Oh, of course," Kalran answered hastily, remembering how little Elsa liked to be in the presence of unnamed Yeerks. "Elsa, this is Ilkiss' new mate, Tamhet eight-one-nine of the Sulp Niar pool." She shifted her gaze to Tamhet, who had stopped suddenly in her gradual movements to back away towards the door and was staring straight at Elsa. "Tamhet, this is Elsa Martin. She's been very kind to us, she's been campaigning to- to help Oglud, and the others in the Pool."
"Thank you," Tamhet said, her eyes locking forcefully on Elsa's face, with a firmness in her voice that hadn't been there before.
Glancing towards Elsa, Kalran hesitated at the sudden paleness of the human's skin. Her eyes were cast down at her pizza, and she looked ill. "Elsa, are you alright?"
"Yeah, sorry," Elsa said quickly, scrambling suddenly to her feet. "Just- I don't feel too well. Too much pizza, maybe. I'm just- I'm gonna go to the bathroom."
Kalran frowned after her as she hurried away, almost bumping into several other diners. Fendarin looked puzzled, too.
"I did not anticipate pizza could make a human body unwell," Fendarin said, glancing down nervously at himself. "I should perhaps moderate my consumption."
"I'm sure you're fine," Kalran said quickly. Turning towards the other Yeerks, she added: "This is Warrior Fendarin, you've both met him before, at the Pool. He was the Andalite who kindly gave us some extra time with Oglud."
Ilkiss' face warmed with gratitude. "Thank you so much for that. It made such a difference to us."
Fendarin smiled, the first time Kalran had seen a humorous expression on his face. "Of course, I have no idea what you mean. I merely lost track of time, entirely by accident."
Kalran laughed. "Yeah, of course. And I think Visser Three was an excellent leader. Modest, calm, very competent…"
Ilkiss snorted, smiling at her, and Tamhet laughed aloud, with more enthusiasm than the joke really warranted.
"You're very funny, Kalran," she purred.
Kalran felt an internal sinking sensation. If she'd had any remaining doubt that Tamhet and Ilkiss wanted her to form a new tripartite with them, Tamhet's flirtatiousness put paid to it.
"I thought you needed to get to your appointment," Kalran muttered, before she could stop herself.
"Oh, no," Tamhet replied with a calm smile, in contrast to her earlier harried expression. "I've realised now, I have another hour. I flew to Denver this week for a conference, and I'd forgotten to change my watch back." She reached to twirl the dial on said watch, presumably resetting it to Pacific time. "There."
"Okay," Kalran frowned, disappointed. The last thing she wanted was to have to deal with Tamhet for another hour.
Luckily, a few moments later Tamhet excused herself to go to the bathroom, too, and Kalran had to stop herself from breathing a sigh of relief at the few minutes' reprieve. Ilkiss turned a chair around from a nearby table to sit next to her.
"Are you sure you're alright, Kalran?" He asked gently.
"I'm fine. I… I'm not pretending this isn't difficult, but I'm doing better than I was. I think the certainty helps." She paused for a moment. "I spoke to Oglud this week, did you?"
"We did, yes. Did they tell you…"
"That they're ilsh'nish? Yes. I'm happy for them, honestly I am, I just… miss them sometimes. I miss you both. But I'm glad you're happy, too."
"You never replied to my message, about dinner," Ilkiss asked gently. "Tamhet would like to get to know you better, you know."
Kalran sighed, glancing towards Fendarin with a touch of embarrassment.
"I'm sorry. It's not the best setting, it's just… been hard to get hold of you, schrellatie. And Tamhet really has wanted to know your answer." Ilkiss' expression broke, then, for a moment, revealing the vulnerability underneath it. "I would, too," he added in a whisper. "I… I miss you."
A wave of longing flooded through Kalran at those words. She wanted to touch him, suddenly, but not in any way that a human could. She wished for her palps back, just for a moment, one moment where she could feel what she'd once felt with him, with Oglud, wished for her body back to swim close beside them and around them…
"Oh, Ilkiss, I'm sorry," Kalran murmured, her voice choking with tears. "It… it's too soon for me. It's too soon to understand anything about how I feel, except I wish we could go back to the way we were. All of us. But we can't and I… I don't know what I want from the future. Not now."
"I understand," Ilkiss said gently. "I'm sorry, Kalran, it was insensitive of me to push you, especially here."
"No, not at all." Kalran met his eyes, letting herself smile for a moment, before turning to Fendarin, nervously.
He wasn't there, and Kalran scanned the restaurant only to see him returning, slowly, with a full bowl from the salad bar. Either he'd decided to give them some space or just found the thought of more food irresistible: either way, Kalran was grateful for it.
"The human food known as mayonnaise is also delicious," he said, slipping back into his seat.
Kalran grinned. "Do you know they do garlic mayonnaise?"
Fendarin's fork clattered against the ceramic as he dropped it, staring at her wide eyed, his mouth already full of potato salad. They do?
"It's called aioli, you should try it."
I will. Where may I obtain it? Fendarin replied in thought-speak, still chewing.
"I like to cook. I'll make you some. It can be a thank you, for everything you've done."
Fendarin smiled, finally swallowing his mouthful. "I like Yeerks rather more than my education suggested was likely."
Kalran smiled. "You're not what I expected from an Andalite, either."