Elsa was very worried as she hurried up to the front door of Kelly's small apartment building and let herself in. She had a key: she often stayed over with Kelly when college demands made it easier to stay in the city, or if she felt she needed a bit of space away from her parents' house. Her parents were awesome, of course, but Elsa sometimes needed to feel a bit more like an adult.
As she ascended the stairs, Elsa went over for the tenth time all the possible reasons Kelly had called and asked to see her so late. Was she okay? Was she ill? Was some Yeerk threatening her, too? Had she somehow found out about what had happened with Tamhet? Elsa shuddered. She hadn't slept properly since that day, and it was beginning to show enough that her mother had sat her down the other day to ask if she was okay. Having to lie to her parents again made Elsa feel utterly sickened, but what other choice was there?
She did knock on the apartment door before opening it. Kelly's apartment was small but well-kept: the landlord was a good one and kept everything very well-maintained, although the décor tended strongly towards neutral shades of cream and beige. Kelly shared with Elena, another student on her course, and both of them were a lot tidier than Elsa herself. Not that that was difficult, of course. Elena was staying over at her girlfriend's tonight, Kelly'd said so on the phone, so at least they'd have some proper privacy.
Kelly answered the door with a concerned expression, and shepherded Elsa inside like she was made of glass. Both of those instantly rang alarm bells: Kelly was clearly worried about her. A cup of hot tea was already sitting ready for her on the coffee table, and Kelly perched in an armchair at right angles to the sofa, which Elsa sank into with a sigh.
"What's up?" she asked her friend, trying her best to keep her tone as light as she could.
Kelly leant forward concernedly. "Oh, Elsa," she said gently. "I hardly know where to begin. I… I found out you had an encounter with Tamhet a few weeks ago. Is that true?"
Elsa met her friend's eyes, trying to communicate her meaning without words. "That depends on what you'll do with that information, if I say yes."
Kelly gritted her teeth, sudden anger breaking through her gentle expression. Elsa wasn't alarmed: she knew it wasn't directed at her. "I know she's threatened you," she spat. Taking a deep breath, she seemed to force her voice to become calmer. "Oh, Elsa… I can't believe this is happening. But anyway, what that nasty little mollusc wanted to hide is out in the open now. Ilkiss and Kalran know who she is and what she's done."
Elsa was taken aback for a moment, then briefly relieved, before renewed fear swept over her. Tamhet would hardly take well to that, and she didn't know what the consequences would be, only that they couldn't be good. "How? Did you tell them?"
"Not exactly," Kelly admitted. "Or at least not alone. I haven't met her again, and I don't talk with Kalran or Ilkiss enough to have had a chance to hear her name directly. No, apparently Kalran had her and Ilkiss over to the apartment, and Carla recognised her name. She must have known something about how she'd treated you, somehow. Jasmine called me, because Tamhet was trying to pretend Carla had made a mistake. I confirmed she hadn't." Kelly hesitated. "God, Elsa, this must be awful for you. Are you okay?"
Elsa had gone white. "Never mind me!" she exclaimed, hurrying to her feet. "Are they okay? I'm gonna go over to Kal's neighbourhood, will you call her for the address? I only know the rough area, I-"
"Calm down," Kelly said hurriedly, standing herself and taking Elsa's shoulders, guiding her back into her seat. "Carla and Jasmine are on their way here. I guessed you'd want to check on them."
"But- Tamhet- she's- she might hurt-" Elsa couldn't even get the sentence out, she was breathing so hard, her heart racing.
"Breathe, Elsa," Kelly said gently. "Slowly."
Kelly kept quiet for a few minutes, except for reminding Elsa to slow her breaths down, and Elsa eventually managed to calm herself, avoiding a full-blown panic attack by a narrow margin.
"Are they okay?" she managed to ask when she was feeling a little more normal.
"Jasmine sounded okay when she called me to say they were setting off. Well, I say that, she sounded really mad, but then so am I. I can't believe- how dare Tamhet do that to you?! Elsa, why didn't you say anything?"
"There'd have been consequences if I had," Elsa murmured, looking at the floor. "For other people, I mean. I- I don't really want to talk about it."
"Okay," Kelly replied. "Oh, Elsa… the thought of you going through all that by yourself…"
Her friend got up and came over to pull her into a hug, which Elsa gratefully accepted, beginning to sob into Kelly's shoulder. She hadn't even realised the sheer depth of emotion she'd been holding back for the last few weeks, and she didn't stop crying until the two heard the buzzer go.
"I don't have to answer it right away," Kelly murmured.
Elsa shook her head, pulling away. "It'll be them," she said quietly. "This will already be scary for them. Shall I-"
"No, stay there. I'll get it."
Elsa scrubbed at her eyes with several tissues from the box Kelly had thoughtfully left on the coffee table, trying to make herself look more composed. Jaz and Carla might need her, and it would certainly upset Jaz, at least, to see her like this. Carla's reaction she was less sure of, but she was incredibly grateful that Carla'd done something about Tamhet, despite the churning in her stomach when she thought about the consequences it might have for them all.
Soon, Elsa heard footsteps in the hallway and the door opened. Elsa forced a smile as she got to her feet and hurried towards the group. Jasmine slipped past Kelly, hurrying towards Elsa in turn, but Carla hovered near the door, looking anywhere but at Elsa's face, her arms folded.
Elsa's examination of Carla was interrupted as Jasmine pulled her into a tight hug. Taken off-guard by the strength of Jasmine's reaction, it took Elsa a couple of seconds to react, wrapping her arms around Jaz. "Hey," she managed gently. "Are you okay?"
Jasmine pulled back, frowning. "Yes, we're fine. Isn't that kind of the wrong way around? It's you we should be worrying about."
Elsa searched first Jasmine's face, then Carla's, glancing rapidly between the two of them. She could feel the terror pounding through her veins. She knew exactly how nasty a vengeful Tamhet could be. "Are you sure?"
"We're okay," Carla said flatly. "Jasmine's right, you don't need to be worrying about us."
"Elsa tends to put herself at the bottom of the priority list, in these situations," Kelly said softly. "Let's all sit down. I'll make tea."
"Come on, Elsa, come sit down," Jasmine said gently, taking Elsa's arm to steer her towards the sofa.
Elsa followed her, unable to do much else. Her heart was still racing and she felt sick with fear. It was probably best that Kelly hadn't let her try and drive over there, after all.
Carla padded after them, perching somewhat reluctantly on the edge of Kelly's armchair. Jasmine sank onto the sofa beside Elsa and wrapped an arm tightly around her.
"Oh, Elsa," Jasmine murmured. "I wish you'd told us. We could have-"
"Done nothing," Elsa said, her voice flat with despair. "There's nothing we could have done without- without putting people at risk."
"Did… did she threaten your family?" Jasmine half-whispered.
Elsa shook her head. "No. Look, never mind that, are you sure you're both okay? Did she hurt you? She… she can get really nasty when she…"
"We gathered that," Jasmine muttered. "I'm okay. She didn't do anything beyond calling me a couple of names."
Elsa turned towards her, making eye contact. Jaz looked like she was being truthful, but it could sometimes be difficult to tell what she was feeling. "She might try to hurt you," Elsa admitted, feeling sick at the thought. "Especially if you were the one who called Kelly. She won't have liked that."
"Yes, well, let her try," Jasmine said forcefully. "I'm not afraid of her. What's she going to do, anyway?"
"She… she might try… she might try to find out what… what your circumstances were, before…" Elsa couldn't help remembering how Jasmine had paled and run out of the room the last time that subject was brought up. "She might tell people."
"There's only person she could find that out from," Jasmine shot back. She looked far calmer than Elsa would ever have dared to hope, even smiling slightly. "And that's Akhir, so she'll get absolutely nowhere with that. She have anything else?"
Elsa looked nervously at her. "Does she know you have a kid?"
Jaz shook her head, although a pinprick of doubt entered her expression for the first time. "I haven't told her. I don't know if anyone else has. Why… you… you don't think she'd hurt…" Jasmine paled, suddenly looking as terrified as Elsa felt. "No… no, she doesn't know who she is, or where we live…"
"I don't think she'd hurt her directly," Elsa said quickly, hastening to reassure her. "It's too much risk. But she might… I don't know, I'm trying to think in the manipulative way she does…"
"I imagine that doesn't come easily to you," Jaz murmured. "Oh, Elsa, how on Earth did you survive with a Yeerk like her? How do you have that in your head twenty-four seven?"
"Not voluntarily," Elsa muttered. "Oh, Jaz… she might try and call social services on you or something…"
"What for?!" Jasmine exclaimed, afraid. "Maya's fine!"
"I know she is," Elsa said hurriedly.
Kelly chose that moment to return with the tea. "I'm sure she is," she interjected. "I'm sure you wouldn't put your kid at risk, but… you have to see how 'my nine-year-old lives with an alien slug who used to forcibly enslave people' looks, right?"
Jasmine flushed, looking down, and Elsa turned to glare at Kelly. "You could have put it a bit more sensitively than that."
"I'm pretty sure she doesn't know you have a kid," Carla said quickly. "And I'm sure you and Akhir are both good moms. You'll be okay."
Jasmine nodded. "Thanks, Carla. And thanks, Elsa, at least I know now not to let her find out. Carla, I… how are you? Tamhet's hurt you worse than she's hurt me."
Elsa blanched again, every muscle in her body tensing. She thought she might be able to guess what had happened. God, she hated the way Yeerks would talk about private information to other Yeerks, right in front of humans who didn't need to know. Other Yeerks who didn't need to know, often.
Elsa's thoughts were confirmed as Carla's face tightened, her eyes fixed again on the ground.
"I'm okay," she said, her expression belying her words. "Most of the Yeerks know anyway."
"She told them what happened to you before the Sharing, didn't she?" Elsa murmured, burying her face in her hands. "Oh, Carla, I'm so sorry."
"I was kinda hoping you wouldn't remember," Carla muttered.
"I'm sorry," Elsa repeated, her voice muffled by the hands covering her face. "I wish I could just un-hear it. I feel awful."
She felt Kelly sit down beside her on the sofa, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Elsa, it isn't your fault."
"No," Carla said, after a second's silence. "It's not. And I'm fine. I can take a bit of shame, it's been worse before. And even if she loses me my job, Alniss has been nagging me to work at the café for at least the last year, so I'm not exactly gonna starve."
"What about your job, Jasmine?" Kelly asked, seeming genuinely concerned.
"Tamhet doesn't know where I work. It's Maya's school, anyway, and they already know I'm a voluntary. I felt I ought to tell them after Akhir came to live with me. Besides, I've got the sewing, and Akhir's work, too. They know she's a nothlit."
Elsa breathed a little easier, hearing that. "If you ever need anything, either of you… well, at all, but especially if it's because of something Tamhet's done…"
"Speaking of that…" Jasmine began slowly. "I… I understand if you can't answer this, of course, but… can you tell us what she threatened you with? We might be able to find a way to protect whoever it is. I doubt it's you yourself. Is… is it Annie?"
Elsa shook her head. "I- I can't tell you," she said in a whisper. "She might…"
"How about if we all swear not to do anything with the information without your permission, Elsa?" Kelly suggested. "She's not going to know you've told us. It's not like she can mind-read anymore."
"Yeah, thank God," Elsa muttered, though part of her still quailed at the thought of disobeying Tamhet with such a threat hanging over her, even though she knew there was no way the Yeerk could ever find out. She trusted all three of them. "Do you all agree not to do anything unless I say it's OK, then?"
"Yes," Jasmine replied instantly. "Whatever helps you most."
"Does that include not telling Akhir?" Kelly asked pointedly. "She doesn't have a great track record on respecting Elsa's freedom of choice."
Jasmine looked affronted. "Of course it does."
Elsa tried to force a reassuring smile. "I know it does, Jaz," she said softly. "I know you'd keep my secrets." She turned to Carla. "How about you?"
Carla nodded slowly. "Yeah, okay. And that includes not telling anyone, either, although I imagine I'll get asked to a lot more than Jasmine does. Alniss is really worried about you, Elsa."
That information wasn't something Elsa could even process right now. "Okay," she murmured, taking a shaky breath. "Okay. It… it was… it…" she swallowed, forcing the words out against the lump in her throat. "She threatened people she… we… recruited."
"She is definitely the correct pronoun there, Elsa," Kelly said quickly. "It wasn't you."
Elsa nodded, reaching a hand up to wipe at the tears that were beginning to slip from the corner of her eyes. "Yeah, okay. Anyway… it was them she threatened. Voluntaries, mostly, people who'd told her their secrets through me, things that… really horrible things that had happened to them, sometimes, things they wouldn't want anyone else to know. She threatened to find them, tell people in their lives about what they'd told us."
There was a second's silence before a loud crash broke through the room. Carla had dropped her mug onto the laminate floor, where it rattled to a halt, tea spreading everywhere. Vaguely, Elsa was aware of Kelly getting up from beside her, moving towards the kitchen for a cloth. Carla didn't even appear to notice: she was staring at Elsa, her eyes wide with shock.
Elsa felt Jasmine tense, too, the arm around her going tight, and shifted her attention to her friend. Jasmine's eyes were similarly wide, but she recovered quicker than Carla, suddenly pulling Elsa into one of the tightest hugs Elsa had ever experienced.
"Oh, Elsa…" Jasmine murmured. "You… you did this for people like us? Elsa… I… I don't know what to say…"
"Hey," Elsa said gently, reaching to hug her friend back. "It shouldn't be such a shock. Why would I want people to get hurt?" After a moment, she added: "can you let me go now, just for a sec? So I can breathe," she joked.
Jasmine did so, and Elsa hastily turned to Carla, who still seemed frozen. "Hey, Carla, you okay?"
There was a long silence before Carla opened her mouth, and even more time elapsed before anything came out of it. "I- I can't- you did this for- for voluntaries? Why?" Carla was staring at Elsa, her expression more open than Elsa had ever seen it.
"I didn't want them to get hurt," Elsa murmured. "Is that so surprising?"
"Well, yeah," Carla replied. "I've only just got used to the idea you don't want to beat us up, that's surprising enough. But you obeyed a Yeerk- a Yeerk like her- to protect voluntaries?" Carla's voice dropped so low it was almost a whisper. "Would you have- would you have done it to protect me?"
"Of course I would." Elsa leant towards Carla, reaching out her hand. "Not that she did threaten you, then, but obviously now she's… oh, Carla, I- I'm just so sorry I couldn't stop her saying… what she said."
"Oh," Carla said, seeming to take a moment to understand what Elsa meant. "No, I'm fine. Don't worry about that. It wasn't your fault. I- I just- I can't believe you'd do that to protect people like us." She looked at Elsa's hand like she'd never seen one before, then ever-so-slowly stretched out her own to take it.
"Well, I did," Elsa said softly. "You're worth protecting, you know. I don't know why you think you aren't."
Carla shrugged. "I betrayed you? I didn't do anything?"
Elsa felt a twist of sympathy. "Oh, Carla, there's nothing you could have done to help me. Any more than I could have done to help the people Tamhet recruited. I'm sorry, to both of you, I- I didn't think saying that would have this effect," Elsa finished, noticing with concern that Jasmine was crying. "Hey, Jaz, it's okay."
"It's not," Jasmine murmured, looking down. "I'm so sorry, Elsa. I don't deserve a friend like you."
"'Course you do," Elsa said quickly, trying to sound breezier than she felt. The memory of Tamhet trapping her in that bathroom stall was dangerously close to the surface, but she forced it back down as much as she could. Jaz was clearly upset, and Elsa was pretty sure Carla was, too.
"You know, Elsa has pretty good taste in friends, if I do say so myself," Kelly piped up from her position crouched on the floor, where she was wiping up Carla's spilled tea. "And no-one deserves to have Tamhet after them, anyway, not even whichever random voluntaries you've been protecting, Elsa." Kelly shook her head, sighing, as she looked at Elsa. "I should have known it was something like that. God, that Yeerk is a bitch. Anyway, we're going to have to do something to sort this out. I don't want her to have that kind of a hold over you."
"Agreed," Carla muttered.
Elsa nodded reluctantly. "I know it's not good, Kel. She made me betray Kalran and Ilkiss, and I-" Elsa began to tear up again, despite her resolution to be strong for the others. "I hate myself for that."
"She put you in a horrible position, didn't she?" Jasmine said gently, wiping her own tears away and hesitantly reaching to take Elsa's hand. "But if I know Kal and Ilkiss at all, they'd have both taken a thousand mates like her if it kept those people safe. Most decent Yeerks would want to protect them, and those two are far more than decent."
"Absolutely," Carla said, nodding vigorously. "Neither of them were mad at you. Don't cry."
Elsa smiled through her tears. Carla had never spoken to her with such openness before. "I'll try not to," she managed. Raising her eyes to look at Carla, she added: "are they okay?"
"They're fine. Ilkiss is pretty upset, sure, but that's not your fault. And Kal seems fine… well, she's really mad, more than I've ever seen, but otherwise okay." Carla shook her head. "God, that Yeerk is such a little bitch. It sounded like she'd never even liked Ilkiss, let alone loved him. Who does something like that?"
Elsa felt a wave of nausea. She'd hoped Tamhet at least hadn't revealed that she'd been duping Ilkiss all along, but that hope was shattered now. "Oh, God," Elsa murmured. "Poor Ilkiss. Poor Kalran. She… she told me she was just using him, but I… I'd hoped he didn't know." Her tears came back in full force. "I should have told him, but then she'd have…"
"Shh," Kelly said, moving back to her place at Elsa's side. "She threatened you, Elsa, and it wasn't your fault. You had no choice that didn't hurt someone, and I think you chose the lesser evil. Ilkiss will be okay. It's Tamhet's fault, not yours."
"She's awful," Jasmine agreed, her expression furious. "It's not your fault. She's just horrible to everyone who's not her, isn't she? I could kill her, I really could, for what she's done to you and-" Jaz broke off, suddenly.
Elsa nodded, trying to stem the flow of her tears. "I'm sorry, everyone. I didn't mean to break down like this." She still felt ill and could feel herself trembling. "I never thought she'd still be able to make me cower like this."
"I don't think protecting other people is 'cowering'," Carla pointed out. "Pretty sure that's just you being kind."
"Brave, too, to endure it for this long," Jasmine said softly. "I could barely stand her company for half an hour."
"You shouldn't have to still be going through this, Elsa," Kelly said through gritted teeth. "We need to do something. We can't just leave that threat hanging over you, leave her with that power over you."
"No, I don't think we can," Jasmine murmured. "Elsa, is there anything we can do that would make this easier? That might… I don't know… make that threat feel less potent, at least?"
"Kill Tamhet?" Carla suggested.
"No," Elsa said quickly. "I don't want anyone doing something so awful for me, Carla, what the hell?!"
"Tempting an idea as it is, maybe we should stop short of actual murder," Jasmine mused. "Elsa… would it help you if you could speak to those people, see what they think? Warn them, at least?"
Elsa whipped her head around to stare at Jasmine. "Loads, yeah," she managed to croak out. What had been tormenting her the last few weeks was partly that they'd have no warning, no explanation, that she'd have no opportunity to make things right. "Why? You think you can find them?"
"Me, no. Not many of them, anyway. There are a couple of voluntaries I've kept in touch a little with, but we don't talk much. But I do know someone who can probably find them. Well, if she can't find them no-one can, she's friends with at least twenty Yeerks who had voluntary hosts and she must vaguely know at least twenty more. All of them will probably know a few, as well, and they can probably find them that way. I just… it depends if you're willing to work with her."
"Who can this mystery 'she' be?" Elsa said lightly, trying to disguise her hammering heart with a lilting, playful tone. "Do we need to play twenty questions? Hmm, let's see, is she sat in a car out there right now?"
Jasmine nodded, looking nervous. "Yes."
"Is she a slimeball? Oh, hang on, we'd each answer that question differently. Do I think she's a slimeball?"
"You think that about most Yeerks, don't you?" Kelly cut in, seeming tense. "I have a sneaking suspicion Akhir's name is about to come, very unwelcomely, into this conversation."
"The twenty questions trophy goes to you," Elsa said jokingly.
Jasmine looked down, nodding. "Yes. I did mean my Akhir."
"No," Kelly snapped. "Absolutely not. There's no way we can trust her to respect Elsa's privacy, she'll end up telling people without Elsa's permission."
Jasmine whipped her head up, her eyes narrowing. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realise you knew her better than I do. Was she in your mind for two years?"
"Thankfully not," Kelly muttered. "Jasmine, you clearly can't see her for what she is. She's-"
"Shut up, Kel," Elsa cut in hurriedly. "Really, seriously, don't finish that sentence. I'm not breaking up a fistfight between you and Jasmine. Jaz, can you maybe understand why Kelly and I have difficulty trusting her with something as important as this?"
Jasmine was silent for a moment, dropping her eyes, before raising them to look searchingly into Elsa's own. "Do you trust me?"
"Yes. Of course I do, Jaz."
"Akhir won't do anything if I tell her not to," Jasmine said softly. "Honestly. She'd follow me into hell itself if I asked it of her."
"Or threaten to throw Tamhet out of a sixth-story window," Carla said with a grin. She looked across at Kelly. "I second what Jasmine's saying. I've seen the two of them together, Akhir would do any… anything for Jasmine." Carla's voice caught, tears suddenly glimmering in her eyes. "Like… like my Silrin would have done for me."
Jasmine turned towards Carla, concern written in every part of her face. "Oh, Carla, I'm so sorry."
Carla shook her head, wiping roughly at her eyes. "It's fine. You didn't kill her, did you? I'm sorry, Jasmine, I haven't been very nice to you. That's why I've not been exactly friendly. I was jealous. It wasn't you."
"Oh," Jasmine murmured, sympathy written in every line of her features. She got up, disentangling her hand from Elsa's, hurrying across to Carla.
"I'm not really a hugger," Carla protested as Jasmine tried to put her arms around her.
Jasmine nodded, backing away a little. "Sorry."
Sympathy tugged at Elsa's heart, but she didn't really have any idea how to comfort Carla. The idea of missing her Yeerk was totally foreign. "I'm sorry, too, Carla. I'm real sorry you lost her."
Carla nodded. "Thanks, Elsa. Look- can we- can we move on? The point is Akhir will follow your lead. Probably even if Jaz doesn't tell her to, to be honest. She's a nice Yeerk, you know."
"I disagree," Kelly said tightly. "Really quite strongly."
"You don't know her," Jasmine snapped.
"Hey," Elsa hastened to say, holding her hands up in what she hoped was a calming gesture. "Let's not start an argument. Jasmine, I want to warn those people more than anything. We have to be careful, though, because if it gets back to Tamhet that I've told anyone what she threatened me with then it'll put them in danger. I'm willing for Akhir to help, as long as she promises to follow my lead at all times. I know Tamhet better than anyone else here." Elsa glanced at Kelly before returning her gaze to Jasmine. "If she's out in the car now, can I come out and talk to her?"
"I'm not letting you do this alone," Kelly broke in. "Let alone while standing out in the cold. She can come up, just this once."
"I'm not bringing her up to be yelled at by you!" Jasmine exclaimed. "She's had enough to cope with already today. Tamhet's been horrible to her. You can talk to her another day, Elsa, when she's feeling better and without Kelly."
"I'd be civil," Kelly said, her eyes wide with surprise. Elsa guessed that was a reflection of the shock she herself was feeling at Jasmine's forcefulness: she'd never seen Jaz like this. "Just this once. I promise."
"No," Jasmine said firmly. "Absolutely not. Even if you were lovely to her, which let's face it you won't be, it would still be terrifying for her. It can wait one night, Elsa, can't it? Talk to her tomorrow?"
Kelly rolled her eyes. "Jesus, Jasmine, get your priorities straight. Elsa's been through hell the last few weeks. You're proposing to make her wait even longer for a solution to that, just to protect one of the Yeerks who was responsible for doing this to us?!"
"No, Elsa, you deserve better than this. You've been a great friend to Jasmine, she could at least try to repay that."
"She has," Elsa said softly. "You all have, with what you've already done tonight. I feel like you've lifted a mountain off my shoulders. I can wait one night, Jaz, yes, if you think that's better. Is Akhir okay? I know how nasty Tamhet can be. She's best ignored, if Akhir can manage that."
Jasmine looked uncertain. "I- I want to help you, Elsa. I really care about you, I just… I don't know… I don't want to make you wait, I just…" Jasmine shook her head. "Oh, what am I even saying? Kelly's right. You've put yourself through all this for people like us, and I'm not even willing to… okay. I'll bring her up, but… promise me, both of you, that you'll be kind?"
"Of course," Elsa said gently. "Anyway, I have a compulsive need to try and undo Tamhet's nastiness, so I'll have to be extra nice. But don't feel you have to, Jasmine. I- I'd like things to move forward tonight, it would help me, but I can wait."
Jasmine nodded. "Okay. I'll ask her if she feels up to it. I want to help you, Elsa."
The wait while Jasmine went downstairs was extremely awkward. Carla kept shifting nervously, stealing glances at Elsa that Elsa couldn't quite interpret.
Elsa herself felt too tense to devote much attention to Carla. Interacting with Akhir still made her feel physically ill. She had enough memories of Akhir taking her to and from the Pool to prevent her feeling at all comfortable in her presence, let alone with trusting her with something like this. Kelly must feel the same, if not worse, and Elsa felt sickened with guilt, too, that she was putting her friend in this position. But if it kept those voluntaries safe…
Her thoughts were interrupted when the buzzer rang again, Kelly going through to the hall to open the outer door. She returned to the living room alone a few seconds later, apparently leaving Akhir and Jasmine to make their own way up and into the apartment.
Jasmine appeared a few moments later, leading her Yeerk by the hand.
"This is my Akhir," she introduced, despite the fact that everyone had met the Yeerk before, in one body or another. "My wonderful, sweet, precious Akhir, who I love very much." She glared at Kelly and gave Elsa a firm look, too. "You'd better keep your promise to be kind, or I will take her back downstairs, okay?"
Akhir's eyes had been cast down at the ground, but she raised them at that last sentence. "Jasmine, you're an angel and I don't deserve you, but no, you won't do that. If there's a way I can help Elsa I want to do it, no matter what." She took at breath. "And maybe don't make comments like that, Jaz, they won't exactly help your friendships."
"I don't care," Jasmine said instantly. "Elsa will just have to accept that's how I feel, and I know you're not really my friend, Kelly, anyway."
"She doesn't know you well enough yet, that's all," Elsa said quickly. There was a harshness in Jasmine's voice that made Elsa think she cared more than she was making out. "It's hard not to be friends with you. I'm so grateful for what you and Carla have done today. Hi, Akhir."
Akhir's eyes met her own, tears shining in them. "Oh, Elsa. I- can I- may I ask how you are?"
"I've been better," Elsa muttered. "Are you okay, anyway? Jaz said she was nasty to you."
"I doubt very much it compares to several weeks of having her in your head, and weeks now of having a threat hanging over you as well. Elsa-"
"It was nine months, actually, "Kelly broke in.
Akhir's eyes widened, and she looked sickened. "Kandrona! How was something not noticed before then? Oh, Elsa, I didn't fail to pick it up, did I?"
"Nah, you'd moved on from Pool guarding by then. And I was trying to pretend it was all okay, while not resisting the guards, which really should have clued them in something was going on. Those were kind of contradictory orders Tamhet had given me. Miliss picked it up at seven and a half months, but there was nothing illegal, apparently. Sub-Visser one-fifty gave Tamhet a real telling-off, though, something about cortisol levels. Things got a lot better after that."
"I'm so sorry, Elsa." Akhir hung her head.
"It wasn't your fault," Elsa managed to bite out, conscious of Jasmine's torn look. "I- Jasmine thinks you might be able to help me."
"Yes!" Akhir lifted her head again, her eyes lighting with hope. "Anything. I'll do anything."
"Ooh," Kelly said, raising her eyebrows and grinning at Elsa.
Elsa smiled slightly in return. "Yeah, the possibilities are endless. But I don't want to get murdered by Jasmine." Her face becoming more serious, she turned back to Akhir. "The thing is, in order for you to help me, I have to tell you what she was threatening me with. I'm scared to do that, because … well, this is humiliating, but… she said tell no-one, and if she finds out I have then she'll carry out at least part of her threat. So, if I tell you I need to know you won't act, you won't say anything, until I give you permission to do so."
"Does the threat involve hurting Jasmine or Maya? Or Carla? Or Kalran? I don't think she knows my sister Filriss, or my close friends, so I doubt it would be them."
"Er, no," Elsa said, frowning. That seemed a random selection of people.
"Wow," Carla murmured. "I'm flattered to be included in that list. Really, Akhir?"
"Really," Akhir said, smiling at her. "You're wonderful, Carla. I care a lot about you."
Carla smiled, flushing slightly. "Thanks. Likewise. And Silrin would have liked you, too."
"I'm sure the feeling would have been mutual. I wish I could have met her." Akhir turned back towards Elsa. "In that case, I promise not to do anything or breathe a word without your permission."
Elsa nodded, taking a deep breath. "Okay. Okay, I- Tamhet, she-" she swallowed. "I'm sorry. It's hard to trust a Yeerk with this."
"I can imagine it would be. Take your time, it's alright."
"She- she-" Elsa felt ill, her mind flashing back to that bathroom stall and further back, too, to when she'd been a helpless prisoner in her own mind, enduring taunts and torment from her Yeerk. "Sorry."
"Shh, don't apologise," Akhir said gently. "Would it be easier if someone else told me?"
"No, I want to do it." Elsa took another deep breath, then another, trying to relax her muscles. "She… she threatened people we recruited."
"Elsa, seriously, stop with the we," Kelly murmured. "It wasn't you."
"Voluntaries, mainly, or at least they started out that way. She threatened to find them, tell people who knew them that they were voluntaries, about their background before the Sharing. I wish I could speak to them, warn them at least, explain or… Jaz thought you might be able to find them."
Akhir had gone pale, her eyes wide. It took a few moments for her to speak. "That dapsen," she snarled, disgusted. "That utter disgrace of a Yeerk! How could she even think of doing such a thing!" Apparently unconsciously, Akhir wrapped her arm around Jasmine's waist, pulling her closer as though she could shield her from the world.
Elsa stared, surprised. That was a very forceful reaction. Was it real, or was Akhir just pretending to care?
Jasmine leant into her Yeerk's touch, curling against her side. "Do you think you can find them, tamli?"
"Find them? Yes, easily enough, if Elsa can give me names. I- what's going to be more difficult is what happens after I do. If you tell them about this threat, Elsa, there's a reasonable chance they might want to act themselves, and at least some of them will end up telling their Yeerks. If Jasmine told me someone was threatening her like that I'd go after them, and I wouldn't be stopping for anything you said."
"Really? Tamhet might hurt you."
"I really wouldn't care," Akhir said darkly, tightening her arm around her host. "I'd gladly die if I thought it would protect Jaz from that."
Elsa was taken aback. She'd never really trusted that Akhir truly cared about Jasmine at all: to be told she was willing to die for her was quite a shock, and it took Elsa a minute to process.
"Please never do that, Akhir, I need you," Jasmine said quickly, looking concerned. "I'd never forgive myself if you got hurt for me."
Akhir hesitated, looking across at her host. "I- I don't know if I can promise not to."
"Ah-ha," Elsa broke in, an idea dawning. "But you're thinking about it, right? Does that not solve the problem? Their Yeerks might not listen to me, but would they listen to their hosts, if they asked them to follow my lead?" The idea was very foreign to Elsa, but if Akhir's reaction was genuine then maybe some Yeerks did listen to their hosts, at least if they were voluntaries.
"I can't speak for other Yeerks," Akhir said slowly. "They'd listen to their hosts more than they would to you, but I don't know if it would be enough."
Elsa groaned, burying her head in her hands. "This is so complicated. Jesus, she's got me in a right web, hasn't she? I hate this."
"I'm sure you do," Akhir said gently. "I can't believe she's treated you like this."
"This is nothing compared to the war," Elsa muttered. "At least I don't have to hear her voice twenty-four seven."
"She's a total bitch," Carla agreed. "We can't let her win."
"She hasn't won," Jasmine said softly. "Even if we do nothing about the threat. She's lost at least one, maybe two mates that she wanted."
"She didn't really want them, though, did she?" Elsa muttered darkly. "She just wanted the status they'd give her."
"It's a disgusting way to treat someone," Akhir spat, with a fury Elsa didn't expect. "How could she try to deceive them like that?"
"That's Tamhet for you," Elsa said flatly.
There was a long silence before Akhir spoke again. "I- Elsa, can I ask- I've been thinking. If I could find a way to get all those hosts in a room at the same time, if I could tell them what happened and what you think the risks are of them or their Yeerks going after Tamhet… they could decide for themselves, then, couldn't they? As a group? I might be able to manage that."
Elsa sighed. "I'm being selfish, aren't I? That's just telling them it might happen and simultaneously saying they shouldn't do anything about it."
"They could plan for it, though," Jasmine said softly. "And maybe if you do let them go after her, if they know the risks and they still want to, they might be able to put a stop to it. She didn't even have the courage to finish her threat to me after Akhir got to her, she might not stand up to a barrage of however-many furious Yeerks and hosts as well as you think she will."
"It's still dangerous," Elsa murmured, looking worried. "Maybe we should just leave it, hope that she goes away now she can't deceive Ilkiss and Kal anymore."
"Is that likely, that she'd just go away?" Kelly cut in. "Because I don't feel comfortable with letting her keep that kind of power over you, Elsa. I'm not having you spend the rest of your life being subjected to her demands or looking over your shoulder for her all the time. No way."
Elsa felt sickened. Kelly was right, of course she was. There was no way Tamhet would just leave it, she'd want to show up every now and then just to demonstrate her power over her ex-host. And, of course, she knew exactly where Elsa lived. It was part of the reason Elsa hadn't dared move out for college. Kelly's family had moved house since the war at Kelly's urging, but the farm had been in Elsa's family for generations and she hadn't been able to bring herself to ask her parents if they'd consider leaving. At least if she was living with them she had a chance of protecting them, if one of her ex-Yeerks showed up.
Suddenly, Elsa's body tensed and she hurried to her feet… or tried to, anyway, her coordination failing her with the memories of her infestation so close to the surface. She collapsed against the arm of the sofa, scrabbling to get her legs under her. God, what if Tamhet was there now? She'd want revenge on Elsa after what had just happened. What if Tamhet did try to tell her parents about how low she'd felt in the war. Or worse, what if she tried to hurt them? The more rational part of her mind knew it was unlikely Tamhet would put herself at risk of arrest or being shot if she went too near. Yet she was seized with a sudden fear she couldn't quite explain, some legacy of Tamhet's hold over her, and felt an irresistible need to get back, to check they were okay.
"I have to get home," Elsa tried to say, the words coming out garbled, as she put far too much force into trying to move her lips. She'd spent a few months immediately after the war doing that with some regularity, a result of too much time spent trying to break through a Yeerk's control to speak, but it hadn't happened for at least a year.
Kelly was at her side instantly, and to Elsa's surprise Akhir was, too. "Slow down," Akhir said gently, without touching her. "It's alright. You're free, Elsa, you're safe."
"M-m-my f-f-family isn't!" Elsa managed, more coherently this time. "I need to get home. She… she might go to my house and…"
"You're not driving," Kelly said quickly. "I'll take you."
"Okay," Elsa said, not able to form a coherent enough sentence to argue.
"Can I come? Can I be of any help?" Akhir asked softly.
"Can we?" Jasmine asked.
Elsa turned her head to her with an effort. Jasmine and Carla were both on their feet, leaning towards her with concerned expressions. She tried to say no, that they'd done enough: Tamhet was too nasty to risk them coming. "No, sheeth… y- y- you'veee…" Elsa gave up quickly, seeing the fear and guilt on Jasmine's face.
"No, you don't want them to come?" Akhir asked.
Elsa nodded, but tried to speak again. "It'sss n-n-not…"
"It's not that you don't want them to, but you want to protect them?"
Elsa nodded. She was less than overjoyed it was Akhir helping her, but she could feel her heart rate coming down as she realised she could communicate and be understood, even if it was only by nodding and shaking her head to Akhir's questions.
"And me? Would you like me to come, Elsa? I'd like to help."
Elsa hesitated. "I don't know," she managed. "I just want to g-g-" she forced herself to take a deep breath. "I want to get there."
"Okay. Well, you've got my number. Call me if I can help."
"I…" Elsa hesitated, glancing at Kelly before returning her eyes to Akhir. "A-Another person w-would be good. Although I hate depending on you."
"You're not depending on me," Akhir said softly. "I'm just being an extra pair of hands. And I'm under your control, I'll do whatever you ask."
"If another person would be good, surely two more would be even better?" Jasmine cut in, looking hurt. "Why won't you let Carla and I help? Don't you trust us?"
"'Course I do," Elsa said hurriedly. "I j-just… she's vicious. I don't want her to hurt you, if she- if she is-"
"I'm sure we've both coped with worse," Carla muttered. Then she winced. "I don't mean worse than you having her in your head, but worse than what she can do to us. About the nastiest thing she can do is call me out about the drinking again. She can't even land a punch on us, not with five against one. And I've- you're not going to like this, but I've got a Dracon in the car."
Elsa froze. "You've got a what? How?! We had to hand them in- oh, never mind. Look, if you want to come, I'm not going to stand here arguing about it. I want to get there too much for that. But if you- if you come and she- she's there- she might try to hurt you. Not right there, probably, but afterwards."
"She doesn't even know where I live," Jasmine pointed out. "And if she tried to attack Carla she'd get killed by about five different Yeerks before she even got through the door."
Elsa still felt sick with fear for the two of them, but Jasmine had a point. It was her own family she needed to be worrying about. "Fine. Okay. Let's go."