Carla was silent on the ride out to Elsa's place. Her mind was whirring inside, her stomach churning with a mixture of emotions that felt impossible to separate out or make sense of. She still could hardly believe that Elsa had submitted to Tamhet to defend her, or people like her. She'd never have expected anything like that from anyone. Her view of Elsa, of humans in general, even, felt like it had been shaken around like one of those snowstorm ornaments, the flakes of emotion and thought swirling around too fast for her to make any sense of the whole picture. Carla tightened her hand around the Dracon beam in her lap: that was at least one thing she could make sense of. If Tamhet tried to hurt Elsa again she'd pay for it.
Elsa, Kelly and Carla were squashed in the tiny backseat of Akhir's car. Akhir had offered Elsa the front, but Elsa had wanted to be near Kelly, and Carla was very well aware it hadn't been an easy day for Akhir, either. She deserved to have Jasmine next to her, that would almost certainly help her feel at least a little better. Akhir's driving was the only sign of her nerves: she was hesitant, her movements jerky, which didn't help the sick feeling in Carla's stomach.
"Carla…" Elsa murmured from beside her. "I'm not sure that's a good idea." Her eyes were focused on the Dracon beam in Carla's lap.
"Shooting her sounds like a very good idea to me," Kelly snarled from Elsa's other side. "But fine, Elsa, your Yeerk, your rules. Leave it here, huh, Carla?"
Carla tightened her hand around it. "No."
"At least stop clicking the safety on and off in the car, please," Akhir said from the front. "I can hear it, it's making me very nervous. What level is it on?"
"Sorry," Carla muttered, flicking the safety back on. She hadn't realised she was even doing that, a sign she was more worried than she'd realised. "Safety's on now."
"I think it's on six," Elsa muttered, eyeing the control pad. "If I've got my Galard right. Carla, are you planning to vaporise my house?"
"Turn it down to two, please," Akhir ordered. "That'll knock Tamhet out for a good twenty minutes, if it comes to that, without doing her any harm."
"Four," Carla argued back. She wanted to do more than stun Tamhet, she was ready to hurt her.
"Carla, this isn't a market, I am not going to haggle with you. Two maximum. No-one is getting arrested for murder on my watch. Alniss will rip my palps out if that happens to you, and she'll do the same if I make you go out there without a weapon when you want one. Show me a bit of mercy, huh?"
Despite herself, Carla smiled. She'd still rather have it set higher, but she only had the beam at all because Akhir's old boss had altered the records, so she hadn't had to hand it back in after the war. That probably meant Akhir had some say over how she used it, and it was clear it made Elsa nervous, too. Reluctantly, she turned the dial down. "It's on two. Although I don't think there's anything about this Alniss is going to love."
"No, neither do I. Elsa, which way at the next intersection?"
"Left," Elsa muttered distractedly.
"Don't you have a Dracon, anyway, Jasmine?" Carla asked, in an attempt to divert Elsa's attention somewhat. "I thought all the voluntaries' records were changed, so we weren't registered as holding them. You didn't hand yours in, did you?"
"I've got one at home," Jasmine admitted. "I don't exactly bring it with me to parties, though. That's probably a good thing. I'd have killed Tamhet if I'd had it on me. If Akhir didn't snatch it off me first."
"I carry mine most of the time," Carla muttered. "But not to work. I'd get in too much trouble if anyone found it. I grabbed it from my room before we set off."
"I feel like this is something I should report to someone," Kelly muttered, making Carla tense.
"No!" Carla turned her eyes to Kelly, feeling a flood of fear. "I need this! I thought I could trust you."
"I'm not actually gonna tell anyone, not about you specifically," Kelly muttered. "Although the idea all the voluntaries are wandering around with weapons that can vaporise a human entirely doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. And it's kind of unfair. I wanted to keep my Yeerk's beam. Didn't get the choice."
"Really?" Elsa muttered. "Couldn't wait to be rid of mine. None of the Yeerks themselves have kept them, have they? What if… oh, God, what if she's got one?"
"Impossible," Akhir said gently. "How could she have kept it with her in the Pool?"
"What if she stashed an illegal one somewhere?" Elsa murmured, sounding panicked.
"And the host she stashed it somewhere in? Do you think they'd leave it there for her to find, or hand it over to her when she morphed?" Akhir asked. "I wouldn't imagine anyone would like her enough for that, do you?"
"No," Elsa murmured, looking a little more reassured. "I'm being silly. It's just… she was always threatening to- to- to sh-shoot…"
"Oh, Elsa," Akhir murmured. "She threatened your family?"
"In full-colour brain simulation," Kelly muttered darkly, wrapping her arm around Elsa. "Els, I don't think she'd go through with that, it'd only land her in prison. I'm sure they're safe. She might go scratch someone's car, that'd be about all. She's a coward, you know that."
Carla felt sick. "Brain simulation?" she asked, although she was almost certain she'd regret having her half-formed ideas confirmed. "You mean…"
"Very detailed mental images, yeah," Kelly muttered. "Like when they replay memories, but made up."
Carla heard Jasmine gasp in shock, and the car jerked suddenly to the side, pulled away from the kerb at the last minute.
"Kandrona," Akhir murmured, pain and regret in every syllable. "Elsa, I-"
"Not your fault," Elsa managed tightly.
"It is a little."
"No," Elsa said again. "As long as Jaz's like Carla and has never heard of it, then you're good."
"I hadn't," Jasmine murmured, her voice thick with the same tears that threatened to spill from Carla's own eyes. "Not with negative images, anyway. Akhir used to play pleasant memories of hers for me and sometimes she'd join bits together to make something nice to watch - I- Elsa, I – I'm so sorry, I- I had no idea."
"I had no idea any Yeerk did that with nice memories," Elsa muttered. "It's pretty vivid when they do it, huh? Must feel good if it's something fun. Talk more about that, Jaz, it'll take my mind off things."
"Okay," Jasmine said slowly. "Akhir, is that-"
"It's fine. You can tell Elsa my deepest secrets if it helps her."
"Um, I'm trying to think what there is to tell," Jasmine said gently. "I- I think my favourite was when she showed me her memory of the Earth from space. She went up in a Bug Fighter once, for training. She was in a Gedd, so their sight's not brilliant, but she tried to use my memories of colour and kind of overlay it. It was amazing. It must have been a lot of work to put it together, tamli?"
"I enjoyed doing it," Akhir said softly.
"And she tried to do Yeerk legends with human visuals, as though I was there in the story. That was wonderful, too. And really interesting, because Yeerk legends don't always translate to visual form, so she'd sometimes get a bit stuck."
"I didn't even know Yeerks had legends," Kelly muttered. "What are they about? How the host got its ears or something?"
Carla was surprised by the lightness of Kelly's tone. Surely this couldn't be an easy conversation for her, especially not with Akhir in the car. Carla understood a little more a second later, though, as she saw Elsa smile.
"What, like Yeerk Just-So stories?" Elsa cut in. "How the Hork-Bajir got their blades? How the Pool got its sludginess? How the Visser got his over-inflated ego?"
Carla grinned, and she heard Jasmine's short snort of laughter, too. Even Kelly smiled.
"One person we can probably all agree on," Elsa continued.
"We can all agree Tamhet is a piece of filth too," Akhir muttered from the front of the car.
Carla felt Elsa tense beside her. Akhir quickly realised her mistake, adding: "sorry. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have mentioned her again."
"It's fine," Elsa murmured. "I'm trying to distract myself, but I can't stop hearing her. She'd say this conversation was juvenile and pathetic. She'd love that I can't keep her voice out of my head, even when she's not really here."
Guilt twisted Carla's insides. "Elsa…" Cowardly as it was, Carla couldn't get the apology out of her mouth. She just couldn't seem to form the words.
"I'm sorry," Akhir shaped the words Carla couldn't. "I'm so sorry that I did this to you."
"You didn't," Elsa murmured. "She did. You weren't even around by that point to enable it."
"I'm sorry, nevertheless. Elsa, I- I know you don't need another Yeerk's opinion, but I don't think you're pathetic in the least. Everything you've done over the last few weeks shows incredible strength."
Elsa shrugged. "What, giving in to her?"
"You mean standing between her and voluntaries you don't even know, to protect them?" Carla cut in, before Akhir could respond. "That's not giving in, that's brave."
"Absolutely," Kelly, Jasmine and Akhir said at almost the same time.
"She was only threatening them because of me," Elsa argued back. "She knew it was the best way to make me obey her."
"She is likely to know what that is, when she's been in your head," Akhir said softly. "It's not your fault she knows what would work best. But what does it say about you, that the threat involved total strangers rather than yourself? I think that just underlines your kindness and your courage."
"Hate to agree with you, slimeball, but that's true," Kelly added. "Elsa, you're amazing. Don't listen to Tamhet, what the hell does she know about anything?"
"Like Akhir said, she knows me better than any human ever can," Elsa said despairingly. "God, I hate that."
"I didn't say that," Akhir said gently. "I said she knows how to threaten you, because that's something she will have tried to learn. We don't just absorb every facet of our host's personality automatically, it's not like that. To remember things after leaving their head we need to have put some effort into learning them. There are times Jasmine surprises me, and I was with Jasmine for much longer than Tamhet infested you. More importantly, we've been close since then. A person can change a lot in… how long has it been?"
"About eight years," Elsa clarified. "There were a couple more years of the war to go after she moved on from me."
"Then I imagine Kelly at least, maybe Jasmine, too, know you better than Tamhet does. And the other friends and family you have that you're close to. Even K- Kalran might know you better."
There was a slight hesitation in Akhir's voice as she said Kalran's name, and Carla winced. Akhir must be carrying a lot of her own emotions after Tamhet had called her feelings out in front of all those people, and Carla knew she hadn't had a chance to speak to Kalran since. That, and the guilt she was probably feeling about Elsa, must be so difficult to hold in. Carla felt a wave of gratitude that Akhir had prioritised her, Jasmine and Elsa over resolving her own problems tonight. She didn't dare say anything: she was sure Akhir wouldn't thank her for drawing Elsa and Kelly's attention to her feelings for Kalran.
Elsa seemed to react to the name, too, looking upset again. "You see? I let Kalran get hurt. And Ilkiss even more so."
"Kalran's fine," Jasmine said quickly. "She didn't like Tamhet one bit."
"And I don't think Ilkiss will be suffering as badly as you might expect," Akhir said gently. "Yeerk mates don't get close anywhere near as quickly as human partners do. They'd only known each other a few months, I believe. That's nothing to us, really."
"You think he'll be okay?" Elsa said worriedly, leaning forward. "I feel awful. I – I should have told him, but then I shouldn't have because then people would have got hurt –"
"Neither of them would have wanted you to feel bad, Elsa," Carla said gently, reaching across to touch Elsa's shoulder hesitantly. "Or to tell them, if it meant other people getting hurt. You've nothing to feel guilty about."
Elsa nodded, but didn't look convinced.
"Do you want me to call her?" Carla asked. "I've got her number."
"So have I," Elsa said quietly. "No, I won't disturb them. Not tonight. I- I'll talk to them tomorrow."
The group fell silent as they made their way out of town. They were well into the countryside before, at Elsa's quiet direction, Akhir turned down a narrower road. Partway along it, Akhir suddenly slammed the brakes on, throwing Carla forward with some force, the seatbelt tightening across her body as it caught her. Carla had been alternately watching Elsa out of the corner of her eye and checking the power level on the Dracon beam, and had had little attention to spare for the road, so it wasn't immediately clear to her why they'd stopped. Looking up, Carla could see a ghostly outline against the night, illuminated by Akhir's headlights.
"Is that a horse?" Carla asked.
"Shit," Elsa muttered. Then: "yes. My parents run a riding school. Silrin never told you?"
Carla shook her head, feeling a twinge of pain. "No. She didn't say much about you, to be honest."
"Tamhet's definitely been here," Elsa muttered, as another horse wandered into the pool of light. "The chances they'd get out by themselves, tonight of all nights? Nah, this is her. Anyway, we'd better get them back in before someone runs into them. They've not got far to get onto the main road from here. I'm so glad you saw them in time, Akhir, I'd have been devastated if we'd hit them. Don't suppose you have a rope or anything?"
"Unfortunately not," Akhir said tightly. "What the hell does the dapsen think she's doing? Putting innocent animals in danger, not to mention human, maybe even Yeerk strangers she doesn't know? Hitting one of them at speed isn't going to exactly let the car off lightly, either."
"She's a bitch," Kelly muttered, opening her car door. "C'mon. Reckon we can herd them back up, Elsa?"
"Sure," Elsa said. "You all mind getting out and helping?"
"How do you herd a horse?" Carla asked, eyeing the large animals with some trepidation. Jasmine looked similarly uncertain, but Akhir was already getting out of the driver's seat.
"Hold your arms out, wave them, make noise. If they aren't moving try grabbing a bit of mane and leading them. It'd be easier if we had halters and ropes," Elsa sighed. "At least for some of them. I might try and hop on one of them, if I can manage it from the ground. They're mostly fairly well trained, there's bound to be a few out here I can ride without a bridle, that might help. Kel, fancy giving it a go? None of you can ride, I'm guessing?"
"No," Carla admitted.
"Don't you have ropes and things at the house?" Akhir asked, as they all piled out of the car. "Maybe some of us could stay down here and chase them back if they try and go further down the road while you and Kelly go and fetch them?"
Akhir had clearly grabbed a torch from somewhere: as she swept the beam across the road, Carla estimated there must be at least fifteen horses out tonight.
"Yeah, that's true. I could go, Elsa, if you want to stay with them. Probably someone who knows what they're doing with horses ought to stay here. I know where most things are."
"I know where everything is," Elsa muttered. "I should go, they're my horses."
"You're not going anywhere on your own in case she's still here," Kelly said firmly.
"What if she hurts you?" Elsa said worriedly, leaning forward.
Carla hesitated, glancing at the Dracon beam in her hand. She was loathe to give up her weapon, but there'd be four of them still here. Kelly would be all on her own in the dark, walking up towards what was clearly some lonely farmstead. "Take this," she offered, stretching it towards her.
Kelly looked taken aback. "Whoa, thanks, Carla, but I'm okay." She patted the handbag she'd taken from her house. "I've got a gun."
Akhir made a slight sound, something between fear and frustration.
"Try not to murder her, Kel, I don't want you in prison," Elsa said nervously. "Maybe I should go."
A horse wandered down towards Akhir, and she raised her arms, stepping confidently towards it. "Move!" she snapped suddenly, raising her voice, and the horse turned away, walking back the way it had come.
"Yeah, like that," Elsa muttered distractedly. "Kelly, I should-"
"Stay here, Elsa, where there's more people. If you're that worried I'll take someone with me. Jasmine?"
"Absolutely not," Akhir snarled suddenly, taking a step closer to her host. "She's not going off into the dark with you when you have a weapon and she doesn't."
"Kelly won't hurt me, tamli," Jasmine said gently.
Akhir shook her head. "I want you and Carla to stay here, where I can at least try to keep you safe. But I don't think Elsa should go alone, either. I- I'd volunteer to come with you, but then I'd have to leave Jasmine and Carla and Elsa, and I'm worried Tamhet might still be around."
Elsa frowned, looking puzzled. "I reckon Kelly with a gun alone with you is definitely more likely to result in murder than Kelly with a gun alone with Jasmine."
"Yes, but then I'd be dead, not Jaz."
"Stop it," Jasmine said, a hard edge to her voice. "Don't you dare ever think about sacrificing yourself for me like that. I… it'd destroy me. I love you far too much to let you do anything of the kind."
Kelly looked slightly sickened. "I'll go myself. I'll be fine." She turned away, breaking into a jog as she headed towards the house.
Elsa's eyes followed her, worriedly, and she looked pale. "We'd better try to herd these guys up as far as we can," she murmured.
The four of them fell into a line: Jasmine and Elsa in the middle, Akhir and Carla to the outsides. Carla swept the Dracon beam across the darkness beside them, using the guiding light on the top of it to peer into the bushes, also worried Tamhet might still be around.
It was hard work, beginning to herd the horses up: most were intent on grazing and reluctant to be moved. Carla was a little nervous of the unfamiliar, huge animals, and Jasmine seemed to hang back a little, too. Akhir seemed to have no such concerns, approaching them with an ease that almost matched Elsa's.
They hadn't been going long, however, when a voice from the side of the road broke their concentration, a voice that chilled Carla's stomach.
"What an interesting little group." Tamhet stepped into the circle of light cast by Akhir's torch. She looked less immaculate than she had at the party, the long leather boots she'd changed into caked with mud and strands of hair falling across her face, which she pushed back impatiently as she approached them. A strange look was in her eye, an unsettling, almost manic gleam. "Let's see what we've got, shall we? A worthless drunk desperate for anyone's approval." she began, looking at Carla.
"Ex-drunk," Carla snapped, raising the Dracon beam to point straight at Tamhet's chest. "If you're going to insult me at least get it right. Anyway, I'd get lost if I were you, before I shoot you."
"Oh, you won't do that," Tamhet sneered. "Elsa won't let you. She'll say she's not worth risking prison for, and in that she's absolutely right for once. She's not even worth breaking a fingernail for." Tamhet's eyes turned to Elsa. "A pathetic, ignorant, ill-disciplined human whose idea of waging effective resistance against the might of a great alien Empire is to sing irritating songs on repeat. Whose only worth is as a body, and she's rapidly ruining even that with how shockingly she's abusing that body. Elsa, you look like a beached whale. Disgusting. What have you been eating, the pizza and doughnut diet?"
"Yeah, whatever," Elsa muttered. She turned towards Carla, hesitantly reaching a hand out for her shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Carla nodded, feeling another rush of warmth for Elsa. Bless her, to be worrying about Carla now, when Tamhet had just spoken to her like that. "I'm fine. Are you?"
"Oh, yeah, I'm used to all that," Elsa murmured. "I kind of just tune it out."
Elsa's statement was belied by the fact that Carla could feel Elsa trembling, and her voice wasn't smooth either, a little of the stuttering that had so shocked Carla earlier returning to her voice. Carla hesitantly reached to put an arm around her.
"Just leave," Akhir snapped, waving her hands at a nearby horse so it backed away. Apparently satisfied that none of them were about to sneak past at her side of the road, Akhir moved between the three of them and Tamhet, staring the other Yeerk down. "Why are you doing this? Do you even know?"
"Oh, yes," Tamhet said sneeringly. "Not that I need to explain myself to a pathetic weakling like you, but I'll do so anyway. Elsa has lost me my mates…"
"Mate, you mean," Jasmine cut in. "Kalran was never your mate, you only lost one."
"She would have been," Tamhet said dismissively. "How could she have resisted rejoining with Ilkiss? They miss each other. And I thought I told you not to be insubordinate."
Jasmine went silent instantly, glancing worriedly towards Elsa. Carla understood, remembering Tamhet saying she'd carry out her threat to Elsa if Jasmine was cheeky to her.
"Y-y-you d-don't-" Elsa began to protest, her face hardening despite the fear remaining in her eyes.
Tamhet smiled nastily. "What's the matter, Elsa? Spit it out. Oh, wait, struggling to speak, I see. Missing me, are you?"
That only made Elsa push harder to talk, becoming more incoherent as she did so. Jasmine was white with shock, and Carla felt similarly sickened. Oh, God, she'd had no idea how much harm a Yeerk could do, and she hated herself for doing nothing about it.
There was a sudden crack, and Carla turned back towards Tamhet in time to see her cradling her cheek with her hand. "How dare you strike me?!" she spat at Akhir. "You're not even fit to address me."
"How dare you?" Akhir returned, pain in every syllable of her voice. "How can you bring yourself to… why in Kandrona are you even here? Haven't you hurt Elsa enough?"
"She's lost me my mates," Tamhet repeated. "My ticket to more respect on this ridiculous planet."
Akhir looked, if it were possible, even more enraged. "Kalran is not a ticket," she snarled. "Or Ilkiss. They're Yeerks. Yeerks who have been through significant pain. How can you be so unfeeling?"
"Practice," Elsa muttered. "Lots of practice."
Akhir turned to her, softening her expression. "I imagine so."
"I was g-" Elsa stopped, took a breath. "I was going to say earlier, Tamhet, you don't get to tell Jasmine what to do! Jasmine, why are you listening to her?" Elsa spoke very quietly, as though if she used too much force she'd start to struggle again. She was clearly concentrating, hard, to get the words out.
"I forbid you answering that question," Tamhet said quickly, looking at Jasmine.
"She threatened to carry out her threat to you if Jasmine didn't," Carla said quickly, before she could be silenced in the same way. "Shame, the snarky comments were hilarious, Jaz."
Jasmine shot Carla a grin, mouthing: "Thanks."
"She what?!" Elsa half-shrieked. She strode over to Tamhet herself, stumbling slightly but staying upright. She pushed her face close to Tamhet's, glaring. "Jasmine, call her what you want, okay? It's not worth it, you shouldn't have to be obeying her. Get lost, Tamhet, get off my land."
"You heard her," Akhir snarled.
"Oh, but my fun's only just beginning," Tamhet sneered, smiling at Elsa. "Really, Elsa? You're sacrificing the others, just to allow one voluntary to cheek me?"
"Oh, so Elsa's defending other people, is she?" Akhir said, managing to put on a convincing performance that she didn't already know. "That sounds just like you, Elsa. Incredibly brave and possessing even more kindness than you do courage." Akhir turned back to Tamhet. "Who have you threatened?"
"None of your business," Tamhet snapped. "Anyway, Elsa, that's one of them gone. If you dare defame me to anyone, call the police, anything like that, then more of them will suffer."
"Why is it one of them gone, ish'li?" Jasmine said, in a very respectful voice. "I haven't said anything, and I won't be insubordinate to you. I don't want whoever it is to get hurt, just so I can make jokes at your expense, it isn't worth it."
"Don't call her that, Jaz!" Elsa was seething with rage, and Carla could understand why. Ish'li was a term reserved for inferior Yeerks to use towards superiors, and it was rare to hear hosts use it. Some Pool guards liked it from voluntaries, but they were almost without exception very unpleasant Yeerks.
"I don't like it either, Elsa, but if Jasmine wants to protect whoever it is then that's her choice. Her very brave, very strong choice," Akhir said softly.
Tamhet smiled nastily at Jasmine. "Easily dominated, isn't she, Elsa? Jasmine, do you seriously think Elsa's your friend? You, someone who let her be enslaved? The host of a Pool guard, no less?" There was a short silence. "Answer me."
"Yes," Jasmine said, looking at Elsa rather than Tamhet. "I do think Elsa's my friend. She's proven it time and time again. I don't think I deserve a friend like her. I'm very lucky."
"You do," Elsa answered easily, smiling through her tears. "You're amazing."
Tamhet looked discomforted. "She's lying."
Jasmine said nothing, smiling back at Elsa, although she also looked tearful. Carla felt emotional, too, although not to the point of tears. She rarely let herself cry in front of others.
"Stop smiling like that," Tamhet snapped.
"What's the matter, Tamhet?" Akhir demanded. "Lost control of things? Elsa and Jasmine not meeting your ridiculously low expectations of them? You look half-crazed. What kind of a revenge is this, anyway?" She gestured around at the horses. "Sneakily letting out some animals because you're too cowardly to even go up to the house itself? Blaming Elsa for something she isn't even responsible for, doing something petty to her to make up for your own failings? You lost your mate because you lied to him. You're not respected on Earth because you, like me, were part of an Empire that did terrible things, and you never challenged them, like Kalran and Ilkiss did. None of that is anyone's fault but your own."
"Doesn't that also apply to you?" Tamhet shot back.
"It does. I believe I said that."
Tamhet sneered. "Weakling."
"I know I am," Akhir said softly. "Tamhet, the Empire has gone. It's not coming back. I don't want it to, but perhaps you do. Although in the Empire's eyes I wouldn't be surprised if you're nothing more than a body to them either. We're viable hosts now, or haven't you realised that?"
"Any normal Yeerk who infested her would swim screaming in the other direction, though," Carla muttered.
Akhir smiled slightly at Carla's comment. "The Empire isn't coming back. We lost, and we've been granted more mercy than I would ever have expected to be shown, to have these bodies and be free to move in the world as we choose. Especially after how we've treated other species."
Jasmine leaned forward, as though about to cut in, but stopped at a quick wave of Akhir's hand. Elsa's eyes narrowed, but she stayed quiet.
"You have to find a way to deal with that, Tamhet. A way that doesn't involve hurting other people. Surely harming Elsa must cause you pain, however deeply you've buried that feeling."
Elsa laughed bitterly at that. "No, Akhir, she loves hurting me, it's her favourite hobby."
Akhir nodded. "You know her best."
"I don't love it, Elsa, don't flatter yourself. You're not important to me in any way, human. It was my duty to keep you well-disciplined, and you're standing in my way now. I have to control you, that's all there is to it."
"Elsa listened to the first threat," Akhir pointed out. "And the rest of us agreed not to damage your reputation when you said you'd carry it out if we did. There was no further risk, and I can't imagine you'd think for a moment this would help you to regain Ilkiss' interest. And yet here you are, driving forty minutes out of town in the middle of the night and getting yourself covered in mud. Risking Elsa's family hearing you and probably hurting you, in order to carry out some petty, and to borrow one of your favourite words, extremely pathetic revenge. This is more than unfeeling self-interest, Tamhet, this is either pure sadism, or some strange way of trying to get Elsa to react to you, even if that reaction is hatred."
"Just because you're a weakling who cares far too much about what their host thinks about them doesn't mean we all are," Tamhet sneered. "And what are you hoping to achieve by being here? I admit I was very surprised to see you. Your own ridiculous attempt to impress Elsa, I suspect. Why, hoping she'll recommend you to Kalran?" Tamhet laughed. "As I said before, a ridiculous fantasy. She's far too good for you, which is saying something given how weak and foolish she is herself." Tamhet glanced at Elsa. "Oh, in case you hadn't realised, Akhir here has, as you would say, quite a crush on Kalran. And has been following her around pathetically for the last few months, I imagine hoping she'll feel desperate enough in her grief to take a pathetic bottom-swimmer like her."
"That is not true," Akhir said, sounding deeply hurt. "I have… an interest… in her, yes, but no expectations. I'm well aware she's far too good for me, and I would never try to take advantage of her pain."
"We all know that," Elsa said gently, surprising Carla and apparently Akhir, too, as she whipped her head around, her eyes widening. "I'm sure Kal knows that, too. You're not that kind of person, Akhir. Anyway, Tamhet, how would impressing me help? I don't have a say over who Kalran dates, do I? That would be very weird."
"And how would you feel if she was foolish enough to become Akhir's mate?" Tamhet said nastily. "You're very friendly with Kalran, aren't you? You can't be saying you'd be okay with her having a Pool guard as her mate?"
"If Kalran's happy then I'm good," Elsa shot back. "I might not be inviting her to bring a plus one to my next birthday party, but she deserves to be happy and to be loved, especially after all the crap she's had to deal with. And it's her choice, anyway." Elsa looked towards Akhir, forcing a smile. "Although I reserve the right to sing annoying love songs on a loop."
Akhir returned the smile, although it didn't quite reach her eyes. "You're very kind, Elsa." Turning back to Tamhet, Akhir's face hardened, although Carla could see the distress underneath it. "Just leave," Akhir said again. "Take back your threat and leave. Let Elsa live her life. She's suffered enough at our hands."
"Mainly her hands, not yours," Elsa muttered.
"She threw you into a cage!" Tamhet shrieked. "How is she any better than me?"
Tamhet's composure was gradually cracking: her face looked wild now, and Carla tightened her hand on the Dracon. She wasn't sure she quite understood what was happening, but it was impossible to tell what someone with an expression like that might do next.
Elsa blinked, surprised by the force of her Yeerk's reaction. She glanced uncertainly at Jasmine and Carla. "Eww," she said eventually. "Oh, God, she really does feel something for me, in some twisted way, doesn't she?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Elsa," Tamhet snarled. "Who would want a host like you?"
"Just get out!" Elsa yelled suddenly, looking sickened. "Go away!"
"And why would I do that?" Tamhet said, smiling nastily.
"Because if you stay you'll prove beyond all doubt that Elsa means something more to you than a body? And you're dead set against anyone finding that out, aren't you?"
"As if I care what you think of me," Tamhet hissed at Akhir. "You're not worth speaking to."
"Then stop speaking to me. Go home."
"I don't follow orders from y-" Tamhet stopped suddenly, her eyes widening in fear. Kelly had stepped into the circle of torchlight, her gun pointed directly at Tamhet's head.
"You'll follow the order from me, Yeerk, or I will blow your brains out," Kelly hissed, looking like she meant every word. "Carla, why in the hell haven't you shot her yet?"
"Kel, please put that down. I don't want you to become a murderer for me," Elsa pleaded.
"Murder means you're killing a person," Kelly snarled, without taking her eyes off Tamhet. "This is a slug. A nasty, callous torturer of a slug, no less."
"She's still a person," Elsa said quietly. "Much as I hate to admit that in her case. But if Kal and Akhir are then she is, too. Please put the gun down."
"If she swears to get out of here immediately and never come near you or anyone you love again then I might do," Kelly growled. "And I'd love it if you said no, Tamhet, I'd love an excuse to shoot you. I know how you treated my best friend. How dare you set foot within a hundred miles of her! Get out of here."
"I'm going," Tamhet gasped out. Her arrogant mask was gone now, naked fear replacing it. She clearly didn't trust Elsa to be able to restrain Kelly: she was in fear for her life.
"Will you plead with me for mercy, Yeerk?" Kelly said, an unpleasant light in her eyes. "Like you made Elsa plead for you to stop hurting her?"
"Please," Tamhet said instantly. "Please don't kill me."
"Stop it, Kel." Elsa's face was furrowed with pain, her mouth widening in shock. "I don't like what this is doing to you. Finding pleasure in people's fear is what she does. Kelly, don't, please. Just let her go."
Kelly nodded. "As I said, your Yeerk, your rules. Get the hell out of here, slug, and if you dare return and trouble Elsa again I will not be so merciful. While we're at it, you carry out whatever you've threatened Elsa with and I will find you and kill you."
"Or we could just call the police," Akhir said quietly. "I'm not sure death threats are nec-"
"Not necessary, huh? Well, you didn't think freeing us was necessary, so forgive me if I don't listen to you." Kelly cut in. "Tamhet, out, I will not say it again." She jerked her gun in the direction of the main road.
"M-m-my car's back there," Tamhet said tremblingly, raising a shaking hand to point back the other way, towards the house.
"Good. Elsa can keep it and sell it. About point one percent of the compensation you owe her."
"No thanks," Elsa said quickly. "Let her get her car, Kelly, or I'll have to invite her back to collect it, which is just about the last thing on Earth I want. No amount of money can make this better."
"I know that," Kelly said, more gently. "Get your car, Yeerk," she added, her harsh tone returning.
"I'll go with her," Carla volunteered. "Make sure she gets straight in without making any more trouble." She raised her Dracon beam again. She wished she'd carried on threatening Tamhet with it before; she'd given up too easily at Elsa's request, but it was clearly the only thing that worked with this Yeerk.
"You're not going off alone with her," Akhir said softly. She glanced at Jasmine, and an unspoken understanding passed between them in a single soft glance, something that still made Carla twinge with pain. "I'll come with you."
Carla felt a rush of gratitude. Leaving Jasmine alone must be hard for Akhir in such a tense situation: it was good to feel cared about to that extent. "Thanks."
Tamhet marched between them back up the road, her eyes staring fixedly ahead.
"Didn't expect Kelly, huh?" Carla needled, unable to resist. "That was pretty stupid of you. Jasmine told you we'd called her. What did you think, that she'd let Elsa come off with us by herself?"
"I expected Elsa to be alone," Tamhet muttered darkly. "I rather hoped she'd be distracted driving home, hit one of the horses, not expecting them to be on the road. That would have broken her soft little heart."
Akhir's intake of breath was audible. "How can you even- oh, you're disgusting."
"Hitting one of them at speed could have killed her!" Carla exclaimed. "Or at least hurt her pretty bad." Carla reached for the dial of the Dracon, itching to twist it to six and blast Tamhet to smithereens.
"No, Carla," Akhir ordered firmly. "No. Elsa's been quite clear about no-one killing for her."
"She didn't say anything about injuring, though," Carla snarled.
Moving her hand away from the dial to the trigger, she delivered a low level blast to Tamhet's forearm. She'd moved before she'd even thought things through: she just couldn't bear it anymore, the sickened feeling inside her at what Elsa was suffering, at how little this Yeerk seemed to think of her.
The Yeerk screeched, clutching at the wound. She turned furious eyes to Carla, her teeth gritted in what Carla assumed was pain. "You could have done permanent damage!" she shrieked. Gingerly moving her fingers away, she inspected herself.
Akhir swung her torch beam to cast light onto the wound. There was no blood, but Carla was surprised by the size of the injury. A neat circle, about the width of a coffee cup, cut deeply into Tamhet's flesh, which was whitened and looked strange.
"I can't feel it," Tamhet said, panicked, her face white with shock. "You disgusting little laklat, this might never recover!"
"It is deep," Akhir said steadily, peering at it. "Come back to my car, I'll bandage it. You should get it looked at by a doctor."
"Don't say that!" Carla exclaimed. "They might work out what made it." She realised, a second too late, that that was probably a fatal thing to say in front of Tamhet.
"They certainly will, when I tell them," Tamhet snarled.
"I wouldn't, if I were you," Akhir snapped. "Or the whole story will come out about why Carla was out here in the middle of the night with you. Do you want the police to know that? What you've done to Elsa must break several human laws. I'd make up some explanation, if I were you. Promise me you'll do that and I'll even take you to the hospital. You shouldn't be driving."
"Fine," Tamhet snapped. She smiled slightly, despite the shock of her injury. "I'll have to come back later for my car, she'll love that."
"No, you won't," Akhir snapped. "We'll sort something out. You don't come near Elsa again."
As though summoned by Akhir's words, there was a clatter of hurried footsteps and Elsa appeared beside them, panting. She glanced at the beam in Carla's hand. "Good, at least it's still you holding that. What happened? I heard it fire."
"Where's Jasmine?" Akhir yelped.
"Relax," Elsa held out her hands, Kelly's gun in one and its bullets in another. "I took this. She's with Kel by the horses, but no-one's armed. She said she was okay there. We need at least two people to stop the horses drifting off down the road."
Akhir looked terrified. "But…"
"Kelly won't hurt her, I promise. Chill. What hap- back off, slug!" Elsa snapped suddenly, snatching her hands back just as Tamhet stepped forward, reaching towards the gun. "You'll have to be a lot faster than that before I let you get your filthy palps on this." Elsa turned towards Carla. "What happened? Has she hurt you?"
"Carla's hurt me!" Tamhet whined, turning her arm towards Elsa. "Look! She might have permanently injured me."
Elsa looked incredulous. "I'm sorry, are you expecting sympathy, Yeerk? After everything you did to me? Seriously?" She peered at the wound anyway, then glanced worriedly at Carla. "Er. Right. Okay. Well, oops, Tamhet, my bad. Guess my hand slipped on the trigger while I was escorting you off my land. Sometimes I get weird spasms like that, comes with the territory when you spent half your adolescence controlled against your will. Happens sometimes, especially when I'm reminded of the war. So sorry," she said sarcastically.
Carla frowned. "Huh? You didn't do it."
"As I will say to any police officer or court that asks, I absolutely did do it. Kelly'll back me on it, and I can probably persuade Jasmine to as well. And you've agreed to follow my lead, Akhir, so here's your chance to do it."
"If it comes to that," Akhir said softly. "If you're sure. I'm rather hoping this little dapsen will keep it quiet, she won't want what she's done to you to get out, so I hope it isn't needed."
"Wait, no!" Carla finally found her voice, staring incredulously at Elsa. "You're not taking the blame to protect me! You- you don't deserve… why would you do that?!"
"I'm less likely to get in serious trouble for it, and you're my friend," Elsa said softly. "Why wouldn't I?"
Carla felt tears prickle behind her eyelids, unable to help it despite Tamhet and Elsa's presence. Everyone's presence, really: she rarely cried in front of others. Alniss was the one exception where it was beginning to feel less humiliating. Unable to control herself, she turned away, bowing her head to hide her face.
"She's not even going to thank you," Tamhet sneered. "Why even bother, Elsa? Your friends are pathetic, every single one of them."
"Beg to differ," Elsa snapped. "They've defeated you at every turn. Carla called you out, Jaz worked out the best way to confirm how much of a lying little bitch you are, and Kelly got you running for your life. I couldn't ask for a better bunch of people on my side. And, while not quite a friend yet, Akhir's probably stopped either me or Kelly running into one of the horses tonight, which was your evil little plan, wasn't it? You knew I'd want to see Kel tonight, and neither of us are in a fit state to be driving. Thanks, Akhir."
"There's no need to thank me. I owe you a million times more than that," Akhir said softly. Her voice hardening, she turned to Tamhet. "Are you going to stand there and let that injury get worse, just to score points off Elsa? It needs treating. Elsa, I – is it alright if I take Tamhet to the hospital?"
Elsa's eyes widened. "Well… yeah, you don't exactly need to ask me. But… but why? She's been horrible to you, too."
"Will you make sure Jasmine and Carla are safe? I'll come back for them as soon as I've dropped her off," Akhir said hastily, ignoring Elsa's question.
"Yeah, 'course," Elsa said slowly. "Although I'd be doing that whether you'd asked it or not."
"We know you would," Carla murmured, managing to find her voice again. "I wouldn't feel safe with anyone else- any other human, I mean."
Elsa looked taken aback for a moment, then smiled. "I know you're not a hugger, Carla, but…" she opened her arms. "The offer's there."
Carla hesitated, unsure. She didn't feel she deserved the friendship Elsa was offering her, but it seemed wrong, somehow, to turn her down.
Akhir tugged on Tamhet's other arm, leading her away, back towards Akhir's car. Once the Yeerks had moved away, Carla took a hesitant few steps to close the distance between her and Elsa, edging into her friend's arms. The hug was brief: Elsa probably noticed Carla's tension, though she didn't comment on it. Carla couldn't remember the last time she'd been touched with uncomplicated, unassuming friendship by another human… it had been well before Silrin, probably.
As she drew away, there were a thousand things Carla wanted to say, 'sorry' chief among them, but she somehow still couldn't form the words. Instead, she murmured: "thanks, Elsa. For everything."
"You too," Elsa smiled, with characteristic warmth. "You've taken such a burden away tonight, I – I can't begin to tell you how much better I feel."