(What the...) I murmured, as I felt my eyes open.
(He's having a nightmare,) Terlin explained, his voice as drowsy as mine.
(Ohh. Poor kid,) I sighed to myself.
I felt myself wake up more fully, no doubt helped by Terlin, and immediately realized that Jake was thrashing against me. Since we'd fallen asleep with me hugging him, he must be thinking that I was holding him against his will. Immediately, I jumped out of bed, wishing I hadn't taking the side closest to the wall, and reminding myself not to do this in the future. I turned on the light, and saw that Jake was still sleeping, if you could call it that, but remained thrashing his arms around as he yelled at something or someone to stop.
(Okay. What do we do? Wake him, or...?) I trailed off.
Before Terlin could reply, Jake's eyes opened, and he sat bolt upright. His screaming stopped, but he looked at me, and began to shake, eyes widening. I wondered if he was about to begin morphing.
I help up my arms, walking a few feet further away from the bed. Just enough to give Jake some space.
"Midget, it's okay," I soothed, keeping my voice gentle, hoping to calm him down. "You were having a nightmare. It's just me...well, us. Remember yesterday? It's okay, now. You're safe."
Jake took a minute to register what I was telling, and then his shoulders slumped. He seemed to deflate, or shrink, or whatever you call it when someone suddenly goes small like that.
"Tom," he registered, his voice a whisper. Then, "I'm sorry."
"Hey...it's okay," I repeated, now walking towards him, slowly. "Can I...?"
Jake just nodded, then, started taking deep breaths, and then letting them out. He must be registering where he was, now, and that whatever had happened in his dream, it hadn't happened in real life.
At least, I hoped not.
"A dream," he repeated, somewhat hoarsely.
"A nightmare," I corrected, gently. Gesturing towards the bed, taking another step towards him, I added, just to be certain, "Is it okay if I...?"
He nodded, moving over to let me in. Tentatively, I put an arm around his shoulder, and he slumped against me.
"Jake. It's okay, and you're safe, now," I murmured, gently, for the third time in as many minutes. "I promise, Jake. I'm not gonna hurt you. You're safe with me."
Jake nodded again, but his entire body started shaking again, and then the tears began falling down his face. I wrapped my other arm around him, holding him against me. Jake's shaking seemed to subside, then. I just held him, close but not too tightly, for several minutes.
Sure, I'd known he'd had nightmares, but actually witnessing one...
Was it because I'd been there? Had my presence triggered a sort of fear reaction to offset whatever good I could do for Jake by being there?
Maybe. On the other hand, he'd looked pretty horrible before seeing me.
"T-thanks." He looked up at me, managing a small smile. "I-I'm okay, now."
I nodded, although I wasn't so sure. "Want to talk about it?"
But Jake just shook his head. "Not now. Maybe, later?" He paused. "If that's okay?"
Midget might be fifteen, but at that moment, he looked more like ten. "Of course it's okay, Midget," I reassured him. I gave him a little squeeze. "I just want to be here for you."
He took another deep breath. "Thanks, Tom."
I glanced at the light. "How about we keep this on for tonight?"
He nodded. "Yeah. That'd be good."
"Anything else you need?" I asked, gently. "Some water? I could make some tea or hot chocolate or something..."
Granted, doing so might wake up our parents, if his yelling hadn't already done so. Then again, their room were farther away from us, and his door was closed. We could hear each other pretty easily from our rooms, since they were almost next to each other, but Mom and Dad's were all the way down the hall.
Anyway, it wasn't like making some tea or hot chocolate in the middle of the night was against house rules.
But Jake just shook his head. "No! I-I don't want you to leave," he admitted, then, looking away from me, like he was embarrassed.
I held him close, giving his right shoulder another reassuring squeeze. "Hey. I'm not going anywhere unless you want me to, Midget."
"Thanks." He gave a little laugh. "You must think..."
Jake trailed off.
"I think," I began, carefully, "that you have a whole lot on your plate, what with saving the world and all. It's no wonder you've been having nightmares."
Midget looked at me, managing a smile. "Tom? Am I...?"
He trailed off again, but I was pretty sure I knew what he was getting at.
I rolled my eyes at Jake. "You told me earlier today that you once morphed an ant and another colony literally tore apart your body. I know you came face to face with Visser Three, fought him, and lived to tell the tale. And, I'm sure that's just the beginning of it. No, Jake. I don't think brave even begins to describe what you are." Then, I tousled his hair. "Even if you're not the best at basketball," I added, teasingly.
He gave me a genuine grin, then. "Thanks, Tom."
I returned his smile, but I was a little worried. How often did he have nightmares? More specifically, how often did he have nightmares in one night?
As though reading my mind, Jake added, "Anyway, when I fall back asleep, I should be okay. I don't usually get more than one nightmare a night."
That was good news, at least.
"How often do you get them, anyway?" I pressed.
Jake shrugged. "Depends." He paused for a few seconds, probably doing the math in his head. "I guess, maybe once a week or so? More if we have to do a new morph, and it's especially bad."
I sighed. "And, here, I thought once or twice a month was bad."
Another shrug. "You don't see a lot of fighting, right? I mean, since you're at basketball a lot, you probably don't have to attend all of the full members Sharing meetings?" Jake guessed.
"Yeah. Pretty much. We-well, Terlin-basically feeds whenever he can with my crazy schedule. Practice is four days a week, and if we have games, we don't get back until the evening. But, I can miss a practice if I need to do a Sharing meeting, or part of it, or a trip to the Yeerk Pool. Coach isn't a Controller, but a few other people on the team are full members. It works out. Terlin gets away with being less active than he could be, since they all know that I'm good at basketball. If I ever go pro, they figure I can represent The Sharing that way." I rolled my eyes. "Basically, I end up avoiding most of the line of the visser's fire."
Jake nodded. "I worried about that. A lot. I know that Visser Three starves Yeerks who fail him, but sometimes, he just kills them both."
I'd heard the stories. "That's not something that you need to worry about, with us. We're not exactly on his radar in that way," I assured him. "Anyway, Chapman likes Terlin, so we kind of get the perks without the hard work aspect."
Jake considered this for a moment, then smiled at me, teasingly. "So, what you're telling me is that you're the teacher's pet."
I snickered. "Says the person who becomes animals?"
Another grin. "Okay, okay."
Jake tried to hide a yawn. "Thanks, Tom."
"No problem," I reassured him. Still holding Jake in one arm, I casually adjusted the blankets around us. "Why don't we try to get some more sleep?"
Jake looked at the bed, a little doubtful. "I-I don't know."
I wasn't sure why, but Terlin spoke up in my head.
(I think he's nervous, Tom. The way you are, when you wake up from a nightmare,) he explained.
(Ohh,) I answered, comprehension dawning on me.
So, I nodded at my kid brother. "Hey. You still worried?" I asked, softly.
"Yeah. I don't normally have two nightmares in one night, but..." Jake trailed off.
I gave him another hug. "I promise not to think any less of you if you do, Midget. But, look, why don't I rub your back for a little? That might help you sleep better," I offered.
"Okay. I mean, if you don't mind," he agreed, almost tentatively.
"Naw, I'm happy to." Glancing at Jake, who was curled up in a ball against me, I added, gently, "Now, do you want to stay like this, or...?"
Jake laughed a little, then disentangled himself from my arms and rolled himself over onto his stomach. He flopped around a little, almost resembling an oversized fish, but once he finally got settled in a comfortable position, I leaned over and began to rub his shoulders. I was careful to go gentle enough not to hurt him, while still working out the stress on his back. It was pretty clear that Jake was carrying, or whatever doctors called it, a lot of stress there. Mostly, in his shoulders, but there were knots of tension everywhere. Jake's breathing became even, but he'd make contented sighs or murmurs every so often until he flat out fell asleep. I sighed to myself. There was still a lot of tension left in his back, but I didn't want him to wake up again, so, I stopped, and wrapped my arms around him, and then tucked us under the covers once more. Jake hardly stirred.
(There's always tomorrow,) Terlin reminded me, gently, smiling. (And, you need your sleep, too, Tom.)
(I know,) I agreed, carefully stretching myself out on the side of the bed facing the ground. Glancing a little dubiously at the foot of space between me and the floor, I added, (Try not to let me fall out of the bed, okay?)
(I promise,) Terlin assured me.
(Hey, Terlin?) I asked, suddenly.
(Yes, Tom?) he answered.
(Jake's had nightmares before this, right? And our rooms are close. Why's this the first time that we woke up?) I wondered.
(Well, he sleeps with his door closed, as do you,) Terlin recalled. (Ever since he woke you up when he was having a nightmare, and we checked on him.)
(When was that?) I couldn't recall this ever happening.
(About a year ago. It must have been shortly after his infestation, because it was after the clinic was destroyed. Do you mind if I...?) Terlin asked.
(Yeah, go ahead,) I allowed, yawning.
I appreciated that he always asked me if he could replay memories I'd forgotten about. Even if he knew I'd always say yes, he still made sure to get the okay from me.
"No! No! Get out! Get out!"
Midget's voice. He was yelling. My eyes opened.
(What's going on?) I mumbled.
(Seems that your brother is having a nightmare,) Terlin noted. (Should we check on him?)
"No! Leave me alone!" came Jake's voice.
(Yeah, definitely,) I agreed, now more awake.
I remembered how he'd been acting differently since the whole clinic failure. Staring at me more. Not just that, but his whole demeanor towards me had gone from distant to almost angry.
Still, Jake was my kid brother, and if he was having a nightmare, I wasn't about to ignore it. Maybe, even, this could put us on speaking terms again.
I rose from my bed, then left my room for Jake's. Our doors were only a few feet apart, and his was open. He was still yelling.
I entered without knocking, turned on the light. "Jake? You okay?"
Jake was still laying in bed, but he jumped at the sound of my voice, and immediately sat up.
"Hey. It's okay. Just me," I murmured, crossing towards him. "Bad dream, huh?"
He managed a nod, then a weak smile. "Yeah. Did I wake you up?"
I shrugged. "It's Friday night. Or Saturday morning. I'll live." I sat down on his bed, next to him. Put an arm on his shoulder. "Want to talk about it?"
He forced a laugh. "Oh, you know. I was in class, and I was giving a report. But, I couldn't remember anything, and when I looked down, I was totally naked. Everyone was laughing. Pointing at me."
I winced. "Those are the worst." Then, remembering what he'd yelled, I added, "Midget? You were yelling 'get out'? Do you remember why?"
It was more out of curiosity than to test him. But, he paled.
"I guess...because I was naked? And I didn't want them to see me?" He guessed, then shrugged. "I...it was so vivid, but now, it's starting to fade..."
"Yeah, dreams are like that," I reassured him. "Anyway, we all have the 'naked at school' dream at least once. It's kind of a teenage rite of passage." I gave him a light punch on the arm. "You're one of us now. Congrats."
Jake gave a weak laugh. "Yeah. Thanks."
"Want me to stay with you until you fall asleep?" I offered.
He rolled his eyes. "Tom. I'm thirteen."
I raised my arms in surrender. "Okay, okay. Well, sleep well, okay? And I'm here, if you need to talk."
He nodded, managed a smile, but even I could tell it wasn't sincere. "Yeah. Night, Tom."
The memory ended there.
(He must have been dreaming about when he became a Controller,) I realized. ("Get out" and all that? And when we suddenly appeared...Terlin, he must have been panicked.)
Probably afraid that if he said the wrong thing, we'd stun him and drag him to the Yeerk Pool then and there. Never mind that it had been the middle of the night.
(Yes. No wonder he slept with his door shut from then on,) Terlin added.
(Yeah. You're probably right,) I sighed.
I tightened my arms around Jake's frame. At least, now, I'd be there when he had a nightmare.
And he would't have to lie about it, for fear of being found out, and infested.
When I woke up again-both of us-it was morning. Well, like six in the morning, which hardly counted as morning on a Sunday, but the sun was up.
After about fifteen minutes of trying, I couldn't seem to fall back asleep.
Maybe, I had this sixth sense or something that Jake would wake up soon. Who knows. If he did, and if he forgot what had happened the day before, well, at least I'd have warning before he accidentally kicked me out of bed in an attempt to escape potential infestation.
Thankfully, none of that happened. Oh, he looked a little surprised to see me laying next to him, but the events of the previous day must have resurfaced in his mind, and his face went from surprised to relaxed, to flat out happy.
"Hey, Midget," I greeted, pulling him close to me like he was Homer. "Sleep well?"
Jake didn't protest at my impromptu hug. In fact, once again, he settled himself against me. "Yeah. Way better than before."
With my free hand, I ran my fingers over his hair, which had become rumpled from sleep. "Good. Two nightmares in one night would be pretty awful."
"Yeah," he agreed, yawning a little.
I continued to comb through his hair with my fingers. Jake's hair wasn't exactly long, but it was at least a four inches longer than I kept mine. Plus, it was soft, and kind of wavy.
Jake let me comb it with my fingers without protest. Whether he was enduring it or enjoying it, I wasn't sure.
After a few minutes, though, he'd had enough. "Tom," he complained, moving his head just out of my reach. "I'm not a cat."
I let go of his hair, but wrapped an arm around his shoulder. "Midget, what's your battle morph?"
"A tiger. So?" He narrowed his eyes at me.
"A tiger is part of the cat family. A very, very large cat." I edged closer to him, then triumphantly tousled his hair. "Sorry, Midget, but you're a very big cat."
He rolled his eyes at me. "I also have dog DNA, and dolphin DNA, and ant, and flea, and..."
"So?" I laughed. "I bet you morph tiger way more than the others. Nope, sorry. You're a cat. A kitty."
He sighed. "You're impossible."
"No, you're im-puss-ible." I grinned.
He groaned. "I give up."
"Cool." I grinned, wrapping my free arms around Jake. He relaxed against me, closing his eyes briefly. "Still tired?" I asked, gently, all teasing gone.
Jake rolled over on his side, not moving away from the hug, but rather, close enough so we were face to face.
"Kind of. It's more..." He paused, thinking it over. "There are different types of tired. If that makes sense."
"Sort of. Well," I corrected myself. "You mean that it wears on you? Especially after over a year?"
"Right." Jake sighed. "It's like...sometimes, I feel like I've aged at least ten ages."
I studied his face. I could see it, sort of. On the surface, he looked like a regular fifteen year old. On the other hand, when I looked more closely, there was this look in his face, especially his eyes. Like he'd seen stuff most people hadn't.
Broken hosts-mostly humans-had that look on their faces. I'd seen them at the Yeerk Pool. They'd stopped screaming, just spent their time staring blankly in front of them. I didn't know if they'd been tortured to the point of insanity, which was rare, but did happen if your Yeerk was sadistic enough. Or, if they'd just given up and disappeared within their own head, even when their body was theirs to control for a couple of hours.
It was never like that in the voluntary area. Sure, you got the people who-you just knew-were only voluntary so that they could move around by themselves, not be forced into the cages. Their Yeerk didn't mistreat them, but didn't care about them, either. It was probably a tense relationship, fraught with rules. Host: don't fight for control, don't bother the Yeerk. Yeerk: don't torture the host or provoke them. Probably, unspoken: don't infest their family. Or, not immediately. Those were the hosts who, if really given the choice, would walk out of the Yeerk Pool and not look back.
Was it their Yeerk's fault, for not being kind enough? Or, was it because there would always be some people who would only be voluntary because they knew that they had no other choice, and they might as well pick up whatever scraps of freedom the empire was willing to give them.
Still. You never saw those haunted, aged, looks on even the only semi willing voluntary hosts.
"Tom?" Jake asked me, watching me.
I realized I was still staring at him. "Sorry, Midget. What you said, it just got me thinking."
He raised his eyebrows at me. "Anything you want to talk about?"
I didn't want to, but then again, I didn't want to hide anything from Jake. Probably, it wasn't anything new. Seeing the broken hosts at the Yeerk Pool, anyway. So, I told him. About how things worked at the Yeerk Pool. The familiar faces you'd see, over time. The guilt I felt every time I passed a cage to head to the voluntary area.
"I felt guilty for awhile. Until we joined the Peace Movement. But, my being voluntary...it wasn't about snacks or hanging out with other humans or watching TV, Midget," I concluded. "Mostly, it was about protecting you. Mom and Dad, too, but mostly, you."
Jake nodded, slowly. Pushed himself up into a sitting position, and I followed suit. We leaned against the side wall, blankets still wrapped around us. I removed the one on top and wrapped it around my shoulders, offering some of it to Jake, who nodded, and wrapped it around himself as well.
"You think he would have tried to infest me? And Mom and Dad? I mean, if you'd fought him, instead?" Jake asked me, slowly.
I shook my head, since Terlin and I had discussed this before. More than once. "Terlin never wanted that, and he would have tried not to, for as long as he could. It would have been a lot harder, though, without my cooperation. For him to be motivated to protect you guys, and for it to happen. It's not always like that for Yeerks, though. For some of them, when you have an involuntary host, it's sort of like, well, game over. Might as well try to infest every member of their family, because they are gonna hate you either way. Sometimes, anyway." I squeezed Jake's hand. "You gotta remember, Midget, that this was the same Yeerk who gave me control minutes after infesting me. We hadn't even talked about how this was going to go. It wasn't part of some negotiation strategy on his end. He wasn't all like, okay, human, if you behave yourself, I'll let you have control for five minutes a day. It was more...yeah, I need to live in your head, but you want control? Okay, sure, if that makes this easier for you. As you probably know, that's not exactly the norm."
(Well, Tom, I did have an involuntary host before you. A Hork-Bajir. I was motivated to avoid it again,) Terlin reminded me. (It was not entirely altruistic on my end.)
(Yeah, but you could have just beaten me into submission,) I pointed out. (Broken me, or even just let me give up over time. Would have taken longer, but...)
(Tom, I didn't want a broken host,) Terlin chided me, gently. (I suppose that, without fully realizing it at the time, I hoped to inhabit the mind of someone who wanted me there.)
(Which you have.) I gave him a mental smile, which my Yeerk returned.
Jake, meanwhile, was turning all of this over in his mind. "I'm just glad you were okay. From the start."
"Makes two of us," I smiled.
Jake yawned, leaning against me. "I think I'm going to try to get some more sleep. Do you think you could stay with me?"
"You bet," I promised. "Here..."
Carefully, I tucked him in again, back under the covers. He smiled up at me, mumbled his thanks, and then closed his eyes. Feeling tired, myself, I closed my eyes and pulled some of the blankets over me without taking any from Jake, which wasn't hard, since we were nestled in close against each other.
The rest of the day was pretty normal, for a Sunday. We finished up our homework after eating breakfast, and then had the rest of the day to do whatever. Relax, prepare for Monday, that kind of thing.
What we'd joked about that evening, about Jake making up with me because he needed my help cheating in school, well, it wasn't far off. Not that either of us would actually cheat, but I could help Jake with his schoolwork. Give him tips with handling certain teachers, and what kind of study techniques you needed to get good grades in certain classes. I imagined that, if we were still fighting the Yeerks by the time he graduated, he'd need all the help he could get.
In all likelihood, he'd end up with at least half the same teachers that I did. If he took same general classes I had. Neither of us were on track to be taking AP classes. We didn't have the time, or interest.
I could tell Jake, for example, that if he got Mrs. Malloy for tenth grade English, she'd pretty much give him an A on anything if he used enough similes and metaphors in his papers. Or that Mr. Burke, in eleventh grade History, basically tested exclusively on the dates of events. Not even important events, but just ones that appeared in the textbook. If you made a list and memorized it, you'd get an A.
It wasn't quite a "cheat sheet", but certainly a step by step guide to getting through high school with the best grades for the least possible effort.
Who wouldn't want that-especially when they were fighting a war?
Of course, one advantage to the Yeerks taking over would be no school. Still, I didn't think most kids would be willing to exchange their freedom for an empire Yeerk, even if it meant no more classes.
"Hey, if you want, I can help you with your homework and studying," I told Jake later that afternoon, while we were watching TV in the living room, and snacking on our leftover popcorn and candy. "Your grades aren't bad, but I can give you tips. Shortcuts. Without cheating, obviously."
Jake leaned in against me, and I wrapped an arm around his shoulder. "That would be great, Tom."
We were both tired after a long day of studying and watching TV and hanging out, so around 8:30, when I noticed Jake starting to nod off on the couch, I suggested we call it a night.
He nodded, and I helped him up as though he were a ninety year old man-or a small kid-instead of a teenager. He kind of rolled his eyes at first, but didn't protest.
"Want me to stay with you again?" I asked, gently, as we headed upstairs.
"That'd be great." I could hear the relief in Jake's voice. "I don't usually get nightmares two nights in a row."
I shrugged. "I'll let you take the wall side, in case I need to make an escape."
"Looking back, I'm kind of surprised you managed to get out in time," Midget admitted. "Or that I didn't try to, you know, morph or take a swing at you."
The thought had entered my mind, too. "Yeah. Good thing I heard you screaming and got out of the way." Pointing at my head, I added, "Terlin helped there, too. Sort of made me more awake than I would have been, otherwise."
"If-I don't know if they'll get any easier, Tom," Jake told me, voice low as we entered the hallway. "But maybe, since I know you're okay..."
I squeezed his shoulder. "If we make this a regular thing, and I'm definitely not opposed to it, we'll figure out a system for dealing with them."
"You get them, too, don't you?" Jake asked, taking a seat on his bed.
"Yeah, but he takes control until I remember that it's not real," I explained.
"That's one good thing about them." Jake reddened, realizing what he'd said. "Sorry, Tom. I didn't mean...him."
I pulled Jake into a hug. "I know. It's okay."
It was, too. By Terlin's emotions, I could tell that he wasn't offended by the offhand remark. It wasn't like I hadn't said the same thing to him before.
Come to think of it, I should probably let Jake in on that.
"Early on, when I got them the most, I pretty much told Terlin that," I laughed. "And not as nicely as you did. Oh, he was never cruel to me or anything, but you know, it's always an adjustment, living with a slug in your head. Realizing that you have no privacy anymore, and whatever control you have when he's there is because he's allowing it. It takes awhile to trust someone with that kind of power over you."
Jake nodded. "You do, though."
"Yeah. I do, now."
We didn't say anything for a little while. Jake just stayed close to me, and I figured we should both change into our PJs and brush our teeth before we feel asleep like that.
"C'mon," I nudged him. "Let's get ready for bed. Then, I'll rub your back again."
"You did that last night," Jake half-heartedly protested. "For what? An hour?"
"Yeah, and I only stopped because you had fallen asleep," I grumbled, playfully. "I mean, you still had a bunch of tension, or knots, or whatever, at that point. Which makes me wonder...how are you not in pain all the time?"
Jake just shrugged, rising from the bed behind me. "I guess I'm used to stress. And worrying. Anyway, morphing fixes injuries, so it probably takes care of stress tension as well."
Which meant that this was all recent stress.
"Jake, that can't be healthy," I sighed. "I bet you grind your jaw, too."
He didn't claim otherwise, just followed me to the bathroom.
We only had one sink, so we took turns with brushing our teeth. I went first. Once I saw Jake working on his, a thought occurred to me. "Hey, Midget? Morphing gets rid of injuries, right?"
"Yeah," he agreed, as he spat out the last of the toothpaste, then did a final rinse. "Why? Are you asking..."
I turned red, giving him a light punch. "I didn't mean that, Midget."
Referring to the standard operation on nearly all males in our country, usually performed a couple of weeks after they were born.
"Oh." Now, Jake wouldn't look at me.
I snickered. "No, I mean...Jake, you've been to the dentist since you became morph capable, right? Have you had any cavities, since?"
Jake went quiet for a minute. "No, but I only had one in my life before."
Okay, then, maybe it was just a guess. "We'd have to ask the others, but I'm pretty sure that morphing fixes teeth. Not like braces would, but if you broke your tooth, or you stopped brushing completely...as long as you morphed and demorphed, you'd be okay." I grinned. "You're never going to see the drill again in your life."
"Hmm." Jake thought about this. "It makes sense. A cavity is basically an injury, right? It's like a cut, but on your tooth. And I've had tons of cuts healed by morphing or demorphing."
"Now, I'm not saying you guys should stop brushing completely," I added, hastily. "Especially when you start making out with Cassie. But if you need to miss a few days, or don't want to bother? No problem."
Jake ignored the Cassie comment. "I'm not gonna stop brushing, just because I probably could. It would feel way too weird. Still. Kind of good to know."
Another thought occurred to me. "Rachel has pierced ears, right? How does that work?"
"As long as she's wearing earrings when she morphs, they come with her when she demorphs," Jake answered, easily. "She learned the hard way a few times. Kept having to go back to the mall to get them done. Now, she just leaves them on all the time."
"And Cassie?" I prodded.
Jake shrugged. "If she ever had pierced ears, she doesn't, now."
"Going to get changed," I told him, gesturing to my clothes. "Leave the door open when you're decent, okay?"
Jake nodded. "Thanks."
Five minutes later, we were back in Jake's bed, and I was rubbing his back. Despite his earlier half-hearted protests, I could tell that he was enjoying it, all stretched out on his back on the bed. Almost like a cat. I was in a less comfortable, slightly hunched over position, but a few stretches afterwards would remedy that. Anyway, Jake's comfort mattered more.
Once I was sure all of the tension was gone, and Jake yawned three times in the span of a minute, I carefully maneuvered him under the covers before joining him.
"Thanks, Tom," he murmured.
"See? That wasn't so bad, was it?" I teased, wrapping my arms around him.
He gave me a sleepy smile. "Yeah, it felt nice."
"Anyway, this isn't going to become a daily thing. More of a once or twice a week thing," I informed him. "Unless, of course, you have a battle, or a term paper, or a test to study for..."
"Tom, that's practically every week," Jake laughed, turning towards me.
"Sorry. I don't make the rules." I grinned at him. "Wait, sorry, I do. Sorry, Midget. You're going to be subjected to a lot of TLC in the near future. Resistance is futile."
He gave a little snort. "Okay, okay. Just, don't go smothering me in front of everyone at a meeting, okay?"
"How about an occasional hug?" I prodded.
"Yeah. That's okay," he allowed.
I smiled, wrapping my arms around him. "Great."
Before we fell asleep, though, there was something else that I wanted to tell him. I'd been thinking about it ever since yesterday, when I'd learned that I hadn't been in the only Controller in the family.
"Hey, Jake?" I whispered, in case he'd fallen asleep.
"Yeah?" he asked, still sounding awake. Or, awake enough.
"I just wanted to let you know. If you ever want to talk about what happened when you were infested, I'm here. I mean," I added, quickly, before he could say anything in response, "I totally get it if you're not ready now. Or at all. If you want to just try to forget about those three days, I understand. I'm not going to put any pressure on you to talk about it. Totally up to you. What I mean is, when and if you're ever ready, I'm here. Okay?"
There was a silence, and I wasn't sure if he'd fallen asleep, or something.
When Jake did speak, it was in a kind of choked voice, like the memory was making him fight back tears.
Which, come to think of it, was probably the case.
Terlin had never met Temrash, but we knew of him. He'd been even closer to Visser Three than Chapman's Yeerk, by the time he'd been assigned to infest the governor. Always had this look of contempt on his face, when he wasn't hamming it up to potential recruits or Visser Three. Like he thought he and Visser Three, and maybe a couple of others, were the only true Yeerks in the empire, and destined for truly great things.
Then again, he'd been assigned to infest the governor. Who'd been planning to run for president. It had been the highest ranked assignment on the planet.
I couldn't even imagine how he'd reacted when he'd learned the truth about Jake and the other Animorphs without nearly falling into a rage and a blind panic.
He's dead, Tom, I reminded myself. Dead.
"I...thanks, Tom," Jake told me, turning on his side, studying me. "I'm not ready, yet. I-I don't know if I ever will be. If I am, I'll let you know. But, thanks."
His voice was quiet, like he was reliving the events in his mind, as he spoke.
I nodded, then held out my arms. He snuggled in, close to me.
"Sure," I answered, gently. "Totally your choice, Midget. I get it. And hey, I'm not going anywhere, okay?"
"Okay." He nodded his head against my shoulder. "Thanks. I-I love you."
"Love you too, Jake," I told him, softly.
Over the next week or so, we established what would become the new routine. After waking up-usually together, but not always-we'd have breakfast, and I would drive Jake to school. The high school was walking distance from our house, and Jake could take the bus, but it gave us some time together without risking being overheard by our parents or other Controllers. Jake would go about his school day, and I'd go about mine.
Even though we usually saw each other at lunch, Terlin and I would eat with the basketball team, and Jake would eat with Marco, and, very occasionally, Cassie and Rachel. They had to be careful not to let others see the four of them together, lest people thought they were a group. Since people knew that Rachel and Cassie were best friends, and Jake and Marco were best friends, it was fine for the two groups to exist together, but separately. I might wave at Jake and give him a offhand friendly greeting, but, like the others, it was important that people didn't see too much of us together. Especially since a lot of the people on the team were Controllers, and the last thing I needed was for them to bug me about why Jake wasn't a member of The Sharing, especially if we were so close.
After school, I had practice, but Terlin and I usually missed one a week, so he would be able to feed. We tried to avoid this, but it just couldn't be helped. Anyway, everyone else who was a Controller missed more than one practice a week. We would drive home a little after 5, and Terlin and I would be able to finish at least half of my homework before it was time for dinner. After we ate, we'd finish the rest of it, and help Jake with anything we could.
It wasn't that Jake was slow in school, and he'd probably get really good grades if he applied himself and wasn't fighting to save the planet from the Yeerk empire. Since neither of the above were true, I helped him by offering shortcuts and tutoring on a pretty much nightly basis. The end result was a much happier Midget, noticeably higher grades almost immediately, and more free time on his end to relax and be a normal teenage kid.
We'd usually watch some TV before bed, on the big comfortable couch in our family room. Even if we started our a couple of feet apart, we'd inevitably end up next to each other, with my arm around Jake, and him curled up against me like a big cat. Before it got too late, I'd turn off the TV and we'd make our way to bed, swapping out his bedroom for mine as often as not. I'd take the part of the bed closest to the wall, since Jake's nightmares were never so bad that I needed to make a quick escape, lest he accidentally landed a blow on me.
Yeah, Jake still had nightmares, but, at least, they weren't as bad as that first night. In fact, they seemed to become less frequent, and even less vivid. Well, maybe I was being optimistic, but it felt that way. Usually, I'd wake up a couple of minutes before him, because he would yell out in his sleep. He'd always be apologetic, and I'd always shrug it off, saying that if I'd gone through what he was still going through, I'd be having as many nightmares as he was. That it was my job, as his big brother, to be there for him, now, and try to make sure he felt safe enough to go back to sleep. Maybe half the time, he'd tell me about the nightmare, but just as often, he'd clam up, and I wouldn't push him. I'd gently rub his back (usually just for about ten minutes, until he fell back asleep), and tuck him back under the covers, curling myself around him protectively.
So far, our weekends had been free of any Yeerk activity. Visser Three hadn't been having a fun time of things, what with the failed "free will remover" experiment, plus the escape of Aftran right from out of his hands. He might have been happier if Visser One died from the fall, but they never found her body, so she was probably at large. Terlin and Illim heard whispers of an anti-morphing ray being developed, and if it came into fruition, Jake and his friends would need to destroy it. At the moment, though, all either of us heard were rumors. I did give him the head's up, but made it clear that we had nothing substantial, and it could all be nothing.
On the whole, things were looking up. I had Jake back, and he had me. Slowly, we were starting to get back to our old close, yet teasing, relationship that we had before I'd joined The Sharing.
Even though we had a long way to go before the Yeerk empire was defeated for good, we were both happier than we had been in nearly two years.
Exactly two weeks passed since Terlin and I cornered Jake and told him we were now on his side. To celebrate this momentous occasion, I took Midget out for ice cream after dinner. There was a store that was walking distance from our house, and our parents had decided to see a movie after we all ate together, so we walked there and back.
"I don't know about you, but I'm getting two huge scoops," I told him, casually. "Thinking a double combination of chocolate and brownie and mint chocolate chip."
Jake laughed. "That could be a deadly combination, Tom."
"I'm willing to risk it." I wrapped an arm around his shoulder. "What are you thinking of getting?"
"Probably some chocolate, and then strawberry or something to balance it out," Jake mused.
"Well, fruit is a very important part of a balanced diet," I told him, using my "teacher" voice, which got a laugh.
I was glad that Jake was going to get two scoops. I'd noticed, especially lately, since we slept in the same bed most nights, that while he wasn't underweight, he could certainly be five or ten pounds more. Terlin and I hadn't exactly put him on the bathroom scale, but we had a good eye for this, being a basketball player. I imagined that with the stress of the war and the physical toll of morphing multiple animals over a short span of time, he was burning more calories than he was consuming. Without going all "physical trainer" on my kid brother, I hoped that I could help him make up some of the difference.
I also hoped that with the mental stress of me being a slave to the Yeerks removed from his life, he'd be happier and part of the problem-if you could call it that-would resolve itself. Jake was definitely starting to sleep better over the past week.
I resolved to be there for him throughout it all. His confidante, his cheerleader, and a fellow fighter in this war.
Above all, though, his big brother.
Yeah. Things were definitely looking up.
A/N: This marks the end of the first work in my "The Swap" series. As far as the Animorphs timeline goes, it concludes sometime after the end of "The Reunion" and "The Conspiracy". While this series will not cover each Animorph book in detail, it will include several that I think will add to the story, even ones that might have had little to do with Jake and Tom when they were initially published. The joy of AU fanfiction! If you continue to read this series, the next work will start during the revised events of "The Conspiracy". What can I say-that book remains a large part of my Tom fanfics, however his Controller status plays out!
As always, reviews are appreciated/begged for.