Prologue/Interaction with a demanding character

A day after I posted "The Outcome", Tom began to nag at me.

This wasn't entirely new. He often bugged me to write more stories from his point of view. Or, to continue working on the ones I had started and hadn't updated in awhile.

What he said next, though, was a change from his usual complaints.

"You wrote it from Jake's point of view," Tom pointed out, crossing his hands over his chest.

I glanced up at him. "Hello to you, too."

Tom glared at me. "From Jake's point of view. Only Jake's point of view."

I sighed, knowing where this was going. "A lot of 'The Beginning' was from his point of view, Tom. I'm just continuing his story."

"His story?" Tom echoed.

I didn't point out the obvious fact that Tom had been killed off in the beginning of the book.

"I just-I thought that it made sense to tell the reset story from that way," I explained, awkwardly.

The thing is, Tom and I have a strange character/author relationship. As soon as he figured out that I could be relied on to write numerous fanfics in which he was rescued (in one way or another) from the Yeerk empire, he began helping me with writing them.

Really, he's a great character to write. Sometimes, the chapters and the stories almost write themselves. Sure, I need to revise most of my drafts, like any good writer. For the most part, though, he's easy to write. Some characters hide in the dark for awhile, and I end up going years without updating their stories.

Tom's pretty determined not to be one of them.

Unfortunately, writing fanfic doesn't pay the bills. Not just because it would be illegal to make money off of writing fanfic, but most authors don't earn enough to pay the bills without other work. Not everyone can be James Patterson or JK Rowling.

Without going too much into my life outside of writing fanfic, I usually put in close to fifty hours at work each week. Sometimes, closer to sixty. I'm not a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that. I just work two jobs and need the money that results in a lot of hours.

Also, I have two cats who are used to eating. So am I, for that matter.

Between work and other obligations that I'm not going to go into here, I don't exactly have a ton of free time to write, except during the weekends. Even that is...not as much as you would expect.

The bottom line is that Tom would like me to spend at least three hours each day writing his many life stories that span through various Animorphs universes.

I'm lucky if I can put in two hours of writing time a week.

For the most part, he understands. He just fills my brain with ideas, and patiently waits until I write them down.

This time, seeing me write a story involving him as a main character without writing an accompanying piece from his point of view made him a little...annoyed.

Like any good fanfiction writer who has unnecessarily angered her characters, I determined to make amends.

"I'm sorry, Tom," I told him. "I'll write a companion piece from your point of view."

Tom nodded. "It's okay. Just, do a good job, and don't let it happen again."

"I won't," I promised, in a small voice.

Tom indulgently patted me on top of the head. "Good."

My name is Tom.

It was dark when I woke up. I opened my eyes, which seemed strange, but I wasn't sure why. Also, everything seemed so quiet. Again, I wasn't sure why this felt so strange.

I stretched, then glanced at my alarm. I had another half an hour before it was due to go off. Not enough time to bother with trying to fall back asleep.

Besides, for some reason, I didn't think I'd be able to sleep, even if I had two hours to do so.

So, I turned off the alarm and headed to the bathroom to shower. As I moved, it felt strange, but I couldn't figure out why. I tried to remember what could have caused their weirdness. It was a Friday, I knew, so I couldn't have gone to a party the night before and gotten drunk.

Not that I got drunk as a rule. My parents were cool with me going to parties with my friends, even if they had alcohol, but they expected me to be able to drive back home without injuring myself or anyone else.

Probably, I was just tired. Still. For some reason, it felt weird to be moving by myself.

Jake's door was closed when I passed his room to get to mine, but he slept later than I did, most mornings. He was only thirteen, and could get away with not showering every morning.

I got dressed, then headed downstairs to eat breakfast. Dad was drinking coffee and eating cereal, but Mom hadn't woken up yet.

"Morning, Tom," Dad smiled at me. "You're up early."

I shrugged. "Woke up before my alarm, and didn't think it was worth it to go back to bed," I explained.

Dad chuckled. "I know how that can be. You have practice today?"

It took a second to register what he was asking. Then, I wondered why it had taken that long.

"Not today, but Midget finds out if he made the team," I remembered. "He was worried when he came home from tryouts on Wednesday. I'm a little surprised that it was me who woke up before my alarm."

Another laugh. "Going by what I saw over the summer, your mom and I will have twice as many basketball games to attend."

"Not that many," I corrected. "Junior high doesn't play as many games as we do. Anyway, I'm sure he made the team, but I'll ask Coach."

Coach Andrews didn't coach the junior high team, since we practiced at the same time, and that would require him being in two places at once. But he was friendly with Coach Jackson, and besides, all of the gym teachers knew me, and Jake by extension. If he made the team, everyone would know.

Dad nodded. "Tom?" He paused, just for a second. "If Jake doesn't make it...don't let him take it too hard, okay? You know how much he looked up to you."

I knew. Boy, did I ever know. "I won't," I promised. "I'll take him for ice cream after school, either to celebrate, or to plan for next year. Or commiserate, if it comes down to that."

Dad reached over, giving my shoulder a squeeze. "Proud of you, Tom."

Mom came down, then, and we both started eating breakfast. It would have been a quiet meal, except, halfway through, Jake's alarm went off...and wouldn't stop.

After about thirty seconds, Mom looked worried. "Do you think he's okay?"

"I can check," Dad volunteered.

I heard Jake yelling something from upstairs, probably directed at the alarm. A few seconds later, the noise stopped.

"Well, I guess he's all right," Mom laughed.

"Yeah," I laughed. "I can see if Midget's up." I paused. "He probably is by now, since his awful alarm has stopped."

Dad wasn't so sure. "Doesn't mean he's up. He could have thrown it across the room in his sleep."

There was precedent for this...but that had happened over three years ago. Jake hadn't broken an alarm clock since.

"I'll check," I offered. "Make sure he and the alarm clock are both alive."

My parents made no objection, so I swallowed the last of my cereal and headed upstairs.

Jake's door was still closed, so I knocked. No answer.

"Jake?" I asked, knocking again.

Still nothing.

I tried the door-it was unlocked. Jake nearly jumped a mile when he saw me in the doorway.

Immediately, I raised my hands above my head. You know, the "I surrender/I come in peace" gesture we make? Pretty sure that every one of us is born knowing what it means.

Jake still looked like he'd seen a ghost.

"Relax, it's just me, Midget," I told him, trying to keep my voice reassuring. "Mom and Dad wanted to make sure you hadn't fallen off the face of the planet."

"Y-yeah. I'm okay," Jake answered, slowly.

I was about to ask him if he was okay, if he was worried about finding out about tryouts today, when Jake spoke up again.

"Tom?" he blurted out. "What day is it?"

I couldn't stop myself from rolling my eyes. "It's Friday."

"Okay, but, um, what's today's date?" he clarified, and I noticed that Midget wasn't quite looking at me.

Did he have some paper due today that he'd forgotten about?

Some test?

I'd had that happen, before. A teacher would say a test was on Thursday, then (so I assumed) change it to a date. Only to realize, usually the night before, that there'd been no change. The date was the original day, or the day was the original date. That kind of thing.

"September twenty-first," I answered, slowly.

Mostly because, even though I'd seen the date on my calendar just minutes before leaving my room, it felt...weird. Like it wasn't really September, even though all evidence stated it was.

Jake looked perplexed, but also like he was trying to hide it. "And...what year is it?"

Okay. I could understand asking about the day of the week, even the exact date. But the year? Had Jake gone crazy?

At the same time...okay, I knew this was bizarre...but it seemed like it wasn't really 1996. Like it should be a lot later.

Strange, obviously.

I must need more sleep.

"Midget, have you gone crazy?" I asked, slowly. When Jake didn't answer, I rolled my eyes at him. "It's 1996, Jake."

Jake just managed to smile at me. "Thanks. I don't know how I forgot." He shrugged. "Just been a long week, I guess."

Yeah. I could understand. I rumpled Jake's hair, even though I knew he wasn't crazy about me doing that. "Well, I did have you working like crazy doing drills for the tryouts for the last few months. You find out today if you made the team, right?"

He just looked down at the ground. "Yeah. I wouldn't get my hopes up."

I forced a smile. "Pretty sure you made it, based on what Coach told me yesterday."

Well, hinted at. Still.

Jake looked...confused. "You're still on the team?"

"What? Now you think I got cut?" I teased, crossing my arms.

"No..." Jake paused, like he had information he wasn't supposed to share. "I thought maybe you quit."

Why would Jake think that?

At the same time...it was like there was something in the back of my head. Something I was trying to both remember, and shut out.

"You know I'm hoping to go pro," I pointed out, a little defensively. "Quitting in high school would be pretty stupid."

"Yeah," Jake agreed, almost automatically. "You're right."

We didn't say anything for a few seconds. Then, remembering why I was there, and the fact that Midget was still in his PJs, I spoke up.

"Okay, well, you better get dressed before you miss the bus." I motioned towards Jake's PJs. "Unless you want me to drive you?"

Jake nodded. "Right. I'm coming!"

"Great. I'll let Mom and Dad know you're alive," I joked.

Alive.

Somehow, though, it didn't seem all that funny.

Jake must have thought he was a lot later than he was, because he made it downstairs in about a minute, and grabbed a bowl of cereal and started devouring it. Not that this was that much different from how he usually ate breakfast.

"Hey, Tom?" he asked, still chewing. "Can I take you up on that ride to school?"

I'd grabbed my bag and was already in the hallway, but we weren't late. "Sure, if you can be ready in two minutes."

Jake nodded enthusiastically. "Thanks!"

Mom and Dad did the whole "have a good day" routine, and we headed outside.

"Shotgun?" Jake asked me.

Probably, since he was only thirteen, I should insist that Jake sit in the back. But, he was only a head or so shorter than me, and I wasn't going to make him feel like a baby.

Anyway, in the unlikely event that the cops pulled us over, I doubted I'd get a ticket for having my younger brother sit in the front with me.

"Sure. You're too big to have to sit in the back." I smiled at him, watching as he placed his bag on his lap and buckle himself in. He looked so...young. "Any tests today?"

Jake took a minute to think about it, which would have been enough of an answer in and of itself.

"I don't think so," he finally determined.

Not that I blamed Jake, but I felt that I had to say something before Mom and Dad would. "Midget, you know that when you make the team, you're not going to have nearly as much time to study or hang out with Marco as you do now."

Jake's face darkened. "If, not when."

"When," I insisted.

It was weird, because when he'd arrived home on Wednesday, Jake had been really happy about how tryouts had gone. Had he been pretending, for my sake?

Or, was he just second guessing himself, with the official results coming out today?

He stared at the floor of the car, then sighed. "I just don't want you to be disappointed if I don't make it," I heard him mumble.

Gently, I placed a hand on his shoulder, but he didn't look up. "That's not gonna happen, Jake," I reassured him, speaking gently.

"Which part?" he pressed, still not looking at me.

If I didn't know any better, I would have sworn he was fighting back tears.

"Both." I sighed, wishing I knew what was going on with him. This whole morning, Jake had felt-off. On the other hand, I knew that I did, too. Not that my parents had noticed. "But look," I continued, "if it makes you feel better, if you don't make the team, I won't be angry or anything, okay? You know that what matters most in sports is giving it your all and learning and getting better, right? I mean, I saw how hard you practiced with me over the summer. Okay?"

Jake didn't say anything for a good minute, but through the review mirror, I saw him force a grin. "Yeah."

"Don't worry so much. Anyway." Like his friend Marco, I might as well make a bad joke. "If you can't go pro like me, and your grades aren't good enough for college, you just need to remember to ask people if they want fries with that."

"Ha ha," he deadpanned.

I caught a hint of a smile in his face, though, so I figured I'd cheered Jake up. At least, a little bit.

"Hey, Tom?" Jake spoke up, once I stopped for a red light.

I turned to him, watching his face. "Yeah?"

He looked...uncomfortable. "Have you ever heard of this group called The Sharing?"

I had...but I hadn't. It felt almost like something out of a dream.

"Um, no," I answered. Except...I paused, then added, "Why? Is that a club at your school?"

But Jake just shook his head, not elaborating.

The picture was growing clearer in my mind. A dark room. Large worms. I fought to keep control.

"The Sharing," I mused. "Sounds kind of lame. Like another way of saying Show and Tell at preschool."

"Yeah, that does sound like a dumb name for a group," Jake laughed.

The images were getting stronger, and, in an effort to make them stop, I spoke up again.

"You know what group is really cool, though?" I blurted out. "The Caring."

I regretted it, immediately. Jake's face had gone completely red, but also sort of pale. I wasn't sure if he was breathing.

Thank God we were at a red light.

"Jake? JAKE! Are you okay?" I shouted.

He managed a nod. "T-the Caring?"

No. Not The Caring. The Sharing.

Yeerks.

Andalites.

Animorphs?

Not being able to move. The voices in my head.

STOP!

They did.

Was it a dream?

"It was a joke, Midget," I managed. "No, as far as I am aware, there's no group called The Caring." Then, I raised an eyebrow at him. "Are you sure you're feeling okay? You've been acting weird all this morning."

He just laughed. "Just nerves, I guess."

"Jake." I tested the waters. Maybe, this was just a bad dream. There were no aliens. No. Just plain old humans. "You know that if there's anything going on, you can talk to me about it."

"I know," he answered, quietly. "Thanks."

I squeezed Jake's shoulder, but we didn't say anything for the rest of the trip.

Which lasted all of two minutes.

I parked the car, and Jake thanked me for the ride.

"Pick you up later?" I offered. "We can grab ice cream to either celebrate or figure out ways for you to make the team next year."

"Sure!" he answered, cheerfully.

You know those old science fiction shows, like The Twilight Zone? My day felt like an episode from something like that. Everything felt normal that day, except...so not. I wasn't completely sure if my flashbacks or whatever were some kind of dream, or if they had happened. I mean, alien slugs who lived in people's brains? And I'd been one of them?

Had Jake been one, too? He'd known-at least, kind of?-about The Sharing.

It was hard to get through classes, to say the least.

I did make a trip to visit both coaches during my lunch break. Mine, to make sure that I was still on the team and doing well. Jake's-well, his future one-to get a clear answer as to whether he'd made it.

I was sure that both of them thought I was nuts by the time I'd left their offices. But I got an official answer regarding Jake-he'd done really well at tryouts, and landed my old position.

He would, however, need to work on his jump shot. I had a natural talent for that (I hoped I still did), and he would need to practice more.

I really, really tried to be normal for the rest of the day. Take notes, joke with friends, that kind of thing.

I was really glad that we never had practice on Fridays. We'd never been given an official reason for this, but we all suspected it was a combination of the coaches wanting to get home early enough to see their families, and their knowledge that we liked to party on Friday nights.

And Saturday nights, too.

Today, it meant that I didn't need to worry about whether my skills had deteriorated in the past...well, day, I guessed. Plus, I could take Jake out for ice cream, once he learned the good news.

I waited by Dad's car for Midget to show up. As soon as I saw him, I waved, grinning like the crazy proud older brother I was.

"So?" I cheered, ruffling his hair. "Coach just told me. And my old position, too. Great job, Midget!"

"Aww!" Jake groaned, but was smiling back at me. "I wanted to be the one to tell you."

"Don't blame him. I wouldn't stop nagging him before gym today," I excused myself. "Not that I had any doubt that you'd make it."

"Well, I couldn't have done it without your help," he acknowledged, still smiling widely. "You know that."

I had to chuckle at that. Jake was a great kid, and smart, but he still had some ways to go before he was at my level, when it came to basketball. Not that I'd phrase it like that.

"I wouldn't say that," I answered, diplomatically. "You still have a ways to go, but practice is almost more important than raw talent. You know about the ten thousand hours rule?"

Jake shook his head, so I explained it on the way to Dairy Queen. He seemed pretty encouraged after I'd told him the theory.

I paid for the cones, and we ate them in companionable silence for awhile. Even though I remembered Mom serving brownies yesterday after dinner, it felt like it had been years since I'd eaten anything unhealthy.

I tried not to think about this too much.

"Any plans for tonight?" I asked, once we'd headed back to the car.

"I think Marco might come over. We might go to the mall. There's this new video game at the arcade he's been talking about," Jake told me.

"Need a ride?" I offered.

It wasn't exactly too far to walk from our house, but it had been awhile since I'd been to the arcade. Maybe, I'd check out the scene.

But Jake answered no, almost too quickly.

I wasn't offended, or, not really. I would have been curious, but it wasn't like I'd been acting like myself since this morning.

Dinner was just a regular family dinner. Mom and Dad were proud of Jake for making the team, mostly because it had meant so much to him (and me). After dinner, Marco and Midget headed to the mall to play video games. Even though it was only Friday, I figured I'd get a head start on my homework. It was early enough in the year that there weren't any papers, just studying and math problems.

Still, I found it hard to concentrate.

I was pretty sure that my earlier flashback had been real. As I tried to focus, I remembered more. Bits and pieces, then, as I forced myself to concentrate, everything seemed to come back.

My infestation with Temrash 252.

Him torturing me and gloating until I finally gave up.

My second infestation with a Yeerk whose name I'd forgotten, even though he'd been in my head for over three years.

Him infesting my parents. Us finding out that Jake and his friends-including Marco-were the Andalite bandits.

My anger at Jake for having known, and not rescuing me. The slug's jeering at me that my own brother didn't care enough to try to save me.

Him stealing the morphing cube. Resulting in hundreds, if not thousands, of parasitic slugs getting the ability to morph.

Well, their hosts, at any rate.

Then, the final battle.

Jake must have sent Rachel to kill the Yeerk, because she had the better morph. Or more experience. Or, it would be less personal. Or, she was expendable.

Whatever the reason, she'd been the one.

The memories stopped when the Yeerk morphed snake and Rachel began to...

And then, I realized, I woke up.

I was having trouble breathing. I must have died. Hopefully, the slug had, too.

But...I was alive, now? I was sixteen again? Jake was thirteen?

It didn't make any sense.

I wasn't a Controller anymore. I was sure about that. I didn't know when, exactly, Jake had become an Animorph, but I knew that I'd been a Controller for a couple of months at this point.

How was this possible? Could it have been a dream?

When I heard Jake knock on my door, I realized I was still holding a book in my hands.

"Come in!" I called out, not looking up.

Jake walked in, looking...serious.

"H-hey, Tom," he managed, trying (and failing) to smile.

"Hey, Midget." I put down my book. "What's up?"

"Um..." Jake paused. "Can we talk?" Then, he nodded at the door. "Privately?"

I nodded. "Sure, Jake." After he closed the door, I sat up in my bed, then motioned for Jake to sit down next to me. He did. "Everything okay?"

"I'm...not sure," he answered.

Tell me about it.

Gently, I put an arm around Jake, and waited for him to speak.

"Today...but a long time ago, something happened," Jake began.

I just nodded, letting him speak without wanting to interrupt or pressure him.

The story wasn't linear, or not completely. Memory usually isn't. He told me about Elfangor first, which led to the Yeerk invasion. How he'd figured out from me about The Sharing. He talked a lot, on and off, about morphing. He went through the battles he'd fought, the ones that they'd won, but also the ones they'd lost. How, when they first invaded the Yeerk Pool, he'd tried to save me, but I'd ended up saving him.

I'd forgotten about that until he brought it up.

In the end, Jake explained that he'd sent Rachel to kill me. How he'd watched her devour me, only to be killed moments afterwards.

The worst part of the story wasn't hearing that I died. It was learning that, at one point, Midget had been infested by Temrash. For three days. I couldn't help but wrap my arms around his shoulders when he'd told me about that.

I just let him talk, not wanting to interrupt him, not wanting to say anything that would hurt him or sound like I was condemning what he'd done. I mean, Jake was a kid. He'd been thirteen when the war started. He was still thirteen, by whatever freak nature of events.

There was a reason you had to be at least eighteen to enlist in the army. No way would you put a thirteen year old in our military, let alone make him the leader of an alien invasion.

Yet, that's what he'd been. Sure, Jake had won, but even now, I could see the toll that this had taken on him.

I realized, as he spoke, that I'd been the whole reason he'd fought the war. To free me. When he told me about having to send Rachel to kill me, he wasn't just crying. He was downright sobbing.

When Jake was finally finished, I just wrapped my arms around him and held him close. He curled up against me, and we stayed like that for awhile.

He was the one to break the silence.

"Tom?" he whispered.

"Hmm?" I asked.

He must not have heard me.

"Tom?" he repeated. "Do you believe me?" Then, before I could answer, he added, "Do you think it happened?"

I moved my hands to Jake's shoulders, and he stared up at me, watching my own tears fall down my face.

"It happened, Jake," I managed.

"You mean...you believe that I think it happened?" he wondered.

"No. I mean, it happened." I sighed, and knew it was time to reveal what I knew. "I remember it all."

Jake paled again. "You remember it all?"

I swallowed, wrapping an arm around Jake's back. He leaned in against me.

"Not all at once," I clarified, keeping my voice gentle. "When I woke up, this morning, it was like I'd forgotten how to move. I remembered the last week or so, like helping you practice for tryouts, but I also remembered..." I shuddered. "Him."

At least, the first slug.

"When you asked about The Sharing," I continued, "it was like a wall broke down. Everything came back. Of course, I tried to hide it, so I made some joke about The Caring."

"And nearly gave me a heart attack," he complained.

I had to roll my eyes. "You nearly gave me one when you asked about The Sharing and all the memories came back!"

"Sorry," Jake mumbled, looking ashamed.

Feeling guilty, I shook my head. "No, I get it. You've been living in this one world, and then, suddenly, you wake up and everything's..."

"Backwards. Kind of. I mean, I was thirteen again." He frowned. "I am thirteen."

Yeah. Was involuntary time travel even a thing?

"So, you tried to figure out what was going on." I sighed. "You should have heard me today. If you thought you were going crazy...let's just say I'm surprised that Coach didn't throw me off the team, because I'm sure he figured I'd gone insane."

Okay, it probably hadn't been that bad, but I could exaggerate for Jake's behalf.

"You hid it better than I did. Honestly," Jake assured me.

"Outwardly, maybe. Helped that I had a slug in my head for three years and couldn't even blink on my own. That does something with your facial features, you know? At least, in the beginning." I sighed again. "Talking, moving. It's starting to feel normal again. Maybe, it's because, whatever happened, I'm where I was when you met Elfangor, instead of at the end of the war. I could hardly even move on my own, by then."

"I should have saved you," Jake whispered in a half croaked voice.

I just pulled him into a long hug. "When the second brain slug figured out it was you guys, I was furious for a week because you didn't save me. The things I called you in my head...but, eventually, I realized that it probably killed you to go through that. Especially after slug number one infested me. I mean...Midget...you were a kid. You were all kids. Could you have saved me? Probably, yeah. But, as the slugs got more powerful, you must have known that the only surefire way of doing so was to win the war."

That seemed to be enough for Jake. He nodded, looking relieved. Well, at least, that I no longer hated him.

"When they did the blood drive...if we had gotten you out a day earlier..." Jake began.

But I just shook my head, not wanting to think about how things could have gone. At any point during the war. What happened, happened.

"I know. I get it. Look, maybe it's because I'm free now, but honestly, Jake, I don't blame you. Well," I managed a teasing grin. "Not completely. I might throw it in your face every once in awhile, but trust me, I understand."

"Then, you forgive me?" he pressed.

A part of me was a glad he asked. Another part of me wished that I could honestly say that there was nothing to forgive, but I didn't believe that. Not entirely.

But yeah, I did forgive him. Jake had been a kid, not a military strategist. He'd been trying to slave the planet. He'd succeeded. And, in the end, I'd been freed.

I was free, now.

So, I just hugged him, tightly. "You bet, Midget."

After that, I wasn't about to let Jake out of my sight. I was half afraid that I'd wake up the next day and be a slave, or not wake up at all. Not that Jake sleeping in my bed would prevent that, but it would help both of us with facing the unknown.

After giving him a long back rub, I wrapped my kid brother in a bear hug, just like I used to when he was really little and would come into my room after having a nightmare. I tucked us in, and together, we waited for sleep to come.

And what would come after it.

I woke up in the middle of the night needing to pee. A part of me was annoyed that I'd woken up in the middle of the night, but a much larger part of me was happy that I had woken up, and that, well, I'd woken up.

I made my way to the bathroom, quietly, and handled things there. When I maneuvered myself back into bed, wrapping my arms around my kid brother, I heard him stir.

So much for not waking him up.

"You okay?" he murmured, still half asleep.

"Sorry. Nature called," I laughed.

"And...you're still you?" Jake asked, clearly more awake now. He even turned to face me.

I grinned at Jake, then tucked a piece of hair behind his ear. "Still me. Just me, too," I promised.

Jake nestled in closer to me, so, of course, I wrapped both arms around his chest, hugging him tightly. He relaxed against me, and I thought he was about to fall asleep. I was nearing there, myself, and feeling a lot safer, figuring that we'd both wake up a few hours later in a Yeerk free world.

Then...

"Tom?" he whispered.

"Yeah, Jake?" I asked, gently.

"Why do you think it happened?" he asked me.

I just shrugged. "Maybe, whoever did this figured that we should have a chance at a normal life. Maybe, there was a reset, and the slugs never found Earth." I paused, just for a few seconds. "Does it matter?" I wondered, as much to myself as to Jake. "In the end, we're both free."

Jake shrugged. "I'm not complaining. I'm glad, you know? That you're back, that there aren't brain slugs..." He stopped for a minute. "I just kind of wish I knew why."

I had to laugh. "Why" had been one question that had gone through my head almost non-stop in the beginning...and then towards the end. I was no closer to figuring it out now than I was then.

"I'm not saying that I don't. But, you know?" I asked, carefully. "I figure, we have another chance at life, and when I was a slave, that was pretty much all I wanted."

"Same here." Jake tried, but failed, to hide a yawn. "Guess we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth?"

"Pretty much." I ran a hair through his hair, again. Glad that I could do that. Glad that I could do anything at all, when it came down to it. "But, hey. If you ever want to talk about what happened...I'm here."

"Me too, okay? I figure, you know? We're probably the only ones who remember, and, well..." Jake trailed off.

It was a genuine offer, I knew. I also recognized that Jake would be the only person that I could ever talk to about this.

At the same time, the four years of being a Controller had been a nightmare. And dying? I didn't want to think about that. I was glad I couldn't remember those last minutes. No. I wanted to move on with life.

At least, I thought I did.

So, I just nodded. "Honestly, Midget, right now, I kind of want to stuff that life away. Maybe, forever. But if things change, I'll let you know." I paused, then added, just in case he thought I was trying to push him away, "Thanks, though."

But Jake just nodded, and even in the dim light, I could sort of see his face lighten. Like he understood what I meant. "Okay. I get it."

Just to be sure, though, I spoke up again.

"Hey, Jake?"

"Yeah, Tom?" he murmured, snuggling closer to me.

"I'm so proud of you." I gave him a gentle, playful nudge. "You did save the world."

"Thanks, Tom!" he practically laughed.

"Now," I teased, knowing that Midget's basketball skills still needed work, "we just got to work on your jump shot!"

He sort of groaned, sort of nodded. I held him closer, and we both slept easily and soundly for the next few hours.

The war was over, for both of us. After being a war hero at sixteen and a Controller, this new life would be a piece of cake.

The End