My name is Tom. I can't give you my last name, or where I live. If you've been reading my works so far, you already know all about the Yeerks. Just as important, you know about Aftran. So, I won't bore you with the full story, here. But, in case you haven't, here's the shortened version.

Almost a year ago, my younger brother's sort of girlfriend befriended a Yeerk after they saved each other's life. Cassie's influence on her was so powerful that she freed her child host and joined the Peace Movement. Several months later, she was captured by Visser Three's army and set to be interrogated. Cassie saved her, literally moments before she would have been from interrogated and killed by Visser Three. They knew that I was an involuntary Controller, and thought, hey, since we have a decent Yeerk, maybe Tom would prefer that Yeerk to his current awful one who tortures him every waking moment of the day.

Not that they knew the second part, but they definitely knew that life wasn't fun for involuntary Controllers. Anyway, they borderline starved my torturer before offering him residence in a robot who created Kandrona rays, and he accepted the deal.

That Yeerk was Aftran 942.

I was, at first, pretty wary of the whole situation. Having been enslaved by two power hungry Yeerks didn't exactly endear me to their race as a whole. Hearing her story, and witnessing her friendship with Cassie (whose head she shared when Jake and the others freed me) made me a little less concerned about suffering even more abuse.

We didn't exactly become friends overnight, but we started out with a good understanding of what to expect from each other. Now, almost three months later, Aftran and Jake are pretty much the two people I care most about in the world.

Call what I, and most other involuntary hosts, have whatever fancy term you want. The two that fit me best are a victim of trauma, and PTSD. Whatever I have-she helps me with all of it. Since Aftran's actually in my head, she can figure out what I need from her way better than any human can-Jake included.

Not that he isn't the best little brother in the world, although he would probably die of embarrassment if he knew I told you that.

Anyway, after seeing Aftran help me over the last couple of months, Jake took us up on our offer to let Aftran into his head. It wasn't as crazy as it sounds. He'd been infested a year ago by my first torturer Yeerk, and Aftran and I both thought that it could help him see what a temporary infestation would be like if your Yeerk was actually decent to you. While I wouldn't say that I'm going to have to split up my time with Aftran between Cassie and Jake, he certainly didn't come through the experience traumatized.

I was relieved. Once again, I'd made the right call.

Anyway. Once I had Aftran back in my head, and Jake was taking a nap next to me (infestation can be emotionally exhausting, especially in the beginning), I raised the possibility of her becoming morph capable and getting a human morph. It had been something Jake had brought up before, but nothing had really come of it. It wasn't like Aftran would need to morph to fight with them in a battle. Still, it would be a good idea to have that as an option. Then, of course, she dropped the bombshell that she'd been inside of Ax's head, and I needed to hear that story.

(I can't believe you've been living in my head for nearly three months and this is the first time you've thought to tell me that you infested Ax,) I complained. (Do you have any idea how ticked off Visser Three would be if he knew?)

Aftran gave a sort of mental shrug, but her tone was sheepish. (I didn't exactly hide it from you, honey. It just didn't come up before now.)

I sent her an exasperated mental eye roll. (Okay, whatever,) I grumbled.

(Tom...) Aftran murmured, wrapping me in a gentle mental hug. (I wouldn't hide anything like that from you.)

Whether it was the mental hug, my friendship with Aftran, or even just my realization that Aftran probably had a point, I was willing to stop complaining-albeit half-hearted. I mean, how, exactly, do you work "oh yeah, I once infested your Andalite friend" into conversation?

Not that she was completely off the hook.

(Since I assume Jake and the others know, can you tell me what happened?) I half grumbled.

(Yes, if you stop complaining and let me,) Aftran retorted, but she gave me a smile and noticeably increased the level of her mental hug, so I knew she wasn't really annoyed at me.

(Go ahead, Aftran. I'm listening.) I leaned back on the couch, carefully, not wanting to disturb Jake's sleep. Up until about a minute ago, he'd been sleeping with his head on my shoulder, but somehow, his head was on top of my chest. He looked so peaceful that I didn't have the heart to nudge his head out of the way.

Not that I was complaining about having to sit relatively still. We'd missed out on way too much time together during the three years of Temrash and Gariss.

Aftran waited for me to get settled in as comfortable of a position as I could manage before starting her story.

(A day after I was captured by Visser Three, the Animorphs attended a school dance,) Aftran began, still holding me in a gentle mental hug. I now knew that this was a level 1.5 hug. Maybe, level 1.75. (Unbeknownst to them, Ax had contacted Yamphut, which is a very serious disease that affects his immune system. He began to morph, uncontrollably, at the school dance.)

(Wow. Talk about a security hazard for them,) I pointed out. (And, you know that Chapman was at the dance...)

(They barely managed to avoid detection,) Aftran explained. (All of them stood at an angle to block Aximili's morphing body. It helped, additionally, that Chapman might have a high ranking Yeerk in his head, but he was still playing the role of a high school vice principal. Additionally, their high school history teacher, Mr. Tidwell, came to their rescue.) Aftran continued.

I made a face. (Never liked him. He was so strict, you could hardly even get away with smiling in his class,) I complained.

Aftran continued to hug me as she spoke. (He is also the host of Illim five-seven-eight, who had joined the Peace Movement about a month after I freed Karen,) she explained. (They recognized that Ax was an Andalite and was having trouble. Illim also had a message to deliver to Cassie, regarding my capture. He delivered this message to her, and she delivered it to the other Animorphs.)

(Then, they had two huge problems on their hands. A sick Andalite and a Yeerk who knew everything about them, about to be tortured into revealing this information,) I sighed. (Poor Jake.)

Aftran laughed, gently, at this assessment. (Normally, I would agree. However, Jake was spared most of the battle in this mission. Most of them were. I believe that Ax's yamphut was contagious, but as they were not Andalites, they simply contacted the human flu,) Aftran explained.

(That's right,) I recalled. (I remember Jake getting sick about a week before they freed me.)

Aftran gave a mental nod. (Yes. Cassie, alone, remained well throughout the days that followed. Not only did she rescue me directly from Visser Three's host's hands, but, then, she had to operate on Ax.)

(She had to WHAT?) I practically yelled.

(Yes. Brain surgery,) Aftran clarified, and I could swear that she was gushing at Cassie's ability to pull through in a crisis.

No arguments, there. Midget had picked a pretty hardcore girlfriend. I was officially impressed.

(How, exactly, did she manage to do that?) I wondered, completely befuddled.

(Ax remained relatively lucid for a period of time before he became delirious from the infection, and he had enough knowledge of Andalite biology to know that his Triaa gland would need to be removed when his temperature reached a certain point. He also knew, thankfully, that the Triaa gland was located in his head,) Aftran continued.

(Well, yeah. Imagine having to do that kind of operation and not knowing if it was in his chest or his nose or feet,) I mused. (I mean, Andalites do eat with their feet, so it wouldn't be totally bizarre to think you could operate there.)

(Exactly,) Aftran agreed. (The problem remained, though, that no one knew where the Triaa gland was located in the head. And brain surgery for aliens is just as intricate as it is for humans.)

(Well, yeah,) I agreed, shuddering. (Cut in the wrong area, take out too much, and suddenly, Ax never wakes up. Or, can't see and can't talk.)

Aftran mentally agreed. (It wasn't as though there are books available on alien brain surgery that Cassie could access. She tried, with medical textbooks, but none of them were very helpful except as far as making sure everything she used to operate was sterile. A good starting point, but if you don't know where to cut or what to remove...)

(Right. Go on. Please,) I urged.

I had a feeling Aftran was stretching this out longer than necessary, but I didn't mind too much.

Really, it was kind of like watching a scary movie and the axe murderer doesn't actually appear until an hour in, but you hear about him in the first scene.

(Cassie needed to leave Ax to rescue me, and she did, or we wouldn't be talking,) Aftran told me, rather unnecessarily.

(Yeah...mmm! Thanks, Aftran.) I smiled to myself (and to her) as she raised the mental hug to what I knew to be a solid level two before continuing the story.

(You're welcome, honey. Anyway, once Cassie returned home, it was time to operate, but her knowledge about what to do was as limited as before,) Aftran went on. (Except, she realized, she had me. I could look in Ax's brain and determine, from touch, where the organ was that needed to be taken out.)

(Hmm. Not the worst idea, except, you know, if the gland accidentally explodes and you're still in his brain,) I pointed out, very helpfully.

(That idea had occurred to me as well,) Aftran retorted, but playfully. (Not that I don't Cassie. She was out of options, and given that she had saved me from Visser Three and I expected to die within three days, death from an Andalite brain organ exploding would have to be less painful than Kandrona starvation. Also, rather an interesting way to go,) she mused.

(Okay, that's kind of dark,) I grumbled. (Anyway. She put you to his ear, and you infested him?)

(Yes,) Aftran confirmed. (Even though I had no idea what was going on. I was fairly certain that the ear was one of an Andalite, but I couldn't think why Cassie didn't just put me in her own ear. Anyway, as you know from my time with you, a Yeerk starts to dry up as soon as they're outside of a host, and there was a host body, right in front of me. Even though I had promised her never to take another host...)

(I don't blame you,) I assured her. (Anyway, you had to have known that it was Cassie telling you to infest this Andalite.)

(Yes, and I had no way of communicating with her without infesting Ax. Well, not that I knew it was Ax at the time,) Aftran amended. (So, I crawled into his ear and connected with his brain. He was unconscious, but I was able to use his thought speech if I tried hard enough. Cassie immediately filled me in, and asked me to locate the gland. I was happy to do so, but if you had told me when Cassie and I first met that I would be assisting with brain surgery to save an Andalite...)

(Yeah.) I grinned. (You'd have told her she was completely out of her mind.)

(With a few Yeerk profanities added for good measure,) Aftran laughed. (So, with my help, Cassie was able to locate the Triaa gland and the operation went smoothly. So well, in fact, that Ax began to wake up almost immediately after the gland was out.)

I winced. (With you in his head.)

I could imagine his horror. Peaceful Yeerk or not, he'd been infested. I could imagine the possibilities running through his mind once he was aware of this fact. Maybe, Ax thought he'd been captured while unconscious, or even taken to Visser Three after a tortured Aftran had confessed to everything. Not wanting to lose out on another Andalite host, Visser Three had forced his guards to perform the brain surgery.

While I couldn't imagine events playing out much differently, yeah, I could relate with Ax's horror.

(Likewise,) Aftran murmured, hearing my thoughts. (I didn't blame Ax for his reaction. He'd been extremely ill, pretty much dying, and when he finally woke up and was lucid again, well, I was there. Moreover, I had taken control of his body when I entered his head, as a Yeerk does with their first infestation of a host, and hadn't thought to let go of control until after he became aware.)

(Yeah,) I nodded. (Must have been a nightmare for him.)

(He began screaming. Immediately.) Aftran shuddered. (Tom, as long as I live, I never want to experience anything like that again. His absolute terror, his rage, and, worst of all, his total despair! Naturally, I tried to reassure him, and I wanted to give him control immediately, but Cassie hadn't finished stitching up his head, and I was terrified that if I did gave him control in that mental state, he'd injure himself, possibly give himself a heart attack. I attempted to explain this, Tom, I really did...)

Her voice trailed off. I could see it all, in my mind. How horrible for Ax. How awful for Aftran. I reached out, wanting to hug her, wanting to reassure her. To comfort her. Aftran gave me a mental smile, hugged me again, not letting go.

(You don't need to tell me the rest, if you don't want to,) I told her.

After all, Ax was still alive, still a member of Jake's army. The rest were just details.

But, Aftran just shook her head. (No, I do. Well, when it became clear that Ax was too panicked to listen to me, I felt that the only thing I could do would be to leave his head. Every second I was there, I knew, felt like torture to him. I thought that if I left his head, at least, he might calm down and let Cassie finish stitching him up. Which, I saw later from her memories, was what happened. He was still furious at me and at Cassie, for at least a week afterwards. He didn't object to me living in your head, because he clearly saw that it was a good strategic move, and ultimately, your choice. Still, I thought he would hate me for the rest of his life, even if he must have realized, at some point, that Cassie and I only acted as we did in order to save him.)

(Right. Aftran, there was nothing else you could have done. And it's not like Cassie knew that on the day she saved you, Ax would need the surgery. Maybe, she hoped that Ax would gain enough lucidity before he needed the operation in order to remember where the gland was, or something,) I speculated. (You did everything you could.)

Aftran nodded, again. (It took weeks, but, eventually, he did forgive me. When you and your brother were attending the funeral, and I was in Cassie's head, he came by her barn. Asked to speak to me. He said, with typical Andalite stubbornness, that he wished to "express his thanks for my having saved his life".)

Aftran actually used mental air quotes.

(Hey, that's pretty big of him.) I was impressed. (An Andalite expressing thanks to a Yeerk happens, what? Every ten million years?)

Aftran giggled at my joke, clearly past the pain of remembering Ax's horror. (Hopefully, after we've made peace with the Andalites, a little more often than that. But yes. I was amazed that he told me this. Of course, he told me some other things, too, but the gist of it was that he was grateful to myself and Cassie for having saved me. That, in the unlikelihood that this sort of thing ever happened again, she had permission to do the same thing. Because he would rather live being in debt to a peaceful Yeerk who had seen the error of the empire than die due to stubbornness.)

(Like I said, pretty big of him,) I acknowledged. (See, Aftran? You're changing the hearts of everyone. If you're not careful, we're going to have to give you some special Yeerk honor when this whole war is over. Maybe, a giant statue of a Yeerk.)

Aftran chuckled. (Hardly necessary, especially since I have a lot to make up for.) She paused. (Well, if there's a statue, I'd like it to consist of many colors. None of those black or grey ones you see typically erected.)

(I'll put in a good word for that request. As will Cassie, and Jake,) I promised her.

We hugged for awhile, and I felt so relaxed, I thought I might just shut my eyes. For a few minutes, anyway. After all, I couldn't really move until Jake woke up from his nap, so...

When I woke up, Jake was sitting close to me, his body still wrapped under the blanket. The TV was still on, and I remembered that I'd forgotten to turn it off when I'd shut my eyes. I vaguely recalled Jake telling me it was okay if I left it on while he'd rested, but, of course, then Aftran had told me the story of how Cassie had singlehandedly saved herself and Ax. Then, I'd decided to take a nap, and I must have left the TV on.

I stretched, feeling refreshed. Aftran had told me that some Yeerks were able to, sort of, jolt their host bodies into an "awake" mode, regardless of how much sleep they'd actually received. She didn't know how, and didn't think it was entirely safe for their long term health. Better to let the body fall asleep on their own, without any alien interference, and wake up in the same manner. Or, as naturally as you could, since most of us were jolted out of sleep with the aid of an alarm clock. Aftran also believed that a Yeerk controlling a host body while they slept, while easier on the Yeerk, might have added negative health implications for their host.

Reading my thoughts, as always, she commented on them.

(Yes. Mostly, I let Karen fall asleep on her own, giving her full control. As I've told you and Cassie, she always slept better this way. I know there's this fear that involuntary hosts will take advantage of this, but aside from the fact that I don't believe we should have involuntary hosts, I also have trouble believing that this small amount of freedom would do much except to help them adjust to their Yeerk,) she mused. Then, laughing a little, she added, (Hello, by the way. Did you sleep well?)

I smiled, mentally. (Yeah. No nightmares. Thanks.)

I glanced at Jake, whose attention was on the TV, and lightly kicked him with my foot. "Hey, Midget."

He turned to me, smiling. "Hey, Tom."

"You okay, right? No bad dreams or anything?" I pressed.

Bad dreams were hardly uncommon for me, even after I'd known I could trust Aftran. After what Jake had experienced with Temrash, and then letting Aftran into his head, I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd had a nightmare afterwards.

He shook his head. "No, Tom, no bad dreams," he assured me. Then, Jake smiled at me/us. "She really was great to me, and I'm not just saying that because she's in your head and can hear everything. I'm really happy I let her in my head."

A part of me wanted to ask him more about he'd experienced, but I didn't want to be nosy or intrusive. Anyway, I'd already extended the offer to talk about it, before.

The bottom line was that Jake had been happy after letting Aftran into his head, and really, that was what mattered. If he ever wanted to give me details about it, of course I would listen, but I wouldn't pry.

Honestly, I was just proud of him that he'd been brave enough to do it. It would have been hard enough for someone who'd never been infested, but Jake probably had the worst first experience of it than you could have. Still, he'd trusted Aftran.

Yeah, I was enormously proud of the midget.

So, of course, I had to let him know this.

I squeezed his left shoulder, which was the one closest to me. "I'm proud of you, Jake."

He grinned at me, a little shyly. "Thanks, Tom."

"Just one question," I piped up, unable to resist myself.

"What's that?" Jake asked, looking at me, a little warily.

"Did she give you a mental hug?"

Of course, I could have asked Aftran, but I wanted to hear it from Jake. I was pretty sure I knew the answer.

His face broke out into a grin. "Yeah. Twice."

"They're pretty cool, aren't they?" I asked, knowing his answer.

He nodded. "Yeah," he repeated. "They're...amazing."

I squeezed his shoulder. "I'm glad you could experience that. You know, the better parts of having a Yeerk in your head."

Jake nodded, again. "Yeah."

(Okay,) I joked. (Now, I might need to split custody three ways.)

Aftran snickered. (Unlikely. However, if that's the case, until the war's over, you get the most time with me. They will only get partial custody,) she promised.

(Aww, thanks.)

I was, after all, completely serious.

We were quiet for a few minutes, just watching TV. A basketball game was on, but I had never rooted for either of those teams. Watching them play made me a little...sad. Wondering if I'd ever be good enough for that level. Knowing that it didn't really matter, that basketball wasn't as important to me as it once had been. But also wondering if I felt that way because of what I'd been through.

Aftran hugged me. (As soon as the war is over, I promise, we'll practice so much that you will be able to play in the major league, if you still want to.)

I managed a smile. (Yeah. Maybe. I guess it's no such much the game, itself, as what was taken from me...)

She gave me a mental nod, understanding completely. (I know, honey.)

"Hey, Jake?" I spoke up again.

He turned to me. "You going to ask me more about what happened when Aftran was in my head?" he asked, probably only half joking.

I raised both my hands in mock surrender. "It is about her, though."

"Yeah?" Jake raised his eyebrows a little.

"I think we should make her morph capable. Of course, she'll still be in my head all the time, or Cassie's. But, it would be good for her to have that as an option. Just in case, you know?" I asked Jake, studying his reaction.

It had been something we'd talked about, before, but never really did anything about. It was always "we should make Aftran morph capable sometime" but we didn't decide when.

He nodded, watching me. Us. "Yeah. We've kind of been dragging our heels with that."

"Dragging our heels?" I teased, giving him a gentle nudge. "What are you, an eighty year old grandpa?"

Jake snickered. "Okay, Tom, what would you call it?"

I shrugged, stumped. "Not putting off. Just...not making it a priority." I shrugged, again. "Okay, maybe dragging our heels with it."

He laughed again. "Well, do you two have to be at any Sharing meetings tomorrow?"

I shook my head. "No, and she doesn't need to feed until Tuesday afternoon."

"Great. I'll let everyone know, and we can meet at Cassie's barn after school. Unless there's some kind of conflict, but I don't think there will be," Jake determined.

I grinned. "Thanks, Midget."

Jake was quiet for a minute, clearly thinking things over. "I figure she should have a human morph."

"Me," I answered. "Definitely, she can acquire my DNA."

(Thank you, honey,) Aftran piped up.

(Well, you're already in my head. Might as well have my body, too,) I teased.

(Ha,) Aftran replied, a little dryly. Then, more gently, she added, (I won't misuse this gift, Tom.)

I knew that, of course. Still.

(Thanks.)

"Okay," Jake agreed, nodding, "but if she wants to go somewhere with you, and us, and people know that you don't have an identical twin..."

"Well, didn't Ax get his human morph by mixing up your DNA? Do you think you and the others could agree to donating their DNA for that?" I wondered.

Jake frowned, more in thought than disagreement. "Well, my answer is yes. I know that Cassie would say yes. I'm not too sure about the others, but I'd think they would agree," Jake replied, slowly. "We'd ask them, tomorrow."

(Tom, please tell them there's no pressure,) Aftran requested. (I don't want to take their DNA if they are not comfortable with it.)

I repeated Aftran's request.

Jake nodded. "Oh, yeah, definitely. No argument, there." He shrugged. "We'll have to wait and see."

Aftran's emotions were a mix of happiness and nerves that night. Especially after she'd tucked me in my bed.

(You're okay with this, right?) I asked her. (I mean, you want to be morph capable?)

(I do,) Aftran agreed.

I waited for her to say more, but she didn't.

(Aftran?) I pressed.

She sighed. (Oh, I'm just nervous. Mixing the DNA, and actually morphing on my own.)

(Mixing the DNA I get, but you and Cassie have morphed before, right? And didn't you become a bird when you controlled her, the first time?) I pressed.

Aftran laughed. (It's silly, I know. It's just something else when it's your body doing the morphing, and not your host's.)

I frowned, considering that. (Yeah, I get that.) Then, another question popped into my mind. (When you and Cassie morph, does your body stay inside the animal's? It's got to be a pretty tight fit.)

I felt Aftran frown as she considered this. (I'd always assumed so, but you're right. Maybe, a part of my body goes to zero space? I can always ask Ax.)

(Only if you want to know that badly,) I teased.

My Yeerk giggled inside my head. (Good point. I'll just be grateful the technology works for Controllers, and leave it at that.)

(Bet the Andalites didn't know that until they witnessed Visser Three morphing,) I observed, pulling my blankets tighter around me.

(I'm sure.) Aftran grimaced. (Then again, even if Visser Three couldn't morph without surrendering control to his host, or there was some sort of quirk in the technology to prevent Controllers from morphing...well, Tom, you know firsthand that he can still be extremely dangerous.)

(Yeah,) I admitted. (Good thing my Yeerks always stayed on his good side.)

I reached out to her, then. Immediately, Aftran pulled me into a mental hug. We stayed like that for several minutes. Me wrapped up as tightly in Aftran's mental hug as I was under the blankets. I didn't ask for a lullaby or memory or anything that night.

Just being held by her was enough.

The next day, school was a blur. Aftran didn't seem as nervous as she had been the night before. Yeerks can hide their thoughts from their hosts, but feelings were another matter entirely.

After my last class, I drove Jake to Cassie's barn. He gave everyone a brief summary of what we planned to do, and then asked for anyone who wanted to add their DNA to Aftran's human morph to speak up. As it turned out, everyone was willing to participate. Even Tobias, who had been trapped as a hawk and unable to provide his DNA for Ax's human morph, spoke up and said that he wanted to-for lack of a better term-contribute to Aftran's.

(It would look weird if she looked too much like Ax if we were all in public together,) he pointed out. (Even with Tom adding his own DNA.)

(I cannot provide DNA from my Andalite body for the human morph, and because my human morph is that, I am unable to assist with that,) Ax explained, apologetically.

I noticed that he wasn't exactly saying that he wouldn't provide his Andalite DNA, except he pretty much was. Aftran didn't mind.

(It would be far too much to expect an Andalite to give a Yeerk like myself their DNA,) Aftran told me, still inside my head. (As you know, I would rather not be involved in the combat part of the war, if I can help it. Better to stick with providing information.)

(Likewise,) I assured her. (It's part of the reason I'm glad they're not making me morph capable.)

Yet, anyway. Granted, it hadn't come up in any of my talks with Jake, but I figured it was an understanding. Maybe I was a coward, but I didn't want to be involved in combat.

(You're hardly a coward for not wanting to be involved in their battles, Tom,) Aftran soothed. (You've been through so much, and besides, our role is one of providing information.)

I gave her a mental smile, which she returned.

Through my voice, Aftran asked, "I understand that the person whose DNA I am acquiring goes into a sort of trance?"

Jake nodded. "Yeah. You won't, when you acquire us. But we do, for several seconds or so. It doesn't hurt us, and we jump out of it pretty quickly."

"And...becoming morph capable? What should I be prepared for, with that?" Aftran pressed.

"It's weird," Marco recalled. "Kind of like a spark, but not the whole plugging your finger into an electric socket kind. There's warmth, and then, not."

"Marco." Rachel rolled her eyes. "When was the lack time you put your finger in an electric socket?"

"Five," he retorted, wincing. "I only did it once. Obviously."

(And here, I thought I was the one with the awful childhood,) Tobias commented wryly, still in hawk morph.

Marco shrugged, grinning. "Probably, my dad was in charge of me that day, and he was watching TV instead of me. It happens. You learn."

(I don't know, Aftran,) I joked. (Still want his DNA?)

(Well, I can't exactly say "no, thank you" now,) Aftran pointed out, through giggles. (Anyway, I'm sure I can refrain from putting my finger into electric sockets when I am human.)

I sent her a mental eye roll. (Good to know.)

"All right. I am ready," Aftran spoke up. "I'm leaving Tom, now. Cassie, you have the clothes ready?"

"Yeah, they're right here." Cassie pointed to a large bag, and it was then that I noticed a dark curtain pulled up around part of the barn. "Since you're going to be naked when you morph, and we don't know what your size will be, I collected stuff from everyone. Anyway, morphing outfits are supposed to be tight fitting. Not so tight you can't breathe, but skin tight."

"I should probably acquire Tom the second time after morphing human," Aftran reflected. "But I don't need to morph him, so once I demorph to my Yeerk form, Tom can hold me, acquire me, and then place me back in my ear."

She'd told me this earlier, but it helped for everyone to be reminded of it.

(You got it,) I promised.

Aftran began disconnecting from my ear, and I carefully placed her on the morphing cube, careful not to touch it, myself. I didn't want to receive the power by mistake. Jake put his hand on another side, transferring the power to her. I felt her twitch, slightly, but after a moment, she was normal.

"Okay, let's do this fast, before she starts to dry up," I cautioned. "You remember the order we agreed to?"

Probably, I should have let Jake take charge, here, but Aftran was my Yeerk, and I felt as protective as her as she did of me.

Well, almost.

Being the one to hold her, I went first. They weren't lying about the trance. It was nothing like a mental hug, but I definitely felt warm and sleepy afterwards.

Next, Tobias, who had completed morphing to human. His eyes closed as Aftran acquired him. Then, Marco. Jake. Rachel. Finally, Cassie.

The changes began immediately, and we turned away, after I scooped Aftran up and placed her behind the curtain, for the sake of modesty.

A few minutes later, I saw the silhouette of either a boy with very long hair, or a female. "Okay, I'm morphed," came a voice from behind the curtain. "Now, I just have to figure out what fits me..."

Definitely a female voice.

We waited while Aftran experimented, clearly trying to find something that was comfortable. It had fit her body, but it also had to be tight enough to take with her when she morphed. We just stood there, waiting, curious to see what this new DNA mix looked like.

Given that she had DNA from myself and Jake, I figured that she'd look a little more like us than the others. Then again, genetics was weird. Jake and I looked alike, but I'd often been told that my hair was almost black in color, while his was definitely brown. We looked like brothers, especially if you saw us together, but there was no way you'd get away with thinking we were twins-even fraternal ones.

Aftran emerged wearing a tight blue t-shirt that showed off her reasonably slender frame, and leggings that also emphasized-um, her backside. I tore my gaze away from that, trying not to think how awkward that would be when she was back in my head, and gazed at the non-covered parts of my Yeerk. Specifically, her face. Aftran's skin tone was definitely darker than mine, but not nearly as dark as Cassie's. More like someone had gotten a tan from spending the summer in the sun, but she had a couple of freckles. Her eyes were bright blue-Rachel's contribution to her DNA morph. Her hair reached to her waist, and was wavy without being a total mess. Again, I thought that if we had gone to school together, pre Yeerks, I might have asked for her number.

She smiled, a little awkwardly, and I recognized it as Cassie's smile. More than that, there was this look on her face. Like, the one someone gives you that shows they completely understand what you're telling them. Except, hers seemed to be, almost, etched in. She just looked so...compassionate. Loving. Weird, maybe, that you could see that on someone's face, but then again, Aftran was also my Yeerk. She'd been living in my head for three months. I might not know her as well as she knew me, but I knew her enough.

Aftran glanced around at us, dropping her smile, then picking it up again. She laughed, and it sounded like a mix of Jake's and Cassie's, and maybe a little bit of Rachel's.

"You're all staring at me," she noted. She glanced down at herself. "Is this okay? It's tight, but I can breathe and move around okay. I think it will work for morphing..."

Rachel reached into her bag and pulled out a mirror. Of course, Rachel would have thought to bring one. "Here. Take a look."

She did, studying herself. "Okay? What, am I wearing the shirt backwards?"

Cassie rolled her eyes, then walked over to stand next to Aftran, placing an arm around her shoulder. "I think Rachel means that you're, you know. Pretty."

"More than pretty," I broke in, before I could stop myself.

Oh, God. How I wished I had a Yeerk in my head to prevent me from having said that.

Thankfully, Marco made what I just said pale in comparison. "You're downright hot, Aftran. Boys will be all over you."

(All over her?) asked Ax. (What? To apply to become hosts?)

Aftran rolled her eyes. "I already have two hosts, thanks."

"And you infested me yesterday, and I survived," Jake pointed out.

All eyes turned to him. "You did WHAT?" Marco demanded, turning to Jake, then to Aftran.

Aftran held up her hands, as though expecting Marco to punch her. I was ready to stand in front of her-to protect my Yeerk's honor?-when Aftran spoke up.

"No," she stated, looking to Jake for help. "Not against his will! I'd never do that."

"Definitely not against my will," Jake answered, firmly, standing beside me, in front of Aftran. "I just...you know. After having Temrash in my head, and seeing that Tom and Cassie get along well with her, I figured..." He shrugged. "Anyway, while I'm not going to apply for partial Yeerk custody, I'm glad I did it." He smiled at Aftran, then at me. "Really glad."

Marco and Rachel looked dumbfounded. I was sure that Ax and Tobias would have been, too, had they been in human morphs.

Tobias spoke first. (You do realize, Aftran, that you've essentially infested half the people here? Tom, Jake, Cassie? Who's next, Marco?)

(You're forgetting me,) Ax spoke up, surprisingly without any malice. Or, no evident malice. (When I needed my Triaa gland removed, Cassie placed Aftran inside my head when I was unconscious. She assisted Cassie by locating the gland, and Cassie was able to remove it.) He paused, just for a minute, before adding, (It is highly probable that I would not be alive today, were it not for her.)

There was another long silence, broken by Marco. "That's four of us."

"Yeah, and with the exception of Ax, and only to save his life, she had all of our permission," I pointed out, a little coldly. "In case you forgot, she freed Karen and joined the Peace Movement. She is the reason I am here, speaking to you guys on my own, instead of a prisoner in the back of my head."

Marco raised his hands in the universal gesture of surrender, and even Rachel looked a little abashed.

"Okay. Let's not argue about this, guys," Cassie spoke up. "The important thing is that Aftran is not doing anything to us against our will, and she's certainly not hurting us. If Jake ever wants to talk to her inside his head again, I'm not going to tell him not to. If he doesn't, that's his choice, too. Our war is with the Yeerk empire, not Aftran. Can we please remember this?"

Everyone nodded, but I noticed Marco covering his ears. Of course, that might have been his attempt at a joke.

"Thank you, Cassie," Aftran spoke up. "As she said, I promise that I will not infest any of you against your will. And, for those of you who I have infested, I certainly will not continue to do so without your consent." She raised her hands in a plaintive gesture, eyes glancing at the floor of the barn.

I think everyone felt a little bad, now, because Rachel and Marco no longer looked like she was going to singlehandedly knock them out and infest them, and Tobias and Ax just sort of nodded. In fact, I think Tobias might have said something to her via private thought speech, because she glanced in his direction, just for a second, and smiled a little.

"Okay," Jake nodded. "So, now, Aftran, do you want to stay human a little longer? Or go back to Tom's head?" He glanced at me. "Tom?"

"There is something I'd like to do before I resume my Yeerk form," Aftran replied, almost shyly. She turned to us. "I'd like to give Cassie and Tom hugs. Jake, too, if he would like one." She then addressed the rest of us. "Really, anyone else who would like one."

"I don't mind," Jake answered, smiling.

"Me neither," added Cassie, a grin on her face.

"No problems here," I echoed.

No one else spoke up, so I guessed they were passing on the offer.

I supposed that Aftran could have hugged Jake and me at our house, but then, she wouldn't have been able to hug Cassie. At least, not right then.

She started with me. It was no mental hug, but it was long, and felt great. In spite of her tiny frame, Aftran's hug felt as warm and solid as someone a lot older and bigger than her human morph would suggest.

We held onto each other for at least a minute, and then, she moved on to Cassie. They both sort of giggled before beginning the hug, and I was sure that one lasted as long as mine. I smiled to myself, and Jake caught my eye, grinning. Finally, Cassie let go, and so did Aftran. Last of all, Aftran hugged Jake. I watched them, and I could see that Jake felt a little awkward at first, kind of like he was being told to give your aunt who you only see once a year a hug. But, soon, he relaxed into it, and I noticed that he closed his eyes.

Then, Aftran smiled at us. "Okay. I'm going to resume my Yeerk form, and then acquire Tom. Then...you know the drill."

We didn't look away as she demorphed, but it sure wasn't a pretty sight. Her clothes came with her, and soon, there was just a Yeerk on the floor. Carefully, I picked her up. Once again, I felt myself go into a kind of trance. I managed not to drop her, though. Once I felt myself return to normal, I placed Aftran against my ear. Funny, how something that had once given me nightmares was starting to feel like second nature. I remembered the first time she had infested me. Jake had held my hand, and I'd nearly crushed his. If I remembered correctly, he'd held me in a long hug, too. I'd felt Aftran take full control, but then, as soon as she'd connected completely to my brain, she'd released it. I still remembered the overpowering feeling of relief at being in control with her in my head. Knowing that she hadn't lied about giving me some freedom, or treating me well.

Three months later, here we were. Aside from Jake, she was my best friend. She knew everything about me.

Of course, I reflected, as she began connecting to my brain, she'd also know that I thought she was hot.

Yeah, that would be awkward.

(Tom,) she reassured me, laughing. (It's fine. You're a human male teenager. Besides, you didn't, you know...)

I managed a mental grin. (Yeah, well, at the time, it was pretty much the scariest thing I'd experienced since you first infested me. Thinking, even for a minute, that your Yeerk is hot isn't exactly something that you want your Yeerk to see.)

(You also thought I had an understanding face,) she reminded me, gently. (And you stood up for me when I was sure Marco and Rachel wanted to throw some punches in my direction.)

(They're...)

(Scared,) she finished.

(Yeah.) I gave her a mental shrug, then, only half-jokingly, spoke up again. (Well, it's their loss.)

She snickered. (Thanks, Tom.)

(Hey, Aftran?) I spoke up, a little uncertainly.

(Yes, Tom?) Aftran coaxed.

(What was it like? Having a body, but without...you know?) I fumbled.

(Well, oddly enough, I had no desire to stick my fingers into an electric socket,) Aftran answered, rather sardonically.

(Good to know,) I snickered, sending her a mental eye roll.

(But,) she continued, her tone sobering, (it was...strange. There was no mind there beside mine, because there were only the human instincts. It felt like being in a broken host.) Aftran shuddered, a little. (It almost...felt wrong.)

I could almost understand, and I imagined that, if she told Cassie this-when Aftran told Cassie this-it would be proof of how far she'd come. In the empire, a voluntary host was valued above all others, but a broken host was a pretty close second. Being in a human morph, without any mind underneath hers, probably would have felt like being in a completely destroyed host. A host who didn't even have a memory anymore, because their Yeerk or Yeerks had stolen it through years of torture.

(You don't want to morph, then?) I wondered.

Aftran gave me a mental shrug. (I would, if necessary. I'll acquire other morphs, animals, in case they can be useful. I'm glad-I'm honored-that you gave me the power. But, becoming a nothlit? I mean, I'd do it if it was a choice between that or death, but if I was ever told that I could never have a host again, that it was either a choice between my Yeerk body or a body that wasn't my own...well, I'd choose my Yeerk body over becoming a nothlit.)

I knew this was a pretty powerful statement. I also had a feeling that, with the possible exception of Cassie, the others wouldn't understand.

(Well, we'll do what we can to make sure it doesn't come to that, okay?) I promised her. (Anyway, you have two people who really like having you in your heads, so hopefully, when the war's over, we can make sure that people who want Yeerks can still have them. Well, the decent Yeerks, anyway.)

Aftran smiled, hugging me. (Thank you, Tom.)

"Okay," Jake was saying. "Ready to head home?"

I'd noticed that, with the obvious exception of Cassie, the others had left.

"Sure." I draped an arm around his back. Turning to Cassie, I added, "See you soon, fellow Yeerk sharer."

Cassie laughed. "See you later, Tom."

End

A/N: In case you're curious, I envision Aftran's morph to look like a teenage version of a mashup of actors Evangeline Lilly and Shawnee Smith. Specifically, Kate from Lost and Amanda from the Saw movies. Her face would have more an an "Amanda" vibe to it, but her hair is definitely Kate's, only maybe half a foot longer. My mental image is someone beautiful but not in the Disney princess sense (although, if you made me choose one of them, the closest would be Belle from Beauty and the Beast, the animated version), and someone whose face just reads understanding.