Quitting

There's a voice in Charles' head; not his own. Different from telepathy, thought speak too.

It's painful; stretching, squeezing, oozing inside the confines of his skull. Not that different from the groaning, creaking pain of a morph except that it goes on and on, never ending, rarely ebbing.

But it's not the pain that makes him scream, and scream and scream and scream inside his own head, though not one of his friends can hear him.

What it is, is that, if he screams long enough, loud enough, he might distract the Yeerk in his head long enough for one of them to notice.


They should make him as a Controller right away. It's only due to carelessness that they don't.

They have a system down pat, but though Alex heats up the air for a few dangerous seconds, though Hank somersaults to stick to the ceiling and Erik orbits a quarter around his fingers, no one seems to realize that all 'Charles' has done is pretend to check Moira's mind over as he usually does to confirm she's clean.

God, he hopes she's clean.

Charles screams inside his head as 'Charles' suggests they order pizza, as they have the usual argument about what to watch (Erik votes for COPS, 'Charles' argues for Dead Poets' Society, Sean still has that weird Andalite hard-on for Sesame Street, and Raven says {As long as it's not Paulie, I really don't care.})

Halfway through "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe," 'Charles' makes some noise about having to be up in the morning.

Charles feels 'Charles' stand up as if from very far away; then he feels, as if from an equal distance, Erik's hand grab his wrist.

"Charles," Erik says, and somehow his voice isn't muffled at all, comes through loud and clear, "what number am I thinking right now?"

Charles can't tell whether it's genuine suspicion - though it ought to be, considering it's July and it's not like Charles has a job - or the delayed realization that 'Charles' never actually did anything concrete with his telepathy after today's battle to prove that he's still himself, and only himself.

"1573," is the answer 'Charles' comes up with, with no hesitation whatsoever. 'Charles' knows, because Charles knows, that these are the last four digits of Erik's social security number; and acting uncertain is the best way to get caught out (this last consideration is the Yeerk's; the first look Charles has gotten at any of her - yeah, her, apparently - motivations).

Erik's grip tightens, so far away; Erik's fingers go gray, thick and grow as his face twists, and halfway through the morph Gorilla-Erik says, {I was thinking 'submarine.'}

With a Gorilla restraining him and the blade of Sean's tail at his throat, what Charles thinks is, thank God.


"Christ, can't you guys take a joke? Jesus, Erik, you say think of a number then think 'submarine,' obviously I'm going to troll you about it. God," 'Charles' says with Charles' mouth.

God, she sounds so much like him. Charles feels her twist the muscles in his face into the so-familiar expression he can't see but nonetheless knows intimately, the almost flirty look he can't help but shoot at Erik sometimes when they're teasing back and forth, for all that Charles doesn't intend to do anything that would change their friendship irrevocably.

No wonder, then, that a flicker of uncertainty passes over Erik's face.

{What's Sean thinking?} he demands.

"Five minutes ago he was thinking 'And the word is no (no, no, no, no, no, no, no),'" 'Charles' says - which is a fair enough guess, considering Sean had been humming it at the top of his lungs.

{Cute, but I didn't ask about five minutes ago.}

Nothing the Yeerk comes up with flies, after that; because no matter how much she complains about their sense of humor, no matter how much she prevaricates, she can't fake telepathy. And Charles' friends aren't stupid.

Not being stupid is how they've survived this long.


Three days.

They just have to hold him for three days, and it'll be over.


'Charles' nearly escapes twice, that first day; once by attempting an anole morph in the backseat of Erik's car on the way (her plan is to escape through the little crack in the passenger side window that doesn't close all the way; she knows everything Charles is thinking, but bits of her are seeping into him, more and more), and once by trying a stag morph when they're a short ways into the woods.

Both times it's Moira that stops him, mid-morph. Not by morphing herself - she's always saying that the rest of them are too quick to choose mutations or morphing as the solution to their problems - but by pointing her dad's service pistol at Charles' head.

It's effective; the Yeerk needs Charles' head at least as much as Charles does.


The second day drags on forever, with seven more escape attempts; each more desperate than the last, each more easily thwarted.

It's on the third day that things get really bad.


At the end of the third day, she dies; dies of hunger, of thirst, everything she's not getting from soaking up Kandrona rays in the Yeerk Pool.

Sean told them it wouldn't be painful for Charles, but Charles still half-expects it will be. After all, it's been painful so far; why wouldn't her death throes be painful too?

It turns out Sean was both right and wrong.

It's not physically painful; in fact, as she retreats into herself, it actually becomes less painful for Charles, in that sense.

Unfortunately, that's also the point at which all of herself, everything she is and everything she's been, everything she's done, bleeds into Charles; her entire life, all her fears and hopes, all her dreams, the people she cares for, the ones she's lost to this war -

And for the first time, Charles realizes that Yeerks are people.

In the normal scheme of things, Charles' can't read Yeerk minds, or the minds of Controllers currently acting as hosts to them; so up until now, it's been easy - automatic, an assumption so basic he's never once questioned it in all this time - to think that when they kill a Yeerk, they're killing a thing.

But this Yeerk - this she, and he knows her name now, and it's Emm135 - is not a thing. She's a person, an individual as different from her fellows as Charles is from his own friends; and come to that, she may actually be more like Charles than he is like some of his friends. Where some of Emm135's friends, allies, comrades taunt their hosts, get pleasure out of breaking them, she considers it a...a necessary evil.

Where some of Charles' friends - Moira, often, and Erik, with most of the others chiming in occasionally - snark back and forth at each other during battles, Charles tends to his targets with a quiet efficiency, no fanfare.

Charles isn't a person to her; that she hasn't said one single thing to acknowledge him, at any point, proves that much.

But she's a person to him, and she's dying inside his head; and he can't turn away from his, has no option of doing anything other than witnessing it, knowing as he does exactly what this is.

So: it doesn't hurt, but he screams anyway.


"I can't do this anymore," Charles says after he's come back to himself. On the floor of the shack there's a slug, not gray-green and fat anymore, but withered, chalk-colored. "I quit."

He can't look any of them in the eye as he stands up on trembling legs that won't feel like they belong to him for another two weeks.

By the time the wings of a Cooper's Hawk have carried him home, he finds he has six missed calls on his cellphone from the last hour alone, as opposed to four from the last seventy-some hours before that.

He puts his phone on silent, then on second thought turns it off, then locks himself in his room and loads his saved game of Chrono Trigger.

Fuck.


No birds, chipmunks, cats or squirrels show up at Charles' window that evening, or at anytime the next day, nor do any of his friends come knocking at the front door. But the day after that, he comes back from the bathroom to find his window open and a brown ferret bouncing around his bedroom floor, being chased by all the loose change that previously sat atop Charles' dresser. Said ferret is making rapid clucking sounds that resemble nothing so much as a flock of chickens.

"Erik, what the hell are you doing?" Charles says with a sigh.

{FUCK YEAH, I'M A FERRET!}

Erik dodges a nickel with a particular twist-y jump.

"...Seriously?" Charles would have thought that a ferret morph would be slightly less overwhelming, considering that they're predators, which tend to have less instincts and things and are, overall...calmer...

{THEY'RE GOING TO EAT ME!} Erik says, probably referring to the entire roll's worth of pennies he's running from now. Two seconds later he whips around and starts jumping at the pennies with his mouth open and his back hunched. {I'M GOING TO EAT THEM!}

"Dude, how long have you been in ferret morph?"

{ABOUT FIVE MINUTES? FUCK YEAH CHARRRRLES, I'M A FUCKING FERRET!}

Three dollars' worth of change falls to the carpet. Erik darts over to Charles, latches onto his sock and tries to drag his foot under the bed via his big toe.

Charles reaches down to pick Erik up; Erik bites him, then nibbles and licks at his wrist for a bit, then starts digging at his arm with very sharp ferret nails.


Half an hour later, Erik is Erik again, sitting on the floor up against the side of Charles' bed like he has so many times before. Grinning, he says, "Ferret is the best one yet. You should try it sometime."

"No, I don't think I will," Charles says. He pretty much figures on never morphing again. As fun as it can be, he doesn't feel he has the right to it if he's not going to keep fighting with the rest of them - especially considering the circumstances under which they all gained the ability.

Erik's grin fades.

"First," he says, "tell me what number I'm thinking."

Charles glances into his mind. "Don't be crude, Erik," he says, irritated.

Erik almost grins again, but it dies halfway in the making, and his eyes grow hard. "The number," he says.

"Christ, you are so paranoid," Charles grumbles. Then, hearing himself, he goes cold with the realization of what he sounds like, how close it is; how careless they've been at times prior to all this. So he adds, very quickly, "Sixty-nine."

"So," Erik says, relaxing again, "when are you coming back?"

"I'm not coming back," Charles says.

"Why not?" Erik doesn't look terribly concerned about it, and Charles knows without needing to read him that he doesn't believe it for a minute, doesn't think Charles can quit their fight anymore than Erik himself can.

So Charles sits down next to Erik, and he explains.


Erik listens without interrupting.

When Charles has finished, Erik says, soft and deadly and final, "Nazis were people, Charles. It doesn't make any difference."

And Charles knows there's not going to be a discussion, here; knows that while the Lehnsherr side of Erik's family has a family reunion every other year that actually requires them to rent a conference room so they'll have enough room for everybody, the Eisenhardt side of his family comprises of barely enough people to take up a sofa. Charles knows why this is; knows, too, that it's why Erik started fighting and why he'll keep on fighting, until the Yeerks are driven from the Earth or ground into it.

Once Charles has spent several minutes trying to think of a way to answer Erik that won't somehow come off as defending Nazis, Erik takes pity on him and says, "You know what you need, Charles?" and reaches into his pocket to pull out a little plastic baggie of weed and dangle it in front of Charles' face.

"Erik, what the hell - where did you get that?"

"I confiscated it from Sean," Erik says.

"Where did Sean get it?" Charles asks, even more appalled now than he was to begin with.

"Hell if I know. Have you ever seen a stoned Andalite? It's hilarious, he was actually on the kitchen table - in his Andalite form, mind - rocking to C is for Cookie, that's good enough for me. Then I, like, poked him to see what he'd do, and he fell off the table, and now he's convinced I have it in for him. Won't let me anywhere near him. He's being totally unreasonable about it." Erik raises his hands up in a gesture of innocence, the one that always makes him look guilty as sin.

Charles can't help laughing. "Well, at least that explains why you smell like pot."

"Ferret," Erik corrects him. "I smell like pot because ferrets smell like pot and I was just a ferret."

"Oh really."

"Yeah, remember in freshman year when Marie D'Ancanto got sent to Stryker's office for smelling like pot, only it turned out she had four ferrets that all slept in the same drawer as her shirts?"

Now that he mentions it, Charles does remember that. Vaguely.

"Well, since you're here, do you want to watch me beat the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time?" Charles asks, hopeful.

"Not really," Erik says.

His lack of enthusiasm is probably due to the fact that watching Charles beat dungeons usually involves Erik having to take over for the tricky bits. Charles is no good at the tricky bits of games; he just doesn't have the reflexes.


Erik is beating the Shadow Temple boss when the front door slams downstairs.

Charles purposely hasn't been paying attention to his family's comings and goings since he got home - it took two seconds, when he first got back, to confirm that neither his mom nor Kurt even noticed he was gone (not that they notice when he's here, either. Really, he doesn't know why he expects anything else. If it weren't summer break Kurt might have pounded on his bedroom door to tell him to take his ass to school, but only because the school would have called. God forbid anything Charles does should inconvenience Kurt) - but his mind reaches out now, to brush against the expected nothing.

"Angel," Charles mutters.

Erik grimaces in sympathy, but keeps his eyes on the screen, and has the consideration not to say anything.

Charles appreciates it; he suspects any of the others would have taken this opportunity to say something more-or-less (or in Moira's case, a lot less) tactfully along the lines of, 'If you give up, what happens to Angel?' Like that's not something that would occur to Charles on his own.

He recalls the last time he saw Angel, really Angel, the first time he and his friends ever infiltrated the Yeerk Pool. He remembers her thrashing, fighting her captors, the inhibitor collar around her neck preventing her spit from being anything more toxic, keeping her wings etched onto her shoulders.

She hasn't called him a sexist pig in eight months. He's known why for the last six of them.

Bongo Bongo shrivels up on the screen, and as Erik saves Charles' game, Charles hears him thinking that he ought to get home, that his dad will start to worry if he stays out much longer.

"Um, could you please stay?" Charles says. He's horrified to realize he just might be about to cry.

"Sure," Erik says. "Can I borrow your cellphone?"

Charles feels Erik's irritation when he turns Charles' phone on and sees the fifty-two missed calls (more than half of them are from Alex who has, to be fair, been really anxious since what happened with Armando), because didn't he fucking tell them all to leave Charles alone?

Charles thinks that he could kiss Erik for that; that he really, really wants to, in fact.

It's not exactly a new impulse - they've been dancing around each other for a while now, Charles because he's so, so afraid of changing things between them, and Erik because he's not entirely certain that Charles wants it, too (curse of not being a telepath; or, more likely, a benefit) - and it only takes a few seconds for Charles to beat it back down.

When Erik finishes telling his dad that he's at Charles' house and will absolutely, positively, yes he promises, be home by eleven, Charles manages to say, in a normal voice, "So, what do you want to do now?"

Erik's grin is slightly more predatory than usual when he suggests, "Mario Kart 64?"

Charles goes for that, but only because he's completely forgotten about that bet he lost three weeks ago, the one that dictates that he has to play Princess Peach for the rest of eternity.

Erik, of course, plays Bowser.


Later, when Erik is about to fly off home, he pauses in Great Horned Owl morph just long enough to turn back to Charles and say, "We're meeting up at Sean's tomorrow at six, to discuss strategy and stuff."

"Okay," Charles says.