A phone was waved under his nose, interrupting his thoughts. "Yanzin. Hey."

He pushed it away. "What? Go away."

"Yeah, I will," James said. Yanzin wasn't really devoting much attention to that kind of thing, but he sounded kind of tired. "Just – you said your housemate had a car, right? Call him and get him to come get you. Or a cab or something. I don't know."

To his surprise, going back to the apartment sounded appealing. Lie down, maybe shower. At least get away from the noise and all the humans and the lights. Suddenly he felt kind of like throwing up.

He took the phone. James walked away without saying anything else.

Yanzin rubbed at his face with the sleeve of his work shirt, and shifted into a more comfortable sitting position. His hand hovered over the keypad, thinking. He dialled Arodin.

"Yo," Arodin said when he picked up. There was a lot of noise in the background, people talking and music.

"Arodin. It's me," Yanzin mumbled.

The background music burbled away for a bar or two. "Yanzin? Is that you?" Arodin demanded.

"Yes. Listen, I – I need your help. Can you come and get me?"

"What? From where, home?"

"No."

"Why are you calling me? I'm not the one with the car. Or the driver's license. Or the delusion that I'm in charge. Is something wrong with you? You sound weird."

"I – I went out." Yanzin shot a look at James, standing a little way away as if he was an incredibly poorly trained guard, and let his head sink into his hands. "Arodin, I did something stupid. Please come get me."

There was a long pause. Yanzin heard someone laughing and asking a question in the background.

"Fine. Tell me where."

It took Arodin a surprisingly short time to get there – it was only twenty minutes or so before an unfamiliar car pulled up nearby and idled. Yanzin watched it listlessly until the driver door opened and Arodin stood up to gesture at him over the car roof. "Yan! You want this lift or what?"

Yanzin got to his feet, stumbling for the first few steps as feeling came back to his legs.

"Hey. James," he said hoarsely. His eyes and nose itched. Stupid human reactions.

James' gaze went to him, and then skittered away again. "What?"

Yanzin held the phone out. "Thanks for the phone call," he said. "But in future, if you want a pet alien to tag along with you and make you feel tolerant and educated, find a hork-bajir. They're dumb enough to think it's a compliment."

James' mouth twisted with a mix of emotions. He took the phone back without letting his fingers touch Yanzin's. "Whatever. Go home."

Yanzin was already turning away. He didn't look back at James or the bar as he went to the car and got into the passenger side.

"Holy fuck," Arodin said as he ducked back in. He smelled like cigarette smoke. "I thought you sounded drunk on the phone. What's wrong with you? I thought you were going to go straight home tonight."

"I didn't know you could drive," Yanzin said, not particularly caring.

Arodin laughed. "Can I? Yes. Am I allowed to? No. The car is a friend's, so try not to throw up all over it."

"Right."

Arodin gave him a level look across the cab. "How many drinks did you even have? Two? One? You're two years late to be doing this kind of thing." He shook his head and shifted the car into gear jerkily.

They drove for a while in silence, until Arodin gave an expansive sigh. "Okay, so I was out of line this morning," he said. "Sorry."

"Oh." Yanzin considered that for a moment. "Okay."

"If I'd known it was going to contribute to some sort of breakdown, I wouldn't have said it," Arodin said. He cocked his head. "Then again, on second thought, maybe I would. Maybe you needed a breakdown. Who knows."

Yanzin stared out the window and said nothing.

"That sour-faced kid babysitting you on the curb wasn't your attempt at taking my advice, was it? Making some friends to have your back? Because it doesn't look like it was going too well."

"Not really," Yanzin said dully. "He wouldn't go away. I think I've fixed that now."

"Well, congratulations," Arodin said dryly. "I find drinking usually helps me get along with people, but obviously for you it does the opposite."

Yanzin grunted and didn't reply. A small group of humans was straggling across the road in front of them; Arodin slowed to let them cross. Orange street lights and the glow spilling out from the buildings they passed obscured the stars.

He turned his head to look at Arodin, who seemed to be driving fairly well. Maybe that meant he was still sober? "Arodin," he said. "Can you… not tell Minsath about all of this?"

Arodin glanced at him. "Dude, she's not actually your superior officer, you know."

Yanzin shrugged, self-consciously. "If she was really my superior I wouldn't hide things from her." That wasn't true; he had lied to plenty of superiors for Essal and Trinir. "It's just easier not to set her off. Will you keep quiet or not?"

"I would, but there's no need. She's not home. Did you know that Minsath went to a meeting tonight?"

"No?"

Arodin gave a little smile. "Didn't think you did. That's why I knew she wouldn't be able to push me on the whole 'be back by 7 or you're grounded' charade, she's not there herself."

Yanzin frowned. "What sort of meeting?"

"We-ell, given that it's Minsath we're talking about, it's probably not bridge or a book club," Arodin drawled. "From what I overheard, I suspect it's a cell of something styling itself as an Empire-in-exile."

"What?" Yanzin said. Thoughts seemed to move sluggishly through his head. "Why? How come she didn't tell me?"

Arodin laughed outright. "You? You think she trusts you that much?"

"I guess not." Yanzin thought for a while. An Empire in Exile? "That sounds like a really bad idea."

"Nooooo shit." Arodin swore and fiddled with some of the car's controls. "It's pretty small fry, I think. Maybe they'll blow up a landmark or two. Maybe they'll just bicker and stockpile stuff and have fun giving each other increasingly complex ranks. Either way, if anybody finds out there'll be hell to pay."

Yanzin remembered when not being in favour of the Empire was… not quite unthinkable, but close. The Empire wasn't something you loved or hated or wanted away from; it just was. Might as well rail about water or heat or the Kandrona.

He wondered if it still loomed that large in other people's heads. If it were just Yanzin who felt the yawning absence of it out here. Why did they think they could replace it by pretending hard enough?

"Sooo," Arodin said. "Mind if I ask what the stupid thing you did was?"

"Huh?"

"When you called me, you said you'd done something stupid. What was it?"

"Oh." Yanzin scrubbed a sleeve across his eyes again. "Greatly overestimated my tolerance for humans and thought it'd be a good idea to try interacting with some from work."

"That's it?" Arodin seemed almost… disappointed? No, just insistent. "You didn't, say, go looking for some human with an equally large grudge to pick a fight with? Because –"

Yanzin winced. "No. Of course not."

"…Because you have to agree, it is a tad suspicious that tonight of all nights you suddenly find yourself with a burning desire to socialise."

"Arodin, my arm is in a cast."

"I hadn't noticed. I assume you weren't successful, anyway, because you don't look like someone who's had the snot beaten out of him. Recently."

"I did not go out with the intention of picking fights with humans."

"Hmmm." Arodin didn't sound convinced. He gave Yanzin a searching glance, until an approaching corner made him turn his eyes back to the road. "Listen. About what I said this morning. Believe it or not, I had a point. You need to…" He shook his head. "Yanzin, I don't know what you need. But you need to do something, because whatever your coping strategy is right now, apparently it's not working."

"You are going to lecture me on coping strategies," Yanzin said flatly. "You." He found he didn't have much energy left to be properly angry at Arodin.

Arodin's jaw tightened. "Hey, think what you like, I'm doing fine. I'm doing better than you and the pocket dictator are, that's for sure."

"Really," Yanzin said. "You aren't slowly killing yourself with addictive substances, then."

Arodin snickered. "Slowly killing myself? Yan, I had no idea you had such a flair for the dramatic."

"We nearly took you to hospital that–"

"Just because you're an intrusive worry wart," Arodin interrupted, "Doesn't mean anything about the extent to which I am or am not doing just fine. Anyway, I'm not talking about drinking. It's more the basic mindset."

Yanzin sighed. He hadn't exchanged this many words with Arodin in… a long time. Probably they'd said more words to each other today than they had in the entire last six months. He was too tired and queasy to deal with this right now. "And what mindset is that?"

"Acceptance," Arodin said, staring out the windscreen. "Moving on. Doing literally anything apart from sitting around being angry and miserable at Earth. I mean, our lot sucks now, but give us a decade or two, we'll make it work. We'll prove to them that we're harmless, even useful. Slowly, quietly, non-threateningly, we make ourselves a place."

"Blending in. I get it."

"No," Arodin said sharply. "Not pretending to move on. Actually moving on. Pretending to accept Earth while joining secret clubs to bring about its doom is Minsath's coping strategy. Mine is to leave the past behind and learn to live in the world we have."

"And that's working for you, is it?" Yanzin said bitterly. "Come live in humanity's world. Make yourself into the culture that destroyed your old one. What possible reason would I have to want to be more like you, Arodin? You're hardly a yeerk anymore."

Arodin laughed. "Yan, buddy? Neither are you. You crawled inside anybody's ear lately?"

"I still remember what I am," Yanzin said. "You – with your human friends and your human music, and your… your drugs that change the way you think. You're losing what you are. What we are."

Arodin suddenly seemed angry. "I don't care. As far as I'm concerned, that part of me is gone. My original body isn't ever coming back. So fuck it. Who needs yeerkishness?" He made a violent sweeping-away gesture with one hand. The car veered a little. "It can all go. Who cares."

"Who cares?" Yanzin looked at him incredulously. "Who cares? You should care! I care!"

"I don't," Arodin said. "Sorry if that upsets you. I'm just being practical. There isn't any going back for us nothlits, Yanzin, you need to realise that. The only place left for us is here. I mean, let's humour Minsath's worldview for a little bit. Let's say the Empire rises like a glorious phoenix from the bitter ashes of its defeat. Let's say this happens next week. What then? You think the yeerks that are still yeerks are gonna welcome us back?"

Yanzin opened his mouth, and then shut it. "They're our people," he said, half-heartedly.

"No. We're not yeerks anymore. We're hosts." Arodin gave a half-smile. "Kinda smart of Cassie Taylor, wouldn't you say? They make us human, and now we have just as much to fear from our old buddies as they do."

"No, we don't," Yanzin said. "We're not humans. We'll never be humans. No matter how hard you try, you can never make yourself human enough."

Arodin was silent for a short while. When Yanzin looked over, he didn't look upset, just thoughtful. "I know," he said.

They drove in silence for a while longer, until they turned into the street where they lived. Arodin swung the car in against the curb and put it into neutral.

"Look, don't mistake my intentions here. I'm not going to make a project out of getting you to sort yourself out." He shrugged. "Just a friendly heads-up that you don't seem to be doing too well. That's all."

"That wasn't really necessary," Yanzin said.

"No?" Arodin quirked an eyebrow at him, and his mouth seemed to tighten. "Okay. Consider me warned off. We don't ever have to talk about this again, then."

Yanzin didn't know whether he wanted that or not. He patted his pockets absently, and realised that he had thrown everything in them away outside the bar. "I lost my key."

Arodin fished in a pocket and handed him his own. "You can borrow this if you promise to leave it in my shoe at the back door so I can get in, all right?"

"Yeah. Thanks." Yanzin stared at the key for a few moments, before shaking his head. The sooner this fuzziness went away the better; he hated it. He took a deep breath. "Maybe you're right," he said. "Maybe we aren't a hundred percent yeerk anymore. But I don't think that it's been replaced with humanity."

"I don't know what else it would be, then," Arodin said. "If it makes you feel better, I think yeerks have always been this way. You know. Taking on aspects of other species. What other sapient beings have the ability to literally inhabit others' minds?"

"So by being less yeerkish, we are being more yeerkish. Great. Thank you," Yanzin said dryly.

Arodin grinned. "That's the thing about us yeerks," he said. "Regardless of what the Empire wanted, that's what our defining feature is more than martial strength. We're adaptable. We take situations and materials, and we make the best out of them. It's not always pretty, but we stay alive. We're scavengers and parasites. Nothing wrong with it."

Yanzin stared at his hands. Blocky human hands with squared-off fingernails and soft skin with a dusting of hairs. "I don't know if that's what I am. I think I'm… a soldier. I'm not adaptable. I'm not clever. I'm not stealthy."

"I don't know, maybe you've absorbed a bunch of hork-bajir along the way. Are you getting out of the car?"

"Yes. Thank you." Yanzin started to climb out of the car, and then hesitated. "Arodin, wait. Instead of me leaving the key out, why don't you just stay here?"

Arodin shook his head. "Have to return the car, man."

"Well, come back relatively early and I'll let you in."

Aroding smiled lightly. "Butt out, Yanzin, I told you. I'm doing just fine. Get out already or I'll drive off with you still in here."

It had been worth a try, he supposed. Yanzin got out of the car and the cold air enfolded him unpleasantly.

He watched Arodin do a rusty three-point turn and drive away with narrowed eyes. He knew he wouldn't see Arodin back again tonight. Arodin wouldn't change anything about his habits.

Doesn't matter how convincingly he can argue it to you, he thought. It's still just something he tells himself because it lets him keep on doing what he wants to do anyway.

He left the key by the back door as Arodin had asked.