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Decoy and Retrofit: Chapter 5.5

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #050 back issue and Hazel + Bell’s Patreon.

“Sad.”

Noel’s eyes flicked up.

Tiny hadn’t moved, still curled up next to Noel’s body, breathing slow and raspy against his chest. But its voice was echoing in his head. Magenta filtered through Noel’s mind, a slow, warm colour that wasn’t like the vivid, violent pink of their first conversation.

Noel didn’t say anything.

“You sad,” Tiny said.

Noel swallowed.

“Yeah, I’m sad,” he said, his thumb travelling across Tiny’s scaly back. “I’m sorry about your master, Tiny. I’m sorry.”

Tiny growled, curling tighter into Noel’s side.

“Humans are pitiful,” it grumbled.

The abruptness of its words took Noel off guard, just for a moment. But there wasn’t any sort of smugness in the words, no sense of superiority. Just the simple truth of the statement.

Noel closed his eyes.

“Yeah, we are,” he murmured. “We’re pretty pitiful.”

Tiny grunted and curled up a bit tighter.

“…Humans are pitiful, just like how we were.”

Noel cracked an eye open.

“I was like him once.  Your Fond One.”

Noel wasn’t sure what it meant. Griffin, trapped in an impossible situation, struggling and alone, forced to do unbearable things to survive with what he had. But no, the magenta in his mind was curling into the shape of the body lying in its hospital bed.

“Humans love so easily,” Tiny grunted. “Desperate and foolish.”

Noel ignored the jibe. “What do you mean, you were like Apollo once?” he murmured.

Tiny didn’t respond for a moment. Noel wondered if he was content to let the question hang in the air. Noel thought he probably already knew the truth.

“This isn’t the first planet the masters have reached,” said Tiny.

Noel stared through the dusty truck windshield. Tiny shifted under his hand.

“Outlie destructive for brain. Too much. Dead body. I found myself in this vessel. Tied to a master, but a kind one. One who knew me well. One who understood. One who made me happy to be led.”

Noel swallowed. “You’re not one of them?” he asked. “You’re not a tourist?”

“I am not.”

Silence filled Noel’s mind.

“You’re not either,” said Tiny quietly. “Nothing like master.” Tiny suddenly yawned, showing off its mouth full of enormous teeth. It licked its lipless mouth with a blue tongue before settling back down against Noel’s leg. “I understand you.”

“Do you?”

Tiny grunted. “I cannot hate the small one.” It said quietly. “I cannot hate it. It reminds me too much of my own pitiful people.”

Noel let the words linger in his mind before he realized that his face was wet. He was crying. He sniffed, and wiped his nose, smearing tears across his eyes.

Tiny said nothing for a moment. Noel didn’t know if it was watching him as he tried to compose himself. But it waited until his hiccoughs had settled, until the burning in his chest had lessened, before it slid its warm, pink words into Noel’s head again.

“Your body is dying.”

“Yeah,” Noel choked out.

“Soon, you’ll only exist in the Outlie.”

“Yeah.”

“…You won’t be able to protect him anymore.”

Griffin floated to the forefront of his mind.

Griffin, pinning him to the ground and pointing a rifle at his head. Griffin planting bombs on the ice cream truck. Griffin, drunk and kissing him against a campfire. Griffin kicking the dashboard.

Griffin, crying in the hospital room that his brother could never leave.

“He doesn’t need that,” Noel murmured.

Tiny scoffed. “You’re a fool if you believe that.”

Noel wasn’t going to argue that.

“My master is dead,” said Tiny. “My purpose is done.”

Noel glanced up.

“You’re not Old Master. I cannot remain here, on this planet, on this plane. I want to return. It’s been too long here, I think.  Too long. Too much. Too far from the ones who make me feel warm. The ones who are still with us.”

Noel felt his breath hitch unexpectedly.  “Tiny…”

“When I go,” Tiny continued, ignoring Noel, “This vessel will be empty. No danger. No struggle.”

Noel breathed.

“Maybe, that day, you’ll be able to move on as well.”

***

He fell asleep sometime after that. It was easy, zoning out when he could listen to the rhythm of Tiny’s breaths, the gentle rush of the wind rustling the pine trees, the lonely sounds of the forest.

It was somewhere, deep in his dreamless sleep, the lull of the white noise all around, that Noel fell back into the milky whiteness of the Outlie.

***

Noel blinked his eyes open, and found himself on a bed.

It was smaller than he remembered. Narrower, maybe. Or maybe he had just gotten bigger.

He rolled over.

Dust motes, illuminated by warm sunbeams, floated across his field of vision. He sat up on his elbows, blinking in the lazy afternoon sun.

Somewhere, from through the open window, a dog barked. The neighbour’s children screamed as they splashed into their pool. Noel stared at the window, the gently billowing curtains bathed in afternoon sunlight. The details were still there. The band posters plastered to the walls. The bookshelf full of comic books and video games. The slanted ceiling that he had knocked his head against so many times.

His eyes slid over to Apollo sitting at his desk on his cheap computer chair, his knees pulled to his chin. Staring out through the window, scraping a hand against his buzzed hair.

And then he turned to face Noel, and Noel saw that he was holding an ice pack over his right eye.

“You up?” he asked.

Noel grunted. He rolled over and felt his face sting with a bruise of his own. “Unfortunately.”

Apollo pushed the chair across the floor with a dangling foot. He rooted around on his desk before picking up something large and tossing it Noel’s way.

“Here,” he said, as Noel snatched it out of the air. “It’ll help.”

Noel gave it a glance. It was a bag of frozen peas. Of course.

Noel snorted. “Thanks,” he said, placing it over the tender, pulsing spot on his left eye.

He lay there, holding the peas to his face, and watched as Apollo sat in the computer chair. Swinging his ankle around, resting his chin against his knee. He was wearing track pants and a worn hoodie, clothes that Noel hadn’t seen him wear in a long time.

“This is stupid.” Apollo muttered. “Give up my body and I still get bruised.”

Noel snorted. “It’s just for the moment.”

“It’s a stupid moment.”

“Then why did you choose it?”

Apollo was silent for a moment. Noel listened to the sound of the kids outside, screaming and splashing, followed the details of Apollo’s face as he frowned at nothing.

Then, finally, Apollo let out a sigh and let the arm with the ice pack fall. It landed hard on his desk, revealing puffy redness around his eye.

“I didn’t let you kiss me.”

Noel let that sit in the air before he laughed nervously. “Wait, what?”

“If I’d let you kiss me back then,” Apollo said in a rush, “we wouldn’t be here.”

“Apollo–”

“You wouldn’t have gone after my brother. We wouldn’t have fought. Mom wouldn’t have taken us away. Griff wouldn’t be alone, taking care of my dead body–”

“Apollo, no.”

Apollo ignored him. He stood up, walked two paces over to the bed. Noel watched Apollo, standing over him with a puffy eye and a twisted expression.

Noel was suddenly very aware that he couldn’t move.

Apollo planted a knee between Noel’s legs, pressing his palm into the pillow beside Noel’s head. He was very close, too close.

Noel closed his eyes. For a few seconds, all he could hear was Apollo’s soft breathing before he felt lips brush over his.

It was a moment. A moment that Noel had fantasized about for years. How Apollo would look, how he would feel, how he would taste. Something that he had always come back to when his mind was wandering off somewhere dumb, a reoccurring dream to wake him up at night, a reliable fantasy when there was no good porn on the internet.

But now, he just closed his eyes and waited for the moment to be over.

He felt Apollo move away eventually, shifting his weight off Noel’s body and leaving him room to breathe. The mattress creaked, and Noel opened his eyes.

Apollo was sitting against his wall, looking down at him from the other side of the bed. The ice pack was back, propped up on his face and covering his purpling eye. He was watching Noel with a rueful expression, something that felt like it came from the same complex feeling that had twisted up in Noel’s stomach.

“It doesn’t work like that, huh?” he said.

“Not really, no.” Noel heard himself murmur.

“When you’re here, it feels like you can do anything,” Apollo said softly. “There is no frame of reference for time when reality isn’t accessible anymore.”

Noel grunted.

“We can’t change the past,” Noel said. “We can just change who we are now.”

“Well then,” Apollo said. “What are we?”

There was a silence that fell between them, punctured only by the sound of a dog barking outside the window. Apollo stared straight ahead, his dark eyes focused on something in his room, not looking at Noel, his hand shifting on his ice pack.

Noel pushed himself up next to Apollo, leaning against the wall, and dropped his bag of peas against the bedspread. When he spoke, it was so quiet that the tone barely escaped his throat.

“I’m a bad person, Apollo,” said Noel.

“Yeah,” Apollo said with absolutely no hesitation. “You are.”

“I’m sorry,” Noel said. “I should have never, with Griff–”

“Yeah, you shouldn’t have.”

Apollo’s fingers were moving across the bedspread, fiddling with one of the crochet tassels on the throw blanket that he always had. Noel watched his fingers move, scuttly and nervous as his eye contact.

“I never knew that he had me,” Apollo croaked out. “That he was trying to keep my body alive for years.”

Noel nodded. Apollo’s shoulder felt warm where it brushed his. “I didn’t know either,” Noel said.

“I know you didn’t,” Apollo got out. “I would know if you did.”

Noel smiled. “Yeah, you would.”

It was funny, in a way, that the problem Susan had tried to solve between them had done this. They understood each other now. They knew each other down to the core. But they were still punching each other in the face, still reliving the same experiences that had brought them down this road to begin with.

The world had collapsed around them, and everything they had once known had changed. But they hadn’t changed.

“I want to save him.” Apollo said finally. “I want to save him.” His fingers twisted the crochet, tightening into a fist that took the yarn with it. “But I can’t do anything.”

Noel swallowed.

“I know what I said earlier, about you.” Apollo said. “When you said you wanted to save him.”

Noel snorted. “It was legit.”

“Yeah, but I’m going to take it back.”

Noel let his eyes slide to the side, watching as Apollo lowered his head to rest it on his shoulder.

“You’re the only one left.”

Noel hesitated, just for a second, before he raised his hand and gently placed it on Apollo’s head. Brushing his fingers against the bristly short hair, ghosting lightly over his scar.

He watched as Apollo, focused on the crochet, closed his eyes.

“Noel, please. Save my brother.”

***

The engine roared under him.

That was the first thing Noel noticed as he blinked out of his stupor, coming to slowly as Apollo’s bedroom faded away. The floor was hot and vibrating under him. Bits of dust and dirt ground into his face. He could hear the engine rumbling. He could hear other engines rumbling, loud and unmuffled chugs of motorcycles nearby.

Noel focused. He was lying on the floor of the ice cream truck. He couldn’t move his arms.

“God damn, those kids really did a number on this one,” he could hear a voice from above him. “Christ, you can barely see through the windshield.”

“They got gas, from the looks of it.”

Noel’s breath heaved. His mouth was bitter and dry. He was dizzy, his head was throbbing. Focus, focus.

“See, this is why I said we should have–” The speaker paused, and Noel could hear him shouting out the window. “This is why I said we should have barricaded Spences!”

“They went through Spences?”

“Where else can you get gas ‘round here? ‘Course they did, you idiot.”

“Think they called the Tourist ships, too?”

Noel closed his eyes. Right, Tiny. He thought hard, his mind broadcasting out to the one directly attached to it. Tiny. Where are you?

Silence.

“Oh shit, I think he’s awake.”

“Already?”

“He moved.”

“In an unconscious-twitchy-way or an I’m-gonna-escape-way?”

“Uh–”

“See, this is why I said you should have used more ether. He’s a big guy.”

Rough fingers tightened in Noel’s hair, and his head was wrenched up. He blinked stupidly into the blinding morning sunlight, swimming vision focusing on the men sitting in front of him.

He had half expected to see Brand, or at least a couple of members of Atlus, there in the driver’s seat, come to get their merchandise back after a week of chasing them down. But of course that’s not how it was going down.

“Hey there, Rib, Med.” Noel choked out, smiling brokenly at his old employer. “Long time, no see.”

Rib, sporting a large cut on his face since the last time Noel had seen him, gave Noel a long, tired look. “You know, kid,” he sighed, reaching over the back of the seat, “I’m not even going to bother with this.”

“Don’t bother with it,” said Med from the driver’s seat.

“I’m not,” Rib snapped. “Think I got time for your witty words, kid?”

“Uh,” said Noel.

“The answer’s no.”

Then there was a rag in front of Noel’s face, bitter-smelling and wet and pressed tight over his mouth and nose. “Here,” he could hear Rib say. “Deep breaths.”

Noel would like to think he struggled for a bit before going down, but his limbs were soon limp, his mind drifting as he tumbled back down to the cab floor, breathing in the dust and dirt of the ice cream truck as the motorcade rumbled along.

To be concluded in Chapter 6.

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