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Decoy and Retrofit: Chapter 6

***

“Why is nobody here?”

They had reached the roadblock, and Noel was shocked to see that it had been completely trashed in his absence. It looked as if someone had rammed a small truck directly through the chain-link fence, completely destroying it. The lady working at the booth was gone, and there was nobody else in sight. The entrance to Nelson had been left unguarded.

Griffin didn’t answer Noel’s question. He stopped the bike and stared at the bridge ahead. It took Noel a second to see what he was looking at.

A black shape hovered above Nelson. Like a piece of cardboard stuck to the sky, a smooth and featureless thing that hung in the air like it was natural. Like it had always existed there, effortless and quiet.

So that was why the gate was empty, the guard post deserted. The Tourists had arrived.

Griffin’s head was encased in a helmet; Noel couldn’t hear any sound from him, couldn’t see if his face twisted into something that was shot with pain and anger.

But the bike engine revved. Noel grasped Griffin around the waist, and they were rolling forward. Around the twisted metal and down the bridge, past the view of the river they had seen the day before. That one little moment they’d had together before all this shit went down.

Noel knew they were heading to the hospital.

The town was deserted. Noel didn’t know where everyone could have gone, but he figured that a place like Nelson was probably ready for this. A population of people who had survived by the skin of their teeth enough times knew what to do when an alien ship started idling around their hospital.

Everything seemed to move slowly. Griffin, driving erratically in the deserted main street, past the scrubby shop fronts and the clothes on clotheslines swaying in the wind. He hit a pothole, and Noel’s teeth clacked together. They took a corner too fast, too hard, his stomach swooping out as his vision shot with the colors of the town around them.

Then a shadow passed over them, like a cloud blocking the sun. They were at the hospital. Griffin was taking off his helmet. Vaulting off the back of the bike, running in a flash of pale legs.

Wrenching open the door of the hospital and disappearing inside.

Tiny was sitting next to the door, a silent monolith. Noel’s eyes slid to them before looking up to see the Tourist ship hovering above.

I need to go.

Noel didn’t know if he said that out loud or not, if he said that while sitting on the bike or while he was moving through the dark hallways and running up the stairs. He felt hazy and strange. Like he had microphone feedback screaming into his ears, like an amp turned up just too loud, like an exposed nerve, like something hovering on the edge of tension before it imploded.

Then he was standing outside of Apollo’s hospital room door. There was the broken guitar that he had bought Griffin yesterday, leaning forgotten against the wall.

He opened the door.

Apollo was there, still lying in his bed. Griffin had his back to Noel, as if he had frozen upon entering the room, shocked into stillness.

And sitting in the chair next to the window, legs crossed with a TV Guide on her lap, was Susan Wells.

“Boys,” she said, flipping a page, “you’re late.”

Her hair was the same as in the Outlie. Long and blond, falling effortlessly down her shoulders in tousled waves. Glowing blue light encircled the forearms that peeked out through the pressed cuffs of her linen shirt. She bounced a foot over her knee a couple times, her heeled shoe dangling slightly off her foot, before she put the TV Guide aside and stood up.

Noel knew she wasn’t taller than he was. But she stood like she was floating.

“Griff,” she said. “Look at you. You’ve grown so much.”

Griffin didn’t say a word.

“I barely recognized you.” She made a step forward, and it felt as if the room was getting smaller, like the air was being forced out of Noel’s lungs. “You’ve gotten so tall. How old are you now–fifteen, sixteen?”

“Nineteen,” said Noel.

Susan made no indication that she had heard him. She was looking at her son, small and smudged in dirt and ash, standing between Noel and Susan like a petrified statue.

“How could you make me think that you were dead?” She sighed the words out under her breath, her glowing fingers toying with the ribbed collar of Griffin’s coat, tugging at it. “I was so worried about you.”

Noel, at that moment, noticed the shadow in the room.

He hadn’t seen it earlier. It wasn’t as if it blended in, but it had the presence of curtains or a dresser. Nondescript, stationary, silent. But Noel saw it now, as it watched them from the side of the room. It was standing in the corner next to Apollo’s bed, arching over against the height of the ceiling. Long and translucent, shot through with blackness and neon bolts of color. Blues and pinks, coming together like a lightning storm.

It was a Tourist, watching them.

Noel couldn’t take his eyes off it. “Susan,” Noel croaked out. “What’s going on?”

She ignored him again. “Look at you, Griffin, my baby. Nineteen, you’re all grown up.” She paused, her cold, blue hand cupping the skin of his face. “You’re all grown up, and you’ve been up to such horrible things without Mom around.”

Noel didn’t miss Griffin’s twitch as those words left her mouth. His only sign of life was an involuntary shudder of revulsion.

Her voice dropped a tone, and she leaned in. Noel, standing behind Griffin, could smell a scent that he was only familiar with in his dreams. But here, along with the Chanel and pasta sauce and the clinging, cloying scent of childhood came an unexpected undercurrent of necrosis.

You wouldn’t believe what it was like for me to hear you had killed one of us.”

The Tourist in the corner moved. It reached an appendage upward, deathly slow, and placed it gently against the panels in the ceiling.

“I came here ahead of the council, in my ship,” Susan breathed, too close, too quiet. “I didn’t even know that you had acquired Apollo’s body, of all things. How did you manage that?”

Griffin remained silent, but she kept going.

“You know he’s never going to wake up, right? He’s a vegetable.”

Those words were spat out like they tasted bad, like Griffin had killed someone over a pet, a doll. An inanimate object. She didn’t attempt to hide her distaste–it soured her face, creased her lips and eyes into shadows.

“The council wanted to get their hands on you first,” she murmured. “And a part of me thinks that I should have let them. But I’m here now because I wanted to strike a deal.”

Griffin stepped back.

Noel could see his face. It was petrified in fear. His only movements were trembles, his rabbit breath in a high point of his chest, his irises flickering with movement. Dirt and grease were smeared across his forehead, mixing with a shimmer of sweat.

Noel wanted to grab him. He wanted to take him downstairs, put him on the bike, leave. But Griffin’s eyes were on Apollo, and Noel couldn’t move.

“A deal?” Griffin croaked out.

“Sweetie, you killed a Tourist,” Susan cooed. “You killed a scout. And before you try and say no, Mom, it wasn’t me, this isn’t like breaking a window with your baseballs, kiddo. This is serious stuff here!”

Noel stared at her.

All along, he had been focusing on the disconnect, the alien blue arms, the unnatural way she moved, the perfectly preserved parts of her that seemed to stand out even in Noel’s eyes as being gleaned from a memory more than something that could exist in reality. Next to Griffin, covered in sweat and dirt and ratty hair and filled with a debilitating, human pain, Noel had wondered more than once if Susan was real.

But this was the same woman who had walked him home after school, who had made him his first warm breakfast, who had bought him a windbreaker when he had shown up soaked to the bone in the rain.

She smiled at Griffin, and he wanted to hide.

“Like I said,” Susan went on, turning her eyes back to her son. “I made a bit of a dealie with the council. Twisted a couple arms, made an arrangement.”

“What’s the deal?” Noel croaked out, before he could stop himself.

Susan turned her head sharply toward him, his first acknowledgment since he had crashed through the door after Griffin. She flashed Noel a smile. “Glad you asked,” she said cheerfully. “Do you know what he’s in for, as it is?”

“No,” Noel said.

That wardog of yours witnessed him murder one of our good scouts. And witnessed murder goes for about…” She counted on her fingers, as if trying to remember. “Well, it’s death.”

Griffin didn’t move. He knew, Noel knew.

“But like I said, sweetie, there is a deal.”

“What’s the deal, Susan,” Noel bit out.

She turned to Noel. If he hadn’t been in her head before, he might not have recognized the expression on her face as one full of contempt. He’d seen it before, at parties, when dealing with telemarketers. Talking to her husband in front of her children. A happy expression that was meant to mask a grimace. She didn’t want him here, he realized. She wanted him to leave.

Noel anchored his feet to the ground and flattened his mouth into a line. Susan looked him up and down, and silently turned back to her son.

“Sweetie, we’re not evil,” Susan said, petting Griffin’s hair. “The council, like all Tourists, believes in compassion. They believe in understanding. They want us to come to an agreement for your future.”

She paused, as if to wait for Griffin to respond. When he didn’t, she smiled wider.

Well, the great news is that there is basically no downside, and you’re going to see your brother again.”

Those words triggered a memory that Noel had thought had been sun-bleached away. In Susan’s minivan, buckled in the backseat, bruised and angry as she chirped happily from the driver’s seat.

“You’ll get to know each other a lot better,” she said happily. Her arm was blue now, Noel noticed. It was blue and strange, and she had been behaving strangely before this, too.

“You’ll see each other eye to eye–there is no downside.”

Now he knew what it meant.

There was a second of stomach-jolting realization, where he wanted to be wrong. He wanted to not understand. He wanted clarification, to ask about the unthinkable being introduced as a negotiation.

He looked at Susan. She smiled at him, and he knew that he was right.

“You want to turn Griff into a retrofit,” Noel said.

Susan smiled, and Noel could see her teeth.

“A retrofit?” asked Griffin. “You want me to become a retrofit?”

Noel turned to Griffin. Whatever horror had been crossing his face had frozen him, turned his face pale and bloodless.

“In all honesty, I don’t know why we didn’t do this ages ago,” she was saying as Noel stepped back, dizzy and lightheaded. “You’re causing such a disturbance here–why didn’t I just bring you up with us the first time? I wasn’t thinking, I suppose. But it’s an easy trade-off for a trial, don’t you think?”

Griffin opened his mouth, and no words fell out.

“The best thing is, of course, that you kill two birds with one stone. Not only will you get to see Apollo again, but after Noel’s mind leaves his body, you’ll be able to talk to him as well! He doesn’t have much time left, did he tell you that? That his mind is rejecting his body?”

Noel didn’t dare look at him, he didn’t think he could manage it. He didn’t think he could manage it.

“Susan,” Noel breathed out. “Susan, you–”

Susan whipped her head up to look at him. “Yes, sweetie?” she said, barely restrained.

Noel’s heart hammered as he glanced between her and Griffin, stilled and horrified under the weight of her words.

“You can’t…” he began, fighting with his words, his fear. “I mean…”

“What are you talking about?” Susan asked with a smile.

She understood. She understood as well as any of them did. Noel looked between Griffin, standing next to him, and Apollo, dead to the world in his bed, and made a decision then and there.

He grabbed Griffin by the sleeve of his coat.

“I need to talk to him,” Noel said breathlessly.

Susan raised a single eyebrow. “Hm?”

“Griff,” Noel said, his words barely rushing through his head as they made it out of his mouth. “Outside. I need to speak with him outside.”

Susan raised herself to her full height as she looked him over.

She was still shorter than Noel from here, but the way she looked at him was down her nose. Like she could see every inconsistency in his words, every lie he had folded away in his intentions. It wouldn’t be hard for her to see what he was desperately thinking.

But she also knew that he had nowhere to hide from her, either.

“Oh,” Susan said. “All right.”

And just like that, they were free to go.

She lifted her hands from Griffin’s hair, and it was as if he had been unshackled, released from the pressure of her sheer presence. Noel breathed, air suddenly filling his lungs with ease.

He watched as she turned away, passed by the bed of her comatose son, and picked up the magazine she had left on the chair. She sat back down and flipped open a page.

“We’ll be waiting,” she said.

He grabbed Griffin by the arm and pulled. He moved him outside of the room and shut the door behind him. Stumbled down the stairs, like they were the only solid objects moving in a dream of shifting walls and liquid floors, distant noises that seemed to barely reach his head, slowed down and paused until it all blurred together.

Then they were stumbling out through the hospital’s front doors and into the street, and Griffin yanked his arm away.

“Noel,” he said, and Noel realized that he had been calling out to him for a long time now. “Noel, stop.”

Noel panted and looked him in the eye.

Griffin stared at Noel as he backed against the wall of the hospital. Step by step, breathing through his nose, like a deer in headlights.

“Don’t go back,” Noel breathed out.

“Don’t tell me–” Griffin’s voice caught in his throat as he stumbled backward, his boots catching at the ground. “Don’t you dare fucking tell me what to do, Noel. Not after that.”

He looked lost, like he had been brought to the brink of his worst nightmare. He stood there, dazed on his feet, swaying like a tree. “Not after hearing you’re dying from my mom.”

Noel swallowed and said nothing. That one was on him.

Griffin waited for him to say something. When Noel stayed silent, he turned away.

“Fuck the Tourists. Damn them to hell.”

Noel swallowed. “What are you going to do?”

“I DON’T FUCKING KNOW!” he screamed.

Noel stood there as Griffin curled in and slowly lowered himself to the ground of the hospital staircase. Rocking on his heels, his head in his hands.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” Griffin breathed.

Silence passed between them.

Noel thought about Apollo in that hospital bed. How much Griffin must have hated his mother every day that passed for what she had done to his brother. He had spent countless nights at Apollo’s bed, hating Tourists. Hating Apollo’s luminescent blue arms, hating his scars, hating every wall that separated Apollo from him.

The offer to join them hung in the air like a final surrender of every justified emotion that had twisted him for four years.

It was too much. It was too unfair.

Griffin slowly raised his head, enough for his eyes to show. He stared off at a spot in the distance, a muscle working in his cheek.

“I could do it,” he said.

Noel stared at him.

“I wouldn’t be dead,” Griffin said, in a sort of dead, toneless voice. “I could talk to you, if you lost your body.” Then he pursed his lips, like he was working himself up to speak his next words.

“I could see Apollo again.”

It wasn’t a choice, with that on the table.

It wasn’t a choice. It had nothing to do with what Griffin wanted. It was just Griffin, getting yanked around by his mother’s impulses. Griffin, the one who was the victim of her poor decisions, her thinly reconstructed solution.

Then again, it wasn’t like Noel was any better than she was.

Noel turned around and walked down the steps to the road.

“Griff,” he said, “I didn’t want to make this decision for you.”

“But,” Griffin edged out.

“–but,” said Noel, “I made a promise to someone. And I need to fulfill my end of the obligation.”

He hauled the bike up onto two wheels and smacked it down on the road. He dusted off the leather seat with shaking hands.

“Noel,” Griffin said, “what are you doing?”

“What does it look like?” Noel asked.

He left the bike and took the stairs two at a time before stopping at Griffin’s feet. Griffin looked up at him through scattered bangs and a frown, and Noel held his hand out.

“I’m kidnapping you.”

***

Are you stupid.

It wasn’t a question, so Noel ignored it.

They were taking the road through town and into the hills, as fast and as far away from Nelson as they could go. Noel was steering, the wind in his face and the roar of the engine in his ears. Griffin sat behind him, arms wrapped around his waist, resting the helmet’s dome against Noel’s back.

They’re going to find him. They can read your thoughts.

Tiny was somewhere close. Following them, probably in the forest. Noel could see glimpses of them through alien senses, shadows and motions and tunnel vision.

Noel swallowed and focused on the road.

You can read my thoughts, Tiny. Take a gander.

Tiny went silent.

The road twisted through the forest, and the farther they pressed on, the deeper red the trees seemed to become. They cut past bends nestled with waterfalls and trees glowing in their autumn glory. The afternoon sun warmed his skin, sinking just deep enough that he might be able to fool himself into thinking that something as weak as fall sunlight could warm his tough, alien skin.

Then they turned the corner, and Noel slid the bike to a stop. It was just a bend in the road, like all the others, but from here Noel thought that he could see through the trees, to the suggestion of forests and mountains and valleys just beyond the road.

Noel dismounted first. He walked to the middle of the road, shaking his legs loose, stretching out the muscles in his back. He took a deep breath, then let it leave his lungs.

Those were limited now.

Everything was limited now. The sight of the sun, high in the sky. The rich colors around them, the crisp air, the asphalt under his feet. The engine’s heat in his legs. The amorphous feeling in his gut, knowing that he was going to make a stupid choice that was wholly, entirely his.

Noel turned around.

Griffin was on the bike, boots on the ground, helmet in his lap. Still wearing that dirty, dusty girl’s uniform, his hair limp on his shoulders. He watched Noel move with dead eyes, waiting for him to say something, to do something.

Noel knew his memories were distorted. They were fragmented–bleary things that shaped his past into something that he saw through rose-colored glasses, turbulent years that were reduced to vague feelings and crystalized moments. But over the past week he had been reintroduced to this character: this person who had grown out of a childhood of following in his footsteps, to an adulthood haunted by the ghosts that he and Apollo had left behind.

“Griff,” Noel said, “it’s time that we set you free.”

Griffin let out a huff of a laugh. “How grandiose.”

When Noel didn’t say anything in response, Griffin looked annoyed, frowning and leaning back on the bike seat. “Okay, what the fuck are you going on about? Since when do I belong to you?”

“Us.”

Griffin leaned back in the bike seat and fixed Noel with a long, hard stare. “I know what you’re going to ask,” he finally said.

“Griff–”

“You’re dying, Noel. Yet another thing you conveniently forgot to tell me. So you’re going to ask me to be strong, right?”

Noel heard the breeze as it blew through the red-stained trees, felt it as it passed over the skin of his cheek, and watched it as it gently lifted the loose, blond hair on Griffin’s neck.

“Don’t ask me to be strong,” Griffin bit out. “I’ve spent so long trying to be strong. I’ve spent so much time being alone.”

He fought with his face for a second, twisting his lip straight, blinking his eyes hard as he looked away.

I’m tired, Noel.”

Noel knew that, too. He’d known it when he’d heard Griffin break down in the hospital the previous night. It was all too much for him, he’d had enough. He’d spent years hoping for his brother to wake up.

Joining his mother was a surrender that came with the prize of seeing Apollo again. The single thing that had kept him holding on.

But it wasn’t right.

Noel took a deep breath of air and tilted his head back to look at the cool, clear sky. He wondered if Susan would come for them before he finished. If her patience wouldn’t extend long enough for Noel to push his plan through.

He figured, probably, that they had enough time for this.

“When I entered the Outlie,” Noel said, “I stopped being myself.”

Griffin said nothing.

“I became this faded remnant of myself. I was filled by so many other experiences, I forgot who I was. And I still had access to the world. Do you want to know what it’s like for those who don’t have that? Do you know what Apollo is like after being in the Outlie, without seeing the world with his own eyes, for four years?”

Griffin’s own eyes were going wide. Noel knew this was something that neither of them wanted to talk about–something they had avoided talking about this whole time. That Noel could talk to Apollo whenever he wanted, something Griffin had killed for.

Noel closed his eyes and braced himself.

“Apollo isn’t who you remember,” Noel said. “He’s faded. And when you showed up, when we both started to remember ourselves, he’s still replaying old scenes that he remembers.”

It felt cruel saying this all out loud. There was a sore part in him that protested, insisted that Apollo wasn’t that bad off–that he could still make his own memories and experiences from where he was bodiless and trapped. But Noel knew that it wasn’t the truth.

“Apollo’s never going to grow up in the Outlie,” Noel said.

Griffin slammed a boot on the ground. The bike had been tipping, and he had righted it just at the last second. He was startled, blinking away as Noel slowly continued.

“Your brother told me to save you,” Noel said. “So if I’m going to save you, it’s going to be from losing yourself like we did.”

Griffin looked up.

When he’d been seventeen, nineteen had seemed so old to Noel. It was adulthood, legal drinking age, an N driver’s license and graduation from foster care. It had been all those things that he had clung to when he was younger. The idea that Griffin had been younger, more vulnerable before this made a wave of guilt twist through Noel’s body.

And the thoughts that had been piling up in the back of his head took over his mouth.

“I’m sorry, I’ve been cruel to you,” Noel said, his words tumbling out. “I took advantage of your feelings toward me when we were younger, when I didn’t understand what I was doing was wrong. You didn’t deserve that.”

But that wasn’t quite right. That wasn’t quite honest. He shook his head.

“No, I knew it was wrong,” Noel said quietly. “I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about you like you deserved.”

Griffin’s expression had turned into something that resembled disdain. He snorted and slung his leg off the back of the bike, hopping to the ground.

“What do you expect me to do with that, Noel? Do you want me to tell you it’s okay? To make you feel better?”

“No,” Noel said quietly. “Not really.”

“Don’t say it, then,” Griffin snapped. “Hearing about how you regret it doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel like an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot, Griff,” Noel mumbled. “Don’t say that.”

“Well, I feel like an idiot,” he snarled. “I feel like a fucking idiot, running after all this shit, after you and my brother and my mom after all these years. For bothering to resist this Tourist crap, for having pride.” He spat out pride like it burned his tongue.

And then Griffin was crying.

He was standing there in the middle of the road and crying, hot tears running in tracks down his dirty face. He didn’t bother to stem them–he just looked at the ground, his hands hanging at his sides, and cried.

Noel moved before he realized what he was doing. He pushed forward to Griffin’s side and wrapped his arms around him. Pulled him in close against his chest. He held him there, trembling and shaking like a leaf in the wind, spilling tears that soaked into Noel’s shirt.

“Fuck you, Noel.” Griffin hiccupped. “Fuck you.”

“I’m sorry,” Noel whispered like a mantra, something that seemed to crawl out of his gut. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Fuck you for existing,” Griffin cut out. “Fuck you for dying.”

Noel nodded against the top of Griffin’s hair. “I’m sorry.”

“Why would you do this to me?” Griffin cried out. “Why would you come back into my life just to die on me?”

Noel didn’t know what to say. He just stroked the space between Griffin’s shoulders, looking down at him as he shuddered and cried against his chest.

“Don’t leave me again, Noel,” Griffin whispered. “Please.”

Noel closed his eyes.

He didn’t know how long they stood there in the middle of the road. His skin felt cold with wind chill, warm with the press of Griffin against his chest. Their breath evened out into something less ragged, something less harsh as the cool breeze lifted the hot air from their mouths and dried the tears on their faces.

And then Griffin wrapped his arms around Noel and leaned into him. He held on tight, like Noel was an anchor in the ocean, a force holding him still while the current pulled them away from each other.

Noel inhaled, then stepped back, his hands on Griffin’s shoulders.

“Griff,” Noel said. “I want you to live for yourself.”

Griffin blinked wet eyes up at him, and said nothing.

“I want you to live for you, and see the type of person you can become without our shadow lingering over you.”

Griffin, who hadn’t lived his own life for as long as Noel had known him. Griffin, who had existed behind someone else’s radiance. Griffin, who didn’t want him to leave, because he didn’t know what else he had besides the memories of them younger and happier.

“Go, discover who you would be without us,” Noel said. “Go find the person you would be, without your mom, without your brother’s ghost depending on you. And when you’ve found that, when you’re satisfied that you’ve found every part of yourself that you never saw before, then you can come back to us.”

Griffin was staring up at him. His expression was still, his face giving nothing away. No hint as to what he was thinking.

“I’m going to make an arrangement with Susan,” Noel breathed. “You can take as much or as little time as you want. And when you’re done, you can give yourself up, and it’ll be over. And you can join us in the Outlie.”

Griffin looked at Noel for what felt like a long time. Then, finally, he let out a held breath and stepped back.

“You got a lot of nerve, suggesting I should go on my own,” he grumbled. But something had changed. There was a softness there that hadn’t been there before, a release of tension that Noel hadn’t noticed until now.

“You won’t be on your own,” Noel said. “You’ll have Tiny.”

Griffin glanced up at him, and his lip twitched. “Pff, Noel.” He grinned. “Only you would try to throw in Tiny to sweeten the deal.”

Noel shrugged his shoulders, and Griffin shook his head. He was staring off into the distance, and Noel could almost see the thoughts running through his head, like they were flicking across his eyes before flitting through his mind.

“Noel,” Griffin finally said.

Noel stood to attention, and Griffin’s eyes slid toward him.

They were pale, but there was something that Noel had missed seeing in them. Something soft. He swallowed, struggling with his words–fumbling and trying to keep himself on straight, trying to keep his breath under control–before the hitch of tears came again.

“You haven’t been good to me,” Griffin said. “I can’t say that you were ever a good person.”

Noel nodded, and Griffin looked back out, to the road in front of them.

“But now, right now, you are good.”

***

The Outlie was empty, as always.

Noel had to wonder how it would change. Maybe when he was brought back into space, they would scrub his mind clear of the interference. Maybe he would lose the last bits of himself that he still had. For some reason, the thought of it didn’t bother him as much as it used to.

“I don’t need to tell you twice,” said Tiny, clear in his ear, “that you’re an idiot.”

The white fuzz in his mind was turning pink, creeping into him like a sunrise. Noel smiled.

Tiny was there, standing in front of him. But they looked nothing like Tiny’s spiny, crouched, clawed form. Tiny was in the form of an alien that Noel had never seen with his own eyes. A small alien, bipedal, with multiple large, glassy eyes that reminded him of pools of water. He had seen these aliens only in others’ memories, as impoverished, homeless prisoners of war. They had reminded him a lot of humans in their shape and appearance.

And in their fate, too.

Tiny folded their limbs down and sat across from Noel in the void, then made an expression that Noel knew was something akin to a smile.

“So, you’re running free of that body now,” Noel said.

He said it with a twinge of sadness. Tiny would be just like all the other minds in the Outlie to him, vague and disconnected. Even though their time together had been short, he had enjoyed the comfort of having such an acute mind next to his, like an imaginary friend who shared his thoughts alone.

But Tiny wanted to go free, and Noel wasn’t going to stop them.

“I’m glad to go,” Tiny said quietly. Their voice was sharp and clear here, clicks and clacks and hisses that Noel could understand as if they were his own words. “Thank you.”

Noel let out a hum and closed his eyes. Even there, he could see pink.

“I will speak to the council,” Tiny said primly, “regarding the small one.”

Noel opened an eye.

Tiny looked as if they were struggling with their next words, figuring out how to put them together in exactly the way they wanted.

“I have murdered some, with choice, when it felt like I had none,” Tiny mumbled. “It’s not without consequence. It is not without punishment.”

They hesitated on the next words. Noel understood–he could feel the emotions that flowed through them. There was a struggle that came with giving up something you had hung on to for so long, justice for revenge rather than reconciliation.

“But,” said Tiny, “it can be with forgiveness.”

Noel said nothing.

“As the survivor of Scout, and the sole witness of the murder, I will appeal for the council to accept a surrender at his terms,” said Tiny quietly. “If I can recognize the injustice of his situation, then they should defer to my will for the terms of his punishment.”

“Is that what you want?” asked Noel.

Tiny looked at Noel. He could see himself, for a moment, in a dozen glassy eyes that focused deeply on his body, his breathing, his eye movement, the subtle cues in the muscles in his face.

Tiny paused, and then jerkily nodded, like they had never done it before. Noel smiled.

“I,” Tiny mumbled. “I am not human.”

“You’re doing fine,” said Noel.

“Bothersome human customs,” Tiny muttered. But there was no malice in the words. In fact, there was the same lingering, melancholy feeling that Noel was experiencing himself.

Tiny had come into his life a week ago, and just as swiftly was about to leave. That week felt like a lifetime.

“Thank you, Tiny,” said Noel. “For everything.”

Tiny nodded and stood to leave.

Noel, if you wish to escape your body before it disintegrates,” they murmured, “you can watch over him, and spend your days on your planet. That, I suppose, is my parting favor with you.”

Noel nodded. “Thank you, Tiny,” he murmured.

Tiny couldn’t smile, not really, but Noel could understand their body language the way they were connected right now. He could imagine Tiny was smiling wryly, on the brink of leaving his head, fixing Noel with a feeling that was both sad and proud at the same time.

“I can read your mind, you know,” they said. Noel didn’t have to imagine the warm tone threaded through their final words. He could hear it.

Noel smiled and tilted his head up to the pink sky, slowly fading back into white.

“There is no need to thank me for something you will not do,” Tiny said, before passing through into the Outlie.

***

The leaves, curling up in the new shoots through the forest floor, were turning green.

They felt green, in that odd way that colors could feel like emotions and smells and sounds all at once. After the deadness of winter, spring was a sensory overload where he could feel every baby sprout, every budding vine opening its leaves toward the sun.

He could feel it, mostly. Feel it underneath his clawed feet, through the hairs in his jaw. Not exactly a conventional way of observing, but it didn’t really seem to matter. He didn’t need to see when he could feel so much, smell so much, understand so much about the place he had been missing.

He had cut off millions of minds to experience this world again, and their absence had left him feeling oddly empty. It was as if he was deaf in both ears, cut off from the murmuring reassurance of others around him. But he didn’t care. They were a million minds that he had traded in for one.

Griffin had been here for four months. Four months of fall and winter, their time spent weatherproofing a cabin and pilfering cold weather gear and hunting in the mountains. Four months of Griffin cutting wood for fires and making meals in a pot and sleeping at the hearth.

And now, it was green again.

Griffin was finally up, busting around the cabin and getting ready for the day ahead. His gait was relaxed and slow now that he was on his own. Like there was nobody around to watch, nobody around to care, nothing left that he had to worry about besides himself.

In the beginning, it had been rough. For the first month, he broke down in tears every night. But every night, he stuck his snout under Griffin’s chin and projected the most soothing thoughts that he could think of.

Warm thoughts. Comforting, enveloping thoughts that could ease his racing mind and quiet his sobs. It wasn’t much, but it was all he could do to help Griffin when he couldn’t use words.

And then, it started to slowly get better.

Bit by bit as the winter grew harsher, Griffin grew harder and more determined. He would still leave the cabin at odd hours, sometimes to scream at the sky, sometimes to slam an axe into the broadside of a tree. But he would come back. Raw and stripped and brimming with determination to keep going.

He had to wonder what Griffin was thinking of. If he was thinking about the alien ships that they would sometimes see in the distance. If he was thinking about what had happened four months ago, if he was thinking about his mother and what she had left him with.

It didn’t really matter much in the end, because every night he would be there to soothe Griffin’s feelings when he finally came back to the fire.

And as the weather got warmer, as the air sweetened and the snowfall turned to rain, even those nights of angry, focused determination seemed to fade with the melting drifts.

Today, those feelings seemed absent altogether.

The outdoors was fresh in his nose. Rainwater in the grass, clean forest air, and Griffin next to him, smiling down on him.

“We got a long day ahead of us,” Griffin said. He stood up from the fireplace, placing the guitar down carefully on the floorboards as he headed for the front door. “Gotta restock our provisions and cut some wood for the fire. Think you’re up for it?”

The positive feelings that he radiated were enough of a response for Griffin. He smiled, hair hanging long across his face, as he slung his coat over his shoulders.

“Good. Let’s go, then.”

As Griffin took the porch stairs two at a time, Apollo stood up in his lumbering, alien body, and followed his brother into the wilderness.

End

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