They arrived at the determined location, but Aria was nowhere to be found.
“We’re early,” Jeron breathed as he looked around the commuter parking lot.
“Groceries aren’t far off. Maybe we could stop by to try to stock up on something other than beans?”
“Sy, you haven’t even had any yet…”
“But the kids, Jeron. Specifically Daniel. I can hear him groaning every time the can opener comes out.”
Jeron sighed, “It wasn’t all beans. We had some corn and canned sausages, too…”
“We had what we had, Sy. It was two years of living in fear. Hiding in the basement hoping Henley wouldn’t come murder us. He tried once or twice, but as much as he claimed he knew how Pops and I survived the blast, he clearly didn’t have a clue or Dan and I wouldn’t still be here.”
“Thank you, Jeron,” Sylus replied somberly.
“Thanks? For what?”
“For keeping my son safe.”
Jeron chuckled nervously, “What was I gonna do? Let him die?”
“You easily could have,” Sylus looked him dead in the eyes.
“Like hell I would, Sy. You think I picked your starving ass up off the floor and calmed your sobbing boy that day just to turn my back on the both of you?”
Sylus shook his head, “I’m not saying you would have, Jer. Just that if you were anyone else…” he took a deep breath, “I know my boy wouldn’t be alive right now.”
Once more, Silence filled the cab.
Jeron checked his phone.
“Nah, but she knows she can text me when she’s ready. We should be fine to do a bit of gallivanting.”
Sylus turned to him with a grin on his face.
“Groceries it is,” Jeron cleared his throat as he started the truck again. “Just don’t eat everything in the shop. I can’t afford it.”
“Ah yes, money… Something I don’t think I’ll be making any more of…” Sylus sighed.
“Same,” Jeron added his own dismay.
“Can’t exactly live without it…”
“We’ll just have to figure out how to make living in the Mist more viable. Saari’s gonna teach us how to properly butcher spawns. That should be a good place to start,” Jeron muttered towards the end as his attention was turned toward trying to find a parking space in the strip mall. “But that’ll only do so much. Gonna need greens.”
Sylus thought a moment, “Well, it’s not like nothing grows in the Mist. It’s just all warped and tainted. Doesn’t mean it isn’t edible.”
“I’ll leave that to you to find out,” Jeron snorted as he settled for a spot in the back.
“Jeron, I can eat literally anything at this point. I’m not a good judge of what is and isn’t edible.”
“Yeah, but you’re a good judge for what will and won’t kill us,” Jeron chuckled as he got out of the truck.
“True,” Sylus shrugged as he stepped out himself.
“But it’s all the same, isn’t it?” Jeron sighed, “All tentacles and teeth? Humans can’t live on that, Sy.”
“Flora should be different. The Q’taxians grew regular vegetables in the Mist. Warped version of native food, but still nutritionally sustainable. They lived on fruits and veg. We could probably figure out how to do the same.”
“Saari?” Jeron found himself sighing once more.
“She’s our best bet, Jeron. She’s lived in this shit for thousands of years. If anyone can help us make sense of it, it’s her.”
Jeron shook his head, “Look. She seems nice enough, but I’m still really wary of putting our fates in the hands of an alien with horns growing out of her eye sockets.”
“What does her appearance have to do with her ability?” Sylus stopped in his tracks.
“N-nothing,” Jeron turned to him, “I-it’s just…” he shook his head, “It’s a lot of things, okay?”
“Do you trust me?”
“If I’m being honest,” Jeron threw his hands in the air, “I’m not sure yet.”
Sylus felt a stinging sensation shoot through his face. It wasn’t entirely unexpected but it still hurt to hear.
“You didn’t mention coming back with someone else, Sy. Saari never came up…”
“She was a surprise to me too, Jeron. Qaitax never said a thing about her and suddenly I’m taking over the parenting role. I don’t know what she needs and wants. I don’t know shit about her other than she’s die-hard loyal to Qaitax. That’s it. I could have left her there in the dark. Alone. To die. I had that option, but I couldn’t.”
Jeron stared at him.
“I couldn’t let her die when all I had to do was take her with me. I had no idea if she’d even survive on earth, nobody did, but I couldn’t just leave her to die.”
Jeron shook his head, “You can’t save every poor soul, Sylus…”
“That stupid thing on your neck says I’m a fool if I don’t at least try.”
Jeron slowly reached for his cross. Holding it tightly, the cold cynicism of the past two years faded into fond memories of his mother and his love for her. Her smile and compassion… Those two years living in fear and anguish had eroded his sense of trust and empathy. How could he let that happen? He sighed.
“Fine,” he let go of the charm, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll just let you and Saari do whatever you want. I’ll trust you’re doing the right thing. In fact,” he scoffed, “I’ll even push my doubts that you’re who you say you are aside, and blatantly accept you’re the person I fell in love with two fucking years ago. Let’s say it’s that easy. Sure. Fine.” He stepped up to mere inches from Sylus’ face. Anger and rage had surfaced once more. “But fuck me over once and I will end you, fiend.”
Sylus recoiled. “I-I never… I… I mean… Jeron, just because it is me, that doesn’t mean you have to just act like those two years didn’t happen. We talked about this, didn’t we? Just now. In the truck,” he motioned to the vehicle, “Things can’t go back to how they were. Not instantly and like nothing happened. I just need you to trust that I am who I say I am and go from there. Please, Jeron. I’m just asking you to accept that I’m Sylus. The same Sylus that left two years ago. Whether I’m still your type or whatever is up for debate and that’s fine, but… Jeron… It’s me… I swear…”
Jeron once more found himself staring across the lot at Sylus.
“This is what we have, Jeron. You, me, Daniel, Saari, Qaitax. This is what we have. We have to make use of it. We have to do our best. Whether we’re friends or not or whatever, we need to work together to survive. You need to trust that I have no intentions of hurting you. You mean too much to me, Jeron. I-I mean,” Sylus kicked a pebble on the pavement, “You took care of my son, Jer… You saved Daniel from a horrific fate. You saved him. You saved him when I couldn’t. I need you… Daniel needs you… Please…”
Something in Jeron snapped and shattered. His mind came apart and a sudden sense of light-headedness came over him.
“It’s too much, Sy,” he choked back the impending tears, “It’s too much. I loved you.”
“I still love you, Jeron…”
“A week? Two years?” his voice shook, “It’s different… It’s all so different. I tried to give up on you. I tried so hard to convince Daniel you were gone. I wanted you gone. I wanted to erase every memory I had of you, Sylus. But that kid and… Something… Some…” he stomped on the ground, “Some pathetic ash of hope kept kindling somewhere in my cold dead heart.
“Two years, Sylus. Two years I tried to let you go. You were dead. You had to be. I couldn’t ever accept that hope. I had to push it down as far as I could and try to ignore it was ever there. But it was. And then you come back. Maimed and practically dead,” he forced a laugh, “That ash turned into a fire and then went out almost as quickly as it grew. You were back. But you only came back to die. That was when I wished you’d never come back at all.”
Sylus stared at him, his eyes burning with tears of his own.
“I wanted you back so badly… And yet there you were. Dying. How… I…” Jeron grasped the sides of his head, “I can’t do this, Sylus. I can’t… I-I’m sorry… I just can’t. I can’t look at you without having so many feelings I don’t understand. I can’t even think about you without feeling so things I don’t want to feel. You can’t be here. You can’t be alive. You have to be dead and gone somewhere on Q’taxia. You can’t be here, Sylus. You can’t be. Not after I gave up on you. I gave up on you so many times,” he couldn’t hold back the sobs anymore, “And yet you are…”
“J-Jeron…” Sylus approached him, arms open wide.
Jeron pulled away, “Don’t. Please…”
Against his will, Sylus wrapped his arms around him. The dam burst and Jeron Miles sobbed uncontrollably into his chest.
“Don’t hold back,” Sylus whispered, “I’m here.”
Jeron slowly wrapped his own arms around Sylus. He squeezed him tight and clung to his jacket for dear life.
“I lost everything, Sylus… I lost my mom, my pop, and you… I lost everything I loved…” he pressed his face deeper into Sylus’ chest, “I never thought I’d ever see any of those people again. I lost them. They were gone. Everyone was gone, but…” his grip loosened on Sylus’ coat, “You came back…”
“I almost didn’t… But I wanted to. I fought to. It… Wasn’t easy…”
“I-I knew you felt that way when you left, but… How could I have known?” Jeron leaned away, wiping his eyes, “All I knew was that you were off to make some kind of deal with the devil. Anything could have happened…”
“But the best possible thing did!” Sylus took him by the shoulders, a broad grin on his face, “I’m here, Jeron. I’m sorry I ran from you and Daniel. I’m sorry I acted like a wounded animal running off to die. That was how I felt… Like an animal. I was scared, Jeron. I did something really stupid and almost died for it. I was so sure and ready to die that… I-I’m lucky I have you… I’m lucky you came looking for me…”
“If I’m being honest,” Jeron forced a laugh through his tears, “If Saari hadn’t come along, I never would have left the Diner.”
“Then she’s already proved her worth, hasn’t she?”
“I’m grateful to her. I’m grateful to Qaitax for keeping me alive when I was so ready to die.”
“You mean you’re not immortal?”
Sylus bit his lip. “N-no… I-I’m not…”
“So… you’re still… Just mortal? Like the rest of us?”
Sylus was smiling again, “Technically I’m like a super villain at this point, but yeah, I mean, I stand a good chance of getting killed somehow someday, but it’s not exactly easy and traditional murder methods won’t work, but…”
“So… So the body?”
“Forged from a dead god.”
“Still mortal through and through. Qaitax explained it pretty well. I know death. Mortals instinctively know death. Brought to the brink, we’re liable to give in. It’s more a mental death than a physical death, but our minds are all he and I have so if our minds die, we die. And if my mind dies, I take Qaitax with me. It’s in his best interest to keep me alive even when I think I’m dying.”
“So that’s the insurance, huh? You die, he dies?”
“As of right now, yes.”
“That could change?”
Sylus shrugged, “Anything could change. I’d be a fool not to expect something to change our entire dynamic.”
“I-if that thing, Qaitax, if he ever threatens you…”
“You’ll do what?” Sylus chuckled, “We die together.”
“Qaitax, for all his big, bad, and tentatively evil past self, is really docile…”
Sylus shrugged again, “Maybe? But he’d be kinda dumb for doing it when I can just peep in at his thoughts at any given moment. He can’t hide anything from me.”
“But you can hide from him?”
“Only because he’s willing to let me. If he ever changed his mind, there’d be nothing I could do to stop him from watching everything I do.”
“That’s not very reassuring…”
“For now, he’s just trying to piece things together. Maybe someday, when he remembers everything, he’ll become a problem. But right now?” Sylus pulled Jeron close, “He’s harmless.”
Jeron let his body rest against Sylus’. Those same confusing feelings came rushing back. Closing his eyes, he forced himself to sort through them. Each point, he found a way to rationalize it away.
This isn’t the person you fell in love with.
But he is…
You fell in love with a confused woman.
I fell in love with Sylus…
Even you thought you could ‘fix’ him.
I thought if he needed help, I could try to help him…
You don’t love men.
How do I know? I’ve never met one I was attracted to…
You’re not attracted to him.
I actually might be…
He’s fat. You don’t like fat people.
He’s not really fat. Just bigger than before. It’s not like he’s so big he’s immobile…
Your dear old pops said loving men is a sin. Do you want to live in sin?
Love is love… God loves us all. We are all made in his image…
Except him. He’s made in his own image on the back of some hellspawn demon.
Yeah, maybe, but he’s happy. If he wasn’t supposed to do that, God wouldn’t have made him feel the way he did. He wouldn’t have let him hear Qaitax. Things happen for a reason…
But he has that thing in his head. Watching. Lurking. Waiting. How can you trust such a thing?
I can’t know unless I try…
You’re willing to be broken again?
If it happens again, I’ll learn my lesson. But I have to try. Just this once…
You’re willing to take a chance on some obese tentacle monster just because it claims its someone you cared about?
I’m willing to take a chance on Sylus.
He isn’t the same person.
He’s better. He doesn’t have to fake anything anymore. This is the real Sylus.
How can you be so sure?
I’m not, but I want to believe it, so I will.
And when he betrays your trust?
Then he’ll never have it again.
“Ugh,” Jeron sighed as he leaned on Sylus’ chest again, “When I was growing up,” he took a deep breath, “My dad used to make a point of singling out same-sex couples. They weren’t exactly common passing through a little bum-fuck-nowhere coastal town. He wouldn’t deny them service because who is he to judge, but he’d always be sure to warn me that if I ever ended up like that, I’d be disowned and left to the devil’s grasp.”
“He wouldn’t try to save you?”
Jeron shook his head, “We can’t all be saved. God challenges people with perverse desires. Giving in means you turned your back on Him.”
“Ah…” Sylus rubbed the back of his neck.
“But…” Jeron took another deep breath, “I firmly believe that we are all the way we are because that is God’s intention. I don’t think he’s trying to fool us or trick us. For all I know, Qaitax might be part of God’s Plan. Maybe even a demon could be redeemed. Who knows…” he sighed, “Who am I to judge?”
“You really believe there’s a plan behind all this?”
“I have to… I have to believe there’s a reason behind all this chaos… But if I’m being completely honest? I haven’t a clue. I just hope there is… For my own sanity…”
“So what exactly are you trying to tell me, Jeron?”
“That if my father was still alive, I’d be disowned.”
Sylus’ eyes widened.
“Don’t ever ask me to justify it, but something about you feels right and for some reason, I… I…”
Sylus cocked an eyebrow.
“I like it.”
Jeron wrapped his arms around him once more and squeezed him tightly. “You’re soft and warm. Like a blanket or something.”
Sylus wrapped his arms around him.
“I like this,” Jeron sighed, “I like this a lot.”
“Just,” he pulled away again, “Just know that if something goes wrong and you change or something… I… Small things, we can work out, but… You know what I mean with Qaitax and whatever…”
Sylus stood up straight and held up three fingers, “On my honor, Jeron. If I am ever compromised, you have my permission to both end this relationship and execute me at your discretion. In exchange, I’d like to attempt to begin the mortal ritual of courtship.”
“Good,” Jeron held out his hand, “I’m willing to make that deal.”
“Oh, a deal with the devil? From a good Protestant boy?” Sylus sneered as he held out his own hand.
“If it means I can do the right thing and end you if I have to, yes.”
“You know,” Sylus grinned tauntingly, “You’re double damned now.”
Jeron rolled his eyes, “Shake my damn hand, you goon.”
Sylus did as he was told.
“Also, shaking hands isn’t legally binding. According to Qaitax we need a blood exchange and a mutual consumption of- oh Jesus Christ no stop, you’re disgusting.”
“Should I even ask?”
“No. The handshake is binding enough. We’re good.”
Jeron shot him a narrow glare.
The four-pointed stars expanded into Sylus’ eyes. He held out his hand again.
Jeron recoiled a bit.
“And I will allow it.”
“I need your permission?” Jeron snorted.
“To kill us, yes. You do.”
Jeron stared at him.
“I will not let Sylus die, but I will agree to allow you to kill us if necessary.”
Jeron scoffed, “I don’t even know how…”
“I will show you.”
Jeron slowly lifted his hand again. Slowly, he took Qaitax’s hand and shook it.
“Now for the exchange of flesh and blood…”
The stars in his eyes returned to round pupils.
“That’s enough of that. I’m not sure he understands you’re kidding.”
“He… He’s kidding?”
“I think Qaitax is trying to develop a sense of humor…”
“H-he’s not very good at it…”
“Give it time. He’ll be mastering dad jokes before you know it.”