Alternate Ending part 4
(c)2000-2001 KSH/BS

Steve had only been gone for half an hour when there was a short, quick knock at the door.

Neal and Jon both put their feet on the floor, staring at each other in the resulting silence.

"Neal," Steve said from the other side of the door. "It's Steve."

Neal paused. That wasn't the regular pattern. Neal didn't like the tone of voice, didn't like it that Steve had deviated from the norm. He froze for a moment, realized he had the gun in a death grip, tried to loosen up. He motioned Jon further away from the door. "You alone?" he said, realizing how dumb it sounded, unsure what else to do.

"Yeah," Steve said softly. "Come on, would I lie to you?"

Fuck! Neal backpedaled away from the door, seeing the same alarm on Jon's face that must have been on his own. He gestured at the window, watched Jon shake his head. He'd known Jon long enough to know he'd refuse to run if it meant leaving someone behind. Hell, he didn't want to either. But Steve was already gone, if they had him, and he wasn't about to get himself or Jon killed over it.

"Hold on a sec," Neal said. "I just got out of the shower." As he said it, he motioned for Jon to get down, met with silent but furious resistance, tried to angle himself behind the door.

There was a beat of silence, then Steve said, "We toured all those years, and you've already forgotten I've seen you naked?"

Okay, that was all good for stalling, but it wasn't going to last long. Trying to sound annoyed, Neal called Steve an asshole and told him to wait a goddamn minute while he and Jon carried on a silent argument about what was going to happen and who'd be opening the door. Steve had once accused them of sharing a brain, and there'd been no amusement in the assessment. They were sharing it now, and wasting it by trying to mother-hen each other. Jon was casting frantically around for another weapon, settled on the toilet plunger from the bathroom. Then he took the jamb side of the door while Neal took the other, stepping back enough to keep the door from hitting him if it was slammed open. They heard Steve say something about what he had to put up with and was it worth it. Neal held the gun up, two-handed, at shoulder height. At a silent count of three, Jon unlocked the door and whipped it open.

And chaos ensued.

Steve threw himself forward and down without even trying to break his fall, and the man behind him tried to go into a crouch as a result. But Jon was already in motion, swinging from the side with the plunger, hitting the figure in the shoulder as the latter tried to dive away. Steve rolled, hooking his feet into the figure's legs, and Jon reached forward enough to grab enough jacket to send him the rest of the way off balance. The hat the figure was wearing--a black baseball cap with the words 'Bad to the Bone' plastered across it--fell into the room when he stumbled over Steve. Unfortunately, he managed to keep a hold on his gun as well as stay on his feet, and when Neal shouted for him to stop, he ignored it, making a grab for Jonathan.

Steve was in a kneeling position by then and hit the guy in the back of the knee hard enough to buckle it, taking advantage when he pinwheeled his gun arm back. Steve twisted the gun out of the figure's grip while Jonathan shoved him back toward the hallway. The figure got hold of Jon's shirt while trying to right himself, slamming himself backwards into the wall and then reversing the momentum by shoving Jon violently toward Neal.

Unable to stop, Jon stumbled into Neal, knocking him onto the closer bed, and in the time it took him to do so the figure had reached into a jacket pocket and come up with a snub nosed revolver. Steve saw it too late, had been in the act of bringing the gun he'd confiscated up to level on their attacker. What resulted was Steve on his knees and the figure up against the wall, guns leveled at each other from only feet away.

Neal and Jon righted themselves on the other side of the bed, and Neal realized the gun he'd had was on the bed itself. His eyes darted between it and their attacker.

"Forget it, Neal," the man said. He was as nondescript as people came; medium height, medium brown hair, features bland and set close together in a disinterested face. All the better to kill people in a public place and walk away, witnesses or no. The baseball cap had come to rest so that the lettering was still visible, and Jon found himself fixating crazily on it, thinking about what he'd been reading to Madison at bedtime just before this had all started. A lifetime ago. The 'Madeline' series. There'd been one character in particular, a boy who had enjoyed pestering the other characters, whom they referred to as 'the Bad Hat'. Jon thought about all of it while Steve and their own version of the Bad Hat faced off near the door.

Steve got one foot back under himself, keeping his arms straight but making sure his elbows weren't locked, making sure his breath wasn't held. Steady, everything had to be steady but not rigid. It was a mantra that had come from years of experience, of repeating the motions over and over.

Bad Hat held his position, mirroring Steve's but looking easier about it by virtue of the fact that he was on his feet. "Got a problem, here," he said.

"Yeah," Steve said, keeping his tone casual. "Real easy to solve, though. How serious are you about this?"

The Bad Hat stared at him, then let his gaze flicker to Jon. "Not as serious as you are," he said after a moment. "But you know I can get a round off and ace at least one of 'em, before you react. We stand here long enough, you'll go numb. You might not even hit me. We got fifty fifty odds, here."

Steve nodded. Kept breathing, kept calm, thought about where a ricocheting bullet would end up in a room that size. Thought about the people in the other rooms.

"So," the Bad Hat added, "which one you gonna miss more?"

Steve smiled. "I'm gonna ignore that. Because I need you to walk out of here and make it back to wherever you came from. You tell them who's gonna bury them."

"You?"

Steve didn't move. "Just back off. No reason to do it like this."

"You guys got nowhere to run," Bad Hat said.

"Don't need to. You don't like the odds any better. So pick your time. You force it now, there's gonna be a fucking mess here. And you don't know I'll miss, from this close. You willing to risk all that, just to pick off a couple of musicians?"

Bad Hat pursed his lips, made a show of considering it. "You willing to die, for a couple of musicians?"

"Isn't everybody?" Steve smirked, and when Bad Hat returned it, he added, "I'm willing to bury all of you, for this. And I will. It's up to you, if you go first. So make up your goddamn mind. My arms are gettin' tired."

Bad Hat shrugged. "How do I know you won't plug me if I try to back out of here?"

Steve let an inaudible sigh escape. "Scout's honor. You dumb bastard, I just want you out of here!"

Bad Hat nodded. "There's only the three of you," he said, beginning to back away toward the door, watching Steve keep a bead on him, watching Jon and Neal come around the bed and closer to Steve as he changed his angle. He bent down for just an instant, sweeping his hat off the floor. "Can't count on the feds, can't count on anybody. You, alone, ain't keepin' those two alive for very long. And you're not as tough as you think you are."

"Thanks for the public service announcement," Steve said. "Now just fuck off already, would you?"

The other man backed around the door into the hallway, just out of sight, and paused. "No reason why I don't stay right here until I got backup, and finish you guys off quietly."

"You already know, there's no one here interested in going quietly," Steve said.

"Yeah." There was a pause, then he said, "Fine. Be seein' you soon, though."

They heard footsteps walking away down the hall, muffled only slightly by carpeting. Not another door had opened during the altercation. No one wanted in anyone else's business, and the three men left in the room were grateful for it.

No one relaxed. Steve's arms didn't waver, and he gained his feet the rest of the way. They all held their stances for at least another half minute, making absolutely sure they'd been left alone. Then Steve crossed the room, gun still held at the ready, and shoved the door closed with one foot, locking it with his free hand as he finally lowered the gun. Then he turned and focused on Neal. "You opened the goddamn door."

Neal drew a hand across his forehead, confused, wondering why he hadn't started shaking. "What else was--"

"You _opened the fucking door!_ " Steve shouted, startling them by snagging the lamp off the nightstand and hurling it. It crashed against the wall on the other side of the bed. The plastic shade cracked, and an instant later, Steve was in Neal's face, backing the startled guitarist into the corner.

"What the hell were we supposed to do?" Neal snapped, unable to bring his hands up to shove Steve away, too conscious of the fact that Steve still had a gun.

Steve opened his mouth to continue the tirade, but Jon had him by the back of his shirt and yanked him violently away, slamming him against the wall to their left, next to the window.

"You listen," Jon said softly, nothing in his voice to match what he'd just done, keeping a two handed grip on the front of Steve's shirt, ignoring the singer's hands on his wrists. "Were we supposed to pretend we weren't here? Go out the window and leave you to get killed in the hallway, not knowing what was in the parking lot? We're gonna get something straight, here. This is _us_, not you babysitting. I'm not about to stand around while all this goes down around me. There's nobody gonna play martyr around here, from now on. We're sticking together, and if it gets bad, it gets bad on all of us. I'm not your brother. You can't save me."

Steve stared at him with open astonishment, his hair in his eyes. He glanced sideways at Neal, seeing the same thing in his face that he saw in Jon's.

"You know more about it than we do at the moment," Jon said, "but we'll catch up. From now on it's a three way decision making process. You got it?"

Steve fell to staring at him again, looking mildly lost, and Jon pulled him away from the wall enough to embrace him. After another startled moment, Steve returned it. Jon held him almost roughly for a long moment, willing him to calm down. When they parted, Jon said, "Where to now? We've got 'em on us, don't we?"

Steve nodded. "Yeah, but that's where we were headed anyway. It's gonna get bad, from here. But it'll have to, if we're gonna get them off you."

Jon nodded. "At least we've got more than one gun, now."

Steve glanced at Neal again with something bordering on apology--or as close as he'd get to it. Then he walked over and picked up the discarded plunger.

"I'm trapped with the fucking Mario Brothers," he said.

* * *

When night fell again, the hush on things only amplified the circumstances.

They'd arrived in Kansas City and gone immediately to the safehouse, greeting the additional agent there by making him go through a security check. After what had happened with Switek, no one trusted anyone.

Dina laid awake, feigning sleep. Raff and agent Anderson were trading shifts, and the female agent was asleep in the other room.

Her mind drifted to Ross' letter again, something she had taken time to memorize. The agents had been all over it first, of course, and hadn't found anything to censor. It had been touching, she had appreciated it despite the circumstances. Her world had fallen in, and she couldn't concentrate on anything but that note, and didn't know why. She had every reason to go raving insane after the last ten days, and every reason not to, because she had Sarah. Mourning Neal didn't seem to fit.

_God, he would be so pissed off,_ she thought. _He can't be gone. He can't. He's too obnoxious to die._ She struggled to hold back tears again, turning over in bed and refocusing her thoughts on the letter. _And poor Liz. How I wish I could talk to Liz._ It had been like Ross in many ways. She hadn't known him as long as anyone else in her new 'family' had, but she knew enough that it hadn't been entirely _like_ him either. He must have been as devastated by the news as she was. It had seemed peculiar to her as a result, that was all. They were all under so much stress, and now the grief of this...

_I hope the feds don't censor any of it._ Why would they have? It was a note of condolence. Why would Ross say such a thing?

_I'm reading too much into this,_ she thought. _I'm tired and hurt, and I'm grasping at straws because straws and Sarah are all I have left, now._

But she couldn't leave it alone. She tossed restlessly in the bed again. _Steve, Smitty and I have decided Journey will not go on without them._

Then they'd called Steve. Who usually took days to find. But then again, there'd been something in the paper about the funerals. She'd made a point about seeing Neal's body, and they'd said no. Because of the 'condition' of it. Closed caskets. And it didn't matter, because she wouldn't be going. They were hoping someone--maybe someone who'd been at least partially responsible for all of this--would show up to make sure Jon and Neal were dead.

_Just when we were going to tour again._

Dina sat up in bed. That had been up in the air. Neal had been pissed as hell about it. It had begun to look like there wasn't going to be a tour, and Neal was so impatient about the whole thing. Why had Ross made a point about mentioning the tour?

_Grasping,_ the voice in her head whispered again. No. Not grasping at all. She leaned over and turned the bedside light on, then waited for her eyes to adjust. She needed to look at that letter again, maybe see it for what it was this time. Someone was trying to tell her something. She'd left it downstairs, no longer crisp from the hands it had been delivered in, but a crumpled, tear-stained thing she'd wanted to burn the first time she'd read it. Because Ross acknowledging their deaths had made it real to her...

She swung her legs out of the bed, tiptoeing past Sarah's crib and out of the room. Somewhere below, she heard a cell phone ring softly and didn't think anything of it. They were all checking in with each other so often that it bordered on the ridiculous. She made her way down the stairs and back to the dining room, searching the dimness of the table in its center for the letter. Her fingers brushed it, and as they did, she heard Raff's voice in the kitchen. The agent was out of her sight because of the kitchen's shutter-like half doors. She clutched the letter silently and listened, not sure why she was doing so. She sure as hell didn't want to hear anything else.

"...was in the office last week," the agent said, almost too soft for her to hear. "And he called Corey while we were on route. She tried to pass it off, but I think we all know what he's been up to. Sooner or later, he's going to have to be handled. Now is probably the time to do it."

There was a pause, then the agent continued. "Sure. He'll wait for that, though. We'll let him move them again, then send a clean up crew."

Dina caught her breath, moved closer to the wall. Even if she hadn't grown up in an Italian family, she'd have known what 'clean up crew' meant. Let who, move who?

"Fine. Just keep low. This is too high profile as it is. Worse comes to worse, I got everything we need here. He's not so far gone that he'll let their families go. Or the love of his life."

Dina heard the soft beep of the cell phone being powered down, and snuck back along the retaining wall. She leapt for the stairs, never making a sound as she took the stairs three at a time. Neal had always cursed her ability to sneak up on him unheard, and she was glad for it now.

_He would be too,_ she thought.

But what the hell had she really heard? Had she grown so paranoid, that she heard a conspiracy in the conversations of a federal agent? Those were bound to sound odd no matter what. But her instincts told her otherwise.

Heart pounding, she left the door the way it had been when she'd originally come to bed, turned the light off, and got back under the covers, taking the note with her. She turned away from the door and tried to relax.

Raff came out of the kitchen, tucking the phone away with a sigh, glancing around again. He knew the place was secure. But he couldn't keep himself from double checking. Things were already further out of hand than he'd thought they would get, so he was justified in being careful. He moved through the dining room, eyes glancing over everything in the ambient light from the streetlights outside. The place was relatively Spartan, but not enough so to be obvious. Table and chairs, simple living room set, hutch with a retired china pattern facing outward.

Something clicked, though, and he glanced again. There was a vase in the center of the table, with a silk arrangement. Placemats. A pen he'd left there earlier. But hadn't Dina left Valory's note on the table? She'd made a gesture out of it, not wanting to believe Schon was gone. Small detail.

But it was the details that got you killed.

Dina heard the rustle of footsteps on carpeting and willed herself not to tense. She heard the agent check on her, then wander further down the hall. Probably checking on Anderson.

Corey.

After a moment, she heard Raff pass by again, then heard him go down the stairs. She waited maybe ten minutes after that before rising again. She peeked out in the hallway. If she was seen, she would just be on her way to the bathroom. It was clear, so she turned the bedside light on again and pulled the note out. She read it again quickly, then paused. Maybe she didn't want to _read_ it. She let her eyes drift over the words, wandering randomly, ignoring the style of handwriting, ignoring punctuation. After a moment of that, she began to question her own sanity. But she kept trying. Or not trying, depending on how she decided to look at it.

_I hope the feds...don't censor...know the two...what's happened._ She narrowed her focus again. There was something bothering the hell out of her subconscious. She'd passed so many notes in Junior High that weren't supposed to mean anything....

She read down the left side of the letter, like she's had to in class so many times.

_I...don't...know...what's...going...on..._

She had to consciously keep from gasping aloud. _Ross, you nut!_

_They...are...a...live...call...me._

A barely tolerable mix of hope and terror warred for her attention as she tucked the letter away and turned the light off again. It was time she tossed her hat into the ring.

* * *

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