"Not unless it was really necessary, huh?" Jon said. "Not supposed to figure out how to do that ourselves, right? Who was she, exactly?"
"One of our more clever...creations," the namer said, looking at Steve again.
Playthings, Neal thought, looking at Jon and knowing he was thinking the same thing. The Lady, us, everything. "So now what?" he said aloud.
"I can untangle you," the namer said. "I must. It would be easier to do so by removing the Er Rai, but I can leave him...intact. And again, he won't remember any of this. It was Siarion that began taking his memory after you first spoke with her and left Athyri. We had you believe otherwise because it was easier and required less explanation."
It's getting off on telling us what little it is telling us, Neal thought.
"You've all seen too much," the namer continued, glancing at Neal. "But the knowledge is negligible if you remain separated from him. You'll only be warned of this once."
"I won't remember anything?" Steve said.
"So he'll remember the things that happened to him here, like making the album, but nothing from over there," Jon said. "And then we just walk away from him, without explanation?"
"The explanation is yours to decide upon," Siarion said.
"Creative differences," Neal snapped.
Steve gave no warning of his intentions the way an actual child would have. He was observing the discussion that was deciding his fate one moment, then bolting for the open back door the next.
"Steve," Jon called, alarmed, making no move this time to chase him. The smaller figure vaulted off the deck into the dark.
The namer smiled, staring at Jon, and Neal said, "Don't you dare."
The namer's eyes turned to Neal, the expression on it's borrowed face telling them it wasn't accustomed to being challenged.
"You may walk the Evenwhen one final time, if you wish," the namer said.
Neal narrowed his eyes. "Yeah, and help you pin him down? I don't think so."
"If you don't," the namer said deliberately, mimicking Neal's tone, "I will."
The way the words were spoken let them know the thing in the kitchen would do a hell of a lot more than just catch the singer. Neal dropped all pretense at the thought, and was gone that quickly.
Jon got the namer's attention again and said, "We might not really know what we're capable of. But we'll do all the damage we can, if you're messing with us."
The namer smiled again. "I'm aware of your collective capabilities, Jay. That's why I'm here."
* * *
Steve made it down the slope and almost to the road, his shoes and pantlegs soaked with dew. The night felt huge, everything large and formidable but him. It was pointless to run, and he knew it, but he hadn't been able to stand there any longer. The thing in the kitchen had his face, and voracious intentions in it's eyes, and just standing there waiting for the other shoe to drop had driven him out...even though he knew something could easily be waiting for him out there in the dark.
When he reached the bottom of the slope and could see the road, he slowed, realizing he wasn't being pursued. They knew he had nowhere to go, and that made it worse.
Fuck it. It was fine with him, if he didn't remember anything. He didn't want any of it. But having the decision made for him wasn't fine.
Hands caught him from behind and lifted him into the air, and he struggled wildly with a shout.
"Hey, hey," Neal said, turning him. "Take it easy, it's only me."
Breathing hard but no longer struggling, Steve regarded Neal with solemn defeat, bracing his hands against the latter's chest. Neal held him up to eye level and tucked him in against him, the way he would have hauled one of his own children around.
"That bad, huh?" he said, and Steve dropped his eyes. Neal turned away from the house, putting a little more distance between it and them, walking further out into the night.
"You came to get me," Steve said. There was a strange mix of relief and confusion underneath the accusation.
"No one's turning you over to that thing," Neal said. "No one."
"It's thinking of killing me," Steve said, hushed. "Killing us."
"You left Jon with it!"
"Siarion is right there. I don't exactly trust her, but I know enough to know that nothing'll happen. Jon can take pretty good care of himself. I'm not out here just to get you."
Steve looked at him, able to see him better in the streetlights from the road. "You wanna be rid of me, though."
Neal paused, then swung Steve abruptly to the ground, dropping him on his feet and leaning over to shake him. "I don't ever wanna be 'rid' of you," he said. "We need things back the way they were."
"Okay," Steve said. "Okay, I know." He shoved his hair out of his face, lacing his fingers behind his head.
Neal picked him up again and resumed walking toward the road.
"If we're not going back, then what're you out here for?" Steve said.
"It was me or the namer," Neal said. He felt Steve tense and grip his shirt.
"Why'd you use the Evenwhen?"
Neal shrugged. "Because you run like hell, and you tend to go straight into the road?"
Steve snorted. "No shit."
"I'm out here because we're being told how things'll be. Again. Someone else is making our choices for us. I say it's your decision. You can stay a kid, or keep your memory, or go back to sleep. You decide, this time, what happens to you."
"The namer said--"
"Fuck the namers," Neal said. "I can still walk between. We can still make a lot of noise. If they wanna argue with us, we'll argue. I think I can keep 'em pretty busy."
Steve knew then it would be all right. Neal was talking like himself again. "You'd do that? For me."
Neal nodded. "Yeah. So you decide."
Steve let the possibilities occur to him for a moment. He knew he couldn't ask anyone to put up the kind of fight Neal was suggesting. The fact that Neal had suggested it at all was enough.
Neal stopped to look at him.
"Call it, Perry."
Steve stared back into his eyes, wondering if they'd ever be able to forgive each other for what was to come. He had so much to say, but not a word of it was important anymore.
"I just want us back the way we were," Steve whispered, and he meant it, but he wasn't sure how.
Neal nodded. "Okay." He set Steve down, and they began walking back toward the house. They'd taken several steps before Neal felt an internal click similar to the one that accompanied an excursion into the Evenwhen. But this time, it was a separation, and something began stripping away behind his eyes. Steve's form shifted, a replay of the age regression he had undergone every time the light had turned over, but this time in reverse. He became a gathering of light, reforming in moments back to his original form, right down to what he'd been wearing before being pulled away into the desert by Siarion. When the light faded, Steve lay in the grass gasping for air and Jon was turning Neal over.
Jon had come off the deck the moment he'd seen what was happening to Neal and Steve. He'd seen the light begin to gather around them just before they'd fallen...
Satisfied that they were both alive, Jon looked up to find the namer standing over them.
"When the light here turns over again, you won't remember any of this," the namer said to Steve. "The only reason any of you would see us again would be in response to a disregard for the conditions we've set for you. Do you understand?"
Steve nodded, unable to speak yet.
The namer smiled down on them before it vanished.
Jon helped Neal sit up, watching him put his head in his hands.
Siarion was at Jon's shoulder. "I apologize," she said.
"For what, exactly?" Neal said.
"Everything. Nothing. It was all beyond your control, yet you prevailed."
"That's still up for debate," Jon said, staring at Steve. "But it could have been worse. We still need to thank you for keeping things under control while we were gone."
She nodded. "It was the least we could do. We owe you a world, after all."
"What the hell was it all about?" Neal said without raising his head.
Siarion straightened. "Everything and nothing," she said again.
She looked at Steve, who had regained his feet and was looking at his own hands, again.
"Is the Er Rai going to smart mouth me one final time?" she said.
Steve shrugged, unable to speak, the mouthiness and everything else beaten out of him. He glanced at Jon, who dropped his eyes.
"I shall miss it."
When Steve glanced up, she was gone.
He helped Jon get Neal back on his feet, and they stood in the semi dark and stared at each other.
"It isn't over," Jon said.
Nobody had the strength to comment on it further.
They walked back to the silent house, making it to the living room and sitting to stare at each other again. Neal pressed his fingers to his temples, amazed that his nose--or anything else--wasn't bleeding, the way his head felt. He was torn between relief and the feeling that something was missing...
"What...do you want us to do?" he said to Steve, who was sprawled in the nearest chair.
Steve considered the question for a long, listless moment. "Something that'll be easy to back up."
"Something that won't piss you off."
Steve shook his head. "Kick me out of the damn band."
"Really?" Steve said. "We've been at each other for years, everybody knows I'm impossible. I won't remember this but I'll go on being impossible, won't I? Just because the album's done doesn't mean I can't manage to keep holding things up in my own endearing way. I would have been a different guy, if we'd gone on and I stayed like this. You'll all be different. You're leaving me behind."
"I don't want to kill it," Jon said from the hearth, his hands clasped between his knees. "Losing you might kill it."
"Not losing me will kill me," Steve said. He looked around suddenly, leaning forward and gauging the silence. "Where're the dogs?"
"In a kennel," Jon said. "Why?"
"You have to replace that wall by the stairs," was all the answer Jon got. "That Keeper left itself all over it. If you guys listen, you'll hear it." He fell silent again, eyes blank, contemplating something they understood too well.
"Marv, and the police, will insist you were gone for two weeks," Jon said. "Your house..."
"Just like last time, something'll be there that explains it all," Steve said with disinterest. "I'll have some half-assed story about how I decided to run off to do something, and was too goddamn irresponsible to bother telling anybody. Some overzealous fan, or junkie, vandalized the house."
Jon sighed. "Don't try and make it sound reasonable."
"It isn't like you," Neal said. "Then what? We wake up one morning and decide we can't tour with you?"
Steve shrugged without looking at him. "We woke up one day and decided Ross and Smitty weren't...what was it I said? 'Moving in the kind of direction' we were? What the hell was that? Who cares? We'll just grow apart. If you're lucky, I'll throw some kind of fit and break us up before you have to make anything obvious. Then it'll be my fault, you guys won't have any choice, and it won't matter." He paused. "I have to go home."
"Not yet," Jon said. "To what? A house full of..."
"You can't, anyway," Neal said. "You'll wake up, not remembering anything, and freak out because the house is a shambles."
"There'll be some memory of coming home from somewhere tonight and freaking out because it's a mess," Steve said. "I'll go home, and wait for it to get light. Do you guys not realize how easy I'm getting off? I won't remember all this. Not the wraiths, or the Outlands, or the Evenwhen, being killed something like five times. I'll wake up in the morning and still have the same dumbass everyday problems that regular people do, and I'll come wandering out here bitching about something unimportant. And you guys will not be able to deal with it. Are you guys gonna sleep tonight? How long are you gonna sleep with the lights on? How much are you gonna wish your wives and kids didn't remember any of this?"
Once, it would have been a rant in a voice somewhere just shy of shouting. But all he had left was quiet defeat.
Before he could stop it, before he realized it was there, Neal said, "I want to know what happened."
Steve raised his eyes slowly. There was something long past warning in his face, an unblinking and nearly predatory apprisal.
I never thought of you as a predator. Neal remembered the words and still couldn't decide if he regretted them or not.
"No," the singer said flatly.
"Before you forget this time, I do. The way you looked at me, I do."
"Forgetting is for a reason, Neal," Steve said just as flatly, with a resolve Neal wasn't used to hearing. Steve had yet to blink, and suddenly Neal wanted that gaze off him. For once the singer was completely still, no drumming of fingers or feet, devoid of habitual fidgeting. Devoid of many things. "You knowing any of it isn't gonna help anybody. Least of all you."
Jon watched with tense concern, careful to avoid adding anything until he had to.
"And you would know what the hell helps me," Neal snapped. He didn't even know why he was pressing the issue. It might have been just to begin yet another argument with Steve, to see what he would do. It might have been desperate curiosity. But most likely, he decided, it was to find out what had passed between them that had terrified someone--so hell bent in everything else--into screaming at the sight of him.
Steve rose in a single, rough motion, leaving the room, and Neal started to rise.
"No," Jon said, stepping in, feeling another knot of anxiety tighten somewhere that it would take awhile to loosen later.
Neal threw his arms wide in exasperation. "What the hell could I have done?"
"You didn't do anything," Jon said firmly. "He doesn't blame you. But he won't get past it. By morning it won't matter."
"Then what difference does it make?" Neal said.
"That's what I'm trying to get you to see. It doesn't, and you're better off."
Neal dropped his voice. "What, a vampire? Did I have fangs, the whole nine yards? What's the big deal?"
"Vampires come in levels, like a lot of things," Jon said, wanting to say like Destroyers do but changing his mind. "It took a lot more than just his memories."
"So somebody who's seen forever with their eyes open, and nearly Become, comes undone because somebody..." Neal paused as something began to occur.
"Something," Jon corrected, hating the dawning knowledge in Neal's face.
Neal considered the implication in silence, his expression harboring less impatience and more denial.
"If he didn't want me in the places I had to intrude in to help him, before, what do you suppose he thinks of having something trample over things he hadn't even seen, or acknowledged yet?" Jon said. "It wasn't you. But you were there."
Neal lowered his hands, looking away, eyes blank.
"He could still hear you, what was left," Jon continued unwillingly. "You needed him, in a way, and he let you have him, in the end."
Neal nodded, careful not to look up. "It hurt him," he said under his breath.
Jon shook his head unseen. "No. It wasn't as simple as that. The few seconds I spent trying to find you behind it were almost enough to convince me I should give myself to it."
The words sank in, and Neal looked up for confirmation, but Jon shook his head. "By morning, he'll be the old Steve again. It needs to be that way. The less either of you know, the better."
And they left it at that.
* * *
Jon stood in the middle of Steve's kitchen, surveying the damage yet again. The only sources of light were a flashlight they'd brought in and a small lamp Steve had placed on a table by the kitchen doorway. It would take a complete overhaul to restore electricity to the kitchen.
"It's a good thing we kicked your door in," Jon said. "It sort of adds to the breaking in theory."
Jon knew he should have gone home long before then, but he'd been unable to let Steve go home alone. Not after the namer, or what had happened in the road. He had no idea what he thought he'd be able to do about it, but that wasn't the point. He'd found himself following Steve from room to room and helping where he could, unable to break the connection.
Steve nodded absently, picking up the remnants of a candle. Then he turned and looked at Jonathan without comment, simply taking him in as if committing him to memory.
"I don't know what to do," Jon said.
"It'll only be dark for about another hour and a half," Steve said. "Go home, Inverse."
Jon shook his head.
"It'll be all right, Jonathan."
Jon continued shaking his head. "They're not through with us."
"Not a hell of a lot we can do about it. Don't worry about what you can't control."
Jon made a short, humorless sound. "That's rich, coming from you. What are you gonna do?"
"Sit in front of this same window and wait for the light to hit me, like I did a couple of weeks ago. After that, what happens, happens. There's nothing you can do, you can't sit here and try to protect me just in case the namers change their minds. I'll see you tomorrow."
"It won't be you," Jon said.
Steve grinned, not quite genuine but better than the somber, battered expression he'd unwittingly been wearing. "Of all the versions of me you've been running around with lately, which one was me, Jon? Which one was the real me?"
Jon conceded the point, looking at the play of light on the ceiling. The flashlight reflected eerily along the far wall, making a museum display of the chair still caught in the plaster. Someone, probably Marv, had taped up the bedroom window and repaired the door to keep the weather--and other things--out, but everything else had been left as it was.
Steve looped an arm around Jon's neck suddenly, startling him with the uncharacteristic demonstration, embracing him.
"Leave it all alone," Steve said. "Go back to your life. Walk out of here and don't look back." Then he shoved him gently away.
* * *
It ended much the way it began.
Jon had, of course, stopped believing that anything ever ended.
When the phone on his nightstand rang, he fumbled for it blearily, realizing it was daylight but that it hadn't been for long. Liz was up with Madison--he could hear them giggling downstairs. They were letting him sleep, considering the kind of week he'd been having. Weeks. Whatever...
"Jon," Steve said, "you are not going to fucking believe this."
Jon sat bolt upright, panicking for just an instant as it all flooded back to him. "Are you all right? What's going on?" It's too light for anything to be attacking him was what ran through his mind.
"Someone, or something, was all over my goddamn house while I was gone! Jesus, they tore up the fucking walls!"
Jon breathed an inaudible sigh, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "Did you call the police?"
"Shit, yes. You should see the--"
"Did they ask you where you've been?"
Steve paused. "What the hell was that all about, anyway? I wasn't gone that--"
"Long enough, without telling us where you'd gone, for Marv to file a missing person's report. You scared the hell out of us, Stephen."
"Goddamn it, I went fishing on Shaver Lake! Where the hell do you guys think I go? I know I told somebody..."
"You'd better call Marv, before the police do. You're a goddamn nutcase, you know it? We were thinking you were floating somewhere or had fallen off something like you usually do, and the damn art hasn't been approved yet. Next time, you go down the whole list and tell everybody where you're going, or I'll kill you myself!"
"Never mind, so long as you're fine. Do you need help cleaning up?"
"I'm on my way over." Jon hung up on him, replacing the receiver and sitting for a moment, gathering his thoughts. It's the way it has to be.
Liz swung around the doorway, eyeing him. "He called," she said.
"He doesn't remember," she said.
Jon nodded again, running his hands through his hair. "This is the end of it. When the album's completely done..."
"Don't worry over that part yet," she said. "You've done all you can, Jon."
"What the hell's wrong with you? You look like something ran you over."
Steve was back to his old, irreverent self.
Jon glared at him. "You scared the life out of us. It would have been good to have known where you were."
"Jesus, how many times do I have to apologize for it? I don't know what got into me." He frowned at the partially shattered door frame, gesturing Jon in.
Behind them, there was a whirring followed by a scraping of claws when a raven landed on the porch railing. Jon spun around to look at it, nearly expecting it to land on his shoulder. The sight of it disturbed him, but not as much as the way the bird regarded him from so close, not as much as the gleam in Steve's eyes when he turned back to see how he was reacting.
"It's been around all morning," Steve said, eyes still on the bird.
Jon walked abruptly through the house, trying to appear surprised by the damage while Steve narrated it. The truth was, it didn't seem as bad the third time; but he'd seen enough carnage to last him a lifetime. That final time through the house, only the chair bothered him. Steve was confounded by it, and wondered aloud what it took to do something like that. "Junkies," he said, denouncing it with repugnance. "You can do anything, I guess, when you're that high."
"What'd you do to your hair?"
Steve turned to him again, a fleeting moment of confusion apparent on his face. "Yeah, that." He ran his hands through his hair reflexively, and it still fell in his eyes. "Got tired of it, I guess."
"So you cut it yourself, in a fit of rage? You are a goddamn nutcase." That saved my daughter, right in front of me, from something I never would have heard in time, he added silently. "You can do anything, I guess, when you're that high."
Steve sighed. "You here to help me, or to ride my ass?"
"I'm here," Jon said.
* * *
Trial By Fire was released October 22nd, 1996. A day later, Steve disappeared again, this time making sure everyone knew where he was going, to Hawaii on vacation. The remaining members of Journey convened without fanfare at Jon's house to discuss the swift removal of their lead singer before anything else took notice of them as a whole. Neal had been goading him, and everyone else, every chance he got, resulting in occasional bouts of fireworks that had caused Kevin Shirley to resolve never to work with them again. The demise of the band in it's current incarnation seemed inevitable already, so keeping their silence and distance was neither sudden or anticipated. So long as they kept quiet and never gave a direct answer, the whole thing would collapse on itself.
But that never came to pass.
Steve--or someone--made it much easier than what they'd planned.
Two days later, while hiking, Steve injured a hip, a problem that became chronic over the months that followed. The interviews they gave were vague. Plans for a tour were made, then scrapped. They made a video, came away with a number one hit, and then let the album die behind them waiting for Steve to decide what should be done. They simply stood by and watched. Things dwindled to a point where none of them were speaking to him any longer.
Jon found himself constantly reminded that they'd been maneuvered to someone else's specifications. Knowing what the band was capable of, what they were capable of, made it seem impossible to leave it alone, even if it meant replacing Steve. So long as it didn't bring anything else out of the dark...
It wasn't until June of 1998, when they were scheduled to go back on stage as a band for the first time in years, and without Steve, that someone else addressed his dissatisfaction.
He awoke in an unfamiliar hotel room somewhere in Japan, lying in the darkness for a long moment until he realized where he was. Then he sat bolt upright when a figure sitting at the edge of the bed shifted.
"Who's there?" he demanded, managing to keep the catch he felt in his chest out of his voice. Before he could finish, the lamp on the nightstand clicked on without anyone having touched it.
Steve sat on the edge of the bed, but this time Jon knew right away it wasn't Steve. His heart leapt into his throat at the sight regardless. The willful intrusion enraged him, and when the shock wore off, he made it plain.
"Can't you just leave us alone?" he snapped.
"Which of us, exactly?" the namer said politely. It wasn't the smug, threatening presence that they'd last seen. This was the one who'd made the original deal with Jon.
Jon shook his head, rubbing his eyes and hoping against hope the damn thing would be gone when he opened them again. "We've done what you wanted us to. Wasn't it enough? You still have to check up on us in person, spying through the Evenwhen isn't enough?"
The expression on the namer's face was a reflective consideration. "You're the only one having difficulty with this. I'm not here because I'm infatuated with prying into your diminutive, Otherworldly affairs."
"But here we are again, and I'm still asking you why you give a damn. Am I making that much noise on my own, that you have to come ask me what my problem is? What do any of you care?"
The namer feigned injury. "You weren't playthings to us. We didn't mean any harm."
"But you've been watching him, haven't you," Jon said, knowing the namer would realize he was referring to Steve. "The bird on the railing. Did one of you, meaning no harm, happen to shove him down that incline?"
"We could take your memory as well, if it would make it easier," the namer said, and Jon felt a cold trickle of apprehension wind around him. He got out of bed and put more distance between himself and the namer, knowing it did no good. Doors and walls meant nothing to something that could ignore time and travel between worlds.
"Are you threatening me?" he said softly.
The namer rose with a genuine alarm on it's face, Steve's face. "No. No. We only thought to help...some of us did. I didn't lie. Your grieving still troubles us."
"We've let you manipulate us too much already," Jon said. "Whether the rest of us want to remember or not, you can't meddle with us anymore. If anything else happens, we'd be back to square one, and you know it. We don't have any guarantee that nothing else will hear us just because Steve isn't with us. No more 'helping'. All we wanted, like I said before, is to be left alone with our Otherworldly affairs. The fact that I'm getting your attention troubles me. God only knows what else might come out of the woodwork."
The namer folded it's arms the way Steve would have. "You want us to leave you alone," it said with audible disappointment, the voice close but lacking.
Jon came closer again, making sure the namer saw and understood him. "Yes," he said emphatically. "All of us."
The namer lowered it's head slightly to look up at Jon with furtive import. "Forever?" the voice intimated.
Having more than a passing understanding of what it meant, Jon looked toward the door the namer didn't need. Then he stared back at it, speaking deliberately.
* * *