Morning brought no word on Augeri and cast no further light on what was happening. Jon was glad the long restless night he'd spent worrying over it was gone, and especially relieved that nothing had come to visit him during it. He and Neal had agreed to meet first thing that morning to brainstorm, and to figure out how to include Deen in the whole thing. They would at least have to let him know Aug was missing. Mostly they intended to theorize the hell out of everything and see if they could stumble on anything they'd missed. He had purposely planned the day to coincide with Liz and Dina's plans to take the kids to the beach.
Sarah, the Cain's husky/lab mix, began barking as soon as they left. Not the excited, 'Oh my God, someone's here!' bark she was famous for, but a nervous bark. Laine, their German Shepherd, wanted nothing to do with it and promptly went downstairs. So when someone knocked on the back door, Jon's first impulse was to ignore it. There would be more strangeness on the other side, or it would be news he didn't want to hear.
Curiosity won over dread, and he cautiously glanced out the window before reaching to undo the deadbolt...
The early sun framed the figure by the door, striking crimson highlights out of his dark hair, gilding him in light and making him seem a figment. His head was tilted back to examine the sky above, hazel eyes regarding something curiously, arms folded across his chest. Stephen.
Don't open the door.
The thought was ludicrous and shattered his initial joy. Why not? Hadn't they been looking for him? Wasn't it a relief that what they'd assumed wasn't true, that he hadn't been taken because of something they'd done? Something was keeping Jon's hand from snapping the deadbolt back. But then the door was open and he was saying, "Goddamnit, do you have to keep disappearing? We've been looking all over for you."
Steve looked mildly surprised at the outburst as his eyes lowered from the sky, but it disappeared quickly. "What for?"
The question was fair. Contact had ceased entirely once the legal details had been hammered out and the official announcement of Steve's replacement had been made public in May.
"Something's...come up, and we wanted to make sure you were all right."
"Well, you made enough noise about it that I came to tell you I'm fine. Christ, was there anybody you didn't call?"
"Was with me. We went to visit some of his family."
Strike one, Jon thought. Then he realized it didn't matter if Steve was lying or not. It was none of his business.
"I don't need to hang around where people can find me and tell me what they think of all this, do I?" Steve added.
Jon nodded, but he was disconcerted and couldn't place where the feeling was coming from. He'd expected they would be uneasy with each other, but he was unaccustomed to the tone. Steve had changed. Again. Maybe they all had.
Jon stepped away from the door, gesturing Steve in, and the singer complied.
Without a limp.
Sarah would not stop barking.
Jon ordered her downstairs, leaving the back door open and turning to face Steve, finding himself being regarded with something he could only classify as clinical interest.
"You know...about Aug?" Jon said, keeping a slight distance and not bothering to question himself about it.
Steve nodded. "It's not out on the wire or anything yet, but everybody knows. You're not thinking what I am, are you?"
They hadn't called the police, or discussed Aug's 'disappearance' with management, or family, or anyone. Whatever he was talking to had just put itself under. But he wanted so badly to believe that he was just paranoid, that the lack of sleep was helping him see trouble where none existed. He would be the first to admit to jumping the gun. He'd been strung so tightly by the last two days that he was beginning to question his own judgment.
Jon realized Steve was utterly still as the singer regarded him with an almost smug calm. Completely still and not favoring his left hip, and there was nothing in his eyes to tell Jon it might be because of painkillers. As he watched, Steve began fidgeting with his car keys, twirling them among his fingers as if he'd heard Jon's thoughts.
"That something's happened to him," Steve finished. The slight smile that played around his mouth said the rest.
"I don't know what to think," Jon said cautiously.
Steve shrugged. "He'll turn up," he said without much interest. Then that slight smile returned, never reaching his eyes. "One way or another."
Jon felt cold, and he wanted whatever it was he was talking to out of his house as quickly as possible, but without letting on. "We were worried about you," he said.
Steve folded his arms across his chest again. "Better than I've ever been," he murmured. "I was in the area, and figured it was easier to drop in and let you know I was back. So you can quit worrying. If there's anything I can do to help you find your singer..."
It was the way he said 'singer' that raised the hair on the back of Jon's neck and cleared away the last of his doubts. The malicious glee running beneath the surface was thinly veiled and so unlike Steve that Jon knew it wasn't an accusatory bitterness for anything that had happened. Steve had not changed. Steve was not Steve. Grief came with the realization, and a sinking feeling that there wasn't much hope for finding either Steve.
"Thanks," Jon forced himself to say, pretending he hadn't seen the satisfaction in Steve's face. "Thanks for letting us know you're back. We'll let you know when we find Aug."
Steve nodded. "Good." He headed for the open door, pausing at the threshold to glance over his shoulder at Jon. "How's Neal?"
Jon stared at the man in the doorway, his thoughts a jumble of confusion and dread. There was nothing in his eyes or voice, but there was the impression of hysterical laughter behind the question nonetheless. "He's fine."
"Good. Take care, Jonathan."
Then the morning was empty again, and Jonathan began shaking, relieved that, whatever it had been, it was gone.
* * *
"It was a namer," Jon said, and the urge to scream came with it. Not this, not all this again!
Neal stared at him for a beat, waiting for him to come uncorked, knowing what it took to push him to it. He had arrived just after Steve had left. "What," he prompted gently.
"The bird. The goddamn bird, on his porch, the day after we came home the second time. Another raven. You should have seen the two of them look at each other. I was dumb enough to think, when that namer came to check up on me, that just because I told it to leave us alone, it would. No one was ever clear about whether Tuirnarin had a namer's help to do what she did."
"Jon," Neal interrupted, "why the hell would a namer need her for anything? They could do it themselves."
"Not without all the other namers knowing," Jon insisted, feeling as crazy as he knew the words sounded. "They could have been using her. Something else we don't know about was probably going on. Yeah, we were sacrificed to something. We went on, with another singer who looks a little and sounds a little like the Steve we started out with, right down to his goddamn name, and now they both just happen to be missing. Do you believe it's a coincidence? How long before something else wanders in here?"
"You have to ask yourself what the namers would want with us," Neal said. "Doing this to us now, if it's just a loose screw somewhere, won't alert the other namers?"
"If I remember right, they stopped paying attention long enough before to let her pause the goddamned Evenwhen, whether she had help or not.."
"What d'you suggest we do?" Neal said. "We're not too well equipped to deal with much, in three dimensions. Quit the rationalizing and tell me what you're really thinking."
"We got someone's attention," Jon said. "How many singers are we gonna go through? The original hasn't gone running off on his own to do anything, not with a hip that needs to be replaced."
Neal looked away, and Jon added, "Maybe we should really try getting someone's attention."
Neal gave him an incredulous stare. "Jon," he said.
"I would know if it was really Steve, wouldn't I? I thought I would. I remember that namer didn't quite have him down. It came close, but there were a lot of loose ends. The way he spoke, the way he gestured with his hands, right down to that 'fuck you' look he thinks he's cornered the market on. But it wasn't Steve. I don't know what I was talking to."
"But that was often true with Steve," Neal said. "He's been known to just sort of..." He paused to gesture vaguely, searching for the right term. "Drift away at times, right? Disappear while you were looking right at him. He might not remember what happened, but it might have left an imprint on him anyway. You get right down to it, no one's ever really talked to Steve."
Jon was shaking his head, but it was a sad motion.
"You don't really think it was a namer, do you?" Neal said.
"I don't want it to've been a namer," Jon murmured. "I want it to be Steve acting weird. But if it wasn't a namer, I wanna know what the hell's going on. I wanna know where Aug is. Jesus, Neal, Steve was..."
Neal waited, as he'd often learned to do with Jon, knowing that whatever was coming had merit and didn't deserve the iniquity of being rushed or discarded.
"Threatening," Jon said finally with a shrug.
"He can be pretty dramatic when he's up to something," Neal said, but Jon shook his head again.
"Dramatic," Jon echoed, "but there was always something carefree underneath, even at his worst. Something blameless, that made everyone forgive him for at least awhile. Whatever this was, it was dark underneath."
Neal sat and considered the words in silence for a long moment, waiting to see if anything else would follow. But Jon had already said whatever he could. Despite getting it off his chest, the keyboardist obviously felt no better.
Jon paced the length of the kitchen a few times, idly, the silence between them comfortable despite what had filled it previously.
Finally, Neal said, "I don't suppose your judgment would be colored by the fact of what might happen, to all of us, just because he came to talk to you."
"No," Jon said, too quickly, and Neal nodded.
"No. It wasn't like that. I wasn't looking at him in light of what happened to us, or what could happen. It just wasn't him. Plus, someone's already been screwing with us again. This isn't our ball."
Neal knew what was coming, and wasn't sure if he liked it. "Then I don't suppose you're hoping I'll have a look at him."
Jon turned his head slowly, eyebrows raised, and Neal rolled his eyes. "Jon," he sighed.
"Just go look at him, maybe argue with him, get him to tell you to go screw yourself. Just like old times. Make sure it's him."
Neal nodded. "Yeah, that's how I'd know, all right. So if this is a namer, and we're obviously gathering to stare at it, this isn't gonna cause a problem? I don't doubt you. You make a lot more sense than most people. But we've been through a lot of shit, and after all that happened I'm not surprised Steve gave you the creeps. Hell, he gave me the creeps sometimes." He paused. "But with Aug missing, and that house empty...there's something going on. I'll go look at him. Question is, if I don't like how he behaves either, what are we gonna do?"
Jon was looking at the floor, feeling more foolish by the minute. "I hadn't gotten that far."
Neal shrugged. "We could shake the truth out of the imposter, right? Scare the namer into telling us what's going on. Maybe pound a stake through its heart."
"Or find out where Steve and Aug really are. What point was it trying to make by coming over here to bait me?" Jon said, pacing again. "Why waste the time? It could have come right out and told me what it wanted."
"Unless it wanted to see if it could get past you," Neal thought aloud, and Jon paused. "We go out there--I go out there--and its gonna know it didn't pass. If we leave it alone awhile, it might get cocky enough to go about its business and maybe show us what its up to."
Jon shrugged. "Which leaves us where we are."
"Ah, you're not gonna leave this alone," Neal sighed, stretching his legs out in front of himself. "I know you."
"Really?" Jon said. "Well enough to be sure I'm not something trying to pass for Jon?" Jonathan turned slowly, the half smile he was wearing cryptic and failing to reach his eyes.
Neal shot to his feet, shaking a finger at him. "Knock it off. I get the point."
Jon broke into a genuine smile. "How easy would it be, to replace all of us? They'd start with him because he has the fewest people near him."
"Okay, Sherlock. I'm in. First step is...?"
"I'll call him and tell him I'd like to talk to him."
"And if it isn't him, and it turns on you?" Neal said. "Maybe a different Jon will come back, and I'll be trying to convince people it isn't you right up until I'm committed, or it has the rest of us. Jesus, I'm not in the mood for more of this bullshit."
Jon nodded. "I'll figure it out."
Neal laughed suddenly. "We can't be having this conversation. Do you know how we sound?"
"Fucking paranoid," Jon said, and Neal laughed again. "Yeah, well, do we have a right to be, or not?"
His hands on his hips, Neal said, "I was really scared life might get boring again, but that's not gonna happen. Look, stay out of it. I'll talk to this...whatever it is, and if I don't like it we'll kidnap it and frighten it into telling us what it knows." He laughed again." The truth is, you want me to have a look at it because I almost was Steve for awhile, wasn't I?"
"You started to sound like him," Jon said. "Maybe you'll have an easier time pinpointing what's bothering me, or you can tell me I'm all wet and to stop making up these wild tales."
"I want you to make them up," Neal said. "Just so long as they're not true."
* * *
Steve's door was open, and for once Neal actually had second thoughts before he did something.
He knew something was wrong even before he got to the door. He couldn't place it; something hung over everything. It was too damn quiet. But when he ran up on the porch and looked inside to announce his arrival to Steve, what was immediately wrong became apparent.
On the floor inside the door, on every available surface, stones of varying shapes and sizes. And Steve in the middle of them, holding one up to examine it, unaware of Neal. Unaware of anything but the stone.
These people and their damned stones.
"Steve," Neal said uncertainly.
Steve turned his head, cradling the stone in against his chest and looking at Neal with a total lack of concern or interest.
"Come on in, Neal," he said, and Neal did even though he knew it wasn't Steve he was looking at. Whatever it was, it had put on a show for Jon but wasn't going to bother putting one on for him. It had him. It didn't have to pretend.
"What's...with all the stones?" Neal said, his voice shallow, knowing, knowing he'd made the wrong choice. The fact that he'd been against it from the beginning made no difference. He was trapped, but the facade had to stay up just in case there was a chance of backing out of the whole thing by staying cool. He could do that. He'd been in tight spots before, and the last thing you did was blow your cool. More often than not, that was what got you killed, not the situation itself...
It turned its eyes on him again, rapacious, enjoying Neal's discomfort and making sure he was aware of his circumstances. It continued to weigh the stone in one hand, smiling.
"Well," it said. "I thought maybe an indoor rock garden, you know? I find them...consoling. Pick one up. You'll see."
Neal shrugged. "No thanks. Listen, I just wanted to see how you were doing. I gotta go."
"I doubt that. You couldn't care less. Jon sent you over," it said, grinning openly without letting the humor reach its eyes. Neal consciously refused to bolt for the open door. "Hold one of the stones, Neal," it said. "They would like you to."
Neal stared, wondering if he could talk his way out, hoping the creature wasn't powerful enough to actually stop him if he made a run for it.
Holding the stone out toward Neal, it continued to grin. "Go on. It won't hurt."
"What did you really do with Stephen?" Neal said. "And Augeri. Are they dead? Was it necessary to take Aug? He didn't do anything."
"No one needs to do anything to find themselves in an adverse situation, Neal," it said, the grin vanishing. "Sometimes all you have to do is get out of bed in the morning. Are you going to launch into a tirade about fairness? You're beginning to sound more like Jon all the time. Don't bore me. And for the record, I'm Steve."
"You don't sound like him."
"No? Well, that's what you get for screwing around with the timelines, huh?" It stared at the stone it was holding, frowning a little. "How many times did she scatter the original? How many times did you? Everytime you touch something, you leave a little of yourself behind. And not just fingerprints. You shred a guy through the Evenwhen, well, he's around and all over for a long time."
Neal stared, shifting from one foot to the other, eyes darting toward the door.
"You won't make it," the creature said softly, shaking its head, and Neal looked it up and down again. "I am Steve. Just not yours. The namers thought it might be interesting to have another of him around, I guess. Another Destroyer."
It smiled grimly at him again, waiting to see what he would do.
Neal decided he had nothing to lose; if it was, as it claimed, at least partly Steve, he would be able to anger it into doing something stupid. "Then I guess it would be no surprise to you if I killed you."
It stared at him in amazement, then threw its head back and whooped with laughter. Steve's laugh, Steve's motions, well thought out and well executed. "You're all right, Neal," it said, and laughed again. "Good for you. Funny how that worked out, huh? You getting elected to that post by default. That's all over now, though. You won't have to do that again." And it laughed again, waving a hand at him as if to say, get the hell out of here.
"I don't believe this evil twin stuff," Neal said, looking at the door again. "We didn't trust you guys while we were over there, and sure as hell not after. Not with the bullshit you guys put us through."
It fell serious, squinting at him a little and advancing, holding the stone against its chest. "What's with this 'you guys'?"
"The namers," Neal said with sudden exasperation. "For Christ's sake, just tell me why. What is it, you don't have enough in the universe to keep yourselves occupied? You're this bored, you have to keep messing with us?"
"I'm not a namer," it said with a small, incredulous laugh, the way Steve would have done it, and Neal remembered standing in Jon's kitchen and watching a namer do a poor, stiff imitation of the singer. "I don't remember you being this dense. If I was a namer, I'd just say so. What would I have to lose? There's nothing you can do about it, so I don't have to lie to you." It came a little closer, and Neal backed away, causing it to grin wider at him. "The real question, Neal, is why not?"
"Where is Steve?" Neal said, wanting it to have been a demand but falling short.
It regarded him with obvious interest. "I don't know. Maybe he's sleeping again. Maybe they're studying him like a lab rat to see why he's so obnoxious, yet compelling enough to make people who don't like him come to see how he's doing. What do you think I'm here for? To keep you out of their hair. What does it really matter? This Steve, that Steve, you don't have to deal with him anymore. He's out of the band."
"Because the namers..."
"Oh, fucking come on," it said angrily, and its hair fell in its eyes only to be shoved back by the hand not holding the stone. "It was all but over anyway. Who are you talking to, Neal? I was there. It would have happened anyway, and I gave you my blessing for the thing with Augeri. Or I gave Jon my blessing, being that there was no talking to you, loudmouth. You did your job of making it look like a personal thing a little too well. So don't whine to me about the namers. I don't know where the original is." It paused, raising its eyebrows at him. "And twins are actually very dissimilar in a lot of ways. I'm not a twin. It's more like when you take a cutting from a plant and start over again. It's the same plant...but how it turns out depends on the light it gets."
Neal listened with horrified fascination, finding himself beginning to believe it. "So now what," he said when it became obvious that it wasn't going to continue raging at him.
It straightened and looked taken aback, stepping away and examining its stone again. "I didn't kill your new singer," it said finally. "Doesn't matter if you believe me or not. Shit happens, you know. Especially to rock stars."
Neal laughed before he could catch himself. It wasn't funny, but the way it had spoken the words, the forlornness of it, struck him as funny. It glanced up uncertainly, then broke into a grin.
"You are him, in a way, aren't you," Neal said.
It nodded. "Yeah, like I said. So you can call me Steve, or Stephen, or Perry, or whatever if you're not comfortable with that. But I'd appreciate not being thought of as 'it' anymore, if you can swing it."
Neal stared, mouth dry.
"I can hear you," it--Steve--confirmed. "It isn't offensive. But it is annoying. So if you wouldn't mind..."
"What I wouldn't mind," Neal interrupted, "is Steve and Aug back where they belong, and you gone. We told them to leave us alone. For some reason, we're right back in the middle of this unbelievable fantasy shit. What are you, stuck here playing a part?"
Not-Steve shrugged. "Isn't that true of everybody, one way or another?"
Neal released an exasperated breath, keeping an eye on the stone Not-Steve was carrying.
"Ah, go on," Steve said. "Run off and tell Jon you solved the big mystery. I don't give a rat's ass who you tell. But discretion is the better part of valor, when you think about it."
"Why, are you gonna tell the namers we figured you out?" Neal said. "That doesn't make you look too good."
"You're right. I'm only here to placate you fools. Unfortunately, I'm more of Steve than they thought, which means I just couldn't leave things alone. I had to go and jerk Jon's chain a little. Once they find out you know what's going on, you might be next. I'd play along for now, if I were you." Then it laughed. "Or maybe I should say, if you were me. You were for awhile, I guess. You still don't remember all of what happened, do you." It laughed again at the fleeting look of surprise on Neal's face, then made an attempt at seriousness. But the wicked gleam remained in its eyes. "Forgetting is for a reason, Neal."
Neal turned and walked out, daring it to chase him, tired of looking at it.
It laughed behind him. "If you play along, I'll tell you what happened."
Neal kept walking, and it went on laughing behind him.
* * *
"Jesus Christ," Jon said.
It was all he'd said for the previous several minutes.
"It's up to you," Neal said. "I'm not dumping it on you, I just know you're the one to look at it all fairly. If you want to play along, we will. If you think we should try looking for the original, fine. If you think we should kill it before it--"
"Better to have him gone, than that walking around," Neal said.
Jon was silent, looking back toward the house, knowing Liz was catching on to their furtiveness and that it wouldn't be long before he'd have to come up with something...or tell her the truth. "It was a scion," he said absently.
"A scion. Usually it means 'heir'. Which this was, in a way. The term's also used to refer to a cutting or graft, like from a plant. You can grow another whole plant, or series of them from some small part of the original..." Jon drifted off, listening to the implications propagate themselves like the plants he was referring to. "The same...but different."
"I wish we could just leave it alone," Neal said after he'd let that sink in. "That knowing about it didn't matter, and we could just go on with our lives. There aren't any worldgates, anymore, there's no way for us to get back in there and see what's going on."
Jon shook his head a little without looking at Neal, and Neal's heart sank. There was no way they could leave it alone. If Jon was in it, Neal was in it, because if anything happened to Jon and Neal hadn't tried to prevent it, there would be no living with himself. Hell, there would be no living. And in this case, he figured, there might be no living anyway. They'd beat the odds in that particular escapade once too often, and he expected little more in the way of luck.
"They're not gonna leave us alone, are they," Neal said when it was apparent Jon wasn't going to add anything.
Neal looked around the backyard again, remembering that he'd pulled Steve out of it after yet another stone had nearly stolen Jon from them. Then he said, "We used him, too," the candidness unintentional.
"If he's sleeping, we should just leave him alone this time," Neal said, wanting to shut up but unable to.
"If it was his choice, we should," Jon said softly. "But if it's not, someone should give him the choice."
Neal scuffed a foot in the grass, staring down into it as if looking for help. "I can't do anything over here."
"Except make noise."
Neal glanced up to find Jon looking at him again.
"There's no noise to make, Jon. It's over. We've been through all the Steves we're going through."
"From what I understand, there's one more. I say we find out how much light this plant got."
* * *