"What do you mean, 'can you sing'?" Not-Steve laughed. "You're kidding, right? You're fuckin' kidding. What difference does it make?"
They hadn't even knocked; Jon and Neal had found the scion still milling around its indoor rock garden as if it couldn't figure out what else to do. They'd intended to surprise it. Jon stood as close as he dared, glaring and wanting his height to make a difference for once.
"I didn't come all the way over here to dick around with you. Answer the goddamn question."
"Jonathan," the scion said in an admonishing tone, "you've never been this impatient with me. You really have a bug up your ass over this, don't you. Just let it rest."
"Fine, you're here to take Perry's place. How long do you think you can draw this out before someone wants to know what the hell you're gonna do with the rest of your life? What the hell does it mean? You're a singer. Sing."
You'd go to all this trouble for me?" the scion said, then laughed again. "I know you. The one with the big ideas. The namers told you loud and clear to stay away. Let's review, Jonathan. You guys can do anything you want so long as it doesn't include me. You guys make noise, but not enough of the right kind to attract more of the kind of bullshit that got us all into this in the first place. By myself I don't make enough noise either. I can stall until Judgment Day, big ears. I basically do something once every eight to ten years anyway. Nobody gives a flying shit. Please, please don't tell me you're thinking of getting attention by pulling me in. It's cute and flattering that you're willing to turn your world inside out trying to save the original."
Jonathan went on glaring at it, a threat somewhere behind his bittersweet colored eyes. The scion returned his gaze calmly, none of the wounded impetuosity present in its face that the original would have shown. Neal stood back and watched.
"There you go again with the 'it'," Not-Steve said, clicking its tongue at Jon. "I'm gettin' tired of it. It's just fucking rude, you know? Don't start with me. You don't get it."
"No, I don't," Jon said in a lower tone. "You can tell us what's really going on here, and help us get the original back, or you can go back to hell. Actually, do both."
"Or...what?" it said, and the tone was polite but the undercurrent was chilling and raised the hair on the back of Neal's neck. "This isn't like you, tough guy."
"I could say the same. But at least you have an excuse, I guess."
"You're sounding of murder, Mr. Cain," it said. "I think I'm even more flattered."
"Okay," Neal said from one side, reminding himself to be careful not to touch any of the rocks. "This isn't getting us anywhere."
"Don't be nervous, Neal," the scion said, hushed, staring at Jonathan. "Jon's drawing a line in the sand, here, and I think he has the balls to toe it. You wanna see this as badly as I do, don't you?" His eyes gleamed the way they had when The Lady had faced them just outside Athyri; a dogs-chasing-cars gleam.
"I'm glad you can hear us," Jon said. "It's no secret. It wouldn't be like killing him."
"And that was your first impulse, wasn't it? You wanted to be sure what I was, first, that doing it wouldn't hurt your chances of finding out where the original went. I always knew you had it in you somewhere."
Jonathan nodded, eyes traveling to the nearest stone and resting there. "Good for you."
The scion lashed out even before Neal could shout. It grabbed Jon, slamming him against the nearest wall. The brief struggle that evolved had no heart in it; no one wanted to take part in it except to make the point. Neal braced himself between them but found himself unable to separate them while the scion held Jon against the wall and Jon tried to get a better hold on it.
"Look, Jon," the scion said, "this is the part where I turn my back to Neal and find out what happens to me because I've attacked you. You're both fucking hypocrites! I am Steve! What makes the one you're used to more valuable than I am?"
Jon quit struggling. His face was still furious but his thoughts were surprised.
"You need to remember," the scion said, "I'm the same material, from scratch, created under different conditions. The difference is, he loved you and I do not. We're gonna be in a bigger mess if I end up killing you out of self defense, aren't we? And getting rid of me, assuming a Mutt and Jeff pair like you could pull it off, would buy you another of me, or a namer asking you questions. More likely you guys would botch it and the police would catch you burying me in the backyard or something." It started to laugh at the last, amused by the prospect. "No, wait, one of the dogs would dig part of me up!" It began to laugh in earnest, releasing Jon. "Jesus--I can see it! Just promise me, though, if you're gonna do it, that you won't have a little wake and sing your version of 'Faithfully'!" It went on laughing, backing away from Jon, who stood staring at him with his face colorless and stunned.
"You two are so predictable. I can just hear that conversation. 'Hey, I know, Neal! Let's put Journey back together long enough to get a namer here and see what it says.' That's about it, isn't it? Neal doesn't wanna do this, and you're stringing him along for once."
Jon found himself looking at one of the stones again.
"I wouldn't," the scion said.
"You wouldn't," Jon hissed.
"You aren't a big Inverse over here, tough guy," the scion said.
Jon turned his head to stare at the scion again. "This isn't not-stone."
"It is whatever I say it is," the scion mocked with slightly widened eyes.
"Then you aren't Steve," Jon retorted.
"Jackass," it said, "I'm a Destroyer. What the hell's wrong with you?"
"Having his memories doesn't make you Steve. Being made from whatever he left in the Evenwhen doesn't make you Steve. He was no Destroyer. What the hell's wrong with you? We figured that out a while back."
The scion sighed, shaking its head. Look what I have to put up with. "You're supposed to be the one who explains everything, and keep up the old team spirit. All out of science, Mr. Wizard? Or are you so in denial that you're not even trying?"
"You're a piss-poor substitute for him," Jon said.
"I didn't ask for the job. So what are you gonna do?" The scion smiled unpleasantly, shifting its eyes to Neal as it spoke. Neal purposely looked away.
"Right," the scion said.
"We're gonna find out what's going on," Jon said. "If we have to go through or around you to find out, fine."
"'We'?" the scion said, breaking into laughter again. "We. Neal, you better jump in, here. He's getting you in over your head."
"You can't sing," Jon said, voice flat. "That's what it is. They couldn't duplicate the voice."
The scion's eyes darkened, settling on Jon again. The malice that their Steve had never harbored leapt into the scant space between them.
"Even the speaking voice is a little off," Jon said, pressing the point home. "You can't sing."
"You don't know everything," the scion snarled.
"Plant didn't get much light, I guess," Jon said acidly, and Neal saw the intent behind the scion's eyes before the not-singer moved, its hands darting for Jon's throat. Just as quickly, Neal snatched up the nearest stone. The object wasn't in his hand long enough to snare him before it was airborne as he snapped it at the scion...
It struck the false figure in the chest, and the effect was like striking a mirror; the scion shattered in all directions, the whole of it collapsing downward like sand and pooling across the floor. Clear glasslike blocks scattered around Jon's feet, ice cube colored dice tumbling to stillness against the wall behind him. One bounced to Neal, resting against one of his feet. He stared down at it with exaggerated calm, wishing the outcome had surprised him more than it had.
Jon shook himself loose from the detritus, stepping gingerly out of it, his eyes on the stone Neal had thrown. It had rebounded from his target and lay benignly amongst the others. He picked up the cube that rested at Neal's feet, holding it up to the daylight. It refracted the light against the opposite wall; a miniature rainbow stained the painted surface until Jon pocketed the item.
Neal shook out the hand that had thrown the stone, disliking the tingling sensation that pervaded it, realizing it would have been a hell of a lot more had he held it any longer. "Are you okay?" he asked Jon.
Jon shrugged. "You're the one who picked up the rock."
"I ain't picking up any more. It wasn't not-stone, but someone's done some high-class screwing around. I'd hate to think that shit applies over here."
"If it does for the stones, it might for us," Jon said. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"Don't keep it," Neal said quickly. "The piece of whoever he was. We don't know what it might be able to do."
"It might be able to pull itself back together. Didn't you see Terminator 2?"
Neal stared at him. "That's not funny."
"Nope. Let's go."
* * *
They returned to Jon's house and went another round with what little they knew, sitting at the top of the slope in the backyard. Jon caught himself examining the shape of the lawn and thinking he needed to mow it. The mundane thought temporarily captured him, and he weighed it in comparison to the insanity of the discussion he was engaged in.
"What if it was telling the truth?" he said. "What if it had nothing to do with Aug?"
"If it was a version of Steve," Neal said, "when did he ever tell the truth?"
Jon frowned. "Come on, Neal."
Neal purposely refused to look at him, the set of his jaw and shoulders impatient. "Fine. The truth as he sees it in his own little world."
Jon was quiet for a moment, watching Neal stare at the twig he was shredding the bark off of. Then he said, "I'm not gonna defend him over you, you know that. I've just never seen you hold onto anger against anybody so long. Or anything."
Neal glanced up at him for a moment, and Jon remembered something Ross had asked him during their first run through Athyri. Did you ever love someone so much that you couldn't stand them?
But he'd been remembering a lot of things, lately, that had happened throughout his life. And forgetting things he should have remembered.
Neal just shook his head.
Jon shrugged. "Look. Go home for awhile, and put all this away. Something will occur to us. If we keep trying to explain this bullshit, it'll overwhelm us."
"This is bullshit we can't even begin to do anything about," Neal said, "even if we figure out what's going on. There's no point involving Ross, and knowing this stuff is going on isn't gonna help us. We're gonna have to tell Deen about Aug, and back out of the festival. Whoever's doing this--and I think we know who--will just do whatever they want."
Jon had no reassurance to offer him. He didn't--couldn't--feel it himself.
* * *
When Steve got out of the shower, he made coffee and settled in with the paper, knowing it was early even for him. It wasn't quite five a.m., but sleeping was out of the question. The feeling of unbalance remained even though he was fully awake. He didn't think he was coming down with something. It was more like he was trying to remember something, his subconscious digging at something that it couldn't quite dislodge.
He ran errands later that morning, trying to ignore his growing wariness, returning home to carefully amble out to the side of the house to see if the raven had done anything to his window ledge. He knew damn well it hadn't. Whatever was prying at him like the raven had pried at the window had to do with this window.
The raven was nowhere to be seen, for once. It had adopted him, for whatever reason, and he still didn't know what to make of it. There were various things he'd felt uneasy about since returning from that fishing trip to discover that junkies had trashed his house. The bird, for one. And his inability to sleep in the damn house until both the retaining wall by the kitchen and his bedroom window had been torn out the rest of the way and replaced. And the candles...
Like he was expecting the mother of all power outages. He had candles everywhere. Every time he went out, if there were candles to be found, he picked up a few more. He was careful not to inspect this new obsession too closely, fearing what he would find. Life had been odd, the last several months.
He looked down into the grass at his feet directly below his bedroom window. It had grown back easily. The gouges and furrows in the soil were almost invisible. The siding on the house had either been replaced or painted over. Something had come through there, something he tried not to think about, the way he tried not to think about the chair in the wall...
Steve jumped, so lost in thought that he nearly lost his balance at the intrusion. Not even three yards away was Neal, staring at him like he was sorry for scaring him but far from actually apologizing.
Steve glared at him, instantly aloof even through his surprise. This was the last person in the world he expected to find in his yard, and he showed it. "What the hell do you want?"
Neal looked stricken, and it almost made a difference to Steve. Almost. "I need to talk to you. We need to talk."
"We don't," Steve snapped. He would have stalked away, but he knew there was no way he could pull it off without a limp. "Haven't you heard of the phone?"
"You fucking don't answer it," Neal snapped back, but there was a tremble carrying along beneath the words. "No one's even been sure you're alive. There's stuff more important than how you feel about what's happened, you know. Dropping off the face of the earth isn't getting you anything."
Steve continued staring at him coldly. "You came all the hell the way out here to lecture me about whether anyone knows I'm alive? You've already said everything you need to, Neal. Just get the hell out of here."
"Jon's...gone," Neal said with more of a tremble.
Steve felt himself lock up with a terror that swept everything else away. "What do you mean, gone?" he heard himself say, sounding perfectly sane. He's dead. He's dead, and I didn't want to know...
"Missing. Or something. I don't know. Look, shit, I know you don't remember anything, you can't. But you're part of this, and you gotta help me figure it out."
The animosity didn't dissipate but it shifted to one side for the moment while Neal took a deep breath and looked like he was about to cry and Steve tried to catch up.
"Come on," Steve said, and he knew that whatever he'd felt was wrong that morning had just presented itself, front and center.
* * *
"I mean, we were supposed to meet at his studio this morning. We're finishing up a couple of things before we head out to Cadott. I knocked on his door--Aug, and Deen, were with me, and Ross was gonna meet us later. And somebody else answered the door. Somebody who'd never heard Jon, or his family. No Liz, no kids, no dogs. Just...gone."
Neal paused for breath, and Steve said, "I won't even ask if you had the right house. Not all three of you would get it wrong, and no one knows better than you do where Jon lives. So what the hell is this?"
Neal let the breath out in a sigh. "A little while ago...I don't know where to start. Maybe with last year. Something happened to us that you don't remember. I think that's the only explanation. They've done something with Jon."
Steve stared at Neal with open wariness, his right knee swinging back and forth in a restless motion not far from the way an annoyed cat would swing the tip of their tail.
"I know," Neal said. "I know. It sounds crazy. You've gotta hear me out."
"'They'," Steve said, tilting his head forward to look at Neal from beneath his eyebrows.
Neal sighed, and dove in.
When he was finished, the day was half gone.
And so, Steve was convinced, was Neal. He remained quiet and let it all sink in regardless.
"You don't have to believe me," Neal said. "Maybe you can't. But you're part of this, and I need you to help me get him back. Something's happened to him."
"Did you try calling Hal, or Mugs?" Steve said. Jon's brothers would in the least be aware that something was wrong.
Neal shook his head. "No, not yet. Mugs...is on tour with..." he trailed off, unable to remember. "I figured I'd get to you first, before I went to see if they're even still around. I mean, how would somebody wipe a guy off the face of the earth without doing something about his friends or family?"
It was too much to take in all at once, too ridiculous, but Steve found himself willing to at least humor Neal far enough to talk to Jon's brothers. The fact of Jon's disappearance remained whether Steve believed Neal or not. "Try calling Hal," he said.
Neal stared at him uncertainly for a moment, then moved to comply. Steve couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Neal scared, and he stood by while Neal dialed the number he'd pulled out of his wallet.
"No answer," Neal said finally.
"Where's he live? Out in...Modesto, doesn't he?"
"We're going out there, and get this settled."
* * *
They had little to discuss on the way. The camaraderie that had existed between them during all their time together, even while they were trying not to kill each other, was gone. Neal knew damn well they'd had to get rid of Steve, and Steve had agreed while he'd still had his memory. But saying it just that way, in an interview, we got rid of him, had earned him more bullshit than he'd thought possible. That had only been the beginning, and Steve wasn't going to forgive him for any of it. Not that it mattered.
They had plenty to discuss on the way back.
It was definitely Hal who answered the door. But not the Hal they'd met. When Neal asked him if he'd heard from Jon, the man went deathly white, featured stiffening.
"Who the hell are you people?" Hal said.
"We--" Neal began, and Steve thumped a hand flat into the center of Neal's chest, silencing him.
"We've made a mistake," Steve said.
"Yeah, you have," Hal said tightly.
"Somebody probably gave us the wrong address, that's all," Steve said. "Just a coincidence. We're sorry for the imposition. But you did have a brother named Jonathan."
Hal nodded, relenting slightly. "Yeah. But he drowned when he was ten. He's buried out at Sunset Hills, so I'd say he's not the one you're looking for."
"No," Steve said softly. "We're really sorry. We won't take any more of your time."
Hal nodded stiffly and closed the door, and Steve looked at Neal.
Neal had his eyes and hands shut tightly.
* * *
An hour later, they were standing in the rain next to Jon's headstone, reflecting on a life that hadn't been.
Steve leaned against the mistreated angel, staring in shock at his surroundings. These people and their damned stones, he thought, not making sense of it but feeling the appropriateness of it. Neal neither moved or spoke.
"There has to be something we can do," Steve said, his voice barely audible above the rain as he slicked his hair back out of his face. He didn't know how long they were there, but he finally got Neal to come away with him, and they went home.
* * *
When they returned, someone was waiting for them.
Steve paused in confusion at the sight of the young woman on his porch, but never got a question out before Neal vaulted out of the car. It was hard to tell who was more startled--Steve, or the woman--when Neal reached her and started shaking her.
"Do something, dammit!" Neal shouted, continuing to shake her even as she tried to disentangle herself. It took Steve longer than he intended to reach them and grab Neal's arm.
"What the hell," Steve said, staring at the silver-haired girl with the startling silver-gray eyes who was eyeing Neal with alarm and recognition. She wore jeans and a knit button down shirt the same color as her eyes, her long hair tied in a loose braid that trailed over one shoulder.
"Let me try and explain," she was saying to Neal, trying to pry his fingers loose from his arms.
"Explain, nothing!" Neal shouted. "Goddamnit, give him back!"
"I didn't do it!" she shouted in return, eyes bright with tears. "I'm human now, I can't do anything."
Neal released her, mouth open in amazement, and her large gray eyes shifted pleadingly to Steve. "I am sorry, pretty bird," she said, rubbing her arms. "I tried convincing them otherwise. But the Inverse will not be back."
Neal took a step back, shaking Steve off. "He doesn't remember you," he said. "Steve, this is Siarion. Do you believe me now?"
Steve gaped at them both, speechless. Siarion. He didn't recognize her, or the name, but she wasn't like anyone he'd seen before. Too perfect to be human. And why the hell would anyone have to say they were human?
He opened the front door. "Whatever it is, convince me of it out of the rain."
* * *
Steve got Neal a couple of towels, purposely throwing them at him before disappearing to change his own clothes. When he returned, Siarion was sitting on the couch by the windows looking miserable and Neal was coming out of the kitchen. "Ross is coming over," Neal said without preamble, still drying his hair and managing to look as miserable as Siarion did. Steve knew the world had just fallen in and couldn't figure out why, or how. And he couldn't shake the feeling that this had been coming.
"Then when he gets here, you guys can start from the top," Steve said. "What about Deen, then? And Augeri. You said he was there."
Neal nodded. "They know something is totally fucked up, and that we can't find Jon. But otherwise they know what you do, without your memory. No sense trying to trot this out in front of them. But Ross knows it, all of it."
"Then in the meantime, I'll make some coffee...who are you, again?" he said to Siarion.
The question seemed to make her more miserable. "Siarion. I know you do not remember."
Steve noted again that the woman's speech was stilted and formal, as if speaking English only through great concentration. Or translating. The accent was as northwestern as theirs, though, and he decided it was the least confusing of the strangeness he'd been fed so far.
"She doesn't have a last name," Neal murmured. "Just Siarion."
"Oh," Steve said, his tone sardonic. "Right. Welcome to California. How'd we meet, the first time?"
Siarion fidgeted, glancing at Neal.
"You had to be there," Neal said.
"I am..." she paused. "Only accustomed to myself in the present tense. It is hard to say 'I was.' But I am no longer the night bringer of the Evenwhen."
"Whoa," Steve said, beginning to laugh. "Okay, you guys. Caffeine is definitely in order." He walked away, shaking his head slightly, making no secret of what he thought of his present company and their state of mind.
Neal rounded on Siarion furiously. "What the hell happened!"
Refusing to look at him, she said, "There has been...a disagreement among the namers. It began with The Lady, true. But that was not all. They have decided to remove the Inverse. He is a curiosity to them. And they felt it was a risk to leave him here."
Neal took a deep breath, trying to calm down, purposely looking around the room. There were candles everywhere... "Do they have him, then?" Please, please tell me he's somewhere.
She hesitated, and Neal looked at her. "I have been exiled because I did not agree," she said. "I have chosen my place and time to remain. One does not disagree with the namers."
"That's not what I asked you," Neal said sharply, and Steve reappeared, watching them stare at each other.
"He is elsewhere," Siarion said finally.
Neal sighed in relief, still furious but willing to at least be grateful Jon was alive. Somewhere. "And you really had nothing to with this."
"Bullshit. You were gonna kill him, when they screwed up last time," Neal said, gesturing at Steve.
"No," Siarion said. "I was going to..."
She paused, and shrank further into the cushions of the couch, folding her hands in her lap.
"Keep him," Neal finished for her. "We're not stupid, Siarion. You only use contractions when you lie."
She nodded. "Too many hands holding."
Steve was too amazed to take offense at being spoken of as if he was still in the kitchen. "You guys are serious," he breathed.
"After what you've seen today, you have to believe us," Neal said. "You remember something. Look around."
Steve squinted at him. "What the hell are you--"
Neal grabbed the nearest candle, another white pillar from the top of Steve's TV, and advanced on the singer. "What's with all the candles? You know something about the power situation that we don't?"
Steve balked, staring at him unblinking.
"You said they were in the walls. There were no dopers that trashed your house, Stephen. Dopers didn't put that chair in your wall, didn't leave ten inch claw marks in the floors. Did you notice, your bedroom window was smashed in from the outside? How big does something have to be, to come right through a wall like that?"
"You were never here," Steve said, having yet to blink. "Jon saw the mess. But you were never here."
"I was here. I came with Jon the morning it happened and kicked your fucking door in. Something came looking for you in the dark, and the candle was all you had. That, and your voice."
Steve shook his head.
"Sure," Neal said, "and the bird's only been watching you so you'll feed it, right?"
Steve jumped much like he had in the yard when Neal had startled him earlier. It was too much, it didn't make any sense, and Neal knew things that someone he hadn't talked to in months shouldn't know. He hadn't even spoken to Jon since January or February...
"Wait until Ross gets here," Neal said wearily. "Then we'll start all this bullshit from the beginning again."
* * *