Jon snapped awake, careful to lie still, knowing for certain it wasn't a snippet of a dream following him back to consciousness. He'd heard it that time. It wasn't the nightmare he'd been having of a figure sitting at the edge of the bed, a dark shape with eyes that glowed a dull green...
Liz lay asleep beside him, undisturbed by whatever had been trying to get his attention. The voice was clear and almost conversational except for the urgency in it, almost like a stage whisper across a library full of people who were likely to go postal if disturbed.
There was nothing to see in the darkness, and again he felt no presence, but it didn't keep his heart from racing. Several minutes passed, and the silence remained intact. Again, the voice was Steve's, but beyond that he had no idea what to make of it. There was no way it was actually Steve. Steve, doing what? Walking between? No.
Outside this time, a little clearer, and he dared not get up and look out the window. He didn't want to see anything, if there was anything out there.
Then he heard one of the dogs, probably Laine, growl from downstairs.
I'm not gonna do it. I'm not getting sucked into this again, so you can just forget it! he thought, shutting his eyes again. There's nothing I can do, especially when I'm not sure if any of this is real, anymore...
It was a scream that time, and Liz startled awake next to him as both dogs began barking. She rolled over, dark eyes wide. "What was that?"
Jon swung out of bed and braced both hands against the window ledge. There was nothing to see below; the night was overcast and shapeless but for a trace of light pollution.
Good goddamn thing, Jon thought. If the stars were out, there'd only be eighty seven constellations, anyway.
"Somebody's in the yard," he said, making it sound trivial even though it was scaring the hell out of him. "I'll let the dogs out before they wake the kids."
He made it down the stairs before she was even out of bed, and unlocked the back door. Both dogs barreled out into the dark in a flurry of scraping claws and waving tails, falling silent once they were outside. Aware that Liz was behind him, Jon said, "They're probably gone by now. Someone's always taking a shortcut through here."
"But not usually screaming," Liz whispered, staring out past the porch light.
"It's fine," Jon heard himself say. Hi honey, I'm home, but I don't know where the hell that is exactly right now. "The girls'll chase them off, if they're dumb enough to hang around. Go on back up, and I'll get them back in here when they're done."
Liz looked up at him in a way that let him know she was aware of the byplay that had been running beneath their lives for the previous week. "It wouldn't have anything to do with what you and Neal have been up to suddenly," she said.
He stared at her, and the moment happened again, the moment where you can see your life from all directions; where you'd been, the decisions you'd made, every step that had brought you to the present. He didn't know how he'd lived without her, didn't remember not having the kids, couldn't believe he'd ever been other than he was at that moment. In his memory a boy stood at the edge of a dock on a summer afternoon that had nearly been his last, looking up at the sky, and the time between seemed insignificant. She knew him. She didn't see what was happening to them because she hadn't been through what he had, her mind wouldn't allow it, and he was grateful for that. She wasn't going to demand that he account for his behavior, but she was going to let him know she was concerned. They were equals.
"I don't know," he said honestly. "Right now we don't even know what we're up to."
"It isn't starting up all over again," she said flatly, hoping her own conviction was enough to make the statement true.
Jon shook his head, and it was an all purpose gesture she took for confusion. "I'd feel better if you went back upstairs."
She kept her gaze steady on his face. "Do you think the girls can handle what's out there?"
"Nothing to handle," he said. "Liz...please."
"Mom?" Madison said sleepily from the top of the stairs, and only then did Liz turn away, glancing over her shoulder at him, her gaze substantial with misgiving.
Jon stepped out onto the deck, whistling for the dogs, and only Sarah came back out of the darkness, looking crushed when he ordered her to stay by the door. He walked down across the lawn a little, hearing nothing, and whistled again. Laine shot past him onto the deck, sitting next to Sarah and regarding him solemnly. He stared out into the dark, toward the road, suddenly feeling foolish and willing to believe it really was imagination...
He walked a little further into the dark, cringing as he did so but wanting to make sure there was nothing, turning a full circle...
Someone grabbed his arm roughly, spinning him around, cold hands locking on. And then he was looking at Steve, the singer wild-eyed and frantic.
"What do I have to do to get your attention!"
Shaken, Jon could only stare, wondering if he'd found the eighty-eighth key.
"You have to listen, I--" And the singer began to fade, that easily, everything but his grip on Jon's arm beginning to slip away. Jon made a grab for him, realizing what was happening.
"You're not here," he said, needing to say it aloud. The dogs weren't barking behind him. Steve snapped back into focus with obvious effort.
"They'll find me. Jonathan, listen, they're getting rid of you! Don't..."
And then Steve was gone, as if he'd never been.
* * *
They'd thought Steve was dead, when he first reappeared in the middle of the living room floor. He hadn't been breathing, and Neal panicked...
I can't believe I fucking panicked, Neal thought sourly, wondering again why one of the more traveled back roads in Novato didn't have more than an occasional streetlight. It was sometime after one a.m., and he was nearly home, since there'd been nothing more to do once Steve had returned. Not that night, anyway.
Ross and Siarion were staying put, but Neal'd had to leave. He needed some space after the scene they'd been playing all day, and hanging around wasn't going to bring them any closer to a solution. They were all tired, and scared, and unconscious or not neither he or Steve were going to able to rest in each other's presence. That had ceased to be possible some time around the Frontiers tour.
Don't you do this, he'd shouted at Steve's lifeless form, shaking him, and it had somehow been enough to make him start breathing again. Don't you leave us.
And maybe he'd been shouting it for years, one way or another, but it hadn't made any difference until then.
Then he saw the figure in the road.
He slammed on the brakes, almost too late considering the fact that he'd been so lost in thought. When he looked up, he watched in shock as a man placed his hands on the hood of his Bronco.
"Jay," Neal breathed, slamming the Bronco into park and reaching for the door.
Jonathan bolted out of the road to Neal's left, onto the shoulder and into the grass of the slope that began within the reach of the headlights, and disappeared into the brush.
What the hell's the matter with him? What'd they do? Neal thought.
Leaving the headlights on, Neal threw himself out of the car, shouting Jon's name, watching him vanish down the slope and running halfway down it himself into the darkness before he paused. It just hadn't occurred to him that it wouldn't be Jon, and now he was out of his car and standing out of the light as well. Jon wasn't there and wouldn't be, and he hadn't even stopped to think.
He noticed the cold as he began to turn, knowing he wasn't going to make it back to the car. Before he could even finish turning around, rough hands grabbed the back of his jacket, one finding his throat in the darkness, spinning him with unspeakable strength and more than just a suggestion of violence.
It was Steve, a half smile on that face and in what Neal could see of the eyes that glittered in the dark before him...a vicious affection. He couldn't even struggle, he was suddenly so cold, his joints stiff with it. Then that face leaned in close and spoke in his ear.
"Neal...we need to talk."
The voice itself and the laughter at the edge of it weren't Steve's, and even without them Neal had known it wasn't him. 'Dealt with' hadn't meant Steve exclusively.
The entity leaned away to look at him again.
I'm not gonna find out how it all turns out.
But his last real thought was of the chair in the wall.
* * *
Steve awoke the next morning to full daylight, too groggy to do more than lie there and stare at the ceiling. He didn't remember falling asleep, or dreaming. He tried to collect his thoughts, but they refused to cooperate, and he let them drift for awhile. Something about Jonathan. And arguing with Neal. Headstones, stones of all kinds. And a silver haired girl with large eyes and a solemn face. Maybe he had been dreaming.
"You are awake," a small voice said with audible relief.
He opened his eyes again, not realizing they'd been closed, and stared at the silver haired girl, who was not only real but sitting on the edge of his bed.
"You were there for a longer time," she said, leaping in. "He must have seen you. But you were unable to tell us what you said to him, if anything. You were in no condition."
Then Steve remembered seeing Jon. Unfortunately, the whole thing was real.
In a way.
"Not much," he said. "I didn't say what I could have. I didn't make much use of the time, I guess. I ended up in the backyard instead of in the room with him, and..." He frowned, blinking into the daylight. "Time moves differently there."
She nodded, but didn't elaborate. He realized the end of her braid was held together with a silver ring of some sort, and found himself focusing on that.
"I don't think he knows, yet, that he's the one missing," Steve said after a moment. "So another trip, huh? Before we're dealt with. What happened?"
"You frightened us, a little," she said, and he looked at her. "We could not awaken you. Neal remembers the toll such traveling takes. He was quite distraught."
"Really," Steve said dryly, sitting up and taking inventory. He found the results inconclusive. That feeling, of the world being out of kilter, remained, and seemed even more pronounced.
"Perhaps you were meant to argue with each other and push each other into doing things you would not otherwise," Siarion said. "That may have been part of the 'noise' you were making. Perhaps it was part of the music."
Steve stared at her expressionlessly for a moment, purposely keeping his thoughts still. She looked away in what could have been embarrassment, if she'd been truly human.
"Wasn't there someone else?" he said suddenly, acting on an impression that looking at her had given him.
She arched a silver eyebrow at him in confusion.
"I'm not sure what I mean," he said. "It seems like you're connected with someone else. I don't know what the hell I'm talking about."
"Sidain," she said sadly, running her braid through her hands.
Steve mulled that over for a moment, but it didn't make any more sense to him than her name had. He made no connection.
"He didn't agree, either," she said. "I'm not sure....where he is, now."
"Maybe if we're going to fix anything, we should fix everything. We did before, from what I understand."
She smiled a little, and Ross said, "Steve."
They both glanced up, startled, not so much by Ross's sudden appearance in the doorway as by his tone of voice. Steve's apprehension elevated to dread when he saw the look on the other man's face.
"No," Steve said. "Aw, come on."
It was grief he was looking at, and an unwillingness to tell someone news no one wants to hear. Steve shook his head, trying to catch his breath, to keep his stomach from twisting. He rose, the feeling of disorientation and wrongness following him upright.
"I tried calling Neal," Ross said slowly, his face chalk white. Ross, who was sensible and not easily rattled, who was so damn good at being objective. Steve watched him try to stay calm, and he felt like screaming. "Dina says he never made it home."
Your punishment has already been decided.
Steve nodded, shoulders slumped with weariness and pain. "Maybe....they just took him."
But he knew better.
The lifetime argument was over.
* * *
"It wasn't him," Neal said the following morning.
"It was. It was. He was walking between. Somehow, he found a way."
Neal shook his head, keeping his eyes on the twig he'd picked out of the grass of Jon's backyard, bending it between his fingers. This conversation didn't warrant sitting on the deck, it was so outrageous. They were sitting on the hill that sloped down to the road, shoulder to shoulder.
"Why, then?" Jon demanded. "Why warn us, against themselves?"
"To keep us going, Jay. We're scared, aren't we? We're thinkin' some weird ass stuff. It would be the kind of mind game they'd play, the kind of shit Tuirnarin would be trying to put us through. She killed him and was walking around in his body. It's like I asked the one that came to talk to you--are they that bored? Yeah. They're playing with us. These are the guys who made that bitch in the first place."
"Then where's Siarion?" Jon said. "She doesn't know this is going on?"
"And what would she do? Tell them to stop? She liked us, fine, whatever. Actually, she liked him. But she might even have him, for all we know."
Christ, Jon sighed inwardly, he won't even say Steve's name. "He said they. I don't think it was just semantics. 'They're trying to erase you'."
Neal thought for a moment. "There aren't any more worldgates, Jon."
"If he's walking between..."
"If he's walking between. But it would be just like him to play banshee and scream in your backyard."
"It's what banshees do, isn't it?" Jon said. "Scream the names of those about to die?"
Neal threw the twig, opening his mouth to tell Jon to knock it off, but the bird chose then to land on Jon's shoulder and scare the hell out of both of them.
They froze in shock, and Jon flinched out of reflex and turned his face away but remained still otherwise. It was a raven, just a raven, standard three dimensional issue, not the size of a small eagle or harboring the soul of a singer. It left it's wings open for balance, claws digging into Jon's shirt for purchase. Then it leapt back into the air and lit off into the trees by the road.
"Okay," Neal said, when he could speak. "Okay."
Then Steve was there, on his knees in the grass several yards away, struggling to his feet. Jon rose, and Neal remained where he was in amazement. Steve stared at him, almost failing to register Jon's presence for a moment.
"I hope you're real," he said to Neal.
Neal stood, and Jon grabbed Steve's arm. Steve held something out to him, paper folded into a small square, pressing it into his hand. "I won't be here long enough to explain. They won't let me."
"How'd you get away?" Jon said, keeping a hold on the singer.
"I didn't," Steve said. "It's you that needs to get away. You know that by now, right? Just...make sure that's Neal. Hope it is."
Then he was gone again; not a gradual fading, but snapping off like a light.
Neal said, "No doubt on that one."
"No," Jon said, unfolding the note he'd been given. "You are Neal, though, huh?"
"You'd know," Neal said, staring off in the direction the raven had gone. "Like you knew about Steve. Except better."
* * *
They called everyone they could think of, except the police. What the hell would we say? Ross had pointed out. We think maybe something's happened to the guy, we think phantoms grabbed him? Suspicious? No, Christ no, that's not suspicious! Neal was nowhere to be found, but there was some small consolation in the fact that everyone still remembered him. No one wanted to try driving the route he might have taken home the previous night, because if there was anything to find they didn't want to find it. There was one last thing to try, and that was leaping over to see if he was there. They knew he wasn't. Two Neals, one Jon, no point. Morning became afternoon, and afternoon began wearing away...
Then the police did arrive.
Ross saw them pull up, two cars, and he yelled for Steve. Siarion started to join him at the front windows, but he pulled her back.
Ross stared at Steve. Any small, fragile hope they'd been holding that Neal was only missing dissipated, and they acknowledged it wordlessly.
The only thing Steve could focus on right then was remembering what he'd said to Neal the last time he'd seen him. He couldn't. The previous night was a blur. But it was damn important. What was the last thing I said to him?
No one moved until the officers actually made it to the door, not wanting to know why they were there or hear what they had to say. Then Steve went to the door numbly.
There was no preliminary introduction; the taller of the two officers, a ruddy, heavyset man, showed Steve his badge and said, "Stephen Ray Perry?"
Steve had time to nod and realize that both officers had their holsters unsnapped, that their hands were close to their guns, and that there was a third officer hovering near the edge of the porch. Their eyes were cold, and Steve's heart sank even further. He wasn't through being dealt with, and he wondered for a brief moment if they were real at all, if they were going to open fire on him right there.
"We have a warrant for your arrest," the taller officer went on to say, "for the murder of Neal Schon."
They were moving for him, turning him and frisking him for weapons, pulling his hands behind his back and handcuffing him, reading him his rights. You have the right to remain silent...
Neal would love that one, Steve thought, staring at Ross, who said something to him that he never heard.
* * *
Neal's car had been found by a passing motorist sometime just before four thirty that morning, and closer inspection in the early light had revealed what was left of him on the opposite side of the road. The medical examiner had offhandedly informed the responding homicide officers that the victim had been bludgeoned to death over a period of time, judging by the amount of blood, before being dragged back up the hill and dumped on the side of the road. The final blow, to the head, had probably been administered at that point, and in such a way that managed to leave him easily identifiable. Judging from the footprints and signs of a struggle that had been left below, it had all been done by one person, most likely a man and most likely with the crowbar they found next to the victim. There were enough fingerprints on it, bloody and otherwise, to get a complete and nearly flawless set. A damned rarity, the ME said. The entire thing was deliberate, possibly premeditated, and carried out by someone in a sustained rage.
Nothing was missing from the victim or the victim's car, which ruled out a motive of robbery.
By eight that morning, they'd been unable to find a match for the prints on AFIS, the nationwide fingerprint ID system. But someone had dropped off, anonymously, a plain manila envelope containing several pages of a crumpled letter. In an unsteady, looping scrawl, it told a disjointed story about hearing voices, missing people, and finally violence.
That's when the argument started. Neal and myself haven't always gotten along, but I never meant for things to get out of hand...
I can't live with the damage my temper has done...
* * *
"Have you ever been fingerprinted before?"
Steve hesitated. The question and it's phrasing took a moment to register. Everything had been taking a moment to register, since he'd waded out of sleep that morning. None of it was real. If he kept quiet, and hung on, it would all resolve itself into a long and involved joke, and he really would be awake.
"Mr. Perry," the clerk said, "it's a simple question."
"No," he said, eyes remaining on the countertop.
It took only moments, and then he was given a paper towel to wipe his fingers on while they finished booking him. There was murmuring about being arraigned the next morning, and being allowed one phone call. He wasn't paying attention. The world became increasingly vague and surreal, and only snapped partially into focus again when the door of his cell slammed shut. When he had the presence of mind to, he sat on the edge of the low cot against the wall and stared at the gray shadows he cast on the bare concrete floor in the harsh fluorescent light. It was strangely quiet, and it suited his mood.
The one phone call had been to the only person he could think of to call at that point, and not without guilt: Lora. She would not only take care of whatever she could without questioning him, she would believe him. Ross hadn't been arrested, but he was being questioned. Siarion, at Ross's insistence, had run like hell through the house and out the back, vanishing into a world she didn't understand. Better that, than trying to explain who she was--or wasn't. Lora would go looking for her, pick up a few of his things, and call his lawyer.
Then the drunk one cell over finally came to and noticed him.
"Hey baby," a bleary voice said.
Steve pretended he heard nothing. It was less pretense than shock.
"You a chick, or a guy?"
Without meaning to, Steve rolled his eyes.
"You ain't deaf. Don't I know you? Come on, baby, I'm lonely, talk to me."
"Look," Steve said quietly, keeping his eyes averted, "I'm really tired and just need some peace and quiet, you know what I mean? I've had one fucking bad day. Help me out. Just go back to whatever you were doing and leave me alone."
"Could be a guy," the drunk said.
Steve went back to staring at the wall. What was the last thing I said to Neal?
After a moment, the drunk said, "I know you. I know you, you're that Wayne Newton guy!"
"Would you fuck off?" Steve said tiredly.
"I saw your show once, man, me and that bitch I was married to, we was married in Vegas, you were great! What you in for, Wayne?"
"Christ," Steve murmured. How bad was this all going to get? "I'm not. Go away, you dizzy bastard."
"Come on, Wayne. You can tell me."
"I whack idiots who can't keep their mouths shut," Steve snapped, instantly regretting it, realizing it was yet another instance in which his own mouth was going to dig him a hole he'd never see the topside of again.
The drunk stared at him in exaggerated amazement, unseen. "Hey, be cool, Wayne," he said.
Steve continued staring at the wall.
* * *