So I was nearly hit by a car, Ellie thought, climbing a low chain link fence that bordered the yard of a one story, off-white house. So what? That'd gained even more attention, and at least two of the cops were chasing her. She heard more sirens in the distance when her feet hit the decorative gravel that bordered the inside of the fence. Sprinting across her fourth backyard, she squeezed between the house and the large green trash can that had probably been pulled in from the street the previous morning, and leaned her back against the side of the house, trying to catch her breath.
After a few minutes of listening to the sirens approach and recede, she debated staying where she was until it was almost time to meet up with the others, or running further on and screaming some more. She laughed through her nose, knowing what she must have looked like, hoping it'd worked.
Gotta replace that window. I was raised better than that.
She had to laugh at that one, too. Harrassing the police into chasing her was okay, but damaging personal property was unacceptable? She leaned against the house, hands braced on her knees, and laughed silently. For this, he really is gonna make me a message for my answering machine.
A hand took her arm.
She startled and gasped, straightening and trying to wrench her arm out of the grip it was in, expecting to find an angry house owner at the least, or a cop at the worst. But she couldn't get loose, and it was Steve she was looking at...
She froze in confusion, meaning to ask what the hell was going on but unable to. He smiled at her, and she realized it wasn't Steve at all, couldn't believe she'd been fooled for any length of time.
"Ellie," the namer said, "we need to talk."
* * *
Once Dina and the kids were asleep, Neal stepped outside, too wound up to get any sleep himself. He ended up walking around the backyard aimlessly, scuffing his feet in the grass. For the third or fourth night in a row, it was cloudy, the kind of uniform and unbroken cloud cover that made you feel sealed off from the universe. He was thinking about Jon, and how strange things were, and how sometimes, no matter what you did, people went missing and stayed that way.
He ended up sitting in the grass not far from where Samson's kennel had been, before someone had poisoned the Rottweiler. It was too quiet, and by then he figured he knew why, and he had no damned idea what to do about it. Sooner or later, they'd have to tell Deen--if it really was Deen--that both Steves were out of the picture, and why. He wasn't looking forward to it. In fact, it basically seemed pointless to try explaining it. Whoever was messing with them would go on messing with them no matter what they did.
Goddamnit, Perry. What were you doing/not doing that we've got their attention again?
"You think about him a lot, for not liking him," a voice said close to his ear, and Neal jumped with a quick intake of breath, twisting to look at who was sitting on his right.
Another scion. Not the real Steve leaping between.
"Christ," Neal said angrily, trying to keep his voice down. He would have gotten to his feet, but he didn't think his knees would hold him yet, and where was there to go? He didn't want the thing following him back into the house.
"I understand," the creature said, and Neal realized he could see it's eyes in the darkness, no specific color, just a soft glow while it sat close to him with its arms draped over its drawn-up knees.
"I don't think you do," Neal said hoarsely when he could find his voice again. "You've got to leave us alone."
"But I'm not going to. Come on, Neal, we're not back to the 'it' thing again, are we?"
Neal refused to answer, trying to keep his thoughts still and failing.
"I really am curious about a few things," the scion said. "Seems to me you don't really want to know what happened, after all."
It took Neal a moment to catch up to what it was referring to. Then, voice hard, he said, "I don't."
"You wanted to before. You were damn near to trying to make him tell you."
"What the hell are you talking about," Neal said, beginning to edge away now that he'd caught his breath. If he stalled for time, he figured he could get it to tell him what was really going on. If there was one constant in the universe, it was that a bigger fish never passed up the chance to lord it over the smaller fish. Whatever it was he was talking to, it wasn't another copy of Steve. You tried to make him tell you. Not 'me'. He had a feeling he knew this one, had a feeling it was the same malevolent thing that had been in Jon's kitchen the night the namers had separated them again, on many levels.
"You let Jon talk you out of it because you began to realize what it might be about. Don't you want to know what really happened, what made him scream at the sight of you?"
"Fuck off," Neal said, and it came out much shallower than he'd intended.
"Some other time," the creature said, grinning at him the way Steve used to when they were up to something they shouldn't have been, back in the dark ages when a lot of things had still been tolerable. "Same old thing, huh, Neal? You're too tough for me."
Then Neal was looking at the sky again when the creature made a move too sudden and powerful to avoid, knocking him over on his back and leaning over him with it's arms braced on either side, pinning his wrists to the grass, its face too close to his. Neal froze, breath held, not daring to move.
"Why do you suppose Tuirnarin came up with the idea of a vampire in the first place?" the thing intimated, eyes glowing colorlessly. "The suggestion was accidentally yours, do you know that? Somewhere, in the back of that limited, mortal brain, buried under layers of denial, is something you can't tolerate. Would you like to see it?"
"No," Neal whispered, wanting to move and unable to, wanting to scream but remaining silent.
"Oh, but you're going to. It's never good to hide something from yourself, is it, Neal? She knew you weren't going to get anything out of him, he was just supposed to die and stay that way this time, this once. She gave him to you for that, all right. To get rid of him, to see what would happen, and because you wanted him."
Neal struggled even though he was unable to move, trying to dodge the thing any way he could, held in place far too easily and in too many ways. Limited mortal brain, he thought desperately. It's the same namer.
"Yes," it hissed, keeping its face close to his. "Good for you, Neal. Now, before we get off track again, how hard did he really struggle?"
Leave us alone, Neal shouted, unheard.
"Some part of you truly enjoyed raping him," the namer said close to his ear, laughter running beneath words that scored cruelly. "Admit it, and I'll let you go."
Neal did scream then, silent to all but the right ears.
And something hit the namer from behind, a blow too hard to ignore.
It stood by pushing its hands against the ground, straightening in one smooth, flowing motion. That by itself would have been a deterrent to anyone but the man standing behind it, even without the furiously glowing eyes to accompany it, even without the strange ringing sound. It turned slowly, finding Jon standing by with a shovel that had been grabbed from Neal's garage.
"That's enough," Jon said with a snarl.
In an even monotone, the namer said, "This doesn't concern you, Jonathan."
"Yeah? Looks to me like it does. Go find something else to do, or we'll see exactly what it takes to put a dent in a namer."
The namer smiled and took a step toward Jon. "Well," it said, glancing between Neal and Jon as it did so, "maybe we--"
It paused abruptly, the borrowed face reflecting alarm as its gaze strayed over Jon's shoulder. "How'd you get that in here?"
Thinking it meant to distract him, Jon said, "Nice try." Then he heard the footfall on the grass behind him and snapped, "I told you to stay in the damn car."
Ellie didn't respond, walking around Jon to get a clearer view of the namer, which trotted a few steps away and paused to examine them from a safer distance. The motions it made and the open hatred on its face reminded Jon briefly of the thing that had tracked them through the snow in another place and time. Or, for all he knew, it wasn't another place and time at all. Neal was on his feet by then and standing closer to Jon, breathing hard.
"Do you think we'll tolerate this?" the namer said. "Do you have any idea what we could do?"
"Move along," Jon said, keeping the shovel up and gripping it in both hands, knowing it wouldn't do much for them if the namer took a rush at them but grateful for it all the same.
It glared at them from the deeper shadows of the yard a moment longer, obviously torn. Then it rippled into the blackness and left them alone in it.
Jon looked at Neal, making sure he kept his features neutral. "You all right?"
"Yeah," Neal said, watching the shadows the namer had disappeared into.
"Don't pay attention to it," Jon said softly, and Neal snapped his head back around to look toward him but not at him, a distinction Jon understood even without enough light to see by.
"How'd you just happen to stop by in the middle of the night?" Neal said.
Jon gestured at Ellie with the handle end of the shovel, sighing. Ellie waved a hand at Neal without taking her eyes off the darker part of the yard. "The damndest things keep showing up under the piano downstairs," he said. "Neal, meet Ellie. She tells me she's from the 'real' world." And she's a fan of ours, and the namer was scared shitless of her, and this is all beginning to make sense in a way I don't want it to, he added silently, and saw Neal nod.
"Back into the house," Neal said, "before it gets any other bright ideas."
* * *
"And we're supposed to believe you are who you say you are," Neal said acidly.
It'd been going around like that for ten minutes, standing in the kitchen and playing twenty questions with each other, trying to keep quiet. Jon made coffee, trying to interject something typical and familiar into a situation that became more bizarre every time he looked at it. But turning his back on it had been worse, had caused him to begin losing bits and pieces of a life he thought was his...
And what the hell is that about? he thought again. His thinking had been circular on that point for days, the sense of reaching a crossroads and being stripped down to something....
He shook it off. Neal and Ellie were staring at him as if they'd heard him say something profane.
"What he's trying to say," Jon said, "is what if you're another namer, messing with us? There wouldn't be any point to it, but they've been screwing with us without a reason for a long time."
"A 'namer'," she said. "That ran the first one off, to get in your good graces? Right. Like they've ever been that subtle, or need to."
"Look," Neal snapped, "I don't wanna know what the namers might be afraid of, whatever you are."
"So take a swing at me with the shovel and see how far you get," Ellie said sardonically, cutting him off. "And if you're wrong, well, that's that. No one's sure you're the real article, either. The one we had on our side sure had everyone convinced."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Neal said.
"The same thing I've been trying to explain to both of you for awhile, now. Steve's been charged with murdering you. So maybe I should be asking you who the hell you are. Why should we believe you?"
Jon sighed loudly.
Ellie looked at him and laughed. "You guys got the short end of the stick, here, as far as fans go."
Jon shook his head. "Namers are too impatient, Neal," he said carefully. "I hate to say it, but this does make sense."
Without looking at Jon, Neal said, "Next question is, how'd she get over here? Assuming there's a here. Not by walking between. I still can't figure out how Steve was doing it, if he's back in the 'real' world. There was no way for us to do it from there."
I'm beginning to think there's a lot more we could do, and we didn't because we thought there were 'rules', Jon thought. Aloud, he said, "It's beginning to look like the namers are having the kind of trouble we were thinking of before. Tuirnarin was getting away with all that, for that long, then needed to be destroyed? By us."
"The civil war scenario?" Neal said. "That still doesn't explain why we're here, or why a bunch of fans are involved."
Oh, but a bunch of fans were involved before, weren't they? Jon thought, and Neal nodded.
"I'm only getting every other word, Jon," Ellie said, looking like she was on the verge of laughter again. "But, yeah, we were discussing that when the police came."
Neal stared at her. "Steve was really arrested, for murdering me."
"Because his fingerprints were all over the place, and there was a written confession," Ellie said.
The last of whatever skepticism Jon had been holding onto evaporated. "Dammit," he said. "I kept it and....dammit!"
"Doesn't matter if you did or not," Neal said. "They could have conveniently written another."
"Ross thinks they framed him because he's been walking between even though the namers told him to cut it out," Ellie said.
"How's he walking between?" Neal said.
Ellie shrugged. "Siarion has a stone."
Jon and Neal looked at each other.
"The Otherworlder cage in the namer zoo," Jon said wearily. "Who knows where we are? We don't have our abilities, so what are the chances that the Union side sent us a fan or two to offset what the Confederates are trying to do? Steve apparently tried to send us a note, and that didn't work, so..."
"So here's your singing telegram," Ellie said.
"And whatever was outside turned tail at the sight of her," Jon said, gesturing at Ellie.
"But--" Neal began.
"Too many hands holding," Jon said, and the look on Neal's face was a classic oh no. "We've been making noise, but the people listening to that noise were creating the base we were standing on. They had to be shaken loose before anyone could really mess with us." Jon folded his arms and leaned across the countertop, not satisfied with the explanation but realizing it was the best he could do.
"So we've been listening to this annoying noise for all our lives, and this makes us..." Ellie trailed off, waiting for Jon to pick it up.
"Somewhere on our wavelength," Jon said, "and maybe even more annoying than we are, to certain namers. We can only make that noise together. But each one of you is probably making a little of that noise on your own."
"And if we're lucky, you guys are being balanced out so that no one can take a crack at any of us," Neal said. "You sure as hell aren't what I was thinkin' of in the way of a bodyguard."
* * *