ECHOES

Part I ('Doors')
(c)2003 B Stearns
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I'm sleeping on a time bomb
And I'm waiting for the light to come...
--Vertical Horizon, We Are
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Neal closed his eyes.

He hadn't put a Journey album to bed in years, and this one was more satisfying than most. No yelling, no going back to redo anything more than once, no delays. What no one save Neal realized was that their former lead singer had contributed, in his own accidental way, to the songwriting and the final touches. There was one long note playing between them, some harmony that had managed to insinuate itself through most of the songs that had made the final cut. He didn't think even Steve could hear it. But he always would.

Post production had begun the week before, everyone else was gone, and he was the last one to let go this time. It was usually Jon, but even he had gone home to Liz and the kids the week before. Everyone was going to take a break before the album was released and the tour started that fall.

They'd all been staying at Kevin Shirley's beach cabin, acting like a family. Amber had stayed for the whole thing, and he'd been unable to resist saying yes to a boxer puppy that had romped in the surf with them and lightened things even further. They'd named him Bruno, because it seemed to fit, and Amber had taken him back to Minnesota with her the week before. He already missed her, and the dog. And normalcy. He had a week to himself at the cabin, no questions asked.

It was over. And just starting. Because Steve had been traveling the last couple of days, and was waiting for him at the beach. He'd taken a conventional flight as far as Chicago, then had used more unconventional means the rest of the way. Completely untraceable, and forcing himself to use skills that would degrade otherwise, the singer had used his raven form for the remainder of the trip. Taxing, yes. But necessary. Because the last anyone knew, they had absolutely no reason to have anything to do with each other professionally or personally, and there were too many people they didn't want to have to explain anything to.

So Neal said goodbye to Kevin and walked out to his car, not hurrying, not changing anything about his routine or demeanor.

Steve had unlocked the door with a thought, then left it open. There seemed to be no strength left in his arms, or anywhere else. It was more than the trip; it was the last six weeks and the separation. They'd never been apart so long since becoming tangled, and there hadn't been any episodes of disconnection like there had been earlier on. It was just one long degeneration, a weariness, and it was Steve's only.

So Neal didn't have far to go to reach the singer when he walked in and swung the door closed behind him with a foot. Hands gripped hands and slid along forearms; foreheads touched in rarely allowed affection. They stood with arms wrapped around each other for long minutes, never feeling the time pass, never speaking internally or externally. The relief was too great. It would fade bit by bit, but for the moment it held them the way they held each other - immobile. For now there was only this, an embrace nothing short of a full-body caress.

When Neal could finally hold Steve away, it was to visually confirm what he already knew. The singer's eyes and hair were dull; he was cold to the touch, and seemed faded, somehow. Neal had had less opportunity to suffer the pangs of separation, but an ache remained. He hadn't been awake for six straight weeks.

So it was the first thing they rectified.

The next morning, when Neal awoke, Steve was out on the beach, the cuffs of his jeans rolled up to just below the knee. He sat crosslegged on the sand, just out of reach of the water. It wasn't warm enough to wade, but enough sun had been on the sand to warm it a little. He stared out over the water, wondering what he'd say if Kevin came to check up on Neal.

He won't, Neal thought. He's glad to have me out of his hair, period.

You're a pain in the ass, that's why, Steve thought, then immediately laughed. "Shit, I didn't mean it."

You will, though, Neal thought, leaving the cabin, closing and locking the door. Embarrassing Steve was something he wished he'd worked on years earlier, because it threw the singer off to the point where he forgot what he was arguing about. He'd been too busy thinking about breaking Steve's nose most of the time to think of a way to undo him.

Steve shook his head, refusing to acknowledge Neal when the latter came to stand behind him, even when a knee bumped him in the shoulder.

They stared out across the water, listening to it, sharing the sensory input. It was getting breezier, and they'd have to go in sooner or later. And deal with things. But for a few minutes, they were just friends on some beach somewhere, no worries. No complications.

At some point when neither of them was paying attention, Steve twined an arm around one of Neal's legs, always seeking contact without conscious intent. Some time later, Neal shifted, a thought building about what they were out there to do. Steve automatically moved to follow, reaching for a hand that he knew would be there when Neal helped him stand.

Practice.

It had been Jon's idea; to use whatever they had, whenever they could, without attracting attention. They had to find out what they could do and figure out how to get control of it. It was mostly aimed at Steve; the scene at the mall was never alluded to, but they all knew that was the main focus. Find a way not to blow things up without really meaning to, Neal had said. Jon had made it simpler yet by reminding them that whatever came looking for them wouldn't stand by and wait while they tried to figure out how to defend themselves.

It meant getting linked up and staying that way.

Which required practice of another kind. Not that either of them minded. It wasn't comfortable yet, and they treated it like a kind of full-contact sport. It was often a contest of how far one could push the other. So long as it kept a status of necessity in their minds, it was nearly safe territory. Undiscussed territory, since that first night that Steve had crossed the threshold of Neal's bedroom and accepted a clumsy but wholehearted invitation. Other lines had been crossed immediately after that had changed the way they dealt with each other in much more than just a physical sense.

Is that the rest of it, what you've been hiding? Is that how you died?

But I want you. Whatever comes with that, comes with that.

Things kept closely guarded had been brought to light, and anything confessed had withstood the glaring reality of the morning after. Yet since...

So much closer, but so much further away.

"Pick a spot," Neal said, turning to face down the beach.

"Hawaii," Steve said. "Vault me there, it's really goddamn nice this time of year, and it's not New York in April."

"I don't know any particular spots in Hawaii," Neal said. "Could put you right in the middle of some coral reef or a luau or somethin'. So I'll start with that really big rock over there." He hesitated, not hearing any specific anxiety from Steve, but feeling it anyway. "I know it feels like shit, but -"

"Just do it," Steve said. "Don't keep rampin' me up for it, you're makin' it worse."

Any time Neal had tried to 'move' Steve - either through time or space - it had hurt. Steve might be closer to him than any other being ever had been, but he was still physical. And being hurtled around hurt.

Neal hesitated a moment more, and when he did, Steve took off running.

"Goddamn it!" Neal yelled.

"Moving target," Steve yelled back. "C'mon, old man!"

There was a snap that wouldn't have been audible to anyone but them. Steve vanished, then tumbled into the sand fifty yards away, on the other side of the rock Neal had pointed out. He didn't bother trying to get up; his entire body rang the way a blow to the head usually rang between his ears. Neal was there an instant later, walking across the space, hauling him to his feet.

"Doesn't make any difference, dumbass," Neal said. "It would, if you were someone else. And who you calling 'old man'?"

"You're still slow," Steve said, jerking out of his grip even though he didn't want to. "And don't fuckin' keep hesitating. Who are you worried about?"

"The rest of the world, with you livin' in it," Neal said, then turned and began jogging back for the cabin. Unlock the door.

Steve rolled his eyes and walked after Neal, keeping his gaze on the sand, listening to the water. Neal was waiting impatiently by the door.

"Open it while you're at it," Neal said.

Steve folded his arms and said, "What the hell for?"

"You better learn somehow," Neal said.

Steve sighed and focused his gaze on simply opening the door. It locked, unlocked, and locked again.

"Maybe you can do kid's parties," Neal said.

"I'm tryin' to fuckin' concentrate on this," Steve said.

"You're not doing shit with it," Neal said.

Steve felt a stab of annoyance, and imagined the door opening. A burst of will came with it, the urge to show Neal what he could do with his taunting.

The door slammed open with enough force to lodge it in the wall behind.

Every window in the cabin exploded outward with bright, crashing finality.

Both men stood and stared, mouths open in shock. Steve finally covered his mouth with both hands.

Shit.

It had been an accident. He hadn't even been angry.

"Kevin's gonna lose his fuckin' mind," Steve said, tone light. But he began to tremble as he said it. "Try explainin' to him how you did this."

"Nothing," Neal said. "You're gonna patch the wall, and I'm gonna call someone to replace the windows. This is what Jon was talkin' about. This is why we gotta figure things out."

Steve stood and stared at the glass that had sprayed outward until Neal said, "Close it and open it again."

Steve looked up, face impassive but thoughts incredulous. "No."

"Do it," Neal said. "Figure out where that line is."

"Look at the fuckin' place," Steve said, shifting his weight from foot to foot in the sand.

"Not much else you can do," Neal said. "Close the fucking door!"

Steve considered walking away, but before he could move, Neal had reached forward and grabbed him under the chin. Anyone watching from a distance would have thought the motion was at the very least patronizing, or a joke. Possibly a prelude to violence. It was none of those things; in a past life, maybe. Neal's grip could barely be classified as one, and Steve never moved his hands or tried to duck even though he'd never tolerated anyone touching his face.

"Look at me," Neal said. "This is how it is. You can ignore it and make it worse, or get a handle on it. That's all there is. No one said you had to do it by yourself."

They stood, eyes locked, for another moment. Then Neal released Steve's chin to drop the hand to his shoulder, and the door closed softly behind him and locked.

* * *

The week was full of long, lazy days punctuated by occasional phone calls from anyone concerned about Neal spending so much time alone. The rest of the calls were from the band, making sure their respite remained one. They kept an eye out for surprise visitors, of either the linear or Formless kind, and received neither.

Steve began to look human again.

By the end of the week, the door trick was barely worth yawning over. Like a spring that had been wound too tightly, the mechanism he used to move things had been adjusted to a certain degree.

On the final day, Steve was lying on the floor in front of the fireplace, reading and enjoying the warmth after a day of moving things and being tossed around. His newest trick was to keep Neal from throwing him at all, which amused him and pissed Neal off up one side and down the other. Mind games, sure, but worth tucking away for consideration. Neal was sitting at the table in the kitchen, drawing, something he'd rarely had time to do anymore.

Damn near domestic.

"Get off the floor, for Chrissakes," Neal said finally. "You're not a goddamn dog."

"That's cute, coming from you," Steve said. "I remember you saying diff -" He paused, and was sitting up in a flash. Neal got to his feet at the same time, hearing Steve's alarm. He didn't hear anything himself, just a low whisper of something through Steve.

There was someone coming, something, headed right for them. How, he couldn't tell - walking, flying, moving in the walls, there was no telling.

Walker.

"Where?" Neal said aloud, afraid the inner voice they shared would disrupt the whisper.

Steve got to his feet, still listening, and Neal let an absurd thought occur, that Steve was like a retriever on point. Steve made a hissing noise between his teeth and said, "Think about what we're gonna do about it."

There were no windows on that side of the cabin, the side the noise was coming from.

"If it was one of the Six, we'd already know," Neal said. "How many walkers do you think are just hangin' around the beach today?"

Steve nearly jumped out of his skin when there was a knock at the door. Casual, human. But this close, now, familiar. Without realizing what he was doing or why, Steve reached for the door, ignoring Neal's shout of warning.

There was a walker on the other side of the door, looking inquisitive and expectant. Long, curly hair, a slender frame, and an infectious grin that faded at sight of Steve.

"Hey, I would have called first, but I was hoping to catch the wildlife unawares," Aug said, glancing between Steve and Neal.

"New York," Steve said calmly.

"This a bad time?" Aug said. "You guys okay?"

"No and yes," Steve said, then yanked the other singer inside and slammed the door. "You're a noisy bastard, you know that?" And before Aug could say anything in response, Steve had him in a bearhug.

* * *

There wasn't much in the way of catching up to do, since Neal had spent nearly every waking moment with Aug the previous two months and Steve had spoken to him several times over the phone. But it was different in person, and something came out in Steve that Neal had rarely seen in the past twenty years: an older-brother playfulness. He knew what had happened in the dark labyrinth beneath Athyri, but not on the level that the singers shared with each other. So for once he felt a little left out, and tried not to take it personally.

"I just wanted to surprise you guys," Aug said from his perch on the hearth. "Being so close to home and all, so I figured after you'd had enough space that it wouldn't hurt to drop in to say hi. You should've seen your faces."

"I thought you were someone else," Steve said.

"So you opened the door anyway," Aug said flatly. "Could have been some poor Mormon, and you would've gone straight to hell for smacking him around."

Neal smirked. "Well, at least we can hear stuff comin'. Doing something about it, well..."

Aug shrugged. "There's nothin' I can do to help, is there."

He was talking about what they were planning to do. Start with the scene at the mall and work back, repairing things.

Neal shook his head. "You weren't there the first time," Neal said. "Extra hands might throw the balance off, or something."

"Do you guys think you might be able to fix....everything?" Aug said. "I mean, even stuff that maybe you didn't know about before?"

Neal shrugged, but Steve heard something else in the question. Neal looked at Aug more closely as a result, and Steve said, "Like what?"

Aug heard the searching tone and clamped down on everything he wanted to say. He wanted to ask Steve about the river into Nothing that he'd drowned in, ask him what he knew about the Evenwhen and what the water and space might have done to a walker, even a minor one. But he had no way of doing it without really throwing them off course and making himself the focus of their attentions. He didn't want that. He wanted to go on thinking things were normal for a little while longer.

So instead he said, "You know, maybe fixing something will readjust something else a little, warp it, and make the way you approach it have to be different."

Neal just looked at him, amazed. "Very good, Padawan."

Steve was silent, watching the other singer's eyes dart around. There was more to say, and he already knew he wouldn't be able to pry it out without a crowbar. Aug was narrowly saved by the phone.

Neal picked it up, thinking it might be Amber.

"I locked myself out," Deen said on the other end, bypassing hello with a tinge of panic in his voice.

"You locked yourself out, and you know Steve is good with locks," Neal said, trying not to laugh. Aug was suddenly doing it for him, in the background.

"Yeah," Deen said. "Can he, um...do that thing, over distances?"

"Good question," Neal said. For Aug's benefit, he restated the question aloud.

"Be fun to try," Steve murmured.

"Need you to put the phone down and walk away from it," Neal said. Aug was laughing harder.

"What, just leave it by the door or something?" Deen said.

"Yeah, because I'm not sure if he needs the open line or whatever," Neal said. "And if you back away, maybe he won't accidentally unlock you."

Neal heard the phone being quickly jostled, then silence. He did laugh then, and handed the phone to Steve.

"Think it'll make a difference?" Steve said.

Neal shrugged. "Scared the hell out of Deen."

"If this works, you're gonna need to start charging for it," Aug said.

Steve listened in the phone for a moment, then let his eyes close, concentrating on the world that existed on the other end of the connection. He tried to focus on an undefined area that he couldn't see, and the result became fodder for several websites, magazine articles and urban legends, blamed on anything from magnetic storms to geological upheaval and Uri Gellar.

Like a drop in a pond, the idea of open spread outward from the source. Deen's door unlocked; so did every other door, window, briefcase, cash register, drawer, safe, post office box, piece of luggage, and many other things for a fifty mile radius around Deen's house.

"Fuckin'-a," Deen said when he picked up the phone again.

"I guess it worked," Neal said.

"Yeah," Deen said. "Cheaper than a locksmith. Tell Steve thanks, because I really don't think I want him right on the phone with me or anything, just yet."

* * *

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