Echoes Part X ('Hourglass')
(c)2005 B Stearns
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Author's note: What amuses me most is that I sat on this, intending to finish several chapters at once, and when I went to open this again - it was gone. The file was corrupted and finally had to be opened in notepad. The chapter remnants had to be picked out of 257k of assorted, random gibberish, out of order, with sometimes only a word here and there between lots of @#$%!!. Sadly, the following is still really just assorted gibberish. Thanks to Sarah for trying to assist me in getting this all back.

Jon came to again as suddenly as he'd gone under. He lay still, fully awake but unable to reconcile how much time had passed or why he was fully clothed in bed. There was something he needed to remember, a sense of something too important to lie there and ignore. He didn't reach for it, because it was going to tilt him onto his head again and he'd had enough of all of it.

He rolled onto one side and opened his eyes, and the move brought enough of the room into view that he could see Steve.

The singer sat rocking slightly in the rocking chair near the bottom of the bed, facing the window and staring at it without seeing anything. Jon's first thought was how odd it would be for Steve Perry to be sitting and watching over him while he slept; but then his higher brain functions kicked in enough to remember it was the Er Rai watching him. And the Er Rai's hands were trembling.

Steve's misery was wide enough to change the colors of Jon's waking mood, and he remembered then that Neal was gone. That was all bad enough, but something else had happened in the time since he had been talking to Aug and Steve in this room. If he listened hard enough, he'd pick up enough to figure out what hung in the room...but he'd also pick up the after-echoes of what it had taken to forcibly remove Neal from that same place and time. And he wasn't willing to do that, ever again.

Oh, Neal.

He sat up slowly, feeling strangely rested considering what had happened. He could hear something out in the livingroom - TV. A muted cough. There was another presence in the house that wasn't a member of his blood family, but most likely belonged to his chosen family. Probably Aug. He looked at his watch. If it was still the same day, then he'd only been out for about three hours.

He rubbed his face with both hands, trying to make sure he was still together. He felt fine, almost as if he'd been somewhere else for a full week doing nothing but sleeping and getting his shit back together. He looked up as someone moved past the doorway without pausing. Aug. He looked rattled but was going about something out there like it was everyday business. Jon waited, glancing at Steve again to make sure the singer wasn't staring at him, and when Aug came back the other way, he said "Hey."

Aug caught himself mid-stride and stood outside the doorway. Not in the doorway, not entering, but several feet from the doorway. Jon made note of it, and it wasn't much of a leap to realize it was because of the creature in the rocking chair.

"You okay?" Aug said, wiping his hands on the thighs of his jeans as he said it.

Jon nodded. "Are you okay?"

Aug nodded, his face neutral. "There's stuff to eat out there," he said, gesturing in the general direction of the kitchen. "You're way past due to get something in your stomach." He paused as if he meant to say something else, then he suddenly walked away.

Jon glanced at Steve again, then rose and followed Aug out to the kitchen. It had been clean to begin with, but now it looked sterile, like someone had been scrubbing at the surfaces compulsively for lack of anything better to do...and to try and remove something they couldn't scrub away. Aug was looking out the window above the sink, his hands braced on the counter.

"The Ender was here," Aug said without turning, and Jon felt a chill run up his arms and across his chest. It didn't occur to him to ask Aug if he was sure. It made perfect sense for the Ender to wander in and check to make sure Steve was coming apart like he was supposed to and that there would be nothing in his way when he finally came to collect the Er Rai. Steve was too strong yet for the Ender to waste his time and energy on, when all he had to do was wait. And the Ender had waited until Jon was out, to do it.

"He didn't touch you, did he?" Jon said. He already knew the answer, because otherwise Aug would not have been standing in his kitchen. But he feared the more...subtle things the Ender might be capable of.

Aug shook his head. "He was gonna, though. In a big way, but Steve made him stop. Jon, I don't think that thing understands all of what it does, it just knows how to push buttons. And it's pushed a few too many. Don't we have anything we can do?"

Jon ran his hands through his hair, blinking at the daylight, and wanted to launch into something about what an arsenal they had with a namer, a walker, and the Er Rai, and it was all bullshit. So he shook his head and said, "The other Six don't want this to happen, the namers don't want this, Siarion probably doesn't want this. But we're on our own. Because even if they come out of nowhere to help, what they do is never really help. As far as being tougher than the Ender, we're not. If I thought I could get you to go home, or anywhere but here, I would."

Aug turned to him like he was going to protest, and Jon cut him off. "You're a walker, but you're not göonna be able to hold this off any more than I am. And I've been in this a lot longer than you have. We don't have anything, Aug. All I see us doing is making a final stand and nothing much after that."

He didn't like that any more than Aug did, so he didn't bother looking at the singer's face. There wasn't even disappointment in his voice. "Even with Neal here, I don't know what the hell we were gonna do about it all anyway. That's not giving up. It's just the goddamn truth. I just really have no idea, whether that means this line goes to hell or not. Nobody's saving us from this one."

"Not with force," Aug said, and when Jon looked at him, he was looking away out the window again. "Not the way anyone thinks we're supposed to figure it out. We're just dumb, linear humans, right? There has to be a better way than just the dumb linear way."

Jon nodded, agreeing with him but having nothing to offer. "I don't have any pull anywhere," he said. "There's no one we can...consult, or anything. And we don't really know any more about this than when we started. So if all we can do is make things harder for them all, then at least there's that." Then he said, "I'm gonna go home for just awhile, ground myself and stuff. Steve's still too strong for anybody to just come in and get him, so it'll be okay. But if they do..."

"Get out of the way," Aug said for him. "Yeah, I know. I saw how much he can take care of himself." He paused, then he said, "Steve's not a touchy-feely guy."

It was a statement, an observation, and Jon knew Aug well enough to know that it wasn't any more than that. Aug was going to say whatever the hell he meant.

"And he'll lock down and not want anyone to know anything, but then he'll suddenly forget and just show everybody everything," Aug said.

Jon nodded. He'd been on the receiving end of that backward behavior many a time. He waited for Aug to get where he was going.

"He's not gay," Aug said. "He's not completely straight, either. Nobody is, I guess, but it's not like I notice or care."

Jon finally looked closely at Aug, and his concern was obvious.

"It's got nothing to do with us," Aug said.

Jon waited, and there was nothing else. There wasn't a need for anything else. So he said, "You thinking maybe you should get the hell out of here before you guys end up sleeping together?"

He'd wanted to be joking. And he'd wanted it to come off as if he was. But the look on Aug's face told him it just wasn't funny. Not quite yet, maybe not ever.

Goddamnit, why is so much of this out of anyone's control? "You're not supposed to be able to resist him, Aug," Jon said. "No, it's got nothing to do with either of you. It's just what you are, not how. It's part of why he was trying so hard to get Neal to just put him away somewhere, because he was afraid that's all there ever was. The what." He paused. "If it's hard to handle - "

"No," Aug said. "It's not. I was just wondering how much you guys realized. Because it would be hard to listen to him for a long, long time like the Formless have, and not do something about it. Anything."

Jon nodded. "Yeah, as much as I don't wanna talk about it, he pulls everything out of the woodwork. I don't think anything we've had to mess with so far is anything more than a beginning. We made too much noise, wandering around together, and he's not something anybody could ever ignore. On any scale." He looked at Aug carefully. "That's the least of how weird things are."

"I know," Aug said. "Don't worry, I know. It's not a physical thing, it's just...hard to be a walker and be anywhere near him without invading his space. But then, he said I'm one of Neal's walkers, and I don't really know what that means. But if there's anything to that, whatever it is, it makes him and me a lot weirder and tougher to handle."

Jon looked at him closely, watching for anything beyond the stress he'd been put through. He was doing okay for coming in so late and getting messed with like he was.

"I'm okay, Jon," Aug said. "Seriously."

Jon nodded and walked away, afraid to even so much as glance in the open bedroom doorway on his way out.

The moment Jon got some distance between himself and the house, Steve felt the shift in the energy in his proximity.

When Aug turned from the windows again, Steve was inches away. Aug startled and put his hands out, bracing himself for a moment on Steve's chest. He'd never heard him walk up behind. There was something there beyond shock, beyond accidental contact with another human being; it wasn't physical, and he was startled enough that he didn't react for several seconds. A hum, a small electric warmth. Whatever it was stopped the moment he dropped his hands. He didn't back away.

"I told you he'd be fine," Steve said softly, and the voice he used was a low, almost husky tone that Aug had never heard from him before and wanted to listen to.

Even this close, he didn't see the green in Steve's eyes. There was something else to see in there, but he was careful not to imagine what it was.

They stood there looking at each other for much longer than was necessary or comfortable. When Steve moved to step away, there was genuine affection in his face and in the caress he dropped along Aug's jaw.

* * *

When Jon came back, there wasn't much to say. They spoke of small things, trying to keep each other from drawing into themselves; Steve mostly sat and listened, and watched them with unnerving intensity. But at least he was awake and engaged.

When Aug awoke the next morning, it was with Steve curled next to him, staring at the middle distance with eyes at half mast. Aug never gave it a thought.

* * *

Jon wandered away again for a few hours to see Liz and the kids, and Aug and Steve kept a careful distance.

Steve mostly stood and stared at the floor. The spot where he'd last seen Neal, and the spot the Ender had vanished into.

He thought about a sandstorm, about an hourglass turned in his own hands in the center of it. The memory wasn't his. He mentally turned the hourglass in his hands again, watching the sand, no longer seeing the whole. Individual grains slid and tumbled, each acting on the other, governed by outside forces but acting in accordance with their size, shape and weight. Predictable and individual parts of a whole.

The whole was an illusion.

"Aug," he said, raising his voice so that the other singer would hear him. "Where was the last place you threw up part of the river?"

Aug came out of the livingroom and looked at him like he'd gone insane. "The Silver Legacy," he said. "Right outside the elevators on the 14th floor."

Steve moved to the part of the floor that the Ender had vanished into. He could still feel it, mark its passing, catch its mental scent. It didn't matter how; he accepted it and held on with everything he had. "We need to go there. Now."

"Jon - "

"Has done all he can for now, and I'm not gonna argue with him over the how and why. Are you with me or not?"

Aug hesitated for only the briefest moment. "Yeah. Always."

"All we've got left is hunches," Steve said. "I think I get it, and I'll explain it, but we have to go."

* * *

The drive to Reno had been the strangest road trip Aug had ever taken, hands down. They'd talked about the river and what it might have done to them. Athyri. Journey. What it meant to be a walker, what they had in common as people and what they didn't.

It was the last time he got a chance to really talk to what remained of Steve.

Leaving without telling Jon what was going on didn't seem like a good idea, but Steve really was hard to resist when he was pushing for something. And Neal wasn't going to keep forever. So Aug felt the urgency to move, to do anything that might move them in the right direction. And Jon would want to discuss it...

Oh, how he wanted to believe all the thoughts were his own. Having something as powerful as what Steve had become in his constant living space couldn't really push him to do and think things he usually wouldn't. There was just no way. By now Jon was looking for them and losing his cool because he'd know they hadn't been taken. If they got anywhere with the hallway on the 14th floor, well, they'd have to smooth it over later.

Aug looked at the floor again, testing. He wasn't sure what he was hoping for, but he was sure it had to have left some sort of telltale sign. When a river that originated in another world - or whatever he was supposed to call the Nothing beneath Athyri - spilled all over a hallway in Reno, it stood to reason that the right eyes would be able to trace it and anything like it

Steve was several floors below him, walking up. Watching, keeping an eye out for the uninvited. Watching his back.

He couldn't imagine not knowing Steve.

Distance - the other me - won't be waiting for you this time, Steve had said. You'll be okay, I know you will. I wouldn't let him hurt you, anyway.

Like he really knew what he was up against, there. Still, Steve knew more about it than he did.

He shook himself back to the present when the elevator doors opened and dropped him at the 14th floor. People walked by him, guests and hotel staff, and he pretended he was waiting for the elevator even though he'd just come off it. When the hallway was empty again, he walked a small circle. Maybe he should have brought that branch with him from home, maybe it was meant to help him in some -

There was a heart-stopping moment of disconnection not unlike turbulence on an airplane. His stomach hit the roof of his mouth, only he realized as it was happening that the sensation wasn't physical at all. He was already landing face-first on his own bedroom floor, though, so it didn't matter anyway.

He sat up in shock and tried to get a handle on the dizziness that was trying to make him lie down again. He recognized his surroundings and struggled to understand why he was there until he remembered a long-past nightmare that had caused him to bring part of the river back with him. Into that room, into the space he currently occupied in it.

He got to his feet, feeling a little better. The house was silent. Lydia was at work and Adam was at school this time of day, and no one would realize he'd even been there.

Assuming he could get back the same way.

But God, how badly he wanted just to stay where he was. Home. Safe. Except it would be neither for long if they couldn't get Neal back. So he went straight for the thing that was out of place, the tree branch propped in the corner by the closet. His hand closed on it, and when he turned back, there was a girl.

A girl with silver hair in a long braid and eyes with no whites. He was able to remember they'd looked like black holes in her face, keeping the light from getting away...and then he didn't get away either.

* * *

Steve passed another stairway and paused to listen for the telltale hum of anything running on an alternate wavelength. No one had recognized him or Aug coming in, and he had never been so grateful to be ignored. There was no explaining that one. They'd think he was kidnapping Journey's new singer or something. If he was right, if the river was going to give them a chance -

He had told Neal he thought they were halves of the same whole, that he was mostly space and Neal was mostly time. Separately, they were formidable, but together, everything. Neal had been throwing him to move him through space, and it had never been necessary. It hadn't worked well because it wasn't meant to.

Jon had talked about the space between atoms and how much of it there was.

The riddle he'd taken as an epitaph returned to him as he stared. Glass children and stone elders... ground back to sand.

"And an hourglass turns," Steve whispered.

"Er Rai," a soft, familiar voice said to his right.

When he looked up, Siarion was gazing at him calmly.

He knew, right away. He knew that Aug walking the lines - even just staying in the same placeline - had gotten all the attention they didn't want. He straightened slowly and looked at Siarion, and didn't bother to play dumb about what she was there for.

"I guess we finally got your attention again," he said. "What do you want?"

"You decided to use the sapling to pursue the Ender," she said, coming closer. It occurred to Steve just then that her eyes were no different from any daywraith's. He couldn't tell where she was looking, exactly, but he could feel her attention. No one came down the hallway; the sounds of the place had died down suddenly, as if it had been emptied out. Or frozen.

"The sapling will perhaps make a good example of what you will eventually lose," she said.

And he knew exactly who she was referring to when she said the word sapling. How fucking appropriate. "What did you do?" Steve said, voice flat and cold to match his eyes. "He's not what you planned," Steve said. "Neither am I, right? I'm all alone now, so I should be pretty vulnerable, but I'm not, yet. And you're afraid of me, huh."

"You overestimate yourself," she said. "Neal will leave the line, and the Ender will take you and end all of this. You may not feel it now, but the Ender will not leave Neal alone while the Walker is in his care. Do you consider this as suffering, now? Imagine."

He listened to her carefully despite the fact that he wanted to drive her off. He could imagine. He would remember this conversation for as long as he needed it.

"You want Neal back from the Ender as bad as anybody else does, because it doesn't turn out good for you either," Steve said in the same tone. Jesus, how much time do I have?

"I don't want the Ender getting a chance to assimilate you," she countered. "That will happen eventually, as you and Neal come apart. I have time, and can wait until the Ender is so enthralled with you that he leaves Neal unattended." She looked around him briefly to check the hallway, searching for nothing in particular and showing no real interest. "Then it would be a matter of stepping in with the Ender. He will not be hard for me to take care of. But, you see, the longer you wait, the less Neal is able to hold onto his mortal self. He will be stripped of his humanity sooner or later, and when you're both weak enough, the Ender will try and kill the physical version of him you're so fond of."

"If I took a crack at you," Steve said, "what do you think would really happen? You must be made of the same stuff as any walker."

Her cold gaze rested on him with emotionless calm. "If you press me," she said, "perhaps the sapling will be more difficult to locate."

He came closer, not caring that she had once thrown him right out of his body with a glance. He came close enough to breathe on her, tilting his head in a little. "If you press me," he said, "I've got the rest of eternity to get you, over and over, no matter where you go or what you do to me. Don't take your petty bullshit out on Aug."

"You are all alone now," Siarion said without backing away. His proximity didn't seem to trouble her in the least, but, she wasn't human. There was never any telling what exactly did trouble her. "You left the namer behind, and ran, as you have always done. And there will be a little time, yet, before the Ender makes a final play for you. So I will use this opportunity wisely and find the walkers using this placeline."

That didn't make any sense. What did she need walkers for? Steve straightened away from her but didn't take a step back. He remembered the afternoon Ga'ityn had called him away, and he'd gone without thinking. "Because any walker can call me," Steve said. "Is that why?"

"If I had wanted more than six, I would have created them," Siarion said. "You are the only of your kind, Er Rai, and I barely tolerate the thought of you. The others who were created by the Six are unfinished, weak, pale comparisons of what I created. Offshoots of no consequence. The Six have waged discontent with each other from their very beginning, and as a result grew bored and curious."

"Lonely," Steve said.

"Many worlds and lines are populated with the result," she said dismissively. "I will purge them, and the Six will focus on their task of checking the namers."

He watched her, checking to see how sincere she was. It was impossible.

"Existence will benefit," she said, with no inflection to carry the weight of the words. "Six were created because it reached a balance. So many small, failed experiments have tilted the lines. You, of anything created, can find each of them."

"I won't help you," Steve said without hesitation. "Fuck you, I - "

"I am willing to allow one," she said, cutting him off. "There is one you're fond of, I believe. The one who shares your name."

Steve allowed a moment of panic to blind him. Aug.

She paused, watching the affect this had on Steve, then said, "And Neal's children, of course....there are three that he knows of. Walkers, all, of varying degrees. If you had to choose among them, which do you suppose he'd most want to keep?"

Steve was silent only for as long as he had to be, to keep himself from screaming. Tuirnarin had made similar threats and he had never taken them seriously. Something that looked like the creature standing before him had guarded Jon's kids while they were all in Athyri, and now this. As if it hadn't been bad enough, as if he wasn't already broken. "You dumb bitch," he said in a low, shaken voice. "Don't threaten me."

"I am only suggesting you make a choice," she said.

"Where is Augeri?" Steve said. "Where's the sapling?"

She seemed to stir a little and focus on him. "He has made a choice," she said.

"Don't touch him," Steve said, his voice steady again. He not only knew exactly who she meant by sapling, he knew suddenly that she was also talking about the branch that the tree had given Aug. "If I do as you say and Neal comes out of this okay, he'll be as happy to kill you as I am now."

"Everything has a price," she said.

"I'm glad you know it," Steve said. "You could probably take care of all of this now, but you don't want to. You're gonna be guilty of what I always have, of being a Destroyer."

"For removing inconsequential mortals who should not have a walker's capabilities," she said. The faintest smile touched her face, cold and removed - a reflex from dealing with creatures that emoted. "Who is going to want to exact vengeance for it, Er Rai? The Formless will thank me." She shifted away, leaving his part of spacetime, and he stared into the space she'd occupied, waiting for anything else.

The man he had been would have flown into a rage and vented it on the nearest inanimate object. But that person, the mortal, the rock star, hadn't seen millennia of destruction.

He and Aug had discovered something important, or Siarion wouldn't have shown up to apply pressure right when she did. And he had no clue what he'd done or how he'd gotten to that point. Rattling him had probably been part of the idea; it had always worked before. He didn't have the time to waste, being rattled now. There would be a way out of this.

There had to be.

Everything has a price.

* * *