He knew this place.
He had died there, and the Ender had resurrected it for that purpose again. Cold damp stone and darkness, a featureless tower in the Outlands. He didn't care about any of that anymore.
Steve reached Neal and slid to his knees, reaching out in as many ways as he could. Listening. He could still do that; he no longer fit in the solid world, as warped as he was, but he would still fit in one final place. Neal was cold to the touch, but still alive somehow, and he laid his head on the guitarist's chest to listen even closer. He was greeted with the same heartbeat that still matched his own. Neal had been put away so deep that he wasn't sure...
"Is he okay?" Aug said, keeping his eyes on the shadows.
Steve didn't reply. He raised his head and replaced it with a hand on Neal's chest, feeling him breathe, waiting. This close, he was calling, and Neal wasn't surfacing to meet him.
"Steve," Aug whispered. Something moved in the shadows, coalescing.
Steve was already somewhere else, searching for a way to unlock too many doors. There was a suggestion of Neal somewhere below the weight of someone else's intent, and he knew immediately that even if they managed to get Neal out of there physically, he wouldn't be able to lift it himself. They didn't have the time to work on it; the Ender would be on them immediately. He had to get all the way in, past everything, and then...
Unlock Neal. That was all he was made to do, anymore.
He opened his eyes on the choice he'd made, and stared up at Aug for a moment. "It'll be okay," he said.
Aug glanced down at him. "I don't think we're alone anymore," he said. "You've gotta wake him up."
"I will," Steve said. "It'll be okay."
Aug met his eyes for a moment, knowing Steve was stressing something but not why, and he was too scared to question it. Even he could feel the Ender coming this time, and he turned to face it with the branch in his hands, bracing himself. He didn't see Steve take Neal's face between his hands, didn't see the Er Rai touch his face to the Walker's in simple absolution.
* * *
Neal had been sleeping, and didn't realize it.
When he heard the first hint of Steve's voice in the space between, he didn't believe it. He sure as hell wasn't going to go out there and see if it was really him. So when he heard all of the locks give and Steve came through the closest door, he could only get to his feet and stare at him for a moment.
"Are we dead?" Neal said.
"For a long time," Steve said. Neal was trying to pull him in to hold him, and there wasn't anything else for a moment but relief and gratitude for the chance to do that, however incorporeal. But Steve couldn't allow it. Neal would guess at the price that came with it if he did.
* * *
Aug knew he was alone when the Ender came out of the shadows, because had Steve seen it, he would have tried to shield Aug from it, whether Aug liked it or not.
It wasn't quite human this time - something darker and not completely solid. He felt it all the same and knew what it was; it rang between his ears because he was a walker and it was his opposite number in Existence. It stayed just at the edge of vision maybe ten yards in front of him, gathering the shadows to itself and congealing. Aug held the branch horizontally in his hands, keeping it held loosely at chest height. It didn't matter whether he understood how or why the thing hesitated, only that it did.
He could hear its anger.
When it rushed him, he wasn't prepared, but he stood his ground, brandishing the branch at it despite the burst of terror that cascaded through him. But with the fear came something else:
* * *
He couldn't wait to hold him, but Steve was shrinking away. There was something different, and if he thought about it he'd know -
"I missed you," Neal said. "I gotta talk to you, there's something - "
"There's nothing but getting you out of here," Steve said. "Just that."
Too relieved to notice Steve's evasiveness, strange speech pattern or anything else, Neal stepped back a little and said, "What, like maybe click my heels together?"
Steve's face looked too much like it had when he had just been the Er Rai, following him around the house and waiting to hear his voice. That was all so long ago. "Hold out your hand," was all Steve said to him.
Neal cocked his head back to look at Steve. "What are you doing?" And then he realized that he couldn't hear Steve well even though they were together in the space between. He was one step off, no longer in synch. Maybe too much time apart...?
"Neal." Steve said, and for just that instant his eyes weren't blank. "Please."
Neal held a hand out, eager to get out however he had to, even if Steve was suddenly scaring the hell out of him.
Steve pressed something into Neal's hand, then folded the hand between his own. He couldn't meet Neal's eyes. "I hope you understand," he whispered. "Maybe you won't forgive me, but I hope you understand." He pressed Neal's folded hand against the guitarist's chest and backed away as if doing so hurt him.
Neal meant to ask him what was happening, but he opened his hand and looked at what Steve had given him. Small, warm, metallic. The shape and weight and mottled colors of an antique key.
"For you, anything," he heard Steve say. But when he looked up, the singer was gone.
* * *
Neal opened his eyes in the physical world, in real time, eyes gritty, limbs stiff. It was cold...no. Not just that, but wet. Water was rising around him, and he was going to be covered soon if he didn't move.
He sat up, then realized what a mistake it was; he put his hands down on either side of his legs to keep from falling over again. His hands splashed in the water. Too dizzy. There was something in his right hand, and when the world stopped spinning, he looked at it. A key.
Wasn't a dream.
He turned it over in his hands, knowing there was something he should have understood. He knew that he was finally awake, that he hadn't been able to get out on his own. Somehow, Steve had gotten him out.
He called for Steve internally, reaching for him the way he always did when he awoke.
He pulled in a whoop of air, hand closing over the key with painful tightness.Steve existed. But not as himself. Not anymore. He was part of the whole, now.
Someone was shouting his name, and he could barely bring himself to look up. The world was gray, gray and wet, and he knew this place but had spent a lot of time and energy trying to forget it. It looked just like the towers in the Outlands, even though he knew they didn't exist anymore.
"Neal goddamnit do something!"
Neal struggled to sit up further and realized it was Aug screaming for him. Aug, standing in the rising water with a tree branch in his hands, holding off a figure in the shadows, something that was shifting from side to side, looking for an opening.
There was no effort to it any longer. He held the key to his chest and tried to be home, and he and Aug were gone.
Water rushed in to fill the empty space.
Aug felt himself hit a carpeted floor and opened his eyes, realizing he wasn't as dizzy as he should have been. He sat up, recognizing Neal's house, realizing they were both soaking wet. The water followed them at least that much. He looked around as he gained his feet, centering on Neal. The guitarist stood staring at his own open front door, expressionless, water dripping from his hair. "Neal," Aug said. "We gotta...Steve, where the hell is Steve?"
"Back where he started from," Neal said dully.
It took him a long, agonizing moment, but Aug caught on. "No," he said. "He can't just be gone." He wanted to add that's not how it was supposed to turn out but he knew better. "Jesus, what -"
"He's just parts, now," Neal said. "He's just not Steve anymore." He began to pace, eyes to the floor. "We don't have a lot of time. I want you to get to Jon's before the Ender gets here."
"I just held that thing off," Aug said. "I'm not gonna run away while you go head to head with it."
"I don't think the branch means the same thing anymore," Neal said. "Over here I mean, now that Steve is gone."
He'd said it aloud, and casually, and it hadn't killed him.
"Neal," Aug said, a hint of panic in his voice. There was nothing to follow it up with, just a horror that Neal had said gone as if he meant to the store. It didn't trouble him as much that he had an inordinate amount of something that was not-quite water following him around, or that he had just stepped from one world to the next. But the Ender was coming, and Neal was calm about that and everything else, and there was no way Aug could handle that.
Neal stopped pacing and said, "It'll be okay," the same way Steve had said it. The very last thing he'd said.
He was not talking to Neal anymore. The person in the room with him wasn't Neal or Steve, and the sense of loss was....crushing. Far beyond that of someone who'd only known either of them for a handful of years. Everything was gone, and he didn't understand why he felt that way; but it would never be okay.
"He doesn't know," Aug said suddenly, and Neal - or whatever was in the room with him - shook his head, not understanding. "The Ender," Aug said. "He doesn't know what you guys have done, he doesn't know who or what you are now. He thinks he's coming to get just you."
"Right. All I have to do is stand here and wait," Neal said in the same casual tone. Aug remembered Steve saying I'm going to keep him in a fucking jar and realized there was going to be a showdown of biblical proportions here in Neal's livingroom. The Ender would come after them here without realizing he was putting his head in the lion's mouth.
"You really should clear out," Neal said. "Because he's gonna try and use you as a shield once he realizes what's going on, and I don't think he'll be able to stop himself from trying to take you down with him. He won't be able to resist you."
Neal was trying to ask Aug not to distract him, and Aug heard it loud and clear. Neal never took his eyes off the floor near the open door, waiting, and Aug stared at him and tried hard to wrap his mind around what had happened in so short a time. He finally wondered what being in that water would have done to Neal...even if he was already off the scale as one of the Six. They'd never been able to figure out whether it had done anything to Steve.
He couldn't walk away, even though he knew Neal was right. The choice was taken from him for just a moment longer when Jon came running, breathless, feet pounding up the steps. He stood in the doorway for an instant, and Aug saw all of it: the fact that Neal didn't raise his eyes, the look on Jon's face as he realized what was going on. Aug had to give Jon credit for realizing so quickly on sight that Neal was different. The sharp bittersweet-colored eyes had flashed from joy to a hollow sadness within moments of reaching the doorway. The human part of him knew as quickly as the namer part of him that nothing was the same. Neal had not simply returned whole, but Whole, and he had finally lost him this time.
"I heard you," Jon said, meaning he'd heard them return, and Neal nodded without raising his eyes. Jon looked at Aug, who could only stand and return the gaze. There was nothing that words would do to make any of it clearer or easier. There was relief in Jon's face, tempered with the weight of what it had taken to get things to this point.
Aug answered the silent question anyway. "We're okay."
Jon came all the way into the house, looking for a moment as if he might reach for Neal, but he kept his distance and put his hands on his hips. "The Ender," Jon said softly.
"Is coming," Neal said in a low, almost reverent monotone. "An hourglass turns."
Jon didn't try to make anything of that, just turned to Aug with that same sad look on his face. It had all gone terribly wrong but had turned out the only way it really could. "Come on," he whispered. "It's almost over, now."
But I have to watch what I can't stand, Aug wanted to say. I wasn't here from the beginning but I have to see it through. He stood, torn, desperate to help somehow but afraid to stay. With a namer and one of the restored Six in the room with him, he was trying to stay on his feet. Whatever part of him was still a walker had been boosted by the river, and that meant everything that went with it. He could not choose Jon over Neal even if it was ridiculous.
"No one wants you hurt," Jon said softly. "Don't make Steve's...effort...pointless. Okay? Aug?"
Aug went with him, brushing a hand across Neal's shoulder as he passed, unable to resist, and sorry that he had. It just reinforced what he already knew: Steve was gone.
He went with Jon, walking out to his car like they were just running an errand. They sat for a moment, waiting for whatever might happen, knowing there was nowhere to run. "He'll be okay, right?" Aug said, unconcerned with how wooden his own voice sounded. Wooden and shaking.
"He's still Neal," Jon said, desperately wanting to believe that. "Just moreso. He's always okay. I don't think you are, though."
"I'm not built for this," Aug said, and he knew the words were his but also Steve's. Steve had said them, thought them, felt them. "I don't know why I can still do all this. My head..." He paused and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Something's wrong, it just keeps burning. Steve was burning, and not even the water would put it out."
He knew he wasn't making sense. He felt such a distance from everything.
Jon was looking at him, wanting him to say more, but instead the Inverse laid a hand on the side of the singer's face for just a moment before jerking it away. Aug was hot, but not temperature-wise. Aug was hot the way Steve had been after diving into the Evenwhen, holding a flame he couldn't contain. Steve was burning. He had to get Aug out of there and see what kind of beacon the Er Rai had left behind this time.
* * *
Neal stood and waited, shunting everything but the coming battle to the side. That dumb bastard was going to walk right in without the slightest idea of who Neal really was. And Neal couldn't wait.
The Ender eyed him for a beat. It was realizing, too late, that there was more than an untapped mortal in front of him. It looked like Neal in the narrow mortal band of the spectrum; but the Ender had much more available to it. Finally, it said, "Who are you?"
"Ri'hin Ari," Neal said with a small, grim smile. "The final part of time."
* * *