ECHOES

Part II ('Under The Radar')
(c)2003 B Stearns
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It ain't me that you feel
There's something moving around in here
That's blood, that's tears
This ain't a warning...
Everybody out of the water.

--The Wallflowers, Everybody Out Of The Water

Author's note: Confused? The full story is in the alternate tale section at the bottom of the 'Wielding' page, titled 'Still Unsaid'. Most of it was discussed in the latter parts of book 4, but since it took me forever to post it all, no one remembers anymore.
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Neal was all for getting it the fuck over with.

Jon wanted a carefully laid out plan for who did what; but Steve was carefully ambivalent on the surface, no opinions for once. The three of them were a bad mix, when it came to this particular subject.

Neal's house needed airing out after his absence, and they were doing a rotten job of airing anything else.

"I love this," Jon said for the third time.

"Yeah, well, I'm not hot on it either," Neal said. "No offense, but getting shot at isn't a good character building excersize for me, either."

Steve shook his head. "You won't be able to talk sense into him. I know him. Or a later version of me does."

"I kinda doubt that," Neal said. What's with you?

"Well, I threw his brother off a fuckin' tower," Steve said aloud in a sardonic tone. "Hypothetically, if I murdered Jon in front of you, wiseass, tell me how warm and fuzzy you'd be toward me then."

Steve.

Steve snorted and looked away.

"Wasn't you," Neal said. "Not the you standing here. You wanna deal in possibilities? Fine, that could be me too, with enough time. Worry about gettin' through to him, and endin' the whole thing."

For a moment, Steve thought he knew more than he did, and the facade slipped. Neal paused to stare at him, trying to catch the trailing edge of the panic. "What the hell else is goin' on, here?" he said.

I've always been capable of this, Steve thought. I was just waiting for an excuse.

"Why are you so damn stubborn?" Neal said. "You wanna flog yourself for this, do it later. I don't wanna have to kill this kid."

"What's he got to go back to?" Steve said. "He's gonna keep tryin' to go back and save his brother from falling. He wants his brother alive, and he wants left alone. If he's gotta kill us, or shred the line, he'll do it. He's gettin' better as he goes, even as he's wearin' down."

"Then some kind of plan would be great," Jon said. "What exactly am I supposed to do with him, if I get him?"

"His name is Colin," Steve said, and the defensive tone was obvious. "He might not recognize you. I just don't think we should go up against this kid the way we're thinkin'. The whole frontal assault kind of thing."

"Then you need to come up with a better way," Jon said, but there was no impatience in his tone. "You're the only one who's ever come across him, who knows what went on. There's only one place we know to start from, or what to expect. We don't wanna end up doing this over and over to account for the unexpected, which is what we might be doing if we start from scratch from a different spot."

"Because we're linear," Neal said. Underneath that was we've already had this conversation about staying inside the lines. "And this is as good a place as any."

"And we need to get it over with, because your friend the detective called again while you two were still in New York," Jon said. They both stared at him. "If we get things to the point where it never happened, then the detective never happened, either, and the curiosity goes away. Where else would we start? With the spot where he was grabbed originally? You'd be confronting the Distant Er Rai, then."

His tone was suggestive. He knew Steve feared what they were going to attempt, but that he feared the future version of himself more. And none of them had any idea how to deal with the root cause of most of their current [past, future] difficulties, yet. They were starting with what they thought of as small.

Steve's sigh was a heavy note of frustration. "I'm just saying - "

"I know," Jon said. "But we gotta start with the known quantity, for now."

Steve nodded, the motion barely visible. For once, he looked afraid.

What? Neal thought. I know this is big, but what's really the problem? It's not even what happened, because we're gonna change that.

"Not everywhere, or everywhen," Steve said.

"And if the Ender smells us all standing there?" Jon said, changing tack. "He might catch on, and not walk away like he's supposed to. Then what."

"He's not gonna change," Neal said. "I don't know how I know that, I just do. By the time we grab the kid, he'll have just gone off. He wasn't interested in confronting us in person until that day at the studio."

"Plus, if the kid does take another crack at you two, I'm supposed to run out and reverse it, huh?" Jon said. "If this is supposed to be the easier thing to fix, I want a stunt double."

Neal laughed. "You actually cracked a joke about this, for once. I'm so proud of you right now, man."

Jon shrugged. "I just wish we were clear about everything, before we try this." His eyes darted to Steve for an instant, and Steve caught the look without acknowledging it.

* * *

The escalator confused the hell out of Steve, again, and this time they both thought it was funny. It dispelled the tension a little, put the looming horror aside for an instant.

"I got a new hobby," Neal said. "Come to the mall, put you on the escalator. Fun for the whole family. Close your eyes."

Once the first step was taken, there was no going back.

Steve was fine when he reached the top, was fine walking past the railing and the stores on the second floor, was fine meeting up with Jon as he walked past to station himself by the jewelry store across the way. Jon was only feet away when the real trouble started, the trouble no one saw coming. The trouble not even Steve had seen coming.

It started with the table, really. Not the glass wall. It all looked exactly the same as it had that night, the storefronts, the wall, the plants. No one was sitting at the table they'd been at. It wasn't really the same table; that table had been dented by falling glass, nearly destroyed by it. This was the same make and model, white metal, completely bland and benign, cold and impersonal. But it was enough.

Steve looked at the table, glanced up to the wall, and when he looked at the table again, there was blood all over it. People were screaming. Blood and glass, and Neal lay beneath, one hand trembling against the tiles, a gun inches away from his fingers. The kid and the guitarist, one and the same, one and the same, one and the same, murdered.

He took in a breath to scream, but there was another, and another, so much air coming so fast that there wasn't room for anything else.

Jon paused, turning back toward them, his face an open question. Neal was already reaching for Steve, getting a handful of his shirt, feeling the panic and feeling his own face and hands go numb when way too much oxygen hit Steve's system. Steve was hyperventilating, hands raised to his face as if to either hide his eyes or pray. Jon was moving for them, concern changing to nervousness when Neal got a good grip on the singer and shook him. Steve's knees were buckling, and Neal hauled him bodily to the railing and slammed him against it so that he was almost leaning out into the space.

"What the –" Jon started to say, then just stood there with them and tried to shield them from the view of the shoppers behind.

He watched Steve grip the railing reflexively, watched Neal grab the singer by the hair on the back of his head, felt the air get heavier than it should have been. Then Neal was shaking Steve and saying, "Look up. Look, look up!" and forcing him to look at the skylights above them. The glass showed a large, segmented slice of blue sky and a slanting of sunlight. "Look at the light. What color's the sky?"

Steve didn't answer, struggling audibly for breath, and Neal shook him again. "Blue," Steve said, the word exploding out of him. "S'blue."

"The railing's cold," Neal said. "It's cold, and solid. It's real. There's the here and now, and nothing else. It's over." He let go of Steve's hair and grabbed the back of his shirt instead, and Steve dropped his head forward to look at the people on the lower level. He was still breathing hard, was soaked in cold sweat, now, but he wasn't hyperventilating anymore. He didn't see blood or glass. It was over, like Neal had said.

It happened, it's done, we're here. Neal's voice in his head. You're in one place and time, and everybody's okay. That's it, that's all you need to know or think about. "Okay, drama queen? Are you ready for your close-up?"

Steve was breathing slowly in through his nose and letting it out through his mouth because that's what Neal was doing, and the world slowly snapped back into place. Boundaries and predictable things, cause and effect. He could have tried to dredge up a little annoyance at the last remark, but it didn't carry the weight it should have, since the voice taunting him was trembling. And tinged with sympathy. He didn't feel like screaming anymore, just felt wrung out. There was nothing left, just weariness. He kept on gripping the railing because he could focus on that. It was round, and cold, and the circumference was larger than his hands, but he could get a solid grip on the brushed metal. He felt Neal let go of his shirt and smooth it out, then thump him on the back with a fist, something else that grounded him. Hard enough to jar him, but not hurt.

"You got nothing to say to me, Perry?" Neal said.

"Fuck you," Steve said weakly, by rote. "Don't call me Perry."

"Better," Neal said. "Not much, but better. Okay, let's go." He grabbed Steve's arm and turned him back toward the escalator, and Jon trailed along behind until they were just outside the entrance, walking across the skybridge to the upper levels of the parking garage.

"We're not gonna get many shots at this," Jon said.

"We're gonna do this another day," Neal said. "Another day, when we're not an inch from losing that glass wall again. See, the mall's insurance is only gonna cover that loss so many times, even though it's not really happening."

Jon listened to the flip tone and realized how bad it had actually been. The air had gotten heavy, and he'd forgotten a lot of things. The details had faded into the background of everything else that had happened to them. He hadn't been there for what had happened at the mall, had only seen the tape, once, on the news. Had heard Neal's brief, amazed recounting. He hadn't realized how deep the whole thing ran. After everything else they'd been through, it hadn't occurred to him that it still held that much weight.

Apparently it hadn't occurred to Steve or Neal, either. It had lodged somewhere in Steve's subconscious long enough to gain strength, feed on its host, make itself even worse in retrospect than it had been in real life. Neal was shaken, even beyond what he got vicariously from Steve, and Jon tried desperately to catch up. Being yanked into a flashback was bad enough, but didn't explain the look on Neal's face. Something else had gotten loose.

When they reached the Suburban, Jon unlocked it with the remote, and Steve reached for the back passenger side door, only to be pulled away and backed into the side of the vehicle by Neal. "You gonna do that? It's fine, no problem, just move on?"

Jon could see Steve's eyes shining in the dimness of the parking garage, partly the green glow behind his retinas. Only partly. The singer's face was rigid, eyes wide. There was an internal conversation going on that Jon wasn't privy to, didn't want to be part of. He couldn't do anything but stand there and stare. Something built in the small space between the two men as Jon watched, and he felt the hair on his neck and forearms stand up. Nothing externally dangerous, just something running along the connection they shared, something that went beyond emotion. Something primal.

Jon dropped his eyes and let them travel along the uneven pavement before glancing up and around. They were alone on the fifth level, had parked this far up on purpose, for the almost-privacy. There were three other cars up there, no occupants, nothing but noise from below. He wanted to run, he didn't want anything else to do with this, he didn't want to be around when Steve finally shattered. He startled and took another step away when Neal grabbed Steve again, watched the guitarist shake the singer once, roughly by the shoulders of his shirt. Steve's hands were on Neal's wrists. Jon could only guess at what the argument was really about, had never felt so shut out of anything in his life.

Then Steve crumpled, eyes and mouth screwed up into an expression of pain. Neal let him slide to the pavement and brace his back against the back tire, knees drawn up. Then Neal sat next to him, pulled him over and looped an arm around his head. Steve covered his face with his hands and let Neal lean over him. It wasn't much different than the time they'd been attacked by a daywraith when Steve had been in a smaller form and easy to target. They'd been attacked again, but the monster wasn't going to leave as easily this time. The silence was fearful, drew out too far, so when Steve finally broke it with a long, audible gasp, it startled Jon again.

There was no telling that the singer was crying between gasps for air. He was still holding everything in.

It hurt to listen to.

Jon finally went to sit next to them, laying a hand on Steve's knee, trying not to meet Neal's gaze. He wanted to say we're in over our heads but it wasn't necessary. He was only looking for an excuse to break the silence further, create background noise that was more audible than the traffic below. "I didn't know," he said.

Neal shook his head. "Nobody did," he said. "Nobody."

It was supposed to have been the easiest thing to start with, the most sensible place to begin. The mess that was easiest to clean up.

Not another word was said; when they could get Steve on his feet, they left, and Jon dropped them off at Neal's. The guitarist said he'd call, and that was it.

Neal didn't need his keys, didn't even bother to reach for them; Steve had already unlocked the door. He let Steve walk in first, and didn't bother closing it, choosing to use his hands to strip his shirt off over his head. Steve went on ahead of him, cold, the inside of his head full of blood and glass, the taste in his mouth metallic. Shards, a thousand sharp edges, a frosting of glass, slicing into every nerve. He was screaming, and only Neal could hear him.

Steve could feel the heat coming off Neal, dulling the edges, and he let it come, wanting it. Proof of life. Damaged but whole. He slid to his knees, letting it wash over him, and they never made it any further.

Another breath, another, nothing but sensation. The world consisted of Neal and nothing else, holding him in place without restraining him, touching him with his mind, finding pleasure centers that the physical couldn't hope to touch. He became a thing composed of pleasure, pleasure that built like a slow wave until he couldn't breathe beyond it. He faded away in it, the desperation gone.

* * *

By the next morning, Jon figured it would be safe to call. "You guys all right?"

"No," Neal said. "Something happened in there that he didn't mean to let happen, and it got that fucked up because he was denying it. I never saw it until now, he had it buried so far. Jesus, I don't wanna have this conversation with you on the phone."

"Then I'll come over. You put him under, didn't you."

"Yeah," Neal said. "Kinda had to. So it's just you and me, talking. Stuff is crazier than we thought."

* * *

Jon found himself checking for actual damage when he drove up to Neal's. For some reason he'd been convinced there would probably be some visible manifestation of what had happened. Neal looked weary in a way Jon hadn't seen in years, and that was damage enough.

"Was a lot more than a flashback," Neal said. "He was passin' off how bad that whole night was, and I'm sort of wondering when one of you was gonna tell me the truth."

"About…?" Jon said.

"About the fact that the blood all over him that night was mine, about the fact that the kid killed me the first time around."

Neal didn't sound angry, just tired.

Jon said, "I only guessed, after. The tape…you could tell something happened. He had time to react, and you didn't. It was like he'd had a rehearsal. Yeah, the blood on him was yours. The kid shot you dead, and was--"

"Asking him how it felt," Neal said. "That, you didn't know. Kid shot me twice, once in the throat, once in the forehead, and Steve had me all over him by the time he got out of his chair. Kid was gonna gut-shoot him and let him lie there after. He said, 'How's it feel', and Steve just stood there to be shot when he got pulled away."

Jon took a deep, slow breath and let it out, throwing himself down on the couch. "So he got to make a choice, and--"

"No," Neal said. "He said, 'make anything else but that happen'. This is fucked up, Jon, and it's worse than that. That kid --" He paused. "I don't get this, yet. I thought he was just trippin' out, I wanted him to just be trippin' out. But the flashback he had was real, all of it. That kid was me."

Jon closed his eyes unseen. There it was, finally.

Neal stayed where he was, looking like he wanted to pace but didn't have the energy for it. "There's a lot more that goes with it. But that kid was another version of me, and everything comes back around."

"He's gonna go nuts, eventually," Jon said. "Then what?"

"He's already nuts in a lot of ways, Jon," Neal said. "We find ways to balance each other."

"You underestimated this," Jon said.

"I did," Neal said flatly, eyes finding Jon's. "Me. You wanna tell me how the fuck this was my fault?"

"We both fucked up by not seeing how bad this was," Jon said. "But you underestimated how he feels about you. He loves us both, he'd protect us both. But you're sharing a goddamn soul, and you still don't get it."

Neal let that stand for a moment, feeling his throat tighten up. This was still new territory, made more unfamiliar still by what had developed on his part recently.

"He'll do anything for you," Jon said, voice barely above a whisper. "And that's probably always been true, which is why you guys spent so many years fighting. Why it turned to hate after awhile. Something that intense has to go somewhere, it never dies, it just changes and channels into something it can get a reaction from."

Neal shook his head a little. No negation, just a motion.

"Come on," Jon said. "You gotta know this. It must have come up...somewhere. He won't have been able to hide all of it."

Neal knew what somewhere he was referring to, and he didn't have the energy to confirm, deny, or even acknowledge.

"You're gonna have to factor it in from now on," Jon said. "These one-sided conversation we have are great."

Neal shrugged, an all-purpose gesture of nothing.

"So what's the problem?" Jon said.

"The problem is, I went from ignoring him, to being good friends with him..."

"Playmates," Jon said. "But probably not friends, no."

Neal looked ready for a tirade, but only tipped his head, which told Jon enough; whatever he was getting at was serious enough that nothing was going to distract him. "Fine. Then I went back to ignoring him again, because I couldn't understand him. Then I just couldn't stand him. I never tried at any of it, I just took whatever came, and dealt with it or moved on."

"And now you're stuck with him, and can't move on," Jon said. "Is that it?"

"No," Neal said. "Now I'm in love with him."

Jon stared. He held very still, to the point of no longer breathing, shocked into hanging off the moment.

"I don't think I'm just hittin' for the cycle, either," Neal said. "Close your mouth, Jon."

"I was gonna say something stupid, like, does he know, but - "

"He doesn't," Neal said. "He's got the attention span of a lukewarm french-fry when he's not in perfectionist mode. I'm flyin' under the radar, here. We're still real good at distracting each other."

"But...you're..." Jon felt his vocabulary dwindling and didn't bother to fight it. He was surprised, and not surprised, and the combination reduced him to stammering for once.

"A hell of a lot closer now, closer every day," Neal said for him. "Yeah. And still hidin' stuff. Old habits die hard."

"You don't think it's just sort of feedback from what he feels?" Jon said, then wished his vocabulary hadn't returned.

Neal blinked at him. "It already occurred to me," he said, without offense. "When you feel what someone else does, you're aware it's someone else. Not always. But nine times out of ten, you know it's not you. You knew you weren't getting hit by a bus."

Jon nodded, dropping his eyes. "Seems like you've thought a lot about it, without him finding out."

"Yeah," was all Neal said.

Jon couldn't figure out what else to say that would be wise, so he kept quiet. He heard Neal sigh but still allow the silence to draw out, and he wondered where Neal had suddenly found all that patience. Not from age, not from being paired with Steve. Because Steve was impatient and hyper, and...

...and chances were, they were canceling each other out.

"Go on, Jon," Neal said.

"I don't wanna argue," Jon said. "I don't want you thinking I bring things up just to -"

"Hey," Neal said, and he was able to use one syllable to say don't play games, don't waste my time, don't dance around it. After all their years of friendship, only one syllable was necessary.

"I've never seen you be passionate about someone and have it last," Jon said.

"Been passionate about this someone from day one," Neal said. "One way or the other, bad, good, and otherwise, for twenty years."

Jon raised his eyebrows but couldn't lift his eyes. He was right; Neal had been thinking.

"It's not like I'm gonna give anything else up," Neal said. "Neither is he. I think we're already as committed as committed gets, Jon. I didn't say I like him all the time, sometimes he's fuckin' impossible. He still knows how to be a conceited prick, or pretend he knows how things should be. Difference is, now he knows how it looks and feels to someone else, and it kind of shuts him down."

Jon tried desperately not to smile, and almost made it.

Neal saw the telltale look in his eyes and laughed. "Yeah," he said. "And the same goes for me. Sometimes I think about calling all my ex-wives and apologizing, in detail."

"You don't need my goddamn approval," Jon said.

Neal shrugged. "No. But you're my family. More, I guess. Because what you think actually matters, to me."

Jon softened a little at the admission. He looked off, into the yard, then finally raised his eyes. "I'll get over it," he said, and Neal knew that was as close as he'd come to saying things were fine. After a moment, Jon added, "Why doesn't he know, if you're sure?"

Neal nodded, knowing it was coming. "Somethin' like that, with someone like him...sort of has to get introduced a bit at a time. 'Cause he can be soaking wet and still insist it ain't raining."

Jon snorted, trying to keep a sudden smile from breaking into a grin.

"But every now and then," Neal said, "he's gonna have to get struck by lightning."

They sat for a moment. Then Jon said, "We got our hands full. What are we gonna do about this kid?"

"Grab one version of him and talk sense. He's a walker, it won't matter which version. He has to listen to me, doesn't he?"

* * *

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