"I guess we're talking about this," Neal said.
Steve had been awake just long enough to shower and eat, and had felt the conversation coming. He'd awoken obstinate, a defense mechanism Neal expected.
"And I got what, exactly, left to say?" Steve said dully. "I think you've pretty much got the picture, now."
"Would've been good to know what we were really walking into," Neal said. "I thought we agreed you weren't gonna shut me out, anymore."
"No," Steve said, tone hard and low. "You told me how it was gonna be. There was no 'agreement'."
"What was the point of not telling me what you thought was happening?" Neal said, ignoring the remark. "What would have been the -"
"Because I couldn't fucking handle it!" Steve shouted. "Did that ever occur to you?"
"No," Neal said flatly. "Because I probably wouldn't take it the same, the other way around."
The wall was up again.
"Back to the same old bullshit," Neal said. "Easier to do, I guess."
Steve was silent. Annoyed.
"We can do this," Neal said, meaning the scene at the mall.
"Got to," Steve said.
"No," Neal said. "It can wait. You can't. We can do this. This time, let me in. I know what happened, what really happened, and you gotta let me help. Hiding it made it worse."
"I'll do it again," Steve said suddenly. "Anything, to get you back."
"Life ain't fair," Neal said.
"Less fair before we came along," Steve said. "Justice hasn't been done, here. I got a feeling it all really starts with him. With what I did."
"What did you do?" Neal said. "How the hell do you know what the exact starting point was?" But Neal already knew what he was asking; Steve had seen the fragmented timeline when he'd run from Neal.
"That's why they had to be so careful about putting Jon back where he was when the other namers tried to 'extract' him from this line," Steve said. "It's worn so thin from splitting all over. I walked away from you, I couldn't handle us bein' together. We never sealed up, and because of it, all the walking you did killed you. And I went on, went on, went on - "
"I know," Neal said. "Was my dyin' without returning you - was that the real starting point, then? What are we supposed to do?"
"We've already changed it," Steve said. Listen to me, listen inside without waiting for the words. "But it goes on. All those fragments go on. He caused 'em, trying to get back at me, tryin' to get me, lookin' for the moment I forced him to look for. He didn't find it, the version of you we're dealing with. He caught up with me and you after you'd already worn your heart out. He's still looking, Neal. You're still looking for me."
"Why shoot me, then?" Neal said.
"Because the Ender got hold of him, suckered him into believing he'd be free if he broke us up completely. The Ender wanted you out of the way at just the right time, to keep you from getting 'pushed' by the namers. To keep us apart."
Neal shook his head. "This is fuckin' crazy. I'm me, or I'm not me."
"Time and circumstance," Steve said. "I already told you. I thought we agreed on this. All it takes is a little time, and anyone can be anything. He didn't want you seein' anything until the Ender got him. He didn't want to hurt you, the way he'd been hurt. I'll bet he doesn't even remember, anymore, what really happened. He's become his goal. You're a multiverse-class walker, in every place and time. And this version is mad as hell."
"Makes you wonder," Neal mused after a moment, "what else he messed with. What else the Ender, or the namers, could have used him to do."
"Namers don't walk," Neal said. "They don't have the power to do what Tuirnarin did to us."
Steve sat up quickly, tense. "Maybe she could only get him to do so much, like pull us in there, and rewind things until it came out the way she liked it. But why didn't he come out at one point and just do me in?"
"Maybe he never got a chance to see you," Neal said. "I don't know. Maybe you can say he did get what he wanted. Look what happened to you, while we were there."
There was a long moment of silence. "If you aren't gonna let me compare myself to the monster who started all this, then you can't take the blame for what Colin might or might not have been part of," Steve said, hearing the mix of regret and confusion.
Then something else occurred to him.
The look on his face was awful. Neal caught it, all of it, long before the words hit the air. "No," he said. "Goddamnit, he wouldn't--"
Neal dropped the argument as quickly as he'd picked it up, realizing there was no blame in Steve's thoughts to go with the theory. They stared at each other for a long moment, rolling the whole thing over. Then Neal said, "It's still easier to talk out loud."
"I remember what you do about your time in the tower," Steve said. "She was blocking you. She kept you from escaping by blocking you, which she could do because she'd paused the Evenwhen. It's a namer thing."
Neal sighed inaudibly. "I still hate this."
"Hate it all you want. I'm not digging this shit up because me and Jon are having a problem. It's the fucking truth. Jon is a namer, goddamnit, and he's not pausing the Evenwhen, but who's he connected to? Me. That makes him capable of messing with the Evenwhen. We're connected, so that makes him capable of messing with you. I didn't say he did it on purpose. He'd never hurt you. But he doesn't approve of--"
"Goddamnit," Neal said, "he knows better."
"It doesn't matter, Neal," Steve said. "It's like we've had the goddamn emergency brake on the whole way. You couldn't turn anything back on this side because Jon was just screaming against it from the first minute."
"And we weren't?" Neal said, then felt like an idiot. No. No, we weren't.
He's a namer, Steve thought. Still our Jon, always our Jon. But a namer all the same. He was blocking us. And he didn't even know it.
And we're supposed to do what? Ask for his blessing? Assuming he's really doing it at all, he doesn't know he's doing it, or how.
You, underestimating him? Come on.
Me, us, being realistic. Give credit where credit's due.
You see it, and you're still arguing with me anyway.
They both paused then because they couldn't tell whose thought that had been. Both, most likely.
Steve nodded. "You talk to him, then, because the sight of me will make him discount the idea right away. He won't even try and find out if he's subconsciously holding us back."
* * *
They let it rest for a day. And then they met on the fifth level of the parking garage again.
"This time," Jon said, "just hold him down, and let me get him. If we gotta pause the whole goddamn place, we will, just to keep him from hurting anyone. Right?"
"We don't even have to let him walk up to us," Neal said to Steve. "Just a thought is all it takes to hold him in one spot. Jon can block him from messing with the time or space, or 'walking' off. We'll get him this time, and it'll be over."
"You know, if you and Neal are awake more than a generation," Jon said, thinking it would help, "then Colin won't even exist."
Steve rounded on Jon so quickly that it startled even Neal. "Bullshit!" Steve shouted, and there was no doubt about the edge of hysteria in it, the frantic denial. His voice ricocheted off the columns and ceiling of the garage. "He existed, he'll always exist, so just because we're fuckin' up the line and wiping him out doesn't mean he wasn't real!"
"Hey, hey," Neal said aloud, but underneath and only for Steve was a hushing sound. An incorporeal hand under the chin.
Jon had taken a full step away, face flat and expressionless with shock. He kept his eyes on Steve, watching, hoping that the shouting was all there was. The singer's eyes were huge, and if Jon had any doubts about Steve's stability, they multiplied in size in that moment. Then it collapsed, the microcosm of Steve's emotion dropping and letting them all back into the world. Steve looked startled at his own vehemence. Jon was careful not to glance at Neal, not to bring a suggestion of their previous conversation into the mix.
After a minute, they went inside.
* * *
The world was catching up.
They'd been almost grimly silent walking into the mall, trying to look casual and failing. Security was different, something they didn't notice the first time they'd tried this. One gun-wielding kid was all it took to increase a mall security budget, apparently. It was a slow day because it was the middle of the week and there were no major sales. The escalator wasn't funny this time, and Steve focused on the storefronts, picking things out that were easier to look at than the tables.
Jon wandered away from them, toward the jewelry store, and couldn't shake the feeling that things weren't settled, that they weren't in tune enough with each other to pull this off yet. He wondered if they would be stepping into the places of the selves that had been here the first time, or if it would be the same selves but more aware, and he shook it off.
Neal found a table close enough to where they'd been sitting originally, and sat, waiting for Steve. The mall was suddenly silent, blank, a non-place. Neal wasn't quite certain how he was doing it, only that it was easier than he'd expected. The people, the quality of light, the objects around them, all became indistinct and blurred. The hush was eerie and unnatural, the air stale and unmoving. The only figures unaffected were Steve, Neal, and Jon.
Steve sat down and watched Neal narrow his eyes a little at the middle distance. The guitarist was searching for the right spot in time, rewinding the line, feeling out markers that he could recognize. It took only moments, a sliding of thought and intent. Clarity snapped back in with a wave pattern, the blurriness washing away from their surroundings by degrees. The air was easier to breathe, but everything remained sterile and cold. The place existed again, but washed out and dark. Dark outside, artificial lighting dim above them. The basic shell had reestablished itself, but the particulars were missing. No people, no sound.
Jon almost walked back to them, opening his mouth to ask Neal what was happening, but Neal motioned for him to wait. Steve sat gripping the white metal arm rests of his chair, trying to affirm the solidity of it.
Things came first - the subtle shading of the rest of the spectrum, dust, the Christmas lights. The smell of things baking at the Cinnabon they were sitting close to. Coffee brewing, the perfume of a woman who must have recently walked by them. Recently by their accounting, not hers.
The acoustics of the place let the smallest sound make a difference; a refrigerator unit kicking on in one of the restaurants on the second level, the air conditioning cycling on and off. Echoes. Everything echoed, in a lot of ways.
They sat and stared at each other, watching the Christmas lights make the same patterns on the surfaces around them. Steve was hyperaware of the glass wall, was doing everything he could not to look at it. Jon was around the corner, staring at the window display of a jewelry store, keeping his attention off them.
The people came last, blurring out of the air, going about their business without missing a step once they were real again. To them, there was no other time but this one, the evening after Thanksgiving, 1999.
Neal was trying not to bother being satisfied with himself, and was failing internally. Steve smiled a little, making it worse, and Neal finally grinned.
"Maybe you could do kid's parties," Steve said.
Neal nodded, giving Jon a thumb's up.
"So we just sat down," Steve said. "Go do what you were gonna, Neal."
It was already different in small ways; Neal watched and heard the calm exterior but got an unintentional headful of Steve's fear.
He nodded and rose, doing exactly what he'd done the first time, buying two regular coffees form the Cinnabon. The same woman with three kids was in front of him, and he didn't realize until then how much he remembered. Two teens got in line behind him, and he was almost able to repeat the one-sided conversation they were having, right along with them.
"I said, 'what the fuck? That's not what you told me', and he's all, 'you weren't listening' so I was like, 'whatever'. What a dick."
When he paid for the coffee, it was with exact change instead of the five he'd had last time. He suffered a small moment of anxiety over it. He was changing things. Then he told himself yet again about chaos theory, like Jon said. It didn't matter.
He put the coffee down on their table and said, "Hey, agent orange, it's coffee."
"It's okay," Steve said. "It don't matter what's different."
"I know," Neal said automatically. Then he added, "Wrong place, wrong time is enough."
Steve glanced around, knowing it was time. He was watching so hard for the kid that he almost didn't see the Ender...
the Ender is trapped in the glass, how can he be here and trapped in the glass, what's stopping him from grabbing me right now?
Don't try so hard to understand, Neal thought, tense, watching the Ender's back. Just stay in the moment.
Jon should have been headed toward them, waiting for the kid to walk by one final time. Steve turned, too soon, unable to wait for the gun to already be pointed at them. He felt Neal tell him to wait without speaking a word, saw Jon's confused expression as the latter turned from the window of the jewelry store.
It was too late; the kid should already have been there. He was nowhere to be seen.
Maybe the Ender had picked up on Jon's presence; maybe the things they'd considered inconsequential had tipped the balance. No kid, no gun, no resolution.
Staring at Jon, Steve began to let the cross of disappointment and relief show, something Neal was sharing with him. He began to question how they'd start again, and where. Neal came to stand beside him. Jon glanced around one final time and began to shrug, to walk toward them.
Then his face changed. An instant of disbelief, his gaze straying over Steve's right shoulder.
Steve had known Jon long enough to take it for what it was, to know Jon didn't startle easily. Neal saw it too, and began to turn, but Steve was already shoving him hard enough to send him stumbling away to his knees. Jon shouted, but it was lost when the first shot was fired.
It went wild, zipping through the empty air of the spot where Neal had been standing, lodging in the glass wall.
Jon was running toward them, hands out, shouting, trying to dodge the first people who were aware enough to duck. They were slowing him down. Neal was scrambling back to his feet as Steve turned.
It was a decision made in fear.
Rather than freeze the kid in his tracks and prevent the situation altogether, Steve knocked Jon and Neal down to keep them from getting hurt. One image played incoherently behind his eyes, of Neal shot to death, of a hand trembling against the tiles they were standing on.
The gun wavered for an instant when Steve turned; the kid's eyes registered confusion when he realized he'd have to step around Steve to get to Neal. People were starting to notice the gun and raise the alarm. Somehow, they'd known he was coming. Then a hatred Steve had seen before took over, and the boy opened fire on him.
The first slug hit Steve in the right shoulder, and the shock of it released Jon and Neal. Anyone who hadn't been sure they'd heard the first shot began screaming and diving for cover. The second shot came immediately, hitting Steve in the chest, and he took a stumbling step back. The third shot went wild.
Jon was on his feet again, shouting for Colin, shouting for him to stop when Steve went to one knee. Neal was sitting up but unable to move further, his right arm numb, chest feeling like someone had punched him hard. He felt Steve collapse to the floor, watched through the singer's eyes with dumb amazement as the kid stepped closer and stood over him.
And shot him twice more.
Then Jon was stepping over Steve, his thoughts a blur of rage and pity when he grabbed Colin's hands and forced the gun out of them. It slid away across the tiles, spinning, coming to rest against the leg of a nearby table.
Jon shook the boy roughly, and Colin stared up at him with subdued confusion. He was nearly Jon's height, and looked nothing like Neal except for his eyes. Somewhere in the eyes...
"Stop!" Jon shouted "Dammit, look at us! Look at me!"
Neal had managed to crawl to Steve on his own strength; the singer lay on one side now, one knee drawn up. He'd already gone into shock, and Neal shivered with the cold. There was too much blood pooling on the floor, so much that Neal had to crawl through it on hands and knees to get close enough.
Steve felt him and tried to respond, but he was fading too fast. And dragging Neal behind him.
There was a moment where Jon could have gotten though, where the kid would have realized who Jon really was. Things could have been turned around. But Jon felt the low, hollow tone somewhere in his mind, a warning that Steve was sliding away. The singer had locked him out of feeling his injuries, but couldn't lock him out of feeling his death.
If he didn't do something now, he'd be calling Steve back, and possibly Neal too. And they wouldn't get back to where they belonged until he did.
He stared at the kid a moment longer, then turned away. Neal was leaning over Steve, fading, unable to do more. The singer's eyes were open but saw nothing.
"Take us back," Jon said, knowing Neal could still hear him. "Neal, get us out of here!"
It took Neal a moment to respond. Steve had gone into limbo somewhere, and it was hard for Neal to move. Jon reached for him, shaking him, and he came around enough to realize that there was enough of Steve's consciousness left to make it work. But there wouldn't be, for long.
There was a click; it took a moment to catch hold. But then they were gone, and time reset.
* * *