ECHOES Chapter IV ('Distance')
(c)2003 B Stearns
Have you lived a lifetime today
Or do you feel you just got carried away?
-- Rush, The Stars Look Down

Steve came back with a slam of thought and feeling, the world rushing back in and forcing air down his throat. Everything hurt for a moment, then it focused in his chest, an after-echo of pain.

The gunshots still rang in his ears, but he was at Neal's, sitting on the living room floor, and Neal had him in his lap, for chrissakes, holding onto him way too tight, an arm looped over his head and crushing him against his chest. He tried to move, and the arms got tighter. There was no thought to accompany it, just a dull hum of horror from both of them, but Neal was eerily still. Something had changed, something beneath the craziness that had just happened.

Neal wasn't angry, or scared, or anything readable, and even though Steve felt it too, he couldn't name whatever it was that held the guitarist immobile. Determination was the closest he could come.

The phone rang.

It startled them both, but Neal had no thought toward getting it. Steve moved a little, and Neal tightened his grip a little further still until Steve thought Jesus, you're gonna strangle me.

But it made no difference.

After ten or so rings, it stopped. The machine never picked up. There was only silence after that, with the exception of their own breathing. Steve held still, waiting for the panic to subside, wondering where so much of it was coming from. He wanted to scream, yeah, it had been fucking horrible, but Neal was never like this.

Minutes passed that Steve didn't even try keeping track of, just waiting for something to give.

A car pulled up - or actually, skidded to a stop somewhere outside - and after the slam of a door, a voice.

"You couldn't answer the fucking phone?" Jon was already yelling, even before he hit the threshold, but mostly from fear. "You guys couldn't even..."

He trailed off, watching Neal nearly smothering Steve on the floor.

* * *

"We'll try something else," Neal said.

Finally, upright and separated from Steve. By only a foot or so, but still.

"That's the only - " Steve began.

"Something else," Neal said, and it was a tone Jon hadn't heard in years, not since Perry had still been in the band, not since the last time Neal had voiced a longing to kill him and had most likely meant it.

The shock on Steve's face confirmed a couple of things for Jon: there was a lot more to the conversation on the inside, and Steve was underestimating Neal again. He had the grace to nearly feel sorry for the singer. Nearly.

"We're not doing that again," Neal said, with a finality that shut Steve up. "You're not doing that again. We'll find another place to get him, catch him off guard beforehand. I can find him, now that I know who he is. That was a lesson I didn't like learning again. All someone has to do to take us both completely out is to hurt you."

Jon glanced from one to the other and back. It was silent for a long moment.

"That's how it'll happen," Neal said. "When someone finally gets to us, that's how they'll do it. They'd be stupid not to. Why take both of us on when all it takes is a gunshot, to get us both?"

Steve was pale, looking like he'd been struck. Jon thought about the night Siarion had wiped the life out of him to teach them a lesson, thought about the tears, and wondered how the hell he'd been too dumb to see what he was looking at now. How the hell Steve was too dumb to see it. Neal was talking plain sense, but not saying everything, not adding I can't stand you being hurt. Because he couldn't. Because they were still essentially the same they'd always been.

"What, then?" Jon said. "You gonna try this by yourself? Grab him somewhere and bring him home?"

Neal shrugged, still looking at Steve. Jon felt the small hairs on the back of his neck stand up again, his subconscious aware of something he couldn't get at with the five paltry senses he made use of. Sometimes it was like he was walking up on them for the first time again, replaying that moment in Athyri when he realized what they'd done.

"We're just not doin' anything like that again," Neal said, and he stalked away.

Jon looked at Steve, waiting for something, anything, disappointed when there wasn't. They were still trying to wrestle each other for whatever purchase they could get, never quite in synch. It had worked so far. But it wouldn't for much longer.

"That was a big, fucking mess," Jon said.

Steve was silent. There was nothing he could add, nothing that would make it worse or better. Nothing.

"I'm sorry," Jon said.

Steve glanced at him, thinking for an instant it was sarcasm, that more of a tongue lashing would follow. But then he did a double take. Jon meant it. "For what?"

"Because yet again I didn't quite factor you in," he said. "It never occurred to me that the first time was that bad. I used to be obvious about stuff that bothered you. You used to be a fuckin' drama queen. And after all this, you just keep quiet. That whole night was bad. Neal told me what the Ender tried to do to you."

Steve shook his head and looked away, not wanting to hear the reference. He looked blank suddenly, an item of still life, and Jon had the good sense to get worried.

"There was that, and the shit that came up through the floor, and that thing chasin' you guys. I thought about that, about how far you guys got pushed. I thought the wall came down because it was everything, because you'd been pushed too far. It didn't occur to me that it was really like I said, that you were willing to trade anything to buy Neal back. I'm sorry."

Steve didn't move or reply. He couldn't.

Neal studiously ignored them from the backyard.

"After all you saw," Jon said, "there was mostly just the one thing you couldn't handle."

"We gotta try again," Steve said.

"And what's gonna change?" Jon said.

"We'll get it right," Steve said. "I don't want you guys hurt." He paused, closing his eyes briefly. "I didn't know, either. I didn't know I was gonna do that."

And that's still what'll kill us all, Jon thought.

* * *

"I wanna go home," Steve said.

"You don't have to," Neal said. "I'm only gonna be gone a couple of days."

He and Amber were having progressively more trouble staying apart. It was more obvious than Neal wanted anyone to know.

"I don't know what else to do," Steve said. "We're stuck, aren't we? I mean, how much regular life do we go back to living? I don't wanna stay here while you're gone. And I miss my goddamn house."

Neal sighed.

"You gotta tell her," Steve said.

"Perry, goddamn it - "

"…Perry!" Steve said with such external and internal vehemence that Neal had to pay attention to him. He heard and felt the singer's ire, and questioned it.

"Why didn't you say so?" Neal said. "For chrissakes, what's the big deal?"

"Because you're..." he was lost for words, and Neal understood it the way Steve did, and the words were unnecessary. It was all feeling to begin with anyway, and words...

Words. Neal had never known how clumsy, how incomplete, speech was. There was only one language he'd ever known that had really said anything. It was when he'd stopped speaking it with Steve that they'd been unable to tolerate each other. Had Steve been able to finish the sentence, it would have been along the lines of diminishing me, and you don't even realize it!

"I'm Perry when you're annoyed with me, when you're tired of me," Steve said. "I don't blame you for that. But goddamnit, find another way to let me know."

"I don't have to," Neal said. "You know when I know." He sighed. "I'm sorry."

"You're not," Steve said. "But that's okay too. It takes awhile to get over the social bullshit, doesn't it?"

Neal shook his head in genuine embarrassment.

"I can never leave you," Steve said.

Neal kept his eyes down, feeling something complex and unfamiliar at the words. They weren't simply words.

"I know," Steve said.

"It scares the shit out of me that you do," Neal said.

"I know that too," Steve muttered. "Schon. Hey Schon, don't you have something better to do?"

Neal sighed again.

"I can't even fuckin' play chess with you, you'd see all my moves," Steve said.

"You don't even know how to play chess," Neal said. "And I've seen all your moves. I ain't impressed."

"You gotta tell her," Steve said.

"Jesus, will you get off it?" Neal said.

"Do you not plan on being married very long?" Steve said. "Because within ten years, she'll notice you don't age. Sooner or later she'll wanna know where the hell you're disappearing to for days, maybe weeks, maybe goddamn years depending on how time flows where we'll be going. Can't she take it?"

"We can't even take it," Neal said. "She's not even twenty five yet. I don't wanna scare her off." She feels like my last chance.

"Jesus, Neal," Steve said softly. "Come on." If she loves you, she loves you, and she'll handle it. If she's as amazing as you say, it'll be fine. Liz is still with Jon. "You have to say something, because sooner or later she'll find out the hard way. No, not about us, you know what I mean. Any of this. They're not above goin' after her. What if she's.....what if she can...."

He trailed off because Neal was completely opposed to talking about it any further, and it wasn't worth struggling with him over right then. He rubbed absently at a spot to the right of his heart, trying to alleviate an ache that didn't exist.

"Still hurts, doesn't it," Neal said without looking at him.

Steve shrugged. "It isn't real," he said.

"Yeah it is. Pretty goddamn real."

Steve sighed. "Just....send me home. That'll give you some room, to do whatever, and..."

"No, I should drive you," Neal said, picking up on what Steve meant for him to do.

"I'm not fragile," Steve said. "Just do it. Hell of a lot faster to just throw me, rather than spend an hour on the road. You're tired, in case you weren't payin' attention. It's been a long week."

"What about Aug?" Neal said.

Hearing what he was referring to, Steve said, "I heard him," the change in subject seamless for all its abruptness.

"Holy shit," Neal said. "You could never hear him before, not like that, like a walker. So what happened to him, since we got back, so that..."

"By the time we were done over there," Steve said, meaning Athyri, "we could hear him pretty damn well. And it wasn't just hanging around with us, it was too quick. Then we got home, and I heard nothing. Until he walked up to the cabin door that day."

"It's not just hanging with us, then, is it," Neal said. "He's different somehow."

"He's askin' questions all of a sudden, too," Steve said. "About stuff that happened over there. Something's going on with him. And I don't really wanna wait for him to get to it, but I can't drag things out of him. He's not..." Steve paused.

"'Cause you actually got respect for him," Neal said. "Not many people you can say that about."

Steve rolled his eyes, more from practice than anything else. He hated it that Neal was right. "My point," Steve said, "is that if something went weird over there....maybe him keepin' that branch, I don't know...I don't want him discovering things the hard way, like we do. This is all bad enough, he doesn't deserve this."

"I still don't get you two," Neal said. "I mean, I hear it, and I know how you feel, I just don't know what it is that clicks."

Steve shrugged. "Jealous?" he said, with a smirk.

"Goodbye, smartass," Neal said. "I'll see you in about a week."

And Steve was in his own living room a moment later, lying on the floor, waiting for things to stop spinning.

It didn't hurt as badly as some things did.

* * *

"Neal said you were home," Aug said. "Absence making the heart grow fonder?"

Good. A phone call he didn't mind having.

"If you had a choice," Steve answered, "would you rather look at me, or Amber?"

There was a beat of silence. Then Aug said, "I'm a married man."

"Nice dodge," Steve said.

"How you doing?" Aug said.

"Oh, you know," Steve said. "Same old same old, hanging out at the mall."

There was another moment of silence, then Aug said, "That bad, huh," and Steve heard the genuine worry in his voice. He knew too much as it was, about all of it, about what they were trying to do, and suddenly Steve hated it.

"Listen," Steve said. "When are you guys gonna do that lame-ass pre-tour thing?"

"You know damn well," Aug said. "It's in about two weeks, and you also know I'm coming out for rehearsal in a week. Nice, trying to change the subject on me, you horse's ass."

"Getting quite a mouth on you, you little bastard," Steve said. "New York. Our little Soup Nazi."

"Whatever," Aug said. "No soup for you."

"You didn't call me for small talk," Steve said. "You're bein' really damn passive-aggressive for an east coast guy. So get to it."

Silence again. Steve heard something being weighed in the distance, and regretted ever dragging Aug into the bizarre hell they'd stumbled into. Nice guy. Nice Star Trek, away-team red-shirt guy.

"There's gotta be something I can do," Aug said. "Something useful, besides watching all this go down."

Steve sighed. "You be the go-to guy for the band," Steve said. "You go on like life is as normal as it gets for a rock star, that's what you do. One of has to be normal, even though nothing will ever be the same again. You and Ross, you just pretend neither of you can do anything, and try to get Neal and Jon to forget that they can."

"You forgot Deen," Aug said.

"No way is Deen anywhere near normal," Steve said.

Aug snorted. "Yeah, well..." he trailed off.

"That's not all, though," Steve said. "I know that's a lot of it, and you've already done more than you think. But something's really bugging you."

"Did you ever have nightmares, about the caves?" Aug said suddenly. "About the waterfall?"

Steve paused, wishing Aug were in the room so he could look at him. "No," he said finally. "You mean, like you did? About living other lives?"

"No," Aug said. "Just, you know....never mind. I'm bein' a little kid."

Steve reflected later that he should have pushed harder, while he had the opening. But he told himself that he'd have to trust Aug to say whatever he should. "I doubt it," he said. "Anybody would have all kinds of nightmares, and worse. Lots worse. Stuff like that, there's nothing to prepare you for it, no way to explain it. Think about it, maybe tell me what you're really thinkin' about when I see you next week."

"Maybe I'll just kick your ass over the Soup Nazi remark," Aug said.

"Maybe I'll just bat your skinny ass over the fence with my titanium hip," Steve said.

* * *

Steve didn't mind several days of quiet. He needed it. And between Jon and Aug keeping tabs on him, and Neal's busy sex life, it wasn't like he was ever really alone anyway.

Hurry up and marry her so I can get some rest, Steve thought. Marriage'll kill it real quick.

Neal ignored him.

Thank goodness.

He couldn't sleep, not sleep the way he'd come to know it in life before all the nonsense had begun, but he could rest when Neal was. Relax his mind, think about little or nothing.

Or open doors to everything.

There was a cliff, a figure sitting resolutely quiet at the edge, legs dangling into oblivion. It neither moved nor breathed, didn't bother to blink. Dust coated its hair, its eyelashes, the tattered black clothing. A cloak. It was a statue wrought with painstaking detail, from pale materials.

Steve recoiled, trying to turn away, trying to wake from what had to be a waking nightmare, an hallucination. But he was getting closer instead of backing away, seeing more detail. Siarion's Tower, with ten thousand years of erosion making a mark on its shape. Nothing made a mark on the figure seated before him. Nothing moved it.

Its hands rested against the dust of the plateau, still and looking as if made of marble. But it may as well have had those hands around Steve's neck, because he couldn't get away. He went on moving toward it, a headache beginning to pound somewhere behind his eyes. Too close. He could feel dispassionate interest from it, could hear it beginning to pay attention to him, and he scrambled to get away. If it looked at him, he'd shatter into a thousand pieces and go on living anyway. It would crush him and examine the remains with the same regard that a planet held for its occupants, unknowing, uncaring.

The Er Rai. The one he would become, had become, could never become. Himself, but not.

He tried to hold his ground, to stop the inexorable pulling, and managed to hold on for a moment. He heard something underneath the deep ring of the horror in front of him, something he wanted to pay attention to. Someone trying to get his attention, a softer note in the cacophony.

Don't look at me! Steve was screaming at the figure in his own mind. Don't, don't look at me!

But the head began to turn, slowly. The creature had no reason to hurry, not after all that time, not when it could get him anytime, anywhere.

Steve fought madly, trying to get away, trying to run. He backed away, enough to feel the drop behind him, watched the green eyes begin to capture him in the creature's peripheral vision. Another step, another, like it was losing the hold it had on him by trying to look at him.

The edge dropped away beneath him, and he fell.

He jerked back to consciousness as he hit the floor of his own bedroom.

What the hell was it? Neal was nearly shouting in his head,standing by a dark bedroom window miles away. That wasn't you!

"He knows," Steve said aloud, trying to ignore the urge to hide. "The Distant Er Rai knows where we are."

* * *