ECHOES Chapter V ('Maintenance')
(c)2003 B Stearns
Envy lies between beings equal in nature, though unequal in circumstances.

Homophobes: Just click your heels together and say, "There's no place like TNN".
Rabid Journey fans: No, Journey didn't play any dates in May of 2000. Sue me. Get in line.

Neal felt Amber's hand in his, and breathed the cool air of a May morning in Minnesota. He and Amber had been out for breakfast, then shopping, stopping to pick up dog food for Bruno.

The argument with Steve about when to come home had taken most of the rest of the night. He'd finally given in and let Steve talk him into staying where he was. There were more eyes on them all the time, and a leap across that amount of space would only get attention. The Distant Er Rai wasn't going to come waltzing in and do anything until he/it got good and ready. Steve was the only one who knew anything about that. After all, no one sits for 10,000 years or so and then suddenly decides to hurry up about anything. For all Steve knew, nothing would ever happen. He just didn't like the creature knowing where they were.

Even if it wasn't the Ender.

They split up in the store briefly, Amber heading for the produce section and Neal heading for the pet food, swinging a basket as he went.

Miss me? Steve.

How can I, if you don't go away?

He felt Steve smirk, and sighed, knowing he was being distracted.

Must be love, Steve thought. Buyin' a dog together always seals the deal. But 'Bruno'? Where the fuck did you come up with that?

Neal chose a brand of kibble, wrinkled his nose at it and dropped it in the basket. "You named your cat 'Kitty'. I can't help it if my imagination's a little better than yours." Then he glanced quickly around. There was someone else in the aisle, but they were at the other end, and hadn't heard him. He didn't really care much about who heard anything a moment later, though, because he would have sworn on a Bible that somebody grabbed his balls.

He dropped the basket, causing it to clatter. He took a step back, already realizing what was happening, but too amazed to do more than tuck his hands in his pockets and whisper a curse. He heard a murmer of laughter and general amusement inside his head that wasn't his. Neal hadn't considered what they were capable of with each other. He'd forgotten that everything went both ways.

Funny, he thought. Real funny. But it wasn't, not once a very specific thought flashed to mind, a memory that wasn't his, and the....feelings that went with it.

"Okay," Neal whispered, "you've got a vivid imagination and I'm really impressed. Point taken." He leaned down to pick the basket up again.

I don't think so, Steve thought, and Neal could hear and feel the grin. You used to bitch about me pushing your buttons all the time, remember? I don't hear you bitching now.

Warmth, everywhere, like he no longer had control over his own nerve endings or how they responded. Things were getting obvious by then, and he stood halfway down the aisle with the basket held in front of himself like a shield, pretending to be absorbed in a choice between brands of dog food.

I'm gonna get you for this, Neal thought.

Counting on it, Steve thought.


* * *

Aug arrived at the end of the week for rehearsal, a day ahead of Neal, having been talked into staying with Jon until they left for the one-shot in Reno the next Tuesday. Steve drove up that afternoon, and he and Aug pretended they hadn't seen each other in months. Ross came up, and he and Aug and Jon jammed when Steve wasn't pulling Aug away to 'get a beer.'

He was mostly trying to get Aug alone for awhile, but he was also doing it to drive them all crazy. By then Neal was threatening to do horrible things to him anyway.

The third time Steve broke them up, Aug was half drunk from the combination of the previous two beers he shouldn't have had, and jet lag. Jon shut everything off and looked daggers at Steve, deciding it was easier to give up and go do something else than work around him.

When both Steves were gone, Jon looked at Ross and said, "They're fuckin' insufferable."

"And they weren't before?" Ross said.

"Aug was fine, until Perry started in," Jon said.

"Oh, right," Ross said. "That bastard. Poor impressionable Aug, unable to think for himself."

Jon sighed loudly and pretended something was wrong on the board in front of him.

On the back deck, Steve was watching Aug try and stay awake. "Steve," he said, using the younger singer's name for the first time Aug could remember. At the sound of it, Aug stilled and looked at him, but not squarely. "What the fuck is going on with you?"

Aug looked confused for a moment, then his eyes cleared. "I don't know," he said. "And that's the truth. That's it. I wish I knew."

"So when you get around to it, maybe you'll tell me what's going on lately, about how it's more than nightmares? Right?"

"I'm just - "

"Because it's not impossible that someone's noticed you, and would love to mess with a walker and get an inside on the rest of us," Steve said. "You've got a branch from that tree, and we're still not sure what that was really all about. I don't know who can find you."

"Kind of late now," Aug said. "I'm in it, right? We'd all be out if we could, but it's not like there's anywhere to hide."

Steve stared at him for a long moment that he meant to be uncomfortable.

"I'm from Brooklyn," Aug said. "That pansy ass staring bullshit does nothing for me."

"Please don't let things get bad before you say something," Steve said.

Aug looked like he was waiting for a punchline. "Are you serious?" he said. "After all the shit that's happened so far, what exactly am I supposed to recognize as 'bad enough'?"

Steve would have been impatient with that last if it hadn't been said with such vehemence. Instead he shook his head a little. "This isn't one of those times when the older gunslinger gets to either show the younger one the ropes, or drive him out of town," he said. "The problem with all this is that anything goes, there's no manual or common sense that lets you wing it. We can all be somewhere else, or shot at, or dead in a minute. After all this, I still have no advice on how to handle it."

"I wasn't looking for advice," Aug said, voice flat but not hostile. Then he got up and walked off the deck, heading across the yard.

Leave him alone, Neal thought.

Steve jogged after him. "Jesus," he said, "you should be. We've all got something hangin' on us from that time in Athyri, and I hope you get the least of it. If you don't, then for Christ's sake say something."

"So you guys could do what about it, exactly?" Aug said. "Save me?"

Steve slammed a hand against the side of the house, startling the other man. "Jesus, what do you want?"

"I'm not your fuckin' kid brother," Aug said. keeping his voice low and even. "I'm not your sidekick. I haven't been in this as long as you guys have, but I'm in the middle of this now, too. You guys don't need to keep using the excuse of me livin' so far away to keep me out of stuff."

"Are you out of your fuckin' mind?" Steve shouted.

"What, because I'm taking the bullshit advice you gave me before we fell in the water?" Aug said. "About not acting like a stand in?"

"Did it ever occur to you why I don't want you in the middle, why no one keeps you up to fuckin' date?" Steve went on shouting, punctuating his words with a pointing finger. "I hope you feel left out, I hope it pisses you off!"

"Especially since I didn't shove my way in," Aug said. "Neal came lookin' for me, I was chosen, I didn't come lookin' for any of this."

"And you should have run when you first realized what a bunch of fuckin' psychos we are and how hopeless this is, but you're a cowboy and still have these little kid fantasies about bein' a rock star hero," Steve said, the volume coming down a little in response to Aug's contrasting calm. "Gonna be the good stand-up guy, gonna step up and hang in there. You dumb son of a bitch, what does it take to scare you off?"

"Nothing so far's been scarier than you, Steve," Aug said.

"Okay, smartass," Steve said wearily. "Fine. I'm gonna miss you, when someone manages to string you up to punish us. It's gonna fuckin' kill me."

He walked away, feeling choked up and hating himself for it, and Neal's voice said you forgot to kick him.

"Fuck you," Steve said aloud. "I don't hear you out here makin' any sense to him."

What do you want him to do?

Steve waved him off mentally and went back to Neal's to simmer. And torture Neal from a distance.

* * *

By the time Neal's plane came in the next afternoon, Deen had driven down from Portland and was already at Jon's. Neal went straight there from the airport, tired but hoping for a chance to slam Steve's head against something.

"Neal's here," Steve said conversationally. He was purposely lying in the hallway outside Jon's guest room, blocking the doorway. Reading. Forcing Aug to step over him.

"You're still an asshole, I'm not talking to you," Aug said, moving to step over him.

Steve dropped the book and got both hands around one of Aug's ankles, and Aug hopped around to try and keep his balance, slamming both hands onto the opposite wall. "I'm gonna get Liz," Aug said.

"She likes me better," Steve said. "I put up shelves for her, since Jon's not allowed to fuck up his hands bein' useful."

"Aren't you special," Aug said.

"Yeah, I had marketable skills before Journey. Gap janitor boy."

"Maintenance," Aug said shortly. "Let me go, Pinnochio."

"Not until you tell me what's really going on with you," Steve said.

Aug twisted a little and looked down at Steve, his face a sudden study in anguish. "I'm so scared," he whispered, tears standing out in large brown eyes. "I just don't know what to do."

He knew he had Steve the moment his face changed, the moment the grip on his ankle loosened. That fast, he yanked his foot free and took off across the livingroom. "Sucker," he yelled.

Steve rolled to his feet and went after him at a run, through the kitchen. Aug came to an abrupt halt at the door to the deck when he came up against Neal. "Hey, man," he said, jerking a thumb at Steve. "Is this yours?"

Neal shifted his gaze to Steve without smiling. "When I get it home, yeah."

Aug glanced between them, and the sudden understanding in his eyes would have mortified them both had they seen it. Then he slipped past Neal out the door.

There was a heavy silence in the kitchen for a moment. Then Jon came up behind Neal and said, "What the hell couldn't wait?"

Neal stepped all the way into the kitchen and shrugged out of his jacket without dropping his eyes from Steve's. "Steve decided to wait until we could all talk about it," he said. "The later version of him, the one that got Colin after us, it saw us."

"What the hell does that mean?" Jon said.

"It was real," Neal said. "I saw it too. It's like it's figured out basically where we are. I don't know what it means."

"Let's see," Steve said sardonically. "That brings the score to...some fuckin' thing called an Ender, a shitload of namers tryin' to hold us over a barrel, pissed walkers, and the future me. Lucky us. Who should we really go after first?"

Neal shook his head.

"The Er Rai, we gotta take care of," Steve said, looking at Neal.

"Take care of," Jon echoed. "You mean put him back in the circle? How are we--"

"No," Neal said sharply, and he was looking at Steve when he said it. Jon fell silent, watching what was obviously an internal battle. When it got too loud internally to remain internal, Neal said, "Good luck gettin' your way on this one."

"Nice to talk to you guys," Jon said evenly.

"There's no 'we'," Steve said to Jon. Then he looked at the ceiling suddenly, blinking, and Jon realized Steve had choked up on him. Jon immediately looked at Neal and found him looking back, trying to stay patient, looking like he'd choked up too.

"Go on," Jon said softly.

"He'll kill both of you," Steve said.

"Not if we know it," Neal said. "We're not kids, we're not future versions."

"Don't matter," Steve said.

Neal sighed. "That pattern's broken."

"Patterns don't ever break," Steve said. "They just warp a little. I don't wanna fuckin' talk about this now."

"You got a lot of faith in us, don't you," Jon said.

Steve looked at him finally, with genuine anger. "You can just shove your fuckin' attitude," he said. "Every now and then, you could keep somethin' to yourself."

Neal sighed again, more weariness than frustration. There was way too much emotion in the room. He and Steve after a week apart were bad enough, but they all seemed to come apart at the seams these days.

"You don't know what I turned into," Steve said. "This part of the line is different, but he still goes on and on, and there's nothin' that can stand against him. He's the thing the namers never wanted, the thing Existence never wanted, the reason I shouldn't've ever been awake."

"It'll take all of us," Neal said. "You can't just walk up to him and get him to do what you want. I gotta put him back in the circle."

"He's had a long time to decide what to do to you when he sees you," Steve said.

"You won't hurt us," Neal said.

"The possibility's always there," Steve said. "I'm capable of it."

"I'm capable of workin' the drive-thru at Jack In The Box," Neal said. "But the desire ain't there."

"Let's let the Ender and the Distant Er Rai have a go at each other," Steve said. "We'll sell tickets. My money's on the scary bastard in the black cloak, because he's had all the human burned out of him, but he's still got all kinds of human ideas. He'll eat even the Ender with a spoon, then come take it up with us."

"The Ender's got nowhere to dig his fingers in, anymore," Neal said.

"You wanna bet?" Steve said. "We've been together for only half a year. We got a lot more work to do. It'd be lifetimes before we'd be solid enough to laugh him off."

Neal fell externally silent.

Steve's shoulders slumped and he said, "No, he can't."

"He can't stand against all three of us," Neal said for Jon's benefit. "Not when Steve took him apart, alone. I ain't underestimating it again." He looked at Steve sharply. The word monster had been used, and not in regards to the Ender.

"The Ender's got all the time he needs, to wait," Jon said. "One day I won't be here."

They both looked at him solemnly. One day.

Neal dropped his stuff and went out to rehearse for awhile. Steve tucked himself away in the guest room in the meantime, knowing Neal hadn't said anything yet about how it would knock him out. Not to anyone but Jon and Liz, anyway.

Then they went home.

* * *

Steve unlocked the door with a thought, walking through the dark house without touching the lights. He took his book into the bedroom and laid on the bed, propping the book on his chest.

Since when can you read in the goddamn dark? Neal thought.

Light from my eyes, Steve thought.

Neal locked the door out of habit and flipped the livingroom lights on. They immediately went off again when Steve extinguished them with a thought. Neal walked through to the bedroom, flipping that light on and staring at Steve.

"Miss me?" Neal said, pulling his shirt off over his head.

"Mmm, no," Steve said without looking up from the book. "You'd have to go away first."

"Real funny, the shit you pulled on me in the store," Neal said, but neither his tone or thoughts were amused.

Steve shrugged internally, continuing to read and doing his damndest to ignore Neal.

Neal came to stand over him, close to the bed, staring down on him and trying to get past the stream of words. He was flexing his hands like he was loosening them up for something, and Steve could see that in his peripheral vision as well as feel it. Neal wasn't even sure what he was going to do yet, so Steve wasn't getting anything more than a frustrated mix of emotions. Annoyance that Steve was still able to push his buttons on so many levels, both good and bad. Frustration over being unable to stop him. A little embarassment, a little resentment, a little....

Steve's eyes widened a bit over the last thing, but he went on reading, pushing Neal to either bring it on or go away.

Because that's what it had always come down to. Those were the only choices they'd ever given each other.

Neal stood there and cracked his knuckles. Steve narrowed his eyes a little, eyes moving over words that registered but no longer ran together with meaning, and took another stance. Pi is a singular ratio of a circle's diameter to its circumference. 3.14159....

Neal folded his arms and stood staring down, head cocked a little in lazy indifference. Now that he'd started something, he was satisfied enough with the idea of it to let his own annoyance go.

Because it made Steve absolutely crazy when he didn't rise to the bait. It interrupted the flow of things. And Steve, the perfectionist, didn't like things undone.

A quadratic equation is a second order polynomial equation in a single variable x...

Distracting himself instead of Neal, this time.

Neal grinned, and they both felt the balance shift. Then he leaned forward and grabbed the book out of Steve's hands and tossed it over Steve onto the floor, jumping on the bed at the same time and straddling Steve, yanking him down and flat on his back.

"You failed algebra all three times you took it," Neal said.

Still thinking about polynomial equations, Steve centered his gaze somewhere in the middle of Neal's chest, folding his hands behind his own head and crossing his ankles. He quirked his mouth in an expression of feigned boredom.

Without any forethought, Neal jabbed his fingers into a spot on Steve's ribs just below his armpit, knowing it would be ticklish beyond belief. Enough so that Steve not only brought his arms forward to struggle, but emitted a shriek to go with it. Neal immediately grabbed his wrists, watching Steve glare up at him in shocked recrimination.

Neal deliberately pinned his wrists to the bed, feeling the shock descend straight to nervousness. Nothing changed in the singer's face, but his eyes and thoughts stilled a little when an old moment of fear resurfaced.

Without releasing him, Neal said, "That's over. Now on, you think of this instead."

Steve looked at him steadily, absorbing the reassurance.

Neal released his wrists and tangled his fingers in Steve's instead, and said, "Look what I gotta do to get your attention."

Steve grinned. "Uh huh," he said. "I didn't even have to touch you."

"And that's pretty much why we're here now," Neal whispered, lips inches from Steve's. He released Steve's hands to slide his own beneath the singer's shirt. That moment of lessened concentration allowed Steve to roll away and scoot from beneath Neal's knees.

Surprised, Neal tried to freeze him in place and instead felt him slip away. He went after him, realizing they were two partly clothed guys running through a house in the dark. It was funny and bizarre and frightening. Steve struggled out of his shirt and threw it at Neal, and they were both suddenly panting and laughing, facing each other over the table.

Neal paused, then, because Steve had a moment of memory, of the wraith chasing him through the house, of terror so clear that things had been simple for that one night, live or die, struggle or surrender. The thing in the dark had wanted him no less than the creature chasing him through the house now, and only the reasons were different.

Steve wasn't good at surrender.

Neal made a hushing sound at him across the table, realizing that feinting one way or the other would do no good, Steve would see/feel everything when he did. The fear only ramped them up a little further. Neal didn't mind being filed under a general heading of dangerous, either.

Steve grabbed one of the chairs and backed away from the table, brandishing the chair at Neal. He was momentarily silvered by a slanting of streetlight coming in the side window. He was a dance of shadow and silence and pale skin, slender musculature and flashes of cat's-eye green as his eyes darted between Neal and the back door. He didn't look real for a moment, and Neal blinked. Then he moved, fast, trying for the chair and taking it out of Steve's hands. He tossed it to one side as quickly and stood inches away.

They breathed each other's air for several long, heated moments. A shiver passed over Steve's frame, partly chill and partly the moment.

The light in the bedroom down the hall went out.

Neal passed a hand within millimeters of Steve's skin, feeling the charge in the air, hearing it nearly snap between them. Then he knew he could hear it, feel it, taste it when Steve leaned in further, standing so close that they were sharing body heat. Neal felt an arc of electricity when the singer's fingers paused a hairsbreadth away from his chest. The inside of Neal's head was a flash of almost brutal intent, a slip in his control, and Steve paused with breath held.

One of them had to break the seal of warm air now holding them.

Neal reached across the distance and placed a finger a millimeter from Steve's lips.

Sometime later in the darkness, their pulses matched up, beat for beat, and remained that way the rest of their time together.

* * *