Jon and Ross walked into the studio the next morning and found Steve leaning a chair up against the far wall, feet propped up, reading.
"What's that?" Ross said, pointing at the book.
"The second Harry Potter book," Steve said. "Actually, it's the best goddamn book I've read in years. I'm gonna quit reading all that shit they put out for adults and wander over to the kid's fiction from now on."
Jon sighed, but it wasn't a sound of impatience, just a small comment on the situation. He was never going to get used to it. "Where's Neal?"
"Home," Steve said, turning a page with deliberate care. He raised his eyes to Jon's for an instant as he did it, a flicker of acknowledgement.
Jon waited for the rest of the sentence he thought should be there, and got nothing. Home, like wherever one lived, the other did too. He supposed that was true, in a way.
Steve went back to reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
"Is he held up, or what?" Jon said.
"Time's running a little different for him this morning, that's all," Steve said. "He knows how to make the...most of a moment." Steve went back to reading, face obscured by the book.
It took a moment for Jon to take the bait. Ross watched Jon's head swivel around, and he tried not to burst out laughing. The look on the keyboardist's face was a study in horrified denial.
"You guys are actually sleeping together all the time, now?" Jon said before he could stop himself, his voice louder than he'd intended it to be.
Steve lowered the book slightly so that only his eyes were visible over the top, hearing Ross make a startled noise. He stared blankly at Jon for a moment. "Well," he said slowly, "no, Jon. Not much sleeping goin' on at all, as a matter of fact."
Ross burst into helpless laughter, making it difficult for Jon to maintain his anger. Jon kept staring at Steve, redfaced with embarassment by then.
"You asked," Ross gasped. "Jon, you asked, so--"
"So you got what you deserved," Steve said with atonal finality. "Me and Neal are none of your business, right now."
That stung. But Ross couldn't stop laughing.
Jon walked out of the studio, unable to stand there, uncertain of how to take it.
Ross tried to stop laughing. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" he said through it.
"Neal will be happy to make a list for you, when he gets here," Steve said, face behind the book again. "He's compiling it right now. Yeah...well, we'll see. I know."
Ross knew the last was a snippet of one-sided conversation with Neal. Which struck Ross as even funnier. "Can't wait for the tour," he said.
"I can," Steve said darkly, knowing Ross didn't really understand. He went back to reading, listening to Ross mess around with things and snort in amusement to himself periodically. To himself he thought, prime numbers are divisible by themselves and one, and began listing them sequentially.
It wasn't going to help him, but it put Neal off easily enough.
Neal walked in a few minutes later, and the look he gave Steve would have said everything whether they heard each other's thoughts or not.
"I'm gonna go up to the house," Steve said, closing the book with a soft thud.
"Good," Neal said. "And maybe you oughta stay the fuck out of Jon's sight until we're done." He no sooner gets settled down, and you rile the whole thing up again.
Steve smiled. He doesn't get used to the whole thing by us pretendin' it isn't there. And he's the one who brought it up.
Then he was gone, and Ross looked at Neal.
"No," Neal said. He didn't bring it up. You had to drop some suggestion. "I don't wanna talk about it."
"Something's changed," Ross said, ignoring him, and there was no humor in his voice or face, no suggestion that he was leading up to something. "And not just because you guys are afraid that thing'll be back to pry you apart."
Neal stretched, looking for a diversion but knowing he couldn't put Ross off. No one had ever been able to. He didn't really want to anyway, it was just old habit to try.
He's dyin' of curiosity, Steve thought, and they were still talking about Jon. He wanted to hear something. I was just making a comment. He passed the kennel, and neither dog raised its head or so much as trailed him with their eyes.
Don't fuckin' argue with me over it, Neal thought. To Ross he said, "It's done. May as well make a good job of it, right?"
Niiiiice, Steve whispered. Jesus, come on.
Neal sighed. Goddamnit, don't push me.
Steve shoved an angered mental hand in his face. Don't you punish me for being an asshole with Jon by degenerating us to a fling. Not even jokingly. We're not a couple, and I'm not gonna do this emotional bullshit thing with you. You don't let me lie, so I'm not lettin' you.
"I don't know what the fuck is going on," Neal said aloud, and he was talking to himself, Ross, and Steve. "That's the best I can do, period. I just don't know, maybe I'm never gonna know."
Ross nodded, and the horrible thing was, Neal was pretty sure the bassist knew better about it than he did right then.
"I don't want the Formless or the namers jerking us around, and they will if we're not solid," Neal said. "But now I don't wanna lose him either. I never did."
Ross nodded, realizing how much of an admission it really was.
Steve was paused by the open back door, frozen in shock, mouth open in amazement. He didn't even see Liz, who was standing there asking him if he was all right.
"This isn't a goddamn romance," Neal added.
"Doesn't look like one," Ross said. "Really, really doesn't look any more dysfunctional than things were before."
Neal smirked at him. Steve was talking to Liz by then and doing his damndest to ignore the rest of the conversation.
"Neither of you were ever good at the lovey-dovey stuff," Ross said. "Nobody's gonna accuse you of doin' this for fun. But no one's gonna believe you don't matter to each other. Ever."
Neal nodded. "I think the 49'ers fuckin' suck this year," he said.
"How about those Dodgers, though?" Ross said.
Jon walked back in and said, "Where the fuck is Aug?"
"Playin' 'Chutes & Ladders' with Maddie," Neal said, seeing it through Steve's eyes. "We done fuckin' around, here?"
Jon looked like he wanted to launch into some sort of tirade. But instead, he went up to the house to get Aug.
"He coulda used the phone in here," Ross said.
"He needs to walk it off just a little longer," Neal said.
"Especially when you're standing in here practically screaming 'I'm getting more than all of you put together'," Ross said.
"Okay," Neal said, "you only get one more, and that's it."
"Take you a little longer than normal to get Amber pregnant, with a sperm count that low," Ross said.
* * *
On Tuesday afternoon, they left for Reno, and Steve avoided all of them, not even trading audible conversation with Neal. Neal ignored him because he knew what it was about for once. Aug was hyped up for the show and mildly nervous, and pretended it didn't disappoint him when he didn't get a parting shot in.
"Just don't pay attention to him," Neal said on the way to the airport. "I don't know how many times I gotta tell you not to pay any attention to him."
"And I'll bet you were able to take that advice when he just told you to go fuck yourself," Aug said under his breath, keeping his nose in a copy of Discover.
Neal snorted and watched the road go by. "You ready for this?"
"I just cut an album with you guys, what's to be ready for?" Aug said. "This isn't my first time."
"Steve says that's one easy step from virgin to whore," Neal said with a sigh.
"He would know," Aug said.
"You guys wanna snipe at each other, pick up the phone," Neal said. "I swear to God -"
"What'd he say?" Aug said, putting the magazine down in his lap.
"I'm done with this," Neal said.
"I guess I only get to hear my side of it, then," Aug said with a smirk, picking the magazine up again. "I can't hear a damn thing except me talking about what a pain in the ass he is."
"But you're also close enough for me to kill, and he isn't right now," Neal said. "Keep that in mind."
* * *
It was already getting dark when they got to the Silver Legacy, and they settled into their rooms. Aug was bunking with Jon, Neal was with Ross, and Deen was staying with friends in town. They spent awhile looking around, avoiding being seen by fans who'd arrived early to see the next night's show until Aug couldn't take it anymore and waded into them. No one saw him again for hours, and Neal figured that as long as he was with Journey fans, he had a crowd of bodyguards that would defend him against damn near anything.
Aug headed up early, wanting some quiet time, and walked into the wrong elevator before figuring out which one he needed. How the hell they fixed it so that certain elevators only went to certain floors had always annoyed him, even if he was still licensed to fix the bastards.
He didn't remember falling asleep, or even getting into bed; there was just a sudden shift in...everything.
There was an expanse of desert far below him, sunlight reflecting off glass in a blinding flash. He shielded his eyes and looked down at his own feet only to realize his toes were off the edge of a stone cliff. He backed several steps away, sweeping his eyes left to right to see how much clearance he had. It was more of a tower than a plateau, and he didn't recall it from his time in Athyri.
It was hot and dry, and the air was silent. Nothing from below carried up to him, if there was anything to hear. He edged closer to the lip of the precipice to get a better view, and realized he was looking down on the top of the tree that he'd taken
(that had given him)
the branch from. Leaves spiraled gently in a nonexistent breeze. He didn't see any other movement.
He turned around and came face to face with what had to be Death himself.
He knew it wasn't Steve immediately; there was nothing left in the eyes that held any semblance of the singer, much less humanity. The eyes had been burned green over time, no longer just a glow behind the retinas. If it had pupils, he didn't see them at first. Covered in dust, marble-pale, garbed in black.
But he said Steve's name aloud anyway, unable to help it.
"You're one of his," it said.
The creature moved so quickly that Aug never saw it, never registered anything until it was already touching him, fingertips on the underside of his jaw as if it meant to cup his chin.
Aug was already jerking away in agony, pain searing through his head. He shoved away, knocking into someone standing behind him. They both went down in a tangle. Aug struggled, flailing blindly, hearing someone curse and then yell at him to stop. He rolled away and got to his knees, opening his eyes on a hotel hallway.
Neal was scrambling to his feet and asking him what the fuck he was doing.
Aug stared at him blankly, trying to reconcile where he'd been with where he was. It was too much to think that he'd been anywhere, but now he had to grasp much more.
He got to his feet, keeping the wall to his back. Everything was too loud, too bright, and he was suddenly so tired that he didn't think he could do more than lean on the wall. His face burned where the creature had touched him. He put his fingers up to feel for damage, because his face had to be blistered.
"Jesus," he whispered, "...it touched me."
"Aug," Neal said, "where'd you come from, and what the hell happened to your face?"
"You can see it?" Aug said.
"Yeah, I can see it," Neal said, coming close enough to make Aug tilt his head back so he could see the marks. It looked like something red hot had brushed Aug under the right side of his jaw. "How'd you get burned?"
"We're still in Reno," Aug said.
"Yeah," Neal said. "And we been lookin' for you since two a.m.. Aug, that noise in my head earlier better not have been you."
"I don't know how I got there," Aug said, then leaned over to retch violently. Nothing came up but ice cold water.
* * *
"I can't do this kind of stuff," Aug said again. Neal and Ross had lost count of how many times he said it, and how many times he apologized for puking on Neal.
"We know, Aug," Neal said. "You've got all the right stuff, just not the batteries. No one's blaming you, man."
They were busy getting him drunk in the casino and keeping an eye on him. Jon was making sure there really was nothing on the floor their rooms were on. Whether there was anything physical that would explain what had happened or not, it would at least make them feel better to go through the motions.
Deen had taken off hours earlier with friends staying at the hotel, and had missed the whole episode.
"I mean, there it was, Athyri, it had to be, the tree was there," Aug said. "It was hot, and everything."
Jon walked up and sat down at their table, glancing around. It was nearly five, and there were only a few die hards at the machines down there with them. "If there's anything going on up there, if it's got anything to do with the place, I can't find it," he said. He looked at Aug. "What the hell happened?"
Aug told them what he remembered. The tower, the creature, its face. "It said, 'you're one of his'," he said, then repeated it. "I was really there, huh."
"Yeah," Neal said softly, not wanting to go into what Aug had met on the tower. "I think you were. I don't think it was all you, though." He and Jon were staring at each other.
You're one of his.
"I don't know how I got burned," Aug said, touching the angry red mark under his jaw. The skin had blistered and come away by then, but no one had thought to put anything on it. "I wasn't drinking, I didn't go off with anybody, I was headed up in the elevator. There wasn't anyone else in there with me."
"You said it touched you," Neal said.
"Right here," Aug said, pointing at his jaw. "It was like it was headed for something else, like -"
"It meant to kill you," Neal said suddenly, "if it couldn't get anything out of you." They all stared at him, and he cleared his throat and shook his head. "Shit, Steve," he said. "Don't fuckin' do that."
Don't play this off, Steve thought. Don't let him think for a moment that it didn't really have him, that it hadn't been killing any walker it could get its hands on. Don't think it didn't call him.
"It didn't burn me because it was glad to see me," Aug said. "Jesus, who or what was it? That wasn't Steve."
"It's Steve from further down the line," Neal said, "if we fuck this all up. Stuff went different, the first time we lived all this, and the path we're on is kind of headed that way. But different."
Aug sighed. "Either I'm finally getting drunk, or you're as confused as I am."
"That version of Steve belongs to another line," Jon said, gesturing with a straw. "He should have vanished out of this line when we changed things, but he's reached a point where time and place doesn't really mean much to him. He's powerful enough to smear the line just by existing in it."
"Another version of Steve," Aug said flatly.
"A really old, really pissed off Steve that isn't Steve anymore," Neal said.
"A Steve that lost Neal and had to go on," Ross said, and the sudden silence was huge.
Aug leaned back in his chair, keeping his eyes down.
"We all need some sleep before we tell that story," Jon said. "Whatever happened, I don't think you were pulled. Steve hasn't got Neal's abilities, time didn't change that. So you don't have to worry about vanishing out of bed."
"So how long was I really gone?" Aug said.
The other three glanced among themselves. "I got worried about you around one, didn't start looking until two, didn't panic until 3:30. I was coming back up to get Jon and Ross up when you came out of nowhere and body slammed me in the hall."
"I wasn't gone for hours," Aug said. "The whole thing, everything that happened to me, there's no way it was more than five minutes."
"To a linear guy," Jon said.
Aug stared at him.
"Pretty fly for a linear guy," Ross said.
"So what was with the water?" Neal said suddenly.
Aug looked at him. "I don't -"
"Even if you were only gone five minutes instead of hours, and even if you'd chugged a bottle of cold water just before popping back, there's no way ice cold water comes right out of a guy like that," Neal said. "Wasn't nothing of your dinner in it, just water, like that's all you've had for days."
Aug kept his eyes on the table for a long moment. Someone out of sight had a coughing fit. "That started after we got back," he said.
"Ever since you were in the river," Jon said.
Aug didn't have to say anything.
"Everybody get some sleep," Jon said.
* * *
No one slept for long. Soundcheck was at nine, then rehearsal an hour later until they broke for lunch. They didn't talk about anything but the setlist, the meet and greet after the show, and the way things would have to be adjusted for tour.
They spent the afternoon hanging out upstairs, Deen beating everyone at Playstation. When it was time to get dressed and head down, Neal said, "Find a good spot."
"For what," Aug said.
"Talkin' to Steve."
Aug let it go for a moment as they were in the elevator. Then he said, "He can't see anything you don't. What's he need a good spot for?"
"Because it knocks him out anytime I play, and this is our first big show since me and Steve -"
"You mean," Aug said slowly, "that all the time we were making the album...any time you picked up a guitar..."
"Yeah," Neal said.
"Earlier this morning and for about two hours tonight," Aug said.
"Yeah Aug," Neal said patiently.
"And when we tour -"
"I think you got it, Aug," Neal said. "What about it do you think I don't get?"
"How much he must really love you, man," Aug said. "How much you're worth it."
Neal just stared. The elevator doors opened to let them out.
"This is the part where you punch me on the arm and kick me out of here," Aug said.
"Mostly I just kinda need you to walk away slowly," Neal whispered. It was all he could manage.
Aug nodded and wandered off, whistling.
* * *
Separate Ways. Only The Young. Any Way You Want It. Same old songs, new singer, differently wired guitarist. This wasn't the studio, and it wasn't the same band that had been onstage six months earlier for the suicide prevention benefit. But it was a hell of a lot of fun all the same.
It wasn't until Neal started the solo for 'Higher Place' that something went wrong. At first he thought maybe it was a random ghost-feeling, maybe a crossed wire. He was getting the echo of something, which meant it wasn't happening to him. Steve was out, wasn't hurt, so he let it go until something tore loose.
There was no other way to describe it; what had started as a crack became a spiderweb in desert glass, and something gathered itself above a surface lit in blue from above. There was resistance, but only the token resistance of a world that wanted to be rid of the creature anyway.
Neal let a note hang, and the crowd went wild as if he'd intended it. It went on a lot longer than it should have, while Neal tried to keep from panicking. He didn't even turn his head to look at Jon, and it was all he would have needed to do. Aug was looking at him, picking up on his sudden change in mood.
Steve was awake. It already knows where we are. Don't make it worse. It isn't coming.
But Neal was having an awful time staying where he was. The small internal battle resulted in him frozen, midstage, midnote, midthought.
Jon signaled for Deen to hold up, for the lights to go down, and a moment later they did. He shot out from behind the piano and crossed the stage at a run, grabbing the neck of Neal's guitar and stopping the note. He could just make out Ross and Aug in his peripheral vision the way he could just make out the glow of Neal's eyes in the darkness. He took Neal's head between his hands and shouted over the crowd. "What's happened?"
He had to shake Neal and repeat the words before he got a response that he didn't hear. For a horrible moment, Jon wondered if something had happened to Steve, but he realized he'd have felt it too.
"Loose," Neal shouted back when he had the voice. "The Ender. It's loose."
Jon dropped his hands, leaving one on Neal's shoulder. Steve had been right, in a way. The thing would know when they were at their most vulnerable: when Journey was onstage and the Er Rai was incapacitated by it. They'd made themselves and their vulnerabilities obvious.
"Coming?" Jon shouted. How they'd explain Neal suddenly vanishing from the stage--and from the state--didn't matter.
"It looked away," Neal shouted.
Go on, Neal, Steve thought. Go on. It's okay, for now. You gotta go on like nothing's happening.
But he was frightened. That, he couldn't hide.
It's okay, we're okay.
You have to believe we're okay.
* * *