ECHOES Chapter VIII ('Souvenier')
(c)2003/2004 B Stearns

What day is this
Besides the day you left me?
--Dave Matthews, Stay or Leave
___________________

There was nothing else, no further noise, nothing rushing at them from a corner or two.

"See anything?" Neal said, even though he already knew the answer.

Steve kept his eyes near the door and didn't respond.

"More games," Neal sighed, turning away.

Steve kept staring at the door, eyes scanning the windows and floor nearby. He knew Neal wasn't talking to him.

"Leave it," Neal said from the kitchen. "They move on us or they don't, and lettin' 'em freak us out just makes them happier."

"Cut the act," Steve said under his breath. "Tell me what?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" Neal said from the fridge, scoping for orange juice like nothing was going on.

Steve sighed, a huge exhalation that felt as if it had been waiting for a long time. "Okay. I don't wanna argue with you anymore." And then something occurred to him because he wasn't looking for it, something pulling loose in the mess of details. There's no reason why we can't look ahead. Neal's earlier words to Jon. "Isn't that weird," he said aloud. "The Six are all time and space."

"So what," Neal said.

"So how much of you did I get? Just space, I think. Most of the stuff you're really good at is time, and most of the trouble I cause is space. I move things and hit people, and you pull entire lines around. Sort of halves of the same whole. I guess. It doesn't make any difference, really."

"Explains stuff," Neal said.

"Don't drink out of the carton," Steve said automatically, turning his head to finally break his gaze from the door. "Less than half, I think," he said. "Because you can still mess with both time and space, and I'm the space part only. So you're not missing much."

"Stephen," Neal said. There was only a mild warning in his tone. He was too tired to pursue it. And too busy listening with everything he had for more from the floor or doors.

"It doesn't matter," Steve said. "I'm just saying. We can use our shit on each other, or other people, but between us, only one can use the other."

"Define 'use'," Neal said, the beginnings of impatience creeping into his voice at the same time it tinged his thoughts.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Steve said. "It is what it is."

"So I thought we weren't -" Neal began.

"He's gonna take a run at us soon," Steve said, cutting him off. "He didn't used to know the difference between sooner or later, but he's so pissed off I think he gets it now. And what the fuck are we gonna do? For real, I mean, since Jon isn't here to show off in front of."

"You mean, how far am I gonna let him get with you before I pull your plug," Neal said.

Steve stood, walked through to the kitchen, and came within inches of Neal. But carefully didn't meet his eyes. "We're back to talking about running, then, not handing him his ass."

Neal put the carton on the counter deliberately, trying to look everywhere but Steve's face. "Fine. You know where to find him?"

"He's not here," Steve said. "That's a start. One place down, infinity to go. What are you trying not to tell me?"

Neal just looked at the ceiling.

"Fine," Steve said. "I'll just be wandering around, doing kid's parties."

The front door slammed shut and locked at Steve's instruction. Then Steve wandered away with a shrug, back out to the livingroom.

"You're already dressed for it," Neal said.

Steve opened his mouth to make a jab of some sort, but then it was gone.

Something, in the room.

Not enough time. Steve heard, felt, understood, and his mind went blank. Frozen. Neal was already moving, coming toward him, trying to get in synch with him, the tumblers of a thousand locks turning. They would match up, and come together against it. He knew they could.

Steve was an absurdly easy target. Even though it was barely solid yet, the force in the room nailed him like a single, immense fist, launching him against the nearest wall.

Bone split and shattered. Steve slid to the floor, and chunks of drywall came with him, powdering over him as he lay and watched the rest with numb clarity.

Neal, still visibly whole but shattered in so many other ways, was screaming, already incapacitated. He was reaching for Steve, trying to crawl to him along the floor, glancing up at the figure that now stood over them both. Steve would never forget the look on Neal's face, the stricken fear, the disbelief. It was Neal who had frozen, this time. The Ender, not wearing a face they'd ever seen before, placed a now-solid foot against Steve's temple, working quickly but clearly still wanting to make up for lost time.

"Fragile glass-children," the Ender said in an emotionless voice, "playing games with their stone-elders. So easily ground back to sand, and an hourglass turns."

Don't let him get me.

Don't let him get us.

At that last moment, Steve felt Neal hesitate. He wasn't going to do it. He couldn't. Everything they'd done was for nothing, was ended, and the Ender would do whatever it wanted with them both.

Neal.

Steve.

One, to the other, and back.

Then nothing.

* * *

The world got so quiet; sound receded to nothing although it was obvious that life went on around him. He felt nothing except the absolute certainty that something terrible had happened. It wasn't the world-spinning, numbing assault that had struck him when Steve had been hit by the bus so long ago; this was instant, and worse, and bigger. He didn't feel anyone grab his hand, or hear them call his name, he could only listen to the silence.

No, Jonathan thought. No, no no.

He had to go see if there was anything left. "I have to," he said aloud, and his hearing rushed back.

"Jon," Liz said.

He focused on the pale worry of her face, her wide, dark eyes. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Not again," she said immediately.

"But we knew it was coming," Jon said.

"Somebody has to go with you."

"There isn't anybody, now," Jon said with wooden certainty. "I don't think there's anyone left." He paused, letting that sink in for both of them, then cast around for his cell phone. "I'll -"

"Call the police, or something," Liz said.

Jon closed his eyes briefly, then said, "They don't have any way of protecting themselves from anything that might be wrong over there. I do. I'm not gonna try and explain how I knew something was wrong, Lizzie. This is something I gotta do. I'll call you as soon as I get there, and every couple of minutes. That way you know I'm okay."

"Why do you think -" Liz started to say.

He answered before she could finish, knowing what she was asking. "Lot of pissed off folks have been wanting a crack at Steve, and Neal won't let go of him without a fight," he said. "I don't think either of them are here, or alive, anymore."

Liz took that stoically, blinking at him. "How about if you be careful, then? How about if you don't follow them, or at least wait until whatever it is that you heard is gone?"

Jon nodded a little without looking at her. "I have to....go check. If Steve is gone, Neal needs me, and it won't be long before the Ender tries to figure out how Steve 'works'."

* * *

Jon sat with his headlights and engine off, watching Neal's house from the road. No motion near the windows or doors, no sound that carried to him. It was the kind of quiet that he knew neither Neal or Steve were capable of.

He called Liz to tell her he'd made it, and that he was headed for the door, and no he didn't see anything. He'd known better than to try Neal's number, because it would ring on until there was a recording telling you the party wasn't answering, please try again. 28 rings. He didn't need any more evidence.

He headed for the house on foot, seeing the front door was open, listening and watching hard. He reached the porch and waited, listening to the birds chatter in the nearby trees and a commercial jet go by miles above. There was nothing on the porch that told him anything, nothing visible from the half-open door that gave him hope. He got as close to the door as he dared, holding his breath to listen.

He hazarded a glance, leaning around the open doorway.

Blood, everywhere. On the ceiling. One pair of feet, at terrible angles to each other, visible near the dining room. Only one, wearing Steve's shoes.

Jon backed away from the open door and leaned against the wall, finding himself out of breath. "I can't," he said aloud. "I just can't."

But you're the only one who can, Steve's voice said close to his ear.

He whirled, but there was no one there. No one he could see. He shivered, more from the task in front of him than the coolness of the day. No, no no. He couldn't do this on his own, but there was no one he'd put through this, no matter what they knew.

Oh God, anything not to walk in there and see what happened.

Anything not to hear Steve's pain once the singer was 'living' again.

He shoved the door the rest of the way open resolutely, stepping in, getting it done with a stiff unwillingess. What he found was no surprise to him, but shocked his senses regardless. The protective part of him that was a father cringed; the part that had always been Steve's friend bent double with agony. The part that was human began hyperventilating.

It didn't matter that Steve wasn't actually irretrieveable, that he went on no matter how it looked. All that mattered was the crushed frame, the single staring eye, the misshapen skull. Steve had put up one hell of a fight, and the Ender had taken its annoyance out on him. Some of it may have been done after the 'killing' blow, but Steve had probably felt most of it.

All it had needed to do was incapacitate him like Siarion had done the prior year. But it had chosen to make certain. Steve may or may not have suffered this time, but Neal almost certainly would have.

Where is Neal?

That forced him to catch his breath and wipe his face. The Ender wouldn't have taken Neal, not when it could have the Er Rai.

He stood unsteadily and looked around the yard, searching for other signs of blood. He turned and walked into the house, legs shaking hard enough that he was afraid he wouldn't make it. "Neal," he called aloud, already knowing he wouldn't be answered.What were the chances it had just hurt them both and left?

Hurt? It had painted the walls with Steve, had demolished him.

He crossed the livingroom to look in Neal's room, and nothing there had been disturbed. The plaster on the adjoining wall had a chunk taken out of it, and he had a sick feeling he knew what had been used to dislodge it. He couldn't get through the dining room without walking in blood, and he didn't want to do that, if he could avoid it. Neal wasn't there; if he was, and the Ender had killed him, the guitarist's remains would be on graphic display. The Ender would not have passed up the chance to take his rage out on one of the Six. Neal was gone, and there was no way he had simply made a run for it. Maybe Neal had only been first, and it was coming back for Steve...

Jon reeled back outside and sat on the steps, and whooping sobs crawled out of him for long minutes until he ached, until he was convinced he was dry and empty. Rage at what they were being put through again, sorrow for what must have really gone on in the confines of the house. Fear, for what else they'd be put through, what they'd lose.

Christ, what are we gonna do?

"Mr. Cain."

Jon whirled at the voice, wiping his face, realizing he'd never heard an approching engine or footsteps.

That detective. That damn female detective that hadn't let the thing at the mall go. Keenan, or something like that. She stood several paces away, gun drawn and pointed at the ground.

"Now you show up," Jon said. "Now, after all this, you choose now to show up. You wanna see what's been going on? Look." He pointed with a shaking hand.

Jessica kept her hand on her gun, catching another breath of blood from the open door. She didn't want to take her eyes off Jonathan, but she couldn't resist. She glanced to her right, saw the blood, and leveled her gun on Jon. "Back away from the door, and put your hands on the wall."

"You have to fucking be kidding me," Jonathan said deliberately, voice surprisingly calm. "After everything you've seen, you know what the hell happened here. No human did any of this. Put the cop away and use your regular eyes, Jessica."

"Detective Keenan," she said automatically, correcting him. "Put your goddamn hands on the wall."

"Screw you," Jon said. "Shoot me. You better call for backup, because it'll take a lot more than you to keep me from doing what I have to."

"Cain, put your goddamn hands on the wall!"

"Don't you wanna know?" Jon said without moving. "Don't you wonder how you left a guy dying in the street one day, and he was walking a couple of days later? Don't you wonder what the nurses were talking about when they mentioned the green light?"

"Jesus," Jessica said, keeping the gun trained on him. Her eyes had changed; he'd hit a nerve.

"If you didn't wanna know, if you didn't believe something really bad came through the studio the day we all disappeared - you already would have called somebody," Jon said. "And you sure as hell wouldn't've come out here alone. Fuckin' shoot me, it won't do you any good unless you kill me on the first shot."

They stood locked in place for several seconds.

"Go look at him," Jon said. "Go on. No one did this. And the longer you fuck around, the longer it'll take me to find him."

"What the hell are you talking about," Jessica whispered.

Jon turned and walked into the house, still wiping his face, and for a moment all Jessica could think of was the fact that the dogs wouldn't come out from under the deck, that day the band had been taken. And that her own dog wouldn't stop barking. She watched him walk away, and remembered the singer's eyes while he'd been lying in the road.

She let the gun fall to her side and walked in at the ready, knowing she was screwing up by following him, by not calling for backup when there was an obvious crime, by contaminating a crime scene. She'd seen enough of them to not be surprised by anything - people did anything and everything to each other, given the chance. But not this, not a human form smashed across every available surface. Absolute, unforgiving rage had done this, and it looked more like the workings of a frenzied crowd. Blood patterns on the floor, walls, ceiling, the guest bedroom door. The facing wall had been a major impact point; the drywall hadn't held up. No hammer had done that kind of damage, not to the wall or what was left of the man on the floor. Not enough left to have eyes.

She supressed the urge to cross herself. She didn't believe that stuff anymore.

It was all fresh, but not so fresh that it should still be such a bright red. There should have been a stench of decay already setting in, of once-living flesh turned to carrion, and there was nothing but the bright, coppery scent of blood and fear. The room still screamed of whatever had happened, rang with echoes of voices saying don't. But nothing of death. No footprints in the blood, even though anyone close enough to have done this had to have been in it with every step.

Nothing of death at all.

"He's still alive," Jessica said in a matter-of-fact tone, realizing as she did so that she wanted to start screaming. "Like he was, in the road."

"Yeah," Jon said, voice breaking into a sob he tried to mask, unsuccessfully. "Still." He took a shuddering breath and added, "I got a lot to do, and I don't know how long it'll take. I've never had to bring him back when it was this bad. So get the hell out of here, or keep an eye out for anything weird. Either way, don't interrupt me."

He didn't wait for her to answer or react; he walked away, through the blood without paying attention to it, into the kitchen. He pulled out his cell and called Liz to tell her what was going on.

Jessica stood for a long moment, trying to tell herself it was because she was trying to catch up. She only wanted that to be the case. She'd caught up long before this, and had no way of explaining any of it. So she stood and let her eyes wander, trying to see past the destruction, looking for the subtle things that came from human involvement in anything. Crime scenes always had them, and she already knew the carnage wasn't to cover anything up. Physical beings always left a part of themselves behind in anything they touched. But whatever had done this hadn't cared about police or coroners or the American justice system.

She only heard every other word of the conversation in the kitchen, but she could tell that Jon wasn't explaining anything to Liz, just letting her know that things had gotten worse. Liz had already seen and heard more than this, Jessica had a feeling. Jon had discounted her own presence utterly, fearing neither her, her gun, or her ability to bring half the local force. That was odd behavior for an unarmed guy with no record. But not for someone at the end of his rope.

So she found herself standing guard at the front door after watching the green light for awhile, once the sheer amazement wore off. It began to get dark, and still she kept an eye out, letting Liz past her after a brief re-introduction. By then the blood on the floor was gone, and Liz paused long enough to stare at Jon and assess him from a small distance. The weary concern and sadness on her face were far from the horror Jessica had expected to see, but, no real surprise. Whatever this was had gone on long before the episode with the bus. Long before, and way beyond this. And way over her head, so far.

It was more than an hour after that when Jon employed their help to move Perry into the adjoining bedroom, what must have been the master bedroom. The bed had been stripped, and Jon knew why, and this time he didn't care. Steve and Neal together was better, any day, from now on, than apart. Apart was too damn hard.

* * *

He drifted for a bit, knowing he was awake but not caring about it, knowing there was a reason he shouldn't be awake. He didn't want to be, yet. There was something he'd have to deal with once he was awake, and it needed to wait for awhile. Something had happened. Something in the past, but he wasn't sure how far.

He shifted a little without opening his eyes, and felt the arm draped across his waist, the warmth of a body pressed against his back. *You'll be late to the studio*, he thought, and that quickly he knew Neal was gone and why.

He spun over in bed, coming face to face with Jonathan, who was startled awake by the move and stared at him with a beleaguered confusion. He looked like hell, and Steve knew why, but he didn't pause to find out more. The sudden clarity was, in itself, more than he could handle. He didn't want to know more yet. The space between felt empty.

Not a word. Not a sound. Just sudden motion, stiff because there was still a basic lack of alignment. Jon followed, watching, passing Liz on the way and feeling a comforting hand at his shoulder. He could reverse the structural damage but not make things exact, and the singer made for the door the best he could.

Stood in the yard.

For long moments, nothing. Then he turned a slow circle, eyes on the middle distance, and Jon knew he was calling. There was a channel open, and Jon thought he could feel a change in the air. It may only have been due to his knowledge of what was involved. At any rate, the moment turned desperate. Jon found himself praying, for anything. He'd been counting on things being solved by Steve's connection with Neal. He'd been dumb enough to hope things would be that simple. They would find him, and get him back. There was no other possible outcome.

Steve was straining for a note that had once come easily, and failing a task like this would have caused a rage of frustration at any other time. Now there was just panic, and Jon could see it on his face, in the disbelieving set of his shoulders. The singer was still, now, his back to Jon, face tilted to the sky. Jon wanted to say something to break the oppressive silence, but couldn't make himself break Steve's concentration.

"It's dark," Steve said suddenly, his voice clear but managing to sound as if it came from a distant place. "It's cold, and dark, and that's all. We're still connected, but I can't find him. He's not....he's not Neal anymore, or anyone. I hear walker and everything else is just quiet. He's put away, and I didn't do it."

"What do we do?" Jon said.

"I can feel him," Steve said. "He's alive, still. But I can't get past something. I can't get to him. Even if I could find him, I couldn't use his powers."

"Maybe..." Jon began.

"I don't give a shit about anything," Steve said. "I just want him back. Or to be where he is."

Jon had nothing to say to that.

Soon, the other Formless would start noticing. The things Siarion had warned them of were coming to pass. Now all they had to do was wait to see what came after them. As if the Ender wasn't bad enough. Hopefully one of the things that noticed would be Gai'tyn.

"It didn't take me then and there because it couldn't," Steve said in the resulting silence, explaining things to himself, talking aloud to make it real. "We're too...we were...." he paused. "Too together for him to just rip us apart like he tried to before. This time he's gotta work at it. And it's easier to work on Neal."

Break him down. Oh, how the idea frightened him. And not for himself.

"What happened?" Jon said softly.

Steve didn't answer him for a moment. Then he turned and came closer, rigid with fear, locked up under the idea of what was happening to them.

"I heard him coming and I froze," he said. "Neal's gonna suffer because I didn't move in time."

"Tell me," Jon said, feeling the urgency of the time slipping away.

Steve did.

For some reason he wasn't sure of, the first thing that popped into Jon's head was get Aug.

Steve walked back in the house with a strange, almost lopsided gait, eyes bright, and centered on Jessica, who was staring at him with the most composed version of terror he'd ever seen.

"You gonna shoot me?" he said. "Because maybe, that's the best thing."

She stared at him a moment longer, then said, "Won't do any good."

"What are you still doing here?" Steve said. "Curiosity?" His voice was devoid of a challenge, and far from harsh. It sounded almost like he was asking a genuine question, rather than baiting her.

"I started this case," she said.

"But you're not seeing it through," Steve said. "Go home, and go back to whatever it was you were doing before you met us."

"You don't look tough enough to show me the door yet, big guy," Jessica said evenly.

Steve looked at her with a complete lack of expression for a moment, then passed her. Jon raised his eyebrows at her when she glanced at him. Steve stood in the dining room and stared at the ceiling with a dull kind of disdain. "You missed a spot," he said.

Jonathan looked at him, just looked. Then he too raised his eyes to the ceiling, to a pair of droplets put there by a force Jon could barely comprehend.

"It'll be our souvenier," Jon said.

Steve appeared to consider the statement. Then he said, "I'm your souvenier."

* * *

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