ECHOES Chapter IX ('Eclipse')
(c)2004 B Stearns

I'm alright, I'm alright
It only hurts when I breathe.
--Melissa Etheridge, Breathe
______________

Numb.

There was nothing he could do to express what had been done to them. This loss was worse than what had happened the first time they'd been separated. This was no less forcible, no less a violation. Only, this time, there was no recoverable body to work with. Nothing. Just gone, leaving behind a simple hum of existence.

We were something new, something better than when we were separate, he thought sadly.

Now he could only wait for the final separation, not bothering to wonder what it would feel like. He knew. It didn't matter. Pain didn't matter, breathing didn't matter. The most he could hope for was that the Ender would sever Neal from life quickly and cleanly and not draw things out.

And if it came for him then, would he even fight? For what?

People came and went. Jon, Liz. He heard nothing in the attempt to listen so hard for what remained just out of reach. Neal had been dulled, and so had he. He struggled to get beyond it, to work with the parts of himself that were only him. But he couldn't do that and hang on so desperately at the same time.

Nothing was solid anymore. All there was left to do was make gestures. There was no fighting something like the Ender; what little time they'd had was a miracle.

I didn't realize you were that important.

And that's my fault.

At some point that he didn't remember, he ended up at Jon's. Time passed and meant nothing, and a familiar voice came again to try and get his attention. He neither heard or responded. He only stared, disconnected from the world, impossible to reach.

You're scaring us.

That, from Jon.

You've gotta snap out of this.

But he simply waited for the world to end. His already had; the rest of it would come, maybe a piece at a time, maybe all at once. He had no control over it, either way. And he was sorry for it, or had been at first, but now there was just the waiting.

Jon would sit with him for short periods of time, trying to keep himself together. Something was slipping behind his own eyes now and he wasn't sure if it was the mess they were in, or that he'd really outdone himself in putting Steve [mostly] back together. Jon's fear had many directions, mostly for Neal. It didn't matter if his priorities were skewed; he knew what a danger it presented to have the Ender get possession of one of the Six. That didn't matter so much yet as whether Neal was suffering somehow. Steve should have been able to know that, but the singer -

the Er Rai -

was disconnected in ways Jon couldn't assess. He didn't know enough about any of it. And it was too late now, things were sliding downhill fast, and they were losing Steve in crueler tones than they'd lost Neal. Whether it was a combination of the Ender's ability to knock Neal down and the impact of what had happened, or all emotion, Steve was still missing either way. He'd just given up.

Get Aug.

No one wanted Aug involved, not in this, not in any of it, but he already was, wasn't he? Wouldn't Steve listen to Aug? What the hell else did they have to lose?

Everything.

Jon had briefly entertained the thought of recounting the conversation he'd had with Neal about what he was hiding from Steve for the time being, and nixed it almost immediately. It wasn't his place, he had no right, and it would more likely do more harm than good. He didn't want to panic. But if Neal was gone for good, he might need to recount that conversation as a final mercy of sorts.

Better to have loved and lost.

Jon choked up at the thought. God, how he hated this, all of it. A namer. Different, but not different enough to be able to stop any of this. So he dialed Aug's number with the knowledge that he wouldn't be able to warn him against doing more than trying to reach Steve. That they might manage to lose Aug too, somehow, lose everything.

* * *

"How do you want to play this?" Jon said.

Jessica had not expected to hear from him, and even if she had, not like this. "Meaning," she said.

"You don't have anything," Jon said, surprising himself with his own bluntness. Maybe in his teens or twenties, when he fancied himself some sort of conscientious objector, would he have pulled this kind of attitude with a cop. Now he'd just seen too much to care. "No physical evidence except Perry's blood on Schon's ceiling, and Perry's not the one who's missing."

"How is he," she said, nearly making a statement out of it as if she expected Jon to tell her he was no longer anything to worry about. She knew better.

"Breathing," Jon said, and that was all he knew either. "You need to use your good sense and stay out of this, and pretend you haven't seen anything, or just ask whatever it is you're going to and then let it go. There's no way you can try and make some sort of legal mystery out of this."

"Nothing you guys say is going to make any damn sense," Jessica said. "And whether I believe you or not depends on what sort of leap of insane faith I decide to level on you."

"I'm not gonna worry about you on top of everything else," Jon said. "We got enough trouble, so I need to know right now how much I'm gonna have to get around you."

"Is that a threat?" Jessica said.

"No," Jon said. "You're the one who pulled a gun on me, remember? I'm not like Perry, I don't blow doors off things or take malls apart."

Jessica could feel her pulse beating in her throat. Jon's tone was just as desperate with fear but locked down with determined resolve as any she'd heard in any interrogation room over the years. The legal system could do nothing that would phase the man she was talking to.

"I don't have anything," she said. "That doesn't mean I'll stay out of it. I've already seen too much, too, and there's no way - "

"No one's got time to induct you into the secret Journey society of fucked-up supernatural weirdness," Jon said, interrupting her. "Just to explain the smallest part of any of this would take days we don't have. And if we're wrong, and we don't get Neal back, sooner or later it won't matter. Nothing will, anymore. So really, do we need to avoid you altogether, or file harassment charges, or what?"

She had no response for that. Nothing that had gone before her prepared her for what she'd seen at Neal's the day before. Jon wasn't hostile despite his words. And he seemed to be waiting for something. The fact that he was contacting her rather than just pretending nothing had happened told her he expected something from her. "What would it take, to really kill him?" she said. She knew she didn't need to tell him who she was talking about.

"Exactly what's happening to him now," Jon said. "That thing came in here and took him apart like it took the studio apart last year, and with Neal gone, we no longer have a way of kicking it back out of here the next time it drops in. Nobody can help us, there's nothing in the way of weapons that can do anything to it, and if you get in the middle of this you're gonna slow us down. You want the story later, if we live, then you're welome to it if you'll just stay out now."

Jessica paused, then said, "I wouldn't know where to start, anyway. I don't begin to understand what the hell's been going on. Just one thing: is this really all the stuff I slept though in physics class in college?"

"Worse," Jon said. "And if we had a physics professor with us, we might be better off for all I know. Maybe knowing too much would kill us off even faster. So if I open the door and someone is trying to arrest me for investigation of chasing butterflies, they'll be wasting their time, because I'm not going to play obedient citizen."

"So we're back to the threats again," Jessica said.

Jon sighed. "This is where I lapse into badass rockstar cliche's and say, 'no sweetie, that's a guarantee', and then I snort coke off the nearest surface and grab myself."

Without realizing it was coming, Jessica snickered. "That was, uh...something I would have expected from Steve. Not from you."

"Yeah, well," Jon said, "I'm getting the hang of not doing what everyone expects. Maybe we'll call you when it's over, assuming there's enough left to dial a phone."

And Jon thought they were leaving it at that.

* * *

Steve didn't hear anything, wasn't aware of an approach, was just hovering in the gray static of what remained of the space between when he felt a faint ripple in the fabric of things in his immediate vicinity. There was a whisper of walker that he ignored, because who cared about the other walkers, and what was he going to do if one approached him anyway?

Then there were arms around him, someone sitting on the edge of the bed next to him, wrapping him in an embrace that suggested a sharing of grief.

He opened his eyes and blinked, the world settling around him in place again. Sound and sight returned in stages.

Arms wrapped around his ribcage, a head was laid against his chest, leaning into him. Long, curly hair. Aug.

It didn't matter if it was real or not. He laid one arm along Aug's back, the other holding the younger singer's head, fingers twining through his hair. "I loved him," he said softly, voice hoarse with disuse but lacking emotion. It was a eulogy.

"I know," Aug said. "You still do, it isn't over."

"The Ender," Steve said, as if it explained everything. And in this instance, it did.

"Has given us chances before," Aug said, voice low and steady and confidant. Steve was scaring the hell out of him, and he was trying to ignore that and stay calm at the same time.

"You're really here, aren't you," Steve said, voice still flat but at least beginning to show signs of something approaching interest.

Aug gently pulled free, sitting up but still leaning in close, looking into the dull, fading glow of Steve's eyes. "Yeah. We'll find a way. I'll help you find a way. Maybe something you don't see yet." He took Steve's face between his hands, leaning in to touch his forehead to the other singer's. "Don't do this, don't go into the water like you did when we were over there."

Steve didn't really know what he meant, and it didn't matter. He got the idea.

"You're one of his," Steve said with a sigh, and Aug didn't realize he was talking about how walkers were made. It made him tense, but this was only Steve.

Half an hour later, wondering why he hadn't heard anything or seen Aug come out, Jon checked on them. Aug, exhausted from travelling, looked as if he'd simply fallen over sideways while sitting on the side of the bed. He was sound asleep, his head resting across Steve's thighs. Steve sat, eyes closed, one hand resting on Aug's head.

* * *

He went elsewhere again for awhile, maybe minutes or days, and when he opened his eyes again, Jon was sitting next to him, staring at him with open annoyance. Or trying, anyway.

"You're all we have," Jon said.

Steve sighed quietly and tried to let the world fall back into place. The words finally touched him, and he knew that was only the case because Aug was there somewhere. He didn't bother analyzing it. He kept his eyes focused directly ahead and stretched a little, surprised that nothing screamed in protest despite the fact that he should have been a loose collection of parts after what the Ender had done

[don't think about that, don't look at it, it's overitneverhappened]

To him. Whatever had gone unfinished was apparently working itself out. He could pretend that he was still living, that things mattered. He could do that for awhile.

"Are you gonna fight, or just sit here and wait for it to come back and paint my house with you?" Jon said.

"What the hell would we get Aug for?" Steve said, veering away from the subject, meaning it to sound pissed and failing. There was no strength left behind his voice. He felt like a husk, held together with some vague conviction of how things should be. "By all means, bring the kid, see how fast we can get him killed."

"What did you expect me to do?" Jon said, his voice a low monotone of annoyance. "Just trust me, this once, and save your energy for something besides being an asshole."

"Funny, I thought my more charming side was what you were hoping for," Steve said. "Where is boy wonder?"

"Standing in the doorway listening to you jerks talk about him," Aug said.

Steve turned his head slowly, being that it didn't seem to want to move smoothly, and caught Aug widening his eyes slightly in worry. Steve was internally grateful that there had been nothing left of the destruction for Aug to witness, thanks to Jon. Nothing in the way of gore, anyway. The rest of it would leak out accidentally as the days went on and things deteriorated. "I missed you," Steve said, "but not enough to want you in the rest of this. Used up all your frequent flyer miles yet?"

Aug knew the admission was as out of character for Steve as his earlier, nearly unconscious declaration of love had been. He took it for what it was - the seams beginning to fray. It demanded that he pass it off. "Really, though," Aug said, "How do we get Neal back?"

Silence.

"You mean, how do we get our shit together when the person really holding us together can't help us?" Jon said. "We don't just go wherever he is and get him."

"I'd need a walker," Steve said dully.

"I'm a walker," Aug said. "Not much of one, right? But still. Something, anything."

Steve shook his head. "Walker that keels over everytime he uses his stuff?"

"Not anymore," Aug said.

Jon said, "What's that supposed to mean?"

Aug was silent, keeping his eyes on Steve, waiting for something from the singer.

"Augeri, what the fuck does that mean?" Jon said, his tone a little harder.

"Means I didn't wait for you guys to give me the okay," Aug said, still watching Steve. "Means I can get around a little without all that trouble. And all it takes is proximity to a namer and the Er Rai to boost things a little, right?"

"You - " Jon began.

"Get past it, Jon," Aug said.

"No way am I fucking you," Steve said suddenly.

Jon snapped his mouth shut.

Aug looked startled for a moment, then covered it with a wry smirk. "Aw, and ruin my chances of helping you start the first interdimensional prostitution ring?"

Steve swallowed hard without looking at Aug. "So this is how it's gonna be," he said softly.

Aug nodded, knowing Steve didn't need to see him do it. "We can do this. We can get him back."

Steve didn't glance at him, didn't so much as blink. "Know what's worse than not having any hope? Having it." He paused, not really seeing them for a moment, something else occuring to him. "All he has to do is wait," he said.

"What," Aug said.

"Without Neal, I'll just fade," Steve said with listless disdain. "It happened while you guys were in the studio, and we were apart for six weeks. Six weeks. And we had some repairing to do, when we could meet up again. All the Ender's gotta do is wait until I can't do anything, and it won't take long. I'll be an object. Again."

"You'd think it would do something," Aug said. "Gloat. Or threaten, or demand something. Ransom Neal out."

"To who?" Steve said. "Me? The fucker can come get me anytime he wants."

"Not if he doesn't really believe you're defenseless," Aug said.

"Then he knows something we don't," Jon said. "I don't see any of the other Six riding to the rescue. They may not even know yet."

"Maybe he just wants Neal for now," Aug said. Then he glanced quickly at Steve. "I'm sorry," he said.

"It's not like I imagine any different," Steve said.

They were quiet for a moment. Then Jon said, "We've gotten out of everything else. If we just act and don't get stuck thinking about what we don't know....no cheerleader shit. We're going to get him back, because there is nothing else. So go on living and get on with it."

It was aimed at Steve, and he didn't reply. That would require some sort of decision on his part, and he didn't have the strength to do it yet. To Jon it was simple, and it should have been.

"The Ender can't do anything yet, or he already would have," Steve said. "Me and Neal are too together now for him to just pull what he did in Athyri. All he has to do is wait."

"Then we can't wait," Jon said. "We gotta warn everybody else, again. Just in case."

He placed his hands on his knees to brace himself, and stood, then just as quickly spilled to the floor in a loose sprawl.

"Jon," Aug said, darting off the wall and kneeling next to the man on the floor. Jon's eyes were still open a crack but didn't hold any hint of consciousness, and he didn't respond to Aug's attempts to bring him around. Aug glanced up to where Steve was still sitting and staring at them dispassionately. "For Christ's sake, do something."

"He needs his rest," Steve said, looking down on Jon with something that looked strangely like affection despite the situation. "He went way, way overboard with putting me back together. I don't think he'll ever be quite the same again. We'll put him up here on the bed and leave him alone awhile."

"Shouldn't we....call Liz, or something? Maybe an ambulance?" Aug said.

"For what, more panic?" Steve said. "Liz won't panic really, but he'll come out of it on his own. We've done this before, and worse. He needs a little time to put himself back together."

Aug looked at him for a moment as if he doubted that, but in the end he helped Steve get Jon onto the bed. They sat on either side of him for a couple of minutes, listening to him breathe.

"He brought Neal back from the dead," Steve said to Aug. "And me, a couple of times. There's no way he'll forget to bring himself back from a long, hard nap."

Aug shrugged, wanting that to be the case. "This's...I'm not used to it."

"We'd all be happy if you never did," Steve said. "Do you know what would be great? Run out and find something for us to feed the Inverse later. No one's cooking. He's unconscious, I can't find my ass with both hands, and you flew all the way out here so I could send you to the store."

Aug was trying not to smile because he didn't feel it was appropriate quite yet.

"I don't know where anything is, here," Aug said. "You're just trying to get me out of here for a bit."

"And bring a lot of beer," Steve said. "Jon's keys are hanging by the door, the idiot is hoping someone will steal his car when he leaves the door open. Don't get pulled over."

Aug shook his head. "I really don't know what to do with you."

"Scatter for a bit and let things settle," Steve said. "I'm okay. I'll make sure Jon's okay. Just take a breather."

Aug went. Because despite jet lag, he knew Steve was wasting energy trying to put on a face for him. Rather than argue it with him, he went. He needed a little space from the wierdness, and waking around in public would bring him back to the real world for just a bit.

Steve listened to the crunch of tires on gravel and realized that he really had been listening to that peculiar mental tang of walker ever since Aug had arrived. Only in its absence did he notice. He watched Jon for a long time without realizing it, letting things surface without conscious direction.

He remembered

[more than anyone else ever, ever would]

the second time they'd been in Athyri, and Neal had been taken. It all came back around; here they were, again. A Keeper had nearly torn Jon apart, and they'd sat there together in the snow and worked his edges back together.

Namer, heal thyself.

Not long after that, he'd gone after Neal and ended up giving himself....for Neal, to Neal, it didn't matter anymore. It would take something more this time, maybe something he didn't have. He couldn't bargain this time, or walk willingly into it. There had to be a way to dismantle the obstacles....unbidden, the memory of Tuirnarin's destruction returned, of countless shattered elements thrown like sand...

Through an hourglass.

Walkers moved spacetime, and namers were for focusing things like a lens. That was why it had worked: they had each leant themselves to taking her apart, Neal by changing the space she occupied because of him, the space in Neal's spacetime. Jon had focused them, and made it all better or worse depending on who you asked. And what was any solid object anyway, but a collection of parts?

He knew he'd hit on something, but couldn't quite grasp it yet; he was still too left of center after everything, still too human to keep himself from just reacting to it all. He would catch up. If they ran out of time, he would create it. Time was as malleable as space and he would not let it mark them the way a countless millennia of humans had marked it with their comings and goings. Jon had resolved into a stained-glass haze in his vision because of how long he'd been staring without blinking. He of course would just go back into the circle if Steve took one of the pillows and very gently put the namer out of his misery as well as his physical form.

Steve stood, shaking himself out of his suddenly destructive reverie. The room spun for just a moment, and he leaned on the doorframe long enough to get his bearings in many ways. How long had he been sitting there, an hour? Two? He breathed the silence in, suddenly hating it.

And then wanting it back.

The air changed, and was loud with the inaudible hum of a creature he knew too well. He straightened and turned, not surprised to find that the Ender had changed its form to one he would not know, even though he had expected it to show up as Neal again. It was his height, but shaven, severe, eyes dark and hooded. It hadn't taken a shape or face he recognized. He wanted to rail at it, pelt it with questions, and he could only stare. It couldn't do anything to him yet but push his buttons, and he couldn't let it. "You still can't end the line," he said softly.

The Ender cocked its shaven head, studying him, its face suddenly slack. The dark eyes regarded him with a beady, predatory interest.

"You could just end the line, store me, and wait," Steve said. "But you can't end the line when one of the Six is in it. Neal's in a different placeline, probably, or maybe in the shadow this line leaves on the Evenwhen. You can't walk the lines. So who is it, blocking you? Do you even know? You must have tried to end the line since taking Neal."

It reached out with almost langorous motions, spinning Steve by one shoulder before slamming him facefirst into the wall. Not hard enough to take him apart this time, just enough to knock the breath out of him. It pinned him there with its hips, one hand clamping the back of his neck, using memory to do what it knew the Er Rai would fear. It didn't understand why, but knew the contact would rattle him.

"I have forever," the Ender said. It made a silken purr of its voice, menace carried across a low baritone. "I will wait just this one small bit of time, for you."

He would not cringe. He would not. In a deceptively steady monotone, Steve replied, "You can't destroy what you didn't create."

"Let go of him."

Steve felt his determination falter, felt his eyes roll up in his head in genuine terror. Aug. How the fuck had he forgotten about Aug?

The Ender's interest shifted, moving to the walker it felt and heard in the doorway.

"It's okay," Steve said breathlessly to Aug, purposely not even using a nickname the Ender would pick up on. "It can't do anything, it's just here to look tough. Back off."

Aug had already frozen under the Ender's interest, strugging to keep it a matter of holding his ground. The creatures's presence set off a pounding behind his eyes, and he wanted to avert his gaze but couldn't.

"You gonna waste your time on a little walker when the Six are looking for you?" Steve said to the Ender. "I can hear 'em pinpointing your sorry ass while we stand here."

The Ender released him abruptly but didn't back away.

"Get out of his sight," Steve said, and Aug knew who he was talking to. "He's not human, he won't think about you if you go away."

Aug didn't question how Steve would know such a thing. He only stood staring at the Ender in unwilling fascination, even when it moved for him with fluid intent. He felt the air change, a combination of the power of the not-quite physical thing coming at him, and Steve's panic. The panic moved to the forefront when it nailed the Ender from behind; nothing like what had happened at the mall, but enough to blow Aug off his feet and ripple the air around its target. The creature turned its attention back to Steve in reaction to the blow but didn't advance on him.

There was a long moment of suspended shock. Aug lay stunned on the floor while Steve and the Ender remained locked in some kind of silent aftershock. It passed, in less time than it felt like, and the Ender sank into the floor. Gone. Leaving Aug with an unobstructed view of the wide-eyed fear and rage on Steve's face.

Aug couldn't get off the floor fast enough. The Ender wasn't in the floor, he knew that on some level, but the less of him available to grab from below, the better.

"Just here to look tough," Aug said, stepping closer to the nearest wall. "No, I don't think so."

Steve was silent another moment, not ignoring Aug, just listening for anything else. The terrible pressure that heralded the Ender's proximity was gone, and as far as he knew, it didn't have a way of cloaking itself. It was an elemental creature, and most likely would not have deigned to even try such a manuever. But Steve had to know.

"It was here to feel my finger and see if I was ready for the oven," Steve said finally, eyes still on the floor, and Aug let that seeming non sequiter confuse him until he caught the reference. Hansel and Gretel. Maybe it was the stress of the past couple of minutes and what could have happened to them, but he found Steve's choice of allusion hilarious. It was all he could do to keep from howling with jittery, crazed laughter.

"What was it you thought you were going to do?" Steve said, and Aug felt the humor drain back out of him. "Make a diversion out of yourself?"

Aug wanted to be annoyed that Steve was suggesting Aug couldn't hold his own, but he was still too frightened...and then there was the troublesome little fact that he already knew that the thing that had just left the room could have picked its teeth with him. He was still rattled enough to blurt what he was thinking. "There are lots of forms of rape," he said.

Steve's eyes snapped to him unblinking, and Aug suddenly wanted that gaze anywhere but on him. There was no anger or defensiveness in it like there should have been, no retort about not knowing what he was talking about. There was a short, wide-open moment where too much was confessed by the sad acknowledgement in Steve's face. Then it was all gone, and Steve said, "I didn't completely miss you this time."

Aug knew he was talking about hitting the Ender. Not quite a replay of what had happened in the desert, but Steve was not up to his full power anyway. Aug shrugged. "You didn't miss him."

"He had Neal's scent on him," Steve said, almost as if he couldn't keep himself from saying it.

Aug was careful not to move or speak. Steve's voice and face were a close match to that of the distant Er Rai that had burned him in the hellish vision at the Silver Legacy. The restoration of his will to go on was not reassuring. Not in its current manifestation.

"Before this is over," Steve murmured, "I'm going to split him down until there's just enough left to stay conscious, and keep him in a fucking jar."

He never heard himself.

* * *

::back::