Memory Bound Chapter XI
(c)2001 B Stearns
Author's note: If you want the full story of the 'nightmare' Steve has in the center of this chapter, it's titled 'Still Unsaid' and is linked separately on the main 'Wielding' page. It wouldn't all fit here or make sense; the short tale is the actual alternate line, while the part portrayed here is Steve's view of it.
And yet again we have a suggestion of m/m situations, here; if you don't like it, keep skipping. But don't worry, the only person Neal's kissing in this chapter is Amber.
Steve got to the Starbucks around the corner without remembering all of the walk itself. Between trying to puzzle out the sight of another walker and trying to stay in his own line, something as inane as moving through the physical world was lost.
He ordered coffee, took a seat by the window, and tried to keep an eye out for many things.
It was too much for coincidence that a walker had been holding his hand while he died. There had been nothing threatening about her, though. It was as if she didn't know.
None of us knew what we were, before that crazy bitch got hold of us, he thought. We never would've known, we would've stayed hidden.
Why give physical, mortal lives to potentially volatile beings? Why risk it?
Then he recanted. Short, mortal lives meant constant movement. What better way to hide a playing piece, than to move it randomly around the board? It hadn't worked this once, they'd made too much noise. And now the part of him that was the Er Rai was a louder voice than the rest of him. Whatever had broken loose was too much to put back in the box, and sooner or later he'd vanish in that shadow altogether. He had to get a few things done before that happened, and make sure he didn't take anyone else with him.
He startled visibly. Detective Keenan stood close to him, looking concerned. For a moment he tried again to grasp where he was, needing to feel certain. When nothing changed or threatened, he invited her to sit down.
"Are you all right?" she said, mainly because it was obvious he wasn't.
"I'm fine," he said. "Tell me you found out where the hell that kid was from."
"I can't," she said, sliding into the chair across from him and glancing out the windows. "He had no ID on him. His fingerprints came back with no info. Right now they're trying to match dental records, which is difficult considering the fact his teeth were wrenched out of alignment."
She paused when Steve closed his eyes, and dropped her gaze to watch his knuckles whiten on the edge of the table. "Mr. Perry."
"Steve," he said, opening his eyes again to stare at her.
"Are you ill?"
"No," he said. "Please, go on."
Jessica stared at him for a moment, wondering what the hell she was doing discussing a case she had no knowledge of with someone who had no reason to be interested in it. Then she shrugged. "If that turns up nothing, they'll have to release parts of the security video and hope someone comes forward. Right now they're trying to figure out how he died. The official word the ME is sticking to is that part of the ceiling hit him. But there're no surface lesions, plus he fell long before--"
"Was the gun fired?" Steve said.
Jessica looked at him.
He realized he'd blown it.
"Start talking," she said. The tone was insistent, a precursor. He was talking to a public servant again.
"I saw the tape," he lied.
"If you did," she said, "then you know it wasn't fired."
"The one station that showed it didn't show it all," he said.
"I saw the same newscast," Jessica countered. "There was only one, before it was pulled. If you know something, spit it out now, voluntarily."
Steve stared at her.
"I don't have time for games," she snapped. Then she rose to go.
"Wait," Steve said.
"You wanna go in for questioning?" she said.
"You won't believe me if I tell you what's going on," Steve said. Something clicked a little, and he felt the world shift again. He didn't have long. "I don't...there's nothing I can say. If I knew who that kid was, maybe I could find--"
He didn't even trail off; he stopped mid-sentence as if someone had hit the pause button. Rigid, Steve sat vacant and unblinking, barely breathing.
Jessica watched him stare through her for a moment, knowing immediately it wasn't a ploy. She'd never encountered someone who could purposely make their pupils dilate until there was only a minuscule band of iris left. She spoke his name a couple of times, finally laying a hand on his arm and making up her mind that he was having a seizure.
She sat down again, watching him. Glancing at her watch, she counted off a full minute. There was no change, no response. For anyone else, she would have called an ambulance. But the singer shouldn't have been alive, much less sitting in front of her, and if all he did was phase out occasionally...
She gave him another minute, using the time to come to several conclusions about why he'd care about the kid on the tape. She needed a copy of it; she had a feeling she'd get quite a bit more out of it after this conversation.
Steve's eyes cleared, and he looked directly at her again. He seemed disoriented, like he was waiting for something to become apparent. "Detective Keenan," he said.
"Do you remember calling me?" she said.
"What day is it?" Steve said.
She told him.
"Still," he said. "Okay. I did call you."
"How long has this been happening?" she said.
Steve looked confused.
"The seizures," Jessica said. "The time loss."
Steve went on looking confused. "I don't know," he said carefully.
Jessica frowned at him. "Have you spoken to anyone about it?"
"Like a neurologist or something?" Steve said. "Modern medicine can't exactly help me with this." He glanced around. "How long was I gone?"
"About two and a half minutes," she said. "How do you feel?"
"Was I here, the whole time?" he said. "Sitting here."
"Yeah," she said.
He looked relieved, and she wanted to ask him what he thought he'd done.
He purposely switched gears, veering back to the conversation he'd been trying to have before being slammed into another reality. "No ID," he said, and he was only partially talking to Jessica. "No fingerprints, right? Like he didn't exist. I'll bet no dental records show up. I'll bet the autopsy shows he died from internal injuries...kinda like...bein' hit by a bus."
She stared at him.
"What about the gun?" he said.
"What about it?" Jessica said. "It was a 9mm Glock, stolen from a homeowner six years ago in Santa Monica. No history before or since--not used in any crime until now, just missing. No other prints on it but the kids'. At some point I'd love to hear why you're so interested in all this."
Steve looked down into his cold coffee.
"Where did you go?" Jessica said.
He tensed and didn't look up.
"I think you were there," she said. "When I see the tape, chances are we'll be talking again. I assume you'll be where I can find you."
* * *
Neal finally called Amber back, knowing she was waiting to hear from him. More than anything he wanted to see her, but he was afraid something would come back to his house. The namer, or Steve, who knew. He didn't want her involved, he didn't want to be alone, and he didn't want to leave the house for the night, in case Steve returned there.
Yeah, try explaining that, he thought. Just try. 'And by the way, I almost cheated on you the other day, except that his knees buckled. Otherwise we would've been lucky to get half our clothes off first.' Fuckin' great.
It never would have bugged him before. Or at least, not for long.
He had to see her. He missed her. He couldn't risk scaring her off.
She sounded worried when she picked up.
"Hey baby," he said.
"Don't call me baby," Amber said automatically, the same way she said it every time. "I've been worried all to hell. You musicians are so damn fickle, I figured you'd run off with somebody a whole year younger than me."
He snorted despite himself. "No, I got in the middle of something like I always do. But I didn't forget about you. I never do that."
There was a pause. Then she said, "You smooth talking bastard."
He laughed. "Like you didn't know it already."
"Hmm. So what's your evening look like?"
Let's see, Neal thought. Supernatural shit comin' up through the floor again, maybe another run at the mall, maybe ID'ing Perry's body at the morgue...gotta lot of options. "Let's see," he said aloud. "She's blond, she's got a body that won't quit, and for some reason she puts up with my shit."
"Your evening looks kinda like me," Amber said. "You want me to come over?"
"Nah," Neal said. "I'll come and get you."
"I hope you mean that literally," she said.
* * *
When Jon got home, he went out back to the studio, wanting it to feel normal and missing by a long shot. If he focused on small, normal things, maybe the giant pink elephant looking over his damn shoulder wouldn't be so noticeable.
He closed the door behind himself and let the silence settle, letting the acoustic paneling do its job. There was nothing more he could do, nothing but wait and hope whatever was happening didn't take a toll on his family.
"Not like you to hide," a soft, feminine voice said directly behind him.
He jumped, turning defensively, and found Siarion watching him from the doorway. She wasn't even attempting to look human, so he knew she was on business. Same waist-length silver hair, same large, almost-colorless, mirrored eyes. The dark cloak was back, held together with a silver chain.
"It's about goddamn time," Jon said, trying to get his heart to slow down. "Nice to see someone who'll actually talk to the stupid humans."
Siarion's gaze remained steady on Jon. He had a sudden, reckless impulse to throw something at her.
"You were given a warning about trying to raise one already gone," she said. "You've made a choice."
Jon took a moment to catch on. Then his eyes narrowed and he said, "That wasn't what I call 'gone'. It wasn't his time. And what the hell would you know? You've lived forever, compared to us."
She took a step toward him, and for a moment Jon didn't have any idea what he was facing; instead of a girl, there was a looming presence in the room. Only the girl was visible, but it didn't mean that was all there was. "Did you really think I was the first nightbringer?" she said. "Did you think Sidain has always been a child?"
Jon didn't reply.
"I wasn't warning you to amuse myself or place some inane restriction on a bunch of stupid mortals. I warned you from experience."
"Where's Sidain?" Jon said.
"He's been replaced," Siarion said, brushing him off. "And now the Er Rai, of all things, is wandering loose without being solidly anchored in any one plane of Existence. The walker's only option is to put him back in the circle as soon as possible."
Jon went on staring at her, afraid to move. He felt a distant dread begin to hum in the background of his subconscious, one he'd tried hard to ignore. "That's not the line you were feeding us all the other times we've run into you," he said.
"Jonathan," she said softly, "this is only the second time you've ever 'run into' me. You were on my tower with the Er Rai when you finally got around Tuirnarin after a long five tries at the line. Do you remember the first conversation we had?"
Jon shook his head a little, trying to think back over it. "You didn't seem all that happy to see us. But Steve insisted we'd been there before."
"The Er Rai was there on the tower, once before," she said. "He made it, once, and the Wisps told him how to summon me."
Jon shook his head again. "We've seen you since. You were in Steve's yard the morning after the wraith came for him. You watched our families while we went back over to get our asses kicked."
Siarion was shaking her head.
"Someone was watching my family," Jon said. "You wanna tell me who?"
"I always said humans all look alike," she said. "Apparently you fools think we all look alike, as well. You're lucky you told me everything, that day on the tower. I'd have thrown you off, otherwise."
"How the hell am I supposed to believe this?" Jon said.
"That's your choice," she said. "You've done a cruelty, letting the Er Rai go on being sentient. If I find him first, I'll rend the life out of him and you can worry about putting him back in the circle later."
"Jonathan," she said, "you have an Ender--and worse--after you. None of the Formless are weak, but you have more attention than even an Inverse can handle. I hope they give you yourself back before the Ender tires of his game."
"Who the hell are you?" he said. The words sounded and felt helpless. He wanted to take something away that made sense.
"Siarion, nightbringer of the Evenwhen," she said. "There are other people like me, who haven't earned their names. I wouldn't be surprised if several have a fondness for the lot of you."
Then she was gone.
* * *
The house was silent.
The Er Rai stood in it and waited, longer than really necessary, to see if anything rose from the floor or came from the walls. It was the last place most physical beings would have looked for him--his own house--so he stood there and watched it get dark. He was aware of himself less and less and still had the presence of mind to wonder where it would end. The lines between where he was truly rooted and everywhere else blurred further by the hour.
"Jesus, God," Jonathan whispered. "Candles. He said we're like candles."
The Inverse had tried to keep him from Becoming the rest of the way, and he'd torn the Inverse's throat out, in full view of the others. The Wisps arrived a moment too late, pelting him with arrows and bells, and he'd retreated back into the gathering dark with the Keepers. How the walker had screamed! The firethrower and illusion-maker had come out the next day, thinking they were safe in the daylight. They'd attempted to bury the Inverse. They didn't see him in time to get away from him.
At dusk, the walker came out to him, to tell him to get it over with.
At first, the walker got nothing but silence, and went on to say he didn't believe Steve would hurt him. Then he began walking, headed for Siarion's Tower.
The Er Rai followed the walker for another Turning without touching him, then ran him to ground and killed him. The walker died insisting the Er Rai would never hurt him.
Steve snapped back to the present again, choking. He wanted to believe it wasn't happening, that they were only memories or possibilities, but he knew better.
He would go on murdering the band.
* * *
The shadow stood just out of visible range, out of visible light, watching. Listening. There'd been another disturbance, close by, and if it listened hard enough...
The Er Rai was a living beacon, but didn't blink steadily enough anymore for the shadow to close in all the way. There were others involved now, but none who could do more than minorly divert the lines.
Too many doors were close to opening. The Er Rai would show himself again. And if he didn't...
The walker, on his own, was defenseless. The walker would become useful.
* * *
Steve never remembered leaving the house. Two things seemed certain to him when he was lucid: that he should keep moving, and that he would probably kill Neal the next time he saw him, whether he wanted to or not. Then he vanished to himself, lost in some nightmare of memory that had happened but not happened and would never stop.
* * *
After awhile, there was no point in moving at all.
He no longer remembered being a singer; he occasionally grasped a bit of music and recognized it. But the details had frayed over an amount of time that was hideous to his barely human mind. Most of his original--or he thought it was original--life was lost in the landslide of details, in the things he'd seen since. He held on to only a few things with any real clarity. Jon. Neal. And the way things had ended.
He'd held that one shining beacon up to his mind's eye through millennia, searching for them, the original reason for it corrupted by time. Twisted back on itself into a parody.
For the first several decades, then centuries, he'd marked the time carefully. He'd held onto himself and the life he'd understood even though his world had moved on without him. He failed to change with it and made himself incapable of living in it. When that day came, he walked away across the placelines to a world he'd accidentally built, and remained there.
You don't know anything about waiting.
He remembered those words, clearly. Jon had said them, while he'd still been alive. And they were no longer true. He knew nothing but waiting.
The Formless had left him alone. He'd mostly forgotten what they had done, or why. No one had challenged him again until a few centuries into the Longest Day, and he had scattered those beings to the winds. And the walkers...
All the walkers.
They hadn't helped him, so he had scattered them, too.
His power had built over time, the energy condensing until it sifted the human out of him. The amount of time he'd been awake wasn't enough to jeopardize Existence. It had begun to slow, and the entropy was noticeable to few. But there would come a time when it wouldn't be ignored. He was on his last revolution. Time was a concept Jon had brought to the Formless, but it began to lose meaning to a linear lifeform introduced to forever.
He'd seen civilizations--hell, worlds--come and go since. Changed his form. Changed his mind. Lost himself, and everything else, and rebuilt again several times over. Forgot the name he'd been born with.
Born? Born which time? Which version of me was me, really? What am I?
He recognized himself as the Er Rai and left it at that. He forgot how to speak, then learned how again. And he failed to recognize his own voice, at first.
There were different levels of awake. And there had been centuries where moving was too much, and he'd remained in one place, hibernating. It had been Siarion's Tower that he'd chosen as that resting spot, sometimes not even breathing for years. Listening, always listening, waiting for the circle to come around again. It made everything tolerable. It was almost like sleeping.
The Wisps--and the Sedhians, and the cultures that arose after that--left him alone. Siarion had come, once. He remembered that much. To turn him off the path he'd chosen? To appeal to his sense of fairness? Or simply to comfort? That memory was gone. She hadn't come again, and time had stretched out into a numbing span of similarities.
He had occupied that tower much longer than the Nightbringer ever had. And he brought something much darker than night, after a time.
He did nothing but wait. And listen.
And then the static, white background noise of Existence took on a particular, faint tone; a barely discernible chord that he only needed part of.
Brothers. They're brothers, this time. But they always were.
There had been four others, at one point. He remembered that. There were only two now, all he truly required, a younger and an older. Brothers.
The first, the younger one, had been Jonathan, thousands of linear-years ago. He could see it in the eyes, hear that particular tone that rung out in silence and said Inverse. But it was more than that. There were so many things that had made him Jonathan, and those things were still intact.
The second...the older, maybe seventeen...was Neal.
That one, he recognized immediately and without question. The face was different, the skin darker, the shape taller. But that one he'd known better, for a time, than he'd known himself. And knowing himself was a thing long in the past.
They didn't recognize him. He'd known they wouldn't, that they'd gone on and couldn't remember, but he blamed them for it anyway. In past centuries he might have torn them apart on sight, or thrown himself at their feet and wept in relief. But time had stripped away rage, and regret, and love. Common sense and compassion had burned away in the light of the star that beat down on his form while he'd been sitting for time immemorial on the tower.
The younger man looked up with startled wonder on his face. The one who had been Jonathan.
"Living life again, Inverse?" the Er Rai said. "Not allowed to remember the rest of it? Convenient."
"Who are you?" the Inverse said.
"I would've thought you, of anyone, would have learned," the Er Rai said. "You were watching me, for a long while there, and then you turned away."
The walker grabbed for the Inverse, pulling him partially out of sight. "You're nuts," he said. "Leave him alone. Leave us alone. Let us go."
The Er Rai stared down on them, suddenly calm, focusing on the second. "You turned away," he said again. "I don't know, anymore, what I want most--for you to finally do what you were meant to, or for you to find out what it's like to go on for no reason. Unrelenting consciousness."
The walker swallowed hard, then visibly gathered himself. "Are you gonna kill us, or not?"
The Er Rai looked at him with something that could have been surprise, had the face not been so frozen. Then there was more, a suggestion of affection that frightened the young man more than the malice or accusations had. "No," he whispered. "No, I'm not done with you yet. You have a lot to account for."
"You got us confused with someone else," the walker said.
"No," the Er Rai whispered. "You'll remember. I'll make you. You'll remember for me." Then he paused, watching their frightened faces. "Your names."
At first, they didn't seem to understand him. Then the one who had been Neal said, "I don't think so. We're not gonna be around long enough for you to refer to us."
That cold smile again, a hint of something that would have been humor once. "Maybe you're right," he said. "Maybe you won't."
There was a swirl of dark cloak in the half-light, and the Er Rai retreated back into the shadows, becoming nothing more than a green stare. Freedom was implied, but neither captive made a move for it. There was nowhere to run.
Frightened of talking even to each other, they sat shoulder to shoulder in silence and waited.
~ ~ ~
The walker was shouting for the Inverse. Again.
The Er Rai had separated them, realizing immediately that they were too strong together.
When he'd had enough of the walker's shouting, the Er Rai went to him.
"You'll see him again," he said from close beside the walker, who spun to meet it, then stumbled away to an opposite wall.
"When that'll be depends on you," the Er Rai said. "This turn, or another, it doesn't matter."
"Where is he?" the walker said, trying to make a demand out of it and failing.
The Er Rai smiled. The expression was as stiff as everything else it did.
"Oh my God," the walker said.
The Er Rai was on him that quickly; it seemed to only take a step, yet it had the walker flattening himself to the wall an instant later. The walker scrabbled at the stone for purchase to try and keep the figure from touching him.
It didn't work; the creature grabbed him by one wrist, cold hard fingers digging into flesh and bone. Digging into more than that. Something snapped to life behind the walker's eyes in a breath's worth of time. Another life. Shattered pieces culled from a memory too long in use to represent them properly found each other behind his eyes, and it was just enough to make him understand. One life out of a thousand had stood out to the thing in front of him, and he'd met it before. He struggled to get free of the grip it had him in, and couldn't.
"God?" the Er Rai whispered. "Where is your God, walker? Turned away? Or standing here in front of you?"
"You're a monster!" the walker shouted, close to a scream. "It doesn't matter, anymore, if I ever loved you! You're no better than her. You're worse, because you know what happened before and you're doin' this anyway. You should've been put back in the circle. Now I don't care if you sleep forever!"
He broke into sobs, and the Er Rai released him.
"Steve would never have done this to us," the walker sobbed, the words barely comprehensible, and the Er Rai paused. "That was only one turn out of a thousand. We should've been together for all the turns, but I didn't want to live forever!"
"You knew I would," the Er Rai snarled. "You abandoned me because of it."
"You were already dead!" the walker screamed. "Goddamn you, you understood at the time! I didn't wanna leave you!"
"You took my choices away from me," the Er Rai said coldly. "You, because you had part of me, and the Inverse, because he could. Now I'm taking yours away from you." And the creature
turned on its' heel and left, vanishing into the dark and cold.
~ ~ ~
The next time the walker saw the Er Rai, it could have been hours later, could have been days. He'd lost count of everything.
"You don't wanna punish me," the walker said. "Steve doesn't, anyway. You soulless bastard, you don't remember who I am. Who you were. You're just locked into this idea because you forgot how to be human."
The Er Rai struck the walker without moving, and the latter slammed to the stone floor without even the chance for his reflexes to kick in and let him put his hands out. It took a moment for him to be able to pull breath in again. He didn't think he was hurt. Not physically, anyway.
"Learn," the Er Rai hissed. "Learn how to turn yourself back, how to walk, or I'll give you a reason you can't ignore."
"You've already given us more than we can ignore," the walker snapped from the floor.
"You have three Turnings," the Er Rai said. "After that, you'll be doing it to get your brother back. Do you understand?"
"No," the walker said. "You don't make any fuckin' sense. You probably don't even understand yourself, anymore."
The Er Rai didn't answer, just stared.
"I'm sorry," the walker whispered. "I'm sorry, for whatever it was we did. For whatever I did."
"You haven't begun to be sorry," the Er Rai hissed. Then it vanished.
~ ~ ~
He demanded for days that the walker do what he was meant to do, and the boy either truly had no idea what he was, or was toying with his captor. Three Turnings of wearing the walker down and not allowing him to sleep had not produced the desired results. The walker had smartmouthed him, cursed, shouted, and finally cried. It wasn't good enough.
The Er Rai had all time to wait, but chose not to.
The Inverse didn't put up any kind of a struggle, just went on asking questions in a soft, hurt voice that had no effect. The Er Rai dragged him to the tower he'd put the walker in, and showed him to the walker.
"Walk," the Er Rai said.
"I don't know how," the walker said again, keeping his eyes on the Inverse. The trust in the latter's face was damning. The Er Rai paid attention to none of it.
One side of the room opened, a section of wall evaporating into the air like a mirage. The walker startled away from it. Cool, dry air spilled into the cell, and the pressure of the height weighed on them all. They were stories in the air. High enough that they could see far out across the desert for miles.
The walker stumbled away from the edge and turned to face the thing holding his brother again. "No. You won't," he said. "You won't do it. You can't."
"Colin," the Inverse said softly, his voice shallow with fear, "if you can get us out of here, if you even think you can, please do it."
"I don't know how!" Colin--the walker--shouted desperately at the creature, afraid to move closer. "I don't understand it! Just tell me what you want and I'll try it!" He dropped his voice just as suddenly, gesturing imploringly with his hands. "Steve," he said. "You waited this long. Just give me time to figure it out."
"I waited as long as I could," the Er Rai said, the words and tone mechanical, rehearsed. Spoken over and over to no one for too long. Then he shoved the Inverse from the tower, out into the open space.
The Inverse never screamed; the walker did that for him.
Somewhere, caught in the nightmare between timelines, Steve Perry screamed with him.
~ ~ ~
"Go," the Er Rai whispered yet again. The walker had not spoken for days, would do nothing but stare into nothing. Broken. "Go back, or ahead, and stop me."
"I can't," the walker whispered. "Not by myself."
"I'll help you."
"Then why didn't you help me, before?" the walker said woodenly.
"Because you believed I wouldn't hurt you. You needed a reason to do what you're about to."
"I hate you," Colin/Neal/the walker whispered, and for just that moment, the Er Rai was talking to all Neal had ever been or would be. "I hate you, and I always will."
It was a calm, flat statement, unemotional and certain.
"Good," the Er Rai said aloud, the voice an audible caress. "Because your love has kept me awake for ten thousand years." It held out a hand, then, beckoning the young man to take it. "Go and find him, walker, the monster who started all this. Put an end to him--to me--before the beginning of it all. Or so help me, I'll be here when you come around again."
The young man's fingers brushed his own.
The walker vaulted over a point of the sphere of the Evenwhen without really understanding how, and was gone.
* * *
10,511 linear years earlier
8 placelines back
When he came to again, it was the first thing he realized. Not who or what he was, not where. They were concepts, he was a concept. He'd been everything and everywhere and there was no frame of reference to brace his hands on.
For awhile he just sat somewhere, in the dark, and existed.
Only when it began to get light and shapes began to resolve around him did the small things that made him who he currently was begin to matter. Trees, a looming shape across from him that should have been familiar, a familiar hum nearby. His back was braced against something hard and cold, and the pavement beneath him was painted in straight lines and half-curves.
It took several minutes, as it got lighter, for things to make sense. For him to know himself.
I hate you, and I always will.
The walker hadn't stopped him yet, and things went on and on.
He wasn't sure what that meant. It didn't matter right then, while he hovered between. He sighed, and when he did the world cleared up enough for him to realize that he was on a basketball court. It was a hoop that loomed across from him, and he sat with his back against its twin. He was hearing early morning traffic. He was in a park. He was Steve Perry again, and struggled to hold on to that boundary. He knew it for what it was, realized he'd only completed another circle. Another spiral.
He'd completed it. But it went on behind him, ahead of him, around him. Through him.
His watch said November 28th, 1999. In the space of a night...eternity.
I hate you, and I always will.
Tears tracked the present Er Rai's face.
Somewhere, the distant Er Rai went on.
* * *
Later that morning, Neal came home and got his messages. There was one from the detective who'd been to see them earlier in the week. He called her back, waiting to hear she'd found Steve in some ditch.
"I'm wondering if you know where he is," she said.
"No," Neal said, trying to make it sound like it was no big deal. "I don't keep that close an eye on him, though. He's an adult."
Jessica wanted to say not by my definition but bit it back. "When you see him, please ask him to call me," she said instead. "I'd like to talk to both of you."
He didn't ask her what about. He knew. Jon had warned them, about being recognized, about the security camera. "Can I ask you a question?" he said.
"How'd you know Steve was here, when he got out of the hospital?"
There was a pause. Then she said, "Because I checked with his relatives and didn't find him. I asked around, and from what I heard, the last place he'd be is with you."
* * *
When he hung up with the detective, he called Jon to let the keyboardist know he was back. Jon came over, and they were back out, driving around, not believing they had a hope in hell of running across the singer. But they had to do something.
After hearing the latest regarding Siarion, Neal was preoccupied to silence, something neither of them was accustomed to. Jon was careful not to comment.
It was what Neal was preoccupied about that kept him silent.
But I wouldn't've minded you.
The words were powerful. From Steve, it was damn near everything.
The previous night had not solved things to the degree that Neal wanted them solved. Somewhere along the line, Steve had ceased being an opposite number and had become arching hips and a long, warm curve of throat.
I can't handle this. I could've handled the explanation that the namers were fuckin' with us. But this one little everyday human thing is ten times bigger.
He sighed. Perry, where the fuck are you?
"Neal," Jon said.
Neal looked at him, not realizing it was Jon's third attempt to get his attention while they were stopped at a light.
"You can hear him, a little, more than I can," Jon said. "Maybe you just gotta listen harder."
Neal looked away, out across the street, let his mind wander. Wondered where he'd go, what he'd be trying to do, if he was Steve.
Then he opened his door, got out of the Suburban, and walked away.
Jon stared for a moment, then cursed, realizing he should have kept his mouth shut. He parked further down the street and ran to catch up, watching the streets, keeping track of where they were. The middle of the business district, all would-be high rises and decorative fountains and parking spaces that were too small to wear the name. They crossed third street and skirted a line of cars parked at the curb. There were enough other pedestrians that it made Jon wonder if they'd be able to pick the singer out.
He quit wondering when Neal paused in the middle of the sidewalk, frozen.
Before Jon could say anything, Neal had turned and was staring out into a mini courtyard outside another highrise. There, keeping to the shadows of the awnings as he walked, was Steve.
Jon watched Steve freeze much the way Neal had. The singer's gaze moved straight to them, and Jon stood in silent amazement.
Then Neal ran into the goddamned street.
* * *
He'd felt it coming on -- another episode -- and then it was gone.
Something else took its place. The same thing he'd felt when he'd been waiting for Jessica. It felt like being caught in a spotlight, something familiar casting its light on him. He paused and looked around, expecting to see the dark haired woman again. Jesus, was he surrounded with walkers?
His eyes traveled the people around him, the street. Nothing. Someone glowed in his peripheral vision, and he glanced involuntarily.
Steve locked up when their eyes met, confused between terror and joy. He was rooted in place, but not with shock. He felt no danger of bouncing around the lines, of living other lives. For just that moment, things were crystal clear again. He was himself, a solid thing in a solid place. The relief of it bordered on pain. He couldn't tolerate the sight of the guitarist, not yet, not after everything else he'd seen.
And, even worse, Jonathan was with him.
Steve turned and ran blindly, tugging open the door to the lobby of the nearest building. There was a bank of elevators, and a stairwell next to them. He chose the stairs, vaulting up them two at a time until he reached the second floor. Then he went for the elevators. He'd lose them between floors, get back to the street, and vanish again.
* * *
Considering the fact that he never looked, it was amazing that not one car hit Neal.
As it was, a Ford Taurus shrieked to a halt inches from him, and he put his hands on its hood for just a moment to use it as momentum while the driver screamed obscenities at him. He crossed the second lane unscathed, knowing Jon was behind him yelling. He ran into the courtyard of the office building Steve had entered, trying to enter the lobby calmer than he felt. They didn't need any more attention.
He saw both banks of elevators, the stairs next to them, and the people milling between. One bank only went to the first fifteen floors. No one looked pissed, like they would have if Steve had shoved past any of them. He mentally tried to calculate how long it would have taken for the elevator doors to open and close and knew Steve hadn't had enough time.
Jon put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Point, Rover!"
"Fuckin' hysterical," Neal said, looking up the stairs.
"Yeah, I think so too," Jon said. "He could be out another entrance by now."
"But he's not," Neal said. "He's not thinkin', he'll go right to the fuckin' top."
"I'll take the stairs, and you take the elevator up a few floors. We'll block him in," Jon said.
"Nah," Neal said, heading for the stairs. "I'll do it."
Jon put a hand out, snagging Neal's arm. "Don't corner him," he said.
"Neal," Jon said sharply, "don't give him a chance to blow any more walls out. He comes with us because he wants to, or he doesn't at all. If he's not thinkin', then he won't think twice about doing to you what he did to that kid."
Neal nodded, shaking Jon loose and trotting for the stairs.
* * *
Steve reached the fourth floor and stood, breathing hard, looking up and down the hallways. Doors with panes etched with names of law firms or consultants faced him. He walked quickly to the elevators, hoping there was another set of stairs. Some fire codes required it. If not, he'd just run the risk of having them trap him.
But he wouldn't hurt them. He wouldn't.
He hit the 'down' button on the third elevator over and waited, shifting from foot to foot. When it rang and indicated the elevator had arrived, he focused his attention on it.
The world began to get a little hazy again, the edges shifting, and for a moment he was afraid he'd vault off into another line again.
The doors opened, and he was face to face with Jon.
It was too close to call, who was more startled; Jon watched Steve back away and said, "Just wait. You can't keep doin' this."
Steve bolted for the stairs, and Jon cursed for a moment, holding the doors open. Then he let them close and went up several more floors.
When he was sure the elevator was headed up, Steve came back down the staircase and hit down for another elevator. The third elevator rang to indicate it had arrived at his floor, and he stood back to watch, feeling more disconnected all the time. Several people got off, but none of them was Neal or Jon. He hopped on and went down one floor, then hopped off again and headed for the stairs, shoving the door open and running down.
Steve was halfway down, another few stairs to the door, when Neal hit it from the other side.
Neal stood with the door open, unable to believe for a moment that he'd actually managed to cut the singer off.
Steve froze on the stairs, and the glitter in his eyes made Neal wonder if he'd just plow over him and go on. It was a bad moment for one and a revelation for the other.
It all stopped. Everything. The low hum of a thousand other places and times hushed, went back where they belonged. Steve felt himself become completely linear again.
Not coincidence. Neal was the grounding force.
Decide between staying sane and eventually destroying Neal, or goin' over the edge and destroying yourself.
"Don't run," Neal said. "You don't have to."
"Stay the hell away from me," Steve said. "This's all the warning you get."
"We're too old to be chasin' each other up and down fuckin' staircases," Neal said, trying to pretend he wasn't out of breath, cursing the fact that he'd taken up smoking again.
Steve stared at him again like he was soaking something up. Then he turned and ran like hell back up the stairs.
Neal went after him two at a time, not wasting any more breath shouting. Steve reached the top and slammed through the door, slamming it behind again.
Neal hit it right behind him, stopping cold when it turned out to be locked. The singer hadn't had time to lock it. Neal inspected it. It was a key-only deadbolt.
The guy is a living key, he thought. How can I be so fuckin' stupid?
He ran back down the stairs and out to the elevators.
There was no one using two of the three that stopped at his floor--the fourth--and Neal called them up, wedged the doors open, and reached in to hit the emergency stop button. By the time someone figured out what was wrong with them, he'd have Steve cornered.
Steve went up to the sixth floor and paused to catch his breath, listening.
Jon stepped off on the eighth floor and looked around, then decided to hit the stairs and stay on them.
Steve tried all three elevators. Only one responded on its way down, and he let it go to whoever had called it.
Neal hit the button for every floor, then took the stairs back down to the lobby. He waited.
When he felt enough time had gone by, and Steve didn't take the bait, he started back up, stopping at every floor to look.
Jon began searching each floor from the stairs, walking the length of each hallway.
Steve came out of a restroom on the sixth floor while Jon was searching the hall, went right past him and all the way up to the top floor.
* * *
Jon and Neal met each other on the fourth floor. "You don't think he's hidin' on the roof," Jon said.
Neal sighed. "One of us could start at the top and work our way down floor by floor while the other watches the lobby," Neal said. "But I think we both know he ain't comin' with us willingly. We can't leave him out here for that thing to grab. I'll knock him over the head if I have to."
"That'll look good in the Chronicle," Jon said.
Neal looked at him.
"This ain't funny, Jon," Neal said.
"No," Jon said. "But it's so bad, so out of control, that we have to try and keep perspective. You're more messed up over him than you are anything else."
"I'm gonna find a way onto the roof," Neal said, and he walked away.
Jon sighed. "I'm gonna hang around here in case he comes back down."
* * *
Steve reached the end of the hall on the top floor and began climbing the rungs of the ladder built into the wall, ignoring the signs that said no roof access. The hatch near the ceiling was padlocked, and he took it apart with a thought, not caring how he did it. They wouldn't find him up there.
But God, he hated tall buildings.
He'd have to wait and hope no one else would come up there to do maintenance or anything else. He'd wait until dark if he had to, let himself out of the locked building, and vanish again. He couldn't face either of them, and both together would be intolerable after what he'd seen. No--what he'd done, and would do.
He closed the hatch behind himself without thinking to lock it again, and surveyed the roof. He wouldn't be in place much longer, the world would shift again and throw him loose. It would already have been happening again, if he hadn't run into Neal, if Neal hadn't still been in the building. He angled around the high, sharp corners of a set of air conditioning equipment, hoping for a space to hide in, even though he knew they wouldn't be dumb enough to try and get on the roof. They wouldn't even think to look for him up there.
He sat with his back to the unit furthest from the hatch, looking out across the rest of the roof and the surrounding highrises. The traffic sounds from below filtered up to him, muffled by distance. They'd give up and go home and be safe, and he'd wait there until dark and find somewhere else to hide. He'd stay out there and find out who that kid was, and understand.
Knowing who he is won't change the fact that I killed him.
Distracted as he was, he still heard the hatch open somewhere behind him, and knew it wasn't building maintenance or security. The one time he needed Neal to give up on him, it didn't happen.
Neal closed the hatch behind himself and stood looking out across the roof, disappointed. He'd been sure Steve would go to some extreme, would try and outwit them by going further than he should. He'd expected to find the singer there and at least have a chance of trapping him.
He bent to open the hatch again, thinking maybe they'd have to search every floor on the way down, and paused.
The hatch hadn't been locked. The padlock on it hung loose on the hasp that fastened it shut.
He slammed the hatch shut again and stood there, waiting. Nothing but wind and distant traffic and a passenger airline somewhere miles to the north. Then he walked to the bank of a/c units and stood there for another minute.
"I know you're here," Neal said. "You gotta listen to me. By yourself, that thing is gonna come back and do whatever it wants to you, and chew the rest of us up when it's done. We're a lot safer together."
Steve remained where he was, breath held, the world solid again because Neal was only feet away. He kept his back pressed to the a/c unit and waited for the guitarist to move a few feet further and find him.
Steve edged away from the side of the a/c unit and toward the rail, just out of Neal's vision, silent. He placed shaking hands on the metal of the railing, hands freezing on it in fear.
Neal turned then and centered on him. "Hey."
Steve moved quickly, getting up on the sidewall, placing one foot over the rail. Neal took several steps toward him, stopping just as quickly when Steve whipped his head around to face him again, pinning him with a stare that wasn't entirely human anymore.
Neal felt the pressure begin to build, nothing like it had been in the hospital, but there nonetheless. He thought about the kid, about his own kids, and froze.
Steve went on staring at him, trying to keep a lid on things and slowly failing. He'd end up doing it without meaning to, he'd turn Neal into twisted wreckage even after doing anything to keep it from happening two nights earlier.
Oh God, the buildings!
After what he'd done at the mall, he knew he'd do worse to the surrounding buildings if the monster inside got loose. And it would.
"I won't hurt you," he said to Neal. I can't. Please tell me I can't.
"No," Neal said. "You won't. I know you won't."
"I don't know that," Steve said with a tremor. "Just go away."
"You can't jump," Neal said. "Not after all this. Steve, come on."
The singer's eyes were wild. And lifetimes older. Whoever Neal was talking to, it was some part of the singer that usually stayed far beneath the surface, a desperation he hadn't seen in years. He wasn't even sure Steve was fully awake.
Neal wasn't sure where the thought came from, didn't take the time to really acknowledge it. But it lodged in his subconscious nonetheless, burrowing, digging hooks in. He remembered Steve screaming at the sight of him, terrified to the point of running into a corner to escape him.
"Look," Neal said. "I'll back off. You can just walk past me and out of here. But come down. Please. It's only me."
"I know," Steve said, and the words were hurled. "You're always the last thing I see."
Neal didn't want that to make sense. He had nothing to say to it, nothing except to plead for Steve to come down. Useless words. "You're afraid of heights," he said instead.
Steve laughed. It was panicked, hysterical laughter, no trace of humor in it. The singer was already long since over the figurative edge.
"Except when you're the bird," Neal said.
The laughter stopped. Steve looked at him in amazement, as if he'd said something profound.
Sometimes, belief is enough, a voice said close to his ear.
Steve jerked in shock, nearly sending himself over the edge. He turned his head. There was no one there. It could have been a memory, someone else's thoughts, anything. Another shift through time.
Steve looked back to Neal, saw nothing but puzzlement on the guitarist's face. No. The shifting had stopped the moment Neal had come within earshot of him. Neal had grounded him in place.
"Sometimes, belief is enough," Steve said aloud, and the words sounded wooden even to his own ears. "I did this. All of it."
"Did what?" Neal said.
Jon came around the corner, having come up through the hatch unheard. He stood and stared at them in numb relief for a moment, opening his mouth to say something to Steve. But the singer was already staring at him in mute terror, some inscrutable understanding spreading over his features above the panic.
It was happening again. Realities and places blurred in his memory. If Jon got too close, he'd do it again. He'd force the walker to fix things by hurling the Inverse into the space. He wouldn't be able to stop himself.
I waited as long as I could.
It all went by so fast that neither Jon or Neal could piece it together in order afterwards. Jon moved toward them both, and Steve stepped backward on the ledge, both feet on the wrong side of the rail.
Neal made a leap for him, stretching, hands reaching. Steve took the next step, a leap of faith, and gravity wrought its will on him. Neal was there, hands grasping for anything.
The singer slipped through his hands in a rough whisper of skin on fabric, and fell away.
Neal screamed, leaning out into the space, wanting the time back and unable to pull it.
Jon reached him in a dead run, shock trying to buckle his knees. He intended to pull Neal away from the edge so he wouldn't see what would come when the singer reached the parking lot below, but instead he found himself looking over the edge with him.
There was a distortion of light, longer than it should have been; the descending shape nearly reached the pavement, was nearly too small to make out anymore before it became dark feathers. An updraft bore the raven away to the south, a shadow that vanished into the afternoon.
Jon gradually became aware of things again, of Neal gasping for air, of the numb tingling of too much adrenaline, of how breezy it was that high up. Then Neal slid to his knees on the tar roof, palms flat against the surface. His voice was choked when he spoke. "I'm gonna kill him," he said. "I'm gonna wring his fuckin' neck."
"Why was he runnin' from us?" Jon said, out of breath, needing to make sense of something. Anything.
"He ain't sane," Neal said when he could talk again. He was silent for a long moment, just staring at the surface of the roof, trying to keep his composure. "Whatever happened at the mall...tore him open."
"We gotta get him to listen to us," Jon said.
"Yeah," Neal said, sitting up to look out across the roof. His gaze was bleak, empty. "'Cause if we don't..." He paused, trying to figure out what he was going to say, if he should say it. It had to be said.
You're always the last thing I see.
"If we can't reach him," Neal said, "I gotta put him out of his misery."
Jon looked at him. Just looked.
"At least that," Neal whispered.
* * *
Operating on the idea that Steve would head for a familiar place as upset as he was, they went back to the singer's house and waited.
Steve would have a hell of a time finding things from the air even when he was sane. They'd just have to hope he'd change back and wander in. Neither of them bothered wondering how the hell the singer had managed to change in the first place. Too much had happened that wasn't supposed to, and it didn't matter.
Neal looked around for a moment, wondering why he hadn't noticed half the things he was noticing now; candles all over the place. And everything was spotless otherwise, compulsively so, but he'd always known Steve was like that. He didn't hang out with him anymore, not for years, so no reason to know how or where he kept his personal stuff. And they didn't like each other anyway.
Liar. You 'like' him now, don't you?
Then something occurred to him, and he headed straight for the bathroom, ignoring Jon when asked what he was doing. He rifled the medicine cabinet and came up with nothing, so he walked back through to the bedrooms, and checked every available surface. Nothing.
He walked back through to the kitchen and began searching cupboards. Jon fell silent, following him at a slight distance, watching.
Finally, in the small cupboard above the stove, success. Inches from where the chair had come to rest in the wall, years earlier. Whether that was on purpose or just some subconscious thing, Neal didn't care. There was a prescription bottle with a warning about narcotics and not exceeding the dosage. It was half full.
Pain pills. A remnant of the surgery. With his history, Steve had probably struggled to get free of them as soon as possible, yet kept them just in case.
Neal stood and looked at the bottle, feeling strangely calm about it. There was enough there to keep the singer calm for awhile, once they got hold of him. Enough to keep him calm and stationary. And if the whole thing was hopeless, enough to...
Neal pocketed the pills.
Jon didn't comment on it. After the discussion he'd had with Siarion, he hoped it was Neal's idea.
"He wasn't scared of me at the elevator a few minutes before that," Jon said, and Neal startled as if he'd been deep in thought. "He just wanted away from me. He wasn't scared 'til we were on the roof."
"He wasn't scared until he was gettin' ready to do to us what he did to that kid," Neal said. "No telling where he's been, what he's seen."
They stayed the night there, waiting. When it grew light and became obvious the singer had either gotten himself too lost to return home or simply had no intention of returning, Neal called Ross and asked him to keep an eye out there while they continued to look.
* * *