Steve lost perspective again almost immediately.
One, he was in the air. And two, he was away from Neal.
He'd taken flying lessons, years earlier, but they didn't teach you how to successfully map things from the air. And this wasn't Athyri. Athyri, he knew from the air and ground equally well.
He hadn't expected it to be as hard as it was; he'd taken that final step off the building, concentrating solely on the internal switch that allowed him to change his shape. It had been there, he'd engaged it easily. But nothing had happened, there'd been a block. Buildings, sky and ground had merged crazily, gravity tugging greedily on him, and he realized he'd made an awful mistake. Belief hadn't been enough...
He'd panicked. He'd meant to scream and the pressure of falling so fast had taken the air out of him. Terror and denial had finally thrown the switch when he was maybe 25 feet from the asphalt below. It was nothing like changing his shape in Athyri; he felt every aspect of it, his form melting with agonizing slowness like he was made of clay and a clumsy child was doing the shaping. He regained altitude as quickly as he could, landing on a building maybe three blocks away. Gasping for air.
But he hadn't hurt anyone.
After getting his bearings, he began to realize the bird didn't afford him any protection from zapping between the lines, between the fragments. And it would be easier to handle as a human than as a raven. He circled and kept track of where he was in a basic sense, watching for landmarks, using them to get within a reasonable distance of his own house. Then he could recognize the basic road structure from memory.
Still, it took him the remainder of the day to get that close, to make sense of it.
Nothing happened; he didn't lose any time, didn't slam between the lines. He had one brief, horrible moment of considering life as a bird.
He lost the light at 4:30, and spent the night in a tree. Watching.
When it got light again, he circled until he recognized his own car and landed on the roof of the house, pausing to rest.
It was quiet. He had no reason to believe anyone was in there. Jon and Neal had no reason to think he wouldn't just keep running. And he probably would.
He'd been asking himself what the hell he meant to do, eventually. Knowing who the kid was didn't guarantee him anything but more guilt for what he'd done. Piecing things together without Jon and Neal didn't mean anything. He wasn't thinking right anymore, and he knew it.
He lay there on the roof, unable to mantle his wings, panting with exhaustion. The world he was in was heavier, pulled harder, than the other world did. Having wings and suffering the time disorientation would be dangerous, would mean falling from a height or being caught by a neighbor's dog. He'd have to hope terror alone wasn't the reason he was able to change.
When he could breathe again, he coasted down to the lawn and looked at the house. Quiet, dark.
He concentrated, imagining the form he was born to, trying to force things to move. Something began to happen but not enough, and the rage that followed it brought understanding: it wasn't simply the pull of that world.
He wasn't all himself anymore. He wasn't simply manipulating his own form.
There was a non-organic, foreign object that composed one hip; the joint had been replaced with titanium so that he could move around without pain.
His clothes, his wallet, the change in his pockets, the fillings in his teeth didn't count towards the whole; blatantly external things vanished and the fillings were malleable.
The hip was not.
He couldn't understand. If he ever had the chance to speak to Jon again, he'd ask him.
In the meantime, he thought about what was happening to all of them and how little choice there was in it, and let it piss him off. He remembered escaping the Keep at one point long ago, and standing in the desert trying to change his form. He remembered thinking while I'm here, I'll come and go as I please. Rage made the difference, and feathers melted with an agonizing slowness. The avian shape twisted, reforming. Steve slammed to earth an eternity of moments later, digging his hands into the grass.
He lay there face down, breath held. The pain was intense enough that he couldn't breathe through it, didn't dare draw a breath for fear it would shatter him. The world was spinning even as he clung to it; his skin wasn't his own, and the humming in his head obliterated anything else.
Then there were feet near his head, a hand at his shoulder that turned him, and he had to breathe. It didn't kill him; he wasn't made of glass even though it felt that way. Instead, the pain decreased with every breath. He didn't know how long it was before the humming began to subside. When he opened his eyes, he was sitting cross-legged in the grass. His arms and back ached incessantly, he itched everywhere, and he was desperately thirsty, but he was fine otherwise.
Ross sat cross-legged on the grass in front of him. Steve realized he hadn't seen everything from the air. The bassist had parked somewhere down the block or in the trees.
"Reminds me of a joke," Ross said softly, and there was no trace of humor in his voice or face. "The one about how you just flew in, and boy are your arms tired."
Steve sat and caught his breath, tried to clear his throat, coughed.
"Neal asked me to watch out for you, see if you came out this way," Ross said.
Steve was silent and concentrated on breathing.
"Mentioned you threw yourself off a high-rise to get away from him," Ross added, dropping his voice a notch. "Matter to you at all that he was cryin' when he told me?"
Steve flinched somewhere underneath, somewhere it wasn't visible. His face didn't change.
"You can't run," Ross said. "Whatever this is, it won't get off you until you face it."
"Face it?" Steve echoed dully. "Been facing it, all of it. On, and on, and on, and --" he paused, realizing he had to stop before it all came out. "I don't know what order it all happened in."
"You know you're not yourself," Ross said. "Ever occur to you that hangin' with us is close to safe and normal as you'll get?"
Steve wanted to laugh, and any other time, he would have. "Occurred to me right about halfway through the Infinity tour," he said. "Ross, I killed a kid."
"I know," Ross said. "I know. Was no other way, man. Him, or you and Neal."
"There was another way," Steve said, and he felt himself choking up. He paused to slam it down, then said, "There was. I didn't look."
"You can't do this on your own," Ross said.
"I got to," Steve said, and the world slid a little as he said it. He wasn't far from another waking nightmare, from having his nose rubbed in another reality. He struggled to his feet. Ross would call Jon and Neal while Steve was caught stationary in another episode. He couldn't afford to snap back and find himself surrounded. "Sooner or later, I'm gonna do to you guys what I did to that kid. That's all I do."
Ross gained his feet. "It's not."
Steve stood and stared at the ground for a moment, wanting to say one final thing, wanting to ask Ross to tell Neal he was okay. It would have been a lie.
"If you want," Ross said, "I'll tell 'em you weren't here. I don't agree with you, I think our only chance in this is together. But I ain't gonna take a hiding place away from you, if you need it."
Steve raised his eyes to stare at him. He knew it wasn't a ploy. Ross would always do what he said he would.
The singer shook his head. "It won't work. But...thanks."
Ross nodded. "You gonna go on runnin', then?"
Steve couldn't say yes or no, because he didn't know if it was possible, or even if that was what he was doing. He just stood and stared at Ross.
"Come back in long enough to catch up with yourself, then," Ross said.
Steve shook his head again, backing away. "I don't know what'll happen to you," he said. Then he turned and walked out of the yard, back into the day, losing himself as he went.
* * *
When it got dark, there was no point looking anymore.
Jon invited Neal home, and the guitarist wanted desperately to accept. But what had been in his house wasn't after him, not really. Whatever it really was, it thought of him only in relation to Steve. Jon offered to stay, and Neal had finally told him to just go home and be with his family. There was no telling how much longer they had, to do things like that.
The look Jon had given him had said a volume of things. Neal was family, and had better remember it. Jon told him he'd be checking in with him, and went home.
Neal unlocked his new door and let it swing inward. It was dark and quiet and that was all.
He couldn't do more than sit there and wait to hear something on the news. To wait for Steve to do something else against his will that no one could ignore. And if the -- what had Siarion called it? -- Ender. If the Ender got hold of him, the key to the Evenwhen, what would it do to him and with him?
"Nice of her to fuckin' explain what's after us," he said aloud. An Ender, as if there was more than one. There probably was, in the scheme of things. The name alone told them plenty. It was against everyone's best interests for that thing to find the singer, but they were left alone to deal with it.
He dealt with it by turning the TV and most of the lights on, knowing they made no difference but feeling safer anyway, the way his distant ancestors had hung around the cave fire and hoped it would keep the longtooth tigers at bay.
He thought about daywraiths.
And finally, when he couldn't shake the feeling that he wasn't alone, he checked the entire house. There was nothing visible, at least. He found himself in the doorway of the second bedroom, where Steve had been sleeping, staring at everything. Without realizing he was even doing it, without turning the lights on, he found one of the bed pillows in his hands, found himself pressing his face to it. There was a faint trace of the singer's scent on it, evoking memory and a basic sense of who Steve was from the perspective of their history, together and apart.
And a longing that made him grip the pillow in his hands.
He wasn't accustomed to scaring himself.
He put the pillow right back where it'd been, and called Amber before it got any later than it was. Because it was getting late, in a lot of ways.
Jon checked in with him an hour after that. TV got progressively more boring. He got up to get a beer, passing the mouth of the hallway on his way to the kitchen, and something in his peripheral vision moved.
He froze, looking again, feeling a cold sweat break out across his back immediately. There'd been no sound, just motion.
When nothing else happened, he went on into the kitchen, standing there and waiting, staying in view of the hall. There was chatter from the TV. Any other time, he would have put it down to being tired. But not after the last few days. Never again.
He headed for the hallway again, checking his own room. Nothing scurried away from him when he turned the overhead light on.
He never heard anything; he figured later that anything physical enough to walk past him in the hallway would have to make noise on the carpet. He stood there thinking, and something caught in his peripheral vision.
Something moving past his door.
He snapped his eyes toward the door, but there was nothing. Nothing he could see.
His imagination, or headlights from outside. Had to be, even though he hadn't heard a car across the way. He listened, hard, and heard the refrigerator kick on. Listened to some idiot commercial from the living room. Nothing more. Things were getting weird, weird enough that he'd believe almost anything. Jump at anything. That's how they'd all get killed, he figured. Jumping at shadows.
He walked down the hall to the other room, reaching in to snap the overhead light on.
Motion caught in his vision again, and he looked. Something dim and faintly blue-green floated silently at face height, blinking at him from the corner. Then it vanished.
Neal froze, breath held. He heard nothing. He didn't dare move; it was a replay of every oh shit moment he'd had as a kid, when he'd been certain there was a mummy/vampire/witch under the bed\in the closet\behind the door. All he had to do was stay perfectly still, and whatever it was would go the fuck away.
Oh God. Please go the fuck away.
He felt his heart start that slow, heavy thudding it did when there was too much adrenaline kicking in at once and nowhere for it to go. Then he got an arm to move, snapped the light on, and waited to see what it brought.
Steve stood in the far corner of the second bedroom, eyes closed against the light. Then the singer opened them again and stared at him with wide, shining eyes.
Neal wasn't sure if he should be relieved or not. He knew immediately that it was Steve and not something wearing his form.
"Hey," Neal said, and it sounded steadier than it felt. How'd he get in the house? How'd he get past me?
For all he knew, the singer had been standing there long enough to have seen a lot of things.
The singer didn't respond, with anything, just stood there.
"You throw yourself off a fuckin' building to get away from me, then show up here on your own," Neal said, trying to keep his voice level.
Steve simply stood there unblinking, looking like he was trying to keep a grip and was concentrating solely on that.
"Are you all here?" Neal said.
"Are you all right?"
Nothing. Not even a flicker in the singer's eyes, just a predatory glimmer of attention.
"I ain't gonna stand here and play fuckin' twenty questions with you all night," Neal said, trying to make it sound pissed and almost making it. He wanted to shake the singer, but kept his distance and kept his hands down. "Talk, or run for it. Not chasin' you anymore."
He turned and walked out of the room, hoping Steve chose the former. Steve was immediately behind him, silent. Neal didn't realize the singer was on his heels until he reached the living room. He startled again, turning to really look at Steve. There were so many emotions playing through the singer's eyes that not one could get loose; they looped there, canceling each other out, forcing the singer to just stand there. Unable to run, unable to talk, his gaze bordering on the fanatical.
Neal stared back for a moment, then snapped his fingers and said, "Steve."
"It's you," Steve said immediately.
Not certain what to make of the statement, wondering if he should back away, Neal said, "Right."
"You're keeping me here," Steve said.
"No," Neal said. "Nobody's --"
"In this line," Steve said. "It stopped again."
Neal just stared at him for a moment. "Just tell me," he said.
"There's no starting point," Steve said, as if he'd been waiting for Neal to speak. He was staring at the guitarist avidly.
"Start with why you took off in the middle of the night," Neal said, taking a step away. Steve was standing too close. "And eat somethin' while you're doing it."
Steve shook his head. "I can't take it back," he said. Then he dropped his eyes.
"Can't take what back?" Neal said, beginning to feel awkward about just repeating things. He got silence until he said the singer's name again.
"I'm not sure where I am, yet," Steve said. "I'm sorry. I'm tryin' to...I can't get used to being here, yet."
"Where've you been?" Neal said.
"Everywhere," Steve said, and the word should have held some sort of wonder, or terror, or something. Neal realized he was looking at a burnt shell, the spark within overwhelmed into keeping a low profile until the firestorm blew over. "Everywhen. I did this."
"Steve," Neal said cautiously, and when the eyes traveled back to him, there was a flash of panic, and the real Steve. Then it was gone again. Rooted in this place and time, but the rest of him -- the soul of him -- was still trying to catch up. "Who am I?"
Neal nodded. He was talking to the Er Rai. It wasn't a separate entity, but it was only a facet. Steve would be along when he could. For now, holding onto the shell had to be enough.
But if Steve never caught up...
"I'm gonna give you somethin'," Neal said. "And then you're gonna stay here. You can't go tearin' around the countryside anymore."
Steve -- the Er Rai -- went on staring at him.
"Steve," Neal said.
The spark again. Looking a little trapped and a little lost but perfectly aware. It stayed a little longer this time. "It's gonna be okay," Neal said. "But you gotta stay here."
"Help," Steve whispered.
"I will," Neal said. "I'll do whatever I can. Fuck it, I'll do anything. No more wandering off in the night, though. I'm gonna make sure you can't." He paused, and the predatory stare of the Er Rai was on him again. "Stephen."
"You blew the doors off at the mall, didn't you," Neal said. "You fucked yourself up, and now you can't keep yourself in one time or place. Right?"
"And sometime tomorrow, you're gonna tell us what really went on. Right?"
Neal cursed and headed to the kitchen, drawing a glass of water and shaking two pills out of the bottle on the counter. The Er Rai was right behind him when he turned.
He held the pills out. "Take 'em," Neal said.
Steve stayed where he was, looking trapped.
"You got three minutes to take 'em," Neal said. "Or I'll put 'em down your fuckin' throat myself. I ain't afraid of you. If I'm right, you been awake for three days, you're out of your fuckin' head, and you're gonna spend some time asleep and get perspective."
"What if there isn't," Steve said.
Neal peered at him. "Isn't what?"
Neal lowered his hands and sighed. The frightened anger seemed to drain out of him. "Then I'll make it up," Neal said.
"I can't go back to that," Steve said.
"You won't, if I'm with you," Neal said. "I'll stay with you. And I won't kill you in your sleep, even though I've wanted to many, many times."
It was meant to be a stab at a joke. It fell short, and it didn't matter.
"What if...what if he..."
"He'll have to get through me first," Neal said, cutting him off, and it didn't matter what he the singer was referring to. "I'll be goin' with you, if nothin' else. I promise. I won't leave you."
They stared at each other for a long, charged moment.
"You gotta let us help you," Neal said softly. "Whatever's goin' on, we need time to get it straight. Can't do that with you runnin'."
Steve looked at Neal, dropped his eyes to the pills. Neal held them out again and said the singer's name.
"Can't be any harder than givin' a cat a pill," Neal said, and despite the humor of the words, his face and tone were deadly serious.
"Won't fix anything," Steve said.
"Give you a chance to come around," Neal said. "You need to rest. It's this, or I'll clock you in the fuckin' head. Give me another excuse, Stephen."
Steve came forward, and the closer he got, the better things got, the clearer they became. He paused in amazement within arm's length, staring. If Neal felt it, he gave no sign other than returning the stare. Steve felt truly solid again, felt sane, and the relief of it was terrible.
He took the pills out of Neal's hand, then the glass of water he was offered. Neal watched him warily while the pills were taken. Steve drank the rest of the water gratefully.
"Now what?" Steve said.
"Lie down," Neal said.
"Wow, foreplay," Steve said.
Neal nodded, trying unsuccessfully to keep from smirking. "Good," he said. "Now I know you're gonna be fine."
Neal looked at him. "Never gonna be the same," he said. "But you'll be okay."
"I'm gonna hold you to that," Steve said.
"You're stubborn," Neal said. "It's fuckin' annoying, but it's good for surviving shit. You're too stubborn not to get through this."
"I can't take back what I did," Steve said again. It sounded and looked calm, but didn't feel it. Not at all.
Neal nodded. "But you did the best you could," he said. "It's done, and you gotta set it right by movin' on."
Steve didn't answer. He didn't argue with it. He just wanted something to believe, at least for awhile. He turned wordlessly and headed for the room down the hall again.
Neal followed him, realizing that the singer wasn't making a sound as he moved.
He didn't suggest that the singer get undressed or take a shower, because if the pills kicked in on an empty stomach while that was happening, he'd have to help him. And there was no way in hell he was risking that.
Steve took his shoes off and got under the covers fully dressed and lay there staring at the ceiling, tense, waiting. Neal sat on the floor near the head of the bed and braced his back against the wall. After a couple of minutes, when Neal thought he was asleep, Steve said, "That's gotta be real comfortable."
"Yeah, well, it's a lot more comfortable than identifyin' what woulda been all over the parking lot if the bird hadn't worked," Neal said. His voice was rough.
"I'm sorry," Steve whispered.
"Don't you ever," Neal said, and he didn't need to elaborate.
It was silent again. A couple of minutes after that, Steve had his consciousness pulled out from under him and there wasn't anything more to say.
Neal sat and carefully thought everything over. What had happened, what had almost happened. It was a tangled mess that would be easy to lose track of if they blinked. But he had the time to put it in order. Not all of it, though. Some of it wasn't meant to be in order. There was a weakness somewhere. He'd find it and put his foot right up the ass of every namer in the multiverse, if he had to.
Maybe even if he didn't have to.
Neal looked out into the dark, listening. Watchful. The darkness was watching back. He wasn't sure if it was just paranoia, or even how he'd know such a thing. He simply trusted it.
"Don't fuck with us tonight," he said softly to the darkness.
Then he got up and turned the lights on.
* * *
He dropped off without realizing it, and was up early with a stiff back to call Ross and Jon and let them know what was happening. Jon asked him if it was better for him to come over, or leave it alone for a day. Neal told him the truth: he had no goddamn idea. But it was better if he had a chance to ask Steve what the hell was going on before he risked having the singer bolt again.
It was almost noon before the singer awoke with a hangover, and Neal knew the moment he did. The guitarist was already there by the time the singer managed to pry his own eyes open despite the headache and the daylight.
"Where am I?" Steve said. The real Steve, this time. The Er Rai was back where he belonged, submerged under a stronger personality.
"My house," Neal said. "But I think you know that."
"No," Steve said. "Where, like were we in a band together, like was I hit by a bus. When."
Neal regarded him warily for a moment, and Steve was more frightened by that than anything else. "Yeah," Neal said. "What happened?"
"Is Jon here?" Steve said.
Neal frowned. "No."
"But you know who he is," Steve said.
"What the fuck is going on?" Neal said. "You're doin' all the classic moves to get yourself committed, but I know you're not crazy. Yeah, I know who Jon is."
No you don't, Steve thought. No one does. "Is it still November?"
Neal crouched next to the head of the bed, bringing himself to Steve's eye level. "Yeah. Now tell me what the fuck made you run from us, and pitch yourself off a roof."
"Because I haven't been here," Steve said, sitting up slowly, wincing at the ache behind his eyes. "I don't know how long it's been. The lines...it was hard to tell. But it started at the mall." His eyes welled with tears, and he said, "What the hell am I on?"
"You remember takin' the pills," Neal said. "I gave 'em to you. You scared the shit out of everybody. Why'd you run?"
"I wanted it over," Steve said. "I wanted to find out who that kid was. I walked away. To have it over." The tears spilled over silently, and Neal reached forward to put a hand on the back of Steve's neck. "I'm not all here, anymore. Like when you were walking between, except I'm stuck between." He burst into tears, and Neal got up long enough to go search out a washcloth. He soaked it with cool water and returned, offering it to the singer, hushing him.
"I walked away," Steve sobbed, the words almost impossible to understand. Neal got it, though, got all of it, and somewhere behind the sympathy was a very real terror of what was happening to them. "I walked away from you and stopped being able to tell time!"
Neal wanted to say he didn't understand, but he did. Someone had been shoving them toward each other because of who they were and what they were capable of. What didn't make sense was that they'd been part of each other once and it hadn't been tolerated. He'd been right about Steve not being all the way back, not in their world anyway, and it had never occurred to him that Steve was only able to keep a frame of reference because of their proximity.
He made a soft hushing sound, and Steve tried desperately to regain control. "It's okay, now," Neal said. "You got only one timeline to look at."
Steve covered his face briefly, heaving a sigh to catch his breath. When he brought the washcloth away from his face, his voice was choked with grief. "Not okay. All it takes is one timeline. We're being set up. You willing to babysit me the rest of our lives? You willing to let me follow you around so I can stay sane?"
Neal put a hand on the back of Steve's neck again and said, "We'll get this figured out. For Christ's sake, look what we've gotten out of already. We're still bigger."
Steve emitted a low, choking laugh. "You didn't answer the question. How long before someone shoves me in front of you again?"
Neal shrugged. "You worried about that?"
Steve looked at him, met his gaze squarely. "I should be."
"Look who's not answering questions," Neal said, holding Steve's gaze.
Steve closed his eyes.
"You're sedated to the gills," Neal said. "Go back to sleep for awhile."
Steve tensed, opened his eyes. "And then what? Go back to that? No."
"But I think you're right about why you were doing it," Neal said. "Being with me is grounding you here. I'll stay with you. It's over."
"No," Steve whispered. "It's not. They'll keep us going like this. I know it wasn't you, not really. But that doesn't make it any easier." Then he closed his eyes again and laid back down, rolling over to face the wall. He didn't think he could go back to sleep again, even with the aid of the residual medication in his system. But he couldn't talk to Neal anymore, couldn't look at him.
Neal sighed and went back to staring out the window, not making anything out of what little sense the singer was capable of.
Jon came over about half an hour later, and wasn't surprised by anything Neal had to say. Jon convinced him that with Steve as sedated as he was, there was no reason he couldn't walk away for awhile. Jon would keep an eye out and stay out of Steve's sight unless the singer got out of bed altogether.
Neal went to shower and change and tried not to think about any of it, was only partially successful. It was when he was in the shower that a couple of the pieces hit each other head on.
I know it wasn't you. He'd been talking about the kiss. Why? Why had that come up ag--
But that doesn't make it any easier.
The feeling he'd had on the roof, that Steve really knew, came back full force.
Steve remembered how he'd died. The first time. He knew.
And he couldn't get away.
* * *
He pulled Jon into the yard, walked as far as he could from the house without losing sight of it.
He didn't want to be overheard by someone who heard too much without making any noise of his own.
"He can't be anywhere near me," Neal said. "And he can't leave. He was gettin' it all back anyway, slowly, because whatever they did to wipe his memory before is null and void. Gettin' totally out of my sight for a couple of days sped the process up. He's only able to keep track of where and when he is because of me. But I'm the one who did this to him in the first place."
"You're not," Jon said. "Dammit, you didn't kill him. How many times do we have to go over this?"
"How do you know?" Neal said. "Why the hell are you so sure it wasn't me? There was enough of me left in there for you to rebuild me, or rewind me, or whatever you did. What the hell did she do to me?"
"She hollowed you out," Jon said, "and put something else in there. You were a passenger."
"Point is, he remembers. I don't. Why he lets me anywhere near him, I don't know. Especially now." He paused. "Except that he knows he can't stay sane on his own. How long's this gonna go on?"
Jon had no answer, didn't even attempt one. "When he's up, we gotta get him to talk to us," he said instead. "He's seen a hell of a lot, and some of it'll probably help us, before he loses the memories. It's all we have. No one else is gonna come out of the woodwork and be helpful."
"The guy is surrounded," Neal said. "The next little thing is gonna turn him inside out, and maybe us with him."
"The next time we see that fuckin' thing that came up through the floor, it's gonna be ready," Neal said. "There's no way we will be. Not this time."
He meant the Ender, and Jon knew it.
"If we meant anything to anybody but each other, they'd help us," Neal said. "So they're either as fuckin' helpless as we are, or they're scared, or they're enjoyin' more entertainment than they've seen in a long time. We only got each other."
* * *
Steve was up roughly an hour later, well into the afternoon, and he showered and shaved like he would have at the start of any normal day. Then he stood in the kitchen doorway and stared at Jon and Neal for a moment without the panic that had been there the day before.
"Deja vu," Neal said.
"Yeah," Steve said, "but I'm not eight this time." He sat at the kitchen table with them for a long silent moment, refusing to raise his eyes. Then he said, "There's a part of the line, where I was a kid when you called me back. You guys raised me like your own."
"How'd it turn out?" Neal said.
"The Ender found us because I was living life twice, like I am now," Steve said. "And you had to kill me because it was the only way to get away."
Neal stared at him, and Steve lifted his eyes to return it. Jon carefully registered the fact that Steve had really been those places, lived that life, to know the term Ender.
"Why'd you think you were gonna kill us?" Jon said.
Steve looked at him in surprise.
"I've known you a long time, Steve," Jon said. "With the stuff you said, and the way you were behavin', and the shit that's happened to us so far, it doesn't take a detective to get to that point."
Steve nodded, glancing at Neal when Jon said 'detective'.
Neal picked up on it and said, "She ain't gonna let us put her off much longer. She'll wanna talk to us, and by now she's gone over the tape real close. It's not enough to do anything with. She'll know it's us but can't prove it, until she shows our pictures to the other folks who were there that night."
"Still," Jon said, "you bein' there doesn't make you guys responsible for any of it, doesn't explain the wall comin' down." He looked at Steve again. "I don't know who's better at avoidin' a question, you or Neal. Why'd you think you were gonna kill us?"
"Because I have," Steve said woodenly. The minute Jon had said something about the wall, he'd curled in on himself without moving. "I don't remember it all, it was too much to hold onto. But sooner or later in most of the lines, in this one, I turn on you guys."
Jon knew there was more and didn't think it would really help them, so he left it alone for the moment. He rose and said, "I'm gonna make omelets, like we did the last time we did this. And we're gonna get this figured out, like the last time."
They ate, and afterwards Neal purposely left the house. So Jon and Steve could talk, so they could be certain of whether Neal's proximity meant what they thought it did. He went to the store and tried to ignore the fact that his last sight of Steve that afternoon was a study in muted terror. The singer was pretending that he didn't care if Neal left the house without him, not realizing that they'd all known each other too long not to be obvious to each other.
"I don't know what was in this line, or what's just a fragment," Steve said when Neal was gone. "Some of the lines fell slack, some of it goes on happening over and over. I guess if you guys remember it, then I know it was this line." He paused. "Did I really kill that kid, here?"
Jon nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, you did."
Steve looked utterly defeated for a moment. Then he said, "But that's not where it starts."
"Where what starts."
"The whole thing. The place where it all goes wrong. The thing is, it's further ahead, I think. It hasn't happened yet, to us, but it's already happened, and the rest of it..." he paused. "I was living the Evenwhen."
Jon wanted to get up and walk away. He remembered the last time Steve had been in the Evenwhen, and remembered what had come back. This wasn't the same. An entire section of the Evenwhen had been channeled through the singer, if what he said was true. "Did you buy Neal back?"
Steve hesitated, and Jon said, "I'd love to know who the fuck you think you're protecting by not sayin' anything."
Steve held his silence.
"What'd you buy him back with?" Jon said. "What the hell happened, Steve?"
"What difference does it make?" Steve said.
"Are you tryin' to be deliberately stupid?" Jon said, leaning across the table at him. Steve leaned away, and Jon didn't notice. "Something chased you guys out of the house, and some kid tries to kill you right after. Thing is, you know it's coming and stop him before a shot's fired, when no one else had time to do anything. Come on, Steve! I saw the fuckin' tape. What'd you do?"
Steve held onto it for a moment longer, then told Jon what happened.
Jon nodded throughout like he'd expected as much, but underneath he still wanted to walk away. He couldn't even look at the singer.
"That's the way I remember it," Steve said softly. "So I don't know what it's worth." He paused. "Neal doesn't need to know it."
"She never said why," Jon said, ignoring him. "She didn't do it only because she didn't want Neal hurt, or didn't want you hurt." While he was saying it, he thought, it wasn't Siarion at all.
How would Siarion know, if it was like me to hide or not?
Steve nodded. "But that fraction of line goes on. I think...it'll fall slack by itself. You and I aren't in it anymore, there's just Neal lying there, all --"
"Hey," Jon said, and Steve looked up. The singer's voice had changed, drifting off. His gaze was placid when he looked at Jon, but he had tears in his eyes.
Jon wondered how much worse it would get, how much worse everything would get. "Never mind," he said. "You were tryin' to tell me how the lines are messed up."
"Not all of 'em," Steve said. "This one, yeah. There's a block on it to keep it stable, and the block is part of the problem. They didn't want anyone else -- "
"They," Jon said.
"The namers," Steve said. "I think. Don't want the walkers, or the other namers, fuckin' with it anymore. It's too weak. It split anyway, unraveled all over the place. And I did it."
"I don't understand how you did it," Jon said.
Before Steve could say anything else, he went utterly still, staring right through Jon.
"Steve," Jon said. When there was no reply, he watched the singer intently for a moment, taking in blank eyes and almost nonexistent breathing. He gave it a moment, and when nothing happened he rose and shook him tentatively. The singer didn't respond, sitting there stiffly, staring into the space where Jon had been.
Jon realized what was happening, realized it was as bad as the beacon the singer had left behind when he'd been hit. Only, he had a feeling it wouldn't be only Neal and himself who heard him this time. There was a low whisper of energy that went with it, something no one but another member of the band -- or someone purposely listening for it -- would probably have heard. As connected to the singer as he was, he wondered why he hadn't felt Steve slamming between the lines over the past couple of days.
He would never really hear the singer the same again, if he remained caught between.
Jon went to the phone and dialed Neal's cell phone number. "Where are you?"
"The International foods aisle," Neal said, and his tone said he was waiting to hear the worst.
"He's still here," Jon said, "but you were right. He's got a foot caught right in the Evenwhen, like a live wire, and when you guys are apart, the voltage goes off the scale. Right now he's like a goddamn radio tower. If I can hear it, then the longer it goes on, the faster we'll have company."
"I'm comin'," Neal said, and the line went dead.
Jon found himself wishing Neal could just walk across the space, and wondered why he couldn't.
He sat and watched Steve, wondering where the singer was. Five minutes passed, ten, and Jon found himself pacing, jumping at every sound. He heard Neal's Bronco pull up, and when Steve didn't snap out of it, Jon felt apprehension begin to twist itself into fear. Then Neal's feet hit the driveway and the singer's eyes cleared.
He looked at Jon like he didn't recognize him. "Why'd you say you were sorry?" he said.
Before Jon could ask him what he was talking about, Neal walked in, and the singer focused directly on him with an almost avian stare. He watched Neal walk into the kitchen and stand next to him.
"Who am I," Neal said.
"The wal --" Steve began, then paused. Another moment passed, and he blinked at Neal.
"Try again," Neal said. "Come on, Steve."
Steve's eyes cleared a little more and he said, "Jesus, this is the longest November on record."
"Where were you," Neal said.
"Don't quote song lyrics at me," Steve said automatically, and Neal sighed with relief.
"You remember any of it?" Neal said.
Steve looked at Jon for a moment. "How long was I gone?"
"About ten minutes," Jon said.
"Jesus, is he pissed," Steve said.
"Who," Neal said. "Goddamnit, come on!"
"The Er Rai," Steve said softly, looking at the tabletop, frowning. "I'd tell you what that means, if I could figure out what part went with what, and which time."
Jon sighed. Neal sat down at the table with them again. Steve looked at Neal and said, "There's a lot of me, in the lines. Or there were. A lot of 'em been killed. Only one's the Er Rai."
"Who killed 'em?" Neal said.
Steve started to say something and stopped. He looked confused for a moment, then said, "That kid."
Liar, Neal thought. Only, I don't think he realizes it this time.
"Because..." Jon said.
"I'm not sure what I saw," Steve said. "All the possibilities."
"No," Jon said. "Don't bullshit us."
"There's a million of me and Neal," Steve said, dropping his eyes again. "But there's only one you."
Jon stared at him. "In all the lines."
"Yeah. In all the fragments, in all the lines. Just one you."
"You said that before," Neal said. "Did...did the kid kill them all? The other versions of Jon?"
Steve shook his head. "There was only one. In all Existence, there's only one Jon."
* * *
They left it alone for the night. It was too much, to process or handle or anything else. Jon went home, leaving Steve and Neal to sit in the resulting silence with each other. Neither of them said anything, just valuing the quiet, just watching TV and pretending that's all that was going on. Desperate for the distraction.
Listening. Watching the floor.
When it got late enough, Neal stood and said, "I'm goin' to bed."
There was more, and Steve shifted his eyes to Neal carefully.
"You can't sleep anymore, can you," Neal said.
"That's not what you were gonna say," Steve said.
"Leave it alone," Neal said, and there was no warning in it. "At first all you could do was sleep, now you're awake all the time. It's always all or nothin' with you, isn't it."
Steve tilted his head a little and stared back. "You knew that about five minutes after you met me," he said. "Too late to bitch about it now."
Neal nodded. "You think you're not capable of sleepin' anymore, or do you think you just need to settle down?"
"I'm capable of getting knocked unconscious," Steve said. "But sleeping like most folks know it, no. I'm all done."
"There's --" Neal began.
"No," Steve said, cutting him off. The pills. It would be too easy to start playing that game again.
"You should've given 'em all to me while you could."
Neal looked at him, and the look on his face was familiar: it meant an outburst, a harmless shower of words and attitude, telling him he was an idiot. They'd done it over and over, a familiar pattern, a necessity of their acquaintance.
But Neal just kept looking, the anger there but going unexpressed this time. It was out of character. To Steve it meant he'd gone a step too far. I can see you won't be good for anything.
He took it in silence, beginning to fidget, dropping his eyes. Neal was a hairsbreadth from hitting him, and only sat there staring, punishing him with it. A blow would have been a relief, would have opened things up. Would have ended more than twenty years of almost.
But Neal had to keep his hands down. And words would have meant nothing.
Everything was different. But nothing had changed.
"Why is most of the stuff I remember about you..." Steve began, then paused. "It's almost all pissed off. It's almost always me pushing your buttons, and you defending yourself."
"Because that's your choice," Neal said.
Steve swallowed what he wanted to say, about what the hell did Neal know. But he kept quiet. He thought about destruction and the little ways it worked in life, ten times worse than when it erupted in a display everyone could see.
Neal shifted his weight and dropped the edge out of his tone. "Just let it go," he said. "Let it all go."
Steve kept his eyes down. It didn't matter what Neal was talking about; he could have meant everything. "I can't," Steve said.
"You ain't got room for all the shit you saw," Neal said. "That's it. It's that easy. Your brain'll dump most of it because it can't handle all it saw, like Jon couldn't handle it when he finally laid hands on that crazy namer bitch."
"It's that simple, huh," Steve said. The tone of it was almost sullen.
"Yeah," Neal said. "And if you don't let it go, I'll beat it out of you." Then he walked away.
Steve watched him go, feeling a block of normalcy slam into place. The threat was a relief.
* * *
Wednesday, Dec 1
It got quiet again, while they waited.
It amounted to tense boredom. Steve kept Neal in sight most of the time, using him to ground himself, and as a blatant distraction. He had too much time to think, to sort out what he'd seen, and to bludgeon himself with it. They used part of the next day to go over the pieces of what Steve had seen in other lines, what common denominators they had. Patterns would surface, and they'd be stupid not to use them.
They were careful with him. Not because they feared him. Because he was hurt, because he'd seen things he couldn't tolerate. Because he'd done something he couldn't be blamed for but was wearing anyway. He was almost constantly silent, a shadow that hung at the edge of everything and had to be purposely drawn into conversation. He wasn't sulking. He was hurt.
Ross, Deen and Aug would be at Jon's at the end of the week so they could begin rehearsals for the album again, and Jon and Neal began planning for that, setting up a schedule. To go on with the every day things was a relief, meant they figured there'd be another day, another week, another year ahead of them.
"Aug?" Steve said. "You guys call him 'Aug'?"
Jon glanced at him. "Yeah."
"His name's Steve," Steve said.
"Yeah," Jon said, glad the singer was talking but able to hear a very faint smugness underneath.
"Try and be original," Neal said. "There's a thousand folks on the 'net, goin' on and on about it. Augeri, rhymes with Perry, yeah his name's Steve. You got anything really good to add?"
Steve raised his eyebrows.
"I didn't think so," Neal said. Then Steve's eyes widened a little and he stiffened with amazement, surprised into doing nothing but staring, opening his mouth to say something that wouldn't come. Neal was already turning to look.
Siarion stood in the kitchen, watching them.
Jon recovered first, standing and folding his arms. "You the genuine article?" he said. "Or you just another fan?"
"The Er Rai is still sentient," she said.
"The last time I checked," Neal said.
"Put him back in the circle," she said flatly.
"I'm not going to," Neal said. "Eventually, yeah, when we're old and we're done with this life. If I'm the only way he gets put back in the circle, I can understand that. But I'm not gonna kill him, now, just because you say so. You gonna try and make me?"
She eyed him speculatively, then let her eyes travel over his shoulder to Steve. "It's only a matter of how quick I am," she said. "I don't need to make you do anything. It's the Inverse I can't do anything about." She turned to look at Jon. "I don't suppose you'll see reason?"
"No," Jon said flatly.
"You'll change your mind," she said. "When the Ender gets hold of the Er Rai and reorders Existence, you'll think back on this. When you go back to yourself, you'll think otherwise." She looked at Steve again. "When the distant Er Rai finds you, it'll be no better." She looked at Neal. "It'll go on murdering all of you until it's put to rest. I can't warn you any more plainly than that."
"It," Neal said.
"The Er Rai," Siarion said. "It's only been sentient for three of your lifetimes, another error, another cruelty. If you won't put it back, then the namers are right to shove you at each other. No matter what, the Ender can't have it. I think you realize that."
"Whose side are you on?" Jon said.
"There are no sides, Jon," she said. "Things are the way they are."
"You can't wander in and threaten us, without explaining why," Jon said.
"There are no threats," she said. "I've only been instructed to assist you in putting the Er Rai back where he belongs, but I'll remove all three of you, if I have to. Nightbringer means a variety of things, to a variety of people. You can't watch all sides forever."
"Get out," Neal said.
She let her eyes stray over Neal's shoulder again briefly, and they knew she was trying to decide who was faster.
"Try it," Neal said softly. "Between me and the Inverse, your life is gonna be fuckin' hell, if you touch him."
"You'll change your mind," she said.
Then she was gone.
* * *