Close your eyes and think, forever.
--Journey, All The Way

Memory Bound Chapter XVI
(c)2001 B Stearns
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Warning: More of the same.
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Steve let the desert waver back to coherency in his vision, consciously trying to feel the sand under his feet, and he couldn't. He wanted the illusion that the world was solid to snap back into place, grateful when it finally began to. Broken into its true component parts, it was too much for him to look at without a point of reference. It wasn't anything like the first time he'd done it, and he didn't know why. He turned his head slowly and found himself folded to the desert floor, grains of sand digging into one palm. They were cold and he marveled at that until he heard an unfamiliar voice say, "Jesus, Steve. Where are you?"

But it wasn't unfamiliar, it was Aug. The other singer was on the ground with him, gripping his shoulders, trying to get his attention. Steve centered on Aug, and it felt like the ball on a roulette wheel finally finding the slot that centrifugal motion had decided for it.

Neal and Aug were staring at him. Neal's expression was a solemn amazement, but Aug was openly gaping.

"Jon and Deen aren't here," Steve said softly. "But Ross is. The Wisps are still around -- in the Outlands, now -- and the damn Sedhi, and the daywraiths. Lots of other stuff, too. But we still got a few stray standard-issue wraiths, underground, somewhere below us. Between them and the Sedhi, no wonder the Wisps finally cleared out."

Neal nodded, trying to clear the tension out of his thoughts. "How long before we get visitors, then?"

Steve shrugged. "No one's gonna be happy to see me back here. If they do come, it'll be to clear us out, and nobody's close enough to walk it by the Turning. Unless they've been boning up on their flying, around here."

"How close is Ross?" Neal said.

"Maybe an hour off," Steve said. "He knows where we are now. Mr. Illusion doesn't have to worry about the local flora and fauna. We need to let him catch up to us."

"Might be dark by then," Neal said, checking the sun's position.

"So where are Jon and Deen?" Aug said.

"Somewhere in the timelines," Steve said, "...but I don't remember them."

Aug looked at Steve for a moment, then decided not to voice the question aloud. He didn't need to, but he wasn't used to that, either.

"He's not living a linear existence right now, Aug," Neal said.

"Remember is the best word that fits," Steve said. "They could be anywhere." He looked at Neal. "Too many possibilities. There has to be some way of whittling them down."

"When you say timeline," Aug said, "are we talking just times, possibilities split from this world, or placelines too?"

Steve squinted at Aug for a moment, then looked at Neal. "I like him better all the time."

"He catches on quick," Neal said. Aug rolled his eyes.

"I don't know," Steve said to Aug. "Good point, bad idea. The Evenwhen is all places and times, and pretty much all the lines run through there sooner or later. It's like the hub of a wheel that goes on forever and has no shape."

Aug nodded.

"No," Steve said, "don't even try and pretend you understood what I just said. You gotta see it. It isn't something anyone can explain to you. One of my main goals in life right now is making sure you never see it, because once you've had your head in there, you're fucked unless the Inverse happens to be standing by."

"Would you have to stick your head in there," Aug said, "to find them?"

Steve paused before answering, and Aug only picked up enough to know that the other two men were rattled, something he could have discerned from their expressions and behavior alone.

"Ideally," Steve said, "it would have taken Neal, focusing on a point. But that's when he knows where he's headed, or when. This is like wholesale rummaging."

*Neal, they got us. They got us.*

*Maybe it just looks that way, maybe we haven't thought of everything,* Neal thought, but deep down he knew better, and conveyed it back to Steve.

"Needle in a haystack," Aug said.

"Except the haystack is a multiverse," Steve said. "And it's made of needles."

Aug let himself feel helpless for a moment, then said, "Then...?"

Neal and Steve shared a glance. "If we were...tangled," Neal said. "Steve's like a key to everything, and I'm the one who can get around. Together we'd be like an antenna that the right ears could hear. We'd be able to really focus, go anywhere, anytime."

Aug stared at them in disbelief. "Really," he said. They'd explained the walker thing. They'd tried explaining the Er Rai thing. This was too much.

"Really," Neal said.

"There's a problem with this?" Aug said, his tone impatient.

"Two, actually," Steve said. "That antenna won't just hit the right ears. We'd be opening ourselves up for a lot of shit. And...well, let's just say there's only a couple of things that would really tangle me and Neal together the way we'd need to be. Or so we understand." He looked pointedly at Aug and thought, very clearly, *Don't make me say it.*

Aug got part of the idea, but still looked dumbfounded. "I'm working on it, you guys," he said. "I'm standing here in the middle of a desert on another fucking world talking about the multiverse. What, death and taxes?"

"You got one right," Neal muttered.

"And the other one involves screwing, I guess," Steve said.

Aug's eyes widened a little and went blank. "Aw, fuck," he said softly.

"Yeah," Steve said. "Something like that."

"There's gotta be another way," Aug said. "I mean..."

"I know what you mean," Steve said.

Aug passed his hands across his face, avoiding their eyes. He felt like he had no right to know what he did.

"I might be able to find Jon on my own," Steve said. "We're still connected. But Deen, because he hasn't been with you guys that long...not even you guys know him well enough to really 'hear' him. They could be anywhere. They could be in a lot of trouble." He looked at Neal again, and they stared at each other longer than was socially acceptable in the world they'd come from. Steve broke away to glance at Aug and thought, *Aren't we lucky he doesn't really 'hear' us yet?*

*We can't send him wandering around out here on his own,* Neal thought, watching Steve raise his eyebrows. That Neal was even coming that close to acknowledging what they were headed towards was amazing to him.

*No, by all means,* Steve thought sarcastically. *Let's let him watch!*

Neal sighed, and Aug looked up.

"I don't blame you," Aug said. "I wouldn't want me in on the conversation, either."

"I'm sorry," Neal said.

"Don't be," Aug said. "How much time you guys think you have, before you have to do...something?"

Steve shrugged, refusing to look at him. Neal lowered his eyes.

"Yeah, well," Aug said, "guess I'll go...uh...have a look around outside, keep watch for Ross."

"If you see anything weird," Steve said, "scream. Don't be brave. We can't hear you think, so don't go getting yourself killed because you don't wanna make a fuss."

Aug nodded.

"There's nothin' close, but don't go anywhere," Neal said. "Place has gotten weirder. We're not babyin' you. This isn't home."

Aug stepped back out of the outcropping again. He craned his neck back to look at the slope of the outcropping as it rose to meet the Turning Wall. It wasn't any lower here, the sheer rock rising into the orange-yellow sky. He thought he could see a few clouds, but he wasn't certain. He was as far from home as he could possibly get, he figured. He was scared as hell, but he had to admit that he wanted to make the most of it while they were there. He could have done without the close calls they'd had so far. They'd escaped, though, and it never occurred to him they would do anything but keep escaping.

I'm too old to be this fucking naive, he thought. If he understood right, Neal and Steve were about to stop being themselves, and that didn't guarantee they'd get Jon and Deen back. There was no guarantee they'd ever get the hell out of there. He knew it, but the words didn't seem like his own, and he wondered where he'd gotten them from.

When is there ever a guarantee about anything? he thought.

"When the guy on TV says, 'or your money back'," a voice said behind him.

Aug startled violently, nearly losing his balance as he tried to turn fast enough to look at whoever was there. Ross laughed and steadied him by the hood of his cloak. "You get what you pay for," the bassist said. "Unfortunately, the admission fee here is non-refundable."

"Jesus," Aug said. "How'd you move that fast?"

"Time comes and goes, here," Ross said. "It seems like it's been awhile, to me. How long's it been for you?"

Aug looked at the position of the sun, and realized it had slipped several degrees further toward the Turning Wall. "I--"

"Time's relative anyway," Ross said. "You guys okay, so far?"

"Yeah," Aug said, taking a few deep breaths and trying to get his heart to quit hammering on his ribs. "I didn't see or hear you. How the hell'd you do that? I've been watching for you."

"You were watching for me," Ross said. "Not for what was out of place. Things are a lot more solid than the last time I was here, but I can still blend in." He jerked his head toward the outcropping. "Still no Jon, or Deen? All I caught was that you guys were lookin' for everybody."

"Steve thinks he and Neal can find them," Aug said, then looked away, uncomfortable.

Ross nodded. "I'll get it from them, then," he said. "You're not out of place, you know."

Aug looked at him sharply, but Ross was already headed toward the overhang. He followed along after a moment.

Neal stood just inside, forearm braced against the stone, facing out into the desert. Ross stopped in front of him and said, "If you're the doorman, I'd hate to see what the bouncer looks like."

"Where'd you get dropped?" Neal said.

"Right next to the rock the Sedhians tried to filet Smitty on," Ross said. "They've moved a little further down, but they still use that rock. I ended up walking though a whole tribe of 'em. They're just as friendly as they were the last time we saw them, but smarter. They've been workin' on their weapons, and they're closer to Wisps than they were before. Not so much an indigenous tribe." He paused. "I think they know we're here, but not where. I couldn't understand them, but they were stirred up. They're up to something. If they knew where we were, they'd be here already."

"Couldn't understand?" Neal echoed.

"There's been a little language development since we saw 'em last," Ross said.

Neal nodded. *Fuckin' great.* Aloud, he said, "I got dropped on the Tower. The singers got stuck inside the Turning Wall, which is hollow, I guess. There's nobody else here but us."

"So I gathered," Ross said. He waited for Neal to say something else, listening to the low hum of embarrassment in the guitarist's thoughts. Neal was avoiding the subject as carefully as he could. "Any idea where they landed?"

Neal shook his head.

"Got a plan for finding out?"

Neal nodded. Knowing Steve's thoughts were closed and that Aug would catch little if any of it, Neal looked straight at Ross then and thought, *It's been comin' for years anyway, hasn't it? I'll need you to take Aug and get away. I don't know what'll happen. I don't even know if it'll work.*

Ross pieced it together, remembering the types of things Neal had been able to do before with only a part of Steve. He caught the undercurrent of the whole thing in Neal's thoughts and whistled softly to himself. He nodded. "You know, depending on how long we're here, it sure as hell wouldn't hurt to get the layout of the area again. Some of it's changed....nice tree back there, by the way."

Aug raised an eyebrow and gripped his walking stick harder. "Did you touch it?" he said to Ross.

"No...I got out of the habit of touching things around here." He walked past Neal, further into the overhang and said to Steve, "You're the noisiest bastard I ever met."

Steve was curled up against the facing wall, his arms around his knees, eyes closed. He opened them, the glow visible in the shadows of the overhang. "Yeah, well, you were a big walking target. How was the trip?"

"The in-flight service sucked," Ross said. "Go figure. I didn't get a sense of any of you, though, on the way through. Never would have known you guys were here if you hadn't come looking." He paused. "You've seen a lot more of the lines than anyone else. How many of them can a guy or two survive in?"

"Not a lot," Steve said. The tone and expression were noncommittal, but even with the singer's thoughts closed Ross knew panic when he saw it.

"But you'd know if anything had happened to at least Jon," Ross said. "And I'm assuming it's okay to walk around saying each other's names with what's-her-face gone."

"Yeah to both," Steve said. "That was just her rule. And I'd know if Jon was hurt, or already dead. So I don't know what kind of time we're lookin' at."

"Sooner the better though, right?"

Steve nodded.

Ross shifted his weight to one foot, hands on hips, uncertain of what to do or say. "This, um...I mean, where should we, uh...set up camp?"

Steve nearly laughed. "Is that what the kids are calling it these days?"

Ross nodded, stepping on a grin. "Stole my line."

"The Wisps are gone," Steve said. "I'm thinkin'...it was fine when I was there a little bit ago. If we're gonna set up camp, that's a real good place to do it, or the best we're gonna find." *Keepers or no Keepers.*

* * *

The Turning came, and they retreated to the back of the overhang to wait it out. They didn't light a fire because of what Ross had said about the Sedhi and how stirred up they were. Those who could doze did. Those who couldn't stared out into the dark and mulled the situation over endlessly.

Steve offered to keep first watch, then amended it to say he might as well have every watch. He wouldn't be in danger of falling asleep.

Hours passed, or it felt like it, and Steve began to wonder about how wise it was to not have made it to the Wisp caves before dark. Who knew what the hell was happening to Jon or Deen? What if the Ender --

The thoughts were wiped away when the light caught his attention. The absolute darkness was changing by slow degrees, and at first he thought it was the Turning. He rose and stood at the mouth of the overhang, watching, and a few moments later his amazement woke everyone.

*It's blue. God, it's blue, and I can see it!*

Ross came to stand by him first, staring. Then Neal and Aug saw for themselves.

The horizon they faced was brightening with blue luminescence, not nearly enough to call daylight but enough to see by. An edge of something began to crest it, a distant spherical shape that shone with its own light, burning, no bigger than the span of a hand held out at arm's length.

*That's no moon,* Ross thought. *No way.*

*Not a star either,* Steve thought. "It's...wow."

"It's enough to travel by," Ross said. "If there's still Keepers around, it's too much light for them."

The light crept along the desert landscape. After a few more minutes of deliberation, so did they.

* * *

They made good time in the dimness, losing sight of the overhang quickly. They estimated they'd been traveling for maybe ten minutes or so when shapes came out of the dark.

This time, there'd been no feeling of being followed. One moment they were the only life in the landscape, and the next a group of figures had hemmed them against the wall in a half-circle, keeping a distance of only twenty yards or so. Two-legged humanoid figures with weapons. Sedhians.

*Welcome wagon,* Ross thought. They all drew closer together, waiting. Watching for movement they could try to dodge.

One Sedhian raised his spear, leveling it at the shoulder, the motion quick and sure. No precursor, no change in the expression on his face, just drawing the weapon back with the weight of his body shifting to find his center of gravity. Ross had made the decision to reach for Aug, to pull him down, and had time to begin putting a hand out. Aug had time to cringe, nothing more, when Steve put his hands up. Palms outward towards the Sedhians, the singer made a slashing motion at the ground, and the spear was twisted back out of the hunter's grip.

It clattered to the cracked desert floor, and the hunter straightened, what they could see of his face never changing expression. The others glanced from the spear to the Otherworlders, their faces calculating.

No one spoke. There was a breeze whistling past their ears, the only sound in the desolation.

The hunter who'd lost his spear said something that no one understood at first; the language had changed. The tone of voice was a flat statement. But Steve's thoughts were open, and after a moment he understood without questioning himself as to why.

"Yeah," Steve said. "You could say we're not from around here. Now go play on the other side of the sandbox."

The hunter said something else, and Ross thought, *What the...?*

*The frequency's changed a little,* Steve thought. *I'm getting it, though. If you guys listen, I think you'll catch on after awhile.* Aloud, he said, "No one you need to worry about. Go on, or I'll give you a reason."

Another hunter came forward, this one with a half-cape made of some unidentified animal. His spear came to his shoulder as well, and this time Steve put a little more into it than he intended. The wood of the spear splintered, slicing into the Sedhian's hand. The Sedhian was knocked to the ground and lay staring at the remnants of the weapon and the blood on his hand with a dull confusion.

Stepping forward, the first Sedhian said something in a more demanding voice. The others drew themselves up a little, faces defiant, weapons brought to the ready.

"Shit," Aug murmured, "even I understand that."

"I can," Steve said to the Sedhian, answering him while trying to keep a tremble out of his voice. Stop, stop pushing me! "Because I'm the Er Rai."

The Sedhians froze. The lead hunter showed a moment of surprise that turned to contempt. He spat into the dust and jerked his head at Steve, rattling something off.

"They want Steve to show them the bird," Neal said. Then he smiled with weak humor. "Some kind of bird, anyway."

"No," Ross said. "It'd take them a heartbeat to put an arrow through you."

"I don't need to prove myself to you," Steve said to the Sedhi. "I'm all done warning you. Go find somethin' else to do."

The Sedhians didn't move. Steve thought, *Start walking.*

"No," Ross said.

Steve said, "Start walking and make yourselves invisible." *Get Aug out of here before they make an example of him.* "Me and Neal are gonna cause a distraction."

Ross sighed through his nose and glanced at Aug, who was watching the Sedhi with guarded interest. Steve was thinking about the piano slide and the size of Aug's heart. Ross grabbed the back of Aug's cloak.

Aug looked startled. "We're not --"

"Leaving them, no," Ross said. "But we're too much of a target standing in a group like this, and we know these guys." *You're out of step,* he thought to Steve and Neal. *Watch it.*

When Steve glanced back, they were gone into the open space of the desert, lost in the camouflage of Ross' talents. An involuntary wave of unease passed through the Sedhi.

*You're not gonna let them shoot you again, to get you pissed,* Neal thought.

Steve shook his head a little. The Sedhian said something that they both understood this time.

"They weren't real."

"No," Steve said. "They weren't. We're probably not real, either. Or maybe we're...." he paused, about to say daywraith, but figuring they wouldn't understand. He took a slow breath and thought about the tree, about the roots that ran even beneath the desert. There was a counter melody playing somewhere behind the time signature of the place, and he tried to settle his thoughts enough to listen. After a long moment, long enough that the Sedhian thought Steve might be ignoring him, Steve said, "Shaitan."

The Sedhi seemed to settle back on their feet, eyes shining in the desert light. One or two of them drew back a little.

"The shaitan don't speak," the Sedhian said, but his tone was mildly uncertain.

"Maybe we've just chosen not to speak to you, until now," Steve said. "Maybe you're imagining the whole thing. Maybe we've already eaten you and you're dreaming. You're not sure what we are, so you should just move along."

"You're on our land," the Sedhian said.

"I got news for you, asshole," Steve said.

*Don't,* Neal thought quickly. *Don't say it. That's ours, and you don't want 'em understanding it. Telling 'em you're the Er Rai is enough.*

Steve heeded the thought and said, "I walk wherever the hell I want. I've just shown you what'll happen if you keep this bullshit up. It's your choice, I guess."

The standoff went on for another long, tense moment. There were more spears than there were current or former Journey members, and everyone was acutely aware of it.

Then one Sedhian backed away. "We'll be back," he said. "With many more."

"We'll be gone by then," Steve said. "Don't risk your whole tribe on a dare, asshole."

One by one, the Sedhians backed away, melting into the shadows further back along the Turning Wall. They heard nothing, but they could feel they were alone again, that the Sedhians had truly left. Aug and Ross showed themselves again a few feet to Neal's left.

Neal turned his head, knowing exactly where Steve was, realizing how close they'd come to being killed. The singer had his thoughts open and was already staring back. The look on his face would already have been enough, without the intensity of overheard emotion behind it. It was bad enough that there was no hiding it from Ross or Aug. Had they been alone, something rough and most likely regrettable would have happened. Easily. It was in Steve's thoughts, in his eyes, in the way he was standing.

Neal snapped his eyes to Ross with an effort, silently willing the bassist not to move, not even to turn away. He couldn't even dredge up embarrassment for what was running through his mind. He could feel Steve's gaze still resting on him and was careful not to go on returning it. He felt out of control.

*Jesus, Valory, now's the time to make some totally inappropriate comment and snap us out of this,* he thought desperately.

Ross cleared his throat. "How 'bout them 49ers?" he said. Aug sighed nervously.

The silence was awful. Steve turned suddenly and walked away from them, trying to put a little distance between him and Neal.

"Tough room," Ross said. *You guys'll get the Nobel Prize for splitting atoms without any scientific equipment.*

*Can't let 'em do this to us,* Neal thought. The sudden distance helped, but didn't do its job, and he felt things slip another notch. *It's our decision.*

*Choosing between letting Jon and Deen go on missing or keeping our...* Steve didn't finish the thought, didn't need to, couldn't find a word and settled for the concept. *That's a decision?*

*We're out of time,* Neal thought. He wished he could have closed his thoughts, or at least found a way of closing Ross and Aug out of it. Aug was getting very little, but the sympathy on his face was nothing compared to the sympathy in Ross' thoughts. *You're gonna be runnin' from me soon, too, there'll be one more bad memory tied to my face, if we let this go on much longer.*

They dropped the conversation and headed back in the direction of the caves again, hugging the wall, making use of the rocks as shields. They watched their backs warily. Nothing else external bothered them, but...

*They're gonna follow us,* Steve thought. *We can't keep running. We'll have to make a stand at the caves.*

*They can't touch us,* Neal thought. *You -- *

*No!* Steve thought forcefully, going so far as to pause to stare at Neal. *It's easier over here, but it was lucky I didn't really do anybody damage back there. I could lose it, really lose it if they attack us. I don't wanna kill anyone else!*

*You don't have to,* Ross thought. *You just have to be careful. You can warn 'em off, Steve.*

Aug cleared his throat a little, wrapping himself tighter in the cloak.

"Sorry Aug," Neal said.

"Nah," Aug said. "If it's as intense as it seems without me really being able to hear you, I'm glad I'm not in it."

They moved on in silence, the argument still ringing between them. After a few minutes, Ross thought, *It seems further than it did when the Sedhians grabbed Smith.*

"It probably is further," Steve said softly.

They reached the caves roughly half an hour after that, pausing outside to listen, watching the eerie blue light reflect off the small pool nearby. Nothing came out after them, and Steve couldn't hear any Keepers. Ross melted into the dark, vanishing from sight and into the mouth of the largest cave, the one the Wisps had originally brought them to when they'd been attacked by Keepers. There was little to see outside what little of the blue light made it inside, and his search was short.

*They left a bit of wood, before they cleared out,* Ross thought.

*Doesn't matter who sees it,* Neal thought. *Let's make a fire and check the place out.*

Scattered in a corner close to what was left of the wood were stones that Ross identified as flint or a close equivalent. They found just enough dry grass sprouting between the boulders along the base of the Turning Wall to set a spark into. They dug some sand out right at the mouth of the cave, and gathered enough stones to make a decent ring. It took several long tries and a bit of cursing, but Ross managed to get a fire started at the mouth of the cave.

Once they were sure it would stay lit, they investigated a little. There wasn't much beyond what Steve had seen earlier in the day. In the back of the cave, another opening branched off, sloping down sharply and turning.

"Somebody can come up behind us, through there," Ross said. "No telling where that comes out, or if someone's down there." He walked into the back of the cave and looked up, reacting to a little bit of light that his eyes noticed. There was a ventilation hole in the ceiling that he could see a bit of sky through.

"How the hell'd they do that?" Neal said, joining him.

Ross shrugged. "Look how ragged it is. Could be natural, from an old water drip or something. It goes at an angle and comes out the face of the Turning Wall. Point is, if we wanna make sure no more unfriendlies come to visit in the dark, we need to block this other entrance. Fire seems like a good idea. This vent'll keep us from worrying about the smoke."

Neal nodded. "We have enough wood for it?"

"Seems like they left a pretty good store behind," Ross said. "If we're careful, yeah. And if not, well, we got a spare singer we could throw on it."

They looked over at Steve and Aug, who were both stacking the scattered wood and watching the dark.

"They're not paying any attention to us," Ross said.

"No, they're not," Neal said, and went out to gather more of the rough grass from between the rocks to start the second fire.

Once it was set, they settled into the berths, talking quietly and watching the dark. Aug and Ross dozed again for awhile shortly before the Turning, once the blue light had faded. The dwarf, or planet, or whatever it was, set behind the Turning Wall. Steve and Neal sat awake in the silence together, not too far apart, not too close, trying not to directly address what was coming.

The Turning came awhile later, rapid and bright after so long in the dimness, and Ross awoke and jostled Aug awake. It took the singer a long moment to realize where he really was, to remember it all.

They banked the fires down a little, but not enough that they wouldn't deter something large trying to get through. The longer they waited, the more awkward it got, and finally Ross said, "Okay. Somebody's gotta watch for the locals. Aug, you game?"

Aug nodded, hazarding a glance at Steve and Neal, who were carefully blank. "See you guys later," he said. "We'll yell if things get weird out there."

Before he could stop it, Ross made an internal comment about how weird things were going to get in there. Aug walked past him and out into the morning, looking at the still face of the pond.

"You," Ross said to Steve, "look like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs."

Steve turned his head slowly to look at Ross, really look at him, and Ross shifted under that gaze.

"Looks like it's all rocking chairs from here on out," Steve said softly.

Ross said, "Good luck, you guys," and there wasn't a trace of flippant humor in it. He meant it.

Steve nodded again without looking at him, and Ross went back outside and gestured at Aug. "Let's go toss the place, see if we can get ourselves thrown out." To Neal he said, "You guys let us know when Jon and Deen get here."

Neal nodded. He appreciated the fact that Ross had referred to it as a done deal. He tossed a wave at Aug and raised his voice. "Don't molest any more trees," he said.

"Yeah, 'cause they molest back, around here," Ross said, turning and walking away, parallel with the Turning Wall. Aug stood for another awkward moment, staring at Neal with a shrug.

"We'll be here," Neal said.

Aug nodded and went off after Ross, the walking stick over his shoulder. They were all treating it like it was no problem because that was the only way to handle it.

Neal watched them walk off, and watched Ross lay a hand on Aug's shoulder. They were both invisible after that. Neal walked back into the caves and paused directly in front of Steve's berth. Steve didn't look up, just acknowledged the rough feel of shape and presence that made Neal who he was.

"You're still thinkin' of just opening your thoughts all the way again to see if it'll work," Neal said.

They were both silent for a long moment. Then Steve stood and said, "Jon was able to use it, when I did that before. I just don't know if it would work outside -- " he made an all-encompassing gesture with his arms. " -- this world."

"It's more across timelines," Neal said. "And for that, you'd need me. You open your thoughts that wide again, anything could jump in. Anything."

The suggestion was blatant; there was no telling how long they had before the Ender found them.

"Which leaves us with what?" Steve snapped. "Feelin' our way around, pun intended?"

"You're a walking gate," Neal said with what little patience he still had a grip on. "Without Jon, there's no way to untangle you from whatever comes down the pike. You'll announce us to Existence. If we've been gettin' pushed in that direction anyway, chances are that's what someone's waitin' for. I'm not about to risk it."

"Are you gonna try on your own, then?" Steve said. "That's not leaving yourself open?"

"I'm not the Er Rai."

"But the Er Rai would do goddamn near anything to get you back, if you were grabbed again," Steve said. He stared at Neal long enough to make sure his point had been made, then turned abruptly away.

Neal reached out and caught Steve's elbow, spinning him back around roughly and bringing him too close. "If you thought it was us," Neal said, "it would already be done, wouldn't it?"

Then he released Steve, who backed away from him slowly.

"You remember, don't you," Neal said softly.

Steve knew what he was talking about and refused to answer verbally. The way he was standing was a scream in itself, and Neal suddenly felt like he was feeling around in a dark space that was full of hair-trigger traps that would break his fingers and more. The singer's eyes had fixed blankly on him, and he struggled not to look away.

"I'm gonna find out," Neal said. "And I won't like it. But I'll deal with it, like you've had to."

"You don't want that in your head," Steve said, and his voice was wooden, almost expressionless. "You don't wanna know."

"Steve -- "

"You fuckin' murdered me," Steve snarled, the facade slipping. "I don't want you in my head. Not again."

"I won't hurt you," Neal said suddenly. "I'll be gentle."

Steve froze, locking up, closing his eyes. Ceasing to breathe. The words startled him, caught him off guard to the point of being unable to move. Neal waited to see if he was gathering himself or just reacting, because he couldn't read the singer suddenly. He hadn't known the words were there, had merely said them on impulse even though he'd meant them.

"It isn't just the physical part of it," Steve said, voice shallow.

"I'm not talking about just the physical part of it," Neal whispered.

"I don't have a switch, anymore, Neal," Steve said. "You sure I won't hurt you?"

The words were hurled like an accusation, and a mental image of tiled floors scattered with glass and blood came with it.

"You gotta understand," Neal said. "I got no fear of you, Perry."

"Believing ain't enough to save you," Steve whispered.

"Yeah it is," Neal said. "I think it's more than enough, with you."

There was silence for a moment. Then Neal said, "Got no choice, except me...and him."

The singer looked out the stone entranceway. "And what're you gonna do, to get in? Kill me or fuck me?"

Neal said, "You mean, which am I gonna do first," Neal said. He grinned when Steve looked back at him, then saw his expression.

"You mean," Steve said quietly, "which do I want you to do first."

Neal looked away. "Knock it off. I ain't killin' you." Another grin, without humor. "Yet."

"I don't know how this works," Steve said wearily. "I don't know how much of me you'd get, that way."

"Would you knock it off?" Neal said. *I already know you're scared. Christ, how do you think I feel?*

*You don't know,* Steve thought. *You don't.*

*Bullshit. If it works, I'm gonna be letting you in just as much. What do you want?*

*That's a question you'd better be asking youself,* Steve thought. *It's your choice, isn't it?*

*No. What the hell is wrong with you?* Neal paused mid-thought, dropping words in favor of emotion, listening to what Steve didn't say. He took a shaky breath. "Shit," he said aloud.

Steve shook his head. "We don't have all the time it would take to really hash this out," he said. "So make up your mind."

"I didn't hurt you the last time we were tangled," Neal said.

*So what?* Steve thought. *You didn't have me, you didn't get in!*

"Is that what you're worried about?" Neal said, then immediately felt stupid. He already knew what Steve was worried about, what they both were, but he'd had to resort to the old patterns, to try to drag things out. It was amazing what you could still hide even if someone knew your every thought.

"It probably doesn't have to be permanent," Neal said. "Hell, they sure didn't want us left tangled before. Which brings up another point, about why the hell anyone would push us toward this in the first place. So if the thought is really that horrible to you, I'm sure we'll be able to find a way to reverse it."

Steve ignored the defensiveness in Neal's tone and thought, *Is that your standard prenup agreement? No wonder you can't seem to stay married.*

Neal stared at him in stunned silence, unable even to think. Then he laughed. "Asshole."

"That your final analysis?" Steve said, folding his arms and leaning against the wall.

"Yeah," Neal said. "At least I've tried."

"Some of us know better ahead of time, and don't fuck around with what we know we're not good at," Steve said, but the hum of thought beneath it was sad. "What if it doesn't work?"

Neal looked at him for a moment, just looked, trying to keep his thoughts still and failing. *Then we fucked each other, got it out of the way, and came up with somethin' else.*

"There isn't anything else," Steve said wearily. "Somebody cornered us, here, and we let 'em."

*We can treat it like we're being forced, or we can choose it,* Neal thought. *There's no way you're that scared of me.* He paused. "Who better than me? You would have been okay with it twenty years ago."

Steve laughed. "You startled it out of me, y'know? Jon is gonna be so pissed." He paused. "You happen to be walking around with any protection on you?"

"No," Neal said with a smirk. "What, ready for action in any dimension?"

"Is that the title of the new album?"

Neal laughed. "No. But if Ross was still here, I'm sure he could--"

Steve stuck his fingers in his ears and said, "La la la, I can't hear you."

"Yeah, you can," Neal said. "Christ, I can't believe we're standing here talking about this out loud. You know where I've been."

"Yeah, don't I," Steve muttered. "That's my point."

"Fuck you," Neal said without heat.

"That seems to be where we're headed," Steve said. Then they looked at each other and laughed. The tone of it was nervous, but it was genuine laughter.

"So this is your idea of foreplay, huh?" Neal said. "No fuckin' wonder no one stays with you for more than a few years at a shot."

Steve narrowed his eyes as if weathering a blow, mouthing a long, silent ooooh. Then he grinned. "At least you can safely say you'd do anything for Jon," he said. "Not to mention Deen."

"Shut up," Neal said.

Steve shrugged. "Shut me up."

Neal reached forward and grabbed Steve by one arm, pulling him in. Steve tensed but didn't try to counter the move. They were both shaking, but neither had realized it about the other until then.

"I don't know what to do," Neal whispered.

"Yeah, you do," Steve whispered back. "You do. It's different, but you've been thinkin' about it. We're still bein' pushed. Just...let 'em push us."

Neal stared at him for a moment, then moved away before he could lose his nerve. He removed his cloak and moved out of sight of the mouth of the cave, between the wall and one of the berths. It was dimmer there, more private. And the sand, covered by a cloak, would be softer than one of the berths. He spread the cloak out on the ground and stripped his tunic off over his head, aware that it startled Steve even though he couldn't see him.

Neal sat down and held his hands out to Steve in clear invitation. His thoughts were plain, but his expression was carefully blank. Fear, bravado, determination.

Steve stared at Neal, then at the guitarists' hands, and didn't lift his gaze until Neal whispered his name.

"Come on."

A choice.

Steve glanced at the hands again before moving forward and slipping his own into them, letting Neal pull him down, pull him in. Steve straddled him, too-close warmth and reflective eyes.

They stared close at each other, and Neal made a hushing sound as much for himself as for Steve. Then he pulled the singer in and kissed him. Not the way he had more than a week earlier, not the same unintentional onslaught; just enough to keep them both off guard, just enough to fall into.

And the rest of it was that easy.

* * *