Memory Bound Chapter XVII
(c)2001 B Stearns
Jon had given up trying to decide where the hell he was, or when it was. The only reason it mattered was if it helped him get the hell out of there.
He remembered the pulling, remembered trying to reach for everyone else, then nothing for a long while. There'd been a struggle for him, he knew that much. And no clear winner, not even him. He'd been hiding and waiting, and had no idea if anyone was with him or not.
He heard something move again, pressed himself into the ground a little harder. The ground beneath his hands was white and powdery, almost a chalk-like substance. He'd been dropped into a grove of what looked like an ancient form of bamboo, and he'd stayed right where he was at first. It'd been a good idea; something the size of a mini van had passed on his right a few minutes after that, a giant shadow dragging something along with it. By the rank smell of it, he figured it for animal life. Hoped it was only that.
Not that it was any worse than the air, anyway. Breathing it took a little effort, acrid as it was. It'd made his eyes water at first, but he was getting used to it. It was hot, and the oxygen was thin.
Neal will find me, he thought. Somehow. He'd been trying to raise a beacon, trying to make himself obvious, whether it was a good idea or not. No one would have any idea where to start looking, and Jon knew that without a direction to begin with, it would take lifetimes to get centered on him.
Because he was only a blip in Existence. He had no pretensions about considering himself more than that. He knew better.
He wasn't prepared when it hit; he hadn't been prepared for what had happened to him when Steve had been shoved off a curb nearly a month earlier. This was much the same, only magnified.
One moment he was trying to simultaneously make himself physically invisible and psychically obvious; the next he was trying to stay conscious and sane. Had he been standing, he would have fallen. As it was, he tried to roll himself into a ball when a wave that was physical and emotional slammed into him and destroyed his perspective. He was entering and being entered, giving and taking, and it wouldn't stop. He didn't want it to, he couldn't stand it, couldn't live through it and couldn't live without it. It tore him apart and put him back together again, and he was arching his back and tearing at the ground, murdered and given birth to. The word orgasm didn't even come close to describing it; it might have been that at the start, but by the time it reached Jon it was a shuddering scream of feedback that threatened to absorb him.
And he screamed.
It was just as involuntary when he turned the wave back on itself, reversing it, collapsing it like a chain of dominoes. Another echo of it hit him regardless; whatever it was, it was ricocheting. Jon curled back into a ball, turning it back on itself several times.
Another aftershock struck him, nothing like the first but still powerful enough to keep him pressed against the ground, clutching at it. He felt singed; his skin tingled in small, spreading shocks while he tried to reverse the effects by degrees, tried to put himself back together.
He knew he hadn't been attacked, that he was vicariously living something, and didn't dare try and reason it out. He'd stopped it from going further, from shredding him, and had managed to nullify it. He lay in the grass and sobbed for breath.
And made himself an easy target.
* * *
"Let it settle," Neal whispered again. "Hold still, and let it settle."
Steve left his eyes closed, let Neal hold him. It was holding and being held, and the whisper had been as much his as Neal's.
It had worked.
A little too well.
At first, there'd just been panic, and no way of telling where it'd started. Or with who. There'd been the physical, startling and temporarily painful, more urgent than they'd intended. There was no one moment, no single catalyst that started the chain reaction. Memories of wanting, of being in a similar situation with each other, the present, the past. Caught between allowing entrance and the overwhelming need to hide, Steve panicked and his thoughts slammed completely open.
After that, everything.
Steve kept his eyes tightly shut in the present, felt Neal's arms tighten again. Resolutely, he focused on his breathing and tried to block out everything else. Things had stopped echoing for the moment, and if they held still...
Neither of them had been truly afraid until Steve had opened his eyes and Neal had seen nothing but black and white, and the orange light.
Neal's eyes had been closed.
Thoughts alone wouldn't have done that, wouldn't have let one feel/see/hear everything the other did. To Steve, Neal should have been the warmth of skin and bone and muscle stretched along his back, tangled with his legs, a presence of breath on his neck. But the guitarist was also warmth stretched along his front, spine against his chest, ass pressed against his groin, legs tangled --
One's perceptions led into the other's, skin on skin, an unending tangle of sensation that echoed until neither knew where one stopped and the other began.
Shutting thoughts made no difference. An attempt to roll away made no difference. No hiding, no turning away, no going back.
He heard the curse before it left Neal's mouth. "Shit..." Steve shut his eyes, tight, stayed against the ground and in that warmth, trembling, as the sensations hit again, and fed back on each other. He felt/heard/felt again the whimper rise up in his throat, even as Neal's arms tightened around him, pulled him back and up to a partial sit, skin against skin...not just the sensations, but their echoes, on and on...
Other things made a slow comeback; the light, the discomfort of sand and rock poking in the wrong places, the scent of smoke from two fires. Every new thing that was noticed, every sense that kicked in meant a fresh wave of panic when felt from two perspectives that had been one.
They didn't recognize each other. They didn't recognize themselves anymore. Every sensation was an assault that fed back on itself and ricocheted between them.
More often than not, panic held sway, and after the first attempt at escape Steve had learned to hold still. The loss of physical contact for that brief moment had been awful, had left them both feeling more exposed than they could bear.
"Easy," Neal murmured, and Steve felt the fear and shock under it, knew Neal was speaking as much to calm himself as to calm Steve, and the knowing trembled through both of them. "Easy. Ride it out. Just like --" and the words died away, as the thought/image went through them, of the sex. It had been like that, a feedback loop that had taken forever to end, had just built and built...
They went on talking each other down, never calm, never in a panic. Holding.
* * *
Jonathan Cain, December, 1999
I don't know what my problem is.
I do, but I guess I don't see any point in going on about it. I was deadly serious when I said a band is like a marriage. You've got the commitment thing, and the compromise thing, and the petty stuff and the joy and who knows what else. It's not a working relationship. They're not coworkers. So when stuff happens to them, it's like stuff happening to your family.
Now, me and Neal, we hit it off right away. It was almost scary. I saw him first during the Evolution tour. The girl I was with at the time was a Journey fan, so I took her when they came by.
Let me admit now that I didn't really care that much for the whole setup.
They didn't have much direction. You could kind of tell who was trying to get the reins of the thing, but he was still too new and trying to find center. Too many ideas flying around, no focus. Neal had no interest in any of that shit, he was there to play and politics have never been his thing. Smitty was new and just hitting his stride. And Gregg was beginning to think he was sick of touring. So that left Ross, who cares as much about running an outfit as Neal does. It's your life but that doesn't mean you want control of everything, right?
So how funny was it when the Babys got the gig to open for these guys on the Departure tour? Very. I remember thinking, oh no, what kind of mess are we into now, because Journey was midrange successful by then. The 80's had hit and the world was changing, and there was no place for Journey in it. It was all British new wave and punk and the very beginnings of techno. They were wide open. They had the singer and the musicianship and a lot of market potential.
But no heart.
I knew the Babys were headed for a dive by then -- John was getting fuckin' impossible to live with -- but we packed up and started a pissing contest with Journey. I started it, I'll admit it now. It wasn't like me, not really, not at the time. I thought I was tough, sure. But I was never one to start shit. There was just something about the band as a whole that brought out the worst in me. The sight of Perry alone made me obnoxious. I think Neal was starting to get bored by that point -- hell, I know he was. He's admitted as much. They were like a fuse waiting to be lit. It needed some mud thrown on it, it was too pretty. All the right components finally in place, and no kick in the ass to get it going.
So the Babys started putting out higher voltage on stage. Some nights we turned it all the way up. I mean, we were the opening band, so we had nothing to lose. But we made it hard for Journey to come out and slide by.
Some nights, we won.
Me and Neal had a couple of conversations in the staging area, a few jam sessions at soundcheck when John was late showing up. As into himself and the music as Neal was onstage, he was twice as outgoing off. I never met anybody as...
Steve said it, once. As relentless. And he still is. He's gonna be 80-something one day, and still relentless. Neal found out I played guitar, and his eyes lit up. I didn't realize then that he and Gregg had been talking about Gregg moving on, and that I would be a good fit. Next thing I know, I'm getting pulled aside and hearing cryptic remarks about how I should be in Journey. I didn't really believe it. Me and Neal ended up hanging out together almost exclusively. We found we had a lot in common. We clicked.
Just after the tour ended, the Babys fell apart and the next thing I know I'm being offered Gregg's spot in Journey. Christ. I never would've planned it that way, it didn't occur to me. The truth is, they were bigger than I thought I deserved. Or could pull off at the time. I had some confidence, but not that much. I saw the possibility, and Neal was adamant. So I did it. And the fuse finally got lit.
This isn't the part where I become an egotistical asshole in retrospect and claim it was my doing. It was the right combination at the right time, that's all. We didn't realize at the time what other fuses we lit. Certain pieces found each other in the dark, and the whole picture screamed to be stared at. And we got stared at, on levels I don't even understand yet.
If I'd known ahead of time, I'm not sure what I would've done. I can't honestly say I'd have stayed away from these guys. But it's occurred to me. I don't know if it really makes any difference or not, now.
I'm gonna miss Neal. He's alive, and whole, but he and Steve did what they were pushed to do, and the result isn't the Neal I've always known. Maybe I just need to get used to it, because they're the ones who have the most to get used to. There's a small selfish part of me that wants my best friend back. Even if it means losing Steve. I don't like that, I'm ashamed of it, but that's the reptile talking; that primal part of your brain that doesn't entertain political correctness or niceties. The part that clubs your neighbor and moves into his cave without a second thought.
Steve's actually been dead for some time. We all know it. He knows it.
I'm probably avoiding the real issue, going into the history of the band. But the stuff that's tied us together in this world, that made us stumble into each other, is the stuff that ties us together everywhere. That common thread. And that thread's all in a snarl, now, and crosses back over itself, and there's fucking knots in it that I can't untie. Not in this world, not in any world, not in any timeline. And too bad if I don't like it.
I woke up in the roots of a tree, and I knew it was more than just a tree. A lot more. I knew where I was right away, because I recognized Siarion's Tower. I started walking in the direction of the Wisp caves, to what I remembered as Athyri, and Aug and Ross found me not long after. I'll never forget the look on Ross's face. We just knew something had changed forever. I was too goddamn relieved to see them to care about anything else yet. I was still humming from whatever had hit me.
I got the feeling I always will be.
We walked back, watching for Sedhians, and they filled me in on a lot of stuff.
And no one was prepared for what we found. Not really.
* * *
When they could stand it, they moved by degrees, trying to coordinate. It was slow and ungainly, but the panic began to fade so long as they didn't move too quickly. If they did, the dizziness was enough to force them to regroup. Finally, discarded clothing was retrieved, the sand shaken out. And then Steve thought about the pool outside. The attempt of the thought itself was like surfacing out of deep water.
Nothing stirred outside the confines of the cave. They had no idea where Aug and Ross had gone. They had no idea about a lot of things, but once it all settled...
They knew without saying, or even directly thinking it; Jon had been pulled in.
Steve got brave enough to get several steps away before he had to center on Neal again to alleviate the disorientation. The guitarist sat on the edge of one of the berths, watching him with trepidation.
"Not sure you wanna do that yet," Neal said, and underneath it was not sure I want you to.
"Gotta get used to movin' around," Steve said, nearly over the top of that. The idea came long before words, so that words, once spoken, were already behind and out of order. He didn't want to get more than a few feet from Neal, yet. But he had to. The Sedhians would be back. There was still an impulse to run like hell, and by unspoken mutual agreement they knew they had to keep him from doing it. The panic lay just under the surface all the time, and balancing it took constant vigilance.
Steve made it to the arch of the entranceway and looked out across the sand. It was a rolling expanse of gray and orange that ended abruptly when the land did, a few hundred yards away, opposite the Turning. Beyond where the fence had been. He remembered seeing it from above, as the raven. There was a curve of stone not far from that edge, a short wall with ragged edges that looked as if it had grown from the dry, cracked earth. He'd seen that from above, too, and had paid little attention to it. If anything came at them from along the Turning Wall, their only escape route was further along the Wall, constantly hemmed in on one side by the cliff edge until it tapered downward to the valley he and Aug had walked out of after leaving the waterfall.
The abruptly, he couldn't stand it anymore, and he turned to walk back into the cave and returned to his berth. The moment he got within feet of Neal again, the relief was enough to buckle his knees.
Neal sat across from him and met his gaze, recognizing the relief but not as his own. Steve was staring at him unblinking, looking faintly amazed. They were still shellshocked, but some of the sharpness of it was beginning to dull. The denial of it was beginning to fade.
The moment their eyes met, there was a disorienting trade-off of sensation; Neal saw Steve, then himself through Steve's eyes, then Steve again, on and on, until it began falling back on itself. It became a gentle blur, Steve's view of Neal's view of Steve's view of...
Like when you faced two mirrors into each other, and stood between, watching the reflections wander into infinity. Trapped in a loop.
It reminded Steve of his brief view of the Evenwhen, and a corner of his mind touched on it, on being shredded into component parts and understanding...
Neal jerked with an audible gasp, hands flailing out away from his body for purchase even though he was still sitting upright and stationary.
Steve immediately closed his eyes, breaking the loop and what he'd brought to it, releasing Neal with a wave of apology, fighting Neal's panic at the same time. "Sorry," he whispered aloud. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."
The words weren't necessary, not any more, but saying them was a comfort, a habit.
By the time they made it out to the water together, the light had changed a little. Neither of them had any sense of the time passing. Not yet.
It looked like a small oasis, the sand sloping gradually out of sight beneath the water. Nothing stirred the surface. A rinse-off in the shallows presented no danger...
Steve wandered straight into the water, and Neal startled when he felt it crawl up his own ankles, knees, thighs. It wasn't cold, but the feeling of being immersed while on land froze him in place all the same.
Steve heard the confusion and shared it, realized Neal's hesitation with the water.
*It's fine,* he thought.
*You can't be sure,* Neal thought. Then he thought about the tree and the implications of it, and hesitated again. Then he shrugged and followed Steve into the water, sitting in the shallows on the curving sand. He cupped the water in his hands and splashed his face, trying to wash away dust and weariness.
Steve walked in past his waist, up to his chest...
And the sand vanished, dropping him into much deeper water without warning, as if he'd stepped off a cliff.
He managed to take a quick, startled breath before the water closed over his head and he dropped. Why the hell it wasn't cold, he couldn't imagine. He reached out with hands and feet, searching for the bottom, wanting to find it before he kicked for the surface. He could feel Neal breathing above him the way Neal could feel the water now that Steve was under it and could tell he was okay.
And he felt no need for air.
*Is that the water doing that?* Neal thought.
Steve's response was rapid-fire memory and concept without words, a sense of being unsure. There was a memory of what the river water had done to him and Aug, a feeling that the water's cycle through the Nothing at the bottom had affected it...if it cycled back at all. There was amazement that one was breathing for the other. And a little fear.
They both acknowledged that the exchange went a hell of a lot further than what they were used to in that world, a lot further than what they had with anyone else.
Steve hovered where he was, several feet below the surface, not dropping further or floating upward. The water was close to body temp there, soothing. Hidden. Safe.
*You don't know if there's anything in there with you,* Neal thought. *Maybe you should - *
The thought was cut off by a sudden, sharp certainty.
*There's no bottom.*
The thought was barely coherent. It didn't matter who it belonged to.
Neal didn't ask him what it meant, didn't argue, didn't ask for particulars. It was all there, as if it was happening to him, as if the thought really had been his. He felt the water and the surrounding sand, and a momentary glimpse of what ran beneath and kept running. Like the bottom of a waterfall he'd never seen.
*Get out of there,* Neal thought, willing Steve to do as he said, and Steve surfaced. His feet reached the slope of land a moment later, and he accepted Neal's outstretched hand, standing waist deep in the water. The singer slicked his hair back and stared, trying not to vault out of the water altogether. There was no real reason to be afraid. It was just beyond what they were used to, that was all, and he had to keep telling himself that.
They stood and kept contact, staring into the water as if something would move within.
"I don't get it," Neal said aloud.
"Don't matter," Steve said.
They didn't have to speak. They did it to hear each other's voices, and they acknowledged it internally. They didn't hear everything yet, there were too many connections yet to be made, too many corners that had never seen light.
Finally, they moved out of the water and got dressed, one pausing when the other got caught in the first's perceptions. For all intents and purposes, even though they were feet apart, they dressed each other.
* * *
Jon heard Steve and Neal long, long before they reached the caves.
It wasn't a hum, or anything he could describe. There was a sense of someone familiar to him, for only moments at a time two familiar personalities.
Then it would blink into a third, and the other two would vanish.
He had one blinding moment where he wanted to turn back, where he didn't want to see what had happened. Because deep down where he admitted things only to himself, he was afraid of that third personality. He knew it the way it knew him, loved it desperately...
Wanted it dead.
Whatever had hit him had made a tuning fork of his skeleton. His bones went on humming like the dull aftermath of hitting a funnybone, a low buzzing echo he wished he could be free of. If he waited long enough, he had the feeling it would become like tinnitus, a sound only he could hear that he might grow accustomed to except in quiet moments. He needed that to be true, and held onto it.
Ross heard his uncertainty, and that was all. Jon had heard the whole story from him and Aug, and had kept silent throughout. Jon hadn't said anything beyond describing where he'd been dropped, but something intangible had been draped over him and hung from his shoulders just like his cloak did.
Jon glanced at Aug's walking stick again and thought about the tree.
When they came within sight of the caves, Ross thought, *It's only us. Nobody shoot.*
There was an immediate acknowledgment, from two sources, no words attached. No purposeful response.
Aug shifted impatiently. "You guys are scarin' the shit out of me," he said. "You're actin' like there's some monster in there that's gonna lure us in and snap our heads off."
"They've changed," Ross said, without looking at Aug. "I know it looks like that, like we're scared, but it's more like we're not sure if they can handle us approachin' 'em, yet."
Aug looked like he wanted to take issue with that, but he kept quiet. Deadly seriousness from Ross held more weight than it did from most people.
"Not sure," Jon said. "They're okay, but I knew that before you guys found me. I'm gonna..." he paused.
"You up to that?" Ross said.
Jon drew a deep breath and let it out in a long, slow sigh. Then he walked away from them, toward the caves.
They didn't look any different; he didn't know what the hell he'd been expecting, but it hadn't been the sight of the two of them just sitting there like they were afraid to move. He walked in and stood between them.
It was instantly worse. Caught between them, the humming intensified, and he could hear more than he wanted to, half-thoughts, emotions and intent. They were all relieved to see each other even if each had known the others were fine. Jon refused to back away, watching Neal nod at him.
No one said anything for a long, heavy moment. No one had to. Everyone was present and accounted for except for Deen. Jon wanted to add unscathed to the assessment, but knew he couldn't. There was no telling how long he'd have been trapped, if certain steps hadn't been taken. But he didn't have to like it. They'd get through it because they got through everything.
"You grew up where they have tornadoes," Steve said softly.
Jon nodded, not quite catching on to where Steve was headed, unable to really pin him down now that the singer had his thoughts shut. He caught the backside of Steve's thoughts from Neal, and the resulting echo was like listening to music with only one side of your headphones on. He was careful to stay as close to the surface as he could, to not listen too hard. There weren't any interlocking pieces between them yet, or at least not enough to help, and the jumble of half-thoughts was too much to listen to.
"They warn you, if a twister's comin', to open your doors and windows," Steve said. "Because if you don't, the difference between the pressure inside and outside..."
"Creates as close to a vacuum as you can get, in nature," Jon finished.
"Yeah. You can open the windows, or you can watch the house implode. We didn't mean to pull you in, not like that. But if you hadn't turned that echo back when you did, chances are..." He paused. He didn't need to finish. Then he winced.
"It would've taken us longer to find you," Neal said. "Assuming we didn't turn each other inside-out first." He shrugged. "It's not like Jon doesn't know."
The last had been aimed at Steve. What bothered Jon was that Steve had mouthed the words silently along with Neal, had shrugged at the same time. They both looked exhausted from trying to filter coherency out of a shared existence, from trying to keep their own boundaries. If one had been a less aggressive personality than the other, there would have been a pecking order establishing itself. If they didn't come to a compromise soon and learn how to choreograph their mental steps, one would eventually send the other crashing to the boards. And there'd be no one left standing.
No. No, it wasn't like he didn't know.
"That was a setup," Jon said softly.
Neal nodded. "Somebody gave us a reason we couldn't ignore. Now how long before they try to make use of it?"
Jon shrugged. "You sure they aren't already making use of it?" He used one hand to rub at his eyes and face, sighing. "You guys okay?"
Neal didn't make any one gesture, didn't convey any one thought that could indicate how he felt about it. His thoughts were a low hum of embarrassment and too many other things to separate.
"Okay," Jon said. "We'll just...move on."
"Right now, we can't even fuckin' walk," Neal said.
Jon looked at him. "You thinkin'..."
"Yeah," Neal said. "We don't know...what's workin' or not. Not yet. Pullin' you in...we meant to, but not like that. And I think that may be all there is, for awhile. Right now, I'm not sure about right from left."
"We're okay if we're within earshot," Steve said. "But outside that? No. Not yet, anyway. And in my case, not before that, either. Pretty fuckin' amusing, considering the fact that we spent years tryin' to get away from each other." He met Jon's eyes then, and Jon startled visibly. For just a moment, before the world really focused, he'd been unsure of who he was looking at. Because it was Steve's face, but Neal had been looking at him.
"Don't you think that's fucking ironic?" Steve/Neal said.
It took everything Jon had not to run out of there, to keep looking at Steve.
"Double the trouble," Steve said. "But a quarter of the coordination."
"Okay," Jon said, more to steady himself than anything else. "Ross was tellin' me about the Sedhi. We might not have all the time you guys need, to get coordinated. Could you move, if we had to?"
Steve looked at Neal, not directly at him, but in his direction. Anything else was too much disorientation, too much sensory overload.
Neal said, "We'd figure it out. Somehow." He thought about the bird.
Jon nodded, then moved to settle himself in the same berth Neal was in, just sitting next to him. The three of them sat in silence for what seemed like minutes but couldn't have been. "Gonna be okay," Jon said finally to no one in particular. "Somehow. I don't know...if I can get you guys apart, after all this."
"Got a lot of don't knows," Neal said. "About gettin' out of here, about the Ender, about everything. One thing at a time. We're better off together, for now, if we can get in step with each other."
Jon nodded again. They were all sitting there lying to each other even though the truth hovered beneath, and he wanted to put his head in his hands and cry. Instead, he said, "Ross and Aug wanna see you. You handle that?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "Just don't everybody talk to us all at once or move quick. It's taken us all fuckin' day to get this far."
* * *
They watched the light change, talking softly about keeping watch in the light as well as the dark. When the Sedhi came, it would be in force, and they knew the land better than the musicians could hope to. For now. Sooner or later, they'd run out of wood. Sooner or later, the Sedhi would come. Sooner or later, the Ender would come, and even if they could jump across the lines, there was no hiding from the thing.
Then of course, there were Keepers somewhere beneath them.
Their best chance lay in the walker and the Er Rai combining their efforts. Otherwise, they were never getting the hell out of there.
Exhausted, they put it all aside long enough to rest. There wasn't anything else to do. They each chose berths except for Jon, who chose first watch. He was as tired as anyone, but he needed more time to think, and he didn't want to do it in front of anyone. He wandered outside, and it was quiet for several minutes.
He never heard anything; one moment he was staring out across the pool set in the sand, and the next his peripheral version registered motion too close to avoid.
He startled, finding himself looking at Steve.
"You should let me keep an eye," the singer said. "You took a beating, getting back here."
Jon looked away again. "I'm fine," he said. "I just -"
"It's like having him walk close behind me all the time," Steve said. Neal was nearly asleep somewhere behind him and not paying any attention.
Jon stared at him again. "What about me?" he said. He didn't want to hear, but he had to, and he knew it.
"No. I let you in a long time ago and didn't even know. You're quiet. You're the kind of guy who tries to leave things the way you found them. You step careful and walk right in the footprints I've already left behind. Neal..." he paused.
"Is it that bad?" Jon said.
"No. Neal has...healing talents of his own, you know? But he's too much like me. He doesn't rest. So sometimes we match up enough that I don't even notice, but sometimes he jumps right in the puddles I tried to jump over." He sighed and looked away with a small shrug, a wry twist to his mouth. "I guess we deserve each other, you know? In a way."
Neal turned over again with another sigh, unable to pinpoint what was bugging him. He was exhausted, but sleep was elusive. He couldn't tone things down enough to relax even though his thoughts were quiet. Every muscle was relaxed, but something held his head above the surface as physical as a hand beneath his chin.
Just outside the cave, Steve paused, catching the internal battle. Regret came with it, a guilty and wrenching sensation, and he turned in that direction.
Jon watched it happen, watched Steve's attention shift to one side and realized what was happening. He felt nothing over it but dread. A moment later the singer walked away, and Jon didn't bother trying to suppress a sigh of relief.
Steve walked back into the cave, registering the fact that Ross and Aug were asleep but Neal was not.
*What's wrong?* Neal thought.
*Nothing,* Steve thought-whispered. *It's okay.*
He folded himself into the next nearest berth, leaning back against the warm stone and purposely blanking his thoughts. He closed his eyes for good measure, to keep anything from getting in that way.
Neal was almost immediately asleep.
Steve sat perfectly still for once in his life, long enough to make certain Neal was asleep. He could feel it, but he'd never felt it like he was feeling it then and had to get used to it.
Once he was sure the guitarist would stay under, Steve wandered slowly back outside and back to Jon.
"Go to sleep," he said. "I mean it. There's no way I'm in danger of dropping off. No telling when we're gonna need you to do the Inverse thing."
Jon stared at him another moment, then complied. If nothing else, to be where the singer wasn't.
Steve kept his thoughts toned down as far as he could get them, movements slow and purposely dull. He was trying to be quiet without trying hard enough to cause a disruption. His thoughts and senses were almost solely his own for this small bit of time, and he reveled in the opportunity. As long as Neal didn't dream, he'd be as close to alone as he could get.
He went out beyond the pool, skirting its boundaries, realizing it had boundaries on the surface only. The desperation to stay close was fading now that Neal was asleep. The guitarist wasn't the cause of that need, but he was the source. He wouldn't be able to stay outside long, so he made the most of it.
He made it to the small curve of rock near the cliff and sat in the curve of it, watching. He let his thoughts drift away a little, realizing that focusing on any one thing would make Neal stir.
He leaned back into the shadow of the rock, then realized there was roughness to it. He leaned away and twisted, and his fingers found regularly spaced indentations. Carvings. He got back to his feet and turned to look closer, seeing loops and points similar to what had been on the stones at the base of Siarion's Tower. He couldn't tell if it was picture-writing or an actual declaration of some sort. It didn't come to him the way the local speech had.
He was trying not to find any of it interesting. He trailed his fingers over the figures slowly enough to register the warmth of the stone, to pick up the subtleties in the jaggedly wrought carvings.
"You know," Neal's voice said from close behind, "you're enough to wake the dead."
Steve turned at the voice, convinced he'd woken Neal. Confused because he hadn't heard it inside before hearing it outside, hadn't felt the words being spoken. His first glimpse was even more confusing, because he was looking at Neal without getting the resulting glimpse of himself through Neal's eyes that he should have.
The eyes. The eyes were wrong.
* * *
Neal snapped awake and rolled to his feet in a single motion, startling the others. "Jonathan," he said, and was already moving as he said it, headed for the cave entrance. Jon was right behind him, having caught a glimpse of the alarm in Neal's thoughts.
What they saw was disturbing not only because the creature that had Steve backed up against the curve of the stone alcove looked like Neal, but because of the body language. Steve's terror would have been obvious even if they hadn't heard it; he was cowering against the stone, pressed into it. The thing passing itself off as Neal had its hands against the stone on either side of Steve's shoulders, leaning with a casual stance.
Neal fought Steve's terror back with a burst of rage, and between the two of them the result was a strange kind of calm, a readiness. Anger met fear head on and canceled it. The band made a loose half circle behind the impostor, and Neal came close enough to make sure the creature could see him in its peripheral vision. He purposely insinuated himself between Steve and the creature. Neither minded, and for different reasons.
"Pretty fucking brave," Neal said softly between his teeth. "Or stupid, comin' right out and screwin' with all of us at once. But we're used to stupid, from you guys."
The thing with Neal's face smiled a little without taking its eyes off Steve, without backing away.
"Doesn't matter which one of you I go after now," it said.
"Good luck to you," Neal said. "Now back off. Or I'll back you."
The creature went on smiling, finally glancing at Neal, a sly sideways glance. "I've already heard that one. How hard this gets depends on you."
"What the hell do you want?" Jon said from behind. "The Er Rai? To do what? Tuirnarin didn't get far. You're not gonna, either."
"I'll get to you," it said, and they all knew it was talking to Jon. "You've had it coming, for several turns. You've been gone too long."
*Is it just listening to itself talk?* Neal thought.
*No,* Steve thought. *It doesn't make sense yet, but it will. You guys back away, and I'll --*
The creature slammed a hand into the center of Steve's chest, then, pinning him harder against the rock, and Steve yelped. There was nothing human about the thing, it wasn't trying to fool them anymore, and the contact had a slithering, invasive quality to it. Looking for a way in, like the wraiths had used. Neal did everything he could not to startle away, because he felt the contact as keenly as Steve did and got the backwash from it.
"You'll what?" it said. "Do what you did with the glass? You're not dealing with Tuirnarin anymore, little one."
Steve put aside the fact that it had heard him. "You're not dealing with just me anymore, asshole," he said. "The only guy I know who's more stubborn than I am is in here with me. You ain't up to the job."
It looked at him silently for a moment. Then it shrugged. "Which should I do first? Kill you or fuck you?"
Steve pulled in a breath, let fear get the best of him for a moment. He knew something was close to spinning out of control, and couldn't tell what direction it would come from.
Jon lashed out without moving, trying to get a hold on the thing and turn it back on itself, and was brushed aside effortlessly. *Not a namer,* he thought, amazed that they finally had confirmation. *It's not a namer!* Neal planted a hand on the thing's chest and tried to shove it backwards. It had no effect.
It made a small, compact motion that sent Neal tumbling, then grabbed Steve by the throat with one hand. It had the front of his tunic in the other, and yanked him away from the overhang, propelling him backwards toward the edge of the cliff.
*If it isn't a namer,* Ross thought, following along, *then what is it? And why's it stupid enough to --*
He paused because he wasn't sure if Steve was the only one of them it could hear. Neal had regained his feet, and he stood with them as they surrounded the thing from behind again. It held Steve close to the edge, nearly leaning him out into the sheer space. Steve was nervous but had no qualms about being thrown off, and was careful not to think of the bird. It was the others he was worried about by then, and the fact that they didn't seem to be able to really stand up to the thing...
Neal came close again, unimpressed that it wore his face, too angry to care. Anything that happened, he could rewind, but he wanted a piece of the thing in the worst way. And without real coordination with Steve, it didn't seem like there was any damage to do. He took hold of the shoulder of Steve's tunic, not willing to start a tug-o'-war but making it plain that Steve wasn't being thrown anywhere.
Not so close, Steve thought only to Neal.
And they felt, for the first time, the place that was only the two of them, able to pinpoint it and see it for what it was.
Bullshit. It can't just walk up on us, and --
Let it throw me off, Steve thought, because Neal didn't need to finish his thoughts with Steve, not anymore. If that's what it wants, if it'll leave you guys alone, let it throw me. I'll be back.
He avoided touching on what would come after it threw him.
"What the hell do you want?" Neal asked the Ender.
Without glancing at Neal, the creature smiled a little and straight-armed the guitarist right off the edge.
Steve saw/felt/heard the shock of it, watched the world spin crazily as Neal went into freefall, and he reeled. Jon shouted in denial somewhere in front of him and ran for the edge, and Steve closed his eyes. He heard the internal click that meant Neal was going to try and rewind the whole thing, stop himself from falling...
And it failed.
There was only panic after that, for the few seconds remaining. Steve remembered thinking take my hand, Neal take my hand! just before the 200 feet of space ended and Neal landed on the rocks below.
* * *