Steve never imagined he'd really feel it.
Neal died the moment he hit, but the reverberation of it went on, crushing Steve from behind. The only reason the singer remained standing was because the creature held him upright. There was suddenly an opening in the world, in him, and it wasn't anything that suggested freedom; it was a gaping hole. He began to unravel from its frayed edges outward, the way his bond with Neal was unraveling, material and immaterial, cellular and metaphysical. The closest physical equivalent would have been having his scalp peeled back from his skull. He remembered the time they'd been brought to bay by the wraiths, remembered holding onto the threads of dozens of them. They'd shredded him before he could destroy them, white-hot needles ripping him apart, and this was worse. A thousand times worse. And he stayed conscious anyway.
He never moved but he grabbed for anything he could to make it stop, trying to catch the trailing edge of Neal the way he'd caught part of Tuirnarin while fighting with her.
Like the key.
He didn't understand the similarity and didn't want to.
For every part of Neal that was stripped away, something else was trying to take his place. The Ender used the physical contact and the blunt, shocking edge of what it had done to slam itself against the barrier that kept Steve in one timeline. It burned him, putting a foot in a door that it had finally torn the deadbolts off of. Steve braced his back against the other side of that inner door, feet sliding against a floor he couldn't get a purchase on.
Steve fought in silence and stillness, realizing that whatever it was, it was far beyond what Tuirnarin had been capable of. They'd been slow and unprepared, and now they were all dying.
Hands braced themselves above Steve on the door that he was losing the battle with, and he glanced up. He felt the roots of the tree somewhere beneath the desert, felt Neal's physical death, felt the door along his back shatter.
A hand was offered, and he took it.
* * *
Aug saw Neal go over the edge, and heard Jon's scream of denial. He froze in shock, feeling a wave of something pass through them all a few moments later that sent Jon to his knees. Steve had gone slack in the creature's grip, dull-eyed and boneless. Ross looked between them in horror, getting a lot more of it than Aug was. There was so little time between that shove and what happened next that Aug only had time to form the thought of doing whatever he could to get the creature away from Steve. He managed a step in that direction and stopped when the ground shifted.
* * *
Ross would have understood it as an earthquake anywhere else, but not there, not with what else was happening. He'd been standing there feeling helpless, unable to come up with anything that would counter a creature like they were facing. And it all happened so goddamned fast...
Then the ground shifted. Not a tremble, or a wave; the ground had actually executed a singular jolting motion, by at least two feet. No one lost their balance; but that hadn't been the intent. He had time to wonder what the hell it was announcing. Then the ground was in motion again, beneath the Ender; the sand shifted in a whirlpool pattern, a dust devil in the making. The Ender didn't notice in time, its expression as senseless as Steve's until it felt the sand and something beneath grip its legs. It startled awake but didn't let go of Steve, and the sand flattened again briefly. The whirlwind sprouted again, tightening inward. Aug, standing ten feet behind it, felt something sweep him straight off his feet. The singer had a sudden memory of being a child, his father locking an arm around his middle and jokingly hurling him onto his bed. It was no rougher than that, and the sand cushioned his fall.
Ross heard the buildup, felt the pressure of what was trying to happen, and didn't bother trying to name it. He reached for Aug, hauling the singer back to his feet and away. They needed to get as far away from Steve as they could get, and he suffered a moment of conviction that there was no far enough.
"Run!" he shouted at Aug. "Dammit, get away!" He turned back for Jon, knowing Aug was going to ignore him because, goddamn him, he wanted to help even if there was nothing to help. Jon was on his way down the cliff, hands feeling for purchase as he disappeared over the edge. He knew Neal was dead, they all did, but Jon had to get to him anyway. Ross heard his intentions over the noise of what was building behind him, and made a grab for him.
*Jon, you can't--*
There was a thud behind and beneath that made Ross turn in time to see the shockwave headed toward him. He had no other way to describe it; it was a ripple in the air, like heat rising off asphalt, traveling sideways. He got a wavering glimpse through it of the creature trying to let go of Steve, the thing unraveling in ribbons and grains of light, a photon at a time, not shattering like a namer might have. The whirl of sand was expanding, and the ripple was fusing the sand to glass as it went. It spun outward in a widening circle. Ross shouted for Aug and realized there was nothing he could do for the singer, nothing that would make difference in time.
It was feet from Ross when he swung over the edge of the cliff after Jon; the crumbling rock turned to glass beneath his hands and he shouted, reaching for Jon even as his hands slipped off the smooth surface. The sand ended, and so did the glass. He slid only a few feet.
Jon's single minded desperation in getting to Neal didn't allow him to realize what was happening behind.
* * *
Aug watched the wave come, saw the sand fusing to glass, and didn't bother trying to run. The thud that echoed under his feet and in the air around him had been the beginning of that wave, had blown the creature in front of Steve into trailing edges. At first he thought it was being pulled down into the sand; then he realized it was being dissolved into it feet first. He could barely see through the superheated blur of air.
Aug closed his eyes when the wave hit him, waiting to be engulfed. When nothing happened, he opened his eyes again to discover that he and the patch of sand he was standing on were unscathed. The sand outside a one-foot radius around him had fused.
The Ender let go of Steve at the last, concentrating on keeping itself together, and Steve put his head down and threw his hands down and away from himself. The whirl of sand slammed down with the motion, taking the creature with it. The thing fused into the sand, a scattering of colorless grains, indistinguishable from the glass.
The world had absorbed the creature.
Silence fell. Light glared off uneven spots in the glass as it reflected the sun in a thousand places. A moment later, his breath still held, Aug heard a low report of sound. It was the echo of the shockwave returning to him from the Turning Wall.
Steve stood perfectly still for a moment, head bowed, the wind tugging at his hair. Then he slid slowly to his knees on the glass.
Aug took a tentative step onto the glass, thinking it would shatter under his weight. When it didn't, he took careful steps toward Steve. By the time he got there, the other singer had his hands braced against the glass, and was staring into a reflection that wasn't his own.
* * *
Ross gave up trying to stop Jon.
The keyboardist went about finding hand and footholds almost negligibly, sliding in places to get to the rust colored figure below. Ross had no interest in seeing Neal the way he was now, and didn't think Jon should either. But Neal deserved better. There was nothing they could do to help him. There was no one to rewind what had happened. The least they could do was to bury him properly.
It was a long, dusty, crumbling 200 feet to the outcropping Neal had met his end on, and Ross didn't think there was anything left above them to worry about either. Aug had been caught in the wave that caused the glass, and Perry...
He tried hard not to think about Perry. He was afraid they'd be burying all three before the day was out. Being tangled with Neal like he was, Perry was better off dead after what had happened. But he felt guilty about not going back up to see if Aug was alive.
Jon was the one who needed his help, now. So he stuck with the keyboardist and tried to keep him from falling, feeling his desperation and grief and trying not to worsen it with his own.
Neal had landed on his back on a shelf of sandstone, arms flung out from the impact. One leg was bent beneath him at an angle so unnatural that at first Ross thought it was missing altogether. He was shattered, the shape of him held together by only his cloak, the corner of which thankfully covered his head. Jon was eerily silent, nothing audible from him past harsh breathing, but he was making a low keening noise in his thoughts, hurt beyond his capability to express.
He fell to his knees next to the guitarist, laying hands on the shattered chest. There was nothing, no residual spark to build from this time. He hadn't needed further proof that Neal was dead, but he'd had to do it. The body was abandoned.
A slow, thin thread of blood, pulled by gravity, slid to the edge of the shelf from beneath the guitarist and trickled away into the dust.
Jon thought about Siarion's long-distant warning, about reversing death. She hadn't said it wasn't possible, she'd just warned him about the consequences.
Right then, he didn't give a fuck about the consequences. All he had left of Neal was the guitarist's children and a million memories. And their music...
Jon snapped his head up again, and Ross heard the direction of his thoughts, remembered the part of Steve that Neal had accidentally been carrying around after they'd tangled so long ago. Jon tilted his face to the sky, eyes closed, and hurled his thoughts across the distance, making one of the worst mistakes of his life. His thoughts should have been faint, approaching the boundary of the range they were capable of, but Steve and Jon were more to each other.
It was a demand, not an inquiry; Jon used the connection they shared to mentally pin and search the singer.
There was no resistance; Steve was defenseless with shock and could do nothing but cringe. Jon slammed into him with no more consideration than the thing wearing Neal's face had, finding the door already open. Ross shouted at him to stop, reached for him, but it was already too late. Jon rifled Steve, his memories, his pattern, looking for another.
Jon dropped his head again, less desperation and more determination in his thoughts. He'd felt Neal's presence in Steve's thoughts, not a fragment or residue, but Neal, whole in all but the physical. He'd worry later about what he'd just done, when he could afford it. He stared at the body in front of him and his eyes sparked in an emerald that was visible even in the daylight.
* * *
Aug reached Steve and didn't touch him, just crouched close and watched. The older singer had collapsed onto his back and was staring up into the sky, looking stunned and contained.
"Steve?" Aug said softly. He jumped a little when Steve's eyes shifted to him. He took the cloak off and draped it respectfully over Steve. The glass was warm, but a breeze had picked up that slid across the new surface and gained speed as it went. The older singer's gaze was aware, but he didn't respond, as if all his strength had gone to something else.
Aug lowered himself cross-legged to the glass, sitting close and keeping quiet, watching Steve's eyes return to the sky. Long minutes passed. Aug stared out across the glass, amazed at the extent of it. The desert no longer existed, in any direction, and the dull orange sky reflected off it, giving the illusion that they sat on water. Aug didn't want to think about what had happened to the creature that had tried to kill them, or what had happened to Neal. The guitarist was dead, and when Jon and Ross got done burying him or whatever they were doing below, they'd come up and admit it.
The light shifted a little, the sun heading rapidly for the distant Turning Wall. Aug didn't hear anyone calling him until Steve whispered, "You probably better help them."
Aug stared at him for a moment, then heard Ross shout for him.
He twisted from where he was sitting and watched a hand reach over the ledge and clutch at the glass.
Aug climbed to his feet and ran for the ledge, expecting to give Ross and Jon a hand up. He didn't expect to find himself staring down at the bassist with Neal -- or what remained of him -- over his shoulders. Jon stood just behind him, balancing them. Aug could only gape for a moment.
"Alive," Jon gasped. "Goddamnit, give us a hand."
Aug reached over the ledge and got both hands in Neal's dusty, blood-soaked cloak and tugged, getting his upper body to rest on the glass while Ross disentangled himself. Then he and Jon pushed while Aug pulled until Neal was a loose heap across his legs. A breathing, whole, unmarked heap.
Aug scrambled back until no part of him was touching Neal. He was trembling, felt panic begin to creep in on him. The guitarist had fallen at least a couple hundred feet, there was no way --
"Augeri," Jon said, and there was no mistaking the steel in it. "Give us a fuckin' hand."
Aug looked at him with real fear, unable to step forward.
"Perry was hit by a bus," Jon said. "He wasn't even fuckin' recognizable when I got to him, but he was walkin' around three days later. You had no problem with that. You got no problem with this. Deal with it."
"It's okay, Aug," Ross said, beginning to heave himself up onto the glass. Aug stepped forward as if snapping out of a dream, helping Ross to his feet.
"Holy shit," Ross breathed, looking out across the sea of glass. "Holy fuckin' Christ."
Jon stood for a moment, breathing heavily, his hands on the glass, and looked out across the expanse of it with Ross. He would have been amazed, maybe even frightened, any other time. But he'd seen too much and he was too worried about Neal and how long he'd keep the way he was.
Ross turned back and helped Jon over the edge, and they both stood trying to catch their breath. When Jon could find the strength to do it, he walked straight to Steve, ignoring the fact that Aug was a tense shadow on his heels.
Jon knelt next to Steve's head, watching him stare at the sky.
"Neal is --" Jon said, then paused.
"Sleeping," Steve whispered. "His soul, next to mine. Candles."
"I know," Jon whispered. But he didn't, not really. It was a way of trying to quiet the singer. "Don't open your thoughts. I don't know what'll happen, if you do. Just sleep, for awhile."
"Neal will," Steve said, his voice distant. "But I won't, ever again." He paused to breathe, eyes remaining on the sky. "I know...why you did it." His voice dropped to a flat whisper. "But I'll never forgive you."
Jon set his jaw and tried to tell himself that didn't matter.
"The flames," Steve whispered. "Blend in together without losing anything, without needing more room."
Jon stared at him, listened to his breathing even out.
"We gotta move them," Ross said softly to Jon. "We're not that far from the Turning."
"Can you change?" Jon said to Steve.
Steve tried; there was a suggestion of the right mechanism trying to fire itself, then it failed like Neal's attempt to rewind them had. Steve wanted to laugh, wanted to weep, knowing it wouldn't have made any difference who was thrown from that height. He lay on the glass and stared at the sky, bleeding somewhere and unable to stop it, time and sand running through his hands and onto the glass.
"Give me a few minutes," Steve said. "And I'll walk. I'm not solid, yet." The glass was warm beneath him, and he marveled distantly over how it had melted and cooled almost instantaneously. Neal was with him, but wouldn't keep for long. It had nothing to do with space and everything to do with how apart they still were, how much further apart the creature had managed to rip them. His hold was tenuous, and eventually he would bleed Neal out onto the glass the way he was bleeding on it now, an unseen and intangible trickle of life and faith and essence. Torn.
They stood and stared at him and he said, "Goddamnit, back away and let me find center." His voice was strengthless and barely audible.
Ross stepped back, tugging Jon with him, turning him around so that his back was to Steve. When Jon began to question him, Ross thought, *Jonathan.*
Jon looked at the bassist, saw the look in his eyes, heard the plain you know exactly why tone of his thoughts. He let it go, looking out over what was left of the desert, realizing there was nothing left but glass.
He looked at Neal's breathing but empty form, felt the glass beneath his feet. And for a simple, clear moment, wondered who he'd really been over the last half hour.
Aug sat close by, cross-legged, and Steve let him. The other singer was a clear presence, barely heard and unjudging. A beacon. Steve drew from it, drew himself back with it enough to realize he hadn't caused the demon to scatter into the world; it was trapped in the glass. The world had refused the creature, leaving it on the surface.
The tree had rejected it.
He sat up to keep from having more contact with it than he needed to. He didn't want Aug sitting on the glass either. He held a hand out, and Aug rose, helping him up.
"I'll walk on my own," he said to Aug. "Are you okay?"
Aug nodded. "You missed me."
"I almost didn't," Steve whispered.
Jon and Ross carried Neal between them, one at his shoulders and the other his feet. The two singers made their way to the caves slightly ahead of them. They paused to rest occasionally, realizing how awkward it was to carry Neal the way they were. Ross finally got Neal up onto his own shoulders with Jon's help, and carried him the rest of the way.
Steve settled himself just outside the reach of the daylight, on the cave floor with his back against a facing wall. To his right, the cave wound out of sight into blackness. Jon and Ross settled Neal into a nearby berth. Jon covered him with his cloak, then turned to Steve. He wasn't sure what it would take to get Neal back where he belonged, if he was capable of it at all. But he had to try, as soon as he could. He was exhausted, they all were, but it didn't matter to him.
He reached for Steve without a word, and encountered a wall. Jon stared, unable to move his hands, reminded of the invisible barrier Tuirnarin had put them behind when she'd sent the first Keeper after Steve. The singer eyed him indifferently. There was no thought behind it, just a steady warning that his next step would earn him a hell of a lot more.
Jon glanced at Neal's body, then looked at Steve again with a purposeful calm. "We don't have time for this," he said. "You can be pissed at me later." He knew it wasn't fair, that it was so much more, but the desperation was building again.
*Or what?* Steve thought.
Jon moved to take a step toward him, and Steve said, "If Neal wasn't with me, Id've hit you by now, Jonathan."
The way the singer said his name made Jon pause, raised the hair on his neck. Steve was just far enough back in the cold shadows for the glow of his eyes to be visible. Ross thought, *Give it a little room, Jon. The whole thing. Neither of you is thinkin' right.*
Jon felt a surge of anger, and let it show. "I'll give a fuck about how you feel once Neal's back in his body," he said.
*Then I hope you'll be able to reverse what I do to you,* Steve thought.
Jon shrugged, discounting the thought, passing it off outwardly but growing more fearful inwardly and wondering who he was fooling. He stayed where he was.
"Walk away, Inverse," Steve said, voice hoarse with emotion.
The two of them stared at each other, and the possibility of force rose between them.
"What's Neal got to say about it?" Jon said, stalling, looking for an in.
"Neal's asleep," Steve said. "He doesn't know he's dead. It threw me off the fuckin' cliff too. Now goddamn you, get away from me before I lower myself to your level and make you."
*Walk away,* Ross thought. *Look at him, Jon.*
Jon did. The singer had wrapped his arms about himself as if holding someone else. His eyes were feverish, the glow sporadic and fading, and he'd jammed himself into the alcove of rock the same way he'd cringed from the creature that had killed Neal.
Ross conjured a mental image to pass between them, of Steve keeping the wraith from taking Madison more than a year earlier.
Jon stepped abruptly away, feeling guilt and wondering what the hell had gotten into him. "Can you hold onto him?" he said to Steve, voice softer.
"So far," Steve said. "As long as you need me for that, I should be okay."
*Walk away,* Ross thought again. *Everybody's here and safe, one way or another. Get some rest.*
Jon kept his eyes on Steve a moment more, realizing what had been running though his mind. He'd been thinking about who would come out on top if he and Steve truly pitted themselves against each other. And he'd been thinking of prying Steve and Neal apart to get Neal back in his body, and if that meant losing Steve, that was a price he'd pay.
He walked away, out of the caves, and Ross trailed behind to take up a post at the entrance. He tried to gesture Aug along, but the singer wouldn't budge. Steve had no trouble with that.
Steve sat and shivered, unable to sleep despite the exhaustion, trapped in the conscious world, replaying what had happened over and over in his mind.
The Turning came and went; Jon returned just after dark because of the possibility of wraiths. Aug switched posts with Ross, keeping an eye out. The second sun rose, casting an eerie blue glow on the glassed-over desert.
It went for miles.
Aug hadn't realized the scope of what Steve had done, even though he'd nearly been caught in it; it looked like a moonlit sea, deathly still. Still waters run deep, he thought, and no one heard him. The blue was pooled with shadows as it was. But one shadow moved.
Aug looked again, blaming eyestrain and exhaustion. Then it moved again, a dark bulk that shifted and flowed across one particular spot. The spot where Steve had beaten the thing with Neal's face. He tried to convince himself it was a trick of the light. That only lasted until he saw the set of blood red eyes that went with it.
"Good goddamn," he said aloud.
Ross laid a hand on his shoulder, making him jump. "It's a Keeper," the bassist said. "The fire's not just for light and warmth. Smith's not here, so we need to keep things lit."
"Smitty...was a firethrower," Aug said, keeping his gaze trained on the patch of greater darkness.
"Yeah," Ross said. "He is. But I don't remember us tellin' you about it."
Aug didn't answer. The wraith circled on the glass, a misshapen, blue-tinged nightmare. Besides the fact that it was hideous, something else bothered him. It was familiar.
"Seen it before?" Ross said.
Aug watched it slither nose-down along the glass, watched it absorb what it could. Then it rose on its haunches and shrieked, and he realized he could see right through it in places.
Aug recoiled along with Ross, retreating back into the cave and behind the fire. "We left a trail," Aug said without understanding what he really meant.
"Trail," Jon echoed. Aug turned to find him standing just behind them.
Aug shook his head. "I guess. I don't know. Seems like you should've seen it, though." Then he went back to sit near Steve.
No one spoke aloud; they kept a fire close to the mouth of the cave and a smaller one near the back. They hadn't heard the stone sigh again. The wraith had gone back into the night without bothering them, and nothing came to take its place.
Sometime after that, Steve stopped trembling. The light had begun to grow, and with it he felt Neal try to awaken. He neither encouraged or discouraged, letting it happen in its own time. He desperately wanted to talk to Neal, to make certain of his presence. He was numb in some of the places Neal had been, and he needed it to be a result of the shock.
But he was still bleeding.
He kept his eyes closed, relaxing into the wall at his back, holding, holding...
* * *
Neal didn't remember, at first. He realized immediately that things felt different, disconnected. He was breathing but not, cold but not. There was the warmth of a fire behind him and to one side, and he tried to open his eyes only to find they weren't his eyes.
He tried to move then and couldn't, and he panicked as it all came back to him in a rush.
* * *
Aug startled when Steve sat up suddenly, eyes open, and said, "Shh, shh. It's okay. Neal, look at the fire."
For reasons he couldn't name, Aug found the sight before him -- of Steve rocking slightly with his arms crossed and hands on his own shoulders while trying to reassure someone Aug had seen fall to his death -- more frightening than anything that had happened to them so far.
Oblivious of anything else, Steve went on with the conversation internally. Hearing the commotion on some level, Jon came entirely inside the cave and crouched close in front of Steve.
"Neal," Jon said.
Steve's eyes flickered to him, and the singer opened his thoughts. They all heard Neal's panic then, even Aug.
"It's okay," Jon said/thought, trying to be heard over it. "I'm gonna find a way to put you back."
*Back,* Neal thought. *Not the 'back' you're thinkin' of. We're coming apart, and it's bad.*
Jon frowned, and listened, really listened for what he hadn't picked up on before Steve had driven him away. And he finally understood. Their tangling had made a whole new cloth, the pattern of singer and guitarist woven into something new. The tangling had been incomplete -- barely begun -- and the thing that had confronted them had been able to dig its fingers in. There were rents in the whole. Flesh had been ripped from bone on an incorporeal level that was just as painful. That same cloth had to be put back together; it couldn't seal itself, and the two separate halves couldn't seal themselves. They would go on hanging in tatters from each other, bleeding life-force until there was nothing left.
Jon realized why the wraith had been fascinated with the battle site. It wasn't because -- or solely because -- of the scattered remains of the thing that had confronted them. There was the equivalent of heart's blood on the glass.
Pity and grief overrode his frustration. But he couldn't apologize. There wasn't time. He had to get Neal back into his own body, and put them back together.
"I don't know how," Steve said aloud, but the thought was Neal's. He went on, picking up where Neal left off, talking to him. "We'll figure it out. We've figured everything else out. You had to be awake, though. You gotta help."
The confusion and panic dwindled to a nearly tolerable level, and Steve let Aug and Jon help him to his feet. Ross took Jon's cloak off of Neal's body. Steve glanced in that direction involuntarily, following the motion, and the panic began all over again.
"Wait," Steve said, leaning over and bracing his hands on his knees, trying not to hyperventilate in response to Neal's fear. *Pretty scary shit, huh?*
Neal didn't answer, couldn't, and Steve said, "Do I need to throw a bucket of water on you? 'Cause...I'm not sure where to throw it."
*Holy water,* Neal thought, grasping for the lifeline. *Knowin' us, it's gonna have to be holy water.*
*Yeah,* Steve thought. *You know those trick candles you can't blow out, no matter how hard you try? That's us, we just go on and on, right?*
There was a pause while Neal caught his breath, a strange feeling for someone not in his own form. *Okay,* he thought finally. *I got the longer wick, though.*
Steve laughed. It was painful to do it, it felt like it might tear something else he didn't want torn, but he couldn't help it. If things could still be funny, then they'd make it.
With Aug's help, Steve sat in the same berth Neal was in, leaning over the guitarists' form. That close, he could feel how artificially alive the body was, could see the residual glow of Jon's energy on it. It wasn't Neal, anymore, and he wanted nothing to do with it. But it had to be Neal again, somehow.
Jon sat down across from him, offering a hand across the guitarists' shell. Steve looked at the hand, then met Jon's eyes. Jon said, "We're running out of time."
He wouldn't, Neal thought into what was left of the place that was only the two of them. And you know it.
Because it would mean losing you, too, Steve thought. Otherwise, he would. He knows I won't really stomp him, not even to save myself. So he would. He took Jon's hand and opened his thoughts. The act was sluggish and took more effort than he'd thought it would, now that it didn't have the urgency of Neal's panic behind it.
Jon used his connection with Steve to see how much damage there was. He had rebuilt both Steve and Neal from scratch before, so there was at least that intimate knowledge to work from. Otherwise the confusion of it would have driven him insane. There were tatters of each, then their individual patterns beyond what was joined. The place where they both existed was complex, two colors of sand shaken in a jar to make a whole new color. But had it truly been a color, it would have been unrecognizable to his eyes.
He started from a familiar thread, using his connection to Steve. He used the singer's pattern like cross streets in a set of directions, picking landmarks and feeling his way to unwind the damage. It was colorless in places, if he could assign color; something artificial reinforced the structure and held it in place. It was a drum machine behind a live band, steady but false, impervious to mishap but lifeless and sterile.
Steve grabbed his hand harder, too hard, and Jon opened his eyes. Steve didn't bother commenting; his eyes said everything. Now you know, so move on.
Jon did, taking care to unwind only what had happened within the last Turning. It was surgery in its own way, and he shoved everything aside except for that. If he slipped, he'd be separating them, and it'd be damage he couldn't take back. There was only so much 'taking back' he could do.
He began to recognize the entity that comprised the singer and guitarist, knowing what to rewind and what to leave alone. At first glance it was all devastation, but that was the result of the newness of the tangling. The creature had left bloody handprints on its handiwork in enough places for Jon to become familiar with it and look for only those spots.
Hours passed that only Aug and Ross were aware of.
And it was only because of Jon's tampering -- rebuilding -- of Neal's physical form that it worked at all.
It was much like what they had done to destroy Tuirnarin; Steve acted as a bridge, and Jon poured Neal back into his form as if he were liquid, knowing it wasn't Neal alone anymore.
*You'll have to fill yourself out again,* Jon thought. *Like you did -- or tried to -- after she got hold of you.*
It was like being underwater; Neal felt and heard muffled things by degrees, and didn't try to open his eyes. It wasn't quite his body anymore. But he'd worry about that later. They'd somehow managed to skirt disaster again.
Or at least turn it into a different disaster. Cursed or blessed. Can't make up my mind.
Jon heard the thought and remembered having it, but not when. He sat and watched Neal drift to sleep, leaving grateful hands on the guitarists' chest, aware that Steve had closed his thoughts and eyes in an effort to keep from distracting Neal. It reminded him of what the singer had said, that he'd never sleep again.
Jon hadn't realized what tangled had meant.
He stretched out of the berth, weary in so many ways but not like he would have been back home. He walked outside, registering the feel of the glass under his feet again, like synthetic flooring. It was a strange feeling to have while outside. Unnatural.
But he knew a bit about 'unnatural'.
He walked back out to the spot near the edge of the cliff where it had all taken place, and stared. He looked at the blood still visible on the rocks below, and mentally measured the untouched place where Aug had been standing. Then he stood where Steve had when the singer had sent the Ender into the glass.
There was nothing all that visible to show what had happened; the consistency of the glass was only slightly different. Most of it had a leaded quality to it, like windows in older houses, full of natural ripples that caught and bent the light. The glass there was rough and faintly discolored. With what, he couldn't discern and didn't want to. All he wanted to know was how long the glass would hold the thing.
Because they hadn't been able to put a dent in it.
They left him alone for awhile to collect his thoughts and sort a few things out. Then Ross ventured out to the overhang, making sure Jon saw him, careful not to approach uninvited.
Jon nodded almost to himself, appreciating Ross' gesture. But he wanted to be left alone.
Steve didn't respect that boundary.
Certain Neal was completely under, the singer came across the glass in the orange light and stood close to Jon. His thoughts were open, but held no expectation. He wasn't about to start anything. He simply waited. The patience would be unexpected, he knew.
Jon heard the patience, the stillness, and it unnerved him. "Why didn't you say anything?" he said without turning. "About holding on to Neal. You could've lost him." He wanted to make sure Steve knew what he was referring to, because he didn't want to think about the other thing he'd discovered; he'd sentenced Neal to something he couldn't face.
"Because you had no right," Steve said immediately.
Jon nodded. The singer didn't need to elaborate. Jon had no right to tamper, or interfere, or even inquire. He'd lost it all in a desperate moment of terror. If it had just been terror, it could be forgiven. But he'd been fully aware of what he was doing, and had searched the singer while he was incapacitated anyway, had taken something by force that Steve would have given willingly. There'd been something he'd seen in himself for a moment, something he hadn't realized was there: a feeling of superiority. The singer had been an object, a means to an end, and he couldn't tell where it stemmed from. He didn't want to know. He wanted it to be a byproduct of what they'd been through, a fluke, but he wasn't able to pin it down.
There was nothing he could've done to keep Steve from losing Neal. The singer had known Neal had to be awake for anything to work, had known better than Jon, and hadn't wasted the breath trying to explain.
"The Ender knew," Jon said wearily. "It didn't mean to help us figure it out, but it knew you guys are off center because of what's happened. You won't be dangerous until you figure out how to get coordinated with each other. Being tangled isn't enough. You gotta really commit to it first. And neither of you are good at committing to anything." He raised his voice suddenly, hearing Steve's dissent. "Don't even fuckin' think about arguing with me. You guys are tryin', understandably, to keep each other at arm's length. You're gonna kill each other with it, and take the rest of us with you sooner or later. Find a common ground in there somewhere, and stay on it. Because right now neither of you can do anything."
Steve sighed. "Okay, Jon. You mind tellin' us how? You seem to know so goddamn much about it."
Jon looked at him, and the urge to hit the singer came with it. "You talking for both, now, or just yourself?"
At first, the anger between them escalated, and it made the others center their attention on them with obvious nervousness. Somewhere behind them, Neal stirred.
Then Steve thought, *Oh, Jonathan.* He closed his thoughts gently, folding them shut to keep it from being heard. He closed his eyes and stood still for a moment, letting things settle. Then he came close to Jon, suddenly, too close, and Jon had a horrified moment of realizing how close to the edge of the precipice he was, in a hell of a lot of ways. He fought not to step away. His greater height didn't help him.
Steve spoke aloud, keeping his voice down to keep everyone else out of the conversation. "Yeah," he said, tone soft and deadly, "be afraid of me. Maybe it'll keep you from doin' anything else stupid when I have my back turned. You have no idea what you almost bought yourself, fuckin' with me in there. The thing that kept you from a world of hurt is the same thing that got you actin' stupid in the first place, which is why I'm not gonna take this any further with you."
Jon pulled in a breath and let it out slowly, letting his gaze stray over Steve's shoulder to the Turning Wall. He couldn't look in those eyes anymore, bright as the glass under their feet. Standing as close as he was, there should have been scent. Sweat, terror, pain, human maleness, anything besides a hint of dust. Cold hands and bright eyes and warm dust. Jon shivered.
"No one's ever been through anything like this before," Steve said. "No one knows how to handle it. You want me to step back, and hide? Be a corner of Neal's mind? It was okay when Neal was walking around with just part of me, wasn't it."
Jon moved as if he meant to walk away, and Steve added, "Now tell me the truth, since you keep wanting to hear it from us. Me and Neal were good, close friends before you came along."
Jon stopped, froze. He hadn't been expecting this tack, not now. More recrimination, maybe, or a warning to mind his own business. The old Steve would have done that. It would have been a burst of rage and then a parting, giving each time to talk rationally later. He stared at Steve intently, and his expression drained of surprise, becoming something darker. "Be careful," he said softly. "Be very fucking careful, where you're going with this, Perry."
"No. I'm all done being careful. It's not my problem, if you don't like the truth."
Jon took a step closer, sealing the space he'd created, and said, "You had designs on him. That's different."
"That's it?" Steve said. "That's the best you can do? Say it, and get it over with."
Jon stared at him furiously, resentment and contempt visible enough on his face that Steve didn't need his thoughts open.
"You want me to say it for you?" Steve said, voice softer yet, and there was almost a humor beneath the words.
"You got your wish, didn't you?" Jon said, feeling a downward momentum begin to build. He wanted to shut up and couldn't. He was terrified that Neal would awaken and hear what they were doing to each other. "You finally got to fuck him, all these years later."
Steve nodded, knowing by the look on Jon's face that the keyboardist was horrifying himself. But Jon had needed to say it. "Okay," Steve said. "That was a freebie. I'm gonna pretend I didn't hear it. So, you pretend you didn't hear this: I'm not taking Neal from you. You're not losing him. It's not my goddamn fault that you'll never have another conversation with just him."
Jon looked away, running a hand back through his hair and thinking about how much he hated every inch of the ground they were standing on.
"So quit the jilted lover routine," Steve said. "It's as dumb and childish as I was when you joined up. We had a pecking order established, and you fucked it up. I got over it, and you and me got closer than I've ever been with someone, until now. Don't you blame me. He still needs you." Then he was the one who wanted to shut up, because the next thing he said was as unfair as he was trying not to be. "You had the chance to let me go," he said. "Now you can't, without hurting Neal. So live with it."
He walked away, toward the caves, toward where Neal was sleeping. Because he knew like Jon did that if it went any further, the guitarist would become involved. And it was suddenly important to not put any of it on Neal.
* * *
When Neal awoke, the light was almost gone again.
Steve sat in the stone berth with him, silent and still, eyes closed. Neal lay and stared at him for a long moment, afraid to move, just listening to his own breath. Living and breathing. He felt slightly disconnected, felt like he kept trying to put on a pair of gloves that his fingers never found the ends of. He remembered all of it and it didn't seem as frightening anymore. He was dull around the edges and wondered if he was now as out of step with the world as Steve was.
Aren't we a pair? Neal thought into the place that was just the two of them, feeling the tenuous stability of it. They weren't coming apart anymore, weren't bleeding, but they weren't solid either. Aren't we just the fuckin' cat's ass?
Steve opened his eyes and looked at him. Neal felt a residual anger that wasn't his own and remembered the conversation they'd had at Jon's studio on Thanksgiving afternoon. Something had happened while he'd been asleep, some shifting of the ties among the people trapped there, and he knew what it was about but couldn't get the particulars.
He got a glimpse again of what had happened to him, and realized he'd never felt his own death and Steve had. He got echoes of it only, and they were bad enough.
"I'm sorry," Neal said aloud, and it wasn't an apology for anything he'd done. It was general sympathy, something he'd never been good at giving and Steve had never been good at receiving. This was necessary, though, he sensed it. He'd lost his temper, and paid for it, but he was used to being the only one who suffered for his own mistakes. "We haven't been listening, have we. To each other."
"We just haven't learned how," Steve said, not caring that Aug was within earshot near the fire at the back of the cave. "We need to figure out how to get this straight, so we can get back across the lines and get the fuck out of here. But you know that won't help all that much."
Neal knew Steve meant their predicament as a whole. Whatever had attacked them had been more than they could handle, and there was no telling how long it would stay in the glass or if it was alone. And now their temporary separation -- and Steve's memory of a much, much longer one -- hung from the singer like a weight. It was a stone tied to the ankle of someone who was already a bad swimmer in unfamiliar waters.
"If we manage to get in step with each other, there's not much that can touch us," Neal said.
"Someone only needs to get to one of us," Steve said. "And then it's all over for both. We're at the disadvantage, aren't we?"
Only while you go on mournin' my death, Neal thought.
Steve fell to staring at him again, cycling through a jumble of emotions. Then he said, "You've had three weddings. You gonna have that many funerals, too?"
"The fucked up sequel to 'Four Weddings And A Funeral'," Neal said. "Starring me. You gonna sing?"
"You're an asshole," Steve whispered.
"Yeah, well, takes one to --"
"Jesus, shut up," Steve said, cutting off Neal's risqué' version of an old schoolyard taunt. "Go back to sleep."
"What are you gonna do?" Neal said. "Go on staring at me?"
Steve didn't answer, just projected an internal weariness.
"Put your head down and close your eyes," Neal said. "Then while I'm sleepin', you can pretend you are, too."
Steve blinked at him for a moment, then leaned over and rested his head on the guitarists' chest. A few minutes later, one was asleep and the other hovered close enough to it to ignore the difference.
* * *
Aug had put his back to the wall, watching the fire, keeping an eye on it. Studiously pretending he couldn't hear Steve and Neal.
Grateful they couldn't hear his thoughts. They didn't really need any more sympathy.
When they were asleep - or something like it - Aug sat up a little straighter, listening. Jon and Ross were still outside, watching the glass and watching for the Sedhi. It might be five minutes or five years before either bothered them. There was no way of telling. Had he not been listening so hard, he might not have heard the low, mournful whistling from below.
At first he attributed it to the chimney; the wind had been whistling in it off and on since they'd arrived there. But this was from behind him, down the other opening. They'd told him there was open space below where the Wisps had lived and hidden. It was all empty, dry darkness now, and there was some sort of low noise drifting up.
He had some vague memory of putting the walking stick down, of giving up what the tree had given him. Of realizing he had to answer when he was called. Of passing the low fire and walking down into the darkness.
And that was all.
* * *