Memory Bound - Chapter XXIII
©2001 B Stearns
They agreed to make it to the treeline and let Steve take Rall back the rest of the way. It would be faster, and they wouldn't be apart for long. The walk back to Athyri gave everyone too much time to think, and Neal and Steve too much time to begin messing with things they didn't understand. The focus had automatically shifted to finding Jon and getting out, and Steve decided he knew the best way to do it.
"And I said you're wrong," Neal said yet again, the two of them trailing the rest in the falling dark. "You're not in my way. I'm in my own way, and we're not gonna get this done by you sitting down and letting me use you to vault us around."
Steve didn't answer immediately, mind set on that point. Then he thought, If we argue, then nobody gets anything done. I'm access to the Evenwhen. Use it.
"I need you to argue with me, Steve," Neal said softly. "If you don't, this'll never work. You're not a part of me, not just that, but every time you give in a little further, that's all you are."
"If we don't blend in all the way, you're not gonna be able to use your powers again," Steve said. "And you're gonna need them. So I gotta do this."
"No," Neal said. "You know that's not all there is to it. It's not one of us surrendering to the other, it's gotta be an agreement." He paused. "This way, I'm just..." Losing you.
Steve looked at him sharply. The question in his thoughts went unanswered, because Neal jogged away from him, back to the others, having overstepped his own bounds.
" just go right after 'em," Rall was saying. "Nobody knows why, and it doesn't matter, I guess, so long as it keeps things off us."
"Keeps what off you?" Neal said.
"Formless," Ross said. "Seems the daywraiths don't like them, much, and tend to chase 'em off."
"Why would the Formless be bugging you guys?" Neal said.
"Well, there was her," Rall said. "The Lady, you know. The 'changers had a problem with her, and that was before my time, so I wouldn't know that much about it."
"I thought she made them," Neal said.
"Yeah," Ross said. "Go figure. Maybe we've got Keepers that failed another way."
"They look way too much like Keepers, to not be--" Neal paused.
*Maybe Keepers can fail in all kinds of ways,* Steve thought. *Maybe - maybe the more folks she pulled in here, different kinds of folks, maybe they failed in all kinds of ways. You can't make or destroy matter, you can only change it, right?*
Rall was looking at Neal, waiting for him to finish the sentence.
*Let's finish that conversation outside our present company,* Ross thought. "Hey, Neal, you in there?"
"Um related," Neal said, looking at Rall.
"They don't bug us either," Rall said. "'Changers keep all that away."
"Love to know what that's all about," Neal said. "Maybe that was just one last bit of revenge, there, the world making daywraiths."
They stopped to camp, making a fire and not caring about who saw it. Najh kept well away from the flames even though it was a small fire, large black eyes reflecting firelight from a distance and making everyone but Rall nervous. They talked for a while, until Rall got too tired and wandered out of the circle of light to curl up at Najh's side again.
"Nothing's ever gonna bother that kid," Neal said, poking at the fire with a long branch. "Not a damn thing. I just don't get the thing with the Formless."
"A Formless has gotta be in a form to bug us, though," Ross said. "When they've shown up, the namers or whoever, haven't they been wearing somebody? They're able to do some tricks without us seein' 'em, but mostly, to cause trouble, they've been physical. Kind of hard to be physical when something's chewin' your leg."
Aug snorted. "Especially that something. That thing on the glass, when we were at the overhang - the Keeper - it's not that different than the daywraiths. Like the Sedhians and the Wisps aren't much different from each other and need each other to create stuff. It all looks connected, to me."
"The Keepers felt familiar to you," Steve said. "Does Rall feel familiar to you? Did the Sedhians?"
Aug looked at him for a moment, trying to figure out where he was going. "Familiar like the Keeper, you mean?"
"Yeah," Steve said, staring at him. "Like that."
Aug thought about it, the walking stick the tree had given him braced across his knees as he sat cross legged in front of the flames, staring into them. "Not that familiar," he said finally. "But " he paused. "Aw, Steve. You're not thinking "
"Makes as much sense as anything else around here," Ross said.
"Where the fuck is Jon?" Steve said, changing tack suddenly. "The Sedhians don't have him, the...shit, nobody has him. He isn't hurt, I'd know if he was. What if somebody dropped him back home?"
"Siarion, maybe?" Ross said, glancing at the sky. When Steve glanced at him, he shrugged. "Who else is there?"
"The namers," Neal said softly. "We could go on about why, but why've they ever done anything? I mean..." He paused to glance at Steve.
"Can't we just focus on him, and go?" Steve said.
"If we could," Neal said aloud, "we'd be home by now. I want to. I wanna do all that."
I want you to do all that, Steve thought only to Neal. If you listened to me - I think you could.
Neal abruptly got up and walked away from them, knowing it wouldn't get him away from Steve but trying anyway.
Steve went after him, glancing at Ross and Aug to warn them away. Staying several steps behind, he followed Neal out of the light, keeping his thoughts closed and knowing Neal would hear anyway.
"What are we gonna do?" Steve said. "Do a test run, see if we can find him that way? Or you wanna try and pull him in the way we did before?"
Neal didn't need to look at him, but he did. "Don't start."
"Somebody's got to," Steve said. "This is what got us together in the first place."
"I think we can concentrate on him and go where he is," Neal said. "Maybe just me, though."
"No," Steve said.
Neal looked at him. "'No?' Excuse me?" But he already knew what it was about. Steve had no intention of losing sight of him again.
"Just do it," Steve said. "Just go ahead and -"
"No!" Neal shouted, startling everyone. Najh lifted his head to stare at Neal, but didn't move otherwise. Rall had to be awake. He didn't care about the staring, didn't care what anyone saw or heard. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" Neal said. "Let me tell you a story. It's about a namer, and a bunch of guys she messed with until they were nuts, or dead, or both, only they finally got out. You've seen it, you saw where she left you in the snow and we buried you. We got a different version of you back, and when you heard the story you said 'just because she's walkin' around wearing me again, you guys think I'm dead?' And none of us did think it yet, I guess." He paused, needing to say it all out loud even though Steve already knew where he was going. "I'm tryin' to say, I'm not gonna walk around wearing you, ever. I don't fuckin' care what it affects."
Steve just looked at him for a moment. "You're gonna be a stubborn, righteous asshole just when no one needs you to," he said. "Jon's more important. If the namers got him, there's no tellin' what - "
"Yeah there is," Ross said from the fire. "They've always been cool with him, just not the rest of us. They may have decided stuff was getting too rough around here, and maybe he's hanging with them."
* * *
Jonathan was shaking his head long before she finished. "With all due respect," he said, thinking there wasn't any due, "you're mistaken, if what you're trying to say is that I'm..."
"One of us," she said. "A 'namer', I believe we're called. The proper designation is formless. Many share that with us, but they are not of us."
"Right," Jon said softly, trying not to panic, trying to go on sounding reasonable. "After the obstacle course we've been forced to run, after the stuff you've pulled with Steve, I'm not inclined to believe anything you say. No offense."
"Steve," the elderly woman said, turning the name over carefully.
The namer wearing Steve's visage smiled grimly and winked at Jon. "The Er Rai," he said.
"Of course," she said. "Yes, I understand. Had we known the Er Rai was here, we would not have chosen this place or time. I can't say I'm surprised you found each other, knowing you as I do." She paused to smile at him briefly. "We would never have interfered to 'give' him back once he left Existence. You realize that by now, don't you? He had gone back to the circle as he should have, and that was best. You didn't agree, however. It was not one of us who pulled him back, or allowed it. One of us did come to you, because your grief became ours. One of us encouraged you to use your powers - you and the walker, that creature who now holds the Er Rai."
"Neal," Jon said stiffly.
"I'm poor with names, once given," the namer said, not realizing why Jon had taken offense. "They should have been separated when they were discovered, but we kept quiet. Some of us, however, could not."
"So when I was 'removed' from this line," Jon said, remembering what Steve had told him, "and trapped in that false one, that was for my own good?"
"In their eyes, yes," she said. "It was time to remove you, and keep you away from the Er Rai. It was a clumsy attempt to let you return to your true existence, especially after what happened with Tuirnarin. That one acted as she did because she realized that one of you was of us, and that the pieces were in place. Once this life is over you will return to us."
Jon sighed. He didn't like how what she said fit with what little he knew or how much sense she was making, so far. He had a lot of questions, and was too weary to ask them. He didn't want any more to do with this as it was, and now this crap? "This is crazy," he said. "What do you guys really want from me?"
The elderly namer paused, tilting her head to examine him. "You must understand who you are. For the creatures of this world, and all others, there are decisions. Once a decision is made, an unused possibility dies behind, but not for all. There are thousands of 'Neal'. Only one is a walker. There is only one you, in all Existence. Only one Jonathan Cain."
Steve, Jon thought. Steve tried to tell me, and he didn't even really know.
* * *
Steve looked up in the distance, suddenly aware. He'd heard. There'd been a brief brushing along his consciousness, nothing solid, simply an idea of a personality. One he knew but hadn't been close to in a long time. "There he is," he breathed.
Neal caught on at the same time. "Not home, not pulled away," he said.
"Jon's here, he's here," Steve said.
"Where?" Aug said. "How? You gonna have to open your thoughts all the way up again?"
"They'd hear me," Steve said. "I don't think we have to go through all that. But at least we don't have to try and search for him like we did before. He hasn't gone far. They've come to him, again. Don't matter why they have him, just that they have him."
They were all silent for a moment. Then Aug said, "Don't matter if he's in danger. They thought we'd never notice he was gone. If they think we're that dumb, then finding him should be pretty easy."
Steve looked at him like he was a genius. "Namers don't 'walk'," he said. "They'll have moved him a step to the side, or had someone else do it, if they've got him. If Ross is right .they'll just be watching him until we get things straight."
"Why all this worry about the Inverse?" Aug said. "What've they got him for?"
"Nobody knows what an Inverse really is," Steve said.
"Maybe they do," Aug said. "Can't you guys do what you did with Ross, can't you let Jon be some kind of beacon and focus on him?"
Steve looked at Aug, at the steady stare, and remembered asking Jon who he really was. Who I've always been, he'd said. Aug seemed to know things that no one else paid enough attention to figure out for themselves.
"We're doing the forest for the trees thing, aren't we," Steve said. "We're so in the middle of this that we don't realize stuff, but you see a lot."
Aug didn't say anything, just kept standing there with the tree branch. Singer, Journey fan, walker. Father, husband, son. All things Steve either had never been - or never would be again.
*I think you're the only one who can get us out of this,* Steve thought, forgetting for a moment that Aug couldn't -
"I don't see how," Aug said. *What've I done so far?*
*Everything.* Steve grinned suddenly. "Made less of a mess than the rest of us. Wherever he is, there's gotta be a way we can get to him. We're gonna have to get out of here eventually, and the best way to practice is finding Jon."
*If namers can't walk between,* Ross thought, *then how did Tuirnarin - *
"Later," Neal said aloud. "Let's break these guys up and get the hell out of here, somehow."
He and Steve walked further away from the fire.
* * *
Jon stared at her, suddenly wishing he wasn't alone, but glad that he was. Who knew what they would have done to anyone with him?
"You were placed here, and only here," she said. "The decisions you alone have made have not affected other timelines."
If he humored them, he knew it might buy him a little time. The way they were talking, he was going with them. "What was it with Tuirnarin?" he said.
"You had everyone's attention, once you became involved with the walker and the Er Rai," she said. "Tuirnarin was the youngest of those opposed to our 'experiment'. Only she chose to turn it to her advantage rather than simply protest. She was unsure of which one of you she was after, so she took you all. When she realized that she also had the Er Rai well."
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely," Jon said.
The namer nodded. "Her limited contact with him allowed her to pause the Evenwhen. Your contact with him would allow you to do that, and more."
There was an exclamatory sound of amazement from the one in Steve's form.
"You've forgotten who I'm speaking to," the elderly namer snapped, gazing at the wall above Jon's head. "He's beyond reproach, even in this form."
Jon took the moment to glance around at the garden setting. They were alone there; there was no chance of someone happening on them. He wasn't even sure the there really existed. Nothing looked like a solid escape route. And where the hell was there to hide, from these guys, if he did get loose?
"So," he said to break the uncomfortable silence, "Everyone's been calling me an Inverse when they really mean namer because everything I do seems to reverse things. So that's what namers do?"
She smiled indulgently. "Reverse," she said. "Reverse is a matter of perspective, isn't it? You manifested your gifts as you saw fit. Tell me this: how many planets are in the solar system you were born to?"
"Nine," Jon said automatically.
"Do they all spin in the same direction?" she said.
Jon thought for a moment, trying to figure out where she was going. Why the hell was he getting a grade school astronomy lesson all of a sudden? "No," he said. "One's tipped on its side, and one spins the reverse of all the others."
"But which ones are actually backwards?" she said.
Jon nodded. "Okay," he said. "Just because Earth and the majority of the other planets spin counterclockwise, it doesn't mean it's right or normal. Fine. That's all there is to it?"
"You are what you allow yourself to be defined as," she said. "We are not omnipotent, but we're capable of much."
"What's the Er Rai, then?" Jon said. "What, really, is the Raven Key?"
The namer gazed at him thoughtfully, but Jon got the idea she didn't know. "An aberration, an elemental. Given enough time and room, Existence will produce everything."
Jon let it go. If she didn't know, he didn't want to say anything that got her any closer to figuring it out. "Listen I've got a wife, and kids. Not to mention a life I enjoy. So, if I'm supposedly linear and mortal so I can scout around, shouldn't you let me finish it? Come back in, say, 30 or 40 years?" Keep stalling.
She raised an eyebrow. "You have become a distraction, and a target, to the world you chose and the beings who have noticed you. It's no longer safe."
He wanted to ask 'for who' but was too angry to carry on the conversation any longer. "What if I don't want to go 'home'?" he said.
Her pleasant expression faded. "If you had your true memories, you wouldn't even entertain that thought."
"How would I know which ones are 'true'?" Jon snapped. "We've been jerked around so long, between your little civil war and all the bullshit we've been handed. Who's gonna assure me you're not just screwing with my head again?"
The namer in Steve's form grinned. "Then we'll just take you."
"I don't think so."
Jonathan glanced up and behind, and the namers swiveled their heads toward the voice.
The real one this time, looking beat to hell. Jonathan was torn between relief and outright terror. The hope was almost too much.
"You can probably gang up on the Inverse," Steve said. "But I'm willing to bet the Inverse and the Er Rai would be more than you can handle."
The namer in the singer's form turned fully toward him, its posture making its intentions clear, smug amusement on its face.
"Try it," Steve said. "Go on. I'd love it."
"This doesn't concern you," the namer in Steve's form said.
"I see two of you, and one of him," Steve said. "That automatically concerns me, no matter what you are. You wanna mix it up with the two of us, could be unpleasant. Tuirnarin thought so."
Neal rounded the corner on Jon's other side and stood watching silently.
"It does concern this one," the elder namer said, her eyes glowing with certainty as she stared at Neal. "A member of the Six, in my presence. And no cause to destroy him. What a shame."
What the fuck? Steve thought only to Neal.
The namer raised her eyebrows at Neal's confused expression. "You weren't aware? No, no one's bothered to awaken you. That would make it more difficult to take the Er Rai from you. Your brethren are watching you, walker."
"What are the Six?" Steve said, thrown off enough to drop the confrontational tone.
"And it deigns to speak to me," she said to Jon with a note of wonder in her voice.
Neal felt and heard how startled Steve was, felt it behind his own amazement. They had done nothing more than center on the idea of Jon, and they had stepped into this place. Neal didn't remember a feeling of walking. They had simply crossed a line somewhere. Steve was more than startled, though; his dismissal as an object in the namer's eyes was complete. An angered outburst should have followed, but Steve felt little more over it than hurt and confused.
The concept was easy to accept, suddenly.
Jon was standing, caught between Neal and Steve, and he stared at her. "His name is Steve," he said.
She nodded a little. "This time." She glanced at Neal. "There were only six walkers, when things began," she said. "When we first noticed that things had a beginning. It is these Six that allowed things like beginnings and endings and inbetweens. Time, and space, required management after their creation."
"There's a hell of a lot more than six walkers," Neal said.
"Yes, offshoots," she said. "But I will not explain it now. I will let the one who made you do that."
"Then let us go so we can get on with it," Jon said.
"You are not a prisoner, here," she said. "You never have been. You have chosen on several occasions to make it so."
More riddles. Jon opened his mouth to say something else, but she was already speaking to him again.
"You are the reason that neither of these will enter the circle on their own," she said. "They are no longer subject solely to the rules of their current world. So we made certain that the walker gained possession of the Er Rai however possible."
"Wait," Neal said. "We weren't allowed to be...joined, before," Neal said.
"No," she said. "There were those that did not allow it, among our ranks. Jonathan was one."
*If she's telling the truth, how much did she just tell us?* Neal thought.
Jon was carefully blank, nothing but emotion coming through. Fear, uncertainty, an overwhelming urge to run.
*That I was right about us being pushed, that Jon is a hell of a lot more than he thought, that his rebuilding us is...* Steve paused. *Jay? What's she filling your head with?*
"So what're we supposed to do now?" Neal said. "What do you guys want, out of all this? Are we gonna get straight answers, for once?"
She cocked her head slightly, glancing at Jon, her expression one of concern. She was gauging him, somehow. He didn't meet her gaze.
*Try asking her a different, specific question,* Jon thought. *We gotta make something of this.*
Neal said, "Why are we 'allowed' to be joined now?"
She glanced at Neal as if caught off guard.
They each caught the brief flicker in her eyes. Afraid, of Neal? Or something associated with him. What was it?
"Two reasons," she said. "One, the Er Rai is yours, and you are responsible for the damage he has done. You are the only one that can return him, and now that Jonathan has taken you both from the circle, the only way the Er Rai can be returned is to become part of you again."
Neal had his mouth open to say many things, but Jon thought, *Let her finish, or you'll never get it all.*
"The second? Simply, power. With possession of the Er Rai, the two of you will be capable of carrying out our requests. There are things you must complete prior to destroying the Er Rai."
"And?" Jon said dully, hands folded.
"We will leave you to your own, for the span of this life."
"No deal," Neal said. "First off, we don't believe you. And then there's no reason for us not to just start knocking you bastards off, if you bother us."
She regarded him calmly. "Do you agree?" she said to Jon.
Jon said, "The walker has a point. There's nothing to stop us from forcing you guys to leave us alone. We don't need any deals."
She eyed Neal carefully, then looked at Jon again. "You have become fond of these."
"Yes," Jon said coldly. "And if harm comes to 'these', there'll be hell to pay like you fuckers have never imagined. No matter how long you've lived, or what you've seen, so help me it'll be nothing compared to what I do to all of you."
They all stared at Jon with cowed surprise, feeling the honesty and emotion behind the quietly spoken words.
She frowned. "You...are changed."
"Wasn't that the point?" Jon said. "Didn't you want to know, what it was like 'out here'? Too bad if you don't like the results. Too bad I have family outside the Evenwhen. You're not gonna treat them like they don't matter, like they're expendable."
She pointed at Steve. "This must still be returned, in any case. You may not continue to share a timeline with it if you are not willing to concede to our terms."
"I'm still waiting on the exact terms," Jon said.
"Once every turn, the Er Rai is sacrificed in order to return the energy back to its origin," the namer said. "To hide it, to keep it moving, so that the other Formless do not catch up. Until it is properly returned, though, nothing can remove it from Existence. Few know this."
"Once every turn," Jon said. "Turn of...."
"It's the walker's choice," the namer said. "Everything turns. Your world turns on its axis. Your sun turns through the galaxy it was born to. This universe also revolves on an axis, the way time itself does. Everything comes back to a certain point eventually."
Jon nodded, understanding and wanting her to stop talking. "Lot of people on my world think this universe might be closed."
"The people of the world you were born to often think in terms of boundaries and limitations," the namer said. "Your universe is open, and it revolves. Understanding beyond that is pointless."
"So you want us to get rid of Steve," Jon said. "Big shock. What do you mean, the damage he's done? How are we supposed to 'repair' anything with the Ender on our back, and you guys messing with us? What are you gonna do, give us a list of chores?"
The namer was silent for a moment. Contemplative. "We will contact you," she said. "You will understand our wishes as your true self returns. If you do not do as we wish, we will remove you forcibly from your current life."
"So you're gonna try and blackmail us?" Neal said. "It was you, who did this to us?"
The namer smiled.
"You bastards," Neal whispered. But there was a bit of relief there that he couldn't hide. Pushed.
Steve heard and didn't react. He wasn't surprised, by any of it. He'd already said as much, over and over.
"The Er Rai is on its last revolution," the namer said to Neal. "Existence depends on its return to where it originated from. It has made itself obvious to many. Jonathan has been our eyes in this part of Existence, and he'll need to return to our fold soon." She paused to look at Jon. "We couldn't always find you. Jonathan, you have no idea how hard it is to be linear if you aren't...born to it. That's why we needed someone to be born to it. Remaining here now takes too much energy."
"Why admit that, if you realize we'll take advantage of it?" Jon said.
She smiled a little. "The knowledge is enough," she said. "All you needed was the knowledge itself. You'll do the rest. There is no need for battle, no question."
* * *
That suddenly, their surroundings changed.
Back where they'd started, only yards from the others. Apparently their interview with the namers was over.
* * *
"What do you mean, gone?" Ross said moments later as they walked up. "You weren't. Jon just appeared out of nowhere a couple of seconds after you guys had made it a little ways away."
Steve looked at Aug.
"He's not teasing," Aug said with a shrug. "Listen to his thoughts. You guys didn't go anywhere."
Steve and Neal didn't need to glance at one another, but they did. The last thing they'd expected was to be told there'd been no time loss for the others.
So was it them, or us? Steve thought to Neal.
Don't start, Neal thought. I really want it to be us. We didn't think about it, we just did it. Something else was more important than whether we could do it or not.
"We're being messed with," Steve said.
"Again," Ross said.
"Yeah. I don't think we really ever went anywhere, and neither did Jon." Steve glanced at the keyboardist as he spoke, leaving it up to Jon whether he discussed it or not.
Jon shook his head in annoyance. "What happened to you?" he said, looking Steve over.
"Britney Spears," Steve said. "That bitch is everywhere. She jumped me, when I wasn't looking."
"Okay," Jon said, glancing between Steve and Neal. "Everybody's here, that's what I see. How'd you guys know where to look?"
Ross began whistling 'Send In The Clowns' very softly.
"They made it kind of obvious, in their way," Neal said. "Jay - "
"I don't believe it," Jonathan said suddenly. They stared at him.
"I think you gotta consider it," Neal said.
Jon looked at Steve, then, thinking about what namers were capable of, waiting to see what he knew he would: Steve keeping a careful distance from him. Steve stood quietly for once, expressionless, thoughts closed. More and less than he'd expected. Jon dropped his eyes, not really wanting to know what Steve was thinking. Not caring. Not yet.
"What the fuck is going on?" Ross said. "You guys are talking about one thing and thinkin' about something else."
"The namers think Jon is one of 'em," Steve said.
"The Perry mailing list thinks you're 'cute'," Ross said. "Big deal."
"I should leave you like that," Jon said to Steve. "Number one, it's an improvement to your looks, and number two, might leave a little more impression on you."
"I've gotten worse, before now," Steve said with a shrug. "Nobody asked you to do anything, anyway." Don't even think about touching me.
Only Neal heard that; Steve had been careful about keeping his thoughts closed.
"Go into professional wrestling when we get back," Aug said. "Little red and black spandex with that weird-ass grass logo you had on that last solo album, maybe a little cape. Call yourself the Nosenator or something."
Everybody laughed but Jon, who sighed even though his thoughts were amused.
"I kind of like you, New York," Steve said. "Where the hell is Rall?"
"Up ahead," Aug said, pointing at the treeline. "Soon as you guys started to walk off together, before Jon came out of nowhere. Najh needed to hunt. They lit out of here quick."
Jon started to ask who they were talking about when Steve turned suddenly and gaped. *Fucking A!*
*When did we get into the goddamn trees?* Neal thought.
*When did it get to be daylight?* Steve thought.
"Hello," Ross said. "We walked here. What the hell is really goin' on with you guys?"
"This isn't where we left you guys," Steve said, trying to make it sound calm. "This isn't how we left you guys. It was dark, we were by the fire. Now it's light, and we're maybe an hour from the Wisps. Somebody cut our trip down by a long way."
"Namers don't walk," Neal said. "They don't. They just don't."
"No way we did this," Steve said. "Jesus, not without knowing."
"Yeah?" Neal said. "After the thing with the tree?"
"Oh God," Steve breathed. "Yeah."
Nearly over the top of him, Neal said, "The tree. It's the tree."
Jon said, "What--?"
Steve 'thought' the tree at him, at all of them, and with it came a suggestion of what else he'd seen. Roots that ran beneath an entire world and solidified it. "I am Athyri," he said. "I am." He paused. "It was the original me. I think they buried me there, in the snow, for that reason. I think it was my original purpose, to them."
Jon looked slowly between them, the edges of what he was putting together reaching them. "In the snow," he said softly.
Neal glanced at Steve. "Yeah, in the snow."
"Is there actually a skeleton down there?" Jon said.
"Yeah," Steve said. He paused, careful not to look at Jon. The keyboardist was doing anything he could to stay away from the real issue. "And it's mine. I don't know how I know it."
Jon thought about the morning the namer came to sit on his bed, wearing Steve's face and offering him a way of getting the singer back. Offering him an 'approximation'. It was Steve with them now, it was Steve who had shown up beneath his piano... "But made of what?" he said aloud. "They had to give you a body, didn't they. Mairiesa said you weren't here, anymore, that a body was a...a collection of elements from the world you were born in. So what the hell are you made of?"
"You tell me," Steve said. "You're the one put me back together, this last time."
Jon stared at him a moment longer, and Steve caught the apprehension.
"Right," the singer said. "There's no way I survived that accident, Jon. I think you already knew that."
Jon went on staring at him, trying not to glance at Neal. He swallowed hard then said, "So - "
"So Tuirnarin tried to give me back by killing me, but it took someone else to do that," Steve said.
"Give you--" Jon began, then paused. The rest of what Steve was getting at came through. She'd done what she could to dissolve Steve back into the pool of Existence, finally realizing that Neal was the one that had to.
"And he did," Steve said aloud.
Jon quickly walked away from them.
"Go on," Steve said. "Pretend you can't see it. There's nowhere for you to go, Jonathan!"
Neal made as if to follow. To an onlooker, Neal had never moved; but his intentions were plain to Steve before he could even think them, before the right synapses fired in that direction, and the singer countered them. To Neal it felt like changing his own mind.
Steve realized what he'd done without even thinking, and blanched. Neal caught it a moment later, and spent another moment realizing he hadn't changed his mind at all. They stared at each other for a long moment even though they didn't need to.
There was a moment where Steve realized how easy it would be to go on doing it, to order the people around him without effort, and wanted to scream.
I won't let you, Neal thought only to him, over his horror. I've never let you get away with anything you shouldn't, I won't start now. "I can't go after him anyway," Neal said aloud. "He's gotta walk it off. I still know him better than I know you."
"That wasn't the way to tell him," Neal said.
"There was no reason to tell him," Steve retorted. "He knew right away. Somebody better ask him why he's lying to himself about it. That's what fuckin' scares me. Jon and the truth are like Siamese twins. We can't let him blame himself over any of this." He dropped his voice. "You, too, now."
Neal sighed. He heard everything Steve said before he said it, but in inarticulate notions, the way he heard what he meant to say before his brain processed ideas into speech. The only difference was that there was a feel to Steve's thoughts and none to his own. He was so accustomed to his own patterns that he could still recognize whose thoughts were whose. "But he's gonna," he said. "Blame himself. You can't tell him how to feel. He'll get over it. But you have to let him, Steve."
The purposeful use of his name made Steve look at him. Something flared in that space, an understanding of intimacy that had been allowed rather than forced. Steve looked after Jon, watching him pause under a paticular tree.
Promise me, he thought only to Neal, and Neal knew what he was talking about immediately.
I promise, Neal thought. You didn't even need to ask. Not about that.
Neal would never let Steve hurt Jon, not even unintentionally. And vice versa.
"And you guys brought all that up because..." Ross said.
"It's how we get out of here," Steve said. "And it keeps Jon from worrying about who he really is, I guess."
"You guys believe that stuff?" Aug said.
"Until someone gives us a reason to think they want Jon only so they can mess with us," Neal said. "Which is pretty goddamn egomaniacal. It starts to make sense. We don't trust 'em. But there's something to this."
"Someone needs to tell Jon there's a daywraith," Steve said.
*Jonathan,* Neal thought. *There's a Wisp and his pet daywraith gonna come out of the trees anytime now. Don't worry about the daywraith.*
*Just worry about the Wisp,* Ross thought. *Kid is tough.*
At the first thought of 'daywraith', they felt Jon's attention turn toward them and the hum of discontent in his thoughts fade in favor of apprehension. He almost turned back to them, almost returned to them, but stayed where he was. There was no alarm from the rest of the band, so he was comfortable keeping his distance.
*Room,* Aug thought clearly, more of a concept than a word.
Steve glanced at him, then sat down right where he was, suddenly too tired to do much more. He could feel Neal's exhaustion on top of his own, and he didn't know what he wanted more: to just lie down where he was or get home. *You're getting better,* he thought to Aug.
*Feels like the place is growing on me,* Aug thought.
"You may not like what grows on you," Steve said.
"Anything good about this place?" Aug said. "You guys complain a lot about it, but did you ever realize you're on another fucking world?"
"It would be cool if it was voluntary," Ross said. "Rall's coming."
They watched Rall come out of the shadows of the trees, and saw no movement behind him at first. He waved to them, then paused when he saw Jon. Steve and Ross waved to him to let him know it was fine, and the boy began walking again.
When he was within yards of Jon, a streak of white motion burst out of the trees and ran low to the ground, a creature with a predator's speed. Najh.
For just a moment, they thought the daywraith was playing, showing off for the boy. Then the creature was in front of Rall, cutting the boy off and imposing itself between him and Jon. Yards from Jon, Najh rose on his hind legs in full bristle, claws shot out as straight as his mane.
It was hard to tell who was more panicked; Jon or the rest of the bipeds. Jon was backpedaling slowly, trying not to move too quickly and set the creature off. He was obviously too late; Najh was in a rage, and shrieked a challenge at Jon. Neal set off at a run toward Jon, and no one did anything to try and stop him.
It was over long before Neal reached them, before Rall could do more than shout at the daywraith. Najh gathered himself, shoving off with massive hind legs, vaulting at the Inverse.
Steve had two choices about how to handle it, and in his panic he chose the one that had saved Jon and Neal from the pack of daywraiths they'd stumbled into in the dark.
Najh slammed into a barrier he couldn't see, and he tumbled back away from it, narrowly missing Rall, who dove to one side, still screaming the daywraith's name. Najh gained his feet again and had another go at it, and by then Jon had had enough. Neal had stopped where he was, yards away, and Jon was already running. The daywraith shrieked behind him, barreling into the barrier again, slashing at something that didn't exist to his senses. When he tried to dodge around it, it followed him, and the result was something close to an overwrought toddler having a full-blown tantrum.
Jon reached them and stood, panting, as Steve pulled him back so that he stood behind them.
*Don't kill him,* Neal thought.
*Not unless I really have to, no,* Steve thought.
Najh stood with his blunt nose inches from the ground, blowing at it in weariness, mane still standing stiff. He couldn't smell Jon any longer, and was only getting glimpses of him behind the others. He simply knew Jon still existed somewhere in his vicinity, and he wouldn't even let Rall near him. Looking dejected and confused, Rall walked to join the musicians.
"Give me your cloak," Steve said to Jon. Before Jon could answer or move, he was stripping the keyboardist's cloak off him and handing it to Aug. "Give Jon mine. Ross, do everybody a favor and make Jon transparent."
Rall was approaching them at a trot, watching Steve uncertainly. "You're not going to hurt my 'changer, are you?"
"No," Steve said softly. "Rall, you gotta tell us again about the Formless, how 'changers chase them off."
Rall looked from Steve, to where Jon had been standing, with wide, startled eyes.
"It's okay," Aug said, even though his thoughts said exactly the opposite. "Jon's one of us, he's the Inverse, it's okay."
"But you're hiding him," Rall said. "You're hiding him, and Najh knows what he is. You're not Formless."
"Jon's our friend," Steve said, the tone making it final and beyond discussion. "What do we need to do to call him off? What do 'changers usually do if they chase after a Formless?"
"The Formless never stay around to find out," Rall said. "They know better. While your friend's here, I don't know how we'd keep Najh from trying to find him."
Steve sighed. Jon was catching his breath somewhere behind them, out of sight but not unheard. *Here's our proof. A goddamn daywraith.*
"This's where we part ways," Rall said. "Me and Najh, we're pretty close to home. Nothing's going to bother us now."
"Yet," Steve said. "What're you guys gonna do the next time your father's people come knocking?"
"That's not for the Er Rai to worry about," Rall said. "That's for Najh to worry about. Right now he's worried about your people, I think."
There was silence for a moment. Then Najh began digging at the loam of the forest floor, scrabbling at it in desperation, keeping Rall in sight.
*Kid's right, we can't go on if the land shark is gonna be carryin' on,* Neal thought.
"How long's a daywraith live?" Steve said softly, watching Najh.
"They don't die of peaceful old age, the way they live," Rall said. "So no one knows. But no one knows how long the Rai'an live, either."
Steve nodded. *I think we know why that nest of daywraiths attacked us in the dark, now,* he thought. *Never gonna be safe from those things while we're all traveling together.* "I could fly you part of the way," Steve said aloud to Rall.
"I don't think so," Rall said. "I think you should watch after your friends. Too many sides to watch."
There was a sudden wariness in the boy that hadn't been there before. Steve knew how he felt. He hadn't gotten much warning about Jon either. "Goodbye, Rai'an," he said.
"Goodbye, Er Rai," Rall said. He nodded to the others. "Many Turnings."
"Yeah," Steve said. "I'm afraid so."
* * *