The caves seemed farther only because it was the last time they intended to see them; once they reached them, it would be a matter of figuring out how to get home. But they turned around and trudged back the way they came like it was a day hike they'd chosen over community service. Everyone was exhausted, physically and emotionally, but the urge to keep going was too strong to allow more than a short rest. It didn't take them long to get out of the trees. They'd taken the time to catch Jon up on what had happened while he'd been gone, and while he'd been trapped by the Sedhi.
Jon listened without comment, too tired and confused to get into it. Ross, Aug and Steve had been gathering wood as they went, tying it into bundles, knowing they'd need it once they reached the desert.
"We're gonna have to spend a night in the open, again," Neal said once silence had fallen again. "It's gonna get dark, and not that far off."
"Bring it," Steve said. "I don't give a shit what comes out of it, I just want this over with. I wanna know if that was us, earlier, if we were screwing with time and space without even knowing. I wanna believe we'll just accidentally fix all this if we want it bad enough and quit tryin',"
"Click your heels together, Dorothy," Ross said.
"Well, Neal being one of the 'Six' and all," Steve said.
"Sounds like a club," Ross said. "Maybe it's the folks who couldn't get into the 700 Club."
"I love it when these assholes get all cryptic with us and tell us enough to keep us running in circles," Steve said. "I love it more when I don't think they're screwin' us around. I can't even remember all she - " he paused, whipping his head around to look at Neal. Something had happened, a low twang somewhere along their connection, unpleasant but not debilitating.
Neal stared back, trying to avoid the feedback that resulted. "I don't know if that was good or bad," he said. "Not good at this, yet. If we can still walk, we're probably okay."
"You guys all right?" Jon said.
He got almost identical shrugs, performed at nearly the same moment, and he felt again that stab of dread in the solar plexus that he was becoming accustomed to where they were concerned. He didn't care if they heard it or not. They'd gone too far with each other to bother hiding much of anything. "Anything I can do?" he said.
Before he could see it take shape, a thought escaped Steve, the honesty of it unintentional and catching even him off guard. *Done enough already, done too much.*
It wasn't meant as a jab; there was no ill temper or judgment behind it, just an underlying honesty that got away from Steve.
Jon stopped walking. The others paused, feet dragging to a weary stop in the fading light. Steve's thoughts were already tinged with the trepidation of hindsight, and Neal was shaking his head a little.
"What am I supposed to do?" Jon said, the plaintiveness audible. No demand, no sarcasm. He was asking the question at face value. "You guys got any idea?"
"Nothing different with you now than there was about me the day after I got labeled a walker," Neal said. "You're still the Inverse, it's just nobody's sure they like what it translates to. But you're still Jon. Nobody gonna be able to mess with that."
"No?" Jon said. "She said the knowledge was enough."
"She told you what she wants you to believe," Ross said. "You remember those stories, about Haitians who'd been cursed with voodoo? They'd go around really believing they were cursed, and they'd get to the point where they'd die of fright or have some accident because all they could do was worry about being cursed. Then everybody else would see that and think it was the curse. Don't let them mindfuck you like this."
"You think I got that kind of choice?" Jon said. "Thanks. Great. They're holding us up for ransom, even if it doesn't get to me."
"We gotta set camp," Neal said softly, breaking in. "We gotta just do this dumb, common stuff like making a fire and figuring out who gets first watch. We gotta handle stuff we got control over, right now, and fuck the rest."
"Devil's in the details," Aug said, immediately beginning to look for dry grass that was long enough to pull up for fuel, for anything that would burn. He turned and went off without another word, intent on that task.
Jon stood looking at the ground for another long moment. Then he roused himself enough to follow Neal's suggestion.
*We got your back,* Neal thought. *No matter what that means we have to do. We've gone up against them, and worse, before.*
Jon didn't get much comfort from that, but it had the bolstering effect it was meant to, and he walked off in the opposite direction from the one Aug had chosen to look for kindling. Steve startled collecting larger rocks to make a circle of, remembering the last time he'd done it on Siarion's Tower.
He dug at the sand, hollowing out the ring, startling when something cut him. He jerked his hand away with a hiss, feeling Neal do the same thing yards away. Blood ran across Steve's hand from the outside edge of his palm, into the sand. He dug a little further with the other hand, pulling a piece of glass from it with little surprise. He got back to his feet and looked toward the Turning, making out the edge of the Turning Wall some way ahead of them. With the light slipping away behind it, he couldn't tell how far they were from the expanse of glass that trapped the Ender. But it wasn't as far as it should have been.
He looked at the drop of blood in the sand at his feet, wiping his hand on his tunic.
Maybe that's all it meant, Steve thought only to Neal, thinking about the dream where the guitarist had been hidden in the sand.
Maybe that's all you want it to mean, Neal thought.
Aug returned with handfuls of grass, dropping them into the depression Steve had made. He was back in Steve's cloak again now that Najh and Rall were gone, and he looked like someone who'd shown up to a Renaissance Faire only half prepared. Steve murmured a thanks to him and went back to arranging stones.
They managed to find enough kindling to get the fire started by the time the final light drained out of the sky, and had enough on hand to keep it lit throughout the darkness as needed. They sat around it in a loose circle, listening to the silence, waiting for a sighting of the light-twisters Steve had told them about. Steve chose first watch, knowing he wouldn't sleep, turning down Neal's offer to help him sleep. As badly as he wanted to, there was something unsettling about it to him, something he shied away from, and he didn't have the time or energy to examine it. Despite all they'd been through, there was still something too intimate about it. Aug and Ross fell asleep first, and Jon sat in morose silence, thoughts circular about what he'd heard in the garden. Steve and Neal were careful not to intrude.
When Jon finally dropped off, they spoke in tense whispers.
"We're gonna lose him," Neal said, chest tight. "We're gonna we can't fight that."
Steve kept his eyes on the darkness, unblinking, unmoving, barely breathing. "We won't," he said softly. "We're gonna make sure he gets the choice, like we always have. If he wants to go, that's not losing. We'll meet him again, somewhere else."
"If that namer wasn't completely talking out of her ass, we won't," Neal said. "She said he'd taken us out of the circle, whatever that means."
"You already know what it means," Steve said. "I can't die. After Jon rebuilding you twice, I don't think you can either. You wanna talk about the definition of death, you wanna get all philosophical on me here in the dark, that's fine, but it's too late."
"You can die," Neal said. "But it takes me to do it, and nothin' else. This's..."
"Shit we deal with once we're out of here," Steve said.
Neal nodded. He knew Steve was right, and he could feel that Steve didn't want to discuss it. But it was hard to leave it alone. "There's no way we're...immortal."
"There's no way Jon's a namer," Steve countered softly. "There's no way any of this is happening, no way you and me are inside each other, no way we fucked each other. Immortal's the least of our worries. You gotta take your own advice, here. One thing at a time. We're too tired to recite the goddamn alphabet, much less figure any of this out now. Get some sleep, would you? Then I can at least pretend I know what it feels like to get some rest."
"You don't have any intention of gettin' Ross up to take your place, do you," Neal said, already knowing the answer.
Steve didn't answer or look at him.
Neal sighed, watching out into the night a few minutes more. Then he rolled himself into his cloak with his back to the fire, arms folded, ankles crossed. He closed his eyes and tried to blank his mind, and Steve focused on the dark so that he could do just that. Something slipped by unintentionally, something from Neal's mind, an idea of holding someone close against his chest to stay warm in the sand. But it wasn't Amber that formed in his mind.
Neal's eyes snapped open as he felt Steve tense. It wasn't just the oddness of it, it was the fact that one of them had held the idea once before.
"Go to sleep, Neal," Steve murmured.
* * *
Steve kept his thoughts still like he had when Neal had been trying to recover from his fall from the cliff. He had a lot to think about, but if he wanted it kept to himself he had to stay quiet.
Can't do that. Seen it, felt it, lived it already. Can't do that again.
He'd wanted that part of the namer's tale to be only a warning, and he could have convinced himself of that if he hadn't been through the lines and seen it. He saw it all coming, and knowing about it didn't change it. It only made a few decisions easier. It was real simple to him. Neal was supposed to get rid of him, and if he didn't, there'd be more where the Ender came from. There'd be the distant Er Rai all over again, there'd be Neal and Jon unable to escape him through millennia.
So Neal would get rid of him. And this time, he'd stay gone.
The only problem was in how the guitarist - the walker - got rid of him. He didn't want to go through that again, either. And he didn't want Neal finding out about it. So it was just like everything else about the whole mess, a catch 22. It wasn't as if he'd be able to go on hiding anything from Neal the longer they stayed tangled.
There was a whisper along his consciousness somewhere, and at first he thought it might be their connection again. Shredding, or thinning out, or whatever the hell it was doing. But it was something more familiar than that, something that had been with him much longer. The moment of confusion was enough of a pause to let it get closer than it should have.
He saw the shadow ripple across the sand, hundreds of yards distant, but already too close. Something blacker than the desert night. There was no light to drive it off except for the fire, and if it got desperate enough, the fire wouldn't be enough.
*Keeper,* he thought, trying to keep the panic out of it so that he didn't frighten everyone too badly. *Keeper.*
Ross and Neal opened their eyes first, and Jon was slower to follow. Jon shook Aug awake, and as they sat up something shrieked into the darkness. There was a murmuring out there, a group of voices like leaves skittering along dry pavement. Fear made a quick circle around their thoughts, winding around them.
*How many?* Neal thought.
*One's enough,* Ross thought.
"I only saw one," Steve said softly. "But there's a group out there."
"Tracked us," Jon said.
Steve was shaking. He wasn't as afraid of them as he would have been once, but he felt more exposed then than he ever had been. He couldn't just drive them off like he had before, now that he and Neal were a whole new creature. There was the Keeper below old Athyri...
They all wanted to be gone, should be gone, like himself.
Stop, Neal thought.
"I can't sing them away," Steve said. "That'll only hold them off for awhile, and - " He looked at Aug. "Aug," he said.
Since the other singer had awoken, he hadn't said anything. His thoughts were still.
"Aug," Jon said, climbing to his feet and leaning over to try and pull Aug up. Aug climbed to his feet but didn't respond otherwise, a senseless doll.
Steve came around the fire, looking on the ground, and found the branch. He hesitated only a moment before picking it up, remembering that it wouldn't do anything to him. He tapped Aug on the shoulder with it, and when the other singer didn't respond, he took it in both hands and body-blocked Aug across the chest with it.
Aug stumbled back, arms pinwheeling. He barely kept his feet, blinking in amazement.
"Hey - " Jon started to say, but Steve was already drowning him out.
"Take it," Steve said. "Augeri, goddamnit, wake up!"
"We're awake," Aug said, moving his eyes between them. "What are we doing awake?"
"Take it," Steve said, holding the branch out again. Aug took it automatically, holding it in both hands, not bothering to ask what was going on. Steve kept his hands on it and said, "Don't listen to them. No matter what happens, you keep this."
He had made a comment after destroying the half-wraith below the caves of old Athyri, about taking care of the rest of the Keepers before they left. He didn't want the chance now. He wanted to get out of there without anything else happening, without any further lessons.
There was another shriek from the darkness. And an answering one from the opposite direction. Sparks of crimson light began to show as the Keepers dared get close enough to show themselves.
Aug heard a whispering along his consciousness that wasn't audible, the same thing he'd heard in the caves. It didn't put him under this time, but it did pull him. The urge to walk out into the dark was strong. There was more than whispering that went with it; there were people out there, running like kids in the dark, laughing or arguing, all gesturing him along.
"Holy shit," he whispered, concentrating on trying to get the others to see it. "Look, look at 'em."
The others saw shambling, tattered black ruins with red eyes, raging along beyond the edge of the light. Death and destruction. The now of things. Aug saw what had been, what only someone who could be one of them would see. There had been people, once. And if they knew what they were now, he couldn't tell.
"Jesus," Ross said, looking at it through Aug's eyes.
"Don't look," Steve said. "Jesus, you're makin' it worse."
"Not all just a trick, though," Aug said. "I don't think all of them know. They're just -"
"Not inviting you to a party," Steve said, voice dropping to a hard edge. "I don't know how we're supposed to hold them off. I've never even known what they really want. But they're gonna kill us if we don't do something."
He was thinking about what had happened before, how he'd grabbed a single Keeper and that it had nearly killed all of them when he'd been unable to hold onto it. Because of his connection to Neal. He wasn't about to take the risk of what it would do to Neal, to try grabbing any of them. Not until he was forced.
The Keepers drew in closer, keeping out of the light but making it obvious there were still at least a dozen, maybe more, out there. Attack would come at any moment. And they'd be defenseless against it. They kept their backs to the fire, making a loose ring around it. Aug held the branch out in front of himself as if he thought it really would protect him, trying to keep still, trying to keep a brave face. He wanted, just this once, to be more than he thought he was, to be the one who made the difference. Not just the tag-along, not just the new guy. Too much had happened for them all to be scattered into the sand like this, torn apart or absorbed or whatever would happen once the Keepers attacked.
None of them came from above this time; something had changed about their approach. They were restless, darting desperately beyond the reach of the light, all ruby flickers and scattering claws. They were circling, but had fallen quiet. It was impossible to see how many were truly out there. None of them reached for Steve either physically or mentally.
Keepers. Wraiths, fans, people...
Maybe they wouldn't be torn apart, this time.
Aug suddenly lifted the branch in both hands, holding it lengthwise in front of his chest, feeling something rising, something that felt as if it was building in his bones. Between that and the pulling, he had the sudden urge to drop the branch and run like hell. Something was happening that he couldn't escalate or escape.
Then he felt hands over his, rough, certain.
Steve stood behind Aug, helping him hold onto the branch. *Don't let go,* he thought. *Listen but don't, let go but don't.*
Jon reached out as he had after the Ender had attacked them, reaching across the connection he still shared with Steve to add himself to the mix. He didn't plan it anymore than he had the first time; it was on impulse alone, and it was too late to turn back. The only difference was the intent.
Steve would have jerked away if he could have, if they weren't already in danger. The last thing he wanted was Jon treading along inner pathways, invited or not. He didn't recoil, but his feelings about it were made plain nonetheless. He simply channeled them toward the Keepers instead of back at Jon.
The thing that Aug had felt building had only been one component of a greater structure, something he could add to the whole. Alone, it had no effect. Combined with the anger and energy of the other two men, and with Neal accidentally in tow, it manifested itself in a way no one expected.
Energy flowed outward in a low, luminescent ring, a pooling white frost of a wave. It flashed away from them like a drop in a pond, touching everything, widening as it went, rippling through the air. There were no screams, no flashes of light, no sheaves of ash drifting into the breeze. Destruction had seemed like the only option, but it failed.
People stood where the shadows had been, staring at them. All colors, all shapes, all sizes, all manners of dress. All ages. Some were expressionless or looked stunned; some turned and ran immediately back into the dark. Some were faintly transparent and never finished solidifying, just drifting vaguely on the night air. Unanchored. Within moments, most had melted away into the darkness, toward or away from something. None of them made a sound.
A handful remained, a few seeing only each other and nothing else. Only a couple looked at the band with at least curiosity and a touch of awe. It had been too long for them to remember, anymore.
One hovered at the edge of the light, grinning at them, a teenage girl with spiral-curled dark hair and torn jeans. A teenage girl, once; from her manner of dress, she came from sometime in the 80's. Before anyone could say anything, she whirled and ran into the dark, becoming part of it, a high voice drifting behind. She sang as she ran. After a moment, it came back to them as the chorus of 'Sweet And Simple'.
No one spoke. Their mingled, open thoughts ran from grief, to shock, to relief.
*Free,* Aug thought, and it said everything. *Free.*
* * *
They began moving again before the light could arrive, too emotionally keyed up to rest. They set off for the caves as quickly as possible, wanting to get home and leaving the rest for when there was time. The only time they paused again was at the beginning of the glass.
No one was eager to step on it. The edge was a crumbling, ragged boundary, lying in silent testament to a moment of pain and terror. In the end, it was nothing more than melted sand, as well as the beginning of the last leg of their trial. Without a word Steve stepped onto it.
And stepped back off. The energy in the glass had thrummed in his ankles for an instant, something grasping, raging.
The Ender was spreading.
He could feel it in the glass. It had regained some of its strength, was trying to take over whatever it could. As long as it remained on the surface, in the glass, the tree probably wouldn't do anything to counter it. There was no sentience there, just an automatic reaction to what did or didn't harm it.
Sooner or later the Ender would inhabit all of the glass, or it would concentrate itself in one spot long enough to break free.
"Too bad you can't make an agreement with the tree," Neal said. "Get it to keep that damn thing here."
"I wouldn't do that to anyone," Steve said. "Not even the Sedhians."
Neal nodded internally, conceding the point.
"It'll be quiet here for awhile," Steve said. "But sooner or later, we'll have to figure out what to do about this thing. Namers aren't gonna do anything about it." Deeper down, somewhere Neal hadn't managed to tread yet, he thought about the best way to do exactly that. And it was what the namers wanted anyway.
*Don't have to walk on it, Neal thought. The bird - *
Steve's instant feelings on the matter translated into the word copout. But his revulsion came through just as clearly. That, he couldn't hide, and certainly not from Neal.
A years-old memory came drifting through, from both Ross and Neal, of an eight year old boy being carried in the dark toward the Keep, toward an uncertain fate. We're not going to have you for much longer, so I'm going to carry you.
The words then, as now, were Neal's. The moment was being played out again.
"Full circle?" Steve said. "Fine."
Moments later, the bird rested on Neal's shoulder, and they stepped onto the glass. The others could feel it, but not as strongly as Steve had. The small discomfort was preferable to facing the thing again, so no one complained. It was quick going over the unyielding surface, despite the waves and occasional rut. The daylight rippled beneath them, reflecting them and the sky above. Twice, Steve vaulted away to scout ahead, watching for Sedhians or any other movement, especially once they got close to the tree again.
Conversation was sparse. Exhaustion made it too much of an effort to even use the energy to think clearly enough to mount a silent discussion. Their first sight of the tree lifted their spirits considerably, though, and they picked up the pace. There was no sign of the Sedhians, and they doubted they would be disturbed again. They didn't count on it enough to become careless. But they wouldn't be blindsided again.
As they skirted the edge of the cliffs, Steve lifted away again, circling. When he returned, he landed on the glass, wincing as he did it but determined to withstand it. He stood for a moment, watching out across the glass, hearing Neal's apprehension. Neal had known what he planned to do almost before he did. But it never occurred to him to try and stop the singer. Then Steve began walking toward the rough patch in the glass. He wanted one last good look at it, at where it had come to rest. At where he had put it.
*Grandstanding.* That, from Jon.
*Fuck you,* Steve thought, ignoring Neal's mild disapproval. Ignoring everyone's disapproval. He'd find out if it heard him or not.
Neal's initial impulse was to follow him, but Steve was determined on privacy, even though that would never truly be possible again. Neal watched the singer move off across the glass and kept silent internally and externally.
Steve stood over the grainy, disrupted pattern of the glass and stared into it. It was terrible to stand that close; if just being on the glass was difficult, this was an assault on the senses. If he listened hard, he could pick up the hum of what hibernated below. It stared back at him in frozen hatred, without eyes, without face. Truly Formless. But only for now.
"That's at least twice I've handed you your ass, motherfucker," Steve said softly. "You wanna go for a third, fine. But I'd stay where you are, if I was you. I'd stay."
He walked back to the others without comment. They held to the Turning Wall and headed straight for the tree.
* * *
Nothing discernible had changed about it; the spiral shaped leaves made soft bell noises in the soft afternoon air. Steve felt an odd pulse of relief to be standing near it, even though he was careful not to touch it or get too close.
They stood around it in a loose half-circle, looking up into the branches.
"Not sure what to do," Neal said.
"Already told you what you need to do," Steve said.
"No," Neal said. "You've made a half-assed comment about how you're really just an object, like you've been told, and I should just - "
"It's not a goddamn opinion," Steve said at the same time. "I'm telling you the facts, and I don't give a shit if you like it or not."
"Hey, guys," Ross said. "This isn't any more constructive than - "
"It means just using you, like you were a tool," Neal snapped. "I'm not gonna do it."
"Then we'll never get out of here," Steve said. "Goddamnit, it's there. Use it. You have my fucking permission!"
"No," Neal said. "I have you thinking I do."
Aug was looking at Jon, taking his cues from someone who had witnessed countless arguments that had been constructed the same way, by the same people. Jon was still looking up into the tree as if he didn't hear, though. Aug wondered if it was more that he just didn't hear them anymore, or that he was too tired to take notice.
"Hey, Neal," Steve said. "I wanna go home as much as anybody."
Jonathan said, "Do it."
Steve felt Neal's surprise a full heartbeat before it showed on the guitarist's face, an unpleasant zing. There was a brief moment of disorientation when Neal turned to look at Jon, and again there was a full 3-D view when Steve found himself looking at Jon from the front and one side. His brain compensated the same way it did for folks who'd lost a limb but could still feel it; the sensory map translated somewhere else. But for him, it was a gain, an extra limb somewhere and an overloaded sensory map...
Neal's attention shifted back to him enough to tell him to be quiet. "That's it?" Neal said to Jon.
"Wouldn't have been that big of a deal before," Jon said. "You gave him away pretty easy, the first time we were here."
Neal's sudden anger opened his mouth for him; Steve's caution kept anything from coming out.
Namer talk, Steve thought only to Neal. Like when I was just the Er Rai for awhile, after I ran from you guys. Jon'll catch up when he can.
Neal sighed and found himself glancing at Aug without being quite sure why. The other walker. The singer was keeping his eyes down, staying out of what he probably felt was none of his business. "Okay Jon," Neal said. "You know me, fuck 'em once and throw 'em away."
That got a reaction from everyone, including Aug, whose eyes widened perceptibly as he glanced up, and Ross took the opportunity to decide he had something in his eye.
Jon's embarrassment was apparent before he reddened and looked away. *Fine.*
*Nothing,* Neal thought openly. *We always find a better way. I do this now, I'll be doin' it always.*
"We better not always be gettin' stuck in places like this," Ross said. "You guys do whatever you're capable of, and fuck the rest. This is pretty much extenuating circumstances, here."
Neal shrugged. *Okay with you, Jon? Or maybe I oughta kill him again and leave him here.*
Jon's response was a mix of emotion that translated mainly to a weary sadness even though his face didn't reflect it.
Neal looked out across the expanse of glass again and thought about the Ender. Even he could hear it now, an angry hum under the surface that he wanted distance from. He was hoping he never saw that place again. There was agreement from everyone for that.
He could also hear that he and Steve were fading from each other again, and this time realized they weren't going to survive if it went on. Time was running out on them, and no amount of rewinding would fix it.
He held a hand out to Steve, who already knew it was coming and was moving toward him, blanking himself. Before hands met, the singer had already closed his thoughts and damped his internal self to embers, something that came too easily. They moved several steps from the others, and Neal thought, This'll only work now because we're a little further apart.
Steve didn't answer, couldn't, just stood with his eyes closed.
I'm sorry, Neal thought. And he was.
He felt carefully for the right internal handholds, going by memory and taking his time rather than trying to force it with panic like he had been. He let it build up slowly, waiting for the internal click of tumblers turning in a lock that didn't really exist. It was like trying to look at something with only his peripheral vision. He'd never had the luxury of practice, and had never had the enthusiasm and interest for it that Aug had. He'd never acknowledged that it was a part of him rather than a sideshow trick made available due to location and circumstance.
And he didn't want it to come to the point of letting the Ender awaken from the glass - and have to try vaulting off it the same way they'd gotten in there.
Steve's eyes opened, his fingers suddenly cold and tense in Neal's. But that was nothing compared to the cascade of despair that went through the singer.
Hey, it was just a thought.
It was hard to keep the line straight, though; a thought from one could be real enough to the other. A story told, a truth presented. More than possibility. Something you thought to yourself had the feeling of being generated; when someone else saw it, it was easily more. They'd have to keep that in mind.
The others were quiet, waiting. Watching. Trying to lend their attention and strength without interfering.
He remembered Steve shoving him down, submerging him to keep him from being hurt, to keep his panic from causing them all to be killed by the Keeper. He also remembered how much he'd hated it, how much it had pissed him off, how he couldn't wait to get his hands on Steve. It had been necessary, but...
He worked from the memory of that, knowing what Steve knew about it and how he'd done it. He used that knowledge to find the same mechanism Steve had used to do it, uncertain if he needed Steve conscious or not. If he screwed up and needed him conscious again, he could always just wake him up...
He dropped Steve's hand and took a step away once he realized how easy it was to treat Steve as a means to an end.
Steve resurfaced again from wherever he'd been trying to go, opening his eyes and glancing sidelong at Neal. He moved so quickly that not even Neal had time to react; the guitarist had only slightly less warning than Steve himself did. Then Steve was reaching out, using the hand that had been in Neal's to grab hold of the guitarists' tunic. Then the other hand was there, propelling Neal back forcibly.
Everyone startled; but it wasn't so much the physical attack as the mental one. There was a projected memory from only one perspective, the Ender attacking them. Neal's death happened again, striking the singer from behind, tearing one from the other. Blood and glass, blood and glass, blood and -
Neal hit Steve without touching him, without even realizing he was doing it. He lashed out in self defense, trying to escape the image and the pain that went with it, scrambling away mentally, slamming a door against all of it.
There was silence on the other side, and when he opened his eyes again, Jon was shaking him, and Ross was turning Steve over to look at him. Aug stood a small distance away, face blank, and Neal was glad he couldn't hear him.
"....did that," Jon had just finished saying when Neal's hearing kicked in again.
He caught the gist of the whole sentence through Jon's thoughts and said, "It wasn't because he was scared, or didn't wanna get used. He was just makin' it easy to put him down."
Jon was staring at him, tense, whitefaced.
"He ain't dead," Neal said to Ross. "Well...not like you think."
"Now what?" Jon said.
Neal felt around for the internal signal that was Steve and found it. By then it was just a beacon, playing almost unnoticed in the dark. He felt more like himself again, right down to the place in himself he'd finally recognized as walker. He heard tumblers turning at a mere thought, this time with more authority than they ever had, and he knew it was going to work.
"Get under the tree," he said, staring down at Steve. "We need a beacon."
The first image that popped into Jon's head was a lit candle, and Ross nodded. "Aug," Ross said, "Think of a candle. It's..."
"I know," Aug said. "I can see it, this time. It'll link us together enough."
Neal stood and stared down at Steve until the other three men were under the tree. They kept their thoughts quiet and their eyes off him, trying to give him room. Waiting to see what would happen. Trying to avoid his attention.
Because Neal was in a strange mood.
He had just realized he could do damn near anything.
Damn near, and it wouldn't kill him anymore. The reason for it lay at his feet, submerged, relegated to a corner. It would be easy, to leave that corner filled, keeping the benefits and his thoughts to himself, no side effects, no arguments. He could carry Steve around internally without dealing with him, free to go wherever or whenever he wished, and no one to stop him. Not Jon, or the Ender, or the namers. No one.
He crouched next to Steve's head, his eyes traveling to the singer's right hand. It was flung out away from the singer's body against the desert floor, palm upward, fingers slightly curled. There were reddened, still-healing lines across the fingers and palm, the last remaining evidence of what had happened at the mall.
You knew, didn't you? Neal thought. There was a faint stirring, a fluttering of consciousness that wouldn't fully respond until he let it out. But something made you save me anyway. You chose me.
He let the silence go on a moment longer, watched a crossroads of possibility gape before him. A choice.
He put both hands on Steve's chest, listening, thinking about the tumblers of the lock, thinking about the key, realizing he was in possession of a hell of a lot. They didn't need to go on pulling apart if he left Steve as an object, as simply the Er Rai. Turn him into a literal key, carry him around. He'd have control of that and a hell of a lot else.
He heard the tree and the Ender and the others behind him, all waiting. He left his eyes on that outstretched hand, weighing a possibility, knowing the moment had passed and the decision was made.
Then, with a thought that came easily despite what it had taken to get to that point, they were all gone.
* * *
Liz heard Laney bark, a low whuff. It was halfhearted, so she passed it off for a moment until something clicked. Anyone who had a dog longer than five minutes knew there was a range of barks for any number of things, and this one meant she saw someone she knew in the yard.
Then Sarah went vaulting past her and out the back, tail waving gaily.
Jon was home.
Liz was close on the heels of the Husky-mix, just in time to watch Jon step onto the lower patio. Ross was several steps behind, and Aug further back than that, trailing. All looked exhausted and worse for wear. She'd think later about how it looked like they'd all come from the studio, how Aug was holding a walking stick and still wearing a dark cloak over filthy clothes. She'd think about the fact that Neal wasn't with them, or Steve. She'd think about the look in Jon's face, set differently somehow, his eyes almost those of a stranger.
Right then it didn't matter; she had him back one more time. The chance to hold him, just one more time.
* * *
It was almost identical to the way he'd awoken in the hospital; it was a long, slow rise back to the surface, but this time he was pulled. There was a melody somewhere in it, something being played in memory form and not audible to anyone but him. It was the guitar part from Patiently, done from the perspective of someone who'd written it.
Steve opened his eyes to Jon's studio from the perspective of the floor.
The melody went on, not hummed, just the actual instrumental part being thought out as if played on a radio somewhere. He was propped up a little and comfortable in it, legs stretched out, not bothering to reach for whatever circumstance had put him there. It was okay just to sit there.
Yeah, Neal thought. Compared to where we were sittin', it is.
Steve realized it was Neal propping him up, that the guitarist was sitting in the corner where they'd basically 'landed'. One knee was drawn up, leaned against the wall, and Steve sat against it, between Neal's legs. He turned his head a little but didn't look at Neal. It wasn't a good idea.
"We made it," he said, his voice emerging hoarse, as if he hadn't used it in a long while.
"It was all real," Neal said. "Everybody's home, everybody's safe." Except you and me.
Steve had already known everyone was okay. He'd have felt it, otherwise. "Not over, though," he said.
"No," Neal said. He drew his other knee up, discomfort from sitting on the floor beginning to creep in. "We got business."
Steve knew immediately that Neal meant more than the Ender, or the namers, or whatever else was waiting in the dark for them. He meant the two of them, the personal level, and that was more dangerous than the rest of it.
He also knew there'd been an internal struggle of sorts, a big one, something he couldn't quite grasp the true size or shape of. Whatever it was, Neal had already come out the other side of it alone. Settled and strangely centered about something. A decision.
What he couldn't see was that, because of that decision, they continued slowly pulling apart.
Tell me again, Neal thought. He didn't expound on it, didn't need to, not with Steve having the thought almost as soon as he did, not with the singer seeing through his eyes.
Steve paused, wondering at the significance. I wouldn't -
"Aloud," Neal said. "Say it, just once, now that we're connected like this."
Steve finally glanced at him. "You woke me up," he said. "You could do anything you wanted while I was under, and you woke me up anyway."
He didn't see the rest of it, yet. And he wouldn't. Neal had been very careful about that.
Steve, Neal thought, resting his head against the wall wearily. Say it.
Steve looked directly at him then without worrying about the feedback. Neal was looking at the ceiling tiredly with a strange mix of satisfaction and resignation that sounded as odd internally as it looked on his face.
"I wouldn't've minded you," Steve said softly, the same words he'd spoken on Thanksgiving, feeling more awkward than he had the first time. Once.
Neal closed his eyes. They were tired, dangerously tired, and still needed to get moving. They had to see what shape their world had been left in since they'd been gone. Neal wanted to get to Amber, see his kids, assure himself of what was truly solid. Then they'd worry about the rest of it.
Right then he put a hand out and brushed the backs of his fingers against the side of Steve's face, barely touching the singer but startling him anyway. He listened for what ran underneath without making it obvious that he was, trying to find out what might still be there, amazed that he could 'see' things he touched, even with his eyes closed. That had to be some byproduct of the whole thing...
Once. Steve didn't realize that when he'd added the word, the actual concept in his mind was always.
* * *