Memory Bound - Chapter XXV
©2002 B Stearns
Warning: Oh boy, it's that whole sexual situations thing again, m/f/m this time. Well, dang if it isn't integral to the tale.
Steve Augeri, December, 1999
I know I got left out of a lot of stuff.
I know they didn't have any choice. It was like getting invited on a campout by a really exclusive fraternity and having no idea how to handle the inside jokes. And yeah I think I got hazed.
I get to share this big secret now, this hidden other life, went through all that right with them, and I'm still on the outside. Can't really be any other way. Maybe I thought it would make a difference, but maybe I don't really want it to. It's a good thing I got to see everybody be themselves, show their true selves under fire. It sort of got me over bein' impressed, with them, with the situation I'm in. In the 'real world'. What a joke. The real world.
Would I do it again, say yes to joining the band and trying to live my biggest dream, if I'd known what would come with it? Probably. Because after all this is over, after there's no more Journey and no more singing, I'll still be a walker. I'm not what Neal is, I'd never want to be. I still don't understand the whole damn thing, and maybe I never will. It's good to know it's there, that I could even be good at it if I get the chance.
Do you realize how funny this is? The one guy in all this who should have been the big problem ended up being the only one who didn't drag me along like one of those toddlers in a harness you see at the mall. Perry should've I don't know. Let me drown in the river and go off that waterfall. He should've been calling me an idiot and taking shots at my voice and being the complete asshole I was warned he was. Well, yeah, he is an asshole. But not to me, and not while we were stuck over there. Now we're good friends and we gotta be careful not to get seen out wandering around. The PR would be kind of well, it would give the folks on Back Talk something to do. I guess it's a good thing we live on opposite coasts. Because we could really be awful.
Perry told me to forget about the walker thing, it's a trick I don't need. He gave me all these bullshit arguments about getting noticed by other walkers or the Formless or whatever, it was funny.
That didn't work, right, so the real scare tactics come out. Like, how it'll suck the life outta me and how hard it is on the body, how my heart stopped before. How there's always a price. Yadda yadda yadda. I think a lot of what I remember from the Turning Wall, when we almost went over the waterfall, actually happened. I'm listening to all the excuses and tryin' not to laugh while he's doing this total patronizing, asshole act. I wait for him to wind down, and when he does I say, 'it's okay, Steve, you're not gonna lose me.' For a second there he looked like maybe he was gonna swallow his tongue. I love this guy. I got him, and I know Neal was having something to say about it because I can see him adding something. I can't explain that, either, just that you can tell when Neal is listening. You just know. Then Steve just looked totally disgusted, like we're all idiots. I still didn't laugh, I just stood there. What a kick. Him and Neal are gonna be a real problem to all these Formless.
Speaking of which, it's gonna be weird in the band for the whole rest of the time it goes. Try explaining that, right? Not to Deen, we haven't. He knows about the Ender there's no getting around that. It's like we'll explain what we have to and leave a lot unsaid. It's not like he'll take off on us, or get freaked out. It's Deen. He's cool with almost anything. But hey, try explaining that there's a namer on keyboards. Good luck to you.
Jon's got a lot to get over. I just hope he can.
I mean, we all have a lot to get over. Everybody. A lot to get used to. Nobody's the same as when I met them, but Jon Jon really has changed, and it's not good change. I'm worried about how much of it is being a Formless, and how much is him. I still got faith in him, I'd still stand by him in a second. But he's made some decisions to hurt other folks, and it was too easy for him to do. Nobody else but me saw what happened to Perry when Jon went 'looking' for Neal. Right after Neal went off that cliff. I couldn't hear much, but sitting that close, I felt a little of it. And the look on his face. It hurts a lot more when someone you think you're safe from purposely hurts you, like you don't matter. Stuff got really weird over there, but what bugs me is that you find out who you and everybody else really is when things are scary. It bugs me that Steve is the one I was warned about when he's only trouble on the surface. Jon is trouble underneath. I don't love him any less, like I said, stand by him and all. We're brothers now.
I don't like finding out I gotta be wary of him. Nobody's perfect. Perfect sucks. Nobody learns without making mistakes. But Jesus, it's how you handle the mistakes. I saw Jon's face when he got the call about Steve getting hit, when this all started. I watched him cry in the waiting room at the hospital. I don't know which guy was the real Jon.
I guess I'm just pissed about feeling useless. Maybe I was or I wasn't, I just feel like I didn't contribute much. Not even at the end there, with the stick and the Keepers. That wasn't really me. I don't know what the tree gave me, but I feel safer with that thing in the house. The Keepers pulled on me twice, and it was easier to say no the second time because I held on to the stick. Gotta wonder how many folks went that way, that weren't lucky enough to have someone standing by that could pull them out. When they call you, you don't want nothin' else, you just go. Kind of like the band. Steve says they called me and I didn't have much choice there either.
I guess I'll always be in danger of that. Once a Journey fan, always a Journey fan, even if you're doing the singing.
We got home in time for Christmas, and I'm grateful for that the same way I'm grateful that we got home at all. We were really only gone for a few days by our count - but not by real time. In real time, in our real world, it was almost three weeks, long enough to be noticeable by anyone. And, well, the police already knew, since that thing kicked the studio door in and scared the hell out of Deen. The label wanted to know what happened to us. Liz stayed in touch with Lydia, and Lydia is pretty tough, so she handled it okay. Liz explained a few things, and coming from her and me, the suspension of disbelief thing sort of had to happen. Lyd's used to suspending a lot of disbelief, being married to me. And you can do whatever you want, with that. I didn't explain everything not the walker thing. I gotta keep that quiet until I know more. There's no users manual for it, and Neal doesn't know any more than I already figured out. It's like singing about architecture, trying to explain that stuff. You just do it. Sort of.
Nobody leaked it to the media. The media probably wouldn't have cared, anyway. That one detective is pretty persistent gotta wonder what's really going on, there. Sucks when someone wants the truth to something, and there's none to be had.
They buried that kid while we were gone cremated him and buried him somewhere local. That detective Jessica said so, when she came out to the studio to talk to us right after we got back. She said she'd talk to Steve later about it, and I'm thinking two things: one, she doesn't realize she's talking to him now. And two, she's gotta talk to him anyone - about it at all? So she knows he was there, knows a lot more than she's probably supposed to. Maybe there's some suspension of disbelief going on there, too. I was looking at Neal to see how he'd take it, and at first he was frowning, but then he closed his eyes like it hurt, and I know who I was lookin' at then. One day I'll get that whole story. Right now there's more than enough story to handle, too much. That thing is still back there, in the glass, and they told me it'd get out eventually. It probably will. And it'll do a lot more than find kids to shoot at them.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
I think things are gonna get worse, a lot worse. But I said something, the night I saw the green light, the night of the suicide prevention benefit. I'm in, I'm staying, I'm here. I'm kind of hard to get rid of, you know? Maybe they'll be sorry they know me.
Maybe the Ender will be sorry.
* * *
A day passed, the first true day they'd seen in awhile.
Calls were made to immediate family members and loved ones, and no one else. Not Gregg, or Deen, or the police. No one. Neal made a promise to Amber to see her within the week, and told her to stay put. She was staying with one of her sisters in San Bernadino. He'd explain what he could when he saw her.
There was rest, and food, and the attempt to remove the last vestige of sand. No one went home; they all remained at Jon's undisturbed for a 24 hour period. They didn't talk anymore than they had to. They lived in the now and stayed in it, knowing time was precious. There had to be one day, one simple, perfect day, full of kids and common things. TV and regular daylight and the satisfaction of lying in front of a fireplace with a dog or two. A houseful of regular humans with regular problems.
There was a winter sun and blue skies, and the ubiquitous white noise of traffic, both ground and air. During the time the kids were down for naps or playing downstairs, Liz learned the story. To her, two weeks had passed. It was December 19th.
She listened patiently, pausing them only when there was too much to listen to or too many details. Occasionally, Steve and Neal spoke at once, the sentences seamless and complementing each other from cadence to tone. She tucked away as much as she could, letting what didn't fit slide by for later.
Especially the part about Jon being a namer.
She knew so little about namers in the first place that she didn't put much stock in it. It didn't matter, in any case; Jon was home, he was still recognizable to her, and anything else could be overcome. If the look in his eyes was different, it was because he'd just survived something exhausting. Anyone would have needed time to recover. Or she wanted that to be the case.
When night fell again and exhaustion took over, everyone settled in but Steve. There was only one way for him to sleep, and he wasn't close to ready for it. He listened to Neal puzzle at it for a few minutes before he silently told the guitarist to shut up from his chosen perch by the living room windows. He wanted nothing to do with Jon's guest room, where Neal was, and not much to do with Neal, either. He had long nights to let everything sink in, a lot of them, and it was hitting home hard. There were still a number of gaps left unsealed by the way they'd come together and nearly been torn apart so far. So he was able to shut Neal out and hide a piece at a time without making it obvious. He had to. He didn't know any different, and he reasoned that it was too late to change anyway. He knew more than Neal thought.
* * *
The next morning, Neal called Smitty as soon as he was sure the hour was decent.
"Back from vacation?" Smitty said.
"Yeah," Neal said. "Not sure you wanna hear this, either. We got some shit coming down, and you need to stay out of it."
"Well," Smitty said, "I got news for you. You're not the one to decide that. I had a visitor while you guys were gone."
Neal felt another shoe drop somewhere, and wondered how many damn shoes there really were.
He listened to Smitty describe the guy to him, describe the conversation, and knew there was something they hadn't accounted for. Again. No one learns anything from being rescued.
Whoever he'd been, he'd claimed he wasn't a namer. Not a namer, no feeling of danger from him. What, then? Someone claiming - even insinuating - they might help was ten times worse, in Neal's mind. And in Steve's, because he heard every word even though he was out in the studio. Blue eyes, glowing in the daylight.
"Something else, come to call," Smitty said. "To me, especially, like I can do something. Not to Gregg, or Aynsley, or Deen, or anyone else still around that had contact with you guys. And he didn't bother trying to get to you guys, where you were. If he could."
"You were with us," Neal said. "Of all those guys, you were the only one left here who's been over there with us. You're as much a part of this as we are, part of the right wavelength."
"Yeah, well, the mix has changed," Smitty said. "These guys are slow to catch up, huh?"
Slow to catch up. "Mostly 'cause they're not linear," Neal said softly. "Listen...just..."
"I know," Smitty said. "Watch out, stay in touch, all that good stuff. You're the ones needing to watch out."
Gregg wasn't any less relieved to hear from him; and he knew Neal well enough to know he wasn't getting anything but a skim off the top of the real story. Neal got away in that case with a promise to catch him up when they could. As soon as he got off the phone, Liz asked him if he wanted to get out with them for awhile; she and Ross and Jon were going to drop the kids off at her parent's and go Christmas shopping, and try and pretend life was normal for awhile. Then Ross was going to head home and try and return to his life, for however long the peace lasted. Aug had lined up a flight home for the next morning.
"Where's Steve?" Liz said.
"Out back, trying to get some distance," Neal said, and he meant nothing by it, but he got a feeling of annoyance back from Steve anyway.
Liz was looking at him carefully, and he just didn't want the scrutiny. "I'm gonna stay," he said. "Keep anything from eating the prima donna. You guys go ahead."
It was Deen who proved to be the most difficult, when they called the drummer to let him know they were fine. He drove up from Portland the next day.
They took him out to the studio and sat around like it was a casual band meeting.
"Okay," Deen said. "So, where've you guys been?"
"Someplace you can't get to from here," Neal said. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Deen said. "You guys don't have to tell me where you got off to, if you don't want. I just wanna know what that was in the studio."
"It was looking for us," Jon said. "I don't know where to start. It wasn't anything we can even describe to you."
"There wasn't anything to see," Deen said. "But I heard it, I knew it was there. I knew enough to not let it see me. It would've killed me, if it had, right?"
"Yeah," Neal said. "It would've. You saw what it did to the studio."
Deen nodded. "Is it gone?"
"No," Jon said. "That's why we gotta get a couple of things settled. Not gonna lie to you. There's stuff that comes with being in this band. We didn't say anything before, because we thought it was over."
Deen raised an eyebrow but shrugged. He glanced at Steve, who hadn't spoken yet, trying to figure out why he was there without asking.
"Hi Deen," Steve said. "Welcome to the Journey Collective. I'm your tour guide, Seven of Neal."
Neal cursed aloud, but inside he laughed. Hard. He was just careful to play it cool in front of Deen. Aug snorted but kept a straight face otherwise.
Deen wrinkled his brow in good-natured confusion, and Steve realized that was what annoyed him about the drummer; everything was always fine.
Neal countered the assessment immediately. You don't know him.
"I'm part of this too," Steve said. "Me being out of the band doesn't mean I got loose. So you gotta consider what that means, that if you get involved, leaving won't save you. But the guys we're in trouble with won't necessarily want anything to do with you, depending. You ever get things to move without touchin 'em, anything like that?"
Deen swallowed, hard. "No. You guys shitting me?"
Aug shook his head. "We want to be."
"This is kinda hard to wrap my brain around," Deen said. "If it wasn't for the thing in the studio, you know, I'd be accusin' you guys of trying to send me snipe hunting."
"Not any easier for me, man," Aug said. "I was there and I still can't get a handle on it."
"You want more proof?" Steve said, and Jon shot him a hard look.
"Like what?" Deen said, eyes darting between Jon and Aug.
Every lock in the studio - equipment, doors, windows, instrument cases - clicked audibly. The result was a sudden flurry of noise, a domino effect that began out of sight in the back room of Wild Horse and culminated at Deen's elbow when the latches on Neal's guitar case locked themselves in place. Deen jerked away, gaining his feet. "Okay, what the fuck?"
"That's enough," Jon said without looking at Steve. "I think he gets it."
"Which one of you was that?" Deen said, knowing he'd heard and seen it, convinced that it was more than sleight of hand.
"It's just a trick," Steve said. "Just a little thing. If I wanted, I could paint the walls in here with you. If Neal felt like it, he could rewind the last several minutes of your life over and over, and you'd never know you were living them again."
"He fucking gets it," Jon snapped.
"He doesn't," Steve said, turning suddenly to Jon, his voice still conversational. "Deen, nobody gets in this band without getting called. You better figure out what it is you do, and get a handle on it, before you do something you don't mean to."
Deen was listening carefully, trying to stay calm, staring between them. "This all true?" he said to Neal.
Neal nodded. "And a lot more," he said.
Deen glanced at Jon, and before he could say anything, Jon said, "I don't know what I do."
"Jon reverses things," Steve said immediately. "He puts things back the way they were, good or bad."
Jon looked away, his mouth a white, tense line.
Deen looked at Aug.
"I found out I'm a lite version of Neal," Aug said. "Everybody seems to have something going around. Can you deal?"
Deen stared between them again, blowing out a nervous breath. "Gotta think about this."
"About what it means to you, or whether you can deal?" Aug said.
"Both, man," Deen said. "I ain't leavin', though. Not over weird supernatural shit."
"Hell, after you've toured with Ozzy, nothing's scary," Neal said. "Nobody wants to replace you, but nobody wants you lookin' over your shoulder all the time either. Shit can get very odd around here, Deeno."
"It's a lot to swallow," Deen said. "I mean....I don't know."
Steve tipped Neal's beer bottle off the nearest amp with a finger, sending it to the cement. He had a 50/50 chance between a bounce or a break, but it landed the way he'd hoped, shattering on the floor. Deen startled and took a step back, and Jon kicked Steve's chair. "I already said it was enough, Perry."
"Not nearly," Steve said, keeping his eyes on Deen. "Put it back together, Jon. Make it like it never happened."
"This isn't a fuckin' sideshow," Jon said.
"I guess we can wait for the Ender to waltz back in here so Deen can get a real demonstration," Steve said. "I guess we can wait for something severe to happen, right?"
Jon cursed under his breath and knelt by the remnants of the bottle with no idea of what would happen. He'd never tried it with an inanimate object before. He was inwardly pleased to discover that it was easy, much easier than flesh and bone. The bottle and its contents wound into his hand, the break reversed.
Deen's mouth was open by then.
That was as much for Jay as it was Deen, Neal thought. Since when are you crafty?
Steve ignored him. "Look at that, Castronovo. How old is your kid?"
Jon rounded on Steve again, but Neal said, "Hey, Jon."
Deen was still looking at the bottle in Jon's hand. "His name's Kyle," he said. "My boy's name is Kyle."
"Everybody's got kids involved except me and Ross," Steve said. "Nobody else has a choice about all this right now but you. You get to decide if you want in this mess. Nobody's gonna sugar coat it or go easy on you. We're getting chased by shit that walks through walls, and people, and between realities. You're dealing with people that do shit like this without thinking. Choose between sane and normal, or Journey."
Deen held a hand out to Jon wordlessly, and Jon handed the bottle over. Deen turned it over in his hands, marveling that the small amount of beer that had been in the bottle when it fell was back in it. The floor was dry. "This is....magic," Deen said.
"No," Jon said, "it's not. It looks like it at first. It's just the way we're built and the way we deal with the world. If it was magic we could just put it away and promise not to use it anymore. It would be a fairy tale where we just destroy the talisman or whatever and rid the world of the dark powers. It's not that cut and dry."
Deen put the bottle back where it had started.
"Sleep on it," Neal said.
"You guys want rid of me?" Deen said, and the slightest edge crept into his tone.
"No," Neal said. "We came lookin' for you in the first place, asshole. Nobody's changed their mind. It's not about the band anymore. It's about who's left standing."
Deen looked around the studio again, thinking about what had kicked in the door. "I got a lot of questions," he said.
"We'll answer what we can," Neal said. "There might be years to do it in, or they might be on us an hour from now. So back off awhile and absorb it."
Deen nodded. Then he slowly walked out.
"He'll stay," Aug whispered. "Because he thinks he'll regret it otherwise."
* * *
After some argument, Steve ended up taking Aug to the airport the next morning. Neal was headed to San Bernadino to be with Amber that afternoon as well. So they'd all wanted to go; but Steve had warded everyone off at the last without explaining his insistence. He didn't need to. Finally, lamely, Neal had taken one final shot.
"You can't tell what colors the traffic lights are."
"Aug can navigate for me on the way there, and you on the way back," Steve said with no small amount of obstinance. "All of you just fuckin' leave me alone, you especially. Say goodbye, Aug."
Aug had shrugged and said nothing about it, just said his goodbyes and followed along.
The first few minutes in the car were silent; Steve cursed periodically and squinted at things, and Aug was torn between laughter and fear. "I can drive," the singer said.
"So can I," Steve said.
"Be real ironic if we got killed in a car wreck, after all this," Aug said.
"Shut up, wiseass," Steve said.
"I don't wanna leave you guys," Aug said. "I just..."
"I know," Steve said. "Look...we feel safer together, but that's not all of it."
"I know the Ender doesn't care about me, that I'm not in danger," Aug said. "I'm tryin' to say I've only known you for maybe a week of days in real time, but I don't wanna be as far from you as I'm goin'."
Steve kept his eyes straight ahead, feeling a moment of amazement. "I don't feel any different," he said softly. "We don't have all that much time left, and I know you got questions."
Aug nodded a little, looking out the passenger side window for a moment, at the bustle of traffic. "What're you guys gonna do, when the Ender gets loose?"
"Dunno," Steve said. "More of the same, probably. Except this time, we don't let him inside arm's length."
"I don't think he's gonna wait for that, next time," Aug said. "How are you gonna...I don't know, how would you know if he got loose?"
"I think I'll know," Steve said. "I think the tree'll warn me, no matter where I am." He paused. "Shit, where's the branch?"
"At Jon's," Aug said. "You think I'd get it on a plane?"
"But that's yours," Steve said, and he realized he was genuinely upset. "That's..."
"Steve," Aug said. "It's okay. It's mine to leave where I want. It's okay at Jon's. Maybe it's meant to be there. I think you better keep it, so you'll have a more direct connection or something."
Steve sighed through his nose, glancing sideways at Aug.
"So when the Sedhians catch on and decide to chop the tree down, you got a way to stop 'em?" Aug said.
Steve looked at Aug with surprise. He felt Neal pay sudden attention, and with it came an imagined mind's-eye view of the female firethrower eyeing the tree thoughtfully.
"Didn't think of that, did you," Aug said.
"Thanks," Steve said. "Really needed something else to worry about. Change the goddamn subject."
"Okay, then," Aug said. "What's 'walking between'? Neal hasn't said much. He got anything to add, before we have to do it from a distance?"
Steve allowed himself a moment to chastise Neal internally. Neal was resolute. I don't know much more. What am I, now, a fuckin' expert? "Walking between is placeline stuff," Steve said. "Sort of skirting around the edges of things. No time, just place. Like you."
"Some folks can walk time a little," Steve said. "Rewind a few things, a little at a time. Some folks can get from place to place, a little or a lot. But there are only six beings in Existence who can do both and mean it. Neal is one of those beings. He's a multiverse-type walker, I guess you'd call it. Anywhere, anytime."
"With a price," Aug said.
Steve nodded. "But not anymore. A multiverse walker with the Er Rai in his personal space means all places, all times, forever, no limit, no price."
"Well," Aug said, "I'd call the Ender and the namers a price, I think."
Steve was silent, and Aug turned a little in his seat. "I'm sorry," he said.
"For what?" Steve said. "Telling the truth? Somebody's gotta do it, I guess. I'm sorry we dragged you into this. I'm sorry that this isn't the end of it, that you might get in even deeper later on, that stuff might get a lot worse."
Once at the airport, they walked through the first checkpoint together and sat, watching planes take off and land. They spoke only of everyday things after that, common things that people who want to be friends trade with each other. Touring stories.
When a voice overhead called Aug's flight number, Steve said, "If you see anything -"
"Come on," Aug said. "Don't start that shit with me. We're past it. If I get officially visited, you guys'll know. If you see anything, make sure and call me so I can come save your ass. But tell them to wait until I get a good flight."
Steve didn't want to laugh, but he didn't have much choice.
Aug stood, slapping Steve on the shoulder as he did so. "You gonna be hanging around, when I come back out next month?"
"Yeah," Steve said, knowing he could be lying, knowing that it was all too possible that he and Neal wouldn't make it, for any number of reasons. "Seeing Neal is seeing me, now."
Aug nodded, reaching down for his carryon. Steve stood to face him.
"Save up your questions, punk," Steve said, and the words were Neal's.
"I'll get your ass on the phone, collect," Aug said. "Schon. We'll see who's got questions."
Steve grinned. Aug stepped forward into him for a brief embrace. Then he was gone, into a milling surge of travelers.
I'm gonna miss him, Steve thought. Is he really like this?
You hung with him in a bad situation, Neal answered. You tell me.
* * *
Steve took his time getting back out to the parking area and getting through the traffic. He was in no hurry, and made it apparent. But not the why of it.
What's with this? Neal thought. What, now you've got time to mope, so you pull the same old shit and try to avoid everybody?
"I don't wanna be stuck somewhere yet where there's just you and me," Steve said. "Then there's not enough distraction, and we end up dealin' with each other."
Neal stared into space miles away. "I can't believe you sometimes," he said out loud. "I can't believe you most of the time. Did you just tell the goddamn truth on the first try?"
"Once I sleep with someone, I give 'em one free non-bullshit moment," Steve said.
Neal muttered an unintelligible curse that Steve caught nonetheless.
"You knew it anyway," Steve said. "Why I bother saying anything is anybody's guess. We got a long, long time to do the whole invasion of privacy thing, so get out of here. It's Christmas."
I can't leave you at my place alone, and I don't think it's a good idea for you and Jon to be in each other's space.
"Yeah, he thought the same thing about us," Steve said. "And now look where we are."
Neal sighed, more from weariness than anything else. But he had to get to Amber, and he didn't want her out there. Not yet. Not until things were settled or over.
"And you can't risk her finding out about us," Steve said.
Neal rolled his eyes, realizing what he'd let slip. Leave it alone, he thought.
"Should've thought of that prior to the whole cave thing," Steve said.
Perry, Neal thought.
"Oh wait," Steve said, filling the silence as fast as he could. "There is no 'us', in the common sense. Maybe you better ask Amber if she wants to double date for the rest of her life before you marry her."
The marrying part is up for debate, Neal thought. Don't start.
"What do you call a one night stand that goes on forever?" Steve said.
"Perry," Neal said aloud, and there was more warning in it than he'd wanted there to be. "I got to," he said. "Even if I didn't need to, I want to."
"We gotta learn to do this, sooner or later," Steve said. "What happened over there everytime we were apart won't necessarily happen over here."
You're full of shit," Neal thought. That would've almost worked, once.
Steve shrugged. "We gotta find out what happens." He paused. "We're gonna be around for that, right?"
Neal didn't move or speak. He tried not to think, just blanked his mind, and knew he was giving Steve the answer in doing so. The answer was in the dread in his thoughts, the affirmation that came from knowledge. He couldn't hide it completely.
"Then it won't make any difference," Steve said. "Gonna live forever, but only for a short time, huh?"
Neal kept quiet and still. Adding his own worry and fear to the mix would make things worse.
"We gotta set a few...boundaries," Steve said.
Neal didn't respond, but there was some vague acknowledgment in his mind.
"Any idea where we should start?" Steve said.
Neal still didn't respond, trying to keep his thoughts still. Trying not to start the conversation.
Steve let it go for a moment, then said, "We can't live together."
Neal nodded to himself. I know.
Steve grinned, then sobered. He focused carefully on Neal, seeing what he saw for a moment. Neal knew what he was getting at. He had to. "You gotta decide on how to do it," Steve said.
Neal looked at the ceiling, reaching for patience. I can't talk about this yet.
"There's no good time for this," Steve said. "You could go tomorrow, something stupid could happen to one of us. Something stupid by way of the Formless."
Neal didn't comment, but Steve caught his view on the subject.
You don't need me to say it, Neal snapped. Then he relented just as quickly. He couldn't tell the singer what he needed, not anymore. Not without feeling it first. "Shit," he said aloud. "Why do we have to go through the motions?"
Steve waited patiently, and Neal didn't like it.
"I don't want us to be common, even if we could be," Steve said. "I just want you to remember that. No matter how long we live."
I won't leave you here alive, Neal thought. I just can't handle it right now. I don't wanna start planning our deaths, okay?
Steve nodded. "I just want you to make sure I really am dead, that's all," he said. "I think you'll be the only one to judge that. The only one I can trust with it."
Steve, Neal thought wearily.
"I'm afraid of what I'll do to you, if it doesn't work," Steve said suddenly.
We can talk about this when I get back.
You act like you're really still able to walk away, Steve thought.
"Old habits die hard," Neal said aloud.
"You feel stupid talking to yourself in an empty house?" Steve said.
"You feel stupid talking to yourself in the car?" Neal said. "You took Aug out of here by yourself so you could say some stuff to him, but also so you didn't have to watch me leave. You're transparent whether I'm hooked up to you or not."
Good for you, Steve thought. So get the hell out of here. "Used to dealing with each other in a situation where we're runnin' for our lives," he said aloud. "Not in regular, everyday life. That takes some doing."
Neal shrugged. "Not worth anything, unless it takes some doin'." He didn't need to see Steve to know there was an eye-roll occuring.
"Novelty's gonna wear off," Steve said, "and then where are we?"
"Figurin' things out, like usual," Neal said. "Imagine that."
* * *
Neal was gone before Steve returned to Jon's, and Steve took the opportunity to gather what little of his stuff was there. He was going back to Neal's house to wait. And the hell with the rest of it.
"You don't have to go," Jon ventured, knowing it sounded lame, sounded like required politeness.
Steve afforded him a brief sideways glance. "You and Liz got catching up to do," he said. "I'm gonna get out of your hair. The fewer of us gathered in your house, the less of a target your family gets to be."
"I don't think it makes a difference anymore," Jon said, and his tone sounded defeated enough to make Steve face him.
"Be nice to have a plan, wouldn't it?" Steve said. "Be good to prepare for a few eventualities."
"You let me know if you come up with anything," Jon said. "'Cause I'm kind of out of ideas, here."
* * *
Neal's house was quiet and felt as if it had been empty for months, not a couple of weeks. He turned the TV on for company, and wandered room to room to make certain everything was as it should be. Nothing disturbed the silence, nothing knocked from beneath the floors. The Ender had not been alone when it had driven them out of the house the night after Thanksgiving. But whatever had been there had no interest or no energy to harass him then.
There was nothing on the news to warn him that he'd missed much; violence in the Middle East again, Y2K preparations, a local shooting. The world had gone on, would continue to go on, whether he was in it or not.
He ate, watched TV, read a couple of newspapers he'd picked up on the way. He tried to ignore Neal as the guitarist took a final exit off the freeway toward his destination. He tried not to care that it was getting dark, tried to tell himself it didn't matter that he could hear nearly everything Neal thought or felt despite the distance. Neal could be on the other side of the planet, or on another altogether, and they would be in each other's faces.
He got out of the car when Neal did, crossed a driveway, heard a door open and a saw a figure come flying toward him in the glow of a patio light. It was Steve she was running toward as much as Neal, and she didn't know it. Steve wanted to make a comment, but it died quickly when confronted with blue eyes and blond hair and adoration in a young face. She was a warm mouth and silken skin and a scent of something light and floral. She was in his arms, her laughter was in his ears, and he wanted nothing more than to run.
Not his. Either of them.
He met faces that Neal already knew, Amber's sister, the sister's husband. Amber's fingers were twined in his, everything she did grateful for his presence, her eyes frightened but her mouth smiling. She was desperate with fear of losing him, she was screaming it with her eyes and didn't know how visible it was. She was barely into her twenties and remained that age at heart even if she carried herself much older. Neal was a mirror of the same emotions, and Steve had never felt like such a voyeur in his life.
Neal loved her. God, how he loved her.
Unable to tear his attention away, Steve listened to an evasive conversation about where Neal had been for so long, why he'd been gone. He watched a glance between the sister and her husband, watched them excuse themselves and leave the house to leave Neal and Amber alone.
Tell her, Steve thought. Tell her the truth and get it done.
Neal ignored him. He never lied to her; but he never told her the truth either. He hadn't meant to scare her, but he hadn't been able to get ahold of her. There'd been an emergency with an old friend of the band's that was in trouble, out of the country. He'd been too dumb, too thoughtless, to leave a note. And when she asked him about the studio, about the damage she'd seen when she'd come to look for herself, he told her it was connected. That was it, and she accepted it, because she had been with him long enough to love him but not to push him. She only embraced him, and the embrace easily became more because they had the house to themselves.
Steve crumpled the newspaper between his hands, realizing what was happening. I'm going to kill you, he thought. You can't. You can't do this now.
Think of something else, Neal thought.
Steve actually laughed aloud to the empty house. A cold shower, he thought. I'm thinking of a cold shower.
But he didn't move. He couldn't. Clothes came off miles away and he meant to wander the house or throw himself down the stairs or anything but get dragged in where he didn't belong. He'd meant to say you can't do this *to me* but Neal hadn't caught it because they weren't sealed up...and would never be as close as the couple he was trying to ignore.
One ragged breath, another, and it didn't matter who it belonged to. Time and circumstance blurred; there was unbearable warmth, an arching of hips. Cool, slender fingers trailing where they would. A sharing of trembling limbs and slow, gentle shivers of pleasure.
Oh God. God, we didn't...why didn't we realize -
Steve sank to the floor and stayed there, the couch at his back and the wall to his right. He felt like he was trying to hide, to go unnoticed, to vanish altogether. But the harder he tried to squeeze into the corner, the more he became part of the distant couple. He closed his eyes and tilted his face to the ceiling. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty...the square root of 64 is 8, E=mc2, 12 x 12 is 144. Oh God!
Somewhere beneath the guilt over the feeling of voyeurism, beyond the shock of emotion and physical feeling, was something else, something hidden deep that slipped free from Neal while the boundaries were left unguarded. An arch of throat, a tumble of dark hair. An image of himself, the feel of his own skin beneath Neal's hands...
And deeper yet, a darker truth.
He opened his eyes to the ceiling, soaked in sweat, startling out of the vision. He was able to see his own surroundings again, feel the wall. There was a pause, between himself and Neal and Amber, a quick acknowledgment that something was out of place.
"Neal," Amber whispered, touching his face. Their eyes met, and it could have been the dimness of the room, or the intensity of the moment, but she didn't recognize him. It was gone in an instant, but it startled her, and he felt it. Neal dropped his face to her throat, then lower, reveling in her, trying to drive the rest of it away.
"I love you," he breathed, moving again, hearing her gasp, feeling an echo of it miles away.
"Prime numbers are divisible by themselves and 1," Steve said aloud in a shallow voice. A ragged breath caught in his chest and held in a shock of sensation.
They were coming apart. That he knew already. But that Neal was dying, that he'd found a solution and made a choice to discard it, that was new. The knowledge slammed into him with no less shock than Neal's climax did, and he heard his own voice sob with it.
When Neal was aware enough of himself to do it, he apologized, but it rang hollow.
* * *
Two miles away, Jon startled, his hands becoming fists and slamming down on the keyboard of the baby grand in his practice room. The hammers inside the instrument complained loudly, and he didn't care.
* * *
The next morning, Jon called Neal's number. When Steve didn't pick up, he had a moment of wondering if the singer could, but it didn't keep him from sounding pissed off when he got the answering machine and told Steve to come over. Not asked; told.
Steve complied and wasn't certain why. Human contact, maybe, or knowing the chance to clear the air would do both him and Jon some good. So long as it wasn't in front of anyone, he didn't mind. Neal was on the way back, was driving and complaining about traffic and stupid people in general. A long way from contrite, and too distracted.
Steve went around to the back entrance, past the dog's kennel. They didn't smell or hear him. He unlocked the door with a thought and let himself in.
Jon and Liz were both in the kitchen, and from the looks of it, the conversation had already started. "What the fuck is going on?" Jon said to Steve.
"Let me guess what this is about," Steve said wearily.
"Right," Jon said. "And since now I'm getting it from your end, no pun intended -"
"Jonathan," Steve said shortly, "you only get edges because we have the capability of blocking you out most of the way. Me and Neal can't block each other out, ever."
"I know that," Jon snapped. "You--"
"Neal's with Amber, " Steve said. "You know that. He's gonna marry her."
Jon fell silent. And stared.
"You get it?" Steve said. "I got nothing to do with whatever you feel."
After a long moment, Jon nodded.
"You just be content with your edges," Steve said.
"For all we know, you're the one who 'pushed' him in the first place," Jon said suddenly.
Steve paused to look at him, really look at him. The singer's steady stare was expectant, waiting for Jon to come right out and say the rest of it. Because it wasn't like Jon to hit and run, or insinuate.There'd been no warning that Jon was going to pick up on a path they'd already beaten. Steve was getting blindsided, and he knew it.
"You've made other people do things they didn't want to," Jon said.
"Jon," Liz said.
Steve went on staring at him, no incrimination or anger visible in it. "Anything else you wanna accuse me of, while I'm here?" he said. "Any other ways of calling me a monster? You could've done this over the phone."
Jon shrugged and looked away. "He never will see you," Jon said. "He's gonna chew you up and spit you out when he gets tired of you."
"Jonathan," Liz said, and there was real anger in it this time.
Steve walked away, out the front this time, knowing Jon had intended to get him over there only to drive him off. He was only trying to look out for Neal, after all. That didn't keep it from hurting, and it didn't keep Neal from actually pulling off the road in his anger.
Go back in there, Neal thought. I got stuff to say.
The last thing I need right now is your words coming out of my mouth, Steve thought. Don't get me accused of talkin' for you.
Liz let things settle for a moment. Then she said, "You know better."
"Yes," Liz said. "If you're trying to drive them both into the ground, you're doing fine. It isn't like you to be that ornery, even with people you're angry at."
Jon shrugged again. "There's a lot that's not like me, these days," he said. Then his eyes went a little out of focus, and the world tipped.
* * *
Steve got as far as the edge of the lawn before the world opened up on him. It was a replay of the desert in Athyri; something was tearing loose because it couldn't hold on with what little anchored it. Something in the space between gave.
He tried not to scream, just went on gasping for air instead, able to hear nothing but that. Nothing he did was going to stop it or make it easier, it would just go on tearing him - them - apart. He still grabbed for shreds of connection with incorporeal hands, grasping for Neal the way he would have tried to capture one of the Keepers. Neal was already unconscious, there was no input from him, sensory or otherwise. There was just a large, dark space with a sense of Neal to it.
It was much, much harder on this side. Athyri didn't have the pull on them that this world did.
He was unable to huddle into any more of a ball than he already had, and he was unaware that both Jon and Liz were holding on to him by then. Not until the pain began to recede a little, the way it did after an injury had done all the damage it was going to. Light and sound returned, the discomfort of being soaked in sweat. His hands were cramped, he'd been gripping at the grass so hard, and he'd bitten into his lower lip. He reached out, encountering hands, and he didn't care about anything but that small connection.
"I'm sorry," he said aloud to no one and everyone in particular, for everything, for nothing. "I'm sorry."
"How bad is it?" Jon said. "Are you guys -"
Steve forced himself to sit up, to push away from Jon but still keep a hold on him. "Take a lot more than that to do it," Steve said. "It's just a lot harder over here. Gonna go on getting harder, the longer he lets it." He paused for air. "You asked me to tell you if I came up with a plan, didn't you? I got it."
He wouldn't explain what he meant by that.
* * *
Neal was home two hours later, exhausted with what had happened at Jon's. It had occurred to him, over and over, of what would have happened had he not pulled over. The world, short one walker/guitarist, a little sooner than he'd planned.
Steve sat by the window, and the light was kind to him in a way it hadn't been for a long time. It could have been the changes that had taken place, or the fact that nothing could kill him except Neal, or any number of things. Right then none of that mattered. The moment Neal walked into the house they were in each other's space again, and it was a relief.
Steve had his hands clasped between his knees and kept his eyes down. "I saw it," he said softly. "I saw what you did to get us home, and why it was so easy."
"I know," Neal said. "I don't care about the rest of it. But you gotta know, that won't work." Not just you existing for me to use.
"It'd work a lot better than this will," Steve said. "We'd all be safer."
"And you'd be worse than dead," Neal said. "That's okay with you?"
Steve shrugged. "You gotta admit that it's gonna work better in the long run. It's not just you and me, in this."
Neal had nothing to answer with, but his thoughts ricocheted with confusion and annoyance. "Better," he repeated.
"Accept it," Steve said.
"No," Neal said. "This's a copout, this's you just -" escaping like usual but he didn't get to finish. He didn't need to. The words weren't necessary.
"I'm gonna do it anyway," Steve said. "I'll be a key you can just carry around, if you like symbolism."
"You're not gonna do this," Neal said, beginning to lose his grip on his temper. "You're not just gonna make this decision and do whatever you want."
"It's my fucking life," Steve said, rising and taking a step forward, bringing them inches apart.
"It's our life," Neal said. "This decision is fifty percent mine, Steve. This is us, this is everything. You're not just hurting yourself this time."
"What do you want!" Steve shouted, hands reaching out to shove Neal, making contact. Neal stumbled a step away and stared, hearing everything before Steve said it, hearing the real questions that words couldn't touch. "I can count a million days where you couldn't wait to get rid of me, when you wanted me to vanish, when you tried to forget me! This is what I want, this is the best thing for everybody, and now you're all for keeping me around?"
Neal kept his distance, his thoughts an echo of Steve's words and volume and nothing else. He was completely in the moment for once, unable to rush ahead to what he wanted - or meant - to say. Had he only been an external witness to Steve's anger, he could have tuned it out like he had every other time. But linked like they were, Steve was a physical embodiment of his own emotions.
One of the living room windows behind Steve cracked, a jagged hairline in the upper right corner.
Sound and fury, signifying nothing.
"What the fuck do you want from me, Neal?" Steve said, lowering his voice and taking a breath, trying to keep from inviting destruction into the room. "You like this? You like dragging me around?"
"I'm not -"
"I wasn't able to do anything to get away," Steve said. "One of us is gonna end up an accessory to the other, assuming we live. I'm gonna be nothing more than baggage soon anyway, with the two of you at each other like that. We've got no way of finishing what we started, and I'm not up for experimentation. What do you want?"
Neal just stared.
"You can't answer the fucking question," Steve said with a laugh. "Jesus, you don't even know, you just have this bullshit idea about right and wrong."
"I wanna see how it all turns out," Neal said. "Don't you?"
Steve was silent a moment, catching his breath. "I've seen it, Neal," he said softly, sitting down again. "And you can tell me it'll be different this time, but it doesn't matter. I'm not interested in going on as long as we're going to, or waiting for something to happen to you, or fighting the goddamn Ender again. We're coming apart. You're not gonna survive it. So what do you want?"
Neal didn't answer. Steve had hit the mark; he didn't know. Maybe it just didn't seem right to carry the singer around as nothing more than some small object, assuring himself of life and victory against whatever came calling.
"To go the hard way," he said finally. "Like usual."
* * *