I could be golden, I could be glowing, I could be freedom
But that could be boring.
--Alanis Morissette, Fear Of Bliss

Memory Bound - Chapter XXVI
(c)2002 B Stearns
______________

Over Steve's protests, the first thing Neal wanted to do was go over to Jon's.

"The longer we let this sit, the more it's in our way," Neal said.

"You're not gonna go over there and make a scene," Steve said.

"We're gonna go over there and straighten this shit out," Neal said. "You want me to start dragging you around like you don't matter? Fine. Here's where it starts."

Steve just looked at him for a long moment, and there was no struggle in his thoughts.

"Shit," Neal said. We're in enough trouble as it is, and we gotta do this with each other?

"No," Steve said. "We don't."

Neal was silent for a moment, trying not to be angry. "I'm going over there. You can stay here and listen to us talk about you from a distance, or you can get insulted to your face." Then he walked out.

Steve waited a moment, then followed.

* * *

Jon would have been more surprised had Neal not shown up, but he was surprised to see Steve again on the same day. Had they had a similar argument years earlier, it would have been days or even weeks before he saw the singer again, whether they were on a recording schedule or not.

"You wanna do this here, or you want me to kick your ass outside?" Neal said softly, too softly for anyone but Jon to hear. Steve heard because he had no choice.

"Nothin' to discuss," Jon said.

"Yeah," Neal said. "Gotta discuss the bug that's been up your ass since we got back. We got enough trouble without tearing each other down, don't you think?"

Jon turned wordlessly and left the house, heading to the studio.

Steve and Neal looked at each other for a moment. Liz was nowhere in sight, and neither of them bothered to speculate on it. Then Neal followed Jon, and Steve tagged after, acknowledging that he was waiting for Neal to start whatever he was going to this time.

Jon had thrown himself into a chair, and it would have easily been a replay of Thanksgiving if not for the reversal in roles between Jon and Neal. The look on Jon's face, his posture, indicated he was waiting for a lecture that he could suffer through and discard.

Neal sat close enough to Jon to make a point but not close enough to invade his space. He turned a chair backwards, set it in front of Jon and straddled it. Standing above him would piss him off and create even more dissension. Steve remained standing as close to the door as he dared without trying to look defensive. It was a struggle.

"Say it," Neal said. "Come right on out and say whatever it is."

"Why?" Jon said. "You hear anything and everything anyone says to Steve, and if you don't, I'm pretty sure you get it eventually."

"No," Neal said. "Actually, since we're coming apart and weren't that solid in the first place, lots of stuff gets missed. I'm gonna be patient with you about this because I know you're trying to figure shit out. You and me have been through too much to start all this dancing around. So what do you have to say?"

Jon was silent.

"Nobody's happy about this last trip, Jon," Neal said.

Jon kept his gaze somewhere between Neal's head and the ceiling.

"Jonathan," Neal said, "I don't need to tell you that none of this is over, but I'm sitting here doing it anyway."

"I don't wanna do this right now," Jon said. "Nobody's got time for it, but I need some fuckin' space."

"You have a lot more space than you realize," Steve said.

Without looking at him, Jon said, "Yeah, I guess so. No one was pushin' me to fuck anyone else."

Neal put his head in his hands with almost comical weariness, believing that things had gotten bad enough to just watch from the sidelines.

"Let me tell you something, Jon," Steve said.

"You will whether I 'let' you or not," Jon said.

Neal sighed, knowing the moment had to play itself off. What confused him was the genuine anger he got from Steve - not the anger itself, but what caused it. He was hurt, but he was also a little afraid of Jon. That was new.

"You remember, when Escape was released?" Steve said. "The release party? Probably not, you were drunk off your ass. Drunk enough to fuckin' cry when I hassled you."

Jon's tone was chill. "I remember."

"Not well enough," Steve snapped. "Herbie told you you'd met your match, didn't he. He said you'd finally met someone who was a bigger prick than you. Jay, I'm still the bigger prick."

"No argument," Jon said.

"I love you, nothin' you can do about that," Steve said. "But you're not gonna fuck with me. I'll sit you down."

Jon's eyes finally snapped to Steve. "Don't threaten me," he said.

"Already done," Steve said. "Keep your namer alter-ego in check, or I'll help you. We got one goal now, and it's keeping the goddamn Formless off us. Choose a side and stay there. If you're gonna be an asshole, do it because it's how you really feel. Not because something else is 'pushing' you."

"I think I'd know," Jon said. "I'm not just waiting for an excuse and calling it a choice."

"Yeah?" Steve said. "We wouldn't've been able to stop if we'd wanted to. So don't tell me about choices. We ran out of them. I don't care if you like it or not, it's the way it is, and it was preferable to dying, wasn't it?"

Lay off. That, from Neal.

Before Jon could say anything or react, Steve added, "How desperate would I have had to be, to do this? When I wouldn't even let you in without a fight? As much as you love him, you couldn't handle this. Not even if it was Liz, could you handle this, because it means losing every bit of privacy. So fuck you and your choices."

Jon looked like he was surprised and trying to hide it. He'd never been good at hiding anything.

"Deal with yourself and how much of all this you think is true," Neal said. "Let's get the fuck out of this, if we can, or at least figure out how to go on. Then you wanna be pissed at us for anything, I'll listen to all the shit you can throw. We owe each other that much."

Jon sat forward suddenly. "I don't need a fuckin' pep talk from you two," he said.

"So if you're getting one, I guess you gotta realize how much you're scaring us," Steve said.

Jon looked at him for a long moment. Then he said, "So what're we gonna do?"

Silence.

"We've had this conversation before," Jon said, "but it was other people just talkin' about possibilities."

"It's the same people," Neal said. Then he was hit from behind with a possibility, a fear, from Steve. A namer, a snow-filled field, a hollow shell set loose on the living. Neal didn't remember chasing Jon, Ross and Smitty through Athyri after killing Steve, but Jon did, and Steve had picked it up from somewhere. From his own memory he augmented the scene with a tower and a will wielded like a blunt weapon. They all remembered, one way or another, what namers were capable of.

Jon was connected to Steve, and it would take little to do again what he had after Neal's fall: rifle Steve. After that, it was a short step to controlling both of them...

Neal rose suddenly, knowing Steve hadn't meant it as an excersize in paranoia, but out of real fear. Steve had known nothing from the namers but grief, and if they lost Jon to the same mindset, it wasn't unreasonable to expect more of the same.

Jon loves you, loves us, and wouldn't -

"Sooner or later, there's gonna be the Ender," Steve said. "We got kids shooting at us and who knows what walkin' up to Smitty in broad daylight. Sooner or later. We can fight whatever comes up and hope we make it, with me and Neal coming apart, or we can solve the problem."

"Goddamnit," Neal said aloud, but it didn't stop Steve.

"If Neal puts me away, we win," Steve said.

Jon looked between them. "Puts you away," he said, beginning to form a question with it, but pausing. "I know you guys aren't solid, I saw that much. And the Ender wants you because you're easy access to the Evenwhen. So if Neal just tucked you away, boom, no more of what happened earlier on the lawn, no more worrying about who's got possession of who. Neal becomes the badass of the universe and everybody gets to go home, game over."

Neal kept his eyes down, and Steve didn't say anything.

"And that's the ideal, right?" Jon said.

"The namers want it," Steve said.

"What about you?" Jon said to Steve.

"That's a whole separate conversation," Steve said.

"You brought it up as a possibility," Jon said. "You want us to vote on it, or what?"

"The 'or what' means running like hell, or maybe getting taken by the Ender, or maybe just general harassment," Steve said. "Voting is kind of moot on something like that."

"So you're gunning for martyr of the year again," Jon said.

Steve smirked. "The namers didn't push me and Neal into getting tangled just for the fun, Jon, despite what you think," he said. "They're gonna come for you, and I think the term was 'forcibly remove' you from this life. They got plans for us, and we can decide if we agree to that or not."

"There's no way," Neal said.

"We made a mess of some stuff," Jon said. "But we didn't start it."

"I did damage," Steve said. "Somebody's gotta pay for it," Steve said, and he was already wincing from the direction of Neal's thoughts, before the words even hit the air.

"Somebody's gotta pay for Tracy," Neal said. "For all the Keepers, while we're at it. Somebody's gotta pay for that kid at the mall."

"Don't," Steve said, trying to talk over him, realizing it didn't help. There was no escaping Neal. There was no escaping the memory of the Keeper who had nearly killed Aug and the final plea it had made.

"Where's it stop?" Neal said. "You wanna start talking about fair, about justice, and all that other happy shit, Stephen?"

"Destruction is a form of creation," Jon said, purposely steering them elsewhere. "And if I didn't like creation, I guess I wouldn't want you guys around."

"We made them understand time," Steve said. "Jon, you livin' la vida linear over here, not knowin' who you are, introduced all kinds of stuff the Formless didn't know before. If you were immortal, would you really wanna know about bein' mortal?"

"I think so," Neal said.

"No," Jon said. "Because if you hadn't been exposed first hand to time or physical sensation, and you suddenly find out about it, it's gonna turn your whole way of thinkin' upside down."

"And some like it and some don't," Steve said, "but enough don't like it that they decide it's gotta stop. They started thinkin' about what they've been missing and how things feel when you have a deadline, how much more important everything is when you live rather than exist."

"We contaminated everything," Jon said. "When the namers said Existence they meant theirs because they didn't really understand anybody else's. When the Ender said Existence, he meant the way he'd come to understand it, and we fucked it up. They're awake now. Maybe it's good, or not. Nobody can fix that, without us agreeing to it. Because to really fuck something up--or go back and reverse it--you need access to the Evenwhen. And nobody gets that and gets out without you," he said to Steve. "Not even the namers." Not even me, he thought.

They were quiet for a long moment. Then Steve said, "Nowhere to run. Gotta fight, or put me away so there's nothin' to fight over. Then they'll come after Neal, so we're screwed no matter what."

"They won't necessarily come after Neal," Jon said.

"Jon," Neal said.

"He's right," Jon said. "You can argue about it, but he's right."

"And whether he's walkin' around or not, they're gonna come and have us doin' whatever they tell us to," Neal said. "If we can believe what the old lady said."

"And that kid is still out there," Steve said. "I know it. I can't explain it, but I know it. He's dead here, to this line, to this time and place, but not to others. And another version of me started most of this. So everybody's right about damage. How they expect us to do anything about it..."

"We know too much," Jon said. "Too much to put it all together in a short time, too much to think about. And nothing to do until someone comes along and speaks plainly."

"They're not going to," Neal said. "We're on our own. Which is why we're gonna call a truce with each other."

* * *

The ride back to Neal's wasn't any less emotional than things had been at Jon's.

"He's not gonna suddenly become namer of the year," Neal said. "You got no faith, in him, or us, or nothing."

What 'us'? Steve thought. "Faith. You wanna talk about faith?" he said aloud. "You actually thought I'd kill myself over Journey."

"You actually thought I would kill you over Journey," Neal said. "Wow, just imagine."

Steve stared at him, risking feedback.

"The band's my blood," Neal said. "But it's nothing to kill or die over."

They were silent until they got to Neal's. Once Steve got inside, he said, "This is where we've always been, with each other. Same old bullshit."

"No," Neal said, tossing his keys on the coffee table and shrugging out of his jacket. "This is where we got ourselves to. We got awhile left to deal with, here, so how are we gonna spend it?"

"We're not gonna have time to do anything but keep each other out of trouble," Steve said.

"That's all you want?" Neal said, and Steve had already turned on him before the words were out.

"Fuck you," Steve said, voice trembling with anger.

"Grow up," Neal shot back.

They kept a decent physical distance, but no such luck on the inside.

From you? That, from YOU? Steve's inner voice needed no airing; it was plain on his face, screamed in body language. "You had your chance. No one needs you coming up with bullshit like that now. Not now."

"This's all the time we have," Neal said. "To do whatever we're gonna."

"The namer told you I was yours," Steve said. "So figure it out."

"The namers have told us a lot of shit," Neal said.

"All I want," Steve said, "is for this to have never happened. Any of it. I wish I'd never seen you, never heard you play, never felt anything. I can't have that, because even if you went back and changed the line now, this still happened, we still had this conversation. I can't have it, and when they pull us apart you'll die, and if we just stand around and wait we'll fall apart and you'll die."

"I think I'm up to speed, now," Neal said with audible and internal sarcasm.

"Doesn't look like it," Steve said. "Put me away and go on your own way, or die."

"You gotta try and get out of everything," Neal said. "You never change. This isn't comfortable, this won't ever be comfortable! You wait long enough, you won't have to worry about it anymore, I'll be gone, okay?"

Steve just stared.

Neal looked away. "I got nothing left right now but to yell stuff at you I don't mean," he said. But his feelings didn't match the words; he had meant them. He was tired.

"I know," Steve said, then switched gears so quickly that Neal had to catch up. "How much of Jon do you think we have, between us? If we have to remind him of who he is."

Neal looked at him again, thoughts getting a little wary as he caught the track Steve was on. Just before he shut down and veered away, concentrating hard on something else, there'd been a glimmer of -

Neal got up and walked away, the one to play the avoidance game, just that once.

Hey - he got to me, before, without the physical, Steve thought. It wasn't easy, but he did. It doesn't have to be done that way. I'm just sayin', he may need us to remind him. It'll be up to us, to make sure he gets the choice.

Steve listened to Neal's faintly rattled overall thought process, and averted enough attention to keep from centering on his discomfort. Where the hell you think you're goin'?

Neal stopped in the kitchen with a sigh. What if....he wants to go? What if bein' Formless is ...?

"Better?" Steve said aloud. "Perspective."

There was nothing to hear for a long moment but Neal's tinnitus. The faint ringing was less ominous to Steve by then, a single high note playing on forever.

Neal returned to him then, standing close in front of him. "I didn't realize you could hear it. I don't pay attention to it anymore."

"It's a C# above scale," Steve said, careful to look anywhere but Neal.

"Been runnin' in the key of high C all my life, anyway," Neal said. "Figures."

"He wants to go, he goes," Steve said. "But we'll make sure he knows what he's givin' up."

"I know," Neal said. "I mean -"

"Who are we?" Steve said.

Neal shook his head, thoughts a jumble of emotion. Annoyance, uncertainty, hope.

"You gonna leave Amber, and Jon and your kids? If we can believe any of this, you're one of the fuckin' Six," Steve said.

"Not leavin' nobody," Neal said. Not leavin' you.

"You sure?" Steve said, talking quickly to ignore that last part. "What if -"

"Shut up," Neal said, voice tight. The rest was if they wake you up too but he didn't want to hear it. "That's not the same. "That's not..." he trailed off, face set and annoyed but throat constricted, chest heavy with emotion. He wouldn't. He wouldn't forget this life, his memories, his humanity. Whether he was made aware of his history as a walker or not.

Steve held still to stay out of his way emotionally. Stubborn bastard.

Finally, Neal said, "I'm as awake as I need to be."

Steve shrugged. "You're supposed to have Christmas with your kids," he said. "So go do it. Go home, and just do that. If anything happens, we'll deal." I don't want to be out of your sight.

"What about you?" Neal said. You don't have to be.

"I wanna go home," Steve said. Bullshit, where are you getting off being all paternal all of a sudden?

"You're not spending it by yourself," Neal said. Asshole, you never let anybody get close enough to give a damn.

"No," Steve said. "I'll be having Christmas with you and your kids. There is no 'by yourself'." And so what?

Neal nodded. "Takes getting used to," he said. "Still..." Don't try and convince me to get rid of you by pretending you really are impossible. I know better, now.

"It'll be fine," Steve said. "Some almost-alone time would be good, right about now." He got up and walked away from Neal to keep himself from clapping his hands over his ears and running. Too late to get attached, he thought. It's already over, and you're gonna torture me with all this 'do the right thing' bullshit right up until it kills you.

Quitter.

"Goddamnit," Steve said aloud, "let's look at your history, okay? You've got pretty bad foresight for a time-traveller. You can't stay in a relationship because nothing is ever what you think it is."

"Okay," Neal said. "I'll play. You can't stay in a relationship because you're always afraid something will be what you think it is. Who's the bigger fuck-up? You're the one coming up with the relationship comparisons. This isn't a relationship you can screw with."

"This isn't a relationship," Steve said.

"Then what the fuck would you call it?" Neal said, gesturing at the air. "How much closer can two folks be?"

"Neal," Steve said, "You got what you wanted. You got confirmation that you can blame the namers for all this so far. You're off the hook. So I'd ask you again what you want, but, I can tell you don't know."

"It's never something you just throw away," Neal said. "No matter where it comes from."

"What is?" Steve said aloud, but his thoughts said he didn't want to hear anymore. Neal didn't have words for what he was trying to get at, but Steve had the gist long before Neal did. "What's something you never just throw away? A novelty?"

He never will see you. Jon's words. Steve couldn't help dredging them up, right down to Jon's tone and the look on his face. The memory was still too fresh to dull around the edges.

He's gonna chew you up and spit you out when he's tired of you.

"What do you want?" Neal said. "It wouldn't bother you so much, if you knew. No matter who said it. I don't know what the fuck is going on. Just because I can admit I don't, and you can't, don't shit on me."

Steve sighed. "I don't like you," he said. "I haven't liked you in a long time."

"I'm not too generally fond of you either," Neal said. "But we liked each other once, and you had a fuckin' crush -"

"Shut up," Steve said, and Neal had already fallen silent by the time the words hit the air. You don't know.

"I'm sorry," Neal said. He meant it.

"I don't need you keepin' me around to keep your conscience clear," Steve said. "I don't need you gettin' curious twenty fucking years later. When they come for Jon, I guess you can decide about your priorities then." He kept walking, needing to get out of immediate range, needing that illusion of distance.

You don't like me, but you'll die for me? Neal thought.

Steve paused. If he moved, or thought, things would get out that he didn't ever want loose. Neal had always known where his buttons were; now they were exponentially dangerous to each other. "I'm goin' home," he said.

* * *

Jon called him the next morning.

It had been another long, quiet night of something that reminded Steve of meditation, just sitting thoughtfully silent while Neal slept. He was desperately tired but didn't feel damaged by the lack of rest. He was careful not to look too closely at it or what the result might be. He simply kept his thoughts quiet and moved about only when necessary. Sometimes it was good just to be. So he was still in a thoughtful mood when the phone rang.

"It's Christmas Eve," Jon said without preamble. "Just...for Christ's sake, don't be so stubborn."

"You're not gonna try and bury the hatchet, are you?" Steve said. "In my forehead, I mean."

Jon wanted to make some wisecrack back, but what came out felt better. "It's not just the bitch session we've been having that's the problem," he said. "It's not just that I'm having a real problem with you guys. It's that I'm a namer, and being anywhere near me just gnaws on you."

Steve was silent for a moment, and Jon knew he'd hit ground zero on the first try. "I can't blame you," he said.

"Yeah, you can," Steve said. "Look, just say hi to Liz for me, and thank her for putting up with us and all this, huh? I'm gonna watch It's A Wonderful Life for the millionth time."

"We're not through," Jon said. "With each other. With a lot of things."

"No," Steve said. "I guess not."

When they hung up, Steve walked back through and checked the doors again out of habit. Everything was quiet, everything in its place.

Except him.

Far away, Neal was finishing breakfast at his parent's house. He was chastising Miles into helping with the dishes, and listening to his mother protest. It was an old game, in that house. Miles was asking if he could go back to his Gameboy, and Elizabeth was making endless guesses about what was under the tree. Steve could feel Neal's awareness of him, but knew that he was distracted enough to enjoy the moment and not focus on him. They were just far enough apart now in the space between to get away with it occasionally.

He was glad Jon had called. For some reason, it had been important.

Steve spent the day wandering, out looking at decorations and people-watching. Even though blue and orange were all he could make out, it was a good way to pass the time. He stayed away from anything resembling a mall, tried to pretend it was any other Christmas. Trying to pretend that alone was fine, was a good choice.

When it got dark, he sat with lights off and a single candle flickering on the coffee table in the living room. He settled in, feeling oddly peaceful for the first time since they'd made it back. Something had fallen under the coffee table and caught an occasional glint of candlelight. He leaned over slowly and picked it up.

His St. Christopher's medal. No sense wondering how it had gotten there. He'd spent so little time at home since the morning he'd been hit that it was no wonder he couldn't remember.

Steve passed the chain through his fingers, turning the medal over and over. There was a memory automatically attached to it, of his Catholic grandparents and the day it had been given to him. His confirmation into the Catholic church.

Patron saint of children and travel, he thought. Not a saint anymore. The church took it away.

Nothing lasts forever.

* * *

Christmas day, 1999

Neal's second ex, Beth, had both Miles and Ellie for the day, so Neal spent the morning with his mom and stepdad before heading back. He didn't want there to be that much space between him and Steve for any significant length of time, not only for the possible damage but to avoid another go-round with the pain it caused. Steve was purposely watching TV to try and keep from starting another conversation of any kind with him, and Neal was grateful for it. They'd burned each other out again.

Neal stopped by Jon's to say hello; then went home and called Amber. Left with the rest of the day, he decided to play for awhile and see what would come of it. He could think better, that way. He ate, conscious of the fact that Steve despised the mustard he ended up using on his sandwich.

I'm sitting here eating something and I like it and hate it at the same time, now, he thought. You're awfully quiet.

You've had stuff to do, Steve thought back.

"No," Neal said aloud. "Goddamnit, don't you plan your fucking day around me!"

Steve just shook his head, seeing Neal's point of view and disagreeing. I don't sleep, he thought unnecessarily.

"What, so if one of us needs to concentrate on something, the other has to shut up?" Neal said.

I dunno, I haven't done this before, Steve thought wryly. But yeah, if you--

"Stop," Neal said. "Just knock it off. Listen to yourself! Who the hell are you!"

Steve realized where he was going and shrugged.

"Don't preface everything by using me as an example," Neal said. "When did you become an extension of me? You're not my shadow. Quit acting like it. This's like the last thing I expected of you."

A hand landed on his shoulder, and for one strange, disjointed moment, Neal was certain it was Steve. But Steve's perspective didn't change, and the singer's nerves jangled with the same surprise.

Neal twisted around, fast. "What the fuck?"

Siarion smiled stonily and grabbed him. Neal saw a flash behind his eyes, and the physical world vanished.

* * *

He held the small sphere of light carefully in his hands, mildly uncertain about how to handle it but not about being the one who handled it. It was warm, it had weight; energy hummed from it on a level that very few heard.

It was a key. To everything.

The remainder of the Six hovered somewhere in the shadows behind him, in the background radiation that heralded what humans would later call the 'big bang'.

Existence had already been in place when he'd come along, the final Walker. Born to it, he was held to be the one who would move in it the easiest. The one who could hide in it.

One of them railed against it vehemently. Still another insisted there was no need for the key at all. One agreed with the necessity of it all, and the remaining two were unable to decide.

But he'd been certain all along. Existence had happened, and to be allowed to run its course, it needed to be safe from the Formless. From good and bad intentions both. Even the Formless agreed on that point. Existence would be guarded.

"You understand," the woman with silver eyes said kindly.

He nodded. The key must go back into the circle once every Turn. You decide which Turn--of a world's day, of a galaxy's rotation, of a timeline's loop.

Letting Existence choose random times and places for him and the key would keep him safe.

He would keep moving, and by doing so, keep the key from all eyes. He would never directly use it, but having it would make him capable of anything. He would never be invincible; he would only have the means to escape.

It meant being alone for the rest of time, while it ran. There were six of them to make certain it went on running until Existence wound down. He had chosen that path because he wanted to see it All.

The youngest Walker smiled into the light of the key and was gone, into everywhere and everything.

* * *

Alone, alone, alone. How many turns? How many close calls? An eternity, with nothing to hold onto but his station as guardian of a thing that had no idea of him or itself.

* * *

It awoke and spoke to him.

"I don't remember how I got here," the key said.

"That's okay," the walker said. "It doesn't matter. You're here now."

The key had been an object, and now wasn't. It blinked at him, then smiled.

* * *

"It's time to go," the woman with silver eyes said.

"Already?" the walker said. "But...."

"Put the key back into the circle."

The key walked in, staring at both. The woman's eyes widened. She knew immediately what he was. She looked at the walker. "What have you done?"

* * *

"You mean this happens every time?" the key said. They had names now, both of them, but they didn't matter anymore. The walker was awake again and knew what had to be done.

"Just once more," the walker said. "I have to hide you one more time. Then I promise, not again. I won't put you through this again. We'll stay together, forever."

"I wish that was true," the key said. "But I don't think we'll ever find a place where no one knows what we are."

* * *

Neal came back to himself with a gasp, yanking his hand back. Everything had changed, nothing had changed. He backed a step away and stood staring at Siarion with a mixture of amazement and recrimination.

Steve...?

It was real, came the singer's response, but there was pain in it. Something had hurt the singer. It wasn't somethin' she made up. It was part of the lines, it had that solidness to it. It was us.

You're at Jon's, Neal thought with a start. How'd you... It didn't matter. He'd shoved Steve through the space without even thinking about it after Siarion had grabbed him. And it had been like hurling an object. Only the object was sentient and had been buffeted with the suddenness of the move.

"You should have had a little more guidance," Siarion said. "We could've done that. You are, after all, very young."

No one found humor in the statement.

"I'm here to awaken you," Siarion said. "I've been quick enough in every other time-space. I wasn't quick enough here. I certainly wasn't going to awaken you on the Tower, not with Tuirnarin standing by. But you did as I required anyway."

"You said to give him," Neal said. "But I wasn't givin' him back to the circle, was I."

"No," she said. "You were giving him to Athyri, to turn that entire world against Tuirnarin, to make her rootless. She was holding herself in place, linear-wise, so that she could find a physical way into the Evenwhen. The Er Rai would be her final piece. As it was, her contact with him allowed her to pause it. She got enough."

Neal put his hands up, trying to absorb what he'd heard. Siarion paused and stared at him, waiting.

"But she..." he paused, not wanting it said even if he already knew it.

She took what was there and forced it, he thought, and hollowed me part way out first to get it done.

"She made me put him back in the circle," Neal said. "Or she tried."

"She tried," Siarion said. "That's what the switch was for, so that you didn't get everything."

Neal narrowed his eyes at her. He'd forgotten about the switch. He was suddenly so angry he couldn't find words for it. Cursing her out wouldn't be good enough.

Never mind. Steve blocked the anger for once rather than adding to it. Don't stop there. We gotta get her to say more.

"'Cause then she would've had access to whatever I did, right?" Neal said. "Not just Jon's name. Maybe Steve, too, and there are only so many ways in. Killing him, or fucking him. Maybe both at the same time sort of upped her chances, I guess."

The last was angry enough to make Steve wince, flinching away from him mentally. He ran his hands through his hair, grounding himself, trying to remind himself of his own physical space.

"I saw all that," Neal said. "But I'm not 'awake', am I? It doesn't feel like it."

"It won't, yet," she said. "A linear mind...well, we've learned a bit."

"Really," Neal said, dropping his voice. He heard/felt Steve startle, the anger ricocheting along their connection, and he took a slow breath. "You guys didn't mind givin' Steve all his memories back at once, just before we took off to take care of Tuirnarin."

"I didn't say we'd all learned something," Siarion said. "You seem to think the namers, and those who serve alongside, have this shared consciousness. That isn't the case. And not everyone understands that the Er Rai has become more than an object. You corrupted it--him--and that was never the intention. It's changed things." She paused. "When you put him back this time, he will not return."

"You can't just--" Neal began.

"He's glaringly obvious, as a sentient being," Siarion interrupted him. "I'm going to take him away from you, and he'll revert back to his true form. You are relieved of duty."

The anger was gone, unable to combat the fear that had flooded in. "You guys...you're just...used to the way things are. How would you know, if the change was good, or bad, or even necessary?"

He was panicking. He knew it, and didn't try hiding it from Steve or even Siarion. The thought of losing...

She frowned at him. "We will have this discussion when you are fully awake," she said.

"No," Neal said, clenching his fists. "Your definition of awake. Your definition of change. I'm not gonna change my mind just because I remember bein' one of the Six!"

"That's why you won't be the Er Rai's assigned guardian anymore," she said. "This decision is already made."

* * *

Steve paced, trying not to distract Neal while he was doing it, listening so hard to the altercation that he couldn't tell Jon what was going on. Just that Neal wasn't in any danger. Yet. He had shown up in Jon's downstairs practice room minutes earlier.

"I fuckin' hate it that she cornered him," he breathed.

"The two of you are a little too much to handle, in the same room," Jon said, knowing Steve would only barely hear him. "He can handle himself, Steve."

When Steve stopped pacing and stood rigidly in place, eyes wide, Jon stood. He knew Neal wasn't hurt, because Steve would have been doing whatever Neal was, in that case.

"Steve," Jon said, coming within a foot. There was no demand in it. He'd wait, but not for long.

* * *

"Or what?" Neal said.

"There is no 'or what'," Siarion replied. "That is what will happen. The Inverse will not continue this life, no one will try and move him to a segregated line. He should go home, as should you. And the Er Rai...will go back to simply being the key. Tuirnarin gave him that name, you know. He was always able to change his shape, to hide. Keys come in many shapes."

There has to be a way, Neal thought. They could've done this anytime.

"You once said...the lines and everything got messed up, because of the other version of me, because I didn't put Steve back further down the line," Neal said. "Nobody did anything about that!"

"That will need to be addressed," she said. "I didn't say you would be parted immediately."

Neal stared. He couldn't even being to think of what to say.

They can't fix it, Steve thought. Or they would have. They need us. They need us!

"What if we say no, to all this?" Neal said, trying to keep his voice steady. It got harder by the moment.

"The Er Rai and the Inverse will not be tolerated in the same line beyond what is necessary to repair the lines," she said.

"Repair," Neal said.

"You will," she said.

"Or what?" Neal said. "Or what!"

"Your mortal lives will become unpleasant," she said. "Not simply because of what will be hunting you. If you don't comply, then you'll have to choose what is more important to you--the Er Rai, or allowing the Inverse and anyone you hold dear to finish this life."

The word unpleasant had been substituted for intolerable. Neal wanted to scream, to rage at her, and all he could do was stare.

"A combined force of us would be able to remove the Inverse," she said. "We don't want it to come to that. No one wants it. Your only option is to return the Er Rai to his origin."

"But we're..." Neal began, a shaken whisper.

"What the Raven people call jh'sai," she said. "Yes. I think you understand why now, don't you?"

"What, so we could...fix things?" Neal ventured. He didn't want to listen to any more.

"A necessary risk," she said. "By 'lighting him up', more than once, the Inverse reinforced the Er Rai considerably. You know this. Simply severing him from physical life is not enough, Neal. The Ender has proven that, for you. He can't die. You will need to remove his mortality and the...." she paused, looking for the word. "The spark you imbued him with."

"His soul," Neal whispered. "You want me...to murder his soul." God, oh God!

"When you gave it to him, you knew it was a risk," she said.

"Even if I...." Neal leaned over to brace his hands against his knees. He was light-headed, trying not to hyperventilate. Siarion waited, and he breathed, too weary to do more. "Even if I agreed to it, I wouldn't know how."

"Because of what connection there is," she said. "You are already where you need to be, Neal. You already know how. He has no 'switch' this time, and can't escape you."

Oh no.

"The namers pushed you toward each other for that purpose," she said.

Neal straightened. "But they...they kept on shoving..." Neal said.

"No, Neal," Siarion said. "There was only one, small push. One brief touch to your subconscious, to show you something. You dreamt one night, and you chose the parameters for it, let what was already there become obvious. The namers don't create. They amplify."

He knew what she meant. The dream he'd had, about Steve. As the seed is planted, so the tree shall grow. There was no way she was lying, or trying to get her way. He saw the sense of it and couldn't deny it.

"You weren't pushed, after that," she said. "You needed that excuse. But it was all you."

He wanted to ask how the namers knew about human sexuality, did they understand or had they just recognized a means to an end. But the words wouldn't come. He knew they'd only been looking for what would bond him and Steve together...

"You have the means to return him," she said. "If you don't, the mortal body you're in will fail. You've had too much energy channeled through you. The Inverse reinforced you as well, on more than one occasion. But it will not help you if the Er Rai is taken, or if you are separated."

"I don't...." Neal paused. He wanted the physical comfort of Steve's and Jon's presence so badly that he didn't care who's attention it would get. Steve was already holding his hand, but it would be so much easier if it was real....Jon would stand right behind him and stare her down. She'd been right to corner him alone. He'd never, never thought of himself as vulnerable, and he'd left himself open.

He tried again. "With me and Steve together," he said, "I don't think a 'force' of you could do anything to Jon."

"Is the Inverse all you'd focus on?" she said. "You have children, and so does he. You'd be very easy to distract, while we take the Inverse." She paused at the look on his face, at the clear evidence that he was trapped. "You must choose," she said.

He pulled the strings of the world around him, reaching for handholds. It was easier than he imagined. He heard her shout for him to stop, that he was making himself a plain target, but he ignored her. He closed his eyes on her and opened them on Steve and Jon.

* * *

One moment, Jon was staring at Steve, needing his attention and afraid to have it, and the next moment Steve was putting his hands out and being pulled into a rough embrace by Neal. Jon felt himself being pulled in, and joined it. The three of them stood, momentarily safe, holding each other wordlessly. Neal was shaking, and Jon focused on that rather than demanding to know what was going on.

"I won't," Neal said, voice choked. "I can't."

"There's another choice," Steve whispered.

"There isn't," Siarion said.

Jon lifted his head to look at her. "Leave us alone," he said softly. "Whatever you did, back off while I'm asking. Don't make me tell you."

"Choose, walker," she said to Neal, watching Jon.

"You were gonna use us for awhile, to get the lines fixed," Neal said. "We probably caused most of it anyway. But then you were gonna throw us away. You can't force us to fix the lines."

"If the Er Rai goes back to being an object, and you are awake," she said, "then yes--you will do it without even being asked. If you would like to finish your current mortal lives, then you will do so on our terms."

Steve pulled out of the embrace to face her. "I saw it," he said. "We're not as dumb as you think we are. You can threaten to take Jon back all you want. But there's no way to fix the lines without all three of us workin' on it. We're linear, and can understand exactly where and when to hit. You'd never find anything without us! Neal doesn't have to choose. You need us."

"We will not wait until you're ready to do as you're told," she said. "The lines go on fragmenting. The distant Er Rai is still pulling strings." Her eyes rested on Steve. "You allowed that. And other things besides the Ender will be coming for you. If you're obtained as an object, that's bad enough. But obtained, subverted, while possessing sentience? Even with what you've seen, you can't imagine it, Steve. No one will allow it."

One moment of fear, Steve thought. One moment of fear, one moment of me bein' unable to accept or let you in, led us to this. I ran, and let versions of me and you tear things up. "You guys are really fuckin' naive," he said aloud. "You believed things would never change. You didn't account for it. You didn't account for a walker gettin' lonely, or for things moving on. You still don't really know what Existence is, and we do. That's why you need us. Your whole connection to it'll be gone, if you lose us. We've got you."

"Stalemate," Jon said.

"Existence could be damaged," she said.

"Could," Steve said. "You don't know. You don't know. You didn't create the walkers, so you don't know if they're supposed to change or not. No one came along and told the namers to watch Existence. Maybe Existence is supposed to change. Did you ever consider that?"

"You've done enough damage," she said.

"Damage by whose definition?" Jon said.

"The three of you can't hope to stand against what will come," she said.

"And I suppose we'd be safe, with you or the namers," Jon said. "Steve wasn't completely alone against the Ender, when he put it into the sand. But almost. The three of us can do a hell of a lot more."

"Out of what?" Siarion said. "Love? To stay together for a short, mortal span? You're short sighted and selfish."

"You're naive and ignorant," Jon said. "I'd say you got the short end of the stick, babe. The point is, no matter who we are or were, no one's got the right to tell us when to jump. We'll leave these lives when we're done with 'em. You got no say."

She eyed Jon speculatively. A ghost of a smile played across her face for a moment, just long enough to register with Jon, short enough to make him wonder if he'd seen it. It wasn't a smirk. It was approval. He'd bet on it.

What the fuck is going on? he thought. She said there were no sides.

"Are you willing to bet your mortality on your convictions?" she said to no one in particular.

"We're willing to bet a lot more than that," Jon said.

"Do you speak for everyone?" she said.

The three of them just stared at her, a united front.

"Nightbringer of the Evenwhen," she said, almost as if to herself. "That's what I'm called, by the namers. Night means different things to different beings. They're not fond of me, the namers. Why should they be? I brought the most dreaded scourge they had ever seen - outside of Existence - to their midst, and set it loose on everything. You, Neal. You, and the rest of the Six."

They gaped at her openly, unashamed of it.

"Bullshit," Neal said. "After all the other stuff, after all the versions of you - "

"Mirrors," Siarion said. "Simple mirrors, images to keep the namers guessing."

"Why should we believe you now?" Jon said.

"It doesn't matter if you do now or not," she said. "You will have proof of it." She looked pointedly at Steve. "Sooner or later."

Then she was gone.

* * *