Steve slumped against the wall and slid to the floor, humming with energy, stunned. He felt the thrum of it in his bones. The feeling wasn't far from the energy that Tuirnarin had leveled on him so often, an assault on the stuff he was made of.
Neal had feared for his safety. There had been good reason to send him to Jon's. It had been an emergency.
But still, without a thought, he had thrown the singer like an object. It hung between them, the smaller thing in the face of what they had just heard. It was groundwork for their time together, nonetheless, tucked away for future consideration.
Jon's thoughts were close to what they had been the morning that Tuirnarin had confronted them on their second remembered visit to Athyri, threatening his kids. He'd wanted her dead prior to that, but then....
He looked at Steve. A simple decision lay between his children and the Formless.
But no, it would never end, there. It was panic making him reach that conclusion, and he knew it. Still...there was no guilt in his thoughts.
"I told you," Steve said softly.
"Bullshit!" Neal shouted over him, and even though Steve had known it was coming, the vehemence of it startled him as badly as it startled Jon. "This is the same fuckin' thing, 'do what we want or else', and it's bullshit!"
"How much you wanna bet on your kids?" Steve said softly when he was finished.
Neal stared at him for a moment, and something passed between them that Jon couldn't hear, but could guess at it. Steve closed his eyes and went still, and a moment later Neal stalked away. "This is fuckin' ridiculous!"
"You're gonna have to work on him, Jon," Steve said from the floor.
"Shut up, Stephen," Neal said from the kitchen, and his voice was low and deadly.
"He's a stubborn asshole, and he's gonna -" Steve paused when Neal came back through the house, his intention obvious. Jon tensed. "Call their bluff, and try and save everybody."
Then Neal was grabbing Steve off the floor by the front of his shirt and slamming him into the wall, face close enough to make Steve's eyes go out of focus. "Shut up," Neal said, punctuating it by shaking Steve.
"It's okay," Steve whispered. "It's gonna be okay." He folded his hands over Neal's carefully, with no insinuation that Neal should let go.
"Neal," Jon said without moving. This wasn't like the thousands of studio skirmishes he'd tried to break up; that pattern had been broken by the events of the previous thirty days, and would likely never be back. He didn't even try to pretend he was on familiar ground.
"Let's take a vote," Neal said, taking his eyes off Steve to avoid feedback. "All in favor of just giving up to make certain nothing worse happens to us than someone else already has planned, based on the word of someone who's lied to us nonstop, speak up."
"What more do you need?" Steve said. "You want a demonstration of what they'll do, to get this over with?" Get rid of me while you still have everybody.
"You gotta ask what's best based on what we already know," Jon said. "You want someone to be totally rational, fine, I'll do it. Ender's already after you guys, and it's not up to you, Neal. It's up to Steve."
"You don't know what the fuck you're - " Neal began.
"You're a selfish asshole," Jon said, cutting him off. "Let go of him and quit posturing. It doesn't make any goddamn difference to you whether he stays 'alive' or not, so shove your outrage, and do whatever you're going to." Then he turned and left the house altogether, grabbing keys and jacket as he went.
"Jonathan," Neal said.
"Make up your fucking mind, Neal," Jon called without turning back.
Neal didn't release his grip.
"You're afraid to be alone," Steve said slowly, one word free-falling after the other, a truth he'd always known but never acknowledged. "You don't know how to be alone, and I don't know how not to."
Neal didn't negate him.
"If you put me away, you can go on however long you like, go anywhere and do anything, and still not be alone," Steve said.
"No," Neal said. "Not alone in small, temporary, mortal..."
"Then you'll never get bored," Steve said. "You'll love that." He stared at Neal for a moment, then added, "I asked you what you wanted, what you were looking for. It's forever. You keep not finding someone who qualifies for that."
Neal didn't need to look at him and didn't bother.
"I'm not your forever," Steve said. "How tired of each other do you want us to be? Hasn't the last couple of decades made a point to you, or are you that hardheaded?"
"And you love me enough to try and give forever to me," Neal said. His voice was flat.
Steve flinched, but it was only internal. Neal knew there had been decades of poker faces between them, hiding, looking indifferent. It was a shock to keep discovering how overemotional Steve really was, to hear a moment of wishing it was the other way around.
Neal released him then, taking a short step back, his posture still indicating that Steve wasn't free to leave. "You gonna try and make me do it, again?" Neal said.
Steve knew exactly what he meant; he had no choice but to know. Murder. "You're gonna have to, sooner or later," Steve said. "You're hellbent on later, and by the time we get there we're gonna have done and felt things we can't stand. It's not okay to string this out until there are things we can't fix."
"Then you believe everything she said," Neal said, his tone as annoyed as his thoughts.
"You already know I don't," Steve said. "Don't fuckin' play me."
"So you're okay with what I probably gotta do," Neal said.
The bait didn't work. Neal had been hoping to get something for that, a tantrum, a flash of memory. He got emotion associated with the reference, and nothing more. Steve folded in on himself, focusing deliberately on the TV and letting the images and sound block anything else out.
"You want me to put you away, but you're not gonna help me do it?" Neal taunted.
Steve closed his eyes briefly, and Neal was sorry for the words. Steve realized he was being taunted, but he also saw the truth in it.
"I don't believe everything she said," Steve whispered. "But I do think someone'll come after Jon, his kids, your kids." He paused. "Now that we're connected, you can find a way in." But his fear was plain.
"Like you said, you don't have a switch this time," Neal said.
Steve sighed, trying to release some of the tension. What if it's the right thing? Steve thought. What then?
"Right thing to some folks," Neal said. "Not everybody."
"Neal," Steve whispered, "you can't fuck around over this."
"It's not mine to fuck around with," Neal said. "I'm not doin' nothin', I'm just -"
"Fucking around with this," Steve said. "Let's pretend for a moment, okay? Let's pretend none of this is going on, that we're not something out of a comic book, that there's no universal consequences or whatever this is. Let's pretend it's just you and me at stake. I still can't handle it."
"Whatever," Neal said. "You're makin' this into just one thing, and - goddamnit, let me finish!"
Steve's thoughts were a blur in Neal's, layers of reaction one on top of another. The result was confusion that neither could hear over. It was quiet for a moment, then Steve said, "You can't divorce me, if we do this."
Neal's thoughts and outrage fell flat, suddenly, whirling to quiet confusion.
"You can't get me back into that mindset, somethin' I thought I finally killed, then get tired of me," Steve said. "You've been tired of me before, we've needed breaks and stuff because we wear each other out. I'm not a fuckin' groupie. You're starting to wonder if there's a possibility here, if it would work. You like to try stuff out and commit to it real hard, then drop it when it gets old to you."
Bullshit, Neal thought.
"I can think of about five bands off the top of my head that you were crazy about bein' in, then you left 'em," Steve said. "You got three wives behind you -"
"Quit throwin' that at me," Neal snapped. "You're not exactly good at -"
"There's been two constants in your life," Steve said, putting his hands up at shoulder height, palms outward. Neal was ready to grab him again without being completely conscious of it. "Journey, and the guitar. Nothin' else. You don't have room for me."
The last was imploring.
"But you have room for me," Neal said.
Steve paused, eyeing Neal warily, dropping his hands. His thoughts felt like a sudden barrier that he was peering out from behind. Neal felt the lump in the singer's throat, the stubborn resistance, the defensiveness.
"Can't fight with you for the rest of eternity," Steve said. "And that's all we got, all we've ever had."
"Are you gonna plan the day, then?" Neal said. "Are you gonna mark a day on the calendar, and tell me when you want me to kill you?"
"I can," Steve said. His thoughts were numb with weariness and a sense of detachment. He wanted to be horrified, and had no energy left for it.
"And you're okay with what I might have to do, to put you down for good," Neal said. "Not just hit you over the head, right?"
Steve listened carefully over his own numbness, wondering if folks on death row felt like he did. Neal was pushing him, he could feel it as well as hear it, and he couldn't react. He couldn't make it as clear cut as the guitarist wanted. "No," he said. "And neither are you. That's what all this is, right? I'm not gonna let you off the hook. I'm not gonna let you pretend you'd rather drag me around, just to avoid what's gonna happen eventually anyway."
"There might be a day when we're ready for it," Neal said. "Don't you wanna see how it all turns out?"
"I have seen it," Steve said.
"One possibility," Neal said.
Steve sighed heavily and said, "Neal, it's gonna hurt a lot worse when you do it just to get rid of me. Okay? Please." Behind the words was novelty.
"You really don't think much of me, do you," Neal said.
"Got nothin' to do with that," Steve said. "It's got to do with knowing you, and how you're built."
"You know less than you think," Neal said.
"What do you want?" Steve said without demand or implied recrimination. "What is it you're really hoping for?"
"Time, to decide," Neal said. "I'm not ready for this, I can't leave you alive if I go. I'm not ready to kill you, I don't ever wanna be ready for that. I want time to figure out what to do, for us to decide if we wanna go on and for how long."
Steve was silent, and all Neal could hear was a somber thoughtfulness.
"Are you ready to buy that time with what we're 'probably gonna have to do'?" Steve said softly. "Chances are it's got to do with how we got this way in the first place."
"Can we do that and not get all crazy?" Neal said. "It's just -" he stopped quickly, knowing it wouldn't make any difference if he did. His intent carried through.
"Sex?" Steve said. It wasn't true, and they both knew it. "And when I fall in love with you again, and you can't return it, I'm gonna to die a piece at a time instead of all at once." Neal started to reply, but Steve cut him off. "You're tactless," Steve said. "You do stuff and say stuff as it comes off the top of your head. Sometimes you're an asshole just because you can be. But I never had you pegged as mean."
He folded his arms across his chest, and Neal took another step away.
Then Steve walked away, substituting the final word with cruel, repeating it and using it as a barrier against anything else Neal might have to add.
Once in the backyard, despite what the last thirty minutes had taken out of him, he bore down on the form he wore and twisted himself back to the raven. Then he flew away, heading home.
* * *
A day passed, and no one spoke. Part denial, part stubbornness, mostly stalling.
* * *
Bein' apart ain't doing us any good.
Steve was ignoring Neal, and doing a passable job of it.
Sooner or later, it's gonna hurt.
"That's what I've been tellin' you," Steve muttered aloud from miles away. "Go away, unless you got something to tell me, about how we're ending this."
From a distance? That's it?
Steve whistled and turned to the Cartoon Network, bombarding Neal with the Powerpuff Girls.
I'm coming over.
"Not if we're gonna do scenes like we did yesterday," Steve said. "Trust me, we don't wanna be finding out what we're capable of against each other."
"Since when does the almighty walker need permission?" Steve said with sarcasm that was more audible internally. "You can go anywhere you want, so long as you keep quiet." He paused, feeling Neal gathering the strings of the world around him. "Don't you dare."
Neal crossed the space to Jon's house with a thought instead, landing a foot from the pool fence. It took little effort, and for a moment the space between was plain to both of them; it had taken both to complete the move, although neither was sure how.
Fuckin' showoff, Steve thought. Then he tilted his head.
Walk. He didn't feel like leaving the house, but suddenly he couldn't resist the impulse. It wasn't even to avoid Neal, but just to move. "If you come over here, I'll leave. I'm going for a walk anyway."
Kind of how this all started, Neal thought.
Steve left the house suddenly, leaving the door open, headed the way he'd gone the morning he'd been hit.
Hey, Neal thought. What's with you?
Steve felt dazed to him, submerged. Confused, Neal sat and listened, not realizing that he'd just been noticed by Jon, who was playing with the girls in the yard. Was this something else they'd have to deal with? Some other form of disconnection, some final phase of the whole thing?
Steve? What the hell's going on? Where are you going?
Steve didn't know or care; it was cool and breezy outside but he didn't mind going without a jacket. He'd meant to just go walking again someday without worrying about it, and that was all he was doing. No conscious thought, just wandering, just enjoying the day. Out of the yard, through the gate, down a crumbling paved drive that connected him to a suburban side street.
"Neal," Jon said, approaching.
Neal didn't hear him. He was watching the day an hour south through Steve's eyes. "What's got you?" he said aloud. "Something, something..."
Jon laid a hand on Neal's shoulder at the same time someone else laid a hand on Steve's, from behind.
* * *
Steve turned to look when Neal turned to look at Jon. Steve found himself looking at a tall, redheaded young man wearing a cold, hard stare. The daylight hadn't changed, but the air was blue to Steve's sight as soon as he turned around.
"You know who I am?" the guy said.
"No," Steve said softly, trying to sound unimpressed through his trepidation. He could see by then that the stranger was wearing a duster, like the guy Smitty had told them about. He heard Neal turn his full attention to the conversation and react to his alarm.
"You will," the man said.
"Neal," Jon said, watching the guitarist fix his eyes on the middle distance. There'd be no way of getting his attention, not while Steve had it. But Jon knew the look on his face, the wary possessiveness. He'd seen a lot of people back away from it.
"It's another walker," Neal said softly. "Look at him, he's glowin' in the goddamn daylight."
"Neal," Jon said.
"It's one of the Six," Neal said with a small note of awe in his voice. Then he was gone. No disturbance in the air, no sound, just a snap behind Jon's eyes that spoke of the power casually used in his yard.
Downstairs, Liz clapped her hands over her ears, thinking lightning had struck outside but without the noise.
Weston blinked up at her calmly and said, "Neal's not here, now."
* * *
Neal stood at Steve's shoulder, staring at the other walker. "You know who I am?" he said.
"Born human," the first walker said without bothering to look at Neal. "Not fully awake. Linear. Are you going to chase me, if I take him? It's not enough."
Steve kept his eyes on the other walker, keeping his thoughts calm and wordless so that he didn't distract Neal. He was doing exactly what Neal hated, shutting down, becoming neutral. Getting ready to be an object.
"It's enough," Neal said softly. "Get your hands off him, before the namer shows up and the three of us take you apart."
"It's why you're failing at everything," the walker said. "You've lost your place, your purpose. Did she tell you your true name? Or is she saving it for when she really awakens you?"
"Go away," Neal said tiredly. "You're down the list of bullshit we're dealing with right now. Take a number, okay?"
"Neal," the walker said, "do as she said and put the key back as it belongs, and come back to us."
Neal shook his head, glancing around. "Can't you guys wait, until I get done with one short, mortal life? Can't you?"
"No," the walker said. "I have all the time there's been and will be, all the circles. If I'm showing myself to you, if you were this easy to find, then there'll be other things on the doorstep soon. And I mean soon in linear time, not in mine. You don't know who I am, do you."
"No," Neal said. "If you let go of the Er Rai, maybe I'll take you up on it."
The walker sighed and released Steve, who was abruptly jerked out of arm's length by Neal. Neal knew it looked like it felt, like Steve was an object they were fighting over. It wasn't more important than getting the singer out of physical reach, though.
Then the walker said, "The Ender's going to be loose, soon."
Neal did something he didn't really want to -- shoving Steve to Jon's house with a thought.
The singer showed up right where Neal had been standing less than a minute earlier, staring at Jon miserably, trying to ignore the sudden pain.
"You wanna hear the whole thing?" Steve said.
"If it doesn't distract Neal," Jon said softly, alarmed, hating the feeling of helplessness that came with watching Neal hurl himself and other people around without a thought.
"That's our business," Neal said.
"It's everyone's," the walker said. "An Ender with the Key is awful. But an Ender, the Key, and one of the Six? It's unthinkable. Putting the Key back in the circle won't help now. Even if you did, even if you were both gone from this existence, you'd be a beacon. What you've done will never be undone, even if I went back right now and changed the line in a thousand places. You've made your own circle."
"What do you want?" Neal said. My own circle?
"If you come back, even with the Er Rai, if the Inverse returns where he belongs, the Ender's chances will shrink to where we won't need to take more...drastic action."
"I've already heard this bullshit from Siarion," Neal said. "If you're gonna threaten, get it over with and get the hell out of here."
The walker shook his head a little. "A threat...implies that there's a choice to be made," he said. "If you love the Er Rai, if you love the Inverse, end this now."
"I can't," Neal said. "You guys do whatever you have to do." He flipped himself back, the action as instantaneous as thought...
And remained where he was.
"Two walkers can hold each other in place forever," the walker said. "I'm Ga'ityn Ari, the -"
"Second part of time," Neal finished, staring at the walker in awe.
"Right," the walker said, smiling. "Do you remember?"
"Part of it," Neal said, feeling something completely foreign but completely familiar, like trying to place a melody he couldn't remember hearing before. "My place is -"
Don't say it, Steve thought, and Neal snapped back to himself. Not yet!
The final part of time. Steve knew it like Neal did, as quickly as he did, but it didn't need vocal acknowledgment. Not there, not then. Not yet.
The walker nodded. "The last of the Six. Once Existence got going, there had to be a balance. So you were the only one born to it, the only one who understood it. I can't explain all of this to you here, now. But you have the right to hear it."
"So your idea of gettin' my attention was to grab the Er Rai?" Neal said angrily.
"It's the only way of getting your attention, now," the walker said softly. "I've noticed."
"Siarion wasn't lying to you," the walker continued. "The Er Rai wasn't lying to you. There are beings out there who gain on you with every moment. There are two, of the Six, who would like you and the Er Rai destroyed. Of the others, one refuses to walk again and one is missing. They're hiding, because of what happened when you left the Er Rai awake. I'm the only, of the Six, who will try and reason with you. You were my nas anam."
Little brother. But a lot more than that, a lot more than human speech could account for. Neal wasn't sure how it'd translated and didn't care. "If you wanna talk about all this," he said, "you gotta do it in front of the Inverse and the Er Rai."
"Because the namer can block me?" the walker said.
"Because it screws up their lives, too," Neal said.
The walker nodded. "The Er Rai is always with you, and doesn't need to be there physically," he said. "I won't look at it any longer than I have to."
When Neal opened his mouth to protest, the walker added, "If you knew what it'd done to us, how long we had to hide, you would understand," he said. "If you were awake, you'd understand. You know it the way it is now. It's a blink of an eye compared to the amount of time it's been a terror to Existence."
Neal sighed again. Steve?
"He has every right," Steve said aloud in Jon's kitchen, aware that Liz was staring at him now as well as Jon. "It got bad. There's more stuff that happened that I didn't see. But don't do it here, go out to the studio or your house."
He can't hurt us.
"Not physically, no," Steve said. "Not with me and a namer lookin' at him. You're equals, without us." I know what it takes, to take a Walker apart. But I don't want to, ever again.
Steve glanced at Jon and said, "With the kids here - "
"The studio is fine," Jon said, glancing at Liz, knowing Neal would hear.
"I'll take the kids to the park," Liz said. Then she glanced at Steve. "You wanna tag along?"
Steve shook his head a little, feeling a little grateful for the effort she was trying to make despite knowing what he was capable of. "No telling what'll happen," he said. "I'll keep an eye on Jon."
Liz looked at Jon, and neither of them said anything. They didn't need to.
* * *
The walker stepped carefully around the confines of each room of the studio, a look of detached interest on his face. Occasionally he drew a finger along some random surface, gauging his surroundings.
"Fascinating," he said.
"What, Jon's idea of decor?" Neal said, wanting something to be light in the tension they all felt.
"The arrangement of atoms," the walker said. "Capable of so many forms. The closer you look at any solid thing, the less it becomes different from any other."
Jon bit the inside of his lower lip in an attempt to curb his impatience, then said, "I know you're not here to discuss metaphysics."
Ga'ityn turned abruptly and came toward them, stopping just shy of the drum set. "The Ender was here," he said. "This is where you vaulted away, to avoid it."
"Yeah," Neal said softly.
"It left a depression in the plane of this world's space," the walker said. "The combination of the Ender's wrath and your flailing attempt at purchase gives this one spot a higher gravity, pulls things here."
"I guess we'll have to rename it," Neal said. "'Wildhorse' doesn't really cover that."
The walker cocked an eyebrow at the words, but didn't bother asking for clarification. "Fixing it will pinpoint this place further." Then, without warning, he sat down in the third chair so that he was facing Jon and Neal equally, and began.
"You're sentimentalizing the truth," he said. "The perspective you have now is understandable. You've worked and fought and created things with the Er Rai. There's an emotional bond. There's also a subliminal bond from untold millennia of watching over the Er Rai, before it was sentient. Separated from the rest of us, with no guidance, with no one else like you, you finally did what no one thought possible - made it sentient. And then, one step further."
The walker paused. "So I understand. Everyone does. But you've lost sight of the one fact that even the Er Rai keeps trying to impress on you. It's an object. It's been an object much, much longer than it's been a linear being."
"I don't care how long what was what," Neal said. "He's a linear being now, he's sentient now."
"You're linear and that's all you can compare things to," the walker said. "I'm not arguing with you, Neal. I'm giving you facts. If you weren't linear, you would have a...bird's-eye view." The walker smiled a little. "You've been in Existence for a little less than I have, but it amounts to billions of linear years. When you take all of that into account, the last several lifetimes don't weigh as heavily. The Er Rai's been sentient for three lifetimes in this one line, a span that amounts to 161 years. It's negligible."
"Not to me," Neal said. "Not to us."
I'll go with whatever you decide, Steve thought.
"Goddamnit," Neal said, standing abruptly and pacing away to the other side of the room.
Jon watched quietly, trying not to interject until he had to.
"I'm in the same place," the walker said after a bit of silence had passed. "If I didn't care about you, if I didn't have the history with you that I do, I would have incapacitated you by dismembering the Er Rai right there on the street."
Neal turned to stare at the walker.
"And then I would have awoken you, with the life you had left. I would have brought Siarion with me to help, and a namer to block you, and shoved your nose right in the truth. And then you would have put the Key back in the state where it belongs. It would have been the quickest, easiest, most efficient thing to do."
"Then why didn't you?" Jon said softly.
The walker paused. "Because it would have hurt Neal terribly," he said to Jon. "It would have torn him out of this life. And...it would have been exactly what the Er Rai's done to us, over and over. I know what it's like, to be torn out of a life, and I won't lower myself to the Er Rai's behavior."
The walker looked at Neal again. "So instead of doing what I should, what's right, I'm here trying to carefully reason with you. So now, tell me I don't understand why you won't put the Er Rai away."
Neal was running his hands over his face, pacing at the far end of the open rehearsal floor, listening to Steve. Nothing remained of the singer's consciousness but a low, sad and nearly inaudible hum.
"What I said, about a choice," the walker said. "I wasn't quite correct, there is one. If you leave him as he is, if you remain tangled and alive like you are, the Ender will come. And he'll be more careful this time. That will hurt much worse than anything I might have done to you today, physically and psychically. There will be other things, as well. Sooner or later, the other walkers will come after him. And..." the walker paused. "If he's left sentient, the Er Rai will be made to account for his crimes."
Neal came closer again and sat down, leaning in. "That's a great fuckin' choice," he said. "Murder him, kill his soul and make him an object like he never mattered, or let you guys do whatever the fuck you want to him and then murder him. 'Made to account' by who?"
"By the walkers he harassed," the walker said. "I would be one. Then the namers he destroyed will need to be accounted for. There were some who strongly disagreed with the decision to coerce all of you, the Er Rai included, into clearing up what the namers couldn't - the incident with Tuirnarin," he said, looking at Jon.
Jon nodded. "It was convenient, to get us all involved."
"That's not what started all the shit, though," Neal said. "Why they were all so pissed." What you saw, it wasn't just some nightmare, he thought. You were right, about the version of you left awake.
Steve didn't answer. He had sequestered himself in the downstairs piano room, hiding.
"No," the walker said. "The noise you guys were making, have made, even before the tangling, was annoying to everyone, screamed of life and change. There were those that didn't even want Existence, let alone noisy proof of it drifting their way constantly."
Jon leaned back in his chair, crossing one ankle over the opposite knee. "So we can play the blame game all day," he said, holding the fingers of one hand up to tick off the points he was about to make. "Steve and Neal are tangled because the namers shoved them together without realizing what that does to humans - humans with a long history, long to us, anyway. They did it because the Ender had been here making its intentions plain. The Ender was here because it wanted a shot at redecorating Existence to its own specifications, which came about because it heard all the noise. Steve, in a branch off this line, couldn't deal with being tangled and tried to get away, causing Neal to die before his time and leave Steve awake for millennia. And after millennia, desperate to find Neal and be 'put away', he went looking for someone to help. And none of you would. A linear creature, trapped forever in a linear form, ends up getting desperate enough to come after all of you and try to force you, and you guys were no match."
The walker started to speak, but Jon cut him off, voice low and hard. "You guys wouldn't help Steve, and you couldn't understand anything but what happened to you, how he hurt you. It doesn't excuse anything that happened. But you expected a linear being to know how to behave in a situation like that, to gracefully accept forever after not being equipped to deal with it, to not become a monster after screaming for help and having it refused. If Steve has to account to anyone, it's me and Neal. The rest of you have no right."
The walker stared. Neal stared. Above them, alone in the house, Steve wept in silence.
"You know that," Jon said, voice softer yet. "You agree. Or you would've just done what was necessary without warning us first, like you said, without sitting here and talking to us. Your love for Neal wouldn't have stopped you."
The walker nodded a little. "You are...different from your kind," he said. "From any kind."
There was silence again, and Neal fidgeted, unable to deal with listening to Steve cry.
"There are many who won't see it that way," the walker said. "If you haven't suffered before, it's a rude shock, and the concept of justice is very relative."
"If you've done nothing but suffer, you sort of don't give a rat's ass about someone who's not used to it," Neal said. "Wakin' me up won't change any of this."
"Why are you holding so adamantly to that one small boundary, that ends this mortal life?" the walker said. "Why do you insist on waiting until the Inverse dies naturally, until you've ended this circle?"
"Because we're not really all that different from you," Jon said. "We're kind of resistant to change, too."
"We got kids," Neal said, "and each other. We got bonds all over the place. And there's no way we're gonna let someone chase us out of something we belong to, that belongs to us. Are we gonna run, forever? Let Jon go back to the namers, and Steve become just a thing again, and us hide from what happened and who didn't like it? That's bullshit, and it's cowardly. Hiding. Right. It got you guys nowhere. And it was just the Er Rai chasin' you."
The walker nodded.
"He's an object to you," Jon said. "And you're acting like your perspective is the only one, the only important one. I think you know Neal's stubborn."
The walker smiled a little.
"So go ahead and tear us apart, and put us the way everyone says we should be," Neal said. "We'll resist, and maybe you'll get your way, against our will. Our small, narrow-minded, linear will. And you'll be as desperate and out of line as the Er Rai was, when he forced all of you into hiding."
"I didn't suffer at his hands as badly as the others," the walker said. "I tried to help, a little, at first. No one really knew how. I mostly stood and watched from a distance, trying to understand. So I may have the closest thing to understanding that any of the Formless do. It all began with a good intention and a fit of loneliness, and ended with a decision made out of fear when the Er Rai ran from you. You brought it on yourself," he said directly to Neal.
"And the namers have been yellin' at us to fix it, when they're the ones who helped it a little more," Neal said. "Can't fix anything, hiding behind the rest of you. It's just more running away." He paused. "We're sitting here, deciding a guy's fate, without him in the room."
"Because you're afraid of him," Jon said to the walker. "You should be, I guess."
The walker looked between them. "It's a narrow line, between brave and stupid."
"No one knows that better than us," Neal said. "We've already done all kinds of payin' for whatever we did in the past, or the future, or whenever we started fucking things up. When we gotta face the pissed off Er Rai later down the line, I'm sure we'll pay for that too. I set him up, I'll face him."
"And when the Ender takes another shot at you?" the walker said. "We won't let it, or any like it, do what it intends to."
"Then I guess we can count on you guys to step in if it gets bad," Jon said.
The walker smiled at him for a moment, the expression slightly rueful. "You're counting on the fact that we'll be able to pinpoint you," he said. "You make a lot of noise, but it takes time to find that one signal out of untold signals, when you're not linear. We're not omnipotent, Jon. If we were, I could just think about one of you and find you."
"But that's how Neal -" Jon began, then stopped. "Oh."
"Because he's linear, and you're all spinning on the same wavelength," the walker said. "So I can take the risk of getting there 'in time', or having to rewind it, or losing you guys altogether. And once the Ender has you, he can make changes I'd never be able to keep up with. No Ender is more powerful than one of the Six."
"What the hell is an Ender, anyway?" Jon said. "What's the point of - "
"Everything ends," the walker said simply. "Sometimes a timeline must be tied off."
"Why'd you guys make something that could give you all access to something like the Evenwhen?" Jon said. "What the hell were you thinking?"
The walker nodded. "The truth is, I don't remember being created. I didn't see the face of the one who made me, or the others. When Neal came along, we recognized him for what he was. There are boundaries on everything, time, space, life, Existence, everything. The Er Rai was never called that until the namers got a look at it and realized what it was. Any time you have a boundary, any time you have a rule, you also have a way to break it."
"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction," Jon said. He looked at Neal and wondered about Siarion's statement regarding the creation of the walkers.
"Light, dark, life, death, on and on," the walker said. "So when boundaries were established, the Er Rai was, too. No one saw it created, no one saw it for what it was at first."
"You guys banished me," Neal said suddenly.
Jon tensed and looked at him, seeing Ga'ityn go stone-still in his peripheral vision.
"I wandered in out of nowhere and fucked up the balance you guys thought you had. You guys noticed me doing things none of the rest of you could do, and when you pulled me aside I was dumb enough to show you what I had. That's when you sent me off to hide."
The walker nodded, his gaze calm but intent. "It felt like banishment after awhile, I imagine."
"So I got found, after all this, and the big idea to fix it is that I fucked up and can't handle the job, and things need to be put 'right'," Neal said. "Wow. Make it seem like I was getting entrusted with a responsibility, and get rid of me in the meantime. And get a temptation out of the sight of the Formless, who no one was really gettin' along with."
"If we'd wanted rid of you," the walker said, "there were subtler ways to do it. We wouldn't have left a wild card running loose through Existence any more than you would let one of your children get on a schoolbus with a handheld nuclear weapon."
Neal stared at him, drumming his fingers on one knee. He let his eyes stray to Jon, who raised one eyebrow. To Neal it meant what can you do?
"If you know about kids," Neal said, "then you get the point about why I ain't leavin'."
"Boundaries," Jon said. "Fine. You know where ours are. They're chosen."
"Even if you didn't care about me," Neal said, "with what's at stake, with all the time you've had to look at it, I can't believe you're here trying to reason with us. You're gonna let us get on a schoolbus, with a handheld nuclear weapon, and hope for the best."
"Let, nothing," the walker said. "I've lost the element of surprise. I wouldn't have shoved him in front of a bus, it would've been quicker and more certain than that. Now anything I do means going up against the three of you."
"You said, 'him'," Jon said.
"I did," the walker said.
"I'm not stupid enough to go up against all three of you," the walker said.
"The Ender is," Neal said.
The walker nodded.
Jon stared at him, waiting. When there was nothing more, he said, "And now what?"
"Now you watch out," the walker said. "You act a little faster the next time something walks up on the Er Rai. Because next time, it'll be a namer, or another walker, or worse, and if they're smart they'll take his head right off his shoulders like I was going to. If they're not, they'll torture him to make up for whatever they suffered at his hands." He paused, and something crossed cold blue eyes that neither Neal or Jon could read. "And he'll go on a long, long time, Neal. You know that, don't you? 10,000 years, maybe, screaming at the hands of something that won't mind listening to it."
"Point made," Neal said, his voice tight even though his expression didn't change. Steve had pressed himself into a mental corner so hard that Neal could barely concentrate around it. The singer's hopelessness was enough to top his own fear.
"Mmmm, no," the walker said. "You guys still think you're invincible. You need one more lesson, I think. And then I might watch out for you. You need to understand that I'm pretty damn near the only one who will. Jon will go back to the namers when he's done with this life." He nodded at Jon. "It's a blink of time, to me, but it's a window of opportunity wide enough for many things to crawl through. And when Jon is gone, not one namer will assist you. There'll be you, and the Er Rai, and eternity."
"Steve," Neal said aloud, wanting the sound of his voice to make a difference. The singer was trying not to panic, and failing.
"With an unfinished bond that won't hold you in this life for as long as it should," the walker continued. "And if you forget to put him away then, or it happens too quickly, there'll just be the Er Rai. Forever."
Jon felt the shift in the air almost as keenly as Neal did when Steve's fear got the best of him. Then Neal was gone, and there was only the buildup of power in the room with them that would take the house and yard apart if someone didn't stop the singer in time. The walker looked at Jon with interest, and did nothing but follow when Jon got up and ran out of the studio.
Neal lost his breath the moment he snapped back to existence in the downstairs piano room; there wasn't much air left. The glass in the French doors was shivering; the strings of the piano, beneath the closed top, were humming all at once as if a thousand small breaths of air ran across them. He reached out blindly and grabbed Steve, yanking the singer off his feet and his hands away from his head, sending them both to the floor. Stop, he said, meaning for it to be a demand and unable to get past a plea. Stop, stop!
Just do it, Steve thought, the tone wooden despite the panic that had turned the air to something else. Just get it over with, put me back!
Neal dragged him closer, feeling his chest begin to burn from lack of air, and shook the singer. The thing that was building in the room was meant to turn inward when it reached a certain pitch, and Steve would take himself apart, and Neal with him.
It won't happen, Neal thought. Don't do this now, don't decide things for us both!
And he did what he'd promised he wouldn't: he reached across their connection and tried to take over, slamming into everything he could without destroying anything. He pinned Steve to the floor in both the real world and his mind, overriding whatever he could, shutting him down the way Neal had once been shut down when they were in the caves.
Jon tried the kitchen door, knowing it was unlocked, but couldn't get it to budge. The pressure in the house was too great to let the door swing inward. The walker stood behind him and watched with cool interest.
Steve struggled, panic lending him strength and taking away any reason. Neal got a knee in the ribs just before the energy turned on him. I'll make you do it!
Neal felt his fingers prying away from Steve's wrists against his will, felt his breath shut off the rest of the way. Steve rolled and got part way to his feet, and Neal used a burst of anger to grab the singer by his clothing and slam him against the wall facing the windows, far too hard. Something else came with it: he slammed the singer against an internal wall at the same time, like he had while trying to get them home. Putting him away.
Steve's head slammed against both walls, and he lost any grip on Neal he'd had, along with most of his consciousness.
The energy dwindled out of the room from the top down like a swimming pool being drained; the windows stopped shivering, but the piano went on singing, the remainder of the energy whispering along the sensitive, taut wires. Steve slid down the physical wall, eyes hazy, and Neal went with him, having knocked himself for a vicarious loop. He sat on the floor in front of Steve, the singer's shirt still gripped in both hands. He felt Steve drain away from him, and with that his own head got a little clearer, even though he suddenly had a winner of a headache.
Can't, Steve thought, and it sounded distant. Not forever...not again.
I promised you, Neal thought. I won't let it happen. Do I have to protect you from yourself, too?
Steve's eyes slid closed, and he was unconscious long before Jon and the walker reached the bottom of the stairs, before the tears finished trailing down his face.
Neal glanced up at the walker without releasing his hold on Steve. "Here's your monster," he said. "Here's the 'object' who doesn't know what it's like to be chased, or hurt."
Ga'ityn looked at him for a moment, dropping his eyes to Steve. "I can push the last several minutes back several times until I like the outcome," he said. "But you'd do as you like, sooner or later."
Then he was gone.
* * *
Neal didn't let Jon reverse the concussion he'd given Steve; unconsciousness was a better choice, right then. Once they made sure he was okay, that it was nothing more than a concussion, he and Jon had carried Steve upstairs and put him in the guest room, trying not to remember what had happened the last time they'd done it. Neal was alone with his thoughts for awhile, and the aftershock of what Steve had nearly let loose in the house. When they returned, the walker was still gone, and they suffered a moment of wondering if the whole thing had really happened.
"You believe it?" Jon said, offering Neal a soft ice pack.
"Yeah," Neal said softly, shaking his head. "He was on the level. It's not my head that needs the ice, Jon."
Jon looked away, trying not to get at the obvious question, and Neal saw it anyway.
"I don't know what we're supposed to do," he said. "I need a clue as much as anybody. Maybe the walker will change his mind, come on back here, and finish up. Can't worry about everything, all the time. I gotta take him at his word. After Steve cools off and wakes up, I gotta cover ground with him."
"What are you gonna do?" Jon said. "About...you guys need to decide. About all this."
Neal shrugged. "I can't move on that," he said. "If I do, then he belongs to me like everybody says. He's gotta do that, for himself."
Liz came home a little after that and got an earful. Still, they weren't telling her everything, and she knew it. She had a look at Steve, and spent a moment wondering who, of the three men in her house, was the biggest idiot.
* * *
Another day passed, and the Er Rai remained immersed wherever he'd gone.
* * *
Where are you? You're not hurt, Jon checked.
You gonna do this, you gonna hide? Neal thought. Be an object, like you're supposed to?
There was nothing; no arguing, no smart comeback, no outrage. Whatever the singer had used to try and get away from him had been all there was. If he heard, Neal didn't catch the internal reception of it.
He'd figured sharing his own thoughts would be suffocating, would never be acceptable, would drive him insane.
Then why was the silence so awful?
I'm not gonna baby you, he thought angrily.You wanna pull this martyr shit, fine. Go ahead. I don't fuckin' care. If you're that much of a coward, stay there.
There should have at least been an annoyed, incorporeal hand in his face, brushing him away and trying to ignore him. There was nothing.
Neal left the room, trying to pretend it didn't scare him.
I'm not your forever.
Steve's words. The unwilling truth.
I'm not your forever.
* * *