I will devour you, take all the pain away
I cannot stay my hand
From reaching out so that I can empower you
For all eternity...
--Disturbed, Devour

Memory Bound - Chapter XXVIII
(c) 2002 B Stearns
_______________

Neal awoke in the dark. It took him a moment to realize he was still at Jon's, and it had to be late.

He stirred, hearing someone moving in the room. He felt the pressure of someone sitting down on the edge of the bed, someone light. He opened his eyes automatically.

There was no one there.

He found himself reaching automatically across his connection with Steve, coming by it too easily. There was nothing to see; Steve's eyes weren't open, he wasn't conscious by Neal's definition of the word. There was still some basic physical connection that surfaced regardless, some sense of what happened in the singer's surroundings. But Steve was incapable of answering
him.

He swung out of bed, a tension beginning in his stomach, fearful of who or what might be leaning over the singer. Fearful of what he'd have to try and do to stop them, if they needed stopping.

He moved quickly down the hall, poking his head only around the door frame, ready to withdraw it if something hurtled toward him. But it was only Liz, sitting next to Steve.

She heard him and turned a little. "Neal?"

"Yeah," Neal sighed, moving into the room all the way.

"Did I actually wake you by coming to check on him?" she said softly.

Neal nodded a little, sitting down next to her, unwilling to meet her gaze for the pity and wonder that might be there.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"No," Neal said. "Not at all. It just takes...some getting used to."

"Wow," Liz said. "That sounded steady."

Neal didn't react, too tired and scared to. "He can't hear us," he said. "He's just kind of an object, now. Not really anywhere or anything, just a spark." Like when The Lady hollowed me out. But he didn't say it aloud, because he didn't want Liz knowing that story. He didn't want to accidentally open conversation on that with anyone. It's cold wherever he is, but he doesn't care.

Liz rose suddenly and said, "Come on. Let's get this over with, before you explode."

Neal rose and followed her, not sure about what she was referring to until she called to Jon and gestured them both to the couch.

"How long had he been awake?" Liz said. She was talking about Steve, and they understood it immediately.

Jon shrugged, trying to think of what had gone on in Athyri that would have allowed it. "I don't know. He did nothin' but sleep, when he first came home from the hospital." He looked at Neal.

Neal was counting. He knew the answer, but wanted the days counted. "You know he can't," he said to Jon. "He's...been awake since that night at the mall. Since Thanksgiving, the day after."

"Weeks," Liz said.

"Weeks to you," Jon said. "To us, it was only - "

"He can't," Neal said. "He's not -"

"And that makes it okay?" Liz said. "Because he's not capable anymore, that means it won't drive him insane? It never occurred to either of you if he can stand it or not?" She was looking at Neal when she said it, her tone of voice never changing, and Neal dropped his eyes.

It should have occurred to him, of all people. "I figured...everytime I slept, he -"

"You figured," she said.

"Liz," Jon said, "in the years I've known him, I haven't seen him sleep much."

"There was the time, after..." Neal paused. "I got thrown off the cliffs. I told him to pretend he was sleepin', and he did. But he had to be with me, for it to work."

He stopped once he realized what he'd said, what it meant.

"Doesn't leave a lot of room, does it," Liz said.

"There were a lot of days where I couldn't stand bein' in the same room with him," Neal said. "And the sound of his goddamn voice made me wanna put my fist through a wall. And now here we are, and no way would it occur to me that he would need -"

"Because you figured he'd think about it and you'd catch him?" Liz said. "Or he'd ask? You guys can't hear each other well enough yet, and that's the reason why. You guys need to get close enough to hear each other, so you can hear how close you need to be."

Neal was quiet. For a moment, he was convinced he could still hear the strings of the piano downstairs.

"If you're not fighting with him, you don't know how to deal with him," Liz said. "Why don't you guys try something else?"

"Sort of no choice," Neal said. "No way to get loose except one, and nobody's ready for the one."

"Steve is," Liz said softly.

Jon opened his mouth to leap in, and she added, "If you don't want him, then leave him the way he is."

"That's not - " Neal began.

"But it's fine for both of you to go on, stuck with each other, when you can't tolerate it? It's fine for him to get reminded daily that you don't want him?"

Neal leaned forward, trying to hold onto his temper. "He doesn't - "

"He's better off letting you think so!" Liz said.

"That's bullshit," Neal said. "He doesn't know how. Can't get along with himself, much less anybody else."

Liz shrugged. "Then leave him the way he is."

"I can't believe this," Neal said. "Make decisions for him, make him an object?"

"You're already treating him like one," she said, keeping her voice soft as Neal raised his.

"I'd love to know how," Neal said.

"You let the walker make him stay out of sight, and terrorize him from a distance," she said. "You've already thought of ways to get rid of him. You -"

"That's not fair," Jon said, struggling to see where she was going.

" - let him stay awake for almost a month without wondering if it was hurting him when you knew you could do something about it."

Neal just stared at her for a long moment.

"Take the easy way out, Neal," she said. "No one would really blame you. He's impossible, and you don't need that. Just say he disappeared. It solves all your problems. The Ender can't hear him then, the namers know you're not using him to get around, and you don't have to deal with him."

"It's nobody's business but ours," Neal said.

Jon realized that if it'd been anyone else is his life, Neal would have gotten up and walked away by then. But Liz wasn't like anyone else in his life; she wasn't the authority figure that his mother or aunt represented, or the lover/equal that Amber was. She was as close to sister as an only child came. It meant he'd listen to her, where he'd listen to no one else.

"It's obviously not yours, either," Liz said. "you're too worried about how Jon is taking it."

Jon sighed and leaned back. That stung.

Neal jogged a foot, refusing to look at either of them. He was thinking about the look on Steve's face when Spiran had threatened to start with his hands.

"It was okay for the walker to grab him outside," Liz said. "But it wouldn't face him, after? No. I think part of the idea was to get Steve to the point he got to, where he panicked and did himself in, and maybe you too. If I couldn't force you guys to do what I wanted outwardly, I'd go around the back." She looked at Jon. "You hate the whole thing, Hon. I know it. Thanksgiving Day, you were ready to kill them both, but mostly Steve. You know it isn't fair but you're blaming him for it anyway."

Jon didn't answer; he and Liz shared a glance. Then he got up to go check on the kids.

Liz looked at Neal again. "I'll bet there's a lot you don't know, that he's kept away," she said, and he knew she was talking about Steve. "He's always been good at that, so you're outmatched."

"I was set up," Neal said. "They -"

"That's it?" she said.

Neal stared at her for a moment, finally registering how well Liz and Jon knew each other; well enough without hearing each other's thoughts. Something that had required time and voluntary consent.

"I love you, Neal," she said. "You're a friend of mine, too. I have more cause to side with you, and see your side, because we're close, and Steve has never been available. So if I'm going to take sides by default, it'd be yours, wouldn't it? I know who and how you are. You have no face to save in front of me."

He dropped his eyes and kept his silence, his face pale.

"Jon's not here," she said. "You can talk."

Neal shook his head a little, looking faintly defeated.

"What I saw on your face on Thanksgiving wasn't anyone pushing you. I've seen you fall for the wrong situations and I've seen two marriages end since I've known you. I've seen you so happy I was scared for you, because you're reckless."

Neal glanced at her like he wanted to take her up on that, but she shook her head.

"You can believe what you want to," she said. "But I want you to think back on the last 20 or so years, and the time you've spent fighting with Perry. You guys can't stay away from each other, even when you can't stand each other. The irresistible force and the immovable object."

"Which is which," Neal said.

"It depends on the day," Liz said. "I want you to try and look at the whole thing, not because of the consequences someone tells you there'll be. You don't have to change anything with Amber. I'd hate to be in her position, but I can't imagine how you'd tell her. You just need to see if there's room for one more. Because I think there'll be consequences all over the place if there isn't."

He nodded a little. "I dunno what I want," he said. "I usually know that, right? I usually just go do whatever the hell I'll do, and screw everything else. I just get where I'm goin'. I just...I usually know."

"It's not all your decision," she said.

Neal nodded again. "He's tryin' to get out of my way," he said. "He's used to trying to get out of his own. I told him to knock it off, that...that I didn't wanna lose him."

"But that was probably the end of the conversation," Liz said.

Neal winced.

"You're not gay," she said.

He winced again. "Yeah, I know."

"I don't think he is, either," she said.

"Yeah, okay," Neal said. "Fine. The result's the same."

"You don't care about that shit right now, so don't pretend it's part of the hesitation," she said.

He sighed heavily.

"Once wasn't quite enough, was it," Liz said.

"Aw, Liz," Neal said, leaning forward.

"Jon's not going to get to this with you," she said. "It's a little too late to start the shy thing with me now, isn't it? What's the problem? Can you come up with another way to seal you guys closer together?"

"No," Neal said. "I don't know nothin' about this. I'm thinkin' there has to be another way, but we'll never run across it in time. So we'll rush into this, and..."

"And screw it up completely, or get it so right that you can't imagine anything else," she said. "You're there. There's no going back, it's done. So finish it, one way or another. Because I've never known you to leave something unfinished. You're already tangled, but it's a half assed job. Do something."

"Like you said, not just my decision," he said.

"So decide how you feel, throw it out there, and leave it open," she said. "I've got a feeling he'll take you up on it."

"If it happens like that again, like the first time," Neal said, "we'll pull Jon in. It wasn't something I'd wanna do again. We had to, and it wasn't right."

She nodded. "Make it right. You still had to choose it, didn't you? The consequences were bad if you didn't, but you still had to choose it. This is the same. If you don't, some of the things Steve saw could happen. If you do, there's no guarantee they still won't. But you can still choose each other, without holding it against each other later."

Neal sighed again. "Not good at this, Liz."

"But you are good at honesty," she said. "You be honest with yourself, first, and you won't have any trouble with Steve." She paused. "And if you guys are this good at shutting each other out, I think you can find ways of blocking Jon from most of it. He's not in there with you."

"Almost," Neal said.

"Not anything like you guys are with each other," she said flatly.

Neal swallowed, hard. "I can't make this decision for him," he said. "He's gotta get there all by himself, and decide that the two of us can go on. He can't make it based on the fact that there's stuff comin' for us, or that we'll both be..." he paused. "Liz...I'll die if we don't get sealed up. I don't know how much time I have."

She leaned forward, face tense and severe. "How do you -"

"I do," Neal said quietly. "You gotta keep this between us. I don't know what to do about it. He'd survive, but I won't. And I gotta take him with me so he doesn't go on, because if he does, he'll go on damn near forever." He explained a bit of what they'd been told, how it fit together, and how much of it they believed. The dream - no, reality - Steve had been through that spanned thousands of years. The possibility of forever. God, it was good to get it all out to someone, have someone share it with him. He hated telling her, but he knew he could trust her with it.

"So I say what?" Neal said. " 'Steve, we gotta do whatever we can to get closer because it'll kill me if we don't'? That's great to be stuck with. It'll be just like...." He paused. Giving himself up to keep me alive, again. He couldn't say it aloud.

"You're asking for a decision to be made without giving all the info," she said. "You're as bad as the namers."

He paused. He didn't like that it made sense. "Still not right," Neal said.

"You're the one who's having a bad time making the choice," she said. "You can go on fading if he never commits, and then one day when you think you're near the end, what? 'Hey Steve, come closer, got something to tell you'? That's okay?"

"No," Neal said.

"So you'll wait until it's too late, and tell him just before the end?"

"Liz..."

"You've thought this through so hard that you've backed over yourself," she said. "There's no logic left in it. You're in all of it together, or you're dead. You tell him. He can't lie to you. Throw it all out there and see what happens."

He remembered the statement he'd made to Jon, in Steve's house, when the singer had been running from them. About the pills. About getting Steve to come around, or putting him out of his misery.

He sighed. The same choice, again. It always came down to the same choice.

He'd have to reach the singer and bring him out, or find a way to put him completely away, like the namer had said. He didn't want to think about the fact that he would know how to just destroy him. Or how long he would live after he managed to do it. Either way, they were coming apart, and it left Neal with the choice of dying and leaving Steve comatose, or killing the
singer and then dying himself. If he wouldn't resurface and help him come up with another plan, Neal couldn't risk leaving him there.

Not if the part about forever was true.

I"m gonna..." he began, and he meant to say go back to bed and think about this in the morning. "Wake him up. I don't know how, I'm just gonna try."

* * *

Jesus, why is it so cold?

He stumbled in the dark again, a cold breeze rustling the grass that slithered along his shins as he walked. He knew this place, but couldn't put a name to it yet.

Someone was crying. A child.

Miles, he thought, then heard someone's voice say no, they're trying to trick you. So he didn't run into the trees, not this time. Death, in the trees.

Walking further brought him to an abandoned house, a crumbling shell with sagging roof and missing doors. The interior dark, empty; devoid of furniture, window glass, or belongings. Life. The child was still crying but from a back room, trying not to be heard. Neal moved through the house, shivering, barely able to make out one room from the next. There were splintering holes in the floor that showed nothing beyond. He stood in the remains of a doorway and listened to the dark go on whimpering.

"It's okay," he said aloud.

Something huddled in the far corner of the dark room shifted, its breath catching. A soft glowing green appeared near the floor, a pair of backlit eyes. "No it's not," a small voice choked. "Go away."

Cold. So cold.

Neal came closer anyway, centering on where the eyes had been. As he drew closer, light and warmth came from somewhere, spreading out from the center of the room. It was their proximity, and they both knew it without understanding how.

Blood. Droplets on the floor, bloody hand prints on the peeling walls. A dark-haired boy on the floor with bloody hands held out away from his frail body.

"They never stop," the boy said, eyes clenched tightly shut. "They never."

Neal got down on his knees, and the boy scrambled away. "Get away!"

"Steve..."

"No," the boy said. "You don't know me, you can't. Only reason I ever cared at all was because I was built to."

Neal stayed where he was, knowing he was on some level where part of the truth could be heard.

"You did this," the boy said, wrapping his hands in the folds of a dark cloak to keep them from bleeding. "I'm nothing more than a part of you. I didn't ask for this, I didn't get here on my own. Tuirnarin said I belonged to you, and she was right. Now I only get to sleep or even die when you decide!"

I hate you, and I always will.

The words weren't Steve's; there was a flash of memory, a boy with a gun. The boy from the mall that had tried to kill them. Something from a lower level, where the truth was easier to tell. Or hide. There was something there that Neal should have understood, but he couldn't get it to come into focus. Then it was too late.

"Out!" The boy was shouting at him from the corner, eyes frantic, hands visible and held away again. "Go on, get out of here!"

Neal ignored him, rising and coming close enough to fold the boy's shaking hands shut, ignoring the blood. When there was no resistance, he gathered the boy into his arms. The boy was slight enough that his bones felt like those of a bird's. "Not without you," Neal said.

There was no struggle.

* * *

The ascent was so gradual that not even Steve was aware of it for awhile; the faint, mock-thunder sound of a jet overhead or the increasing wind outside might have been the final push.

It was warm and safe wherever he was, and anything beyond that was unimportant just yet. He breathed and needed nothing else.

It took awhile for him to realize the breathing wasn't solely his. Physical things intruded: one arm was twisted awkwardly and had gone numb. Finally, he simply wanted to move. He pulled slowly out of the tangle of limbs, only half of them his, giving up the warmth and confinement. He sighed, deep and slow, sitting up to look into the darkness, and when he did, he remembered who and where he was. He'd been pulled back.

He knew it immediately; wherever he'd been, he hadn't left on his own.

He glanced down and made out Neal's sleeping form. As he stared, the guitarist opened his eyes.

Neal caught the faint cat's-eye glow behind the singer's retinas as his eyes darted from shadow to shadow. Neal kept his thoughts still, trying to keep from doing more than remaining in the moment. Steve was nothing more than one of the shadows himself, liable to slide away in the light of his regard.

"I can't do this," Steve whispered. The words were faint enough that Neal would never have heard him if they hadn't been connected.

"You're not strong enough to say no," Neal whispered.

The truth stung. Somehow, Steve hadn't seen it. They were each hostage to each other courtesy of their own fears.

Never against your will, Neal thought. Never anything against your will.

Too late, Steve thought. Why can't you let go of me? What's it matter?

Neal was silent, a wordless and strangely patient feeling. A suggestion of sympathy.

Steve left the bed then, feeling nothing but disappointment.

What, then? Neal thought. What now?

Lightheaded, Steve turned back in his direction. You have to ask. We're this far in each other's heads, and still can't figure each other out. But you keep calling me back.

The reaction he got was confusion that quickly vanished, a brief struggle for memory. A veering away. Then Neal thought, Come lay down. You can be pissed at me in the morning. Just for now, lie here, and exist.

For a moment, the idea was so appealing to Steve that Neal thought he had the singer. Then, true to form, Steve fled.

Neal remained still for several minutes, listening to the wind outside, 'watching' Steve leave the house and shuffle through the grass of the backyard with bare feet. The dogs awoke in their kennel, but looked right at him without reacting.

When Steve unlocked the pool gate with a thought and entered its confines to sit next to the water and stare at the reflection of the sky, Neal rose to follow.

Leave. Me. Alone.

Neal hesitated just inside the back door at the directive, held in place by the force of the singer's will. Then he shrugged it off and left the house.

The dogs whined and pawed at the cement floor of the kennel to greet him, knowing better than to bark. He put his hands up to the fencing and let them shove their noses against his fingers. Laine put her ears back and crouched in submission, begging to come out.

"Not just now, babe," Neal whispered to her. "No one's in a mood to play."

He headed for the pool, realizing Steve had locked the gate again with a thought in a small, childish attempt to block him out. He leaned against the fence for a few moments, watching the water, then stepped across the space with a thought to sit cross legged next to the singer.

"Fuckin' showoff," Steve said aloud.

Neal didn't respond, just let his thoughts settle on watching the water stir in the wind.

"Jon's dogs can't see me," Steve said.

Neal was silent.

"Do you want that? Do you realize how wrong, how unnatural, this is?"

"It's gonna go on hurting, when we're separated," Neal said suddenly, steering Steve back toward the real issue. "By anything more than a few yards. We're together enough to make it a done deal but not enough to make it permanent, and we're hurtin' each other. Like we always have."

"That's fuckin' weird, from you," Steve said.

"Yeah," Neal said. "Because you've been thinkin' it. It isn't mine."

Steve shrugged. "So what."

Fighting down impatience, Neal said, "It's all or nothing with both of us. So we gotta choose all or nothing."

"Choose," Steve said with flat scorn. "We didn't choose any of this. Put me back, and get it the fuck over with. 'Nothing' is what I asked for before, and you guys decided something else for me." He got up and walked away from the water, out into the backyard.

Neal hated that, and the small traitorous stab of guilt he felt, and his own impatience. He hated Steve's stubbornness and that he gave up easily when it really counted.

Steve paused and glanced at him, reacting to the run of emotions, and Neal said, "You'll beat a dead horse but you won't lead a live one to water."

Steve laughed despite himself. "What?"

Neal realized the mixed metaphor wasn't what he'd wanted it to be after hearing it through Steve's ears. Then he said, "Can you imagine what it'd be like, how much better, if we finished it?"

Steve's face remained perfectly still, but something sad passed through him, went so far as to put a lump in his throat.

Knowing what it was about, Neal said, "Givin' up all your hiding won't be as bad as you think."

"Gettin' tired of each other will," Steve said.

"Kind of hard to get tired of someone when you see what they see all the time."

Steve walked further away, shaking his head, turning his back. The wind flowed over him like it would any other inanimate surface.

"You can't get away from me," Neal said softly, as if speaking aloud to himself. "Plug your ears, leave the country, it don't matter."

When there was nothing but annoyance from Steve, he rose to follow. Steve had reached cold pavement, the rough and striated concrete of the sidewalk that ran along the eastern side of the house.

"Say it," Neal said.

"Don't need to." Clipped, final.

"Yeah," Neal said. "You do. C'mon. Start with the part about how you don't know how much is--"

Steve said, "It doesn't matter."

Neal rolled his eyes. The singer remained silent inside and out, somehow managing to dampen his thoughts until they were an unintelligible fog. Hiding.

An image came to Neal's mind, of a broadcast he'd seen months earlier, of a steeplechase. A horse made it within feet of a water jump and balked, sending the rider hurling into space.

Despite himself, Steve snorted. "Haven't you heard? I'm nothing but a part of you, something you made up. Something they're going to take away, when they're done using us. We're geared to be together. It's planned and intentional. So it's like...like all this is meaningless."

Meaningless wasn't what he really meant, and Neal heard it, but it pissed the guitarist off anyway. "Meaningless," he said, tone flat.

Steve heard the anger and tilted his head. "Jesus," he sighed. "I could have this conversation with any ex-girlfriend. You know what I mean. It's set up. You ain't who I expected to end up with."

Neal shrugged internally.

"But you feel like my last," Steve said.

Neal was careful not to comment.

"Fine," Steve said, and began walking again, out to the driveway.

"Hey," Neal said. "It doesn't matter what started it. It don't matter if it wasn't our idea, if we were pushed, if it was set up a million years off. It matters what we do with it. It only matters how we end up."

"You're stuck with me," Steve said. "So I guess if you wanna convince yourself you like it--" He flinched just before Neal grabbed him, feeling it coming but unable to avoid it quick enough. The guitarist suddenly had a rough handful of the singer's sweatshirt and had leaned in.

His face close enough to Steve's to make his eyes go out of focus even in the dark, Neal said, "What'd you say, a couple months ago? 'Be delusional'? Yeah. We're tangled. I can't make you hear me any better than that. What the fuck do you want? Are you just incapable of letting anyone in, even if they're already there?"

"Ask me," Steve said slowly, "in about a thousand years, when we're still together."

Neal backed away, leaving a hand on Steve's chest, keeping a handful of his shirt.

"You'd never have chosen me on your own," Steve said.

"Some of the lines say otherwise," Neal said. "You told me that yourself."

"I'm talkin' about this line," Steve said.

"Don't be normal," Neal said. Then he released him. "Don't analyze this like you do everything else. It's like it is now, we're like we are now. Don't matter how we got here. We're here."

Too amazed to argue, all Steve could say was, "I really thought you knew."

Neal nodded a little, putting his hands on his hips. He wasn't sure how to say anything, for once. "I do, now. But, hey, how could you not be hot for me?"

Steve sighed. The humor didn't have the intended effect. "When you went off the cliffs in Athyri," Steve said suddenly. "I...it wasn't just that you..."

"You don't have to say it," Neal said, realizing how difficult the words already were for the singer. Holy shit, where did this come from?

Because Steve had meant to say something else. There'd been a mental image of the mall just after the kid had attacked them, and it didn't make any sense to Neal for a long moment.

Steve was silent for a beat. "I couldn't lose you."

Neal remained quiet, just acknowledging the admission internally and trying not to comment on it. There was guilt behind it, a bone-wearying weight of it. What is it? What really happened?

"You just live in the world, you know?" Steve said, ignoring him. "You don't let anything stop you. That's the biggest thing, you just go on." He paused, suddenly so weary that he didn't know if he had the energy to speak.

"Hey," Neal said, a slight warning. C'mon, don't do this now.

"I can't lose you," Steve said. "You gotta lose me. Sooner or later, it's all gonna come down on us somehow, you know that. Whether it's us, screwin' things up, or someone else trying to kill us. Just this once, do the easier thing. The right thing."

They were both silent for a long moment, each echoing the last thing the other had said. Heads bowed, hands on hips, too much for one another.

Then Steve ventured, How long...do you think we have?

"Not long enough," Neal said. "If we survive...I mean, I'm not sure, if..." He paused. I don't want it broken, I don't want us apart!

"We wouldn't be apart," Steve said sharply, still keeping his voice low. They didn't need an audience. "I'd just be more a part of you than we'll ever get to this way. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Don't leave me," Neal said.

Steve froze, felt his breath catch in his throat, but didn't look at Neal. Here it was, the end, the truth, in three simple words. And he hadn't seen it coming.

"You asked me what I want," Neal said. "That's it. Don't leave me."

Steve took a breath. "No one else'll understand you, is that it?" Steve said, automatically trying to backpedal. "There's just us."

"Is that good enough, for now?" Neal said.

Steve took another deep breath. Something surfaced without his meaning it to, some inarticulate allusion to how quickly things would disintegrate without love.

"It's...not that I don't," Neal said.

"Don't do this now," Steve said, right over the top of him, trying to keep things packed down without making it obvious.

"Got to," Neal said. "You're hurt over it, and it's on top of everything. I got no control over how I feel, or you feel."

"I know," Steve said, and his voice was so small inwardly and outwardly that Neal felt his stomach clench.

"I'm trying to work this out," Neal said, lowering his voice. "I can't help it, that I never loved you this way." He paused. "It takes time." I'm willing to let it happen. That's gotta be enough.

"It's not," Steve said. "Not when I've made it real clear that we don't have the time, that I don't wanna see forever again."

"What we gotta do to stay together isn't much different from what we gotta do to get apart," Neal said.

Steve sighed, folding his arms. "Difference is, you get all the way in for a short period of time as opposed to forever," he said.

Neal was quiet for a long moment, trying to keep himself from saying several things. The gist got through, but never coherently enough to make sense. Then he said, "You could do worse."

"And I will, if you keep me around," Steve shot back. "This's gonna end up bad, Neal. I shouldn't be the one tryin' to fuckin' talk you into this."

"Who's gonna keep me from doin' the really stupid stuff?" Neal said. "Who's gonna understand stuff the way I do?"

Steve finally glanced at him before looking at the sky again. "You and me were always the problem," he said. "It's Jon who's kept you grounded, remember?"

"If what Siarion said is true about Jon lighting me up, and then I go ahead and....shit, I don't know, absorb you, I'll be going on for a long damn time alone. Jon's not planning on hanging around forever. He's pretty mortal, last time I checked."

Steve passed his hands over his face, trying to keep the whole thing from getting more emotional. "I'm sure the other walkers will - "

"Bullshit," Neal said. "I think you know how that'll go."

Steve tilted his head. It wasn't acquiescence; it was a refusal to go on arguing. He wanted to say do whatever you want but it took too much energy to voice.

"Don't leave me," Neal said again.

Silence. Leaden, dull, weary.

"At least think about it," Neal said.

"It's all there is," Steve said.

"You said there was another version of you, one that killed us," Neal said. "How am I gonna deal with that, figure it out, by myself?"

"You and Jon," Steve said. "You'll have everything you need, once you..." he paused.

"I don't think you really wanna go," Neal said.

"It doesn't matter," Steve said. "It's not about me."

Then he turned suddenly and walked back toward the back door, intent on going inside and lying down.

Neal didn't pursue him. Somehow, he hadn't gotten through.

He'd have to try harder. And from a different angle.

* * *

The next morning, Neal decided to go home, and invited Steve to come with him. Steve agreed, if only not to confront anything alone and put them all in a bigger mess.

Neal tried not to look too hard at Liz as they left.

* * *

By the time they got into the house and made certain everything was fine, they were further apart than they had been prior to any of it ever happening.

* * *

Steve came back to himself in the dark that first night, knowing he hadn't been sleeping, only drifting away somewhere. It took him several moments to realize he was sitting on the floor. It took a few moments after that to realize he had his back braced against the side of Neal's bed. He had no memory of getting there, but he was annoyed all the same. Neal was asleep, not even dreaming.

After indulging himself in an eye-roll, Steve moved to get to his feet to wander the house and make certain they were alone, but stopped short.

Siarion - or something that looked like her - was standing in the doorway, hands folded before her.

Steve tried not to get alarmed, but he let his surprise show. "Now what?" he said softly. "No, wait, I'm not gonna let you walk up on us and start the bullshit again. I got a question for you, this time."

Siarion came into the room, silver eyes just visible, and sat on the edge of Neal's bed. Steve didn't like her that close, but he'd put up with it for the moment if he could just get a straight answer.

"How the fuck did I get here, to this?" he said. "How am I ...not an object anymore?"

She let her eyes travel almost surreptitiously to Neal.

Listen, Steve thought, waking Neal. I think you better hear this.

Neal's eyes opened a little but he was careful to remain turned away, careful not to let his breathing change. Careful to keep himself out of Steve's eyes.

"Guarding the key to Everything grew lonely for the youngest Walker," she said, and Steve finally heard the capitalization on walker. "There were none he could befriend, not with that at stake. Always moving on. Given enough time...Existence will produce virtually anything."

"Spark had to come from somewhere," Steve said, beginning to realize how much she'd said, in the fewest words. "Rocks exist for billions of years and don't just wake up one day."

She nodded.

"Not gonna tell me?" Steve said. "Not gonna give me some myth to swallow?"

"No one's quite sure," she said. "If the Walker's loneliness was the spark, so be it. You've only been sentient the last few of your lifetimes, and you've made a long noisy mess of the lines. The Walker has found it progressively more difficult to return you back to the circle. This time, he has not."

"Where are my maker's marks?" Steve said.

She didn't understand, but it didn't show on her face.

"Should I start calling you grandma?" Steve said. "You said you're the mother of the walkers, right?"

She had no answer, and Neal thought Holy shit!

"If you're separated now," Siarion said, reverting back to her original reason for appearing, "Neal will die. I think you already know that."

Steve nodded.

"If he does, you'll go on until he appears again," she said.

"We've already been though this," Steve said. "It's him you gotta convince. So no sense asking him if he wants away from me badly enough to die."

Rude.

Neal was chiming in.

Nobody invited you, Steve thought.

"You must go, eventually," she said.

"You here to collect me now, like you were gonna at Jon's?" Steve said.

"Sooner or later, someone will try and separate you," she said. "And you'll both suffer. It's the one weak link you have. As things stand now, you're very fragile. Once Neal's gone, there'll only be you."

"He'll kill me first," Steve said. "He knows better, we both do, and he's not gonna leave me here."

"He won't mean to," she said.

"And you're bothering to warn me because...?" Steve said. "Not from the goodness of your heart, I bet."

"I can teach you to know when they're trying to separate you," she said. "They can be...subtle."

Steve had what Neal didn't: a memory of being separated after only ten years of being tangled. Steve veered away from the memory when it threatened, refusing to share it. Neal would see it eventually, when Steve's guard was down. He was horrified at the thought of being alone again, because he remembered being separated from Neal. He'd never found center again, never slept, never had the chance to even die. No. Not that, not ever.

"I can't," Steve said bluntly. "Be subtle, I mean. No reason why I won't get them long before they can even get an idea of us."

"Arrogant," she said, and Neal agreed with her. The difference was, he amended it to include frightened.

"Are you real?" Steve said. "The actual Siarion, I mean. Because the real one usually gets off by floating in and playing hardass with us."

After a moment, she rose. "You've been given tasks," she said. "I've already warned you what I will do. And I will hurt one of my own doing it. That, too, will be on your head."

"So why aren't you discussing this with my 'maker'?" Steve said without the venom the words could have contained.

"Because he has already chosen a path," she said. "And so have you."

"Then hurry up and get it over with," he said.

"Ga'ityn was here," she said, and Neal rolled over and sat up. "He mentioned that a lesson might be in order. You take too much for granted."

"Who's going to give it to us?" Steve said.

"He was able to call you," she said. "Any walker can, and may. There were only meant to be six, and they attempted to do what Neal has, many times, creating lesser versions of themselves. I will remedy that."

"We've had all kinds of lessons," Neal said, sliding out of bed and putting himself between Steve and Siarion. "You gotta leave us alone long enough to get this sorted out. I thought we made it clear."

"The body the Er Rai is in, was given," she said softly. "And your time is gone."

Her gaze crossed Neal's shoulder to rest on Steve.

And the singer died.

Neal felt Steve's heart stop, felt the singer's consciousness flail for purchase a moment longer. Then he was gone, and the body the namers had given him in place of the one left in Athyri stood uninhabited for several absent heartbeats. It folded to the floor, eyes still open, a discarded toy.

Their bond held, but Steve didn't revert to Neal. He just hovered, caught between, unable to live or die.

* * *

Jon startled awake, choking for air, reaching for Liz in a panic.

* * *

Neal's shock broke, and he reached for the threads of the timeline around him, trying to gather them back. He felt them, but they didn't respond. She'd blocked him, somehow, the way Tuirnarin and Gai'tyn had.

"Fragile," Siarion said. "After all this, you still don't realize. Would you like to argue, now, about what you will and won't do?"

The world began to spin; he wasn't breathing but was, existed but didn't. Steve was a weight that dragged him under. He slid to his knees, wondering why she hadn't done this to them sooner.

Siarion watched him emotionlessly. "There are beings out there with a great dislike for you," she said. "One in particular is trapped in the sands of Athyri, but won't keep for long. When he gets loose, he'll be much, much angrier. And no one will be able to help you."

"Big surprise," Neal said. "That's...pretty much the line we've been gettin' from you assholes all along."

Without another word, Siarion vanished.

Neal stared into the empty space, then realized the finality of it. Steve still hung in static limbo. Unfeeling, unconscious, unliving, and it buzzed in Neal's head like constant static on a dead channel.

He scrambled to Steve's empty shell, shouting to the empty air. You can't, you can't leave him like this! This was only a scare tactic, she was only trying to prove something -

What were you made of?

Now it didn't matter anymore.

He couldn't stand the almost-silence, connected but unable to reach, stretching off into nothing and nowhere. A step behind.

* * *

When Jon found them, the door was unlocked, as if he had been expected. Neal was still sitting on the floor, holding the singer's lifeless body across his lap. Sobbing.

"Shhh," Jon soothed, kneeling next to them. "I felt it, so I'm here. Hold on."

The guitarist was nearly insensible by then, falling into the space left behind by the pocket the singer had been tucked into. Left alone much longer, Neal would have hovered there with him, not-living.

Jon heard the static and reached for it, rewinding the connection. It was too much like reeling in a fish, but moments later, Steve broke the 'surface' and took a breath on his own.

After all, Jon thought, she only hit him with something pretty minor.

Which had been the real point.

Neal breathed a sigh of relief and tried to regain control. Jon embraced him, and for long minutes there was only that.

Very softly, Jon said, "I won't be here forever, though."

* * *