Memory Bound - final
(c)2003 B Stearns
Final warning: Sexual situations of an R rated nature, things, suggestions of things, etc. Homophobes, get ye nigh on elsewhere, forthwith.
The river had him again.
He struggled, trying to break the surface. If he could just do that, he'd worry about the rest later...all he could do so far was tumble along in the current. No matter what he did, water seemed to find every opening, nose and mouth, trying to drown him, become him -
Steve Augeri startled awake, breaking the surface of consciousness, trying to pull in a deep breath.
Only, there was no air.
He gagged in panic, chest leaden, lungs full to bursting. As he leaned over the side of the bed to get gravity to help him, a mouthful of icy, mineral-tasting water hit the floor. A hell of a lot more followed when he coughed.
He lay there and gasped, amazed but grateful that he hadn't woken Lydia. He slipped out of bed to get a towel, still coughing, finding the rest of him dry and unharmed.
The river had followed him home, a lungful at a time.
How much did I swallow, in the caves? How much of my world has been real, since I got back?
And who the hell was there to ask?
* * *
"Kind of lays it all out for us, doesn't it," Jon said. There was no answer from either Steve or Neal, and he hadn't expected one. Steve hadn't been awake long enough, and Neal was still too shocked to react. "You guys gotta decide, soon. Now. Any longer, and it won't make any damn difference what you want. Flip a coin, or take a chance, or just quit the bullshit and do what everyone knows you're going to anyway."
Neal shot him a look, but there was no heat in it.
"Before, you couldn't fuckin' wait to get started," Jon said. "Now there's a problem?"
Neal shook his head a little without raising his eyes again. Steve was utterly still for once.
"Do I need to tie you two together?" Jon said, his tone deadly serious. "I will. If you remember what I am, I can get you guys to the point where you don't know any better. Want it to get that bad?"
"You wouldn't," Neal said wearily.
"Try me," Jon said.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Then, almost inaudibly, Steve said, "It's already that bad." Then he rose and walked away, never making a sound, barely disturbing the air.
Jon noted yet again the signs that Steve wasn't really all that solid anymore, and wondered if he'd go on fading. And what else might be fading, that wasn't visible or tangible. He looked at Neal, waiting.
"We need time," Neal said.
"We don't have it," Jon said. "And you don't need me remindin' you of it."
"This is still somethin' we can't push," Neal said. "This isn't me and him, preparing for a tour. This is us tryin' to deal with the rest of our lives. Or longer. We fuck up here, I don't know how to fix it. The first time was all that, was us doin' whatever we had to, to get you back."
"I know," Jon said softly.
"Okay. Then you know us fuckin' each other on a regular basis because we have to is not the way to get us all the way together," Neal said. "We got enough natural resistance, here, with everything that's already gone on. Me killin' him, and that...the Ender tryin' to do stuff to him using my face. It doesn't matter that it didn't get anything done, it was enough to make things really difficult."
Jon felt a small thrill of fear to go with the discomfort that was already there. He'd thought it had gotten as messy as it could, that they were already as far in over their heads as they could get. He'd forgotten to factor Steve in, again.
"We're scared as hell," Neal said. "What happens, happens, and goddamnit, by our choice. Not 'cause we should, or what might happen, or who says what. And we'll deal with it." He paused. "We gotta...be careful with each other. Nobody knows how they feel, yet. That still matters."
"Not to the Ender," Jon said. "Or the namers, or anybody else. Siarion's little trick was the only warning shot you guys are gonna get. Better safe than sorry."
Neal shook his head. "Nobody's got anything safe, Jon. No matter what we do, it's all panic from here on."
"Doing nothing is worse," Jon said. "You do nothing, then you let someone else make this decision. You can't have everything. If you keep him awake, you'll at least have the option of putting him away whenever you need to, and you'll have to, and no one cares about your bullshit morals. You put him away for good, you won't have to worry about the things that would make it necessary to keep running. What sounds like the better play?"
Neal moved as if to get up and go after Steve.
"I'll do it," Jon said. "He'll at least get pissed enough to do something."
Neal just looked at him for a moment. "Good luck to you," he said.
"Go back to bed," Jon said.
Neal stared again.
"Nothin's gonna bother you, with both me and Steve awake," Jon said. He could tell from Neal's face that the guitarist understood what he was trying to do: get Steve alone. "You're wiped out enough that I think you can swing it, no matter what's gone on here tonight."
* * *
Steve went outside, into the dark, trying to push away the conversation that went on behind him. He felt childish and small, as if the age he'd reached made no difference, not on the greater scale. Nothing he'd learned or done, no one he'd pretended to be, had prepared him for any part of this. In the end, he was another insignificant person, and not even much of one once he reminded himself what he really was. Pointless.
Pointless. An object that would work better when stripped of everything he'd been. Temporarily, accidentally been.
He felt Neal drift off to sleep and couldn't help but wonder how much longer he'd have that.
I'm done talking to him, or you, or anybody, he thought purposely to Neal. Neal ignored him.
The stars weren't even out; he couldn't even distract himself with that.
"Jonathan," he said when he heard the whisper of footfalls on the grass behind him, "...fuck off."
"After you," Jon said. "I'm not any more willing to figuratively ride your ass than Neal is in real life, so don't worry."
Steve sighed but didn't turn, too tired to bother. "You've been holdin' on to that one, I bet. Neal's asleep, so get your tirade over with and go home."
"When you bought Neal back," Jon said suddenly, "you traded that kid for it. Would you still make the same choice?"
Steve kept himself from turning to look at Jon, trying to keep the panic down so that he didn't wake Neal. "No," he said softly. "No, I won't."
"You mean wouldn't," Jon said.
"Won't," Steve said. "It'll happen again, and it won't be any different. That kid's only out there, still, because of me. Another version of me did it, but the choices I made to begin with, did it. That doesn't all make much sense to even me, yet, so don't make me try and explain."
"Is that kid who I think he is?" Jon said. "An even trade, maybe?"
Steve swallowed hard and folded his arms against the damp chill creeping into the yard.
"The other version of you that you were telling us about before, the other Er Rai - " Jon said.
"The same Er Rai," Steve said. "I did this. He's not human anymore. And he's ten times more powerful than I am. He's like Tuirnarin but worse."
"You don't think he's you, then," Jon said. "You said 'he'."
"It was me, once," Steve said. "Again. I'm not tryin' to distance myself, or deny any of it. I'm mostly responsible. But we're two different people, so if I get a chance to kill him, I'll take it. He's movin' things around to get what he wants, so we're not that different. But he's waiting for you and Neal to come around again, and he's got plans for you I can't let him have. He's gotta stop, because he's settin' other things in motion that are worse. There's a version of Neal slamming through the lines killing every version of me that exists, looking for me. There's another one looking for me that's killing himself doing it. The line is splitting and splitting."
"That's the damage the Ender was talking about," Jon said. "When he said you'd done things to Existence, and 'rion said we'd messed up the lines."
Steve nodded, something only barely visible to Jon in the dark yard.
"It all goes back to the last moment the line was whole, the moment Neal died at the mall," Steve said.
"Can we actually do anything about it?" Jon said. "Do you think there's anything we can do? Because if you're wrong, the line--"
"Jon," Steve said, "I've seen far enough down one of the ravels to know what needs to be done. Ten thousand years."
"Then it's already been repaired," Jon said.
Steve had a moment of real horror when he realized Jon didn't - couldn't - see the whole of it, that he was the only one, because of who and what he was. "Yeah. But only in one of the ravels. It needs to have never happened, Jon." He paused, uncertain about touching on it even while Neal was asleep, but knew he was done hiding. "I'll make sure the potential for it to happen is stopped." It happened because we weren't tangled enough. "Only one of the ravels gets solved. The rest of them won't stop until they've slammed into other lines, until the original cause of the disturbance is put away."
Jon waited, hoping there wasn't more, because he felt lost for once. "Can you stand against the distant Er Rai?" he said.
Steve swallowed hard again. "I don't think we should stand against him. I don't wanna go through five more stints over there - Athyri - because if we try to go head to head with someone who's had thousands of years to think about it, we'll be doing exactly that. I gotta choose exactly where I cut the whole thing off. I gotta bypass him altogether. He wants to die, but he won't trust us to do it properly, not even Neal. I gotta go back...or ahead...to Neal. I can't keep him from dying. Us standing here talking about it is changing the line already, but I can't rely on that." He thought a moment longer.
"It wasn't a bad choice," Jon said softly, a little too kindly. "You did the best you could. It was roulette, that's all."
"But it was still my choice," Steve said. "So I gotta clean it up. But goddamnit, I'd make it again. That's what bugs me. I'd fuck Existence over to keep you guys alive." He paused, realizing he really meant Neal. And he didn't have time or energy to feel any guilt over it.
"They know that," Jon said. "The Formless in general, the ones who are awake. None of them have the access to the Evenwhen that you do, and going up against us or doing anything to me or Neal means risking you tearing the place up."
"They need me gone," Steve said. "Don't they."
"They need you under control," Jon said. "You could sneeze and take a line apart without knowing it. Of course, with that nose, that was true before..."
Steve ignored him.
"Where are we supposed to start?" Jon said. "Can you see me and Neal fuckin' around with this, even if he has your memories to draw from? We can't do this without you. You, not part of you."
Steve turned to face him.
"You can't call bullshit on me, because you know I'm making sense," Jon said. "Cold, hard, common sense, to keep us all alive and in the world we're used to. You guys get your shit together and make this happen, before it starts without you."
"We need to start with the kid," Steve said. "We need to get to him, somehow."
* * *
Jon was gone when Neal awoke again. Despite telling himself he wouldn't be able to sleep, Neal had managed it until midmorning. He felt for Steve immediately, finding the singer where he always was now, a part of the back of his mind. Steve was flipping channels in the living room and continue to do so even though he knew Neal was awake.
"I'm done with all this," Steve said aloud, as if Neal was in the room. "How about you?"
Neal rolled out of bed and rubbed his hands over his face, headed for the bathroom. His thoughts were inarticulate, just a general wash of anxiety and something else that Steve didn't read. Anxiety always had an acid mental taste to it, killing anything and everything else above and below. The night before was a good part of it, but Steve failed to see that it wasn't the only reason for it; fear is fear, no matter whose it is.
He went on flipping channels, cross-legged on the couch, watching CNN, and beginning to realize that Neal was purposely avoiding any specific thought as he got into the shower. With shaking hands.
Steve put the remote down with deliberate care, keeping his gaze intently on the screen, listening and trying not to make it obvious. Something was happening, and oh how he wanted to know what it was so that he could run, or force it, or do anything but sit there and listen to it build.
There was a conversation with Liz that he could get an idea of, no specifics, just that it had happened while he was asleep at Jon's after the confrontation with the walker. Final part of time, and you've thought this through so hard you've backed over yourself came across and that was all. He felt his chest tighten and wondered if there was anything he wanted to do before it was all over, before things changed so much that it was no longer possible. Not dead, not really, doesn't matter.
Neal made a hushing noise from the shower, catching the tail end of Steve's unintended reverie. He didn't offer anything to go with it, just broke the loop of worry between them. He put his hands out to catch the water in cupped palms, and Steve unconsciously mirrored the move.
Like candles, Steve thought. You can blend the flames and they never need more room.
He sat like that and stared at his hands, not paying attention when Neal turned the water off and dried himself. Not even when he dressed and came into the room behind him.
Steve ran a hand through his hair to get it out of his way. When he did, he caught a glimpse of himself from behind and to his left, and something else. A small, electric hum of warmth, gone as quickly as it had come. Heat. An almost predatory possessiveness.
Steve turned in time to watch Neal begin to smile. He stared, amazed, remembering the conversation they'd had before leaving for Jon's on Thanksgiving.
I got no control over what you hear, or don't, Neal thought purposely.
Steve didn't even attempt to put anything into words; he just sat where he was, caught between amazement and apprehension. Neal could feel him weighing inarticulate possibilities, the feeling similar to when he did it in his own mind, but in a more circular pattern rather than A to B like his own.
I'm willing to get this to work, Neal thought. Not just'cause I'm scared of anything, or what might happen. Something's been goin' on, 'tween me and you, a long time.
Steve didn't answer with words, or with anything but emotion. And it was all uncertainty. Neal felt him turning the admission over. Then Steve rose and walked away, giving in to the need to move. He couldn't think just sitting there.
I'd do it, Steve thought, to keep you from dyin' the way you will if we don't figure this out. To keep me from goin' on, after. So there's no choice. Don't do this to me.
That had been what Neal was afraid of. But he finally realized there was a way to get past it. No choice, huh? he thought. Fine. Then I'll make you a deal.
Steve caught the gist of what Neal intended, and his eyes widened a little. "I fuckin' dare you," he said aloud. "You'll never -"
Neal was in his face before he could finish the sentence, having leaped across the space. That quickly, he was crowding Steve, who refused to take a step back. They stared at each other from close, and Neal said, "Really?"
Steve could feel the guitarists' breath on his skin from that close, quick and warm. The light in his eyes would have been enough to gauge what he was thinking, even without the link they shared. He wasn't sure he liked being incapable of masking interest - or excitement - behind something else. So when Neal began to smile a little, he knew exactly why. It was the same old I got you smile. But there wasn't a hint of smugness in it, this once.
"Still there," Neal said. It's all still there.
"You're not my type either," Steve said.
Neal grinned. That's your big defense?
"Bein' curious doesn't count," Steve said.
"Gotta start somewhere," Neal said. This is what you think it is.
"You won't," Steve said, voice shallow and low. "You won't, and nothin'll -"
Neal tilted his head and leaned in even further, resting his mouth lightly against Steve's, and the singer went silent and tense, afraid to move.
Lips just touching, breathing into him, Neal whispered, "Come on. No one here to catch us."
Suddenly shaking, Steve remained frozen, hands midair, eyes closed.
It's true, Neal thought. It's happening, and it's only me. Then he leaned in the rest of the way, closing the remaining millimeters between them, one tentative hand on the back of Steve's neck for support and nothing else. Giving him room to back away if he wanted to, even though Neal already knew he wouldn't. Not yet.
Steve returned it, hands resting on the sides of Neal's face. It went right out of control like it had the first time, but more intense now that they shared everything. Then Neal broke the kiss long enough to drop his face to Steve's throat, and the singer startled away from him.
Neal let him go, knowing it was coming. Knowing it'd been why he'd kept his hands from doing what they wanted to. "Look at me," Neal said, careful to be still. Careful not to push. "It's only me."
"What about...Jon," Steve said. "He's - we're -"
"Jon's gotta live with it same as everybody else," Neal said. "This is us."
He waited, and knew when Steve's face changed, when his eyes darkened a little, that the doors were all open. Even without the internal cues. There was no resistance when mouths met again; not when Neal backed Steve into the bedroom at the end of the hall without either of them being completely aware of it, not when they ended up on the bed.
Neal pressed Steve into the bed with his hips, and the singer allowed it. The implication was plain without needing thought behind it. As blatantly physical as it was, it allowed a moment of hesitation. Not the right place, not the right time, not the right -
Steve shifted his hips slightly to accommodate Neal's weight, and the unintentional result was enough to make them both shiver, to make them both aware of how far things had already gone without realizing it.
"Holy shit," Neal whispered, his elbows braced on either side of Steve's chest. They both concentrated on their breathing for a moment, afraid to move. Then Steve wrapped his legs around Neal's hips, and the guitarist gripped the bedspread in his hands.
"Stop," he whispered. "Jesus, Steve."
Steve laughed silently, but complied. You started it.
They let things settle for several seconds. Then Neal sighed.
"Not like this," Neal said. "Not half-assed, spur of the moment. 'Cause then, it's just a fling."
Having already heard the words coming, Steve agreed silently. Or half of him did.
"Tag," Neal said breathlessly.
Did you feel like that the first time I kissed you? Neal thought, forehead pressed against Steve's chest. All that?
Steve's answer was sarcastic. I slid down the fuckin' wall. How much proof do you need?
Neal snorted and levered himself up, straightening his clothes. Steve remained on the bed and started laughing, and not even he knew why. Not relief or amazement or anything in particular, just too many things to express.
"This is gonna be such a mess," he said. Are you sure?
Neal shrugged. "It's already pretty goddamn bad," he said. You're in here too, you tell me.
"I can take everybody's choices away," Steve said, staring at the ceiling, suddenly serious again. "I could order everything the way I think it should be, all the way across. Anything happens I don't like, bang, it never happened. I'm gonna get tempted. We're gonna get tempted."
"We've already had the discussion about what I'll let you get away with," Neal said. "I won't let you. I promise."
"What if you can't step in?" Steve said. "Where's the line get drawn? Who's decision is that?"
"Jesus Christ," Neal said. "I've never run across anyone who worried like you do, about shit that's never happened yet." He walked out of the room to put space between them in at least one sense.
"That doesn't exist anymore," Steve said. "There is no 'never happened'. There are lines where you lose one of your kids to something stupid. You can't theorize about the road not taken, not with me. There are things we'd have to fix, things we won't be able to tolerate, but what if they're supposed to happen? Who the fuck are we, to decide?"
"Spiran had the right idea and the wrong execution," Steve said, sitting up. "You and I can redefine blackmail. Somebody tough enough could find a way to get us doin' whatever they wanted. There are beings out there who blink once every thousand years, who take whole revolutions of this galaxy to make a move. Someone could get hold of Jon and have both us and the namers after 'em." He paused for a breath, and Neal thought, boundaries.
"I don't have them!" Steve yelled.
"Bullshit!" Neal said at exactly the same time, having heard Steve's words before he could verbalize them. He walked back into the bedroom to point at him "Goddamnit, this isn't a fucking corporation where you're getting told to think outside the box. Get back in your box, Stephen. Otherwise you're gonna go nuts, and what the fuck am I gonna do paired up with that? Imagine what kind of damage we'll be doin' then!"
Steve sighed. I hear you trying to talk sense into me, that's what. Never thought I'd see the day.
"We're linear," Neal said. "Be linear. Don't imagine. I'm the goddamn walker, here. You think I--" he paused and grinned.
"No, go ahead and say it," Steve said. "We got all kinds of cliche's we can't even say to each other anymore. You know what I think."
"I've thought of all that stuff, a long time ago when this shit all started and I realized what I could do," Neal said. "I ain't tellin' you we gotta pretend to be normal, because we aren't and we can't. We already got the namers pressuring us into cleaning up the lines, but we're agreeing to it."
"Are we?" Steve said. "You know, I missed arguing with you, you bastard."
"My point--if I got one--is that it's another illusion about choice," Steve said. "Sure, the namers can't come straight out and heavy hand us into doing it. They can guilt trip us about how we're responsible for some, and Tuirnarin was responsible for some. They can scare us with consequences and savin' the world and whatever else. But underneath that is them thinkin' that if that didn't work, they'd be giving us reasons to go do it."
The word reasons came with a headful of possibilities, all bad, all painful.
"You can't control that," Neal said.
"I did something like that," Steve said. "To you and Jon, when you came back around."
"Tell me," Neal said.
Steve fell silent, and there was nothing but a static of sadness from him. He wouldn't touch on it, and purposely looked out the window to his right to force Neal to look at that.
"You have access to it," Steve said. "I got no control over what you see and what you don't. Why don't you just find it?"
"Because you don't want me to," Neal said softly. "Why are you always askin' me shit you already know the answer to? I'm not into that scene."
The concept of rape ran underneath that, unaddressed but alluded to.
"You should just show it to me," Neal said. "You're letting it be worse than it is."
There was a younger face, darker, a face Neal didn't recognize but nonetheless realized was his own in some other place. I hate you, and I always will.
"Am I?" Steve said. "Anyone's a span of time and circumstance from devil or saint. It was, it is, it will be. We just need some kind of insurance to keep them from giving us reasons to do what we'll do." He paused, swallowed hard. "You guys got kids. And what about Amber?"
Neal shook his head. You let me deal with that, and stay off it.
"This is a lot of dancing around you're agreeing to," Steve said. "For what?"
"Because I'm bored, and I'm a fuckin' masochist," Neal said.
Steve stared at him for a moment, risking feedback from the live wire that was the space between, and not caring. He had a lot he wanted to say, and none of it would get them anywhere. "Are you hitting on me?" Steve said.
"If you gotta ask, then it's been longer than I thought," Neal said.
Steve went on staring at him, and had they not been connected Neal would have decided he was looking at calculated indifference. But underneath, Steve was grinning somewhere, and thrilled, and couldn't hide it all the way anymore.
"Yeah, well," Neal said with a sigh, backing away. "I haven't played since we got back". He turned abruptly and moved back down the hall. "Think better when I play."
God help us all, Steve thought.
"Somebody's gotta figure out what we do next," Neal snapped, knowing he was being obvious about putting up a defense. Too much, too fast. He jogged down the stairs to the basement, grabbing his acoustic.
"Somebody's too much of a fuckin' idiot to realize it's not up to us," Steve said, knowing exactly what was happening and playing along. Back to old patterns, and it was a relief.
Neal briefly considered putting the guitar right into the drywall, but didn't want to damage the guitar. What the hell were they doing?
He sat down instead and riffed something, hoping it would at least partially drown the singer out. He paid no attention when Steve moved to the top of the stairs to sit and listen, like he had before. He was doing nothing more than warming up when the world tilted a little. Neal paused, wondering which of them was actually dizzy. "What the hell was that?" he said.
Didn't feel like anyone was messing with us, Steve thought. Felt like...us.
Neal waited a moment to make sure things were settled. Then he said, "You gonna cry this time?"
"Oh, fuck you," Steve said, but there was no annoyance despite the tone. The jab hurt for some reason that Steve couldn't explain, even to himself. Neal was only defending himself.
"Hey come on," Neal said. "Lighten up."
Steve was moodily silent, inside and out.
Neal moved on from that moment to the next without letting it affect him, something that had always driven Steve nuts, and no less so then. He finger picked for a moment, catching a particular note and expanding on the key he'd started in, just wandering, when the entire section of him that was them seemed to go blank.
He heard/felt Steve collapse backwards onto the top of the stairs, a loose heap of barely inhabited flesh and bone. Neal was suddenly alone in the space between, like he had been when Siarion hit them, like he had been when he'd put Steve away to get them home.
The acoustic made a hollow, resounding noise when it hit the floor. Neal vaulted for the stairs, reaching Steve at the top and shaking him. "Perry," he said, shaking him harder when he got nothing. "Perry!"
Steve wandered back to consciousness, staring up at Neal with a complete lack of concern. "What the hell is wrong with you?" he said.
Neal crouched, keeping a hold on him in case he felt like shaking him again, and 'listened' to him carefully. Steve didn't flinch even though it was similar to the searching Jon had given him after Neal had gone over the cliffs. Similar, yet nothing like it, respectful if a little clinical. After a moment, Neal thought, What'd you do, short circuit?
"Like I know so much about it," Steve said. "I'm fine. So get off me, unless you got somethin' else in mind."
Neal rose but didn't back away, and Steve sat up to stare at him. "I don't know what it was. Go back to playing, and quit motherin' me."
Neal jostled him with a foot and left him, jogging back down the stairs and resettling himself. He launched into something immediately and lost Steve almost immediately after. He put the guitar down again with a tense sigh, wondering why he wasn't really affected. He braced his hands on his knees and sat, putting the pieces together, realizing what had happened. Whatever part of him was walker wasn't far different from the part of him that was the guitar, although the latter required less effort on his part. He was putting Steve away without trying.
There was no guilt attached to the realization; just confusion.
But I'm a guitar player. It's what I do, what I am.
Maybe Steve was right, about everything.
When Steve awoke again, he knew something was different, and it wasn't only what Neal had to tell him.
* * *
Jon walked his dogs most evenings, putting them on the leash and letting them drag him around the neighborhood. Sometimes Liz was with him, sometimes not. Tonight she was not, and someone was counting on catching him alone.
The girls never gave any indication that someone had joined them; they never smelled or heard the stranger, never caught him in their peripheral vision or felt his presence. They didn't react at all, not even when a hand brushed Jon's elbow.
Jon turned and startled, finding Steve standing near, his eyes a cat's-glow of green in the twilight. "Jesus, what the hell are you doing?"
"How are you gonna tour with two walkers?" Steve said as if he hadn't heard. "Aug is gonna go on messing around with things, no matter what you guys say. You gotta keep tabs on him."
"I'm gonna work on keeping him out of this mess," Jon said shortly, his heart pounding harder than he wanted to show.
"Then I guess we're back to my original question," Steve said. "He's not as on the sirface as Neal is. You won't always see what he's up to. And even worse, he means well."
"We'll figure it out," Jon said. "It's not exactly your problem." Something had changed in the singer's demeanor, something that told Jon things were decided. He couldn't read anything from Steve's face or tone, and he let that alone tell him soemthing.
"So go ahead and tour," Steve said. "It won't be long before we get called on, you know that." He didn't bother mentioning that he would be spending their time onstage in some sort of unknowing, quiet place where he no longer existed except as music.
Steve watched Jon solemnly for a moment. Then he said, "Jonathan Cain, interdimensional bounty hunter."
"Knock it off, Steve," Jon said wearily. "Just knock it off."
"I'm gonna go into hiding," Steve said, still watching Jon. Waiting for something. "No big stretch for me, right? I only have another five, ten years before the fact that I'll never age becomes obvious. Time to retire."
"Neal--" Jon began, then paused. Steve went on waiting. Jon shook his head. "I don't know. You guys...I'm not part of any of that."
"Bullshit," Steve said. "You're family, Jonathan. When you get over bein' pissed, I'm sure there's more."
Jon sighed and refused to look at the singer.
"Don't treat me like we gotta hide this from Neal," Steve said. "There's no hiding. You're talkin' to him and me, you always will be. You gotta come to terms with it."
"I don't need you telling me what I already know," Jon said.
"Yeah," Steve said, purposely drawing the word out into a jeer, baiting him. Making things easier. "So keep avoidin' it, like it isn't there."
Jon hit him.
There was little force behind it, because of Jon's proximity and the impulsiveness behind the blow. But it fell, a glancing blow to the right side of Steve's face. The singer made a halfhearted attempt to duck, too late.
Steve stumbled away from him, bringing a hand up to shield one stinging eye.
Equally startled, the Inverse and the Er Rai stood apart and stared at each other.
Unable to take offense, Steve held a hand out. After a moment, to his own surprise, Jon took it, and Steve pulled him in, embracing him.
"I'm sorry," Steve whispered.
"My God, what the fuck are you apologizing for," Jon whispered.
"Because there is no me," Steve said. "Not anymore."
Jon began to weep silently, and Steve stood there and held him.
After awhile, they parted, and Steve vanished into the dark without disturbing the air or making a sound. The grass barely bent beneath his feet. Except for the memory of him, he might never have been there at all.
* * *