Jon said, "It wasn't him."
Steve snarled in silence, eyes fixed on the now-empty wall next to the door.
"Listen to me," Jon said, shaking him by the hand he still held. "Dammit, stop, you're scaring the hell out of me!"
The accidental volume was an assault to Steve, who winced and turned his head toward Jon. When he did, the pressure vanished.
"What were you trying to do?" Jon said shakily. "What was it?"
Steve shook his head, trembling. He hadn't been trying.
"I know you don't remember," Jon said, "but there're things other than people wandering around, and some of 'em aren't fond of us. I don't expect you to understand, yet, but you have to believe me. Neal was at a soundcheck with me miles away when you were pushed."
There was a suggestion of another place, an idea of creatures that hadn't been human. Steve wanted to say, I remember something I don't think I'm supposed to. But all he could see was his own perspective of what had happened. It was all he had. It was too warm in there, he'd broken into a sweat, and his chest hurt with a strange, dull ache. He kept shaking his head even though it was beginning to pound, and realized his memories were in full color even if his vision wasn't.
What if the world really is black and white, and we just see it differently? he thought, and there was nothing else when his consciousness was stripped away again.
Jon let him collapse back against the bed, knowing it was just sleep and nothing worse. He sat for a moment longer, still gripping Steve's hand, still shaking. When he was certain the singer was under and would be for awhile, he rose and walked out into the corridor. Neal was nowhere in sight.
He worried it over for a moment, then realized there were public bathrooms further down the hall, across from the nurses' station. He headed that way, walking into the men's room. He found Neal facing the door, bent over slightly at the waist and clutching the countertop with one hand, the other braced on a knee.
Jon put a hand on his shoulder, trying to get him to look up, frightened that something really had gotten loose in the room before Jon could make Steve shut it off.
Neal waved him off a little, then left his hands braced on his knees. The coffee sat near him on the bathroom counter, put there before it could be dropped. There was no one else in there with them.
"Christ," Neal said, his voice echoing shallowly off the cold, pastel yellow tiles. "He almost--"
"I know," Jon said, trying to keep him from saying the words aloud.
"No," Neal said. "He wanted to turn me inside out. You didn't see the look on his face. Hate's just a word to people who haven't felt it."
Neal straightened a little, beginning to feel a little more like himself, able to breathe. "Scared enough of me to want me dead," he said, "whether he was doing that on purpose, or not. It was the same look you had on your face the night after it happened, right after you tried to undo the worst of it."
Neal looked at him wearily. He already understood, but had to ask. "Something you wanna tell me?"
"Okay," Jon said. "It's...there's only a couple of things, like it was all he had space for. There was probably more, but the battery was too low for more than the real essentials. There was only a moment, a view of the last thing he saw. You."
Neal dropped his hands abruptly, tilting his head back to look at the ceiling and folding his arms across his chest before looking at Jon again, a silent oh for Christ's sake! visible on his face. He'd suspected as much--some part of him had known--but the last couple of days had made it less important.
"Not someone who had a passing resemblance to you," Jon said. "You. In his mind, you shoved him off the curb. He doesn't remember what we've been through, so I'm not sure how we'll explain this one. I'm not sure we should."
"What," Neal said, "convince him he's nuts, that he was hallucinating? Hope he doesn't really remember any of it? That had to be a namer."
"Then I can't even guess at what the hell they want this time," Jon said. "Just to kill him? That blatantly, that messily?"
"You're talking about folks who sent a wraith through his house," Neal said. "Not very subtle, was it?" He paused. "He really believes it was me."
"Yeah," Jon said. "And he shouldn't be able to do that, over here, whatever the hell that was. But I shouldn't be able to do what I'm doing, either. I can't even tell if I put him back together right."
"At least you don't have to put me back together," Neal muttered.
Neal shrugged. "Yeah. That wall in there isn't wearing me, so I guess I'm doing fine." He straightened his shirt and put both hands on the counter, trying to keep from glancing in the mirror.
"He'll understand," Jon said. "He's got to. I think I got through to him."
"How?" Neal said. "Without his memories? No namers, no wraiths, nothing. No reason to believe it was only something that looked like me." He wiped his hands on his shirt, then turned to face Jon completely. "Be real funny if he survives that only to knock me off. It'd make somebody real happy, I'll bet." He paused. "Go home."
Jon looked like he hadn't heard him right. "No."
"You can't babysit him forever," Neal said. "There's nothin' else you can do for him."
"We can't just leave him alone," Jon said. "I don't think they're through with him, yet."
"That's why I'll stay," Neal said. Over Jon's resulting surprise, he added, "My turn, anyway. Don't know what the hell I'd do if anything happened, but he wouldn't be alone."
"But he'll--" Jon began, then sighed. There was no point finishing the thought.
"Try to kill me again? Maybe. You think it's a good idea for me and him to be as scared of each other as we are right now? Because I am, Jon, I'm fuckin' scared to death of him, and I gotta shut it up before it gets hold of me and stays. 'Cause I think that's what someone wants. Me and him unable to lay eyes on each other. I don't wanna play."
Jon stared at him in amazement. People on the outside had always looked at him and Neal only one way, with Jon playing the role of the sensitive, book-smart one and Neal playing the tough, street smart counterpoint. It rarely occurred to anyone how much alike they really were, how Neal often saw the bigger picture before Jon did. Sometimes Jon felt that Neal really understood the world, really lived in it more than Jon ever could.
"Okay," was all Jon could say, because he saw the sense in it. He didn't like it. It scared the hell out of him. But he understood.
* * *
Only an hour had passed when Steve awoke again, but the disorientation was enough to make him think it had been longer. The world was still black and white. He remembered Jon saying three days and tried to commit suicide. Then he shifted his eyes and saw Neal sitting close to the bed, and the rest of it returned in a shock of memory.
Jon had said it wasn't Neal.
But Jon had covered for Neal countless times.
He sat up and stared at the guitarist with narrowed eyes, glancing at the doorway, wondering if shouting the one word he knew would bring someone to help him. He never purposely summoned anything, but brought it nonetheless with the intensity of the fear and rage that lay so close beneath the surface. Neal was already staring at him and had been for some time, hands clasped between his knees.
"Go ahead," Neal said softly. "If you know what you're doin', if it'll make you feel any better. If you really believe it was me. Go ahead."
The steady resignation in his voice confused Steve into just staring back at him. The pen and pad were still on the bedside table. The ache in his chest was gone, but his head still throbbed questionably and he wondered, really wondered, what he had nearly done to Neal earlier. He didn't like how familiar the thing in the room with them had felt. The thing that had trapped Neal against the wall and turned the air into molecules that clung together in destructive chains had been his, and it didn't make any sense to him.
Seeing his hesitation, Neal said, "Think hard about the guy who shoved you. Did he really sound like me? I don't know what happened. But you gotta think past what he looked like. You really believe I would do that to you?"
Steve stared at him unblinking, trying to keep his fear at a tolerable level, trying not to be angry. There were things that would get loose and work outside the boundaries of his body...
He reached out and snatched the pad off the table, sending the pen flying. He clutched the pad to his chest and watched the pen roll on the linoleum, startled by the sound. Neal leaned over and picked it up, holding one end out to Steve.
Neal hoped it didn't look like it felt: offering salvation to a hurt and cornered wild animal that could easily disregard his intentions and take his hand off at the wrist.
The moment hung there while Steve glanced from Neal to the pen and back. Then he reached out and took the other end of the pen, accepting it without grabbing it away. In large block letters he wrote WHY NOT?
That hurt. It was unfair, and Neal wanted to say so. Instead, he looked up and said, "What did I ask you, Stephen? I said, do you really believe I would do that to you. Think about it."
Steve narrowed his eyes at Neal again, more from the pain in his head than any specific emotion. Then he wrote, I DON'T HAVE ANY CHOICE.
"Bullshit," Neal said deliberately.
Steve tore the top sheet off the pad and crumpled it angrily, wincing at the noise even as he did it. He hurled the resulting paper ball across the room. He had so much to say, and having to write it was too plodding, too inaccurate. He gestured at Neal with the pen and snarled the only thing at his disposal. "Pushed!"
Neal leaned slightly away, face hardening. "Fine," he snapped. "Then why am I still alive?"
Steve spread his hands against the pad, gaze furious. The reference frightened him. He didn't know what had happened, earlier, only that something nearly had. He wrote angrily, nearly tearing the paper with the ballpoint.
HOW COULD YOU?
Only when the words were down did he realize how little anger there was in it and how much hurt, how much betrayal. It looked and felt childishly trite, and he didn't really care. He wrote it again, was in the act of writing it a third time with the paper blurring in his grayed vision when Neal slapped a hand down in the center of the pad.
"How could you?" Neal said. "Jon told you I was at soundcheck at 7:32, the exact time you were hit. I watched Jon fall on his knees because he felt you being hurt. I'm the one who drove him here the first night. Not everything's what it looks like, sometimes shit goes on that no one can explain."
Steve leaned away to stare at him in shock, still caught between what he'd seen and what he was hearing.
"There's more to this," Neal said, "stuff you were there for but don't remember. It doesn't make any sense, that I did this to you. But you're willing to throw me away, over something I didn't do, because it's all you wanna look at?"
Steve blinked rapidly, looking from Neal to the pad, then staring at the pad until the guitarist removed his hand.
"You don't remember the namers, do you."
That meant something, but Steve wasn't sure what. There was a twinge of familiarity and dread, but that was all.
"You're not supposed to," Neal said. "But after all this, that doesn't mean much. We were all through something we're gonna have to face again. Nobody wants it, but they won't leave us alone, Steve. At least a dozen people saw you go into the street, but not one of 'em saw anyone with you. I wasn't there."
Steve tore the top sheet of the pad off again, crumpling it with less venom and tossing it aside rather than throwing it. He stopped with the pen millimeters from touching down. He saw something, a shape in his mind that made no sense right then. But it had, once. He knew it. He turned it over in his mind, waiting for anything else to pull free.
"What," Neal said.
Steve shook his head.
In his own mind, Steve formed the words what about the key but all he could say was "Pushed." Then he meant to curse in frustration and only repeated the word again. He screwed his face up in rage and hurled the pad across the room, causing Neal to duck in reflex. When Steve put his hands to his head and closed his eyes, Neal got up and retrieved the pad, scouting around for the pen while he was at it.
He brought the items back and sat down again. Before he could shut himself up, he said, "My kids watch that annoying cartoon, where all the little monsters only say one word, over and over, for everything."
Steve raised his head, dimly wondering what the fuck it had to do with anything. Then he saw where Neal was headed, and gaped at him in disbelief.
"You keep sayin' just that one word, I'm gonna start callin' you 'Pushachu'," Neal said, and laughed. Nothing was funny, but it was all so out of control, so bizarre, that he had to laugh. Had to keep Steve from getting so upset that something got loose again, had to keep himself from breaking down.
Then Steve snorted, and Neal laughed even harder. This was Neal, blunt and sometimes tactless but always honest. His Neal, not the guy on the sidewalk that had never made his intentions plain before shoving him into the street. He felt a seed of doubt wedge itself somewhere he needed it to. He still wasn't entirely convinced it hadn't been Neal, but now the numbers damning the guitarist didn't add up. Steve did laugh a little, surprised and grateful that he could. It was proof of existence, after all.
* * *
When Steve opened his eyes again, the world was still gray, and Jon was there. He wondered if he'd ever be awake for longer than half an hour at a time.
Jon grinned and stood. "'Pushachu'?"
Steve smiled. "That's me," he said. Then he widened his eyes. "I must be getting a little rewiring done when I sleep."
"Yeah," Jon said. "I guess."
"Or the thought of Neal finding yet another nickname for me was too much." He sighed. "What the hell is today?"
"Tuesday," Jon said. "The 16th. Not bad for a guy hit by a bus."
Steve looked at him carefully, and decided the how of it could wait. He wasn't sure he wanted to know, yet. He was alive. Not necessarily whole, but alive, and the rest could wait.
"You and Neal seemed to have a good talk," Jon said.
"Me and Neal had the best talk we've probably ever had," Steve said. "And I only got one word in edgewise. Before I bombard you with questions, what do I need to do to get the fuck out of here?"
"For a walk," Jon said, "or permanently?"
"The more permanent, the better. Everybody starin' at me is gonna drive me nuts." He paused. "Speaking of nuts, the hospital thinks I am, huh? Most of the world, too. God, did you guys actually think, even for a minute, that I'd do something like that? What the hell for?"
"Aside from the fact that you've been alienating everyone in your life?"
Steve made a bitter expression that narrowed his mouth and eyes. He didn't bother asking Jon what he knew or how he'd come by it.
"I called Marv," Jon said. "He'll be by to see you, later. The last time he saw you, your head was caved in, so cut him some slack." He paused, closing his eyes briefly. Then he opened them and said, "The press hasn't really picked this up, yet. So no one else knows what you have or haven't tried to do to yourself."
"Is it true?" Steve said. "Did you feel it, when it happened?"
Jon looked at him for a moment, then sat down again. "Nothing like what you felt. But yeah."
"I didn't," Steve said. "Try to kill myself. If I wanted to die, I'd do a good, quiet job of it."
"I believe you," Jon said.
"Uh huh. You'd be the only one."
"No, I wouldn't. I don't believe you threw yourself into the street any more than I believe Neal pushed you. It was a setup. I know someone attacked you. You weren't the only one who saw someone there. There was a woman who saw it."
Steve stared at him. "And who'd she see?"
"There was no 'who'," Jon said. "She knew who I was, Steve. She would've recognized Neal. She saw something closer to reality, a shape. You saw what you would believe, what you wanted to see."
Steve looked like he might take that up with Jon, then backed down. "Great," he said. "Now we're talking ghosts, in broad daylight. Right back to square one, which says I'm crazy."
"While you're still awake," Jon said, "tell me what happened. All of it."
Steve sighed and launched into it. He remembered most of the details. The more he said aloud, the less he believed Neal had done it. The less sense it made. But he left out the part about the kiss without questioning himself as to why.
Jon was pale. "'Getting someone's attention'," he said.
"Oh yeah," Steve said. "Well, here it is, all the attention anyone could want. Any ideas?"
Jon shook his head. "He didn't say anything else? He didn't call you 'Er Rai'?"
Steve tensed. That phrase pulled a string somewhere, rattled more doorknobs. "Raven key," he said.
"Do you remember?"
"No. Not really, not yet. What's it mean?"
"It's too much to explain," Jon said. "But we'll try, once you're out of here. You might have to go through a mental evaluation. The police'll wanna talk to you. We'll come up with something." He looked at Steve again. "We always do."
* * *
"So what's got you in such a tangle?" Neal said. Jon had called him from the hospital, taking pains to do it on another floor. The singer's hearing had always been good, but it suddenly bordered on the uncanny, and Jon was trying to avoid the implications of it.
"If we're lucky, we'll have him out of here in a day or two," Jon said. "But then what? Back to the regular routine? Go on like it didn't happen?"
"Not exactly," Neal said. "I mean, who would we take this up with?"
"Right. Wait until that namer, or whatever the hell it was, decides to take another crack at him? Or any of us."
Neal sighed. "I can always tell when you've got an idea. Only, you're beatin' around it, so I hate it already. Talk, would you?"
Jon paused, long enough that Neal almost asked him if he was still there. Then he said, "I've got this feeling, that's all. That if he's left alone, he'll catch even worse when, not if, they go after him again. I think we should stay a little closer together until we either find out what's going on, or get hold of someone who knows."
"Yeah," Neal said, "we should keep a better eye on each other. But that's not what you're gettin' at."
Another sigh. "Right now, I think the kids are more than he can handle. It'd probably be quiet out at Ross', but Mary doesn't know Steve and it might be awkward. And Smitty's had it with all this."
"So have we," Neal said. "But it's not like there's a choice involved."
Jon cleared his throat and said, "You're alone, since Amber still has her own place, and you only have the kids every other weekend. You could--"
Neal cut him off. "Whoa," he said. "No way. Were you actually about to suggest that me and Perry live together?"
Jon's silence was an affirmative answer.
Neal laughed. "Jon, come on. A week of that, and neither of us would have to worry about namers."
"But they'd think twice about bugging the two of you," Jon said. "Christ, I would."
"The walker and the Er Rai?" Neal said. "Yeah, well, I have yet to make myself useful in the power department on this side."
"You did fine when the two of you were--"
"No," Neal said sharply, surprising himself with the vehemence of it. He'd been careful not to think of the time he'd spent accidentally tangled with Steve, or how it'd happened in the first place. He didn't want to know, not anymore. "If you're thinkin' that'd help us, you're wrong. And after the way he nearly flattened me the other day, I think he can take care of himself. No, he probably shouldn't be alone. None of us should be. But dammit, there's nothin' I can do."
Jon nodded to himself, switching the phone to his other hand. "You're not scared of him, are you?"
The silence on the other end of the line meant several things to Jon; Neal was either getting ready to hang up on him, or was trying to keep himself from stringing together a long chain of expletives. It was as close to blatant manipulation as Jon ever got with Neal.
After a moment, Neal said, "Don't play bullshit psych games with me. It's got nothin' to do with that."
"Then what is it?" Jon said. "It wouldn't be forever. Long enough for all of us to figure a few things out, that's all."
"I can't protect him," Neal snapped.
And there was the other shoe. "I didn't say anything about protecting," Jon snapped back. "I said not alone."
There was another long, uncomfortable moment of silence. "It's you, or the psych ward," Jon said softly.
"Same difference," Neal said, and Jon knew that was as close to acquiescence as he'd get.
Before he could stop himself, Jon added, "If nothing else, then do it to keep me from feeling it if they decide to shove him in front of something again."
"Like that was necessary," Neal said, "or fair. But I guess you know what I think of fair. Goodbye, Jon, before one of us says something else they probably shouldn't."
* * *
But not much.
Of the four doctors--one a psychologist--and the two officers who talked to Steve in the next two days, only one didn't believe him when he said he didn't remember that morning on the sidewalk. Based on the conflicting reports from bystanders--Theresa came forward and said he'd lost his balance--and the fact that the trauma crew on shift that morning had patched him up and listed him as terminal, the whole thing had become a jumble of apparent misinformation. No one could agree on whether he'd fallen or thrown himself. There had been blood all over the street, but there wasn't a mark on him. He'd suffered some sort of trauma, but it was no longer obvious what that trauma was. There'd been a head injury, the extent of which had obviously been misreported but that would explain the loss of memory.
He was declared lucid and reasonable ("There's a first," Neal said) by the psychologist and released under the restriction that he report to his own physician within three days. Sooner, if he had any 'trouble'.
Steve had wanted elaboration on what exactly the doctors thought would constitute 'trouble'. But he didn't push his luck, for once.
The one who didn't believe him but wouldn't come right out and say so was one of the cops that came to follow up; she had been the first to respond to the scene on the original call. She'd seen him lying in the street, had seen the blood and the dent he'd left in the bus, and had interviewed the hysterical bus driver. And there he was less than a week later, without a mark on him, claiming he remembered nothing of that morning. It didn't matter that she wasn't going for it. There wasn't much anyone could do.
But at least no one else had been hurt.
* * *