Steve paused at Neal's front door, squinting at it. Doorways were hard.
Neal waved a hand at him, using the other to begin unlocking the door. "How bad's your eyesight, now?"
Steve looked at him carefully. "What're you talking about?"
Day six, and Steve was back in the world again. Almost.
Neal gave him an impatient glare. "Cut the bullshit. You gonna need glasses, after all this? You keep starin' at everything like you can't focus on it."
"I'm used to lookin' at the world in Technicolor," Steve said. "Seeing it in black n' white all the time takes gettin' used to."
Neal looked at him expectantly. "Shit."
"Don't tell Jon," Steve said. "This isn't something he did, or can undo. I'm hopin' it's like my speech, that it'll reconnect. But for now, don't be askin' me if your shirts are clashing with your socks, 'cause I don't know." He paused. "I was never good at that, anyway." He looked at the now-open door. "You sure about this?"
Neal shrugged. "No. Get out."
"Okay," Steve said. "Motel 6, here I come."
"Yeah," Neal said. "They'd love you. A rock star who can't stay awake." He threw his keys on the table just inside the door and added, "Speakin' of which, come on. You can have Miles' room." He turned and walked down the short hallway to the open door of the bedroom at its' end, turning back to usher Steve in.
And the singer wasn't there.
"Steve," he said. Getting no answer, he walked back to the living room and found the singer prone on the floor. Asleep.
Hadn't even heard him fall. "Shit," he said aloud. He stood there for a moment and tried to decide whether he should try and wake the singer or leave him. Then he grabbed a pillow and the comforter off Miles' bed.
* * *
Steve awoke to find himself in the middle of some floor he didn't recognize, and didn't move until the nearest solid memory kicked in. He was staying with Neal. At first that seemed bizarrely funny to him, like the moment he'd remembered about the bird while he was still in the hospital. He remembered the bird, and Athyri, and being the Er Rai. That was all pretty damn funny. But staying with Neal was funnier yet.
He didn't hear anything, and when he could finally get the right synapses to fire he got himself back on his feet, gathering up the comforter and pillow and wondering where they'd come from. The hallway to his left didn't look that promising, and he tried to invoke a mental map of Neal's house. Neal'd had this house for ages, and Steve realized he'd been there maybe twice, a long time ago.
They'd stayed away from each other.
Steve looked down the stairs. There were only seven leading to the bilevel's below grade section, but he couldn't grasp that. He wasn't quite sure where one stopped and the next started. He could see them with no problem, but, like with the doorways, his spatial acuity didn't report them correctly. He sighed and stepped back to look at them again, decided he would get the hang of it as he went, and put a foot down where he thought the first step was. It wasn't there, so he felt a little further forward. The stairs were pulling him in, trying to get him to lean out into the space--
A hand planted itself in the center of his chest and pulled him back a step. "No," Neal said, knowing he'd be startling him. "Forget it. You do a header down the stairs, I got Jon kicking my ass immediately after."
Steve took another step away. "No, you got Jon kicking my ass and telling you to put up a safety gate. Why don't you guys just board me in a kennel?"
"Fine," Neal snapped. "Fall down the stairs. No one'll believe for a minute that I didn't boot you down 'em."
"They'll ask me what the fuck I'm doin' in your house in the first place," Steve said.
"And I'll tell 'em you were robbing me, and I caught you," Neal said.
"Uh huh," Steve said. "And I had to look real hard for somethin' worth stealing, so I was trying downstairs when you decided to....subdue me." He glanced down. Neal still had his hand on the singer's chest.
Neal dropped his hand, registering a moment of confusion between them. "Gimme those," he said, taking the comforter and pillow from Steve and vanishing down the hallway.
Steve looked down the stairs again. What the fuck was all that? he thought, and immediately after it came pretend you didn't see it. "Uh huh," he said aloud, and walked out to the kitchen. The door gave him a moment of trouble, but he zigged when his brain told him to zag and it was a lucky guess. He hadn't been able to figure out how to get through a doorway those last couple of days at the hospital; he could tell where it was, see the opening, but depth perception was a luxury, sometimes. He couldn't line up with anything. And steering would take some practice. It was all in the wiring.
The clock on the wall--one of those draw it yourself type things, bearing a childish rendition of a racecar--said 2:30.
Steve opened the fridge, perused it's lack of contents, and snorted. He heard Neal enter the kitchen behind him. "Bachelor," he said.
"What the hell are you, then, smartass?" Neal said.
"We'll go to the store, find something. I usually don't bother stocking the place up unless the kids are comin'. I'm never here," Neal said.
Steve began to laugh, and Neal said, "What now?"
"I'm thinkin' of you and me at the Safeway," Steve said. "Me passed out in the frozen foods aisle, and you tryin' to figure out what the fuck to do about it." He laughed again. "Carryout, aisle four!"
"Jesus," Neal said. "Does anything throw you, anymore?"
Steve looked at him, still wearing the smartass grin. "Think back on where we've been, the last week or so. Never mind the last two years. And ask me again."
* * *
That first night, Neal snapped awake again and lay still in the darkness, listening. He knew he was catching the tail end of something, and tried to pick it up again. Nothing repeated itself in the dark, and he wondered again if he'd been dreaming. It didn't have the feel of dreaming; it felt like a disturbance, like someone knocking on the door in the middle of the night. It was an alarm. He just couldn't tell if it was his or not.
He sat up in bed and listened, hearing the refrigerator kick on. Something besides the obvious had been bothering the shit out of him. And taking the time to sit there and think about it allowed him to make connections that he wouldn't have bothered with in the daylight. Like the fact that he hadn't been waking to imaginary alarms ten times a night until Steve had moved in.
The singer was a disturbance on many levels, he'd admit that. But enough of one to hassle his subconscious into startling him awake? He didn't think so.
He slid out of bed and moved down the hall to check on Steve. He found the singer turned toward the wall, sound asleep, curled in on himself. He'd finally been conscious again long enough to walk down the hall. Neal stood and listened to him breathe for a moment, then went to check the doors. Locked. Like locks'll keep these guys out, he thought. He sat in the living room and considered what they could be in for. Then realized how useless that was. He was just going to get himself into--
And it happened again, a twinge somewhere in his head, a small misfire of some kind. It was an anxiety attack on a miniature scale, insistent, too loud to ignore but too small to decipher. It was a UFO showing up on radar just long enough to scare the shit out of everybody before vanishing and making them think they'd never seen it. Fully awake by then, he kept listening, but it didn't repeat itself.
He wanted to believe it was the result of the stress they'd been through. But he knew himself well enough to be able to tell he had nothing to do with it. He thought about it a little longer, until he couldn't hold his head up, then went back to bed deciding to ask Jon about it in the morning.
* * *
When Steve finally awoke, he wasn't sure where he was at first, and it didn't bother him any more than it had when he'd awoken in the livingroom. It wasn't a hospital, or the middle of a road, so it was tolerable. It took him a few minutes to get the basic signals to connect, and he didn't let that worry him either. The world was still a myriad of grays, too, but that was preferable to black, so when he could get the wiring to behave he rolled out of bed. The digital light-up clock radio on the dresser on the facing wall said 10:03. Later than he was used to, but waking at all was lucky, the way he saw it.
He wandered out to the living room, making sure he could trust his legs to do what they were intended to with the bedroom doorway. He made it through without a hitch and took it as a good sign.
Neal was on the couch, reading the paper, looking like he was concentrating. Unnoticed, Steve ran his hands through his hair and went to do battle with the kitchen doorway. Apparently he was only allowed to be lucky with one door at a time, because he was there for a good twenty seconds, trying to navigate it, before Neal saw the motion in his peripheral vision and put the paper down.
The guitarist watched long enough to realize he was looking at a replay of what had happened just before they'd left the hospital. Steve was too far to the left, one hand out, patiently trying to figure out which way he should move. Any other time, Neal would have made a number of jokes about what Steve had really been doing at all those AA meetings. Right then, it scared the shit out of him. For one, he hadn't heard Steve come out. And he should have. For another...it was the patience. Steve Perry was not a patient man, period. They'd been out of touch with each other for awhile, but the Steve he'd always known should have been railing at the wall.
"One step to the right, Steve," Neal said, and Steve startled, then complied, and went straight on into the kitchen. Once in an open space, the singer did fine. But he moved around like he had to think about it. Neal remained where he was and didn't even attempt to help. To do so would earn him an angry tongue lashing, even from the new and patient Steve. The prospect of that didn't deter him--it never had. But he'd known Steve too long to start the whole solicitous, gosh-let-me-get-that-for-you thing. It was unlike them.
Steve made it into the kitchen with a combination of relief and embarrassment, and hunted around for a mug. He'd smelled the coffee before he'd made it there, and it was something welcome and normal. He found the mugs above the sink, and stood looking out the window above that same sink, sipping coffee. He searched for any sign of color, anything to mix in with the grays. When nothing surfaced, he wandered back out to the livingroom. This time the doorway gave him no trouble. Neal was still reading the same page.
Steve waited a moment to see if he could catch him moving his lips, then moved to take the top section from the remainder of the paper that rested on the coffee table.
Neal slapped a hand down on the stack, crumpling the section he'd been reading as he did so.
Steve startled at the noise, spilling coffee. He cursed and looked up in time to see the apology on Neal's face before the guitarist rose, tossing the paper behind him.
Steve watched him walk away and return a moment later with a handful of paper towels. The guitarist handed a couple to Steve, then threw a few on the floor and stepped on them to soak up whatever had made it to the carpet.
"I'm not done with it," Neal said.
"Uh huh," Steve said. "You're as subtle as a fucking train wreck. What don't you want me to see?"
Neal straightened and glared at him. "Can't you leave anything alone?"
Steve's first impulse was to snap back, but he froze. "How bad is it?" he said softly.
Sighing, Neal picked up the paper towels and walked away, motions stiff with anger.
Knowing it had nothing to do with him, Steve went straight back to the paper and began rifling through it, perusing the occasional headline. Neal returned and watched him for a minute, then reached around him and pulled something out of the middle of the stack. It was already folded to the right spot, and he offered it to Steve.
The back pages. A small headline on an AP article in the upper right hand corner read Ex Pop Singer Terminally Injured In Traffic Mishap.
Steve sighed. "Fuckin' great. Since when am I an ex-singer?" But the more he read, the more he understood why Neal was annoyed. The article took pains not to veer completely away from fact but relied heavily on unnamed bystanders. It was a blatant supposition that Steve had tried to kill himself as a result of being replaced as the lead singer of Journey. Neither the driver of the bus or that of the vehicle in the oncoming lane had been injured, but an 'investigation' was pending.
"I sure don't feel terminal," Steve said. Neal was silent behind him, and he added, "I'd better call Lora, and Robin, just in case they've heard. The hack who wrote this is gonna feel dumb, isn't he?"
Neal remained silent.
"What an epitaph this would've been," Steve said, and Neal grabbed the paper away from him, startling him again. Steve looked up and saw how angry Neal was, and said, "Hey, we've had worse reviews."
Neal stalked away, out through the kitchen and out the back door.
Steve looked at the ceiling and whistled. The phone rang while he was doing it, so he picked it up and said, "Schon residence. Annoying houseguest speaking."
"Hey, Kato," Ross said. "You guys try to kill each other, yet?"
Steve laughed. "What's with all the nicknames I'm acquiring?"
"It's not my fault you keep reminding me of other people. You get the paper?"
"Yeah," Steve said, "and Neal's out in the yard plotting mayhem. I don't expect to be awake much longer, so keep an eye out, huh?"
"I know the drill," Ross said. "We've been though this once already."
"Really," Steve said.
* * *
By the time Neal came back in, Steve was asleep again, having made it to the couch. He picked up the phone, put it down, cursed. He needed to do something about that article, and didn't know why. He covered the singer up and thought about getting Ross to do the kind of hacking that would shut the goddamn Chronicle down.
Then he had another thought. An obvious one.
* * *
"Where the hell are we going?"
Steve decided that for once he didn't like the grim little smile Neal had been sporting since the second time the singer had awoken, at just after noon. It usually meant someone was about to get it, and it was about as subtle as Neal was capable of. The guitarist had given him enough time to shower and had admonished him to stay awake.
"Somebody you gotta meet," Neal said. "Come on, it's a beautiful day, you're not six feet under, and living is the best revenge."
Then he'd laughed. Maniacally. Steve liked that even less. Had he been in on the joke, he was sure it would've been a different story. But he went along, because Neal was in high spirits and Steve was already tired of hanging around the house. And he wanted desperately to stay awake.
When Steve realized what building they were headed to, he said, "Aw, Neal. What the fuck is this?"
Neal had just laughed and made a 'come on' gesture, jumping out of the Bronco and slamming the door behind.
Steve followed wearily, but he was intrigued. At least he didn't have trouble with car doors. "The asshole with the story?" he said.
"Yeah," Neal said. "Yeah, I want the asshole with the story to see you and piss all over himself."
Steve laughed. "Yeah, well, a lot of people wet themselves when they see me, so big deal."
Neal said something under his breath, and Steve turned to look at him. "What."
"Nothin'. Look out, the door's gonna hit you." Neal entered first and held the door open, leaving a hand out vertically to give Steve something to aim for.
They entered the lobby and crossed to the guard's desk. Neal asked for Marshall as politely as Steve had ever heard him ask for anything. With a perfectly straight face, the guard dialed an extension and said, "Journey's here."
Steve turned slowly to stare at Neal, his entire face a question. Neal just shrugged and led him away from the desk in a slow walk back across the floor.
"Dude, that wasn't like you," Steve said softly.
"'Dude'?" Neal said. "Did you just call me 'dude'?"
"Seems to fit. What the hell is this?"
"Just wait," Neal said. "No, don't look toward the elevator. Look at the dipshit plaques on the wall, here."
Nearly five minutes later, a voice behind them said, "Well, Neal. Good to--"
Steve turned quickly and said, "Don't finish sentences you don't mean, Rick."
Marshall paused in mid stride, mouth left open, eyes traveling from Steve to Neal and back.
"I need you to retract that fucking story you just printed, Rick," Neal said.
The color quickly returned to Marshall's face and he said, "A hoax. You assholes pulled a hoax. For what, publicity?"
"Read the police report again," Steve said. "Go ahead and have another talk with the drivers who hit me, and with the trauma staff. The truth is, Rick, you pissed me off so bad, I came back from the dead."
Marshall turned on his heel and walked away, gesturing briefly at the guard, who was trying to keep a neutral expression pasted on his face.
"Rick, come back," Steve called. "I'll give you an exclusive!"
Neal had a grip on Steve's jacket by then and was pulling him toward the door. He didn't let go of him once they'd reached the sidewalk.
* * *
Someone was waiting for them when they got back.
Neal saw a woman hovering on the lawn near the door, with something in her hand. Like she'd either been about to give up and leave a card, or pick the lock.
He parked closer up to the door than he normally did, realizing he'd be leaving Steve where he was. The singer had dropped off again on the way home. He got out and locked the doors but didn't activate the alarm.
She was vaguely familiar to him. Mid to late thirties, brown eyes shot through with gold. Dark hair cut around her oval-shaped face. Strong but feminine jaw, mildly exotic features, possibly east Indian. But the connection was distant, because there was no lilt in her voice when she spoke. It was all well-educated Northern California.
"I'm detective Jessica Keenan. May I speak to you and Mr. Perry for a few minutes?"
The officer who'd been to see Steve in the hospital, the one who wouldn't give up. Neal hadn't realized she was a detective, and wondered what she'd been doing responding to the call anyway. He thought about the fact that she was pinning them, unannounced, the day after Steve was out of the hospital. And she'd known where Steve was. "Sure," he said. "But you gotta wait for him to wake up."
She looked at him to see if he was kidding. He caught it and said, "He's only awake maybe half an hour at a time, maybe four hours a day altogether."
"Yeah," Neal said, searching his memory for the definition of the word. "Yeah, that's right. When he goes, there's no wakin' him. You can try, if you like. Unless you wanna help me carry him inside."
She shook her head, like he'd expected her to. "No, that's all right, I'll--"
"He's been asleep awhile, so he shouldn't be out too much longer. You're welcome to hang around. Want some coffee?"
The look on her face said she'd found herself out of her element, and Neal stepped on a grin.
"Sure," she said. "Why not."
They exchanged pleasantries for nearly half an hour, about the travails of planning an album and tour. She knew of the band but not chapter and verse, and was interested without coming off clinical. But not a single question about the day Steve had been hit. Neal began to get an idea of what was going on but kept the hell out of it. She wasn't there to talk to him.
He felt something in the back of his head, an awareness much like when someone brings attention to a sound you've been listening to for years but had never noticed. He'd repaired bicycles for awhile as a teenager, and the shop's a/c unit had whistled constantly, whether it was on or not. It had pissed him off for two days before it faded into the distance, becoming white noise he could no longer hear until a customer asked him how he could stand it.
He thought about it for a moment before settling on the obvious. "I'll be right back," he said, and he heard the Bronco's door slam as he said it. She caught on, and he saw it, saw the flash of disturbed wonder on her face. She'd seen him 'hear' Steve awaken. And he decided that was best.
By the time he got to the front doorway, Steve was already there, looking at it.
"Holy shit," Neal said. "It's been six months! Where the hell have you been!"
"That's so fuckin' funny," Steve said. "Help me figure out the door."
"Sounds like you got up on the wrong side of the Bronco," Neal said.
Steve looked at him like he wasn't sure who he was. "What is with you?"
"We got company," Neal said in a low voice that was meant not to carry. When Steve tensed and didn't ask, he added, "Your detective friend. She wants to talk to you a minute. She's been waitin' for you to wake up."
"I won't talk to her," Steve said.
"Then she'll be back over and over until you do. You gonna run away? From a cop that can't touch you? That's chickenshit. It's an interview, and you know it."
Steve stared at him for another moment. "How long was I out there?"
"Half an hour. She's weirded out to the point where talking to her won't do anything but scare her out of here. All she needs is to see you try and figure out the door, and she won't be buggin' you anymore. But hear her out."
Steve frowned and stifled a yawn. "Christ. Can I come in, then?"
Neal stepped back from the door but not away from it, holding out a hand. Steve took it like he meant to shake it, and Neal pulled him a step forward.
The detective was watching them through the kitchen doorway, and Steve looked over Neal's shoulder at her.
She was watching the body language.
"I got stuff to do downstairs," Neal said, and Steve widened his eyes at him, silent daggers. "You guys call me if you need anything, huh? Nice to meet you, detective." He trotted down the stairs and was gone, leaving them to stare at each other.
"What brings you all the way out here?" Steve said, managing to keep the tone reasonably polite. "This is a good clip outside your beat, isn't it? You're even outside the county."
She nodded. Steve moved to sit down in the livingroom, gesturing for her to do the same. He picked the armchair nearest the door. She sat across from him on the couch, looking like she was trying to compose herself. Most of the brashness he'd gotten from her while he was still in the hospital was gone.
"I haven't remembered anything else, if that's what you're here for," he said.
"How are you, though?" she said. "Honestly."
He blinked at her. "Walking and talking. For small, limited periods at a time. But I'm alive."
She nodded again. "I'm not interrogating you. This is off the record."
He'd heard that often enough to know it was never true. "Uh huh. Unless it becomes necessary to make it otherwise, right?" He glanced away out the windows, trying to gauge what time it was by looking at the light.
She spread her hands. "I don't have anyone to report it to. Case is closed, accidental injury, no fault. I was hoping we could go over what happened that morning."
Steve let his eyes travel to her slowly. "I said I don't remember. What is it, about this, that's got you hassling me?"
Her gaze didn't waver. "Because you're lying."
He sighed. Good, the bullshit was over and they could get to business. "What's that based on? Your intrepid detecting skills? Female intuition?" He knew he'd hit a nerve, because she colored slightly, and he had a feeling she'd heard that one too often. "You wanna tell me why I'd throw myself in front of a bus for fun?"
She hit back. "You have a drug history," she said. "Not a record for it. But it's known."
He'd underestimated her. He hated it, hated the fact that he'd given her an opening and hated it even more that he was embarrassed by the reference. "I've also been clean for a goddamn decade, like it's any of your business, detective," he snapped. "Are we still off the record, here? You really wanna know what happened? A creature from another plane shoved me. No one else could see him but me, and oh, I forgot to mention that I can turn into a bird! I have access to all time and space!"
She shook her head, the gesture almost pitying.
"Fine," Steve said, dropping his voice. "Think about this, doll. I just had my hip replaced. Why would I go through a procedure that major only to kill myself? And while we're at it, let's look at the drugs I had access to while I was recovering. A handful of them would have done it with a lot less pain and mess. Put that in your data processor and smoke it."
"Then what about your comments to Mr. Mirochnik?" she said. "Most of what he had to tell us can easily be construed as--"
"I was being a smartass," he said, cutting her off.
"I thought you didn't remember anything about that morning," she said coolly.
He gave her a long-suffering look that had driven his ex-bandmates into a collective rage on numerous occasions, a head-tilted, yeah yeah quit bothering me with this expression. "I'm always a smartass," he said. "There's a possibility I know myself better than you do. It's small, but it's there."
She brushed the palms of her hands against her thighs as if something had gotten on her, then stood to leave. "I'll show myself out."
"I guess this means we're not going steady, then."
She glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. "I'm not sure you fully understand the word 'steady,' Mr. Perry."
He grinned. "You still haven't told me why you won't let this go."
"Besides the obvious?" she said. "I saw a man dying in the street one morning, and two mornings later he was up walking around like nothing had happened."
"No," Steve said softly. "I can't say it was like nothing happened." He met her eyes, and she looked like she was going to say something but caught herself. "I told you the truth, you know," Steve said.
"Which 'truth'?" she said.
"The only one I know," Steve said. "What are you going to do?"
She turned fully toward him again instead of toward the door. "Do."
"Are you gonna follow me around? Try and catch me throwing myself in front of other vehicles, maybe stop me from operating heavy machinery after taking Nyquil?"
"Not only are you a smartass," she said, "but you're a paranoid smartass. Goodbye, Mr. Perry."
She walked past him and out the open front door.
He leaned over and watched her walk away. No business card, no request to call her if any more pertinent details arose. Wearing a nicely cut pantsuit that fit her well in the back, and leaving a light but expensive and sparingly used scent behind her. It'd been personal curiosity, not professional. She'd wanted to believe someone could come back like that, pick their brains off the road and put them back in and walk away. She'd probably seen a hundred drunk driving victims who deserved to do exactly that, so why him? Why a lonely, aging, washed up...
He sighed and broke off the thought. Masochistic, paranoid smartass. He didn't realize he'd been sitting there mired in thought for nearly twenty minutes until Neal said, "How'd it go?"
Steve startled, then twisted to look up and find the guitarist standing at his elbow. The small leap in time disoriented him, and he found nothing between the detective's exit and Neal speaking to him. Did he not exist unless he was spoken to? "I don't know. She didn't haul me away or anything, so I guess everything's okay."
"I got the impression you did want her to haul you away," Neal said. His face was perfectly straight when Steve looked at him.
"When did you start doing impressions of Ross?" Steve said.
Neal shrugged. "Come on, you've been sittin' there moping long enough. Come listen to this thing I put together."
"I can't go down the stairs," Steve said.
"I know. Sit at the top and listen."
Steve followed him to the stairs and sat, careful not to let the stairs fool him into going any further down. Because they still wanted him to. He didn't even want to try and explain that.
Neal brought one of his acoustic guitars to the foot of the stairs and sat, and Steve wondered for a moment why it had to be the stairs. Then he decided the distance was probably a good idea, for more than one reason. Sound was an assault to him, and he wasn't exactly sure when things had changed noticeably between them. The hospital, probably, when he'd shouted at the guitarist on paper. The hostility that was part of their MO had been tucked somewhere else, and it was suddenly like it had been at the beginning, before Jon had joined the band.
Neal didn't preface the music with anything; he wasn't playing for a stranger, didn't need to introduce it or explain it. That had always been their way. Jon was a good objective point of view where Neal's ideas were concerned, but Steve had always goaded him into finding the wild spaces. They'd always shared that out of control place, and it had always worked as long as someone didn't let them loose in it too long. At some point they'd worn each other out, and the paths had diverged.
Neal hit the first chord, a minor seventh, and Steve froze.
It wasn't color; but he could see the music, really see Neal in it, and it tore into him. It was like seeing who the guitarist really was, like his personality came straight from the instrument; vision and hearing blended and blurred into one sense and then became feeling. The air in front of him shimmered in a way that had nothing to do with light or air. He suddenly saw more than he'd ever had a chance to when he'd had all of his sight; he saw that it wouldn't have worked as well on a new instrument because the acoustic Neal was using knew him, knew them both. What was happening could never be recorded or played back, could never be played twice the same way.
Neal remained in a minor vein, layering a doubletime melody over some understated chord progression, nothing Steve had ever heard before, but he was humming a countermelody beyond anything they'd been capable of when they'd been writing. He heard it just before it was played, and stared into the sight/sound of it, wore it, belonged to it.
He must have made some sound; Neal glanced up to find Steve staring wide-eyed, tears streaming down his face. Neal stopped playing abruptly, slapping a hand against the strings to stop the echoes.
"No don't stop!" Steve shouted, hands out, startling himself with the noise and his own desperation. He didn't bother to wipe his face, didn't care about it.
Neal looked stricken, trying to figure out what to do. He'd spent years in close quarters with the man on the stairs, sometimes too close, through every little thing in their lives. In each other's space, in each other's faces, and never once had he seen him cry.
"I don't want you to stop," Steve choked. "I can see it!"
"Okay," Neal said softly. "You calm down, and I'll play."
Steve wiped his face roughly along the sleeve of his shirt, trying to catch his breath. The world was colorless again, and he hated it, even though what he'd seen hadn't been color. It'd been more, something outside the visual spectrum. "Oh my God," he said. "What if I'm not the only person who sees that? What if you do that to other people?"
"We've always done that to other people," Neal said, not really sure what Steve was talking about but getting some sense of it. "I think you just stopped noticing, somewhere along the way."
Shaken, he played the refrain of it until the singer fell asleep on the stairs minutes later. And the last thing Steve said was, I just never met you 'til now.
* * *
"It's a beacon," Jon said. Then he sighed a little. The sound was weary and let Neal know it was something he'd already been worried about.
Neal frowned into the phone. Steve had wandered into the backyard to sit in the sun and gape at the world, something Neal found alternately amusing and disturbing. He'd waited until then to call Jon about what he'd heard the night before, making sure the singer was out of earshot. It was hard to get him out of earshot; he heard things at distances he shouldn't have been able to. Neal had the TV on in the background for cover.
And he'd found himself purposely not telling Jon about what had happened on the stairs. Because for some reason, that belonged only to him and Steve.
"It's his beacon," Jon said, picking up on Neal's confusion. "I wasn't sure what I was hearing at first, either. It took me awhile to recognize it. I'm surprised you can hear it. What're you, sleeping with him?"
Jon was sorry for the words as soon as they were out; he held his breath to see how the jibe was taken, wondering why he'd said it. And wondering why it mattered either way.
He got an annoyed sound on the other end of the line. "Cute," Neal said. "Filter between brain and mouth not working, today?"
Jon snorted, more relieved than he wanted Neal to know. "What I'm tryin' to tell you is, it's the same thing I heard, that first night in the hospital. It's the message he left playing to keep us from thinking it was a suicide."
"Shit. Why's it still running?" Neal sounded unsettled even to his own ears. "That's just goddamn spooky."
"I don't think he hears it," Jon said. "It's kind of like the locator on a black box from a crashed jet. Maybe it'll fade with time. I hope."
"Yeah," Neal said. "I'm all for that." He paused, and before he could stop himself, said, "You ever read Pet Semetary?"
Jon didn't answer.
"After that cat--Church--showed back up, it was sort of dragging itself around."
"I don't like this theory, Neal," Jon said sharply. "And Steve's 'been back' a few times already."
"But not after bein' killed here," Neal said, not wanting to press the issue but caught in the loop of it anyway. "Stuff's different here. Maybe...maybe he didn't make it all the way back."
"Goddamnit!" Jon shouted, startling them both. Neal fell silent, waiting, but Jon didn't follow up.
After a moment, Neal said, "Okay. But you know."
Jon sighed again and said, "I gotta go. I'll see you guys tomorrow, come on over for brunch or something, we'll talk this all out. And don't forget, my house, Thursday afternoon."
"Yeah," Neal said. "Thursday."
* * *