I dream of rain
I dream of gardens in the desert sand
I wake in pain
I dream of love as time runs through my hands...
~~Sting, Desert Rose
________________

Memory Bound Chapter VI
(c)2000 B Stearns


He was faced away from the Turning.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been staring into the desert; it didn't matter. Time didn't matter. The ruins of the Keep were at his back, a dark, looming structure that knelt in the sand like an exhausted climber on the final hill. The orangish light held little heat, even reflected off the sand.

And it was all sand.

There were no distant trees, this time; no mountains off to his left. Just unending sand, with no sense of curvature or tapering or variation. He began walking again, feet sinking into the sand with every step, keeping his gaze down. Looking. He'd been out there looking for so long, walking in circles and not knowing it until he found himself in front of the Keep again. He couldn't remember what he was looking for, anymore, but that didn't matter either. He'd know it when he found it. He'd have no choice about that.

No sense asking why.

He shrugged his cloak off one shoulder in impatience, raising his eyes for a moment to adjust it. He was tired of wearing it, but he couldn't discard it; it was part of the uniform of the place, and varying from the game meant violating the rules. He didn't remember the rules anymore, either. His gloves were already missing. When he finally dropped his eyes again, he found what he'd been looking for.

A hand protruded from the sand, fingers slightly curled. Its owner was barely visible, a vaguely human outline dressed in rust brown. Dressed in sand. Only part of the face was visible; and even then, the desert had worked quickly to mummify this prize on its' way to swallowing it whole.

Still, it was easily identifiable as Neal.

Steve knelt next to the figure and began trying to cover it the rest of the way, apologizing as he did so, promising to make it right, flinching away every time he touched the sand.

He glanced at his hands and realized it wasn't sand at all, but rust colored glass, uncountable slivers and shards that sliced his skin as he worked. No matter how hard he tried to cover the guitarist, as soon as he scooped another bloody double handful over him, the glass vanished. But he kept trying, kept apologizing, trapped in a loop that went on playing in the unchanging light...

Something tried to pull him away, to stop him, and he struggled.

No, I have to finish!

"Steve goddamnit!"

Steve opened his eyes, finding himself sitting upright in bed, his back against the wall. The lamp on the nightstand was on, showing him that Neal had resorted to shaking him awake. The guitarist was leaned over at his eye level, looking at him with an almost repulsed amazement. He blinked in confusion.

"Stop," Neal said, the word low and shaken. Part demand, part plea. Part realization.

Steve held his hands up to look at them. They were whole, but they hurt like hell, shredded on a level he couldn't see.

He looked at Neal again, never realizing the guitarist had seen the whole thing.

* * *

The drive over to Jon's was almost completely silent; neither of them wanted to talk. It would have been an easy leap to bring up the question of what had gone on the night before. The implications were unwelcome, and there'd been enough changes in the past week as it was, enough strangeness.

Jon was already out in the studio behind his house, sitting in front of one of the mixing boards, his feet on the empty chair beside him, messing with something he and Neal had started. The door was open, and Neal stepped in first.

"Hey."

"Hey," Jon said, turning around.

Neal leaned against the other side of the mixing board Jon was working at, looking it over.

Steve stood inside the doorway for a moment, frozen, trying to catch hold of something. "Here," he said, glancing at Jonathan.

Jon nodded, catching on. The rehearsal they'd never finished, more than three years earlier. It had all started there, in Jon's studio. Or so they'd thought. "Yeah, the first time. Smith, then Ross."

"And Neal, in the middle of the night," Steve said. "You, the next day. But I don't remember exactly what, after that."

"Doesn't matter," Jon said.

"She was...well, she was a namer," Steve said, and both Jon and Neal stared at him.

"You think that," Jon said, "or you remember that. Which is it?"

"I remember that," Steve said slowly, waiting for recognition to enter their faces and finding nothing but nervousness. "After we destroyed her, they slapped you into another timeline, and wiped you out of this one," he said to Jon. He was digging himself a hole, and he knew it, but he kept talking anyway, needing them to remember. "I got arrested for killing Neal with a crowbar. They set us all up because she was a namer and some of 'em didn't like us destroying namers."

Neal glanced at Jon and said, "I'll be right back. Forgot something." Then he turned and walked out, passing Steve as he did, raising his eyebrows at the singer.

Neal had no reason to go back to the Bronco; the ploy was transparent, and Jon thanked him silently for it.

Steve stared at him for a moment, thinking that they really were operating on different planes by then. He spent the few moments of silence trying to sift through what he'd acquired during the night, separating what he remembered from what he thought they would all remember. Jon looked mildly lost, and Steve said, "I didn't say anything to you. About coming after me, in the hospital. I guess I haven't had the chance. But thanks, for...for checking with me, to see if I'd done it."

"I did the best I could," Jon said. "I didn't have that much practice, you know, when we were on the other side, and I sure as hell haven't had any on this side. I just..." he paused. "I just don't know. About a lot of things."

"Jon," Steve said patiently. "It looked like I'd done it on purpose. But you came after me anyway. That's what I see. What's done is done, okay?"

Jon shrugged. "You notice anything...really different?"

Steve was careful when he answered. "The important things are still around," he said.

"Wow, that was evasive," Jon said.

Steve snorted and said, "Then I must be okay."

Jon nodded. "Okay. You remember a lot more stuff, don't you."

Steve nodded. "Most of the first time we were there, part of the second time, when we destroyed her." And five other times we were there that you guys will never see. There was no point going into it, so he said, "That bullshit rumor, that was going around on the boards for awhile last summer, that I was spotted at one of your shows? It was true."

Jon looked at him, registering the sudden change of subject.

"Really," Steve said. "I haven't 'been' to a Journey show since the original lineup was at the Starwood, and I was trying to get in. Looks very different from out there. I can see now what the attraction is."

Jon's gaze didn't waver, and Steve finally burst into laughter.

"You were not at a Journey show," Jon said. "Nice try, Pinocchio."

"I'm totally serious," Steve said. "I bought a T-shirt with the new logo on it. Very stylish. That thing, where Augeri throws himself across the Whale? I always wanted to do that."

"Why didn't you, then?" Jon said, still wondering what he should do about what was obviously being avoided.

Steve paused. "I don't know," he said. "I think..." he paused again, and Jon waited. "I think it was a matter of trying too hard to keep a certain persona onstage. Or I woulda missed...like Augeri did, that once...and I wouldn't have taken it as well as he did. And then it was too late." He shrugged. "Anyway, you guys do all right."

"Gosh, thanks," Jon said, the sarcasm audible.

Neal picked then to come back in, and he narrowed his eyes at Steve. Before he could say anything, Steve said, "So we're gonna stand around and worry until somebody takes another crack at us, right?"

Neal stopped to look at him, wondering where the wealth of attitude was coming from. He had a sudden memory of a morning more than a decade earlier when he'd walked into the studio after having been up all night. The singer had looked at him and said, I can see you're not gonna be good for anything today, the same tone of voice he was using on him now. Neal had wanted to hit him, had hated him with a passion. "And I guess you got a better way, smartass," he said, trying to keep his own tone even. "What, stand in the middle of a field and scream for 'rion? Call the fucking Psychic Friends Network and ask them? If I thought I could do it without getting turned into a pretzel, I'd walk the lines and ask these dumb bastards what the problem is."

"So we're over here at Jon's, reminiscing about old times?" Steve said. "And in the meantime, when the namers or whoever decide to jerk us around again, we'll never know what hit us. Pun intended."

Neal's entire stance and tone became a study of impatience and annoyance, and that easily they fell back into a familiar pattern with each other. "Everybody knows it, okay? Cover new ground, or bitch about something else for awhile."

"How long you gonna put up with me, then?" Steve said. "How long you gonna babysit me, and let me fuck up your life? Because that's what I'm doing. You're lookin' over your shoulder 24/7, and I can't see us growing old together. So at what point do we say, fine, fuck it, come and get us and do what you're gonna do?"

Neal shrugged, making an attempt to ignore him. He looked at Jon instead, and the keyboardist was looking at the mixing board again. No help from that corner, and Neal wondered what the hell had gone on after he'd walked out.

"What's the big deal, if they grab me?" Steve said with even more sarcasm. "We spend too much more time together, you're not gonna even care."

Neal made a move for Steve, and Jon slid the empty chair into Neal's path with his foot, the move practiced and smooth. He'd done it many times, and had become adept at it while they'd been recording Trial By Fire there. Before that there had been countless times when Jon had expended energy keeping Neal and Steve more than arm's length from each other. The goading was part of the whole, was part of who they were. They were the sum of their flaws.

Neal paused in front of the chair, recognizing the gesture for what it was. Jon's way of saying I'm not playing sides. He glared at Steve over it and said, "You're as fuckin' stubborn as ever. One day, someone's gonna beat it out of you."

"You?" Steve said, coming to stand on the other side of the chair.

"What is the big deal, for them, if they grab you?" Jon said. "Do you think they might?"

Steve looked at him, actually turning his attention to him. "I can't think of a reason to. Unless it's for the same thing The Lady was after. The whole gate between worlds thing, making me pry one open and hold it open."

"You seem to remember some stuff we don't," Jon said. In his peripheral vision, Neal backed down a step, and he knew he'd accomplished his goal for the time being. "You remember anyone grabbing you for something more than that?"

"No," Steve said. "But if they just wanted me dead--for anything--seems like they'd just drop a safe on me, or blow me right into some separate timeline, one where there's no atmosphere or something. Maybe make sure I was never born, or born somewhere else. Seems too deliberate, too late, too small, to shove me in front of a bus. Now they've had more time to think, and maybe they'll come up with something better."

Neal reached across the chair and shoved Steve with one hand, forcing him to stumble back a step. "It's the better that's got you livin' with me, asshole," he said. "You wanna give 'em the chance, fine. Don't be taking the rest of us with you."

Steve didn't take offense. He stared at Neal for a moment, then let his eyes travel to Jon. "I don't have much choice, about that," he said.

Neal backed down the rest of the way, the motion nervous. "What else do you remember?" he said.

Steve didn't answer, just kept staring at Jon, who was nodding.

"This stuff wasn't supposed to be possible over here, right?" Steve said. "You reversin' me, and me shovin' people without touchin' 'em. It's like we're getting..."

pushed

"...into doing what--" Steve paused, glancing from Jon to Neal and back. Nothing specific registered on their faces, and for a moment he thought it was yet another aberrant bit of his wiring trying to repair itself. But Jon's eyes changed in that small moment while Steve was glancing between him and Neal, and the singer said, "What the hell was that?"

"You," Jon said. "Some part of you, still trying to convince everybody and anybody that you didn't try to kill yourself."

Steve nodded a little, looking skeptical. "You guys are hearing it."

"Yeah," Neal said. "You don't, usually. But we do."

Steve's eyes widened slightly, either in alarm or a gathering tirade of disbelief, and Neal said, "Don't worry about it. It'll probably wear off eventually. Like everything else."

Jon glanced at Neal. "Everything else."

Neal shrugged.

Okay, Jon thought, I'll talk to you later and get the rest of that. To Steve he said, "Pushed is the right word. Now finish the thought."

Steve looked lost, obviously unable to remember what he'd been saying. Neal suddenly rubbed his hands together, making a rough, dry sound between his palms, and Steve looked at him expectantly.

"Patterns," Neal said softly, prompting him.

Steve went on staring at the guitarist, and Jon felt a moment of apprehension kindle somewhere in his mind. He didn't bother trying to pinpoint or explain it; he simply acknowledged that something was out of place. "Pushed into what somebody wants," Steve said. He turned his attention back to Jon, grabbing the empty chair and sliding it against the wall before lowering himself into it. "The thing on the sidewalk said it was trying to get someone's attention. I think it wanted to see what you'd do."

"Then it's already seen what there is to see," Jon said. "What's it gonna do," he said to Neal, "to see what you'll do?"

Neal shook his head. "What are we supposed to do about it? Who do we take it up with? Siarion was always the resident spokesperson before. Now they're wasting time messin' with us themselves?"

"Yeah," Steve said. "If they got somethin' for us to do, like they did when Tuirnarin paused the Evenwhen."

They fell silent. Neal leaned against the mixing board again and kept his eyes on the floor. Jon folded his arms and seemed to be staring off at nothing, but he kept Neal in his peripheral vision. When he glanced at Steve again, the other man's eyes were closed and he was slumped against the wall.

"Steve," he said.

"He's asleep," Neal said softly. "Gotta let him be for a few minutes. Roof could fall in, and he'd never know."

They were silent for another moment. Then Neal said, "I don't wanna pull everyone into this again. But we gotta at least warn 'em. I'll call Smith. You just damn well never know who they'll go after." He glanced at Steve suddenly, picking up something that Jon wasn't. The singer was dreaming again.

"We gotta say something to Aug, and Deen, eventually," Jon said, agreeing without needing to say so. "Aug's already seen way too much, but it won't drive him off. So we'll have to be honest with at least him. This goes on long enough, and Deen'll see something."

Neal shrugged. "You wanna try and get everyone together?" The truth was, he'd just never woken up. Never. Jesus, Steve, would you wake up?

"No," Jon said. "Get us all in one spot, who knows what the fucking namers'll do. Anything could come out of the dark."

* * *

He remembered Smitty saying, "If we get out...maybe we'll get them back."

He'd wanted that to be true. Ross had gone first, to that daywraith they hadn't seen until it was too late, and Neal had been torn up trying to save him. They'd lost Jon somewhere in the dark that night, and the daywraiths had kept after them, smelling blood and fear.

Then Neal hadn't been able to go on...

Steve kept telling himself Neal had already been dead by the time the daywraiths had taken another run at them. The truth was, he'd just never woken up. Never.

It was getting dark again, and the Keepers would be out, and they no longer knew where they were. Smitty was the only one who still thought they had a chance of getting out.

* * *

"...come out of the dark," Jon was saying, and Steve snapped awake again. He drew his knees up, looking at the floor in alarm. Neal noticed and snapped his fingers to get the singer's attention. When Steve looked up, he relaxed visibly, and Neal wiggled his fingers at him to say it's just us, we're still here. The guitarist didn't want him to know he'd seen this nightmare--daymare?--too.

"We never did get them all," Steve said.

Jon glanced at Neal, then back at Steve, waiting for Steve to explain. When he didn't, Jon said, "Get what?"

"The Keepers," Steve said, and for just a moment they all remembered a dark field full of lightning flashes and ash.

"The namers cleared them out, when we left," Jon said. "They cleared anything out that didn't come with the place to begin with."

"They said," Steve said. "They said."

* * *

They had lunch in the house after that, and not another word was spoken about it, just innocuous small talk about regular life--or as regular as it got. Steve made it halfway through lunch before his eyelids suddenly drooped. Jon immediately steered him to the guest room in just enough time to avoid actually having to carry him.

After helping clear the dishes, Jon gestured Neal back outside, onto the deck. He carefully closed the back door, glancing at Neal as he did it. Neal was already looking at him, and each understood what the other was thinking.

"Doors are no good, Jon," Neal said. "The guy can hear shit a block away, and not sirens either. Just people talkin', a block away."

Jon said, "He's asleep. Now let's hear the rest of it."

Neal shrugged. "There is no 'rest of it'."

"You guys have been in each other's space more this week than in the last fifteen years. He was out there flipping you shit to distract us both, and it worked. You said somethin' to me the other day, about what if he didn't come all the way back."

"Yesterday," Neal said. "It was yesterday."

Jon stared at him for a moment like he was trying to decide who had a better idea of how much time had passed.

"It feels like longer, don't it," Neal said. "I told you it seemed like he hadn't made it all the way. Now you're gonna ask me who the fuck is in your house, and I'm gonna tell you I don't really know. It's mostly him, a lot of stuff is the same. I mean, I would know, nobody pushes my buttons better than he does. Obviously. There's extra stuff that wasn't there before, and some other things missin'. So I'd have to say yeah he's Steve and no, he ain't the same. None of us are."

He felt in his jacket for the cigarettes in the inside pocket, shaking one out and feeling around another pocket for the lighter. Jon tried to place exactly when the guitarist had started smoking again and remembered it was sometime around their first rehearsal as the 'new' Journey. It was one of the only ways Jon had of telling when Neal was nervous anymore. Jon watched him light up and gave him a moment to stand there and stare out across the yard.

"And?"

"And," Neal said, "I'm havin' his nightmares. Even if I wake up, I'm still havin' his nightmares until I wake him up. I think the guy is trapped with a foot below the world, and I think he's like a black hole, where if you hang around him, you get sucked under too."

And the event horizon gets bigger every day, Jon thought. Until there's no boundary.

"You know what I think?" Neal said. "I think he can't find doorways anymore because he is one, he always was and now someone finally pushed him far enough off the world that he can't get himself closed anymore. I fuckin' hate standing around and waiting for these assholes to make the next move, and there's nothin' we can do."

He fell silent, and Jon went on watching him without staring, trying to take in as much as he could. He'd been thinking along the same lines, but it was Neal who'd had to say it. "What now?" Jon said. "Nobody needs our help. This isn't their way of getting us to stop someone from pausing the Evenwhen again, or clipping some rogue namer. It's like--"

"Bounty hunter," Neal said. "Isn't that where you're goin'? Like the price on our heads finally came due, like what's-her-face was an accident and now the real badasses of the multiverse are steppin' up?"

Jon sighed. Then he shrugged. "Yeah. Like it was all prep. Like our time ran out, and now someone's asking us to build a birdhouse and not giving us the tools."

Neal laughed, blowing a stream of smoke out his nose. "If they wanted us dead, they'd kill us, if they know what dead means. I think they got better plans. And we still don't know what the hell we can do." He broke the burning end off the cigarette and threw it into the dirt next to the deck, pocketing the rest of it. "And now he's awake again, and that's all you're gettin' me to say. We'll see you on Thursday."

* * *

Steve sat and stared out the windshield, looking for any semblance of color. He hadn't questioned leaving Jon's so suddenly, not when he was trying so hard to stay awake.

Neal said, "Hamster's in the wheel again."

"Christ," Steve said. "You and Jon and your shared brain. What'd you leave, for? Right after I started spouting bullshit about Tuirnarin bein' a namer."

"I had to check to make sure there weren't any crowbars around," Neal said. "And I think we all know it wasn't bullshit. You remember lots of shit you really shouldn't, unless you wanna tell me you think you've gone nuts."

Steve didn't say anything, just went on looking out the window at the road.

"That was as open-ended as I ever leave something, Stephen," Neal said. "Take a fucking hint."

"What do you want me to say?"

"It doesn't have shit to do with what I wanna hear, it's got to do with what you're seein'," Neal said. "It's kind of obvious that you've got your head somewhere else besides what we call home."

"It doesn't matter," Steve said. "We went through Athyri five times before we found a way to keep her from suckin' us back in. Remember, I told you guys I was pretty sure we'd been through there before, that she was running us through there over and over until she got the result she wanted. The namers want us, there's not a goddamn thing we can do but sit here and wait for 'em to wipe us right off what we 'call home'."

"That's it?" Neal said. "We beat one, we can't beat another? Thanks for giving up on behalf of all of us."

"Fuck you," Steve snapped. "You don't know--"

Neal slammed on the brakes, and the Bronco slid to a stop. He lashed a hand out and caught a good portion of the front of Steve's shirt with it. The only thing that kept the singer in place was his seatbelt.

"No?" Neal said softly, his face inches from Steve's. "Really? After all the walking I've done, here and over there, I don't get it, I don't see what's possible?"

Steve let surprise keep him silent for a moment. The car behind them laid on the horn, and he startled. Neal released him to face forward again and hit the gas.

"The walking you remember," Steve said, shaken. "And never once to save yourself."

Neal didn't reply, using the traffic as an excuse not to look at him.

Steve said, "You don't see it."

"Yeah I do," Neal said. "Or I'd still be afraid of you."

Steve shut down at that, looking back out the window at the world streaming by.

"You remember all five times we were through there, don't you," Neal said.

"Not every moment," Steve said. "It's all got big holes in it. I can just barely tell the difference between them."

"How do you tell the difference between them?" Neal said.

"Would you just leave it alone?" Steve said, and there wasn't a trace of a snap in it. Neal glanced at him, finding the singer with his hands gripping the seatbelt like he needed to hold on to something.

"If I was just curious, yeah," Neal said. "But if you can see patterns where the rest of us can't--if you're less linear than we are, now--the stuff you see might be all the warning we get."

He tried not to think about the nightmare from the night before. It'd had the flavor of being symbolic anyway, but he didn't want to dwell on how symbolic.

"No patterns," Steve said, "except that we made it out, every time. You guys remember bein' in there twice. You guys only remember the last run through the first time. But that last run was the only time we all made it out. Then we got suckered into going back there on our own, and we didn't all make it."

Neal glanced at him again. He didn't negate the statement. "Do you remember waking up at Jon's house, as a kid?" What he was leading up to was do you remember being murdered, when no one else does, but it was as close as he wanted to get.

"Yeah," Steve said, "moments of it. I remember bein' a kid. And if I was, over here, then the body I showed back up in wasn't mine."

Neal didn't respond, thinking about how much sense it made and not wanting to get into the implications of it. If Steve had said it to keep Neal from pursuing anything else, it worked.

* * *

There were two messages on Neal's answering machine when they got home, and Neal hit play without thinking twice.

The first message was from Amber, wondering where he was.

Steve raised his eyebrows. Without looking at him, Neal said, "Not a fuckin' word."

Steve held his hands up, still unseen. It wasn't necessary to be seen. They'd known each other too long.

The second message wasn't much different. Gregg Rolie's disembodied voice said, "Call me back, Neal. Or I'll come looking for you."

Neal snorted. "Shit. I guess Gregg's been readin' the paper."

"The retraction must not have convinced him," Steve said, trying to find the bathroom door.

"Little to the right," Neal said automatically, the phone already cradled between his ear and shoulder while he dialed Gregg's number. He got a machine, so he left his number again and tried not to laugh while he was doing it. One day, he'd take Gregg out for a beer and they'd go over just how amazing life really was.

He dialed Smitty's number and got the same result. He left a message, trying to recall if the drummer was still out on the road or not. If he really needed to track him down, he would.

Steve came back out again, and Neal said, "Phone tag."

Steve shrugged. "Maybe he hasn't seen the retraction, and thinks I'm dead, and he's all ready to blame you for it."

Neal waved him off. "You find anything interesting about everyone assuming we're ready to knock each other off? A crowbar, for Christs' sake."

"Well, I didn't do it," Steve said. "But they were my fingerprints. I'm not sure it was you, anyway, because you had a double in the timeline they stuck Jon in."

Neal looked at him for a moment, then headed for the kitchen. "I'm gonna take the garbage out. Don't go anywhere."

"Yeah," Steve said. "It's a hell of a long way to the garbage. I'll be counting the minutes."

"Asshole," Neal said.

Steve closed the door behind him and briefly considered locking it, but the phone rang. He picked it up and said, "This is the party to whom you are speaking."

"Stephen," Gregg said, "what the hell is going on? I'm out of town for a couple of weeks, I get home, and you guys have everyone you know in a panic."

"Gregg," Steve said, "haven't seen you in awhile. How's it going?"

Gregg went on without pausing. "I got two things to be confused about. One, you're fatally injured and then you're not. Two, you're living with Neal. Do you see why I'm confused?"

Steve was laughing by then, trying to muffle it. He was completely unsuccessful.

"What is so goddamn funny?" Gregg said.

"See," Steve said, "that's all you're confused about now. Man, you don't know the half of it."

"Right," Gregg said. "You really did get hit, didn't you."

Steve stopped laughing. He froze, listening to the silence on the other end of the line. "Um..."

"Don't you guys bullshit me," Gregg said.

"No," Steve said. "I guess not. Where exactly do you wanna start?"

"With what's going on with you guys. Yeah, I talked to Jon, just now. But I didn't need to talk to him to know the story in the paper was true."

Steve shrugged to himself. There was no point in lying to Gregg. "Yeah. What was in the paper the first time was pretty much true. What'd Jon say?"

"That you guys have had some heavy shit going on for the last few years, and been tryin' to play it off. Kind of hard to play off dying in the street, then walking out of the hospital a few days later. Don't you think?"

"Okay," Steve said. "But he didn't tell you the rest of it, about who we are."

"No, but I'm ready to hear it," Gregg said. "I'm gonna be in town tomorrow. You and Neal gonna be around?"

"Yeah," Steve said. "I'm under house arrest."

"Uh huh," Gregg said. "I'll see you guys tomorrow afternoon sometime. Try not to kill each other before then."

"Sure," Steve said. "Hey, one more thing. Do you remember the time me and you and Smith got arrested, right in the middle of the Infinity tour? There was that show in Racine, and we went out drinking afterwards, and that bar brawl started. Everyone in the place got taken in, including us. Herbie had to bail us."

There was a pause. "No," Gregg said warily. "The seventies were crazy, but I'd remember that. Plus, Smitty didn't join the band until we went in the studio for Evolution. What're you talking about?"

"Nothing," Steve said. "I just wanted to make sure it was really you I was talking to."

* * *

The stone was still there. But he'd known it would be.

Steve stood and stared at the boulder, at the engraving on it, knowing it was a monument but not remembering who'd told him. There was more scrub around it, and what looked like the seedling of a tree, but it was the same stone. It had settled into the sandy terrain around the base of Siarion's Tower, tilting slightly.

He'd come for that last piece that didn't fit, to dislodge what held him there. That was what the shovel was for. He leaned it against the stone and shrugged his cloak off, casting raven shadows in the slanting orange light.

He looked up when he heard the footsteps; it was the padding gait of a four legged creature, and as he raised his eyes he suffered a moment of terror that it would be a daywraith

(i heard neal's skull crack when that daywraith pulled him away from the fire. tell me he was already dead, can't anyone just say he was already gone?)

but it was only a wolf, standing yards away on the other side of the stone. It was pitch black and enormous, casting its own raven shadows. Its brush was on end, hackles raised, and a low growl issued from snarling jaws.

He ignored it and reached for the shovel again. He already knew he was dreaming. He also knew exactly where to start digging. After all, he was the one buried there.

He'd given up trying to understand how he could have left an extra shell behind; he hadn't been there when the how of it had been explained to the others. They'd stood around in the melting snow of the Outlands, watching the light come, watching the place dismantle itself. He'd been dead long before that, killed when

(can't remember how i died, not that time)

he'd fallen into The Lady's hands one final time. He veered away from that line of thinking and struck at the sandy, hard-packed scrabble, chipping the surface away. No, it'd been his understanding that they'd been forcibly ejected from that world by the namers at the end. Anything not of this world, they'd said.

Yet this body--his real one--had remained behind.

It was time he did something about it.

It didn't matter which part of which timeline this one'd been from, even though he knew it was the same line. It was like shattering a mirror and still being able to see a separate, whole image in each fragment; each piece came from the same place, yet stood on it's own. He'd become part of that world and couldn't get loose.

He struck at the dirt again, mindful of the growling wolf, knowing it wouldn't come closer. Not yet. It would wait until he uncovered what he meant to. And then...

The light above him never changed. He went on shoveling, and after the first few inches the dry soil kept sliding in from the sides and refilling the hole without making it wider. He was trying to empty an ocean a scoop at a time, and he knew it, but couldn't stop. He would go on in an endless loop, unable to reach bottom, time and sand running through his hands. The wolf went on growling.

He heard something else over the growling, footsteps approaching him, but he refused to look. It would only be another distraction, another lie, another possibility.

Another shovel struck the dirt next to his, and he glanced up to find Neal staring at the wolf. After a moment the guitarist looked at him and said, "I think I figured it out."

Steve didn't reply. But when they began digging again, the hole finally began to deepen.

* * *