Neal glanced up at him and said, "Yeah, good morning to you, too," but Steve wasn't paying any attention to him. The singer made a beeline for the fruit bowl on the counter by the sink. The apples had gone mushy, and the oranges were probably past date by then too, but Neal hadn't exactly been in a position to worry about what was or wasn't happening in the fruit bowl. He meant to tell Steve not to bother with any of it, wondering what he found so enticing, but the words never formed. The singer picked an orange out of the top and turned it in his hands, fascinated.
Neal watched him for a minute, wary, unsure if Steve was having some sort of episode. But Steve went on turning the fruit in his hands, pausing once to smell it and then to glance around the rest of the kitchen with calculating eyes. Then he focused on the other oranges in the bowl, pulling another one out and comparing it to the first.
After a few more moments of that, Neal said, "I gotta tell you, that looks pretty odd."
Steve nodded absently, still not paying attention to him, holding the oranges out and comparing them to the rest of the kitchen.
"Perry," Neal said, "what the blue fuck are you doing?"
Steve finally looked at him. "They're orange."
For a moment, Neal felt a twinge of real nervousness. Not only could the singer not stay awake, but he'd gone simple, as well. Then he remembered the fact that to Steve, the world was black and white. "Holy shit. Is that the only color you can see?"
Steve nodded. "Don't you have anything else this color?" He put one of the oranges back and stepped far enough away to view the whole bowl again.
"No," Neal said, trying not to laugh. "Orange is about the ugliest damn color in the world."
"Not right now, it's not," Steve said, looking at the orange he was holding again. "This is good. This is really, really good. Now if I could just get a few other colors to look at, and stay awake for more than half an hour, I'll be all set."
Neal did laugh then.
Steve walked to the fridge and opened it, then came away with a container of orange juice. Neal watched him examine the container intently before the singer scooted the door closed with a foot and got a glass out of the cupboard above the sink.
Steve poured a half glass of the juice, then held it up to stare at it. "Wow," he said.
Neal shook his head. "Yeah, wow. Not hard to impress you anymore."
Steve drank a little of the juice, then held the glass over the sink and poured some of it on his own hand.
Neal got up and came closer to watch over his shoulder. Steve stared at his hand, at the juice dribbling into the sink. "I missed color," he said. "More like, 'what the orange fuck' am I doing." Then he laughed, put the glass down, and turned the water on to rinse his hands off. On impulse, he flicked water at Neal, who jerked back in surprise, then laughed. Steve wiped his hands off, and they stood staring at each other for a moment, acknowledging that they weren't acting like themselves. Or maybe they were just more themselves than they were accustomed to.
* * *
Gregg arrived somewhere around two that afternoon, pulling up front like it was a perfectly normal occurrence even though he hadn't seen Neal in nearly three years, and Steve in nearly six. They greeted each other like the time didn't matter; and in some ways, it didn't. The same old familiar patterns.
Gregg listened to the whole fiasco the way he listened to everything: with a calm, unhurried air, looking thoughtful. He didn't accuse them of being delusional or perpetrating a childish joke out of boredom. He asked few questions. When they reached the present again, nearly two hours had passed, and Steve had been awake for nearly half of it.
"You're takin' us pretty seriously," Steve said.
"You and Neal are living together," Gregg said. "That's pretty goddamn serious. What the hell are you gonna do?"
"Try and figure out what they want this time," Neal said. "We should've set this for a later time, had Ross and Jon here, maybe even Smith, and you would've gotten a better picture. I know there's stuff we're leavin' out that we don't mean to. It's gotten to be kind of--commonplace, I guess, to us. That sounds like bullshit, I know."
"You got no problem with the fact that you can screw with time," Gregg said.
"'Problem' is kind of insinuating that I got somethin' to say about it in the first place," Neal said.
"Me choosing Jon to take my place really wasn't a choice at all, was it," Gregg said. "Him ending up opening for us on the Departure tour, you and me standing out there watching everything he did. It pisses me off to think it wasn't his talent alone that got us, that we weren't really always lookin' at him."
"We were always looking at him, Gregg," Neal said softly. "Him bein' able to do what he does is part of him. There were just other things, other parts of us in our heads that maybe knew stuff we didn't. The noise we ended up makin' is what got the attention of these namers, what finally made 'em look at us. No one's fault. Just the right combination finally fallin' into place."
They sat in companionable silence for a moment. Then Steve said, "What do you suppose your job was?"
Gregg looked at him. "Job."
"The whole band does somethin'," Steve said, leaning forward. "Can't be coincidence. We got fire and illusions and a guy who reverses things, another who jumps around in time, and unless you were odd man out, you must be able to do somethin'."
Gregg shook his head. "If I do, I've never had any idea. Might be part of the reason I left was because I wasn't part of the recipe."
"But you knew the story in the paper was true," Steve said. "Somethin' told you it was right, that things were weird."
"You really think we weren't makin' any noise until Jon came along?" Steve said. "Just not the right combination to piss anyone off right away, maybe. But it seems to me...if you were in this band, you got pulled in originally for some reason."
"Shit," Gregg said. "Now you're gonna tell me Herbie's one of these namers, and he's orchestrated the whole thing."
Neal laughed, even though he didn't really feel like doing it.
"You're still takin' this way too easy," Steve said. "Seems to me you knew somethin' was going on before now. Or maybe you saw something."
Gregg shrugged. "Seems to me you guys have always known something was going on."
"And you're not wondering what you can do," Steve said.
Gregg looked at him a little harder for a moment. Not with discomfort, but with a little trepidation. "No offense, but if I can stay the hell out of this, I'll be happy. What the hell was Journey?"
"Is," Neal said, and he didn't mean it to sound defensive but it came out that way regardless.
"Yeah," Gregg said. "Someone's idea of getting all the right pieces in place. What if we got everyone who'd been part of it together in one place? Right here, we got three--"
"One," Steve said, cutting him off. "Just one, now."
Gregg looked at him for a second, then nodded a little. "Yeah. Okay." He paused, then said, "You guys gonna be okay?"
Steve glanced at Neal and waited for him to dole out some fitting platitude, to pass it all off. Sure, we're always okay! When it didn't happen he said, "Look. We've had creatures from another dimension fucking with us for the last three years, and we've been handin' 'em their ass. I've just come back from the dead, again. You wanna rephrase that, I understand."
Gregg looked surprised for a moment, then laughed.
"Weebles wobble, but they don't fall down," Neal said.
"Uh huh," Gregg said.
"Just because you're out of the band doesn't mean you're out," Steve said. "Just...watch your back, huh? Let us know if you see anything."
"Wouldn't they have come after me by now?" Gregg said.
He watched Neal and Steve trade a glance. Then Neal said, "Define 'by now' to someone who can be anywhere, anytime."
Gregg thought about it for a moment, staring between the other two men. "Someone wanna tell me why bother, then?" he said. "I gotta think about this. This is crazy shit, and I've had less than a day to catch on. No way I'd see anything coming. And if I did, what the hell can anyone do?"
"You'd be surprised," Steve said.
* * *
By the time Gregg left, it was early evening. Steve stood and stretched, running his hands through his shoulder-length hair, and his bangs tumbled back into his eyes. "Let's get the hell out of here and get something to eat," he said.
"Can you stay awake?" Neal said.
Steve shrugged. "You ask all your dates that?"
"Funny," Neal said. "Where?"
"Doesn't matter," Steve said. "Outta here."
They drove for awhile and ended up on the waterfront, and it was long since dark by then. Steve had slept for most of the ride, so he was relatively sure it was safe to wander around on foot for awhile. It was cool and clear and breezy, and they found an open-front seafood place that was doing business even in winter.
They sat out on the edge of the Wharf and ate, staring out over the barely visible water. No one bothered them, or even came close, save for the occasional seagull that wheeled by and waited for them to drop something. Not a word was spoken, and for once it was a comfortable thing. It had been a long, long time since they'd had silence that wasn't angry, since they'd sat and simply felt each other's presence. Without expecting anything, without avoiding anything. When it got too cold, they went home and called it a day.
* * *
Neal had been asleep for maybe an hour when he felt a mouth on his own. It had moved down his jaw to his throat by the time he got his eyes open. There was a moment when he didn't argue with it, where it didn't matter who or why. Whoever it was knew what they were doing, knew him, and that was enough. When the mouth moved back to his, he accepted it, feeling a body straddle his. He raked his hands through his unidentified visitor's hair, finally realizing there was something about the scent and feel of this person...
He startled fully awake and pulled away, trying to catch his breath, meaning to say something but unable to.
"Do you really want me to stop?"
The words were breathed into his mouth in a husky invocation, lips still against his. A voice he recognized immediately. Steve.
He meant to say, yes, what the hell are you doing, and said nothing. Did nothing to stop that mouth from meeting his again, from trailing down his chest, from pressing itself just above his navel while long fingered hands slid against his hips beneath the sweatpants he'd worn to bed, sliding the clothing away...
Stop, he thought. Stop, and he was bracing himself up on his elbows but tilting his head back with a gasp while that mouth nibbled against one hip, teeth barely grazing his skin, teasing him. A violent turn-on that only three people in his life had been with him long enough to discover. He knew what Steve was about to do, and the thought of it, of seeing it...
No. I don't want this, I don't want Steve.
He snapped his head to the doorway, finding the ghostly outline of a silver haired, feminine shape. "Liar. As the seed is planted, walker, so the tree shall grow."
Neal snapped awake with a startled jerk, for real this time. Breathing hard, he stared at what he could see of the ceiling, felt and acknowledged the aftereffects of the dream. He rolled over with a muffled curse and sat up. It was the product of stress, and imagination, and too long alone. That was all.
That had to be all.
God, please let that be all.
* * *
When Neal awoke again, it was morning, but still early. Early for him, anyway.
Music played softly somewhere else in the house; the radio, from the sounds of it. And Steve was singing along to it, keeping his voice low. The problem was that Steve was impossible to ignore at any volume, and the fact that Neal had spent a good portion of his life listening to that voice didn't make any difference.
You're the worst goddamn backup singer in the world, Neal remembered telling him when Departure had finally wrapped and gone to post-production. You're incapable of blending in, no matter how hard you try. And he had tried, on several occasions. Neal had tried shutting that voice out for years, and had never been successful.
Do you really want me to stop?
Neal sat up, fast. The dream came back to him in a rush, and he mentally backpedaled away from it at top speed. The details were too clear, still had an effect, and he sat for a moment and tried to categorize the whole thing. It would be safer if he could just put it away, put it down to something that made sense...had it ever happened before? No. It hadn't.
Things were weird, so there was no reason why his subconscious wouldn't be even weirder. That was all. But it was easier to be in motion than sit and think about it, so he was up and headed for the shower before anything else could suggest itself.
When he came out, it was to find the singer washing dishes that had been sitting for awhile.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey," Steve said without turning around. "You want breakfast? I can put something together."
Neal caught himself standing there and watching everything Steve did, and purposely looked the other way. Dreams he remembered into the next day often left a mental aftertaste, tinting everything he did until he slept again, and he told himself that was all it was. They hadn't been in each other's space like that in 15 years, and his subconscious was blowing off steam by...
By what? Using the singer as a sub for someone else? Getting his attention? He could do without the Freudian shit. They were scared, and it had his imagination working overtime. That was all.
But he was still watching the singer's every move. Watching his hands.
And then it occurred to him that if he was seeing Steve's nightmares, maybe Steve was seeing his...
The possibility had him in a panic for just a moment, until common sense took over again. There was no way Steve would have let it pass, he would have made some sort of smart, embarrassed remark or at least briefly rubbed his nose in it. There was nothing in the singer's expressions, nothing under his words to indicate he'd seen any of it.
"What the hell are you staring at?" Steve said. The singer was eyeing him from the sink with a raised eyebrow.
Neal blinked and mentally shook off the direction of his thoughts. He was making something out of nothing, that was all. He cleared his throat and said, "Jon's waitin' for me. We just...gotta finish a couple of things." He paused. "You okay here?" He wanted to add 'by yourself' but was careful not to.
Steve looked up and said, "My God. You wouldn't ever do that to Augeri, would you, if this goes on?"
"Let me look on while you guys play sometime."
Neal laughed. "Jesus, that's pretty cold. No, I don't think we'll try that yet."
Steve smirked. "Just checking."
Neal tossed a wave at him and walked out without glancing back or telling Steve to keep the doors locked. There was no point. They couldn't live their lives joined at the hip. He didn't question leaving the singer alone. There was no way he could protect him anyway...and nothing to really protect him from.
* * *
Steve read for awhile, and fell asleep sitting up without knowing about it. When he awoke, only half an hour had passed and he went back to reading. He grew bored with that, and began pacing the house for no reason that he could think of. He opened all the windows to let air circulate. It was still breezy and sunny, and that should have been cheering in itself, but he wasn't paying any attention. He wanted to be awake for awhile, and if he kept active it might help.
He was on his third circuit of the house when the knock came. He froze.
There shouldn't have been anyone, unless it was someone hawking the paper or trying to save him. He ignored it. Already been born again a few times, he thought.
The knock came again, more insistent. "Steve, I lost my keys. Let me in."
Neal's voice. Steve walked back through the house to the front door and put a hand on the knob. It stung him sharply enough that he couldn't blame it on static electricity. Ears ringing, he snapped his hand away and leaned out from the door to look out the front windows.
Neal stood there, looking impatient. "Steve, come on, already." Then he turned his head quickly, catching Steve looking out the window at him.
The motion left a smear of color in its wake, a dull and sullen orange-brown that ran molten over the grays of the world. Startled, Steve focused on that for a moment before finally meeting Neal's eyes. The guitarist had raised an eyebrow that insinuated the singer's behavior was odd.
Neal. Neal's expressions, Neal's voice, Neal's posture. But Steve couldn't bring himself to try and open the door again, couldn't so much as move. His mind raced, almost against his will.
"What'd you threaten to start calling me, in the hospital?" Steve said.
Neal dropped his hands in frustration. "The paranoid shit is gettin' old, Perry," he said, and rotten-orange smears of color trailed through the air, following the motion of his hands. "Like they'd be dumb enough to try the same thing twice. Christ, open the door!"
"Answer the question," Steve said, feeling dumber all the time. "If I didn't stop saying that one word over and over, you were gonna start callin' me something."
Neal looked at him, then rolled his eyes. Flat, expressionless eyes that didn't show any of the impatience the rest of him did. The eyes of the creature on the sidewalk. Steve hadn't made the connection until then, that one small thing that didn't add up. The eyes.
The thing made a show of thinking about it, of trying to remember.
"Look," it said, "everyone was kind of stressed out. I don't remember everything I said to you, okay? Jesus, what do I have to do to get you to open the door?"
"Why do you need me to open it?" Steve said, trying to keep the shakiness out of his voice and failing. He was frightened, and admitted it to himself. He didn't know what it was capable of, and it didn't matter; the thing outside had murdered him. "You guys've never needed an invite before, have you?"
The thing outside grinned.
* * *
Less than two miles away, Neal was holding a note, letting it shriek and blister it's way through Jon's studio. It was centerline of a solo for a song that didn't have an official title yet. Usually he would have leaned into that note and kept leaning until he could almost feel himself vanishing into it.
It wasn't working, that day; he felt the whole thing sliding south, like he was losing his grip on the music itself. He killed the note and slapped a hand against the fretboard. Jon killed the drum machine and looked at him without asking what was wrong. He already knew.
They both listened to Neal's pickups hum to silence. Then Neal looked at Jon and said, "This is ridiculous."
Jon nodded. "You wanna call it off, for today?"
Neal shook his head. "No." He unslung his guitar, propping it against the nearest wall instead of in its stand. "Not lettin' these guys run our lives."
Jon followed him out, waiting until they got to the Bronco before saying, "We can't do this forever."
"They're not gonna let us do this forever," Neal said. "Sooner or later they'll get tired of hassling us and get to business."
And you're totally delusional about you and Steve being connected, Jon thought. Didn't think you were even capable of lying to yourself.
Neal looked at Jon like he'd caught part of that, but didn't comment.
Jon said, "Am I coming with you, or not?"
Neal knew then they were in real trouble, that it wasn't some sort of hit and run on an unimaginable scale. He was scared, Jon was scared. Enough to need to stick almost too close together. Enough that Jon wasn't suggesting that Neal just pick the singer up and bring him back.
Before he could answer, Jon reached for the Bronco's passenger door handle and said, "They're getting to business, aren't they."
* * *
"Go on," Steve said, trying to inject force into it. "Try and get in here, and see what you get. You got nothin' to push me in front of, here."
The thing pretending to be Neal clucked its tongue at him. "You sure? Lots of pushing still to be done, Er Rai. If I stand around long enough, the walker and maybe the Inverse will come. You let me in, I won't hurt them."
Steve's mind railed against the conflicting memories he was dredging up. He remembered--or he thought he remembered--a namer appearing in Jon's house while he and Neal had still been tangled. Siarion was there, he thought, not sure who the hell Siarion was. She was never formally invited, but she had a standing...what, free admission?
"You're not a fuckin' vampire," Steve said. "You don't need an invite."
The thing leaned over and drew a finger down the glass, watching Steve startle away from the window with open satisfaction. Steve stared at the smear of orange it left on the glass and thought, they're in the walls.
He looked up again and wondered if its' proximity was triggering the jumble of half-memories. "Can't you just tell me what the hell you want?" he said. "Can't you leave us alone?"
"No," it said flatly. "You don't have any idea what you've done to Existence, what you've done to us." It paused. "Maybe I can get in anytime I like. You'll sleep, if I wait. You'll sleep for good, eventually." Then it smiled and left the doorway, trailing its fingers along the glass as it went, leaving itself in the glass. Steve had the feeling it didn't realize what he could see.
It walked out of sight around the corner of the house, trailing a hand as it went, and Steve was holding his breath to listen for it.
Oh God the windows.
He sprinted through the house, closing and locking windows as he went, knowing it was pointless but having to do something. It didn't need windows or doors, it was only playing with him, but he didn't want it having an easy way in.
I did everything I could. I did.
He stood in the livingroom again and tried to catch his breath, and he could just hear it scraping along the side of the house. He was shaking. He had the insane urge to hide somewhere, anywhere, so long as he had at least the illusion of safety.
It was marking the house.
That's crazy, he thought. Crazy.
It wanted to mark him, but wasn't getting close enough until it knew what he could do now that he was caught between. He knew it, and didn't try to analyze it. He stood perfectly still and listened. Somewhere, around the back of the house, he could hear that hand dragging over the boards of the siding, a soft but rough hissing of contact. Something came back to him, an old tale from the Book of Exodus about the Angel of Death. People left marks above their doors telling Death to pass by...
He was relatively certain he had it backwards, though. Because whatever had been at the door was doing everything but screaming here he is, come and get him.
After another few moments, he couldn't hear anything over the blood rushing through his own ears. He stood there anyway, afraid to move, afraid to turn his back to any part of the house. Nothing returned to the door, or at least nothing he could see. Neal would be gone for several hours, maybe until dark...
But Neal won't leave me alone in the dark. I know he won't.
If Neal made it home.
He'd call out to Jon's, tell them to be careful. But there was no careful, anymore. It was all luck. His joints were stiff when he tried to move; it had been nearly ten minutes since the thing had knocked on the door and called him by name. He'd taken three steps toward the phone before he heard the engine. Someone pulling up. He regained his spot not far from the windows and waited to see what would be coming to the door next.
He heard a door slam, then another, and a murmur of voices coming closer. Neal was saying maybe we just need to put up the right kind of fence just before two people who looked like Jon and Neal walked in front of the windows without seeing him. Neal rattled the knob, then hit the bell.
Jon glanced up as Neal hit the bell, saw Steve, and said, "Oh...shit."
Neal leaned over and followed Jon's line of sight. Steve had his hands on his chest like he'd been startled and didn't know what else to do with them. There was a look of cornered desperation on him that wasn't far from the way he'd looked before trying to turn Neal inside out at the hospital. Neal took his keys out, then changed his mind. He could see just enough to realize he was talking his way out of something.
"Okay," he said, holding his hands up. "I don't know what happened while we were gone. But do what you have to, to get over it."
Jon looked from Neal to Steve, registering the tone and the forethought in it.
Steve regarded them coolly through the glass. For just a moment, a Monty Python sketch skittered through Jon's mind, and he was certain Steve was going to ask them what the airspeed of an unladen swallow was. It passed before he could laugh, but just barely.
"What'd you threaten to call me, in the hospital?" Steve demanded.
Neal dropped his hands, and there were no smears of color. There was no humor in his face, either, and from there Steve saw the look in his eyes. "Open the door, Pushachu," Neal said, and he barely got it out before Steve was moving for the door and unlocking it with harsh motions. Neal stepped in and grabbed his arm in a quick, reassuring grip, the hand sliding down into Steve's without either of them even realizing it. The singer's fingers were ice cold.
"What happened?" Neal said.
"The boy scout who tried to help me across the street," Steve said. "He was trying to pass himself off as you, again. I can't tell if he's gone."
Neal's face hardened, and Jon's twisted into a snarl of rage.
"It's waiting for you guys," Steve said.
"Where'd it go?" Jon said.
Steve looked at him and didn't reply, thinking of what the thing had said and the look on its face.
"Where'd it go!" Jon shouted, and Steve startled away from him, flinching at the combination of noise and anger.
Neal said, "Jonathan," with the same tone of voice he would have used to say what are you doing?
Jon made a visible attempt to calm himself, then centered on Steve again.
"It said it wouldn't hurt you, if I let it in," Steve said, his voice a low and shaken entreaty.
"Listen to me," Jon said. "If it could hurt us, why'd it wait until you were alone? You know that doesn't make any sense. Now where'd it go?"
"Around the back of the house," Steve said.
Jon and Neal both moved for the back of the house, and Neal gestured Steve along. After a moment of hesitation, Steve trailed after them, watching Jon throw the back door open and storm through like he meant to damage something.
Steve remained just outside the door, unwilling to completely leave the supposed safety of the house, praying the thing was gone. He didn't even want to imagine how Jon would confront it.
The yard was empty, but Jon took pains to circle the house and search the inside before finally examining the front door to see if anything had been left behind, physical or otherwise. He centered on Steve again and said, "Tell me all of it, this time. And don't even think about leaving anything out, or you will be on your own."
"Jon," Neal began.
Jonathan leveled a venomous glare on him in response and spoke to Steve at the same time. "Talk."
Steve told him everything, without reservation. There was no hedging, or changing of the subject this time, no diversions. Those things had been frightened out of him.
"Marking the house," Jon repeated.
"That's what it looked like," Steve said. "And...it's getting dark."
It was quiet for a moment, so quiet that they could hear the breeze picking up outside again. The front door was still open. Steve was listening harder yet, on a hair trigger, trying to watch all the corners at once. Neal was torn between staying close and running like hell. The singer was jumpier and more dangerous right then than he had been in the hospital, and they could all feel the pressure building.
"Did you ever wonder," Steve said, "how far back you could 'undo' something? Or if you could undo something you've done?"
Jon stared back at him almost indifferently. Neal stood slightly to one side and watched, no longer certain he knew either man very well anymore. Jon didn't answer.
"I think you have," Steve said softly, still looking at Jon, keeping his distance. "I don't blame you."
"We might have more than namers, this time," Jon said. "Something else might've come out of the dark." He was talking to Neal but staring at Steve.
"What the hell could it want?" Neal said.
"Inside," Steve said so softly that they barely heard him.
"Then why didn't it just break into the house?" Neal said. "It was physical, it could've broken the windows, or--"
"It probably wanted to see if he could defend himself first," Jon said, still looking at Steve. "See how much it could get away with."
"But why mark the house?" Neal said. "The namers have always known where he is, where we all are. They've been able to pull us out of rooms, yank us across lines. You gotta be right, this isn't a namer." And why is it walking around with my face? Why the hell is it walking up to Steve and hassling him wearing my face?
"Inside," Steve said again, using a forefinger to tap his own chest. "It said I'd sleep eventually. What if it wasn't trying to murder me? What if it just wasn't sure how much the human body can take?"
Jon went very still, staring at Steve.
"What if it just needed me in a state that would make it easy to....'tangle' with me, and it overdid it?"
"Then why didn't it just take you right after?" Jon said. "Or while you were in the hospital?"
"It wanted your attention," Steve said. "You tried so hard, I'm probably 'lit up'. By the time I was...habitable...again, you were almost always with me. It's like someone's tryin' to show us something, and someone else is tryin' to prove something." He paused, and when no one leaped in to fill the space, he spoke again, voice shaking. "What am I, Jon?"
"A key," Jon said flatly.
"Free 24/7 access through the Evenwhen," Steve said. "A means to an end. Look what Neal could do, while we were tangled. I wonder what the thing on the porch could do with me."
They went on standing in a loose triangle and staring at each other, wanting to leave, knowing there was nowhere to run. "Put the lid back on the box, Steve," Jon said softly.
Steve knew Jon was talking about the pressure in the room. He knew he was doing it, and had no idea how. The doors being open made no difference. He struggled to calm down. "If it wasn't a namer, what the hell was it?"
"Since I don't have a field guide, I don't know," Jon said. "We never bothered to wonder if the namers were alone. We know they come in levels, so that life form probably comes in different varieties, too."
"We kicked something awake," Steve said. "Something that walks around talking about the damage I've done to Existence. Something orange."
"We can't just wait around until something else gets after us," Neal said. "We gotta find a way to make it harder for 'em. Like I was sayin' on the way over here."
"A fence," Jon said. "Yeah. But if these aren't namers, we're starting from scratch. They know who we are, and we're in the dark."
They fell silent for a moment. Then Steve said, "For some reason, I get the feeling they're sittin' around having the same discussion about us."
Neal saw the motion in his peripheral vision before Jon did; he meant to shout, to point, to do anything but stand there, rooted in place by shock as he watched the thing with his face materialize out of the floor and grab Steve from behind. One hand clamped over the singer's mouth, the other arm looping around his waist, pulling him in and snapping his head back. Steve's eyes flew wide with panic, his hands reaching up to pry himself loose. Jon shouted and took a step toward the pair.
It was over that quickly; Steve's hands stilled in midair as his eyes rolled up in his head, and the thing tossed him to one side. The singer folded to the floor in a boneless slump, and the unnamed thing stood facing Jon with a strange look on its borrowed face, as if it was listening for something.
Jon stopped where he was. "What do you want?" he said. "Dammit, what are you and what do you want?"
"A piece at a time," it said. "I see it, now."
Before Jon could say or do anything else, it vanished feet-first into the floor, leaving them in silence again. Neal found himself fighting an impulse to scream. Then he was rolling Steve over onto his back, amazed to find him still alive.
Neal said, "We let it in."
"Bullshit," Jon said, keeping an eye on the floor, resting his hands on Steve's chest. He couldn't tell what--if anything--the thing had done to him, and nothing responded from his own hands to counter it. "It could've gotten in anytime it wanted. It's playin' with us." He shook Steve and called his name, and got no response.
"That was for somethin'," Neal said. "Not for show. It got somethin' out of that, somethin' it didn't get shoving him in front of the bus."
"Maybe it's just going the long way," Jon said softly. "'A piece at a time'. It tried the direct route already, didn't it?"
Steve opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling almost serenely.
"Steve," Jon said. When the singer looked at him, he said, "Address and phone number. Quick."
Steve rattled the items off, then said, "Why am I on the floor?"
Jon told him, leaving out the part about the thing walking all the way around the house without knowing why, leaving out the part about how it had appeared and disappeared out of the floor. It was enough that it had rattled the doorknob, that it had come up behind and grabbed the singer. Steve looked amazed. He sat up on his own and looked around, then looked at Neal. "I remember you leaving for Jon's. That's it."
Neal rose suddenly and walked away, returning immediately with one of the oranges from the fruit bowl. He held it in front of Steve and said, "What color is it?"
"It's orange," Steve said, "like it has been since yesterday. What the--?"
"Then it couldn't take that," Neal said. "Maybe that's what it was after. Don't you find it a big fuckin' coincidence that just yesterday you got one color back, and that same color shows up when that thing was 'marking' the house?"
"It's gotta be a wavelength thing," Jon said. "Visible light's just...it's just one little part of the whole spectrum, and we...." he paused, looking at Steve again. "You remember everything else, though, right? Since waking up in the hospital."
"Yeah," Steve said slowly. "Whaddaya mean, 'marking' the house?"
Neal looked at Jon, then back at Steve. He suddenly felt like there was no point to any of it, no point to doing anything but sitting there and waiting, like Steve had said the day before. "One step forward and two steps back," he said. "Now you remember a million things we don't, but nothing we need you to. Isn't that convenient." He looked at Jon again. "Now what? What're we supposed to do? Better off together, better off apart? What's the bigger target?"
Jon didn't reply, letting his gaze settle on the orange Neal was still holding.
Steve went on sitting on the floor, and the idle thought that he needed to put a little space between himself and Jon came to mind. Then he said, "It wasn't to take anything away."
Neal looked at him. "What?"
"You guys just said it grabbed me, then left. If it didn't want you to know what I knew, what it'd said to me, then it should've grabbed me before I told you what happened. It didn't bother taking anything away. It said, 'I see it now'. Remind you guys of anything?"
Jon sat down on the floor next to him, and Steve flinched visibly without knowing why. Jon kept his gaze steady on him and said, "No. What's it remind you of?"
"We were at your house," Steve said, keeping his eyes on Jon, leaning slightly away from him and unaware of it. "I remember the eclipse, and that Siarion was there to haul us back across because what's-her-face had paused the Evenwhen. She wanted to know how I was hearing the Keepers before anyone else did, and she had to touch me to do it. She said she'd pay better attention after that, that she'd listen too."
Neal cursed under his breath and made as if to throw the orange. He settled for hurling it out the open front door. "So now it knows somethin' we don't," he said. "Somethin' about us it probably shouldn't."
"Why not just hang around and take care of us, then, get it over with?" Jon said. "Why a piece at a time?"
"Because she tried to do it all, all at once," Steve said. "Maybe it's better to deal with linear folks with not-so linear backgrounds by...by just doing it a piece at a time."
"And you guys are sittin' there thinking the fuckin' thing was actually making sense," Neal said. "They're either so goddamn smart we can't catch up, or so fuckin' dumb we'll never lower ourselves down enough to see it. Either way we're waiting for the next piece."
"Maybe it won't really do anything until it knows what its really up against," Steve said in the same distant voice he'd used to wonder out loud about why he'd been pushed in front of the bus. "Be real dumb to come knockin' around here without finding out how dangerous we are. If it doesn't have access to the Evenwhen, it doesn't know the whole story. If it did there wouldn't be an us to sit here and go on about it, I think."
Neal was standing like he wanted to hit something.
Jon stood. "What do you wanna do?" he said to Neal, and he could have been talking about anything.
Neal said, "Go home, Jon. Get off ground zero, if you can."
Steve thought move along, people, nothing to see here but didn't say it aloud.
Jon sighed. "There is no getting off ground zero," he said. He thought Steve is ground zero. "So it doesn't matter. You gotta take me home anyway." He glanced at Steve and offered him a hand. The singer stood without taking it.
"You gotta take me home, too," Steve said.
Neal stared at him for a moment, still looking like he wanted to hit something. Or someone. "You ain't goin' home," he said.
"Doesn't matter where I am, Neal," Steve said softly. "What're you gonna do, if somethin' walks in here and starts up on us? Talk big?"
Neal shot him a furious look.
Steve pointed a finger at him. "That's not what I meant. No one but you gives a fuck about can you do your thing on this side or not."
"Since when do you know what I'm thinking?" Neal said, and his voice was a low and deadly monotone Steve recognized with a cold shock. He hadn't been trying for it, for once, and he dropped his hand and took a step away, shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans. From him, it was a cowed move, and Neal didn't recognize it. Jon did, and wondered what had changed between the three of them so suddenly.
"I don't wanna argue with you," Steve said. "Trust me. I'm all done arguing with folks until I'm sure about what'll happen to 'em, when I lose my temper in their vicinity. And all you and I know how to do is lose tempers."
Neal went on staring at him, wanting to keep it going, even though he knew it was pointless. He was spoiling for a fight with the singer, needing to make sure he stayed at arm's length.
"I wanna check my house, my mail, see if my cat is still around, look at my own stuff for a few minutes," Steve said. "I didn't mean to start somethin' up. Just seems like if the namer or whatever comes back and decides to finish things up, you'll be goin' with me for no reason. Okay? That's it. I'm sorry."
The strength went out of his voice on the final three syllables when his throat closed up, and he widened his eyes at Neal when they began to sting. Then he dropped them to the floor and swallowed hard. I'm not crying in front of him again, I'm not. I can't.
Neal found himself caught between raving at the singer and apologizing to him, so he settled for silent confusion. The pattern unraveled, and what should have been a clash of will and temper fell stillborn, leaving Neal with empty hands and no clue about how to handle things.
"I wanna touch the walls in case I never make it back there again," Steve said suddenly. "Okay?"
"You're just givin' up on everything," Neal said.
"No," Steve said. "I'm a guy who likes to be prepared. Or I was. That's all. You get out of that whatever you want to. And, if I'm gonna take shots at you and what you can or can't do, I'll come right out and say it like I used to, you asshole."
"Yeah, all right," Neal said, and that easily things were fine again. Neal's definition of fine, at any rate.
* * *
They dropped Jon off and headed south to Steve's. Not a word was spoken and this time it was decidedly less comfortable than the night before had been. Steve slept for part of it anyway, giving them both an excuse.
Neal jostled Steve when they got there, and the singer had been asleep long enough that it was enough to wake him.
"Everything look okay?" Neal said.
Steve got out of the Bronco and looked at the outside of his own garage for a moment. "Yeah," he said. Nothing looked as if it had been disturbed, and he unlocked the gate that enclosed his yard. Nothing in the yard was disturbed either, and he simply stared at it for a moment before letting them both inside.
He opened everything up to let air move through the place, checking the rooms and windows. If the cat knew he was back, she wasn't showing herself, and he hoped a neighbor had taken her. Everyone in the neighborhood had been feeding her, anyway.
Steve found Neal in the kitchen and caught him looking at the wall above the cupboards where a chair had come to rest after a wraith had come looking for the key. A Keeper, looking for a key.
"I didn't think that would ever come out right," Steve said, and Neal startled visibly.
"I didn't even hear you," Neal said. "How the hell are you doing that?"
Steve shrugged, gaze straying back to the wall. "You know, I still kept a lot of candles around, and I was never sure why I was doing it. It took that chair right out of my hands."
Neal snapped his head around and looked at him, feeling his stomach clench. He'd never thought of the chair as more than a stationary object. "You never got around to telling us what went on that night," he said. "Do you remember it?"
"It's in bits, and soundbites," Steve said. "Everything's that way."
Neal nodded, and it occurred to him again that he wasn't talking to Steve at all. He shook the thought off before it could fully surface, staring at Steve intently to distract himself.
And it was distracting, as of that morning. Disturbingly, uncharacteristically so.
"It probably walked all around the house before finding the wall that had me behind it, like it was feeling around for me, " Steve added, then paused. "The one under the Keep...melted through the wall to get at us. Wonder if over here they're more physical." He shrugged. "I remember singing to it. Then I remember seeing Siarion on the lawn."
"That's enough, I guess," Neal said. As he said it, he caught a glimpse in his mind of a misshapen, monstrously clawed hand gripping a door frame, claws raking the plaster into crumbles. Steve was lying to him, and if the singer saw what he did, he gave no indication. Neal figured the singer's memories were much like the plaster had been: wrenched loose and fragmented. Who are you protecting? he thought.
"It's more than enough," Steve said, closing the back door again and making sure it was locked.
"Where's the key?" Neal said.
Steve turned completely around to look at him, his expression thoughtful. Take your key, raven, and change a world.
Siarion had said the words to him years earlier. He hadn't really known what she was talking about then. He looked out into the middle distance, somewhere between the ceiling and Neal, as if he was actually looking for something. "I don't know," he said. "I think it's buried...at the foot of 'rion's tower." With me, he added silently. With the real me.
Neal understood what he meant, and didn't comment on it. He'd seen it too, after all.
* * *
Night had fallen again by the time they got back, and even though the thing had come after Steve in the daylight, their tension increased. It was a natural reaction for creatures that hadn't been provided with decent night vision, by evolution or any other means. Jon had called a couple of times to check in, even though they all knew Jon would know something was wrong without being told. Neal called Ross and brought him up to speed, warning him to watch his back.
And still, no one had heard from Smitty.
Neal decided to hell with subtlety; he was going to spend the following day raising the alarm and finding the drummer by any means possible. Friendly, low key calls to Aug and Deen didn't turn up anything unusual. Aug was dying to know the rest of what was going on but didn't push Neal for it, and Neal knew why but didn't want to admit it.
Aug was still a Journey fan.
Steve went to bed early and lay with the lights off, staring at the ceiling and listening to Neal move around the house. Something else was going on, something lost in the rest of the day's amusements and horrors. Something had been different that morning that the singer couldn't put his finger on. Neal had woken up in a strange mood, and Steve had meant to ask him what was going on, but had let the guitarist escape. Whatever Neal had seen during the night couldn't have been any stranger than--
There was a thud in the floor, near the closet.
Steve listened again. Chances were he hadn't heard anything at all. But after the day they'd had, after everything else that had gone on...
What kind of day did I have? he thought. Am I seeing and hearing things now because I got hit...or was that thing really here?
He only had Jon and Neal's word on what had gone on that afternoon.
He sat up in bed and listened. As a kid, if he stared at a doorknob long enough, he could convince himself he'd seen it move. The same thing was probably happening to him now. If he overreacted, he'd be bringing Neal in to tell him he was reasonably sure something was in the floor. Except that he'd built houses with his stepdad in his twenties, and knew well enough that this kind of house had a slab foundation. There was no 'in' to the floor. It was flat concrete, with earth underneath, and nothing else.
The house is haunted, or I'm just crazy. He voted for the latter. He'd been hearing things well out of the normal range of human hearing since waking up in the hospital, and there was no reason not to think this wasn't part of it.
Someone down the block is doing aerobics or bangin' their headboard on the wall. There's nothing here.
He laid down again and willed himself to go to sleep. After a little while, he did.
And something under the floor moved.
* * *