Neal spent the next morning looking for Smitty.
He routed a message through the drummer's management company as a backup, then found out where Vital Information was due to stop next on tour. He left messages everywhere, made a general pest of himself, and used the word 'emergency' as many times as he could safely fit it in any sentence.
Feeling stir crazy, Steve left the house and walked slowly around it, looking at the siding, wondering if he'd see any difference. He didn't remember it, but he'd told Jon and Neal about the thing dragging its hand along the siding. There were no telltale traces of orange. Nothing rustled the bushes or blinked at him from the trees or came out of the ground to grab his ankles. He smiled a little to himself over the bullshit his imagination was dredging up. Something had changed about the house, though. There was an attitude to it he hadn't seen before. Or maybe he was just tired.
He remembered standing out in his own yard and looking at what the Keeper had done to his bedroom window, the size and shape of the ragged hole it had created. The claw marks in the grass. At least it had been honest and obvious about what it wanted, what it would do.
No point leaving. Nowhere to run.
They'd been found by something, something worse than Tuirnarin. She'd been a child in a race of immortals. Whatever had them now was bigger but no less uninformed about humans and mortals in general, about linear folks. There was an advantage to that he couldn't see yet. He prayed to God he saw it before the thing found its way.
Or found its way in.
He sighed. A raven landed on the gutter above him and stared in silence, cocking its head to see him better, claws scraping on the ragged metal.
He looked at it and frowned. "You have to do better than that," he said.
The raven took off again, into the trees at the edge of the property.
Steve went back in the house and listened to Neal hassle some assistant. He turned the TV on and was flipping channels when he caught movement in his peripheral vision, by the door. He turned his head immediately, and something moved away from the edge of the door, an indistinct shape that was gone too quickly for him to get a bead on.
He glanced at Neal immediately to see if the guitarist was reacting. He wasn't, so chances were he hadn't seen anything. He was facing the door, after all. Chances were there wasn't anything to see.
I'm the one who's disconnected, he thought.
He went back to flipping channels, not paying any attention to anything but his peripheral vision. He didn't see anything else. After another couple of minutes he dropped off without knowing it.
It was after noon when he awoke again, feeling more disoriented than he had since he'd gotten out of the hospital. He sat up quickly, realizing he was still on the couch. The front door was still open a little, but he didn't hear or see Neal. He sat and stared at the facing wall for a little while, trying to pinpoint where he'd left off in the world before falling asleep. After a few minutes of little success, he heard Neal's acoustic coming from downstairs.
He wandered to the stairs and felt for the top one with a cautious foot, finding it and sitting on it. He didn't see anything this time--Neal wasn't in sight--but that made it easier for him to actually listen without being overwhelmed. He hummed every so often, and completely lost track of time in general. He might have managed to be awake for an entire hour before he drifted away again; he wasn't sure and didn't really care. If he listened hard enough, there was the suggestion of voices somewhere below him, tumbling over one another, staying out of reach.
He opened his eyes again; he was on the floor with his legs dangling over the top stair, and Neal was crouched above him, waving a hand in front of his eyes. He had no trouble discerning that it was Neal.
"You're a hell of a lot of fun, you know?" Neal said. "Find anything outside?"
"You have crabgrass," Steve said. "What kind of rock star doesn't take care of his goddamn lawn?"
Neal shrugged. "You're not doin' very well today, are you," he said. "Something's different." He used the back of one hand to push Steve's bangs off his forehead and rested it there, as if he was gauging the singer's temperature. But Steve knew a caress when he felt one.
He let it confuse the hell out of him. Then he said, "Find Smitty?"
Neal nodded and withdrew the hand. "He ain't happy. But at least he's fine, nothing's been botherin' him, and he knows what's goin' on, now. What to watch out for."
"Wow," Steve said. "He's doin' a lot better than we are, then."
"You know what I mean," Neal said, then rose.
"Why'd you stop playing?" Steve said.
"Because three hours is enough for an afternoon," Neal said. "It's been that long. That's what I meant, that you've been awake a lot less today. You feel all right?" What he didn't say was, I think that thing did somethin' else to you, and we won't know until it's too late.
"I'm okay," Steve said.
"You wanna go on lyin' there?" Neal said, and the way he said it indicated that it would be a bad choice.
Steve smiled. "No, I'll get up when I figure out how."
"You might eat somethin'," Neal said in the same tone. "Then you might be awake five minutes at a time." He stared at Steve a moment longer, then walked away shaking his head.
Steve wondered why the mother-hen approach wasn't pissing him off, then didn't care why. The whole thing was kind of amusing, and he decided not to waste the amusement.
He did wonder, though, how long he'd been stared at before he'd woken up.
* * *
Steve awoke a little, not enough to open his eyes. He'd heard something, again. Enough of something to wake him.
He'd gone to bed early again, unable to stay awake for more than half an hour at a time. If Neal was right about what the creature had done to him, he didn't want to dwell on it.
At first he was sure it was the pipes, or the forced air heating, or something outside. He wasn't sure what had awoken him the first couple of times, and didn't stay awake long enough to worry about it. He'd gone to bed early enough to listen to Neal move around the house
he's pacing, and I think it's about more than just what's chasing us
for awhile, and had tried to blame anything he heard on that. He could hear movement in the hallway again, and wondered if Neal was ever going to bed.
He turned over and began to drift off to sleep again.
Something whispered in his ear.
Steve snapped fully awake, and the sound stopped.
He knew it. It was his imagination. His brain was filtering the static of the previous day, or days, into patterns that seemed rational. They just sounded like voices, that was all.
Good, Steve, he thought, and the deprecation in the room was as prevalent as the fear. Very nice. Do everything you can to convince yourself you're sane.
Something had been enough to wake him. It'd seemed like voices talking over one another.
I only do what the little voices tell me to, he thought, then smiled briefly in the dark at the lame attempt at a joke. Either the voices were real and someone was screwing with him, or they weren't and he was nuts. He didn't like either scenario.
He laid there and stared at what he could see of the ceiling and tried to convince himself again that his mind was playing tricks on him in that twilight of existence that lay between sleeping and waking. That place that made all things possible.
He sighed and turned toward the wall, closing his eyes and blanking his mind.
And it started again.
Voices, tumbling over one another, rasping against each other in passing. Too many to count. They were barely audible, but sounded like they were conspiring...
He opened his eyes and sat up again, and the voices went on regardless. Shaking, he threw the covers back but couldn't bring himself to leave the bed, to place his feet on the floor. And where the hell was there to run? What was he, five years old and imagining monsters under the bed?
He found himself plugging his ears, and it shut the voices out.
Not in my head, then. Not just in my head!
He unplugged his ears and the voices went on; he leaned over and strained to try and pick individual words out of the tumble. He was shaking so hard that it was an effort to keep his teeth from chattering.
He knew no one else would have heard anything. He was caught between, was plugged into some other wavelength, was eavesdropping on the neighbors from another plane instead of just the ones down the block.
There was a thump in the floor directly under the bed, and he vaulted out of it. Heart racing, he stood just outside the doorway and listened. Everything had returned to silence, and he was left with the possibility--again--that he was imagining it. The dark was oppressive; he felt it press on him, run its fingers along the bare skin of his arms...
He walked quickly down the hallway, looking into Neal's room. The guitarist lay turned away, sound asleep, snoring a little. There was nothing else to hear.
He paused. Then what the fuck was moving around the house? Did I just lose some time, or was something other than Neal moving around out here?
Steve stood cold and shivering in the hallway a moment more, then entered the room, feeling dumber by the second. He wanted to blame it on the nightmares he'd been having, or imagination. He wanted to fool himself into believing it was nothing, wanted the comfort of that. Then, that easily, he found himself sitting on the floor by Neal's bed.
He was going nuts. He was. He knew it. Because he couldn't sit on the floor, not when something was under it...
* * *
* * *
Neal awoke when the sun finally hit his face. He rolled over and untangled himself from the sheets, opening his eyes. He caught something in his peripheral vision, a shape that shouldn't have been there, a pattern that his waking mind wasn't accustomed to seeing at the foot of the bed. He glanced there automatically.
Then he sat up, fast.
Steve was in one of the dining room chairs, carefully placed at the foot of the bed, carefully folded so that no part of him touched the floor. Asleep.
"Jesus Christ," Neal whispered.
* * *
Half an hour later, Steve was still in that same chair, but seated at the table this time. It had taken awhile for the singer to get the feeling back in his limbs and stretch out his cramped muscles. Neal sat across from him, a mug of coffee held in both hands. Steve hadn't touched his. He slouched in the chair, looking defeated and almost sullen.
"Talk," Neal said finally.
Steve didn't respond but for a brief upward glance.
"Something scared you into my room. Nightmares?"
Steve nodded a little with a sigh, rubbing the back of his neck.
Liar, Neal thought immediately. Still not good at it, either. He'd been seeing the singer's nightmares, all of them, every last lurid fucked-up detail, and there was no reason to think that had changed overnight. But he didn't press.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you were havin' every which kind," Neal said. "How 'bout wakin' me up, next time."
Steve shrugged and dropped his head to pinch the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. Neal realized the singer was close to tears, that he hadn't spoken because of it. Neal pretended he didn't see it. If he said anything kind, Steve would probably break down, and be embarrassed as hell over it.
Kindness ain't what he counts on me for, anyway, he thought. So he gritted his teeth for a moment, then said, "We gotta be at Jon's by one. You actually gonna be useful today, or is there a blade of grass left in the backyard you haven't counted?"
Steve raised his head and blinked hard at him a couple of times, then met his eyes with a smirk.
"Maybe I'll break somethin'," he said. "And then fix it."
* * *
He took his own flippancy to heart that afternoon and went looking for something to fix.
Neal found him taking the closet doors in Miles's room off their runners, and stood in the doorway staring at him. "What're you doing?" he said finally.
"I don't like the way the doors hang," Steve said.
"Are you tryin' to say they're not well-hung?" Neal said.
Steve looked at him. "You're channeling Ross. Again." He looked away again and went back to concentrating on the doors, rather than add to the assessment. Something was going on, was different. Neal was different.
The staring. Something about the way the guitarist said his name lately, something in the tone, or...
He glanced up, back to the doorway. Neal was staring at him. Again.
He didn't drop his eyes, and Steve felt his heart begin to thud. The eyes, check the eyes. He wasn't sure at first what it was about, then realized that was the thing that told him if it was Neal or not. He held Neal's gaze and decided it really was him.
"What's goin' on?" Steve said.
"I don't know," Neal said, and Steve decided later that he should have taken that as his last warning. He could tell by the look on Neal's face that the guitarist knew exactly what they were talking about.
"You been tryin' to get at somethin'," Steve said. "Not like you to dance around it, like this."
"There had to be a reason it chose me," Neal said. "Somehow, it knew it could just walk up on you if it had my face."
Steve simply looked at him. That wasn't all, wasn't even close, but it was a good start.
Neal went on staring at him and said, "You gonna tell me, or what?"
Steve cocked an eyebrow at him. "Tell you what."
Neal hesitated before answering, and it caused Steve to finally give him his full attention. Which was basically what Neal didn't want. The way he saw it, the only way the truth came out of the singer was when he was caught off guard and not paying much attention. Or that had been his experience before. He'd already blown it, but he didn't know how else to bring the subject up, how to get around to it. How to get away with it.
He wasn't even sure why the hell it was so important. But even though it hadn't really been him either time, the guitarist realized that, one way or another, he'd been responsible for Steve's death yet again. It bothered the hell out of him.
Something did, anyway.
Steve went on staring at him without saying anything, and Neal waved a hand at him, turning to walk away. "Never mind."
Steve rested his hands on his hips and twisted his mouth into an expression of exasperation, turning away. "Fine."
But it wasn't fine.
Steve waited until Neal was completely out of the doorway. Then against his better judgment, he said, "Neal."
When Neal turned to face him again, Steve came closer, ending up roughly three feet away. Neal was closed up again by the time Steve got there.
"Come on," Steve said. "Say it. We don't have all the time we used to, huh?"
Neal looked at the floor for a moment, then said, "I wanna know about the day you got hit. I need to know why it had to be me."
He looked up in time to see Steve flinch a little and try to cover it up. "It doesn't matter," he said. "Forget I asked."
"No," Steve said. "I really thought it was you, y'know."
Neal nodded, but there were a number of other things he did along with it that suggested impatience, and he didn't even know it.
"There isn't much to tell," Steve said, picking up on it subconsciously. "I don't remember everything he said. He grabbed me on the sidewalk and said something about 'who let you out'. I couldn't get away from him, I don't know why."
"He was a namer," Neal said simply. And that's not what I asked you.
Steve shrugged. "I told him to let go of me, he didn't...he said something about getting someone's attention. That's right, I asked him what he was doing, and he said 'getting someone's attention.' He didn't mean me."
"Doesn't matter now. But I think the whole thing really was for Jon's benefit."
"What makes you say that?" Neal said, glancing at the floor again.
"What, maybe the whole Inverse thing gave me a clue? I don't know. Seems to me all it did, though, was kick us all awake again. You'd think, if they wanted me gone, they would have done a better job."
"Jon said the same thing, about you, on our way to the hospital that night," Neal said. "That you'd've done a better job than that."
"Yeah. Seemed pretty fucking clumsy, huh?"
Neal glanced up at the tone, at the audible anger. But Steve's face was impassive before he continued.
"Funny how we actually got a few things out of the whole experience, isn't it? Like there was a point being driven home, but the folks doing the driving enjoyed it a little too much."
Neal nodded. "Yeah, I know." Then he said, "Why, though? Why me?"
"It's not like I had a say in it," Steve said curtly. "Maybe because we haven't exactly been buddies the last few years. Christ, Neal, you're not allowed to say my name during interviews."
"That was for a lot of reasons," Neal said. "One of 'em bein' you."
"That's my point," Steve said. "It got so that sayin' my name was like a curse. We've had a problem with each other for a long time, because of the attitude on both sides. And then you thinkin' I might kill the band, intentionally or not."
"So you thought I'd kill you?" Neal said. "Christ. That's nuts."
Steve just looked at him. Neal was the first to look away.
"Fuckin' right," Steve said softly. "You, plan something. Fuckin' right. Crime of Passion, see Neal Schon. That's what clued me. It was so fuckin' staged."
Neal was shaking his head.
"You love someone, then you hate 'em," Steve said. "One big long cycle. I finally got obnoxious enough that you got tired of me. I can't believe it lasted as long as it did, that's all." The singer paused. "I can't believe you didn't fuckin' shove me in front of somethin' a long time ago. To put me out of my misery. But you never hated me enough." He paused again, waited for Neal to raise his eyes. "Or loved me enough."
Neal's eyes darted back to Steve's, and he chose his next words carefully over the variety of rebuttals that surfaced. "Then you don't remember much," he said.
Steve sighed. It didn't matter, not anymore. "Long story short, bastard said, you want me to let you go? Like that. Just like that. He didn't give a shit. You'd've been screaming in my face. I'd've known seven ways to Sunday why you were shoving me in front of a bus." Steve paused; the words found their way out. "You'd've cared."
He paused, and Neal looked up again.
"There was always that," Steve said softly. "Everybody's always known where they stood, with you. It made you a hell of a lot of fun to hassle." He looked away quickly, turning his head to one side as if listening for something. Then he stepped closer, within a foot or so, and Neal looked at him. "Then he kissed me," Steve whispered. "And it was like bein' slapped."
When he saw the surprise on Neal's face, he reached forward with both hands and gave him a light shove, sending the guitarist a short step back.
The look on Neal's face told him his point had been made.
They stared at each other for a long, heavy moment. Then Steve moved to step by.
* * *
Neal, November 1999
I don't know what the hell I was thinkin'.
I wasn't. I wasn't thinking. But it never got me in that much trouble before, y'know? Jesus, not even the time I got probation as a kid, for breakin' into that music store. I mean, there's a part of you that always sees what the rest of you is doing, a part that always has its shit together. And right then, even that part was freakin' out.
Jesus. I'm tryin' to rationalize this. I just don't get it, and I don't want to. I can't talk about this. I have to.
Next thing I know, I'm sayin', "if I was gonna do that, it'd be like this," and I put him up against the wall. The fuckin' wall, for chrissake. I'm thinkin' he had a million chances to get away from me, or I tell myself that. I got one look at his face, and mostly he was just confused, waiting to see what I was up to. Then I was grabbing him by the hair on the back of his head and kissing him. Hard.
I heard and felt him pull in air real quick, and he put his hands on my shoulders. But it was just reflex, 'cause he didn't shove me away. It would have been easier if he had, a lot easier. Then I could've acted like it was all a joke, or like I was provin' a point, and he could've cursed me out.
But he didn't.
He kissed me back, after a second. If he'd just stood there, I could've caught myself a moment later. But he kissed me back, and settled in, for crissake. Slid his hands down my arms. I let go of his head and it didn't make any difference, we were just gone, you know? I'd never kissed a guy before, at least not that I remember. There's some crazy, crazy shit that goes on while you're on the road, and I been on the road on and off since I was 15. I was never into that. I got stories I could tell you. This was nothin' in comparison, I guess that's what I'm gettin' at, but it was a big goddamn deal to me all the same.
I didn't even know I had my hands under his damn shirt until he tensed up on me, kind of like when a horse shies. But he still didn't try to get away. And I didn't stop. The sound he made in the back of his throat messed with my head, got me thinkin' about the way he used to say my name on stage. Got me thinkin' about what it would take to have him shouting it. I always forget about the calluses on my fingers the first time I'm with someone, forget about what it feels like to someone not expecting it, y'know? Some chicks think it's a huge turn-on.
Some guys do too, I guess.
Shit. I hate this. After all we've been through, I never saw it coming. If it'd happened twenty years ago, I might've been able to shrug it off.
I wish I could.
Not much more to it except that I had him pinned to the wall with my hips, makin' out like a couple of teenagers. He was damn warm. I ain't sayin' any more than that. The whole thing was too damn easy. Then it was over, 'cause his knees buckled and he slid down the wall. I caught him by reflex part way down, let him slide down the rest of the way to the floor without falling. Then I just stood there with my hands on the wall, tryin' to breathe, listenin' to him do the same thing. I looked down and he had his head tilted back against the wall, eyes closed, mouth open tryin' to catch his breath, and I started thinkin' all kinds of other shit I shouldn't've been. After a moment he straightened up a little, put the back of one hand to his mouth. I wanted to run out of there, couldn't. Ended up just waitin' for him to say something.
After a moment, he opens his eyes, looking like he's been doped up, and says, 'okay'. Nothin' else, just 'okay'. Like I'd answered a question. Scary thing is, I think I did. I just don't know who for.
I didn't know any of that was there. Maybe it isn't. Doesn't matter, I guess.
Okay. Okay, quit lookin' at me. It did occur to me once, a long time ago. Once. Stuff was different then. Okay? Is that honest enough for you? Nobody's 100% anything. It don't mean nothin'. But that's all I'm sayin'.
Just don't be passing this on, or I swear to God, I won't talk to you again.
I mean it...
* * *
Whatever it was let go. Whatever it was, dream or nightmare, it let go, and Steve felt his knees buckle. He slid down the wall, his eyes closed, and he sat there, holding the back of one hand to his mouth. Many things swirled around him, possibility, memory, intent, the sound of Neal's gasping breath, but Steve only sat there, hand to his mouth. That angle gave him a good view of Neal's jeans. A real good view.
"Okay," Steve said. Calm. He would be calm.
Steve could not look up. He could not face it. But he was too aware of Neal still leaning over him, against the wall, head bowed. There was an impossible, gaping distance, but there was heat, there was close, almost-touching warmth, and Steve could only sit there silent and frozen and he was starting to shake and--
Neal shoved away from the wall and out of the room.
Oh christ. Oh fuckin' christ.
Somehow Steve pushed himself back up the wall, made it to his feet. He stumbled into the living room, stopped just at the archway. He had to stop. He had to breathe. He had to just lean there, trembling and uncertain.
Neal was pacing. His arms were crossed, his head turned away, but he was pacing, back and forth, over and over, short loops across the carpet in back of the sofa.
"It wasn't you," Steve said.
That got Neal to stop. Stop, and stare up at the ceiling, waiting. Silent.
Steve leapt back into the silence, feeling his purchase on things begin to slip again. "Goddammit, it wasn't you!"
"We're not talking 'bout this," Neal said, to the ceiling. "It didn't happen." He turned away, still not looking at Steve, and headed for the basement stairs.
"Good," Steve said. "Be delusional."
The guitarist stopped, one hand on the wall, his back still to Steve. "That's fuckin' rich, comin' from a guy that remembers more'n one timeline."
"We're getting pushed," Steve said. "You can't be that fuckin' dense. You can't ignore it. We're fuckin' getting pushed and goddammit, it wasn't you!"
"Pushed to do what?" Neal said. "What the fuck would anyone get out of us--" he stopped abruptly, and a moment of panic was visible on his face. Finishing that sentence meant acknowledging what had happened, what could, and he wasn't ready to do that. Not yet.
"You gotta admit, that wasn't you," Steve said softly. You'd better.
Neal turned, hands clenched. "It sure as hell was you."
It'd caught him. After all this time, after all the years and yelling and keeping it all boxed up and hidden deep where it would never show, after all the hate, it caught Steve hard, slapped across the face despite the physical distance and sofa between them. He didn't answer. Couldn't.
"It was you," Neal said.
Steve turned partly away, unable to look directly at Neal anymore. The words found their way out. "Yeah. Once."
He saw Neal's face, just at the edge of his vision. Saw it, and felt something heavy settle over him, a sick ache. Now I'm not just 'that asshole'. I'm 'that faggot'.
"Twenty fuckin' years," Steve said, and couldn't stop the tremor in his voice. "It was over. It was done with. No, goddammit, I'm not fuckin' gay. But I wouldn't've minded you. Once. But you just ignored me and I finally got the point and I just shut it up and let it go and now you fuckin' come up with it again out of nowhere and you -- you --" He stopped.
Neal was staring.
"You didn't know," Steve said. He wanted it to be a question and a statement and it came out as neither.
Steve slowly collapsed back against the wall. No. Oh, no, this is too much! "You didn't know. You didn't fuckin' know." Laughter shook him. It was a horrible, awful joke, and he couldn't face it, couldn't do anything but...
Neal still stared.
"Jesus," Steve said. "I finally got you to shut up."
"You never moved on me," Neal said, almost at the same time. He sounded odd, uncertain.
Now Steve stared. "Are you fuckin' serious?"
Neal's face was pale. "Yeah. That's the word I'd use right about now."
Steve stared at him for a moment longer. Then he half-turned. "Wasn't my thing, then or now. Yours either. So I don't think movin' on me just now was your idea."
"I wasn't--" Neal choked on the words, and they died unspoken when Steve ran his eyes down the guitarist's body, one corner of his mouth quirking up humorlessly.
Neal's mind flashed over what his imagination had wanted that smart mouth to do minutes earlier, and he cursed in embarrassment. The nightmare--could he still call it a nightmare?--came back to him. Do you really want me to stop?
Steve's eyes flashed back to his, and Neal saw the fear that echoed his, but didn't recognize the extent of it. Or the why of it.
"If it was that easy," Steve said, "to push you into that, how much would it take to get you to do anything? Like shove me off a fuckin' curb."
Without thinking, Neal snapped, "Difference is, I don't wanna shove you off a curb."
Steve paled visibly, and Neal realized what he'd said. He questioned the honesty of it, and all he got was numb confusion. He was struggling to keep his hands down. He'd done that for years where Steve was involved, but for a very different reason.
"Anything else you don't want me to hear?" Steve said, and Neal couldn't remember the last time he'd heard the tone the singer was using. They'd never be used to handling each other carefully, not after so many years of antagonism.
Then Steve said, "I'm goin' home."
Neal fell to just staring again, unable to process what had hit him. "Then you'll be--"
"What?" Steve snapped, cutting him off. "Defenseless?"
Neal dropped his eyes, suddenly even more uncomfortable. That hadn't been the word he'd meant to use.
"Jesus, I thought you knew this! " Steve said, punctuating it by throwing his hands in the air.
Neal felt cold, realizing something Steve didn't--that he and Steve had already been places with each other that neither had consented to. That Steve remembered being partly tangled with him, but not how it had come about in the first place.
And Tuirnarin had gotten the idea from somewhere, hadn't she?
Still, they weren't connected. He'd nearly been Steve, for awhile, yet he'd never gotten in. He could do nothing but stare, afraid to say anything else.
"You gotta wonder," Steve said, "what our 'job' is. And what it's gonna take to get us to do it. That wasn't you. That was someone pulling strings, somewhere, and pushing us. Look at me."
Neal kept his gaze down. It felt like watching an accident happen, and being unable to prevent it.
"Goddamnit, look at me!"
Startled by both the volume and vehemence of the shout, Neal raised his head. He was startled even further by the tears standing out in the singer's eyes.
"You don't see me," Steve said. "Not me."
Neal went on staring, his thoughts a white noise of shock.
Unchallenged, embarrassed by the display of emotion, Steve walked away.
The phone rang, and it was on the third ring before Neal even registered it. He walked over in a daze and picked it up.
"Where are you guys?"
Jon. They were supposed to be at Jon's. Shit. What the hell was he supposed to do, tell him there'd been a...disagreement, and Steve had left in a huff? It was believable, it would be typical of them.
No, he thought. Tell him the truth, tell him you broke up. Jesus, what the hell was happening to them?
"Uh huh, I've heard that comeback before. What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Neal said. "We're on the way." He hung up and went out the front door, finding Steve standing in the yard looking as aimless and dumb as Neal felt.
Steve refused to look at him, and Neal said, "So how the hell were you gonna get home, anyway?"
"I didn't think that far," Steve muttered. "I was makin' a dramatic exit."
Neither of them found it funny. They stood and looked out across the yard, careful not to look at each other.
"Jon is waiting for us," Neal said.
"Oh...shit," Steve sighed.
"I don't want you to leave," Neal said, and he hadn't known he was going to say it, but he meant it. "You can't be on your own yet, and you know it."
"I don't need you guys watchin' out for me," Steve snapped. "Save it. I absolve you ahead of time of any guilt you might feel if I get hit by another bus."
"Fine. If you're that bent on gettin' out of here, then at least let me take you," Neal said. "Tomorrow. It's Thanksgiving. Hang in there one more night."
"Can we afford it?" Steve said, turning to look at him finally.
They stared at each other for a long, wary moment, and Steve thought, we're in trouble. We're in so much trouble.
"I'm not gonna grab you again," Neal said, unaware of the fact that it was obvious to Steve he was trying to keep his hands down, that he was standing closer than he thought he was.
"You don't have anything to say about it," Steve shot back. "We're too old for this, Neal."
"Speak for yourself," Neal said.
Steve was shaking his head. "It's only gonna get crazier from here."
"Let's go to Jon's, and deal with it after."
Steve sighed again. "And let's not ask Jon what he thinks about it," he said. "I can't imagine a reason for us gettin' thrown at each other. I don't want to. One more night, and then I'm the hell out of here." He paused. "They got us. We're not any safer together than we are apart."
* * *
There was a football game going in the background.
Neal heard none of it, was barely able to focus. He ended up in the livingroom with Hal, Hal's wife, Liz's parents, Mugs, and Ross. Drinking beer and watching the game. Mugs's wife Tyra was out in the kitchen with Liz, Steve, Jon, and Ross's wife, Mary. The kids were all out in the yard with the dogs, a shrieking tangle of energy and imagination. Playing freeze tag.
It hadn't been Neal's turn to have his kids over the holiday, and for the first time since they'd been born he was grateful for it. They were safer where they were. He'd have them for Christmas, and with any luck the whole mess would be behind them by then...
Mugs had answered the door when they'd arrived, and the look on his face when he'd seen Steve had been hysterical. Apparently Jon hadn't filled his younger brothers in about any part of the current situation. He'd recovered quickly, Neal had to give him that.
Jon hadn't. Jon had come out to greet them, and Neal wanted to chalk it up to paranoia, but he'd seen the keyboardists' face change. Jon knew. Goddamn him, he knew. He'd known them too long. They'd go on playing it cool, and if they were lucky Jon would forget about it or just never get up the nerve to ask them what was going on. In the meantime, the small talk was going to kill Neal.
* * *
Liz sent Steve out to set the table. There were too many people in the kitchen, but she wasn't about to kick anyone out at the rate they were getting things done. She went out to the smaller card table they'd set up near the livingroom, setting it for the kids. She stood to watch the game for a few minutes, discussed a recent episode of Martha Stewart Living with Mugs, then glanced at Neal to ask him why he was so quiet.
He was staring off into space, or so she thought. But there was too much in it to be a lack of attention. She looked again to make sure she was reading it correctly. Then she surreptitiously glanced over her own shoulder to see who he was looking at. She expected any number of things, but not what she found.
There was no mistaking the trajectory of that steady, purposeful stare. It warmed the room. She couldn't believe Steve didn't feel it. She sure as hell did.
Or maybe he was just ignoring it.
She looked quickly away and moved on, not wanting Neal to catch her. She didn't bother trying to talk herself out of what she'd seen. Somehow, she just wasn't that surprised.
* * *
With most of the prep done, Jon rounded Steve, Neal and Ross up and took them out to the studio. The kids had gone inside to wash up and get calmed down.
Jon perched himself in the same spot he'd been in the last time they'd gone out there to discuss the whole mess. Ross hung by the entrance hallway, and Neal straddled a chair backwards against the far wall. Steve remained on his feet across from Jon, looking tired. He'd managed to stay awake since arriving.
"Anybody seen anything?" Jon said, glancing between them. Ross shook his head.
"No," Neal said. "All quiet, so far."
"Is everything actually quiet?" Jon said. "Because you guys are pretty jumpy."
"Who wouldn't be jumpy?" Neal said. Here it comes. "I don't think these guys observe holidays, and we got almost everybody here in one spot, like a big bullseye."
Jon looked at him, waiting for him to say something else, but Neal dropped his eyes.
Steve gestured loosely at Neal and said, "I don't think there's a point to us sticking together anymore. I'm doin' a lot better, and if anything messes with me, I can just hit 'em and run."
Jon stared at Neal, waiting for a reaction to the quiet but final statement, and didn't see anything cross his face. There was no residual anger from an argument in the room with them. They were too calm, and Jon didn't like it. "Are you?" Jon said to Steve. "Doing a lot better."
Steve nodded. "And we're used to living alone, so babysitting me isn't gonna work forever."
Jon carefully registered the fact that Steve had fallen back out of Neal's speech pattern. When the two spent any time together, they began to sound harrowingly alike, and usually it was Steve who adjusted his tone and vernacular. He didn't think they'd ever realized it.
"You guys had enough of each other?" Ross said, glancing at Jon.
"Yeah," Neal said. "And him hangin' with me is screwin' up my sex life."
Ross made a strangled noise, almost too faint to pick up on. Jon studiously pretended to hear nothing and looked at the floor. Neal felt an unpleasant thrill of fear and annoyance, and turned to look pointedly at Ross, who was poker-faced.
"You got something to say, Valory?" Neal said.
Ross shook his head, but couldn't keep the laughter out of his eyes. Then he realized that all color had left Neal's face. When he glanced at Steve, it was to find the singer with his eyes closed, face turned to the floor. The humor dropped then, and he looked at Neal again.
Neal got up and walked away abruptly, slamming out of the studio and leaving uncomfortable silence behind. Jon looked up to stare at Steve.
And he was startled at the sudden anger in his own thoughts.
"You got something to say, Perry?" Jon said.
Steve shook his head, face still lowered.
"Leave it alone, Jon," Ross said, his eyes remaining on Steve. He stared between them for a moment, then went after Neal.
Jon said, "You guys okay?"
"Yeah." Clipped, defensive.
Jon said, "You wanna talk?", and it was all he could do to keep the anger out of his tone.
"No," Steve said. "No, I don't think that's a good idea." Then he slid down the wall to sit on the floor, the world graying a little further.
Jon came closer and crouched beside him. "Bad timing, Steve," he said.
"You're telling me," Steve said, and then he was asleep.
Ross caught up to Neal in Jon's backyard, about 50 yards from the studio.
"I don't wanna talk about it, Ross," Neal said, then paused and stood still. He had nowhere to go. He wasn't about to leave Steve and take off. He hated the thought. "Fuck."
Ross stood next to him, his hands on his hips, smiling a little. "So," he said, "just between me, you, and the fence post, is he as much of a control freak in bed as he is in the studio?"
Neal spun, and Ross took a step away, anticipating an outburst that never came. Neal only stared at him, all color drained out of his face, looking genuinely frightened.
Ross dropped the pretense of harassment. "What's goin' on, Neal."
"I don't know," Neal said, and he fought the urge to hyperventilate when he said it. "I don't. I can't tell what started all this. I can't tell if it was already there, or..." He trailed off, staring at the ground, dropping his hands. "I think we're bein' messed with in ways we don't even realize. It doesn't make any sense."
Neal looked back toward the studio and blew out a long, nervous breath. "Y'know, it wasn't anything big. Not really. Not to anybody else. No, I'm not gonna tell you. I'm not ready for that, I'll never be ready for that."
"Be ready," Jon said from behind him, having walked up unnoticed. "Be ready, pretty goddamn fast."
Neal startled and turned, unable to look directly at Jon, glancing at the studio instead.
"He's dropped off again," Jon said, tone hard. "No one's gonna grab him. What the hell happened?"
"Bullshit!" Jon shouted, cutting him off. Ross whistled low, and Jon glanced at the house, taking a deep breath and starting again. "That wasn't what I'd call nothing. I saw your faces. The two of you had something radiating off you when you came in. He didn't say anything, so you're going to."
"Ixnay on the outing-shay, hombre," Ross said softly. "Consider the source."
Jon calmed visibly, suddenly unsure of why he was so angry. He wasn't angry at Neal, not really, and he made an effort to back off. "Just...God." He sighed. "Okay." He glanced back at the studio again, and when he turned his attention back to Neal he was looking at Neal and not the situation. "Are you all right?"
"No," Neal said. "I don't think any of us are." Then he walked away, toward the driveway, more to temporarily get away from them than to actually leave.
Jon stood for a moment and watched him retreat, then went after him at a jog.
"Jonathan," Ross said half-heartedly. When the keyboardist ignored him, he sighed and headed back for the studio.
Jon caught up with Neal halfway across the yard and fell into step beside him. "No," he said. "Not gettin' away that easy. If this is what I think it is, what I see it is, we need to talk. Because I know better."
Neal shook his head and kept walking. "Would you let me breathe? Christ, I don't even really know what happened, yet."
"Talk it out, Neal."
Neal stopped to stare at him.
"How far did it go?"
"Too goddamned far," Neal said. "Nothin' happened, not really, but it was too far. I grabbed him. I don't know why. It's like it wasn't me."
"It probably wasn't," Jon said.
Neal nodded. "That's what Steve said. Y'know, you guys didn't have much choice about what happened with the two of you. Maybe it was our turn. Pushed."
Jon sighed. What the hell was this? What was the point? "Maybe...Steve was right. There's no point to the two of you sticking together anymore." He wasn't willing to say he can stay with me and didn't know why. The thoughts all felt like his own, but he was increasingly wary, second guessing himself more and more. Because whoever was messing with them was being more subtle about it this time...
"No maybe about it," Neal said. "I didn't know."
"Know what," Jon said. When Neal looked away and shook his head, he repeated the question.
"He used to...ah, shit!" Neal folded his arms and walked further across the yard, and Jon went after him.
Went that far, huh? Jon thought. Far enough to bring that out, after all this time.
"I don't remember how it happened," Neal said. "But I know I killed him, the last time. Shit, almost every time. But it's that last one that counts, and he remembers a lot of stuff he shouldn't, so how long before those details come back up? He doesn't remember that we were..." He ran out of breath and paused, not wanting to use any of the phrases that came to mind.
"Tangled," Jon said.
"Okay," Neal said quickly, the panic finally visible. "Fine. I think he remembers some of it, but not about how it happened. I could've said something, 'cause that's the direction he was headed. But I didn't tell him the truth. I backed out on it. I could've said something, and I didn't because I would've had to admit a lot of things."
"So if he remembers any of that..." Jon began.
"What are you afraid of, Neal?" Jon said. "Are you afraid he'll be pissed at you for it, hold it against you? Does it really matter if he never talks to you again?"
Jon could have been talking about a lot of things, and it didn't matter what.
"Yeah," Neal said, nearly over Jon's words.
"It wouldn't've before," Jon said bluntly.
Neal opened his mouth as if to deny the words. But he changed his mind and nodded instead.
"That's really the problem, isn't it? You don't know if that was you or not. You really didn't know."
Neal raised his head again slowly, examining Jon. "Jesus Christ," he said, "you knew about this?"
The look on Jon's face confirmed it, and Neal made an inarticulate sound of frustration. "Does everybody know but me? Fuckin' great."
"It's not like it was ever discussed," Jon said. "But he was hitting you over the head with it. It wasn't until the end of the Frontiers tour that he stopped. You guys started going downhill right about then, if you remember." He paused. "That was a long time ago, Neal. I take it back. The real problem is, you're worried it was you."
Neal didn't respond.
"I don't believe in coincidences," Jon said.
* * *
They waited until Steve awoke before going back inside. By then it was nearly time to eat, and everyone helped bring the food out and get the kids situated. Mugs lit the candles at the table and made some remark about the flammability of musicians.
When everyone was seated, a hush fell, even at the kid's table, every head bowed, and Jon said grace.
Almost as if a hand under his chin forced him, Neal glanced up, past the flame of the nearest candle.
And found Steve staring right at him.
Neal heard the words as Jon continued, but only as a dim undercurrent. Everyone else remained with heads bowed while the walker and the Er Rai stared intently at one another. There was an acknowledgment in it that superseded any preference or fear.
The only image that would come to Neal's mind was that of a moth, circling a single candle flame too closely, waiting for the burst of light and heat that meant fate had taken its toll.
* * *