It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
~~Robert Frost

Memory Bound Chapter IX
(c)2000 B Stearns
_______________

It was late.

Steve waited until they got home, until they got inside, before he asked.

"What'd you finally end up telling Jon?"

Neal shrugged out of his jacket, trying to look like the coming conversation didn't frighten him. "Just the basics of what happened. That it was nothin' big."

Steve snorted, tried to keep it quiet, and failed.

Neal shook his head, too nervous to join in. He went out to the kitchen and made coffee, praying Steve wouldn't follow him out there, wouldn't stand too close. Then he went back out to the livingroom and sat on the couch. Steve was sprawled in the facing armchair. They were silent for several minutes, until Neal hazarded a glance at Steve to see if he was still awake.

"I ain't afraid of you," Steve said, serious again.

"Never said you were," Neal said.

"No," Steve said. "We gotta get this straight." He paused. "Shit, this is comin' out right."

Neal didn't react to the sarcasm. Didn't react at all.

Steve looked at the wall for a moment like he might find an easier way of wording things. Then he said, "We gotta get this out so we can get past it. I'm tryin' to tell you...shit, can you imagine us together?"

"No," Neal said. "I can't."

Steve nearly laughed at the solemn weight in Neal's tone. "Right. I'm not afraid of you, I got no problem with you. I'm afraid of how hard they'll push you."

"I won't do it," Neal said.

"You might not even know it," Steve said. "And I won't hurt you to stop you. So we're already fucked as it is. Pun intended."

Neal clasped his hands between his knees and leaned over them. "I'd know it," he said. "I'm tellin' you it won't happen again. It's done, it was an accident. That's it. I'd apologize again but it wasn't me." Do we have to talk about this? Do we?

Steve nodded. One knee swung back and forth slowly, a contemplative gesture. Fidgeting, always fidgeting, like there was something else he was trying to keep from getting loose. "It was easy, though, wasn't it."

Neal held his breath for a moment, raising his head to watch Steve, trying to figure out what direction he was heading, planning a way to avoid it if he could. Dangerous territory.

"Jesus, I don't think I remember the last time you looked so fuckin' scared," Steve said. There was nothing jocular about it, just some vague tone of sympathy.

Neal swallowed hard and forced himself to keep looking at Steve.

"I meant easy for them, whoever's doin' it," Steve said. "You didn't see it comin'. And there was no way for you to stop. That's the trouble. You gonna see it comin', from now on? If they go on pushing you, how much warning are we gonna get?"

Neal shook his head. "Ain't gonna happen again. I promise."

"You can't," Steve said softly. "Does it matter?"

"Don't," Neal said quickly. "You've had twenty years to get used to something and get used to throwin' it away."

Steve held his gaze for a moment, tipping his head forward a little. He was motionless, all fidgeting gone, unblinking. "I didn't throw it away," he said softly, so softly Neal barely heard him. "We wore it out."

Neal shook his head like he didn't want to hear it. But he couldn't walk away. He had to know if it had ever been there before that morning, had to know if he could see it in himself.

I always knew who I was before now.

Steve rose to pace, the motion so sudden that Neal startled.

"So you were totally straight until then," Neal said, keeping his voice at a monotone, keeping his eyes down. God, why can't I shut up?

"Goddamnit, I've always been straight!" Steve shouted. When Neal didn't react, he forced his voice back to a conversational level and said, "So it's one of two things. Either they're tryin' to get something done, or we are."

"I don't like either one," Neal said, but his expression had changed a little.

Steve sighed again, gestured slightly with his hands. "Shit."

"So what now?" Neal said.

Steve didn't answer, just stood in the middle of the floor and looked at it.

"Sit down," Neal said.

"You never seemed to worry about anything," Steve said. "You made everything look easy. I liked that, I needed it. There were no games. Funny how we only got somethin' done when we were pissing each other off."

"You and your goddamn mouth," Neal said, and there was force in his tone that there hadn't been up until then. This was familiar ground. "You drive everybody off when they get too close, you always have. That one morning, in the studio. I'd been out all night, messin' around, and you flipped me shit the moment I walked in."

Steve looked at him for a moment, trying to place one morning out of many. Then it clicked. "I said, 'I can see you won't be good for anything today'. I remember."

"I fuckin' hated you," Neal said, keeping his eyes down.

"I know," Steve said, softer.

"Instead of sayin', 'hey Neal, you asshole, no one could find you last night and you're actin' weird, are you okay?' you had to flip me shit because that's the best you knew how to do," Neal said. "You were hurt, and you needed me, and you felt safer shooting yourself in the foot rather than admit it."

Steve stared at him. Hard. The guitarist looked like he'd surprised himself. Steve wondered for a moment who he was talking to, wondered how much of it was voluntarily Neal.

"Asshole," Neal said.

At least that much, Steve thought. Aloud, he said, "Got a reaction out of you, that morning. Got you to feel something you couldn't ignore."

Neal ran his hands over his face like he wanted to wipe something away and start over with it. "I ain't good at this," he said.

"Yeah, well, it's a one time thing," Steve said. "I can't believe we're havin' this conversation. Do you realize how fuckin' wrong this is? That we're at this point, where we gotta talk about it."

Neal nodded. He owed Steve this much, to tell the truth and get it over with. "I don't know where they got the idea," he said. "I just don't know."

Steve was careful not to react or indicate anything but that he'd heard. The silence settled around them, leaving the near-admission open.

When Neal couldn't handle the silence anymore, he said, "What the hell would they get? Out of us. Out of this."

Steve shook his head. "Maybe they don't know the buttons they're pushing. Maybe they're tryin' for something else, and this is just the long way."

A piece at a time, Neal thought. He wanted to say, when'd it stop, how come you don't feel anything about me anymore, but this time he kept his mouth shut. He tensed, and Steve didn't see it but was aware of it regardless.

"And now I don't know what the fuck is goin' on," Steve said. "But I don't think anyone's pushin' me. How you got picked for them to mess with, I don't know. You gotta wonder." He paused. "And you aren't spendin' any time with Amber. If you guys are gonna be serious, you're gonna have to tell her some of this. Not about today, I mean who and what you are and what it'll mean."

Neal shook his head. From him it was a noncommittal gesture.

"You miss her," Steve said, and it was a statement. There was a lot more to it, and he knew it.

Neal nodded.

"And here you are, stuck with me," Steve said. "Again. Not fair. Too late. And you really don't see me."

Neal didn't respond, was afraid to, and let it show.

* * *

Nothing bothered them in the night. Nothing beyond the conversation they'd had and what had caused it.

Steve awoke early again, listening to his internal clock, not realizing it was the last time he would ever sleep.

Somehow that morning he was going to tell Neal has was leaving. He was going to walk out, and go home, and stay there until something put an end to him or gave them the opening to do something about it all. It wasn't only what had happened between them. It was that things were getting stepped up another notch and he didn't think it would be long before it got a lot messier.

It was Friday again. So much had happened in the previous couple of weeks that he felt like months should have passed.

He got up and got himself together, and got his things together, and went out to the kitchen, finding Neal reading the paper again. He had a random thought about Bill Murray in 'Groundhog Day' and decided it wasn't as funny a reference as he wanted it to be. He got himself some coffee and was grateful he didn't feel any more uncomfortable than he thought he would.

Neal lowered the paper and squinted at him. Then he said, "The Infinity tour."

Steve sipped his coffee and raised an eyebrow. "Okay."

"Is that why we always ended up sharin' the same hotel room?" Neal said.

Steve leaned against the counter by the sink and stared at him for a moment. There was nothing unusual in the guitarist's face. In fact, he seemed a little too normal. Everyday business when it wasn't, everyday tone when it didn't deserve it. There was a chance in it, and Steve didn't see it immediately. "One minute, you can't handle talkin' about it, and the next you're gettin' all curious on me."

Neal waved a hand at him and looked away again.

Steve sighed and said, "Yes."

Neal said, "That's fuckin' sick."

"I didn't do it," Steve said without defensiveness. "Ross thought it was funnier than hell, and made sure it got set up that way more often than not. No, I never said anything. Gregg offered to switch with me, and I said no, it's no big deal."

He wasn't about to admit that he'd chosen to leave things the way they'd been, rather than give up watching the guitarist sleep. He kept his eyes down. I thought this was gone, I thought it would never come up again.

Neal was quiet for a moment, then said, "There were a couple of times there, where you and me--"

"Don't go there, Neal," Steve said, cutting him off. Groupies. He'd been about to say there'd been times when they'd doubled up on groupies. "You don't wanna know."

Neal laughed silently, and Steve wanted to curse him out. He ended up laughing instead. "This is awful."

"Number one," Neal said, "it was the seventies. Number two, since when do I give a fuck?"

Steve shook his head. "Really? It's that easy for you to handle, now? Bullshit."

This was the part of Neal he was accustomed to, the one that let the world order itself, and accepted whatever he had to. Or at least tried to make it look that way. Neal had found a way to make a joke out of it, without discounting it completely. To get over it before it was all they could see, like he had at the hospital. It was better than being afraid. If it was a facade, Steve didn't care this time.

Neal shrugged. "Plus, you're so tightassed you couldn't get a needle up there with a sledgehammer anyway."

Steve's eyes shifted to him then in annoyance. "You better rethink that metaphor. It don't help you any."

"Takes a lot more to get your attention these days," Neal said.

The annoyance left Steve's eyes as soon as they left Neal's face. He snorted. "Bastard." Then he said, "You've been married three times, Neal. You been looking for something all your life. What the hell is it?"

He'd expected offense, maybe even a go on, then! that would accompany his telling Neal he was leaving. Again, Neal surprised him.

"I don't know. It sure as hell isn't you."

Steve laughed. He couldn't help it. He sighed and looked at the ceiling.

"Don't leave," Neal said. When Steve looked at him, he said, "Doesn't matter what started it, or if it was them pushin' me or not. It won't happen again."

Steve almost said too bad and just managed to keep his mouth shut. They'd done all the joking they were going to. Case closed, move along, nothing to see here.

"Don't let them win," Neal said.

Steve shook his head and said, "Your optimism is just blowin' me away." Then he rolled his eyes. "Jesus, listen to me. I'm gonna go find something else to do, before everything I say gets to be a double entendre'."

* * *

They didn't purposely avoid each other, but they parted ways for the rest of the day. Truth be told, they'd worn each other out again.

Steve went walking, tired of being in the house, promising not to go far. Neal didn't like it, but Neal wasn't buying into the idea that staying in the house was any better than being out of it. If the thing on the porch was going to do something, it wouldn't bother waiting for him to be alone. It hadn't waited before. They weren't going to hide.

Steve missed those long morning walks, the last of which had gotten him in so much trouble. If he hadn't come out, though, the morning he was hit, the namer would have come looking for him anyway. And it might have found an even messier way of trying to get at him.

Most accidents happen in the home.

Maybe a blunt object, or a knife, or its hands around his throat. But all of that would have been too subtle, still. Tuirnarin had chosen one method, to break in by force, and she'd stuck with it to the end. She'd decided the direct approach was best and that she could wear him down with it, had held onto that.

How, then, had he finally come apart? What had she done, that had earned him a different body than the one he'd gone over with?

He'd decided he'd leave when he could stay awake for longer than an hour at a shot, and that seemed reasonable. There was no way they could go on living with each other for much longer, whether Neal was being pushed or not. They'd have to go on about their lives. They couldn't go on waiting moment to moment for something to happen. After awhile, they'd have to draw a line and simply live alongside it.

I promise to scream for help if I see the following things: folks who smear things orange, people popping in and out of the floor, chicks who go too far with the monochrome look.

Great.

If the namers went on being clumsy and doing things by halves, they'd probably be fine. But sooner or later, someone--something--would manage to hit dead center, even if it was only accidental. He hoped whatever it was they were after would be obvious ahead of time and not in hindsight.

If Neal gets his abilities back, hindsight won't matter for shit.

He scuffed his feet through the leaves, picking up the occasional hint of orange in the damp, rotting mass.

You have no idea, what you've done to Existence.

He remembered the thing on the porch saying that much to him. He still couldn't see it, yet, the whole of it obscured, but he heard the words. He remembered so much, things no one else did, but only in small pieces. There was no pattern to it aside from that they'd all been involved...

And what he hadn't told Neal. That the only way he could tell the difference between the lines, or parts of them, was by Jon. If Jon was there, it was their timeline. If he wasn't, it was another line.

There was only one Jon.

And not just in one direction. He couldn't see the immediate future, couldn't grasp anything purposely. He'd already tried. If there was anything to avoid, he wanted to know ahead of time. But it didn't work that way. Being slightly disconnected from his own time and place meant only random glimpses of others. Sometimes the band broke up, sometimes they never met each other except for him and Neal, but Jon only existed in this one time and place. Steve didn't try and evaluate that, just tucked it away. There was only trouble in this one line. Tuirnarin had been after them both, but she'd wanted Jon with a vengeance.

Somewhere, they'd done something they shouldn't have, something that had gotten the attention of other beings. Their proximity to each other made noise. Their music had focused that noise to the right ears. But was that enough? Was that enough to cause damage somewhere?

There had to be more to it.

Access to the Evenwhen would fix it, if they'd done something destructive. If he'd done something destructive. The thing on the porch had been talking to him. You had meant just him, not all of you. Nothing got true access to the Evenwhen, or could amend it and what it held, without him. He knew that much.

Then why didn't they hide me better?

He wondered where that had come from. It wasn't a memory. It was intuition. He had been hidden. Then he'd found the Inverse, the walker, and...

And they'd made noise. They'd made noise, and he'd left life and been called back.

If he'd done something, he couldn't remember it. He might not even recognize it, if he ever saw it. Maybe just breathing was getting him in trouble.

He turned back. It would get dark soon, and he wanted to be inside before that happened. It would get dark, and he'd go on shining in it.

Forever, forever, forever.

* * *

It was only 4:30 when he returned, and getting dark quickly. Neal was nowhere in evidence, but he knew before walking into the house that the guitarist was downstairs. He could hear him playing. He slammed the front door to announce himself, and the playing stopped. Steve paused at the top of the stairs.

"That better be you, Perry," Neal said from out of sight.

"It is," Steve said.

"I was about to come lookin' for you."

Steve grinned. "Well, here I am, unmolested."

He stood there and let that sink in.

There was a beat of silence. Then Neal said, "Wiseass."

"I'm gonna lie down," Steve said. "Before I fall down."

Neal went back to playing.

Steve considered perching himself there to listen, but decided it wasn't smart. He'd stay out of the guitarists' sight awhile longer. He could hear fine from the other bedroom, anyway, with his hearing.

He went and laid down, trying not to purposely think about the things he'd dredged up while walking. Some of the pieces would have to find each other in the dark and do the work for him. He closed his eyes and drifted off.

Sometime later, he felt a weight beside him on the bed, someone leaning into it, leaning over him, and he opened his eyes. There was an arm braced on the other side of his head. Neal. He felt a kind of amused dread that he didn't have time to sort out. But he'd put away any suspicion he'd had of Neal. Whatever it was the powers that be were up to, they weren't going to get what they wanted.

After all, it wasn't like it would come to the point of force.

"Danger, Will Robinson," he said. "Too late to start tucking me in. Get out of here."

"I would, if you meant it," Neal said.

After the conversation they'd had the previous evening, or even that morning, it wasn't something he'd expected Neal to be starting up with him. "Funny," Steve said. "We were all over this, and each other, already. Leave it alone, Neal. Let me sleep."

"Only if you tell me one thing," Neal said.

Steve sighed lightly, closing his eyes. "Hmm."

"If it came to it, would you let me in?"

Steve's eyes snapped open in the dark again. The question was plaintive on the surface but something else underneath; the sides were pinned together with something sharp that he would have recognized had he been completely awake. "That's...I hadn't thought about it. Can't we talk about this tomorrow?" Or never?

"That's a no, then, I guess," Neal said.

And he pinned Steve's wrists to the bed.

Neither of them moved for a moment. Steve startled fully awake, tense, too startled to do more than freeze. Then he said, "Knock it off," and what alarmed him most was how shallow, how strengthless his voice was. In the space of heartbeats he'd gone from fragile trust to outright fear.

There was no answer, just an unseen stare. Then Neal leaned down close to Steve's ear and said, "Let me in." And followed it up by pressing his lips to the singer's throat.

Cold.

Steve twisted suddenly, violently, wrenching himself out from under that grip and onto the floor. He scrambled away, finding the wall and using it for leverage to get his feet back under him.

The thing on the bed retreated slowly, straightening, leaving a shadow in the lesser darkness of the doorway.

"No," Steve said. "That's not gonna work." He moved around the bed, trying to skirt past to the door. The move was countered when the shadow stepped in front of him.

Leaving a dull orange smear to trail in the darkness behind.

Steve didn't shout. Shouting would bring Neal--the real one--and for what? "I won't let you in," he said. "I'll make sure there's nothin' left for you to use."

It took a sudden step toward him, and Steve startled away, backing into the corner, hands reaching blindly for anything that could be used as a weapon. If it got in...no. He wouldn't think it. He was frightened enough by then to feel that strange buildup of energy, to feel his head begin to pound with it. But he didn't know what it was or what to do with it.

Then his knees buckled.

He slid down the wall, feeling his eyes slide closed when the misguided signal in his brain flipped again.

No. Not now!

Terror and adrenaline kept him awake long enough to watch the orange-smeared shadow advance on him, reach for him, touch him. He felt himself slump against the wall, meant to scream. He barely managed a whisper before fading off, thinking of what Jon had already felt and wondering what he'd feel when the namer got through with him.

* * *

Neal looked up, staring in momentary disorientation. He put his guitar down, hearing something upstairs, a soft human sound, and he listened harder. He felt almost groggy, as if wakened out of the wrong stage of sleep, but it was more than that. He couldn't collect himself. It was almost a stupor, but he was aware through it, looking up with perfect clarity through murky layers of semi-consciousness. He heard the sound again, and he meant to get up and search it out but couldn't move.

What the hell is wrong with me? he thought. He didn't understand, and the two forces--weariness and urgency--held a balance over him. He sat and listened, feeling the silence press on him with a tangible weight. Something shifted, turning over in his mind, and he reached for handholds that weren't physical. He focused on the stairs, felt the scope of them somehow, and worked toward them...

When he took a step toward the stairs, something snapped, and alertness replaced whatever he'd been swimming in for who knew how long. He stumbled but caught himself and walked upstairs like a man still in a dream. He flipped the hall light on and made it to the second bedroom, had a hand on the door frame when he saw what was happening, and believed again that it was all another elaborate nightmare. It had to be.

The realization had come from nowhere in particular, but suddenly he could feel the doorway under his hand and the carpeting beneath his feet, things that had never made it into the dreams he'd been having before. Something shifted again, and he got a look at the waking world and felt himself in it. Not lucid dreaming, not just a vivid subconscious episode; he was awake.

Things snapped into focus again, and Neal was looking at something wearing his face and holding Steve over one arm like a ragdoll.

"Jesus," he said. "Drop him!"

The namer paused, affording him a moment's attention. "Or?" it said.

Neal balked. Or what? What the hell good would it do, to face this thing down? What good had it ever done? But he didn't want logic; gut feeling had saved them before. "I'll turn it back," he said. "I'll find you and turn it back, as many times as I have to. I'll take the line apart."

He could see it narrowing its eyes at him. He wasn't sure what he meant about the line, not yet. It didn't matter. "You don't have anywhere to hide," Neal said. "Not with him. And you've already fucked yourself where we're concerned, by tryin' to kill him."

It seemed to stare him up and down for a moment. Then it said, "You'll sleep first, then." And it dropped Steve into a loose heap on the floor. Neal tensed further, thinking it meant to attack him.

"Not by my hand," it said, and sank into the floor.

Neal stood frozen, staring at the floor, finally realizing he'd put a hand on the doorframe again to steady himself. There was no way it was that easy. He couldn't have chased it off with a bluff. But it'd backed right down, acting like it was going to plan B. That alone was enough to send him running out into the dark, whether there was anywhere to hide or not. He had to get Steve up, and call Jon to warn him. It had all night to mess with them.

Too easy. Too easy!

He knelt down and rolled Steve onto his back, shaking him, saying his name. He had no idea what the thing might've done to the singer. Whatever it had done, it had done it using his face yet again, and he wanted to know why. Getting no response, he slapped the singer's face lightly, resolving to drag him through the house to a cold shower if he had to.

Steve's eyes fluttered open to look at the ceiling, shifting to Neal with a minimum of awareness.

"Look at me," Neal said. "Come on. You've gotta--"

He broke off when Steve lashed out at him. It was a clumsy, flailing blow, but it landed on Neal's right temple with enough force to stun him. The guitarist dodged away, too late. Steve rolled away, that motion no less clumsy but just as effective, and made it to his knees.

Too groggy to do more, the singer collapsed back against the facing wall, gasping, trying to hold onto consciousness.

Neal made it to his feet, and felt for the overhead wall switch. A moment later he was blinking at the harsh light and bringing a hand to the side of his head. "It's me," he said, waiting for his eyes to adjust. "It's only me."

Steve didn't answer. But his breathing seemed less harsh.

Neal's ears went on ringing anyway, and not from the blow.

"It's gone," Neal said. "I think. You okay?"

The singer seemed to mull that over, taking inventory and not finding anything different. "I think so," he said. Then, softer, he added, "I'm sorry."

"No," Neal said. "I should've thought about what you'd see. Come on." He held a hand out to the singer to help him to his feet. When Steve hesitated, he backed away a little. "You're not, are you. Okay, I mean."

Steve drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, staring at the floor. "I am," he whispered. "I am."

"What happened?" Neal said.

Steve shook his head, keeping his eyes on the floor, watching and listening.

"Come on," Neal said. "Get dressed. I don't know if there's anywhere to go to get that thing to leave us alone. But nobody's gettin' any sleep tonight."

Steve was slow to move, inching up the wall, keeping his back to it. He put a hand against his throat briefly and shivered. He donned the same light-colored sweatshirt and jeans under Neal's watchful gaze, running his hands through his hair. Settling himself.

They walked back through the house, turning lights on, making sure they were alone. It seemed like they were, but they didn't take it for granted. They settled in the kitchen, standing in the middle of the floor and staring at each other, listening so hard that they could hear each other breathe.

"It's not really gone," Neal said, and even though it was a murmur, it startled Steve into flinching. "Not that easy. It let me scare it off. What happened?"

For a moment, Steve debated turning the question away and telling Neal he'd never awoken. But the fright of it rendered him honest. Honest enough to put a look of determination on Neal's face that was more disturbing than his rage at the reporter had been.

"If it can't...if it doesn't wanna risk...how much force it'd take...it's gonna try another way in," Steve whispered, like he was afraid he'd be overheard. He was shaking visibly, and Neal was careful not to touch him, knowing he shouldn't.

"I'm gonna call Jon," Neal whispered, careful not to comment on what Steve had just told him.

"But--"

"They're not gonna mess with the Inverse," Neal said. "And if they do, the two of you--"

There was a low thud in the floor from the direction of the bedrooms.

They stared at each other, afraid to look anywhere else. Steve's entire face was a silent, frightened question, eyes huge. They heard the sound again, a hollow thud somewhere beneath the house, a scraping. Neal knew the house was built on a slab foundation, so whatever was coming was underground as well as under the house. The sound to him was like someone banging on a coffin lid from the inside. But instead of fear, he could only feel resentment.

"Stupid," he said. "Stupid, fuckin' childish--"

There was another thud, this time directly beneath Steve's feet, and the singer jumped. When he looked at the floor, he gasped, and Neal didn't see anything but knew by then that Steve could see things no one else could. He grabbed the singer and propelled him through the house, toward the front door.

"Out."

"But--" Steve said, meaning to say we have nowhere to run.

"Perry, get out of the fucking house!"

Neal opened the door, glancing onto the patio and seeing nothing. It was twenty yards to the car.

He reached back for Steve, but the singer planted his feet in wordless denial, pupils dialated in terror. Something stood at the doorway, blocking them, something that caused Steve to be looking up too high, something impossibly tall.

For a moment--just a moment--Neal contemplated bodily forcing Steve out of the house. Then he saw the way the singer was staring out into the darkness.

"Can we get past it?" Neal said. "We need to get out of here. Come on, Steve!"

There was a rapid pounding headed toward them across the kitchen floor; then something hit the retaining wall with enough force to rattle it.

Adrenaline did the rest. Neal locked an arm around Steve's waist and swept him out the door, using his other hand to slam it behind.

To hell with locking it. Anyone stupid enough to go in would deserve whatever they got.

He got a good grip on one of Steve's wrists and hauled him along, hoping they wouldn't encounter anything but counting on Steve to yell before they did. Then he realized he hadn't made a grab for his keys, and they couldn't go back in the house. He felt for them anyway, finding them in the front pocket of his jeans and knowing for a certainty that he hadn't put them there. He thought, someone's fucking with us big time, and can't make up their mind. Then he was fishing the keys out and unlocking the passenger side of the Bronco. Steve scrambled in wordlessly, reaching across and unlocking the driver's side. Neal was in a moment later, and the front door came outward off its hinges despite the fact that it had been built to swing inward.

Steve gasped again and covered his face with both hands, shrinking down into his seat as if making himself smaller would save him.

Neal slammed the Bronco into gear and peeled away, glad he couldn't see whatever the hell it was. "Lock your door," he said.

Steve dropped his hands and tried to regain control. He wasn't fully awake, hadn't been for some time. "It won't make--"

"Lock your goddamn door!"

Steve hit the automatic lock, reaching for the seatbelt by rote. They were on open road moments later. Neal tried to bring himself down to the speed limit and nearly made it.

"What'd you see?"

"It wasn't sight," Steve answered automatically. "The thing at the door--I don't know, I can't tell if it wanted us to leave or not. It was tall, God it was so fucking tall! The thing in the kitchen hit the wall because it was too big to get through the doorway."

Neal cringed.

"Do you really think there's somewhere to run?" Steve said. "Somewhere we can't be found?"

"I don't know," Neal said harshly. "Did it seem like a good idea to stand there and let it pound us?"

"There has to be a way to shut me off," Steve said. "It's like I've got one foot in this other layer of the world. We could do this every night."

"It doesn't need to be dark," Neal said. "You got shoved into the street in broad daylight. We're gonna have to find a way to face it down, whatever it is."

Steve looked at him, face reflecting how insane he thought that sounded. "You're fuckin' kidding. And do what?"

"Jon's able to do his thing, when we're all within earshot of each other," Neal said. "There has to be somethin' we can do."

"Something," Steve echoed, drawing the word out. "You wanna try and be a little more specific?"

Neal sighed.

"Jesus, you really wanna fight, don't you," Steve said. Despite the disbelief in his voice, the idea settled him, kept him from hyperventilating.

"I'm a little pissed off," Neal said. "And I know it ain't right to tell you, but you gotta calm down. You got every reason not to. I think you're gonna do something you don't mean to, though, if you don't."

Steve sighed and closed his eyes. Then, right then and for however long it lasted, they were okay, and he struggled to focus on that. It worked by degrees, the pressure vanishing steadily. He didn't know how he was doing it and it wasn't important. Not then.

They drove for a short while, trying to figure out where they could blend in. Then it was obvious.

They ended up at the mall on the busiest shopping night of the year. It was only seven o'clock, and the place was crawling. Neal found a parking spot on a higher level of a nearby parking garage, and they walked toward the north entrance like rabbits who knew there was a dog loose in the woods. The southern face of the mall was visible to their left, constructed almost completely of block glass, emitting a warm glow into the night. Lights were strung from every tree, wound across anything that would hold them.

It was noisy, and bright, and too goddamn cheerful. Christmas music, screaming children and the constant murmur of too many people in the warm confines of a building the size of an airplane hangar. They'd blend in physically, and with any luck the background noise of so many other mortals would confuse their signal to the wrong ears.

Perfect. Unless they were recognized.

"You see anything?" Neal said.

"No," Steve said. "That doesn't mean anything, though."

They moved through the crush of people, trying to find somewhere to settle. Steve watched people closely to see if any of them were more than gray in his sight. It looked less busy above them on the second level, and they wanted to be able to see the majority of the place from above. They headed for an escalator and didn't realize what a problem that was until they got there.

Steve looked at it, moving aside to let a group of folks, a family from the look of them, get by.

Not only were they stairs, but they moved.

"Sonofabitch," he said under his breath.

"You can't do this, can you," Neal said.

Steve wanted to joke, about how once you couldn't use stairs anymore you needed to have your homo sapiens license revoked, but he couldn't find anything funny. He was too frightened to do anything but stand there and stare. Neal looked around, found the regular stairs spiraling up from center court and knew that wouldn't work either.

"You wanna wait for the elevator, and try that?" Neal said.

"No," Steve said. "After all the other shit, a fuckin' escalator isn't gonna stop me."

Neal nodded. "Close your eyes, then."

Steve did it without question, and Neal walked him forward, telling him when to step, and he didn't open his eyes until they were at the top.

They kept to the upper level, passing a bath shop, two shoe stores and a Bon before Steve said, "You really think a public place is gonna deter these guys?"

"No," Neal said. "But it's the best we can do right now."

They walked around a little longer, finally ending up on the southern side, at one of three tables in front of a coffee shop by the glass wall. "I'm gonna call Jon," Neal said. "You okay here, or you wanna come with?"

Steve wanted badly to tag along, and fought it down. He shook his head and sprawled back into the white metal chair, trying to play it off. It never occurred to him that Neal was as scared as he was and actually wanted him to tag along.

"Fine," Neal said. "Stay awake."

Steve smirked. "I'll work at it."

But he wasn't sure how much longer he'd be awake, and he dreaded it. He watched people wander by, couples hand in hand, small groups of friends. Surly looking kids with oversized jeans. Mall maintenance. Strategically placed lighting reflected off the glass wall, flashing, highlighting a Christmas snow pattern that had been painted on it. He was relatively certain the lights were multicolored, and felt a pang of resentment that he was unable to make any of it out. He stared at the patterns in the glass until he was lost in them, watching the lights cycle, patterns upon patterns...

He startled when Neal set a paper cup of coffee on the table in front of him.

"Hey, agent orange," Neal said. "It's coffee."

"Thanks." He waited for Neal to sit down, then said, "He pissed at us?"

Neal shook his head, wrinkled his nose. "Comin' to get us."

Steve met his eyes, waited.

"They're not gonna screw with the Er Rai and the Inverse at once," Neal said.

"And what the hell are you?" Steve said, annoyed.

"Not as close to you as the Inverse is," Neal said. "And I have yet to waste a namer. Right now, we're just a point to be made for his benefit."

That sounded good. It was a suitable substitute for I don't think I can keep it from raping you.

Steve looked at the table, watched the light from above swirl into patterns on its surface. When he looked up again, it was to glance across the other tables. They were occupied; one by an older couple resting their feet, and the other--

Someone rose and was walking away, leaving a smear of orange trailing behind.

Steve gripped Neal's forearm across the table. "He found us."

Neal twisted around to look. "Where?"

"He's walking away. Right there, by the railing."

"There's no one there."

"Neal--"

"Stephen, there's no one there." He wasn't arguing, or even disputing Steve; he never thought for a moment that Steve was wrong. It was a denial that they could be attacked in public, that even a thing that probably didn't understand the concept of public would attack them in it. "They're just spookin' us, following us around."

"Namers don't need to follow anybody," Steve said, voice low and shaken.

Jon is coming, Neal thought, turning back to look at Steve. It won't be able to touch us, the three of us together. It won't. But he remembered it saying not by my hand to him, and he wondered.

Intent on the retreating back of the creature, Steve didn't see Neal glance up, didn't see the alarm on his face, didn't see the gun until it was too late.

* * *