Wielding An Absent Hand II: Parallel
(c)4/8/00 B Stearns


Author's note: this is an alternate extension of 'Darkness', part 17; it's also a *sampling* of the non-Journey version of book 4. Journeyed-up here, for fun. Or something. Perry isn't given the choice of going back to his life; he has to start over, from scratch...

~~~~~~~~


August, 1996

Jon found Steve sitting in the grass on the hill in the backyard, staring out into the trees. He kept his distance for several minutes, never knowing how or when to intrude.

Eight, he thought. One day in the near future his own kids would be that age. Within the next forty eight hours, this long-time friend would be reborn, in a way. The decision of how to deal with it in their reality still had to be made, and Steve was less than forthcoming on what he wanted.

The small figure looked over his shoulder at Jon with a scowl. "You can quit staring at me, Cain," he said.

Jon came closer, advancing until he stood just over Steve. "So who's staring?"

Steve sighed. "I suppose you have an idea."

Jon nodded unseen. "I think we should tell Marv."

Steve craned his neck until he was looking at Jon upside down. "Are you fucking insane? He can't believe us. He's gonna think I'm his grandson, or great grandson, and he's gonna want to know what the hell you've done with me. Have you forgotten how big Marv is?"

"No," Jon said quietly. "He reminded me, several times, when he was looking for you."

Steve looked alarmed. Then he stared back into the trees for a long moment.

"We have to give him the chance," Jon said. "While you still have your memories, while you're still here. After that...it'll be a matter of starting all over. Someone's gonna be raising you from scratch again. You have the right to choose who it should be. And Marv has the right to know where you've gone."

"I hate it when you're right," Steve said, and Jon purposely bumped his head from behind with a knee. "But how, Jon? None of us believed it, when it all started, and we were living it. Shit, I still don't believe it. We can't let them do this to us."

"We just have to go over there and tell him."

"And if he really thinks you guys did away with me, or you're covering it up? And wants to know where you really got a kid that looks just like me? And then the police take me away from you, and put me in foster care."

Take me away from you, Jon thought. That answers that question.

"Marv would never put a child who looks like you in foster care," Jon said softly. "If worse came to worse, and he never believed it was you, he'd at least realize you had to be related. It's the right thing to do. We can't have him wondering, the rest of his life, what happened to you. He's already lost Mary."

He thought Steve had simply fallen silent again until he felt the slight shaking against his knee and glanced down to find Steve with his face in his hands, shoulders hunched as silent sobs wracked his slight frame. Without hesitation Jon picked Steve up and held him, sorry he'd spoken, but knowing he'd had to. In another two days the singer would no longer remember losing his mother. Anything that had shaped his life or made him who he was would be gone as well, leaving him to begin again.

* * *

"Dad...it's me."

Marv knelt down from his imposing height, glaring at Jon and Neal but careful not to let his anger and suspicion carry over to his treatment of the child they'd brought with them. "Who are you, sweetheart?"

Glancing back and up at Jon for a brief moment, Steve looked at Marv and deliberately said, "Steve. I'm Steve. If you look at me, really look, you'll know I'm not lying. I--we--can explain."

Marv stared at him, then looked up at Neal. "I'm asking you guys for the last time where my boy is."

"Dad," Steve said, "I know it's weird. I know. But just let me talk to you for a minute."

"You look enough like him to be his," Marv said, dropping his gaze back to Steve. "Where did these two find you? You're old enough to know better than to play a trick like this on an old man. Best just to tell me now who you really are. Your parents have got to be worried."

"Yeah, they are," Steve said almost inaudibly. "That's why I'm here. Something really strange happened to us, and I'm stuck this way. When we all disappeared, it was to a place no one's seen before. It was kind of like...a science accident, I guess. I came back this way and can't change back. Remember, I promised I would never lie to you? Just before you married Mom. I was seventeen, and we had that long talk the night before the wedding. You promised you would never leave us, and I promised never to lie to you. Then we shook on it and decided to keep it just between ourselves. Remember?"

Marv was frowning.

"You gave me the keys to your truck and let me drive, and we went out to the lake. It looked like it was gonna rain, remember? But it didn't, not while we were out there, and you told me I was an adult, so we were gonna deal with each other like adults because I was too old for you to boss around. But you would be a friend and a dad if I needed one."

Marv continued to frown, and Neal fidgeted unnoticed, beginning to feel as if this was something they shouldn't be witnessing.

"Then 10 or 11 years later I gave up and wasn't gonna do music anymore, and Mom said not to give up, and I didn't pay attention at first. I wasn't doing anything but loafing around and pulling the poor me act, and you dragged me out of bed one morning practically by my hair and made me come to work with you. Jesus, I was even cursing you out, and you never even said a word. Just made me do something until I was myself again and could think. Then CBS called and I sent them that tape. I asked you if it was worth it, what if something stupid happens to this band too just because I'm involved? And you said..."

"...that if it was meant to be, it would, and you could no sooner stop it than cause it to happen," Marv finished softly.

"No eight year old would remember all this if someone had just told him stories about it. It's me. You saw the house, huh?"

"There were claw marks in the walls and floors," Marv said. "I know it wasn't people who did it."

"It wasn't. They were things that came from the same place we disappeared to. I know you looked around, I know you were hoping what you found would tell you something. It told you no person, no animal, could get in and inflict damage like that. I know the chair in the wall convinced you. And it was hard to walk around in there, wasn't it? Not just because I was gone and you were worried about what might have happened. But there was something that felt terrible about it, something dark. You tried to ignore it, probably. But if you think about it, you know something horrible was there. Just like you know I'm telling you the truth. You made me promise never to lie to you."

Marv looked up at Jon, without the animosity he'd shown earlier; just a helpless confusion. Jon nodded.

"This is too much," Marv said. "Too much."

"I know," Steve whispered. "You have to believe me. I'm out of time."

"How is this possible, then?" Marv said. "No, I can't believe it. But I expect at least an explanation."

So the story came out again.

They were careful to offer to tell it separately, so that Marv could compare the details and see if they had coached each other; he declined. Steve was careful to defer to the others often to keep the whole thing from seeming like the daydreams and rantings of an imaginative child. Each had details from their own perspective that backed the others up and added to the whole. Marv kept shaking his head yet remained silent until Steve described the night the wraith had come to collect him. No one had heard the full story of the nearly four hours he'd kept the thing at bay with a candle and his voice. His explanation matched the details in the police report exactly.

"The front door was kicked in," Marv said. "The police noted it, but it wasn't common knowledge."

"We didn't have time to look for the key," Neal said. "Just because it was light didn't mean he was safe. It didn't seem like a real smart idea to tell the cops that little detail. Or you."

At the end of the tale, they sat in silence for nearly a minute. Marv was staring at Steve, who began to fidget.

"Sure as hell could be you," Marv sighed. "What now?"

"After tomorrow night, I'm just a kid again. I won't remember anything."

"The alternative is worse," Jon said. "He can start over, with a different set of circumstances, or he can cease to exist."

"I just...need to decide some things," Steve said, refusing to look up. "I guess I should be grateful I have time to put my affairs in order, huh? I just want you guys to get your story straight so that I grow up again thinking something believable. And what you tell the fans, or the label, or whoever, doesn't matter, so long as it keeps the police off you. I just think some other people should know, so they don't think I'm dead. There's just no time."

* * *

He tried not to think of anything in particular while he waited.

Memories crowded in nonetheless. Abstract things, the inane but uniquely personal things that had made him...him. His tenth birthday party. Hearing his dad sing. Helping his mother in the gift shop she'd owned. His first and last crush, his last time onstage...

Too many lasts.

They're going to wipe me out, he thought. I'll die, right here, even if they bring me back, no matter how they bring me back.

He glanced around the kitchen again, wondering what it would feel like, when--

No. Had to stay away from thoughts like those. No sense wasting what little time he had left.

Jon had been hard to deter, but Steve had wanted these last moments to himself. He looked like an eight year old child, but he wasn't. He'd wondered if he was being selfish, then didn't care. It didn't matter. He wouldn't be himself for much longer.

The lamp he'd brought in wasn't as bright as it had been minutes earlier. The kitchen wasn't quite as dark. He looked back out the window, at the fading indigo of the sky as gray began to creep in over it.

After everything he'd been through, after what he'd seen, he didn't find it difficult to keep from panicking. Truth be known, some part of him would welcome oblivion. If that's what was coming. He was still leery of anything the namers said. But it didn't make any difference to him, if they brought him back or not. He wouldn't know a thing about it either way.

And there was nothing he could do.

But somehow he didn't feel helpless as the light began to spread, smearing a silver-blue luminescence across the yard, creeping toward him. There was something strangely comforting about having a decision of this magnitude--or control of it--out of his hands.

Then the light was there, brushing its fingers over him. there was no feeling to accompany it, no sense of disintegration even though that was exactly what was happening. He faded, dimming like a washed-out photo...

But with it came the truth.

Him. All of them. The namers, and the reason for it all...

*JONATHAN!*

Then he was gone.

~~~~~~~~

Jon watched the light arrive, unable to sleep, and never heard the cry, never saw the truth.

~~~~~~~~

February, 1997

At first Jon was certain it was the twins, or at least one of them; Weston had taken to waking several times a night again and Liza tended to follow suit. It was his turn, so he rolled sleepily out of bed and went down the hall, unable to register the fact that the cry was too far away to be the twins.

He walked into their room and the sound became nearly inaudible.

He checked both children, more awake all the time. They, however, were sound asleep.

Back in the hallway, the sound was easier to hear again, and he followed it downstairs, heart beginning to race. It wasn't Maddie. It was a newborn's howl of outrage. Not all humans were born wailing, but the ones that were made a startled, I can't believe you did this to me type of noise when rudely deposited into the cold world from the warmth and safety of the womb. Jon had a father's practiced and instinctive ear, knew his own children's voices implicitly, and knew this to be a stranger's voice. A tiny stranger.

He turned lights on as he went, moving down the stairs to his piano room, beginning to suspect what was happening but not willing to commit to it yet. It had been six months, but the last time the singer had appeared it had been under that same piano...

He saw the small figure even before he turned the overhead light on, something struggling with an utter lack of coordination. By then the wails were punctuated with whimpers that had more to say about the unfairness of the world than any adult could articulate. Poor me. No one cares enough...

The light showed him a completely naked and nearly blue newborn boy, tiny arms and legs stiff with the effort of trying to get attention. He had the look and size of a slightly premature infant no more than minutes old, yet he was clean; there was no tied-off umbilical cord, no blood, no residual tissue from the amniotic sac.

Not of woman born, Jon thought, unable to remember which poet had composed it. Jon slipped off the undershirt he'd worn to bed and knelt down, bundling the child in it and scooping him up, holding him close and murmuring. The tiny face remained screwed up into a frown of injury, but the cries instantly diminished to a series of snuffles and hitches that meant he'd cried too hard, too long. There was a dusting of dark hair on his head of a tell-tale color, and Jon nodded to himself. It was more than physical characteristic, though; the warm weight in the crook of his elbow gave off a familiar feeling. The same and not the same.

"Did you hassle them until they kicked you out?" he said softly. The infant flailed an arm as if in defiance. Jon tucked it back into the shirt and turned for the stairs, intent on fixing the boy a bottle and getting him into something warmer. The twin's infant clothes would fit him...

For just an instant, Jon considered not telling anyone. Just family. No authorities, no legal system, just him and Liz and Neal raising Steve as their own. Because otherwise there was the possibility of losing him in pursuing the legal route. The fantasy was brief; he knew he'd be handing the boy over in the morning, to get the ball rolling as quickly as possible. But those few moments of holding the boy had convinced Jon who would be raising him.

* * *

"Is...he okay?" Neal said. It was a phone call he'd been waiting for. Waiting too long for; Steve had vanished into a morning that had happened more than six months earlier.

"Yeah," Jon said.

"How...do we know it's him?"

Jon knew where that question came from; he remembered the namer's words. I don't suppose an approximation of him would do. He'd already thought about it, and had assured himself that the boy was who they thought. Had known right away. "Looks like him. Feels like him. But Marv...had a preliminary blood test done. Same blood type. When he gets older, well, I don't know. His adult fingerprints are still on a few things in the studio, I guess. If we're that paranoid, we can compare. But it's him. I know it."

Neal nodded unseen to himself. "I guess that's the only vote that counts."

Jon was silent for a long moment.

"Can Marv...?" Neal began, then trailed off. They'd had the discussion before but he didn't know what else to do besides rehash the details aloud.

"Not for long. First thing he has to do is convince the authorities of Steve's 'paternity.' If they do DNA testing and it matches Steve's exactly...Jesus. But he'll be in foster care until it all gets figured out. We gotta prove he's Marvs' grandson."

"Can we see him?" Neal said.

"Eventually."

"We can't leave him in foster care," Neal said vehemently. "I'll kidnap him, if I have to."

"It won't get that bad, Neal," Jon said. "We'll get it figured out."

"Stuff...happens, in some of those places. He's got family. He's got us."

"We won't let anything happen to him," Jon said.

* * *

It was more than a year before they saw Steve again. It took the legal system that long to conclude that the toddler was who everyone was claiming him to be. Neither 'parent' was ever found.

Jon called Neal on Easter Sunday.

"You might wanna come over here," he said.

Neal couldn't get to Jon's fast enough.

When he did get there, he came up the back steps and found Marv, Liz and Jon drinking coffee in the kitchen.

"He's in the living room," Jon told him softly. His tone and gaze combined into an undercurrent that told Neal things had been arranged to purposely give the guitarist a moment alone with the resurrected singer. Every so often, Neal found himself wishing Jon didn't know his mind quite so well. But that wasn't one of those times.

Neal nodded, feigning nonchalance, and did everything he could not to run into the living room.

On the sofa under the windows, bathed in half-shuttered afternoon light and covered from the waist down with a child-size knit blanket was a sleeping year-old boy. He slept the way children that age were wont to--on his stomach and partially on his knees, heart-shaped face turned outward so that Neal could see it. The boy's dark hair was tousled, some of it falling across his closed eyes.

Neal crouched close in front of the sofa, staring. It was a child's face--slightly snubbed nose, with compact, chubby features--but he knew immediately who he was looking at. The resemblance was already there, even so young. Neal had so much to say, and would never be able to...

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry." He choked up and fell silent, lowering his head for a moment until he could shake the tears that threatened. He was struck by how much Steve was and wasn't there. He could see him anytime, but never see him again.

He reached out and drew a finger across the boy's forehead, gently sweeping his bangs out of his eyes, willing the boy to open them but afraid to awaken him. Who knew what he remembered? There weren't supposed to be any memories left. But if the boy awoke and screamed at the sight of him, it would be more than Neal could handle.

"It'll be better this time," Neal whispered. "Everything. I promise."

* * *

Two days later

"He's a ward of the state," Jon said. "Until they find a blood relative. So in the meantime, they're still looking for any woman who's shown up at a local hospital or doctor's office looking like they've given birth within the last year. With no baby to show for it."

"They'll be lookin' a long time," Neal said. "But it's been...more than a year. You don't think..."

"Immaculate conception?" Jon said, finishing the thought for him and managing to keep his tone serious. He heard Neal snort on the other end of the line. "Probably not."

"What now?" Neal said.

"He's been assigned a guardian ad litem to decide his best interests. Someone outside the whole thing who can look at it objectively, I guess. She's a lawyer named Lee Ann Trevino."

"Good, " Neal said. "Italian chicks are usually pretty fair."

Jon paused to raise his eyebrow and decided not to pursue the reasoning behind that. "The point is, even when they get around to realizing who's DNA he's got, there's still the fact that Marv is in his 70's. They're gonna look into other options, like secondary custody."

"And here we are," Neal said, "two perfectly stable married guys. Good family environments."

"Two musicians," Jon countered, "who are gone for up to a year at a time, touring. Two guys who were just friends of the 'father', just coworkers. Why the hell do we want this kid? Who the hell are we, anyway?"

Neal sighed. "Okay, okay. I get the point. I get sick of you makin' sense. He's not supposed to be with us, anyway. But if we leave him out there...they'll do something to him. I know it, Jon. He won't live long."

"He might not live long even if he's with us," Jon said."They might come put a stop to the noise, put a stop to all of us."

"Bullshit," Neal said. "I think you know they can't put a stop to us. They'll find a way or reason to keep messin' with us whether we have him or not. We have to raise him, and you know it."

Jon did know it. But he had to look at the sides, anyway. Like usual. "One thing at a time," he said softly.

"What're they gonna name him?"

"Nothing, yet. He was found in my house, so they're calling him 'Baby Novato'."

"Love that," Neal said. "Hysterical. Think it'll matter if he keeps his name?"

"I don't know," Jon said. "Might not be a good idea."

* * *

That June, despite his age, Marv was awarded sole custody of a boy who was christened Stephen Matthew Perry. Secondary custody went to his godfather, Jonathan Cain.

During that time, a newly reformed Journey replaced their missing singer and launched a tour, followed by a new studio album. Another tour in the fall of 2000 put the band back on the map.

* * *

"Jon-dad," Steve said, breathless, clearing the last three stairs with a leap that nearly bowled Jon over.

"Steeee--eeeeeve," Madison said, and rolled her eyes.

Laughing, Jon swung him up into a hug. "What'd you call me?"

"Is that like 'John-Boy'?" Neal said.

Jon laughed, and Steve screwed his face up at Neal.

"Before your time, pumpkinhead," Neal said. "Sort of. Speaking of which, time for bed."

"Aren't you gonna tell us all about the tour?" Madison said, incredulous that they wouldn't make an exception.

"We have tomorrow for that," Jon said.

"We have school tomorrow," Madison said.

"Nah. We'll hang out together and tell stories. Or at least the ones you're old enough to hear," Jon said.

"Cool," Steve said. "Ross too?"

"Ross has gone home," Jon said. "Sorry."

"Aug and Deen too?"

"Aug'll be around another day or so. I'm sure we can con him into putting up with you. Now go to bed."

Madison sighed and headed for the stairs. Steve slid down and headed for Liz, hugging her one final time before skirting around Neal with mock-wary eyes.

"Brat," Neal said, making a grab for him. He caught Steve by one arm and ruffled his hair before shoving him toward the stairs. Steve laughed.

"'Night everybody," Steve said. "G'night Jon-dad."

"Goodnight, Mary Ellen," Neal said.

* * *

February, 2001

Jon heard the flurry of movement and paused long enough to watch Steve go tearing past him and up the stairs.

"Hey," he said. "Don't run on the--"

He paused. The four year old was already long since up the aforementioned stairs. He could already hear himself repeating that phrase endlessly for at least the next 15 years.

He listened, hearing only silence upstairs. Liz wouldn't be home yet, so he suddenly found himself wondering what the hell was going on up there. He rose with a sigh and walked up, finding nothing when he got up there.

"Steve," he said. When the boy didn't answer, Jon walked through the living room in time to hear Neal come up the porch stairs. Steve was behind the door, both hands clasped over his mouth, eyes wide, trying not to laugh.

Jon shook his head, watching the door, finding himself trying not to smile. Neal knocked on the door once, a cursory warning before he opened it. Steve had already unlocked it--something he was forbidden to do--and was hidden when it swung open.

"Hey," Neal said. "Ross called, said he's got an idea about the sequencers."

"Uh huh," Jon said.

"Yeah, I know. What're you smilin' at?"

Shrugging, Jon said, "World's a funny place."

Neal looked harder at him. "You all right?"

"Mm hmm."

"Where's the brat?"

Steve slammed the door behind him, leaping at him with a shout. Neal startled visibly before he could stop himself, rolling his eyes at Jon as Steve laughed hysterically and clung to one of Neal's legs.

"So funny," Neal said, peeling Steve off by degrees. "Funny guy." He lifted Steve up and tucked him into one arm. Still laughing, Steve hugged him roughly.

"Missed you!" the boy said.

Only Jon saw the look on Neal's face, and he would have missed it had he not been staring right at him. It was gone almost as soon as it was there, but for a moment Neal had looked...amazed. Grateful, maybe.

"Same here, kid," Neal said, setting Steve back on his feet. From one pocket he produced something between a thumb and forefinger, holding it out. "Look what I found."

Steve palmed the item--an Australian coin--and made a soft sound of awe. "Cool. I don't have this one."

"Say..." Jon began.

"Thank you," Steve said immediately, glancing back up at Neal with all the reverence that four year olds were famous for.

"Welcome," Neal said.

"Ross said the sequencers are fucked up beyond repair," Steve said in a tone of voice that told Neal exactly what he expected to happen to him as a result. Neal laughed, at the words, the tone, and the look in the boy's eyes, but it felt like being kicked in the stomach. At just that moment, the combination was the Steve that Neal had known for the majority of his life. The old Steve.

"That's your one and only today," Jon said sternly, glaring at Neal.

"Ross is right," Neal said. "But you gotta promise not to quote him. And that's good advice no matter how old you are."

"Aug is coming," Steve said, and he said it much the way an adult would have said God is coming. "Jon-dad said I get to watch today if I'm quiet. And still."

"Good luck to you," Neal said, still trying to work the laughter out of his voice. "Go put your coin away before you lose it, pumpkinhead."

Steve turned and ran back down the stairs.

The two men were silent, neither moving until Neal glanced at Jon. "Can we handle that?" the guitarist said.

Jon knew immediately what he meant; handle rehearsing with their former lead singer looking on. "Yeah," he said. "It's not the same. Seems a little weird at first. But it's not the same."

"How is he?"

"Good," Jon said. "Happy. He sees Marv every weekend, and that works out good for both. He likes it here."

Neal nodded. "I can see that. Okay. I'm...gonna go get set up."

"Neal," Jon said.

Neal paused without looking at him.

"I know," Jon said softly.

* * *

One year later

"What."

Neal shrugged. "I don't know. He's spooked about something. See if you can get him to talk about it in the daylight, in a day or two."

Jon tensed. "Jesus. What happened?"

"I never even heard him," Neal said. "I was watching TV about 11 or so, and he came running in. Not running, like little kids do, you know, pounding their feet. He was flying, the kind of running you do when you're being chased. Or hunted. He jumped on the bed and huddled up under the pillows, and never made a sound. I had to turn the light on and yank the pillows away. By then I was spooked. I was thinking nightmare, or shadows on the windows, you know. Monsters under the bed. But he just couldn't talk. I sat there and held him with the lights on and flipped channels until I found some cartoons. And by then, I didn't wanna go look. After maybe 20 minutes I said, 'what is it, kid?', and his voice was a hell of a lot older than five, when he answered. He goes, 'something'. Like capital S. It was the way he said it. Something.

"He finally drops off, and I wait until it gets light to go in there, right? Of course there wasn't a damn thing. But we've seen some crazy shit in our time. I wanna believe it was a nightmare, I need to believe it was. I really don't like that there could have been Something."

Jon had frowned through the entire explanation. "I'll talk to him."

"Little kids scream or cry when they're that scared, Jon," Neal said. "I almost wish he had."

* * *

Two years later

"Aug," Steve said, "what's it like to be a singer?"

Jon nearly inhaled his coffee. He somehow managed to put the mug down before it's contents went everywhere. "You're gonna be late for school," he said, sounding a little harsher than he meant to.

"Can't I even hear just one song?" Steve said.

"No. Not today. Go on, hurry up."

Looking cowed and confused, Steve waved at Aug and made a beeline for the door.

Aug waved back, then turned his head slowly to stare at Jon as if the keyboardist was nuts.

"Don't get into this with me," Jon said. "That kid's not going into music. It's all or nothing with him, so I'm not even giving him the opportunity. He's going into economics or politics, or acting or basketweaving, but he's not falling into this."

"What the hell's wrong with 'this'?" Aug said, sweeping an arm around to encompass the studio. "What if he's got the same kind of voice his dad did?"

"The kid's not cut out for it," Jon said. Beneath it he thought, I'm his dad. I'm his dad.

"What if he wants to?" Aug said, unable to believe what he was hearing, especially knowing how interested in music Madison was--and that she was taking clarinet lessons.

"Drop it, Aug," Neal said. "Jay's right. Kid's not cut out for it."

Aug shook his head. "What the hell's gotten into you guys?"

"Are we here to rehearse, or what?" Jon said. End of discussion.

* * *

One year later/Journey's final rehearsal

Neal walked into Jon's kitchen, opening his mouth to ask Jon what the hell was wrong with him. Then he saw the drawing pad on the table; crayon smeared part of the top page, but the rest of the page was dark. Dark with pencil and a picture that had required a small hand to color hard, imprinting the page itself and several pages beneath. It was a monster, an under-the-bed breed of nightmare with a blunt snout, red crayon eyes, and reaching claw-hands. And teeth. A hell of a lot of teeth. All familiar despite the childish rendering.

Neal snatched the pad off the table, staring. "God," he said. "God, what the hell is this?"

"Steve drew it," Jon said.

Neal looked up at him only briefly. "Where--"

"He said it 'clicks' at him," Jon said dispassionately. "He said it comes out of the wall and watches. And clicks."

Neal dropped the pad back on the table.

"We need to make sure he doesn't see it again," Jon said. "Somehow, we got attention."

"It's over, then," Neal said.

"Yeah," Jon said. "Yeah, it's over."

* * *

Two years later

"I'm bringing him home," Neal said, and Jon could tell by the tone of voice exactly why. Home, as if that had finally been decided.

"You guys had enough of each other already?" Jon said.

"Yeah. The older he gets, the worse he gets. Between him and Miles, I'm goin' bald."

"Same old thing?"

"Jesus. That mouth. Everything's a goddamned argument, 24/7. It takes effort to be that obnoxious, Jon. He doesn't do this with you or Liz. You're a comfort to him. Me and him, we exist only to jack each other up. I see more Perry in him every day."

"So I guess we know how much was nature and how much was nurture," Jon said, unable to keep the smile out of his voice.

* * *

"So tell me," Jon said. "How come you hassle Neal, and jerk him around to the point where he has to bring you back early?"

Steve looked surprised for a moment, then began to grin. "Am I in trouble?"

"No. I'd like to know what goes through your head, that's all."

"Dad, he's asking for it. I can't explain it. It's like all the civil stuff is just social politeness, and after about 5 minutes of that the real us comes out. I can't shut up. And he gets all defensive, and I can tell he wants to say stuff that he can't. I just want him to be him. He expects me to smart off. He even starts it half the time, when I'm trying to behave. It's like playing tug-'o-war with a dog. The dog wants what you have, but doesn't want you to let go of it, really, so the whole relationship is based on an argument that doesn't hurt anybody."

Jon laughed. He couldn't help it.

"Mutually beneficial," Steve said. That had been the ten-year-olds' phrase of the week. Everything was mutually beneficial. "But he complains about it, because he should. I shouldn't talk to him the way I do. But he's not an uncle, there's no relative thing going on here. I can't figure out where he is in my life, he's kind of got his own category and it's great that way. I like it. He does, too."

"Yeah," Jon said softly. "He does."

* * *

Three years later

Steve handed the CD over, and Jon took it, trying to keep his expression neutral. Steve's expression was anything but; the thirteen-year-old was obviously struggling with his emotions. Jon refrained from commenting, not even bothering to glance at the album.

"So," Steve said. "I got it in my head to wonder about why you guys don't have a band anymore."

Jon nodded.

"I didn't think Journey was that old, you know? I didn't think about the guy who sang with you before Aug, it never came up. But I hear the stuff on the radio sometimes." He nodded at the CD. "On the inner sleeve is a picture of you and Neal and some guy who looks an awful lot like an older version of me, taken in 1986. I'm kind of confused, Dad."

Jon nodded.

"It...was a passing thing," Jon said softly. The lyrics to an old Rush song came back to him involuntarily; it used to be something...but we let it run down in our hands.

"I found five albums in that section of the store," Steve said. "That doesn't look like a 'passing' thing to me. Were there more?"

Jon nodded.

"So who the hell is Steve Perry?"

Jon sighed. Play it cool. This was coming. "Do I really need to say it? The resemblance is pretty striking, don't you think?"

Steve visibly gathered himself, running his hands through his short, straight hair, looking nervous. His voice cracked when he spoke. "Was he my father?"

Jon lifted his gaze from the CD, hating the lie, telling himself it was more evasion than anything else. "How would you define 'father', babe?"

Steve frowned, caught off guard by the question and the hurt in Jon's eyes. He'd meant to confront, and get answers. Now he was the one who felt defensive, thrown off center. "Dad--"

"Who do you think he was?"

Steve blinked rapidly. "What happened to him? Why'd he leave me with you? What about..."

"Because that's what he thought was best,' Jon said, cutting him off. "So did we. He didn't mean to leave you."

Steve wanted to press him, to demand the truth, but the feeling of treading on thin ice was a deterrent. "Is he alive?"

"I'm not sure anymore," Jon said, and that at least was the truth. "I don't think anyone is."

Steve swallowed hard, feeling as if every question dug the hole deeper. "He was your singer."

"Yeah. For a long time. Then he disappeared."

"I just...don't understand," Steve said. "You guys hid all this, like it was dangerous to know. What would've been so wrong about my knowing who he was?"

"You've never shown this much interest," Jon said. "And there's not much to tell you. We were friends. He's gone, but he left you with us. You're more ours than you ever were his."

Steve's mind whirled with questions, but not a single one would form coherently behind the storm of emotion. If Jon didn't want to tell him, then why would he even want to know? He felt guilty for asking in the first place, frightened at the mask Jon had put on, and furious for being so easily evaded.

"What--" Steve paused. "Yeah. Okay. I know. I know that." He took the CD back and vanished with it, convinced that something damn near intolerable must have occured to make Jon act the way he was.

He never brought it up again. But he never entirely left it alone, either.

* * *

Four years later

"It's just a bunch of guys from school," Steve was saying. "It wouldn't get in the way of studying, or softball practice. It's only a couple of nights a week."

"No," Jon said softly. "It'll take a lot more time than you think. And we've already had the discussion about what I think of you being in a band."

Steve made an obvious attempt to keep his temper down, heaving a sigh and shifting his weight. "It's not serious. It's not even really a band. It's not Journey or anything. I mean, what'd you think I would do, start a cover band?"

"Watch your tone," Jon said.

Steve was silent for another moment, eyes flickering to Neal without expectation. Then he said, "I'm allowed to voice my opinion, though. It's like you guys have a thing against music now, like it's a goddamn sin."

"Language, babe," Jon said automatically.

"Well, shit, I can't believe--"

"That's two," Neal said. "You going for three, today?"

Steve stared at him, wide-eyed, his frustration a palpable thing in the room.

"Ah, go on," Neal said. "But you're busted, if you do. So make it a good one."

Steve threw his arms wide, looking at the ceiling. "Fuck!"

"Go to your room," Neal said.

"Goddammit!"

"And that's the weekend," Jon said.

Steve stormed away.

Trying to keep it quiet, Neal laughed.

"You enjoyed that too much," Jon said, grinning.

"Yeah. Yeah, I did. You know we can't tell the kid he's not allowed to sing. That's goin' too far." He paused. "And that was just mean, anyway."

Jon laughed. "Neal. It doesn't matter what we say."

"He's hardwired to sing. He has to." Neal dropped his voice. "If the two of you had a chance to start writing again..."

"Stop," Jon said harshly, more vehement than he'd intended to be. "Jesus, it's bad enough."

* * *

One week later

They'd been cutting through the park to get to the mall since they'd been old enough to leave the house on their own. Usually it was Steve and the twins, but West ("Not Wes, not Weston. Just West, like the direction.") was off somewhere with his girlfriend. Miles was with them for once.

"So?" Liza said. "What'd they say?"

Steve hedged. "They said they'd think about it."

"Bullshit," Miles said. "Dad n' Jon are gonna kick your ass. And mine too, for sayin' anything about it."

"Yeah, well, they don't get it," Steve said. "It's no big deal. And they don't have to know."

"Sooner or later, they'll come out to see Miles' band again, and then what?" Liza said.

"We just won't have a singer that night," Miles said. "We'll jam, or something. Shit," he said to Steve, "we have to let you in. You damn near broke the windows."

"It is hard to do all this behind everyone's back," Steve said. "I just don't know what the big deal is. It's like they think it'll kill me."

Miles clapped him on one shoulder. Now that the kids were older, the nine years between Miles and Steve didn't make as much difference...

Then the raven hit Steve.

For a moment, they thought the bird had miscalculated and would right itself. But it clung to Steve's shoulder, and he ducked his head, shielding his face with his hands. Liza shrieked.

"Goddamn," Miles breathed. "Steve--"

"Get it off me!" Steve shouted. "Get a stick or something!"

Miles cast around for something, anything, and settled for swinging his jacket at it. The bird unfurled its wings and hissed at him, but refused to move otherwise. "Christ," Miles said. "It's rabid or something. Keep your eyes covered up."

Steve did as he was told a moment longer, then threw himself face down in the grass. The bird launched itself back into the air, settling into a nearby poplar.

"Let's get the hell out of here before it comes back," Miles said, helping Steve back to his feet.

* * *

One month later

Steve was late getting home from work, but it wasn't that late. The house was dark. Not even the front security light, or the dim glow of the cook top light, was showing in the windows. He was halfway across the lawn before he saw what light there was.

A candle. In the window of his room.

Frowning, openly worried, Steve ran the rest of the way and tried the door. It was unlocked and swung inward easily.

On an empty house.

No furniture, no family. Not even the dogs came out of the dark to greet him.

He called out, went unanswered. He searched the house and turned up nothing. He found his own room in the dark, realizing he hadn't bothered to turn the lights on. He searched in vain for the light switches, but couldn't find them. They were gone, like his family.

He stood in front of the white pillar candle in the window, staring into the flame, knowing it should all mean something but unable to grasp it. He reached out to pick the candle up...

A long-fingered hand shot out of the dark and locked around his wrist, spinning him roughly. Startled, frozen, Steve found himself staring at an older and candlelit version of himself.

"Steve," his own voice said from an older face, "we need to talk."

"Where--?" Steve began to stammer. But the man shook him silent.

"The word's been broken. Now we'll decide how you suffer."

"What..." Steve was unable to say more than that or break the grip on his wrist.

"You'll be useful," his older version said, yanking him forward hard enough to send him pitching toward the floor. "Goodnight, Er Rai."

Steve hit the floor with punishing force, the words still reverberating in his head, and he rolled over on his back...

To daylight.

He'd been dreaming.

He laid there on the floor in a tangle of bedclothes and stared up at the ceiling, heart still pounding, trying to remember all of it. He cursed aloud at the ceiling, knowing he was just feeling guilty about hiding things, and they had manifested themselves in a nightmare. And after seeing a familiar face in the crowd the night before, it was no wonder his subconscious had come up with a grim fairy tale.

I tried telling Miles, the guy looked just like me. Even I thought it was crazy.

He rose and made the bed, trying to shake off the lingering effects of the nightmare. But when he pulled the drapes open, it was to the sight of a white pillar candle on the sill...

~~~~~~~~