Would I run home in the dark with something stolen?
Would you be slinking in my conscience, laughing?
--Lorna Vallings, Taste
(c)2002 B Stearns
Note: Assumes that Neal made a very different decision near the end of Memory Bound, chapter 24, and left Steve asleep. Just a bit of drivel, written while hopped up on pain meds and missing 4 wisdom teeth.
He held the key loosely in one hand, looking at it often, reassuring himself it was there. Clenching it in his fist occasionally to make an imprint of its shape on his own skin.
It was always warm.
He'd been holding it for a long time, but had only had it with him every minute of every day since the last of his...family?...had gone back into the Circle. Jon, the rest of the band, Amber, his kids. His grandchildren. He'd lost track after that, and his grandchildren had hardly known him. He'd had to leave the world a bit before that, to be safe. The other walkers had lost patience with him, and the namers had nothing to hold over his head any longer. All of his physical family, that he'd been close to, were gone. It left him rootless, unbound.
But not free.
He looked at the key again, turning it over between his hands. He had to wear, or hold it, constantly now. He'd made the wrong choice, decades earlier, and it mattered to no one any longer. He would go on for decades more, possibly centuries, before he wore down.
Hadn't he done what they wanted? Hadn't he turned the Er Rai back to an object? The namers had gone on arguing about sentience anyway; it was something they had a lot of time to do. No, he hadn't stripped Steve of his sentience prior to stripping him of his humanity, his choices, his life. Steve had wanted it, or he wouldn't have pushed him to it during those last days when they were all together near the caves of Athyri. Steve had attacked him to get them all home, and it had worked. Fear and greed had done the rest.
The singer still hovered, somewhere in Neal's subconscious. Unable to affect things, or voice an opinion. Unaware of himself or his circumstances. A useful spark, physically manifested in the shape of a worn antique key. It seemed the most likely choice, that final shape.
It burned him to put it down, to fail to keep it close. He wore it on a chain around his neck, tucked beneath his clothing, hidden from view.
The remainder of the Six had been first to ask him to destroy it. But not out of a wish to have it for themselves.
Only three of them had shown themselves to him. The others had been missing long enough to make the namers wonder if they'd remained in the Circle or simply forgotten who they were. But the three who'd come to warn, plead or threaten had been enough to convince Neal that he needed to move on. If the Six could find him, and the namers had been able to pinpoint him at will, then the day would come when other things finally caught up with him.
What the Six and the namers wanted the most was the key itself destroyed. Too many ways it could be taken from him, too many risks. Jonathan had gone home, and he should, too. Not back into the Circle to be recycled to another life, but home, back to the energy that had created him. Destroy the Er Rai for good and go home.
At first they had been so eager for him to do it because of what he would attract; then it became apparent he was one of the things they were trying to avoid. Still human, with human desires and concerns, Neal had finished out his time with Journey prior to setting himself loose on the world. The band had come to a natural end after they released an album on their own label. It had been the right choice, but they'd worn everything out. They remained friends and raised kids and did solo stuff, and that was enough.
For awhile. Then Neal had begun to realize that he didn't have to leave things alone. What was the point of being a walker - indeed, a Walker - without making use of it?
At first it was only an occasional small thing - nothing close to what he would have considered an abuse of power. Sarah Rose's cat, Bonkers, was hit by a car one afternoon. By the time he found out about it, it hadn't happened at all; he called her that morning and told her to keep him inside. Rotten things stopped happening to the people around him. The rest of the band knew he was doing it and left well enough alone, because they were small things, helpful things. No harm done.
But he didn't stop there. He couldn't. Months later, a commercial airliner lost control over a suburb and killed hundreds. Without thinking it through, Neal rewound an entire day with little effort, then called the airport that the flight originated from. He gave them the flight number and told them it needed more maintenance.
He remembered too well the resulting trouble. The flight was grounded, but he ended up answering more questions than he wanted to. He was never arrested, since all they found was natural wear on another jackscrew. They finally wrote him off as a crackpot. But he knew that if he did anything like it again, he'd have more attention than he'd ever want. It never occurred to him to rewind yet again and either destroy any record of where the call had come from, or to call from somewhere else.
"You're too tangled up in this," Jon said when he found out. "You're gonna end up forgetting which is the best thing to do, you're gonna quit living just to do stuff like this. You're playing with stuff you shouldn't."
"What if I'm supposed to?" Neal said. "What if this is the way it's supposed to be?"
"You're never gonna know that," Jon said. "What barometer are you using, to figure that out? This is life, it can't ever be just right. You can't go solving every damn problem, because sometimes rotten shit needs to happen to set the good stuff off."
"Sometimes rotten shit just happens," Neal said. "What then?"
"Not your job to judge what's what," Jon said. "Who the hell do you think you are?"
Neal hadn't been able to answer. Mainly because he didn't want to get into a conversation about letting Steve become an object, about using that object. The subject was off limits.
"What are you gonna 'fix' next?" Jon said. "September 11th? Are you gonna go back, call bomb threats into the airlines, into the World Trade Center, and get yourself hauled away?"
"Rather than let thousands of folks die?" Neal said. "Yeah."
"Then you're into fixing symptoms, not causes," Jon said. "Fine, keep cleaning up after terrorists and waiting for them to do something else. Why don't you just walk over there to the Middle East and hunt them all down yourself, while you're at it? You're one guy. One. Who the fuck are you to take folk's decisions away from them, even if they're assholes, even if their decisions suck?"
Jon was shouting at the end, and Neal lowered his eyes to the floor.
"Only your idea of right, your idea of the way things turn out, is the right one, I guess," Jon said.
Nothing was ever enough, after that; and once Jon was gone, once everyone was gone, there was nothing to keep him from doing whatever he wanted. At first the excuse was that he wanted to help; then it was that it was best for everyone; then he dropped the facade and ordered things to his own specifications.
There was never any malice in the decisions he made; in the end, he owned Earth the way Steve had owned Athyri, but with more acceptance. Governments, political borders, the weather, there was nothing that didn't feel the effects of his manipulation of time and space. When one planet bored him, there were other spaces, other times. Decades passed in real time.
"I wish I had never screwed with any of this," he said aloud.
"Just start all over, Neal," a voice said behind him. Neal turned to find another of the Six - Gai'tyn Ari, the Second Part of Time. "Go back to whatever point you like, and begin again. You're still thinking linear."
"That's it?" Neal said. "Yeah, right."
"Well, not really," Gai'tyn said. "Anything you've changed in the frame of time you roll back over will begin again, as well. Not necessarily return to the way it all was, but begin again."
"I don't get it," Neal said. "You just said everything would reset, but -"
"You do understand, if you just let it go," Gai'tyn said. "You still try too hard to force everything to fit within the constraints of a physical world. Anything could happen when you begin something again."
Neal just looked at him for a moment. "How do I choose....where to start over?" Neal said.
The other walker shrugged, an all-too human expression. "What one moment or decision would you recognize as the place where you strayed off the path you'd already set? Where did you choose the wishes of another over your own?"
Neal shook his head. Sifting all the moments he had created or witnessed was an impossible task for his still-linear mind. He would go on forever, but his mind could not comprehend the passing of it. There was no one landmark that stood out, that screamed for change. Everything he'd seen had screamed for it. Everything had been his choice, his wishes.
"Think about it," Gai'tyn said. "If you get it wrong...you can always do it over."
Time passed. Neal spent it thinking about a family long gone, a band long gone, a life he'd left behind. He could have everything but that.
Go back to whatever point you like, and begin again.
What did he have to lose?
* * *
He woke up in Jon's studio, on the floor, back against a corner. It had been more than a handful of decades since he'd seen this moment, their return from Athyri. He studied the ceiling, hearing the others stir around him. Jon, who had just discovered he was a namer and would never get over it. Aug, who was too happy to be a walker and would get into more trouble than he could handle. Ross, who was as steady as ever and would stay that way.
Steve, who was propped against his legs. The key, come back to life.
Did I really wear him around my neck so long?
"Is this real?" Aug had climbed to his feet and was steadying himself with the tree branch he'd somehow brought back with him. Neal had a moment of perfect clarity, of remembering all the years he'd gone on alone and the things he'd seen. He was back where he needed to be, had chosen the right spot. Then they faded, and there was only the now.
"It's real," he heard himself say. "We made it. Everybody okay?"
Affirmations from everyone but Jon, who stared at everything from the eyes of someone with a very different view. Ross suggested they all go up to the house and make sure things were okay, find out how long they'd been gone. Neal sat and waited, knowing Steve would awake shortly, uncertain of how he knew it. He could feel it. There was a wide difference between wearing the object and listening to the person drift awake.
Neal hummed something internally, unsure of where it had come from, the recognition slow to come. It would be difficult from there, he knew. Somewhere was a sense of what had come after, what could come after, but he didn't remember anymore. He'd start over with something given willingly instead of forcibly. Just because something was offered didn't mean you weren't stealing it.
Steve stirred, and Neal smiled.
* * *