Wielding An Absent Hand 4: Walking A Thin Line
©2001 B Stearns
______________
You better lock me up; I'll do it again.
--Dave Matthews Band, I Did It

Author's note (if you can call me an author): Yet another damn offshoot of the Candles series. This is what really happened at the Gorge show, and why the show in OK was moved. It's time to pick on Aug again, isn't it? This makes no sense unless you've read up to chapter 22 of book 4. Two references will make no sense to anyone but me until chapter 24. Thought it might be fun to show the guys, present day, after the events of book 4 (and 5). And you know it's gonna be fun when the opening dialogue from Neal is…

"Where the fuck is he?" Neal said.

Jon looked grim. He watched Allen stalk around the back part of the staging area, scowling at the lighting truss. He knew enough to know something was up. He didn't know how horribly, incredibly up things really were.

"I don't have any sense of him," Jon said softly, keeping his voice low and level.

"We don't get a handle on him, quick, it's gonna be a matter of us bein' real noisy searchin' the lines," Neal said.

"Don't have to tell me," Jon said.

"He ain't kidnapped," Neal said.

"He's gonna wish he was," Jon said. "He's gone walking, and I think you know it."

They both watched John Waite get to the end of 'Missing You.'

"You going on for 'Head First'?" Jon said.

"No," Neal said. "You go, shake John up for once. I'm gonna go break the goddamn silence with the Er Rai. The fuckin' namers better not have him."

He meant Aug, and Jon knew it. There was no reason for anyone to take Aug – at least, no one they'd been running afoul of lately. Not with a Formless, one of the Six, and the Er Rai watching. Nothing smart would attempt it. The Ender was still in the glass, and the rest of the Six weren't willing to go up against Neal. It was that simple. No one was. Journey was due onstage in an hour and a half, and their singer was nowhere to be found. Neal couldn't go onstage with Waite if he was going to need Steve, because the Er Rai would be useless for hours if Neal played at all.

"Jason says the last time anyone saw him was just before Waite," Jon said. "Something happened that convinced him to try walking, if that's what he did. Since he can't go far, where'd he go?"

Jon already knew what the answer would be: with a Formless and one of the Six hanging around all the time, there was no reason why a short-scale placeline walker couldn't expand his boundaries. Aug had been chafing at the restrictions despite being warned to stay civilian. No one joined Journey and stayed civilian. Every night they looked at thousands of fans who were potential trouble, crowds full of possible small scale walkers and firethrowers and illusion makers.

Keepers. And who knew what else.

Their music had drawn like to like over the years, now spanning decades, a lot of time in their world and nothing to others. Being on tour brought it all closer, and they were careful. It was possible that the proximity of that much untapped power had set Aug off, and the singer had accidentally propelled himself Elsewhere.

"At least he's placelines only," Neal said. "Because I fuckin' couldn't deal with tryin' to find him otherwise."

"What's Steve got to say?" Jon said, and Neal looked at him. Jon knew why. Jon was worried, if he was asking for Steve's input. Jon had made a habit of trying to pretend Steve didn't exist; it was the only way he could find to talk to Neal without worrying about what he said.

"Steve says he's gonna kick the little wop's ass," Neal said, and Jon had to laugh, even though things were serious. If anyone loved Aug more than they did, it was Steve, and he would be the angriest for the indiscretion if it was anything but an accident. "I'll let him," Neal said. "Two singers, havin' at it. I'll sell tickets."

Jon nodded. "Can you guys just pinpoint him, from here, as far apart as you are?"

Neal shrugged. "Gonna try. I know what Aug's wavelength's like, better than Perry does. We'll manage it. I don't wanna have to rewind this place, to keep from runnin' out of time. Because I can almost guarantee someone in the crowd will notice."

As he said it, he glanced out at the crowd watching Waite. There was someone in the second row who had noticed him and Jon in the staging area, and was staring at them intently and trying to pretend otherwise. Someone young, and intense, looking like they knew something they shouldn't. Their fans were, in a collective way, dangerous as hell. A good number of them would feel the time shift and relate it. If they recognized Jon and Neal as something other than Journey, there was no repairing it. There were walkers out there; Neal would bet on it to within an inch of his life. The last thing he wanted was a crowd of Journey fans trying to 'help'.

But it had also occurred to them that if they ever needed a force – a true force – their fans would be a source. They hated the thought; that force had already been tapped, to make Keepers. If they did anything to pull anyone in, it would be no different than when and how Tuirnarin had done it.

Jon was quiet, looking out across the crowd. It wasn't a sellout; he didn't expect much different. It was a long way for folks to come. Grant County was farmland, vineyards and desert, and the amphitheater was a towering construct that leaned out over the Columbia River basin. One bad step had you in the river. They loved it here, would play every goddamn night there if they could. The music loved this place, soaked right into the hills and stored it in the rocks and soil. The sky listened when they played here. But it was out in the middle of nowhere, 150 miles from the nearest large population center, in any direction. The land loved them, but the farmers who toiled on it did not. Drunken post-show campers had ruined that aspect of things, too many times.

"Just get him safe," Jon said. "I don't care who sees what." He looked directly at Neal and surprised himself and the guitarist equally. "Steve," he said, "go get him. If he's been taken, I want their fuckin' heads. If he's done it himself, save him from himself."

He felt a moment of connection, of someone else looking through Neal's eyes. He felt Steve looking at him, the singer's attention a direct line of intention and force. Normally, Jon taking that kind of tone and directing him would have made Steve plant his feet. But this was Aug; and for Aug, a lot of things would get put aside.

"Let Ross know," Neal said softly.

Jon nodded.

Neal clapped Jon on one shoulder and walked away, trying to get his bearings, trying to link up with Steve across the distance so that they could look for Aug and get a fix on him. Neal had written music with the younger singer directly, and was better equipped.

He stood and stared off the back of the stage, out of everyone's sight. He could see off into forever out there, see the river valley and every level the river had ever been at. Where they stood had been under water, once, and would be again someday. The crew had been taking pictures of that scenery all day. A million leaping-off points for anything that could fly…

Leaping-off points, Neal thought. I need to know where he took off from.

Then they could track him. A walker that inexperienced might leave a trail as clumsy as a lost child flailing through the brush after stumbling off the path. Aug was no child, and Neal doubted the markers – if any – would be that plain.

If anyone had taken him, Steve thought, it would've been right off the stage, to make a point, and you know it. The singer was opening his back door to let a small, white blur out into the backyard. A blur with a lot of teeth.

The line is thin in places, thanks to all the fuckin' around everyone's done, Neal thought. I can't help but think…he found a thin place and fell in. I need your help for this.

Before Steve could blink or even feel it happening, Neal had pulled him with a thought, and the singer came effortlessly across nearly 2,000 miles of physical space.

Steve stood and glowered at him furiously, knowing already that there had been no intent behind it, but needing to condemn the action anyway. "You didn't mean to do that, but you were thinkin' it."

Neal glanced around, making sure there were no members of the crew around. "I wanted you here, but I didn't – "

He trailed off. They stared at each other for a long, charged moment. "I think we got proof of your 'thin place'," Steve said. "Maybe the whole goddamn thing's a thin place. You feel anything different?"

Neal shook his head a little, trying not to look directly at Steve.

"You want me to run out there, greet the fans, watch them piss themselves?" Steve said, and he was only half kidding.

"No," Neal said. "I want you to scout the Gorge and see if he's down there somewhere."

Steve snorted. "With those pants, we'd be able to see him from here," he said.

"Get out of here before the crew sees you," Neal said, and Steve would have had no trouble telling he was shaken, even without their connection

Steve looked out across the expanse below, and cursed. It was more a tone of wonder than anything else; he'd seen it from Neal's perspective, but seeing it in person was something else. He reached for the back railing that separated them from a catwalk, vaulting it and dropping about three feet. Then he crawled through the bars of the back support structure, grateful for the cloth backdrop that kept him from view. He slid between a couple of crossbars, hanging on to the back. There was still another good hundred yards or so of flat land beyond that before the land sloped sharply into the nearly 700 foot drop to the river. As it was, he was fifty feet up from the ground. He grinned at Neal, then let go, plummeting backwards.

Neal braced himself against the moment of disorientation and freefall that came with it. Then a flash of black, glistening feathers in the sun later, Steve coasted away on a warm updraft.

Neal ran back through the right side of the staging area. Jon was onstage with Waite, doing 'Head First' with a vengeance. Neal caught the keyboardist's eye and mouthed Steve is here and Jon didn't get it, so Neal turned sideways and placed his thumb beneath his own nose, and his forefinger halfway up his forehead. Ross called it the International Sign for Perry, and they hadn't used it since the Frontiers tour. Jon's eyes widened, and Neal shrugged. Jon turned away to play.

As they were wrapping up, the giant raven sailed over the facing bluff where a lot of people were sitting on the grass. It made a loop above the bowl of the main seating area. Jon tracked it for a moment. Then the raven vanished, clearing the bowl and climbing to the grassy parking area a half-mile distant. If Aug's leap had been short, Steve would find him.

Jon had a brief, terrible thought of Aug caught on one of eastern Washington's desert highways, trying to thumb a ride to the show.

He finished the song, exchanged waves with the crowd and hugs with John Waite. Then he unslung the guitar and let Jason grab it from him before he ran into the staging area. He went straight to Neal, plowing in without waiting for Neal to say a word.

"What the fuck are you doing?"

"Hey," Neal said, "nothing. I didn't do it. I figured it would be easier if the bird was here, but I didn't ask for it. Should've taken a lot of effort, to pull him. We're lookin' at trouble, here."

Jon swallowed hard, feeling the weight in his stomach grow while Neal told him what he thought was happening. The thing they feared was true: the line was truly worn thin in places. Space-time was threadbare in random places, leaving possibility open. Any walker, with or without the Er Rai, could get away with a lot. But anything could also get in from the outside.

"Then we could be drawing a lot of things here, by playing with it on top of us," Jon said. Then he sighed heavily and backed out of the staging area, turning to run down the stairs, to the ground. The trailers, buses and equipment trucks were enclosed back there, and he wanted the room to pace. Neal followed him.

"It wasn't thin the last time we played here, in '99," Jon said, his tone absent and almost a mumbled entreaty to himself. "So maybe it wavers around a little, like…." Something dawned on his face, something he could grasp and give meaning to. "Like the jet stream. Maybe we can get it to move down to the river, where no one can just – "

"I think we called it up," Neal said.

Jon looked at him, suddenly still. "I don't wanna hear that."

"Then it sucks to be you," Neal said. "Look what we got out here, Jon. This ain't the same crowd that was here in '99. The entire old guard is out there this time, the die-hards, and a bunch of newbies with 'em. You've seen the boards. We got folks seein' five, ten, fifteen shows, followin' us around this time. Whatever we were before, when we were making the most noise…we're becomin' again. Like, attractin' like."

Jon put a hand out, resting it on Neal's shoulder. He looked tired suddenly, and Neal dragged him in with one arm for a brief, rough hug. "It'll be okay," Neal said. "Just a little something we gotta fix. Be okay."

"Sure," Jon said. "We wanted to play, Neal. We wanted Journey back. We didn't want all this shit following us around."

"We are that shit," Neal said. "We'll fix it."

"Where do you get off being so sure?" Jon said. "We could have a situation, here. And we can't just cancel because we think somethin' might happen."

Neal glanced up at the sky.

"Aug could be anywhere," Jon said. "He could be in the fuckin' river."

"Steve checked the river," Neal said distractedly. "He just can't…he can't've gotten that far, no matter how thin it is here. We just gotta find where he dropped in. All it probably took was a thought. If I find where he went in, I might figure out what set him off."

Jon nodded. He could see the set change going full throttle, Peter Frampton's crew darting around in the waning daylight against the wide, black expanse of stage. "Start lookin', then," he said. "I'd help, but I don't have anything that would pick him up." He didn't say what he really feared: that Aug had thought to do something and had miscalculated the space. Having the power didn't mean being exempt from the responsibilities of plain, basic physics. The singer could be lodged right in the hillside, caught in the rock, entombed. Lost to them forever.

Aug had jumped into a pre-show crowd in Columbus weeks earlier, walking amongst the fans as one of them. In love with them. He'd come back just as he was spotted, rematerializing in the staging area in a euphoric daze. Then he'd collapsed and slept through both Waite and Frampton. Jon had nearly torn him a new one for it, and there had been a slight strain between them since.

Did I risk anyone, hurt anyone? No, Jon.

You did. You risked hurting yourself.

Neal ran a hand down the back of Jon's head, then was gone, stalking around the staging area again to 'listen'. He never saw the look on Jon's face, the surprise.

Neal tried to shut out what Steve was seeing, the arial view of a desert landscape. How the hell one side of the mountains could be rainforest and the other desert, he didn't know. They both knew Aug wasn't out there, but –

Circle back, Neal thought. Can't concentrate with you in the air. Then he wandered around the staging area, He felt Steve's annoyance and ignored it. He was trying to imagine the ground and the stage in sections, trying to compare different spots to each other. He imagined a widening circle similar to the one that had whirled around them just prior to his abduction at Tuirnarin's hands, just before he'd –

His concentration shattered.

"Fuck," he said aloud. Where had that come from, why was he dragging it up?

No one asked him what he was doing, yet, they were just watching him uneasily. Frampton's crew already thought he was an asshole and would leave him alone, and there was no reason to change that now. Amber was around somewhere, and he hoped he didn't run into her while Steve was in residence. That was the last goddamn thing he needed, distraction from the Er Rai while trying to talk to his wife.

He walked back down the stairs without noticing that Jon was gone, without noticing the people milling around. There was no real reason to think he'd recognize it if there was a leaping-off place; he just had a feeling that there'd be residue. He didn't know enough about it, even though he did it effortlessly. It was woven into the fabric of him, like the electric impulses that occurred when his neurons fired. He knew little or nothing about the mechanics of that either, but it went on happening anyway.

He headed for the trailers and buses, wondering if Aug had simply gone to grab something and gone a little too far.

The bird hit him from behind, slamming down on his shoulder, claws digging into his shirt. He hissed at the bird, ignoring the shouts of surprise from crew members. He'd been so distracted, he hadn't seen a view of himself from above and behind, and couldn't dodge the angry bird. "Asshole," he said.

The bird bent its head to start working on the shoulder seam of Neal's shirt. Neal started walking again, slapping at the bird, which snapped back and hissed.

Jason, Neal's guitar tech, ran up alongside and said, "You want me to get it off?" He sounded alarmed.

Neal tried not to laugh. "You got no idea." Then he did laugh, and the bird went back to work on the seam of his shirt. "No man, it's cool. The wildlife here loves me."

He walked up to the bus Aug was keeping his stuff on for the moment. Sometimes the singer rode with the crew, sometimes with the band. Sometimes the entire band was on one bus, sometimes Neal and Amber were alone and the others scattered. Aug rarely bunked with Neal, the Other Walker, especially since Neal had been married. Neal understood, or he told himself he did. But he chose to hang out with the band as a rule, every step of the way. You're my family, he'd said. We're brothers now.

Neal opened the door and climbed into the bus. The bird hopped onto the back of the driver's seat, then materialized in human form in the seat itself.

"Would've been good to hear that from you, just once," Neal said.

At exactly the same time, Steve said, "Fuck you, and don't tell me what to do!"

"That rhymed," Neal said.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Steve said. "Findin' Aug is a little more important than busting my chops."

Neal nodded, his thoughts mildly apologetic. He could see Steve's side of it, had no choice. He wasn't sure why he was suddenly comparing the singers, why he wanted more from Steve than he was really capable of. Maybe if he went back in time a bit and killed Sherrie, then convinced his then-self to catch the singer on the rebound, things would have been much easier –

"Neal," Steve said, and he sounded as scared as he felt.

Neal looked at him, realizing they were both scared. He could see the whites of Steve's eyes.

"That was weird," Steve whispered.

"Folks have random, fucked-up thoughts sometimes," Neal said. "I dunno what it was. Just move on. It's okay." But it wasn't. The fact that he'd had the thought bothered him. It was only a peripheral problem that Steve had heard it.

Neal walked toward the back of the bus, and something got his attention. For an instant, he thought the bus had moved. Then, like a tape rewinding, he felt a moment play over and over, a moment pausing for an instant between takes.

[should have brought it with me, wish I could - ]

"Aug," Neal said aloud, "what'd you leave behind?"

[should have brought it with me, wish I could - ]

There was a depression in the air in that spot, a dip in the space. The air weighed a little more right there, gravity wasn't quite right. Aug's duffle bag was open on a bunk in front of Neal, and an assortment of things had been tossed out of it. CD's, a bottle of Advil, a pair of cheap sunglasses. Socks and deodorant.

What'd you think of, and where is it? Neal thought. "God, this whole place…anybody could fall through. You feel that?"

The last was aimed at Steve, who nodded a little. The place hummed, but it didn't and wouldn't bother him much. It was the walkers who would be having trouble.

"Maybe," Neal said slowly, staring at Aug's things, "maybe we should just – "

There was a staccato knock on the door of the bus. Before Steve could move or react, Allen Craft – 'Alien C' to the band and its fans - opened the door. He had a cell phone in one hand and his mouth was open to say something.

Then he saw Steve.

Steve smiled and tossed a wave at him.

Allen stared.

Neal came forward and said, "Hey Allen. Everything okay?"

Allen looked at Neal for a moment, then held the phone out. "There's a guy on the phone, says he's Steve. He's been calling for the last 20 minutes, and we kept calling him an asshole and hangin' up on him. But, guess what, we can't find the real Steve…." He glanced at the Steve in front of him. "Well, hey, he's asking for you. You wanna deal with it?"

Neal and Steve looked at each other. Then Steve got up and leaned down. Allen handed him the phone.

"Aug," Steve said, "where the fuck are you?"

"Home, in Brooklyn," Aug said. "I swear, I didn't…"

"We know," Steve said, his voice as soft as it had been hard moments earlier. "We know, man. Stuff's crazy here. You okay?"

"Yeah," Aug said. "Lydia is freaked out, though. What are you doing there?"

"Same thing you're doin' at home," Steve said. "We're gonna get you back here, because you guys are due on in like…" he looked at his watch.

"Forty five minutes," Allen said calmly.

Neal waved him inside. "Close the door, man," he said.

Allen walked away.

Neal cursed, closed the door, and sat in the nearest seat.

"How'm I gettin' back?" Aug said. "I've been tryin', but, I don't have that kind of range."

"You got caught in a slipstream," Steve said. "Me and Neal will get you, somehow. Just hang tight."

"You want me to think happy thoughts and click my heels together?" Aug said.

Steve snorted, then started to laugh. Neal gave him a dark look, but then he started to grin. "Aug," Steve said, "I want your advice."

"Oh God," Aug said.

"Lydia didn't know about everything, did she," Steve said.

"No," Aug said. "She knows there's no way I flew in, she knows there's a show in about an hour. I popped in, right in front of her, right out of the air."

"Okay," Steve said. "Here it is. We can leave everything the way it is – Lydia finding out about your badass mojo the hard way, some of the crew seeing me here – "

"Oh God!" Aug said again. "The rumors!"

"Yeah, wiseass," Steve said. "And me and Neal can get real visible and drag you back here. Or…Neal can rewind this whole thing. It would just be local time that resets."

"But then we'll have to hear 'Do You Feel' again," Aug said.

Steve laughed.

"You guys won't be visible, rewinding everything?" Aug said.

"Not as visible," Steve said. "Your call, New York. Keep in mind there's 10 – to – 12,000 Journey fans here, each a potential pain in the ass like you."

"So some of them might realize a few things," Aug said.

"Yeah," Steve said. "You have two seconds."

"I say do it," Aug said.

Steve hummed under his breath. "You sure?"

"Do you think I'm sexy?" Aug said.

Neal laughed.

"I think Lydia's seen enough scary things today," Steve said. "Is this Rod Stewart?"

"If it isn't Scottish, it's crap," Aug said. "What right do I have, makin' this decision?"

"Because of who you are and the company you keep," Steve said. "Get used to it. You'll know something is off, but that's all."

"What's the point of rewinding it?" Aug said. "Won't it just cause us trouble all over again?"

"We're gonna try and relocate it, if we can," Steve said. "To do that, we gotta get hold of it, and to get hold of it, we probably gotta sink our teeth in and rewind it."

"I just need to know it won't hurt anybody," Aug said. "And that this….slipstream thing…won't freak out if Neal rewinds it."

"No guarantees," Steve said. "This's the Great Unknown, paisan. That's why I asked you if you're sure."

Aug was silent for a moment. Gravely so.

"Time's wasting," Steve said.

"I trust you guys," Aug said. "With my life, with that whole place. Do it."

"Okay then," Steve said. "Hold tight."

"But really, do you think I'm sexy?" Aug said.

"It's all I can do not to hump the phone," Steve said.

Neal laughed again. "Jesus, enough already."

"Goodbye, Aug," Steve said.

"Goodnight, John-Boy," Aug said.

Steve put the phone down and said, "Can you do this?"

"Got to," Neal said.

"Not really," Steve said. "What've we got? Me getting spotted, Aug having to explain things to his wife."

"So what, then? Let's swear Allen to secrecy, pull Aug back, and get on with things?" Neal said. "Meanwhile, we'll have to convince Aug to be careful what he thinks about, and the folks out front – this is a strong crowd – might tilt the whole place on its side, and I'll go on…." He trailed off, uncertain.

"Dredging things up that're long gone," Steve said. "It's all intent, Neal. Thinkin' something right now might be more than enough to make it happen."

"And we gotta do something about not leaving the thin place here," Neal said. "We gotta rewind, to grab it, but I'm afraid it'll make it thinner. So, if you got better ideas…"

The door swung open again, and Steve startled.

Ross leaped up the stairs. "Amber thinks you've been attacked by some big, rabid bird. There's shit getting said out there. I headed her off, sayin' I think I saw you go the other way." He looked at Steve. "Jon says Aug is miss—"

The door swung open again, and Jon came up, slamming and locking the door behind. "Let's make it as bad as we can," he said tightly. "No point hidin' anything, with what everybody's seen."

"It'll be fine," Neal said.

"Where the hell is Aug, really?" Ross said.

"New York," Steve said. "In his own kitchen, I think."

There was silence for a moment. Then Jon said, "The jet stream."

Steve nodded. "It's sort of a current running through here. Dunno where it usually sits. He rode it home without meaning to. So be careful what you wish for." He glanced at Neal.

"Gotta move it, or seal it," Neal said. "Otherwise, when we play…" He shrugged. "I can't stay here much longer, if we don't do somethin'. It's messing with my head."

Jon looked like he wanted to get into that, but he sighed and looked at the floor instead. He looked tired.

The door rattled. "Hey," Deen said, voice muffled through the door. "Who got their eyes pecked out by a vulture?"

Jon cursed angrily and whipped the door open, dragging Deen in and slamming the door again. Deen looked around, letting his eyes settle on Steve. "Shit," he said. "This's like a Superfriends convention, right? You guys gotta overthrow another fairy world?"

"We want you to be our fairy spokesman, Deen-o," Steve said.

"Up yours," Deen said.

"Not your job," Steve said.

"Got just over half an hour, to get this together," Jon said. "Do whatever the hell you're gonna do, and put things straight."

"It's a little too late for 'straight', Jon," Ross said.

Neal looked around at them in turn, at the confusion on every face but Steve's. "Okay," he said. "The rest of you, out. Not sure what'll happen. Probably nothin', but ground zero needs to be clear of everyone but me and Steve."

Everyone froze for a moment.

"Out!" Neal barked.

Deen backed slowly down the bus stairs, unlocking the door and hopping out, his hands raised in surrender. Ross followed, shaking his head. "Try not to blow us into another timeline," he said. "We're just making a comeback in this one."

They slammed the door behind and went looking for Amber.

Jon stood and stared between Neal and Steve. "What are you gonna do?" he said.

"Not sure," Neal said. His tone, the look on his face, all made it plain he wouldn't say if he could. He was suddenly distant, and if Jon noticed that or the tense look on Steve's face, he didn't let on.

Jon opened his mouth to make some scathing comment, but held back. Neal had been acting weird all day, since they'd turned down Silica Road off Interstate 90. Steve was leaning slightly forward, looking like he was either waiting to jump in or run away.

"You were mapping the place out, when you were looking earlier," Jon said. "Doin' that, can you tell where the boundaries are on this thing? Maybe you can just…I don't know. Move the whole thing down to the river. I'd believe almost anything, with you guys."

Neal looked as if he hadn't heard. But then he said, "Or fold it up when we rewind the place. Fold it up and carry it around."

Jon glanced at Steve. The singer looked utterly placid all of a sudden, but for the faintest crease of worry between his brows. It meant the singer was frightened enough to be cowed rather than lash out like he normally would. Jon argued internally with himself about staying to see if there was something – anything – he could do to help. He would automatically boost anything they did just by being in close proximity, whether they wanted him to or not. That could work for or against them, depending on how wild things got. They were all built to handle something just like this, but had no idea how to go about it.

School's in, he thought.

He didn't like how Neal was acting.

As if picking up his thought pattern, Neal shook his head a little. Then he made a grab for Steve.

Steve nearly bowled Jon over getting out of Neal's reach, sensing the move as Neal was making it. Steve grabbed for Jon to steady them both, nearly sending himself down the stairs. Then he reached around Jon and unlocked the door, sending it flying open and sending Jon sprawling out onto the grass. The keyboardist's face was nearly comical with shock.

"You in here's making him more of everything, and me in here's makin' it unbearable," Steve said. Then he slammed the door again.

Jon sat in the grass, knowing Steve was right and wondering if the singer could really hold his own in there. Neal probably wouldn't hurt him, he'd just…

Jon got up and walked away before anyone could notice him there and ask him what the hell was going on. He jogged back to the staging area. The last of the light was fading over the Columbia River, and the sky was varying shades of rose and indigo. Jupiter was rising over the facing bluff and Jon paused long enough to let the twilight wash over him. He'd probably have no memory of this, if they were successful; he'd just live it again.

What'd he mean, about folding it up?

As one of the Six, Neal would instinctively know things no one else would understand. But while out of his head?

~~~

Steve kept backing away, knowing that reasoning with Neal was always difficult but probably beyond him for sure at that point. Neal had gone feet first into something, and his signal was sporadic and stuttering to the singer. It was dark in the bus by then, and he could see a faint electric blue shining at the back of the guitarist's retinas. There was an instant of memory, of scrambling away from Neal's hollowed-out form in a tower in the Outlands. Then he shoved it away. This was only Neal, even if he was nuts. If they hadn't been tangled, there would have been absolutely nothing to ground the walker in any one timeline. They were knee-deep in a river that was invisible but no less as tangible or unstoppable as the river in the Gorge below them. Either one cresting its banks meant trouble for the things living nearby…

He thought about how the band had needed to delay the Houston show because of flooding. He thought about the river he and Aug had fallen into below Athyri, about how if you lived anywhere near a river, you lived in it, because they all had natural flood plains…

Can we do that, like you said? Steve thought. Fold things up, let 'em overlap?

Neal's thoughts were little more than static hum and intent. Steve knew he was dealing with a walker now, that Neal was submerged somewhere.

Not without getting wet, right? Steve thought. He felt the wall at his back and realized he'd reached the other end of the bus. Neal came to a stop inches from him, staring at him, and it was all Steve could do not to duck away or use his powers to shove Neal back.

Neal raised a hand, but it paused in midair. Steve cringed, knowing there was a struggle going on that he couldn't participate in. Neal was over his head in the river, and they'd have to do something quick –

It's quicksand, Steve thought. Time-quicksand. If you're light, you skim across the top and end up in New York. If you're one of the Six, you –

The hand remained inches from his face. Neal was barely breathing and wouldn't keep forever, where he was.

What kind of black hole does it make in space-time, if one of the Six falls through to the Evenwhen? Steve thought. Go ahead. I won't let you get too crazy out there.

There was a pause. Then the walker grabbed him.

It wasn't pleasant.

Steve was dunked head first in the slipstream, held under the thin surface of what kept them sane and in the physical world. Time and place and circumstance were all one thing, energy and matter indistinguishable. If he hadn't been shredded through the Evenwhen more than once, he'd have descended to thrashing, screaming panic. How Neal had stayed conscious enough to chase him through the bus was a wonder. Vaulting yourself off the sphere of space-time, or tapping into what lay beneath and between was very different from being submerged without support.

Steve gave up trying to figure out which way was up; there was no physical reference to make, and he wasn't sure if they were still truly physical anyway. A wild thought spun out of the blue-sparking dark, of Amber walking in and wondering what the hell they were doing …

He was wrenched back out of the slipstream, slammed back into the unbearable slowness of living in one time, one place, linear again. His heart raced but it was a horrible amount of time between beats. Slow, so slow

He opened his eyes to the dark, reaching blindly for anything, uncertain of where he was. It took him a moment to realize he could identify the feel of what his hands were on : carpet. Carpet was a foreign concept for a long moment, so he thought about it, and while he did he decided he was facedown. Down was also a foreign concept, but he'd known it once, so he waited. Things would be fine so long as he waited. After a bit, or maybe hours, or maybe a heartbeat, something moved, and he was turning. He flailed for purchase the way any newborn did when laid suddenly on its back, and one foot – he had them again – encountered a hard, slick surface, making a thud sound that did more to ground him than whoever was holding him.

Hey. Hey, what's an asshole like you doing in a timeline like this?

It suddenly made perfect sense that he was sitting up in the dark leaning against Neal's chest, that the internal voice was Neal's, that they were on a bus and Journey was due on stage.

Neal ruffled Steve's hair, knowing the singer hated it. You grounded me, you came up with an anchor. You thought of Amber.

Steve sighed.

Did you see it, see the way it's laid out? Neal thought, sounding like a kid. It's got no real size or shape, but it stops and starts. I got the boundaries down. I think I can just – he paused. You didn't see anything, you just came after me, didn't you.

Steve shrugged internally. If you know how to go about it, we better get it done. I see your idea of it, and that's about it. You went in there on purpose.

"Didn't think there was any other way," Neal said aloud.

I couldn't hear you, while I was up here and you were down there, Steve thought. Next time, you could…warn me.

'Fuck you, don't tell me what to do'. Sound familiar? Neal thought.

There's a lyric you can use on the next album, Steve thought.

And give you writing credit? I don't think so, Neal thought.

Let's get this done, Steve thought. I can't really help you, so do what you need to with me.

You're an easy but boring date, then, Neal thought. If you're just gonna lie there, the least you could do is –

"Neal," Steve said softly.

"Okay," Neal said. "But I don't like…putting you away."

"Can't help it, this time," Steve said.

"Close your eyes," Neal said.

"Why? It's dark, and it doesn't – "

Steve was cut off when Neal rested a hand on his head and sent him to sleep.

~~~

A moment later, he was opening the back door to let Shai out into a warm, sunny August afternoon. He paused with his hand on the knob, feeling the difference, feeling worn.

Think about it.

Neal? he thought. You did it, you got him back.

We did it, Neal thought.

How did you…Then Steve saw it: a pattern beneath the thin skin of the physical world, an interconnecting spiderweb of occurrence and intent. Sections overlapped, strung together with a walker's hands. The place was silent; the thin spot had been rolled up.

I've got it for safekeeping, Neal thought. Not exactly sure how, but I've got it, like when you had that key. I can't carry it around, or it'll pull me in again. But it might come in handy.

Steve had an impression of a pocket within the line, of the thin spot rolled into something that took up no real space.

"Wow," Steve said, and Neal laughed across the distance. "I thought you said you'd just have to rewind local time."

I lied.

"Yeah," Steve said. "Well, what was Aug looking for?" He closed the back door and watched the back yard though the window.

Dunno. He already knows something's messed up, but can't figure it out. And there's folks in the crowd lookin' like they're not sure who they are. But I'd say it's fine.

What else is there? Steve thought. You saw something.

There's another thin spot on a stop on the tour, Neal thought. The folks in Oklahoma are gonna kill us, but I'm not gonna risk it. I'm gonna leap back a little and get the show moved. Maybe some kind of…scheduling conflict. We'll make it up to 'em somewhere.

Steve made a tsk sound, and listened to John Waite's set through Neal's ears. Someone hurled a Bad English license plate and nearly nailed John with it. Steve laughed. Be an ironic way for him to go, don't you think?

I gotta go on, finish John's set, Neal thought. You got maybe 2 minutes to tuck yourself in somewhere.

Steve nodded to himself, then opened the door to whistle Shai back inside. He got an insulted look, but the creature obeyed, dashing back in and heading for his water bowl. Steve locked the door and headed to the living room, settling himself into a chair and waiting. Once Neal started playing, Steve would be incapable of anything but sitting motionless. Once Journey was onstage, he would be insensible. That was where Shai became priceless.

Tell Aug those pants are upstaging him, Steve thought. They're gonna need equal billing soon.

Fine, Neal thought. But I ain't tellin' him he's sexy.

* * *