DARKNESS GATHERS Part X
(c)1998 B Stearns



The waiting had given them too much time to think.

They had spent it shooting down ideas for getting out of there, one of them concerning Jon giving himself up to The Lady.

"She builds things that collapse when you give them what they're after," Jon had argued. "I have a feeling she's built the same way."

"What are you thinking?" Ross said. "Walking up and introducing yourself? There's something about you she can't deal with. But you aren't finding out what by throwing yourself at her. She wants you, bad. She wants you about six feet under."

"I vote we throw a bucket of water on her, click our heels together and get the fuck out of here as soon as we have Neal back on our side," Smitty said.

"Amen," Ross said. "You're a big part of what it'll take to get rid of her, she's given that much away. But I think you're right about not being able to do her in, apart." He paused, and before Jon could open his mouth to reply, he thought, *Now I know I heard something.*

They neither glanced behind themselves or stopped walking, but they held their collective breath to listen.

When the creature struck Ross that time, it was in person from behind.

It shoved him, hard, before centering on Smitty, who readied a fireball to ward it off, and Jon shouted, "Wait!"

The creature rounded on him at the sound of his voice, and there was an immediate shifting of the balance again even though the appearance of what faced them didn't change. It focused on Jon, a moment of reason jarring something loose while it hovered between.

I remember this one from when. Brothers!

Neal came to again surrounded on three sides by most of the rest of the band he'd helped to start, staring at Jon in confusion, some part of him glad to see him and something else fearful and hateful toward him. he tried to think to ask if they were real, but neither thought or sound left him. Only the intention.

"Just don't move," Jon said, and he included all of them in the instruction. "Stay with us, Neal."

Neal snapped a little further awake even though the other thing raged underneath as Jon walked toward him/them.

*It is him under there,* Ross thought. *He must have found a way to fill out his own body again. But he's not done, so watch out.*

When Jon was three steps or so away, holding his arms out, Neal lost for a moment again, and the creature leaped away only to backpedal rapidly when Smitty sent a burst of flame into it's path. Jon and Ross caught the creature from behind, the coldest part of what was left, and Jon overloaded it with everything he could. The green was visible even in the daylight, and when what was left of the creature struggled to turn for one last attack, Jon welcomed it. By the time it truly got hold of him, it was gone, evaporated into the light, and he was embracing Neal.

Jon was laughing with relief, and it was the first thing Neal heard.

*Where did I go?* Neal thought.

"You're back," Ross said, pounding him on the back. "If you don't remember, it doesn't much matter."

Jon held Neal away, looking him over to make sure he was as all right as he felt. "She had you," he said.

"I was in one of the towers," Neal said. "But she...I don't remember." His eyes dimmed a little, and Jon shook him to get his attention, concerned. "The lights in the snow, that's how she got me, and I remember Steve yelling that it was like the caves, but the rest is gone." He looked around, at all of them. "What'd I do?"

"Run loose around the countryside for a day or so," Ross said. "You were gone for three nights before you found us."

"Jesus." Neal continued looking around, laying a hand on Jon's shoulder in response to the mix of emotions emanating from him. Then he looked closer, a question in his eyes he didn't have to voice.

Jon nodded, a curtain of sobriety dampening his exultation at having Neal back.

"But how did she get him?" Neal said defeatedly.

"Looking for you. He was only going to fly over."

"Where is he now?"

"Buried in the snow, some way back," Ross said. "She made sure we found him. Just like the 'first' time we found him."

Neal's thoughts were a rumble of disappointment. "Then he's really gone, this time." he looked at Jon, an implication forming, and Jon shook his head.

"There was something of you left," Jon said. "She was careless with you. He isn't here."

Neal embraced Jon again, more to comfort him than anything else, and said, "Can we get this done? Without him to hold her down."

Jon shrugged. "Got to."

"Got some arguing to do, with the namers, when we're done arguing with her," Ross said.

Neal nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, got to."

* * *

They made good time toward the Outlands with the light the day provided. It had stopped snowing, and the trees were long behind them when the light began to turn again. There was a disturbing lack of follow up from The Lady or anything that belonged to her, and it caused them to be even more watchful. Either she thought that Neal had destroyed them, or that Steve's death had rendered them basically useless, or both. The silence was it's own noise, loud in the frozen expanse.

*We'll just have to break in,* Ross thought. *So long as we keep her busy and let Jay grab her, and cross our fingers that there aren't too many more surprises.*

The shadows climbed around them as they discussed the possibility of getting past the wraiths by attacking in full daylight.

*She might not hear us coming at all, without Steve,* Neal thought. *It would be better to know something about the layout of that crazy place. You guys said Steve opened his thoughts all the way up, and she had to pay attention. I can't help but think that was his 'job' in all this. Jay, you can probably take care of her yourself. But it would have been easier with Steve holding her down.*

There was no warning; there was only the faintest crunch in the snow to one side, closest to Smitty.

Then Steve walked up and said, "Did I miss anything?"

* * *

No one spoke. No one could.

Everyone turned to face Steve but Neal, knowing it wasn't Steve but struck by the sight nonetheless, a bruised and dark eyed apparition in the snow. The Lady's dark eyes. Not her approximation of Steve, either, but the actual body that they had buried in the snow.

"I am still fond of this form, even mistreated. He was annoying, wasn't he? But tenacious. I must thank the one who has done me the service of removing him." The smirk she wore wasn't quite Steve's and Jonathan wondered what results he would get from tangling with her then and there. Neal remained turned slightly away, arms folded, expression derisively calm.

"Oh, come on, Neal," she said. "You destroyed the Er Rai. The least you can do is face him one final time."

Somehow, the use of his name caused Neal no adverse effects; there was a flinching somewhere in the back of his mind, but he was otherwise unaffected. "Losing him is only gonna make us try harder to do away with you," he said softly. "And we will. You'll have to kill all of us."

"You should return to your world, Neal, before I do exactly that."

Something clicked again, and the use of his name still failed to affect him. Something stirred, though, something neither right or wrong. "I'll make a deal with you. You lie down and die, and we'll leave."

Neal had just long enough to register that the words weren't his before she struck out at him without moving. He felt it coming; to everyone's surprise but most of all his own, Neal slammed his thoughts shut and braced himself, turning the invisible blow aside. He felt it, but it did no damage.

The Lady backed away, glaring as she retreated, drawing the folds of the cloak around the body she'd stolen.

The confusion was only allowed to settle for a moment before Ross thought, *Jesus, Neal, no wonder. It isn't just you in there, you have Steve!*

"If you're here to take us on, do it," Neal said, and again the words weren't his. "But the little horror show tactics have lost their charm. Put up or shut up." He was suddenly on the verge of laughter. *She just brings out the worst in me, I guess.*

Jon came toward her and she backpedaled immediately, Steve's hair falling in his/her eyes again. She smiled ruefully, glancing up at the dark not-sky as if hearing something. "If you insist," she said, and the laugh that followed it was a close equivalent of Steve's in life. Then she turned and walked away, cloak lifting behind in the breeze.

Anger coursed through them all, but Jon's thoughts ran to violence, and Neal said, "She's hoping you will. She came to jerk our chains a little, Jay. She'll give us a real chance, later on."

Jon held out for another moment. "I can't deal with that," he whispered.

"She's playing us," Neal said, tone a little harder. "Since when am I talking sense into you?"

*Since the bitch hauled off with you and killed Steve,* Ross thought. "That's a little more than the recommended daily allowance of chain-jerking."

"She's setting us up again," Neal said. "Just let it go. She'll get hers."

"She can't have him," Jon said unsteadily, and bolted after the mocking figure. Neal lit out after him, and Ross outdid himself by throwing the first illusion that came to mind. When The Lady turned to confront Jon, there were two sets of him, and she paused in surprise long enough for the real Jonathan to leap for her and knock her into the snow.

Things whirled by him again that never materialized, that couldn't gain cohesion along his thought patterns. There was no three-dimensional equivalent for what he saw. He retained everything this time, yet understood none of it; the surrounding terrain lit up in a seething emerald that created a false day, nearly blinding them all. Then she slammed down against him and threw him clear of the glimpse she didn't realize he had. When the light dissipated a moment later and the others could see past the green spots dancing in their vision, Jon had regained his feet and the singer's corpse was no longer animated.

Not by The Lady, at any rate.

To their horror, they watched Steve/not Steve sit up, knowing The Lady had fled under an energy she couldn't counter. Its' eyes glowed a dull green, not living, not conscious, but animate regardless. It struggled to its' feet blindly, unsteadily, aware of nothing, and Jonathan found himself unable to back away. His own energy had infused Steve's body when The Lady had left it, and was all that was holding it up, and he realized the magnitude of the mistake he'd made.

*Get away from it,* Neal thought shakily.

*But--*

*That's not Steve. GET AWAY FROM IT!*

But before Jon could find the strength to make his legs move, the thing wavered and collapsed backwards into the snow, the energy leaving it to dissipate into the night air. It hadn't taken hold.

The silence was ringing and final. Then Jon fell to his knees, bent double in grief, and wept.

* * *

They buried Steve again after a short but heated argument concerning whether they should destroy the body altogether to keep her from using it; but the fear that it would lessen their chances of getting him back at a later point ended the discussion. Jon remained silent, staring off at nothing, sitting with Ross on a couple of boulders they'd found and refusing to participate. But it was that discussion that brought another to light and roused Jon from his lassitude as a thought formed in Neal's mind.

"Yeah," Jon said aloud, "these are 'dire circumstances'. But she'll hear you, and probably do worse to you than she already has. She'll expect you to try and rewind to get him back. We don't even know at what point he was captured. And we'd have to go all the way back and fix it all. It's too much time, with too many factors involved."

"We can't get this finished without him," Neal said softly. "You can't hold her down, like he can. We're all pretty damn sure it's you who'll be doing her in, but she can get away from you. We all need to be here, for this. Maybe I can't rattle around in here without her tangling it up. But she might not expect me to do something out there."

Jon looked up slowly, meeting Neal's eyes, realizing what he was considering. "Walking between? Going home?"

Ross stood, coming closer, disbelief on his face. "Jesus, are you kidding? Just zap out of here, grab a version of Steve that hasn't been through all this, and zap back?"

Neal nodded.

"Can you do that? Smitty said incredulously. "Is that even possible?"

"The real question is, will it kill you," Jon said.

"How many guarantees have we had since this all started?" Neal said. "She's gonna be damn sorry she didn't finish me off. She just told us to go home, didn't she? She won't pay that much attention if I do exactly that."

"One shot's all you'd get, though," Smitty said. "After that, she'll be all over you. And how the hell are you gonna know how to get to a certain place and time? What if you end up in the middle of some Civil War battle?"

Neal shook his head. "It's the same thing I've done before, I think, just on a larger scale. Just pick a point and focus on it. How do you think Siarion gets around?"

"Be good to have a couple of lessons, first," Ross said.

Neal thought for a moment, and Jon said, "But you didn't kill him."

Neal winced. "How would you know?"

Jon continued, "There was no 'you' involved. You didn't get a choice. He's not still 'here' to retrieve, like you were, there's nothing of him left for me to try and catch hold of. You have...something, but it's not really him, as far as I can tell. There's no telling where he's gone."

"I wish I knew what happened," Neal said.

"I think it's better you don't," Ross said. "We gotta keep going forward in this crazy, backwards place."

"But what...was I?" Neal said. He knew, already, from the moments he'd been able to regain control before Jon had exorcised what had shared his body. Something that did more than kill. Something that had forced Steve to throw that switch...

"Doesn't matter, now," Ross said.

"I'm gonna do it," Neal said.

"We haven't even discussed it," Smitty countered. "You're ready to rush off and slay dragons without figurin' out if they're dragons or not."

"You're behaving," Jon said softly, "like Steve."

Neal shook his head. "I'm behaving like I used to, before I had kids and realized there was a hell of a lot more to risk than myself. I think this's our only chance at this point. You just knocked her silly, and the last thing we'd do now is break out of here and go home. She wants us to. She'll ignore me. " He sighed, considering Jon more carefully. "There was more this time, wasn't there? But it doesn't make any more sense."

Jon nodded. "Maybe not to us. I don't know what I saw. But Mairiesa might."

"Then when we're all together again...we'll head back to Athyri, or find a way of getting Mairiesa's attention and see if she can make anything out of what you saw. The bitch might have given away the key to this whole mess. Her mind was somewhere else. She might have been hoping you'd attack her, but it doesn't mean she was prepared."

They let a moment of silence gather, unbroken even by thought. The chill grew more acute as the midpoint of night began turning back toward day.

"I have to try," Neal said finally. "I know I can do this."

"At least wait for daylight, then," Ross said. "Wait until the witch would think twice before coming after you."

Neal nodded.

"Where are you going," Jon said.

"And when," Ross threw in.

"To just before we got back in here," Neal said. "before Steve went through any of this, but close enough to be our Steve. We can bring him up to date and go from there."

"And that makes it close enough to keep from screwing with the timeline," Jon said.

Neal laughed. "Fuck the timeline. Let the namers iron it out later."

The others looked at him skeptically. "Okay, Steve," Ross said drolly.

"Don't start," Neal said, suddenly serious.

"Yeah," Ross said. "Well, remember that life's a lot of what ifs and conjecture as it is, huh?"

* * *

Not being well versed in walking between, Neal was careful to focus on the place and time he was headed for, working as many details in as he could. He was equally as careful to leave a beacon to return to in the event that getting back was more difficult; Jon had suggested the idea and offered to make himself the target by keeping Neal at the forefront of his thoughts while he was gone.

Then he was, in a disorienting tug.

And was instantly confused. He was not where he'd intended to be. Not on a sidewalk in front of a brick post office.

This is where I ended up? he thought disparagingly. He could be anywhere, anytime, and there wasn't time to search around. He could only hope he was at least close...

Uncertain, he began walking, not wanting to call attention to himself by standing there and gaping. The streets were nearly deserted. It was early in the morning, wherever he was, and from what he could gather from the style of the buildings and cars, he was at least in the right century. A dog ran between two cars parked alongside the street, a breed too mixed to define. The cars themselves were late model American, one a '64 Chevy. All that told him was that it was at least that point in time.

Shit. If he's only fifteen, I might as well turn back.

He passed a newsstand, pausing long enough to glance at the topmost paper: the Fresno Observer, July fourth, 1977.

"Jesus," he said aloud. How had he screwed this one up? It was a date he knew, though. Steve hadn't joined the band until October of that year. But July...

Then it struck him. Richard Michaels, the bassist for Alien Project, was going to be killed in the next day or so, sending their Steve careening into their lives.

The memory wasn't his.

It was a graphic demonstration of why Jon had told him to be careful. He had to pull this off before The Lady found him...

Someone came walking up behind him, a kid with dark shoulder-length hair and a black leather jacket, who examined the paper over Neal's shoulder without the slightest pretense or notice of him. The kid was humming a Jackie Wilson tune, hands shoved into his pockets, mind obviously elsewhere. Thinking, Neal guessed even as his heart leaped, about the possibility of being signed to his first record deal the following week.

Wrong Steve. But he'd have to do. Another chance might not present itself.

The kid raised his eyebrows and turned away, and Neal said, "Steve."

Completing a textbook double take, Steve stared at him in distracted confusion, trying to place him. Even though he himself had no distinct memory of it, Neal invoked the only thing that tied them to each other at that point in time. He held a hand out and said, "Do you remember me?"

Steve took the offered hand without hesitation or wariness. That would come later, Neal knew, after the world had had a chance to show him how dangerous it could be...

"It seems like I should remember, but I don't. Where've I seen you?"

Neal almost laughed aloud. Well, we were in a band for almost twenty years, and then I killed you. "I gave you a ride home from a show I was playing a couple months ago. Azteca. You and your--cousin? Larry. And you've been trying to get into Journey the last few months, haven't you, but we keep saying no." What the fuck am I saying? I don't remember this... "I'm Neal Schon."

He got raised eyebrows and incredulity for his efforts. "Man," Steve said slowly, "his dad, I would believe, but no way are you Neal. What's going on?"

"You'd never believe it, even if I had the time to tell you," Neal said, fighting the constriction in his throat. "I'll explain in about a minute, if this works. All I can do is apologize." And he yanked Steve toward him, sending the slight figure off balance, grateful he wasn't much more than a skinny kid at that point, or he might have had a fight. Well, twenty eight, and no longer a kid, but underweight. Steve stumbled into him with a gasp, and Neal felt several internal clicks, like tumblers falling into place in a combination lock. He centered on Jon...

*If you're going to keep doing this,* Ross thought, *you're either going to get better at it, or it's going to get better at you.*

Neal opened his eyes to the orange sunlight he'd come to despise. At least he'd done something right.

He sat up to find himself surrounded by Jon, Ross and Smitty, whose thoughts wavered between concern and amusement. At a slight distance behind him was a white noise of panic, without anything solid or singular rising from it. Only seconds had passed between his jaunt through space-time and regaining consciousness.

*You found him, all right,* Ross thought, helping Neal to his feet. *But where?*

"What," Steve said breathlessly, "is going on, and who the hell are you guys!"

"That should explain it," Neal said wryly. He turned to Steve before the singer could decide to bolt altogether, realizing he wasn't hearing him well at all. "Steve," he said softly, "we reconsidered. Welcome to Journey."

As he expected, the absolute bizarreness of the words coupled with the insouciant tone of voice served to cause Steve to merely stand there and stare at them, his panic dimming. Neal pointed at Ross. "You've met him, more than once. And Smith toured with an opening band for awhile before joining up at the end of '78. Jay came in when Gregg decided to retire in 1980. Everybody went off to do solo stuff after 1986, but we got together to finish another album ten years after that." He held a hand out to stop Jon, who was dying to leap in.

"Sure," Steve said, nodding, beginning to back away. "Right. So what year is it now?"

"1996," Ross said, then yelled "Wait!" just before Steve took off running in the direction of the Turning.

*Stephen,* Neal called, sending an image with it, of a school gymnasium and a song called 'Lights' being played for strangers for the first time.

It stopped the singer in his tracks, and when they caught up to him, he spoke before turning around. "How do you know that song? Where did you get it?"

"From you," Jon said. "You wrote it about L.A., but it never fit with Alien. It became kind of a theme song for San Francisco." *We're not lying to you. We can't.*

Steve startled away from him, the words ringing painfully between his ears. "How are you doing that!" He clapped a hand to his forehead, looking dizzy. When Jon put a hand out to steady him, Steve spun away. "This is crazy. Crazy. You guys are tryin' to tell me some time travel story? And where are we, anyway? What the hell am I here for?"

"That's harder to explain," Ross said. "But if you--"

"Wait," Steve said quickly. "Wait. If I joined the band, whenever I joined the band, and all this really happened, then how come I wasn't with you already?"

"You were," Neal said. "Something's happening that we need your help with. We probably can't get out of it without you. But the person in our timeline--our Steve--is gone." The words were hard to say, and Neal shook his head, lowering it, swallowing hard but unable to speak. *Give us a chance to explain.*

Steve stared at him for a long moment, wincing when Neal thought toward him. "So you grabbed me out of my own timeline?" he said. He looked at Jon, then back at Neal. "God, I have not been drinking, I swear it! This is total craziness. I'm still asleep, right? The alarm's gonna go off, and you crazy people are going back to Neverland where you belong."

"Look at me," Neal said. "I was a kid the last time you saw me. How the hell would you be dreaming what I look like in twenty years?"

Steve frowned at him, as if a tirade was imminent, then glanced around. "Where are we, anyway?"

"It's something like another dimension," Jon said. "We can explain all this. I can't promise it'll make sense, but we'll try."

Steve continued staring at them for a long, silent moment, taking in Neal's sorrow, Jon's paternal attitude and Ross' grin as well as Smitty's noncommittal stare. His thoughts--what little they could hear of them--rang with bewilderment. "First, tell me what happened to your Steve," he said. Unable to believe he was saying it. Play along. Play along, and maybe it'll all vanish.

Ross glanced at Jon. "He was killed. It was...an accident."

Steve shook his head and began walking away again. "No way. No way am I joining this band."

"Steve," Jon said, "you aren't somewhere you can just walk away from. We told you, this isn't home. There are things here...that you've never seen before. Dangerous things."

"Things that kill singers," Steve said, then laughed, still walking. "Craziness. I'm waking up now, so you lunatics can just go back to being crazy by yourselves."

*Yes, things that kill singers,* Neal thought. *We've lost you once already, so at least let us explain.*

"Sure!" Steve shouted over the distance he'd created. "Great idea! You lost one already, so by all means, leap through time and kill another one!" He laughed again.

Neal looked at Jon. "He was still a spaz by the time you met him. But this is what he was really like."

"I'm going to have to persuade him, I think," Jon said.

"Reel him in before something eats him," Smitty said.

Steve kept walking even when Jon jogged up beside him, refusing to look at what he considered a stranger. "Come on," Jon said. "It's not that bad."

Steve rounded on him in affront, ready to let loose a stream of invectives. When he did, Jon took his arm, and within the space of seconds, Steve understood everything. Them, where they really were, and what had happened. Jon's memories became Steve's.

And Steve fainted.

* * *