"And apparently your talent for simplifying the hell out of everything remained intact all your life," Jon said, clapping Steve on one shoulder.
Steve smiled a little, finding himself liking Jonathan immediately. Smitty was quiet but friendly, Ross was a smartass. All likable. It was Neal he couldn't seem to get a handle on, even though it was Neal he remembered. A younger Neal, anyway. "And we're gonna do what?"
"We have to get back into the Evenwhen," Jon said. "Neal can, or you wouldn't be here. It'll take all of us to break in and disengage whatever restrictions she's put on it. We're strongest together. The way we figure it, we need you to hold her down while I 'undo' her, and Neal gets into the Evenwhen to free it and the namers. It's not just what we're telling you; you know this because I've shown you. This is really happening."
"Then why hasn't she come after Neal?" Steve said. "She could have stopped him, long before now, to keep him from getting in this Evenwhen, or finding me."
"She did," Neal said slowly. "She...had me, for awhile, even though I don't remember it. You guys were going to rescue me, and she set a trap. She was trying for Jay, but you fell into it instead."
"And that's how I died," Steve said. Who the hell are you, that I'd die for you? None of them heard him--they barely heard anything he thought, and he was grateful as hell for it. Jon had explained that he wasn't quite on their wavelength, but had the potential for it, so they only heard an occasional emotion. "So what happens when we're done, if we're still alive?"
"Hopefully, everything should reset," Neal said. "When we get out of here, you'll go back where you belong, and our Steve..." he paused. "I don't know, exactly. I'm not sure.We're kind of hoping the namers will put it all back."
"If I'm alive and get back, then he should be where he should be," Steve said. "But if you can go back and yank me off a street corner, why can't she go back and keep me from being born? That way I never exist, we never get her attention, and none of this ever happens."
"If we never get her attention, then why would she have to make sure you were never born?" Ross said. Steve looked at him in horror, and Ross laughed.
"She can't, yet," Jon said. "She hasn't been able to walk between even though she has control of the Evenwhen. She might not be strong enough yet. That's what she originally wanted you for, to brace it open, but she blew it. She'll find a way, though, if we don't hurry up."
"If we can release the Evenwhen, the namers will keep her from using it," Neal said. "But we still have to destroy her. She won't give up, and they won't do it, I think. She's been murdering people right and left, pulling them in here, and she's threatened our families. I'm in favor of destroying her sooner rather than later, but we don't know if we'll need her to untangle the Evenwhen."
"Siarion's watching your families," Steve said. "I remember..." He shook his head. "Not remember, exactly. I don't know what I mean."
"We're outside of time," Neal said. "You're just up to speed, that's all. Like you said, she might try and wipe us out before we knew what was happening. If we never existed, there'd be someone else she would have found to use. But I'd like to keep existing."
"So in a way, we accidentally caused all this," Steve said. "And we have to finish it."
"Hadn't thought of it that way," Smitty said.
"Before it gets dark," Jon said hesitantly, "there's something you need to know. I'm not sure if she'll try it again, now that we..."
*Leave it alone,* Neal thought quickly. Steve looked between them suspiciously.
*He's going to see for himself, if she doesn't leave it alone,* Jon thought.
"You guys are giving me a headache with this stuff," Steve said.
*Preparing him is better,* Jon added resolutely.
"Can you knock it off!" Steve shouted. "Jesus, I'm standing right here! You could goddamn well just talk to me, you know. Who the hell are you people!"
"Thank goodness," Neal said. "If I wasn't sure I got the right guy before, I am now."
"And while we're at it, maybe we should warn him of a few other things," Ross said. "I remember a particular show in North Carolina..."
"No," Neal said.
"It's not like I'm going to tell him not to date Sherrie, or anything," Ross said. Jon groaned aloud.
"Don't start," Neal warned, waving Ross away.
"What the hell!" Steve shouted.
"Steve," Smitty said, "Don't date Sherrie. You loved her, but it just didn't work."
"Please," Jon said imploringly. "You guys...this isn't funny."
"If he doesn't fall in love with her, he won't write the song and go to number three with it," Ross said.
"We didn't like her, much," Smitty said. "Don't do it."
"I don't especially like any of you," Steve said. "What the fuck are you clowns going on about?"
"Don't listen to any of this," Neal said, then laughed, for the first time in a long time.
"If I had a hit, what did I need you jokers for, then?" Steve said.
Neal shoved him into the snow, and Jon purposely distanced himself from them to stay out of what he could see coming. Steve picked himself up and launched himself at Neal, and it ended twenty seconds later when Neal had rubbed enough snow into Steve's face to make him reconsider. They brushed themselves off before resuming their walk, with Steve glaring and wiping his face on Jon's cloak.
Neal grinned at Jon, feeling slightly giddy, nearly believing they would all make it. They were all still alive, in a way. "He got beat up a lot, as a kid," he said.
"So what was the big deal, that nobody wanted to tell me about, before the bullshit started?" Steve said.
"Started?" Ross said. "I forgot, you're new."
"We buried you, and...disguised the spot to keep her from finding it again," Jon said. "But she's been walking around in your body."
Steve stared at him, looking nauseated. "God!"
"In any case," Neal said, "you have to ignore her."
* * *
Another hour passed in the unchanging scenery before anything caught their attention again.
Jon was hearing music.
Nothing he recognized; it danced along the edge of his consciousness, never quite congruous, never making itself plain. He thought nothing of it for a long while, being that he'd spent most of his life with something singing itself to existence in his mind. But the louder it got, the less he could ignore it.
"Anybody hear anything?'
There was negation from the others, and an inquiry from Neal that he shrugged in response to. The elusive, lilting melody continued fading in and out of his perception.
*What's got you?* Neal thought, then caught part of it in Jon's thoughts. Then Jon began humming the melody, a repetitive loop none of them could get a true sense of.
"I wish you hadn't done that," Steve said.
"What is it?" Ross said.
They paused to stare at each other and listen.
"Someone's messing with us," Smitty said.
"Yeah, and how long before it starts driving us nuts?" Neal said. "Talk about having a song stuck in your head."
"So put lyrics to it," Ross said.
"Something other than a love song, for once," Smitty muttered.
Steve and Neal did exactly that, turning the sparse but catchy melody into a lewd and insulting commentary on what had occurred so far. Ross egged them on until he couldn't stop laughing. And despite himself, Jon joined in.
"Nothing changed," Ross said, laughing. "You guys really were this obnoxious."
Before the novelty could wear thin, the music grew slightly louder as they approached a small outcropping of rocks littered across and partially concealed by the snow. They had been certain at first that it was another snowdrift, but closer inspection showed them otherwise.
"The rocks are singing," Steve said half-jokingly, but the uneasiness of it dogged him. How the hell could he tell the others, it actually was the rocks?
Something out of the whiteness caught Jon's eye while he continued to hum the tune and clear off the largest stone, deciding to rest for a moment. Like green bottle glass on a beach, a glimmer between the stones reflected light to him. Curious as to what might be buried all the way out in the middle of nowhere, he reached for the object, scooping something the size of one of the wraith-bells on a leather string toward himself. Dangling it by the edge of the loop, he examined it, hopping up on the stone he'd been clearing. When he was settled, he cupped the green stone in one hand...
*What'd you find?* Neal thought, coming closer.
"It's just..." Jon found himself wandering, unable to complete the sentence. The strangest sensation accompanied his inability to focus, pleasant but dubious, and he wanted to sleep. Christ, he was tired. Before he could think further, he looped the bit of leather around his neck as if it were the only thing to do, unaware that Neal had darted a hand out to try and stop him.
He stared at Neal for a moment in confusion as the round glimmer of green settled against his chest. Then he closed his eyes, and not even thought emanated from him any longer.
Neal had meant to keep him from putting it on before they knew what it was; his protest had come too late. Jon had looked at him as if unable to recognize him. Neal reached for the stone, closing his hand over it and intending to lift it back over Jon's head, but it stung him with an audible snap. He recoiled with a yelp, backing away, his alarm bringing the others. Jon failed to answer their thoughts, or move when they shook him.
"Why did he put it on!" Neal shouted in frustration.
"Probably had no choice," Ross said.
"Listen," Steve said suddenly.
"To what!" Neal shouted.
"To nothing. The music's stopped."
"The stone," Smitty said. "Shit, just like Steve said when we first got here. These people and their damned stones."
"That was a perfect trap," Ross said. "Look what she got us to do."
"I don't think she can kill him," Neal said, gazing at the stone around Jon's neck and making sure he was breathing. He was merely, but not harmlessly, asleep. "That's why the wraiths, the traps, the tricks. One of us, or something else, could kill him. But she has to resort to this. Contact with him is too much for her."
"If we take that thing off," Ross said, "assuming we could keep it from doing something to us, anything could happen. Then it would be a matter of one of us killing him."
Steve had scooted up onto the stone, sitting with his back against Jon's, sighing in response to something they all caught from Neal. "Don't do it," he said.
"I can't see any other way," Neal said.
"That's got to be part of the reason she's doing this," Smitty said. "Not only to get rid of him, or distract us. It works for her from every angle, to get you zapping back and forth and leaving yourself open to worse than this. If she can wear you out, or trap you for good next time, we're screwed. Don't do it. Steve's right." *Don't ever tell anyone I said so.*
"Hey," Steve said half-heartedly.
"You can't do the bird trick," Neal said. "No offense."
"And now we really need the bird. We don't have time to walk back to Athyri to ask how to get Jay out of this. And besides that, Jay knows something we can't decipher. We just don't have time. She would never expect me to be dumb enough to try it again. Besides, if I have part of the original Steve, it'll be a lot longer before I run out of steam. I can bring the original Steve back in here. I'll just be more careful this time."
"No one's exactly arguing with you," Ross said. "Just don't give her a chance to grab you. Why she hasn't tried to again, when it worked so well the first time, doesn't make sense. Just don't hand yourself to her."
"She'd have to pinpoint me outside the Evenwhen," Neal said. "Since I'm just vaulting off the outskirts of it, it's harder for her to catch me."
"Yeah, and she might be watching for you now that she's set this up," Smitty said.
"She might be that damned rock you're standing next to," Neal shot back. "I'm going."
Ross shrugged. "Anybody got a better idea?"
Smitty shook his head, and Steve sighed again. "It's what I would do. Don't do it."
Neal found himself grinning. "Somebody give me something to come back to."
It was Ross who raised the beacon, a mental image of the stone Jon wore. Then Neal focused carefully, making sure not to look too closely...and he was gone.
* * *
Further down the slope in Jon's backyard, Steve kept his back to their voices, running everything over in his mind again, needing a moment of quiet to try and let things settle into place. She hadn't come close to telling them enough. But even as he thought it, he turned his head slightly into the sun, catching movement out of the corner of his eye.
There was a heartbeat of time, a suggestion of a familiar outline standing close to him...Neal?
Then Siarion pulled him away.
* * *
"Neal," Steve said, shaking him, "are you all right?"
Neal opened his eyes in disappointment. "I missed him," he said. "Siarion pulled us all into the desert before I could grab him. But I think he saw me."
"Now she might know where you're headed," Ross said.
"If I try again, she damn well may try and come along," Neal said. "But I've gotta try. I'll pick a slightly different moment, because that one was too late."
"Neal," Steve began.
"No, I have to try!"
* * *
"You must go soon, to avoid more demonstrations," Siarion said.
"Leaving is really going to make them that much safer?" Ross said.
"Yes," Siarion said. "And it brings the chance of resolving this issue closer. I will give you time to say your farewells. Then there are things you must know, before you leave."
Yeah, right, Steve thought. 'Need to know basis.'
Siarion walked away, out the still-open sliding doors that led out to the backyard, and a moment later Steve and Ross did the same. Steve continued down the slope behind the back deck...
And Neal, wearing the same clothing he had the last time they'd been in the fourth dimension, stepped out in front of him, reaching for him. Confused, Steve stopped and stared, and before he could ask Neal how he'd beaten him to the backyard, Neal had vanished.
The fact of his style of dress and his sudden disappearance struck home, and Steve spun back toward the deck, where Ross was keeping Siarion from following him. He tore past them, alarming them into freezing and staring at him. Steve paused at the sliding doors, looking in long enough to assure himself of where the real Neal was before he turned back to them.
"Some other Neal was here," Steve said, hushed, urgent.
Siarion's face was a riot of alarm. "Just now? Here?"
"I saw him," Steve said. "He blinked on and off, like a light. I don't know if he was trying to tell me something, or what. Can he do that? Can he walk between?"
Siarion quailed, trying to decide what to make of it and what to say.
"Yes," she said softly, a startling contrast to Steve's vehemence. "As Sidain and myself do."
"Then something must have happened to make him try it," Ross said.
"Something from the other side, because he was wearing a cloak. He was trying to come back and fix something, only he never made it completely here. We have to figure out what he wanted!" Steve turned and leapt off the deck, but Siarion and Sidain were just as easily in his way.
"You must not," Siarion said. "Neal should not be correcting things in this manner. It could create..."
"Right now, I'm more willing to let the future him make that decision," Steve growled. "Whatever made him try something so...something that could probably kill him, we need to make it worth it. Now get the hell out of my way."
Having heard Steve shout, Jon came to the door, eyeing them warily.
"Keep Neal in the house," Steve said over his shoulder. "Otherwise, he might be walking into himself." He pointed a finger at Siarion. "Don't you tell me about the timeline."
Steve walked around Siarion and Sidain, followed immediately by a more than worried Ross. Jon came down the stairs, and a moment later they all felt the buildup of atmospheric pressure. Steve continued down the slope without pausing, making himself a bigger target, more fearful of what had brought Neal back to this place in time than whether it even was Neal. He reached a more open spot in the yard and stood, listening, waiting, centering Neal in his thoughts.
Siarion stood at Jon's elbow as the pressure began to build. "If he is not cautious," she said, "The Lady will use this opportunity to follow Neal here."
"He would have a reason," Jon said. "I know he would. He's either tried everything else, or it's all over and he's trying to warn us about something we did."
Neal came out on the deck, opening his mouth to ask them what was going on, but then the tension broke and he watched himself appear in the middle of Jon's backyard as if out of the air...
"Oh, no," he whispered, seeing the cloak, knowing something had gone so wrong that no matter what happened, there would be disaster at the end of it.
Steve reached the cloaked version of Neal first, staring at him with an open question on his face. "What happened?"
"Hurry," Neal gasped. The others were only steps away from reaching them. He held a hand out to Steve. "She'll find us. Come on!"
Not pausing to consider the wisdom of it, realizing this Neal couldn't move any further, Steve took his arm.
There was another disorienting tug, and they both disappeared, leaving confusion and dread behind them as well as before.
"So how many of me are there?" Steve said, throwing yet another displeased look at the younger version of himself.
"You mean counting the body she's walking around in?" Ross said.
"Shit," Steve said, making three syllables out of it and rolling his eyes. He had heard most of the story, including the part about Jon's current plight, and he shook his head.
"And Neal seems to have your abilities now, except for the changing," Smitty said.
"Then how did it happen? How did I die?" Steve said.
He was met with silence and a wealth of confusion.
"You know, I get sick of asking that question," Steve said.
"Nobody knows," the younger Steve said. "At least, no one's sure."
Steve shook his head, then looked at Neal. "He doesn't think?"
"He does," Neal said. "Not as easily, but yeah. You can't hear him?"
"No. Just lucky, I guess. So she got me, then."
"After you mouthed off enough to make torturing you her main goal," Neal said. "Of course, she only got you because you were looking for me. I fell into a trap and you decided to fly in and scout around."
"Then how are you alive, if she had you?" Steve said. Then he grinned. "What'd I do, negotiate a trade?"
None of them returned the humor. "She thought he was dead," Ross said softly.
Steve's grin faded to dread, his gaze shifting back to Neal, a strained solicitude visible on his face. *Something you wanna tell me?*
"I don't remember," Neal said without looking at him.
"So you're sure I'm dead just because she's walking around wearing me again?"
"Because Jay heard you go," Smitty said, drawing Steve's attention.
Steve stared at Neal. "Got elected to that job, again?" There was an apology under the words that Neal could barely tolerate. "Business as usual around here, I guess." There was a hell of a lot more going on that they weren't going to go into, and Steve figured that if Neal was that upset about it, it was something that could go without discussion. "So you found a way around it."
"We had to have you back to get this done," Neal said.
"And Junior here was the first attempt?"
The younger Steve made a derisive sound, having recovered from the sight of his older self as much as he was going to. "This is it? This is how I ended up? A big mouthed asshole?"
Steve turned on him with the same expression on his own features. "If you'll excuse us," he said softly, and there was a declamation looming behind the words that the younger version recognized. Unnerved and resentful, the younger stalked several yards away, careful to keep his back turned to his elder self.
*He's confused, that's all,* Ross thought toward the younger, uncertain about apologizing for Steve to another Steve.
"He's an asshole," the younger said with resolve. "Don't think to me, you guys are turning my brains to mush!"
"Don't explain me to him!" Steve said.
"You're both assholes, okay?" Neal said. "Jesus, we got work to do here."
"Did anyone else just see Steve call himself an asshole?" Ross mumbled.
"Why are you all over him?" Smitty said, once the younger was further out of earshot.
"I don't even remember him!" Steve said in an angry hiss. "Can we get rid of him?"
"It was an accident," Neal said. "Deal with it and move on. We didn't have much choice, and I ended up in the wrong spot. The only way to get rid of him is to get to the end of this, or kill him. I suggest we get to the end of this." *It wasn't entirely my doing, either. So just leave it alone.*
There was something about the tone of Neal's thoughts that bothered Steve a lot more than their current situation did. There was something about Neal altogether that he was trying to put a finger on. "Where did you get him?" he said. "Christ, he must be...twenty something. Clueless."
Neal told him.
"I wouldn't join the band either," Steve said. "So let's imagine I have my powers, he has them, and you have them." He gestured at Neal. "Now what?"
"We need a better plan," Neal said, "and we need to use whatever advantage we have now that there's more than one of you. If we got close enough and hit her all at once, Jay would have an even better chance of getting hold of her. Thing is, Jay's out of commission right now. At least he had her for a moment, and she might've given away how she did all this. But she won't give us another chance."
"You know?" Steve said.
"We might," Ross said. "She was clumsy. Or stringing us along. We need someone to decipher it for us, and then we'll have to go to The Lady ourselves, since she probably won't confront us again."
"We need a diversion," Smitty said.
"Ahh." Steve nodded.
"No," Neal said sharply. "Forget it, whatever it is."
"She'll take the bait," Steve said. "One of us, or the other. I'm sure Junior's mouth is just as smart."
"We saw what happened to you last time," Neal said. "We need a better plan than that."
"Where's he going when we leave here?" Steve said, gesturing unkindly at his younger self. "He won't have been here. His timeline will reset, and I'll still meet you guys and we'll start this bullshit all over again. She can have him."
"Cold," Neal said. "Real cold. Try asking him first, maybe."
"I am him!" Steve shouted, and the younger turned to stare at him disdainfully.
"Not so far as I can see," Neal said.
"You have a better idea?" Steve said. "Sneak up on her, maybe? Ask her to please shake hands with Jay, if we can wake him up? Bullshit. We're gonna have to piss her off and trick her into it. If she gets mad enough, she'll risk a few things and forget how dangerous he is."
"That's basically what Siarion said," Ross said. "But there has to be another way."
Steve sighed in exasperation, and they all fell silent for a long moment.
"She's not in the Keep?" Steve said in response to a fleeting thought of Smitty's.
"She's got a whole goddamn town, now," Smitty said. "Full of denizens happy to help us however they can, the way we heard it."
"Great. Anybody know the layout of this place?"
"You did," Ross said.
"A flyover in daylight should do it," Steve said. He immediately looked at Ross in response to the sudden flinch in the latter's thoughts. "What?"
"It would be the best option," Ross said slowly, "as long as you stay in the air. You obviously didn't, last time."
"Unless she's keeping a lookout for giant crows, of which you're the only one in this world," Neal said. "Kind of hard to miss a bird that big in the daylight."
"First order of business is finding out what the hell this stone is, and how we get Jay back," Steve said. "I can fly over later. She's doing a great job of keeping us from being all together in one place at one time." He paused, staring at Neal. "Why the hell would I have landed?"
Neal shook his head without looking at him. "The wolf's ears would have been able to pick up more than the bird's."
Steve's confusion was obvious, and Ross said, "We still have some explaining to do. There are a few other critters in your repertoire besides the bird."
Steve turned his head quickly to stare at Neal, seeing Smitty's rescue from the Sedhi through the guitarist's eyes, and the subsequent argument.
"Really," he said, more unsettled than impressed.
"Really," Neal said, keeping his eyes averted.
Steve stared at Jon for a long moment; then, with a thought, he was gone, taking to the air in the direction of Athyri.
The younger Steve gazed after the bird with a mix of emotions that were never intended to cross paths. "So what the hell happened to me?"
"A lot of things," Neal sighed. "You're--he's--not so bad, just...ah, shit." He brought an angered hand down in disgust, turning away.
"These aren't exactly normal circumstances," Ross said to the remaining Steve, who laughed.
"Hey, master of the understatement. I just watched an older version of myself turn into a bird!" The laughter graduated to something close to hysteria before he regained control. "What's he doing, anyway?"
"Mairiesa will know more about the rock than we do," Smitty said. "At least, we hope. So basically, it's the best we can do right now. But split up, we're easier to pick off. When it gets dark, something will probably be out here to take a crack at Jay. The witch doesn't have to. But chances are, with as angry as we've made her, she'll need to. Usually it takes all of us to stand up to her."
"So if she popped in on us now..." Steve said.
"Be a real short argument," Ross said.
Steve stared at them, fuming.
Ross shrugged. "Not much else to do but go for help."
* * *