DARKNESS GATHERS Part XIV
(c)1998 B Stearns



Nothing happened.

"Goddamnit," Steve said aloud, "she knows I'm here." He didn't acknowledge Neal's presence nearby, keeping him out of his thoughts, careful not to give him away. *Come on, Tuirnarin. Didn't you miss me?*

There was no way she couldn't hear him, that close, if she was in the towers. No matter where she was, his presence that close to the towers would have enraged her. Just the chance to get her hands on him again should have enticed her to stop what she was doing long enough to at least knock him around. The guys had told him about throwing his thoughts open, and he didn't want to have to do that--if he could--until he had to.

"Come on, just come and get me already!" he shouted.

He waited another minute, shuffling his feet in the snow and distantly realizing that things smelled and looked so different in that form. He wondered what other forms he was capable of...and then his patience vanished.

"That's it," he said. "You asked for it, you frigid bitch." With his next breath, he broke into 'Lady Luck', singing it as loudly as he could and pacing back and forth. By the time he got to 'I been here too long,' something had had enough of him because the light began reversing itself...

* * *

The labyrinth inside vanished as easily as Steve's patience had, leaving a single corridor spiraling upward before them, into the center of the tower.

"She's gonna do it," Jon said aloud, and the three of them began running up the corridor, keeping close to the walls.

* * *

Even Neal felt the buildup of pressure before Steve snapped out of sight, leaving him out there to wait for the rest of it.

* * *

Steve opened his eyes to a room that curved on itself, and he knew immediately it had to be the top of the spiral; it looked, to him, in the brief moment he was allowed to examine it, like the inside of a snail's shell. But the lines and curves didn't match up, as if M.C. Escher had been the architect.

Then he was on his knees with shock, neither Aradia or Jon available to shield him from the full impact of The Lady's hatred. She didn't use the first blow to dismember him as she'd intended when they first encountered her outside Athyri, but it was damn close, and he used the consciousness he had left to keep himself together.

{how many times must i kill you?} she demanded furiously, waiting for him to gather his wits so she could drive the point home again.

*That's a good question,* he thought, opening his eyes again to find her nearly ten feet away. She was an outline of red with wide black eyes, half-turned toward him. She knelt before an elliptical pit approximately twenty feet in radius, a ruinous baptismal built on a daunting scale. Something whirled and twitched blackly within. The only thing that made the entire scene visible was the offset radiance of what lay in the pit, not light as Steve understood it but something resulting from the pure energy that screamed out of it and hung a silver aurora several feet above the pit itself. It was noise on another plane, a somewhere that creatures like himself weren't tuned to, somewhere he'd been and had seen too much of. Every thing, time and place.

He unintentionally slammed his thoughts shut, realizing what he was looking at and that it was only his mind's interpretation of it, because the real thing had no visible structure...

Tuirnarin was laughing, and without wanting to Steve was standing next to her with his hands on the raised edge of the pit, looking down into the most dangerous wishing well in existence.

Looking into forever, again.

"Steve," Tuirnarin said, "do you remember the Evenwhen?"

* * *

Jon was running up another section of the spiral, Ross and Smitty close behind him, when they heard Steve close his thoughts.

"Ahh, shit," Ross said breathlessly. "What the hell's he doing!"

* * *

Neal listened to the sudden inaudible thud that signified the closing of the singer's thoughts, heard on the level of someone who knew more about it than they wanted to. He cringed as the light faded around him. *Don't let her do this,* he thought, hoping something of it would get through even if he wasn't heard. *Don't let her get away with this!*

The sound of a boot scraping through snow behind warned him too late, and as he began to turn, one of the Watch already had him by the back of his cloak and was strangling him by it...

* * *

A silver-shot spiral of nothingness opened beneath the whirling blackness, a distance Steve couldn't look away from. It was an infinitesimal point that proved to be a gaping aperture without boundary, and he began leaning in...

{only once more, and i will not have to deal with you again,} she told him. {you will be nothing more than part of a gate i use to help me keep this portal open}

*A gate,* Steve thought, and when that thought looped back and returned to him over the distance, he wondered what had ever made him so worried about being in the Evenwhen...

Then she was pushing him over the edge of the pit with inexorable pressure, something close to being fed into a food processor, and the word gate hurtled out of the distance again, making sense in a way he needed it to. He struggled, holding his balance over the edge, reaching for something and finding it just as the black eyes began to register concern...

* * *

They all startled when it happened, from the men in the tower to the Wisps going about their business in Athyri; like the first time, there was nothing on that world that didn't hear Steve open his thoughts as far as they would go. Jon actually stumbled, stunned enough that Ross had to pull him back upright. "Now!" Ross yelled. "Dammit, now!"

* * *

Neal twisted in the guard's grip only a moment, feeling something indeterminate click just before Steve's thoughts opened; then it didn't matter anymore. He vaulted himself out of the guard's grasp and across the Evenwhen to where Jon stood in shock above him and grabbed him. They both stood in the same snail's shell room an instant later, barely registering either Steve or The Lady until Jon did what he had when the wraith had tried to kill him, leaping into Steve's thoughts, bridging the gap between them.

Neal vaulted across the Evenwhen again without leaving the room, closing his eyes and reaching in for the first thing he encountered, hoping it would be a namer hovering near the opening that had been created. Steve acted as the bridge between the Evenwhen, Jon, and The Lady, and this time when Jon grabbed her she had nowhere to go. Jon turned her back on herself one final time, every cruelty twisting back on her as if inflicted for the first time, and she screamed, losing her hold on the Evenwhen under the assault.

Someone was standing beside Neal then, someone he didn't recognize as he opened his eyes, a tall figure that stood by and watched everything without comment or expression, having escaped across the bridge Steve had created.

Steve was still creating it; Neal realized in amazement that they were all part of it, were all bridged together, even Ross and Smitty even though they weren't in the room. It was like a chord, the perfect chord that spanned a spectrum that included everything heard and unheard. Neal wanted desperately to remember it, realizing he was finally hearing the sound they'd been making as a group, the sound The Lady hadn't been able to stand, a not-sound, a chord with too many notes to hear but that could be felt. It only lasted for a moment, but Neal knew by then that moments and eternity had too much in common.

The physical figure of The Lady changed rapidly as Jon wound whatever power he'd been given in that world through her, every negative canceled out when it met its opposite in Jon. It was possible only because they were all together. She crumbled, losing color and cohesion, and Neal realized Steve was doing what she'd mistakenly wanted, using himself as an open gate between many things, and bludgeoning her with the same volume and type of energy she had used on him. Jon canceled her out and rendered her defenseless to her own kind of destruction, and Steve administered the killing blow.

Tuirnarin shattered outward like glass across the not-stone, as transparent and fragile as that, the shards scattering along the smooth surface with utter, soundless finality.

Her world, however, ended with a snap around them, the tower hollowing out from the pit down and leaving only edged walkways, one of which Smitty and Ross happened to be on, having known enough to stay close to the walls. Every wraith, every guard, every denizen not solidly rooted with self awareness evaporated with the illusions she'd wrought. The captive Evenwhen sealed itself, disappearing and leaving a gap straight down through the suddenly hollow tower, and the suddenly released Er Rai tumbled forward into it...

Neal heard Jon scream about the same time he tried to pull the whole thing back by a moment to keep Steve from falling in. But he was locked out of the newly freed Evenwhen, the moment stretching out while they watched Steve go. Jon dove, just close enough, shooting a hand out over the edge, and Steve caught it by reflex. Neal was there in a shot, trying to reach in as Jon's grip began to slip.

"Help us!" Neal yelled at what he assumed was a namer, who continued to stand frozen.

*Let go,* Steve thought, careful not to look down.

*No,* Jon answered, trying to renew his grip. *There's no way!*

*The bird,* Steve thought.

*The world's changed, you can't be sure it--*

Steve slipped another notch, and even leaning in Neal was unable to reach. "No!" Jon shouted.

*Trust me.*

Jon struggled, already leaning too far in while trying to hold on. *But...*

*You have to let go of me, one way or another. You know it.*

Jon stared at Steve in horror, knowing how right he was.

*Trust me. Let go.*

Jon never did; Steve's hand slipped out of his, and the singer fell away from them for a long, terrible second.

Then the raven fluttered away, diving down to where Ross and Smitty waited.

Neal turned furiously on the namer. "You could have--"

The namer vanished.

Jon straightened with a weary sigh, still trying to put the pieces together, stunned by the last several minutes. In any world, they'd been long ones, even though it had happened incredibly fast when held up against the light of the amount of time they'd put in leading up to those minutes. "To hell with him. Let's get out of here, before the whole thing falls in."

They descended the spiral quickly, greeting each other effusively when they were all together again. Jon, Neal and Steve didn't have to explain what had happened above; Ross and Smitty had been there for it, in a way. Steve had returned to human form again, and by the time they reached the bottom, questions about how they were getting out of there--and how intact--had begun to form. Ross opened the lowest wall, and when they stepped out it was to darkness again.

The Outlands were gone, leaving the towers alone in the darkness.

"Jesus," Neal said aloud.

"Do not worry. We will return you to your world."

They turned as one under Smitty's light, and the same namer stood there, regarding them without emotion.

"But how," Jon said, wanting to just lie down where he was, snow or no snow.

"There will be no more worldgates," the namer said. "We will not allow them again. A part of the Evenwhen will return you. We have called Siarion and Sidain back from service in your world. Sidain will call the Turning, and when he does anything not of this world will return to where it belongs."

"All of us," Jon said warily.

The namer didn't reply.

Feeling the need to elaborate, Jon continued. "Steve, the original one we came through the gate with, was killed while--"

"We are aware the Er Rai has met his end," the namer said without emotion. "We can see this one was pulled from another line."

"So?" Neal said, glancing at Steve. "Do something about it."

"We cannot," the namer said bluntly.

They gaped at it with almost cartoonish horror, all but Steve and Jon having taken it for granted that there would be a way to reverse what they'd been unable to avoid.

"You have to," Neal said, knowing the futility of arguing with something like the creature they were facing. "We jumped through every hoop, and just because she--"

"He chose to leave voluntarily," the namer said. "His manner of departure was final. He is not here."

Ross let a beat of silence pass, the same question involuntarily passing between all of them, whether they wanted the answer or not. "Then where...?"

"Hell, probably," Steve said, and the joking tone of voice came too easily, the humor viciously disparaging. They all turned to look at him with nothing less than fear. "It's where I was headed anyway, right?"

Once, he would have been the least likely of them to snap, but pushed beyond his limits, Jon did exactly that.

He rushed the namer, laying hands on it before Neal could complete a halfhearted grab for him. Neal wasn't sure what an Inverse and a namer could do to each other, but he had a feeling the namer was overdue to find out. Jon slammed the physical aspect of the creature against the side of the tower, and it melted through it as easily as anything could through an illusion. Jon braced his hands on the empty wall, head lowered, and if the rest of them had been able to close their thoughts the way Steve could, they would have been happy to.

Neal was able to, and did.

Hearing it, Steve stared at Neal in amazement. He'd taken it lightly when he'd been told Neal had his abilities. He hadn't stopped to think about how that had happened, or what it really meant. Now that small gesture, something that had been uniquely his, put a new spin on all the other little things that'd been bothering him. Neal bothered him. Neal wasn't Neal, anymore.

But it was too late for him to worry about it.

"You used us!" Jon screamed at the wall.

"Not as you would believe," another voice said from behind them, and Jon turned angrily to the new distraction.

Mairiesa nodded at them. "Not you in particular. True, there was something to be done, and no one else fit the requirements. But it was an accidental choosing."

"Are we supposed to feel better, now?" Ross said.

"You're not being disregarded," Mairiesa said. "We knew when the Er Rai--"

"Steve!" Jon shouted, and the Wisp startled.

"He hasn't given me permission to address him by name," Mairiesa said with all the decorum she could muster. "Otherworlders simply don't seem to grasp this element of our lives. I knew when this version of him showed up in Athyri that he'd only be a passing life, that leaving here would be impossible. I assumed you already understood this. It's not unwillingness, or some hidden vindictiveness on the part of the namers. You've done more than enough to warrant whatever help they'd be capable of giving you. But the Er Rai left nothing of himself here for them to repair."

"That's not true," Ross said, keeping an uneasy eye on Jon, not liking the turn his thoughts were taking. Steve had blatantly tuned the entire thing out. "His body's here."

"One's body is a collection of elements from one's own world," Mairiesa said. "It's not him. We removed the body from the snow and reburied it at the base of Siarion's Tower. He's not here."

"Then what about..." Smitty began, but Jon heard the rest of the question and stopped him.

"Neal doesn't actually have Steve," Jon whispered, but no one had trouble hearing him.

"Then what's Neal got?" Ross said. *What's got Neal?*

"I don't know," Jon said. "Echoes of him. I couldn't get a grip on it, whatever it is. Neal's tangled with something that feels and sounds like Steve, but it's not something I could rebuild him from like I did Neal." *So much for our 'powers'. I'd give just about anything for no rules and a little magic right about now.*

"It's starting to get light," Ross said, and between his thoughts and tone there was no difference between dread and relief.

"Walk toward it," Steve said. "The sooner we get this over with, the better."

"But you know--" Jon said.

"Walk away," Steve said, cutting him off. "It doesn't matter." *Don't make this any harder than it already is!* "Just go home."

"But...there must be something..."

Steve shoved Jon without moving, the way The Lady would have done it, and Jon stumbled away from him, trying to regain his balance. The wounded dismay on his face went unseen by the singer, who had turned away. *Get the hell out of here, before I forget who I'm talking to.*

*I could have left you,* Jon thought, *here and other places, a dozen times before. I haven't yet, and I won't now.*

*You don't have a choice,* Steve retorted. *What else can I destroy? Knowing what we know, you'd willingly let me go home?*

"That stuff wasn't all true," Neal said, thoughts open again. "It couldn't have been."

"Don't you start defending me now," Steve said aloud to Neal, refusing to face any of them. "It's way, way too late. And I kind of expected better of you, you know?" He paused to take a labored breath and said, "How long are you idiots gonna stand there and stare at me? This's the way it was supposed to happen, so leave it alone. Get the hell out of here before they decide you guys are better off here."

"Have you said your farewells?"

It was the namer who had originally addressed them. He had abruptly reappeared at Neal's shoulder.

"No," Ross said. "Otherworlders are very, very slow. You guys are lacking in the gracious host department."

"Not to mention brimming with gratefulness," Smitty said.

"These are rules that made themselves," the namer said. "No harm was intended. It was not one of us who pulled the Er Rai here from a divergent timeline, nor we who ended his life."

Neal winced, closing his eyes tightly, and Steve recoiled from it before beginning to reach out a hand to lay on his shoulder. He hesitated, knowing better, and withdrew the hand before making contact.

"Then what does the Evenwhen say?" Jonathan said.

The namer stared at him blankly.

Steve turned and thought, *Never mind, Cain.*

"It shows everything, doesn't it?" Jon went on. "All things, all times?"

"It was paused," the namer said simply. "It says nothing on the matter."

"No," Steve said aloud, and above it Jonathan shouted, "We're not leaving you here!"

*No one's going into the Evenwhen to see if there's anything that'll help,* Steve thought, his tone reprimanding. *Not Neal, that's for sure, and I've seen enough of it. Don't you know when to quit?*

"Why would you just give up like this?" Jon said, almost to himself, looking toward the growing light. "After all this, you just...don't care."

"You wouldn't be leaving me here," Steve said, tone softer, putting a greater distance between them, walking further out into the melting snow. "I won't be here, at the Turning. I'll go back to being the guy who was on his way in here with you. Has it occurred to you, what those nights trapped in there with her were probably like? What, exactly, would you be bringing back to life, if you could? I think the Steve you brought in here with you is better off where he is. Who would know that better than I do?"

He looked at Neal when he said it, and Neal dropped his eyes.

Jon saw the sense in it, and not even thought would come as he looked at the melting snow at his feet, needing something to focus on. He realized he could see grass again, after nothing but snow for so long. Patches of green and brown were showing through, and he could see it because the light was coming. Somewhere, Sidain was back at his post...

He looked at Neal, realizing it was hard to turn his head suddenly, the world becoming disjointed, dreamlike. "He's just walking away."

Neal's eyes were on Steve's back, his face blank. "He's panicking and doesn't want it to be the last thing we remember him for. It's over. Let him walk away."

The light crept toward them in a nearly straight line, as if there was no horizon, as if it was reaching them directly from the source without the hindrance of an atmosphere. The namer had disappeared, along with Mairiesa, and they had the whole deadly silent world to themselves while they waited to see what the light would really do to them. Jon left Neal, Ross and Smitty standing by the tower to run after the singer, feet sliding in the ankle-deep slush. He reached Steve, but he was blurred, some part of himself still trying to catch up as if the growing light was smearing him and leaving a trail. He grabbed Steve and turned him, unable to say anything until the rest of him caught up. The silver-orange light was rimmed with gold, and he could see they were all blurring except for Steve.

"I'm not letting go of you," Jon said, and he heard himself say it again over the distance when the words folded back on themselves and trailed behind. He gripped one of Steve's hands tightly, watching the singer's hair fall in his eyes again, seeing the rueful smile. It was the smile that usually preceded either an apology or an admission. He realized that, even had Steve's thoughts still been open, he wouldn't have been able to hear them. They were all closed to each other again as if they were already home.

"Steve," he said.

"It's all right," was all Steve said.

Jon threw his arms around him when the light hit them, convinced that as long as he held onto him there would be no way they could be separated. "I'm not letting go of you," he said again, and before the words were out everything and nothing passed by him, a suggestion of walking a long way but only taking a step, of things far out of proportion with each other. His own perception of everything he'd ever encountered was only one way of looking at things...size and time, hearing colors and seeing sounds...too much in a place with nothing in it...

Something familiar and alive joined him in that inbetween place just before he opened his eyes. It was something he never saw, exactly, but he recognized it immediately. It was something that he'd helped to shape with the four others who had found each other by accident in that place and time...

"You were walking between," Neal said in the darkness, and Jon opened his eyes to the sunshine in his own backyard.

He blinked in amazement for a moment, grateful for the air he was able to pull into his lungs, grateful for the light. But he couldn't let go of what he'd seen, yet, was unaware that the people with him had been trying to shake him out of it for awhile. He found his voice, finally. "Was it...?"

"They didn't send us through the Evenwhen," Neal said before he could finish.

Jon found himself sitting on the back deck with with Liz holding his hand. Neal was crouched close in front of him, holding his other hand and looking concerned.

"It was more around the outskirts of it. The Evenwhen with your eyes closed, like Steve said."

"We're really home," Jon said, looking at Liz, who nodded but didn't smile. She had a death grip on him as if he might vanish into the air again, and he figured she had every right to. "But we could be convinced of that without it being true."

"We're home," Neal said. "The police were here, just before we got back, and they'll be here again."

God, but he didn't want to ask. "How long were we gone?"

"A little over two weeks," Liz said calmly, but a tense amazement was evident in her tone. When Jon startled and looked at her, she added, "We're all okay. The kids, everyone. Siarion and Sidain kept anything from happening. They were always here."

Jon looked at Neal, and as if the guitarist could still hear his thoughts, Neal said, "Ross and Smith are back where they started, before they got pulled into this."

"Two weeks," Jon breathed. "Things here kept running in real time...whatever that is. Did you try to call..." He trailed off, his face falling. "He's gone, isn't he."

Neal took a deep breath and nodded. "He's not lying in the middle of the floor this time. But..." Neal hesitated, glancing at Liz, unsure of how to phrase what he had to say. He was still uncertain of the truth of something so bizarre even after what they'd been through. It just wasn't something that could wait.

"But," Jon echoed, staring at him, thinking as he did how damn bright the sun really was, how yellow their parent star was after the alien orange light they'd endured for so long.

"Something else isn't back where it should be, either," Neal said. "They didn't think of everything."

Jon squinted at him in confusion, still trying to convince himself that Liz and the backyard and the white-yellow light were real.

"I'm still carrying him around," Neal said, straightening. "For whatever that's worth. I don't think we can do anything. But I came back across the same, they didn't...fix it."

Shit, Jon thought.

"You're home," Liz said. "For right now, today, it's enough. As far as the world's concerned, you guys went off to iron out some details about the band and wanted to be left alone, and Steve didn't go with you. Right now, you're just home. The rest has to wait."

* * *