DARKNESS GATHERS Part XV
(c)1998 B Stearns



"How long's it been?"

Smitty, Jon thought. Yeah, he'd be the one to ask. I guess we can start calling him Steve, now, since there isn't anybody else here by that name.

"Jesus. Are we really gonna try and figure it out?"

Ross.

They were sitting on the back deck in the late afternoon sunshine, drinking beer and pretending they weren't all scared shitless about the coming dark. It'd been no one's idea in particular, this get-together. They'd just known they had to do it. Not to talk about any of it. Hell no. This was because they had to be convinced things were real. No more illusions, no more not-stone, no more labyrinths. No more Keepers.

They were all playing their roles, on the surface. Smitty and Ross throwing rimshots, Neal off to one side with a who-gives-a-fuck attitude, and me playing the middle, Jon thought.

But underneath was the real story. Ross had been looking over his shoulder since they'd returned. Smitty'd bought a hell of a lot of candles, and hung a few bells around for good measure. And Neal was on the verge of flying apart, having yet to sleep. Something drove him upright every time he'd tried, something his mind was trying to get at but couldn't. The guitarist was afraid of coming unhinged. Guilt and grief and an inability to hold the center...

Then there's me.

Empty. Or that was the first word that came to mind; crushed was probably more accurate. Drained and exhausted and used. But he knew he'd come back eventually. Liz knew it, and had given him the room to do it. He knew it wasn't fair; she'd been without him enough as it was. But she understood. When he reached for her, she was there. When he couldn't stand the slightest noise, he was given space. He'd make it up to her, and the kids. They knew he would.

What did Mairiesa say? The luckiest of us play our roles without knowing it. Cute.

"Two days," Ross said when he realized no one else was going to answer. "Two solid days of knowing what time it is all the time, and when it's gonna get light."

Neal was staring off at nothing, and Smitty looked at him before catching Jon's eyes. Jon nodded. He'd seen Neal get into more than his share of crazy things, but he'd never been frightened for Neal until then. Something had to give. Whether Neal had been left the way he was purposely, or part of the singer had become so thoroughly ingrained that he was impossible to remove, wasn't clear. All Jon knew was, now that they weren't running for their lives, Neal had been given too much time to reflect and too much to reflect on.

He'd been able to talk about some of it; some of what he remembered that wasn't his. Being in the Evenwhen. Jay, he'd said, still afraid to say Jon's name aloud, I know shit I never imagined. But I still don't know how he died.

Steve and Neal had often been a hell of a lot alike, but not enough alike to fit into one body. Neal, on his own, had often not fit in his own body, let alone have room to spare.

The one thing Jon had been unable to reconcile, though, had been the Steve they'd had with them at the end. Pulled out of his timeline, that version had done things that only they remembered. Their original Steve had never had a chance to see the end, or to be there when they'd beaten the crazy bitch at her own game.

Jon felt automatically for the eighth note on a chain around his neck. He'd go on wearing it. It seemed like the thing to do.

It went unspoken but understood that this get-together was also because there'd be no funeral. There was no body, no remains to recover, no solving of the mystery on their side. Steve would go on missing, buried at the foot of Siarion's Tower, in a world none of them would ever see again. Jon would go on maintaining that there'd been nothing on the other end of that last phone call but silence he hadn't hung up on. One minute and twenty-one seconds of silence. His fingerprints--and Neal's--were only there because they'd had coffee with the singer prior to his disappearance. That was true enough. As for what had torn the house apart...

The one moment Jon had felt sane had been when one of the detectives had told him foul play was suspected. He'd nearly burst into laughter. Foul play! They're so fucking right, and they don't even know it. He had laughed, once the police were gone. Hysterically. It had been a suitable substitute for what he'd wanted to do.

The crowning glory had been the need to approve the album art. Some ideas had been tossed around in the weeks prior to their disappearance. Now it had to be done, this sane, everyday thing, to keep the album on schedule. Life was going on. But they were putting it off, claiming fatigue, conflicting schedules...and a missing singer who wasn't as missing as he should have been.

He was wondering who he would finally try telling the story to. He was wondering how long it'd be before he could stop thinking about it all with every breath.

It wasn't just the loss of Steve; nothing fit anymore, and there was nothing he could do about it. There should have been something, some way around the rules...

Of the two of us, Cain...

Sometimes, you had to be grateful for what you had.

* * *

Jon awoke when a hand shook his shoulder insistently.

Opening his eyes to daylight, he sat up, feeling disoriented. He was home again, but every time he woke up, he had to reaffirm it...

Everything was right, but not real. He knew that immediately. He looked up and found Steve watching him, knowing no one had been there before he looked up. The singer grinned at him affectionately, but Jon felt only disappointment. "I'm dreaming," he said.

"Yeah," Steve said, his tone as affectionate as the expression on his face. "You're dreaming."

Jon laid back again, staring at the ceiling, a sigh escaping him. "We were so close. I tried to think of everything. We almost got away with it."

"You're thinking there's something you could have done," Steve said gently. "But there wasn't."

"I was hoping you were still there somewhere so I could put you back in your body. I should be glad there wasn't more of a mess, that Tuirnarin didn't make it to this world. But we're not all here."

"You'll never forget me, though," Steve said.

"No," Jon whispered without looking at him. "I'll never forget you. No one will. It just doesn't make sense."

"But I didn't die unnecessarily. It was the best I could do to keep the rest of you safe."

"Is that the last thing he thought?" Jon said, the words sounding empty but not feeling that way to him. The figure waited, confused. "You're not Steve."

After a moment, the figure sat down on the edge of the bed. "You're right. But...your mourning troubles us."

Keeping his eyes on the ceiling, Jon said, "You're not a part of this world, so I don't see how."

The namer shook it's head, and Jon sat up again. "That's it?"

"We owe you a debt. This is an unusual situation for us, this owing. The solution we have in mind requires the agreement of others. If it were up to us alone, we'd have done something about it already. But it's not our...I believe your word is jurisdiction."

Jon nodded. "Where's he gone?"

"In a way, he's here in your world. Sleeping. He suffered a great deal of cruelty before he was given the chance to escape. The problem was great, so the sacrifice had to be equal. You don't have namers, here. There is a slight breakdown in communication. I don't suppose an approximation of him would do."

Jon shook his head again. He was on the verge of tears again and found it a struggle to keep them at bay.

The figure laid a hand on his shoulder, it's expression one of pity. Not quite like Steve, but close enough. Too close. "I apologize. There are two options. One would be to provide you with the body he left behind, so that he's no longer missing."

Jon swallowed hard. "Sounds like a last resort."

The namer dropped the hand from Jon's shoulder and looked at the floor. "Very well. Sometimes....belief is enough."

"What are you saying?" Jon said.

"We feel responsible for what occurred. Our worlds aren't very compatible, and the forces that order it wield an absent hand. We don't have the entire picture, which is also something new to us. But there's more between you than you realize, more than we'll allow you to discover. For now, if you create a beacon the Er Rai would recognize...there's a chance we might be able to return him to this existence. But only if he desires it. It would be up to him to answer you. We're willing to open the channels."

"We'd appreciate it very much if you would," Jon said with more restraint than he felt he was capable of.

The namer nodded with satisfaction before explaining a few other points, leaving too much of it open for interpretation and turning his questions aside. He didn't like it, but he knew he didn't have much choice, either.

"When the light turns over again, wait," it said. "I can't promise."

Jon awoke abruptly in the darkness, lying still and trying to assure himself that he was awake. He made sure of Liz's proximity first, finding her curled beside him, undisturbed. His heart was hammering. Create a beacon. He had until sunset of the day he was waking up to. It was long enough to figure something out. After all, he had the others.

* * *

"He....it said we might get him back." Neal's tone was skeptical.

They were on the back deck again, three days after their return.

"I think, if we call him, if we give him somewhere to land, they could recreate him. Or something like that. It has to do with why we went through all this in the first place. All of us together..." Jon paused, considering the words. "We can have his remains, and let him be found. Or we can try and get him back, alive, if he'll come after all this, and then stay away from him. Those are the choices."

"What if we don't stay away from him?" Ross said.

"Then we forfeit our side and leave ourselves open to creatures like Tuirnarin again," Jon said. "Or that was the way the namer explained it. We're a lot of noise, together, and with him supposedly being a Destroyer, he needs to be left on his own. I got the impression that the namers would take care of us themselves, if we ignore them."

"Creative differences," Neal mumbled.

"What?"

"Creative differences. Isn't that the most popular reason for bands to break up, these days? When they don't wanna say what the problem really was." Neal kept his gaze on the middle distance, never quite with them.

"Just break up. After twenty some odd years," Ross said.

"Not after finding out what it can do," Jon said. "Not after being shown what it's worth."

"Yeah, bigger than all of us," Neal said. "I know."

"We can't replace him," Jon continued, catching on to Neal's line of thinking even as he realized it wasn't entirely Neal's. "But we can't just let it go."

"Did they mean he can't stay with the band, or did they mean stay away?" Smitty said.

"They meant stay the hell away," Jon said. "He--it--was very clear on that. No more us."

"We've been working on no more us for years anyway," Neal said. "But still, to be told..." He shook his head. "Screw it. We'll worry about that when he's here, one way or the other."

Jon had told Neal, privately, that the namers weren't sure if having Steve back in his former existence would solve Neal's 'problem'. They were uncertain of how to untangle something when they didn't know how it had happened in the first place. Something about wavelengths and patterns, again...

Not so omnipotent, after all.

"Lot of people want an explanation for what might have happened to him," Ross was saying.

"Lot of people wanna know what might have ripped through his house," Neal said. "The truth still ain't gonna help us."

On impulse, Jon said, "I can't help but think...she realized, at the end, what she'd done. She could have changed."

Neal looked at him finally, and that gaze knew him too well, from too many angles. "No regrets, Jon. Not now."

Jon nodded. They lapsed into their own thoughts for a long moment. Then he said, "I've got it. I know what part of the beacon should be."

* * *

Silence.

It was still for miles; night was falling, leaving a twilight glow helped by a rising moon. The house stood on a slight incline, well separated from its neighbors, adding no light to the gathering. The yard behind was wide and sloping, ending in a line of trees that went back roughly a hundred yards before terminating in a two lane road that saw little traffic. The only other light was a single pillar candle left in the middle of the yard.

It seemed too slight, and they'd debated its significance, but Jon knew it wasn't the amount of light that mattered. It was the quality and intent of it that mattered. It was only a focus. They sat around it in the grass, feeling like hopeful lunatics. The sporadic conversation between them had reflected their state of mind.

"He may not want life back," Jon said softly, staring into the flame.

"Would you?" Ross said, just as softly.

Jon considered the rhetorical question in all seriousness, glancing at Ross. "Yeah. I don't know, entirely, what happened. But to leave Liz and the kids..."

"Liz, and the kids," Neal sighed. It was the first thing he'd said since they'd lit the candle.

"Steve has--"

Neal cut him off with a look. "That he doesn't openly acknowledge. It's not the same. And he wouldn't see it like you do, anyway. He'd see what's gone wrong, and blame himself."

"The bastard's too stubborn to give up," Smitty said. His tone was hard enough to silence them again.

They returned to keeping Steve foremost in their thoughts and creating the real beacon as the Sun dropped below the horizon. Darkness fell. It grew cooler, the sky remaining clear and the yard remaining empty except for them. They hadn't known what to expect. But they had expected to know it if it happened.

The disappointment was as hideous as any of their prior ordeals had been. Giving up was unfathomable, but it was obvious as midnight approached that their attempt to bring Steve back had failed. He didn't return to the existence he had discarded because he refused to.

They didn't meet each other's eyes, and Jon knew it was over but that he would continue trying anyway. He was only delaying the inevitable with hope, but that was the way he was made. He sighed, discouraged, turning toward the house to see if Liz was still holding a vigil of her own over them. But she was already there, walking toward them, the concern on her face frightening him.

"Jon," she said, and they all got to their feet, staring at her, afraid to ask.

"What's happening," Jon said, moving toward her, watching her struggle for words.

"I think he's here."

They glanced amongst each other before setting a rapid pace for the house, none of them willing to get there too quickly. The words 'I think' kept them from inquiring further as they entered the house and followed Liz downstairs to the room Jon kept for composing. It was spacious but barely occupied, with southern facing windows and a piano as its sole occupant. Faint moonlight made a silver patchwork of the gray carpeted floor; a window-square of it revealed something beneath the piano itself. A small figure curled there, huddled in dark clothing that was familiar to the majority of those present. They understood immediately with a combination of relief and pained comprehension.

"I heard something and thought Maddie'd gone sleepwalking again," Liz whispered, her expression revealing her struggle to grasp the implications of the figure beneath the piano. "But the kids are all where they should be. Our kids, I should say."

Jon crouched down to take a closer look, gently lifting a section of a cloak's hood away from the hidden face to examine Steve's childlike countenance. The boy failed to even stir. Liz joined him, laying a hand on Jon's shoulder and whispering in his ear. "I know it seems ridiculous to even ask, after all this. But how is this possible?"

"It's probably the real, current Steve," Jon whispered, "but either he or the namers chose the wrong form. They said he was sleeping. Who knows what you dream, after you die."

"In which case," Liz whispered, "what do we do? Can you make the namers aware of it, or are they out of it now that he's here?"

"They're not out of it," Neal said, leaning over them. "We were told to keep away from him. We can't now. It'll get their attention."

"Hopefully not the wrong way," Jon murmured. "In the meantime, we hope no one sees him and starts asking questions about why we have a kid with his face."

Jon reached far enough under the piano to carefully pull Steve close enough to pick him up. The boy stirred a little but was too far under to do more.

"He's here," Jon whispered. "The rest will have to take care of itself."

* * *

It was the sunlight that did it; he didn't remember it. He'd been sleeping for a long time, long to a mind used to a different frame of time, and there'd been no sunlight where he'd been. They'd said it would be awhile before there was anything but sleeping. His soul was too exhausted for much else. He hadn't argued. There was a lot to forget before he went on. There had, however, been a lot of dreaming, most of it pleasant, some of it memories trying to keep from being discarded...

He tried ignoring the light, but found himself wading toward it by reflex. Awareness came slowly, accompanied by an occasional sound. Once, there was a voice he thought he recognized. The world felt different, more solid, and he wondered briefly if he too was solid. Then he opened his eyes on a room of wooden furniture and muted colors, plain but comfortable, a guest room.

The waiting area for being dead is a guest room?

The thought formed itself as he let his eyes wander and adjusted himself to the light. He discovered that he was breathing again, that it was comfortable to lie there, that his nose itched. These were things the living experienced, things he'd left behind.

Steve sat up, trying to conjure his last living memory and failing. He rubbed his face along the sleeve of whatever he was wearing, something dark but soft. His hand was small, childlike...

He held both hands out in front of his face with a gasp, the knowledge of both life and the form of it cascading down on him. He scrambled out of the warm comfort of the bed to examine himself completely, the dark clothing familiar to him and bringing shocked anxiety to accompany the recognition. This didn't look like the corrupt world he'd left behind, but his current form and clothing shouted the obvious.

He looked at the door, finding it ajar, and pushed it open a little further. It all looked familiar to him, but he couldn't place it yet. When nothing moved, he did, emerging into the hallway, heart pounding, planning a mad dash for the nearest exit once he found one. Then the bird...

Yes, I remember the bird! Nothing would be able to catch him once he flew off. He crept down the hallway, hearing muffled voices lowered in discussion of something grim. The living room lay in front of him, and he paused again at the familiarity of it. He should have known where he was, but it was as if it'd been taken from him. For all he knew, none of it was real. He'd been sleeping for so long...

By the time he noticed that the voices had ceased, Jon had appeared to his right, walking into the living room. Jon's expression was elated as he held out a hand and started to say something. Steve's instant relief and the flood of questions he meant to ask died when he glanced to acknowledge the motion on his left, someone leaning in the front door to look at him...

He remembered dampness and gray light, a hunched figure with dead eyes scrabbling toward him across cold stone, and then...

Steve nearly darted back down the hallway, making a couple of false starts in apparent panic before evading Jon and diving for the stairs. The damage a long-ago wraith had caused in the wall next to the stairs had been repaired but still assaulted him on another level, increasing his panic. Their calls followed him immediately. He tripped down the last three stairs, sprawling across the downstairs carpeting, but was up and sprinting away before Jon was halfway down. He searched frantically for the back door that he somehow knew was there.

Neal came only as far as the living room, and the commotion brought Liz out of the kitchen where she'd been talking to Jon. The look on Neal's face alarmed her and kept her from questioning him. The terror on Steve's face at the sight of him had been ageless and spoke volumes. Helping Jon chase him was out of the question.

Panting frantically, ignoring Jon's calls for him to wait, Steve found the door and his small hands struggled with the lock before he threw it open. He vaulted into the yard, heedless of where he was going, or anything beyond the need to escape.

He was halfway down the winding, paved driveway when Jon made it out the door behind him, still calling his name. He watched Steve go for a moment, realizing he wasn't going to listen to him. Then he set off after him.

Steve never even looked back, trying to change his form. His inability to do so created even more confusion and panic. Everything was wrong. He'd died and been sent to a hell where he was still living the same nightmare, but unable to use the powers that had gone with it...

He ran blindly, and he had enough of a start on Jon to keep him from catching up right away.

Neal and Liz had moved to the back deck to watch the chase, and watched Steve head straight for the road. Jon wasn't running full out yet, waiting for the smaller figure to run out of steam, not seeing the potential danger from his angle. Neal watched, and something raised the hair along his arms and neck. He couldn't explain it, didn't bother to, just knew that something was going wrong, twisting out of control in front of him. It didn't matter to Steve where he was headed. There was hardly ever traffic on that road. But pieces were falling into place, Neal felt them without knowing or caring how. There'd been a stutter in the fabric of the world, a ripple of some interference. The wave headed toward them unseen, and Neal froze, unable to do more than watch Jon close the space between himself and the singer.

He and Liz heard the car coming down the incline of the road to their left.

Jon heard it, too, and realized too late that he should have tried harder, sooner, to catch Steve. Something flashed across his memory, something Smitty had said about the younger version of Steve that Neal had pulled in while Jon had been asleep...

Reel him in before something eats him...

Then he felt it, too, what Neal was feeling behind him, the ripple of interference, of seeing the outcome and the artifice of the moment they were running toward. A small, booted foot had already made contact with the gravel shoulder of the road, and Jon screamed for Steve to stop, only five steps behind him, wanting it to be close enough.

Chest burning from exertion, legs wobbly, Steve slid in the gravel and scraped his palms bloody before he staggered into the road. He heard Jon's scream of denial at the same time he heard the shriek of breaks to his left. He'd burst out of the trees straight into the road, and the fog of panic lifted only long enough to realize the driver hadn't seen him in time and didn't know enough to do anything but stand on the breaks. The gray four door slid sideways toward him, and hands grabbed him from behind.

Jon never considered doing anything but going into the road. He took in the smell of asphalt and burning rubber, the light glancing off the car's paint, the feel of Steve's cloak beneath his hands as he tried to throw the slight figure to one side. The sound of locked breaks and someone screaming. The moment was crystalline, perfect, standing on it's own and drawing out, sliding like the car was sliding...

Neal caught the thread of the moment and said no with such force that the tumblers of a lock he didn't know still existed turned again.

Steve felt the wrenching that came from everywhere and nowhere at once, bringing darkness with it, and he knew he had to be dying again even though the car was still a few feet away. It didn't matter. There was nothing again, and nothing to combat it with.

* * *

Neal opened his eyes again, amazed that he could, the way he felt. If someone told him the car had actually hit him instead, he'd believe them. The sky was bright blue above him, familiar, reassuring, sounds blurring past him as if he was underwater. The world struggled into focus slowly, showing him that Liz was leaning over him with worry and amazement.

He sat up, and the world spun in retaliation, and he found Jon on his right, getting to his feet. Steve was lying unconscious in the grass several arm lengths away. Jon was picking him up and moving back toward them, the same amazement on his face.

"Christ, Neal," Jon said, sitting down next to him. Neal looked around, finding the road distant again, watching a gray four door speed blithely past.

Jon followed his line of sight and said, "You grabbed us and you rewound it. How did you--"

"It would be good to know," Siarion said from behind Jon, and Liz jumped.

"Well, I got someone's attention," Neal said as Siarion sat down in the grass behind him.

"You have become the most troublesome Otherworlders I have ever seen," she said. "The namers neglected to realize the Er Rai would be incomplete if he came back to existence. He should not be in his current form, and you should not be able to walk the Evenwhen."

"So why am I?" Neal said, waiting for the spinning to subside.

"I am unsure. You have broken the rules laid out for you by the namers for understandable reasons. This will take some consideration. In the meantime, I will take him."

"No, you won't," Jon said immediately. "He's staying with us until someone knows what's going on and how to fix it."

Siarion drew back a little, her expression bewildered. "You do not trust me?"

"We've had enough of all this," Neal said, turning toward Jon and holding his arms out. Jon gave Steve over, realizing that if things got out of hand, it was Neal who was in a better position to protect Steve. "We know enough to guess the namers don't have our best interests at heart. The sacrificing is over. He stays with us."

Siarion frowned. "I am not threatening you. I would not. But what is to keep me from taking him, as I have been instructed?"

"I'm still walking between," Neal said. "And it isn't killing me. I'll be as much of a nuisance as I can. And if we can figure out how to come after you, we will."

"He is a Destroyer," she said.

"He's our Destroyer," Jon said. "Goddamnit, I made a deal with the namers. They're sticking to it. It's up to them to figure out who screwed up and to fix it, if they don't like it. Until they do, he's off limits and so are we."

She nodded. "I understand."

"I don't think you do," Jon snarled. "Something tried to set us up a few minutes ago."

She shook her head rapidly. "No."

"You belong to the namers," Neal said curtly.

"I am," she corrected. "Do you belong to your parents, Mr. Schon?"

Liz laughed unexpectedly, struck by the bizarreness of it all, and Siarion looked at her before smiling.

Jon stood, helping Neal to his feet. "This is amusing?" he said to Siarion, imitating her long ago inquiry in Steve's yard when the madness had begun again.

"In no way is this amusing," she said, gaining her feet as well.

"Now what?" Neal said.

"The Er Rai may be able to tell us what happened, when he awakens. That knowledge, of how he died, should give us the means to proceed."

"You couldn't see it in the Evenwhen?" Neal said with obvious concern.

Siarion paused. "While the Evenwhen was paused, it recorded nothing. What happened to you, to him, is not there. Or we would already know."

* * *