DARKNESS GATHERS Part XVI
(c)1998 B Stearns



When Steve awoke again, it was the same room.

But this time, Jonathan was there and it was beginning to get dark.

"I'm sorry," Jon said. "We shouldn't have let you wake up alone like that, before."

Steve blinked at him. His tone was weary with sadness when he spoke. "We're still here," he said. "We're still here, and I'm still alive."

"We're home," Jon said. "You know it, because you know my house well enough to outrun me through it."

"Are you sure?" Steve said. "That we're really home."

Jon nodded.

"Then why am I still alive?"

The question was loaded with disappointment, and Jon held his hands out to him. Steve sat up and kicked the covers off of himself, taking the hands. "Don't you want to be?"

Steve shrugged. "I was dead. It wasn't bad."

Jon stared at him for a moment, searching. "I'm not sure what to say. But we called for you, and you came."

Steve snorted, but it came out sounding more like a sob. "I'm a kid again. How the hell can I be home, and be in this form?"

"Siarion was hoping you could tell us. She thinks it might have something to do with how you died."

Steve pulled away from him abruptly and scooted off the other side of the bed, landing with a thud. "Did everyone else make it back? Are they okay?"

"Yeah. Everybody's here."

Steve turned on him abruptly, his expression screaming the word liar. "Not Neal."

"How do you think we kept from being flattened by that car?"

"I saw what happened to Neal," Steve said.

"You don't know what happened after we lost you," Jon said, keeping his voice low.

"It can't be over," Steve said. "You're trying to tell me she's gone, and we all made it out?"

Jon nodded. "She's been destroyed, the Evenwhen's been restored, and everything's back where it should be except for you."

Steve came closer to the bed, leaning across it and staring Jon down. "Where should I be?" he said darkly.

Jon opened his mouth to respond, taken aback, but he was cut off when Steve looked past him and screamed.

It startled Jon half to death, but not as badly as it startled Neal, who had leaned into the room upon hearing his name. Steve threw himself against the wall, eyes wild, looking for escape, realizing he was trapped. He was hyperventilating, or he would have screamed again.

"Steve," Neal said, unnerved but unable to leave it alone.

It broke Steve's paralysis, and he ran into the far corner of the room, unable to reconcile the last moments of his former life with the man in the doorway. "Go away!"

"Hey, hey," Jon said, beginning to move toward him.

"No!" He had pressed himself as far into the corner as he could get, and Jon swept him up, shaking him even against his better judgment.

"Listen," Jon said, forcing Steve to pay attention despite the struggling he was doing. "It's over, it's only Neal!"

"No, I don't want to remember!" Steve shouted, kicking in midair. "Why, why did you make me come back!" Then he burst into tears, ceasing to struggle and letting Jon set him back on the bed.

She had him for awhile, Jon thought, forgetting for a moment that no one else could hear him. Not anymore. "We didn't make you," he said gently. "We would never make you."

"Jesus," Steve choked. "You don't even know."

"We called you, and you came. The only reason we want you to remember is so we can figure out how to put everything back the way it should be. Do you want to stay little?"

"No," Steve sobbed, refusing to look up.

"Then don't be scared of us now. It's all behind us, except for this last part." I hope. "Whatever Neal was, we got him back. He doesn't remember what happened, and the Evenwhen was paused, so you're the only one left who knows what happened. You need to tell us, so we can figure out where it went wrong."

Steve swiped at his face with the sleeve of his tunic, disgusted with himself but unable to shake the panic entirely. He was fragmented, and unable to find center...he took several deep breaths, regaining control by degrees, and looked up at Jon. "You don't have to talk to me like I'm a kid," he snapped, even though he was grateful for the soothing tone of voice.

"I'll do anything," Jon whispered fondly, unable to keep the humor out of it, "if you promise not to scream again. I thought Madison was bad."

He was rewarded with a tilt of the head. "That's really Neal," Steve said, gesturing at the empty doorway. "He's all here."

"I made sure it was him," Jon said. "You know, you remember, I don't let anything get by."

Steve nodded. It didn't make him feel any better. "He doesn't remember anything?"

Jon shook his head. "No."

"Anything."

The word was tinged with desperation, and Jon looked at him more closely. "No, Steve. He doesn't remember anything. But whatever happened left something of you behind."

Steve made the sound he'd made earlier, something that should have been a snort. "Do I have to keep wearing these damn clothes?"

And Jon realized that had been part of the problem; waking up in the same outfit bestowed upon them in that nightmarish world had made it easy for Steve to make the connection that had caused him such fear.

"No. Neal brought over some of Miles's play clothes while you were sleeping. They'll probably be a little big, but hopefully before much longer so will you."

* * *

Jon threw the black clothing away under the kitchen sink while Steve was in the shower. "You don't wanna hear this, either, do you."

Distracted, sitting at Jon's dining room table, Neal centered on him again. "Hmm?"

"Are you all right?"

Neal sighed. "Shit, Jon. The criteria for that's a little different than for most people, by now. How the hell should I know?"

Jon folded his hands on the counter, leaning against it.

"Don't stare at me," Neal said. "I'm not gonna make any more sense than that."

Steve came out with bare feet and wet hair, wearing clothes a size too big and a mistrustful expression. The three of them took turns gazing at each other with trepidation. Steve was a study in wariness, waiting for it to be another trick. His eyes settled on Neal again.

Neal held up both hands, palms outward. "It's over."

Steve's eyes said bullshit as clearly as if he'd shouted it aloud, and Neal realized what the problem was. Steve wasn't standing there like he was expecting to be attacked. It was worse. Neal had been sized up a thousand different ways in his life, but never with this much suspicion. Steve was looking for something and trying not to find it at the same time.

"Looks like you," Steve said, and beneath it, Neal heard, on the outside.

"It is." Sort of.

Steve swept his hair out of his face and inched closer, glancing at Jonathan before pulling himself into a chair opposite Neal's. He looked up once, found Neal looking at him, and snapped his gaze back to the tabletop. They'd had trouble the entire time they'd known each other, the trouble that brothers had when they didn't listen. But then, right then, everyone in the room knew something long-standing had been destroyed. It was no one's fault. But the damage was done.

Steve rested his head on folded arms and looked slowly out across the floor to the windows facing the stairs, drumming a foot against the rungs of his chair. Neal and Jon shared a glance, and Steve said, "Is Madison okay?"

"Yeah," Jon said. "You made sure she was."

"But does she remember the wraith?"

"Time didn't rewind here, this trip," Jon said. "I'm not sure if she ever saw it. You covered her too quickly."

Lifting his head, Steve nodded. "Where are the kids?"

"Over with their grandparents. I figured we needed a little time."

Steve continued to drum a foot. "I remember you guys trying to explain everything to me, when this all started again," he said, his small voice as distant as his gaze, and Neal wondered for a fleeting moment how such a powerful adult voice had ever developed from such a small boy. "It all comes around, doesn't it? If you wait long enough...everything comes around again." He paused. "I missed a lot, I guess. So tell me."

"Eat something first," Jon said. "We can explain things while you do."

Steve shrugged. "I've been dead awhile, I guess I should be hungry."

He listened to the whole story with varied emotion, careful not to interrupt when he could help it. Unused to being the size he was, he'd dropped his fork on the floor twice while trying to eat the omelet Jon had made him. He paused, letting the fork clatter to his plate at one point.

"I blew him up?"

"It was an accident," Neal said. "The stone blew him up."

"What was I so pissed about, anyway? I had some kind of problem with him. Me. We were....goddamnit!"

Neal laughed at the odd combination of the expletive and the impish expression on Steve's face.

"You were never that fond of yourself to begin with, if you think about it," Jon said. "Don't worry about it now. The point is, you went back for Mairiesa, and she filled us in on most of the rest of it."

"Quit laughing," Steve said to Neal, who ignored him. "In my senior yearbook, I was voted most likely to blow myself up."

Neal laughed harder, and Jon looked at the ceiling, fearing he would join the giddiness stemming from the irony of their situation. There wasn't a damn thing funny about it, and the laughter was on the jittery edge of hysteria, but the silence had been worse.

"I am not going through puberty again," Steve said, pointing at Neal with his fork.

"And no way am I gonna explain the birds and bees to you," Neal said.

"With his track record, it's obvious someone should have tried," Jon said, and Neal pounded the table in genuine hilarity. Steve twisted around to look at him with feigned indignation.

"It'll be all right," Jon said.

Nodding, Steve turned back around and said, "What did Mairiesa say?"

Neal paused, knowing the thread was his to pick up. "Even though we don't entirely believe it, we won't lie to you. Jon was still asleep when she told us, but Ross and Smitty'll tell you the same I'm going to if you ask."

He relayed the tale Mairiesa had told them, of Destroyers and their part in the scheme of things.

Steve listened with growing somberness, dropping his eyes halfway through as he began to see the direction it was all taking. By the time Neal finished, the pall had descended on all of them again.

"It's true," Steve said out of the resulting silence. "Look what's happened."

"I doubt Tuirnarin would have pulled another Destroyer in, knowing what the risk could be," Jon said.

"There's more, isn't there? I served my purpose, but I'm still alive. When are the namers gonna take care of that little problem?"

"That's what I meant," Jon said. "Why would they have let us call you back?"

"A couple of reasons," Steve said, holding his fingers out and folding them down as he ticked off reasons. "They owe you, huge. You're pretty dangerous, yourselves. And I'm really good at doing myself in. They basically had to bargain with you."

"No, they didn't. They came to me," Jon said, then relayed his conversation with the namer that had come in Steve's guise.

Steve considered it, then said, "Tell me the rest."

They did, up to the moment they found him under the piano. When they were through, Steve jumped down from his chair and walked through the kitchen, out onto the back deck. Jon and Neal glanced at each other, and after a moment Jon followed him.

Steve was staring out into the dark as if waiting for something to come out of it, arms folded against his chest. Jon was quiet, waiting.

After several minutes, Steve said, "That isn't Neal."

"Yeah, it is," Jon said. "What do we have to do, to convince you?"

"I guess you'd have to untangle the part of me he obviously has," Steve said acidly, and Jon winced.

Steve bit his lower lip and looked up at the sky. "They want you to stay away from me? That's it, we can't do anything together, after all this."

Jon nodded, knowing Steve didn't need to see him to sense the move. He already knew the answer.

"I don't know how it happened," Steve said, "but it wasn't my decision to come back. I heard you guys call and said no. But Neal has part of me, and I couldn't ignore it. He yanked me back here."

"Then we need to find out how you died in the first place, and get you guys untangled," Jon said.

"No," Steve said.

Jon turned to him, aghast. "Steve..."

"Almost fifty isn't bad," Steve said. "It would probably be easier for them just to 'remove' me from him."

"What the hell are you suggesting?" Jon said. "It's all right with you if the namers send someone to throw the switch again? You're willing to give up that easily."

"It looks easy to you?" Steve retorted, but his voice was hollow with exhaustion. "After all this, that's giving up easily? For Christ's sake, what do you want?"

"How are we supposed to explain your disappearance?" Jon said, his words lacking their previous volume. "It would be better if no one ever saw you again?"

Steve weighed the words in contemplative silence. "Someone's been asking questions," he said finally.

"Yeah. To put it lightly. You've been gone for more than two weeks, and something went through your house."

Steve turned away for a moment, and when he turned back, his eyes were swimming with tears. "I'm tired, Jonathan," he whispered. "I'm so goddamn tired."

Jon brushed Steve's hair out of his face, then pulled him closer to embrace him. Steve tucked his head under Jon's arm.

"I want you to think about it," Jon said. "You have to realize, part of it might be because you're not really all here, yet, and everything looks harder. We'll find a way. We always do."

He felt Steve nod.

"We don't want you to leave. It was hard, having you gone."

"You won't see me anymore, no matter how it turns out," Steve said, the words muffled.

"But the decision on how it turns out is yours," Jon whispered. "Just promise me you won't make it yet."

Steve nodded again.

"Either way, sooner or later, you gotta tell us what happened. Or somebody."

Steve didn't reply.

* * *

The daylight was easier to deal with.

That first night was harrowing; they stayed together because Neal knew they were safest together. The darkness was still bad for Jon and Neal, but Steve couldn't be alone in it, yet. He was utterly silent, yet couldn't stand silence. So long as the TV or radio was on, he was fine. He refused to talk, but couldn't deal with not being spoken to.

He spent most of that first night pacing, and they dozed in the living room to be able to stay together.

"They're gone," Neal told him again. "There aren't any more wraiths. They were her creations, and they're gone along with her."

Steve shrugged. "But a world that could make things like that could do it again, and worse. For all we know the namers are at it right now, figuring out the best way to get rid of us for knowing too much."

"Jesus, and I thought I was cynical."

"Don't worry," Steve said. "You are."

The thing that made Jon feel the worst, though, was the fact that as little as Steve and Neal wanted to do with each other, they couldn't be apart. The minute they left each other's presence, each went back to panicking and pretending they weren't.

The minute dawn hit, Steve fell asleep, sprawled on the living room floor in front of the fireplace.

Jon got up and made coffee, and when he came back Neal was still upright on the couch but his eyes were closed. Jon stood and stared at both of them for several minutes, wondering if he should leave them alone and knowing he couldn't.

Eyes still closed, Neal said, "He'll tell you. You've always been the only one he'll talk to. But not with me in the house."

"You're not going anywhere," Jon said. "Not after the bullshit in the road."

"We have to do something, soon," Neal said, "because of the bullshit in the road. There's a lot more going on, and no one's gonna explain it to us. You get the feeling there's more to this than just 'us' and 'them'?"

"Yeah. They're not supposed to be able to 'do' anything here, but someone's screwing with us."

Neal sat up and opened his eyes. "And someone besides Siarion'll come looking because I was walking between again. They'll fix things only to keep me from doing it again." He thought for a moment, then added, "Question is, what their idea of 'fixing' is."

By the time Steve awoke again, Neal was downstairs with one of Jon's guitars, and the singer sat at the top of the stairs and listened for awhile. Jon did some housecleaning, and when it got late enough the three of them sat out on the back deck and had lunch. It was disturbingly normal.

"How are we supposed to explain not doing anything with this album?" Steve said.

Neal started grinning, and Steve scowled at him.

"You have to admit," Jon said, "that that's the least of our worries."

"I'm serious," Steve said. "We better come up with something ahead of time, no matter how this turns out. If I'm still here."

"What do you mean, if you're still here?" Neal said.

Steve and Jon shared a glance that excluded him, and he nodded. "Shit."

"Yeah, so, it's okay to let it slide? No tour, no follow up, just some vague bullshit and then we vanish?" Steve braced his chin in one hand, elbow balancing on the edge of the table. "'Sorry, everybody, there was this witch....'"

"Easier to explain letting the album die behind us than having you disappear," Jon said. "Let's get you guys back the way you were before we worry about what the rest of the world sees or doesn't see."

Steve rolled his eyes. "Okay, Dad. In the meantime, the choices run between breaking up or...Christ, who knows? Getting wiped off the face of the planet? This doesn't look fucking suspicious to you guys?"

"There isn't anything left that seems weird, Steve," Neal said, still grinning. "Weird's normal, for us."

Steve shook his head and walked away. Any other time he would have started an argument over it, would have suggested taking anyone and anything on. Now it didn't matter if they were shoved into a corner or not. Once they would have stood together, against anyone, but those days were over. It was an accident that they'd found each other in the first place. It was going to take an accident to get them away from each other.

Neal brought a guitar out on the back deck, and after giving Steve enough time to disappear and sulk, Jon went looking for him.

It took him several minutes to find him lying underneath the piano downstairs. Steve was spread-eagled, staring up at the underside as if he expected to find an answer to it all. Jon stood with his hands in his pockets, looking out the windows over the piano and waiting. When it became obvious that Steve was going to ignore him, he reached into his shirt and withdrew the eighth note, releasing the clasp on the chain. Then he knelt down next to the piano and offered the item, letting it dangle from the tip of his index finger.

Steve's eyes shifted to him, his expression warning Jon to back off until he saw the glint of gold. Then his eyes widened and he sat up, looking from Jon to the item and back. The moment hung there like the necklace did, words unnecessary. Humbled by the gesture, Steve held a hand out and let Jon lower the item into it, the chain pooling in his palm. An understanding passed between them that Steve nodded in response to. He edged over, and Jon folded his legs and sat under the piano with him.

"I know what kind of plaything Neal was," Jon said after a moment, and Steve tensed. Ignoring it, Jon continued. "It came for me, just after we found you. We were gonna destroy it, until I realized Neal was still under there somewhere--and you, a little. But I had time to figure out how to beat it. I don't think you were given that chance."

Steve sighed.

"I'm not writing a book," Jon said. "I have a pretty good idea of what happened, because I could've died the same way. But if you don't say something, or make a decision, someone's gonna make it for you. Don't let it get to that point."

"You really think we still have choices?" Steve said.

Jon nodded without looking at him. "Yeah. They've given us room so far, and someone tried to take the both of us out. We're threatening to somebody."

"Big deal, Jon," Steve said.

"Yeah, big deal," Jon retorted. "Because they think we're idiots. Maybe we are, on their scale of things. It's better to be underestimated, when push comes to shove."

"So what are they afraid of?"

"Us, the way I see it."

"Then why are they bothering to untangle me and Neal?" Steve said.

"Because that's what's making him able to walk between, while we're on this side. They'll do it for that alone, no matter how they have to do it. Even if it means removing both of you."

"Which they'd have to do, if they can't figure out how to untangle us," Steve said with another sigh. "Shit."

It was silent between them for a long moment. Then Steve said, "I was always struggling with her, you know? I struggle with everything. So she made something that worked best when you struggled with it. I didn't catch on in time, I didn't know any better. It was a contest of wills."

"Who won?" Jon whispered.

Steve shifted his eyes to him without turning his head, and Jon felt a thrill of dread.

"I did."

* * *

Night fell again, and Steve went back to pacing as soon as it did. He hadn't said another word after telling Jon most of what he could remember. Jon was careful to pretend it hadn't happened, and Neal stayed on the back deck. Neal was heading for the phone to check in with Dina when Siarion fell into step behind him. It didn't startle him to find her there when he turned around. "Hey, stranger."

"You have discovered how the Er Rai died."

"The Er Rai's name is Steve," he said.

Siarion dropped her gaze to include Steve, who had walked into the kitchen doorway at the sound of Siarion's voice. "So it is." She held a hand out to Steve. "You may still come with me, if you like."

Steve looked at the outstretched hand, then up at Neal.

"He's not going anywhere," Jon said from behind Steve.

"You still insist on keeping him?" she said.

"That's hardly the phrase to use, since we'll be required to stay away from him," Jon said. "What we 'insist' on is help to get things back the way they were before you, and the namers, and whoever else is milling around in there these days, leave us the hell alone. We want it quiet. And no way do we believe this Destroyer shit. You guys are up to something else."

"After all Siarion's done, I don't think you're animosity is justified," another voice said. It was a voice they knew well enough for it to cause a collective shiver. Steve saw the namer first, and yelped.

"It's all right," Jon said before Neal had time to react to the figure that had walked off the deck behind him. It was the same figure that had come to Jon in his sleep two nights earlier. It was Steve's adult form, but Jon knew immediately that it wasn't the same namer. It was regarding them with smug humor, and Jon spoke to it in the same breath.

"Don't do that," he said, meaning the form it had chosen. "It's something she enjoyed doing."

"I have no form of my own," it said. "How would you suggest I appear?" The namer dropped his gaze to Steve. "What do you think, Steve? What would be best?"

Steve knew he meant in everything, not what shape the namer should choose. "Just put us back the way we were, and let us go on with our lives."

"But you're not satisfied with this 'life' any longer," the namer said. "We heard what you said to the Inverse. You wish to move on."

"But I'm not going to," Steve said.

"Are you sure?" the namer said, smiling.

Jon said, "I knew it."

When the namer looked at him, he said, "Steve's the one she pulled through the Evenwhen to scatter. He's the only one who's been in it while conscious. He's seen too much, hasn't he. That's why you guys made him the one who had to destroy her."

Siarion was studiously blank, her mirrored gaze cast over Jon's shoulder. The namer was looking at Steve as if waiting for something, and Neal felt an unreasonable urge to laugh.

"The question is, when exactly did you make him a Destroyer?" Jon continued. "When he jumped through the illusion of the caves in Athyri? And how did you do it?"

"He was already one by then," Neal cut in. Jon looked at him, realizing that Neal was keeping a close eye on the namer, who was regarding Steve with a fondness that owls usually reserved for mice. "The shadow made it's first appearance there, just before he went through the illusion. They must have done it before then, when the wraith got hold of him. Maybe he was becoming more than a wraith, that night in the field."

"Am I right?" Jon said to the namer, who turned his gaze slowly to include him. "He saw too much coming in, more than once, because we were through there more than once, replaying the whole thing and beating her every time. That's why the wraith nailed Steve right away, when he first appeared in the Keep with the rest of us. She's been looking ahead and probably knew by then that you'd made him the Destroyer. The shadow was the Destroyer."

The namer shrugged. "It was a manifestation of what we'd leant him."

Neal was shaking his head, glad Jon had hit on it. "Then why all that shit about him belonging to me? Why did she bother with that when it only caused her more trouble? It doesn't make any sense."

"We did intervene, in small ways like that," the namer said. "We didn't want him destroyed until he'd served his purpose. You had to give him; otherwise scattering him was too easy."

A small, insulted anger lit somewhere behind Neal's thoughts as the namer spoke, and again Neal realized it wasn't entirely his own. The part of the singer still lodged in his consciousness was making itself plain. He and Steve traded a glance that more than explained what they thought about it all. If Neal had had anything in his hands, even the guitar, the namer wouldn't have had time to make itself scarce before he hit it.

"Again, why me?" Neal said.

"As you said, you were the most likely to do it. You all did as you were intended...except that the Er Rai and Tuirnarin didn't cancel each other out. That should have been the end of it."

"That's not all," Jon said. "There was more you guys wanted done, I think. Why did you try telling us not to destroy her?"

The namer smiled a little.

"Jesus," Neal whispered. We've all seen too much.

* * *