"Anybody know where we are?" Two said.
"No," Gabrielle said bluntly. "I think we got turned around. We're somewhere near the bottom of the hill, by now."
The apartment complex they'd been trying to cross was larger than they'd expected, and somehow between the decorative hedges and curving cul-de-sacs, they were still trying to cross it.
"Who builds these damn things, anyway? This is the complex that never ends," Gabrielle said. Siarion, who'd been morosely silent since they'd been routed from Syd's, shuffled along after them, looking at the ground. It was because of that, and the angle of the sunlight, that she saw the shadow advance on them from behind. She shouted, and the three of them turned to face...Steve.
Two and Gabrielle startled, realizing quickly that it wasn't the real article, but Siarion wasn't alarmed.
"They'll know I'm here, if I'm not quick about this," the namer said. "They'll rewind it all."
Siarion nodded. "But there is a way?"
Gabrielle said, "What the hell's going on!"
"He is not one of the namers creating the problem," Siarion said.
"We're almost through," the namer said, holding a hand out for Gabrielle. "But we need another. Hurry."
Gaby shook her head. "Listen, mister, I..."
"...think you'd better start explaining," she said, except it was Neal she was saying it to instead of something trying to look like Steve. It was dark outside rather than late afternoon, she was inside instead of out, and Ellie was laughing.
"Well, now there's hell to pay in Marin county," Ellie said.
* * *
Steve was pacing stiffly up and down the sidewalk that extended around the side of the Fred Meyer while Syd alternately watched him and their surroundings.
"I'm leaving," he said finally.
"No, you're not," Syd said.
"Look," he said, "we don't know what's happened to everybody else. I've dragged you guys into something that we obviously can't handle, and I had no right to..."
"Lora dragged us in, and for the record, we all had a choice," Syd interrupted. "How far do you think you'll get, by yourself, with the police chasing you?"
Steve shook his head, pausing to lean against the brick veneer of the building. He sighed. "If I could just...try going over again, or..."
"They'll hear you," Syd said. "We're better off trying to figure this out together. We're all here right now for a reason."
He smiled at her. "Yeah, and you made sure to stay with me when we all split up so you could talk sense into me."
Then the hand came out of the wall he was leaning against and caught him around the throat, and the surprise on his face was second only to Syd's when she watched Jon step out of the wall. Steve struggled but was unable to get loose, twisting enough to see who had him and realizing Jon's eyes were colorless and that the hands around his throat weren't going to be pried off until they'd finished squeezing the life out of him...
It never occurred to Syd that anything terrible enough to walk through a wall might be impossible to dislodge and would probably turn on her. Shouting, she ran toward it, putting her hands out to shove it away. The moment she came in contact with it, it dropped Steve as if burned, stumbling away from both of them. Gasping, Steve picked himself up off the sidewalk, realizing Syd had placed herself between him and whatever it was facing them.
The namer continued backing away, snarling at them, more concerned with Syd than with Steve.
Coughing, Steve managed, "It's got the stone."
Having ripped it from around Steve's neck, the namer had it dangling from one hand, continuing to back away from them but obviously not wanting to. It's afraid of Syd, Steve thought. And it can't take the stone unless I let it, so...
Then Siarion and Two came through the tree-lined divider to their right, almost surrounding the namer as a result, and it dropped the stone, eyes wide with panic before it sank into the asphalt and disappeared.
"What," Two said out of the resulting silence, "the hell was that?"
"A namer," Siarion said calmly.
"Hopefully not the same kind as the one that took Gaby," Two said. When Syd and Steve looked at her, she added, "He said they needed her. Not like we had much to say about it."
"A namer has Gaby," Syd said, looking pointedly at Siarion.
"And the window-breaker," Siarion said.
"Why are we being separated?" Syd said.
"No," Steve said, knowing something but not knowing why, almost as if the thought had been planted when he wasn't paying attention. "They're balancing you out. You guys are scaring the namers, for some reason, and now there's an equal number on each side. That's probably why they tried to get the stone, even knowing they couldn't just take it. They must be desperate, now that there's a balance."
"The ones who gave me my name will think of something," Siarion said, retrieving the fallen stone and handing it back to Steve.
"Let's find Ross and Lora and get out of here," Syd said, "and if we can find a 'good' namer courteous enough to explain where exactly everyone is and how we can get them out of there, all the better." They turned and started back up the hill, keeping an eye out for Ross and Lora.
"Yeah," Steve sighed, "a friendly namer not impersonating anyone and willing to talk would be great right about now."
"The Er Rai's been patient enough, I guess," a polite voice said from his left, and when they turned a slightly built, dark haired man none of them recognized was walking along with them. His eyes were startlingly green but still human, and he smiled and held a hand out for Siarion, who took it with a smile and walked along with him.
"Let me guess," Steve said. "Someone's finally gonna front us a clue."
The namer nodded. "We'll find the rest of you, then get this cleared up. Normally I'd speed it all up a little and put us all together in one spot, but if I displace everyone like that, we'll be heard."
"Heard," Two echoed.
The namer nodded with a grin. "No one'll hear me for awhile, since I came in on the heels of the one who just tried to kill the Er Rai. I apologize for involving you in our...disagreement. But a good portion of it concerned all of you anyway."
They ran straight into Ross and Lora halfway back up the hill, and there was no longer any sign of the police. When they returned to Syd's, nothing had been disturbed in their absence, and they gathered again in the living room.
"There isn't much...time...remaining," the namer said, "so I'll try to be brief. You were misled, a bit, the last time you had dealings with us."
"Really," Ross drawled. "I never would have guessed."
"Hmm. Well, to put it as simply as I can, there are few things in Existence that can destroy a namer, even a very young one. The Er Rai and an Inverse, in tandem, comprise such a thing."
Ross stared at the namer for a long moment, and when no one else dared, or knew enough, to ask further, he said, "You're not gonna tell us Tuirnarin was actually a ..."
"Oh, yes," the namer sighed. "Unfortunately, she came to Existence already angry."
Steve held up a finger, trying to catch up again, and the namer snapped it's fingers lightly. Sudden understanding dawned in Steve's wide hazel eyes, and Ross jumped to his feet.
"Don't you give him his memory back!" he shouted.
"I haven't 'given' it," the namer said, eyes still on Steve. "Just the chance to understand, that's all. He has to know a few things that he's forgotten in order to do what he'll have to, to get out of this. You do understand?" he asked Steve, who nodded in amazement.
The namer raised his eyes to Ross and said, "She was given her own world, once we realized that she was only going to destroy things. We keep the balance in Existence, that's what namers do. When a namer doesn't balance things, and falls to one side, there can be severe repercussions. So she was given a place to exist. But something caught her attention, something unfortunately traveling along the same wavelength she existed on, and through that she was able to begin constructing a means of escape."
"By making a bridge out of me," Steve said.
The namer nodded. "By using you to keep it open. There would have been complete disarray, chaos. The dimensions are sealed away from each other for a reason. Only by forcing you to comply could she get out and begin dismantling Existence. There must be Destroyers, to help keep the balance, but not on such a scale."
"I think some of the denizens heard it a different way," Ross said.
The namer shrugged. "How do myths get started? We all explain things to ourselves in different ways, to make sense of things we can't or won't fully grasp. At any rate, there's only one way to dismantle Existence that we know of; the Raven Key opens all doors."
"Which means what, exactly," Syd said in a hushed tone, not really wanting the namer's attention but unable to let the cryptic remark stand unchallenged.
"In this case," the namer said softly, "it's all times, all places, all dimensions."
"Which is also a good description of the Evenwhen," Ross said.
The namer nodded. "So the Er Rai was left alive, without his memory." He regarded Steve with interest. "Knowing too much but too valuable to destroy. Or that's what everyone wants you to believe. There's a lot more to it than that, but it's better left alone, now. Beings capable of destroying namers...well, many of the younger ones agreed with Tuirnarin, that you shouldn't exist, and that if a namer chooses not to keep the balance, they shouldn't have to."
"Teen angst on a cosmic scale," Ross said dryly, and the namer raised an appreciative eyebrow.
"If you like," he said. "There's been a debate about separating the Er Rai and the Inverse--and actually, all of you--from each other by time and distances so that you couldn't present the threat you do. No more noise to attract attention, no capability to destroy namers...even if it becomes necessary."
"So you used us to clear up a problem for you," Ross said.
"And it created another, bigger problem," Two said.
The namer nodded again. "Of their own volition, several of the younger ones took it upon themselves to change the course of things. Part of their reasoning was to lessen the threat you represent. Part of it was revenge for Tuirnarin's death. So the Inverse exists in a world of his own, sealed clumsily away. But all of you are on the same 'wavelength', which I don't have time to explain now but permits you to remember him."
"Next question," Steve said, "is how do we fix all this? And keep it fixed?"
The namer rocked back and forth on its heels and glanced at Siarion. "As it's been said among you already, Existence is like a tapestry, carefully woven. There's a bit of play in some of the threads to allow for the occasional tug, but all the threads still affect each other. In this case, eventually, the constant fooling around will begin to collapse this particular pocket of space and time. The effects have already been felt in the false world made for the Inverse. He's begun to unravel, himself, and won't exist at all after awhile if they don't stop. And trust me, they don't want that. They don't want that at all." The namer laughed softly, and the rest of the people in the room exchanged worried glances.
"Never mind," the namer said. "Consider it like this: generally, it's not that any one individual is so important that the fate of everything hangs on them. It's that every individual is. That's the only way I have of explaining it. In this case, there are many other individuals peripherally involved."
"Too many hands holding," Steve said, and Lora frowned.
"I don't..." she began.
"Fans," Steve said.
"And these in particular," Siarion said. "There's a balance among the ones here."
"Which we won't go into, either," the namer said.
"Then how can we fix it," Two said, "if it could just be unraveled again?"
"Someone should replace the thread that's been tampered with," the namer said. "They've tried very hard to repair what they could after doing the damage, but they're still young. Young enough to think such things can or should be done. They don't want the Inverse to perish in the way he will if they don't leave it alone, so they'll leave things alone, now. In this case, again, it should be the person who saved the Inverse from drowning as a child who repairs the line."
"Who?" Ross said. "Where are we gonna find him? What if he isn't still alive?"
The namer was shaking his head. "He's here. The Er Rai saved the Inverse from drowning the first time, and will have to do it again."
They were all silent for a moment while they tried to absorb that. Steve stared at the namer grimly. "If Jay was ten," he said, "I was only a year older. I was never anywhere near the place, and I never saved any kids from drowning. So how is it--"
"Because you live a linear existence," the namer interrupted gently. "This's all been happening along this particular timeline since Existence began. There's destiny, and there's free will, and sometimes there's both. You were all meant to find each other. For this purpose, or another--I don't know. The Evenwhen doesn't judge or preordain. Somewhere else this timeline runs in different directions. But in this one, you're the one who does, and always will, save the Inverse from drowning. He wouldn't be drowning if someone hadn't been tampering with the timeline in the first place. But we've come to the point where you're only going to get one shot at it. The timeline's finally worn thin from all the tampering, and if he's already drowned by the time you arrive, we'll have to leave it the way it is. That'll have it's own repercussions, but tampering with it any further after that will cause it to fragment. If you're too early, and tell him not to go into the water, you'll likely scare him, and he's old enough at that point to remember you later on, and the 'noise' will never get made."
"Not necessarily," Ross said. "How do you know he'd...." Then he trailed off when the namer looked at him, and Ross swallowed the rest of it. The namer did know.
"No pressure," Ross said to Steve, and Steve snorted.
"And if the line gets....replaced or shellacked over or whatever by Steve, then none of this will have happened? With the police, and Neal being murdered?"
The namer grinned. "I can't say it never happened," he said. "But the line would be repaired, and the Er Rai can seal it off the way he sealed Tuirnarin off in her world." He paused. "Then we'll need to deal with the ones who caused the difficulty in the first place."
"Don't call us," Ross said quickly. "We don't mean to seem ungrateful, but you guys can have your Evenwhen all to yourselves."
"One more question, then," Steve said, rising. "Which Neal is the real one?"
The namer frowned thoughtfully. "He is."
"Sure, we know. What I mean is, there's one over there, and there was one over here that was killed. Who's the original, and who's the copy?"
The namer stared at him for a moment as if gauging something, humming to itself. "The replica of the walker was exact, since it was created from what he left behind by walking between. An exact duplication, yes. There is no difference between the two."
"That doesn't quite..." Steve began.
"The simple truth is, I don't know. It's difficult to say. Both were real. The one in the Inverse's world is real, and will remain real. Is that...." the namer shrugged. "Good enough?"
Steve gestured ineffectually with both hands, wanting something else but not able to articulate it. "Yeah," he said finally. "Yeah, that's good enough, I guess, considering."
"The timeline will reset," the namer said. "This will have happened, and not happened, with none the wiser. This is best."
"Can we stay out of it from now on, then?" Steve said.
"Yes. We'll leave you alone, now. It'd be in our best interest as well as yours. I know that sounds hollow, since we've said it before. But you'll have to take me at my word."
Steve looked at Syd and Two. "Thank you," he said, meaning everything, and they knew it.
"Who knows?" Syd said. "Maybe you won't be able to get rid of us."
"We'll always be around," Two said.
"I know," Steve said. "I know that, now."
* * *
The man walked along a lightly wooded path that trailed down towards a lake he could barely see through the foliage. But he could smell the water and see the sun glinting off it occasionally. He passed a young man with a fishing pole at one point, and the boy mildly resembled someone he knew, but they passed without acknowledging one another. Then the lake was in sight.
He couldn't see a trace of another human being.
He saw only the still water and thought, I'm too late.
Then something splashed out there just yards beyond the dock, a small hand breaking the surface and flailing briefly.
Steve ran, knowing he would suffer the consequences later. The consequences that would result if he didn't run were infinitely worse.
Desperate, terrified, Jonathan struggled for what he could still see of the daylight, limbs leaden, lungs bursting for want of air. It was getting darker as he sank, and there was nothing left but darkness and panic...
Then there was a hand on one of his elbows, and before he could grab for it or even think to he was jerked upward and swept out of the water, back into the sunlight when someone lifted him into it. His first attempt at pulling air failed when nothing else had room to enter his water-crowded lungs, and he choked violently. Most of the cold, mineral-tasting lakewater made it back into the lake on the first try, but not enough, and then someone was turning him and his feet were encountering the warm aluminum rungs of the ladder attached to the dock.
"Go on, Jon," someone said from behind, holding him up, a voice he didn't recognize and wouldn't for seventeen more years as far as he was concerned. He climbed automatically, shivering and coughing, still trying to get air, his fingers almost too numb to grasp the rungs. But then he was face down on the dock itself, safe.
He choked again, expelling more lake water and replacing it with only air this time, something he'd never yet had to be grateful for in his ten years of life. Someone pounded him on the back, then turned him over and helped him sit up. He remembered sun-warmed boards beneath his hands and the backs of his legs, rough hewn wood smelling of summers past. He coughed again, more out of reflex than the desperation to clear his lungs.
The boy nodded, unable to speak, still blinking water out of his eyes, wiping at them with both hands.
His shirt was still on the dock, and he darted a hand out to find it, burying his face in it for a moment before braving the daylight again. He felt like crying, but he wasn't going to; he was too embarrassed, and, now that he was going to live, too worried that his father would find out he'd been in the water.
When he looked up, he was looking out across the water, and the afternoon was still just as blue and July-warm and no school until September as it had been minutes earlier. But for the first time, he knew better, knew that the lake would have swallowed him without regret, and the knowledge clung as closely as the water still dripping off his thin, chilled frame.
There was a hand on the back of his head, warm, reassuring. "No swimming by yourself, Jonathan."
Jon turned his face, but the adult had risen and was walking away down the dock into the sun, making it impossible to make out any details. He struggled to his feet, his legs not quite as shaky as they had been, his shirt still in one hand. He wanted to call for the stranger to wait, but something made him pause, and he let the man walk away uncontested.
What had happened had to stand by itself.
* * *