Coming back to Chronoshin felt, strangely, like coming home.
It had been so long since Caleb had been here, and he’d only been once, and yet…
I love this place.
There was a soft serenity to the place, a calm that rested over every inch of it. The dark expanse of the universe beyond, twinkling with the echoes of long-dead stars, was beautiful. Tables were occupied with a few people talking, and Caleb saw the table where Ted played chess alone. Far off at the balcony, he saw the haggard man slumped against the wall, not looking at anyone.
It hasn’t changed at all since I left.
“Now this is unusual,” came the familiar, full voice of Madame Chronos. She came down the stairs from her high place, the little dog Jikan following along at her feet. “Midnight and Caleb I understand, but bringing along so many guests? I’m impressed.”
“They’re stubborn guests,” Mister Midnight said, eyeing Madame Chronos warily. “We’re here on business, not holiday.”
Madame Chronos wagged a finger, tsking disapprovingly. “Always giving me such dark looks and speaking with such harsh tones,” she said. “Honestly, Midnight, what have I ever done to you?”
Midnight’s eyes narrowed. “We’re not here to talk about the past,” he said.
“I need you to stamp this,” Caleb said, holding out his Passport in an attempt to defuse the situation.
Madame Chronos’ eyes widened as she stared at the small, leather-bound book. “My, my, you’ve been on quite the adventure,” she said. “I thought there was something special about you, but seeing you with that… well.” She smiled. “You’re quite the impressive one, Caleb Greyson.”
“Of course he is!” Adelaide said. She had been silent, looking all around the place in awe, but now her attention was returned to the conversation at hand.
“And who’s this little one?” Madame Chronos asked.
“I’m Adelaide,” Adelaide said, holding out her hand politely.
“Just Adelaide, hmm?” Madame Chronos asked, shaking the girl’s hand daintily. Jikan suddenly dashed ahead, sniffing Adelaide’s legs, and Adelaide, giggling at the attention, knelt down and started petting the friendly dog. Madame Chronos’ gaze shifted to Chelsea. “And this must be your darling girlfriend.”
“Chelsea Reiner,” Chelsea said, shaking Madame Chronos’ hand. “You’re the one who helped him when he left us on Hollow Island, right? Thank you.”
“No need for thanks, dear,” Madame Chronos said. “I was glad to help.” She looked at Midnight slyly. “Won’t you introduce your guests, Midnight?”
“We don’t have time for this,” Midnight muttered.
“Nonsense, time is one thing we all have more than enough of here,” Madame Chronos said. “It’s the beauty of the Chronolytical Locations.”
“I’m Mineria,” said Mineria, stepping forward to shake Madame Chronos’ hand.
“And I’m Ingrid!” Ingrid said, joining her.
“Ah, now you’re a fascinating one,” Madame Chronos said, gazing at Ingrid. “Time’s flow doesn’t touch you… you’re one of the Eternals, aren’t you? And yet… your eyes aren’t those of a Human, I don’t think.”
“Don’t pry,” Midnight said, protectively placing his hands on Ingrid’s shoulders and gently pulling her back. “You know what we’re here for.”
“Of course,” Madame Chronos said, ever unfazed by Midnight’s terse interactions with her. “Caleb, come with me, won’t you? I can’t just stamp your book and send you on your way. I have a few words for you.”
“Right,” Caleb said with a nod.
“Alone, unfortunately,” Madame Chronos said, as Chelsea started to follow.
“It’s okay,” Caleb said, giving Chelsea’s hand a gentle squeeze. And then he followed after Madame Chronos, around the side of the station to the stairs leading up to her gazebo-like dwelling above Chronoshin.
“So you’re on your way to the Court of Time,” Madame Chronos said, sliding open a drawer and retrieving a black box with silver gears and cogs embedded in its surface.
“Apparently I’m undergoing some kind of transformation,” Caleb said. “Though no one will tell me much about it.”
“Yet you don’t seem too put out by that fact,” Madame Chronos said. She opened the box, revealing a stamp with a sturdy silver handle. She held out her hand, and Caleb passed her the Passport. “You were always so curious, too.”
“That hasn’t changed,” Caleb said with a chuckle. “It’s just, no matter how much I ask, no one gives me a straight answer. And I guess I’ve learned from Mister Midnight to just sort of… go with things sometimes.”
“I do see Midnight’s influence on you.” Madame Chronos opened Caleb’s Passport to the first page and stamped it firmly. “Not that that’s a bad thing, though. You’ve grown a great deal since you first showed up on my doorstep, and in all the right ways.” She passed the Passport back to Caleb. The first page was stamped with silver ink, an image of a fading clock surrounded by tiny stars. “And if I’m not mistaken, you’ve been to the Edge of Time and beyond. Met the Lady, did you?”
“Yes,” Caleb said, pocketing his Passport. “Who is she? I’ve been wondering ever since. All I got was a sense of her job. No one calls her by name.”
“There’s the curious Caleb I know,” Madame Chronos said with a laugh. “Ah, but don’t you think there’s a reason no one, not even she, has said her name?”
Caleb raised an eyebrow. “You’re not suggesting she doesn’t have a name?”
“Did you meet anyone else at the Edge of Time? Surely they had some hints about names.”
“Tock… said she threw away her name, her old self… does that mean some of them don’t have names at all?”
“Well, you’re knocking on the right door, at least,” Madame Chronos said. “Listen up now, Caleb. The Court of Time is no trifle of a place. And even if all goes for the best in your trial, you will not emerge the same man you are now. Everything will change. And, in truth… you don’t have to go through with it. You haven’t received a summons, which means you can go about the rest of your life without worrying about it. You’re in a perfectly fine place as you are.”
“There are things I need to know,” Caleb said. “And I don’t…” He pursed his lips for a moment, thinking. Finally, he just smiled. “I can’t help wanting to know what kind of ‘transformation’ I’m going through. Whatever it means, and wherever it leads… I want to face it. I can’t be afraid.”
Madame Chronos smiled, but Caleb thought he saw a bit of sadness in it. “Midnight’s influence, indeed.” She started towards the stairs, and Caleb followed her down.
Adelaide’s giggling rose to them before any other noise. There she was on the floor, having her face licked all over by the tail-wagging Jikan. She looked up as Caleb returned, grinning from ear to ear. “He’s such a good boy!” she said. “Can we get a puppy?”
“ ‘We’?” Chelsea asked. Caleb just smiled.
Yeah, I get it.
“Time to go?” Midnight asked.
“Always in such a hurry,” Madame Chronos said.
“I just have a couple of visits to make,” Caleb said, rushing off before anyone could stop him.
“Train’s coming in soon, dear!” Madame Chronos called after him.
Caleb’s first stop was at the table in the center of the station where Ted played chess alone. The old man was as cheerful as ever, greeting Caleb with a smile and saying how he looked forward to a visit when Caleb had time for another game.
I need to try and get some practice in before I face you again, too.
And then Caleb went to the balcony, to the ragged man with his head bowed low, eyes closed. Caleb knelt in front of him, watching him silently for a few moments.
“I know you looked at me,” he said. “When I was leaving on the train. I think… there’s quite a story to you, and I’d love to hear it. So even if you can’t talk to me now, just know that I’ll be back again, and I won’t forget you.”
The man didn’t look up, the only hints that he was alive the slow rise and fall of his stomach, the faint sigh of his breaths.
Caleb stood, watching for a few moments longer, even as he heard the sound of the train coming into Chronoshin. The man still didn’t raise his head or open his eyes.
Finally, Caleb turned away, joining the others at the platform.
“You make some interesting friends,” Chelsea said, hands on her hips, watching Caleb as he returned.
“Life’s fun that way,” Caleb said, grinning. He turned to Madame Chronos. “Thank you, for everything. I look forward to visiting again.”
“And we look forward to your return, dear boy,” Madame Chronos said, holding Jikan in her arms. The little pup gave a happy bark of agreement. She nodded to Midnight. “Don’t be a stranger either, Midnight. Leave the past in the past.”
“Rich from you,” Midnight muttered, already boarding the train. Ingrid hurried after him.
Mineria remained for a moment, smiling at Madame Chronos. “Do try to consider his feelings, Lady Chronos,” she said. “Forgiveness doesn’t always come so easily.” She joined Midnight and Ingrid aboard the train.
“Fascinating woman,” Madame Chronos said, raising an eyebrow. “Well, don’t be a stranger, you three.” She knelt ever so slightly, eyeing Adelaide. “You especially, little lady. You’re such an intriguing girl.”
“And on that note, we’re out of here,” Chelsea said under her breath, taking Adelaide’s hand and tugging her with her onto the train. Caleb was left alone with Madame Chronos and Jikan.
I guess I don’t know this lady as well as I thought. But…
I don’t know, I don’t think she’s so bad. She’s just quirky, and sees things the rest of us can’t so easily.
“Thanks again,” Caleb said, starting up the stairs onto the train. He stood just inside the door, waving for a moment before heading in to join Chelsea and Adelaide. In their compartment, he leaned against the window, watching the man at the balcony as the train started out of the station.
“Again,” he muttered, raising a puzzled eyebrow.
“Again what?” Chelsea asked, staring with him.
“I talk to him while I’m here, and he doesn’t even look at me,” Caleb said. “But just like last time, he looks up and stares at me once the train is leaving and it’s too late for me to come back and talk.”
“Maybe he’s shy,” Adelaide said.
And then they were gone, the train blazing a trail through the vast universe. Midnight, in the next compartment with Ingrid and Mineria, explained that the journey from Chronoshin to their next destination, Chronokon – Time’s Twilight Hour – would take quite a while, so they should feel free to rest. Adelaide fell asleep quite quickly, using Chelsea’s lap as a pillow. For a long while, Caleb and Chelsea sat silently, hand in hand, fingers intertwined.
Caleb’s thoughts went to what had been troubling him for some time now. That owed to his silence – here he was with Chelsea, the person he should talk to about this, and yet…
And yet I can’t bring myself to broach the subject.
“Something on your mind?” Chelsea asked.
“I just…” Caleb started, surprised at her suddenly breaking the silence.
“You’ve been holding back,” Chelsea said.
“Well… now isn’t the right time though, is it?”
“Time for what?”
Caleb faltered, struggling for an answer. “You know, for the…” He shook his head. “I didn’t miss the thing you found, that you put at the top of my suitcase.”
“What thing?” Chelsea asked, her tone mildly playful.
I know that tone of voice. Does she have to pull that attitude now?
Well, I can’t really blame her, can I?
“You know, the…” Caleb started, then shook his head. “Anyway, it’s not the right time, is it? To ask?”
“Ask what?” Chelsea asked.
Caleb sighed. “You’re a sphinx,” he said. “Give me something to work with.”
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” Chelsea said. “You’re the one who’s supposed to decide, aren’t you?”
She’s been waiting for so long. No wonder she’s annoyed with me.
“It’s not… just about timing, I guess,” Caleb said. “I… failed you. And it made me realize, when I finally got back from the Edge of Time, when Midnight gave me that lecture… I’m not worthy of asking. Not yet. Because you deserve the best from me, you deserve proper commitment, and I thought I could do that, but then I just…” he bowed his head, “ran away.”
Chelsea sighed, and Caleb looked up to see her shaking her head. “Who the heck are you right now?” she asked.
“What?” Caleb asked.
Another sigh. “Remember what you said at my parents’ graves?”
“I promised them —” Caleb started.
“No, before that. You said you’d always forgive me.” Chelsea fixed Caleb with a serious gaze. “Did you honestly think it wouldn’t go both ways?”
“I…” Caleb started.
“I’ll always forgive you,” Chelsea said, giving his hand a strong squeeze. “So stop feeling sorry for yourself. You know what you did wrong, and you’re determined not to do it again. That’s all I need.”
Caleb stared at her, into the serious gleam of her brilliant green eyes. Slowly, irresistibly, a smile split his lips, a smile he felt in his heart, a giddiness and joy that bubbled up from within him and couldn’t be denied.
Chelsea smiled back at him, and there was relief in that expression. “There’s that smile,” she said. “Now I know you’re finally back.”
“What do you mean?” Caleb asked.
“You haven’t smiled quite right since you woke up at Midnight Bridge,” Chelsea said. She leaned forward, resting her forehead against his. “I’ve been waiting for that smile.”
“Well, it’s good to be back,” Caleb said, grinning.
“You’re darn right it is,” Chelsea said, poking him in the side playfully, eliciting a giggle.
Caleb sat back, looking down at the sleeping Adelaide. “She’s really gotten attached to you,” he said.
“I can’t imagine why,” Chelsea said, pursing her lips.
“I can,” Caleb said, smiling as he reached down to gently smooth a few strands of hair off of Adelaide’s face. “Hey, do you think she’s actually asleep, or just faking it?”
Chelsea grinned. “One way to find out,” she said. She tickled the girl in the ribs three times, then shook her head. “Definitely asleep.”
“You’re sure?” Caleb asked.
“She’s more ticklish than you,” Chelsea said, laughing. “Something you wanna talk about?”
“Yeah, I just…” Caleb hesitated, taking a breath and letting it out. “You know how her parents are dead, and have been for a long time, and, well, they were terrible to begin with, so it’s not like she’d want them. But I’m pretty sure… no, I’m positive that she’s hoping…”
“Oh,” Chelsea said, eyes widening. Caleb nodded. Chelsea looked down at Adelaide. “Really now?”
“She’s all but said it flat-out,” Caleb said.
Chelsea hummed thoughtfully, stroking the girl’s hair. Finally, with a smirk, she glanced Caleb’s way. “Then you’d better hurry up and find a good time to ask a certain question. You’ve got more than one lady waiting for you now.”
Caleb laughed at that, his heart light in his chest.
She’s right. I feel like I’m really back, now.
And she’s right about that, too. I can’t keep these girls waiting.
He held Chelsea’s hand tighter as he looked out the window, watching the universe go by.
I’ll get my stamps, take the trial, and be done with this “transformation.”
I’ll be well on the lookout for the right time, the right place.
Without keeping them waiting too long, of course. I’ve done that long enough.