Caleb sipped at his latte, blinking bleariness from his eyes.
It had been a long night. For one thing, it was quite the trek from the library to his and Chelsea’s apartments in the Libra District. And beyond that, the pair had spent a few hours once they got back talking about Isabelle and what to do.
Chelsea wasn’t fond of any of Caleb’s plans.
But here he was, going through with them. First part of his plan: meet with his parents. Yet even though they’d said they could meet at ten thirty, the clock on the wall of the coffee shop was already reading eleven o’clock.
I know they’re busy, but they never run late, Caleb thought idly. He yawned, stretched, took in the sounds of the shop. There wasn’t much activity, though that was expected. Their heaviest business was done from noon to one, and from ten at night until three in the morning. Still, there was idle conversation at a few of the other occupied tables. A man and a woman were in line at the counter, and one of the baristas was mixing a cappuccino. The loud whirring of the machine was a bit nostalgic to Caleb. He’d worked at a coffee shop at the mall through high school, and he’d always enjoyed mixing the more complicated drinks. The smells of coffee and other flavored syrups wafted through the air. With floor-to-ceiling windows all along the western wall, it combined together to give the shop a friendly atmosphere.
The shop was on the second floor of the Council Building, the headquarters for the Council of Mages in Grimoire. Known to the general public as the Zodiac Building, only those with permission or a guest pass could enter. Caleb was allowed free reign on the first three floors, since he was part of the Hunter Guild – all Guild offices were within the Council Building – but he didn’t have any administrative authority. That left floors four through eight off-limits to him.
His parents being late gave Caleb more time to reflect on his conversation with Chelsea after meeting Isabelle. Chelsea had been rattled by the strange girl that created Piper’s Flutes out of thin air.
Caleb couldn’t blame her. But he also couldn’t understand her extreme reaction. Though… that wasn’t necessarily a new development.
They say opposites attract, and that had been true in some ways of Caleb and Chelsea. While Caleb was easygoing, laid back, and full of smiles and laughter, Chelsea was easily irritated, prone to anger, and often had very little patience.
She didn’t show that much when fighting Hollows. She’d chosen the perfect type of magic, and a frontline combat role, to serve as a fantastic outlet for her passionate emotions.
Caleb loved that about her. Chelsea was like a miniature sun, shining brightly with intensity at all times. She was fascinating to watch and listen to, and she always kept him on his toes.
But he did have trouble understanding her. He thought she had the tendency to leap to unfair conclusions without considering enough information. And that had led to quite the conflict lasting deep into the early morning hours.
“Why were you so soft on her?” Chelsea had demanded.
“Because she’s a little kid,” Caleb replied.
“She looks like a little kid. But she clearly isn’t human. She disappeared at the same time the Hollows did. She talked about her time being up, about some strange place called the Library of Solitude. She didn’t even know where she was, and she has magic no mage has – creating Piper’s Flutes out of thin air, without using a Talisman.”
“She’s lost and afraid,” Caleb had insisted. “She just wants someone to help her go home.”
“That’s what she says. But you can’t trust her. We need to find out what she is, and stop her from using the flutes.”
“But that’s her only way to get home.”
“That’s what she said.” Chelsea glared daggers at Caleb. “Why are you so trusting? You don’t even know this girl!”
And on and on it had gone. Caleb felt like they’d argued in circles the entire time. She couldn’t see what he was trying to say and, in truth, Caleb couldn’t see why Chelsea was reacting the way that she was.
“Deep thoughts?” came the familiar voice of Caleb’s father. He looked up, smiling at his parents as they joined him at the table. Both had clearly ordered while Caleb was lost in thought, as they each held a drink of their own.
“You could say that,” Caleb said. “What took you so long? You’re never late.”
Deirdre sighed. “It’s been quite the day,” she said.
Callum leaned close, a hand to the side of his mouth as he whispered. “We were doing some investigating of our own,” he said. “And right now –”
“Darling, please stop,” Deirdre said, placing a hand on Callum’s shoulder. “You’re the loudest whisperer I’ve ever met.” Callum laughed sheepishly as he sat back and let his wife take over.
Caleb couldn’t help but smile. He often forgot just how young his parents were. They were prominent members of the Council of Mages, and had been co-heads of the Hunter Guild before that. Not to mention, they had five children. And yet, the pair were only in their early forties. They’d married young, and started having kids young. That youthful romance and attitude showed in their interactions with each other. It had always been a heartwarming model for Caleb, even if Chelsea was completely different from either of his parents.
Just like in everything else in Caleb’s eyes, his parents set the gold standard.
“Right now, the intact Piper Flute is with Mina Shoto.” Deirdre said, picking up where Callum had left off.
Caleb blinked. “Miss Shoto?” he asked. “But she’s the head of the Appraiser Guild. And if it was going to go to her, why wouldn’t a Hunter just turn it in to her directly?”
“Because she didn’t obtain it normally,” Deirdre said. “And because, rather than destroy it, she stored it somewhere in her vault.”
“She didn’t…” Caleb stopped, thinking on that. “She received it through a roundabout way so that she could hide it without anyone knowing she broke the law by not destroying it.”
Callum nodded. “Seems that way.”
“So… that’s it for the Flute so far, then?” Caleb asked.
“So far,” Deirdre said. “We have some friends keeping an eye on it. If it ends up in use somewhere, we’ll know, and we’ll let you know.”
“But our gallivanting around town took longer than we expected,” Callum said. “Sorry about that. What did you want to talk about?”
“Well, last night…” Caleb started, as he relayed the story of meeting Isabelle. The conversation stuck out in his mind, so he was sure he remembered every word. He didn’t leave out a detail.
Callum and Deirdre both took a long time to respond. Deirdre spent several moments staring out the window, while Callum sipped his coffee, staring into the mug like the contents would reveal something to him.
“She was making Piper’s Flutes and giving them to a man with a long scar across his entire face,” Callum said softly. “Tall, white hair…” He cast a look at Deirdre, who nodded.
“I’ve seen him before,” she said. “I don’t know his name. I’ve never heard him speak. He acts like a Council Member’s aide, but I don’t know who he works for.”
“So if he’s the one who’s been gathering Piper’s Flutes, then he might be doing it at someone else’s orders,” Caleb said.
That earned a nod from Callum. “Right. We’ll have to keep our eyes open for him.”
“I haven’t seen him in months,” Deirdre said. “He shows up rarely, and disappears like smoke.”
“Basically, he’s a creepy dude,” Callum said, laughing.
Deirdre rolled her eyes. “Whoever he is, we’ll find out more. Now we know to watch for him. Next time we see him, he won’t vanish so easily.”
“But… what should I do?” Caleb asked.
Deirdre smiled. “Visit that child, Isabelle, some more,” she said. “Ask her questions and try to learn more about her, but most of all… give her company. She seems very lonely.”
“You’re not worried about her?” Caleb asked.
“Not at all,” Callum said. “If she turns out to be dangerous, then you’ll handle it. But I don’t think she will. You have a good sense about things. Whoever that girl is… it seems to me that what she needs is help. Not fear.”
“And with that, unless there’s more you need to tell us, we should probably get going,” Deirdre said, her expression apologetic. “Sorry we couldn’t have more time.”
Caleb smiled. “It’s okay. Thanks.”
“You know, you really should come to visit more often,” Deirdre said, smiling. “And bring Chelsea with you to dinner some night! We’ve only met her once, and yet you two have been together for almost two years now. She’s clearly something special.”
Callum clapped his son on the shoulder. “If she’s important to you, she’s important to us,” he said. “Don’t let her be a stranger.”
As they went to leave, Deirdre turned around suddenly, as if she’d remembered something. “Caleb, you know who Chelsea’s mother was, of course.” Caleb nodded. Marion Reiner had been a Hunter alongside Callum and Deirdre when they were younger. The trio had been a fantastic team, and Callum and Deirdre frequently gave Marion credit for most of their successes.
Marion had died in a fight against Hollows when Chelsea was just four years old. Chelsea didn’t talk about it much. She always said she had been too young for it to matter, too young for it to really impact her. But with the way she felt about Caleb’s parents…
“We have something for Chelsea,” Callum said. “We wanted to give it to her in person, so we were waiting, but…”
“She hasn’t come by with you,” Deirdre said sadly. “Well, I think we’ve waited long enough. Let her know, will you? We have something for her that belonged to her mother. Something her mother wanted her to have when she was an adult.”
And with that, his parents left, returning to their busy lives.
Caleb sighed as he made his way down and out of the Council Building. It wasn’t like he hadn’t invited Chelsea to dinner with him and his parents before – he’d lost count of how many rebuffed invitations he’d offered long ago. But with his parents now bringing that issue to the forefront, Caleb couldn’t just ignore things with his girlfriend anymore, could he?
And we just had a huge argument last night, he thought ruefully. Do I really want to bring up my parents now?
But it was about Chelsea’s mother. He had to say something.
“Wearing glasses today?” Caleb turned, startled at the sudden voice. Chelsea laughed at his shock, standing just outside the Council Building as Caleb exited its doors.
“You, I, uh…” Caleb started, fumbling for words. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Yeah. My contacts and my eyes were disagreeing today.”
Chelsea nodded, taking Caleb’s hand as they started walking. “I kept you up really late last night,” she said. “I mean, you could have switched to glasses as soon as you got home, but I was a pretty big distraction.” She sighed. “I’m sorry.”
Caleb stared at her, shocked. Just like that, the problems of last night were gone?
Chelsea frowned at his expression. “Oh, come on,” she said. “Don’t look at me like that. I was really worked up last night, and… well, it wasn’t you. Or the girl. Not entirely, anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Caleb asked. They walked out onto Grimoire’s main street as the trolley passed by them. The Council Building was just a block off of the main street – close enough that it was notable, as it should be, but just slightly out of the way so that it didn’t attract too much unwanted attention from non-magical folks.
“It was her song,” Chelsea said, her voice filled with emotion. “I… I was trying to ignore it. Trying to put it out of my mind, but… it dragged up a lot of painful things. Things I’d rather forget, or at least ignore. I was freaked out by Isabelle and the flutes, don’t get me wrong, but… I was on edge because of her song.”
Caleb nodded. “Yeah, I get that,” he said. “It was heavy. Like a magic all its own.”
“Mm.” Chelsea murmured her agreement. “So… look, I don’t… I feel like I should talk to you about some things, but… it’s really hard. There’s a lot I thought I’d buried away. And I don’t want to talk about any of it. But after last night, I really feel like I should. It feels like I’ve been keeping secrets from you, and that’s not good. But I don’t… I don’t think I can…”
Caleb pulled Chelsea close, wrapping his arms around her in a hug.
“Wha – Caleb! We’re surrounded by people!” Chelsea protested, pushing against him.
Caleb tilted his head down, speaking softly through Chelsea’s hair. “Whatever’s going on, whatever’s hard for you to talk about… I just want you to know that none of it can change how I feel about you. I love you.”
Chelsea wriggled her way slightly free, tilting her chin up to stare into Caleb’s eyes. Her expression was one of heartache and regret, and then… hope. She smiled, rising on tip toe to kiss Caleb on the cheek. “I love you too, you know.” She sighed, pulling free of Caleb’s embrace. “Come on, keep walking. You’re making us the center of attention, here.”
Caleb chuckled as they resumed walking. Despite the heavy foot traffic around them, they hadn’t attracted much attention at all. A few passersby had cast a glance of confusion their way, and one elderly couple had smiled at them, but that was it. Still, there was no reason to state any of that.
“Hey, so… at the risk of ruining our little moment back there…” Caleb found himself fumbling for words. “My parents asked about you. Said they’d like to have us both over for dinner sometime soon. And… they said they had something for you. Something that belonged to your mother. She left it with them, for you to have when you were grown.”
Chelsea was walking slightly ahead of him, so he didn’t get a good look at her expression. More than that, she turned her face slightly away from him. “I can’t,” she said softly.
“Why not?” Caleb asked. “I mean, I know you have something against my parents. I don’t know what it is. I’ve asked before, and I know you don’t want to talk about it, but this is also about your mother, and –”
Chelsea dragged Caleb off of the main street and down a narrow alley. After a few paces, she pushed him against the wall and leaned into him, her face against his chest. Hands that were balled into fists, so tight her knuckles were white, pressed against him.
“I can’t,” Chelsea said. Her voice was muffled, but Caleb could hear the pain in it. “I’m sorry, Caleb. I can’t. Not yet. I…” She shook her head. “Please don’t ask me again. I’ll tell you about it when I’m ready.”
Caleb let out a long, slow breath, and then wrapped his arms around Chelsea. “Okay,” he said softly, his heart aching. “When you’re ready.”
Chelsea nodded slowly against his chest.
They stood like that in the alley for several minutes, Chelsea seeming like she was trying to physically press her own roiling emotions into Caleb. He desperately wanted to understand. What was going on in her heart? Why did she seem so tortured?
“Hey, can we…” Chelsea started, pulling away from Caleb, her gaze to the side. “Can we go somewhere tonight before patrol?”
Caleb bit back the questions trying to force their way out of him. He fought back against all the things he wanted to say, the conversation that Chelsea had fervently rejected. If she couldn’t talk about it, Caleb had to let it go. He took in a breath, let it out.
He loved her. And she loved him. She’d talk to him, about everything, in time.
“What did you have in mind?” he asked.
“The Falling Stars have a show at Grim Night’s,” Chelsea said. Caleb could hear the earnestness in her voice. She was hoping he’d be receptive to a date, to a change in subject. She was hoping he wouldn’t let her unexplained rejection of his parents push him away. She shifted her feet nervously. “I thought it might be nice.”
Caleb smiled. He reached out and intertwined his fingers with Chelsea’s. “Sounds great,” he said. “What time?”
Chelsea’s shoulders sank a few inches, and her whole body looked like all the tension had gone out of it as relief flooded through her. A small smile creased her lips. “Eleven o’clock.”
“Late show,” Caleb said, surprised. “But we’re Hunters. Late nights are our thing. Let’s do it.”
Chelsea’s smile broadened, and she squeezed his fingers tightly. “Thank you,” she said.
They started walking again, leaving the alley behind and wandering through the streets of Grimoire. Up and down stairs and ramps they went, turning here and there, passing tiny shops, out-of-the-way budget apartment buildings, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and cafes. Chelsea occasionally leaned in, bumping her shoulder against Caleb’s playfully. But even in that cute, playful motion, there was an earnest hopefulness. Chelsea was nervous. Caleb laughed softly, loosed his hand from Chelsea’s grip, and then wrapped that arm around her shoulder, pulling her close as they walked. Leaning into him, Chelsea giggled under her breath as she wrapped her arm around Caleb’s waist.
Together they walked, with no destination in mind, no words passing between them. Only desperate hopes and love on both sides, doing their very best to reach out to each other without the words they knew would only fail. And in their minds, they were clinging to the belief that some feelings and truths were best conveyed with no words at all.