The train rumbled over the rails even as time inside fumbled over itself. They had wandered the one-way maze of passages for what might have been an hour, if those existed or meant anything. The corridors, long and straight, still wound through every time and form a train may take - as well as several that it must never. Neither Edna nor Iona had a solid memory of the outside of the locomotive, having been distracted by bullets and other inconveniences. Inside, however, they found the train like a teenager trying on identities, changing dramatically at every opportunity.
The group of adventurers had first boarded the locomotive in an Old West car, but the pair had walked through the comforts of Victorian finery, a car made entirely of stone, and now the pastel patterns of the 90s. Every new piece, it seemed, came from another era or area, and every passenger, she learned, was as incongruous to the next as Highmond to Iona.
A man in a toga argued - in Inglish - with a woman doused in head-to-toe tweed. A fencepost was propped in a seat with a hot cup of tea sat in front of it. When Edna looked back, the cup was empty, and the post was wet. Glancing through the window to another private room like their own, she saw what must have been a very strong infant, rocking her sleeping mother.
There was, in short, no time or sense to this place - no thread to pull or rope to lead you back to safety. The cracks in reality that had spidered out across this universe were converging. The world was broken here, and what did that say for where they headed?
Perhaps what Edna hated most of all about adventure was the sense of obligation. To look at these people (and fencepost) to think of their suffering and their loss (fencelessness), of their families and their pain (...nails?), was to find herself without a choice. She couldn’t simply abandon them to their fate, for she knew better than most what it meant to be cast out to the wave of fate, clinging desperately to whatever wreckage of hope washed by. Yet again, she sighed at having been left without a choice - she would help this world, even if she could no longer help her own world.
Her own world.
That was a thought she had been avoiding. Earth. No “the Second”. Just home. Just gone. Her pale blue dot. Her tiny, insignificant speck in the vast sea of time and space, and gregory. Suddenly Grief was there by her side, no longer knocking at the door. The old lady had found the spare key and let herself in.
She didn’t gloat in her arrival - didn’t complain about Edna’s manners or compare her mind to a cleaner one. Edna wasn’t even aware of her guest until she had been wrapped in the woman’s arms - that sweet sister of pain swooping her up, cradling her to bed. In the real world, or what passed for it, she sat where she was in the middle of the aisle. She grasped the rough cushion of an armrest to make it to the floor, where a matching, faded carpet waited.
She was vaguely aware of Iona and of a scoff from the direction of the tweed woman. Edna assumed everyone was probably staring, but she didn’t care. There was only the thought that Grief would be upset with her. Edna had kept her sweet friend locked out for so long, sleeping on the stoop. How could she be so harsh to such a kind old woman? How could she be so selfish?
She wept - at her cruelty, at her fate - burying her wet face in the soft shoulder of Grief. But Grief wasn’t Angry, she was only Grief. The old woman did her best to bat away Depression and Self-Hate. She only wanted Edna to feel the turmoil that she had been keeping at bay - to reckon with the loss before it consumed her from within. There was no need, Grief whispered, to feel those other things. They were lies born in Edna’s locking away of the real emotions, nothing more.
She felt Iona’s hand on her shoulder, then the other, then her friend pressed her forehead gently into Edna’s hair. There, Grief said, all that worry, for nothing. Edna said nothing, and Iona said nothing, and nothing was said. The tears Edna shed were no longer all from Grief, but from a new kind of Joy the old woman had let in. Of everything Edna Star - Master of the Forbidden Keys, Mapper of the Four Bidden Quays, and Molder of the Forb Idddn Kis - hated about being The Greatest Adventurer of Several Earths (And Other Planets As Well, You Know), what stood highest and hatedest of them all was that hardly anyone tried to comfort her.
She was expected to comfort everyone else, of course, she was a Hero. She was THE Hero. What could a lowly person offer to someone as great and mighty as she? The fact was, when you became a Hero at the level to which Edna had achieved, you ceased to be a person, to everyone but yourself. There were a few holdouts who remembered her humanity, certainly - her parents, some childhood friends, the Citizen King of Jupiter - but all of them were dead now.
Iona Plum though. The con-woman who snatched a monarchy from the jaws of being hanged was so confident, so self-assured, so pig-headed that she could never be in danger of seeing anyone as more than human. And now Edna had some small confirmation that her friend didn’t see her as less than, either. She turned and sobbed into Iona’s shoulder, and that was when Grief let her guard down.
Everything was going so well. Edna was feeling what she needed to feel, the monsters were being held at bay, she was accepting the friendship she yearned for - but then she reached for her watch. This, in itself, wasn’t out of the ordinary, you already know. Her watch was her oldest comfort, her closest solace. She clutched it in every moment of sadness and solitude, of contentment and curiosity, of joy and justice.
What was out of the ordinary now - what was horribly, terribly wrong - was that her watch wasn’t there. And just like that a powerful, cruel emotion shoved past Grief, pummeling the old woman to the ground. Edna opened her eyes and peered at Iona - into Iona.
“What is it?” her cowpoke friend asked, worried.
She didn’t answer - only stood up and looked around, not bothering to wipe the tears from her face. She looked Iona up and down, with special attention to her pockets. Then finally said, “Nothing. Sorry. Let’s get back to Highmond.”
And she walked around Iona and headed toward Highmond.
They didn’t notice that behind the tea-drinking fence post - home and hidden in the shadowed corners of the train - was a woman who looked, but for a forced western aesthetic, exactly like Iona. This woman rolled her own watch over her knuckles while she sipped a cup of tea, and said - out loud, for the benefit of you - “Well, that was curious.”