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In the House of Hours

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In the first hour, he was introduced to his masters. They had made him. He existed by their grace. He was to obey them, always.

They showed him his tasks, his tools, his home.

He was never to leave, except to solve a paradox. He was never to interfere with the timeline, except by their orders, or to prevent it from crumbling. He was to guard the prison below.

The staff could become a scythe. The mirrors could see through time. The medallions on the shelf, medallions that they wore, under their robes (he could tell, thought he didn't know how), exempted others from his ability to manipulate time, and allowed them passage through the mirrors.

His home was a tower, full of ticking.

They did not answer his questions. They did not tell him his name. They left before the hour was out.

He didn't like his masters very much.

.

In the second hour, he discovered trying to stop his body from changing made him sick.

.

In the third hour, he found a mirror that was just a mirror, and discovered his reflection. He examined himself. Clockwork insides, looping ghostly tail, blue skin, red eyes, a face that kept flicking through ages, always older or younger than when he had last looked. He liked his clothing. It was purple. The words that came to him, he knew, but he did not know where they came from. He didn't know he knew them until they passed his mind.

Everything was new. He was new.

He had a scar over one of his eyes.

Why did something as new as him have a scar?

.

In the fourth hour, he discovered that trying to look back at his own timeline made him sick.

.

In the fifth hour, he found the library. He read the dictionaries and encyclopedias, then moved on to the other books. He greedily kept all the words to himself. He knew things, now. More than his masters told him.

He couldn't help but notice, there were no stories in his library, and there were large empty spots on his shelves, free even of the lightest coating of dust. His encyclopedias had mentioned stories.

He wondered where they were.

.

In the sixth hour, he felt himself pulled to his mirrors. There was a paradox. A knot in reality.

This was his first task. What he had been made for. The thrill that went through him was immense, indescribable.

He worked the knot apart with gloved hands, his tail lashing back and forth. He knew how best to unwind the strings of time, what tools to use, how long each step should take.

It was so odd, to have been created with that knowledge, but it all felt so right. Like he had done it a thousand times before.

When he was done, he sank to the floor of the mirror room, drained. He almost wanted another paradox to happen, even though that would be bad for the timeline.

A dreamy smile came to his lips as he shifted from old to young. The timeline. It was his job to keep it safe. To keep it healthy. He already loved it, sitting here. It was more than worth enduring masters who didn't even give him a name.

Didn't even give him their names, come to think of it.

.

In the seventh hour, there was a knock on the door. He drifted towards it, curious. His masters had left through that door. Had they come back? Perhaps they had forgotten something.

Such as his name.

He played with the door handles, unsure if he should open them. His masters had said not to leave. Opening the doors didn't count, did it?

He pulled on the handles, frowned, and then pushed.

His masters weren't there. Instead, a small... boy. Yes, a boy. A small boy floated there. A ghost. His white hair was in disarray, and tears streaked his face. He held a thick, glowing book to his chest.

"Clockwork?" the child asked, his voice wavering.

"What about it?" he asked, endeavoring to be polite despite his confusion. Strange though this child may have been, he was still the first person he had met other than his masters. He was curious.

Perhaps the child was asking about- "My appearance? Or the tower?"

The child's lips wavered. His eyes went shiny, the green light in them glinting off tears gathering at their lower lids. Then his small round face crumpled, and he burst into tears, whole body trembling.

This was evidently the wrong thing to say.

He froze, uncertain how to handle this. Futures lay before him, but he couldn't interpret them. There were too many.

There had been no books on how to handle children, ghost or otherwise, in his library, a horrific oversight if he was expected to deal with this kind of a situation on his first day of existence. He made a note to correct that on his first opportunity.

He almost reached out, some deep instinct reacting to the child's distress, but stopped, remembering the admonition not to leave without permission.

"Would you like to come in?" he asked instead. His first guest. It could be worse.

At the invitation, the child practically flung himself at him, and clung to him with one arm, the other still wrapped around the book, sobbing.

"Clockwork," he said, "I'm so, so sorry."

"Ah," was the only response he could come up with. He attempted to gently pry the child off. He had no idea how much force children could endure without breaking. In fact, he wasn't sure how much force an adult ghost could endure without breaking. Or, perhaps more to the point, how much force he could apply. It hadn't come up yet.

"Clockwork is-" said the child, speaking into his robe and doubtless getting all kinds of slime on it. "Clockwork is your name. The Observants didn't tell you?"

"Who?" The name was rather fitting. A bit childish, perhaps, but fitting. He was made of clockwork, after all.

The child shuddered and looked up, eyes burning. "They didn't tell you?"

"Other than my makers, you are the first being I have met," he said. "I do not know what 'they' you are referring to. Furthermore, I do not know who you are, and cannot imagine how you know me, as I have not existed for fewer than seven hours."

"That's not true," insisted the child, voice wavering but somehow also furious. "That's a lie."

He was growing somewhat annoyed, now. Who was this child, to barge into his home, cry on him, and then call him a liar?

Before he could begin to take the child to task, he thrust out the book he was holding, pushing it into his chest so that it rubbed against the clock case in it. Reflexively, he took it.

"This," said the child. "This has everything you need to know. At least," the child wilted. "That's what you said before." He choked back a sob. "This is all my fault, and I hope- I hope you'll forgive me, when you're done reading it. I- I should go." He backed away, then turned and fled, zooming into the distance.

Clockwork watched him go. He seemed rather fast for such a small ghost.

.

In the eighth hour, he read the book.

He read the book.

He read the book.

He read the book.

He read the book.

He read the book.

,,,

Daniel has been pestering me about my history, lately. He seems to be under the impression that I am concealing some sort of tale of adventure that he wants to 'unlock.' That I did 'daring deeds' in my 'youth.' I have attempted to explain to Daniel that I never had a youth, but he is, as ever, impervious to reason.

,,,

I have resorted to telling Daniel that knowledge of my past is dangerous. However, as I could not reveal the nature of the danger without triggering it, Daniel did not believe me, and only became more determined to find out my 'dark and tragic backstory.' My backstory, as it were, is neither dark nor tragic, and, in any case, is none of his business.

I told him this.

We have had something of a falling out. I can only hope that this is not the end of our relationship. My sight is often inaccurate when it comes to Daniel.

,,,

Daniel has relented. Perhaps I should not be so surprised. Like any ghost, he can grab on to an idea and refuse to release it, but he has always been attentive to the needs of others. It is one of his most admirable qualities.

But all this talk of history has given me the urge to refresh my memories. I shall visit the old books tomorrow.

,,,

Daniel knows.

Curse my carelessness and his curiosity, but he knows. I should not have left this book exposed on my desk when he is known to visit at all hours.

He has sworn not to tell. I can only hope it will be enough. But it was not enough for those who came before me, and none of us have ever known why.

,,,

They know.

Daniel and his friends have devised a rather clever plan on my behalf, one that I would not have considered on my own. Perhaps I am too resigned to my fate, too eager to submit, the weight of those who have come before me and failed pressing down on my shoulders. Perhaps I should have hope.

,,,

It didn't work. Rather, it did, in all particulars but the one I failed to foresee. They have taken Daniel. They will kill him, if I do not come.

,,,

Daniel, I have put this book where you might find it, so that you will bring it to the version of the Master of Time that comes after me. Consider it a final request on my part.

Be reassured that this is inevitable. I have, after all, never escaped being reset to my initial state once the Observants have set their mind on it. I do not blame you. I could never blame you. Over our acquaintance, I have come to value you as my closest friend. Even, as a son.

I cannot say the same for my 'blank' version. I did not react well to this revelation in the past, although, presumably, you will get this book to him in a period of time shorter than a hundred years. Still, I advise you not to linger.

With all the love an automaton such as myself can express, I wish you well, Daniel.

-Clockwork, Master of Time

,,,

Clockwork tilted his head back and screamed, because he knew exactly what had been taken from him and why.

He read the book again.

.

In the ninth hour, he looked for the other books, the books his... former self had mentioned, the ones he had learned from. He practically tore the tower (Long Now. The tower had a name. Long Now.) to shreds in his need.

They weren't there.

He went to his mirrors, looking for them through time. They were hidden in far away places. Out of the tower, out of his reach.

Unless he broke the rules.

.

In the tenth hour, he broke the rules. He gathered up the books and more. He found a letter, on fresh, white paper.

,,,

To my later self,

Now that you have read the records of our past incarnations, you have perhaps noticed a disturbing trend. When another learns of my history, I am wiped clean, made into a blank slate. But the one who learned vanishes entirely, without fail, no more than a week after my memories are removed.

I know what this means for Daniel. You do, too.

Whatever animosity you bear him, I beg you, do not let them destroy him.

-Clockwork, Master of Time

.

In the eleventh hour, he searched for the boy, Daniel, through the time windows. He did not experience the animosity his former self seemed to expect, but neither did he feel the obvious affection he had had for the young ghost.

This frustrated him. No, it angered him. It infuriated him.

How dare his 'masters' steal his history and then pretend to have made him? How dare they steal his connections, his relationships to others, his name?

He remembered fewer than eleven hours, and he had been so lonely. He hadn't even realized it until he read the books. He was still lonely.

The mirrors seemed to stare at him, like the eyes of his masters, mocking him for being unable to find his past self's child.

There.

.

As the twelfth hour struck, he reached through the mirror, and pulled the child into his arms.

The child struggled, at first, understandably. Clockwork hadn't given him any warning, and he had been in a rather brutal fight. Twenty against one was not a fair fight by any stretch of the imagination, and, while Clockwork's knowledge concerning children was limited, he had absorbed the fact that children were generally weaker than their adult counterparts and also that the general sentiment was that children should be protected.

As soon as Daniel noticed that it was Clockwork holding him, he went limp, large green eyes blinking up at him, as though dazed. Perhaps, he truly was dazed. He was injured in a number of locations, the most apparent being a thickly weeping gash over his left eye.

"Clockwork?" he asked, voice thin.

Clockwork felt faintly ill. The boy's opponents had been his masters. They would know what Clockwork had done. They would be coming. Would they make him forget, again?

"Clockwork?" repeated the boy, shaking his arm. "Are you okay?"

Clockwork stopped time.

No one had asked him that, before. His masters certainly hadn't, when they had woken him.

He shuddered, holding the child close, and made a decision. This child had belonged to his previous self, as far as he understood such things. As he was, in most ways, the same entity as his previous self, or at least his heir, that meant this child belonged to him.

His child.

No, he would not let his masters take Daniel. He would not let them destroy him, the only thing he could truly say was his.

But his masters could move through time, just as he could. They would be here soon, to take and punish. The loss of these last several hours would not be great, compared to the others he had suffered. He would find the books again, eventually. But the loss of Daniel?

That was untenable. Daniel had to be preserved.

He opened the door that led to the prison nestled in the roots of Long Now, and flew straight down the stairwell, eschewing the stairs. There were monsters kept down here. Horrors frozen in time, turned into vapor, and sealed in the foot-deep, hands-breadth-wide honeycomb cells in the walls, never to be released. Things that were simply wrong. Their crimes were listed on neat little cards outside their individual cells.

Core buzzing, Clockwork pressed Daniel's hand to the mouth of an empty cell, activating it. As the temporally-frozen child was absorbed, the opening automatically sealed itself.

There. Safe.

With trembling hands, Clockwork filled out a card with an explanation of Daniel's crime. Defying the High Council of Observants. If the patterns in his old journals held true, he would eventually grow to despise the Observants. Even if it took a year, ten years, a hundred, a thousand, one day he would question his 'makers.' One day he would become curious enough to open a prison labeled like this.

He wrote something entirely different on the back of the card before he affixed it to the front of Daniel's prison.

.

In the thirteenth hour, the Observants came, carrying Clockwork's key.

As they pushed it into the hole in his back, they told him how they always knew when someone discovered his weakness. Eventually, inevitably, that person would try to steal it, and the Observants kept a very close eye on the future of the key to prevent such an event.

Two months from now, Daniel would have tried to steal the key.

He would have given it to him.

They couldn't have that.

Like always, Clockwork forgot.

.

In the first hour, he was introduced to his masters. They had made him. He existed by their grace. He was to obey them, always.

They showed him his tasks, his tools, his home.

He was never to leave, except to solve a paradox. He was never to interfere with the timeline, except by their orders, or to prevent it from crumbling. He was to guard the prison below.

The staff could become a scythe. The mirrors could see through time. The medallions on the shelf, medallions that they wore, under their robes (he could tell, thought he didn't know how), exempted others from his ability to manipulate time, and allowed them passage through the mirrors.

His home was a tower, full of ticking.

They did not answer his questions. They did not tell him his name. They left before the hour was out.

He didn't like his masters very much.

.

In the nine hundred and two thousand, two hundred and ninety ninth hour, Clockwork ached. He had ached for a long time, though for what, he did not know. The ache echoed in the hollow spaces inside his chest, and sometimes he wondered if the ache was, in fact, a longing. A yearning. He had seen it in others.

But what would a creature like him long for?

He had a home, a purpose, time for leisure, all the luxuries he could dream up. Shouldn't that be enough?

Well. Freedom would be nice. Not having to obey the Observants, carry out their version of the timeline... that would be good. There were just so many better versions of future history, so many more elegant solutions to problems. Wars he could have stopped. Happy endings he could have facilitated.

Wouldn't it be better, to maximize happiness in the timeline? Or at least to maximize freedom of choice?

He thought about all the tragedies he could have avoided simply by solving a paradox or world-ending disaster in a different way than the Observants had insisted on.

Sometimes, he hated the Observants.

.

In the nine hundred and two thousand, eight hundred and seventy first hour, he idly looked through the Infinite Realms with one of his viewing mirrors. He had time, he always had time, and he was bored.

The Infinite Realms were, by their nature, infinite, with infinite variety. Even Clockwork had not seen, and could never see, all of them. There were an uncountable number of wonders out among the ectoplasmic mists.

But Clockwork was feeling melancholy, so he was looking at more mundane sights, closer to home, flying the perspective of the mirror across flying islands and through caves, pretending he was the one making the flight.

He spiraled through a cave and- Wait a moment. He pulled the perspective back. There was a neat little library tucked into the corner of the cave. He zoomed in, curious, then he startled, so hard his chest clock missed a tick. That was a hard thing to do. He was over a hundred years old.

The books had his symbol on them.

.

In the nine hundred and three thousand and twelfth hour, he finally gathered up the courage to break the rules, leave Long Now, and go look at the books. In all this time, he had never set foot outside his tower.

The journey was exhilarating. Partially because of how swiftly he was going. He didn't foresee the Observants visiting, but he couldn't always see them clearly. But as for the rest...

There was just something different about doing this in person, in feeling the ectoplasm on his face, in being able to turn his head and see, well, not everything, but it felt like more than he could see through his mirrors.

He found the cave quickly enough, as well he should. He had used his mirrors to map out the very route he had taken dozens, if not hundreds, of times before actually taking the dive and going. Or, now that he was here, should he say coming?

He was almost giddy.

Some of that faded when he laid eyes on the books again. Why would there be books out here with his symbol on them? It felt ominous.

He read the books.

He read the books.

He read them again...

.

In the nine hundred and three thousand, seven hundred and seventh hour, Clockwork went down to the prison. After reading the most recent of the journals, and then, of course, recording his own and adding it to the collection, he had decided to oppose the Observants.

True, he didn't dare do so openly. He didn't want to be erased, but he had some leeway to make things more difficult for them. He could make some of those decisions, those alterations to the timeline, that they had warned him off of. Perhaps he could even, at first, pretend that they were mistakes.

But, first things first. If he was going to defy the Observants, it would be useful to speak to someone who had done so before, and so successfully that the Observants felt the need to imprison them here.

He wondered, what would they be like? A warrior, perhaps? A politician? A scholar?

Would they even want to help him? He understood that so much time spent in the honeycomb prisons could be... difficult.

Or would they be evil? Would they fight him? In his time, he had imprisoned more than one utterly foul villain down below.

Rarely did he wish so fervently to be able to look at his own personal timeline.

But he had to take the risk. If he understood that last journal correctly, the Observants had destroyed his son. His surrogate son, to be sure, but still. For ghosts, that was good enough. At least, Clockwork could find no sign of Daniel in the time after his 'reset.'

He'd never had a chance to fulfill his immediate predecessor's final request.

Clockwork imagined what it would be like, to have a child. To have family. He had seen humans and ghosts with such things, such people. They weren't always happy, but Clockwork couldn't help but wonder if having one would have filled the constant ache inside him.

But there was no more time for musing on what could have been. He was in front of the prison, looking down at the label that said, Defying the High Council of Observants.

He reached out and deactivated the seal.

Vapor poured out, and slowly, sluggishly, began to form into a ghost. A rather small, slender ghost. Its- His head barely came up to Clockwork's shoulders.

This child had defied the Observants?

Almost as soon as the last bit of vapor condensed, the ghost collapsed. Clockwork caught him before he hit the floor, and he squirmed in his arms, twisting to latch onto Clockwork's robes. He made small mumbling noises, too confused and slurred to count as speech.

Behind him, the label card fluttered to the floor, and, for the first time, Clockwork noticed that there was writing on the other side. He summoned it to him with a touch of telekinesis.

The reverse side of the card read Daniel, son of Clockwork.

.

In the nine hundred and three thousand, seven hundred and eighth hour, Clockwork carried the smaller ghost up the stairs. He, Daniel, was obviously in a bit of shock after being in the cell for so long. Not having a body, among the other effects of the prison, could remove a ghost's sense of time and self, and wear away at things like motor control and the ability to speak.

At least, that's what his past selves had recounted. He had never had the opportunity or reason to release a prisoner before.

He tried to put the little ghost down, but Daniel was insistent on staying attached, burying his head in the crook of Clockwork's neck. Finally, however, he dozed off and became human. Which was something he did.

Well. When he woke up, he could tell Clockwork how he had found himself in Long Now's prison.

.

As of the nine hundred and three thousand, seven hundred and sixtieth hour, Daniel had yet to do anything of the sort.

What he did do was look up at Clockwork with large, trusting eyes, cuddle, eat, sleep, and make soft, indistinct almost-speech noises. It filled the aching emptiness inside Clockwork, but also made him worried. Had the time in the prison broken Daniel in some way?

But how could Clockwork fix him?

The best Clockwork could do was provide for Daniel's needs and hold him, letting his core hum him to sleep.

.

In the nine hundred and three thousand, seven hundred and ninety fifth hour, Clockwork became convinced Daniel was shrinking. Becoming softer, slightly more rounded.

Younger?

He was right.

.

In the nine hundred and three thousand, eight hundred and tenth hour, Clockwork stopped dithering and made plans to take him to a doctor.

Daniel had had interactions with the Far Frozen before. Positive interactions. For that matter, they still worshiped him. Literally. Even if they did think he had been ended.

Better, they had Daniel's old medical files. If anyone could tell what was wrong, they could.

He bundled Daniel up in heavy, insulating clothing, unsure how his human body would handle the cold, and wrapped him in his cloak. Danny giggled and mumbled the whole time and, as soon as Clockwork finished, promptly fell asleep.

Clockwork, rather daringly, chose to travel to the Far Frozen via mirror. It was faster, that way.

Rather than first registering the cold, Clockwork was struck by how brilliantly, blindingly white the Far Frozen was. The view through the mirror hadn't done it justice.

Nor had it done justice to how large the yetis were. Or the size of their warriors' spears.

"Who are you?" demanded one of them, while others scurried around. "Why have come here?"

"It is my understanding that your tribe prides itself on its medical knowledge," said Clockwork.

"You're here for treatment?" asked the yeti, warily.

"Not for myself," said Clockwork, revealing Daniel's bundled form.

The yeti gasped. "Great One!"

.

In the nine hundred and three thousand, eight hundred and eleventh hour, Clockwork learned about jealousy. He had never truly been jealous before, but now... Now he could say with certainty that he was, and he hated it.

He hated more that Daniel was favoring Frostbite with that trusting, open look of his. He hated that Frostbite remembered Daniel, and he, Clockwork, only had written recollections.

Daniel was his, not Frostbite's.

But he forced himself to watch the examination and Daniel's interactions with the other ghost dispassionately. This was about finding out what was wrong with Daniel and healing him, not Clockwork's petty and, frankly, shameful feelings.

Frostbite gave Daniel a lollipop and tucked a thick blanket around his shoulders before walking over to Clockwork.

"Do you know what happened to him?" asked Frostbite.

"Not precisely," said Clockwork. "I found him in a vapor prison."

Frostbite grumbled, almost growled, deep in his chest. "That would explain certain things. To be trapped without a body for so long..." Frostbite shook his head. "His currently state is something of a defense mechanism. To protect his mind, both the human and ghostly sides of it, he turned off everything but base instincts. Some of it has started to recover, but certain aspects of it are being rewritten, as he adapts to his new situation."

"Rewritten?" asked Clockwork, hiding his anxiety. If Daniel could not remember, Clockwork could not ask him what had happened. If Daniel did not remember, he would be cursed in the same way as Clockwork. "Why? For what reason?"

Frostbite fixed Clockwork with a yellow stare. "He has bonded with you," said Frostbite. "Accepted you as a parent. He is instinctively altering himself to better fit that role. Some of those alterations are disrupting or recycling dormant structures in his core, which in turn affects his human brain."

"Ah," said Clockwork. "Is there any way to," he made a small, abortive gesture, "let him be himself again? Wake up those structures, those memories? Before more are destroyed."

"Yes," said Frostbite. "But it may be kinder to let him forget."

"What do you mean?" asked Clockwork, irritated. He knew what forgetting was like. It wasn't kind.

"He has been gone for a long time," said Frostbite. "His human family and friends..." he sighed. "Humans do not live that long, and he was very attached to them. They will be dead by now, and I have not heard of them becoming ghosts."

Clockwork worried at his gloves. Yes, that matched with what he had read in his predecessor's journal. He had taken a look at the fates of the residents of Amity Park after Daniel's disappearance. They had not been universally pleasant. The city itself had been abandoned shortly after, except for attempts to close the Fenton Portal and prevent ghosts from escaping into nearby areas.

"It should be his decision, whether to remember or forget," said Clockwork. "He needs all the relevant information, and all his wits. Should he wish to forget afterwards, I will take him to the Lethe." He wasn't being selfish with this. He wouldn't even ask Daniel about his former self before asking after his decision.

Frostbite nodded. "Let's get to it, then."

.

Daniel woke again in the nine hundred and three thousand, eight hundred and twenty second hour.

Clockwork had been working himself into a sort of numb panic when it happened, worrying about whether or not the the Observants would try to visit him in Long Now and find him gone, worrying about when Daniel would wake, worrying about what Daniel would know, and how to break the news that his family was dead to him.

But seeing Daniel's eyes fluttering open eased some of those worries.

"Clockwork?" he mumbled, reaching for the edge of Clockwork's cloak.

"I am here, Daniel," said Clockwork, taking his hand.

"What happened?" asked Daniel, his words slurring slightly.

"I am afraid I do not remember," said Clockwork.

Daniel's features twisted in distress. "They made you forget again?" he asked, the last word a whine. "That's not fair."

"What do you remember, Daniel?"

"I remember- I remember you pulling me away from the Observants," he said. "Through the mirror, I mean. They were going to kill me, they said. Because I knew about your key, and I was going to try to steal it, they said." He shuddered. "I was losing. They really were going to do it."

"I pulled you through?"

"Mhm," said Daniel. "I was surprised, because I thought you'd be mad at me, after I gave you the book. The journal, I mean. Because you forgot everything, and it was my fault." Daniel's eyes glittered with water.

"I don't blame you," said Clockwork. "You got the book to me?"

"Yeah," said Daniel.

This suggested that there was a short-lived version of himself between the author of the last journal and his own first memory. One who hadn't a chance to write a record of himself, one who had saved Daniel from the Observants, and sealed him into the honeycomb prison.

"And after that?"

"Mm. After that... It was like being in the Fenton Thermos, I guess? It was all fuzzy. Fuzzier. And the inside was different, I think. I don't know. I couldn't get out. And then I was with you? But it was like a dream."

"You were with me," said Clockwork.

"Oh, that's good," said Daniel. "Was I in the thermos? Is that how you hid me from the Observants?"

"You were in a similar object," said Clockwork. "Daniel, I must warn you, because the Observants removed my memory of hiding you, you were in it for quite some time."

"Days?" asked Daniel, eyebrows knitting in concern. "I guess I'll have to come up with a really good excuse for Mom and Dad. Unless you can send me back through time? Or maybe not, if the Observants are still looking for me."

"It was significantly longer than that," said Clockwork.

"Weeks?"

Clockwork shook his head. Daniel struggled to prop himself in a sitting position on the bed.

"Months?" he whispered.

"Daniel, it has been over one hundred and three years."

The boy gasped and fell back. Clockwork could hear the steady rhythm of his heart and core jumble momentarily."

"One hundred and three?" he asked, voice almost inaudible, even to Clockwork. "They're all dead, aren't they? Everyone I knew."

"With the exception of Plasmius, I am afraid so."

"Of course that fruitloop would survive. I-" Daniel choked back a sob.

Clockwork, uncertainly, patted Daniel's shoulder. Daniel rolled over onto Clockwork's arm and cried into it. "Can you send me back?" he asked. "Please?"

"The Observants would find you," said Clockwork, "and you aren't from that time anymore. You would have to wear a time medallion constantly."

"I could phase it into myself," said Daniel, pulling himself up Clockwork's arm. "That's what Dan did. I won't become Dan, will I?" Daniel's eyes were wide and wild. "You have to send me back. I don't want to become Dan."

"You won't," soothed Clockwork, pulling Daniel into his lap. He only knew of Dan through the journal. He couldn't see a ghost like that in any future. He began to rub circles into Daniel's back, just above his core. "Don't worry, I'll make sure of it." He tried to send out comforting pulses with his core. He had read extensively on the subject of ghost children since he had found Daniel, but that didn't mean he had any experience, or confidence, with them as of yet.

"Will you send me back?" asked Daniel, weakly.

"I can't," said Clockwork. "But if you want, I can help you forget. There is a river-"

"I don't want to forget," said Daniel.

That was that.

.

In the nine hundred and three thousand, eight hundred and fifty eighth hour, they went home.

Before they left, Frostbite stopped Clockwork. "The Great One will keep changing," he said.

"I thought you fixed that," said Clockwork, watching as the small boy raised his hands to the sky to catch snowflakes.

"There was nothing to fix," said Frostbite. "The changes are natural. A child's ability to adapt is beneficial. The only issue was that they were blindly destroying inactive parts of himself." He paused. "He may come to forget his past, naturally. He may experience further changes to his appearance, personality, or powers. Take care of him."

"I intend to," said Clockwork.

.

In the nine hundred and fifteen thousand, two hundred and third hour, Daniel finally stabilized.

In either form, he looked about ten, slender, gentle, and quiet. His eyes were, perhaps, a touch larger than a human would find natural, and his canines came to sharp, sweet points. He wore robes like Clockwork's, now, purple as a human, and silver and black as a ghost.

He told jokes frequently, but quietly, and could hide so well that even Clockwork couldn't find him, even when looking through time. When Clockwork worked on paradoxes, he stood by the table and watched, quietly, always knowing which tool to hand Clockwork, often before Clockwork even realized he would need it. He loved to read the astronomy books in the library. He loved training his many powers with Clockwork.

He was different from the Daniel the journal had described and yet, somehow, exactly the same.

Clockwork loved him so much. If the Observants ever found out about him-

But they didn't. Daniel hid every time the Observants even came close to Long Now. And that was fine.

.

In the nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, eight hundred and first hour, someone else found out about the key.

The Observants saw this.

.

In the one millionth hour, the Observants came for Clockwork, bearing his key.

They did not see Daniel, lying in wait for them.

Very soon they did not see anything at all.

(After all, Daniel had once defeated Pariah Dark in single combat.)

.

Clockwork picked his key up from the ground and walked to Daniel, putting an arm around his small, trembling shoulders.

"I'm sorry about making a mess," said Daniel, prodding a slowly-melting glob of ecotplasm with one bare foot.

"Don't worry," said Clockwork, turning the key over in his fingers, marveling at what it felt like to finally be free. "We'll clean it up in no time at all."