She must have caught him off guard, because he took a moment to collect his thoughts. “What is there to explain? You will go home. I will go home. And that will be the end of it. Think about this, Etta. You scarcely know me—”
“I know you,” she interrupted. “I know you, Nicholas Carter. And I know it doesn’t have to be that way.”
“And I know you’ve never planned to give Ironwood the astrolabe,” he said sharply. “That you’ve got it in your head you can escape him and his reach.”
She felt a peculiar, hopeless kind of relief to have it out in the open. “I can get it, and I can save my mother—”
“And myself? You expect me to simply let you go, knowing you’ll be in grave danger?” he demanded, stooping to look her directly in the eye. Finally, the wall was down. Nicholas looked the way she felt—exhausted, fraught. “You were simply going to leave me behind again, weren’t you, without so much as a word?”
“No!” she said. “No! I’ve been trying to figure out another option for us—I don’t want you to have to give up the life you have.”
“What is this ‘other option’? You return with me? Even if we could hide from the old man’s wrath…to what end? We’d still be in hiding. Even if you could stand the months I’m away at sea, there are laws—enforceable laws, Etta, with years of prison as a sentence—preventing any such union. Not just in America, but in the rest of the world. I could live with the shame of being a criminal, but I would never ask this of you. And I would not risk your life, knowing that others may enforce their own prejudices outside of the law.”
There was her answer.
She hadn’t realized until that moment that she could feel any more foolish or naïve than she already did.
She didn’t know anything. She really didn’t.
“Etta…” he began. “That came out harsher than I meant it to be. I can see it in your face that you truly didn’t know—but it’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve had to live by it my whole life. If there’s a way around it, I want to hear what you think it is. Can you not see it? Can you not feel how badly I want you? I’m a selfish bastard, I’m worse than you’ll ever know, but I’ll answer to God or anyone else who tries to stand in our way so long as I know you’re safe. Tell me how to keep this—tell me the path forward. I beg you.”
She felt the tears thick in her throat, warm on her face. “You could come with me. I won’t lie to you and say my time is perfect, or that the country doesn’t get worse before it gets better, but those laws are gone.”
He seemed to consider this, rubbing his jaw. “What would I do there? How would I support myself? The one thing that I know, that I’ve worked for, would be unrecognizable. And is there a way to prove or earn citizenship?”
God—how would he? No Social Security number, no birth certificate…no passport. How had Mom done it? She could help him establish an identity, couldn’t she?
“Or would you, your mother, and I all have to keep traveling, struggling to stay one step ahead of the old man?”
“I’m not dismissing those questions, because they’re real and I’m not totally sure how to get around them,” she said, “but I’m willing to try. My mom did it. Travelers have clearly figured out some system. I feel like all you’re willing to see are the problems, and none of the benefits—medicine, for one thing. Education. You could attend school, choose a job for yourself.” She took a breath. “I’m not trying to play down how terrifying it would be to start over in a new era—”
“I’m not frightened,” he interrupted, only to soften his voice as he continued. “How could I be, knowing I had you there? I know you think I’m being obstinate.…I keep asking myself, what sort of joke is this that we’ve found one another, but all the while there’s no true way forward? There’s something unnatural in what we can do as travelers, and maybe this is a punishment for it.”
“Don’t say that,” she begged. “It’s complicated, I know, but it’s not impossible.”
“But what if it doesn’t work? What if we can’t sort everything out in your time? Your era is one small sliver of time compared to all eternity—there is only one small place you and I can be safe together. But even so, how long would it be before missing home and our loved ones became unbearable to one of us? It all ends the same way, with us breaking apart. Isn’t it better to have it done with now?”
“No,” she said stubbornly. “We could find a place. We could make our own.”
“I knew you’d say that. If you can’t accept those terms, then can you understand…I realize this may sound foolish to you, but I have my pride, Etta. I’ve bled and sweated and given myself to the making of my life. I could not bear being a burden to you. I want the whole of you, and would never give you less of me.”
Nicholas held her face, smoothing away the tears. The small smile he offered was meant to steal one from her, she thought, but it only broke her heart a little more.
“We have done the impossible,” he said, bringing his lips to the shell of her ear. “We have stolen what time we could, and it won’t ever be taken from us.”
“It’s not enough,” she whispered.
“I know, Etta, I know,” he said, already stepping back. “But this cannot be forever.”