You are mine, he thought, watching her, and I am yours.
“Tell me…just one thing…about your time?” he managed to get out.
“Of course,” Etta said.
“Do you remember…that couple in London, in the station?”
“The ones who were dancing?” she asked. “What about them?”
“Would we…be able to dance…that way?” he said, finding it harder to catch his breath. “In your time?”
Etta pressed her lips together, clearly fighting to offer him a smile. “Yes.”
“Thought so. Will you stay…until I sleep…?”
She kissed his cheeks, his eyelids, his forehead, leaving behind a burning trail across his heart. His breathing slowed, his heart seemed to murmur an apology in response…a slow thump thump thump in his ears that reminded him of a ship’s rudder changing course. A gradual slowing, and then…
Not like this.
Not a whisper, please God, but a roar. He needed to finish this journey before beginning the next.
“Fight,” she whispered one last time, breath warm against his ear.
For you, his pulse throbbed back, for me.
NICHOLAS WAS ONLY DIMLY AWARE OF ETTA AS SHE PULLED AWAY; he was locked somewhere between sleep and the fiery hell of fever. There was no feeling left in his arms to reach for her, and his legs might as well have been cut away for all he could shift them. All that was left to him was pain, alternating between the agonizing row of stitches in his side, and the beating inside his skull.
He slept hard, his dreams scalding and bright. He dreamt of the house on Queen Street, that path he took between the kitchen and the hidden door in the dining room to serve the family their meals. Stay out of sight. Stay in the dark. Stay silent. He dreamt of his mother’s hands—how strange it was to remember their shape and weight and touch when her face was so far away. The pink scars and burns that covered the back of them, evidence of her endless work in the kitchen.
She was always smoothing him—his shirt, his hair, the dirt and blood from his face. He remembered her hands, hideously deformed and hardened by work, but warm, and there when he reached for them—
Nicholas dreamt of burning the house to its bones and pissing on its ashes.
And so it was somewhat startling to be suddenly ripped out of sleep by a splash of warm water.
“Baha’ar! Wake! You fool!” Hasan was bellowing, his voice nearly unrecognizable as he slapped a hand down onto the center of Nicholas’s chest. He used a word he assumed was a rather violent oath, because it made the solemn doctor standing nearby gape.
The shock of it cleared the smoke clouds from his mind. Nicholas felt much like a cloth that had been wrung out and left in the sun to dry. Every muscle in his body screamed in protest as he drew himself up ever so slightly and leaned against the wall.
“What is it?” he rasped out. “Why are you ranting like—”
“Fool!” he barked again. “What did you tell her?”
He missed a breath. “Etta?”
“Who else?” Hasan cried. “Why did you tell her to leave?”
It was at that precise moment that Nicholas knew that he would survive, if only to have the pleasure of throttling her himself. And, well—yes, he was mildly embarrassed by the show he had put on the night before.
“First, you should know it is bloody well impossible to compel her to do anything she doesn’t wish to do. I told her to ask you to take her—that she should leave by morning.” It was morning now, early morning, before the sun was even ripe in the skin. The darkness diminished with each passing second.
His anger, that immediate, swift response, was fading with it. Etta could be impulsive, yes, but she was not so reckless as to try to make a journey across a desert alone. And even if that were the case, where would she have gotten herself a horse? How would she know where to go? Etta didn’t speak their language, she didn’t have a map.…
A chill rippled down his spine. “Did you look for her at the house?
“Do you think me so stupid I would not look there first?” Hasan huffed. “She did not return there. If she did, it was not to retrieve her belongings.”
That same chill turned to ice in his veins. Leaving without money, without their small bag of supplies?
She had not set out alone. Not willingly. Perhaps she hadn’t left the city on purpose at all—someone might have taken her, forced her against her will, stolen her away—
With a shameful amount of effort, Nicholas dragged his legs out of the bedding, ignoring the way his wound pulled. “We must ask the men and women here…see if anyone saw her leave.”
It wasn’t a good bet, but it was their only chance.
Hasan nodded, firing a question at the silent, white-haired doctor. He murmured something back in calm tones that somehow made Nicholas’s own temper flare. Did this man not see that time was imperative? Why was he walking out of the room, not running?
“Easy, my friend,” Hasan said, pressing Nicholas back down onto the bed as he tried to rise. “He will return shortly.”
The doctor did—after ten agonizing minutes. A young man, the very same one Nicholas had watched tearing the bandages, trailed behind him with head bowed and hands clasped in front of him.
The young man spoke without any prompting, chirping back answers to all of Hasan’s questions. When Hasan finally held up a hand just over his head as if to ask, How tall? the last frayed thread of Nicholas’s patience snapped.