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“You’ll what, Miss Spencer?” Nicholas said, crouching down in front of her. “You’ll glare at me?”

Etta’s hand closed around a nearby shard of glass, holding it out in front of her. Nicholas’s expression changed; his eyes darkened, drawn first to the makeshift weapon, then to her face. She refused to wilt under the pressure of his gaze, and stared back as defiantly as she could, with one of her cheeks swollen to twice its size.

He broke first, his face softening. He sat down on a nearby piece of rubble and took out a folded handkerchief. “You’ve cut yourself again, pirate.”

After a moment, Etta set the piece of glass down and let him hold the warm cloth against her palm, staring at the way his large hand cupped hers. Her chest grew tight as she searched for the right words.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked quietly. “You made me promise not to leave without a word. You couldn’t have done the same for me?”

“Sorry.” She hadn’t thought of that. The knife of guilt wedged in her stomach was gripped by fear, and given another twist. “I didn’t want to waste another second, not when he could hurt Mom, kill her. I think Ironwood knows better than to hurt her until I come back with the astrolabe. If he did hurt her, then I’d really have nothing to lose, right?”

Nicholas nodded. “He has other ways of hurting you.”

“But not motivating me. And—” Etta hesitated, unsure of whether or not to tell him the other motivation that burned inside of her. “I told you about Alice—I need to finish this, get back to her.”

Nicholas sat back on his heels, glancing up at what they could see of the sky. His usual move, she realized, to try to collect his thoughts. Hide his expression. “Etta, you can’t save her.”

“Of course I can,” she insisted, but her heart sped up at the expression on his face: the guilt, the sympathy. “I just have to travel back—”

“And change the past?” he finished. “Alter the timeline?”

Etta set her jaw. “I don’t care about that—I don’t! Ironwood has been changing the past for years, and I can’t even save one life?”

“No, Etta, listen to me,” Nicholas said quickly. “What you’re speaking of isn’t a matter of morality. It’s an impossibility.”

She pulled back against the wall, away from him, away from his words.

“Didn’t Sophia tell you this? You can’t cross paths with yourself—you cannot exist twice in the same place, at the same time. Time itself won’t allow it; you’d be bounced back out of the passage before you could move through it,” Nicholas said, keeping his voice low. “That’s why travelers keep journals, to remember the dates and years they’ve already been to.”

Etta felt like he’d thrown a bucket of ice water over her. Her chest clenched painfully—so she wouldn’t be able to use the passage to get back to that moment before Alice was shot? Never mind that—she wouldn’t even be able to go to any month or year before that and warn her it would happen. All because some past version of herself was already there.

“Didn’t she explain that the passages connect years, not days?” Nicholas pressed.

“What do you mean?” Etta whispered.

His expression softened. “I see. So she didn’t. Even if you could find another traveler to use that passage to save her, you would need to wait a year in order to do so. It’s easiest to think of each year as a tiny stream, all flowing parallel to one another, all moving in one direction, even as we jump between them. We left Manhattan on the twenty-second of September, 1776. We arrived here on the twenty-second of September, whatever year this might be. Do you understand?”

Etta nodded, unable to speak for several long moments. There has to be another way. It couldn’t end like this. Alice couldn’t die—not for her.

Mom will know what to do.

“Blank slate…” she said slowly. “That’s what Ironwood meant when he called me that. It wasn’t because I didn’t know anything, but that I haven’t been anywhere. The chances of me crossing paths with myself are slim. Right?”

He nodded, touching her elbow. “You do understand, don’t you?”

She lifted her chin. “I understand there’s always another option, another way, if you look hard enough for it.”

He let out a faint laugh, closing his eyes. “I thought you might say something like that.”

“Wait—” Etta said, another thought suddenly occurring to her. “Oh my God—won’t Ironwood be after you for traveling?”

After what had happened to his half brother, Nicholas had been banned—exiled, he’d said—and she didn’t think this would go unnoticed.

“My fear for you outweighs my fear of him,” he said simply. “And I told you, didn’t I? If you left, I’d follow you.”

But should you try to leave on your own, know that I will go to the ends of the earth to bring you back. The words echoed between them, unspoken. A cloud of ash filtered down from above. Without thinking, Etta reached up and brushed the flakes away from his hair. He closed his eyes, bowing his head, leaning into the touch just enough to make her hand tremble.

“You know what the letter says—the one your mother wrote. And you don’t trust me.…” he began. “You see me as one of them, don’t you?”