Etta swallowed the small, selfish pang of desperation to keep Alice close, and said, “That’s okay. Thank you for getting us this far. Is the Underground station much farther?”
“It’s another twenty-minute walk from here,” Alice said. “I can give you money for a taxi—”
“It’ll be easier to lose them on foot,” Nicholas said. “Thank you. Where do we go from here?”
Using the back of her mother’s letter and a ballpoint pen, Etta had Alice quickly write out the remainder of the instructions. Head east as the road turns from Piccadilly Circus to Swiss Court, to Cranbourn Street to Carrick, up King Street past St. Paul’s Cathedral, back down to Russell, right on Catherine Street once you pass the Royal Opera House.… All at once, Etta missed her phone and satellites and the luxury of never having to feel lost.
“Be safe,” Alice said, throwing her arms around her.
The faint anxiety that prickled over Etta’s skin sparked into paralyzing dread. No time. No time for this, but—
“We must go.…” she heard Nicholas say gently, in warning.
She pulled back with a bone-deep reluctance, an aching hollowness at the pit of her stomach. What you’re speaking of isn’t a matter of morality. It’s an impossibility.
What would change—what could change if she warned Alice now? The thought gnawed on her; it would be a small ripple, wouldn’t it? A small change in an enormous sea of moments. If she couldn’t travel back to her time and pull Alice to safety without crossing paths with herself, she could at least do this. She could rewrite that moment, the pale terror of her instructor’s face, the blood.…
“No, no, none of that,” Alice interrupted. “No tears, no secrets. I want the life I’m meant to have, Etta. It’s as simple as that. My father always says that the way to truly live is to do so without expectation or fear hanging over you, affecting your choices—and that’s bloody hard to do with you travelers coming and going. I want to know you the way you know me one day. I want to play my violin, make my mistakes, fall in love, live in as many different cities as I can.…Would you really take that from me?”
Etta couldn’t breathe; her hands were curling and uncurling at her side, and she was trembling with the effort to keep from sobbing. She glanced at Nicholas, who had turned his head to survey the crowd and was politely pretending he wasn’t listening. Finally she shook her head.
“We’re called ‘guardians’ because we’re meant to take care of you lot, as you take care of our world. And Etta, don’t forget—the truly remarkable thing about your life is that you’re not bound to live it straight forward like the rest of us. You can come see me for a visit anytime. It’s like how the song goes: I’ll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places.…”
Etta pulled back, half-stunned to hear those words again. She watched Alice wave and step into the rush of bodies around them, until even the flash of her bright hair dimmed and disappeared completely.
“—Etta? Are you all right?” She didn’t realize Nicholas was speaking to her until he reached over, brushing a thumb over her unhurt cheek.
“She said that before…the last time I saw her, just before…” Before she died. She needed to say it. She needed to accept it, because it was clear to her now, so agonizingly clear, that Alice remembered this meeting. She knew Etta would try to tell her about what would happen to her, and she, in her very Alice way, wanted to let her know what she had said in the past was true. She didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to change the life she’d lived with Etta up to that point.
But Alice had loved her enough to still fight to keep her from having to travel, or at least travel without knowing the truth. Maybe that’s why her mom had been so firmly against telling Etta; she could be unsentimental when Alice and Etta couldn’t.
“She doesn’t want me to save her.” Etta wiped at her eyes, surprised to feel the wet tracks of tears dripping down off her chin. “Sorry…I’m just…a little overwhelmed. And tired.”
All I wanted was to save you. What was she even going back to now? Was there a point to performing in any kind of debut, having any kind of career, if Alice couldn’t see it?
She knew Alice had been in what Rose called the “twilight years” of her life—she’d lived a long time, and even as a young student, Etta had understood that she wouldn’t be around forever. But she couldn’t reconcile herself with this. She couldn’t understand how any of this was fair.
I’ll see her again, she thought. Not in my time, and maybe not even soon, but one day…
“There’s nothing to apologize for. We’ll rest as soon as it’s safe, but we do need to keep moving,” Nicholas said.
Etta nodded and followed.
The line of his body was rigid, poised to strike. Sharp, cutting dark eyes assessed each person who passed them. Now and then he rubbed at the broken skin on his bruised knuckles, and she knew that while she was thinking about Alice, his thoughts were locked on what had happened behind the house. She reached over to brush her fingers over the back of his hand, trying to break him out of what looked like a vicious cycle of thoughts. They’d already lost a day trying to solve this clue; they couldn’t waste a second more on regrets.
Etta began walking faster, nearly at a jog, but he kept up easily with his long strides. Sweeping her gaze around the street, she tried to identify the source of the uneasiness rippling down the back of her neck.