Etta had no idea, but at the terrifying rate they were going, she wouldn’t be surprised if her mother threw in a guillotine as a challenge. She understood, sort of, that the point was to discourage travelers from following her trail, but…really?
She stretched her arms, her back. If her mother had been tough enough to make it, then Etta would be, too.
Home, she thought. Home, Mom, and…what?
“Is that anticipation I detect on your face?” he asked, with a small, knowing smile. She warmed at the sight of it, still feeling the soft, sweet touch of those same lips against her own.
“I don’t…mind this so much,” she admitted for the first time. What they could do—their ability—was exhilarating and absurd and terrible and wonderful, and it made her heart race. It made her feel, for the first time in a long time, a drive to step outside her bubble of strings and competition and endless practice. It made her feel capable and strong that she’d survived this far, that she was still surviving; it made her feel curious about all of these hidden eras that now, if she desired, could be spread open before her like a deck of cards, only waiting for her to pick one.
He kissed me.
She’d kissed him.
And it hadn’t been an accident. It hadn’t been a moment drunk with relief; not entirely. It had felt as natural and familiar as his hold on her now. She’d known instinctively that they’d been building toward something, and she was only glad it had been the same “something” she wanted. And maybe she was a pirate after all, because she would fight like hell before ever voluntarily surrendering the treasure she’d already found.
Glancing over at Nicholas, taking in his strong profile, one thought caught at the front of her mind, and she couldn’t shake it free. It was a neat, easy solution, and she felt herself latch on to it in desperation.
If Cyrus would punish him for letting her get away with the astrolabe, then…maybe he should come with her to avoid it. Travel into the future, where he could have access to all of the modern marvels she took for granted; he could find work, go to school, and—
Never see Chase or Captain Hall again. The family he’d made for himself. Never own the ship he wanted so desperately.
It was selfish, she knew, to want him to come with her—and yes, it was mostly because she wanted to make sure he was safe, but she wasn’t ready to never see him again, to never know what became of him, to never recapture that little groan he’d made when he kissed her. Etta would never kid herself into thinking that her time was some kind of post-racial utopia, where no one would ever hassle or harm him for the color of his skin, but it wasn’t the eighteenth century. He could have a life there, one he could fully control.…
She blew out a long breath from her nose and reached up to touch his hand on her arm, still there from helping her navigate the moss-slick stones.
You can’t decide that for him. She could only make decisions for herself.
Home was a clear path forward. Home was New York City, the debut, her mom, Alice, and…
The air was cooler than it had been in the minutes leading up to the storm, and she shivered hard enough for Nicholas to fold her into his side as they made their way up the path, toward the arch of one of the dark stone gates. Etta craned her neck back, to better see the enormous face looking outward over the same jungle that had sprouted through the pockets and cracks of the stone. The pointed peaks of the tower were carved down in tooth-like layers, seeming to enclose each other like the petals of a lotus blossom.
“Let’s rest for a moment,” Nicholas said, once they were under the cover of the gate’s arch. The rain was still misting down around them—spitting, Alice had always called it—but the trees and structures were dripping wildly from the storm. She wanted a moment to try to wring out her dress, but…she wanted to keep moving. Etta understood, in a way she never had before, that time held intrinsic value, and that they were wasting it. She understood. So why was that small, secret part of her grateful that they were slowing down, even for a few minutes? To have one small sliver of time just to be near him, feel his skin against hers, hear his thoughts. Etta wasn’t sure when the realization had come, if it had been shadowing her this whole time waiting to be acknowledged, but now it was here: the sooner they found the astrolabe, the sooner she’d be gone. And he’d told her many times that he didn’t intend to travel after this, meaning that gone would be for good.
“We should keep moving.” And stop thinking about options that weren’t options at all. Stop stalling because she wasn’t ready to let go of whatever this was.
Mom. The more she thought her admittedly flimsy plan through, the more Etta realized she would need to do all of this in less than the seven days they had left. She would need the element of surprise to get back to the future and pluck her mom out of harm’s way—not to mention, she needed to use some of that extra time to figure out where she was being held.
“Etta, please,” he said. “I know we’re losing time, but you need to eat, and I need to make sure that there isn’t anyone else around. I’ll locate the passage. You tend to your…the wound.”
The pleading quality in his voice pulled a protest from her lips. But as he stepped out, his gaze swinging over the city, she reached up and caught his wrist.
“I don’t want to split up,” she said. “Please, just…stay. I’ll rest and eat for a few minutes, and we can find it together.”