“You are staking your life on it. Don’t you see?” Theo groans, scuffing his tennis shoe against the deck. “I never should have let you come along on this trip.”
“If it’s anyone’s job to avenge Dad, it’s mine. Yes, even more than yours. You know that.”
“Do you think I’ve spent one second of this trip not kicking myself for putting you in danger? That I haven’t hated myself for putting you through this?” Theo’s dark eyes search mine. “Now I hear you getting confused, watch you letting your guard down, and all I can think is, Marguerite’s gonna get hurt. If you get hurt, it’s going to be my fault, and I will never, ever get over that.”
I shake my head no, but I can’t answer him. The raw emotion in his voice has stolen my own.
He comes even closer to me, so close our faces are nearly touching. “You say you’ve seen these different versions of Paul. You’ve learned who he really was. Well, what did you learn about me, Marguerite?”
“Theo . . .”
His hand grips the curve of my neck, his touch hard and possessive, and then he kisses me.
I gasp, and Theo’s tongue slips into my open mouth. My skin flushes hot; my limbs go weak. My body knows what this is even if my mind doesn’t. Theo puts his arms around me, and for one instant all I want is to kiss him back.
Then I remember Paul, and the dacha in the snow, and making love to him in the glow of the fire. I remember loving Paul more than my own life.
Turning my face away, I say, “Stop. Theo, please, don’t.”
He remains completely still for a second, then lets me go. For a while we sit next to each other, breathing hard, unable to speak.
Finally Theo says, “He’s gotten to you.”
I want to argue with him, but it would only make this moment worse.
With a sigh, Theo stands. When I look up at him, I’m surprised, and heartened, to see that he’s trying to smile. “Let’s just . . . start over tomorrow. Okay?”
“Okay. Tomorrow.” When we walk into Triad Corporation headquarters, side by side. Even now—always—Theo is my ally. As he fishes his keys out of his pocket, I say, “You won’t even stay until midnight?”
“And the traditional kiss?” Theo arches one eyebrow. He’s trying to turn this into a joke, but it doesn’t quite work. “Doubt my luck would improve.”
He deserves better than this. But “deserves” doesn’t have a lot to do with falling in love.
MY OWN ROOM. MY OWN BED. YET I CAN’T SLEEP.
I keep taking my tPhone from its charging dock and staring at my contacts list. Paul Markov is there, exactly like at home. I even assigned him the same ringtone.
For an instant it’s as though I’m back at home, cooking by Paul’s side while we both pretend our arms aren’t brushing against each other—
Apparently my feelings about Paul are confused in this dimension, too.
(I found his sliced-up portrait in the downstairs storage room, torn canvas hanging limply from its frame.)
Mathematics or fate: Whatever that force is that keeps bringing us together in world after world, it’s powerful. Undeniable. But I still don’t know whether that force means my salvation or my destruction.
Around 2 a.m., I give in to temptation and text Paul. I compose then delete at least a dozen messages before I settle on simply: We need to talk.
Although I lie awake for another couple of hours, no answer ever comes. I fall asleep thinking of his dead body in my arms.
“You doing okay?” Theo asks for about the tenth time in a thirty-minute drive.
“Yeah. I’m good. It’s just—this morning was hard.”
This morning was like countless others in my life: Dad making blueberry waffles (albeit in his green foil party hat from last night); Josie rambling on about the crazy-complicated dreams she always has; Mom wearing her yoga outfit while the rest of us are still in the stuff we slept in, because even on New Year’s Day she was up at dawn doing her sun salutations. But this time I was both living it and watching it from the viewpoint of someone who knows what it’s like to lose such moments. Before now I never understood how beautiful the ordinary can be.
“I can imagine.” Theo looks over at me, his gaze gentle, but only for a moment; his attention is reserved for the road. Currently we’re doing at least twenty miles over the speed limit, Theo threading his muscle car through every break in the traffic to get us to Triad faster. “Hang in there, Meg.”
I fiddle with the Firebird’s chain, dangling beneath my T-shirt. Theo and I have been careful in this dimension to keep our Firebirds concealed beneath clothes that won’t show their outlines; in this world, my parents would recognize them in an instant and realize what’s up.
My phone is in the pocket of my skirt, set to vibrate, so it’s not like I could miss a call or a text. Still, I take it out and check it again. Nothing.
As Theo’s car comes over the crest of a hill, far enough into the burbs that we’re now surrounded by more trees than buildings, I see a brilliant silver curve rising high on the horizon. When I realize what it is, my jaw drops. Theo laughs. “Pretty spectacular, huh?”
At home, Triad’s ultramodern HQ is still more theoretical than real—airbrushed artwork on billboards in front of construction sites. Here, the construction is complete, and it shimmers like some sort of fantastic mirage—surreal and yet so substantial that it dominates the landscape. The mirrored cube of the main building is surrounded by a shining ring structure: the world’s largest and most efficient generator of solar energy. Triad Corporation’s building follows the same design aesthetic as their products, the marriage of beauty and power.