“But what if I made the difference? If I pushed him over the brink of what he dreamed about, and what he would actually do?”
I don’t have any comfort for him, not about this. The most terrible mistake I ever made was in someone else’s body, someone else’s life, and I can never, ever put it right. “We both know I’m the one to blame.”
“Is she going to be all right?” Paul’s voice shakes, and I remember that he lived within Lieutenant Markov for nearly a month, loving the grand duchess as much as he loved me. It doesn’t make me jealous, exactly—only reminds me that I’m not the only Marguerite he’d sacrifice for. “She can’t hide that forever.”
I walk to him and put my hands against his chest. He doesn’t respond, even as I say, “She wants the baby. Vladimir knows, and he’s taking care of everything.”
“That’s our child,” Paul says. “Yours and mine.”
I remember that faint goldfish-tickle, and the shivers that went through me as I felt Paul’s baby inside. “Yeah. It is.” I try to smile. “We managed to get pregnant before we slept together. That takes talent.”
He doesn’t laugh. He shouldn’t. Even having cracked that weak joke makes me feel cheap.
So I try to bring us back to the here and now. “Listen to me. We have to deal with the consequences of our actions, absolutely. I’m not even sure we can justify doing this.”
“Doing what, exactly?” Paul says.
I hadn’t known I would say this until the moment it comes from my mouth. “Traveling through dimensions at all.”
His eyes meet mine, and as surprised as he is, I think he might agree.
“We shouldn’t stand around tearing ourselves up about it,” I say. “There are things we need to do as soon as we can. I want to take this treatment to Theo, to see if we can get him back in shape. And we need to talk with Mom and Dad about everything—what the Home Office is, how we might be able to communicate—”
And about the Home Office’s plan to collapse as many universes as necessary until they get their Josie back. I need to tell Paul that, too. But not this moment. He looks weary and battered by what I’ve said so far. Wounded. The rest can wait until we get home. When we’re all together, able to make plans for defending ourselves, then he can bear it. Not yet.
I reach up to put my arms around his neck, but Paul pushes me away, gently but firmly. “Marguerite—I’m sorry.”
He stands there a long moment, the harsh light from his one cheap lamp painting his profile in stark lines and elongating his shadow on the wall. This place smells musty—unclean and sad. The pretty green campus and cozy town house seem to belong to another world altogether.
“You’ve talked a lot about how the dimensions bring us together, time after time. You were the one who made me believe we belonged with each other in any world we could ever find.” Paul takes a deep breath. “I believed in destiny even before I fell for you. I saw it written in the equations. Woven into the fabric of the universe itself. But you helped me understand that we were part of destiny, you and me.”
“That doesn’t mean we’re the same in every single world,” I say. “Yes, there’s something powerful that we share—and maybe that’s a soul. But we’re separate people, every time.”
This isn’t the game-changing revelation for him that it is for me. “I know. When I traveled, and got lost within the other Paul Markovs—I always sensed the differences. The ways they thought and spoke and dreamed that I never would, or could.”
He had told me this much before, but I didn’t truly understand until now.
By this point Paul looks wretched, like he’d rather be anywhere in the multiverse than here. Yet he still gazes at me with a love so strong I can almost physically feel it. “Don’t you see? We find ourselves in worlds so altered we can hardly understand them. When we’re people so different we can’t comprehend how we could ever be made of the same DNA. But so many times—so many—I only wind up hurting everyone around me. And more than anyone else, I hurt you. What if that’s our shared destiny? What if it’s not love but pain?”
That’s not the journey I’ve taken. Not the Paul I’ve seen. But I look at it through the lens of what I’ve just told him—imagining Theo bleeding in a New York alleyway, and the Grand Duchess Margarita pregnant and in hiding—
“Hey.” I embrace him around his waist. His hands come to rest on my shoulders, though I can’t tell whether it’s a caress or a prelude to pushing me away again. “You don’t only hurt me. You help me, and you love me. You save me. Don’t forget that, because I never will.”
“Look at the scar on your arm.”
“That was just a stupid accident!”
“Yes and no.” His expression clouds over. “I remember the things Paul said to you during that last fight, because he keeps thinking about it, over and over, replaying it like a loop inside his head. That day, it was like—like my father had taken over my body. Like his words were coming out of my mouth. All that anger he threw at me, I kept inside to throw at you. So yes, I’m to blame for what happened to you, and it could easily have been worse.”
“Not you. Another Paul Markov did that, and I’m not worried about him.”
Paul isn’t convinced. I can tell by the sadness in his eyes. But when he brushes his fingers through my hair, I take hope from his touch. He says, “You never know when to quit, do you?”
“I’ll know when the time comes, but it hasn’t yet.” How can he be saying any of these things? After everything we’ve seen and done, how can he believe that he’s only destined to hurt me?
But then I remember—Paul has spent the past couple of weeks within this world’s version, who is mired in depression and guilt. That sadness lingers inside him; it’s not the kind of thing you can shake off easily. I never should have told him about the shooting or the grand duchess when he was in this state, because now he’s looking at me like it’s the last time.
“Listen to me,” I say. “The multiverse is infinite. So, yeah, we go through some terrible things together, and I’ve seen versions of you who are darker, and damaged, and I don’t care. I want you even when you’re broken. I want you no matter what. Your darkness, your anger, whatever it is you fear inside yourself—it doesn’t matter. I love you completely, don’t you see? I even want the worst of you because it’s still a part of you.” I press one hand against his chest, as if I could send everything I feel straight into his heart. “I want you when it’s crazy, when it’s frightening, when it’s impossible, because there’s nothing within you that could hurt me half as much as not having you.”
Paul struggles for composure; he won’t look me in the eyes. “Nothing could hurt me as much as hurting you, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve broken your body, attacked your friends, left you pregnant and alone. Don’t you see the pattern? Destiny is real, Marguerite. I have the equations to prove it, and now we’ve both lived it.”