“You’re nobody,” the girl beneath him repeated. “Yeah, right.” And then she started laughing hysterically.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. He was supposed to kill her. He was going to kill her, and she was laughing at him.
Nix raised his hand, his fury propelling the motion, and that was the exact moment that he noticed the redness of her face, the tear tracks on her cheeks. It should have made her ugly, and anything that took away from her lethal beauty should have made her easier to kill.
But it didn’t. Didn’t make her ugly. Didn’t allow his needle arm to inch even slightly closer to her veins.
She’d been crying.
Before he’d caught her, before she’d known that she was as good as dead, she’d cried long and hard enough to leave marks.
But Nulls don’t have feelings. Not like that. They only cry for show.
His hands were drawn away from hers to his own arms and his own scars, and she scrambled away from him and to her feet.
She’s not going to trick me again, he thought, but he couldn’t make himself give chase—not until he saw her stumble backward into the street.
Not until he saw the unmarked van accelerate.
Claire jumped at the sound of his voice, back onto the sidewalk, and the van swerved to hit her. They must have been aiming for a clean hit, but they miscalculated, and instead, the van clipped her in the side and sent her flying.
Nix was by her side in an instant. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and he knelt next to her. The Sensors had lost control of the car after it hit her, but it wouldn’t take them long to recover, and then they would be here. They would finish what they had started.
He couldn’t let them kill her. That was his job. They’d almost taken it from him, and it was his.
She was his.
And if he wanted to kill her, if he wanted to be the one who saw through the charade she presented to the world, tears and all—
—looked so real, they looked so real. She’s hurting. She’s beautiful, and she’s hurting—
He had to get her out of here. He had to get her away from the Sensors. Because if he wanted to kill her—and he did, truly—he’d have to save her first.
Less than shadow, less than air. Worthless. Empty. Void.
Nix covered her body with his. He lifted her up and projected his own nothingness outward, a strange warmth filling his body as his fade covered her. And then, with the Null in his arms, he walked straight past the Sensors and disappeared.
Claire was about ninety percent sure that she was asleep. An abandoned road stretched out on all sides of her. She was walking, but the dirt and gravel didn’t crunch under her bare feet. It felt like she was floating, walking just above the ground instead of on it.
Wasn’t I wearing shoes before?
Before. Before. Before.
The word seemed to echo all around her, its song interweaving with the eerie silence in a way that made Claire shiver.
There’s something I’m supposed to remember. From before.
But she couldn’t make her brain leave the abandoned road. She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten there. And she couldn’t get rid of that disconcerting ten percent chance that this wasn’t a dream.
I hurt. Things aren’t supposed to hurt in dreams.
She looked down at her side, expecting to see bruises or blood, but all she saw was blackness. Empty space where her torso and legs should have been. This, Claire knew objectively, should have been upsetting. But it wasn’t.
Before. Before. Before. I’m supposed to remember what happened before.
She could remember kindergarten. She could remember the lunch box she’d picked out at Walmart, the way she’d gotten lost in the store and looked and looked and looked for her mother, who’d been so overwhelmed with back-to-school shopping that she’d checked out and packed up the car and driven home without realizing that she was missing something.
Claire could remember fifth grade. She could remember the class play, and how everyone was supposed to have a part, and how she’d hoped and hoped and hoped that she’d get to be the country girl who changed places with her cousin in the big city, and how, when the cast list had been posted, she wasn’t on it at all. Not as either of the cousins, or any of their friends, or part of the chorus, or even as a tree.
I wouldn’t mind being a tree, Claire thought, her mind muddled. Am I a tree?
With her lack of body, it certainly seemed possible. Before she could ponder the likelihood any further, she heard something: a rustling of leaves, a parting of mist behind her. She whirled around. Even once she stopped, the world kept spinning—but through fog and mist and her own dizziness, Claire saw him.
His face was expressionless. His eyes, which tilted up on the ends, met hers.
“You look at me,” Claire said, trying to remember what it was that had brought this boy to her, what she knew about him, what he knew about her.
The boy said nothing, and a memory rose to the surface of Claire’s mind—a van. It had hit her. It had sent her flying. And then there had been a blur, and a boy.
“What the hell were you doing?” he had said. And he’d called her an ambulance, and they’d fought. His face next to hers. His voice a low growl, his hands on her shoulders.
That’s not what happened.
It was, and it wasn’t. Why couldn’t she remember? What was she missing?
She looked for the answers in the boy’s face. His eyes were blue—light, light blue—and shaped like almonds. His skin was pale, light in color, but rich in tone—like his heritage had sprinkled it with gold that had been stripped only partially away by a complete lack of sunlight. His jaw was strong, his cheekbones razor sharp, and there were markings on his arm that made him look like a warrior from another time. And yet …
He looks so sad, Claire thought. His features were mature, but his expression—hidden behind a mask that blocked it from the rest of the world—was a boy’s.
“I want to help you,” Claire said. “Can you help me?”
It was a simple statement, a simple question, but the words were lost under the heavy silence of the fog. Somewhere behind them, a car revved its engine.
Van. It’s gonna hit me. It’s gonna hurt me. Again.
This time, Claire felt panic. Her emotions surged, breaking through the seal that had been placed on them.
“We have to get out of here,” she yelled at the boy. Determined to save him, she reached out, and he lifted one of his hands out to her. She smiled, imagining the tips of his fingers brushing her palm.