And that was when Claire saw a glint of silver, and she realized that the hand she was reaching for was holding a gun.
The boy had it aimed directly at her chest.
Nix had never brought another person into his fade before. Never realized it was possible to spread his nothingness over someone else like it was a blanket. He’d never wanted to share his sanctuary with another living person.
Not a person. She’s a Null.
The thought challenged Nix’s grip on the fade, and after a moment’s resistance, he stopped fighting and let himself solidify. The distance he’d put between himself—and Claire—and the Sensors was sizable, but it wasn’t enough, might never be enough. Nix knew, better than anyone, how long The Society’s reach was, how merciless Ione and her Sensors were when it came to eradicating a threat.
That was when he saw the bus.
Nix walked toward it. The Null was dead weight in his arms, but so small. Her chest leapt with each beat of her heart, and Nix tried not to feel it, see it. He closed his eyes and pulled her closer, cradling her body against his.
I’m only saving her so I can kill her, he reminded himself. But that didn’t stop him from walking unnoticed onto the bus. It didn’t stop him from taking a seat, and it didn’t stop him from holding her shivering form, letting the heat from his body warm hers.
Weak, he berated himself. Stupid. Worthless.
She was marked for death. He was the executioner. He should have taken the Null’s blackened heart in his hand and crushed it.
But even miles into the wilderness, he didn’t dare place his cargo into an empty seat. She was a Null, and by definition, Nulls were noticeable. If Nix didn’t want The Society to follow wherever he ran, he’d have to keep her close and hope that his nothingness would negate the beacon of her presence.
He had to carry her. Hold her. Marvel at the curve of her cheekbones. Count the ways for her to die.
One, for poison.
She was so still. Soft.
Two, for knives.
Her wheat-colored hair, plastered with sweat to her forehead, called to the edges of his fingers. He wanted to touch it. To kill the Sensors for the steady trickle of blood at her temple.
She was beautiful, this Null.
Manipulative. No conscience. No soul. He forced himself to remember what she was, what it meant to be born a Null. His fourth kill, a psychopath who had a thing for carving up little boys, had looked as innocent as Claire did now. Nix couldn’t afford to let himself forget that the bundle in his hands—no matter how sweet, no matter how small—had been on The Society’s kill list for a reason.
Sensors located Nulls. The Society eliminated them. That was the purpose for which it had been founded, the mandate it had followed for thousands of years.
This girl was a monster. She had to die.
Is she warm? She feels warm.…
Claire shivered in Nix’s arms, a high-pitched, keening sound caught in the back of her throat, halfway between a dog’s whine and the wail of an ambulance. Her brow furrowed, and she jerked, trying to pull herself away from his grip. Away from whatever pain her body was fighting.
Nix tightened his hold on her frame, and without realizing it, he began rocking back and forth. His arm curved around her neck and he supported her head. Like she was a child. Like she was human. Like he’d have the right to care for her if she was.
Don’t be hurt, Claire. Don’t die.
The rocking motion seemed to calm her, and the awful sound emanating from her dreams subsided. Her cheeks flushed. She folded herself into him, and he felt her fever through his clothes.
I’m the one who kills you.
Nix glanced out the bus window: the trees were getting thicker, the grass wild. He couldn’t say for sure how long they’d been on this bus, how much time he’d spent absorbed in the tiny details of his charge’s body. If he wanted to hide her from the Sensors, they should get off the bus, trek deep into the forest to a place as forgotten as any Nobody.
Nix prepared himself to fade, closing his mind to their surroundings: to the mother and son to his left, who couldn’t stop rolling their eyes at each other; to a sea of strangers sitting side by side, each ignoring the other without a thought.
Normals, Nix thought, the word bittersweet in his mind. Normals could love. They could be loved. They couldn’t fathom what it would be like to be missing either half of the equation. And yet they walked through life with their heads down, not even bothering to look at each other, not knowing how precious each interaction, each glance, each dialogue was.
At least the unconscious girl in his arms had an excuse for her heartlessness. She couldn’t feel, couldn’t be touched by the plights of others. She was defective, fractured, incomplete—just like him.
Less than shadow, less than air—
Nix felt the change coming on, felt himself losing material form, and he pulled Claire close with every thought in his brain, every breath in his lungs, willing her to cross with him.
Immaterial, Nix and his quarry fell through the seat that had been holding them, through the back of the bus, and onto the pavement. Slipping out of his fade the moment they hit the ground, Nix landed in a crouch, protecting Claire’s body with his own.
She cried out. The sound ripped through Nix’s flesh. It wasn’t fair that she could do this to him. It wasn’t right, what he was doing—helping her. Saving her when he knew that for the greater good, she had to die.
And she will, Nix promised himself, as he began to walk into the woods, his inner navigational system set toward absolute isolation. Just not today.
If he walked far enough, looked hard enough, he’d eventually find a cabin that had been abandoned for the off-season. He’d tend to her wounds.
Inflict his own.
You can’t die, he told the Null silently. Not yet.
If she did, her death would never be his.
As he walked, feeling her chest rise and fall with each hard-won breath, he thought of the long, thin scar that ringed his own neck and the fact that if he failed to kill Claire, technically speaking, it wouldn’t be the first time he’d fallen short.
She’d be the second to escape him. And he’d hate her for it.
Almost as much as he hated himself.
The blue-eyed boy had been aiming a gun at her for hours. For hours and hours and days and days, and every time the fog cleared enough for her to see the rest of the road, Claire tried to remember that she should run.
But she didn’t.
He shot her, and he shot her, and he shot her, but she couldn’t run. She had no body. No chest, no legs. Only a black, gaping hole where her body should have been.