His blue eyes never left her. They never glazed over. They never wandered far from her face.
Even when she averted her eyes, even when the pain and the fear and the certainty that she was going to die overwhelmed her—he didn’t disappear. He shot her, and he shot her, and he shot her, but he was there. And for the first time in a long time, it didn’t hurt.
Claire could feel her body relaxing, could feel her mind losing its grip on this dreamlike place. As she began to drift into the kind of peaceful, inky darkness untouched by dreams, Claire saw the boy lean toward her, his face so close to hers that their lips very nearly touched.
“Maybe I won’t die,” Claire whispered. Her breath bounced off his lips and came back to touch hers.
She felt his response before she heard it. The words caressed her skin. “I’m the one who kills you.”
Darkness washed over Claire. And just like that, she was gone.
Claire is smiling.
Nix leaned forward, his eyes locked on to his captive’s face. Pink lips parted. Wrinkles—three, two, one—fell from her brow. It had been hours since he’d found this abandoned cabin and laid her gently on the couch. And still, he couldn’t get enough of watching her, drinking in the tiny details of her Claireness. He memorized her features and catalogued her expression, running exploratory fingers over the edges of his own lips.
She was having good dreams, his Null. In the time he’d been watching her, that hadn’t always been the case.
He’d already memorized the look, feel, and sound of her nightmares.
“For a girl whose days are numbered, you sleep a lot.” Nix’s voice was rough from lack of use, but he wanted to say something. To talk to her. “You have light brown hair. I think your eyes are green. Your veins are blue.” He paused. “My hair is black. I’m not sure about my eyes. When I bleed, I bleed red.”
Claire sighed, and he closed his eyes, savoring the sound, the look of her face, the haphazard spread of her hair. Her fingernails were uneven. Her wrists were small. She had six freckles on one shoulder and four on the other.
She smiled in her sleep.
Strapped to an exam table. Eyes closed. The memory came on suddenly, without mercy. Nix is cold, but he doesn’t want to wake up. He wants to stay in the dream, wants to—
The table lurches. He’s plunged downward into the tank. His eyes fly open. Water fills his nose, his mouth. If he was cold before, he’s freezing now, but it doesn’t matter—he can’t breathe—can’t move. He fights against the straps that hold him immobile, but it’s no use. His lungs are tight. He’s choking.
He can see familiar forms leaning over the dunk tank, their faces blurred, their expressions impassive. Ione. Ryland. They’re not going to help him. They’re going to watch him die, unless—
Less than shadow. Less than air. He forces himself to stop fighting. Stop thinking. Stop existing—and he fades.
Nix came out of the flashback to see Claire’s lips still curved up in a gentle smile. Like she hadn’t a care in the world. Like it wasn’t her fault he’d been raised the way he had. So he could protect the rest of the world from Nulls.
Still gasping for breath, Nix slammed a door on the memory and concentrated on the present. “I shouldn’t have brought you here,” he told the sleeping girl in front of him. “I should have let you die.”
But he hadn’t. He’d propped her up and forced her to drink water. He’d taped her ribs. He’d covered her with blankets and put them back when she kicked them off.
“If you think I’m weak, you’re wrong. If you think I care, you’re wrong.” Nobodies weren’t allowed to care. They weren’t allowed to ask questions. All they were allowed to do was kill.
Beautiful, sleeping, breathing, dreaming Claire.
She’s shifting onto her other side. Her hair is falling into her eyes. Her legs are stretching out. The muscles in her throat are moving.
As he documented Claire’s movements, Nix felt his own throat clench. This was the most she’d moved since they’d been here, and there were sounds in her mouth, trying to get out. Not cries. Not whimpers.
“Where am I?”
It figured that one of the first words out of her mouth was I. Nulls existed at the centers of their own universes, puppeteers to hundreds of others. No one else mattered to them.
“I wish you’d stayed asleep,” Nix said, each word as sharp as broken glass. While she’d slept, he’d crooned to her. Soothed her. Said things he shouldn’t have even thought. But now she’d ruined it. Ruined everything.
“Asleep? How long have I been asleep?” Claire scrambled to a sitting position.
Claire is scared. I am scaring Claire.
Nix’s target looked frantically down at her own body. Like she’d never seen it before. Like she didn’t know how perfect it was.
“What’s wrong with me?” she asked, her voice hoarse.
“You’re defective. You’re a monster. You got hit by a van.”
Her face went through a flurry of changes, so quickly that he could not keep up with them all: she sucked a breath in, and her entire face—eyes, cheekbones, lips—threatened to cave in on itself. Crumble.
This Null didn’t like being told she was defective.
Eventually, her lips stopped trembling and settled into a thin and desperate line, and Nix wondered how many facial expressions a single person could have. He had never wanted to touch another person’s face more.
She’s doing this to you. She’s making you think about her. She’s making you want—
“Do. Not. Move.” Nix’s voice strained against his vocal cords, like an animal caged. “Don’t try anything. Don’t think you can use your abilities to escape. I’m immune.”
If only that were true.
“My abilities? What abilities?” Her lips and eyes rearranged themselves once more, this time into an expression of pure bafflement—a testament to her abilities as an actress, the ultimate master of the art of deception. “I don’t have abilities. I’m not good at anything.”
Simple words, but they seemed hard-won. Like it hurt her to lower herself and pretend that she was nothing special.
“I’m not who you think I am,” she said. “I’m really not.” Only a Null could use that voice. Make herself sound as if part of her wished that she was the one he was looking for.