Claire bent her head forward, fighting back the panic, and then she felt a breeze on the back of her neck, saw a shadow on the forest floor. Slowly, she turned.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “I promise. And I’m not going to ask you to hurt me. Just listen.”
Claire stumbled backward, but she couldn’t help the words that came out of her mouth. “You came back.”
People didn’t come back. Not for her.
Claire scanned his face, but the lines of his expression held no answer. His lips were set into a narrow grimace, and there was a tension in his jawline that she couldn’t quite diagnose.
He was either angry or desperate. Happy to see her, or shattered from the inside out.
“Claire, we need to talk.”
There was a night and day difference between his tone now and the terse orders and accusations he’d thrown at her before. This was Nix being gentle.
This was the stuff of Situations.
Claire swallowed, and for the first time, she wished that she didn’t have such an overactive imagination. She wished that things were black-and-white and simple and real. That he’d never tried to kill her, and that she didn’t believe, deep down, that she might not have been his first.
“I’m not like other people, Claire.” The assassin said those words easily—too easily, like they didn’t matter. Like he’d said them so many times that they may as well have been the tattoos on his skin. “I’m not like other people, because I was born wrong. It’s hard to explain, and it’s probably going to sound crazy, but you just have to listen to me.”
“I’ll listen.” She took a step toward him, and he jumped back.
“You can’t do that. You can’t come so close. You can’t … touch me.” He choked on the words. “I can’t be near you.”
He didn’t want her. Of course he didn’t.
He just wants to tell you something. He doesn’t want to touch you. Why would anyone want to—
“You don’t want to touch me, Claire. You really don’t.” The symmetry of his words and her thoughts stopped the onslaught in Claire’s head. Nix looked down at the ground, then back up at her. He kept his distance. “Everything in the world has an energy. Most people can’t see it, they can’t smell it, they can’t feel it. They don’t even know it’s there. But a small percentage of humans can sense it. They’re called Sensors, and for thousands of years, they’ve been studying the pattern. They know how energy works. They know what it does. And just by looking at you—smelling you, listening to you, whatever—they can tell when something’s wrong.”
The back of Claire’s neck tingled. A montage of images played in her mind: the red-haired girl at the pool holding the palm of her hand up to Claire’s face; the old man scanning her body in a pattern that seemed more military than not.
“There’s something wrong with me, isn’t there?” Claire didn’t wait for him to answer. “That’s why you tried to kill me.”
Nix closed the space between them in the span of a single heartbeat. He placed his hands on either side of her face, forcing her to look at him.
“There’s nothing wrong with you, Claire. You’re perfect.”
She closed her eyes and leaned into his hands. She wanted to believe what he was saying. And for a half of a half of a second, she did.
Nix knew he shouldn’t touch her. He didn’t deserve to. He’d almost killed her. And even if he hadn’t, she deserved to know the truth—that he was nothing. That he wasn’t worth even a moment of her time.
But his hands were hot. Her face was soft. And when she leaned into him, the pressure cascaded over his entire body. It only lasted for a fraction of a second, but Nix imagined it lasting longer, becoming something more.
He jerked his hands away, fisted them by his side. He couldn’t. Couldn’t look at her. Couldn’t touch her. He was a killer, and she was perfect. He was Nobody, and she was everything.
“I work for an organization. They call themselves The Society. And they did send me here to kill you, Claire.” Nix paused, letting her absorb his words. “They made me think that you were something you weren’t. A Null.” He could tell by the look on her face that he was getting ahead of himself, confusing her, so he forced himself to take a step back, to explain the things he’d been taught from the cradle, the things she’d never known.
“The kind of energy The Society studies isn’t like gravity or electricity or heat. It’s a substance, a glow, maybe even a person’s soul. But sometimes people are born wrong. They have too much energy, or not enough, and either way, it’s wrong.” Nix struggled to keep his tone neutral, to fight back the flashes that wanted to come—of lessons learned and words spoken, of bodies and blood. “Under normal circumstances, when two people interact, they trade energy. Not all of it, just a little. And then they’re connected. They mark each other. Sometimes, the mark fades after a while, if they don’t see each other again. But sometimes it grows. And then you get stuff like love.”
“Stuff like love,” Claire repeated.
Nix hated himself then. Everyone else’s indifference he’d been given. But her revulsion, the way she’d look at him once she knew what he was and what he’d taken her for—that, he’d earned.
“Normals—that’s what The Society calls people who are born right—they can give their energy to people, and they can take energy from others. They can love, and they can be loved.”
“But some people are born wrong,” Claire whispered, repeating his words, her tone laced with understanding—and horror. “They can’t be loved.”
The part of Nix’s brain that had gotten used to seeing her as the villain wondered if she’d guessed what he was, and was twisting the knife on purpose.
“Some people are born wrong, but most of them aren’t unlovable. They’re worse. They can give their energy to other people. In fact, they’re really good at it. They can mark someone just by thinking about them, and their marks take a really long time to fade. People think they’re great. They think they’re nice and normal. But underneath it all, they’re empty, because nothing anyone else says or does can ever have a real effect on them.”
“That’s awful.” Claire’s reaction was so genuine—and so much of an understatement—that Nix almost smiled.