“We’re the same, Nix. You can’t leave me, because if you do, I won’t matter, and I can’t leave you, because you matter too much.”
He was still overwhelmed by the idea that he could provoke a reaction in her. Make her mad or sad. But mattering?
The only way you can make a difference in this world is to kill.
Nix pushed the voices out of his head. He bit the inside of his cheek—roughly—and put his hand on Claire’s chest, exactly where her hand lay on his. He felt her heart beat. He felt its steady rhythm loosening his teeth’s grip and warming him from the inside out.
It was wrong. Impossible. It couldn’t happen.
It can’t not.
Nix became highly aware of his own body: skin and heat and the rush of blood. He couldn’t stop his body from moving toward hers, the space between them closing inch by inch, heartbeat by heartbeat, until his lips brushed softly over hers.
Nix. Nix. Nothing but Nix.
For Claire, there was nothing else, nothing but the warmth of his hand through the thin fabric of her worn yellow sundress. Nothing but the feel of his breath on her face. His lips touched hers, and if his hands hadn’t found their way to the small of her back and the back of her neck, the contact would have sent her to her knees.
No one touches me. No one ever touches me.
She brought her hands to the sides of his face, needing to touch it, to assure herself that this moment was real. His skin was warm, but her palms felt hot, and slowly, tentatively, she lost herself to the kiss, falling deeper and deeper into it, into him. Her hands moved down his neck and shoulders, and she pulled him closer.
I don’t know how to do this.
She tried to close her eyes, but couldn’t. Tentatively, she caught his lip in between her teeth and then let go, and in the moment that their mouths met again, hesitation gave way to something sweet, something pure.
She stood on the tips of her toes, her hip bone digging into the flesh just below his. She didn’t know what she was doing, hadn’t ever realized that kissing was something you could feel with more than just your lips.
All there was, was Nix. The way he smelled. The way he tasted. The way he pulled back, dragging his lips away from hers and lightly down her neck.
No one ever touches me.
Neither one of them said it, but Claire could see it in his eyes and wondered if he could see it in hers.
I’m touching you. You’re touching me.
She ran the tip of her thumb over the scar on his throat, and then, feeling his sadness, his loneliness and hers, she bent her head to his neck and traced her lips along the line her thumb had taken, inch by inch across his scar. Slow kisses, careful kisses, soft and light and from the soul.
I’m touching you. You’re touching me.
He sank to his knees, and she sank to hers. There was nothing before this moment and nothing after. No up, no down, no left, no right, no secrets.
Nix. Nix. Only Nix.
Together, they were somebody.
Nix woke the next morning with a weight on his chest. For a moment, he thought that he had been buried alive. They did that with Nobodies sometimes, to teach them the necessity of being able to fade. But a moment’s observation revealed that the weight on his chest wasn’t dirt.
Back arching—lips on fire—bodies touching.
It was Claire.
They’d fallen asleep on the ground, dirt and leaves and damp grass beneath them. Claire’s head was on his chest. As he watched, it lolled gently to one side. And just like that—
Nix is fifteen. In a strange bedroom. Watching. Waiting.
His target gasps. Collapses. The Null’s head lolls to one side. His fingers twitch. Eyes roll back in his head—
Nix kept himself from following the memory any further. That was Three. Warren Wyler. Eleven letters, another body in the morgue.
From her spot on Nix’s chest, Claire murmured something in her sleep. She was small and warm and his—but Nix couldn’t let this go any further.
Couldn’t risk bleeding his darkness onto her.
He knew how to do one thing, only one thing—and when he’d told Claire to kill, she’d said no.
Wyler’s head lolls to one side. His fingers twitch. Eyes roll back in his head, and a sickly sour smell fills the—
Eleven targets, and Nix had never said no. Eleven people he’d thought were Nulls, because The Society had said it was so. Claire could have been number Twelve—another line tattooed onto his arm, another job well done.
He couldn’t do this. Couldn’t look at her. Couldn’t touch her. Couldn’t breathe because he wanted to look at her and touch her and not think about—
A sickly sour smell fills the room. From the shadows, Nix watches. He watches the man stop breathing, watches the fingers stop twitching, watches—and smiles.
Nix was sweating and shaking, and Claire just burrowed farther into his side. He couldn’t do this. Couldn’t. He pulled his body away from hers. Laid her head gently on the ground. Stood up.
I’ve killed. I’m a killer. I will kill again.
That thought was dull in his mind. Maybe once, he could have been something else. But not now. Never now, never with her. Killing was easy. Walking away from Claire—that was hard. Nix made it a hundred yards before his fingernails began to dig into the skin of his palms.
Pain didn’t help. He barely felt it. Felt her light touch on his scars instead.
Keep walking. Don’t look back.
He and Claire couldn’t happen again. Ever. Eventually, he’d hurt her. He’d sooner cut off his own hands.
Nix focused on that as he walked away from her. He wouldn’t hurt her, and he wouldn’t let anyone else harm a hair on her head. The Society wanted Claire dead. Nix knew them well enough to know that they wouldn’t stop. Not unless someone stopped them.
That, he could do.
Claire woke up with swollen lips, a crick in her neck, and a smile on her face. She felt older. Wiser.
Like the Claire she’d been before kissing Nix was another girl. Like that girl was the one who people talked over and bumped into and stared through. And then she turned over onto her side, her fingers fanning out, one by one, exploring the crevices of the forest floor. Stretching her hand toward the place Nix should have been.
Claire opened her eyes.
The dawn had come and gone. And so had—no. She wouldn’t go there, couldn’t think that. She scanned the woods around her. Nervous hands found each other, her fingers interlocking.
Trees. Leaves. Dirt. Sticks. Bugs. Birds.