Interlocked fingers pulled Claire’s knees tight to her chest. The longer she sat there, the more her thoughts began working their way up to a deafening roar, white noise that threatened to start saying things—horrible things—about girls who touched boys and boys who lied to get exactly what they wanted from stupid, stupid girls.
You’re here, and he left, and this time, he isn’t coming back. You know he’s not.
“Situation.” Claire said the word out loud, and her teeth chattered, even though she wasn’t cold. “Situation: What if—”
What if he’s the only one? The only person physically capable of really looking at you, seeing you, caring about you, remembering you? What if you’re the only two Nobodies in the whole world, and he’d rather be alone than spend one more hour with you?
“Situation.” Claire couldn’t think of one. The sole thing she could think about was Nix. Touching her. Kissing her. Hands on either side of her face.
All she could think was that he’d left her lying on the ground. Leaves in her hair. Lips swollen. He’d left her. The cacophony of emotion in her head receded, leaving only one emotion, only one thought.
You don’t get to leave me.
The road leading up to the institute was long and straight. Gravel crunched under Nix’s feet as he walked the familiar path.
There’s a knife in his right hand. His left is coated with blood. His body feels heavy.
He can’t fade. Not now. Not after—
Nix shook off the memory. Not Three this time. Seven. He could feel the images fighting to take hold of his mind. Darkness dotted his field of vision. He forced himself to keep walking. Closer to the institute. Closer to the people who’d sent him to kill Claire.
There’s a knife in his right hand. His left is coated with blood. His body feels heavy. He can’t fade. Not now. Not after what he’s done. Not this time.
He should feel something. Triumph, nausea, fear—anything. But he doesn’t. His arms hang listlessly by his sides. The blade in his right hand swings gently as he walks.
He’s never used a knife on a living, breathing being before, but this time, his orders were different.
This time, The Society told him not to fade. No poison, no guns, no “accidental” drownings.
This time, his orders said to make it messy.
With hard-won, painful effort, Nix banished the memory of his seventh kill, the blood. He focused on one thing and one thing alone.
At the end of this road and past the gates, through twisted hallways and beyond the security checkpoints—that was where he’d find Ione. The Sensors. The scientists.
The people who’d sent him after Claire.
Situation: You wake up in the woods with no memory. No name. No idea how you got here. There’s a white index card beside you on the ground, telling you that you have until nightfall to find your way to civilization—if you want to get out of this forest alive.
As far as Situations went, it was closer to a horror movie than a daydream, but that was nothing new. Claire had imagined her way out of worse. The only difference was that this time, it was real. Not the amnesia, or the index card, or the imminent threat of death—but the problem.
She was alone in the woods. She had no idea how Nix had brought her here, no idea which direction to walk to find the closest town—or how far she’d have to go. The day before, she’d stalled. She’d given up. She’d wallowed in the fact that he left her—but Claire was done with wallowing now.
Done with hoping things would get better.
Done with being sad that they weren’t.
Now Claire was angry. She’d spent so long trying to be so sweet, trying not to make trouble, waiting for something to happen—but something was never going to happen. Anything she wanted out of life, she’d have to take.
Starting with fighting her way out of these woods. Slipping back into the Situation, she imagined stalking back to the cabin. To the weapons stash under the porch. Her hand closes around the hilt of a knife. She would have preferred a bow and arrow, but beggars can’t be choosers, and she only has until nightfall.
Claire mimicked the actions in reality. Gone was the horror she’d felt at Nix’s weapons the day before. This was survival. This was taking care of herself, because no one else was ever going to do it for her. This was Claire making life happen instead of waiting for it to come to her.
She wanted out of this forest.
She wanted to live.
And she wanted to forget that last night—painfully, impossibly perfect—had ever happened.
Less than shadow. Less than air.
Nix slipped past the security checkpoints. Past the metal detectors and the Sensors and every safeguard The Society had put in place to make the institute impenetrable to anyone who mattered.
Unfortunately for The Society, Nix didn’t matter—and faded, nothing was impenetrable to him.
As Nix made his way farther and farther through the labyrinthine corridors, he was overcome with a sickening sense of déjà vu. How many times had he walked these hallways? How many times had he overheard the Sensors’ conversations, used their words to figure out what it would be like to be Normal? To hear what they said when they were talking to each other and not to him.
The only way you can make a difference in this world is to kill.
Nix had told himself that he was coming back here to protect Claire, to find out why The Society wanted her dead. But now that he was here, the memories were too close to the surface: the training, the lessons, the experiments—and all he could think, over and over again, was a number.
The fissure of doubt that had started that morning—with number Three—spread through Nix’s body, through the rest of his memories, the men and women he’d killed. He’d thought they were Nulls. He’d seen what true Nulls could do: seen the teenage girl that One kept chained in his basement; seen the cigarette burns on Six’s child’s arms. Nix had seen the bodies and the horrors, and he’d known that Nulls were monsters—but what if his targets hadn’t all been Nulls?
Nix’s grip on the fade wavered. After a split second, he came crashing back to the solid world. His body felt heavy—as heavy as he’d felt after killing Seven and making it messy. He took a deep breath and assessed his current situation. Even when Nix wasn’t faded, the people who worked here rarely bothered to take note of his presence—but that wasn’t a chance worth taking now that he’d gone rogue.