“And what, pray tell, do you hope to do with those?” Her tone—icy and controlled—matched the colors of the room exactly.
Make it messy.
Until that moment, Nix hadn’t planned on doing anything with the files. Wordlessly, he gathered them from the floor. Ione took a step forward, but seemed to remember—belatedly—that even if she wasn’t scared, she should be.
These were her files, after all. She’d seen what he could do.
Her hand slid slowly into her pocket—
“Stop.” Nix’s voice was low and cold, a match for hers. “I don’t know what you’re reaching for. I don’t care. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
I’ve killed. I’m a killer. I will kill again.
Ione couldn’t hear the tone of warning in his voice. She wouldn’t register the lethal set of his eyes. He didn’t frighten her—but she couldn’t afford to ignore him, no matter how hard it was not to. She stopped, freezing in place.
“Why?” Nix asked simply.
Nobodies didn’t ask questions. Nix knew that—but the knowledge was shallow, replaced by the time he’d spent watching and observing and touching Claire.
“Why did you send me to kill her?”
Ione shrugged, her eyes failing to find his, her demeanor poised—like he wasn’t this far from snapping her neck just to hear the sound. “You’ve never asked why before.”
Those words hit Nix hard. The files in his hand, his kills—he hadn’t asked, and he hadn’t said no. He’d done what they’d said, always.
“I should kill you.” He said the words calmly. She didn’t flinch. Her hand moved, ever so slightly, toward her pocket. He was on her in an instant, his free hand closing around her throat. He didn’t slam her against the wall. He didn’t make a single noise.
Why had she sent him to kill Claire? Why had the sight of the files triggered a response in her that he could not?
Ione opened her mouth. Nix loosened his grip on her throat, just enough so that she could speak, in a harsh whisper that cut through the room. “If you kill me, I’ll only be replaced. Cut off one head, come up against seven more. You can’t stop The Society. You can’t hurt us. You’re nothing, and we’re more powerful than you’ve ever imagined.”
Her hand disappeared into her pocket. He tightened his grip, cutting off all air.
“Don’t,” he said.
She stilled. He looked at her. She looked through him. He was killing her, and she wasn’t even watching.
“Wait.” She mouthed the word. For the second time, he relaxed his grip on her throat. If she had last words, he needed to know them.
“There’s a panic button in my pocket. I’ve already pushed it. This room will be crawling with Sensors in an instant. You can’t kill us all.”
He thought of everything The Society had made him do. He thought of staring down the length of his gun at Claire. He thought of Claire’s nightmares, Claire’s pain—their fault.
“I can try.”
Ione shrugged. “And while you’re here, trying to kill us, we’ll be out there, taking care of a problem.”
It took him a moment to grasp her meaning. We as in The Society. Problem as in Claire. The computer program running in the other room, the scientists—what if they’d found her?
The door to Ione’s study burst open. Shots were fired. One of them grazed Nix’s shoulder. He didn’t have time to think. He reacted.
He faded: instantaneously, a matter of reflex, the hard-won fruit of his trainer’s methods—drowning him, burying him, cutting him. They’d made fading a survival skill—and he was a survivor.
Ione gasped for breath, her hands flying to her throat. Nix had brought the files into the fade with him, but the second he’d faded, he lost the ability to choke the life out of her.
She’d lost her ability to see him, to feel him, to hurt him. Unless she could make him lose his fade, he was untouchable.
“Do you think this changes things? Do you really believe that the fact that there are two of you changes anything?” Ione spoke loudly, unaware of how close to her he was standing. “She’ll never love you, you know. Never care for you. You are what you are. A killer. She’ll never understand that. How could she?”
Nix closed himself off to Ione’s words. She was trying to hurt him, to weigh down his mind, to bring him out of the fade. She was trying to stop him from leaving with the files—and saving Claire.
Claire walked out of the store, clothed in pilfered goods. A security alarm sounded, but no one stopped her. The salesclerks didn’t notice that she’d helped herself to a pair of barely-there jean shorts and a sinfully soft cotton tee. Just like they didn’t notice that she was mud splattered, scratched, and bloody.
There was a power to being able to walk through the world unnoticed.
After everything she’d lost in the past twenty-four hours—the hopes and the dreams and the maybes—Claire figured that fresh clothing was the least of what she was owed. She pushed down the familiar stab of guilt and kept walking. Her fingers tightened around the hilt of her knife.
She’d spent years berating herself for every little thing. Every imagined faux pas, every failure to matter. But none of that had been her fault. In the past twenty-four hours, she’d been kidnapped, abandoned, forced to fight her way out of the woods—she wasn’t going to feel guilty about stealing clothes.
Anger was easier than guilt. Still, Claire looked back over her shoulder, half expecting to be caught. As she turned, something flashed in the corner of her eye. The hairs rose up on the back of her neck, and she remembered—suddenly and with an eerie sense of premonition—that Nix wasn’t the only one who’d wanted her dead.
She whirled back around. Nothing. Nothing but her own imagination. And still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was coming, that the knife in her hand wasn’t enough.
She heard her name and whirled again. Nix. Her body recognized him before her mind did. Reflexively, she took a step backward, even as her hand reached out to him.
She wasn’t doing this. He didn’t get to leave her and then show up. He didn’t get to look at her and stop her heart. He didn’t get to make it beat harder, faster—
“Are you okay?” The whispered words exited his mouth with the power of a gunshot.