“We could check.” Claire’s voice was soft and steady. “We could research your … targets. That might tell us what The Society is up to. Why they want to hurt me.”
They want you dead because they don’t want me to have you.
Nix knew, logically, that there might be another answer. That it could be about her as easily as about him.
“They shouldn’t care about either of us, either way.” He said the words before he’d fully processed the thought. To want to kill them, The Society would have to care. There would have to be something at stake.
Something bigger than two people who didn’t matter at all.
“I’ll look into my previous targets,” he told her, his words carrying the weight of a promise. “See if there are any anomalies. Figure out who’s involved and how to deal with them.”
Claire’s chin jutted out. “I’m helping.”
She cut him off, her eyes ablaze. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do. I’m tired of just letting things happen and then hoping for the best. If you just let things go on and on and on, the best doesn’t happen.”
Nix couldn’t keep himself from thinking that she was beautiful when she was angry.
She’ll never love you. How could she?
His fingers curled into fists at his sides.
“If you want me to come with you to the cabin, you’re going to let me help, Nix. If you try to leave again, I’ll follow. I’m not just going to sit around and wait for something bad to happen, because nothing good ever does.”
Nix realized then that she wasn’t bluffing. If he left her and she followed, she’d get hurt. But if he stayed, eventually, he’d hurt her. He destroyed everything he touched. He was only good for one thing.
You are what you are.
“Fine,” he said.
“Fine?” Claire asked suspiciously.
“If you come back with me to the cabin, if you let me protect you, if you do exactly as I tell you, I’ll let you help me investigate The Society.”
Before Claire could respond, Nix held up a hand.
“I have two conditions. One: what happened before can’t happen again.”
Lips on lips, bodies melding together. His hands—soaked with blood—touching her. His mouth—killer’s mouth—kissing hers.
“Last night can’t happen again, Claire,” he repeated. “Ever.”
She stopped breathing. He paused, waiting for her to start again, missing the sound.
“And two: when I say you’re done, you’re done. You want to know why The Society wants you dead. You want to protect yourself. Fine. But when it comes down to it, I’m the one who’s going in, and you’re going to hide.”
“Fine,” she said, matching him tone for tone. “I have a condition, too.”
Nix raised an eyebrow, waiting.
“You have to teach me to …” He could see her searching for the right word, one she’d heard him speak once before. “… fade.”
The word made him want to close the space between them. Run his hands through her hair. Teach her the only thing in the world that had ever been really, truly, exclusively his.
He met her eyes. “It’s a deal.”
“Less than shadow. Less than air.”
Claire let Nix’s voice wash over her body, ignoring the way the grass stuck to her legs in the summer heat and concentrating on the sound and shape of each individual word.
Nicer words than don’t touch me. Nicer than anything he’d said to her since they’d returned to the cabin. Since she’d dressed his wound. Since she’d realized what was inside those folders—and why he’d left.
“Less than shadow. Less than air,” she repeated. She expected her voice to sound older, lower—but it didn’t. She sounded like herself. Like a little kid, playing make-believe.
Like someone who couldn’t handle what those folders held.
“You have to concentrate.” Nix sounded peaceful, fluid, almost drunk. Completely unlike the boy draped in darkness, who’d come for her in town. “Let everything leak out. Every thought, every desire, every hope. You have no future, and no past. You have no name. You are nothing.”
Claire realized, suddenly, that he wasn’t talking to her. He was talking to himself. Telling himself that he was nothing. Believing it. A jolt of electricity ran up her spine. She could still see Nix, but she wondered what someone else would see, observing them from the edge of the woods.
Was Nix invisible?
In answer to her silent question, he stood. His feet barely touched the forest floor, like gravity was having difficulty getting a firm grasp on his long, lean frame. He reached out, and his hand passed straight through the closest tree.
Claire shivered. “Less than shadow,” she whispered. “Less than air.”
“Worthless. Empty. Nothing.”
Nix’s words came at her from every side, as if spoken by the forest itself. Becoming nothing, becoming everything—it was all the same.
It was beautiful.
His face looked almost incandescent, like the film of a bubble floating on the surface of water. He had no worries. No hopes. He wasn’t the Nix who’d left her. The one who’d come back bleeding.
He wasn’t anything, and Claire desperately wanted to be nothing, too.
“Why isn’t it working?” she asked. “What’s wrong with me?”
It figured that she’d be a bad Nobody. It took a special kind of lame to fail as much at being unimportant as the reverse.
“It’s starting,” Nix’s voice said from all sides of her body. “Whatever you’re thinking, keep thinking it.”
Less than shadow. Less than air. That wasn’t her mantra. That was his. She had her own ghosts, her own doubts.
I’m jealous of farts. As far as mantras went, it didn’t have a very enticing rhythm. It didn’t sound dangerous. It didn’t make her feel powerful. It made her feel like less. But maybe, to be more, you had to give up trying to be anything at all.
I’m not Claire.
I’m the pages in my yearbook. Meaningless. Forgettable. Generic. I’m the girl who’s never invited. Never noticed. When I’m drowning, no one saves me. When I speak, nobody listens.
I’m a Post-it note on my parents’ back door.
I’m the messages I leave on their cells.