I’m the middle of the middle. I’m Nobody.
The thoughts in her mind stilled until she wasn’t Claire. She didn’t have a name. She didn’t have a family. She had nothing.
And, God, it felt good.
Claire stood, surprised by how little effort it took. She walked on the balls of her feet, barely contacting the ground.
This was what it felt like to let go. To stop trying. Stop wanting.
Claire strode forward. Toward the trees. They were firm, solid, old. They’d been here for hundreds of years and would be here for years to come.
They couldn’t touch her.
So she walked straight through them, and a song began to hum through her body. She belonged here.
“Claire? Can you hear me?”
That wasn’t her name. She wasn’t Claire. Not anymore. She was nothing. But still, she turned toward Nix. He was the one who had brought her here, to this wonderful alternate world where she could walk through trees and dance and never hurt again.
“Let’s stay this way,” she said, forgetting about The Society. About the body she was supposed to have and the people who wanted it dead. About Nix’s conditions and his secrets. “Let’s stay this way forever.”
Nix had never seen anything quite like Claire faded. If anything, she became brighter. More noticeable—to him, at least. The physical world seemed to disagree. She danced through the trees like some kind of pixie, a sprite taking impossible joy in a world that mere humans couldn’t see.
Everything Nix had been taught told him that to fade, you had to let go of emotion. You had to feel nothing. The second he met Claire’s eyes, he should have lost his grip on nothingness. The moment he heard her voice, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, he should have started gritting his teeth, trying not to care.
Seeing her should have stripped him of his powers. But it didn’t, because right now she was nothing, too. He was faded. She was faded. It was easy to think of nothing but Claire, to let her presence in the fade ground his.
In the real world, he resisted touching her, didn’t deserve to touch her, but here, now he didn’t have to hold back.
No such thing.
Faded, Nix should have been able to pass straight through her.
Faded, their fingertips shouldn’t have been able to touch.
Faded, he shouldn’t have been able to feel that touch all the way to the ends of his toes.
But he could, and the second they connected, everything changed. The rest of the world faded to gray, its sounds to silence. The wind stopped blowing; the leaves froze at the angles to which they’d been pushed. A bee paused just above a flower. Nix looked farther, harder at the rest of the world. Ants on logs. Birds midflight.
They were frozen.
Fading meant leaving the physical world behind. It meant being weightless and transparent, insubstantial, empty. But this—his fingers interwoven with hers, her fade connecting with his—they hadn’t just slipped out of the physical world.
They’d fallen out of time.
Claire noticed the world slowing down around her, but she shrugged it off. That world didn’t matter. She’d lived there long enough. It didn’t understand her—or Nix.
They were more. He was touching her, and she couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t. Couldn’t quite grasp the fact that back in town, he hadn’t wanted to. Couldn’t get a grip on anything that had happened in the fifteen years leading up to this moment.
“Let’s run.” Claire had always hated running, but she couldn’t just stand there, not when every barrier between her and things that lay just out of reach had been removed. She dropped her counterpart’s hand, knowing instinctively that this Nix would touch her again, that he would touch her, follow her, chase her.
The moment their fingers parted, the world shifted, a phantom wind blowing through Claire’s body as time sped up around them. She broke into a sprint, amazed at how easy it was to run when the world didn’t fight to slow you down. There were no obstacles. Her feet barely touched the ground before they left it again, and her lungs breathed a different kind of air.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Her feet stopped touching the ground. They stopped touching it at all. She was floating, flying, blurring. And everywhere, there was Nix. Through the trees. Through the woods. Out the other side.
A road, abandoned, stretched out before them. Faster, farther, higher, more.
If my parents could see me now—
The thought came from an older part of her brain. A part that didn’t belong here, in the sky, with Nix and the glorious nothing.
Cruelly, abruptly, Claire’s body solidified and she lost her grip on the thing that she had become.
I don’t care what my parents think.
They don’t matter.
She thought those things, frantically, but the power and everything that came with it hovered out of reach, and Claire fell.
And right before she hit the ground—the solid, ugly, unforgiving ground—Nix caught her. And the second after that, he lost his fade, too, and they both took entirely ungraceful nosedives into the dirt of the road.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” He was above her in an instant, running his fingers over her ribs, her side, up and down her legs, checking for injuries.
“I’m fine. Just sore.”
“Lie still, Claire. Something could be broken.”
“We both fell, Nix.” She struggled to sit up, but he wouldn’t let her. His hands moved to her arms, and she wondered if he realized that he was touching more of her now than he had the night before.
“You fell from higher. I shouldn’t have let you try it. I shouldn’t have let you go so high. I should have warned you—”
“That I had to let go of this world to stay in that one? It’s not rocket science.”
“It takes practice. Discipline. Are you sure you’re not hurt?”
“You caught me.”
Her words reminded him that he was touching her, and immediately, he stopped. Jumped to his feet. Backed away from her. “Two conditions, Claire, and the first one is that we can’t—” The words tore their way out of his mouth like something was clawing out his insides. “When you touch me …”
When I touch you, she thought, the words an echo of his. She stood up.
“We touched before,” she said, “when we were nothing.”
Nix shrugged off her words. “That was different.”