“You don’t live there anymore.” The quiet vehemence in Claire’s voice knocked the breath from Nix’s chest. “And out here in the real world, when you need answers, we have this wonderful thing called Google.”
“And this Google lives in libraries?”
Nobodies don’t ask questions.
He hadn’t meant to. He’d trained himself—not to wonder. Not to think. To breathe in and out and let the entire world bleed out through his skin.
Nobodies don’t ask questions.
But Nix had, and Claire answered it.
“Google’s a search engine. Libraries have computers, and most of them have free internet. Sykes was a senator—there will be news articles.”
Nix didn’t reply. A Nobody’s education tended more toward Mach 7s and arsenic than computer how-to’s. They’d only taught him to read so that they wouldn’t have to bother giving him his orders in person.
So they could slip them under his door.
Name. Date. Place.
“Do you even know where the closest library is?” he asked sharply, pushing away that thought, the memories.
Claire paused. Flushed. And then pink lips tilted upward in a bewitching, beseeching grin.
He didn’t either. The only thing he knew about this city was that Evan Sykes had died three streets over. Heart attack—or so they said.
“We’ll have to ask someone.” Claire scrunched her mouth into a skinny O. “I hate asking people.”
Nobodies don’t ask questions.
But Claire didn’t know that. She’d probably asked hundreds. Maybe she’d even gotten some answers. Probably not a lot. That was probably why she hated it. But she’d asked them anyway.
Nobodies don’t cry.
Nix wasn’t sure why he wanted to. For Claire—asking and asking, again and again—or for himself. Because he couldn’t. Couldn’t go up to a stranger, the way she was doing now. Couldn’t look them in the eye. Couldn’t be around Normals without feeling like he should have tried harder the day he’d tried to slit his own throat.
“Excuse me, ma’am? Errr … sir? I’m sorry to bother you, but—” On the fourth try, Claire finally got someone to stop. Her voice went up at least a decibel or two in the process.
“Oh, you don’t know? Okay, well … excuse me? Could you maybe …”
Five more tries. Six.
By the time she came stomping back toward him, Nix had gotten over his shock at watching her march up to total strangers. Ask them questions. Blush and bite her lips when they ignored her. Press on.
“I hate asking questions.”
But she did it. Knowing that they’d probably ignore her. Feeling smaller and smaller each time. For him.
Brave. Claire is brave.
The realization surprised Nix. Claire was innocent. Claire was sweet. Claire was stubborn and funny and irresistible and Claire.
Brave was a problem.
“The closest library’s a few miles away,” she said, reporting back. “If I tell you where it is, can you get us there in the fade?” Even talking about fading changed Claire, brought something otherworldly to her eyes. “I can’t think when I’m faded. I just … I lose it, you know?”
“I know,” Nix replied. To find something after you faded, your body had to want it. You had to be single-minded, because when the real world slipped away, conscious thoughts went with it. All that remained was the id: wants, needs, desires.
“We should just walk.” He could have found the library from the fade. They could have slipped out of the here and now, been there in a heartbeat, no worse for the wear. But it didn’t seem wise, because right now Nix’s id wanted nothing more than to touch Claire.
To be with Claire.
Beautiful, brave, irresistible Claire.
“It’ll be dark by the time we get there,” she objected.
“Good.” Nix glanced over his shoulder. Anonymity wasn’t an excuse for sloppiness. The Society had found Claire once. All odds to the contrary, they could do it again. “We probably shouldn’t have gone out during the day anyway.”
Nix knew nothing about libraries, or the internet, or what it felt like to talk to strangers, but he knew this much: nighttime was Nobody time. The real monsters came out with the sun.
By the time they got to the library, it was closed, and Claire felt a familiar pang of disappointment in the pit of her gut before she realized it didn’t matter. The ice cream truck always left just before she got there. Play auditions closed while she was sitting there, waiting for her turn. Absentminded teachers were always losing the field-trip permission forms she’d painstakingly forged. But what did it matter if the library was closed? If the doors were locked?
This time, she didn’t ask Nix if they should fade. He’d been quiet on the walk over, more so than usual, and Claire was getting tired of feeling his stare, not knowing what it meant.
I don’t matter. Middle of the middle. Left behind. Nuisance.
Once upon a time, those words would have hurt.
No one notices. No one cares. When I ask questions, I have to beg for the answers.
She felt the real world rolling off her body, like water. No, oil. Thick and greasy, numbing, it slipped from her veins and her skin and her brain until all that was left was the deepest kind of ache.
She didn’t wait to see if Nix would follow her. He might back away from her in the real world. He might look at her like she’d done something wrong, just because it had taken her ten minutes to get someone to point them toward the library. He might expect her to turn tail and run away when things got hard.
But down beneath skin and bones and the things they’d done and hadn’t, the two of them were the same. Fading stripped off all the other layers, and like a beacon, she called to him.
I’m like you.
Reality broke around his body, crumbled, as his face began to glow. Claire felt the earth give the moment he crossed over.
The moment he took her hand.
There were people on the street. Not many, this late at night, but some, and as Claire’s faded skin brushed Nix’s, the world shuddered. The street and the people and the flickering streetlamps froze like a photo, snapped an instant too soon.
“Time stops for us.” She said the words like they were music. “Let’s run.”
Nix shook his head. The movement hypnotized Claire, and it took her a moment to decode its meaning as something other than his dance to her song. He led. She followed—through locked doors, through walls, through shelves and shelves of books that another Claire would have loved to read.