“He wasn’t that bad.”
Claire wondered, absentmindedly, if Courtney was the underage girlfriend that had convinced Nix that Sykes was a monster.
“He didn’t care, Court. Not about me. Not about my mom. One day, he did. The next, he didn’t. She got drunk, I got pretty, he got dead.”
Claire knew what trying not to cry sounded like. Abigail was a textbook case.
“So where did your dad keep his stuff?” Apparently, Courtney had expended her complete capacity for sympathy.
Abigail, sensing her friend had run dry, took several breaths before replying. “There’s a safe built into the desk.”
Claire met Nix’s eyes, and an unspoken obscenity passed between the two of them, followed by an urgent mandate: fade.
Claire squeezed her eyes shut. Shut her mind down. Thought of what Nix had said. About triggers.
Nothing. You know what that feels like. Reach for it. Grab it. Make it yours.
Instead of thinking about how unimportant she was, Claire thought of the fade. She thought of running. She thought of being nothing.
And the next instant, she was.
Nix couldn’t fade until Claire did, and for one horrible moment, he thought that she’d be too held in place by the exchange Sykes’s daughter and her friend were having to let go. Nix wouldn’t have blamed Claire if she couldn’t shrug off reality in the face of Normal girls. For all Nix knew, girls just like them had walked all over Claire at her old school.
Beside him, Claire’s eyelids closed and then fluttered. The tension melted away from her jaw. She stopped nibbling on her bottom lip.
She’s fading. Three … two … one …
Footsteps approached the far side of the desk, and Nix realized that Claire wasn’t the one risking exposure.
Less than shadow. Less than …
Once she crossed over, thinking her name was enough to bring him into unreality beside her. She stayed, crouched behind the desk, but Nix shook his head at her and stood up.
“They can’t see us. Can’t hear us.”
Claire climbed to her feet, her tangled hair looking more like a halo for the light shining off it. “I’ve never been this close,” she whispered, “to … Solids.”
“Normals,” he corrected. She took a step toward him, and Nix felt his heart—his transparent, weightless, nothing heart—leap in his chest. If they touched, if her hand brushed his, if he reached for her—they’d leave the time line behind. The world would freeze around them, and nothing else would matter.
Nix wanted to touch her, badly, but he didn’t. They couldn’t touch in the fade without stopping time, and if time stopped, the scene unfolding around them—the one they desperately needed to understand—would freeze.
Nix met Claire’s eyes, and she nodded to show that she understood, then took a step back.
“Mother dearest doesn’t even know this is here,” one of the Normal girls was saying. “She went through the other safes when he died. Looking for booze, probably. Or money. She didn’t think he’d have hiding spots inside his hiding spots.”
“Enough with the soliloquy, Abs. Open it!”
Nix felt the urge to swat at the solid girls, like they were flies or a bad smell that needed to waft away. Listening to them took effort; their words were an annoyance. The need to touch Claire, to shrug off time, was overwhelming.
But he couldn’t. He had to let time run its course. Let Sykes’s solid daughter saunter over to the senator’s desk and press a hidden button. Let the top of the desk shift to reveal a secret compartment.
“Tapes, tapes, tapes … drugs!” The one called Abigail sang as she rifled through the contents of the compartment.
“What’s on the tapes?” The one called Courtney asked.
“Who cares? All I know is this stuff is killer strong. The second it hits you, you don’t feel anything.”
Don’t feel anything.
The words would have made Nix sick to his stomach if he’d processed them, but he couldn’t let them be real, didn’t dissect their meaning. Not here. Not now.
Now was Claire. Claire, Claire, Claire and fade, fade, fade. They were invincible, untouchable, eternal.
So long as nothing else mattered.
“God, Abby, what is that stuff? It looks disgusting.”
Nix didn’t look. Couldn’t look at the drug Abigail Sykes had pulled from her father’s desk. Instead, he looked at Claire.
Lips made for reading out loud.
“It may look like tar, but it feels like heaven. Don’t worry, though, there’s just enough left for me and Justin. You don’t have to get your hands dirty, Miss Priss.”
Looks like tar. Feels like heaven.
Nix reached over and touched Claire’s hand with his own. A wave of power exploded in the air between them, and the solid girls froze.
Looks like tar. Feels like heaven.
The clock on Sykes’s wall stopped moving. Nix ran his thumb slowly over Claire’s palm. With his chin, he gestured toward the desk. The compartment. The frozen Normal girls. In a single motion, he and Claire crossed the room, walking on the balls of their feet, silent and deadly, two hunters on the prowl.
Claire’s eyes zeroed in on the vial in Abigail Sykes’s hand, and she shuddered.
“Empty,” she said. “Dull.”
Nix concurred. The liquid in that vial was nauseating. The mere sight of it threatened to pull him out of the fade.
“Close your eyes,” he told Claire. “Close your eyes and don’t look at it. Don’t listen to it.”
“There’s something wrong with that drug,” Claire said, eyes still open, voice hoarse. “Do you remember what you told me? When we first figured out what I was? You told me that the world was made of energy, and that there were two kinds of wrong.”
Don’t think it, Nix told himself. Don’t even think the word.
But the thought had been planted, and even in the fade, even touching Claire, he had to follow it to completion. The Society studied energy. The Society’s scientists had used Nix to test countless theories about the way that energy worked. And when Nix had gone back to the institute the day before, he’d seen a Sensor with small round scars—needle tracks—on his arm.
Nix dropped Claire’s hand, and the world around them fell into motion, as if time had never stopped. Understanding crashed into his body, and he lost his grip on the fade. Gritting his teeth and trying to regain a clear mind, he flashed into physicality one second and back into nothingness the next.