The boy shrugged. “Is it good?”
Abigail shot a hateful, happy, hurting look at her father’s grave. “It’s the best.”
The boy sank down to his knees. “That’s all I need to know.” He reached for the vial, and even from a distance, Claire could see something dark and serpentine sleeping in the wry curve of his lips.
Claire couldn’t take it anymore. She moved, forgetting how much she’d once wanted the Abigails and Justins of her own high school to remember her name. She stalked toward them. And she beat Justin to the vial.
“This is mine,” she said, latching her hand around it and removing it from Abigail’s possession.
The dead senator’s daughter didn’t jump at Claire’s touch. She glanced at Claire, and then shrugged her off. The boy seemed to grasp the reality of the situation a little more.
“Where’d it go?”
Clearly, the absence of the drug was bothering him, and he managed to connect it to Claire’s presence. “You … you took it.”
Claire turned and walked away. The boy wouldn’t follow. He wouldn’t fight her for it. He’d be pissed that it was gone, but he wouldn’t direct that anger at her.
Claire couldn’t make people angry. She couldn’t make them happy or sad, she couldn’t scare them, she couldn’t make them feel even a whiff of emotion toward her at all.
Stealing clothes paled next to this. She’d walked up to two strung-out strangers, taken a top secret serum from their possession, and walked away without a scratch—and she hadn’t even had to fade to do it, because Normals didn’t care!
The image of Justin—his hands on Abigail, her face streaked black—came into Claire’s mind, and she was glad. Glad they didn’t care about her. Glad that she wasn’t spending her summer trying to make other people take notice, if being noticed meant being …
Once the Normal boy figured out that the Normal girl had managed to lose the drug she’d promised him, he came to the conclusion that hooking up on her dead father’s tombstone was sick. Abigail started crying again, and a heavy knowing settled in Claire’s stomach, uncomfortable and disconcerting.
The Society had to be stopped. Not just for Nix and the things they’d made him do or for Senator Wyler or any other innocents they’d ordered dead. Not for Claire, who might have been buried six feet under had she not glanced out her window at exactly the right time.
The Society had to be stopped for Abigail, too. It had to be stopped because of Proposition 42 and whatever was going on in the basement of the institute. For X-17—whatever that was—which Sykes had considered the perfect weapon.
“I’m sorry, Claire.” By the time Nix said those words, Abigail and the boy were gone, and Claire tried to remember what Nix—built me a bookshelf; saved my life—had to be sorry for.
“You shouldn’t have had to do that,” he said, nodding his head toward the vial in her hand.
“I shouldn’t have had to do what?” she asked quietly.
“Deal with the drug. Take it from them. I should have done that.”
Nix’s fingers began curling into a fist. “Because if it wasn’t for me, that girl’s father would still be alive, and she never would have had the opportunity to steal a vial of instant Null in the first place.”
Claire brought her hands to his and slowly worked to uncurl his fist, drawing tiny circles on his palm the way she sometimes did on her own.
Nix shuddered, and she sensed something threatening to give inside him. “Sykes wasn’t a Null. He wasn’t a good person. He willingly turned himself into a monster. But he wasn’t a Null. He could have gotten better.”
First Wyler. Now Sykes. Claire wondered if Nix would go, one by one, through the contents of all of the folders. All of his kills. She knew, deep down, that he would. And even deeper, in the core of Claire, she knew that she wanted to be there while he did.
She wanted to be the one to put him back together. To rest her hands gently on the sides of his face and say, “Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Cry. And when you can’t hold it anymore—the breath, the tears—let go.”
Nix did as he was told. He felt it—the burn of knowing that he’d been a blade when The Society needed one, the executioner who carried out every death sentence Ione had laid down, except for Claire’s. He accepted that the things he’d done would always be there, under his skin. In his skin. Waiting behind every door in every dream.
You are what you are.
He pulled back from Claire’s grasp.
His eyeballs stung, and he let the tears fall. Then he let everything else fall away, too. Claire followed him into the fade, and he struggled to remember why he’d pulled away from her touch.
Faded, she didn’t seem so very far away.
“It hurts.” Claire’s voice was high-pitched, frantic.
Nix started forward. “What hurts?” Nothing was supposed to hurt in the fade. You had to let go of the pain to cross.
Claire looked down at her hand. “It’s making me dizzy. It doesn’t want to be here.”
The drug, Nix realized. She brought it with her. In the solid world, the vial and its contents were ugly, but in the fade, they turned his stomach. There were two kinds of wrong, and they weren’t supposed to mix. This had made Evan Sykes into a temporary Null. God knew what was in it, but every ounce of loathing Nix had ever felt for Nulls was directed at the dark liquid, and the only reason it didn’t pull him out of the fade was that—impossibly—it was faded, too.
Claire brought it with her. She was better at this than she should have been. Crossing in and out of the fade. Taking objects with her. She’d picked it up effortlessly—and now she was paying the price.
She shouldn’t have brought it here. She shouldn’t have even tried.
“It’s like a black hole. It’s like they liquefied a black hole.” Claire wheezed, her features twisted in pain. Standing two feet away from her, Nix could feel it: the drug, the fade’s reaction to it, the fact that none of this should have been happening at all.
“Let go of the fade, Claire.”
They’d stop fading, and it would be fine. The drug would just be a drug.
Claire shook her head. “It has to come with us.” Claire trembled, her hand clenching the serum. Nix reached for it, but she pulled it back. “We have to take it back to the cabin, and we’ll travel faster in the fade. I can do this. I should be able to do this. I’m nothing. This vial is nothing. We’re nothing.”