He’d headed back to the cabin. Claire had followed.
He’d lifted one of the panels on the wooden floor, revealing a weapons cache much bigger than the one Claire had kept under the porch. She’d silently knelt beside him, laying out the spread as he unearthed wires, rope, and needles. Knives. Guns. Darts. An ice pick, several bags of white powder, and a variety of explosives.
“Take off your clothes.”
Nix’s voice washed over Claire’s body. Deep. Reassuring. It wasn’t until the words disappeared from the air that she realized their content.
“Take off my …?”
“I would give anything to leave you here. To keep you safe. But one of us has to initiate the meltdown while the other one gets the children. This isn’t a job for one Nobody. It’s a job for two. And even if it wasn’t, you’d come. Where I go, you follow. Even if I could keep you safe, you wouldn’t want it. I know you—you won’t even stay away from the Null.”
Null. Null. Null.
If Claire hadn’t already known how Nix felt about Nulls, the venom he put into that word would have told her more than enough.
“Take off your clothes,” Nix said, repeating the order. He stood and stalked out of the room, returning a moment later with two pairs of pants and two shirts: one for him and one for her. Not bothering to expand on his earlier command, he followed the advice he had given her, stripping off his shirt.
Sleek. Stone cold. Hard. His stomach looked like it had been carved from marble. Every muscle was tensed. Taut.
Biting her bottom lip again, Claire brought her fingers to the end of her own shirt. Nix wrapped an Ace bandage around his middle, and with expert fingers, he began to weave and tie knots in it, twisting and turning the fabric to form pockets. Claire watched the motion, hypnotized, her own limbs still frozen.
Some kind of double-edged blade.
Nix tucked the weapons into his makeshift halter. One wrong move, and he’d slice himself open.
Guns were strapped to his ankles. Wires were wrapped around his wrists. Claire stared down at her own hands—miniature compared to his. After an elongated moment, she lifted up the end of her oversized shirt, revealing an expanse of suntanned skin underneath.
Without a word, Nix came to stand behind her. Wrapping his arms around her body, he strapped a knife to her side, his fingers brushing against the flat of her back as he did.
“Do you know how to use this?” he asked.
“It’s a knife,” Claire replied. “You stab it.”
Nix almost smiled. Almost. He tapped her jugular. “Slice,” he said, and then he trailed his hand over her shirt and down her chest, until it rested inside her rib cage. “Stab. If you can’t reach the torso, go for the femoral artery. Here.” He indicated the place on her leg, his touch light. Then, carefully, he turned her around to face him.
“Hopefully, you won’t need to use the knife. From the fade, you won’t be able to.” And with those words, he went and picked up two guns. One for each of her ankles. Finally, he gave her back the SIG.
“Do you know how to shoot?”
It had never occurred to Claire that it might be more complicated than pulling a trigger. She said so, and moments later, they were outside, and he was going through the steps, one by one.
“Close one eye. Look down the barrel. Grip steady. Arms straight.”
It took her three tries to hit a tree. He showed her how to reload, and they fell into a pattern: shooting, reloading, his hands steadying her body against the kickback.
“If you shoot from the fade, the bullet crosses into reality once it leaves the gun—unless you actively try to keep it immaterial. Assuming you let the bullet go, you can take out a target without ever giving them the opportunity to lay a single finger on you.”
Claire thought back to aiming the gun at the rogue Sensor as he injected himself with the serum for the second time. She hadn’t thought about killing, or mechanics, or what any of it meant. She’d moved on instinct.
And if he hadn’t killed himself, she might have done it for him.
Nix doesn’t want me to do this. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want him to do this.
It had to be done.
“So that’s the plan?” Claire asked softly. “We go in, guns blazing, and pick them off one by one? Shoot Ione and Sergei, take their keys, and be done with it?”
She’d do that. For the little black-haired boy and the little black-haired girl. For Natalie, who couldn’t help what she was. For Sykes and Wyler. For Nix. For herself. For their future.
Nix shook his head. “If we shoot Ione or Sergei, someone will figure out that we’re there, the entire place will go into lockdown, and we’ll lose our chance to grab the children. No one can know we’re there. The weapons are just a precaution.”
As far as precautions went, Claire thought the artillery strapped to their sides was rather extensive, but this wasn’t her realm of expertise. It was his.
“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t ever shoot a gun, and everything else would stay sheathed. So long as we’re in complete control, all we need to do to get the keys is stop time, find the keys, and materialize just enough to take them.”
Claire noticed that Nix said that they needed to find the keys. Not that they needed to find Sergei and Ione.
Ione. His mother.
Claire almost said something, but she decided against it. She knew, better than anyone, that there were some hurts you couldn’t afford to feel.
Nix closed his eyes, and his body grew bright with the fade. Claire’s lips softened, as they always did, and the impulse to join him, to let go, to forget about what they were doing and why, was incredible.
But she didn’t.
Instead, she watched as he spoke. “This isn’t my hand. It’s not me. It’s not mine. It doesn’t belong here.”
Claire watched the fade slowly recede back from Nix’s fingertips, and when he knelt to the ground, he plucked a single blade of grass from the forest floor.
She did. The warmth of the fade came easily and quickly, and with a serene smile, Claire said good-bye to the digits on her right hand. It was much easier than shooting a gun. What was a hand anyway? It didn’t have thoughts or feelings. It didn’t have memories. She’d raised that hand in class, again and again, and been overlooked. Really, in the grand scheme of things, hands weren’t such a very big deal.
“Good,” Nix said, once she’d accomplished the task. “We might lose timelessness when we partially solidify, and we’ll definitely lose it when we split up, but we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”