Claire saw many bridges in their future, not the least of which was Natalie the little Null. Their future was full of crossings, but for now there was only one detail to be settled, one point on which Claire had no intention of giving in.
“You can’t go anywhere near Ione.”
Nix whipped his head up, but she didn’t give him the chance to stare her down.
“Thinking about my parents makes me lose my fade. She’s your mother, Nix.”
“She’s not my—” Nix’s words caught in his throat as though someone had closed a hand around his throat, and the real world—the solid world—pulled at him.
“You lost your fade,” Claire said, matter-of-fact about the force that had jarred him into silence. “Just now talking about her made you lose your fade. And when you lose your fade, I lose mine. And if we lose it in the institute, then these weapons won’t be for show.” Claire dragged her free hand down to the knife at her side. “Slice,” she said. “Stab.”
She knew how his mind worked. He didn’t want her to kill, and he certainly didn’t want her fighting for her life.
“Fine,” he said. “You take Ione. I’ll take Sergei. If we split up, we won’t be able to freeze time, but we won’t lose our fades either. We’ll meet back, and then—”
Claire saw the moment that it occurred to Nix just how much he abhorred what had to happen next.
“One of us has to go get the kids, and one of us has to initiate the meltdown,” Claire said, picking up where he had left off. “Both of which will require leaving the fade, at least for a moment, and both run the risk of tipping the powers that be off to our presence. If we stick together and go for the kids first, they’ll find a way to block the meltdown mechanism. If we initiate meltdown, the first thing they’ll do is go for the kids.”
“We’ll have to split up. Again.” Nix spat out the words.
Claire knew that neither one of those jobs would be one he’d willingly have given her, if he had the choice. Nix hated Natalie. Hated Nulls. And he didn’t want her anywhere near one. But the alternative involved partial solidification in a room with gas that could kill her, stripping her flesh from her bones in a heartbeat.
Whatever decision Nix made, whatever task he set her, he’d hate himself for it eventually. And right now they really didn’t have time for the luxury of self-loathing.
“I’ll get the kids,” Claire said quietly. “They’d do the same thing to you that Ione would. And no offense, but I’ll stand a better chance of bringing Natalie into the fade.”
Claire didn’t have Nix’s history with Nulls. She’d already taken the Null serum with her. And she’d survived, basically intact.
“I don’t want you near the Null,” Nix said.
“And I don’t want you to risk losing your hands or your life if something goes wrong when you insert the keys.”
Claire saw the second her words registered on Nix’s face. Both jobs were dangerous, but only one had caused the Sensor to make reference to instant death.
Nix closed his eyes in defeat, and for a second, Claire was terrified that she’d lost him. That he’d retreat, close down, block himself off from her in every way that mattered.
Don’t leave me, she told him silently. Stay. Fight.
As if he heard her silent plea, Nix opened his eyes, and placed his hands on either side of her waist, under her shirt and over her weapons, sending a jolt of heat through her body.
Be careful, he told her with his eyes, but out loud, he said other words. Massive, undeniable, un-take-backable words that she’d stopped expecting to hear. “Claire?”
Her heart was beating. She was scared. Not of The Society. Not of tonight. Of this moment. Of now.
“You tamed me.”
Something gave inside of her chest, and it almost felled her. And just when she thought she might have imagined the words, he repeated them.
“You tamed me, Claire. I love you, just so you know.”
The dam inside her broke, and Claire repeated the words back to him, felt them, meant them.
Maybe they’d come out of this, and maybe they wouldn’t, but they had to try, and as Claire brought her lips to his and lost herself in the smell, taste, feel of Nix, she knew that it was worth it.
Live or die, succeed or fail, for better, or for worse—it was worth it.
White walls. White floor. White bed.
Even from the outside of the institute, Nix could smell the pungent odor of disinfectant and feel the walls closing in. Gravel crunched beneath his feet, but there were no flashbacks today. No memories. Just him and Claire and the knowledge that they might not make it out of this alive.
“Ready?” Claire whispered.
Nix nodded. He bowed his head, let reality fall from his body. Fade. Fade. Fade. Slowly, he lifted his eyes to Claire’s. Her face was bright with the power of the fade, and the rest of the world paled in comparison. His hands moved to touch her petal-soft skin, and she reciprocated the motion. They moved in tandem, coming closer and closer to each other, their bodies in perfect sync.
“Ready,” Nix said, his lips an inch from hers. He caught her hands in his. He felt her breath on his face and warmth spread out over his body. The smell and sound and feel of Claire faded banished everything else from his mind. The world went still around them.
Fade. Touch. Stop time.
“Now or never,” Claire whispered.
They turned, and without another word, they flowed hand in hand toward the building. Past the gates that kept visitors out, through the thick wooden doors, through the foyer, through the dozens of Sensors, frozen in the process of screening everyone who entered. The glints of light reflected in the Sensors’ faces and hands flared in reaction to the presence of two Nobodies, but the Sensors themselves remained motionless.
Step one, Nix thought, tightening his grip on Claire’s hand, infiltrate the institute.
Claire squeezed his hand. The last time he’d come here he’d lost his fade, but there was no danger of that now—not when they were together.
Step two: acquire the keys.
“We have to split up,” Claire whispered. Those weren’t the words he wanted to hear, but even as she dropped his hand and took a step back away from his body, he could still feel the ghost of her touch on his face, his arms. Nix felt himself sliding back into the time line as easily as they’d left it, and as the world sped up around them, the urge to reach for Claire’s hand again took on a life of its own. But if Nix did that, if he took hold of her and refused to let go, they’d have to go together to get the keys, and that would mean seeing Ione. Nix couldn’t risk doing that. Couldn’t look at the woman who’d bartered away his life. Couldn’t think about her. Couldn’t allow her name into even the deepest recesses of his mind.