Nix turned his back on Claire, took one step away from her and then another. He pictured her face, like an artist sketching it onto a blank page. He was faded; so was she. No matter where they went or what they did next, Claire was his.
For the rest of his life, for the rest of hers, they belonged to each other and nothing could touch them. Not gravity. Not physics. Not Sensors.
Three steps. Four. Five.
The pace of Nix’s steps built, until he was running. Through the walls and the hallways, the rooms and the labs and the corridors. This was the institute he knew, the one he’d paced, a ghost in the shadows, for years. Only this time, as Nix ascended from the first floor to the second, from the second to the third, he moved with purpose. He was going to find the All Sensor, to get his key. Nix wasn’t an eavesdropper, an interloper skulking in the walls of the apartments The Society kept for people who mattered. He was a man on a mission.
Keeping Claire with him in his mind—the way she looked when she slept and the way she looked when she danced through trees and crowds and the way she smiled, more with the left half of her mouth than the right—Nix felt a surge of power. Like The Society was playing on his territory, instead of the other way around.
We’re not David. We’re Goliath.
Moving quickly, Nix pushed himself through the door to the top-floor apartment, his feet forming no impression on the thick, lush carpet under his feet. He’d snuck up on targets this way, looked into their eyes, and solidified only long enough to deliver The Society’s death sentence, again and again.
If he’d been anyone or anything else, Nix’s heart would have skipped a beat and pounded against his rib cage to make up for it, but he was calm, cool, detached. He walked through the foyer, through the living room, through the kitchen, and back to a bedroom, crossing invisible lines he’d never crossed and bringing himself face-to-face with his prey.
Nix observed his target for one second, possibly two. He couldn’t tell, from the fade, whether Sergei was short or tall, fat or thin, because the halo of light that ringed his face was more than just a sheen of energy. It was blinding.
Everything in this world has an energy.…
Nix allowed the light to wash over him and forced himself to look through it. All Sensor or not, powerful or not, his target was a man. A solid, pitiful man, sequestered so deep in his own burrow that this was the first time he and Nix had ever been in the same room.
Dispassionately, Nix scanned the man’s body, staring through the light, refusing to blink his immaterial eyes. He was looking for a key. Small. Black. Star-shaped end, embedded with microchips.
Nix saw the outline of the key—little, unimportant, solid—and it took him a moment to realize where exactly the object he was searching for was. He’d half expected Sergei to wear it on a chain around his neck, but this wasn’t a man who took chances. The key was there; Nix could see it, but instead of lying under Sergei’s shirt, it was embedded under the skin of his neck, just above his collarbone.
Small. Black. Star shaped.
A thin white scar betrayed the surgery that had placed the key under a thin layer skin, and even faded, Nix’s mind did the math. Grabbing the key, tearing it from this man’s flesh—that was an act accomplished easily enough with fingers that slipped in and out of the fade. But as the bulging flecks of light around his eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hands testified, this man was more in touch with energy than anyone Nix had ever met. The chances that he wouldn’t notice a pair of hands, even if they belonged to a Nobody, as they tore open his throat—
Slim to none.
Nix took a single step back from his target. The gun strapped to his side tempted him.
Shoot him. Kill him. Take the key.
It would be so easy; the Sensor couldn’t see Nix coming if he was dead, couldn’t raise an alarm that might tip the rest of the building off to Claire’s presence before the game had even begun.
Nix closed his eyes, picturing Claire. Feeling her. Seeing the world through her eyes.
Somewhere in this building, she was key hunting as well. He could feel her, in his blood and in his mind.
I am what I choose. I won’t kill unless I have to.
In one lighting-quick movement, Nix thrust his arm through the dense flicker of light and into Sergei’s neck. The fade fell from his hand and Nix closed his fingers around the key and pulled. The skin that held the treasure in place gave way with a sound like the tearing of wet cardboard. Nix set his mind to reclaiming the hand—and the key—but before he could bring them back into the fade, a massive, calloused fist caught those five thieving fingers in a bone-crunching grip.
The hand has the key, Nix thought. And Sergei has the hand.
In the fade, Claire couldn’t hate Ione. Not for Nix, and not for herself. She couldn’t let herself feel anything about the woman standing in front of her. All she could do was stare at her, very pointedly not wondering how it was that someone so clearly unspecial could have given birth to someone like Nix.
Ione wasn’t a Sensor, and she wasn’t a Nobody. She was Normal. Plain. And she had something that Claire wanted, very much, hanging on a solid chain around her solid, insignificant neck.
The key was small and delicate, and from the fade, Claire had a very hard time seeing it as important at all.
I need it. We need it.
Claire, her mind full of Nix, her body aching with the remnants of their last kiss, remembered why she’d come, and like a dancer stretching herself into an arabesque, she moved forward on tiptoe, her feet barely touching the floor. Ione paused to straighten her skirt, and Claire sidestepped, eyes on the key. She reached out one faded, iridescent hand, placing her fingers just above the key’s surface.
This isn’t my hand. I don’t have a hand. I am a handless, fingerless Claire.
The digits in question solidified and grasped the key.
That key is a part of that hand. That key is like a finger to that hand, and THAT HAND IS MINE.
Under her emphatic declaration, Claire’s hand re-entered the fade, and for the millionth time, she was grateful for the amount of time she’d spent convincing herself of one thing or another, playing games inside her head that made fading and all that went with it a piece of cake.
Ione, completely unaware that she’d been robbed, continued on the path she’d been on when Claire had found her, tossing dyed-blond hair over one shoulder and power-walking down the hallway.
Straight through Claire, who had her key.
Get the key. Give it to Nix.