Claire let his image fill her mind, until she was propelled unerringly and irresistibly toward him.
Up through ceiling. Up through floor. Up, up, up.
Nix should have been concerned. Sergei, who Nix had now ascertained was roughly the size and build of a bear, had a crushing hold on his hand.
Except, of course, the hand wasn’t Nix’s.
Fade, fade, fade, Nix told himself. Don’t look at him. Don’t think about him. Just reclaim the hand and be done with it.
“Tricky little Nobody, aren’t you?” Sergei’s voice was rough—more like a chain saw than gravel. “Partial solidification. Impressive.”
If Sergei noticed that he was bleeding profusely out of the neck, he didn’t give any visual indication of it, and Nix found himself drawn to the Sensor’s eyes and incapable of blocking out the man’s voice.
“I assume you’re Nix. One of them anyway. You lived here. Tried to kill yourself once. Typical.” Sergei’s words were hard-won. Even for the most powerful Sensor in North America, it took a great deal of effort to remember specific facts about someone who didn’t matter in the least. Those four sentences were probably all Sergei had on Nix—
And they were enough.
Enough to make him think about things he didn’t want to think about—
Make it messy, they’d told him—and he had. And then he’d come back to the institute and turned the knife on himself.
“Claire.” Nix said her name out loud. If he could think about her, he could stay faded. Out of Sergei’s reach. Invincible, but for his solidified hand. “Claire.”
The second time he said her name, she appeared, rising up through the floor like an angel, or a ghost. She was on him in an instant, wrapping her arms around his waist, burying her head in his chest, giving him every reason in the world to stay exactly where he was.
“You’re mine,” she said, banishing Sergei’s venomous words as time froze around them. “You belong here. You belong to me.” Claire grabbed his arm, his solid arm, and then she met his eyes.
“I love this arm.” She trailed her eyes down the length of the limb. “I love that hand.”
This hand has touched Claire. This hand is mine, the way that I am hers.
Nix’s hand faded, and so did the key. Because that key was their future. His and Claire’s. It was a part of them. A part of the only us he’d ever have. Claire locked her hands around his elbow and pulled, and together, they stumbled backward, Nix whole once more.
His hand should have hurt. It was doubtlessly bruised, possibly broken, but there was no place for pain in the fade.
“Key.” Nix stated the obvious, staring down at his hand.
“Key,” Claire replied, removing her hand from his arm and holding up the key she’d retrieved.
In reality, Sergei, frozen one second and moving the next, sensed that he’d lost his grip on Nix’s psyche and roared, an enraged bull seconds away from storming through the china shop.
Nix’s first impulse was to reach for Claire and stop time again, to buy himself precious seconds to think, but any way you sliced it, eventually, the two of them would have to split up again, and Sergei’s motion would pick up right where it left off, alerting the rest of the institute to their presence. There was no way of stopping him. No way of keeping him contained.
The Society can’t know we’re here. The first thing they’ll do is hide the children. Or eliminate them.
Nix moved quickly. In one fluid motion, he withdrew a gun from his side. He took aim. And he fired.
My choice this time. Mine.
Nix didn’t dwell on it. He didn’t look to Claire for her reaction. They’d set this thing in motion together, and he knew without asking that they were going to see it through.
The feel of cool metal in his hand brought Nix fully into the present.
“Here,” Claire said, pressing her key into his palm and using her fingers to close his around it. “Now you have both of them.”
That was all she said. She didn’t say the other things, the obvious ones. Nothing about what he had to do next: initiate the meltdown; nothing about where she was headed: to the sublevels hidden deep underground and the little ones Nix couldn’t allow himself to think about.
Nothing about the dead man on the floor.
Because at this point, there was nothing left to do but finish it.
Claire pulled herself away from Nix. Without a word—no good-byes—she willed herself downward—down through floors and ceiling, ceilings and floors and layers and layers of earth to the sublevel basement that had existed under Nix’s feet for years.
Claire knew a dozen words that would have been appropriate for the sublevels of the institute. Natalie’s Sensor had given Claire a good idea of where the children were housed, but faded, Claire couldn’t concentrate on words or paces or north northwests.
Claire didn’t need directions. She didn’t need a plan. The same thing that had always allowed her to feel Nix set her on an unmistakable path.
Three steel doors, locked from the outside. Five armed men, standing guard. Two-way mirrors. White noise, layered with a sound that Claire couldn’t pinpoint, blared from speakers. If she’d been solid, she might have found it distracting, but the fade had its own kind of music.
Layer after layer, door after door, Claire made her way toward those Like Her. The institute had its treasure buried so deep that trying to get to it in solid form would have been like getting to the innermost layer of a set of Russian stacking dolls.
Cage inside a cage inside a cage.
For Claire, it was nothing. And for the first time, it occurred to her that if they could fade, all of these safeguards should have been nothing for Nix’s siblings, too.
Unless there was something—someone—they weren’t willing to leave behind.
Unable to fully entertain the thought, Claire walked through a final steel door and into a large room with four white walls. In one corner, there were three white beds; the opposite wall was lined with mirrors; and in the very center of the room, three silent children sat in a triangle formation, their backs to one another. Natalie was facing the door.
The little Null’s eyes didn’t register Claire’s presence, but as Claire came forward, the other two occupants of the room whirled around.
They can hear me through the fade, Claire thought. They can see me. Just like Nix.