Nobodies don’t get thanked.
Claire’s mind settled enough to notice that when the little boy had taken her hand, time hadn’t stopped. Whatever otherworldly connection she shared with Nix didn’t extend entirely to his siblings; either that, or the little Nobodies just didn’t have that kind of power yet.
“Are we leaving?” Natalie asked, bouncing on the tips of her toes. “I want to leave. Let’s leave.”
“Almost,” Claire said. “First, we have to run.”
Run to meet Nix in the eastern hallway. Where he’d lost his fade. Where he was waiting for them. Where he’d be okay.
“Let’s run,” Claire said again, anchoring herself on those words, not allowing herself to consider the possibility that Nix might not be okay, that something might have gone wrong.
“Run?” Natalie asked, her curiosity piqued.
“Run.” Claire didn’t give any more explanation than that, and the children, in the way of the very young, didn’t seem to need it. Claire ran, the little boy’s hand in hers, the girls on their heels—
She didn’t hear the sirens, didn’t notice them, didn’t register the fact that they meant that Nix had succeeded in his mission, the same as she had at hers. Because suddenly, the things Claire couldn’t think in the fade became a reality, one that wouldn’t be denied by any amount of pretending or imagining that it wasn’t so.
Nix wasn’t the only one in the hallway. Ione was there, and Nix wasn’t, wasn’t—
Claire couldn’t move, couldn’t even remember the word run. Thoughts tore through her brain like lightning, searing her body from the inside out.
Nix. Ione. Bleeding—him, not her. Holding a gun—her, not him.
Claire didn’t even try to hold on to the fade. Nix’s body wasn’t his body anymore. It was—holes, full of holes. His skin was the color of a scream, stuck in someone’s throat.
Like someone had turned him inside out. Like he was dying.
It took Claire a moment to realize that the sound was a gunshot, and by then the bullet had already caught Nix in the shoulder—God, he was already so hurt, why would anyone—Claire turned her anguished face toward Nix’s mother and she saw the answer in the neutral set of her lips, the uneven focus of her eyes as she took aim at Nix again.
She wasn’t aiming for his shoulder.
Even though Nix wasn’t faded, even though Ione could physically see him, she couldn’t quite focus on him enough to tell exactly where he lay—so she was just going to keep shooting until a bullet found his heart.
Claire cocked her own gun, unaware of the fact that she’d even raised it. Behind her, the kids scattered, the Nobodies frightened by the fact that she’d ripped them out of their fade the moment she’d lost hers, and Natalie upset with the turn their little game had taken.
“Shoot him again, and you die,” Claire said, her voice low. She meant the words. She meant them, but when Ione turned and aimed her gun back at her, Claire found herself staring into blue, blue eyes.
From the fade, Ione hadn’t looked this much like Nix.
“If it could move, it would shoot me,” Ione said, her tone conversational. “Because of you.”
It, as in Nix. Ione’s son.
Claire felt her grip on the gun tighten.
“But you, you won’t shoot me. That’s the problem with Nobodies after the kill point. They get used to thinking of themselves as human.” Ione glanced down at her watch, unafraid and making a show of it. Mere feet away, Nix writhed, and Claire knew that this woman’s words were eating away at him, same as the poison.
Shoot her, Claire. Just shoot her. But she couldn’t. This woman was Nix’s mother.
“This whole building is going down,” Claire said. “In—”
“Two minutes,” Nix croaked.
Claire kept her voice even, choking back a sob. “If you leave now, you might make it out.”
Ione shook her head. “I was responsible for this building and everyone who works here. I was responsible for all of you. My superiors take responsibility very seriously, and I have no time to construct a cover story of the appropriate depth. Whether I make it out or not, I’m dead.” She smiled. “If I kill him, you’ll be distraught. You won’t be able to look away from his body. And as long as you’re looking at his body, you won’t be able to fade. And if you can’t fade, then you’ll die, too. This is my mess. The least I can do is clean it up.” She paused. “Oh, what the hell. I’ll just kill you now.”
I need to fade. I have to fade. Power, remember the power. You’re invincible, you have to be invincible, but how can I—Nix lying there, Nix hurt, God, hurts so much can’t leave him can’t move can’t—
Claire heard the sound of a gun cocking. The sound of a bullet firing. It took her a second to realize that the gun in question wasn’t Ione’s, and it wasn’t hers. The bullet sliced through Ione’s skin, burying itself in her skull, and the woman fell backward, crumpling to the ground, empty eyed, and unaware that she had lost.
Slowly, Claire turned in the direction from which the bullet had come. Nix was lying on the floor, his hands still useless, struggling to make it to his knees. And standing beside Nix, an oddly neutral expression on her face, was Natalie.
Holding a gun.
She just saved my life, Claire realized.
“I liked it better before,” Natalie said, the beginnings of a pout on her face. “When we were running and things felt funny. The lady’s gone now. Can we go back?” In a single, dainty motion, Natalie sat the gun back down beside Nix and bounced back to her toes.
Can we go back?
Such a sweet voice. So innocent. So happy, for someone who’d just killed.
Not important. Doesn’t matter.
Claire ran to Nix. She knelt beside him. “We have to go—”
Talking was agony for Nix, and listening to him was agony for Claire. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t leave him.
Nix coughed. “One minute. Have to go. Get them out—”
“I’m not leaving you.” Claire bit back the urge to hit him, to hug him, to cover his body with hers and absorb his pain.
I can take it away. I can take it all away.
Sudden light pressure on her shoulder made Claire jump and dragged her away from her thoughts. The children—the little Nobodies—had placed their hands on her shoulder, their eyes on Nix.