“Less than shadow,” the little girl said, her eyes seeing everything, taking in too much.
“Less than air,” the boy said, looking at Claire, only at Claire.
“Less than shadow,” Claire said, saying the words for Nix, because he could not. “Less than air.”
Her own mantra went unspoken. She didn’t need it. All she needed was Nix, and that need exploded in her head like an aneurysm, until she couldn’t see or feel or hear anything else. She faded to nothing, absolute nothing, and she pushed it outward to Nix, pulling him home, where he belonged.
In unison, the twins joined her in the fade, and when they reached out to Natalie, Claire pressed her lips to Nix’s forehead.
“It doesn’t hurt here,” she whispered.
He didn’t move. But with his last wisp of energy, he embraced the fade and pushed it outward.
Nothingness was sweet relief. The silence was absolute. And when the institute exploded around them, Claire didn’t feel it or see it or wonder at the fact that an entire building could be reduced to dust in a heartbeat.
Instead, she picked up Nix and gathered the children to her side, and together, they left the ruins behind. Not flying. Not running. Just floating—silently, slowly, delicately, like ashes on the wind.
Nix was about ninety percent sure he was unconscious. The world was hazy, and the taste on the tip of his tongue was sweet. An abandoned road stretched out on all sides of him, and no matter which direction he turned, there it was, a path to nowhere.
A path to nothing.
A path to a wall of light.
Energy. So bright.
The words were familiar, but Nix couldn’t quite place them. Couldn’t remember what brightness looked like.
His senses collapsed onto each other. Nix tasted blue. He heard yellow. He smelled music. Sunscreen and cinnamon, the sweetest melody.
The single word stopped him in his tracks
I don’t have feet. I don’t have a body, but I was walking. Toward something.
He began moving again. He had to. It was time to go.
Brighter. Light. Blue.
Quiet. Peaceful. Still.
As he moved, Nix’s memories collapsed the same way his senses had, until the past and the present and the future were all one thing.
I don’t have a body.
He didn’t even have a head. And as his own voice got quieter and quieter in his mind, that sweet melody wafted back into his consciousness.
And that was when Nix knew. He knew what he was walking toward, and he knew that he wasn’t just unconscious. He was dying, and this was the end. Infinity. Everything.
It was soothing. Tempting. Painless. Free. And it had its jaws clamped around him.
Death had him, and it wasn’t letting go.
Nix forced himself to think. To imagine. To picture Claire. Her eyes were brown, flecked with amber and green. Her hair was light brown, but shone golden in the sun. She never made the exact same facial expression twice. She fit perfectly under his chin.
Death did not roar. It did not fight him. Because death knew that it was going to win. That he was going to die. And that the best he could do, the only thing he could do, was picture Claire and hold fast to that picture and force himself to wake up one last time.
To say good-bye.
By the time they landed at the rendezvous point, miles away from the remains of the institute, Claire’s psyche had been stretched past its limits. The strain of holding Nix in the fade, when his mind had left his body, was compounded by the concentration it took to keep Natalie immaterial.
He’s okay. He’s okay. He’s got to be okay.
The fear that he wasn’t was absolute, and Claire couldn’t fight it any longer. Solidity came like a rush to the head, and she collapsed onto the ground, Nix’s body too heavy for her now that they’d crossed from weightlessness into gravity’s sordid grip.
Nix is dying.
Claire refused to believe it. His shoulder was bleeding. His entire body was covered with burns. There wasn’t an inch of skin left untouched by The Society’s poison.
It ate him.
But Claire didn’t see it that way. She refused to see it that way. She saw Nix. Her Nix. The way he’d looked the first time she’d seen him, standing outside her bedroom window with a gun. The way he looked as he’d painstakingly fashioned firewood into a bookshelf.
Nix wasn’t dying.
He wasn’t going to die.
He just wasn’t.
Claire cradled his head in her lap, arranging his body on the ground. “You’re going to be fine,” she said. “Miracles happen. They do. And we won. We did everything right. We got the kids. We got out, and the institute is gone.” Her voice got louder and higher. “We won, Nix.” Her tone sank back to a whisper that got caught in the back of her throat. “You’re going to be okay.”
As if he’d heard her, as if she’d believed him into existence, Nix’s eyelids fluttered.
Claire sobbed—a strangled, broken noise that told her that despite her best efforts to the contrary, she hadn’t really believed she’d ever see him awake again.
“You’re okay,” she said.
He couldn’t talk. Not really. But he could look at her. His eyes—those beautiful, Nix-blue eyes—were miraculously intact. He could see her.
And she could feel him in that gaze. Everything she loved about him. Everything she would miss.
“No,” she whispered. “No. You’re going to be okay. You’re going to be fine.”
Nix struggled to open his mouth, his eyes going vacant with pain as he did.
“Don’t talk,” Claire whispered, her own voice breaking.
“Don’t talk. Just get better.”
She didn’t want him to talk. She didn’t want him to say it. She didn’t want him to leave.
“Love you,” Nix managed, the words as mangled as his body. “Always love you.”
It wasn’t clear if he meant that he always had or that he always would, but Claire didn’t want to hear it either way, because she knew what he was saying. She knew what came next.
“No,” Claire said vehemently, the tears dripping from her eyes onto his face. “You’re not going to leave me. You’re not allowed to leave me. Not ever.”
“You’re the only one, Nix. The only one who matters. The only person I’ve ever mattered to. You’re everything. You’re mine. You can’t die. You just can’t.”