He loved her, and he was leaving.
“Stay,” she whispered, hating herself for holding him in such agony, unable to let him go. “You just have to believe you can. You have to believe you’ll get better, and you will, Nix. You have to.” The words came out faster and faster, picking up momentum as they came. “Situation: what if the person you loved most in the world, what if the only person who ever loved you was dying? What if you were dying, and you loved someone on earth enough to stay? What if love is magic? It feels like magic, what if it was? What if all it took to heal someone was a kiss?”
“What if we could make it? What if we could have a house and a lawn and a life together, forever? What if happily ever after is real? Say it, Nix. Say it’s real.”
He couldn’t even say it anymore. Not with words. Only with his eyes, over and over and over again, as he slipped away from her.
I’ll fade. I’ll fade and take him with me, and then he can’t die. He can’t die in the fade. I can do it—I can.
Claire broke down, hunching over, her body no longer her own, her grief a beast of its own accord.
She thought about kissing him. Kissing him and making it all better. Kissing him and stopping time, but she couldn’t.
Couldn’t save him.
Couldn’t let him go.
Couldn’t say good-bye.
But she had to, because she couldn’t let him die without hearing it from her lips, one last time. “I love you, too.”
Feeling like she’d signed his death warrant, Claire broke. She shattered. And she barely noticed as Natalie knelt beside her, leaned forward, and put her hands on Nix.
“I don’t like this,” Natalie said, her face blank as she looked at Nix’s. “I don’t like you like this.”
Claire felt the compulsion to make the world exactly as Natalie wanted it to be, but, no.
Nix, Nix, Nix, Nix.
All that mattered was Nix.
Not Natalie, standing up and turning, with an oddly neutral expression on her face, toward Nix’s little brother and sister. Not the knife Claire couldn’t remember dropping on the ground, not the way Natalie picked it up.
Nix, Nix, Nix, Nix.
Not the knife, which cut into the little boy Nobody’s skin. Not the almost imperceptible flicker of energy that flared out from his blood as it began to flow freely down his arm.
Claire knew she ought to say something. To stop her. Natalie. But she couldn’t move. Couldn’t care. Couldn’t drag her eyes away from Nix’s, or the single speck of light still there.
Her expression just as blank, Natalie turned the knife on her own arm and sliced it, too. And then she came to stand beside Nix, perfectly confident that the boy she’d just knifed without asking would follow.
Claire wanted to yell at them. To tell them to leave Nix alone. He was hers, and this was good-bye. They didn’t have a right to …
Bleed on him?
Powerful stuff, Nobody blood.
Claire watched as the blood flowed from Natalie’s arm and the little Nix’s.
Nulls and Nobodies … I’m not sure what you’d get if you mixed them. The results would be unpredictable. Anything could happen, really.
The steady streams of blood intertwined midair, and Claire watched as the lights, pearl white and black-hole dark—which could normally only be seen from the fade—broke their way into the real world.
Light. Pure light. Dark. Whole.
Like matter and antimatter.
And there, in the middle of it, was Natalie, her eyes alight with pure force of will, as if the power of her stare could send the physical world to its knees.
The light grew brighter. More intense, until it actually had a sound: a high-pitched humming and a low rumbling and everything in between. The opposite of white noise.
“Do it,” Natalie whispered. Through the light, Claire saw Nix’s skin shuddering, saw the flesh bubbling and flowing, like water boiling over the edge of the pot. Spreading, morphing, and then—
The light around Nix pulsed and then imploded. It was like watching the death of a star. And there, in place of that star, that conglomerate of power and beauty and the will of an eight-year-old girl—was Nix.
He was better than okay, Claire realized with a start. He was alive, and there wasn’t a mark on his body: no ink, no scars, no wounds.
What if magic were real? What if love could heal? What if there really was such a thing as happily ever after?
These thoughts, clearly, weren’t Nix’s. Happily ever after had never been an option for Nix. He’d never wanted it. He’d never thought about it. He’d certainly never deserved it.
He’d heard Claire saying those words before, through a haze of pain. Pain that was gone now.
Pain didn’t just go away. You felt it. You owned it. You let it go in order to fade, but it was always there, waiting, when you got back. Pain was an old friend. Pain was real.
And now it was gone.
“You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay.”
The fourth time Claire said it, Nix realized she was crying. The fifth and sixth times she said it, he sat up and pulled her to him. The seventh time, they kissed. And the eighth and the ninth and again and again, until an imperious little voice broke into their two-person world.
“Stop that. I’m hungry. You should feed me.”
Nix found himself strangely compelled to feed the person speaking. She was important. She needed food. She was so sweet and he wanted to feed her—and that’s when Nix remembered—
The eight-year-old Null who’d saved Claire’s life by shooting Ione. The one who’d saved him, by cutting into her own flesh and that of his little brother.
She was still holding the knife.
She looks comfortable with it. She’s not bothered by the blood. She likes it.
“You saved him,” Claire said, her voice reverent, her eyes shining in a way that told Nix that even if Natalie hadn’t been a Null, Claire would have been defenseless against her, from this moment on. “The blood, and the energy, and … what did you do?”
Natalie scuffed her foot into the ground. “I thought. I thought real hard. I wanted it to go away, and it did.” She smiled, the expression curving slowly over her cherubic features. “I always get what I want.”