TWO DAYS AGO
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
I want to believe that there’s more. That we could be more. Hell, we could be heroes.
Victor’s chest tightened when he looked at Eli’s unchanging face in the newspaper photograph. It was disconcerting; all he had of Eli was a mental picture, a decade old, and yet it lined up perfectly, like duplicate slides, with the one on the page. It was the same face in every technical way … and yet it wasn’t. The years had worn on Victor in more obvious ways, hardening him, but they hadn’t left Eli untouched. He didn’t appear a day older, but the arrogant smile he’d often flashed in college had given way to something crueler. Like that mask he’d worn for so long had finally fallen off, and this was what lurked behind it.
And Victor, who was so good at picking things apart, at understanding how they worked, how he worked, looked at the photo, and felt … conflicted. Hate was too simple a word. He and Eli were bonded, by blood and death and science. They were alike, more so now than ever. And he had missed Eli. He wanted to see him. And he wanted to see him suffer. He wanted to see the look in Eli’s eyes when he lit them up with pain. He wanted his attention.
Eli was like a thorn beneath Victor’s skin, and it hurt. He could turn off every nerve in his body, but Victor couldn’t do a damned thing about the twinge he felt when he thought of Cardale. The worst part of going numb was that it took away everything but this, the smothering need to hurt, to break, to kill, pouring over him like a thick blanket of syrup until he panicked and brought the physical sensations back.
Now that he was so close, the thorn seemed to burrow deeper. What was Eli doing here in Merit? Ten years was a long time. A decade could shape a man, change everything about him. It had changed Victor. What about Eli? Who had he become?
He fidgeted under the sudden urge to burn the photo, to shred it, as if damaging the paper could somehow cause damage to Eli, too, which of course it couldn’t. Nothing could. So he sat down, and set the page aside, beyond arm’s reach so he wouldn’t be tempted to ruin it.
The paper called Eli a hero.
The word made Victor laugh. Not just because it was absurd, but because it posed a question. If Eli really was a hero, and Victor meant to stop him, did that make him a villain?
He took a long sip of his drink, tipped his head back against the couch, and decided he could live with that.
TEN YEARS AGO
WHEN Victor got home from his labs the next day, he found Eli sitting at the kitchen table, carving up his skin. He was dressed in the same sweatpants and shirt Victor had found him in the night before when he had finally come home from his walk, several degrees closer to sober, and with the beginnings of a plan. Now Victor grabbed a candy bar and hung his bag on the back of a wooden kitchen chair before sinking into it. He peeled away the wrapper and tried to ignore the way his appetite fizzled as he watched Eli work.
“Shouldn’t you be shadowing at the hospital today?” asked Victor.
“It’s not even a conscious process,” murmured Eli reverently as he drew the blade up his arm, the wound healing in the knife’s wake, a blossom of appearing and disappearing red, like a sick magic trick. “I can’t stop the tissue from repairing.”
“Poor you,” teased Victor coolly. “Now if you don’t mind…” He held up the candy bar.
Eli paused midcut. “Squeamish?”
Victor shrugged. “Just easily distracted,” he said. “You look awful. Have you slept? Eaten?”
Eli blinked, and set the knife aside. “I’ve been thinking.”
“The body doesn’t survive on thoughts.”
“I’ve been thinking about this ability. Regeneration.” His eyes glittered as he spoke. “Why of all the potential powers I ended up with this one. Maybe it’s not random. Maybe there’s some correlation between a person’s character and their resulting ability. Maybe it’s a reflection of their psyche. I’m trying to understand how this”—he held up a blood-stained, but uninjured hand—“is a reflection of me. Why He would give me—”
“He?” asked Victor incredulously. He wasn’t in the mood for God. Not this morning. “According to your thesis,” he said, “an influx of adrenaline and a desire to survive gave you that talent. Not God. This isn’t divinity, Eli. It’s science and chance.”
“Maybe to a point, but when I climbed into that water, I put myself in His hands—”
“No,” snapped Victor. “You put yourself in mine.”
Eli fell silent, but began to rap his fingers on the table. After several moments he said, “What I need is a gun.”
Victor had taken another bite of chocolate, and nearly choked. “And why’s that?”
“To truly test the speed of regeneration. Obviously.”
“Obviously.” Victor finished his snack as Eli pushed up from the table to pour himself some water. “Look, I’ve been thinking, too.”
“About what?” asked Eli, leaning back against the counter.
“About my turn.”
Eli’s brow crinkled. “You had it.”
“About my next turn,” Victor said. “I want to try again tonight.”
Eli considered Victor, head cocked. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Eli hesitated. “I can still see the line from your hospital bracelet,” he said at last. “At least wait till you’re feeling better.”
“Actually, I’m feeling fine. Better than. I feel wonderful. I feel like roses and sunshine and glitter.”
Victor Vale did not feel like glitter. His muscles ached, his veins still felt strangely starved of air, and he couldn’t shake the headache that had trailed him since he’d opened his eyes beneath the fluorescent white of the hospital lights.
“Give yourself time to recover, okay?” said Eli. “And then we’ll talk about trying again.”
There was nothing overtly wrong with the words, but Victor didn’t like the way he said them, the same calm, cautious tone people use when they want to let someone down slowly, smoothing a “no” into a “not right now.” Something was wrong. And Eli’s attention was already drifting back toward his knives. Away from Victor.
He clenched his teeth against the curse on his tongue. And then he shrugged carefully.
“Fine,” he said, swinging his bag back onto his shoulder. “Maybe you’re right,” he added with a yawn and a lazy smile. Eli smiled back, and Victor turned toward the hall and his room.
He swiped an epinephrine pen on the way, and closed the door behind him.
* * *
VICTOR hated loud music almost as much as he hated crowds of drunk people. The party had both, and was made more insufferable by Victor’s own sobriety. No booze. Not this time. He wanted—needed—everything to be sharp, especially if he was going to do this alone. Eli was still, presumably, at the apartment, carving up his skin while he assumed Victor was in his room, sulking or studying or both. What Victor had actually been doing was climbing out his window.
He’d felt fifteen again, a kid sneaking out to a party on a school night while his parents sat in the living room and laughed at something mindless on the TV. Or at least, Victor imagined this was what it would have been like had he needed to sneak out. Had anyone ever been home to catch him at it.