Eli comes home one day to find a small girl sitting on his couch for no apparent reason, scrolling through her phone with a bored expression and chewing one of her pink-painted fingernails. He stops and stares for a second, wondering if he’s finally snapped, if he’s actually hallucinating. From the other room, he hears Victor call, “Eli, is that you?”
“Yeah,” Eli says. The girl doesn’t look up at him. He drops his bag and wearily heads toward the kitchen. “Um, Victor?”
“Why is there a child on our couch?”
“I’m not a child,” the little creature says. She has ash blond hair, so light she could be a sister to Victor, if he would ever deign to have a sister. Eli frowns at her and she frowns right back.
Victor appears in the doorway and rolls his eyes at both of them. “Syd, behave. Eli, this is Sydney.”
“Did you steal a child from somewhere?” Eli asks, still perturbed. Victor isn’t one for volunteering explanations, but even he has to admit that the sudden appearance of a ten-year-old in their college apartment is more than a little alarming.
Mitch appears behind Victor in the doorway. Eli fights a frown. He doesn’t much care for Mitch.
Mitch doesn’t fight a frown. The dislike is entirely mutual. They regard each other coldly over Victor’s shoulder.
“I didn’t steal a child,” Victor says, over the girl’s muttered repetition of not a child. “I’m watching her for the afternoon. You’ve met Serena Clarke before, right?”
“You’d remember if you had,” Mitch said. He looks like he wants to say more—judging by his eyebrows he has Opinions on this Serena girl—but the presence of the kid on the couch keeps him quiet.
“Victor Vale, babysitter?” Eli asks blankly. “Did you put flyers up or something?”
“He’s not my babysitter,” Sydney says. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
“You’re, like, eight,” Eli says.
“That doesn’t make me feel better.”
“Stop,” Victor says. He turns too Mitch. “I’ll text you later. Don’t let Dominic do anything stupid tonight.”
“Can’t make any promises,” Mitch says. He shoots Eli another nasty look, pats Sydney on the head, and then pushes his way out the door.
“Please,” Eli says, once Mitch is gone, “please, explain what’s going on.”
Victor leans back against the doorframe and crosses his arms. “I was doing that awful presentation project with Serena last term, remember?” he asks. Eli dimly remembers more complaining than usual. “We mostly met at her place, and she would be watching Sydney pretty often. So when she needed a babysitter this term, she figured I would be her best bet because I’m already a familiar face.”
Eli just stares at him. It’s almost worse knowing that someone who already knew Victor decided to place a child into his care. He can’t wrap his head around it. He also can’t comprehend why on earth Victor would agree—he’s not exactly what Eli would call charitable.
“I’m hungry,” Sydney says.
Victor turns away from Eli. “Your sister will be here soon.”
Sydney sighs. “That doesn’t really do a lot for me right now.”
“Go get a snack, then,” Victor says, rolling his eyes. “Cupboard next to the fridge.”
Eli’s mouth drops open. That’s his cupboard. He waits until Sydney has gone into the kitchen to smack Victor’s arm ad hiss, “You’re an absolute bastard.”
“And you eat absolute trash,” Victor replies. “She wouldn’t want any of my food.”
“I didn’t want to be roped into taking care of a child with you!”
“It’s a single afternoon, I’m not asking you to fucking raise her with me.”
“Good! Because I don’t want to!”
“You’d be a horrible parent anyway.”
Eli gapes. “Fuck you, I’d be a better father than you,” he snaps back.
He actually doesn’t know if that’s true. But with Victor, his default is being on the defensive. He can’t let his clever roommate get the better of him in any way. He can’t ever give up without a fight. He can’t ever stop struggling. He wouldn’t want to; it’s too much fun to see Victor scowl.
He doesn’t realize how close they’re standing to each other, arguing in an undertone, until a knock on the door makes him jerk back a step.
“That must be Serena,” Victor says.
Eli opens the door since he’s closer. A very pretty girl with a heavy resemblance to Sydney is waiting on the other side.
“Why am I dealing with an infestation of blondes?” Eli complains. Serena raises one pale eyebrow at him.
“Charming,” she says coldly, and then brushes past him completely. “How much do I owe you?” she asks Victor. She doesn’t even look around for Sydney.
“We said twenty,” Victor says. “She wasn’t any trouble.”
From the kitchen something topples to the floor and Sydney yells, indignant, “Don’t talk about me like I can’t hear you!”
“Fine!” Victor yells back. “You’re an absolute terror!”
“I hope you die in a ditch!”
Victor gives Serena a sweet smile. “We get along like a house on fire,” he says.
“I can tell.” Serena hands him a folded up bill with a tight smile. “Thanks again. Not easy to find someone who can watch a kid on this campus.”
“The fact that Victor was your best option really says a lot,” Eli points out. Serena completely ignores him.
“Syd,” she calls instead. “Let’s go.”
Sydney appears in the doorway of the kitchen, contemplatively eating an oreo.
Eli narrows his eyes. Those are his oreos.
“Bye, Victor,” Sydney says around her mouthful. “Thanks for having me.”
Victor looks like he doesn’t quite know what to say. He just nods at her.
Eli doesn’t get a goodbye.
He doesn’t care, of course.
“Warn me next time,” he says to Victor, and then stomps off to his bedroom without waiting for a response.
He didn’t actually expect for there to be a next time.
More fool him.
Two weeks later Eli is tearing his hair out over an essay for Lyne—the man just loves to watch them flounder—and decides to go beg Victor for mercy. He can’t do it on his own and, more importantly, he doesn’t want to. He slips out of his room and is contemplating how to enter the living room in the most irritating way possible when an unexpected tableau stops him in his tracks.
Victor is shredding pages out of one of his black-lined books and giving them to Sydney, who is performing some trickery to turn them into boxes and birds and such, all carefully made. It’s that paper-folding stuff. Oriole. Oregano. Eli can’t remember the name.
He hesitates in the doorway. On the one hand, he really needs to pick Victor’s brains about this assignment. On the other, it makes him feel off-kilter and strange, to see them both so quiet. He almost doesn’t want to interrupt. Not that he’s ever given it any thought before, but if anyone had asked Eli, he would have always said that Victor would be absolutely horrible with kids. That he should never be allowed near them. That any encounter would end with a child in tears.
“She never wants me around anymore,” the girl says quietly. “She used to take me with her.”
Victor hands her another square of paper.
Sydney takes it and asks, “You’re not going to tell me she still loves me? She just needs space?”
“No,” Victor says. “Why would I say that?”
“That’s what most people say.”
“Most people don’t have the intelligence of a particularly articulate artichoke.”
Sydney giggles and begins folding the newest piece of paper.
Eli goes back to his room. He decides he can ask Victor about the paper once the kid has gone.
He runs into Serena in a coffee shop. He decides that he likes her blonde hair—it really is the exact shade of Victor’s. Familiar.
He asks her out. She laughs at him in a way that speaks volumes, but volumes in a language that he can’t read. It’s mystifying. And stupid.
He tries to stay out of her way after that.
He doesn’t ever really have conversation with Sydney on his own until about a month later. It lands in his lap at a moment when he is entirely unwilling, undeniably hungover, and unequivocally not in the mood to deal with a judgmental preteen.
“I need to run over to Lyne’s office,” Victor is saying. “It will take me ten minutes. Come on, Eli.”
“Just take her with you!”
“I’m watching a movie!” Sydney complains. It’s true. There’s something that looks suspiciously like a Disney princess movie playing out on the screen. Eli stares at it for a moment in horror.
“Ten minutes,” Victor says. He’s already putting on his shoes. “And I’ll owe you one.”
“You’d fucking better.”
“Don’t swear in front of the fucking kid.” The door closes behind Victor. Eli is left alone with the child.
He looks at her. She keeps watching her movie. There’s singing involved now. The animated horse has eyebrows. Eli wants to die.
“I’m not going to combust if you don’t watch me every second,” the girl says, after a long moment.
Eli crosses his arms. “You don’t like me,” he says. It’s not a question.
Sydney gives him an incredibly flat look. She must have practiced it in a mirror. “Am I supposed to like you?”
“Good.” She turns back to her movie. More singing. Eli wanders into the kitchen. He stares at the place where the refrigerator meets the wall. He doesn’t understand why this small child likes Victor more than him. Eli has always been the charming one. The likable one. The fact that someone as small and impressionable as Sydney should prefer Victor, who is pale and bitter and a bit of a bastard, is an absolute mystery.
He can’t stop thinking about it. He wanders back out to the living room and settles himself carefully on the couch, a full cushion away from Sydney. She looks at him with her eyes narrowed.
“Do you take bribes?”
“Depends on how much you’re offering,” she says immediately.
“I’ll buy you a new doll,” he suggests. She wrinkles her nose at him.
“I don’t play with dolls,” she says. Her tone is full of scorn. He doesn’t know where a nine-year-old learned that amount of disdain.
The door opens and Victor sweeps in. “Don’t put your feet on my fucking coffee table, you heathen,” he says to Eli.
Scratch that. Eli knows exactly where she learned it.
“Eli’s being weird,” Sydney says to Victor.
“I am not!” Eli protests.
“Eli’s always weird,” Victor says, falling gracefully onto the couch between Sydney and Eli and picking up a book. “What else is new?”
“The horse has eyebrows,” Eli says. Victor and Sydney both give him a look. When he points to the TV, the horse is nowhere to be found. Instead a girl with blonde hair—so many fucking blondes—is making big eyes at something.
Victor’s mouth twitches like he’s trying not to laugh.
“I’m going to my room,” Eli says, and makes his escape.
One day he comes home to find Sydney engaged in some sort of dancing video game with Mitch, which is just unfair. Maybe he should have seen that coming, but he does take a moment to stop and scowl heartily at both of them. Mitch attempts some sort of high kick; the girl manages it with much more grace. She’s probably one of those kids that got stuffed into ballet class at one point in her life. His suspicions grow stronger when she executes a perfect spin. Noise from the kitchen indicates that Victor is home too, cooking or maybe condescending to do the dishes.
Watching Mitch dance, tall and heavily-tattooed, is an experience more bizarre and unsettling than Eli ever bargained for.
“I didn’t realize my apartment was a nightclub,” he says finally.
“If this is what you think clubbing is like then I honestly feel sorry for you, dude,” Mitch says, without taking his eyes from the screen.
Eli is similarly transfixed by the moving shapes and colors for a moment. It’s like being hypnotized. He doesn’t know how anyone can stand to watch it without having a stroke. “You’re getting your ass beat by a kid.”
“And I’m man enough to let it happen,” Mitch replies. He still hasn’t looked around. “My ego doesn’t depend on being the best in every situation, Cardale.”
Eli scoffs. He wants to reply. There are no good retorts coming to mind, though, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to stay and let Mitch stew in the satisfaction. He stomps off to his room again.
He doesn’t need to be the best. Not at all. If that was his only desire he would never be friends with Victor. Victor is the one who’s the best at everything. All Eli can do is try and try and try.
He hates Victor a little bit. The mystery is that no one else seems to. Victor’s other friends—Mitch, Dominic—they don’t make sense. For a while Eli wondered if it was about sex (a dangerous thought) but trying to seduce Victor would be like trying to seduce a glacier. He’s too cold. Too much. Trying to love him would be like freezing to death.
There’s apparently a large dog in the equation, which he finds out when he stumbles upon Victor and Sydney walking it across campus on a sunny day. It’s an absolute monster. Eli isn’t even afraid of dogs and he absolutely doesn’t want this one near him.
He doesn’t go over to them to say hello. He just watches as they walk away, looking more like siblings than they have any right to. Even unrelated, they fit together somehow. It’s not quite fair, though he can’t put his finger on why.
Eli wakes up to a raindrop landing right between his eyebrows. He bolts upright and curses, blearily trying to fend off whoever is attacking him. No one is there. Another drop of water lands on the top of his head. He looks up.
His ceiling is leaking.
He takes great delight in cursing Victor’s name as he drags his bed away from the wall so his sheets and mattress don’t get destroyed. Victor insisted on having the bedroom with the window that faced west. He had made a cold claim of it and had allowed no argument, even though that bedroom was bigger, even though it had a nicer closet, even though it was apparently safer from the elements.
Once Eli’s bed is safe and he has a bucket beneath the steady drip of water, he goes to Victor’s room. This isn’t his fault. Like hell is he going to rough it on the couch for the night. He eases open Victor’s door, moves quietly across the sparse room, and then collapses onto the bed beside Victor as disruptively as he can manage.
Victor awakes with a start. His whole body jerks away from Eli before he even seems to realize what he’s doing. “What the fuck?” he demands.
“My ceiling is dripping,” Eli mutters. Victor’s blond hair looks white and ghostly like this, virtue of the streetlight just outside his window. “Move over. I’m sleeping here.”
“We have a couch,” Victor points out dryly. But he does press himself more fully against the wall with a sigh. A shadow cuts his face in half.
Eli climbs in. Lays down. Lets his eyes adjust to the lack of light.
The windowsill above Victor’s bed is covered in birds and stars, all made of carefully folded paper. Eli reaches up to take one and considers it in the dim light. “Trinkets from your fan club?”
“There’s no need to be jealous,” Victor mutters.
“I’m not jealous. I just don’t get it.” Eli tosses the paper star aside. He’ll find it in the morning, if he doesn’t step on it first.
“Don’t get what?”
“Why she likes you.”
Victor stays silent for a moment. From him, it’s like an admission of amusement. “People like me,” he says slowly, as though speaking to a child.
“You don’t make it easy for them.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“I have half a mind to be offended.”
“Don’t be,” Eli says dismissively. “You know what you’re like.”
“What am I like?”
“Now you’re just fishing for compliments.”
“I didn’t think compliments were on the table. You seem to be more interested in airing grievances. But if you’re about to start praising my charming personality, by all means, continue.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Eli grumbles. He scratches the inside of his shin, stares at Victor’s ceiling. The corner where the two walls join together. The windowsill. Victor. Victor, darker than usual. His features, so sharp in daylight, are blurry with midnight. Eli can only make out the strongest lines. The edge of his jaw. The point of his mouth.
It doesn’t matter.
“Are you competing with me for the affections of a preteen girl?” Victor asks sleepily. “Because that’s fucked up.”
“Shut the hell up,” Eli snaps. “You know what I mean. She likes you more than she likes me.”
“And why is that a problem?”
“Everyone always likes me better.” He feels like a petulant child even as he says it. But it’s true. People like Eli. People want to like Victor, but he’s like a particularly spiky fish, or a plant displaying dangerous colors. Even from ten paces away something about him says do not touch. Nothing about him should be approachable for an eleven-year-old girl.
Victor laughs. It’s his usual laugh, full as ever, but with a sleepy quality that softens the edges. “People like you better because you charm them,” he says. Even in the dark Eli can tell that he’s grinning. “Sydney isn’t much for being charmed. Have you seen who she has for an older sister? She can see right through you.”
The conversation feels like it’s suddenly about something else. “Can you?” Eli dares to ask.
“Can I what?”
“See right through me.”
A heartbeat in the darkness. Then Victor says, “Of course I can.”
Eli wants to ask, what do you see? He doesn’t. He can be a coward at the worst of moments. Whatever Victor’s answer is, Eli suddenly isn’t sure that he wants to hear it.
A siren rises and falls on the street outside. Not uncommon in a college town; slightly uncommon for a Wednesday night. Eli wonders who could be out drinking and passing out in the middle of the week. Then it occurs to him that emergencies do happen, other than the ones most common to college students. Someone out there could be dying of a heart attack and Eli would have no idea.
He’s selfish. He always has been.
“Whose attention is it that you want, Cardale?” Victor asks. “Hers, or mine?”
Eli doesn’t know how to answer that. He pretends to be asleep. He pretends like he is consumed by ice and will remain suspended, on his side, eyes wide open. In millennia someone will stumble upon his body, stock still, and hypothesize over what could have frozen him so thoroughly on the edge of a narrow college bed. He doesn’t even breathe.
“That’s what I thought,” Victor says. Something—one of his hands?—brushes Eli’s shoulder for one unreal moment. Then Victor rolls over and pulls his deep red duvet up to his chin. He doesn’t say goodnight. He succumbs very easily to sleep. His back is very warm against Eli’s back, and Eli keeps his eyes open for a very long time.