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Eli Cardale has stayed in many foster homes, but this is the first to welcome him with a photoshoot.

Mr. and Mrs. Vale look nothing like the families from his father’s parish. To start with, they’re delighted to meet him, which is unusual. Then, there’s the impeccable clothes, the expensive haircuts, the polished shoes and perfect makeup, not a button out of place and not a tooth crooked in their smile.

They’re not godly people, either. What they lack in faith, they pay back in a religion of their own making, one of firm handshakes and long speeches, like the idol they worship might be the sound of their voice as Eli sits and mostly listens in the back of their car.

He takes them in. They’re a lot, but they also make things very easy. Mr. and Mrs. Vale are crystal clear about what they want from him — oh, poor boy, you must be so grieved, so Eli acts chagrined. Don’t you worry, we’ve helped many people before you, you’ll feel better in no time, so Eli looks hopeful. Now please, Eli, smile for the camera, so Eli smiles.

If people were always this clear about their expectations, he wouldn’t have struggled so much to learn what normal is supposed to look like.

By now, he’s gathered the Vales are a bestselling writers’ duo of self-help books, and that their decision to adopt him is most likely a publicity stunt — people love reading about orphans, there’s no discomfort when the pain is paper-thin — and Eli doesn’t mind. They’re using him to look like good people, and really, he’s intending to do the same thing by observing them, so it’s a fair bargain.

The only thing he’s a little nervous about is their son.

“Victor is a charming young man, but well, he can be a handful,” Mr. Vale sighs. “You see, he’s so intelligent and mature for his age, it’s hard for him to fit in with the other boys.”

Eli squirms in his seat, like not fitting in is an unpleasant disease that could reawaken by being spoken out loud.

“Not to mention the sheer negativity of his chakras, oh,” laments Mrs. Vale. “He’s got such a mercurial energy to him, I don’t know who made him this way. It certainly wasn’t us.”

“It’s not like we haven’t tried to teach him mindful meditation!” Mr. Vale barks a laugh, so Eli laughs too, even though he’s understood nothing of what the two just said. “But well, boys will be boys, and our boy is rather, er, stubborn.”

“That’s why you’ll do him loads of good, Eli,” Mrs. Vale beams. “He could really learn a thing or two from your strength and positivity!”

She gives him a thumbs up, and Eli isn’t really sure what the appropriate response to that is, so he goes for a smile. It seems to satisfy her; she turns back to the road and to chat with her husband. Eli looks to the city outside, so big and different from the smallness of his hometown. A new beginning.


***


The inside of their home feels even bigger than the city. It’s less a home than a house, really, and that distinctions makes Eli a lot less uncomfortable. There aren’t any loving pictures to live up to, no mess to step around, no judging children running around with their toy scattered on the floor. It’s empty, it’s marbled, it looks straight out of a lifestyle magazine or like the smooth surface of Eli’s mask.

He likes it here.

Mrs. Vale calls “Victor!” only to be answered by her echo in the tall hallway.

“Now don’t be offended, Eli. He’s just a little shy,” she says.

Eli isn’t offended — he’s glad to have a bit more time alone before facing a stubborn, mercurial, boys-will-be-boys teenager. He’s shown to a room that’s as impersonal as the rest of the house. Cream wallpaper, immaculate white sheets; the motels he stayed in between foster homes had more personality than this. He fits right in.

The adults leave him space to unpack the few belongings he has, and he revels in the temporary lonesomeness, the only times when he doesn’t have to think about which facial expression to choose next.

Soon, his peace is disrupted by the sound of a cool, casual voice.

“Had fun at the photoshoot?”

A boy is standing in the doorway. He has his mother’s pale blonde hair and his father’s clear blue eyes, but the resemblance ends there. Everything about Victor Vale is piercing in a way no teenager ought to be, lean and tall already, not a curve of youthful roundness to him. He’s supposed to be Eli’s age, but he doesn’t look the part.

Eli tries to look his own, though, the part of the friendly-chagrined-grateful orphan, so he gives him a smile and says, “Oh, yes, it was great.”

Victor’s mouth twitches like he’s eaten something sour, and instantly, Eli knows he said the wrong thing. Crap. New people are always a bargain to interact with — it takes some finetuning to figure out what they want from him.

“Really, what was your favorite part?” he drawls. “Having to pose and smile frigidly for an hour, or my parents pretending to genuinely care about you to sell more copies of their bullshit?”

Eli blinks, taken aback. He’s used to being pushed around, rejected, called all kinds of names, but this is unusual. It’s new. What he thought was casualness is turning out to be sarcasm, and he doesn’t like it one bit.

“You’re making fun of me,” he states, too confused to put any inflection in his tone.

Victor smirks. “Observant.”

Then, he leaves the room.

It’s tempting to stay here and enjoy his loneliness a little longer, but he’s too irritated by the wrongness of this exchange to leave it at that. He follows after him, and calls, “I’m Eli, by the way.”

Victor spares him a backward glance but doesn’t stop walking. “Yeah, I know.”

He doesn’t say his name back. Of course, Eli knows it already, but it’s the most basic rule of normalcy that when someone tells you their name, you say yours back. Victor doesn’t seem to care that he’s breaking the rules — if anything, he looks like it’s amusing to him, and this in turns infuriates Eli.

“Well… It’s nice to meet you, Victor,” he says between gritted teeth, determined to follow through even if the other boy won’t. “I hope we get along.”

Victor stops in front of his bedroom to turn and face him. He smiles. There’s nothing warm or true about it — it’s dangerous, abnormal, unwelcoming. “Oh, of course we will,” he says. “We’re supposed to be brothers, haven’t you heard? Thicker than water, etcetera.”

And with that, he slams the door in Eli’s face.

Eli stares at it, dumbfounded. He thinks he might hate him. He hasn’t hated anyone in a long time, not since God gave him the strength to push his father down the stairs, and this isn’t anywhere as strong as that — but Victor is already proving to be very, very hatable indeed.


***


As it turns out, Victor Vale does not fit anywhere.

He doesn’t fit at school, where most people avoid him like an unpleasant illness. In the playground, while Eli is trying his hardest to charm middle schoolers, he sits on a bench and writes god knows what in a dark notebook. The first time Eli mentions Victor as his adoptive brother, a hush falls over the conversation, as if he’s just announced he has cancer. After that, Eli never mentions it again. Victor ignores him at school, and so does he.

He doesn’t fit at the dinner table either, where Mr. and Mrs. Vale are eager to make pleasant conversation. Eli is more than equipped to reply, ask intelligent questions when needed, give a summary of his day and what they learnt at school. Victor keeps quiet, mostly, though he often sneers at Eli’s stories, like he knows it’s elaborate bullshit. Whenever he feels those piercing mocking eyes on him, Eli feels his cheeks heat up. But Mr. and Mrs. Vale are happy to hear him go on, so who cares about their weird, unpleasant son?

Eli cares, irritatingly enough. The sardonic looks, the sarcastic comments. It gets under his skin, and he’s happy that at least, the adults are on his side.

“We’re working on a project to recycle plastic caps,” Eli says one day, his tone lively and gentle in the engaging way he’s mastered by now. “The charity we’re working with uses them to build wheelchairs. If we get enough, the mayor might give the school a prize.”

“Oh, how exciting!” delights Mrs. Vale. “That’s just so thoughtful. I’m glad you’re taking part in it.”

“Especially if you get to meet the mayor,” Mr. Vale winks. “You could get some networking rolling — never too young to start.”

Victor rolls his eyes, and for once actually says the acerbic thing that went through his mind.

“Yay, how exciting,” he deadpans. “Hostfield has cut the city’s environmental budget by five since he entered office, but thank god he’s giving prizes to middle schoolers recycling bottle caps. Wouldn’t want us to think he’s a capitalist asshole who doesn’t actually give a shit about sustainability.”

“Victor,” his father slices. “Language.”

Mrs. Vale has turned a deep shade of beetroot, fuming at Victor’s rude interruption of her wholesome family sitcom script. Eli gets the feeling. He’s uncomfortable in his clothes, and also, he must admit, a little curious about why Victor knows such specific details of the city’s politics. In the two weeks he’s spent here, it’s the first time he’s shown an interest in anything other than those leather-spined notebooks.

“If you care so much about the environment,” Mrs. Vale says icily, “then maybe you should do something about it, like Eli. I don’t see your cynicism building any wheelchairs, do you?”

There it is. Like Eli. It always comes down to that, no matter what the argument is about: Eli’s pristine record is compared and contrasted to the unruly, unpleasant son.

“For god’s sake, why can’t you be polite for once? Eli manages just fine!”

“B+? Eli got an A, and he’s only just arrived. Are you even trying?”

“Would it kill you to smile? Eli’s been through hardships you couldn’t even imagine, and do you see him looking so goddamn miserable all the time?”

It becomes clear that his presence in this house is not just about selling more books: he’s an ammunition, a fine weapon to brandish against Victor’s little rebellions. What’s more, it actually works; it may be the only thing that works against those steeled smirks and sneers. Victor casts his eyes down, focuses on his food. He doesn’t try to hide his anger.

Eli has mixed feelings about it. He can’t deny that it feels excellent to watch him rage in silence, humiliated, all his shortcomings exposed and his brazenness thrown back in his face. But at the same time, the victory doesn’t feel earned. He daydreams about shutting Victor up himself, one on one, but when they’re alone, there’s nothing he can do: Victor doesn’t care about anything Eli holds dear, and all his attacks glide on him like water.


***


It’s Eli’s third week when Mr. and Mrs. Vale have their first of many absent nights. The two boys come home to an empty house without so much as a post-it note, though Victor doesn’t seem fazed by it; he goes to his room without a blink. Later, Eli smells onions coming from the kitchen, and he thinks the couple has come home, but no. It’s Victor. Cooking.

The sight is surprising enough to let Eli drop his guard. “What is this?”

“Pasta.”

The table’s been set — two plates. He’s making dinner for Eli, too. It’s weirdly thoughtful, and not a skill he’d expect a rich teenage boy to have. He can barely cook himself, beyond the PB&Js he’d make when his mom was too tired to get up.

“I didn’t know you could cook,” Eli states.

He snorts. “It’s pasta with tomato sauce, not some fancy entremets. A six-year-old could do it.”

“Is that when you learnt?”

Victor’s eyes snap up, like he’s been caught unawares — a yes, if Eli ever saw one. The moment quickly passes, though, and Victor’s back to being icy. “Family dinners aren’t exactly a constant here. Promotional galas, fancy dinner parties… and that’s when they’re not on tour. You’ll get used to it.”

It doesn’t sound like the absence bothers him, exactly — he’s clearly more in his element without his parents here — but there’s definitely resentment underneath it all.

“In any case, this looks delicious,” Eli says, hoping this might finally be the occasion to make peace.

Victor rolls his eyes. “Shut up.”

Well. Maybe not.

During dinner, Victor is perfectly silent, which unnerves Eli more than anything. You’re supposed to talk during shared meals, that’s one of the first things he’s learnt this past year, but Victor doesn’t care, never cares. So Eli talks. He talks about anything, really, pretending that Victor gives him lines to work with instead of this stubborn, ghoulish, motherfucking infuriating silence.

“Christ,” is what he finally says, cutting Eli in the middle of an anecdote about his tryouts for the football team, “don’t you get tired of this bullshit?”

“Football?” Eli says, confused. “I think it’s quite fun—”

“Not that,” Victor snaps, waving an irritated hand. “You. All the bullshit you say, all the time. All those smiles. Aren’t you tired of being so fake?”

Eli stills. He opens his mouth, but no words come out. This hasn’t happened before. He’s been called weird, rude, lonely, sad, pathetic, but never fake, and yet. It’s not really untrue, is it? He fakes everything, all the time, because that’s how you fit in when emotions don’t come to you naturally. That’s how you survive. He’s become a good faker, the best — nobody sees past his mask.

Victor does. Shit, no, Victor doesn’t see past it, he can’t — but he sees a mask, and that’s unnerving enough.

“I…” Eli says, lost and taken aback. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Victor sighs, not irritated, exactly. Disappointed. It shouldn’t sting the way it does; Eli shouldn’t care about what the guy nobody likes thinks of him. It shouldn’t. Shouldn’t. But it does.

He takes their plates to the dishwasher; by the time he turns back, he’s alone in the kitchen.

Victor wasn’t wrong to say that family dinners weren’t a constant — really, they’re proving to be the exception. Eli is realizing that Mr. and Mrs. Vale’s presence at home every night of his first month was at best a playhouse they got bored of, and at worst, a ploy to make Eli happy while the adoption papers were being finalized. If it’s the latter, the ruse is lost on him; he loves being alone.

And it is quite like being alone, even if Victor is here. No matter how many times Eli tries to break bread, it’s no use: the boy is stubbornly individual. He wonders how much of this attitude is a rebellion against his parents, and how much is simply Victor loathing Eli. The latter drives him mad; he hasn’t yet found a person he couldn’t charm eventually, yet Victor is so completely uncharmable, it’s insulting. Eli has tried every mask he knows: polite boy scout, hearty sports fan, intelligent student, cool boy musing about philosophy, roguish rebel, hell, he even tried to mimic Victor’s uncaring rudeness and sarcasm. It all fell on deaf ears. At best, he gets a mean quip. At worst, he gets ignored.

Eli loathes him right back. He’s never wanted someone’s attention more.


***


It comes unexpectedly.

Eli has been at the Vales for three months, and it’s become an accepted fact that Victor and him mostly hate each other. His parents are touring on the other side of the country, leaving them alone for a good portion of the week. They’ve eaten pizza for dinner, and now, they’re doing homework while a soap opera plays in the background.

Eli isn’t paying attention to it; this problem sheet is unusually hard, and the leftovers of a shitty day are still on his mind. Some jerk on the football team tried to start a fight with him — it took all of Eli’s restraint not to bash his head into the side of a locker. A bit of messing around is normal for boys his age, but he can’t be involved in proper violence without attracting unwanted scrutiny. So he gritted his teeth, suffered the uncreative insults, and left his pride at the door.

It still pisses him off to think about it. And the math isn’t helping.

On TV, a standardly handsome man is serenading a comatose woman in a hospital room.

“Jessie,” he says, overacting a good deal, “I know you’ll beat this, my love. I pray for you every night and every day.”

Victor snorts over his textbook. “Like that ever did any good.”

All of Eli’s bad day rolls into a tightly wound knot of frustration that makes him click his tongue. He mutters, “Of course you’re an atheist.”

Victor laughs, taking the insult as a compliment. “What made you guess? Is it cause I don’t buy into your goody-two-shoe-robot routine?”

“No,” Eli says drily. “You just don’t seem to care what the universe could be beyond the scope of your ego.”

“Ah,” he answers, “I see, I’m egocentric. Pray tell, how do you call believing the universe was made specifically for you by a benevolent god?”

“Faith.”

“Also known as delusion.”

“Only to a limited imagination.”

“There’s nothing imaginative about following instructions a bunch of hippies wrote in a book two thousand years ago,” he laughs. “I mean, you hardly came up with it yourself. Your daddy was a priest, wasn’t he?”

That’s what does it. Next thing he knows, Eli’s grabbed his collar and yanked him forward — completely unplanned, but at last Victor’s ever unimpressed face is disrupted by shocked surprise.

“You don’t know shit about my father,” Eli says, his voice low and cold as steel.

Victor is staring at him, astounded, and also (though that may be wishful thinking on Eli’s part) impressed.

“Seems like I don’t,” he says calmly.

Knuckle by knuckle, Eli unclenches his fists. He lets Victor go and takes a deep breath, frustrated that his pent-up anger has once again found no outlet. He would’ve loved a reason to punch him in the face — after these three months, it feels overdue. But he’s not about to let those baser instincts get hold of him. He’s better than that.

Victor is observing him with unprecedented interest — there’s nothing bored or mocking in his eyes, just genuine curiosity. It’s unnerving and flattering, but mostly irritating.

“What?” Eli snaps.

“I guess you’re not as boring as I thought,” is what Victor finally says. Then he turns back to his homework like nothing happened.

Eli can only stare. He’s tried so hard to make Victor say something like that, and this is what it takes? Should Eli just be mean? Except it’s not that simple, is it — he’s been mean to Victor plenty in the past, and it never seemed to work. The difference, now, is that Eli wasn’t trying to be anything. For the first time in a long time, he just said what went through his head without filter, and Victor, well.

Victor liked that.

Understanding that logic is more of a headache than all the math in his textbook, so Eli doesn’t try. Still, in the days and weeks that follow, he tests his theory a little more; whenever they’re alone (and only when they’re alone, he’s not about to jeopardize his other relationships for Victor’s sake), Eli lets the veil slip just a little bit. He doesn’t hide his irritation. He doesn’t refrain from insulting Victor when he goes too far with his entitled angst. When they have debates, he defends his actual opinions, making it all the more thrilling when he wins an argument.

They begin to have a lot of debates.

It never goes beyond that — the deeper, darker, holier parts of him are between him and God alone, and he’s not about to share them with someone as heretical as Victor Vale — but somehow, it’s enough. Enough to make their conversations longer than a few words. Enough for Victor to be interested in him, to participate, even to ask questions of his own, at times.

To Eli, it’s weirdly relieving. There are days when he’s exhausted from too much pretending, and when those days come to an end, it’s calming to be with Victor. To be as unpleasant, passionate, arrogant or cruel as he feels like. Victor allows him all of that — he rewards him for it with his undivided attention.

And Eli has to admit: after being denied for so long, Victor’s attention is a thrill.