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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.

Chapter Text

Watching movies with Victor is annoying enough. Watching a superhero movie with Victor is downright insufferable.

“Wow, what a hero,” he says drily, munching on some barbeque chips. “He just destroyed that whole building just to give the bad guy a punch. Now that’s damage control.”

“It’s for the greater good,” Eli mutters. Superman has always been his favorite superhero, and he’d enjoy this movie a great deal more without Victor’s commentary.

“Tell that to the people who lived in there. That’s some 9/11 type of shit.”

Eli exhales an irritated breath. He can tell Victor is baiting him — unfortunately, it’s working.

“The villain would do a lot worse if he wasn’t stopped.”

Victor quirks an eyebrow. “And is there no way to stop him that doesn’t involve thousands of civilian casualties?”

“He has reality-bending powers. You can’t stop a forest fire with garden hoses.”

Victor hums and passes some chips to Eli, who takes them begrudgingly. “So I guess we know where you stand on the Hiroshima-Nagasaki debate.”

“God,” Eli groans. “Just watch the fucking movie.”

Victor makes a mockingly shocked face at the f-bomb, palm on his mouth, so Eli throws chips in his face to shut him up.

 

By the time the credits are rolling, Victor has managed to keep mostly quiet (or at least, quiet enough for Eli to ignore his comments), but now he’s catching up by listing all the things that didn’t make sense and all the flaws in the movie’s logic.

“All in all,” he finishes, “I’m pretty sure this is just US military propaganda with a multi-million special effect budget.”

“An enlightening thesis,” Eli sighs. Though it’s better than being ignored, talking to Victor is often exhausting — he’ll find the flaw in just about anything, then tries his best to ruin it for Eli too. Once, he spent ten minutes complaining about the ethics of peanut butter. Peanut butter. Eli was just trying to eat his breakfast. “If you don’t like superhero movies you didn’t have to watch this with me, you know.”

“I like some superhero movies,” Victor counters. “I just think Superman is a self-righteous prick.”

“Shocking. And let me guess: you like Batman better.”

He blushes at that, which is such a rare instance that Eli can’t help but savor it as a win. “Of course I like Batman better,” he admits anyway. “He’s a fucked-up guy with too much trauma and shit coping mechanisms, but the movies actually explore that instead of making him look like a saint. So do the comics — the modern ones, anyway. City of Owls is creepy as fuck, it’s great.”

“You read comic books?” Eli asks, trying to lighten the wistful envy in his voice — growing up, the only comics he could afford were those on the back of cereal boxes. Not that his father would have allowed him to buy any, even if they could.

“Yeah,” Victor shrugs, like it’s no big deal. There’s a delayed silence before he says, “I’ve got some in my room, if you’re curious.”

Eli hums non-committedly, careful not to sound eager. “Sure, why not.”

 

For the first time in the six months he’s lived with the Vales, Eli comes in Victor’s room. It’s perfectly clean and from a distance, it would look almost as impersonal as Eli’s, but there are little things: tiny letters scratched into a corner of the wall, books with pages thick from being read often, an ink stain on the white desk. A collection of leather notebooks.

The comics are stored in the lowest compartment of his bookshelf, and, wow. They take up two entire filing boxes, squished together from the sheer number of them. Eli has never seen so many at once, except in the comic store he walked by once on a school trip downtown. It’s almost indecent.

Victor flips through them knowingly — he’s clearly read them all — and takes out a few. Some are thick and hardcovered, while others are glossy like little magazines.

“Here,” he says, dropping the pile in Eli’s arms. “Knowing your unfortunate idealistic penchants, you’ll probably like those.”

Eli looks at them: Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and surprising but not inaccurate — Magneto, the one villain Eli actually agrees with. He knows Victor just tried to insult him, and he should probably be thinking of a quip to shoot back, but all he manages to say is a soft, genuine, “Thank you.”

Victor passes a hand through his hair, looking uncomfortable, and mutters, “Yeah, whatever.”

 

***

 

Eli really likes comic books.

Handsome men empowered by godly gifts, powerful women serving righteous justice. They’re even better than the movies, because in books Eli actually gets to read their thoughts as they make their heroic sacrifices, he gets to watch and linger as long as he likes on the pained and poised expressions on their brow. He knows that all their magic is impossible, rationally — if people could have powers like these, scientists would have found it out by now — but deep in his heart, he’s not so sure. He remembers with painstaking clarity how it felt to push his father’s back, the force that drove his hand, the strength he’d suddenly had. The justice, afterwards. The knowing it had been just.

He thinks Diana Prince must have felt a lot like this when she struck Ares with her axe.

Victor likes comics as well, but for all the wrong reasons. He hates heroes unless the evil they fight is lodged inside them, and even then, villains are often his favorite characters.

“They’re less hypocritical,” he grins, “and they have a lot more style.”

At that, Eli only points him to Batman’s more cartoonish villains, to which Victor shrugs.

It does make for lively conversations, though, and it’s a little easier to talk about fictional characters than about god or nuclear conflicts. One day, as they’re walking home from the comic bookshop and having a debate about the latest issue of Punisher (they read it in the store right after buying it), it dawns upon Eli that they might be friends.

He’s never had a real friend before. It’s odd. It’s also nice. Victor isn’t — nice, he means, he’s rather the opposite of nice most of the time — but he’s smart and funny and, most importantly, challenging. When he’s around, Eli isn’t trying to impress him with a finely crafted persona. He’s trying to impress him for real.

It rarely works, but when it does? Nothing compares to the rush of Victor laughing at his jokes, or nodding in understanding, or telling him “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

 

They still avoid each other at school, but there’s no resentment there; it’s more of an unspoken agreement. In public, Eli becomes charming, funny, kind, athletic, a people’s person and a fake — all the things Victor hates. On Victor’s end, Eli has come to understand that he is less an outcast than he is a boycott. He could fit in, probably, if he tried, he has the humor and the style for it, but he makes a point not to. Eli doesn’t try to understand it. In this they are polar opposites, and probably always will be.

Their friendship — or whatever this is, but Eli calls it like that to himself even if he doesn’t admit it to Victor — flourishes at home. On the bus back, their dynamic is like a snake slowly shedding its skin: Eli gradually loses the plastic smile, Victor’s coldness turns into teasing pushes. It’s when they’re alone that they really get to be themselves, in a way Eli was never allowed to be before.

“You know, you’re actually a bit of a dickhead,” Victor says one night. They’re in Victor’s room, reading comics on the floor with torch lamps and what started as an overly ambitious pillow fort, now just a bunch of cushions thrown around.

“Excuse you,” Eli replies sleepily. “I’m a delight.”

“No,” Victor laughs, “You’re really not. I thought you were, that’s why I couldn’t stand you. But you’re not. You’re arrogant, and judgmental, and an asshole.”

He’s not wounded by any of that — Victor always says insulting things in the tones of compliments, and compliments, like they’re insults. “If I’m all that,” he says, “then what the hell are you?”

“Oh, I’m even more of an asshole. That’s why you like me.”

Eli shakes his head. “I agree only with the first part of that statement.”

“Pssh,” Victor grins. “I know you do. And you hate that you do, but you do.”

“Hearsay.”

“Sorry, is the defendant not in my room at this ungodly hour of the night?” This makes Eli’s cheek heat up, though he knows Victor doesn’t mean it like that. The other boy continues to joke obliviously. “And I want it stated on the record that he helped me build a fort.”

"It's hardly a fort. More of an art project." 

"Maybe the real fort was the brotherly bonding we did along the way." 

"Counterpoint," Eli says, and shoves a pillow in Victor’s face.

“Bailiff!” he shouts as Eli attempts to suffocate him. “Gross — contempt of the—”

“You have no idea how good it feels to shut you up,” Eli says, smiling harder than he has in a long time. In response, Victor finds a way to wiggle out of his grasp and counterattacks with vicious tickles, until Eli is laughing to tears and begging for mercy.

It’s weird, how happiness can catch you by surprise.


***

 

Mr. and Mrs. Vale aren’t here often, but when they are, everything is different.

The tension with their son keeps rising and rising. In his early days Eli used to delight in how they would compare them the better to put Victor down — now, he feels ashamed and a little sick to the stomach, like he’s betraying his friend, even if he’s not the one saying those awful things. Afterwards, he often feels like apologizing. When he does, Victor dismisses him with cruel words. It hurts, but deep down they both know the cruelty isn’t directed at Eli, so Eli forgives him.

He can take insults, if that’s what his only friend needs.

It might be a coincidence, but the more their bond grows, the harsher the Vales are on Victor, like they can sense their secret joy and want to squish it under their thumb. None of their slights are direct or violent the way his father’s used to be, but Eli is starting to notice the similarities as much as the differences.

One day, Victor doesn’t come down to dinner, and it’s weird because no one mentions it. If he was doing this as a rebellious hibernation — and he has done so in the past — his parents would be spending the whole meal complaining about his manners and failing to psychoanalyze him. Instead, they pretend his absence hasn’t left a gaping hole at the dinner table.

Eventually, Eli can’t take it anymore. “Sorry,” he says coyly, politely, “Where has Victor gone?”

“Oh, Victor is not eating tonight,” Mr. Vale replies.

Eli stares, confused.

“He’s fasting,” Mrs. Vale explains, a bright fake smile on her lips. “We thought it’d be an excellent way to detoxicate him from all the negativity that has been clogging his psyche. Focusing on mind over matter is one of the most efficient ways to nourish a bleeding soul.”

It’s crazy, how she makes it sound like a good, healthy, consensual decision instead of what it is: they’re forbidding their son to eat.

“Ah,” Eli says, keeping a neutral expression. “And how long will he be… fasting?”

“As long as necessary,” Mrs. Vale chirps cheerfully.

Eli’s fingers tighten on his fork. He puts it down, afraid he might break it.

 


***

 

He waits an hour after dinner before visiting Victor, just to make sure they won’t get caught. To his knock, Victor calls back, “Fuck off,” but it’s so listless it makes Eli more worried than angry. He comes in.

Victor is scribbling in his notebook, pressing his pen into the pages hard enough to tear them. “I said fuck —” he starts, but stops when he raises his head to see Eli. “Oh. It’s you.”

“Don’t stab me,” he says. “I come bearing sustenance.”

On the bed, Eli places a plate of fruits, ham, cheese, and bread — all things that are numerous enough in the fridge for the Vales not to notice and blame Victor for their disappearance — and a muffin from lunchtime Eli had been saving for a late-night snack. For a while, Victor just stares at the food.

“Thanks,” he eventually says. Eli doesn’t think Victor has ever thanked him before; it brings a strange, tight warmth to his chest.

“Sure,” he answers. He sits on the bed and waits quietly as Victor eats.

 

When he’s done, Eli takes back the plate, but Victor doesn’t ask him to leave as he usually would. Eli finds he doesn’t really want to go.

“Last time,” Victor eventually says, his voice sober and missing its usual edge, “they kept it going for five days.”

Eli feels like someone just punched him in the stomach. His hatred for the Vales is a hot, simmering thing.

“They kept you from eating for five days?”

“I was ten.” Eli hates them. “They wanted me to give a speech at their charity gala, but I didn’t cause I was so stressed about all the people staring at me.” Eli hates them so much. “Wound up doing it in the end,” Victor chuckles humorlessly, shaking his head, “so now I guess they think the fasting works to get what they want.”

“What happened this time?” Eli asks, because he can’t help it. He wants to understand the kind of evil he’s dealing with here, so he knows where to direct his prayers.

“My father…” Victor begins, then something vulnerable crosses his face, a light in his pale blue eyes. It’s only there a second before it’s gone, closed off, lost in a steeled expression, and he mutters, “I’d rather not talk about it.”

Eli is even more curious than before, but he understands. Not just a superficial understanding, the way he understands most human beings — a genuine comprehension. He can feel Victor’s pain because he’s felt it before. He feels the need to hide it, also, to shield your wounds from the world’s prying eyes.

“I guess this is why we’re friends,” is what he ends up saying, and immediately regrets it because if Victor denies their friendship now, it’s going to hurt, and it’s going to hurt deep.

But he doesn’t deny it. Instead, Victor shows a crooked smile and says, “Daddy issues?”

Eli shudders, though there’s laughter in him too. “That’s a terrible term for it. Just — we’re both fucked up from bad parenting.”

“Amen to that,” he says.

In his head, Eli echoes the words, and means them.

Chapter Text

In many ways, there is a "before" and "after" that night.

Before, Eli and Victor’s friendship was that of two soldiers from opposing nations sharing a coffee in the no-man’s land, always keeping in mind that the moment they return on the battlefield, they might have to kill each other. It was knowing that though they enjoy each other when they’re alone, Eli will forsake Victor’s name at school, and Victor will insult Eli as viciously as needed to rile up his parents. There was always a tension, underneath, of being loyal to opposite sides more than to each other.

The night Eli brings Victor dinner is his first act of treason. The first time he sided with Victor over the Vales, the first time he risked his standing and his apparent normalcy to help a friend. From then on, the after begins.

After, Eli and Victor become double agents. It’s a business of still looking as they always did on the outside — no talking at school, no friendliness in front of the Vales — but with secret messages thrown in the mix. Knowing looks, quiet smiles, hands brushing as they pass each other. Eli is ambushed by an obnoxious girl babbling about horses, so Victor makes a gesture of shooting himself that almost makes him laugh. Victor’s parents are having a fit about his English grade, so Eli smoothly shifts the conversation to how hard the last Math exam was, knowing Victor got the top mark.

Those are casual little rescues, the business of their lives, so common they hardly notice it anymore. There are bigger rescues, as well.

The first one happens on a Friday afternoon.

It’s now been more than a year since Eli started living with the Vales, and he’s in the school’s locker room, changing out of his football uniform. He stayed longer than the others because he needed an extra lap, definitely not because he knows Victor is waiting outside and wants them to be alone on their way home. As it turns out, though, he’s not alone in the room. Connor Sheffield stayed behind as well.

Connor is, by Eli’s standards, one of the most uninteresting boys at school. He is popular, but Eli is more well-liked. He’s a great quarterback, but Eli runs fast and elegantly. He barely passes his classes, while Eli’s grades are nothing but stellar. And then, there was the time Eli took his ex-girlfriend to prom, and she posted beautiful pictures of them online. In a word, Connor is jealous and has every reason to be. He hates Eli.

Eli can’t quite manage to care about him.

Usually, their interactions are mostly Connor being a dick while Eli acts wounded and forgiving — the perfect recipe for everybody to see Connor as a ruthless bully picking on the sweetest kid in school, though of course he’s too dumb to see that. He is however just intelligent enough to see his threats haven’t been working on Eli, and this is apparently the day he decides to up his level.

“Cardale!” he shouts. It’s loud and irritating. Eli wills himself to ignore him.

But Connor shoves him into a locker, hard — Eli’s teeth shut on his tongue, sharp pain ringing through his skull, his vision blurs, and for a second he doesn’t see Connor’s face in front of him. He sees his father. The sight is scary, then awful, then painful, then raging and angry and wrathful. He wants to kick him, push him. He wants to do more than that.

“What-do-you-want,” he manages through gritted teeth, using all his willpower to keep the compulsion at bay. He can’t lash out, not at school. This isn’t god’s design.

“I want you to stay the fuck away from my girl,” Connor answers, like he’s in some kind of 80s high school drama. It’s laughable. They won’t even be highschoolers for another six months, and Johanna hasn’t been Connor’s girl since last prom.

“I broke up with her,” Eli says, which is the truth. Having a girlfriend proved to be too tiresome for the little good she brought. “Happy?”

“The fuck I am,” Connor snarls, “you made her cry you little shit!”

“Alright,” Eli says with condescending slowness, “so do you want me to leave her alone or make her happy? I’m getting conflicting messages here.”

This time Connor doesn’t answer. He punches Eli in the face.

The hit isn’t that painful in itself — Connor is untrained and nowhere confident enough to deliver violence properly — but. But. The memories shower through Eli, all the times he got punched and kicked and whipped and hurt. Suddenly he’s not a confident teenager anymore, he’s an eight-year-old weeping in his father’s church, he’s a victim cowering on the locker room’s floor, shaking, close to tears. He can’t even remember how to pray.

Connor laughs, delighted by the sight. “Not so proud now, you little f—”

His taunt is cut short. Connor’s whole body has just stilled, petrified. There is a knife pointed on his neck, lingering so closely on his skin that it would take a breath to open a vein. The knife is held by Victor Vale.

“If you touch my brother again,” Victor says calmly, as cold and sleek as the blade in his hand, “I’ll cut off your fucking dick.”

Connor’s eyes are wild with terror; Eli feels it too, and he’s not even the one being threatened. Victor is amazingly believable as he says it; Eli isn’t sure he doesn’t have it in him to follow through.

“Y-you fucking freak, you can’t—”

“Oh, I can,” Victor says. He presses the knife just a little further, just to make his point. A drop of blood trickles down Connor’s neck. “A blessing to the gene pool, if you ask me.”

Connor lets out a wail of surrender, a pathetic begging, and with that, the knife slides back in Victor’s pocket as smoothly as it was drawn. It takes less than a second before Connor scurries away from the locker room, leaving the two of them alone.

Eli is still on the floor. He stares up at Victor, awed, terrified, impressed, jealous, infatuated. There’s something otherworldly about his cold gaze and how easily the threats came from his lips — otherworldly, but not holy. This is not the hand of God Eli felt when he pushed his father; it’s something darker, something from down below that may be just as powerful, if given the chance.

Victor holds out a hand. Offering.

Eli wonders if God ever works with the devil. It’s possible He does — Lucifer used to be his favorite angel, after all. Some of that love must have left its traces in the world; some of these old alliances must have lingered in people’s soul.

He takes Victor’s hand and gets back on his feet.

They walk out of school in perfect silence. Once arrived at the bus stop, Victor takes out a piece of gum and offers one to Eli, who says no. He shrugs and takes it for himself.

Eventually, Eli speaks.

“I’m not your brother.”

Victor smirks. “Well thank fuck for that. Can you imagine? I’d have to hate you even more.” When Eli doesn’t laugh, his own humor fades, and he sighs. “Look, it was for efficiency’s sake, alright? ‘Don't touch the guy my parents adopted to sell more of their useless books’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, threat-wise.”

Eli knows this, and he’s not sure why he had to point it out. For some reason, he really hates the thought of being Victor’s brother. Maybe because brotherhood is so common, so random, so unimportant, and he doesn’t want what he has with Victor to be any of that. He wants it to be more, and that want is terrifying when he doesn’t know if Victor wants any of it back.

“You didn’t have to help me,” Eli says.

Eyes the blue of winter mournings look at him. They follow the trace of his neck, linger on the collar where Connor tore off a button, rise up to the cheek where a bruise must already be darkening. Those eyes are so often negligent, mocking, disillusioned — now they are focused. Intense. For an instant, the smart gaze that never misses a thing is entirely dedicated to Eli; it’s too much.

“I know,” Victor says.

“He was just a dickhead,” Eli goes on, distracted, out of his depth. “You overreacted.”

“Probably. But he won’t bother you again.”

That’s likely true, seeing how terrified Connor was as he ran away, but it doesn’t answer the real question on Eli’s mind.

“Why does that matter to you?”

Victor has to think about it, like it didn’t occur to him up until now to question his intentions, and now that he does, the answer is hard to find. As often, what Victor ends up saying isn’t what Eli expected.

“I don’t want anyone punching you,” he admits, low and serious. “Unless it’s me.”

His eyes are on Eli’s lips as he says the words; maybe that’s where he dreams of punching him. Eli can picture it so clearly, the catharsis, the taste of blood. He can picture even better Victor punching him in the chest, because this is what this moment feels like. The heavy warmth of it makes his breath go short as his heart hammers on and struggles to keep up.

“You’ve never punched me,” Eli says.

“I’ve wanted to.”

“Me too.” It’s true. He wants to punch him right now; at least, that’s part of what he wants to do.

Victor smiles dangerously. “Well, next time the urge strikes, have a go,” he says, joking only partly. “Seems we could both use the release.”

Eli smiles back, a little weaker. “That sounds like a terrible idea.”

“Perfect. I excel at those.”

 

They never do end up punching each other. Eli wants to, many times, because Victor is a pretentious dick who sneers at Eli’s sacraments and laughs when anybody would cry. He wants to do other things than punching, as well, and those feelings are getting closer and closer to outweighing the rest, but Eli doesn’t linger on them.

He knows he can't mention how the lean curve of Victor’s back makes him feel, nor the fuzzy warmth that pools in his stomach whenever they wrestle, nor anything that goes through his brain when Victor’s icy stare turns heated with a challenge. If he spoke of any of that, Victor would reject it. Sneer at it. Laugh at it. It’s what he does, and the humiliation would end this thing of theirs for good.

Eli has come to rely on their thing. More and more, he needs the freedom of Victor’s presence like he needs oxygen — he can’t help how relieving it feels to only have to lie by omission.

He thinks Victor needs him, as well, else he would have told Eli to fuck off by now. That’s the one good thing about Victor being so ruthlessly honest — if Eli pisses him off, he’d say so. Sometimes he does, but those times get rarer and rarer.

 


***

 

The second rescue is the start of many others.

It's a Sunday night. Eli’s done with homework, so he goes to Victor’s room to chat and joke around, but no one answers his knock. When he enters, he finds Victor on his bed. His blue eyes are open, empty. He doesn’t move an inch. He doesn’t speak. It’s as if, though his body is still in this room, on this earth, his mind has gone elsewhere, somewhere very, very far away.

Eli doesn’t know what to do. “Are you okay?” he asks, and is met with no answer. This is the boy who always has something sarcastic to say, always ready to quip and tease — now, he’s silent. Gone. Absent. This is how Eli is going to call this state, when he sees it happen again: Victor’s absences.

Eventually Eli leaves the room, feeling horribly useless. The next day, Victor doesn’t go to school, and when Eli comes home, he still hasn’t moved. He hasn’t eaten all day.

Eli has had absent days, too, back at his father’s house. His body still moved because not moving meant more pain, but his mind was lost and gone, sometimes for weeks on end. Eli tries to remember what helped him back then, if anything. He remembers his mother stroking his hair, telling him about her day like nothing bad ever happened to them. How the pretense of normalcy had settled him, grounded him.

He tells Victor about his day. Stories of what their classmates did, what the teachers said. Little anecdotes. Small talk. It’s everything Victor hates, usually, what made them go on such a bad start, but sometimes the things you hate are the ones you need, and Eli hopes the pretending will work, because that’s all he knows to do.

Eventually, Victor’s eyes lose some of their haziness. They focus on Eli. His lips curl at a bad joke Eli makes, he huffs softly at something ridiculous. Then he sits up on the bed, and he lets his forehead rest on Eli’s shoulder.

Eli doesn’t comment on how physical closeness isn’t a thing they usually do without purpose. He doesn’t say that his body is warm wherever Victor touches it, nor that the soft breath against his sweater is making him lightheaded. He lets Victor stay there and keeps on talking, until he runs out of things to say. Then he asks him if he wants to watch a movie, and Victor nods.

Victor ends up talking during the whole fucking film, but Eli can’t find it in him to be annoyed. He’s too relieved to have him back. Bastard Victor is better than the absence of him. 

You can get used to anything if it happens often enough, so Eli gets used to that. He notices a pattern: the absences always happen after Mr. Vale has a “talk” with Victor, alone. Eli knows better than to ask what happens in those talks, but he knows it must be bad, even if he can’t see any scars.

The small talk usually works. When it doesn’t, Eli stays with him silently, tries to follow where Victor’s mind goes when it leaves his body. He never reaches it, but he often ends up praying. He thinks that must be close enough.

 

***

 


The third kind of rescue happens at night; this one is the start of a pattern, as well.

As a rule, Eli doesn't sleep well. During his childhood, his drunk father would sometimes tear him from bed in the middle of the night, drag him to church and punish him there. Or, he’d be woken up by his mother sobbing, just loud enough for him to hear. Or, he would hear him punish her. There was always a reason to be awake in that house; even the quiet was terrifying. 

There’s not a sound at the Vales, but Eli often dreams of his childhood. It wakes him up in sweats, or if it doesn’t, it leaves him groggy and uneasy in the morning, having forgotten the dream but knowing it was painful. All those nightmares are manageable, because Eli’s survived them. God was by his side. He bested the monster and found his way out of the desert.

But there is a nightmare worse the others, one he cannot best. It’s not a memory but a premonition: his father is alive, his father is resurrected like a twisted version of Christ, and he’s come back for a reckoning. He’s going to hurt Eli, punish Eli, kill Eli — and this time, God won’t be there to help. Those nightmares come in slightly different versions: all of them make Eli scream into his pillow, his mind frantic with only one word: No, no, no, no, no, no.

 

That night, Eli falls asleep in Victor’s room. He usually would've avoided that situation like the plague, precisely because of the nightly terrors he sometimes gets, but they stayed up talking about books until Eli was too tired to care. He falls asleep next to Victor on his bed, and in the early hours of the morning, one of the worst nightmares strikes him. Eli is helpless to it, a mess of panic and labored breaths and whips slicing into the skin of his back, everything painful, everything out of focus, except Victor.

Victor, the boy who hates everyone and dismisses everything, the boy who can hold a knife with the ease of a pencil, you wouldn’t think that boy knew anything of comfort. He’s too sharp for that, too uncomfortable with the vulnerable side of people. Still, on the night when Eli becomes a crying mess in his bed, Victor wraps his arms around him. He holds Eli, warm, secure, a candle in a blizzard, the last harbor in a storm at the end of the world.

Eli’s nails dig into his skin, he spills tears and hiccups all over his shoulder; still, Victor holds him. He holds on until the images of Father Cardale’s revenge disappear, until Eli’s breathing steadies, until they both fall back to sleep.

In the morning, Victor does not mention any of it. He is not any nicer, or worried, or pitiful. The relief of that is immense — so much so that the next night the terror happens, Eli finds the strength to run back to Victor’s bed. Victor doesn’t complain about being woken up, he instinctively understands what Eli needs and lets him under the blanket. Eli clings to him and steals his body warmth; Victor allows it. He strokes his hair with a gentleness he never shows when the sun is up, then falls quietly back to sleep.

When this starts to become a habit, when he crawls into Victor’s bed at least one night out of every week, Eli would understand if Victor got fed up with it and told him to fuck off. He never does; he lets him in, tirelessly. And, just like Eli never asks where the absences come from, Victor never asks what Eli’s nightmares are about. Something inside them knows exactly what the other suffers from and how to soothe it, even if the details are left unspoken.

Sometimes, Eli wonders what would have happened to them if they hadn’t met; if they hadn’t been there to rescue each other again and again. He supposes they still would have found a way to survive, because that's all they ever did, before. Eli had never been rescued, nor did he rescue anyone — he’s afraid to get used to it, afraid to lean on someone who might pull away at any time. He still does, helplessly.

Victor doesn’t pull away.

Chapter Text

Eli Cardale’s life is not a happy story.

That much should come as no surprise; it was right there on the cover, made clear from the first pages of his book. Even in his earliest, most distant memories, shadows of violence were always creeping at the corners. Silence. Tears. Dirt. Knuckles.

Christmas movies, coming-of-age adventures, family-friendly sitcoms with kids grabbing pieces of toast from the hands of their tired but amused mothers — Eli studies it all like foreign cinema. He never relates to the people on the screen, never empathizes with the thoughts on the pages. At this point he’s not certain if anybody actually feels this happy, but pretending as much is the rule of the land, so Eli pretends.

His life is not a love story, either.

It’s not loveless, but love stories always have something wholesome and beautiful to them, even when they’re sad. Eli’s life doesn’t have that. His mother loved him the way God must have loved his own son — a love that forsakes and leaves you in the dark with nothing but faith to patch your wounds. Like Christ, he loved and loves her back, even if he still doesn’t understand all of her. He doesn’t blame her for leaving anymore; it made him stronger, resurrected. He prays for her, sometimes.

His father loved him like hurricanes love a swaying ship, or poisons love a cup, or bullets love the skin and the flesh and the blood that pours. Eli loved him back, once, but like everything else from those fading memories, it was beaten out of him.

Mr. and Mrs. Vale never promised they would love him, and they don’t. Eli is content with that.

His temporary girlfriends do not love him either, not really — how could they? They don’t know who he is. They might love a person Eli pretends to be, which is superficially flattering and a little pathetic, but that’s not the love of romances. If it were, then it would go deeper than the skin, find its way through his veins to reach the cockles of his heart, maybe even his soul — it doesn’t. He stays with them until he gets bored; then, he disposes of their ‘I love you’s like empty paper cups.

Victor’s love is… No, Eli won’t call it love, because frankly, he isn’t sure that boy has it in him to love anyone at all. Loving, one of the Vales’ books says, starts with a compromise to forgive each other’s flaws, and Victor is not the compromising sort. He sees Eli’s every flaw. He does not forgive a single one.

But then, there are the nights when Victor’s arms are tightly wound around him to keep the nightmares at bay, nights when Eli feels the rhythm of a heart against his back, a steady beat, warm, indisputably alive, and he wonders.

Wondering is a foolish game to play. No matter what Victor feels for Eli, love or loathing or something in between, it’s still messy, raw, unpredictable, with sharp edges that cut the unprotected hand that would try to reach for him. None of that is romantic. None of that has a happy ending hidden under the carpet. Eli knows this, but still, he catches himself wondering about how it would feel to forget caution, to let his fingers trail down Victor’s back, to bury himself in the pale curve of his neck, to shut him up by crashing their lips together.

He thinks about all these things when they’re watching Netflix, or reading comics, or debating ethics, or when Victor hugs him in the dark. He thinks of it in the shower, in his bed, during dinner when Victor’s leg brushes against his without meaning to, and he scolds himself. Stop hoping. Your life isn’t a fucking love story.

What Eli’s life is, instead, is a story of death. It’s a story of God, as well, of the never-ending war between good and evil. It’s a story of murder.

So, as it was bound to happen, a murder occurs.

 

Eli has now lived with the Vales for almost three years; he’s grown into a high-schooler with perfect hair and a photogenic smile. That night, he is transfixed to the television — the violence is on every news channel. Three girls assaulted and murdered, all in the past month. Eli stares at the blurry pixels of a masked man, and wonders at the incredible existence of such pure, unquestionable evil. There’s no ethical debate here: this is humanity at its very worst, like a father beating his child and driving a mother to suicide.

“The police have made no arrest as of yet,” recites the journalist in her teleprompted monotone, “so we advise women ages 16 to 30 to be cautious and avoid being alone after dark.”

Eli cannot look away, even after the media frenzy quiets down. He sets google alerts for the murders on his phone, cuts out articles form the local paper, collects old missing posters, obsessively reads and listens to every press release. One day, feeling bold, he comes to the station and plays the part of a grieved friend, charming a receptionist into spilling some gossip. She lets slip that the situation is even worse than what the newspapers know — the police doesn’t even have a viable suspect, let alone someone to arrest.

It has been many years since Eli felt God’s will, but he feels it now. The last girl who was taken used to go to their school. It can’t be a coincidence.

If the police cannot do it, Eli will have to catch the murderer himself.

Part of him realizes that a 16-year-old thinking himself more capable than a city full of adults is the peak of arrogance, but he was younger still when his father fell down the stairs. The push of his hand was David’s stone striking down Goliath — he will be David again, so long as he has faith, so long as he serves the justice of his Lord.

He keeps all of this a secret, naturally, because no one would understand. Not even Victor. Especially not Victor.

Unfortunately, Victor finds out.

Not all of it — not the faith that runs deeper than anything within him — but he does barge into Eli’s room to see him in a sea of news clippings and pictures, headphones plugged into a stolen police dispatch radio.

He stares. Eli stares back. For a long moment, they say nothing. Victor’s eyes go to the pictures scattered on the floor — pictures of dead girls. A shadowy figure in a mask.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he says, his tone flatter than a question.

Eli feels the heat of a flush on his cheeks. “I…”

Before he can stop him, Victor picks up a piece of article, reads the smudged print, and his frown deepens. “This is from those murders they talked about on the news,” he says, his eyes on Eli like two shards of ice. “Is this why you’ve been spending so much time alone?”

Eli says nothing. Somehow, that makes it worse.

Victor stares down at him with unconcealed contempt. “Did you do it?" he asks. "Or do you just worship the asshole who did? I can’t tell which is worse.”

Bam. The betrayal in this assumption is a white-hot bullet plunging in Eli’s gut — he lunges up and slams Victor against the wall, pinning him there.

“How dare you,” he utters, rage simmering in his throat.

It shouldn’t make him so angry, so goddamn fucking enraged; people misunderstand who he is all the time, but Victor, Victor, he showed himself to him. Not all of him, but more than anyone else ever got to see, and this is what Victor thinks he saw? A murderer? Someone who could admire the worst scum of the earth?

“You’ve got pictures of murder victims in your room, Eli,” Victor says coolly, looking unaffected by the situation, except Eli can feel the flutter of a rapid pulse against his wrist. “There aren’t many possible conclusions—”

“I’m going to find him,” Eli seethes, teeth gritted, saying it out loud for the first time.

Victor’s eyes widen, surprised, and Eli braces himself for the humiliation. You? Find a murderer? Look at yourself. You’re a boy with deluded faith and visions of grandeur. You think there’s anything your brain could come up with that the police haven’t considered a thousand times over? Please.

He’d be justified in saying all of this, Eli knows, and still, it would be the deepest wound he’s managed to inflict him so far, worse, so much worse than a punch, the kind of injury that never cauterizes. But Victor doesn’t say that.

Instead, he puts a finger under Eli’s chin and levels it. “And if you do find him?” he asks. “What will you do about it?”

Eli frowns, confused by the question. “Tell the police, of course.”

Victor drops his finger and shakes his head, the chuckle of a laugh. When he looks back to Eli, the contempt is gone. “Unbelievable,” he says, and there’s a sort of fondness where disgust was before. Eli wants to scrape it off his lips. “Even with something as fucked up at this, you’re still a fucking boy scout —”

“Don’t joke about this,” Eli cuts off.

Mercifully, Victor’s smirk dies into a firm line. He stays silent for seconds that feel like minutes, then observes, “This is important to you, isn’t it.”

Eli nods, more desperate than he’d intended, but it’s true. This the only thing that’s ever mattered to him, and he realizes now that he needs Victor to take him seriously, or the glass castle of faith and confidence he so carefully put together might shatter under him.

Victor puts his hands over the clenched fists pinning him in place, willing them to relax. Eli’s fingers instinctively obey, loosening into flat palms against the wall, but he doesn’t put distance between them, not just yet. Victor doesn’t ask for it.

“Well,” is what he finally says, close enough that Eli can feel his breath brushing against his lips, “if you need help finding him…”

If Eli’s life were a love story, he would have kissed him then.

 

***

 

They make a good team.

No, Eli thinks, good is too mild a word. They make a fucking fantastic team, and though he’ll never admit, he thinks the two of them could take over the world if they put their mind to it. It's too bad they so rarely see eye to eye.

Victor’s search is methodical, purposeful, nearly obsessive. He has this odd ability to tune all of his emotions down to a cold, objective eye, unfazed by the revolting violence of it all. He sneaks into his father’s files and finds the DA’s email address, then manages to hack into his account (though “hack” is a stretch, since the password is just his birth date). There, they find all the autopsies and forensic evidence they could’ve asked for. There’s a lot of it.

Eli, on the other hand, is creative, passionate, driven. He’s spent so many years studying human beings that it’s easy as anything to put himself in the mind of a killer as basic as this one. He (it's evidently a man) craves authority, but cannot get it naturally and looks for ways to assert it. He hunts women much younger than he is, both a powerplay on his part and the sign that his psyche hasn’t moved on from adolescence. The murdered victims are likely not the only ones he’s assaulted; they’re the ones who tried to resist. He is lonely, power-hungry, frustrated, bored.

When Eli describes this, Victor comments, “Sounds like a cop.”

And it clicks in. Of course. A cop. The women’s cars were always found on the side of highways, away from everything and far from where the bodies were found. Who but a police officer could’ve made them stop there and taken them to a secondary location?

Eli comes back to the police station — he’s now been going regularly enough that the receptionist welcomes him and tries to set him up on a date with her niece before he even sits down. He’s brought her a cup of iced tea so large that she eventually has to use the bathroom, and then, Eli sneaks a USB drive into her computer and downloads any folder that seems to be about dispatch cars.

“Do you even know how illegal that is?” Victor asks once he comes home and shows it to him. There’s no denying how impressed he looks.

“Justice is what matters, not human laws,” Eli answers smugly.

They look into the files. A lot of it is completely useless, which is frustrating, but they do end up finding an excel log sheet reporting when and where the dispatch cars were used. One in particular catches Eli’s eye — on the dates of the murders, the car was stated to “monitor speed limits,” but in all three, it did not give a single ticket.

“It’s a stretch,” says Victor.

“I know it’s a stretch,” Eli retorts. “It’s still worth checking.”

They look up the car’s owner — Matt Leigh. A few people on facebook share that name, but only one is listed as police officer in their city. Leigh has a lot of photos, a lot of them in bars showing him alongside other beer-drinking middle-aged men in bad lighting.

Eli notices it at the same time as Victor. “Holy shit,” he breathes.

It’s a little blurry, but in the background of a photo, there is a brunette dressed in the exact same clothes as the one who was found dead in a ditch three weeks ago. They check the date, the bar’s general area. It fits.

“Fucking asshole,” Victor mutters, shaking his head. “That’s not a coincidence. He stalked her from the bar. Fucking asshole.

Eli feels the same way, perhaps phrased in a slightly less vulgar way.

“This is big,” Eli says. He pulls up the snapshot of the masked murderer, compares his hair to Leigh’s profile picture. They match. “We have to call the police right now.”

Victor gapes at him.

“What?” Eli asks, nervous by his silent stare.

“The police,” he says slowly. “You want to tell the police that one of their own is behind a high-profile murder investigation? Are you out of your fucking mind?”

“Oh come on,” Eli says, “they’re not going to protect someone like that!”

Victor scoffs, incredulous. “Have we been living in the same country? Cops protect murderers every goddamn day!”

Eli snaps, “Would it kill you to have faith in people for a change?” 

“Killed those girls, didn’t it?” he replies slyly. 

"Save me your come-backs," Eli says, anger and frustration heating up his throat. “What else do you expect me to do, exactly?” 

“I don’t know! Catch him!”

“We’re not fucking superheroes, Victor!”

“Clearly,” is what he retorts, hurting Eli deep like only he can do. Then, he gets up and slams the door behind him.

God damn it. They were doing so well; they were making a great team. But this is what Victor does: he ruins things and leaves Eli alone to pick up the pieces.

 

***

 

Eli leaves an anonymous tip the police. They thank him and say they’ll act on it as quickly as they can.

For the next few days, nothing happens. The google alert on his phone does not chime. There are no developments in the press or on crime forums. That’s normal enough, Eli thinks: it takes a while to catch a murderer. They have to be sure.

A week passes. Still no word.

After two weeks, Eli starts to wonder if his tip was lost. If something happened. If Matt Leigh has left the country.

After three weeks, he checks Leigh’s facebook page again. The photo with the girl has been taken down.

Fuck. Nothing in this world is more annoying that Victor Vale being right.

He expects him to come gloating at any moment, to bask in the light of Eli’s defeat, but Victor is hardly at home these days. He seems to be avoiding Eli, always something to do or somewhere to be, which would be hurtful on any day, but it’s especially so if this is the reason he’s been avoiding him. The argument wasn’t even that bad. They’ve had worse, and Eli could use his help now that his original plan failed.

He misses him, really. Not that he'll admit it out loud. 

 

***

 

A month after he tried to call the police, Eli sits at his desk, struggling to focus on his homework. Without preamble, Victor bursts inside his room and says, “Get up, asshole. I found him.”

Eli frowns, confused and irritated. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Officer Matt Leigh,” he says, making an impatient gesture. “I’ve been stalking him for the past few days—”

“I’m sorry, you’ve what?”

“Stalk. I stalked him. I followed him around, used my parents’ car—”

What? Are you out of your fucking mind? Victor, that man is a murderer!”

“I know he’s a fucking murderer, damn it, I was careful — more importantly, I know where he’s going to kill next!”

Now that shuts Eli right up. He can only stare, dumfounded.

“Where?” he breathes, barely audible.

“He’s been going to an abandoned house almost every day for the past week,” Victor answers, “he never does anything there, just looks around. I think he’s scouting the terrain — I saw that on Dexter, killers do that, right? And tonight, he took his patrol car out. I think he's going to kill someone.”

Eli isn’t sure if he’s more jealous, furious, or attracted by the fact that Victor has been following the tracks of a serial killer, every day, for at least a week. Probably more. Does he have no sense of self-preservation? Does he just care that much? Why?

Eli doesn’t voice any of those questions, so Victor doesn't answer them. 

“Well?” Victor says instead, holding out a hand. “Are you coming?”

“This," Eli says softly, "is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done."

Even so, he takes his hand.

Chapter Text

“Catch,” Victor calls out before throwing an object in Eli’s general direction.

Eli grabs onto it, barely. “What is this?”

He raises an eyebrow. “Baseball bat.”

“I know it’s a fucking bat,” Eli retorts irritably, “what exactly do you expect me to do with it?”

Victor gives a half shrug and opens the car door. “It’s as good a blunt object as any. I’d give you my knife, but I don’t think you’d know how to use it.”

“Christ,” Eli mutters as he enters on the passenger’s side, “why do you always carry a knife?”

“I tried punching people, but they usually punch back, and I like my nose better unbroken.”

“Are you even taking this seriously?”

“Are you?” Victor asks pointedly. “That guy has killed three people that we know of, and he’s probably looking to make it four tonight. You don’t think we need a way to hold our own in a fight?”

“We’re not going there looking for a fucking fight!”

Eli raising his voice is rare enough to shut Victor up. He observes Eli carefully, deep in thought. Eli braces himself for the incoming fight, the rebuttals, the endless debate. He’s already got his arguments and attacks ready. They will not do this Victor’s way.

But when he finally speaks, fingers tapping on the wheel, Victor simply says, “Alright. Then what are we looking for?”

It takes a moment for Eli to adjust to this sudden show of pliability — but only a moment. “The girl,” he says, quick to take charge. “Saving her is our priority. We get there, find a place to hide, wait for an opening, get her out. Then the three of us can testify, and the cops won’t have a choice but to listen.”

Victor’s eyes are fixed on the wheel, unreadable. He lets out a quiet sigh. “What if there is no opening?”

More confidently than he feels, Eli replies, “There will be.”

No opening is only one of the many things that could go wrong — everything could go wrong, everything, this is crazy, why are they doing this? — but this wouldn’t be Eli’s first leap of faith. So, silently, making sure that Victor doesn’t notice, he does what he’s always done when the odds were skewed and the future looked grim.

He prays.


***

 

To avoid attracting the killer’s attention, they stop a ten-minutes’ walk away from the house. According to Victor, Matt Leigh left his home less than an hour from now — if, as they assume, he needs to pick up his victim in a bar, stop her on the side of the road, incapacitate her, then come back here, they still have some time in front of them to think of a more solid plan.

The building does indeed look strikingly abandoned: old roots of dried ivy have covered the walls, the grass of the lawn is overgrown, the bricks are darkened with spider webs. It’s not exactly the middle of nowhere, but it’s on the side of a road with no neighbors to speak of — if someone were to scream in there, not a soul would hear.

A fine place for a murder.

“Don’t touch anything,” Victor instructs.

“I know. I’m not an idiot.”

“Really? Sometimes I wonder.”

For that, he gets a baseball bat in the shin.

Eli opens the door, his hand safely tucked in his sweater to avoid leaving any fingerprints. The handle gives in easily. Inside, the house looks even more neglected — dust, mold, it’s a true delight — except for what might have once been a dining room. All the furniture has been taken out, save for a built-in closet and a long table. The floor, the table, and some corners of the wall have all been wrapped in plastic, like pieces of chicken forgotten in the deli aisle.

“Damn,” Victor whistles. “This is just like on Dexter.”

Eli pinches the bridge of his nose. “Will you stop comparing everything to Dexter?”

“Or Hannibal,” he goes on, uncaring. “That guy’s good.”

“Just because he watches the same stupid TV shows as you, doesn’t mean he’s—”

A dreadful creak cuts off Eli’s retort: the sound of the front door opening. Shit. Shit, shit, shit — they were supposed to have more time.

Victor looks adequately panicked as he mouths, “Closet,” and Eli doesn’t need to be told twice. They rush behind the dining table and thrust themselves inside. The space is just about wide enough to fit them both with doors closed, but it’s incredibly cramped, and their legs have to be tangled together for any of this to work. Eli almost loses his balance as he wrestles through the arrangement, so Victor puts two steadying hands on his hips.

Oh. Great. Now Eli has two potentially lethal problems: a serial killer just entered the house, and the asshole he’s been fantasizing about for the good part of a year is all over his personal space. He tries to wiggle away from the warmth of his touch, but the move backfires when Victor tugs him closer and whispers commandingly in his ear, “Don’t move.”

How Victor can be so sharply observant at times yet so incredibly thick in others is a mystery Eli will never quite solve. Since there isn’t much he can do, he gives up and rests his forehead on Victor’s chest. His shirt is soft, smelling of laundry detergent and that expensive masculine cologne that always makes Eli want to kiss his neck… which is exactly the kind of thought Eli should not be having right now. Or ever, really. Damn it.

A thin light shines between the closet doors — if Eli squints, he can make out some of what’s happening outside. Were there any doubt left that Matt Leigh just came in, the doubt is now dispelled: his police uniform and terrible haircut are unmistakable. He hasn’t bothered to put on a mask or hide anything about himself this time, probably because there aren’t any security cameras to hide from.

He is carrying an unconscious girl — white, brunette, pretty in a basic sort of way, just like all his other victims. Given the limpness of her body, she’s either heavily drugged or dead; Eli prays for the former with all his might. Leigh places her on the plasticized dinner table like a princess on a luxurious bed.

“Hello honey,” he coos, caressing the girl’s cheek, “I’m home. Did you miss me?”

The girl of course does not answer, but Leigh keeps on humming and talking as if she were a lovely wife meeting him after a long day’s work. It’s sickening, and Eli feels a sort of second-hand humiliation at the pathetic display.

Then, Leigh walks towards the closet.

Eli stops breathing; he feels Victor’s body tense against his. Would the element of surprise be enough for them to make a run for it? Could Victor get out his knife in time? Could Eli grab the metal bat, knock Leigh out, run away with the girl?

He knows all these escape plans are trash as soon as they cross his mind because Leigh has a fucking gun strapped around his waist, and not even God can save them from bullet wounds. Cold sweat is running down Eli’s back. This was stupid. So incredibly stupid. Why did he follow Victor? He doesn’t want to die, not yet, not from the hand of someone with such humiliating urges. He’s better than that — he has to be.

Matt Leigh reaches the closet, close enough for Eli to make out the dark stubble of his five o’clock shadow. He takes off his coat, hangs it on the closet handle, then turns back to the girl.

He hasn’t noticed them.

Eli doesn’t allow himself to relax, but the relief is enough to let him breathe again.

Leigh goes on with his cajoleries, “sweetheart” this, “darling” that. Gradually, though, their tone is starting to change. “What was that?” he asks the unconscious girl with an edge to his voice, brusquely taking off his tie. “Are you giving me attitude?” He slaps her with the back of his hand, throwing the girl’s limp head to the side.

It’d be funny if it wasn’t so repulsive.

“Oh, you’re sorry, are you?” he goes on, and the one-sided roleplay takes a much darker turn. “You think being sorry is enough?” He’s unbuttoning her blouse. He’s taking off his shirt. It’s all so nauseating that Eli had to look away, desperate to tune the noise out.

Next to him, Victor has gone very, very still.

His hands on Eli’s hips have tightened, gripping him so hard that it’s starting to ache. The muscles of his chest are tense, and Eli can hear the beating of his heart, erratic. When he looks up to him, the string of light shines on his face, and Eli can make out an expression he knows well. The lost eyes, the set jaw.

He is having an absence.

Fuck — this is the worst timing possible. Eli brushes Victor’s neck, trying to be as soothing as he can when any sound could kill them. He strokes the nape of his hair, puts them cheek to cheek and murmurs, “come back, please,” but it’s no use. A sheen of sweat shines on Victor’s forehead. His muscles are so tense they tremble a little. His soul is miles away. Absent.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, why now? He can’t be claustrophobic, he’s the one who pushed them in this closet. Is he afraid of Leigh? Afraid of death? But come on, this is Victor, Eli met him at 13 and already, he was afraid of nothing. He watches the most violent movies, gets into fights for the kick of it. He carries a knife in his pocket and threatens jocks with castration. The only person who makes him absent is his father, so why now, why—

Leigh climbs on top of the girl, half-naked, mouth brimming with horrible promises. A tear strolls down Victor’s cheek. And Eli understands.

What Mr. Vale has done to him. What Matt Leigh is about to do. That there isn’t going to be an opening, that Leigh isn’t going to stop — Eli understands all of it in a wave of hot anger, his world turning blistered and white, a high pitch ringing in his ear. Victor has never spilled a tear in front of him before. Leigh isn’t going to stop.

But Eli can stop him.

He opens the door. Leigh startles his way, but Eli doesn’t give him time to gather his wits; he swings the bat and crashes it into his skull. This sad excuse of a man lets out a wail of shocked pain, loses his balance on the table — Eli hits him once more, throwing him to the ground where he belongs.

“Who the fuck—” Leigh stammers, trying to crawl way from Eli’s judgement.

Eli hits him a third time, even more violently, and again, and again, until Leigh is as helpless and weak as the girl must have felt. Again. Pathetic moans barely make it through his lips. Again. The sound of metal bashing against bone is like the beat of a psalm, like counting the beads of a rosary, a prayer after dark. Again. Again, again, again again ag—

“Eli,” calls Victor, grabbing him by the shoulder. “Stop, that’s enough.”

Eli blinks, confused mid-swing, floating between two worlds. Why stop? Was Leigh going to stop? Is Mr. Vale going to stop?

Victor makes Eli face him, and says quietly, “He’s dead.”

This, Eli realizes, is true. Leigh is haloed by a pool of blood, eyes empty, mouth ajar. Nobody could survive the kind of injury that covers the back his skull. He’s dead. Eli did this.

Eli killed him.

Victor gently takes the bat from his hands, then wipes it on Leigh’s trousers, getting rid of most of the blood. Eli stays frozen in place. He watches. Victor gives him back the bat, then goes towards the girl. Delicately, he puts her hair back in place, rearranges the buttons of her blouse, zips up her skirt. All careful, attentive gesture. This is the Victor that lets Eli crawl into his bed at night.

His attention moves back to Eli. He takes his hand. Eli is dimly aware that he is being guided outside, by the side of the road, back to the car. Victor sits him on the passenger’s side.

When Victor sits on his own, he takes off his sweater and uses it to wrap up the bat before putting it all in the backseat. Then, he takes out his phone and says, “I’m going to call 911.”

For a second, Eli thinks he’s going to give him up to the police. That fear must have shown on his face, because Victor laughs softly. “For the girl, Eli,” he says. “She was still breathing. She'll need a hospital.”

As soon as the ambulance is called, they get driving. The way back doesn’t feel real; Eli can still hear the thud of metal against a dead man’s skull, he can still see the blood, and the fury that overtook him has left ashes on his fingertips. The whole drive, neither of them says a word.

Back at the house, Victor scrubs the bat clean with alcohol, then puts it back in the attic where he found it. His sweater goes directly in the washer.

Eli is still silent, like every word in the world has gone quiet. He dimly remembers a policeman telling him about shock, and wonders if he is in shock right now. It doesn’t feel like a shock — the feeling is much slower, empty, quiet. Victor leads him, and Eli follows. He takes them to his room, sits him on the bed. There, Victor kneels between his legs and starts to clean the specks of blood on his face with a wet bit of cotton.

“Victor…”

Victor hums and looks up, giving Eli his attention.

“Do you think I did something bad?”

He frowns, and puts the cotton down. “I don’t think I’m the best pick to answer that question.”

“Why?”

“Not exactly a beacon of morality, am I?" he smirks. "Afraid that’s between you and your conscience.”

Eli huffs, frustrated. “My conscience is fine, thank you.”

Victor cocks his head. “Is it really?”

“Yes,” Eli says empathically, “that man was a monster who deserved to die, and…”

And God was by my side. God lent me his wrath. For the second time, I felt his presence through me. This was judgement. This was righteous.

Victor doesn’t hear any of that, but he seems to hear something anyway.

“So?” he asks. “Why are you asking me, then?”

“I want to know what you think,” Eli replies. Even to his ears, it sounds desperate. “I never know what you think, I need… Please, just tell me.”

Victor looks deep into his eyes, as if his answer might be hidden somewhere in there. He tucks a strand of Eli’s hair behind his ear, lets his hand linger on his cheek. Long fingers trace his jaw. The tenderness of those little gestures leaves an ache in Eli’s stomach.

“I thought you were incredible,” Victor breathes, sincere.

Is it crazy that Eli wants to kiss him? He was killing a man less than an hour ago; now, all he wants are Victor’s lips on his. He wants to grab him by the collar and pin him on the bed, to explore every inch of the skin he’s usually not allowed to touch. He aches to mess Victor up and leave him helpless — how does that make him any different from Matt Leigh and Mr. Vale?

The difference, Eli thinks, perhaps to convince himself, is that Victor isn’t absent. His focus is fixed on him like a sinner drinking up a priest's sermon. He is down on his knees because he knelt there, not because Eli forced him to the ground. His fingers are in Eli’s hair, his eyes trail on his lips. There is a flush on his cheeks. Open. Willing.

The difference is that Eli asks a soft, “What do you want?”

And the difference is, Victor kisses him.

Just a peck at first, small enough to let them pretend it never happened if that’s what Eli wants. Eli doesn’t want that. He breathes a sigh, and the sheer need wrapped in it would be embarrassing if he wasn’t reading the same in Victor’s blown out pupils.

When Victor kisses him again, it’s for real, lips pressed and parted, and what can Eli do but kiss back. A year’s worth of longing is burning in his chest, making his head light and his fingers a little clumsy as they find their way to Victor’s neck — he doesn’t seem to mind, so Eli doesn’t either.

Victor gets up and pushes Eli onto the bed, pressing them into the mattress. Their kiss turns more heated, all bitten lips and a bit messy, and Victor’s hands find their way under Eli’s shirt. Eli lets him wander, shivering under the coolness of his touch and the spark whenever Victor’s long fingers find a sensitive spot.

It doesn’t go beyond that, just kissing and touching and maybe a little bit of helpless grinding on Eli’s part, proof that he is only human after all. By the end of it they’re a little breathless, limbs loosely intertwined, refusing to let go of each other just yet.

Eli is still panting, but he whispers, “I think we’re a bit fucked up.”

This causes Victor to laugh — something genuine and tender, with no mockery laced to it.

“I guess this is why we’re friends,” he replies, echoing words Eli said a lifetime ago.

Friends. “Is that what we are?”

Victor looks at him pensively, then says, “I don’t think they’ve invented a word for us."

For once, Eli doesn’t have an objection. He agrees.

 


***

 


The next day, they go to school. Everything is just as it always is: Eli smiles and charms, Victor broods and writes. Nobody can tell that one has murdered a man, or that the other helped wash off the blood. It's a secret between them and God alone.

In the evening, when they come home, Eli’s google alert starts ringing. AREA SERIAL KILLER FOUND DEAD, TURNS OUT TO BE LOCAL POLICEMAN, and other headlines of the same gist are popping up all over the internet. He puts on the channel news — there’s a special broadcast about the murder. The girl from yesterday is being filmed in a hospital room. She's awake.

“He stopped me on my way from work,” she narrates, her voice trembling a little. She has a charming southern accent, and she looks even younger than Eli has realized. “He tried to touch me, to… when I said no, he made me breathe in something. By the time I woke up, he was…”

A journalist asks, “do you have any idea who could have killed him?”

The girl shakes her head, crossing her arms protectively. “No,” she says softly, “if I did, I’d like to thank them.”

Victor takes a seat next to Eli on the sofa.

“Look at you,” he comments. “A true hero.”

Eli turns to him, a little hurt. “You’re making fun of me.”

Victor shakes his head. “No.”

Chapter Text

There isn’t a word for them, so Eli doesn’t look for one.

They touch each other like an affair of cheating lovers, stumbling in bathroom stalls, kissing behind closed doors, teasing each other under the dinner table the way Victor used to do unknowingly — except now he knows how the graze of fingertips on Eli’s thigh electrifies him, and he revels in that knowledge. Eli takes his revenge by whispering something improper while he’s stuck washing the dishes, earning himself a frustrated huff that makes him grin. Twenty minutes later, Eli’s door locks, and they both get what they want.

Eli isn’t sure what would happen if people found out about them. He’s aware that kissing a boy isn’t considered normal by societal standards, but this isn’t the kind of weirdness he avoids like the plague. It doesn’t draw the attention of pedo-psychiatrists, doesn’t make most people wonder whether you’re the same specie as them. Being queer, no matter the back-clash, is a very human thing to be. He could probably get some sympathy from it, even.

In the grand scheme of things, kissing a boy isn’t a problem for his image — though kissing Victor in particular might be, but these days Eli enjoys his company so much that it outshines the disapproval of boring people. Besides, they are disapproving less and less. Highschool isn’t exactly a paragon of acceptance, but it is a lot more mature than middle school, and Victor’s dry wit and cynical stances are starting to earn him respect, sometimes even interest. The fact that he looks more and more like one of those handsome, pouting, edgy models in fashion advertisement probably helps.

If people knew Eli was kissing Victor, a lot of them would understand. Some would even envy him. The Vales would pretend to be supportive while secretly appalled — in his more dramatic fantasies Eli imagines they’d even try to separate them, but none of that is why they keep it a secret. 

They do so because so long as it is hidden, they don’t have to put a word on it. And there isn’t a word for them — nothing that fits without being embarrassing or incomplete. If it’s only them, they can just be Victor and Eli, whatever that means, whatever that implies. They don’t need to explain it to each other to get it; the boundaries come naturally.

Eli knows, for instance, that Victor loves to be kissed and bitten and roughed up but not to be touched under the belt. He knows the difference between Victor’s sighs and what they mean; he knows when to stop. Victor, on his end, knows how Eli likes to be touched and stroked, and Eli knows Victor isn’t forcing himself, that he enjoys the sensations and the power of pleasing him like this.

They know that I love you isn’t a thing they’ll ever say to each other. They were both born from parents who used those words emptily, or hypocritically, or as weapons to hurt them and hurt each other. To them, I love you isn’t the fuzzy warmth of romcoms or a dramatic declaration under the rain — it’s a lie, much like marriages, and they don’t lie to each other. The love between them is shown rather than told: touches, kisses, comfort, jokes, gestures, movies, comic books, making Eli come undone, giving Victor the space he needs. All of it is one more way to show that they love each other.

And then, there have their mission.

The death of Matt Leigh was the revelation of a power Eli had always suspected he could have, but never fully trusted. After, it all became crystal clear: some monsters slip through the cracks of the judiciary system, and God wants Eli to stop them. Matt Leigh was the first. He isn’t the last.

Rapists and child abusers are Eli’s preys of choice, the ones that set off the wrath that has been building inside him for years. Serial killers are also targets, because Eli can so easily think like them, and thus, catch them. It goes like this: a news article or a podcast or a tv program talks about an unsolved murder. Eli looks into whether the police is anywhere close to catching them. If they aren’t, him and Victor get to work.

Victor is very pro-active in all of this — once, when realizing Eli had kept important information from him, he muttered, “I am not your fucking side-kick,” and he isn’t. He is Eli’s partner, the one who brings method to Eli’s madness, who makes sure they never get caught, who is daring when Eli gets skittish. Eli wouldn’t be doing this without him. He wouldn’t even have killed Matt Leigh; he wouldn’t have saved that girl.

It’s not always about killing — Victor eventually agreed that telling the police was a good first option, since “leaving a trail of dead killers would eventually draw too much attention”. So Eli and Victor become experts at giving anonymous tips, and when nothing comes out of them, they become experts at getting away with murder.

Eli hardly sees it as murder, really. They’re just taking the trash out. 

Sometimes, the missions are quick and obvious. Most of the time, they take months of frustrating work and staying up at odd hours hoping for a sign. It’s risky and full of dead ends, but so far, Eli has not encountered a monster they couldn’t stop, eventually.

Except one.

Mr. Vale is the monster who lives under their roof some days of the year, and Eli has imagined many painful deaths for him, so much that it becomes tricky to play the nice, polite, grateful son. Unfortunately, Victor never shows any signs of wanting his father dead, no matter how many hints Eli throws his way, and this isn’t the kind of situation where Eli can take initiative on his own. He doesn’t think Victor would be mad were he to kill Mr. Vale, but he would feel betrayed, and Eli can’t bear the thought of their trust being broken. Thus, he keeps his wrath in check and focuses on what really matters: helping Victor.

He already used to help him out of his absences, but now that he knows where they come from, he can actually stop them before they occur. Whenever Mr. Vale is home, Eli makes sure never to leave him alone with Victor. He asks Mr. Vale about topics he’s known to ramble about. He stops him on his way to Victor’s room asking for help with his homework. Or he just stays glued to Victor, pretending he doesn’t catch Mr. Vale’s suggestions.

One night, while Eli is on Victor’s bed reading a comic book, he gets more direct.

“Sorry, Eli,” he says, nauseatingly sweet, “I need to speak to Victor alone, would you mind?" 

At his desk, Victor’s shoulder tenses where Mr. Vale’s hand went to pat it. Eli is struck with a thundering need to break the man’s wrist.

“Oh don’t mind me,” he says with his best fake smile. “I’m just reading." 

“It’s just—”

“He can stay,” cuts off Victor.

Mr. Vale looks at him icily, but what is he going to do about it? He isn’t like Father Cardale, who would have dragged Eli out and kicked him to the curb. His abuse is far more insidious, it relies on being discrete — and Eli intends to take advantage of that as often as he can.

 

***

 

At some point, it even seems like it’s working. Mr. Vale stops asking to talk to Victor alone, stops grumbling about them being “co-dependent” or whatever buzzword he’s writing about at the moment. An entire year passes without any absences, and Eli makes the mistake of lowering his guard. 

He has an important football match, and he doesn’t think of looking at the crowd until the very end. When he does, he only sees Mrs. Vale.

“Where’s Victor?” he asks her, sweaty and panting.

“Oh, he stayed home with Cedric darling, but don’t worry, I filmed all the good bits!” she pipes, pointing to her phone. “They were so sorry they couldn’t come, but Victor needs all the help he can get for his SATs training. If you ask me, it’s for the best. A little bit of father-son bonding between them is long overdue!” 

 

Eli stares, resisting the urge to strangle her.You fucking idiot, he thinks. You cow, you stupid bitch, you—  

He grins frigidly — not one of his best, but he’s so goddamn angry at himself and at her that it’s a miracle he can fake a smile at all — and says, “Let’s go home, shall we? I’m exhausted.”

Mrs. Vale’s driving has never felt so slow.

When they get home, her husband is sitting on the living room sofa, a smug look on his face, and that’s all Eli needs to know. 

I should have killed him, he thinks, rushing up the stairs. This is his fault, if only he’d had the courage to take the initiative, this wouldn’t have happened again. He should never have allowed it to happen again. 

Eli doesn’t have much of a heart, but when he enters Victor’s room and sees the look on his face, it breaks. It’s not an absence like the old ones — his face is puffy, his hair is a mess, his shirt has a few torn buttons. As soon as Eli approaches, Victor tugs him into an embrace then into a kiss, and Eli can feel his fingers trembling. He cups Victor’s face, desperate to protect him, heart-broken that he failed to do so. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, but Victor stops him.

 “Just kiss me,” he whispers, and Eli complies. He can hear what Victor doesn’t say: Kiss me until I forget the taste of him. Kiss me so I can pretend you were the one to mess up my shirt.

Eventually Victor’s lips move to Eli’s neck, and he stays here, cheek pressed on Eli’s shoulder while they hang onto each other tightly. Eli caresses his hair, petting it back to its usual style.

“I’m going to kill him,” he vows, wrath rumbling deep in his stomach.

“Don’t,” Victor answers immediately, raising his head to meet Eli’s eyes.

Eli stares at him, confused. “You can’t possibly think he doesn’t deserve it!”

“No,” he says darkly. “He deserves every hell there is in your religion.”

“I can make him go through that,” Eli says fiercely. He’s never tortured someone before, but for Mr. Vale, he’d be happy to make an exception.

“I know,” Victor says, dropping a soft kiss on his lips. “But please, don’t.” 

Why?

“Because this is our thing, and I don’t want him to be a part of it.” His swollen eyes shine with an intense, desperate light. “Even if we don’t get caught — and we might, this wouldn’t be like killing a stranger, there’d be cops everywhere — if you do this, he’ll be a part of us, and that’s the last fucking thing I want!” 

 Eli isn’t sure he understands, because for him, his father has always been a part of this — he was Eli’s first kill, and the reason why he met Victor in the first place. But even if he doesn’t get it, he has to respect Victor’s wishes. This isn’t Eli’s call.

“Fine,” he says, trying not to sound as angry as he is, because anger is the last thing Victor needs right now. “I won’t kill him, I promise you that, but there has to be a way to punish him.”

Victor laughs bitterly. “There isn’t. He’s a rich man in a rich man’s world. He’s got everything.” 

“All the more to lose,” Eli says, kissing Victor like a vow.

Later that night, Eli draws a list of Cedric Vale’s everything. A revered lifestyle guru. A talented writer. A good husband. An obscenely rich man. A caring father. His worth is defined by two things: how people see him, and how much they’re willing to pay for it. Reputation, and money. 

If Eli wants to strike him down, this is where he needs to hit. 

Eli already knows that Cedric Vale is a fake — he simply has to prove it. Thus, he spends the next months listening on calls, sneakily reading letters, combing through his emails, his computer. It takes time, but Eli is patient. He keeps Victor out of this mission in particular — for deniability, and also because Victor’s coping mechanism of choice is to pretend his parents do not exist.

Eli bides his time. It pays. 

One night, knowing Mr. Vale has a habit of answering emails before bed, he waits for him in his home office. 

“Hello, Cedric,” he says when the man enters, and enjoys watching him jump.

“E-Eli,” he stammers. “Christ son, it’s a little late, shouldn’t you be in bed?” 

Eli smiles. “Not yet. We have some matters to discuss.”

Cedric looks confused, until his eyes settle on the yellow folder on his desk. Carefully, he opens it, and confusion turns to utter dread — Eli relishes it. The folder contains a number of incriminating things, the highlights of which being: the proof that Cedric hired a ghost writer for his three latest books, records that he gave substantial funding to a now convicted child pornographer, an email conversation with a young man who received hush money after being harassed. Eli is rather proud of his little collection of ruination. He’s worked hard on it.

Cedric’s face has grown pale as a ghost. “You can’t possibly believe— w-where did you find this Eli?”

“Oh, here and there,” Eli says pleasantly. 

At last, Cedric understands. His eyes on Eli grow wide and terrified, finally seeing a monster he never even suspected could exist. Oh, it is lovely.

“Eli, this isn’t…”

Eli shushes him with a handwave. “I don’t care. I’m going to make this very simple for you, Cedric. Here’s what I want.

He hands him an envelope. All it contains is a card with a number on it. A large number.

Money?” the man scoffs, as if he had any right to be morally offended. “You’re doing this for fucking money? We took you into our home and raising you like our own, and you—”

 “Seeing how your treat your own, I hardly see that as an advantage,” Eli cuts with a cold smile. “The money is for lodging and two college tuitions. You’re going to let Victor and I go. You will never try to see him again, let alone touch him. If you fail to comply to these terms, I’ll give one copy of this folder to the press, and another to the FBI.”

Cedric Vale’s cheeks turn to a deep, humiliated red.

“Ungrateful little cunt,” he mutters, his fingers squeezing the paper.

Eli takes one smooth stride towards him, seizes his tie, and chokes him with it. “You know,” he whispers amicably, “wanted to kill you. I would have taken my time to do it too, made you suffer for every second you spent wounding him. But Victor told me not to.” He chokes him a little harder. “So for the rest of your sad little life, when you wake up in the morning, remember that the only reason you’re alive is because the boy you raped and abused took pity on you. Remember, and be grateful.” 

He lets him loose. Mr. Vale is coughing and wheezing, as pathetic on the outside as he always was deep down.

 

The next day, half a million dollars is deposited into Eli’s bank account.

Victor doesn’t ask how he got the money — the moment Eli tells him to pack a bag, he’s ready to go. They find a one-bedroom apartment close to their high-school, and there, they  focus on applying to colleges, graduating with honors, and being together in every way they know how: the bickering, the rivalries, the tenderness, the friendship, and all the other words for them that haven't been invented yet.

Once enough time has passed, once Eli is sure Mr. Vale will not try anything and that the money cannot be taken away from them, Eli sends one package to the police, and another to one of the city’s most influential publications. Twenty-four hours later, Cedric Vale’s name is all over the news. For once, the headlines are honest. 

There might be some good to honesty, after all.

 

 

***

 

3 years later

Lockland University

 

Victor is sprawled on their bed, eyes fixed on a computer with too many tabs open. He still hasn’t picked a topic for his research project for Professor Lyne, mostly because he usually ends up swept in a rabbit hole of articles that all capture his interest.

Eli has been trying to talk to him all morning. Even after all these years spent side by side, showing him everything he is, this side of himself might be the hardest yet.

“Still looking for your research topic?” he asks conversationally.

“You know it,” Victor sighs. 

Eli picks at the skin of his thumb. “I’ve had an idea for that, actually,” he says. “Something we could do together.” 

Victor looks up from his computer, his interest perked. “Yeah? What?”

This is a good idea. Just say it. He won't make fun of you — you just have to say it.

He takes in a deep breath.

“Ever heard about EOs?”