Adrenaline. It pumped through every inch of Victor’s being and all he could think about was his thesis.
His sympathetic nervous system spasmed, cortisol raced through his bloodstream, and his chaotic network of veins couldn’t supply nearly enough blood to his pounding heart.
They were careening at an impossible speed, the Porsche edging towards the highway’s guardrail slowly enough for it to seem like the car was mocking him.
This wasn’t the plan.
Victor wanted to kill Eli. Victor wanted to see Angie’s smile, to have the highest marks, to have control, to take back everything Eli stole from him.
Eli would not take his life.
Metal hit metal with a piercing screech and a flurry of sparks. The impact jerked Victor forward like a ragdoll, choked by the seat belt digging into his neck. There was a sudden weightlessness, and Victor only caught a glimpse of the world turned on its head before the car toppled over the side of the road.
Victor wanted to scream but his lips wouldn’t part. His hand was numb from its death grip on the car’s handle, as though the more force he exerted the more control he had.
Eli would not leave him powerless.
His skull hit metal, sending waves of pain reverberating throughout him. The car spiraled, jolting and twisting Victor around like clothes in a washing machine until he heard a sickening crack. It tooks seconds to register, then Victor couldn’t remember a time before the agony. Tears stung at his eyes and a darkness gnawed at his vision, offering him an escape.
He grit his teeth, forced himself to be present, to have control.
Eli drenched in blood was the last image he saw.
Eli gulped down breaths. There was a ringing in his ear and the distant sound of traffic, but compared to the prior havoc, the silence was deafening. A metallic stench clogged his nose.
Eli opened his eyes. He craned his neck, his nerves screaming in protest, and tensed at the sight of him. Victor was slumped forward, suspended in place by his seatbelt. A piece of shrapnel was lodged in his thigh, a darkness seeping into the fabric of his jeans. He wasn’t moving.
It was only when reaching out to Victor and seeing the rivulets of blood down his own arm that Eli became acutely aware of the condition his body was in. Everything ached. His leg was pinned to the seat by the warped car door that had taken the brunt of the impact. Tracing the paths of blood looking for cuts, he found his skin had already stitched itself up, but it did nothing to quell the phantom pain that made his mind swim and his heart hammer.
Straining his arm, he placed a finger under Victor’s nose. He froze.
Victor wasn’t breathing.
Well, this was the plan, wasn’t it?
Then, the unmistakable scent of gasoline.
Eli jolted into action, turning off the ignition and unfastening his seat belt with hands much steadier than he felt. He tried the handle and sucked in a breath when it didn’t budge, damaged from the crash. Again, with more force, nothing. Then again, throwing the weight of his body against the door, multiplying his aches tenfold. Eli didn’t know the definition of claustrophobia until those still, panicked seconds that followed.
He tugged at his pinned leg, hoping to dislodge it and praying that Victor’s door would give him better luck. And then the sun through the windshield became brighter, more piercing, and the metal burned with a familiarity that made Eli struggle to take in breaths and keep down the bile. The chapel. Pastor Cardale. Years of being tied to that cross. The leather of the car seat was suffocating.
Eli went on autopilot. The pain, the panic, everything became background noise. Like muffled echoes heard underwater. He had to get out. So when he yanked and yanked with an empty desperation at his leg, which finally came loose leaving a deep gash and crimson trail in its wake, he was numb. When he crawled over Victor, shoving open the door and touching the ground, he didn’t breathe out relief. When he pulled Victor from the car, medical training telling him to avoid aggravating any injuries, all he could feel was a visceral sense of duty.
Then a tidal wave of senses came roaring back as an invisible force had Eli skidding across the ground, gravel digging streaks into his legs, heat rippling through the air, smoke thick on his tongue, arms aching under Victor’s weight. The Porsche was consumed in hellfire, coughing up ashes.
Ten seconds. That’s all it would’ve taken for Victor to be dead, and for Eli to be roasting in a sinner’s agony. The blood stained rosary rose and fell with Eli’s slowing breaths. The flames crackled against the backdrop of broad daylight, and Eli felt something seep into him. The same calm he experienced watching his father’s blood and soul drain from his body. It was faith that took over then, and faith that had taken over now.
And in that moment of peace, cradling Victor’s lifeless body, Eli knew he had made the right choice.
Victor felt like absolute shit. But at least he felt.
A blinding light on a beige ceiling and a throbbing pressure in his thigh. He breathed in and instantly regretted it, feeling a sharp pain against his lung. Broken ribs. He needed to sit up, assess the situation, see what the hell was happening with his leg‒
“Oh, thank God, Vic.”
As he opened his mouth to spit out that God had nothing to do with this, that Eli didn’t get to have the glory to himself anymore, that Victor’s days of being one step behind were over ‒that damn rib pressed into his lung, earning a fit of coughs that only aggravated the pain. Eli came, rushed, into frame, and magenta spots bloomed across his figure as Victor adjusted to the dark. Even through blurry vision, even though he was blocking the light, Victor could swear Eli’s eyes were shining.
“How do you feel?” There was a hushed fervor in his tone, as though Eli was holding back the floodgates with trembling hands, and God, did Victor want to see him overwhelmed. Victor’s mouth twitched into a wry smile, recalling how it felt to be on the other side of this exchange, scared to death that Eli had died. He let the question linger, let the anticipation twist in Eli.
Eli stared, smiled, laughed . Not one of his perfect politician chuckles that he’d sprinkle into conversations to make something as banal as the weather seem humorous, but a genuine, unplanned, raspy noise. One that reached his eyes. One that had Victor thinking if all it took to get Eli like this was Victor getting hurt, he’d have been jumping off buildings months ago.
And then Victor was back on Earth with sputtering breaths and tremors of heat that couldn’t compare to the pain of what two years of Eli had done to him. And fuck was it hot in here.
“I’ll get some ice.”
As Eli disappeared from his peripheries, Victor realized he must’ve been thinking out loud. He wondered what the hell else Eli heard, and decided that he didn’t care. Eli was the one who’d risked Victor’s life on a whim, as if he had the right. An uncontrolled environment and a guarantee of getting off scot-free because of his powers and his acting. Victor was beginning to wonder if the drug was even real. If Eli had anything else he was keeping from him.
An attempt at propping himself up had Victor’s vision going white, arms shuddering and almost giving out beneath him. Deep breaths only made things worse. Victor forced himself to take small, slow breaths despite every instinct yelling at him to take in oxygen and the suffocating panic threatening to boil over. It was worth it, what little control he gained over the situation.
An unremarkable hotel room. Drapes pulled tight, fluorescents struggling to light the room’s corners. Victor’s gaze gravitated towards his leg and he went dizzy at the sight of the metal scrap buried in his thigh. Tightly wound gauze, thick with blood, held the intrusion in place. Too tight. Eli’s doing.
Deal with the shrapnel. Check for other injuries. Rest until your ribs are healed. Discover your power. You earned it.
But nothing goes to plan. One touch of the metal sent electricity up his body, and Victor could only imagine the fireworks show of an MRI he’d be having. Reading about something in a textbook was, evidently, no preparation for reality. He couldn’t risk trying to fix it alone and bleeding out, that was clear. An all too familiar jealousy came back to Victor like a bitter taste in his mouth and he found himself wishing for Eli’s power.
And speak of the devil, a jostling door handle was the fanfare that preceded Eli’s entrance. Getting his first real look at him, Victor’s skin prickled at the deep red stains visible on Eli’s shirt. He wondered whose they were, and what kind of hotel would let him get a room looking like he came straight from a murder.
Eli, reading his mind, spoke with a shrug in his voice, “It’s mine. You would’ve been dead for real by now if it wasn’t.”
His actions betrayed his tone, his whole body leaning toward Victor, eyes flicking to the slightest source of motion. Victor saw a zeal in his features that didn’t sit right. He’d caught glimpses of it from door frames before Eli could sense his presence, from sideways glances in the dorm. Here, Victor could overdose on it.
Victor bit back the scalding remarks on the tip of his tongue for curiosity’s sake, meeting Eli’s attentiveness with his own. He was all too used to being patient. A shadow passed over Eli’s face, something slipped, a dangerous grin. The ice bucket clinked in Eli’s hand but it was the farthest thing from both of their minds.
“So? Do you feel any different?”
It was clear Eli wasn’t asking about his health.
He considered. While the pain had been occupying his mind, he didn’t have time to speculate about powers. Focusing, he couldn’t help but feel something, or rather the absence of something. Spite, vitriol, he had those in droves. But Victor kept coming back to that look in Eli’s eyes. A look Victor knew was reserved for his theories, his projects. He didn’t know whether to laugh or to vomit. Eli was looking at him like a scientific discovery. Or a gift from God. Probably both. Victor didn’t know when the desire to have a place in Eli’s spotlight turned into a lust for something more destructive. Maybe when finally receiving Eli’s full attention had only left him unsatisfied. But when the distant urge to reopen those scars on Eli’s back made itself known, made itself undeniably tangible, it clicked.
He’d lost his restraint.
“Not like I’m shooting lasers from my eyes.” Victor responded after moments of thought. He gave Eli a sheepish smile that didn’t suit him, but he could handle the pretenses for now. Just the fact that he was breathing was confirmation enough‒Victor had changed. He was alive. Shades paler and looking like hell, but alive. Eli didn’t use the word miracle lightly, but he struggled to find a better term. His attention snapped to a twitch in Victor’s fingers and Eli realized he’d been staring.
“I know this isn’t exactly a hospital,” Eli began, pulling a bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the mini-bar, “and this isn’t exactly anesthetic.”
Victor coughed up a laugh. “Can’t have bloodwork coming back from an EO.”
It sounded like Victor was testing out the word, amusement hanging in the air after the syllables faded. Eli offered the bottle and Victor’s fingers grazed his, firmly wrapped the neck. Victor, Eli realized, hadn’t taken his eyes off of him since he entered the room.
“This feels awfully nostalgic,” Victor spoke evenly.
“A toast to new beginnings, then?” Eli suggested, heading across the room to gather up the rest of the medical supplies that $30 could buy from a hotel lobby.
“Since when were you the sentimental type?”
Victor hummed in response, all too calm considering the day’s events, but Eli didn’t bother questioning it. For a simple reason, too. Eli couldn’t remember a point in his life where he wasn’t alone.
Whether by virtue of moving from foster home to foster home or out of an inability to be satisfied by talking with people his age, Eli felt utterly like an island. That is, until Victor. Victor, whose eyes bore through him, who was immune to dazzling smiles, who looked at Eli’s imperfections and must’ve seen something he liked. He never felt this comfortable around Angie. It only felt right to be sharing this moment, this extraordinary power, with the person who expected nothing from him. A train of thought that was, admittedly, sentimental.
Eli cleared his throat. “I don’t suppose you have any major injuries I missed.”
“Nothing that won’t heal.” Victor was already many swigs into the whiskey and it showed. His features weren’t as tight with pain and Eli found himself unconsciously relaxing. Alcohol and cheap hotels. This could be the new normal. Had to be. A car crash without victims, plates tied to Eliot Cardale, traffic cams and facial recognition pinning Victor Vale as his passenger. Lockland, normalcy, everything was out of the question and Eli was more than happy to throw whatever life he used to have away for this gift. Angie would understand, he hoped. As for Victor, Eli presumed he’d be on the same wavelength.
“Need something to bite down on?”
“I died. I can handle a little piece of metal.”
Eli scoffed. Victor was stubborn as always with an appreciated bluntness.
He knelt by the bed, as if to pray, and cut away more fabric of Victor’s jeans, gauging his sensitivity. If Victor was in pain, it didn’t show. Eli paused.
“Remember when you said we could be heroes?”
A sharp inhale. It took seconds for Eli to recognize it as his own but the realization that something was gone was instantaneous. That something was draining from him like melted ice from the bathtub. For the first time in what felt like eons, Eli felt undeniably human.
The room was an oven, or a desert, or the sun, because Eli felt heat and life and fear and the overwhelming primal urge to run, all with an intensity that could only be described as divine.
Run from Victor, with his eyes unhinged. Who reached for the shrapnel and yanked with an inaudible scream. Whose bloodied skin began to impossibly knit itself together.
Neither of them dared move. Eli couldn’t do anything but stare and wonder if this was how it felt for Victor to watch him have all the glory, to be powerless.
When Victor’s pants began to die down, he turned his attention to Eli.
His lips twisted into a grin that reminded him of smoke and crosses.
In that moment, Eli knew that was not Victor.
It was something vicious .