As the two sat in a pile of damp blankets on the water-streaked bathroom floor, the whole experiment seemed idiotic. How could they have risked so much? Eli took another long, low breath, and got to his feet. Victor rushed to catch his arm, but Eli shook him off.
“I said I’m fine.” He left the bathroom, eyes carefully avoiding the tub, and vanished into his room in search of clothes. Victor plunged his hand down through the icy water one last time and pulled the plug. By the time he’d cleaned up, Eli had reappeared in the hall, fully dressed. Victor found him examining himself in a wall mirror, frowning faintly.
Eli’s balance faltered, and he put a hand on the wall to steady himself.
“I think I need...” he started.
Victor assumed the line would end with “a doctor” but instead Eli met his eyes in the mirror, and smiled—not his best—and said, “A drink.”
Victor managed to pull his own mouth into something like a smile, then, too.
“That I can do.”
* * *
Eli insisted on going out.
Victor thought they could just as easily get wasted in the comfort of their apartment, but since Eli had experienced the more recent of their two traumas and seemed rather intent on being in public, perhaps wanting to live it up, Victor indulged him. Now the two were on the far side of drunk—or at least, Victor was; Eli seemed remarkably lucid considering the sheer quantity of alcohol he’d consumed—swaying and sauntering down the road that ran so conveniently from the local bar back to their apartment building, eliminating the need for a vehicle.
Despite a festive air, both had done their best to avoid the subject of what had happened, and how lucky Eli—and really both of them—had been. Neither seemed eager to talk about it, and in the absence of any ExtraOrdinary symptoms—other than feeling extraordinarily lucky—neither had reason to gloat as much as thank their stars. Which they did freely, tipping imaginary but brimming glasses skyward as they stumbled home. They poured invisible liquor on the concrete as a gift to earth or God or fate or whatever force had let them have their fun and live to know it had been nothing more than that.
Victor felt warm despite the flurries of snow, alive, and even welcomed the last dregs of pain from his own unpleasant proximity to death. Eli beamed dazedly at the night sky, and then he stepped off the sidewalk. Or tried to. But his heel caught the edge, and he stumbled, landing on his hands and knees among a patch of dirty snow, and tire tracks, and broken glass. He hissed, recoiled, and Victor saw blood, a smear of red against the dingy, snow-dusted street. Eli proceeded to sit on the lip of the curb, tilting his palm toward the nearest streetlamp to get a better look at the gash there, glittering with the remains of someone’s abandoned beer bottle.
“Ouch,” said Victor, leaning over him to examine the cut and nearly losing his balance. He caught himself on the streetlamp as Eli cursed softly and pulled the largest shard out.
“Think I’ll need stitches?”
He held his bloody hand up for Victor to inspect, as if the latter’s vision and judgment were any better than his own right now. Victor squinted, and was about to reply with as much authority as he could muster, when something happened.
The cut on Eli’s palm began to close.
The world, which had been swaying in Victor’s vision, came to an abrupt stop. Stray flakes hung in the air, and their breath hovered in clouds over their lips. There was no movement except that of Eli’s flesh healing.
And Eli must have felt it, because he lowered his hand into his lap, and the two gazed down as the gash that had run from pinkie to thumb knitted itself back together. In moments, the bleeding had stopped—the blood already lost now drying on his skin—and the wound was nothing more than a wrinkle, a faint scar, and then not even that.
The cut was just... gone.
Hours passed in blinks as the two let it sink in, what that meant, what they had done. It was extraordinary.
It was ExtraOrdinary.
Eli rubbed his thumb over the fresh skin of his palm, but Victor was the first to speak, and when he did, it was with an eloquence and composure perfectly befitting the situation.
* * *
Victor stared up at the place where the lip of their apartment building’s roof met the cloudy night. Every time he closed his eyes he felt like he was falling over, getting closer and closer to the brick, so he tried to keep them open, focusing on that strange seam overhead.
“Are you coming?” asked Eli.
He was holding the door open, practically bouncing in his eagerness to get inside and find something else that could physically wound him. Zeal burned in his eyes. And while Victor didn’t exactly blame him, he had no desire to sit around and watch Eli stab himself all night. He’d watched him try all the way home, leaving a dotted red trail in the snow from the blood that escaped before the wounds could heal. He’d seen the ability. Eli was an EO, in the (regenerating) flesh. Victor had felt something when Eli had come back to life seemingly EO-free: relief. With Eli’s new abilities being thrust into his wavering line of vision all the way home, Victor’s relief had dissolved into a ripple of panic. He would be relegated to sidekick, note-taker, the brick wall to bounce ideas off of.
“Vic, you coming or not?”
Curiosity and jealousy ate at Victor in equal parts, and the only way he knew to stifle both, to quell the urge to wound Eli himself—or at least to try—was to walk away.
He shook his head, then stopped abruptly when the world continued swinging side to side.
“Go on,” he said, mustering a smile that came nowhere near his eyes. “Go play with some sharp objects. I need to take a walk.” He descended the stairs, and nearly fell twice in three steps.
“Are you fit to walk, Vale?”
Victor waved him on inside. “I’m not driving. Just going to get some air.”
And with that, he took off into the dark, with two goals on his mind.
The first was simple: to put as much distance as he could between himself and Eli before he did something he’d regret.
The second was trickier, and his body hurt to even think of it, but he had no choice.
He had to plan his next attempt at death.
TWO DAYS AGO
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
I want to believe that there’s more. That we could be more. Hell, we could be heroes.
Victor’s chest tightened when he looked at Eli’s unchanging face in the newspaper photograph. It was disconcerting; all he had of Eli was a mental picture, a decade old, and yet it lined up perfectly, like duplicate slides, with the one on the page. It was the same face in every technical way... and yet it wasn’t. The years had worn on Victor in more obvious ways, hardening him, but they hadn’t left Eli untouched. He didn’t appear a day older, but the arrogant smile he’d often flashed in college had given way to something crueler. Like that mask he’d worn for so long had finally fallen off, and this was what lurked behind it.
And Victor, who was so good at picking things apart, at understanding how they worked, how he worked, looked at the photo, and felt... conflicted. Hate was too simple a word. He and Eli were bonded, by blood and death and science. They were alike, more so now than ever. And he had missed Eli. He wanted to see him. And he wanted to see him suffer. He wanted to see the look in Eli’s eyes when he lit them up with pain. He wanted his attention.
Eli was like a thorn beneath Victor’s skin, and it hurt. He could turn off every nerve in his body, but Victor couldn’t do a damned thing about the twinge he felt when he thought of Cardale. The worst part of going numb was that it took away everything but this, the smothering need to hurt, to break, to kill, pouring over him like a thick blanket of syrup until he panicked and brought the physical sensations back.
Now that he was so close, the thorn seemed to burrow deeper. What was Eli doing here in Merit? Ten years was a long time. A decade could shape a man, change everything about him. It had changed Victor. What about Eli? Who had he become?
He fidgeted under the sudden urge to burn the photo, to shred it, as if damaging the paper could somehow cause damage to Eli, too, which of course it couldn’t. Nothing could. So he sat down, and set the page aside, beyond arm’s reach so he wouldn’t be tempted to ruin it.
The paper called Eli a hero.
The word made Victor laugh. Not just because it was absurd, but because it posed a question. If Eli really was a hero, and Victor meant to stop him, did that make him a villain?
He took a long sip of his drink, tipped his head back against the couch, and decided he could live with that.
TEN YEARS AGO
When Victor got home from his labs the next day, he found Eli sitting at the kitchen table, carving up his skin. He was dressed in the same sweatpants and shirt Victor had found him in the night before when he had finally come home from his walk, several degrees closer to sober, and with the beginnings of a plan. Now Victor grabbed a candy bar and hung his bag on the back of a wooden kitchen chair before sinking into it. He peeled away the wrapper and tried to ignore the way his appetite fizzled as he watched Eli work.
“Shouldn’t you be shadowing at the hospital today?” asked Victor.
“It’s not even a conscious process,” murmured Eli reverently as he drew the blade up his arm, the wound healing in the knife’s wake, a blossom of appearing and disappearing red, like a sick magic trick. “I can’t stop the tissue from repairing.”