“My hero,” she said, and Eli smiled at the inside joke. In nearly ten years he hadn’t let anyone close. Certainly not an EO. Yet here he was, walking through the twilight with one. And he liked it. He tried to remind himself that the sensation was false, projected, tried to convince himself that this was research, that he was only trying to understand her gift, and how best to eliminate her, even as he let her guide him down the steps and away from the campus.
“So you protect the innocent world from the big bad EOs,” she said as they made their way, arm in arm. “How do you find them?”
“I have a system.” As they walked, he explained to her his method. The careful narrowing down of targets based on Lyne’s three steps. The periods of observation.
“Sounds tedious,” she said.
“And then when you find them, you just kill them?” Her steps slowed. “No questions? No trial? No assessment of whether they’re a danger or a threat?”
“I used to talk to them. Not anymore.”
“What gives you the right to play judge and jury and executioner?”
“God.” He hadn’t wanted to say the word, hadn’t wanted to give this strange girl the power of knowing his beliefs, of twisting and bending them to her own.
She pursed her lips, the word hanging in the air between them, but she didn’t mock him.
“How do you kill them?” she asked eventually.
“It depends on their ability,” he said. “Default is a gun, but if there’s a concern regarding metal, or explosives, or the setup, I have to find another method. Like with you. You’re young and you’d probably be missed, which would be messy, and that therefore ruled out a crime. I needed to make it look like an accident.”
They turned onto a side street lined with small apartment buildings and houses.
“What’s the strangest way you’ve ever killed someone?”
Eli thought about it. “Bear trap.”
Serena cringed. “No details necessary.”
A few minutes passed in silence as they walked.
“How long have you been doing this?” asked Serena.
“No way,” she said, squinting at him. “How old are you?”
Eli smiled. “How old do I look?”
They reached her apartment and stopped.
“Twenty. Maybe twenty-one.”
“Well, I guess I’m technically thirty-two. But I’ve looked this way for ten years.”
“Part of that whole healing thing?”
Eli nodded. “Regeneration.”
“Show me,” said Serena.
“How?” asked Eli.
Her eyes glittered. “Do you have a weapon on you?”
Eli hesitated a moment, then withdrew a Glock from his coat.
“Give it to me,” said Serena. Eli handed it over, but he had the self-possession to frown as he did it. Serena stepped away from him and took aim.
“Wait,” said Eli. He looked around. “Maybe not out here, in the street? Let’s go inside.”
Serena considered him for a long moment, then smiled, and led him in.
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
“Victor sent you a message,” said Serena, brushing her fingers over Sydney’s stick figure in the drawing. There was a fleck of brownish red on the corner of the paper, and she wondered whose blood it was. “Are you going to send one back?”
She watched as the answer climbed up Eli’s throat. “I don’t know how,” he said under his breath.
“He’s here in the city,” she said.
“So are millions of other people, Serena,” growled Eli.
“And they’re all on your side,” she said. “Or they can be.” She took Eli’s hand, drew him up from the chair. Her hands slid around his back, pulled him close until his forehead rested against hers. “Let me help you.”
She watched his jaw clench. Eli couldn’t resist her, not really, but he was trying. She could see the strain in his eyes, in the space between his brows, as he fought the compulsion. Every time she asked a question. Every time she gave a small order. There was a pause, as if Eli were trying to reprocess the command, twist it until it was his. As if he could take back his will. He couldn’t, but she loved to see him try. It gave her something to hold on to. She took it in, savored his resistance. And then, for his sake, she forced him to bend.
“Eli,” she said, her voice, even and unmovable. “Let me help you.”
“How?” he asked.
Her fingers slipped into his front pocket, and drew out his phone. “Call Detective Stell. Tell him we need a meeting with the Merit PD. All of them.” Victor wasn’t the only one in the city. Sydney was here, too. Find one, and they would find the other— the drawing told them as much. Eli stared down at his phone.
“It’s too public,” he said, fingers punching in the numbers even as he struggled to think. “It makes us too public. I haven’t made it this long by standing in spotlights.”
“It’s the only way to flush them out. Besides, you shouldn’t worry. You’re the hero now, remember?”
He laughed drily, but didn’t say no again.
“Do you want a mask?” she teased, pulling the glasses from her hair and sliding them back onto his face. “Or will these do?”
Eli ran his thumb over his phone, hesitating for one last moment. And then he connected the call.
UNIVERSITY OF MERIT
Serena Clarke lived alone. Eli could tell from the moment they walked in, when she slipped her shoes off by the door. The place was clean, calm, and unified. It had one cohesive taste, and Serena didn’t look around for anyone before turning on him and raising the gun.
“Hold up,” said Eli, shrugging his coat off. “This is my favorite. I’d rather not have holes in it.” He took a small cylinder from the pocket, and tossed it to her.
“Do you actually know how to use a gun?” he asked.
Serena nodded as she screwed the silencer on. “Years of crime dramas. And I found my father’s Colt once, and taught myself. Cans in the woods, and all that.”
“Are you a decent shot?” Eli unbuttoned his shirt and took that off, too, draping it over the entry table with his coat. Serena gave him an appreciative head-to-toe-and-back look, and then she pulled the trigger. He gasped and staggered backward, red blossoming against his shoulder. The pain was brief and bright, the bullet passing straight through and lodging in the wall behind him. He watched Serena’s eyes widen as the wound instantly began to close, his skin knitting back together. She gave a slow clap, the gun still in her grip. Eli rubbed his shoulder, and met her eyes.
“Happy now?” he grumbled.
“Don’t be so sour,” she said, setting the gun on the table.
“Just because I heal,” he said, reaching past her for his shirt, “doesn’t mean that didn’t hurt.”
Serena caught his arm in one hand and his face in the other, and held his gaze. Eli felt himself falling in. “Want me to kiss it?” she asked, brushing her lips against his. “Will that make it better?”
There it was again, in his chest, that strange flutter, like want, dusty and a decade old but there. Maybe it was a trick. Maybe this feeling—this simple, mortal ache—wasn’t coming from him. But maybe it was. Maybe it could be. He nodded once, just enough to bring their lips together, and then she turned and led him toward the bedroom.
“Don’t kill me tonight,” she added as she led him into the dark. And he never even thought of it.
* * *
Serena and Eli were lying together in a tangle of sheets. They faced each other, and she ran her fingers down his cheek, his throat, his chest. Her hand seemed fascinated with the place where she’d shot him, now only smooth skin shining in the near dark of the room. Her hand wandered, then, over his ribs and around his back, and came to rest on the web of old scars there. She drew in a small breath.
“They’re from before,” he said softly. “Nothing leaves marks anymore.” Her lips parted, but before she could ask what happened, he added, “Please. Don’t ask.”
And she didn’t. Instead, she drew her hand back to his unscarred chest and let it rest over his heart.
“Where will you go, after you kill me?”
“I don’t know,” he said honestly. “I’ll have to start again.”
“Will you sleep with that one, too?” she asked, and Eli laughed.
“Seduction is hardly part of my method.”
“Well, then, I feel special.”
“You are.” It came out in a whisper. And it was true. Special. Different. Fascinating. Dangerous. Her hand slid back to the bed, and he thought perhaps she’d fallen asleep. He enjoyed watching her this way, knowing he could kill her, but not wanting to. It made him feel like he was in control again. Or closer to it. Being with Serena felt like a dream, an interlude. It made Eli feel human again. It made him forget.
“There must be an easier way,” she wondered sleepily. “To find them... if you could access the right networks...”
“If only,” he whispered. And then they slept.