“Hardly,” said Victor.
“Hey Angie,” said Eli, and Victor watched the light fold in behind his eyes even as he pulled her in for one of those movie-star kisses. Victor swore inwardly. He had worked so hard to bring it out, and Angie was undoing all of Eli’s focus with a kiss. He pushed up from the table, annoyed.
“Where you going?” asked Angie.
“Long day,” he said. “I just got back, still have to unpack...” His voice trailed off. Angie was no longer paying attention. She had her fingers tangled in Eli’s hair, her lips against his. Just like that, he’d lost them both.
Victor turned, and left.
TWO DAYS AGO
THE ESQUIRE HOTEL
Victor held the hotel door open while Mitch carried Sydney— wounded and soaking wet—inside. Mitch was massive, head shaved, almost every inch of exposed skin inked, and about as broad as the girl was tall. She could have walked, but Mitch had decided that carrying her would be easier than trying to get her arm up around his shoulders. He had also carried two suitcases, which he dropped by the door.
“This’ll do, I think,” he said, looking cheerfully around the luxurious suite.
Victor set down another, much smaller case, peeled his wet coat off, and hung it up, rolling his sleeves as he directed Mitch to put the girl in the bathroom. Sydney craned her head as she was carried through the room. The Esquire Hotel, located in downtown Merit, was bare in a way that made her wonder if they’d thrown pieces of furniture out, and she found herself looking down to see if there were indents where chair legs or couch feet had once been. But the floor throughout was wood, or something manufactured to look like it, and the bathroom was stone and tile. Mitch set her in the shower—a large, doorless marble space—and disappeared.
She shivered, feeling nothing but a dull, pervasive cold, and Victor appeared several minutes later, carrying an armful of miscellaneous clothing.
“One of these should fit you,” he said, dropping the pile on the counter beside the sink. He stood outside the bathroom door while she pulled her own wet clothes off and examined the pile, wondering where these new clothes had come from. It looked as though they’d raided the contents of a laundry room, but the things were dry and warm and so she didn’t complain.
“Sydney,” she called at last, her voice muffled by the shirt caught halfway over her head and the door between them. “That’s my name.”
“Pleasure,” said Victor from the hall.
“How did you do that?” she called out as she searched through the shirts.
“Do what?” he asked.
“Make the pain stop.”
“It’s a... gift.”
“A gift,” mumbled Sydney bitterly.
“Have you ever met someone with a gift before?” he asked through the door.
Sydney let the question hang, the ensuing silence punctuated only by the sound of clothes being ruffled, tugged on, discarded. When she finally spoke again, all she said was, “You can come in now.”
Victor did, and found her in sweatpants that were too big and a spaghetti strap top that was too long, but both would do for now. He told her to sit very still on the counter while he examined her arm. When he cleaned away the last traces of blood, he frowned.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“You’ve been shot,” he said.
“Were you playing with a gun or something?”
“When did this happen?” he asked, fingers pressed to her wrist.
He kept his eyes on her arm. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“What do you mean?” she asked hollowly.
“Well, Sydney, you have a bullet in your arm, your pulse is several beats too slow for someone your age, and your temperature feels about five degrees too cold.”
Sydney tensed, but said nothing.
“Are you hurt anywhere else?” he asked.
Sydney shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I’m going to give the pain back, a little,” he said. “To see if you have any other injuries.”
She gave a small, tight nod. His grip tightened a fraction on her arm, and the dull, pervasive cold warmed to an ache, pinching into sharp pain at different points on her body. She gasped for breath, but bore with it as she told him the places where the pain was worst. She watched him as he worked, his touch impossibly light, as if he was afraid of breaking her. Everything about him was light—his skin, his hair, his eyes, his hands as they danced through the air above her skin, touching her only when absolutely necessary.
“Well,” said Victor, once he’d bandaged her up and taken back what was left of the pain. “Aside from the bullet wound, and a twisted ankle, you seem to be in decent shape.”
“Aside from that,” said Sydney drily.
“It’s all relative,” said Victor. “You’re alive.”
“Are you going to tell me what happened to you?” he asked.
“Are you a doctor?” she countered.
“I was supposed to be one. A long time ago.”
Victor sighed and leaned back against the towel rack. “I’ll trade you. An answer for an answer.”
She hesitated, but finally nodded.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Thirteen,” she lied because she hated being twelve. “How old are you?”
“Thirty-two. What happened to you?”
“Someone tried to kill me.”
“I can see that. But why would someone try to do that?”
She shook her head. “It’s not your turn. Why couldn’t you become a doctor?”
“I went to jail,” he said. “Why would someone try to kill you?”
She scratched her shin with her heel, which meant she was about to lie, but Victor didn’t know her well enough to know that yet. “No idea.”
Sydney almost asked about jail, but changed her mind at the last moment. “Why did you pick me up?”
“I have a weakness for strays,” he said. And then Victor surprised her by asking, “Do you have a gift, Sydney?”
After a long moment, she shook her head.
Victor looked down, and she saw something cross his face, like a shadow, and for the first time since the car pulled up beside her, she felt afraid. Not an all-consuming fear, but a low and steady panic spreading over her skin.
But then Victor looked up, and the shadow was gone. “You should get some rest, Sydney,” he said. “Take the room down the hall.”
He turned, and was gone before she could say thank you.
* * *
Victor made his way into the suite’s kitchen, separated from the rest of the main room by only a marble counter, and poured a drink from the stash of liquor he and Mitch had been assembling since departing Wrighton, and which Mitch had brought up from the car. The girl was lying and he knew it, but he resisted the urge to resort to his usual methods. She was a kid, and clearly scared. And she’d been hurt enough already.
Victor let Mitch take the other bedroom. The man would never fit on the couch, and Victor didn’t sleep much anyway. If he did happen to get tired, he certainly didn’t mind the plush sofa. That had been his least favorite thing about prison. Not the people, or the food, or even the fact that it was prison.
It was the damned cot.
Victor took up his drink and wandered the wooden laminate floor of the hotel suite. It was remarkably realistic, but gave no squeak, and he could feel the concrete beneath. His legs had spent long enough standing on concrete to know.
An entire wall of the living room was made of floor-to-ceiling windows, a set of balcony doors embedded in the center. He opened them, and stepped out onto a shallow landing seven stories up. The air was crisp and he relished it as he rested his elbows on the frozen metal rail, clutching his drink, even though the ice made the glass cold enough to hurt his fingers. Not that he felt it.
Victor stared out at Merit. Even at this hour, the city was alive, a thrumming, humming place filled with people he could sense without even stretching. But at that moment, surrounded by the cold, metallic city air and the millions of living, breathing, feeling bodies, he wasn’t thinking about any of them. His eyes hovered on the buildings, but his mind wandered past them all.
TEN YEARS AGO
“Well?” asked Victor later that night. He’d had a drink. A couple drinks. They kept a stocked beer shelf in the kitchen for gatherings, and a supply of hard liquor in the drawer under the bathroom sink for the very bad days or the very good ones.
“There’s no way,” said Eli. He saw the tumbler in Victor’s hand, and headed to the bathroom to pour himself one, too.
“That’s not strictly true,” said Victor.
“There’s no way to create enough control,” clarified Eli as he took a long sip. “No way to ensure survival, let alone any form of abilities. Near death experiences are still near death. It’s too great a risk.”
“But if it worked...”
“But if it didn’t...”
“We could create control, Eli.”