Outside of Merit, seven years ago
When they are still getting out of Merit, Mitch says to her, “I heard him. He said Serena was the most powerful woman in the city." Of fucking course.
“Except for you.”
Chicago, Illinois, six years ago
“I think we need to pay a visit to your parents.”
See, he said it. She didn’t even have to ask.
“I think you want to stay here,” he closed his eyes, all done with the conversation now. “With me.”
That’s exactly what he said, albeit off-handedly, probably didn’t even notice. Me.
“So what, you wanna adopt me?” And she’d heard him say “No,” before she was half-finished, and he said it a second time, a full “No, I don’t,” an almost pained expression to him, shaking his head like that’s so outrageous and why would she even say that.
Denver, Colorado, tonight
Victor lies to her, before, constantly. He doesn’t tell her he keeps dying. He doesn’t tell her they killed Serena.
He lies to her even after. He’s on guard somehow, defensive about something she wouldn’t even think of attacking. His chest rises and falls in quick motions. The floor must feel cool on his back, not that she would know. And then he’s back to his familiar blank stare.
She thinks, fine, there is something to be done about it. She could ask him now. Sex was always supposed to provide a real shift in dynamic. Her fingers wrap around his wrist, checking for a pulse, seeing whether she can still touch. Sydney feels for the familiar cold tension between them.
She finds nothing. It’s just empty.
her parents’ place, five and a half years ago
They go to her house. He closes the car door way too loud, announcing their arrival before she has time to take it in.
This here used to be home. Her parents are there, as they said they’d be. That used to be home too.
When Victor walks in behind her in his long coat, tall, a hand on Syd’s shoulder, mom and dad have the same stunned look written on both their faces. She thinks she knows what they think. She thinks, sure. Think that. Just sign.
And then: just like her and Eli. Sydney shrugs Victor’s hand off in an instant.
When they walk out of that house she feels like she can breathe again.
“You okay?” he says when Syd won’t stop looking at his long fingers and his pale familiar face. The thing is, she can’t unsee her parents’ stunned looks.
They’d given her up way too easily if this is what they thought. If they thought that he and her— There is an image in her head as she looks at his fingers. At his mouth. Shoulders, neck. Hips.
“I’m fine,” she says and the words scratch at her dry mouth.
Near Los Angeles, California, four years ago
They are sitting in the café by the beach, drinking their sorrows away at eleven in the morning.
It’s not going anywhere, this thing they’re doing right now. Syd thinks it’s a mission, not that Mitch or Dominic would tell her what exactly Victor’s been up to. They don’t have to say anything though for her to know it’s a bad kind of brunch.
Mitch lets a name slip: Timmy, a waiter in the PizzaHut a block away. Dominic waves at Victor with a “Clearly he wasn’t into all that,” which has Victor shifting in his chair, glaring at Dom.
Four days ago Syd's heard “just lean into it, I don’t know” and “suspicion in sudden deaths,” so she’s pretty sure Victor tried to get something out of this Timmy without killing him and failed.
To be fair, Victor’s new to this angle of attack.
They move on to the other possible target when Mitch says: “Syd could do it.” Sydney almost spits out her orange juice.
Dominic nods, sipping his cocktail through a wiggly straw, a perfect image of tranquillity. He would’ve nodded at anything.
Sydney’s thrilled at the idea of being the group’s equivalent of a secret weapon. She looks up at Mitch, trying to hide her excitement and failing. And then she turns to Victor who’d picked up a newspaper and is caught turning from the sports section to the international scandals when Mitch interrupts. “Vic?”
Sydney wants to hear what he’ll say. Not just whether he approves, but the tone of his voice, the choice of words. The look he’ll give her.
“What do you think?” Mitch goes ahead with the question when Victor does not react.
He drags his eyes from the newspaper to Sydney and she feels a shiver down her spine at how predatory he looks. With a dismissive wave of the hand, he says “Sure, Syd.”
She wants to get up and go hug him. If they were normal people maybe. She sometimes wants to thank him for everything he’s done. But then she’d won him his war and she’d given him his life. She thinks he should be thanking her. He certainly shouldn’t dismiss her.
Cleveland, Ohio, three and a half years ago
He shouldn’t do many things. Kill people. Pretend their lives were worthless. Keep Syd out of the loop every step of the way.
She comes home early and in the bright daylight, there’s Dominic, shivering, on the floor.
And there is Victor, standing over him, interrupting the steady line of screams with a snap of his fingers. Another snap and Dominic yells out.
She screams too. Syd runs straight to Vic, batting his hands away, pushing him out of the room. Syd helps Dominic get up from the floor and when Mitch gets home, she tells him everything.
Mitch and Victor fight in the kitchen in loud whispers until they switch to shouting, uncaring.
Syd’s in the bathtub. She turns off the hot water when they’re still trying to manage their volume and then runs it again as their voices become louder.
She doesn’t know what Mitch means. He says all the things people usually say. Yet despite the You do not. Do that. What the fuck. Are you kidding me. You. Do. Not. Do. That. he throws around, there is a thing behind the words. A gruesome idea she can’t put her finger on.
She sinks deeper into the water, her hair flowing around her.
It’s like Mitch’s checking up on him, reaching out to feel Vic’s pulse. Victor’s curt “no,” “yes” and “later” is him batting the hand away. An I’m fine that rings desperate and untrue.
She thinks about Dominic in the next room. She thinks back to how Mitch didn’t go to him, didn’t include him in the fight. How he went to check up on Victor first. Syd wonders whether Dom feels like he’s on the outside of everything too.
She opens her eyes underwater but all she sees is how Victor turned his head and how he’d noticed her and looked at her and hasn’t stopped.
Denver, Colorado, the day after
She sits on the floor, head against the hard wall and she listens to Mitch and Victor in the kitchen and she knows. She knows exactly what gruesome thing is behind these words.
This time too Mitch doesn’t bother including anyone. He’s going to figure out her relation to Victor for her, isn’t he, just like he did with Dominic, just like he did for himself.
She contemplates standing up, going in. The surprise on their faces, the how-dare-you. How dare she. How dare they.
She contemplates leaving. Right now: climbing down the fire escape, her backpack behind her back, her pocket knife in the left pocket of her bomber jacket.
She hears Mitch say: "So what, you kill her sister and you don’t tell her she fucked up raising you from the dead and now this—"
And look. That, she didn’t know.
Montana City, Montana, three years ago
He walked in on her with her hand between her legs. And, sure, he thought she was asleep, Syd thought she was alone, the apartment was a two-bedroom and she slept on the couch in the middle of the living room, and it wasn’t like it was in broad daylight.
But, but— he’d been drunk and her knees had been bent. A big warm blanket on top of her, lights off, it’s not like it was a striking image, honestly, pitch black, he couldn’t have seen anything.
But he opened the door as she arched her back and she tried not to breathe, go away, go away, go away, when he said “Sorry,” and took a step back but stayed for five seconds, maybe four, maybe two, really. But he stayed and she exhaled and she moved.
And maybe she moaned, just because he’d had the audacity of a timing to come in at a crucial point, and any motion counted. She made that stupid sound, and instantly bit down on it, buried it by a “Damn it,” all in the same breath. And for a second she thought he might actually come in.
Victor didn’t move and then he said: “Don’t.” Don’t, as in he’d heard her and reacted and now his voice sounded stranded and terrible and she stopped thinking go away.
And when he left she thought well, that was close, and she thought well, at least I’m fine now, and then she thought Victor, as she pushed two fingers inside herself, and she didn’t think go away.
At breakfast he kept staring at her, missing the cereals with his spoon. She kept thinking about how useful it would be to recruit someone who read minds.
She thought he looked like he’d just found out something terrible. But not the sad kind of terrible, the rug-from-under-one’s-feet kind. A surprise, almost.
Denver, Colorado, today
Syd bought a cake.
Mitch was in charge of the cooking and Dominic said he’d take care of the decorations. That’s how they ended up with a balloon and a Happy Birthday sign sparkled with black glitter. Very Victor Vale.
Not that Victor cared to celebrate his birthday, but forty was still a feat, especially for you, as far as Mitch was concerned.
Victor walks in, takes one look around and shakes his head, genuinely pleased. At the sight of a Happy Birthday sign, he just scoffs, and Mitch goes for a hug.
She doesn’t. Sydney stays near the table, leaning on the wall, and smiles wide: part pretence and part habit. She isn’t sure how to go around him now: every time she looks at him, every time she feels his eyes on her (four times since yesterday), she thinks why would I.
Denver, Colorado, yesterday
Because yesterday, yesterday he was watching a movie and Sydney sat down next to him and put her hand on his thigh.
No. Well, yes, but not like that.
Before that happened, Victor asked her, very matter of fact, about the girl Syd had bumped into near the coffee shop. Syd looked at him and asked whether he thought he was too old to call girls her age “pretty.”
“Would you call me pretty,” she said. “Why would I,” he said.
And when they saw each other again he was sitting in front of the TV and she thought that’s why as her fingers traced the fabric of his trousers.
He turned his head to her, no change to him other than that, nothing.
And the look on him. Knowing. Like, sure, this is where you were going, I see you’ve finally caught up.
“This is why,” she hears herself whisper, on the edge of her own voice, like she was trying to convince him. That’s why, and her hand’s moving up his leg. That’s why, and her mouth’s almost on his ear. That’s why, when she finds him half-hard under her fingers, and he can’t help himself, his hips push into her grip, just a little, just enough for her to notice.
Victor won’t open his eyes, and she hears him mutter “Terrible idea” under his breath. She wants to be able to tell him that “No,” “No, it isn’t,” like Serena would, and for him to believe it, too. She wants so badly to be her with this: to know exactly what to say and how to do and not be here: on the very edge, with no real plan.
And then his hands are on her. One pushes into her collarbone and strips away the shirt and the bra strand from her shoulder, all in one motion.
And the other is between her legs. It’s a sudden change, and he’s quick; she doesn’t feel him move until she surges forward and his fingers press against her.
Sydney feels like her breath’s been knocked out of her. She opens her mouth and gasps, tips her head back and tries to breathe normally, in and out and in and in again when his mouth is on her jaw.
He moves his other hand from her shoulder to the back of her neck and pushes until his mouth is on hers. She pushes her tongue against his lips and, a knee jerk reaction on his part, surely, he thrusts into her hand with a sound Syd's never heard him make. She reaches for his goddamn belt, and the weight of her fingers makes him halt. He stops kissing her. He gets away from her mouth with a wet, terrible sound.
His eyes are open, his lips are redder than usual, his hair is all messy and he’s still hard under her hand.
But he won’t move, and there is something that reads like fear in his eyes, something like panic but not really, he does not feel that, it’s more in the realms of what the fuck and why would I—
Anyway. Yesterday he was still thirty-nine and today he’s a whole year older and even if he isn’t, he certainly acts like yesterday wasn’t really yesterday, but a whole lot of time ago.
Denver, Colorado, tonight
And when they drink and toast and try to decide on their next city, Victor never looks her in the eyes, not once. It’s almost an invitation to make him.
Sydney waits until Mitch is asleep and Dominic has gone to the bar.
Syd waits until she is sure they’d at least have ten minutes of no one daring to barge into the common space. She comes out of her room and finds him hunched over a laptop on the couch.
When Victor sees her, he stops. He looks right past her shoulder, carefully unfocused. He puts away the laptop and if that’s not an invitation then why bother with anything, really.
Syd takes another step forward until she could reach out. He turns to her, his feet on the floor, his legs ever so slightly apart. He could reach out too.
The thought alone makes her knees buckle and she almost falls into him, her legs between his, her arms on his shoulders.
At least he doesn’t look bored.
Nashville, Tennessee, two and a half years later
Mitch keeps tabs on her. Every year she receives a birthday card in a bright orange envelope marked with her current address, fake name and all.
This year the envelope’s yellow though. It starts with a curt “happy 24th or something,” no capitals. Her eyes are tired, her fringe needs cutting. She puts on music to dial down the loud noises her fridge makes. She wipes a tear off her right eye and keeps reading.
Syd kept tabs too: she changed her number and texted Mitch from the new one. He kept her in the loop.
She knows that after she left, Dominic did too. And then Mitch must have said fuck it because right now he’s on his own.
Mitch kept tabs on Victor too. The card reads, in Mitch’s handwriting: “come back, Victor’s dying.”
She gets to her phone and types in “good let him die.” Hits send and goes to the other corner of her studio apartment. Comes back to the table, picks up the phone and sends a second message. “Ok fine.”
And just like that, she uproots her life before asking for an explanation.
Denver, Colorado, tonight
The top two buttons of his dark grey shirt are undone and she tugs at the cloth in her fist, revealing one of his scars.
“What the fuck, Syd,” he whispers. Syd, like he doesn't have time for all of her. But they have been around each other for years and she knows what he sounds like and right now his voice is hoarse, and his breathing’s shallow and his face is flushed. She has all of his attention now, he can’t seem to tear his eyes away from her. Which is, well, brilliant.
Sydney straddles him, all the while looking him in the eyes, which is tricky because she doesn’t want to land on his laptop. When she’s settled, and Victor still doesn’t move, Sydney begins to rock her hips. She can feel him getting hard beneath her, and she knows she’s wet, just as she was yesterday evening, just as she was this morning when she’d pressed the heel of her hand to her cunt and imagined it was his hand, his fingers, his mouth, h—
He bites into her shoulder, just above her scar, and takes the pain away, all instinct.
Her fingers run through his hair, and he looks up at her and for once he’s not even close to hurting anyone but has that intense look on him all the same. Focused and clear, and, and, and this one is just hers.
Victor opens his mouth, begins to form the words but can’t manage to get them out. It’s like he wants to say terrible and idea, but he’d said the words yesterday and it didn’t help, here they are, so maybe the words aren’t magic and he has to believe them too.
She untangles her arms from him and tugs at her own T-shirt, desperate to minimise the number of layers between them. With her hands still in the air, she feels his hot hands on her bare stomach. It makes her shiver, a thing so violent, she loses her sense of direction for a second there, so when his hands move to the skin just under her bra, she is still struggling with her T-shirt.
Syd hears him laugh as he helps her out of it, but when she can see him again he isn’t laughing at all.
“Sydney?” She knows they should say something to each other, like, there has to be a conversation, something to hold on to when this blows up in their faces. But she doesn’t want to hear him use words like “age” and “family” and “get out”. She tilts her head and looks down, where he is hard in his jeans and pushing against her leggings.
The thing is— He isn’t wearing a belt. She brings her hands to his fly when he catches her by the wrist. Sydney.
I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, ripples through her head but he makes her look at him when the skin where he’s touching her starts to ache.
“I gave you all of this,” she cuts his next Sydney off. “Don’t you think you owe me this?” At the very least, you owe me this.
“Owe you?” Vic looks at her like she’d completely missed the point, and judging by the way his hips keep moving in short aborted thrusts, you know, maybe she did. “Oh, you think you are taking something?” he says.
“This is not-“ and then he’s all out of words, out of breath, because she rolls her hips, once, twice and his fingers uncurl around her and she gets her hand underneath the waistband of his underwear. Victor bites his lip as her fist closes around him, but the angle is impossible and doesn’t allow for much.
The other thing that doesn’t allow for much is her limited knowledge of what to do. She’d beaten off a boy three towns earlier; but that was a supply closet at the coffee shop where he worked, and she’d had a crush on him for a month before she ended up pressed to the half-empty shelves that dug into her spine, with his clumsy hands on her tits. After a while, she decided she’d had enough of that and took him into her hand. He’d shivered at how cold her fingers were and still came not three minutes later.
Somehow, would you believe it, this feels different.
She feels— “Victor—“ safe.
He swears loudly, and stops right there, again, which is really starting to rile her up. But this time he reaches toward the laptop and closes the lid. And then he pushes her to stand up.
Jersey City, New Jersey, two and a half years later
She should’ve checked the “Victor’s dying” part. Turns out, Mitch’s all about tenses. Victor has been dying, and maybe he’s dying now too, but he sure looks very much alive.
The apartment’s full of people. Well, it’s Dom and Mitch and Vic and her, so it’s crowded by definition.
Vic nods to Mitch and Mitch catches them up. Catches her up. They all seem to have known already: that night in his grave, something went wrong. She did wrong.
She glances behind her shoulder at the walls and the furniture of a rental. The room gives her nothing, so she turns to him, on the couch, always the god damn couch and he raises his head from his book.
Good then. Victor looks at her.
You are old, she wants to say. And careful, and pale and blond and tall and just like me.
Mitch goes on saying that if they all work together, they might be able to fix this. Victor rolls his eyes. “I work better alone,” he says.
Syd doesn’t skip a beat: “Now, we both know that’s not true.”
He keeps his eyes on her.
“You look older,” he finally says. Vic closes the book he’s been vandalising, puts down the marker. His hands are shaking.
That’s when she notices it. The clues of I have been dying for years. It’s all lines and scars and the past, right there for the decoding. He nods. Fuck you too, she thinks.
Denver, Colorado, tonight
On their feet, he’s taller than she is, and she’s always known that, but right now, with his pants undone and her in just her bra and leggings, it registers with her in a whole new way.
He says “Where do you want to do this,” with no trace of embarrassment she thought she’d witnessed earlier. She can’t tell whether he’s resolved or playing her, like maybe if he raises the stakes she’d quit. She returns the question.
“Where do you want to do this?”
“Your floor,” and, oh, he’s serious. He also has an answer, like maybe he’s given it some thought. Like, maybe, he’d woken up this morning, on his fortieth, and thought Syd.
She turns away from him, half-daring and half-terrified that he won’t follow. But no, they both cross the threshold to her room and Vic locks the door as soon as. His hands are on her hips and he pushes her into the wall, and he’s also trying to get out of his jeans.
She helps a little, more bumping knees with him than anything else, and the heel of her hand presses against his dick and he winces, like she’d hurt him, like she’d be able to.
Sydney smiles at that, a sense of victory she didn’t expect. He pushes his jeans and underwear away with his foot and says “Please,” like there is a need there, and this is more than he can handle.
She brings her hand to him and Vic closes his eyes before she even moves. It’s— nice; feels like she has power radiating from her. For once he is not the only one who can bend people to his will. Not the only one who can be cruel, she thinks, as she twists her hand and his hips push forward before he catches himself.
“This isn’t really my floor,” she says to him, half-joking. He pulls away from her and kneels. His hands tug her leggings down and as she helps him do the same with her underwear, she feels his fingers on hers. He squeezes her hand in hers and looks up.
From this angle, his face is almost kind.
And then she is left there in only her bra when he gets to the floor.
Vic goes very still, his fingers curling and uncurling into fists like he does when he wants to play off pain for show.
This doesn’t feel like a show, but what does she know except for how to make him into this, apparently.
She tilts her head. Tell me what’s happening, she wants to say, not in a big way, not in the what are we, but in the where are we at, what are you doing, what am I supposed to do right now.
He is looking at her bra so she unclasps it, gets it off as graceful as she can manage.
She never really was like this before, standing over someone twice her age, naked, warm.
She gets to the floor too and he meets her halfway, reaching for his jeans: takes a condom from the front pocket, tears it with his teeth and slips it on.
Outside of Merit, seven years ago
“Well, maybe he’s afraid of you," Mitch says.
Denver, Colorado, tonight
She slides down onto him, slow and deliberate. She knows she should be in a fair amount of pain: he leaves her just enough to know how much of it he’s taking away. But all she feels is him: his hands on her back, his eyes, his hips against her thighs.
And she wants to stay and wait and be, until he can’t take it anymore, until he pushes up his hips and it makes them both grunt.
“Fucking move,” he spits out, and she does, careful and trembling and high on the new-found power. Victor’s never this lost.
He starts moving when Syd says it’s okay, when she picks up a rhythm and closes her eyes and strings of words fall from her mouth: fuck and more and that right there and Victor Victor Victor Victor.
His hands move from her hips to her breasts, down her stomach and to where he is pushing into her. Syd knows he is good with pain, and equally good at keeping it away. But this is entirely something else. She wants him to look at her and know that he can just be this, he doesn’t need to be anything, he can just do this, to her, here.
Not that she is capable of putting it into elaborate words right now, and later she won’t be able to for entirely different reasons.
She doesn’t want it to end. His breathing grows fast and shallow and his fingers tighten on her hips, past the pain threshold he’d set, or maybe he’s losing his grip on how much pain he should be taking away.
And she thinks: he’d be done soon, and she doesn’t want that to happen. She’ll be stuck in the aftermath by then, with no possible return to just this. Just him in her and no words and no guilt and no family dynamics to untangle.
That’s what she’ll be left with.
She’s regretting it when he pushes forward and presses his chest to hers in one sharp move that makes her cry out as he bites down on her neck and says Sydney Sydney Sydney until he stops saying it. His hands fall from her hips and she doesn’t allow him the opportunity to pull away from her, she does that all on her own, exceptionally good at feigning indifference to whatever had just ended.
She lies down beside him, careful as to not touch him again. She watches the look on his face. Like pride.
And then she watches it decay.
Outside of Merit, seven years ago
Syd doesn’t think Victor’s afraid. But she thinks of this: Eli was powerful. Victor was obsessed with him.
Mitch said she’s powerful too.