There’s blood on his tongue and every bone in his body screams, but all he registers is the fist in his hair and those dark, dark eyes. Eli’s pupils are so wide-blown they’re almost obsidian, and yet they’re trained on Victor’s every move, awake and frenzied like a predator ready to pounce. He barely blinks, this eternal boy of twenty-two, and for a moment Victor’s entire body shivers with pleasure at the realization that Eli is looking at him. Eli sees him. Eli is focused on him and on nobody else.
Of course, he has to ruin it with the hand pulling out Victor’s hair by the roots and the knife against his belly, but nothing’s perfect. In another life, they’re college boys again, stupid roommates who do stupid things—together.
In another life, Eli’s body is still pinned beneath his, but there’s no blood at all.
But Victor doesn’t just take what he can get. He takes everything . He can get it all.
“What the hell are you looking at?” Eli asks, his voice hoarse with a threat, and Victor laughs because it’s just so painfully cliche.
Look at them. Look at the two of them.
Heroes talking like a villain from a cheap noir B flick.
So he answers Eli in the one way he hasn’t tried in ten long years.
He kisses him—flat on the mouth and harder than the concrete beneath their shins.
The first time they’d tried it they had the excuse of alcohol. The rest of the night is a formless blur, and Victor would rather forget the rat’s nest the others call a frat party. But somehow he’d attended it, probably for the promise of more free hard drinks than he could ask for, and probably because Eli had bugged him to go too.
Nobody can convince Victor Vale to do anything he doesn’t want to. Which means he really wanted to go in the first place—or at least, he wanted to see if drunken Eli had sharper edges.
But the clock has crawled long past midnight by the time they stumble into their room, arguing about something or the other, an experiment they did in class maybe, or the fact that Victor didn’t do the damn dishes, or that everyone in that frat house is fucking disgusting. What it’s about doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they’re a bramble of limbs, that they don’t bother with the lights anymore, and that while the world is still spinning at least Victor no longer wants to vomit.
Eli’s laughing at him, and if he felt better, he might shove the guy against the sharpest edge of his bedside table.
“You really can’t handle your alcohol,” Eli says. It’s either fond or utterly condescending. Victor growls, but he’s looking in the wrong direction, so Eli laughs even harder.
The hypocrite is talking like he’s sober. Victor punches weakly, and by the noise Eli makes, he’s landed a hit. On his shoulder or nose, he’s not sure which
“That’s not very nice,” Eli says. “And to think I helped you get home like a good friend.”
“Because you did this to me,” Victor says, his head finally swiveling towards the right direction. “Like a good friend.”
Their gazes meet. The world lurches. Victor reaches forward blindly, hoping to steady himself, and Eli catches him in his arms. Their bodies crash together with a painful thump, chest to chest and shoulder to collar. With the way Eli’s holding him, they could be performing an awkward waltz.
Eli is taller, yes, and he’s broader too. In the privacy of their dorm room he looks less friendly and more feral. Victor is pliant in his best friend’s arms, and he realizes with horrifying certainty that Eli has a thumb pressed against the junction of his shoulder and neck, right below his pulse. Can the brunet hear it hammering inside of Victor’s throat? His finger brushes that patch of skin subtly, delicately, and Victor inhales with force. The cold air rushes into his lungs like a stabbing knife.
Eli’s thumb remains solid against his neck.
How easy it would be for the boy to wrap his hands around his throat. And it would be easy for Victor to do that to him too. He glances up, quickly, meeting a pair of clear brown eyes. It hits him then, how focused Eli’s gaze is. How it’s sharp and beautiful as a blade. How he looks like a man that knows what he wants.
Eli is looking at him, Victor realizes. Eli sees him. Eli is focused on him and nobody else.
Why had he ever stopped looking? Why had he lost interest? There’s always been a void inside of Victor, a black hole yearning to be filled, and now it’s reared itself awake. He stares—blue eyes against hazel—and says nothing.
Eli licks his lips, and he says nothing either.
They stand there, frozen in time, their hands heavy on each other’s exposed skin.
Victor’s blood roars in his ears.
“You did this to me,” he repeats. It’s an accusation. A confession. A revelation all at once. Eli is looking at him, God, he’s looking at him like he’s all that matters.
The beast inside Victor’s belly preens.
“Did what?” Eli whispers, his gaze dark. The bastard. As if he doesn’t already know.
He doesn’t realize he’s been leaning forward until he feels Eli’s breath against his cheek.
Victor answers him with a kiss.
It starts as a kiss—the dry press of lips against lips, eyes fluttering shut, a fist curling in his collar. And then, like everything else between them, it snowballs into something more violent and terrible. Nails dragging across pale skin. A bruising grip on someone’s hip. The press of tongue. The sharpness of fangs, of teeth. Open-mouthed kisses along the jaw, the shoulder, the throat, as if they want to devour each other whole.
Feet stumbling over each other. Knocking aside a stack of books. Banging a wrist painfully against the doorframe. A pleased groan. The sweater pulled over Eli’s head and crumpling to the floor. Eli’s trembling hands undoing the buttons of Victor’s shirt. The backs of his knees hitting the edge of the mattress. The two of them falling together in an angry heap, limbs tugging each other closer as if they’re afraid to let go.
They wrestle to pin each other down. It’s almost like a game again: the two of them always fighting to get to the top. In class, in grades, in cruelty, in life, in bed. For a moment Victor slams Eli to the mattress, his hand on the brunet boy’s throat, and he grins because it’s a beautiful kind of victory. Eli shivers when their hips slot together. He’s hard through his boxers, even Victor can feel that. By now all the alcohol is drained from his blood, leaving him clear-headed, pristine.
Eli licks his lips and stares at him, and Victor has no choice but to chase that mouth with his own.
When Eli grinds against him he knows there’s no going back. Whatever line they’ve crossed is long gone. Whatever this means… he has no time to think about it. Eli groans his name and it’s the most beautiful sound he’s ever heard. It sounds like a prayer, the way he says it, and Victor wants to jab at him, wants to make a joke— Who’s your god now, Eli Cardale?
But he doesn’t. He just skims his fingers along the inside of Eli’s thigh and makes the boy beg for his mercy.
Hours later, they lie there, squeezed together on Victor’s tiny university-issued cot. Their shoulders are pressed together faintly—done out of necessity, just so they’ll fit. The air is cool against their bare skin, and Victor shudders. He still feels sticky and disgusting, even if he’d wiped them off with Eli’s shirt. Eli complained, of course, but he wasn’t about to get up and grab some towels on his own.
They stare at the ceiling, their breaths evening out. The remnants of a frat party rage on outside. The muffled beat of electro music, a car alarm, a door slamming shut.
Victor rests a hand on his belly and wonders what there is to say.
He isn’t drunk anymore.
Eli beats him to it. He turns on his side, his back to Victor. His scars are in full view, and when Victor reaches out to brush one with his knuckle, Eli doesn’t even flinch.
Victor pulls away.
“Goodnight,” Eli whispers. There’s no fondness in his tone. It’s flat, matter of fact, almost emotionless. But that’s fine. Because it’s real.
He isn’t lying. He’s showing his true self.
Victor almost smiles.
The next day, he wakes to the sun shining on his face and Eli’s arm thrown across his stomach. Eli is so still, so emotionless, that he looks almost dead.
But then he breathes once, sighs, and Victor is violently reminded that this is real—that they are both alive. That last night he got roaring drunk and slept with his best friend. He should feel something, he knows. Shame, perhaps. Regret. Guilt at taking advantage. But Victor feels nothing. He gets out of bed, takes a shower, gets dressed, and heads to class, even if it’s two hours early.
Eli doesn’t wake, not even when he shuts their apartment door.
They don’t talk about it. Eli sits next to him for molecular biology, but all he offers is a quick greeting and a question about their next quiz. They have lunch at LIDS too. Victor makes a cutting observation about two of their classmates, and Eli chuckles heartily into his pasta. When Angie arrives, she greets Eli with a passionate kiss, and he kisses back. His eyes die then, and Victor hates it so much that he crumples a napkin in his fist.
“Hi, Victor,” she says. He says hi too.
A spiteful part of him wants to tell her. Do you know what Eli did last night? Do you know who he did last night? Do you know that he was naked beneath me, that he was desperately chanting my name, that he kept touching every inch of my exposed skin?
But he doesn’t, because for once he’s not sure what he wants out of this.
Victor tries not to think about it. Everything is normal between them, all things considered. But now he can’t stop seeing things. The way Eli’s shirt rides up when he tugs off his hoodie. The way Eli rubs the back of his neck, runs a hand through his hair. The way Eli stares into nothing, lost in thought, his hands clasped together so tightly like he’s wringing an invisible man’s neck.
The way his eyes light up in class when he’s manipulated everyone else into believing he’s done something much more clever. The way he smiles and suddenly everyone will give him everything.
The way he wields his body like a weapon. Eli wields people like an instrument, bending them all to their will.
And of course, only Victor can see.
Victor’s at a party, which is such a rarity in itself that it could be a cause for celebration. But he’s not here by will. Angie dragged him here, therefore Angie also dragged Eli, and while the two of them are commanding the entire crowd in the kitchen, Victor’s stepped out into the patio for some fresh air.
It’s there that he finds him. A tall, fit, brunet boy with horn-rimmed glasses. He’s got a thick head of dark curls. He’s got a cigarette between his lips, a beer bottle in one hand, and his phone in the other. He’s typing something frantically, his brows knitted, as if the words will fly away. In the unsteady blur of the porch lights, he looks so much like a tamer, softer, more boring version of Eli that Victor is almost knocked off his feet.
Something violent bubbles inside of his ribs. The boy standing in front of him is such a fake. How could he ever try to copy the real Eli, the real thing?
Then the boy looks up. His eyes widen. His throat bobs with a trembling swallow.
He’s an English major. Or maybe it’s World Literature. Or maybe it’s Creative Writing. His name is Henry… or Harry… or James. Victor grabs his bottle and sets it aside. The boy splutters, but his cheeks are already pink, and Victor knows he’s got him the moment he curls a fist in his collar.
The boy is a decent kisser, albeit way too talkative. Victor crooks a finger and he follows like a man possessed. They go back inside the house, squeeze through the disgusting crowd, and find an empty bedroom upstairs.
If Victor feels a heavy pair of dark eyes tracking his every move, he doesn’t acknowledge them.
He only smirks.
He texts Angie Don’t wait up for me , then throws the brunet against the wall.
Once he’s finished with him, he goes down to the party, and discovers that Angie took his advice and left. Eli’s gone too.
Five days pass until Victor gets home, unwraps his scarf from his neck, turns on the lights, and finds Eli glaring at him from a spot on the couch.
“Why were you sitting in the dark?” Victor asks. It’s ridiculous, and dramatic, and he’s not sure Eli realized he was doing it. Light pollution filters into the room, but it’s only enough to make out the bare shapes of their furniture. Eli is staring at him like he’s about to strangle him, or maybe kiss him again, and Victor realizes he’s fine with both.
“You didn’t come home that night,” Eli says. “From the party.”
Victor raises a single, unaffected brow.
“I texted Angie not to wait for me. Did she not tell you?”
“You didn’t text me.”
“Angie was the one that invited us, so I thought I’d tell her.”
“What was his name?”
Eli strides towards him. They’re standing so close now that Victor can see every inch of his skin. The small razor burn on his chin. The lock of hair that curls by his brow. The angry tilt of his mouth. The burning heat in his gaze.
“Who?” Victor asks.
“Him,” Eli breathes. Closer, closer, like a shadow about to devour him whole. “You slept with him. Did you even know his name?”
“Yes,” Victor lies. “I had to call something out.”
Eli moves, and for a moment Victor wonders if his best friend is going to punch him. But he just kisses him instead, and it’s violent and hard enough that it does feel like getting punched.
Victor laughs. Eli drags Victor’s lip between his teeth.
“You’re evil,” Eli grumbles. “You’re a horrible, horrible man, Victor Vale.”
“I know,” Victor murmurs. He tilts Eli’s chin between his fingers. “And so are you.”
Here is what the rest of the world doesn’t know about Eli Cardale:
- He is not good
- He is not tender
- He is not merciful
- He is not kind
Here is what they do get right:
- There is only one person on Earth that is his equal, and his name is Victor Vale
Equal (ee-kwuhl), noun, adjective, verb;
- The same brilliance
- The same ambition
- The same ruthlessness
- The same loneliness
- The same black heart
- Eli and Victor. Victor and Eli. The hero and the villain. The sinner and the saint. The angel and the devil. The pleasure and the pain. Life and death.
- It was only ever you.
There is blood on his tongue and every bone in his body screams, but all he registers is the trembling press of Eli’s lips against his. Victor tries to right himself, but they’re still a tangle of limbs on the filthy concrete. He shudders once.
Eli is looking at him with dark, dark eyes. With an expression so haunted and desperate all at once. Like Victor is a ghost come to haunt him again.
“Why,” Victor breathes. “Why did you betray me, Eli?”
Eli swallows. His Adam’s apple bobs. Victor catalogues every flinch.
“Because you’re not Vic,” Eli murmurs. “Because you’re just a devil in my best friend’s body. Because—” his breath hitches. “Because you betrayed me first. Because the real you wouldn’t do this.”
“Because you’re wearing his face. ” Eli gasps. The knife slides deeper inside his gut. Victor twists it once, twice, his hands on the handle warm against Eli’s. “And you don’t deserve to walk around with his face, with his body, with his voice.”
“I thought you understood me, Eli. I thought you knew me better than this. Did you ever know me at all?”
“I did.” Eli gasps. Blood blooms between their fingers. He doesn’t pull the knife out of his stomach. “I do.”
“Then you have to know that this is the real me. I’ve always had this darkness, Eli. Just like you. We’re the same, you and I. We’re both—”
“We could’ve been heroes ,” Victor hisses. “Why did you betray me? You never actually loved Angie.”
“You don’t know how to love.”
Eli makes a noise between a snarl and a groan. The blood drips between them now, and Victor almost slips on it.
“If I don’t know how to love,” Eli tells him, his eyes heartless. “Then neither do you. If I don’t know how to love, then why am I still here?”
“I didn’t want you to become an EO,” Eli continues. “Because I didn’t want you to become a monster just like me.”
This, Victor realizes, is the kindest thing anyone has ever said to him.
And it’s also the most foolish.
Eli doesn’t know how to love. Victor doesn’t know either.
But this might be the closest thing to love they’ll ever have.
“Too late,” Victor growls. “I’ve always been a monster.”
Eli’s eyes shutter with an expression he can’t name.
“I know,” he murmurs. “I know, Vic.”
And when Eli flips them over, the knife still buried in his gut, his blood dripping on Victor’s torso, his eyes focused on Victor’s like nothing else exists, his hands wrapping around Victor’s throat—
He realizes that it’s the only way he’s ever wanted to go.
And Eli’s always known.