It starts on a Wednesday, between Gym class and Math. Eli is walking to the latter, nursing bruises from the former, when he hears a voice in the hall call:
"Nice game today, Nerdlias."
Eli tries not to flinch, or huddle down into his textbook. "S-screw you, Lacroix," he stammers, or tries to, even as Arthur Lacroix and his three meathead buddies crowd the hallway. Arthur is everything Elias Drake is not; blond-haired and blue-eyed, broad-shouldered and popular and on the lacrosse team, because of course he is. It's like they were all handed their scripts in freshman year, Arthur the blond jock, Eli the skinny nerd with bad hair. All he's missing are the glasses.
"What did you say, nerd?" snarls one of Arthur's bodyguards. Eli thinks the guy's name is Lance, but he's never sure and they all look like they've been churned out from the same jerk factory.
"Nothing," Eli mutters, and tries to keep walking. Except suddenly Lance is right there, big and looming.
"I said," he growls, "what did you say to me, nerd?" He emphasizes the last word like he wants to say something else. Wants to, but doesn't have the balls. Just like he doesn't have the balls to do anything but pick on skinny sophomores in the hallway backed up by half an army.
Eli feels something hot and sick curl up in his gut. Hot and sick and small, shivering and frightened but angry, too. He's suddenly very aware just how alone he is, caught between classes next to a bank of half-rusted lockers that haven't been used since before the Internet was invented.
Lance's breath is hot on Eli's face, close enough Eli can see the blackheads forming across his nose.
Maybe it's that that finally does it. That, or the acid in Eli's gut or the cold blue state of Arthur Lacroix over Lance's shoulder. Watching. Assessing. Like he's just waiting to see what Eli will do.
One of Arthur's other mooks pounds one fist into his palm. Everyone, it seems, knows where this is going. Eli figures that, if he has to go down, at least he can go down fighting.
"I said," he hears himself say, "'Screw you.'" He's proud how little his voice shakes.
A big, ugly grin sprawls across Lance's squashed-pig face. "Yeah," he says. "That's what I thought." Then his fist slams into Eli's gut.
It's not Eli's first beating at school, not by a long shot. It is his first beating at this school, however, and he prides himself on lasting this long, even as his spine slams into the lockers behind him.
He doubles over, gasping for breath, even as he feels hot, meaty hands grab his arms and haul him upright.
"Time to teach someone some respect," says Lance, cracking his knuckles. Behind him, Lacroix leans against the far wall, playing with his phone, looking bored with the whole affair.
Eli hates him. He hates all of them, with everything he is, every inch of his being from the pores of his skin to the marrow in his bones.
Lance pulls his arm back again and Eli sees it coming, moving like it's in slow motion. Another gut shot-Lacroix's goons are stupid but not stupid enough to hit anyone where it shows-and Eli's halfway through bracing for the impact when the bubbling pit of acid below his ribs seems to burst and he thinks, very clearly:
No. No more.
There's a sound, like the roar of some horrific beast, loud enough to startle Lance to stillness.
"What the-?" he manages, horror dawning in his watery eyes.
It's about then that Eli realizes the noise is coming from him. That he's the beast that's roaring, something loud and deep and burning. He lunges forward and the hands holding him are torn free, as if their strength is nothing. Eli's entire body feels strange. Burning like it's doused in acid, burning like a fever, and then it's slamming into Lance and then the floor.
The next thing Eli knows, his teeth are sinking into soft, meaty flesh.
Lance screams, which startles the others into action. Three sets of hands grab Eli's shoulders and haul him up. He goes without resistance, mouth full of coppery blood and mind reeling. Did he really just bite Lance Marlowe?
"He bit me! The little shit bit me!"
Yes. Yes, apparently he did.
The burning, tingling feeling hasn't left his skin and something in his mouth-beyond just the blood-feels wrong. When he brings his hand up to cover it, he feels big, jagged shapes behind his lips.
Arthur is currently distracted, looking at Lance's neck and bloodied sweatshirt, joined by the guy Eli thinks might be called Gavin or Gareth or something similar. The fourth guy (Van? Val?) still has one meaty fist wrapped around Eli's arm but he's also distracted by Lance's bloodied neck. Eli figures that if there's ever a time to get away, it's now.
There's one awful instant when maybe-Val realizes what Eli's doing. Val shouts, fingers tightening on Eli's bicep. Eli's skin still feels like it's seething, roiling like the ocean--like there's something just beneath it, trying to get out-and he focuses on that and-
-and Val is pulling his hand away, yelping in pain, even as Eli hears a sound like tearing fabric. He doesn't stick around to find out more, just books it down the corridor. Because Eli can't throw and he can't catch and he can't dodge, but running? Running he's always been able to do.
Here, today, the burn in his legs blends in with the burn beneath his skin. Blends with the strange buzzing in his ears and the blood in his mouth and the angry shouts of Arthur Lacroix and his goons. Eli startles several people as he passes, not sure where he's headed, other than "away." He feels faster than he ever has, blood pounding and limbs powerful. He gets the crazy idea to drop down on all fours. He has dreams like that, sometimes; running and leaping so fast and so far he might as well be flying. Maybe that's what this is. A dream. Maybe the school corridors will blur into his curtains and he'll wake in his bed and none of this will have ever happened.
And then, somehow, he's in the toilets in the science block, staring at his own reflection in the mirror.
He has spines.
All across his shoulders and down his arms, and he guesses that's what the ripping was. His favorite hoodie and everything. The spines are thick and black and jagged like obsidian, like something from a videogame monster, and this has to be a dream because Eli's skin is on fire and his ears hammer like a bass-beat and everything is going fuzzy around the edges.
In the mirror, Eli's eyes shine pure gold, and when he smiles, his blood-smeared teeth are jagged fangs.
The last thing he remembers is the floor, coming up to meet him.
The next thing he sees is the ceiling of the Nurse's office. Eli knows it's the Nurse's office because there's a half dozen pencils stuck into the tiles, shot up by previous occupants of the bed. Also, the blanket is bleached white cotton weave, the sort that exists in hospitals and nowhere else. Eli's only been at Rosemont High for four months, and this is his third time in this bed. He's beginning to think he has a problem.
"I'm beginning to think you have a problem. Since you keep winding up here and all."
Eli groans, blinks, and turns his head, causing the faded blue hair and heavy black eyeliner of Zoe Chung to roll into view.
Zoe is Eli's friend, the sole one he's managed to make in the four months since he came here. In the four months since his parents got into their car one evening and drove out and-
And anyway. Zoe. Eli had found her hiding in the library on his third day, and they'd bonded over a mutual love of Warren Ellis and avoiding the ire of the cooler, prettier, more popular kids.
Not that Zoe isn't pretty. She's . . . big ("Fat, Ee. I'm fat. Just say the word.") though, and Eli supposes there are a lot of people who can't see past that. Not to mention Zoe's sense of style, which she describes as "cosplay casual."
Today is, apparently, a Harry Potter day, with Zoe decked out in black and blue and bronze.
When Eli puts his hand up to feel his mouth, the blood is gone, and so are the fangs. "What happened?" he says.
"That's what I'm hoping you can tell me," says Zoe. "You missed Math and Mr. Sharma says he found you passed out in the bathroom."
Eli groans again, then sits up. The weird burning feeling in his skin has gone but he feels shaky and weak in its wake. And hungry. Super, super hungry. His hand goes to his stomach and that's about when he realizes he's not wearing his own shirt.
"I put your clothes in your bag," Zoe says. "But I don't think you'll be wearing them again. They were pretty ripped up." She pauses, then her hand settles gently on Eli's forearm. The nails are striped blue and bronze. Zoe repaints them every night, Eli knows. To match the next day's outfit.
"Ee . . ." Her voice is soft, now. Caring. "Ee, if something . . . if something happened, you know you can tell me, right? I won't tell anyone else if you don't want me to."
"Arthur Lacroix and his goons jumped me in the hall," he says, because he knows Zoe's telling the truth. "I think . . . I think I bit Lance Marlowe in the throat."
It's a hushed confession, almost ashamed, but Zoe just bursts out laughing. She punches Eli in the arm playfully. "Well, good! Asshole probably deserved it."
Eli allows himself a grin. "Yeah," he said. "He did. Bit him pretty hard, though. There was blood." The borrowed t-shirt he's wearing is too big and too threadbare. But the skin on his arms looks exactly how it's supposed to; no spikes or scutes or scales. Nothing monstrous at all. Maybe he just imagined what he saw in the bathroom. Adrenalin causes hallucinations, probably. Eli makes a mental note to look it up.
Zoe's face scrunches into disgust. "Ew, no way did you get Lance's blood in your mouth. Who knows what he's carrying. Here"-she produces her satchel from the floor and starts rummaging inside-"drink this." She hands Eli a leather-wrapped thermos that looks like a set prop from Game of Thrones.
The thermos is warm and, when Eli unscrews the lid, the contents smell like chamomile and lemongrass.
"It's a healing potion," Zoe explains, by which she means tea. "It'll help."
Eli takes a sip, because he figures it can't hurt. Zoe keeps a remarkable array of dried herbs in her bag and can brew a "potion" for any occasion. Eli's not sure whether she really believes they have magic powers, and he knows he definitely doesn't. Still, her teas usually taste pretty good and it makes her feel better when he drinks them.
The nurse reappears not long after. He's a stocky, no-nonsense dude called Ike, with full sleeve tats and massive gauges in his ears. But he's gentle as he inspects Eli for injuries.
"Think I just fainted," Eli lies. "I skipped lunch."
"Uh-huh," says Nurse Ike. "Sure. You skipped lunch and fainted onto Lance Marlowe's neck, did you?"
"Maybe." Eli slides his eyes away, and Ike sighs.
"Get out of here," he says. "You should be fine. If you get any sharp pain in your gut or if you pee blood, go see a doctor."
"How do you-?" Eli starts, before clamping his mouth shut and looking away.
Ike snorts. "Yeah. Thought so. Off you go. Bring the shirt back by Friday."
Thing is, Eli is pretty sure he should have sone kind of injury. He remembers the feel of Lance's fist connecting with his stomach. If nothing else, it should've left a bruise.
Except it didn't. Eli checks under the too-thin loaner shirt and the skin isn't so much as tender.
Must be the tea, he thinks, and tries not to remember a beast with sharp teeth and glowing, golden eyes.
Aunt Addi is out when Eli gets back to her place-gets back to home, he reminds himself-but there's a note on the kitchen table and dinner in the fridge.
Aunt Addi, a.k.a. Deputy Drake, was Dad's younger sister and is one of Rosemont's Finest. She was always Eli's favorite aunt and she tries hard to be a good guardian, but she wasn't exactly ready for . . . this. For Eli. For Mom and Dad to wrap their car around a streetlamp at a hundred miles an hour. Neither was Eli, for that matter. He's pretty sure no one ever could be.
Dinner is lasagne. Addi is an awful cook-before Eli, he's pretty sure she survived on takeout and ramen-but lasagne is the one thing she can do. Plus, it lasts.
Eli reheats his in the microwave, even if it makes the top go soggy and the middle too hot. He thinks maybe tomorrow he should cook instead. Tacos, maybe. He could totally go some tacos.
Tonight, he takes his too-hot lasagne and eats it in his room, in front of his computer, the eight-by-eight grid of his Launchpad sitting quiet below. There's a project he's been working on, and he taps a few samples on and off, tries to feel the beat calling to him.
This is where the magic happens. This is where, no matter how many Arthurs or Lances are in Eli's day, this is where he comes to fly. Fingers soaring on rhythm and melody, lifted by the brilliant lights of the grid. Eli plays for himself and he plays for Zoe and, sometimes, he even plays for YouTube.
His last upload got nearly ten thousand hits. It's not everything, but it's something.
But that mix only used half the buttons on the 'Pad, only half the samples, and was only Eli messing around. This time? This time he wants bigger, better. The full sixty-four. He's loaded up with Nicki and Beyoncé, but also PSY and Dragonforce and the theme from The X-Files, because he likes the contrast. It's all a mess right now and he can't make it work, but he will. He has to. This is the one thing he's good at, the one thing that lets him escape, lets him forget about a knock on the door and two cops with dour faces and please come with us, there's been an accident and-
And there's none of that, not when he's flying.
So he flies. And his lasagne gets cold, and when Aunt Addi finally gets home she finds him drooling on the desk, fast asleep, a mish-mash jangle of pop culture white noise laid over like a blanket.