"I'm beginning to think you have a problem."

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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.

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