Everyone was asleep when Fox finally got up the nerve to visit Vincent. It was after midnight, and Wylie, Forest, Dorian, Dante, Chris and Will were all piled on the cots in the hospital around Justin and Leo. They were worn out from not only the battle but seeing their friends injured. Dante was asleep curled up next to him and Fox was extra careful not to wake him when he slipped from the bed.
He couldn’t help but look over Justin and Leo before he left. A part of him needed to ensure they were breathing and nothing drastic had changed while he fought sleep. Forest was shifted in his leopard form. He looked like a dark shadow around Justin’s feet as he imitated a fluffy blanket. Being cat was probably easier on Forest at the moment. Things hurt less when you were shifted. Not physical pain, but the stuff that made your heart hurt too much to bear.
Dr. Rob was alone with his dark head ducked over paperwork when Fox stepped into his office.
“Hey, Master Theodore said I might be able to visit Vince.”
Dr. Rob looked up and blinked a few times as his glasses slipped down his nose. “Are you feeling well enough to walk right now?”
Fox shrugged distractedly. “I guess so. Come on, Doc; he’s all alone in there. I just want to see him.”
Dr. Rob sat back in his chair with a thoughtful look on his features. “I understand Vincent is very important to you. I just want to stress how upsetting him right now could be detrimental. For his health, and possibly your own.”
Fox gave him a confused look. “I’m not going in there to fight with him. He’s seriously been locked in a room for the last 12 hours.”
“Yes. There is a very good reason for that.”
Fox rolled his eyes. “You have him in a null-collar.”
Dr. Rob sighed and his long fingers came up to set his glasses properly on his face. “Fox, Vincent’s elemental magic works around the collar. If he becomes upset, he is capable of doing the same spells you saw this afternoon. The only difference is the harm they will cause his body will be extreme while in a null-collar.” His gaze turned piercing. “That is not a deterrent for someone like Vincent.”
Fox scowled. “I’m not going in there to fight with him. I’m not afraid of him; no one in this Academy should be afraid of Vince. He knew exactly what he was doing and the only people he hurt were the creeps who fucking deserved it.”
Dr. Rob nodded slowly and pushed himself to his feet. “I’m asking you to be aware of your effect on him. What happened today is only a trigger for Vincent, not the cause of his distress. You’re not always talking to the Vincent from the Academy, Fox.”
Fox pursed his lips, his eyes downcast. He went to scratch at his ear, only to stop himself when his fingers touched bandages. “I know. Sometimes he’s not even here at all. It doesn’t matter though. He shouldn’t be alone like this.”
Dr. Rob paused at the doorway to his office. “He’s sedated. Don’t expect too much from him right now. He’ll be confused at best.”
Fox briskly nodded as he realized he won. “I just want to see him.”
Dr. Rob gave him a look, having caught the way he winced in pain from his last movement, but didn’t say anything. He led him to Vincent’s room and spelled the door open so Fox could enter. “I’ll be back in a little while to check in. If you need anything, I’ll be in my office.”
Fox stepped in and waited for Dr. Rob to leave. His eyes searched the dimly lit room as he looked for the signs of damage already magicked away by Dr. Rob earlier in the evening. Once his gaze fell on Vincent’s sleeping form, he couldn’t look away. He slowly made his way across the room and pulled the single chair out of the corner and placed it next to the bed.
Fox sat with a groan and quickly gripped the side of his waist. The claw marks were killing him, not that he was about to let Dr. Rob know. The healer would spell him to sleep before he even had a chance to blink. He gingerly leaned forward in his seat to untuck his tail. A smile quirked his lips once he saw Vincent again and all of a sudden the pain just didn’t seem to hurt as much.
“Hey, Vince.” He reached over and gently teased a few dark strands of hair from Vincent’s sleeping face. “Hope you don’t mind me crashing. You know I can’t stay away for long.” His hand slipped down and he traced the edge of the null-collar around Vincent’s neck.
Hell, he was beautiful. Not even a bruise on him after he broke up a brawl. “I didn’t get to thank you.” Fox inhaled his scent and smirked. “Not that you wouldn’t have been pissed if I did. Or you’d be pissed cuz I didn’t. You are a difficult guy to make happy, Vince. I think I like that about you. You’re a challenge in a lot of ways. You make me be better and I like that.”
Fox hadn’t told anyone that one of the reasons he improved his focus so much the last few months was because of Vincent. He wasn’t blind to the fact Vince couldn’t handle the level of noise and movement that came out of him when he was wound up. It made things extra hard when all he wanted to do was be around the guy and get to know him. It kind of became his goal to be calm enough for Vincent to not want to wring his neck. Maybe even quiet enough for Vincent to want to spend time with him.
“I thought I was going to die today.” Fox let his fingers comb through the ends of Vincent’s silky hair on the pillow, his brows furrowed in thought. “I seriously thought I was going to die. And you know the fucked up thing? I realized I haven’t done a fucking thing with my life. I have spent a year in this place. An entire year of waiting. All I do is wait, or I guess try to distract myself from all the waiting I’m doing. What the hell am I waiting for? To be a different person? To not fuck shit up all the time? If I had just stayed with Raider instead of going into that butcher shop, none of this would have happened. No one would have been hurt. You wouldn’t have had to… Fuck.”
He sighed in exasperation and hung his head forward. “What the fuck am I doing, Vince? Who the fuck am I supposed to be by the time I leave here? I don’t know if I’m getting closer to that person, or have just lost myself completely. Raider was like a brother to me and now… Now, I’m the type of person who gets pissed off when he tries to run away, instead of offering to go with him, or help him figure out his problems.”
Fox never used to think he was selfish. Back home, he would help anyone who asked. He didn’t care they were younger; he always played with his little sisters. Raider was the most fucked up kid he knew back home, and the Mandula brothers weren’t too far behind in their own particular dysfunctional way. Fox didn’t mind. He was a bridge for messed up people. He knew he was messed up and kind of weird, but for some reason he was also really good with people. He could be that go-between others needed to not feel so alone or isolated. That was what he did; it was like his fucking purpose in life. He’d tell stupid jokes and stories to make people laugh so they’d feel good about being weird too.
Just, there were moments when he wasn’t laughing, wasn’t jumping around trying to impress someone else where he started to realize he didn’t feel so good about himself.
Maybe that was why it was so much easier to be a fox. His inner animal didn’t care if he was doing anything with his life, if he was creating value to the people around him, or helping his family, or learning an important skill. A fox was happy being a fox. Being human was far more complicated. Others depended on you. The things said or unsaid mattered. And sometimes you had to make shitty choices where it all just hurt. He had to be selfish with Raider and watch his friend be hurt so he wasn’t dragged down into his mess of a life. Some people were more than weird; they were black holes of fucking trouble.
“I wasn’t like this before I got here. I would have taken a beating for Raider. Actually, I’m pretty sure I took a few punches over that idiot.” Fox snorted bitterly. “God, the shit he got me into, and the shit I put him through. I used to think it was funny. Interesting, even. I was never bored when Raider was around. He made my life hell, though. I don’t even think I realized how difficult it was to be his friend until I left home and was on my own here. It was like this huge responsibility was taken from me, and I feel like such an asshole, but I don’t want it back. I can’t be his fucking life preserver. I don’t even know what the hell I want to do with my life yet.”
Fox fell silent and watched as Vincent’s hand uncurled from where it was resting on his chest and lifted. “Hey, you awake?” He turned his gaze back to Vincent’s face where his dark eyelashes were fluttering. “Vince?”
“Ruhe,” Vincent mumbled sleepily. His hand jerked up and Fox just managed to move to the side to keep from being smacked on the mouth. Fox quickly caught his hand as it swayed without coordination, and gently guided it back down to Vincent’s chest.
“Sorry,” Fox said much more quietly as he twined their fingers together. “You rest. You don’t need to be awake to hear me bitch about shit. Just…” He peered down, eyes caught on Vincent’s features. “I’m right here, Vince. I’m always going to be here.”
He bent down and tried not to hiss as his wounds pulled painfully. Vincent’s face was again a perfect mask of sleep as Fox pushed his hair back from his face and gently kissed his forehead. “You saved me more than once today. The thing you showed me with the magic; I don’t think I could have been so focused if not for you teaching me how to conjure.” He cupped the side of Vincent’s face and stroked his thumb down his cheek.
“I know you don’t feel the same way. I don’t even know if I need you to feel like this. It doesn’t change anything. Not really.” Half of Fox wished Vincent was awake and could hear him but at the same time the rest of him was grateful he was too drugged up to know he was there. It didn’t matter. Not really.
“I think I love you, Vince,” Fox whispered as he bent down and pressed a soft kiss to warm lips. “And I’m really sorry I didn’t come to visit you sooner.”
Fox sank down and rested his head on the pillow Vincent was sleeping on. More than a few strands of hair tickled at his face but he sighed contentedly and let his eyelids fall closed. The sounds of Vincent’s even breathing were far more comforting than the many confusing thoughts in his head. Fox did his best to focus on it and copied the calming rhythm until all the doubts, fear and guilt he was struggling with eventually abated.
The sun had set some time ago. The drive was long and uncomfortable in the back of the cruiser. Wylie’s arms ached and his wrists were raw again now they were cuffed behind his back. He almost wished Theodore was there just to have a familiar presence in the car. Probably stupid, the guy being a total dick and all. But Theodore saved him even if just because his boss had told him to. And yeah, there was something familiar about the guy. Not family or even friendly, but definitely familiar in a way nothing else ever felt before.
What he really wanted more than not being alone with the hard-eyed officer who smelled of fear, or stuck in the back of the cruiser with the buzzing of escape-preventing nullifiers on all the doors and ceiling, was a cigarette. Food, drink—whatever. A cigarette would be fucking heaven.
From the flatness of the pasture land, mountains rose up in the distance, peaks darker against the star-bright sky. He could see lights up ahead creating a warm bubble of atmosphere in the air above. It had to be the place. There was nothing else out there and the car was heading straight for it. Fields broke into trees and trees became a winding forest. It felt sudden when they stopped. The cruiser’s headlights illuminated a dark, wrought iron gate. Barbed wire spiraled at the top and glinted sparkles in the light. Wylie bit his lip. Just what sort of institution locked patients up behind barbed wire?
The officer honked his horn in two short bursts and a moment later the gate slid open. It was eerily similar to when Wylie watched Mr. McPherson’s gate slide open before the heist. Dread curled in the pit of his stomach as they drove through. The gate closed once the cruiser behind them entered. Locked in. He was locked in with a man he personally wronged.
What if Collin McPherson wasn’t an understanding, generous guy? What if he was a vengeful billionaire with enough funds and charismatic people to get him anything he wanted, including the thief who tore his house open like a tin can?
The woods closed in. Heavy foliage blocked out the light from the stars and moon above. It felt like hours and Wylie’s mind whirred. Had he made a mistake by trusting Theodore Howld and Michael Whiteheart? Sorcerers were tricksters by nature, with so much power they were feared by everyone. What if the only thing Collin McPherson wanted was to keep the police out of a house filled with military-grade tech and gobs of money? He had sorcerers at his beck and call and enough money and power to run an institution to keep the unstable ones in line.
But… What would be the point? What would be the point of going through all this just to lock him up in his own institution? Daiker would be torture, possibly death. Could the Academy truly be worse than that?
The building rose up, white and startling among the dark of the trees. Lights shone across the front and illuminated the Academy in the night. Pillars spotted the wide stairs and made it look like a stately plantation style manor more than an institution. There were people outside on the steps, huddled in small groups against the cold to watch the cruisers approach. Wylie looked away once he realized they must be the other patients. Guys so fucked-up they ended up in the Academy to get fixed.
They wouldn’t have been driven in by cops. No, their parents would have brought them in, stepped them through the large double doors and held their hand or shoulder while they explained it would only be for a little while. Just until they got their powers under control. The other patients had people waiting for them on the other side of the gate and a part of Wylie hated them for it.
The cruisers pulled up to the front. The officer who drove Wylie’s car stepped out to talk to the cops from the other one. Wylie caught a flash of Michael’s golden hair while the man argued with the police. They wanted to go in and he wanted them out.
Wylie had to hand it to the cops; Michael was a six-foot-seven-inch slab of golden muscle, and when he was angry, you felt it. The cops stood their ground. Procedure. It was like a fucking mantra for these people. Procedure would have gotten him locked up in Daiker for five years without any formal charges filed. He would never love procedure.
The officer returned and opened Wylie’s door. “Come on, kid. Let’s get this done with.”
Arms bound, he wiggled toward the man, then stopped when he felt the numbing effect of the door. “The buzzing. Could you turn it off? I don’t…” he trailed off. The cop’s expression was clear he was shit out of luck. Wylie sighed and did his best to get to the opening of the door while not brushing against anything.
He didn’t succeed. His head hit the top of the door frame and pain burned through him so great he fell sideways and hit the gravel of the circular drive. He twitched there for God only knew how long, stunned and in pain. It more than hurt, it felt like the energy was drained from him. His head was foggy and all he could do was blink blearily. Wylie’s legs weren’t listening to his insistent cries to get the fuck up before someone attacked him. He could hear Michael in the background but he was very far away, almost like he was underwater.
Suddenly Wylie was lifted by his bicep. His head refused to raise, it was that heavy.
“Wylie, can you hear me?”
It was Michael, still far away even though the man was lifting his head and standing right in front of him while a cop kept him from falling.
“I want these cuffs off,” Michael demanded. “We were officially on the grounds the instant you were let through that gate. Take them off and get the hell out of here.”
“You know I can’t do that, sir,” the officer responded tightly. “He needs to be checked in to a building. I can’t leave him outdoors where he can just run off.”
“He’s as weak as an infant from the damn nullifier and the area is surrounded by an impenetrable fence. Just where the hell do you think he’s going to run off to? He can’t even walk on his own.”
Wylie was starting to gain enough sense to realize he was surrounded by a bunch of guys his own age watching him sway like a rag in the cop’s grasp. He really wished the two would stop fighting and just throw him in a building already.
“I have my orders. Procedure states—”
“Fuck your procedure!” Michael shouted. Snickers cut through the air around them. Michael might be able to sweet talk when he wanted to, but when he was tired he just got angry. The officer only became more obstinate from Michael’s attitude. He gripped Wylie by the arm and half walked, half dragged him to the stairway. His neck still didn’t respond so Wylie stared at the steps where his sneakers feet stumbled. He was hauled to the door in a minute flat.
“Now you can open this door and allow me to sign off on this, or I can put him back in the car and take him to Daiker,” the cop growled at Michael while he shouldered Wylie’s swaying form upright.
“Fine, but I’m filing a formal complaint—”
“Master Whiteheart, you might not want to open the door,” a voice spoke up from the side. It sounded full of worry.
“I don’t have much choice, Will.”
“No, it’s just… Well, really, you don’t want to do that right now. Leo’s in there and they’ve been—”
“This is not the time.” Michael grabbed the handle of the nearest door and wrenched it open. Wylie was pushed unceremoniously inside. There was a coughing noise from his captor and Wylie abruptly found himself on the floor. His knees hit the ground heavily and he could only pray he didn’t fall sideways again and have to struggle to get up like some pathetic upside down turtle. That was until he took a breath in and he stopped thinking at all.
The world dimmed around the edges of his already narrowed sight and blood filled his senses. Blood. Damn crazy, delicious blood.
“What the fuck is that?”
“I believe it’s a deer,” Michael said without interest. “Now if you would kindly unlock my charge from these damnable cuffs and get the hell off this private property, I would be extremely grateful.”
“What are they doing to it?” The officer asked. He seemed oblivious to the insistence that he get out.
“Are you blind? They’re eating. The keys, sir!”
Wylie only half heard the bizarre conversation. His ears roared with the sound of his blood pounding through his veins. Saliva filled his mouth. He was apparently hungry. Really, ravenously hungry, and the blueberry muffin Mrs. Winchester offered him earlier had not been appetizing. No, he smelled something familiar, something he first tasted last night and a crazy heat was moving through his body he couldn’t fight.
“There are kids eating a fucking deer!” the officer said with a strangled noise. “I need to call for backup. Get a squad in here to—”
“What? Kill my shifters?” Something in Michael’s voice changed. It grew deeper in tone like a rumble of thunder and his anger turned the air black. His aura of power filled the large room and promised pain and death even though Michael’s posture remained the same.
“This is private property. All they’re doing is eating their dinner. Should I walk into your home and shoot you for eating dinner? Should I? Because I am honestly starting to consider the thought.” Michael spoke with a false sense of calm no one believed, his perfect white teeth grit so tight it was a wonder his jaw didn’t break. “Give me the keys.”
There was a clatter of metal when the officer dropped instead of handed the handcuff keys.
The keys flew up to his open palm. “Thank you,” Michael growled roughly. “Now get the hell out of my school before I forcefully remove you, your companions, and your vehicles.”
Wylie heard a gasp, the sounds of shuffling, and then the officer and Michael were both gone and the air immediately lightened in the room. He ended up sideways on the floor no matter his best efforts. It was frustrating, but fuck, the smell of blood was even better down near the floor.
“Holy shit, I thought Master Whiteheart was totally going to tear that guy a new one,” someone whispered in a voice full of awe. “I mean, that was a cop. With a gun and everything.”
“You really think a gun’s going to kill Michael?” another voice grumbled. “You’re so fucking retarded sometimes.”
“Leave him alone, dickhead,” someone else snapped. Wylie wondered if he was going to be dazed and handcuffed while a bunch of blood dripping shifters fought. It wasn’t a comforting thought. Oh, but that blood smelled good. Really fucking good.
A pair of dusty, jean-clad legs came into view, followed by a tanned, grinning face topped with a bandana. His lips were smeared red with what he could only presume was dinner. He was sporting premature gray hair and teasing orange eyes, and gave a wicked smile to reveal sharp fangs. “Hey there, newbie.” His accent was Hispanic. “You look like shit. But I dig the hair color. Blue is definitely a bitchin’ color. I’ve got a few blue inks, actually.” He pointed to a tattoo on his scrawny arm.
“Fox, leave the kid alone. He looks like he’s been hit by a nullifier. You probably sound like shredded glass to his ears.”
“Cram it. I’m just talking to the kid. Shit, man.” He huffed at someone behind him. Fox suddenly pulled his other hand forward. Blood dripped from between his narrow fingers. “Hungry, dude? Whoa, yeah, you are. We got a shifter, brothers!” he shouted. He slammed a chunk of meat on the floor in front of Wylie while a weird assortment of howls rang out.
Before he could even question what the hell he was doing, Wylie pressed his tongue forward, and reached for the flesh that smelled like nectar. He moaned as blood hit his taste buds. Under his very loud dragon brain, his rational mind was telling him it was sick. Slimy, bloody, and sick. Thankfully he couldn’t hear that voice well. His hunger won as he chewed greedily with sharpened teeth.
“Ha, look at him go. There’s no way he’s going to be able to keep that down,” someone snorted from afar. “Fucking dumbass.”
“God, you’re a dick, Leo.” A new face peered down, head tilted sideways to meet Wylie’s only half attentive gaze. “Uh oh, Leo, you have competition. He’s got that crazy eye thing going on and he smells totally butch. Mmm… Actually, what are you? You smell… shit… reptile? Is that what you smell like?”
Wylie blinked up at the dark-haired shifter with yellow eyes and black spots littering his pale skin—a leopard? He licked his lips. “More and I’ll tell you,” he promised as his stomach grumbled.
Fox returned beside him and smacked another piece of meat down. He lay out flat on the ground to stare at Wylie face to face. “What are you, dude? Like, a turtle or some shit?”
Wylie wondered if there was such a thing as a turtle shifter. The dubious look on the spotted shifter’s face suggested no. “Dragon,” he said before he latched onto the raw meat.
“Whoa, un-fucking-believable!” Fox crowed loudly. He shoved his leopard friend’s leg and sent him sideways in his enthusiasm. “Hear that, Forest? A bona fide dragon!”
“Yeah, I heard, Fox. I’m right fucking here,” Forest muttered. He rolled his yellow eyes in annoyance and pushed up to sit where he ended up sprawled.
A third person suddenly sat, then got down on his stomach so he could reach Wylie’s line of sight as well. Hair the color of rosewood and brown eyes expressive and wide, he smiled sweetly while nibbling delicately on a piece of deer. “Hi there, I’m Justin. I’m a werewolf… so, that. What’s your name?”
“Wylie,” he mumbled. He felt self-conscious with three sets of eyes staring while he chewed. Whenever he ended up at a new home, he was faced with fear, distrust and was ultimately ignored. This was very different.
“I’m going to eat it all on you dumbasses,” threatened the final rumbling voice that still refused to acknowledge him.
Fox turned and yelled over his shoulder. “Stop being a dick, Leo. Shit, you totally suck, man.”
“Leo’s a total dick,” Forest agreed as he licked his blood covered fingers. “What about you, new guy? Are you going to be one of those fucked-up, testosterone alpha types? I mean, it’s cool if you are and all. Just probably not going to want to hang out with you much.”
The food was gone and Wylie was stuck staring back at three very odd young men. He’d never spoken to a shifter before, never mind three. “Um… I don’t think so. I usually just keep to myself.”
“Oh, don’t be one of those guys,” Fox sighed. “We’ve got enough broody types around here. The sorcerers are so fucking emo. So what did you do? Kill someone? You’re the first guy to be dragged in by cops with null-cuffs on.”
“Uh, I didn’t kill anyone.” Wylie really didn’t want to go into why he was there.
“Fucking told ya, dude,” Fox said to Forest, who just shrugged.
Thankfully he was saved from any more grilling. The front door slammed open and Michael stomped in. A pattering of more tentative footsteps followed. Wylie felt very exposed all of a sudden with his back to the door where he was unable to see who was behind him.
“Hey, it’s cool. No cops,” Justin assured with a soft smile. “Master Whiteheart’s going to take your cuffs off. That’s all.”
“Sorry about that, Wylie.” Michael knelt down. His large hand rested with reassurance on his back while he fiddled with the keys. “The gall of that man. Did he push you into the nullifier? I was too far away to see, but if he did—”
“No, I just couldn’t move with my hands like this.” Wylie didn’t want him to get upset over nothing. Not when he was still tied up.
“Well… Alright, then. I’m still filing a report for that crap he said about my guys. Damn asshole.” Michael grumbled under his breath and eventually managed to get the null-cuffs off his wrists. Wylie rolled from his stomach to his side and held back a whimper once he could finally move his arms again. Pins and needles buzzed through his limbs relentlessly while he clenched and unclenched his fingers.
“How’s your head?” Michael pressed Wylie’s forehead where he struck the nullifier in the cruiser. Wylie flinched, and hissed as pain erupted from the touch. “Yup, that sounds about right.” Michael looked up with a stern look for the three shifters who were talking to Wylie. “What did I tell you all about eating in the foyer? People walk here.”
“Sorry, Master Whiteheart.” Justin straightened in his seat on the floor. “We saw the cruisers and thought if cops saw us eating in the dark we’d get shot.”
“Yes, well, I didn’t say it was the wrong choice. Just really gross, guys,” Michael added in a less stern tone. “I want this cleaned up by the time I’m back out here. And heaven help you if Theodore sees it. You know how he gets around blood.”
There was a chuckle of laughter around the room. Wylie winced from the sound. He raised one of his inflamed wrists up to his mouth so he could lick the red flesh and heal it. Michael shook his head and smirked in spite of his best efforts. “Yes, well, Theo is pretty ridiculous when it comes to blood. I need to get Wylie to Dr. Rob to deal with the after effects of the nullifiers. Can you stand, Wylie?”
With a nod, Wylie pushed himself up. Only to slip to the floor when his arms gave out. “Fuck.” Michael caught him before he could smash his face in.
“That a boy,” Michael said cheerfully. He hauled him up and threw Wylie over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “Don’t worry, the nullifiers do it to the best of us. Surprised you’re still awake, to be honest. That was quite a hit.” He turned his head. “Guys, don’t just throw what’s left in the yard this time. It’s not a funny surprise, Leo.”
Wylie kept his eyes down as his stomach lurched from the embarrassing position. He really didn’t want to see what everyone thought of him being carried down the hall. His first night there and he had collapsed, eaten raw meat like a crazy person, and was now being hauled around like a small child who stayed up past his bedtime. After such a terrible first impression, there was no way anyone was going to take him seriously at the Academy.
Wylie sat in holding with a handful of drunks, one guy so drugged out of his mind he thought he could fly, and an assortment of punks who were picked up for vandalism throughout the night.
“I will fucking wreck you!” Butch, who didn’t think his name was ironic at all, was starting to threaten to beat the shit out of him with a little more conviction than previously stated. His little punk friends snickered meanly.
Wylie wasn’t sure what the guards would do to him if he sprouted bulking black scaled arms, beat the fuck out of Butch, and then tore the bars apart like paper to escape, but he imagined bullets would be involved. He kept his claws in, and smiled sassily at the ugly fuck that thought he could take him.
Besides the old guy’s blood drying into his jeans, Wylie didn’t have anything on him to link him to the shooting. The house was all locked up with the gun and Diego’s cell phone safe inside. Still, the cops hadn’t offered him a phone call to an attorney yet. Not that he knew any attorneys. He sure as hell wasn’t talking to the cops.
The door down the hall buzzed and opened the same way it had nearly every ten minutes. He didn’t give it much attention. Nothing more interesting than a bitching punk had been dragged in since he arrived there. Except this time, Wylie suddenly found himself inexplicably on his feet as a weird energy in the air moved with the footsteps coming down the hall. Drunk #3 raised his head but no one else seemed to think anything of it. Wylie couldn’t relax. The hair stood up on the back of his neck and goosebumps shivered over his arms from the strange, crackling sensation in the air.
Two people came into view; the hard-eyed cop he’d seen walk past a dozen times and someone… Wylie’s breath caught.
He was beautiful. Tall with straight, waist-length red hair flowing loose. His skin was golden and stunning. He had strange eyes. They were a pale violet that shone from handsome, aristocratic features. He appeared to be in his thirties and was dressed in a suit. His floor length jacket with silver detailed cuffs added a feel of mystery, but the guy’s magic did enough for that alone. He was a sorcerer. For some fucking reason, the police were leading a sorcerer to the holding cell, and he wasn’t wearing handcuffs.
Wylie didn’t turn to look behind him when he felt everyone in the cell abruptly stand at the sorcerer’s appearance. There was a whistle and then another. Wylie raised his eyebrows. As fucked-up as some of these guys were, they were, to the best of his knowledge, all completely straight. But they were drooling now; even Butch was making eyes out of his ugly mug at the beautiful redhead.
“The one you looking for here?” The cop asked tightly. His gaze kept straying to the sorcerer like he didn’t want to be looking at him but couldn’t seem to stop himself. It seemed to be a problem all around.
“I do believe he is.”
Wylie’s head turned back at the rich, melodic sound. Definitely a sorcerer… but maybe a shifter too. The man’s eyes were fucking weird, and Wylie knew from every time he looked in a mirror, his eyes were fucking weird too. It was a shifter thing.
“Mr. Doe, I would appreciate a word with you.”
Right. That would be him. He wasn’t shocked at this point, just really confused. Wylie moved to the door when the cop told him to, and held his arms out for the handcuffs. He hadn’t been allowed to call an attorney so unless Beck had spoken to Roth about helping him out, he doubted Red was his lawyer.
He was led to a small room without any windows and pushed down into a chair in front of a rickety wooden table. The sorcerer sat across from him. He folded his jacket and hair into the seat and managed to look somehow proper even with the dim lighting and dingy walls. Wylie waited as the cop removed his handcuffs and then stepped outside the room. The door clicked shut.
Violet eyes bored into him and that strange energy rose up like a suffocating blanket in the air. Wylie remained silent. He wasn’t sure what the fuck the guy wanted but was certain he’d find out soon enough.
“Tell me what happened last night,” the sorcerer commanded, his voice a low purr. Wylie’s mouth opened before he knew it when the strange energy compelled him to speak. He immediately snapped his jaw shut and glared. They stared at each other for long minutes. Wylie felt the energy pulse like waves trying to beat him into submission. He fought it with everything he had. He clenched his hands into fists until his talons were out and slicing his palm for focus.
Suddenly the weight in the air dispersed and the sorcerer sat back with an annoyed purse to his lips. “Mr. Doe, my name is Theodore Howld. I’ve been sent by Collin McPherson to ensure you are treated fairly in the proceedings about to take place.”
He couldn’t have just started with that? Wylie raised his head and relaxed slightly. “He’s alive?”
“Yes. Apparently because of you.” For some reason, he didn’t seem happy about that fact. Wylie had a feeling it had to do with who saved the old guy, not so much that he was alive.
“So, what, you’re a lawyer?” Wylie tucked his claws away.
“No.” Theodore didn’t offer any information as to what his actual occupation was. He crooked his finger. “Let me see your hand.”
Wylie glared warily and slowly placed his right hand on the table and let it rest facing upwards. Blood was wet in his palm from where his claws had scratched. Theodore stared at his hand like it was covered in filth.
“Could I see one not so bloody?” Theodore said testily and moved further away in his seat.
With a shrug, Wylie raised his left hand and held it out to show it was also bloody. He ran his tongue over his palm and licked away the crimson in slow laps. He smirked to see the sorcerer squirm. With his flesh healed, he placed his hand back on the table and licked his other palm clean.
“Well, that at least confirms that.” Theodore carefully took in his wound-free palm before his eyes flashed angrily and fixed back on Wylie’s face. “What were you doing in Mr. McPherson’s house last night?”
“Robbing him,” Wylie answered bluntly.
Theodore didn’t look shocked at the revelation, but the curl to his lips suggested he’d like to punch Wylie through the wall. “Why?”
“He’s rich.” He emphasized the word to point out just how dumb the question was. “He was also supposed to be on some tropical island and not at home.”
Theodore dismissed his opinion on where Mr. McPherson was supposed to be. “How did you get through the gate? The security system was completely shut off.”
“Sorry, not my expertise.” Wylie shrugged. “I’m just the muscle.”
“So there were others with you?”
Wylie rolled his eyes and snapped his mouth shut with an audible click. Crap. Maybe the old guy completely forgot about Diego—fuck, maybe he barely even remembered he was there either. It was a damn nasty head wound.
“Listen attentively, Mr. Doe, because I would prefer to not have to prove my words.” Theodore leaned closer and his violet eyes burned. “What you felt is only a very small percentage of my ability. I could make you a puppet to my whims, where you speak the truth at my preferred pace instead of this obnoxious game you seem to think you are winning. Tell the truth or I’ll force you to. My way will not be pleasant.”
Wylie glared. He was certain he hated the beautiful bastard with his arrogant attitude and all. “I’m not incriminating anyone just because you want to play magic with me. I’m the one in jail, no one else. That’s how it’s going to stay no matter how much you threaten me.”
“Oh, are these associates of yours somehow important?” Voice silky, Theodore straightened in his chair. “I’ve been flipping through the cell phone you left behind and, I must say, I cannot agree with the quality of people you have chosen to surround yourself with.”
His nostrils flared and eyes narrowed. Wylie took a deep breath. Who the fuck would be on Diego’s phone? Would the gangster have been retarded enough to put Roth on there? Had Beck somehow managed to make it into the list of people worth calling? Did he just fuck over his boyfriend by not using the old guy’s fucking house phone?
“It’s not my phone,” he said after a long moment.
Theodore grinned as if he had won some big fucking victory and at this point, Wylie honestly didn’t know if he had. “Oh, I’m aware. Foster children in a detention house are not allowed to own cell phones. The owner of the phone, a Mr. Gould, has an outstanding bill. His last address is states away, likely coinciding with the day his credit cards were stolen. You seem to be very good at stealing, Mr. Doe.”
Impotent rage swirled in his stomach in realization to what he was trying to do. Wylie huffed. “Whatever. It’s still not my phone.”
“Then whose is it?” Theodore’s voice vibrated with anticipation.
Wylie was feeling vindictive and snapped, “Your crack whore momma’s, dickhead.”
It was very much the wrong answer. A terrible wind of power whipped up. Wylie found himself chest flat on the table, face squished to the wood as an invisible force held him down. If not for his inability to breathe, it would have been a damn cool trick.
“God, I despise mouthy teenagers.” Theodore placed his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his folded hands. “Mr. Doe, an eyewitness saw a van pull into my employer’s driveway around midnight last night. Four people got out. When the van left, only three individuals were in it. One of them was bleeding heavily. You were seen returning to the house. You carried an injured man, my employer, through the front door and the two of you waited for the police to arrive. Does any of this sound familiar to you?”
Wylie gritted his teeth and struggled to breathe around the weight threatening to crush his lungs.
“I’m going to take that as a yes,” Theodore said with a bored drawl. He grabbed Wylie by the back of the head and pulled him up by his blond locks dyed blue. “Why did you return to the house alone? Please be succinct with your answer.”
With a snarl, Wylie bit out heatedly, “I didn’t want him to die!”
Theodore did not look impressed. “Is that a common theme with criminals? Do you steal from people but draw the line at killing?”
“I’m not a criminal.” Wylie struggled in the hold. Whatever the hell Red was, he wasn’t letting go.
“You were robbing a house with a gun in hand. I hardly believe—”
“It wasn’t my gun! Now let me the fuck go!”
“No.” Theodore’s grip on his hair pulled tighter and Wylie gasped. The man was ridiculously strong, steel muscle hidden beneath his seemingly limber form. “Whose gun is it?”
Violet eyes bored into his. Wylie felt crackling energy again push into his brain. His mouth opened against his will and words tumbled out.
Each question led to another and the whole fucking story came free while Wylie watched from outside himself. What was worse was when he continued. Theodore pulled his personal information from him, things he didn’t share with anyone. Things like how much he hated his fucking demon arms, how he never healed anyone until the old man told him he could and how he discovered bloodlust was really fucking embarrassing. How he worried; metal just so easy to tear apart, never mind flesh, and it made it really difficult to even be around people. But Beck was different, the only one who didn’t freak out at his arms. And what did it matter if the bitch at the detention center locked him out after curfew? He was getting out soon. He just needed the cash from working with the gang and he’d be able to get into some sort of community college or trade school and have a life of his own. That was all he wanted, his own fucking life, but seeing the old dude bleeding out changed everything.
Theodore’s eyes lost their otherworldly glow. He sat back and released the grip he had on Wylie’s hair. Wylie slumped onto the wooden table with a groan. “I want the name of your social worker.”
“Fuck off,” Wylie muttered, only to gasp when the invisible weight immediately pressed on his chest. “Fucking—Winchester. Diane Winchester, you piece of shit!” He took in a huge gulp of air when the pressure disappeared again.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Theodore scrutinized him silently, stood and crossed the room. He looked unfazed, his hair perfect and gait smooth. Wylie looked away when he knocked briskly on the door.
The same officer answered. He grunted as he came in and grabbed Wylie’s arms and cuffed them behind his back. Wylie glared stonily straight ahead and tried not to think of all the things he told the sorcerer. He’d never felt so helpless before. It was absolutely violating to have his will stolen with one simple spell. He was left feeling small, raw and vulnerable; feelings he spent years trying to not have.
He was pushed out the door and back to the room with the holding cell. Butch gave him a vicious smirk but Wylie was walked past him and led further down the hall to another cell. This one had slats of metal instead of bars. Forced inside the empty cage, everything clicked into place when a switched was flipped and energy crackled up the walls and ceiling. Magic now fortified the once seemingly surmountable steel.
Wylie’s handcuffs weren’t removed. He was left standing alone in the small cell, his nose full of burning ozone and foreign magic. The cuffs felt different, thicker like maybe they were designed for a shifter and not just some teenage fuck up. Fuck. They might not have known it before, but they knew it now; they knew he was a shifter.
Wylie sat and made sure he didn’t sway too far to the left or right. His feet felt numb when they reached too close to the edge of the cage. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, but maybe it would involve a lawyer now. Or maybe not. They knew he was a shifter, which put him in a huge gray area when it came to the law because of the many extra things shifters could do that normal people couldn’t. Apparently a leg up on the genetic tree meant you had to compromise your rights to exist.
If he wasn’t fucked before, he definitely was now.
The next guard that came for Wylie was like him, a shifter. He smelled like dog, but was probably wolf. It’s not like he knew any shifters; he chose to avoid his own once he realized most saw him as some weird alpha competition. The cop had rippling muscles under his uniform, and deranged yellow eyes that glared at him like Wylie had murdered and raped a family, in that order.
Wylie kept his head down. He was disoriented by the missing buzz of the walls. He wasn’t really interested in challenging the shifter cop with eye contact.
The guard didn’t tell him where they were going, and he didn’t bother to ask. He’d figure it out soon enough. Two of the drunks were gone along with Butch and his little punk friends. A random scattering of people replaced the others in holding. Wylie was relieved to see Beck wasn’t among them. He didn’t have much time to think as he was pushed through a door, down another hall, and then another. Daylight assailed his senses so suddenly, he hissed and tried to crouch in on himself.
“What are you, light sensitive?” The guard huffed when Wylie nodded and turned his body away from the large windows that opened the side wall to a view of the city. The guard stepped over to a desk, and returned with a pair of sunglasses he slipped on his face. Wylie did his best not to flinch; the scent of shifter was almost as alarming as the blinding sunlight.
“Come on, kid.” His voice gruff, the guard renewed his grip on Wylie’s arm and pushed him towards a new door. It was some sort of conference room, except it wasn’t full of police. Inside stood the redheaded sorcerer from earlier and Wylie’s case worker from social services.
“Mrs. Winchester?” Wylie stared at her dumbly and allowed himself to be pushed towards a chair. Petite with long, curly black hair, Diane smiled weakly at him like he was arriving for an execution.
Shit, was he ever going to get a lawyer? Television was a fucking lie.
“Cuffs on or off?” The cop looked to Theodore like he was in charge. Apparently he was because with a nod, the cuffs were off. Diane shoved a blueberry muffin in Wylie’s hand along with a cup of coffee. Both of which he nearly dropped. His hands prickled uncomfortably as blood rushed back into them.
“Sorry,” he muttered. Wylie quickly placed everything on the table before he made a mess. He was shaking, he realized with a start, and beyond embarrassed by the fact. He threw himself into the chair and hoped it would stop soon.
The shifter officer left to stand outside the door. Wylie felt a little better when the guy’s weird scent was no longer in the room.
“Wylie, I’m here to explain what’s going to happen next.” Diane’s big brown eyes were watery with concern. It wasn’t reassuring.
Wylie’s hands were feeling steady enough to try the coffee. He took cautious sips while Diane explained all the terrible things going to happen if he ended up in prison. There wasn’t a juvenile center for shifters; the population was too small to warrant it. He would be sent to the place up north called Daiker Prison with the fully grown, testosterone brimming, psycho monsters who had lost their shit and never found it again.
Fucked. He was totally fucked.
“So… no trial?” Wylie lifted his gaze from the table long enough to see her eyes do their pity watering thing. Mrs. Winchester was a nice enough chick and all, but he really didn’t want to be cried at.
“Not yet.” Diane released a long breath. “You’re at a crossroads right now. What happens in the next couple of hours decides the next five years of your life.”
Wylie swallowed hard. Five years. Could he survive five years with a bunch of fucked-up shifters? He was only six feet and, although fit, there was no way he could compete with the full grown, muscle-bound monsters the aggressive shifters became. Fuck, he wasn’t even strong enough for a full transformation. The guys up in Daiker would not have that problem.
“Alright,” Wylie said after a moment. His fingers mindlessly tore at the plastic flap on the lid of his cup. “That guy’s still alive, right? The owner of the house… he’s still okay?”
“Yes, it looks like he’ll make a full recovery.” Diane tried to read Wylie’s face, but his head was ducked and the sunglasses obscured his expression.
Wylie gave a nod. He felt some sort of satisfaction that if he was going to end up in jail for five years, at least he succeeded in what he set out to do. The old guy was alive. “Alright. So, I go back to the cage now?”
“Mr. Doe, I would like to make something clear to you before Mrs. Winchester continues,” Theodore turned from where he’d been looking out the window. “My employer, Mr. McPherson, is not now, or will be in the future, pressing charges for your actions in breaking and entering his house. He has been emphatically rigorous in his attempts to get the State to not press charges. But as you are going to find out, this being your first time in police custody, there are automatic procedures which are followed when dealing with shifters.”
A strange tension in his stomach uncurled when Wylie heard the old guy wasn’t angry enough to press charges. The other shit—his life again fucked because he was a monster—he tried to block out like he’d been doing since he was eight.
Theodore was looking at him expectantly. “Okay,” Wylie finally answered. What was there to say? He was fucked. He knew it the second he saw Diego with his gun out and looking like some crazed animal about to do something really fucking stupid. It was done and now he had to face the fucking music.
Diane placed her hand on Wylie’s. “The State is very clear on where they stand with shifters under their care. Remember when we discussed why you were treated so harshly for the simple bloody nose you gave Thomas? Three years in that detention house didn’t really equate, but the state has a no tolerance policy. They don’t care that you’re young or that you saved a man’s life. I don’t want you to think you shouldn’t have done what you did, Wylie. I am so proud of you for doing everything you could to save Mr. McPherson. Just sometimes… sometimes you don’t get a reward for it. Sometimes it’s just a punishment.”
Wylie glanced away. He really wished she would stop crying at him.
“Diane, if you cannot continue, I will,” Theodore said gruffly. “We still need his answer before we can proceed.”
“You’re right, of course.” Diane wiped her cheeks. “Mr. McPherson has offered an alternative to Daiker, Wylie. His associate is at the governor’s right this minute trying to negotiate a compromise.” A folder was pushed across the table and Diane looked at him hopefully. “It’s a good deal. I’ve read it front to back. Under different circumstances, it could have been a safe haven for someone like you.”
Wylie’s tongue slid over the edges of his teeth. He flipped the plain manila folder open and was greeted with a pamphlet and nothing else. “The Academy?” He read the top and looked at the colorful image of a large building surrounded by trees. He carefully skimmed through, greeted with text and more images of dorms and classrooms. “I don’t understand… Is this some sort of school for shifters?”
“Not exactly.” Theodore stepped over to stand next to Diane. “It’s an institution to help out-of-control paranormals gain mastery over their abilities, to prevent them from harming themselves and others. You would be among magic users, halflings, as well as other shifters. There is equipment to contain you if you become out of control, as well as experienced individuals who can help guide you to use your powers responsibly. There is even a reintegration program to prepare you to return to life among ‘normal’ society once your five years are complete. The Academy contains everything a shifter on the brink might need to regain his control.”
Wylie blinked and gnawed on his lower lip. He looked up to fix his gaze on Theodore. “I’m not out of control. I am very good at keeping control. No matter how many times I knew I could seriously hurt someone, I didn’t. Ever.”
Theodore nodded in understanding. For a shifter, it was about as important as it got to know he had something which kept him from being taken over by the beast inside. “You can only do a partial transformation. Has anyone ever explained to you what that might mean?”
“Right, like I talked to anyone about that. Just because I can smell a shifter doesn’t mean I’m going to let them know they can take me because I can’t transform right,” Wylie said tightly.
Theodore ignored his defensive tone. “When did you first transform? What happened that revealed your power?”
Wylie involuntarily winced. He bit agitatedly at the side of his thumb and turned away. “Uh… I was a kid. Eight,” he muttered. He shrank away when Diane reached for him.
“And?” Theodore pressed. “What happened?”
He huffed and glared at Theodore. “I don’t… It was a long time ago and I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Someone hurt you?”
“No,” he snapped and his glare grew. “My sister. Someone hurt my sister.”
“You defended her in a time of crisis when you were young,” Theodore said carefully.
“It scared her,” Wylie answered reluctantly. “Scared everyone. They got rid of me after that.” Adopting an orphaned baby was fine enough, but when Wylie and his family discovered he was also a shifter, it was too much for the Andersons. So much so they even changed his surname back to ‘Doe,’ as if it would be enough to erase the eight years they called him their son. He lost the only family he ever knew when everyone found out he was a shifter.
“Sometimes when a shifter first transforms in a crisis, especially at an early age, their abilities are impaired,” Theodore explained. “They repeat the same half shift. Their bodies relive that moment and what they were hoping to accomplish. Do you remember what you tried to do to defend your sister?”
Wylie did. He bit on his thumb harder as the vision flashed in his mind’s eye. “Kill.” He was unwilling to describe who or why.
If Theodore was surprised, he didn’t show it. “So now you have killer hands that can tear through reinforced steel like it’s nothing. With the proper training, we can show you how to transform and not be a walking razor blade. There are plenty of animals in the wild, but they only choose to harm when they are hunting, defending, or protecting. You can have that option as well.”
Wylie stared at him, not sure if he understood. Everything to do with his demon arms was death. It was always that way. He couldn’t even imagine being able to transform and not have scales which would flay someone if they merely brushed against him.
“The thing is, Wylie, they’re not going to just let you go to the Academy like a normal kid would,” Diane broke in. She exchanged glances with Theodore when Wylie curled up and seemed no longer present. “They want to treat it like a sentence in a juvenile facility. Five years. The same as what you would get if you went to prison.”
“If they’ll let me at all,” Wylie whispered.
Diane nodded and her narrow shoulders slumped. “They haven’t booked you yet, which is a good sign. The police were holding you, waiting to see if Mr. McPherson was going to press charges. You gave the arresting officer your real name, though, and it was flagged as paranormal. I don’t think any of these guys really want to put you in prison, Wylie. They’ve been dragging their feet all day trying to keep you off the record, but the law is the law, no matter how biased it is. If Mr. McPherson can give the governor an option that still fits in that law, I think they’re going to take it just to avoid sending a teenager to Daiker.”
His fingers twitched on the table and tapped an erratic beat. Wylie smiled weakly. “Shit, I must really be a fuck up, huh? First teenager sent to Daiker Prison. How the fuck do all those other kid shifters do it?”
Diane gave him a pained look and folded her hands on the table. “I’m not…”
“They’ve got parents, kid,” Theodore said bluntly. “Shifter fathers with enough ability to control their kids. Sometimes uncles, brothers, grandfathers. Shifter families work as a team to keep the younger ones contained. The adults who realize their kids are struggling contact the Academy for extra help. They don’t let their children get into trouble because they know what the State will do to them.”
“Oh.” Wylie sighed and slouched in his chair. It only raised the question of just why the hell his parents abandoned him as a baby. If shifters were so fucking family oriented their kids never got into trouble, his parents had to have known they were setting him up for some huge fall from the very beginning. The shifter gene was in the male chromosome. His parents would have known just by having a baby boy there was a possibility of him being a shifter.
“Wylie, will you accept the terms needed to get you set up in the Academy?” Diane tapped the folder on the table to catch his attention. “This will be a deal done outside the reach of this station. As long as we can keep you from being put in the system, the process for booking a shifter won’t move forward. A note will be added to your name with the paranormal registry. You’ll be placed in the Academy like you would any detention house, forced to abide by their rules. If they don’t think you’re cooperating or you get caught doing something illegal, you’ll be brought back here and the police will have to continue with the process required by the paranormal registry. After five years, the note will be removed and you’ll be free to live your life.”
Wylie snorted humorlessly. “Sure, as much of a life as a paranormal can get.”
“Wylie.” Diane sighed heavily.
“It’s fine, whatever. I’ll do whatever they want,” Wylie muttered. “If it keeps me away from the fucking psycho howlers in Daiker, what the hell else matters, right?”
Diane pulled her phone out at his answer, stood, and moved to the window after patting him on the shoulder. Wylie hunched further down in his seat. He wished he didn’t feel so cold all of a sudden and the coffee didn’t make his stomach churn. He could feel Theodore staring at him, which was just annoying, on top of everything else.
“You sleep at all, kid?” Theodore folded his arms over his chest and leaned his hip on the table.
“For a moment.” Wylie shrugged. “Too many people at first, then the walls were all buzzy like I was going to be electrocuted.”
“Nullifiers. They keep magic from passing through. Not quite an electrocution, but it can burn the skin on contact, especially shifter flesh.” He fell silent again and Wylie was glad he didn’t have to pretend to listen. Diane came back eventually, her cranberry stained lips twisted in a small frown.
“He’s still in negotiations with the governor,” she said quietly to Theodore as she sat back in her chair. “His exact words were ‘obstinate bigot.’ I don’t know how this is going to turn out.”
“Believe me, if anyone can do this, it’s Michael,” Theodore said resolutely. “He’ll wear him down.”
She nodded, but didn’t look convinced. “Wylie, I’m going to have you stay here with me for as long as possible, okay? I have my whole day cleared. Whatever happens, I’ll be right here with you.”
Wylie bit his lip and nodded. He didn’t have the heart to thank her, not when she kept looking teary. But he didn’t pull away when she insisted on patting his arm, and that seemed to be enough for her.
He let his eyes close under his sunglasses and wondered what things would be like if he was raised with shifters for parents. After the Andersons, everything went to shit. If they were shifters…
It didn’t matter. Just water under the bridge now. A lifetime of what ifs still added up to nothing.
Michael Whiteheart turned out to be the closest thing to a lawyer Wylie was going to get or possibly even need. He read through the legalese with ease, and even explained it all to Wylie in a way he could understand. Michael had spent his day with the governor convincing a compromise, and personally delivered the contract that promised to keep Wylie out of Daiker. With his golden blond hair, shining blue eyes, and a tanned, towering form which could only be described as Herculean, Wylie first thought Michael was a model. Instead, he was a sorcerer like Theodore but without the strange eyes common with shifters.
When Michael first arrived, he and Theodore snapped at each other like kid brothers. In front of other people, the Greek god was definitely a prince charming. His bright white teeth flashed and the man rumbled laughs that the police kept joining.
Everyone was in love with him. Bro love, not the pure lust Theodore inspired in absolute strangers. As a shifter, Wylie seemed to be immune to it but the cops weren’t and they were falling all over themselves. It was interesting to watch, and he wondered if it was a sorcerer thing or an Academy thing. Both men were instructors at the Academy. Theodore taught Body Magic, and Michael was the Human Reintegration Specialist. He was the guy to get patients back to the real world once they got their powers under control. It was probably a good thing he was so smooth with the politicians.
Wylie would spend the next five years of his life at the Academy as long as he followed the rules and didn’t engage in illegal activity, which included reaching out to his old friends from the gang. It took a lot of negotiating, but Michael convinced the governor’s office that a year of monthly check-ins was more than enough to gauge his progress.
All Wylie would have to do was keep his head down and stay out of trouble and he’d be fine. He wouldn’t be entered into the criminal system, wouldn’t be labeled as an out-of-control shifter for the rest of his life, and wouldn’t have to go to Daiker. It was a miracle and he still couldn’t fully grasp it.
“I’m going to see you first chance you’re allowed visitors,” Diane promised with another hug. “For now, I’ll collect your things from the detention house and have them sent over to the Academy for you. Was there anyone there you wanted to say goodbye to?”
Beck’s face flashed in his mind’s eye and Wylie winced. He’d be fine; Beck had parents and he wasn’t in jail. He could finish up school and figure his shit out. Besides him, there was no one Wylie really talked to, no one he gave a crap about. And Beck, well, Beck clung too much. He was a good guy but just really fucking naïve and always looked to Wylie to fix his superficial problems. Wylie had enough problems with his own life, few of them small.
“Nah, I’m good.” A part of Wylie resented how he could tally up anyone important in his life and end up at zero.
He held still when the heavy shifter handcuffs were clapped onto his wrists. The State insisted he be transported in one of their own vehicles like he was going to jump ship the second he left the station. Wylie didn’t make a fuss. He’d won and he could deal with the embarrassment of being led around looking like a criminal.
Fuck, he did some bad shit. He probably deserved worse.
Fox snarled under his breath as he stormed through the hallways leading back to the gym. He knew Raider wouldn’t fucking get a word of it. This wasn’t a new problem or the first time he tried to broach the subject. He tried to get Raider to actually meet the coyotes he was terrified of. He tried to get him to talk to them. The closest was the Mandula brothers. He was pretty sure that was a success only because they were badger shifters. Neither of the brothers gave a shit about coyotes, but then, they weren’t fucking terrified of everything. No, that was Raider’s thing from the very beginning. He forgot just how damn exhausting it was to be friends with Raider most days.
Jaxon Silva. Fox spent more than a few sleepless nights wondering what the fuck was wrong with Raider when it came to that guy. The fucked up thing was Jaxon liked Raider. He practically chased Raider around the playground in some old school mating dance. It led to half of his friends laughing their asses off and the other half, Fox included, trying to figure out why Raider was treating Jaxon like he was about to maul him. Jaxon wasn’t blind to it. He might not have been the brightest guy, but it didn’t take much to realize your crush was fucking terrified of you on levels beyond normal. Jaxon grew bitter, and for real, Fox couldn’t blame him. Even if Raider didn’t like him, that didn’t mean Jaxon was some murdering psycho hell bent on killing him.
Damn it, how the fuck did he end up caught in this shit again? He left this all behind. He was supposed to be thinking about how he got off meds, how he was making progress with his inner fox’s focus, not getting sucked into Raider’s bullshit. He was supposed to be thinking about Vince and dealing with the fact the most gorgeous guy who he liked since first meeting was never going to like him back. He couldn’t even feel.
Fuck, when did his life start to suck so much?
A growl rumbled in his chest. Fox took a fast turn and started running down the empty hall. Forest was fucking right. Damn it, Forest was always right. Raider was just going to cling to him like some frightened kid and he wouldn’t care how he felt about it. Raider was determined his second day there to not even try. And fuck, he was more racist against his own kind than Vincent was against shifters.
Maybe that was why Vincent’s bullshit never seemed to be a total deal breaker. Fox grew up with a guy who believed all shifters who turned into predator types were automatically going to want to kill him. Vincent might talk shit, but most times it seemed out of frustration or plain ass ignorance. Raider… Raider fucking knew better. He let his stupid raccoon rule him instead of taking responsibility for all the fear his prey creature created in his head. Even if a shifter did hurt Raider, it didn’t mean any of them were going to. It didn’t mean all shifters were aggressive. But Raider couldn’t see that. He was just welcomed into a pack of shifters who knew what it meant to support each other and Raider couldn’t see a fucking thing.
Fox slammed into the gym. The door swung open under his force to crash against the wall. His eyes immediately fell on Leo, who was back in human form and doing a series of stretches from his spot on the ground. Fox zeroed in and crossed the distance swiftly.
Leo bristled when he saw him. “What?” His glare grew at Fox’s growl. “Are you out of your mind, Alvarez? Are you fucking challenging me?”
“So what if I am?” Fox took his bandanna off and threw it to the ground. “Fight me, dumbass.”
Leo looked baffled as he carefully pulled his leg back out of its extended stretch. “Fight you? One punch and I have to worry about crushing your fucking skull in—Motherfuck!” Leo grabbed Fox’s wrist when he lunged at him, then rolled away with a snarl. Fox’s claws grazed his chest, and Leo grunted as he twisted to keep him from reaching his flesh. “You’re fucking crazy!”
Fox growled louder and sank teeth into the closest thing he could find. Leo scowled and jerked as his thigh was bitten. His jeans tore with a loud rip. With a roar, he stood, grabbed Fox by the nape and his wrists, and fought every instinct he had not to throw the skinny shifter across the room.
“Are you done?” Leo eyes were angry slits as he glared at the panting Fox.
Glaring back, a snarl caught in his throat, Fox nodded as best he could in the brutal hold. Leo hesitated and Fox waited; he knew his snarl was definitely sending the wrong message and yet, Fox couldn’t stop the noise. It took him a few deep breaths before his growl finally died down.
Leo released him and Fox stumbled backward. He gained his balance once he crouched.
“Don’t,” Leo warned when Fox looked ready to come at him again. “You do not want to fuck with me right now. My lion is a fucking mess and he would love to kill something.” Leo, on the other hand, did not seem to enjoy the idea. He pushed his heavy, black hair back from his face as he turned away.
Fox wasn’t sure just what the fuck was wrong with him. He breathed heavily as he sat, the world dizzy around him. “Sorry… I don’t know why I did that.”
“You’re giving off testosterone like a motherfucker.” Leo glanced over his shoulder while he rubbed his bleeding thigh. He glared down at where Fox was sitting. “Are you reacting to the werewolf?”
“What, Justin?” Fox shook his head. “I’ve never done it before. My fox doesn’t see his wolf as a threat once the moon is done.”
Leo was hardly convinced. “You reek. Your hormones are fucked. Maybe you’re reacting to your horny ass roommate? The fucking flu? You are minutes from a mating throw, man.”
“Mating throw?” Fox groaned and buried his face into his clawed hands. “Aw, fuck. Fuck.”
Had his crush turned into something else without him realizing it? He just took a fucking swing at Leo, the walking death machine, so yeah. Fuck. He was so fucked.
“How do I stop this?” he wondered aloud, misery clear in his voice. Vince wasn’t mate material. He was way too fucked up. Even if he wasn’t fucked up, it was Vincent Frost and it just wasn’t going to fucking happen.
His palm came back bloody and Leo licked it clean. “Why? If you’ve got a mating urge, you don’t fuck with that shit. That’s all your animal. You need to respect his choices.”
Fox glared up through his fingers. “Seriously? It’s fucking Vince, man. He hates me.”
Leo snorted humorlessly. “He doesn’t hate you. He lets you annoy the fuck out of him every goddamn day. If he hated you, he would have shut you down from the very beginning.”
This wasn’t the first time Fox heard this particular argument, but it was the first time hearing it from Leo. Confused by just how certain Leo sounded, Fox straightened from his slouch. “You think?”
A drop of blood fell to the ground. Leo scowled down at his jeans soaking up the crimson fluid. “Have you actually seen Vincent do a spell? A serious one?” He glanced again over his large shoulder. Fox shook his head no. “Well, I saw him help Michael build the fire pit and raise those rocks from the earth. Vincent didn’t flinch, didn’t falter once. When he puts his mind to something, he fucking gets it.”
Leo rolled his eyes, turned back and pointed to his ruined pant leg. “Asshole, I’m telling you the kid is fucking determined. If he really wanted you to leave him alone, you wouldn’t be able to say a damn word to him.”
“Huh.” His brow furrowed as Fox nodded to himself. “Fuck, you might be right. He’s never actually hit me with a spell. And let’s face it, it’s not like it wouldn’t be easy for him.” He smiled tentatively up at Leo. “Thanks, man.”
Leo grunted. “Come at me again and I’ll break your fucking legs.”
Fox’s grin grew. He jumped up and bounded onto his feet. “You want me to spell your jeans fixed?”
“Like fuck. The last thing I need is you exploding me.” His muscles bulged as Leo stretched his arms over his head. “Besides, it’s not like I only have one pair.”
Fox gave him a discreet side glance and refused to comment. Leo was one of the few shifters who couldn’t do magic at all. Which would be fine, but Fox had a strong feeling Leo was actually afraid of magic.
Did Vince like him? Had his fox picked up on something he didn’t notice? Animal-based attraction was usually all about chemistry. Just, Vince didn’t have much to offer. He said he couldn’t feel at all. But if his fox was looking at him as mating material then maybe that was just another thing Vincent was just getting fucked up in his head.
That could be a thing, right? If Vincent was as messed up as he was starting to suspect, he might not have a clue what he liked. Vince was willing to let him kiss him. If you hated someone, you sure as fuck didn’t let them kiss you. Maybe the reason everyone thought Vince liked him was really because he did.
Holy fuck… maybe Vince liked him.
Fox’s epiphany was shadowed by an overwhelming tickle. Moments later, he folded forward as a sneeze rang out in the air.
“Fuck.” Fox refused to move. There was an itch bordering on pain centered at the top of his head and the bottom of his spine. “Aw, fuck.” He reached up and, sure enough, found he sneezed right into a half shift. His fox ears twitched beneath his fingers.
There was no way he could talk to Vincent like this. Some days, Fox could convince Vince he was more than just a shifter. But that was before Vincent flipped out when he saw Raider with his ears out. He had little faith Vince wouldn’t react the same exact way to him.
“Damn it.” Fox didn’t want to think what type of a person freaked out over just bumping into a shifter. He tried to convince himself Vince’s freak out yesterday was for anything but. Yet here he was knowing damn well if Vincent saw him like this, he would run the other way. Fuck his life.
“Stop growling.” Leo narrowed his eyes and crossed heavy biceps over his chest. “Just fuck off to wherever you were going and stop trying to challenge my fucked up lion.”
Fox glanced his way and nodded curtly. He grabbed his bandanna from the floor and dusted it off, then headed for the outside door. He wanted fresh air. He wanted fresh air and to hopefully find a way to solve this problem. He couldn’t not be a shifter and he didn’t want to chase after some guy who couldn’t live with him being one. So either Vincent was going to have to change or he was going to have to talk to his fox about their really bad mate choice.
Fox sighed to himself as he stepped out into the cold air. It would be the latter. There was no way to make Vincent change. Fuck, there was no way to even make him think it was worth changing for. Even if Vincent might like him, Fox couldn’t believe he liked all of him. He knew half wasn’t enough.
This was not the first time Clive and Edward walked out unimpeded with a kidnapped shifter in tow. It was usually the norm since they started taking precautions to make sure the owners of the shifters and property alike were away. On the rare occasion they couldn’t wait for such an opportunity and conflict was imminent, they made a point to restrain the owners before removing the shifter from the premises. After a close call where a shifter was almost killed by the ashamed owner, they learned to take no needless risks.
Clive had Caleb meet them at the hotel. The hulking bear shifter shielded any curious gazes from Zander’s sleeping form as he carried him inside. Once they had Zander safely tucked away in the hotel room, they were methodical. Clive and Edward stripped and sponged him down, healed when needed, and checked for parasites and any crawlies Zander might have collected. Caleb called the haven to make sure everything was still up to par under their part-time therapist and current house-sitter’s critical eye. Roy wasn’t the most reliable with his busy schedule, but he made time when he could to ensure someone supervised the troubled shifters when the owner was out saving lives.
Clive furrowed his brow and took the phone from Caleb when it was handed to him. “Problem, Roy?”
“Possibly. Dale went cat again and is hiding under the couch. I wouldn’t think much of it, but it was after a brawl with Mika. You know how cutting he can be when he’s in a mood.”
Clive did. Mika turned bitchy into an art form. It didn’t help he was extra edgy while waiting to see if Zander was alive. “Did you ask Dave to check on Dale? He’s usually good with him.”
Roy cleared his throat and pitched his voice lower. “Dave and Dane are both under the couch with him. Did I fail to mention that?”
Clive exhaled heavily. “As cats, I imagine.” It was not that large a couch.
The triplets were house-cats and at twenty, the youngest residents currently living at the haven. Dale was the only one of the three abducted but the other two brothers insisted on helping him recover at the haven. Which was fine, their support helped Dale immensely. The problem was how the two teamed up to get revenge every time Dale felt victimized over simple arguments. Super glue and fur were involved the last time. Clive was not looking forward to discovering how far they’d go when he wasn’t around.
“Roy, would you inform Mika that Zander is safe, healing, and looking forward to seeing him again? Maybe mention it while in the TV room, so our three hellions can hear and understand just why Mika is in such a foul mood. You could even invite them to all get the room ready for him.”
“You’ll be back tonight, then?” Surprise was clear in Roy’s voice. “Do you think he’s ready?”
Clive glanced over to where Zander had been scrubbed pink and dressed in clean clothes. The panther shifter was still out cold and there was no way to judge how well he’d adjust to life at the haven. There was also no place suitable to transition someone with Zander’s level of abuse. Very few institutions were capable or willing to handle the extra equipment and training needed for treating shifters.
“I’m going to port him in within the next few hours. I think driving him up would be too much of a risk.” Zander waking up in the middle of the highway and having a freak out was his biggest concern. “I’ll come back and deal with the rental and make a final sweep. You’ll have Edward and Caleb to help with things by then, but if you could stay until I get back, I’d appreciate it.”
“Not a problem, Clive. I was planning on a few days, just to be on the safe side. You never know how your rescues are going to go. Is the kid okay?”
Clive glanced again to where Zander was stretched out on the bed, frowned and turned away. “He’s fucked up, no question.” Clive didn’t bother to censor himself. “We won’t know until at least a month if he’s going to be in a null-collar for the rest of his life or if his cat is savable. They hurt him bad. Maybe even as bad as Jasper ten years back.”
Roy whistled a low note and fell silent. Jasper was one of their hardest patients, abducted and trained not only for sex but also to kill when in his cat form. The lion shifter had a full pride to search for him when he was abducted. When they finally discovered Jasper they called the haven, to help convince him to leave his pit of a prison. Jasper returned to the haven three different times over the course of five years. He owned his own null-collar and was known to wear it even now when things got too stressed for him. Jasper was living a good, steady life but it only because of the patience, therapy, and manpower divided by those at the haven and the loving pride that cared enough to get him there.
Clive’s research revealed Zander didn’t have any relatives to help keep him steady out in the world. If he was feral, the panther shifter would be completely vulnerable to any law enforcement who discovered his state. He risked being thrown in jail, or more likely ‘accidentally’ killed in the process of his capture. It was still too early to tell, but the magnitude of the many potential problems weighed heavily on Clive as he said his farewell to Roy with a promise to call before porting in.
“Are you seriously comparing him to Jasper?” Edward carefully untangled Zander’s damp locks with a brush. “He’s shown no signs of violence, no aggression at all. Jasper was practically foaming when we pulled him from those psychos.”
Clive met his gaze with a grim frown. They’d been rescuing shifters for fifteen years now, starting when Clive returned from his first year of college to find his father trying to ‘train’ Edward into a servant for a rich client. After cutting all ties to his fucked up family, Clive and Edward started looking for other shifters in need. They raised money through grants and charities to create the Shifter Safe Haven, and networked with shifters and doctors who were sympathetic to the animal shape shifters. They even created the only known amber alert system for stolen shifters.
He might not have known ten years ago what sort of work Jasper would need when the haven took in the lion shifter. Clive sure had enough experience now to suspect what it was going to take to get Zander living life again.
“He’s fucked, Ed. Mika was a failed mercy killing in his eyes, and he injured himself to commit it.” There was a festering wound on Zander’s neck where he snapped his first leather enchanted collar on his skin. The infected flesh was resistant to healing even after all this time. Clive sighed and ran fingers through his hair in agitation. Mika was living at the haven and in an essential stage of his recovery; it was only more worry to add.
“The question is if his cat is gone too, or just the human,” Clive continued. “If the cat is intact, things will be easier. He’s younger than Jasper, and the brain is still in its elastic stage, but he won’t be an overnight fix. Whatever the fuck they did to him, they broke him. Two years of starvation, rape, and dependency on a fucking leash for a sense of security. Don’t let his tears fool you. He’s going to be a monster until he gets his shit straightened out. Best prepare for it now.”
Shifters usually recovered two different ways. They isolated and curled inward until they could handle the world again, or they sought out comfort and surrounded themselves with love until they could face life on their own. Through it all, they had natural defenses and tools that allowed them to numb and deal with things in bearable amounts. Then there were the rare ones, guys like Jasper that went bat-shit crazy at the drop of a hat, reacted with claws and fangs to everything, then came back to sanity to sob for the world to be different and him not to be in it.
Jasper spent days seeking comfort, only to suddenly lash out. He would alienate everyone only to come back whimpering forgiveness. He required so much attention, disrupted so many lives… And damn, it was so worth it.
As if reading his mind, Edward spoke up. “Maybe we should give Jasper a call. I bet he’d be more than happy to come down and play big brother every now and then for the poor kitten. Zander should be able to see that it can be done. That the hard work and pain pays off.”
Clive nodded in agreement. He took a heavy seat on the foot of the bed while Caleb went to get them an early dinner. Seeing Jasper again would be good. Clive hadn’t realized how seeing Zander in that condition had hit until now. All he wanted to do was sit under a hot shower and wash the day away. There was just too much to do, too many loose ends to tie up.
They were still trying to discover who stole Zander and if it was the same magic user who abducted Mika. Had the two shifters ended up in the Rothton lair by the means of two separate culprits? It seemed unusual the Rothtons would seek out another connection in such a dangerous market as slaving. Mika was grabbed out of a college in Michigan. Clive wasn’t sure if it was a coincidence or a calling card. All he knew for certain was cat shifters were being targeted more frequently and their clients were getting more monstrous in their treatment of the young men.
Edward fixed him with a sympathetic look. He reached down and pulled a small box from his boot. “Happy birthday, man.”
Clive blinked in surprise, stared at the box, then met Edward’s amused smirk. “Is it?”
“Yup. Had a feeling you forgot again. Thirty-seven and I don’t think you’ve remembered more than five now.”
Clive shrugged sheepishly. “Well, if I’m going for the record and all.” He opened the box and beamed when the smell of magic rose up. “Wards?”
“The best. Cost a pretty penny, too, but I knew you were looking for something to fix the gate after those dickheads came by and tried to blow a hole through it.” They actually tried to blow a hole through the house. The bomb detonated when it came in contact with the magical energy of the previous wards, leaving a very frightened postman alive to tell the tale.
“Thanks, Ed. This is about the most thoughtful gift I’ve ever received.” He got up and hugged Edward, who rolled his eyes good-naturedly and hugged him back fiercely.
“Like hell. It’s as meaningful as buying you a fucking lock on the gate,” Edward said with a growl. “But you’re an idiot and you have no life outside of what we’re doing, so I figured it was as good as it was going to get to make someone like you happy.”
Clive’s smile didn’t dim in the slightest. He flipped the top rectangle of fabric over and read the symbols inscribed. “They even have a clause so shifters in mortal danger can warp through. Ed, this is fucking amazing.”
Edward shook his head. He hid his pleased blush with a flurry of movement as he picked up Zander’s stained clothes and threw them in a bag. “You need a lover, idiot, not a fucking door. Romance. Love. Sex, for fuck sake. Do you even remember what sex is anymore?”
Clive shrugged disinterestedly. He shut the box and dispelled it to his room in Vermont. He’d install the wards that night if there was enough time. The sooner they had stronger defenses, the better he’d feel about leaving on missions like this. “I’m not a horny animal like you, Ed. I can manage to live my life and not chase the tail of every sexy guy that walks past the door.”
“That’s total bullshit.” Edward stalked over, leaned down, and went so far as to flip Clive’s glasses up so he could see him unobstructed. “You need a vacation. You need to get away from the victims and remember that sex can be enjoyable. You need to stop saving everyone else and give yourself five fucking minutes of attention. Your last relationship lasted less than two weeks, three years ago. You forgot your damn birthday. Again. Come on, Clive; it time to get a fucking life already.”
“I have a life. A very nice life,” Clive said sweetly as he put his tinted glasses back into place. He combed his hair back into its normal, shaggy mess. “Let’s face it, Ed. It’s hard enough to get a professional to come into this situation and be willing to stay. A boyfriend? I might as well start the conversation by saying I have between five to fifteen kids in my life, they switch constantly, and they’re all emotionally disturbed. I’m not holding my breath.”
Clive was happy. He might not always be aware of things like birthdays and the state of his hair, but happiness definitely trumped the superficialities.
Sure, Edward could complain all he liked he had no life outside of his shifter work but really, the haven was his life. It was trying some days, exhausting others, and he hadn’t ever planned on dedicating his life to rescuing and protecting a bunch of riffraff shifters, but he wouldn’t change a moment of it. Not the scars, not the random death threats from dumbass bigots. Not even the shivers of fear when he gazed into the eyes of a wounded, frightened animal and wondered if they were too far gone to come back from the brink.
It was worth it. Every time. He didn’t need anything else.