Raider spent the first ten minutes in Michael’s office hunched forward in a leather chair hiding behind his hands. It was just easier. He could barely comprehend what the fuck he nearly did with the two feline shifters never mind face the man who stopped it.
Michael’s office was surprising. For a murderous sorcerer hellbent on killing shifters and gaining power, Michael surrounded himself with a lot of plants. Like, a crazy amount. Not just decorative plants either. No, between the large blooms of hydrangeas, roses, orchids, and an array of flowers and pretty leaves Raider couldn’t ever hope to name were vegetables, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini and others hidden in nooks like jewels among the greenery. There were even a few citrus plants in the corners of the large room which reached up to splay leaves on the ceiling. Plus one, he was fairly certain, squat pineapple plant in a huge pot. The walls and ceilings were dripping with vines. As Raider’s breath warmed his palms, he could hear insects and the ruffle of birds coming from all around.
The place was a cross between swanky and an overrun green house. It was large, the furniture beneath all the plants and pots sleek and refined with a modern flair. On the walls were a few unique displays of different cultural oddities Michael collected throughout his journeys. Behind his desk, windows took up the entire wall and looked out at the back of the Academy. The blinds were twisted to only let a small amount of the orange glow of the fading sunset in between the strands of vines which clung to the panes.
Michael’s desk fit in just as confusingly with the garden. It was chocolate sleek wood that collected piles of paperwork among to the phone, laptop and lamps. Small little colorful cacti dotted the surface in hand glazed pots. He had one of those bubbling rock garden fountains, but while Raider only knew them to be bowl sized, Michael’s spilled from his desk down to the side where there was a large stone basin with small, darting fish that glittered among the rocks and surrounding leaves.
It was surreal, beautiful and the combination of green, scents and the constant burble of water calming. At any other time, it would have been a place he’d want to explore. Instead he tried to get his breathing under control in the dark of his palms while a stray fern tickled his ankles. If Leo and Forest were impressed by Michael’s office, he couldn’t tell. Michael insisted they all sit there until they calmed down enough to be collared. The arguing had yet to stop.
“You know the rules,” Michael said calmly but the edge to his voice was clear. “Twenty-four hours. This is non-negotiable.”
Leo’s angry growl said he was more than ready to fight for as long as it took. Forest rolled his eyes and readily took the null-collar when handed to him.
“I’ll take a collar over a trip to Daiker any day,” Forest muttered as he snapped the metal band in place around his neck. He slumped moments after and exhaled heavily. “Shit… Shit, I seriously fucked up.”
Michael didn’t comment. His stern gaze was locked with Leo’s defiant glare when he refused to take the collar before him. “Leonard.”
“Stop acting like it’s some fucking crime,” Leo growled. “He was giving off the scent. Stop trying to humanize animal mating behavior.”
“Bullshit,” Forest interrupted. “You fucking know that’s bullshit. Just because our inner animals want to do shit doesn’t justify our actions. That’s the whole fucking point. Otherwise you could justify a fucking killing spree and… Fuck.” He broke off and stood from his chair agitatedly. “I am seriously sorry, Valdez. I’m not going to let it happen again.”
Forest turned to Michael and ignored Leo’s angry scowl. “Can I get a new room? I’ve been really messed up this last week and it’s only gotten worse since…” he glanced Raider’s way a moment, then ducked his head. “Please. I just can’t handle this kind of pressure on top of everything else.”
Raider tilted his head up enough so he could see Forest through his fingers. He looked defeated as he leaned on Michael’s desk and it made him wonder just what ‘everything else’ was he was talking about. For the most part, Forest seemed pretty normal outside of his excessive mating heat. Raider was even starting to get used to the idea of sharing a room with a leopard shifter if only because after all his time there, Forest hadn’t shown any signs of wanting to kill him. The idea of not having Forest as a roommate was somehow a little more terrifying than having him in his room.
Everything was a fucking mess in his head lately.
“I think it would be best if Raider had a room of his own for the time being,” Michael agreed after a pause. “I can talk to Justin and see if he’s ready for a roommate yet.”
“You’re sure as fuck not sleeping in my room,” Leo said gruffly.
“Yeah, I’m crying over it, jackass.” Forest straightened and flashed Michael a relieved, if not half hearted smile. “Thanks. Can I just…?” He jabbed his thumb toward the doorway. “I want to talk to Bear before he’s gone for the night.”
Michael nodded solemnly. “We will talk again, Forest. Just the two of us.”
Forest nodded as he gnawed at his bottom lip. He ducked away, his hands buried in his pockets. He paused when he reached Raider’s chair, his eyes lingering on him.
Raider tensed the moment he felt Forest’s close proximity. He didn’t dare look at him. He had no interest in engaging after the fucking mess in the hallway.
“I’ll get my shit tomorrow, okay? Or now, you know, while you’re not there.”
Damn it, he was going to have to actually say something. “It’s fine. I’m not angry at you.” He wasn’t. He was freaked out but it wasn’t Forest he was freaked out at.
Forest huffed, but Raider still couldn’t bring himself to look at him to read what he was thinking. “I’ll get my stuff now.” He was out the door before Raider could think of something proper to say. And really, what were you supposed to say after something like this? Sorry your sex scent made me want to fuck you? Just because he knew it was all fucked up didn’t make any of it easier to explain or comprehend.
“Fucker. This is total shit, Whiteheart!”
Raider cracked his eyes open to see if he’d have to dodge if Leo started throwing things. Michael was unphased. His gaze was level and jaw squared as he stared Leo down like the guy wasn’t capable of transforming into a huge beast who could tear his throat out.
“If you were a shifter, you would understand!” Leo insisted, frustration clear in his voice. “If you could scent him, you wouldn’t have dared interfered.”
“You know the rules,” Michael said evenly. “If you want to have an actual conversation about the ethics of me making you stop and cool off, that conversation can happen a few hours from now after we’ve all had some time to think and process. I will be happy to hear your thoughts on the situation when your lion is not so intent on his goal.”
“Damn it. You’re such a fucking hypocrite. You all let Doe do whatever the fuck he wants.” Leo’s hand slammed down on the desk when he grabbed the collar. His claws tore into the dark wood in a show of defiant aggression. Still Leo hesitated and glared at the collar as he slowly pulled it towards his body. With a scowl, he jerked it around his neck and snapped the metal shut before he could think better.
Raider watched from beneath his lashes, morbidly curious as to just what this collar was supposed to do. On the outside, Leo didn’t look any different. He was still mountain tall with his fuzzy lion ears and sinuous tail. While Leo sat and his expression turned from angry to sullen, Raider couldn’t help but notice his scent changed. Much of the lion’s unique properties faded from the air.
“You’re dismissed for the night.” Michael reached out and covered over the gouges in his desk Leo made. When his hand pulled away, the surface was repaired. “I’ll be happy to talk to you about this tomorrow, Leonard. I expect it, actually.”
“Whatever.” Leo stood with a glare.
Raider watched him warily. Leo still looked normal, his stance confidently and tall, if not just a little less tense. When he stepped his way, Raider held his breath, all his senses on high alert. He didn’t dare turn away like he did with Forest, which was why he caught the way Leo looked at him in passing. The heat was gone from his golden eyes. When his gaze did fall on him, he only tilted his head for a moment and then shrugged, disinterested.
Raider stared after him while Leo left the office, his brows scrunched as he tried to understand.
“Did you want some coffee?”
Raider jolted at the sound of Michael’s voice. He turned back quickly to find him standing. “No. Caffeine messes me up.”
“I have some herbal tea,” Michael offered after a moment. “Caffeine free.” He patted the chair Leo just vacated, indicating Raider should sit there.
Raider shrugged noncommittally as he got up from his seat and cautiously sat in the chair across from Michael’s large desk. His dark eyes were ever watching as Michael moved to the side of the room where among the many plants, was a tabletop with a coffee maker, mugs, a bottle of water and a tin of tea bags. Raider was suddenly hyper aware the two of them were alone in his office. Goosebumps prickled on his skin, and he tried not to think about his shirt shredded and left on the hallway floor. Moments ago, Forest and Leo were danger. Now Raider realized the two were perfectly fine buffers between him and the sorcerer with enough power to bluff Leo out of a mating brawl.
He heard Michael whisper under his breath followed by the scent of magic. The water he poured into the cup boiled merrily as he placed a tea bag in it. Raider stared at the mug when Michael stepped up and placed it on his side of the desk. The scent of chamomile floated in the air.
“Aren’t you going to, uh, put me in a collar?” Raider asked as he stared warily at the tea.
“Eventually.” Michael sat down on his side of the desk with a mug of his own. His movements were unhurried as he cleared a spot by moving folders and pieces of paper to the side. “We have a rule for the patients here. When either our magic or inner beast loses control, everyone involved is collared for 24 hours to give them time to cool off.” Michael twined his fingers and studied his hands for a thoughtful moment. “I think it’s important your raccoon first learns to come down from such a situation instead of just knocking it out. It’s important the two of you have a chance to understand what happened and see this isn’t a punishment but a time to observe and understand.”
Raider was pretty sure the less he thought about what happened in the hallway, the better. His gaze slid up, drawn to Michael’s unguarded face. His expression was still stern. He wasn’t sure if Michael was angry at him, or was just angry about what might have happened to him. The silence stretched on and Raider gave in and reached for the drink. The mug was hot in his hand and he breathed in the steam with a sigh. He hated the cold. Everything was so cold since moving there and he really wished he owned some long-sleeve clothes.
“What we can do to prevent this is limited,” Michael finally spoke. Raider dragged his attention from the mug reluctantly. “I can’t in good conscience have the three of you walking around in null-collars your entire time here. Chaining your inner animal can’t be a permanent solution.”
He should have left. He could still leave. Things were bad enough when Leo and Forest showed an interest in him, but to have his raccoon respond? Fuck, he didn’t want anything to do with that. He’d jump the gate and hide in the surrounding area. There wasn’t much, just a lot of open wilderness. He wasn’t sure if the Academy would look for him, seeing as he was officially an adult. If Joseph was there it would be a different story. His uncle would hunt him down out of a stupid sense of duty.
Raider glared into his cup and at his watery reflection. Would Michael find him like he did today? Was that intentional? Did he seek him out to make sure he was okay after he didn’t come back for the nightly check in? Did he fight Leo just to protect him?
Did he want that?
“Raider.” Michael leaned forward and his stern expression cracked. “Are you okay?”
Staring into Michael’s blue eyes full of concern, Raider truly had no idea. He wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t afraid like he should be. No, just being in the same room with Michael calmed him. But he was terrified of the person he turned into when Leo kissed him. When Forest touched him…
“I never felt like that before.” Raider wrapped his hands tighter around the mug and let the heat seep into his body. “It’s like something took me over. I don’t know why. I was afraid but I still…” He shook his head agitatedly when he couldn’t find the right words. “I’m not like that. I don’t like them like that. So I don’t understand why I… why I liked it.”
Admitting it made Raider blush. He tried not to squirm in his seat under Michael’s stare. It was true; he liked it.
Michael nodded slowly. “I think this particular topic is better suited for Master Theodore.”
He wasn’t in a rush to talk to a dragon shifter about any of this. He wasn’t in a rush to talk to anyone, really, but at least Michael saw it happen. It’s not like he’d have to explain shit to him. “Can’t you just? I mean, if you know.”
“I’m not a shifter,” Michael reminded. “I know far less about this. Dr. Rob would also know more.”
“Yeah, but you knew enough to get angry, right?” Raider bit his lip and glanced at Michael before down at his mug. “You masters don’t care about Doe and Black but you stepped in the second you saw this… so… yeah. You knew it wasn’t…” He shrugged. It was impossible to find the right words. As much as he might have liked how it felt, he hadn’t actually wanted to be in that situation. It didn’t matter what Leo growled about scents and protecting him. If his body listened to him, he would have walked away the moment Leo came up to him.
Silent for long moments, Michael tapped the side of his mug with his finger. The contents stirred with a touch of magic. When he did speak, it was hesitant, like he was searching for the right words. “When Dr. Rob treated you for the flu, he was able to identify certain traits in your raccoon unique to the shifter population. These traits are what most shifters refer to as a submissive. Have you heard this term before?”
Raider shook his head no. His stomach twisted as again he remembered Justin’s words his first night there.
“These traits are more likely to be found in prey shifters, but no exclusively. There’s a theory every type of shifter has some level of submissive. It’s just appears to be more pronounced in prey type shifters such as yourself.”
His throat was dry. “And that is?”
Michael paused and sipped his drink as he again sought the right words. “Submissives have a scent known to attract the strongest of a pack. Alphas, in particular. It’s a scent which helps him survive. Certain behavior traits go along with this survival instinct, many of them sexual.”
Raider hunched deeper into his chair. He wanted to disappear but was too desperate to hear just what the hell it all meant.
“Many submissives are receptive to sexual advances from alphas because of this instinct. The alpha personality can be very overwhelming in a pack, but a submissive helps alleviate the problem by giving the alpha a welcoming outlet for his aggression. Because of this, the submissive is usually protected by everyone in the pack. When interacting, the alpha personality is more likely to be drawn out when around a submissive because of his instinctual need to protect a mate. In the same way, a submissive’s traits take over to help him deal with the alpha’s personality.”
He was so fucked. Raider shakily placed his mug on the desk and folded forward so he could hug his knees. His hands flashed as he twirled the ring on his forefinger.
“Submissives are mates for alphas?”
“Some. There isn’t a law out there that if you’re attracted to someone you have to act on it.” Michael had a deeper swallow of his tea.
Raider groaned. His life was over. “I’m not attracted to them. I’m not.”
“Okay.” Michael raised an eyebrow as Raider continued to clutch at his knees. With his head ducked, the tattooed vines on his shoulders could be seen leading down his back toward more black roses tattoos. “You still don’t have to mate anyone.”
Sure, try telling that to someone like Leo. Maybe Michael could take him on in a fight, but he sure as fuck couldn’t. And it wasn’t just Leo, was it? Forest wasn’t an alpha, but it hadn’t stopped him. What if every shifter he met suddenly wanted to, well, mate with him?
“This scent only works on shifters, right?”
“It shouldn’t effect normal humans.”
Raider bit his lip and peeked his head up. “Sorcerers?”
Michael looked uncertain. “That would depend on the sorcerer. You’re not without magic, which you’d learn if you participated in Theo’s class. Your scent could potentially have magical properties.”
Raider quickly ducked his head again. He was suddenly filled with a consuming curiosity to know if Michael could be effected by his scent. Probably not. He was really strong. Probably nothing got to him.
He shook his head fiercely at his stupid thoughts. He needed to find a way out. “The collar. Will that, uh, make me stop being like this?”
“There’s nothing wrong with being a submissive,” Michael responded quickly. “Some humans lean toward certain proclivities and it’s widely accepted. With shifters it just appears more extreme because of the effect of the scent.”
“Nothing wrong? I’m a raccoon. Prey,” Raider snapped. He sat up, arms resting on thighs so his glare could reach Michael. “Do you not get how easy it is for a predator to kill me? Do you really think this will help my chances of surviving when alphas are fighting over me? I’m going to end up dead.”
First the fucking sparkle and now this. Another trap. Another lack of escape. It was like the world was working to capture him and keep him weak. He should have listened to his first instinct and run the moment the truck pulled through the gates.
Michael flexed his eyebrows and Raider narrowed in the expression. “What? Just spit it out,” he demanded.
“Well.” Michael tilted his head and a weak smile quirked at his lips. “Before I showed up, the three of you seemed to be getting along fine enough. I don’t think you have to worry about either of them killing you. I’m actually impressed those two can share.”
Raider blinked rapidly. He ducked his head to hide his face as heat flushed through him. Just how long was Michael standing there before he broke them up? What exactly did he see? Maybe he fought Leo just so he could… Raider ran fingers through his short hair and tried to stop the quick, hot spiral his thoughts were spinning toward. Michael was a sorcerer. He shouldn’t be thinking weird shit about a sorcerer.
“Raider, I want to be clear. I will not let you be pressured into something while at the Academy.”
Raider shook his head and scoffed in frustration. “And when you’re not around? What then? Are you going to stalk me all fucking day or some shit?”
Michael sighed but didn’t look away from his glare. “As I said, we have limited options when it comes to solutions. You seem to respond well to my natural magic. Your raccoon calms around me even when…”
Raider jumped to his feet with a furious yelp. “I knew it! You are spelling me!”
Michael braced himself on the desk. His hand came up to rub his temple a moment and when he spoke, he sounded tired. “Some people have unique abilities they have little control over. For Master Theo, it’s allure. Myself, I have a level of charisma. Although the both of us do our best to avoid any impropriety with these abilities, we cannot shut them off completely. They are a part of what makes us who we are.”
Michael looked up, his eyes clear in contrast to Raider’s cloudy expression. “In the same way, you have a scent. Another shifter might see your scent as a weapon you use to confuse and distract, maybe even lure into a trap. You and I both know that isn’t the case. I can’t stop you from thinking I’m trying to harm or trick you because of my natural magic. All I can do is assure you I have always been, and will continue to be, professional with everyone who attends the Academy.”
Raider’s lips pursed as Michael’s words sank in and insisted on making sense. Fuck. With a sigh, he sat back down in his seat and stared sullenly at the floor.
A weapon? Did Leo think he led him on with a scent he couldn’t even control? He kind of said as much; that as long as he was giving off the scent it meant he liked it. Fuck, not only had his scent put him in that fucked up situation, but it might have put Leo and Forest into it as well. Leo barely looked twice at him when he left and all Forest did was apologize once the collar was on. Shit. Shit, what if Forest thought he did this whole thing just to get a room of his own?
Groaning, Raider again folded forward, his arms wrapped around his head to hide him from the world. “Is there a way to, you know, stop my scent?”
“There’s nothing wrong with your scent,” Michael said determinedly. “Being a submissive isn’t something to be ashamed of.”
Raider sighed and wished he could believe him. He sat back up and ruffled his hair. “Yeah, but, I can’t even share a room with someone. It’s gotta be pretty bad, right? Will I need separate classes or some shit?”
“Or you can learn control. I’m not a hundred percent certain about the mechanism of the scent. I can find out, if you want my help. Or we can talk to Dr. Rob, Bear, Theo; all very good authorities on shifter sexuality.”
Peering up through his lashes, Raider couldn’t help but note a hint of unease coming from Michael. He looked closer, trying to read his face while the man stared at his hands. He still wasn’t sure which version was real; the charming Michael who greeted him his first day or this fierce, chiseled protector. Raider’s gaze lingered on the way a curl of golden hair was spilled across one of Michael’s stunning blue eyes.
He looked away. “It’s probably awkward for you, right?”
“No, it’s, uh…” Michael coughed and straightened in his seat. “Boundaries are important in these situations. It’s my job to offer help without having to worry you’ll become attached. We have multiple people working here to make sure patients get the help they need. I’m concerned my viewpoint is limited for the help this problem requires.”
“Oh.” Right. Attached. Raider wet his lips. “I could, um, try to talk to those other guys. The masters. I don’t really feel, well, safe around them.”
Michael nodded. “We know. You appear to have a severe anxiety disorder. Something your uncle wasn’t aware of when he contacted us.”
Raider blinked and stared back down at his hands. Anxiety. What a superficial word, so empty of the terror that gripped him every second his raccoon was awake. Raider clutched at his hand, the smooth contour of his rings barely comforting as his mind spun. Bear said he was making his raccoon more afraid than it needed to be. That somehow he was making it worse.
“So, you charisma thing… that can calm me? Er, my raccoon?” Raider’s face heated up. “Is that an option?” Michael seemed even more hesitant and he was quick to backpedal. “Or we could do the collar thing. I mean…”
“No, it’s not…” Michael stopped and tried again more carefully. “I want to help you, Angel. I want you to be able to trust me. There’s just a careful line to walk when you’re someone in my position. Touch can be powerful and it’s important to go about things in an appropriate way.”
Raider’s gaze strayed to Michael’s hand on the desk. It wasn’t just fear swirling in his stomach. There was a strange anticipation welling and he wasn’t sure if it was from him or his raccoon.
“It couldn’t hurt anything, right?” Raider swallowed. “I mean, it’s just a touch.”
“I would never intentionally hurt you.”
Again, those very careful words. Michael kept being so careful to make sure he didn’t say something he’d interpret as a lie. Raider felt a twinge of guilt. Michael had to watch every word he said because otherwise he’d accuse him of spelling him.
But he was spelling him. Sort of.
“Do you want to try?” Michael asked, pulling Raider from his thoughts.
Raider nodded with lips pursed. His stared as Michael reached his hand out, palm up on the desk.
“Just like a handshake.”
Raider glanced up, his cheeks flushed from the memory. “Why does it do that? Do the other shifters calm when you touch them?”
Michael’s lips twitched. “Leo sure doesn’t.”
Raider snorted and ducked his head to hide his smile. When he glanced up, doubt again crept in as he reached for Michael’s hand. “So maybe it’s a submissive thing?”
“Or a raccoon thing,” Michael supplied lightly. “Or maybe just your raccoon. We’re all unique in our own special ways.”
Raider didn’t fully hear him when his hand fell into Michael’s open palm. Now he knew to expect it, he wasn’t surprised when his raccoon gave an immediate sigh and settled down. Raider’s eyes fluttered shut. His breath evened out as he sank into the feeling of calm thrumming through him. Michael’s hand was warm beneath his touch. Solid, firm but yielding.
“Are you alright?”
Raider nodded and a sigh escaped his lips from the sound of Michael’s voice. He had a nice voice. Strong. Masculine. Just hearing it made him feel safe, like he would take care of everything.
“I think you’re purring.”
Raider’s lashes flickered open and his hazy gaze was immediately caught in Michael’s.
“It’s not very audible, but I can feel it.” Michael’s fingers tightened around his and Raider’s eyes drifted down to watch.
It sent a spark through him to feel Michael’s flesh slide against his. There was something about the roughness of his palm and the strength so carefully restrained in his hold. It reminded him of how fierce the master sorcerer was when facing Leo down. How Michael didn’t raise his voice or lose his temper and still proved he was superior to the alpha lion.
It really was the sexiest thing ever.
“You’re not a shifter, right?”
Michael’s head tilted at the question. “Do I smell like a shifter?”
“No.” It was one of those strange, careful answers. Raider looked at him again and tried not to get lost in his entrancing eyes. “In the hallway earlier…”
“I’ve picked up a few trick to prevent conflict among the shifters here,” Michael explained while he just as carefully read Raider’s expression. “I do have a shadow form. Sometimes certain shifters, ones with magical abilities, notice it. I really think you should give Theo’s class a try.”
Heat was a slow, honey drip through his entire body. Raider’s eyelids felt heavy as he blinked up at Michael. “You shift?”
“Of a sorts. Unlike a shifter who has an inner animal wake up, I found my spirit animal later on in life. The relationship is very different. We aren’t joined souls, but found friends.” Michael’s fingers scraped ever so lightly against his. Tingles shot all the way down to Raider’s toes. “You seem much calmer.”
Michael really did have the most beautiful eyes. And smile. Lips… he had very nice lips.
Raider’s fingers curled slightly as he tried to repeat the curiosity of their flesh sparking. It was so intense and very addictive. Like lips brushing hot on his palm. Michael’s lips…
“There’s that purr again,” Michael remarked with a small smile. “I’ve never heard a raccoon purr before.”
Raider wasn’t used to his raccoon purring or the confusing heat filling him. “What do you turn into?”
“Borrow,” Michael clarified. “It might appear like a transformation but I’m only sharing the spiritual echoes of an animal compatible with me. Depending on the sorcerer’s ability, a spirit form can be solid, even malleable.”
“But what?” Raider insisted, slightly breathless. “What is your spirit animal?”
Michael hesitated and his gaze slid away for a moment. “I don’t want to frighten your raccoon. He’s been purring. I have a feeling he doesn’t purr much.”
He didn’t. Raider’s raccoon never purred. Licking suddenly dry lips, Raider leaned forward so he could promise his raccoon would obviously still like him. There really wasn’t an animal alive or dead more scary than a sorcerer after all and Michael was already that. As he leaned on the desk, his fingers inadvertently twined with Michael’s and he stilled and stared at their joined hands.
“Is this weird?” Raider couldn’t actually bring himself to let go of Michael’s hand no matter how much he was certain it was very weird.
“Weird is subjective,” Michael said reasonably, his eyes also glued to their hands. “You do seem much calmer.”
Calm wasn’t even close to what he felt. Drugged. At peace. Impossibly curious. “What do you turn into?”
Michael glanced up and answered hesitantly. “An eagle. A large one. He’s not a vegetarian, I’m afraid to say.”
“A predator,” Raider echoed back. He wet his lips again. A killer. A defender.
It wasn’t fear that shuddered through him, although it felt just as intense as his raccoon tried to make him melt and get hard at the same time. It was almost exactly what he felt in the hallway and he had no idea how to protect against it.
“I think I need to let go of your hand,” Raider whispered hoarsely. Before he did something stupid. Leo-sized stupid. Sorcerer-sized stupid.
“I’m sorry I upset you.” Michael’s eyes scoured his face. “I would never harm you. My shadow form is controlled. I would never endanger the patients here.”
Raider couldn’t speak. How could Michael totally miss how desperate he was to have him kiss him, touch him, show him how capable he was at protecting him? What did he have to do, get down on his knees to make things more clear? If he revealed he wasn’t afraid, it would only force him to explain what he was feeling. There was no way in fuck he was doing that. Never.
“Could you just?” Raider nodded to their joined hands. “I can’t. It’s like you’re shiny,” he said shakily. “I can’t let go.”
His eyes followed and Michael blinked and straightened in his seat. His other hand covered the back of Raider’s for one long, breathless eternity before he gently pulled him free.
“A bit magnetic, hmm?” Michael joked but his voice sounded rough to Raider’s dazed senses.
Raider slowly pulled his hand to the edge of the desk. He held the side and stared at his fingers blankly. His raccoon was still purring. It was still interested Michael was in the room with them and had something deadly and powerful lurking beneath his protective surface.
It should be frightened. Hell, the damn thing was afraid of Leo even when they were making out. It should be terrified of Michael too, but it wasn’t. No, the stupid thing wouldn’t stop purring. It wouldn’t stop thinking it was safe.
“While your raccoon is still calm, I think now would be a good time to have you put the collar on.”
Raider looked up and watched as Michael pulled another metal band out from a desk drawer and placed it before him. It had a glimmer but the surface wasn’t remotely shiny enough to make him reach for the strange collar. “It won’t hurt, right?”
“It doesn’t hurt,” Michael assured. He looked at the wariness on Raider’s face and beckoned for him to stand as he got to his feet. He picked the collar up and held it before Raider’s face. “See, nothing sharp or pointy. There’s a bit of weight to it but it won’t weigh you down. Some might get a crick in their neck when they sleep in it, but as long as you sleep on your side, it should be fine.”
Raider held the edge of the desk when Michael beckoned him closer. He kept his head down but was consumed by Michael’s unique scent and the heat of his body as he leaned over to place the collar around his neck.
“When you put it on like this, you won’t have to worry about your skin being pinched,” Michael said as he clicked the metal edges together. Raider held his breath when Michael’s hold lingered for a heart beat. Fingertips brushed his throat when he pulled away. Raider watched him from beneath heavy lashes as he held onto the scent of him as long as possible.
The purring stopped. Raider frowned and clutched the center of his chest when his raccoon’s presence began to fade. “What?”
“Null-collars have a unique ability to nullify the effects of magic on the wearer,” Michael explained calmly. “This suppresses the natural magic of a shifter and forces the inner animal into a state of stasis. Think of it like a very deep sleep for your raccoon while you remain awake.”
Raider nodded, his attention focused inward as he tried to understand it all. This was why Leo scent changed. It must mean his scent was gone too. “It’s strange. I thought I’d be more afraid.”
He wasn’t unafraid, just not on the blind panic level his raccoon usually created when they lost control. No, Raider was more afraid of not having his raccoon there than anything else. What was he going to do without having its judgment? Its companionship or heightened senses to warn him when danger could strike? Not feeling afraid was somehow frightening him.
“Just sit and let it sink in for a moment. It’s always disorienting the first few times,” Michael assured as he returned to his seat and drained the rest of his tea.
Raider slowly sank into his chair. His fingers traced the edge of metal around his throat as he tried to adapt to life without his raccoon’s mind to filter. His gaze eventually strayed to Michael, whose expression was quiet, his lashes lowered and hair shining. On impulse, Raider reached forward and touched down on the back of his hand.
There was no raccoon to purr, no want to sink into the sorcerer’s magic but the feeling of safety Michael brought with him was still there. As was the heat that tingled through Raider when Michael’s eyes met his.
“I need to go.” Raider stood abruptly. He was beyond confused. Sorcerer. Michael was a sorcerer. He didn’t need his raccoon there to remind him sorcerers killed shifters. He was in a collar for the next 24 hours and was completely vulnerable to any attack, magical or fangs. How could he possibly feel safe? How could he feel anything like that for a sorcerer?
“Are you well?” Michael stood as well and Raider avoided his eye. “The collar can be disorienting. Being cut off from your inner animal is never an easy experience.”
“I just want to be alone,” Raider said without focus. He turned toward the door and crossed the room, blind to the greenery and scents of flowers. When he got to the handle, he turned and stepped out before he could change his mind. In the hallway, things felt so much worse away from Michael.
All the more reason to never see the guy again. Raider forced his legs to move down the hall. He absentmindedly hoped he was going in the right direction. Sorcerer. Sorcerer and a predator. There was nothing worse and Michael Whiteheart was both.
Raider wasn’t sure how the hell it happened, but he was lost. In his fear to not be found by any stray killer shifter or sorcerer, he ended up losing all sense of landmarks. He was still messed up, confused, and the time away did little to bring clarity to the feelings of before.
He wanted to kiss Forest. More than kiss. He wanted to strip and grind up against him until the crazy heat pounding inside stopped. He didn’t even know Forest. He didn’t even like Forest like that. Forest was a leopard shifter and scared the life out of him.
Raider swallowed hard. He would have kissed him if Forest so much as leaned over. He never had a sex scent do that to him before.
Actually, he never faced so many sex scents before. There was the occasional scent here and there but it was usually watered down in a breeze or lost in a crowd. The few times it was a shifter scent, the one in question quickly dismissed himself and it wasn’t really worth remembering.
The more he thought of it, the more Raider realized how inexperience he was when it came to this problem. It was kind of weird considering all the shifters in his life. Cat shifters weren’t the only ones to experience a type of heat. Most shifters’ heat just didn’t reach the same high intensity or frequency as the feline types. He never dealt with sex scents like these.
There was no escaping whatever the fuck the dragon shifter did to his not so quiet sorcerer mate. Doe had no interest in being subtle. No, his dragon’s kink increased depending on how many people were aware he was claiming his mate at the time. In theory, the idea of having someone fuck their boyfriend in front of him sounded messed up. In practice… well. It might be really hot.
Raider covered his face with his hands, his fingertips dark from his raccoon pattern. He didn’t like Wylie. Or Dorian. Or Forest. Fuck, what the hell was happening to him?
He groaned and stopped in front of another unfamiliar door. At least he was on the same floor. He didn’t end up in the basement with the dragon teacher. There would be no saving him if his raccoon started to fixate on hidden treasure on top of this new weirdness.
Why was his raccoon so weird? Why couldn’t it just be normal and quiet and not mess up his entire fucking life? If it was normal, Fox wouldn’t hate him over everything. If it would calm down for five seconds, maybe he could figure out how to make friends in the pack so no one would try to eat him. But it couldn’t. The stupid beast was too scared to do anything but freak out and run.
The door handle was locked and Raider sighed in defeat. There was no place to hide. He desperately needed to find the lounge and his room but he wasn’t sure he could do it without running into the shifters or sorcerers he was doing everything to avoid.
Again, he thought about running. Every time he tried with Fox, his friend found reasons to pull away even more. He couldn’t figure out how he was fucking it up. Fox wasn’t the type to hold a grudge. He was fucking up something and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could stay in this horrible Academy.
Raider thought he recognized the next hallway. There was something about the arrangement of paintings on the otherwise white walls that looked familiar. The Academy wasn’t cold and corporate even though it was easy to get lost in. The art was all different everywhere he went. Not that he had the ability to appreciate any of it. Not with the strange scents and warnings of magic all over the place. His steps slowed and he dared to stop and look at a painting of a young lady dressed in green. A chill breezed through the air right before he heard a door click down the hall.
Raider wrapped his arms around him to fend off the sudden cold. He really needed to get a jacket or something. He looked down the hall and stilled when he saw Leo standing in the doorway, highlighted by the setting sun outside. Leo didn’t seem to care about the cold, his muscles hard against his thin, long sleeve shirt. His hair was longer, a dark mess with his half shift. His lion ears did little to keep him from looking intimidating as he stepped in and let the door shut behind him. Raider’s eyes slipped down involuntarily and focused on how thick the muscles of Leo’s thighs were in his jeans.
The scent of cigarette smoke filtered in. Raider glanced back up and swallowed hard when he met Leo’s stare. He held his breath. Leo’s grin was dangerous as he took slow, measured steps to where Raider was standing. Soon all Raider could smell and see was the lion shifter. Leo’s gold eyes were full of heat as he came up and blatantly looked him over.
Raider wasn’t sure why he couldn’t move. His heart was slamming in his chest but his feet were being dumb and refused to run. Leo ignored all levels of personal space, his eyes burning as he stepped forward and backed Raider against the wall.
“Hey,” Leo rumbled, his eyes fixed on his downturned face.
“H-Hi,” Raider managed to get out. His cheeks flushed as he looked anywhere but at Leo. It was impossible to ignore him. He was inches away, his scent surrounding him, a wall of muscle and roaring heat. Raider’s blood pounded in his ears. He closed his eyes as he felt his dick swell and body tense. He wasn’t that attracted to Leo, he was pretty sure, but he was getting hard no matter how much he shook.
“I could smell you all the way outside.” Leo leaned closer and inhaled deeply. “And now. How much you want it.”
Raider breathed out unsteadily. Leo’s fingers traced lightly down his cheek to his throat, and he did his best not to tremble. “I… uh…”
Leo’s words were soft, slow as he brushed his thumb across one of Raider’s thorned vine tattoos. “I know this scent. I could do anything to you and you’ll just beg for more, won’t you?”
Raider was unbalanced by the comment, confused how a part of him responded when it didn’t even make sense. He tried to speak but his voice definitely wasn’t working. His throat was too tight and he just couldn’t seem to put two words together as long as Leo was standing so close. It was hard to notice anything else but Leo’s scent, his presence, the heat coming off his flesh and the dark purr of his voice.
Leo’s knuckles slowly stroked down his cheek and jaw. It was electric. Raider fought a whimper and his sight dimmed for a moment. Leo’s mouth brushed his hair and the edge of his ear. The heat from his breath left him dazed.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” Leo pulled Raider’s hand into his and led it to his chest. “I know what kind of shifter you are and I’d never hurt a sexy thing like you.”
Raider dared to peek up, only to quickly look away when Leo’s sharp, gold eyes caught his for a frozen moment. Leo pushed Raider’s palm against his chest and held him there. Raider stared at his hand pinned against Leo’s shirt. Beneath his fingers he could feel his heartbeat. Steady. Strong.
“You’re loyal, right, Valdez? You know your alpha.” Leo hissed as he slowly pushed Raider’s hand down the front of his body. “You want to make your alpha happy, right?”
Raider’s eyes closed and his breath came out in a rough exhale as he felt the raw strength in Leo’s rippling abs beneath the fabric of his shirt. Leo led him lower and Raider’s fingertips caught on his waistband, found the roughness of his jeans and the cool, smooth metal button of his zipper.
“You want to help me out?” Leo’s gaze slid down his heaving chest. A satisfied growl escaped him when he saw Raider’s jeans were tented. “I can protect you like you need, Valdez.”
Raider glanced up through his lashes. Leo intense glare was too much to meet for long. He wet dry lips. “What… what do you mean?”
“You’re scared.” Leo chuckled when Raider immediately denied it. “We can all smell it, Valdez. It’s okay. Some guys, they’re just not strong. They’re not fighters. Not everyone is an alpha.” He leaned down until their faces were nearly level. “It’s okay, hottie.”
Raider gasped and held himself still as Leo caged him back. The wall was cool and unyielding behind him and Leo’s muscular, heat drenched form blocked him from all sides when he raised his arms. Raider stared blankly at the floor, his lower lip caught between his teeth as Leo scented boldly up his neck.
“Fuck, you smell so hot for it.” A purr rumbled in his chest and Leo pressed forward to brush lips to Raider’s gasping mouth. “I can be your alpha. Take care of you. You won’t ever have to be afraid around me.” Leo’s lips pressed again, more solidly this time. His thumb came up to tug Raider by the chin and bring him closer. “You want that, Valdez. I can smell it on you. You want a pack and a pack leader to protect you.”
Did he want that? Raider’s head was swimming. His knees were weak and his dick throbbed for release. Did he? Hadn’t he wanted to get as far away from this dangerous lion shifter as possible? Hadn’t he wanted to jump that horrible magic fence and never see another flesh eater or magic user again?
Leo’s heavy palm found his shoulder. His fingers were strong as he moved down and rubbed Raider’s chest with sure, confident strokes. Raider’s eyes closed and the tension drained from him. He leaned his weight against the wall to keep from falling.
“That’s it, you sexy prey bitch.” Leo breathed in again, his nostrils flared as Raider submitted to his touch. “I’ll be gentle with you. Give you everything you need. Show me what you like and I’ll take care of you.” His body shifted forward. Raider breath hitched when he felt Leo’s erection, hard and long, press against his hip.
Raider had no idea what he was doing. He couldn’t figure out just why he was so hard for this or why he wasn’t telling Leo to stop. He could barely understand this strange deal Leo was offering. Protect him? Leo was the type of shifter he needed to be protected from. Right? It was hard to think with his alpha lion scent so strong in the air. Leo’s hand kept massaging the muscles of his shoulders and chest, each touch dizzying and claiming.
The door down the hall pushed open. Forest brushed snowflakes from his hair as he stepped inside, only to stop cold when he looked their way. “Leo, back the fuck off, man.”
Raider’s eyes cracked open. His head was heavy on the wall and he looked up in confusion. Leo was staring down at him, so much a predator as he drank in his dark eyes and wet lips in ownership. Raider felt a strange thrill of power to have someone like Leo look at him that way.
“Do you want me to stop?” Leo smirked when he didn’t answer. He teased fingertips over the elaborate mandala tattoo on Raider’s throat. “That’s what I thought. Your alpha knows what you want.”
“Leo, I will call the fucking masters. Leave him the fuck alone!”
Leo growled at the threat. His expression sharpened and fangs elongated when Forest stomped up and slammed his hand on the wall beside Raider. Raider knew Forest wasn’t crazy enough to actually challenge Leo. Just the flexing of the lion shifter’s muscles reinforced how large and strong he was.
“Mind your own fucking business, VanWilder,” Leo snarled warningly.
Forest’s glare increased. His claws came out and triangular ears flattened to the side of his head. “You know the line you’re crossing.”
Leo scoffed. “He likes it. Wants it. If you don’t like it, then fuck off.”
“He’s a fucking sub! You know they can’t differentiate…” Forest was cut off when Leo snarled and grabbed him by the back of the neck.
Raider watched from outside himself, unable to move. A part of him was terrified he was going to see Forest torn to pieces. But Leo didn’t take a swing at him or even bare his fangs. He shoved Forest up against Raider and pushed his face right into his armpit.
“Scent him, dumbass,” Leo growled. “Tell me he’s not fucking begging for this.”
Forest’s angry hiss transformed into a low moan. Raider shuddered at the hungry sound. Leo released Forest and when the leopard shifter looked up, his pupils were blown wide, the yellow of his eyes nearly lost in a haze of lust.
“Fuck… Holy fuck, that scent,” Forest whispered unsteadily and gripped the wall for balance.
“Scent?” Raider stared in confusion. It only got worse when Forest’s sex scent flared and hit him fully to combine with Leo’s. A wave of heat flooded him. Raider’s sight dimmed for a moment, fuzzing out the view of Forest looking him up and down with interest. He whimpered and closed his eyes when Forest ducked down and began to press a line of hungry kisses to Raider’s throat and collarbone.
Leo grinned, his teeth sharp. “Now we’re in agreement.” Another purr rumbled through his chest and he grabbed Raider by the jaw and turned his face toward him. His grip was surprisingly gentle when he leaned down and claimed him in a kiss. Raider moaned, his lips parting to the slide of Leo’s tongue. “Good… Be good for us, sexy.” Leo threaded fingers through Raider’s dark hair, massaging his scalp as he tilted his head to meet his kisses. “Show us what you like.”
Leo’s words were a buzz in the back of his mind, his focus lost in the hot, wet touch of lips moving over his skin, his mouth, hands gripping. Raider gasped when Leo’s mouth left him and Forest roughly pushed his shirt up. Cold air and then roaring heat hit him in waves as Forest pressed against him and sealed his mouth to the center of his chest.
“Watch it,” Leo said with a displeased grumble. He shoved Forest’s shoulder out of the way and claimed Raider’s lips again, his tongue stroking into his mouth. Forest was undeterred. His kissed a wandering path with wet slides of his tongue over Raider’s toned chest. He found his nipple beneath the tattoo of roses and thorns and teased the beaded nub with hot licks.
Leo’s large hand gripped Raider’s neck and moved down the front of his throat. It was possessive yet yielding as he soothed with each touch and consumed every soft cry Raider released. Raider felt half devoured. Leo’s tongue explored every plane of his mouth. His teeth nipped at his lips, sinking in and opening him up. He was lost in the scent, the heat, the pulse of the two hard bodies touching, tasting and pulling at him until he was nothing more than the wild sensations and desperate throb of need.
“Clothes, Valdez. You’re wearing too much.” Leo’s hand pushed up under Raider’s shirt when it tried to fall back down.
“Way too much,” Forest agreed hazily. He gripped the t shirt and tugged. The material shredded around his claws and Leo helped pull the remains off of Raider’s torso. Forest’s gaze lit on his face and lingered on Raider’s kiss swollen lips. He looked down, taking in his bare, caramel toned chest covered in a black ink swirl of roses and thorned vines. His hand pressed to Raider’s six-pack abs and fingers spread wide to slide up to his chest.
Raider’s gaze followed, drifting down his bare torso to Forest’s compact, toned frame tight with restrained need. He couldn’t help but wonder what he looked like under his shirt, what his bare flesh would feel like against his.
“Kiss him,” Leo said in Raider’s ear. The quiet order sent a fresh wave of desire through him. He didn’t want to think about why it got him so hard, why he knew he was going to obey. Raider’s breath came out in fast pants as he tentatively leaned forward and reached for Forest’s dark lips. Forest surged forward, pushed him hard against the wall and kissed him fiercely.
Raider exhaled heavily through his nose, his mouth yielding to Forest’s demanding kiss. His lips moved over Raider’s flesh hungrily, wetting his lips, then his chin and throat. Raider yelped softly when teeth sank into his neck for a moment. The pain went straight to his cock. His jeans were unbearably tight, and only grew more so when Leo’s hand gripped down his side and sought first his hip and then his ass. He squeezed the firm flesh and pulled Raider closer so he could claim his mouth again.
“W-What?” Raider mumbled as a terrible chill his hit bare flesh and grew colder. His lashes fluttered open and he immediately squeezed his eyes shut as impossibly bright light assaulted his senses.
“Fucker. Motherfucker!” Leo pulled away with an outraged snarl. The noise he was making could only be described as murderous.
Raider fought to see what he could through his fingers but the light was too intense. Forest was cursing softly but didn’t sound like he was about to kill them all like Leo was. Which could only mean the alpha was under attack. If Leo fell, he would surely be killed next.
“My office. The three of you. Now.”
It took Raider a moment to recognize Michael with anger distorting his voice. Raider abruptly stopped struggling and his face heated up. He didn’t want to face the master sorcerer like this. Not after he just caught him…
“Oh fuck.” Raider covered his face with his hands and fell back against the wall. Reality started to sink in as the heat faded from the air. “Oh my fuck.”
“Whiteheart!” Leo’s roar shook the wall. Raider gasped and snapped his eyes open to find torrents of icy water dripping from Leo’s furious form.
“Damn it, Leo, keep it the fuck together,” Forest muttered. He was in a similar drenched state while crouched on the floor. “Remember where you are.”
Leo was too enraged. His features twisted as his halfshift tried to turn full lion with the loss of his control. “He’s mine to claim. Mine!”
Michael didn’t say a word as Leo’s voice echoed down the hall. Raider couldn’t help but look, wondering if the sorcerer was frightened. He found Michael standing twenty feet away, his eye blazing power as he calmly stared Leo down.
“You have no right!”
“Shit.” Forest’s wet sneakers slipped across the floor as he tried to get away when Michael took one silent, deliberate step toward the three of them. Leo’s roars were more distorted and lion-like by the second but Raider knew it wasn’t him Forest was running from. No, it was Michael. The air around him was unearthly still, as if time decided to stop in show of the sorcerer’s ability.
Michael tilted his head down, his eyes full of challenge. “Leonard, must I remind you of just what you are allowed to own in this Academy?” Leo’s ears folded back at the sound of his voice. Power filled Michael’s every being. The air around them began to change and grow hotter as his magic snapped in aggression.
“You can’t interfere in my claim. It’s my right!” Leo whirled as he shouted.
Raider froze as Leo’s bulking form and razor sharp teeth consumed his vision. This was when he died, he realized fleetingly. He lost his fucking mind, got involved in some alpha bullshit, and his raccoon was absolutely right in being terrified because Leo was going to kill him.
Raider tensed, his eyes squeezed shut in preparation for the killing blow. Only to yelp when Leo’s large palm suddenly cupped his flagging erection through his jeans and held tight.
“You’re mine, Valdez. You know you’re mine.” Leo inhaled heavily and scented down Raider’s form. He deliberately used his mass to block anyone from getting to Raider.
Raider held impossibly still even as he felt his body respond. His cock hardened and muscles loosened as his raccoon tried to take over and give in to Leo. His mind was racing just as fast as his heart. He didn’t know if it was because Leo seemed more beast than man at the moment, or maybe because he was dripping wet and far from comfortable, but Raider wasn’t feeling anything like he had a minute ago. There was no drugged haze from the intense scent surrounding him. He was alert, aware, and certain Leo was seconds from getting his ass beat if he didn’t move.
Raider kept his eyes trained on the floor and tried to keep his breath even. For some reason, the idea of Michael fighting Leo was absolutely exhilarating.
“Leo, stop letting your lion’s dick take over your fucking mind!” Forest shouted from a safe distance away.
Leo looked his way with a snarl, only to turn fully and release Raider when Michael appeared behind him. The sorcerer didn’t say anything or lift his hands in attack. He didn’t have to. Normally easy going and smiling, Michael looked larger and more muscular than before. He was beyond intimidating as he towered over Leo, their eyes locked in a death match. No words were required for an alpha shifter to understand. Leo might be brawn and fighter spirit but he was no equal to the raw power Michael raised up just by standing there.
Raider saw it in Leo’s body language before he backed down. His tail gave an angry twitch and Leo’s shoulders flexed an instant before he snarled and stepped away.
“Fuck!” Leo screamed as he punched the wall. His roar echoed down the hall full of rage and defeat. Raider barely heard it, caught when he found himself suddenly face to face with Michael.
Michael was barely recognizable. There was an animalistic fierceness to his features which hadn’t been there previously. His power was magnetic as it snapped unseen around him in a hot fire. “Office. Now.” His blue eyes blazed as Michael started down the hall. He stopped feet away to make sure he was followed.
Raider didn’t know he was holding his breath until Michael turned away. Air rushed back into his lungs with a gasp. Shame and want hit him in equal proportions as the world again crashed down into startling focus.
What was wrong with him? Why was he like this?
Raider forced his shaking legs to move when Forest stepped up to where Michael was waiting. He didn’t want to be stuck alone in the hallway with Leo. Fuck, Michael had seen him… Raider couldn’t put words to what he did with Leo and Forest. His gaze strayed towards Michael’s shoes, so unable was he to face him.
He was disgusted, right? Or was he challenging Leo because…?
No, that was fucking crazy. Michael was just doing what needed to be done to get a sex crazed alpha to back the fuck down. The guy was a human using magic to act like a shifter to manipulate the situation.
Raider took a steadying breath. That was how shifters were killed by sorcerers. They were tricked, hunted, and their own strength used against them. He knew that. He fucking knew.
Sorcerer. Whiteheart was a sorcerer and far more dangerous than the most aggressive alpha at the Academy.
Raider was very still as he sat in the lounge full of shifters and sorcerers. He was on a large couch next to Forest, with Fox and Dante on the other side of the leopard shifter, the television before them. He couldn’t tell if he was more freaked by seeing everyone in half shift, or a little relieved. Yes, having their animal characteristics out all the time made it impossible for the shifters to pass as just human, but it also made them look extra intimidating. Some were kind of cute with their tufts of fur and flicking ears if you ignored the claws and fangs. Raider at least felt a little safer knowing he wasn’t the only one who was going to be teased.
This was his first time out of his room since he locked himself away a few days ago. Sure, he ran out for food a few times, but only when the lounge was completely empty. Even then, his heart pounded so loud in his ears, he wasn’t sure he was going to survive the stress of it. This evening he was trying no matter how many fangs, scales, and tails caught his eyes. He was trying to piece together just what Fox meant.
He’d been alone the last days. Forest barely came by for much but a change of clothes or notebooks and he was glad for it. Sort of. Fox didn’t visit at all. Raider was left alone with his raccoon who was unbearable to the point leaving his room felt like death. He couldn’t go on like this. He needed his friend.
He needed Fox.
There was no way he’d survive on the other side of the gate without Fox. Fox was right about it all; he didn’t have a clue what people thought of him. He had no idea how to talk to people or make friends. He never knew. His father was such a fuck-up, Raider did everything to avoid the taunts and teasing the other kids directed at him. Anyone who ever got close would eventually learn who his father was. The town drunk. The town thief. Raider would never see them again after. Or worse, he saw them every day but they pretended he wasn’t there.
Fox was different. Fox sought him out. Fox chose to be his friend. If Fox didn’t want to be his friend, he had no idea how to fix it.
The only reason he was in the lounge now was to figure out how to get Fox to talk to him. Which meant learning how to be around his new pack. Being alone in his room was boring, even if his raccoon found fear in every footstep on the other side of the door. Raider waited until dinner time in the hopes he could listen to the others talk and see if he could jump into the conversation. He needed them to know even though they scared the fuck out of his raccoon, he really didn’t think they were monsters. Not really.
Raider glanced to the side where Forest’s black panther ears twitched on the top of his head. His skin was pure black since the Mutati flu transformed him and it made his yellow eyes nearly glow in otherworldly contrast. Raider quickly fixed his eyes on the television. They weren’t monsters but they were still really fucking scary.
The thing was, it was kind of hard to hold onto his terror when Dorian Black sounded ready to cream his pants.
Raider still wasn’t sure just what the fuck was wrong with Wylie Doe. The guy freaked him out on a totally different level than the others. His black, rainbow slick scales and wicked horns weren’t helping with his regard of the dragon shifter. His sex scent messed him up like the felines’ heat did, but different. Maybe it was the alpha thing… but dragon alpha. Raider couldn’t identify it. When Wylie looked his way, he knew he saw him. It was unsettling as fuck.
Not that Wylie was looking at him right now. No, his attention was completely focused on Dorian, who was trying not to moan from his perch on top of his boyfriend’s lap. Everyone’s attention was on Dorian, although the others in the lounge were far more subtle from their seats across the room.
“Ten minutes, tops,” Forest muttered. His eyes were glued on the television screen where an action movie was flashing but no one was actually watching.
“No way.” Fox ducked his head sideways and pitched his voice low enough so only a shifter’s ear could catch. “Black will never let him. I’m telling you, you’re throwing your money away.”
“Like fuck.” Justin, who was standing behind them, covered his mouth with his hand. He pulled it away to grin sheepishly at his friends. With a glance behind him, he leaned over the couch to whisper to the group of shifters facing the television. “He’s totally going to blow him.”
Raider broke down into a fit of ragged coughs. Sorcerer or not, Dorian Black was hot. Really hot. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle the guy taking his pants off in the fucking lounge.
“Bastard.” Forest hunched forward in his seat and his hands tangled fitfully in his dark hair. “This is fucking torture.” Leo gave an annoyed growl from his chair in agreement. He was sitting next to the large couch, his body tense even as his ears swiveled.
“Why is he… you know?” Raider dared to ask under his breath. “They do it all the time.”
Justin leaned Raider’s way. He did his best not to tense when the werewolf’s hair teased at his twitching ear. “Wy’s dragon has this thing for claiming his mate. Publicly,” Justin disclosed, breath tickling at his cheek. “We have a bet since they started dating for how long it will take for Dorian to crack. Wylie’s getting better at using his allure but Dorian is really powerful.”
Raider nodded blankly. His lower lip caught between his lip when the distinct sound of Dorian gasping reached him. Having it in the same room was way worse. Having that scent and the actual sounds to the point he could hear them breathing, fingers moving over flesh was fucking maddening.
“Trust me, Dorian has no interest in the dragon’s kink,” Fox said flatly, his gaze straying to the lounge door. “It’s never going to happen.”
Forest snarled under his breath. “I don’t care if it ever fucking happens. I just need to have five fucking seconds without thinking of sex. I’m losing my fucking mind.”
Raider watched the leopard shifter out of the corner of his eye, hyper aware of how Forest kept looking at him since he sat down. At first he thought it was out of some pent up anger because the guy hadn’t slept in his own bed for the last two days. Now he was getting the distinct impression Forest might be back to wanting him if only because of the strong sex scent coming his way.
“You like that, Ri?” Wylie’s voice was a low hiss, something Raider was both scared of and confusingly attracted to. In half shift, Wylie seemed more dragon than man, even if dragon shifters never actually turned into full dragons.
“D, eyes front.” Fox gave a light tap to Dante’s head.
“Why? They’re just making out.” Dante ducked around his arm to look at Wylie and Dorian. He shrugged and leaned back next to Fox on the couch. “It’s all they do. It’s so boring.”
Raider barely heard them, his ears turned to catch the sounds behind him. Whatever the two were doing was far more interesting than the television.
“Wylie… Wy,” Dorian mumbled between gasps for air.
“It’s good, right?”
“Wy… I will break your fucking fingers off.”
Justin gave a dejected sigh that almost blocked out Fox’s snort. “Told you,” Fox said smugly.
Wylie didn’t seem convinced. “Come on, Ri. You’re so fucking hard. Just a little, baby.”
Raider buried further into his seat when Dorian moaned in reply. “Fuck… fuck, Wy…”
“Damn it, I hate them,” Forest growled. His claws extended and slashed into the couch when Dorian released another needy whimper.
Raider was having a hard time thinking. The scent in the room was changing quickly. The air brimmed with unfulfilled sexual tension. It was like a current of electricity threatening to spark at any moment.
“Room. I’m serious, you perv,” Dorian murmured a little more determinedly.
“I want you.”
“And it is very easy to have me if we just take this to a room. Now get your hands out of my pants.”
“Ri, please.” Wylie’s hiss was beyond compelling, filled with allure, and had Raider dizzy without even having to see him.
Forest’s next growl was strained and Raider considered edging to the far side of the couch. Except, he had this growing concern if he moved at all, it would definitely draw Forest’s attention.
“I’m not a dragon.” Dorian’s words were muffled by Wylie’s lips. “I’m never going to be a dragon.”
“You’re my mate.” Wylie’s voice was breathless and from the wet sounds of kissing, it seemed Dorian was gaining the upper hand.
“I’m not going to do all those dragon things you keep expecting. I’m your mate but I’m not a dragon.”
“Fuck. Oh… wait.” Dorian’s husky moan was followed by the sound of fabric tearing. It took everything in Raider not to turn and see just whose clothing was being ripped off. Probably Wylie’s. He still had a tail and wings. Given the new scent flooding the room, he was going full dragon to try and win this strange battle between lovers.
Raider squeezed his eyes shut and tried to take a calming breath. It only filled his senses with more of the aggressive dragon mating scent. It was like he was feverish again, but this time the fever was in the air and there was no escape from the thrumming in his body. Forest was right next to him; he could practically taste his lips from the time they kissed. It would be nothing to rub up against him, let him take his clothes off…
Raider stood abruptly. “Fox, can I, uh, talk to you for a sec?”
Fox glanced his way, only to shrug and deliberately stare at the TV. “Busy, man.”
Damn it. The rejection was clear. Raider didn’t know how to tell his friend he really needed to get the fuck out of there but he couldn’t go alone. The Academy was too big, too dangerous, and filled with deadly shifters and sorcerers. Just, this very room was so much worse than all the others at the moment and Raider was terrified if he stayed another minute, he was going to do something stupid.
With unsteady legs, he stepped forward. He didn’t know where he was going but he couldn’t stay. Not with those sounds. Not with that fucking scent of need. There was no way he’d be able to go near Wylie and Dorian to get to his dorm. Raider headed for the exit to the lounge. He stumbled midstep when his eyes met Leo’s. The lion shifter had an intensity to his gaze that made his cheeks heat up and body pulse hotter. His knees wobbled and his breath left him in a rush.
He wasn’t thinking that. He wasn’t. It was just the damn scent.
Raider shook his head and forced his feet forward. When he reached the door, he kept walking. As he escaped down the hall he tried to breathe in some fresh, sex free air so his mind could clear.
Tears were wet on Vincent’s face. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the memory or because he kept slipping away, trapped in a place he never wanted to return to. He couldn’t keep doing this. It was like the world disappeared from him and he didn’t know what was real anymore.
That was the problem all along, wasn’t it? He wasn’t a real person. He wasn’t really living a life, just reacting to thing. He would do whatever any master told him to because he didn’t know how to live a life of his own. He was empty. He was always empty and there was no way to be anything else.
Maybe he should have died. He was already dead inside. Why was he still moving, still breathing? Why was he like this?
“Vince, you still in there?”
Jolting, Vincent raised his gaze. Fox’s face was inches from his own and for the life of him, Vincent couldn’t remember when he got so close. He couldn’t help but notice how odd Fox’s orange eyes were. They were flecked in amber… or maybe gold. Out of all the shifters, he couldn’t remember ever seeing eyes quite like Fox’s. They were warm and all-consuming and difficult to look away from.
Fox thought he was real. Alive. He saw him as more than an echo of a person. He could see it in the way he looked at him. The longer he stared, the more Vincent felt like the ground was beneath his feet and he was there, in his body, exactly where Fox was looking.
If he was a normal person who wasn’t totally fucked up in the head, this was when he’d kiss Fox. Any proper person would like Rafael. Sometimes, when he didn’t feel like a total mess of insanity and vapor, he thought maybe he liked him too. It was like a veil was between him and his emotions and he could see the vague outline just on the other side. Right now, he liked having him this close, the scent of him, his strength. Fox was solid compared to him he couldn’t help but feel a little solid as well.
“Hey. You’re going to be okay.” Fox gently pushed his hair aside. Vincent felt strands cling to his cheek, wet from the tears he couldn’t remember crying. He never cried. It was the quickest way to upset Master Metzger.
His eyes tracked Fox’s hand, then focused on the unfamiliar wall behind him. Weren’t they in class? Was there another explosion? He stepped back from the warmth of Fox’s body, confused to find himself in the underground hallways of the Academy. “Where…?”
“You were going to Dr. Rob’s. I think you, uh, spaced out.” Fox’s gaze said so much more and Vincent was quick to look away.
He was going crazy. This was what happened to crazy people. If he hurt someone while like this? People could die and he still didn’t know how to stop it.
“I can walk you,” Fox offered, his eyes never leaving Vincent.
Pulled from his frantic thoughts, Vincent looked his way and nodded hesitantly. “Okay. Uh, thank you.”
How long was Fox standing there? Did he do something? Vincent quickly checked his magic and tried to figure out if he might have done a spell recently. It didn’t feel like it, but the harder he tried to see if he could sense it, the more it felt like his limbs were going numb. He stared at his hands while he clenched and unclenched his fingers and tried to decipher why they felt so strange.
“Vince…” Fox trailed off. He shot him a tentative side glance. “It’s going to be okay, Vince. Dr. Rob knows his stuff and… and you’re not alone here. I promise.”
The sincerity of his voice had him looking Fox’s way again. Vincent couldn’t figure out just what he was trying to say. Of course he was alone. He was alone at Master Metzger’s and before that, alone with parents who had no problem selling him to a sorcerer. He was always going to be alone.
Vincent swiped weakly at his disheveled hair and wiped the damp tears from his face with the heel of his palm. Something touched his arm and he jerked and gasped audibly. Fox immediately pulled away, his expression closing off. Vincent watched as he deliberately moved his arm until they could no longer touch by accident.
He didn’t know how to tell Fox just how difficult contact was for him. It was fire to a frozen landscape and every touch burned. Especially when it was Fox. Fox always made him feel things when feeling was just too difficult.
Except right now. This time Fox took him from a horrible place in his mind. Vincent was impossibly grateful for the oddly quiet shifter, who kept shooting him curious side-glances as they walked up the stairs. He didn’t know how to thank Fox. He didn’t even know how to put into words what he did for him. It would make it real. There was no place safe outside of Dr. Rob’s room where he could talk about these things without fear of being dragged right back to that horrible nightmare.
It probably didn’t matter. Vincent’s hand touched the railing, the cool smoothness of the wooden banister numb beneath his palm. It would only happen again. He would get lost, sucked right back in. What was the point of noticing he was free when he was just going to end up right back in Master Metzger’s power?
“Vince, about your friend.”
Vincent looked up from the tiled floor and was faced with the disorienting reality of being in the corridor that led to the hospital and Dr. Rob’s office. He couldn’t remember walking the distance. “My friend?” He asked, trying to remember Fox’s words. He had a friend?
Fox’s expression was full of concern. “Calvin, right? You said his name was…”
“Please, don’t.” The words were out before Vincent knew he was speaking and he couldn’t take them back. He was left staring at Fox wide eyes. He couldn’t talk about it. It would make it real. More real than how real it was already getting. “I can’t…” he managed to get out, but was still unable to explain just why.
“It’s okay.” Fox flashed him a fangless smile, his eyes full of something he couldn’t read. Defeat, maybe. Seeing him like this, Fox would surely give up on ever wanting to be his friend, never mind something more.
It should have filled him with relief, but it didn’t. A cold numbness squeezed at Vincent’s chest instead.
“I’ll, uh, let you go. I’m sure you want to see Dr. Rob alone.” Fox glanced over his shoulder and took a step away. The hallway suddenly filled Vincent’s view.
“Thanks.” Vincent’s throat was too tight and now he could feel tears threatening. Fuck, why? He just needed to walk the rest of the fucking way. Why was he breaking down?
Fox’s hand grabbed his wrist and Vincent jolted from the contact. He stared down at where Fox’s darker fingers were wrapped on his pale skin. Caramel, really. He looked like desert sand…
“Vince, are you…?”
“I’m fine.” His voice was so hollow, it scared him. But there was still no way to take the words back. Someone else was moving him, speaking for him. He was empty. Nothing. Even now, he could barely feel Fox’s hand. He was desperate to feel it.
“Uh, okay. I’ll let you go.” Still, Fox’s fingers held him and Vincent did nothing to move away. “You’re going to be okay, Vince.” Fox stepped closer, his fiery eyes again consuming his view. “You’re here. You won. As long as you’re alive, you get to decide how your life is.”
In some far away recess of his mind, Vincent could remember telling Fox something about Master Metzger and Calvin. The door in his mind shut immediately, stealing the memory and cutting down the overwhelming emotion that tried to well up inside him. Vincent pulled his hand away sharply and staggered towards Dr. Rob’s room. His feet didn’t feel solid on the ground. He felt like he was relearning to walk even though his steps fell like they should.
It wasn’t okay. He was never going to be okay.
Fox stayed and watched as Vincent disappeared into Dr. Rob’s office. Once he was out of sight, Fox continued to stare while his mind spun and heart hurt.
He never felt so helpless, so out of his depth and useless. Whatever Vincent needed, it seemed so big today and he was lost as to how to help.
Fox’s leg wouldn’t stop jumping. Ever since he saw Vince look like a fucking zombie yet seemed moments from bursting into tears, he couldn’t settle down. Except when Vincent smelled like he was seconds from tears, he looked like he was going to break all the muscles in his body all at once instead. Fuck… Fuck.
He was trying to stay away from Vincent, just he needed to allow his fox whatever the fuck it needed to keep from losing its mind. This was new territory for him. Sure, he had plenty of crushes growing up, and yeah, fine, he was a bit of a fucking bleeding heart for anything wounded and needing a shoulder to cry on. It didn’t help Vincent was fucking hot when he was moments from shattering into a million pieces.
Damn it, his fox was all fucked up. Seriously, he shouldn’t be thinking weird shit like that. It was weird shit.
Fox’s leg continued to bounce. He felt Forest’s eyes slip his way, his eyebrow raised in concern.
Raider was holed up in the room he shared with Forest. He outright refused to take any class involving magic, and fuck, that just made him want to learn magic even more. He was so sick of this shit. He hadn’t even realized how much he was fighting until Raider started spewing all his paranoid, discriminatory bullshit. Forest was definitely bearing the brunt of it; Raider actually went so far as to ask Forest to bring him his meals. Forest, naturally, told him he was going to starve before he brought crumbs into his room.
Forest wasn’t doing well. Fox wasn’t sure just what the hell Raider was doing to him, but his submissive sex scent was not meshing well with the feline heat thing. Forest started asking to hang in Chris and Will’s room if only to get away from it. Considering how Wylie and Dorian were still going at it all the time, the tree room was getting a bit crowded.
Fox sighed. Maybe that was the only reason he was jumping out of his skin right now. The place reeked of sex and tensions were tight. Being cooped up during winter was always one lingering glance away from being a fuck fest for a shifter, and he was really trying to blame his mood on that.
Except Vincent hadn’t returned from his impromptu trip to see Dr. Rob, and Fox couldn’t get the vision of his haunted silver eyes out of his mind.
The same pull he felt when Raider knocked into Vincent was hitting him again, hard. Each minute felt like a fucking eternity, and his nerves were fraying more and more. Vince walked out of there like a robot, like he was half dead and the more Fox remembered it, the more he wondered just how Vince looked at death. Some people, it was pretty damn clear they wanted to be alive. They were in their lives, talking to people, doing their hobbies, bitching about their jobs. What the fuck did Vince do beside everything laid out in front of him by the Academy masters? He barely talked to anyone. He barely had a damn spark in his eyes except when he was annoying the fuck out of him…
His leg gave a final bounce and Fox jumped up from his seat. Master Theodore stopped mid sentence and gave him his best warning glare. Theodore was extra testy since all the shifters came down with the flu. He wasn’t even going near Wylie, who was basically a walking razor blade with his horns and scales out.
“Bathroom,” Fox said simply and whirled before anything could be said to stop him. He caught Wylie’s eye as he was leaving, his gaze full of a fair bit of suspicion as to why he was running off. Fox shrugged and caught the movement of Dorian as he leaned in to twine fingers with his boyfriend. Jealousy stabbed at his heart and Fox looked away. He closed the door a little too loudly behind him, turned toward Dr. Rob’s and started walking at a fast clip.
Fine, he was being fucking dumb. Vince didn’t need his help. And fuck, if he did, he sure as fuck wouldn’t ask for it. But that was Vince, wasn’t it? That was all the sorcerers. They were so damn aloof, they didn’t know how to ask for something simple like help, like it would make them weak. He didn’t understand, not fully. All he knew was if he didn’t see Vincent, his inner fox was going to lose its shit.
It was a problem. This whole thing was turning into a problem. Fighting his rational mind was bad enough. Fighting his fox? That fucker lived to be irrational. It lived to dart, to hunt, to run around like a crazy child and play no matter if a car was running him over at the time.
Fox’s fingers twitched and he resisted the urge to shove them in his pockets, or comb them through his hair, or just punch at the nearest thing he could find. Once he caught Vincent’s scent, the urge to act out grew.
Why did Vincent always smell like he was on the verge of freaking out?
“Damn it.” He found Vincent standing in the middle of the hallway right before the stairwell which led to the upper level of the Academy. Vincent was staring stonily at his shoes, unblinking. His eyes were rimmed in red and tears streaked his cheeks. “Fucking damn it.” Fox breathed out slowly.
He couldn’t handle this. He had his stupid ears out and his tail and he knew it was going to upset Vince. But really, could it be worse? So what if Vince flipped the fuck out on him? So fucking what. He was done pretending he couldn’t see his pain.
“Vince?” Fox crossed the distance slowly, eyes glued to his tear-streaked face. Vincent’s eyes were unseeing and there was an unsettling stillness to his body. As he stepped in front of him, Fox could scent his fear, his confusion, and the distinctness of his tears. “Vince, are you okay?” Vincent still didn’t acknowledge him, even thought he was using the nickname he hated.
His fingers twitched. Fox grabbed him by the biceps and pulled him closer. Vincent was stiff in his arms, a trembling doll who didn’t look his way. Fox wrapped him tighter and exhaled slowly. He tucked his head in the crook of Vincent’s neck and listened to his pulse.
Let Vince slug him. Whatever. He needed a fucking hug.
Vincent was cold to the touch, his skin cool beneath the fabric of his long-sleeve shirt. Fox carefully ran his palms up and down his arms while hoping it might wake him out of it. He stilled when he heard Vincent whisper something. Fox tilted his head to watch his lips move, the words softly spoken and in German.
He wished he was as smart as Vince. Sure, he learned a few of his favorite swears but he wasn’t able to pick up the entire language the way Vincent learned English and Spanish. He had no idea what Vincent was saying and no way to reach him. Even here, in his arms, Vincent was too far away.
Not sure what to do, Fox tucked his head until his cheek was against Vincent’s and whispered right back to him. “Where are you right now, Vince? You’re cold and you’re crying.”
He wasn’t expecting an answer. Vincent’s whispering stopped and the silence stretched again. Fox lifted his head, wondering if he was going to have to carry Vincent to Dr. Rob’s, when Vincent suddenly spoke again.
“I… I don’t cry.”
Fox smiled wryly. Of course he didn’t. He wasn’t about to argue with a nearly comatose Vincent about the fact he was totally crying. “You’re standing in the middle of the hall. Did you get lost?”
Silent, Vincent’s shoulders slumped. It was like something broke inside and gave into the weight of the world a little bit. Fox wrapped his arms tighter and tried to warm him, to remind him what it felt like to be alive and aware. If it made him a total loser he was happy for the excuse to touch Vincent, he didn’t fucking care.
Vincent’s gaze turned his way but Fox was certain he didn’t really see him. He raised his hand and thumbed over the nearest streak of wet on his pale cheek. “I thought you were going to see Dr. Rob.”
Vincent’s jaw clenched. “Doctors aren’t allowed. No doctors.” His voice was halting, dry.
Fox pulled him sideways until Vincent’s shoulder was tight to his chest and he could see the way his eyelashes trembled with unfallen tears. “I think doctors are pretty important, Vince. Sometimes we all need a little help.”
“Can’t.” Vincent’s hair fell forward, a shield against the light of the hallway. “Help gets them killed. Telling gets people killed.”
Fox’s breath hitched. He forced himself to stay calm but his mind was racing with too many questions. “Have you seen people die?” He ducked his head and met Vincent’s empty stare, desperate to read whatever the hell was going on in his head when Vincent failed to answer. Fox wasn’t even sure he heard him.
Was it wrong, even now, with eyes rimmed red and face impassive, all he could think of was kissing him?
“No.” Vincent suddenly breathed out, his gaze focused on something far away. “Not then.”
Fox couldn’t be sure he was talking to him or to someone in his mind. “Not then?”
“People died but I didn’t see it. Not until…”
“Until? What happened?” He pushed Vincent up by his shoulders to get a clearer look as he tried to understand. “What did you see? Was it that guy you tried to save?”
Vincent’s brows twitched in thought. “Calvin.”
“Was that his name?”
“Calvin died. I couldn’t save him.”
Fox sighed heavily. His eyes raked over Vincent’s face and he realized just how out of it he was. It was fruitless to ask him questions. He needed to see Dr. Rob. Whatever this was was way beyond his ability. “I know, Vince. I’m sorry I brought it up.” He steered Vincent towards the stairwell and gently urged him forward.
Vincent’s legs refused to budge. “I killed him.”
Dread twisted in his stomach. Fox turned and again tried to read his face. “Who? Calvin?”
Vincent shook his head, the slightest of movements. “The one who killed Calvin.”
Fox didn’t realized how tight he was until his muscles unclenched with Vincent’s answer. Tension drained from his entire body in a wave. “Good,” he said gruffly and with conviction. Better to kill in defense. Better to protect. He knew plenty of shifters who wished there was such a justification for their murderous mistakes.
Fox wasn’t sure what the hell happened to Vincent before he came to the Academy but it had a hold on him. It haunted him even though he was safe. He again clasped his arms around the silent sorcerer. If he could only pull him out of the place he was stuck in, he would.
“I should have done it earlier,” Vincent said dully, his head ducked against Fox’s neck. “I waited too long and… so many… so many hurt.”
His chest twisted painfully tight as he felt fresh tears drip onto his skin. “It’s okay. You can’t change the past. You can only keep going after.” He pushed a strand of Vincent’s dark hair away and stared into his ethereal, red rimmed eyes. “Are you trying, Vince? Are you trying to live?”
Vincent’s brows furrowed again as confusion crossed his features. “I don’t… I…” He blinked and his head rose up as he looked around the hallway. Fox felt the change in him; a heat swept through Vincent, his muscles flexed and relaxed as he slowly came back to reality.
It was time to let go. Time to pretend Vincent was untouchable and perfect and just another sorcerer who didn’t feel.
Fox held him closer. “It’s okay. I’ve got you.”
Vincent’s voice was frail as he looked down at where Fox was wrapped around him. “Yeah, but why? Why am I…? Where are we?”
Fox couldn’t answer. Was Vincent really so lost? Had he always been this lost? Fox didn’t know but he was done ignoring it. He was done watching him hurt.