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.
The next morning, Raider woke on top of an unfamiliar bed with Fox sprawled beside him. It took him a few bleary moments to remember what happened the day before and figure out where he was. The Academy dorm room he shared with Forest was very different from the small, cozy bedroom he called his own when living at his uncle’s. Today it felt safer, if only because Fox’s scent was now there.
His fever hadn’t returned after his trip to the Academy hospital and he no longer felt as dazed as before. He wished it meant his raccoon was settled, but his inner beast woke up the same time as him and immediately started to tremble. New places were the worst. As he glanced around the room filled with confusing, foreign scents of predators and magic, Raider wondered just why the hell he chickened out last night.
He planned to make a run for it. The Academy was a fucking death trap. It had killer shifters, crazy sorcerers and that weird demon kid who was actually older than all of them put together. Not to mention, one seemingly mild-mannered werewolf who put the whole place in lockdown because apparently he too was a killer during the full moon.
He remembered then. The Academy proved his first night how easy it was to lock him in. There was no going anywhere the moment the wards went up. It was an intense show of power Raider was not blind to when Dr. Rob walked him from the hospital to the dorms while everyone else was trapped in place. He knew then just what kind of jail the Academy was.
Dr. Rob, at first glance, seemed perfectly fine and damn near nice but he still freaked his raccoon out the moment magic was involved. It took a ridiculous amount of convincing to even take the simple fever reducers… and maybe something drugged in his water, now he thought of it. Raider was trying really hard not to think about it. He was so afraid the hospital was the place they really just cut a shifter up, he blanked a lot of it out in his terror. It wasn’t like the flu was serious. It might look it but besides a fever and the annoying transformation issues, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Still, Michael showed up to make sure he took those meds.
Raider scowled. Michael Whiteheart. ‘Master’ Whiteheart. Maybe it wasn’t drugged water. No, it was probably just his hand on his shoulder. He still wasn’t sure what Michael did to him, but he knew it was something. You didn’t just take someone’s fear away like that. It wasn’t right. Fear was important. Fear kept you alive. He wanted to stay alive and in the light of day, he could see how much he fucked up by staying.
Finding Fox at the Academy was a shock, for sure, but it shouldn’t have changed anything. Fox was always a distraction. It was so easy to get wrapped up in his hyper life and forget all the terrible things happening in the world around him. Fox was at the Academy a year now and he was still very much alive. Alive as a flesh eater. There was no way he’d be so lucky.
Raider turned carefully on his side and let his gaze slide down. Fox was breathing evenly next to him, carelessly tucked against his taller form. He looked so peaceful in sleep, his normally sparkling eyes hidden by thick lashes, wicked grin replaced with serenity. There was the smallest of tips to the end of his nose, Fox’s features and ears somewhat delicate to match his short stature. Fox could be all fangs and claws when he wanted, but when he slept he looked just like any other guy. A really cute guy.
Fox was the closest thing to a hero he had in his life and the only shifter Raider trusted. Five years ago when his dad was sent to jail and their house foreclosed, Raider was completely lost. He was alone in the world and didn’t know how to be more than a burden on his Uncle Joseph and Aunt Victoria. Worse were his new cousins. The cruel coyote shifters would whisper about his dad, Lucas, and what a fuck up he was while pretending Raider couldn’t hear. It made him so angry but he was never willing to risk the jaws of a coyote to speak up. They teased him, things like how small his raccoon was, how it would be easy to confuse him for a real raccoon if he ever joined them hunting. Anything could happen and no one would blame them, right? Coyotes ate raccoons all the time and no one cared. The teenage boys were assholes to the point of psychotic.
Fox was different. Raider was in town with his uncle when he first scented the fox shifter. Fox was hanging out with a group of humans—Absolutely unheard of. Most shifters avoided normal people. Humans either thought shifters were crazed, unevolved animals who hid among people, or were demonic monsters of the same. Some rumors were less offensive, but not by much. A scientist came out to claim shifters were an evolutionary anomaly even though the data didn’t prove it. Raider hadn’t paid much attention to it except for the fact some people immediately used the news to suggest shifters weren’t really human and because of it, they didn’t deserve the same kind of rights.
Being a shifter was difficult. Expecting humans to not think you’re a monster just because you can transform into a fluffy, four legged creature was more than most could hope for. Not Fox, though. He just didn’t care. He was friends with everyone unless they gave him a reason to not be. Even then, it usually took a lot of tries to get on his bad side.
When Fox first caught sight of Raider, he just bounded over, fearless. It was so off putting and awe inspiring seeing as Raider couldn’t do a damn thing without his raccoon brain weighing every consequence for danger. Fox asked what seemed a million questions—where did he come from, why did he smell like a raccoon, was that a real tattoo? When Raider finally managed to get a word in—his name—Fox asked if he wanted to hang out. A week later, Fox was the one to name him ‘Raider’ after he proved his prowess at kicking ass at a similarly named video game.
Having Fox as a best friend was consuming. They did pretty much everything together. While Raider was shy, Fox was bold and would show up at his uncle’s every day to either walk with him to the shifter home school the community offered, or play during the weekend. There was always something to do when Fox was around. They even had a small pack for a while with two other shifters until they moved away. When Fox focused on him, Raider felt important. Special, even. Fox just made everything so bright. He protected him.
Raider ducked his head down and breathed deep. His exhale teased a few strands of Fox’s hair across his brow. There was a time right before Fox was hit by that car where he wondered if he might like him back. It felt like so long ago now.
When Fox went off to supposedly help his cousins rebuild their house, Raider’s life turned dark. He was a solitary person to begin with. His raccoon was always so nervous; unless there was someone to protect him, it was just easier to avoid people all together. It was impossible to make friends. Humans were fine until you slipped up. The moment they figured out you were a shifter, it all just went to shit. Raider’s coyote cousins might have grown older but he could never trust them after how terrible they treated him. He couldn’t trust anyone.
He was used to being alone, just it felt extra lonely after having a real friend. Sure, Fox texted. First a lot, every day. Eventually it dwindled until he was lucky to hear from him once a week. When Raider got in trouble, he couldn’t bring himself to talk to Fox about it. He didn’t want him to know just how bad it turned.
Fox didn’t need to know he fucked up so bad he didn’t even have a home to go back to.
Raider sat up abruptly, his peaceful mood gone. Just thinking about all the things he fucked up back home made the raccoon inside him claw with the need to escape. This Academy thing wasn’t going to work. Even with Fox here, how the hell could he do this? All he did was fuck up and get left behind.
It was time to stop thinking. He was hungry, he was freaked, and his brain was doing nothing for him. At least he felt better. Dr. Rob smelled strange—not human, but not shifter either. Whatever he was, his raccoon was moments away from throwing a total spaz when Michael showed up. Shortly after, Raider felt calm enough to handle talking to Forest even though Fox wasn’t anywhere in sight.
The guy was spelling him. He couldn’t fucking prove it, but Michael Whiteheart was totally doing something to his raccoon.
Raider got out of bed quietly and glanced down to make sure Fox was still asleep. He was pretty sure he already caught the flu given how hot his forehead was last night. Mutati hit fast even if the transformation sometimes took days to happen. Unbidden, Raider’s thoughts slipped back to yesterday when Fox kissed him. He quickly pushed it from his mind with a huff. Fox joked, a lot. Reading more into anything he did was a waste of time.
Raider stepped over to his bureau where he shoved the clothe in his backpack away. His suitcase was still full, wedged between the bed and the wall for when he made a run for it. For now he sorted through his balled up t-shirts until he found one with his favorite band logo printed on the front.
Forest probably caught the flu already too. He was totally out of it by the time the three of them dragged out of Will and Chris’s room and into bed. Raider glanced over to his roommate’s bed while he pulled yesterday’s shirt off. Forest was a hard read and Raider still wasn’t sure if the entire pack wasn’t just fucking with him about the feline sex drive thing. He never met a cat type shifter before and avoided all shifters at all costs besides his previous pack. He put up with a lot of shit from his coyote cousins and he expected just as bad at this point from a pack of strangers.
Submissive… What the fuck did Justin meant by that? Like he was some fucking lap dog or something? The only time he’d heard that term it was towards people who were total pushovers. Well, that and some weird kinky sex thing…
Raider glanced toward Forest again and frowned. He had no idea what it would mean on a sexual level. Probably a dig, though. Probably cruel and insulting. Everyone gave him shit for being a raccoon. He wasn’t very experienced when it came to sex so it was just another thing to make fun of him for if his new pack found out.
Not that he was staying.
Raider dressed in a fresh pair of jeans, of which he carefully sliced a hole in the back seam for his tail to slip through, and pulled the white and black t-shirt down his muscular form. He wished he owned a jacket. It wasn’t freezing or anything, but the temperature also wasn’t the familiar heat he grew up in. It was uncomfortable to the point of unnerving, like an echo of an itch he couldn’t scratch. It was setting his raccoon on edge, but then, everything set his raccoon off. The creature was a total spaz on the best of days.
He eyed the door that led out into the lounge, but knew he wouldn’t dare go out alone. Not with the fucking sink and rooms full of items to trip him up in an instant. Not when there was an angry dragon shifter and horny lion out there somewhere. Raider worried his bottom lip with his teeth while his raccoon sent his frightened visions of all the things in the Academy that could kill them. He sank back down on the bed and stared at Fox’s sleeping form. If he’d just wake up, they could go eat.
Something sparkling caught his eye across the room and Raider immediately grabbed the ring on his thumb and twisted it. Forest owned a few very pretty, very shiny trophies for playing soccer. Or so Raider guessed. So far he spent most his time not look at the damn things. He stared at his hand and the smooth metal ring he was turning. He wanted to go home. Back to Uncle Joseph’s. He knew he couldn’t—he knew there was no home for him anymore—but it didn’t stop him from wanting. He felt so out of place. It was nearly as bad as when he first moved to Uncle Joseph’s. Maybe more.
He sighed and laid back down on the bed. His head brushed Fox’s shoulder and he breathed deep of his familiar, calming scent. He missed this. Having Fox around, the feeling of safety he brought with him. Sure, Fox looked so much weaker but he wasn’t. He was his savior and best friend and to find him now was just such an amazing relief.
“I’m hungry,” Raider whispered. He tilted his head until his words were tickling Fox’s ear. “Wake up already.”
Fox grumbled something unintelligible and his arm came up to push at Raider’s chest before stilling. Raider sucked in a breath and stared at the narrow limb covered in colorful tattoos. He could see the lotus on his inner wrist from his angle. Raider remembered clearly when he sat with Fox, the tattoo gun buzzing between them while Fox insisted over the noise it should look florescent.
If Fox ever wanted to kiss him for real, he’d let him. He’d probably let him do just about anything to him. He didn’t think he liked his nipples being touched, but when Fox’s fingers curled and brushed one small bud, Raider’s body readily responded.
It would be really dumb to let Fox go after finding him again. It was like fate, really. Raider could have ended up in jail, he could have been kicked out by his aunt and uncle and left on the street. Instead, he ended up in the same institution Fox was sent to across the country. It had to mean something. After feeling so alone for the entire year and overwhelmed with his raccoon, this had to mean something.
Raider threaded his fingers with Fox’s lax ones and carefully pulled his hand away from the sensitive area on his chest. Maybe Fox might like him back, if given a chance. He wasn’t sure if he was brave enough to actually ask him, but he could drop some hints and keep him away from that sorcerer psycho for a while. None of the other patients seemed to like Vincent. Maybe with enough time, Fox would feel the way he felt before he left and they could be together.
If he stayed. Raider still couldn’t decide what to do. He was starting to think not deciding was less terrifying for his raccoon than anything else. The animal was like that a lot. As long as he knew he could leave—Wire cutters. He would need wire cutters. As long as he had a way out of this strange cage, he might be able to relax for a bit.
After a very annoying stop at Dr. Rob’s only to realize the healer wasn’t even in, Vincent did his best to repair his injuries on his own. The tint to his skin was easy enough, but healing flesh wasn’t his specialty. Only certain beings were capable of healing and even rarer magics, few of them human in origin. Living things held a natural energy. Healing required a greater power to manipulate that living flesh. Self healing should have been impossible but there were creatures like werewolves that did it every day. It was a sign of their curse; a magic so great it could change their flesh against their will.
Vincent wrapped his arm in a makeshift bandage and stomped back to his room. It was guaranteed to be a terrible day and he just wanted to be alone. He didn’t understand what happened to him in the hallway and he really wanted to talk to Dr. Rob about it. A part of him couldn’t even allow himself to think too deeply on the subject. His vision dimmed every time, like something was waiting to pull him back into that terrible nightmare.
Vincent shook his head brusquely. Dead. Master Metzger was dead. He knew damn well; he checked his pulse. He buried him deep in the black silt and stone. The warlock wasn’t coming back. None of them were ever coming back to bother him again.
Vincent wanted to be surprised when he pushed into his room to find his roommate half naked and being pawed at by his dragon shifter of a boyfriend, but he wasn’t.
“Dude, knock!” Dorian snapped while grabbing a blanket and pulling it up his bare chest. Not that it mattered. Vincent had seen him naked way too many times to count at this point.
Vincent ignored Dorian’s angry growl and Wylie’s far more patient stare and stepped to his bureau. Of course, there was no way he could stay. Damn, he was getting so fucking sick of the two of them going at it all the time. He had no place to be anymore.
“Are you bleeding?”
Vincent glanced Wylie’s way a moment and pulled his arm closer to his body. “The idiot.” He turned back to his journal. It was essential he record every slip. Beyond essential. Enough to put him in a room with the last person he wanted to be around.
Wylie Doe was someone to be avoided at all costs and not because of his rabid, territorial boyfriend. Dorian had it in his pretty head that he wanted to fuck Wylie, and sure, the guy was hot and all. When Vincent looked at the blond shifter it was for completely different reasons. Wylie looked like one of them. The dragon shifter. He even transformed into the same type of dragon. It was one of the hardest to block out, made more difficult because Wylie was always around now.
They sold him. Vincent was ten at the time. The dragon shifter was bloodied and roaring. Wrapped in chains as he was hit over and over. His master pointed to his horns and listed off dozens of spells where they were required. Master Metzger expected him to memorize them all the very instant. Then he pointed to the shifter’s eyes. The same ice-blue eyes.
A wave of vertigo hit him. Vincent tightened his fist around the pen he was holding and waited for the room to stop tilting.
“I can heal it,” Wylie offered. His unnervingly pale eyes were watching the blood drip from Vincent’s elbow.
“I’m fine,” Vincent finally got out, his tone too sharp. God help him if Doe ever found out. No. No, god didn’t help anyone. He knew firsthand.
Vincent forced himself to finish his task so he could get the fuck away from the two. The last thing he wanted was to listen to Dorian Black bitch him out for a month straight because his boyfriend’s dragon tongue was anywhere near his flesh. Some dragons could heal because of the enzymes in their saliva. Their inner animal was pure, powerful magic, not that Wylie knew how to use any of it. The guy barely knew how to shift into a dragon. That he was still valuable in a way that people killed for…
Vincent abruptly shut his leather-bound notebook and spelled it locked. He placed it back into his bureau and determinedly kept his mind free of all thoughts. When he headed straight for the door, he made a point not to look the couple’s way. “If you two wouldn’t mind hurrying up, I’d like to be able to sleep at some point tonight,” he said in parting. Hopefully they wouldn’t be fucking in his room all night.
“Asshole,” Dorian muttered as Vincent shut the door. Vincent paused for a second, then shrugged and clicked the door shut. He was pretty sure Dorian was the one being inconsiderate, but then, he never seemed to get anything right when it came to people. For all he knew, he was the one being rude.
He felt half in a daze with those terrified, angry, white-blue eyes in his mind. Vincent shuffled into the lounge and threw himself own on an empty sofa. He realized his mistake too late when raucous laughter rose up further down the room. Right. A new shifter. The bastards were going to be howling like fucking crazy all night. Vincent sighed and pushed himself up in the seat. His eyes caught on where the smallest of the Academy occupants was staring back at him. It was Dante, the little demon child.
Dante freaked him out. A lot. Vincent was sure he knew. Knew what he did, knew what his master made him do. The demon child could probably smell the blood soaked deep into his soul the same way it once had to his skin those many months ago.
The walls felt like they were closing in. There was no place to be alone.
Vincent stood with no idea where he was going. He just needed to get away. Of course, Fox had other plans.
“Vince—Hey, hold on a sec. I wanted to introduce you to my friend properly,” Fox called across the room. He was loud enough to be heard over the others who were all laughing.
Vincent fought back a sigh and considered running. I was no use. Fox would follow. There was no escape. He watched with an impassive expression as Fox pulled his tattooed, reluctant friend to stand in front of him. There was apparently no escape from that look either, and Vincent tried not to glare in response to Raider’s suspicious expression.
“Hey, okay, so this is Raider. He’s been my friend for like, well, I’d say forever but it’s more like… shit, five years now?” Fox glanced up at the taller shifter and Raider nodded tightly in confirmation. “We’ve gotten all our tattoos together. My cousin is amazing with ink. Oh, and we kind of had our own pack back home until the Mandula brothers moved away. Oh, and…”
Vincent couldn’t help but notice Fox was holding Raider’s arm while he babbled on and on about their time from back home. Were they dating? Fox was friends with everyone but he never held Wylie’s hand when the dragon shifter first arrived.
“He’s a raccoon shifter. You know, it means no aggression or anything. Have you met a raccoon shifter before?”
Vincent blinked and focused back on the two. Fox was staring at him intently with excitement bright in his orange eyes. The look was not mirrored on Raider’s face. No, it was full of a wariness Vincent came to expect from shifters at this point. There was something in those dark eyes, the same in Dante’s, that gave Vincent pause. The pit of his stomach clenched painfully.
Did he know? Did this new kid know the things he did? Why else would Raider be afraid of him?
Vincent swallowed down the paranoid thoughts and gave a curt nod before Fox could start up another million words. He couldn’t do this right now. He’d been able to do this every day since he arrived at the Academy, but today was only proving that he was still weak, still broken no matter how much he pretended otherwise. Too much happened already and he couldn’t handle any more.
“It’s nice to meet you.” Vincent quickly stepped around the two shifters to escape the lounge and the noise it was filled with.
It was a really tall gate. Huge, black, imposing. It was made of a metal with thick bars so close together that he would not be able to slip through even though his shifted form was smaller in mass than his human body. Raider was certain because not only did it look sturdy, but the gate smelled like death. He wasn’t a hundred percent certain what magic smelled like; it seemed a mix of ozone and absolute terror. Still, whatever the gate was they were driving through, he knew it was protected by sorcery.
Not only was he banished from his home but now he was being put into a cage. A magic cage. Fuck. Why the fuck had he agreed to this? No escape. No escape in a magic cage.
The truck felt like it was closing in. It took all of Raider’s courage to squash the impulse to throw the door open and bolt. His breathing was strained but he fought valiantly to make it seem even. He spent the majority of his life pretending he wasn’t freaking the fuck out. It was second nature. Except, lately, it was harder to pretend. Since the curse.
Raider grabbed the seat cushion to keep from reaching for the door handle. His tanned fingers quickly turned white from his death grip. He promised to try—It was a trick, they were locking him in—but he promised. For Joseph. For Vicky.
The tall gates to the Academy shut behind their grit coated pickup truck and Raider huddled deeper into the passenger seat. Small tremors shook his body that had nothing to do with the freezing temperatures outside. For his first real fuck up, the consequences were greater than he anticipated. Not that it mattered; he was pretty sure nothing actually mattered at this point. He was leaving his home of the last five years and he didn’t know if he was ever going back.
It wasn’t an option. This wasn’t his choice. He wasn’t welcome back. Not after what he did. Not unless he fixed it. Right now, he couldn’t think of that. All he could fixate on was how to escape the place he just arrived at.
It could have been jail. Maybe it should have been. Maybe being left to be killed by that smarmy Mr. Helu would’ve been better than the overwhelming embarrassment and shame that kept threatening to drown him whenever he let his guard down.
He screwed up. Bad. That his uncle could bear to be in the same space as him was a wonder because he could barely deal with being with himself. Fuck—Joseph tranqed him. The authorities called him and Joseph hunted him down and tranqed him because if he hadn’t, the cops would have shot him.
Raider hadn’t hurt anyone. He didn’t have fucking fangs like the predator shifters but the cops would have killed him on sight. And now… now this. Whatever this was. This lie of help.
The air was significantly colder the longer he sat in the steadily moving truck with his uncle Joseph. They had only just entered the forest after miles of open, hilly land. A canopy of snow dusted pine trees now darkened their journey. With the air cold, damp, and prickling at the fine hairs on his body, it was Raider Valdez’s first time seeing winter and he didn’t like it at all.
“Do not embarrass me, Angel. Not with these people.” Joseph insisted on using Raider’s birth name no matter how annoying he found it. “These people understand us. They understand why you’re like this. Don’t make them regret the help they give.” There was a hint of pleading in Joseph’s gruff tone that Raider couldn’t ignore even though he was stubbornly trying to.
“I’ll be a perfect gentlemen.” Raider kept his gaze trained on the wall of trees. It was impossible to meet his uncle’s gaze. Guilt weighed heavily on him. Shame for what he did and now guilt for what he was planning on doing. He couldn’t stay. There was no fucking way he could see this through.
A magic cage. Fuck. He was going to die here. No shifter ended up in a magic cage and didn’t end up dead.
The gate they drove through was beyond intimidating with coils of barbed wire lining the top. He couldn’t get the image of the spiraling metal out of his mind. The sparkle was so bright among the shade of the conifers that rose up like stoic giants. It would cut him up but a part of him didn’t care. Raider’s mind was currently judging the climb needed, scaling the fence, and reaching his goal with an underlying buzz of animal thoughts he barely noticed anymore.
Wire cutters, maybe, if he could find any. What the fuck he would do with a coil of barbed wire, he had no fucking idea but right now his raccoon was insisting he needed it. Desperately.
“You know there will be others like you. Shifters. Just, I didn’t tell you everything.”
Raider’s stomach clenched from the hesitant tone in Joseph’s voice. He shot a wary glance over to find his uncle gripping the wheel too tightly as he drove them down the winding road between the trees. Joseph was older than Raider’s father, his once rich, black hair now a dull, multi toned gray. He kept his smooth locks in a ponytail at his nape that flowed down the back of his jean jacket. Joseph had taken Raider in five years back and never really got into the flow of raising a fucked up teenage boy. His wife, Victoria, only faired somewhat better. She was the one to push for this place. The Academy.
God, he needed to get the fuck out.
“There are shifters, plenty of them. I guess they even have a pack,” Joseph continued carefully. He drew his words out so slowly, Raider felt anxious just to listen to him. His uncle could be so damn slow at times. “Nothing formal; it’s just how they get along. We’re good in groups. Protect each other. Support each other.”
Raider nodded and waited impatiently for him to get to the damn point.
“Just… they’re all flesh eaters,” Joseph disclosed with a sigh.
Raider rolled his eyes even though his stomach gave another anxious clench. “Whatever.”
“I’m not saying they’re going to go after you,” Joseph said quickly. “But if it comes down to it and one of them loses their head, I don’t want to see you hurt. I can only assume they’re here for aggression issues. Just keep an eye out, okay? I see how you dress, and with all those tattoos and piercings, sometimes even I forget that you’re not a thug. Some of these guys might see you as a threat. It’ll be hard on you when you don’t have the nature to back up your appearance.”
“You’re worrying over nothing.” Raider really wished his uncle would just stop talking before he got sick. He wasn’t his real uncle, not by blood. Joseph and Raider’s dad were friends growing up. When Lucus finally drank himself into a jail cell for the long term, Joseph stepped in to make sure his son didn’t follow in his footsteps. As a raccoon shifter raised among coyotes, Raider knew just how dangerous a predator could be if he was feeling mean enough. Now he was being caged inside an institution with the craziest carnivores around.
A cage with barbed wire. Sparkling, coiling, entrancing…
“I also might have intentionally left out another thing.”
“Uncle Joe,” Raider growled in exasperation. “We’ve been driving for forty hours and this is when you’re dropping all this shit on me?”
Joseph coughed awkwardly and glanced sideways. Raider’s scowl was full of anxiety. “I wanted to make sure we were on the grounds so if you went to run for it, I wouldn’t have to chase you down.”
Deep, fathomless black eyes glared his way. Joseph saw the spark of fear before Raider looked back out the window. Raider might have only just turned twenty but with his black tattooed neck and arms, pierced eyebrow, and row of silver dotting up one ear, the kid looked damn intimidating.
Joseph understood why. Living as a scavenger among predators forced Angel to put up a front to keep the other shifters from giving him trouble. He’d gotten a lot of flack for his dad being in prison, and no matter how quiet Angel would get, trouble still found him. He lifted weights to exhaustion and covered as much of his skin as he could afford in ink to help him look a certain way so people would back off and let him be. Under the muscle and dour expression, Joseph still saw the same anxious, lanky kid who ended up on his doorstep with nowhere else to go. And damn if he was going to fail him now after five years of keeping him on the right path.
Raider sat up in his seat. His expression grew more alert as his eyes darted across the scenery. “I’m not going to run.”
Joseph harrumphed and slowed the truck as they came to a bend. “The thing is, son, most of the staff at the Academy are sorcerers.”
Raider ran a hand through his black hair and ruffled up the short spikes in silence.
“And although they aren’t in the majority, there are also a few young sorcerers attending to learn to gain control of their powers.”
“Shit.” Raider looked unseeing out the window. Could his raccoon survive barbed wire? Fuck, did it matter when he’d be up against fucking predators and sorcerers? Why the fuck did the cage have to have fucking barbed wire at the top?
Vicky said it was an institution for shifter fuck-ups. A place where out of control shifters got better. That the therapists used magic to help sometimes. Not this. Lied. They fucking lied.
Raider exhaled slowly. If they hadn’t lied, would he have come? If they hadn’t lied, would the cops have found him instead? It wouldn’t have been the cops. It would be the fucking shifter patrol to save all the poor, defenseless humans from the crazy animal people. In Arizona, you were lucky they didn’t give people a metal for shooting a shifter—it didn’t have to be a rogue shifter, either. They acted like shifters were hunting people, coming to kill them when it was the humans that were doing all the killing.
“You know I wouldn’t send you somewhere that wasn’t safe—Angel, you know that,” Joseph said in a measured tone. His reached over to clasp Raider’s stiff shoulder. “I respect these people. The masters at the Academy don’t care where you’re from, what kind of shifter you are, or if you can do magic. They’re here to help you get better and I’ve been assured that they don’t allow any behavior from the patients or staff that would make a shifter feel uncomfortable. Certainly, they would never put you in danger.”
Raider didn’t say anything for long minutes. He could feel his life coming to an end more clearly than ever before. This was it. This was where he was going to die. Twenty years old and he was going to die in a magic cage surrounded by fuck-ups worse than him.
His eyes were drawn ahead to the clearing where a large white building could be seen. It looked more like a mansion than anything else, and he couldn’t help but sneer at the thought. Sorcerers. Rich, self important sorcerers. They probably let shifters into their stupid magical institution to either steal their organs for their dark spells or try to make up for the fucked up shit they did in the past like some furry charity case.
“I know this is hard on you, Angel, but you need to trust me and the masters. They can help you.”
“Uncle Joe, what if I promise, I mean really promise, to never do it again?” Raider asked quietly. His hands clenched tightly into fists in his lap where the tattoos on his fingers were hidden by the thick silver rings he always wore. The words wanted to stick in his throat. Admitting he didn’t want to be there seemed a betrayal to the animal trembling inside him. But he couldn’t do this. He couldn’t just stay and die.
Joseph sighed and glanced his way again. “Son, if I thought you could do it on your own, we wouldn’t be here. But you can’t. I know it, and I know that you know it. You have a problem that’s bigger than you and you need help from people that understand that.” He met Raider’s tentative gaze. Neither of them spoke of Lucus although they were both thinking of him. Raider swore he’d never end fucked up like his dad and addicted to the bottle. He stayed out of trouble to the best of his ability. Just, some things weren’t always in a person’s control.
“It’s your nature, Angel.”
“Which makes this entire thing pointless,” Raider whispered bitterly. “You should have just let them shoot me. I can’t stop what I am.”
Joseph shook his head and sighed again. “This place is going to prove you wrong. I know you’re scared but the masters here aren’t like the sorcerers back home. I promise you. Every person in that building is either going through something similar to you, or has been through it in the past. This is just people helping people. Not sorcerers, not shifters. Just people.”
Liar. That he could fucking lie to him with a straight face, like he wasn’t locking him up to his death hurt more than anything else.
Raider was used to adults lying to him but he never expected his uncle and aunt to among them. They were different. But then, they were good people. Good people lied instead of kicking someone out of the house. They pretended everything was okay as they locked you away because they didn’t want to have to put up with a fuck-up anymore. Raider tried—he tried so fucking hard to be good just like Joseph and Vicky—but he always knew what the end result would be.
He was too much like his dad, too much like Lucas. A fuck-up until the very end.
His vision filled with the view of the large, white building. Snow dusted the grounds and the well manicured lawn stretched out white-gold in all directions. Joseph’s blue pickup truck looked shabby and tired next to the immaculate Academy. It made Raider look down at his own clothes, the faded jeans and t shirt he’d been wearing the last two days, and notice for the first time the hole forming on the knee of his pants. He couldn’t help but resent the Academy for already making him feel less just by being there to compare to.
Joseph was out of the truck before Raider thought to move. Raider felt more than saw his uncle walk around to his side and open the door. The cold air blew in full of new, strange scents. “Grab your bags. I’m going to go and give a knock on the door.”
Could he hide in the truck? Could he shift, tear open the seats, and burrow into the foam and padding to hide? Maybe underneath; the ninja movies made it look really easy to hold onto the bottom of a truck. He wouldn’t even have to get far, just out to the other side of the gate. No one knew him up here. No one would look for him.
As if reading his mind, Joseph reached up and grasped his shoulder. Raider met his uncle’s eyes. His body felt brittle like he was going to shatter from the light touch. “We’ll go in together, Angel. These are good people and I’m going to stick around so you can see. You don’t need to be afraid.”
Tears stung his eyes and Raider quickly pushed past Joseph before he could see. Fuck him. Fuck him for throwing him away and acting like he gave a fuck.
Joseph sighed heavily. He shook his head as he walked to the back of the truck and heaved one of Raider’s bags out of the bed.
He’d never been up North before and Raider already hated the cold temperature and mountain terrain. He was used to land reaching out forever. It was all flat and dusty back home. Rough scrub dotted the horizon as the only landmarks, and the blistering heat was a constant companion. It was nothing like this bone chilling cold or the strange white flurries in the air. Maybe if he was there for a different reason, the snow would be interesting. Maybe even fun. Right now he was pretty sure he hated it like everything else that was connected to the Academy. There were no brambles or cacti to protect him from his hunters. There were trees, but they were bare and would leave him exposed to any predator eye.
Raider first smelled them on the air when he grabbed his other bag. His raccoon immediately curled tight within. Sorcerers and flesh eaters. Damn, he was so fucked. He looked back the way they came; the forest was dark and hid the gate he needed to cross. It hadn’t been that tall. He didn’t know where he’d go but it wouldn’t be here, and that was something.
“You alright?” Joseph stepped up beside him on the wide steps. He pressed the back of his hand to Raider’s forehead before he could flinch away, and frowned when he found it to be hot. “I think you better see the nurse once you’re checked in. You might have caught the shifter flu that’s been going around.”
Raider groaned and his shoulders slumped. Could the day get any worse?
“Oh, there was one more thing I forgot to mention.” Joseph shot him a nervous side glance.
“Damn it, Uncle Joe. Seriously?” He was going to die and Joseph just kept piling shit on top of it all.
Joseph grinned sheepishly and gripped the back of his neck. “This one isn’t that bad. Actually, I think you’re going to be pleased. I happened to have a chat with the Alvarezes before we headed out. They were surprised to hear just where you were going.”
Raider narrowed his eyes at the older man, a grim frown set in place. “Why are you telling the Alvarezes that I’m being sent to some institution for idiot shifters that can’t control themselves? I thought you didn’t want me embarrassing you with all this.”
“Hey, you are not an embarrassment.” Joseph’s his brown eyes were sharp as he met Raider’s glare. “You coming here is a good thing, Angel. Something that Vicky and I are really proud of you for. As long as you give it your all and do right by yourself, I know you’re going to be just fine.”
Raider huffed and turned back to the door. He didn’t care if his uncle was proud of him or not, he just didn’t want word getting out to his best friend that he turned into some sort of fuck up while he was away. A fuck up that was going to end up dead in moments.
“As I was saying, about the Alvarezes…” Joseph trailed off when one of the double doors to the entrance opened.
Raider’s fears rushed to the forefront of his mind and his body tensed. His senses flipped to hyper alert with the scent that flowed through the gap. Magic. He could smell magic. Sure enough, when the door opened a little further it revealed a sorcerer standing on the other side. Raider barely saw the man as his raccoon reared up inside in terror.
Run, his raccoon pleaded shakily. Now. Run and survive.
Raider bristled but his legs were frozen in place. His raccoon mind and his promise to his uncle fought for control over his actions. He said he’d give it a shot. He’d try… But Joseph lied about so much! Flesh eaters. Sorcerers. It was a fucking building of death! He was going to be all alone in a cage full of killer monsters with nowhere to hide, no way to protect himself…
“Master Whiteheart?” Joseph reached out to shake the sorcerer’s hand with only the slightest of hesitation.
“Please, call me Michael. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Joseph,” Michael said with a welcoming smile. His tanned face took to the expression easily, his teeth perfectly white and blue eyes sparkling. “After so many phone calls, I feel like we’re old friends.”
Michael turned his friendly grin to Raider, who stared with dark, wide eyes at the hand now reaching toward him. “And you must be Angel. I was just getting your room all set up. You’ll be able to put your bags in there and meet the other guys once their class gets out.”
It wasn’t worth dying over. It wasn’t. Joseph and Vicky shipped him there to get rid of him, to throw him away. They lied about the Academy. They could have lied about everything. What if this wasn’t to get better? What if they sold him to a fucking Academy full of murderous sorcerers? It wouldn’t be hard. His dad was in jail and his mom left years ago; no one would give a fuck if he disappeared.
There could already be a report he was dead. Raccoon murdered by the anti-shifter badges to save all those poor, defenseless humans from the scary animal. What if they lied and this was where he was going to be dissected for parts for dark sorcery? Uncle Joe lied—he fucking lied—and now he was going to die in this place.
Raider’s breath caught, each inhale quicker and sharper than the last. His legs once so frozen they couldn’t move, began to quake. It released him enough to take a faltering step away. Run. He needed to run. Run and survive and get the fuck out of the magic cage of death.
A hand suddenly engulfed his. It was burning hot, large, and had calluses not first seen. It grasped Raider’s trembling fingers and everything came to a jolting stop. From far away he heard his breath come out in a slow expulsion of sound.
The hand clasped firmly around Raider’s made no move to release him. Moments later he was pulled abruptly out of his terrified raccoon mind and left blinking at the world. He was aware of the chill air on his flushed skin, the cement hard and solid beneath his sneakers, and the scent of the stranger in front of him. It really was much more intense than the faint scent of magic. Cinnamon. Slow roasted coffee. Old books next to a fireplace. Calming cedar.
“Angel, I’m Michael Whiteheart.”
Raider slowly looked up and met Michael’s intense, blue eyes. He could see. This man could see him. The jolt of connection twisted something in his chest, painful and damning, and his vision blurred. Mortified, Raider wrenched his hand away. He quickly used the back of his wrist to wipe away his confusing tears.
Holy shit. What the fuck was wrong with him?
“It’s, uh, Raider, sir. Only my family calls me Angel,” Raider muttered as he tried to cover his fluster. He glared down at Michael’s hand and stepped back so it couldn’t reach him. What the fuck did he do to him? A spell? Was it a spell?
Whatever it was, Raider felt absolutely off balance. It was like the world around him changed colors, but in a way that couldn’t be seen. He pursed his lips and cautiously moved his gaze up Michael Whiteheart’s arm. He took in pieces of the sorcerer as he tried to come to terms with just what the hell happened.
Michael was weird looking. His short, shining golden hair had a soft curl to it that teased at his forehead in contrast to his piercing blue eyes. He had the most perfect white teeth he’d ever seen. Ever. He was tall, muscular, and nearly glowed with magic; Michael was a demigod with a fantastic model smile. He was breathtaking and set every nerve Raider had on high alert.
Most people didn’t look like gods. Most people that weren’t sorcerers, anyways. Raider grew up knowing to be wary of unnatural beauty the same way to be wary of eyes that spoke of death. All shifters looked at him like he was prey. Michael’s eyes didn’t have the familiar death glare that set his raccoon off. On the contrary, something about him made Raider’s inner animal calm in a way nothing had before.
Still, Whiteheart was a sorcerer. If that wasn’t damning enough, even if his stare seemed normal, Raider still felt like prey when he looked at him.
“Raider, I’m the human reintegration specialist for the Academy,” Michael informed him calmly. At the sound of his voice, Raider met his eyes only to quickly look away. “I have a few different jobs I end up doing around here, but the big one is being available to talk. Now Theodore deals with the shifters; as one himself, he can offer a much needed insight that I can’t always provide. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come to me if you have any questions or concerns. Your uncle has informed me about your lack of exposure to positive sorcerers in your life. It’s my hope that I can help you see that we’re not all bad.”
Raider nodded dumbly and immediately started twisting one of the rings on his fingers. “Did you, um… Did you just cast a spell on me?” His gaze was again drawn to Michael’s hand. Warmth still radiated where the sorcerer touched his skin. Raider’s raccoon was unnaturally quiet and was looking around with curiosity instead of fear.
A surprised grin flashed across Michael’s tanned features. “Nope, that’s just a handshake. I don’t actually cast much magic unless it’s a necessity. We teach the guys here to use their best judgment when it comes to casting spells. You’re not the only one that’s wary around sorcerers or magic, and we all try to make an effort to set everyone at ease.” Michael opened the door fully and stepped aside to reveal the large entrance behind him. “Shall we?”
Raider peered into the echoing hall of smooth tile and was hit full force with the scent of predators. His raccoon cringed and the overwhelming urge to run the other way heated through him.
Wire cutters. Maybe a thick blanket. He just needed to find something along those lines to get over the gate and he could escape the moment night fell. Just one day and he’d get the fuck out. One day to survive.
Michael’s hand brushed his shoulder and lingered lightly. Raider jolted at the touch. His eyes opened wide and then squeezed shut. Beneath his human terror, he felt his raccoon calm. The creature went so far as to purr in contentment. The part of Raider that wanted to pull away, to snarl and tell the sorcerer to not fucking touch him could not compete with the loud, internal vibration of peace.
Death, he reminded his raccoon desperately. Fucking flesh eaters, and sorcerers and death.
It was no use. The animal’s purr grew louder and Raider knew he was alone, trapped once again because of the raccoon’s overwhelming will.
Joseph cleared his throat. He was the first one to actually step forward into the building. He flashed a reassuring glance at his nephew, but Raider could read the trepidation in his eyes. Even a coyote shifter like Joseph was afraid. There was good reason to be afraid.
He didn’t have an option. He didn’t have a home to go back to. The realization felt like a heavy stone in his gut. There was no going home. Raider hesitantly stepped through the Academy doors for the first time, and silently wondered if he’d live long enough to be able to leave.