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 didn’t know how to make things right with Fox. He wasn’t sure he was wrong. So what if no one hurt him before? That was only because he ran faster, got strong, and watched his back every second. He always stayed one step ahead of the predators. What, he was supposed to let them catch him and rip his throat out just so he could prove to Fox and Bear the danger was real?
Still, there was something niggling at the back of his mind, something he couldn’t help but realize after seeing Leo’s transformed form or scenting Forest and Wylie. Even Justin, as human as he seemed, was a deadly predator in his own right. It wasn’t remotely realistic to think he could outrun them. They were bigger, faster and stronger than anyone he knew before and he was in their territory.
This was their home—as fucked up a home as it could get. They would know every nook and cranny. They would know every blind spot and the best place to jump someone. They were all just a transformation away from tearing him to pieces. It didn’t matter they hadn’t. They could and would.
Raider’s raccoon gave a terrified quake and he looked around the lounge nervously. Justin was playing a video game in the corner and Forest was passed out on the couch, his face flushed from his fever. Wylie wasn’t in sight nor was Leo. They were the most dangerous in Raider’s personal opinion. For the first time since he arrived at the Academy, he was alone with no Uncle Joseph, no Fox to protect him. He was completely exposed. Adrenaline coursed through him and Raider sought an escape.
“Hey, new kid. Did you want…? Uh, okay.” Antonio stopped short and took a quick step back when Raider whirled and stared at him with wide, dark eyes. He continued more cautiously. “I heard you talking with Fox and I thought you might want to see the Academy. You know, so you wouldn’t be so…”
Raider stared at him, unsure what word was about to come out of Antonio’s mouth. Like he was going to run off with some baby sorcerer? For all he knew, Antonio was trying to trick him to a secluded spot to slice out his organs.
“Lost,” Antonio offered when Raider grew tenser.
“No,” Raider said hoarsely and edged around him. “I’m tired.”
His eyebrows raised and Antonio nodded silently as he watched him go.
Raider looked wildly around the lounge again, his senses on high alert as he slowly backed away from the sorcerer. Coughing awkwardly, Antonio averted his eyes but Raider wasn’t fooled. Sure, he was acting nice now but if they were alone? No, he would turn his flesh inside out with one gruesome spell, then take all his organs…
“You want to practice that spell we just learned?”
Raider jumped and noticed for the first time Jake had come up right beside Antonio. Before the two could gang up and find some way to trance him into leaving and never returning, Raider threw himself towards the closest door. Thankfully, it was the one which led to his dorm room.
Raider slammed the door shut and leaned heavily on the frame. His chest heaved as he tried to keep his heart from exploding.
“Is he alright?”
“I seriously have no idea. I think he’s, you know, one of those hunted types.”
Raider closed his eyes. Jake and Antonio’s voices were crystal clear even through the door.
“You think his parents were…?” The question hung in the air. Neither sorcerer bothered to voice it as they stepped away.
Raider didn’t know if he should feel ashamed or outraged. His parents didn’t have to be hunted and murdered by sorcerers for him to have a valid reason to be afraid of magic users. You had to be an ignorant fuck to think that.
But they were thinking it because he was so afraid, the same way Fox said his fear made it seem like his pack was full of psycho killer shifters. Raider never said they were… just, fuck. Weren’t they?
Raider exhaled heavily. He slid down the door and buried his head in his hands.
Fuck, he didn’t know what to do. It’s not like he wanted to feel this way. It’s not like he had a fucking choice how he felt no matter what Bear said. This was his entire fucking life. Fear. Most days he was able to keep it under control but it was always there. Always. Every scent was a question of danger or not. Every sound. Every new face held the potential of fangs and death. Now he was literally surrounded by predators and he was just supposed to not be afraid?
Raider felt decidedly self conscious with his ears out. He was used to blending in. Back home he looked about as tough as any predator type out there even if a real shifter could scent he was only a raccoon. Since getting the flu, blending in just wasn’t fucking allowed. He didn’t catch their names but Raider saw two boys he was pretty sure were sorcerers outright staring at his tail. When they noticed he was looking, they quickly turned away, but not before he heard a distinct chuckle. No, being fluffy was not a way to go unnoticed at the Academy.
At least his first class was void of sorcerers. Not necessarily of magic users, but that was something else he was trying to wrap his head around. Fox could do magic. Raider knew shifters were magic; there was no way to turn from a human into an animal without having magic in your damn body. Just, for some reason, it was really easy to ignore how being part magic probably meant you could do it too.
When he was growing up, it was really important to distinguish between the two. Sorcerers were assholes who once used the magic ingrained corpses of shifters for spells. It wasn’t something you wanted to get confused. No shifter would ever do something like that to their own. Maybe that was why it was so easy to dismiss how Raider’s own father revealed a level of magical ability even though Lucas fiercely spoke out against sorcerers his entire life. If his dad taught him one thing, sorcerers were to be trusted even less than predators.
Raider’s first class turned out to be with the instructor called Bear. Aptly named seeing as he was a bear shifter. On the walk down to the gym, Fox explained any time a new shifter joined the Academy, the next day was always a shifter focused class to help him adapt. Great in theory. Great for predators or anyone not him. Raider was stuck in a room with Wylie, the dragon shifter, who was glaring at him like he thought he was going to run off with his little brother, Dante. There was also Forest and Leo, who were still throwing him heated stares. While Forest at least had the decency to look guilty when their eyes met, Leo was shameless. He kept checking him out with a knowing grin that was really starting to get on his nerves. It was awkward and Bear was not blind to it.
The need to run was growing again. He was trapped in a strange gym that smelled of predators and stale blood.
“Raider, whenever we have a new shifter join the pack, we like to go around and describe what it is we’re here to work on.” All eyes were drawn to Bear, the large, barrel-chested man. He was dressed in loose shorts and a bright yellow florescent t-shirt even though the temperature was much colder in the gym than the rest of the Academy. “It helps us know how we can help you. And sometimes it can feel nice to see our problems aren’t so unique.”
Raider glared warily at the group of misfit shifters and wondered if there was an escape route. The gym was attached to the Academy and led out to the back of the yard. Windows spanned both long walls and let in the morning light. The gym was twice the size of the lounge, but instead of couches and tables, half the space was empty. The other half, well, Raider wasn’t sure what all the strange equipment was for. He recognized some things like the power rack, weight bench and free style weights. As for the other structures made of wood, rope, netting, and steel, well, if he were in his raccoon form, it might look a bit like a jungle gym just for the furry guy. Either that or something to torture him with.
He wasn’t bold enough to actually go near any of the equipment, not when it reeked from the sweat of flesh eaters. He wished he was though because then it would mean he wasn’t sitting in the large circle made up of predators on the side of the gym void of furniture. Even with all the natural light and large exits, Raider felt trapped. If he tried to make a run for either door, he knew he would be hunted down in an instant.
“Raider?” Bear prodded when he refused to speak.
Raider’s eyes fixed on the tall man, his dark eyes reflecting only suspicion. There was no way in fuck any of the predators had the same problem as him. Actually, he was pretty sure they would laugh their asses off the moment they heard his problem. Fuck that. Seriously, fuck all of this.
He hunched forward in his cross legged position on the floor and refused to speak. Instead he stared determinedly at his hands where he was spinning one of his silver rings. It was habit at this point, a way to deal with the damn near constant anxiety buzzing through him. His hands would never be still as long as he was in this place.
Undeterred, Bear turned to the other patients. “Did anyone want to go first?” His gaze lingered on Justin, who raised his hand. Raider glanced to where he was sitting and couldn’t help but notice just how tired he seemed after the full moon. Justin flashed him a small smile and Raider quickly went back to staring at his twisting fingers. His mind spun again on just what kind of insult the werewolf meant by calling him submissive.
Justin combed fingers through his light brown hair while muffling a yawn. He wasn’t the only tired looking one out of the group but there was a wilting to his features, like whatever happened the night before lingered on a level deep within. “I’m Justin Young, in case you forgot my name already.” His normally soft voice was rough and lower than yesterday. “I have a few goals that I’m working on lately, but the biggest one—and I’m always going to have this goal—is to never curse anyone like I was cursed.”
Meeting his tired eyes, Raider spoke without thinking. “How were you cursed?”
“Oh… um.” Justin blinked rapidly in surprise and shifted in his seat on the floor. “Well, I don’t really…”
Leo growled in warning. Raider started from the sound, then froze when the large lion shifter leaned forward. “He doesn’t have to answer that if he doesn’t want to.”
Raider nodded mutely and tried to swallow down his unease. “S-Sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“It’s fine,” Justin spoke up, a weak smile on his lips. “I just don’t like to talk about it much. It wasn’t a fun experience and let’s leave it at that.”
“Right.” Raider bit his bottom lip and dared a glance toward Leo, who was glowering back. Fuck. “I shouldn’t have… Uh, sorry,” he finished awkwardly. Werewolves were changed by other werewolves on the full moon and they weren’t intentional about it. Usually they were trying to kill a person and the survivor—if they survived—was cursed after. Seeing as Justin looked younger than him, he might have been small when he was bitten. It was probably terrifying.
“Really, it’s okay.” Justin sat up straight and forced his smile brighter. “So, being a werewolf, I don’t change into a wolf much. But about as much as you shifters turn into animals and get to live that life, the wolf inside of me wants to take me over and, well, act like a wolf. Except I still look just like me and, um, sometimes I’m a total asshole.” He paused and sighed. “So, if I say shit, I’m really sorry. You really won’t see it coming. I don’t see it coming. It’s like bad mood swings and… yeah.” He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “I’m working on it.”
Forest, whose eyes were slightly dazed from what looked like a growing fever, leaned sideways and draped his arm over Justin’s shoulder. He smiled encouragingly. “He’s doing a great job. Justin’s slips have gone from an average of ten minutes of crazy wolf down to five. That’s huge. Being able to stop and find control when you’re inner animal takes over can be really hard.”
Leo grunted in agreement. His golden eyes narrowed as he stared at the ground.
“Thank you, Justin.” Bear sent him a broad smile. “Who would like to go next? Wylie, you were new just a couple of months back. Would you like to share what your goals are while you’ve been here?”
“Sure.” Wylie leaned back on his arms and looked Raider’s way. His ice blue eyes pierced into him like a blade. There was too much in his gaze for Raider to feel comfortable with Wylie Doe. It wasn’t the dragon, it wasn’t the anger over his brother; no there was something familiar and it immediately set him on high alert.
“When I first came here, my biggest goal was… Well, I thought,” Wylie stressed with a sheepish smile, “Was to find a way to fix my transformation. But now I know my real goal is to let my dragon out the way it needs to be let out. I’m sharing my body with an entity who has needs and wants different from me, and if I don’t respect that, everything goes kind of crazy. So my goals lately are to figure out what my dragon needs.”
“Is is Dorian?” Fox’s eyes glittered with his special brand of wickedness. “I’m going to say he needs Dorian.”
Wylie grinned unashamedly and shrugged his shoulders. “Uh, let’s just say my dragon would like to figure out how to use its magic properly. And sometimes he’s very insistent on chasing after this one awesome, sparking guy.”
Raider didn’t get the joke. He was too busy flinching at the word sparking. It sounded too much like sparkling, the problem which landed him there in the first place.
“Well, there is something to be said for constant exercise,” Bear said wryly and a chuckle rippled through the group. “Fox, your progress has been equally impressive. Did you want to share the new goals you’ve started just this month? Or maybe you could go over the ones you’ve just reached.”
Raider’s head swiveled up from his study of his hands and his sought out his short friend. He was desperate to know just what the fuck trapped Fox in the Academy for a whole year.
Fox’s easy smile slipped away when he found him looking at him. “Sure. I’ll go after Raider.” His orange eyes glinted challenging.
Raider glared and looked away. Fuck him. There was no way he was telling anyone his problems.
Bear’s expression reflected surprise as he looked from Fox to Raider in silence for a beat. “Alright. As you all know, no one is obligated to share anything they don’t feel comfortable sharing. This group is a no judgment zone. Raider, would you like to go next?”
“I’m good,” Raider muttered. He twisted one of his rings roughly, and refused to meet Bear’s inquiring stare.
His lips set in a grim line and Bear again turned to Fox. Fox was still glaring at Raider and looked far from remorseful. “Raider, I just want you to understand this is a safe place,” Bear reminded carefully. “You’re among your pack. Even though we’re all new to you, we have a strict code to keep each other’s secrets. No one would dare share your information outside of this room.”
“Not unless they want to go through me,” Leo said with a growl. “Stop being a wuss and spill, already. You can’t get help if you don’t tell us what’s wrong.”
Bear nodded. “That’s very true, Leo, but it’s up to Raider to decide if he wants our help. We’re not here to pressure anyone. We have this group three times a week. Sometimes more when the weather is bad and everyone is stir crazy. If Raider, or anyone, doesn’t want to share today, we’ll be here if he changes his mind.”
Raider’s defiance grew, and he gritted his teeth and hunched forward more. He wasn’t going to be staying that fucking long. All he needed to do was get over the fence and as far away from the Academy as possible. It wasn’t like anyone actually gave a fuck. He was sitting in a circle full of shifters but he was still alone. Even Fox, his best friend of forever, lied to him for over a fucking year. Fox was just another predator among his predator friends. Not just that, but predators who thought it was okay to use magic. Shifters who were just a spell away from being as terrible as sorcerers.
“Leo, would you like to go next?” Bear asked to divert attention from Raider, who was growing tenser as the seconds ticked by.
Leo grunted and sat up straight. “Actually, yeah. I know how important it is to talk about this stuff no matter how much it sucks.”
The dig was clear and Raider glared his way. Only to quickly look down at his hands when he found Leo staring right back. There wasn’t necessarily malice in his expression but the challenge was distinct. The idea of fighting Leo frightened him to the core.
“So it’s that crappy time of year where my body goes all out of whack,” Leo grumbled flatly, clearly not a hundred percent comfortable with the topic of conversation. “It’s been real shitty. My lion’s really, well, loud.” A low growl rumbled through the large shifter when he turned his head toward Wylie, who raised a pale eyebrow in return. “Horny,” Leo snapped bluntly. “Really fucking horny. Doe, could you stop boning your boyfriend in the dorms all the fucking time? You’re making life fucking difficult.”
“Is that a serious request?” Wylie’s bewilderment didn’t last long. “You know that’s not going happen. Even if I wanted to—which there is no way in fuck I want to, just so we’re clear—Dorian would have a lot to say about it. This is not a one man show.”
Leo huffed loudly and his golden eyes narrowed to slits. “Can’t you kill the sound or some shit? Do something about the scent. The smell is fucking insane.”
“It really is,” Forest spoke up. He tousled his dark hair from his face. “It’s fucking hell listening to you two, never mind smelling it. Shit, I need to get laid.”
Wylie tilted his head and his gaze slipped between the two feline shifters. “I think you two might be the answer to your problem.”
Forest groaned in protest even as Leo snarled, “It doesn’t work that way, dragon boy. Just have some fucking consideration until this heat passes!”
Wylie rolled his eyes. He stretched his legs out in front of him, his torn jeans revealing flashes of his pale flesh beneath. Raider could sense the tension in him but Wylie kept from retorting. Instead, he took a breath in before finally answering. “I’ll mention it to Ri. Just don’t assume anything will happen from it. He’s pretty damn happy the way things are, and so am I.”
It was Fox’s turn to huff, seeing as he was the one always in need of place to sleep with Wylie hooking up in their room so much. Raider watched the silent exchange between the two and wondered if Fox had said anything to Wylie. Give the surprised look on the dragon shifter’s face, it was probably a no.
Raider kept his mouth shut. Sure, the scent of sex was very overwhelming all around, but so far, the consequences were positive for him. He secretly hoped Fox would find himself in his room and in his bed most every night. Not that he was staying… Was he?
An idea flitted into Raider’s mind. It was so brilliant, so dangerous, he couldn’t fully trust it.
Could he convince Fox to run away with him? That would be the ultimate answer. He could get the fuck away from the crazy ass shifters and have his best friend with him. Even if he couldn’t protect himself in this strange part of the country, Fox would be able to. When they were younger, Fox always protected him. Fox would make running away safe. Fun, even. It could just be the two of them.
“Bear, can we start, already?” Forest’s voice was full of agitation. “I really need to, like, work off this energy.”
“In a moment.” Bear looked around the room and his eyes fell on Raider again. “I think it’s important, seeing as Raider is the first of his type to be in our pack, to explain what we do for exercise and play when we let our inner animals out.”
“I’m not shifting,” Raider said before Bear even finished. “As long as I’m in this Academy, it’s not happening.”
Once again, all eyes were on him. This time, when Raider dared to peek up, he was met with an array of closed expression. All but Leo, who looked plain pissed off. Whatever. Fuck them. There was no way he was going to transform and be a fucking meal to a goddamn pack of flesh eating predators.
“Guys, how about you all get started?” Bear suggested before the silence could stretch on too long. “Justin, Wylie, and I can go over all the things we do for exercise when we’re not in a full shift. Raider.” He crouched down as the others jumped up and shifted into their animal forms. “Would you mind staying late after class is over? I think it would be a good idea if you understood just a little more about what this shifter pack is all about.”
Raider shrugged noncommittally. He knew by the tone of Bear’s voice, it wasn’t an actual request. “I don’t need to exercise. I work out all the time.” The scent of predators was hitting him hard and his raccoon started to tremble inside. It demanded he run from the room as fast as possible before something ate him. It was all Raider could do not to tremble on the outside too.
“Of course.” Bear stood and his eyes fell to where Justin was looking at Raider with a pitying expression on his face. “Still, we’re all going to be here for a couple of hours. You can help me keep score for the guys. We play some fun games in this class.”
Raider’s face twisted in disbelief. He dared a glance to where Bear was towering above his seated form. To the side he found Wylie watching him, his ice blue eyes studying in a way that left him uncomfortable. Raider didn’t want to be seen. He stood just to feel less small and weak compared to the others.
Behind him he could feel them moving. His senses were on high alert to every noise, movement, and sound of the giant, deadly predators. He was in a room with that black maned lion. There was no glass, no space, no nothing between him and the lion he spied on the Academy grounds yesterday. Leo would be taller in the same room. His teeth would be as large as his hand… arms, if he was furry…
Raider’s heart pounded in his chest. His breath came out in quick bursts like he just ran a mile. Bear’s gaze sharpened at the change, and he looked about to say something. Wylie beat him to it. With determined steps, Wylie walked over and moved in front of Raider until he was standing inches from his face.
Raider scowled and met the dragon shifter’s unnaturally pale eyes, waiting for the taunt, the laugh at his fear. But Wylie just stood there and looked impossibly calm, impossibly steady. Raider glanced away nervously but found his attention pulled back. He couldn’t figure out just why the fuck he was standing there staring at him.
Wylie was on of the shifters who smelled like magic. Raider wasn’t sure if it was because the dragon Wylie housed held magic or because he was screwing a sorcerer with more than enough power to spare. The scent was distracting, as was the scent of sex coming off of him Raider recognized from just about every damn room of the Academy he’d been in so far. Wylie was just as tall as him, with a similar muscular build. But Raider was well aware if the dragon shifter actually did try to fight him, Wylie would be able to snap his bones in half like toothpicks.
Which again raised the question, why the fuck was he staring at him?
If Raider noticed he wasn’t terrified of the animals behind him, it was only because Wylie Doe was annoying as fuck and totally in his face for no reason.
“Bear, can we walk around the grounds?” Wylie finally spoke. His eyes never left Raider’s suspicion filled orbs. “I think Justin is to tired for our normal games today.”
“Oh, can we?” Justin’s face lit up as he turned to Bear. “I’d love some fresh air.”
“Sure. Let me just inform the others.” Bear paused to look at the way Raider was glaring at Wylie. “I’ll meet you three outside.”
Wylie took a step back, then another. He turned like nothing was different, like he wasn’t a total fucking weirdo. Raider scowled even while relief filled him to finally be free from that unnerving stare. Asshole. What a fucking asshole. And now he had to go outside in the cold without a jacket, or sweatshirt, or anything just because Wylie wanted to go for a walk? Fucking bullshit.
As if reading his thoughts, Wylie stopped short. Raider scrambled back to keep from knocking into him. Wylie unzipped his dark hoodie, pulled the material from his shoulders and held it loosely in his hand. “Here, you look like you’re freezing your ass off.”
Raider stared suspiciously at the sweatshirt and then the hand holding it. “I’m fine,” he grunted. Whatever Doe’s game was, he wasn’t fucking falling for it.
Wylie licked his teeth in thought, then shook his head. He turned and walked toward the exit while shrugging back into the sweatshirt. Justin matched his step, his head raised to look up at Wylie as he talked excitedly. Raider considered staying where it was warm, but the sound of something large—van sized large—hitting something wooden slammed behind him. The noise echoed in the gym, followed by a tearing sound and something splintering. Raider’s entire body stiffened in alarm. He refused to look behind him at the carnage occurring, and forced his feet forward. He willed himself not to run even though it was all he could think of. He wanted to run, keep running, get over the fucking fence, and never look back.
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.
Night fully fell by the time Fox got away from Raider. If Michael didn’t insisted Raider stay and wait for Dr. Rob, Fox was pretty sure he wouldn’t have escaped at all. Fine, that wasn’t fully fair. Still, it was really hard to not be frustrated with his old friend. Fox had psyched himself up for this day for what felt like ages now and Raider just came in and fuck it all up.
He could still see the terror in Vincent’s eyes and worse, he didn’t have a clue what caused it. He finally found a crack in Vince’s steel armor only to have Raider give him shit for caring.
Forest was waiting right outside the hospital door. Fox stopped short, his suspicions raised. He deliberately shut the door behind him.
“Hey, Raider’s not going to know how to get back,” Forest said with a shrug and only the slightest hint of sheepishness. Fox knew just how bad feline shifters could get and the last thing he wanted was embarrass his friend about it. Forest got embarrassed enough without him pointing it out. He was calm now, his yellow eyes free of the heat of earlier. When normal, Forest was a really upstanding guy. Just sometimes their animals got in the way of being normal.
“I was going to grab something to eat before lock down,” Fox said with a sigh. Even though it was dark out, it was only a short window of time the cursed went through their transformation. Justin, in particular, had a lot of control over his crazy wolf and only seemed to be dangerous from 10pm to dawn. Now that it was winter, night just seemed to come so fast. Most of the patients at the Academy ended up in bed and unaware the werewolf was howling only a building away.
Forest’s gaze narrowed. He grabbed Fox by the arm and pulled him down the hallway. “What are you doing, man?”
“What?” Fox extracted from his grip and looked at Forest in confusion. “What’s wrong?”
Forest growled and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ve been chasing after Frost since he got here. You’re seriously going to just give up on him because of your friend?”
Fox inhaled sharply. He immediately looked away and began to fiddle with his bandanna. “It’s complicate.”
“Doesn’t look if from where I’m standing. Raider seems like a jealous kid who wants to hold onto you for a security blanket. He just got here and he’s squeezing the fucking life out of you.”
Fox rolled his eyes but his stomach tightened uncomfortably. “It’s not like that. It’s just his first day. First days are shit and you know it.”
“So?” Forest tilted his chin up challengingly. “We all have shit first days and we managed. You’re not his fucking mother, so don’t let him turn you into it.”
Fox snorted half-heartedly. He was pretty sure Raider wanted to turn him into his boyfriend, not his mother.
Forest shook his head when Fox didn’t look remotely convinced. “So how did your talk with your mom go?”
Fox blinked and stared wide eyed as it dawned on him he absolutely forgot to call his mother.
“Fox,” Forest sighed.
Fox slapped his palm to his forehead and shook his head dejectedly. “I know, I know, I’m a fucking flake. Fuck, can this day get any worse? Fuck.”
Forest looked like he wanted to say more but pursed his lips in exasperation. Fox caught the expression out of the corner of his eye, his eyebrow quirked in response. Forest stepped closer and ducked to whisper in his ear. “He’s right down the hall, man. Like, I can smell him.”
Fox sniffed the air for the first time. His head swiveled in the direction of Dr. Rob’s office used specifically for sessions. He bit his lip as Vincent’s scent trickled to his awareness and every nerve in his body went into high alert. If he was in Dr. Rob’s office, it probably wasn’t good. Vincent usually had therapy on Mondays. Not that he was stalking him or anything. You just kind of learned…
Fox sighed and pulled his bandanna down his forehead. Fuck, he had it bad. He was totally stalking Vince.
“He’s alone. Dr. Rob is in there taking care of the idiot raccoon running around with a fever,” Forest prodded. “Get him, man.”
Fox licked his teeth and weighed all the many reasons Vincent would kick his ass for interrupting his moment of quiet, against his own absolute need to recover what he could of this day. He was pretty sure Vince would be pissed. Then again, he was always pissed at him. He had to do this before he chickened out completely.
“He’s going to die of old age,” Forest said sarcastically. “I’m going to die of old age.
Fox flashed him a toothy smile. “Thanks, man. If you could keep Raider from, you know, trying to save me from whatever I’m about to do?”
“I got it covered. Just hurry the fuck up before they lock us down.” Fox couldn’t help but pause at that, and Forest gave him an exasperated look. “Justin’s been having some trouble. His control is questionable.”
“Should I not…?” Fox hesitated. His gaze again moved down the hall to where the door was slightly ajar and Vincent’s scent was wafting free.
“Should you not hurry the fuck up already and ask him out?” Forest shoved him by the shoulder. “Either he’s going to curse you three seconds in, or you might have to figure out how to have an actual conversation with him that doesn’t involve yelling and name calling.”
Fox grinned lazily and his eyes took on a dazed glint. “I like it when he yells at me. He is so sexy when he’s angry.”
“You seriously have issues, Alvarez.” Forest shoved him a little harder and pointed down the hall. “Come on, already. I hate you like this. Just rip the bandaid off already.”
Fox was sobered by the reality he might not have anything worthwhile to talk to Vincent about. “Do you really think…? Shit, I can’t get pissed for chasing him this long and then not know what I’m trying to catch, right? It’s not like he’s been subtle about his absolute hatred for me.”
Forest straightened and looked him right in the eye. “He doesn’t hate you. You’re the only one out of all of us he even speaks to. He has issues, man. Big ones. I don’t know what, but you can’t be blind to that.”
Fox nodded in agreement and his resolve grew. “We all have issues. It doesn’t mean he’s not worth giving a fuck over.” He almost said love. Fox quickly turned away before Forest could see it on his face. He couldn’t claim love, not yet. But it sure felt as miserable as love, which just made it all the more harder.
At Forest’s insistent shove, Fox found himself walking down the hallway towards the office door. His steps slowed the closer he got, and his mind spun when he heard Forest leave. What was he going to say? Vince hated him. It wasn’t like the guy was suddenly going to stop hating him just because he asked him out. Sure, half the guys thought Vincent only hated him because he secretly liked him, but Fox was pretty sure if it was a secret, no one had let Vincent in on it either.
Again, his mind flashed to when Raider knocked into Vincent and the absolute fear in his beautiful eyes. The memory alone made his heart feel like it was twisting in his chest. No, he wasn’t walking away from this. It felt too big to be ignored any longer. And maybe that was all he really needed. Just to feel it all at once and let the damn thing die already.
Fox stood awkwardly in front of the wooden office door, reached up and grabbed his bandanna and shoved it in his back pocket. He quickly combed his fingers through his silvery-gray hair, trying to get it into some sort of order. He wished he thought to change into something nicer than old jean shorts and a layered shirt, maybe wash up a bit. But if he ran for the bathroom now and Justin lost to his wolf, lock down would happen and there would be no way he’d be able to talk to Vince until tomorrow.
Seeing as Raider was going to be around, maybe not even then.
Fox squared his shoulders and blanked his mind to the million what ifs trying to surface. He already fucked everything up today. It really couldn’t get any worse.
“Alright, Fox, you can do this,” he muttered under his breath. “One date. Simple shit. Just man up and go for it.”
With a determined nod to himself, Fox raised his hand and knocked briskly on the door.