The sun had set some time ago. The drive was long and uncomfortable in the back of the cruiser. Wylie’s arms ached and his wrists were raw again now they were cuffed behind his back. He almost wished Theodore was there just to have a familiar presence in the car. Probably stupid, the guy being a total dick and all. But Theodore saved him even if just because his boss had told him to. And yeah, there was something familiar about the guy. Not family or even friendly, but definitely familiar in a way nothing else ever felt before.

What he really wanted more than not being alone with the hard-eyed officer who smelled of fear, or stuck in the back of the cruiser with the buzzing of escape-preventing nullifiers on all the doors and ceiling, was a cigarette. Food, drink—whatever. A cigarette would be fucking heaven.

From the flatness of the pasture land, mountains rose up in the distance, peaks darker against the star-bright sky. He could see lights up ahead creating a warm bubble of atmosphere in the air above. It had to be the place. There was nothing else out there and the car was heading straight for it. Fields broke into trees and trees became a winding forest. It felt sudden when they stopped. The cruiser’s headlights illuminated a dark, wrought iron gate. Barbed wire spiraled at the top and glinted sparkles in the light. Wylie bit his lip. Just what sort of institution locked patients up behind barbed wire?

The officer honked his horn in two short bursts and a moment later the gate slid open. It was eerily similar to when Wylie watched Mr. McPherson’s gate slide open before the heist. Dread curled in the pit of his stomach as they drove through. The gate closed once the cruiser behind them entered. Locked in. He was locked in with a man he personally wronged.

What if Collin McPherson wasn’t an understanding, generous guy? What if he was a vengeful billionaire with enough funds and charismatic people to get him anything he wanted, including the thief who tore his house open like a tin can?

The woods closed in. Heavy foliage blocked out the light from the stars and moon above. It felt like hours and Wylie’s mind whirred. Had he made a mistake by trusting Theodore Howld and Michael Whiteheart? Sorcerers were tricksters by nature, with so much power they were feared by everyone. What if the only thing Collin McPherson wanted was to keep the police out of a house filled with military-grade tech and gobs of money? He had sorcerers at his beck and call and enough money and power to run an institution to keep the unstable ones in line.

But… What would be the point? What would be the point of going through all this just to lock him up in his own institution? Daiker would be torture, possibly death. Could the Academy truly be worse than that?

The building rose up, white and startling among the dark of the trees. Lights shone across the front and illuminated the Academy in the night. Pillars spotted the wide stairs and made it look like a stately plantation style manor more than an institution. There were people outside on the steps, huddled in small groups against the cold to watch the cruisers approach. Wylie looked away once he realized they must be the other patients. Guys so fucked-up they ended up in the Academy to get fixed.

They wouldn’t have been driven in by cops. No, their parents would have brought them in, stepped them through the large double doors and held their hand or shoulder while they explained it would only be for a little while. Just until they got their powers under control. The other patients had people waiting for them on the other side of the gate and a part of Wylie hated them for it.

The cruisers pulled up to the front. The officer who drove Wylie’s car stepped out to talk to the cops from the other one. Wylie caught a flash of Michael’s golden hair while the man argued with the police. They wanted to go in and he wanted them out.

Wylie had to hand it to the cops; Michael was a six-foot-seven-inch slab of golden muscle, and when he was angry, you felt it. The cops stood their ground. Procedure. It was like a fucking mantra for these people. Procedure would have gotten him locked up in Daiker for five years without any formal charges filed. He would never love procedure.

The officer returned and opened Wylie’s door. “Come on, kid. Let’s get this done with.”

Arms bound, he wiggled toward the man, then stopped when he felt the numbing effect of the door. “The buzzing. Could you turn it off? I don’t…” he trailed off. The cop’s expression was clear he was shit out of luck. Wylie sighed and did his best to get to the opening of the door while not brushing against anything.

He didn’t succeed. His head hit the top of the door frame and pain burned through him so great he fell sideways and hit the gravel of the circular drive. He twitched there for God only knew how long, stunned and in pain. It more than hurt, it felt like the energy was drained from him. His head was foggy and all he could do was blink blearily. Wylie’s legs weren’t listening to his insistent cries to get the fuck up before someone attacked him. He could hear Michael in the background but he was very far away, almost like he was underwater.

Suddenly Wylie was lifted by his bicep. His head refused to raise, it was that heavy.

“Wylie, can you hear me?”

It was Michael, still far away even though the man was lifting his head and standing right in front of him while a cop kept him from falling.

“I want these cuffs off,” Michael demanded. “We were officially on the grounds the instant you were let through that gate. Take them off and get the hell out of here.”

“You know I can’t do that, sir,” the officer responded tightly. “He needs to be checked in to a building. I can’t leave him outdoors where he can just run off.”

“He’s as weak as an infant from the damn nullifier and the area is surrounded by an impenetrable fence. Just where the hell do you think he’s going to run off to? He can’t even walk on his own.”

Wylie was starting to gain enough sense to realize he was surrounded by a bunch of guys his own age watching him sway like a rag in the cop’s grasp. He really wished the two would stop fighting and just throw him in a building already.

“I have my orders. Procedure states—”

“Fuck your procedure!” Michael shouted. Snickers cut through the air around them. Michael might be able to sweet talk when he wanted to, but when he was tired he just got angry. The officer only became more obstinate from Michael’s attitude. He gripped Wylie by the arm and half walked, half dragged him to the stairway. His neck still didn’t respond so Wylie stared at the steps where his sneakers feet stumbled. He was hauled to the door in a minute flat.

“Now you can open this door and allow me to sign off on this, or I can put him back in the car and take him to Daiker,” the cop growled at Michael while he shouldered Wylie’s swaying form upright.

“Fine, but I’m filing a formal complaint—”

“Master Whiteheart, you might not want to open the door,” a voice spoke up from the side. It sounded full of worry.

“I don’t have much choice, Will.”

“No, it’s just… Well, really, you don’t want to do that right now. Leo’s in there and they’ve been—”

“This is not the time.” Michael grabbed the handle of the nearest door and wrenched it open. Wylie was pushed unceremoniously inside. There was a coughing noise from his captor and Wylie abruptly found himself on the floor. His knees hit the ground heavily and he could only pray he didn’t fall sideways again and have to struggle to get up like some pathetic upside down turtle. That was until he took a breath in and he stopped thinking at all.

The world dimmed around the edges of his already narrowed sight and blood filled his senses. Blood. Damn crazy, delicious blood.

“What the fuck is that?”

“I believe it’s a deer,” Michael said without interest. “Now if you would kindly unlock my charge from these damnable cuffs and get the hell off this private property, I would be extremely grateful.”

“What are they doing to it?” The officer asked. He seemed oblivious to the insistence that he get out.

“Are you blind? They’re eating. The keys, sir!”

Wylie only half heard the bizarre conversation. His ears roared with the sound of his blood pounding through his veins. Saliva filled his mouth. He was apparently hungry. Really, ravenously hungry, and the blueberry muffin Mrs. Winchester offered him earlier had not been appetizing. No, he smelled something familiar, something he first tasted last night and a crazy heat was moving through his body he couldn’t fight.

“There are kids eating a fucking deer!” the officer said with a strangled noise. “I need to call for backup. Get a squad in here to—”

“What? Kill my shifters?” Something in Michael’s voice changed. It grew deeper in tone like a rumble of thunder and his anger turned the air black. His aura of power filled the large room and promised pain and death even though Michael’s posture remained the same.

“This is private property. All they’re doing is eating their dinner. Should I walk into your home and shoot you for eating dinner? Should I? Because I am honestly starting to consider the thought.” Michael spoke with a false sense of calm no one believed, his perfect white teeth grit so tight it was a wonder his jaw didn’t break. “Give me the keys.”

There was a clatter of metal when the officer dropped instead of handed the handcuff keys.

The keys flew up to his open palm. “Thank you,” Michael growled roughly. “Now get the hell out of my school before I forcefully remove you, your companions, and your vehicles.”

Wylie heard a gasp, the sounds of shuffling, and then the officer and Michael were both gone and the air immediately lightened in the room. He ended up sideways on the floor no matter his best efforts. It was frustrating, but fuck, the smell of blood was even better down near the floor.

“Holy shit, I thought Master Whiteheart was totally going to tear that guy a new one,” someone whispered in a voice full of awe. “I mean, that was a cop. With a gun and everything.”

“You really think a gun’s going to kill Michael?” another voice grumbled. “You’re so fucking retarded sometimes.”

“Leave him alone, dickhead,” someone else snapped. Wylie wondered if he was going to be dazed and handcuffed while a bunch of blood dripping shifters fought. It wasn’t a comforting thought. Oh, but that blood smelled good. Really fucking good.

A pair of dusty, jean-clad legs came into view, followed by a tanned, grinning face topped with a bandana. His lips were smeared red with what he could only presume was dinner. He was sporting premature gray hair and teasing orange eyes, and gave a wicked smile to reveal sharp fangs. “Hey there, newbie.” His accent was Hispanic. “You look like shit. But I dig the hair color. Blue is definitely a bitchin’ color. I’ve got a few blue inks, actually.” He pointed to a tattoo on his scrawny arm.

“Fox, leave the kid alone. He looks like he’s been hit by a nullifier. You probably sound like shredded glass to his ears.”

“Cram it. I’m just talking to the kid. Shit, man.” He huffed at someone behind him. Fox suddenly pulled his other hand forward. Blood dripped from between his narrow fingers. “Hungry, dude? Whoa, yeah, you are. We got a shifter, brothers!” he shouted. He slammed a chunk of meat on the floor in front of Wylie while a weird assortment of howls rang out.

Before he could even question what the hell he was doing, Wylie pressed his tongue forward, and reached for the flesh that smelled like nectar. He moaned as blood hit his taste buds. Under his very loud dragon brain, his rational mind was telling him it was sick. Slimy, bloody, and sick. Thankfully he couldn’t hear that voice well. His hunger won as he chewed greedily with sharpened teeth.

“Ha, look at him go. There’s no way he’s going to be able to keep that down,” someone snorted from afar. “Fucking dumbass.”

“God, you’re a dick, Leo.” A new face peered down, head tilted sideways to meet Wylie’s only half attentive gaze. “Uh oh, Leo, you have competition. He’s got that crazy eye thing going on and he smells totally butch. Mmm… Actually, what are you? You smell… shit… reptile? Is that what you smell like?”

Wylie blinked up at the dark-haired shifter with yellow eyes and black spots littering his pale skin—a leopard? He licked his lips. “More and I’ll tell you,” he promised as his stomach grumbled.

Fox returned beside him and smacked another piece of meat down. He lay out flat on the ground to stare at Wylie face to face. “What are you, dude? Like, a turtle or some shit?”

Wylie wondered if there was such a thing as a turtle shifter. The dubious look on the spotted shifter’s face suggested no. “Dragon,” he said before he latched onto the raw meat.

“Whoa, un-fucking-believable!” Fox crowed loudly. He shoved his leopard friend’s leg and sent him sideways in his enthusiasm. “Hear that, Forest? A bona fide dragon!”

“Yeah, I heard, Fox. I’m right fucking here,” Forest muttered. He rolled his yellow eyes in annoyance and pushed up to sit where he ended up sprawled.

A third person suddenly sat, then got down on his stomach so he could reach Wylie’s line of sight as well. Hair the color of rosewood and brown eyes expressive and wide, he smiled sweetly while nibbling delicately on a piece of deer. “Hi there, I’m Justin. I’m a werewolf… so, that. What’s your name?”

“Wylie,” he mumbled. He felt self-conscious with three sets of eyes staring while he chewed. Whenever he ended up at a new home, he was faced with fear, distrust and was ultimately ignored. This was very different.

“I’m going to eat it all on you dumbasses,” threatened the final rumbling voice that still refused to acknowledge him.

Fox turned and yelled over his shoulder. “Stop being a dick, Leo. Shit, you totally suck, man.”

“Leo’s a total dick,” Forest agreed as he licked his blood covered fingers. “What about you, new guy? Are you going to be one of those fucked-up, testosterone alpha types? I mean, it’s cool if you are and all. Just probably not going to want to hang out with you much.”

The food was gone and Wylie was stuck staring back at three very odd young men. He’d never spoken to a shifter before, never mind three. “Um… I don’t think so. I usually just keep to myself.”

“Oh, don’t be one of those guys,” Fox sighed. “We’ve got enough broody types around here. The sorcerers are so fucking emo. So what did you do? Kill someone? You’re the first guy to be dragged in by cops with null-cuffs on.”

“Uh, I didn’t kill anyone.” Wylie really didn’t want to go into why he was there.

“Fucking told ya, dude,” Fox said to Forest, who just shrugged.

Thankfully he was saved from any more grilling. The front door slammed open and Michael stomped in. A pattering of more tentative footsteps followed. Wylie felt very exposed all of a sudden with his back to the door where he was unable to see who was behind him.

“Hey, it’s cool. No cops,” Justin assured with a soft smile. “Master Whiteheart’s going to take your cuffs off. That’s all.”

“Sorry about that, Wylie.” Michael knelt down. His large hand rested with reassurance on his back while he fiddled with the keys. “The gall of that man. Did he push you into the nullifier? I was too far away to see, but if he did—”

“No, I just couldn’t move with my hands like this.” Wylie didn’t want him to get upset over nothing. Not when he was still tied up.

“Well… Alright, then. I’m still filing a report for that crap he said about my guys. Damn asshole.” Michael grumbled under his breath and eventually managed to get the null-cuffs off his wrists. Wylie rolled from his stomach to his side and held back a whimper once he could finally move his arms again. Pins and needles buzzed through his limbs relentlessly while he clenched and unclenched his fingers.

“How’s your head?” Michael pressed Wylie’s forehead where he struck the nullifier in the cruiser. Wylie flinched, and hissed as pain erupted from the touch. “Yup, that sounds about right.” Michael looked up with a stern look for the three shifters who were talking to Wylie. “What did I tell you all about eating in the foyer? People walk here.”

“Sorry, Master Whiteheart.” Justin straightened in his seat on the floor. “We saw the cruisers and thought if cops saw us eating in the dark we’d get shot.”

“Yes, well, I didn’t say it was the wrong choice. Just really gross, guys,” Michael added in a less stern tone. “I want this cleaned up by the time I’m back out here. And heaven help you if Theodore sees it. You know how he gets around blood.”

There was a chuckle of laughter around the room. Wylie winced from the sound. He raised one of his inflamed wrists up to his mouth so he could lick the red flesh and heal it. Michael shook his head and smirked in spite of his best efforts. “Yes, well, Theo is pretty ridiculous when it comes to blood. I need to get Wylie to Dr. Rob to deal with the after effects of the nullifiers. Can you stand, Wylie?”

With a nod, Wylie pushed himself up. Only to slip to the floor when his arms gave out. “Fuck.” Michael caught him before he could smash his face in.

“That a boy,” Michael said cheerfully. He hauled him up and threw Wylie over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “Don’t worry, the nullifiers do it to the best of us. Surprised you’re still awake, to be honest. That was quite a hit.” He turned his head. “Guys, don’t just throw what’s left in the yard this time. It’s not a funny surprise, Leo.”

Wylie kept his eyes down as his stomach lurched from the embarrassing position. He really didn’t want to see what everyone thought of him being carried down the hall. His first night there and he had collapsed, eaten raw meat like a crazy person, and was now being hauled around like a small child who stayed up past his bedtime. After such a terrible first impression, there was no way anyone was going to take him seriously at the Academy.

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