SHINY THIEF

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EVENT #2: THE BET

SCENE #3

Fox knew it was the worst day of his life. The universe, for whatever twisted reason, wanted to prove it.

“Damn it, Fox!” Magic charged smoke clouded the air of the underground classroom. In moments it was impossible to see, never mind breathe.

“Shit. Sorry, guys.” Loud coughs shook Fox’s short, slim form as he jumped to his feet. His tanned skin was coated gray as he raised his arms up and tried to catch pieces of the falling ceiling. Dust and stone showered down on the class of snarling shifters and sorcerers despite his best efforts.

“This is the second time today,” Wylie growled from where he was glaring through the smoke with face covered in dust and soot. He was crouched protectively over his boyfriend, Dorian, who simply sighed in annoyance at the chaos. A piece of ceiling had hit Wylie’s back before his scales sprouted free, and his blood was a scarlet contrast to the layer of gray dust.

Fox’s gut tightened with guilt when he saw his roommate was hurt. “Damn, I didn’t mean to—crap!” The unstable slab of ceiling he was holding cracked and crumbled down in a dangerous clatter around his narrow shoulders and sneakered feet.

“Silence.” Master Theodore pushed his way through the mess and waved his hand. Jagged pieces of ceiling tile froze midair, and stone and dust stilled and floated around the patients’ ducked heads.

Theodore was a shining gleam of perfection in the middle of the turmoil. His waist length red hair was still sleek in its neat ponytail, and his violet dress shirt crisp against coal-gray slacks. Even his leather dragon-hide boots were scuff free in the midst of an explosion. Dust and smoke parted to the immaculate instructor as he turned and addressed Fox. “Sit down and let me focus. All of you,” Theodore added sharply to the rest of the coughing group.

Fox let his arms fall to his side, and he plopped back in his seat. Theodore’s accusing glare felt like a weight, and Fox slumped forward with a dejected sigh. His huff of breath sent a broken piece of tile across his desk to shatter on the floor. “Damn it.”

When he first arrived at the Academy, the walls of the Body Magic class were decorated with diagrams of the magical centers of the body. After Fox’s first explosion and the many that followed from his unpredictable power, the posters were removed one by one until the room was stripped of all adornments. Now the stone itself was trying to escape.

Fox jerked when his pocket vibrated. He scrambled to pull his cell phone out before the noise could be heard by Theodore. Fox squinted at the screen and pulled it to his face as he blinked through the stinging smoke to see who texted him. “Raider?”

“Scheisse! That damn arsch!”

Fox’s gaze snapped to a fog shrouded desk where Vincent Frost was swearing in German. “Oh no.” Fox jumped up and his phone clattered to the desk. He didn’t care he was half blind and his nose useless with all the dust. Fox tripped and maneuvered around a broken desk and pieces of fallen ceiling tile like his life depended on it.

It might have. If anything happened to Vincent because of his uncontrollable explosions, he might just kill himself. Fox covered his arm over his mouth as he coughed and stared down at where Vincent was sitting and gingerly touching his shoulder.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Fox reached for Vincent’s arm when he saw the blood soaking through his sleeve. “Damn, you’re really hurt. Let me…”

“Go away, idiot.” Vincent growled and yanked himself back before Fox could touch him. He hissed from the sudden motion and held his arm close to his chest.

Fox couldn’t help but stare at Vincent’s stunning, dust streaked face. The anger flashing in his silver eyes and the grim set to his mouth did nothing to make him any less beautiful. Fox’s heart twisted painfully when Vincent glared at him through the smoke.

“You’re making things worse. Master Howld said to sit.”

“Oh, uh, right.” Fox tried to smile but failed. Vincent would rather hurt himself than touch him. Today was definitely the shittiest day of his life. “You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine, even if you are trying to kill me.”

Fox inhaled sharply to deny it and ended up with a lung full of smoke. He turned his head and hunched over as coughs raked his body.

“Go! Stop skulking, Zorro.” Vincent waved his good hand at Fox in a shooing motion that sent smoke swirling around him in a soft mist. “You’re going to get me in trouble.”

“No one cares if we talk,” Fox muttered once he could stop coughing long enough to speak. “I just wanted to know if you were okay. It’s not a fucking crime.” He rolled his eyes when Vincent glared at him like he was breaking some sacred freaking rule by standing next to him. “Fine. Whatever. Sorry to bother you.”

Fox shuffled dejectedly back to his desk. He brushed off the thick layer of grit from his chair and sat heavily. He felt far too old for his nineteen years. Vincent hated him. Everyone could see it including himself, but it didn’t stop Fox’s stupid heart from crushing every time he was near the guy.

“Dumb. I’m so fucking dumb,” Fox muttered under his breath. His gaze fell to his phone on the desk, but his attention was across the room where he could still hear Vincent bitching.

Damn it, he was bleeding. He could have seriously hurt Vince…

“Uh, Master Theodore?” Justin called out, his voice full of uncertainty. “I think my book is on fire.” Through the thick, white smoke, the orange glow of flames flickered to life.

Fox firmly planted his face against the desk and groaned. “Fuck.” There wasn’t enough smoke in the world to hide the angry scowls sent his way.

He just had to say it in front of the entire pack. He just had to open his mouth and promise like a total dumb ass. Twenty bucks. He bet twenty bucks just to shut Leo up, and now he was paying for it.

Today was the day Fox promised to man up and finally ask gorgeous, crazy, shifter hating Vincent Frost out on a date. It was officially the worst day of his life. He should just get it over with and blow up the Academy. He had a better shot at bringing the whole building down than ever winning a date with Vincent.

“Stupid, flea-ridden, clumsy arsche. Every class. Every damn class. He’d find a way to explode water.”

Fox ignored the scrape of grit on his cheek as he turned his head and peered through the smoke for the source of the angry muttering. He tugged his yellow bandanna up and sighed wistfully when he found Vincent. The guy was seriously hot, even when covered in soot and dust. Maybe extra hot. Vincent’s blue black hair, formal button down white shirt, and dark slacks were covered in light gray dirt. He looked like someone dusted him in powdered sugar, and Fox wanted more than anything to lick him clean.

“Reckless, idiotic bastard,” Vincent growled down at his ruined backpack. His hands were clenched so tight, he looked like he was going to break his desk in retaliation.

Silver eyes flashed his way and Fox froze in Vincent’s familiar death glare. It lasted a second, maybe two, but Fox’s body lit up and his blood felt like it was boiling by the time Vincent looked away with a hiss and slammed his backpack on the ground.

“Fuck.” Fox breathed out carefully and licked dust coated lips. “Fuck, this can’t be healthy,” he rasped against the desk as he tried to will his erection away.

The things he would do to Vincent Frost if he wasn’t certain he’d be cursed dead an instant later. He made him crazy. Like, crazy crazy. Fox couldn’t be in the same room as him without feeling flustered as fuck. And when Vincent swore at him, usually in sexy German while looking ready to murder? Hell, it made him want to be a total bastard just to get Vincent to hit him, touch him, glare until he saw him and only him.

“I’m so fucked.” Fox pulled his bandanna down to cover his eyes. Looking at Vincent was torture. The guy was impossibly sexy in a way that said he didn’t even care. All the sorcerers at the Academy looked like models, but Vincent—fuck, he looked like an emo prince straight out of a magazine. One who seriously needed to get laid.

He was pretty sure Vincent had never been with anyone, and not just because he had that whole unattainably hot thing going on. No, it had more to do with how angry and defensive he was, not to mention oblivious as fuck to any and all social situations. When Fox considered the many cutting words that fell from Vincent’s lush, sexy lips on a regular basis, he doubted anyone would hang around once he opened his mouth.

Vincent might actually be a really terrible person.

“Doomed. I’m totally doomed,” Fox groaned.

“Dude, you’re whining.” Forest leaned sideways and elbowed him on the shoulder. “Stop sulking. At least he didn’t hex you.”

The smoke was starting to clear enough so Fox’s dejected expression was visible to anyone who looked his way. Forest’s desk was right next to his, and had received the brunt of the latest magical explosion. The wood tried to light, but the anti-fire wards placed on the furniture only allowed the tabletop to char black. Unlike Justin’s book, which hadn’t survived but disintegrated into curls of ash before Theodore got to him.

“I’m doomed,” Fox sighed dramatically and with feeling.

Forest silently rolled lamp-yellow eyes. The unique leopard spot pattern colored over his skin was marred by dark soot, but he was otherwise unharmed. “It was just one explosion,” Forest offered after a moment. He met Fox’s orange eyes when he huffed. “Fine, this hour. So what if you’re a little accident prone today? He’s still got all his hair. Eyebrows too.”

Fox wrapped his arms around his desk, ducked his head, and groaned in misery. He immediately coughed as dust filled his lungs. “Damn it.” He clunked his head on the desk and hid within the darkness of his arms. Fox stared at the clawed butterfly tattoo of his family’s goddess on his forearm, and carefully wiped the soot off the inked flesh.

Body Magic in general was his worsts, and not just because it was the only class he took with the sorcerers and sexy as fuck Vince. Fox wasn’t really good at magic. He wasn’t sure he even wanted to be good at magic, except to keep from exploding things. Vincent, in comparison, was perfection with every spell he attempted. It was a reminder, one Fox hated to face. Some things were hard to get over when you grew up with family who were hunted down and killed by sorcerers.

Fox gritted his teeth and glared at the tattoo of Itzpalotl. She was a mix of horror and beauty, destruction and protection, and it felt all too much like his heart lately. Most sorcerers weren’t about to start hunting down shifters and tear them open for their magic soaked organs. That was messed up horrors that happened in the past and the world knew better. Fox just wasn’t sure if Vincent knew better. When Vincent first arrived at the Academy and started learning English, he had said a lot of fucked up shit, things he only learned later not to say. A lot of it contained knowledge of what spells shifter organs would be needed for.

Unhealthy. Crushing on Vince was seriously unhealthy. Fox pressed his palm over Itzpalotl’s skeletal face, but the feeling he was betraying his entire pack and every ancestor who ever lived wouldn’t leave him.

Forest sighed when Fox’s pitiful, dismayed howl reached his ears. “Dude, just get it over with. I hate seeing you like this.”

Fox lifted his arms and peered at him with eyebrows furrowed. “Like what?”

“Pathetic,” Forest spat with a scornful expression. “Really fucking pathetic. You can do so much better than him.”

“Shit, it’s just a date,” Fox muttered and slumped forward again. But it wasn’t just a date. If it was just a fucking date his heart wouldn’t feel like it was twisting in half just thinking about Vincent saying no.

And if he said yes? Fuck, that might even be worse.

It wasn’t like Vincent was pure evil or anything. Well, not really. Fuck, okay, he really hoped the guy wasn’t evil. Fox groaned and buried his head into his palms. Even if Vincent was the evilest, craziest sorcerer out there, he couldn’t stop liking him. There was just something about him, something that was probably going to get him killed.

Forest was tired of watching Fox lament. “Hey. Tell him.” He reached over and nudged Justin, who glanced cautiously in Theodore’s direction. The smoke was mostly gone, but Theodore was more interested in keeping the ceiling from falling down than if they talked at the moment. Justin leaned over and rested his elbows on Forest’s desk.

“So, I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to make you nervous and all. I have a feeling that doesn’t matter at this point, though.” Justin smiled ruefully and spun his finger to indicate the ruined room.

“What?” Fox raised his head and pushed his dusty bandanna back. He paused when he saw Justin’s eyes. Normally a warm brown, they were currently gold with an otherworldly, feral glint. “Shit, I’m sorry. We never should have planned this for today.” Fox sighed heavily. “Are you okay? Did I freak out your wolf?”

Justin’s smile was terse. He put on a strong front, but his psycho werewolf frightened Justin just as much as it did everyone else. “I saw Michael spell up a bed before class.” Justin ducked closer and pitched his voice low. “Go for it now before some new guy snatches him away.”

“Wait, we’re getting a new patient?” Fox gaped. “Are you shitting me? Today? Today, today? Fuck.”

“Yeah, so stop freaking out and go for it,” Forest muttered. “We’re all going nuts waiting. Just do it already.”

Fox blinked in surprise and looked around. All the shifters in the class grinned back knowingly. It was practically impossible to keep secrets from the pack with their hyper sensitive hearing. Even Wylie had gotten over his anger to shoot Fox an encouraging nod from where he was leaning in his seat talking to Dorian.

“Well, fuck.” Fox hadn’t expected this. He knew Vincent wasn’t really anyone’s friend with his bitchy personality and all, and most of the shifters didn’t trust him. Fox was suddenly really proud to have his pack. They might think he was fucking up his life, but at least they supported him to the bitter end.

A new patient. Fuck, he needed to do it soon. Fox didn’t want more competition when it came to Vincent’s very cold and potentially absent heart. It was hard enough when he thought Vince might like Wylie for a while. Vincent was everything Fox wanted, even if there were tons of moments when he couldn’t actually stand the guy.

Fuck, this was such a bad idea.

Fox sat up straighter and looked to where Vincent was scowling at his soot covered notebook. He had spelled his hair and clothes back to immaculate order already, and looked as gorgeous as ever. He also looked angry as fuck, which Fox was certain only made him extra sexy.

It was just one date. It wasn’t like the world would fucking end if he scored one date with Vincent Frost.

“Ask him now. Just get it over with,” Forest prodded under his breath.

“Come on, Fox,” Justin whined softly. “The anticipation is killing me.”

Fox licked his teeth and tore his gaze away from Vincent’s fuming form. “I’m not asking him in front of everyone. He’ll say no.” Fox narrowed his eyes when Forest snorted. “He’s shy.” Fox grinned and flashed a fang as he glanced at Vincent again. “He’ll think I’m teasing him if I ask with all of you watching. I’ll ask him after class.”

“Wuss,” Forest called while pretending to cough.

Oh, Fox knew he totally was, but he wasn’t about to admit it. He didn’t need any witnesses to his heart being broken and possibly spelled to ash depending on how pissed off Vincent got at the prospect of a date.

“Pussy,” Fox shot back. He snickered when Forest stopped his antics and hissed in warning. He might turn into a giant, deadly leopard, but that didn’t mean Forest appreciated being called anything pussy related.

“Shit.” Fox jolted when his desk vibrated. He scrambled to grab his phone and quickly silenced it. When he thumbed the screen on, he paused as Raider’s text came into view.

‘Listen, I fucked up. It’s bad. You might not hear from me for a while.’

Fox stared at the screen in silence as his mind raced. What exactly did that even mean? Was Raider grounded, or did something serious happen?

He never knew with Raider. Sometimes the simplest shit was the end of the world to his friend back home. He hadn’t heard from him in a while, either, which only made it worse. Actually… it had been almost a month now.

Fuck, how had he not noticed Raider hadn’t spoken to him in that long? Was he that caught up in his own life he completely ignored his friend? Guilt churned in his stomach, and Fox quickly texted a reply.

“Fox.” Theodore’s voice cut through the chatter of the patients, and silence immediately fell.

Fox gulped when he saw the instructor staring at him from his desk at the front of the room. He swiftly thumbed his phone off and slipped it into the back pocket of his jean shorts. “Yeah, Master Howld?” he answered as innocently as possible.

“Come up here so we can go over how that last spell went wrong.”

“Crap.” Fox winced when he realized he spoke out loud, and his inner fox whined when Theodore’s violet eyes pierced into his.

Theodore Howld might look like any other impossibly beautiful man in his thirties, but he was actually a dragon shifter, a really powerful sorcerer, and on most days intimidating as fuck. Seeing as Fox had blown up his classroom twice that day, Theodore’s normally grumpy tones were extra surly.

Fox’s shoulders slumped, and he reluctantly pushed up from his seat. He really wasn’t in a rush to fuck up in front of everyone. He dusted off his long jean shorts and brushed some of the soot from his arms but didn’t spell his clothes clean. Fox’s gaze flickered to the other patients as he made his way to Theodore’s desk. At least no one looked badly wounded. The four sorcerers in the class were already sleek and shiny again in contrast to the ruffled, dusty shifters content to wait to shower.

Fox stopped next to Theodore and tried to ignore the anxious gazes fixed on him. He wasn’t great at magic, but Fox was determined not to make an ass of himself while everyone was watching.

Theodore threw his long, red ponytail over his shoulder and waved impatiently for Fox to start.

Fox’s eyes darted to where Vincent was sitting. He relaxed slightly when he saw Vincent looked more bored than vengeful at the moment. The guy was a hard read. Oh, he was pretty sure Vincent hated him most days, but sometimes… Sometimes they could hold a conversation. Some days Vincent looked at him like he was a person. Sure, he didn’t see him as one he necessarily wanted to talk to, but a person nevertheless.

Vincent pushed his hair from his face, and Fox bit his lower lip. Damn, he was hot, and so out of his league. Vincent was absolutely beyond anything he could ever hope to reach.

“Focus,” Theodore snapped.

Fox jolted and blinked back to reality. He fixed on Theodore’s scowl and couldn’t help but grin. “Hey, I totally got this.”

He turned his cocky smile to his classmates, who only grew more unsettled as he straightened and puffed up with bravado. Fox stared down at his hands with brow furrowed in concentration and deliberately brought them together in front of his body. Power sparked, and a white current of energy moved from the tips of his fingers and arced between his palms.

“See? Fucking cake.” Fox beamed, oblivious to the way everyone was holding their breath.

Theodore stepped forward with a book in hand. “All this requires is for you to direct the energy circling in your body to flow through another object.” He raised the book and placed it so the spine was nearly touching the current flowing between Fox’s hands. “Don’t let the object cut the power stream. You need to feel the book with your magic and then allow your power to flow through. Carefully,” Theodore added sternly. “You’re trying to create a safe current so your power can leave your body and return, not destroy everything you touch.”

Someone scoffed, and Fox’s attention jumped from his hands to where Vincent was sitting. He watched with narrowed eyes when Vincent mouthed under his breath, “All he does is destroy everything.”

Bastard. He tried really fucking hard not to blow shit up. It wasn’t like he was doing it on purpose.

“Pull it back, Fox. You’re spiking power levels again,” Theodore warned.

Fox started and focused back on his hands. A drop of sweat trailed down his forehead as he fought to get his power back under control. There was a collective sigh of relief in the room when his magic balanced out.

Fox looked up and grin triumphantly at the other patients. “Told you I got this.”

“Focus,” Vincent called with a frustrated growl. “You’re going to fuck it up.”

Fox’s gaze again drifted his way, and he swallowed hard when Vincent’s sharp, silver eyes locked with his.

He couldn’t stall anymore. He had to ask Vince out before some new guy came in and stole him right from under his nose. Vincent was gorgeous, talented, and could turn his insides into pure mush with just one glare. It didn’t matter how much of an ass he was, Vincent was his, and he was going to win a date.

“For the love of…” Theodore huffed in exasperation and raised his hand to shield himself when Fox’s current of power arced out toward the class. Fox continued to stare dumbstruck at the now wide-eyed Vincent Frost who was about to be hit with his magic. “Focus!”

Fox jumped and scrambled to pull his magic back before he lost control completely. His power was quickly spiraling in a way he was all too familiar with, and he wasn’t sure he could stop it.

Forest ducked under his desk, and Jake quickly followed while Dorian swore loudly.

“Damn it. Fucking damn it,” Fox hissed. He crouched down and covered his head with his arms right before the room shook with a deafening blast.

SCENE #4

Raider couldn’t pull his eyes away from the gate. It was tall, imposing, and dread twisted like a knife in his stomach when he saw the coil of barbed-wire glinting at the top.

Shit, he was so fucking dumb. He never should have trusted Joseph. All that bullshit about getting him help was clearly that, bullshit. He knew a trap when he saw one.

“Is this really…?” The question died on Raider’s tongue when the gate suddenly shuddered and opened on mechanical tracks. He searched for cameras he couldn’t find while his mind raced.

Couldn’t Uncle Joe see it was a trap? Raider dared a glance at his uncle’s profile. Joseph’s jaw was set and shadowed with two days worth of stubble from their cross country drive. His multi-toned gray hair was in a ponytail at his nape and flowed down the back of his worn jean jacket. His eyes were fixed ahead as he waited for the way to clear, and Raider had the distinct impression he was trying really hard to act like none of this was as terrifying as it was.

Raider stared back at the black metal gate with his lips pursed in an anxious frown. What if this was Joseph and Vicky’s plan all along? Were they leaving him there to die? There would be no escape from this cage.

He could smell it on the metal bars set so close together he’d never be able to squeeze through in his raccoon form. It smelled like death. Raider couldn’t say exactly what magic smelled like; it was sort of a mix of ozone, impossibility, and absolute terror. The gate opening in front of Joseph’s pickup truck reeked of sorcery.

Raider clutched his seatbelt hard enough for his tanned fingers to turn white. Not only was Joseph kicking him out, but he was putting him in a magic cage. Why the fuck did he agree to this? No escape. There was no escape from a magic cage.

Was this why Joseph took his phone from him at the rest stop when he caught him texting? Why turn his service back on if he wasn’t going to let him use it? What if he wanted to make sure he was locked up with no possible way for help to get to him first?

Why the fuck was there magic and barbed wire on the gate?

The beige, worn interior of the truck felt like it was closing in on him. Raider’s fingers twitched as he fought the impulse to throw the door open and bolt. His breath came out in desperate gasps he valiantly tried to keep under control. He had spent the majority of his life pretending he wasn’t freaking out. Most days it was the only way to make it through, but this time it was really hard. This time he knew he was being sent to his death.

Raider grabbed the seat cushion to keep from reaching for the door handle. His fingers bit sharply into the cracked vinyl and he gripped hard to hide the tremor of his limbs.

He promised to try—it’s a trick. They’re locking him in—but he promised. For Joseph. For Vicky. He promised. He fucked up and he wanted to make it right.

Tall conifers swarmed around them and encased the pickup truck in cold shadows. Raider huddled in the passenger seat as the gates shut behind them and locked them in. Small tremors shook his body that had nothing to do with the freezing temperatures outside. Joseph was oblivious as he maneuvered around snow ladened pine trees and fallen branches that littered the rarely used road. The dark of the forest felt it like an oppressive weight on Raider’s chest.

They didn’t believe him. No one believed him. Aunt Vicky said he could come home once he was better, but there was no fixing a fucking curse.

Raider felt the familiar sting of tears, and he forced his gaze to the window. The whole thing was such bullshit. He didn’t do anything. That asshole sorcerer cursed him and now his life was over. What did they want him to do, just let Helu kill him so Joseph could see how things really happened?

Raider felt a fresh wave of shame as he remembered how Joseph had to tranq him. Cursed or not, he fucked up bad. If Joseph hadn’t gotten to him first, the cops might have, or worse, the shifter patrol. It didn’t matter Raider hadn’t hurt anyone. No one cared he didn’t have fangs or the killing instinct like a predator shifter. If he’d been caught by the authorities acting the way he had, he would have been shot just because he could shift.

Raider had foolishly given the cops a reason to go looking for him. He was lucky he wasn’t killed. He was lucky no other shifters his age were killed just for looking similar to him. He put his entire class at risk when he lost control of his raccoon.

Raider huddled further down in his seat. He wasn’t sure how Joseph could be in the same space as him when could barely handle being with himself.

“Do not embarrass me, Angel. Not with these people.”

It was Joseph’s first words to him since the rest stop and their tense lunch. Raider scowled at the use of his real name.

“These people understand us. They understand why you’re like this. Don’t make them regret the help they give.”

There was a hint of pleading in his uncle’s gruff tone Raider couldn’t ignore, even though he stubbornly tried. “I’ll be a perfect gentleman,” Raider said flatly. He kept his gaze trained on the blurry wall of white trees. He didn’t dare meet Joseph’s eye. He couldn’t stay there. There was no fucking way he could see this thing through.

The barbed wire flashed in his mind’s eye, and Raider quickly grasped his hand and spun the silver ring on his forefinger. He was going to die there. No shifter ended up in a magic cage and lived. The wire would cut him up, but his raccoon was already judging the climb and how he was going to scale the gate to reach their goal. It was a buzz of animal thoughts Raider could barely distinguish from his own.

“You know there will be others like you. Shifters.” Joseph turned his head Raider’s way a moment, then looked back to the road. “Just, I didn’t tell you everything.”

Raider’s stomach clenched, and he shot a wary glance over to find his uncle holding the wheel too tightly. The road wound around lots of trees, but there was no ice to warrant Joseph’s death grip.

“There are shifters, plenty of them. I guess they even have a pack,” Joseph continued carefully. He drew the words out so slowly, Raider was anxious just listening to him. His uncle could be so damn slow at times.

“It’s not a formal pack. I guess it’s how they get along. We’re good in groups. It lets us protect each other. Support. We all need support.”

Raider nodded and waited impatiently for his uncle to get to the damn point.

“The things is they’re all flesh eaters,” Joseph disclosed with a sigh.

Raider rolled his eyes even as his stomach clenched in terror. “Whatever.”

“I’m not saying they’re going to hurt you,” Joseph added quickly. “But if it comes down to it and one of them loses his temper, I don’t want to see you hurt. I can only assume they’re here for aggression issues. You know how the predator types can get. Just keep an eye out.” Joseph glanced his way and nodded at Raider’s throat covered in tattoos. “With all those tattoos and piercings, sometimes even I forget you’re not a thug. Some of the guys in here might see you as a threat. It’ll be hard on you when you don’t have the nature to back up your appearance.”

“You’re worrying over nothing.” Raider really wished Joseph would stop talking before he got sick. He was about to be caged inside an institution with the craziest carnivores around. Fuck, he needed to get out.

“I might have also intentionally left out another thing,” Joseph added after the silence had a chance to stretch again.

“Uncle Joe,” Raider growled in exasperation. “We’ve been driving for over forty hours, and this is when you drop all this shit on me?”

Joseph coughed awkwardly and glanced to where Raider was scowling. “I wanted to make sure we were on the grounds so if you made a run for it, I wouldn’t have to chase you again.”

Deep, fathomless black eyes glared Joseph’s way. A spark of terror flashed in the silent depths right before Raider turned back to the window. He didn’t want his uncle to see his fear. Uncle Joe knew him too well, and right now that terrified him more than anything.

When most people looked at Raider, they didn’t see a scared twenty year old. They only saw the tattooed thorns covering his throat and arms, his pierced eyebrows, the row of silver dotting up one ear, and the rings on his fingers. Living as a scavenger among predators forced Raider to put up an intimidating front to keep other shifters from targeting him. He got a lot of shit for his dad being in prison, and no matter how quiet he was, trouble followed him. He had lifted weights to exhaustion and covered as much of his skin as he could afford in ink to help encourage people to back off and let him be, but under his muscle and dour expression, Raider felt like the same anxious, lost kid who ended up on Joseph’s doorstep with nowhere else to go.

He once trusted Joseph implicitly. Now he knew that trust was going to be what killed him.

Raider pushed himself up in his seat. His expression was alert as his eyes darted across the maze of snow covered trees, and he considered all the very logical reasons he should run. “I’m not going to run.”

Joseph huffed under his breath and slowed the truck as they came to a tight bend. “The thing is, son, most of the staff at the Academy are sorcerers.”

Raider ran a hand through his black hair and ruffled the short spikes in silence. He kept his head ducked to hide the thoughts warring on his face.

Joseph had to know about the magic gate. He had to know he wouldn’t be able to crack it, not without something powerful. He probably thought he couldn’t get through at all, that he’d be too afraid to even try. Raider bit his lip and inhaled slowly as he forced his himself to remain calm.

It took even longer for Joseph to continue as the truck filled with Raider’s fear scent. “Also, although they aren’t in the majority, there are a few young sorcerers attending to gain control of their powers.”

“Shit.”

Raider stared with blind eyes out the window. Wire cutters. He needed to find wire cutters. Could his raccoon’s hide survive barbed wire? Fuck, did it matter when he’d be up against flesh eating predators and psycho teen sorcerers? Raider knew people his own age and he didn’t want to mix magic into that temperamental mix of hormones and cruel apathy. Why the fuck did the magic cage have to have fucking barbed wire at the top?

Aunt Vicky said it was an institution for shifter’s in need. The Academy was supposed to be a place where out of control shifters could get better with therapists and stuff, not this. They lied. His aunt and uncle fucking lied.

Raider made himself exhale slowly and unclenched his trembling fists. He focused on keeping his breathing even and watched as each puff added another layer of fog to blur the view outside his window. Everything was white, nondescript, and blinding. Death. Uncle Joe was leaving him there to die.

“You know I wouldn’t send you somewhere that wasn’t safe, Angel. You know that.” Joseph reached over and clasped Raider’s stiff shoulder. “I respect these people. The masters at the Academy don’t care where you’re from, or what kind of shifter you are, or if you have any magic in you. They’re here to help you get better, and I’ve been assured they don’t allow any behavior from patients or staff that would make you uncomfortable. They would certainly never put you in any danger.”

Raider could feel his life coming to an end. This was it. He was going to die. He was twenty years old and he was going to die in a magic cage surrounded by paranormal fuck ups.

Light sparkled on the hood of the truck, and Raider’s eyes were drawn to the large clearing up ahead where he could see a pristine white building centered among snow covered fields. It had to be the place. The Academy. He watched silently as he accessed the prison he knew he needed to escape.

The rehabilitation center was a sprawling plantation style mansion divided among low building that stretched wide but barely took a dent out of the acres of untouched field and forest surrounding it. Two single story wings flanked the center building with long rows of windows that faced the driveway. The main building was taller, two stories, and had pillars that dotted the wide staircase that led inside. Above was a balcony that followed the length of the front of the building and was strewn with green and purple vines of ivy. Even in the winter months, there was greenery and flowers spelled to stay alive all year round.

Raider’s teeth buzzed the longer he stared. He wasn’t close enough to say for certain, but even from the distance of the driveway, he knew he sensed magic. The Academy was a magic cage inside a magic cage.

Joseph parked the old pickup and turned the engine off. He joined Raider in staring at the intimidating structures. When he finally spoke, his words were weighted. “I know this is hard on you, but you need to trust me and the masters. They can help you, Angel.”

Raider had to grit his jaw to keep down the sob rising in his throat. He clenched his fists in his lap and stared at the way the tattoos on his fingers were hidden by the thick silver rings he wore.

“Uncle Joe, what if I promise? I mean really promise to never do it again?” The words wanted to stick in his throat, but Raider choked them out. Admitting just how much he wanted to go home felt like a betrayal to the raccoon quaking in terror inside him.

He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t just stay and die in this place.

Joseph sighed as he stared at Raider’s bowed head. “Son, if I thought you could do this on your own, we wouldn’t be here. But you can’t. I know it and you know it. You have a problem bigger than you, and you need help from people who understand.”

Raider swallowed hard as he felt Joseph’s eyes on him. Neither of them mentioned Lucus, although they were both thinking of him. Raider swore he wouldn’t end up messed up like his dad and addicted to the bottle. He stayed out of trouble the best he could. Just… just some things weren’t always in his control.

“It’s your nature, Angel.”

“Which makes this entire thing pointless,” Raider whispered bitterly. “You should have let them shoot me. I can’t stop what I am.”

He was always going to be his father’s son, a fuck up to the very end.

“Raider…” Joseph sighed again and slowly pocketed the keys. “This place is going to prove you wrong. I know you’re afraid, but the masters aren’t like the sorcerers back home. I promise you.” Joseph pointed to the windshield and the Academy on the other side. “Every person in that building is going through something similar to you. This is just people helping people. There aren’t sorcerers or shifters in there, just people like us.”

Liar. Raider glared at his clenched fists. Joseph was lying to him with a straight face and it somehow hurt more than the fact he was locking him up and leaving him there to die.

The truck shifted and an icy breeze swept in when Joseph opened the driver side door and stepped out. Raider stared stonily at his hands, and felt more than saw his uncle walk around and open up his door. The air that blew in was chilling and full of strange, frightening scents.

“Grab your bags. I’m going to go up and give a knock on the door.” Joseph left the door open but Raider refused to move. Joseph waited a few moments and eventually stepped away.

SCENE #5

Raider desperately grasped for a plan. Did Joseph still have his phone? Could he get it from him before he was dragged inside and then make a run for the gate? He was already locked in and Joseph would have sorcerers to help hunt him down. He needed to find a way out that wouldn’t…

He could hide in the truck! Raider’s gaze darted around the enclosed space. He could shift, tear open the seats, and burrow into the foam and padding to hide. If Joseph thought he ran for it, he wouldn’t think to search the truck, and eventually he’d have to give up and drive home. Just, his raccoon was too big. Maybe he could fit underneath. The ninja movies always made it look easy to hold onto the bottom of a car.

He didn’t have to get far, just to the other side of the gate. No one knew him there. No one would even look for him…

A hand fell on his shoulder, and Raider jumped. His eyes flew up to find Joseph holding his duffel bag with a stern expression in his eyes. Raider felt brittle, like he might shatter from the simple touch.

“We’ll go in together,” Joseph said reassuringly. “These are good people, and I’m going to stick around so you can see. You don’t need to be afraid.”

Tears stung at his eyes, and Raider quickly pushed past his uncle and out into the cold before he could see.

Fuck him. Fuck him for throwing him away and then pretending to give a fuck.

Raider stared down at his sneakers as he tried to get ahold of himself. The wind bit through his thin, blue and white t-shirt and he wrapped his arms around his torso. He wasn’t dressed for winter, used to a much hotter climate. The big hole over the knee in his jeans allowed the freezing temperature to seep in, and goosebumps raised all over his skin. He ignored Joseph’s persistent sighs as he heaved the last of Raider’s bags out of the truck bed. Raider grabbed the strap of his duffel bag left at his feet and shouldered it as he suspiciously glared around the area.

He’d never been up North before and he already hated the bone chilling cold and strange white flurries in the air. There were no brambles or cacti to protect him from hunters, and the untouched snow made everything visible to sharp predator eyes even if the uneven terrain offered more possibility of hiding places. The snow was the worst. It had already found its way through the holes in his sneakers, and now his socks were full of water and his toes freezing. Raider already hated everything connected to the Academy including the weather.

Raider’s steps were heavy with reluctance as he dragged his bag up the driveway and onto the wide expanse of white stairs that led up to the main entrance. There wasn’t any snow here, not even a flake to mar the surface of the steps, and he sniffed the air suspiciously for magic. The wind shifted and Raider stilled while his raccoon curled up tight within.

Shifters. Predators. They were unfamiliar to his nose, but there was a similar hue to the new musks that screamed fangs, death, and blood. What Raider was seeking he found as well, and his raccoon quaked when they recognized the spine tingling scent of sorcery. The reality of his situation hit him hard as he stared up at the large double doors. He was going to be rooming with sorcerers and flesh eaters. He was going to be trapped in an institution for an unknown amount of time, cursed with a spell that made him completely vulnerable, with no claws or fangs to protect him from the beings stronger and more deadly than he could ever hope to be.

Run. He needed to run or curl up into a ball on the concrete until he woke up from this nightmare.

Raider turned back and his eyes sought the road through the wall of trees Uncle Joe’s truck had taken when they drove in. The forest looked darker from his current vantage, and the trees blocked all signs of the gate he needed to find a way over if he was ever going to get free. He didn’t know where he’d run once he got out of there, but it had to be better than the death trap he was walking into.

“Are you feeling okay?” Joseph stepped up beside him and pressed the back of his hand to Raider’s forehead before he could duck away. Joseph frowned and peered worriedly into his glassy eyes. “You better see the nurse once you’re checked in. I think you caught the shifter flu going around.”

Raider groaned and heaved his bag higher on his shoulder. Could the day get any worse?

He slogged after Joseph, his legs feeling heavier and heavier the closer he got to the Academy doors. He glared at the ornately carved wooden doors and the old fashioned door knockers in the center of both. If the Academy wasn’t an evil mansion of doom, they sure as fuck were doing all they could to make him expect a vicious, slavering beast to great them the moment the doors opened.

Raider sneered as he studied the elaborate molding, pillars, high tech buzzer system, and every aspect of the doorway that screamed wealth. It was just like a bunch of self-important sorcerers to open a fancy ass rehab center for the shifters they terrorized. If he had known it was a furry charity center, he never would have agreed to this. Fuck, if he knew any of the shit he learned the last ten minutes, he would have never gotten into the truck back in Arizona.

“There’s one other thing I failed to mention.” Joseph shot Raider a long side glance as he pressed the buzzer next to the door.

“Damn it, Uncle Joe. Seriously?” He was as good as dead, and Joseph just kept piling shit on top of it all.

Joseph grinned sheepishly and gripped the back of his neck. “This one isn’t that bad. Actually, I think you’re going to be pleased. I happened to have a chat with the Alvarezes before we headed out. They were surprised to hear just where you were going.”

“Wait, you spoke to Fox? When? Why?” Raider narrowed his eyes. Why would Fox ever talk to his uncle? Or had Joseph been screening his calls? Was this why he took his phone, just so he could keep his friends from talking to him?

“His father. Rafael needed some fencing, and we got to talking about your situation.”

Oh no. Raider winced and gritted his teeth. “Why are you telling the Alvarezes I’m being sent to an institution for idiot shifters who can’t control themselves? I thought you didn’t want me embarrassing you with all this?”

“Hey, you are not an embarrassment,” Joseph insisted as he met Raider’s glare. “You coming here is a good thing, Angel. Vicky and I are really proud of you. As long as you give it your all and do right by yourself, I know you’re going to be just fine.”

Raider huffed and turned back to the door. If Joseph and Vicky really gave a fuck, they wouldn’t be leaving him there to die.

“As I was saying, about the Alvarezes…” Joseph trailed off when one of the solid, wooden double doors clicked and started to swing open.

Raider tensed and his senses flipped to hyper alert. Magic. Through the gap he smelled magic. The door creaked as it opened wider and revealed a sorcerer standing on the other side. Raider barely got an impression of the man before his raccoon reared up in terror.

Run. Now. Run and survive.

Raider bristled as electricity charged through his nerves, but his legs were frozen in place. He said he’d give it a shot. He promised he’d try—but Uncle Joe lied about everything!

Flesh eaters. Sorcerers. It was an actual building of death! They wanted to cage him with killer monsters where there would be nowhere to hide, no way to protect himself…

“Master Whiteheart?” Joseph hesitated only a moment before reaching out to shake the instructor’s outstretched hand.

“Please, call me Michael. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” Michael’s smile was welcoming and warm. His tanned face took to the expression easily with his perfectly white teeth and sparkling blue eyes. “After so many phone calls, I feel like we’re old friends.”

Michael turned his friendly grin to Raider, who stared horror-struck at the hand now reaching toward him. “And you must be Angel. I was just getting your room set up. You’ll be able to put your bags in there and meet the other guys once their class gets out.”

Raider couldn’t get his legs to move. They lied. His aunt and uncle lied. What if this was a money thing? What if they were just sick of taking care of him and this was how they got rid of him for good? Did they sell him to these sorcerers to be killed? Was there a fake report circulating that he died at the museum and that was why he wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone? His dad was in jail and his mom left years ago. There was no one to give a fuck if he disappeared and was murdered on the other side of the country.

Raider’s breath caught, and his each inhale was quicker and sharper than the last. His legs, once so frozen they couldn’t move, began to quake. The world tilted sideways as he managed a faltering step back.

Run. He needed to run. Run and survive and get the fuck out of the magic cage of death.

Michael grasped Raider’s trembling fingers and everything slammed to a stop. His hand was burning hot, large, and had calluses not first seen. From far away Raider heard his breath draw out in a slow expulsion of sound.

The hand holding his pulled Raider right out of his terrified raccoon mind and left him blinking at the startling white world. Chilled air prickled his flushed skin and cement was solid beneath his worn sneakers. When Raider inhaled, all he could smell was the stranger in front of him. Not his magic, but something that permeated deeper. Raider’s brain clicked with each identification: cinnamon, slow roasted coffee, old books next to a fireplace, brisk cedar.

“Angel, I’m Michael Whiteheart. I’m one of the live-in caretakers at the Academy.”

Everything felt unreal, too real when Raider looked up and met Michael’s intense eyes. There was something in those blue eyes that made Raider want to run and push forward all at once. He could see him; Michael could see him. The jolt of connection twisted something in Raider’s chest to damning to bear, and his vision blurred.

Raider wrenched free with a gasp and turned away. He quickly wiped his confusing tears away with the back of his wrist. Holy shit, what the fuck was wrong with him?

Michael tilted his head in concern. “Are you…?”

“It’s Raider, uh, sir. Only my family calls me Angel,” Raider muttered and tried to cover his fluster. He glared down at Michael’s hand and took a deliberate step back so it couldn’t reach him.

It had to be a spell. Michael fucked him up with just a touch. Raider felt completely off balanced. It was like the world around him had changed colors but in a way he couldn’t discern. Everything was brighter, sharper and more vibrant. It had to be a spell, but what he had no clue.

Raider scratched at his hair anxiously while he cautiously moved his gaze up Michael’s arm. He took in pieces of the sorcerer as he tried to come to terms with just what the hell happened.

Michael was weird looking. He was tall, muscular, and practically glowed with magic. His short, golden hair had a soft curl that teased at his forehead in contrast to his piercing, deep blue eyes, and he had the most perfect white teeth Raider had ever seen. Ever. Michael was a demigod with a fantastic model smile, breathtaking and relaxed, and it set every nerve Raider had on edge.

Most people didn’t look like gods, most people who weren’t sorcerers, anyways. Raider grew up knowing to be wary of unnatural beauty the same way to fear eyes that spoke of death. All shifters looked at him like he was prey. Michael’s eyes didn’t have the familiar death glare that set his raccoon off, though. No, something about this man made Raider’s inner raccoon calm in a way nothing had before.

Dangerous. Whiteheart was a sorcerer. Even if his eyes appeared normal, Raider still felt like prey in his gaze.

“Raider, I’m the human reintegration specialist for the Academy,” Michael informed him calmly.

At the use of his nickname, Raider met Michael’s gaze and immediately looked away. Michael didn’t seem phased at his erratic behavior and continued with a smile. “I have a few different jobs around here, but the big one is being available to talk. Now Theodore is in charge of the shifters. As a shifter himself, he can offer a much needed insight I can’t always provide. But that doesn’t mean you can’t come to me if you have any questions or concerns.”

Michael nodded to Joseph, who was watching Raider intently. “Your uncle informed me about your lack of exposure to positive sorcerers in your life. It’s my hope I can help you see we’re not all bad.”

Raider nodded silently and avoided Michael’s eye. This guy was totally going to kill him. No one could look so perfect and act so fucking nice and not be about to stab a knife in his back.

Warmth radiated from where Michael had touched his bare skin. Raider curled his fingers into a fist as he looked around the too white landscape. His raccoon was unnaturally quiet and full of curiosity instead of its overwhelming fear. It was wrong—everything felt wrong. Raider fumbled and twisted one of the rings on his fingers as he dared a glance at Michael. “Did you, um… Did you just cast a spell on me?”

A surprised grin flashed across Michael’s handsome features. “Nope, that’s just a handshake. You’ll find I don’t cast magic unless it’s a necessity. You’re not the only one wary around sorcery, and we make an effort to respect that here.”

Michael opened the door fully and stepped aside to reveal the large entrance hall behind him. “Shall we?”

Raider peered into the echoing hall of smooth tile and white walls and was hit full force with the scent of predators. His raccoon cringed, and the overwhelming urge to run the other way heated through him again.

Wire cutters or maybe a thick blanket. It wouldn’t take much to get over the gate, he just needed dark to hide in. One day. He just needed to survive one day.

Raider jolted when Michael’s hand brushed his shoulder and lingered. His dark eyes opened wide and then squeezed shut. Beneath his human terror, he felt his raccoon melt into a content puddle and begin to purr. The part of Raider who wanted to pull away, to snarl and tell the sorcerer not to touch him, couldn’t compete with the loud, internal vibration of peace inside him.

Death, Raider reminded his raccoon desperately. There were flesh eaters, sorcerers, and certain death.

It was no use. The animal’s purr grew louder, and Raider knew he was alone, trapped once again because of his raccoon’s overwhelming will.

Joseph cleared his throat. He was the first to actually step forward into the building. He flashed a reassuring smile at his nephew, but Raider could read the trepidation in his brown eyes. Even a fully grown coyote shifter like Joseph was afraid.

There was good reason to be afraid.

It left Raider with a small flicker of hope. Maybe once Joseph saw how bad the Academy really was, he’d change his mind. He couldn’t really want to have him die. Sure, he fucked up, but Uncle Joe wouldn’t want him dead.

Raider swallowed down the choking sensation in his throat as he took his first step through the Academy doors. He just needed to be brave for a little longer and hopefully he’d live long enough to escape.

SCENE #6

Once they were inside, Raider could see how terrifying a cage the Academy truly was. Magic was everywhere. Every door, every window, and every wall had traces of unnatural power.

Raider’s back teeth buzzed as he followed reluctantly into the immense entrance hall. His steps echoed on the sleek marble floor which had suspicious scents of animal blood clinging. Raider’s eyes roamed the large space and followed the tall curved walls unadorned except for a few lush potted plants placed around doorways.

Raider jolted when he caught movement to the side and saw his startled face staring back. There was a mirror hanging on the wall so big you could fall in. It was hidden in the shadow of a sweeping staircase that curved up to the floor above. He looked up and pursed his lips as he sensed even greater magic somewhere on the floor overhead. Raider looked to his uncle, but Joseph didn’t seem to notice anything unusual. Raider was starting to get the impression his uncle might be completely blind to the dangers he was planning on leaving him in.

Too busy staring up at the ceiling, Raider didn’t notice where he was wandering until he reached a glass door on the other side of the entrance hall buzzing with magic. He wasn’t dumb enough to touch damn thing. He stared through at the corridor that seemed to go on forever. He wasn’t sure just how big the Academy was, but clearly it was larger than his first impression he got from the outside.

“Did you want to explore?” Michael reached for the handle and Raider jumped away to keep from being touched. Michael smiled patiently as he held the door open. “Most of the guys are in class at the moment. It could give you a chance to get a feel for things on your own.”

Fear flashed in his eyes as Raider searched the room. He found Joseph and looked pleadingly his way. The last thing he wanted was to be alone in this terrifying cage with psychos lurking at every corner.

Joseph cleared his throat. “I have some time, and I’d like to the see the Academy while I’m here. I’m sure Angel wouldn’t mind the company.”

Raider’s shoulders sagged in relief. Thank fuck. Surely once Joseph really saw the death trap he delivered him to, he’d rush to take him back home.

Michael nodded agreeably at the suggestion and let the door swing shut. “Alright, then, we can start with a view of the grounds. Let me just point out where these two corridors lead first. Both are going to be pretty important in Raider’s day to day life here.”

Raider edged toward Joseph while Michael walked back the way they came.

“Down here is the lounge right off this short hallway.” Michael waved to the door opposite the large mirror. “This is where you’ll be sleeping, hanging out, and taking your meals. Back there,” He pointed to the door Raider was hovering next to, “leads to the classrooms, offices, and gymnasiums. We have two fully equipped gyms to ensure your shifter animal gets all the exercise it requires. And of course, the hospital is down this corridor.”

Michael stopped in front of a doorway half hidden by the staircase. “I believe Dr. Rob is out at the moment, but it’s always good to meet the healer who’ll be in charge of any serious injuries. Broken limbs and flesh wounds are a guarantee with shifters in small spaces.”

“Oh, I know it.” Joseph chuckled and stepped over to talk to Michael. “Me and my cousins got into more than our fair share of trouble. I’m amazed we all managed to keep our limbs attached.”

Raider scowled at the way his uncle was laughing like they were all friends or some shit. He glared up at the ridiculously beautiful vaulted ceiling high above. Everything about the Academy screamed elitist sorcerer. Two gyms? He was lucky to have found the little hole in the wall place back home that didn’t charge him an arm and a leg to lift weights. It was frequented by humans, though, who noticed he was too strong to be anything but a paranormal. He ended up having to lift rocks, tires, and even an old hunk of rusted car to get exercise most days.

Raider’s steps slowed as he passed the corridor that led to the lounge. He sniffed warily at the air and abruptly slapped his hand over his nose and mouth when he was hit with a barrage of scents.

“Whoa. Just, whoa.” Heat flushed through Raider like wildfire, and he grabbed the wall to keep from falling sideways.

Oh, this was not good. Not good at all.

The hallway spun around him while Raider gritted his teeth and fought to keep control of his body. Of all the residual scents he was expecting—predators, magic, hunts, blood—it wasn’t this flood of sex scent. Someone was fucking someone a lot.

Raider nipped sharply at his palm as he tried to get ahold of himself. Mating predators were extra deadly. A normal conversation could turn into a killing rampage depending on just how alpha the shifter in question was. This particular scent was imbued with strong magic as well as testosterone.

Dangerous. Dangerous… and kinda sexy.

“Angel? Mr. Whiteheart is a busy man, and we have a lot to see.”

Raider jolted at Joseph’s voice. He quickly bit his finger and mashed his teeth into his flesh until he could get his rising erection to die down.

Fuck, what the hell was wrong with him? Whatever this scent was, it was doing strange and extremely embarrassing things to his body.

The guy had to be an alpha. Somewhere in the Academy was an alpha looking to mate.

Raider took a breath that didn’t settle with the way his stomach was all twisted. He needed to escape. There was no way he could get caught up in a scent like that. Just one sniff and he was all messed up.

Raider’s gaze darted to where Michael was waiting by the door, and then to his uncle. Joseph merely raised an eyebrow at him and stepped into the corridor that was supposed to lead to the classrooms and gyms. Raider kept his eyes fixed on the large bank of windows as he followed behind, and made sure there was plenty of space between him and the adults.

He was in no rush to explain what was wrong with him at the moment. He hadn’t expected this at all and didn’t know how to deal with it. He knew some smells messed him up, he just hadn’t expected it in a place like this. Definitely not when he was certain death was right around the corner. How the hell could he get hard over a damn scent?

Raider’s steps slowed when he saw something dark out in the blinding white afternoon on the other side of the window. There was a man out there… A shirtless man. The guy was bulked and siting in the snow, and Raider turned and squinted his eyes to see clearer. He jumped when something flashed by the window.

“Holy shit,” Raider yelped as a giant, black maned lion bounded up and took off across the field. Snow flew up around the monstrous beast and blurred the landscape. Raider pressed his face against the glass as he looked for the human who had been there moments before.

“Shit, please be a shifter.” Raider’s breath fogged up the window and he scrubbed his wrist on the glass for a clearer view. No matter how hard he looked, he could only find the now lazily stretching lion and not the man who was there moments ago. Either the guy was a lion shifter or he was the meal of that van-sized lion. Both possibilities were equally terrifying.

Raider bit down on a ring while he hummed anxiously. He was so fucked. That lion out there was too big and too magical looking to be anything but a shifter. Raider’s raccoon would be an easy meal for a beast like that. Fuck, if a shifter were crazy enough, he might think his human form was a meal. That giant lion could probably eat a person. Easy.

Raider held his breath when Michael stepped up behind him. He kept his eyes locked on the lion while he silently wondered if the sorcerer was going to use this moment while he was distracted to kill him.

“That’s Leo,” Michael supplied as he stared out at the lion. “He’s not really a joiner, if you get my drift.”

Raider blinked and his gaze darted to the side where Michael was leaning his shoulder against the window. “Really? Leo the lion?” he asked scornfully.

Michael smirked. “Yup, it’s a bit of a running joke. His real name is Leonard and he hates it. As you can see by looking at him, we all call Leo whatever he wants to be called.”

Raider turned back to the window and whimpered into the flesh of his palm. Leo was a fucking monster. There was no way he was going to survive a day in the Academy. He needed to run. He needed to get the fuck out before…

“Hey.” Michael reached up and touched the hand trapped between Raider’s teeth. “You’re not going to have any fingers left if you gnaw them all off.”

“Uh…” Raider felt frozen as Michael carefully extracted his hand from his death grip, and his raccoon’s running mantra of death and escape abruptly silenced. “You don’t need to…” He could only stare as Michael held his hand in his. Raider’s finger was red with imprints of his teeth and more than a little wet, and Michael was just holding his hand like he wasn’t completely disgusting.

“There you go.” Michael squeezed his hand reassuringly before he released him.

Heat flooded through Raider and his raccoon gave a throaty purr. He quickly ducked his head and tried with all his might to ignore the way his dick had twitched.

This was crazy. This place was making him crazy.

“We can meet Leo, if you like. I can’t promise he’ll be friendly, but he’s usually civil enough.” Michael tilted his head at the window with an inquiring look.

Raider stepped back in alarm and shoved his hands into his pockets. “N-No. Er, that is…” He hissed out a breath and stepped around Michael to put space between them. “I just want to get this over with.”

Michael pushed from the windows and beamed. “Alright then. Let’s start with the offices.”

Raider nodded mutely. He hesitantly raised his head when Michael started walking and couldn’t help the way his gaze flowed along the man’s broad shoulders, trim waist, and lingered on his muscular ass.

Damn it. Raider bit his knuckle and tried to squash the fresh wave of heat rushing through his body. It had to be that sex scent. It was making him insane, apparently.

Michael turned back to see if he was following, and Raider’s gaze skittered over his handsome features as he fought a blush.

Yeah, he was totally going crazy. He had to have lost his mind to be checking out a sorcerer. Raider bit his ring and forced his legs to move.

Everything about this place was wrong, and it was messing him up. As the minutes ticked by and large, fancy rooms blurred past, Raider started to wonder if it was intentional. What if Michael was trying to freak him out and confuse him? What if he was using a lust spell? Raider wasn’t sure if they were real, but he knew magic could do just about anything if you had the power. Michael seemed like he had a lot of power.

The guy was sharp, really fucking sharp. Even when he wasn’t looking his way, Raider could feel Michael’s attention on him. Oh, Michael pretended to be caring, to be calm and collected, but Raider felt that same buzz he felt around predator shifters. Whiteheart was dangerous.

Raider dragged behind as they toured the Academy and refused to be pulled into conversation. His main goal was to find a way out, but his prospects looked bleak as he scented magic down every hall. He needed to know how many sorcerers worked at that Academy, and if they all lived there. He knew even less about the baby sorcerers who were the attending patients. He was certain any delinquent sorcerer in training would rat him out in a second if they discovered his plan, or worse, they might try to steal pieces of him for a dark spell. How the hell was he going to escape this giant place when surrounded by all these sorcerers?

The Academy was a maze, an elaborate, expensive, spine tingling maze. Raider wasn’t even sure how they ended up back at the entrance hall. They didn’t come back the way they left, or at least, he didn’t think they did. Raider glared around the room before following his uncle and Michael down the side hall that led to the lounge and sleeping quarters. He breathed shallowly and this time the scents didn’t have as strong as an effect. Raider glared around the lounge and twisted a ring nervously while Joseph and Michael talked about him like he couldn’t hear.

Raider couldn’t get comfortable. The room might have been full of couches and chairs, but the air was full of the scents of predators. And when he turned toward the line of doors opposite the long wall of windows, he was bombarded with that dizzying alpha sex scent. Raider crossed his arms tightly to his chest and stalked the length of the room like a caged animal. He noted the couches, tables, computers and multiple televisions with a scowl.

The place was money and everything smelled wrong: predators, magic, alphas, sex. He felt so out of place and he hated it. But…

There was nowhere else for him to go.

“This is fucking bullshit.” Raider hissed under his breath and stomped back to the entrance hall to escape the cacophony of unfamiliar scents. He had to get out. There was no way he was going to survive in this place.

He paced around the front entrance while his mind raced with half formed plans of how to get over the gate and barbed wire in his way. He almost missed the sound of the door opening, but it was the secretive footsteps that stopped him cold. Raider froze, his head down and lip trapped between his teeth as he listened to the stranger who had stepped into the entrance hall behind him.

It was a shifter. No human walked that carefully, that quietly. He sniffed the air cautiously and breathed a sigh of mild relief to know it wasn’t the giant lion. Raider stiffened on his next inhale. No, it wasn’t the lion but it was something similarly deadly. Cat. The shifter was some kind of big, deadly cat.

Raider’s fingers twitched as he quickly considered his options. His uncle was in the lounge, moments away. If he tried to make a break for it, he might just make it. There was time. If he judged by the footfalls, the newcomer was almost halfway across the room. He could make it.

His shoulders felt stiff as Raider turned and briskly headed for the side door. He was considering running and if it would make him a target or buy him the time he needed, when he inhaled deeply and his lungs filled with a new scent. Raider missed a step and gasped as he stumbled to a stop and came face to face with his first patient.

“Hey.” Forest blinked in surprise from where he stopped short before Raider could knock into him. “You’re the new kid, right? I’m Forest.”

Raider gulped, his knees locked and face quickly turning red. Forest was shorter than him, slender with tight muscle, dark hair, and smooth movements. Everything about him screamed killer to his raccoon, including Forest’s fang filled smirk that appeared the longer Raider gaped. There was a streak of soot on his cheek, and his hair was mussed with dust as if he was fresh from a fight. Raider barely noticed any of it beyond Forest’s intense scent.

The smells of magic, smoke, and dust did nothing to mask the musk coming off the leopard shifter. It was a deep, dark tone that curled through Raider with each inhale and left him flushed, dazed, and breathless. Sex. It wasn’t the scent of whoever was mating on every available surface of the Academy, but it was undeniably strong and confusingly enticing.

Forest tilted his head curiously when Raider continued to stare at him with wide eyes. “You have a name, right? I guess we’re bunking up.”

“No… m-maybe. What?” Raider’s mouth felt impossibly dry as Forest’s words sank in. Bunking up? With a predator? He was sharing a room with a predator?

Raider’s lungs felt like stone as he dragged his next breath in. He fought another wave of dizziness as he drank down more of the overwhelming sex scent.

Forest was hot. Like, seriously sexy. He was dangerous and hot, and he really needed to get away if he wanted to be able to think again.

Forest scratched some dust from the tip of his nose and glanced awkwardly to the side.

“I’m Raider,” he blurted out, then snapped his mouth shut. Raider knew he was probably acting like a total freak. His raccoon did lots of stupid things, and this seemed like one of those moments. Being aware of it didn’t mean his tongue was about to untie or his feet move anytime soon.

“Hey, Raider. Um… if you need me to get them, I can,” Forest offered when he met Raider’s gaze again and found silent panic. His ears had no problem picking up Michael and Joseph talking in the lounge down the hall. “Is your dad like you? I mean, uh, no one said you were… Not that they should have.”

Forest exhaled unsteadily and his odd, yellow eyes darkened for a moment. He took a step away. “Sorry. I just wasn’t expecting you to be so….”

“No.” Raider swallowed down the lump in his throat and tried to answer properly. “He’s my uncle, sort of. We’re not actually related.” Joseph was a coyote shifter, as were all his relatives, and Raider was prey among them.

Forest nodded solemnly, and it took Raider a moment to realize what he revealed to an absolute stranger.

“My dad’s not dead,” Raider said briskly. “Joseph just took me in to make sure I stayed in school and stuff.”

“Hey, it’s cool.” Forest held his hands up reassuringly. “It takes all types, man.” He hesitated, and Forest’s glanced toward him sideways for a moment. “So, you missing someone?”

“Huh?” Raider blinked, distracted. Forest looked like he was fighting with his inner cat about whether they should eat him or not. His eyes kept flashing his way like he was just looking for a weakness or opening to strike.

“You know, did you leave your, uh, sweetheart back home or some shit?” Forest elaborated with a quirk of his eyebrow. “A hottie like you, you’re probably dating someone.”

“Uh. I’m not really…” Raider blushed hotly. He met Forest’s searing gaze and quickly looked away.

Fuck, this was weird. Was Forest hitting on him? Raider was pretty sure he was a total spaz, and once anyone got to know him, they gave him a lot of space cuz he was so weird. Raider glanced Forest’s way another quick second. Forest would probably be the same way. And really, it wasn’t like he wanted a psycho, flesh eating shifter living in an institution for crazy paranormals to be interested in him. Even if Forest was kinda, totally hot.

“No. I’m not missing anyone,” Raider finally got out, his throat too tight.

Forest’s smirk was full of sharp fangs. His bangs fluttered over one of his eyes when he shrugged in a clearly practiced move and edged closer to Raider. It made him look roguish and more than a little sultry, and Raider had to swallow hard to resit the urge to take a step back.

“Cool. That’s cool. That’ll make your stay easier, right? It always sucks to be missing someone.”

Raider nodded silently and watched as Forest’s eyes drifted over his chest like he was a meal he was sizing up. Forest might be cute and seem harmless, but he still had an inner cat that could eat him alive.

“Are you, you know? Missing someone?” Raider looked away before the question was out, half afraid he just made the biggest mistake of his life.

Forest grinned wickedly. “Nah. Even if I was, I got here months ago. No one waits around that long.” His yellow eyes glinted a deep gold as his stare lingered on Raider’s tattooed bicep. “But, you know, if you do find yourself missing someone…”

Raider held his breath when Forest took a step closer and his sex scent swam around him. “Yeah?”

“The Academy is a small place and some of us are here for a while. So, you know, if you’re ever feeling lonely and you want to talk…” Forest inhaled deeply as his eyes fixed on Raider’s parted lips. “I’m around, you know?”

“T-Talk?” Raider was really confused as to what the hell they were talking about now, never mind what Forest wanted to talk to him about later. Forest didn’t look like he wanted to talk. He looked like he was getting ready to hunt him down and maim him, or maybe just kiss him. Both options seemed terrifying in their own right at the moment. Raider had never kissed anyone and Forest’s fangs looked sharp.

“Yeah, talk, or something. Whatever you need.” Forest sounded breathless and his fangs glinted as his gaze seared down Raider’s heaving chest.

“Uh… that is…” Raider eyes skittered away as he tried to rise above the strange heat swimming in his head and body. One of his knees unlocked, and he took a cautious step back and breathed in fresh air. “I’ll, um… I’ll think about it.” He was pretty sure it was all he was going to be thinking about until he found a way out of the Academy.

“Right. Yeah, cool.” Forest shook his head and combed fingers into his hair as he stepped back. When he looked up, there was a hint of confusion in his dark eye hazy with lust. “Have you seen the gym? It’s kinda the main place to be for the shifter pack.”

Raider had, but he couldn’t find his voice. His eyes had wandered at some point and he was staring at the way Forest’s navy blue polo was stretched tight around his biceps and chest when he shoved his hands into his pockets. It highlighted the sleek, compact muscle underneath. Raider bit his lip as he tried to figure out just what Forest looked like without said shirt in the way. He glanced up, only to jolt and blush when Forest flashed him a wicked smile.

Damn it. Whatever. Fine. The guy’s scent was impossible to ignore, and he was really hot. It didn’t mean Raider was falling for any of it though. He could still smell death beneath Forest’s sex scent. Forest was all predator and he had no interest in ending up as his prey.

Raider scowled and stood up straighter in an attempt to look intimidating. He might only be a raccoon shifter, but he was strong for a human. Forest, unfortunately, didn’t look impressed by his size, muscle, or tattoos. No, he just seemed, well, into him. He was the first patient he met at the Academy, and if Forest or anyone else decided he was really weak, he could be dead by nightfall. Raider couldn’t believe he was even thinking it, but he was kind of hoping Forest would be more interested in hooking up with him than hunting him down dead.

“Come on, I’ll show you around.” Forest clasped Raider on the arm briefly, only to raise his eyebrow appreciatively as he squeezed his bicep. “It’s way better than listening to them talk about you,” he said with a knowing nod toward the lounge where Joseph and Michael were still talking. “The guys are all out in the yard running off some steam. You should meet the pack.”

The last thing Raider wanted to do was meet a pack of fucked up, psycho shifters.

He glanced Forest’s way only to find him staring expectantly. Raider didn’t feel bold enough to actually refuse. It would look weak, and he couldn’t look weak. The moment anyone figured out just how terrified he really was, they’d attack, no hesitation.

Raider gritted his teeth and nodded silently. When Forest started walking, Raider reluctantly followed. His feet felt heavy as if his limbs even knew he was walking to his doom.

SCENE #7

Michael was doing his best to show Joseph there was nothing to fear when it came to leaving Raider at the Academy. He was trying not to act as rushed as he felt. The tour had turned into helping Joseph set his mind at ease more than anything to do with Raider. It wasn’t unusual, but there were only so many hours in the day, and Michael knew Theo was going to be coming up at any moment to rave about his classroom being blown up once again.

“Just how long will this program take?” Joseph spoke in low tones like they were sentencing his nephew to prison instead of a wealthy rehabilitation institution. His eyes kept jumping around the lounge as he took in all the new luxuries Raider would have at his disposal. “Angel’s already been held back in school, and I’m not certain he has what it takes to pass a GED in his current state. This whole thing came at the worst possible time.”

“That depends completely on him.” Michael did nothing to quiet his voice. The illusion of hiding things was never a good way to start with a new patient. “We offer a GED class for anyone interested.”

“Long, then? You think he’ll be here months?”

Michael leaned back against a couch thoughtfully. He was used to shifters being extra concerned about the safety of their young pack mates while under the guardianship of sorcerers. Joseph didn’t come off as frightened, though. He seemed consumed with guilt about leaving his nephew behind.

“These thing don’t have a set time,” Michael finally answered while Joseph idly explored the lounge. “At the Academy, we don’t promise results. We aren’t here to ‘fix’ Angel, but to help him gain the skills needed to live life as a shifter. All we can do is create a welcoming, stable environment so paranormals in need can find ways to deal with the challenges they face daily. We’re as much a safe haven as we are a learning institution and medical facility. What the young men attending the Academy choose to do with our resources and guidance is completely up to them.”

Joseph’s tanned face pinched with tension, and his gaze flickered along the line of empty chairs at the dining table facing the windows. He turned to Michael with a frown. “He’s going to need more than just an environment. Angel was nearly killed. He was unable to keep himself from the circumstances that led up to it and was unable to control himself after. He’s not in control.”

“Yes, the incident was difficult on your entire family. Angel is here to learn control. There is no set time for something like that.” Michael straightened and followed to where Joseph had stopped by the lounge exit. “This is up to Angel now. He’s an adult with adult sized problems. No one, no matter how powerful, can do this for him. We can be here to help, but that’s all. If he doesn’t want to deal with his problems, he’s not going to get better. I’m sure you understand that.”

Joseph sighed heavily. The lines on his face appeared deeper as he ran a hand over his brow. “It’s his father all over again, isn’t it? I watched Lucus take every wrong step, and for what? To leave that kid all on his own? To drive his wife away and leave the boy parentless? The boy’s going to end up in jail right next to his old man.”

“Angel is not his father,” Michael replied evenly, while fighting a surprising surge of anger. How many times had Raider heard that particular prediction from the people who cared about him the most? How many had decided he wasn’t worth helping just because of the man who raised him?

“Some people take longer to get to the place where they’re ready to take responsibility for their actions.” Michael tried to lighten his tone. “Just because it doesn’t appear to be happening the way you expect it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. This is normally a time of change for kids Angel’s age as it is. There’s a lot being demanded of him, a lot he’s trying to figure out. It can be easy to miss all the ways he’s trying to figure things out because of the many mistakes that are naturally going to happen on that journey.”

“I guess I could see that.” Joseph nodded dully, his voice gruff.

Michael took in Joseph’s tired expression and worn clothes. “You’ve been trying to pick up the slack for him for a while now. As valiant as that is, you’re keeping him from making those mistakes. Without messing up, Angel can’t learn. At the Academy he’ll be able to make mistakes and not destroy the lives of everyone around him. That means you can go home, take a break from trying to save him, and start taking care of your own needs again.”

“He’s a good kid,” Joseph said after a pensive pause. “Just… He’s a lot of work. His father left him a mess and…”

“And now he’s his own responsibility.” Michael clapped his hand on his shoulder warmly and led Joseph down the corridor to the entrance hall. He looked around, but Raider wasn’t in sight. “It looks like he feels comfortable enough to explore on his own. That’s a good sign. Are these his only bags or do you need help bring the rest in?”

“No, that’s all of them.” Joseph stared down at Raider’s two duffel bags, clearly reluctant to leave just yet.

Michael shouldered a bag, and reached for the next. “After a month’s time, Angel will be allowed to contact you beyond letters. Your life is going to change a lot by then, and so is his. If you need someone to talk to, please call me. I know this isn’t always an easy transition.”

Guilt flashed across Joseph’s worn features and he frowned grimly. “Unfortunately, you’ve all made this far too easy. I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.”

“Think of it as a vacation,” Michael said gently as he led Joseph back to the lounge and Raider’s waiting room. “A well needed one.”

If anything, Joseph looked more guilty. “These shifter instructors, they understand what Angel needs, correct? I’m not sure his father even talked to him about it. And I… well.” Joseph sighed heavily, his gaze fixing anywhere but on Michael. “I don’t even know how to start the conversation. I’ve taken care to keep him separated, and Angel has a knack for pushing people away his own age, so it’s made things easy in that regard. I’m just not sure he understand…” he trailed off, unable to voice just what Raider didn’t understand.

A furrow appeared between Michael’s brows as he tried to understand what Joseph was leaving out. “What, do you mean he doesn’t know he’s a prey shifter? I find that hard to believe.”

Joseph shook his head and his streaked gray ponytail tumbled over his shoulder. He finally met Michael’s eyes with a worried frown. “You’re a sorcerer, so I’m sure you don’t come across this much. Hell, it’s unusual among shifters as it is. It’s one out of 100 odds, maybe even lower. The boy is damn special, but it just seems to cause more trouble than good. His prey genetics are a whole different situation; it makes him afraid all the time.”

“Actually…” Michael cautiously sought the right words. Explaining to a shifter that he was wrong about what it meant to be a shifter rarely went over well. “Being a prey shifter has little to do with the level of anxiety of an individual. A healthy, well-adjusted prey shifter innately knows other shifters won’t hurt him. I understand non-predator shifters are rare, so you may not be too familiar with their behavior. We’ve had more than a few prey shifters come through the Academy with varying temperaments, and little to no anxiety among them.”

Joseph slowed his steps, his features sharp as it clicked just what Michael was saying. “None of them were afraid?”

Michael nodded as he stepped into Raider’s new room and deposited his bags onto his bed. “Angel’s level of fear isn’t normal for his situation. Have you noticed if this is new behavior since the incident?”

“No, he’s… he’s always been like that since I took him in.” Joseph stared at Michael with wide, worry filled eyes and shook his head. “You mean all that fear, it has nothing to do with his biology? Angel’s father… Lucus was never a nervous man, but I just assumed…” Joseph looked stricken, his eyes unfocused as he thought back. “Did something happen to him? How did I not notice this? Angel’s been living under my protection for five years and his fear only kept growing.”

Michael raised his hand up and guided Joseph back into the lounge. “Are you a mind reader? Some sort of seer?” He kept his voice compassionate but steady. “Can you control the chemical imbalance in someone else’s brain? I’m a master sorcerer, and I have no idea how to magically fix an anxiety disorder. The Academy will have plenty of time to get Raider’s situation sorted out.”

Joseph looked absolutely harried as Michael led him by the elbow toward the entrance hall. “If something happened to that boy while under my protection…”

“Whatever happened in the past is in the past,” Michael interrupted smoothly. “There’s no changing it, and no point dwelling. It’s Angel’s turn to care for himself. Don’t take his ability to get better from him by putting that responsibility on your shoulders. He needs to have the power to choose his path, and that gets difficult when well-meaning individuals keep making decisions for him.”

Joseph harrumphed but the tension in his shoulders lessened. He stepped side by side with Michael as they headed for the exit.

“I’ve protected Angel a lot back home. He’s very… he’s inexperienced in just what his biology is outside of being a prey shifter. I thought I was helping him. I thought I was protecting him and the other shifters from him.” Joseph looked at Michael meaningfully. “Angel has a scent that affects his own kind, and he has no idea. I’ve kept every shifter who was remotely susceptible away from him to keep him safe. It’s practically everyone with a nose, alpha or not. He had a few friends with a natural resistance, but that’s all.” Joseph sighed under his breath. “His scent is powerful, dangerous.”

Michael’s mind ticked as he began to put things together. Joseph took Raider in five years ago, which meant he couldn’t have been more than fourteen at the time. Had Joseph been isolating the boy ever since because of this scent? He gave him no explanation, no reason as to why Raider had to be kept from the others.

“I’m sure you can see how that could be a problem for Raider now he’s out on his own.” Michael offered quietly even as his mind raced.

Joseph nodded grimly as he sniffed the air of the entrance hall. “He just got here, and his scent is already permeating. He’s an adult with a power he has no idea how to use. Yes, I’m seeing how my wish to protect him has made this more difficult. I tried my best to stay atop of all this. Just…”

“You’re only one man, and you have your own life, Joseph. There’s nothing wrong about that.”

Joseph stopped and turned to Michael. There was more than guilt haunting his next words. “The anti-shifter badges were by the house. The shifter patrol, I guess you would know them as up here. I saw them staking out my land when I was packing Angel’s things in the truck. Angel doesn’t understand the consequences of even the smallest mistake when being a shifter. The entire coyote pack is in danger just because Angel’s raccoon flipped, that sorcerer got involved, and the incident ended up in the papers. That’s all it takes.” Joseph’s brows twisted as he tried to get Michael to understand.

“I know it’s not the boy’s fault, but that doesn’t change the danger he created. We’re all at risk, and he can’t come back if there’s a possibility he’ll repeat this kind of behavior.”

Michael kept his features trained as he heard the ultimatum on the tip of Joseph’s tongue. “Maybe you should give it a few months before you make a decision like that. As I said, these things don’t fix themselves overnight, but I’m sure Raider wants to be in your life.”

Joseph nodded gruffly, but his eyes were full of fear for the future. “He needs a father. I’m not going to stop trying to be that for the boy, but this is too much for me and Vicky. We’re not prepared for any of this, not at this level. Not when their are men sniffing around my house looking for shifter blood to spill.”

Michael grasped Joseph’s shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. The two made their way to the double doors Raider and Joseph stepped through a little less than an hour ago.

“When Angel is ready, he’s going to know how to carry that weight on his shoulders instead of placing it on you and your wife. You won’t need to protect him, you won’t need to keep others from him. Give him time. He’s going to learn a new way of living here, and that starts with leaving his old ways behind.”

“Right… that’s right.” Joseph took a steadying breath as Michael pushed the door open and they were hit with a wall of cold winter air. He fixed his gaze on his worn pickup truck. “He needs more than I can give him. It’s not that I don’t want to; I’m just not capable. And this Academy, well, that’s why he’s here. For help. Help I can’t give him.”

“Exactly.” Michael’s smile was full of confidence. “We’re going to show Angel how to supply what he needs for himself. Now, you just need to go home and remember what it’s like to do the same for yourself.”

Joseph smiled wanly as he made his way to his truck and the long, arduous drive home. Michael stood framed in the doorway as he watched him warm the engine up and pull down the drive. He took a few deep, thoughtful breaths of the refreshing air as he thought.

There were things about Raider Joseph hadn’t disclosed in their initial interview, and he wasn’t sure just how he was going to be able to contain it. He had thirteen patients living at the Academy, fourteen now Raider was included. Two were alpha shifters and two were borderline in their alpha tendencies. There was no way to know what Raider’s mysterious scent was going to do to his shifters.

Michael frowned as Raider’s dark, angry eyes flashed in his mind’s eye. The kid was defensive, terrified, and dangerous on levels he didn’t even understand. One mistake had cost Raider his home and nearly his life. Whatever problems Angel Valdez might bring with him, Michael already knew it was going to be up to him to keep the new raccoon shifter safe at the Academy.

SCENE #8

“Go the fuck away, you flea-ridden bag of fur.”

“Come on, Vince!”

Vincent Frost found it difficult to know the right thing to say on most occasions. His native language was German, and no one understood him unless he spoke in very slow, precise English. He had, on the other hand, learned an incredible amount of swears and insults in both English and Spanish the last five months of living at the Academy, all thanks to the annoying as fuck fox shifter who refused to leave him alone.

“Just let me fix it,” Fox insisted as he scrambled after Vincent’s retreating form.

The hallway was empty—at least, it was supposed to be. Fox refused to let Vincent go to the hospital alone, like being annoying was somehow helping. It was infuriating, like everything about the stupid fox shifter.

Fox’s steps grew louder behind him, and Vincent quickened his gait.

“Vince…”

“My name is Vincent,” he hissed. “Master Howld said for me to see the healer, not you, Zorro. Fuck off!”

Naturally, Fox followed.

Fox was such a stupid nickname. It was the equivalent of walking around being called ‘human’ or ‘guy,’ or in Fox’s particular instance ‘annoying as fuck.’ Rafael was a perfectly nice name. Vincent started calling him Zorro, which was Spanish for fox, to prove just how unimaginative the nickname was. Of course his wit was completely wasted. Fox always grinned whenever he called him Zorro like it was some big, special secret.

Stupid. Fox was so fucking stupid.

Vincent’s angry footsteps echoed in the downstairs hallway. It was usually a quiet trip, but Fox kept coughing from all the dust both of them were covered in. Completely the stupid idiot’s fault, too. Vincent scowled and tried not to think of how his clothes were ruined again. Magic could only do so much. Each rip and stain was a reminder that a day would come when he wasn’t going to be able to repair his clothing after one of Fox’s fuck ups, and he’d have nothing left to wear.

“Vince, I just want to help. You’re bleeding and…”

There was a tingle of magic behind him, and Vincent stopped short. He whirled and glared in warning at Fox’s approach. “Get away from me, you furry son of a bitch, before you ruin…!” Vincent stood stock still as magic washed over him. “Son of a whore.”

Vincent sighed heavily and watched as Fox’s mischievous orange eyes went wide and his tanned face paled. Fox winced dramatically and took a stumbling step back. Vincent clenched his hands into fists and snarled under his breath.

Why? Why wouldn’t Fox just leave him the fuck alone? Since his very first day when he couldn’t speak a single word of English, Fox was right there to trip him up and unsettle the fuck out of him. It was a handshake gone wrong their first meeting. Yes, you could apparently fuck up a handshake; you just had to be Rafael Alvarez and not pay attention. Fox nearly pulled his arm from the socket when he turned mid shake to yell at someone and failed to release his hand.

Dumbass. Why couldn’t Fox understand he was the last person in the world to mess with?

Vincent took a steadying breath, but it did nothing for the seething of dread and exasperation rushing through him. The last time he saw that particular expression on Fox’s face, he singed his long, noble hair to its current chin length style. No good would come from that look. It had to be really bad.

Vincent silently assessed his body for pain and was relieved to find nothing new was throbbing, burning, or otherwise unattached from the rest of him. Decided he was at least in once piece, he inhaled another deep breath. His exhale came out in a growingly familiar exasperated growl. “Zorro, if you have…”

“It’s not that bad, I swear.” Fox said it so swiftly, his Spanish accent blurred his words together into a garble Vincent barely understood. Fox held his hands up and took another step back. “Your skin is just, um, well… You’re not covered in soot anymore.” Fox’s eyes flashed to the side for an escape route from the angry sorcerer who was radiating a new blue hue from his pale skin.

Vincent gritted his teeth to keep from screaming. He couldn’t remember ever wanting to physically beat anyone quite as bloody and bruised as he did the fox shifter. With a glare at Fox, he summoned up a mirror to see the damage. Fox immediately jumped forward and snatched it from his hands.

“I can fix it,” Fox promised and got ready to do just that.

“Don’t you fucking dare!” Vincent saw his hand and the blue color glowing from his once perfectly normal skin. “Your next bumbling attempt will probably take my flesh right off!”

Fox winced and didn’t bother to disagree. “I’m seriously sorry, Vince. I’ll take you to Dr. Rob’s. If anyone laughs, I’ll tell them it was all my fault and…”

Vincent snatched the mirror from Fox’s grasp, only to start when his eyes met his reflection. The somber young man with clear gray eyes and raven black hair was as unfamiliar as always. Vincent quickly spelled the mirror away and ignored how his chest felt too tight and heart loud in his ears.

“We can go right now. I’ll carry your stuff, if you want.” Fox bit his lower lip as he stepped closer.

Vincent blinked as the world came back into focus but with a new, fuzzy feel to it. Fox was blathering about something. Fox was always talking, and rarely was it ever relevant. He was always underfoot, usually while exploding him or his things in the process. Sometimes Vincent thought Fox was his penance for his past life before he came to the Academy. But then, Fox wasn’t nearly terrible enough for something like that. It would take a swarm of dragon shifters tearing at his flesh and organs every day for a lifetime for Vincent to ever hope to reach absolution.

“Damn it. Let me help somehow.” Fox jumped from one sneakered foot to the other. “I keep fucking up, and I was distracted, and it’s been a really tough day. I’m supposed to call home today, and you know how I get. It was an accident, and I wasn’t paying attention, and…”

Vincent’s glare fell to Fox’s slender, tanned ankles. He idly watched the tattooed flesh dance as he fought his anger. He did know how Fox got whenever he spoke to his family, and that was another fact in a line of random bits of information he didn’t want to know. Fox was always there. Always. He was always chattering about his life like he was supposed to give a fuck, or talking to him like they were supposed to be friends, or fighting with him because, for some crazy reason, Fox liked to piss him off the most.

The guy was seriously skinny. If he didn’t see Fox eat enough food to feed three people his size every day, Vincent would think he had an eating disorder. It was annoying as fuck. Vincent couldn’t stand to see someone look like they were wasting away from hunger, especially a shifter.

The edges of his vision dimmed a moment, and Vincent immediately shut the memory down. He ignored the buzz that was Fox forever talking and pushed forward. He needed to see Dr. Rob, or at the very least get away from Fox.

“Vince, seriously. Let me help you.”

“Stop talking,” Vincent snapped. He pushed his hair back from his face and scowled to find it full of dust. “You want to really help? Just stop talking, Zorro.”

Fox grinned winningly. “You know that’s not going to happen.” He jumped in front of Vincent, and his orange eyes flashed mischief as Vincent glared at him. “Come on, let me carry your bag. Your arm looks pretty beat up from the last explosion.”

“The explosion you caused,” Vincent muttered spitefully. He promised the masters he would make an attempt to talk to Fox instead of raging at him. It was just very difficult when Fox was always blowing him up.

Fox’s cheeks flushed red as he reached for Vincent’s bag. “I’m really sorry.”

Vincent narrowed his eyes warningly. “If you were really sorry…”

“I know, I know. If I were really sorry, I wouldn’t keep doing it.” Fox’s fingers curled tight around the strap of the backpack hanging off Vincent’s shoulder. “Vince, you gotta understand. You really can’t talk to me when I’m trying to concentrate.”

“Bullshit.” Vincent huffed. “You insist on chattering at me every time I try to cast a spell. It’s far more distracting than me telling you to pay the fuck attention when you’re already fucking something up.”

Fox grinned awkwardly and wagged his eyebrows. “Yeah, well, you don’t blow shit up when I talk to you. I, on the other hand… Damn, you make me so nervous most of the time I can’t help but, uh, lose control,” Fox finished with a whisper and turned his gaze to the floor.

Vincent had no idea what Fox’s new game was, but it was just as annoying as all the others ones troublesome shifter got up to. He was now inches away with Fox holding him tight by the strap of his bag. Fox gazed up through surprisingly thick, dark lashes, and Vincent had the bizarre notion he was going to kiss him. Ridiculous—he’d hex his ears off if he even tried. Fox’s tongue darted out to lick his lips and Vincent wasn’t blind to how he was staring at his mouth.

“Hey, Vince,” Fox said huskily. “I know you’re really pissed about your hair and all, but it came out nice after Theo cut it. I mean, really nice. Now you don’t look so girly and…”

Vincent scowled. There was nothing remotely girly about him.

“And, you know, maybe you might want to, um, do something with me. Outside of class. Like on a weekend or something.”

Vincent’s brows furrowed as he tried to understand what the fuck it was Fox wanted. “What? What the hell would we do together, Zorro? Well, besides me hexing your mouth shut. Permanently,” he added when Fox blushed. Why was Fox always blushing at him? Like he was supposed to dismiss the fucking misery Fox put him through just because he blushed?

“Ah, I dunno, Vince.” Fox forged on, his eyes still locked on Vincent’s pout. “There’s this really cool mall I like to go to sometimes. Maybe we could watch a movie.”

“Now I know you’re up to something.” Vincent grabbed the hand firmly attached to his bag and pried Fox’s fingers free. “You couldn’t sit through a movie if your life depended on it. What are you trying to do, distract me so you can test another failed spell on my hair?”

“Come on, Vince. I’m not that bad,” Fox said with a heavy sigh.

Vincent just glared. There were no words to explain how bad Fox was. At least, no words Fox would actually bother to listen to.

Fox smirked wickedly and opened his mouth to continue, only to pause. His head swiveled to the side and nostrils flared as he picked up a scent.

Vincent tried to pull his hand away when it was caught in Fox’s strong, warm grip. “Let go, you annoying flea bag.”

“Shhh.” Fox tugged Vincent’s arm as he took a step toward the masters’ offices. His eyes were slitted and nose twitched.

Vincent stared in growing annoyance when he realized he was being dragged down the hall over a stupid scent. How dare Fox tell him to be quiet when he was the one always making noise? He never shut the fuck up.

Rage felt like a fire burning through him, and Vincent’s chest heaved as he pulled air in. “Zorro, I’m going to count to three. If you don’t let me go…”

“Quiet. Do you smell that? I think that’s… Holy fuck. It’s really him!” Fox gripped Vincent’s wrist extra tight. He took off running down the hall while completely oblivious to who he was pulling with him.

“Zorro—Damn it—Fucking arschloch!” Vincent struggled to wrest his arm free from Fox’s impossibly strong grip. Fox abruptly released him, and Vincent stumbled forward and grabbed the wall to keep from slamming his face against it. “I’m going to fucking murder you, Alvarez!”

“Alvarez?” an unfamiliar voice echoed down the hall. Vincent froze and the world tilted uncontrollably.

Unbidden, darkness encroached on Vincent’s sight. A wave of dizziness swept through him so great, he felt transported to another place and time.

Fox shouted from far away, and cries of pain echoed in the recesses of Vincent’s mind in sympathy. He breathed in and called the air and the power it held. He pulled the life force deep into his lungs and felt it spread like a chill though his veins all the way to the tips of his fingers and toes. He whispered for protection. Bladed. Indestructible. Death.

Vincent straightened from his slump on the wall. His body felt like it belonged to someone else. Someone of strength, of armor, and resilience, and not the brittle being he truly was. As he turned, he commanded the floor to aid him, the walls to…

“Raider! Holy fuck, man!” Fox laughed exuberantly and threw himself down the hall to land on top of the new arrival. Five foot seven inches with narrow tattooed limbs and a slender build, Fox literally climbed the tall raccoon shifter. He crowed in raucous laughter while the muscular stranger looked at him in utter shock.

Vincent’s reality tilted in a wave of nausea. His mouth clicked shut and he stopped all motion.

The hallway was too bright, he observed stonily. His gaze moved to the vicious spikes slashing up out of the tiled floor and white walls. Their growth slowed when he silenced his conjuring, but they were still deadly, still ready to destroy any flesh that dared brush near.

Sound was a cottony buzz in Vincent’s ears as he remembered where he was, or at least, where he wasn’t. This was not that dark, terrible place. That place didn’t exist anymore.

“Fox? Fox! What the—oomph!” Raider yelped when Fox grabbed him under the arm and twisted. The two went falling to the ground in a tangle of limbs and laughing curses. Neither noticed the spikes. Vincent spoke choppily under his breath to unravel the spell work, and the blades dispersed into the air they were formed from.

Vincent’s hands shook. It started as a small tremble that began to rattle his entire body.

What? How? He was just… What the fuck just happened? He thought he was there. For a moment he truly heard their voices and felt the aura of death all around him…

Something moved further down the hall, and Vincent’s gaze snapped to Forest. He could tell from the leopard shifter’s expression he saw his slip. How could he not? He nearly slashed everyone in the hallway to bloody pieces with one spell. Forest, just like his fool of a friend Fox, seemed to think it was reason enough to have a damn conversation.

Vincent clenched his hands into fists and forced them to stop shaking as Forest approached. His strange lightheadedness grew worse now he had to pretend it wasn’t there. Why couldn’t everyone just leave him alone?

“A new shifter.” Forest stepped around the two wrestling on the floor and tactfully ignored how Vincent nearly speared everyone in the hallway. “He’s apparently a friend of—damn it, Fox! Watch your fucking claws.” Forest leaped to avoid his ankle being shredded and nearly landed on Vincent’s foot.

“Yeah, he knows Fox,” Forest finished simply. His normally pale skin was peppered with dark spots, and his yellow eyes slitted with a sliver of dark pupil. Vincent knew half shifts happened more when shifters were excited. Seeing the other two wrestle must have Forest’s inner leopard ready to play. Either that, or he scared the fuck out of Forest with his spell. Shifters were always afraid of him…

Vincent felt something zap in his mind. For an instant everything blinked out and then back into focus. Fox’s howl rang out and Vincent darted his gaze to where he was laughing on the floor. The stupid dumbass. Vincent’s fingers twitched as he considered hexing Fox. Clearly the idiot shifter broke him with his last explosion.

He had no clue how someone so annoying could have so many friends. Vincent’s eyes narrowed when Fox’s bandanna went flying to reveal his messy, silver hair. It was so out of place with his caramel colored skin and wild orange eyes, and Vincent immediately wanted to pick up the yellow bandanna and hide Fox’s hair away. The guy was such an idiot and didn’t even know. Still, Vincent couldn’t seem to pull his gaze away.

“Brothers?” Vincent finally grunted out as he watched Fox get a lock on the new shifter. Fox laughed triumphantly since Raider had at least fifty pounds of extra muscle on him.

“Nah.” Forest snorted at the notion. He crossed his arms over his chest and fought a smile when Raider failed to get away from Fox’s merciless tickling. “Raider’s like Fox’s BFF from back home. I guess they text all the time and shit.”

“What’s he doing here? It’s not Visitor’s Day,” Vincent snapped. He felt a surge of annoyance when Fox lost his footing and was pinned by the larger shifter. Fox was clearly a better fighter, but he was too busy laughing like an idiot to focus. His face was bright read and the flush was moving down his neck and chest.

“He’s a new packmate. Bunking with me.” Forest glanced at Vincent from the corner of his eye and held back a smile. “Why so curious?”

Vincent heard the suggestion in Forest’s voice and he raised his head to glare him down. “I don’t actually care. I’m just pissed there are two loud of the idiots now.”

On the floor, Fox yelped, twisted, and pinned Raider down again.

Forest’s smirk broke free and he stepped back before his leg could be swiped by a wayward sneaker. “Raider’s a raccoon shifter, not a fox. They’re not alike, not in instinct of ability. Unless you’re talking about the fact they’re both Latino?”

“They’re both annoying as fuck.” Vincent scowled and tossed his hair back from his face. “This place is getting so overrun with all you loud ass shifters I can’t even think anymore.”

Forest shrugged dismissively. Unlike Fox, he didn’t bother getting upset by the stupid shit that came out of Vincent’s mouth. “Come on, Fox. Let the guy up before he starts puking all over the place.” Raider’s face had gone from red to purple, and his body shook with laughter that didn’t break free except for a few gasps for air.

“Charming,” Vincent grumbled and picked up his backpack. He was done hanging around with Fox. The stupid idiot first acted like he wanted to take him to the hospital, but the second someone new showed up, he completely forgot. Dumb ass. Not that he actually wanted the menace around. Vincent glared at where Raider was gasping for breath. He just had no interest in being passed over for some musclebound raccoon shifter who didn’t have the decency to introduce himself before getting in a wrestling match.

Not that Fox gave the guy much of an option.

With a loud howl, Fox finally relented. He sprawled out on the hallway floor as he caught his breath.

“Fuck, how are you still stronger than me?” Raider asked as he pushed himself up to his unsteady feet. He brushed his spiky, dark hair back into place while the flush of exertion slowly began to leave his tanned face. His gaze was glued on Fox, and a dazed smile was on his lips like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Vincent had seen enough and was ready to go. Unfortunately, the idiots were in his way. He stepped around Forest and went to push past Raider, who tilted his head and squinted his dark eyes when he saw him.

“Uh, dude, are you blue?”

Vincent glared and fought back a scathing remark. He was seriously surrounded by imbeciles. Biting back his anger, Vincent held his hand out instead. “I’m Vincent Frost. Please don’t try to wrestle me of I’ll have to hex you across the Academy.”

Raider’s gaze dropped to Vincent’s hand and he froze. When he looked back up, he took a wary step away and refused to shake. In an instant, Raider went from laughing to defensive as his shoulders hunched in and his expression closed off.

Right. One of those shifters. Vincent’s day had been terrible enough without having that particular look directed at him on top of it. His lips thinned in a frown as he nodded farewell to Forest—it was rude not to—and he stepped around Fox, who was still panting on the floor.

Fox jumped up when he saw Vincent was leaving and reached for the strap of his bag. Vincent scowled and Fox was knocked back by a sudden roar of wind. Blinking a moment, Fox beamed up from his new place on the floor.

“Hey, Vince, hold on. I’ll take you to…”

“Fuck off.” Vincent kept his gait brisk as he walked away. He was done with shifters for the day. Maybe for a damn lifetime at this point.

SCENE #9

“Vince?”

Dumbstruck, Fox’s tongue slipped over a fang as he watched Vincent walk away. He had a great ass and Fox’s brain really couldn’t focus anywhere proper until Vincent rounded the corner and reality came roaring back.

“Crap, he’s pissed off.” Fox pushed himself forward on the tiled floor, and his bangs flopped across an eye. When he inhaled, he could smell Vincent’s anger vibrating on the air. “Fuck, he’s really pissed. I better see what’s wrong.”

“Who the fuck cares?” Raider scowled in the direction Vincent left. The hallway was now empty of everything but the white walls and soothing painting of an impressionistic landscape. “He’s just some freak sorcerer. Let him be bitchy alone.”

Forest glanced Raider’s way but didn’t comment. He reached down, grabbed Fox’s hand, and pulled him to his feet. “Maybe you should give Vincent some time to cool off, man. You practically flattened him into a wall when you came running in here. He was going to slice you to piece until he got himself under control.”

Forest ducked forward and added in a hushed tone, “I’ve never seen him lose it like that. I think you fucked up this time. Big time.”

Fox blinked rapidly. His gaze darted to the direction he came from as he replayed the events over in his mind. “Oh no.” Fox’s eyes widened as he realized his memory of running down the hall to greet Raider was from his inner fox’s perspective.

“No, no, no.” His animal mind had taken over his body without him even realizing it. “Fuck!”

Fox glared at his clenched fists. “I keep fucking it up, don’t I? What the fuck is wrong with me?” He swung at the wall and growled at the sting of pain when his fist slammed with a thud.

It just had to be today. Of all the fucking days, he fucked it up today! Raider just had to show up and… Damn it.

Fox hissed under his breath and leaned his head against the wall. It wasn’t Raider’s fault. He fucked this up all on his own. He chose to put off asking Vincent out until the last day, he blew up the damn classroom, he lost control of his fox. He only had himself to blame.

Fuck, was this the meds wearing off? Did he need to go back on the fucking meds?

“Fox, chill.” Forest rested his hip against the wall and met Fox’s angry gaze. “After you blew him up twice today, your chances really fucking dropped.”

Fox groaned in dismay and squeezed his eyes shut. He kept fucking up.

Fox cracked an eye open when Raider stepped up and peered down at him.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Raider turned back to glare at where Vincent left and then whirled to Fox with narrowed eyes. “You’re acting like you… Like he…” He couldn’t get the words out, he was so offended at the very thought. “He’s a sorcerer!”

Fox avoided Raider’s gaze as he pushed away from the wall. Fuck, he didn’t want to deal with this shit. He saw his bandanna on the floor, and Fox made his way over and picked it up. “It’s complicated.”

“He’s a sorcerer.” Raider obviously didn’t think anything about it was complicated. “I could tell just looking at him. He reeks of magic. Did he spell you?” Fear flashed in Raider’s dark eyes. “You reek of magic. Are you okay? Is he making you like him with a spell?”

“For fuck sake.” Fox fought the urge to slam his head against the wall until the day from hell was over. He exchanged a look with Forest, who just shook his head apathetically.

Fox sighed, and without saying a word, held his bandanna out in front of him. He flowed his magic through his fingers and the charred edges of the fabric repaired and the lingering ceiling dust and soot cleaned away until the bandanna was back to its normal, cheerful yellow design.

Raider’s eyes went wide as he stepped back. “Dude.”

“Things are different here.” Fox took a moment to meet Raider’s wary gaze. “You might want to, you know, figure things out before you say too much. This isn’t like back home. That kind of talk about sorcerers isn’t cool.”

Raider swallowed heavily as the yellow bandanna was wrapped around Fox’s head. With his silver hair hidden from sight, Fox was bright and larger than life once again.

Fox was uncomfortable under Raider’s stare, and he hunched forward and shoved his hands into the pockets of his long jean shorts. He hadn’t bothered to clean the dust from his blue and orange t-shirt, but now he was wondering if he’d have to if only to prove that he could.

Damn it, he wasn’t expecting any of this.

“Listen, why don’t you let Forest take you to see Michael?” Fox said tightly. “He’s the guy to get your room all set up, and he can explain how things work around here. Once you’re settled in, we can catch up and stuff.”

“Are you a sorcerer?” Raider blurted out. “Did you come here to, like, be one of them?”

Fox gave him a dark look and shot back, “Did you come here to be turned into a sorcerer?”

“Fuck, no,” Raider spat out defensively. His expression darkened as he refrained from explaining just what happened. “You told me you were living with a distant relative or some shit. Didn’t you say you were helping your cousin, you know, get his house rebuilt after a hurricane?”

Fox had told a lot of lies to a lot of different people, and it was hard to keep them all straight. He was good at dodging questions and lying his way out of commitments any time he visited home, and he didn’t like how Raider was suddenly in his face about it. His old life was barreling into his current life, and Fox didn’t know who the fuck he was expected to be. He sure as hell didn’t want to be judged.

Raider just came in and Fox already felt like he needed his approval. He hadn’t even gone to apologize to Vince because he knew how Raider would freak over him talking to a sorcerer. It was bullshit.

Fox stood taller and looked Raider in the eye. “Hey, when you feel like you’re ready to tell me why you’re here, I’ll totally share why I’m here. It’s no big secret, but it’s my choice if I want to share it.”

Raider’s expression closed off and he shook his head agitatedly. Fox could scent the unease on him and he waited. Raider was always freaking out over something.

When Raider finally answered it was with a forced casualness. “Sorry, man. I haven’t seen you in forever. I think I’m just in shock still.”

Fox shrugged and relaxed his stance a little. “I get it. It’s fine. Seriously, though, I need to catch up with that guy.”

Raider grabbed his shoulder before Fox could turn. “Is he the one? The guy you’ve been texting about? Your high-maintenance hottie?”

Fox groaned internally as every fucking conversation he had with Raider about Vincent suddenly played through his mind. Fuck, he never planned for any of this. Why couldn’t Raider just stay outside the world he lived in?

“Fox? He is, isn’t he. The guy you…”

Fox pulled Raider’s hand off him, ready to run and never have this fucking conversation. He didn’t want to hear a million very good fucking reasons how being with a guy like Vince could never work back home. Fox frowned when he felt the heat rolling off of Raider’s flesh.

“Man, you’re burning up. Are you sick?” Fox stepped back so he could look at Raider properly. It took a lot to get a shifter sick, so either it was the flu, or Raider was in really bad shape. Just why was he here?

“It’s nothing.” Raider flinched away and bit his lower lip when he looked back. “Fox, I didn’t mean to dis him, okay? I’m sure if you like the guy, he’s fine enough. I seriously didn’t expect to see you here, and well, I don’t even really get what here is just yet.” Raider looked around the hallway uncertainly, his eyes glassy with fever. “It’s a weird place. It smells like, well, like a ton of predator shifters. Uncle Joe said everyone was a flesh eater and… Fuck.”

“No one will fuck with you,” Fox assured him swiftly. “No one here is like that. I mean, sure, Leo’s a total dick at times, but no one gives a crap about predators and prey around here. We’re all fed well, and no one is that fucking crazy.”

Raider exhaled a heavy sigh of relief, but his smile remained fearful. “Yeah, well, I figure if they do give me trouble, I’ve got my scrawny, bad ass fox to sic on them, right?”

A wicked grin flashed across Fox’s features. In a quick move he grabbed Raider by the arm, twisted, and had his tall friend trapped in a lock. “Damn, man, you keep getting more muscle every time I see you, but you still don’t know how to use it.”

Raider chuckled as he went limp in the hold. “I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

Fox snorted. “You’re full of shit is what you are.” He went to pull him into another move but Raider managed to slip his grip.

Forest stepped out of the way before he could be elbowed. “Fox, don’t you want to…?” He tilted his head meaningfully to where Vincent disappeared.

Fox paused and licked his teeth as he remembered just how angry Vincent had been. His gaze drifted to Raider and he grinned widely. “Nah, I’ll catch him later. I should probably give Vince more time before pissing him the fuck off with my charming personality. It’s only fair.”

Forest huffed in frustration. Fox didn’t notice as he slapped Raider on the back as he pushed him toward the hall that led back to the entrance. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to the rest of the pack.”

“You mean the hospital,” Forest reminded as he followed. “He has a fever.”

“I’m fine.” Raider said quickly. “I’d rather, you know, get this part out of the way.”

Fox sighed and tried not to roll his eyes. He’d forgotten just how crazy Raider could be. “They’re not going to eat you, man.”

“Eat?” Forest stopped short and his expression turned incredulous. “You’re kidding, right?”

Fox shrugged awkwardly and turned to Raider, whose fear scent was filling the hall. “We have sorcerers and halflings living here, too. Everyone is taken care of. And no one gets eaten, even if you do turn into an adorable, fluffy raccoon,” Fox added with a wicked smile.

Raider growled grumpily. “Shut it, brat. There is nothing adorable…”

“Totally adorable.” Fox pinched Raider’s cheek before he could escape. “No one is going to pick on this cute, baby face.”

Raider scowled and rubbed the side of his cheek. His face was flushed red and he grinned despite himself. “Shit, I really missed you, you total ass. I can’t believe you’re here.” His gaze lingered too long as he smiled at Fox, and something sparked warm in Raider’s eyes.

Fox looked away and lightly shoved Raider to break the awkwardness. “Come on, dumb ass.” He was pretty sure Raider was crushing on him. Last summer vacation, Raider gave off a dozen signs of wanting into his pants. Fox had been so busy keeping all his lies straight about where he was living to really think about it at the time.

Forest grabbed Fox’s shoulder and stepped in front of him with a pointed stare. “Do I seriously have to remind you Master Theo will hunt you down and fry your ass if you don’t get back and help him clean up that mess? The only reason he let you leave was cuz you said you were taking Vincent to the hospital. You really want to test a dragon shifter after you blew up his classroom three times today?”

“Fuck, don’t say it like that.” Fox scowled and his shoulders slumped. “Three times. Damn it, he’s gonna roast me.”

“Dragon? You have a dragon shifter working here?” Raider’s face went pale. “Does he…? Does he turn…?” He looked around the hallway, like maybe a dragon was about to come bursting from the shadows at any moment.

Fox scrunched his nose when Raider’s fear scent flooded the hallway. Fuck, he forgot how easily freaked his friend was, and Raider was definitely over the top since the last time he saw him. “Listen, I gotta go deal with that before Theo freaks. No, he doesn’t turn into a dragon, but he does get super pissy.” Fox tilted his head to Forest, who seemed more than happy to be alone with Raider. “Forest will take care of you, man. You can hang in the lounge while the others hunt. It’s early, but they’re going out for Justin because of the full moon tonight.”

Raider only looked more terrified once he began to understand what creature cared about the full moon.

Shit. Fox didn’t want to deal with it. Master Theo was way more dangerous than the confusing crazy in Raider’s head.

Fox backed away before Raider could turn pleading eyes his way, whirled in the direction of the classroom, and took off. “See ya!”

Fox only felt slightly guilty as he ran down the hall. Raider was a great guy beneath all his fear. He was the loyalest of friends, would save your life in a heartbeat, and was always there to listen. He was also hot with those dark eyes of his and his macho look, even though he was a total cream puff under it all. Fox had enough time to get over the awkwardness of his best friend checking him out on occasion. He could only hope Raider would get a clue and get over his puppy love now they were sharing space.

When it came to guys who knocked him on his ass and turned his insides to white hot fire with one look, there was only his angry, fucked up Vince.

He wasn’t giving up. Today started off like shit, but it was barely afternoon. He was going to ask Vincent Frost out, and he was going to score a date. Fox didn’t care if he ended up scarred and bleeding; he was asking Vincent out today.

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