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All of your tomorrows

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Yancy Becket was having the type of morning he was certain was the reason they had so many clients, even in a world so dependent on technology. Generally it was a good thing. This particular morning, however, there wasn’t enough caffeine in the world to deal with the ongoing antics of his younger siblings and the amount of work it would take to unravel whatever mess they’d gotten themselves into - individually - and put things to rights.

He hugged his mug, taking long draws and blinking over the rim as Jaz fretted over a particularly dead looking plant, flapping her hands and making increasingly desperate noises while casting longer and longer looks at Raleigh. To be fair, horticulture had never been something she was particularly good at. Raleigh had inherited their mother’s green thumb, and could cultivate practically anything practically anywhere with little to nothing. Their brother seemed to have a knack for coaxing life from any stage into full awareness, which probably had a lot to do with his bright personality, the charm he’d gotten from who only knew where, that was seriously aided by the dazzling smile and insultingly (Jaz constantly assured them both) long lashes he used daily to near perfect success, and the kind, gentle nature being the intermediary between Yancy’s own lethargy and Jaz’s manic energy had likely nurtured.

“I don’t even know how it got this bad!” Jaz whined, looking to Yancy with wide eyes as Raleigh sighed and got up from his seat, abandoning his breakfast and shooing her with his fingers. “It’s been in the same house as Raleigh!!”

Yancy snorted so hard he nearly inhaled his coffee.

“You realize you still have to take care of it, right?” Raleigh drawled, looking at her from the corner of his eyes, from where he was leaning over the plant. “Just being in the same living space as me isn’t going to cut it. I’m not a faerie, Jaz.”

“If only we could get a faerie,” Jaz sighed.

“Bite your tongue!” Yancy snapped, doing so as both his siblings immediately complied. “Are you insane Jaz?! You never give them an opening like that!”

“I was just-”

“I know what you were ‘just’! And you’ll be taking that ‘just’ out on deliveries for a month!”

Jaz’s eyes went wide.

“Wow, harsh, Yance,” Raleigh murmured.

“Fix the damn plant, Rals,” he snapped, picking up his coffee and taking a long drink to try and level out. It was too damn early in the morning for this bullshit.

“Poor baby,” Raleigh cooed, stroking the wilted leaves tenderly with the backs of his fingers. “So much negativity. No wonder you’re in such a state. Everyone’s so grumpy.”

Yancy grumbled into his coffee but let Raleigh work.

Jaz sniffed, making her way through the rest of her breakfast slowly. Poking at it and tearing off bits and pushing it around her plate as if sulking would decrease her sentence for nearly opening a faerie portal into their nice, safe home. Raleigh, he trusted to say something that stupid without anything coming of it. Raleigh knew better than to put any sort of desire behind the thought. But Jaz...Jaz was still learning. Still intemperate. She was easily swayed by moods - whether her own or others - and was a constant source of trouble for all the accidental overspill. She was young and she’d been too young when Mom had died. Had needed her more than Yancy or Raleigh, had needed her guidance and her wisdom and they had moved to New York to find Jaz a Matriarch to help her. Someone whose magic flowed similarly enough to their own. They’d moved to New York because when their mother died, their father had gone with her and it was the first time they’d been confronted with the truth of what a Magical Bond really meant. Yancy had barely been old enough to do what needed to be done but he had always been strong, had always had control. And with a little help and some research, he’d learned that temporary bonds could be drafted. He’d struck his first Familiar contract at seventeen and had never looked back.

Once he was old enough, of course, it wasn’t quite so necessary. Once Raleigh was old enough they were more than enough to resonate with one another. They didn’t need Familiars when their magic harmonized so beautifully on its own. But Jaz...Jaz was an entirely different story. She tried, poor thing. But unfortunately it seemed like the harder she tried, the worse it got. They’d tried to synch up - the three of them - and had nearly blown up the house. No. The three of them together were too volatile. Jaz’s magic was strong but she lacked the focus to channel it properly. And as always, she turned to Yancy and Raleigh when things went wrong and they fixed it for her - no matter what. Which probably didn’t help, but wasn’t likely to end any time soon.

“So...He should be here around noon.”

Yancy looked up, drawn from his thoughts by Raleigh’s stilted phrasing. “Who?” he asked, taking one of the last precious sips of his drink. He could only have one cup in the morning lest it screw with his magical balance and he liked to savor it as best he could.

“My Familiar.”

Coffee tasted much better when it only went down. He coughed and choked and pressed his napkin to his face as Jaz screeched, “No fair! I want one!!”

“Raleigh!!” Yancy wheezed.

Raleigh held up both hands. “Yance, I love you, but let’s be real. We could use the juice.” His eyes softened. “I know how you feel about doing it again and...well, I’ve never done it before, so I figured it was my turn.” He shrugged.

Yancy was touched, really. Still… “Raleigh...How did you even find this guy?”

Raleigh scrubbed at the back of his head.

“Raleigh Becket.”

“Yance, just...don’t freak out, okay? Promise you won’t freak out!”

“Can I have-”

“NO!!” they both replied, cutting her off. Jaz gave a huff and dropped back in her chair, crossing her arms.

“I’m waiting, Raleigh.”

“I...Okay, so I may have placed an ad.”

Yancy could feel the tick in his jaw. “An ad.”

“Yeeeeeah. On...Mageslist.”

“RALEIGH!!!”

 

*****

 

Chuck blamed Mako for everything.

To be fair, it was always his sister’s fault. Ever since she’d come into his life, she’d done nothing but get him in trouble. Even though she was technically older, Chuck still somehow found himself the one facing the consequences whenever things went wrong. Oh, it always seemed like great fun at first - even now - it always had. But then, the inevitable happened, and he ended up in the shitter while Mako floated off untouched. She couldn’t help it any more than he could. It was in her nature. Just as it was in his to be swept up in it. But it was always damned inconvenient. Especially when Mako’s ideas were grand and consisted of a lot of preparation, planning and a wealth of grade A espionage.

Which was how Chuck found himself stranded in damn Yanksville with nothing but two crumpled up dollar bills, an eviction notice and a napkin with a hastily written address on it stuffed into his pockets. He’d been lucky to make it out of the apartment with anything really. That was what happened when you made underworld deals for convenience sake. But they’d both had something to prove and it - naturally - had seemed like such a good idea when they’d made the leap. Still, Chuck would rather bite off and swallow his own tongue than go back home. There was no way in hell he was calling his dad or Stacker. And Uncle Scott would worry and just send him money or a plane ticket - probably both - and Chuck knew he’d cave and run home. He’d go back to Australia and let Uncle Scott love and care for him like he was his own; let him make it all better until another few years had passed without him realizing it, and Dad and Stacker swept in for a visit and reminded Chuck why he hated everything to do with their place in the world. No, better to make it on his own. To prove he could to all of them. Himself included.

He’d seen the ad while on break between double shifts at Java Hut. He didn’t have a phone or a laptop - technology did funny things around his kind, unless you had the money for the warded shit, which Chuck definitely did not - but the break room had a pair of all access computers. He’d been on Mageslist looking for a new place, because Mako had jumped ship a week ago and his luck was running out. Only his sister could meet a group heading to Machu Pichu leaving that very morning. She’d packed, kissed his cheek and asked him four times if he was sure he didn’t want to tag along. He’d reminded her they’d already been twice, she’d responded “Third time’s a charm!” and grinning cheekily, skipped out the door. She called every day even though she didn’t need to. Growing up together had given them an indefinable instinct regarding one another and he would not only know if something happened, but after contacting Stacker about it, it would be handled immediately - regardless of Chuck’s personal opinions, Stacker Pentecost was a man who took care of his family and his business and they were - unfortunately - both. But, it left Chuck in a bit of a rut. As Mako’s name was on the somewhat less than legal lease and his was not. He’d been coasting on a Shifter Visa for three months without settling anywhere. And Mako had been taking care of the bulk of the rent. Some deal she’d made with the landlords left them in a nice enough space and Chuck worked to pay for things like food - because he ate twice as much as she did, luxuries like going out and staying in because he was far more social than she would ever be, and overall he’d be damned if he let her pay for everything. They were family and it bothered him enough that she traded in her talent to survive. It reminded him too much of how his kind had spent the majority of their own history. And how despite everything, it was still so much a part of them, they almost couldn’t help themselves any more.

So naturally, when he saw the ad his first instinct was to pause and read it. No matter that every part of himself bristled over the very existence of the category. Entirely regardless of the fact that he’d not only clicked on the category in the first place, but been drawn to actually browse an ad. He was responding even before he’d given it much thought. Taking a moment to take a quick picture with the webcam to prove he wasn’t fucking around. A small part of him grumbled that he didn’t have to look so fucking cheery about it, but by then he’d already sent the email and was five minutes late for second shift. By dinner break, the reply had come in, complete with contract and Chuck blinked twice at the screen in surprise before printing it out to skim it between customers for the next four hours. He poured over it all night, unable to sleep. By midnight he was so jumpy to respond, he got up and jogged to an Internet Cafe he knew kept all hours and had all access computers. The Magical had sent him two emails. One included a picture that had most definitely not been taken on a crappy webcam - and was also completely respectable, as there wasn’t a hint of the guy’s dick anywhere - and the other had a link to his family’s services site. Chuck browsed, too nervous to retain much, but not entirely stupid. The Magical he’d be contracting with was the middle sibling in a group of three and wasn’t it just like Magicals to flaunt their fertility. They were almost as bad as the Norms, who bred like fucking rabbits and then came complaining when things didn’t work out. Of course, the Norms were how the other side had survived since they’d become the dominant race, but that didn’t make any of it right in Chuck’s book. It may be the way of the world, but like most things, just because it was didn’t mean it had to be. There’d been a time once, long ago when the Norms hadn’t even known about them. Then they’d spent who even knew how long as enemies. Just because they were handy now didn’t mean they wouldn’t be damned inconvenient tomorrow. And when that day came the only way either side would survive would be to join forces against the prickly, feckless bastards because they seriously outnumbered them.

They agreed to meet the next morning and Chuck went home to change. He was hungry and the rent was overdue and it was a sign of just how desperate he was that he’d ever even considered any of it in the first place. But no matter how he personally felt about it, he knew that becoming a Familiar meant not just a steady job, but a respected position and a benefits package. If he signed with the Magical, the Magical would be responsible for caring, providing and protecting him for as long as they were contracted. Chuck would be expected to participate in magical transactions, lending his innate magical reserves - which were vast, replenishable and virtually endless due to his nature as a dual spirit - to his Magical when requested, acting as a consultant and intermediary between his Magical and others - including but not limited to clients, potential clients, ex-clients, hostiles and other Magicals - and offering his life in exchange of his Magical’s wherein his Magical would in so being spared then revive him. He’d never been much of a fan of the latter rule, but everyone knew that Shifters were notoriously difficult to kill in the first place. They had one weakness: Being bound to a Magical. In bonding permanently to a Magical, a Shifter and their Magical could extend their gifts, abilities and lives by great lengths, depending on many variables, not the least of which was their devotion to one another and how deeply their union drew them to connect. But permanent bonds were literally for life. Kill the Magical and the Shifter died right along with them. The Deeper the bond, the Quicker they went. Chuck had never fancied that for himself and he would never forgive his father for doing it.

He’d spent his whole life worrying if the last time he saw his father would be the last time. After losing his mother so young, all he’d had was his father. Their bond had been as strong as any shifter parent and child, especially after the loss of his father’s mate. They’d suffered and mourned and grieved together, but they’d done it together. Chuck had always known his father would be there for him, had had the security every shifter child deserved, and the social home every shifter needed to thrive. And then, his dad had met Stacker. Chuck’s life had never been the same.

Becket ended up being late. Chuck had spent the morning being so nervous the fact that the meeting time came and went initially passed him right by. He noticed soon enough though, and then he became angry. By the time he had to leave for work, he was furious. So furious, in fact, that everyone gave him a wide berth and his norm of a Manager - trying to be PC - offered to let him keep any messed up orders. A hungry, furious shifter was a bit of a liability and the company handbook suggested feeding them first before offering them an extended break outside. It was biased and slightly insulting, but most of them worked dead end jobs to stay out of the magical business and those in the magical business, well, they were happily kept, weren’t they?! In contract Shifters tended to stay in their Magical’s home, only really doing any work when specifically requested to assist. Most Magicals could get along quite well without Familiars, which was why even though they also outnumbered them, most did not employ them. And they were stuck having to fend for themselves in crappy jobs in cramped, noisy, smelly cities that grated on the nerves and drove even sane creatures fucking stir crazy.

The crack of marble beneath Chuck’s clenched fists echoed in the small coffee shop. He looked down as the entire place went instantly still and quiet, infinitely more peeved to find he’d only angrily leaned on the fucking fragile, stupid piece of flimsy rock and it’d snapped clean in half. As if he needed another thing to worry about! He’d most definitely be not only fired, but probably banned from the Java Hut, and the surrounding neighborhood for the duration of this generation of norms. He took a deep, steadying breath through his nose, feeling the pair of shifters making their way toward him from the far corner where they’d been drinking mochas and talking to a group of norms as if going to University was a thing their kind just did regularly. His nerves felt raw and he took a moment to take stock of the last time he’d just been out for the fun of it, surprised to find he’d been working so hard trying not to get thrown out of his apartment he only had time to barely suppress his hunger and sleep. He hadn’t even shifted in at least two weeks. It was no fucking wonder he was losing it like some bit of Fluff on the first day of Norm Kindie.

One of his co-workers lifted the counter to let them through and even though they only knew each other on a purely acquaintanceship level - they were regulars and had been kind and welcoming to Chuck from the moment he’d started work - he felt his body react to their proximity. Relaxing into the arms they wound about him and one another. They just stood there, holding each other and breathing, and the wild, panicked flutter in Chuck’s chest began to slow. It wasn’t until the chime over the door sounded however, that life seemed to flow back into the Java Hut. People softly talking again until the atmosphere was comfortable once more; natural and easy.

Someone laughed and the chatter picked up, turning jovial. Chuck twisted in the hold, the shifters on either side of him, also feeling the pull. In person, Raleigh Becket was frustratingly, obscenely breathtaking. Chuck felt his insides clench at the easy smile and the obnoxiously long eyelashes and all the shining blond hair. But what really sucker punched him in the gut was the urge to lunge across the distance and wrap his body around the Magical’s and ride him like a contender for the Triple Crown. He didn’t know if the others felt the same way, but he could feel them staring all the same. The rumble that vibrated in his chest happened all on its own. Raleigh Becket smiled. “Sorry I’m late, Chuck,” he said in a voice that dripped power and sex as Chuck’s eyes locked with impossible blue. “I got held up at the Registrar.” He hooked a thumb to his left and Chuck’s eyes narrowed at the officiant. The man took a step back instinctively.

Raleigh flagged a hand, arm extended in welcome. “Come on, let’s get this signed and then you can do whatever you want about this.”

Chuck yanked his apron off with one hand. It tore in at least three places without leaving a single mark on him. Removing himself from the tangle of his fellow shifters with a gentle bump of brows, he threw the apron against the broken counter, scooped up all his free food - mistakes happened with greater frequency around temperamental shifters and he wasn’t about to overlook free food - and dumping it in a carry out bag, wandered over to Raleigh’s side by way of shortcut over the countertop. Raleigh smiled and made an ‘After you’ gesture and they commandeered the Manager’s office for officiating. Chuck signed his name in his own blood with one hand, while virtually inhaling a sad excuse for a sandwich made of focaccia. Raleigh signed with his own, and dipping their thumbs in the wells of one another’s, they stamped under one another’s names.

As the man made sure the contract dried and prepared it for transport, Raleigh asked Chuck if he’d like to go home with him right away or show up in a few days. Realizing his time wouldn’t be his own for the next six months, and recognizing the kindness in the gesture - now that they were bound, Raleigh could have insisted; Chuck would have argued, but it was nice to know he’d judged the Magical well - he told him he’d be by the next morning. Raleigh nodded, smiled and wished him a good day, before going out into the coffee shop and fixing the damaged marble because, as he put it, “I can. Besides, you’re my Familiar now. Your debts are mine. Your troubles are mine. And it’s kind of my fault anyway.”

Chuck didn’t finish his shift. He didn’t need the paycheck any more, and he didn’t care about burning bridges. He was a Familiar now. The Beckets were well known and well respected in the city and he was Raleigh Becket’s contracted Familiar. He’d need to report to his home before it was all fully settled, but he had his protection now that the contract was signed. Not that he really needed it. Chuck had no intention of getting into trouble. He just wanted one day of carefree him time before he turned up for regularly scheduled servitude.

As it would turn out...he’d have been better off just going with his Magical right there and then.

 

*****

 

Raleigh wasn’t hiding out. He wasn’t anxious either. He most certainly wasn’t obsessively looking out the window of the front room trying to spot Chuck’s arrival. They didn’t know one another well and Yancy hadn’t taken that knowledge well at all, but Chuck wouldn’t be the first Familiar in the Becket home and Raleigh had taken special care and consideration in getting everything prepared for him. He’d spent a lot of time learning from Yancy’s Familiars when he was younger. They’d been like family to them and contract terminations were worse than divorces in that the freed shifters tended to stretch like they’d woken from a long, comfortable nap before going about their lives. It had been difficult at first to reconcile himself to the fact that it was nothing more than a job for shifters, and one they found an acceptable exchange when the contract was well written. Which was why he’d been careful to give plenty of freedoms to his contracted shifter. Chuck could come and go as he pleased, when he pleased. He had his own room, which Raleigh had very selectively dressed with complimentary plants to help ease any city created anxiousness. He had large windows overlooking the garden, with two great trees Raleigh had spent a year coaxing into growing just so to block the city beyond in preparation for his Familiar. When Chuck looked out it, he’d see nothing but green and sky. His windows had been magically treated so the glow of the stars and the moon would permeate any pollution the city cast over them. And the skylight above his bed would provide the perfect afternoon sun for long rests.

It was vitally important to Raleigh that Chuck be comfortable. He’d never had a Familiar before - Chuck was his first - and he wanted to do right by him. He was also, possibly naively hoping, that if things went well enough with the initial contract, Chuck might decide to stick it out a little longer. While long term contracts weren’t unheard of between Magicals and Shifters, they were particularly difficult to negotiate. Shifters required a very specific environment to keep healthy without a true bond and while they could manage a few years in contract, the longer the contract, the longer between them. Even Shifters needed rest, after all. And when the contract was broken down to its base elements, they were the ones doing the brunt of the work, as they were expected to offer both magic and soul for whatever cause for as long as they were in contract. Raleigh’s line of work would never require Chuck’s spirit, thankfully. Which had made the decision somewhat easier when he’d first begun to consider the option. Raleigh’s specialty was difficult to define, but essentially, his talents lay in the intricate details of everyday life. Whether it was the growth of a plant or the strengthening of a bond or even weaving together a perfect relationship...if it was full of life, could be touched by love and grow, Raleigh could help.

In a world of long distance relationships, social media lack of filters, social justice obsessions, and multilevel internet misconceptions...Raleigh’s talents were in high demand. And it was frankly starting to get exhausting. While his magic and his brother's worked well together and had never been much of a problem, keeping them balanced and focussed, Yancy’s specialty was a little more encompassing than his. Yancy was good at so many forms of magic it almost seemed like he didn’t have a specialty. That is, until one looked close enough to realize that Yancy’s abilities were lain out in who Yancy was as a person. Everything he did fell under the umbrella of his position as Older Brother - Protector, Provider, Healer...Yancy was strong in ways Raleigh couldn’t even begin to describe. At Yancy’s core his magic was centered and focused and he didn’t need balancing the way Raleigh did because he sort of had it already. He had Raleigh and Jaz to ground him; he always had. Yancy could fix anything, do anything, because at the end of the day, the demand for a big brother would always be there, and Yance had so much experience with it, it came so naturally to him, that he didn’t even realize how amazing he was. How much of himself he could sacrifice without realizing it. Which was just another reason for Raleigh to stop leaning on him as much as he did. Sure, Yancy might end up feeling some strain. But, he could just as easily not. The release of providing for Raleigh’s endlessly stressful magical demands might make his own life less stressful. And if it didn’t, well...Raleigh knew the real reason Yancy never wanted to take another Familiar. It might just be a job for shifters, but the exchange was so intimate for magicals...Yancy’s heart was still healing. And with their half shifter blood, Raleigh suspected it might not ever fully mend.

Raleigh’d avoided contracting a Familiar for a long time for many reasons. Not the least of which was concern over having the same experience. When he’d seen Chuck’s webcam picture, he’d had a brief moment of ‘Oh no, he’s hot’, before chiding himself on letting a good thing potentially slip by because he was an idiot. So he’d written him back - which had immediately soothed the odd clawing sensation in his chest that had kicked up the moment he’d tried to discard him as a potential - and almost before he’d realized it, he’d sent him the contract. After doing so, he’d taken a moment, trying to make sense of the jumble of anxious excitement that seemed to draw him to Chuck like none of the others. But he chalked it up to instinct and allowed himself to go with his gut.

Meeting Chuck had been an experience. The moment he saw him, he’d felt his entire body rock as if he’d failed to deflect an elemental spell. He couldn’t sign the contract fast enough. And it was only knowing Chuck would be in contract with him half a year - reminding himself Chuck would soon be in his home day in and day out, his magic a part of Raleigh’s body - that had allowed him to take the required mental step back and give Chuck his space. Chuck had looked at him with an expression he couldn’t name, then smiled in a way that liquified Raleigh’s insides and assured him he’d be at his house by noon the next day. Raleigh’d nearly forgotten to give him his address in his haste to fix the disorder and leave before his body could betray him. Had ended up hastily scribbling it out on a napkin when Chuck had followed him out of the office and collected his things from his employee’s locker. He’d grinned at his Manager, chin lifting in a way Raleigh suspected he’d never before dared in the small coffee house, given the man an off handed salute and wandered out the door jauntily. Technically, the establishment couldn’t do a damn thing about it and Raleigh almost laughed as he watched his Familiar cheerily stroll down the street, his tight ass swaying in his jeans. He turned to make concessions with the Managerial staff anyway. Making sure to get Chuck’s wages before he left. Chuck may not care about them for the moment, but he might eventually - he seemed the independent type and Raleigh wasn’t about to assume he’d be easily assuaged by a Familiar’s life - and Raleigh wanted to be sure when the time came, he had his own money he’d earned on his own so he wouldn’t have to feel so...indebted. He may not understand why many shifters felt so unsavory about spending money their magical earned through work achieved by means of their own contributions, but he did understand that it made many of them uncomfortable. And when the time came that money became an issue, he wanted Chuck to be at ease. For the money would be his own, earned entirely independently, and under his own strength. Raleigh even made sure they gave him all the vacation and sick days shifters never used, and that he was paid for the double, triple and holiday shifts they would have forced on him for his stamina. It wouldn’t be anywhere near what Chuck would make in even one of Raleigh’s client exchanges, but if Chuck was anything like any of the shifters Raleigh’d come to know, he wouldn’t want a cent of it. Even when he left. Especially when he left.

Movement on the street caught his attention and Raleigh jumped to his feet, scurrying to the window. Chuck was walking confused circles on the pavement, staring down at the napkin. Raleigh tugged his shirt down, shifted his jeans for comfort and ran his hands through his hair before yanking open the front door and trotting out with a wave, feet bare. “Hey, Chuck! You made it!” His Familiar turned and relief flickered for the briefest of moments, before he squared his shoulders. “You could’ve said it was a little out of the way,” he complained.

Raleigh frowned, then turned around and took a side step through the barrier. “Oh,” he replied with a short laugh. “Sorry.” They’d lucked out with their place. It was old; a couple of lots carefully shielded over the years to keep up appearances with the rest of the neighborhood. Most Norms didn’t even notice when they stepped over the threshold, because their eyes were naturally clouded. They saw the Brownstone, the front room, the kitchen, gave them compliments on their sunroom, but never really saw the whole picture. Chuck, standing outside the barrier, seemed to be having absolutely no trouble taking in the entirety. Raleigh figured it had to do with being his Familiar. His initial confusion easily chalked up to his never being there before and having no formal invitation, despite being a resident. Raleigh looked around confused now himself. “Where’s your stuff?” It may only be a six month contract, but it was binding. Chuck was his Familiar. His home was Chuck’s home. It was expected for the Familiar to move in entirely until termination.

Chuck shrugged. “Don’t have much anyway,” he replied.

Raleigh bristled, feeling something altogether new bleed through the edges of his senses. “Chuck,” he said through clenched teeth. “Name. Now.”

Chuck crossed his arms, drawing himself up to his full height, which was perhaps an inch or two above Raleigh’s own - and should absolutely not turn him on as much as it did. The stubborn set of his jaw and the narrowing of his eyes...the way his back curved into his hips sent Raleigh’s mind spiraling in wonder. Most shifters never even revealed their other forms to their contracted magicals in any sort of informative detail. It was something they usually kept to themselves. Shared freely among their own kind, but kept secret from most everyone else - save the rare individuals they actually honored with a full bonding. Raleigh found himself desperately wanting to know what Chuck was when he chose not to be human. Found himself hoping he’d be comfortable enough, trust him enough to shift in his home and share it with him.

He blinked when Chuck brushed past him, reaching out to catch his wrist, realizing his imaginative jaunt had caused him to entirely miss whatever it was Chuck had said. “What?”

Chuck turned easily enough. Raised a brow at him and didn’t yank his arm back. Technically, he was the stronger of the two of them. He even had more power in their relationship - both literally and figuratively, even if most shifters never actively utilized it. “I said, we gonna get this merging started or not? If you really want to go pick a fight I’m not gonna stop you.” He shrugged, as if it didn’t really matter much. “But, if you want to win, we should probably set the contract in motion first, or else a whole lot of trouble is going to come at us real fast for no justifiable reason.”

Raleigh blinked at him. “Set the contract in motion?”

Chuck stared at him. “You know…” He gestured between them and then the house.

Raleigh flushed. “Oh! Oh right!” His hand slid down Chuck’s arm, taking his hand. Their fingers threaded together as if it were the most natural feeling in the world. It was no wonder Yancy never wanted to do it again, if this was what it felt like at the start every time. Raleigh really didn’t want to know what it’d feel like when their time together came to an end and Chuck decided to move on. His fingers tightened about his Familiar’s and he drew his arm closer, leading him into the house. “Chuck--”

“You have to use my full name,” Chuck pointed out diplomatically.

“I don’t know your full name,” Raleigh replied, realizing belatedly he’d completely overlooked it earlier when Chuck had signed the contract.

Chuck sighed heavily and rolled his eyes. “It’s Charles. Charles Hansen.” He pointed a finger at Raleigh. “You get to say it twice! When y’ accept me and when y’ release me. If I ever hear anyone call me Charles or any variation thereof, I am going to bite the offender with intent t’ scar. Understood?!”

Raleigh grinned. That narrowed it down. Nodding, he crossed his fingers, then made a swearing motion before holding them up solemnly.

Chuck relaxed slightly at the ease with which he’d bound himself to agreement.

“Charles Hansen, I, Raleigh Becket, second son of Dominique Lapierre, invite you into my life, into my home, into my magic, into my heart and into my soul. I invite you to become one with me from this moment on, until such a time as we choose to separate or our contract has expired.”

Chuck took both of his hands and lay them over his own chest, palms open, his own above Raleigh’s. “Raleigh Becket, I, Charles Hansen, only son and heir of Hercules Hansen acknowledge and accept your invitation. I pledge myself to you entirely, and offer all that I am in service to you. Of my own free will, I choose to be one with you, in magic, in spirit, and in body. And decree that I shall be yours and only yours from this moment on, until such a time as we choose to separate or our contract has expired.”

Raleigh had never witnessed any of Yancy’s contracts being forged. They were a private affair between the magical and their new Familiar. He now understood why. The feeling was so intense he could practically taste it on the air.

“Where’s your room?” Chuck asked, huskily.

Raleigh pointed upward.

Chuck snorted. “Gonna need t’ be more specific than that, if we’re going t’ seal this deal.” He smirked, the corner of his mouth lifting in a way that had parts of Raleigh leaping as if trying to be free of the rest of him. “I don’t mind right here, but...your siblings might.”

“Huh?” Raleigh replied elegantly.

“This is the part where you fuck me.” The way he said it nearly shorted out Raleigh’s brain. Or what was left of it. And when he only blinked at him, Chuck’s brows drew closer together. “First time?”

Raleigh nodded.

Chuck cursed low and pressed close, bringing their bodies together. “We need t’ exchange fluids, y’ know, like how we signed in blood. Only this…” He nipped at Raleigh’s ear, and he swore he could feel each indent where Chuck’s teeth met skin for the briefest of moments before tugging free gently enough to send jolts of ready signals down to Raleigh’s very willing cock. Chuck somehow looked up at him from beneath his lashes. Dangling lightly in Raleigh’s slightly dazed embrace. “Is a hell of a lot more fun.” He grinned. “Ever fuck a bloke?”

Raleigh swallowed hard.

“Do I get t’ be your first everything?” Chuck drawled. He said it with a sexy sort of rasp, but there was an eagerness to it, as if he couldn’t quite believe any of it.

“My brother’s...very protective,” Raleigh replied.

Chuck laughed. The rumble of it went straight to Raleigh’s groin. “Well then, he’s in for a shock if we don’t move upstairs right quick. Though...we’re gonna need-”

“I’m not that innocent!”

Chuck leaned in close. “Prove it!

 

*****

 

He wasn’t.

If Chuck weren’t a shifter, he was sure he’d still be sore even two weeks later with how enthusiastically they’d consummated their contractual exchange. As it was, he was having trouble not following Raleigh around like some sort of love sick idiot. He’d never contracted before - not that Raleigh was aware of that - so he couldn’t be sure if it was supposed to feel this blissfully amazing or not. What he was sure of however, was that with each passing day, it only got worse.

After they’d made it nice and magically binding - and taken a nice breather, because fucking hell - Raleigh’d marched right over to Chuck’s ex-landlord’s place and upended their entire organization. They’d had power and a scary hold on a lot of different races, but a Magical with a Familiar they’d wronged? Freshly powered up and on a personal rampage, Raleigh was absolutely beautiful. Strong and kind of frightening and everything Chuck had always imagined for himself when he was little and thought bonding was some special happily ever after to strive for. Raleigh’d not only reclaimed all of Chuck’s things, he’d gotten him a lot of his money back - which he’d handed right over to him with everything else that was his - and proceeded to help out every last lingering victim he’d unintentionally freed, so no one was left out in the cold.

In point of fact, Chuck was having a hard time figuring Raleigh out. When they’d returned home, Raleigh had shown Chuck to his room - which had been both a surprise and a relief, as there’d been a fifty-fifty chance Chuck would be expected to stay in Raleigh’s - showing him around with a mixture of apprehension and a muted sort of glee. As if he wasn’t quite certain if he was allowed to be happy or to show off or spoil Chuck right from the off - which Chuck couldn’t figure out either; whether or not he was trying or whether it was just his innate personality. He was certainly proud of the space he’d put together and Chuck had to admit, he’d been impressed almost immediately. For someone who’d never taken a Familiar before, Raleigh had made an almost surprising number of thoughtful considerations with a shifter’s comfort and specific needs in mind. Which meant he had to have at least known another shifter at some point - enough that they had likely lived with or been very close to him. Chuck tried to ignore the jealous, possessive burn of his blood when he thought of another shifter anywhere near his Magical. The very idea of it compelled him to break things. To grab Raleigh and throw him down and fuck him deep and bite him, scenting him and marking him and making sure he was a walking highway sign that proclaimed him ‘Property of Chuck Hansen. Back the Fuck Off!!’ It was completely insane, given their very limited contract, and yet, here Chuck was, two weeks later, standing in the middle of the Beckets' atrium, trying to track down the faint but lingering trace scents of shifters he didn’t know. The fact that there seemed to be several did not help his mood any.

He was driven to the point of frustration just far enough that he was tugging out of his shirt when Raleigh’s younger sister came to a halt a few feet from him. Chuck turned to take in her wide eyes, her slightly slackened mouth and frowned.

“Are you really going to?!” she gasped out, fingers curling about the straps of her delivery bag tightly in excitement.

Chuck looked down at his shirt in his hands and took in his bare chest and the slight sheen across his skin. Clearing his throat, he yanked his shirt back on with quick motions.

Jazmine made a disappointed sound.

When he was back to rights, Chuck faced her again. She cocked her head at him, then smiled and dropped into one of the comfortable chairs. Her nose bunched slightly as she made a face at him. “You can if you want, you know. I won’t tell anyone.”

Chuck snorted and sat on the edge of the water fixture.

“I don’t see why it’s such a big secret,” she added. “I mean, haven’t you already sworn yourself completely to Raleigh?” She casually swept some of her hair off her shoulder. “Is it really everything if you hide what you are? Wouldn’t you rather get to…” She made a hand gesture. “Whatever about the house than hide out in your room and do it alone?” She paused, face scrunching up as if realizing her comment sounded dirty.

Chuck laughed.

“Sorry,” Jazmine apologized. “That came out wrong.”

“It’s fine,” Chuck replied.

“I guess I just don’t get the mystery,” she sighed with a shrug. “I mean, shifters aren’t really shy about it, right?”

“Around family, no,” Chuck conceded. “Our own kind. Kind of like extended family that way, y’ know?”

“Then I really don’t get it.”

It was Chuck’s turn to be confused.

“You should feel comfortable enough around us to do it. All the others did.”

Chuck’s insides bristled, internal hackles rising at the casual mention of others.

“I mean, we’re not exactly the same - which sucks, by the way, this one or the other rule is fucking stupid. I don’t care if it has to do with genetics and magical strength - it’s stupid! But you know, usually we’re close enough a substitution. Or, I always assumed we were. Actually...did anyone ever say or did we just sort of think that on our own? You know what?” She hopped up and crossed over to him, gathering all her hair to one side and tilting her head back so her neck was exposed. Chuck instinctively rocked back. “Smell me.”

“Excuse me?!”

“You should be able to tell!” She leaned in closer, dropping a hand by his hip. “Stop thinking with your human brain and just...trust your animal spirit and smell me.”

Chuck looked at her sideways, but he’d learned none of the Beckets were really outright mad. A bit wild in some ways - which suited him just fine - but not out and out insane. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and a mental step back. Leaning forward, he inhaled long and low, then again when what came back registered in his shifter brain. Jazmine made a soft sound as his arm looped around her and scooped her close, nose pressing into her skin and inhaling deeply.

A throat cleared.

“Hey Rals!” Jazmine greeted cheerfully.

“Jaz,” came Raleigh’s voice. “What the hell are you--”

Raleigh didn’t fight him. Went pliant against the floor when Chuck tackled him full bodied and dragged him down. Was still as Chuck ripped his shirtfront open and pressed his face into his skin, inhaling deeply, before reaching out to run his tongue along him for confirmation. He rocked back, straddling his Magical. Raleigh lay below him on the floor, looking debauched. His blue eyes met Chuck’s questioningly.

Chuck’s head twisted sharply to the side. Jazmine jumped slightly when his gaze landed on her, hands raising plaintively in the air. Raleigh’s hands settled over his thighs and ran soothingly over them in gentle repetitive motions.

“You really didn’t know?” Jazmine squeaked. “I thought everybody knew!”

“What the hell is going on in here?” Yancy demanded from the doorway.

“Chuck didn’t know we were half breeds,” Jazmine replied as Chuck got up and prowled toward Yancy.

Yancy held his ground, but tipped his chin sideways in concession when Chuck got close, looking to Raleigh who was pushing himself up with a heavy sigh. “You didn’t tell him?” His tone was only slightly accusatory.

Chuck leaned in and sniffed just under Yancy’s ear. Yup, him too. Reeling, Chuck took several steps back and flopped into a chair.

“I thought it was something they realized on their own!” Raleigh countered.

Yancy cursed loudly. “You have to tell them, Raleigh!! You have to put it in the contract! Did you put it in the contract?!” Chuck wasn’t looking at either of them, too busy staring down at his suddenly trembling hands. He could tell when Yancy got his answer though because his swearing got louder. “Raleigh!! This is why you don’t just decide-...How did you-...Who wrote the contract?”

“I used a standard contract for the basics,” Raleigh replied. His voice sounded small and angled, as if he were talking to the floor. Chuck was surprised he could still hear him over the sound of his own heartbeat thundering in his ears. “I tweaked the rest, but...I didn’t know I had to mention that! I swear I didn’t! Chuck!”

“Where’s the contract?”

“Chuck?”

“Raleigh, go get the contract now.”

As Raleigh hurried obediently from the room, Jazmine crossed over to Chuck quietly and settled on the armrest of his chair. She didn’t say anything. Simply rested her hands over his shoulders and squeezed while Yancy fumed across the room, power pulsing off him in disgruntled waves.

Raleigh returned with the contract moments later and Yancy unfurled it, half mumbling as he read. His tone got more and more distressed, before he choked, groaned and then said tightly in a pitched voice, “HANSEN?!

Chuck looked up just as Yancy dropped a hand over his upturned face and took a shaky breath. “Please…” he rasped. “Please, tell me it’s coincidental. Please tell me my idiot brother didn’t accidentally bond the only heir of the oldest shifter family on the deadliest continent on the planet.”

Jazmine and Raleigh went still.

Yancy turned to look at him. “Please tell me there’s more than one Charles Hansen in your clan.”

“Careful Yance,” Raleigh said, in what could only be a hysterical lull. “Chuck said he’d bite anyone who called him that.”

Chuck smirked. “Sorry, mate. One and only.”

“Bonded?” Jazmine echoed.

“We’re all dead,” Raleigh deadpanned.

“Nah, Ray,” Chuck replied. “Your siblings maybe. But not you. Kill you now, kill me. An’ my Dad’ll be right pissed if that happens this early in my life.”

No one appreciated his joke. To be fair, even he couldn’t really appreciate it fully. He’d set out to not starve and to fuck around a bit for a few months before going home. Not tie himself to a Magical for the rest of eternity.

His father was going to love this.

 

*****

 

Stacker Pentecost was the scariest Justice to ever live.

The Beckets had considered themselves lucky they’d only ever had to meet the man twice in their lives. And both times, they’d been wronged and the Justice was on their side. Now however, thanks to a minor contractual technicality, and some genetic imperatives doing their thing of their own volition, the Beckets were single handedly responsible for hoodwinking the man’s sworn son into a permanent bonding. Or more specifically, Raleigh had in not informing Chuck ahead of time of his half shifter statuts, left them both open to the possibility of a shifter mating bond taking root. Over two weeks ago, Raleigh and Chuck - in freely and willingly pledging themselves wholly and completely to each other - had accidentally taken one another as mates. The sex - which was supposed to seal their energies together - acted as a litmus test for full compatibility. Upon which, Chuck’s shifter nature had fully accepted Raleigh’s half shifter nature as it’s other half, dragging along Raleigh’s more dominant magical half, which set the bond in place indefinitely. Where shifter mates could pass without causing the other harm, the fact that Raleigh’s magical side was dominant meant that if and when he died, so would Chuck. A fact he was certain neither Stacker Pentecost, nor his Familiar Hercules Hansen would take with any sort of positivity, despite the fact that they had been living such a life for quite a while themselves. Or perhaps, because of it.

Regardless, the incident had been reported and the Justice was due to arrive any moment. Chuck had shifted - which had surprised all of them - and was stubbornly refusing to move from where he’d stationed himself below one of Raleigh’s raised nurseries. Short of crawling on his belly and risking a limb to try and scoop him out, there was nothing he - or any of them - could do about it. Chuck had informed them he did not have the best relationship with either man, and did not in fact want anything to do with them or their investigation into the accidental extension of their family. Which, Raleigh honestly didn’t think would help, but he couldn’t think of anything that could be worse for their situation at the moment, so he let his - fuckfuckfuck - bondmate be.

There were plenty of things he was curious about. If they were in fact bondmates, then there were a list of abilities that should now be opened to their perusal. They should be able to sense one another’s emotions, feel one another’s base needs, and communicate at multiple levels - which he knew for a fact was not something they could do. Or else he was positive Chuck wouldn’t be ignoring everything quite so effectively. Not when Raleigh was caught between throwing up and imploding. At least, he liked to think his bondmate wouldn’t be able to so easily ignore him. If he could, they were in for an entirely different set of issues. More than could be settled, even with a Justice present.

When they finally arrived, Justice Pentecost and his Familiar Hercules Hansen were accompanied by another shifter whom Raleigh had never met and couldn’t place save for the slight resemblance, both to Hercules and his own Familiar, Chuck. Unfortunately for Yancy, he was their clan head, which meant all the responsibility for Raleigh’s fuck up landed squarely with him. Raleigh wanted to explain that his mistakes were his own, but knew better than to speak out of turn. Especially when so much was already on the line.

“Becket,” Justice Pentecost greeted, with a nod. “Where’s your Familiar?”

“Chuck won’t be joining us,” Raleigh replied, pleased with the evenness of his tone. Apparently protecting his bondmate gave him some of his courage back. Even if it was precarious.

Chuck’s father frowned, and the other shifter with them rested a hand against his forearm, stilling him. He said something so low Raleigh couldn’t hear him, but Hercules nodded, and if it were possible, sat even more rigidly in his chair.

“Well, I suppose he’ll join us when he feels like it,” Justice Pentecost sighed. Raleigh, unused to hearing that particular tone from the man - resignation - looked sideways at Yancy, who looked back at him with equal surprise. Pentecost sat and folded his hands over the table.

Raleigh had to hand it to Yancy. His brother didn’t appear nervous at all. He was sitting perfectly still; calm, cool and collected. Awake and aware; alert - it was miraculous actually. Nothing tended to rouse Yancy like a good stressful situation, and despite his remorse for actually involving him, Raleigh had to admit, he enjoyed this side of his brother. It wasn’t often the shifter part of them reared, but when it did, it was kind of breathtaking to behold. They may never make peace with their shifter halves. May never be able to reach inside themselves to command and control them. But it did not negate their existence. And in moments where his family’s future was threatened, Yancy was as fearsome as any full blooded shifter clan head, with three times the magical ability.

Justice Pentecost met Yancy’s eyes and held them. They stared at one another for a long time. Long enough that Raleigh found himself looking away, only to note both shifters sitting opposite him were staring at him rather intently. Things were so intense, that when he felt the brush against his calf, Raleigh yelped and flew up from his chair, nearly kicking his bondmate in the process. “Fucking Hell, Chuck!” he cried, heart in his throat, a steady million beats a minute.

Chuck blinked up at him from beneath his chair, entirely unfazed.

Raleigh gripped the back of his chair and dropped into it on unsteady legs, glaring down at Chuck, who snorted at him when he’d finally taken his seat at the table again. He curled up between his chair legs and dropped his head over Raleigh’s left foot. At the contact, Raleigh’s heart began to slow. A warm, steady pulse of support travelling up his body from the warm spot that was Chuck below the table.

Chuck seemed to radiate comfort and Raleigh found himself relaxing, despite the tense environment. Chuck wasn’t intimidated by the Justice and his Familiar at all. And as his Familiar, Chuck would do what was in his power to protect and defend him. Raleigh had almost believed Chuck was going to ignore the whole meeting all together. But it seemed he was perfectly content in ignoring everyone but Raleigh. Which was more than enough for Raleigh, really. He didn’t even need to draw strength from Chuck - not that he’d felt a need - it was simply there, present within him, balancing him out.

Across the table, Hercules Hansen ducked sideways, nearly tipping into the other shifter’s lap as he gazed in utter shock beneath the table. The other shifter, who looked so much like them both, merely leaned back in his chair, legs extending beneath the table far enough that Raleigh could feel Chuck shift to nuzzle the man’s feet, and smiled. Beside him, Yancy was also looking under the table, but more surreptitiously. As for the Justice...Justice Pentecost was looking right at Raleigh. Raleigh straightened under his gaze and from beneath the table Chuck growled low and dangerous. The pair of shifters opposite him each raised a single brow in perfect synchronicity. Hercules in surprise, the other in amusement, if Raleigh had to guess.

“Well,” he said, folding his hands over his middle. “That’s that then, isn’t it?”

The fight seemed to vent clear out of Chuck’s father, who exhaled heavily and seemed to lose mass as he did. He looked sideways at the shifter beside him and made a very canine sound.

The other shifter shook his head. “You started it, ‘Le. Don’t start drafting the double standards now. What did you honestly expect? Bonding and dragging him all over the world. You should be glad he bonded so well. It could have been a hell of a lot worse.” He leaned forward and dropped both hands to the table. “Becket, is it? You took your father’s name?”

“What’s wrong with our father’s name?!” Yancy snapped, defensively.

“Nothing at all,” the shifter replied. “Becket is a Shifter name though.”

“And?” Raleigh and Yancy countered.

“Isn’t that unusual?” He gestured at them. “Don’t Magicals…” He included Justice Pentecost with another sweep of his hand. “Tend to focus on the Magical lineage? Why keep a Shifter name?”

Yancy sighed. He raked a hand through his hair and dropped his elbows to the tabletop. “Our dad was the last one. Our Uncle Charlie and our dad...that was what was left of the clan. They both bonded. Dad to Mom and Uncle Charlie to Justice Sawyer.”

The table went quiet as the information sunk in.

“Mom came from a prestigious family. They weren’t happy when she chose to bond over marrying from another prestigious family.” Yancy shrugged. “I think they felt closer that way. Like they were starting over somehow. And...If any of us ended up with a Shifter…”

The shifter nodded. “Not likely, but it’s possible. You’re only half but Magical is still dominant.”

“One in four,” Yancy replied. “It could still happen.” He sighed. “Then mom died and took dad with her…”

“Yancy struck his first contract at seventeen,” Raleigh pointed out. “His first Familiars ended up raising us mostly.”

Yancy looked down at his hands.

“Four years,” Raleigh said. “We were a family. And then the contract expired and-” He bit down the rest at Yancy’s hand over his wrist. Chuck nuzzled his ankle under the table. He was learning it all for the first time too, but Raleigh got the distinct impression that Chuck understood. That he hurt for them and was fully prepared to start a fight with the other shifter if they ever crossed paths.

“Raleigh turned eighteen.” He shrugged. “We didn’t need anyone else. Our magic resonated harmonically.”

“You didn’t need anyone because your shifter halves supported one another,” the shifter explained.

They both blinked at him.

“The magical half may be dominant, but you’re only half magical. Which makes you half shifter. And that half is strong. People who are a quarter shifter can spontaneously manifest their heritage if granted enough exposure. You’d spent four years with a shifter in the house.”

“Two,” Yancy corrected quietly.

All three men looked at him impressed.

“Two,” the shifter amended, with a nod. “And had presumably lived in exposure to your father all of your lives prior to his passing.”

They both nodded. Chuck sat up and leaned into Raleigh’s leg.

“It’s no wonder this happened,” he sighed. “And you...” He tapped his fingers against the table top. Raleigh felt Chuck’s head tilt against his knee. “Don’t think I don’t know you let yourself get swept up in everything and leapt without looking like you always do. You’re at fault here too, sprog.”

Chuck huffed, but rubbed his body against Raleigh’s leg. Raleigh reached down to scrub at his head, hoping Chuck wouldn’t nip at his fingers for the presumption. It just felt right. Chuck groaned, closing his eyes and tipping his head back. His ears slipped back and his body leaned even heavier against Raleigh. He wasn’t very big in this form, but he was built like a tank. Stocky and sturdy and hard muscled. Raleigh wasn’t concerned about Chuck taking any kind of real damage in this form, even if it was a little small.

Chuck nipped him and he smiled, caught. Leaning down, he grasped Chuck’s face in both hands and pressed their brows together, rubbing his face against the soft, warm fur. Chuck licked him. And did it again when Raleigh snorted a laugh. He allowed himself to be drawn up into Raleigh’s lap and made himself comfortable, rubbing his head and neck all over Raleigh’s chest and abdomen.

Hercules snorted. “We read you, Chuck. Loud and clear. Now, are y’ gonna shift back so we can discuss this like adults? Becket needs t’ know what you’ve gotten him into.”

Chuck gave a long sigh, before shifting right there in Raleigh’s lap. He didn’t even seem embarrassed by it and made it a point to lounge back against a suddenly flushed Raleigh. Dropping his head against Raleigh’s shoulder, he grinned up at him and purposely rolled his hips. Raleigh froze - well most of him anyway.

Chuck,” his father sighed in exasperation.

Chuck mirrored his sigh and sat up. He drew Raleigh’s arm around him, dropping his forearm over his unclothed lap. Raleigh sat up behind him, and settled the other about him as well. Chuck took a moment to absorb the proprietary feel, the security of the hold, before he turned to Yancy and dropped an elbow to the table, propping his chin on his hand. “So y’ know how y’ knew who I was and what that meant?”

Yancy nodded, having turned to face him. Chuck liked Yancy. He was direct, but kind. He’d always find a way to guide someone down an honest path, with the least amount of friction. Of the three of them, Yancy was definitely the most in tune with his shifter nature. Even if he didn’t realize it. And for all Raleigh touted his brother as ‘perfect’ Yancy Becket really did have a natural talent for virtually everything.

“Clearly no one’s gonna cause an incident over what happened.” He turned to look over his family just to be sure. He never knew with Stacker. But his Dad seemed to have given up all pretense and Uncle Scott was doing his best to not outright laugh at them all. Turning back to Yancy he added, “But because of all this ancient laws crap…” He heaved a sigh. “We’re going to need to have a formal ceremony and everything. And--”

Yancy’s eyes widened.

“So you’re familiar with it then. Good. Less explaining.”

Yancy groaned and dropped his face into his hand. “Raleigh, I love you. And because you’re a complete idiot I now can’t even threaten to kill you over this, but, I just want you to know you are going to owe me for this so fucking much.”

Raleigh tilted his head as he looked at his brother, confusion and concern swirling in his and Chuck’s chest. Chuck reached back to soothe him, stroking over his heart with the tips of his fingers. It was strangely satisfying to feel how easily his touch affected Raleigh.

“I’ll have you know,” Uncle Scott interrupted. “As the only other candidate and thus equally drafted, I am not at all apprehensive about our impending cooperation.”

Yancy sighed and scrubbed his hand over his face, dragging it across his hair and back over his neck twice. “I swore I’d never do it again,” he mumbled. “Not after…” His jaw clenched up so tightly so suddenly, Chuck wondered if he’d specifically cast some sort of spell on himself to keep it all from spilling out uncontrollably.

He cast his gaze sideways at Uncle Scott who didn’t at all seem concerned.

“How long was the contract for?” he asked.

“Six months,” Chuck and Raleigh answered at the same time.

Uncle Scott sniffed. “That’s not bad. I won’t even have to move really.”

Yancy’s chair slid back from the table with so much force it caused all three Hansens to cringe at the screeching sound. Raleigh pressed a hand to Chuck’s spine, splayed just between his shoulders, and the feeling of his nerves exploding subsided. Stacker brushed the backs of his knuckles against dad’s cheek in an affectionate gesture and dad relaxed as well.

“Excuse me,” Yancy said through a tight, obviously forced and overly polite smile. “I’ll just be a moment.”

He didn’t wait for anyone to say anything, turning on his heel immediately and trying to storm out of the room as lightly as possible.

Raleigh sighed. Chuck could feel the jumble of emotions reverberate through him but didn’t even know where to start going about untangling them. “I should…”

“No,” Uncle Scott interrupted, standing. “I’ll do it.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea right now,” Raleigh replied. The ‘or ever’ he’d left unsaid echoing in Chuck’s mind.

“Even so,” said Uncle Scott. “I’m going to be bound to him for six months. We’re going to have to get along and it won’t work if he doesn’t join with me of his own free will.”

Chuck was certain Yancy would go through with it regardless. It was just who he was. He would do anything he had to do to protect and provide for his siblings - he’d proven that many times over, long before Chuck had ever even met the man. Yancy would agree, would join with Uncle Scott of his own free will, but that didn’t mean he’d be happy about it. And it was that fact that bothered Chuck most.

Uncle Scott was the proverbial jewel of their family. For starters, he was a second child, which didn’t happen often. Of the same parents, making him and dad full siblings, which was even rarer. As first born, Chuck’s dad had been raised to lead. He’d been on track, taking a mate, having a child...then just completely lost it all the moment he’d met Stacker. Uncle Scott, who’d never been pressured a day in his life and been more loved and adored than Chuck was sure a body could stand, had stepped up and taken responsibility for the clan, making it possible for his older brother to make the incredibly reckless life decision of bonding with a Justice Magical.

When the Justice life had become too much for Chuck - who at such a young age could not be separated from his father for any reason save death and had thus been forced to endure being hauled around in Stacker Pentecost’s wake - Uncle Scott had taken Chuck in. Using his status as dad’s younger brother and current clan head to formally claim Chuck as his own. And in an act that was clearly above and beyond, he took in Mako too. Giving them the stable, social clan lifestyle Chuck had always needed to thrive, and Mako had never known existed until he’d welcomed them into his home. Stacker and Dad had wandered in and out over their teenage years less and less frequently, checking in, but able to take more dangerous jobs once Chuck and Mako had been secured.

Chuck loved his uncle in some ways more than he loved his father. And in some ways, Uncle Scott was more of a father to him than his dad. It had always hurt that Scott had never taken a mate, had been unable to make contracts, and in raising Chuck and Mako had foregone prime years that could have been better spent finding pleasure for himself, instead of giving everything he was to them and everyone around him.

In that, Uncle Scott and Yancy were actually well matched. The contract may call for a second son and an heir by his and Raleigh’s own crafting, but maybe they’d get two rights out of a cache of fucked up wrongs Chuck couldn’t really be bothered to classify as proper wrongs in the first place. Not when it’d brought them all here.

He watched his uncle follow Yancy out and leaned back into Raleigh again, turning his shoulder and nosing him under the jaw. “It’ll be fine,” he assured him.

Raleigh didn’t give a hint of not believing him - in body or emotional return - and responded by wrapping his arms about him and snuggling close.

Stacker cleared his throat.

Raleigh looked to him immediately. Chuck took a moment, waiting to feel his dad’s irritation start to prickle, but mindful of not outright disrespecting his father’s bondmate before turning a slight glare in their general direction.

“Now that things are settled,” Stacker said, folding his hands in front of him again in his business pose. “We can help you prepare if you like. After the ceremony your bond is going to expand a great deal, and it would be wise of both of you to learn as much as you can to avoid further incidents.” He paused for lingering effect, because let it never be said Stacker Pentecost lacked a flare for the theatrical. “Or becoming overwhelmed.”

“What’s to learn?” Chuck replied with a snort before Raleigh could voice any of the questions buzzing around in his brain. He felt his bondmate’s mouth click shut in unification, if unsure of the reason behind it. “Mako and I learned all we needed to and plenty we didn’t, being dragged around the world for nearly half a decade!” He turned to Raleigh, wiggling in his lap to get a rise out of everyone present - Raleigh began to go red as it clearly had an effect - and draped both arms about his neck. “It’s a good thing we’re so compatible, Ray,” he told him with a teasing grin. “The more we engage the deeper we connect forever.”

Raleigh flushed darkly and did his best to stare at Chuck’s bare shoulder as his cock went from interested to raring to go in a few syllables. With Stacker and his dad across the table.

His dad cursed into the hand he pressed to his mouth, but Chuck could smell his own embarrassment, just shy of reaching across the table to yank him by the collar - if he were in possession of one, which he most certainly was not.

Stacker cleared his throat again and pushed his chair back. Chuck could practically feel the man nod stiffly.

Raleigh’s adam’s apple bobbed in acknowledgement.

“We’ll leave you to discuss,” Stacker said diplomatically. “If you need us-”

“We know where you are, yeah,” Chuck replied, circling his arms about Raleigh tighter and sinking further into his lap. “Don’t worry about Uncle Scott,” he added when he felt them at the door.

“We weren’t,” Stacker answered, before ushering his dad out.

I’m worried about it,” Raleigh admitted, once they were alone.

“Don’t be,” Chuck reassured him, maneuvering gingerly until he was properly straddling him. “They’ve actually got a lot in common. They’ll work it out.”

Raleigh sighed heavily. “He never wanted to contract again, Chuck. I-”

“They’ll be fine, Ray.” He stroked his fingers through the hair at Raleigh’s nape until the blond tipped his head back to look up at him. Chuck smiled. “Now. Are you going to engage with me or what?”

His bondmate snorted softly and ran his hands up Chuck’s back. “Right here?” he asked playfully.

Chuck shrugged. “Everyone else is just going to have to get used to it. Might as well get them started. Besides…” He tilted his head, smile widening as he felt Raleigh reacting to him. “How badly do you want to nonverbally communicate with me?”

Raleigh groaned deeply. “We’re going to have to work on your social skills,” he replied, hands sliding sensually over Chuck’s skin, before cupping his ass.

Chuck cocked a brow. “Got a problem mate?”

“Only with sprouting wood in the same room as your family. And mine.”

Chuck snorted. “Well, we’re gonna have t’ get you over it right quick too.”

Raleigh grinned. “Oh yeah? Why’s that?”

His hands slid down Raleigh’s neck and over his shoulders, meeting in the center of his chest to begin working him out of his shirt button by button. “Well, for starters, I’m not about to behave, even for you.”

His bondmate chuckled and gave his ass a tender squeeze.

Their hips rocked together a moment as Chuck’s hands made it to Raleigh’s waistband. “I fully expect to have your full attention whenever and wherever I feel it’s required.” He drew his palm down over the bulge in Raleigh’s jeans, delighted by the way his bondmate’s eyes went slightly unfocused before dropping to half mast.

“That’s not exactly an unreasonable request,” Raleigh husked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Chuck agreed, leaning in to press his lips against the side of Raleigh’s neck. “Besides, I don’t think Uncle Scott’s been laid in years. Once he gets a taste of your brother, we’re going to be the least of your problems.”

Raleigh choked, hands gripping Chuck tightly.

Chuck drew back and grinned at him.

Raleigh shook his head. “You’re incorrigible.”

“One of my finest qualities.”

“Jaz is going to have to move.”

“Or you could let her get her own Familiar.”

Raleigh cocked a brow. “Oh really. Let’s give the girl who regularly blows things up a well of power.”

“The sex should calm her down.”

“CHUCK!!”

Chuck shrugged, but he couldn’t help the grin as he took in his bondmate’s internal conflict over the entire conversation. Raleigh was equal parts embarrassed - for all their sakes - flustered and in denial. “She’s not a kid anymore, y’ know,” he pointed out. “I think she’d do a lot better if you and Yancy just gave her some space and started letting her do things for herself and deal with the consequences instead of heading everything off.” He dropped his brow to Raleigh’s. “After all, we fucked up and it turned out alright.”

Raleigh’s mouth quirked at one corner in a half smile. “I think the jury’s still out on if it’ll be good for all involved parties.”

“What’s the worst that can happen?” Chuck countered. “Yancy heals and moves on with his life?”

Raleigh kissed him. “How’d I get so lucky?” he murmured against his lips.

“Oh I don’t know,” Chuck replied. “You were desperate, I was broke, some idiot put an ad up on Mageslist.”