It was one of their most antiquated laws, but it was one of their most respected, as well.
"Nana," Gerard had whined the day he'd turned fifteen, the year he was considered old enough to formally bond and mate. "It's stupid. We live in the 20th century. Why do I have to show off my abilities like—like a peacock trying to attract a mate?"
Elena sighed. "Gerard—"
"And it's so shallow, like selecting a mate based on appearances." His face scrunched up. "It's sexist!" he declared.
She raised her eyebrow coolly at him. "Gerard, stop it. Once you're mated and bonded you can get yourself elected to the ruling council and work on getting the laws changed. Until then, stop whining and suck it up."
Gerard pouted at her and she just laughed. Worst Nana ever.
It was just one thing, and it didn't have to be something obvious and loud. Understated was fine, too. After a while, Gerard had to admit it was good practice, fine-tuning his skills, seeing if he could produce and sustain subtle changes. He spent a whole month playing with his eye color, trying out different permutations of green-blue-brown, depending on his mood.
Eventually, it became a game, seeing how far he could go without attracting the notice of the normals. Given that he already had the reputation of being the weird art kid, it wasn't hard to pull off some outrageous changes without anyone ever remarking upon it. He grew an extra finger on his right hand (which felt weird), and for a week he varied his height.
He realized then that he was mostly invisible to his classmates. He didn't even register far enough on their radar to be bullied or picked on, which should have been a blessing. Instead, it was just depressing. He spent the rest of his freshman year skulking around with his portfolio, unseen.
"You're upset because no one's picking on you?" Mikey's voice was even, but Gerard could hear the hint of disbelief.
"No! That's not what I'm saying. I'm just—" He made a vague gesture. "I dunno," he admitted. "I feel like a ghost, sometimes."
"Nana says you have to find a balance, being seen and not. When it's just shifters, you don't have to hide yourself, but with normals—" Mikey shrugged. "Besides, high school's supposed to suck."
Gerard shrugged. "I guess."
Mikey tried to cajole Gerard out of his mood. "We could go play tonight, in the woods. Pick a shape and just run, or maybe—" he looked at Gerard slyly, "—hunt."
"Hmmm." It'd been a while since they'd done that, pretended to be wolves or jaguars and run wild and free, chasing after rabbits and deer. Gerard could remember the taste of blood in his mouth, hot and sharp, the feel of flesh tearing and the sound of bones crunching between powerful jaws. It made his heart race with excitement. "Maybe," he said, nonchalant, but Mikey wasn't fooled. He knew that Gerard liked hunting in the dark of the night.
Mikey pulled him close. "Just three more years, and you'll be off at college."
"Yeah." Gerard didn't like the idea of leaving Mikey behind when the time came. They'd never been apart for more than a day or two at most and the idea of going a whole week without seeing Mikey was just—Gerard tried not to think about it; college was still years away, after all.
After a while, Gerard just stuck to varying his hair color. It was easy and it made him a little noticeable, but not in a way that raised anyone's suspicions. Blond, black, brown, red, brown with turquoise streaks, black with red streaks, brown with blond streaks. If nothing else, it saved him from spending a fortune in hair dye.
"Just like your mom," Elena remarked, and Gerard had to fight not to roll his eyes at her.
She just smiled at him and pressed a kiss to his forehead.
When Mikey finally turned fifteen and hit high school, Gerard was happy to have at least one friendly face in the place. During the first day of classes, they met in the cafeteria for lunch, a smaller, dark-haired kid trailing behind Mikey like a shadow.
"Gerard, Frank. Frank, my big brother Gerard." Mikey made short work of the introductions. "Frank's family moved here a couple of weeks ago, so he's pretty new to Belleville. But he's cool."
"Hi, Frank," Gerard said, sticking out his hand like an idiot.
Frank didn't seem to be put off by Gerard's outstretched hand, just took it in his own. Gerard was distracted by a tattoo peeking out from under Frank's sleeve. Their hands met and the touch was electric. Gerard looked up into Frank's eyes, startled. "Oh." He let go of Frank's hand reluctantly.
With a cheeky grin, Frank winked at him.
"Not normal, then," Gerard muttered to himself.
"Nope," Frank agreed.
As Gerard watched, a scorpion tattoo appeared on Frank's neck. He had the weird urge to lick it.
"Frank doesn't believe that Dawn of the Dead is better than Night of the Living Dead so I'm going to make him come over and watch Dawn with us tonight."
Gerard whipped his head to look at Mikey suspiciously, but Mikey had his innocent face on, giving nothing away. "All right." He smiled back at Frank shyly. "That'll be awesome."
"Great. Be right back." Frank wandered over to stand in the lunch line. Apparently he didn't realize what a risk he was taking by braving the cafeteria food. He'd learn.
"One of us, huh?"
Mikey just nodded. "Yeah. What are the odds?"
"Dunno." Gerard's eyes were drawn to Frank's small form. "Well, at least the year's going to be interesting," he conceded.
"Yeah," Mikey said, distracted. He was watching Alicia Simmons, who was from one of the resident shifter families, laugh with her group of girlfriends.
Gerard nudged him. "You should go talk to her."
Mikey blushed. "Maybe next time."
Laughing, Gerard threw his arm around Mikey's shoulders. "Maybe high school's not so bad after all."