Linda sighed, and rinsed the soap suds off her hands. "In here, Frankie."
She heard Frankie thunder down the stairs and into the kitchen, and she opened her mouth to scold him, turning and—"Oh!" She clapped her hand over her mouth to hide her grin at the sight of two vulpine ears gracing the crown of Frankie’s head. "My, what big ears you have, Frankie." Peering around him, she asked, "No tail?"
"Mama!" Frankie stamped his foot at her. He was still wearing his pajamas and she desperately wished she had a camera handy. "It’s not funny."
Linda tugged gently at a black-tipped, fuzzy ear. Frankie was growing up so fast; it seemed like just yesterday he was a baby and now he was a too-serious eight-year-old that was starting the long process of Changing. It would be a few years before he would be able to Change completely into his fox-self; in the meantime, he would be able to practice with his ears and eventually his tail when Normals weren't around. She patted an empty stretch of the kitchen counter and lifted when Frankie jumped, giving him a minute to settle before she said, "You have to admit it’s a little funny, Frankie."
He crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at her. "No, it’s not."
"Is too." She decided to end the argument by tickling him, running her fingers against his sides until he giggled and squirmed and gasped. "Well, you’re definitely taking after my side of the family," she said, once his breathing was back to normal.
He flicked an ear at her as he leaned against her, and she wrapped her arms around him. "I was worried I was going to be like Dad."
"Oh, honey," Linda sighed, petting his hair. "There’s nothing wrong with your Dad. The Blood is thinner in his family, but there’s nothing shameful about that. And there’s lots of people in the world without any Blood in them at all. . ."
"I wanted to be like you, special and different."
"Frankie—" Linda rubbed her cheek against one of his ears, feeling the softness of the fur. "Even if you had never Changed, you’d still be special and different."
He scrunched his face at her. "You’re only saying that because you’re my mom and you hafta say nice things about me."
She laughed and shook her head ruefully. "You got me there, kiddo." She dropped a loud, smacking kiss on his forehead. "Let’s get you Changed back to your human-self and then we can go visit Nana. She’s going to be so excited."
"Will I get a treat?"
"Frankie!" she chided.
"That means yes," he said smugly, peering at her through his long bangs.
She ignored that. "Okay, close your eyes for me, Frankie, and listen to my voice."
Sitting up straight, he obediently shut his eyes and tilted his head.
"Feel your body, listen to it. Hear the wildness that runs through your Blood, pulsing through your veins." She kept her voice low, a soothing cadence. "Reach out and touch your connection to the earth, to the Moon, to life. Can you feel it, Frankie?"
"Yesss. . ." He turned his trickle of power inward and the outer world faded away.
"Good boy," she crooned. "Can you sense the difference between the two halves of your soul, skin and fur? Focus on that, Frankie, and when you’re ready, hold on tight and make the Change."
Linda watched as he breathed deeply, slowly, forehead wrinkling as he concentrated. "Oh," he sighed, and between one second and the next his fox ears were gone. He opened his eyes and blinked at her. "That was. . .harder than I thought it was going to be."
"But you did great for your first time. You’re still young, sweetheart. Between now and your full Change, you’ll have plenty of time to practice."
Frankie looked dubious.
"It's going to get easier, I promise." She kissed his cheek and held his hands as he jumped off the counter.
When Linda and her mother, Angelina, took him to his first coming-of-age Gather, held for one of the Wentz kids, Frankie was the proud owner of fox ears and a long, white-tipped fuzzy tail. The tail was still a fairly new thing for Frankie, so he spent an inordinate amount of time chasing it, twirling in circles until he was dizzy and giggling.
Gathers were an odd fusion of tradition and informality. The first thing they did was go and pay their respects to the Elders, settling Angelina in her spot among them, unfolding her lawn chair in the shade from an old elm.
Frankie kissed his nana's cheek and took his mother's hand as she introduced him around the circle of Elders. He kept a firm hold on her fingers and tried his best to remember his manners, because he could feel their power, like the crackling electricity in the air during a thunderstorm.
"This is Maria Ortiz, and Jonathan Dewees, Sarah Pellisier and Mike McGuire, Melinda Simon, Grace Saporta. Oh, and Elena, Elena Rush. Respected Elders, this is my son, Frank."
Frankie bowed carefully. He knew Mrs. Ortiz, of course, because he spent a lot of time over at Ray's house. She made the best oatmeal cookies. And he was sure that Mr. McGuire was his friend Hambone's grandpa. The rest of the names were unfamiliar to him.
"How old is he, Linda?"
He turned to Mrs. Rush, who was smiling at his mom.
"He'll be turning twelve at the end of October."
"I have a grandson about your age," she said, looking at Frankie. Her eyes were dark and mysterious. She was different; she was powerful, more so than the other Elders, but different in ways that Frankie couldn't even begin to understand. She didn't feel like lightning; she felt like thunder. "I've got two, actually, but the other's a couple years older than you and Mikey. They've recently moved back into town and are here at the Gather. Maybe you'll meet them."
"I would be honored," Frankie replied. It was an effort to not fidget and bounce around. His mom would ground him forever if he showed any disrespect toward the Elders. He knew better, and in reward, his mom beamed at him.
"So polite. And such lovely ears, too," Mrs. Rush said.
He could feel himself turning red, but he couldn't resist showing off his tail a little. It still took a fair bit of concentration to move it; he swished it from side to side, calling attention to it.
"Oh, and what a beautiful tail." That was from Mrs. Ortiz.
Linda smiled down at him and gave his hand a squeeze. "He's very proud of it."
"As well he should be," Mrs. Rush agreed. "Congratulations, Linda. And Frank. We're happy to have another of the Blood among us."
"Thank you, ma'am," Frankie said with another bow.
His mom shooed him off. "Go make some friends, have some fun, Frankie."
He didn't need to be told twice. "Thanks, Mom." He stood still, face scrunched up, as she leaned down for a kiss. She tugged on one of his fox ears for good measure.
"Stay out of trouble!"
"I will," he promised.
He found Ray, and they went and got sodas and food from the adults manning the grill. Some kind of mechanically processed beef-pork-chicken hot dog for Ray, a hamburger for Frankie. And corn on the cob, roasted and buttery.
There were two boys in line in front of them, one really skinny dude with glasses and a slightly chubby guy with long, black-dyed hair. Frankie heard the name 'Mikey' and had to wonder if these were Mrs. Rush's grandkids.
Shyness was not something that Frankie was familiar with. "Hey, you guys new? Wanna come hang out with me and Ray?" he asked, gesturing with his paper plate of food. "We're gonna sit over there and talk about music and comic books and horror movies, if you're interested."
Ray gave him a raised-eyebrow look and Frankie shrugged. Better to find out now if the new guys were assholes or not. Though Frankie was leaning more toward not, because they didn't smell mean and they didn't look like they'd fit in so well with regular people. Never mind the fact that their family was obviously Blooded or Allied.
The two looked at each other, exchanging significant looks before shrugging. "Sure," the skinny one said.
"C'mon, then," Frankie said, leading the way. He sat down, mindful of his tail, back against the rough bark of a tree. Ray sat next to him, barely touching, and they watched as the other two settled across from them.
Ray took a bite of his hotdog. "I'm Ray, he's Frankie," he said, still chewing.
"Don't talk with your mouth full." Frankie shuddered and punched Ray lightly in the arm. "You're such a gross motherfucker."
"Mikey." That was from the skinny one. He nodded toward the other boy, who seemed to be really interested in his food. "Gerard." His lips quirked the tiniest bit. "Cool tail."
Frankie flicked one of his fox ears and grinned, looking at Ray, who rolled his eyes.
"Frankie's been showing the damn thing off for days now. He's been really annoying."
Mikey laughed at that, and Gerard shyly peered up at them through his long bangs.
"You're just jealous, because your tail is short and stumpy." Frankie ran his fingers through the soft fur of his tail, still amazed that it was part of him, that he could feel it when he touched it.
"Yeah, but when I finally Change, people won't notice my tail. They'll be looking at my claws and teeth."
"Bear?" Gerard asked.
Frankie tried to imagine what Ray looked like to a stranger: big kid, lots of curly hair, a set of dark rounded ears on top of his head.
"Yeah," Ray said, bashful and blushing. "Black bear."
"Cool," Gerard mumbled, taking a bite out of his burger. "And you? From your ears and that tail, some sort of canid. . .wolf, coyote, jackal, maybe fox?"
Frankie bounced a little in place. "Yeah, fox. Red fox."
Gerard nodded, satisfied. "Thought so."
"What about you guys?" Frankie knew it was rude to ask when someone wasn't showing any visible aspects of the Change, because there was a lot of prejudice against those with thinner Blood, and against those who didn't have a fur-self at all. But he was curious.
"Frankie!" Ray sounded scandalized, and the brothers, almost in unison, dropped their eyes to the ground. Gerard poked at the food on his plate.
"Sorry, I didn't mean—" He was only a little sorry; he really wanted to know, but his mom would yell if she found out he'd been so rude.
Mikey looked back at him, shrugging, his cheeks faintly red. "S'okay."
Ray elbowed Frankie sharply. "Frankie starts his DE classes next weekend," he said, by way of apology. "Maybe by then he'll have remembered his manners."
"Mikey'll be in DE, too," Gerard said. "But he knows a lot already, because I told him about mine."
"What does DE stand for, anyway?" Mikey asked.
"Deportment and etiquette," Gerard and Ray chorused in unison.
Frankie made a face and stuck out his tongue. "Sounds boring. Are they going to make us take tests, too?"
"God, I hope not," Mikey said fervently. "I hate taking tests."
"No, no tests," Gerard said, chewing thoughtfully. "A lot of history about Blooded families, what it means to be Blooded, how to interact with Normals, things like that. Useful stuff."
"I learned a lot," Ray said, leaning against Frank. "Like how not to ask questions that might embarrass other Blooded, or hurt their feelings."
"I said I'm sorry," Frankie muttered, hiding his red face against Ray's arm. And now he did feel bad about prying.
"It's okay, really," Gerard told Ray quietly. "It's not something—"
"—we like to talk about," Mikey finished. He bumped his shoulder against Gerard's.
"Sorry," Frankie said again, and this time he meant it.
"Music? Comics? Movies?" Ray turned to Gerard and Mikey, apparently intent on changing the subject.
"How about all of the above?" Mikey asked, while Gerard pulled out a sketchbook and started showing them the comic he was drawing with Mikey as a mutant superhero.
"I like you guys," Frankie confessed with a grin.
They all laughed and started talking about their favorite comic books.
Gerard had been right, the DE classes weren't that bad. They were held in the basement of the community center; the kids got to sit at a big table and eat the snacks that some of the parents sent along.
It was less like school and more like summer camp, only without the outdoor activities. Frankie and Mikey sat next to each other in a group of about ten other students, kids that Frankie had known forever.
There wasn't any homework or tests, and their tutor, Mr. Van Vleet, had a way of making things interesting. He wasn't an old guy, not like their usual teachers and he taught music and coached basketball at the high school. All the girls sighed over him and Frankie wasn't sure why.
"There's going to be a lot of information to process," Mr. Van Vleet said. "And some of it's going to be embarrassing. But it's important that all of you are comfortable asking questions, because these are the things that will affect your life. Being Blooded means that we do things a lot differently than Normals."
Frankie tried not to wrinkle his nose at the sharp scent of discomfort that permeated the room and hoped that he wouldn't blush too much during class.
"He means sex," Gerard said, matter-of-factly, when Frankie and Mikey asked him about it.
"Ew." Mikey scrunched up his face and Gerard laughed at him.
"Trust me, Mikes, you won't always be saying 'ew.' Some girl or guy will come along and the next thing you know—" He quickly drew a pair of zombies locked in a kiss, body parts scattered around them. Frankie grinned.
Mikey held up a hand. "I don't wanna hear about it."
"But I do," Frankie whined.
"You'll find out, soon enough," Gerard shrugged.
Mikey bumped shoulders with Frankie in apology.
Mr. Van Vleet told them about the history of the Blooded and Allied families, the three different branches and how they evolved over time: the Born, the Made and the Walkers. He talked about how many of the Blooded felt that there was a hierarchy of power, but Mr. Van Vleet said that wasn't the case, that no branch had more innate power than the others.
He pointed out that thinking one branch was more or less important than another was a good way for prejudice to get started. There were some Blooded who thought it was a big deal, the differences between Born and Made, but it was the Walkers that seemed to experience the most discrimination among the Blooded. Their ability to Change came from their totem and its Caretaker, and some of the Blooded viewed that as a weakness.
Which it could be, since it was the Caretaker that controlled the flux of power from the totem. Families had to trust their Caretakers to have the family's best interest at heart, and that wasn't always the case. There had been whispers of Caretakers abusing their powers, barring individuals from the Change out of spite and other, darker things.
Frankie's family was Born, descended from one of the original Blooded families, but he knew that the Toro-Ortiz family was Made, a family cursed or spelled into the Change. His mom had never acknowledged a difference between Born and Made, but he'd heard Aunt Philomena say things about some of the Made families in town. The last time she'd come to visit, Mom and Aunt Phi had gotten into a huge fight about it and Mom had kicked her out.
It made sense, now, what Aunt Phi had said. And he understood why it had pissed his mother off so much.
"Do you think the Ways are an Allied family? Not Blooded?" he asked Ray, the next time Frankie saw him. Gerard and Mikey were coming over to Frankie's house to watch movies, but the brothers were notorious about never being on time.
"It's possible," Ray said. "But—"
"Yeah," Frankie agreed. "Being an Allied family doesn't explain the power they have." He shivered, because sometimes Gerard and Mikey threw off so much power that it made Frank's skin crawl. "Maybe they're Walkers?"
"You're too curious for your own good, little fox. It's going to get you into trouble one of these days."
Frankie curled up against Ray and sighed. "I guess. I hate not knowing."
"When they're ready, they'll tell us."
"I suppose," Frankie pouted.
The next DE class was. . .horrifying.
"This is going to be tough," Mr. Van Vleet said. "But we're going to talk a little about sex." He sat at the front of the room, looking at each of them in turn.
Frankie flushed, and didn't dare look around to see if anyone else looked as awkward as he felt. Mikey shifted in his chair, though, so Frankie thought maybe he wasn't the only one who wanted to die of embarrassment.
"It's hard enough being a teenager. You're nothing but a tightly wound bundle of overactive hormones and the one thing you can't stop thinking about is sex." A titter ran through the room. "But for the Blooded, it's so much worse. You feel the pull of the Moon, the draw of your furred soul. Often, your wild heart confuses sex with the hunt and that just amplifies everything you're feeling."
Frankie scrunched further down into his chair, because he really didn't want to deal with this yet. He could feel the Moon, had gotten a faint taste of Her draw, but he knew it was only going to get stronger.
"Normals prevaricate, they evade, they hedge. And they do all of this because their senses aren't as sharp as the Blooded. They can't scent a lie, smell arousal, hear the fear in the pounding of a heart. The Blooded don't have the luxury of hiding behind words. We're ruled and exposed by our senses."
It got worse from there.
"Oh my god," Mikey moaned to Gerard later that afternoon. "It was—and he talked about—and then he—"
"Ew," Frankie agreed.
Gerard made fun of them until they tackled him to the ground and tickled him until he cried uncle.
It turned out that Gerard was right, of course. A year later the Simmons family moved into town and Mikey spent all of his time chasing after Alicia Simmons. Frankie supposed she was cool, but she kinda scared him, because she was tall, taller than Mikey and had a bad girl vibe to her. She looked tough and Frankie was sure she could break him in half, if she wanted to.
But Mikey liked her, a lot, so Frankie did his best to be friendly to her and stay on her good side. They hung out together sometimes, Ray and Mikey and Alicia and Gerard and Frankie, a big pile in Gerard's basement, watching slasher flicks, or over at Frankie's, listening to music and taking turns trying out Frankie's guitar.
Alicia played bass guitar; she came from a family of musicians and Mikey developed a huge interest in learning the bass as well. Frankie and Ray teased him about it and then spent time tutoring him on the instrument.
More often than not, it was only Gerard and Ray and Frankie, though, and Frankie tried not to think about how much he missed Mikey.
"It sucks," he pouted.
They were lying on Gerard's bed, Ray and Gerard sitting up against the headboard, Frankie wedged firmly between them. Ray had control of the remote and was idly channel surfing, while Gerard had his sketchpad on his knee. He was doodling vampires and zombies; it amazed Frankie how talented Gerard was, even when he was only fooling around with colored pencils and a beat-up sketch pad.
Ray reached down and combed his fingers through Frankie's hair, petting him. "Yeah, well, that's life."
That wasn't particularly reassuring. "S'not fair."
"Frankie," Gerard sighed. "It's the chase. Eventually she'll either tell him no or let him catch her."
"And then Mikey will either be moping forever or they'll be kissing and making out all the time," Ray said.
Frankie wrinkled his nose. Kissing seemed mostly to be messy and icky and ew—other people's spit. "Yuck."
"Kissing can be nice."
Ray looked at Gerard in surprise. "Who have you been kissing?"
He shrugged like it didn't matter, but Frankie could smell a hint of fear coming off of him. "There was this guy I really liked, before we moved here. And a girl here in Belleville, but she stopped talking to me afterward."
Frankie could feel his eyes growing wide. Gerard had kissed boys and girls. "Show me."
"What?" Gerard stopped sketching and looked at Frankie in surprise.
"Frankie—" Ray warned.
"Show me how you kiss." Frankie sat up and moved closer to Gerard, earnest and sincere. He'd never kissed anyone before and Gerard had a lot of experience.
"No, Frankie, no. I'm not gonna kiss you." Gerard didn’t look mad, but he focused his attention back on his sketch pad.
Ray pushed on Frankie's shoulder, knocking him back down onto the bed. "Dude said no, Frankie. It's really rude to keep bugging him about it."
Gerard shot Ray a grateful look.
"Sorry," Frankie said, biting his lip. He really wanted Gerard to kiss him, just to see what the big deal was. He'd wait until Ray was gone before making another attempt. Frankie could be sneaky if he wanted to. Like a ninja.
Ten minutes after Ray went home, Frankie took a deep, careful breath and opened his mouth and—
"No," Gerard said.
"Why not?" Frankie scootched closer. "Am I ugly? Do I smell bad?" He ducked his head toward his pit and sniffed. He could smell his normal body odor and the chemical bite of the detergent his mom used, and under that the perfumed scent of the girl he'd bumped into during class. "Don't you like me?"
"No, no, and of course I do."
"Because." Gerard went back to his sketchbook, studiously ignoring Frankie.
"Gerard!" Frankie bounced on the bed, jostling Gerard to the point where he gave up drawing to glare at Frankie. "At least tell me why not."
"Fine. You're too young."
And Frankie could taste the untruth of that statement. "Liar," he murmured, before he thought better of it.
Gerard huffed, blowing his dark bangs out of his face. "If I tell you, will you drop the subject? Please?"
"Sure," Frankie said, crossing his fingers behind his back.
"You're my friend and I don't want to fuck that up."
Frankie didn't quite understand how a kiss would do that, but he could tell that Gerard meant it. It wasn't the entire truth, but it wasn't enough of a lie to call Gerard on it. "All right," Frankie said, and threw himself into Gerard's lap for some cuddles.
Of course Frankie didn't drop it. He was persistent like a—a—
"Mule," Ray offered.
"Are mules persistent?"
"Well, they're certainly stubborn."
"Aren't there any cool creatures that are known for their stubbornness? Like dragons or hydras or something?" Gerard had drawn him the best zombie dragon the other day; Frankie had made his mom buy a frame for it and hung it over his desk in his bedroom.
Ray laughed. "No, they're usually known for eating the heroes."
"Well, that's no good."
"You still bothering Gerard about the kissing?"
Frankie scuffed at the ground with his sneaker. "Maybe?"
Ray looked at him for a long moment before twitching his bear-ears. "Frankie, why—I don't understand."
Shrugging, Frankie leaned against Ray. "I don't get it, either. It's just a kiss. I don't know why Gerard's making such a big deal about it." All he wanted was to understand.
"Ah." Ray nodded, slowly. "Okay."
Frankie wrapped his arms around Ray's waist and squeezed.
It was a couple of days before Frankie managed to catch Gerard alone, but when he did—
"I'll give you a dollar if you kiss me."
Gerard sighed, exasperated. "No."
"How about my copy of the Watchmen trade?" The comic was surely worth more than a kiss.
"Is it signed?"
Frankie wondered if Gerard had gone crazy. "Uh, no."
"So, you're saying you'd kiss me if I had a signed copy of the Watchmen—"
Gerard shrugged. "But you don't, so it's moot." He buffed his nails on the front of his hoodie. "We all have our price, after all."
"Asshole," Frankie complained, pinching Gerard's arm.
"Yeah," Gerard agreed. "Listen, I've gotta go visit my grandma—"
"Does she make you cookies when you visit?" Frankie interrupted.
Puzzled, Gerard nodded.
"Chocolate chip. Sometimes peanut butter."
Frankie heaved a theatrical sigh. "Can I come?"
"It's gonna be boring. We usually sit around and talk. Sometimes she gives me a lesson in art, or music, or something," he mumbled, blushing a little.
Frankie knew that most kids wouldn't be caught dead willingly hanging out with grandparents, but then, he and Gerard weren't like most kids. And Gerard's grandmother wasn't like most grandparents. "S'okay. She seemed pretty awesome when I met her, and c'mon, Gerard. Cookies."
"I guess." But Gerard still seemed a little dubious about the whole thing.
Turned out that Mrs. Rush not only made the most awesome chocolate chip cookies, but she promised to give Frankie some to take home.
In addition, she had no compunction whatsoever about telling Frankie the most embarrassing stories about Gerard and Mikey as kids. Frankie sat on her faded old couch, grinning, while Gerard squirmed and glared at Frankie and tried to interrupt her. Frankie was so glad he came. Mrs. Rush winked at him and he couldn't help giggling at Gerard's discomfort.
They ended up in her little art studio, up in the attic. There was an easel set up, with a half-finished abstract watercolor painting on it. "Do you like art, Frankie?" Mrs. Rush asked, and Frankie shrugged.
"Sometimes. I like comics."
"Which are definitely art." She pulled Gerard close, wrapping her arms around his neck.
"I like other stuff, too, art that says something to me." Frankie wasn't sure if that made sense, but Mrs. Rush and Gerard grinned at each other.
"That's what art's supposed to be about," Gerard said excitedly, waving his hands around. "Art's what moves you, what provokes an emotional reaction from you. Good or bad, if it makes you feel, the artist has done their job."
It gave Frankie something to think about.
The wall of the stairway was lined with family photographs. Frankie took the opportunity, on the way down, to look more closely at some of them. There were pictures of Mikey and Gerard as kids, faded snapshots of a young woman who had to be Gerard's mom, and a black and white wedding portrait of Mrs. Rush and her husband. "He looks like Gerard," Frankie said, touching the frame.
Mrs. Rush's mouth tightened, and then she sighed. "He does, doesn't he?"
Frankie knew how much his nana missed his nonno. Feeling a little daring at the familiarity, he leaned against Mrs. Rush for a minute. She petted his hair and smiled at him. "Thank you, Frankie."
"You're welcome, ma'am."
"So polite," she marveled. "I keep hoping some of your lovely manners will rub off on Gerard and Mikey."
"Not likely, Grandma," Gerard said from above. "You know Mikey and I will always be ill-mannered barbarians."
Frankie had to giggle at that, and they trooped into the kitchen for more cookies.
"I like her," Frankie said later. "She's pretty awesome."
"She is," Gerard agreed, flushing a little.
Alicia led Mikey on a merry chase, but in the end, he caught her. Or, more likely, she let him catch her.
It was almost funny, because Frankie caught them making out a lot, kissing and groping and making sounds, which made him blush. They'd jump apart, stinking of guilt and arousal, and sit primly, carefully keeping their hands to themselves.
Mikey would show up with bruises and bite-marks visible on his neck and Frankie could only stare, wide-eyed, caught between envy and fear.
"It's the wolf in her. They like to mark their mates." Gerard lifted his chin and pressed a finger at a spot on his own pale neck, right over his pulse.
It was like being struck by lightning. That simple gesture, without even touching Frankie, provoked an electrifying reaction in him. Frankie couldn't breathe; his chest was tight and the air was thick and he was sweating, dizzy and shaky like he'd run for miles without pause.
He wanted to bite Gerard on that spot that he'd indicated, needed to feel the give of skin and flesh between his teeth, hear the pounding of Gerard's heart. Wanted to lick and suck at his neck, raise a bruise and leave teeth marks behind.
And he realized that he was hard in his pants, that his traitorous dick had decided to completely humiliate him; it'd been doing that more and more often as his body settled into puberty. It was mortifying, like those horrible dreams where he ended up at school for a test with no clothes on. Or the other dreams, the ones that resulted in dirty sheets and a weird twist of shame in his belly.
It was too much. He ran.
"You left without saying a word?" Ray asked.
"Don't remind me. It was so embarrassing," Frankie groaned against his knees. He was curled up next to Ray, trying not to relive every horrifying moment of his clumsy escape. "Yeah. Gerard probably thinks I'm some kind of weird freak."
"Well, you are a freak. But we still like you, Frankie."
"Oh my God. I can't believe I did that." He hit himself on the forehead with a fist. "What is wrong with me?"
"Same thing that's wrong with the rest of us. Hormones," Ray said mildly. "It's expected of us, more so because of the Blood. Teenagers are supposed to be lust-crazed. Gerard will understand. If he even noticed. He's pretty oblivious, most times, about things like that."
Frankie pondered that. Because, yeah, Ray was probably right. Gerard didn't really pay too much attention to what was going on around him. "Maybe."
"It's going to be fine, Frankie. Promise."
"Cross my heart," Ray said.
The next time Frankie saw Gerard, Frankie kinda dipped his head and mumbled, "Sorry."
Gerard looked confused, shrugged and said, "Okay."
And just like that, everything was back to normal. Ray beamed at Frankie until he was forced to stick his tongue out at Ray for being a know-it-all.
A few months later, during one of their movie marathons, Frankie noticed that Ray was looking a little pale, though he claimed that he was feeling fine. Frankie kept checking his forehead and Ray felt hot, almost feverish, but he wouldn't go home and rest.
"You do look sick," Mikey commented, pausing in his constant texting to Alicia to put in his two cents.
"Ray's definitely running a fever," Gerard said, selecting a colored pencil from his stash and adding a splash of blood to his drawing. "I can feel how hot he is from here."
They were all piled onto Gerard's bed and Frankie kept close to Ray, worried.
"I never get sick," Ray complained. "Healthy as a horse. Mom says so."
"I know," Frankie said, smoothing Ray's sweaty hair back. "But you are sick and I'm calling your mom."
It was an indication of how bad Ray was feeling that he didn't complain, just nodded tiredly.
Ray wasn't in school the next day, so after classes the three of them walked to the Toro-Ortiz house and knocked on the door. After a bit, Mrs. Ortiz answered the door, looking frazzled. "Hello, boys."
"Hello, Mrs. Ortiz. Sorry to bother you, but we wanted to check on Ray. We were worried, because he usually never gets sick." Gerard took the role of spokesperson, being the oldest.
She beamed at them. "Raymond is so lucky to have such good friends. Come in for a little while, boys, and I'll tell you what's going on."
Frankie looked back at Gerard and Mikey. I knew that something was wrong, he tried to say with his eyebrows.
Mikey rolled his eyes while Gerard frowned.
Mrs. Ortiz led them into the kitchen and got them some cookies and milk. She sat down with them at the big kitchen table. "Ray's going to be fine. He's sick, but not the regular kind of sickness."
Frankie tried to figure out what she meant—"Oh!"
Mikey and Gerard's eyes widened in surprise.
"He's Blood sick," Gerard whispered. "Wow."
"Is he okay?" Frankie asked. He knew that Blood sickness wasn't actually an illness, it was mostly your body rebuilding parts of itself, metabolism and immune system mostly, in preparation for the Change. Once the Blood sickness was over, under the light of the full Moon, you could Change into your fur-self for the first time.
And depending on how strongly the Blood ran through your veins, you might be able to change when the Moon wasn't full.
Blood sickness wasn't usually very bad, mostly flu-like symptoms, but sometimes it could be dangerous. Frankie had heard about people who'd died from it.
"He's fine, sweetie. He's uncomfortable, and in some pain, but he'll be better in a few days. We're going to keep him home from school and make him as well rested as possible until the sickness runs its course. And then it'll be time to celebrate." She looked at each of them in turn. "I trust that I can count on the three of you to be here to help with the celebration?"
"Yes, ma'am," Frankie said. Mikey and Gerard nodded, smiling. Frankie tried to remember when the next full Moon would be; the day after was when the Toro-Ortiz family would throw one hell of a party to commemorate Ray's first full Change, human to bear-self. "You couldn't keep us away."
"Excellent." She stood up. "If you want, you boys can go visit him for a few minutes. Don't get him worked up; he really does need his rest."
They went up to the room that Ray shared with his brother Lou and peered in, finding Ray tangled in his blankets. He looked stretched thin, a little worn and miserable, so they climbed into bed with him, surrounding him. He was burning hot, but shivering, alternating between hot and cold flashes.
"Sucks," Mikey said, resting his head on Ray's shoulder.
"We were worried," Gerard said. "Frankie thought you were dying."
"Freak," Ray muttered.
"Whatever," Frankie mumbled back, nuzzling close. "You're gonna be a bear, Ray. A big ol' grumpy bear."
"Who's been eating my porridge?" Mikey rumbled.
"Who's been sleeping in my bed?" Gerard asked.
"I hate you," Ray said. "When I'm done Changing, I'm gonna eat you all. Just like the bears should have done to Goldilocks."
Frankie giggled softly, reassured. They sat and kept Ray company until his mother came to shoo them away.
"He needs his rest. This first Change is taking a lot out of his body."
They left, reluctantly.
"I'm kinda looking forward to my first Change, but kinda not," Frankie said as they walked down the street. "I guess it's not as easy as I thought." Frankie carefully didn't look at Mikey or Gerard, didn’t want them thinking he was asking about stuff that was none of his business.
"We can't Change," Gerard said, and Frankie looked at him, surprised. Gerard's expression was wistful and sad. "We're Walkers, and our family lost its totem and our Caretaker, and so we can't Change anymore."
Suddenly, the strange aura of power around the Ways made sense. The Ways had the potential to change, if only they had the key of their totem to unlock the power. Gerard hugged Mikey and turned down the street, walking away, shoulders slumped. Frankie leaned against Mikey. "I'm sorry, Mikes."
Mikey shrugged. "It's old, painful history. We don't like to talk about it," he said, pulling away and following Gerard.
Frankie watched Mikey and Gerard until they rounded a corner and disappeared from his sight. He had a million questions that he wanted to ask but he didn't want to push. Maybe someday, Mikey and Gerard would feel comfortable enough to talk about it. In the meantime, he wished there was some way he could help.
The Moon was full by the end of the week, and the Toro-Ortiz family held the Gather for Ray the night after. Frankie and his mom went, of course. It was a celebration of life, of the Change, and of the shared history of the Blooded community.
Frankie and Gerard only managed to pry Ray away from his family for a few minutes, long enough to congratulate him and make him promise that he'd show them his bear-self later. He still looked tired, but he glowed with happiness, and that made Frankie proud.
After visiting with Ray, they found where Mikey and Alicia were hanging out, in a little area decorated with hanging paper lanterns. Frankie's friend Hambone was there, and so was Jimmy Dewees, Jamia Nestor and some of the others in their circle of friends.
Frankie sat on an old log, Gerard with his legs stretched out in front of him on one side, Mikey on the other. Frankie settled against Gerard, listening to the conversations around him.
Alicia and Jimmy got into a discussion about the newest werewolf movie that had hit the theaters, bitching about how inaccurate the Normals tended to be about the Blooded, using a weird combination of urban legend, folklore, superstition and cautionary tales as a framework for their mythos.
Frankie supposed it might be annoying to those with wolf-selves. Aside from dogs, wolves were probably the most represented canids in movies and television, at least in the English-speaking countries. In other countries, Frankie knew, not so much.
A lot of Asian countries had a thing about foxes, Native Americans, too. They were considered tricksters, cunning and mischievous, powerful. Frankie could get on board with that.
"Whatcha thinking about, Frankie?" Gerard asked, nuzzling at his hair. "You're too quiet. It makes me suspicious."
Maybe it was time to use some trickery. "I was thinking about that kiss you still owe me."
He could hear the exasperation in Gerard's voice, so he slanted a grin up at him. "C'mon, Gerard. One little kiss and I'll leave you alone. Won't bug you about it ever again."
Gerard huffed out a laugh. "Liar. You had your fingers crossed the first time; why should I trust you now?"
"Because you love me?" Frankie tried his most appealing look and was surprised when Gerard got up, causing the log to shift. Frankie stumbled to his feet to keep from falling and when he looked, Gerard was already gone.
"Frankie?" Mikey looked confused, staring off in the direction that Gerard had disappeared to. "What happened?"
"I don't know," Frankie said, shifting his weight from foot to foot, trying to decide if he should go after Gerard. "I just—" He couldn't stand not doing anything and letting Gerard go; Frankie took off running after him. "Gerard? Gerard!"
Frankie got to the edge of the woods and let his ears follow the faint sound of Gerard's breathing. The moonlight was bright; he was leaning against a tree, slouching in his hoodie, arms crossed defensively.
"Gerard?" Frankie saw Gerard startle, like he'd been deep in thought. "Gerard, what's wrong? I'm—I'm sorry if I did something to piss you off. . ." He kept his voice low and soothing.
Gerard shook his head and Frankie approached him slowly, hands empty and outstretched, like Gerard was a skittish animal.
"Please, Gerard, tell me what's wrong." Frankie was close enough to see Gerard's face, but his features were obscured by the fall of his bangs. "Gerard—" Frankie reached out and carefully pushed away Gerard's hair and looked at him, trying to figure out what was going on. "Gerard—"
Gerard blinked and inhaled slowly, almost sighing. "Frankie." He reached out and cupped Frankie's head in his hands, one hand curling along his jaw, the other threading through Frankie's hair, his touch light and delicate. Gerard leaned down and pressed his lips to Frankie's, holding on when Frankie jerked in surprise.
It wasn’t what Frankie had been expecting, at all. He hadn't been sure why Gerard had run away, but this—whatever this was, hadn't even been on Frankie's radar. He stood stock still in confusion, Gerard's lips pressed to his. After a moment, Gerard stiffened and started to pull away, but Frankie was faster. He pushed closer, clutched at Gerard's arms and made a tiny, desperate sound.
Frankie parted his lips, wanting to taste, and licked at Gerard's mouth. Gerard responded with a gasp, fingers warm on Frankie's skin, and sliding his tongue against Frankie's. It felt like he was brushing against electricity, sensations zinging through him, making him hyper-aware of everything: the slight breeze against his skin, the feel of Gerard's chapped lips, the taste of coffee in Gerard's mouth, the way they were pressed together, the soft hooting of an owl in the distance.
It all tumbled around in his brain, a weird mishmash of sensory input. Frankie inhaled deeply through his nose and the combined smell of their arousal almost sent him to his knees. It was powerful and strong and raw, and it made him want more of Gerard's mouth, more of his taste and scent, wanted it all over his skin and in his bones.
He pulled away from Gerard's mouth to pant, overwhelmed by everything he was feeling. "Gerard," he whispered, before pushing up on his toes to greedily seal their lips together again. He never wanted to stop.
"Gerard? Frankie?" Mikey's voice was close, and Frankie whimpered softly before turning his head, breaking the kiss.
"Over here, Mikey," Gerard said softly, wrapping his arms around Frankie's shoulders and holding onto him.
"You guys okay?" Mikey's voice was hushed.
"Yeah, we're fine."
Frankie wasn't so sure about that, but he didn't have the breath to say anything, so he closed his eyes and let himself relax against Gerard.
"All right, then," and Mikey left them alone again.
"You okay?" Gerard's voice was soft.
Frankie's ear was pressed to Gerard's chest and he could hear Gerard's heartbeat, slow and steady, soothing. His hands settled on Gerard's waist, and he could feel Gerard's warmth through his shirt. One of Gerard's hands was resting between Frankie's shoulder blades, the other was playing with the hair at the nape of Frankie's neck. Frankie honestly had no idea what had happened, or what it all meant.
But in this one moment, he had never felt more okay in his life.
"Hi, Nana," Frankie said, standing on tip-toe to kiss her cheek. "How're you today?"
"I'm good, volpacchiotto." She smiled at him. "You're such a good boy, coming to visit your lonely, old nana, when you could be out playing with your friends."
He giggled, because one of his favorite things to do was visit Angelina. She was a master storyteller, and there was nothing that Frankie loved more than a good story. Fox-tales, she called them. She was also the family historian, with a razor sharp memory of people and events.
Linda had been encouraging her to record everything, because the knowledge and lore she had was too important to lose. Frankie had helped Angelina pick out a computer and set it up for her, and together they learned how to use the audio software. Sometimes Frankie would visit and listen while she talked about the impact of Tamamo-no-Mae, the Japanese fox-witch, or the European fables of Reynard.
They settled into the kitchen while she made dinner, and they chatted idly about people they knew, family members, Frankie's friends, members of the community. It suddenly occurred to him that Angelina probably knew all about the disappearance of the Way family Caretaker and totem.
"Frankie? You okay, bambino?"
He looked at her, torn, because he really wanted to know what had happened. But at the same time. . .he wanted Gerard to trust him with his pain. Sighing, he nodded. "Yeah, Nana, I'm fine. Just thinking."
She kissed him on the forehead and went back to slicing vegetables.
He should have been paying closer attention, but honestly, it was easy to forget how fast time passed him by. Frankie woke up one morning, sore and tired and flushed, and couldn't figure out why. He stumbled downstairs for breakfast and his mom took one look at him and sent him back to bed.
"You're sick, Frankie."
"I'm fine, Mom. Coming down with a cold or something." He tried to sit up straighter and look less like he was ready to fall over, but she wasn't convinced.
His mom could always see right through him.
"Back to bed, Frankie." She touched his forehead and frowned. "Take some aspirin and drink plenty of water. I'll come home for lunch and check on you."
"Yes, Mom," he said, obediently enough. He lifted his face for her kiss and then trudged back upstairs, almost moaning at how badly his entire body ached.
He pulled his phone out and texted Gerard, Mikey and Ray, letting them know he was sick, because otherwise they would show up on his doorstep right after school, worrying about him. He had the best friends ever, because they all offered to cut class to keep him company if he needed them.
skool sux rthr hng out w/u Mikey texted.
Frankie giggled at how altruistic his friends were, then winced, because his body twinged. Damn it. He didn't want to be sick. They had a movie marathon set for the weekend, and he and Mikey were planning a trip to the record store.
Maybe the aspirin would help. He took two and drank a couple of glasses of water, because he was really thirsty, too. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught his reflection in the bathroom mirror and did a double-take. He looked like death warmed over, pale and sweating, his hair in disarray like he'd stuck his finger in an electrical socket.
"Fuck," he muttered to his mirror-self. "Go to bed."
Frankie fell asleep almost instantly, but it was a restless sleep, filled with disturbing dreams. He woke up frequently, feeling more tired each time, sweat-slick and shivering. He was burning up, tossing and turning, throwing the covers off only to pull them up to his chin moments later.
Whatever death flu he'd managed to catch sucked.
He’d barely opened his eyes when his mom came home for lunch to check on him; he managed to grunt unintelligibly at her when she asked how he was feeling. Frankie heard her puttering around in his bathroom, felt the bed dip down as she sat on the edge of it and laid a cool cloth on his forehead.
It felt icy cold and took his breath away, but it was such a relief against the fever that was burning him up from the inside out. "Mama," he whimpered. "Hurts." And it did. He was sure that someone had snuck into the house while he'd been asleep and beaten him with a blunt instrument of some sort. There wasn't a part of him that wasn't in pain.
Frankie didn't understand what was going on; he'd never felt like this before. "Am I dying?"
"Oh, no, baby. You're just Changing."
There was a hint of laughter in her voice, and it made him mad, because it was mean of his mom to make fun of him when he felt so sick. She wasn't supposed to do that. "Why are you la—" He stopped, confused by what she'd said. "Wait, what?" He peered at her.
"You're Changing." She smiled softly at him, combing her fingers through his sweat-damp hair.
"Right now?" He was having a hard time thinking clearly; he wondered how much of that was from the fever.
"No, Frankie, not right now. Not for a few more days, anyway." She frowned. "The full moon isn't until next week, so I'm a little concerned that you're getting sick this early. But it might run in the family; your uncle was Blood sick for a full week."
"Moooom. I don't wanna be like this for a whole week. It's only been a few hours and I'm ready to die."
She tsked at him. "So much drama, Frankie. You'd think you were the only Blooded to ever go through this."
He wanted to whine more at her, but he was too sore. Instead, he clenched his teeth and tried to look sad and pathetic. "Make it stop hurting?"
"Oh, baby, I wish I could." She wiped his face with the wet cloth and then pressed a kiss to his forehead. "You feel like eating anything?"
"Ugh. No." Frankie pressed a hand to his stomach, which was suddenly queasy.
"Thought so. I don't think I ate anything the entire time I was Blood sick. Always felt like I was going to throw up."
Frankie nodded, swallowing hard.
"Okay, baby. I'll stop by the store on the way home, pick up some clear broth, maybe some crackers. Some sports drinks, because you're going to need them to replace all the fluids you're losing to sweat."
"The green, purple or blue. Not the orange or yellow, please."
He made a face. "Especially not the orange. Blergh. It tastes nasty."
"All those sports drinks are pretty nasty, if you ask me." She grabbed the edge of the comforter. "Blankets on or off?"
Frankie shivered. "On for now."
"Okay. Get some rest, Frankie. I'll see you after work." She kissed him again and left him alone with the fever and the pain.
Frankie closed his eyes, but sleep was elusive, so he grabbed his phone. He wanted to text Gerard first and tell him the news, but he wasn't sure; he didn't want to wake painful memories. He still remembered the look on Gerard's face, melancholy and bittersweet, when Ray had shown them his bear-self.
He hated the idea of causing Gerard pain.
All of his feelings about Gerard were still knotted together in a messy tangle. After their kiss at Ray's Gather, they had talked. Well, Frankie had nodded while Gerard had blushed and rambled on about hormones and the Moon, teenage crushes and how normal and natural they were, nothing to be ashamed of. Frankie hadn't disagreed with anything that Gerard had said, simply smiled and pretended to agree with him.
But what Frankie felt in his heart spoke of forever and he didn't think Gerard was ready to face that yet. So he waited.
Right now, all he wanted to do was to tell his friends about his impending Change. If he told Mikey or Ray first, and then they told Gerard before Frankie had a chance to tell him, that would make Gerard feel bad, too. Best to text Gerard first. . .
Gerard must have been goofing off in class, doing quick sketches of his classmates as vampires, as he tended to do when he was bored, because Frankie's phone beeped almost instantly with a response.
s'up? feeln btr?
wht's wrng? u ok?
He could almost feel Gerard's concern. Frankie took a deep breath.
He closed his eyes and cradled the phone to his chest, waiting. There was a long pause before it buzzed with Gerard's response.
It was hard to tell, over text, what Gerard was thinking.
Frankie's stomach settled, a little.
up 4 visitrs?
Frankie sighed, relieved. It wasn't easy to admit how worried he'd actually been. Texting Mikey was a little easier, because the subject didn't seem to bother Mikey as much as it did Gerard. Maybe it was because Mikey had been there when Alicia had gotten Blood sick, or maybe it was because Mikey was more practical than Gerard.
Either way, he texted Mikey and then Ray, and they promised to stop by after school and keep him company after a while. Frankie needed that, needed the comfort of his friends warm and close, piled together on his bed like puppies.
He yawned and realized that he was still tired. Setting his phone aside, he rolled over and went back to sleep.
When Frankie woke up, he had a terrible feeling of disconnection; it was dark outside and there was someone else sleeping in his bed. He inhaled, and the familiar scent of Gerard wrapped around him. Frankie could hear his soft breathing, and the slight catch at the end of each breath that was on the verge of being a snore.
There was enough light coming in from the dim hallway lamp to see Gerard sprawled next to him, hair spread out under his head, face shadowed. It felt right to have Gerard next to him; this was the way his life was supposed to be. Frankie was so tired of waiting, of being patient.
Frankie wanted to memorize the way Gerard looked, but he was exhausted and his eyelids closed without his permission.
He didn't remember much from the next few days, just scattered memories of his mom, her face concerned, trying to get him to drink some fluids, soup and sport drinks and water. It all tasted funny, even the water, not bad, but loud. His senses had been twisted and it made him wince and squint. Everything seemed too much and he wanted to burrow under his blanket and hide for the rest of his life.
A couple of times he woke up to find some permutation of Mikey, Ray and Gerard in his bed, watching over him while he slept. There was no physical reason that should have made him feel better, but it did somehow. His friends were there for him.
The rest of the time, he woke to the pain of what he imagined his bones working to push their way out of his body felt like, rebelling against skin and muscle. He bit his lip until it bled, writhing in his sweat stained sheets and panting through the waves of agony. He wanted to scream, but he realized that would probably upset his mom, so he clenched his jaw against the sounds that were straining to break free.
It sucked, and he definitely didn't remember Ray talking about it hurting this much; he wouldn't have forgotten that.
The day the Moon was full, Frankie woke hungry. Not for food; his body wanted the Change. The pain was gone, all that was left was this coiled tension that tightened his muscles and made him jittery. He felt like he'd had nothing but sugar and coffee for days.
He wasn't entirely sure he wasn't going to throw up or explode. Maybe he'd do both.
His mom tapped quietly at his door. "You awake, Frankie?"
"Yeah—" He had to clear his throat. "Yeah, Mom." He sat up, leaning against the headboard.
"Tonight's the night, baby. You ready?" Linda dropped a kiss onto his head. "You look pretty wound up." She automatically started gathering up the empty cups and dishes on the table next to his bed.
"Mom, leave those. I'll get them in a while." He shook his head and rolled his shoulders, hoping to relieve some of the tightness. "I feel strange. Like my skin doesn't fit."
She nodded. "It's another way your body's trying to prepare for the Change."
Frankie looked down, plucking at a loose thread on his blanket. "Is it painful?" He was sincerely tired of things hurting. He concentrated on keeping his leg from bouncing.
"A little, for a brief moment. It's over pretty quickly, and then you're your fox-self, wild and free."
He grinned. "I can't wait."
She grinned back, and Frankie noticed, for the first time, that he had her smile. "Me, either. You're growing up so quickly, Frankie." She laughed, and he could hear a hint of sadness.
He made a face. "Not fast enough."
"Not to me." Linda shrugged. "You going to be okay? I'm off to work; you should definitely rest up, eat some food. Maybe shower? You're getting kinda stinky." She wrinkled her nose.
He giggled. Yeah, he was pretty ripe after several days of not showering because his body was too busy rebuilding his metabolism from the inside out. "I'll be fine."
"Okay." Linda tucked her hair behind her ear. "And Nana's got all the details worked out for the Gather tomorrow night."
"Sweet." He'd get to see Gerard and Mikey and Ray, maybe not for long, but at least he'd be conscious this time. Then later, after the Gather, he could show off his fox-self to them. Maybe he wasn't as big and dangerous as Ray's bear-self, but he would be cunning and fast. And maybe he was biased, but he thought foxes were beautiful creatures.
"All right, baby. I'll be home before Moonrise. In the meantime, stay out of trouble and take it easy, okay?"
"Love you, Frankie."
"Love you, too, Mom," he said. And he did, because she was the best mom in the whole wide world.
Frankie made himself get out of bed after she left and shuffled into the bathroom, stripping off his filthy pajamas, kicking them toward the hamper. He jumped into the shower, as hot as he could stand it, and washed away the sweat and fear-stink, letting the heat work on the tension in his muscles. The shower helped, a little, but there was still that poised-for-action feeling in the back of his head. It made it difficult to concentrate on anything.
He checked his phone to find a bunch of messages from his friends, Gerard and Mikey, Alicia, Ray, Hambone, a handful of others, wishing him a good Change and promising to see him at the Gather.
The one from Gerard set his mind at ease.
cant wt to c u
Linda took him into the woods, leading him to a secluded clearing. The full Moon was bright and he could feel Her in his heart, in his soul. Frankie was buzzing with excitement at finally Changing.
"You've been working toward this moment since you came running down the stairs with your fox ears, Frankie. Six years ago. Do you remember?" She was smiling, but Frankie could smell the nostalgia she felt.
"Mama, don't be sad."
She made a visible effort to smile at him.
"I'll always be your son." He leaned against her and couldn't help but wonder when she'd gotten so small. "No matter how old I am."
"Oh, Frankie." She sighed. "I'm so proud of you."
"Okay, let's do this. You've been practicing since you got your ears, so it should be easy for you, baby. Reach inside, feel the pull of the Moon, and Change."
Frankie closed his eyes and centered himself, keeping his breathing slow and steady. He could feel the buzz of energy right under his skin, the leashed potential of his other-self, waiting for the chance to break free and run. He concentrated on the Moon, the way he could feel the weight of Her light on his skin, the subtle push and pull as She revolved around the world, a never-ending celestial dance.
He reached inward and felt for his fox-self, his furred soul, and held tight, Changing—
The world was different, and it staggered him. He sat down before he fell down, tongue hanging out as he panted, struggling to take stock of the situation.
Another fox, his mother, was standing over him, guarding him as he got his bearings and collected his thoughts. She nudged at him with her muzzle, making little barking sounds that he almost understood.
She nipped at his nose, not hard, and ran away a few feet, turning to look at him. He stared in shock until she did it again, dashing in to mock bite him and run away. The third time she did it, he suddenly understood. Oh. She wanted to play.
He got unsteadily to his feet, his paws, and tried to chase her, but he was clumsy like a newborn and he kept thinking too hard and tripping. Four paws, four paws, I have no hands ran through his mind and it was scary. How could he write, play guitar, open doors with just paws?
She bit him again, a little harder, and when he yelped, she rushed him, bowling him over before running away. Circling around, she charged at him again, and again, until he got tired of it and gave chase.
The two of them ran through the woods, playing tag, pouncing on the field mice that burrowed under the leaf litter, splashing through the little creek that ran between the trees, singing to the darkness and the Moon. And when he got tired, near dawn, they found a sheltered spot and laid down, wrapping their tails around themselves, warm and safe.
When they woke up in the morning, there were tears in his eyes and the biggest smile on his face. "Mom, Mom, that was—I can't believe—"
She pulled him into her arms and hugged him tight. There really were no words to describe what it was like, letting your fur-self run free. "I know, Frankie. I know."
The Gather was a blur of family and friends and community. There was food and dancing, a big cake and both Mrs. Ortiz and Mrs. Rush brought cookies. Frankie ate until he couldn't eat anymore, then pogo'd around to the music with his cousins. He couldn't stop smiling.
Ray grabbed him in a hug and squeezed him until he couldn't breathe, ruffling his hair and congratulating him. "Well?"
"Oh my God, Ray, it was the most amazing thing ever. I remember freaking out a little, because I had paws, and how was I gonna play guitar with my paws, but then my mom kept pushing me until I let go—"
Laughing, Ray nodded. "I know, right? There's this weird sense of disconnect, where you're still thinking with your human brain while you're in your fur-self, and it's kinda freaky. It gets easier with practice."
"Whew." Frankie mock wiped at his brow. "I hope so, because I really thought I was going to go crazy for a minute." He held up his hands. "Paws are cool, but man, I like my hands, too."
"Yeah, because with hands, you can do things like jack off," Mikey interrupted, hip checking him.
"And flip people off," Frankie said, demonstrating for Mikey. Ray laughed and wandered off.
"Not nice, fox boy, not nice at all."
Frankie giggled. "Never said I was nice. I'm a fox. Cunning and sly, yes. Nice, not so much."
"Well, maybe so, but congrats anyway, Frankie. Happy for you." Mikey pulled him into a hug.
Frankie let himself cling to Mikey a little longer than was probably necessary. "Gerard come?"
"Yeah," Mikey said softly. "Over there." He gestured with a pointy chin. "He's feeling a little. . .fragile, so be careful with him, yeah?"
"Yeah, thanks, Mikes. I'll take care of him, promise."
"Okay, then. Alicia says congrats, too, by the way."
Frankie nodded. "Thanks," he said again, and walked toward the clump of trees where Gerard was hanging out.
"Hey, Gerard. Thanks for coming." Gerard was sitting on the ground, leaning against a tall oak. Frankie knelt down and sat next to him, resting his head on Gerard's shoulder.
"Did—how was it?"
Frankie twined their fingers together and squeezed. "It was good, Gerard. Different from what I expected, but—yeah."
They sat there in silence for a long time, sheltered from the sounds of the Gather.
"The Ways are Walkers, I told you that, right?" Gerard's voice was soft and hesitant.
"Yeah." Frankie kept his voice neutral. "And you said that you'd lost your totem." He'd wanted to know what had happened for a while, and more than once he'd almost asked his nana about it. But every time he was tempted, he remembered how lost Gerard looked sometimes. . .and he waited.
"My Grandpa was the Caretaker of our totem. He was a Normal, but my Grandma fell in love with him, and fought to have him accepted into our family."
Frankie didn't know that. That was a rare situation; Normals were not usually allowed into Blooded society unless they were Allied, and Allies always had a touch of the Blood. Most times, when there was a crossed relationship like that, the Blooded was forced to choose between their family and the Normal. In most cases, they chose family.
"She must have loved him very much."
"She did," Gerard said fiercely. "She loved him a lot. She fought with her family over him, threatened to leave. And even after she'd won, some of the family shunned her for daring to bring in a Normal."
He tried to imagine being at odds with his family, having them mad at him or worse, pretending he didn't exist. No, that would be really difficult. Frankie threw his arm around Gerard's shoulder. "I'm sorry."
Gerard shrugged. "She was happy. They were happy. They settled down, had kids, were living out their lives. And then—"
Frankie braced himself, because there was no way this was going to end happily.
"He ran away when my mom was a teenager. He didn't leave a note, didn't say a word, just left one day and never came back."
"Fuck." It made Frankie angry, because if you couldn't stay anymore, you should at least have the guts to admit it. Tell the truth, leave a note. Something. It was hard, yeah, but you owed that to the people who loved you. None of this disappearing in the middle of the night crap.
He tried to imagine if his dad had done that, walked out instead of trying to fix things with his mom, and when that hadn't panned out, working with her to tell Frankie. Tried to picture not knowing why his dad was gone, or where he was, or if he was even alive.
"It devastated my Grandma and I don't think she really got over it. And it broke our family, because without our totem, without our Caretaker, we couldn't Change anymore."
"Oh." Something in his chest clenched hard at the thought of never being able to Change, feeling the call of the Moon, the rush of energy right under your skin, the need to let your fur-self out. . .and not being able to. "Oh," he repeated. Frankie looked at Gerard, laid his hand flat right over Gerard's heart. "I'm sorry."
Gerard shrugged, a bare movement of his shoulders, and his mouth quivered before he pressed his lips more firmly together.
Frankie could hear him swallow back the tears, tasted his sadness like winter rain. "What can I do to help, Gerard?" he asked softly.
"Nothing, Frankie. There's nothing you can do."
And that was an outright lie; Frankie could sense it. "Gerard, let me help."
Gerard brought his thumb to his mouth and chewed on his fingernail pensively. "Would you Change for me?" He wouldn't look at Frankie. "It's not the same as Changing myself, but—but maybe it'll give me a taste of what it's like."
"If that's what you need, yeah, of course." Gerard's heart was beating faster and Frankie had to wonder how hard it was for Gerard to ask for this. He shuffled backwards on his knees and crouched there, felt the Moon high above, scented the rich, dark earth under him, reached inside and Changed.
The dampness of unshed tears hung heavy in the air, spiced with the scent Gerard's sadness; it was so clear to Frankie's fox-self. "Beautiful," Gerard said in wonder.
Wild foxes were small and Frankie wasn't even close to being full grown, either as a person or as a fox, so it was easy for him to climb into Gerard's lap like a cat. He licked the wetness off Gerard's face, nuzzling close, paws resting on Gerard's chest.
"Thanks, Frankie." Gerard ran his hands down Frankie's back, stroking his fur carefully, and it felt good. Frankie pushed into the touch and huffed softly. "You should probably Change back; you've got people who came to celebrate with you."
Frankie licked Gerard one last time and scrambled out of his lap, paws rustling through the leaf litter. Changing back was the reverse of becoming his fox-self; he pushed out and shed his fur in a rush of power. Gerard was still watching him, a mixture of pride and envy flashing across his face.
"I'll talk to you later?" Frankie asked, reaching out and brushing his thumb across Gerard's cheekbone, wiping away a stray tear.
Smiling a little, Gerard shook his head. "Not tonight. Tomorrow."
"All right," Frankie said softly.
High school sucked. Frankie had expected that, but he'd had no idea how bad it was going to be. Getting pushed around by the jocks, both Normal and Blooded, having his clothes stolen in gym, getting shoved into his locker. It got old, quickly.
Mikey and Gerard tended to skulk down the hallways, heads down and trying their best to be invisible. It mostly worked, for them. Ray had grown into the promise of his bear-self; tall and broad, imposing enough physically that everyone left him alone.
Frankie, on the other hand, was an easy target. He was small and—
"You have the self-preservation instincts of a lemming, Frankie. Stop smarting off." Gerard adjusted the bag of frozen peas that he'd draped over Frankie's left eye. It was becoming a familiar sight in the Way kitchen, Frankie sitting in one of the cheap chairs, head tilted back while Gerard fussed over him and Mikey offered sarcastic commentary.
"Fuck that," Frankie mumbled around his split lip. He could taste the tang of blood. "Not gonna let 'em push me around."
"Yeah, because it's somehow better to get the shit kicked out of you."
Frankie flipped Mikey off without looking. "It's the principle of the matter." One of his teeth felt a little loose; he prodded at it with his tongue and he was sure it wiggled. Fuck. "Gotta stand up to the assholes of the world." He could hear Mikey rolling his eyes.
"Frankie. It's just, I don't—we don't like seeing you get hurt. Not over something as stupid as Alex Jordan calling you a runt." Gerard carefully blotted at Frankie's lower lip with a paper towel.
"You're such a moron," Mikey muttered, shuffling out of the kitchen.
"It's important," Frankie insisted, looking at Gerard's upside down face.
"Maybe," Gerard shrugged. "In May, Alex Jordan will graduate and most likely marry Jeanie Weaver. They'll settle down and have their statistically predictable two point five kids, one boy and one girl. They'll spend the rest of their lives drinking too much and cheating on each other and wondering where it all went wrong. Which, hey, if that's your thing, rock on. You," Gerard said, poking at Frankie's forehead, "have three years until you graduate from Queen of Peace and go off to college and do awesome things with your life."
"I don't wanna go to college." Frankie knew he sounded like a whiny kid, but he was tired of all the talk about the future, because all he could think about was the fact that he and Mikey were getting left behind in less than a year. Ray had plans to go to Rutgers, so at least he wouldn't be that far away.
Gerard, on the other hand, was eyeing some of the New York art schools, SVA, Parsons, and Pratt, and a couple in Chicago. Frankie preferred New York over Chicago, because it was closer to Jersey, but Gerard hadn't made up his mind yet.
Gerard looked at him in surprise. "Okay. You don't have to go to college if you don't want to. You're smart, Frankie. You'll find your way."
My way is with you, he thought, but he bit down on his lip to keep from saying it out loud.
"Hey, now," Gerard said softly. He gently touched Frankie's lip with his thumb. "It's gonna be okay."
Frankie wished he could believe Gerard.
"You're being a dick," Mikey said few weeks later, kicking at Frankie's shoe. "It's not like Gerard can't tell you're avoiding him."
Frankie wrapped his arms tighter around his knees and shrugged. He'd found a little secluded area behind the groundskeeper's shed, sheltered from prying eyes by some scraggly bushes. It was the perfect place to hide during lunch.
"I just miss him so much and he's not even gone yet."
"Me, too," Mikey said, dropping to the ground next to Frankie. "So maybe we ought to spend what time we have left with him, like, you know, actually hanging out with him, instead of sitting here in this little creepy section of woods." He wrapped his bony arm around Frankie's shoulders and pulled him in.
"I don't want him to go." Frankie knew it was selfish of him, but he couldn't help feeling this way. He pressed his face against Mikey's side, breathing in his familiar scent, sweat and coffee and a twisted thread of MikeyGerard.
"And he doesn't want to leave us, you know he doesn't. But Gerard's such an awesome artist and he deserves to go where he'll have the best chance to develop his talents, yeah? "
"And if he ends up in the city he'll be back every chance he gets—Mom'll feed him and do his damn laundry. He won't be able to stay away."
A giggle escaped Frankie before he could stop it.
Mikey leaned down to press a kiss to the top of Frankie's head. "C'mon, Frankie. We've only got him for a few more months; let's make the most of it."
Frankie slid his arm around Mikey's waist. "I don't wanna get left behind."
"Never," Mikey said softly.
Frankie woke up with a gasp, sweat drenched and shivering. His skin felt tight and over-sensitive, burning, and his dick was so fucking hard. His hand was wrapped around it and he was jerking off, fast and rough, before he really was awake enough to figure out what was going on.
A minute later and he was coming, his orgasm slamming into him and knocking the air out of his lungs and he couldn't do anything but lie there, stunned and dazed. "Fuck," he hissed unsteadily. Frankie looked at the mess on his hand and wiped it off on his shirt with a grimace. Wet dreams were bad enough, but now he was jacking off in his sleep. Could being a teenager get any worse?
According to the glowing red numbers of his clock, it was almost five in the morning. He sat up and shivered as the air in his room shifted, brushing against his skin like a caress. Frankie could smell himself, the heat and sweat and burning arousal, and the itch was back, prickling across his skin.
And before he could think twice, he was jerking off again.
It was too much, touching his dick made his entire body twitch, but he couldn't make himself let go, because it felt so fucking good. Frankie tried to slow down, to stop, and he couldn't do it. His body wasn't listening to him anymore.
He gave himself over to the sensations zinging through him, concentrating on the feeling of too much too much pounding in time with his heart, pushing him back down to writhe in his tangled sheets. His hips thrust up, shoving his dick into his hand and—Christ, Christ, he came again.
Frankie panted at the ceiling, barely visible in the darkness. His fingers were tingling and his toes were starting to cramp, because they were still curled up tightly. "Fuck," he moaned, wiggling his toes back to life. He was wrung out and limp like a rag; he was going to pass out right now and worry about cleaning up the mess he made in the morning. . .
Except, no. His body was still thrumming, heat and want burrowing under his skin, gnawing on his bones. It was similar to the need to Change, but tinged with the sharper bite of arousal. Frankie laid his arm across his eyes and whimpered, because even lying here, he could feel his dick trying to get hard again.
Mr. Van Vleet had talked about this, how sometimes the call of the Moon would be strong, overpowering and the urge to Change would be irresistible. And other times, less frequently, the drive wouldn't be to Change, but to mate. Moon fever, he'd called it.
Frankie wanted to cry.
Instead, he got up and padded shakily into the shower, turned the faucet to cold and climbed in. He let the water run over him while he stood there shivering with his blood still burning with want. Frankie's dick was fully hard and he jammed his hands into his armpits to keep from touching, gritting his teeth, a low growl curling around every rough exhale.
He held off as long as he could, but in the end his body won out; he wrapped his hand around his dick and was beating off again, his strokes short and choppy and desperate, because he needed to come now.
Frankie cried out loudly—too loud—when he came, the sound echoed off the tiled walls of the shower. It hurt, a weird tangle of pleasure and pain, overstimulated nerve endings firing randomly. Frankie rested his forehead against the tile and tried to catch his breath.
His dick was feeling sore and a little chafed, and there was a deep ache in his balls, which, fuck it all. How was this his life? Turning off the water, he stepped out and grabbed a towel, drying himself off roughly.
The towel felt scratchy against his skin, like sandpaper and his breath caught on a sob. It was too much, he felt like he was going to scream. His body was gearing up again, the anticipation coiling in his belly, tension tightening his muscles. He was gasping for air; he was suffocating and before he knew it, he was moving fast through the house and out the back door.
Frankie's bare feet touched the grass, wet with dew, and he reached for his fox-self, Changing between one step and the next and running.
He didn't stop for a long, long time.
It was Gerard who found him, passed out and naked in a pile of leaves at the edge of the Gather-clearing. Frankie was disorientated; he thought for a moment that it was dawn, the light gently filtering through the leafy forest canopy, but no. It was near dusk; he'd been asleep for most of the day.
"Hey, Frankie," Gerard said softly, when Frankie blinked his eyes open.
"Gerard." His voice was low and hoarse, and he cleared his throat and tried again. "Gerard." Frankie felt sore, like someone had stomped on him with a decent pair of boots. He didn't even have the strength to sit up.
"Ye—" And no, he wasn't okay. Frankie's body was coming back to life, the low throb of heat rising to the surface again, itching along his bones. He could smell Gerard and Frankie wanted to nose along Gerard's body, finding the spots where he tasted best. He wanted to bite and lick those spots, leave his mark on Gerard's pale skin.
Somehow, when he wasn't paying attention, his hand had started to creep toward Gerard, yet another betrayal. He hated this, fucking hated having no control over his own body. Frankie jerked his hand back.
Gerard reached out and Frankie cringed away; he couldn't stand to be touched right now, because it was only going to make things so much worse. He was having a hard time not throwing himself bodily at Gerard, holding him down and letting the fever run rampant, rutting against Gerard until he came again and again. He rolled onto his side and curled up.
"Frankie?" Gerard sounded upset.
Frankie pressed his face to the ground. Gerard still insisted that what Frankie was feeling was just a crush, and Frankie knew it wasn't. He wanted so much, wanted more than Gerard was willing to give and he didn't know how to deal with that. He had to wait until Gerard was ready, and right now, it felt like that was never going to happen. "Go away, Gerard," he said listlessly. "Just—go away and leave me alone."
There was a rustle of leaves and he could feel Gerard move closer, radiating heat. "Let me help." Carefully, like he was afraid Frankie would bolt if he moved too fast, Gerard put his hand on Frankie's shoulder. He leaned over and Frankie could hear him inhaling deeply. "Moon fever?"
Miserable, Frankie nodded. Gerard could smell it on him, which made him want to die of embarrassment.
"It's okay, Frankie, I promise," Gerard said softly. "It's normal; nothing to be ashamed of." He ran his fingers through Frankie's hair, gently combing out the knots. It was sweet and it made Frankie's throat tighten.
He swallowed hard against the constriction. "M'fine."
"Oh, Frankie." Gerard sighed.
Frankie shook his head vehemently. "You don't understand," he whispered harshly. "I—I want—"
"What do you want? Tell me."
Feeling what little control he had left slipping away, Frankie growled and smacked at the ground with the flat of his hand, scattering leaves. He sprang and shoved hard at Gerard, crouching over him, teeth bared. "I want to bite you until you bleed," Frankie hissed. "Tear at you, hold you down, fuck you, mark you, make you mine."
Gerard met his eyes, unsmiling. Slowly, deliberately, he closed his eyes and tilted his head back, baring his throat for Frankie.
"No," Frankie moaned, "please, don't, Gerard, you don't understand, if I touch you I won't stop." Puppy love, Gerard had said, and refused to believe otherwise. And until Gerard acknowledged what was between them, Frankie couldn't let himself have this.
Frankie tried to make himself move away, but Gerard's scent had shifted, from concern to certainty and Frankie couldn't resist anymore, couldn't stop from pressing his lips to the smooth line of Gerard's throat.
Reaching up, Gerard slid one hand around Frankie's waist and pulled him down. His other hand cupped Frankie's hard dick, giving him something sweaty and hot to rub against, which, if Frankie could think about anything other than getting off, he'd be grateful for, because the denim of Gerard's jeans was rough against his skin.
"Ah," Frankie gasped. He couldn't help himself, he bit down on Gerard's neck, feeling him tense with the pain. Frankie tried to push away; he didn't really want to hurt Gerard, but Gerard moved his head further back and said, "Again."
Gerard's hand slid to the small of Frankie's back and settled there, a warm weight, urging Frankie to rock their bodies together. It was the perfect amount of friction and Frankie tried to smother the sounds that were being pulled from him against Gerard's pale flesh, but all he managed to do was leave behind reddened bite marks.
There was this spot, a little hollow right behind Gerard's ear that was perfectly shaped for Frankie to hide his secrets, so he did, whispering them against the thin skin as Gerard held him close. He let his body move to the beat Gerard set, falling into a kind of trance.
He could still feel the desperation under his skin, but it was a distant thing now. Instead, Gerard captured Frankie's attention, the way he felt under Frankie, his scent and the sound of his voice, the way he moved.
"C'mon, Frankie, it's okay, I've got you, you're safe," Gerard murmured, and Frankie didn't have any choice but to believe him. Gerard tightened his fingers around Frankie's dick and Frankie shuddered.
"Oh, god," he slurred. "Fuck, fuck, oh fuck, Ger—" His voice cracked and caught on a sob as the pleasure streaked through his body like lightning, burning through his blood and frying his nerves. It was too much, too much; Frankie's brain shut down and his body took over, pushing mindlessly against Gerard's hand until he came with a choked cry that echoed in his ears.
Frankie surfaced, minutes or hours later, he really couldn't tell. It was still dusk, so it couldn't have been too long. He was draped bonelessly atop Gerard, nuzzling at his collarbone. Gerard was petting him, long, slow strokes down his spine, and then back up. Frankie must have made a sound, because Gerard paused for a moment before continuing his caresses.
"You okay, Frankie?" Gerard's voice was soft, and utterly neutral.
He wasn't sure if Gerard's tone was a good thing or not, and he was afraid to look up. Gerard was innately open and honest; he'd never been able to hide what he was feeling, even though he'd tried, sometimes. Which was funny, because Frankie could usually smell what was going on in Gerard's head.
Frankie didn't know what he would do if he saw pity on Gerard's face, like he'd only touched Frankie because he'd felt sorry for him. He was sure that would break his heart. He sighed.
"Hey, hey, Frankie, look at me." Gerard touched the back of Frankie's neck and Frankie couldn't stop the aftershock that shivered through him. It woke the heated buzz still lingering under his skin, but it didn't feel wild and uncontrollable anymore. It felt like. . .being a horny teenager.
He blushed, feeling the heat creep across his cheeks and up his ears. "Oh my god," Frankie moaned. He wanted the ground to swallow him up. He'd used Gerard, rubbed himself against Gerard and came all over him, leaving bite marks and jizz behind. Frankie might as well get up and pee on Gerard next. Fuck.
"Frankie, will you look at me?" There was a hint of worry in Gerard's voice and Frankie couldn't help himself; he raised his head and met Gerard's dark eyes.
No fear. No disgust. Only a hint of a blush and some concern. Frankie felt something tight in his chest ease. "I'm sorry—"
Gerard pressed a finger to his lips, shutting him up. "No apologies, Frankie." He licked at his lips, hesitating. "You're my friend; I want to help."
"Oh." Frankie knew he shouldn't feel disappointed. Gerard was his best friend, along with Mikey and Ray, and helping friends was always a no-brainer. He was stupid for hoping—wanting more. His blood cooled and he was suddenly reminded that he was naked and lying on top of Gerard, who was still fully clothed, sticky with sweat and other bodily fluids that he really didn't want to think about. "Oh, sorry," and he tried to pull away, get off Gerard so he didn't embarasses himself futher by making stupid assumptions.
"No," Gerard said, pressing down against Frankie's back. "No, you're fine, stay where you are." He lifted his head up and nosed at Frankie's hair. "Please, please—stay. For a little bit."
Frankie was confused, but he wasn't going to deny that it felt really fucking good to be so close to Gerard. He could breathe Gerard in, almost taste his skin. "All right," he said softly, letting his body relax. He put his ear against Gerard's chest and closed his eyes, listening to the steady sound of Gerard's heartbeat.
He'd almost fallen asleep when he felt Gerard fingers tracing patterns on his shoulder. "Not only because we're friends and I wanted to help."
"Hmmm?" Frankie held his breath, struggling not to let himself read too much into what Gerard was saying. Gerard's heart was beating faster, though. That had to mean something.
"I didn't do it just because I wanted to help."
Frankie waited for more, because he didn't understand what Gerard was trying to say. He lifted his head and looked at Gerard, who was worrying at his bottom lip uncertainly. "Okay."
"I did it. I did it because—I wanted to," Gerard finished in a rush, the words tumbling together. "Not because I felt sorry for you or anything." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Because I've always wanted to."
Frankie couldn't tear his eyes away from Gerard, who was blushing a little, but didn't look away. "Yeah?"
"Yeah, Frankie. Since that night at Ray's Gather."
"Oh." Frankie's stomach was churning. He hadn't expected this so soon, with Gerard being adamant about Frankie's feelings being nothing more than a hormone-driven crush. He'd gotten to the point where he hadn't really let himself think about it anymore. He wiggled a little so that he could reach Gerard's mouth; he really needed to kiss him now.
He paused, his mouth a hair's breadth away from Gerard's. "Is this okay?" he asked in a whisper.
"Yeah," Gerard sighed, and cupped his hands around Frankie's face and touched their lips together.
Gerard's graduation came much, much sooner than Frankie was prepared for. On one hand, he was so proud of Gerard for getting into the art school that he wanted, that he deserved to get into. He was so damn talented.
But, on the other hand, he really didn't want Gerard to go off to the city and forget all about his friends back home.
"Like I could forget about any of you," Gerard said. Frankie was pressed up against one side of him, Ray on the other and Mikey was somehow curled half on Gerard's legs, half on Frankie's.
"You're gonna meet interesting people, and we're going to seem so boring after that," Frankie said mournfully.
"Speak for yourself," Ray said. "I'm not boring."
Mikey snickered, and Frankie kicked Mikey in the head as he tried to climb over Gerard to give Ray a noogie.
"Damn it, Frankie, stop," Mikey complained, grabbing at a foot while Gerard laughingly wrapped his arms around Frankie and held him tight.
"I'm not going to forget anyone," Gerard said. "I'll be home most weekends, anyway." He ruffled Frankie's hair. "And no one is as cool as you guys are."
Frankie wasn't reassured and he spent the rest of the afternoon pouting.
"You're not really worried about that, are you?" Gerard asked that night as they walked through the woods. The Moon was a bare sliver high in the night sky.
Frankie untangled their fingers so he could wrap his arms around himself. He shrugged. "You might meet someone you like more than you like me. It's a big city, lots of interesting people. Someone who's an artist, like you. Who understands you better than I do."
Gerard snorted and grabbed Frankie's elbow, pushing him up against a tree. "No one will ever understand me better than you." He leaned down to kiss Frankie, nipping at his bottom lip. "No one. You get me."
Pack, Frankie thought, but didn't dare say it aloud. "Yeah?" He raised a challenging eyebrow.
"Yeah," Gerard said with another kiss, softer and sweeter. He pulled away with a grin. "Race you back to the house!" He turned and started running, laughter echoing through the trees.
Frankie shook his head sadly and let Gerard have a bit of a head start before reaching for his fur-self and Changing. Two legs were no match for four. He yipped happily and gave chase.
Frankie frowned; Gerard's words were loud and slurred like he'd been drinking, and Frankie could barely hear him over the background noise, shouting and laughter.
"Hey, what's up? Bad time?" The Blooded had different metabolisms than Normals and it took a spectacular amount of alcohol to get a Blooded drunk. The effects wouldn't last long; even Walkers like Gerard would burn through intoxicants.
"No, no, it's fine." There was a thump and suddenly it was quiet, like Gerard had moved to another room. Maybe the hallway of the dorm, or the bathroom. "Joe's got some friends over, we're watching movies."
"Sounds fun," Frankie said cautiously. "Whatcha watching?"
Gerard laughed. "Dunno. Somethin' terrible, with monsters eating very dumb people."
Frankie shook his head. "That only describes about three-quarters of the bad horror movies out there."
"I know." Gerard sighed, loudly. "I miss you, Frankie. It's been a tough week."
"I miss you, too." Lately, it seemed that all of Gerard's weeks were like that. He didn't know how he could help. "Mikey and me went and saw this band last week; you would have loved them."
"Oh, yeah?" There was the snick of Gerard's lighter and Frankie could hear him inhale as he lit a cigarette. "Tell me about it."
Frankie curled up on his bed, phone pressed tight to his ear and told Gerard about the show. He closed his eyes and pretended that Gerard was next to him, warm and safe, and not miles away, in a city that never slept.
"I was out late last night, walking back from the library," Gerard murmured later. His voice was warm, intimate, and Frankie wanted to wrap it around himself like a blanket. "There was a brownout and for a minute, it was completely dark. I looked up and saw the stars, and I realized that if you were outside, you'd see the same stars. . ." His voice trailed off into silence. "It made me feel closer to you, Frankie. Less alone."
"Gerard—" Frankie ached with missing him.
"Gotta go, Frankie," Gerard said softly. A click and he was gone.
"Fuck," Frankie muttered, rolling onto his back. This was hell.
Gerard didn't look so good. He'd gained some weight, which Frankie liked, but his skin looked sallow and pasty, unhealthy. Frankie was sure that it was partly because Gerard was living off of cigarettes and coffee and booze, and not much else.
It didn't matter, though, he hugged Gerard as hard as he could, inhaling the scent of him and the constant tension wound around his bones finally, finally let go. "Missed you," he muttered against Gerard's neck and Gerard nodded.
"Me, too, Frankie."
He let himself hold on for a minute longer before pulling away. "We couldn't find a parking spot, so Mikey's driving around the building, 'cause if he gets another parking ticket he'll lose his learner's permit."
Gerard grinned at that, and something in his smile hurt to look at. Frankie picked up one of the duffle bags off the floor. "C'mon, can't keep him waiting." It wasn't fair to Mikey, who'd missed Gerard as intensely as Frankie had. It was worse for him, in a lot of ways. Frankie had been friends with the Ways for only a handful of years; Gerard had been Mikey's for his whole life, and this was the first time they'd been apart for more than a week.
It pretty much sucked for all of them, because even though Gerard tried to get home on the weekends, it got harder and harder for him to do so as the semester progressed. It took too much time and energy to make the trip back to New Jersey.
Luckily, it was winter break and they'd have Gerard for almost a whole month before school started back up. Frankie didn't plan on leaving Gerard's side if he could help it.
He held Gerard's hand and led him out into the weak winter sunlight, then waited on the curb until Mikey rolled to a stop in the old junker he'd bought from some guy in Newark for fifty bucks. It'd taken them weeks and the help of Frankie's Uncle Sal and second cousin Jasmine to get the engine to the point where the damn thing didn't stall out at the drop of a hat.
On the drive home, Frankie told Gerard about their adventures with the car, which had him giggling as Frankie described learning how to jump out of the car while it was still coasting and pushing until Mikey got the engine to turn over with a loud sputter.
Frankie listened to the way Gerard laughed, ear cocked for nuances that he'd been hearing all semester, fear and loneliness and self-doubt, but he couldn't hear anything other than honest happiness. It made him wonder if he'd been imagining things, projecting his own insecurities and worry.
"What's wrong, Frankie?" Gerard asked.
Frankie shook his head. "Nothing." He leaned against Gerard, curling against his side. "Missed you."
Gerard pressed a kiss to Frankie's temple and nodded. "Yeah."
Mrs. Way made Frankie stay for dinner—they had it delivered from Gerard's favorite pizza place. The last six weeks of classes had been hectic and filled with deadlines and Gerard hadn't managed to get home at all in that time. Mr. and Mrs. Way had missed him as much as Frankie, Mikey, and Ray had.
Afterwards, they sat around the table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes with Mrs. Way while Mr. Way disappeared into the garage.
Mrs. Way was so different from Frankie's mom, and she was a little bit scary. She fit every stereotype he'd ever seen about Jersey moms; she was loud, brash, blunt and tacky, with brightly dyed blonde hair and long red fingernails. The affection between her and her sons was obvious.
Frankie couldn't normally see a resemblance between Gerard and Mikey, let alone the guys and their mom, but then she'd laugh or smile or wave her hand around and suddenly Frankie would wonder how he'd missed it.
Gerard told them about his adventures at SVA, going to class in a dress and doing some kind of bizarre performance art in Central Park. In return, Donna talked about the day when Alicia's family came over to the Way house for an extremely memorable family dinner. Mikey turned bright red and sank lower into his chair.
Frankie was riveted; he'd known about the dinner, had helped Mikey with his tie, but had been sent away before the big event had started. No matter how much Frankie had bugged and annoyed Mikey about it, Mikey had refused to divulge any of the juicy details.
According to Donna, she and Alicia's mother had swapped embarrassing stories about Mikey and Alicia as kids while the dads had retired to the living room to watch the Jets lose again.
"Wish I'd been there to see that," Frankie muttered.
Mikey kicked his shin under the table and glared at him.
"Me, too," Gerard snickered.
Later, Ray came over and they’d piled onto Gerard's bed in the basement to watch Star Wars.
Gerard was sitting up against the headboard, smushed between Ray and Mikey, with Frankie sitting between his spread legs. It was like they were all trying to reconnect with Gerard, reminding themselves of what he smelled like, how he felt against them, how warm he was. Gerard kept touching Mikey's hair, Ray's shoulder, Frankie's neck; maybe they weren't the only ones that needed to renew the bond.
They got through all of Star Wars and part of Empire before Ray started yawning tiredly.
"What sharp teeth you have, Grandma," Frankie murmured.
Gerard snorted and Ray shoved at Frankie's shoulder. Mikey grumbled and climbed to his feet.
"G'night," Ray said, hugging Gerard and ruffling Frankie's hair. "Glad you're home."
"Yeah," Mikey agreed. "Missed you."
Gerard smiled at them both. "Missed you guys, too."
"'Night," Frankie said, watching Ray and Mikey head upstairs, shutting the door behind them. He sighed and pushed back into Gerard's warmth. "I can't believe you're finally home."
"For a little while," Gerard murmured, nuzzling at Frankie's ear.
Frankie's stomach dropped. "Don't remind me." He wanted to pretend that Gerard was home for good, that he wouldn't ever leave again.
"Hmmm." Gerard slid his hands up under Frankie's shirt, slow fingers circling his belly button, his nipples. "You let your mom know you were spending the night?"
Frankie inhaled sharply. Gerard radiated heat like a furnace and Frankie couldn't get enough. He wiggled back, feeling Gerard's hard dick pressing against the small of his back. "Yeah."
"You have any more problems with the Moon fever?" He sounded so calm, detached, like he wasn't holding Frankie tight against him and teasing him.
Two could totally play this game. It so happened that Frankie was better at it. "Well," Frankie drawled. "Last Moon was kinda rough. Not quite a fever, but I was. . .antsy. So I jerked off a lot. Whenever the urge hit me, no matter where I was, I'd do it."
Gerard's hands stilled and Frankie could hear him swallow loudly. "Oh?"
"Yeah." Frankie leaned his head back on Gerard's shoulder and looked up at Gerard through his eyelashes. "I almost got caught a couple of times."
"Tell me," Gerard whispered, unbuttoning Frankie's jeans and sliding down the zipper. Frankie flexed his hips up a little, letting Gerard push the denim down, off his thighs and down to his knees. Frankie shimmied, then pulled one foot, then the other, free of the material. "What happened?"
"I was in school and I was missing you, the way you smell, and suddenly, I had this huge boner, right in the middle of algebra class." Frankie grabbed Gerard's hands and guided them to his thighs, stroking his fingers over them. His dick was tenting his underwear and he really wanted Gerard to touch him, but this was little bit of payback.
Gerard fingers flexed into the muscles of Frankie's thigh, digging in a little. "Frankie," Gerard breathed into Frankie's ear. "Stop it."
"Uh, nope." He cupped his junk in his hand, rubbing a little, tracing the shape of his dick behind the fabric of his underwear. It felt so good, hot prickles racing against his skin, pulling a breathless moan from him. "I got a stupid hall pass from the teacher and ran to the bathroom, locking myself into one of the stalls."
"Frankie." Gerard was petting Frankie's legs, brushing his fingers against the barely-there hairs, back and forth, like he didn't even realize what he was doing. "Frankie, please."
Frankie ignored him. "There were these two guys, football players I think, still in there, washing their hands and talking about some stupid thing. I wanted them gone, because I needed to jack off so bad. They took forever and when they were finally gone, I braced myself against the stall and unzipped my uniform slacks. . ."
Gerard dropped his cheek to Frankie's shoulder with a groan. His breath was hot and damp, and Frankie shivered, tilting his head in encouragement. Gerard didn't hesitate, kissing the skin of Frankie's neck, mouth soft and wet. "And then what?" He scraped his teeth over a sensitive spot and Frankie made a small sound.
"And then I got my hand around my dick and squeezed, because otherwise I was going to come in like five seconds." He matched action to words, fingers tangling in his underwear as he touched himself.
Gerard chose that moment to let go of his grip on Frankie's legs, grabbing Frankie's hands and pulling them away from Frankie's dick. "No, not yet," he said. "I want to hear the rest of your story."
Frankie struggled a tiny bit against Gerard, trying not to whine. He knew he could easily break free, but that wasn't the point. The point was that Frankie liked it when Gerard held him down, wrapping his long fingers around Frankie's wrists and holding tight.
With his Blooded metabolism, the bruises never lasted very long, but he enjoyed watching the dark smudges slowly bloom, then fade away on his skin.
"Did you tease yourself?" Gerard asked. "Or did you go for it, so wound up you couldn't stop?"
Frankie panted. "I tried to make it last, because I wanted to pretend it was your hand that was jerking me off. But it was hard, it was so fucking hard, Gerard, and I only got in a couple of slow strokes before I was going faster and faster—"
"Hmmm." Gerard held both of Frankie's wrists in one hand and used the other hand to touch. "Like this?" he asked, running his fingers down Frankie's dick. He switched his grip to something more suited to jacking off quickly. "Or like this?"
Squirming, Frankie tried to push into Gerard's hand, because it felt so good. "Oh, like that, Gerard, please—"
"Yeah," Gerard murmured. He nipped at Frankie's neck, finding all the sensitive spots. "I want you to come for me," he said, tightening his fingers on Frankie's wrists and stroking Frankie's dick faster. "Will you do that for me?"
"F-fuck," Frankie hissed. "Yes, oh, yeah." He tried to catch his breath, but Gerard was pushing him, shoving him toward his orgasm. He moved his hips up and heat slammed through him, shaking him, making him moan and gasp. Behind him, Frankie could feel Gerard thrusting roughly against his back and cursing under his breath, and shuddering.
Frankie let himself relax back against Gerard, eyes fluttering shut. "Missed you," he whispered.
Gerard pressed a kiss to his ear. "Missed you too, little fox."
"Yeah, so the professor changed the due date for my sophomore project and I'm so far behind, Frankie. I can't afford to come home for the weekend. I'm sorry."
And Frankie could tell that Gerard was sorry. He bit his lip hard, because he wanted to whine about how long it'd been since Gerard had come home. Rubbing at his eyes, he threw himself on his bed and stared at the series of framed sketches on his wall, given to him by Gerard over the years. Zombie dragon, vampire cat, hell hounds, angels with guitars. "S'okay. I understand." He didn't, really, but he didn't want to upset Gerard.
Frankie hadn't seen Gerard in close to a month and he missed him something fierce. Mikey missed him, too, though in a different way. It sucked so bad; the phone calls weren't enough. He wanted to touch Gerard, needed to feel his skin, scent him, bite him. "We could come up and visit you," he offered softly, hoping he didn't seem too needy. "Just for a little while."
"Frankie—" Gerard sighed. "I'm sorry, I can't. You and Mikey would be a distraction and I can't afford that right now."
"Okay." His stomach twisted a little, but he made himself ask the question that had been eating at him for a little while, now. "You'd tell me, if something was wrong, right?"
"Nothing's wrong, Frankie."
Which didn't answer his question. Frankie hated this long distance shit, because he couldn't tell what Gerard was thinking over the phone, couldn't smell the truth on him, couldn't use his senses to figure out what was really going on. "That's not what I asked." He couldn't keep from sounding hurt.
"Listen, Frankie, I've gotta go. I'll talk to you later, okay?" Gerard hung up before Frankie could say another word.
"Fuck," he hissed, and thought about throwing his phone against the wall in frustration. Instead, he flung his head back repeatedly into his pillow, trying to shake himself free of self-doubt and fears. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"
He wanted to scream, because something was going on with Gerard, had been for the last few months since Gerard had gone off to college. Frankie didn't know what to do, didn't know how to get over this growing chasm between them.
"Frankie," Mrs. Rush said as he stood on her doorstep. "To what do I owe this unexpected visit? Is everything okay?"
He brought her daisies he'd picked from his mother's flower bed.
Frankie shrugged and held out the flowers. "These are for you."
She beckoned him in, touching his shoulder lightly. "Let's go into the kitchen. I think I've got some cookies with your name on them, and I can put these lovely flowers into a vase."
Frankie sat at the table while she searched her cupboards. "Ah-ha," she said, pulling a plain glass vase down and filling it with water, setting it down in the middle of the table with a flourish. "How's your grandmother doing? And your mom?"
"They're both fine," he said with an annoyed huff. "They won all my allowance money at the last family game night. We were playing Scrabble, and they're cheating, somehow."
Elena laughed at him. "Oh, Frankie."
"Come on," he said. "Who gets a triple score with a q-word? What the hell does queys mean, anyway. Seventeen points times three, my ass," he grumbled.
She poured him a glass of milk and brought over a plate of cookies. "And you? How are you doing? You and Mikey will be graduating soon. . ."
Nodding, Frankie stared into his glass of milk. "Next spring." He dunked a cookie into the milk before eating it. "He's not happy," he said quietly.
He nodded again. "He won't talk to me. He pretends that everything's okay, but I can tell that he's miserable on the inside." He looked up at her, and let her see how afraid he was. "I don't know what to do. He's never shut me out like this before."
"Oh, Frankie," she sighed. "You are both so young, and still finding your way. Just be there for him. Until he's ready to talk, that's all you can do." She smiled, a little. "And you know Gerard; he loves to talk."
"I know." Frankie smiled a little, because yeah, Gerard did. He was fascinated about the world around him and wanted to discuss everything from books and movies to gender politics and the influence of the Blooded on fairy tales and art. Frankie could sit and listen to Gerard talk forever, because he was so passionate.
"I know part of what's going on in his head is that school is really hard for him. He thought, because he's always been so good at art, that going off to college to study art would be easy. But it's not, and he's struggling with that."
"Yeah." Frankie chuckled, because Gerard had bragged about how it was going to be a breeze for him, when he'd first gone off to SVA. It had annoyed the fuck out of Frankie, because school had never been something Frankie'd been good at without a lot of hard work.
He'd felt vindicated when it'd become obvious, fairly quickly, that Gerard had to put effort into his art, that he wasn't going to get away with resting on his laurels.
"You also have to remember that he doesn't have an outlet for his feelings like you do. When it gets to be too much, you can Change into your fur-self and run until you can't run anymore. When the Moonlight makes you itchy and tense, you can Change. Gerard can't. Mikey can't. I can't."
Frankie looked at his glass again, swirling the liquid and watching the cookie crumbs float around. "I can't even imagine how terrible that must be, having the urge to Change but not being able to."
Mrs. Rush sighed. "I think Gerard's like me, more sensitive to the moods of the Moon. Donna and Don, and Mikey, they feel the pull, but it doesn't seem to bother them as much. Poor Gerard."
"I'm sorry," he said, and he was. Because now that he'd experienced the Change, he couldn't imagine not being able to.
"You're such a good boy," she said. "I'm so glad Gerard has you in his life."
Frankie wished he could be sure that Gerard thought that, too.
Frankie knew something was up the minute he answered his phone. Gerard had been acting oddly the last couple of weeks, avoiding Frankie's calls and ignoring his emails. Frankie had interrogated Mikey, to see if he knew anything, but they'd both drawn a blank. He was trying to be patient; he'd decided to give Gerard a few more days to work through whatever was bothering him before demanding an explanation.
"Gerard? Hey, how are you?" He tried for casual, but Gerard's subdued tone made his stomach twist in worry. "I've missed you," he said softly. "Been busy?"
"Yeah, sorta. Mostly thinking about things, you know?"
Frankie didn't know, because Gerard could be the most closed-mouthed motherfucker when he was upset. He made a noncommittal sound. "What kind of things?"
"You. Me." Gerard inhaled deeply. "I was thinking maybe we should take a break, not see each other for a while."
"What?" Frankie had always thought it was a clever turn of phrase, talking about feeling your heart skip a beat. But no, his heart actually stuttered in his chest. It hurt.
"I thought maybe—well, you know this long distance thing—you're so young, Frankie, I want you to—" Gerard's voice broke off as he made a frustrated noise. "We're moving so fast, I think we need to slow down, take it easy. There's no rush, we can take our time—"
"Stop," Frankie interrupted. He felt light-headed and sick to his stomach. "Are you fucking breaking up with me?"
Gerard's silence was deafening.
"You're coming home this weekend."
"Well. I was thinking maybe it'd be better if I didn't, you know, give us both some time and space."
"No." Frankie was mad, but it was a cold, distant anger, nothing at all like his usual flash of temper. "If you're going to break up with me, you're going to do it face-to-face."
"You either come home, or I'll come up there. And you really don't want me showing up at your fucking dorm, because I will raise hell." Frankie was dead serious. Gerard was pulling some kind of bullshit here and Frankie was not going to put up with it.
"You wouldn't." Gerard sounded angry, and it made Frankie want to punch something. Why the fuck was Gerard mad? Frankie wasn't the one wanting to dump him and break his heart.
"Try me, motherfucker. I am so not kidding about this."
"Whatever," Gerard said, hanging up.
Frankie didn't hesitate to throw his phone against the wall this time, taking vicious satisfaction in the way it shattered into pieces of plastic and glass. "Fuck," he growled.
Gerard must have called Mikey, because fifteen minutes later, Frankie's phone made a crackling, buzzy sound like a dying insect and ten minutes after that, Mikey was on his doorstep, looking mournful. He wrapped his arms around Frankie and squeezed him tightly.
Mikey pushed his way into the house and herded Frankie onto the big living room couch, sitting down and patting the cushion next to him. "C'mon, Frankie, sit down."
Frankie did. He curled against Mikey's side. "Your brother's being a dick," he mumbled.
"Yeah," Mikey agreed, throwing a lanky arm around Frankie. "I really don't know what's going on in his head."
"Me, neither," Frankie admitted. "I know he hasn't been happy, but he won't talk to me."
They sat there for a few minutes, and there was a knock at the door. "Toro," Mikey said, getting up to let him in.
"What the fuck's going on, Frankie?" Ray asked as he sat on the couch, pulling Frankie close.
"Dunno," he said, listless. "Gerard called out of the blue and was talking about us taking a break from each other, slowing things down." Frankie was still baffled.
Frankie shrugged, and Mikey dropped down on his other side, their bodies touching. Ray and Mikey's familiar warmth chased away some of the chill he'd felt since he'd talked to Gerard. "He made me so mad. He was trying to weasel his way out of coming home this weekend and I told him if he stayed in the city I'd come up there and kick his ass." And Frankie had meant it, too.
"I know he's been depressed," Ray said, "and unhappy. But why would he suddenly decide to dump you? You're the one thing that's kept him from being totally miserable."
"I don't know," Frankie gritted out.
"He's been drinking a lot more, too," Mikey added.
Frankie nodded. "I've tried to get him to talk to me about what's going on, but he avoids the subject." Gerard could be devious when he didn't want to talk. "I knew something was wrong and—" Frankie broke off, because he could hear the quaver in his voice.
"It's going to be okay," Ray said, stroking Frankie's hair. "It's not that he doesn't love you; a blind person can see that he's in love with you."
"Maybe he met someone else."
Mikey shook his head. "No, that's not it."
"I don't know." Frankie let himself lean against Ray. He was sure that Ray could smell his fear, but Ray didn't say anything, just kept petting Frankie, murmuring how everything was going to be okay. Mikey was a solid, silent presence on his other side, somehow reassuring.
Frankie closed his eyes and tried to believe.
The days until the weekend took forever, and Frankie spent the entire time on edge and snappish.
He got into another argument with his mom about going to college that degenerated into a yelling match. She slammed out the back door to cool off on the porch while Frankie paced around the kitchen, scowling. After a few minutes, he took a deep breath and huffed it out, and made himself go out to apologize.
"I'm sorry," he said, sitting next to her on the steps and resting his weight against her. "I know you only want the best for me, and I'm a terrible son and I'm sorry."
"Oh, Frankie, you're not a terrible son. I just want you to be happy," Linda said.
"I know," he sighed. He cleared his throat. "Gerard and I are. . .not getting along."
"Oh." She leaned back against him. "Do you want to talk about it?"
He shrugged. "Not a lot to say." He'd called Gerard, left a couple of messages, texted, but hadn't heard back. Frankie hadn't really expected to, though. "I'm going to talk to him when he comes home this weekend."
She pressed a kiss to his head. "Talking is good."
"I talked to him about this, once."
Frankie raised an eyebrow.
"I told him that if he hurt you, there would be repercussions."
Snorting, Frankie bumped his shoulder into hers. "Please don't eat him, Mom."
"Then he shouldn't hurt you," she said fiercely.
He had the best mom in the world. She let him borrow her car to pick up Gerard from the train station. Mikey and Ray had offered to go with for moral support, but Frankie figured that it'd be better if he went alone. If he and Gerard were going to have a knock-down, drag-out fight, he didn't want other people around to witness it.
Frankie lucked out at the station and found a parking spot. Gerard's train wouldn't be getting in for another twenty minutes, so he sat, breathing deeply and struggling to figure out what he was going to say when he saw Gerard. He was pretty sure his instinct was going to be to kick him in the shins. Hard.
Sighing, he went into the station; at least he could people watch, rather than loitering like a creeper in the parking lot.
He saw Gerard first, and his stomach dropped, because Gerard looked like he'd been physically ill for a while. He'd lost the weight he'd gained and then some. His cheeks were hollow and there were deep, dark smudges under his eyes, like he hadn't slept in days. Insomnia tended to plague Gerard when he was stressed, so that wasn't really a stretch.
"Gerard," he said quietly, stepping out of the alcove he'd been watching from. A series of emotions crossed over Gerard's face: happiness, anger, fear, resignation, and then, worst of all, an unsettling blankness. Frankie wanted to hug Gerard, pull him close and feel his warmth, but he had the feeling that wouldn't go over so well.
"Frankie," Gerard said, with a distant nod, like they were acquaintances, not best friends and boyfriends and so much more. Pack.
It hurt, like nothing else Frankie'd ever felt. "How's school?" That seemed to be an neutral enough topic.
"Fine." Gerard didn't elaborate, and Frankie realized that Gerard was bound and determined to be an asshole about this.
"Fine," Frankie echoed, and stubbornly kept his mouth shut until they got to the car. He grabbed Gerard's duffle of dirty clothes and threw it into the back before sliding into the driver's seat. He tapped his fingers against the steering wheel impatiently while Gerard dithered, like maybe he was thinking it might be better to walk home than to be stuck in the car with Frankie. "Get in," he yelled.
Gerard hunched down and glared at Frankie through the window, defiantly lighting a cigarette. Frankie waved a hand, because he'd learned to pick his battles with Gerard. With a triumphant look, Gerard stood up and paced around the car until he was done smoking.
Once Gerard got in, Frankie started the car and turned the music up loud, making conversation impossible. He could be an asshole, too. Frankie drove until it became obvious that he wasn't taking Gerard to either of their houses.
"Where are we going?" Gerard shouted over the music. Frankie threw him a look, because where else would they go except to the woods? They could yell at each other all they wanted and no one would bother them.
The Gather clearing was empty, of course. Frankie perched on a wooden picnic table and watched Gerard as he looked everywhere but at Frankie. "Gerard." Frankie kept his voice calm; he needed to stay in control if he expected to talk sense into Gerard.
Frankie sighed. "Can we please talk about this?"
Gerard shrugged sullenly. "There's nothing to talk about. I don't think we should be together anymore."
Frankie felt like he'd been kicked in the stomach and the breath knocked out of him. "Why?" He wrapped his arms around himself.
For a long moment, Frankie thought Gerard wasn't going to answer. But then, Gerard said, "We're two different people, Frankie. Going in two different directions. I don't feel like we have a future in common."
"Fuck that," Frankie snapped. He jumped to his feet and stalked toward Gerard. He inhaled through his mouth, trying to scent Gerard and that was when he realized that Gerard stank of fear, and lies. "What the fuck?" He stopped. "Gerard, please—" Frankie didn't know what was wrong, what was causing Gerard to be so afraid, but he was sure that together, they could get through this. That's what love meant.
"No," Gerard yelled, breathing hard. He stepped away from Frankie, face set. "I can't do this anymore. You're just a kid and I'm tired of waiting for you. I've got to live my own life."
"What?" Frankie shook his head, because nothing Gerard was saying was making any sense. It was like they weren't even speaking the same language.
"I don't want to be with you, Frankie. I don't love you, never loved you, and I don't want to talk about this anymore." His voice broke, and before Frankie could say anything, Gerard turned and ran back toward the road.
Frankie wanted to chase after Gerard, hold him and make him tell Frankie what was really going on, but he hesitated. Maybe it would be better to give him a little time alone; it wasn't like Frankie didn't know where to find him.
Plus, Frankie needed a while to recover, himself. Even though Frankie'd known, deep in his heart, that Gerard hadn't meant what he'd said, it still had stung to hear him say those things. "Fuck," Frankie breathed. Yeah, it had hurt like a motherfucker, actually, because he was still human enough to almost believe what Gerard was saying with his words.
He shook himself, hoping to get rid of the tension that wound tight around him. He thought about Changing for a while and running, but the sky was getting dark; a storm was coming. He could smell the rain in the air. It was so tempting, and the storm didn't look too close. Frankie was certain he could run off some of his worries, replace his own fear-stink with honest, clean sweat.
He Changed and ran.
When he was his fox-self, Frankie could let go of everything, shed the tangle of human thoughts for a simpler, easier existence. He didn't worry about why Gerard thought it was better for them to be apart, or what he was going to do after graduation. He just turned his nose into the breeze and followed the scents that intrigued him.
He chased down a field mouse and spent some time playing with it, letting it go and then pouncing, every instinct alive and awake. It felt good. He played hide and seek with the invisible fingers of the wind that ruffled the grasses. It started raining, and he tried to dodge between the drops, yipping and snapping playfully at the rain. He tried to outrun the flash of lightning and the rumble of thunder, digging his paws into the wet ground, trying for more speed.
Eventually he got tired and he spent some time looking for something to eat. He dug up some crunchy crickets from under a rotten log and found some early berries, tart and tangy. He tried for a squirrel but it dashed up a tree before he could catch it, so he found a sheltered spot under some bushes and laid down to nap for a while, wrapping his tail around his nose to keep warm.
The sound of rustling branches woke him and he tensed, instantly alert. He smelled something not Blooded in the air, something natural and big and dangerous. Wolf. He considered Changing, but wolves were as likely to hunt a human as a fox; he was safer as his fur-self. He had speed and agility on his side in this form.
He listened for a long time, barely breathing, until he was sure he knew where the wolf was; he could hear it stepping through the leaves. There was an odd sound, one that he couldn't identify, and then he wrinkled his nose as the stench of the wolf marking his territory drifted to him. A young male, pack-less, then. Good.
The wolf growled, low and threatening, and he knew that the wolf had picked up his scent. Without giving himself time to think, he bolted, running fast through the woods. He could hear the wolf give chase, but he didn't look back, concentrating on weaving a twisting path between the trees. The wolf stumbled and crashed into a tree, unable to maneuver as easily, and he kept going, leaving the wolf behind.
Eventually he slowed to a trot, and then a walk, tongue lolling. He was deep in the woods, far away from the traveled paths. He picked up the scent of a human, but it was old, faint but somehow familiar. He followed it, nose to the ground, inhaling deep gulps of air. It led to the side of a small hill, and an unexpected cavern entrance.
He stood there, eyes seeking danger, nose twitching. A bear had taken shelter here for a winter, and he could tell that other, smaller mammals had used the cave at some point. And the human scent, the one he'd followed, was strong but musty and stale in the small hollow.
Carefully, he crept in, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. The space turned off from the entrance but wasn't very large; some of the late afternoon sunlight filtered in, enough for him to be able to make out a pile of greyish-brown fur at the far end of the cave.
Sniffing, he moved closer, only to jump back at the roil of power that radiated from the fur. He approached again, more cautiously, peering at the pelt. It took a long moment for his brain to identify the bones under the fur as human—and to realize that the fur was actually a totem.
"Oh, fuck," Frankie said, surprised. His quick Change left him a little dizzy, but he braced himself against a wall. "Fuck," he repeated. This was a person, and he couldn't tell what had happened; the pelt was covering most of the bones. And he was thankful of that, because seeing parts of the skeleton, knowing that this had been a living, breathing human, was making him feel queasy.
Frankie went back outside and bent over, putting his head between his knees until he felt a little steadier. He straightened and looked around, attempting to burn the location into his memory, so he could bring back someone who could deal with the unfortunate soul in the cave.
"You did the right thing, Frankie," Mrs. Ortiz said, hugging him tightly. "Tomorrow you'll have to take us back to the cave, so we can figure out who it is and what we need to do."
He nodded and let his mom take him home. It had been a long, difficult day, between Gerard and the wolf and finding the remains. He wanted to crash.
"Do they know who it is?" he asked his mom, once they were on their way home.
She kept her eyes on the road, but she nodded. "They think it's Mr. Rush."
"Mr. Rush?" Oh. "Gerard's grandfather. Elena's runaway husband."
Linda sighed. "She always insisted that he wouldn't have run away like that. I don't think anyone believed her, because there wasn't any indication that he hadn't."
Frankie thought about that for a while. "Do you think she'll be, not happy, of course, but—" Frankie searched for a word. "Content? Knowing what happened to him? Or will it be worse, finally knowing that he's gone?" He wasn't sure which would be less painful.
"I don't know, honey."
Frankie ended up taking Mr. Van Vleet and Ms. Saporta to the cave the next morning. Ms. Saporta was a tiny woman, the mother of three absurdly tall boys, but she vibrated with power. She was the one who went into the little cavern and brought out the totem, carefully folded and cradled in her arms.
Mr. Van Vleet squeezed Frankie's shoulder. "I'm proud of you, Frankie, for keeping your head. It must have been a difficult experience."
He shrugged. "Was there—do you know what happened?"
Mr. Van Vleet shrugged. "Looks like he fell, cracked his skull. There will be an investigation, of course. But it looks like an accident."
"But it's definitely Mr. Rush?"
Sighing, Mr. Van Vleet nodded. "Yes. No doubt about it. Grace recognized the totem."
"Oh." He wondered if he should go visit Mrs. Rush, offer his condolences. He'd ask his mom. "So what happens now?"
"There will be a Gather in a couple of nights, as soon as most of the Ways and the Rushes from the tri-state area can get here. There'll be an investiture ceremony, passing the totem on to the next Caretaker."
Frankie was curious. "How do they decide who gets the totem?"
Mr. Van Vleet smiled. "They don't. The totem decides."
Frankie tried calling Gerard and was unsurprised to get his voicemail. He was still pissed at Gerard but the events of the last couple of days had cemented his determination to fix things between them, one way or another. "Gerard, hey, I'm sorry about your grandfather. Let me know if I can do anything to help." He sighed, running his fingers through his hair. That just seemed like such a useless thing to say. He cleared his throat. "I know things are going to be hectic for a while, but we're not done talking, don't even think otherwise." The silence dragged on. "Miss you," Frankie said, and hung up.
His mom decided that Mrs. Rush would probably appreciate a brief visit, so Frankie went, with more flowers he'd stolen from his mom's garden.
Mrs. Rush looked pale and a little worn when she opened the door, but when she saw Frankie and the flowers he held, she managed a small smile.
"I'm sorry," he said softly. "I know it's—I don't—" He broke off. He couldn't imagine what she was going through.
"Thank you, Frankie," she said. She hugged him and pressed a kiss to his temple. "It helps, to have family and friends, at a time like this."
It bothered Frankie, how frail she felt against him. He led her into the kitchen where they got down a vase and put the flowers in the middle of the kitchen table, a splash of bright color against the scent of her grief.
Everyone showed up to the Gather. Frankie would have thought that something like this would be a more private ceremony, but investiture of a totem was considered not a family affair, but something that affected the entire community.
Totems only had to be reinvested when the Caretaker passed away, so the ritual was about renewal, and tradition, and family. Frankie saw Mikey and Gerard in passing, both of them solemn in their formal clothes. He found Ray and Alicia at the edge of the clearing, and he pressed himself between them.
There was a bonfire on one side of the clearing, and Frankie could see the Way-Rush family gathered together on the other side. Ms. Saporta was there, the totem still in her arms. Mrs. Rush stood and moved to the front of the crowd. Her voice was steady and strong.
"Thank you, friends, for coming out tonight and joining us in this bittersweet celebration. Our family's totem has been returned to us after being lost for so many years, and for that we are grateful."
A few heads turned to look at Frankie, curious. He tilted his head in acknowledgement. Alicia squeezed his shoulder and Ray smiled at him, reassuring.
"We mourn the passing of our loyal Caretaker, James Arthur Rush, and rejoice at the selection of a new one." Mrs. Rush waved her hand at Ms. Saporta, who stepped forward. The members of the family formed a ragged line and slowly filed past the totem still held in Ms. Saporta's arms, each pausing for a moment to pass their hand over the totem.
Most of the family had a word or two for Mrs. Rush, some briefly touched her, a few hugged her close.
"When the right person passes by, the totem will let them know," Alicia said quietly. "Only the new Caretaker can touch the totem."
"What about Ms. Saporta?" Frankie asked.
"She's special," Ray said. "She's one of the few who can touch any totem."
"When I found it in the cave, I couldn't get too near it. It felt—felt electrified, almost," he murmured back. "But Ms. Saporta wasn't bothered by it at all."
Ray nodded. "Is the new Caretaker always someone closely related to the previous one?"
Alicia shook her head. "I don't think so. I think it can be anyone in the family."
The majority of the Ways and Rushes had paid their respect to the totem; the only ones left looked to be Mrs. Rush's immediate family: Gerard and Mikey, Mrs. and Mr. Way, a bunch of cousins, aunts and uncles that Frankie had met over the years.
One by one they approached totem and still, nothing. The crowd shifted, restless, as each person walked past without a reaction. And then it was down to Mikey and Gerard and their parents.
Alicia slipped her hand into his and tightened her fingers around his. Next to him, Ray was thrumming with nervousness. Frankie had a stray thought. "What happens if—"
Mrs. Way was visibly upset as she approached the totem, tears sliding down her face. She reached out, paused and drew her hand back, shaking her head as she went into Mrs. Rush's waiting arms. Mr. Way quickly joined her, his broad hand rubbing at Mrs. Way's back.
Even in the firelight, Frankie could clearly see Mikey and Gerard, the almost identical expressions of determination and pride on their faces. Mikey stepped forward first, hand outstretched, and then he moved away, looking sidelong at Gerard.
Gerard looked pale, and he swallowed hard before he slowly, carefully touched the totem, stroking his hand lovingly over the fur, his whole body relaxed and loose. He looked like someone who'd finally found his way home.
"Friends, I present to you Gerard Arthur Way, our newest Caretaker!"
A cheer went up and Frankie had to work hard to breathe deeply against the tightness in his chest. He was so happy for Gerard and Mikey, and the rest of their family, to have this missing part of them restored. Alicia bounced on her feet and danced a little in place, clapping Frankie on the shoulder. "I'm so pleased for them," she said, echoing his thoughts, and Ray grinned.
It took a few days before life settled back into its usual rhythms. Frankie left more messages for Gerard on his voicemail, undaunted by his silence. He knew through Mikey that Gerard was busy with family business, learning about his new role. Additionally, the recovery of the totem had healed a rift within his family and many of them were taking the opportunity to reconnect with each other, and their fur-selves.
And some, like Mikey and Gerard and their cousins, were learning how to be furred for the first time in their lives.
Frankie wasn't naturally patient, but for Gerard, he tried.
His phone beeped with an incoming message while he was noodling around on his guitar after dinner, and when he checked it, it was from Gerard. Taking a deep breath, Frankie opened the text.
Frankie's thumbs slipped a little as he replied.
Frankie was pretty sure he knew where.
It was the place where everything important between them had happened: where they met, their first kiss, Gerard touching him with intent, seeing Mikey and Alicia and Ray and realizing they were pack, that terrifying night when Frankie realized how much Gerard meant to him. . .all of these moments, and so many more.
yeah lving now
He thundered down the stairs, pausing long enough to kiss his mom's cheek and tell her where he was going.
"School night, Frankie!" she reminded as he flew out the door, into the dusk.
"I know!" he shouted back and the door slammed shut behind him. He ran, unfurred, enjoying the stretch of muscles, the burn of his lungs. The clearing wasn't far and sometimes he forgot how amazing it felt to push his human body.
Gerard was waiting when Frankie got there, which made him suspect that he'd texted from the clearing. He was sitting on the picnic table, feet dangling, looking. . . settled. It'd been less than a week since Frankie had last seen him, but in that time, he'd changed, and the difference was noticeable.
His characteristic slouch was gone, replaced by a certainty that Gerard had never displayed before. He seemed more mature, and suddenly Frankie felt young and unsure. He wasn't sure he knew this Gerard.
He held out his hand to Frankie, palm up, and Frankie couldn't help himself. Gerard reeled him in and held him tight in his arms, rubbing his cheek against Frankie's hair. He wrapped his legs around Frankie like he was afraid that Frankie would slip away.
"I'm sorry," Gerard mumbled. "I was being stupid, but I was so afraid. You deserve someone better than me, Frankie, and I wanted you to be happy—"
Frankie jerked away at that. "Fucker. I was happy. And what the fuck are you talking about, deserve someone better? Are you insane?" He slapped at Gerard's thigh. Couldn't Gerard see how amazing he was? His talent, his ideas, the way he wanted to save the world made him so damn special; Frankie wouldn't change that for anything.
Gerard toyed with the ragged collar of Frankie's tee shirt and he kept his gaze fixed on his fingers. "Someone who wasn't a failure at art school. Someone who could. . .Change." The last word was barely audible.
"Yeah, you're totally crazy."
"No," Frankie interrupted firmly. "If all you're going to say is stupid shit, you can keep your mouth shut."
Surprised, Gerard closed his mouth.
"I only cared that you couldn't Change because it mattered to you that you couldn't Change. And I didn't like seeing you unhappy."
"As for failing art school. . ." Frankie waved a hand. "School's tough. You just gotta study harder, right?"
Gerard peered at him from under his bangs. "That easy, huh?"
Shrugging, Frankie said, "We're stronger as long as we're together. That's what pack means. You and me, Mikey and Alicia. Ray, and his mate when he finds one."
"Is that what we are? Mates?" Gerard asked slowly, like he wasn't sure. Like he didn't know. How could he not know?
Frankie tilted his head back, exposing his neck. Gerard pressed his lips to Frankie's pulse and licked at the spot, like he couldn't help himself. "Can't you smell it on my skin, in my blood?" Frankie whispered.
"Oh," Gerard said softly, surprised.
"Yeah." Frankie looked at him and stepped away. "So, are you going to show me your fur-self, Gerard?"
Gerard jumped off the table and smiled shyly. He closed his eyes and Frankie felt the pull of his power, and watched as Gerard Changed. He was a coyote, sleek and slender, with a gorgeous silver-brown coat and bright yellow eyes.
"You're beautiful," Frankie said, before reaching inside himself and pushing his fox-self out. He touched his mate's muzzle with his, rubbed against him, scent-marking him. And then he took off running, yipping a challenge into the night air, joyous and free. His mate gave chase and they played in the woods until the Moon went down.
Frankie didn't even give Gerard time to get very far into their house before he pounced, pushing him up against the door and dropping to his knees. His sweatpants were old and comfortable, and kept him from getting rug burn on his knees.
"Frankie?" Gerard sounded surprised, and a little breathless. "What's going on? You okay?"
"You've been gone all day," Frankie whined. His hands were shaking as he fumbled with Gerard's nice slacks, the one's he'd worn for his meeting with the gallery owner in the city. Frankie wanted to know how the meeting went, but not right now.
Right now, all Frankie could concentrate on was how good Gerard smelled, and how badly he wanted to taste him. "Off, off, off, off," he chanted softly, tugging hard at the fastenings that refused to cooperate with him.
"Shhh," Gerard soothed. "Hold on for just a second, Frankie, these are my best pants and I need the buttons." He pushed Frankie's long hair out of his face. "You feeling Moonish?"
It had been a couple of years since he'd felt Moon fever like this. He nodded, looking up at Gerard, who was all dressed up for his meeting and Frankie couldn't even truly appreciate how good he looked. "Please, Gerard, I need—"
"I know what you need, Frankie." Sometimes, Frankie's fur-self required a firm hand. "And I'll give it to you, in a moment."
He nodded, but let himself whine impatiently as Gerard fought with his pants. "Fuck," Gerard hissed, while Frankie rested his hands against the back of Gerard's thighs.
"C'mon, c'mon," he bounced, his knees digging into the carpet. "Gerard—" Frankie made a happy little sound as Gerard finally got his pants undone and pushed them down his legs. His ratty underwear, hidden under his dress pants, would have made Frankie laugh any other time, but right now, he wanted to put his mouth on Gerard's dick and make him feel as desperate as Frankie felt.
Frankie mouthed at Gerard's dick through the cloth before pushing the holey fabric out of his way, exposing Gerard's hard cock. He nosed his way down to Gerard's dark pubic hair, inhaling deeply. The familiar scent of pack and mate trickled through his brain. He sighed softly before taking in as much of Gerard's dick as he could.
"Easy, Frankie," Gerard whispered. "We've got all the time in the world. I'm going to take care of you, let you suck me off and then I'm going to lay you out—oh fuck, that's good, Frankie, so good." Gerard paused for a moment, panting and shuddering under Frankie's mouth. "Gonna lay you out on our bed and blow you, suck on your cock and maybe flip you over and spread you open, put my tongue into you—"
Moaning, Frankie had to press the heel of his hand against his junk, hard, because Gerard's words were making his blood burn hotter and he was close, too close, and he wanted Gerard to come first, wanted him weak-kneed and shaky, trembling and gasping for breath.
"Fuck, that feels so good," Gerard growled. "Yeah, you like that, don't you. Sucking on my dick like you were born to do it, like it's your fucking job—"
Frankie pulled off Gerard's dick with a surprised gasp as his back arched and he came, making a mess inside his sweats. His head drooped forward and he shivered for a long moment, hands resting on his own thighs. "Fuck," Frankie whimpered.
"Look at you," Gerard said, wrapping his hand around his dick and stroking, hard and fast. "Couldn't help yourself, you're so worked up. Didn't even have to fucking touch you." Gerard paused, watching as Frankie shook off the aftershocks and met his eyes.
"More," he said, reaching for Gerard's dick.
Gerard laughed softly, grabbing Frankie's hands in his. "You can definitely have more, but let's move this to the bedroom, yeah? We've got a nice bed and I want to use it, prop you up on some pillows and fuck you for hours, until you're begging me to stop and keep going at the same time, and you're crying for it—"
Frankie let Gerard pull him to his feet and raced to the bedroom, laughing the whole way.
I felt you in my legs before I even met you
And when I lay beside you for the first time I told you
I feel you in my heart and I don't even know you
"Nineteen," by Tegan and Sara