Frank was running, and the hunters were after him.
He could hear their muffled curses and panting breaths, feel the vibrations of their shoes as they pounded against the forest turf. He could smell the metal of their guns and the tang of their anger. He could sense their intentions, how they longed to kill him with a single silver bullet to the head.
And so he ran. His skin was tanned, but too pale among the darkness of the trees. His hair streamed out behind him in short ribbons of glossy brown, the same shade as the fur tufting his ears and the soft fetlocks on his ankles. There was also a ring of the wolf fur around his neck, streaked with beige and black, silky to the touch if he had the time to take care of it. His bare chest revealed the scales at the front of the ring of fur and just below it. They were shiny, ebony colored, and extended over parts of his arms and all the way down his spine, until at the base of that, the scales became plates and formed a tail, black, curved, and with a sharp, rounded stinger on the end. A scorpion’s tail, more or less. If the hunters came close, he could kill them with it; that is, if their bullets didn’t get him first.
His eyes flicked from side to side as he paused – yellow and bright, with enlarged pupils as his panic increased. He had to turn, now.
But Frank was young, very young for a shifter, and his family, his mentors, had just been slaughtered. He hadn’t gone through with his training, didn’t know how to survive this, how to get away from the deadly predators with their even deadlier weapons. He’d only managed to turn into his forms five times before, and only for a short amount of time. But he tasted the air and knew he had no other choice. They were almost upon him.
Frank closed his eyes and concentrated as hard as he could on the other side of his mind. Slowly, his awareness faded. He no longer had his canine senses, no, instead something more primitive was taking over. He was shrinking, the black scales doubling, tripling, in number, covering his body and his eight curved legs. His vision swam, and then it began to separate into different sections, pixelating the world. His arms stayed, but they changed, became heavier and ridged, splitting into two and becoming claws which clicked when he moved.
He felt the vibrations in the ground and scuttled instantly into the undergrowth near a tree, curling in on himself, his tail feeling familiar, though this time it was curled neatly above his body instead of behind it. He was a scorpion, an emperor scorpion, if you wanted to get technical.
Frank waited, backing up further on his eight legs and two pedipalps, towards a hole in the tree. He wasn’t sure it would be a great idea going in there, because what if he accidently lost control and turned back – but it wasn’t as though he had much of a choice, especially as the vibrations increased and somebody called the others over. One of the hunters had found his discarded pants; no doubt figuring out he had changed now. He skulked back into the shadows, stinger twitching instinctively, knowing that danger was near.
“Where’d the little shifter go?” snapped one of them, his heavy boots slamming down on the ground, again and again. Frank quivered with fear, backing away further into the rotted tree.
“I think he turned,” said a softer voice, and the other one cursed. “It’s gonna be hard to find him, with that tail, it’s obvious one of his forms was a scorpion.”
“I’m not gonna go poking around for a scorpion, Sam!”
“Yeah, I figured you wouldn’t.”
“But…we can’t just let it go,” the other said, sounding frustrated. “The juvenile ones are worth the most.”
The younger one, Sam, sighed. “Listen, Dean,” he muttered, “we both know we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t desperately need the money. They were innocents, Dean.”
“They’re still monsters. You’ve seen what their kind can do!”
“Yeah, but the point is that this family didn’t do it! And now we’ve sold them all into a life of…well, it’s probably worse than the Spanish Inquisition. All for Crowley, the bastard.” Frank froze. What? What was to become of his mother and father and cousin? He tried hard to stifle his panic – if he lost control now, he’d turn, and they’d find him. “We can let at least one get away, right?”
Dean made an unconvinced sound. “C’mon, Sammy, at least make an effort here.”
Frank was still and silent as the footsteps approached, and he heard a rustle. A hand was searching blindly through the undergrowth, long fingers coming ever closer to the hole in the tree. A face peered after it, brown eyes looking for a shine of black. Frank scuttled further away, hating the confinement around him but knowing he had no other choice.
“Sam? You find anything?” called Dean’s voice from several meters away. Frank relaxed. This hunter was Sam, then, the one who had been reluctant to catch him. Maybe…
A hand brushed against his shell and Frank would’ve screamed, if that were remotely possible. Instead he scrambled away, tucking himself where he hoped the other couldn’t reach. “Yeah, actually,” Sam said, sounding puzzled, “I thought I touched something for a second there.” A large brown eye blinked at the entrance to the tree, searching around. Frank hoped a spider bit him. He tried with little success to fit his plated body into a tighter crevice as the hand groped around again, the fingertips pausing mere centimeters from his several eyes.
Please go away, Frank begged inside his head, Please leave me be. He didn’t have enough room to sting the hunters, and if they tried to force him out of here, he’d likely get crushed and that would be the end of it.
And then the hand receded and the hunter was walking away. “Nothing here, Dean. Find anything over there?”
“Nah. The bastard is gone.” Dean paused. “In a way, I pity the little guy. These woods are dangerous…don’t know how long he’ll survive without his family.”
Sam didn’t answer, and Frank waited until the vibrations of their footsteps were far, far away before scurrying out and collapsing onto the ground, grateful that at least they’d left behind his pants for him to change into.
Frank knew of a small shack not far from where the hunters had left him, overgrown by ivy and climbing vines. He and his cousin Amanda had spent long hours playing hide and seek in the place when they were younger, sometimes even spending the night there. They told each other scary stories about the hunters who lurked in the shadows, with the intent of killing every Old One like them. But Frank thought they were just stories. This forest, his forest, was isolated, safe, in the mountains. It was rare that any humans came here, and hunters? Never, at least not in Frank’s lifetime.
These thoughts raced through his head as he entered the decaying building. It had crumbling bricks and mortar around the base, but otherwise was composed of wood and the plants growing on that. There was a table in center, warped with weather and turned into a moss and mushroom breeding ground, but it had curtains of plants concealing the space beneath it and Frank decided it was as good a place to spend the night as any. He didn’t have enough energy to turn again, not tonight, so without shelter he was a sitting duck.
Sighing and submitting to his fate, he slipped in between the plants, and curled up against the damp side, his tail curling around him protectively, golden eyes closing hesitantly. He wasn’t going to die, he tried to convince himself. He was going to be absolutely fine.
“Gerard! There’s nothing over there, dude!”
“No, Ray, look! How cool is this? You think some of them lived here once?” A human voice bounced off the walls and woke Frank up with a start, crouched beneath the table in absolute terror as the person entered the shack.
“Gerard, stop obsessing over the damn shifters again. You know the Winchesters got ‘em all, they don’t leave a job without finishing it.” The second voice was gruffer, and sounded like it belonged to a bigger man than the first, who was in the shack itself. Frank trembled as he listened to their conversation. The Winchesters…Sam and Dean? Were these two hunters, as well? They must’ve been. “All the shifters in this forest are gone.”
Frank’s heart flew to his throat at that. All of them? No. No! He was all alone. All alone. He heard the first hunter’s footsteps get closer. “Hey, Ray, look how cool this is, how these plants grew like this!”
“Yeah, alright Mr. Botanist, let’s go,” Ray muttered. “It’s too early, I need some coffee.”
Gerard’s pale hand lifted up the edge of the plants and Frank did the only natural thing – he turned on instinct into the scorpion, but rolled behind the table as he did so in order to also hide his pants. Sunlight flooded the space for a moment as Gerard lifted up the veil of plant life, and Frank stayed hidden in the folds of dark fabric. Then the plants were down again, swaying gently but giving Frank a protective curtain once more.
“You ready to go now, man?”
“Yeah,” said Gerard, standing up, “let’s go.”
Frank held his breath until he was almost certain they were miles away, morphing back into his normal self gratefully. The bad thing was that, while his energy had been replenished while he slept; now he had none again. He pulled on his pants and cautiously crept towards the curtain of plants. It seemed to have gotten a little bit darker outside, oddly enough. Frank parted the plants with his hands and then –
Frank reeled back, wailing in terror at the hunter who’d been just waiting for him, the one with the softer voice, Gerard. And he was holding a gun, probably loaded with silver bullets. Frank cried out again and scrambled to get back, but Gerard had caught both his wrists and hauled him to his feet, backing him up against the wall. The gun, oddly enough, was tossed onto the table.
“Don’t kill me,” Frank gasped, struggling weakly against the hunter even though he knew there was no use. He was as good as dead already.
Gerard blinked and stared at him. “Kill you?”
Frank whimpered and closed his eyes tightly. “You’re a hunter; of course you’re going to kill me.”
Frank cracked open an eye. “Not a hunter?”
“No, I’m a hunter,” Gerard said, which, wow, really did not reassure Frank at all, “but I’m not gonna kill you.”
Frank paused. “You…you’re not?” Then he remembered what Sam had said and his hopes sank. Sold into a life of something worse than the Spanish Inquisition. He swallowed.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Gerard said slowly, taking his hands away from Frank’s wrists. “But please don’t run away.”
Frank regarded him with disbelief. “Will you shoot me if I run?”
“I said I wouldn’t hurt you.”
Frank took a step back and immediately regretted it when his spinal plates hit the wall, instantly making him feel trapped. “Then what do you want?”
“Jesus Christ, Gerard,” said the other hunter, Ray, from the entrance to the shack. “You were right. For once.” Ray had wild, curly hair and wide, dark eyes which were fixed on Frank. “That’s definitely a shifter.”
“You’re practically a baby, though,” Gerard said, coming a bit closer and furrowing his brow. Frank hissed at him.
“I’m seventeen,” he growled, scorpion tail flicking out from behind him. Gerard’s eyes darted to it, widening. “I’m almost an adult.”
“Whoa,” Gerard said, holding up his hands in surrender, “remember? I’m not gonna hurt you, but please don’t hurt me, okay?”
Frank narrowed his eyes. “What do you want?!” he repeated angrily. “You hunters already took my family, my friends, my parents! What more can you take?”
He was surprised to see Gerard looking genuinely upset. He had a very good face for that expression, Frank thought – rounded and with hazel eyes and long lashes, a small mouth which was turned down in worry, brows furrowed as though he were distressed. Gerard should’ve been distressed about his hair – it was an absolute mess of tangled black locks curling out from under his ears. He didn’t look like any human male Frank had seen before.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I just want to help you.”
“I’m sorry, too,” said the second hunter, holding out a hand to Frank, who stared at it in confusion until he withdrew it awkwardly. “Ah, right. I’m Ray Toro, and this is Gerard Way. We’re hunters, yeah, but we weren’t with the Winchesters and the Campbells. They’re the ones you have to blame for taking your loved ones. Times are…hard for them. That doesn’t mean what they did was right,” Ray added hurriedly.
Frank looked at both of them, his tail flicking. “So what do you want, if you’re not here to do what they did?”
Gerard flushed. “I want to…well, shifters, your kind…they’re fascinating, and I just kind of…”
Ray rolled his eyes. “Gerard has an obsession with shifters; he’s done so much research on them and is kind of a nerd about the whole thing. He wanted to talk to one, but shifters are rare and either shy or aggressive, so it…didn’t really work out.”
Frank narrowed his eyes. “So…you want to use me for research?”
Gerard nodded enthusiastically, and then stopped when Ray started giving him the evil eye. “No?” Gerard tried, his voice squeaking a little. “Well, okay, yes. But we won’t hurt you! I just want to talk, please.”
Frank hesitated. Could they be trusted? Ray was big enough to do serious damage to Frank, if he wanted, and while Gerard didn’t exactly look like the wrestler type, he did have a gun, and he was a hunter. They both were. “How do I know you’re not lying?”
Gerard tossed him something, and Frank caught it, feeling the metal and staring. “Keep the gun,” Gerard shrugged. “I won’t be using it on you.”
“Gerard, how do you know he won’t shoot us?” Ray snapped, glancing over at Frank with a worried expression. “If you remember correctly, you trying to be a pacifist hasn’t helped much in the past years.”
“You can shoot us,” Gerard said in a quiet voice, “if we hurt you. Which we won’t.” Ray started to protest but Gerard held up a finger, waiting for Frank’s response.
Frank wet his lips. “Frank,” he said.
Gerard looked bewildered, as did Ray. “What?” they asked in unison.
“My name,” he said, “is Frank.”
“Welcome to the gang, Frank,” Gerard said, holding out a hand. Ray mouthed “shake it” and so Frank did. Gerard didn’t even flinch at his claws, even when one of them nicked his palm, he just grinned so brightly at Frank that the shifter wouldn’t have been surprised if his face permanently stayed that way.
Frank kind of liked this hunter.
“Can I touch it?”
“Wow, Gerard, that was totally uncalled for,” said Ray, walking into the motel room with food and staring suspiciously at Frank and Gerard. “I think you ought to at least take the guy on a date before you go there.”
Frank blinked. “What?” He’d been with the hunters less than twenty four hours and was already thoroughly confused by the way they talked and the references they made.
Gerard blushed. “I wasn’t…I was talking about that,” Gerard explained, pointing to Frank’s tail, which was curling nervously around the back of his chair. Frank, by demand of Ray, was wearing a shirt, which he rather disliked given the way it itched against his scales, but both hunters agreed it would probably be best. They still couldn’t exactly take him out in public, though, what with the scorpion tail and all.
“Uh,” Frank said unevenly, “sure? Just don’t…cut it off.” He gave Gerard a weak smile and his tail curved cautiously in the hunter’s direction. Frank didn’t like this, didn’t like the humans drawing attention to his animal (or arthropod) characteristics. But Gerard had been nice to him, so far, maybe a little annoying and overly talkative, but nice. Frank knew this was probably very stupidly trusting of him, but somehow he couldn’t see Gerard hurting him. The hunter just didn’t…act like a hunter.
Gerard reached out and then kind of pulled back, before curiosity took over and he slowly wrapped a hand around Frank’s tail, a safe distance from the stinger. Frank gasped at the alien feeling of the hunter’s touch on the plates, and Gerard snatched his hand away. “Did I hurt you?” he asked anxiously. Frank just shook his head, but pulled his tail back behind him so that it swished under the chair he sat in. The scales tingled where the hunter’s skin had come into contact with the smooth black chitin.
“So, Gerard, what’ve you two been up to?” Ray asked, sliding into the seat across from them at the small table. He put the food in front of them and Frank’s stomach grumbled. He hadn’t fed in a while now.
“Frank told me loads of stuff, it’s all really interesting,” Gerard said earnestly, turning the notes he’d taken towards Ray. “Like, he said shifters are born with characteristics from their lineage, like his father was a giant wasp and his mother was a malamute, so he got a scorpion and a wolf. But apparently that’s really rare, for a shifter to get two forms. And there’s also this thing called a…”
“Dominant form,” Frank supplied, tapping his claws against the table.
“Yes! So, for the ones with two forms, they have their dominant form, which is the one they change into by default in sticky situations. Frank’s is a scorpion. But the other form is the temperamental form, which is when he gets angry or upset or overcome by emotion or whatever, he changes into the wolf automatically.”
Ray whistled. “Frank, that’s pretty hardcore.”
Frank wasn’t sure what that meant but muttered ‘thanks’ anyway.
“And there are all these things shifters like and dislike, too,” Gerard continued, tapping the list he’d made. “They hate silver and iron and gold, we knew that, but there’s this rare metal called iridium which is incredibly painful to them. Kind of poisons shifters, right Frank?” Frank nodded mutely. He wondered if telling Gerard that was a good idea…if Gerard would use that trick against Frank’s own race. Had he betrayed them all? Frank bit his lip. Gerard was still rambling excitedly. “But they love honey, and roses, and the smell of pine trees.”
“Pine trees?” Ray asked Frank, raising an eyebrow. “Explains why you lived in an evergreen forest, huh?”
Frank nodded, laughing weakly. His stomach took that silent moment as opportunity to rumble loudly, startling the three. Frank flushed and hunched his shoulders, flinching when Gerard touched his arm lightly. “You hungry?”
Frank nodded again, wondering what they’d take out of the bag. He’d never had human food before.
Ray took three Styrofoam boxes out of the plastic bag and handed one to Frank, looking a bit apologetic. “Sorry, little guy…I don’t know what you ate up in Canada, but down here in Washington we’re in short supply of caribou.”
Frank blinked. Gerard looked intrigued and leaned forward. “What did you eat?” Ray made a move to protest, saying something about Gerard leaving him alone for one second so Frank could eat before he starved.
“No, it’s fine…” Frank swallowed and inhaled deeply, not opening the container yet. “Cattle,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “With plants and grains…hm.”
“It’s called a hamburger,” Ray supplied, narrowing his eyes a little.
“I’m aware,” Frank replied, “though I don’t really understand that. There is no ham in it.” He turned to Gerard again and said, “Ray is right. I normally eat caribou, if we can find it. Otherwise…rabbits, mice, voles, birds. Occasionally nuts or berries.”
“Are all the rest of your kind so…carnivorous?”
Frank chuckled and shook his head. “It is in our blood. Some are born herbivores, but…my family was of the predatory kind of blood. Wolf, scorpion, wasp, malamute, and a fox.” Frank suddenly stopped. His throat felt choked up, and he didn’t understand it. Didn’t want to understand it, because his family was as good as dead by now. Even Amanda, his little fox. He resolutely ignored Gerard’s still questioning gaze and Ray’s calculating eyes, opening the container and somewhat awkwardly picking up the ‘hamburger.’ He wrinkled his nose. This wasn’t fresh meat, but at least it was food. Gerard opened his mouth out of the corner of Frank’s eye, and he knew the hunter was about to ask another question, a question he didn’t want to answer. So he ripped into the burger, closing his eyes and trying to imagine that this was a hunt; that he was still in his forest, on four legs, with his mother and cousin beside him and his father soaring above them, wasp wings humming.
He was a wolf, ears back, tongue lolling, scenting the air and feeling the spongy earth under his large paws. There was something sharp and alien not far away, and his ears flicked back. It was close, very close, and it was –
“Frank? Are you…are you alright? I didn’t mean…”
Frank’s head snapped up, a little wildly, the human’s scent flooding his senses in a rush. His heart was pounding, and his instincts were confused – was he a threat or a friend? It took him a few tries to get his voice working again.
“No, I just…it’s nothing.” He continued to eat, still feeling on edge, Gerard watching him.
“So,” Ray said, clearing his throat, “I think I found a job not too far from here, maybe a three hour drive. It’s in St. Helens, Oregon.”
Frank kept quiet – he wasn’t sure what they were talking about.
“Really?” Gerard said, face brightening instantly. “What’s the story?”
Ray wrinkled his nose. “It’s a pretty weird one, actually. There’s been five murders over the past two weeks, all in the same suburban area. The victims were all beaten to death in their own backyards, no sign of a break-in, and the neighbors didn’t see anyone get into the backyard.”
Ray grinned. “But the last murder, the murder of one Mr. Adam Snyder, had a witness.”
“Do tell.” Gerard was starting to dig into his own food, but all of his attention was now focused on Ray, thank God. Frank wasn’t sure he could take any more of Gerard intensely staring at him.
“His wife, Andrea Snyder, thought he was taking a while to just take out the trash, so she opened the back door and saw her husband lying in the middle of the lawn, being beaten to death with a shovel, which was held by their garden gnome.”
Gerard choked on his burger and Frank instinctively slapped his back, making him gag and spit it up, shooting a grateful look at Frank and wiping his mouth. “Jesus Christ,” he said, “a murderous garden gnome?”
“Five murders,” Ray reminded him, “five gnomes. And who knows how many others there are.”
“Are we thinking vengeful spirits here?”
“Already did the research,” Ray said smugly, opening up his laptop and turning it to face Frank and Gerard. “Cara Blackwood, murdered in 1998 by – get this – a man named Jackson Gardens, who, as it turns out, is the brother of the developer of the community which is being attacked. Jackson got locked up a long time ago, but it seems like Cara here had a few anger issues – or maybe a feud with Jackson’s brother, too.”
“Let me guess,” Gerard said grimly, his meal forgotten; “Cara Blackwood was beaten to death.”
“With a shovel,” Ray added.
Frank had no idea what he was getting into here.
“Hey, Frank!” Gerard said, opening the door. He was dressed in a suit and tie, with his fake badge tucked in his pocket, and Frank could smell the excitement pouring off of him. Frank wasn’t allowed to go out with Gerard and Ray to investigate because of the small fact he had yellow eyes, a scorpion tail, and fur and scales on his body.
“Hello,” Frank replied, looking up from what he’d been watching on the small box the hunters called a ‘T.V.’ “You look as though you found something worthwhile.”
“I did!” Gerard beamed, plopping down next to him on the bed and blinking at him with huge hazel eyes. They were quite pretty eyes, Frank decided. You found a new color every time you looked at them. “I had a talk with Ms. Andrea Snyder, and she told me that the gnome was moving jerkily, which is a sure sign that it was possessed, not a living gnome or something like that. Apparently, it also cracked into pieces after doing the dirty deed, and when I checked with the other victims and crime scenes, the same thing happened. They all used shovels, and the victims were injured in all the same places – blows to the chest and a deep stab wound in their neck where the shovel was forced down.”
“Are those the same injuries that killed Cara Blackwood?”
Gerard looked at him in a way which was almost proud. “Yes! Very good. Speaking of Cara Blackwood, I asked a few people about her and as it turns out, she was having an affair with Jackson’s brother, Robert, who is the man behind the construction of the community! Jackson was probably angry with her because Robert was married at the time, and so killed her to protect his brother’s marriage after convincing her to end the affair didn’t work. Cara is taking her spite out on Robert’s life work – this suburbia – as revenge.”
Frank was silent, and then, “You humans are such strange creatures.”
Gerard laughed, his cheeks tinged pink. “I wouldn’t disagree with that.”
“So what do we do to stop her?”
“We have to salt and burn her bones,” Gerard said firmly. “She was buried in the old cemetery near the edge of town. We can go there tonight.”
“Yes,” Gerard said, smiling timidly at him, “if you want to come?”
Frank found himself nodding, because really, how could he say no to Gerard’s hopeful, earnest face?
How could anyone?
“Somehow I think that this is not commonly accepted behavior in your society,” Frank said nervously, staying close to Gerard’s side.
Ray snorted. “Digging up and torching the dead? Yeah, it’s not something you’d catch me doing for kicks.”
Frank didn’t see anybody kicking, but kept quiet. Gerard patted his shoulder and said reassuringly, “Don’t worry, Frank. We’ve never gotten caught and it’s not like we will now.” Frank nodded tersely, but his tail swished behind him, betraying his anxiety.
They searched among the graves under the sliver of a moon for what seemed like forever, until finally Gerard bent down and called to Ray (Frank was already beside him), “I found her.”
Ray joined them where they were kneeling at the foot of the grave, and sure enough, her name, birth, and date of death were carved there. Frank ran a claw softly over them, and the air seemed to shimmer around the three. Gerard cleared his throat and said, “Right, Ray, do you have the shovels?”
Grave-digging was a dirty, smelly business, and Frank didn’t like it one bit, partly because he could smell much better than either of the hunters, and what he smelled was quite possibly one of the nastiest things ever – dozens of human bodies and skeletons under the earth, and one of them growing more and more pungent as a shovel full of dirt was taken off of her coffin. It was obvious that she was probably all bones by now, but he hated the scent anyway, and it bewildered his senses, having living humans and dead ones all in the same place.
Then he smelled something else, just as Ray’s shovel hit the coffin, and Frank spun, eyes widening at the apparition before him.
It was a ghost, Cara Blackwood, it had to be, a woman with long black hair and pale eyes who flickered and came closer to Frank, her brows lowered with anger and her lips set into a hard line. “He killed me out of jealousy,” she said, her voice dry like leaves in the wind. She held up a hand and Gerard’s shovel flew from his fist into her translucent fingers. “And now I’m going to kill you.”
“I don’t think so!” Ray said triumphantly, dropping the lit lighter into the bones covered in salt and lighter fluid. Cara wailed and burst into flames just like her remains, burning away until there was nothing left. Frank stood, shell shocked, and then he heard Gerard and Ray laughing, relieved but nervous little giggles. He turned to them unsteadily and Gerard bared his teeth in a smile.
“And that,” he said, ruffling Frank’s hair companionably, “is how you kill a ghost.”
“I propose a drink, gentlemen,” Ray said, still sounding giddy as they walked back to the truck and Ray’s car. “To a job well done!”
And for the first time since his forest, Frank felt as though he were among family.
Six Months Later
Frank continued to hunt with Ray and Gerard, killing things as common as ghosts and vampires and werewolves and shapeshifters, to rarer things like kitsunes and wendigos and djinn and rugarus. They taught him their ways, how to shoot a gun, how to use a knife properly, how to pick a lock, how to win in a hands-on fight. They told him about all the things that were out there, and maybe it made it harder for him to sleep at night, but it was better than being ignorant.
He grew up, too, growing fast as a shifter does, and reaching maturity at the age of eighteen. He had a better grasp on his abilities, but it was still difficult for him to turn with ease in a short amount of time – he simply did not have enough energy for it, and had nobody of his own kind to mentor him.
Despite this, Gerard and Ray were there for him and neither shied away at his animal features, which he was becoming more and more aware and uncomfortable about. Maybe he wouldn’t have been so self-conscious had he grown up with his own species, but amongst humans, he just felt a little out of place.
And yet there were days like this where the three of them lounged lazily around the hotel room, Ray at the table on his laptop, humming something under his breath; Gerard laying on the bed pretending to do research and really just doodling in the margins of his ‘notes;’ Frank leaning ever-so-slightly against him and watching the creatures he created on paper. They might have been humans and he might have been a shifter, but he did feel like he belonged.
Gerard broke the comfortable quiet and said, out of the blue, “Frank, we should take you to a bar.”
Frank jerked in surprise, lifting his head from Gerard’s shoulder and chewing his lip. “A bar? But I can’t-”
Ray looked up, too, a bit worried. “Gerard, he can’t be seen, you know that.”
Gerard smiled. “He can wear a hoodie, and…Frank, is there any way you could get rid of your tail?”
Frank considered it. “I could turn it into a wolf tail, that might be easier to hide.”
Gerard grinned. “Yes!” and you can put your hair over your ears and wear sunglasses for your eyes. And maybe you can file down your claws,” Gerard suggested, absentmindedly picking up one of Frank’s hands and touching the long black nails. “And wear boots,” he added, glancing down at Frank’s wolfish feet. Frank flushed.
“Well, I’m just not sure that –” Ray started.
“Do you want to go, Frank?” Gerard asked him seriously, his doodles forgotten. “It’s okay if you don’t.”
Frank thought for a while. Ray and Gerard went to bars a lot, it seemed like, and sometimes one or the other didn’t come home at night, though they never said why. They seemed happy, too, when they got back, and he wanted to feel that, he did. So he said, “Yes. I’ll go.”
Ray still seemed wary, but he consented, and Gerard all but pushed Frank into the bathroom, pulling a nail file out of his bag and carefully working on Frank’s nails. “Trust me,” Gerard said, smiling brightly at him, “by the time I’m done here, you’ll be a more passable human than I am.”
Frank felt uncomfortable and conspicuous in his heavy leather jacket, which had the collar pulled up to hide his fur and scales. His pointed, tufted ears were hidden in his hair (which had gotten quite long), and his yellow eyes (which also glowed in the dark) were covered by dark shades. His tail was smaller and fluffier, a wolf tail now, which was tucked pretty uncomfortably into his pants. He felt stupid and was sure he looked even stupider, but Gerard had just hugged him briefly and whispered that it was gonna be fine.
His heart started beating faster as soon as he saw the bar, a neon sign announcing its presence to the world. They neared it and he almost wanted to turn around and run far, far away – there were so many people inside, and all of their scents were strong, all of their emotions were so evident he could almost taste them – it was insane.
But he didn’t run, and Ray and Gerard ushered him inside, where everything got ten times more powerful, hitting him like a wave. There was pounding music, and Frank had to force his wolf senses far, far back so he could actually function – it was just so overwhelming. They neared the tables at the far end, and the sickeningly sweet smell of alcohol hit him at once. A man brushed up against Gerard – he heard the swish of fabric against skin at once – and something like a growl built in his throat when he got a good whiff of the man and what he wanted. No, Frank’s wolf senses howled, don’t you dare. And then he blinked, confused with himself, and felt Gerard hauling him over to where the drinks were being served.
The hunter whispered in his ear, “Frank? Is everything okay?”
Frank gulped and his throat felt thick. “That man – he wanted to…” His face reddened and he glanced away. He didn’t have to look to know that Gerard was smiling, lips twitching upwards. It made him feel foolish for saying anything.
“Shh, Frank,” he murmured, sitting down on the barstool next to him. “He’s not gonna hurt me, or you. Now, what do you want to drink?”
“I think I should be the one asking that question,” said a female voice. Frank looked up, eyes wide behind his sunglasses. He’d met very few human females, and he hadn’t been quite sure how to react to any of them. This one had pale skin, layered brown hair and green eyes, and her smile was curious, but nothing more. He relaxed a little, and she leaned across the counter. Her scent wasn’t intoxicated like most of the others here, a little sweat, a little perfume, but other than that it was just plain old human. Females smelled different from males, he decided – softer, in a way, though that didn’t make much sense.
Gerard grinned at her. “Fair enough. Ask away...” He trailed off, waiting for her to fill in the blank.
She smiled back at them and said, “Lena. And you are?”
“I’m Gerard, and this is Frank.” Gerard wrapped an arm around him, Frank couldn’t help but notice, and Lena raised an eyebrow but otherwise didn’t comment.
“Pleasure. It’s a little dark outside to be wearing sunglasses, don’t you think?” She directed this to Frank, and he bristled, expecting suspicion, but again – there was only curiosity.
“He’s got very sensitive eyes,” Gerard supplied, and she pursed her lips in response. Gerard cleared his throat. “So, what about that drink?”
“Of course, what can I get you two?”
Gerard tapped his fingers on the counter, thinking, and then said, “I’ll just have a Heineken, if you don’t mind.”
“Perfect. And for you?”
Frank blinked rapidly, and Gerard saved him. “How about a cherry lambic?” Frank nodded appreciatively, and Gerard’s arm tightened around his shoulders. Something had changed in his scent, but Frank wasn’t sure what, and he didn’t press. He felt it would be an invasion of privacy, and he didn’t want Gerard to mistrust him. He liked Gerard. He wanted Gerard to like him, too.
“Coming right up,” Lena promised, turning to get a beer and to mix Frank’s drink.
Frank waited, but everything began to become too much again, too many scents and faces and tastes and sounds, and he had to turn into the circle of Gerard’s arms and press his face against the other’s jacket, calming himself with the smell of the fabric and the human wearing it. He was a little startled to find that Gerard’s cologne smelled faintly of pine, but he liked it – it was in a shifter’s nature, after all – and he breathed it in.
“Frank?” Gerard asked him gently, touching the back of his neck. “Are you okay?”
“It’s just…a lot of people,” Frank admitted, and he pulled away when he heard Lena’s voice again.
“I have a Heineken and a cherry lambic,” she said, sliding the drinks across to them. “You okay?” she asked Frank.
He nodded, and Gerard added, “He’s just a little shy.”
Lena looked at them knowingly. “I can get that,” she told them, pushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear and biting her lip. “People can be really fucking scary sometimes, you know?”
Gerard muttered, “You have no idea,” and she shot back, “Yeah? Try me.”
“Alright,” Gerard said. “Do you believe in monsters?”
“The metaphorical ones, or the real deal?”
“Both, I guess.”
“Sure. I suppose so.”
She wasn’t lying, Frank knew. Gerard continued. “Well, say there was this kid, and one day his dad came home from work.” Frank’s ears perked up, eyes narrowing a little. Gerard was…sad. He was sad, and a little angry. This wasn’t just a story. It was…it was a memory. “And the kid had a younger brother, and a mommy, too. His dad came home late, and he was so happy to see him again, but his daddy ignored him. And the kid knew that something was wrong, because his daddy was the kind of person who never refused a hug. So he followed his dad into the kitchen, where his mommy was making dinner. He watched as his daddy took a knife from the countertop and raised it, and the kid knew that this wasn’t his daddy. So he screamed, and the man turned on him instead. The kid ran, and he heard the man after him, and he panicked. So he picked up his dad’s gun, the big one that hung on the door, and he didn’t know how to use it exactly, but he shot it. And the thing just kept coming, and it was angry.”
Frank was staring at Gerard, who had his hand clenched around his beer, raising it to his lips and swallowing. Lena was surprisingly quiet, resting her chin on her hand and just waiting. Gerard continued.
“Then the kid’s mommy came up behind the man who wasn’t a man, and she stabbed him with a silver knife through the heart, and he died. The kid saw his little brother staring at them, and he went to his brother, but the brother cried and tried to get away from him. The mommy told them both that they were moving to a house far away from here, and when the kid asked his mommy where daddy was, she got very quiet and said nothing more. They moved, and eventually the mommy passed away, very naturally, in a car accident, and the boys were all grown up. The kid who wasn’t a kid anymore still remembered it all, and so did the little brother. They didn’t talk to each other, and the little brother went off to college. But the older brother knew what was out there. He knew his mommy had hunted those things, and that his daddy had been killed by them, and he knew his brother didn’t want to be involved in it. But still, he did it to protect him, to protect everybody.”
Frank was stunned into silence. It must have been a shapeshifter which had done that, and Frank felt a little sick. He took a small sip of his drink, but it didn’t help. Lena was the first one who spoke.
“That’s a lot for one guy to bear,” she finally said. “Do you want a whiskey or vodka or something?”
Gerard huffed out a weak laugh. “Yeah. Yeah, thanks.”
“Of course,” she nodded, hair falling into her face again, leaving Frank and Gerard sitting there with their thighs touching.
“I’m sorry,” Frank finally said to him. “I had no idea.”
Gerard was silent. Frank wanted to hug him, but he wasn’t sure if that would be appropriate in this situation.
“What’s his name?” Frank asked softly.
“Mikey.” Gerard swallowed with difficulty, and then he was looking at Frank, stroking a hand over the side of his face very lightly. “He’s afraid of me. He thought…he thinks I’m a monster.”
“You’re not a monster,” Frank said, resting his forehead against the hunters and closing his eyes. It was almost like a hug, but better somehow. Their eyelashes brushed against each other. “I know monsters, and you don’t qualify.”
“Thanks, Frankie,” Gerard said, smiling and then pulling away, starting to drink his vodka. Frank was surprised but positive that he didn’t mistake the sudden pang of longing from the other, a wretched loneliness which made Frank feel lonely himself.
Lena watched them from a distance, knowingly, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
to be continued....