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Fic: Been Here Before (NC-17)

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Been Here Before

Band(s): MCR (Leathermouth, the Architects, Dark Horse writers/artists)
Pairing(s): Frank/Gerard
Word Count: 22,650
Rating/Warnings: NC-17; sex, drug/alcohol abuse (past)
Summary: Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge took off faster than My Chemical Romance could have imagined. Gerard's downward spiral was even faster. He hit rock bottom, got sober, and moved across the country to Portland practically as soon as he'd detoxed, leaving his band and his relationship with Frank behind. Four years later, he's still clean. His graphic novel is a surprise smash hit. And he's avoided New Jersey until now. However, everything he left unresolved is still there. Gerard knows he needs forgiveness. When he sees Frank again, he realizes he needs much more than that.
Author's Notes: All named characters belong to themselves, not to me. Title belongs to Dessa.

Thank you to [livejournal.com profile] ciel_vert and [livejournal.com profile] fleurdeliser, the best cheerleaders a girl could ask for; [livejournal.com profile] kinetikatrue, who was kind enough to offer her beta services in the midst of her finals; [livejournal.com profile] seimaisin, who provided beta feedback from day one and still liked the fic enough to mix for it; to my artist and other mixer, [livejournal.com profile] idktbh and [livejournal.com profile] maryangel200, for their awesome contributions; and finally to the [livejournal.com profile] bandombigbang mods for running an awesome challenge again this year!

Bonus Tracks/Enhanced Content can be found here.


When Gerard stumbled into the Dark Horse office at too-early o'clock on a Tuesday morning, the first thing he saw was a carafe of coffee and a Voodoo Doughnuts box. One side of his brain - probably the side that was chanting coffeecoffeecoffee - insisted it was proof that Scott was, in fact, the best boss in the universe. The other side wondered critically if it was a bribe. Both sides cooperated long enough to get him into one of the chairs around Scott's small conference table. Scott just watched with a tolerant smile and pushed a mug across the table. It was an Umbrella Academy mug, which still amused the shit out of Gerard - his boss, with merch for his comic series. It was what he'd hoped for after he crash-landed in Portland four years ago, but it still seemed unreal.

Once Gerard was settled, Scott started talking. It was mostly things that they'd already covered in emails between Scott, Gerard's artist Gabriel, and himself over the past couple weeks - publication dates for Dallas, merch designs to be approved. Gerard zoned out a little until he got to the part about the signings.

" - could wrap up the Dallas promo signings at Forbidden Planet, in case you wanted to spend some time at home," Scott was saying, and Gerard snapped back to full attention. Scott wasn't looking at him, though. He was looking at the pretzel stick Gerard had stabbed through the head of his voodoo doughnut man. "Take a vacation. It's been a while, hasn't it?" The looks like you could use one went unstated.

Gerard snorted. You could say that. He knew his hair and clothes had nearly reached the "living out of a van" stage, but he'd been too busy writing to deal with it. He rubbed self-consciously at the bags under his eyes but concentrated on his doughnut, stabbing it a few more times for good measure before biting off a leg. "Sure, whatever," he mumbled around the mouthful of jelly and bread. He looked back up; Scott was looking at him now, hands steepled in front of his mouth and an eyebrow raised.

"You've got a lot on your plate, Gerard, especially with the new series you pitched us last month. Take the time. Cloonan's in Brooklyn, anyway. You can call it a working vacation."

Gerard frowned, running a hand distractedly through his hair - finally grown out of that ill-advised platinum crop he'd gotten while writing Apocalypse Suite. Hard to believe that was only two years ago. Harder to believe it had actually picked up an Eisner this summer.

Hardest to believe Jersey still felt like home after all this time. Or maybe not.

*

"It's not that I'm avoiding Jersey," Gerard said to Mikey later. Mikey just hummed noncommittally on the other end of the phone line. "I'm not!" he insisted. "And I saw you and Dad in July at Comic-Con!" There was silence on both ends of the call for a minute, then Gerard muttered, "You think I'm avoiding Jersey."

"Gerard - " said Mikey quietly.

"Fine. But you can understand why, right? The band deserved better. I...messed up, Mikes, messed up ugly. And everyone there knows it." He snapped his mouth shut, hating the way his breath had gone ragged. He had thought he was over this. After so many hours of therapy, he should be over this. He listened to the soft clicks of Mikey's keyboard through the phone.

"You got better, Gee," he answered with the all the confidence of a little brother. "And Mom would be happy to see you," Mikey added. "It was only two days, at Christmas."

That was the problem with little brothers - they knew your weak spots. "Tell her I'll be home in three weeks."

*

Gerard surreptitiously shook out his writing hand under the table and smiled as the next person in line walked up the the table, clutching a well-worn copy of the Apocalypse Suite trade. It was a skinny kid with bleached hair and a homemade Dr. Manhattan tee. "Nice shirt," he said, taking the paperback. "What's your name?"

As he signed the front page of the trade to "Derek", he scanned the line. Only about twenty people left. Good. His hand might not fall off, after all. He took a sip of his lukewarm Starbucks and kept signing, smiling and chatting with fans, and so he wasn't paying attention when the Forbidden Planet staffer leaned over and said, "Last person in line."

The voice that chimed in next, though, snapped his head up. He looked up and then grinned. "Jon?"

Jon Rivera made a face at him and repeated, "Will you sign my tits, or won't you?"

"What do you think?" Gerard shot back.

"Well, maybe later. How the hell are you doing, man?"

"Great, dude, great. Don't tell me you crossed state lines just for me?"

Jon laughed. "Yeah, if you see the cops, give me a head start. Hey, I couldn't miss your signing! Even brought a friend, man, in case I was the only one here." Gerard snorted, and Jon waved at the guy standing next to him. "For some reason, he says he owes you some fanboying."

"Shaun?" Gerard interrupted. "Shaun Simon?"

"Gerard Way," Shaun replied easily. "Been a while. Couldn't believe it when Jon said he was coming to see you today."

"Too long," Gerard answered. "I'm glad you came along, though, seriously. What are you up to?"

"Eh, this and that. You know how it is." He scratched at his neck awkwardly. "Sorta getting into comics myself. Probably Jon's fault."

"Stick with me, kid, it's a small fucking world, especially in Jersey," Jon told Shaun.

"You don't have to tell me about small worlds," Shaun replied. "Pencey Prep was part of the Eyeball scene, remember? Gerard can tell you, he was - " he paused, shooting a quick glance at Gerard and finishing, " - one of our first fans." He looked uncomfortable, and Gerard had to look away, teeth sinking unconsciously into the edge of his lip. It sounded better than "sleeping with our lead singer"; then again, Shaun was always one of the nice ones.

Gerard choked back a moan at the feel of teeth on the curve of his jaw, wandering down the exposed tendon of his neck. He was too drunk to hold the sound back completely, though, and the van's side doors popped open, letting in the voices of Hambone, who was muttering something about the tow truck driver, and Shaun, who giggled and replied, "Dude, I don't care if it's legal or not, I'm not riding back there with them. I like my porn of the not-starring-my-friends variety."

"His loss," whispered the voice in his ear as hands tugged at the waistband of Gerard's paint-stained jeans. Gerard let himself be pulled back down onto the floor of the van, the slams of the doors and the distant clangs of the tow truck fading under the blood rushing in his ears as calloused fingers closed around his dick.

"You mean unpaid roadie, right? The doctor assured me the hearing loss wouldn't last," Gerard drawled after a moment of hesitation. He hadn't expected that particular fling to last either. At that point in his life, he hadn't expected much of anything to last. He hadn't been totally wrong - but he hadn't been totally right either.

Shaun nodded almost imperceptibly and then shot back, "Sure, we really just kept you around to carry merch - and buy beer with your Cartoon Network paycheck."

Till Pencey broke up, and he stole their former frontman for his own band. Shaun had been one of the ones who kept in touch, but Gerard had spent so much time on the road - or under the influence - that he hadn't seen him nearly enough. Uncomfortable at the direction of his thoughts, Gerard laughed wryly. "I'd take you both out for coffee now with my Dark Horse paycheck, but if I don't get to Belleville by dinnertime my mom's gonna hunt me down or something. I'll be in town for a while, though, so...."

"Yeah, raincheck," Jon said, and Gerard gave him a quick hug, following with a second one for Shaun. They headed back toward the new releases shelves, and Gerard busied himself gathering a stack of extra Umbrella Academy books on his table. He flipped idly through Apocalypse Suite and the reprint of the Free Comic Book Day issue caught his eye; he rested his fingertips on the page for a moment, staring blindly at the text "But The Past Ain't Through With You."

It was too easy to believe that was an omen. And if it was.... Well, fuck.

*

After the initial rush of exclamations over his signing tour, the various family members who'd had supposedly fascinating life occurrences in the past eight months - most of which he'd already heard about over the phone, but which apparently merited an in-person reprise - and the state of his hair and his clothes, his parents left him alone. He retreated to the basement, poking warily through the piles of detritus. It was a minefield of stuff that 27-year-old Gerard had considered too important to throw away but not important enough to take with him to Portland, and it blew up in his face soon enough when he came across his sketches for the Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge album cover.

You were supposed to make us explode, not implode, he thought wearily at the blood-spattered figures. Too bad you couldn't counteract me. He shoved the sketchbook aside and sat for a moment with his eyes closed. The sudden phantom craving for a drink faded, and he crawled gingerly under the faded Batman comforter. Surprisingly, he fell into a deep sleep almost immediately.

When he woke up, his little brother was perched on the desk chair like an overgrown vulture, watching him. "Gnarghle," Gerard said, because that was about all he could manage with a mouth that tasted like dust and mildew and the bright sun slanting through a tear in the dry-rotted curtains. Mikey reached back to the desk and grabbed a cup of coffee, handing it over without a word. Gerard sipped, then gulped, then asked, "You seriously watching me sleep, Mikeyway?"

Mikey shrugged. "Got sick of Zelda," he said, nodding at the ancient gaming system and more ancient TV shoved in the far corner of the basement.

"No one gets sick of Zelda," Gerard retorted scathingly. "Anyway, I could have sworn you had a job."

"Flexible schedule," Mikey replied, propping his Vans-clad feet on the edge of Gerard's mattress and folding his arms across his chest. "How was dinner last night?"

"Long. My ears are tired. Mom's still trying to pass that jarred spaghetti sauce off as her own. Where were you, anyway? It was your birthday, man." Gerard knew he was whining. Mikey knew he was whining, and gave him a look that said very clearly, 'Four years of family dinners by myself, motherfucker.'

"I had to go to a thing," Mikey replied. "I thought I told you. At Eyeball. I'll make it up this weekend." He made a sour face and stretched out farther, slumping until he was in imminent danger of sliding off his chair. "Besides, I don't actually live here anymore."

"Neither do I," Gerard murmured.

Mikey nudged him with his toe. "You can go out with me tonight if you want. S'why I came over. Local label band's opening, I've got passes. You can even crash at my place, after."

"Maybe I will. Fuck. I think there's stuff growing down here, like, in the carpet or something."

Mikey snorted. "Like you care. It does sort of smell like your dirty socks, though."

"Shut up, like you care." Gerard reached out to smack his brother's leg and missed, nearly falling off the bed in the process. He peered suspiciously at the carpet by his bed. "I just don't remember the carpet being this color, dude." Mikey leaned over to look, too, going still for a moment before plucking the sketchbook from where Gerard had shoved it off the bed.

"Don't - " Gerard started, but Mikey had already flipped to the last, creased page, long fingers - bassist's fingers - tracing carefully over the words "My Chemical Romance" scrawled in the margin.

"Memory lane, Gerard?" His voice was mild, careful.

"I didn't know it was still down here." Gerard knew he sounded petulant. Knew Mikey probably would let it slide, if he changed the subject. "I don't - so, when do you have to go to work?"

Mikey's expression said that he knew what Gerard was doing, but he just tossed the sketchbook back onto the floor, rubbing his palms over the thighs of his jeans a few times before crossing his arms over his chest. "I don't have to be anywhere till 3. And I left Zelda on...."

"Did you miss me kicking your ass that much?" Gerard asked, laughing when Mikey flipped him off.

*

Mikey came to pick him up that night, popping the trunk so Gerard could toss his duffel bag inside. He didn't look much different than he normally did. Gerard sort of missed his scene days of stupid glasses and stupider hair. Gerard himself had stuck to his usual - black jeans, black leather jacket. "Where are we going again?"

"Starland," Mikey replied, putting the car into gear and backing out of his parents' driveway. "Fair warning."

"Are you working?"

Mikey shrugged. "Minding the kids." Mikey had known the Eyeball Records guys for approximately a million years, and they'd practically handed him an A&R job on a platter when he'd come back to Jersey; when the band broke up; call a spade a spade, a mental voice that sounded vaguely like his therapist corrected gently. His latest job seemed to be representing a handful of the baby bands. Gerard was vaguely aware that he hadn't sounded too enthusiastic about it the last few times they'd talked. But Mikey was closemouthed when he wanted to be. And Gerard...wasn't.

He jiggled his leg a little, knee knocking against the dash. "Do I talk too much, Mikey?" Mikey flashed a quick look at him, eyes highlighted by the headlights in the rearview mirror.

"About what?"

"I don't know. Myself."

Mikey was quiet for a moment. "Sometimes," he answered consideringly. "Maybe sometimes not enough. Why?"

"No reason."

"Why won't you talk to me? You know I'll listen." The question was weary, with just enough of a nasty edge to make Gerard's shoulders go up in a defensive hunch. They were both half-drunk, maybe more than half, and tired with it, leaning on the wall by the motel room door and exhaling smoke in lazy clouds. Gerard didn't answer, just looked away to where their van and trailer were parked crookedly across several parking spaces out in the lot. The other guys had scattered like roaches into the rooms they'd been assigned as soon as they'd parked, but Gerard couldn't make himself care about his sweat-stained, show-grimy clothes. "Well, that's a fucking change of pace. Gerard Way doesn't want to talk. Alert the media."

"Fuck you," Gerard mumbled, without heat. He'd screamed it all out on stage tonight; he didn't have any left. "You coming inside?" He headed toward his door without waiting for a reply, stumbling a little when the hand on his wrist spun him back around. As scarce as this kind of privacy was for them on tour, the kiss was still a surprise; he'd been half-expecting a fist, was pretty sure he deserved it. But it felt the same as always, the breathless tangle and slide of lips, tongues and hands. He couldn't help the desperate noise he made when they broke apart, but tonight he hated it, too. Gerard waited, lips slightly parted, then -

"No. I'm not." His shell-shocked brain didn't register the words for what they were until he was alone on the concrete.

Being Mikey Way's plus-one had perks. Gerard was still used to occasionally being recognized, but these days it was far more likely to happen at a comic shop than a punk show in Jersey. The VIP area at the side of the main stage was busy, with band members and their entourages spilling in and out of the side door, but pretty out of the way, so Gerard spent the first handful of sets slouched in the corner, sipping on the cup of Coke the bartender kept filled for him and idly chatting with Mikey or the other guys from Eyeball who were floating around.

"Hey, Gerard," said a voice at his side, and Gerard looked over to see Shaun Simon leaning against the wall next to him.

"Shaun, wow, twice in two days! Good to see you again, what's up?" They fell into a lazy conversation about the bands that had played already, voices pitched over the house music. Gerard was describing in detail, complete with caffeine-fueled hand motions, his latest comic pitch when an almighty squeal of feedback interrupted him.

Shaun looked over his shoulder at the stage, then back at him, and said, "It's cool you actually came out here for this."

Gerard frowned. "Hey, why not? I've never heard of any of these guys, but Mikey had tickets, so..." He trailed off. Shaun had a weird look on his face. He was about to ask what was wrong when the next band burst into a frenzy of noise, and he glanced over his shoulder. Five guys dressed in filthy white tees and pants, an impressive tattoo count on display. He froze, narrowing his eyes. It couldn't be.... He looked back at Shaun, a cold knot taking residence in his gut. When the lead singer had screamed his way through their first lightning-fast song, he opened his mouth to talk again. The band's frontman beat him to it.

"I'm Frank Iero, and this is Leathermouth," said the voice onstage.

He hadn't needed the confirmation, not really; he'd know that voice anywhere. No wonder Shaun was giving him that look. "I gotta...smoke break," he mumbled lamely to Shaun, rocketing across the club to the doors to the smoker's area. He had every intention of going outside and chain-smoking till the music stopped, but something made him stumble to a halt against the back wall, heart hammering painfully in his chest.

He didn't move or take his eyes off the stage for the next twenty minutes. He couldn't.

It was Frank - but it wasn't Frank. It was a spitting, screaming stranger, clean skin mottled with ink. He looked strange without a guitar in his hands, smaller somehow but no less volatile. And his words were bullets assaulting the room, haphazardly aimed but every last one catching Gerard in the crossfire. Gerard shrank into the wall, feeling like the dark was no protection, that Frank would look up from his death grip on the microphone and straight into Gerard's eyes.

He could remember hundreds of ancient conversations with Frank, even the tiniest, and hundreds more things he'd wanted to tell Frank over the past four years. They all hinged on two words. "I'm sorry," he mouthed to himself experimentally. He'd said them dozens of times over the past four years - four years, one month, and one day, the little ticker in his head reminded him gently - but they were what kept him away from Jersey, from the scene, from Frank for this long. He didn't know what he would do if Frank wouldn't listen.

The set finished; going out for a smoke felt like parole. Gerard wasn't sure how long he stayed outside, hugging the wall of the building and chain smoking slowly, until he heard the next band start up. A couple fellow smokers came and went, and he mostly ignored them. He watched out of the corner of his eye as a small figure swathed in a hoodie and cap went through the click-and-shake routine of the mostly-empty lighter, then he cleared his throat. "Need a light?" The click and flare of Gerard's own lighter illuminated the space between them, and Gerard found himself meeting Frank's even stare. The moment before he leaned in to touch his cigarette to the flame was just slightly too long. "Frank," he said, hating how his voice sounded small.

"Gee," Frank answered, his voice as even as his gaze. Flat. Maybe a little curious. Waiting.

"Didn't know you were playing tonight - frontman again, huh? It sounded great. Different."

"Different from Pencey? I'd hope so. Different from My Chem...." Frank cut himself off.

As if Gerard needed the reminder. He studied Frank's face up close - so familiar, but different. No piercings. A moustache that should have been ridiculous. Was ridiculous, except for how it framed his mouth, made you look. Gerard realized he was looking - was staring - and that Frank was waiting him out, expression inscrutable.

"Mikey didn't tell me you'd be here," he said finally, shrugging a shoulder awkwardly. Frank flicked a few ashes from the end of his cigarette.

"He told me you were coming home for a visit," he replied. The last word was carefully enunciated. "Figured I might run into you."

"I'm glad you did," Gerard said quietly. "I...I wanted to talk to you."

Another slow inhale, and Frank blew the smoke from his nostrils in two plumes. His lip curled, and a sneer crept into his voice. "I don't know. My frontman's handbook says I can get my dick sucked after gigs. So unless you're offering - " He took a few steps closer to Gerard, managing to invade his space without actually touching him, and Gerard's stomach twisted with a mix of guilt, anger, want. " - I don't think I have time to talk."

Frank's trim hips were inches from his fingers. He could practically feel how the hipbones fit into the curves of his palms, and he wanted more than anything to wipe the sneer off of Frank's face. Knew he could. But he didn't move. He'd lost the right to touch four summers ago; he licked dry lips and waited.

Frank blinked first. "Yeah," he muttered. "That's what I thought." He flicked his cigarette butt across the parking lot. Something dark flashed in his eyes for a moment, then he turned his back on Gerard and walked back inside the club.

Gerard didn't wait around. He found Mikey the first chance he got and asked for the car keys, and Mikey handed them over without comment, but with a look that promised further interrogation. Gerard ignored him, making it as far as dragging his duffel bag into Mikey's apartment and making up the futon in the office before sinking into the mattress and finally thinking.

Warped Tour was nothing more than sweat and booze and coke, ripped jeans and melted makeup, music and bodies. Too many bodies in one place, but Gerard still felt alone. The liquor and pills supplied a comfortable haze, for a while at least. When the world spun and his stomach protested, Frank's hands were the one thing that was reliably steady - the one thing that felt real. His heat- and substance-scrambled brains tried to tell him that it was just hands - not Frank's hands - that made the difference. There were people everywhere, and there were plenty of other hands, belonging to boys and girls he couldn't remember, on their knees behind a bus, in the shadows somewhere. Sometimes he was the one with gravel biting his knees, hands in his hair.

Frank caught him at it too many times, but he never said a word. He didn't need to; the look on his face was enough. Gerard waited every time, squinting at him through sweaty strands of hair, but Frank just melted away, reappearing to pick him up off the pavement, the carpet when he fell; he kissed him through the vodka and sour-bile on Gerard's breath. Finally, he had to ask. He lolled his head on Frank's shoulder and mumbled, "Why?" He was a drunk, an addict, a cheat. He didn't even want himself; why did Frank?

"Because I love you," Frank muttered.

Gerard ran to Portland on the day that he was sober enough to be afraid Frank would change his answer. Even now it was enough to send him thrashing into sleep.

*

Mikey looked at him over the rim of his cereal bowl the next day, wiped away a milk moustache and said, "I'm sorry."

Gerard took another sip of coffee. "For what, Mikes?"

"For not telling you he'd be there."

"You should be," Gerard said. "If I'd known...."

"You wouldn't have gone."

"I might have known exactly what I wanted to say," Gerard corrected. When Mikey just tilted his head a little in invitation, he continued, "Look, I'm here. I might as well stop avoiding things. People. I - " He closed his eyes for a second, took another sip of coffee.

"So if I ask you to call Ray and ask him to lunch?"

Gerard smiled to himself. "I'd like that."

"He would too."

"Did you tell everyone I was coming home?" Gerard raised an eyebrow. Mikey just shrugged a shoulder and reached for the open box of Pop-Tarts on the table.

"Pretty much."

"Frank said you told him. I didn't know - "

"What, that we still talked? Look, Gee, there's something I need to tell you, I - " He was cut off by his cell phone ringing. He glanced at the screen and swore, then said, "Hello? No, no, I have those papers home with me, I told you - no. Look, I'll get them in there as soon as I can, okay?" He made a face as he hung up and looked apologetically back at Gerard. "Shit. I gotta get into the label office. You hanging around here for a while?" When Gerard nodded, he continued, "Okay, I'll see you later."

Gerard rolled his eyes. "Just go, Mikey, I won't burn it down or anything."

"That's not - okay, fine. Later." Looking stressed, he grabbed his bag and jacket and headed for the door. Gerard studied the surface of his coffee for a moment, then reached for the uneaten half of Mikey's Pop-Tart and pulled it across the table.

He spent the morning rifling through Mikey's comic collection, watching all the reality TV Mikey had saved on his TiVo, and throwing a rope toy for Winston, Mikey's pug. It felt like a vacation. The thought made him laugh, and he snapped a quick cellphone pic of Mikey's coffee table, littered with comics, music magazines, and empty Splenda packets and sent it to Scott. A few minutes later, he got a text back. If this means you're taking my advice now, go get a haircut.

You sound like my mom, Gerard texted back.

The response, Give Donna my love, came almost immediately, followed by, now go back to Batman RIP.

Gerard snorted - and did just that. Winston settled in on top of his feet, whuffling softly, and Gerard read for a while longer until his eyelids drooped shut. He woke some time that afternoon - judging by the shift in the light creeping through the window blinds - to the sound of a key scraping in the lock. He grimaced and threw an arm over his eyes. "Mikey, thank fuck, you've got to make me some coffee. I swear your coffeemaker is sentient, it freaks me out."

"You could try begging the coffeemaker, in that case," said - not Mikey. Frank. Gerard froze, letting his arm slide off of his face and squinting. Yes, Frank, tucking a key ring into his pocket while juggling the cardboard box clamped under his other arm. He didn't look surprised to see Gerard. Gerard wished he could say the same. He struggled to a sitting position. Winston had already jumped off the couch and was happily sniffing Frank's shins.

"What are you doing here?" Gerard asked helplessly.

Frank raised an eyebrow, but answered. "Dropping off demos." He hefted the box, and Gerard pushed himself to his feet.

"I can - "

"I'll just take them to the office," Frank continued, brushing past Gerard to walk down the hallway. The minute that he was in the other room seemed like an eternity; when Frank came back down the hallway, Gerard stepped into his path, invading his space as thoroughly as Frank had done the previous night. Frank lifted his chin to meet Gerard's eyes, a combative gesture despite his impassive face.

An answering curl of aggression filled his gut. Let him be angry. Anger meant he still cared. If that was fucked up, so be it. "Stay for a cup of coffee with me," he said, quietly but not a question.

There was a flicker of that same dark flash in Frank's eyes again. "Thought the coffeemaker freaked you out," he commented, not moving.

Gerard watched his expression harden, and he cocked a hip and tilted his head slightly in response. "Maybe I can coax it to cooperate." He turned, making sure not to touch Frank despite their proximity, and walked into the kitchen; he let out a silent and very controlled breath when Frank followed. Setting up the machine was a task to concentrate on. He watched his hands, the flex of the bones and tendons under the skin. He could feel Frank watching him from his sprawl at the kitchen table, like tiny pinpricks up and down his spine.

"Jesus fuck, Gerard, your hands," Frank gasped, chest pushing into the grimy back door of their van. Gerard just shifted his grip on Frank's cock, pumping faster and twisting the fingers of his other hand through Frank's orange fauxhawk, pulling Frank's head back to bite into the side of his neck. He felt the vibration of Frank's groans as he heard them, the scrabbling of Frank's fingernails on the metal door filtering in, and he tightened his grip on Frank's hair.

"Fuckin'...love you, Frankie," he murmured into the wet skin of Frank's neck, but Frank was coming with a choked moan over Gerard's fingers and scrambling to reciprocate before they had to get backstage. He didn't answer.

The coffee was brewed and ready before Gerard turned back to Frank, setting a steaming mug on the table before fixing his own mug and leaning back against the counter. "What kind of demos are they?" he asked casually.

"Just Skeleton Crew demos," Frank answered.

Gerard frowned. "I know I'm not an A&R guy, but isn't that sort of helping the competition?" Frank was giving him a strange look, so Gerard changed the subject. "I didn't know you had a key to Mikey's place." The strange look was still in place. Frank took a sip of coffee and crossed his legs at the ankle.

"You haven't talked to your brother much lately, have you?" Frank said. "Also, I come over and walk Winston for him sometimes." The snide tone was back, and so was the swirling feeling in Gerard's stomach. Guilt. Anger. Want. He turned away, setting his coffee cup down on the counter and bracing his hands against the tan Formica, staring at his curled fingers.

Gerard didn't know how to begin, so he just said it. "Four years, one month, and...two days, now."

Frank's coffee cup clunked loudly against the tabletop. "Fuck you," he choked out from behind Gerard. Gerard's arms tensed, and he froze. "I read all those AA books, you know," Frank continued, rough voice smoothing out into a parody of a conversational tone.

Gerard closed his eyes. "I didn't.... When did you do that?"

The sound of a chair scraping across tile. "When I still thought you'd let me help you. Before you...left." Gerard whirled around, one hand still clamped white-knuckled on the counter's edge. The dark intensity in Frank's eyes didn't quite match the careful words. He was on his feet, and Gerard moved without thinking to cut him off, back him into the fridge.

"Why won't you let me apologize?" he asked, throat tight with desperation, hands thudding on either side of Frank's head.

"Because then I'd have to forgive you." Gerard flinched in anticipation of the accompanying shove, but Frank's hand curled into Gerard's collar instead.

"Frank - " he whispered, watching Frank's mouth while Frank's knuckles pressed tight against his throat.

"Fuck you, Gerard," he muttered. "You can't just - " Whatever Frank had started to say disappeared in a frantic collision of lips and teeth. Gerard tasted blood, pulled back and hissed in a breath, testing the bleeding split with his tongue. Frank snarled; he'd always leapt first, and this was no different. Gerard didn't stop to wonder why, just leaned back in, pressing a thigh between Frank's and grabbing for a handful of hair. His fingers slid through the short strands without finding purchase; but Frank let out a startled-sounding groan as Gerard's fingers raked across his skull, mouth opening under Gerard's and hips rolling.

Gerard's other hand slipped on the fridge door, and Frank tightened his grip on Gerard's shirt collar till something ripped, spinning them around till Gerard's back thunked into the wall by the doorway. He didn't search out Gerard's mouth again, just pressed their hips together, the hard ridge of his cock sliding back and forth against Gerard's with every thrust. "Please - " Gerard panted.

"Shut up!" Frank hissed, grabbing a handful of Gerard's hair and yanking his head back to bite at his neck and exposed collarbone. Gerard moaned, fumbling for Frank's belt with both hands, fingers jerking a little with each new stinging bite. He could feel the shudder that ran through Frank's body when he finally pushed Frank's jeans out of the way, hand closing around his cock. Frank froze, open mouth pressed against Gerard's skin with shuddering puffs of humid breath. The hand twisted into Gerard's hair flexed and relaxed like an echo of Gerard's strokes, each tug a tiny burst of pain that drove his pulse to pounding, his breath rasping faster. Gerard kept his hand moving in the same merciless rhythm.

Frank's forehead was pressed hard against Gerard's neck, his hand still tangled in Gerard's hair, but his free hand dropped, shoved at the waistband of Gerard's sweats. Gerard reached down to help him, wrestling the material aside as Frank started stroking roughly, and he moaned again, bucking his hips till their knuckles brushed together. He nosed along the curve of Frank's jaw, and when Frank turned his face away, settled for scraping his teeth along the bone while he pressed closer, knocking Frank's hand out of the way so he could wrap a hand around both their cocks. Frank gasped and cursed, back arching, his own hand flying to cover Gerard's.

The combined friction of their fingers and hot skin was enough to send them both shuddering over the edge within a few breaths of one another. Then Frank jerked away, stumbling back a few steps. His eyes were glittering, lips wet and red, pants bunched awkwardly around the tops of his thighs.

His mouth twisted. "No," he snarled, wrestling his clothing back into a semblance of order.

Gerard's skin was still thrumming, sharper aches throbbing from his scalp and neck, hot and tight and used. "No?" he repeated through dry lips.

Frank just looked at him for a silent moment, chest heaving. Then he turned and walked purposefully out of the kitchen, and out of the apartment.

Gerard stood in the middle of the empty kitchen for a moment, muscles lax, before reaching for a handful of paper towels to clean himself up. He threw them out and stood for another moment, staring out the kitchen window. Then he yanked at the cord for the kitchen blinds till they clattered onto the sill.

*

"Sitting around drinking coffee in the dark is why people call you a vampire," Mikey commented from the slice of light spilling in from the hallway. He tossed his keys onto the kitchen table and flipped the light switch before clomping down the hallway to drop his bag. Gerard heard his footsteps pause at the office door, then return to the kitchen. "Frank was here?" he asked, crossing to the counter and pouring himself a cup of coffee.

Gerard nodded silently. Mikey sat down at the kitchen table, stretching out his legs; his booted feet bumped into Gerard's. "But that's dumb, if you were a vampire you'd be drinking blood in the dark," he continued.

"I'd still want coffee," Gerard said. He looked at his brother for a moment; Mikey's hair was standing up a little in back. He looked tired. "Mikes, why was Frank here with a box of demos?"

"He asked me to come work at Skeleton," Mikey answered shortly. "I said yes. I gave Eyeball my notice last week." He waited; when Gerard didn't say anything else he added, "I was trying to tell you earlier." Then, more quietly, "You mad, Gee?"

"Mad?" Gerard repeated. "No, I'm - look, I can tell you're not happy right now. If working for Frank will make you happy...." He trailed off.

"I think it will," Mikey said.

"Then I'm happy. Okay? End of story."

Mikey sniffed. "I doubt that."

Gerard frowned. "What, that I'm happy?"

"No, that it's the end of the story." He couldn't make himself meet Mikey's eyes. After a minute, Mikey sighed and tapped a fingernail against the side of his coffee cup. "Dinner at Mom and Dad's tomorrow," he said.

"Again?" He just rolled his eyes when his brother let out one of his stupid snorting giggles.

"Welcome home, Gee."

Later that night, after a sushi run and a Godzilla marathon, Gerard flipped open his laptop - guiltily, even though Mikey had scrawled down the key for the wireless and said he could use it if he needed to - and looked up Leathermouth's tour schedule. They were scheduled to play a concert with Reggie and the Full Effect the next night, in Philly. He stared at the entry for a while, holding a cigarette he'd intended to go outside and smoke. Philly was two hours away. It was the last show of their tour.

He had to go.

*

Mikey was going to kill him. They'd driven over to their parents' house and Gerard had squirmed through an hour of coffee and cookies. Finally Mikey pulled him into the dining room and said, "Gee, what the hell?"

Gerard made a face. "Mikey, I...I can't stay for dinner, I gotta go."

"Go do what?" Mikey frowned.

"I...just, I can't talk about it right now, but it's important. Cover for me?"

Mikey was making a disgruntled face, but he dug out his car keys and handed them over. "You owe me."

"Big time," Gerard promised, throwing his arms around Mikey and hugging him. Mikey sighed in his ear and slumped into him for a second.

Two hours to Philly. Gerard slipped through the doors at the TLA a few minutes after the first opener started. The place was packed, and he had no problem finding an unobtrusive spot near the back. He darted quick looks around the crowd every once in a while, but he didn't see anyone he knew this time. It wasn't enough to let him relax. Anyone who knew him probably knew Frank. They'd wonder why he was here. Gerard wondered himself.

Leathermouth took to the stage, and he remembered.

The screaming intensity was what he remembered from the other night - was so inherently Frank. The kids by the barrier screamed right back, and Gerard remembered that feeling, the feeling of a wall of noise, of music, of emotion. How it surrounded you, fed you. This time, Gerard spared a glance or two for the rest of the band, realizing that he knew them all - Hambone, James, Eddie, Rob. Old friends of Frank's - of theirs. Loyalty. He crossed his arms over his chest, thumb stroking the spot on his own upper arm where the word stained Frank's skin. He let the sound wash over him, just watching. The familiar figure who strode out on the stage partway through the set, curly hair bobbing, guitar in hand, took him by surprise.

Ray Toro. Of course. And he looked exactly the same - played exactly the same, ripping into the song and grinning at Frank. "Fuck," Gerard swore under his breath, turning away from the stage for a moment. He would have sworn he wasn't jealous before - wasn't jealous now - except he was, of that easy camaraderie.

It got worse, because Frank came out again with Reggie, bass in hand, and wasn't it strange to see him careful behind a bass instead of wild behind a guitar? He - the only word for it was beamed - at James during the entire set. He used to look at you like that, whispered some malicious voice in Gerard's head.

That voice was still hissing in his ear like feedback when the show ended and the club spilled its contents back onto the street. Gerard let himself be carried along into the humid fall night, shrinking apologetically away from the sweaty bodies jostling along the sidewalk. He startled when a hand closed around his arm. "Gerard?" a slightly breathy voice asked. It was Ray, detaching from a cinder block wall under an awning and wrapping Gerard in an enthusiastic hug. "Shit, Gerard, what are you doing here? Were you at the show?"

"...Yeah," Gerard answered after a moment's hesitation. "Saw you up there; you sounded great."

Ray grinned at the compliment and tugged Gerard out of the way of an oncoming clump of teenagers, settling his broad shoulders against the wall. "I've been hoping to hear from you, since Mikey said you'd be in town," he said.

"I was going to call you about having lunch," Gerard replied. "Missed talking to you," he added, simultaneously gratified and guilty at the pleased expression that flashed over Ray's face.

"That sounds great! I'm so glad I ran into you!" Ray paused, his brow wrinkling a little. "Does Frank know you're here? We can go - "

"No!" Gerard cut him off quickly. "I mean, yes, he knows I'm in Jersey. He doesn't - I don't - " He saw understanding start to dawn in Ray's eyes and added, "I've got to get out of here. I'll call you tomorrow about lunch, okay?"

Ray reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "Okay." Gerard threw himself back into the crowd before he could say anything really incriminating. He smoked two cigarettes down to the filter, leaning against the hood of Mikey's car, before he was ready to drive back over the bridge into New Jersey.

After another practically sleepless night, Gerard made good on his promise to call Ray, and they set a lunch date for the next day. Still jittering from occasional bursts of nervous energy, Gerard signed onto Skype and talked to Gabriel in Brazil about the signing tour for an hour or so. Then he emailed Becky Cloonan and made plans to visit her Brooklyn studio over the weekend. He told himself that was enough work to count towards his 'working' vacation.

Every time he picked up his sketchbook to draw, things came out looking like tattoos instead of comics.

Mikey walked into the apartment that afternoon, shoving irritably at the cuffs of the dress shirt he wore, and disappeared into his bedroom. He emerged a few minutes later wearing an ancient Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt and track pants. Gerard went into the kitchen and popped back out a moment later, dangling a coffee cup and a Coke Zero. Mikey reached for the soda, and Gerard walked across the living room, handing the soft drink over and pushing his laptop out of the way so he could collapse back on the couch. Mikey popped the tab on the can and took a few long gulps and then looked over at Gerard.

"So," he said.

"So?" Gerard echoed.

"Last night? Disappearing before dinner?"

"I went to Philly," Gerard admitted.

He could see Mikey flipping through his mental calendar of events, which was pretty fucking vast, and he could see when he settled on an answer. "Frank invited you to the Leathermouth show?" he asked. When Gerard didn't answer, he sighed. "You were at the Leathermouth show, though? Gerard, what are you doing?"

"Unfinished business," Gerard muttered, raking a hand through his hair. "Don't tell me you don't fucking understand."

Mikey crossed his arms over his chest. "I understand that you were fucked up. I understand that you moved away, and fixed yourself, and did something you've always wanted to do. I thought I understood why you were here, but I don't understand why you're...picking at scabs, Gerard."

"Because it turns out they're not scabs after all, Mikes," Gerard whispered. Mikey didn't say anything back, and Gerard closed his eyes and tipped his head back against the back of the couch. He knew what skepticism looked like on his brother.

After a minute he reached for the remote and clicked on Mikey's season pass to the Clone Wars animated series. They watched half an episode before Mikey took the remote and hit pause.

"You hurt him, Gerard; and I know you hurt yourself. I just don't want to see you do it again. Either of you. Okay?"

"I can't make any promises." It was the closest Gerard could come to the truth. Mikey clicked the episode back on, but Gerard wasn't paying attention anymore. He was still thinking about Frank. The one person other than Mikey that he'd always known as well as he knew himself. Maybe better. It wasn't just unfinished business. It was so much more. And the hell of it was, he could still hear Frank's desperate noise when their lips had met, and he was sure Frank felt the same way. And he had no idea how to get him to admit it.

*

Ray asked Gerard to meet him at a diner in the Oranges. "It's pretty central," he said apologetically, "and I have a class at three-thirty." Ray wasn't taking classes - he was teaching film at a community college nearby.

Gerard listened to his stories for a while - and Ray had a lot of them, each more hysterical than the previous one - but when Ray took a break from talking to dig into his newly-delivered lunch, Gerard smiled and said, "I'm so glad you're doing well."

Ray tried to say something back, sputtered a little on a mouthful of sandwich, and coughed, patting Gerard's wrist with his free hand till he could talk again. "No, man," he said. "I'm the one who should be saying that, seriously." Gerard frowned; he couldn't help it.

"I'm sorry," he said. It was easy, when it was Ray facing him; just two words but not any less heartfelt.

"I know you are," Ray said after a moment. "But...it's okay, Gerard. Really. I mean...I forgive you. And I am glad. To see you. To see your comics when I go into my comic shop, man. You're...I'm proud of you."

"I'm lucky."

"Don't think I don't know it was hard work, G."

Gerard made a face. "Some days are harder than others."

Ray paused for a moment, looking thoughtful. "That's just...that's life. You know? You gotta keep living it." He reached for the salt, sprinkled some over his fries. That was Ray in a nutshell, really. Taking everything in stride, like he had taken equipment malfunctions. Getting left behind at gas stations. You name it. Gerard's lips twisted in a half-smile.

"I do miss the band," he said quietly, tracing patterns into the condensation on the side of his water glass. "I hope you're still playing, at least."

Ray chuckled. "With some of the other professors. Got a four-piece together. We play here and there; mostly covers, but, you know. It's a good time." He chewed on a French fry, thinking. "Nothing like Leathermouth, though. Frankie...." Ray shook his head fondly.

...Yeah," said Gerard. "Frank."

"Maybe I should just stay out of it, but...when I told him I ran into you, he asked if you'd given me the big apology speech."

Gerard actually felt his face go white, then red. "Fuck. Ray, I - that's not why - "

"It's okay. I know what went down, G. And I know him. Grain of salt."

Gerard raked his fingers through his hair. "Doesn't mean he has the right to - " He stopped himself. It wasn't true. Frank did have the right to talk about him however he wanted. "What else did he say?" He hated himself a little before the full sentence even left his mouth, but Ray just took a sip of his coffee, poked at a few more fries.

"He doesn't talk about you," Ray said. "This really isn't staying out of it, but you're my friend too, and - " He pushed his hair out of his face. "He hasn't been with anyone else, you know. I mean, maybe here and there, but. Nothing serious. I don't know what that means, and I'm not trying to imply anything, but...you should maybe know."

Gerard didn't know what it meant either, and he didn't know what Ray thought it meant, but his heart was in his throat anyway. He managed to get through the rest of lunch without letting it take over his thoughts, but it was still there in the background, and that meant that talking to Frank, sooner rather than later, was unavoidable.

*

Having to ask for Frank's address had been the most embarrassing thing to come out of lunch today, but Ray had kindly acted like it was no big deal, which probably made it seem worse. Gerard rang the doorbell. It was echoed by a chorus of barking from somewhere deep in the house. The drive had been just long enough that he started to doubt if this visit was a good idea, but he was still angry about what Frank had said to Ray. Still feeling guilty after the conversation with Mikey. And mostly, still needing Frank to look at him with something other than suspicion.

Frank opened the door at his knock and just looked down at Gerard on his doorstep for a moment. He was barefoot and wearing threadbare jeans and a too-large hoodie. He looked younger than he had looked onstage, despite the facial hair, the added weight and shorter hair. He looked like the Frank that Gerard remembered, much more so than he had the other day at Mikey's, and he wasn't sure if that made this easier or harder. He waited for a moment, and when Frank merely looked at him - was he cataloging the changes in Gerard, too? - he asked, "Can I come in?"

Gerard thought he knew what "no" looked like on Frank's face, was expecting a refusal, but Frank just pushed the door wider and stepped out of the way, pushing a dog back with his foot. He shooed the dog through what Gerard assumed was the kitchen door and closed it, then walked into the living room, clearing a spot on the couch by piling a laptop and a couple cameras onto the coffee table.

"Is this a bad time?" he asked anyway.

"I have the day off," Frank told him, which wasn't exactly an answer. Or maybe it was.

Frank fished a cigarette out of the pack on the coffee table, lit it, and tucked himself into a corner of the couch. Gerard sat down, arm stretched across the back cushions, and waited for a few minutes while Frank smoked in silence. "I had lunch with Ray earlier," Gerard started. Frank was very carefully not looking at him, and it was starting to piss him off. "Why're you telling him I'm on some sort of twelve-step crusade? You know that's not true."

"How?" Frank's voice was hollow, bouncing off the opposite wall.

"How what?"

"How would I know that's not true? You know, from what you've said to me so far."

"How would you know? If you listened to what I had to say, that's how."

"When? When you're coming to my shows and hiding in a corner?" Frank finally met Gerard's eyes. He was smirking. "Yeah. Ray told me things too." He leaned forward a little, exhaling smoke out of the corner of his mouth. "So what are you really after, Gee? Talking to me, or checking off the 'I tried' box on your little checklist?"

Gerard's eyes fixed on the trickle of smoke from between Frank's lips. It was unfair; Frank could always make that look good. "You have no idea what I want," he replied. Frank chuckled.

"After Saturday, I think I have a pretty good idea," he said with a suggestive sneer. "Well, I've gotta give you credit for balls. You walk into my house after what happened this weekend, without any idea whether I'm sharing it with someone, and you still tell me you want to talk." The sarcasm dripped off the last word. "So?" He leaned over to stub the cigarette butt out in an ashtray and straightened back up, looking at Gerard expectantly.

Gerard knew there wasn't anyone else, but he hadn't heard it from Frank, so he didn't say that. It would mean something different coming from Frank. So he just asked, "Is there?"

"Is there...." Frank echoed, the trace of an ironic little smile playing around his mouth.

Gerard hadn't come over here with an ulterior motive, no matter what Frank seemed to think, but his blood had heated the moment Frank had leaned close with that fucking sneer. It was so like Frank, to take this straight to the physical level. Gerard knew it was playing into his hands, but he'd never been able to resist. Two could play that game. He shifted closer, tossed the gauntlet. "So, if you don't want to talk, is there any reason I shouldn't fuck you through your own fucking couch?" he purred.

Frank stopped cold, staring into Gerard's eyes. After a moment he visibly shook himself, lips quirking as he replied, "Guess not. I doubt it's the first stupid thing I've done this week." He stripped his own shirt off, chuckling tonelessly, but his laughter cut off abruptly when Gerard skimmed his palms up his bare arms, watching the ink flow underneath his fingertips.

He was transfixed; leaning in to trace the curve of Frank's chestpiece with the tip of his tongue, he felt Frank heave in an unsteady breath beneath his lips. When he pressed closer, searching out Frank's mouth, Frank tossed his head back and away. "Frank - " he breathed pleadingly.

"That's not on the table," Frank bit out, shifting restlessly. "No talking, either; show me what you've been learning these past four years," he taunted softly. Gerard moved away, lips drifting back down to ring the tattoos on Frank's neck and chest with smudged hickeys and small, stinging bites till Frank was squirming more, fingers twisting in Gerard's hair and hips lifting in earnest. Then Gerard let his mouth drift down farther, crinkly hair tickling his lips as he unbuttoned Frank's pants and shoved them down and off his feet, curling his tongue experimentally around his cock.

Frank swore, and Gerard took him deeper, keeping rhythm with his hand on the base, riding out the tiny jerks of Frank's hips. His own jeans were almost unbearably tight, but he just pressed his free hand against his own crotch and kept going till Frank was moaning above him, then pulled off with an obscenely wet noise, waiting till Frank picked up his head and met his eyes. He was flushed red, lips wet and parted, hair wild, and he watched avidly as Gerard sucked two fingers into his own mouth, then pulled them out to trace delicately around Frank's opening.

"Well?" he murmured.

"Shit - Gee - " Frank rasped, eyes glittering wildly. "I have - bathroom - " Gerard got the picture, hurrying down the hall till he found the bathroom and rummaging for lube and a condom. He stripped out of his own tee shirt and jeans on the way back to the couch. Frank was still sprawled where he'd left him, and Gerard planted a knee on the couch beside him, reaching for his shoulder and tugging till he slumped face-first against the arm of the couch. Gerard was behind him in a moment, lubed fingers of one hand pushing inside while he licked and nipped his way up Frank's spine, fingers of the other hand splayed against the script on Frank's neck.

"Not - until you - say it," Gerard panted, biting the back of Frank's neck softly. Frank shuddered, pushing his shoulders back into Gerard's chest.

"Fuck me," he snarled. Gerard was most of the way inside before he'd finished rasping out the "please". They both went suddenly, utterly still for a moment. Gerard flexed his hips, testing, and his vision went blurry; he wouldn't last long, he knew, and he reached to wrap a hand around Frank's cock. Frank was spitting out broken phrases in between panting breaths, in time with Gerard's thrusts, and Gerard mouthed helplessly along the line of his shoulder, riding the tightening of Frank's body as Frank came apart, Gerard following quick in his wake, the shudders of his release rolling up his spine and sparking across his skin.

"Frank," he murmured, pulling him upright and back into his lap after he'd pulled out, tracing the curves of Frank's neck, shoulders, chest with the backs of his fingers while he was still quiescent. Please, please, he thought, listening to Frank's breath settle.

Gerard pressed his thumb into the middle of Frank's lower lip. A tremor ran across Frank's shoulders, and he pulled away. "Enough," he muttered. Clambering to his feet and gathering his clothing, he disappeared down the hall. Gerard heard the water run in the bathroom, reached for his own discarded clothing. He was dressed and smoking a cigarette by the time Frank came back into the room. Frank went to the window, twitching aside the curtain and looking out in silence. Gerard stood up and crossed the room until Frank was within arm's reach. He wanted more than anything to reach out and lay a hand on the small of Frank's back. He shoved his hands in his pockets instead.

"It's not just a checklist," he said quietly.

Frank looked over his shoulder, met Gerard's eyes. "I know," he replied.

"Then why - " He bit off the sentence before he could finish. Why are you fighting so hard? That was a stupid question.

Frank's eyes were knowing, his brow wrinkled with a slight frown. "Why would you expect me to make it easy for you?" He'd withdrawn again; Gerard could feel it like an actual wall between them. But still, he almost smiled.

"Did you forget that I know you, Frankie? I really, really don't." He reached out and put a hand on Frank's shoulder. It wasn't enough. It would never be enough again. "But I just wish...." Frank's eyes went shuttered. Wrong thing to say. He felt like he was walking a tightrope and he was suddenly afraid of falling. "Frank," he breathed, defeated. "If you want...I - I'll go. But I'll see you around."

Frank didn't stop him.

He could have tried harder, Gerard thought as he drove back towards Mikey's apartment. It was like he'd said; he knew Frank. He could have found the words, said what he needed to say, no matter how Frank tried to deflect him. Even if he'd had to plead. And he would have; there were things more important than his pride. Frank was - except for maybe Mikey, his parents, Frank was more important than anything.

Which was why he couldn't forgive himself for waiting this long. He'd been convinced, he could admit that now, that the damage was beyond repair. But the shudder of Frank's skin under his, the break in his breath, was more addictive than any drug; and it still shocked him beyond measure that he could have that, even now.

For the first time in a long time, Gerard recognized the clenching in his chest as hope.

*

When Gerard walked into Becky Cloonan's Brooklyn studio on Friday, she greeted him with a hug and a stack of comic books.

"Oh, so I get the warm welcome? Not regretting signing on yet?" he asked, handing over his coat and bag when she gestured, and she laughed.

"They're from Gabriel. When I talked to him yesterday, he said I had to pass some reading material along to you. And no, I'm not regretting it. Even if Scott says you're a workaholic with no sense of appropriate business hours."

Gerard laughed. "Like he's one to talk. And hey, it's a business hour right now, isn't it?"

"And you're on vacation. Coffee?"

"Always," Gerard answered, following her over to the tiny counter with the coffeemaker and doctoring his mug with Coffeemate and Splenda. "And I write comics, isn't that a permanent vacation?"

"That's what they tell me," Becky said, making a silly face at her drafting table, which was littered with half-colored pages. "Maybe one with an itinerary. That one's fighting me."

Gerard wandered over, raising an eyebrow and waiting for her nod before shuffling through the pages. "The inkwork is fantastic," he said. "Is it just the coloring?"

"Yeah. It's my nemesis. I'm saving up my energy for a sortie later." She poured herself a cup of coffee and waved him towards the third-hand chairs in the corner. "Have a seat, watch out for the attack plant."

He snickered. "I'm from Jersey, I always keep a wary eye on plants."

She nodded and pulled a thoughtful face. "Wise boy. Now tell me about this comic idea with the really long name! The True Lives of the - "

"Fabulous Killjoys," Gerard finished. "Man, I feel like all I've been doing is talking about it lately. I've run into this friend of mine, Shaun, a couple times since I've been home, and he and I were talking about it, he actually gave me some great ideas. I have to call him. Oh, and my friend Jon. Have you met him? he went to SVA with me, he does the Umbrella site and a couple of self-published series...."

"Oh, yeah, Jon. Of course. You Jersey boys." Becky shook her head. "Speaking of, you glad to be home?"

"I am," Gerard said slowly, tapping his fingers against the side of his mug. "I wasn't sure. There's...personal stuff here. But...shit, for one thing, it's really great to see my brother."

"How is Mikey? We talk on Twitter but I haven't seen him in ages." Becky and her boyfriend Vasilios got on famously with Mikey; they'd terrorized San Diego for three years running.

"He's good; just started a new job. Another record label. Friend of ours." It was the Reader's Digest version, but Becky didn't need to know the whole story.

"Reminds me of when I used to do band posters. We indie artists have to stick together!"

"I wonder if you would have maybe done a poster for my band," Gerard said.

"Maybe. But I'm glad I'm illustrating for you, too. It's gonna be awesome." She smiled, and after a moment Gerard smiled back.

"Yeah, definitely." And he knew it would be, which was, as much as he admired Becky, something he might not have been able to say a month ago. What had changed? Gerard was pretty sure he knew.

*

Seeing Becky had been...freeing, in a way Gerard hadn't expected and could only marvel at. For all his work with Gabriel, and all the hours they'd logged on email and Skype, it had never struck him that he could work anywhere, do anything, with anyone. Gerard loved Portland. He loved what it had done for him. But he missed New Jersey, and it took being there to remember why. He did the only thing he could think to do, and called Jon. Jon, it turned out, was hanging out with Shaun, which was...fine, actually. It didn't escape him that Shaun might be a good person to talk to, as well. They met him at a coffee shop, and Gerard bought them both coffee - "I told you last week, I owe you one" - and when they were settled in a comfortable corner, Jon fixed him with a canny look.

"I've known you for, what, ten years now, Gerard?" Jon started.

"More, because I've known him for almost that long," Shaun put in.

Jon nodded. "Right. So, Gerard, tell Uncle Jon your troubles."

"Fuck you," Gerard said, but he was laughing. "Maybe a funny uncle. But okay, you tell me something first. Both of you." He let the smile fall. "Why'd you stay here?"

"Fuckin'...deep, dude," Jon commented. "You mean Jersey, right? Shit. I'm self-published, I can work anywhere I can hook up my computer. And this is home. Well, crummy old Mahwah anyway." He paused. "You probably want to ask Shaun that, though."

Gerard took a sip of coffee and looked over at Shaun, who was looking back. "My band didn't make it as far as yours," Shaun started. "But I didn't have to go through what you went through, either. Maybe moving away was what you needed." He paused and then asked, "What do you think?"

"I thought it was," Gerard admitted. "Maybe it was just running away."

"Maybe it was both," Jon said, and Gerard looked sharply at him. "Couldn't it be both?"

"That's what I'm trying to figure out," said Gerard, tugging irritably on a stray lock of hair.

"Why?" Jon asked. "I mean, it's done. Why does it matter now?"

Gerard's eyes shifted to Shaun again, then back. "Because I need to know, because.... Because of what " - who - "I left here." Shaun, he was sure, heard what he was, and wasn't, saying. But Shaun just shrugged. Jon knew too, Gerard knew that. Jon had known him the longest, barring maybe Ray. Or Mikey, of course. But Jon was another step removed from the band, and the band was the knot that had never untangled. And Jon had focused on what else Gerard wasn't saying.

"You want to come home?" he said. "So do it, Gerard. What's the problem there?"

"Nothing," Gerard shot back, a little defensively, at the same time as Shaun said,

"Explaining."

Gerard could see when Jon hit the same page as the rest of them. And Jon laughed. "You sure you're not angling to guest-write the next issue of Heartbreak, man?" It made Gerard laugh, too, which he was sure was the goal. Shaun joined in, then got unexpectedly serious.

"There's a lot of water under that bridge, Gerard. You sure about this?"

Gerard just nodded. He made his living with words, but he didn't have any that could convey how he felt about this. Didn't know if words would be enough. "So, it's less explaining and more convincing, really," Shaun said thoughtfully. Gerard raised his eyebrows at him, and Shaun continued, "Come on, I've known him even longer than you have. I know the score there. You can explain anything to him, but it doesn't mean he'll believe you. Not where it counts."

"You tell 'im, Dr. Drew," Jon said, and Shaun flipped him off lazily.

"I'm having people over tomorrow," he offered seriously. "He'll be one of them, I think. I don't know what it will take to convince him, but you can at least be there, talk to him."

"That's sort of above and beyond, Shaun," Gerard said, and Shaun grinned.

"Was gonna invite you anyway. You'll know most of the people there. Just keep the property damage to a minimum."

"Not me you need to worry about," Gerard muttered. Shaun snorted.

"No shit." And then he changed the subject.

Gerard didn't like being so transparent, but somehow, home had gotten all tangled up with his band, and Frank. Maybe it wasn't so surprising. The band was Frank, in a way. Frank had been starry-eyed over My Chemical Romance since the beginning. Gerard had been, too. It was more than a band. It was a vision he'd loved enough to get lost in, till he'd gotten lost in the maze of his own head, the belly of the whale.... Till it had spit him out.

Gerard swallowed against the knot in his throat, stomach still reeling queasily. He hadn't even gone into the tattoo parlor, had stayed outside on the dirty sidewalk chain-smoking the last of his cigarettes and a few of Frank's, for good measure.

"Hand my pack over, fucking mooch," said Frank cheerfully from the doorway. He bounded down the steps and shook out a cigarette, eyes still glazed with a shocked sort of happiness. The neat square bandage was stark white against his neck.

"I can't believe you fucking...did that," Gerard mumbled, and Frank edged closer, nudging till Gerard automatically wrapped an arm around his waist. Frank's tee shirt was damp with sweat, and he quivered slightly against Gerard's side.

"I can," he whispered into Gerard's ear. "Fuck the world, Gee, and fuck normal jobs. We're going places."

And fuck it all, they had. Until they'd ended up where they started out. All of them but him.

"We're going places. You and me."

Frank hadn't loved anything the way he'd loved that band. Except maybe he had. And maybe - surely - that made what Gerard had done even worse.

*

Gerard told himself, very firmly, that this time he was really going to sit Frank down and talk to him. Sink or swim. He might have guessed, if he'd thought about it three weeks, three months, three years ago - and he'd thought about it, no point in lying to himself - the lengths he might go to for Frank's touch if he ever got within arm's reach of him again. He'd just never expected to get it. It was a particularly exquisite pain, it being given so freely; he wondered if Frank knew how intensely he felt the lack of - the rest of it. Maybe he did; maybe this was Frank's idea of punishment.

If it was, it was working.

Shaun's house was pretty full, for a Sunday. Most of the guys, Gerard knew at least by sight. Shaun's old bandmates and their friends, like six degrees of the Jersey scene. Mikey had come with him, still wearing his faintly skeptical expression, but quickly disappeared into some other room. Gerard circled for a while, pulling a soda out of the fridge, chatting with a couple of Eyeball guys from the old days. He found Mikey after a while, perched in a kitchen chair talking to Jon, and he couldn't resist going over when he heard the words "scale model" and "Kessel run". Jon and Mikey had gotten along instantly when they'd first met. He was glad to see that hadn't changed. He leaned against the wall and listened to them for a while. Before long, Mikey had them all laughing. "Jabba glob," he wheezed, and Gerard had to collapse against the wall, shoulders shaking.

He saw it when Mikey's eyes looked past his shoulder, when his face changed slightly. He heard footsteps stop behind him, and so he wasn't entirely surprised when he heard Frank's voice.

"You could at least do me the favor of being unrecognizable," Frank told him, like no one else was in the room. Like he was just continuing a conversation. "But you're...exactly the same."

"Not exactly," Gerard murmured. He turned around. Frank had been nowhere to be seen on Gerard's latest circuit of the house, but he'd clearly been here for a while. He had an empty Bud Light bottle stuffed carelessly into his hoodie pocket, and a slight flush of red along the tops of his cheekbones.

"Close enough," Frank retorted, grabbing for a beer from the fridge and cracking the cap off on the edge of the counter. He looked like he was about to say more, and Gerard took him by the elbow and pulled him down the little utility hallway and through the first door, which happened to lead into the garage. Frank followed acquiescently enough, and stumbled to a stop when Gerard let go of him. "I don't understand how you can look like that," he mumbled.

"Like what?"

"Good," he breathed, like it was yanked out of him. "Like you've gotten younger. Gone back in time. Like none of it ever happened."

Gerard just stared at him until Frank looked up. "I lived every minute of it, Frank."

A muscle worked in Frank's jaw. "I lived them all twice. Once when they happened, once when I was wondering where I went wrong." He took a swig of his new beer, tossed his empty bottle into a nearby recycling bin. Gerard flinched a little at the crash.

"You didn't go wrong, Frank," Gerard insisted.

Frank reached out, practically in slow motion, and traced a piece of hair that had fallen over Gerard's face. "You leaving sort of means I did," he said in a low voice.

So they were talking about this, then. Hallelujah. "It means I did," Gerard argued. "Not you. Never - " his voice cracked a little. "- never you." He was afraid to breathe, afraid to dislodge Frank's hand, which had landed featherlight on his shoulder. "Why can't I be the same?" he asked softly.

"Too easy to forget," Frank replied absently, fingers trailing across Gerard's throat and down his chest.

"I'm not asking you to," Gerard told him distractedly. Any well-intentioned thoughts he'd ever had about not touching Frank again were slipping right out of his head. Except he hadn't started this, not at all.

"Too late," Frank mumbled.

"I don't want you to," he said, more forcefully.

"Don't want me to forget, or don't want me to do this?" Frank's knuckles skimmed across Gerard's stomach, and he sucked in a breath, backing up a step.

"I - " His back hit the wall.

"Don't lie," Frank told him, stepping closer.

"How could I? Shit," he breathed. Frank twisted to set his beer bottle down on a shelf, then his hands - one warm, one icy-cold - skimmed under Gerard's tee shirt to close around his hips. Gerard bit his lip. He'd started going hard the minute Frank had reached out the first time. "I am the same," he said. "You make me feel the same." Frank's fingers tightened on his skin.

"What do you want from me?" Frank said in a low voice, eyes intent.

"Anything," Gerard answered in a whisper, heat staining his face. Frank swayed, folded inelegantly to the floor. Gerard gasped, cutting himself off with a strangled noise as Frank rubbed his cheek against Gerard's hard-on. He touched Frank's temple with splayed fingertips, oh-so-gently, desperate to see Frank's face, and Frank's hands slid down his thighs, up again to unzip Gerard's pants, callouses rasping against the denim as he pushed them out of the way. His mouth moved slowly, sliding with a puff of breath and a drag of damp skin up Gerard's shaft, tongue swirling around the head, lips sinking back down, and Gerard choked out words on a moan. "Fuck, that's a lie. Everything. I want everything, I always have, I never stopped. Frank - I never stopped - "

The words broke into syllables, vowel sounds as Frank closed his fingers, almost too-tight, around the base of Gerard's cock. Kept pumping with one hand while his lips sank down to meet his own fist. The edges of his short nails dug into Gerard's thigh. He was making tiny noises in his throat, the vibrations traveling down the length of Gerard's cock like static-electric currents, and he didn't do a thing to stop the thrusts of Gerard's hips, just held tighter, kept going till Gerard was coming with a garbled curse right down his throat, one hand slamming into the wall behind him, the other curling hard around the back of Frank's neck.

When Frank's lips slipped off his cock, Gerard sank to his knees, still grasping Frank's neck, feeling the clenched muscles shift as his head fell back. The short hair on the back of his neck tickled Gerard's palm and he scrabbled for a handhold, pulling Frank back far enough that he could see his face. His eyes stared, unfocused, past Gerard's shoulder, mouth slack and wet. He'd gone somewhere else, thrusting his spit-messy hand into his own pants to wrap around his cock. Hips jerking, he swayed between the pinions of his own grip on Gerard's hip and Gerard's on the scruff of his neck.

Gerard watched, transfixed - Frank never seemed to realize what he looked like when he let himself go. His head drooped, breath catching in his own throat as his hand moved faster beneath the material of his pants. Desperate for more contact, Gerard closed his fingers around his chin, jerking his head back up till their eyes met, and that was the moment when Frank came, body and gaze freezing into a single looped circuit with Gerard's. They stared at each other for a moment as Gerard listened to Frank's panting breaths shudder and seize to a slower pace. His stubble prickled Gerard's fingers. He licked his lips, and Frank mirrored him. Shocked and sated, still craving more, he wanted Frank's lips on his, remembered what had happened when he'd tried. But his eyes were steady, and he wasn't looking away, and that was maybe enough.

If Frank would only give him this one way to reach him, Gerard was going to take it. He ignored the disarray of Frank's clothes and his own, their surroundings, everything but Frank's eyes. "When I got clean," he said hoarsely, "and knew what I'd been throwing away, it was terrifying, and I panicked. I left you, because I panicked. I will regret that for the rest of my life. What do I want? Everything. What will I take? Anything. Anything, Frank. That's it, Frank. That's the truth." The tension left him with the words, and he realized his fingers were still biting into Frank's neck and chin. He dropped his hands, and his eyes. He felt suddenly weightless; not a lightness, just a drifting feeling, like the only thing holding him here was the hand on his hip. "Don't let go," he muttered, knowing it wouldn't make any sense.

This time it was Frank's fingers skating along his jaw, tangling in the back of his hair and yanking. "I can't let go," he answered. "Damn you, I fucking can't." But he did, long enough to strip off his hoodie and scrub angrily at the mess on his fingers, to struggle to his feet and grab his beer. To slam out of the garage.

Gerard didn't know which Frank he'd get next - helplessly angry, desperate for contact, quietly lost, the byproducts of what Gerard had made him feel. He was only seeing them now, but they'd had four years to percolate. He took a moment to straighten his clothes and run a hand through his hair. His hands were shaking. When he got back to the kitchen, Jon was still there, leaning up against the counter and talking to one of Shaun's friends, but Mikey was gone. Jon raised a curious eyebrow, and Gerard bit his lip, shrugging. Jon saluted him with his pipe. Gerard fetched another soda from the fridge and popped the top, sipping idly as he walked through the living room.

When he walked by the open door to Shaun's room, he heard someone plucking idly at an acoustic guitar, something dark and jazzy, and he stopped. He was in a houseful of musicians, but he was surprised to see Frank, who hadn't left like Gerard had expected he would. He peeked around the door jamb and saw Mikey was in the room too, sprawled on the bed and carrying out a desultory conversation with Frank, and with a couple of guys who were passing the roach end of a joint back and forth between them.

Mikey looked up and saw him, and Gerard waited for his expression to change, for a shake of his head, but it didn't come. Instead Mikey jerked his chin, beckoning him into the room. Gerard took a breath and obeyed. "Hey, Mikeyway," he said, leaning against the wall by the door.

"Hey, Gee." Mikey's eyes flashed between Frank and Gerard for a moment, then returned to his phone. "I was just telling Frank the other day that it's a crime that he's never read Transmetropolitan," he said, fingers flying over the touchscreen.

Gerard doubted he'd walked in on a discussion of 90's graphic novels, but sometimes you just had to go with Mikey's tangents. "You'd like it," he replied, looking over at Frank. He pushed what had just happened in the garage very far out of his mind. What would he say if this was anyone else? "Warren Ellis is insane, but in the good way. And what Mikey really means by 'crime' is that he stole my copies of the trades and never gave them back. You can borrow them if you want."

Frank's fingers hadn't stopped moving over the guitar strings, but they slowed down into a syncopation of his earlier line. "Yeah," he said slowly, eyes flicking up to where Gerard was leaning. "Sure, that'd be cool."

"Cool," Gerard echoed. "Anytime." He risked another glance at Mikey and was instantly sorry when he caught him mid-eyeroll. He managed to lean in the doorway and make small talk for a while longer. After a few minutes Frank even put the guitar down to join in, though he kept the instrument in his lap, fingers occasionally flickering through silent chords. Eventually one of the two guys in the corner stubbed the roach out on his shoe and shuffled past Gerard, followed by his friend. Gerard shifted uncertainly. "Well. I was looking for Shaun," Gerard said, "so...."

"He's in the basement," Frank said absently. "Video games."

"Oh." Gerard rubbed the back of his neck, ruffling his hair. "I'll try there. Thanks. See you later, Mikes. Frank - see you around...." Frank raised a hand and bent back to the guitar. Gerard heard Mikey say something as he walked out, and Frank giggled.

He hadn't heard that in a long time.

*

"What the hell," he said to Mikey when they'd trudged down the street to Mikey's car. Mikey just looked at him, and Gerard huffed out a frustrated sigh. "Come on, Mikey. What was that about?" Mikey popped the locks on the car and climbed behind the wheel, waiting for Gerard to tuck himself into the passenger seat before starting the engine and flipping through the radio presets. When he found the station he wanted, he turned the volume down and turned halfway in his seat to look back at Gerard.

"I don't know what's happened the last couple times you've seen him - and believe me, I don't want to know - but were you planning on learning how to have a normal conversation with him ever again, Gerard? Because if not, I'm done with this," Mikey said flatly. "If my brother and my best friend can't deal with each other, even just for my sake.... I let it go till now. But I'm done."

Gerard was pretty sure Mikey's definition - hell, any normal person's definition - of 'dealing with each other' wasn't through sex and arguments. "I'm sorry," he whispered, but his mouth sank into a petulant curve just the same, till he caught Mikey glancing over. Mikey raised an eyebrow when their eyes met.

"What," he snapped.

"I'm sorry!" Gerard repeated testily.

Mikey was silent except for a stifled sigh. Then he said, wearily, "Fuck, Gerard, I get it. You were a drunk, and a fuck-up, and an asshole. And you're sorry. Don't you get it?"

"Get what?" Gerard frowned.

"You were sorry then, too. Do you think we didn't know that? And it doesn't matter how many times you repeat it now. Not to me, and not to him. It's what you do now that counts." Mikey looked away, lips forming into a straight line, and he put the car in gear.

Gerard stared out the passenger side window, chewing idly at his thumbnail, for the rest of the ride home. He didn't answer till they'd pulled into Mikey's parking lot. Then he said, "I don't know what to do now."

Mikey's eyes, free from glasses, were pitilessly direct. "What do you want?"

Frank. No need to pretty up the truth. But all Gerard said was, "You know."

They got out of the car. When Gerard rounded the hood, Mikey was still on the curb, waiting to sidle up next to him and wrap an arm around his waist. Gerard tipped his cheek down onto Mikey's bony shoulder and sighed. He stayed like that till they had to separate to get through the door.

Mikey turned his attention to the door locks, and Gerard wavered in place but didn't manage to budge from the middle of the living room floor. "I think I'm going to need your futon for a while longer," he said.

"As long as you need," Mikey said. He sighed again, tossed his keys onto the coffee table, and set a hand gently on Gerard's shoulder as he walked past. Then he disappeared into his bedroom. Gerard followed him down the hall, turning into the office and shutting the door behind him. He took a few deep breaths before shedding his clothes. His hand brushed against the front of his briefs and he gasped at the feel of cotton rasping against still faintly sticky skin.

I can't let go, Frank had said.

"Let go, let go, let go," Gerard whined, tugging his head away from Frank's probing fingers. He could feel blood welling from his split lip, the curious numb puffiness that heralded a spectacular black eye to come.

"Shut up, Gee." Frank's knuckles were bloody. He was grinning like a demon, a red film staining his teeth. "I'm just assessing the damage. It's about time you learned to duck and cover, fuckhead."

"I didn't think he was serious. Besides, bruises will totally fit our aesthetic," he slurred in response. The adrenaline was dying down a bit, leaving Gerard feeling a little woozy, a little drunk. Frank's fingers had settled on his jaw, stroking gently back and forth, sparking little snaps of sensation in their wake.

"Such a fucking nerd," Frank taunted softly, hand slipping away. "Try to avoid the redneck assholes next time, okay, Gee? We're not in fucking Jersey anymore." His eyes shone faintly, sweat and a few still-bleeding scrapes gleaming in the weak glow from the van's dome light, and he cracked his knuckles theatrically.

Gerard brushed a thumb over Frank's anchor tattoo. "Always home, with you," he mumbled. "My hero." It started out teasing but twisted into something different as the long vowel slipped between Gerard's lips.

Frank leaned in, breath puffing across Gerard's lips. "Yeah?" The kiss was gentle enough that Gerard barely felt his split lip, but thorough enough that he couldn't think of anything else anyway.

"Love you," he breathed when Frank finally pulled away.

The corner of Frank's mouth turned up, a secret little smile he seemed to save for Gerard. "I know."

*

Gerard was in the middle of checking Gabriel's drafts against his storyboards a few days later when a knock sounded on the door. He called out a distracted, "Yes, be right there." When he looked through the peephole, he saw Frank and had a single silent moment to frantically check himself and the apartment for appearance. The verdict: unavoidably sloppy. He pulled the door open. "Hi? Come in."

"Hey." Frank stepped past him, hands shoved in his jacket pockets.

"Did you lose your key? Mikey's not here. He's probably at your office, actually." Gerard realized he was babbling and clamped his mouth shut.

"No, he is there, I didn't want to - I mean, I came to see you. Ah...for those comics?" He looked adorably uncomfortable; he looked really fucking good, actually, with a jean jacket pulled on over a dress shirt, a newsboy cap shading his face. Gerard took a moment to stare. He was pretty sure he had marker on his own face.

"Oh! Transmetropolitan, right? Yeah, let me go find it." He went into Mikey's room, meeting his own frantic eyes in the mirror before rummaging through the overstuffed bookshelves. He couldn't resist flipping through the books, though, and had his nose buried in Vol. 1 when he went back out into the living room. "I'd forgotten that the art in these is so - oh!" Frank was standing over the coffee table, proof page in hand.

"Sorry," he said immediately, letting the page flutter down. "I just - "

"No, it's okay," Gerard jumped in. "You can - Please, read them."

Frank subsided slowly onto the couch, hands drifting over the scattered pages, not quite touching. He stopped, picked one up. "You gave Number Five a puppy," he said. He had a strange look on his face.

"Yeah," said Gerard slowly. "Coming up in Dallas. I - you've read it?"

Frank nodded slowly. "I've read them all," he said quietly. "It's...awesome, Gee. But I wouldn't have expected any less."

Gerard fidgeted, feeling himself flush a little. "Thanks." His eyes flitted around the room and lit on the clock, and he held out the trades in his hand and continued, "I...wow. It's almost four, and I'm meeting Ray after his class for pizza, and - "

Frank jumped up. "Okay, yeah. I'll just - "

"No!" Gerard cut him off. "I mean, if you want to come with...."

There was a pause, then Frank said, "Yeah. Okay."

Gerard beamed; he couldn't help it. His pulse was rabbiting. "I can drive." He dug his coat out of a pile on a side chair, freezing when Frank stepped within arm's reach, hand outstretched.

Frank froze too, shifting back and forth indecisively. "Sorry, it's just - there's something on your - " His fingertips rubbed gently at Gerard's cheek.

Gerard took a breath, put his own hand up to his face. Their fingers tangled, released. "Marker," Gerard squeaked, then hastily cleared his throat. "Job hazard. Thanks." Frank backed up a step, face tinged pink, as Gerard rubbed at his cheek. Gerard waited until their eyes met, and repeated more calmly, "Pizza?"

He caught the ghost of a grin flickering across Frank's face, but all he said was, "Let's go."

*

Gerard made it through another weekend in Jersey and into a Monday-afternoon conference call with Scott in Becky's studio before realizing several things all at once. First, that his self-allotted three-week vacation was basically over, and he hadn't even thought about booking his return flight. Second, that he'd seen Frank three times in the week since Shaun's party and their unspoken truce, and things had been - fine. More than fine; it had been like becoming friends all over again. And third, that he'd just referred to Mikey's apartment as 'home' twice in the same conversation. Gerard stopped talking abruptly. Scott in the Skype window and Becky next to him both looked curiously at him.

"I forgot to tell you," he said. "I'm thinking of taking on a cowriter for Killjoys. A friend of mine in Jersey."

"Okay," said Scott slowly, jotting down some notes on a piece of paper. "I can get some contracts drawn up, I just - "

"I haven't asked him yet," Gerard interrupted, "but...yeah. You can send them to me?"

Scott sighed. "Sure. Becky?"

Becky shrugged, took a sip of her coffee. "Works for me. Local collab, imagine that." Gerard shot her a look; she was smiling.

"That reminds me," Scott said, and Gerard looked back at the computer screen. Scott had that parental tone going on again. "Gerard, the stuff you've been sending me the past couple weeks has been really good. Glad you let me force a vacation on you yet?"

"Are we still calling it a vacation?" Gerard asked wryly.

"You tell me," Scott replied calmly. "But whatever you've been doing, it's clearly working."

He was still thinking about it when he took the train back to Jersey that evening with a gaggle of rumpled businesspeople. What he'd been doing was watching Star Wars with Jon and Mikey, talking Iron Maiden albums over pizza with Ray. Raiding Shaun's 7-inch vinyls. Listening to Frank and James track Leathermouth songs in Frank's basement. And writing and drawing, of course, pretty much constantly.

Mikey was at the kitchen table with his laptop when Gerard walked into his apartment. "Hi honey, I'm home," he said from the doorway.

"I'm gonna start charging you rent if you keep saying that," Mikey answered, without looking up from his screen.

"I'd pay," Gerard told him. That got Mikey's attention.

"You making Mom's fondest wish come true?" Mikey asked, looking up and raising his eyebrows when Gerard hesitated over the answer.

"I don't think I can get her Jon Bon Jovi's phone number," he drawled after a moment, and was rewarded by Mikey's stupid honk of a laugh. "But I might be able to get those boxes out of her basement," he added after a beat.

"I was wondering when you'd tell me," Mikey answered. "Something Jon said the other night," he added in answer to Gerard's expression.

"I wasn't sure until this afternoon, on the train. And I didn't want to - "

"What, get my hopes up and disappoint me?" The faintest trace of a sardonic smile played around Mikey's mouth.

"It wouldn't be the first time," Gerard answered, a little stricken.

"I'm a big boy, Gerard, I can handle it. Are you sure I'm who you were worried about?"

Gerard blanched. "Shit, Mikey, you can't tell him."

"Why the hell not, Gerard?" What have you been doing this past week, if not - "

"Just don't, Mikey, please," Gerard interrupted. "We're finally getting along okay, but I don't want to...this isn't about him. Not completely. I need more time." He stopped himself, changed the subject. "And I don't actually expect you to let me move in here, I'm going to try to find my own place, and it'll take time, and...." He sighed. "I'm not ready for that conversation."

Mikey frowned. "You'd better get ready for it," he said darkly.

"I will. I promise. Just...not yet."

*

Gerard spent most of the next week driving around, looking at houses and apartments, and getting more and more frustrated with each overly perky realtor and unreachable landlord he encountered. He started to second-guess himself; maybe this was a stupid idea after all. By late Thursday afternoon, he found himself driving aimlessly, blowing smoke out the half-open window of Mikey's car and blasting the Misfits. Like the car knew what he was thinking, or like he'd been transported back to 2001, he found himself on Frank's street.

He knocked on the front door, and for the longest time there was no response. He was shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, ready to turn around and leave again, when the door flew open.

"Hey!" Frank said, sounding surprised. "Wow, sorry. James said he thought he heard the door, but I didn't."

"You're busy, of course, I'm sorry. I was just nearby and - "

"Gee." Frank cut him off. "It's okay, come in. We're just fucking around with some levels."

Gerard smiled, "Okay." He felt a wave of relief as he followed Frank down the basement stairs, like he hadn't been tense and chain-smoking a half hour before. James was behind the kit in the corner, hair tied back with a black bandanna, doing something to the bass drum. He looked up and said hello, then swore as something on the drumhead made a pinging sound. Gerard left him alone, eyes following Frank as he reached for a bass guitar on a stand, but diverting to a scattering of 8x10 photos pinned to the wall. He walked closer to take a look, aware of Frank hovering nearby.

"Are these yours?" he asked after a moment, looking over his shoulder. Frank nodded.

"Yeah. Just messing around. Ray gave me some pointers, and Rich, you know, from Reggie?"

"Messing around or not...they're pretty awesome," Gerard said, reaching out to straighten a print that was hanging crooked. It was a close-up in black and white of a lone microphone against a padded wall.

"Thanks," Frank said softly, turning back to his bass stand. Gerard got a flash of his red cheek as he turned away, but by the time he'd slung the strap over his head, he was all business, wandering over to the drum kit to talk to James.

Gerard tucked himself out of the way as Frank paced back and forth from the kit to the sound equipment. Frank turned on the stereo after a while, when James started dismantling the floor tom, and Gerard pulled his sketchbook out of his bag, humming absently along with the stereo and making a few sketches of the two musicians, the tangle of cords and stands. He didn't notice he'd started singing along with the Smashing Pumpkins till Frank froze like he'd been shot, staring in his direction with an indescribable expression. James put down the equipment he'd been holding and stood up. The Mexican standoff broke up only when the phone rang upstairs and Frank ran to answer it.

"Gerard," James started. "I've always liked you a lot." His voice was even. Maybe too even.

"Okay. Me too. And?"

"And I don't want to have to beg you not to be an asshole," James finished uncomfortably, tugging off his bandanna and wiping at his face.

"Again, you mean," Gerard finished, and James shrugged expressively. "I know you just want to look out for him, but I know what I did," Gerard continued earnestly. "I'm trying. Believe me, I am. He's...apart from everything else, he's always been my friend, even when I didn't deserve it. I can't lose that again. And I've always considered you a friend, too. So...trust me?"

"Gerard, man, you know I like you. You know I always had your back. But Frank's one of my best friends. I'm not picking sides," James answered. "I'd say the same to him." His tone was that of someone reserving judgment, all the same. It irked Gerard even though he'd knew he'd feel the same way, in James' shoes.

Frank came clattering back down the steps, looking curiously from Gerard to James, and Gerard made himself smile normally. Frank wasn't stupid; he probably knew they'd been talking about him. But this new...whatever it was...felt too delicate to put to the test with yet another round of apologies. "I've got to get going, and I can see you've got lots to do," he said.

Frank hesitated. "Well...." He looked disappointed. Hell, Gerard was disappointed. But James was looming like a shadow in the corner, and Gerard wanted things he wasn't sure he had the right to ask for, and he couldn't stay here any longer, waiting till something gave.

"I'll see you later," Gerard told him, voice dropping into a softer register despite himself. He grabbed his things and sidled past Frank, putting a hand on his shoulder as he passed.

"See you soon," Frank echoed. Gerard was sure he wasn't imagining the anticipation in his tone.

*

Frank called the next day. "Have lunch with me?" he said, and Gerard shoved aside his sketchbook without a second thought to meet Frank at a diner near his office. He was half expecting Frank to bring up yesterday, or James, but he didn't, just told a funny story about something Mikey had done that morning. Then he asked about the Umbrella release dates, started talking about the Watchmen movie that was coming out, all in between bites of food; small talk. Like this was a -

It struck Gerard, then, in the middle of his own theorizing about Ozymandias, that this was a date. That the last couple times he'd seen Frank alone had been exactly like this; the conversation was nothing extraordinary, but the sheer proximity made his heart pound, and the times they touched were casual, but anything but innocent. That it wasn't just being friendly, not by a long shot.

His eyes flashed to where he'd wrapped a hand around Frank's wrist to emphasize some point or another and never let go, and he withdrew it slowly. Little grains of salt from his fingers clung to Frank's skin. Frank raised his arm and absently licked them away, eyes dark and intent on Gerard, and Gerard's stomach bottomed out. He muttered an excuse and fled to the bathroom, where he clutched the edges of the sink, hopeful and fearful that Frank would follow him. But as he splashed a little water on his face, staring into the mirror, the door stayed closed.

Frank was still sprawled negligently in the booth when he returned. "Everything okay?" he asked softly.

"Fine," Gerard replied, sliding back onto his bench, booted feet bumping up against Frank's. "What were we talking about?"

"Oh no," Frank said, lips quirking over the rim of his glass. "You'll be dissecting Watchmen characters for an hour, and I do have to go back to work. Speaking of...I've got a new band in town next week and I arranged them a gig. Want to come with me?"

"Sure," Gerard answered, stomach already twisting with pleasure, anticipation.

"Good." There was no mistaking the warm tone in Frank's voice, but he just slid out of the booth, counting out a few bills for the waitress. He kept his distance as they walked out to the parking lot, and Gerard kept his hands to himself, though he really, really didn't want to.

*

Gerard didn't hear from Frank again until Monday; he spent most of the weekend at his parents' house, going through the basement and fending off his mother's periodic attempts to cut his hair. When Frank did call, he sounded frazzled but excited; he was going straight from the office to the club the next night, so Gerard promised to meet him there.

When he got there, Frank was waiting outside for him. "He's with me," he told the bouncer, and Gerard's stomach did a little flip. The club was not quite half-full; when Frank saw Gerard looking around, he said, "It's early yet. The guys wanted to meet you."

Gerard bit back the "Why?" on the tip of his tongue and nodded instead. "Okay," he said, letting Frank usher him backstage. Frank's hand settled low on his back as they walked through the narrow hallway.

Oh. He'd just about convinced himself over the weekend that he'd imagined the familiarities of the past couple weeks. He'd assumed Frank was holding back for the same reason he himself was: to reassemble the bones of their friendship instead. Every time Frank was within arm's reach, he realized all over again how difficult it was to hold back. And every time Frank touched him, he hoped it was because Frank had the same problem.

There were four guys sprawled out in the green room when Frank and Gerard walked in, along with Eddie from Skeleton. "The Architects, out of Kansas City," Frank said warmly. "Brandon, Zach, Adam, and Keenan. The first three are brothers," he added, pointing. "This is Mikey's older brother, guys, Gerard Way." He leaned in and added in Gerard's ear, "They met Mikey yesterday. He would be here now except he's stuck in the city."

Gerard nodded at Frank, then said to the band, "Nice to meet you guys." One of them got up and offered his hand.

"Brandon Phillips," he repeated. "It's great to meet you. I told your brother yesterday - we saw your band play in KC with Reggie, years ago. You had a great sound."

They'd met Mikey, and wanted to meet him. They were fans of the band. Gerard shot a wary look at Frank, who returned it steadily. He'd obviously heard this before. Gerard turned back to Brandon and smiled. "Thanks, man. I can't wait to hear you guys, too; I know Frank knows his stuff." He felt Frank's hand settle onto his lower back again. It felt like reassurance, like approval. Maybe like forgiveness.

Gerard stayed in the room, chatting with the guys, until their warning call came. Then Frank and Eddie scattered in opposite directions, and Gerard went back out to the floor to claim a good spot. Frank found him before the first song had ended, tucking himself up against Gerard in such a well-remembered move that Gerard shuffled and pulled him closer on autopilot. "Mikey got here," he said into Gerard's ear. "He's with Eddie, up in the sound booth."

"Don't you need to - " Gerard answered.

"No," Frank said simply, breath ruffling Gerard's hair until he turned back towards the stage, warm against Gerard's side. Gerard swallowed apprehensively; the tightrope feeling had returned with a vengeance.

Thankfully, the band was great, good enough to successfully distract him from Frank's presence - not completely; he'd have to be dead, he was pretty sure, for that - but at least enough to make it through the set.

"They're really good; nice find, boss man," he said in Frank's ear, and felt his smile against his own cheek.

The crowd seemed to agree; the band was swamped at their makeshift merch area for a while after the show, but eventually they escaped, and Frank and Eddie whisked them all to a hole-in-the-wall bar nearby. Gerard was swept right along with them; Frank boomeranged off to talk to this person or that but always managed to return to Gerard's side.

"It doesn't bother you?" Frank said on one such reappearance.

"What doesn't?"

Frank nudged the soda in Gerard's hand. "Being at a bar. Not drinking."

He'd been wondering when Frank would ask; everyone asked eventually. "I couldn't have done it, at first," he said honestly. "I'm still an alcoholic. I always will be. But I control it now, not the other way around."

Frank studied him for a moment, expression thoughtful, what Gerard thought was - nearly tender. "I was wrong. You have changed."

"Only some things," Gerard whispered. He was ready to reach out, in that moment. He'd have begged for permission to touch Frank - was nearly certain he'd have gotten it - but Zach came up, shoulder careening off Frank's, and the moment passed. But Frank didn't leave Gerard's side again. If anything, he inched closer, till he eventually grabbed Gerard's wrist.

"Come outside for a smoke," he coaxed. Gerard followed willingly enough, though instead of lighting up his own cigarette he stole Frank's, getting in a couple drags before Frank took it back with a raised eyebrow. "Fuckin' mooch," he teased, "That hasn't changed, I see."

"Keenan bummed my last ones earlier, I swear!" Gerard protested. "I was being nice!"

Frank clamped his own cigarette between his lips. "I don't believe you," he sing-songed from between his teeth, eyes gleaming with an unholy light. He reached out to pat down Gerard's pockets and Gerard laughed a little breathlessly, fending off his searching hand; Frank was hampered by the beer bottle in his other hand, so he tossed it away down the alley, both hands sliding around Gerard's waist.

The crash of the bottle breaking against the concrete was followed by a growled "Hey!" from around the corner where the kitchen door was. They both froze.

"Shit!" Frank whispered, grabbing Gerard and dragging him out of the alley and around the corner into another deserted side street, where they stumbled to a stop against someone's garage wall. They were both out of breath and Frank had lost his cigarette, but he was giggling, his face gleeful. Gerard couldn't help smiling back.

"Still - a - fuckin' - delinquent - " he panted.

"Least I'm not outta breath - much," Frank shot back. "Too much sitting and drawing, not enough screaming down a mic? Or maybe you're just getting old," he taunted gently, stepping close, fingers poking at the gentle swell of flesh over Gerard's belt.

"Four years older than you, not forty," Gerard squeaked, poking back at Frank's ticklish spots in retaliation. "You little punkass," he added with a gasp as Frank squirmed deliberately against him.

"You love it," Frank purred into the side of his throat, and Gerard stopped trying to fend him off and curled his fingers frantically into the too-short strands of Frank's hair to hold him there instead.

"Miss your stupid hair," Gerard babbled in frustration, fingers wrapping around the neck of Frank's tee shirt instead.

"Kinky, Geeway," Frank murmured, fingers raking up the back of Gerard's skull to tangle and pull. "Guess I'm the lucky one." He tugged Gerard's head back far enough that they could look each other in the face, and Gerard shuddered at the naked desire in Frank's.

"No, that's me," he murmured, his words cutting off abruptly as Frank leaned up to cover Gerard's lips with his. "Yes," he mumbled into Frank's mouth, and Frank chuckled and trailed his lips across Gerard's cheek.

"Haven't asked you anything yet," he whispered.

"Ask me." Gerard moaned as Frank's teeth sank into his earlobe.

"Come home with me," Frank replied. It wasn't a question, but Gerard repeated his answer anyway.

"Yes," he said, tugging Frank's mouth back to his.

Gerard's car wasn't far away; they broke apart long enough to get in, make the mercifully short drive to Frank's house as the radio thrummed through the speaker at low volume. Gerard's blood thrummed in time. I want you, said the slow slide of Frank's hand up Gerard's thigh.

Don't stop, said the clenching of Gerard's hands on the steering wheel.

Come closer, said the press of Frank's lips against Gerard's shoulder at a red light.

"Almost there," Gerard gasped as they turned onto Frank's street and tumbled out of the car in a rush.

"Touch me," Frank muttered as he shoved the door open.

"Anything you want." Gerard tugged him close to kiss him again, reveling in the silky warmth of his mouth and tongue. Frank's fingers scrabbled and slid on Gerard's leather-clad arms, and he pushed at the jacket impatiently. Gerard shrugged out of it and tossed it to the floor with a thump, already fumbling with Frank's coat as Frank shoved him in the direction of the stairs. It was hanging by a single sleeve when they hit Frank's bedroom door with a thud, and Frank let go long enough to fumble the rest of their clothing off.

Gerard was down to his briefs when he hit the mattress - Frank had been going commando, as Gerard had discovered with an appreciative moan a few seconds before - and he braced himself for a continued onslaught. But Frank chose that moment to go into slow motion, settling himself astride Gerard's hips and sliding his hands slowly, so slowly, up Gerard's bare stomach.

He bent over, licking questioningly at Gerard's nipples, riding the helpless heaving of Gerard's chest as he tried to draw breath through seized lungs. Gerard's hands closed gently over Frank's bare hips, thumbs pressing into the swallows inked there. He just held on, letting Frank do what he wanted. What Frank wanted, apparently, was to cover every inch of Gerard's skin with his lips and teeth and tongue, and that was what he did, trailing his mouth back and forth over stomach, chest and collarbones as Gerard murmured wordless encouragement.

When Frank leaned over him yet again, Gerard pressed upward to chase his lips, and Frank opened his mouth to Gerard's, tongue tangling willingly with his. Gerard skated his palms up Frank's bare back to cup his shoulderblades, pull him down on top of himself. The shift in position brought their hips into firmer contact, and they both groaned as their cocks ground together. Frank mumbled something into Gerard's mouth, and Gerard pulled back till he heard the low-voiced "Gee, Gee, Gee," Frank was repeating like a prayer. "Please," he said, "I want you, please." Hazel eyes met a darker shade, hazy with an overwhelming need; Gerard didn't know if he'd ever seen Frank with such clarity, all the times they'd been together like this.

Gerard fumbled to push his briefs off, Frank's hands joining his. As his cock bobbed free, Frank slid down his legs to take it into his mouth, working him over with lips and tongue. Gerard groaned, pushing against Frank's restraining hand on his hip. "Enough," he rasped out, and the next moment Frank was gone, but not far; reaching into the drawer of his nightstand for lube and a condom. Gerard rolled the condom on with a hiss and reached for the lube, but Frank was already there, slicking him up with a firm stroke of his hand. "Do you want - " Gerard started, but Frank was already reaching behind himself. "Frank," he groaned, watching Frank open himself up, head falling back, mouth open.

"Let me," Frank replied, voice nearly unrecognizable. He straddled Gerard's body again, rising up and sinking down with a single unbroken motion till he couldn't go any farther. Gerard threw his head back into the pillows, a guttural moan escaping his throat, hands biting into Frank's hips again as Frank started to move.

"Frankie," he whispered, "come here." He wrapped a hand around the back of Frank's neck and drew him down, biting a little harder than he intended on Frank's lip as the angle of his cock shifted, and Frank made a broken noise of his own, rolling his hips with renewed urgency as he sucked and bit at Gerard's lips, as Gerard's hand closed firmly around his leaking cock, smearing precome over the head and stroking in rhythm.

"Love," Frank whispered as he bore down, "you - love - " He gasped, shook, and came over his stomach, Gerard's hand; Gerard rode out the clenching of his body, thrusting a few more times before his back arched and his own vision whited out. When he'd come back to himself, he pulled a boneless Frank down, cradling him against his chest, disregarding the mess staining their skin.

"Love you, Frankie," he whispered into Frank's temple, lips lingering there afterward. They stayed that way for several minutes, till Frank started twitching, but all he did was pull off with a small, oversensitized shudder and pad into the bathroom for a damp washcloth. When they were cleaned up a little, he merely climbed back up Gerard's body, tucking himself against Gerard's side and tugging the comforter over them both. Gerard yawned, thinking of the contract in his bag, the little bungalow halfway between Mikey's house and Frank's. He'd take Frank out to breakfast tomorrow and tell him all about it, he told himself, ghosting his fingers up and down Frank's arm. He fell asleep to Frank's lips mouthing soundless phrases against the skin of his neck.

*

If there was anything worse than a perky realtor, it was a perky travel agent - at 8:01 am. Gerard managed to get out of bed, to his phone, and silence the ringer without tumbling a sleeping Frank out of bed. "Hello?" he mumbled, pulling the bathroom door mostly shut. "No, Irene, it's fine," he said, rolling his eyes at himself in the mirror. "What's up? Shit. No, don't put me on standby for that flight, just get me - No, transfers aren't a big deal. Just get me to Portland as soon as possible; thanks, Irene. Yeah. Thanks. Bye."

He leaned tiredly against the doorjamb for a minute, thinking about going downstairs and starting a pot of coffee. Thinking harder about waking Frank up. But ultimately he just crawled back into bed, where Frank still had the blankets over his head. He wrapped himself around Frank's back and fell back to sleep.

When he woke again, the sun was bright behind the blinds and the other half of the bed was empty. Gerard reached over; the sheets were cold, and his fingers bumped a piece of paper propped against the pillow. He squinted and pulled it closer - and the bottom dropped out of his stomach.

This was a mistake. Guess I've only got myself to blame.

Please don't call.

That was all it said.

Gerard's body convulsed with one great, silent "Why?" He wasn't capable of being angry, or sad - he was just numb, like he'd been plunged into a deep pool of nothing.

Mistake, it said in Frank's sprawling handwriting.

You said you loved me, he told the piece of paper in his hands. Was that a mistake? What did I do? Or was this all a game to you, after all? I thought I knew you better than that.

The paper was silent. Gerard folded it roughly, crinkling it in his fist as he tugged on his clothing with nerveless fingers. He clattered down the stairs, putting on his leather jacket and letting himself out the front door. Settling into the driver's seat of his car, he eyed the paperwork from the realtor sticking out of the top of his bag in the backseat. He couldn't lie - the proximity of the house to Frank's had been a big selling point. He'd stood in those dusty rooms and pictured Frank walking through them. He didn't, couldn't think that was a mistake. But he loved the house anyway; it tugged at him. If Portland had been a holding pattern, this was the reset button. Jersey. Home. His.

He wasn't sure how long he sat in Frank's driveway and stared at that innocuous envelope, but when he finally reached a decision he didn't waste time. He reached jerkily behind him and tugged it free, signing at the "x" with a drawing pen he fished out of the bag, and drove to the nearest mailbox to drop it in before he could change his mind. Then he drove back to Mikey's. He had a bag to pack.

*

Several more days found Gerard sitting in the middle of his apartment in Portland, surrounded by boxes. Some brimmed with his belongings. Some were empty. It was raining, a persistent drizzle that matched his mood in an appropriately Gothic manner. It was, in fact, remarkably similar to the scene of his move-in day four years before, with one major difference. The gnawing need in his chest wasn't masked by a craving for a bottle, a line. He couldn't help glancing over at his phone on the coffee table every few minutes. Hours. He could call; why wasn't he calling? Would it really hurt that much more, at this point, to reach out and be pushed away again? He reached out, tapped the phone with his fingertips before withdrawing his hand. It wasn't about what would hurt him. It was about respecting what Frank wanted. And that's what made this different from four years ago.

He remembered the boxes holding his life, half-empty and still stifling; that, at least, was the same.

Closing his eyes, he remembered the messages.

There were lots of phone calls. Gerard answered the ones from his sponsor and his therapist. Usually, he picked up for his parents and Mikey too. The rest he let ring.

Frank called four times, at increasing intervals. It didn't stop Gerard from staring at the phone display when his name came up, hoping for and dreading the ping of a new voicemail. They stayed in his voicemail for months. He listened to them more than once; enough that he memorized them.

"Gerard, you'd better not be dead in a ditch somewhere." A nervous laugh. "It's not even funny, I know. I'm just worried. Call me, asshole.

"...Love you."

The next day, tension snapping through the line. "Mikey knows how to return phone calls, at least. Portland, really? If you need...you can have time, Gee, all you need. Just - call me, please."

After a week, sometime in the middle of the night. "I just want to hear your voice," and nothing more.

A couple weeks later, more exhausted than angry. "I think I would have preferred a Dear John letter, Gerard. Papers from the label's lawyer don't count. Not for you and me." A pause, the sound of breathing. "Mikey says it's been 23 days. That's...that's good." An even longer pause. The first time, Gerard almost disconnected from the voicemail box. "Maybe I don't deserve better than this. Maybe you don't. But I always thought...we did.

"I won't call again."

*

The airport taxi dropped Gerard off at his new house a week later, and he had a moment of panic before remembering that Mikey had tucked a key under the doormat for him. He'd been up for eighteen hours at that point, with just enough energy left to shove his two giant bags into the living room doorway before stumbling off to the bedroom and collapsing on the bed. He barely spared a thought for the fact that there was a bed in the room, before dropping off into the sleep of the travel-weary.

He woke up because something was poking him. Someone, actually. Mikey was standing at the foot of his bed, coffee mug in one hand and phone in the other, poking him with his sneaker.

"Go away," groaned Gerard. "Or give me that mug."

"Nope." Mikey took a sip. "You've got things to do, and I can't babysit you all day." Poke, poke. "Hey, is that any way to talk to me anyway? Who do you think put this bed together for you yesterday?"

"You could have put some sheets on it," Gerard grumbled, peeling his cheek off of the bare mattress and pushing himself up. Mikey trailed him into the kitchen, narrowly avoiding crashing into him when Gerard stopped short. "Is that....?" He gestured at the counter, where a coffeemaker identical to Mikey's crouched.

"Newest model. Happy housewarming," Mikey drawled.

"Coffee on demand," Gerard mumbled. Mikey had left a mug on the counter, next to open containers of Coffeemate and Splenda. He fixed himself a cup, took a sip, and sighed. "I take it back, you can stay."

"I have a key," Mikey pointed out, unimpressed. He leaned against the doorframe. "Ray was here yesterday running wire for surround sound or something. I think he's tracking your electronics across the country by, like, satellite. Maybe magic. And he left these casserole things in the fridge."

Gerard smiled into his coffee. "Ray was here?"

"Yeah, he helped me with the - oh - yeah, you should probably look in the dining room."

Gerard raised an eyebrow and walked across the kitchen. "I - wow."

"Yeah," said Mikey. "Mom sort of got excited and sent you half the basement. I stopped her before she dug out Great-Grandma Rush's furniture."

"Some of that stuff's cool," Gerard murmured. "You just don't like it because it's already put together." Mikey snorted.

"When does the rest of your stuff arrive?"

"A couple days, maybe? Monday?" Gerard sat gingerly on a Rubbermaid tote full of art books, squinting at his brother for a moment. "Stop thinking at me and spit out whatever it is," he said. Mikey was being careful about something, Gerard could tell.

"Are you...happy about being here?"

Gerard thought about his answer for a second. "I'd be happier if I had a cigarette, and a refill of coffee," he hedged.

"That's like...a blanket statement," Mikey countered.

"I'm happy to be here," Gerard repeated quietly. "Truth. Ask your real question."

"What happened? Tell me your version." Mikey looked solemn, caught in the middle yet again. It had been over a week, and Gerard hadn't mentioned a thing, but he didn't have to ask what Mikey was talking about.

"We slept together. When I woke up, there was this note - he'd decided it was a mistake. I don't know why. I guess that's his prerogative. I never even got to tell him I was moving home."

"You haven't called him?"

"He told me not to."

"Since when do you listen?"

"Since when does he?" Gerard countered miserably. Mikey made a face. Gerard set his coffee cup down and rubbed his hands over his face. "God, Mikey, don't you think I wanted to? I thought about it every fucking day. Don't make this - me being here - about him," he sighed. "It can't be about him. He made it pretty clear that - " He cut himself off. After a pause, Mikey changed the subject, but Gerard's thoughts refused to follow suit. Everything was always a little about Frank, even when it wasn't.

Too bad Frank thought it had been a mistake.

Too bad Gerard still couldn't make himself agree.

*

"Guess what I have for you," Gerard said to Shaun over the phone.

Shaun tsked down the line. "Oh no, I don't play that game anymore. I don't play 'close your eyes and hold out your hands', either. Too many degenerate friends."

Gerard chuckled. "Oh, man, Mikey used to fall for that one all the time, I thought he'd never learn. No, seriously. I brought back this giant packet of papers for you from Scott."

"I already have a giant stack of papers from him. Welcome to Dark Horse, huh?"

"Eh, he's laid back. Just wants to make sure when we're all millionaires he's got all the paperwork done."

Shaun snorted. "Okay, partner." There was a tapping sound, like he was drumming a pen against a tabletop. "So, I saw you did an interview the other day?"

"Yeah, that online one? Big Apple Comic-Con preview thing. Dark Horse is promoting Umbrella Academy, I think he wants us both there. There's something in the giant stack of papers about it."

"Shit, promos." Shaun sounded a little dazed. "We gonna be 'Jersey rockers returning to their roots for new comic' all weekend?"

"Well. Apparently that's the angle." Gerard still wasn't sure how he felt about it. He'd been a musician, and now he was a writer. But he was starting to figure out that the two things couldn't be separated that easily. "So, do you want me to drop this stuff off for you?"

"No, man, I'll come over. I need to see this house of yours. Did you get the blackout curtains hung yet?"

"Fuck you, that was years ago," Gerard replied, but he was laughing. "Am I never gonna live that vampire stuff down?"

"Pretty much never," Shaun told him.

"Well, my stuff arrived a few days ago, so I have more than an Ikea bed and boxes of action figures now. Can't promise much else."

"Giant stack of papers, remember? How about DVDs?"

"Evil Dead marathon?" Gerard suggested.

"You got it."

Gerard said something to Mikey, later. "The promo stuff for the new comic keeps bringing up the scene."

"Well, it makes sense," Mikey told him. "What's your issue?"

"It's just weird," Gerard told him.

"Weird bad, or weird okay?"

Gerard tugged at a stray lock of hair, leaned back and propped his feet on his coffee table. "Weird...maybe okay? I don't know. If I'm not a lead singer, but I am a writer...."

"You're always gonna be both. You're Gee." Mikey sounded matter-of-fact, and Gerard thought about it for a second. Mikey was right. It was all just a part of him.

He never would have been so comfortable with that six months ago. Fucking Jersey, it got under your skin. It reminded you.

It wasn't the only thing that had gotten under Gerard's skin. He just hadn't figured out what to do about it yet.

He walked over to his stereo - lovingly installed by Ray, who'd eyed him like a criminal when he saw the tangled mass of cords in Gerard's 'electronics' box - and punched a few buttons. I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love started playing.

"I'm back, Frank," he murmured.

*

"Just a minute," Gerard called toward the front door when the doorbell rang for the umpteenth time. He was still scrubbing a towel over the last smudges of skull-facepaint when he pulled the door open. "I'm really sorry, I'm out of - oh!" It wasn't a trick-or-treater. It was Frank, standing on his front porch in a skeleton-print jacket and looking ill-at-ease. "Hi. Come in." Frank stepped inside.

"If you're out of candy, turn your porchlight off," Frank said, flipping the switch himself. He tugged his skeleton gloves off and stuffed them in his pockets. He looked...tired, actually, but still criminally good. Like a guy who was probably missing his own birthday party to be here, too, which made Gerard's stomach clench in confusion.

"I was getting there," Gerard said. "Also, I'm not out of candy, I was just saving a few...here." He handed Frank a peanut butter cup. "Happy birthday," he added quietly.

"Thanks," said Frank. "But I didn't come for candy." He was already unwrapping the chocolate, though. He took a bite and cocked his head to the side, waiting. Gerard bit his lip and obliged him.

"Why're you here, Frank?" He knew what he hoped the answer would be. He'd been angry and patient in turns, these past couple weeks. But he hadn't stopped hoping. Hadn't been able to.

Frank huffed out a breath. "Mikeyway told me I was too stupid to live." When Gerard's lips twitched, he added sourly, "Don't laugh, he said the same thing about you."

Gerard chuckled anyway. "Yeah, I figure he would have; it's fair." He hesitated, twisting the towel between his hands then dropping it onto the hall table. "Do you...can we talk about it? What happened?"

Frank closed his eyes briefly, leaned back against the door. "I heard your phone call that morning. To your travel agent. I thought...."

"That I was leaving again?" Gerard frowned, his breath coming tight in his chest. "Well, of course I was leaving, but - you got 'I'm leaving you' out of a sixty-second phone conversation? And you couldn't have just asked me?" He flung his hands in the air helplessly, raking them through his hair and starting to pace.

"You did it before," Frank said quietly. "I didn't exactly have a chance to ask for an explanation then." He was pale, and Gerard swiveled on his heel, pausing for a moment to fix him with a pained look.

"Fuck, Frank. I had the real estate agreement in my bag that whole day, that whole night. I don't know why I even waited, I was just - I was gonna take you to breakfast and tell you, that morning. Frank...god, why didn't you say something? Anything?" He turned away, pressing his forehead against the wall for a moment, breathing a few steadying breaths, holding the accusations back. He could hear Frank breathing, too, in a ragged rhythm, and he turned his head, looked over at him.

He could read the distress in every line of Frank's body. "It was so easy to think the worst of you," he whispered. "It shouldn't have been - "

"I hadn't given you many reasons to trust me, but...that was before," Gerard interrupted. "I thought maybe things would be different now."

Frank bit his lip. "Maybe, maybe not. I'm - sorry, okay? But you didn't even try to - "

Gerard stiffened his spine, turned back towards Frank. "You told me not to! I was trying to give you what you wanted. I figured...I owed you that much." When Frank didn't answer right away, Gerard let his shoulders slump, feeling suddenly deflated.

He heard Frank push off of the door and take a step closer, looked up to see him hesitate, hands clenched at his sides. "I've only ever wanted one thing, Gerard. Even when I hated myself for it." His eyes went dark with the admission, and the dregs of Gerard's temper faded.

"I've made the wrong move almost every single time, so far," Gerard admitted. "I don't blame you for not trusting me. I wouldn't blame you for giving up."

"I didn't trust you. Didn't want to, anyway. But I didn't realize I'd given up on you; not until you were back in front of me. So many times...you were everywhere, and I - fuck, Gerard, it all came back to me." Frank stuck his hands in his pockets, shuffled his feet. "I lied, you know. In that note. It wasn't...it wasn't a mistake. I'd have given you a million chances. I just didn't want to admit it."

"I can't promise I'll never need another one," Gerard whispered.

"A million," Frank repeated, reaching out to curve a hand around Gerard's cheek. "That's the truth, this time."

"I don't deserve that," Gerard told him, turning his face to catch Frank's fingertips in his mouth. Frank pressed lightly against Gerard's bottom lip, tipped Gerard's face back with a thumb on his chin.

"Neither do I. But we do. Don't you think?" Frank pulled him closer, and his hands went around Frank's waist.

Frank had asked him that before. Finally, he knew the right answer. "Yes," Gerard said against Frank's lips. Frank tilted his head, licked into Gerard's mouth, and Gerard closed his eyes and sighed. Frank tasted like candy and like something uniquely heady, uniquely him. Gerard nipped his lips lightly, and when their mouths slipped apart he added, "The answer's pretty much always yes, for you."

"So if I asked you to come to my birthday party with me?"

"Of course, yes."

Frank's eyes sparked with something deeper, more hungry. "If I asked you to stay over afterwards?"

"Definitely yes."

Frank smiled. "Good. Happy birthday to me."

Gerard laughed, caught somewhere between flattered and turned on. But when Frank tugged him towards the door he tugged back, and Frank said, "Gerard, what - "

"I'm a mess."

"If we stay here, you'll get messier. And then we'll miss my party." Frank curled a lip, amused. "But if that's what you want...."

"Just let me get a jacket, smartass," Gerard shot back. He grabbed the first one he could reach, laughing as Frank immediately started tugging at him again. Frank got the front door open but Gerard stumbled on the way out, pressing them both up awkwardly against the doorjamb. He leaned over for another quick kiss; it turned into something not quite so quick, a little more thorough. "I love you," he murmured.

"Love you too," Frank answered, leaning his forehead against Gerard's for a moment before steering Gerard in the direction of his car again. "Let's go, let's go."

"Always so impatient. We were having a moment there."

Frank pressed him up against the side of the car and nipped at his neck before pulling open the passenger door for him. "You love it."

Gerard couldn't really argue with that. He just settled into the passenger seat of Frank's car. Frank's fingers curled gently around his thigh as he backed out of Gerard's driveway, slipping away only to shift and to turn up the radio. Gerard leaned his head against the headrest, wrapped his fingers around Frank's, and sang along.


***