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Frank doesn't remember much of the first time other than heat and panting breaths and fabric bunching maddeningly between the press of limbs and bones and frantic hands. Stuffed up in a corner of someone's bedroom, his back uncomfortably squashed, suspended between where the two walls met - he knows the body pressing him there belonged to Gerard, even though looking back he could probably say it was anybody and not feel like he was lying.

At the time it was just the time, the place and the people and the endless empty bottles. When Frank woke up on the floor with his legs under the bed and his shirt missing, he didn't think much of anything except fuck, where's the fucking bathroom, and when he was done throwing up and stealing a quick, barely-lukewarm shower in the tiny unfamiliar cubicle, his fingers didn't linger over the purple smudges littering his collarbone. When he negotiated his way through the battlefield-sprawl of bodies throughout the house with hangover-heavy legs and brain and found a wild-eyed Gerard with his head in the kitchen cabinets, he didn't do anything except imitate laughter with a raw throat and ask if he wanted to share his ride home.

It's probably a universally shared experience in some capacity or another, and it would have ended with the aspirin and the closed curtains, fading away into vague blurry memory like the alcohol from Frank's bloodstream, except--

Except the second time. There was a Second Time. Frank hates all those bullshit Cosmo-esque "rules" about what is and isn't acceptable - (he'll call more than every other day if he damn well wants to, okay, fuck off) what's allowed and what validates what and what means what and what crosses those subtle unspoken lines (seriously, people are people, fuck off) - but then again, second time. Once is okay. Once is explainable, excusable.

Once can be a mistake.

Twice, on the other hand, is a noisy, unrelenting mental dripping tap that won't be ignored or dismissed. And thrice, well. Frank doesn't have a metaphor for what thrice is, because by the time he could make himself stop long enough to think about it they were already well into the double digits.

*

"I dunno, it just feels like it should be, like, more, you know?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. I mean, I think we've pretty much got the foundation of the bridge down, but that bit--"

"--Feels kinda lacking, right? It's not just me, is it? It's definitely missing something--"

"Yeah, no, I totally get you--"

Frank should probably be directing more of his attention towards the actual words coming out of Gerard's mouth, instead of Gerard's mouth itself as it makes them. It's frustrating as well as inconvenient - this is what Frank does, who he is. Musician is the only title he's ever thought about, possessed or had assigned to him that didn't make him want to scrunch up his face and snort with disdain and/or modesty, and now he's distracted.

Frank's finding himself distracted a lot recently.

"Maybe we could do something with, like, violins? But - ah - I dunno, that might make it too--" Gerard half-waves, half-flails a hand in a wide, vague sweeping motion that Frank should be able to decipher. They're usually on the same page about this kind of thing - Frank instinctually recognizes the flow of Gerard and Ray's conversation even if he isn't processing it right now.

He tries to watch Gerard's next few gesticulations more closely, only to find they make even less sense without the accompanying words. But attempting to tune into the conversation just leaves him right back where he started - watching Gerard's crooked mouth shape itself around endearingly enthusiastic creative ramblings that kind of make Frank want to slam his own face into the nearest rigid surface.

"No, dude, look - what about this," Ray's saying, scribbling on the crumpled, fraying piece of notebook paper they have on the bench between them.

Gerard's eyes are bright in a way Frank rarely sees as they follow Ray's hand over the paper, leaning up against him even though he could easily see from where he was, an anticipatory hand clutching the bulge of Ray's bicep. After a moment he breaks into a wide smile that reaches right to the corners of his eyes, lighting up his whole face.

Frank's stomach gives this sudden vicious, uncomfortable twist, and he looks away.

*

When Gerard started talking about forming a band, Frank admits he didn't take him seriously at first. Not just because when Gerard wasn't drunk he was high and when he wasn't high he was drunk, and when he wasn't either he wasn't there - but also because, honestly, Frank didn't want to. He'd been doing the band thing for as long as he could remember, he knew it wasn't just as simple as picking up an instrument and writing a song. It translated into so many aspects of yourself, demanded so many things of you for it to work, and while he knew Gerard was more (so much more) than overgrown greasy hair and tobacco-soaked fingers and deep, glassy eyes, he just didn't know if Gerard could do that. If he could be that.

Of course now Frank's glad he was proven wrong, but back then, he had to watch Pency fizzle out and fail while Gerard rose My Chem to his surface like Titanic, and he had to listen to Gerard dream out loud about creating music and saving lives and changing the world - and he had to see Gerard throw up his soul on stage every night, feel afterwards how raw and open and vulnerable it left him in cramped backstage closets, venue bathrooms, Gerard's basement.

By the time Gerard asked Frank to join the band, the only answer Frank had left for him was yes.

*

Gerard comes to find him, of course, though that might just be because he smelled the coffee brewing. Both the Way brothers have an almost psychic sense for it, and usually it amuses Frank, but right now he's kind of wishing he drank tea more instead.

"Hey," Gerard says, coming up to stand next to him at the counter, resting a broad palm lightly against the small of Frank's back. "Why'd you run off? I think we're really onto something here."

Frank shrugs. "Didn't think I was contributing much." He turns around as casually as he can to lean against the counter, so the warmth of Gerard's hand falls away.

Frank doesn't look at Gerard's face, but he knows he's frowning. "You okay, Frankie?"

Frank doesn't want to lie to him, so he says, "Eh. Just feeling a bit. Off, I guess." He forces himself to look up, meeting Gerard's concerned eyes.

"Hm, I hope you're not getting sick," Gerard says, and then his hand is back, this time pressing cool against Frank's forehead. "You do feel a little warm."

"...I'll be fine," Frank says, a beat too late. Gerard's frown dips even further, but thankfully the coffee maker chooses that moment to announce itself ready, and Frank turns back towards it gratefully. "You, er, want coffee?"

There's a pause before Gerard answers, "Yeah," in this slow, suspicious tone, like maybe he thinks Frank is screwing with him - or perhaps losing his mind - because of course Gerard wants coffee. Frank feels like he's losing his fucking mind, but it has nothing to do with the stupid coffee and everything to do with Gerard - still standing close enough to feel the heat of him - all his genuine concern and casual smiles and incessantly, immovably friendly touches.

Frank pours the coffee, loading up Gerard's with a fuckton of sugar but only a small splash of cream, nudging it towards him before he does his own. Gerard takes it and says thanks, but doesn't leave, his obnoxious sipping sounds right up by Frank's ear. Frank stares hard at the stained, food-splattered wall in front of him and takes a slow, deep breath. When he turns around, Gerard's still all squinty-eyed over the rim of his mug, but it's definitely been softened by the distraction of liquid heaven, as Gerard calls it, and Frank thinks he might, might just let it go.

"I might go take a nap," Frank says.

Gerard's eyebrows loosen up even more and Frank resists the huge sigh of relief he wants to make. "Yeah! Yeah, that's a good idea. Rest up so you're all fresh for the show. Don't feel like you can't go take a break if you need to, y'know? Don't push yourself too hard. I really don't want you to get sick again."

Too late, Frank wants to say. Instead he says, "Yeah. I'll go now, I think."

Gerard nods and smiles, looking satisfied. "Good. I'm just gonna carry on working with Ray in the back," he says, finally starting to step back away from the counter. "Maybe you'll feel more inspired when you wake up?"

Frank smiles back at him as best he can. "Maybe."

Gerard's smile grows tiny teeth. "Your coffee's getting cold," he says, and walks away cradling his own under his chin. Frank stands there and watches him disappear into the bunks aisle, listening for the close of the back studio door.

And then Mikey scares the shit out of him by coughing.

"Jesusfuck!" Frank whirls around and sees him slouched on the couch, face buried in his phone. "How long have you been sat there?"

"Long enough," Mikey says, and maybe Frank didn't see him because Mikey appears to be, like, half inside the damn couch - except his bandy legs are stretched out over the floor like stilts, bony knees falling awkwardly inwards.

"I didn't even notice," Frank says, laughing at himself. "You're like a ninja or some shit."

Mikey doesn't laugh, and he doesn't look up from his phone. He says, "You need to stop, Frank."

Frank stops laughing at the same time it feels like his heart stops. "What?"

Mikey sighs. "Look, I'm not trying to be, you know, whatever. But this shit with Gee, it's not going to--"

"Whoa, whoa, wait," Frank says, trying to push down the sudden rush of panic, "What do you-- has he--"

"I'm speaking for myself," Mikey says calmly, finally raising his eyes to look at Frank. It still surprises Frank sometimes, even after all this time, seeing Mikey's eyes clear and unframed by glasses, how stark and intense they are without them. "I'm saying, you need to stop. That's coming from me. It's not going to end well."

"For who?" Frank asks, his throat suddenly dry, voice raspy.

Mikey watches him steadily. His face is blank as ever, but there's a hint of something, something around his eyes, and Frank suddenly realizes it's sympathy. Mikey feels sorry for him and Frank feels abruptly sick.

"Okay, I'm gonna go-- gonna go nap now," Frank says in a barely-measured rush, already backing away towards the bunks, coffee forgotten.

Mikey doesn't try to stop him.

*

It's not because of what happened before. Frank's not sure he'll ever consider himself an adult - or at least, not a grown-up - but he's got enough maturity, common sense, whatever you want to call it - to acknowledge the home truths, the harsh reality, the brutal honesty. That whole messy, painfully young world of Before might as well exist on an entire other planet, might as well be a scene from a movie, someone else's life. It was different times, different places, different versions of themselves - mere distant influence on the way they are now.

It's not because Frank never acknowledged that, because he did. It's not because Frank never moved on from it, because he did.

It's not because Frank's still stuck in that bedroom corner.

It's just because.

*

Gerard is on fire tonight.

It's one of those shows that Frank plays with his whole body, where the crowd and the sound and his band are all in perfect sync with each other, feeding off each other and hyping the adrenaline up until Frank feels almost high, drunk off it. It's one of those shows that confirm again for Frank that this is his life and all he ever wants to do with it, that he isn't a fuck up - he made the right choices or at least did something good enough to end up here, in a place where he can have this - a thousand kids screaming his band's lyrics back at him.

He stops throwing himself around for the second chorus of I miss you, I miss you so far's to catch his breath, watching Gerard spread his thighs in those tight, tight jeans and throw his head back, letting the first couple of way down's pass unsung to drag his tongue in a slow, obscene line over his spread palm instead.

And maybe it's just the show, or maybe it's the fact that Frank can't watch Gerard sing without fucking wanting him so much he wants to smash everything within reach into a million pieces - but when Gerard struts his way over to Frank's side of the stage and slings an arm around Frank's shoulders, Frank finds himself throwing his guitar aside on its strap to press up bodily against him, burying his face in Gerard's sweaty, sharpie-smeared neck.

It's nothing they haven't done before, technically, but when Gerard pulls playfully at Frank's hair Frank moans like he's getting fucking blown, and even over the approving roar of the crowd he knows Gerard heard - with Frank's mouth smushed open and wet under Gerard's ear, his hands almost frenzied where they're clutching at Gerard's jacket, and when Gerard goes to pull away Frank doesn't remember to let go until a moment too late-- the moment when he registers his crotch is pressed flush and hard against Gerard's hip.

Frank's stomach twists, and this time it's Gerard that looks away.

*

Deep down, Frank thinks he knew when Gerard pulled his head out of that trashcan and choked out, "I can't do this anymore," he wasn't just talking about the drinking. But Gerard needed Frank to be there for him, to be strong and dependable and a hundred other things Frank couldn't be if he resented him, if he was hurt and bitter and alone, so Frank just... didn't go there. He told himself Gerard just wasn't well, he was messed up, he was fighting to stay clean, to stay sane - stay alive, really - all of which was true. But then time passed and Frank watched Gerard do the impossible yet again - put himself back together, and after months of nothing even after the fact, Frank finally ran out of reasons. Or rather, he ran out of alternative reasons.

He only ever tried again once, the last night of touring Revenge. Gerard didn't kiss him back and Frank didn't wait around to hear why, because he already knew but he couldn't hear Gerard say it.

*

Backstage, Gerard won't meet his eyes.

At any other time, Frank probably wouldn't notice. Show adrenaline often compels Gerard to speak to everyone in sight, to rush around the techs and the other bands full of earnest praise and flapping hands-- it wouldn't be the first time his attention never seemed to wander Frank's way. Except right now, Gerard seems to be going out of his way to keep his attention away from Frank, and, well.

Frank probably doesn't even have a right to be pissed off, but, he is. And worried, and hurt, and a million other things that make no sense. None of this makes any fucking sense, and Frank's not sure he even cares. He's just so completely fed up of it, so profoundly sick of it all - of himself, of Gerard - which makes it easy for him to follow Gerard to the bathroom, to slam the lock on and shove him up hard against the wall.

"Whoa! Frank, what--"

"Tell me to stop," Frank says breathlessly, edging on desperately. He's not anticipating the answer, just an answer - any response or recognition Gerard will give him.

Gerard looks at him with not much visible expression, no lines in his face - but Frank needs to think he knows him well enough to register the subtle bunching of his brow, lips slightly parted with confusion, or maybe nerves. Maybe Gerard needs the extra breathing space, too - same as Frank does right now, his own thick exhales drying out his lips. He doesn't push it, doesn't try to move closer, just leaves his forearms where they are on Gerard's shoulders, holding him against the wall, keeping him here.

Gerard doesn't say anything. When Frank steps forward, he doesn't move. When Frank tentatively takes his arms away, he doesn't try to leave.

When Frank crumbles to his knees and starts unbuckling Gerard's belt with frantic, shaking fingers, he doesn't say no.

He doesn't tell Frank to stop.

Frank breathes hard - his stomach feels like its tied a knot with itself, but somehow he gets the belt undone, yanking Gerard's jeans open and down, hands made rough with impatience. He hooks his fingers over the waistband of Gerard's briefs and it almost feels like déjà-vu, like he's never actually been here except in his head. The need to look up is deafening - a familiar, automatic instinct, but Gerard isn't moving, isn't speaking, just breathing - his hands by his sides, palms flat against the wall.

Frank keeps his eyes on his own fingers as they tug the underwear down.

It hasn't been that long, technically, since Frank last did this, but it has since he last did this for Gerard - and Frank can't let himself stop, look, think about it - he just needs it to happen, needs it like he needs a guitar in his hands. When he takes Gerard in his mouth there's no rush of recognition-- Gerard doesn't stink of cheap beer, doesn't stumble unsteadily on his feet when Frank wraps a hand around the base, or grab clumsy, painful handfuls of Frank's hair when Frank starts to drag his lips back and forth. He's mostly silent and still as his cock fills out slowly in Frank's mouth, his hips and fingers twitching restlessly where he's holding them back against the brick, like Frank's tied them there with invisible rope.

Frank's head is swimming. His eyes are watering, blurring, so he squeezes them shut - but then he just wants to scream, because Gerard is all he can sense, everywhere at once, the taste of him blooming over Frank's tongue and that-- that's so familiar it hurts. Frank moans desolately around him, and Gerard's torso hitches like maybe he's holding in a gasp, and Frank wants to hear, he wants to hear, but he knows he can't. But he'll take what he can get, whatever Gerard will give him.

In reality Frank knows it takes a while, but in practice it seems to be over in no time at all. Gerard stays rigidly quiet right up until before he comes, when he breathes out a soft, urgent noise, his hand finally coming away from the wall and for a brief, wonderful moment Frank thinks Gerard's going to touch him, going to brush his fingers through Frank's hair or cup the back of his neck - but of course Gerard stops himself, hand hovering by Frank's ear, fingers still twitching. Frank knows it means he should pull off, but everything in him rejects the idea, and Gerard obviously isn't insistent enough on it to touch him - to stop Frank from going down as deep as he can instead, so deep he almost chokes himself on Gerard's release as it floods his mouth.

Frank swallows but doesn't pull back, drawing it out for as long as he can, until there's nothing left to take and he has to let Gerard go, sitting back heavily on his heels and wincing as his jeans pull tight over his crotch. Gerard is quick to move, and Frank watches his hands as they put him back together, pulling his briefs up and rebuttoning his jeans. Frank doesn't want to move himself, but he knows he can't stay here, on his knees in more ways than one.

He gets up, legs slightly unsteady, and then they both stand there, in awkward silence - and Frank stares and stares at his shoes until, inevitably, Gerard gives in to his ever-present need to talk.

"Frank, look, I'm not--"

Frank looks up. "Don't," he says tightly. His throat is raw. His tongue feels too big for his mouth, the taste of Gerard lingering thick and bitter.

Gerard's face crumbles a little. "I'm sorry," he says, and that's the kicker of it - he genuinely is. Frank can see the anxiety tugging at Gerard's fingers and feet, the regret coloring his eyes and knotting up his eyebrows. Gerard is so fucking sorry Frank can't fucking stand it.

Frank makes a move for the door handle, but Gerard must have anticipated it, because he grabs his forearm before Frank can get the lock undone. Frank flinches, steps back sharply, but Gerard comes with him, other hand closing around Frank's other arm. Panicking, Frank rapidly retreats, twisting his shoulders, desperately trying to snatch his arms out of Gerard's grip.

"Fuck, Frank, wait--" Gerard's saying, but Frank can't, he can't--

"Let go," Frank pleads, his voice hoarse, half-choked. "Let me go, Gee, please, just get off me--"

"No," Gerard says, his fingers sliding down until they're tight around Frank's wrists, pulling against Frank's backpedalling like a tug of war. "No, Frank, stop it - just - fuck, come here--!"

"I can't," Frank gasps as his back hits the opposite wall, and immediately Gerard is all up in his space, holding Frank's hands firmly at his sides and boxing Frank's thrashing body in against it with his own.

"I'm sorry, fuck, I'm so sorry, I didn't-- I should've said no, I'm such a fucking asshole--" His arms are winding around Frank's torso, strong arms pulling him against a warm, solid chest, and Frank wants to fight him, wants to rear back and punch him in his stupid, pretty face, wants to get him on the ground and pin him down and--

Frank gives in with a noise like a sob, fight draining from him as quick as it came. He lets himself sag in Gerard's arms, clutching frantically at the damp leather covering Gerard's back. Gerard's hugging him so tightly, like maybe he's scared Frank's legs are going to give out, but it isn't tight enough. Gerard smells like sweat and smoke and familiarity, like memories, and Frank wants to bury himself in that smell and never leave.

"Sometimes I wanted to leave my beer where you'd find it," Frank's suddenly confessing in a harsh whisper, shame rushing through him like a hot, vicious current. "Sometimes I wanted you to stay drunk, so you'd still, so we'd--"

"Frankie," Gerard sighs, but he doesn't sound shocked, or disappointed, or anything else he should be. He just sounds sad, sorry. He lets Frank pull him as close as they can get, knees bumping, Frank's face pressed into Gerard's shoulder. Close enough to feel his chest vibrate as he talks, rapid and frustrated, "God, this is all my fault. All of this, it's. I just had no fucking idea how to explain, you know? But fuck, I should have tried anyway-- you deserved that, you fucking deserved that but I was such a fucking coward, treating you like--"

"Shut up," Frank snaps, because he doesn't want to hear about Gerard's guilt, and he doesn't want Gerard's remorse, or Mikey's sympathy, or fucking anyone else's. He wants something he can't have and he's known that for a long time. "Just--" Hold me, Frank almost says, but stops himself because Christ, aside from the fact this isn't Edward fucking Scissorhands, it just doesn't feel right. "Just stay like this for a while. Please."

After a pause, Frank feels Gerard nod slowly against the side of his face. "Okay," he says softly.

*

Frank finds Jamia's number by accident.

He remembers a really early show, a particularly bad one, where Gerard was so wasted and upset and angry he wouldn't let anyone near him, not even Mikey. He remembers Gerard falling off the stage halfway through and refusing to get back up, screaming incoherently at anyone and everyone before disappearing from the venue with the remains of the bottle of vodka he'd stashed in his jacket before they arrived. Frank doesn't remember what the others did, but he definitely remembers what he did-- Jäger, first, and then tequila. His head had throbbed like a fucking pressure bruise the morning after.

And then this chick with biker boots and freckles had come to sit next to him at the bar. Frank doesn't remember the conversation, but he remembers her smile, and sat on his bedroom floor shifting through the contacts on his ancient old cell phone, he knows instantly that the one titled Jamia is the one that smile belongs to.

When he calls it, Frank isn't really expecting an answer. It was years ago, no doubt she's got a new phone since then, a new number. He almost hangs up before the tinny rings suddenly stop, and a deep, Jersey-accented, female voice drawls, "Heeello?"

Frank smiles, and sets about living.