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The Calypso Initiative

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TRANSCRIPT:

To Whom it May Concern,

With the spike of technological advancements in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries came the rise of the Internet, cellphones, and other devices of its kind. This brought with it an increased interest in the fields that were working to advance the human race, both medically and technologically.

In the year 2010, a small group of German researchers stumbled upon what they thought might be the cure for HIV/AIDS, a disease which had ravaged multiple continents and left millions of bodies in its wake.

A few years later, a similar discovery was made, this time by a team of French anthropologists who had been studying cancerous genomes and the widespread nature of their mutation. To further a population, they had discovered from the animal kingdom, multiple cases of the same mutation happen simultaneously. These mutations either thrive and are passed on, do nothing, or kill their host. While they were attempting to analyze the DNA sequence of a butterfly, the insect burst into flames in the palm of Dr. Jacques Rousseau, one of the heads of the research team. When the other butterflies did not follow suit, Dr. Chantal LaRoux placed a sheet of paper in Dr. Rousseau’s hand and watched as its edges curled into smoke.

By the next morning, the events were being discussed across the globe. From China to Canada, Argentina to Russia, the same word was floating through headlines, text messages, billboards in Times Square:

Superpowers.

The government of the United States of America decided to take action, and revealed that they were going to set up special compounds where “SuperHumans” could learn to channel their powers. Parents could send their children away to boarding school-type institutions where these children would receive all the best training and facilities that the federal government had to offer. Some claimed that these institutions had sprung up too quickly, that they had seen someone in a ninja suit fling a fireball just the other day, but such theories were widely dismissed as “conspiracy”.

Though the spread of information was fast, not everyone had the means to contact the government about enrolling their child. Not all ever realized that it was an option; in the slums of New York City, it is estimated that though 1 in 5 children were born with some kind of superpower, a mere twenty percent of the adult population of these dense areas were even aware that their children's abnormalities were at all uncommon. This was not surprising: in those areas plagued by drug traffickers and disease, statistics say that only thirty percent were able to receive the revolutionary treatment for HIV/AIDS, the most highly-publicized and widely available medicine in the world, because of poor health care and illiteracy.

In the years following the discovery of such genetic marvels, thousands of children across the United States were sent to government facilities to be trained and educated in a safe environment. Though that number seems high, tens of thousands of children were abandoned instead to the foster care system as parents were either unaware of the government’s plans, unsure about how to contact the government, or were simply filled with panic at the thought of a mutant child. DNA analyses on infants became more sophisticated and were able to pick out the sequences that caused such dramatic mutations at birth, and the government set several plans in motion. One such plan, a discreet branch of the CIA titled Operation: Calypso, was charged with the task of findint and bringing in any unreported SuperHumans to a safe environment, combing through medical histories and documentation in the foster care system to weed out those who seemed to be likely candidates for special abilities. The Institutes that the federal government had created across the nation also functioned beneath this branch.

Unfortunately, an unknown number of children and teenagers were not even given the slight chance that the foster care system, however corrupt and bureaucratic it had become, would have offered them. Some families expelled children from their homes at the first glimpse of any mutation, whether for religious or cultural reasons, or simply because they were afraid for their well-being. It is unlikely that many children under the age of ten would have survived without the necessary skills or equipment, in the wild jungles of big and small towns around the nation. Those that did were only able to do so through illegal activities, intentional or otherwise. Some found their way into the foster care system, or even into the hands of the government. Others were picked up by who Calypso has tagged as “Rogue Agents”, those with SuperHuman mutations who were trained by the government and subsequently defected, deciding to live outside the law and the restrictions that it imposes on people.

Attached is the fictionalized account of one of these children who was picked up by Rogue Agent Butch Walker, formerly known as Agent Walker, and later formerly known as Agent Seeker.

His name is Agent Ink, and he saved my life.

Sincerely,
Agent Umbrella
Gerard Way
Senior Recruit Development Officer

Chapter Text

September 16, 2011

Of course it would be raining.

It was no wonder, really, that it was always raining in movies when something terrible happened. Frank used to think that it was just a literary device, but that was before. He was now starting to see a pattern emerge, like it only rained on days when the universe decided to turn his life to complete shit. He should have seen it coming from a mile away, should have paid attention to the signs. He should have felt the disturbance in the air, the wrongness practically steaming from the tiles of Butch’s beloved home.

Instead, he’d been distracted from his routine. Focused on something else. He had finally been given another mission, and after something like two weeks cooped up in the confined spaces of Butch Walker’s house, he’d been going crazy. Butch had told him, just that morning, to devote his attention to his schedule, that with the rain he’d have to plan around slower buses and on not being too miserable when he had to wait for the mark to come out into the open.

“There’s just one thing I need you to get,” he’d said, eyebrows furrowing together when he spotted Frank jittering in his peripherals. “It’s on a black data key.”

“And then what?” Frank had asked, standing as still as he could when Butch glared over his shoulder. “Sorry.”

“Is it really that hard for you to stand still?” Butch had asked, and then sighed. “Never mind. Of course it is. Just do the best you can, you’re getting on my nerves.” He had scribbled something onto a piece of paper, and shook his head. “After we get the data...I don’t know. But I think it might get us somewhere, finally. You just need to pick the mark’s pocket when he leaves the building. You remember what he looks like?”

“Yes, Butch,” Frank had groaned. He’d only gone over the mission a billion times. “I know what he looks like.”

“Don’t come back unless you’ve got it,” Butch had warned Frank, and then sent him on his merry way.

And it had been a mostly merry way. If it hadn’t been for the rain, Frank wouldn’t have been so miserable and wet by the time he’d returned home. He had a raincoat, but it was half his age and probably hadn’t been the best of its kind even when it’d been new. It could stand light rains for an hour, but not the Jersey downpour, and certainly not the four hours of reconnaissance he’d ended up doing. The data on the minuscule disk drive he’d filched from the man Butch had directed him to was probably going to be entirely corrupted by the time he got back to the house, but it wasn’t Frank’s fault if Mr. Walker couldn’t afford new jackets for the ten children that lived in his place.

He ran all the way from the bus stop to Mr. Walker’s house, feet slapping the pavement in a steady, even rhythm, a familiar burn descending down his windpipe and up his calves. If it had been sunny, cloudy, even snowy, he wouldn’t have been caught up in wiping water away from his forehead. He would have walked, and he would have seen or at least felt the shift in the air between the sidewalk and Butch’s doorstop.

If it hadn’t been raining, Frank would have come home from a long, cold day to a cup brimming with hot chocolate and a smile warmer than the sun.

Instead, when he jogged into the living room almost out of breath from the fifteen minute dash, what Frank got was Butch Walker supine on the coffee table. His eyes were closed, and his arms hung limp at his sides.

Everything ground to a halt for a second and then Frank was leaping over the couch and skidding to his knees in front of the man who’d given him everything. “No,” he breathed, pushing away the pain of the rug burn that would eventually make his knees sting. “Butch?”

No. No, no, no. He didn’t know...was he dead? Were the other kids still here? Butch’s face looked like it was a normal colour, and there weren’t the ghostly remains of telekinetic fingerprints around his throat that would have been there if Bert had lashed out at him. If Jeph or Quinn had killed him, they wouldn’t have left a trace. But it didn’t make any sense. Bert adored Butch. And so did the others.

“Mr...Mr. Walker?” Frank asked again, voice wobbling at the end. He reached out his hand and tucked it into Butch’s large palm, the calluses brushing across his fingers. He felt small, suddenly, his hand only taking up a fraction of the space the warm skin provided. “You...you can’t be dead,” Frank pleaded, slumping down on his haunches. “You just can’t be, Butch.” He was probably crying like a big baby, but it wasn’t fair. He wasn’t even twelve. How could he have lost another parent already? “Come on, Butch, wake up, you gotta. I need you...”

Butch’s skin wasn’t cold, at least not compared to Frank’s shivering body, but he could barely feel the chill that had been making his fingers stiff not an hour ago. A different kind of cold was setting itself deep in his bones, wrapping an icy finger around his heart.

When he went to wipe at his face with the back of his hand, something made him pause, his hand suspended in front of his nose. His eyes widened as he let out a shaking breath.

There.

A change, a miniscule in the air. An intruding presence he’d never felt before, moving somewhere behind him. Pressing at the back of his head.

“Gee?” a voice called.

Frank whirled around, eyes hard as they searched for the person who was disturbing privacy of his mind. His nose wrinkled involuntarily when he couldn’t see the body. He could feel it, though, moving through his blanket of awareness and fiddling with his brain.

Telepath.

“Think we missed one.”

The voice had come out of the air. Frank thought for a moment. They were trying to pull some kind of shitty invisibility spell. Telepaths could do that, he’d heard. They could send out a wave of thought that told the listener’s brain not to see them. Whoever it was, they probably didn’t know he could feel them and thought he was just reacting to the sound of their voice, because they were slowly moving away from where they’d spoken.

He sucked in a breath, pulling in the threads attached to his consciousness, and concentrated. He closed his eyes, because he didn’t need to see to hit the ass who’d taken Butch down.

You don’t need to use hand motions, Frank, a memory of Butch whispered in his ear, It helps, but it gives you away. Do what you would, with your weird energy thing, just don’t move.

Frank imagined moving his hands in front of him, clenched into fists, aiming at the human he could see inside his head. He could see glasses slipping down the bridge of a long nose, a small mouth tensed in concentration, hair that was plastered to the boy’s forehead. He was slowly approaching Frank, rounding the edge of Butch’s favourite chair.

The thing about invisible people, Frank thought as he spread the fingers of his hands at his sides and shoved at the person with his imaginary fists, was that they were pretty damn cocky.

It was knuckle-crackingly satisfying to hear the displacement of air and the thud of a body that was suddenly visible hitting the wall. Frank got up from where he was crouching and bolted out the door, not bothering to look back over his shoulder at the boy who couldn’t have been more than a few years older than him.

He pulled his still-sopping hood up over his head as he ran away from the house as far as his legs would take him, and when he couldn’t take another step, he climbed on first bus he could find.

Butch had warned them that this day might come, that a group of government agents specially trained to kill any ‘mutants’ would infiltrate their home and try to take them in. What do we do if that happens? Butch had whispered, eyes wide as he looked at the group of kids who he’d taken in and saved off the streets.

Frank shrank back into the dingy bus seat and glanced at the schedule. Leave and never come back.

He had to get out of Jersey.

Chapter Text

September 16, 2011

Frank’s first breath of New York air jarred his lungs from their complacency. He’d fallen asleep for most of the bus ride out of Jersey, slumped against the rattling window, and squeezed his eyes shut so he couldn’t see the retreating lines of his beautiful state. He’d mostly managed not to think too hard about what had happened, and had tried to concentrate on what the everliving fuck he was going to do.

He knew how to live on the streets; he’d already done it, and it sucked.

And that had been before, when he’d had the presence of mind to pack a bag with essentials. When he’d had a real jacket that had been new, and it had been a gloriously warm summer even though it had been raining for the first week. When his power hadn’t been strong enough to make peoples’ hair stand on edge if he didn’t think hard enough about reining it in.

He couldn’t imagine, didn’t have any idea what he was going to do for shelter. New York had a lot of them, to be sure; with a city as big and bustling with life, how could it not? But if he could barely be on a bus without turning heads and making the driver twitch restlessly in his seat, how was he going to manage an entire night in a building of people who were already on edge from living on the streets?

To make matters worse, it was the middle of September which meant that the heavens were throwing down rain faster than he could blink. Rain that was on the very edge of being hail and snow.

He stayed in the bus station for as long as he dared. Passengers did double-takes when they saw him, security guards furrowed their brows and shoved enormous hands into their pockets, hiding their cracking knuckles from the public eye. He figured he could stay there for a day or two. It meant a lot of hiding in bathrooms and waiting for shifts to change, but at least it was warm and dry.

He left during the day to buy the cheapest food he could find at the for-a-buck supermarket: a loaf of white bread and a jar of peanut butter that cost him two and a half dollars. He only had five dollars to his name, and he fucking hated stealing. Butch had taught all the kids who lived at his house how to pick pockets, but it made Frank nauseated.

When he wasn’t in the station, he snuck onto buses or hopped the rail in the subway, riding until he thought he might get caught or reported before stepping back out into the grim drizzle. After a few days he had to move from Penn Station, where the bus from Jersey had dropped him off, to Grand Central, where he stayed until his bread and peanut butter ran out.

He tried going to a few shelters, but they always kicked him out after he’d been there for a few hours. None of them let him stay long enough to take a shower or get even remotely dry from the walk over.

Mostly, he walked. He avoided the soup kitchens, because they never let him through their lines, and he avoided the higher end streets in New York. It was dangerous to be walking the streets at his age, but it was safer at almost-twelve than it had been at nine. Less people stopped him to ask where his mommy and daddy were, and he was still short enough to duck quickly through crowds.

At night, when the temperature dropped below 32 and the frigid rains from the day before became deadly patches of ice on the ground, the benches, and even the hood of his coat, Frank huddled wherever he could find scraps of food or clean water. Malls were a godsend, because you could stay in each shop for fifteen minutes, and the bathrooms for even longer. He managed to scrub some of himself in the off-white mall sinks one night, hand motions quick and furtive as he tried to keep his power under control so that security guards wouldn’t be drawn to the area.

During the day, the weather was much of the same: cold, uncomfortably wet, and dismal. Running helped him control his power, keep it within the boundaries of his own skin, but it whittled away at his body’s infuriatingly normal digestive system, and he could only do it for so long. Just walking on the streets he could feel heads turning in his direction, goosebumps alerting people around him that something was wrong. Their fight-or-flight instincts were on a hair’s trigger, and he had to keep moving to avoid alerting the wrong people to his presence.

Butch had tried to explain it all to him at one point, had said that Frank “seemed to be producing energy at a rapid rate, and you’re just leaking it all over the goddamn place while you’re at it.” He set peoples’ teeth on edge just by existing. He managed to keep away from people who might be suspicious of the way they felt around him, might figure out that he was a fucking mutant, until the end of his second week on the streets.

He’d tried to get into the Salvation Army, but had been forced to keep walking for the entire night because “the shelter on fourth is much better suited for children your age, dear.” By the time the sun had shone its first rays of light into the morning sky, he was almost dead on his feet from fatigue and cold. He didn’t need sleep, because his brain, veins and senses were constantly flooded with energy, but his muscles needed to be rested every now and then, and his stomach needed to be filled. His jeans were rolled up at the bottom, a hand-me-down from Otter who’d worn the knees right through before Frank had even inherited them, and they didn’t keep the cold out any more than his threadbare hoodie.

By four o’clock, he just couldn’t stand the growl of his stomach, which was barely hidden beneath his layers of a windbreaker that could barely be called a jacket, a hoodie and a ratty t-shirt, and he couldn’t feel either his hands or his feet. He’d decided that with his last two dollars he’d buy himself something warm and see if he couldn’t stay another few nights at Penn. He was soaked to the bone and trembling with exhaustion, so he found his way into the dirtiest, most secluded part of the city.

He figured he had enough for a cup of cheap hot chocolate, something warm and sweet that would make him thirsty but might tide him over until the soup kitchens opened their lines to children. Maybe he’d even be able to get in if he concentrated hard enough on bottling himself up.

He could barely open the door of the shady café, his hands were shaking so badly with cold. When he got up to the counter, dripping water all the way back to the door, he pulled out his two dollars and put them on the dingy surface. “Hot chocolate, please,” he rasped, through chattering teeth. He very resolutely didn’t look at the sandwiches sitting in the gleaming display case, or the cupcake he knew was perched on a tiny silver pedestal.

The woman at the cash register looked down at the two damp dollars on the counter. Her lips were curling at the edges as she scanned Frank from head to shivering toe, and she shifted her weight from one side to the other.

His power was already alerting her nerves? Fuck.

He recognized the look on her face. What would the flimsy excuse be this time? She didn’t like the look of his face? He was too wet for service? That couldn’t be reason enough for her to justify kicking him out, could it?

“It’s two fifty,” she said, an edge to her voice.

Frank felt his shoulders slump forward and his face fall. Two fifty? In a place like this? For a small cup of hot chocolate. “I...” he said, choking on his own voice. Don’t cry, don’t cry. You’re eleven. Just don’t cry. “I just...I’ll take just two dollars worth of hot chocolate.” She glared at him, and he gripped the counter beneath him, the last threads of his control fraying at the ends as his stomach growled again. “M-maybe just...just some hot water?”

All he wanted was to be warm. To not be shaking all the way down to his fingers, to sit down in a chair and not feel like his feet were going to fall off, to not have a nose that was running because it was the only defense it had against the damn cold.

She flicked a derisive gaze down at the two dollars. “We don’t do handouts,” she snarled. Frank could see goosebumps on her bare arms and he tried to avert his gaze, reaching out to take his two dollars back. He was trying as hard as he could to keep his power in check, to not let it spread out, and there was an ache between his shoulders that wasn’t going to go away for weeks if he couldn’t get somewhere warmer, where he didn’t have to be straining at the limits of his abilities to keep himself under control. He had all the makings of a wicked headache throbbing its way through his temples. His ears were so cold that he was afraid they might fall off.

The look she gave him made his heart drop down to his toes. “Where are your parents?” she asked, hand twitching towards the phone.

“They,” Frank stumbled out, frozen. “They’re just...they sent...me...”

“Shouldn’t you be in school?”

Fuck.

Frank swallowed past the lump in his throat and stepped back, trying to get away from the counter even as he reached the few inches towards the last chance at life Butch had given him.

She clapped her hand down on the money before he could, eyes as sharp as diamonds.

Frank moved back, away from the woman with her hand on the phone, and almost jumped when his back collided with an arm he hadn’t felt coming with his power, even distracted as he was. A warm hand curled itself around his shoulder, and Frank looked up from chipped black nail polish into a white face split by a relieved grin. Black hair was falling into glittering eyes, the left one of which twitched in what Frank guessed was a wink. “There you are.”

He stared, unable to figure out what was happening or how words usually worked, so he just closed the mouth that had dropped open.

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you. You know we’re supposed to meet back at the hotel in an hour, buddy. Mom likes it when you call, remember?” The kid raised an eyebrow and squeezed Frank’s shoulder when he didn’t respond.

“U-uh,” Frank managed, and nodded, pressing his lips together in a thin line.

“Sorry about that,” the boy said, leaning into Frank and towards the counter, where he placed a crisp, twenty dollar bill. Frank sucked in a quick breath. Twenty dollars could buy a lot of stuff. He could live for a month with that much money. “We were supposed to stick together but I think I lost him in Macy’s. Mom always told us, find a café and sit there, so I guess at least he remembered that.”

The cashier pursed her lips. “Of course,” she said, looking unsure. “I was just about...”

“To call Mom for him? That’s awful sweet,” the boy said,“Thanks. I keep telling her he needs a cellphone, you know? Oh well. Now that we’re here, might as well get some coffee though, huh?” He looked over at Frank, tilting his body so he couldn’t see the woman’s face, and mouthed Name?

Frank, Frank mouthed back, eyes wide.

The boy’s lips tugged up on one side to grin. “Wanna coffee, Frank?”

“I...” Frank said, taken aback. This boy was just going to buy him a coffee? Without even knowing who he was?

“Three coffees,” the boy said, turning back. “And...” He glanced over his shoulder at Frank, his look calculating. “Didn’t eat lunch, huh? Sandwich. And a cookie.”

“Anything in those coffees?” the woman asked. The tension in her face was gone now, all of the lines around her mouth and forehead were smooth and relaxed. That hadn’t ever happened around Frank. He looked at her oddly for a second before turning his gaze back to the kid above him.

“Cream and sugar,” he said. “What d’you want, Frankie?”

The nickname jarred Frank back. Frankie. He’d been subconsciously relaxing into the boy’s warm grip. “Sure,” he whispered. His shoulders already felt less sore, but he straightened up a little. Frankie. His throat tightened. That was what his mom used to call him.

“He’s shy,” the boy said. “Same in his.”

It wasn’t until they were sitting down and something warm was being shoved into his frigid palms that Frank gathered his wits enough to look around. They were at the corner of the café, an extra chair pulled up to their table. The boy was looking at him, a strange expression on his face that Frank couldn’t decipher. Finally, he shifted on his seat, and leaned forward. “You can eat that sandwich, by the way,” he said. “It’s for you.”

“What?” Frank asked, looking away from the burning gaze. The bread-covered thing on the table basically looked like the most delicious sight he had ever laid eyes on in his entire life.

“You haven’t eaten in a while,” the boy said. “I can tell. Go ahead.” He reached for the cookie and practically shoved it into his mouth.

“I...” Frank paused, wondering if his aching bones would even be able to pick up a sandwich, let alone allow him to eat it. At least he wasn’t shivering anymore.

“You look like a wet puppy,” the boy said the second Frank reached for the sandwich and sank his teeth into it. “Jacket don’t work?”

Frank glanced up. His mouth was full. He tried chewing a bit quicker so he could answer, but the boy just took a sip of coffee and leaned forward, eyes bright. “You know, this is my favourite café. They don’t have the best coffee or the best atmosphere, so I don’t know why the fuck I like it. But I do.”

Apparently Frank didn’t even need to participate in the conversation, either listening or responding. He let the boy keep talking while he ate every last bit of the sandwich, and carefully picked up all the crumbs he could from the plate.

“Do you actually have a family?” the boy finally asked when Frank slumped back in his chair, stomach blissfully full for the first time in a week, and wrapped his fingers around the still-warm cup. “Because it doesn’t look like you do.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Frank mumbled into his coffee. He wasn’t paying too much attention to the situation, to be honest. His shoulders were relaxed, his hands were warm, and he felt better than he had in years. His mind was twenty different kinds of clear, and his eyelids weren’t wired open like usual.

“Your jeans are all ripped,” the boy said. “And your jacket’s less than stellar. I know my mom wouldn’t let me go out like that.”

The word snapped Frank out of his complacent, post-meal trance. Mom.

Something must have shown in the way he’d straightened up, because the boy winced. “Oh, sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t...sorry. I’m...just stop me if I go too far. I’m not the best at, you know. Conversations. Social interaction. Etcetera.”

Frank set his cup down. It was almost empty, but there were still baby tendrils of steam rising from the surface. Then he noticed the third cup of coffee, which was still hot and perched on the edge of the table. “Hey,” he said, frowning. “Who’s that for?”

“My brother,” the boy said. “He’s kind of a junkie for coffee.” He shrugged. “Better than drugs, I guess, right?”

“Brother?” Frank asked.

“Yeah, like.” He made a gesture with his hands, magically not spilling a drop of coffee while he did. “My real brother.” The boy laughed, and perked up as the bell above the door tinkled. He lifted his free hand up a little, face brightening around the edges. His pinkie was spread just a little farther than the rest of his fingers. “Here he is now. Hey! Mikey!”

Frank shifted, turning to face the door.

Something crept up the back of his head, wading through the low tide of frequencies that were always humming through his entire being. A switch flicked to on in his brain, and everything slowed down, was crystal clear for a moment: a sneaker was pressed into the edge of a small puddle on the floor of the café, still wet from where Frank had dripped across it on his way to the counter. A customer in the corner was frozen, cup halfway to his lips, white porcelain chipped at the bottom and tilted at a precarious angle. The cashier’s fingernails were digging into the soft skin of her shoulder while her manager’s thumb was producing enough sweat to leave a small print on the glass of the display case he was handling. There was a boy walking into the café: he was lanky and frowning, and Frank met his eyes behind a pair of dirty glasses the second that recognition clicked into place on the boy’s face.

It was that damn telepath from Butch’s place. What the fuck.

Frank was out of his chair before he could think twice, hands shoving a ripple through the blanket of energy. He slid one leg behind the other to brace himself against the resistance and to give him something to push off. He felt more than saw the boy fall over a chair, hitting the floor with a light thud. He couldn’t tell what the boy behind him was doing, didn’t bother to stop or turn around, or to think about what it might mean, because he had to get out. He sprinted away before he had to deal with the fucked-up mess of a trap, a fucking trap he’d walked himself into.

“Hey,” he could hear the boy who’d saved him saying in the background, vaguely confused and almost angry as the bell jangled its alarm at Frank yanking the door open.

Cries followed him into the torrent of rain smashing down on the sidewalk, striking his exposed head with strength that felt like it might bruise. He pushed past the clammy feeling of his wet clothes sticking to him, past the cry of his feet that screamed Not again! and focused on reeling himself in, putting himself back together until he no longer felt like he was being pounded by a million tiny hands.

It was all too much: the spike of adrenaline had bolstered his power, like it wasn’t already larger than his fucking life. He turned corners, peeled down streets like he knew where the fuck he was going. The burn of idling engines coursed down his throat, the minuscule flashes of throbbing streetlights matched the frantic pace of his heart.

When his lungs tightened like a vise he fell to a stop, doubled over and gasping, legs giving way with a groan. His arms could barely hold him up on the dirty sidewalk, fingers spread between bits of old gum and the bright sparkle of concrete.

He closed his eyes, sucking in air like a fish out of water even as his entire body dripped away in the rain.

He was so fucked. He hadn’t even had the goddamn presence of mind to try and figure out if that boy had been a government agent. They came in all shapes and sizes, Butch had said, but Frank hadn’t listened. Frank never listened.

He just...he had to get on the subway, get away from his bad fucking luck and all of this goddamned rain.

His brain was ready to go, so set to take off and never come back, but his legs would not comply, spent muscles wobbling like some kind of jello. He barely managed to push himself out of the way of staring pedestrians, up against a wall where he could sit and idly wonder about the scrapes on his knees where he’d skidded across the sharp ground. Blood was welling up around the edges, but he couldn’t bring himself to move them.

“There!” a shout traveled down the street before Frank was ready to breathe again, let alone run. But he scrambled up anyway, ignoring the nails of pain driving into the bruised soles of his feet.

He couldn’t feel the boy who pushed through a throng of people and gulped for air at all. He couldn’t feel the lopsided angle of his mouth or the pounding of his heart tracing edges in the places he was disturbing Frank’s power. How had they found him?

Frank stood with his stance as steady as he could make it. He could feel the kid who was trying to worm into Frank’s brain, caught behind a knot of pedestrians. He could feel the oxidized aluminum of the lamppost. But the boy in front of him, who was doubled over like he was going to die, was just an empty void in Frank’s awareness. He couldn’t even feel the scratching edges of the concrete under his fucking feet, what the hell.

“What,” the one in front of him panted, straightening up and squinting at Frank from beneath his shaggy bangs. “the fuck are you made of?”

Frank blinked. Right. This kid was a government agent. He couldn’t believe that he’d fallen for that nice guy routine. “Let me go,” he pleaded, taking one step back. “Can’t you people just leave me alone?”

“Frank,” the kid said.

Frank shook his head, stepping back. His legs felt heavy now, like the weights Butch had brought home one day, but he shoved them into doing his bidding. “Don’t you fucking dare use my name.”

“I just don’t get it,” the kid said. “How the fuck are you still standing?”

His feet were anchoring themselves to the pavement, joining the water slipping through the blood on his legs. “Back,” Frank snapped, “off.” He would have lifted his hands up then, but they felt comfortable where they were hanging at his sides. Like it was where they were meant to be.

The boy was lifting his hands up now, and his face was slowly turning red. “No,” he grunted, fingers straining together and snapping out. A bird fell from the awning above them to tumble at Frank’s feet. A second later, a bug buzzed past his ear, body limp and unconscious.

Frank hadn’t felt them move. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked, outraged but only mildly curious.

“Oh my god,” the boy snapped. “Fucking sleep already, would you?” His entire face was as red as his shirt, and Frank blinked at the image, as skin and fabric shifted together. Something was still trying to crawl up the back of his brain, but it floated away when the world did.

Frank sniffed. “I can’t feel my fingers,” he muttered, pressure lifting from his head. Soft hands curled around his arms, and he crashed into a cloud. Or the concrete.

The government was probably going to tie him to a chair and torture him within an inch of his life, but he couldn’t even bring himself to care. As long as they killed him quick he could die right now, happy and warm.

Chapter Text

September 30, 2011

Frank woke up. Just like that.

He hadn’t woken up from anything more than a daydream in almost six years, not counting the time when Otter had decided to test out his new spark-gloves on Frank’s skull.

His entire body felt relaxed, calm, and really, really good. He sat up slowly and stretched his arms behind him, relishing the satisfying cracks with a happy sigh.

It had been so long since he’d last slept that he had forgotten how great it felt. What he could remember, though, was what sleeping people looked like when they were completely out of it: lost in their own minds and vulnerable to any outside forces, eyes small and flickering behind the veil of protection that eyelids offered.

He curled his fingers around the edge of the low bed he’d been lying on, and pushed off, feeling the thud of the ground on the balls of his feet, which were barely clothed by the thin soles of his cheap sneakers.

The floor, like the rest of the room, was a dull, almost-gray shade of white. It was covered in a thin, cheap kind of linoleum that was barely a step above the concrete that was below it. Frank could feel how hard and unpadded the ground was without having to do much. The walls had been hastily whitewashed; he could see the pores of the concrete, feel the rough edges of air bubbles against his palm when he pressed his hand to the cool stone.

The creak of a door he hadn’t yet bothered to inspect made him jump in his skin. He turned around as quickly as he could, angling himself away from the wall so he couldn’t be easily cornered. The unassuming boy who’d slipped into his room offered him a smile, which was surprisingly small for such big lips. Frank found, though, that he wasn’t staring at the mouth as much as his eyes were drawn to the boy’s warm eyes and huge, just massively giant hair.

His mouth was probably open too far for it to be polite, but, dude. “You have so much hair,” Frank breathed, wondering vaguely whether he should be mourning the loss of a brain-to-mouth filter that he clearly didn’t have anymore.

The boy laughed, shaking his head a little. “I know,” he said.

Frank shifted, mirroring the boy’s movements in the opposite direction when he stepped forward.

“Not going to hurt you,” the boy said, lifting his hands up. “See? No weapons.”

Frank snorted, warily stepping back when the boy tried to move closer again. “You are the weapon, probably,” he said.

“I’m just a healer,” the boy said, not moving this time.

“Yeah?” Frank frowned. “If you’re not a weapon, then what’s your name, ‘just a healer’?”

“Ray,” the boy said. He winced. “Oops. Uh, I don’t know...I’m...I was supposed to make sure you aren’t dangerous before I share any personal information.”

“But you already know my name,” Frank said, remembering snippets of the ‘Frank’s a divulging idiot’ show he’d unwittingly been a part of before that government asshole had knocked him out. “You guys are like, the secret service or whatever. You probably already know all about me.”

“I guess.” Ray shrugged. “We only know your first name though. Frank, right?”

“Right,” Frank said. “What are you going to do to me?”

“Nothing. Promise,” Ray said, hands still up in front of him. “Just want to check and make sure Gee - ah, damn. Make sure he didn’t injure you when he...” He waggled his fingers near his ear. “You know.”

“Knocked me out?” Frank snorted. “Or, wait, you mean when he played his stupid-ass mind games with me and made me think he was a decent human being?”

Ray tilted his head a bit. His eyes were sad. “Both, I guess.”

“There isn’t any way for me to escape this prison,” Frank muttered, letting his shoulders relax a bit so Ray could come closer. “What do you need me to do? Lie down? If you try and do surgery on me, I’m going to raise some serious hell, possible escape or not.”

“Right,” Ray said. He approached the bed, eyes on Frank, and patted it with an open hand. “Hop on up. I promise I won’t perform any illegal surgeries in here.”

“Cross your heart?” Frank asked, padding over to the bed, suddenly aware of the individual rings of Ray’s hair as he moved close enough. Already? He would have thought that, having just woken up, it would take his body a bit longer to start cycling through its routine of spitting out energy. He wasn’t too busy thinking grumpy thoughts to notice Ray sway a bit as Frank approached. “You okay?” Frank asked.

Ray blinked quickly, and shook his head. A bead of sweat formed at his temple, and slid sideways when Ray shook his head again. “I’m fine,” he said.

Frank hopped up onto the bed and extended a hand towards Ray. “You gotta touch me, right?”

Ray wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Yeah,” he said, breath catching in his throat. “How’d you know?”

“I know a healer,” Frank muttered, watching Ray’s hand wobble in the air between them. James wouldn’t come within five feet of him, and he’d been a healer. It was probably Frank’s shitty power messing everything up or something.

Ray stretched his hand the last few inches, and Frank thought for a second that he should reign himself in, but then their hands were meeting and it was too late. Ray stiffened, hand clenching around Frank’s, eyes widening. His body went so still that Frank tilted his head to the side a fraction and frowned.

“Are you okay?” Frank started to ask, before Ray yanked his hand from Frank’s grip, and collapsed onto the hard ground below.

Frank peered over the edge of the bed, letting his hand drop down to rest on his legs when the door burst open again. A tall man dressed from head to toe in white rushed in, herding the two boys from the coffee shop in front of him. Mikey, Frank remembered, narrowing his eyes, and what had Ray said? Gee?

“Gerard,” the tall man snapped, falling down beside Ray and shaking his shoulder. Gee was just a nickname, then. He and Ray must be friends. “Knock him out. Mikey, extract what information you can from him. He’s going into lockdown.”

“Hey,” Frank protested. Gerard was doing the same thing he had the day before, face turning red as he stared at Frank, hands twitching at his sides. Frank looked away from him to glare at the man in white. Gerard’s whole act was annoying. “I didn’t do anything,” he said.

There was that presence at the back of his mind again. All of these people kept trying to worm their way inside, when they could have just asked. God. He wasn’t a monster or anything. “Stop it,” he snapped at Mikey, who blinked.

“I told you,” Mikey muttered, frowning in surprise, which was kind of backwards: Frank should be the one surprised here, “I can’t really get a read on him. It’s all...” he waggled his fingers, “static. Like I have the wrong frequency.” His eyes flickered from Frank to Gerard, and then back to Frank.

Gerard huffed out a breath. “What is wrong with you, why won’t you just pass out like a normal person?”

“I don’t know, okay?” Frank huffed back. His fingers were starting to tingle again, and he concentrated on his breathing, like he had when his mom had thought that enrolling him in Tai Chi would help calm him down. You are a lotus petal, Franklin, his sensei had said. Part of the flower. You must learn to contain yourself within the edges of your own leaf.

He was a beautiful flower, tiny and delicate, and all of his energy was inside. And there was no Gerard, and no Mikey, and no stupid government. “You’re really starting to piss me off,” Frank said, when he figured he had his blossoming power under control, all wrapped up in a safe petal in a field of flowers, where no dumb black-haired kids could try and make him sleep.

Gerard’s mouth flapped open and shut a few times. “You....you...Me? I’m starting to piss you off? You’re the one who...who...Agent Sarge, he won’t pass out!”

The white man had apparently had some people carry Ray out while Frank had been closing his eyes and controlling his power, because he was standing alone in the corner now, hands folded behind his back. It was kind of scary how Frank could feel the unbitten, manicured edges of the man’s fingernails but he couldn’t even see Gerard without looking at him. “Fine then,” he muttered. “Mikey, stay,” he snapped, without turning his head. Mikey had been inching his way behind Gerard, but stepped apart at the command. “We’ll just have to have a little interrogation session, then. Won’t we...Frank?”

Frank shook his head, eyes widening. “Are you going to torture me?” he asked, wishing that maybe his voice was deeper and less like a flower. And that he had a better inner metaphor for his power. A manlier one. Like...a slab of beef. Or an axe. He could feel his nose wrinkling at the thought of meat, so he tried to focus on the man in front of him.

“That depends.” The man stepped forward and raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to answer my questions?”

“Um. Sure?” Frank worried at his lower lip and inched back on the bed so he could feel the wall behind him. “You haven’t actually asked me any yet.”

“I asked you what you did to Ray,” the man said. Sarge? Gerard had called him Sarge. Short for Sergeant, maybe?

“Are you a Sergeant?” Frank blurted out, and clapped his hands over his mouth. “Sorry.”

The man’s eyebrow didn’t go down. If it was possible, it lifted itself even higher. “Answer my question, Frank.”

“I didn’t do anything to him!” Frank said. “Honest! He just came over here and then he touched my hand and he just...” He waved his hands around. “You probably saw it. The government has crazy technology, right? Like...cameras, and shit? Come on,” he said, looking at Mikey, who was trying to hide behind Gerard again, “You’re a telepath, right? You gotta know I’m telling the truth.”

Mikey’s eyes widened almost comically. “How did you know?” he breathed, barely able to peer at Frank from behind Gerard’s shoulder.

“Yes Frank,” Sarge said. That damn eyebrow, what the fuck was wrong with this guy? “How did you know?”

“I...” Frank slumped against the wall, and covered his eyes with his hands. “I felt him in my head. Creeping around.” Fuck, he was just giving up all of his secrets, wasn’t he? It was like a rerun of yesterday except this time Frank even knew he was in front of the government.

When he dared to peek out from between his fingers, he saw that Sarge was looking over at Mikey, who was staring at his feet. He looked miserable. “Yes sir,” Mikey muttered, and trudged out. Gerard scowled at Sarge, apparently oblivious to the man’s eyebrow magic. His eyes were dark, and he had his hip cocked out to the side, and his arms folded across his chest.

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” Gerard said. “It’s under the amended Code 920, section B: if another human being, Super or otherwise, is considered by government officials to be a threat to the security of other human beings, Super or otherwise, that government official is permitted to carry out any necessary infringements on the potential threat’s mind, without a necessary citation of the Miranda Code, until the potential threat is deemed innocent or is otherwise incapacitated.”

He tilted his chin up once he was finished speaking, almost daring Sarge to talk. Frank glanced back at Sarge for a second, but looked back at Gerard right away. How did he know all that stuff?

“He isn’t in trouble,” Sarge said. “But I need you to leave.”

Gerard’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded stiffly. “Fine.”

When he turned around and marched out, shoulders making their way up near his ears, Frank watched him leave. Sarge cleared his throat once the door slipped closed, making Frank jump a little.

“What is the extent of your involvement with Rogue Agent Butch Walker?” Sarge asked. His eyebrow was back down to a human level, but Frank didn’t trust it one bit.

“Um,” Frank said, and shrugged. “He...got us to take stuff. Like spies. And he gave us food, and a house, and he was the best thing that ever happened to me, so I don’t expect you to understand.” He rolled his eyes so he wouldn’t cry, he wasn’t a baby or anything. He was eleven. “But he was a good guy, and you killed him.” Frank stopped, and sniffed. Because the air was...thick. Obviously. “So I hate you. Forever.”

Sarge snorted. “We didn’t kill him. The boys simply neutralized him as a threat.”

Frank threw his hands up in the air. “That means killing!”

“They put him to sleep,” Sarge clarified.

“I don’t know where you learned English, dude,” Frank said. “But come on. I’m almost twelve. What, you took him to a farm? Set him underground? Now he’s free to run with dogs or cats or whatever else that shitty story is about?”

The eyebrow twitched. “Yes,” he said, voice calm. “Except for the free part. He’s in a cell, of course. We couldn’t simply have a liability like the Rogue Agent Butch Walker running around.”

“Whatever,” Frank said. He wasn’t about to tell this guy that Butch was basically the closest thing he had to a family, even if it was a family where he never had new clothes, and his mom wasn’t there to hug him at night. It was the best he’d had in a while, and now it was all fucking gone.

“I’m serious,” Sarge said. “Your ‘friends’,” he waved vaguely in the direction of the door without moving the rest of his body. “Ray, Mikey, and Gerard, put him to sleep. It is the most humane way we have of taking in criminals and threats to the security of the United States. All of our Institutions are underground, for the safety of the rest of the population. Children who have superpowers that are beyond their control tend to have...minor incidents that are best kept in a secure facility, surrounded by concrete, and far beneath the surface so that they don’t affect the cities above us.”

Frank wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Oh,” he said. He squinted at Sarge, trying to see if he was lying. “So he wasn’t dead then.”

“No.” Sarge sighed, bringing a hand up to his temples. “Might I ask why you thought it was a good idea to knock Mikey out when you met him? And how you were able to? He told me he was invisible at the time.”

“I have a thing,” Frank shrugged. “Butch said it was I produce energy or something. And I knocked him out because I thought he’d killed Butch, and because...he was fucking invisible, dude. That’s rude, in, like, any culture. And the brain trick worked on my eyes because I couldn’t see him, but.” He darted out a tongue to lick his lips. “I guess I can, I dunno, feel what’s around me? When my power...” he flapped his hand. “You know.”

Sarge shook his head. “I absolutely do not,” he said.

“When it, like,” Frank sighed, exasperated. Butch had worded it so much better than he ever could. “It comes out of me, right? And it spreads. And I can pull it back in, I guess, but it’s hard...and when I don’t, I can.” He stopped, squinting as he searched for the word. Butch had said...what had he said? “Man...ify...tulate it.”

Sarge looked absolutely mystified for a second, which was way better than livid in Frank’s opinion. “Manify?” he asked. He paused and narrowed his eyes. “Manipulate?”

Frank snapped his fingers. That sounded familiar. “Yep, that’s the one. I can do that to it.” He felt the edges of Sarge’s buttons in his mind, so he splayed his fingers out and concentrated hard on pushing for a second.

Sarge stepped back. “Ah,” he said. His stance was firm now, and Frank let go of the invisible hands he’d been manipulating. “Yes, I see. Don’t ever do that again.”

“Sure,” Frank said.

“So Rogue Agent Walker,” Sarge said, “got you to steal things?”

“Yeah, but,” Frank said. “It was that or live on the streets.”

Sarge paused. His eyes were thoughtful for a moment, which was...well, Frank had been expecting pity. Belittlement. “Were the other children at Rogue Agent Walker’s house in a similar situation?”

“Homeless?” Frank asked. Sarge didn’t wince, just nodded. “Yeah. Why don’t you just ask them? What are you doing with them, anyway?”

“They haven’t woken up yet,” Sarge said. “You were the first to. We didn’t think you would, actually. Gerard said he had to pull an awful lot of energy out of you to get you down. You’ve only been here for a few hours. Though, with the description of your powers, I can imagine why. As for the other children, we will put them through the same screening test you received and they will each be sent to a different Institute so they will be less likely to fall into the same illegal patterns as before.”

Frank had slept for a few hours? That was so...“Awesome,” he breathed.

“I beg your pardon?” Sarge frowned.

“Nothing,” Frank said. “Hey, so am I going to be in this cell forever, or what?”

Sarge blinked. “Well,” he said, “we usually can’t let people out of their cells without a physical examination. Since you incapacitated one of our most gifted children, I suppose I’m going to have to call in for a Senior Medic if the boys haven’t already. That could take a little while. But I don’t suspect you’ll be in here too terribly long. Mikey said you didn’t have ‘mean intentions’, and that those thoughts of yours that he could manage to get ‘seemed nice’.” Sarge rolled his eyes, clearly exasperated with Mikey’s flippant tone. Frank liked this Mikey, even if he had tried to pull an Invisible Man stunt on Frank.

Frank squirmed on the bed. “Then what?”

“Then you’ll be directed upstairs, assigned a room, and given an aptitude test so you can be placed in the proper classes for your intelligence level.” Sarge folded his arms in front of him. “And considering the time, you’ll probably be sent to bed almost directly after you’ve been fed. It’s already seven o’clock.”

A knock at the door made Sarge angle his head a fraction to the side. “That’ll be the medic,” he said. Frank wondered whether it had been Gerard or Mikey who had called. “Try not to incapacitate this one, if you will.”

Frank rolled his eyes. Adults were so weird. Like he’d done it on purpose or something. “Whatever you say, Sarge,” he said, wishing the man had at least smiled a bit before turning around.

He wasn’t six anymore. He knew not to knock people out. Ray had seemed nice anyway.

“Good,” Sarge said. “It’s Agent Sarge, if you will. And don’t roll your eyes,” he muttered, reaching for the door. A willowy woman with blonde hair waltzed through the door, eyes bright.

“Hi!” she said, smile bright. “I’m Ms. Salpeter. I hear you need a physical?”

Frank looked up at her beautiful face, and then peered around her to glare at Sarge. “Sure,” he said, lacing his voice with as much sarcasm as he possibly could. “I’ll try not to knock you out.”

Sarge rolled his eyes and Ms. Salpeter laughed, a bright waterfall of music that made the growing tension in Frank’s shoulders disappear. “I doubt you could,” she said, glancing surreptitiously at Sarge and shooting Frank a smile that quirked her mouth up on one side. “You’re cute, but you’re a bit too young for me.”

Frank blushed, and did not look anywhere near Sarge, who was definitely smirking in the background as Ms. Salpeter took his hand. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

* * * *

Frank followed behind Ms. Salpeter as closely as he could without stepping on her shoes. He’d passed her physical examination and answered all of Sarge, or rather Agent Sarge’s nosy questions about his past, and he’d instructed Ms. Salpeter to show Frank around. Which she was doing, but not very well.

“So this is the compound,” she said, eyes bright when they glanced back at Frank. He just stared up at her, waiting for her to continue. “I mean, technically it’s called the Institute.” She laughed at that, and Frank felt warm inside, a grin of his own tugging at his mouth. “Nobody calls it that except some of the teachers and the official government agents. The problem with our kind, you see, is that we’re not exactly drafted into this line of work by choice. So we aren’t privy to the same kinds of information that actual spies are, but we also aren’t as strict as they are when it comes to formalities.”

Frank stole a look around them before turning his attention back to Ms. Salpeter. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” she said, “Not everyone who comes out of here becomes a spy. There’s no pressure or anything more than there would be on students in public school, except that at the compound, we have a few classes built around teaching our students about not killing other people with their superpowers.”

“Are you giving me a tour?” Frank asked. “I’m confused.”

“No,” she said. “I’m just rambling.”

“Oh.” Frank blinked, and tried a tentative smile up at her. “Cool.”

“I don’t know if anyone can give you a real tour of this place,” she said. “I don’t have time right now, for example, and a lot of other teachers are in the same position. But I think I know someone who can help you out. You need to go to the office and pick up your class schedule, and find where your assigned room is.”

“Do I have to go to school?” Frank asked. It wasn’t that he didn’t like learning, it was just that...well. He sucked at it.

“Yes.” Ms. Salpeter shrugged. “It’s not as bad as all that. If you keep your science grades up, you can take biology with me when you’re in your upper levels.”

That sounded awful, but Frank tried to smile anyway. He liked Ms. Salpeter already, and she seemed pretty excited about teaching biowhatever.

“Okay,” she said, stopping in front of a white door with a red cross on it. “This is the where I work, in the medical wing.”

She pushed open the door and led Frank inside.

It looked completely different from the concrete hallways they’d been in before. Where those had looked like a government institution that was underground, this hallway looked like a hospital. The floor, walls, and lighting were all different. “Woah,” Frank said.

“Cool, right?” Ms. Salpeter was beaming. “Come on, I want you to meet my favourite student. You’ve probably met him already and I’m probably not supposed to pick favourites, but, well, here we are.”

He followed her into a small room, and saw the bushy head of hair before he heard Ray’s cry.

“Raymond Toro,” Ms. Salpeter chided, “What have I told you?”

Ray’s eyes were wide in his head as he slid the rolling chair he was perched on back against the wall. “Everyone’s a potential patient,” he said. “But he knocked me out before--”

“It’s his power,” she said, going over to the desk that was in the middle of the room. “You know what I’ve told you about Gerard, right?”

“Not to touch him,” Ray said. “But that’s different --”

“It is,” she agreed, thumbing through some papers before handing them to Ray. “It’s the exact opposite. But in the same vein, so it’s kind of the same. Instead of being a vacuum, Frank’s kind of like...a leaf blower. You should be able to touch him, you just have to know what to expect.”

Ray eyed Frank, the papers in his hands, and then looked back at Ms. Salpeter. “I felt nauseated when I approached him though.”

Ms. Salpeter nodded. “I expect that with this knowledge in hand, your body won’t react instinctively to whatever Frank emits. You should be okay.”

Ray hesitated, hands gripping the papers. He nodded after a second, and cleared his throat. “Okay. What...why do I have these?”

“You recognize them?”

Ray nodded.

Ms. Salpeter beamed. “Wonderful. Those are Frank’s. I need you to show him around the compound. You know I have cases to go through, and no time in which to do them, so I’d really appreciate it. His information’s all in those papers, classes, rooming assignments, all that. I’ll give you an extra hour of tutoring, how’s that?”

Frank watched as Ray’s eyes widened a fraction, but then he was nodding. “I’d do it anyway,” he said, shoulders curving inward for a second. If it wasn’t in Frank’s imagination, Ray was blushing a bit.

“I know,” she said, smiling. “But you deserve it.”

Ray rubbed a hand over the nape of his neck, and turned to Frank as quickly as he could without overbalancing himself. “Frank,” he said, extending a hand.

Frank glanced at Ray’s hand. “Uh,” he said.

“It’s okay,” Ray said. “I’ll be okay.”

Frank peeked past Ray to Ms. Salpeter, who was watching them. She nodded at Frank, and Frank swallowed. He stretched his arm out, expecting a shock or something when his hand met Ray’s, but the older boy just smiled. “I see,” he said, to Ms. Salpeter. “I see what you meant.”

She’d turned her attention towards the folders in front of her, but Frank could see a hint of smile at the corner of her mouth. “I thought you would.”

“Let’s go,” Ray said, leading Frank out of the office.

Frank waved at Ms. Salpeter, shifting forward on the balls of his feet before he turned around and followed behind Ray.

“Okay,” Ray said. Frank was fascinated by the way his hair bounced with every step, and almost forgot to listen. “So, you already know that we’re underground, right?”

“Yeah,” Frank said. “Like the dead.”

“Kind of?” Ray said, frowning over his shoulder.

“Or! Or like in a horror movie,” Frank said, waving his hands around. “This is where people go to get killed. It’s perfect for a secret government thing.”

Ray laughed. “Okay, yes. It’s like that. But not really? I mean, the Initiative isn’t a secret, everybody knows about it. But some of the adults say that it seems like it probably was a secret, before those scientists discovered superpowers. Since then, the cat’s kind of been out of the bag. But, yes! Underground. You like horror movies?”

Frank nodded. “Yeah, dude. I haven’t watched a movie in a long time, but, yeah.”

“Didn’t you have a TV?” Ray asked. “I mean, at...Rogue Agent Walker’s place?”

“Butch had one,” Frank said, “but we used it for news. He had a special channel, I think it wasn’t on actual cable. And it was, like, it told us where our missions were going to be. Stuff that was happening, whatever. When he wanted us to steal something, it would be something that someone had said was important. I don’t know how to explain it,” he said, shrugging. “I just know it was boring.”

“Huh,” Ray said. He paused in front of a black door and pushed it open. “Okay, this is a door to the stairwells. There are a few: enough so that we can all make it out of here if we have to, but not so many that we can’t watch them all. There are some secret emergency ones, and those doors are red in here. Nobody knows where they lead because we’re not allowed to use them. They aren’t on blueprints just in case people ever wanted to infiltrate the compound. And they aren’t actually visible most of the time. You have to know where they are, and you have to press the touchpad and be in the system...anyway, it’s complicated, but black doors mean stairs.”

“Got it,” Frank said. “Mostly.”

“Good,” Ray said, starting to walk down the stairs, motioning for Frank to follow. “There are six floors that we know about. The first one is the medical floor, and that’s the one we’re on. It’s closest to the surface in case our people are wounded and need to get down here fast. It’s also the quarantine floor, and that’s the wing you were in before. Floor two is what we call the Warehouse. It’s full of these big rooms that we use for training. It also has the running track and the pool. Both of those have changing and locker and shower rooms, and you have to wear clothes there and back. Floor three is the grownups level, where they live when they’re not away on missions. The teachers and staff all live there, pretty much full time. Anybody who’s employed by the government or who has ever attended an Institute can stay in an Institute on whatever level they house adults in. Floor four is where we’re going, uh. Five is all administration and offices, and six is the Detention level. They’re kind of like dungeons.”

“Cool,” Frank said, eyes wide at all the information. “What’s four, then?”

“School,” Ray said. “There’s a full boarding school, with dorms and showers and cafeteria and offices and classes and it’s where we live.”

He stopped in front of a door and grinned over his shoulder. “Welcome home, I guess.”

The hallway they stepped into was unnaturally quiet for a school. It looked a lot nicer, too, with carpet beneath their feet and walls that weren’t a frightening shade of white. Frank would have just stood and stared, but Ray reached out and put a hand on his back, guiding him down the hall. “So I gotta go to school here?”

“Yeah,” Ray said. “Tomorrow, you’ll take a placement test so they can put you in the right classes for whatever you already know. Fridays is always Control class. Everyone goes to them. Even the grownups. Thursdays are fight training, and the other days are all normal school ones. You might not like all of your classes, but most of the teachers are really good.”

Frank nodded. He had no idea how he was supposed to remember all of this information, but he was sure he’d manage. Probably.

“You’re probably wondering where you get to sleep,” Ray said, glancing down at his sheet.

Not really, Frank wanted to say, but he just nodded. “Sure.”

“Well, everyone else is in the cafeteria right now, but this room is yours.” He gestured to a door they’d stopped in front of, number 2014. “Two thousands are boys’ rooms, one thousands are girls’ rooms, and three thousands are everyone and everything else.”

“Things?” Frank asked.

“Anyone who doesn’t fit into the socially accepted gender spectrum, or the socially accepted humanity spectrum. You know, lizard people. Aliens. Rocks.” Ray shrugged. “This place is pretty diverse, as far as the three thousands go. I hear the Institutes in the midwest are less so.”

“Cool,” Frank said.

“So, this one’s yours,” Ray said, and handed Frank the package of papers. “Your room key’s in there, and your class schedule. It’s the black paper. It isn’t really paper, and right now it should just have the room of your placement test. It’ll update itself when your schedule clears with the higher-ups. So, come on,” Ray said. “Cafeteria. Everyone’ll be done eating, but they should still have some food. They shut down at nine.”

He walked off, and Frank watched him for a moment before jogging after him.

“So breakfast’s at seven, lunch is at noon, dinner’s at five. Light’s out is ten...” Ray squinted off into the distance as he led Frank towards the cafeteria, “And I think that’s all you need to know. You can ask me if you have any questions, okay?”

Ray smiled at Frank, and helped him get a tray of food. Once Frank was safely sitting at a table, Ray patted him on the back. “I’m gonna go now. I have this killer assignment to finish for English that’s due tomorrow. See you around, Frankie.”

“Oh, uh,” Frank said. “Yeah, okay. Around.”

Ray waved and walked off, and Frank ate the food in front of him. He was starving, and just yesterday, just that morning, he’d been out on the streets with no future, no shelter, and nothing warm. And now he had a room. A room!

He slipped into it just as a bell rang somewhere, signaling that “light’s out” that Ray had been talking about. It was huge, the room. It had a desk with a chair. A chair that was his. It had a dresser! It had a bed, a fucking bed. Not a patch of floor, and not one that he’d have to share with three other boys. A bed that was his.

He lay down in it, luxuriating in the feel of the clean sheets.

Clean sheets, fuck.

This compound, Institute, whatever, was the best thing that had ever happened to Frank.

Chapter Text

September 31, 2011

Frank managed to stay in his room for a good two hours, but there was literally nothing in there for him to do. He couldn’t sleep, his dresser and the tiny closet (a closet that was his, he was never going to get used to this) were empty, and there weren’t even any books. Two o’clock was not really an ideal wake up time, but Frank figured if everyone else was asleep, he could probably walk around and not be too disturbed.

He wandered into the place Ray had gestured to and named “common room”, the one with the ping pong table and various other game-type items, and found a tall boy wearing plaid sitting on the couch. The TV was on, but the boy swiveled around when Frank walked in the room, eyes bright.

“Who’re you?” he demanded.

“Uh,” Frank said, shrinking back against the frame of the door.

“That’s a sucky name,” the boy informed him, slouching back on the couch. “Can’t sleep, Uh?”

“Oh,” Frank said, blushing. “No. Um. My name isn’t Uh...it’s Frank.”

“Alex,” the boy said. “Well, Frank, if you can’t sleep, then you gotta watch this thing, dude. They play the best shit on Discover Channel at night, I swear. Sometimes it’s this show about these guys who own a gun shop.” He glanced at Frank when Frank sat down on the couch, and then turned to face him. “And sometimes I watch Animal Planet. The shows about puppies are on at, like, ten. But at night they play a show about being alive in ridiculous circumstances, or, like, monsters.” He narrowed his eyes at Frank, and tilted his chin up, like he was challenging him. “Sometimes I watch the Food Network. It makes me hungry, but I like cooking.”

Frank shrugged. “Okay.”

Alex pursed his lips. “Which one d’you want?”

Frank shrugged again. “Whatever,” he said. “Is there any work at night? Stuff we can do or whatever?” At Butch’s, when he hadn’t been able to sleep because of his power, he’d been set to cleaning dishes, or keeping watch with one of the older boys.

“If you’re talking about food,” Alex said, hesitating a moment before pressing the buttons on the remote. A chef popped into view, in a dingy diner. “They don’t serve food after nine here.”

“Oh.” Frank picked at the hem of his shirt, eyes darting over to Alex’s. Alex’s shirt was so nice. Everyone he’d seen so far in this place had nice clothes.

“But,” Alex said, eyes sliding to meet Frank’s, “Gabe can totally hook you up. The kitchen ladies love him.” He rolled his eyes. “It’s like, chips or a peanut butter sandwich, but when you can’t sleep you get hungry, y’know?”

Frank nodded.

“And they open up food at six. It’s technically for teachers, but theyll let you in if you get up, ‘cause nobody does. You’re supposed to still go at seven too though. I usually drop by late, because Gabe never gets up early. It’s so lame, he sleeps until the last second, and me and Ryland have to go get him, like, every day. But if we don’t, then he gets grumpy if he misses a meal or whatever, ‘cause he’s a baby. And when Gabe gets grumpy, Vicky gets grumpy, and then she punches all of us. So we get him up.”

“Makes sense,” Frank said. He hadn’t understood most of what the Alex kid had said, didn’t have the faces to match to all the names.

They watched until the end of the show, and then Alex turned to face Frank on the couch. “Okay,” he said. “So what’s your deal? You’re new here, right?”

Frank nodded.

“Good,” Alex said. “Because I was pretty sure I’d never seen you, and I kind of have a thing for faces.”

“Is that the thing that keeps you up?” Frank asked.

“You tryin’ to find out my power?” Alex asked.

Frank felt his eyes widen and he shook his head. “No, I was just...”

“It’s okay, I’m messing with you,” Alex said. “Nope, I just got your Grade A insomnia, most nights. Sometimes it’s my power though. Pyros got a lot of energy lyin’ around. Fire doesn’t really sleep. I’m really good with it. Fire, you know, so I figure chef isn’t maybe that far off, career-wise, right?”

“You can make fire?” Frank asked. If his eyes hadn’t been wide before, they definitely were now. He pushed himself up, toes curling around the edge of the cushion. “That’s so cool.”

“I totally can,” Alex said. He held out his palm, face up, and squinted at it. After a second, a tiny ball of fire burst into life, suspended above his hand. Frank moved his head down so he could see the space between the fire and Alex’s skin.

Woah,” he breathed.

The fire flickered, and went out. “It’s pretty sweet,” Alex agreed. “I’m getting pretty good at it, too. I’m thirteen,” he said, proudly.

“I’m eleven,” Frank said. “But I’ll be twelve in, like, a month.”

“When’s your birthday?” Alex asked, turning back to the TV.

“October 31,” Frank said.

Alex’s back stiffened. “Halloween? Dude, no way. That’s the coolest!” He grinned, his teeth white in the dark room. “You’re pretty awesome, Frank.”

Frank blushed, but Alex had already turned back to the screen. They had only known each other for ten minutes and it looked like he’d already made a friend. “You really like cooking, huh?”

Without moving his face from the screen, where someone was tossing something green in a pan, Alex nodded and slid down in his seat. “It’s bitchin’ to be in the kitchen,” he muttered, crowing when the man flipped a bottle of olive oil before pouring some into the pan.

Weird. Frank couldn’t help the ghost of a grin that pulled at his face as he made himself more comfortable, and settled down for an hour and a half of the best TV he’d seen in years.

* * * *

Frank wasn’t sure what time he should show up to breakfast. He’d gotten there early with Alex, and they had eaten among the teachers in what felt like a comfortable sort of silence. After that, Alex had disappeared, and Frank didn’t know what to do. He ended up walking into the cafeteria at 7:15, because Sarge had said seven sharp, and Alex had said to come in late.

He decided to get a snack, because it had been a whole hour since he’d last eaten, and the oatmeal here was so good. He had to stand in line again, but the woman at the oatmeal pot beamed at him and gave him a wink. He’d probably blushed at that, but whatever.

Alex definitely wasn’t anywhere to be seen, and Frank dithered for a moment before slipping down the sides of the cafeteria, a gigantic dining hall. He was just looking for an empty space, really, when a hand reached out and stopped his passage.

“Where d’you think you’re going, shrimp?” A tall boy asked. His hair was brown, and hanging in greasy strands down the back of his neck. The kids at his table snickered into their bowls.

“U-uh,” Frank stammered, stepping back. “J-just to find a seat.”

“You’re new,” someone said behind Frank, and he turned to see a second boy with a mullet. Seriously, who had one of those? “Bruise, he’s new.”

“His jeans aren’t,” Bruise snorted. “And his hair is lame.”

“Yeah,” Mullet snickered. Really, he had no right. Frank’s eyebrow twitched.

My hair?” Frank asked. He cast a derisive look over his shoulder at Mullet. “His is from the seventies.”

“What did you say?” Mullet snapped, but Bruise held up a hand.

“Now, now,” he said. “I think little hand-me-down here is just learning the ropes of this place. Isn’t that right, Hand-Me-Down?”

Frank shrugged. “I’m just saying. I mean, have you seen any magazines, an ad, anything in the past thirty years? Have you seen other humans, because none of them have mullets either.”

He was cut off, mid-mull, by Bruise’s meaty hands on his tattered shirt. The boy was big enough that, with a firm grip, he was able to pick Frank bodily off the floor and slam him into the concrete wall behind him. It didn’t seem to cost him any real effort: maybe he had super strength? Frank gasped when his head hit the wall and clutched his bowl of oatmeal tighter, trying not to spill.

“I don’t like your tone. You think you’re a real punk, don’t you?” Bruise growled. The cafeteria behind them was silent. “Messing with me and my friends?”

“In my defense,” Frank said, “He is ugly as fuck.”

Bruise smirked. He let Frank drop to the ground, and snatched his bowl of oatmeal. “Consider this a warning,” he said, and upended the bowl over Frank’s head. He leaned closer to hand Frank the bowl, mouth close to his ear. “Next time it won’t be oatmeal,” he snarled, and marched off.

Mullet let out a loud, braying laugh, and followed Bruise and the other two boys at the table.

Frank watched as a clump of oatmeal dripped from his index finger to the floor. He wiped it from his eyes, and took a deep breath. Control. “It doesn’t look any better from the back!” he yelled.

Okay, fuck control.

Mullet turned around and launched himself at Frank, who had his fists up before the boy left the ground. His punch to Mullet’s face didn’t prevent Mullet or the other sharp-toothed boy from landing blows on his face, as well, or from kicking his side. He fought back as well as he could, hitting out blindly until someone grabbed his arm and twisted it behind him. Someone smacked his ears and, head ringing, Frank barely noticed that his arm was free and strong arms were wrapped around his torso, pulling him away from the scuffle.

“What the hell is this?!” the beefy teacher holding Frank up spat, voice a deep growl within his chest.

Frank blinked rapidly, trying to clear his eyes, but his ears were ringing and his head was spinning so bad that he couldn’t really see much of anything until he was being deposited in a chair in what looked like it could be any principal's office from the movies. The world stopped spinning when another teacher shoved Mullet and the kid with the shark teeth into chairs across the room from Frank. When Frank blinked and looked to his side, he saw Mikey in the chair next to him, glasses perched on the end of his bleeding nose.

Frank blinked again. “Mikey?” he asked. “Where did you come from?” He hadn’t seen him during the fight, but then again, he’d barely been able to see past his own nose.

Mikey glanced at him and swiped a hand across his face, which just smeared blood all over his cheeks. “You looked like you needed help,” he said, shrugging. “There were like three big guys on you, so I pulled one of them off. And you were right: dude needs a haircut.”

Frank snickered despite his aching face. “Right?”

“Call the fashion police,” Mikey drawled. “Seriously. Even they didn’t want him.”

This was definitely not an appropriate place to be laughing as hard as he was, so he stifled his giggles as best as he could. He could see the ghost of a smile tugging at Mikey’s mouth. Once Frank wasn’t shaking with laughter, he leaned back in his chair and prodded at his nose. “So.”

“You’re not going to push me again like at Butch’s place,” Mikey said suddenly, eyes on Frank. “Are you?”

“Uh,” Frank said. “No. That was...sorry. I panicked, a little. And you were being an invisible asshole.”

Mikey sniffed, wiped blood across his other cheek, and nodded. “We should be friends, then,” he said, like it was a decision you just made. He twisted his lips to the side, and added, “Best friends.”

“Can...is that a thing you can just declare?” Frank asked.

Mikey raised his eyebrows, the picture of innocence. “I just did.”

The big door with the gold plaque on it opened up. A stern man looked out, and beckoned for Mikey and Frank to enter. Mikey’s sharp elbow collided with Frank’s ribs, and he bit back the hiss when Mikey leaned over and whispered, “Follow my lead.”

Frank stood up and followed Mikey into the office. As soon as he shut the door, he heard a sniff. He turned around to see Mikey’s eyes wide, tears trickling down his bloodstained cheek.

“Sit down, boys,” the man said. His desk read Benjamin Thomas. They complied, and for a moment, he just stared at them. He nodded finally, dark eyes sharp. “What happened?”

“Wuh-well,” Mikey sniffed, wiping his eye with one hand, “I w-was getting a-a bowl of cereal.” He gulped in some air, shoulders shaking, and blinked hugely at Mr. Thomas. “And I s-saw Frank over b-by the wall, and some boys were p-pushing him around, and, and, and...and t-then they started beating him up! I tried to get them to stop, but they ju-j-ju-j-...”

Thomas held up a hand. “Use the damn Kleenexes,” he muttered, shoving a box towards Mikey who dove on it, pulling out a wad of tissues and burying his face in them as he choked out another sob.

Mr. Thomas turned to Frank next. “What’s,” he said, gesturing to Frank’s person, “with all of that?”

Frank looked down at his t-shirt. “They dumped oatmeal on me,” he said, voice soft.

“And they did that,” Mr. Thomas gestured again, nose wrinkling, “to your face?”

Frank nodded. He tried to make his eyes wide like Mikey’s. “Is my nose still there?” he asked, wobbling his voice at the end. “It feels like somebody ripped it off.”

The man rolled his eyes. “I’ve heard enough,” he said, and shooed them out.

Mullet and the other boy smirked at Frank and Mikey when they came out, their faces suspiciously clean. Frank narrowed his eyes at them and followed Mikey, who was still sobbing into the tissues. The second they left the office, Mikey stopped crying, wiped his face, and dumped the tissues into a trash can.

“Come on,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets.

“Where to?” Frank asked. “We have class at eight. Don’t we?”

Mikey shrugged. “Ray probably got food for us. We don’t usually eat in the cafeteria, because of...well, you were clearly there, you saw the kind of people who eat there. They leave Ray alone because he’s a healer, and he’s nice.”

“Oh,” Frank said. He had to jog to keep up with Mikey’s long strides as they walked through the interminable mazes until they finally found the right door. Mikey didn’t knock: he just walked in, tugging Frank behind him.

“Good job with the faces,” Mikey said, to Ray, the second they were in the room. “You’re getting faster.”

“I wish you didn’t pick fights so damn often. Healing those douches takes up all my fucking energy,” Ray muttered. He was in the middle of the room, pale beneath his tan. Gerard was sitting on the floor next to him, eating oatmeal and looking like he was falling asleep. Some of his stringy, greasy hair was actually hanging in the bowl. Gross.

“Can you still do me?” Mikey asked, crossing his legs and falling on the floor in a motion that was more awkward than it needed to be. “Oh, you got coffee.”

“I can’t, I’m spent as fuck,” Ray said, shoving a cup across the floor to Mikey.

Mikey took a giant gulp of coffee. “Can you borrow some from Frank? I think he’s got an excess, he probably won’t even notice.”

Frank tried to sit down as quietly as possible. “Borrow what?”

Ray blinked, eyes slow to move from Mikey’s face to Frank’s. “Hey, Frank. I got you a new bowl of oatmeal, since those jocks decided you should wear that last one...”

Gerard looked up from his bowl then, eyes squinting. “Frank? When’d he get here?” His head snapped over to the side. “What the fuck happened to your face, Mikey?”

“Borrow what?” Frank asked, ignoring Gerard. He looked like he’d just woken up; his hair was sticking up in all directions, including in front of his eyes, where it was liberally coated with oatmeal.

“Energy,” Mikey said, also ignoring Gerard and the mess of red across his face. “Ray uses it to heal. He can’t take energy from the person he’s healing, but maybe he could take some of mine and use it on you, and vice-a-versa.”

“I have lots of energy,” Frank said. “Is that why you got dizzy that first time?”

“You just,” Ray said, mouth open. “You just have lots of it? Like. Just lying around?”

Frank stuck out a hand. “Yeah. Butch said that I make it.”

“Butch, like, Butch Walker, like Rogue Agent Butch Walker, formerly a Senior Agent and formerly a regular Secret Agent?” Gerard asked, eyes darting from Mikey to Frank.

“Sure,” Frank said, taken aback by Gerard’s sudden lucidity.

“Uh,” Ray said, glancing at Gerard who quickly looked down at his bowl of oatmeal and shoved a spoonful into his mouth. “Okay. Let’s try that. Mikey, can I...”

Mikey held out a hand without looking. He was downing the contents of the cup of coffee. “Gonna drink yours, Frank?” he asked, setting his cup down before Ray grabbed his hand. Mikey blinked once and swayed, face paling noticeably before Ray dropped it.

“Sorry,” Ray muttered.

Mikey closed his eyes and curled up on the floor.

Ray stepped over him, and sat in front of Frank, careful not to disturb the food on the floor. “This is going to hurt like fuck,” he said, hands out. There was a bit of colour in his cheeks, and Frank concentrated on his eyes that dimmed the second he placed his hands on Frank’s face. There was a spark like he’d been shocked, and then suddenly it felt like someone was punching the shit out of his face. Again. And then it put it together. Backwards. He had to blink away tears and only barely managed to avoid crying out when the pain was over shortly after it had begun.

“Fuck,” Ray swore, and sat down hard.

Frank groaned, clutching his face. “What did you do to me?”

“I healed your fucking face,” Ray gasped. “Can...can I...”

Frank squinted open an eye. Ray’s hand was shaking in the air between them. The tips of his fingers were white. “What do I have to do?” he asked, wary about holding Ray’s hand after what had happened to Mikey.

“Just let go,” Ray said, through gritted teeth. “Fuck, your nose was broken, that’s why it took so much.”

“Explains why you have blood all over your shirt,” Gerard muttered.

Frank glanced down at his shirt, but snapped his head back up when Ray cleared his throat. “Frank?”

Frank nodded. He wrapped his hand around Ray’s. There was nothing for a second, and then suddenly his stomach twisted like it was being put through a blender. The pressure in his head actually lifted after a second, and he felt nauseated but good, really fucking good. Like he’d run a mile but without any of the pain in his feet or legs. Frank blinked and looked up at Ray, whose face was a picture of bliss.

Frank didn’t have a headache anymore, couldn’t feel pressure building behind his eyes. After a second, his fingers tingled at the tips, like he was losing feeling in them but Ray wasn’t letting go. Frank frowned. “Dude,” he said, and tugged his hand away.

Ray stumbled forward, eyes suddenly wide. “Woah,” he breathed, hands flying up to frame his face. “You really do have a lot of energy lying around.”

“You gonna need some more after you do Mikey?” Frank asked. He shook his hand out, trying to rid it of the pins and needles.

Gerard snickered from behind his cup of coffee.

“Yeah,” Ray said. “If you would...yes. That would be awesome.”

Frank shrugged. “Cool.” Mikey looked really pale, so he left the extra cup of coffee on the ground for when he was ready to sit up. It must be some kind of healer trick, pulling energy out of people. Frank wondered, as he watched Ray use his power to stitch Mikey back together, whether he could put any of that energy back into a person, or if his sole gift was reconstruction. He definitely didn’t have the power of cleaning, because Mikey had to wipe his face of the blood that had been on it when Ray stepped back. Frank would have done the same, but his shirt was dirtier than his face.

Mikey’s hand was shaking when he reached for his coffee, but he managed on his own, hugging the warm cup to his chest. Frank almost wished he hadn’t had to borrow any of Mikey’s energy for his own face. “Hey,” Frank said, as the thought occurred to him. “Why didn’t you take anything from Gerard?”

Gerard winced behind his cup. Ray glanced over at him, and rubbed his hands together. “Taking energy is kind of Gerard’s gift, too,” he said softly. “He doesn’t have any to give.”

Frank grimaced, and gulped down some oatmeal before wiping his face on the napkin Ray had provided. “That sucks,” he muttered. He glanced down at his hand. He could feel all of his fingers now, so he held it out to Gerard. “Do you need some too?”

Gerard blinked, eyes focusing on Frank’s pale skin before traveling up to meet his eyes. There was something behind them that Frank couldn’t place, so he just gestured with his hand again. “No, I,” Gerard said, and huffed out a breath. “Thank you. But I’m good. Coffee, see? You shouldn’t just...” He sighed, and adjusted his hands around the cup. “Don’t just offer it like that. Someone might take advantage of your...generosity.”

Frank shrugged. “Okay,” he said. Gerard seemed to know an awful lot about life, so he let his hand drop down before he remembered. “Oh!” He tried smiling in Ray’s direction, but the action stretched his face in a way he wasn’t used to, so he just reached across the space between them. “You still need some?”

Ray looked guiltily at Gerard for a second before Frank sighed. “You won’t take too much, dude. And even if you do, I’ll just make it again in a few minutes,” he said. These guys had an awful lot of morals, it seemed. More than most people Frank had been hanging around for the past few years. “Consider it a thank you. For the nose thing.”

Ray finally agreed to it, and then Gerard was scrambling to his feet, eyes wide with panic. Frank noticed that he was still wearing his pyjamas as he raced out the door, evidently in a hurry. Mikey groaned and tried to push himself to his feet before Frank stood and helped him up.

“Thanks,” Mikey muttered, waving half-heartedly at Ray.

Frank walked out of the room with him after Ray insisted that the least he could do was to clean up Frank’s dishes. Apparently it was almost eight, and none of them were in the least bit ready.

“You okay?” Frank asked, voice low, as he followed Mikey. He had no idea where he was supposed to go, and the only thing he could think of to do for his clothes was to wash them in the nearest bathroom and hand-dry them with the paper towels.

“Fine,” Mikey said. “It’s just like it always was, growing up. Gee used to take too much before he even knew what he was doing. I’ve had two cups of coffee, I should be good until lunch.” They paused outside of his room. Mikey fumbled at the lock and looked over his shoulder at Frank once he had it open. “You going to change?” he asked.

Frank looked down at his shirt, which had sticky, half-dry oatmeal stuck to it, and sticky, not-dry blood darkening the black to an even darker, sickly black. And then he looked up at Mikey, whose shirt didn’t look like it had been washed in at least a week. It still looked better than Frank’s. “Um,” he said.

“Best friends, remember? You have to tell me everything, it’s a rule.” Mikey prompted.

Frank sighed. “I can’t,” he mumbled, face probably a bright red. “I don’t have...this is it.”

He couldn’t meet Mikey’s eyes, and was surprised when a hand shot out and tugged him bodily into the bedroom.

“You don’t have any clothes?” Mikey was asking then. He shoved his glasses back up to his face, and held up a finger. “You’re borrowing some of mine, then. You’re tiny, they should fit. And then we’re going shopping. After class.”

Frank gaped. “We don’t have to,” he said, but Mikey was already rifling through what looked like chaotically unorganized piles of colour on the floor. He held one up to his face, and tossed it at Frank, who caught it.

“Come on,” Mikey said, switching his own shirt for a Misfits shirt. Frank had good taste in people. “We’re going to be late.” He snatched a pair of pants from another pile and threw them at Frank. “You’re going to have to roll these up, but they’re definitely better than what you’re wearing right now.”

He glared when Frank stood there, gaping at the shirt and pants in his hands. “Change!” Mikey exclaimed, voice flat. Frank finally did, taking off his plain black shirt and exchanging it for one with a prism of some kind on the front. It smelled kind of strange, but it didn’t have oatmeal on the front or holes around the hem so it was definitely an improvement. He did have to roll the pants up, and they almost didn’t fit, because Mikey was some kind of mutant stick person who didn’t have any meat on his bones. But they didn’t have holes in the knees and they actually stayed on.

“Awesome,” Mikey said, when Frank was finally wearing his stuff. “Now we’re like brothers. Gee used to take my stuff all the time, until he stopped being able to fit into it.”

“We don’t have to go shopping,” Frank protested when Mikey grabbed his hand and tugged him out of the room, down a hallway. “Really, it’s fine, I’ll just wash my shit.”

“You don’t understand,” Mikey said. “You need clothes. And I, uh,” he paused, eyes darting to Frank’s, “kind of love shopping. Don’t tell anyone. Besides, best friends. Best friends always go shopping together. It’s in all the books.”

“Right,” Frank said. He didn’t ask what kinds of books Mikey was reading, because Mikey wouldn’t say another word once they were within earshot of other human beings. He just pointed Frank in the direction of his first class and walked away, hands shoved deep into his pockets.

Frank didn’t know what to do once he was inside the class. He had the sheet of paper that Ray had given him and nothing else, so he shoved the paper in his pocket after checking it five times to see if he was in the right place. The classroom Mikey had shown him to was empty, but it was definitely E122.

“Some orientation,” Frank muttered. He tapped his finger on one of the desks. Was he really supposed to stay in this room until lunch?

The hallways grew silent as the other kids settled into their classes. Frank could feel the kids in E124 rolling their eyes and shuffling papers even though the door to their classroom was closed. The sounds of feet smacking against the linoleum of the hallways made Frank turn his head to the side. Someone was late for class?

“Oh my god,” someone said, and then a man was bursting through the door to Frank’s classroom. His eyes were wide, and his clothes were rumpled and askew. “I’m so late.”

Frank blinked. The man didn’t look like a student. He ran a hand through his hair and set down a folder of paper that looked like it had been assembled as haphazardly as the man’s t-shirt-and-suit combo. “Uh,” Frank said.

“I even saw that I was going to be late, and I still had the damn coffee,” the man mumbled. “And then Butcher said, he said that if I’d seen I was going to be late, it wouldn’t matter if...but then he said I could prevent it, always on about changing my destiny. Hi!”

The man stuck his hand out, grinning as suddenly as he had appeared. Frank inspected the hand suspiciously, but reached out and shook it.

“You must be Francis. Franklin.” The man blinked. “Frank.”

“Frank,” Frank said. “Not...not any of those.” Not anymore. “Just Frank.”

“Just Frank,” the man said. “I’m Sisk...a. Siska. Adam. T. Adam Siska. Mr. Siska. Uh.” He frowned, clearly cycling through several thoughts before he nodded. “Fuck it. Just call me Sisky. I teach business, or I will in six hours, give or take a day or two. Four hours?” He looked Frank from head to toe. “Yikes. Maybe eight. It keeps changing.”

“Uh,” Frank said. He was not going to call a teacher by a nickname. “What does? Sir?”

The man shook his head and smacked his fist on the table. “Sisky. Don’t call me sir, it gives me the heebie-jeebies. You’re all fuzzy, did you know that? The future.”

There was no way Frank was going to be able to parse this man’s information. “Are you okay? Uh...Sisky?”

“I am,” Sisky said. “Yes. Are you? You’ve had a bit of a rough week, but I can’t quite get a read.”

“I’m going to stop you right there,” Frank said. “Because this is supposed to be an orientation and now I’m even more confused than I was before I walked in here.”

“The future,” Sisky said.

Frank stared.

“Right, it’s.” Sisky sighed. “Before. You asked what kept changing. And I answered you, but I didn’t quite do it right, I always will and have messed it up. The order, you know, I always get my tenses mixed. The future. It keeps changing. It’s quite confusing, so I guess I’ve really communicated that concept to you in an effective manner. I’ll have to remember that. I won’t, though, just taking a quick gander.”

“A gander...at the future,” Frank said. What the actual fuck was a gander? Wasn’t that a kind of duck?

Sisky nodded. “Yes!”

“Why didn’t you just lead with that?” Frank asked. “I’d be a lot less confused now if you had. That’s a cool power.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Sisky said. He leaned back on the desk and his face lit up. “Right! Orientation. If I keep dallying like this, we aren’t going to be done before tomorrow!” He laughed, and when Frank didn’t join along, he stopped. “That was a joke.”

“Oh.”

“You should sit down,” Sisky said. He looked very serious all of a sudden. “Orientation is really a misnomer. I’m here to give you a bunch of placement tests so we can see what classes you should be in. I won’t give you any spoilers, you’ll just have to take all of these and we’ll see what we can do.”

Frank swallowed down a groan but slid into the first desk anyway. He hated tests. He hadn’t had to take too many, but Butch had been strict about keeping up their education through a series of mostly outdated workbooks.

“It won’t take that long,” Sisky said, once he’d place the first of what looked like many papers in front of Frank.

Frank toyed with the pencil he’d been given and sighed. “You said eight hours before.”

“Well,” Sisky said. “It won’t take that much longer than eight hours, then. Don’t look so down. Come on, I was including your lunch break in there!”

“Fine,” Frank said. He had no idea how he was going to find Mikey and even less of a clue how he was going to survive the cafeteria.

“Unless.” Sisky squinted. “Well, if you didn’t take any breaks, I think six hours might be possible. I’ll bring you lunch, obviously. And fun time snacks!”

“Great,” Frank muttered, but he hunched over the first test, borrowed pencil in hand.

It looked like math. He was shit at math.

This was going to be a long fucking day.

* * * *

The pile of papers, which had seemed like a mountain of Herculean proportions at the start, slowly dwindled as the hours passed. Every now and then, Sisky would shuffle over, hands in the pockets of his jeans. Every so often, he’d remove one of the tests and replace it with another.

“Trust me,” he said the first time, after Frank had already gotten through half of it. “You’re not going to want to finish that. It’s the wrong one anyway.”

The next time, Frank wrote down his name and filled out the first question before Sisky pulled it out from under him. “Good enough,” he said. “Try this one instead.”

Frank just rolled back his shoulders and went with it. If he didn’t have to redo every single test, he’d be happy. When lunch rolled around, Frank ate the food Sisky slid in front of him at his desk. He got stains all over the multiple choice questions, but Sisky just nodded and smiled at the results.

He had to take a few breaks; every time he thought he might scream and throw his desk across the room, Sisky was there with a granola bar or a bowl of popcorn. “I’d suggest a walk,” he said sometime after lunch, “but if you take one of those, you’re going to be here until six, and I think you’re going to want to be done by two thirty.”

Frank agreed; he wanted to be done right then, but that wasn’t possible.

Finally, after what felt like a million pages, he finished the last test. Sisky took it from him and scanned it over. “Okay,” he said.

“Done?” Frank asked.

“Done,” Sisky confirmed. “I’ll get your results to the office and have them print off a schedule for you. Should be done by tonight. Looks good though. You’re what, twelve?”

“Almost.” Frank shrugged.

“Well, you’re pretty on track,” Sisky said. “For your age. Not that it really means anything in regards to your IQ, but it’s nice when they match up. I might bump you up to English 8 or 9, and a few others, but Math and History you’re going to need some catching up on. That’s okay though, doesn’t mean you’ll be in school for any longer than you’d need to if all of us were normal.” He paused, getting lost in the paper.

Frank waited, tapping the tip of the pencil on the empty desk. He stretched his arms until his back cracked and then stood up. “Can I go?”

“Oh!” Sisky snapped his head up. “I thought you had already, I saw you walk out the door, but I guess that hasn’t happened yet. Yes, sorry. I’ll probably see you on Fridays for your control class. I’m going to be late.”

“Okay,” Frank said. “Sure.”

Keeping up with Sisky’s time-traveling brain was exhausting, as was keeping his dumb power in check, so he closed his eyes as he walked out of the class. He could feel the floor beneath his feet, and the cracked tiles in front of him. Walking around with his eyes closed allowed him to concentrate on sucking everything in so that it didn’t spread out past a few steps in front of him. He’d had a monster of a headache since noon, and he couldn’t wait to get into his room and just let his brain relax.

Something snaked through the edges of his awareness and he reacted instinctively, turning and gripping the wrist of his assailant and twisting it around and back, like Bert had taught him.

“See, Frank?” he’d said, eyes light even as Quinn had struggled, swearing as he was being pressed into the cool metal of the fridge. “Then every time they try to move, they just hurt themselves more. You can do it too even though you’re tiny. C’mere, Quinn’ll hold still so you can try.”

“Like fuck I will,” Quinn had muttered, but he’d done as Bert asked, and had waited patiently. He’d let Frank pin him against the wall, and then both he and Bert had disappeared into the living room after clapping Frank on the back in congratulations.

Of course, Frank usually had his eyes open when people were coming at him, but it was so much easier to focus on the motions when he could just feel everything around him, sharp and focused like the world was under a microscope. He’d been tucking the folds of his power in all day though, so he’d only seen a hand coming towards him, so when he finally opened his eyes, he released the intruder and stepped back. “Oops.”

Mikey turned around, glaring. “What the fuck?”

Frank folded his arms across his chest. “Sorry, geez. You’re the one who snuck up on me, fuck.”

“Yo, you’re like,” Ray said, appearing from around a corner. He was waving his hands in a vague motion, and unintentionally his hair, as though that would help to illustrate his point. “A ninja.”

“Uh,” Frank said. “Not really.”

“Ninjas are usually taller,” Mikey said, eyeing the top of Frank’s head and making measuring motions to his own body.

“I’m still growing,” Frank muttered.

“Lay off the little guy Mikes,” Ray said. He was grinning. “Okay, we ready?”

Mikey shrugged. “Sure.”

Frank looked from Mikey to Ray. “Ready for what?”

“Shopping,” Mikey said, like it was completely obvious. He hooked his arm through Frank’s and started walking down the hall, tugging Frank along mostly beside him. Ray followed, his mass of hair shifting impressively at the edges of Frank’s awareness.

“I still don’t get why you like shopping so much,” Ray said. “You never wash your clothes.”

“Exactly,” Mikey said. “I need some new ones.”

“Just use the washing machines, dork.”

“Your mom’s a dork,” Mikey said.

“Um,” Frank said, sticking close to Mikey as they maneuvered through the halls. He could feel heat radiating from Mikey where they were touching. “How are we going to buy clothes if...”

“We’re allowed to leave,” Mikey said. “You just need a permission slip. Which we always get, because Toro’s some kind of genius.”

“I...okay,” Frank said. “I just mean. I mean. I don’t...have...” He huffed out a breath, frustrated that he even had to think up a reason to bring up the fact that, hello, yesterday he’d been a damn homeless kid with two dollars to his name. “I just mean, like.”

“Frank doesn’t have any money.” Frank jumped at least three feet in the air when the voice crept up behind him. The sensation was like seeing a dead body wake up, or having someone legitimately sneak up on you, which just did not happen to Frank. Ever. He whirled around, hands curling into fists at his sides, eyes wide for the source of noise that he hadn’t felt disturbing his comfortable blanket of static.

It was just Gerard. Right.

“Frank?” Mikey asked. He’d somehow managed to hold on even as Frank had turned.

“Dude, are you okay?” Ray asked.

“Where did you come from?” Frank spluttered. He hadn’t been paying attention. What if Gerard had been someone trying to kidnap him, or trying to pick his pocket? He hadn’t been looking for him, hadn’t been listening, had been relying on his damn leaky faucet of a brain to tell him where people were. He was getting lazy, and if more people were like Gerard, he’d have to smarten the fuck up.

“I was behind Ray,” Gerard said, tilting his head to the side.

“Well,” Frank said. “Fuckin’ announce your presence or something.”

“You’re so weird,” Mikey muttered. “Anyway, the government gives us all an allowance so we can have, like. Clothes. Ones that fit.”

Frank glanced back at Mikey and frowned. “Oh. How much?”

Ray moved ahead of them to open the door. Mikey didn’t relinquish Frank’s arm, so he had to squish next to the bony boy as they slipped through the door. They’d wandered into what looked like some kind of stairwell that they all started climbing the second they were inside.

“I dunno,” Mikey said eventually. “Gee usually handles my money.”

“Gerard handles my money,” Ray squeaked in a high-pitched voice, clearly doing a terrible imitation of Mikey. “Gerard does my laundry. Gerard tells me when I should shower. No wonder you two are such a fuckin’ mess all the time. You know, if you two would just follow the schedules I wrote up...”

“Whatever Toro,” Gerard snorted. “Your schedules are bull.”

Frank couldn’t help but flinch into Mikey when Gerard’s voice popped up out of nowhere behind him. It was disconcerting, not being able to feel him the way he could the bounce of Ray’s step or the minute twitches of Mikey’s eyebrows. He glanced over his shoulder quickly, just to catch a glimpse of Gerard’s face.

“Hygiene,” Ray said impatiently, “is not bull, Way. You can’t not wash. Do you have any idea how many germs you’re going to accumulate that way? Fuck.”

Frank kept Gerard in the corner of his eyes and caught him waving his hand dismissively. “Hair,” he said, with a sage nod, “doesn’t get dirty.”

“Gross,” Ray muttered. “You’re all disgusting, and I hope you know that. If I didn’t love you so goddamn much...”

“Sure,” Gerard said. “You’d go and find better friends who take showers. Whatever. Don’t call me when your new friends shove you up against a wall, because I won’t come running.”

“I won’t,” Ray said, “‘cause I was planning on becoming friends with your mom, and she doesn’t like it when I pick up the phone while I’m boning her.”

“Hey!” Gerard yelped. “Not cool, Ray! My mom’s a classy individual, no way would she sleep with you.”

“That’s not what she said last weekend,” Ray said, snorting when Gerard huffed up past Frank and Mikey to elbow Ray in the side. “She was all ‘Ray, your sexual prowess is intimidating me!’ and then she said ‘Good thing my stupid sons don’t shower or I never would have experienced the majesty of your presence!’”

“You’re the least funny person I know,” Gerard said, and tugged on a lock of Ray’s hair.

Ray stopped laughing at that, and went to mess up Gerard’s hair, but, well. It was already a mess. He frowned like he was trying to figure out a way to get back at Gerard when Mikey cleared his throat. “How much is our allowance, Gee?”

Gerard stuck his tongue out at Ray, and looked back at Mikey. His eyes skipped over Frank like a rock on a glassy pond, and he shrugged. “Like five bucks a week? They usually pay us at the end of the month, twenty or so. They probably gave Frank a bit more since they think he might be a level B.”
The boys fell silent. Frank cleared his throat when nobody said anything. “Level what?” he asked, nervous about the lack of noises.

“Just a class system the government uses to give all of us mutants bullshit labels,” Gerard said, finally. “It doesn’t really mean anything.” He smiled at Frank.

“Well, uh, I have the envelope with the money in it,” Ray said. “I was going to give it to you earlier, but Mikey told me about his scheme, so I just brought it along.” He pulled a white envelope from his inside pocket and handed it to Frank.

The paper was soft beneath Frank’s callused fingers, and he gaped down at the thin sheets of green inside the envelope. He didn’t know what to say, so he just looked up at Ray, hoping to express his gratitude through telepathy.

“Give it to Gee,” Mikey said. “He’s good with money.”

Frank nodded. He didn’t know what to do with that much cash. He hadn’t even known he would be getting any money. They cleared the final landing fairly quickly. Ray opened the door to the street, and sunlight flooded the stairwell. Frank squinted his eyes shut, relying on his arm linked through Mikey’s and the uneven concrete he could feel being mapped out beneath his feet to help him find his way until his eyes adjusted. The influx of noise was almost too much to handle: after the relative silence of the compound, the sounds of the outdoors mingling with the not-too-distant roar of traffic made Frank wince into Mikey’s comfortingly solid side. When he felt them step off the sidewalk and onto a street, he looked up, eyes searching automatically for the street signs. Fifth and fifty-ninth? The Institute was under Central Park? Frank had thought that he’d known the city inside and out. Maybe he just knew the slums.

“So where are we going?” he asked, clearing his throat to take his mind off the uncomfortable shiver that had traveled up his spine. Just three days ago he’d been out here. He’d been perched up in a tree overnight, because it had felt safer than the corner he’d used the night before. And now he was walking through the city to buy clothes. It was surreal. He felt Mikey look down at him, mouth tensing at whatever he was seeing in Frank’s head. Frank closed his eyes and breathed in the stale smells of the city under the bite of the fresh air.

“Pants,” Ray said. “You need jeans that fit for sure. Then socks and shit...”

“And jackets,” Gerard said. “You need a jacket.”

Frank met Gerard’s eye at that, and he could tell that Gerard was remembering the café and the way Frank had been shivering. Something in Gerard’s eyes darkened, a shadow flickering across his pupils, and then Frank blinked and it was gone. Mikey was talking in the background.

“Should get some cool shirts,” he was saying. Frank looked away from Gerard. “And shoes.”

“Shoes?” Frank asked. He glanced down at his feet. “I have shoes.”

“Those aren’t shoes,” Ray snorted. “They probably weren’t shoes when they were new, and they’re definitely not shoes now.”

Frank kept his eyes focused on his sneakers, trying to quell the lump growing in his throat. He could still remember the way Bert’s small hands had curled protectively around the black sides. They’d been falling apart at the very front, but Bert had smiled when Frank had slipped them on. His feet had cried out in joy; before, they’d been constrained in Frank’s old shoes which he’d grown out of after an unexpected growth spurt. “They look better on you than they ever did on me,” Bert had said, reciprocating Frank’s beam, blue eyes bright and crinkled at the edges.

“They’re fine,” he said finally, aware of Ray’s eyes on him.

“I’m sorry,” Ray said. His forehead was creased in concern, but Frank couldn’t bring himself to care. He slipped his arm out of Mikey’s and shoved his hands into his pockets.

“You guys don’t have to come with me, I can buy stuff on my own.” Frank sniffed involuntarily and scowled at the pavement. He wasn’t going to cry. “I’m not a baby,” he muttered.

Before Frank could blink, an arm was sliding around his shoulders, leeching at the headache building behind Frank’s eyes, narrowing his field of mental vision, relaxing the tendons in his neck.

“Of course you’re not a baby,” Gerard murmured. “We know that. We’re coming along because we want to. Not because you need our help. Okay?”

Frank looked up. Gerard’s mouth was tilted in a warm, lopsided slant, and his eyes were crinkled at the edges. He was taller than Frank but for a second, Frank felt like they were the same height, like he was Gerard’s equal. “Okay,” he whispered.

Gerard’s hand tightened on Frank’s shoulder momentarily and then he let go, shuffling forward so he could keep pace with Ray again. Frank felt Mikey shift at his side and took a deep breath.

“You couldn’t get rid of me if you tried,” Mikey said, voice low and serious. “And Gee’s a hoarder. Ray too, he just hides it by putting all the stuff he doesn’t want to let go of into his hair.”

“Fuck you, Mikeyway,” Ray said. “You’re just jealous that your hair has no body.”

“Volume,” Gerard said. “Body sounds dumb. Who wants their hair to have a body? I just want my hair to be hair, usually. But you definitely store stuff in there.”

“Whatever,” Ray said. He patted his head with one hand. “It’s okay, baby, don’t listen to them. I like you just the way you are.”

Mikey made a face at Frank. “Sorry, but I think you’re stuck with us.”

“Like a turkey sandwich stuck in Ray’s fro,” Gerard said. “Don’t even try to cover it up, Toro. I saw you sneaking one in there last week.”

“Was not!” Ray said. They crossed a street, and Ray held a door open for them.

“Where did the sandwich go, then?” Gerard asked, eyeing Ray suspiciously as he slipped into the store.

“I ate it, dumbass,” Ray whispered back, eyes darting over to the cashiers.

Mikey tugged Frank in, and Ray closed the door behind him. They were in some kind of store with a high ceiling and racks upon racks of denim. “Second hand,” Mikey whispered in Frank’s ear. “It’s cheaper ‘cause we’re still growing.” He was watching Gerard when he said that, a dim light of admiration spreading across his face. Maybe it was something that Gerard had said. “Yeah,” Mikey said. “He has the best ideas.”

Frank blinked. “What?” He definitely hadn’t said that out loud.

“Gee,” Mikey said. “It was his idea to come here.”

Frank stared.

“Is he doing that freaky thing where he finishes your thought sentences out loud?” Ray asked, coming up behind them. “Cut it out, Mikey. Frank, what size are you? Come on, stop standing around and show us what you like, or Gerard is going to get you weird, paint-splattered pants.”

“Blood-splattered!” Gerard protested. “And it’s awesome, look, someone probably murdered someone in these jeans.”

“Gee, a six-year-old was probably wearing those. It’s paint.”

Gerard shook his head. “Always crushing my dreams, Toro.”

He looked so sorrowful, and Ray rolled his eyes so exuberantly, that Frank had to smother a giggle behind his hand. Both Gerard and Ray looked up at the sound, eyes wide. Frank followed Mikey down a row of jeans, keeping his eyes on them. “What?” he asked. They were just staring at him. Like he’d grown a third eye or something. He clamped down the urge to feel his forehead for extra ocular devices and ignored Mikey’s eyeroll.

“You laughed,” Ray said. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Frank wrinkled his nose. “Fuck you,” he said. “I can laugh.”

“Are you sure you ought to be using language like that?” Ray asked. Gerard suddenly looked concerned. “What are you, eight?”

“Double fuck you,” Frank said. “I’m twelve, shit.”

“You’re awfully short.” Gerard frowned, eyeing him from head to toe. Frank turned around, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

“Fuck you!” Frank leaned forward so he could tap Gerard’s chest with his index finger. “Times infinity.”

“He’s twelve,” Mikey said. He nudged Frank in the side with his elbow and held up a pair of jeans. “These will fit.” His tone was final.

The jeans were stiff under Frank’s fingers. It felt like they’d been freshly washed, and weren’t quite worn in. The denim on the first pair was dark, but the next ones Mikey gave him were light. Ray contributed two pairs, and Gerard found ones that were pitch black.

“These look too big,” Frank said, doubtful of Ray’s choices.

Ray opened his mouth, but Mikey pushed Frank away, steering him in the direction of the changing rooms. “They’re for you to grow into,” Mikey said.

“It’s my thought, Mikey, let me say it!” Ray protested in the background.

“You’re too slow,” Mikey complained. “He’s going to find a few more bigger ones. You probably need two or three for now, so make sure the ones Gee gave you don’t fit weird.”

“What about the ones you gave me?” Frank asked. Mikey had practically deposited him in a stall and was stepping back, arms folded across his chest.

“They’ll fit,” Mikey said. “Try them on if you want, but they’ll fit.” He tapped his temple with a finger and grinned. “Telepath, remember?”

Frank rolled his eyes and closed the stall door. He hesitated for a moment, overcome with the urge to prove Mikey wrong, but the first pair he tried on felt...good. Better than the last pair of pants he’d gotten, which he’d made last for two years.

“Told you so.” Mikey’s voice traveled through the stall door.

Frank made a face and pulled off the jeans.

“Saw that,” Mikey muttered.

“Whatever,” Frank said.

“Stop making faces and hurry the fuck up. We still have to get you shirts and socks and shit.”

“We won’t have enough money for all of that,” Frank said. “There’s no way.”

“Gee said we would, so we will,” Mikey said as Frank touched the black jeans next.

When he pulled them on, they were too long and a bit loose, but Mikey cleared his throat on the other side of the door. “Gee says those are for when you ‘grow up’.”

Frank tugged them down. They slid off his hips. He didn’t even have to undo the button. “Did you --”

“Tell him to fuck himself for that comment? He’s coming over with about a thousand shirts, you can do that yourself.”

“Shirts,” Gerard announced.

“I’m not six,” Frank said, opening the door to the stall a crack so he could glare out at Gerard. “I’m twelve. I’m not a baby.”

“I could pick you up with one hand,” Gerard said. Mikey hadn’t lied. He was holding a large pile of shirts. “Open the door wider, I can’t hand you these through that tiny space.”

“I’m not wearing pants,” Frank said. “Put them under.”

“They’ll get dirty,” Gerard said. “Besides, I want to see what they look like.”

He caught Frank’s eye with a baleful glance of his own. Instead of making Frank open the door, Gerard’s gaze made Frank want to close the door and cover himself. He wasn’t self-conscious, not really, but he just tightened his grip on the handle and let the door close. He stared at it for a moment, but the wood didn’t glance back, and finally, Gerard sighed and slid the clothes under.

“You don’t have to sound so sad,” Frank muttered. He tugged on a pair of Mikey-chosen jeans, and pulled his borrowed shirt off so he could reach for one of the ones in the pile. “You’re gonna see me wear them eventually. I mean, we live in the same place now, don’t think you’re going to be able to avoid me.”

There was a pause outside the door, and then Gerard sighed again. “I’m going to pick out some jackets.”

“He’s going to bring back fifty of those,” Mikey said. And then, “That shirt doesn’t look good on you.”

“Get out of my head,” Frank said, but reached for another shirt. He’d have to learn to keep his mind blank around Mikey, or learn to stop caring about it.

“You definitely don’t have the patience for the first option there,” Mikey said. “No, not that pink one either. Makes you look fat.”

“Motherfucker,” Frank muttered under his breath.

“I heard that,” Mikey said. “Try the black one.”

Frank tried not to roll his eyes but lifted the black shirt off the pile. Mikey probably knew best.

Chapter Text

September 30, 2011

Frank’s stomach started growling sometime after they left the third second hand store. Ray insisted that they buy him shoes, however, and it wasn’t until the curly-haired boy was completely satisfied with the black sneakers they’d chosen that they made the journey back to the compound.

Mikey helped Frank carry the bags of clothes to Frank’s room. The moment they were inside the door, Mikey dropped his luggage on the ground and collapsed, face first, onto Frank’s bed.

Frank set his bags down in front of the dresser and frowned. There were so many clothes and only three large drawers. He vaguely remembered what his dresser back at home had looked like, so he set this one up the same way, with shirts in the top drawer, pants in the second, and underwear and socks in the third.

He shoved the bags into the trash can and barely held back a beam. He had clothes. He had a room. He had shoes. He even had a Mikey, who hadn’t moved once while Frank was organizing.

“Um,” Frank said, glancing at the clock, which was blinking 5:30 back at him.

“Fucking finally,” Mikey mumbled, turning his face to the side. He’d taken off his glasses prior to planting his face into Frank’s pillow, but he put them back on now. He blinked owlishly at Frank and propped himself up. “I’m starving. I’ve been waiting for you to look at the clock for at least ten minutes.”

Frank almost frowned before he remembered the whole telepathy thing. Right. “It’s dinner, then?” he asked.

“Yep,” Mikey said. He seemed supremely unconcerned, but Frank was so hungry he could eat just about anything. “Oh, you want to go? Now?”

“I just thought we were supposed to be in the cafeteria at five...”

“Sure,” Mikey said. “But all the douches and jocks hustle to the front of the line anyway. We usually wait until it dies down.” He blinked sleepily. “Just give it five minutes, would you?” He closed his eyes, and Frank watched as his eyebrows drew together and his forehead creased, just a little. It was interesting how expressive he could be without moving much of his face. “I’m conserving my energy,” Mikey muttered.

“Huh?” Frank asked.

“Didn’t have a lot to spare, growing up with Gee.” He opened one eye to glare at Frank, and then let it drift shut when Frank didn’t say anything. “Never had enough energy to make tons of facial expressions. Learned to do without.”

“Oh.” Frank shifted his weight when Mikey didn’t say anything more and decided to sit down. Five minutes seemed like an eternity now, as the clock slowly shifted over to 5:31. He could practically feel the seconds sliding on, each one taking its time. The air in the room seemed to press down on him, making breathing a labour. He stared at the clock, willing time to speed up. His arms curled around his midsection and he tried vainly not to think too hard about food. It had been a long time since he’d eaten last, and he couldn’t remember what being full had ever felt like.

“Oh my God,” Mikey muttered. “Shut up. We’ll go already, shit.” He pushed himself off the bed and rubbed a hand under his glasses. “But you’re getting me coffee.”

Frank shot to his feet. “Okay,” he said. He could live with that.

“It’s weird,” Mikey said as they walked out of Frank’s room in the direction of the cafeteria. “Sometimes I can’t pick up anything you’re thinking, your brain is kind of a constant buzz, and it kind of drowns everyone else out, but other times, you come in clear as crystal and everyone else is just silent. It’s kind of like being alone, except I can still hear you. It’s like a weird frequency that I have to concentrate on tuning into, otherwise all I can get is a vague sense of what your emotions are.”

Frank wrinkled his nose. He didn’t know that much about other superpowers. “What do you hear now?”

Mikey blinked. “The first one.”

Frank frowned. “I wonder why,” he said. “That’s weird.”

“Yeah,” Mikey agreed.

They were coming up on the cafeteria now, and Frank could feel the rows of bodies even from the door. The size of the room when full was staggering; he hadn’t paid all that much attention to it that morning, and a large portion of the students had likely still been asleep when he’d come in. He guessed that it held about a thousand people, all sitting in neat rows at long tables.

Frank stuck close to Mikey’s side as they got food from the front; the line wasn’t as long as Frank guessed it might have been a good half hour ago. Mikey stalked off the moment his tray was full, and Frank had to scamper to keep up. He could see Bruise and his group of mangy friends out in the corner of his awareness, but Mikey navigated a path through the room that completely avoided the bullies. They made their way towards the back corner, where Frank could see Gerard and Ray studiously eating and ignoring all of the people around them. Alex waved at Frank as he and Mikey passed their table, and Frank smiled shyly, ducking away to follow again when Mikey reached a hand out to snag Frank’s sleeve.

“Frank has a feud,” Mikey announced when they were within earshot of Gerard and Ray. He sat down heavily beside Gerard and shoved a piece of bread in his mouth.

“A what?” Frank had to ask. He stood for a moment, unsure of where to sit until Ray patted the seat next to him.

Mikey said something that sounded vaguely like “food” and that looked like a soggy, chewed-up piece of bread.

Ray wrinkled his nose. “You’re disgusting,” he informed Mikey.

Mikey shrugged and stuffed some beans in his mouth along with the bread. He chewed as loudly as possible with his eyes on Ray.

“Feud,” Gerard said, staring at Mikey. His eyes were wide, and he didn’t look at all disgusted, but that could have been because he was also battling a mouth full of food.

“I need some better friends,” Ray muttered. “Feud. Fight. Battle. Whatever. I don’t know the proper definition for it, and I’m sure Gee or Mikey do, but if they don’t close their mouths, I am going to kill them.”

“‘Roos,” Mikey mumbled, adding a stalk of celery to the concoction in his mouth.

Frank picked up a piece of bread and dipped it carefully into his beans. “What?” he asked, before taking a bite. He ate quickly but neatly, influenced by manners taught to him as a child and the instincts of self-preservation that the years of living on the streets and in Butch’s house had given him.

Mikey swallowed, returning Ray’s glare with force. “Bruise and his cronies,” he said. “Frank caught their attention. They think he’s a,” he squinted and held up his index and middle finger to trace quotation marks in the air, “‘faggy little shit’. Word for word.”

“Damn,” Ray said. “Think they’re going to pull anything?”

Mikey shrugged. “Probably not. They’re cowardly as fuck.”

“Whatever,” Frank said. “It’s fine. I’m not scared of those douchebags anyway.”

Mikey looked dubious. “I think they could take you, Frank.”

“For one thing,” Ray said, “You are quite small.”

“And you haven’t been trained like they have. We all get martial arts training, you know. They’ve been here for a while,” Gerard said.

“And,” Ray said, “you’re tiny.”

“That too,” Gerard said.

“Frank’s fierce for his height, shut up,” Mikey said. “Just stay away from Bruise. The rest of them are too dumb to act on their own, but if Bruise has it out for you, he’ll make your life a living hell. Unless we take care of him for you.”

“It’s fine,” Frank muttered. “I can take care of myself.” They were treating him like a baby, when he’d probably gone through more than they ever would in their entire lives. “Stop,” he said, holding up a hand when Mikey opened his mouth to speak. “I know what I’m fucking talking about, okay? I lived on the fucking streets for a year. We didn’t have cushy beds and free food, and we definitely didn’t get fucking fighting training. I had to learn it all on my own, and I can take care of myself. Also, please don’t kill anybody on my behalf.”

Gerard and Mikey exchanged a glance, and Ray shifted on his seat. “Okay Frankie,” Gerard said, finally. “But if they’re too much, just tell us, okay?”

“Fine,” Frank said.

“You might be able to take care of yourself, but you don’t have to do it alone anymore.”

Frank nodded stiffly. “I...thanks. Just, yeah. I’m not a kid.”

“Technically,” Gerard said, a thoughtful expression on his face.

“Yeah, yeah,” Frank said, waving his hand to dismiss whatever Gerard was about to say. “Eat your fucking peas, Gerard.”

Gerard rolled his eyes but scooped up peas and shoved them into his mouth. “Happy, mom?” he asked, opening his mouth so Frank could see the half-chewed mess.

Frank rolled his eyes, but couldn’t help grinning.

He had friends. And new clothes. No matter what Bruise thought he had up his sleeve, there was no way it could make this place suck as hard as Frank’s life had already.

* * * *

The first day of classes did not go as shittily as Frank had thought they might. When he met Ray, Mikey, and the half-asleep Gerard in Ray’s room for breakfast, Ray had a stack of books which he slid over to Frank.

“You’re going to have to check your own mail from now on,” Ray said. “They deposit supplies and shit you need in there. Mailboxes are right near the office. I forgot to show you earlier.”

“Okay,” Frank said, picking up his bowl of oatmeal. “So what are these?”

“Textbooks,” Ray said. “You have your class schedule?”

Frank had folded the black paper up and put it in the back pocket of his new jeans. “Yeah,” he said, pulling it out. It matched his new black shirt. Having new clothes was a luxury he’d completely forgotten about after living in the same pair of clothes for months at a time.

“Eugh,” Mikey muttered, peering over Frank’s shoulder at the page. “Math with Thompson.”

Gerard wrinkled his nose. His eyes were closed, and he seemed to be operating by instinct, scooping oatmeal into his mouth and reaching for a cup of coffee without once looking at what he was doing. “Thompson,” he muttered.

“What?” Frank asked. “Is he bad?”

“Yes,” Mikey said.

“No,” Ray said.

“Yes,” Gerard said.

“Great,” Frank said. “Really helpful, guys. Is he or isn’t he?”

“He’s a good teacher?” Ray said. “But only if he likes you. And he doesn’t really like anybody. So I guess no, then.”

Frank didn’t like math as a general rule. “Great,” he sighed. Math was his last class, and he dreaded it the whole day. English went by quickly. It was with a man who refused to be called anything but “Butcher”. Frank vaguely recalled Sisky mentioning him, but couldn’t remember what he’d said. History was uneventful as well, taught by a droopy-eyed man named “Mr. Jenkins”. Lunch was excellent, and Frank considered it the highlight of his day so far. He had gym after lunch, and it helped him release some of the energy building up beneath his toes.

Math went about as poorly as Frank thought it might. It started the moment he sat down in an empty desk in the middle of the class and was promptly informed by the thin-lipped teacher that the seating was “In alphabetical order, Mister...Iero, if you wouldn’t mind moving back one seat.”

He did as he was told, trying not to let his face burn with shame, and not really succeeding. He was almost at the back of the class, and he looked around, trying to familiarize himself with some of the faces of his peers.

“Iero,” Thompson snapped. Frank turned around, catching the teacher’s annoyed tone and the ashamed look on his peers’ faces. “Is there something interesting that you’d like to share with us?”

Frank shook his head.

Thompson grimaced. “Well, I don’t know how they did things from whatever animal farm you came from, but here we like to listen to the teacher when they’re talking,” he said, speaking slowly like he was talking to a child.

Frank resisted the urge to say that Thompson hadn’t been talking, and simply gritted his teeth together and nodded. Right. He remembered now why he’d hated school. It was because of teachers like this Mr. Thompson, who, when Frank took a moment too long to write his notes and asked if he could go back a page, said that Frank should learn to write faster.

By the end of the class, Frank barely had a handle on his power, and Thompson had commented on that, too, sneering about new recruits being useless and uncontrolled.

When the bell rang, Thompson stalked out of the class.

Frank slumped back in his seat and tried desperately to get his wild-minded power under control. He jumped when a small hand with long red nails tapped his arm.

“Sorry!” the girl said, dark eyes wide. Her hair, long, heavy and curly, was falling over half of her face. She tucked it behind one ear, and smiled. “Sorry for scaring you.”

“It’s fine,” Frank said. He’d been concentrating so hard on pulling himself together that he hadn’t noticed the small hand infiltrating his personal bubble. The girl was just staring at him, her big mouth stretched into a grin. “Uh, did you want something?”

“Oh, I just wanted to say sorry. For Mr. Thompson. He kind of sucks.” The girl’s grin widened, and she reached her hand over to Frank. “I’m Bebe, by the way. You should get here just a bit earlier next time. You can’t give him anything to complain about, or he’ll pounce on it. Especially since he seems to really not like you.”

“Oh,” Frank said. He took her hand and she shook it enthusiastically. “Thanks. Bebe?”

She nodded and picked up her things. “Frank, right?”

“Yeah,” Frank said, following Bebe’s lead as she walked out of the classroom. “Thanks, seriously. I can’t believe I have to spend a year with this guy.”

“Probably more,” Bebe said. “I was in his class last year, and it looks like Thompson is really the only math teacher unless you’re particularly terrible at math, in which case, they put you with Robinson. Until you’re old enough to get Sisky, at least, but you have to have top grades for his classes.”

“Huh.” Frank wondered which class Mikey had been put in.

Speaking of the devil, the moment they stepped out of the classroom, Mikey invaded Frank’s bubble of awareness. He wasn’t holding any books, and his hand slid down to grab Frank’s. He sniffed, face blank as he stared at Bebe. “Who’s this?” he asked, voice flat and casual like he hadn’t ambushed Frank, and wasn’t holding his hand.

“Uh,” Frank said, looking down at their hands and then back up at Mikey. “Bebe, this is Bebe. She’s in my math class. Bebe, this is Mikey.”

“Nice to meet you,” Bebe said, reaching a hand out.

Mikey stuck out his free hand and shook hers, his hand strangely limp.

“Mikey’s my best friend,” Frank said, mildly amused by the way Mikey was now staring at Bebe with a hint of a glare.

“Haven’t you only been here for, like, two days?” Bebe asked, gazing quizzically at Mikey.

Mikey sniffed. “Let’s go,” he said. He turned around and started to walk away.

“Later, Bebe!” Frank said, obligated to follow Mikey because of their interlocked fingers. “Mikey, what the hell?”

“I don’t like her,” Mikey said. “I’m the one who saved you from those bullies yesterday”

“God, I know,” Frank said.

“I’m your best friend, remember?”

“I’m not going to ditch you if I’m friends with her,” Frank said, rolling his eyes.

Mikey sniffed again, and Frank finally caught up with his ridiculously long legs. He gave Mikey’s hand a squeeze and bumped their shoulders together. “Come on, Mikey. I know you’re my best friend, okay?”

Mikey’s lips thinned. “But what if you leave? I don’t want another best friend, I want you. I already found you.”

“Mikey, cross my heart,” Frank said, doing the action with his left hand even though it was still being firmly gripped by Mikey’s. “Best friends forever, okay? You can’t stop me from meeting other people, and you don’t need to. I promise.”

“Fine,” Mikey said. “You did cross your heart.”

“Good,” Frank said. “Now, when’s dinner?”

“Still five,” Mikey muttered. “It’s always at the same time.”

Frank sighed. He was hungry. He’d been hungry for a good hour now, but he could probably wait until five. “Every day?” he asked.

Mikey rolled his eyes and tugged Frank towards his room. “Every day. Don’t worry, we aren’t going to just sit around, doing nothing. You probably have homework, right?”

“Math,” Frank said. “Hey, do you have Mr. Thompson, too?”

Mikey glanced over his shoulder at Frank and raised an eyebrow. “No,” he said. “Gerard got put with Robinson after like a month, so I didn’t answer any questions in Thompson’s class and refused to do my homework until they switched me too.”

“That isn’t something to be proud of,” Ray said, catching up with them in the hall. “Robinson’s math classes are for people who are really shit at math.”

Mikey shrugged. “Robinson puts stickers on our tests. Thompson yells when you get something wrong. I know which one I’d pick, any day.”

“Hey,” Ray said as Mikey opened the door to his room, “why are you guys holding hands?”

“Jealous?” Mikey asked, raising an eyebrow at Ray over his shoulder.

“No!” Ray exclaimed.

“Your mind says yes, Toro,” Mikey said, pulling Frank with him into the room. He sat down on the ground beside his desk and tugged a textbook, and Frank, down with him onto the floor.

“That’s cheating,” Ray said.

“I never said I play fair,” Mikey muttered. He picked up a pencil in his left hand, and, screwing up his face in great concentration, started to write.

“You’re left-handed?” Frank asked, watching as Mikey worked.

“Nope,” Mikey muttered.

Frank blinked, but Mikey refused to release his hand and write with his right hand. “Okay then,” Frank said. Doing homework and holding hands. If this was what friendship meant, he could live with this.

* * * *

Frank’s days settled into a routine fairly quickly. By Friday, when Mikey took him aside after lunch and started pulling him towards a classroom that was definitely not English, he got confused.

“Dude,” he said, puzzled. He’d memorized the block rotations, and Friday was supposed to rotate between the four regular day schedules. “Where are we going?”

“You’re in my Control class,” Mikey said. “It’s with Sisky. You’ll like it.”

Frank shrugged and followed.

In the classroom, Sisky waved cheerfully at Frank and let them sit wherever they wanted. Sisky was Frank’s favourite: there was no doubt.

Mikey slumped down in his chair and closed his eyes the second they were seated. Frank looked at him, and then at the rest of the kids in the class, who seemed to be in a similar state of stupor.

Frank raised his hand.

“Ah,” Sisky said. “That explains why I didn’t see who asked the question. Frank, yes.”

“Uh,” Frank said, lowering his voice when Sisky came right up to his desk and kneeled on the ground in front of it. “What are we supposed to be doing?”

“Oh!” Sisky exclaimed in a whisper. “You’re practicing control. I haven’t taught you how, okay. Now. Everyone’s power is a bit different, but it mostly stems from the person who has it. So this class is for you to practice, will practice, your control over your power. So it doesn’t explode out of nowhere and take you with it.”

“Okay,” Frank said. “Are you going to tell me how?”

“No,” Sisky said. “But I will tell you why. My power is not like yours, so for me, practicing control will require something different. Some form of meditation will help, but you are going to have to figure it out for yourself. Oh dear, you’re going to have trouble,” he said. “Okay, well. I’m just going to have to bring in Patrick. He’ll know what to do. So, meditation. Actually, I can, will, help you with this one. Have. You want to close your eyes, and empty your mind. Concentrate on your breathing. This isn’t some kind of a hokey exercise either, this is very important. Okay?”

Frank nodded. He didn’t know who Patrick was, but if this would help him manage his ridiculous power, he was willing to give it a shot. “Okay.”

Sisky went back up to the front of the room and sat down in his chair, eyes sliding shut. Everyone in the room, and the crowd was diverse, had their eyes closed and seemed to be breathing in the same steady rhythm.

Frank fidgeted for a moment, not used to being so vulnerable around so many people, but Mikey seemed at ease with the situation, so he finally leaned back and closed his eyes.

There. The action of closing his eyes was familiar, comforting. He felt his face relax a bit, and if he’d not had too much energy running through his veins, he might have fallen asleep.

He concentrated on his breathing next, because it seemed like an easy enough thing to do. Everyone in the class was breathing in at the same time: long, deep sucks of air through their nose, and then collectively back out, equally slowly.

Frank slowly relaxed into the rhythm, the in-and-outs of breathing simple and uncomplicated. Soon, though, his mind started to wander, and he remembered what Sisky had said. He had to empty his mind, right. He thought hard about the breathing, about air filling his lungs and his mind, and then whisking out, taking everything with it. His headache disappeared as he let go, slowly relaxed until he was practically a puddle in his chair.

An image appeared in his mind, indistinct and blurry. Now pull it back in, a voice said, very clearly in Mikey’s voice, in his mind.

His power, Frank realized, had spread out as he’d let go, and he frowned idly. This time, when he breathed in, he pulled in power as well as air, flattening it in layers in his mind, forcing it to sit still and return to him. He breathed out, and forced his body to relax even as he held his power in place with his mind. The actions were repetitive and simple, but by the time the class was officially over, Frank felt better than he had in a long time. He had a slight headache now, but it was barely anything and would probably disappear if he ran a few laps.

“See?” Mikey said, patting Frank on the back as they filed out of the classroom. “Told you you’d like it. You have Math now, and my class is on the other side, so I’ll see you after, okay?”

“Okay,” Frank said. Mikey disappeared around the corner. Frank had pulled his power in so far, and was feeling so at ease with the energy thrumming beneath his skin that he didn’t notice the hand coming out for him until it was too late.

He fell to the ground, books clattering around him in a scattered heap.

“Oops,” Bruise said, grinning evilly from where he was still standing. “Did I knock the little shit over? My bad.” He laughed and walked off before Frank had the chance to say anything.

He’d come out of nowhere. How had he even known what classroom Frank was in?

He hurried to pick up his books and ran a hand across the side of his face. That was going to bruise later, and Frank had no idea how he should explain it. Fucking Bruise.

In class he shook his head when Bebe scribbled out a note that read “What’s with the face?”, and ignored Mikey’s raised eyebrow when he swooped by after Math to grab Frank’s hand and drag him off to his room to do homework.

“I just ran into a locker,” Frank said, thinking hard about lockers and about the meditation he’d done with Sisky. “And I feel like an idiot, so can you drop it?”

“Fine,” Mikey said. “If there’s a problem, you’ll tell me.”

“Right,” Frank said, refusing to feel guilty, lest Mikey overhear his thought. He could handle himself, and no ‘lockers’ were going to ruin this place for him. He had a real chance for happiness here, and nobody, not anybody, was going to fuck that up. He had an awesome best friend, clothes, and people who generally seemed to like him.

He’d take that over the streets any day of the week.

Chapter Text

October 31, 2011

The schedule that the Institute had set in place seemed strange to Frank for a good three weeks. It was so jarringly normal when he compared it to his days at Butch’s place, a reality so long-gone that it felt like he might have dreamed it all. He’d been accustomed to spending his nights in Butch’s security room, scanning the various screens set up to survey the area around the house, and his days...

He remembered a lot of sitting around. Butch made them teach each other from the large collection of textbooks he had. It was easiest when the older boys weren’t out helping Butch, but Frank had helped James and little Peter whenever they were left alone. Now that Frank thought about it, those books looked like they’d been earlier versions of the textbooks he’d been given at the compound, which made sense considering Butch’s apparent status as a rogue government agent.

Frank had a hard time believing that Butch had ever been truly bad. Sure, he’d taught Frank how to pick pockets and shoplift, but he’d never taught Frank how to break elbows and knees. Bert had taken care of that, and even Bert wasn’t bad. He’d explained to Frank, with his ice-blue eyes wide, that Frank was tiny and cute and that someday, someone might try to take advantage of him. Frank hadn’t entirely understood what he had meant by that, but he’d nodded and gone along with it anyway.

“You gotta protect yourself, Frank,” Bert had told him, after he’d taught him how to properly tackle someone. He’d demonstrated the technique by calling Jepha into the room and pouncing on him like a cat. Jepha had gone down like a stone, and had smiled lazily up at Frank even though his face was being smushed into the ground and his arm was being twisted up behind his back. “You can’t be like Jeph here, or you’ll wind up on the ground beneath somebody. And if you can keep yourself safe, you can watch your friends’ backs. You hear me, Frank? You gotta look out for the people you love, okay?”

Frank had been caught in the headlight of Bert’s eyes and sure, he could remember that. He still did; still thought about Bert pushing Jeph over but making him tea when the other boy had caught the flu. He still remembered something in the way Bert looked at Quinn, completely different from when Bert looked at Frank.

At the Institute though, everything had a designated time and place, and Frank was just glad that he had the normalcy of friendship to fall back on. About half a month after he’d arrived, Frank walked into the common room at midnight to find Alex sitting on the couch, holding a cupcake in his hands.

“Hey, cool,” Frank said. “You learn cupcakes in Food Studies?”

“Yeah,” Alex said, rolling his eyes. “Like forever ago.”

“So then what’s --”

“It’s your birthday, dude!” Alex said, snapping his fingers above the cupcake so a flame appeared near the tip of his thumb. “I figured you should start your day off with style. Come on, make a wish!”

Frank stared at the perfectly-iced thing in Alex’s hand and then at the fire dancing over his thumb. “You remembered,” he said.

“Pretty much,” Alex said. “You gonna blow it out or what?”

Frank grinned and closed his eyes. He had friends, warmth, food. He kind of wished that Bruise would stop shoving him around, but no tiny fire was strong enough for that kind of a wish. He couldn’t think of anything he was really missing, so he just blew out the makeshift candle. Hopefully not wishing for something on your birthday wasn’t bad luck.

“This is awesome,” Frank said, after they’d eaten half of the tray of cupcakes Alex had revealed hidden on the low table in the room. “Thanks, dude.”

Alex shrugged. “That’s what friends are for, huh? Hey, you doing anything over the holidays?”

Holidays. Frank shook his head.

“Oh, okay. I mean, I know that Toro and the Ways usually ferry back to Jersey, so I was just wondering if you had any plans. My family’s in Florida, and they can’t afford to send me back and forth all the time, you know? Ryland’s too. Vicky’s from here, and so’s Gabe, but Nate’s from Chicago, so Gabe and Vicky usually go out for the day and come back to party with the rest of us left-behinds. You should come if you aren’t doing anything.” Alex nodded and turned back to the TV, unaware of the fact that Frank’s head was currently spinning.

He had forgotten about the holidays. It had been purposeful at first; a necessity for someone who couldn’t return home and who didn’t have a makeshift family with whom to celebrate. Now that he did, he hadn’t remembered that they were all going to leave come the end of the semester. They’d probably all go back home and, fuck, home. To where their parents were.

Frank held it in. He didn’t hyperventilate, he didn’t explode, and he generally tried to not think about it at all.

In Math, Bebe passed him a folded-up note with a little drawing of a birthday cake in it. The flames were in the shapes of hearts and, despite himself, Frank had to smile at it.

Thompson, clearly attracted to any scrap of Frank’s happiness, snatched it up right away. “What’s this?” he asked, holding it above his head like Frank was going to try and reach for it. “A love note? Ahh, Happy Birthday, Frank. How old are you now? Ten?”

Frank didn’t say anything.

“There will be no note-passing in my class,” Thompson said. “Who gave this to you?”

Frank felt Bebe freeze beside him but he just raised his eyebrows in what he hoped was innocence. “It could be from anyone, sir,” he said. “There’s no signature, is there?”

Thompson’s eyes narrowed. “Detention, Mr. Iero,” he said. “Room B401, after class.”

Frank tried to look chastised because he was pretty sure that grinning cheekily at Mr. Thompson after that would just earn him a week’s worth of punishment.

Once Thompson had stormed away in his usual post-class anger, Bebe turned to Frank. Her doe eyes were wide. “I can’t believe he gave you detention,” she said. “Thanks for not telling.” Her eyelashes fluttered for a moment as she glanced down at her books and then she blushed and looked back up. “You’re pretty cool, Frank.”

“You’re my friend, right?” Frank asked. When she nodded, he grinned. “Then I’ve got your back.”

Bebe beamed. “I’ve got yours too,” she said seriously. “Hey, how old are you, anyway?”

“Twelve,” Frank said. “You?”

“Ten,” Bebe said.

“But we’re in the same class,” Frank said, hesitating with his books under his arm. “Are you, like, a math genius or something?”

Bebe nodded. “Yep,” she said.

“Wow.” Frank couldn’t imagine being that good at math. Most of the kids in his class seemed to be around twelve, except for a few who were definitely older.

“Sorry about getting you detention,” Bebe said. They’d walked down a stretch of hallway, and there was a suspicious lack of Mikey.

“It was an awesome drawing,” Frank said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“But it’s your birthday,” Bebe said hesitantly.

“How’d you know, anyway?” Frank asked.

“Gabe told me,” Bebe said.

“Gabe?” Wasn’t that Alex’s friend?

“He said that you’d told Alex your birthday was Halloween and that he wanted to spread the word so everyone would know.”

Oh.

“If you tell Alex something, and he thinks it’s important and people would be able to help with whatever it is, then he’ll tell Gabe. If you ever need a rumour spread, Gabe’s your man,” Bebe said, nodding matter-of-factly. “Gabe knows everybody, even if they don’t know him.”

“Creepy,” Frank said.

Bebe shrugged, but she was grinning. “That’s Gabe,” she said. That’s Gabe, indeed. “Anyway, Halloween. That’s cool.”

“Yeah,” Frank said. “It used to be my favourite holiday. Until...some shit happened.”

“Well, it isn’t a holiday,” Bebe said, “but I get what you mean.”

“Why isn’t anyone dressed up?” Frank asked. He’d been wondering about that all day.

Bebe shrugged. “They don’t want to promote masked vigilantism among us.” She shrugged. “It sucks, but it makes sense, I guess. Anyway, here’s your classroom.”

She’d led them right to B401, and Frank sighed in resignation. “Okay,” he said. Detention. It wasn’t like his birthday was really a happy event.

Sisky was sitting behind a desk. His face lit up when Frank walked in. “Frankie!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t think we’d be meeting so soon! Oh, right.” He put on a stern expression and nodded. “Detention. This is very serious.”

Frank sat down at one of the desks in the empty room. “A solemn occasion,” Frank said.

“Hm, yes,” Sisky said, stroking an imaginary mustache. “If only I had my top hat, then we could be gentlemen.”

“A shame,” Frank said.

“I’ll get one someday,” Sisky said. “It has been foretold.”

“By gypsies?” Frank asked.

“No, by me!” Sisky threw his arms up in the air. “I can read the future, remember?!”

“You can see your own future?” Frank asked.

“Well, me in relation to the people around me. Maybe I get tenure and Butcher gives it to me. Usually I just see snippets right around what’s going to happen to me, but...once I saw a very vivid image of me climbing atop a unicorn. That one was a dream, but I mean, this top hat thing. I definitely saw that. Unless I was drunk...” Sisky frowned and scratched his head. “Michael?”

“Mikey gives you a top hat?” Frank asked. “What for? How’d he even get one?”

“No, he’s,” Sisky said, and pointed at the door a second before Mikey burst in.

“Sisky,” Mikey said.

“It’s Frank’s birthday,” Sisky said, tilting his head to the side.

“Yes,” Mikey said. “You can’t keep him in detention on his birthday!”

“Why not?” Sisky asked, leaning back in his chair. “And there are no codes that say anything about this,” he said, raising his voice. “So you can cut that argument off at the head right now, Thing 1.”

Gerard peeked guiltily around the doorframe. “Oh,” he said. “You saw that?”

“It isn’t a violation of any health rules either,” Sisky said.

Nobody spoke for a moment, and then a small, “Dammit” came from behind Gerard. Ray was clearly hiding there.

“Okay,” Mikey said, “but it’s mean to keep him here.”

“Is not,” Sisky said. “It was mean to give him detention, but I’m just doing my job by making him stay, Thing 2. And anyway, we’re having fun! Aren’t we, Frank?”

“Sure,” Frank said. “Mikey, it’s just for an hour, I’ll be out before dinner.”

Mikey paused, eyes narrowing slightly, and Gerard shook his head, clearly hearing his brother’s voice in his head. “You’re right, there aren’t any rules against students choosing to take detention with their friends. Good catch, Mikes. Hey Ray, go get the present.”

“Why’s it always gotta be me?” Ray grumbled, but Frank felt him walk off.

“We’re going to have a party?!” Sisky asked. “But it isn’t even dinnertime! If I have dessert now, Butcher will tell me later that I haven’t eaten enough human food.”

“Suarez still had cupcakes left over,” Mikey explained. Gerard edged his way into the room, holding the tray. “And shame on you,” Mikey said, walking over to Frank and flicking him on the nose. “Not telling your best friend when your birthday is.”

Gerard nodded. His eyes were wide and they caught the light. Sisky clapped his hands together and shuffled over to snatch a cupcake. “Butcher be damned,” he informed them all moments before stuffing the cupcake into his mouth. “Delicious,” he said through the mouthful, though it sounded more like “Eghishs”.

“How’d you know when my birthday was then?” Frank asked.

“I would have heard from Gabe if I hadn’t read your file,” Mikey said. He took a cupcake and shook his head. “You could have said something.”

“I didn’t know how to bring it up,” Frank said. “‘Oh hey, would you buy me a present and throw me a party’ is kind of an awkward conversational topic.”

“Well, we did,” Mikey said. “Not the party part, we figured we’d just watch movies or something. But the present.”

Frank frowned. He hadn’t thought Gerard had really been serious before. “Wait, really?”

“Yeah really,” Gerard said. “We busted our asses to get this for you. Well, Mikey did.”

“We all contributed,” Mikey said. “But it was my idea.” He grabbed Frank’s hand, just in case anybody wanted to dispute the fact that he was a great best friend.

Ray huffed through the door a moment later, carrying a rectangular package in his hands. “Our rooms are far away,” he said, pulling a chair up to the desk Frank was at. He deposited the present, which seemed to be entirely wrapped in tape, in front of Frank. “I didn’t wrap it,” he said quickly. “Mikey did that.”

“Wrapping is hard,” Mikey informed Frank.

It wasn’t really, but Frank nodded. “Right,” he said. “A rectangle. Really impossible.”

“Shut up and be grateful,” Mikey said. “I got three paper cuts for you.”

How?” Frank asked, giggling and ducking away from Mikey’s hand when he reached out to cuff the back of Frank’s head. “Fine, fine, you’re good at wrapping. You’re the wrapping king, okay?”

“Better,” Mikey muttered, slouching down in his chair so his shoulders were up near his ears. “Open it already.”

Frank was still grinning when he managed to get the package open, and then his grin fell from his face. Inside the now-mangled pile of tape and paper was a dark wooden frame that was just bigger than his admittedly small hands. It looked really nice, but the photograph on the inside was even nicer. It was all four of them, their faces split with grins. The Mikey in the photograph was smug, his hand wrapped firmly around Frank’s shoulder. Gerard looked like he was laughing at something; his nose was squished up and all of his tiny teeth were showing. He was looking more at Frank than at the camera, as though maybe Frank had been the one to make him laugh. Ray had one hand on Frank’s head, and was clearly messing up his hair even as he beamed in the background, eyes twinkling.

Frank looked pleasantly surprised, squished as he was in place by the other three, like he had finally found somewhere he could belong.

“Do you like it?” Gerard asked.

Frank looked up from the photograph, realizing that he’d been staring with his mouth open. “I, uh,” he said, voice catching on the words. He looked wildly from Gerard to Ray and then to Mikey, who looked concerned.

“I know it’s kind of cliché,” Mikey muttered, “but you don’t have any decorations in your room. No...pictures. I just thought...” he shrugged.

“This is the best present I have ever gotten,” Frank said, trying not to hold the frame too hard, lest it break. “It’s...it’s us,” he said, looking down at it again.

“The amazing thing about that picture,” Ray said, “is that both Gerard and Mikey showered before we took it.”

Frank laughed even as both Gerard and Mikey tackled Ray to the ground in unison.

Sisky was laughing too, and he finally stood up. “I’m going to pretend you were here for the full hour,” he said, “so don’t get caught going back to your rooms. You boys,” he said, grinning. “Okay, off with you.”

Frank leaped to his feet and went to the front to hug Sisky. “Thanks Sisky,” he said, beaming up at the older man.

Mikey scrambled off Ray and tugged Frank out of the room, leaving Gerard and Ray behind to clean up the mess. Frank kept his picture frame tucked close to his chest even as they ran, keeping it safe and close to his heart.

Chapter Text

November 7, 2012

It had been Mikey’s idea.

Even Frank had known it wasn’t a good idea.

He’d known Mikey for a year and a bit, and he knew that Mikey’s ideas weren’t always the best. So when he had burst into Frank’s room just after they’d Frank’s birthday for the second time (which was never going to stop being amazing), waving his hands around like some kind of lunatic, and had whisper-shouted “We should be blood brothers”, Frank had known to refuse.

“No,” he’d said, shoving away the textbook he’d been trying to read.

Mikey had tilted his head to the side and pouted out his lower lip. “But Frank,” he’d said, blinking quickly like he was about to cry and shoving his glasses up the bridge of his nose with the back of his hand, “why not?”

“Because,” Frank had said, extra slowly like he was talking to a child or a person who absolutely refused to see reason, “it’s a terrible idea!”

“No,” Mikey had said, eyes wide, “but it totally isn’t. See,” he’d said, marching across the room so he was feet away from Frank, “Then we’ll be like brothers. Come on, it’ll be awesome!”

“Mikey!” Frank had exclaimed, considering standing up to make himself a fraction taller. “Dude! Slicing open your hand is never a good idea!”

“But I read about it and they used to do it all the time,” Mikey had wheedled. “Come on, it’s like a best friends bracelet. But way cooler.”

Frank had hesitated then, and that was when Mikey had struck. “Seriously, dude. You’re basically my brother already. I just...I’ve never had a best friend before, and I...I want it to be official, okay?” He’d got on his knees then, and really, Frank had been powerless to resist. “Please? It’ll be really gross.”

“And what,” Ray said, later when both Frank and Mikey were sitting on one of the white hospital beds. His eyes were saucers in his head. “That made you think that taking a knife to your hand was a good fucking idea?!”

“Uh,” Frank said, eloquently. He’d been somewhat convinced of the legitimacy of Mikey’s plan until his hand had started to really hurt and he’d noticed the rate at which he was losing his blood. That had, coincidentally, been when Frank had started to panic. He glanced over now at Mikey who was sitting on the edge of the bed, face stoic and as white as the sheets they were sitting on. “Yes?”

Ray shook his head, muttering curses under his breath as he unwrapped the makeshift bandage Frank had fashioned out of the black t-shirt he’d found on his floor. Frank hissed when the bandage peeled away from his hand. It stuck to the wound, which was gaping and mysterious now that it was no longer vomiting blood onto the floor. Instinctively, Frank leaned in, mouth wide at the surreal filaments of muscle he could see stretching vertically from his fingers to his wrist. The cut was mostly horizontal, and traced across the crescent fold in the middle of his palm, which was where he’d gripped the blade of the questionable-looking knife.

Mikey had done the same thing with his opposite hand, and the second they’d made the incision, they’d gripped hands and winced. Frank remembered Mikey muttering “Looked a lot easier in the movies” moments before he’d passed out.

It was a good thing that Frank had thought to bind Mikey’s hand and his own before hyperventilating and running out in a panic for Ray. Now Mikey was staring down at his hand like he was frozen in time.

“God,” Ray muttered, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “Motherfucking shit, you’re such idiots. Fuck, I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Did you know it looked like that?” Frank asked, blinking down at the cherry red of his insides.

“I do work in the hospital wing,” Ray said dryly, before calling out for Ms. Salpeter. “I can’t put it back together, Frank. I’m not steady enough, I haven’t ever done something this big before.”

Frank tore his gaze away from his open hand to look at Ray. “I trust you,” he said.

“Clearly,” Ray said, eyebrows high in his face, “You will trust just about anyone.”

“No,” Frank said. “I don’t trust anybody. I trust you. And,” he added, moving his foot to the side so he could nudge Mikey’s ankle, “and Mikey.”

Mikey’s eyes flickered up, hazel and unsure.

Frank grinned. “We’re blood now, dude. You and me.”

“That’s disgusting,” Ray informed Frank.

“You’re just jealous,” Frank said, giggling. One corner of Mikey’s mouth lifted up a fraction, but it dropped when Ms. Salpeter slipped through the curtain-wall.

“Ah, hysterics,” she said. “Wonderful. I’m so glad we’re meeting like this, Mr. Iero,” she said, looking from Frank’s open hand to Frank’s face. “Absolutely delighted.”

“Mutual, I’m sure,” Frank said.

“Now,” she said, a ghost of a smile flickering across her face as she pulled up a chair beside Ray, “what do we have here?”

“A twisted ancient ritual,” Ray said.

“Oh dear,” Ms. Salpeter said. She reached across Ray and tapped a slender silver needle on a tray. “That one’ll do. We do have policies against sacrificing virgins, Mr. Way, though I hope you would have known that by now. Take his hand, Ray.”

Ray did, ignoring Frank’s yelp of pain. “Okay,” he said, breathing deeply.

“We want to make sure they didn’t sever anything important,” she said. Her eyes were focused on Frank’s hand. “So?”

“Check his...fingers,” Ray said.

Ms. Salpeter nodded, and Ray cleared his throat. “Close your eyes, Frank.”

“Don’t kill me,” Frank said, letting his eyes slip shut. “Ow!”

“Not so hard,” Ms. Salpeter said. “Just gently prick each fingertip.”

Frank grimaced when each of his fingers was poked, each one lighter than his thumb had been. “I can feel all of those,” he said.

“Good,” Ms. Salpeter said. “Wiggle each one? Just a little, we don’t want to aggravate the wound too much.”

Frank did as he was told, and then lay down on the bed when Ray instructed him to. Mikey had to shuffle over to let him put his head down, and Frank glanced up at him for a moment before Ray’s fingers started moving on his skin. It was hard to keep his hand in Ray’s grip, it hurt so much, but Ms. Salpeter was holding his arm down, talking Ray through the process.

It probably only took a few minutes, but the fiery pain of his muscles being knit back together seemed to last for hours. When the pressure of Ray’s fingers around his wound lifted, Frank looked down to see that his skin was still split. Mikey had moved behind him so that Frank’s head was propped up on one of his legs. Frank didn’t even bother to worry about the fact that both Mikey’s shirt and pants were stained with blood. He could take a shower later. When he felt like one of the living again.

“My hand’s like a grape,” Frank muttered, feeling detached from the world. He could barely keep his eyes open. His energy level seemed to be dropping at an alarming rate; he could no longer lift up his arms. “What’s going on?”

“I’m going to have to do the rest of this manually,” Ray said, wiping a shaking hand across his forehead. “I can’t take any energy from Mikey, he’s already lost too much blood for that. And I can’t drain Ms. Salpeter because we need her in case there’s an emergency.”

“Aw,” Frank muttered, feeling his eyelids droop shut. “‘s too bad.”

“Hm,” Ray muttered. There was a strange sensation on the numb but hyper-sensitized skin of his hand, and when Frank squinted his eye open, he saw Ray injecting something into Frank’s hand with a long, thin needle.

“Wassat?” Frank asked, closing his eyes again.

“Antiseptic,” Ray said. “And now, anesthetic. I’m going to stitch you up in a minute, Frankie.”

“That’s good,” Ms. Salpeter said. “I’m going to go check on Nathan in the other room,” she said. “He’s got a nasty flu. But I think you can handle this. Call me if you need more energy to do Mikey’s hand.”

Ray nodded, and Frank wrinkled his nose when Ray pulled out the needle. Everything felt pretty dull, so Frank wasn’t too inclined to complain about the pain. “Okay doc,” he muttered, turning his head to the side because it was more comfortable. “Your leg is a pillow from heaven,” he murmured.

Mikey didn’t say anything, but he patted Frank’s head with his good hand to let him know that he’d heard.

Frank heard a series of fast-paced footsteps squeak across the tile of the hospital wing moments before the curtain divider rustled. He twisted as well as he could to see who was bursting through, but the fact that he couldn’t quite make out a shape in his mind to assign to the sound made him half sit up.

“Mikey, Mikey, what the fuck,” Gerard panted, once he’d tackled Mikey in a hug and buried his face in Mikey’s neck. Frank had sat up just in time, it looked like, because Gerard’s knee was planted into the bed right where Frank’s head had been only seconds before. “Oh my god, Mikey, shit, I’m so, oh my god.”

Mikey’s face, which before had been close to expressionless with shock, suddenly crumpled. “Gee,” he whispered, closing his eyes as tears started to spill out, “Gee, I’m --”

“Don’t you say it, don’t you dare goddamn say a word, you, you, fucking fuck, Mikey.”

“I --” Mikey said, choking on a sob. “I didn’t know it would be so --”

“You didn’t know? Why the fuck were you doing something like this in the first place?” Gerard asked, pulling away and moving so that he was standing in front of the bed, taking Mikey, who was folded in half, face buried in his chest, with him.

Mikey didn’t say anything out loud, but he must have used telepathy unconsciously because Gerard’s face rippled from hurt to angry to understanding within moments. “I can’t believe you did something this stupid,” Gerard muttered, forehead creasing as he ran his hands through Mikey’s hair.

Frank watched with mild interest as Gerard’s face changed, shifting through expressions as he and Mikey conversed silently. His hands moved, too, clutching tightly at the fabric of Mikey’s shirt.

Now that Frank’s head was no longer in imminent danger, he lay back down, resting his good hand on his chest. Ray was preparing a needle somewhere on the receding fringes of Frank’s awareness, and as he got his gloves and the thread ready, Frank just closed his eyes. As the broken sounds of Mikey’s sobs turned into his regular, even breathing after, and as he sat back on the bed and wiped his eyes one-handedly, Ray picked up Frank’s hand and started working.

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” Gerard whispered.

Frank peeked open an eye to catch Gerard’s own tear-stained face blinking widely. “Fuck,” Gerard muttered, looking down at Frank where he swallowed hard and tried to smile. “Hey Frankie, how’re you doin’?”

“Tired,” Frank muttered. “Insides aren’t my outsides, Ray fixed me up.”

Am fixing,” Ray said.

Gerard smiled and smoothed Frank’s hair back from his eyes. His hand was cool when it rested a moment on Frank’s forehead. “You gonna survive whatever my crazy brother put you through?”

“Mm,” Frank hummed, “‘m solid as a rock, Gee. Can’t...knock me over.”

“Yeah,” Gerard murmured. “That’s good, Frankie. You’re good. Saving this dummy’s hand like that, you oughta have a medal.”

“Fuckin’ war hero,” Frank agreed. “‘cept I guess I agreed to it.”

“Hm. I still say it counts,” Gerard said. His eyes flickered over to the side, where Frank thought Ray was either stitching his hand shut or prodding his wound like some kind of demented child. “Hey, what...what’re you doing?”

Ray grunted, and his forehead creased in concentration. “Manual labour,” he said.

Frank was quite interested in the way Gerard’s eyes were slowly widening until they seemed to take up his whole face.

“Is that a needle?” Gerard asked, voice flat.

“Uh,” Ray said, pausing with the needle in the air. “No?”

“Shit,” Mikey said.

Gerard blinked once, looked down at Frank, and fainted. Frank peered over the edge of the bed and saw that Gerard was now just a crumpled heap on the white tile. He would have laughed, if he hadn’t been too busy lying back and closing his eyes again.

“Whoops,” Ray muttered, doing something complicated to finish the stitches before snipping the thread. “I forgot about his paralyzing phobia of needles.”

“Should someone pick him up or do something with him?” Frank asked, wincing when Ray pressed a bandage over his hand, sticking the edges down before reaching for a longer bandage.

“I only have one hand,” Mikey muttered.

Ray wrapped the long bandage around Frank’s hand and pinned it on the back. “Keep that dry,” he said, “for two weeks.”

“You can’t heal it?” Frank asked, pulling his injured hand back and letting it rest on his stomach, palm up.

“I can,” Ray said, crouching on the ground beside Gerard. He scooped the other boy up and struggled to his feet. “Move,” he grunted, and Frank slid to the side, making room for Ray to deposit the limp body onto the bed. Frank strained to sit up so he could pull Gerard to safety.

“I can,” Ray repeated, apparently satisfied now that Frank had his arm around Gerard. “But I’m not going to.”

Frank frowned and adjusted his bad hand so he was resting it on Gerard’s chest. His right hand was tucked firmly around Gerard’s side, holding him on the bed that was not quite big enough for three growing boys to lounge on. “Oh.”

Ray looked over to meet Frank’s eyes. There was still a touch of fear hiding in his face, but what Frank could mostly see now was resignation and lingering anger. “Yes, oh,” he snapped. “Oh, you two almost bled to death because of a stupid fucking idea. You can’t just do something like this, fuck. If you hadn’t got Mikey’s hand wrapped up, if you hadn’t got to me in time, I...you...you would have left me behind. Shit.” Ray huffed out a shaking breath, shoving the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Fuck. It was fucking terrifying, you showing up at my door with your hand like that, you don’t...you don’t even know.” His voice was whisper soft when he finally dropped his hands.

“Ray,” Frank said, reaching out his good hand to grab Ray’s. “I’m, fuck. We’re, we’re sorry.”

“So sorry,” Mikey whispered, sniffing back as another tear dripped down his nose. “I didn’t know you had so much blood in your hand.”

“Don’t apologize,” Ray said, letting Frank’s hand drop after giving it a squeeze. “Just don’t do something that fucking stupid ever again.”

“Promise,” Mikey said. “Cross my heart.”

Ray nodded, sitting down on the chair he’d brought over in front of Mikey. “Fuck. Okay. Give me your hand. I’m going to do the same thing to it as I did to Frank’s, because I want you to think about what you fucking did. Every time it hurts or you reach for something, I want you to think about how fucking lucky you are to still be here.”

Mikey nodded. “Yes sir,” he croaked.

“Good,” Ray said.

Frank reached his hand out again. Even though he was exhausted, and his limbs felt shaky, he could feel the familiar power headache building behind his eyes. He definitely had energy to spare. He had to rest most of his body’s weight on Gerard’s chest in order to touch Ray’s forearm.

Ray took a deep breath once Mikey’s thin, open hand was in his palms, and Frank felt the tug inside his mind which signaled the start of Ray pulling power from him. He fought to stay awake through it, not wanting to lose his place on Ray’s arm. He could feel his power ebbing, and the strange sensation of sleep began tugging at his limbs and mind.

He blinked heavily, barely keeping his eyes open and mind present. Mikey kept making soft noises of distress, but he kept still throughout the process. Ray finished more quickly than Frank would have thought, and his hand looked the same as Frank’s had when Ray’s shoulders relaxed. He put Mikey’s hand back down.

“Take some more,” Frank said, not moving his hand from Ray’s arm. “Whatever you need.”

“No, dude,” Ray said. “You need it to build up your blood.”

“I’ll get it back,” Frank said. “I insist. You saved my fucking life, dude. Take whatever you need, seriously. It’ll help me get to sleep anyway.”

Ray hesitated, but the idea of Frank sleeping must have won him over, because he pulled another chunk of energy from Frank. Frank felt darkness creep into his vision and smiled shakily when he saw that Ray’s cheeks were rosy again.

He slumped over on the bed when Ray pulled away and nestled his head on Gerard’s shoulder.

Gerard shifted beneath him. “Frankie?” he asked groggily. “What happened?”

Frank sniffed and tried to push himself up with little success. “You fainted,” he muttered, propped up on Gerard. “It was pretty manly.”

“Fuck,” Gerard muttered. “We’re still in the hospital wing?” He pushed himself up a bit, taking Frank with him, and glanced over his shoulder at Mikey. “Mikes?” he asked. He looked down at Mikey’s hand, where Ray was pushing the antiseptic needle into the thin skin around the wound. Gerard’s mouth fell open and his eyes rolled up into his head when Ray squirted the wound with the liquid and some of it gushed out the wound, dripping down the sides of Mikey’s hand. He made a choked noise the second before he fell back down, and Frank felt Gerard pull energy in a wave as he passed out, his body attracting Frank’s power like a magnet.

Frank fell too, and his head dropped without his consent onto Gerard’s chest. It was warm, and Gerard’s body was still automatically diffusing Frank’s extra energy in his sleep, bringing him down to normal human levels where he was just a human thirteen year old who had lost a lot of blood and some of his own energy from Ray, and Frank was unconscious before he could even blink.

Chapter Text

November 14, 2012

Frank’s hand hurt for a solid week. He was grateful that Mikey had offered to sacrifice his right hand so he could still write notes, but every time his hand twinged beneath the bandages, Frank was reminded of how close he’d come to dying.

A year ago, he might have accepted death with complacency. Two years ago, he’d wished for it a few times. But now, with the Institute over his head and friends at his side, Frank was not ready to leave. He’d only just started living life like kids were supposed to, and even with homework and cleaning rooms, Frank did not want to give any of that up just yet.

It was after his hand had healed enough for Ray to remove the stitches that Sisky approached him after class one day.

“Frank,” he said, gesturing for Frank to stay for a moment, “can I have talked to you for a moment?”

Frank skipped over the strange tense in his mind and nodded. “Sure.”

“It’s kind of an awkward subject,” Sisky said, wringing his hands, “so I’ve just said it. Oh, no, wrong direction. No interruptions, please.”

Frank put his books down on his desk. “Okay.” He had to go to Math, but he could probably get Sisky to write a note saying why he’d been late.

“Mr. Thompson will mostly understand,” Sisky said, pulling a slip of paper from his back pocket. “I was wondering why I’d seen this note at breakfast. Here you go. Now.” He handed the note to Frank and cleared his throat. “It’s about your parents.”

Frank’s stomach plummeted to the floor. “No,” he said. “I’m not going to talk about that.”

“Damn,” Sisky muttered. “I though asking for no interruptions would work. Frank, listen to me, it’s not what you think. Maybe. Er. What exactly do you think?”

“I think you’re going to make me go back there,” Frank said. His hands were shaking, so he folded his arms across his chest. He couldn’t quite feel his feet, but he knew they were itching to get out, to get away. He wanted to run until he couldn’t think any more.

“Well, no. Maybe. I can’t see that far ahead with you,” Sisky said. “I was just wondering, we. The government. We thought you might want to let them know that you’re still alive?”

“I don’t care,” Frank snapped. “They didn’t want me. I’m not going back there.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t --”

Frank held up a hand, gritting his teeth against the way it trembled in the air. “It was. You didn’t hear them, okay? You weren’t there. You don’t know.”

“It doesn’t even have to be you,” Sisky said, “the government can just send them a letter saying that they’ve picked you up and that you aren’t dead. Frank, listen to me, come on.”

“Is that all?” Frank asked, meeting Sisky’s eyes dead on. His voice was strangely calm. On the inside he felt like breaking things.

Sisky frowned, forehead creasing in concern. Frank held his gaze, prepared to stand there all day if he had to, but Sisky just sighed. He didn’t break eye contact, but he blinked sadly. “Yes, Frank. That’s all.”

Frank walked out of the classroom as quickly as he could. Math took forever; Thompson accepted his note with a dubious look on his face. During the pop quiz that he assigned, Frank’s hand was shaking so badly that he could barely make his writing legible. He was a bundle of pent-up nerves and he left the moment he could, not stopping to talk to Bebe, and not waiting outside class for Mikey.

He ran laps before dinner, relishing the burn in his calves and thighs. He left himself enough time to take a quick shower before the bell for supper rang, and lost himself in the pounding rain of the shower head.

His hair was still dripping wet when he made his way to the cafeteria. It was getting long now, just like it had when he’d been at Butch’s.

Quinn had insisted on cutting Frank’s hair when they’d been at Butch’s. Frank hadn’t intentionally let it grow for so long, but after living for a year on the streets, he’d learned that what money he managed to scrounge up could not be wasted on such luxuries as haircuts. In the flickering fluorescent lights of Butch’s bathroom, Quinn had cornered Frank with a pair of wickedly sharp scissors and grinned.

“Don’t kill me,” Frank had said, suspiciously washing his hands at the sink.

“I am only going to kill your hair,” Quinn had announced. “Sit back, Iero. If there’s one thing I know, and I know at least five things, it’s that you should never have this much hair. Maybe if you’re a fancy-ass musician or a waiter it’s okay, but if you get in a fight, your hair can be used against you. Your opponent can just dig their fingers in and slam you around, and you’re pretty small, so you’re going to need all the advantages you can get.”

Jeph had walked in when Quinn was just finishing; he’d cut it fairly short and then buzzed down the sides so Frank had a mohawk of sorts. “Oh, let’s dye it black!” Jeph had said, clapping his hands together. “So nobody will be able to recognize you.”

Quinn had rolled his eyes and stowed the silver scissors in a black case Frank hadn’t ever seen before. Come to think of it, that had been the first time that Frank had ever seen those particular scissors, too. “Black is pretty much what colour his hair is now, Jeph.”

“Just because both brown and black are both combinations of all the colours doesn’t mean they’re the same,” Jeph had retorted, digging in the cabinets for what Frank had assumed was probably dye. They hadn’t ever gotten to the actual dyeing process, however, because Bert had walked in right as Jeph was reaching for the bottle.

He’d taken one look at Frank’s short hair and then had run out as Quinn had reached for the kit he’d put the scissors into, hands clamped over his long hair. “You’ll never take me alive, Quinnery!” Frank had heard Bert shout from somewhere in the house. Jeph had ambled out of the bathroom, all desire to dye apparently forgotten. Quinn had cut Frank’s hair twice more, but the last time had been a good year and a few months ago.

It was definitely curling around the collar of his shirt again, and he kept scratching idly at the nape of his neck.

He had just gotten a tray full of food and was tucking a stray strand behind his ear when someone bumped in to him. Frank scrambled to retain his balance and footing, desperate to keep the corn chowder in its small, plastic bowl. It slid to the edge of the tray, balancing precariously on the edge as he stumbled but he managed to right it moments before it toppled over the edge.

He breathed a sigh of relief and straightened up only to have his tray flipped up by whoever he’d collided with.

Frank stared down at the orange goop dripping down his chest. He’d just showered.

“Watch where you’re going, you fucking freak,” Bruise said.

Of course it was Bruise. Frank clenched his hands into fists at his sides and glared up. “You’re the one who pushed me, asshole,” he muttered, voice low as he turned around. The government, Mikey had informed him the first week Frank had been there, did not like fights. They especially did not like fights that they had to hear about, and picking on someone who was at least two feet taller than you in a public space was not a good thing to have on your record. He had to just walk away and find a better time to get back at Bruise.

“What the fuck did you just say to me?” Bruise asked.

Frank stepped over the fallen tray and ignored him. His left hand hurt where his fingernails were digging into his still-fresh scar.

“You kiss your mother with that filthy mouth?”

They were rhetorical questions, Frank reminded himself. He squared his shoulders and kept walking away.

“Oh, sorry,” Bruise said, in a sing-songy voice. “I forgot. You’re from the fucking streets.”

Oh joy. Bruise knew some actual facts about things. It was reassuring to know that their schooling hadn’t entirely gone to waste. He probably still didn’t know where the capital of the United States was, though. A shame.

“That means you’re either an orphan,” Bruise continued, raising his voice over the chatter of the cafeteria, “or your mom kicked you out of your house.”

Frank froze, mid-step.

“Is that it?” Bruise asked, voice challenging and triumphant. “Mommy didn’t want her little Frankie around anymore?”

Frank’s jaw was clenched so tight that he could hear his teeth grinding together. “Shut up,” he muttered.

“Realized you were a worthless little shit, huh?” Bruise taunted.

Frank’s ears were burning now, his eyes narrowing into slits. Bruise couldn’t know. There was no way. “Shut up,” he hissed, digging his fingernails into his palms hard enough to draw blood.

“Probably kicked you out because you’re such a huge freak that she didn’t even want the check that the government sends as a reward for turning in fucking dipshit miscreants,” Bruise said. He laughed.

The sound crawled into Frank’s skull and rushed down through his veins, and before he could blink, he had turned and was launching himself at Bruise’s face. He landed the first hit, and the second, but someone’s arms came at him from behind, attempting to pull him off. The mullet was gone but it was definitely the same kid from earlier, so Frank just slammed his elbow back into the kid’s nose. A third kid tried to jump on him and he rolled to the side, pushing himself to his feet with the momentum and launching him back down to punch the third kid in the kidneys. Bruise grabbed Frank’s collar, but Frank kicked back and caught the soft parts of Bruise’s stomach.

Frank’s control over his power dropped when a big kid shoved the heel of his palm into Frank’s nose. He could feel Mikey at the corner of the cafeteria, scrambling up and trying to make it over to Frank’s side, but just as Frank had picked up a group of friends, so had Bruise. Two came at him at the same time, and Mullet got off the ground once the bigger two had forced Frank down. He kicked Frank in the ribs, a stupid grimace of a grin on his face. “That’s for my goddamn nose,” he hissed, kicking again. He ignored the way Frank was curling up in pain and kicked again. “And that’s for Bruise.”

Frank struggled against the two holding him down and yelped when Bruise stomped on his left hand. “Fucking midget,” the bigger boy growled. Mullet laughed maniacally and threaded his fingers into Frank’s hair so he could pull his head up and slam it into the ground.

Frank saw stars then, bright golden lights that swam behind his eyes and made everything dark.

When he opened his eyes, he was in a room that was way too bright. Something made a loud noise to his left and a blur walked in front of him. Frank blinked dazedly when his name floated around his head like the stars he could see in the sky of the ceiling.

“Frank Iero.”

“Hello,” Frank said, slurring for a reason that he couldn’t quite place his finger on. The stars twinkled at him that he should look to the side. “Principal Thomas!” he exclaimed, though half of it sounded wrong. Oh, there was blood in his mouth. That explained why he couldn’t talk properly. Well, okay, there had been blood in his mouth, but now it was mostly dripping out of his mouth and onto his shirt. That was a better place for blood to be anyway. “I love what you’ve done with the place.”

“My office,” the Principal snapped. “Now.”

Frank wondered if he could teleport now. He had been somewhere earlier and now he wasn’t there, and he’d managed to get transported here with...blinking. All of this talk of here and there was making him confused.

“No, no, no,” someone said.

Frank was busy swimming in a pool of Jello. Whoever was at the door would have to come back later. But not until he’d had a shower and sat down in his chair made of chocolate. “Go away,” he said, dripping blood onto his Jello pool. “My hands are full.”

“Frank, wake the fuck up.”

That didn’t sound like fun. What sounded like fun was tobogganing down a hill made of candy. And being surrounded by hundreds of happy puppies. Only, instead of a normal dog head, all of the puppies had another puppy for their heads.

“Weird,” Frank said, but he was being shaken by all of the puppies and they were warm and fluffy.

“I’m going to kill you when we get out of here. What the fuck are these?” a puppy that sounded suspiciously like Mikey asked. Frank turned around. Oh, it was Mikey!

“Is it time for my sponge bath?” Frank asked.

He didn’t really know what a sponge bath was (how were sponges ever supposed to get you clean without water? Did you just jump into a pile of sponges? Why did old people get them so often!), but Mikey’s face wrinkled in disgust. Maybe Mikey knew. “Gross,” Mikey said. “It’s time to wake up.”

“They’re Dogdogs,” Frank informed him. “Dogs with the head of the body of another dog. They’re mythical creatures, look them up.”

“No they aren’t,” Mikey said. “Can’t you have dreams about normal things and not fucking doubledogs?”

“Dogdogs,” Frank corrected. He’d named them. “And they’re the best thing ever.”

“You’re so fucked up on the inside,” Mikey said. He extended his hand towards Frank over a jumping, yipping Dogdog. “Come on, let’s get out of Horrorsville, shall we?”

“I named that one Mikey,” Frank said seriously, pointing at the Dogdog nearest to Mikey. “She’s the best one.”

“She?!” Mikey asked, highly affronted for about half a second before he shrugged. “Cool.”

“Hang on,” Frank said. “I think I left my sunglasses back there.”

“For Christ’s sake,” Mikey muttered and grabbed Frank’s hand.

“OW,” Frank exclaimed, eyes open wide now as Mikey’s grip on his left hand tightened. “THAT HURTS.”

“Stop shouting,” Mikey said. “It’s undignified.”

“NO,” Frank yelled.

“Frank,” Ray said, surprisingly calmly, “If you wouldn’t mind looking this way, that would be great.”

“Is this still a dream?” Frank asked. “Hey, I’m not bleeding everywhere!”

“Anymore,” Ray said. “You aren’t bleeding anymore. And it’s because I healed your split cheek and most of your hand and your brain, your fucking brain, Frank.”

Frank looked over at Ray and frowned. “Hm.”

“Yes, hm. Why did you have to pick a fight with the biggest fucking kids in school?” Ray snapped his fingers. “Focus your eyes, Frank. I couldn’t heal it all the way so you still have a bit of a concussion. It would have been safer to do with you awake, but someone refused to stop hitting me until I healed you.”

Mikey beamed, clearly very pleased with himself.

“Well, thanks,” Frank said. Now that he was awake and not swimming in some kind of pool of stars and could remember why he’d gotten into a fight in the first place, he wanted to leave. “Can I go now?”

“No you can’t fucking go.” Ray folded his arms across his chest and sat back in what Frank now realized was a chair.

“Where am I?” Frank asked, looking around and pushing himself into a sitting position. He didn’t recognize the walls or the bed. “Wasn’t I in Principal Thomas’ office, like, five minutes ago?”

“Five minutes?” Ray said, rolling his eyes. “More like half an hour.”

“Oh,” Frank said.

“Yeah, oh,” Ray said. “I had to send Mikey into your head to make sure you were still alive.”

Frank blinked over at Mikey, whose eyes were wide. “You didn’t wait for me,” he said, evidently hurt.

Gerard walked in then, hair sticking in every direction. this must be his room. Frank had never been in it, but he’d thought there would have been more shirts on the floor. He reached out with his power, and, oh. There they were, all shoved under his bed. “Thomas says you’re off the hook,” he said, walking over to the desk in the corner. “I think passing out in his office and bleeding all over the floor helped. He said that if you hadn’t had a concussion, he might have believed that you were at fault, but.” Gerard shrugged. “He doesn’t need to know why the fight started.”

“But we do,” Ray said.

Frank tried to extricate his hand from Mikey’s with little success. “It’s not,” he muttered, trying not to meet anybody’s eyes, “Not a big deal. Whatever.”

“If you’re going to be getting in fights about something, we need to know what it is,” Gerard said.

“So we can have your back,” Mikey added.

Frank scratched the back of his neck. “I need to cut my hair,” he muttered, fingers itching to get rid of the strands.

“It’s about your parents, right?” Gerard asked. “Come on, Frankie. We just want to help.”

“I don’t want your fucking pity,” Frank snapped, finally meeting Gerard’s gaze. “I certainly don’t need it. And I don’t need your help.”

Gerard looked surprised, but he leaned forward. “Who do you think we are? We’re not going to pity you, Frank.”

“You will!” Frank said. “I know you. I mean, I know I’ve only been here for a year or whatever, but I know you guys and I don’t want that, okay? I don’t want you to feel sorry for me because I lived on the fucking streets. I did just fine there. I can take care of myself.”

“Frank, we know,” Gerard said, eyes wide, but Frank cut him off.

“You don’t know, Gerard,” he said. “None of you do. Can we just fucking drop it? Please?”

“No,” Mikey said.

Frank looked over, at the boy who was still resolutely holding his hand with the one he’d cut.

“I want to know,” Mikey said, angling his chin up and setting his jaw. “You can take care of yourself but you don’t have to. And I want to know. You were living on the streets for a reason.”

“Mikey,” Frank said, half-whispering, “please, just drop it.”

“If you don’t tell me, I’m going to reach into your head and take it for myself,” Mikey said. His eyes were hard, but he squeezed Frank’s hand. “This is something important to you, Frank. It’s important to me too.”

Frank closed his eyes. “Fuck,” he muttered. “Fine.”

Mikey nodded and squeezed Frank’s hand again.

“Don’t interrupt me,” Frank said. “I’ve never told anyone the whole thing, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to.”

The three boys were silent and waiting. Frank couldn’t meet their eyes, so he looked down at the hem of his shirt.

He took a deep breath. “Okay, it...it was raining. The night that it...that everything blew up. I guess, they told us in class that we get our powers when we’re born, so I just always had a lot of energy. Not counting times when I’ve been forcibly knocked unconscious, I haven’t slept a full night since I was six. It’s not that bad, I don’t need to sleep because my body keeps itself going. I feel better after I do, but. Anyway. So, I’ve always been kind of energetic, so my parents put me into sports. At first that helped to trim down my excess energy, but after a while even that didn’t help. My parents always fought a lot, and Dad was... He’d leave, sometimes, and Mom would be different. Sad, maybe. I always felt like I had to take care of her, but she wouldn’t let me. Said I was young, I should be out enjoying life, not taking care of my old Mom. I mean, they both loved me, but I always knew it from her. I always really wanted my dad to love me the way she did, but, I don’t know.

“Fuck, anyway. So, I guess me staying up at night and shit, getting into fights at school and not being able to concentrate on my homework, getting in trouble because kids were on edge because of my power was kind of wearing down on them. And one day it was raining and Dad was yelling at Mom, and he, I guess he slapped her or something and then it all just happened so fast. I was there, and I just let loose, because I fucking love my dad, but my mom’s Mom, you know? And I always knew he was distant or whatever, but I lost my grip, and. I mean, I know what happened now, but then I was just scared shitless when stuff fell off the table and came off the walls without me even touching it.”

Frank stopped, heaving in a breath and squeezing his eyes shut. He wasn’t going to cry. Not over this. They weren’t worth it. No. He wasn’t worth it. Frank was past it now, anyway. “I remember he put his hand down, and he turned around and looked me in the eye and he said, ‘Get out’. And Mom kind of sobbed, but he pointed his finger at the door and said, ‘Get your shit and get out of this house, and don’t you ever fucking come back.’

“And I did.” Frank bit his lip and breathed again, in and out. “They didn’t want me. I made them fight like that, and I made my Dad hate my Mom, and I got kicked out.”

“But that’s --” Gerard muttered.

“Illegal?” Frank snorted. “Like they cared. I was nine. And so that’s it. That’s my story.”

The expression on Ray and Gerard’s faces seemed to be unanimous bewilderment, but Mikey looked angry. “It wasn’t your mom,” he said. “It was your dad. And he’s the one who’s shitty if he didn’t like you.”

Frank shrugged. Something in his chest felt loose, and kind of free now that he’d told someone. Remembering that night was painful, but he almost felt detached from it. Like it had happened to someone else. “It doesn’t matter. If he’s there, I can’t go back. And I can’t just look them up, because he’d know.”

“We could probably find someone who’d do it,” Mikey said.

“No,” Frank said. “It’s fine. It’s over. Done. It’s been four years. I don’t need it anymore. I don’t need them.”

Mikey looked over at Gerard but nodded. “Okay.”

“So you’re staying here over Thanksgiving holiday then?” Ray asked. “I mean, did you last year? Because you could come with one of us.”

“No,” Frank said. “Not this close. That’s this weekend, you guys. I’m not going to do that, I’ll just stay here. We never really made a big deal of Thanksgiving anyway.” He watched as the Ways were still exchanging dubious glances and threw his hands up in the air. “Seriously, stop. I’m a big boy, I can handle a holiday here. It’ll be fine.”

“Fine,” Gerard said. “We’re bringing you back some leftovers. No arguing. Fuck, if we’d known...”

Frank rolled his eyes. “Whatever. It’s fine. I just hung out with Gabe and Alex last year, and it’s cool. I know it’s hard to believe that people can have fun when you aren’t here, but it happens. The world keeps spinning.”

“I’m suddenly in the mood for Spinal Tap,” Mikey said, out of the blue. He sidestepped the conversation and spun it around. “Let’s watch it now, me and Gee have to leave tomorrow for fucking Thanksgiving.”

“I’ll get popcorn,” Gerard said.

Mikey looked at him.

Gerard shrugged. “What, you’re the only guy who can know Gabe Saporta? Fuck you, he’s my age.”

Mikey raised an eyebrow. Gerard blushed. “No it isn’t like that,” he said. “Shut up.” He stormed out of the room. Ray reluctantly stood and followed him out.

“If I didn’t know you had telepathy, I’d be seriously creeped out right now,” Frank said.

Mikey smirked. “I wasn’t using it,” he said.

Shivers traveled up Frank’s spine. “You’re some spooky shit, Mikey Way.”

“Don’t I know it,” Mikey said, standing and tugging Frank along with him. “Come on, it’s time to crank this hangout time up to eleven.”

Chapter Text

December 24, 2012

“Mikey told on you,” Gerard announced, when he and Mikey got back from their holiday.

“Did not!” Mikey said. “It was Gee, he tattled. I was very calm.”

“Right,” Gerard scoffed, rolling his eyes. “You practically got down on all fours.”

Frank tapped his pencil on the page of his notebook, where he was very studiously trying to write a paragraph about things he was thankful for. His English teacher was very creative. “I have no idea what you guys are talking about,” he informed them.

“Our mother would like to inform you that you are coming to our house for Christmas,” Gerard said.

“Gerard told her that you couldn’t go back to your place,” Mikey said.

Mikey said that you were his best friend and that you should come over,” Gerard retorted.

“Well, Gerard --”

“Guys, stop,” Frank said, holding up his hands. “I’m not coming.”

“Well,” Gerard said, a serious expression on his face, “the thing is, you are.”

“No I’m not,” Frank said. He’d had a fine time at the compound with Gabe, Vicky, Alex and Nate. Nate had shown Frank how he made force fields, and Vicky had shown Frank how she beat up Gabe. He’d missed Mikey, Gerard, and Ray, but he hadn’t been lonely.

“Our mom said you were,” Mikey said. “And when she says something, she means it. So you’re coming.”

“Fuck your mom,” Frank said. “I don’t need to hang out with your family, guys. Seriously, I’m not going.”

Two weeks later, Frank folded his arms across his chest. “This is stupid,” he said, breath huffing out in front of his face in an opaque cloud.

“Trust me, dude,” Mikey said from within his many layers. They’d been dropped off practically at the doorstep of the Way home after they’d eaten dinner at the compound, and yet Mikey was wearing a t-shirt under a sweater under a windbreaker under a jacket. The jacket had a big hood that was lined with some kind of faux fur, and he’d pulled it down so far that all Frank could see of him was his long nose and several strands of greasy hair. “If you hadn’t come willingly, she would have found out where the compound is, marched over there, and pulled you out herself.”

“She’s very determined,” Gerard said.

“Stubborn, Gee. We call that stubborn.”

Gerard shrugged. “Grandma was like that too. And you’re like that.”

“I know,” Mikey said. “I’m not trying to fancy it up.”

“She sticks to her guns,” Gerard said. “How about that?”

“Oh,” Mikey said, after he’d made a strange gesture with his head that Frank realized was him rolling his eyes, “by the way, there’s some weird shit on our walls. But nobody’s going to murder you.”

Frank looked over his shoulder and adjusted the strap of his duffel bag. He wasn’t so sure about that. The Way home was tall and imposing, one of those really old ones that either had character, or was definitely haunted. Frank was willing to bet that it was haunted. He’d definitely seen this house in a horror movie. It had those big, tall windows and was painted a dark shade of brown.

“Gee, did you even ring the doorbell?” Mikey asked, blowing at the strands of fake fur hanging down over his nose.

“I did,” Gerard muttered. “You think I don’t know how to get into my own house?”

“My shoulder hurts,” Mikey informed him. “And Frank’s cold.”

“Frank’s fine,” Gerard said.

“I can read minds,” Mikey said. “You can’t argue with me!”

“Can too, especially if you’re lying. Frank, are you cold?”

Frank looked from Gerard to Mikey. “....No.”

“Told you,” Gerard said.

“Fine,” Mikey muttered, shuffling his feet around on the edges of the slippery step.

“Someone’s coming,” Frank said, feeling the approach of someone cutting through his blanket of power. The disturbance caused ripples that Frank could see inside his mind.

“Fucking finally,” Mikey muttered again, just as the front door swung open. A small woman with an impressive heap of frizzy blonde hair and high, imposing eyebrows looked out at them.

“I don’t think we want what you’re selling,” she said, closing the door just as quickly as it had opened.

“Mama,” Gerard whined, “that isn’t funny.”

The woman opened the door again with a cackle. “It is too,” she said, ushering them in. Frank tried to stick close to Mikey, but a long-fingered nail reached out and snagged the sleeve of his arm. His eyes widened, but she was just pulling him into a hug that enveloped his entire body.

“You must be Frank,” she said, beaming down at him when she pushed him away and held him at arm’s length. Her hands were warm on his shoulders and her eyes were sparkling with something that Frank couldn’t quite place. Pride? “You’re the boy who saved my idiot son’s life.”

He nodded. “Yes ma’am.” He didn’t know where to look: the nose that looked like Gerard’s, the set of the mouth that was all Mikey, or the eyes that looked like both of them.

“Please,” she said, closing and locking the front door. “Call me Donna.”

“Yes ma-- Donna,” he said, catching himself at the last moment. He toed off his shoes and put them next to Mikey’s.

“Mikey says that you’ve been trying to stay away from meat recently,” she said, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “And you’re practically as thin as he is. Are you hungry now? Would you like some hot chocolate? Something to eat?”

The walls they passed were plastered in a dark, peeling paper. Every available surface was covered in something: there was a shelf populated entirely by tiny dolls and a table that was occupied completely by lamps. There were bouquets of black flowers in vases all over, and they passed something that looked like a coat rack but that had stuffed animals hanging from its pegs instead of clothes before they got into the kitchen.

There was a man at the counter, drinking what smelled like coffee. He smiled at Frank, and Frank could see Mikey in him. “You must be Frank,” he said, an echo of his wife. “I think we bought out the vegetarian section of the grocery store.”

“He’s going to eat it all,” Donna announced. “I put some yam fries in the oven and I got something the nice sales-boy called a ‘Tofurkey’ for Christmas day. You want that hot chocolate, or have my boys rubbed all their bad habits off on you?”

As though he had been summoned, Mikey brushed past Frank and made a beeline for the coffeepot. “Coffee,” he said, practically burying his face in the cup once he’d filled it.

“He still do that thing where he won’t cut his toenails?” Mr. Way asked.

“I try to get them to clean up every now and then,” Donna said. “They’re incorrigible little devils, my sons.”

Frank blinked, and Gerard was there, stopping at Frank’s side for half a second before he made his way past Mikey to the coffeepot. It was like you could call them up just by mentioning their bad hygiene.

“Coffee,” he breathed, the expression on his face matching Mikey’s.

Donna beamed fondly at Gerard and messed up his hair. He didn’t notice, and once she’d pulled her hand away, it looked the same as it had before. Mikey ducked away quickly, disappearing into the rest of the house without so much as a backwards glance.

Frank would have followed him, but Donna moved Gerard to the side so she could pour Frank a cup of coffee. Before he knew it, she was plying him with fries and chips and he was so full that he could barely hold up his hands to refuse the cookies he could smell in the oven.

“Mama,” Mikey said, appearing in the doorway. “Frank doesn’t want more food.”

“Okay dear,” Donna said. “You make sure he eats breakfast tomorrow.”

Frank downed the rest of his coffee and escaped with Mikey. They passed the lamp table (not one of them was plugged in), and a series of stuffed animal heads and then Mikey was pointing down a staircase. “We’re in the basement,” he said, jogging down the stairs with the ease that only came from walking down a staircase in the dark a thousand times. Frank followed, not sure whether he wanted to touch the railing. He decided not to, and just followed Mikey into the room, which turned out to be huge.

“Holy shit,” Frank said, eyes wide. There were clothes everywhere, and Mikey hadn’t been kidding when he’d said they were in the basement.

“It looked too clean,” Gerard muttered from the bed, where he was focused on the TV. “Mikey fixed it.”

Mikey nodded. “By tomorrow, she’ll have cleaned all those up. Mama loves washing our clothes.”

Suddenly, the frenzied way in which the Ways had shoved all of their clothes into duffel bags made sense.

“Sit,” Gerard ordered, patting the bed. He was flicking through the channels. Frank padded over and sat down. Mikey immediately shoved him closer to Gerard so he could sit on the bed, too. The bed definitely hadn’t been meant for three people, but they made it work. Gerard finally picked an old movie with lots of fake blood in it.

Pressed up against Gerard like he was, Frank could feel his energy slowly ebbing. Gerard probably didn’t realize what he was doing; he’d described his power as more of a reflex than a conscious action, but as it was, in the big, warm bed, Frank felt safe and he drifted off to the sound of screams on the television.

* * * *

Frank woke up with his head on Gerard’s stomach and Mikey’s entire body draped on top of him.

He grunted and tried to push the lanky boy away, only managing to get him to roll half back onto the bed. “Fuck,” Frank muttered. Mikey was heavier than he looked.

“Oh good,” Gerard said. Frank could feel Gerard’s stomach tighten under his head as he spoke. “You’re awake.”

That was fascinating. Frank poked Gerard’s stomach with one finger and turned his head to the side so he could look up at Gerard’s face. “I fell asleep,” he said, surprised.

“I think that’s my fault,” Gerard said. He looked extremely guilty. “I have a tendency to take energy, uh. More when I’m sleeping. I had to consciously shut it down before you’d wake up. I thought maybe I’d killed you.”

Frank extricated his arms from beneath Mikey’s limp form and stretched them above his head. “Don’t apologize, dude,” he said. “I feel awesome.” He propped himself up enough so he could put his arms beneath his head. He could feel Gerard’s heart beating beneath his hands this way.

“Well, good,” Gerard said. He reached down to run a hand through Frank’s hair. It was short now, thanks to Ms. Salpeter who’d apparently considered becoming a hair stylist at one point, but it was just long enough that it was brushing the tops of his ears. “I’m glad you’re alive.”

“Me too,” Frank muttered, letting his eyes slip shut. Gerard’s fingers were gentle where they worked over his scalp, soothing and smoothing. Frank lost himself in the motions, his head filled with all kinds of warm fluff when Gerard finally stopped. Frank made a vague noise of protest.

“Someone’s here,” Gerard said.

Frank peeked an eye open. Gerard looked like he was listening intently to something that Frank couldn’t hear. His hand was still on Frank’s head, long and warm.

“It’s Christmas Eve, right?” Frank asked. The compound had let them out fairly late, he’d been told, but they liked to keep their charges as long as they possibly could. “It’s probably your family.”

“No,” Gerard said. “This is different. Get up. And stay here.”

Frank sighed and rescued his legs from beneath Mikey. “Fine,” he groaned. He watched as Gerard slid off the bed and walked right over to the stairs, still in the same clothes he’d slept in. At least they’d been clean ones that he’d picked out specifically for his mother. Still, Frank rolled his eyes and dug in his bag for a fresh shirt. A shower would be nice, but he was curious about whatever had made Gerard traipse up the stairs in yesterday’s clothes.

He hurriedly tugged on a pair of socks and walked up the stairs, trying to keep his footsteps quiet. He could hear what Gerard apparently had from the basement: a low murmur of voices conversing in what Frank figured was the front entrance. He cast out his power, feeling the soles of shoes right near the front door.

Gerard’s voice cut through the others suddenly, louder than what Frank could hear were two women. Donna, then. And someone else. Not family, Gerard had said. Maybe a neighbour?

“What the hell is this?” Gerard was saying as Frank cleared the landing and inched his way towards the front. The house wasn’t gigantic by any means, but there was enough space for him to hide. He probably shouldn’t be eavesdropping, but there was concern and anger tinging Gerard’s voice and Frank wanted to know why.

“Gee, it’s just --” Donna’s voice came, using the same tone Mikey did when he tried to calm Gerard down.

“I can see what it just is,” Gerard snapped. “Let me rephrase that, then. Why are you here?”

“Gerard, lower your voice,” Donna said. “It isn’t fair of you --”

“Fair?” Gerard muttered, “What would she know about fair?”

“You don’t know the whole story, Gerard,” Donna warned. “I want you to give Linda a fair chance now.”

Linda? Frank’s heart, which had been beating at mostly a normal speed before, pattered down to a halt. No. It couldn’t be.

“Fine,” Gerard said. “Tell me why, then. I’ll give you that much. Why did you kick your only fucking son out on his ass when he was nine years old?”

No.

“I didn’t,” the woman said, finally speaking. Fuck, it had been four years and Frank could still recognize her voice. It sounded a bit deeper than he’d remembered, and he cast out his power, unwilling to turn the corner, but needing to see the familiar lines in her face. There were more than he’d remembered. “That was my ex-husband. You have to believe me, I would do anything to take back what happened that night. I could never...not my Frankie. Not to my Frankie. Even before I knew about the...”

“Superpowers,” Gerard snapped, and his voice was harsh. “Go on, say it. Mutations.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “I just want to see my son again. I received a call from Mrs. Way saying that she might know where he is, and --do you?”

Frank let his head fall back against the wall he was leaning on. He could hear the way her voice was breaking, see the way her face had fallen in the map of his mind.

“I would trade everything I have,” she whispered. “My ex took half of it when he left, but I don’t care. We were never, me and him. Not enough. He stayed because of Frankie, but nothing would have put us back together. He was a scumbag, even before he made Frankie leave...and then after, there was nothing holding us together. I’ve lost so much, but I would do it all again if it meant that my son was still alive.”

There was a long pause. Frank heard at least five different grandfather clocks ticking in the background, but his ear strained for anything from his mother.

“He is,” Gerard said, after a silent moment. His voice was soft and it was engulfed almost immediately by the sounds of his mother’s sobs

Through them, huge, sad sounds that made Frank’s heart squeeze in his chest, he heard her choke out, “Do you know where he is? Can I see him?”

“I don’t know if he’ll want to see you,” Gerard said. “I need to go talk to my brother.”

His mother nodded, and Donna pulled her into a hug around the corner. Frank couldn’t feel Gerard moving, but he could hear the squeaking of the floor beneath his feet, and just waited.

Gerard shuffled over to Frank, eyes wide. There was a hint of anger in them, but Frank blinked past it. “Is it her?” he asked, voice so low Frank could barely hear it.

Frank nodded. His stomach was twisting beneath his skin. He wrapped his arms around his midsection and slid down the wall until he could tuck his head between his knees. Gerard’s hand found his shoulder and he pulled Frank close enough so that his mouth was at Frank’s ear. His arms were solid, bracketing him in, holding him. “You don’t have to,” he said softly. “She’d understand.”

Frank shook his head and struggled to breathe against the weight on his chest. Gerard’s shoulder was right beneath his face, so he turned, pressing his eyes to the warm skin of Gerard’s neck. “Not now,” he whispered. Tears were coming, he knew, but he could hold them back until the house was his again.

Gerard nodded and pulled away. He left Frank on the floor, and Frank let his face fall into his hands. He held his breath, fighting against the sobs that would sound just like the ones he’d heard in the hallway until he heard the front door latch shut.

Gerard was at his side almost immediately, holding onto Frank and helping him up so they could hobble down the stairs to the basement, where it was cold and safe. Mikey was still on the bed, but he blinked awake long enough to fit himself around Frank from the other side, eyes still squinting from sleep. Frank tried to push them away but eventually just let them hold him until the lulling tug of Gerard’s power pulled him back into sleep.

* * * *

When Frank woke up again, it was to the smell of coffee and Mikey’s wide eyes staring into his. Frank pushed himself away and fell off the bed, adrenaline pumping through his veins. “Motherfucker,” he groaned, clutching the head he’d smacked on the bedside table. “Goddamnit, Mikey Way. You can’t just sneak up on a guy like that, shit.”

“It’s Christmas,” Mikey said, now perched on the edge of the bed. “And I brought you coffee. You have to come upstairs now.”

“I slept all day?” Frank asked. That would explain why his limbs all felt awesome. “How?”

“Gerard just kept your body down,” Mikey said. “Get up, dude. Presents.”

“Whats?” Frank asked, taking the offered cup. “I have presents?”

“Duh,” Mikey said, rolling his eyes. “We’re all waiting. It’s, like, six in the morning. I haven’t slept at all.”

“You got Gee to wake up at six?”

Mikey shrugged as Frank scrambled to follow him. Gross, third day in the same pants. “I pushed him off the bed,” he said, scaling the stairs like they were nothing. It was funny, because, usually, Mikey was more awkward than a human being ought to be. He fell up stairs like it was nobody’s business.

“Shut up,” Mikey said. “I can hear you, remember?”

“I liked it better when you couldn’t,” Frank said.

“No you didn’t,” Mikey said, grinning. He pulled Frank all the way into the living room and pushed him down onto the couch beside Gerard. Gerard looked like he was still sleeping.

“Frank,” Donna said from the second couch, “I’m sorry about yesterday. I didn’t think that she would come over here like that.” She looked worried, and Frank couldn’t stay mad at the same puppy eyes that Mikey made all the time.

“I was just,” Frank said, trying to find the right word. “Caught off guard.”

Donna smiled, but her eyes were sad now. “I just have boys of my own and would want someone to tell me what happened to them if they disappeared. I can’t imagine going so long without any news, especially if I thought I was at fault.”

“Mama,” Gerard said, reaching a hand over the armrest of the chair.

“I’m okay,” she said, sniffing and clutching her older son’s hand. “I realize you may be harbouring some resentment towards her, but I merely wanted to let her know that you were alive and well. She must have seen my name on the Caller ID and traced me the same way I found her. I truly am sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Frank said. “I’m, I’ll be okay. It’s just been a long time since I’ve seen her. She was always on my side, or at least I thought she was. I don’t know. I’m not ready for that. I guess I understand where you were coming from.”

Donna nodded. “I’m glad you’re with us, Frankie.”

“This is too mushy,” Mikey said. He put a wrapped box in each of their laps and sat down on a chair. “Open your presents now.”

“Wow, Mikey,” Frank said, eyeing the normally-wrapped gift with suspicion.

“He didn’t wrap them,” Gerard said, opening his eyes to look at Frank. “I did.”

“I picked them out,” Mikey said. “Go, go, go.”

Frank rolled his eyes and picked at the wrapping paper. It was wrapped in such a way that he could open it with his hands, which was a new thing.

Inside the package was a slightly worn set of DVDs. They looked like they’d been assembled from a pile of DVD; all of their covers were from different printings.

“They’re Hitchcock,” Gerard said. “We couldn’t afford the fancy set, so we had to go around town to find the separate ones. We thought maybe we could all watch them, and I could tell you all about Hithcock’s cinematic accomplishments.”

“And then I figured if you thought that would be boring....chocolate!” Mikey said, throwing his hands up in the air. Under the set of DVDs was, in fact, a chocolate bar.

Frank stared down at the gifts in his hands. “Holy shit,” he said. They’d gone around town, looking for DVDs. To give to him. To watch with him. “This is awesome, you guys,” he said. His presents for each of them were somehow under the tree, and Mikey got those out next. While Frank had been unwrapping his DVDs, Mikey had apparently received a shirt with a wolf’s head on it, and a bulky sweater with his name on it. Gerard looked to be wearing a new watch, and apparently his mom had bought him a hairbrush as a joke, because he was pointing at it and frowning. Donna just laughed and got up to go into the kitchen.

Frank only really had the money that the government allotted to them, so he’d had to save up for a few months to get presents for his friends.

“It’s not, like, a lot, I guess,” he stammered, nervous when Mikey opened his present.

“A hat!” Mikey exclaimed, pulling out the grey toque that Frank had found in a store window. It had said ‘Mikey’ to him, and it looked perfectly at home on his head. “I’m never taking it off.”

Gerard’s face creased into a concerned frown, but his hands were still working at opening the present. Frank had figured that Gerard would appreciate something that Frank had made more than something that Frank had bought, so instead of paying attention during English class (which was a breeze anyway; nobody paid attention), he’d laboured over a drawing of him, Mikey, Gerard, and Ray, posing like they were in the photograph that he had sitting on his desk.

“Frank,” Gerard said, eyes wide.

“I know,” Frank said. “It’s not a lot, I guess.”

“No,” Gerard said. “It’s perfect. Oh my god, you drew this? For me. I fuckin’ love it.”

“Oh good,” Frank said. “I wasn’t sure if you would.”

“My nose doesn’t look like that,” Mikey said, voice flatly suspicious.

“It does too,” Gerard said. “Frank got you dead on. He even got that weird squinty thing you do when you’re being really smug. Frank, this is seriously the best present. I don’t know how to say thank you.”

“Except we do,” Mikey said. His face was completely void of expression, and Frank had spent quite a lot of time learning to look for the subtleties in Mikey’s face. He handed Frank a dark green grocery bag and nodded. “Don’t show Mom,” he said.

Gerard cleared his throat and got off the couch as Frank frowned down at the bag. It contained one magazine, which Frank took out and peered at suspiciously. He didn’t read magazines very often. “What is this?” he asked, flipping it open for a split second before he closed it very quickly.

He looked back at Mikey with wide eyes. “Is this what I think it is?” he asked, and for some reason, his voice seemed to be about an octave higher than it usually was.

Mikey nodded, still completely expressionless. “It’s exactly what you think it is,” Mikey said. “Now put it away or my mom will smell it. Or something. Merry Christmas, dude.”

Frank stuffed the magazine back into the bag and scooped up his DVDs. He didn’t even know what to do with girls who were wearing clothes, let alone an entire magazine full of naked ones.

“You’ll figure it out,” Mikey said, in a sage voice.

Mikey knew these kinds of things, probably.

Ew.

“Ew,” Mikey echoed. “Put that and those thoughts away, because my mom can seriously hear them from a mile away. She’s like a freaky bloodhound or something and she isn’t even a telepath.”

“Okay,” Frank said quickly. He was going to hide his presents so far beneath all of his clothes that even he would have trouble digging them out when they returned to the compound.

Merry Christmas indeed.

* * * *

After Christmas, things returned to what passed for normal at the compound. They still had the same classes as they’d had before the two weeks of break, which made it easier for Frank to settle back into the rhythm he’d been in before. His meditation was getting better, and even though Bruise often cornered him after Control class, he’d managed to not lash out. The older boy had gotten smart and refused to hit Frank’s face, jabbing instead at his stomach and sides, where the flesh would bruise but was also hidden most of the time. Frank didn’t know what to do about it, so he just let it be, figuring once he had a handle on his power he would be able to take Bruise on properly.

“Michael James Way,” Sisky said when Frank and Mikey wandered into Control class one Friday. “You have not been meditating properly. I know this because Patrick Stump is about to walk in here, take one look at you, and announce the news for himself.”

Mikey blushed.

“It isn’t your fault,” Sisky said, “you’re about to tell me. And you’re right, it is and it isn’t. It’s hard for you to properly concentrate on what you need to do with Frank’s static thing right next to you, so you’re going to sit in the far corner of the room so you’ll have an easier time of it. I’d offer to switch your rooms, but this is the only class you get with Frank, and I think that’s nice.”

Mikey scuffed his feet on the carpet and folded his arms across his chest. “Okay,” he muttered, eyes downcast.

“I preemptively cleared a seat for you,” Sisky said. “This should help.”

Frank smiled at Mikey, trying to convey It’s going to be okay with his mouth before he remembered that Mikey could read his thoughts and had probably picked up on it. He definitely had; Frank saw him roll his eyes and shuffle off towards the corner, where he sat down and immediately looked like he was fast asleep.

“This one’s for you,” Sisky said, pointing to the free desk in the front corner. It had a chair on both sides of it, and as Frank sat down, he saw a small man with orange hair walk through the door, and a slightly taller man with black hair following close behind.

“I don’t think putting a telepath next to an energy creator is such a good idea,” the orange-haired man said, voice low so as not to disturb the rest of the class too much.

“Already taken care of,” Sisky said, as quietly. “I would have waited, but I got impatient. Frank’s already sitting down and waiting for you, whenever you’re ready.”

The small man nodded and turned around. “You can go, Pete,” he hissed, eyes narrowing.

Pete put a hand on his chest. “Me?” he asked in a theatrical whisper. “I got you here safely, Patrick. Have you no gratitude?”

“No,” Patrick said. “There are no enemies in these halls, Pete, I’ve told you.”

“Tricky trick trick,” Pete said, shaking his head. “You wound me. I shall return whenceforth you are finished here and then I can escort you to dinner! Farewell, sweet one. My heart shall grow ever stronger from our absence. Now, off to the galleys with me! Away!” He spun on his heel and marched from the class, head held high.

Patrick rubbed the bridge of his nose and walked over to Frank. “I’m sorry about him,” he said, sitting on the chair that Sisky had graciously provided. “He’s...special.”

“Okay,” Frank said. Now that he was close enough to get a good look at Patrick, he squinted a bit. The man, or, boy? He couldn’t have been more than five years older than Frank. “So what are you...how old are you?”

“I’m seventeen,” Patrick said. He put his hands onto the desk, palms up. “And I can...read power. I can manipulate things. Energy. Light, heat, and the raw stuff I hear you have lying around. I can kind of sense it, too. Finding kids is what I do most of the time. We recruit people. But they call me in to help with kids like you. You know how to meditate already, I assume?”

Frank nodded, not sure what to do about Patrick’s hands lying on the desk.

“Good,” Patrick said. “I want you to do that. And I want you to let go. But I also need you to take my hands. It’ll be easier if we’re maintaining physical contact.”

“Okay,” Frank said. He hesitated for a moment longer, but finally reached out and put his hands into Patrick’s.

Patrick smiled. “Close your eyes,” he said, “and breathe.”

Frank swallowed. He was nervous all of a sudden, but at the same time, he trusted Patrick.

He closed his eyes, and breathed in deeply as the class did.

On the exhale, he was suddenly not in the classroom anymore, but in a strange void. “What the fuck?” he asked, looking around.

“Hm,” Patrick said, appearing next to him. He was a bit taller now and slimmer, and he didn’t quite look like the Patrick Frank had seen before in the classroom, but his eyes were the same and he still felt like Patrick. “This is your power,” he said, looking at Frank.

Frank supposed that they were the same height. Well, fair was only fair. They were inside of his head. “It’s quite big,” he said.

“Yes, and void-like,” Patrick said. “This is a bit of a surprise, to be honest. I didn’t know that there would be so much of it. It’s all black because you haven’t given it a shape,” he said.

Frank thought about the flower he’d once imagined his power to be. “I used a flower once,” he said.

“It probably got squished under the foot of this monster,” Patrick said. “All of this black, it’s angry, tangled threads. You’re going to have to sort this out, somehow.”

Frank watched as he thought for a moment. He couldn’t really do anything, but the void around him didn’t seem angry. It felt nice. Like being home.

“Okay,” Patrick said. “I’m going to need you to think of something really big. The biggest thing you can think of and still touch.”

Something big and physical. Frank frowned. Cars were pretty big. He could fit inside of a car.

“No,” Patrick said, when a red, vaguely car-shaped thing appeared. “Bigger.”

What was bigger than a car? A whale.

“Bigger.”

A country?

“Bigger.”

Space.

“You have to be able to touch it, Frank.”

Frank scowled. “This is hard.”

Patrick shrugged. “I never said it would be easy. Come on, Frank. Something big. Something you like. Something that you maybe can’t control in its raw form, but that can be calmed down, can work with you. Something that’s kind of unpredictable, but not totally impossible for a human to use and be a part of.”

“How about...” Frank tilted his head to the side. “An ocean?”

Patrick grinned. “Yes. That’s perfect.”

“Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?” Frank asked. It looked like Patrick had known exactly what kind of thing he’d been asking for.

“It’s your head,” Patrick said. “Your power. I can’t do it for you. So now, I want you to picture all of this void as the ocean. Think about what the water smells like, what it feels like. Imagine walking in it, swimming in it. Think about the tide, and the colour and the taste. You need to feel how much power there is in here, travel around the limits of your mind, and then let it all go as you picture its new form.”

The floating Patrick disappeared.

Frank looked around. This sounded extremely boring, but already he felt better than he had since he’d learned to meditate, so he started to roam. He could go in any direction for what felt like forever. He could go fast, and feel the speed at which he was traveling. Finally, he realized somehow that he’d circled back upon himself, and suddenly he knew how much power was sitting inside of him, could see the volume of it.

He touched down, and imagined the amount of energy as the water. No: he needed a sea floor. He needed layers and layers of sand. He imagined the tons of crushed rock scratching at the callused pads of his feet. He used to sink his toes into the wet sand of the sea shore, used to walk along its edge and wonder how far down it went. It needed to be far; his ocean had to have a solid base beneath it. It had to be solid, heavy, and wet. Strong, to hold the weight of the water that was heavier than it seemed. His power shrank at his discretion, beads of sand falling like rain around him, stretching out as far as his inner eye could see, building beneath his feet and then coming up around them until his toes were just barely buried in the cold, wet substance.

And it was cold, he realized, because he was standing in water. Not the blue of the Caribbean: he’d only heard about that. No, the ocean he knew was a vast expanse of green-black, only barely tinged with blue in its angry edges. It was dark, like the void had been, but clear at its core. He knelt in the area that would soon become the surf and reached a hand down to cup the liquid.

It spilled from between his fingertips, and left them wet and sticky. There was salt in the water. It dried on his hand, and he reached down again, keeping enough water this time so he could bring it to his lips. It tasted dirty, and made him spit, and it smelled the same way. The air above the water was a bit muggy, and Frank knew that was because of the salt and humidity. The air changed, pressures shifting until it was right.

The floor of his ocean, slowly filling up with water, was too neat. The ocean wasn’t big and empty: it was full of plants. Sea anemones. Coral. Huge rocks. Kelp. Seaweed. The tangled green plants were in front of Frank, covering patches of land horizontally right now. He could see plants in the distance, could feel the location of every single structure, every organism, and this was closer to being an ocean.

He was still missing something. The water was up to his ankles now, and Frank tilted his head up. Yes. He needed a sky. Some far-off blue. Clouds. A moon somewhere beyond his awareness, or a sun. He’d take the sun for now, warm heat coming down upon him, caressing his arms and face.

Frank let out a breath and looked around.

The void was still there, behind the sky he’d put up, and he looked to his left to see Patrick standing in the water he’d created.

“This is good,” Patrick said. His pants were rolled up to his knees and he was smiling. “Really good, Frank. You’ve got a lot of talent. And a lot of power. So we need to put it in properly, and you need something to stand on before we do that. The ocean’s pretty big, and you don’t want to drown.”

“A boat,” Frank said. No, a ship.

Patrick nodded and disappeared.

Frank folded his hands across his chest and thought very hard about strong wooden planks that could take on twenty-foot waves. He’d studied pirate ships in History, had stared at picture upon picture of hulls and masts and rooms. Captain’s quarters, room for crew.

He blinked, and there she was, painted black like the void. He hadn’t really imagined a colour, but black was good. He liked black. The sails were tightly wrapped up, and on-board the ship, Frank could see that everything was as it should be. There were no cannons, but he didn’t expect to be doing battle inside his own head any time soon.

“Cool,” Patrick said.

“Yeah,” Frank said. His ship was awesome. She was the best ship.

“This is really detailed,” Patrick said. “Okay. So now, I think that your power is going to grow as you do, and it’s a good thing that you picked an ocean, because it can just expand and expand forever if it wants to. I’m going to suggest that during control class, you let out the top layer of energy that has gotten tangled up like your void did, and put it back properly. I think you’ll find that when your power struggles against you, it will be in the form of this ocean. You’ll have to fight back a lot of storms and waves, and the easiest way to still those will be to take time to untangle it. But you won’t always have that time, so if you need to untangle some of it fairly quickly, I would suggest fish, crew members, and clouds. We’re going to make some clouds right now, and if you make them right, your power will put itself together properly when it rains. It’ll take a while, but you won’t have to do it all yourself, which I am also going to show you how to do.”

Frank nodded, and Patrick pointed up to the sky. “Clouds are tough,” he explained. “You’ve never felt one before, and though you know the principles behind them, they probably don’t really make sense. It’s hard to visualize something that complicated. But if you can imagine rain, then you can think of rain-clouds as a blanket of power that becomes rain.”

Rain. Frank closed his eyes. Rain made everything glisten. It smelled good when it was done, and better when it was pouring down. It made his hair wet. It chilled him to the bone if he stayed out in it. It brought life from living things. It was going to mingle with the heavily salted water below him, and it was going to come from a cloud, and it was cold and miserable and raining.

“You’re getting faster,” Patrick said, through the sound of rain hitting the deck of Frank’s ship. “That’s good. Now, to just put the power back as water, I want you do meditate. Imagine a knot. Your power is that knot. As you breathe out, I want you to loosen the knot. Smooth it out like you’re brushing a girl’s hair and don’t want to hurt her.”

A girl had long hair. Gerard also had long hair. And it was black, like the void.

“Once it’s smooth, you just take it, and you make it a smooth ocean,” Patrick said. “Like it’s a calm day, sky clear and sun bright.”

“Okay,” Frank said.

“I’m going to leave now,” Patrick said. “You have this. I don’t think you need me anymore. I’m really impressed,” he said, smiling.

“Thanks,” Frank said. “This is awesome.”

Patrick nodded. “It’s pretty sweet,” he agreed, and winked out of Frank’s mind. Frank was suddenly aware of his body, was inside it again, but it felt like it was just him in there. He could see the ocean in his mind, and sunk back into it greedily. He wanted to stand on his ship, even if she was still tilted to the side in the shallow water.

He was still back inside himself though, and had to breathe in and out on his own. It was like what he’d done before, but instead of just letting go of his power, he smoothed it out, slowly and painstakingly, transforming the tight black ball into a shimmering sheet of white, fabric woven together and not tangled. Purposefully made. It was no accident that it was calm now, when he made it water. There was just enough for his ship to rise on her own so Frank could stand at the helm, and when he’d rid his mind of the last of the void, he opened his eyes.

Sisky was at the desk, making his way through a large stack of papers.

Frank felt stiff, like he hadn’t moved for hours. “Where is everybody?” he asked, voice croaking. What?

“Oh! You’re back!” Sisky said, beaming. “Patrick said you were making a ship on an ocean.”

“Yeah,” Frank said. “Everyone’s gone?”

“Oh yes,” Sisky said. “It’s ten o’clock. You may have missed dinner, but we’ll get you some food. That’s big, Frank, really big.”

Frank blinked. Ten? “Like, at night?” he asked, eyes widening. He felt like he’d slept a full six hours. “Holy shit.”

“Patrick left around eight,” Sisky said. “He said that world-building takes a while if you do it right, and that you’d done it right.” He beamed. “I’m so proud of you!”

“Has this happened before?” Frank asked.

“Oh yes,” Sisky said. “Patrick does this all the time. People who have a lot of power need to do something with it. An ocean, my heavens. Have we already gotten you food? I see Butcher here, no. Will be here. He’s coming over and he has snacks! Oh, hooray.”

Frank put a hand over his stomach. He hadn’t even noticed that he was hungry. Strange. “Okay,” he said.

“Michael said to meet him in his room, no matter the time,” Sisky said, clapping his hands when the doorknob turned. “Butcher! My hero.”

Butcher walked into the room with a grin on his face. “You didn’t come to dinner, Sisk,” he said. “Patrick said you guys were world-building? I brought fortifications.”

“Of course you did,” Sisky said. “Frank, come on up. Pull up Patrick’s chair and let us dine like kings!”

It was only mildly weird to eat with teachers, but Frank got over it soon enough. He dropped by Mikey’s room long enough to say goodnight, and went back to his own room to lose himself in the steady rocking motion of the waves in his mind.

Chapter Text

November 12, 2014

The magazine that Mikey bought Frank when he was 13 and the second one he got him for his 14th birthday definitely came in handy. They’d come just as Frank was starting to notice things. These things included, but were not limited to: girls, the way that girls looked, and the way that looking at girls made Frank feel.

Girls, he was discovering, were really very pretty. They made his insides warm and they made his hands, among other things, twitch.

Frank didn’t think he minded this development. He’d paid attention in the handful of Health classes that had been given since he’d arrived at the compound, so he was vaguely aware of what kept happening to him whenever girls would bend over or flash him a pretty grin over their soft shoulders. He usually managed to keep it down until he could get back to his room, where a few strokes on his dick were often enough to send him over the edge.

He was only fourteen; he couldn’t be expected to last for very long.

“Okay so,” Mikey blurted out one day when they were in Frank’s room after class.

Frank was trying to concentrate on math, he really was. He couldn’t afford to let any assignments brush past him, because if they were even five minutes late whipping out their homework, they got a ten percent decrease in the assignment’s grade. Thompson was especially hard on Frank, who had taken to walking into class, assignments ready in hand to avoid any late penalties. He was already pretty bad at math; he didn’t need to start off ten percent lower than everyone else.

He’d been huddled over the sphere he was supposed to be calculating the volume of, forehead creased in frustration. He just didn’t get how this all worked. When the hell was he going to need this shit anyway? Was he going to try and fill a globe full of water or drop a sphere into a cup in his spare time?

Frank,” Mikey whined. “I have a problem.”

Frank thinned his lips and focused on the formula he was supposed to be writing out. Frank had a problem and it was all of this damn algebra.

“Frank,” Mikey said.

“What?!” Frank snapped, examining the broken tip of his pencil and scanning the surface of his desk for his pencil sharpener. “Come on Mikey, I gotta do this. Thompson’s gonna kill me.”

“He won’t,” Mikey said.

Frank turned from his search to glare at Mikey, who was perched on the edge of Frank’s bed. He looked desperate, which for Mikey meant that his eyebrows were close together and his mouth was drawn into a tight line. Mikey just blinked, making his hazel eyes round and wide. “Fine,” Frank said. He wasn’t going to be able to concentrate with Mikey in the room, if only because Mikey kept tickling the back of Frank’s mind and it was getting really fucking annoying. His puppy face mostly had nothing to do with Frank’s surrender. “What do you want?”

“I don’t know,” Mikey said. He looked miserable all of a sudden, face falling so all of his angles pointed down. He leaned over to look down at his toes and didn’t bother to adjust his glasses when they slid down, barely caught on the tip of his nose. “That’s the problem.”

“You’re going to have to be way more specific dude,” Frank said. He flipped his chair around so he could sit on it cross-legged. “You don’t know about what you want? Like, doughnuts or ice cream or...”

“Well, I. I have a. I mean, whenever I...it’s...and then...sometimes I just.” Mikey’s mouth twisted. He looked up at Frank and made a frustrated noise. “It’s just, you’re my best friend.”

“Yes,” Frank said. Specific facts, this was good.

“And I want to tell you things,” Mikey said, “like when I beat Pokémon Blue and when I bought that really cool grey jacket. And when I thought maybe I liked Alicia.”

Frank nodded. He remembered all three of those conversations in vivid detail. “Yeah, okay. And when you fell and skinned your knee but you didn’t want anyone to know, and when you feel really sad. Yeah, dude. I love it when you share.”

“Okay, but,” Mikey said, sighing in exasperation. He took his glasses off his nose, wiped the lenses with the hem of his shirt which was probably super dirty, and shoved them back on his face. “This is different.” He stood up and started pacing, hands folded behind his back.

A different but still very important thing that Mikey wanted to tell him. Okay. Frank sent out a quick web of energy, scanning beneath his desk for his pencil sharpener. He had two new ones but he didn’t want to use them until the stub he was struggling with was too small to be sharpened anymore. He finally found it, wedged among a small pile of dust underneath the foot of his desk, and was about to reach for it when Mikey sat back down on the bed.

“Here’s the thing,” Mikey said. He licked his lips, fiddled with the hem of his ratty t-shirt and messed up his hair. “The thing. The thing is.”

“The problem of what you want,” Frank prompted, when Mikey made a whining sound of frustration in the back of his throat that reminded Frank of a dying fly.

“Yes,” Mikey said. “I just think. Like...maybe I don’t just like...Alicias.”

There was more than one? Frank tried to imagine what it would be like to have five Alicias walking around and couldn’t manage it. “You like someone? Like like them?”

“Yes!” Mikey exclaimed, waving his hands like that would illustrate his point. “I just...they’re not...see, this is the problem.” He took a deep breath. “Because I think I might...like...dick.”

Frank blinked once.

Then he blinked again.

Just for good measure, he blinked a third time.

He opened his mouth and then closed it, frowning.

“Dick,” he said.

Mikey’s lips were so thin they could have been invisible.

Frank thought for a moment, and closed his eyes very tightly before opening them again. “Dick,” he repeated, just in case maybe he’d misheard Mikey and then misspoken.

Mikey nodded. His ears were red, and Frank could see a blush staining his cheeks and neck too.

“So, wait,” Frank said, holding his hands up in front of him. “You came in here and jeopardized me passing math to tell me that you think you might like dick.”

“Yes,” Mikey said.

“And that isn’t someone’s name,” Frank said. “Like, we’re not talking about a dude or chick named Dick like Richard. We’re talking about...dicks.”

“Penises,” Mikey clarified, nodding. His nose was red now, too, and Frank had literally never seen a more embarrassed person with less emotion on his face. “Yes.”

Frank glanced down at his crotch. “Oh.” Penises. Right. “Uh, okay. Okay, yeah, I could see that. Dicks, huh?”

“Kind of one in particular,” Mikey said, “but I’d guess probably.”

“We’re not talking about my dick though, right?” Frank asked, the thought suddenly occurring to him. He really liked Mikey, but he did not want to think about Mikey’s dick. Or what his sex faces might look like. Or where his knees would go...what would he do with his legs? He had an awful lot of leg.

“Okay, no, ew,” Mikey said. “Stop. Stop that. I swear, you’re like a bubbly little FM radio sometimes. No,” he muttered, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes. “Not your dick, although I’m sure it’s very nice. Um. Maybe...maybe Pete’s?”

“Pete Wentz?” Frank asked. “I thought you two were just. Friends? Isn’t he older than you?”

Mikey shrugged. “Yes. And he’s way cooler than me. I don’t know, he’s, he’s just awesome. You know how his power is, like, that he’s impervious to superpowers or whatever? His brain is like, it’s just so nice. All silence. He doesn’t make static or anything, it’s just quiet. Just me and him. I can’t read his thoughts, which is kind of hard, but...normal-feeling? I dunno. We are friends, I guess, but I just. I don’t know, I can’t stop thinking about him.”

“And his dick,” Frank added.

“And what I’d like to do to it,” Mikey agreed.

Frank snorted. “Gross.”

“Gross?” Mikey raised an eyebrow.

“You saw the mental images,” Frank said. “And I guess age differences aren’t that bad. Not if you really like the guy. Hey though, he isn’t cooler than you. Nobody is, you’re, like, the epitome of cool.”

Epitome was a word Frank had just learned. He wasn’t actually sure what it meant, or whether he’d used it in the right context.

“I do really like him. And that was the right context,” Mikey said.

Frank felt smart.

“Sure, dude. You can’t even do algebra yet, I wouldn’t go so far as ‘smart’.”

“Fuck you,” Frank said. “Whatever. Oh, hey, Pete’s around all week, isn’t he?”

“He’s leaving in three days,” Mikey muttered, eyes downcast. “He’s going back out with Patrick and Andy and Joe and they’re bringing two juniors along. Alex something or other and that Victoria girl.”

Frank leaned forward, bracing his arms on his knees. “Well, did you tell him? You know, about how you feel?”

Mikey shook his head. “You’re the first to know anything about any of this.”

“Not even Gee?” Frank was amazed.

“Dude.” Mikey held up his hand, brandishing his scar for Frank to see. “Blood brothers, remember?”

“Yeah, but.” Frank frowned. “Gee’s your actual blood brother. Like, all the way.”

“I’m not going to talk to my brother about dicks, Frank. Come on.” Mikey rolled his eyes. “Be realistic, here.”

“Well, awesome,” Frank said. “That’s sweet, dude. You should tell Pete, you know?”

“You think?” Mikey folded his arms across his chest. “I dunno.”

“Yes,” Frank said. “And you should do it now, so I can finish my goddamn math.”

“God, fine.” Mikey sighed. “Horror movie on Friday. Gee and Ray are back from that mission they went on so we’re taking over the common room. They said there’s gonna be popcorn.”

“Awesome,” Frank said. “Now shut up or go away. I gotta beat the shit out of this equation, dude, or Thompson might actually fillet me in front of the class.”

“I think you mean flay,” Mikey said. “And I don’t wanna go, I’m just gonna lie here and think about Pete’s dick if that’s fine with you.”

“No,” Frank said, nudging Mikey with his power until Mikey stood up.

“Fine,” Mikey muttered. “Fuckin’ goody two shoes.”

“That’s my middle name,” Frank said, already digging for the pencil sharpener. He felt rather than saw Mikey leave, and bent over his sphere calculation again. It was easier this time, writing out the letters and numbers and putting numbers in there to get an answer, and Frank smiled as the familiar touch of Mikey’s hand on his brain faded.

Yeah, he could do this.

* * * *

The only problem, Frank found, with having Mikey confide all of his deepest and darkest secrets about liking dick was that Frank couldn’t get dicks off his mind for the rest of the week. Before he’d only been mildly preoccupied with the girls in his classes and the ones on TV, with their soft, pretty faces and their soft, pretty curves.

Now he couldn’t stop thinking about boys, too. He kept glancing at them during class, feeling them move within the leaking edges of his power. He tried not to look at anybody during Control class, tried desperately to think about grandmothers and peeling old gum from between the treads of his shoes, calculating heights and widths, measuring rhyme and rhythm; anything but dick with Mikey in the opposite corner of the room.

The trouble was that Frank was suddenly hyper-aware of everybody: of their arms and legs and fuck his fucking life, seriously. He hadn’t ever even thought about any of the other boys having dicks. It was like Mikey had flicked some kind of switch in his brain that had been wavering between on and off to a bright and powerful ‘ON’. It simply hadn’t occurred to him before, the thought that there was another group of people who could make Frank embarrassingly aroused in the middle of an English class, for fuck’s sake.

He was in an advanced class with Bebe. They were burning their way through A Midsummer Night’s Dream this term, and the professor chose people around the room at random to read passages. Frank generally dozed off during this, paying attention only long enough to catch his name before letting the other voices wash over him. On Thursday, two days after Mikey’s announcement, Frank happened to look up from his copy of the play right when one of the older boys across the room turned his head to talk to his friend, and Frank couldn’t stop staring at the angles of his face, the straight line of his nose, the strong set of his jaw. He was gesticulating with his hands too, and Frank watched them move, imagined the pinkie spreading just a bit further than it actually was. The mouth he saw quirking on one side, and the eyes glinted in the light, a jumble of golds and greens.

A sharp “Mister Iero” smashed the image of pale skin and round cheeks to pieces and Frank snapped to attention, trying not to flush.

“Yes,” he said, eyes wide.

“You’re back,” Professor Redwood drawled, mouth a snide tilt. “How delightful. I was just asking if you wouldn’t terribly mind reading the next passage out loud for us. But if you’d rather stare at Mister Johnson...”

“No, no,” Frank stammered, straightening his back and flipping his page with trembling fingers. He was definitely blushing now. “I w-wasn’t staring, I just. Um. Where are we?”

He managed to keep his eyes to himself after that, and thought about the play during control class even as he tried to flatten the bucking waves inside his inner ocean. Mikey skulked off to his English class, leaving Frank behind to shuffle off to Math by himself. The meaty hand that shoved Frank to the wall wasn’t unexpected, and neither was the fist that came flying towards where his face would have been if he hadn’t ducked. Bruise pulled his punch at the last second, snarling when his hand barely glanced off the wall instead of Frank’s face. His super strength was almost terrifying, but Frank usually found that it didn’t contribute to Bruise’s intelligence, so if Frank’s timing was better than the larger boy’s, he generally came out on top of the fight.

Bruise glared at Frank and Frank glared back, darting away when Bruise came at him again. He didn’t manage to get far enough: Bruise caught him by the back of his shirt and pushed Frank up against the wall, hands heavy on his shoulders.

“You like that?” Bruise asked, a sinister glint sharpening the edges of his eyes. He held Frank down and struck him once across the cheek, still grinning. “You’d like it if I was Johnson, wouldn’t you? You and your little faggot of a friend, you’re all the same.”

Frank narrowed his eyes. He waited for Bruise to lean in, slimy lips and red nose inches away from Frank’s, and then he jerked forward, smashing his forehead into Bruise’s nose.

Bruise yelped, covering his nose with his hand and swearing.

“I wasn’t checking him out, fuckwad,” Frank spat.

Bruise laughed darkly, lowering his hand. “You’re just lucky I have to go to class, faggot. This isn’t over.”

Frank watched him go, rubbing idly at the bruise he know would form on his cheek. “That’s a fucking stupid tagline,” he muttered. As much as he would like to, he couldn’t afford to skip Math, so he jogged off, scrambling in his bag for his assignment. He barely made it in time to hand it in, and ducked away from Thompson’s dirty gaze. He made it through the rest of class with his head down, managing to not incur any more ire. The encounter had left him strung tight and buzzing with energy, and he considered not eating for a moment, but then he’d be hungry as well as miserable.

His face was starting to ache a bit from the slap of Bruise’s bones against his skin by the time dinner rolled around. Mikey frowned vaguely at Frank when he sat down at their table, but didn’t say anything in the cafeteria. When they’d finished eating, he followed Frank back to his room, face set in a serious mask.

“What?” Frank snapped, when they were inside. He had been assigned an extra control class instead of gym and had been buzzing with energy all day. He was at the end of his rope.

“Exactly,” Mikey said, tilting his head to the side. “What the fuck, Frank?”

Frank steeled himself, trying not to snap. “I’m just tired, Mikey, okay? I just, I need to run some fucking laps.”

Mikey hesitated, eyes narrowing. Frank could feel him trying to pry his way into his brain and pulled off his shirt. The skip in Mikey’s concentration let Frank dive into his mental ocean, drowning his thoughts in saltwater. After a brief moment, Mikey frowned. “Fine,” he muttered. He was clearly still suspicious, but he left anyway, mind floating above Frank’s ship before he let go, evidently frustrated.

Frank made his way out to the empty track, rubbing his head the entire way, trying to assuage the pressure behind his eyes. It was always harder when Gerard went away. The headache he had now had been building all day, all week. It didn’t matter if he ran until his feet and lungs burned, or if he jerked off three times before going to bed; the energy refused to burn away enough to let him have just a minute of rest.

He ran a good thirty laps, losing himself in the mindless, repetitive nature, relishing the barely-there sponge of physical activity soaking up his excess energy. The shower he took after was cold, and that helped a bit, made his body work hard to keep up with his ministrations. By the time he got back to his room, he could barely feel his temples pounding and flopped back on his bed.

He couldn’t move for a little while, with his muscles burning pleasantly. He’d stretched before and after the exercise, so he wasn’t worried about his legs contracting into raisins. He enjoyed the moment of being unable to move for a little while, because it meant that his brain was being relieved of the pressure that usually sat heavy on the backs of his eyes.

After a while, with his heart still slowing down, he could feel the tension creeping up on him. He tried to meditate like Sisky had taught him, but barely managed to tuck in a few folds of energy before his boat started to leak. Usually, when his mind was floundering or wandering, it tiptoed into the girl’s changing room, or recruited a hearty female sailor to help him patch up the leaks in his hull.

Today, the hands that lifted a beam into place with his mind-self were rough and long, pale but strong. He remembered the push of the wall against his back. Bruise disappeared from the image, and Frank found himself face to face with a pointy nose and small, sharp teeth. The tongue that darted out to wet those crooked lips was the same one he’d seen earlier, when Johnson’s face had caught the attention of the sharp fluorescents. It was the same one Frank had seen meticulously cleaning off fingers that had been dipped in salad dressing and chocolate and whipped cream.

Gerard wasn’t picky with his hands or his mouth. He’d probably lean over Frank, eyes bright and hungry, and trail that mouth over the dip in Frank’s collarbones, down past the ridges of his ribs. He’d probably bite too: Frank’s shoulder, his neck, his ear.

The idea of Gerard’s sharp teeth nipping at the sensitive skin of Frank’s ear made him arch off the bed. His hands were below his waistband before he could open his eyes. The first touch of skin on his dick made him hiss, mind flooding suddenly with the thought of more. He wanted Gerard’s slender hands wrapped around him, fingers nimbly teasing at the leaking head, thumbing over the slit. Fuck his hand, he wanted Gerard’s mouth. Frank stifled a groan and pumped two more times before he was coming and gasping with the force of it.

He panted, coming down from the high of his orgasm. It took a few minutes for him to be able to see straight and, fuck.

So it wasn’t bad enough that Frank was, as it turned out, also a connoisseur of dick, but the dick he really wanted belonged to his best friend’s brother.

He crossed his fingers, hoping that the shockingly detailed images he’d just dreamed up were just a coincidence and that he wasn’t totally and majorly fucked before he’d even had the chance to go out on a proper mission.

Chapter Text

December 15, 2014

Awkward masturbation fantasies aside, Frank still hung out with Gerard when he came back from the mission he’d been on with Ray. Frank found himself idly wondering whether the older boy thought about him at all; he noticed every time Gerard looked his way or brushed up against him, and Frank had to escape a few times to “study in the library”.

That just meant that he threw himself into his room and tried desperately not to think about the way Gerard’s mouth stretched around spoons when they ate in the cafeteria, or the way that Gerard’s laugh made his nose wrinkle just a bit, or the way he’d reached out to touch Frank’s hair, which was hanging just above his eyes.

He tried not to think about anything remotely Gerard-related while his hand was in his pants, but he never quite managed it. A month after Gerard and Ray had returned, Frank was no better, and he’d resigned himself to having Gerard as a permanent fixture in his fantasy life. He could separate images that he masturbated to from reality, even if some of those images belonged to a boy whose laugh made him sound like a duck.

Once Bruise had discovered that he could get away with punching Frank in the face, he started doing it more often. Frank lasted two weeks before he finally caved and sought Ray out in his room after Bruise had hit him at just the right angle to bruise both Frank’s eye and his cheekbone. He didn’t want Mikey to know about it. He felt bad about having hidden it for this long, and to tell Mikey now would be like admitting that Frank could not be trusted.

He’d already lost a family once. He didn’t want to go through that again. Not when everything was going his way for once.

“What the fuck, Frank?” Ray asked, when Frank knocked on his door. The older boy was tired, Frank could tell. Ray spent most of his days in the hospital wing since he’d graduated from the school system, and they kept pushing him until his energy was stretched thin at the end of the day. “Who hit you?”

“Nobody,” Frank said. When Ray folded his arms across his chest, Frank sighed. “Fine, somebody. But I’m not going to tell you who it is, so would you just let me in?”

“Is this just a one-time thing?” Ray asked, stepping aside so Frank could slip into his room.

Frank considered saying yes. But he didn’t know. His control over his power was better than it had been when he’d first arrived at the compound and getting better all the time, but his power was growing as he was, and the more of it he got, the harder it was to keep a firm hand on the wheel of his inner ship. Until he knew for certain that he could let a bit leak out while he kept an eye on the rest of it, he wasn’t going to win many fights. Maybe he could take Bruise when they were alone, but most days Frank could see the bigger boy’s cronies waiting around the corner.

“No,” he said finally.

Ray gritted his teeth together but pointed to his bed. “Sit,” he muttered. “You have to tell me who’s doing this to you,” he said. “I know you think you don’t need help --”

“If I get your help, he’ll just find a way to beat me up when I’m alone,” Frank said.

“We’ll have to get you into the higher level fighting classes, then.” Ray shook his head and placed his fingers over Frank’s cheekbone. There was a slight twinge and then Ray pulled his fingers away. “I don’t have any energy to spare,” Ray said, almost apologetically. “I just healed the top layer so you can’t see the bruise.”

“Awesome,” Frank said. He clapped Ray on the shoulder, shoving a bit of his own energy at Ray until the boy relented and took it. “Not to buy your silence or anything, dude. Just a thanks.”

“Yeah yeah,” Ray muttered. “Go study for History or something.”

Frank grinned. Studying for History. Yeah right. Frank could do History. Memorizing dates was hard, but putting people and places to events was something he was really good at. Giving Ray some of his energy had cut back on the slight headache that Frank got whenever he got too angry and didn’t have time to reorganize the threads of his power, so he decided to run some laps instead.

If only Bruise had challenged Frank to a footrace, he would have won and that would have been that. Instead, he’d opted for pounding his fist against Frank’s face like Frank was pounding his feet against the track. The burn of the exercise traveled up his thighs and into his lungs. He used to hate the way that his throat would burn when he ran, but as his lung capacity improved, that went away. Now he could run for so long that his feet would start to bleed if he wasn’t careful.

He stopped long before that happened and jogged over to the shower area, glad that the gym always seemed to be deserted when classes weren’t in session. Because the Institute was a government program, they didn’t have communal showers, but Frank could do without the tangle of half-naked bodies in the shower room anyway. He had a small locker in the changing area where he kept his soap (Irish Spring!) and a change of clothes just in case he was ever caught unawares. This had happened a few times, so he stripped quickly and went with the survival instinct that told him to lock his locker and get into the shower as quickly as possible.

He’d picked up a towel on the way into the shower area, and he hung it on the door of the shower stall he’d chosen. The doors only came up to the collarbones of most of the boys, but for Frank, the door closed right above his eyebrows. It wasn’t his fault he was of a less-than-average height.

It just meant that he had to reach higher to get his towel, but it also meant that he was hidden from the main section of the room much better. He turned on the water and moved so that he was under the spray. It was turned up so hot that it was almost scalding and he left it at that level, delighting in the heat. A hot shower was about as good as sitting in a hot tub, he found. And when you were in the hot tub, you couldn’t really wash yourself. You couldn’t clean all the dirt that collected around your hairline. You definitely couldn’t let your hands wander down past your stomach.

Frank finished his cleansing ritual and then paused, head tilted up towards the shower head. He reached one hand up to rest on his neck, where he could feel his pulse leaping beneath his skin. He traced the vein with the tip of his finger, the pad of his finger light against his skin, barely touching. It could have been anybody’s hand or tongue with the way his neck was so wet.

God, Frank wanted to know what someone else’s neck tasted like. If he would admit it to himself, he specifically wanted to trace his tongue across Gerard’s neck. To feel the burst of life beneath him, taste the sweat as it sprung up. He hadn’t ever seen Gerard without a shirt, but his collar bones probably tasted just as good. Frank wouldn’t mind running his hands down Gerard’s sides, just keeping his mouth on Gerard’s neck and feeling the sharp press of hips against the palms of his hands.

Frank had to shove his hand into his mouth to muffle the groans he made when he came a few seconds later and he had to wash both his hands with soap and watch as the bubbles finally disappeared along with the last traces of white down the drain.

Maybe he couldn’t survive with Gerard existing only in his fantasies. He got dressed quickly, scanning out his power to make sure that nobody was coming. It was something he’d learned on the streets, where you had to keep the few personal belongings you had with you at all times. If you put something down, it was likely to be stolen or thrown out. Frank realized that most of the people who inhabited the compound were not likely to take other peoples’ things, but there were a few who might. He’d heard stories from some of the younger kids, ones who had been sent by their parents and who had never had to fight for anything, and who left their clothes sitting out while they were in the shower only to discover that they had been taken afterwards.

Frank made no such mistakes. Not anymore. He’d learned that lesson the hard way, and not in a compound where you were more safe than not, but in a warehouse down by the docks. It had been a week before Butch had found him in the midst of a cold snap, shivering in front of the café that he owned under a pseudonym and used as a front for his illegal dealings. Frank had taken off his coat in a large crowd of people, intending to sleep on it, and the moment he’d turned around to find somewhere to warm his hands, the warm, bulky winter coat had been taken. He’d been left with a thin windbreaker that hardly counted as a jacket that he’d salvaged from the dumpsters behind a thrift store.

When he had wandered in front of Butch’s café, a small boy with shockingly blue eyes and a wide grin had stepped in front of him. He was wearing an apron and beat-up sneakers, and he’d extended his hand to Frank. “Hey, I’m Bert. Why don’t you come inside?” he’d said, voice scratchy but warm. “My boss says he wants to talk to you.”

Frank had heard a statement along those lines before, and it had almost ended with him in the back of a van, but the boy had seemed to sense his hesitation and had put his hands up in a disarming gesture. “You don’t have to trust me,” Bert had said. “But we will give you a free hot chocolate, free of drugs.”

Butch had come out then, squinting into the biting wind and had given Frank a curt nod.

“That’s him,” Bert had said.

“I’m Butch,” Butch had said. “It’s warmer inside.”

Frank had looked longingly at the plate glass windows, but had stepped away anyway. “No thank you,” he’d said as politely as he could, knowing that he could kick and punch and bite if he had to. He was short, but that just meant that he could kick right at someone’s crotch if they tried to pick him up.

But Butch had come closer and had descended onto one knee. “I know about your powers, kid,” he’d said, very seriously. “We all have them too. We want to help.”

Frank had backed away, eyes wide. Superpowers. He hadn’t let himself believe that that’s what he had. It was just a mental illness, probably. Not some kind of crazy genetic mutation. It couldn’t be.

“See, kid?” Bert had said, extending his hand towards Frank before making a tugging motion which made Frank stumble forward. It had felt like his jacket had been moving of its own volition, being pulled by an invisible thread that Bert had been holding.

“Superpowers,” Butch had said.

Frank had gulped and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket, which was now hanging limply off his shoulders. “What do you want from me?” he’d asked, sure that the catch was going to be something horrendous.

Butch had shrugged and pushed himself to his feet. “I want you to pick some pockets for me. Bert can teach you.” He’d nodded, and then both he and Bert had turned and walked into the café without another word.

Frank had only hesitated for a moment, because he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore and he’d read that the next stage of being cold was that his fingers would fall off. Stealing didn’t sound so bad compared to having a hand with no fingers on it. He hadn’t been able to feel his nose or his feet, either.

He’d gone with Butch after he had lost his coat, and he’d only barely kept his hands and feet along with the lesson to not leave your things lying around.

Frank knew. He’d been one of the people taking things under Butch, too, and knew just how easy it was to slip wallets from pockets and watches from wrists. Though a lot of people often grew suspicious around children, Frank found that he’d been able to simply disappear from view much more quickly than a full-grown adult.

Frank was still small, but he was just big enough that he had a hard time hiding from Bruise and his cronies. For a solid week, Bruise found Frank before lunch, in the library, after class. Frank had to visit Ray six more times, at which point he could no longer even feel his cheekbone.

Ray stopped him after he healed the skin over a particularly black bruise on Frank’s shoulder. “I talked to the Principal,” he said, voice low.

Fuck. They were going to kick Frank out because he couldn’t handle himself. “Shit, Ray, no --”

“They’re putting you in an upper level fighting class,” Ray said. “Principal Thomas looked over your records and saw that you’ve logged in more time at the gym after hours than during class, and he decided that it would be best if you knew how to defend yourself. Properly.”

“Ray, I don’t need --”

“This. You don’t need this. You don’t need to be pushed around like an animal.” Ray’s eyes were hard. Frank poked at the bruise he knew was hiding beneath the skin above his knee and avoided looking at him.

“He said you’d need to know those skills anyway. You’re turning sixteen in what, a month? You’ll be on the junior teams then, and I think that as soon as whoever’s doing this to you can see that you can take them...they’ll stop.” Ray nodded. “Fight back, okay? I know they don’t like fights, but...”

“I’ll get kicked out,” Frank said. The feeling of panic he got every time he thought about swinging his fist at Bruise was overwhelming. “I can’t leave, not now. This place is...it’s all I have.”

“No,” Ray said. “You have us.”

Frank shook his head. “You don’t get it.” How could he? Ray had never been forced to cower beneath a bridge in the dead of night with no food and nothing warm. “I can take it.” Ray opened his mouth to speak but Frank held up his hand. “It’s fine. I’m going to go run some laps.”

Bruise was stupid. Frank knew that. That fact didn’t help to appease the groan in his knees from the bruises they’d received earlier in the week, or the spot between his ribs where Bruise had elbowed Frank the day before.

The extent of Bruise’s stupidity seemed even more vast than usual when Frank shuffled into the cafeteria for dinner after showering. He’d just picked up a tray and was about to fill it with food when a hand grabbed onto Frank’s collar and pulled him away from the line.

“Thanks, midget,” Bruise said, smirking as he took both Frank’s tray and Frank’s spot in line.

Frank clenched his hands into fists but said nothing. So he had to wait another half hour to get food. Fine, he could live with that. Even if he was hungry. Hadn’t he gone a few days without food when he’d been on the streets? He didn’t think he could do that anymore, but a few minutes wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to him.

He’d turned away and was just starting to walk to where the line tapered off when Bruise snorted.

“What do you want,” his obnoxious voice said. “Back of the line’s that way, punk.”

“I want you to step away from the pasta,” someone said.

Frank stopped in his tracks.

“And why the hell would I do that?” Bruise asked.

Frank didn’t dare turn around. Was he dreaming? No. He was definitely still awake.

“Because you budged like a self-righteous asshole,” the person said again.

Frank peeked over his shoulder, heart hammering away in his chest.

Gerard was standing there, behind Bruise. His hands were folded across his chest and his eyes were dark. Livid, but calmly so. Mikey was behind Gerard, on his right side, looking bored but affronted. Ray was at Gerard’s left, his hair towering over all of them.

“What did you just say to me?” Bruise asked. He was a big kid, and at 16, he was already taller than Gerard’s 18.

Gerard blinked as though he were surprised. “I’m sorry, did you not understand my English? You’re an asshole,” he repeated. “Now back the fuck off and give Frank his spot back.”

The cafeteria was quiet now, as it always got when a big kid tried to pick on a smaller one. For reasons that Frank could not fathom, nobody ever stepped up to help the kids getting bullied.

Bruise looked Gerard up and down. “And what’re you gonna do about it if I don’t?”

Gerard raised an eyebrow. “I will incapacitate you and take you to Principal Thomas’ office,” he said. “In case you haven’t heard, I’ve been appointed as head of a Senior Scouting Team. That places me as an authority above you and anybody else in this cafeteria who does not have a government-sanctioned license.”

Bruise blinked for a few seconds, clearly parsing this information. At his shoulder, Mullet muttered something into the bigger kid’s ear and the two of them nodded in sync. “Fine,” Bruise said. He walked over to Frank and placed the tray in his hands. “I’m going to find you,” Bruise hissed, his face inches from Frank’s ear. “And then I’m going to kill you.”

Frank swallowed, but Bruise walked off without another word. Mullet didn’t even look at him. The sounds of the cafeteria started up again, and Frank got his food under Gerard’s watchful eye.

“Movie tonight?” Gerard asked, walking with Frank to their table. “I’m afraid that brute is going to try something.”

“You shouldn’t be alone,” Ray added.

“If he touches you, I’ll kill him with my bare fucking hands,” Mikey muttered.

“Guys,” Frank said, poking at his pasta. He couldn’t swallow past the lump in his throat. “I don’t...I mean, that was awesome. He’s definitely going to kill me, but I can’t believe you stood up to him like that.”

Gerard smiled and patted Frank’s shoulder. “No problem,” he said. “Eat up, the movie tonight is going to going to be an awesome old scary flick.”

It was a problem. It was a huge problem. Frank knew that he’d have to fight Bruise off one of these days, but he could do that with his hands. How the fuck was he supposed to fight off the way that he wanted to just tackle Gerard and fit their mouths together like two pieces of a sexy puzzle?

He caught Mikey looking at him and quickly thought of his ocean. The waves were mostly calm, but he could see the storm threatening to approach on the horizon if he couldn’t get things straightened out soon.

* * * *

The movie that Gerard had chosen was “The original House on Haunted Hill, Frank, it’s a masterpiece.”

Frank found that it was hard to concentrate on the screen when he could see the white flash of Gerard’s hands waving around as he explained behind-the-scenes information even as the film was running. No amount of shushing from Ray or Mikey would shut him up, so he’d ended up plastered up against Frank’s right side so he could whisper in Frank’s ear and disturb the other two less. He had been eating popcorn at the beginning, and had no qualms about chewing loudly in Frank’s ear but the bowl was blessedly empty by now. He was still swirling his index finger around in the leftover butter between hand gestures as though he was unaware of what he was doing.

“You know,” Gerard whispered as the main girl followed one of the men down a flight of stairs. To be quite honest, Frank was not really focusing on what was happening in the movie. Gerard seemed to know what was happening in it by heart, because every now and then he would pause and gape at the screen, mid-word. “Castle was a huge Hitchcock fan. In one of his later works, Homicidal, you can really see his influence. But you can see it the other way, too. Remember Psycho?”

Frank nodded, trying not to move his body too much. Every time Gerard took a breath, Frank could feel it. He was warm all up his right side. Gerard was like a furnace, even though he was sucking energy from Frank. By all rights, Frank should have been colder, but he felt like he’d never been this sweaty in his life. He had to keep surreptitiously wicking sweat away from his upper lip.

Gerard didn’t say anything for a moment, just adjusted his seat on the couch so that his arm was draped practically around Frank. Goddamn these teenaged hormones of Frank’s. They could go to straight to hell.

“Well, Hitchcock saw how Castle made this movie on such a low budget,” Gerard murmured, voice low because Mikey kept glaring at them. “And he decided to make one of his own. And that was Psycho.” He chuckled and Frank squeezed his eyes shut. “Can you imagine living at the same time as Hitchcock?”

Frank made the mistake of looking over right as Gerard was saying the last half of Hitchcock’s name, the sounds soft in his mouth. Gerard grinned and turned back to the movie, apparently unaware of the way Frank had been staring at his mouth.

Frank tried to look back at the screen, but found himself unable to tear his eyes away from Gerard’s index finger, which scooped up a thin layer of leftover butter and salt and carried it up to his mouth, where his tongue was waiting, pink and soft, to curl around the digit. Gerard made a soft noise and sucked at the pad of his finger, cheeks hollowing slightly with the action. Frank could see his eyelids fluttering in bliss at the salt on his tongue, and, his finger. He wanted his finger to be the one inside Gerard’s mouth. They wouldn’t need a bowl full of salt, but Frank wouldn’t object if Gerard wanted to pour butter onto Frank and lick it off. Frank wanted to try that, actually, but with chocolate. He’d seen that done in a movie once, and he could just see in his mind that with Gerard sweating beneath him, the salt from his skin would mingle with the bittersweet chocolate to complement the flavour.

Frank shifted in his seat when Gerard let his hand fall down to his lap. He raked his eyes away, meaning to focus on the black and white scene in front of him, but Mikey was just staring at him, eyes dark.

The blood slowly drained from Frank’s face. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Frank felt like he’d been caught in the headlights, which, well, he had.

Mikey’s eyes narrowed and he stood. Gerard made a vague noise of protest when Mikey blocked the screen for a moment but then he was hauling Frank to his feet and pulling him away. “I need to talk to Frank,” he said over his shoulder.

He ignored Gerard’s protest of: “But you’ll miss the acid part!” and pulled Frank out into the hallway.

When they could no longer hear the movie, Mikey stopped and shoved Frank up against the wall.

Frank started babbling almost immediately, a long string of “I didn’t and it wasn’t with the you know context is really important and you can’t just pull a thought but it like you don’t --”

Mikey held his hand up. “Stop.”

Frank did. His heart was beating out a frantic pulse in his chest.

“I don’t really want to know why all that was happening inside your head,” Mikey said, “nor why it was inspired by my brother putting his finger into his mouth, and especially not why my brother, ew, was in there, doing...that.”

Frank blushed all the way to his toes. If it had been Halloween, he could have dressed up like a tomato and nobody would have been able to tell where his shirt ended and his skin began.

“And it’s partly my own fault, for not closing off my mind enough,” Mikey said, with a sigh, “so let me say: gross.” He paused and Frank tried desperately to look anywhere but his eyes, “And that I am strangely okay with it.”

Frank looked up in surprise. “What?”

“Dude, we’d really be brothers then,” Mikey said. “I mean, if you and Gee, you know. Got married. That would be awesome.”

Frank hadn’t thought any further than Gerard’s mouth on his --

“Stop!” Mikey said, clapping his hands over his ears. “Stop broadcasting like that!”

“I can’t help it!” Frank exclaimed. “Shut your mind off if you don’t like it!”

“It’s hard with you,” Mikey muttered. “I don’t think having your blood in me helped at all. I think that made it worse. Ugh, God. What was I about to say? Oh. That if you hurt him, I will disown you as my brother and then hurt you worse. Physically. I will beat you up, I mean.”

That sounded fair. “I don’t even know if Gee wants that,” Frank said. “It’s all your fault, you and your talk about dick.”

Mikey nodded, like this was a very serious and possible outcome. “I’m sure that’s what made you gay, dude. Us having a conversation about it.”

“I don’t think I am,” Frank said. “I think it’s both. You know, boys and girls. But really, really, Gee.”

Mikey shrugged. “At any rate, I’m not going to help you. I think that would violate pretty much all of the personal privacy rights that exist.” He nodded. “Anyway. We clear?”

“Yes,” Frank said.

Mikey’s face cleared, and he pointed at his eyes, then at Frank, and then back at his eyes. “I’m watching you, Iero,” he said.

Frank rolled his eyes, because boy, could Mikey be melodramatic.

They walked back to the common room, and Gerard barely looked up from the movie. “What took you so long?” he asked. Ray grumbled something that sounded similar.

Mikey looked up at the ceiling for a second in thought and then shrugged. “Penises,” he said. “I had the sudden urge to talk all about how Pete’s --”

“Nonononono,” Gerard chanted, plugging his ears with an absolutely stricken look on his face. “Nonononono.”

Mikey winked so only Frank could see and sat back down next to Ray, who looked faintly sick for a moment.

Gerard’s eyes were fixed on Mikey until he could no longer see his brother’s face, and he slowly pulled his fingers out of his ears, only to shove them back in when Mikey turned back, an evil glint in his eyes. “Penises,” he said.

“Go away,” Gerard moaned. “Frank, tell him to stop, I do not want to think about my little brother and --”

“Pete’s penis,” Mikey said, delightedly.

“I’m leaving!” Gerard said, throwing his hands up in the air and stomping out of the room. “For the record, you are the worst,” he called once he’d rounded the door and was in the hallway.

Frank snorted and looked at Mikey, who very smugly took Gerard’s place on the good couch next to Frank. “Works every time,” he said, flashing a grin at Frank before they turned back to the movie.

Chapter Text

July 22, 2017

Frank dove for safety.

When his hands hit the ground, he turned the dive into a somersault and let his head tuck into his chest. His body followed the motion and the force of it propelled him back to his feet when he was safely behind the car he’d chosen for his hiding place. He kept himself from straightening up, instead forcing his muscles to hold him in a crouch so that his head was just hidden behind the car.

He ducked instinctively when flames shot over his head. The heat from the fire made his skin tighten momentarily, but the pyro couldn’t keep the action up for longer than a few seconds. Still, it was long enough to rob the air around Frank of any oxygen and he choked as he fell to one knee.

A hissed “Move!” came a second before Bebe barreled into Frank’s right side, rushing for safety just as Frank had moments ago. In the heat (haha) of battle, her pupils had narrowed to cat-like slits. Her nails were sharp and hard at her side, slightly extended as her hands curved into claw shapes. It was a survival instinct, she’d explained. The same mutation of her genes that forced her into a cat shape with the full moon also pushed all of her senses into overdrive when she was in danger. Her hair even stood on end when she was truly frightened.

“Fuck,” Frank panted.

“You have soot on your nose,” Bebe said.

Frank crossed his eyes madly and rubbed at the tip of his nose.

“Not the time, guys,” Nate said, shoving into Frank’s other side and jostling for space behind the car.

“He’s gonna know we’re all here!” Frank said, trying to straighten his vision out. “You guys are supposed to get your own hiding places, shit.”

“No swearing!” Brian shouted, as he came flying over the roof of the car. He perched on the ground in front of them, eyes wide. All of his hair was standing on end, like he’d been running his hands through it.

“Brian!” Frank whined, ducking down when the pyro shot flames over their heads again. “You all suck.”

You all clearly have no plan of attack,” Brian said. “Were you just going to hide out here until I took care of this guy?”

“Hey!” shouted the pyro. “I can hear you, you know!”

“Think things through,” Brian said, ignoring the pyro. “What are his weaknesses?”

“Shitty hairstyle?” Frank tried.

“Water?” Bebe asked.

“He’s all offense,” Nate said.

“No swearing, Frank. Shit.” Brian shook his head. “Bebe is right, but so is Nate. So, you guys, what can you all do?”

“Swear,” Frank said, eyeing Brian.

“Attack,” Nate said, rolling his eyes.

“Frank can disrupt the energy waves that make up fire,” Bebe said. “Nate can shield us. And I can break through.”

Brian nodded. “Good. Go!”

“I can still hear you!” the pyro shouted, but nobody was listening anymore.

Nate held his hands above his head and a thin sheet of blue energy wrapped around them in a dome.

“Frank,” Bebe said, pointing.

“Yeah yeah,” Frank grumbled. “I always have to do the grunt work around here.” He concentrated, though, and the next time the pyro sent a blast of fire towards them, he shifted the ripples of energy coming towards them, spreading them out until they dissipated into nothing more than heat. The second he’d done that, Bebe vaulted over the car, just under Nate’s force field, and tackled the pyro who had to be six feet tall.

Frank followed when Nate let his shield fall, planting his hands on the roof of the car as he leaped and tucked his legs up into his chest so he could clear the car. Bebe had the man on his front and had one foot planted between his shoulders. She was grinning, and Frank grinned too, the sight of the tiny girl pushing the bigger man down both inspiring and hilarious.

“I can’t technically place you under arrest,” Brian said, “but I can put handcuffs on you and hold you down until the police get here.”

The pyro coughed, face crestfallen.

Frank held his hand up to Bebe for a high-five.

“You still have soot on your nose,” she said, pointing at a spot on the bridge of hers.

Frank shrugged. “Whatever.” He was alive, at least. And if he wiped off the soot, he’d probably just fall into a pile of mud or something equally ridiculous and dirty.

Nate shuffled over and high-fived Bebe as well. “Good thinking,” he said. “I guess I panicked.”

Bebe beamed.

“Really good,” Frank said.

“Yes, yes,” Brian said, walking over to them once the police officers had finally emerged from their hiding places around the building. “Bebe thought fast. But why didn’t you think sooner?”

When none of them said anything, Brian shook his head. “The reason our teams work is because they have a leader. You need to pick one before a mission if nobody is the official one. You can argue with your leader if they’re wrong, but it’s always easiest to work when there’s only one person making the big decisions. So in a case like this one, what should you all have done?”

Frank scratched his nose. “Maybe not all run away in the same direction?” he asked.

“Yes,” Brian said. “And?”

“Planned our mission out before we left,” Bebe said.

“Bingo,” Brian said. “Remember, everyone has strengths and weaknesses. While it is the leader’s job to decide where a person should best be used, it is everyone’s job to make sure that the leader has all of the correct information. If you think you could be best used somewhere else, then you should vocalize that thought. But when the orders are coming from upper-level management, we need to follow them. What, Frank?”

Frank stopped fidgeting and clasped his hands in front of him. “Sorry, sir. It’s just that, in the field, sometimes the orders are wrong. What do you do if it looks like your life is going to be in jeopardy?”

“You weigh the options,” Brian said. “But you always try to keep yourself and your team safe. It’s like on airplanes. You put on your oxygen mask as quickly and as well as you can, and then you do your neighbour’s. If it’s between you and someone else, be smart about the choices you’re making. I can’t really tell you what to do, but so long as you’re thinking, you should be good. You’re all pretty smart.” Brian glanced at his watch. “Okay, we’re going to have to get you three back to the compound before nightfall or they’ll have my head. They hate it when I’m out at night.”

Brian started walking back towards the van they’d come in and the three of them followed.

“Why do they not like that?” Bebe asked, eyes wide and brown again.

Brian sighed and put his hands into his pockets. “I tend to disappear,” he said. “It’s too bad. Sometimes my teams get confused when I seem to leave them behind.”

Brian could melt into the shadows, or at least, that’s what Frank had heard. Mikey had explained it as Brian naturally shifting everyones’ awareness away from himself whenever he was near a large patch of shadows, but Frank had yet to see this for himself. He expected that at night, when everything was relatively dark, it would be harder to see where the shadows actually were.

Still, Frank would like to see this happen for himself. Brian had demonstrated remarkable self-control throughout the missions they’d had together, and Frank had yet to experience the magic of Brian disappearing.

He and Nate and Bebe exchanged a look; they all wanted to see it. But nobody was brave enough to ask. Brian was calm and level-headed, but he was prone to letting them experience mistakes for themselves, and Frank suspected that would include not showing them what his power looked like in action.

The ride back to the compound was uneventful. They’d been sent out on a series of emergency distress calls, which was what they usually did. Brian said that he was a liaison of sorts between the police of New York City and The Initiative, and was an unofficial member of the force.

When they got back, Frank once again found himself with nothing to do. The other members of his team were exhausted from the multiple SuperHuman criminals they’d had to incapacitate, but he felt like he had just as much energy as he had that morning. Studying could occupy him for a while, but they were on summer break. He still had Control class on Fridays to look forward to, because with Gerard as the leader of a Senior Team, he, Mikey and Ray were often absent from the compound.

Frank was on the Junior Teams himself: a branch that teamed up with Senior Agents above the age of 21 and received field training by going on missions with them. Some leaders, like Brian, were liaisons with different agencies around town. Others were involved in more analytical missions. Mikey had been assigned to Brian like Frank was, but Gerard had gone out with Sarge, who was absent from the compound more often than not. Gerard wouldn’t tell Frank where he’d been sent to, but Frank had guessed that whatever Gerard did, it involved actual spy work and not the beating up of ordinary criminals who just happened to have superpowers.

It seemed like Gerard had been trained to do that exact thing, because he, Mikey and Ray were gone for weeks or months at a time. Though Mikey had been only seventeen when Gerard had been appointed leader of a Senior Team, he had somehow managed to convince the upper level management that he should be allowed to join Gerard’s team as well. Frank suspected that this had required all of Mikey’s persuasive skills and his position as Gerard’s brother probably hadn’t hurt his chances either.

Frank was jealous to no end. He would have loved to be out in the field with his best friends. Ray was the same age as Gerard, and had been selected for his team almost immediately. Frank, however, was only sixteen. Well, and a half.

It still meant that he had to hang out at the compound all the time.

At least he had other friends; Bebe hung out with him more than she had before, claiming that her group of friends “was no good” and that she’d have to join Frank in the library. Both of them wanted to be selected for good Senior Teams. To get onto one, you had to have consistently good grades, good behaviour, and you had to be recommended by both your Control teacher and the leader of your Junior team.

Frank wasn’t too worried about the last three, because both Bruise and Mullet had been transferred to another Institute so they could be placed on a guy named Rod Stewart’s Junior Team. With the overbearing bully gone, Frank had found it easy to keep both his control and behaviour up.

It was just his grades that he was getting really stressed out about.

It wasn’t that he was a spectacularly bad student, but more that he struggled with his concentration when he wasn’t around Gerard. Even without meaning to, Gerard often siphoned off some of the energy that Frank couldn’t quite handle within his ocean, and being in the same building as the elder Way made Frank a lot calmer. Having Mikey gone put him on edge too, because he’d been around Mikey almost constantly for four years, and there was suddenly a giant part of his life missing with this whole Senior Team development.

Frank didn’t like it one bit.

Alex was gone, too: he’d been placed with Pete Wentz’s team, and with the absence, the cornerstones of Nate’s life had been taken away from him as well, Without Alex and Gabe (who was the head of a Senior Team that seemed to be ambiguously populated), Nate was left behind with just Vicky, who was the same age as him. Gabe was, apparently, several years older than the rest of them, and Ryland, who Frank had never actually met, was said to be on the same Junior Team as Alex.

“I’m bored,” Nate said one day when they were sitting in the library. It was raining outside, so they couldn’t really go out to do anything.

“Tell me about it,” Bebe muttered. She was filing her nails into sharp points, an action which apparently facilitated her transition from woman into cat. Frank had been perplexed when she’d shown up on his Junior Team because she was two years younger than him, but apparently the government took were-people very seriously, and wanted their training accelerated, and Teams were the best way for them to do that.

“I’m so bored,” Nate said, looking over at Frank, “that I want to try something.”

Frank was seeing how far he could tilt his chair back without falling. “Like what?”

“Like,” Nate said leaning forward and resting his hands on the table, “I know how my force fields work, right?”

“Right,” Bebe said.

Frank moved back a bit more. He could feel that he was just on the edge between the moment of perfect balance and the one that would send him toppling to the ground.

“I can kind of make a solid force in the air, one that can stop everything,” Nate said. “And I kind of do it by harnessing energy and solidifying it.”

Bebe stopped filing her nails. Frank just leaned back a bit farther. Yes! He was suspended, a marvel of nature, floating in the air.

“I want to see if Frank can do it too.”

Frank’s head snapped over to look at Nate, and with the action, his concentration and balance were broken. He toppled to the floor, backwards, and instinctively pushed away from his chair and rolled into a standing position.

“Good move,” Bebe said, nodding appreciatively before going back to her nails.

The months of fall training had sunk in after all. He had hoped that falling on a mat and rolling to his feet a thousand times would come in handy some day.

Frank picked his chair up, limbs still thrumming from the adrenaline of falling. “Okay, sorry. What did you say?”

“I said I think you could make a force field,” Nate said. “It isn’t your gift, but I’ve analyzed what I do and I think you could, too. We should see if you can make something kind of intangible that doesn’t block anything and then move on to solid forms.”

“Oh.” Frank frowned. “Uh. Okay.”

Nate waited until Frank was settled in to his seat on the other side of the table. “Okay. It’s like this,” he said. “I can do it by instinct, because it’s my power. Creating a solid wall of energy. It doesn’t come from me, usually, it just forms out of the latent energy in the air. You know how molecules are supposed to always be moving and stuff? I use that, probably, and make it something real. So you have to do the same thing.”

Make his energy real? “Like how,” Frank said, still frowning. “I don’t know how to do that. I can just...I mean, I know how to take my energy in and how to push it out, but you can’t see it.”

“So just make it something I can see,” Nate said. He tapped his fingers on the table and then snapped them. “Oh, okay. When I’m making a really big force field, I find it makes it easier if I visualize the thing I’m going to create. I can make one in front of me without thinking, but I can make them really big so long as I have a strong mental image to work from. Sisky told me, when I started meditating, that I had to see my power in my mind.”

“Yeah,” Bebe said. “He told me that too. I think about that when I’m meditating and it helps me be more...human.”

They turned to Frank, and he blushed. Sisky hadn’t told him that, but he must have seen Patrick doing it. “Okay,” he said. “I think I know what you’re saying, then. So I just have to do that, but with an object?”

“See it in your head,” Nate said, “and make it. See it in real life. Start with something small. This book.” He pointed to the Math textbook Frank and Bebe had been leafing through. They’d both applied to a higher level Math class, one that would get them into Sisky’s class instead of Thompson’s, so they’d been studying for the placement test during the summer.

Frank picked up the textbook and stared at it for a minute, trying to memorize what it looked like. Once he thought he had the image, he closed his eyes and set the book down.

He could see the book if he concentrated very hard, but it was hard to keep the image centred in his brain. He pushed out all of the other distractions and settled himself firmly at his ship. There. Deep breaths, in and out. He looked up at the sky, and focused, trying to see the book.

It was a rectangle, that he knew for a fact. It had volume and mass, but what did that mean for its looks? It had corners. He’d felt them in his hands. He remembered the way the corners of the book’s cover stood out from the bound stacks of paper that made up the book’s insides. He remembered the picture on the front, though he couldn’t exactly remember what it looked like. There was a crease along the front where the cover met the spine, a dip like the waves in Frank’s ocean.

He siphoned off a thread of power, pouring it down his arms, through his hands, and into a shape. Make it.

Bebe’s gasp made Frank’s eyes open. “What?” He asked, looking at her automatically.

“You did it,” she said, pointing.

Frank turned back to the table and blinked in surprise.

“Holy shit,” he said.

“I knew you could do it,” Nate crowed.

“It’s crooked,” Bebe said.

“That’s what it is in your head,” Nate said, eyes dancing when they met Frank’s across the table. “Square means nothing in there.”

Okay. Frank twisted his mouth to the side and concentrated as hard as he could. He’d felt the tug of his power leaving him and could replicate it now, he knew. The book didn’t look right in person; it was translucent because the light was going right through it and hitting the table. The shape wasn’t a rectangle, but Frank stared at the real book and poured power through his hands again until his fake book looked like the real one.

“I can still see through it,” Frank said, brow creased in frustration. “Why isn’t it solid?”

“It isn’t real,” Nate said. “And you know it.”

“Yeah, but.” Frank gritted his teeth together and thought solid. Nothing happened. “But I can see it!”

“Pick it up,” Nate said.

Frank reached for the energy-book and jumped when it crackled against his skin but let his hands pass right through the cover. With the skip in his concentration, he let go of the strand of power he’d been feeding into the book and it disappeared. “Where’d it go?”

“You took the energy away,” Nate said. “And then it disappeared.”

“That sucks,” Frank muttered. “How do I make it real?”

“I have to really think real when I make my force fields,” Nate said. “Mostly I can do it by instinct. I think you’d have to concentrate really hard to give it the essence of the thing. Like, really believe that it’s a book. And then it would look like one. But that would be really hard, especially for you.”

“Still, I can make distracting Frank doubles now,” Frank said. “Fool the enemy.”

Bebe giggled when Frank poured his energy into imagining himself. He came out taller than he was but his face looked exactly like Frank felt it should. The one he usually saw in the mirror was wildly different from the shell he felt like he was in.

“Cool,” Nate said. “It looks like you.”

“Different,” Bebe said, “but I can totally tell that it’s still a Frank.”

Frank wrinkled his nose, thinking hard. The double stuck out his tongue.

“Definitely Frank,” Bebe said, giggling again. She straightened up and clapped her hands together, eyes bright. “Okay, now make me!”

Later that evening, when everyone else at the compound was asleep, Frank sat in the common room, closing his eyes against the comforting flicker of the television and held out his hands, palms facing up. He thought hard about shaggy hair. About sparkling eyes, sharp noses and white skin. He thought about comforting hands rubbing the back of his neck and stupid laughs echoing around rooms like the sound would never end. He thought about himself, too, with his head up to Gerard’s shoulder and his short hair. He thought about his nails, bitten to the quick, and his strong legs. He thought about black shirts and black pants and when he opened his eyes, there was a small Gerard and a small Frank standing in each of his hands.

He made them hop off his hands onto the low table in front of the couch. The small Gerard walked over to the tiny Frank. They stared at each other for a moment and then the tiny Frank reached his hand out. The small Gerard giggled noiselessly and took tiny Frank’s hand, giving it a tight squeeze.

Big Frank blinked rapidly when tiny Gerard leaned over and kissed tiny Frank on the cheek. The action was soft and gentle.

I love you, tiny Frank mouthed, eyes lighting up when the Gerard beamed and nodded.

I love you too.

Frank swiped the back of his hand against his eye when someone cleared their throat, breaking his connection to the projections.

“You really miss him, huh?” Bebe asked, because of course it was Bebe. She made her way over to the couch and hesitated only a moment before flinging her arms around Frank. “It’s okay to miss somebody like that,” she said.

Frank was surprised by the action, but no way was he going to turn down a hug from a girl, even though what he really wanted was something that he couldn’t have. “It just sucks,” he muttered into her hair, which smelled inexplicably of apples.

“I know,” Bebe said. She pulled back and smiled. “You’ll be okay, Frankie. I think he likes you, too.”

Frank nodded. “I wasn’t crying,” he said, eyes narrowing.

Bebe raised her eyebrows innocently. “I never thought you were. Now, come on, energy boy. Show me what you can do.”

Frank straightened up as she pointed at the table. “What do you want?”

“Godzilla,” Bebe said simply.

Frank grinned and stretched his hands over the table. “I can do that.”

Chapter Text

November 1, 2018

Frank’s 18th birthday came after what seemed like forever. Someone threw a party that was partially for Halloween and partially for him, and at some point during the evening, someone had managed to sneak some alcohol into the compound, even with the hawk-eyed teachers watching all imports. That someone probably wasn’t called Gabe, but Frank wouldn’t have hesitated to point his fingers in Gabe’s general direction if he’d been asked at all during the night.

Honestly though, he hadn’t been paying too much attention to the party or its increasingly lubricated attendees. He’d been kind of busy twiddling his thumbs and hoping that everything went according to his meticulously laid out plan. If nothing went wrong, this would be the last birthday party he’d have to avoid attending. He usually showed up at the beginning and then slipped out to study, or to work on whatever assignment his English teacher had set up for them. More often than not, Mikey, Ray and Gerard would show up at his room at some point during the night. They’d let him study in peace, but the way they filled up the room set Frank at ease.

This year, though, nobody dropped by after hours. Frank couldn’t figure out why until early the next morning.

The second he’d woken up on Halloween, Frank had sent in his application to be a part of Gerard’s team. He’d been working on it for months. He wasn’t sure if he was going to get in, because he knew that Gerard wouldn’t accept his application just because they were friends; he’d probably judge Frank even harder because of that. But Frank had been working so hard to keep his grades up and power under control since he had learned, on Gerard’s birthday, that he would be heading an official government team. The headache Frank had, he’d had since May, but Ms. Salpeter and Sisky had looked over his application for him when he’d finished doing what he thought might be the final draft, and they’d both told him he was sure to get a spot on the team. Hell, even people he hadn’t asked had said he was guaranteed to get in. Everyone knew that Gerard had been looking for a fourth member since forever, and fuck, Frank wanted that spot. He wanted it so bad it hurt, sometimes.

Finally, after a long, sleepless night of studying for math, Frank was able to check his mail. The first thing he did after reading the letter contained within the thin envelope that had been sitting in his mailbox was to march down to Gerard’s office. He had to brush past Ray and Mikey in the process; they were hanging around near Gerard’s office. Waiting for him.

Frank felt sick.

He ignored Ray’s questioning squeak and Mikey’s raised eyebrow. He could feel Mikey trying to probe into his mind, but he brushed the telepath off, knocked twice on Gerard’s door, and let himself in.

Gerard had been examining some kind of paper, but he looked up when Frank burst in. Before Gerard had time to open his frowning mouth, Frank held up the letter that was clutched in his trembling hand. It was crumpled at the top, where his palm had sweat and clenched at the paper. The official seal was distorted by the slight ridges in the material, and obscured by his fingers, but the rest of the letter was still intact.

“What the fuck?” he asked. He’d managed to keep a straight face from the mailbox to Gerard’s office; he hadn’t stomped like a five-year-old throwing a tantrum, but he couldn’t help it. His grasp on his power after a long, stressful night, was tenuous at best, but he kept it in check, clenching his other fist so hard that his fingernails left ridges in his palm.

Gerard, crowded behind the desk that would be comically small if the room wasn’t equally small and fluorescently lit, raised an eyebrow. “I’m sorry?”

Frank stared. “What,” he repeated, in case he had just imagined what he’d said, “the. Fuck.”

“Is that supposed to be a question?” Gerard glanced down at the papers he’d been scribbling on before Frank had come in. Frank could see the familiarly illegible scrawl peeking out from beneath Gerard’s ink-stained hand.

“Yes it’s a fucking question,” Frank said. “You...” he looked at the paper he was holding, checking it for what felt like the thousandth time, but which was definitely only the sixth.

Nope, it hadn’t changed from the moment he’d received it. It still read:

Dear Mr. Iero,
We’re sorry to inform you that your application for Agent Umbrella’s team has been rejected. If, at this time, you would be willing to submit your application for a second or third team, please contact Agent Contradiction with your information.
Sincerely,
Agent Opportune

“I?” Gerard prompted, looking back up. His eyebrows were furrowed together, like he didn’t know why Frank was there. What the fuck? “If you have something to ask, Mr. Iero, I suggest that you come out and say it. And if you don’t, then I would ask if you would be so kind as to leave. I have things to do.”

Frank started at the use of his last name and clenched his eyes shut. Just for a second, he imagined himself at the helm of a ship, hands firm on the wheel. You will drive straight, he told it, calming the waves that were threatening to spike out of the ocean in his mind with as deep a breath as he could manage. When his power simmered to a gentle broil beneath his skin, he opened his eyes. Gerard was still watching him. “Fine,” Frank said, voice low but not shaking. “I’ll ask some questions. How about we start with a why? Why did you reject my application, Gerard? And why didn’t you send me the fucking resignation yourself?”

Gerard shifted on his chair. “Because,” he said, face blank, “I felt that you would not be a good addition to my team.”

Frank stepped back, feeling as though he’d just been slapped in the face. “What? Why?! I...I fu-” He snapped off the curse on the tip of his tongue. Stay calm. Be professional. “...I’ve worked with your team before, Gee, we’re...we work...that’s ridiculous!”

Gerard shrugged. “As a part-time member you’re fine. Ray seems to enjoy working with you, but to be honest, your wildly unpredictable energy patterns disrupt both him and Mikey.”

“They...they don’t,” Frank said. He wasn’t going to beg. He wasn’t. And he wasn’t going to cry. “I’ve been. I...haven’t you read? In my...the reports, Professor Siska said, he said my control has been exceedingly impressive, and that I no longer cause any noticeable disruptions in the air. Professor Salpeter agreed with him, adding that in the future, he can only see my control improving drastically.” And Mikey loves having me around as a dampener for when he needs to concentrate.

“I’m just telling you why,” Gerard said. “I also don’t think your grades are high enough, honestly, for the kind of work we’re sent to do.”

Okay. Maybe Frank was going to cry. He hated school. He couldn’t stand essays or studying or homework but people had told him that he wouldn’t get accepted into a team, into Gerard’s team, if he didn’t keep his grades up. He wasn’t at the top of the class because he just couldn’t keep in all the knowledge he needed and keep his control up well enough, but he’d gotten A’s in almost every subject. “I, what?” He had been working his ass off for four years to get the grades everyone had said he needed to be in this team.

“We’re looking for someone a little more reliable,” Gerard said. “And you just aren’t it.”

Frank stared. He blinked once, twice, three times, until he was sure that his voice wasn’t going to break and that he wasn’t going to cry. He could feel energy building beneath his skin even though he’d run three miles this morning, even though he was in the same room as Gerard. His headache was back, pounding in full force between his eyes and buzzing insistently in his ears as he held his power down like a dinghy trying to compress a tidal wave.

Gerard was holding back his own power, not leeching any of Frank’s. Maybe this was a test.

“Gerard...” Frank started.

“I’m going to have to ask that you to call me Agent Umbrella while we’re in here,” Gerard said.

Frank’s jaw almost fell open, before he caught himself. “Agent Umbrella,” he said, trying to breathe out and not just in. “I have...I’ve been applying myself to my studies, and I really think that I can be a valuable asset to your team.” He blinked and tried to meet Gerard’s eyes. They were cold and flat. Frank felt alone. He swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Uh, like. Sometimes Ray needs to borrow life force to heal people, and I can provide that. Mikey needs quiet sometimes when he needs to think, and I can lay down a blanket of that for him, so he can concentrate, and I’ve mastered...I can...my control is really good. Especially...” when I’m with you. “I can contain myself within the limits of my body. Did you read the application I wrote, it’s all in there and --”

“I read it,” Gerard said, holding a hand up to stop Frank. “And the answer is still no.”

Fine.

He wasn’t going to cry.

“If you would close the door behind you on your way out, Mr. Iero?”

He was, however, going to lose it a little. “Bullshit,” Frank said.

Gerard frowned? “I beg your --”

“You can’t have it,” Frank snapped. “My pardon, I mean. Bullshit, Gerard. What the fuck? My grades are...I’ve been studying and working so hard, and I’m never fucking good enough. I don’t have the same level of control as Ray, and I don’t have the same grades as Mikey, but I work hard to get what I do, so, bullshit. Tell me what the real reason you won’t let me in your team is.”

“I told you,” Gerard said, eyes widening a fraction. “Your grades are --”

“No,” Frank snapped, stepping closer to Gerard’s desk. “You spat out some formulaic blah-blah-fucking-blah bullshit. Is this some kind of a test? Am I supposed to keep a straight face while you fucking lie to me? Is that it? This is all a big mind game?”

“No,” Gerard said.

“Then what, Gerard?” Frank braced himself with his hands on the edge of Gerard’s desk so he could lean closer to Gerard’s face. He only slammed one of his fists on the surface a little. “What the fuck is the reason why you won’t let me on your team?”

Gerard was silent for a moment, not breaking eye contact with Frank. “I don’t think you can take care of yourself,” Gerard said.

“You what?” Frank shook his head. “Are you kidding me? I...we’ve been on missions before. I’ve saved my own ass a thousand times, and I’ve saved other people even more! What do you mean I can’t take care of myself?”

Gerard shrugged.

“Don’t just sit there,” Frank snarled. “Answer me, Way. If that isn’t it, then what?”

Gerard frowned at Frank. He was the first to look away, and he turned back to his papers, shuffling them around on the surface. “The answer is no,” he muttered.

Frank had been on the receiving end of his share of dismissals, and he knew one when he saw it. That didn’t make it hurt any less. “Fine,” he said, voice low. “Fine. I’ll get out of your goddamn office then, shall I? You know, I wish you’d just told me. Next time you want to rip a friendship to shreds, at least have the decency to do it to the person’s fucking face.”

He turned to leave, but paused with his hand on the knob. He didn’t turn around, but he did let his little mind boat fall down into the whirlpool that was currently sucking his stomach out through his toes. “I just thought,” he muttered, “but I guess I won’t ever be good enough for you. Not really.”

The hallway was way too bright, the lights illuminating the stark paper that was still somehow in Frank’s hand. He let Gerard’s office door fall shut behind him, and he clenched his hands into fists at his sides. The paper was heavy where it cut into his skin, so he forced his hand open and let it fall to the ground.

“How did it go?” Ray’s voice broke through the sky in Frank’s miniature ocean. The clouds were too thick for his sunshine to hit the waves.

Frank looked up. His hands felt numb at his sides. He couldn’t even feel where his fingernails were digging into the palms of his hands deep enough to draw blood. “What?”

“The...” Ray frowned. “You don’t, uh, look so good. Didn’t he...he didn’t...say...”

“He sent me a letter,” Frank said. He couldn’t even look at Mikey, or the paper at his feet. “And the letter told me to fuck off.”

“Frank,” Ray whispered.

Something in Frank broke on the wobble of Ray’s voice. He turned, and ran as quickly as he could, needing to get as far away as possible. If he could get out of his fucking skin, be someone that maybe mattered to someone for once, he would. Instead, he was stuck with the headache that wouldn’t go away, and the pounding of his feet on the concrete floor. There was blood on his hands, and bile in his mouth. By the time he opened his eyes he was in his room, having made the journey mostly by instinct.

He just need to hit something so he punched his pillow as hard as he could, once. Twice. It wasn’t enough: he couldn’t breathe, there wasn’t enough room inside his chest. He needed air. His lungs strained, but they couldn’t grasp breathing, couldn’t quite figure out what it was to suck in air.

Rage boiled up from his stomach, and his hands clenched with the urge to break something, to destroy things like Gerard had destroyed him. He started with the textbook that was lying on his bed, still open from the night he’d spent poring through it. When he’d been studying, trying to keep his grades up so he could impress Gerard for once. He let it fly from his hand as he threw it across the room. He was dimly that it was a childish action, but he didn’t care. He threw his notebook next, and then all of his pens. He kicked over a small pile of books, and shoved everything off his desk and onto the floor.

If he could breathe, if he could see, he would have screamed. Instead, he tore the stupid envelope in half, flung the pieces into the air, and threw another textbook at the wall.

He groped behind him for something else to throw: a jar of pens. It broke when it hit the wall, shattering glass onto the floor. He reached again, hand blindly searching until it met a cool wooden frame.

Frank tugged it in front of him, breathing hard after all the sprinting he’d done, after the destruction. Four faces smiled up at him from within the limits of the frame and he crumpled onto the floor. His legs wobbled before they fell, and the only thing that kept him from bruising his knees all to hell were two hands that wrapped around his arms and a chest that curved to meet his back.

Frank wasn’t even aware that he was crying until he heaved a breath in and found that he was no longer looking at the frame his friends had gotten for him, that Gerard was in, smiling at Frank and at the camera. Tears coursed down Frank’s face, and his body shook with the force of his sobs as he remembered the boy in the picture. He couldn’t see through his eyes, he’d clenched them shut, but he could see the picture in his mind, the ecstatic beam across his face. Happy to have people who had wanted him.

“Fuck,” Frank swore, when his mouth moved. He couldn’t breathe out, couldn’t breathe except to suck air in and in and in.

Mikey hummed against his hair and Frank turned his face into his solid frame.

Frank choked on a breath out, suffocating inside his own head from carbon dioxide, and sucked it in again, in in in then out through the water on his face. He couldn’t breathe through his nose, his chest felt too tight and he couldn’t breathe. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Mikey didn’t say anything. He hugged Frank close, just wrapped his arms around Frank and clung to him there on the floor, heedless of the snot coming out of his nose and the tears running down his face.

When Frank had no more tears and was just heaving dry sobs into the filthy fabric of Mikey’s shirt, Mikey hauled him onto the bed. He wiped Frank’s face with tissues, and let Frank tuck his head into the crook of his neck.

They sat together until Frank’s breathing evened out, until he could take in a breath without his throat tightening up around the oxygen.

“He said no,” Frank finally mumbled. The skin of Mikey’s neck was warm and familiar. It smelled like he hadn’t showered in four days, but Frank just pressed closer. “I did everything...I did everything for him, Mikey. And he said no.”

Mikey made a sound in the back of his throat. His arms were still wrapped around Frank, and he moved one so that his hand was stroking up and down Frank’s arm.

“He doesn’t...he didn’t even...” Frank hiccuped, feeling like he might cry again, even though he had nothing left to give. “I can’t remember what it’s like to sleep or, or to not have this pressure inside my head, and I did it for him, and he...he said I wasn’t...couldn’t take care of myself, but I did, I did on the streets, for so long and I have in here, and...”

“He’s an idiot,” Mikey said.

“He isn’t,” Frank muttered. He tried to push away, but Mikey held him closer. “And that makes it worse. I’m just never...going to be enough for him.”

“Stop,” Mikey said. “Fuck that. You’re enough. You’re larger than life. Gerard’s just...I don’t know. I usually know, fuck.”

“Me too,” Frank muttered. “He won’t even look at me anymore. He hasn’t looked at me for months. I just...I thought it might be that he was just trying to pretend like he might say no, but. I never thought he actually would.” He grunted, and shifted away from Mikey, because Mikey was his best friend but he was also Gerard’s brother, and Gerard’s best friend, and, fuck, fuck his whole fucking life. “You can’t cheat, Mikey. You can’t go into his head and tell me what he’s thinking about me.”

“Me?” Mikey put a hand on his chest. He was probably trying to look affronted, but really, he just looked bored. It was the affronted kind of bored, though. Frank could tell by the set of his lips. “I wouldn’t.”

“You would.” Frank turned away. “If he wanted me...if he did, he would have said yes. So I guess that’s it.”

“You’re just going to give up?”

“There isn’t anything to give up,” Frank muttered. Mikey’s arms loosened around him and Frank moved to the end of his bed. “Way he’s acting, at least.”

They were silent for a minute before Mikey reached over to pick at the hem of Frank’s shirt. “Are...we’re still...you and me, right? Friends?”

Frank glanced over his shoulder. Mikey’s eyes were wide, and his eyebrows were drawn together a fraction, and, okay. He wasn’t made of stone, here. He couldn’t resist Mikey’s puppy face, even if he tried. “Always,” he said, rubbing an idle thumb over the raised edges of the scar in the middle of his palm. “You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

“Good,” Mikey said firmly, accentuating the statement with a nod. “Can I let Ray in now? He’s been ready to help clean your room since forever.”

“Fuck you,” Ray’s voice came through the door, muffled but there.

“He’s like a mother hen,” Frank scoffed. He leaned back as Ray came in, all concerned frowns and hair that was way too big for his head.

“Shut the fuck up, Iero,” Ray said, pointing at him. “You don’t get to talk.” He sniffed. “You’re a delicate flower. Your room’s a fucking mess, by the way.”

Frank groaned and flopped back onto his bed. “Leave me alone, I am in a castle of pain.”

“What the fuck does that even mean?” Ray snorted.

“Can we watch something scary?” Mikey asked.

“Like, what,” Frank said, moving his hands over his eyes. “That time when Ray making out with that girl? You got that on camera?”

“I’m going to kill you,” Ray sang from the corner of the room.

“That was sick,” Mikey said.

“Both of you,” Ray added a harmony part. He was probably pretending to play guitar instead of actually cleaning anything.

“I was thinking,” Mikey drawled, “that new movie. The one with the house and the blood dripping and...well, it won’t be as scary as the Ray thing, but, you know. Should have some screams in it.”

“So exactly like the Ray thing then,” Frank said.

“Oh my god, shut up about that,” Ray said, and then, “sounds good.”

“Cool,” Mikey said. The bed shifted when he got up, probably to run over to Gabe’s room. Gabe had everything.

The sounds of Ray picking up glass made Frank sit up after a while. He was exhausted now, but knew that it wouldn’t last long. “So,” Ray said. “Are we...”

“We’re cool,” Frank said. “You validate my existence. Are you...” He didn’t know how to approach the question of whether or not Ray and Mikey would divide their time between Gerard and him. There was no way that they were going to stop hanging out with Gerard just because Frank couldn’t. Instead, he cleared his throat. “Plus, uh, you still haven’t taught me how to play guitar, so I need you to stick around.”

Ray hid his grin, but Frank could feel it stretching his face. “I’m the best teacher,” he said. He wasn’t kidding anybody; Frank could tell that he was totally beaming on the inside. “We should do it on Tuesdays, when you don’t have any extra-curricular classes.”

“And then all the time after I graduate, huh?”

“You only have half a year left,” Ray said. “And of course. The government loves it when the people they’ve invested shitloads of time and money in fuck around on the guitar all day instead of saving the world.”

“I knew it,” Frank said as seriously as he could. “Hey, you don’t have to...clean up, you know. I can do it.”

“I want to,” Ray said, earnest. “We’re friends, okay? You can’t get rid of me that easy. Just because I’m...” he paused and shifted his weight, but cleared his throat. “Just because I’m on Gerard’s team and, I mean. I’m still his friend too, but, shit. I can’t live without you either, okay? Anyway, this room’s disgusting now, and you need my expertise.”

“Fuck you, I’m the cleanest one of us all,” Frank said. “You never try to clean Mikey’s room.”

“I’ve tried,” Ray moaned. “He does weird things to me with his brain. He bends reality. I don’t know. I swear, you go to pick up a sock and suddenly the world is bleeding. Fucking Ways, man. Shit.”

“Fucking Ways,” Frank agreed, voice quiet. Fucking Ways, worming their way into your head and making a nest there and then destroying your brain from the inside. He grimaced, trying to shake it off. He couldn’t imagine a life without Gerard, but. Fuck. “Come on, you can clean later. Common room now. We need an entire mountain of chocolate. And popcorn.”

“And presents,” Ray said. “I’m giving you presents. You weren’t at your own party yesterday, you delinquent.”

Frank snorted. “I was studying,” he said. He got up and walked out, hiding his grin when Ray followed him. “I dare your present to top guitar lessons.”

“Believe me,” Ray said, deadly serious. “It’s the best. You’ll have to wait until after the movie, though. We’ll bring it to your room. And we’ll have cake.”

Frank shoved his hands in his pockets and looked down at his shoes. “Thanks,” he said after a moment, glancing up at Ray and trying to smile.

Ray slid an arm around Frank’s shoulders and smiled back. His eyes were a bit sad, but he was still there, holding Frank up. “Any time.”

At least Frank had two friends left. That was something to be thankful for.

* * * *

Frank almost didn’t come to lunch the day after Halloween. He briefly debated hiding out in his room, but grudgingly picked his feet up and walked to the cafeteria. A headache was building somewhere in the region of his temples, pressing around his eyes like a familiar irritating embrace. He got food from the lunch ladies, unable to muster up a smile for the curly-haired brunette at the end of the line. He turned to face the full cafeteria, a lump in his throat. Off in the far corner of the room, he could see Ray’s hair rising to new heights above the heads of the rest of the people. Mikey was probably hunched over his tray protectively, like someone might try and steal his apple juice at any moment. And if Frank was right, Gerard would be sitting across from Mikey, empty-hearted and infuriatingly comforting to everyone whose name didn’t start with an ‘F’.

Well, fuck that. He could also see, from his vantage point, Alex and Nate at their usual table. He weighed his options, hesitating for a moment before deciding he would probably be welcome there.

He shuffled over, keeping his tray level and skirting around elbows and backs. Ever since his first day, he’d been careful not to jostle anyone or draw any undue attention to himself in the cafeteria. Unless he felt like it.

“Hey,” Frank said, sitting down next to Alex. “Can I sit here?”

Alex rolled his eyes. The force of it sent his head in a circular pattern. “You already are,” he pointed out.

Frank shrugged. “So that’s a yes, then?”

“Yes.” Alex answered, something like an amused smirk pulling at the corner of his lips.

Frank shoveled a bunch of peas into his mouth, chewed, and swallowed, poking his mashed potatoes with the tip of his fork. “Stop staring,” he muttered, feeling their glances without even looking up.

“Sorry,” Nate said quietly, frowning in thought. “It’s...it’s just, it was your birthday yesterday, wasn’t it? We put up a banner, and you weren’t anywhere to be found.”

“Fuck, yesterday,” Frank moaned. “Don’t ever bring yesterday up.”

“But you’re eighteen,” Alex said. “Isn’t...you can join teams now. Right?”

“So can you,” Frank said. “And so far, I don’t know what all the hype was about. Senior teams seem to be about the same as the junior ones, but with basically a heap more heartbreak and disenchantment. And punching. I want to punch things more today than I did yesterday.” He sighed into his potatoes. “I must be growing up.”

“Why’re you eating with us, then?” Nate asked. “I thought you were sending in an application for Way’s group.”

Frank snapped in a breath. “I don’t,” he said. He could feel his cheeks heating up. His ears were probably red already. “I’m not...Fuck, I just. I wanted to eat with you guys, okay? Does it matter? Do I have to have a reason?”

“Hey,” Alex interjected. “You don’t have to. It’s fine.” He glanced warningly at Nate, who shrugged.

“Sorry. The news is going to get around eventually, you might as well tell us, was just my thought.”

“Fuck,” Frank muttered. “Everything just sucks.”

“So you did, then,” Alex said after a second, eyes still on Nate. “Submit your application. You didn’t get accepted?”

Frank stabbed his potatoes with his spoon. “Nope,” he muttered, glaring at his mangled pile of starch like it was the thing who’d been huge, stuck-up assholes. “He didn’t want me. Or something.”

Silence fell for a moment. Frank concentrated on carving his mashed potatoes into a truly spectacular mountain and on holding his power in: it gave him a headache but at least it was something to think about.

Alex cleared his throat. “Aren’t you friends with Mikey Way?”

Frank poked a crater into the top of his mountain. Now it was a volcano. He looked around the table to see if there was any red liquid he could pour into it. “Sure,” he said. “Why?”

He looked up a split second before something hit the back of his head so hard that he flew forward, face-first into his mashed potato volcano. His ears were still ringing from the blow when he pushed himself up, eyes twisted shut against the starchy invaders. “Motherfucking --” he started to snap, but when he wiped his eyes clean and looked back, he saw Mikey’s stubborn arms folded across his chest.

“What the fuck, Frank?” Mikey snapped. His eyebrows were drawn together and his eyes were practically spitting sparks, which, for Mikey, was a lot of expression.

Frank cleaned his face with his napkin. “Back at you. Ow, fucker.” He rubbed the back of his head gingerly. That was definitely going to bruise. His forehead, too. “What the hell was that for?”

“That was your medal for your first place award in shitty friendship,” Mikey spat. “Is this how it’s going to be? You’re not going to sit with me because my dipshit brother is off being a grumpy bastard? Because, newsflash! That’s never going to change.”

“No, I just,” Frank said.

Mikey leaned forward so his forehead was touching Frank’s. “You just what? Don’t answer that, fuck. Suddenly, best friend doesn’t mean anything to you? Is that it?”

“No, fuckwad,” Frank muttered. “I thought Gerard was going to be sitting with you because he’s your, you know, actual brother.”

Mikey glared, his expression truly formidable. “You don’t have to be an asshole,” he muttered finally. “Gerard isn’t even fucking here.” He pulled back from Frank and sniffed. “Well?”

“Well what?” Frank snapped.

“Well,” Mikey said, rolling his eyes, “move the fuck over.”

“You’re so clingy,” Frank muttered, but he moved over. He inspected the white, stringy hair hanging in front of his eyes and blew out a sigh. “I’m going to have mashed potatoes in my hair forever.”

“Blah blah blah,” Mikey said, squashing half of Frank’s thigh as he sat. “You shower five times a day, it’ll disappear.”

“Better than five times a year,” Frank countered.

Mikey sniffed, adjusting his position and elbowing Frank in the ribs three times. “Hair doesn’t get dirty.”

“Gross,” Alex muttered, running a hand over his own perfectly clean head of hair.

“So I hear Frank likes you better than me now,” Mikey stated, reaching over to steal a carrot stick off of Alex’s plate. He glanced at Nate, eyebrows twitching momentarily before he shoved the carrot into his mouth. He chewed as noisily as he could into Frank’s ear, probably on purpose. The bastard.

“Hardly.” Nate grinned, dark eyes flashing. “I almost made him cry.”

Frank swatted Mikey and his obnoxious chewing away from his face. “You’re all terrible,” he announced. “I have no real friends.”

Mikey messed up his hair, probably in an effort to make it look like he’d just woken up. He hadn’t washed it in a week and it stuck up in a series of unfortunate angles. “He cries a lot,” he informed Nate, and eyed Frank before messing up his hair, too. “It isn’t really hard to make that happen. It’s definitely very soothing, though, making him cry. I would suggest it as a form of therapy, but he’s also ticklish, and we all know that tickling other people is much better for your mental health.”

“God,” Frank said, pushing away from Mikey’s bony fingers before he actually tried to tickle him in the cafeteria. “We’re fucking adults, Mikey.”

“Sure,” Mikey agreed. He flicked Frank’s ear. “You still look like you’re twelve though.”

Frank really didn’t have an argument to counter that, so he settled for shoving Mikey’s bony shoulder. The move was truly ineffective because Mikey’s fighting strategy mostly involved going boneless. Except when he was fighting for Frank’s honour or slapping his friends around, of course.

“How do you,” he grunted, trying to gain leverage to get Mikey off him, “...ever fucking win?” he asked, continuing his thought process out loud even as Mikey slumped against him.

“I fight back, dick,” Mikey muttered, rolling his eyes. Sometimes having a telepath for a friend was useful instead of annoying, even if your thoughts were mostly a garbled mess of murdered static. Sometimes.

“Oh,” Frank said, suddenly remembering. He wheezed beneath Mikey’s prone form. “Right. Mikey, this is Nate Novarro and Alex Suarez. Dudes, Mikeyway.” He grinned, pleased with his own manners and resumed trying to get Mikey off him. Mikey had his chin hooked over Frank’s shoulder and was determinately forcing Frank’s hand to close around his beneath the table.

Frank gave up with a huff. It was just faster that wasy.

Nate gave a lazy nod over his fruit juice. Alex was artfully arranging his peas and simply saluted with his spoon.

Mikey zeroed in on Nate, gaze suddenly unfocussed in the way that Frank knew meant he was digging in his brain. Frank elbowed Mikey in the ribs, but Mikey barely huffed in response. “You guys know Gabe Saporta, right?” he asked, switching his gaze from Nate to Alex. When he did, his eyebrow twitched momentarily, but his face remained as it had before. After a second, his eyebrows slipped back a fraction into “bored” territory. The switches were microscopic, but Frank could feel them all.

“Wish we didn’t,” Nate said.

“No you don’t.” Alex snorted, eyes crinkling at the edges. “Why?”

“I hear he knows Pete Wentz,” Mikey said.

“Pete?” Nate asked at the same time as Alex said, “Pete Wentz?”

Completely without warning, Frank was shoved forward again, this time by a hearty slap to his back. Luckily, he’d managed to eat all of his mashed potatoes by this point.

“Did somebody call for me?”

Of course it was Pete. “Fucking Beetlejuice,” Frank muttered, trying to catch Alex’s eye. But Alex wasn’t looking at Frank, he was looking at Pete. Nate and Mikey were, too, mild adoration on all three of their faces. As Frank watched, Mikey’s face twitched from sickening puppylove to suspicion, which on him looked like the lines around his mouth deepened and his eyes narrowed. It didn’t last long before he was back to swooning. He almost had hearts in his eyes.

“How the fuck do you do that?” Frank asked, crossing his arms over his chest when Pete nearly knocked over everyone’s food in his effort to hop up onto the table to sit.

“Do what?” Pete asked. The Beetlejuice thing, Frank wanted to say, but Pete’s tongue was sticking out the side of his mouth like he was concentrating really hard on his balance. Frank snuck a glance at Mikey. Mikey was definitely staring.

Frank smirked. Mikey, clearly catching the edge of Frank’s thought, glared at Frank without turning his head.

Pete started to pick at everyone’s platters except Alex’s, because he kept smacking his hand away. “So seriously,” Pete said through a mouth full of carrotapplesaucemashedpotato. “Who said my name?”

“I did.” Mikey said finally, clearing his throat. “I was just uh. Asking if...you...knew Gabe Saporta”

Pete’s attention shifted from the food on the table to the lanky boy sitting a few places over from where he was perched, and his grin grew wider.

“Mikeyway?!” he exclaimed happily, and Mikey’s face turned a light shade of pink. “I thought you dined in yonder Eastern corner!” He pointed his spoon in a (decidedly westward) direction, and continued to stare at Mikey curiously. “But as I see you have joined this motley gathering, I’ll have to insist that you move your ass over and let me sit with you.”

Frank didn’t want to move. He’d already been shoved over by the bony mess Mikey liked to call his hips, but Mikey’s foot connected with his shin and he bit back a groan before shuffling over. He liked Pete too, just not when Pete was humming a tune and accompanying it with mumbled words that sounded suspiciously like “Mikey, Mikey, Mikeymikeyway.” Mikey’s hand was awfully sweaty where it was gripping Frank’s.

“Why don’t you ever come with us on secret missions, Mikeyway?” Pete asked. “You should. We don’t have a telepath. And then you could tell me if Patrick has any deep-seated homosexual desires, because I’m pretty sure he does but he keeps insisting he doesn’t. Also, while you’re in there, you could tell him that his head is really a nice shape and he shouldn’t hide its glory with hats so often. Alex, tell Mikey he should come on missions with us. They let Alex come with us one time in September,” Pete informed them all, bumping Mikey’s shoulder with his own. “Except.” He blinked and snatched the last of Frank’s carrots. “Except we accidentally burned a building down, but, I mean. No big deal, everybody got out and whatever. Just they won’t let me bring anybody else onto my team ‘til I’m 25, which is soon, you guys! By the way, everyone is invited to my birthday party.”

Frank leaned forward so he could see past Mikey’s hunched shoulders. “How do you accidentally burn down a building?”

Pete waved a hand dismissively. “It was a total accident, just, you know. Um. Yes.”

Frank looked at Alex, whose face was red. “An accident like whoops I dropped a match or an accident like I can’t believe I put my lighter onto this patch of gasoline, what a terrible mistake?” Frank drawled.

“Um.” Pete thought for a second. “None of those. Like the kid we were getting was a little bit skittish, I guess, and also a total pyro. And Alex is a pyro. And maybe, um, like, kind of like the patch of gasoline one, except instead of a lighter...Brendon.” He breathed the name and made his hand wiggle, probably trying to imitate fire. “It was sweet though. Right, Alex?”

“Except for the part where I almost lost my eyebrows,” Alex said. “Sure.”

“Right.” Pete grinned, turning his gaze back to Mikey and slinging his arm around his shoulders. “Moral of the story, little dude, is that I’m awesome and you should totally trail along with me more often. I can show you things.”

The way he raised his eyebrows made Frank a little uneasy about what kind of things he was talking about, but Mikey appeared to be totally onboard with the idea.

Pete’s face went blank for a second and then he laughed. “Dude, I cannot read you. You should totally, like, vocalize your inner thoughts. And shit.”

“U-uh. Sounds cool,” Mikey said. He blinked in surprise when Pete messed up his hair, an act Frank had previously thought impossible, before hopping (literally) away from their table.

Alex had gone back to pushing around the peas on his plate. Mikey shifted next to Frank, ducking his head to hide his blush the same way Frank had seen Gerard do a million times. At the thought of Gerard, Frank’s stomach twisted. Fuck, he was so fucked.

“I’m done,” he muttered, shoving at Mikey so he could get up from the table. Stupid Ways with their stupid moon eyes and duck laughs and fucking memorable smiles. He needed to wash his brain out with soap.

“We got that extra fight class later,” Mikey said. His eyes said Brain soap, Frank? What the actual fuck.

“Yeah,” Frank sighed. “Hey, Nate, I hear it’s going to rain this evening if you wanna walk somewhere. Try out that thing you wanted to teach me.”

“I like walking,” Mikey muttered.

“You’re busy,” Frank muttered back. He was going to be off doing some kind of dumb practice with his team. Frank had checked their schedule last week, and now he really wished that he hadn’t. Mikey’s face fell as he obviously picked up on the thought. He looked down at his shoes and Frank looked away.

“Sure,” Nate said. “Sounds good.”

Frank nodded. “Later, Mikes,” he said, and walked off. He felt like maybe curling up into the fetal position on his bed for a few minutes might help the butterflies bubbling over the edges of his stomach.

Maybe not.

Chapter Text

January 7, 2019

Mikey was acting strange.

Stranger than usual, at least.

He wasn’t at the compound very often: maybe one week in a month, though sometimes it was two to three months if Gerard had been given an assignment that required extensive travel and set-up. They’d finally returned from a longer mission, and Mikey was acting strange even for him.

These days, Mikey always seemed to be wearing either his nervous expression, his pained one, his wistful one, or his neutral-when-something-was-really-bothering-him face. Frank could have picked the minuscule shifts in Mikey’s eyebrows out of a lineup. He paid attention to Mikey not only because was desperate for company, and had started spending more time with Gabe’s gang than studying, but also because Mikey was one of the cornerstones in the bedrock of his life, and he wasn’t ever there for Frank to lean on.

His foundation consisted of: Ray, Gerard and Mikey, one of whom was usually tired from all the healing he had to do while on missions, another of whom was ignoring him completely and the last of whom kept throwing things and generally acting like a fickle little bitch.

When they’d been back a week, and after watching Mikey pace around his room for a good hour, Frank told him so in as many words.

Mikey threw a cold cup of coffee at him, liquid first.

After he’d managed to get the coffee out of his hair, examined the bruise left on his chest from the mug and had resigned himself to using the stained clothes for working in, Frank headed back to Mikey’s room.

“Dude,” Frank said, slamming the door as gently as he could. He was a bit angry about the coffee, but Mikey’s face was pale and he looked like he might throw up. Frank knew that look; he’d been there when Gerard had tried to convince Mikey not to drink so much coffee with limited success. “What the fuck.”

“It’s nothing,” Mikey snapped, face a storm.

“It can’t be nothing,” Frank said, folding his arms across his chest, “because you’re being a dick. There usually has to be something wrong for you to throw a cup of coffee at me for no reason.”

“You called me a bitch!” Mikey exclaimed, throwing his arms up in the air.

“And I stand by my point,” Frank said. “It was a good one.”

“Best friends don’t call their best friends bitches,” Mikey said.

Frank sniffed. “Dude, I have watched sitcoms. They totally do. Especially if their best friend is hiding a giant secret from them like a total bitch! Come on!”

“It isn’t even a secret!” Mikey said, face falling. “It’s just...I don’t want to talk about it.”

Frank raised his eyebrows. Oh, it was going to go down like that, was it? Well, two could play at that game. “Fine,” Frank said. “I’m just going to sit here and wait until you tell me.”

He sat on the edge of Mikey’s bed and stared. Mikey scowled. “Fine, sit there all you want. I’ll just leave.”

“Did I say sit here?” Frank asked, standing when Mikey did. “I meant follow you around and be an annoying little shit until you spit out whatever’s bothering you.”

Mikey glared.

Frank glared harder.

Mikey tilted his head upwards and smirked.

Frank walked out of the room.

He blinked once the door was shut behind him. “Fuck!” he spat, whirling around and knocking on the door. “Mikey, that’s cheating! You can’t use your stupid telepathy like that! It’s...it’s a violation of my privacy! Mikey, open up!”

“I’m sorry, nobody’s here,” Mikey said from inside the room.

Frank glared at the door and pretended it was Mikey’s head. “Let me in,” he said.

“No.”

“Mikey,” Frank said, closing his eyes. “Fuck, Mikey, I just want to know what’s wrong. I care about you, dude. Come on. You’re never here and we never get to fucking talk, and...I miss you, okay? Something’s wrong and I can’t fix it if I don’t know what it is and you won’t tell me and it fucking sucks.”

There was a long pause in which Frank listened to the sound of his own breathing and imagined that he could hear Mikey’s.

“You’ll say it’s stupid,” Mikey finally muttered, almost too softly for Frank to hear.

“Only if it is,” Frank said. “And I still want to fix it, even if it’s dumb.”

Mikey cracked open his door. He was staring down at his feet instead of at Frank. “I don’t know what to do,” he admitted.

“How about you let me in for starters,” Frank said. He was glad that the government had created an adult wing and had given them all their own rooms, because there was little chance that children would be traipsing through the halls on the way to their friends’ places.

Mikey left the door and Frank slipped in, closing the door behind him and watching as Mikey sat on his bed, hands folded in his lap. He was blinking an awful lot, and his fingers kept squeezing each other, as though he was continually trying to crack his knuckles.

“It’s Pete,” Frank blurted out, finally figuring out why the set of Mikey’s jaw was so familiar. “Something happened with Pete.”

“No. Nothing happened with Pete,” Mikey said. He slouched so far forward that his head was practically between his knees. When he spoke, his voice was quiet. “That’s the problem.”

“But didn’t you...” Frank frowned, moving over to sit beside Mikey on the bed. He didn’t sit close enough that their legs could touch, because Mikey wasn’t always comforted by physical contact, but he saw Mikey’s shoulders relax a bit once they were next to each other. “I mean, I thought you were going to tell him? About how you feel. In a super girly way, like, with candlelight and roses and things.”

Mikey was silent.

“Mikey,” Frank said, alarmed now. His jokes were hilarious, okay? Mikey should have been laughing. “Have you just been holding it all in? That’s never going to work! How’s he gonna know, man? Come on, you just...you have to go up to him and tell him how you feel, and things will work out.”

“You’re one to talk,” Mikey muttered.

“I,” Frank said, because hold on, “what?”

Mikey sniffed and turned his head away. “Nothing. Never mind.”

“Say it,” Frank said.

Mikey’s breathing was even as he stared at the wall. He clenched his hands into fists before facing Frank, eyes narrowed. “I said, you’re one to talk,” he repeated, teeth clenched.

Frank edged away from Mikey. “What the fuck are you talking about?” he asked, somehow keeping his voice level.

“Just go up and talk to him,” Mikey sneered, imitating Frank’s voice. “If it’s that easy, why haven’t you done it?”

Frank swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. “Done...done what?”

“You know,” Mikey said. “Don’t pretend like you don’t. Talked to my fucking brother, Frank,” he said, when Frank just shook his head.

“It’s not,” Frank said, eyes wide. “We’re not like that. I mean. He doesn’t...he doesn’t like me, okay? Not like...it’s not reciprocated, and, shit. Mikey, what the hell?”

Mikey’s eyes were dark. He tilted his chin up. “Don’t tell me to do something that you can’t even get up the balls to do.”

“But Gerard doesn’t fucking like me!” Frank shouted, rising to his feet. “Okay? He said as much when he turned me down for your dumb spy team, and he’s been ignoring me ever since, and don’t you fucking turn this around on me. Don’t fucking do that. Pete likes you and I can’t imagine why right now because you’re being a huge dick even though I’m trying to help you!”

“You think I don’t know that?” Mikey said, voice rising exponentially. “That doesn’t make it any easier, Frank! And it isn’t just Gerard’s fault, okay? Don’t take out your stupid issues on him! It takes two people to ignore each other. And if you would just put some fucking effort into your own situation then maybe you’d get to come with us and I wouldn’t have to spend half the goddamn year without my best friend!”

“You think I haven’t been trying?” Frank balled his hands up into fists at his sides. “I worked my ass off to meet all the qualifications that Gerard set up, and I went to him and I asked him personally if I could be on the team and he still said no! What the fuck more do you want me to do?”

Mikey sat down suddenly. They were both breathing heavily, and Mikey dropped his head again, burying it in his hands. “I don’t know,” he said, voice breaking on the end. “I don’t have a goddamn clue what to do. I don’t know how to ask Pete out, I don’t know how to get you onto the team, I barely know how to take care of myself, I’m just...I’m fucking useless.”

Frank’s face fell when Mikey’s words dissolve into quiet gasps of air. He hadn’t ever seen Mikey cry. Not like this. Not for real. Not since they’d both ended up in the hospital so long ago.

“Mikey,” he said softly. He had to keep it together. One of them had to be solid. What did Mikey usually do when Frank broke down into a sobbing mess? Frank hesitated for a moment before moving to wrap his arms around Mikey. The taller boy folded into Frank, sharp angles somehow managing to miss Frank’s soft bits. Frank lifted weights and did martial arts and ran laps: he could be strong enough for the two of them.

“Mikey, it’s,” Frank said, moving a hand up to run it through Mikey’s hair. He ignored how Mikey definitely hadn’t showered in a while, and just carded his fingers through the greasy strands. When Mikey’s body wasn’t shaking in Frank’s arms anymore, Frank took a breath, still soothing Mikey’s head. “It’s going to be okay. Seriously, Pete likes you, okay?”

“How do you know?” Mikey asked, voice muffled by where he’d buried his face in Frank’s chest.

“Same way I know anything about anybody,” Frank said. “Not all of us have telepathy.”

Mikey’s chest shook in a choked burst of laughter. He was silent for a while, just letting Frank pet his head, and then he straightened up, wiping his face with his hands. “There’s this kid, Ryan,” he muttered. “I think Pete likes him better than me.”

“Ryan?” Frank asked. He raised his eyebrows. He’d seen that kid walking around. Well, he’d seen him following Pete. “The kid with the notepad?”

Mikey nodded. “Pete recruited them, and...it’s kind of a Florence Nightingale situation. On one side. Pete won’t stop talking about how great Ryan is though, and...I don’t know.”

“I’ll look into it,” Frank said.

Mikey sniffed and looked up at Frank. “Thanks,” he said finally.

“Anytime,” Frank said.

“I...I haven’t been much help,” Mikey said. “Getting you on the team. I should have...I mean, you don’t have to do it on your own. I’ll think of something, okay?”

“Seriously?” Frank asked. “Dude, but isn’t that an abuse of power or something?”

Mikey waved his hand expansively. “Fuck it,” he said. He sniffed again and made a face when he couldn’t find any Kleenexes in his immediate area. “Ugh. I think we cry too much,” he said, mouth twisting.

“We’re the manliest of men, okay?” Frank said. “Just because lumberjacks don’t carry tissues around doesn’t mean we aren’t just as tough. Here.” He flexed his arm. “Feel my bicep.”

Mikey reached out his spindly hand and wrapped it around Frank’s muscle. “Wow,” he said. “You could probably pick me up.”

Frank tilted his head to the side. “Mikey, anybody could pick you up. You weigh, like, seventy pounds.”

“Do not,” Mikey muttered. “I’m just lean, okay? I could kick your ass any day. Without mind tricks.”

“Uh-huh,” Frank said. “Sure.”

Mikey punched Frank in the arm. “Douche,” he muttered.

“Ass,” Frank retorted, and leaped away when Mikey reached out to tickle him. “I’m fast too. You’ll never catch me, Way!”

He darted off, feeling Mikey’s laughter close behind him and grinning. It was nice when things returned to some semblance of normal.

* * * *

Frank kept Mikey occupied for a few days with horror movies and comic books. If Mikey could get him onto Gerard’s team then Frank could get him a date with Pete. He’d been doing a good job keeping Mikey’s mind off the fact that Pete spent an inordinate amount of time with the spindly little Ryan kid.

Or at least, he’d thought he had.

The kid who ducked his head into the library just to whisper “Fight in the caf!” before running off made Frank think otherwise. Especially once he made it into the cafeteria just ahead of a little brown-haired kid and heard “Fuckin’ new kid” and “The fuck was he thinking, picking on a Way?”

“Motherfucker,” Frank muttered. He elbowed his way through the crowd, using his short stature to his advantage. He was dimly aware of someone small following in his wake, but ignored him in favour of getting the fuck in there.

There was a small clearing in the middle of the mass of people, empty save for two equally spindly people circling each other like cats. One was clutching a notebook close to his chest. His dark hair flopped over into his eyes, but Frank could see that they were wide and dark. He was holding his pen over the page, almost like he was afraid to put it down. He couldn’t have been older than 16.

The other was Mikey. His hands were hanging at his sides in a position that Frank recognized from class. It was one that they’d been taught to use when you needed to strike at an opponent’s head, and Mikey often used it to channel his telepathy when he was working or extremely angry.

Someone moved behind Frank, trying to slip around him to get in the circle. Instinctively, Frank shot out his arm to stop, glancing over to his side for a moment before he turned his attention back to Mikey.

“What the fuck, dude?” the boy asked. Frank had caught a glimpse of browns and blues, long soft hair framing a chubby face. He didn’t look like much, but neither had Frank. “Let me through.”

“I think we should wait,” Frank said.

“For what?” the boy hissed. “That’s my best friend in there.”

Frank looked down at him again. This time, he didn’t miss the determined set of the boy’s jaw, or the way that his crystal eyes glinted, strong and sure. “They gotta work this through on their own, kid.”

“I’m not a --” the kid started to say, but stopped with a frustrated huff. “I...I mean, I am. A kid. But I’m. I have a name.”

Frank rolled his eyes. “Well, I don’t know it,” he said. “And you’re younger than me and definitely a kid. You’re what, fourteen?”

“Yeah. How old are you?” the kid asked, cocking his hips out to the side as he looked Frank up and down, grin wry. “Fifteen?”

Frank was so over being short. “Fuck you, I’m eighteen,” he muttered. “You hang out with Pete Wentz, don’t even start.”

The kid snorted. “Fine.” He folded his arms across his chest. He shifted his weight nervously. “Ryan’s never done this before. I’m just...he doesn’t know how to take care of himself. And...I mean, he had to pick his first fight with Mikey fuckin’ Way?”

“He’ll be fine,” Frank said, trying not to grin at this kid and destroy what was apparently a formidable amount of street cred. Mikey would no more actually hurt this Ryan kid than he had that butterfly Gerard had found on Frank’s thirteenth birthday. Frank distinctly remembered Mikey being on the verge of tears and Gerard promising to help the butterfly return to its family. “Anyway, you can’t fight all his battles or he’ll never grow up. What’s with the notepad anyway?”

“Superpower,” the kid muttered. “He makes things happen.”

Frank raised an eyebrow, but the kid had thinned his lips and was glaring out at Mikey. There couldn’t have been a more vague description of powers. “Whatever,” Frank muttered. He turned back to the middle briefly before scanning the rest of the crowd. He could see Gabe across the clearing, quick hands moving in and out of his pockets, probably taking bets on who would win the fight.

The thing about fights with telepaths was that they did most of the fighting inside their opponents’ heads. The further Mikey got inside someone else’s mind, the further he was from his own. Frank could see the distance between Mikey and his body in the way that his movements were slow and focused around his centre in a defensive position. His legs moved to keep him facing Ryan as the younger boy moved around the circle, but his feet slid on the ground instead of lifting, and Frank could see the faded look in Mikey’s eyes. He thought it unlikely that Ryan would have noticed, because it had taken Frank years to learn all of Mikey’ facial tics.

Frank felt a smirk pull at the mouth of the boy behind him just as Ryan’s hand moved in the middle, pen scratching a line across his paper.

“Stop,” Mikey growled, snapping back into himself with a blink. With another, a storm twisted his face into a scowl. “Don’t you fucking dare move that pen.”

Ryan’s eyes narrowed too, but then he smirked, the tug of his lips matching those of the blue-eyed boy Frank had been holding back. “Does it bother you?” he asked, pen still moving. His arm was shaking with what Frank guessed must be an effort against whatever Mikey was doing to him. “That I can write? That I do write? That I do it with Pete?

Mikey bared his teeth, hands stiffening at his sides. “Shut up,” he growled. Sweat was beading on his forehead, but he didn’t move to wipe it away.

“We write together all the time, you know,” Ryan said, conversationally. “He shows me stuff that he writes. Does he do that with you?”

Mikey’s eyes darkened. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he snapped. “So what, you write together. That doesn’t mean anything.”

“Oh,” Ryan said, voice soft. “I know. If you’d read what he writes...he puts his soul into those words. And then he gives them to me.”

His pen had stopped moving, but Mikey’s hands were trembling at his sides. “He...he can’t,” Mikey said, voice almost a whisper.

Frank scowled, looking away from the way Mikey was breaking down in the middle of the circle. “Pete Wentz,” he muttered. It had worked every other time: he couldn’t see why it would fail him now.

“What?” the boy next to Frank asked, eyebrow raised.

“Pete Wentz,” Frank said, holding up two fingers, and then, “Pete Wentz.”

“He’s been on missions with me,” Ryan said. “He loves me.”

“You’re just a damn kid!” Mikey said. “How the fuck would you even know?”

“I know what I feel,” Ryan snapped. “And Pete’s, he knows what he wants, okay? So just fuck off and --”

“Enough.”

Both Ryan and Mikey, backs stiffening when Pete’s voice invaded the circle. On the far side, people moved aside, parting like the Red Sea to let Pete walk through. He had his hands in the pockets of his jeans, and he tilted his head to the side when he came to a stop in front of the pair.

“Pete,” Ryan said, blinking furiously.

Mikey’s lips were a thin line, but he didn’t say anything.

Pete held up a finger in Ryan’s direction. “Let him go, Mikes,” he said, voice soft.

Mikey swallowed hard and lowered his head. Ryan stopped with the quick blinking immediately.

“Not super ethical, Mikey,” Pete said.

Mikey’s shoulders moved up a fraction in what Frank knew was a shrug. He looked away, down towards the ground.

Pete shook his head. “Gabe,” he said, looking away from Mikey to find Gabe’s face in the crowd.

“Yeah,” Gabe said, popping up behind Alex. Frank had no idea how he’d been hiding, since he was six foot five or something ridiculous.

“Give the nice people their money back,” Pete said. “You can all leave, by the way. This fight is over. Nothing to be seen.”

A collective moan rose up, traveling over everyones’ heads and following the grumbling masses as they reluctantly dissipated. As Gabe passed out the last of the money, Frank inched closer to Mikey, only glancing at the blue-eyed boy once.

When the crowd was gone and the cafeteria was mostly empty, Pete turned back to Ryan and Mikey. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “What the fuck am I going to do with you two?” he asked.

Nobody answered.

Mikey was too busy staring at the tile like he wanted to melt into it and Ryan was too busy fiddling with the edges of the pages of his notebook.

Pete sighed again finally. “Ryan,” he said.

Ryan’s face lit up even as Mikey’s fell. “Yeah, Pete?”

“Ryan, I...I guess I should say that I like you, but I just want to show my appreciation, okay? You’re a really fucking good kid, and I don’t want you to forget that.” Pete’s eyes were wide and earnest. “Okay? Say it, Ryan.”

“I...” Ryan stared, and his eyebrows drew together.

“Say it,” Pete insisted.

“I’m...” Ryan swallowed. His hands were shaking where they were gripping his notepad so hard that his knuckles were turning white. “I’m...a good kid.”

Pete nodded.

“I just thought...” Ryan sniffed like he might burst into tears. “I mean, I thought we had something...special. That sounds stupid, fuck.”

“It’s not stupid,” Pete said. “And we do, okay? We totally have something super special. And your lyrics are genius. I just...I don’t like you that way.” He held his hands up when Ryan opened his mouth. “No, but it’s okay, see. I’m way too old for you, Ry. You’re going to find someone closer to your age who’s going to fall in love with the beautiful person that you are. Okay, not that age differences are necessarily bad, but, I mean it just didn’t work out this time. But there are tons of people out there, and there isn’t just one person for you, okay?”

Ryan looked at Mikey for a split second. “Does...this,” he said, waving his hand in a circle, “mean I can’t show you my lyrics anymore?”

“No way,” Pete said. “You have to show me your lyrics. I’m your mentor, dude.”

Ryan frowned. “Okay,” he muttered. He toyed with the spiral on his notebook, stared at Mikey, and sighed before turning around and shuffling out of the cafeteria.

The blue-eyed boy watched him for a second. “Spencer,” he said, nodding at Frank. “Because you were wondering.”

“Oh,” Frank said, frowning. “Frank. Are you a telepath?” He hadn’t felt anything in the back of his head.

“No. I just have manners,” Spencer said, mouth twitching. “Excuse me, I’ve gotta go stitch up a broken heart.”

“Good luck,” Frank said, waving.

In the corner of his awareness, Mikey was wringing his hands in front of him and sniffing like he was trying not to cry or look like an idiot. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, refusing to move his eyes towards Pete.

“You picked a fight with a kid,” Pete said. “Mikey...”

“I said I was sorry,” Mikey said, face pained when he finally looked up. “I know it was fucking dumb, I just...you’re always gone, and I never get to go with you. And that kid, he...he did, and I just. I don’t know what I thought, but I mean, we’ve never. We haven’t, and I wanted to, but you weren’t ever here, and then when you were, so was he.”

Pete blinked. “Oh,” he said, mouth curling downwards. “I thought you knew.”

Mikey sniffed again. He swiped the back of his hand across his nose. “Knew what?” he asked, voice rasping across the words.

“I thought you already knew.” Pete rubbed the back of his neck. “I thought you knew and you didn’t...like me back. I mean, I’m kind of. I...like, I really like you, dude.”

Mikey looked up when Pete’s voice dropped on the last few words, eyes widening. “You.” He swallowed. “You do?”

“Like,” Pete said, a slow grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. ”Like I’m really stupidly in love with you, dude. It’s dumb how stupid I am for you.”

Mikey’s mouth opened and closed like a fish’s. “But I...you never said,” he muttered. “And you’ve never shown me your lyrics,” he whispered, eyes downcast.

Pete stepped closer to Mikey so the taller boy had to look back at him. His smile stretched across his face when he reached for Mikey’s hands, lacing their fingers together. “That’s because they’re all about you,” he whispered back.

Mikey was blushing from head to toe. “I...really?” he asked, blinking furiously. His shoulders were still hunched over, but straightened out when Pete moved in.

He got up onto his tiptoes and ran his hands up the lapels of Mikey’s shirt. “Really, dude,” he said, voice low.

Their faces were inches away, but Pete just waited. Their eyes were tangled together, and Mikey moved down just as Pete had moved up, pulling the older boy close so their mouths could meet.

Frank had to look away from the way Mikey’s eyes were closed in bliss and how his fingers were crawling up the back of Pete’s neck to run through his short hair.

His own heart was squeezing in his chest, half happy for Mikey and half longing for the same thing but it froze when he caught a glimpse of a dark figure across the cafeteria.

It was just for a second, but the moment seemed to stretch out as Frank met Gerard’s eyes. He was staring, eyes focused on Frank. Frank couldn’t feel anything, had to watch for the way Gerard’s eyebrows twitched together and his eyes darkened. His mouth curved down into a frown as he watched Frank. If Frank didn’t know better, he would say that Gerard had been staring at him for a while, but Gerard didn’t like Frank that way. He’d made that overwhelmingly clear, hadn’t he?

Gerard blinked, finally, just once, and then he turned around and walked out of the cafeteria, hands clasped behind his back.

Frank watched him go, more than a little bit confused. He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat when Mikey pulled away from Pete so he could try and remember how to smile.

He shot Mikey a thumb’s up and caught Mikey’s answering grin before Pete tugged Mikey back down, leading the way towards the juncture of their mouths tongue-first.

Frank couldn’t help but actually smile at that, but he was missing something that he’d been missing for months now. He left the two in the cafeteria and headed towards his room, unable to get the narrowing slits of Gerard’s eyes out of his mind.

Chapter Text

January 14, 2019

Between hanging out with Pete and practicing with his team, Frank barely saw Mikey for a week. If it had been anyone else, he might have thought that Mikey was avoiding him, but Frank had seen the way Mikey’s eyelids drooped in the evenings.

Gerard took them on runs, and he made them practice their fighting and stealth. Frank knew because he’d been out with them a few times before he’d turned eighteen, though he’d only been allowed to come on the runs. Gerard liked to push them pretty hard whenever he got the chance. He was afraid of being thought of as a bad leader, Frank knew, but that fact didn’t make Mikey any less tired after practice.

After a particularly restful control class with Sisky that only left Frank with a mild headache, he was very nearly bowled over by Mikey in the hallway that Frank’s room was in.

“What the fuck?” Frank asked, stepping aside just in time as Mikey tripped and had to do an awkward somersault to avoid falling flat on his face.

When Mikey twirled around, fingers all outstretched for balance and eyes sparkling, Frank repeated his question with a frown. He knew for a fact that Mikey had just come out of one of Gerard’s runs, and Mikey was never this energetic after one of those, even though his legs were fucking long.

Mikey beamed. “You’ll never guess,” he said. He lifted his eyebrows as high as they would go and stepped forward, grabbing both of Frank’s shoulders. “You will never fucking guess, Frank.”

“Guess what?” Frank asked, unlocking the door to his room. “What’s going on?”

“Seriously,” Mikey said. “You’re a bad guesser most of the time, but this is something you’ll never get.” His face was wide and open when he stepped into Frank’s room and closed the door behind him. “Seriously. Seriously. I dare you to try.”

Something that Frank would never guess. “Uh.” He frowned. “They found dogs who can talk?”

“Werewolves, dude,” Mikey said. “I told you, fucking werewolves.”

“They can’t talk while they’re dogs,” Frank said.

Mikey rolled his eyes. “Whatever! You suck at guessing! I got you on the team!”

“I do not suck,” Frank said. “That was a legitimate guess, okay?”

Mikey blinked.

As the last part of Mikey’s statement sunk in, Frank blinked too. “Wait,” he said. “You what?”

“I,” Mikey said, pointing to himself, “got you,” pointing at Frank, “on the fucking team, dude!”

Frank gaped. “What?” he asked, stepping back. “Are you serious? Don’t joke about this, dude, it’s serious shit!”

“I’m not joking!” Mikey said. “Seriously! Gerard’s filling out the paperwork now. He said you have to come out with us tomorrow, ‘and no whining or what-the-fuck-ever’, he said. Word for word.”

Frank had to sit down. He looked around wildly for a chair, found none in time, and collapsed gracelessly onto the floor. “Oh my fucking god,” he breathed. “How the hell did you manage it?”

“First, a ‘thank you’ would be nice, and secondly, I’m a genius, okay?”

Frank closed his eyes for a second, squeezing them tight to see if he could relieve some of the pressure building in his brain. “Fuck, fuck, fuck. This is so...I can’t...I mean, it’s...fuck!” He waved his hands around his head, and lay down on the floor. “Motherfucker, I can’t believe this. Thank you,” he said, realizing he hadn’t said it yet. He got up, throwing himself at Mikey and into a hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. Fucking thank you, I owe you so much.”

“Yeah,” Mikey said, patting his back as awkwardly as he could. “Yeah you kind of fucking do.”

“This is so awesome,” Frank said. “Seriously, oh my god. Thank you, Mikey Way.”

He pulled back to beam at Mikey for a second before squeezing his friend tight. He wasn’t going to cry, because they were manly friends. Manly friends who cried, but still. “Fuck, dude,” he muttered, letting go only when Mikey made a complaining noise about how his ribs were being crushed. “Seriously, how the hell did you do it?”

Mikey grinned. “It was easy, actually. I told Gee about how tired I get, from the exercise, the thinking, the planning, the healing. I’m the only one who can give Ray energy to heal with, and it’s really draining. I can’t build it up quickly like you can. And that made him guilty, and I made a pretty convincing case for you, dude. About how you give Gee energy and you can give Ray energy, and you are really good at having our backs. And then I made him look at the reports Brian’s written up about you, being on a team where you have to keep your thing in check, even. And then I might have made a sad face and gone back to the healing thing. And Ray agreed, dude. We should have done this ages ago.”

“That’s it?” Frank asked. “That’s what I told him, back when he first said no. Why the fuck is he giving in now?”

Mikey shrugged eloquently. “Dunno.”

“You’re not telling me something,” Frank said, eyeing Mikey.

Mikey shrugged again. “I’m not allowed,” he said, more miserably this time. “Secret brother blackmail information. It’s on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know.”

Frank scowled. “You can’t tell me that and then not tell me what it is, that isn’t fair.”

“It is fair,” Mikey said. “Telling you everything that’s in Gee’s brain wouldn’t be fair. That’s cheating, okay? I do have some sense of privacy, thank you very much.”

“Oh.” Frank frowned and folded his arms across his chest. That was actually fair. Frank didn’t really want Gerard knowing all the stuff that was in his brain, either. “Okay.”

Mikey nodded. “I thought so,” he said, but beamed. “Okay, so, dude. We should celebrate. I’m thinking movie out in the common room. Gabe said he has popcorn and Alex said he baked cupcakes with that junior pyro he’s tutoring.”

“Brendon,” Frank said. “Cool.”

Mikey gestured for Frank to come along, but Frank decided to give Mikey another hug. “Seriously,” Frank muttered. “Thank you. So much.”

“Yes, yes,” Mikey said. “You owe me your unborn children, etcetera. Dude, we’re going to get to hang out all the time now.”

“Fuck yeah we are,” Frank said, meeting Mikey’s hand in a high-five before he’d even thought to move his hand. “Shit, I’m so happy.”

“You won’t be at five tomorrow morning when Gerard insists on practicing stealth,” Mikey said.

Frank nodded, but he was too busy beaming to argue. Mikey had no idea what he was getting into. “Can we watch --”

“Texas Chainsaw?” Mikey asked, grinning. “Already got them to put it in.”

“Fuck, you’re the best,” Frank muttered, letting go so they could walk through the door.

“And don’t you forget it,” Mikey said, trying to be serious but mostly failing.

* * * *

On the team, fuck. Frank couldn’t believe it. He spent an hour meditating on the rocking planks of his boat, and wasted the rest of his night sandwiched between Alex and Brendon, who discussed proper cupcake baking temperatures for at least an hour before finally shutting up.

Around four, Frank got too nervous to keep watching TV. He couldn’t sit still. Even Brendon was getting annoyed, so Frank decided to get up and run some laps to warm up. He wanted to be ready when the team assembled.

As he ran laps, he concentrated on the feeling of his feet pounding against the track. He usually ran barefoot because their running track was indoors. He felt more comfortable in bare feet than in shoes anyway. He liked being connected to the ground that was a constant presence in the map that his power charted out in his mind.

He got into a rhythm, sinking into the easy breaths and leg motions that came from running a lot of laps. He usually ran with his eyes closed, trying to concentrates on sounds and his mental map of the room. Nothing was in colour; he really got more of a vague sense of shape that he could feel stretching around him. It was like having his eyes open if his vision was in depths and textures instead of blacks, whites and colours.

By the time his watch’s alarm rang at 4:30 (he’d set it just in case he somehow managed to fall asleep), Frank’s legs were well-limbered. He took a quick shower and then dressed in all black like Mikey had told him to.

He was just getting back the energy he’d spent running, and his heart rate was returning to normal when he jogged up the stairs to the level Mikey had told him to report to. It was quarter to five and the room he was supposed to go to was locked, the stretch of hallway leading to it completely empty.

Frank shrugged, scanning the area with his mind. He stretched for a second time, rolling his head on his shoulders and bending down to touch his toes as the clock ticked on. He was so ready, it was ridiculous. His power was contained, the waves of his inner ocean relatively calm.

He was focused on keeping it from going past the door of the room, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet, legs tired but ready to run again if they had to, when the first person rounded the corner. It was Ray, and Frank had to clamp his mouth shut to avoid calling out and waving.

Frank fucking loved five in the morning. It meant breakfast was only an hour away. Sometimes it seemed to stretch on for ages because it was the last hour to go, but it was the best part of the pre-morning for Frank.

When Ray got up to Frank, he could see as well as feel that the older boy’s face was creased in sleep. “Gee not here?” Ray asked, frowning slightly. “He usually gets here before me.”

“I didn’t see him,” Frank said. “And the door’s locked.”

Ray huffed out a breath. “Fuck, either he isn’t here or this is some kind of fucked up test.”

“Do you often have those?” Frank asked, bouncing from his left foot to his right foot. “Because I could be okay with that.”

“Dude,” Ray said, eyebrows furrowing a fraction. “Too much energy. Stop with the blinking and bouncing. Just cut it out. It’s five in the morning.”

“I’m always up at five,” Frank said. “Seriously, should I unlock it? What if he just isn’t here and he gets mad at me for imposing?”

Ray shrugged. “Don’t fuckin’ know. It’s bad enough that I have to get up at five, let alone do all this complex thinking now.”

Mikey turned into the hallway, eyes mostly closed and head drooping. He lifted up his hand half-heartedly either when he caught sight of Frank, or when he felt the edges of Frank’s power brushing up against his own.

“Mikey!” Frank said, grinning. “Where’s Gerard?”

Mikey yawned, showing off his sharp canines, and rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “M’fuckfino,” he mumbled.

“English,” Ray groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Separate your words, Mikey.”

Mikey mumbled something incoherent, “Khnzlbk” if Frank heard right, and barreled past them to the locked door. He tried the handle and groaned. “Too early,” he whined, slamming his forehead on the door.

Frank looked from Ray’s squinting eyes to Mikey, who was currently folding himself into a small pile of awkward limbs onto the floor. “Don’t you guys get up at five a lot?”

“No,” Ray muttered. “Only on special occasions. Or when he wants to make sure we still want to be on his team, but motherfuck it’s early.”

Frank glanced down at Mikey and reached to pat his head. “Okay. Is he usually on time?”

Mikey mumbled something and moved his head to pillow it on Frank’s feet. “Sleep,” he mumbled loud enough for Frank to hear. “He isn’t here and I’m going back to sleep.”

“Come on,” Frank said. “Get up, Mikes. I’ll get you coffee when we finish, okay?”

“No,” Mikey muttered. “Coffee now.”

“We gotta run around pretending to be invisible,” Frank said. “It’ll only be for an hour. Right?”

“Gerard’s shit in the mornings too, where the fuck is he?” Ray asked, ignoring Frank and Mikey.

Frank rolled his eyes and reached down to tug at Mikey’s arm. “Up, Mikey,” he said. “I’ll get you lots and lots of coffee. Yours and mine and Gerard’s for making us wait, how’s that?”

“Want sleep,” Mikey whined, but allowed himself to be hauled to a standing position. He tried the door again and groaned.

“It’s locked,” Frank said.

“He’s inside,” Mikey whined. “I can feel his mind, god. What the fuck is happening? I don’t understand. Open it, Frankie.”

“Maybe this is part of the exercise,” Frank said.

Ray shrugged. “Who knows. Never happened before. Out of the three of us though, you’re the only one who can open it.”

“What if he isn’t ready?” Frank asked.

Ray just shook his head.

“Fine,” Frank said. He reached out with his power, feeling for the bolts in the lock and sliding them into position. He used his hand as a tension wrench, imagining the lock clicking until it opened.

Mikey shoved at the door, which swung open easily now.

Gerard was standing on the other side, arms folded across his chest. “That took too long,” he snapped, scowling. “I’ve been waiting for half an hour.”

Frank gaped. “We’ve been waiting too. Why didn’t you just unlock it?”

“I’m disappointed,” Gerard said. “Especially in you, Frank.” He shook his head and turned around, stalking off towards a series of obstacles set up in the large, warehouse-sized room.

“The fuck?” Frank asked.

Ray shrugged. “Who can explain it?” he asked, waving his hands in a vaguely circular motion as though that might help. “Not me.”

Frank scowled. How was he supposed to know that it had been a test? He’d been a part of this team for like, half a day.

The rest of the training session went about as shittily as the start of it had. Gerard had set up the course like a giant game of hide-and-go-seek tag, the objective of which was to get tagged the least amount of times while still managing to tag the others. It would have been fun, if Gerard hadn’t been watching Frank like some kind of demented, crooked-mouthed hawk.

Frank could do nothing right. When he crouched behind a wall to sneak up and tag Mikey, Gerard was there, frowning disapprovingly at Frank’s stance. When he did a rolling dive to surprise Ray, Gerard insisted that Frank had alerted Ray to his presence with his power. When Frank pulled in his power as best as he could, and endured the pounding headache that ensued, Gerard popped up around a corner, informing Frank that he wasn’t alert enough.

By the time Gerard finally called an end to the exercise, Frank felt like his skull had been hit by a baseball bat from the inside. He was tired from running laps earlier and from having to deal with Gerard during what Mikey called Obstacle Tag. Gerard hadn’t once let his power slip, and Frank’s headache had transferred itself to his body, where it was crawling under his skin and making him want to claw his eyes out. His muscles were too tired for him to run to take the edge off, so he just slumped down beside Mikey in the cafeteria and let his head fall into his arms.

“Does he hate me?” Frank asked, not bothering to lift his head up. He was too busy manning the deck, trimming sails and struggling to hold the wheel of his boat steady until his body could adapt to the influx of energy.

“He’s trying to be objective,” Mikey said through a mouth full of oatmeal. “And it was an exercise, so you’re supposed to be tired.”

“God,” Frank muttered, forehead creasing as he rode down a particularly large wave. “I’m pretty sure he hates me.”

“Stop whining,” Ray said. He waited until Frank lifted his head to point his finger in his direction. “You wanted this, okay. Don’t let Gee hear you whining either, because he finally let you in.”

“Fine,” Frank muttered. “But he didn’t have to call me a ‘tiny sore thumb’. He didn’t call any of you guys that.”

Ray shrugged. “He’s just trying to be critical and fair. He’s tough, but that’s the only reason we’re allowed to do what we do. I hope we don’t have to get up that early for a while though. My brain doesn’t work so hot at five. I prefer to get up at six, not four thirty.”

“You got up at four thirty?” Mikey asked, squinting at Ray suspiciously.

“Yeah? Why?” Ray asked, scrubbing a hand through his impossible curls. “When’d you get up?”

“Fucking five,” Mikey muttered. “Just got up and went there.”

“You slept in your spy gear?” Ray asked, eyes wide.

Mikey shrugged. “We went to bed at two. I just got ready early instead of late.”

“You’re so fucking strange,” Ray muttered.

Frank let them talk and took a deep breath. He was surprised that Gerard wasn’t eating with them, but only mildly so. He hadn’t sat with them for a long time, Frank didn’t know why he’d start again now. As he rode the waves of his power, he wondered if his body actually could get used to having more power, and whether it was worth enduring headaches for.

* * * *

The second day of training was much better than the first. Mikey and Ray were still squinty-eyed at five in the morning and groaned when Gerard set them running laps.

Frank hadn’t run any before showing up at the track, and kept a firm hand on his power as he ran. If Gerard wanted to test his control, then he’d show Gerard how good his control could be. It was a bit harder to run while he was sinking into his own head and battening down the hatches, but only at first. The physical exercise helped trim the sails of his ship, so he only had to keep half of his mind on the task. When they’d finished, Frank was out of breath but not exhausted. Gerard didn’t so much as look at Frank the entire time, and when they left for the showers, he ducked away before Frank could even try and make eye contact.

The third day was no better. Gerard insisted that they attend a Tai Chi session held by Ms. Salpeter, during which he refused to look even vaguely in Frank’s direction. Frank simply held on, trying not to buckle under the weight of his own power. When they’d finished, he felt calmer, more secure, and he tried not to grin too smugly when Ms. Salpeter told him that his control was much better than it had been a week ago, but that Sisky still wanted to meet with Frank on Friday as usual.

On the fourth day, Gerard decided to switch things up by holding a running session in the evening instead of the early morning. Frank had more energy than he had during the early morning sessions, if only because he hadn’t had the opportunity to burn any off since the day before.

By the time Frank met with Sisky on Friday, he was a gigantic, human-sized ball of nerves. His power wasn’t leaking further than his feet as far as he could tell, but keeping it clamped down as hard as he had been had made his head pound so hard that no amount of aspirin would help.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Sisky said, sitting cross-legged on his desk like usual. “The only way you’re going to be able to hold more power is to just constantly keep sucking it in.”

“I feel like I’m going to explode,” Frank murmured, eyes closed. He’d let his power out so he could sort the tangled threads he’d hastily tugged back in with not enough regard for where they ought to go, so he could see every detail of Sisky from where he was.

“You won’t,” Sisky insisted. “At least, I don’t think you will. You should get your healer friend to take a look at your brain if you’re that concerned. Wait until your headache is really bad and then ask him if he thinks you might die from it. And if he says yes, then get him to take some of your power.”

“Gerard will know if I do that,” Frank muttered, breathing as slowly as he could. “I think he’s testing me.” His hands were lax where they rested, palms facing the ceiling even as their backs touched his knees.

“You had to know that he would,” Sisky said, somewhere in the distance. “You still want this, right?”

“Yes,” Frank said. “It’s hard, though. Not the physical activity, even, or holding my breath, power-wise. Just, he won’t even look at me.”

Sisky blinked as Frank tightened his hold on his wheel. When he pulled his power in slowly like this, he could feel the rotting planks of his ship repairing themselves, getting stronger. He could build it up with power, fill stores of energy in barrels on deck, and send the rest of his energy into the sea. When he did it right, the waves were calm and the sea was neither restless nor unmanageable. But it took all the time he spent with Sisky to rearrange his tangled waves into something he could handle.

As he took deep breaths and pulled his power in so that he could no longer feel the dust on the floor or the pebble stuck in the treads of Sisky’s left sneaker, he felt his headache recede slightly. They were running again tonight, and that should take the rest of his headache away. He’d probably have to jerk off later to get rid of the remaining pressure.

“I can’t say,” Sisky said finally. “There’s something coming...part of it is really murky and the rest I can’t tell you about it.”

“That’s about par for the fucking course,” Frank muttered, opening his eyes.

Sisky shrugged. “Sorry. This is one that you’ll just have to figure out on your own, kiddo. Looking good, by the way. That was really fast. You said you’ve been holding it in since Monday? I’m definitely seeing improvement here. Keep it up, Frankie.”

Frank grimaced, but nodded as he stretched out his legs, which had begun to lose feeling after not moving for half an hour. “Thanks.”

“And listen,” Sisky said. He opened and closed his mouth a few times before frowning. “Hang in there.”

“Okay,” Frank said.

“I know it’s tough right now,” Sisky said, “but you’re just eighteen, almost nineteen, whatever. You’re still young. Even if you’ve lived enough for a lifetime. Things will eventually turn around. Have. Will have been. Unless something bad will have, has, had to happen.”

When Sisky started switching his tenses it was time to leave, so Frank nodded and said his farewells.

Despite Sisky’s shaky-smiled proclamation, things did not get better. The harder Frank tried and the better he did at Gerard’s arbitrary tests, the less Gerard paid attention to him.

Frank couldn’t understand it. Maybe Gerard was trying to show that he wouldn’t just let anyone on his team, sure, but he used to talk to Frank. He used to acknowledge his existence, at the very least. Now, he just gave terse orders and disappeared as quickly as he could.

Frank couldn’t figure out what he’d done wrong.

Mikey shrugged when Frank asked him. “I’m sure it’s fine. You know how he gets into moods sometimes.”

“Okay,” Frank said, but he was dubious. Gerard had never before been in a mood where he actively found Frank’s presence distasteful, but maybe Gerard had just realized what most everyone else at this compound hadn’t: that Frank was just no good. That was probably why he’d refused to let Frank on his team in the first place; Gerard had figured out that Frank was a liability and had decided to save himself the trouble of having to kick Frank out later, after everyone had gotten used to picking up after Frank.

Well, fuck that. Frank could take care of himself. He’d done it when he’d lived on the streets and he’d damn well done it at Butch’s, and he was doing it now. He didn’t need someone watching over his every move and keeping track of him.

Frank decided to ignore Gerard just as much as he was ignoring Frank. He concentrated on keeping his power untangled and under control and practiced his running and fighting on his own time.

He left Gerard nothing to complain about.

There was nothing then for Gerard to use as leverage, no reason for him to not allow Frank to come along with them when it came time for their first mission as an official four-man team. Frank could see resignation in his eyes when Gerard announce it to them after a session of laps, but he said it anyway.

“We have a debriefing at six and we’re leaving at seven in the evening,” he said, looking over at Frank to shoot him a miniature glare. “Don’t be late.”

Frank resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Please. If anyone needed to be reminded about time, it was Mikey.

“Do not,” Mikey muttered, jabbing his elbow into Frank’s side after Gerard had scampered off. “I’m always on time.”

Frank distinctly remembered several occasions on which Mikey had woken up at the time they were supposed to meet and not early enough to make it there when he was supposed to. Instead of saying so, he simply shot a narrow-eyed Mikey a grin. He ducked away when Mikey shot his elbow out again.

“Shut the fuck up,” Mikey said, chasing after Frank.

Frank thought very hard about the time Mikey had shown up half an hour late to a practice, hair sticking up in all directions because he’d gone to bed at 5 when they’d been told to meet at 6. He pictured the event in his head and somehow managed to avoid all of Mikey’s sharp limbs until he skidded to a halt and was immediately tackled from behind.

“Fucking ow,” Frank choked against the tile floor, buried as he was beneath Mikey’s awkwardly long body.

“Say I’m on time,” Mikey said, twisting Frank’s arm up behind his back.

“You aren’t,” Frank said, wheezing when Mikey twisted harder. “Fine! Fine, you’re on time, god.”

“Good,” Mikey said, and then, “ah, shit.”

“What the fuck?” Gerard said from somewhere above and in front of Frank. “Ray, this is the bathroom. This isn’t the where you keep specs on the mission.”

“Oops,” Ray said, flicking the lock shut. “I lied.”

“Saboteurs,” Mikey growled. He was crouched in a defensive position when Frank got to his feet. “Gerard, it’s a mutiny!”

Gerard blinked, looking at Ray. “What?”

“These bastards,” Mikey spat, glaring so hard at Frank that he might have burned holes in Frank’s head, if he had that superpower, “are planning on torturing us!”

Gerard folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t understand.”

“You’re showering,” Frank clarified.

Gerard accidentally glanced over at Frank and was quick to look away, the tips of his ears turning red. “Uh.”

“I’ve been out with you two on missions before,” Ray said, “and I can’t believe I never thought of this.”

“No!” Mikey exclaimed. “I’m not doing it.”

“Are too,” Frank said. “You two are going to wash your goddamn hair and put on some clean clothes if I have to manhandle the both of you.”

Mikey shook his head. “And you, Ray Toro,” he said. “I expected better from you.”

“Traitor,” Gerard added, nodding seriously.

Ray folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the exit. “Go on, you filthy mongrels. Wash yourselves so we can be reminded why we picked up strays like you in the first place.”

Gerard wrinkled his nose, but slid away into the shower area.

“You haven’t showered yet,” Mikey whined, pulling off his black sweater and throwing it at Frank.

“At least we’ve showered this week,” Frank muttered. “Come on. If we’re going to be sitting in a van together for three hours, the least you can do is smell like humans and not walking piles of trash.”

“I thought you were my friend,” Mikey said, sniffing melodramatically. “You were like a brother to me, Frank.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Frank said. “Strip off the clothes and step into the shower, Way.”

“Do I have to do it in front of you?” Mikey asked, eyes narrowing.

Frank rolled his eyes. “I’ll be able to tell if you haven’t showered. Go and do your dirty business in a shower stall so I don’t have to see all of your ribs.”

Mikey sniffed again but stalked off. “You can’t lie to me, Iero. You love my ribs.”

“Operation: Dirty Boys is complete,” Frank announced, throwing his hands up into the air in victory.

“We couldn’t have come up with a better name for it?” Ray asked, frowning as though he had doubts about Frank’s ability to name things.

“Nope,” Frank said. He grinned and sat down on one of the benches. “It was better than Naked Boys, I thought. For your sake, at least. I mean, I wouldn’t mind seeing some naked boys; an operation based around that would be sweet.”

“Gross, gross, gross,” Ray muttered, plugging his ears with his index fingers. “Dirty Boys is a good codename.”

“Thought so,” Frank said.

“I’m washing my hair, hope you’re fucking pleased with yourself!” Mikey shouted from the shower.

“I’m ecstatic!” Frank hollered back.

“I’m glad you’re on the team, dude,” Ray said. “I always had to crack a window before, except when they told us we couldn’t because it ‘isn’t stealth’.”

“You just gotta know how to handle them,” Frank said, bracing himself on his elbows. He cast out his power just enough so he could feel the water hitting the floor in the other room. “Turn your shower back on, dipshit,” he shouted, pointing his face towards the showers.

Mikey grumbled something, but the water noise increased incrementally and Frank leaned back, satisfied. Well, mildly so. He wouldn’t mind being in the shower now as well, not only to stand under a pounding stream of water, but to be standing next to Gerard in the shower, pushing up against him as water slid down between their bodies, panting beneath the rising steam.

“Gross!” Mikey shouted, and, yeah. Frank had to put a stop to that kind of imagery before they went out. Not only would they distract Mikey, but they’d probably distract him, too.

Sorry, he thought, casting his thought out and folding his legs up beneath him on the bench. He’d just organize his power, untangle it, and get it under control then, while Mikey was within thought-range.

He concentrated on the sound of water hitting the floor and imagined the tangled threads of power as a torrential downpour in his mind, rain hitting the deck of his ship and sliding off into the ocean to mingle with the organized chaos of the roiling waves. He concentrated very firmly on the sounds of water lapping against his ship, and not on glistening skin or crooked smiles.

He could keep it together. His ship was strong and his resolve was stronger. He wanted to be on this team, and he’d damn well do it right, without being sexually awkward around his leader.

Couldn’t he?

Chapter Text

Mikey wouldn’t talk to Frank after “The Incident”. He refused to do anything more than sit at the desk in his room, hands folded across his chest, face set in a stoic mask.

“So what do we do at a briefing?” Frank asked. He caught the glare Mikey shot him and rolled his eyes. He kept forgetting that Mikey was mad because he couldn’t contain his excitement. A mission! A real mission! Not a junior team one, but a real, bonafide mission. Frank was going to be a fucking secret agent. He wanted to run victory laps until he keeled over.

Mikey glared even harder, like he was pretending he had laser vision. Frank could suddenly picture himself keeling over. The image was surprisingly vivid.

“Fuck you,” Frank said. He wasn’t going to literally die from excitement.

A Mikey appeared at brain-Frank’s funeral, holding up a sign that read: Too bad.

“Dude, you had to shower,” Frank said. “Your hair was plastered to your head like Gabe to his bed after a night of red bull and vodka.”

Mikey sniffed and looked away from Frank. He was trying to look impassive and mysterious and possibly angry but he jumped same as Frank when someone knocked at the door.

“Can I come in?” Pete asked. Without bothering to wait for an answer, he barged in. His eyes were hard and dark where they were focused on Mikey, a sharp kind of twinkle hidden behind his pupils.

Mikey’s spine stiffened slightly. His face had changed, shifted into something Frank recognized as the sickeningly adorable puppy love Mikey had for Pete, buried beneath layers of “cool”.

The subject line of the email that had just popped up in Frank’s mind read:
Re: Fuck You, Frank.
The body was a picture of Mikey holding up his middle finger in Frank’s direction.

Frank typed back a reply:
Re: You Love Him
And it’s gross.

“You showered,” Pete said. Mikey had just enough time to tilt his head in a slight nod before Pete was leaning in and licking a stripe up from Mikey’s collarbone to his ear. Mikey’s breath hitched and his eyes fluttered closed. “Hallelujah, the rumours were true.”

Frank made a face. Pete probably didn’t know he was there. Oh god, Pete really didn’t know he was there. If he had, he probably wouldn’t be straddling Mikey’s lap and sucking on his ear, and. Frank had to get out of there.

Re: Fuck You, Frank.
You’re a pervert.

“Pete!” Frank said, interrupting them and ignoring Mikey’s momentary glare in favour of beaming in Pete’s direction.

Pete froze with his mouth latched onto the corner of Mikey’s jaw. “Frank,” he said, pulling back just enough so his mouth was free. Frank tried not to look at the way Mikey’s hands were bunched into Pete’s shirt, knuckles white. “I have you to thank for the shower, then?”

“If by thank you mean mentally scar then yes,” Frank said.

Pete chuckled darkly. “If you don’t want to be really scarred, you should probably leave. Or...you could join us...?”

Frank thought about vomiting and then about Mikey’s awkward, naked knees.

“No,” Mikey snapped quickly. His eyes sidled over to look at Frank and he smirked. “I want you all to myself.”

“Oh god,” Pete breathed.

Leaving, Frank thought. I hate you.

“You love me,” Mikey muttered when Frank was almost all of the way out of his room.

“I really do,” Pete said, earnest as anything before he slid down to the floor, and.

The door clicked behind Frank but he was already hurrying down the hallway, trying to get somewhere where he wouldn’t have to look at either of them or think about them or anything remotely related to either Mikey or Pete. He was so focused on cleansing his brain that he didn’t notice Mr. Thompson coming until the man had run right into Frank.

Frank rubbed his shoulder with a grimace. He wasn’t expecting to see Mr. Thompson glaring openly at him when he looked over.

“Watch where you’re going, you abominable creature,” Thompson snarled.

“You’re the one who ran into me,” Frank said, blinking with surprise.

“Hmph,” Mr. Thompson huffed. “If you weren’t inside your head all the damn time, this never would have happened. You don’t pay attention and yet you somehow manage to let your power roam free. It’s why you were never any good at math and why I doubt you will be very successful at anything in the future.”

“Excuse me?” Frank asked, because what the fuck?

Mr. Thompson shook his head. “I’m still amazed that Way ever let you on his little team. Who’s all a part of that ragtag bunch again? The healer and the telepath?”

“Mikey and Ray,” Frank said.

Mr. Thompson’s face curled into a sneer of disgust. “Nobody else would take them on, I expect.”

Frank honestly didn’t know what was happening in the conversation anymore. “Mikey and Ray are more powerful than you’ll ever be,” he muttered.

Mr. Thompson rolled his eyes. “I’m sure that seems true,” he snapped, turning on his heel and marching away from Frank.

* * * *

“And then he just walked off,” Frank said, staring at Ray and resolutely not looking in Mikey’s direction. Well: MikeyandPete’s direction. The two were sitting so close together that Frank was honestly surprised that they weren’t the same human being yet. “He wasn’t even heading towards the cafeteria.”

“You know,” Ray said, after looking around the room, “I don’t actually remember him ever sitting at the teachers’ table during meals.”

“Well, teachers eat their breakfast earlier and lunch later than us,” Frank said.

“But has he ever been to those either?” Ray asked, an eyebrow raised.

Frank stopped to think. “No...well, breakfast? Sometimes. But usually...huh.”

“Where do you think he eats then?” Ray asked. “I mean, I know a lot of students hate him, but the teachers don’t, right?”

“I was talking to Patrick about this a few months ago,” Pete said suddenly. “We reckon he has a harem.”

“You mean you think he has a harem,” Mikey muttered. “Patrick thinks that he just has family elsewhere. He also said that Thompson’s power was weird and he could never put a finger on it and that when he asked if he could do a reading, Thompson up and left the room.”

“Spooky,” Frank said.

“How do you know what Patrick said?” Pete asked.

Mikey poked at his mashed potatoes. “Remember when we were not-dating?”

“No,” Frank and Ray chorused.

Mikey glared at them. “We hung out then, remember? And Patrick asked me if I wanted to hear about some weird politic-type things he’d heard circulating around the Institute. Thompson was one of them.”

Pete relaxed into Mikey, letting his head drop onto the taller boy’s shoulder. “My two boys, talking. I like that.”

“You have completely missed the point of that story,” Frank muttered, but Pete was already mouthing at the juncture between Mikey’s neck and shoulder.

“Time to leave?” Ray asked.

“It was that time at least five minutes ago,” Frank replied. He was glad for Mikey, sure. That didn’t mean that he wanted to see Pete’s tongue at all hours. Or any hours, really.

“So the cafeteria, Mikey’s room, and the common room are now potentially off limits,” Ray said as they left their dirty trays in their designated area and wandered out of the cafeteria.

“My room too,” Frank said. “Just in case.”

Ray’s nose wrinkled. “We can go to mine, then. Practice guitar a bit?”

“You mean ‘show off’, don’t you?” Frank asked, giggling when Ray swing his fist in Frank’s direction.

“Just because I’m better than you doesn’t mean I shouldn’t rub it in your face,” Ray said.

“You’re my teacher! You’re supposed to be encouraging and shit.”

Ray shrugged. “You’re a fast learner, you barely need teaching.”

“That isn’t what Thompson said.” Frank shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. It wasn’t that he was sulking, really, just that...well, okay. So he wanted to sulk.

“Well, maybe you aren’t good at math, but that has nothing to do with your power control or whatever. You got pretty close to top marks in Sisky’s class, right?”

“I guess. I dunno,” Frank muttered. “I’m nervous about the briefing and the mission, you know?”

Ray turned the final corner into the hall his room was in. “Definitely,” he said. “We were all on edge during our first mission, that’s for sure.” He laughed when he turned the key to unlock his room. “Gee especially, probably because he’s the leader, but, shit. Agent Sarge was there, as kind of a temporary supervisor - he was Gee’s junior leader, you know? And anyway, Gerard just kept dropping shit and tripping and if we hadn’t all been anxious, it would have been hilarious. It is now, at least.”

“Sarge was there?” Frank followed Ray in. “Mikey wouldn’t ever really talk about his missions. What do you guys, we - what do we do?”

“He wasn’t allowed to,” Ray said. “He was so pissed about that. Whining on about how you wouldn’t tell anyone and you would find out anyway, but the government wouldn’t let him.”

“Sarge is head of recruiting though, isn’t he?” Frank picked up the second guitar that Ray kept right next to his favourite Gibson. It was an acoustic, because Ray liked variety, but Frank had learned fairly quickly that while Ray would let him play his Les Paul, it made the vein in his forehead stick out. Frank stuck with the acoustic, usually.

Ray nodded. His eyes were focused on the strings; he plucked each one, tuning the instrument by ear. “Pete works under him, too, but they do more of the actual scouting and picking up of kids. Sarge gets records from hospitals and all that shit, and he sends out teams to get kids. We deal with the more obscure cases...like yours.”

Frank didn’t know what to say to that. Ray looked up eventually, brown eyes cautious. “Kids on the street,” he said softly. “Kids in their own homes. Wherever we hear about disturbances, missing children, anything like that. We do a lot of disappearances, too? Sometimes kids vanish from foster care or their homes and if we think that supernatural shit has been happening, we try and find them. Recently it’s been...worse. Not kids running away as much as kids just being lifted out of their environments and never being heard from again. Gerard thinks it might be organized and intentional.”

Ray fell silent and strummed a few chords before starting up a rhythm. Frank followed suit, trying to fit his music between the threads of Ray’s. They played quietly for a minute until Frank had to ask. “How many kids are we talking? Like, the normal amount of disappearances or whatever? Ten to twenty percent?”

“The statistics are hard to come by,” Ray muttered. His eyes were falling closed as he sunk into the music. “A lot of these kidnappings or abductions or whatever aren’t reported? Because the kids have superpowers or whatever. But of the ones that are, Gee estimates that about half to eighty percent of them are SuperHumans. And he thinks the rate is closer to twenty percent now. They don’t usually take them out of foster homes, because that’s all in the system and documented, but every now and then we get reports of homes burned to the ground and the population of the homes has disappeared.”

“What the fuck are they using them for?” Frank asked.

“That’s what we don’t know. Maybe it’s like, slavery, prostitution and shit, I have no clue. I think Gee thinks...well, he hasn’t told anyone, really. But you’re on the team now, so I guess...I guess you can know.”

Frank swallowed when Ray stopped playing. This was some seriously heavy shit they were getting in to here.

“He thinks that someone is taking their powers,” Ray said. He’d left his hands on the guitar, one resting on the neck and the other cradling the body. “Like a vacuum. I mean, there’s no proof. But Gee’s hunches are usually pretty good.”

“Shit,” Frank breathed.

Ray nodded with a grimace. “Yeah.”

“So that’s what we’re doing, then? Looking for proof?”

“Or the guys that are doing it,” Ray said.

“So how,” Frank said, trying to wrap his head around the concept of people like that existing. It wasn’t hard: he’d met a lot of selfish people in his life. “Like, how did he decide that? Or figure it out?”

Ray shrugged. “We found some shit about, like, some businesses putting their revenue towards things that don’t show up under other accounts they keep. Some buildings draining more energy from the grid than others. The rates, obviously, and- I don’t know.” He looked at Frank, half a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “He’s in his own head a lot, making drastic leaps keeps him pretty busy. He’s usually right, though. It’s just that we need proof to convict anybody, you know? Legal system and all that.”

“And you need to rescue the kids,” Frank said.

“If there are kids,” Ray said.

Frank shrugged. “If Gerard says there are...”

“Yeah,” Ray said. “It’s just a terrifying thought.”

“What if they abduct adults, too?” Frank asked. “I mean, if they’re taking superpowers? There’s a ton of adults who were never reported to the government as children.”

Ray blinked. “You should bring that up at the briefing.”

“Seriously?” Frank asked, taken aback.

“Dude, yes. Okay, fuck, my hands are sweating. We should stop talking about fucking abduction and play. I’m starting on C,” Ray said, wiping his hands on his jeans. “C, G, E, B. Try to keep up.”

* * * *

Frank was ecstatic, if the word meant nervous, anxious, and ready to explode. He felt like he might throw up or faint and he wasn’t sure if he was actually going to do any of those. Standing outside the door to Gerard’s office was about as scary as it had been the first time. At least now he knew that he was already on the team and didn’t have to worry about being rejected. That’s what he kept telling himself, but it didn’t seem to be working.

Mikey appeared five minutes before the meeting was supposed to start. He looked horribly debauched. Frank couldn’t resist rolling his eyes.

“Whatever dude,” Mikey said. “You’re way too nervous about this thing.”

“I kept thinking that earlier and now the word ‘nervous’ has no meaning to me,” Frank muttered. They’d just gotten Mikey to wash up, and Pete had to go and ruin everything.

“I’m still your favourite,” Mikey said, reaching over to ruffle Frank’s hair.

“Are not,” Frank muttered.

“You’re just lucky that this telepathy thing doesn’t work both ways unless I tell it to,” Mikey said. He opened the door when it didn’t look like Frank was going to, and the two of them stepped inside. Ray had left a few minutes before Frank, and he was already sitting inside.

“What about your telepathy thing?” Gerard asked from behind his desk.

“He keeps thinking about how I’m gross,” Mikey said as he collapsed into a chair. “I told him that he’s lucky I’m not broadcasting what I’m thinking, because I just have this really vivid mental image of Pete’s fingers --”

“Stop,” Gerard snapped, eyes wide. “What the fuck, stop.”

“And his huge --”

“For the love of God, Mikes,” Gerard said.

Mikey shrugged. “I’d say it’s payback,” he said, eyes focused on Gerard’s.

“Frank had an idea,” Ray said, alarmed. “About the abductions.”

The brothers continued their silent conversation for a good thirty seconds before Gerard finally looked away with a scowl. “Great,” he muttered. “Ideas are great.”

“You don’t have to sound so enthusiastic about it,” Frank muttered. He folded his arms across his chest and tried to make himself as small as possible. There was a third chair in the room and when Gerard just stared at Frank, he went over to it.

“Do you have anything or not?” Gerard asked, eyes narrowing when Frank didn’t say anything.

“Oh,” Frank muttered. “Um. Just that it might not be exclusively kids that are getting kidnapped or whatever. I don’t know. It’s nothing, you probably already thought of that before.”

“It’s good,” Ray said.

“Like adults?” Mikey asked. “People keep track of adults, don’t they?”

Frank shrugged. “Not the poor ones. And women get kidnapped all the time. We probably only hear about a fraction of cases.”

Gerard waved a hand around in the air like he was trying to catch a butterfly. “And you think they’re taking power from these adults?”

Frank glanced over at Ray who nodded a fraction. “Yes?” he said. “Um. Yes. I mean, I bet there’s a lot of adults who have superpowers...the whatever act didn’t come out until 2010, so whoever was already an adult before that is probably still undocumented and wandering around. Or kidnapped.”

“The SuperHuman Equality Act,” Gerard said.

“Yeah,” Frank said. “That one.”

Gerard slumped back in his chair. His eyes were focused somewhere in the distance. Cogs were clearly turning in his mind. “Fuck,” he said after a moment. “That...okay. That makes sense. And fits with...” He dug in one of his drawers, emerging from what Frank assumed was a pile of miscellaneous crap with a sheet of paper. “This. I found this the other day, it’s just a list of power usage by corporation, and I thought that this RedFish was maybe sucking an awful lot of power from the grid, but. It doesn’t deal in anything that is remotely related to kids, so I dismissed it. There are a few other companies that were on my watchlist that didn’t make sense either.”

Frank hadn’t realized that he was leaning in until Gerard looked up at him from just a foot away. The older man’s face emptied itself of emotion. He cleared his throat and leaned back. “But we should really concentrate on tonight’s mission.”

Right. Frank tried not to let his face fall. He was going to be a spy, even if it meant listening to the scratchy tones of Gerard’s voice and not getting to look at him or touch him. He sensed Mikey’s burning eyes on him and sunk into his chair.

Yes, yes, alright.

Or think about him. This was going to be harder than Frank had originally anticipated.

Chapter Text

January 29, 2019

Frank had a problem and its name was Gerard Way.

“Special Agent Umbrella, if you will,” Gerard insisted, when Frank hissed out his name.

“Special fucking whatever,” Frank snapped, voice low. They were huddled behind a dumpster, just waiting for Mikey’s signal before they ran through the corridors to the next checkpoint.

This was by no means Frank’s first mission with Gerard’s team, but it was the first on which he’d been paired with Gerard. Gerard usually set it up so that Frank was with either Mikey or Ray, though none of them knew why. Whenever Frank was with Mikey, Mikey complained about Frank’s thought-broadcasting and energy disruptor, something that he enjoyed when they were alone in a room but that was cumbersome out in the field. And whenever Frank was with Ray, Mikey complained about Gerard sucking away all of Mikey’s energy.

As far as Frank could tell, Mikey had sprained his own ankle as they had left the van to run into the building, and had insisted on being left behind with Ray to do surveillance. He’d said that he could scan thoughts from outside the building just as well as he could from the inside, and that if one of them had to perform rescue duties, it would be better to send the telepath who could pick his idiot brother and his dumbass friend out of a crowd of thoughts without much effort.

Frank, who hadn’t minded being partnered with Ray but who had had trouble keeping his energy down and still scanning for danger with it when he’d been with Mikey, had thought that this plan would be at least mildly okay.

The only problem was that Gerard was being an asshole.

Frank said as much, but Gerard just flapped a hand at Frank and refused to look back at him. It was just like when they’d been in training, where Gerard wouldn’t meet Frank’s eyes, look in his direction, or generally acknowledge his existence.

Frank had put up with this behaviour before because it had never put his life in danger, but he needed Gerard to give him orders on what to do and because he couldn’t see Gerard in his mind’s eye, he needed Gerard to look at him so he would know what to do.

Frank was starting to panic, but even more than that, he was getting really, really fed up with Gerard. He had to be on high alert, ready for that fleeting second where Gerard might actually look near Frank, or when he’d twitch his hand at his side the second before he moved. And he had to keep an eye on their backs, because Gerard was leading them through the building.

He had to keep twisting around to make sure that there weren’t any guys behind them, and then checking to make sure that Gerard was still there, and Frank’s neck was starting to hurt.

“Frank, you look like an idiot,” Mikey said, through the monitor earpieces they were both wearing.

Frank scowled and held his middle finger up at the cameras, which Mikey and Ray had supposedly hacked into with the government’s tech.

“Real mature, Frank. It’s like you’re an adult or something.”

Gerard shot half a glance over his shoulder before taking off down the hallway. Frank resisted the urge to swear loudly and ran off after him, hoping that his power and Mikey’s cameras would be enough to alert them to any potential danger.

They ran low through the halls before Gerard stopped in front of a maintenance shaft. Frank’s eyes widened at the sight. This hadn’t been on their maps. “This isn’t,” Frank hissed, taking one step back. “This wasn’t in the plan.”

“Yes it was,” Gerard said. “Come on, go.” Gerard muttered, looking down at his feet after he’d pulled the cover off.

Frank shook his head. He had a problem with small, enclosed spaces.

Frank,” Gerard hissed. “Go. They’re coming back any second.”

Fuck. Frank closed his eyes and crawled in. He could probably make it through the shafts alive and without being crushed to death or having a panic attack. Right? He didn’t know what was going on with Gerard, but if it got him killed, Frank was going to be seriously pissed off. He was going to come back as a terrifying ghost and haunt the shit out of Gerard. And then he’d haunt Mikey for a bit, just for fun. Mikey was terrified of ghosts.

“I heard that,” Mikey muttered in Frank’s ear. “Asshole.”

Frank grinned despite himself.

“Keep crawling,” Gerard whispered.

Fuck the Ways. Both of them. Frank sighed but did as he was bid because he was a good little peon. He was apparently one who could be convinced with very little effort to crawl on his hands and knees through a tiny ventilation shaft in search of some data that Gerard suspected might exist but had no real evidence for. He was also one who would do it for a pair of brothers who were currently making his life a living hell.

“Yeah, up yours, too.”

“Stop thinking,” Gerard hissed.

“Don’t think I can’t hear you, Umbrella. Drama queen.”

Gerard was probably rolling his eyes but Frank couldn’t quite see. He also couldn’t really breathe. It wasn’t just that these shafts seemed to be getting warmer by the second, but it was mostly that Frank didn’t really like enclosed spaces. He kind of fucking hated them, actually. He was terrified of being stuck in a place like this, because it was just about as big as a coffin. Coffins went underground, where they were covered by four to six feet of hard, unyielding earth, which would soon stifle you to death if you weren’t already gone. Oh god, oh god, oh god.

“Fuck,” Frank gasped, squeezing his eyes shut when his hands slipped on the now-slick metal of the shaft. He stopped just short of hitting his head on the metal floor and found himself unable to move any further.

“What is it?” Gerard whispered. “Keep going.”

Frank shook his head. He was sweating everywhere. His face, his chest and arms, his feet and thighs. Even his ass was dripping wet. His hands were slippery on the metal below him. It felt like his shirt had turned into a swimming pool made of lava. He laboured to breathe and curled up into himself like the walls were doing, pressing against his skin and compressing all that was Frank into a tiny ball.

Mikey muttered something that Frank couldn’t make out and then a cool hand wrapped around his ankle and all the tension started to disappear from his shoulders.

“Frank,” Gerard whispered. “You can do it.”

Frank breathed in and out. And then again, faster. And again. He couldn’t do it. What did Gerard know about enclosed spaces and fucking goddamn dying in them? His arms wouldn’t move.

“There’s two feet to go,” Gerard whispered. The hand around Frank’s ankle squeezed once and then disappeared. “You aren’t going to die in here, I promise.”

Two feet. Frank had two feet. One right and one left. He took a deep, gulping breath and held it in his chest until he felt like he might explode and let it out. Okay. Two feet. He inched forward, pushing himself back up and making the motion happen. He moved a second time, a third time, and then he was finally over the grille and he punched his way through into the empty room without thinking, scanning with his power as he fell to the ground, twisting like a cat to get his feet under him. He tucked the grille to his chest so it couldn’t clang to the ground.

Gerard dropped down much more carefully, but on the ground he put a hand on Frank’s shoulder. Okay? he mouthed.

Frank swallowed but nodded. He twisted his head at an angle and pulled his shoulder forward so he could wipe his forehead clean. Mikey assured them that they would only have to make the trip through the shafts the one time so Frank put the grille back in place, bending the metal with his power where he’d broken the screws. The scraps of metal that had fallen he slipped into his pockets, and by that time, Gerard was already holding a sheet of paper in his left hand.

He twitched his head towards the door and led the way. Mikey urged them on, voice low and calm, and before Frank knew it, they were back in their white van. They’d only had to go through the air ducts to avoid a particular shift of guards, apparently, something that would have been nice to know before Frank had been forced head first into one.

“What the hell happened back there?” Gerard asked, twisting in his seat to glare at Frank once they were on the highway. They were only an hour out of New York so Ray had driven them. Sometimes their trips took them across state lines. They usually brought alone a separate driver for those missions.

“Claustrophobia,” Frank said, meeting Gerard’s angry eyes as calmly as he possibly could. It was the first time the older man had looked at him all day, and they’d been together since six in the morning, planning.

“Why the hell didn’t you say something earlier?” Gerard asked, still glaring.

Frank gritted his teeth together. “I didn’t think we’d be going through a ventilation shaft because you never said we were.”

“Is this information in your file?” Gerard was scowling now, like he was the one who’d been wronged. “You should have said something.”

“Yes it’s in my fucking file,” Frank said. “Around the page with my other phobias. If you’d told me we were going to go through a fucking ventilation shaft, I would have told you that I’m goddamn claustrophobic. For future reference, since you haven’t read my file, if we’re going to be dropping into any rooms with spiders in them, I’ll probably have a heart attack.”

Gerard shifted with the rocking of the van and huffed out a breath in frustration. “Fine,” he said. “I won’t take you through air ducts any more.”

“It isn’t that, I can handle enclosed spaces if I have some fucking warning,” Frank said, leaning forward in his seat. Gerard jerked away when Frank moved, quick to turn forward to face the road. Frank scowled. Mikey wouldn’t look him in the eye either. What was happening? Ray met his eyes in the rearview mirror, but could do no more than shrug because he was still driving.

Frank slumped back in his seat. Two could play the silent game. Frank would just have to wait until they got back to the compound to confront Gerard.

* * * *

Frank waited exactly five minutes before making his way to Gerard’s office. He’d helped Ray unload their surveillance equipment from the van and had tried to engage Mikey in a conversation for about ten seconds. Mikey had stared at Frank, ignored his question, and had simply walked away without another word.

Fine.

Frank walked through the maze of the administrative level as quickly as possible. The last time he’d been here, it had been to get rejected by Gerard, and Frank honestly couldn’t see this trip going down any other path. The level was quiet, with most of its occupants inside their offices or out on missions. People would occasionally leave their office doors open, especially if they were involved in Junior Teams, but today Frank was focused.

“Gerard,” Frank said, walking into the older man’s office without bothering to knock, “you need to tell me what’s going on.”

Gerard looked bewildered and more than a bit tired. “Well,” he said, looking around his desk. He rubbed one of his eyes, “What’s going on is that I’m doing a ton of paperwork for the debriefing.”

“Not that,” Frank said, trying not to roll his eyes. “With you and me.”

“Right now we’re having a particularly puzzling conversation,” Gerard muttered, “but aside from that, there’s nothing going on between us?”

Gerard could be an idiot sometimes. Frank remembered this. Maybe he wasn’t doing it on purpose, but actually didn’t know? No. There was no way. Gerard noticed everything. “That’s not what I mean and you know it,” Frank said. He put his hands on his hips for good measure, and emphasis.

Gerard sucked his lower lip into his mouth and chewed, eyebrows moving together helplessly. Frank kept his eyes on Gerard’s. It was just habit by now, to look into Gerard’s eyes instead of at his mouth or ears or neck. “I can’t tell you,” Gerard said finally, voice low.

Frank gritted his teeth together. “What the fuck can’t you tell me?”

“I can’t tell you, Frank,” Gerard said. He shook his head and turned back to his paperwork.

No way was Frank just letting this go like that. Gerard knew something that he wasn’t telling Frank. “No way,” Frank said. Gerard tried to look like he was ignoring Frank and scratched his cheek. His finger left a streak of ink behind. They’d probably gotten it from smudging one of Gerard’s inky margin-doodles.

“This is exactly what I’m talking about,” Frank said. “You keep ignoring me.”

Frank could tell that Gerard was listening because his pen got caught on the edge of whatever he was writing. “Do not,” Gerard muttered, turning a page. “Have you ever thought that maybe you aren’t the centre of the universe and that I have more important things to pay attention to?”

“It isn’t like that,” Frank snapped.

“Really?” Gerard asked, looking up. “Then what’s it like, Frank?”

“I know I’m not the centre of your fucking world. I’m not an idiot,” Frank said. “But we used to be friends, at least. I don’t know if you have some kind of fucking warped definition of the word and I don’t care that you have to spend so much time doing paperwork or that sometimes you’re tired, but I do care that you won’t ever look me in the eye.”

“I’m doing it right now!” Gerard exclaimed, eyebrows rising to where his hair was falling in front of his face. He brushed it away with a practiced flick of his hand that he was probably doing unconsciously. “Look, eye contact has been had. Are you happy?”

“I wasn’t done,” Frank said. “You used to hug me all the time, and don’t even start on it being inappropriate because you hug Mikey and Ray. You punch them on the shoulder. Earlier when I tried to get a look at the blueprints, you just flinched away. In the van, I moved a tiny bit and it was like I’d burned you. I just want things to be back to normal. Or I’d like some common courtesy and for you to tell me what the fuck is wrong so I can fix it.”

“You can’t,” Gerard muttered. “It’s just me and it’s stupid and I can’t tell you what it is.”

“Why not?” Frank asked.

“Because you wanted to be on my fucking team,” Gerard snapped. “Okay? You wanted that, and if I tell you, it might ruin all the things you worked so goddamn hard for. If you would just drop it and get out of my office, I’d really appreciate it.” He got up and walked over to the door, pulling it open with unnecessary force. “Just leave. I’ll see you at the damn training session, just let me get my fucking work done, that would be great.”

Frank folded his arms across his chest. “I wanted to join your team so I could hang out with you guys,” he said finally. “You were always away and I missed all of you. Mikey, Ray, and even fucking you, although I’m completely blanking on why because you’ve just been a jackass the whole time we’ve been on the team together. And the only reason I worked so hard is because I didn’t think you would want me. And I guess I was right about that. You know, I actually thought it was about my performance or whatever other bullshit you spun.”

Gerard’s face creased into a frown but Frank held up a hand. “But then it wasn’t. Was it? I mean, you’ve been treating me like I’m invisible and a nuisance. If you don’t even have enough respect for me to let me know what fucking problem you’ve got with me, then I quit.”

Gerard’s eyebrows shot up. “You what?”

“Quit,” Frank said. “Hand in my letter of resignation, two week’s notice, however you want to say it.”

“Just like that?” Gerard blinked owlishly, looking an awful lot like Mikey in that split second.

“I want off the team,” Frank said. He’d learned a lot from Mikey over the years, and one skill he’d picked up was a decent pokerface. He kept his face expressionless and folded his arms across his chest. “Can I do that?”

“I, uh, I don’t know. Probably,” Gerard said. He seemed taken aback at Frank’s lack of expression and he let go of the door to run a hand through his hair.

“Great,” Frank said. “So let’s say that I’ve quit now and that you aren’t technically my boss and that I hypothetically don’t want to be on your team in the future.”

Gerard’s mouth was doing the lopsided tilt it did when he was really and truly confused. “Fine.”

“Perfect,” Frank said. He nodded, cracked the knuckles of his right hand and then shoved Gerard as hard as he could. He had to use his hands because his power wouldn’t work around Gerard, and he had to reach up, but all in all it was incredibly satisfying to watch the older man topple back in surprise.

“What the fuck?” Gerard spluttered. He winced when his back hit the file cabinet he kept in the corner of his tiny office.

Frank shut the door that Gerard had opened and locked it for good measure. “Now that I have nothing at stake, you’re going to tell me why you’re being an asshole. How does that sound?”

“You can’t just push me around,” Gerard said.

Frank tilted his head to the side and moved forward. “Why not?” he asked, shoving at Gerard’s shoulders again. Gerard tried to push him back and Frank ducked down, shoving his leg between Gerard’s and twisting around so Gerard’s knees buckled. He caught himself on the edge of his desk, eyes sparking.

“Are you going to tell me or am I going to have to hit you?” Frank had asked the nice way. Now he was fed up.

“You said you had nothing at stake,” Gerard muttered. “You’re wrong.” He moved quickly, hands lightning quick, but Frank was quicker. He sidestepped the jab and the one that followed closely on its heels.

“Yeah?” Frank asked, reaching forward to jab Gerard just beneath the ribs. “What’s left here for me? With you? Our friendship? Because I quit that too.”

“Mikey’s here,” Gerard gasped, hand over his side

“Since when has anything you’ve ever done affected my relationship with Mikey?” Frank asked. When Gerard straightened up, Frank wound up and slapped him as hard as he could. “He’s on your team, sure, but that sure as fuck isn’t going to stop me from hanging out with him. It’d be easier if I was there, but I’m not going to come back unless you tell me what the fuck is wrong.”

Gerard worked his jaw from side to side and then set it back in place. “You wanna know what’s wrong, Frank?” he asked, voice seething from between his lips. “I have some pride but if you’re going to make me choose between beating you up and telling you, I guess I know which one I’m going to pick.”

“Good,” Frank spat. “Because I do want to know.” And Frank would totally win in a fight, what the fuck.

Gerard took a deep breath. “I can’t ever look at you because every time I do, I just fucking...” He looked up at Frank, finally meeting his eyes, and Frank felt his own eyes widen at the shift in the air. Gerard wasn’t angry or hiding any longer.

“I want to...” Gerard pushed himself off his desk and moved in front of Frank. He was the taller of the two of them, but when he tilted his head down, the distance between them was suddenly just a matter of inches.

Frank looked up into Gerard’s big, hazel eyes, at the lights shifting, and, oh.

When Gerard whispered “I can never stop thinking about kissing you,” his voice brushing across Frank’s face, Frank didn’t hesitate. Fucking finally. He threw his arms around Gerard’s neck and tugged him down, closing the distance between them. Noses were in the way at first, because Frank was an amateur and a virgin and hadn’t really thought his plan through much farther than ‘Get mouth on Gerard’s’, but Gerard cupped the back of Frank’s neck and changed the angle and everything was suddenly very different.

Gerard’s tongue, for one thing, was tracing along the seam of Frank’s mouth, and that was definitely something Frank wanted to get into. He opened his mouth immediately and sucked Gerard’s tongue into his mouth, delighting at the surprised sound Gerard made and then the one he made a moment later when Frank slid his tongue along Gerard’s and licked around the inside of his mouth. It was like a symphony of noises that all shot straight down to Frank’s dick. He wanted Gerard to make all of the sounds. He especially liked the long moan that vibrated through Gerard’s teeth when Frank traced the ripples on the roof of Gerard’s mouth.

Frank couldn’t quite remember how to breathe after a moment, but Gerard had taken charge. He ran his hands down Frank’s arms and pushed his wrists up above his head. He sucked on Frank’s lower lip, catching the tender surface with his teeth and Frank groaned involuntarily, hips shifting forward.

“Fuck, motherfucker,” Frank breathed into the space between them when Gerard pulled his mouth back from Frank’s. “If you wanted to kiss me, why didn’t you just motherfucking kiss me?”

Gerard pulled one hand down and ran his thumb across Frank’s lower lip. Frank sucked the digit into his mouth and watched as Gerard’s eyes darkened. His pupils were blown and his lips were red and swollen. “Thought it would ruin the team, but I didn’t think...” Gerard leaned in again, nudging his nose up Frank’s jawline. “I thought you’d just think I was your best friend’s pervy older brother,” he muttered into Frank’s neck before dragging his teeth in a line up from Frank’s cheek to the bottom of his ear. When his tongue flickered out, it found the spot behind his earlobe that apparently made Frank’s knees actually buckle beneath him. Gerard couldn’t hold him up with just one hand, so he pressed his hips into Frank’s.

Frank gasped at the sudden pressure. “Hot older brother,” he moaned, tilting his head back towards Gerard’s. Gerard pulled back a moment, eyes searching Frank’s and then moved back to Frank’s mouth, where he dragged his thumb out and replaced it with his tongue.

This kiss was harder, more insistent than the last one. Gerard’s tongue was everywhere: from Frank’s gums to beneath his tongue, and that should have been gross but it was just blindingly hot.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” he said into Frank’s mouth, releasing Frank’s wrists and moving his hands down to Frank’s hips and then up, beneath his shirt. With a slight shift in his stance, Gerard managed to get his leg between Frank’s where he would have been embarrassed about how hard he was if he couldn’t feel the hard line of Gerard’s cock pressing up against his leg too. Frank whimpered when Gerard moved, the friction so good but not enough. He pushed up onto his tiptoes with his inside leg even as his leg on the outside moved up past Gerard’s calves and thighs, practically wrapping himself around Gerard’s waist. He had to steady himself on Gerard’s shoulders, but now he was at the same level as Gerard.

Gerard moaned at that and thrust forward, attacking Frank’s mouth with his own.

“Thought you’d,” Frank gasped out when Gerard thrust them together again. “See me as - ah, a kid, fuck.”

“No, fucking, just fucking beautiful,” Gerard said, voice rough. He nipped Frank’s lower lip once more and whispered against his mouth, “We’re both idiots.”

“Fucking dumb,” Frank agreed, nodding quickly. He slipped his hands beneath the neckline of Gerard’s shirt and fuck, Gerard’s skin was there, sweaty and smooth and Frank wanted to see it yesterday. “Off, take it off.” He tugged at the shirt until it got up in Gerard’s face, catching beneath his arms. Gerard grumbled something and detached his mouth from Frank’s to tug it over his head.

Gerard was paler than Frank had expected, but perfect. “So fucking hot, Gee,” Frank said, letting his leg slide down to the ground again. He was unable to let his eyes settle on any one patch of skin. What if Gerard came to his senses and never let Frank see him half-naked again? He had to take this opportunity.

Gerard’s eyes narrowed and he licked his lips. “God, Frankie. I just, fuck, I want to taste you. Can I?”

“Are you asking my permission to give me a blowjob?” Frank asked, eyes wide. He tried not to sound too excited or young, but, blowjob! His first ever one! From Gerard! He wanted to do a victory lap around the compound.

“What? Consent is a big deal,” Gerard said.

Frank just nodded. “Yes, yes, yes. To anything, ever,” Frank said.

“Good,” Gerard said, and just sunk to his knees. He undid Frank’s buckle almost more quickly than Frank could do it, and Frank didn’t know what to do with his hands. What did he usually do with them? Did they hang at his side? Was that not cool during a blowjob? Frank didn’t know any of the protocol. He panicked for about half a second, and ended up flapping them like a mad thing in the air by his head before Gerard pulled Frank’s dick out of his pants, and Frank was suitably distracted from his hand crisis. He could have come just from the sight of Gerard’s focused eyes on him and a hand wrapped around the base of his cock if he’d still been sixteen.

“Oh fuck,” Frank gasped, trying to restrain himself from arching off the door.

“Hm,” Gerard hummed, eyelashes brushing his cheeks when he leaned in. He braced Frank’s hips down with one hand, apparently reluctant to relinquish Frank’s cock with the other. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do this,” Gerard murmured. He looked up at Frank before sinking his mouth onto Frank’s cock with a satisfied hum.

Frank choked down a moan. Oh fuck. He’d gone from losing Gerard forever to having his dick in Gerard’s mouth, and shit, he was just built for this. His lips stretched wide and his eyes fluttered shut in what looked like pure bliss. His tongue swirled over the head when he pulled back and he hummed when he engulfed Frank’s length.

“Fuck, Gee,” Frank moaned, fighting against the urge to just fuck into Gerard’s mouth. “This is, fucking Christ --”

Gerard pulled all the way off and grinned. “Isn’t it?” He was still beaming when he moved back, stretching his lips over his teeth but letting them escape every now and then to just lightly scrape the underside of Frank’s cock. When he moved his free hand up and started pumping a rhythm up to match with the one he was making with his mouth, Frank couldn’t hold on any longer.

“Gerard, I, Gee, fuck, fuck, I’m -- I’m gonna,” he gasped, trying to tell Gerard that he was going to come and that he should probably back off.

Instead, Gerard just pulled back so the head of Frank’s cock was in his mouth. He looked up, eyes wide in his face and met Frank’s, pumping once, twice more, until Frank’s back pushed him off the door and he came right there.

That was easily a thousand times better than any orgasm he’d ever had. His survival instincts were automatic and he zipped himself up even as he fell to his knees. His legs wouldn’t support him anymore.

Gerard swiped a hand over his mouth. “How was that?” he asked. His voice was raw and his mouth looked red and used. Frank couldn’t find any words to adequately express himself so he just leaned forward and captured Gerard’s mouth in a kiss. It tasted strange, a bit bitter, but, oh fuck, that was come in Gerard’s mouth. Frank’s come. It should have been gross, but it just turned Frank on again.

“Back,” Frank ordered, moving to straddle Gerard when the man did as he was bid. He struggled with Gerard’s pants, having somehow forgotten how buttons worked, but he managed to get them open all on his own. He was too impatient for full-frontal nakedness, so he just shoved Gerard’s pants down far enough and licked his hand from palm to fingertip so he could wrap a hand around Gerard’s leaking cock.

Gerard hissed at the first contact but was moaning within moments. “Frankie, fuck, Frank.”

“Yeah, Gee,” Frank said, thumbing his head over the slit to get the precome down the length of Gerard’s cock. The angle was unfamiliar but Frank didn’t even care. He was practically salivating as he looked at Gerard’s cock, but, another time.

He twisted his wrist at the base and Gerard moaned. “Frank, Frank, fuck, gonna come.”

Frank pumped faster, eyes focused on Gerard’s face when he came into the space between them. As his back arched off the floor, Frank could hear his breath catching in his throat. His mouth fell open and his eyes squeezed shut, and, fuck. Frank hadn’t ever seen anything better. When he came, Gerard sucked in a significant amount of Frank’s energy, like he’d completely lost control. Frank was pretty proud of himself.

Gerard slumped back on the floor, panting up at Frank and Frank idly wiped his hand on his shirt. He hadn’t thought about how dirty his shirt would get, hadn’t considered the streaks of come dripping from his collar down to his hem. That really seemed like a grievous oversight now. “Gross.”

Gerard laughed at the way Frank’s face was wrinkling. “You really wanted that, huh?” he asked, giggling when Frank smacked his shoulder before rolling off.

Frank could really be okay with this whole post-orgasmic energy drain. “Nah,” he said. He stared up at the ceiling and sighed. Gerard looked confused when Frank gave a cursory glance to the side. “What I really wanted was for you to fuck me,” he said, ignoring the choked noise Gerard made. “But I guess that’ll have to wait.”

“You, uh, you what?” Gerard asked, reaching for his shirt as though he was suddenly self-conscious. “Are you serious?”

Frank shrugged. “No rush. Whenever you feel up to it, old man.”

“Fuck you,” Gerard said.

“Like I said, no rush.” Frank was still grinning when Gerard tugged him in for a kiss. It was soft and warm. Gerard ran his hands through Frank’s hair and held him close. Frank felt safe. And also like he’d just had sex. “I’m going to need to be on your team again, by the way.”

“Mm, you’re needy,” Gerard murmured. “I suppose you’re also going to want to sleep in my room and eat at my table at lunch.”

“And I’m going to call you all the time,” Frank said. “And make you hold my hand and hug me.”

Gerard pushed himself to his feet and offered Frank a hand. “I can live with that,” he said, voice low.

Frank grinned, standing up to kiss Gerard again. Not for the first, but definitely not for the last time. “Me too.”

Chapter Text

February 2, 2019

“Why do we always have to do these goddamn raids in the middle of the night?”

“The buildings are empty, shithead. We want to get information, we gotta break in when there’s nobody around to stop us from shuffling through their filing cabinets for incriminating evidence.”

“I’m just sayin’, if we did one of these during the day, the surveillance teams might be a little more awake is all.”

“If you’d go to bed instead of staying up the night before a raid, we wouldn’t have this problem, Midtown.”

“Go fuck yourself, Suareasy. Not all of us are creatures of the night.”

“Creatures of the night, my ass. What the fuck even? That’s, like, vampires and shit. Werewolves. Not fucking...fucking pyros or whatever.”

“Yeah, but you, like. Run on air and shit. You don’t even need sleep. Hence, creature of the night.”

“Fuck you, a creature of the night is like someone who only lives at night, Midtown. I’m alive all the goddamn time.”

“So are werewolves! What, you think they just die after the full moon?”

“No, but. But the moon doesn’t come out until the night. So they only have superpowers during the night.”

“Okay, I know some werewolves, Suareasy, and they have superpowers all the fucking time. They just aren’t wolves...”

“Until it’s night! And there’s a full moon! Which pretty much exactly proves my point. Meanwhile, I can burn your ass with a finger whether it’s day or night.”

“Okay, but. What about, like. Twilight?”

“Twilight, shit, that isn’t even. That’s not. That’s like really shitty fanfiction.”

“No, dude, it’s good. It’s fucking. It’s got, like, all these different angles. It’s awesome, okay? Don’t even knock it.”

“It doesn’t even have a solid plot! What’s wrong with you?”

“I just like good literature, okay?”

“Good literature, my ass. Good literature is, like, James Joyce. Homer. Fucking Dickens, Shakespeare, I dunno. Twilight, goddamn.”

Frank ground his teeth together. Across the alley from him, Gerard let out a distracted huff of air. He had his back up against the dirty wall of whatever building they were up against so he could blend into the shadows cast by the dim yellow of the streetlight. They were supposed to be moving in a minute or so, but their eyes inside the building were bickering about really shitty young adult fiction.

“Would you two shut the fuck up and watch the cams?” Frank hissed when Gerard tapped his fingers against the wall. He kept his voice low because the throat mics they wore picked up every single whisper. “It’s like listening to teenage girls, shit. Are we moving yet?”

There was a pause in the monitors, a brief burst of static, and then Suareasy’s voice came in again. “Sorry Frank, did you say something? Midtown stole my headphones.”

“Are. We. Moving?” Frank hissed again. Gerard would have said something, but he had his eyes fixed on the clean white lines of the building across the street from them. Frank’s skin crawled every time they used his name through the monitors. He couldn’t wait until he turned 21 and got an Agent Identity. He’d feel safer then.

“In a minute, Iero. Security’s just making a pass, and then you should be clear.”

Fuck. Frank missed Mikey. Whenever he was on, the teams on surveillance always did their jobs. If he hadn’t sprained his ankle, they’d all be enjoying blissful silence in their in-ear monitors. Frank shot a glance at Gerard, who met his eyes and grimaced. Of course Gerard missed Mikey, they hadn’t been on separate missions since they’d been born, probably.

Mikey had been assigned to this raid with Frank, a simple in-and-out scan of paperwork that they were supposed to do with a junior pair. Supposedly, now that Mikey was 21, he had to take junior members out with them on occasion. There was, apparently, a quota of some sort. Usually Frank was paired with Gerard, but he and Mikey worked well together when Ray had to take a shift in the medical wing. But Mikey had somehow tripped down a single stair hours before they’d been scheduled to leave and Gerard had quickly switched up the rosters. Mikey was a ninja out in the field, but a tangle of awkward limbs anywhere where there was no actual danger present. Ray had tried to heal him as best as he could, but Gerard had taken one look at Mikey’s quasi limp and had forbidden him from going on the raid.

“Okay, Umbrella. You’re on. East Corridor’s free. Smith and Urie are already through the West entrance.”

Gerard nodded at Frank and ducked down close to the ground before taking off. Frank followed, scanning his peripherals for any signs of motion. Having Gerard in his line of vision helped him focus on everything else. Their feet barely made a sound as they slid through the door and into the building.

The gritty fluorescent lights in the building made Frank close his eyes with a grimace. He barely needed his eyes to walk, especially since he’d scanned the blueprints prior to the mission. He felt footsteps falling past the walls and around the corner and his hand shot out to where Gerard usually stood.

He caught the edge of Gerard’s sleeve and jerked his chin in the direction of the person he could feel around the corner. When he opened his eyes, Gerard was gone and there was a soft thud as Frank rounded the corner. Gerard was already moving, staying low and tilting his head from side to side. He raised an eyebrow at Frank as if to say Anybody coming?

Frank shook his head. All clear, he mouthed back, following as Gerard slid off, movements smooth and precise. He had to step over the unconscious body of the unfortunate security guard, but barely gave him a second look.

He could dimly make out a series of muffled whispers in his monitors, but he tuned them out. The throat mics were new, and Frank wasn’t used to communicating orally on a job. Spencer and Brendon, who were supposed to be searching the second-floor file room, were much better at that, but Frank could read Gerard’s every twitch. He didn’t need a mic to understand that Gerard wanted him to follow close behind but let him lead.

When they finally got to the room that they’d been told held the files, Gerard made quick work of the lock and then stepped inside. Frank swept a mental eye over the hall before turning to give the room a once over.

He barely managed to shove Gerard out of the way as the soft twang of a tripwire released a needle that should have, by all rights, hit Gerard square in the chest.

Frank felt it coming and batted the energy around it away like it was an annoying fly when it pierced through his field of awareness.

“What the fuck?” Gerard picked himself up off the ground, clearly annoyed that Frank had planted a hand between his shoulder blades like that. Frank merely picked up the needle, and Gerard’s eyebrows drew together.

“Umbrella?” Suareasy’s voice came through the monitors, choked with static. “Radar says tha...Can’t...What’s...goi...on?”

Frank tapped his monitor with a finger. “Suareasy?” He frowned. “The hell?” he muttered as the line went dead. “Piece of shit technology, is it just mine?”

“Abort,” Gerard said. He was shaking his head but his eyes were wide and focused on the needle.

“Yours too?” Shit. If communication was down, that meant someone was hacking in. They were compromised.

Frank booked it out of the tiny room, retracing their steps down the few twists and turns they’d taken. He could hear the pounding of Gerard’s shoes behind him, the sounds a steady comfort to Frank’s ear.

Nothing was really all that comforting when he skidded to a halt down a long stretch of empty hallway.

“What the hell, Frank?” Gerard growled. “Move, we need to get out.”

“The guard...” Frank said, trailing off. “He was right there...”

Gerard sucked in a breath. “Let’s go,” he said, ducking in front of Frank and sprinting down the corridor.

Frank licked his lips but followed. Shit, he should be in front. Nothing was coming up behind them. The hallway was completely deserted. He picked up his pace, trying to catch up with Gerard. He couldn’t overtake him until they got to the exit and didn’t think for a second, just threw himself in front of the elder when Gerard swung the door open and a second needle shot through the air.

Gerard shouted something incoherent, a jumbled mess of his name and a series of swears as Frank plucked the tiny needle from the muscles at his shoulder.

“Shit,” Frank said as the world started to melt. Gerard’s face was whiter than a sheet when Frank turned around, but Frank smiled at him. Or at least, he hoped he did. He felt Gerard’s strong arms catch him before he hit the ground and a white-hot burst as Gerard sucked in a ton of energy, aiming his powers at whoever had shot at them, but catching Frank in the process. The edges of Frank’s vision dimmed from light to dark in a second, swallowing him up like he was nothing.

* * * *

Frank woke up tied to a chair.

His arms were tied to the chair’s arms, secured tightly at the wrist and elbow, and his legs were spread and strapped to both of its legs.

He didn’t open his eyes right away, but took a moment to examine his surroundings as his body replenished its stores of energy. The floor was slightly uneven concrete, and the walls, once Frank could feel them, were fairly close. He guessed that the room was roughly a hundred square feet. There weren’t any cameras that he could feel, and no other bodies in the room with him, so he peeked open an eye.

The room was dark, but not pitch black, thanks to a stream of light flowing in through the crack between the door and the floor. It let Frank see that there was a second chair in the room, and that Gerard was tied to it. He was flooded with a blinding, irrational sort of rage when he saw Gerard’s head lolling forward. What he could glimpse of Gerard’s face was caked in a dark brown, and his eyes were closed. His left wrist didn’t look quite right, and neither did the floor around his right leg, where Frank could see the dark stain of blood pooling out around Gerard’s shoes.

Fuck. A growl built itself up somewhere around his stomach and Frank tugged at his restraints with his body and mind, trying to tear the leather bands from his chair.

The door slammed open and Frank jumped, momentarily releasing his bonds and turning his focus to the doorway.

The man who walked through it, hair cropped short but clearly unwashed, was not someone who Frank had thought he’d ever see again. He felt his mouth drop open. “Bert?” he whispered. He couldn’t stop staring at the ends of Bert’s hair. Someone had probably made him cut it because it was short, so fucking short. It matched the defeated glimmer in his eyes.

“Frankie,” Bert said. His mouth tilted in a quick grin, but Frank could see that the motion didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m...sorry.”

“Sorry?” Frank asked. “You’re alive, holy shit. I didn’t...I mean, you...what happened after Butch’s, man?”

“Long story,” Bert muttered. “Kind of a downer. Don’t think this is really the time for it, either.”

“Hey wait,” Frank said, as his brain caught up to Bert’s words. “Why’d you apologize?”

Before Bert could open his mouth, a voice that sent chills racing down Frank’s spine infiltrated the room. “Mister Iero. You’re really a lot slower than I’d given you credit for.”

Frank gaped at Mr. Thompson’s sinister grin when the man stepped into view. It didn’t look out of place on his long face, his short beak of a nose fit now with his predatory eyes. They glinted in the dim light from the hall, the shadows cast upon his face contorting it into a terrible mask.

“Putting it together, are we?” Mr. Thompson sneered. “Yes, that’s right. Why don’t you do your homework after the deadline has passed, like usual? I can practically see the gears turning in your dull mind. You’re tied to a chair in a suspicious building, Mr. McCracken here has clearly been forced to do things against his bidding, Mr. Way is unconscious...” He tapped his watch, waiting for Frank to get it.

“You’re the fucker we’re after!” Frank spat.

Mr. Thompson chuckled and clapped slowly. “Bravo, Mr. Iero. Bravo. I wasn’t sure you’d understand, to be quite honest. It’s a relief to know that there is something inside your head after all.”

“Bert’s being forced to do stuff?” Frank asked, glancing from Bert to Mr. Thompson. “Did you kidnap him? Shit, you’re the guy who’s been kidnapping people as well as all the embezzlement and shit?”

“Language, Mr. Iero,” Mr. Thompson said. “Or I shall be forced to give you detention. Which, let’s face it, I’m going to do anyway. You have always been something of a nuisance. Like a pesky mosquito that I’ve been meaning to squash.”

Frank tried tugging at his restraints again with his mind. He caught the minute shift in Bert’s expression when he did, and stopped immediately. So Bert was holding him in place, then. Fine. Gerard’s breathing shifted and Frank saw his right pinkie twitch. Mr. Thompson didn’t look away from Frank and Frank ground his teeth together. “What did you kidnap Bert for, anyway?”

Mr. Thompson shrugged. “I needed telekinesis for my collection. Unfortunately, young Mr. Allman placed some sort of protection on Mr. McCracken, here, so I couldn’t simply take his powers for myself.” He grinned, mouth twisting in a truly evil grimace. “It’s been terrible, you know. Having you as a student. Sitting in that stifling classroom and feeling your idiotic powers pushing at my consciousness, and being unable to do anything about it.”

Frank glared as hard as he could, trying to keep his attention on Mr. Thompson so the man wouldn’t notice Gerard’s minute movements as he slowly woke up. “I always knew you were an evil fuck,” Frank spat.

Mr. Thompson’s eyes darkened. “You little shit,” he hissed. “Howard!” he shouted, “Bring the tools!”

Frank shifted, trying to look over Mr. Thompson’s shoulder. When Mr. Thompson turned around, presumably to find out where Jeph had got to, Bert leaned in.

“I’m sorry, Frankie,” Bert hissed. “They got Jeph and Quinn, and I had to...”

“Shut up, you little twerp,” Thompson snapped. His hand flew from his side, and for the first time, Frank caught a glimpse of Thompson’s oversized watch. The face flashed and Bert cried out, hands clutching his cheek. His eyes were twisted in pain when he fell, and Frank looked away. He glanced quickly at Gerard, whose eyes were focused on Bert’s writhing form, and then Frank tugged at his restraints with his body and mind.

“Stop!” he shouted. “Stop it! You’re hurting him!”

Thompson laughed then, a horrible, grating sound that made Frank’s insides churn. Bert screamed, high and loud, and Frank felt the presence around his arms fall away. He was about to tug at his restraints when he heard a hitch in Thompson’s laughter and saw Gerard’s head twitch in his peripherals.

Thompson’s hand fell to his side. “Ah,” he said. “Mister Way, you’re awake. Finally. Not that I’m entirely opposed to torturing someone who’s unconscious, but it’s much more gratifying when you’re awake to scream for me.”

Frank’s eyebrows shot up. “Wait, aren’t you going to ask us for information? Or something? Aren’t you supposed to do that before the whole torturing thing?”

“I don’t honestly think you know anything that would be of any use to me,” Thompson sneered. “And Mr. Way truly has nothing to offer me in terms of power, so I’ll be doing this entirely for your benefit.”

“For my what now?” Frank frowned. This guy thought he was going to get to torture Gerard with Frank in the room? He shifted in his chair, wondering how he could prevent this from happening. There was a wave of energy he could send out, but Bert was struggling to his feet in the corner and his hands were hanging limply in the air in front of him. Frank suspected that Bert was using his power to keep Frank from meddling with Thompson as well as either of their restraints. So breaking out of here wasn’t an option.

Gerard met Frank’s eyes, his own heavy with sleep. “It’s okay,” he whispered, voice raw. “Frankie, it’s...it’s okay.”

Frank snorted. They’d been trained what to do in the event that they got captured and tortured, but they’d never been told what to do if the person interrogating them didn’t actually want any information. “It kind of fucking isn’t,” he muttered.

“No,” Gerard said, throat working when his eyes darted over to the door. Frank saw his eyes widen a fraction and glanced to the side to see Jeph pulling a cart into the room. “No, Frank, it’s,” Gerard said, voice fading as the cart came into view. There was a selection of shiny silver tools on the surface, a handful of which were knives, a few of which were wrenches, screwdrivers. At the edge of the cart, laid out in order from smallest to largest, were ten needles.

Frank’s head snapped back around. Gerard’s mouth was open, but no sound was coming out, and Frank licked his lips. “Don’t,” Frank said, when Gerard’s lips moved soundlessly. “Thompson, don’t. P-please. I’ll, I’ll. I’ll give you whatever you want, okay? Just...just don’t.”

Thompson chuckled. “You know I’m just keeping him around to play with, don’t you, Iero? I can’t take any of his powers.” He shoved Jeph aside and ran his hands over the tools.

Frank watched as Jeph, who was shaking so hard he could barely walk, scrambled over to hide behind Bert. Bert didn’t move his arms, but he shifted to cover more of Jeph with his small frame. Thompson was still toying with a scalpel when Frank looked back, but the man glanced at Gerard and grinned as his hands strayed over to the needles.

When Thompson’s hand touched the metal tube of one of the needles in the middle, Gerard blanched, skin losing all of its colour. Thompson moved his hand to the right, fingers idly skipping past the medium-sized needle to one of the larger ones, and Gerard seemed to almost go green. His Adam’s apple bobbed once, twice, and he leaned back, scrambling to get away even though he couldn’t move in his chair.

There was only one thing Frank could think of to do, and he wasn’t even sure if it could work. Nate, encouraged by Frank’s physical projections of energy, had suggested that Frank try forming solid planes of energy that could be used as force fields, but when Frank had tried it, he hadn’t known exactly how to form a surface that felt real as well as looked the part.

“You need to give it weight,” Nate had said. “Form too, but you can already do that. Instead of just making it look like a wall, you need to imbue it with the essence of a wall. It’ll still just be energy, but if you can pull this off...think of all the illusionary shit you could do, Frank.”

Essence of wall.

Frank took one look at the terror painting Gerard’s face and closed his eyes. His fingers stretched out, straining against his bonds but he let the rest of his body relax, lending all of his powers to the act.

The first step, he decided, was to draw everything inside. Fill up his inner ocean of constrained power so full that it might burst. He was really good at keeping his power in check now, but it kept growing, kept multiplying as he aged, and some of it always managed to spill over the edges. He tucked all of the errant folds of his energy back in: the threads keeping an eye on the hallway, the tendrils mapping out the features of Bert and Jeph’s faces, all of the static that had been examining the room and Thompson’s gleeful smirk. He didn’t feel any changes in Thompson’s expression as he pulled himself back together, and it was with some effort that he severed the cord that Gerard’s mind unconsciously wanted to take from him.

The little boat in his mind was rocking furiously now, battling waves ten feet high, but Frank held the wheel steady. He breathed in and out, pushing out all sounds and smells, ignoring his senses and the world around him as he got ready.

What made a wall? Frank thought hard as he siphoned two strong braids of energy from the water in his mind and down into his hands. They hung beneath his skin, buzzing as they waited for direction.

Walls were tough. They were long, and big. He knew what a wall looked like. But he didn’t know what a wall was.

Bricks. Mortar. A lattice of wood or of metal beneath a solid exterior, drywall. Solid, straight things. Sure.

But what made those? What was a brick? No, not a brick; those could topple over if they weren’t given the proper support. A frame, then, of some kind of solid metal. An alloy of strength, of liquid courage. The metalwork, for Frank had to believe that it was metal, had to feel its smooth expanse made up of solid, immovable molecules all bonded together beneath the calluses of his hand, took shape in his mind.

He couldn’t see Gerard, but he remembered where in the room his chair was, and built his wall from the ground up, making the protective barrier soar over his head in an arc. The field needed to have no weak points, needed to be a sheet of unbreakable, impenetrable titanium.

Frank took in a deep breath and then released the pent-up energy in a steady stream, painting over the silvery surface he’d created. Titanium was a metal that was harder even than steel, and much lighter. Frank anchored it in the ground, making sure his field extended below them, into the concrete, as well as being a shield around Gerard.

He could feel his ocean draining, much quicker than he’d thought it would, but refused to let his mind stray from the wall until it was finished. Any skip in concentration would create a flaw that Thompson would no doubt be quick to take advantage of. He simply filled in the metal until it shone bright in his mind, thicker on the inside to protect its energy-substance from Gerard’s corrosive power. At the last moment, he pricked a series of small holes around the field, bored straight through but not in any distinctive pattern that could lead to the field’s destruction. He’d almost forgotten that Gerard needed to breathe.

The moment the arc of metal was complete, Frank clamped down on the chords connecting him to the field as hard as he could. He slumped back in his chair and opened his eyes with some effort, coming back to himself and to the world.

He couldn’t help but beam at the bright silver semi-circle surrounding Gerard. It rose from the floor with a radius that Frank knew was six feet. He’d never been more grateful for math in his life; the time when they’d calculated the area of spheres now seemed to be the most relevant class he’d ever taken. It completely blocked Gerard from view, which Frank found a bit disconcerting, but overall, he felt a sense of triumph at his actions.

Thompson had turned around, presumably at some point during the process when Frank’s eyes had been shut, because when Frank glanced over, he saw that Thompson was gaping at the shape obstructing his view.

All was silent for a moment as Thompson moved forward to place one shaking hand on the surface of the field. Frank held his breath, unsure if it would hold, but it did; Thompson’s hand slid over the slick metal. He whirled around, and if Frank had had any energy left, he might have used it to try and skid his chair away from the malice that was spitting out of Thompson’s eyes.

“You little fuck,” he snarled, backhanding Frank across the face. “What the hell did you do?”

Frank blinked away the tears that had sprung up at the sting of Thompson’s hand and couldn’t help the giggle that escaped his lips. Thompson slapped him again, harder, and Frank just laughed.

“Nyah nyah,” Frank taunted, eyes wide with glee when Thompson stomped over to his force field and shook it, trying to gain purchase on the slippery surface with his hands and failing miserably.

He kicked the shape and turned to Bert. “Get rid of it!” he screamed. His cheeks were flushed with red.

Bert glanced at Frank in awe and licked his lips. “It’s...” he started, cringing when Thompson glared. “It’s anchored to the floor, sir. I...I can’t move it.”

Thompson heaved in a breath. “You completely useless piece of shit. I kept you around so you could keep an eye on your filthy little pests of friends. I didn’t even kill them. Their powers were even more useless than you are.” He sniffed and straightened his suit jacket when Bert didn’t say anything. “Very well. How can we remove this monstrosity?”

Bert hesitated. “I don’t know anything about force fields,” he said.

“Well,” Thompson muttered, “You’d better think of something, because keeping Mr. Allman alive has been a huge drain on my resources. I don’t know if I can afford it anymore.”

Frank caught Jeph looking at him balefully. “I do,” he whispered. “Sorry, Frankie. I know some things about them,” he said, raising his voice.

“Howard?” Thompson asked. “Speak up, you know I hate it when you mumble.”

“Yes sir,” Jeph said. He peered out from behind Bert.

“Jeph,” Bert said.

“For Quinn.” Jeph nodded. “Okay?”

“Spit it out,” Thompson snapped.

“Uh,” Jeph said, “right. Well, Frankie here’s connected to this thing, right, ‘cause he created it. Um, I thought he could only do stuff with energy, but this looks kinda different. Not really...sure what it is, but if he’s still feeding it energy and shit, uh, then if we knock him out, maybe that’ll stop? I dunno if it’ll work...”

He trailed off when Thompson stomped over to the door, already shouting for someone named “Whitesides”.

“Shit, Frankie,” Jeph said quickly, ducking back behind Bert. “I’m so sorry.”

Frank shrugged. His bones felt loose after the huge task he’d just accomplished. There wasn’t really much he could do while tied to a chair anyway. He could feel Gerard’s erratic bursts of panic tugging on the framework of the wall he’d built in the background of his mind and fed it a bit more energy, even though he could feel his stores depleting. They’d probably build themselves back up in a few hours.

A man ducked into the room, tall and muscular. His mouth was set in a firm line, but Frank could see it tugging up in a momentarily goofy sort of half-grin when he met Bert’s eyes.

“Whitesides,” Thompson said, edging over to the cart with the tools on it. Whitesides’ face smoothed out as he turned from Bert to face Thompson, eyes barely glancing over Frank on their way. He folded his arms across his chest and tilted his head so his stringy black hair fell into his face.

“What d’you want?” Whitesides asked. “You need information?”

“Yes,” Thompson said, smirking at Frank over Whitesides’ shoulder. “I want to know how he and his little rats found me.”

Whitesides drew a length of white fabric from the back pocket of his jeans and started wrapping it around his left hand, covering his knuckles and moving down to wrap around his wrist for support. “Okay,” he said. He glanced over to Bert and then jerked his head at Frank’s force field. “The fuck is that thing?”

Thompson scowled. “It’s nothing. Howard, I’d like you to leave now. Whitesides, if you don’t mind...” he paused and looked as though he was contemplating something very serious before a wicked grin stretched his lips. “Make it hurt.” He turned and walked swiftly from the room, shooting Frank a swift glare before he was out of sight.

Jeph skittered out with barely a backwards glance. His shoulders were slumped, but Frank couldn’t honestly blame him. Bert watched him go and turned to Frankie. “You should have just let him have that guy, Frankie,” he said sadly.

“We know this guy?” Whitesides asked. He was stretching his arms like he was about to run some laps, not like he was just going to beat Frank’s face in with his fists.

“He’s...” Frank said, eyes focused on Bert even as he sent a weak thread of power out to keep track of Whitesides’ hands. His voice got caught in his throat as he thought about Gerard. “He’s a friend,” he said, and swallowed. “You know what that’s like.”

“He isn’t just a friend though,” Bert said. “Is he, Frankie?” His voice was soft, and it made Frank turn his head away.

“He’s everything,” Frank whispered.

“God fucking dammit,” Gerard muttered. His voice came out muffled through the holes Frank had left for him. “Open this fucking thing, Frank. Don’t do this.”

Whitesides looked surprised when Gerard spoke, like he’d thought the sphere might just be a solid block of metal, but quickly shrugged it off. “Hey guy,” he said, snapping his fingers to get Frank’s attention. “I’m sorry, man. If I don’t do this, Thompson’s gonna kill our friends.”

“He doesn’t need information,” Bert muttered. “Lying sack of shit. He just needs Frankie unconscious.”

“Okay.” Whitesides shrugged. “I need to make it look like I put in an effort though.”

“Do it fast at least,” Bert said. “Frank’s a good person.”

“Frank, fuck,” Gerard choked out. Frank could hear him struggling against his bonds inside the force field. The field was tugging at Frank, pulling away more of him every time Gerard pulled energy in.

“Bert,” Frank said, ignoring Gerard. “If it doesn’t disappear when I’m out, could you just...could you get rid of his restraints?”

Bert pursed his lips but nodded. “I hope you got someone out there who’s coming to get you,” he said, reaching forward to pat Frank’s shoulder. “And if you don’t, I hope Thompson kills you fast, because you don’t want to be alive when his machines get to working.”

Frank let his eyes fall shut. It would hurt less if he was relaxed when the blow came, supposedly. Gerard had told him that; that if your muscles were tense, they were more likely to tear when trauma happened.

He could still feel Whitesides’ hand tracing a path through the air though. When the edges of his knuckles connected with Frank’s cheekbone, he felt his entire skull rattle. Getting punched was bad enough when you could move away; with his body restrained, Frank could feel the pain of having his head wrenched to the side adding to the heat blossoming high on his cheek. He barely had enough time to take in a breath before Whitesides hit him again on the other side, lower than he had the first time.

Whitesides made a contemplative noise and Frank blinked in time to see a fist coming at his nose. The crack it made when the bone broke made Frank’s eyes tear up. His ears rang and Whitesides hit him twice more, once on each side.

“Motherfucker.” Frank spat to the side, trying to rid his mouth of the blood from his cut cheek that seemed insistent on drowning him. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“I broke your nose,” Whitesides said, almost conversationally. “It looks pretty bad.”

Frank struggled to breathe through his mouth as he leaned forward. He could feel the blood gushing from his nose, the warm paths it traced down his face and onto his chest. It dripped, too, coating his black-clad thighs. It wasn’t the worst pain he’d ever been in: he would definitely be able to stand it. His nose had been broken before, and now that the initial flash of pain was over, he felt like riding it into unconsciousness might be bearable.

“I usually do fingernails next,” Whitesides said, “but since you don’t actually have information for us, I’m going to skip that one.”

Frank shuddered at the thought of losing his fingernails. “Okay,” he started to say, but Whitesides held up a hand, fingers splayed.

“You wanna tell me how you found us? I might be able to use any information to get Thompson off my back for the fingernails thing.” Whitesides cracked his knuckles.

Frank tried not to flinch. “We didn’t find you, we were...kidnapped,” he tried to say, but his broken nose was really impeding his ability to speak and it came out more like a jumble of thick syllables. Frank spat again and swore. “‘Erard,” he croaked, “Dell hib.”

“Kidnapped.” Gerard’s voice rang past the metal. It was shaking on the end with what Frank guessed was the mildest of Gerard’s fury. “We went to a business...Redfish Corp, because we thought there was information leading us there. We were just trying to get a look at their files, they seemed to be pulling a lot of energy from the government, and then...there were flying needles, and they brought us here and tortured me for no apparent reason, though I think I can guess it now, and.”

“Okay,” Whitesides said. He tapped his chin with his thumb and nodded. “That’s something, then. Why Redfish?”

Gerard made a sound that Frank could have sworn was a snort. “I’m not telling Thompson any more than I have to,” he said.

Whitesides shrugged and knelt in front of Frank. “How’re you doing?” he asked, reaching for Frank’s left hand. “You’re a righty, right?”

“I’b beed better,” Frank muttered. His nose was starting to clot and swell, so at least it wasn’t bleeding all over his lap anymore. “Ad yup.”

“Yeah, torture sucks,” Whitesides agreed. He smiled, eyes crinkling up at the edges. “This is going to hurt,” he said seriously, and quickly bent Frank’s pinkie back until it snapped.

Frank’s scream got lost somewhere in his chest and his eyes rolled back when Whitesides broke his thumb, but he didn’t black out. His right hand clenched around the arm of the chair and he squeezed his eyes shut. “God dab,” he managed through gritted teeth, choking in air.

“You got a preference on the others?” Whitesides asked. “I always break three, so it would look weird if I didn’t, y’know? I’ll leave you the middle in case you get out of here and want to flip Thompson off. You thinkin’ about getting married soon?”

Frank stared at Whitesides through the haze bleeding in the corners of his eyes. “Whad the fug?” he asked.

“Well, they swell like motherfuckers, so if you want to put a ring on it...” Whitesides shrugged. “Tell you what, I’ll leave it. You never know, right?” He winked and then broke Frank’s index finger.

Frank’s left leg itched to kick out but it was strapped to the chair, so he settled for grinding his teeth together. He almost headbutted Whitesides when his body curled together, but the man moved away quickly, going over to the cart to wipe his hands on one of the towels perched behind the glinting metal instruments.

“So,” Whitesides said, casually. “I broke three of Frank’s fingers. Why Redfish?”

Gerard was silent for a few seconds in which Frank tried vainly to blink stars away from his eyes. His brain was pumping out endorphins as quickly as he could produce them, but he could also feel Gerard simmering beneath his force field, unconsciously sucking energy from Frank. On the plus side, he couldn’t quite feel his fingers, possibly because Gerard was draining his stores of energy quicker than Frank could produce it.

“Not gonna say?” Whitesides asked, when he thought Gerard might not talk. He glanced at Frank and shrugged. “Okay then.”

“What are you going to do?” Gerard asked.

Whitesides stretched his arms and flicked the slightly stained towel over his shoulder. “You right-footed too, Frank?”

“What are you going to do?” Gerard repeated, voice higher. Frank nodded, eyes as wide as they could be with his swollen nose blocking some of the view.

“Can you undo his left leg restraint there, Bert?” Whitesides asked. “Okay Frankie, I’m gonna need you to stretch your leg out for me, can you do that?”

Frank stared at him, keeping his leg where it was when Bert let the restraints fall. “Whad,” he asked, swallowing nothing. His mouth was completely dry: only a coppery tang remained. “Why?”

“Whitesides?” Gerard asked, voice rising.

“I’m gonna do this quick, Frankie,” Whitesides said, running a hand down from Frank’s knee to cup his ankle. “And I don’t want to rip any of your tendons if I don’t have to. I can do it in one motion, real fast, but I need your leg up and not super tense for that, okay?”

Frank felt like he was five years old and at the doctor’s office. Well. If the doctor had been about to break his kneecap instead of testing his reflexes. “Fuck,” he breathed, starting to hyperventilate as his leg stretched out in front of him. He liked his knees.

“I’m gonna get Bert to hold it up here,” Whitesides said. “I want you to take some deep breaths okay, Frankie? Come on, breathe in for me, real deep.” He nodded when Frank did, and then smiled. “And let it out now. In again, yeah, that’s it. And now out --”

He brought his elbow down on the exhale, catching Frank when his body was automatically the most relaxed and driving the sharp surface at an angle to his leg so it hit the edge of his kneecap and separated the joint. The pain of the impact traveled up his leg, jarring deep in his spine and making his body contract. His head fell forwards as far as it could, arms straining against their bonds as his mouth opened in a silent scream.

It didn’t much help that Gerard’s vortex of panic kept tugging at the back of Frank’s brain, threatening to take him under for good. Frank panted, shoulders shaking, tears leaking from his eyes without permission.

His senses came back without him realizing they’d gone anywhere. Somewhere, in the background, Gerard was shouting, though his voice wasn’t as loud as it should be. Force field, Frank reminded himself. He couldn’t make out all of the words, because it was kind of a struggle to just breathe in at this point.

When the steady stream of words stopped long enough for Gerard to take a breath, Frank found himself pushed back into an upright position. He slumped back, head lolling on his shoulders and eyes open just enough to catch Whitesides’ grim face.

“Redfish,” he reminded Gerard. “How did you know about Redfish?”

“We fucking found it, okay?” Gerard spat, probably trying to stretch the leather of his straps. “We went through all the financial statements of companies of that size and Redfish was at the top for suspicious activity. We didn’t even get to see what they had though, because someone, aka you guys set up a fucking trap in the fileroom and cut all of our comm lines and we don’t even fucking know if they’re implicated in all of this!”

Whitesides looked at Frank, eyebrows raised. “Is that true?” he asked.

“Of course it’s fucking true,” Gerard snapped. “I just said it, didn’t I?”

“I was asking Frank,” Whitesides said, infinitely patient. “You guys didn’t even get to check the files they had?”

Frank shook his head as best as he could. He wished he could just go to sleep now. No, he wished this was all a nightmare. Or, ooh, that he had some bread. Or water. “Cad’t feel by foot,” he announced. “Issall dumb.”

“I probably fucked up your nerves,” Whitesides said. “So this is completely a vendetta, then? Thompson wants you to be a little powerhouse of energy he can suck up?” He paused, and blinked. “Oh, don’t tell him I said that.” He sighed and looked a little sad. “I should probably break some of your ribs now.”

Frank blinked as best as he could while tiredness seeped into his bones. A thought made him sit up as straight as he could without moving his leg and he glanced from Bert to Whitesides. “Hey...Is he godda kill be?”

Whitesides grimaced. “Probably not. It’s as good as being dead, what he does to people. Maybe worse. I wouldn’t know, I’ve never died before.”

“Oh.” Frank slumped back, letting his eyes fall closed. Might as well say it now, then. He might not get another chance. “Hey Gee,” he called.

Gerard was quiet, but Frank could hear the dumb snuffling sounds Gerard always made when he was trying not to cry. “Yeah, Frankie?”

“Fuckin’ lub you, dude.”

Gerard choked softly. “I...I Lub you too, Frankie.”

“That’s nice,” Whitesides said. “You two are probably real cute together. I now pronounce you man and sphere has a pretty nice ring to it.” He’d re-wrapped his hand and flexed his fingers once before making a fist and driving his hand into the right side of Frank’s ribcage. He struck hard and fast, and the rib cracks were loud enough that Frank could hear them even as the sharp pain spread quickly, making him gasp and curl around the damaged area.

Frank wheezed, taking shallow breaths and wincing every time he did. It felt like he was being struck again and again, the pain sharp spikes through his entire chest. Frank imagined a series of long, thin knives stabbing his lungs over and over. Each breath was a new punishment.

“Can’t you knock him out yet?” Bert asked somewhere in Frank’s floating cloud of pain.

“Well,” Whitesides said, sounding a bit perplexed, “I honestly thought that might do it. I mean, I skipped nails, but even so, people are usually unconscious around the whole kneecap business and if they aren’t then we at least have the info we need from them by that time. I’m kind of worried that he might bleed out or something. Thompson likes them fresh, I don’t really know why he just wants this little guy unconscious.”

“Jeph told him it would sever his connection to the force field,” Bert said.

“Fucking do it already,” Gerard snapped. He was trying to suck in enough energy to knock Whitesides out.

Frank could feel his threads of consciousness snapping like his fingers had, energy pouring down his mind drain quicker than he’d ever seen it go, without counting the force field business. He looked around his swamp of an ocean and leaped from his ship into the seaweed lining his sea floor. Not only was his water going, but the fish had all been sucked out of his brain, and his sky looked farther away than it ever had before.

The force field protecting Gerard from Whitesides was still connected to Frank’s vat of power and every time Gerard tried to draw in and neutralize any excess power in the air, he just kept taking it from Frank. It was only lingering adrenaline from fearing for his life that was keeping Frank awake.

“Okay,” Whitesides said finally. “Hey Frank, you still with us?”

Frank made a noncommittal noise and opened bleary eyes to see Whitesides facing him with a long needle. “I dod’t deed ady shods,” Frank muttered. “Dobody here has rabies or adyt’ig.”

“You’re a funny little guy,” Whitesides said, his voice still light and calm. He wrapped something around Frank’s right arm like a tourniquet. “I like you, Frankie.”

“Cad’t say I feel de sabe,” Frank muttered, blinking at Whitesides’ baleful eyes. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” Whitesides said. He did that thing doctors on TV always did where he flicked the chamber and squirted some liquid out the top. “I’m putting you to sleep for your own good. If Thompson asks, I’ll tell him breaking your ribs knocked you out.”

“Kay,” Frank said. He watched with mild interest as Whitesides slid the needle under his skin and emptied it of fluid. The drugs didn’t set to work for a few seconds, but finally Frank could feel them pulling him under.

“If we ever meet again, you can punch me,” Whitesides said. “How does that sound?”

“Good,” Frank whispered. His head was too heavy so he let it fall back. “Dis is good stuff.”

“Only the best for you,” Whitesides’ voice said, winding around the white swirl of the room. Frank could have sworn there had been a floor, but all he knew was that one minute he was in a room and the next, everything had fallen away and he was flying through the air, free as a swallow.

Chapter Text

February 6, 2019

There were three things that Frank realized fairly quickly.

One was that there was a beeping sound coming from somewhere in his vicinity. It was really fucking annoying, too. Like, if it didn’t stop, he was going to claw out his own ears.

Two was that something kept pressing on the back of his head. It felt like his ocean of power was a dry pit of sand. Something was keeping it from filling up: it kept pouring out the bottom. He opened his eyes to find that he was lying on his back in an endless salt-encrusted ocean that was empty of water.

He struggled to his feet and looked around. He could feel in the distance exactly where he was being drained from and trudged through the kelp and sand in the mire of his mind until he found the shining stream of energy that was tugging at all the water of his power. He frowned at it, feeling the crackle of dry seaweed and shrugged. Whatever it was, he had to get rid of it. He severed the connection, tearing away each strand with his bare hands until the last one was cut away and he broke free of whatever bond that had been.

And three was that he was probably alive, because if he’d been dead he probably wouldn’t be in this much pain.

He drifted off to sleep for however long it took for his body to coax enough energy into the murky swamp of his mind to make it as full as a river. When he woke up again, he was knee-deep in water. He’d had a ship at some point, but that was gone now, and he couldn’t muster up the energy he’d need to fashion something of that size, so he whipped up a simple rowboat and climbed over its lip.

Once he was safely aboard, he was struck by the pain of the physical limits of his body and opened his actual eyes to see a plain white ceiling.

When Frank managed to tilt his head to the side, he caught a glimpse of a heart rate monitor out of the corner of his eyes. Well. That explained the beeping noise. He settled his head back into the pillow behind him, blinking his eyes shut for a moment, just a moment.

When he woke up for the third time, his head was amazingly clear. He sank back into the ocean that was now a shining lake, checking the progress of the water. It looked pretty shallow, like it might come up to his waist if he were to exit his little boat.

Sounds filtered through the blue sky in his mind. He forced himself to pay attention to reality again, because the beeping wasn’t the only noise he could hear. It sounded like a group of people might all be shouting at one another. A big, muddled up jumble of phrases that didn’t make much sense when he tried to string them together seemed to just be hanging overhead.

“But it’s my fault he --”

“You’ll sit back down if I have to make you, young --”

“-- just an IV! You need it!”

“-- dehydrated --”

“Let me through --”

“He’s alive, Gee, he isn’t going anywhere.”

“-- fucking needles...only if I get to stay here...”

Frank opened his physical eyes with some effort, straining to tilt his head so he could see where the voices were coming from. He seemed to be in a small room with walls that made him think that there might be something wrong with his eyes until he realized that they were curtains. There were two chairs next to his bed. One was empty and the other was occupied by hunched shoulders. A frazzled head of hair was resting on the bed beside Frank, not quite touching his leg.

Ray. Ray was sitting next to his hospital bed. On his hospital bed, even. His hand was resting next to his head, the skin ashen. He didn’t move when Frank turned his head to the side. He wasn’t dead; from what Frank could see, Ray’s shoulders were rising and falling fairly steadily.

Frank’s right hand twitched at his side. It was barely an inch away from Ray’s own much whiter hand, so when the motion didn’t inspire any real pain, Frank moved his hand so it was resting on Ray’s. He took in a deep breath, wincing when his ribs screamed with the action. He remembered the feeling of Ray drawing from Frank’s power, the tug of it on his mind, so he grabbed a thread of energy and let it flow down his arm and into Ray’s.

For a moment, he didn’t think anything was happening. The power hovered between them, trying to get into Ray’s skin. Frustrated, Frank was about to push again when he felt the slightest tug, like a spring breeze or a gentle current around his ankles. He let it pull him, half-watching as the mild-mannered lake of his mind slowly lessened, clear waters calming from where a light wind had started to kick up small waves, and then lowering excruciatingly slowly, even though it felt like Ray was pulling a lot. He hadn’t realized just how much power he’d been holding in until it had disappeared, and now Frank could see that he could easily fill Ray up to the brim and still have plenty of energy to spare.

Colour seeped back into Ray’s skin rapidly once his body started taking what it needed from Frank. Ray’s breathing hitched, and when Frank could feel that he was almost full of power, Ray’s head moved. The bushy hair slid away to reveal Ray’s face; his eyes opened slowly and he blinked confusedly before his gaze fell onto his hand.

“Shit,” he breathed, jerking away and into a sitting position. “Oh, fuck. I knew I shouldn’t have fallen asleep, I told them this would happen, I...”

His eyes, wide with panic, skittered around the room for a moment. And then he looked at Frank.

“What would happen?” Frank tried to ask, his voice coming out more like a whispered croak than actual sounds.

“Frankie,” Ray said, mouth falling open. “Fuck, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to take so much, I just, I guess I must have fallen asleep and you’re drained, fuck, I never should have...”

He blinked and rubbed at his eyes.

“Only, you’re awake,” he said.

“You’re an idiot,” Frank croaked, squeezing his right hand into a fist when a wave of pain crashed over him. “You used up...all your energy on me. So fucking dumb.”

Ray gaped. “What?”

“Help me sit up?” Frank asked. Ray nodded and pressed something on the side of the bed that made it tilt his torso up. “You looked dead,” he said. “When I woke up, you were lying next to me and you looked dead. You obviously used way too much of your own energy healing me. My body’s a freak-show though, remember? I’ve got tons of energy to spare already. Three Ray’s worth.”

Ray heaved in a breath and swiped the back of his hand across his eyes. “Fuck, I can’t believe you get to call me an idiot. You don’t, you just...you can’t, Frankie, fuck. Not after that. You don’t ever get to...do that again.”

Frank watched, helpless to do anything else, as Ray started to crumble in front of him. He stretched his right arm out as far as it would go. “Ray,” he said, afraid now. Ray was so solid, so...Ray. He’d thought Ray was indestructible. “Fuck, Ray, I’m so sorry.”

Ray ignored the hand Frank had reached towards him and simply swept him into a hug, careful about not jostling him too much. His big arms were tight around Frank, who just buried his face in the warm skin of Ray’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeated, voice falling to a whisper. Ray had worked in the hospital wing for years, and had probably seen his share of people in various states of disarray, and to have him fall apart for Frank made him feel like shit.

“It’s not your fault, fuck, I just. I didn’t know if we would be able to put you back together,” Ray said after a moment, cutting himself off and heaving a few breaths in and out. “You were...you were dead. They fucking broke you into a thousand pieces and I didn’t think we could fix you, and, and, and.”

“You did though,” Frank said, patting Ray’s hair. He would have tried to soothe his head with a massage, but he wasn’t sure he could find it through the heavy locks. “Look at me, I’m right as rain. You did good, okay?”

“Not everything,” Ray said, pulling back. His face was stained with tears, and he slumped back into the chair he’d been sitting in when Frank had first woken up. “We had to do your ribs first so you wouldn’t puncture a lung, and then we had to do actual surgery on your knee where that asshole broke the cap. We had to...we couldn’t grow another one, so you have, like, a titanium one now. But we put the skin back together, mostly. We couldn’t heal it all the way, so it’s probably going to get sore when it rains and whatever. Uh. They, uh, they said that your fingers were the least important and we couldn’t use up all of our energy on you right at that moment, because there were lots of kids in there that needed healing too, so...” Ray took a deep breath and rubbed at his face. “Fuck, I’m sorry, but it’s your left hand, right?”

Frank glanced away from Ray down to the hand he could see but not really feel lying on the bed beside him. He swallowed and thought about moving his fingers - fuck, they’d broken his fingers - but it was bound up tightly in white gauze. “What...what are you saying?”

“I don’t know how well you’re going to be able to use your fingers anymore,” Ray said. “They’ll probably be mostly fine, because I may have spent a little extra energy putting them back together, but they’re going to be a lot slower than they used to be.”

Frank shuddered out a breath. “Okay,” he said. “That’s not so bad, Ray. I mean, a robot knee and a half-dead hand, I can live with that. Honestly, I...I didn’t actually think I’d ever wake up.”

Ray smiled at that. “Mikey made sure we found you,” he said. “We had to get some outside help for this one, but I’d say it paid off. And speaking of Mikey, he’s been waiting to get in here ever since they brought him and Gerard back.”

Frank sat up straighter at the mention of Gerard. “Gee’s here?” he asked, eyes widening. “That’s what I felt draining my power. The field.”

Ray looked distinctly uncomfortable for a moment but nodded. “Yes,” he said. “They’re going to want to talk to you about that, by the way. When you’re better, obviously.”

Mikey’s voice filtered through the curtain suddenly, like he’d sensed the shift in conversation. He’d probably been listening in like a nosy little shit. “Can I come the fuck in yet or what?”

There was a low hiss and Mikey sighed. “Fine, we. Can we come in yet?” In a lower voice, he muttered: “I get to hug him first. He’s my best friend and I called dibs.”

Ray rolled his eyes and pulled the curtain back enough to let in the Ways. Mikey threw himself at Frank with absolutely no regard for any of Frank’s injuries or the fact that Mikey’s elbows and knees were still as bony as fuck. Frank didn’t care anyway; his knee might hurt, and his hand definitely did now that he knew what was wrong with it, but the second Mikey’s arms were around him, something inside Frank snapped.

He was alive. He was still fucking here, mostly in one piece, and here. He could hug his best friend who’d probably done something that was ten different shades of illegal to figure out where Frank was.

“Fuck,” he choked out, squeezing Mikey back. He couldn’t really use his left hand, so he settled for mushing his face into Mikey’s neck and trying not to cry all over his shirt. The air in the room buzzed for a second and Frank saw into Mikey’s shaking shoulders. He was plunged, head first, into the bone-deep feeling of being left alone when Frank and Gee had been kidnapped like idiots. They’d left him alone, all alone, and he hadn’t known if he would ever get them back. “Fuck, Mikey --”

“I know,” Mikey said, between shuddering breaths. “I don’t care.” When he’d relaxed his hold on Frank somewhat, he somehow managed to get enough air in his lungs to talk again. “I know why you did it, but I -- it was hard, seeing you like that. And it was all my fault.”

“No,” Frank said.

“Yes,” Mikey argued. “He wanted me, he said so when we caught that dirty son of a bitch and if they’d taken us, then...”

“Then nobody would have found us, ever,” Frank hissed. “You did that. You saved all of those kids, Mikey. You saved me, fuck.”

“I love you, you stupid fucking asshole,” Mikey muttered, voice clogged with tears. “And if you ever do that again, I’ll kill you myself, whether it’s your fault or not.” He pulled back from Frank and sniffled, wiping his face in his own t-shirt. “Come on, Ray, let’s get this asshole some water, he’s fucking parched.” He glanced significantly at Frank and stood up, dragging Ray after him and out of the hospital room.

Mikey would be back, probably soon, definitely with water. Gerard, on the other hand, was right there, standing at the edge of Frank’s little makeshift room, hooked up to an IV pole.

Even when he’d been leaking his tears all over Mikey’s shoulder, Frank had been able to speak. Now his throat felt like it was constricted with a heavy lump. Frank swallowed a few times, trying to work up the right words.

“Frank,” Gerard finally breathed.

“Gee,” Frank said. “Gee, I --”

“What were you thinking, Frankie? You shouldn’t have done that. Any of it. You stupid fucking...That thing you built, it took too much of your energy.”

“Gee,” Frank tried to say, but Gerard shook his head.

“Let me finish,” he said stiffly. When Frank nodded, Gerard darted his tongue out to wet his lips and then took a deep breath. “It was...it was fucking terrible, okay? Sitting inside that dark thing, unable to move or see or help. After they knocked you out, I thought you’d just be out for a few hours, but then you never woke up. And Thompson kept coming in and asking Bert to check on me and yes, before you ask, he let me go, but Frank, shit. Why the fuck did you have to go and do that?”

“He was going to kill you, Gee,” Frank whispered, slumping back in the bed. “I could see it in his eyes.”

“He would have kept me to motivate you,” Gerard muttered, shifting uncomfortably.

“No, Gee.” Frank shook his head. “I don’t think he would have. You know the machines Dan kept hinting he had? You didn’t need to be a willing participant for those. They just suck the powers out of you, no questions asked, no need for consent. So he was gonna kill you, because he only needed to keep me around and awake long enough to make sure he knew what would happen if I ever broke free.” Frank set his jaw. “So he was probably gonna kill you. And he would have done it right there so he could watch my face while it happened.”

Gerard blinked hard and inched closer. “But, fuck, Frank. I could have just taken him down.”

“Look, Gee,” Frank held up his bandaged hand. “I’m all back together, okay? Now would you be a good boyfriend already and curl up next to your damn invalid of a partner?”

Gerard snorted, face white. He inched over to Frank’s right side and when Frank scooched over to make space, he lay down on the bed next to Frank. Their bodies fit perfectly, with Gerard lying on his side and facing Frank.

Frank laced the fingers of his right hand together with Gerard’s left and pulled the pair of them over his heart. “Hey,” he said, noticing something as his thumb moved in circles on Gerard’s hand. “They gave you an IV.”

Gerard held up the arm with the needle in it and made a face. “I almost threw up,” he admitted.

Frank huffed out a laugh. “My hero.”

They were silent for a few moments, during which time Frank took it upon himself to adjust their sitting position. He had to do it without moving his left leg too much, but finally Gerard was behind Frank and Frank could lean his head back on Gerard’s chest. He could feel Gerard’s heart beating beneath his ear when he turned his face to the side.

“I thought I’d killed you,” Gerard muttered finally. He started running his hands through Frank’s hair, toying with the ends curling right above Frank’s ears.

Frank hummed, cheek pillowed comfortably now with the rumble of Gerard’s voice beneath him. “What d’you mean?”

“When the field you made disappeared,” Gerard said. “I thought that I’d pulled too much energy from it and you...Mikey said you were connected to it, so then it just disappeared and I figured that meant I’d finally pulled too much, that you were...gone.” His breathing and heart rate increased.

Frank captured the hand that wasn’t running through his hair and held it tightly. “I’m right here, Gee,” he whispered. “I’m not going anywhere, okay?”

“But you could have,” Gerard said, hesitant.

“But I’m not,” Frank said back. “Okay?”

Gerard breathed in and out for a few moments. “Okay,” he said finally. “But, fuck, if you ever pull a stunt like that again, I’m going to kill you. You should have just made the force field big enough for the both of us.”

Frank blinked. “Oh.” He glanced up at Gerard and grinned sheepishly. “I didn’t think of that.”

Gerard glared, but the action was fairly half-hearted and didn’t last long.

“What?!” Frank asked, giggling at how Gerard was clearly trying to look stern. “Look, I’d never made one before.”

“Never?” Gerard blew down at Frank’s hair, making it fall into his eyes.

“Not one that was actually solid,” Frank admitted, blinking madly against the intruding strands of hair. “I guess I was desperate enough for it to work, so it did.”

“Glad to know you really thought your plan through before implementing it,” Gerard muttered. “You could have killed me!”

“No way,” Frank said. “Anyway, whatever. It worked, you’re safe, I’m extremely powerful. No big deal. Can we talk about something other than my mental prowess?”

“It’s kind of a huge fucking deal,” Gerard said. “But fine. Mental prowess, my ass. What do you want to talk about?”

“I have a metal knee,” Frank said. “Let’s start there.”

“Is this a discussion topic?” Gerard asked. “Because I don’t know how much I can say about that except ew and cool. Are you part robot now?”

“Well, it’s just the kneecap,” Frank said. “But yes. I am definitely part robot. We’d better make sure this kind of tryst isn’t illegal so you can blow me when I get out of here.”

Gerard snorted. He moved then, chest tensing as his head came down towards Frank’s. He pressed a gentle kiss to the crown of Frank’s head and squeezed his arms around Frank’s chest. “I’m really fucking glad you’re alive,” he whispered.

“Me too,” Frank said. “And likewise. I would kiss you right now, but some asshole stole my heart and all my energy. If you find either of those, I’d be obliged.”

“Go to sleep,” Gerard murmured, “bastard.”

“Mmm,” Frank hummed in agreement, letting his eyes fall shut and nestling his face into Gerard’s chest. “A bastard you’re in love with.”

“Head over fucking heels,” Gerard murmured. “It’s kind of ridiculous.”

“And I love you too, even though you never wash your hair,” Frank muttered. There was a spark of glee in his chest from having Gerard say that he loved Frank when they were both conscious, but it was dulled by his injuries and whatever they’d given him to deal with the pain.

He could feel himself drifting off to sleep, the real kind of sleep he got whenever Gerard was at his side, keeping his power down to a manageable level. The kind of sleep that made him wake up in the morning, calm and refreshed and ready to punch some bad guys in the face.

For now, he’d settle for curling up into the warmth that was Gerard. He pushed the questions looming over his head off to the side and listened to the steady beats of Gerard’s heart, slowing down to match his own like the gleaming moon pulling gently at the tide. The ocean in Frank’s mind stilled, waves smoothing themselves out even as a steady hand covered Frank’s on the wheel.

Frank smiled and let Gerard carry him away, into the night.

END.