In the days before the flu came to New Jersey, a small boy lived there with his younger brother and parents in a house that was little and comfortable, warm and pleasantly untidy, and full of all the things a young boy needed to fuel his imagination. He slept in the basement, on a bed that was never free of piles of books, half-finished drawings, and comic pages torn from his father's newspapers. They would spend hours there, he and his brother, locked away from the world and creating their own lives full of adventure in the musty half-darkness of his basement bedroom. They fought monsters and goblins, ruled over castles and fantastical lands, and swept to each other's rescue armed with only a serving platter and a broken curtain rod, torn bedsheets flapping victoriously from their shoulders.
Years later, boarding a northbound train with Mikey pressed close to his side, those were the days that Gerard thought of, clinging to the memories as fiercely as Mikey clutched their too-large suitcase to his chest. They settled into their seats, and he watched the buildings around them disappear into the thick cloud of the locomotive's dust, obscuring the city as if they'd already left the station. He imagined shapes forming from the smoke, small boys brandishing ineffectual weapons at imaginary monsters, and he sighed so deeply that Mikey jabbed him in the side with a sharp elbow as he tried to peer around him out the window.
"What's out there?" Mikey asked, leaning over him, and Gerard sunk back in his seat, poking Mikey's side until he settled back again.
In another lifetime, the question would have been enough to prompt an hour-long story about a monster that formed from the smokestack of the train, devouring everything in sight until all that remained were the passengers onboard. "Nothing," he said instead, "just smoke." Mikey's hands went for Gerard's knapsack where it sat in his lap, fiddling at the clasp until the front pocket popped open and he could pull out Gerard's sketchbook. "There isn't anything new," Gerard told him.
"I know," Mikey said evenly, and curled up at an impossible angle in his seat, book perched on his lap, flipping through drawings that were going dull with age. They sat like that until the whistle blew and the conductor yelled something indistinct onto the platform, and then they were moving, pulling back out of the thick cloud that had gathered around them, the city appearing again in the dimming light of the evening. Gerard pressed his face to the window, feeling the glass of the pane cooling his face, and he watched as home disappeared behind them. Mikey didn't watch at all, his eyes hidden behind the book until everything they recognized had vanished. Only then did he lower the notebook enough to peer over the top of it at Gerard.
"Do you have any pictures of it?" he asked.
"The manor?" Gerard shook his head. "It's been a long time since I was there," he said. A lifetime, he didn't add. "If I ever had any, they're gone."
Mikey thrust the book back towards him, digging into his pocket and holding out the messy stub of a pencil. "Show me?"
Gerard shook his head. "I don't remember, Mikey," he said flatly. "You'll see it soon enough."
Mikey yawned, large and unconvincing, and leaned over to stuff the book back into Gerard's bag. "Maybe I'll sleep through the stop," he said, voice muffled as he curled up against Gerard's shoulder, "and we'll go to Canada instead."
Gerard tipped his head against the top of Mikey's and thought about reminding him that they were fortunate the Ieros were willing to take them in, that there were others from their neighborhood who were in much worse predicaments, that at least they still had each other. But it wouldn't do any good to tell him things he already knew, so Gerard wrapped an arm around his shoulders and said the nearest thing to something comforting that he could think of instead.
"I heard a rumor, a long time ago, that the manor is haunted."
The rain began an hour before they arrived, and followed them north, pouring down in sheets against the window, loud enough to wake Mikey from his uneasy sleep. Gerard was still awake, staring unseeing into the dark, his fingers wrapped tight into the straps of his knapsack until they pulled into their station and he could stand, stretching his cramped muscles and nudging Mikey out into the aisle ahead of him. The station was empty, and none of the other passengers disembarked there, so their shoes echoed hollowly against the floor as they made their way to the exit.
Mikey blinked sleepily out the door, pressing his hand to the window to shade his eyes. "Are we supposed to walk?" he asked, then yawned. "I might make you carry me, if we are."
Gerard elbowed him lightly in the side, leaning in to peer out beside him. "I'm not carrying you anywhere. They were supposed to send a carriage," he said, and frowned at the empty driveway. "It doesn't appear they have."
"No," Mikey agreed. "It doesn't." He set their case against the wall and slumped down to sit on it.
"If they don't turn up," he said, "I'm still in favor of Canada."
Gerard sighed minutely. "What exactly is it that you believe is in Canada that we can't find here?"
Mikey shrugged and didn't answer.
"They'll turn up," Gerard insisted, and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes.
He woke with a start when someone nudged his shoe with their foot, and found himself looking up at a boy not much older than him, who was shifting nervously from foot to foot. "Sorry," he said, pulling his leg back. "You're a pretty deep sleeper." He eyed Mikey, slumped over on their suitcase. "Sleepers," he amended. Gerard yawned and stretched, then clambered to his feet. The other boy was wearing a long coat that was soaked through, and his hair was pulled back, but some of it had sprung loose into a startled-looking halo around his face. "I expect you're the Way brothers?" he continued as Gerard shook Mikey awake.
"We are," Gerard confirmed, hauling Mikey to his feet and stepping aside so the boy could take their case. "You were sent by the Ieros?"
The boy nodded and made an awkward little almost-bow in their direction, off-balance with the weight of their possessions. "Ray Toro," he said. "Apologies for arriving so late." He straightened, and managed to pull the door open for them. "I haven't been driving for very long, and it's a much different ride in the dark."
Mikey's lips twitched, amused. "You got lost?"
"Hopelessly," Ray said, grinning unabashedly. "If you wouldn't mind terribly, though, I'd appreciate you keeping it to yourselves. It took a lot of doing to convince them I was worth training as chauffer at all."
"Not a word," Gerard agreed, half because it was worth earning themselves an ally within their first few minutes of arrival, and half because Ray's smile was uncommonly charming, seeming incapable of hiding anything at all.
It was still raining as they made their way outside, and they were both dripping as they settled into the back of the carriage, Gerard's bag tucked safely between them. Mikey peered out the window, watching as Ray climbed into the front, and then he turned back to Gerard, biting his lip. "You don't think we're meant not to talk to him, do you?"
"Why on earth not?"
Mikey shifted uncomfortably. "We're not living in New Jersey anymore, Gee," he pointed out in the voice that made Gerard wonder sometimes if they'd been born in the wrong order, and Mikey was supposed to be the older brother after all. "We're being taken in by a Family." Gerard could hear the capital letter clearly.
Gerard frowned. "We're not Ieros, Mikey. And we're not going to become them." The words sounded harsher aloud than he had meant them, so he paused before continuing. "As head of the Way household, I assure you, you are allowed to speak to whoever you like. And anyone who has a problem with that can take it up with me." The words felt foolish and wrong, the title uncomfortable in his mouth, but Mikey nodded seriously, seeming to consider this, then leaned back in his seat, apparently satisfied.
"I'm going to like Ray," he decided, and Gerard smiled, turning to watch the trees go by outside the window.
"I think I will, too," he agreed.
Their first night in the manor was long, and silent.
Mikey was put in a room too far down the hall, and Gerard lay awake for hours, staring at the ceiling and wishing for a little more sound and a lot fewer windows. His room felt open, exposed, and the trees outside the window loomed ominously. It wasn't until Mikey shuffled into the room, pushed open one of the windows on his way by, and collapsed into the bed next to Gerard that he began to consider sleep. The sound of the leaves was enough to assure him that it was plants outside his window instead of monsters, and it was enough noise to distract him from the vast openness of his room.
He still slept fitfully, and woke early.
A maid brought them breakfast, and helpfully pointed out that the wardrobes were full of new clothes – with only the slightest of contemptuous glances at their own rumpled trousers, and without mention of the fact that they had each been given their own rooms – but after that, they were left to their own devices. They found the library at the end of the first corridor they ventured down, and after a while of exploring the shelves, Mikey left Gerard curled up in front of the case full of horror books, and ventured off on his own.
It took three days for him to know the entire manor like the back of his hand, and to have endeared himself to every member of the staff. Gerard spent those days reading everything on the shelves in that one dark corner of the library, pleased with the fact that someone in the household – undoubtedly the late lamented Mr. Iero – had excellent taste in frightening books. By the time he thought to join Mikey on his explorations, Mikey had already tired of them, and Gerard found him in the front hall, curled up on a window seat and staring out at the rain.
"I haven't seen any ghosts," he said glumly.
Gerard smiled and sat down next to him. "That's because you're looking for them," he told him.
The servant in charge of maintaining the library also had training as a tutor – "He has a lot of functions around here," Ray informed them when Mikey asked – and began providing lessons for Mikey a few hours a day. Gerard sat in on the first couple, but quickly decided that he could learn more from the books in the library, so he continued to spend most of his time there.
A week passed, then two, and Mrs. Iero never sent for them. One morning, Gerard awoke early and was pacing the top of the stairwell when a commotion broke out on the floor below. The noise quickly moved towards the front hall, then was muffled behind the heavy door to the manor. When he peered out the window, a carriage was rattling away from the house, kicking up dust as it went. The rain finally stopped that morning, and Mikey grabbed his coat from their suitcase and disappeared to explore the grounds, the last undiscovered territory. Gerard wandered down to the kitchens for a snack from the cook, and found Ray there, sitting on the stairwell, notebook propped on his knees, humming as he scribbled.
"I heard something going on this morning," Gerard prompted, settling down beside him with a hot roll in his hands, and Ray looked up, quickly stuffing the notebook into his pocket.
"It was just the Lady," Ray told him, "away on one of her trips."
"She does that often?" Gerard asked. "Leaves like that?"
Ray shrugged. "Sometimes," he said. "Things have been hard for her, you know, since the Lord…" he trailed off delicately. "Sometimes it's easier for her to be away."
"She doesn't mind us being here, then?" Gerard asked. "Unsupervised?"
Ray looked surprised. "You're not unsupervised," he pointed out. "The house is full of staff."
Gerard tried to go about the rest of his day without feeling the intense eyes of the other people in the house on him, but it was impossible. Having thought about it, he couldn't shake the feeling of being watched. He spent most of the rest of the day in his room, emerging only for dinner and to check in on Mikey, who returned after dark, dripping from an evening rainstorm, but looking more pleased than he had in ages.
"There are acres of land here," he informed Gerard, shaking the water from his hair like a dog, and splattering it against the walls and Gerard's face. "I've never seen so many trees."
Gerard smiled, amused. "Since when do you care about trees?"
"Well, never," Mikey admitted, "but Ray knows everything about the gardens, and the dogs, and all sorts of things."
"They have dogs?" Gerard asked, surprised.
"Loads of them," Mikey enthused. "Most of them are kept on the far end of the house, by the stables. And did you know there's a whole second floor up there? Ray says it hasn't been used in years, maybe decades. There was a fire, and it's no longer safe. That's what he says, anyway. I bet it's where the ghosts are." He yawned. "I'm too tired to go ghost hunting tonight, though."
Gerard tossed a blanket around his shoulders, and steered him towards the bed. "Dry off," he suggested. "We can go looking for ghosts tomorrow."
He realized not long after returning to his room, however, that he wasn't nearly as tired as Mikey, and that perhaps it wouldn't harm anything to do a little exploring of his own, if only so he and Mikey would have a better idea of where to start the next night. He took the lantern from his bedside table and slipped his shoes on under his pajamas, poking his head into the hall to make sure there was no one around before slipping out and padding quietly down the corridor.
The stables were attached to the far end of the house, the east wing that he seldom had reason to venture into. The walls along the main corridor were covered in art that he had examined in detail a week earlier, spending an afternoon peering closely at the brush strokes of the paintings, the stitches of the tapestries, the lines and curves and gradations of color. He walked the length of the hall, lantern in hand, casting shadows from the sculptures that stood between doorways. At the far end of the hall, he could dimly hear the echo of the barking of dogs below, and there, instead of a door to a grand room like the library at the end of the other wing, there was an enormous tapestry, gorgeously made, of a young boy holding up a puppy and beaming.
Gerard reached forward and wrapped his fingers around the edge of it, pulling back until he could get his face and lantern into the space behind it. There was a door there, plain and decorated like the wall, the only indication of its existence a small handle and a faint crack in the wallpaper. Gerard hesitated, glanced over his shoulder to make sure he was alone in the hall, then turned the handle and slipped into the mysterious corridor beyond.
There were no lights on, and the hallway was plainer than other parts of the house, but it bore no resemblance to a home that had been damaged by fire. The walls were intact and unmarked, the doors sturdy, even the baseboards clean and kept without dust. Gerard crept forward slowly, listening with each step for any indication that he was not alone, but heard none. The only sound was the faint creaking of floorboards beneath the carpet and the echo of his own ragged breath.
The first door on the right opened to a washroom, large and clean and tidy, and Gerard closed the door on it, turning to the next door, on the other side of the hall. This was a linen closet, and he sighed, wondering if perhaps all he had found at all was an additional hall of servants' quarters. The last door, however, opened onto a staircase, which he climbed with only a little trepidation, pausing at the top of it before pushing open the door there, and stepping out onto a long walkway that framed the edge of a tall room, shaped similarly to the library, full of shadowy objects.
If ever there was a home for ghosts, this was it.
He set down the lantern and walked to the edge of the balcony, peering down into the room below. He could make out the shape of a hearth, embers still hot and dimly glowing under a pile of ash, tall windows with thick curtains against the far wall.
"Are you a ghost?"
The voice was small, and right below him, and he was at once incredibly grateful he'd set down his light, because he may very well have dropped it, and ruined this end of the building with fire after all. "Hello?" he asked into the darkness, leaning over to peer down, and hoping that whatever ghosts lived in this wing were not strong enough to pull him right over the edge to join them in their hidden afterworld.
"I've always thought this house was haunted," the voice continued. There was a fumbling noise, and then a candle flickered to life below him, revealing a boy so pale he was nearly transparent. "Come down here," he commanded, "and tell me how you died." He sounded utterly gleeful.
"Died?" Gerard repeated. He backed up from the balcony to grab his lantern, and used it to light his way to the stairs leading down into the room. "I haven't. Yet, I mean."
The boy's candle flickered as he knelt up, and Gerard's eyes adjusted enough to realize he was on a giant bed, piled high with blankets. "You're undead, then," he said, leaning forward. "A creature of the night!"
"I have come for your blood," Gerard said, stepping forward menacingly, and the boy jerked, startled. He couldn't help but laugh at that. "No, I’m not dead. Or undead." He peered closer at the boy, holding out his lantern. "If anyone here is a ghost, it's you."
"Oh, I'm not dead either," the boy insisted. He looked Gerard over and sighed. "I guess you don't look so much like a ghost, really, up close. It's too bad. It would have been such an exciting death." He looked dejected for a moment, then brightened. "I will be a ghost, before long, though. It's a pity you didn't come here in a few months. I would have been haunting this place like you wouldn't believe." He considered for a moment. "You could come back then," he offered.
"I'll probably still be here then," Gerard pointed out, and frowned. "Do you mean that you won't?"
The boy looked at him incredulously. "Of course I won't," he said. "Didn't anyone tell you that I'm dying?"
"No one even told me that you existed," Gerard said.
A shadow crossed the boy's face. "I do," he said, a little hollowly, then leaned over to touch a switch beside his bed. Electric lights flickered to life around the room, and it took Gerard's eyes a few moments to adjust. When they did, the boy was staring at him intently. "You're not staff," he said, as if coming to a decision, and Gerard shook his head. "Who are you, then?"
"My name's Gerard," he said. "I'm staying here for a while."
"Staying here?" the boy asked. "In what capacity?"
"Guest?" Gerard offered, and when that got a skeptical look, he amended, "possibly charity case."
The boy raised his eyebrows. "My mother isn't quite known for her charitable impulses."
"Your mother," Gerard repeated. "Mrs. Iero had a son?"
"Has, thank you. At least for the present." The boy smiled ironically, and not without a hint of bitterness. "Pleased to meet you," he said. "My name is Frank Iero, and I am lord of this household." He flinched a little. "First time I've ever had to introduce myself as that." He eyed Gerard. "My father died," he said, and seemed to be waiting for a response.
"I'm sorry," Gerard offered. When that didn't seem to be what Frank was looking for, he added, "both my parents died."
"Of what?" Frank asked, and Gerard realized that was the question he'd been expecting.
"Flu," Gerard responded, and Frank instantly pulled back and made the sign of the cross at him. Gerard burst out laughing. "I don't think that'll do you a whole lot of good," he pointed out. "Anyhow, I don't have it. We were sent here – me and my brother, Mikey – " he added at Frank's questioning look, "because we hadn't gotten it, and didn't have any other family, and the state doesn't think I’m quite old enough to care for him."
"My mother's taken on wards?" Frank asked, incredulous.
Gerard shrugged. "I suppose so," he said. "She and my mother were old friends." He eyed Frank. "Although I'm not quite sure how we never knew about you."
"Oh, I'm a freak of nature," Frank said, sounding proud. "The doctors said I'd be dead within a few months, so my parents figured it'd be easier to just say they'd lost the baby."
"That's horrifying," Gerard said.
"I know!" Frank replied brightly. "I'm like a horror story." He leaned towards Gerard and grabbed his wrist, turning his hand to look at his fingers. "You write!" he declared. "I thought so. You should write about me, after I die. I'd make a terribly interesting story."
Gerard smiled, and when Frank pulled on his hand, settled onto the edge of his bed. "I think you would," he said. "You should tell me it."
Frank settled back against the pillows, leaned over to turn out the lights, and by the flickering light of the lantern, he did.
Gerard thought he would need to come up with an elaborate plan to talk Mikey out of going ghost hunting the next night, and spent all day formulating six of them, just to make sure, but Mikey returned late again, pausing in the kitchen only long enough to grab a quick bite to eat, then came to Gerard's room, collapsed on his bed, and was asleep in minutes.
When Gerard asked the next morning, he gave no explanation of where he'd been all day, but yet again disappeared out the front door early that morning, and didn't return until dark.
"I think Mikey's hiding something," Gerard said that night, curled up on the end of Frank's bed, looking at him in the flickering light of his lantern. "He's never done that before."
"So are you," Frank pointed out.
"Maybe." Frank had been coughing when Gerard arrived, knocking softly at the door into the balcony, and he looked tired and drawn, but he'd insisted that Gerard stay, even though he barely lifted his head from the pillow as they talked. "Maybe it's not, though. It depends on what he's hiding." He perked up a little. "You should follow him, and find out. Like they do in detective novels."
"I don't think I would make a very good detective," Gerard said.
"I would," Frank told him. "In another life, at least."
Gerard smiled. "I would have liked to have known you in that life."
The next night when he returned, Frank was sleeping. He sat beside his bed and scribbled a drawing of him on a piece of parchment, Sherlock Holmes hat pulled down over his eyes, trenchcoat sweeping out behind him, and a serious looking dog with a nametag of Watson sitting attentively at his side. He tucked the paper away into the book on the bedside table, and when he found it returned to the library the next afternoon, he peeked inside the back cover. There was a stick drawing of himself sneaking along behind another stick figure labeled Mikey!, with a helpful arrow at his head, the floorboard under his feet letting out a horrendous sketchy CREAK.
The next few days, Gerard devoted to spending time with Mikey, who was restless and anxious and spent most of his time looking out the window. "If there's something else you'd like to be doing…" Gerard kept offering, and Mikey would shake his head and pretend to be engrossed in his book again.
Then one morning, he woke up too late to intercept Mikey, and found that he was already gone when he made his way downstairs for breakfast. He thought about going to find him, but when he peered outside, rain had already started coming down in sheets, so he figured Mikey would make his way home soon enough. He wandered the halls aimlessly, and when he found himself in front of the tapestry in the east hall, he ducked behind it without even so much as a second thought. The light in the hall and leading up to Frank's room was still dim and lifeless, even during the day, and he crept very quietly up the stairs, in case Frank was not alone. When he peeked over the edge of the balcony, though, there was no one in the room, no one but Frank, curled up in a mass of blankets in a chair by the window, heavy curtains still drawn over it, lightning flickering in the sliver of space between them, thunder rolling in the distance. Gerard had just opened his mouth to say something when he heard a sharp sniffle.
He turned to leave again, but a floorboard creaked traitorously under his foot, and Frank's head whipped around, eyes wide and alarmed above his blankets.
"I'm sorry," Gerard said, "I was just…"
"Creeping around my room, I understand," Frank said in a tiny voice. His head disappeared into his blankets for a moment, and when he peeked out again, his eyes were red, but dry. "Come in, then," he said.
"Are you all right?" Gerard asked, making his way down the stairs. Then, deciding it was a foolish question, he added, "is there anything I can do?"
Frank shook his head, and Gerard wasn't entirely sure which question he was answering. "I'm dying," he said, with none of the morbid amusement he'd announced it with before. His face crumpled, and he turned away, towards the window. "There's a machine, that will play music. I found it in one of the books I was reading, and I had the housekeeper ask my mother if I could have one."
"She said no?" Gerard asked.
"She left," Frank replied bitterly.
Gerard winced. "I'm sorry."
"My father was a musician, you know," Frank said, turning back to him.
"I didn't know that."
"He made music, and she was an artist, and they were people, with lives and things they enjoyed doing, and then I happened. And they spent the rest of their lives waiting for me to die." He coughed, lay his head down, and stared mutinously at the wall. "I'm not sure what the bigger disappointment is, either: that I was going to, or that I haven't yet."
Gerard had no response to that, so he sat quietly for a moment before reaching out to rub Frank's back. Frank made a small snuffling noise into his blanket, but otherwise didn't move. "Maybe…" Gerard began. "Maybe there's something we could do, here." Frank made a questioning noise. "I can't very well buy a victrola," Gerard continued, "but if I could get Ray to take me to town, maybe I could get some kind of instrument, and bring it back for you. It wouldn't be quite the same, but you could make your own music."
"A guitar?" Frank asked, perking up a little. "My father had books about the guitar. I've read every one of them. I bet I could teach myself to play it."
"If you'd like," Gerard said. "Yes. A guitar."
"That would be…" Frank lifted his head and looked up at him. "You'd do that? For me?"
Gerard grinned. "To make you stop moping quite so much? Of course. What else are friends for?"
Frank blinked at him. "Friends," he said. "I…don't know. What are they for?"
"This," Gerard informed him. "Bringing you guitars, and playing them badly with you while you learn, and drawing you pictures that make you laugh, and…" he stood up and tugged on the cord to Frank's window, the curtains pulling back with a protesting squeak, "showing you that there's a world outside of your room."
Frank winced backwards. "I don't know…" he said, looking dubiously at the rain falling outside. "I could catch a chill."
"Frank, how do you feel right now?" Gerard asked.
"How do I feel?"
"Right now, yeah," Gerard said. "Can you breathe? Do you feel dizzy? Is anything in pain?"
"I'm…all right," Frank hedged. "My throat's a little sore."
Gerard leaned forward and reached under Frank's blankets to grab his hands, then used them to pull him to his feet, the blankets draping around him like he was a disintegrating mummy. "How about now?" he pressed. "Wobbly? Exhausted? Headache?"
"No…" Frank replied.
"You might be dying," Gerard said. "I'm not a doctor, and they probably know what they're talking about. But you're not dying right now. So come here, and watch this thunderstorm with me for a while, all right?"
Frank shuffled to the window seat, settled down next to him, and wrapped the blankets around them both as he pressed his nose to the window, and looked out at the world.
Things had been going too well. At any other time, Gerard may have noticed, and braced for disaster, but he was so distracted by the thought of guitars, and the image of Frank's face smiling up into the flickering light of a lightning storm that he had forgotten to worry.
He was being shaken awake, the light of a lantern bouncing against the walls of his room, and when he finally managed to get his eyes to struggle open, Ray was leaning over him, pale and scared looking.
"Mikey," Gerard replied, and Ray nodded wordlessly. "Flu?"
"I…don't know," Ray said, and Gerard could tell by his startled tone that the thought hadn't even crossed his mind.
It wasn't the flu. The doctor – who was accustomed to being summoned by the Ieros in the middle of the night, it seemed – was certain of that, but he was not sure how far the pneumonia had progressed. Gerard curled up at the edge of Mikey's bed and refused to leave, sleeping in fits, waking to help the maids care for him, occasionally eating whatever food Ray insistently pushed into his hands. He lost track of days and nights, cooling Mikey's feverish head with washcloths, making him take his medicine, telling him story after story that Mikey only half listened to.
Ray hovered anxiously when he had the time, and while Mikey slept, he and Gerard talked instead, about everything and nothing.
Then came the evening Mikey opened his eyes and they were clear and aware, and he stretched and yawned, and sat up, looking wildly around. "He didn't tell anyone, did he?" he asked, and Gerard was half certain it was another fever dream, until Mikey clarified, "Ray, he didn't tell you where he found me, right?"
Gerard blinked. "No, I…I guess he didn't."
Mikey flopped back onto the bed with a dramatic sigh of relief, then opened his eyes and peeked at Gerard. "Hi," he added.
Gerard let out a choked laugh. "Hi," he replied.
"Sorry if I worried you," Mikey offered, and Gerard couldn't do anything but wrap him up in his arms and hold onto him for a while.
When he finally pulled back, he added, "Where did Ray find you," but Mikey shook his head.
"I'll show you," he promised, then yawned hugely. "But not right now."
Gerard left him sleeping peacefully, and emerged into the hallway blinking in the sun that he hadn't realized had appeared. He washed, and dressed, and felt like he, too, was waking up from a week-long fever. He lurked around the end of Frank's hallway for a few minutes until he convinced himself he was alone, then darted down it and pushed open the door, rushing up the stairs to the top of the balcony.
The room was empty.
The bed was neatly made, the books all shelved, most of the old toys that had been scattered around gathering dust had been cleared away. The curtains were wide open, moonlight flooding through the windows, highlighting the clean sterility of the vacant room.
"Frank?" Gerard called, his voice catching in his throat. "Frankie?" He grabbed the railing of the balcony, room blurring as he struggled to catch his breath. He imagined Frank, curled up alone in the bed below, struggling like Mikey had, but with no one by his side to tell him stories and mop his brow. A sad, lonely death after a sad, lonely life, and Gerard wouldn't even be able to write the story about it now, because the ending was too tragic, and it was all his fault.
"There you are," he heard, and turned to the door to see Frank standing behind him on the balcony, white pajamas glowing in the moonlight. "Hey," he said, sounding concerned. "Hey, you look like you've seen a ghost."
Gerard let go of the railing and stepped forward, reaching out hesitantly and half expecting his hand to go right through Frank's shoulder, but instead it connected, feeling him there warm and solid, and he flung himself at him, barely pausing to note the surprise on Frank's face as he wrapped him up in his arms and clung to him.
"Hi," Frank squeaked, and squeezed him back.
"Hi," Gerard replied breathlessly, against Frank's neck. "You're alive."
"I'm…" Frank repeated, then stiffened. "Oh. Oh, no, I didn't…I was looking for you," he said. He pulled Gerard closer and hung on for a moment, then squirmed out of his grasp. "One of the maids told me that one of the visiting boys was sick, and you hadn't come by, and I thought…I was worried about you."
"It was Mikey," Gerard said. "He's better now. Or getting better, at least." He looked Frank up and down. "You left," he said. Frank nodded. He looked a little shaky, and let Gerard take his arm and bring him downstairs to his bed, collapsing into it gratefully. He squirmed up towards the pillows, and Gerard pulled the sheets over him, liking the look of them all rumpled up around him instead of stiff and clean and neatly made.
"I was worried," he said again. Then he grinned. "And it was kind of an adventure. This house is huge." He hesitated. "Maybe, when my mother comes home, I can ask her if I can leave more often. Maybe with you and Mikey around to keep an eye on me, she wouldn't worry so much."
"Maybe," Gerard agreed.
"You'd do that, right?" Frank asked. "Keep an eye on me, I mean. Make sure I don't drop dead?"
"I'd do my best," Gerard told him. "I make a pretty good nurse. Just ask Mikey."
Frank smiled. "I'd like to," he said. "I think I’m going to like him," he said with the same decisive tone Mikey had used about Ray.
He fell asleep not long after that, and Gerard stayed there for a long while afterward, watching him sleep, counting his breaths.
"Do you see why I didn't tell you?" Mikey asked. He was shifting nervously from foot to foot, standing near the trapdoor with Ray hovering behind him, watching Gerard carefully.
The room was large and airy, lined with windows, on the second floor of the carriage house. Gerard could tell from the curling paper on the easels and the faded patches of paint on the floor that the studio had been abandoned for years, but Mikey had clearly put a lot of effort into cleaning it up in the past weeks. Despite the dust swirling in the sunlight, it had been cleared off all the surfaces. There was a piano in the corner, cleaned off meticulously, and a line of guitars in stands beside it, a drumkit in the corner, the other half of the room devoted to easels and paints, half-finished works lining the walls.
"It was their getaway," Ray said, "the Mister and Mrs. But after he died, she had it boarded up, and never came back."
"And you found it?" Gerard asked Mikey.
Mikey nodded. "I was going to get it all fixed up and give it to you. The painting half, at least." He shifted, and glanced towards Ray. "I thought maybe you could teach me how to play guitar too," he added, all in a rush, his cheeks going pink.
"Mikey," Gerard said, and pulled him close, ruffling his hair. "You are the greatest little brother." He glanced over Mikey's head to see Ray turning a matching shade, and filed that bit of information away for later. "Actually," he said, "I don't want you to be mad, but I have something I've been hiding from you, too."
They sat down together, the three of them, in the bright sunlight in the center of their studio, and he told them about Frank.
It wasn't long at all before the servants got used to the sight of Frank walking around the house by himself, usually accompanied by Gerard, sometimes with Mikey or Ray. The doctor, alarmed, sent for Mrs. Iero, and kept coming to check on Frank regularly in the meantime, to make sure his condition wasn't deteriorating. In fact, if anything, he seemed to become less pale and drawn, less tired, with each day he spent exploring the house and making his way across the grounds to the carriage house to take guitar lessons from Ray. Ray's father had taught him to play, and he in turn taught Mikey and Frank, sometimes trying with Gerard, but Gerard considered himself a hopeless case, and preferred to sing along with whatever they were playing while he painted.
"We should do this," Frank said one day, stretched out on his back on the floor beside Mikey, staring up out of one of the windows and listening to Ray fooling around on guitar, Gerard humming along. "We could travel the world, play music for people." He propped himself up on his elbows. "Gee, you can sing, and we can find ourselves a drummer, and we could go see things, in other places, making music everywhere we go."
"Your mother doesn't even know you've left your room yet," Mikey pointed out. "Don't you think traveling the world is a little ambitious?"
"My mother likes ambition," Frank pointed out. "She married my father, after all. She's only away so much because I remind her of him, and she's afraid of losing me too. Once she sees this, and meets you…" Frank trailed off, and looked at them all. "We make a good team," he said.
"That's true," Mikey agreed.
"A good band," Frank continued.
Ray looked thoughtful. "A band," he mused. "I do have a whole notebook full of songs I've been working on."
"Actually," Gerard said, "I've had this idea." He stretched out on the floor beside them with his sketchpad. "Where we'd look kind of like a marching band…"
And so it was that Mrs. Iero found them when she returned, her son and his three friends huddled on the floor of her long-disused studio, pages of new music scattered across the floor, new paintings draped on her easels, Frank kicking his legs in the air with excitement, a smile that had at one time belonged to his father brightening his face.
Not everything was fixed – Frank still had days when he didn't feel up to going out, and there were times when he was indeed too ill to leave his bed, but on those days he could always count on having Gerard there to read books with him, and tell him stories, and let him fall asleep against his chest. Mikey and Ray would come and play music, and it was million times better than having a victrola, because these were his friends, there to distract him and take care of him, and make him feel better. And even on those days, the studio remained open to the world, and so did Frank's hallway.
Open, and inviting, and echoing with the sounds of music and laughter.