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Frank sees it at the tattoo shop, a bumper sticker on the back of an old barber shop chair: Buy Handmade. It's yellow, and there are two little monsters in the corner, like from a children's book but all grown up, friendly and a little odd. Next to their paw-like feet is written, Find the unique, support the independent. Go handmade. Go etsy.com.

The tattoo artist starts telling him all about the site, how his girlfriend knits and what she sells on it, how it's this network of crafters who help each other out, how it's about supporting artists and rejecting junk from the malls.

"Buy handmade," Frank says, in between the buzzing of the needle. "I'll have to check that out."

 

Frank explores the site the next time he's bored at work, which is almost immediately when he gets in the next day. His tattoo hurts but he's already taken too many sick days this month, and so he takes a bunch of Tylenol, rolls up his long-sleeved shirt over the bandage, browses through Etsy and tries to ignore his job as much as possible when he's sitting in a cubicle and the list of calls to return marked "emergency" is only getting longer.

Frank has worked tech support for two years, and he's come to realize that more people in the world have computers than ever should. It's like giving matches to a child, and it means Frank spends as much time talking people down from ledges as he does actually working with software. He got all cleaned up for the interview, wearing a dark-colored dress shirt so his tattoos wouldn't show through the material, but then he saw two guys with ear gauges in the cubicles he walked past, and it didn't take long for Frank to realize that, while the management encouraged them to at least try to fake the appearance of being white collar professionals, it was ok if they came in with platinum blond hair, knuckle tattoos, and lip rings. Frank did his part to contribute to the conflicting office image by always wearing a tie.

He looks at ties on Etsy. He looks at screen-printed t-shirts, hand-carved rubber stamps, knitted everything - scarves, gloves, hats, tea cozies, apple cozies. He looks at embroidered canvas grocery bags, wall-hanging quilts, ceramic cookie jars, hand-stitched advent calendars. There's no end to the things people make. Oil paintings, charcoal drawings, painted rocks, photographs of sunsets and mountains, tiny close-ups of icicles. So many styles and so many kinds of art that Frank doesn't even have names for. Frank finds three hundred kinds of candy dispensers, personalized door mats, every animal, vegetable, or insect you've ever thought of in stained glass. There's a stained glass asparagus that makes Frank laugh so hard the guy in the next cubicle leans over to check on him.

He starts thinking about handmade things everywhere he goes. Wondering who actually made his gloves, who took the stark black and white photos of brick buildings that line the hallway of his office, what he's going to get his mother for her birthday, even though she says she doesn't need anything. Frank wonders if there are even any galleries nearby where you can go and buy art, not just look at it hanging on the wall.

Most of the guys in the office are the type who could do anything as long as you paid them to sit and do it. While the thought of that purposelessness itches at Frank constantly, he eats his sandwich at his desk and nods to his fellow smokers and shares customer bitch stories for two years until the itch turns into something stronger, a snake under his skin, which finally coils around his throat and squeezes until he knows he has to make something change.

Frank spends a really long time imagining what he'd do if he were an artist, how he'd post things on Etsy, what his shop would look like, designing his own banner, what his business cards would look like. Frank even thinks that maybe he could learn to make some of the things on there - how hard could it be to embroider, really? - but then he sees a new item that just blows him away, the detail, the vision, the way so much of the art is just so damn original, so special. Frank knows he doesn't have that sort of vision, that eye for making something someone else will want to touch, to look at, something that will move them.

Still, Frank thinks about doing something with his life that involves making something tangible, something where he isn't in an office, where he'd be excited to tell people what he did, what he made, show them his work. He dreams unformed dreams of taking pictures of his creation (usually it's clay, though Frank has not touched clay since junior high art class), getting orders and sending out his work to people, feeling sad to let it go, pleased to give it to someone else. It's a rich, detailed fantasy that Frank indulges all the time.

Frank isn't sure what he does with the rest of his day in this fantasy, since he figures he can't make art all day, and his fantasy usually just involves admiring end product, not really how much work goes into it. He figures he'd probably do normal house things, things you do on the weekends, things you do when the time is yours. Rake leaves in the fall, paint the house in the summer. Sit on the couch in his underwear and watch TV.

Frank realizes what he wants even more than work he feels good about is routine, predictability, and, dare he say it, security. Years back, he wanted none of those things, wanted to wander like a rolling stone, but now, something holds him to the idea of home, as strong as a storm wind, as strong as his belief that what he's doing now won't last. He knows something else is going to happen; his life isn't always going to be this. He just doesn't know what has to happen for that change to come, for him to wake up and become an artist with an Etsy page and a home studio, and to never have to see a cubicle again.

 

His mother pushes him in the right direction, one Sunday morning when Frank is complaining about work and he's cooking pancakes for her in her own kitchen.

"Look at what you're doing, Frankie." His mother is arranging plates, syrup, and butter on the table, wiping invisible crumbs into her hand and brushing them off into the sink.

Frank flips the blueberry pancake in the pan. "I'm making you breakfast. Aren't I a good son?"

"Yes, dear, of course you are. But you're cooking."

Frank suddenly understands what she is trying to say with her hands on her hips and her eyebrows arched. "I'm not going to cooking school," he says, too quickly. His mother gives him her "oh, honey, you're still my little boy" look. "And I'm not working at a restaurant again."

"I know better than to talk about you and school," she says. "And don't think I don't remember how unhappy you were at the restaurant. Honey, I just want you to think about what you'd like to do when you wake up. If your day was yours to control, what would you do? That's how you find what you're meant to do. It's not about calling or career paths. It's about what gets you out of bed."

 

It finally takes Frank calling in sick in the middle of the week because he can't possibly face another excruciating phone call, getting totally restless watching the weather get greyer and greyer, and finally turning on the oven and opening up his cabinets to see what in the world that he could make that would be warm, smell good, and satisfy his urge to eat something huge and hearty to understand what his Mom was talking about. He calls her when he pulls the loaf of three-seed bread from the oven and tries to sound casual about it

Doesn't working at a bakery sound like a good job? He's sure it's hard work, but it's not in an office, it's making things for people instead of fixing their mistakes. Frank liked to work with his hands, and he could always try it, right, he could always see how it worked out. People did that for work, right?

His mother mentions that she thinks one of the Toros is a baker. Frank makes a few phone calls and Frank's mother talks to Mrs. Toro at church and Frank doesn't even get an interview but this is so unlike anything he's done before that he's not sure if he's supposed to or not. He just gets a call from Ray that says, sure, they need help, and Ray's boss is a good teacher and if Frank thinks this is what he wants to do, then they can help him learn.

 

Ray doesn't talk about careers or callings when he gives Frank a quick tour of the kitchen, pointing out the on/off switch of the machines, where not to touch so you don't burn your hand. Frank meets Bob, who shakes his hand, looks him up and down, and says, "Triple this recipe in your head," and rattles off what Frank thinks might be a cupcake recipe. He messes up the baking powder. "Gotta work on your fractions," Bob says, "You've just made six dozen cupcake-shaped rocks." But otherwise he's done okay, or so he thinks, because Bob just nods and waves him away.

"Bob will teach you everything you need to know," Ray says with confidence.

"Bob the Baker?"

"Don't call him that," Ray says immediately.

"Don't call who what?" Bob shouts from the back. "Did that little asshole just call me Bob the Baker?"

Frank is ready to bolt for the door because Bob is so much bigger than he is, but Ray just grins and says, "Don't worry Bob, I won't let anyone call you a baker."

"That's not - " Bob emerges from the back room with a sack of flour on his shoulder, looking as though he might hoist it at both Ray and Frank at any moment. "I'm a baker. I'm just not Bob the Baker."

"Uh huh," Ray answers, completely agreeable.

"Got it," Frank adds, just in case.

"See?" Ray says as soon as Bob's back is through the door. "Everything you needed to know."

It turns out that Bob the Baker is a workaholic. He wants Frank there every morning, and Frank feels like he's worked a whole day by the time he actually gets to work. But he finally feels like he's doing something, like he has a purpose, that it's worth learning to wake up four hours before sunrise every single day.

It takes Frank a while to get used to moving around in the small space without elbowing Bob in the ribs or having to duck to avoid Ray taking bread out of the oven. Frank's small, but his movements are always a little wider, a little wilder, something his mother insisted was an old habit from when he was a kid, trying to overcompensate for his size and seem like he was taking up more space than he actually did.

Frank learns to read Bob and Ray's non-verbal cues, learns to know which way Ray's going to turn, just how fast Bob can toss several pounds of butter his way. And they learn to read Frank's body language, too, Bob ducking out of the way just in time before Frank tries to slip between him and the fridge, Ray evading a rogue elbow when Frank pours cornmeal into the mixer.

Frank gets incredibly dirty, and not just his hands, but his neck, his hair, his arms, his ankles. Bob looks him up and down one day when Frank feel like he's so covered in flour that he's ghost-like, and says to Ray, "He'll be great when we clean out the ovens."

"Are you saying that because I'm small?" Frank asks, trying to brush flour from his face and obviously making it worse because Bob is grinning.

"Not at all, Frank," Bob says. "Not at all."

 

Frank has just barely enough time to get home, clean up, and then speed to work. He's cut it too close a couple of times, and had to call in once and say he was having car trouble, and so he starts keeping a change of clothes in his car because there's no way he's going into his cubicle covered in white dust, though he's pretty sure half the office wouldn't notice.

But Frank loves every minute of it. After a morning at the bakery, talking to customers who can't print from their email doesn't seem like such a soul-sucking experience. No matter what kind of day Frank has dealing with annoying customers, he still has the bakery the next morning, and if something can make him get out of bed at 3 in the morning and blast the defrost in his car for ten minutes before he can see out his windshield, it has to be good. Frank tries to take it for what it is, just something new he's doing, but he can't help factoring mornings at the bakery into his becoming-an-Etsy-artist fantasy, sometimes mailing packs of dinner rolls with his mysterious clay sculptures.

Ray asks what the hell he's daydreaming about, one Monday morning when Frank is thinking about what it would be like to never have to walk anyone through rebooting their computer or power-cycling their modem, instead kneading dough forever and ever, baking hundreds of loaves of bread a week. Frank startles and sloshes some of the yeasty milk in the mixer down his pants.

"I wasn't daydreaming," Frank says, trying to wipe away as much of the mix as he can.

"Sure," Ray says, laughing.

"If the bread doesn't rise because you spilled too much of the yeast, you're going to stay and make the whole batch again." Bob calls out.

The bread is perfectly fine, just as Ray's whispered assurance said it would be, but Frank stays late anyway, until the bakery opens and the first customers come in, because Frank gets to sell them their breakfast, their before-work snacks, bread for their families, for lunch and dinner and an afternoon snack with peanut butter and it's just like his day dreams, until he's so late for work that he knows he's going to have to try to wash up in the office bathroom instead of going home for the shower and new clothes he really needs. The change of clothes in his car is both incredibly wrinkled and cold.

 

Frank sticks his head under the sink in the overly elegant office bathroom filled with rich maroon tile, brass light fixtures and scallop-edged mirrors, all signs that this office was made for bigger things than tech support. Frank always feels like he ought to stand up straighter, be extra polite when he's in here, tuck his hands in his pockets to hide his tattoos that are reflected everywhere in the highly polished surfaces.

Frank splashes the warm water on his face and towels off with what he thinks is the cleanest corner of his t-shirt and when he opens his eyes, he sees someone else wandering into the bathroom with the same idea, half-asleep, dirty and definitely not dressed for work. He'd think it was someone lost if he didn't see the ID card, and then, once the guy pushes his hair back from his face, Frank realizes he looks vaguely familiar.

"Hey," Frank says, bunching up his t-shirt and throwing it into his bag.

"Hey," the kid says, automatically, and then he looks at Frank, taking in that he is shirtless, and says, "Party? I'm Mikey."

"Frank," Frank answers, and then Mikey's eyes fall on Frank's jeans, the whole left side covered with the remnants of the bowl of yeasty milk that he clumsily spilled.

"Some party," Mikey says dryly, and fishes in his bag for his own crumpled but work-appropriate shirt.

"I work at a bakery," Frank says, suddenly shy, and Mikey turns to him and gives him a nod, encouraging. "I'm a baker's assistant, I guess. In training, really," Frank says, slicking his hair back nervously.

"Cool," Mikey says. "I fell asleep on my friend's couch after a really intense game of Scrabble."

Frank isn't sure if Mikey's for real, but he laughs, and Mikey gives him this half smile, then takes of his glasses and rubs his eyes.

Frank buttons his shirt, knots his tie and rolls his shoulders and says, once Mikey has his work shirt on, too, "We're almost early. Want a coffee?"

"Fuck," Mikey says in agreement, and as easy as that, Frank has a friend at work.

 

Frank hasn't really bonded with anyone at work before, but he hasn't had anyone he really likes from the very first instant, the way he feels about Mikey. Frank likes him even more when Mikey talks about work and Frank finds out not only is he dissatisfied – everyone here is – but that Mikey dreams of doing something different. Mikey has a fantasy world, too, one where he disappears to when he's half-asleep walking to work, when he's zoning out on a customer, and it involves vague ideas about writing databases and being a consultant and when Mikey shrugs and tells him he just knows he's meant to be doing something else, Frank understands.

Frank and Mikey meet outside for coffee and cigarette breaks and sometimes in the bathroom where Frank's trying to scrub off crusted things he can't identify and Mikey's trying to make himself appear more awake than actually is. Frank can talk to Mikey about caring about how centered the swirl in the raisin bread is and Mikey considers this a valid point and does not think Frank's a total wacko, and Mikey can tell Frank about the architecture of a really complicated query or the back end of levels in a video game and Frank thinks it's cool and knows that Mikey is really excited about it, not trying to show-off.

Frank looks at Etsy, and sometimes the Weather Channel website, but mostly Etsy, every single hour he is at his cubicle. He sits there and stares at the Recently Posted Items, the cascading list, updated nearly every minute. Sometimes the list updates so fast that Frank hardly has time to click on the picture before it slips down the list and out of sight.

He stops paying attention to his first phone call of the day as a tiny thumbnail picture of a birch tree appears and Frank clicks on it. It's not a photograph, as he'd first thought, but an oil painting, realistic and not at the same time. Frank reads the description, "4x4 original painting, not a print. The word "birch" is thought to have derived from the Sanskrit word bhurga meaning a 'tree whose bark is used to write upon'."

Frank looks closer at the picture, and he notices that several of the leaves aren't actually leaves at all, but hands, holding feather quills, attached to the tree braches at the wrist.

"Hello? Hello?" The customer shouts his ear.

Frank startles, and then stutters back into helping the customer, idly prompting him with words like, "server" and "network" and "power supply," but as soon as he hangs up, Frank clicks on the link that takes him to the artist's Etsy home page. He's called Grey Award, and there's a huge illustration of a tattered, grey ribbon with a masked pair of eyes across the banner of the page, like its won first place in an eerie contest. The seller has over 60 listings, and Frank looks through them all – more paintings, all beautiful and all unsettling, like there's something lurking in the background in the world of the painting. But it's not all paintings. There are some felt creatures, hand sewn, out of some fairytale land, a couple of scarves with little bone tassels that say, "Back by popular demand," some customizable stationary with various complicated borders, two acrylic painted wood blocks. Frank can't figure it out, there's just so much, and it's all awesome, all bizarre, all unlike anything Frank's seen.

He wants to buy something but he doesn't even know what, it's all too awesome, and some of the larger paintings are more than he can really afford, and when Frank is finally off the phone, he feels a rush of boldness and decides to write to the seller, just to tell him that he'd buy something if he could decide, but that he couldn't not say anything, you know, just had to say how awesome he thinks it all the art is. He clicks send and goes out for a smoke break and then realizes the word for what he's written is gushing and the artist is totally going to think he's a psycho.

There's a reply when Frank comes in after finishing his cigarette. It's a thank you twice as long as Frank's message and it's not bizarre at all, not like the art at all. Frank isn't sure what he was expecting, metaphors about skeletons and hands on birch trees, but it's a genuine, earnest thank you, for appreciating the art, and for taking the time to say something.

There's another shorter message that follows, and it asks if Frank has, like, you know, a favorite plant, or tree, or flower or something, and if he feels okay about it, to send his address and the artist will make him something, don't worry about paying.

Frank doesn't know if he has a favorite plant, but he'll find one if this guy is asking. There's a tree with bright red berries outside the parking lot to the bakery and Frank asks Bob the next morning what it's called. Bob answers, "Winterberry," like it's obvious, then stops dead and asks Frank if he ate them, and only goes back to his cinnamon rolls when Frank assures him he's just curious and has no interest in eating the berries.

 

Frank stays late the bakery again, through the start of the season's first snow flurries, and changes in the elegant bathroom. Mikey - who has taken to just meeting Frank in there, Frank's lateness has become such a habit - sticks his glasses under the faucet and dries them on his t-shirt while Frank ties his tie in the mirror. Mikey puts his glasses back on, nods as Frank straightens his tie and says, "There's a party. My house, tonight."

"Cool," Frank says and means it, because it's been too long since he was at anything resembling a party, and because Mikey's a neat guy, sharp and soft around the edges at the same time.

"Here," Mikey says, handing Frank a scrap of paper with his address on it. Frank tucks it into the front pocket of his dress shirt and for some reason this makes Mikey crack up. "Come whenever," Mikey says.

 

Frank still isn't sure what kind of party Mikey would have, drinking or board games or both, and so he shows up with two baguettes under his arm and a six-pack of beer and figures he's covered.

There are a few guys from work, a few guys Mikey introduces as friends, and "Gee, my brother," Mikey waves cheerily to a guy dressed all in black on the couch who Frank thinks is knitting. "He lives here," Mikey says, like it explains everything.

Frank finds out later that it really does.

"I just do it to piss my brother off," Gee says, when Frank runs into him in the kitchen and has to ask if he really is knitting what looks like might be a scarf, which he is test-measuring around his own neck.

"You knit to piss him off?"

"I knit at his parties to piss him off. Pink yarn especially. I could stay in my room, but then I'd miss all the fun. And I wouldn't have known there was bread. Did you bring the bread? Mikey said he worked with a guy who was a baker."

"Doesn't pay the bills."

"I know!" Gee says, like he tried to make it as a baker once, too. "It's amazing the shit you come up with to make money when you really just want to get paid for making things, you know, with your heart and your hands and, man, I don't know, sometimes I get so angry that people don't care about creativity and creation and the things we can just make out of things other people make, like the old way, the way people used to have to do it, trading things that they made for things other people made."

Gee is totally into it, his eyes shining, his hands waving around, and he takes a bite of the bread and says, "Fucking fantastic man. You made this, and you brought it to our house and that's fucking awesome." He takes another bite and chews thoughtfully, and then reaches out for Frank's hand, to squeeze his fingers, and it's an odd, intimate gesture, but Frank understands. Gee is not only thanking him for the bread, but thanking his very fingers, and Frank grins and squeezes back.

"I'm Gerard, by the way," he says, opening up the fridge and lighting up in the dark kitchen with bright yellow light and letting out a big draft of chilly, celery-scented air.

"Frank," he says, although Gerard's half inside the fridge, now, and Frank isn't sure he hears.

"Want a Coke?" Gerard says, emerging with two soda cans. Frank's got a beer open somewhere, but he nods and takes the soda, because he wants to keep talking with Gerard, wants to watch him be comfortable in his own home even when it's full of strangers.

And then there's a commotion which Frank thinks might be a game of tag and Mikey runs around Gerard in a tight circle like he's playing ring around the rosies but then Frank realizes Gerard is now wrapped up in pink yarn, and Mikey runs off, practically cackling and once Gerard extracts himself from the temporary binding he tears off after his brother, shouting furious insults about Mikey's clothing choices but he's got a smile on his face and Frank thinks maybe he's walked into an all-out brotherly war.

A bunch more people show up and then someone hauls out an Atari 2600 and Frank loses sight of Gerard and he still hasn't seen him when it's time to leave and so he asks someone, who points upstairs. Frank gets halfway up the flight of stairs and sees a huge painting on the wall and then two doors and an open bathroom, and Frank turns around and walks back down because this is someone's house, and he doesn't think it's right to chase down a guy he just met when he's in his own bedroom.

So instead Frank looks at the painting, rich thick veins of orange and red, like a pile of leaves a kid just leapt into, and the longer he looks, the more he becomes convinced that the wild, expressive, talkative man he met in the kitchen had to have made this. There's just no question, and he stands there until someone rushes up past him to the bathroom and then Frank finds Mikey, says thanks and tells him he has to get up early, which he does, and sneaks out into the night.

 

Frank lies in bed, eyes heavy, having checked his alarm twice - every time he had to set his clock for 3 AM he thought he might reconsider this career move - the sheet so high over his chin that every time he breathes out, it flutters. Frank likes this time, because when his shoulders relax and his jaw unclenches and he traces his newest tattoo with his fingers under the cuff of his t-shirt, he doesn't feel alone. He knows there are artists out there, making things, and that maybe, just maybe, he's one of them, and he falls asleep thinking of Mikey and Gerard's refrigerator, the ketchup bottle on the door, the butter slot, because it seemed to him the clearest picture of what home meant that he'd seen in a long time.

It's freezing when he gets up, and he pulls his hoodie over his head, tucks his hands inside his sleeves and starts up the car. The best thing about getting up and driving this early is the quiet on the streets, quieter than Frank has ever seen New Jersey, like the times when he was a little kid and he'd go outside on the porch and look out, trying to imagine the neighbors asleep, like the whole world was paused, and then a car would scream by and the feeling would be broken. But Frank feels it now, every morning, half-awake, drinking his coffee, rolling his shoulders, rubbing the inside of his hands, warm up exercises for what's coming next.

The thing about Ray is that he had been one of those people Frank knew without really knowing, one of those kids who was always at summer BBQs and cousin's birthday parties and who he'd famously gotten into a water gun fight with one February when they were in high school right before Frank got pneumonia. But if you'd asked Frank before he started at the bakery, he wouldn't have been able to tell you where Ray lives, if he has a girlfriend, what he likes to do.

Bob doesn't talk while he is working, except to show Frank something new or scold him for doing something wrong, but Ray talks, the same way Frank remembers when they'd seen each other in their backyards during some church get-together, catching up with a shrug, sneaking cigarettes. Ray doesn't go for small talk, which is a relief for Frank, who is terrible at it. Ray just launches into a story, whatever he is thinking. And that's how Frank learns things he never would have thought to ask about, how Ray met Bob ("The baker's world is a fucking small one, Iero.") what happened when Ray moved out of New Jersey for a year ("Let's just say that it involved a Christmas tree fire, a month of making every flavor of crème brulee you can imagine, and a girl whose name rhymed with Fairfax.") and what his vision for the bakery is, ("I thought someday we could have sandwiches, but I don't want to smell deli meat all day.")

Ray tells stories about Bob, too; the time he chased the firefighters out with the burned loaf of bread because they'd taken so long to respond that he insisted his bakery could have burned down if there was a real fire. Who Bob's favorite customers are. How they'd only ever had one other person who worked here and she was a pastry chef from the city who, as Ray put it, "wasn't ever going to work out though she gave it a damn good try."

The first hour goes by without much thought, all apron ties and lights and following Bob's instructions, trying not to trip over anything, or trip Ray in the small space. The next hour, when the ovens are really going, when it's time to make donut frosting and pastry cream, sift enormous bags of powdered sugar, Frank feels like he finally wakes up, feels his morning really begin, feels like the sun has risen even though it's still too early. And that's when Frank remembers, every day, how much he loves what he's doing, how much he was missing this in his life. How it feels like he is accomplishing something, for real, every morning, before his real workday starts. He isn't even getting paid for this, except in bread, but that makes sense, too. Until he learns, Bob says. Never anything specific. Just that. Until he learns it all.

 

When the package from Grey Award arrives, the return address is in the same state. A Jersey kid, he thinks. Fucking of course. It's a palm-sized piece of copper wire around iron maybe, and all these red berries, with tiny little faces, some angry, some grinning, some looking shifty or bored or lost. It's amazing, and Frank will never look at the winterberry tree the same way again.

There's a business card in the package with his logo, grey card stock, a miniature grey ribbon, with a skull and uneven stitching that says "First Place." Frank thinks the whole damn thing is fucking unbelievable.

He feels exhilarated, connected. A real artist, and who sent Frank real art. He sends another note to Grey Award, thanking him, raving about how awesome the winterberry faces are, and Grey award writes back almost immediately, going on and on about how much it means that Frank likes it. It's the most awesome exchange Frank has had in years, and it's entirely over the computer.

 

Frank finds himself talking to Ray nearly as much as Ray talks, about whatever he'd seen on Etsy the night before, about Grey Award, how he likes mornings a whole lot more than he used to, about Mikey's party, about meeting Gerard.

"He's got this way about him," Frank says, making a gesture rendered useless by the fact that he is elbow-deep in French bread dough.

"He's probably an artist," Ray says, and Frank grins at him across the counter.

"You're an artist, Toro," Bob says, "Look at those fucking Napoleons. That's art right there, Frank, you paying attention?"

Frank always is.

 

"Thanks for the bread," Mikey says on Monday, as they're standing in line for coffee. The woman in front of them appears to be ordering for her whole office. "Gerard made French toast. I forget he can cook. He's home enough he should be able to make his brother dinner."

"Where does he work?"

Mikey shrugs. "He does art."

Frank knew it, even before he saw the painting in the hall, even before Ray said it, just from hearing Gerard talk.

"It's pretty cool," Mikey says, and since Mikey's the kind of guy who gets bored turning his Windows Media PC into an X-Box gaming station, Frank knows it's high praise.

Frank gets more packages from Grey Award. The first that comes is a stuffed animal. Or a felted, hand-sewn giraffe-like creature the size of his hand with zebra – or prison? - stripes and vampire fangs. It's the ugliest, most adorable thing Frank has ever seen. There's a note around the giraffe-zebra-vampire's neck, tied with the same grey ribbon on the Grey Award card. It reads, "Thanks again for the nice things you said. You're the opposite of a vampire."

Frank puzzles over that for the rest of the night. In the morning, he asks Ray.

"What do you think the opposite of a vampire is?"

"Someone very alive?" Ray says, and then after a minute, he says, "Someone who gives back instead of takes?"

And that's the answer. Frank thinks about the creature, about Grey Award, and feels something new bubbling inside, like a surprise, but one that's been long in coming.

Later the same week, he gets a pair of socks from Grey Award, knit with a design across the toe that is unmistakably blood spatter. There's no note this time, only a scrap of paper that says, "Everyone needs socks."

 

"So listen," Mikey says, a week after the party, when they're standing in the cold, holding their coffees and smoking cigarettes.

"Yeah?" Frank is adjusting his new pair of fingerless gloves that he just bought from Etsy. He thinks that afternoon he might write to Grey Award and ask if he's ever made fingerless gloves before.

"I think my brother likes you."

Frank stops playing with his gloves and stares at Mikey. "What?" he says, and then they both wince as a police car, sirens blaring, zooms past. "What?" Frank says again, even though there's no question how Mikey means it.

"So you want to come over for dinner?" Frank stares at Mikey.

Frank nods, and he's not really sure if he's agreeing to dinner or if he's just shaking his head clear, but Mikey takes it as a yes and tells him to come over around 7: 00. ""Maybe bring some bread. He won't stop talking about the bread."

When Frank thinks about being back in the kitchen, thinks about Gerard exclaiming about bread and handmade things, thinks about Gerard's bedroom at the top of the stairs and the way Gerard touched his fingers. Frank realizes Mikey never expected him to say no, because Mikey's a whole lot more observant than he seems, more observant than Frank, for sure, at least about himself.

Frank stops at the bakery before going over to the Way brothers' for dinner, knocking on the back door because it's after 6:00 and the front shop is closed.

"Did you lose your key?" Bob asks when he opens the door, and then, immediately, his eyes brightening, "You here to work?"

"Nah," Frank says, "Just here to pick up some bread." Bob looks disappointed, then proceeds to ignore him.

"Tell your Mom hello," Ray says. Ray's hair is falling from the ponytail in frizzy curls.

"I will, but I'm not going to see her. I'm going to dinner"

"A man who brings his own bread to dinner," Ray says, mock impressed.

"I'm going over to Mikey's. Gerard liked the bread I brought to the party."

"Gerard," Ray says in the same mocking tone as before.

"Shut up," Frank says and Ray just nods and says, "Huh," like that explains everything, which it probably does. Ray just looks at him, waiting.

"Okay, maybe Mikey said Gerard couldn't stop talking about the bread."

"Couldn't stop talking about you?' Ray says. Frank shrugs. "Huh," Ray says again.

"If you're here, you can at least frost these cupcakes," Bob says and shoves a pastry tube into Frank's hands.

"This man's going on a date," Ray says, and Frank swears at him.

"Frost fast so you won't be late, then," Bob says, and Frank finishes the tray in half an hour and then escapes, with a loaf of raisin bread.

 

It appears that Gerard can cook, as Mikey claimed, but dinner is breakfast, and so Frank begins to suspect that this is Gerard's area of expertise. There are pancakes, that's the first thing Frank smells, and as soon as Frank is in the door, Gerard is handing him a tiny silver dollar pancake, shoving it into his mouth, really, saying, "Taste test. Is it ready? Do you think it's ready?" Frank gets a taste of Gerard's finger, tongue and teeth scraping over the tip. Frank can hardly think about the pancake, but he manages to nod, and Gerard smiles hugely, and then looks away, rushing back to the stove. "Sit, sit," Gerard says, "Mikey, get the man some coffee. Do you drink coffee, Frankie?"

"I do drink coffee," Frank says, and Mikey waves slightly to point out the coffee maker, and then the cabinet with the cups, while Gerard's completely focused on the griddle.

Frank fills his cup, then asks Gerard if the cup nearest him is his. Frank has to say his name twice, Gerard is so intent on the pancakes, but when he responds, and Frank fills his cup, the smile Gerard gives him is bigger even than when Frank approved of a mouthful of pancake and finger. Frank files that away - coffee higher priority than sucking fingers. And then he shakes his head, trying to clear away the thoughts that are piling up faster and faster. He never knew that kitchens were such a turn-on for him.

Gerard finally notices that Frank has brought a loaf of bread, and he descends on it. "You made this!" he says, slicing into it. "That's fucking awesome." And then he gets this very serious expression on his face and Frank is worried that maybe Gerard is allergic to raisins, or maybe there's a fingertip inside the bread. He stupidly looks down at his hands. Gerard comes over, very close, standing nearly over Frank. "Do I toast it?" Gerard asks with utmost seriousness. From the corner of his eye, Frank sees Mikey cover his eyes and shake his head.

Frank laughs and says, "Whatever you want, Gee." Gerard immediately takes a huge bite out of the piece he's just sliced off. He closes his eyes and chews.

Mikey reaches across the table and smacks Frank's elbow. "He likes you," Mikey mouths, and Frank tries to keep a straight face as he sips his coffee.

 

"So I think I'm gonna quit," Mikey says, and Gerard looks down at his plate, stirring the last piece of pancake through the puddle of sauce in a spiral.

"What are you gonna do?" Frank asks.

Mikey just shrugs. Gerard has clearly held his tongue as long as possible, because he lets his fork clatter onto his plate and says, "You're great at computers, Mikey, you're fucking great. You don't have to work at this job, but you shouldn't give up computers. You should be a developer, you could build databases, you could build things, the inside stuff, the everything and, and..." Gerard is clearly not as gifted with computers as Mikey, and finishes off with a gesture roughly the shape of information traveling from one place to another. "You shouldn't give up what you're good at."

Mikey just shrugs again at Gerard's impassioned speech. "I mean, you've got your bakery," Mikey says to Frank, and Frank's about to say that being a baker in training isn't exactly the same thing as following your dreams, but Mikey says, "I don't know, I just want to do something that makes sense." But it seems that's the end of the conversation, because Mikey says, "He who didn't cook does the dishes," and starts gathering up the plates. "Guests excluded," he says to Frank, and Gerard grabs Frank's coffee cup and retreats up the stairs, turning halfway to make sure Frank is following him.

 

Gerard's room is not covered in art, although having seen Gerard cook, Frank hadn't expected it. Frank's found you can learn a lot about someone from how they cook - not their personality, so much, as how they keep the rest of their lives. If they make a mess in the kitchen, they'll have a messy house, that sort of thing, but more subtle. Like Gerard is meticulous with the pancakes, focused - they didn't have to be perfect, he just wanted his full attention on them. And so Frank sees a shirt on the floor, a stack of plain canvases, cluttered but not messy, the full actualization of his mother's rule, "Everything has a place and everything in its place."

"So, Mikey told you I did art? I mean, I'm an artist. I need to learn to say that, Mikey says. I'm always giving him advice about work and vision and that sort of thing but I can't say that I'm an artist. It's just that it's pretentious you know, has all these associations with it. It's not really about who I am, anyway, it's about what I make. Photography's a pretty good way to make money, and I'm not bad at it, but I don't really, like, see all of my art that way. I make all sorts of things, and - I've been talking this whole time, huh?" Gerard stops and rolls his shoulders back. "I do that when I'm nervous."

Frank steps forward into the room, watching Gerard, who seems to be getting more nervous the longer Frank doesn't say anything. Frank is nervous, too, but the good kind of nervous, the wild thrumming in his heart and in his hands. The excitement. The attraction. Standing in Gerard's bedroom, wanting to step closer, and closer, wanting to feel Gerard's nervous smile up close, against his own mouth.

"Show me something," Frank says, and it's the right thing to say, because Gerard's nervousness, his run-for-the-door look is gone, immediately replaced with the same light in his eyes, the distracted, excited look he'd seen on Gerard's face the night of the party.

Gerard sits on the floor and so Frank sits down next to him, cross-legged, their knees touching, like this is a séance, but Gerard has seated himself within arms reach of a box of knit animals with strange faces and weird eyes, like they were half-through a mirror; art cards, of abandoned houses and bleak winter sunsets and Mikey's glasses; charcoal drawings that look like they are centuries old. Gerard really does seem to make everything – painted wood blocks, blood-red silk scarves, stitched paper dolls made out of dot matrix printer paper.

Frank is mesmerized by Gerard's descriptions, what he feels when he starts something, how it's different when he finishes, how he gets ideas, how he started making art, how much he really cares for Mikey - it's so much at once, and Frank loves it, but he's also relieved when Mikey calls them down to see Karate Kid on the Disney Channel.

On the couch, though, Mikey's knee is tucked slightly over Frank's thigh, and Gerard's shoulder pressed up against his, and Frank wants to sink into the two of them. He wants to close his eyes, to wake up later, still here, pressed between these two - Mikey, who always makes him laugh and seems so at ease in everything he does, and Gerard, who isn't actually watching the movie anymore, but drawing in a sketchbook. It's full of sharp lines Frank can't quite make out. He's watching the concentration on Gerard's face, the way his eyes dart across the paper while Mister Miyagi orders Daniel to paint the fence. Gerard's eyes dart up to Frank's face and he breathes in fast through his nose when he sees that Frank is looking, but then Frank smiles and Gerard's face lights up and he shoves aside the sketchbook, turns back to the movie, and if Frank's not mistaken, Gerard actually presses closer to him.

 

At the bakery the next morning, Bob announces to Ray and Frank, as though there's a bigger audience, that Frank has been with them a whole month, and therefore, Bob insists that Frank start learning how to bake everything they sell.

"I don't want to make fucking cream horns," Frank grumbles

"Well there's the door," Bob says, without even looking up at Frank. He is filling a pastry tube artfully.

"Bob."

"I mean it. You learn everything I decide to teach you or you leave."

"Fine," Frank says, picking up a pastry tube next to Bob.

"That's the kind of enthusiasm I like to hear in a trainee," Ray says, coming through the door with his arms full of a stack of baking sheets. "I take it we're teaching you pastries first?"

"Cream horns." Bob says

"Get ready for excitement," Ray says.

"You're not leaving until you make forty perfect ones in a row. Perfect!" Bob shouts and Ray only laughs.

Frank makes forty perfect cream horns in a row by 9 AM, which means he has barely enough time to straighten his tie in the reflection of the glass door and it isn't until Mikey appears at his cubicle, ready for a smoke break, that he notices he still has frosting under his fingernails.

"That's awesome," Mikey says, when Frank tries to scrub the frosting away with a tissue. "Your double life.""

Frank eventually learns to like making pastries, or at least to feel satisfied when the flaky dough turns into perfect rectangles, which he fills one after another with red jelly and cream. Bob looks over his shoulder for a whole row before Frank notices, and then, when he turns to see Bob's expression, Bob's turning and walking away, but he's nodding, so Frank knows he's done right. Frank really likes his double life, or at least half of it.

He also likes the part of his life where it's become routine to show up at Gerard and Mikey's house after work.

Frank finds out that Gerard is not all about rambles and frenzy. Gerard, it turns out, is a fantastic storyteller. He holds court, Frank thinks, as Gerard gestures with small circles, grabs Frank's knee to emphasize a point, doesn't stutter or redirect mid-sentence. Even Mikey stops whatever he's doing to listen to these stories he lived or has heard a million times before, about growing up, the time Mikey ate a whole can of Manwich sauce with a straw, about their grandmother, who Gerard says gave him whatever talent he has.

Frank also finds out that when Gerard and Mikey fight, it's like a wind storm, like the roof coming off, slow creaks and cracks until everything just rips apart. They don't shout, that's the worst thing, and Frank had a girlfriend who fought like that, all nasty looks and barbs and never the satisfaction of a big blow-up.

One night he shows up in the middle of an argument, but he doesn't realize until he's been there an hour, because it's nothing they're saying, there's just something wrong in the air between them.

Mikey gets a phone call, and he looks relieved to escape.

Frank just looks at Gerard, who says, "Sorry, that's probably my fault," and starts to make a pot of coffee. "I'm just worried about him. His future. Older brother shit."

"Is he into something bad?" Frank asks. "I can talk to him…"

"Nah, it's my own issue," Gerard says. "Mikey's a good kid, don't worry about him."

And that's the end of it. Frank decides he'll ask Mikey tomorrow, though he wonders if he won't get the same response from Mikey - the brushed aside, let's change the subject reaction. He wonders if he and Gerard won't even have identical expressions.

Mikey's still on the phone when Frank follows Gerard up to his room. Gerard has this new paint he's really excited about and he wants to show Frank how well it mixes and Frank really has no idea why you'd mix paint or what mixing well means, but Gerard's excited and it's catching. It's exhilarating to watch his face light up when he gets excited like this and Frank can't help but go along.

Gerard gets his hands all full of paint by the end of the mixing demonstration, and it's only when Mikey walks by, still on the phone, comes back with a box of cereal, and disappears into his room that Gerard's paint exhilaration fades. Gerard doesn't say anything, only wipes his hands on an already dirty-looking towel hung on the back of the door, and Frank thinks better of bringing it up again. So he asks Gerard what he's going to do with the paint and that starts Gerard off rambling again.

They're sitting on the floor of Gerard's bedroom, Gerard's feet bare, rubbing his heels back and forth on the carpet, and Gerard sets down his coffee under his knee. Frank thinks one wild Gerard-like move and the coffee's going to spill right over, and then he thinks the carpet has probably seen so much spilled coffee it doesn't matter. Gerard is talking about wearable art when he stops suddenly, springs forward, onto his hands and knees and gets all serious as he looks at Frank's arms.

"There's art all over you," Gerard says, low, and his hair is falling in his eyes. Frank knows that if you have tattoos, people ask to see them. It's not so much an invasion of privacy, Frank thinks, just the assumption that people make that if it's on the outside, they can see it, that it's ok for them to ask. And Frank's got a lot of tattoos, a lot where people can see them, so he's used to it. But Gerard doesn't ask to see them. "Tell me," Gerard says, sitting down again, but much closer to Frank, Gerard's knees almost touching Frank's thigh.

Not "show me" but "tell me," like Frank has a story he's been keeping from Gerard and Gerard can't bear not knowing anymore. "Tell me about your arm. This one," Gerard says, touching Frank's left arm, his blunt fingernails against Frank's skin right where the ink of a spiral ends and the normal color of his skin shows through the designs.

Gerard's fingers are gone a second later, but Frank can still feel the spot tingling where Gerard's fingers had been, his heart suddenly pounding. Gerard is crab-walking backward to reach for his coffee, taking a long sip. Frank catches his breath, swallows and tries to figure out where to start, how to explain some of the things he usually doesn't have to find words for, how to stop thinking about Gerard so close, Gerard's eyes all over his body, Gerard's fingers and nails and mouth and everything. Gerard is looking at him, though, expectant, and then suddenly his face falls.

"You don't have to Frankie, I'm sorry, it's really personal isn't it? I didn't mean to ask, it's just so gorgeous and I'm always looking at it and wondering what's going up your arm and...."

And Frank catches his fingers under the hem of his t-shirt and lifts it over his head. Gerard falls silent instantly. Frank drops his shirt at his side, runs a hand through his hair, and shrugs at Gerard, whose eyes are wide. Frank's not sure what made him do it, and he feels suddenly foolish, shirtless, awkward, intensely aware of the bedroom door still open, the yellow hallway light, and the thing Gerard had said a moment before, about wondering what's going up Frank's arm.

"You're beautiful, Frankie," Gerard says, his voice very quiet and Frank can't breathe, because Gerard is looking at him like he's art. Frank holds his arms out in front of him, out then in, puts them down at his side so Gerard can see his chest, and then gets to his knees to show Gerard his back.

He thinks that if Gerard touches him, he might lose control, might just throw himself at Gerard and embarrass himself completely.

Gerard scrambles closer, looking at him, at every inch of his skin, tilting his head to get different angles, making impressed sounds and thoughtful hums and taking his goddamn time. Gerard gets up close when Frank's back is to him, Gerard tilting forward to see the curve of Frank's shoulder, and when his hair brushes across Frank's back , Frank shivers, because it's so much, Gerard that close. Frank's fingers trembling, his eyes squeezed shut, and he can't stop shivering.

"Oh my god, you must be cold," Gerard says, and grabs Frank's shirt and hands it to him, looking completely apologetic. "Here, have my coffee," Gerard says, and hands Frank that, too. Frank takes a sip, because Gerard looks like he's afraid Frank is going to die of exposure, and because he doesn't know how to say he isn't shivering because he's cold.

Frank pulls his shirt on, and realizes he hasn't even said a word about the tattoos like Gerard asked, hasn't told a story, hasn't said a single thing since he's taken his shirt off in Gerard's bedroom and now he thinks Gerard feels awkward for asking, more awkward for staring. Frank takes another sip of the coffee, hands it to Gerard, and says, "Thanks," and then, "Listen, I've been meaning to tell you," and he launches into the story of Grey Award, and Etsy, and what it's come to mean to him, what he's wanted to tell Gerard about since they first met, how much he loves this guy's shit, this guy's mind, the things he thinks about, the way he sees things.

Gerard is enraptured, interrupting to ask what Frank thought of each painting he mentions, what they reminded him of, what he remembered with his eyes closed, and Frank can tell he really understands.

And the thing is, by the time Frank gets a hold of himself, he realizes he's been talking about art and love and meaning and things too big for Frank to even express to himself for twenty minutes. His mouth is dry and his skin is flushed and he's half-hard and shivering again.

And Gerard looks worse – better, Frank thinks - his mouth open, his eyes wide, his pupils dilated, his legs spread open and his hands tight fists in his lap. He looks like he's been thoroughly kissed, and as soon as Frank thinks that, he can't get the picture out of his head, being on top of Gerard, spreading his legs wide open, shoving his tongue down his throat.

"You should try and meet him," Gerard says, a little breathy.

"Fuck, no," Frank says, 'What would I say?"

"What you just did," Gerard says, and Frank ducks his head and laughs.

"No, no way. The guy would think I'm some fucking nut."

Gerard doesn't say anything, only shrugs, but then Frank notices Gerard's eyes are on the blood-spatter socks, and Frank wiggles his toes. Gerard stands up so quickly he would have spilled his coffee if the cup wasn't empty. ""Want more coffee?" Gerard asks, and Frank follows him downstairs.

 

Frank thinks about it that night in bed. It was all so much like sex even though they hadn't touched; his bare skin, Gerard's breath so close, the brush of Gerard's hair on his shoulder, like he'd been leaning down to kiss his neck. Even talking about Grey Award, how intense his confession of it had been, talking about his obsession, how Gerard had seemed to understand all of it like Frank always knew he would, how focused he'd been on Frank as he talked, how his mouth had looked, slack and waiting to be kissed. Frank wants more, wants to talk more, wants to touch Gerard, wants to write to Grey Award and tell him about this awesome guy he's met who's an artist, too. He presses his face to his pillow and just breathes, letting the night play itself over and over again in his head. Art and meaning and inspiration and Gerard so close that Frank's whole body was aching from holding back.

 

Mikey does, as Frank expects, totally avoid answering his question about what he and Gerard were fighting about the night before.

"It's not about you, Frank, I'm serious," Mikey says, and Frank hadn't realized until that moment how much he'd been worried it was. "I'm glad my brother likes you." Frank likes how simple Mikey makes it sound, and he stops himself from saying something stupid like, "I'm glad your brother likes me, too."

Instead, he tries again to figure out what's going on. "So, what's – "

But Frank's never been sneaky and Mikey's too fast. "He's just being an older brother. You want to come over Saturday?"

 

Of course Frank does, driving over right after he leaves the bakery. He hands Mikey a dozen éclairs he just made. Mikey takes two out on a paper towel and Frank pours himself coffee so fresh the pot is still steaming and rumbling with coffee maker noises.

"You didn't just get up, did you?" Frank asks, as he pours milk into his cup.

"It's two in the afternoon." Mikey says in protest. "Gee's been up since 5, I think. Drank the whole first pot."

Frank's been up since five, too, earlier in fact, and he downs half the cup of coffee in one swallow. He realizes he hasn't seen Gerard at all, and he looks around for the other freak who gets up before dawn on Saturday mornings.

"Upstairs," Mikey says. He gestures with his shoulder, a Mikey shrug that means Frank's welcome to go get him as long as he doesn't expect Mikey to do it. Frank goes up the stairs, sees Gerard's door is closed, and comes back downstairs.

He leans in the doorway of the living room, and Mikey eyes him. "He didn't throw you out, did he?" he says, his eyes wide.

"His door was closed."

"Did you fucking knock?" Mikey says, licking the chocolate stripe on the éclair.

"Uh, no?" Frank says, and knows it's the wrong answer because Mikey's already shaking his head.

"Want to play Atari?" Mikey says, and Frank sits down beside him on the floor and takes the control.

Three games later, Gerard comes running down the stairs. "Mikey, Mikey, how's your morning, I'm sorry I left you all alone, are you even here? I heard something a little while ago and so I thought you were here but maybe you left, and I'm sorry I drank all the coffee and didn't make another pot and...." Gerard comes into the living room and stops when he sees Mikey and Frank. "Hi," he says, eyes bright.

"Hey," Frank says. Gerard is covered in smears of paint. Not splatters, from energetic painting, but finger-sized smears, like he was finger painting and either forgot that he had paint on his fingers when he brushed his hair out of his face or he forgot which was his face and which was the canvas. He looks at Gerard and away from the TV long enough that Mikey blows him up.

"Sorry!" Gerard says when he sees the explosion and Frank swears and laughs as Mikey gets up and does a silly victory dance that mostly involves stomping on the floor and smacking the back of Frank's head.

Frank insists on a rematch, but Mikey beats him again, even without the Gerard distraction, and Frank goes into the kitchen to see Gerard scrubbing at his hands. There are trails of green paint circling around the drain, and Gerard has a nail brush that he's pretty viciously attacking his knuckles with. "Wasn't really paying attention," Gerard says, and then gives Frank a huge grin which is even sillier because there's paint on his lips.

"I brought some éclairs," Frank says, and moves the box closer to Gerard, who immediately grabs the kitchen towel to wipe his hands, despite the fact that he hasn't washed off all the paint.

"Oh my god," Gerard says, and takes the box, stares into it, and then carefully takes out an éclair and takes a bite. Frank busies himself pouring more coffee because Gerard reverently eating a baked good and making pleased hums is a little too much for Frank, and makes him think extremely dirty thoughts that he should really be completely ashamed of, but then he looks back at Gerard, who is beaming at him, and Frank just hands him the cup of coffee he's made. Their fingers touch, and Gerard's eyes sparkle, and Frank thinks that it's a good thing Mikey is in the next room, because otherwise he might actually be on his knees right now, unzipping Gerard's paint-streaked jeans.

 

Because suddenly, all Frank can think about is Gerard. Every morning in the shower before the bakery, when he's barely awake enough to remember if he's washed his hair or not, at the bakery talking to Ray about the latest wonderful thing Gerard has said or done, when he's thinking about his wild, complicated day dream where he makes things to send to people on Etsy and he bakes bread for Gerard and he lets Gerard paint his skin. There is something else, something special about Gerard, something about the way Frank just can't stop looking at him when he is in the room, something about the way that Gerard seems all bundled up and open at the same time, like a puzzle with no solution, like linked rings, or boxes inside of boxes.

Frank feels like he knows Gerard without really being able to say what it is he really knows about him. But there's something that's holding Frank back. Not about Gerard, just about everything. He feels like he's at stuck in between something, like a part of him is still paused, waiting for something that hasn't happened yet. He hasn't quit his tech support job, he's still just an unpaid trainee at the bakery, and he can't stop worrying about forcing something, about channeling into Gerard all of his uncertainty, and Frank thinks that maybe he's been waiting for so long that it doesn't hurt to wait just a little longer, to be sure. Like at some point, he'll just know; at some point, everything that has been hanging on will just fall into place. So he keeps waiting.

 

Mikey quits on a Tuesday, politely submits his letter of resignation and walks right out the door at 9:30 AM. Frank shakes his hand but he's on the phone with a customer and Mikey waves, the "I'll talk to you later" gesture Frank's so familiar with, Mikey's unconcerned, quiet way. If it's worry Frank feels, it's a Mikey Way kind of worry-- quiet, in the background, a distant sort of question: will he still actually see Mikey now that he's not at work? He didn't realize that by having a Mikey Way type of worry he would get a Gerard Way type of answer. But Gerard calls him at 5:05, so soon after work that Frank is still putting his coat on and about to step into the elevator.

"He quit!" is the first thing Gerard says, and then, "Why didn't you call to tell me?"

"I'm sorry?" Frank says, because he's not sure how to answer that question, or why Gerard might have expected him to call. "I figured you knew."

"Yeah, well, that's Mikey. There are things you know and things you think you know and he says he doesn't know what he's going to do and that I should stop badgering him. He actually used that word, badgering!"

"He's right," Frank says, and there's silence on the other end and then he thinks, Fuck.

"No, you're right, Frankie, you're right, I'm being a pestering older brother. Listen, do you have plans tonight? Wanna come over?"

Frank doesn't even bother going home first. Gerard calls him after work the next two days in a row. They don't even talk about Mikey, just Gerard's voice on the line as Frank drives over. Frank doesn't know if Gerard, too, is trying to establish a routine for them now that Mikey and Frank no longer share the same office or if Gerard's just super-worried about Mikey, but then Thursday of that week, Frank shows up and Mikey's out, and he thinks maybe this hasn't been about Mikey at all, for either of them.

Gerard shows him this yarn that he's bought and Frank just can't contain how happy he is that Gerard is this excited about this fucking yarn and so he reaches out for Gerard's face, can't even stop himself from touching his cheek with his fingers, and it's so warm, warmer when Gerard flushes and meets Frank's eyes. Gerard tosses the yarn in a big arc onto his bed and turns and leans his face into Frank's hand, kissing his palm and murmuring, "You're amazing, Frankie," and Gerard's breathe tickles Frank's hand and then Gerard licks his palm, and he hopes Gerard will forgive him later because Frank fucking whimpers. Gerard takes Frank's hand in his, still murmuring against his skin, "Frank, Frankie," kissing the back of his hand, curling his tongue against the inside of his wrist. Frank can't breathe, and Gerard is pushing up Frank's sleeve up and licking right down the inside of his arm and Frank can't take it. He pulls Gerard's face up to his and kisses him, sucking hard on Gerard's bottom lip. Gerard's hands are in Frank's hair, and Frank wouldn't have guessed from the gentle, teasing way Gerard's tongue danced across his skin, but Jesus Christ, Gerard kisses dirty, sloppy and wide open, pressing up against Frank and bending him almost backward.

The door slams downstairs, and Frank and Gerard break apart, eyes wide and staring at each other. Mikey bounds up the stairs, and says, "Frank staying for dinner?" before disappearing into the bathroom and shutting the door.

Gerard looks at Frank, and then touches his fingers to his lips. "Yeah, are you staying for dinner?" he says evenly and Frank's voice is gone and so he just nods, and Gerard smiles.

 

Frank's mind is buzzing when he leaves for the bakery the next morning, Gerard, Gerard, Gerard, that kiss, the way Gerard's fingers kept brushing his at dinner, the way it seemed impossible to leave that night. He's distracted, thinking about the yarn, the feel of Gerard's hands in his hair, the way Gerard's voice sounded when he said Frank's name.

Frank is so distracted that he doesn't notice that he's the first one in to work until he realizes the door's locked and all the lights are off, He fumbles in the cold for his knees, flicks on all the lights, gets all the ovens going, starts with his normal tasks-- flour, yeast, sugar, baking rack, parchment paper, all of it in a rhythm-- until it's twenty past and he's not so worried that Ray isn't here because Ray has this amazing capacity to sleep through his alarm and still make it here in enough time. But by half past, he's freaking out, because Bob's not there and that doesn't make any sense, and so Frank checks his phone, dials Ray, no answer. Dials Bob (though he'd really, really rather not). No answer. Frank swallows hard and tells himself not to panic and tries to remember everything that needs to get done before the shop opens.

His mind becomes a blur of one thing after another, his chest hurts from nervousness and hurrying, he's worried about what happened to Ray and Bob, he's terrified Bob's going to show up and start screaming at him, that this is some nightmare, that the shop's really supposed to be closed, and there's something at the back of his mind that says something's not right. But then the muffin timer is going off, a loaf falls behind the grate and he has to fish it out before it chars and sets the smoke alarm off, and he's just putting out raisin bread for the guy in the mad bomber who comes in first thing on Wednesdays when the back door opens, and Bob and Ray come in, and Bob's eyes are darting around and Ray is smiling.

"You passed," Bob says, and Frank stops dead.

"This was a fucking test? Jesus Christ, I thought you two were fucking dead on the highway somewhere. Fuck, give a guy a fucking nervous breakdown."

"There's gonna be some morning when I am dead on the highway," Bob says, and Ray laughs, "And I'll still expect you to open the shop. Mr. Mad Bomber wants his raisin bread whether I'm dead or not."

"I didn't even get the blueberry muffins done or any of the baguettes." Frank says, but Bob's writing out the muffin of the day on the chalkboard sign.

"It wasn't about getting everything done," Ray says.

"There's a reason there are three people who work there." Bob says.

Frank says weakly, "Three?" He can't help grinning, looking back and forth between Ray and Bob.

Bob nods. "I'm ready to hire you as soon as you're ready to quit your fucking useless piece of shit computer job."

Frank laughs. "Ok," he says.

"Now get your ass on the tiramisu," Bob says. "You know some crazy fuck is gonna want a piece for breakfast."

 

Frank calls in sick to tech support, because if there was ever a day he wants to be free from his cubicle, it's today.

He thinks he really ought to call first before showing up at the Way house, which is the only thing he wants to do, since Mikey isn't necessarily awake now that he's not headed for his cubicle any longer either. "So when are you quitting?" Mikey says, when Frank tells him the news.

"Tomorrow," Frank says, deciding it at that moment. "I'm quitting tomorrow."

"I'm going out to talk to this guy who has a server he wants to sell, and Gerard's out buying canvas, I think. I'll leave the door unlocked."

Frank starts to protest that he doesn't have to come over, but Mikey just laughs. "Gerard will be back. Seriously." And he hangs up before Frank can argue.

Frank calls his mother on the drive over, leaves a message on her answering machine, thanking her for helping him get here, feels terribly sappy doing it and doesn't care. The sun is melting away all the frost and making the wet pavement sparkle, the windows of houses as he drives by reflecting the morning blindingly.

The door is unlocked as Mikey said, the driveway empty of cars, the house so quiet Frank can hear the hum of the refrigerator and the metallic click of the clock in the kitchen. Frank leans on the counter, composing his resignation letter in his head, trying to imagine spending the whole day at the bakery with Ray and Bob and not just the morning, trying not to admit to himself that he's as terrified as he is excited. He wanders through the living room, up the stairs, lingers at the door of Gerard's bedroom but doesn't go in, as much as he wants to see what it would feel like to lie on Gerard's bed.

He walks through the whole house, and it should be odd being in Gerard and Mikey's house without them, but it isn't. Frank feels like he might even belong here. It's what makes him decide to cook lunch. He opens the cabinets, unearths the spices, a few shriveled carrots in the back of the refrigerator, a surprising number of healthy looking potatoes from a cabinet, even an onion.

It's starting to look like he could make a pretty hearty vegetable soup, maybe even with a little rice if he can find some, and it'll only involve one pot. He thinks at least he shouldn't use every dish in the house, even if he's using all their food.

He's just bringing it all down to simmer when hears keys jangle in the door, Gerard calls out, "Mikey, hey!"

"It's Frank," Frank shouts, "Mikey's gone out. Said he'd be back in a little bit. Hope you don't mind that I stayed."

"Hey," Frank says with a smile when Gerard appears at the door of the kitchen.

"Are you cooking?" Gerard says, his face a mix of surprise, shock, befuddlement.

"I made lunch," Frank says a little feebly. "I hope it's ok. Mikey left and I was bored and – "

And then Gerard is kissing him, pressing his hips back against the kitchen counter. Gerard's face and hands are still cold from the outside but Gerard's mouth is searing hot and he slides his tongue against Frank's teeth, against Frank's tongue, licking the corners of his mouth and then kissing deeper. Gerard's chest is rising and falling sharply and he presses closer to Frank, his hands on Frank's shoulders, sliding up the nape of his neck, stroking fingers across Frank's throat.

Frank distantly hears the front door open, and Mikey comes into the kitchen. "Jesus Christ, you guys," he says. Gerard breaks away, breathless, hand hands still on Frank's hips.

"Frankie cooked," Gerard says to his brother, and Frank rubs nervously at his swollen lips and smiles at Mikey.

"Uh huh," Mikey says, giving them both a once over and walking away. "I'll be back down in just a minute," he says, a warning in his voice, and Frank and Gerard lock eyes and kiss again, quickly, before Mikey returns.

It's possibly the best day of Frank's life, serving soup and slicing bread and sneaking looks at Gerard, who rests his hand on Frank's knee under the table.

But then something changes in the air when Mikey's talking about the guy whose server was a piece of shit and he was asking too much money for it. It's only a look that passes between Gerard and Mikey but it makes Gerard tense and Mikey withdraw into himself and Gerard gets half a question out about whether Mikey has or hasn't done something, Frank can't understand the rest because Mikey says, "Not in front of Frank, asshole," and it's a joke and not a joke. Frank stands up quickly, the words that he really ought to get going tumbling out of his mouth. Mikey waves and disappears up the stairs with his bowl of soup.

"You don't really have to go," Gerard says, his hands on Frank's shoulders, stroking under his collar.

"It's ok," Frank says, "You and Mikey need to talk."

Gerard just shakes his head, like he's not really sure, but says, "Thanks, Frankie," against the corner of his mouth, and then kisses him again, Gerard's hand at the back of Frank's neck like he's still trying to stop him from leaving.

"I'll come by tomorrow, after I quit," Frank says, and disappears out the door before his desire to press Gerard up against the door and shove his hands underneath Gerard's shirt overwhelms him.

 

Quitting his job is easy, and Frank shouldn't be surprised that his bosses are used to the high turnover of this place. They wish him luck, Frank goes into the elegant bathroom one last time, and he walks out relieved that he'll never have to go back to the office again. That and the ecstatic look on Bob's face when Frank told him today was his last day as a tech support slave and tomorrow would be his first full day at the bakery was enough to assure him he really was doing the right thing.

At home, there's a package waiting for him from Grey Award, and Frank tears it open. It's a felted, hand-sewn loaf of bread the size of his thumb, with shifty embroidered eyes and a crooked smile, sent overnight mail. Frank's heart stops.

He barely gets his coat on before he's out the door, driving without even the radio on. He thinks maybe he should call before busting down Gerard and Mikey's door, but he can't seem to manage to get his phone from his pocket. His fingers are tight on the steering wheel and he's driving as though it were out of his control, inexorably forward to Gerard and Mikey's. To Gerard.

It has to be him. Frank doesn't know how, doesn't know how the weird forces of the universe can have brought him here, but no one else could have sent him something so perfect, at the perfect time. It's what he's been waiting for, and the timing, the fact that it's happening now, at the same time that he's about to become a baker, that he's about to overturn what feels like his entire life and finally have a purpose, it has to mean something that this is happening right now. This whole time, talking to Grey Award and sharing his art has been about someone seeing inside of Frank, someone knowing him. It was about Frank being a part of something special. It was a part of his complicated day dream, where now, instead of being an artist on Etsy, he had this amazing connection with someone doing even better things than he could imagine. That it could have been Gerard the whole time, it's too much for Frank to handle. The idea that it's not some random person out there who saw into Frank's heart and understood, that Gerard knows him, already, that the rush of connection they felt when they first met at Mikey's party wasn't wrong, that Frank hasn't been waiting in vain.

He can't even formulate the question, he just has to see Gerard, thinks maybe if he looks into his eyes, he'll know the answer. He thinks just opening the door, and seeing Gerard there will be his answer, the thing he's been waiting for. It's crazy, it's beyond crazy, but it also has to be true.

 

He parks badly, crooked against the curb, and there is frozen grass and dry crunchy leaves under his feet as he walks fast across their lawn. He sees the house for a moment framed perfectly between two winter trees and it tugs at his heart, the familiarity, this home. He raps on the door, Mikey answers, nods, and steps back to let him in. But before Frank is even all the way in, his heart falls onto the hard, frosted ground.

Gerard is standing in the living room with his arms around Bob Bryar, his forehead resting on Bob's shoulder as Bob strokes Gerard's back.

Frank freezes as both Bob and Gerard look up at him. Gerard's expression is completely horrified as he seems to understand the conclusion Frank's come to, and he pulls back from Bob quickly. Mikey is still holding the door open, and the moment Frank turns and practically runs, everyone is talking at once, Bob shouting something low and rumbling, Gerard calling out, "Frankie, wait, wait," in this awful, pained voice, Mikey, even, swearing, but Frank slides down the lawn on his heels, makes it to the safety of his car and slams the door, and as he's pulling away, he sees in the rearview mirror the line of Gerard, Mikey, and Bob standing on the lawn, watching him drive away.

His phone rings and he ignores it. He's still driving, half an hour later, down the New Jersey Turnpike, watching the overcast sky and the traffic and he feels weary, exhausted, shaking with the effort of not thinking. Every few seconds, his mind replays the scene, the hope, the disaster, everything falling out from inside of him. The two things in the world that were his. The bakery, and Gerard, his hope tied up in both of them canceling one another out.

It's a dangerous thought, that Gerard was ever his, but the thing is, Frank felt it, and that's worse than just thinking or wishing it, because he believes what he feels in his hands. He thinks of the way Gerard's jaw felt under his fingers, the way they'd kissed in his bedroom, just a few days ago. What would have happened if Mikey hadn't come home for a little while longer. If Gerard and Bob were – Frank couldn't even think it – if Frank had misread the entire situation, he had misread everything.

 

Frank drives to his mother's house because he can't bear to go home. She isn't home, and he uses his key, feeling both familiar and way too grown up to be inside the house he grew up in. He turns on the lights in the kitchen, makes a pot of coffee, and starts opening up the cabinets, making dinner.

Frank makes a lasagna, and his mother comes home when he's putting on the top later of noodles, and she doesn't even say hello, just comes up behind him, kisses his cheek and says, "Let me finish that, honey, and tell me what's happened."

Frank offers to do the dishes but his mother shoots him a baleful look, and says that if he really wants to do something for her, he can haul out the box of decorations in the basement, and so Frank does, dusting off the box, and when he comes upstairs, his mom is hurriedly hanging up the phone and he realizes what has just happened.

"Who did you call?" Frank demands, and his mother lies through her teeth when she says no one. But it's clear who she called in half an hour, when Ray Toro shows up at the door. His mother pretends it's a big shock but Ray doesn't bother, grabbing Frank's elbow and hauling him outside

"What the fuck happened?" Ray says, tucking his hands into his jacket pockets and leaning forward in the cold.

"Want a cigarette?" Frank asks, angry with Ray, too, certain that he has to be in on it somehow. Had he known? How could Ray not have told him, all the times he talked about Gerard?

"Fuck you, Iero, I've got your mother calling my mother who calls me because something happened with Frankie's new boyfriend and – "

"Gerard's not my boyfriend." Frank says, and it's terribly petulant, and Ray just glares at him and goes on.

"And I've got Bob calling me – Bob fucking Bryar, calling me at nine at night and the bakery's not on fire, so why the fuck is Bob calling me? He tells me something's wrong with Frank, and he's worried."

This shuts Frank up. Bob, calling Ray, worried. Ray arches his eyebrows and Frank gets it. Ray is almost as surprised as he is.

"So, tell me this, Iero. Why does Bob know that something is wrong with you and Gerard?"

Frank stubs out his cigarette, half-done, and sits down on the stairs outside, and tells Ray about the afternoon, the Etsy package, how he had thought it was Gerard, how when he went over – about Bob and Gerard, and Mikey, and -

"And it never occurred to you Bob and Gerard might know each other? Frank, the town's not that big. Hell, the state isn't that big."

"It wasn't just that they knew each other. They were – "

He wanted to tell Ray, wanted Ray to understand what it meant. Why it made everything fall apart. Why it was worse that it was Bob, not any guy, but Bob, and that both he and Gerard had kept it a secret. No, it wasn't even that. It means the bakery is tainted with jealousy, with betrayal, and that everything he hoped – the promise of something that meant something more – it means he was wrong about what he had with Gerard, and he was wrong about what the bakery might mean for a new start to his, and he was wrong about the connection he had with Grey Award, and he had spent all this time fooling himself into believing otherwise.

Ray gives him a look, then puts up his hands, holding off anything else Frank might say. "I need to do some research," he says, and gets up to go. "Bob says take the morning off."

And Frank's even less sure what to do with that information. He watches his breath in the cold air, watches the stars come out. And then he goes back inside, hugs his mother, and drives home, the heat on full blast for the whole drive. There are five messages on his phone, all from Gerard. Frank can't listen to them. To his credit, there isn't a single one from Mikey. Frank tries to interpret this one way or another, decides he's too tired to do anything, and climbs into bed.

 

The problem with getting up every morning at 3 AM is that your internal clock learns to think that's morning, and no matter how many times Frank tosses and turns, he's awake, and gets up, turns on the TV. Looks at Etsy. Waits for the sunrise.

Frank goes out for a walk, even though his neighborhood isn't the kind of place where people without dogs go out for walks, but Frank feels trapped inside his apartment and the cold air stings his face but he can actually feel the sun, warm and new. He keeps hoping the further he walks, that something will eventually break and make sense, but every thought he tries to settle on escapes him, it's all one big jumble of the bakery and quitting tech support hell and Gerard and the mystery artist and how fucking much he had hoped it was Gerard, and how pathetic it was that the whole thing was just in his head. He'd strung together this story that he told himself over and over every day, hoping it was true, and now all the gaps were clear, all the blank spaces, and now he just felt hollow, like all the power had gone out, like someone had taken away all his secrets.

He can still see his breath in the air when he walks back toward his apartment but the whole sky is blue and bright, and the day has begun for everyone else. He hears doors opening, cars starting up, people on their way to wherever they go on Sunday morning, church and to visit their grandmothers and to the bakery for donuts. He wonders how busy it is, if they've already sold out of chocolate glazed, which always goes first.

Ray and Mikey are sitting on Frank's front steps, and when Frank walks up, Ray says, "You went for a fucking walk? Jesus Christ." He hands Frank a coffee and a bag of chocolate glazed donuts, and Mikey links his arm in Frank's and pulls him toward the car.

"Where are we going?" Frank says, as Mikey shoves him toward the front seat of Ray's car and Mikey gets into the back. Neither of them answers, but in a few minutes they're on the turnpike and Frank relaxes, because at least they are going in the opposite direction of Mikey and Gerard's.

Frank eats a donut and watches the road, the blur of cars on top of cars, brown leaves and bare trees and black bird silhouettes against the sky.

Mikey is busy texting in the back, or playing a game, Frank can't tell without dislocating his shoulder looking behind him, and Ray's been watching the road, driving safe and sound. Frank finishes his coffee and sets it down in Ray's cup holder and decides to risk asking the same question twice. "Where are we going?"

Again, neither of them answer, but barely a minute later, Ray says, "Bob's not gay." He looks at Frank for a long moment before turning his eyes back to the road. "I had to fucking ask him," Ray says. "Imagine that. Asking Bob Bryar if he likes to fuck men, while he's got two twenty-pound bags of flour lifted over his head."

Frank shifts nervously in his seat. Mikey's put his Sidekick away, and is sipping slowly at his own coffee, which he'd been holding between his knees.

"My brother likes you," Mikey says, and it sounds exactly the same way it did the first time Mikey said it, on their cigarette break from work, strange, exhilarating, confusing.

Frank presses the heels of his hands against his eyes, and says, "Listen, I really appreciate you guys – "

Ray slams on the horn as a car tries to cut them off and Frank shuts up.

"Do you know what I did after I survived asking Bob the Baker about his sexual orientation? I called Gerard Fucking Way."

Mikey laughs. "They were on the phone for two hours."

"Little shit picked up the receiver about fifteen minutes in, heard the whole thing. I like him." Ray says, casting a look behind him. Mikey clasps Ray's shoulder like they'd been friends for years. "I'll give you the short version of what Gerard had to say," Ray says, and Mikey laughs again. "Gerard and Bob went to high school together. Their families know each other, like yours and mine, Iero, got it?"

Frank nods, his hands gripping his knees. He's nervous, about what's coming, about being stuck in the car with Ray and Mikey, about not knowing where they're going and about what Ray's going to say next.

"Gerard admires Bob's work ethic, and what he's done with the bakery. And so when he thought his little brother was in trouble, needed some advice about making career decisions, Gerard called Bob to come over and talk to him about following his dreams."

"Bob's a riot," Mikey says.

"So that's what you fucking saw when you burst in – "

"I saw them touching – "

"You saw," Ray says slowly, "a very emotional man embracing someone in gratitude who he thought had done a huge favor for his little brother."

Mikey says, "Gerard really fucking likes you, Frankie."

Frank swears and slams his palms against his thighs. "He thinks I'm a fucking nutcase now," Frank says.

"We all do," Ray says, splaying a hand fondly over Frank's face, which Frank bats away. "Even Bob."

Frank swears again, but this time he's laughing, and so are Ray and Mikey.

"So we're going to a craft fair," Ray says, as though Frank hadn't asked the question over an hour ago. "Thought it would make you feel better."

The idea of a craft fair does make Frank feel better, because there's a chance Grey Award will be there. He tries not to think about it, tries to let it just float in the back of his mind, the possibility that some things will still work out. He may have fucked up with Gerard, may have freaked out and shown his true unstable colors, may have looked like a complete fool in front of his new boss, a guy he really respects, but Frank presses his forehead against the cool glass of the car window and watches everything speed past and just lets himself be hopeful, to consider, cautiously, to dream what might be waiting for him.

 

There's a fee at the door, and to Frank's amazement, Ray pays for all three of them. Mikey bounds up next to Ray, says, "Thanks," and then, "I'll buy lunch" and then disappears off into the rows of tables.

"Seriously, that kid is awesome," Ray says. Frank is scanning the guide they've been given with a map of who's showing and where to find their tables. Every rectangle is numbered and Frank flips to the back to the list of names. He's nervous now, tense and unsettled and unable to stand still.

"Is your guy here?" Ray says, just as Frank finds the listing for, "Grey Award Designs."

"Yeah," Frank says, "Yeah, he is," and feels the fog lift a little, the confusion of a day that's seemed like a week fade a little. He remembers the art made for him, the way Grey Award had seen into him, and Frank needs that right now, more than he has ever needed anything. He needs someone to see what he can't.

He and Ray walk, counting the tables, watching the displays, and Frank wants to thank Ray for bringing him here, wants to ask what the fuck Gerard said for two hours, but he can't right now. Right now he has to meet the artist who has obsessed him for months.

They're in the right row. Frank's counting, and he looks up from the sheet and from the numbers on the floor and at the signs instead. He thinks he sees it, rushes down the aisle, and sees Mikey leaning over one of the tables. It takes him longer than it should to realize why. Sitting behind a table stacked with art cards, prints, and little grey First Place ribbons is Gerard Way.

Frank feels Mikey and Ray step back, but his eyes are locked on Gerard, who is smiling nervously, all teeth and wrinkles around his eyes and he says, standing up from his folding chair, "Hi Frankie."

"It was you," Frank says, feeling his heart pounding so hard he's sure Gerard can hear it. He hears his words echo in his head. It was you. It was you.

Gerard only nods.

"It was – then – why didn't you say something!" Frank stumbles out, and Gerard ducks his eyes and brushes his fingers through his hair.

He finally looks back at Frank and says, very quietly, "I was waiting for you to figure it out. It was stupid, but it really mattered, that you figured it out, without me telling you. That you knew it was me. That you could tell – that you could see me." Gerard looks away, and then back at Frank again.

"He wanted to make sure you understood the power of art," Mikey says, and Gerard goes a little red and tries to smack Mikey, but the table between them is too wide and Gerard just ends up knocking over a stuffed elephant wearing a tattered top hat.

"I knew it was you," Frank says, because now he has to convince Gerard that he does understand, that he can see Gerard for who he really is, that he was just stupid and jealous and scared. "Yesterday, when I came over. I got the package and knew it was you. I mean, I hoped, but I knew, and then when I saw you with Bob…."

"Oh, Frankie," Gerard says, and his face is so open, so frighteningly open and Frank knows once and for all there's nothing going on with Bob, there never was.

"I was an idiot," Frank says. "I wanted so much for it to have been you all along, and so I kind of completely freaked out when…..but it wasn't – " They look at each other for a long time, people jostling by behind Frank, someone even stopping to lift one of Gerard's prints up and look at it. Frank can hardly think, there's just Gerard, looking back at him. "Thanks for the bread creature," he finally says, and Gerard grins and reaches across the table and grabs Frank's hand, and squeezes it hard.

"So," Ray says from behind Frank, and Mikey snorts loudly.

Gerard grins up at Ray, and then at his brother, and then back at Frank, who is still gripping Gerard's hand.

"Do you want to stay?" Gerard says, his eyes wide. The moment is long, still, quiet, and then Gerard gets nervous and his eyes flash from Frank to Ray to Mikey. "I mean, do you all want to stay? Maybe you want to look around at the other artists and there are some snacks over on the other end and - "

Ray shoves Frank's shoulder, but Frank was going anyway, around to the other side of the table, pulling up a folding chair and sitting so close to Gerard that Frank's knees are pressed against Gerard's thigh

There isn't a trace of ink, paint, anything anywhere on Gerard, in his hair, in his fingers, his clothes.

"I didn't think you owned anything this clean," Frank says.

"Those are mine," Mikey says, pointing at Gerard's pants.

"I try to clean up for fairs," Gerard says. "Little old ladies buying stuffed vampire creatures like a cleaned up boy."

"I want to suck on your fingers, they look so clean. I want to see if they taste like soap," Frank leans in and whispers so only Gerard can hear, but Gerard goes completely red and Ray coughs.

"So I think Mikey and I are gonna go," Ray says. "Huh, kid?" He says, and Mikey nods.

"See you at home," Mikey says to Gerard, but then he also looks at Frank and nods again.

"Don't be late tomorrow, Iero," Ray says, already turning to walk off.

The thought of the bakery makes Frank feel dizzy with happiness, and he unconsciously grabs Gerard's knee. He only notices when Gerard's hand covers his. Frank looks and Gerard is smiling, titled-head and lopsided smile.

 

Frank and Gerard sit in silence as customers come by. Frank watches Gerard be utterly charming to customers, enthusiastic, engaging, and he keeps considering it, like a sunrise he can't stop looking at because he can't quite believe it's happening, even though the sky keeps growing brighter. It was Gerard all along.

"How did you - " Frank says, as lines of people pass by. He can't finish the sentence, isn't really sure how to ask anyway.

"How did I know it was you?" Gerard smiles, warm and open. "I know you, Frankie," Gerard says softly, and Frank feels heat rush up his spine, spread over his chest. "Plus, I had Mikey check your address."

Gerard bends forward and kisses Frank's jaw, soft and light, just below his ear, and then gets up and goes to talk to the woman beading at the table to their left.

"So if anyone is looking for me, just give them my card and tell them I'm sorry I couldn't stay." Frank hears it distantly, sees the woman give Gerard a winning smile, nod and shake his hand, and then Gerard is back over behind their table, saying to Frank, "Let me just pack up and we'll go." Gerard fixes Frank with a serious, fiery look, and then leans closer and whispers, "We're going home." Frank feels the spark at the back of his neck, spreading out everywhere.

 

Inside the house, the door is barely closed behind Frank when Gerard grabs his shoulders and kisses him. Their coats rustle together, Gerard's nose icy cold where it bumps Frank's cheek, Frank's fingers burning as they warm up against Gerard's skin.

"Should we – is Mikey -" Frank says, breaking away from Gerard's mouth to kiss his neck.

"I don't care," Gerard says and kisses Frank hard, a hand at the back of his neck, but then he steps back, takes off his jacket. Frank struggles to get his off, rushing and getting his elbow caught, and Gerard takes them both and drapes them across the kitchen chair. Gerard reaches for Frank and kisses him again, then heads toward the stairs, stopping for a moment to look back into the kitchen, pulling Frank close, to whisper, "Coffee?" against his ear. When Frank shakes his head no, shuddering, laughing, Gerard whispers, "No coffee, ok," and Frank thinks he possibly looks a little sad and so Frank takes Gerard's hand and brings it up to his mouth, kissing Gerard's knuckles and then sucking two fingers into his mouth.

Frank thinks of the first time he was here for dinner, the silver dollar pancake, the taste of Gerard's skin. Gerard's eyes go hugely wide and then his head tilts back, against the wall of the hallway, his eyes falling closed.

"Frankie," Gerard murmurs, and Frank kisses his palm, kisses across the back of his hand and then he's the one leading them up the stairs.

"I should have come up here the first time, at Mikey's party," Frank says, though he's not sure Gerard will even understand. "You were so...."

"Yes," Gerard hisses. "I wanted you to, so much. I couldn't stop thinking about you."

Gerard tugs at Frank's neck and pulls him into the bedroom, closing the door behind them. Gerard's hands settle on Frank's hips and then he looks up, licking his bottom lip where Frank's teeth just were. Gerard takes a few steps back and sits down on the bed, and then very slowly leans back, eyes locked on Frank. Frank can hardly contain himself, he's ready to jump on top of Gerard, rip his clothes off, feel Gerard's skin against his, but watching Gerard is better, watching him invite Frank to do all of that, watching him tug his shirt up inch by inch, bending his knees and slowly spreading them wide undoes Frank.

"Jesus Christ," he says, because now Gerard's shirt is pushed up so high Frank can see his ribs, his pale, perfect skin. Gerard is still watching Frank, waiting. He hooks his thumbs under the waist of his pants and then Frank climbs on top of him, clumsy and urgent.

Frank unbuttons Gerard's pants for him, sliding them off first and then lifting Gerard's shirt over his head. Gerard's hands are all over him, tugging at his clothes, and Gerard bites his neck and his earlobe and licks his jaw, sliding his hands down Frank's back, up his bare thighs. Then Frank is flipped on his back and Gerard is the one on top, looking down at him with dark eyes, smiling just before he rocks his hips slowly against Frank's and kisses him, sloppy and hard.

"I haven't been able to stop thinking about these," Gerard says, tracing the tattoos on Frank's neck, his shoulders with light touches, making Frank squirm and buck up against him.

"Fuck, Gerard, Jesus Christ," Frank cries out as Gerard bends and licks, bites, drags his mouth across the designs on Frank's chest.

"There's art all over your body," Gerard murmurs into Frank's collarbone. "What am I supposed to do?" And he leans over to press his mouth to Frank's bicep and the inside of his elbow, across his fingers and then over his stomach.

"This," Frank says breathily, digging his fingers into Gerard's shoulders and arching his back as Gerard's mouth passes over his hipbone. "This is good."

"What about this?" Gerard whispers, pressing his palm over Frank's cock.

"Yes," Frank groans. "Oh god, please."

"What about this?" Gerard whispers against Frank's ear. He slides his cock against the crook of Frank's hip as wraps his fingers tightly around Frank's cock. "Is this good, Frankie?" Gerard's voice is low, his breathing uneven, and he kisses Frank's temple, open-mouthed and wet. "Do you want me to fuck you?"

Frank's cock jerks in Gerard's hand and Frank pulls Gerard close for a messy, needy kiss. "Yes, yes," Frank says brokenly against Gerard's mouth. Frank bucks up as Gerard's fingers brush over the head of his cock as Gerard shifts and reaches for something in the nightstand.

"Are you going to be noisy, Frankie?" Gerard spreads Frank's legs apart, his fingers splayed across the inside of Frank's thighs and stroking the curve of his ass. "Because I've been hoping you're really noisy," Gerard says just before he licks the underside of Frank's cock and presses a finger very slowly inside him.

Frank moans loudly.

"Yes," Gerard laughs richly, "Yes, just like that." Frank moans even louder when Gerard moves two fingers inside, deliberately slow. "You're gorgeous, Frankie, you're so fucking gorgeous." When Frank opens his eyes, Gerard is leaning back on heels, watching him. Their eyes lock and Gerard's fingers curl inside Frank and Frank throws his head back, shouts Gerard's name.

"Yes," Gerard says again, and then he's sliding his fingers out, shifting above Frank, settling his hips between Frank's legs, pressing his cock to Frank's opening. Frank grabs at Gerard, one hand tight in his hair and one hand on Gerard's ass, pulling him closer. "Fuck, Frankie," Gerard groans as he pushes in. He pulls back slowly and then slams forward, kisses Frank hard, and then does it again. Frank sucks at Gerard's neck so hard he's sure he's going to leave a trail of bruises, and the idea of the purple marks against Gerard's pale skin makes Frank groan and suck harder.

"Frankie," Gerard whispers. It sounds desperate and Frank looks up and brushes his fingers across Gerard's cheek.

"Gee," Frank says, lifting his hips up to meet Gerard's thrusts, his fingers trembling as he runs them over Gerard's eyebrows.

"Frankie, I think I love you," Gerard says, and then squeezes his eyes shut, biting his bottom lip. Gerard's hips rock faster, and he digs his fingers hard into Frank's shoulders.

"Oh, god, Gee," Frank gasps, "Look at me. Gerard, look at me." Gerard opens his eyes, and he looks down at Frank, wild and panicky. "Jesus Christ, Gee, I love you, too." Frank's heart is pounding so hard and he can't think, can't even breathe, and he pulls Gerard's mouth down to his and kisses him and Gerard kisses him back, hard and dirty. And then feels Gerard's smile against his lips.

Gerard reaches between them and wraps his fingers around Frank's cock and tries to time the strokes with his thrusts, mostly gets it right, but Frank doesn't care, it all feels so good, Gerard's hips slamming hard against his, Gerard's perfect fingers, lips pressed to Frank's forehead. Frank feels it building forever, in his spine, in his fingertips and it's only when Gerard starts to cry out Frank's name with each short, uneven thrust that Frank spills over the edge, coming against Gerard's stomach. He feels Gerard tense and shudder and collapse heavy against Frank's chest just as Frank's eyes fall closed and before he can stop it, he's asleep.

 

Frank wakes to Gerard shaking his shoulder. "Frank. Frankie!" Frank pushes the blankets out of his face and rolls over, squinting at Gerard.

"I'm right here, Gee, what is it?" Gerard is still shaking his shoulder, and Frank half-heartedly swats him away.

"You need to get up," Gerard says urgently. "The bakery!"

Frank sits bolt upright in bed. "Jesus Christ," he says, fumbling around the floor for his clothes. "What time is it? Do I have time to - " But Gerard is already out of bed, pushing Frank towards the bathroom, opening the linen closet and shoving a clean towel into Frank's hand, turning on the shower.

Frank looks at Gerard, completely naked, pale and shivering, digging his toes into the bathmat. "Are you taking a shower with me?"

Gerard grins, and then leans forward and kisses Frank's neck. "Not if you're going to get to work on time." And then he all but lifts Frank into the shower.

When he steps out, toweling off hurriedly, he sees one of Gerard's clean t-shirts on top of Frank's questionably dirty jeans. When Frank peeks into the bedroom, Gerard is asleep, but downstairs, there's fresh coffee brewed and a box of cereal and a bowl set out for him, with a note under the coffee cup. "Please bring back a loaf of raisin bread," in a speech bubble coming from a drawing of a pile of blankets on the bed.

 

There's been a frost overnight and the grass crunches under Frank's feet as he cuts across the lawn. Frank doesn't even let his car warm up and the engine complains all the way there. He holds his hands over the heaters, alternately blowing on them, running a few red lights because he knows it's too early for anyone to really be on the road. He's somehow, miraculously on time, and catches the door just behind Ray. Ray looks him over, and Frank feels his eyes linger over the t-shirt, which is covered in old paint.

"Everything all right, Frank?" Bob says, coming out of the refrigerator. Bob's face is neutral, but it's clear what's hanging on Frank's answer.

Frank nods, and says, "Yeah, Bob, everything's fine. Thanks," he adds, quickly, and Bob actually laughs, and then Ray says, "So how was your night, Iero?" and Frank flips him off.

Frank brings back a loaf of raisin bread as requested, and a box of cookies which Ray insists he bring for Mikey, and Bob just sort of nods at him on his way out and tells him he'll see him tomorrow, like it's a command, not a friendly goodbye.

 

Frank knocks and Mikey opens the door and immediately spots the box. "Are those cookies?" Frank hands the box to him and Mikey has already shoved two into his mouth before Frank is even all the way in the house. "Tell Ray thanks," Mikey says, taking the box with him back over in front of the computer, where Mikey is typing furiously.

Frank sets the raisin bread on the counter, pours himself a coffee, and sits down at the table. Gerard comes down the stairs a moment later, his hair wet and messy, his face pink from the shower. "Is that raisin bread?" Gerard says in the exact, ecstatic tone as Mikey upon seeing the cookies, and Frank cracks up.

"You did ask me to bring some back," Frank says, and then he really looks at Gerard, who is looking back at him in what Frank is pretty sure is wonder.

"I did," Gerard says softly, and leans down and kisses Frank, his wet hair tickling Frank's face. He then pulls away and pulls out the cutting block and the bread knife, slicing off three pieces of the raisin bread, popping a stray bit of crust into his mouth. Gerard hands a slice to Frank, walks over to bring a slice to Mikey, and then takes a huge bite of his own. "That's it, Mikey," Gerard says around a mouthful of bread. "We're never buying bread from a grocery store again. We're only eating bread from Frankie's bakery."

"Right," Mikey says, turning over his shoulder to grin at Frank for a second before turning back to his computer.

"Right," Gerard says, coming back over and standing behind Frank, first with his hands on Frank's shoulders, and then his arms around Frank, then his lips against Frank's cheek.

Frank takes a bite of his own bread, chews, swallows, and says, "Yeah, I like the sound of that."