Chapter 1: Prologue
Envision it. Now live it.
That slogan had been floating in and out of Frank's mind for days, up to the point where it became annoying. Seeing the monstrous ship for the first time he'd almost broken his neck staring up at it, squinting to read the words printed beneath the name. Envision it. Now live it, the writing said. Since then it had been on his lips and in his thoughts twenty-four seven, refusing to let go. And that wasn't the only thing. He could recite just about everything in the brochures by heart, having leafed through them again and again until he became bleary eyed.
Envision was a pretty new, up and coming company with a medium-sized army of cruise liners. All of these ships and their respective destinations were divided into three main groups: Culture, Adventure and Splendor. The Culture class, with liners such as Continental and Ice, mostly drew the weird combination of elderly retirees and rich students, offering a trip that would teach them something, while at the same time giving them scenery that would look good in their photo albums or Facebook pages. Culture's complete opposite was Adventure. Adventure was a class with smaller ships, however with cool names to weigh up for their size. Inspired by pirates and the like, people always got curious over names like Invasion and Conquest. Their travels offered a great amount of excursions, with a ship looking more like a theme park than a cruise. It didn't take a genius to figure out that families with small children opted for the Adventure class. And last, but nowhere near least, there was Splendor, Envision's flagship class. Their liners were undoubtedly the biggest. Traveling with one of them would also, most likely, prove to become one of your most expensive vacations, ever. Just like the interior and the guests, even the ship names set a certain standard. Names such as Paradise and Glory were mirrored in the waters where these liners roamed.
Envision offered luxury travels to all the exciting parts of the world, which was also more or less their main key to success; they knew what destinations were most likely to be on the to-do lists of wealthy people, and so they made their ships head in these directions, at the same time combining traveling with bucket loads of comfort. That's not how it was said in the brochures, but it was usually the common interpretation.
Envision it. Now live it…given that you have the money.
But then again, Frank was not the one to badmouth his employer. They were the ones who, after all, had given him a job he appreciated greatly. Frank had landed a job in the flagship class, right on the jewel of all the Splendor ships, the newest, the biggest and the best: the Envision Destiny. Thanks to sheer luck. He could hardly believe it himself. Not only was he ten minutes late for the interview, but he'd also forgotten all about taking out his piercings. In addition to this, the bar manager noticed the full sleeve tattoo on his left arm. Who was the one less likely to become Envision material, right there and then? Well, that was Frank Iero.
"Look, kid – I don't care how much metal you wear on your face," the manager had shrugged, surprisingly, when Frank nervously apologized, "as long as you remove them during work hours. Personally, I don't mind them, but you can probably imagine how some of our guests would react. I can see that your hands and knuckles are completely free of tattoos; your uniform will cover the rest. It's not like you're gonna stroll around the ship half naked."
And with that, Frank became 'bar staff', which was the vague title of the job. However, he quickly learned what he was up against. His job was to clean the counter, stack the snack foods, mop the floors… It was just the daily, boring maintenance that was below the actual bartenders. On top of everything he was also surrounded by a great amount of booze he couldn't have any of. But it was still a job. It was a job that would let him travel to places he'd never been, and meet people he probably wouldn't have to deal with for more than a week, tops, and he'd get paid for it. This was a big deal to him, being used to always having problems around to keep him awake at night.
So if the question was, did he want to be bar staff or not, his answer was most definitely a very quick "Yes, please".
Chapter 2: One
A gust of warm wind came diving in from the south, sweeping his dark hair to the side and ruffling it thoroughly. Frank wrinkled his nose, snorting irritably as hair crisscrossed in front of his eyes, making his face itch. He brushed them away, before looking up, helping a gray cloud of cigarette smoke escape for the skies. Taking time for a paranoid moment, he glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one saw him. Then he turned his back against the wind, trying not to get any ashes on his new uniform. He stared down at the constantly growing mass of tourists eagerly waiting to board the luxury cruise.
Look what you've gotten yourself into, Frank, he thought, grabbing hold of the cold railing as a sudden surge of uneasy excitement filled his stomach, making him feel sick. Jesus. They're so fucking many.
Frank took another drag of his cigarette, trying to chase the nausea away but not quite able to rid himself of all of it. Who were all these damn people, apart from all of them being beautiful and rich? He found himself wondering what their expectations were, their intentions and secrets, beyond their great, flexible safety net of money. Glancing down again, he spotted some families among the distant faces, families with fighting teenage sons and daughters, their parents – Louis Vuitton-loving mothers and Blackberry-addicted fathers – not lifting a finger to stop them. He leaned against the railing. He'd noticed that most of them were couples. Some couples were madly, almost embarrassingly, in love, while others were obviously struggling with their relationship, trapped in their own, private arguments. He figured they might be boarding the ship in hopes of sorting things out – or maybe make things even worse. There were elderly couples, married for years, acting like their spouse was some natural extension of themselves. There were couples who were just starting out, being all awkward and almost polite to each other, and there were couples who were so blatantly obvious in their age difference it was almost disgusting to watch. Husbands and wives, lovers and mistresses. Yeah, they were all there. Frank realized now that 'tourists' wasn't the right word to describe them; none of them did even come close to get classified as a tourist. They were guests. They also had another thing in common. All of them were aiming for a memorable vacation, some fun and games; a little summer adventure. Maybe some of them were running away, seeking refuge, even if it was just for a week.
Eventually, the wide, open sea drew his attention. The dark blue surface stretched out before him, letting its waves roll around in the late morning sun. It was shimmering temptingly, just lying there waiting. He was running away too. He'd turned twenty-three and as though it was pre-programmed to go downhill from there, his life suddenly dove into a hole, a hole with walls threatening to cave in on him.
In other words, things had pretty much slowed down now, if they were moving at all, and problems seemed to be queuing up outside his door; once he'd managed to kick one of them out on the street, there was another bastard sneaking in behind his back. He was always in trouble. Life was never meant to be easy, but hell, at least it could be manageable. He didn't need this life. He didn't want it. Frank was, as he used to say, twenty-fucking-three. It was too early in life to be tired of it. What he wanted was something completely unexpected, something that would make things take a serious turn for the better. He wanted a good, long break from the rest of the world, a break he could return to and do all over again.
The perfect solution came to him in the shape of a job ad; cruise ship seeking bar staff. Not allowing any second thoughts or room for a change of heart, he applied for it right away. And now, about to head out on his first eight day trip to the Eastern Caribbean, Frank knew that when you were running away, nothing was as perfect as being stuck in the middle of the ocean where no one could reach you.
Inhaling again, before letting another mass of silvery gray smoke escape his lips, he raised a hand to the black bow tie at his neck, tracing the stiff fabric with his fingers. All the unnecessary tension finally released him and he smiled a little. Freedom. For now, at least.
"Frank! I have been looking all over for you!"
The high-pitched, eardrum bursting voice was followed by a sharp tap aimed at his left shoulder. Frank jumped involuntarily, almost dropping his cigarette in surprise. Spinning around, he found himself staring into the desperate, comically light red face of a young woman, whose blond curls had started to come loose from its ponytail, making her look like she had been running and running fast.
"In case you haven’t noticed," she half-whispered, half-squealed, "people will be boarding any minute now, and when they do, you're supposed to be in the lounge, at the bar, with me! And instead you're up here smoking? You're not even allowed to smoke here, I've been through this with you already!"
Frank's hands flew up, as though he physically tried to shield himself from the flow of words coming straight at him. Nodding apologetically, he raised his eyebrows timidly at her; she was furious and out of breath.
"Jill, I know, I know, just calm down. Look –" he held his unfinished cigarette up and flicked it – not without regrets – over the railing, where it immediately dropped and spiraled towards the water far below them, "– it's gone now. I'm sorry, but I was nervous, I just had to prepare myself."
"I thought I'd given you all the preparations you needed!" Jill exclaimed, her eyes wide with horror, immediately fearing that she'd overlooked something crucial in his training.
"And you have!" Frank replied hurriedly, again making an attempt at eliminating the hysteria from her voice. "You have, don't worry. I just needed the cigarette and then I lost track of time, okay? No harm done."
"Not this time, no," she muttered irritably, reaching forward to straighten his bow tie and brush away imaginative dust from his waistcoat. "I know the bar manager is a cool guy and all but if he sees you like this it's still my responsibility, and you know I might not be able to vouch for you, I've worked for far too hard to get the bartender promotion and –"
"Look," he laughed, grabbing her fidgeting hands and holding them still, "I'm sorry and it won't happen again. I'm all yours, boss me around as much as you fucking like."
"Please watch your language in the bar, Frank," she murmured, dragging him along. "Come on."
Chapter 3: Two
In his mind, before he fell asleep, Frank used to walk the ship over and over again. In his thoughts he'd passed the ship's rooms and highlights a thousand times, and he didn't do it so much for his own pleasure than for the necessity of it. He knew a guest would approach him at some point and ask him where they could find this lounge or that bar, and it was required he knew the answer; even his contract stated it. Employees must always assume that the guests don't know shit about the deck plans. Of course, that wasn't how it was written but at least that's how Frank had understood that part.
He was doing pretty good so far; he knew his way around the top deck delights, such as the swimming pool and The EnVISION Cinema, and he was familiar with the shops on the promenade, but the real challenge was telling all the bars apart, because there were so many of them, and each of them were attractive and fantastic in their own ways, such as the bar in the casino, The Green Diamond. Frank hoped they would be working there soon; he'd always wanted to see how a casino looked like from a bartender's point of view, and if it was anything like the movies.
Then there were The DropKick Disco, The Late Hour Dance Club, The All In Sports Bar and the great blue and purple atrium, The Sparkle – all of these locations had bars Frank was itching to have a closer look at. He'd only seen them, but never actually found himself in one of them, and there was huge difference between watching a bar from afar and actually being able to run his hand over the counter. He wanted to be there, to feel the atmosphere specific to each and every one of them.
Still, he was pretty sure his place for now would be at The Colossus, the main show room, in which they found themselves this early afternoon. Frank didn't mind being here; just the lounge was an attraction in itself, with its details in glittering gold and purple. He wondered what kind of performers would be standing on the show room stage, what their acts were, what they could dazzle their audience with, and if it was possible he could get away and watch any of it.
He was torn out of his daydreaming as the wine glass he was polishing suddenly slipped out of his hands and shattered into a thousand pieces as it met the floor. Frank ran his hands through his hair, staring at the shards scattered at his feet, feeling a little defeated. This was his second glass for the day, which made out seven in total, added the ones he'd broken the day before.
"Seriously, am I ever gonna stop dropping these?"
Save for the staff, the lounge was still completely empty, but the evening show was getting closer by the hour, and everything had to be ready until then. Frank was glad that no guests were around.
"It's your second day at work," Jill said encouragingly, having calmed down entirely after yesterday's stressful start, "and everyone has butterfingers in the beginning. Trust me, I was in your shoes once. You'll get into it."
"Easy for you to say, you're a bartender now," he muttered, scowling as he grabbed the dust pan, sweeping the fractured glass off the floor. They hit the plastic with a light and tingling sound. "Besides, you've been doing this forever, so you don't really count."
That was not very far from the truth. Jill had been taught bartending firsthand by her father, and already at seventeen she was considered a pretty talented drink mixer. After she'd spent some time doing bartending competitions – and winning most of them – she'd turned her attention to the cruise ship business. She'd been working on various ships from the age of nineteen, and already at twenty-two she got a regular job in the bars at the Envision Destiny. Since then she hadn't looked back once. Her promotion to bartender wasn't even a year old, but despite her young age, her skills made it look like she'd been tending bars for decades. Frank had tried to talk her into showing him a couple of bartending tricks, he'd heard she was pretty darn good at them, but she modestly declined, saying that stuff like that wasn't considered appropriate in this place.
"Well, I bet two days from now, you won't drop a single glass, ever again," she laughed. "The best cure for butterfingers is to just get out there with a tray full of drinks and make sure you don't spill on anyone. Sounds nerve wrecking, yes, but it works every single time."
Frank smiled wryly, looking down at the dust pan full of wine glass remains. "Thanks for actually allowing me behind the bar," he said. "I know this isn't really my place, so I appreciate it."
"Sure," she shrugged, "no problem. You're my trainee so it's my call, right? I think it would be a shame if being a busboy is the first thing you'll associate with working on a cruise ship. And who knows, six months from now you might be standing right here, mixing drinks."
"Well, your future premonition looks pretty bad at the moment,” he joked, "seeing as I can't even hold a fucking glass without breaking it. When it comes to wasted glassware, I'm gonna be indebted to this ship forever."
"Alright, then I know exactly what you can do," Jill replied, raising an eyebrow at him, "and it's impossible to get it wrong. You can go in there –" she jabbed her thumb in direction of the show room, "– and make sure that every table has a new candlelight."
The Colossus itself was quite a gigantic room, with a high roof giving the illusion of being shaped like a dome. The banisters along the carpeted stairs and in front of the second-rate seats were clad in a shimmering, gold imitation, while crimson and purple were the two main colors running throughout the entire design. The gallery surrounding the room was high-raised and richly decorated, and when looking up at the purple roof, an impressive crystal chandelier adding the extra luxury touch, you got the overwhelming feeling of finding yourself right in the middle of a royal theatre. As he made his way to the front seats, he glanced at the heavy, deep red curtains and wondered what kind of act the guests could look forward to that night.
Frank quickly finished his task and headed back to the lounge, making a mental note about the two tables that didn't have any candles.
"Getting the bar ready just for me, honey?"
The sound of the unfamiliar voice made him stop dead in his tracks. He didn't know exactly what held him back but for some reason he decided to linger there by the door, concealed by a huge indoor palm tree. A man was leaning against the counter, talking to Jill. His hair was black and ruffled, and he was wearing a slightly worn leather jacket and black, faded jeans, which were almost torn to shreds at the knees. Frank couldn't see his face, but he frowned at the newcomer, thinking that this weird stranger was not a typical regular on a luxury cruise. For a moment he considered joining them, in case he was somebody unwanted looking for trouble, but he quickly changed his mind. It was something in the way he talked to Jill, suggesting that they'd talked before. Frank searched his mind but couldn’t place the man anywhere. He sure wasn't staff; of that much he was sure. Yet at the same time, he certainly didn't look like a guest.
"How are you, Jill?" the mystery man asked. His voice was a soft drawl and he spoke as if he was bored, as if this place wasn't even worth considering as being fun.
"I'm good, thanks," she replied, and Frank noticed, slightly surprised, that two blushing roses had unfolded on her cheeks.
"Say…" he continued, "did anyone tip you today?"
"Not yet, no –"
Interrupting her abruptly, he reached forward in a smooth and curious movement, as though he'd seen something only he could see, and was now trying to catch it. His hand was close to Jill's ear, and suddenly a ten dollar bill had appeared in his hand, seemingly something he'd just snatched out of thin air. He gave it to her, and her face instantly turned a much darker shade of red.
"Well, now you have," he shrugged, as if what he'd just done was something everyone did on a daily basis, no big deal. "Just reminding you about my usual Manhattan, sweetheart; you know how I like it. Can you get that delivered to my suite a couple of hours or so before I'm on?"
"Yeah, uhm," Jill stuttered, sounding slightly out of breath, "two cherries instead of one, right? Yeah. Sure. Uh-huh. No problem." She nodded eagerly.
"Good girl," he replied, a slight smile in his voice. "Thanks."
The man strolled out of the lounge and Frank withdrew one more inch into the shadows. He caught a quick glimpse of his face. He had to be in his late or mid-twenties, and it didn't take very long for him to just state, once and for all, that he was obviously very handsome. At the same time he looked as though he was, in fact, feeling just as bored as he had sounded, maybe even more so. He put on a pair of sunglasses and disappeared around the corner.
"Who was that?" he asked, once he felt it was safe to leave the shadows of the palm tree and walk back to the bar.
"Who was who?" Jill murmured absently, fidgeting unnecessarily with the ice, looking flushed. "Oh, you mean Gerard?"
He couldn't help but laugh a little. That was unexpected; he didn't look like a Gerard. That was probably the last name he would have guessed. Frank made another attempt at placing the name somewhere, to attach it to someone's face, but he still had no idea.
"Yeah, Gerard Way. He's a magician – or, well, an illusionist. Award-winning and all. He used to do his own shows in Vegas and stuff before he got hired by this company. His magic show is actually one of the most popular acts this cruise has ever had, he draws a considerable amount of the guests. Huge Envision celebrity, that one."
Now it became obvious how the money could appear so curiously out of thin air. Of course. Frank guessed it was quite a cute trick… if you wanted to impress the ladies. He didn't exactly consider it a trick worth an award. Now that he thought about it, he had seen his name and picture spread out somewhere in the ship’s brochure, he just hadn't paid it any extra attention, he'd been too caught up with memorizing the location of the bars. Thoughts of the leather wearing magician swirled around in his mind, and he recalled how he'd been hanging there by the bar with his drawling voice and slightly unkempt looks. Frank's eyebrows were already way ahead of his thinking, the frown between his eyes confirming the disapproval. Gerard seemed to be placed so far away from the preconceived stereotype of a magician; somehow he just didn't fit the schema. Frank had most definitely never been the one to judge anyone, seeing as he'd gotten judged quite a lot himself over the years, but everything about this guy was screaming arrogance. Many people could be arrogant, but this one was aware of it; he was aware of it and he embraced it. Good looks on top of everything just made matters worse. Frank scowled. He hated that kind of people.
"Is that so?" he said, failing miserably at concealing the scorn. "I've never heard of the guy anyway. What's the name of his show? The Great Gerardo?"
"No," Jill laughed, apparently oblivious to the tone in his voice, "it's nothing like that. It's not like he does children's birthday parties."
"Well, he seems like an asshole to me," he blurted out, not able to keep it to himself.
"Yeah… To be honest, you're not the first one to think that, he comes off like that to many people. I think it's just a part of his image actually. It's one of the things that makes him so popular, you know; to our guests he’s very intriguing, like he's from a completely different world." She shrugged. "But what do I know? Maybe he's just being an asshole – period."
"You have a thing for him?"
"Oh, no. Good fucking heavens no," she replied quickly, with a little more feeling and a little less giggling. "I like him, I do, but not like that. Rumor has it that he sleeps around with just about anyone, and I'm pretty sure that’s not very far from the truth. Huge turn-off if you ask me. He always makes me blush like crazy though, I don't know why."
That same afternoon, around five o'clock, the leather wearing magician unexpectedly came back.
"Change of plans, Jillian," he said casually. "I'm expecting company, so I'll need a Cosmo to go with that Manhattan. Any Cosmo, whatever you recommend. Just make it tasty, alright?"
He slammed his hand on the counter, as though it was a final, automatic act to complete his order. Frank, who was lining up highball glasses and focusing intently on his task, trying hard not to break any of them, was standing right beside him. He was brutally startled by Gerard's sudden action. His hand jerked, two glasses accidentally clanked together, and voila; one of them exploded, sending a shower of glittering pieces straight into the midst of ice cubes.
He opened his mouth to apologize, his face blushing with embarrassment and frustration.
"It's okay, Frank," Jill said hurriedly, cutting him off. She was almost, but not quite, able to hide the exasperation in her voice. "Glass shatters like that all the time, it's mechanical shock. We'll just throw away all of this ice and get a new batch, okay, there's plenty on storage."
A chuckle reached Frank's ears, and he looked up, his face instantly turning red-hot with humiliation. Gerard was leaning against the counter, his chin resting in his hand, his hazel eyes glittering with utter amusement.
"So, Jill," he said, shaking his head in mock disapproval, his lips twisting into a jeering smile, "who is this newbie you're struggling with?"
Frank noticed, despite the sudden flow of irritation filling him up, that the guy showed a tendency to speak out of one corner of his mouth, the right side of his lower lip slightly pulling itself down at certain words. However the whole thing looked like a completely unconscious, normal act. He found himself staring at his lips and quickly withdrew his gaze before Gerard realized what he was doing. Quirks. Damn them. Frank couldn't help but notice things like that, he always did.
He scowled, feeling how his jaw clenched immediately and how his hand balled itself into a fist around the handle of the dust pan, making it tremble slightly. He was furious – furious with himself and furious with Gerard, whom had so boldly decided it was perfectly okay to just stand there and make fun of him.
"Be nice, Gerard," Jill said to him, not quite able to hold back a smile as she removed all of the useless ice. "Please. It's only his second day."
"Oh, really?" he replied, faking the surprise in his voice. "He's just made of so much win, I honestly couldn't tell."
"Gerard!" she exclaimed, slightly shocked by his retort. "You don't have to be mean to him!" She sent him an insistent glare.
Gerard just gave her a wry half-smile in response, leaning over the counter and squinting to see what was written on Frank's name tag.
"Frank," he said, deliberately getting caught up in the first couple of letters, slowly pronouncing his name as Ffffffrrrrankkk. "Nah, you're way too young to be a Frank. You don't mind if I call you Frankie, do you?" he asked, raising his eyebrows questioningly, still with that wry smile on his face, as though he was truly enjoying making him uncomfortable, which was probably true. "It just suits you better."
Frank couldn't bring himself to answer. He was afraid that if he opened his mouth, he'd say something the guy would mercilessly swoop down upon and twist to his own enjoyment. Instead he gave him another quick scowl and kept brushing pieces of glass onto the dust pan.
"Okay, I'll take that as a yes," Gerard shrugged, ignoring his glare. "Clumsy and mute, that's very cute. Good luck with this one, Jill… Now don't you forget my drinks," he added, as he was finally walking away. "See ya, Frankie," he chuckled and disappeared out of the lounge.
"I'm sorry," Jill said earnestly when he was gone, patting his shoulder timidly, "but please don't take it personally. Every once in a while a staff member gets a taste of that; he's the only one who thinks it's hilarious."
"It's not your fault," Frank muttered in reply, returning to his unfinished task of lining up glasses. "It just proves that he's a fucking asshole."
Chapter 4: Three
Already at half past seven the lounge was starting to fill up with guests. Jill had already mixed Gerard's two requested drinks and had them sent off to his suite. If the rumor was true he probably had some chick with him, enjoying a few pre-show perks. Once again Frank found himself frowning at the thought of him.
Only minutes after his last, unpleasant visit, two waiters arrived carrying a large cardboard poster. Carefully, they propped it up by the entrance of The Colossus, making sure it was wiped clean of all smudges and fingerprints.
The text printed on it was in gold letters, looking bold and glossy.
Envision Destiny proudly presents: Gerard Way - Envision the Magic.
The words were however only a small, shimmering addition to the photo, which showed Gerard himself, wearing a stiff-collared white shirt, a black tie and a deep crimson, embroidered vest. With eyes sparkling, almost supernaturally, he was directing a true magician's stare at the lens, flaunting a wry, secretive smile, one eyebrow cocked into a perfect arch. Bright red playing cards seemed to be flying, almost magically, from one of his hands and into the other, creating a wide step-by-step bridge between his fingers and his open palm.
While doing the risky business of shining glasses and keeping himself out of the way, Frank felt his eyes repeatedly dart back to the poster by the door. He couldn't make up his mind on whether he thought the photo was cool or just lame. It didn't come as a big surprise that now, during the intermission, several of the guests - and especially the ladies - hurried to crowd admiringly around it, drinks in their hands and discussing eagerly among themselves. Frank hoped intently that "The Great Gerardo" wouldn't show up as well; he would for sure be the kind of guy who just couldn't help but bask in their admiration and then brag about how all these people were there because of him.
Of course, once that particular thought escaped him, he should have knocked on wood.
"Mr. Way! What an amazing show!"
"Your act just keeps getting better and better!"
"I went to see you perform in Vegas last year! I'm a big fan of yours!"
Those words, along with all the surprised gasps and exclamations, made Frank look up in slight panic, and when he spotted him greet his crowd of admirers with a wide smile, he quickly put away the tray of cocktail glasses he was supposed to chill and prepare.
"Show's not over yet, ladies and gentlemen," Gerard said, putting up a very convincing 'there, there'-face. "I have several tricks up my sleeve," he added, and the crowd replied with appreciative laughter.
Frank rolled his eyes, annoyed.
Different variations of "I can't believe he's joining his audience in the lounge!" and "He's so down to earth!" followed the man like a trail as he made his way towards the bar. He looked as though he had stepped right out of the show poster, with his glowingly white shirt, crimson, embroidered vest and creased, black trousers. His hair was just as ruffled as it had been earlier that afternoon, but it suited him well, creating an unexpected contrast that matched perfectly against the flawlessness of his outfit. Frank couldn't help but admit to himself, reluctant and almost jealous, that he was ridiculously good looking.
For a moment Gerard reminded him of back when he started to realize that girls didn't really attract him anymore. He'd spent one random, absolutely crazy night with a guy whose looks could have floored anyone and after that he'd spent ages trying to find a girl who could match any of that. That search had been fruitless, and from then on Frank had the tendency of sticking to the guys. Right now he was having the same feeling he'd had that crazy night, experiencing that mental blow your gut receives once you see someone you know you can't keep from staring at. Gerard was exactly that kind of man, and tonight he'd enhanced his features by displaying the look of a true gentleman, as though he'd been snatched right out of that era – until he opened his mouth to speak.
"Stare any longer, Frankie, and I guess I'll just have to surrender and feel flattered."
He cursed quietly in his mind, knowing damn well he'd been staring. His ears started burning, the sensation spreading to the rest of his face within seconds. "Sorry, but I don't flatter," he replied, grabbing a clean towel and busying himself with the already spotless glassware.
"There's a first time for everything," Gerard shrugged, "and I understand. I would have picked me too."
His eyes left Frank's blushing face. Then, as an afterthought, his eyes narrowed, and when he noticed the corners of his mouth twitch slightly, he knew he was in for another witty comment. Gerard signaled one of the bartenders, making a large, loud number out of ordering his drink.
"Hey, d'you know how to make one of those Red Dwarf cocktails? Yeah? Awesome, I'll have one. I think the one standing behind the bar here is starting to feel a little lonely."
Right before he disappeared back into the show room, he lifted his glass towards him and winked.
Ha-ha, Frank thought, very fucking funny.
He clutched the towel in his hand, knuckles whitening, and closed his eyes momentarily, fuming with embarrassment and rage. Count to ten, damnit. What had he ever done to deserve this treatment? He hoped it was just a fucked up cruise-version of hell week, where a popular and admired big shot was just testing to see if the freshman would be strong enough to handle the terror. Frank convinced himself that once he wasn't considered a rookie anymore, Gerard would stop picking on him. He wasn't the only one, Jill had said so.
When the intermission was over and the lobby emptied, people finding back to their seats for part two of the show, Jill poured up three old-fashioned glasses with whiskey and placed them on a silver tray.
"This tray is yours," she said to Frank, grabbing him by the arm and nodding towards the drinks on the counter. "Now, this is a job for the waiters, and I know you're not one, but usually we're always a little short on people. Bar staffers help them out once in a while, and eventually you're gonna have to do it too."
Frank stared at her, wide-eyed, when he realized what she was saying. "No," he swallowed, terrified, shaking his head frantically, "No, Jill, not yet –"
"I'm serious about ridding you of those butterfingers, Frank," she interrupted him sternly. "Trust me, you'll just have to do it, and better to start now than keep postponing. This is typically safe glassware; there are no stems or anything to worry about. Besides, the guests who ordered these are in second-rate seats, you won't have to go that far. Table seven in the mid-section; you know how to tell the tables apart. Now go! They're waiting!"
Staring into Jill's determined face, Frank knew he didn't have much of a choice, no matter how good his puppy eyes were. Besides, she was right. If he was ever to stop breaking glasses and, more importantly, keep his job, he would have to do this. Just get it over with. He carefully grabbed the tray, the ice cubes clinking against the glass as his hands shook slightly, and made his way towards the Colossus with butterflies churning in his stomach.
Save for the discreet lamps along the walls and the candle lights on the tables, looking much like tiny lanterns floating eerily in the air, the Colossus was quite dimmed, which was inconvenient when being a novice. With his teeth clenched tightly together he made his way down the carpeted steps, carefully avoiding the banisters and balancing the tray in front of himself as though he was carrying something ridiculously valuable. The show music stopped momentarily and as the applause erupted around him he was glad he'd managed to mentally prepare himself for that. Gerard had started talking, his magnified voice echoing throughout the lounge, chattering away about how good, old card tricks never got out of style, although he would make sure he'd throw some flames in and make himself disappear and reappear a couple of times before the night was over, so no one needed to worry about getting bored. The audience laughed. Frank didn't dare looking away from his tray, but the corners of his eyes couldn't escape the large screen displayed on the far left side of the stage, on which he could see flashes of sharp close-ups of Gerard's pale face and hands. He forced himself to shut all of it out, concentrating on finding the right table, something he would have managed perfectly hadn’t it been for the clever magician.
"Oh, look!" he exclaimed loudly, and Frank felt his body twitch in sheer surprise. "That's Frankie, ladies and gentlemen, and he's new here on the Envision Destiny!"
Suddenly, Frank realized that the spotlight came tearing down upon him, the bright light blinding him completely, and in a few, brief flashes he could see his own, horrified face on the screen. He was already brought slightly out of balance, and before he knew it he staggered, feeling the tray slip gallantly off his sweaty palms. As though he was making a fool out of himself in slow motion, he knew exactly where this was going. Frank could only watch, mortified, as the tray headed resolutely for the carpet, the glasses almost suspended in mid-air, the golden liquids splashing merrily into the open. Then everything fell back into normal pace and all of it crashed to the ground. The silver tray created a terrible metallic sound as it clanked against the edge of a table, and the glasses, too small and compact to break on the soft carpet, landed with a couple of dull thuds and rolled off into the dark forest of feet, gowns and chairs.
All eyes were suddenly on him. A surge of whispers went through the crowd, mixed with giggles and annoyed outbursts. He stood there, paralyzed, when he heard someone laugh. It was Gerard.
"Awww," he said in mock sympathy, "that's such a common rookie mistake. You know what, guys? I feel bad. This was my fault, so I think I should go help him, don't you agree?"
The audience replied by giving him a concurring cheer, followed by scattered applause and laughter.
Oh, no, Frank prayed desperately, a threatening feeling of sickness welling up in his throat as he saw the man sprint up the stairs towards him. No. Nonononono. Please don’t come up here, please.
Like a great, multiple headed monster the audience followed him with their eyes, turning simultaneously in their seats while craning their necks, looking both intrigued and amused, clearly wondering if this was staged or not.
Before Frank had even considered getting to it, Gerard gave the fallen tray a light, elegant flick with the tip of his dark polished shoe, sending it spinning up in the air, before he caught it effortlessly with his right hand. Of course.
"Here you go, Frankie," he said, beaming as he pushed the tray into his hands.
Up close like that he could see droplets of sweat breaking through his mask of stage makeup, and tiny black fragments of eyeliner-remains clinging to the skin beneath his eyes. He even noticed how a thin streak of makeup on his cheek had been worn off right beneath his small, wireless microphone. He was also vaguely aware of the fact that he could see both of them on the screen, the camera having followed Gerard’s every move. While Frank's back was swaying, as though he just wanted to get the hell out of there as soon as possible, Gerard almost looked like he was about to pounce. As he started backing away, the magician's skilled hands proved to be far too quick for him.
"Oh, but what's this?" he said in surprise, suddenly reaching out and pulling a card out of Frank's sleeve; he could even feel it slip slightly off his skin. He had no idea how it had ended up there. Gerard clicked his tongue in mock disapproval as the audience laughed and clapped.
"You're stealing cards from me, Frankie. You're sabotaging my tricks. I know I shouldn't tip you…" he paused and reached out, his fingers lightly grazing his hair, and soon a five-dollar bill was between his fingers, "…but there you go," he smiled, stuffing the money into Frank's breast pocket, patting it lightly.
"Frankie, ladies and gentlemen, a very good sport! Give him a round of applause," he commanded the audience, who responded immediately, cheering and clapping.
Without another glance he jogged lightly down the stairs and left him standing there, looking stupid with the empty tray in his limp hand. Back on stage his face looked instantly bright white in the spotlight.
"Let's just hope he doesn't do that during all shows," he grinned, clapping his hands together. "I don't think unexpected glassware expenses are what the company wants to spend their money on."
That finally triggered some movement in Frank's legs. With his head burning hot he turned sharply on his heel and walked quickly out of there, determinately avoiding the amused stares. Laughter and applause followed him all the way until he was back in the lounge. He stopped, wiped his forehead with his sleeve, and threw the glossy show poster a nasty glare.
Chapter 5: Four
"Okay, don't worry, Frank," Jill said to him at the beginning of their next shift, "you won't have to serve anyone any drinks today."
They were behind the little bar in the lounge outside the dining room this time, and at this early hour there were hardly any guests around. Frank could still feel himself blush with burning embarrassment as he was reminded of last night's horrible event. Jill hadn't been able to stop laughing for several minutes straight when he came back with his empty tray and told her what had happened. By the time Frank reached the part where Gerard had pulled a card out of his sleeve and pretty much accused him of stealing it, tears were streaming down her face. Now she couldn't help but start giggling again.
"Oh, I'm sorry for laughing at you," she grinned, a slight apologetic look upon her face, "I just... I can’t believe he’d do that!"
"Yeah, well, you better believe it," he scowled, fully aware of how his hands automatically clenched and unclenched into fists at the mere thought of the man. He hoped intently that he'd be spared having to deal with him today; he better have something else he could waste his time on rather than constantly bugging him.
"I'm sorry," Jill repeated, "this was really all my fault. I think I might have challenged you with that tray a little too soon. The best thing to do would have been to send you out there during a different show, but I had no idea at all that he would do something like that."
Frank waved his hand at her, shaking his head.
"Nah, don't worry about it. Like you said, you had no idea. And I appreciate that you want to teach me stuff, Jill, thank you. Eventually I'll get the hang of it too, just…well, maybe not today." He let out a frustrated moan, not able to hold back a shudder. "Jesus. This is gonna haunt me for the rest of this trip."
"Hey, don't let Gerard get to you too much, Frank," Jill smiled, patting his shoulder lightly. "I've told you; he always singles out someone to be mean to, and eventually he'll get bored and stop. Although I must admit that I haven't seen him pick on someone as much as he picks on you."
"Oh wow, that's great. I feel really special now," Frank muttered, his voice seething with sarcasm.
"Okay, enough talk about evil magicians," she said jokingly, throwing him a white cloth. "Get to work. I promise you'll just have to help me prepare this bar."
Frank snatched the cloth with a grin and grabbed a clean whisky glass.
"That's actually not a bad idea," he said, enjoying the dry, squeaky noises the fabric made against the shiny glass. "I have hundreds of these to get sparkling like diamonds today, without leaving my own fingerprints on it; I’d like to see you do that without my help."
Jill pulled a face at him, before she quickly exchanged it with a slight, polite smile. Frank looked up and saw that the first guests had started to show up, heading for the dining room and their breakfast. She nodded a welcome at them as they passed the bar.
According to the itinerary the ship would be arriving at Nassau, Bahamas at eight AM sharp, which was only an hour away according to Frank's wristwatch. This was a chance for the cruise guests to go ashore and do some exploring. He hadn't looked too closely at the activities but he knew there were lots of different adventures waiting for them, such as pirate museums, shopping possibilities, beaches, private islands and reef snorkeling, amongst other things, so there was definitely something to do for everyone. You couldn't possibly get bored on a shore excursion. Frank was undeniably a little jealous and wished he could go ashore as well, but he knew he wouldn't be able to get away.
Jill reached for a cloth of her own, giving the already shiny and spotless counter another thorough wipe, before she looked at him sternly, as though she wanted a serious answer from him.
"So," she began, "how do you like it here so far? Honestly?"
"So far…" he said, pretending to give it a long consideration, "so far I love it," he concluded earnestly.
He did love it. He loved waking up in the morning to the sound of waves against the porthole; it was exhilarating to wake up like that, to know that you had been on the move even though you had been sleeping. If the sea was a little rough at night he actually appreciated it; you could hardly even feel it on a ship as big as this one, but in its own way it was incredibly calming to just lie there in your bunk and feel the ground move. He didn't think there was anything frightening about the fact that there was nothing underneath this ship that you could actually walk on, unless you counted the bottom of the sea, miles beneath them. He wasn't afraid when he heard the splash of water and the faint hum of engines and realized that they were surprisingly close to his bunk. He didn't even mind sharing his tiny quarters with two other complete strangers either; he hadn't worked with either of them but they seemed nice. Besides, they appeared to be just as inexperienced in the cruise business as he was.
"I actually didn't think I'd like it this much," he continued, smiling thoughtfully, "and I've only been here for three days. I kinda feel at home here, you know. Maybe I can even do this on a more permanent basis, we'll see."
"That's good, I'm glad to hear that," Jill nodded, looking like she was genuinely happy for him. "You know, when I first started out and ended up here I couldn't even picture myself working somewhere else – and that was after only a couple of weeks. I didn't care about the newbie quarters or the simple staff meals because I knew I could make a career out of sticking with Envision. And you definitely get sucked in once you've set your foot on the Destiny. You just wanna stay."
"Yeah, it's just…Destiny?" Frank suggested jokingly.
"It's definitely Destiny!" She paused for a couple of seconds. "Okay, this might sound a little lame but I hope I can meet a guy here someday, maybe even someone I can marry in the future. I don't know. That would fit this whole Destiny thing pretty well too."
"Hey, that's not impossible at all when you think of it," he answered, reaching under the counter to find the peanut bowls, "I mean, if you've decided to stay on this ship it's bound to happen, right? There's a variety of guests here, looks like they come in all shapes and sizes."
"And what shape and size do you prefer, Frankie?" a voice behind him suddenly asked.
Frank didn't have to turn around to get a clear view of Gerard's smirk and mischievous eyes; the unwelcome image had already popped up in his head. He could feel those eyes burning into his neck right now. His shoulders immediately grew tense as irritation welled up in him, and he took a deep breath before he turned around to face him.
He was right; Gerard was leaning casually against the counter, looking no less than his same, arrogant self, except the fancy outfit from last night had been replaced with a couple of grey jeans and a black t-shirt with a print on it that appeared to be the face of Bela Lugosi.
"Can I get you something, Gerard?" Jill asked with a smile, shooting Frank a quick glance of warning when she noticed that he had opened his mouth to reply; better to shut up and not give him anything for free.
"Just a coffee to go, honey," he replied. "I can't stick around. I know; it's a shame. Oh, and I see you didn't break anything in my presence today," he noted, smirking at Frank. "Kudos."
Frank narrowed his eyes slightly at him and grabbed another glass, determined to demonstrate that he wouldn't allow this guy to make him feel clumsy and dumb.
A young, very attractive woman approached the bar in that moment, smiling at Gerard, who finally took his attention away from Frank and turned to face her. They'd obviously met before, one way or another.
"Hi, Gerard," she said, her voice sugary sweet as she flicked her long, brown hair over her bare shoulder. A typical and predictable move.
"Hi yourself," Gerard replied casually.
Frank noticed how his face still hadn't rid itself of that smug look. Not that it seemed like he could; it seemed to cling to him permanently. Maybe some women found that charming; Frank didn't know.
"You're going ashore, right?"
"Mhm," the girl nodded.
Gerard raised his eyebrows at her. "Hold on, you've got something there…"
He reached out towards her left ear, quickly and smoothly, just like he'd done to Jill that time at The Colossus, and soon a shiny golden coin had materialized itself between his fingers. It was such an old and simple trick but the girl giggled nonetheless, apparently floored by what she had just witnessed. The magician put the coin in her hand.
"Keep it," he said. "If you look closely at it you'll see a number there. Just call that number when you get ashore, okay?"
"Okay," she said brightly. "Later, Gerard."
She walked away, and with one last glance over her shoulder she disappeared into the dining room.
"I can't believe you still use those coins," Jill said, shaking her head as she pushed his hot coffee towards him. "Aren't they getting a bit old?"
"Why?" Gerard asked with a shrug. "I have a whole bunch of them lying around. It's easier than writing my number down on a napkin. Besides I only give out my coins to those who really deserve it and she definitely deserved to get coined. She's not as innocent as she looks, that one. Dense, maybe, she might even be prone to spend it actually, but I guess you can't always have it all…"
Frank could have puked in his mouth; he couldn't believe how disgustingly sure this guy was of himself. He really believed one hundred percent that he was some kind of wonderful gift to women, maybe even God's gift. At least he carried custom made coins in his pockets to prove it.
"Which reminds me…" he said suddenly, staring at Frank with a strange, curious look, causing Frank to freeze on the spot. What could he possibly have in store for him this time?
Without another word Gerard reached out across the counter and his fingers grazed his hair, just as lightly as they had done last night during the show. However, when he opened his hand in front of Frank's face, his palm was empty.
"Oh, that's right," he laughed shortly. "None for Frankie, I'm sorry."
Frank could feel his face turn fiery red again.
"Gerard," Jill said, half amused and half serious, "please be nice, won't you?"
"I am nice, Jillian! I'm pretty sure that the rookie knows what rookies sometimes have to go through, it's oblig– hey, hang on a minute –" he interrupted himself, yet again frowning curiously. Frank felt himself returning to that same frozen stance. Gerard's hand plunged into the air and grasped at nothing a second time. When he drew back he was holding a purple lighter in his hand.
"So that's where it is," he said incredulously, shaking his head. "First my cards and now my lighter! How do you even hide all this in your hair, Frankie?"
If Frank's face had been red before it was definitely burning now. His ears were so hot they could be steaming for all he knew.
"Gerard!" Jill exclaimed, and her voice was far more shcoked this time, indicating that he had crossed the line of teasing and was now just being rude.
"Alright then," he grinned, grabbed his cup of coffee and raised it at them, inclining his head slightly. "I have some, ah, exploring to do in Nassau anyway. Later, guys." With that he strolled out of the lounge.
"If there's one thing I don't like about this job," Frank said darkly, scowling after Gerard, "it's definitely him."
Chapter 6: Five
Frank woke up the next day completely exhausted. He had no idea that it was possible to end up with an aching body from just standing behind a bar. The ship had now left Nassau and was heading for Great Exuma, and he'd only had about two and a half hours of sleep. Last night had turned extremely busy after all the guests had boarded again, and everyone seemed to be on a high rather than being tired after the excursion. They were in the mood for good food, drinks and partying instead of rest. Frank made a mental note about it, reminding himself that he couldn't afford to make the mistake of expecting these guests to get easily tired again. He had no idea what had hit him before all the stress was nearly taking him over, and he had to search very deeply within himself to find ways to survive the shift.
After his unwelcome visit at the bar, Frank hadn't seen Gerard at all for the rest of the day. Undoubtedly he must have gotten lucky on his shore leave. Later, as the ship got moving, he was also occupied with his magic show again. Frank was glad he wasn't stationed at The Colossus this time; he'd been given his share of luck too, just not in that way. Jill's shift last night had been at The Green Diamond, the casino, and he'd been hoping to get there ever since he'd seen the picture of it in the brochure.
"I’m sorry about the big change," she apologized as her experienced hands were mixing a margarita for what must have been the hundredth time, "I was supposed to work only at The Colossus this week, just so you'd get used to the routines before you start working at a busier bar, but Kevin's sick and no one else could cover for him. It's either that or they just didn't want to. They know how it can get down here when people come back from the shore."
"That's okay," Frank said absently, feeling as though he'd finally gotten into a rhythm when it came to chilling cocktail glasses, refilling the ice container and the snack bowls and generally keeping out of the way. He was also proud – and slightly surprised – to realize that he hadn't broken a single glass so far. "I think I'm learning more this way. Besides this place is so cool, I've been dying to stand behind this bar."
It sure hadn't been anything like the James Bond movies; Frank didn't feel like the bad guy disguised as a bartender, but the few times he'd managed to ignore how busy everything was, he'd noticed that the atmosphere here was entirely different than in the bar at The Colossus. That place was just busy in intervals; the guests came during the intermission, and otherwise it was quite calm and quiet. The casino was busy all the time.
"At least you have tonight off, right?" Jill smiled as Frank cracked another wide, long drawn yawn. "And you're finished here at three which isn't that bad."
He just nodded in response, pulling his hand across his face, leaving his eyesight slightly blurry; it had never been harder to get out of bed than this morning.
"What do you plan on doing?"
"This evening? So far my only plan is to catch up on some sleep," he said earnestly. "That's all I can think of right now. Other than that I don't know."
"Well, I say you should let your uniform rest and go check out The DropKick or The Sparkle," Jill suggested. "Both places are perfect whether you go there for the music, the drinks or the people."
"Sounds good," Frank nodded. "Maybe I'll do that. After I get out of here and get some sleep," he added again.
The rest of the shift passed in a numb daze. He had been tired before but not like this; it was as though working while being on the move was a combination that would knock you off your feet if you missed out on sleep. He found himself in the strange situation of being exhausted but at the same time doing his best to hide it. It turned out he could do that pretty well; it helped to just keep busy. Of course there was always something to do in a bar.
When he was finally free to go he wished Jill luck for the rest of her shift and headed straight for his quarters. He whispered a relieved "thank fuck" when he locked himself in and realized that nobody else were there. Minutes later, after he'd made sure that his uniform hung neatly in its place, he crashed on the bed and immediately fell asleep.
Frank woke up in a pitch-black cabin, still all alone. Groggily he flicked on the lights by his bed and checked his cell phone. It was eight in the evening; he'd slept for five hours straight. He lay there for a while, staring absently at the empty bunk above, before he realized that he was actually feeling wonderfully refreshed. There were no reasons as to why he should stay in his quarters for the rest of the night and read some boring book or watch a crap show on their tiny TV. He got up, went to the bathroom, before he spent a minute or two trying to decide whether he should check out The DropKick or The Sparkle. He ended up with the former simply because he had missed going out wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, and he was quite certain that the disco didn't have a dress code. He pulled his black Converses out from under his bed and once he'd put them on he realized how much he'd wanted to wear them these past couple of days. Frank automatically threw one last glance at himself in the mirror, before he locked himself out.
He was careful to take his time on the way. He strolled past staff and guests; couples walking hand in hand, laughing groups of people on their way to the next bar, security guards discreetly guiding away those who'd had one too many to drink. One of the most time-consuming things you could do was to just watch people; how they acted and what they said could be riveting. People did so many things that they, and most others, were unaware of, but if you studied them closely you'd pick up on those little things; how they twisted their rings when they were nervous, how they looked away when they lied, how they turned their whole bodies towards the ones they were attracted to. Back when he'd decided to drop out of school and found himself between stray jobs, Frank always had too much time on his hands, so he usually ended up at a café or a bench somewhere. And what else was there to do than watch people?
He realized he might end up doing that tonight as well; this entire place was crawling with people after all. This cruise was like a miniature society, a city in its own. As he passed some of the shops, he paused; this was a great occasion to do some window shopping. He slowed down, not really seeing anything of interest until he arrived at a magazine shop. He scanned the racks for music magazines or any tattoo news. He quickly found a magazine he read regularly and started leafing through it, soon drifting off into his own world.
"So, Frankie," a voice suddenly said, right into his ear, and Frank twitched with surprise, almost throwing the magazine up in the air. "What does your mother say about that awful full sleeve tattoo?"
You gotta be fucking kidding me, he thought irritably as he turned around, looking into Gerard's face. A crooked, familiar smile was already playing at the corner of his mouth and he had one hand in the pockets of his dark jeans, the other one was resting casually on the magazine rack. He immediately felt his cheeks grow hot, as though just the mere sight of this guy was associated with embarrassment, which wasn’t very far from the truth anyway.
"Are you following me or something?"
Gerard randomly picked up a tattoo and piercing magazine, frowning in slight disapproval as he started flicking through it.
"Not as far as I know," he said thoughtfully, folding out the center page and shrugging a little, as though indicating to himself that this picture actually wasn’t half bad, "I just happened to walk by. Don't flatter yourself too much," he added, "it's kinda… unflattering." He put the magazine back. "So why are we skipping work tonight?"
"I'm not skipping work," Frank replied shortly. "Besides, that's none of your business."
"Hey, is that a note I see in your pocket?" Gerard said abruptly, nodding towards his jeans, seemingly not taking any notice of what he'd just said.
Confused about the sudden change of subject, Frank looked down, and realized that he did have a note sticking out of one of his pockets. He didn't have to guess twice about how that had gotten there. This was the card up his sleeve all over again. He reluctantly grabbed it while scowling at Gerard, who just stood there smiling back at him, and unfolded it only to discover that it was blank.
"Alright," he sighed, his patience wearing thinner and thinner by every second that passed, "this was very entertaining and all, thanks, but I don't have time for this, so if you'll excuse me –"
"Whoa," Gerard said, holding his arm out as Frank moved to pass him, resting a hand on his shoulder, "not so fast. What did the note say?"
"Nothing, it's blank," he snapped, shrugging his hand off.
"Why would you carry a blank note in your pocket?" he asked, acting dumbfounded. "Doesn’t make sense."
"Because you put it there," Frank said, annoyed, "so how the fuck would I know?"
"I think you should check your pockets again, just in case," Gerard said casually, calmly turning his attention back to the magazine racks and pulling out the newest issue of Prick. "The other one, this time. Dig deeper."
Frank glared, feeling too well how his shoulders tensed up and his jaws clenched, trying to somehow get through to this guy that he just wanted to be left alone. Gerard however didn’t take any notice of that; he'd gone back to looking at tattoos and piercings, even though the pictures of people in the process of getting tattooed sometimes seemed to make him cringe. At last he sighed heavily, giving up, and checked his other pocket; there was another note there, like he had expected. He unfolded it and saw that something actually was written on this one.
"Boys' night out," he read aloud to himself, frowning. Boys' night out?
"I'm actually kinda busy, but sure, if you insist."
Frank looked up, confused, still holding the note up in front of him. Then it dawned on him what Gerard had just said and his eyes widened with horror.
"No," he said intently, shaking his head and curling the note up. "No. I'm not gonna waste my night off hanging out with you."
"You just asked me," Gerard shrugged, his face looking genuinely innocent, under complete artistic control of course. "A bit rude to take the offer back, don't you think?"
"I didn't ask you!" Frank hissed, his voice starting to sound desperate. "You put the note in my pocket!"
Gerard's eyes slowly narrowed, and for a couple of seconds he just stared at him. Then his face gradually broke into a wide grin. "Can you prove that I did?"
"It's your fucking job to do this stuff."
"But you can't prove it. You didn't see it. And if you did, you have no witnesses. Of course, you could ask to see the surveillance footage, but then again, you don't have the authority."
Frank glared at him; he was losing and he knew exactly where this was going. He couldn't twist his way out of this one. There was no way he would leave him alone now. Gerard was the kind of person who wouldn't budge once his mind was set, no matter what. He was annoying, persistent, over-confident and – Frank hated to admit it – a little intimidating. He would be all up in your personal space if he wanted to and wouldn't even raise an eyebrow in response to your protests.
"Great," he muttered to himself; now he'd have to spend the rest of the night awkwardly having to watch the ladies man in action and getting bullied by him in addition. He imagined it was hard to sneak away from an illusionist, they observed too much.
"Alright, move your ass, Frankie," Gerard said, still grinning widely. "We're going dancin'!"
Chapter 7: Six
Even though it was only half past nine and considerably early to go clubbing, The DropKick was already crawling with people lining up to get in. Frank had never really been to this ship attraction yet. Suddenly he felt like he'd ended up in a city somewhere and had stumbled across some super hip and exclusive club, but instead of walking by, aiming at a place where he could actually afford getting in, he was now finding himself heading straight for the entrance. This was much thanks to Gerard's firm grip around his arm, ushering him to the very front of the VIP-line.
Why does this place even have a VIP-line? he thought vaguely, as he found himself face to face with a very tall doorman, who immediately raised a suspicious eyebrow at him. Frank stared back at him, embarrassed, feeling as though he was an intruder who had somehow managed to cut in line. He was about to open his mouth and apologize when Gerard finally decided it was about time he came to his aid.
"Employee," he explained casually, nodding in Frank's direction with a slight shrug. "He's with me."
They both got a silent nod of approval from the doorman. Frank was in the process of taking out his wallet, just to show him his work ID as proof, when he was yet again grabbed by the arm and dragged inside. Apparently that wasn’t needed in Gerard’s company.
He knew very well that the club was fashionable, but right there and then Frank could determine with the greatest certainty that a picture in a brochure couldn't even justify the direct experience. The club was bathing in deep blue lights, and looking down at the floor was like looking at the white bottom of a swimming pool; he got the immediate impression of being underwater, as though sunlight was piercing some invisible watery surface above their heads, creating that spectrum of wavy shadows. Soon he also realized that the entire wall to his far right was in fact a long and narrow fish tank; he could see a wide and colorful variety of what had to be koi fish swimming the length of the wall, some of them staring and mouthing stupidly back at the party guests admiring them.
Okay, this club has fish in the wall, he thought to himself, gaping at the discovery he'd made. Fucking fish in the wall.
He watched as a young woman leaned forward and tapped her finger against the glass, a dark and silver speckled koi fish hovering in front of her, its expressionless face aligned perfectly with her nose and her slightly raised drink, before it swam carelessly away, none the wiser that the life it lived was in a fish tank in a cruise ship disco. Frank tore his eyes off the scene and looked around. There were purple, pink and green lights everywhere, and they brought variation to the underwater shadows on the dance floor, which was remarkably spacious. That would change for sure when the night progressed and people got more and more drunk.
The bars here were also much different from the other bars on the ship; the bartenders all wore regular dark jeans and bright pink t-shirts, the print on the front saying 'Drop' while the back read 'Kick'. It soon became obvious that it was okay for the bartender to give the bottle a spin in the air before they poured the glass; tricks were most definitely appropriate in this place. To have a shift here would almost be the same as having a night off; you could just let all the formal etiquette go and have fun. For a second, Frank caught himself hoping that he would be stationed here, even though it wasn't very likely, not on his first week at least.
Eventually he remembered that he wasn't there alone and his heart sank considerably, the daydream about himself standing behind that bar in a pink DropKick t-shirt immediately erased from his mind. The music was loud, drowning out his own voice completely, so he turned to Gerard, shrugging an annoyed "Where to?" at him. Gerard craned his neck, giving the place a quick, expressionless sweep, before he nodded towards the nearest bar, which was located right across the dance floor.
Awkwardly, Frank weaved his way past the guests who had already occupied the floor, but stumbled to an abrupt halt as a tall woman in front of him flipped her long hair over her shoulder and it hit him, like a whip, right in the face. He let out a sigh that drowned in all the noise; there was no way they'd get through to the bar, not when there were people both hanging out there and queuing up in front of it, eager to order drinks. He threw another glance at his unwanted companion, half hoping that maybe he would be left alone if he got bored and decided to give it up. Gerard paused beside him for a moment, his hands in his pockets, before he looked Frank up and down in a curious manner and then just signaled for him to wait.
Of course, he pretty much walked straight up to the bar. He tapped a few people's shoulders and without any protests they let him cut in line. Frank was sure that not all of them recognized him as Gerard the Magician. It wasn't like he was David Copperfield famous, and a lot of these people were already under the influence. On top of everything they were situated right in the middle of a noisy and busy place; naturally, it would take them a couple of moments to properly scan and recognize a face. Still everyone here let Gerard through. It was the damndest thing. It was as though his personality was so persuasive in itself that people just obeyed. It acted as his own personal deflector shield; it pushed everyone out of the way. Or maybe he quickly hypnotized them somehow, that wouldn't be surprising at all.
It took him only a moment to come back with drinks. Wordlessly, he handed one of them to Frank; the glass was ice cold and moist. As far as he could tell he had ordered a Tom Collins for them both; a couple of lemon slices were cutting in between the ice cubes, and a cherry was bobbing up and down through the transparent surface. This was one of the drinks he really liked but for whatever reasons didn’t like to admit that he did. Gerard pointed at his own ear and shook his head, indicating that the bar was far too noisy, and nodded towards a row of cubicles along one of the walls. Frank shrugged and followed him.
Most of the cubicles were already occupied, and as they approached, a group consisting of four or five young women spotted them. They looked at them with apparent interest, and especially at Gerard, whom they seemed to recognize. They leaned forward hopefully, crossing their legs, leaving it up to thighs and cleavages to reel them in.
Great, here we go, Frank thought darkly, scowling at the back of Gerard's head. He was pretty sure he would pick up on their obvious offer pretty quickly, he seemed to have a well-functioning radar for such things, but to his slight surprise he simply ignored them and headed towards an empty cubicle further away. The girls looked offended as they passed them; Frank was sure he could hear one of them exclaim something that sounded like "Whatever, I bet they're gay."
"You didn't spike this with anything, right?" Frank asked as they sat down, nodding questioningly towards his drink.
Deep inside he'd only meant for it to be a joke but it came out sounding more suspicious than anything. Gerard, seated opposite to him, cocked his eyebrow and that crooked smile reappeared. He moved the ice cubes and the lemon slices slowly around with the cocktail stirrer, looking amused.
"I could have, of course," he replied, nodding. "Very easily. But it lacks a little class, right? It's too cheap to persuade you like that anyway."
"Uhm, how did you know what kind of drink to pick?" Frank asked quickly, moving a little uncomfortably in his seat, ignoring the last part of his reply; he didn't really want to know what he meant about persuasion. "You never asked me what I wanted."
"Well," he shrugged, gesturing slightly at him, "beneath this whole tattooed rocker guy 'I only drink beer, fuck the world' wannabe hardcore image of yours there's usually an embarrassing weakness for nice little cocktails with pink umbrellas and all that shit, you know? Call them obscure statistics if you like."
"Yeah, so-called girl drinks. But you picked a Tom Collins though. It's not even all that bad to be a guy and get caught drinking one of these."
"It's just awesome guesswork," Gerard replied, accompanied by a subtle shrug and another half-smile. "I just assumed you'd like this one. I can read you normal people pretty fucking well, you'd be surprised."
Frank took a sip of his drink. The iciness of it was a welcome contrast to the hot air inside the club. He closed his eyes momentarily; that surely was something else than a can of Heineken. It was when he tasted something different that he realized how bored he could get of the beer in his fridge. He stole a quick glance at Gerard.
Yeah, sure: normal people. The great magician obviously didn't consider himself as one of them. And maybe he wasn't, with his slightly pale looks, perfectly chiseled cheekbones and hazel eyes. Somehow he always looked as though he was slightly critical to everything, like if he decided to ask you a question, he wouldn't accept just any answer. Frank wasn't sure whether that was creative thinking or plain stubbornness. Maybe it was over-confidence. Maybe he just liked to argue.
He had turned quiet, directing his attention to his cell phone. His dark hair arched across his forehead, like narrow little bridges, casting long, thin shadows on his skin. He was creepy in a strange, appealing way, but even more so, he was a nonchalant human being. That's what he was; nonchalant. And arrogant. Right now he was flaunting his God-given gift of being able to just sit in complete silence together with someone he didn't know without being awkward. If there was any awkwardness at all it had been shoved across the table and onto Frank's lap, because he sure couldn’t relax in his company.
"So how did you get that card up my sleeve?"
It was strange to break the silence like that; Frank wasn't sure whether or not he should have. Part of him didn't even want to breathe in the same air as the guy, while the other part, the part that had found him reluctantly attractive since day one, had now emerged fully and actually wanted to have a conversation with him.
Gerard glanced up, that roguish smile still glued to the corners of his mouth, as though it was just something he was born with, like a birthmark or a harelip – or the fact that he sometimes spoke out of the right corner of his mouth.
"I didn't. You took it."
"Sure I did," Frank replied, shooting him a sarcastic smile. "Seriously though, how did you do it?"
"Newsflash, Frankie: I'm a magician, that's what magicians do. I don't have to tell you mortals any secrets. Besides, I can't. There are unwritten rules."
"No, you're an illusionist," Frank corrected. "There's a difference. There's no such thing as magic."
Gerard leaned forward, still not letting the corners of his mouth relax. Carefully, he pulled his wrist free from his sleeve, then he held his empty hand up and let it hover, immovable, only inches away from Frank's nose.
"Really? Well, let me tell you one thing," he said quietly, almost unnoticeably moving his fingers. "There are different kinds of magic. For me, it's all about distractions. That's where the true magic lies; just watch." He moved his fingers again.
Nothing happened. His hand was still empty, still suspended in the air between them. Then he nodded subtly at a spot on the table, right in front of him. Frank looked down, puzzled, and realized that a Jack of Hearts had been put in his drink. It was leaning curiously against the neon-colored cocktail stirrer, halfway submerged in the drink, looking as though it had been travelling for weeks and now had to rest and cool off somewhere.
"That wasn't even a trick," Gerard laughed, a slightly hoarse and somewhat high-pitched kind of laugh. "I could have done a number of things while you were petrified by this." He waved his empty hand at him and laughed again. "I could easily have nicked your wallet. You just got distracted. It’s a motherfucking hand; everyone's got them, more or less."
Frank felt himself blush, something that didn't take him by surprise anymore.
"Okay, fine. Impressive."
He didn't know what to do or say in the moment of silence that followed, so he just glanced at his watch. He realized it had already turned 11.30; he couldn't stay there, he had to start early the next day. It dawned on him that this was pretty much his best chance to get the hell out of there.
"I should probably get going," he said slowly, awkwardly starting to edge past the table. "It's getting late and I have work in the morning."
Gerard leaned back, intertwining his fingers and eyening him thoughtfully. His lips curled upwards again.
"Oh, right," he nodded matter-of-factly, "sure. You have yet another day ahead of you where you can pretend to be a bartender."
"Some of us actually have real jobs," Frank smiled shortly, shrugging as he got up. "Hey, uhm, thanks for the drink, by the way. You could let me pay you back -?" he added questioningly, reaching in his pockets for his wallet; at least he could remain polite about this weird night, and there was always a certain dignity in paying for your own drinks.
Gerard didn't move, he just kept his lips curled and his fingers locked together, his eyes still resting on him. Was he trying to make him feel uncomfortable again? Because it was starting to work.
"That would be a waste of your well-earned, real money seeing as I didn't even pay for them. Free drinks whenever I want them are one of the perks of my pretend job. If you stick around in the bar you might advance one day as well. Maybe they'll give you a free Coke, who knows?"
Frank snorted loudly, a reaction that was a mix of laughter and disapproval. Right – his perks. They didn't only include free drinks, he knew that much. Just when you thought this guy could keep a somewhat normal conversation for once, he'd throw some kind of insult at you in the very last minute that proved him otherwise. Maybe he was just offended because he wanted to leave.
"Fine," he sighed and pocketed his wallet, not wanting to fuel his rudeness any further, "whatever you say. Thanks anyway."
He turned on the spot without any more bother and made his way past the dancing and drinking guests. He thought he heard Gerard call something like "Anytime, Frankie!" after him, but he wasn't sure. Nor did he care.
Frank had already reached his deck and the deserted stairway down to the staff quarters when he heard his name being called out behind him. He spun around and to his surprise – and suspicion – he saw that Gerard came jogging after him. He rolled his eyes. Great.
"What do you want?" he asked, noticing how that intense and annoyed feeling came seeping back into him, bringing out a hostile tone in his voice.
Gerard stared at him for a couple of seconds, a little out of breath after running. Then he started pacing back and forth for a while, biting the nail of his thumb, before he stopped, one hand resting on his hip and the other one quickly running though his hair. If Frank hadn't known better he'd say he looked unsure, even a little nervous. He frowned.
"You know…" Gerard began, wetting his lips and staring thoughtfully into the open, as though trying to catch and arrange his words before he spoke; it looked like a strange, unknown thing for him to do. This was, after all, a man who was never lost for words.
"You know how in school, a girl would complain and say that a boy was being mean to her when in reality, he was just trying to show in his own way that he was interested in her?"
Frank just stared at him, having no idea how he was supposed to respond to that random piece of information. He ran after him just so he could tell him something that made no sense? He sighed and shook his head.
"Look," he said, backing away, "I don't know what the fuck you're talking about, I don't speak your language of crazy, so if you'll excuse me –"
He didn't even get a chance to turn around before Gerard had moved forward and grabbed him firmly by the arm, stopping him.
"And I guess I was naïve enough to assume you weren't one of the dumb ones," he said, sounding a little annoyed. "The boy was just trying to tell the girl that he liked her," he attempted again, looking at him suggestively. "Sometimes, being mean and rude is just a way to show that you're interested. Are you following me here at all?"
There was a moment of silence so heavy that Frank almost expected hearing crickets.
"So… So you think I'm interesting?" he asked.
His voice was calm and even, but his mouth had gone completely dry. It felt like his tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth, making clicking sounds after each word he uttered. He concentrated very hard on not to swallow; he was afraid it would create a loud and awkward gulp if he did.
Gerard stepped closer and sucked thoughtfully on his lower lip, as if he was considering this one last time. Frank automatically took a couple of steps back, but was left no other choice but to stop once he’d hit the wall.
"Something like that," he eventually agreed.
"And, uhm, you're trying to tell me that I look like a girl?"
Gerard let that short, hoarse laughter escape him again, and Frank noticed just how close he was standing. His breath smelled like cigarettes, alcohol and lime, and he spotted a mesmerizing kind of sparkle in his eyes; he could pretty much have counted each and every brown, green and amber fragment hiding in them if he wanted to. He noticed that the faint, sweet scent of his cologne had started to slowly wrap itself around his head, and that his black shirt was open by a couple of buttons, partially revealing his collarbones and how they led the way towards the visible dip at the base of his throat.
God, he thought. Why do you have to be so damn attractive? Just go away.
Frank bit his lip, trying to find something else he could look at but the person in front of him worked like a magnet on his eyes. He'd been right about him all along; his personality was persuasive and hypnotizing. It was like being pinned between the wall and Gerard’s aura; it was suffocating and irresistible all at once.
"Can't you just go along with that crappy analogy, Frankie?"
"What happens if I do?" Frank asked, his voice strained and his neck hurting from the tension.
Gerard had moved so close now that his breath was almost turning his lips damp and warm. His palms were planted steadily against the wall on each side of his head, not leaving him any chance to get away, unless he ducked under one of his arms. For some reason he wasn't sure how to do that; his brain knew how to execute the movement but all the motor neurons in his body were like paralyzed, no longer sending any messages through his nervous system. He wasn't sure if he remembered how to move. He was afraid his knees would buckle if he tried.
"If I told you to guess," Gerard began, "would you guess that in about seven seconds from now I would be kissing you?"
Frank wanted to reply that no, he wouldn't have guessed that at all, but his words seemed to be stuck in his throat. In the end he just shook his head, his gaze mercilessly caught within the magnetic field that was Gerard’s eyes.
"Then you're a lousy guesser."
And with that, he leaned forward and pressed his lips against Frank's. Frank could feel the back of his head getting pushed against the wall and automatically he glued his lips firmly together. For a moment his mind was entirely blank; there was not a single thought in his head, just plain white noise. He zoned out, maybe for a second or two, and he wasn't aware of anything before he felt Gerard's hands on his shoulders, pushing him forcefully against the wall a second time, as though he was emphasizing what he was doing, trying to get a point across. The back of his head and his shoulder blades stung with pain but he couldn't concentrate on it because he'd just started noticing how is body was giving in way ahead of his mind. His body was responding by its own rules, somehow overriding his willpower. Then his guard slipped and he opened his mouth slightly, something Gerard noticed right away; only a split second went to waste before his tongue had already darted past his lips. That's when Frank finally gave in and answered the kiss.
Gerard responded to it as if it was an invitation he had been waiting for all his life. He clasped his hands on each side of Frank's head, buried his fingers into his hair and slid his tongue into his mouth once more. Again he could feel himself getting passively pushed against the wall, and again his shoulders burned with pain. He vaguely thought that this kind of force was almost enough to break somebody's back.
"What I'd guess wouldn't have mattered to you anyway," he breathed in the short space of time where their lips broke apart. "And you sure got a weird fucking way of telling people you like them."
"Well, you're just gonna have to shut up and take it, aren't you?" Gerard replied, placing one hand beneath Frank's jawline while the other one grabbed a firm hold of the waistband of his jeans. With a rough yank he pulled his hips closer.
"Hey, seems like your downstairs brain have been guessing for a while though," he added, smirking at him, before he locked his mouth shut with another kiss, not leaving him with any chance to reply.
That moment somebody's cell phone started ringing, the shrill, almost unfamiliar sound cutting through the air. It was Gerard's. He ignored it, didn't pause for a second to consider picking it up, and eventually the ringing stopped. Then seconds later it rang again. He pulled away with a loud sigh, squeezing his eyes shut in a moment's irritation.
"God fucking damnit," he swore intently and let his hands slip away from Frank's neck and hair. He tore the phone out of his pocket, threw one quick, expressionless glance at the caller ID, and turned away.
"What?" he hissed, his teeth gritted.
Frank didn't dare to move, not even an inch. He appeared to have been pushed so hard against the wall he'd almost become a part of it. His hair felt like it was standing on end and his lips were slightly sore. His shoulders and the root of his neck were aching tremendously, and as he glanced down he realized, with a slight shock, that they actually weren't the only places on his body that were aching. He stared at Gerard's back and shoulders and felt how his heart was hammering crazily against his ribcage, racing at a speed that was almost just as physically painful as everything else.
"And why is that a fucking problem?" Gerard spat at the caller. "Just fix the damn thing!" There was a short pause. "No, all of you are fucking incompetent, and especially you; you were in charge. I don't even wanna know who actually ruined it. Now you listen to me and listen good; I'll be there in five minutes, and I suggest you spend those five minutes feeling sorry for yourself because this is your sorry ass on the line and I'm not the one you want to fuck with right now."
He hung up, ending his brutal rant, and for a moment he was just standing there fuming, his jaws working furiously. Eventually he turned back to Frank and made a gesture with his phone, giving him a brief, apologetic smile.
"Prop issues," he explained. "It's kinda urgent. Apparently I work with idiots."
"Oh. Right. Sure," Frank nodded, putting his hands in his pockets and shrugging awkwardly. He could feel his heart sink, as if he was disappointed, and it scared him a little. All of a sudden he felt extremely embarrassed; he knew he was blushing violently. "I, uhm, I totally understand."
Gerard bit his lip and tilted his head slightly, looking at him. Then he stepped forward and kissed him again, a little less rough this time. It was one long kiss preceded by a second, lighter one, like he wanted to seal the first one.
"Okay," he said, as they broke apart and he pulled away, his voice suddenly falling into more casual tones, "I have to go before they ruin my act completely."
Without further explanations he turned away and headed down the corridor, not stopping once to look over his shoulder.
Frank remained where he was, a little confused, just staring after him until he had disappeared around the corner. Then he let out a heavy, shaky sigh and finally gave in to his already buckling knees. He sat there on the soft, carpeted floor for several minutes, taking in what had just happened. He closed his eyes as the hammering sound of his heart turned weaker and eventually returned to its normal pace, leaving him with a faint, empty feeling. At last he managed to pull himself together and made his way down to his quarters in a daze.
Chapter 8: Seven
Heading down to The Colossus the next morning, Frank felt terribly nervous. Of course he'd slept uneasily; at one point last night he'd fallen into an uncomfortable daze that only seemed like it lasted for about five minutes. He then woke up an hour before his alarm clock was set to go off. It had been impossible to go back to sleep, but despite the restless night he wasn't tired; on the contrary, he was wide awake.
He hadn't been able to get Gerard off his mind. No matter how hard he tried to stop himself, to clear his head and think of something else, his thoughts always returned to that moment in the corridor. The same images swirled around in his head, constantly prodding at the visual center in his brain, almost magically conjuring up scenes from last night. They had been put on repeat, scenes that involved Gerard's lips on his, Gerard's fingers clutching his hair, Gerard's entire weight pushing him against the wall... Gerard, Gerard, Gerard. All the time, over and over again. Frank caught himself wondering what would have happened if his cell phone hadn’t started ringing, if the battery had just been flat. He tried to imagine how that would have turned out, maybe they –
What the fuck is wrong with you, Frank?! he thought to himself, interrupting his own trail of thoughts and pulling his hand across his face, as though embarrassed. He continued staring up at the dark bottom of the bunk above him, listening to his roommates snore heavily. You can't stand this guy. You hate his guts!
He realized however, as he lay there tossing and turning, that he didn't. He could want to hate him as much as he liked, he could say it out loud over and over again, but his entire mind and body was practically screaming the opposite. He still had to consciously struggle to keep his hands neatly folded on top of his blanket. He knew very well that he was falling for him; he was falling terribly hard and terribly fast, which was ridiculous seeing as he'd only known him for less than a week. Frank never fell that easily for anyone but now he was simply crashing to the ground, tumbling about in the air as he was senselessly hitting branches and twigs of doubt and uncertainty on his way down. The point was; he was still falling. It was all so hard to understand. This whole situation seemed to be based on hate, hate that had been built up to a point where it wasn't hate anymore, it was just an explosion of desire in its purest form, and in the end it had turned everything it was based on into infatuation. You didn't even see it coming. It was such a classic turn of events, but you wouldn't know what hit you before it had already given you a black eye. Maybe Frank had just been interested in him from the start. Maybe that's why he'd disliked him so much, because he didn't want to fall for a person like that; it wasn't how he wanted to be perceived. It wasn't how he wanted to perceive himself. It felt like he'd discovered a flaw in his personality that he hadn't been aware of until now, something that didn't match up to the image he was used to. One part of him loathed the mess he'd gotten into, while the other part seemed to be absolutely ecstatic about it.
Well, conflicting feelings or not, last night you were in on it yourself, he thought later, as he was absent-mindedly cleaning the bar counter. The past couple of hours his head had been constantly turning whenever someone entered the lounge, his peripheral vision responding automatically every time he detected the slightest movement. Just admit that you were playing along willingly.
"What did you say?"
Jill's question made Frank jump, and his hand jerked so violently that he immediately dropped the cloth he was holding. He realized he had been thinking aloud without even being aware of it.
"What? Oh, uhm, nothing. I was just, ah, talking to myself. You know."
He conjured up the most innocent smile he could muster and shrugged her an apology, hoping intently that his stuttering explanation was enough. Jill arched an eyebrow at him, smiling questioningly.
"It got late last night, in other words?" she asked.
"Yeah," Frank nodded quickly, grabbing the free opportunity given to him and played along with that, "it got kinda late, you can say that. There's, uhm, there’s a lot going on in that club."
"Mildly speaking. So… what happened? Did you meet someone maybe?" she added suggestively, leaning against the counter as though expecting a juicy dose of gossip.
"Nah," he said casually, shaking his head, "I wouldn't exactly say that. I mean, I know I returned to my quarters alone, so –"
He said that with a joking tone in his voice, but then again it wasn't entirely false either.
"Aw, well," she grinned, sounding as though she wasn't quite convinced but decided to let it go for now, "better luck next time then. Oh! By the way, I just remembered something about Gerard's usual drink for tonight," she added, and her speech became rapid, a reaction that always came when she suddenly recalled something that worried her.
"If I don't start mixing it at around seven, could just try to remind me? Usually he likes to come up here and do that himself – I mean, the guy's like clockwork; it’s part of his routines – but today he’s just not showed up at all, and he should have been here by now. I don't know what that's all about, but he never cancels a show and, more importantly, I know he always wants his drink, so I’m gonna prepare the Manhattan as usual... I'm just afraid that I'll forget all about it, so help me keep it mind, okay?"
Frank could feel his heart jump as soon as Jill mentioned Gerard's name. That was quickly interrupted by an abrupt, sinking feeling when he realized that he wasn’t going to show up before his act. He chewed thoughtfully on the inside of his cheeks for a little while. It could be just a coincidence, of course, but if he didn't know better he'd say it seemed as though he was deliberately avoiding the bar. Then he was suddenly struck by a moment of inspiration.
"Hey, I can bring his drink to him myself, if that's alright with you?" he suggested, continuing to clean the already sparkling counter, trying his best to sound indifferent.
"You want to bring Gerard his drink?" Jill repeated, blinking at him, a trace of doubtful amusement detectable in her voice. "Are you sure? Because as I recall, it's not like the two of you are best friends or anything."
"That's okay," Frank shrugged. "Like you said I can't let him get to me. Also, consider it as a cure for my clumsiness. It'll be the ultimate test."
Time edged past very slowly that evening. Every time he looked at his watch it was as if the hands hadn't moved at all, but then again he was probably checking it every third minute. Frank kept glancing up as random guests came by, his chin lifting obediently whenever his eyes detected movement, despite the fact that he knew Gerard most likely wasn't going to show up among them. Maybe he was just being paranoid about it all, maybe he was overanalyzing. The guy could simply be caught up in something that was more important than his routines. So what? It didn't necessarily mean that he was avoiding him.
Sometimes you just think like a girl, his inner voice said as he shook his head at his own behavior. And what the fuck does it matter anyway? Jesus Christ.
A small silver tray was placed in front of him, and a single cocktail glass occupied it. It contained a dark amber liquid which gleamed in the dim bar lights; one cherry was bobbing slightly up and down in the bottom of the glass, while the other one was perching daintily on the rim. Gerard's special pre-show request; Manhattan, two cherries instead of one. It was common Envision knowledge, a tiny legend in itself.
"Two-thirteen," Jill explained carefully, "one flight of stairs – and one flight only – below the sun deck. And please don't drop it."
"Oh," Frank said, his hands surprisingly steady as he picked up the tray. "Right. One flight of stairs below the sun deck. No worries, I got this."
"Two-thirteen!" she called after him as he walked away.
"Two-thirteen," he repeated in what he hoped was his most reassuring voice.
"Good luck, Frank!"
Of course, Gerard didn't have quarters; that would be too simple for him, and he didn't exactly insist on living the simple life. Gerard had a suite. That's what it was like, being an Envision celebrity. He had his own show, he had his free drinks, he had his admirers and he had his suite. Frank felt his fingers tighten around the handles of the tray, making the drink wobble slightly, so he forced himself to relax. He couldn't have cared less about his accommodations. The only thing he could think about was the fact that the one time the magician doesn't appear at the bar himself to remind the bartender of his drink, the one time he actually breaks his pre-show routine, is the day after he makes out with one of the bar staffers. That was typical. He had forgotten all about not falling for the temptation of over-analyzing; now the question was just why he didn’t show up. Frank wanted to know. He hated to admit it, but he was kinda starting to take it personal.
He reached the deck where the entertainers and staff with the somewhat "glamorous" job positions had their lodgings. It was a lot brighter up here than down where his own quarters were, which was no surprise considering that this was way above sea level. It allowed the sun to shine in; there were no tiny, permanently locked portholes, and it also provided a splendid view. Even the carpet on the floor was different to the sickly orange one covering the floors in his own corridor; this one was a pleasant purple and crimson, much like the colors dominating The Colossus. It felt a lot softer to walk on too.
"Two-thirteen," he muttered to himself, looking at the numbers on the doors, feeling how his heart rate increased once he reached two-ten. This was like a countdown. "Just a couple more doors, just a co–"
He abruptly cut himself off as the door to suite two-thirteen suddenly swung open, hitting the wall with a sharp bang. He twitched with surprise, almost spilling the drink. An unfamiliar, loud and slightly obnoxious laughter came dancing through the door first, before Gerard came stumbling, almost falling backwards through it, his hair more ruffled than usual and his crimson vest unbuttoned. He was followed closely by a young, unknown man who seemed to have locked his arms permanently around Gerard's waist. Both of his hands were clutching a good handful of his untucked shirt; they were just one movement or two away from sliding up beneath the fabric. His hair was a soft and golden brown mess, the black t-shirt he was wearing making the dark blonde color pop; Frank just barely noticed that the word "CREW" was printed in bold, white letters on the back, spaciously spread out between his shoulder blades, just like the first face-up cards in a round of Texas hold 'em. A large black and white tattoo of some kind of Chinese dragon covered his entire upper arm, giving the impression of crawling down towards his elbow, its thick, scaly tail disappearing beneath his sleeve. The two men appeared to be in the middle of a conversation.
"Whatever, Gerard," the other one said, grinning widely, "you're so full of crap. As if you don't pull that lousy schoolboy analogy every time you want your way with someone."
"Just admit that you fell for it," Gerard shrugged, unfazed. "You, like everybody else."
The young man cocked an eyebrow at him and smiled, biting his lip. His eyes were fixed on Gerard's mouth.
"You're a slut, you know that?" he teased, laughing, before leaning in close so he could kiss him.
Frank had frozen entirely on the spot, nailed thoroughly to the floor, and he couldn't have looked away even if he wanted to. He was stupidly holding the silver tray up in front of him, just gawking at the two of them, who were too absorbed in each other to be aware of his presence. At last, as though he suddenly sensed that someone was watching, Gerard opened his eyes momentarily, glancing sideways, his mouth still comically glued to Mr. Dragon Tattoo. He quickly tore away when he noticed Frank, the disconnection creating a loud and rude smack between them. For a second he just stared, his lips parting in slight surprise. Apparently the sight of him had been the last thing he had expected. The young man frowned and turned his head in the same direction.
"Oh," he said casually, his dark blue eyes flashing. "I guess your drink's here, boss."
A heap of random thoughts raced through Frank's head; the first one he got a proper hold of told him that he was admitting to himself that he had hardly ever seen a more attractive jawline or more perfectly shaped eyebrows on a guy before. Parts of his hair fell effortlessly into his face, as though they had been pre-programmed to do so. He had the tiniest hint of a chin dimple, something that just emphasized how good-looking he was. The young man's eyes searched him quickly, and Frank picked up on the indifferent expression on his face. His arms were still clinging tightly, almost rudely, to Gerard's waist.
Frank and Gerard continued to stare at each other, locked in a gaze that seemed to last forever. Then, as if someone had splashed a bucket of ice water in his face, or pushed him right over board, Frank finally snapped out of his trance. His heart was sinking faster towards the pit of his stomach than an anchor could hit the bottom of the sea, and suddenly he felt a little sick. With a buzzing sound filling his head he put the tray carefully down on the floor, his arms trembling wildly, before he spun around and hurriedly started walking away. He wanted to run but he felt like he couldn’t; he was still in his uniform, he was still at work. He had to stay cool, calm, collected. A burning feeling in his chest was screaming at him, urging him to Run, just run! but he ignored it, trying to picture himself putting out the fire. It sure as hell didn’t work but he didn’t break into a run either.
"Frank –" Gerard began, calling after him, but he didn't pay any attention to it, he just kept walking, his arms swinging brusquely. He could feel his hands balling themselves into hard fists in an attempt to stop them from trembling.
He heard Mr. Dragon Tattoo laugh again, the sound quickly following the length of the corridor, reaching his ears in a matter of split seconds.
"Frank? You mean you actually know this guy?" he asked, a clear, detectable amount of amusement in his voice. "What a weirdo."
"Shut the fuck up," Gerard snapped suddenly. "You have a job to do in the showroom and it happens to be for my act. You're already running pretty darn late, so get your things and get the hell out."
This was followed by a very heavy stretch of silence, before it got interrupted by a door slamming shut. Just when Frank heard footsteps that were quickly catching up with him, he spotted a door leading out to the upper deck. He eventually lost a little control and hurled himself at it, his body thrown into the chilly open. He didn't get to slam the door shut before Gerard had grabbed him by the elbow and followed him outside.
"Hey, could you just wait a sec?" he said intently, pulling his arm and forcing him to a halt.
"What the hell do you want?" Frank snapped, yanking his arm out of his grip.
His reaction was met with a frown. "What are you so damn angry about?"
Frank let out a sharp, sarcastic laugh; he could hardly believe what he was hearing.
"You're kidding, right? You're really that fucking stupid?" Gerard just stared blankly at him in response. "Unbelievable," he muttered, shaking his head impatiently. "Whatever, Gerard, you know what this is about."
They stood there in silence for a short while. Gerard genuinely looked like he didn't know what was going on, and Frank had almost started to believe him when the expression on his face gradually started to change, as though something was finally dawning on him.
"Yeah, maybe you're right," he began, looking at him with a strange kind of wonder, "maybe I do understand what this is all about. If you think that last night was –"
"No, shut up," Frank cut him off angrily, taking a step forward, "I'm gonna tell you what I think last night was. I think that last night was just another night where you grabbed hold of the first and best you came across. You just tried to win me over with another version of your lousy schoolboy analogy. That's what I think."
There was a soft drizzle escaping the semi-darkness; the raindrops were lukewarm but mixed with the late evening breeze they turned cold. Yet again Gerard's response had been reduced to that same, three-second stare. He looked pale and slightly cold, a strong opposite to the festive and bright outdoor lights; the breeze was playing with his hair, making it dance across his face. Then his expression suddenly hardened.
"Okay, wow. I see. You thought last night actually meant something, didn't you?" He laughed, sounding a little incredulous. "You took all that crap seriously and actually thought we had something more going on, and now you're throwing a tantrum because you just realized you were wrong."
"No, I didn't," Frank claimed, although he knew his answer had been too quick and abrupt; it only ended up sounding unsure.
"Oh yes, you did," Gerard nodded, and he was undeniably a little amused. "I just watched you go through at least three stages of shock back there, and I guess that had to do with our little incident last night. Well, for your information, Frankie; I was drunk," he added, as though that justified everything that came out of his mouth. "So whatever other impressions I must have given you can't really be all that valid."
Frank shook his head again; he couldn't believe he had the nerve to just stand there and blame it all on something as cheap and cowardly as being drunk.
"That's bullshit. You hardly touched your drink; none of us did."
"Okay, so what else can I tell you?" he said, throwing his hands up in some sort of mock apology. "What do you want to hear? Huh? Do you want me to say I'm sorry?"
He looked questioningly at him. Frank kept quiet. He didn't buy his fake sincerity for a second; there was still an obvious sarcastic tone in his voice.
"Alright, fine. So…" he began, pretending to count carefully on his fingers, "I'm sorry that you got wrapped up in some misunderstanding, and I'm sorry that you're blaming me for it. Uhm, what else? I'm sorry that you actually didn't manage to put two and two together, and most of all I'm sorry that you're taking everything so damn seriously. Are any of these excuses good enough? You can pick whichever you like."
"You're an asshole," Frank snapped furiously, not able to contain himself. "You're nothing but a wannabe big shot who just wants to shag his way through life. And lucky for you that you've got so much to pick from and such a varied taste. I mean, you didn't get past first base with me but that's fine because you can just move on to the next. I guess fucking some random guy in your crew was just convenient this time, or what?"
His words fell like pin drop sounds that immediately drowned in complete silence. Gerard's eyes narrowed threateningly, and he moved in so close and so suddenly that Frank for a moment thought he was going to punch him. Automatically, he jumped a step back.
"Look," he said intensely, his voice harsh, "I don't really care about the crap your little brain has made up, but God, you are such a whiny bitch! I can't recall having said anything concerning us when I left you last night. I didn't thank you for anything, I didn't ask you to call me, I didn't promise you shit. Still you've been walking around all day thinking that what I meant by finding you interesting was that I wanted to be with you on a regular basis. And look where all that's brought you; you're standing out here in the rain. You've gained absolutely nothing. How fucking sad. Oh, and the funny thing is," he added, and moved even closer, forcing Frank to lean awkwardly against the railing, "if my phone hadn't interrupted me, I would have had things my way, as usual, and you would have left for work this morning from my suite, and you know what? That would have been all, and I would have expected you to move the fuck on."
Frank blinked as the words almost got spat in his face, and he didn't know what to say. He could feel his eyes sting, and he was a little shocked that his feelings were responding like that, but Gerard's words were like arrows. They were well chosen and thoroughly sharpened, and each and every one of them hit him mercilessly.
"Sorry for spoiling your daydreams, Frankie," Gerard shrugged, smirking at him, with that placing the cherry on top of his harsh little speech.
Frank made an honest attempt at pulling himself together, forcing himself to ignore what he’d just been told; if he was going to sink that low and embarrass himself by crying then he would certainly not do it in front of him.
"Why did you even run after me?" he asked, trying to collect all the strength he could to help keep his voice steady, to mirror the magician and make it seem as though this didn’t really affect him all that much either. "If this isn't such a big fucking deal to you and I'm just one of many, then why did you stare at me like you got caught red-handed? Couldn't you just let me leave?"
Gerard snorted, producing a smile that didn't reach his eyes at all.
"Obviously you needed it," he replied scathingly; his face was already falling into the old familiar folds of arrogance. "You can walk around with delusions for all I care, just don't involve me in them. And you're right; you are one of many. I've told you before but it won't hurt to tell you again: You shouldn't flatter yourself too much. Do yourself a favor and let it go."
He turned his back on him and headed for the door to leave.
"You treat everybody like they're just another card trick," Frank heard himself say.
He had started to shiver; his trembling lips were a clear sign of that. He wasn't sure whether it was because he was angry or because he was hurt or simply because he was cold. Either way it affected his voice, making it sound like he was fragile and weak. It didn't matter how hard he tried to do something about it, it seemed impossible, so he just kept talking.
"You – you make people appear and disappear whenever you want. You've always got everyone right where you want them. Sometimes you make the situation seem like one thing when it's not, and… I don't fucking know. I guess that's just for the sake of it, just because you think it's fun, or whatever. I don't know how you think. Anyway, it's the same damn trick. You keep pulling it over and over again, but you don't care. Hell, no one cares! Although everyone knows you're one of the most obnoxious people in existence. You even know that yourself. But fuck all that. Right? Because you're Gerard Way, and everyone's fine with whatever you say or do or want. You get to treat people the way you like because for whatever stupid reasons, they'll just let you. It doesn't matter if they find your offensive pickup strategies attractive or not, because you're sure you'll get them in the end. So of course, when someone actually calls you out, you tear them down. It didn't go as planned so you tell them you don't care. You can just... just spew out whatever insults you can think of, because it's no big deal. Blame it on them. But you know what, Gerard? You're a fucking joke. And the day you realize that it'll be too late for you to fix it."
Gerard had frozen on the spot, his hand resting stiffly on the door handle. Frank's head was burning, and suddenly he felt a little awkward and embarrassed in the silence that followed. Maybe this had just been his disappointment talking, or his bruised heart, because he had no idea that he was even able to come up with all that. He watched Gerard's immovable body, trying to catch the expression on his face but it was hidden in the shadows. For a second he was sure he would turn around again, and maybe this time he would punch him in the face, but that moment never came. Eventually he just opened the door and disappeared inside without another word.
Frank was left staring at the closed, heavy door, breathing rapidly. He stared so intensely it almost seemed as though he was trying to send a message through the white painted steel, somehow pulling Gerard back and forcing him to apologize for being such a dick. He sighed. He wasn't sure what he was trying to do. He wasn't even sure what he was thinking; his head was just one big mess. All he knew was that at one point, Gerard had been right; he had actually thought last night had meant something. He thought it had been a genuine moment. Frank cursed at himself, feeling stupid and humiliated. Of course he should have known. He knew what the guy was like, how he used to play – and still he fell for it. Like everybody else, he fell for it, except he'd gone a step further and taken it to heart.
He looked up. The rain had increased in strength; the heavy raindrops settled on his face and made their way through the thick fabric of his shirt, creating grey little circles on the white surface. Down below, over a distance that seemed greater than ever, he could hear the faint, rhythmic rushing of the masses of water boiling underneath the ship's belly. They were just a moving blip somewhere in the Caribbean and that was it. When he first set out on this trip he'd looked forward to it, thinking he'd be in his own little sanctuary where no one could reach him. He would be able to escape completely for a few days. Now he just wanted to get away from Gerard as far as possible and as soon as possible, but the ship had definitely seemed to shrink. In the end he was sure it would be reduced to nothing but a cage.
Chapter 9: Eight
On his way back to The Colossus, Frank quickly became aware of how much he was freezing. The comfortable warmth inside the ship clashed with the iciness that had settled in him, sending shivers down his spine. It was a strange kind of cold; it dug its way to the very bones in his body.
He knew he'd gone missing for much too long and the look of relief on Jill's face when she spotted him coming in was overwhelming; for a moment he thought she was going to drop everything and throw herself at him.
"Where the hell have you been?!" she hissed; she looked as though she was on the verge of freaking out. "Your job includes helping us out, not go missing for ages! In case you didn't know, the show room is chock full tonight and we're up to our goddamn necks in work here!"
He quickly apologized, telling her he'd been in the need of a cigarette and then just ended up losing track of time. Jill's eyes narrowed suspiciously, probably because she couldn't detect any traces of cigarette smoke still clinging to him, but she bought the excuse without arguing about it.
"Don't you dare go wandering off like that again," she said, irritated, waving a finger in front of his face. "Remember that whether or not you get good recommendations relies on me."
He had never witnessed her being this unsatisfied and angry with him before, but right there and then, Frank didn't really care.
The rest of that night he wasn't quite able to get rid of that gnawing, cold feeling. Somehow it was still clinging to his back, lodged between his spinal discs, producing little, involuntary spasms as the occasional shower of iciness flooded his veins. Several times he'd caught himself shuddering suddenly. He didn't believe for a second that it was because of the rain; this wasn't the kind of obvious, physical cold that you could chase away by embracing yourself and rubbing your arms, and it wasn't a forewarning of the flu or a fever. He was pretty sure it was because of the chill that Gerard had emitted; he'd wrapped him in it ever since he'd gone to deliver that fucking drink. He deeply regretted that decision now.
As for Gerard, he didn't show up at all that night. He didn't join his audience in the lobby during the intermission either, like he used to and loved doing, but he was in there alright. Frank could hear the distant sounds of people laughing and clapping for him. Obviously he didn’t have any problems with pushing everything else out of his head and just focus on his job. But if he didn't care, like he'd told him he didn't, then he wouldn’t have to worry about any of it. He could just continue doing whatever he was doing.
Frank wasn't able to do that, and it was obvious in the way he executed his job. He'd already broken three glasses and the last time he had to exchange all the ice. Whenever he was trying to do something he immediately noticed how his hands were shaking. He was getting in everybody’s way as well, and Jill was constantly telling him, increasingly frustrated, that he had to snap out of whatever coma he was lost in and make himself useful; it was a very busy night and they needed all hands. Of course there were a thousand things he could occupy himself with but most of the time he just ended up standing there, wondering what to do. Whenever he tried figuring out what to do next, his thoughts returned to the argument with Gerard, and once he was on that track it was hard for him to rewind. He thought he'd be able to focus but he realized he was wrong. He couldn't even function properly.
Frank was still cold when his shift was finally over; it was honestly starting to get on his nerves. He muttered a quick goodnight to Jill, who looked a little worried, the expression on her face saying that she wanted to hold him back and ask him who the hell had managed to talk him into selling his soul. She seemed to change her mind when she saw just how miserable he appeared.
He quickly rushed back to his quarters, wrung his uniform off and dove straight into bed, where he eventually fell asleep, despite the fact that his covers never seemed to turn warm that night.
While his first week on board neared its end, Frank spotted Gerard several times. It was only in brief glances and he never gave the impression of knowing he'd been detected, but he was sure he knew; he just didn't want to show it. Ever since their argument he'd walked around carrying an intense urge to just confront him once again; Frank wanted to force some other response out of him, give him another chance to show that there was something else – anything – residing inside him, but every time he appeared in his visual field he was gone the very next moment. The man seemed to have an amazing ability to just disappear into thin air. Maybe it was his illusionist skills; maybe he could apply them to real life.
Either way, the days refused to wait for anyone and eventually the last stop on their itinerary was upon them. Soon they were just minutes away from arriving back to the point they had departed from; it was only a matter a of time before all the guests would find themselves at home and back in the arms of reality.
The captain of the ship initiated the tedious and systematic step-by-step process that was to navigate the Envision Destiny towards the shore and make sure that the docking procedure was followed correctly. At the same time, Frank was rushing to the café to grab a quick cup of coffee when he literally ran into the one he'd been trying to get a hold of the past few days. He realized it was Gerard before Gerard noticed it was him. He was about to say something, and judging from the annoyed expression on his face it was probably something along the lines of "Watch where the fuck you're going", but then he saw it was Frank. His planned retort had been all set to go, already drawn back like pebbles in a slingshot, but the moment he changed his mind it all got choked in an abrupt, sharp intake of air. He closed his mouth and for a couple of seconds they just looked awkwardly at each other.
"Sorry," Gerard muttered in the end and hurried past him.
Frank closed his eyes momentarily, knowing he wouldn't be able to keep his mouth shut no matter how hard he tried.
"Are you, really?" he called out after him, and Gerard stopped dead in his tracks. Frank focused on the dark, ruffled back of his head; he didn't know what kind of reaction he would be met with and he was slightly dreading it, but he took a deep breath and repeated himself. "Are you sorry, Gerard?"
He slowly turned around, a somewhat surprised expression fleetingly dancing across his face, as though he hadn't expected him to talk back. Then the expression was gone, completely washed away, and he raised his head a thought. It looked like a very conscious act, because his cheekbones and jawline looked far too perfect in that angle. He realized that Gerard was turning into an illusionist right before his eyes. He carried himself like he would do on stage; the spotlight could just as well have been right there, shining upon his head like some cold halo. By then, Frank already knew that he wasn't about to give him a proper answer. He wasn't going to take his question like it had been posed; he was going to swoop down upon it and tear it apart.
"Yeah, Frankie," Gerard said, "I am sorry. I'm really sorry that you turned out to be this fucking annoying. I would, in all brutal honesty, never have guessed it. You're actually worse than most women I know, and I know a lot of them."
The place was crawling with guests waiting to disembark, but no one was paying any attention to them. If someone actually had stopped and taken a closer look, they'd easily notice how strained the whole situation was, with the two of them just standing there staring at each other. Frank had intense irritation written all over his face, while Gerard held on to his usual crooked smile.
"You're a heartless son of a bitch, you know that?" Frank spat through gritted teeth, and a lady passing him in that very moment turned her head and looked at him with an overwhelmingly shocked expression on her face, before hurriedly moving on.
"Thanks." Gerard inclined his head slightly. "I'll take your failed shot at an insult as a compliment. I’ve been called worse."
Frank could feel himself blush red hot with anger. "I don't doubt that," he snapped. "And you better pray that you'll drown by accident the next time you get on this ship," he added furiously, "or I swear to God I'll fucking drown you myself."
Gerard responded by sharply sucking air through his teeth, pulling a slight grimace at him that mockingly seemed to say "Oooh, I'm so scared!" He laughed shortly.
"Ouch, Frankie, you're an animal! For someone this small you sure have a temper, I'll give you that. You know, it kinda blows that you're so annoying," he grinned, and for a second there was genuine delight shining in his eyes. "I'm willing to bet my cards that if I'd caught you in a really nasty mood the other night, I would’ve been forced to ignore that call. That could have turned out interesting, I'm just saying."
He winked at him before he let out another short laugh and shook his head, yet again leaving Frank completely tongue-tied.
Frank hadn't expected his old life to get better in just one week, and certainly not while he'd been away, that would have been far too easy; if things had turned out for the better he'd assume there was a catch somewhere. So he wasn't surprised when he came home only to discover that nothing had changed, at least not on the outside; the elevator in his building was still out of order, and the old, stained mattress that no one wanted to take any responsibility for was still leaning against the wall on the second floor landing. This time some loser had taken the bother to write "FUCK YOU" on it in big, black letters.
Wow, how creative, he thought sarcastically as he passed it, his nose wrinkling slightly in disgust.
As usual, Mrs. Crimbleton, the old and slightly senile lady living next to him, nosily stuck her head out the door as soon as he'd managed to haul his bags up all the stairs. A moldy newspaper smell and a couple of cats escaped her flat at the same time. She watched him closely as he unlocked the door to his tiny apartment.
"Miss me, Grandma?" Frank asked loudly, shooting her a fake smile as he struggled with the lock, confident it didn't matter what he said to her; most likely she'd forget about it before she'd even turned around. As expected she ignored his question completely, the curious expression on her face unaffected.
"Yeah, I thought so," he muttered. "Just make sure you don't pop a vessel from all that excitement."
He gave the stubborn door a final push, eventually causing it to open with a reluctant creak. At least his stuff was safe here; who needed a safety chain when no burglar in this city was patient enough to even bother with that stupid lock in the first place. As he swung the door open he almost stumbled back in pure shock, coughing at how bad the air was in there.
"What the fuck, did something die in here?" he said to himself as he shoved a week's worth of unopened mail away with his foot. "Geez."
He sighed and looked disappointedly around for a moment, before he threw his bags on the floor and left the door ajar in an attempt to clear the air.
He found out that his fridge seemed to have suffered a slow and careless death in his absence as well, judging from the lukewarm beer he closed his fingers around. Definitely no ice cold Tom Collinses waiting for him in there. But then again, this was his life; it was no big surprise that everything had Murphy's Law written all over it. If he dropped his toast it would fall with the butter side down, and so on. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Not giving the slightest damn about all the wasted food he was stuck with, Frank opened the bottle, ignoring the tame hiss that escaped it. He went to stare out the window; the contrast between the beautiful view of the wide stretched, glittering ocean and this dirty backyard full of garbage and stray cats had never been as clear to him as in this very moment. It was depressing to be back home, to say the least.
Reluctantly he took his cell phone out of his pocket and checked his voice mail; now that he wasn't busy with work he had no excuse to keep it turned off. In addition to a billion texts, he'd received ten messages. Two of them were from his old job at one of the numerous restaurants he'd been washing dishes for; they were wondering if he would consider coming back because they were short on people. That was easily out of the question, seeing how that job had been miserable and underpaid. Three messages were from his parents; the first two were from his Mom who wondered why on earth he would choose to work on a cruise ship, since the possibility of it actually sinking was always there. The third one was from his Dad who, as usual, felt the need to add that he could at least have been more considerate towards his mother concerning his career choices. In other words; the same old. Whatever he did still wasn't good enough. The last bunch of messages was from some random girl called Lisa something, he didn't quite catch her last name. Apparently they'd "been together" for a short while ages ago and now she wanted to meet up with him again; she sounded like she was getting increasingly desperate with each message. He didn't pay much attention to them; Frank couldn't even remember what the girl looked like and he didn't really care. Whatever she wanted he wasn't interested in anyway.
"No, thanks," he muttered darkly, removing the phone from his ear and deleting all the messages at once. "Great, everyone's still crazy. That is just fucking peachy."
Apparently he found himself faced with a world that seemed to have gone just a little more off its hinges while he'd been away. These few days off work were going to get very long, he could already tell. He was starting to miss the Envision Destiny and he hadn't even been on land for an hour yet. Fuck his life.
The ship's brochure was sticking out from the side pocket of his bag, so he picked it up, sitting down on the couch as he started leafing through it. He paused when he came to the section about the cruise ship entertainment. Gerard's photo was, of course, the biggest one. Framed in a neat circle he stared up at him from the glossy page, his bright hazel eyes hard to interpret, his smile as mischievous as always. His hand had fanned out a deck of cards perfectly, all of them with their back facing the camera, except for one card in the middle, which was the Jack of Hearts. Gerard looked gorgeous, of course. A little annoyed, Frank closed the brochure, throwing it aside. That was typical, getting involved with someone like that during the first week of his new job. His first week. Who does that?
"God, that son of a bitch," he muttered intently, taking another swig of his sickeningly warm beer, and then almost choking on it when a thin meow suddenly pierced the silence. Startled and confused, Frank stared across the table and noticed a small black and white kitten sitting neatly by his abandoned bags, watching him curiously with green eyes that almost seemed too big for its head.
"Oh, of course," he uttered, annoyed, his thoughts immediately aimed at Mrs. Crimbleton next door; this wasn't the first time a cat of hers had decided to go exploring and eventually ended up in his apartment. "The woozy bat. I gotta remember to keep my door shut."
He sighed and put the bottle away, walking over to the ball of fur staring at him. Purring intently, it got up and rubbed itself clumsily against his feet, producing as much sound as its little body could muster. It meowed sharply as he picked it up.
"Okay, and what do we have here?" he said, tilting his head. The cat squinted back at him. "You're not supposed to be here, y'know. You're crazy cat lady material, and even though I may be crazy, I sure am no lady. I'm more of a dog person, anyway, so I don't know why you're purring at me. You should be going all ninja on me right now."
Frank carried the kitten outside, tempted to just leave it there and close his door on it, but he gave up on that option right away; he didn't have the heart to do that. With a reluctant sigh he walked over to the old woman's door and knocked. A couple of long quiet minutes passed, but eventually he could hear shuffling footsteps and her clumsy hands fumbling with the lock. She opened, staring at him with a puzzled expression on her face.
"I think this one's yours," he said, holding the kitten up in front of her.
"Whiskers!" Mrs. Crimbleton exclaimed immediately, her wrinkled face breaking into a wide, relieved smile. "Oh, Whiskers, there you are, I have looked all over for you! I thought you'd wandered off and gotten lost!"
Frank tried not to wonder how many cats by the name of Whiskers she actually had, and if she was capable of telling them all apart, let alone care for them.
"He didn't go far," he assured her as he handed her the purring creature. "He was just visiting me for a minute, that's all."
"Why, thank you, young man," she said, cradling the kitten in her arms. "That's very nice of you to give him back."
Apparently she had already forgotten both his name and the fact that he'd been rude to her earlier; she was talking to him as though he was just a random passerby who had happened to find her cat. He nodded a "no problem" at her and started backing away.
"Oh, wait a minute," she added quickly. "Did you meet that girl yet?"
"Uhm, what girl?" Frank asked. He paused with his hand resting on the door handle, frowning at her.
"You know; that girl who was here looking for you," Mrs. Crimbleton said impatiently, as if it was obvious that he should know what she meant. "She told me she'd be back. Well... you do live here, don't you?"
"Yeah, I live here…" he said slowly, pretty certain the woman was making up things and was now for whatever reasons mistaking him for someone else. "But if she said she'd be back, then I guess she will," he continued, just playing along. Arguing about it would be useless anyway.
"I do hope so," she said, watching him seriously, "because I think it was very important. She seemed worried."
"Then she'll probably show up," Frank replied, brushing it off with a reassuring smile. "Don't worry about it, Mrs. Crimbleton. Thanks for the heads-up."
Quickly, he disappeared inside and closed his door before she could add anything more. He returned to his warm beer, yet again picking up the Envision brochure.
The remaining time he was trapped on land, Frank did his best to avoid the problems he'd tried so hard to keep out of his life. Two of the major ones however, his parents, were among the problems he hadn't expected he'd be able to escape from. Of course they had to stop by to express their usual disappointment in his lack of ambition and to complain further about his incomplete education. His Mom especially had grabbed the opportunity to whine some more about how he could have gone and gotten himself a nice and "safe" job rather than a "risky" one. He was a bright kid; if only he'd gotten himself a good education from a good university. She then proceeded to complain about how this was completely out of the question now anyway because he'd gone and gotten himself tattooed. He should have listened to them; he could have become a prosecutor, for example. Frank didn't even bother telling her that a prosecutor might just as well end up with a bunch of criminal enemies, and that visible tattoos weren't tolerated any more aboard the Envision Destiny than they were in a court room.
All of that might've been his mother's way of telling him that she cared about him, but she sounded like nothing more than a broken, old record. He mentally brushed it all away with the simple fact that she was a particularly neurotic woman and difficult to please; sometimes Frank was surprised he hadn't turned out a complete wreck himself. So instead of being snide about it, he answered her with the standard reply, which was basically just standing there with his hands in his pockets and shrugging, followed by a determined stretch of silence. He couldn't be less bothered with arguing about his goddamn life anymore. They couldn't touch him anyway. He didn't even need them to support him financially anymore now that he'd found himself a proper job. Soon he would maybe be able to afford a better place to live. He didn't need their pity money.
Apart from avoiding his problems the best he could, he also spent a considerable amount of time thinking about Gerard. Even though he told himself all the time that he didn't want to think about him, he was always eventually faced with the fact that resistance was futile. He kept leafing through the Envision brochure from time to time; sometimes he suspected he was doing it without thinking, as if looking absently through those glossy pages and then lingering at the entertainment section was a natural thing to do.
It was when he was writing a check list for his next departure that Frank realized he was starting to miss him. Whether the guy was a major asshole or not he was actually missing him, which was a very bizarre feeling in itself. Frank was aware that it was a stupid thing to do, to willingly expose himself to a person like that. But at the same time there was something in his gut that told him there were certain things in this whole situation that he should hold on to, that maybe the Gerard he was used to and thought he knew wasn't the true Gerard at all, the Gerard he should know. He wasn't sure; maybe the accusations about delusions were fair, maybe he was blind to something he should have paid attention to long ago. Maybe he was just having delusions about being able to get through to him and flick the switch that would change him when there might be no such switches in existence. Maybe this was him just plunging his hand into complete and utter darkness, his fingers fumbling after nothing. Maybe Gerard hadn't built any walls or barriers to shield his true self; maybe this was his true self. He could be just an asshole, period. At the same time, how could he know for sure? It was hard to ignore the fact that he was missing the guy, and even after considering all other possible and horrifying explanations for Gerard's complicated self, the urging feeling in his gut still remained.
He was rummaging through his drawers when there was a knock on the door, and it was so unexpected that it made his stomach twitch. He waited to see if he'd just imagined it when the knock came again, sharper this time.
"If it's my parents again I swear to God…" Frank muttered irritably to himself as he reluctantly went to answer it.
A young woman was standing outside, busy with glancing restlessly over her shoulder, almost as though she was expecting somebody else to show up. She abruptly turned to face him when she heard the door swing open. From what he could gather at first glance she was very pretty and about his age; she was wearing a simple, red blouse and a white summer skirt, her dark brown hair collected in a single, thick herringbone braid resting over her shoulder. She was clutching a straw bag, smiling timidly at him.
"Yeah?" he said, automatically thinking that she was either with Jehovah's Witnesses or that she was there to try and sell him something.
"Frank?" she asked, searching his face to get some sort of confirmation that she was right, but her smile indicated that she’d found the one she'd been looking for.
He frowned; the fact that she was so direct and informal surprised him. That immediately ruled out both saleswoman and Jehovah's Witnesses. He tried to place her face somewhere in his memory, but failed.
"Uhm, do I know you?"
"I figured you probably wouldn't remember me," she said, giving him a genuine smile that assured him that it was okay, that it was no surprise. "I'm Lisa. Lisa Moore? I called you a couple of days ago? I left you some messages. Too many, I think," she added, embarrassed.
Once she told him her last name it finally dawned on Frank who she was. He could vaguely recall that the end of his high school years had involved a certain Lisa. That was a rather unclear part of his past; everything he did had been all about wasting his life and whatever money he had on alcohol, tattoos and various crappy concerts with various unknown bands that all wanted to make it "big" but most likely never would. Lisa had been part of the same useless, wannabe-rebellious group he used to hang out with, but that was ages ago. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd seen her; all of a sudden she just disappeared out of everybody's lives. He'd just assumed that she’d dropped out. They'd never kept in touch anyway. Hell, he hadn't kept in touch with any of those losers. Could this be that same Lisa? In any case she had changed a lot, and definitely to the better.
Well, this is awkward, he thought. He wondered what she wanted with him now, after all this time.
"Oh… Right," he said, hesitating. He felt a little guilty about deleting all her messages without paying attention to them. "Lisa Moore. Of course. It's… it's been a while, I guess. By the way, I'm really sorry about the messages; I've been away at work the past week and I haven't really, you know, settled or anything... I'm leaving again pretty soon, so…"
"Oh. Okay, don't worry about it, it's not a problem," she replied, before adding: "I'm sorry, but do you think you could just excuse me for one tiny second?"
"Uh… Sure," he nodded, confused. He watched her as she walked over to the stairs, leaning slightly over the old, paint-chipped railing and quickly searching whatever she could see of the floor below.
"Caden?" she shouted; her voice was stern, but mostly she sounded worried. "Caden, you've played with that kitten enough now. Come up here, please. This instant."
He frowned again, rummaging through his brain and trying to figure out what she wanted, while at the same time wondering if this Caden-guy also was some ghost from the past that he was supposed to know. His thinking got interrupted by the sound of stamping feet, heading up the stairs towards them, and a little boy at about six years old soon came into view. He ran straight over to Lisa, giving Frank a quick scan with his big hazel eyes, an action which seemed to leave a somewhat suspicious and wary expression upon his face.
"I'm so sorry," Lisa apologized. "He spotted a kitten downstairs and I couldn't stop him from running after it… This is Caden. My son," she added.
The last words coming out of her mouth were like a tiny row of heavy punches. She put her arm around the boy’s thin shoulders; he still seemed a little suspicious, his head slightly tilted.
Frank could only stare back, feeling hot and cold at the same time, vaguely realizing that his grip on the door handle had tightened considerably. He then looked at Lisa, who gave him another timid smile and a little shrug, telling him that she was fully aware of what he was thinking; the little boy standing beside her looked exactly like he'd been taken straight out of one of Frank's old baby photos.
Chapter 10: Nine
"How old did you say he was?" Frank asked, trying not to let his hand tremble too much as he handed Lisa her glass of water. She had politely thanked no to both coffee and beer, which seemed like a wise decision; he couldn't find any coffee anywhere, and even though he'd gotten around to fixing his fridge, the beer was still disgusting.
"He's six, turning seven later in December," Lisa replied, looking at Caden and smiling warmly.
The boy was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV. He was watching MTV Made with mild interest, sipping from a can of Sprite Zero that Frank luckily enough had discovered hiding in his fridge.
Minutes before, when they'd been standing outside just waiting for him to invite them in, he'd thrown Lisa a panicky glance that was practically screaming "Is this kid mine?" When she had smiled carefully and shrugged him a vague "Maybe?" it was as though his brain went completely haywire. In the end he'd somehow managed to finally pull himself together and invited them in.
His lips and voice had been struggling through the standard set of sentences where he apologized for the mess, then the fact that he only had leftover pizza to offer them, and then the mess again. He automatically grabbed old newspapers and magazines off the table and pointlessly tucked them away somewhere else. He watched his own hands arrange the pillows on the couch, but he felt so disconnected. His head found itself in a different world ruled by frantic conditions; his thoughts were impossible to grasp and lock down.
"So…" Frank squinted, trying to wrap his head around some simple math but found that everything in his head was still a mess. "You got him when you were…?"
"Seventeen," Lisa finished for him. Then she sighed. "Look, Frank," she added, lowering her voice and glancing at Caden, making sure he was occupied by the TV, "there's not much to explain. You've already guessed what this is about and I can see that it's freaking you out right now. I'm sorry about that, I really am. But I'm not here because I wanna be a bitch and ruin your life or anything. I just…"
She paused, staring at the glass in her hands. Frank didn't know what to say so he kept his mouth shut. She looked back up, slightly desperate.
"He's already a first grader now and he's noticed that most other kids his age has got two parents. He's asking questions and I – well, what am I supposed to tell him? That I don't know for sure who his father is? I can't tell him that. I wasn't sure what to do, but I – I figured I'd visit you –" She closed her eyes momentarily, like she was embarrassed, before finishing the sentence: "I figured I'd visit you first."
The words coming out of her mouth were like snatched out from the middle of a sentence, jumbled and hesitant, even though they made perfect sense grammatically. Her voice quivered and she bit her lip. A couple of tears were too quick for her and made their way down her cheeks; she quickly brushed them away with the back of her hand. "I'm sorry," she said, looking down.
"Besides me..." Frank began, shifting awkwardly on the spot. "Who else did you, uh... have in mind?"
"God, this sounds so horrible now." She closed her eyes again, taking a deep breath. "Okay, I've spent ages going over this, and I hope I didn't get all the math wrong, but you're honestly the one who fits the time frame. I'm not gonna say anything for certain though," she added quickly. "I don't remember everything one hundred percent. It's you or it's not. A paternity test is all it takes, but... you don't have to say yes. I just figured I'd try."
Frank sighed heavily, pulling his palms across his face and leaving his vision blurry. For a moment all he wanted to do was to tell her that she couldn't just show up like that with a kid on her arm and drop such a bomb, but then he realized it wouldn't really make much of a difference. He looked at the boy sitting on the floor; when he'd stared into his face it was no denying that it had been just like staring at his own childhood. It had almost been the same as looking at a photograph of himself hanging on the fridge in his parents' kitchen; just on pure looks alone he got punched deep in his gut by a feeling that told him that this child could actually be his. For some reason he'd always believed he could just do whatever he wanted when he was younger; he'd escape the past anyway, but apparently he'd been more careless back then than he'd thought. He absently made a mental note about choosing his words carefully when talking to Mrs. Crimbleton in the future; it turned out she wasn't as senile as he liked to think. When she'd mentioned the girl who was looking for him it was obvious she had been talking about Lisa.
"So… What happens if he is mine?" he asked; the words were slow and sticky to get out, clinging to his tongue, as if it was hard and unnatural for him to say them.
Lisa shrugged one of her shoulders slightly, her hands still cupped around her untouched glass of water.
"That's kinda up to you, isn't it? It's not like you left us or even knew anything about it, so I'm not gonna force any responsibility on you. Like I said, I'm not trying to turn your life around; I'm not after child support and… well, I'm not after you," she added, smiling sheepishly. "I know I should've come here much sooner, but I just figured… if it turned out you actually had a son, wouldn't you wanna hear about it from his Mom now, rather than having him show up on your door twenty years from now?"
He had never thought about it like that. Then again, he'd never imagined he'd ever have a reason to think like that. Still he nodded slowly, staring absently at the MTV-show. Some awkward, unpopular teenager was on a one week mission to become a rock star. So far he wasn't doing very well. Frank felt like he was undergoing some drastic, staggering changes himself; he just wasn't sure which way.
"I don't want him to get angry with me one day either," she continued, "because I never tried to find his Dad. It's selfish of me, I know, but the older he gets, the more he'll want to know. I think he deserves to know that he's got a father out there too, even though his situation's different." She hesitated. "I thought you deserved to know."
"Yeah," Frank said quietly, "I get that. But how are you gonna tell him? If it really is me, I mean. What're you gonna say to him?"
"I'll find a way to explain, one way or another," Lisa replied, trying to sound reassuring. "He'll understand. And he's easier to deal with now than I guess he'll be when he's a teenager anyway, so... I'll just have to make it a good explanation."
She stared absently at the TV, her expression letting him know that in reality, she wasn't sure how she was supposed to do that.
Frank suddenly knew all too well that he wouldn't be able to turn her request down. For one, he didn't want the bad conscience that would follow if he did, but he knew he'd also be killing himself with doubt if he refused, having to think about it for the majority of his life, and possibly regretting it. Maybe it sounded like the last thing on earth that he wanted to get involved with; he couldn't even picture himself fathering a child, but sometimes attitudes and feelings show the tendency to change. Who knew? Either way, he felt like he had to give it a shot.
"How… How do you do a paternity test anyway?" he asked.
"I have a kit at home," she said hopefully. "I bought it at Walmart. You send a spit sample to a lab; that's all. You get the results by email after five days or so. I can take care of everything, that's not a problem… I just need a sample."
Frank continued to stare at the TV-screen. The young rock star was getting a makeover now, having his hair cut and dyed, his wardrobe changed. He didn't look too bad. Caden was starting to get restless, repeatedly looking over his shoulder at his Mom, an impatient expression resting upon his face.
At last, Frank stole a glance at Lisa. Yeah, she had most definitely changed a lot over the past few years. There was nothing left of the beat down, wannabe-suicidal teenage girl he'd hung out with, not even a trace. That girl seemed to be oceans away, left in her own drunk and hazy part of the past. That alone should be a good enough reason to do what she asked of him; she seemed to have pulled herself together one hundred percent, and she was finally facing the consequences of what she'd done. In a way he both admired and envied that.
"Alright," he nodded, taking a deep breath. "I'll do it."
"Seriously. Tonight, if possible; I'm leaving for work in a few days and I'll be gone for a week or so. The sooner, the better."
For a moment, Lisa looked at him with disbelief, clearly having expected that he would turn her down in the end. Then her face broke into a genuinely relieved smile.
"Of course," she nodded eagerly, slightly breathless. "Of course. I'll drop Caden off with my parents and then I'll be back." She reached forward and put her hand on his arm, squeezing it lightly. "You have no idea how much this means to me, Frank. Thank you."
The next day, Lisa called to tell him that the DNA-samples had been sent off to the laboratory, and Frank gradually started to feel extremely restless, more than he'd ever felt before. The strangest thing was how everything in his surroundings also seemed to remind him that he had good reason to be restless. He couldn't watch TV because the only thing that seemed to be on were shows about teenage Moms and child disciplining; even the most frequent commercials had the tendency to be about diapers, baby powder, baby food and toys, and if they weren't, they most definitely included a child just about Caden's age, eating Oreos or opening a Kinder Egg. He could hardly turn on the computer because he'd always end up constantly struggling against himself, trying not to Google facts and articles about paternity tests, fatherhood and child development, and he couldn't even read a paper or a magazine without stumbling across some ad which depicted a kid that reminded him of Caden. Not even forcing himself to think about Gerard seemed to help; he'd been shoved to the very back of his mind and there it seemed like he had decided to stay.
He still had two days left before he had to be back on the ship, and there was no other place he'd rather be, considering the situation, but worrying about it all by himself wasn't going to help him much. So in the end he called Lisa, offering to take her and the kid out for dinner; he figured if he just got to know them both a little better, things might make more sense. That was the only sensible thing his brain could come up with anyway.
"But it's not gonna get any classier than Pizza Hut, just so you know," he said over the phone.
"That's perfect," she laughed. "Pizza Hut is our favorite. Thank you," she added, sounding wholeheartedly grateful, "I really appreciate it."
They decided on the Pizza Hut closest to Caden's school and agreed to meet there as soon as Lisa had picked him up. Frank showed up a little early, and as he stood there passing the time with a cigarette, absently watching the afternoon rush unfold in front of him, he spotted a bus with an Envision ad applied onto its side. The company's slogan, Envision it, now live it, was looming in big, proud letters above a photo of the easily recognizable Envision Destiny. He followed the bus with his eyes until it disappeared at the end of the street, eventually concealed by a large, rumbling Coca Cola truck that swung onto the road. He realized again how much he missed the ship, despite his short shore leave. It didn't matter how new he was in his job; it didn't feel right to be on land anymore. He had to get back to the sea, that's where he was supposed to be.
Frank kept staring after the bus, even though it was long gone. Would that change if it turned out he had a son? How much did he understand; how much had actually started to sink in? Right now, standing outside this particular Pizza Hut, could he really fathom how much his entire life would change if he possibly became a father?
Hey, what about Gerard? his mind echoed. There was a momentary flutter in his stomach when that thought randomly crossed his mind. Then it quickly died away; someone called his name from across the street and he forgot all about it. He looked up and saw Lisa waving at him, holding Caden by the hand and carrying a blue and red Transformers backpack over her shoulder. The boy had seemed to have spotted him long ago; he was jumping restlessly up and down on the spot as they waited for the walk sign, eager to cross the street.
"I'm so sorry you had to wait!" she apologized when they reached him, sounding out of breath and looking very flustered. "Someone on the evening shift was running late and they made me stay another twenty minutes. I had to call the school and ask if Caden could stay in the classroom or something until I could get there, I didn't want him to wait on the street all alone, and when they finally let me go the bus was taking ages because of the traffic. God, I'm so very sorry."
"No, it's okay," he assured her, laughing a little, "don't worry about it." Frank tilted his head and looked down at Caden, who was now beaming back at him instead of looking suspicious. "Hey, little man," he said, "you ready to beat me at pizza eating?"
"Yeah!" the boy nodded enthusiastically.
"Oh, my gosh, he's been looking forward to this all day," Lisa admitted. "Could hardly sit still in class, could you?"
"I bet you're both starving; I know I am," Frank grinned. "Let's eat!"
When they had finished their meal, Caden immediately disappeared inside the kids' playroom. The boy turned out to be the kind of child who was quite a handful, once he got over his initial shyness. He talked nonstop about everything and nothing, and he was hardly able to sit still and eat his food, his feet constantly kicking and his attention constantly wandering. Frank's head was undeniably a little relieved that he was off playing somewhere else for a while.
"So you work on a cruise ship these days, huh?" Lisa asked him, bringing up a topic that they hadn't had the chance to talk about yet.
"Yeah, I work for Envision," he nodded, playing absently with the straw in his Coke, stirring the ice cubes around. "I'm stationed on the Destiny cruise for now, at the bars mostly. Not that I'm the actual bartender or anything. I guess you could say I'm the bartender's bitch. I've only been employed for a week though, so that's not really a huge surprise."
"I see," she laughed. "Well, the rookie is always the one dealing with all the crap, right? It sounds like the kind of job where you can advance once you get the ball rolling though. I bet you'll make a great bartender someday, Frank," she added, smiling.
"Yeah… I don't know about that. But I'm planning on staying there for a while. At least I've finally found a job where I don't have this immediate urge to start a riot," he joked. "What about you, where do you work?"
"Oh, I just wait tables at a vegan restaurant downtown," she shrugged. "It's okay, but not very lucrative, so I'm looking for an extra job. It's just hard to find something that's both decent and worth the bother."
"Do you have time to hold down two jobs?" Frank asked, even though he already knew the answer to that.
"No, I don't," she said, flashing him a weak smile. "Not at all. I'm planning on going back to college so I can finish my education and hopefully get a job with better pay. I know there are part-time courses where it'll only take you about two years to finish. I just need to afford it, which requires that I work extra, but then I won't have time to study. That's the main problem. It's a little ironic."
"You know, I can't even imagine how you've managed to deal with this, with… everything." He looked at her, slightly amazed. "You must've had your hands full. And at our age that sort of thing usually sucks."
She took a deep breath and looked around briefly, as if what she was about to say next needed some consideration, just so she got her facts straight.
"Yeah, well… I was having a baby. For the first time in my life, something I did actually had consequences that I couldn't run away from; I just had to deal with it. I considered getting an abortion to begin with, but obviously I couldn't do it. It just seemed too easy, if you know what I mean? I'd never forgive myself anyway and honestly, I'm so glad I didn't do it. Having Caden just changed me completely; I stopped wasting my life, I decided to take high school more seriously, and he's even brought me closer to my parents. They've helped me out a lot; they still do." She looked down, laughing. "You know, I thought my Dad was going to kick me out. He kinda did, actually."
"What?" Frank stared at her. "Your folks kicked you out?"
"Yeah, I got kicked out," she nodded, a little amused. "But not like that. They just really wanted me to graduate and even though my Dad was freaking out, it's thanks to him that everything went so well. He decided to get me on an alternative program, you know, for pregnant teens? Since that was at another school I was so against it, he pretty much had to carry me out in the car. God, I was causing so much drama that day, but I'm glad he forced me. Now he's the proudest grandfather out there."
Lisa turned her head in the direction of the playroom, grinning widely when she spotted her son. They waved at each other and Frank couldn't help but smile. He could tell that she was absolutely right; she had changed thanks to Caden, and she was grateful for it.
"I'm not gonna lie though," she admitted. "This wasn't exactly the kind of life I had in mind. I wish I didn't have to worry about money all the time, and I wish I didn't have to drop my kid off with my parents as often as I do. I definitely wish I'd been more responsible so I could have prepared myself and given him a better life. Caden's teachers keep telling me that he's mature for his age, that he's very bright and ahead of the rest of his class, and I'm never sure how I'm supposed to respond to that. I'm awfully proud, of course, but I don't know if I have the resources to actually encourage that. On top of everything I feel like Caden knows, sometimes he just acts like he does. You know, he only called me 'Mommy' for the first four years of his life. 'It's gonna be okay, Mom', he keeps telling me now."
She smiled again, before it gradually faded. Her hands were playing absently with a paper napkin, and she had directed a glassy, thoughtful stare at the leftover pizza.
"Sometimes… it's like he really wants to assure me that everything's under control. And because he hasn't even turned seven yet, it makes me feel a little bad. He's a kid; he shouldn't have to worry about that."
Lisa shook her head slightly, pulling herself out of her thoughts, and looked back up at Frank. She threw her hands halfway up in the air, shrugging.
"But that's just how it is. It'll have to change sooner or later. And if you look at the big picture it doesn't seem so bad; I have an amazing kid and we get by. Besides, I've never had child services standing outside my door so I guess I'm doing something right," she added jokingly.
While listening to her story, Frank had stopped stirring the melting ice cubes in his glass and was now just staring thoughtfully at her. A part of him felt sorry for her, but most of all he was awed.
"Okay, wow," he said at last. "I swear that you're like superwoman, or something."
"No, come on," she giggled, a hint of blushing pink filling her face. "I had to grow the fuck up, that's all."
The conversation died for a brief moment. Lisa was clutching the napkin in her hand, curling it up into a tight ball.
"Frank, listen," she began awkwardly, "I feel really bad about everything." She hesitated, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. "I thought about you a lot after I changed schools and I always had my suspicions that you might be Caden's father. I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner; if I'd done it right away we could have settled things then, but… I don't know. I guess I was afraid of how you'd react. In the end it just turned out like this. It feels horrible to be barging into your life and turning things upside-down and –"
"Uhm, hello?" Frank interrupted her, shaking his head incredulously. "You're talking about the teenage version of me. Seriously – don't you remember how fucked up I was back then? I was one of the worst, if not the worst. And I know what you're getting at, I really do, but I honestly think you've been doing the right thing all along. I bet the Frank back then would have freaked out and been the biggest douche ever. I would have straight out blamed you, saying you'd scarred me for life or some shit like that. It took me a lot longer to pull myself together, and even at this point I still feel pretty new at this grown-up thing. So don't worry about it," he assured her, and he felt that he meant it too, that it wasn’t something he was just saying to make her feel better. "I'm not angry with you, if that's what you think. If I was, I wouldn't have agreed to do that test. We wouldn't even be sitting here right now."
A look of relief seemed to settle around Lisa; her shoulders appeared to drop, her eyes didn't look so worried, her lips not so tight. It was like she could finally relax a little. Caden came running towards them in that moment, looking excited, and interrupted their conversation.
"Mom – look what I made!" he shouted, proudly holding up some kind of colorful figure made out of Legos.
"Wow, sweetie, I love it!" Lisa replied, reaching out to caress his dark brown hair. "Is this another robot?"
"An autobot, Mom," Caden said matter-of-factly, correcting her. "It's Optimus Prime," he went on, in a tone that indicated that it was the most obvious thing the world.
"Oh, right, I’m sorry," she apologized, sending Frank an amused wink, "an autobot, of course."
"Here, let me have a closer look at what you got there, buddy," Frank requested, extending his hand. "Oh yeah," he continued, holding the Lego figure carefully, like it was an actual living, breathing thing, "this is Optimus Prime, I can totally see that. And you really made this?"
"Uh-huh," the boy nodded again, beaming proudly. "All by myself. I've made lots of them."
"Really? Well, you're a pretty good at it, Caden," he said, handing the figure back to him. "If Optimus Prime himself saw this I bet he'd be real impressed."
The six year old fell silent and looked thoughtfully at him for a little while, before asking bluntly: "Are you Mom's boyfriend now? Because I think that'd be great."
The table turned quiet for a couple of slow seconds. Frank stared at him, surprised at the statement that seemed to have been snatched completely out of nowhere. For a fleeting moment he started wondering just how much kids actually observed and understood. Hesitatingly, he opened his mouth while frantically searching for a suitable reply, but before he could say anything, Lisa cut in and saved him.
"Okay, Caden, I think that's enough," she said, softly but sternly, reaching out and turning him gently around. "Now you put that back in the playroom and check that you didn't forget anything in there. Go."
"Oh, my God, I'm so sorry about that," she said as she watched him run back. She glanced at Frank, pulling a face. "But once you get him going he can be so straightforward and talkative, he'll just blurt out with anything he sees fit."
"No, it's okay, I just… I totally understand," Frank stuttered, still surprised. He shrugged slightly, and without thinking he added: "I was pretty talkative too when I was a kid."
He realized what he was about to say when he was halfway in the sentence, but it was too late to stop; the rest of the words trailed happily out of his mouth on their own, like they were nothing but impostors using his voice. An awkward, short silence filled the space between them. Lisa appeared to be recollecting her thoughts as well as herself, but before she could say anything to replace the silence Frank had created, Caden came running back, and dinner was officially over.
Chapter 11: Ten
The day he finally found himself back on the Destiny, Frank couldn't think about anything but the phone call he was expecting from Lisa. He could hardly wrap his mind around whatever else he was doing. As he checked his cell phone over and over again for any missed calls, he kept thinking that she should have gotten the test results by now; she should have called ages ago. Why was it taking so long?
He was completely absorbed in his thoughts when he walked through the half-empty ship, running small errands for the bartenders and getting things ready for the guests who were soon going to embark. He didn't even take the time to treasure the feeling of being back in his right element. On his very first day aboard he'd spent ages just savoring the fresh smell of coffee that reached him when he walked past the coffee bars, and he'd promised himself that he would never tire of that. This time however he didn't pay any attention to it. He was too absent-minded to listen to the soft clinking of cutlery in the dining room as the tables were set, and to the waiters quietly quarreling between themselves over table decorations and napkins. The place held the same kind of quiet and subtly busy atmosphere you'd find in airports early in the morning or late at night, just minutes before a tremendous rush of people were expected. Frank didn't notice; he was lost in his own world. His mind seemed to be left on land somewhere.
In the end he realized that he was starting to forget what he was supposed to be doing, and he spent a moment to mentally shake himself, making his way back to the world that was here and now. He randomly picked up a free copy of the Envision brochure to help him get his mind onto another track that wasn’t heading for possible parenthood. That's when he noticed that the entertainment section looked very different. A more thorough look confirmed that it had been considerably altered; the main attraction was now some kind of acrobatic circus company. What about Gerard's show? He wasn't mentioned anywhere at all. He frowned, searching through the rest of the booklet but couldn't find anything about him.
Frank's heart was gradually pumping harder and harder as he slowly leafed through the brochure one more time, thinking he might have overlooked something. He stubbornly ignored the little voice inside his head even though he knew it was right; if Gerard was mentioned in it, it wouldn’t be possible to overlook. He wasn't exactly the kind of guy you just mentioned in a small note without a considerably larger, flashy picture attached to it.
He looked helplessly around, as though he might show up if he actively kept an eye out for him. Of course, Gerard didn't turn up, and as the week progressed Frank could eventually confirm one thing; that he wasn't aboard the Envision Destiny at all.
"Hey, Jill, whatever happened to The Great Gerardo?" Frank asked casually one night, as they were preparing to close the Colossus bar; they were quickly nearing the end of his second week now and he was proud to realize that he had already arrived at a complete stop when it came to destroying glassware; no more accidents and no more butterfingers.
He was consciously making a little fun of him, trying not to sound too curious, just that he was simply throwing a random question out there. Jill put down the ice bucket she was emptying.
"That's actually a good question," she replied, frowning. "I honestly don't know, to tell you the truth. I haven't seen him."
"You mean Gerard Way?"
Kevin, the other bartender, had overheard their conversation. Frank nodded, trying not to look too hopeful.
"Well, I heard he got transferred to another cruise, actually. I think he's on one of the Culture ships now or something. Ice, most likely."
"Ice?" Jill repeated, a short, disbelieving laugh accompanying her surprised face. "Ice has got a long way to go before it reaches the same standard as Destiny. The Culture ships in general aren't really Gerard's type anyway, they're way too boring for him. Even an Adventure ship would be better," she added. "They're at least a lot noisier. Can't see why they'd send him there."
"You're right, I haven't got a clue why he's not here," Kevin shrugged. "This is our flagship, after all. But I'm thinking that the company just wanted to change up on Destiny's entertainment section and draw more attention to their other liners, since this one's doing so well, I mean. If you ask me he'll probably be back pretty soon; I know some of our regulars have been wondering about his whereabouts. They think it's ridiculous that he's not here anymore."
Of course they do, they're all in love with him, Frank thought, but didn't get to comment on it before his cell phone started vibrating in his pocket. His heart skipped a beat, as if waiting for a special phone call that never came eventually made him forget all about it, and when it actually came it nearly startled him to death. He threw a glance at the caller-ID and saw Lisa's name flashing at him. He excused himself, walking away from the bar with tense shoulders and a wildly beating heart. It almost made him want to embrace his own body and just curl up around his cell phone.
"Hey, Frank," Lisa's voice said. "It's me."
"Hey, Lisa, how are you?" he asked, resisting the urge to speed up and fast-forward the conversation. He decided to stick with being polite.
"Great," she replied, before she adjusted it considerably with a: "Just fine." There was a slight pause. "How are you?" she eventually added.
"I'm okay," he said, which was true; he was just okay. Nothing more, nothing less. Maybe a little less, if he had to choose.
"So, listen," Lisa began hesitantly, and Frank straightened up, his heart picking up its pace, "I'm sorry it took me so long to get to you, but it's been real hectic at work lately. Anyway, I got the results now."
"Yeah? And?" He could hardly utter the words; his mouth had gone dry in an instant. His heartbeats echoed through his head, their volume turned up so much it was almost hurting him physically.
"Frank – Caden… Caden's ours," she replied, and judging from her voice it sounded like she decided it was best she didn't delay it any longer. "You're his Dad."
Frank immediately slumped against the wall; it caused him great amount of effort to keep himself from meeting the carpeted floor face first. His knuckles whitened around his cell phone, his hand squeezing it tightly against his ear. A buzzing sound filled his head and it was like having his breath mentally knocked out of him. He pinched the root of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut, just to make sure that he was still breathing. Nonetheless, the buzzing remained.
"Frank? Are you still there?"
"Yeah, sorry, I'm here. Uhm, are – are you sure?"
"Well, these tests are supposed to be reliable, so I'm pretty certain. I guess we can do another one, just in case, but… looks to me like you've officially become a father." Lisa paused. "I'm so sorry," she added, guilt clearly audible in her voice, and he could tell that she'd been dreading delivering the news to him.
"No," Frank replied quickly, "no, don't say that. Don't be sorry, okay, I didn't mean it like that. Caden's an awesome kid but I… I'm just surprised. And that's putting it mildly. I need some time for… well, everything to sink in. I guess you can never be too prepared for something like this."
"You knew he was yours all along, didn't you?" she asked, after yet another short pause, stating a fact more than she was asking a question. "I think you knew from the moment you first saw him. There was just something about you that… I don't know how to explain it. You just knew, even though you didn't completely understand what it all meant."
"Yeah," Frank nodded to himself, sighing a little. "Yeah, maybe I did. But… fuck. I've got a kid. Holy crap. I'm kinda in shock here."
They eventually said their goodbyes after he promised he would call her up again later, once he'd managed to collect his thoughts. They seemed to be scattered all over the place right now. He had no idea how long it would take for him to get them all under control so he could start to fully realize what had just happened to his life.
"Frank, what's the matter?" Jill asked the moment he came back. He was trying not to look too shaken up but obviously he wasn't doing a very good job. "It looks like you've just received some really bad news. Are you okay?"
"Uhm, yeah," he stammered, "I mean, no – uh, I mean, yes. Yes, I'm okay, I'm good, but I got…"
He forced himself to shut up, letting out a shaky, slightly frustrated laugh; now he was just standing there stringing together words that didn't fit. It only made him sound like a complete idiot.
"Okay. I didn't get bad news, and it’s a really, really long story, but – well, to make it short; I have just…"
He stopped again, tasting the words before he uttered them, and he caught himself shaking his head in a moment’s surprise; suddenly it was like things were finally starting to make sense to him.
"I have just become a Dad."
It took him a while, but Frank realized how quickly he could get used to one specific thought, one particular change. Later, as the months came and went, passing in their ever changing cloaks of rain, frying sunlight and humid winds, he found out how quickly he could make an entirely new situation feel like a natural part of his life. It was like he was getting in touch with how it was really like being human, as though he just had to look inwards and truly discover his impressive ability to adapt, an ability that had been passed down to him through millions of years of evolution. He wasn't living the same life as before, it had gone through some drastic changes, but he soon found that it wasn't really a problem. He was okay with the recent turn of events; all he had to do was to just make it his new life. After all, life always has a funny tendency to go on no matter what.
When it came to his job, he'd finally started to regard himself as a regular employee on the cruise. He left and he came back; he spent half a week at home, sometimes more, and then he left again. It wasn't like most other jobs, but he liked it. Besides, his days were starting to fill up with routines and that was something new to him. He'd used to be terrified of routines, afraid it would make him boring and ordinary, but they didn't change him at all; on the contrary they were actually pretty useful. He had no idea that routines could feel so safe.
Jill had extended her recommendations to the management. If he did a good job for the next few months, they would consider if anything could be gained by sending him on a six month bartending course on the company's expenses. He might fail and prove himself worthless at tending a bar professionally, but having completed a course like that would at least look good on his résumé. If anything, it would be worth the experience; Frank definitely wouldn't mind.
He thought he was doing a good job already; he was picking up tricks and techniques, becoming more efficient by the day. He was growing both in independence and in confidence, and his hands were as steady as rocks when it came to handling trays, bottles and other glassware. He realized he was even memorizing recipes, almost automatically, especially after Jill had started to let him mix a few simple drinks from time to time under her supervision. However, as of lately, he'd found himself more inside the show room than behind the bar. He was in there so often that he would refer to himself as a cruise ship waiter when people asked him what his job was.
But all that was just the trivial stuff. The biggest difference in Frank's life was the fact that he had a son now. He didn't know what Lisa had told Caden or how she'd managed to explain the situation to him, but then again it didn’t seem like the kid needed any formal introductions. He appeared to adjust surprisingly well to the fact that he suddenly had a father in his life; it was as if Frank's presence in itself was proof enough for him. Despite his sometimes mature behavior he was still a child; he was typically trusting and happy-go-lucky. Frank almost envied that about him and he wished adults could be more like that sometimes; just as long as a safe feeling was accounted for it was okay for things to happen "just like that". Unconditional and childish trust. Frank wished he could adopt that way of thinking, even though it probably was a little too naïve for the world of grown-ups.
At first, unexpectedly becoming a parent undeniably felt a little awkward. He wasn't quite sure what he really thought about it and sometimes he just had too many feelings to keep in check; it was hard to make them compute. In many ways it had been easier to address Caden when the test results were still unknown. Back then he'd just been "Lisa's kid". It wasn't until his son suddenly came to him and asked when he would be back from work that Frank really felt he was able to rid himself of his awkwardness.
"Mom's got a calendar in the kitchen," Caden explained to him. "And I wanna know when you'll be back so I can put a circle around that day. Mom said I could keep a countdown if I wanted. She has a red pen that I can borrow, but I had to promise that I'd be careful so I wouldn't get any ink on my clothes." His voice dropped slightly, like he was about to say something that was both important and secret. "Ink won't always go off when you wash it."
So every morning Caden would cross out the blank dates with a sharpie, eventually getting closer and closer to the one with a red circle around it. It was strangely touching that he was eager to keep track of him like that. It told him that the boy actually missed him while he was away. That was the one gesture Frank really needed.
He had to admit that now that he was spending so much time with his new family, there was a big part of him that absolutely loved fatherhood. That surprised him; he hadn't imagined it would prove to be such a big deal, but whenever he looked at Caden he could feel how his face automatically broke into a smile. It never failed, no matter what his current mood was. The boy was like a miracle cure for sadness. Maybe they'd been strangers to each other for almost seven years, but still there was unmistakably a bond present. Eventually Caden stopped calling him Frank and started referring to him as "Dad", an automatic transition that just happened, and it filled him with a sense of pride he'd never felt before. Not even his hardheaded parents had too many negative thoughts on the new situation. Of course he'd received his usual share of criticism, that was just the kind of people they were, but considering that they hadn't exactly been overjoyed about becoming grandparents to begin with, they were warming up to the role remarkably fast. That was definitely because of no other reason but Caden alone, and the fact that he was impossible not to love.
And that particular feeling of love was a little strange. All his life Frank had only been thinking about his own well-being, putting his own feelings and needs first. This was the first time where he'd let all that go, and he found out that he was more than okay with that. He wasn't just fond of the kid anymore; he genuinely loved him. He was his son, his own flesh and blood. He'd helped a human being into existence and now he was going to help prepare him for life itself. That was something entirely else, something very hard to beat. It changed something inside him that he didn't even know was there, and the world would always look a little bit different than it had before.
Still, lurking around in a deeply hidden part of him, there was some doubt. Regardless of how well it was concealed, that doubt was just strong enough to be felt. He knew all too well that he couldn't actually live with them; Frank couldn't stay with them and play house. Because that's exactly how it would turn out; it would be nice, they could grow used to it, but it would all be pretend. He didn't have any romantic feelings for Lisa, and the more time he spent with her he knew that she didn't either. Like she'd said; she hadn't showed up because of him. Sometimes he still noticed that she really wanted to feel something; at times she even seemed to make an honest attempt at digging out a feeling that was somewhere beyond friendly, but he could tell that she couldn't. On many occasions, Frank had given it an honest try as well but he always gave up, arriving at the same conclusion every time; the two of them would never work out, not like that. They were friends and that was it. Anything past that point felt wrong and awkward. Sometimes he simply wished they could grow into loving each other and that his feelings would change gradually, just for the sake of giving Caden a normal family, but that was impossible. Frank couldn't sacrifice himself entirely; he had to consider what was fair to everyone and that included his own well-being. Besides, no one could force love; the strategy could work but he didn't want to be unhappy. The three of them were perfect the way they were, he just wasn't sure if that would be enough in the long run. It was a situation that was hard to explain.
Another part of his doubt was also rooted in Gerard and in the ever returning hope that he would show up again at one point. Frank didn't like to admit that he was waiting for him, but as time passed, there was still no sign of him. It was just like he'd disappeared for good during one of his own magic tricks; stepped into a box and gone missing. Eventually, when he hadn't seen him for nearly five months, Frank realized that the thoughts he used to have about him didn’t cross his mind all that often anymore, which felt a little strange. Right after he found out he was gone it took him a while to just accept the mere fact that constantly thinking about him would distract him in his work. He tried not to speculate about whether or not Gerard had known about his own transfer back then; maybe it had been a sudden decision by the company, maybe it had all been arranged and taken care of while Frank was on his shore leave. Maybe it had been just as surprising for Gerard as it had been for him. Either way, he couldn't help but wonder if he would have acted differently had he only known that he was going away. If he knew he wasn't coming back to the Destiny, then maybe he would have said something else to him outside the café, or out on the deck that night in the rain. Maybe he would have genuinely apologized. Just been nice, for a change.
Frank wasn't so sure about that. In the end it all boiled down to speculations and the extra questions that followed only made his head hurt. It was enough for him having to deal with all those other things that kept reminding him about the missing magician. They worked like quick triggers, like someone was mentally tapping him on the shoulder or nudging his ribs. He couldn't escape those. Whenever a new show poster was put up outside The Colossus it was always graced by somebody else's face, or some other, completely different act. It was strange not having Gerard's card trick photo there to lock your gaze and stare you down, the familiar mischief in his eyes easily cutting through the glossy surface. Whenever someone came up to the bar and ordered a Manhattan, Frank had to resist the urge to remind the bartender to take an extra cherry and have it resting on the brim of the cocktail glass, just like Gerard liked it. During intermissions, Frank almost automatically expected him to appear in the lobby, joining his audience and basking in their admiration, even though he already knew that somebody else had taken his place. He also couldn't help but find it a little amusing when he noticed that none of them drew quite as much attention as Gerard had done.
To begin with there had been a lot of those reminders, following him around as if they refused him to forget. But time passed, as inevitable as ever, and after all Frank had other things to think about now. Soon he hardly thought about Gerard at all.
Chapter 12: Eleven
Suddenly, as though the winter season had snapped its magical fingers, the Christmas holidays were upon them and the cruise went through a major makeover. Frank had to assist throughout the entire revamping process and he could guarantee that decorating a cruise ship for Christmas was an absolute bitch. He didn't even dare to think about the day when they had to take it all down. Then again, the final result was impressively stunning.
Stylish Christmas trees could be seen on every deck, while The Colossus and The Sparkle in particular were carefully draped in the most magnificent tinsel and bauble decorations you could ever imagine. In fact, it didn't matter where you turned because you could spot a little piece of Christmas everywhere; everything from the food to the shows to the excursions to the music played in the elevators was themed accordingly. The icing on the cake, for the children at least, was probably the fact that one of the larger conference rooms had been turned into Santa's workshop, complete with a rented Santa, a Mrs. Santa, and a handful of elves. It was like an extra ambitious camp for children and a mini Christmas Town mixed together. There was definitely no holding back on the Christmas spirit aboard the Envision Destiny.
It seemed to Frank as if the new slogan had been turned into Everything is up for decoration, because the staff didn't escape all the glitter either. Everyone at the bar had to wear Santa hats at work. Their usual black and neutral vests were replaced with cheery red ones, including a bright green bow tie to go with it. They also received custom made name tags spiced up with holly, and alongside the regular peanuts and salted sticks they offered peppermint candy canes prettied up with ribbons. Everything was in all honesty incredibly cheesy and commercial, and Frank had to admit that at first he couldn't help but feel like an elf of some ridiculous kind. He knew that if he'd witnessed this only a couple of years earlier, he would have thought the whole thing to be nothing more than plain stupidity. But now that he was standing there in his Santa hat, serving happy guests eggnog and gingerbread men, Frank knew that if it had been requested of him he wouldn't mind doing this for another week. The holidays took a cruise ship with an already great atmosphere to an even higher level, and he enjoyed it very much.
This year, Frank was also in for the best present he'd ever received; he would be spending this cruise with Caden and Lisa. Due to the holidays the price rates for tickets dropped, and in a moment of inspiration he'd tried to combine them with his discount for family members; it was one of the few perks that applied to all Envision staff. To his slight surprise, Frank found out that he could actually pull that off. On top of everything Caden had a special discount since he was only six, which in the end left him with very attractive tickets. He figured that if Lisa could afford one half of the price, he'd offer to pay for the other. Of course she'd dug her heels in the ground and refused when he made the suggestion.
"What, are you insane?" she exclaimed. "Frank – no. I can't possibly let you do that for us, it's way too much –"
"Oh, come on," Frank interrupted her. "I've made a genius move here, I need some recognition for this! These are awesome, cheap tickets – not typical for Envision at all. You're the insane one if you don't take them. And honestly, have you guys ever been on a cruise before?"
She hesitated, biting her lip. "Never," she admitted.
"See? You're missing out. Come on, Lisa; it'll be fun," he promised. "Besides, Caden turns seven later this month, right? So look at it as a birthday present in advance. It'll be a huge experience for him, he's gonna have a blast."
"Well…" she began thoughtfully, "I can probably afford them without having to split the bill with you though. I do have some money saved up, and I guess it wouldn't hurt to use them. If I can –"
Frank shook his head, cutting her off again.
"Look, I know we're this weird mix of single-slash-divorced-slash-reunited parents – or whatever you wanna call it. I know you feel like you're accepting gifts from a stranger right now but in the end, we're family, no matter how we decide to do things. And I'd like to take care of the both of you as well, in some way or another, and for me, this is part of that. It's not because I feel like I have to or anything. Just let me do it, okay? Please? I really want you guys to come."
In the end, Lisa finally gave in, and as expected, Caden took the news with great enthusiasm. In so many ways this Christmas would be completely different than any other Christmases he'd ever sat through; Frank knew it and he looked forward to it.
It was the second day of the holiday cruise and White Christmas was flowing out from the speakers, very subtly and carefully wrapping the lounge outside the dining room in snugness, setting a sort of sleepy but content mood for the day.
"I'm so sorry I'm late, but these other guys just wouldn't stop talking about the Ice cruise."
Jill's rosy cheeks were competing with her rapid speech; she hadn't been at the bar when Frank had shown up, and he was usually the last one to get to where he was supposed to be. The fact that she was running late this time seemed to have stressed her out more than it should.
"That's okay, it's still early," Frank replied in the most reassuring tone he could muster. He adjusted his Santa hat, checking his reflection in the mirror behind the bar and trying to get the hat to sit a little crooked, like he'd just casually put it on.
"God, I hate being late," she muttered, glancing at her own reflection, almost pushing him out of the way as she started fussing with her hair and bowtie. "I hate it. I've never been late, not even once."
"Don't worry about it, I've hardly seen a soul so far. So, what's the deal about the Ice?" he asked, changing the topic for her sake.
"Oh, someone was just telling me about the bars over there," Jill said, fastening her name tag to her vest. "Sounds way too good to be true if you ask me but anyway; you know how they say that the entire Ice design is purely crystal white and blue, like everything's winter themed?"
"Well, I was told that their bars are the coolest bars in the entire history of Envision cruises," she added, and even though she claimed she didn't believe it, she wasn't quite able to conceal the excitement in her voice. "And I mean the coolest, literally speaking. Most of the glassware is said to be shaped out of ice. Of course, I have no idea if it's actually like that."
"Okay, wow," Frank laughed, struggling to get his own name tag straight, "I hope their route includes a couple of reasonably cold places, because that would be so inconvenient otherwise. Like, suddenly all your glassware has fucking melted. And I hope they give out gloves to go with those drinks. Not sure what they do about all those numb lips though."
"I hate to be a buzz kill here," someone suddenly cut in, interrupting them, "but that's not true."
It was like receiving an electric shock. Frank's heart made a violent jump; he could recognize that voice anywhere, at any given time. He spun around, almost losing his Santa hat in the hurry; it slid a couple inches off his head, ending up way more crooked than he'd arranged it, some of the white fake fur falling into his eyes. As he clumsily pulled the hat back into place he found himself staring into Gerard's familiar face. The two of them looked at each other for a few hesitant seconds, before Gerard took a seat on a bar stool.
"About the glassware, I mean," he continued, his voice the same, casual drawl, acting as if nothing had changed and that he hadn't been gone for several months at all. "The winter themed design too. Utter bullshit. Maybe Destiny could pull something like that off, but not Ice. Not even a chance. By the way, nice hat, Frankie. I dare say it’s a little too big for you, or maybe your hair's just slippery, but yeah. Cute."
He shot him a bored, soulless wink. Although Frank knew he was blushing violently, he couldn't think of anything to say; he would have to get his feelings sorted and his head wrapped around the situation first. Instead he just looked at him, taking in the features of his face, his dark, messy hair and his general paleness, which seemed more obvious now than ever before. It struck him that Gerard looked tired. That was the biggest change about him; he looked very tired. The shadows beneath his eyes were darker, his skin a little bit paler and his cheeks just a thought hollower. He seemed extremely bored and almost void of energy, although that apparently didn't impair his voice or the sarcasm in it.
"Well, uhm, welcome back, Gerard," Jill said, looking just as astonished as Frank felt, frowning over his sudden reappearance, "and merry Christmas to you too, I guess. I didn't even know you were aboard."
"No, I stayed low yesterday. Oh, and yeah," he snorted sarcastically, his lips drawn back to shape a brief, emotionless smile, "merry fucking Christmas. You know, back to the Ice; that cruise doesn't deserve even one lousy third of the juicy gossip it gets. You have no idea just how fucking boring it is. I don't know why the company keeps it. Such a waste of money."
Jill glanced at Frank and gave him a meaningful look, while struggling to hold back the tiniest of smiles; she'd been right about the fact that the Culture ships weren't Gerard's type.
"Hey, maybe you'd like some eggnog?" she asked brightly. "I can guarantee that it's pretty good. Best we've had yet."
"I bet it's amazing and that it would knock me right off this very chair," he replied tonelessly, "but I would prefer a Bourbon, thanks."
"Alright then, Bourbon it is," Jill sighed.
She was pouring up his drink just when a small group of foreign guests stopped by the bar, and in poor English they were trying to communicate to her their long list of orders. She absently slid the drink towards Gerard and turned away to tend to them. Frank immediately grabbed the opportunity.
"Who was responsible for your transfer?" he asked directly, lowering his voice and edging away from Jill. "Or was this entire thing on you?"
He noticed how he almost felt nervous about addressing him and how hesitant he was in front of him, but he tried to be a good actor and conceal it. It was as if the time Gerard had been away turned him into a stranger again, but for some reason that didn't appear to be very far from the truth. He did seem a bit different.
Gerard just looked at him for a long, thoughtful moment, his eyes moving across the features of his face, almost wanting to check if they actually matched up to be the Frank he'd met before.
"And what's changed you these past months?" he asked slowly instead, narrowing his eyes at him, looking slightly suspicious.
Frank was a little surprised that he could actually tell that he'd changed. He hadn't noticed this himself, but since he became a father he'd heard from several people that something about him was different. They could never put their finger on it or point out something concrete, but everyone said he'd changed somehow. Apparently, fatherhood started leaving its traces at the moment of onset, but no one had referred to these early changes as something bad in any way. It was rather becoming, they said, whatever it was. Just about everyone seemed to think that the changes in Frank were of the positive kind – except for Gerard, who was just suspicious.
"What's changed you?" Frank asked, throwing the question back at him and keeping his determined stare.
Gerard sat back, slowly folding his arms across his chest, still with that tiny doubtful shade resting on his face.
"The transfer was for my own protection," he told him in the end, shrugging casually. "I was afraid you'd go ahead and drown me, like you said you would. I feared for my life, so I had to get away. What else?"
"Cut the fucking crap, Gerard," Frank retorted, starting to feel mightily annoyed with this moody and lifeless being sitting in front of him. "Can't you just give me a straight answer, for once?"
"That is a straight answer," he insisted, swallowing down a large gulp of his whiskey; it must have burned intensely as it splashed down his throat but he didn't even pull so much as the slightest face at it.
"You knew you were going to another cruise, didn't you? I bet you did."
"No, I didn't," Gerard claimed passionlessly, glancing around at everybody else than the man standing in front of him. He looked like he was starting to get bored with this conversation. "Not really. If you have to know, it was the management that decided to transfer me. They wanted to raise the standards and bring some valuable publicity to their less 'classy' liners." He took the bother to raise a hand and make a lazy air quote. "They figured I was up for the challenge. Honestly, I don't really care where they send me just as long as I get paid. And since I'm back I guess no circus troupes or whatever could beat my show. I'm fucking Santa Claus for Envision. I bet they'd clone me if they could."
Frank moved impatiently on the spot. "Yeah, well, boo-fucking-hoo, too bad for you and your tough life," he said bitterly, not able to keep it to himself. "Bottom line is, I don't believe you. I think this whole transfer business was your doing. Why would Envision cut their main attraction loose from their most successful cruise? Come on, that makes no sense. I bet you were the one who wanted to move ships and no one even expected it. I'd just like to know why."
Gerard regarded him for a minute, almost looking a little impressed, his whiskey glass hovering hesitantly in front of his lips. Yet again his eyes narrowed into two contemplative slits.
"Well, Frankie," he said at last, smiling crookedly for the first time since he'd showed up, "you've certainly grown a bigger mouth while I was away. I suggest you put that skill to better use rather than bitching at me."
He leaned in a little closer and now his smile had vanished completely. Something menacing had been ignited in his eyes and it made Frank pull back slightly.
"And it seems like you've thought about this way too much. I figured you'd have let this bullshit go by now but I guess I was wrong." He slid his half empty glass towards him, keeping their eyes locked, as though to emphasize his words. "It shouldn't matter to you if I'm on this fucking boat or not."
Frank opened his mouth to reply but closed it again when he noticed that Lisa and Caden had entered the lounge. Caden immediately ran excitedly towards the Christmas tree, while Lisa shouted "Sweetie, be careful so you don't break anything!" after him. When she eventually approached the bar she immediately caught Gerard's attention; he turned towards her, arching an eyebrow slightly. He measured her up and down for a second and before she got the chance to talk, he cut in before her.
"I'm thinking… a sweet Martini might be suitable for this one here, Jill." His index finger was circling Lisa in. "Make it pink and sparkly. Maybe it's a little early, but –"
"Oh, uhm, no," Lisa stuttered in pure surprise when she realized he was talking about her. The refusal left a somewhat confused expression on Gerard's face; he wasn't used to that and his pointed finger stopped making circles, making him freeze in a momentary pose that looked very comical. "Thanks, but no thanks," she continued. "It's a little early, you're right." She sent him a nervous smile, before she quickly looked at Frank, her eyes slightly alarmed.
"Hey, Lisa, maybe you want some eggnog?" Frank asked her, trying hard to keep his voice even and hide his amusement. Not only had she turned him down but she didn't seem to have a clue that he was a semi-famous illusionist. He could feel that the smile on his face was far too wide so he bit his lip, preventing himself from breaking out into a laugh.
Gerard's eyes shot back at him as soon as he realized that they knew each other. Frank ignored him, just barely registering that he swiftly and almost unnoticeably had reached for his whiskey glass again.
"No thanks," Lisa declined politely and shook her head, "nothing for me. We're having breakfast now anyway and later we're gonna see Santa. We just wanted to stop by and say hello."
Caden came running towards them. He had a pair of flashing LED sneakers on, making tiny red and blue light shows shoot against the carpet every time he set his feet down. His hooded sweater had, of course, a cartoon print of Optimus Prime versus Megatron on the front, which Frank liked to think was some kind of nod of affection towards him. Caden almost always insisted on wearing something that had to do with Transformers every time they were together, as if that was something special that only the two of them shared. Lately Frank had caught himself looking for adult sized Transformers t-shirts online, just so he could match up to that. He made a mental note about ordering a couple of those. That'd be fun. Lisa caught their son and swung him up on one of the bar stools.
"Hey, there's my partner," Frank grinned, reaching out across the counter and ruffling his hair. "So how do you like my hat, do I look anything like Santa now?"
"Nooo!" Caden laughed loudly, almost screaming. "Dad, you don't even have a beard!"
Out of the corner of his eye Frank noticed how Gerard had looked up from his drink again, his eyes moving slowly from Lisa to Caden, before his gaze finally rested on him. Then he turned slightly away. His face remained impressively expressionless and the rest of his body didn't give away whether or not he found this awkward or uncomfortable, but the fact that he was still sitting there doing nothing revealed that he understood the picture; it just didn't add up. Now he was quietly trying to figure out what kind of scene that was playing out right in front of his eyes.
"Hey, guess what?" the six year old continued, safe and sound in his own bubble of excitement.
"I'm going to see Santa today!" he exclaimed, kicking his legs a little.
"I bet you are," Frank said, before he leaned closer and lowered his voice, like he was about to tell him a secret. "But isn't Santa real busy these days? How come he's got the time to visit us on this ship?"
"But, Dad, that Santa isn't real," Caden replied, suddenly dead serious. "I know he's just someone in a suit, because how else can he be at the mall and here all at once? The real Santa is at the North Pole, getting our presents ready, and all the other Santas just work for him. He's acting through someone else." He gave him a look that said "duh" so clearly that Frank had to laugh.
"Okay, but if you know this isn't the real Santa then why are you so excited about seeing him?" he asked, amused by the kid's logic.
"Just because," the boy shrugged lightly, giving him a typically childish response that he assumed explained it all and smiled widely.
"He's acting through someone else?" Lisa repeated, staring incredulously at him. "Where did you hear that, Caden; on the news? Because if you did then I'm obviously letting you stay up too late." She shook her head with a smile and bent down to kiss the boy's cheek. "But either way, you still need your breakfast first, whether you want it or not. Come on, sweetie."
"Hang on," Frank said and picked a red and white peppermint candy cane out of the jar on the counter. "I'm gonna let you have this," he told his son, putting an index finger sternly up in the air as the boy eagerly reached out and tried to snatch it out of his hand, "but – whoa, wait a minute, listen to me first – you can only eat it after you've had breakfast, okay? And be nice today, do what your Mom says. Promise?"
"Promise," Caden nodded, his eyes shining as he finally received the candy cane. "Thanks, Dad!"
"Oh, and tell Santa that your Dad would like a couple extra days off work," he joked, as the boy jumped down from the bar stool, his shoes blinking merrily the moment they hit the floor. "And maybe a raise."
"Alright, see you later, Frank," Lisa laughed. "Bye, Jill!"
She grabbed Caden by the hand and guided him out of the room. The boy was skip hopping beside her, creating blue and red disco lights against the fabric of her white jeans.
"Oh, my God, Frank. Caden is so adorable," Jill said dreamily, looking after them. "Now I wish I had a son – and I don't even like kids all that much."
On the other side of the counter, Gerard had fallen into a contemplative silence. Frank picked up a cloth and randomly started rubbing a wine glass, perfectly sensing how those hazel eyes were almost burning their way into his skin. He still hadn't said anything and Frank didn't encourage it. If he was looking for explanations he didn't deserve them. If he was confused then fine; he had nothing more to offer than rudeness anyway, he'd already proved that. Eventually he got up from the stool.
"Thanks for the drink, Jill," he said shortly, nodding at her and ignoring Frank, before he strolled out of the lounge.
"Seriously, what's eating him?" Jill asked quietly, frowning at the magician's back as it disappeared out of sight.
"Who?" Frank asked innocently.
"Gerard. Seems like he's turned into Scrooge."
"I have no idea," he shrugged. "I guess he just hates Christmas."
In the following couple of days, Gerard continued to ignore Frank completely. He didn't insult him when he came to the bar; he didn't even so much as spare him a glance. Even though he was hiding behind his usual brilliant mask of "I am an Envision celebrity and I generally don't give a fuck", he didn't really say all that much. There were moments where he forgot to keep his guard up and slipped into his own absent and gloomy world; his eyes would become unfocused and he'd look beyond everything and everyone, staring into something only he could see, and he didn't seem to be aware of the fact that he was doing it. Now and then Frank spotted him together with a handful of different girls and the occasional guys, but never too often and never with the same person twice. So he was still keeping up his self-appointed role as Envision's very own Casanova, but then again, what else was new. The only thing that had changed about that aspect was how unenthusiastic and bored he looked with his admirers clinging to his arm. He'd used to take a certain kind of pride in that, or at least given everyone the impression that he did. Now he just didn't seem to care.
"Okay, whatever," Frank muttered to himself whenever he saw him stroll by with a new girl on his arm.
Eventually he realized how much truth there actually was in that little word; whatever. Regardless of Gerard's sulking, he was enjoying the Christmas cruise immensely. The ship was filled with the happiest and liveliest selection of guests he'd ever had the pleasure to meet, and better yet, his son was aboard.
Imagine that; Frank Iero, the guy who'd never been interested in thinking twice about having kids, if thinking about it at all, was there with his soon to be seven year old son, a kid who actually looked up to him. Sometimes he truly felt like he was just a regular young man enjoying a cruise ship holiday together with his family. It was a genuinely wonderful feeling.
Yeah, whatever, Gerard, he thought to himself. Whatever.
Chapter 13: Twelve
The fourth day of the holiday cruise was set as the day for Gerard's much anticipated comeback. Everyone seemed to be excited about the fact that he was back; "Finally," they would say, the expression on their faces revealing that they thought he was at long last back where he belonged.
A brand new poster had been put up outside The Colossus showroom for the occasion; Gerard was dressed in his usual attire, save for a glittering piece of holly attached to his vest. He also looked remarkably cheery in the photo; a correct and appropriate Christmas spirit kind of cheery, that was easy to tell. He was giving everyone a sideway glance, his eyes edited to look like they were emitting a glowing, amber color. With his dark eyebrows slightly raised and the corners of his mouth pulled up in an open smile, it almost looked like he was saying "ta-dah!" A number of cards filled the picture in an elegant swirl, surrounding him in an array of stars, glitter and tiny orbs of light. He had one hand outstretched towards the camera lens while his fingers were spread, giving the impression of having thrown the entire deck of cards at the photographer.
Envision Destiny proudly presents: Gerard Way - Envision the Magic.
The tall, glossy letters still read the same, but this time The Christmas Show had been added underneath them. It was yet another well-made, expensive looking and somewhat cheesy show poster. It was one that also could have blended in just fine in any cinema, with a few alterations. If you removed all the text and added COMING SOON in big, illuminated letters, Gerard would resemble some new, crazy super villain in the Batman universe, a weird mix between a male Zatanna and a female Joker. Christmas as you know it no longer exists would be a fitting tagline. Frank chuckled to himself as he imagined Gerard on the silver screen, conjuring away Christmas spirits everywhere as the Grinch's handsome, human successor.
It was almost time for the intermission when Frank decided to stay behind in the showroom and watch the magician in action. He had just brought three martinis to their respective guests and figured it wouldn’t matter if he went missing for a couple of minutes.
Gerard looked like a living wax figure up on the stage, illuminated by the bluish spotlight. Helped by the cover of makeup his complexion looked bright white against his dark hair, and the black eyeliner made it seem like he was staring, mesmerized and slightly surprised, into nothing. Frank thought he looked strangely different. He frowned. Come to think of it, Gerard looked a little awkward up there. He seemed unfocused and hesitant. It was a subtle change but a change nonetheless, and in the sharp close-ups on the screen it seemed even more obvious.
The very first thing he did wrong was to drop a card during a trick. Frank had never seen him drop a card. Scattered laughter emerged from the audience, all of them thinking it was supposed to be like that. Gerard picked it up, a mere twitch at the corners of his mouth revealing that it hadn't been planned. On the contrary; he had surprised himself. He shuffled the cards again and this time half the deck slid out of his hands; they spread out at his feet like an unintelligible hand of tarot cards.
"Okay, wow," he said, making an attempt at a carefree chuckle that only came out as a sharp and nervous laugh. "I'm definitely not gonna try picking those up, or I'll be here forever. I think I'm gonna need another deck of cards here, please. Oh, and I'm not drunk, I promise," he added.
The audience laughed again, still oblivious to what Frank saw. They didn't notice how the tone in Gerard's voice had changed, making the joke unconvincing and superficial. They didn't see how unsure he looked as he waited for his new cards, or how his hand trembled slightly when he received them.
After that, everything he attempted to do just seemed to go wrong somehow, and whatever mistakes he made got magnified on the screen, making it ten times worse. He shuffled the cards again and asked a random person in the audience to pick a card. The person chose the Three of Spades. In the end Gerard decided on the Ten of Diamonds; he was off by seven numbers and not even in the right suit, let alone the right color. If Frank didn't know better he'd say Gerard had completely forgotten how to actually do the trick, something which forced him to simply guess a card out of pure desperation.
"This… obviously isn't my night," he said, trying to make his laugh and his shrug convincing. "Okay, screw these cards. We'll just try something else."
'Something else' was the trick with the twenty-dollar bill. It turned out to be his most painful mistake that night. The idea was simple and impressive enough: borrow a twenty from someone in the audience, have the owner write their name on it, and then turn it into some other value or currency. Gerard quickly set his eyes on a young woman at one of the front row tables and soon he returned to the stage, holding the money up for everyone to see. The close-up on the screen showed that he folded the note four times. So far, so good. However, as he started unfolding it, he appeared to lose his focus. It made him stop abruptly and frown, his mouth uttering a muted "What the hell?" He then turned slightly away, holding the money close to his chest and keeping his struggling hands hidden from the audience and the camera.
"Fuck," he suddenly muttered irritably.
It only took him a split second to realize that everybody could hear what he was saying, but by then the words were already past his lips. His face got caught in the spotlight and for a moment it reflected nothing but horror. The dollar bill in his hands sprung open on its own account, escaping the tight folds, and the screen revealed that it was still the same, unchanged twenty. He hadn't managed to do anything with it. The note sailed out of his fingers and landed on the floor.
The entire audience turned dead quiet, and for a few seconds all eyes were set on the magician. Then the murmuring gradually began. Frank could see frowns and wondering glances, people craning their necks as they tried to spot something else, something that could make them understand better what was going on. He could hear the guests nearby discuss in hushed voices whether or not this might be fake, just plain staged fun. This man was an award-winning magician, wasn't he? Was he supposed to fumble with a trick like that?
Gerard didn't get a chance to cover up his mistake before the music started playing, signaling that there would be a twenty minute long intermission. He looked genuinely startled, staring out at the audience like he was wondering where he was and how he'd ended up there. Then, without another word, he turned around sharply and disappeared, the curtains closing heavily behind him.
Afterwards, his absence in the lobby was painfully obvious, like a huge, badly covered up bruise on a pretty girl's neck. While keeping half an eye out for him, Frank eavesdropped to a number of conversations between the guests. The majority of them still thought that this had been planned, that the tricks and acts afterwards would be extraordinary again and that he probably had a plan with everything. He was such a good actor, after all. But a few of them were annoyed, Frank could hear that. To them, this hadn't been like expected; apparently he'd never done these things in his earlier shows. Maybe he'd pretended to be wrong a couple of times, sure, but never like this. The doubt and confusion upon his face had been real; they had noticed that by now. It seemed like he'd been close to revealing the secret behind the trick by accident, and everyone knows that magicians never reveal their secrets.
Halfway into the intermission, a middle-aged man appeared in the lobby, clapping his hands together and demanding that everyone turned their heads in his direction.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he began, and once he spoke, Frank recognized him as the host of a previous cabaret act. "I'm afraid that the rest of Gerard Way's show has been cancelled."
A half worried, half disappointed surge went through the crowd. Frank exchanged surprised glances with the others in the bar. Cancellation? That was surely a first.
"Mr. Way isn't feeling well and I'm sure you all understand that it won't be safe for him to continue unless his condition is top-notch, one hundred percent. He regrets this very deeply and promises that the show tomorrow will be even better. As a small compensation he'd like to buy everyone a free round. In addition, Envision will offer you all a bonus at The Green Diamond, consisting of free chips worth twenty dollars. We extend our most sincere apologies and again, we're very sorry for the inconvenience."
The guests didn't seem too unhappy about the cancellation, and as soon as most of them had received their drinks they were heading off to the casino; free booze and spending someone else's money could obviously work miracles on many a crisis. When the worst chaos had settled and most of the grabby hands had receded, Frank grabbed a tray and hurried back to the show room to collect any left behind glassware.
He spotted Gerard the moment he entered. He was sitting by himself on the edge of the stage, holding the wrinkled twenty between his fingers and slowly turning it over in his hands while frowning at it. The heavy curtains had been pulled back up, the screen had gone black, and the darkened background was busy with stagehands removing props and coiling up wires. Gerard looked different in normal lighting; the wireless microphone had been detached and was resting around his neck, his magnified voice gone with the spotlight. He was sweating beneath the thick layers of makeup, which looked a like a sickly mix of tan and mud grey in this harsh light. His eyes were sunken and hidden in the shadows, while his hair dropped lifelessly in front of his face. His illusionist zest seemed to have been drained out of him and all that what was left was this sad, small and unrecognizable someone, a stranger dressed in a magician's attire.
With his tray tucked underneath his arm, Frank jogged down the carpeted steps. He hesitated by one of the front row tables, daring a glance up at him. He didn't look up or in any other way acknowledge his presence. In the end Frank tentatively pulled out a chair and sat down, leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees.
"Hey… You okay?" he asked, his voice sounding strangely hollow in the emptied show room.
Gerard kept frowning at the money in his hands, looking preoccupied with it but not actually doing anything. "I'm fine," he said monotonously, his face not expressing any more feelings than a piece of brick. He was still not looking up.
"To you it doesn't."
There was a moment of silence where he stopped playing aimlessly with the dollar bill, before he replied: "There's a first time for everything."
Now you know how it feels, Frank caught himself thinking, remembering with slight dread the night when Gerard had embarrassed him in front of everyone. Then he immediately felt bad for thinking like that. To be fair, this was the magician himself. The fall was several times greater and higher for him. Frank was nothing more than a waiter; people would have forgotten him the next day. His face and actions didn't stick with people like Gerard's did.
Frank took his eyes off Gerard's tired, serious face and looked down at the money in his hands, almost fascinated by the way his pale fingers had gone back to examine it without purpose.
"Your family's not here tonight?" he suddenly asked, still talking to the dollar bill.
"No, they're not," Frank replied, a little wary. "It's too late in the evening for Caden. Besides you cuss way too much; Lisa would choke me in cold blood if I brought him here."
Gerard didn't pursue the subject any further. Frank waited for him to continue but when he didn't he just sighed loudly, realizing that this was no different than talking to a wall. He decided he could just as well make himself useful and started collecting the few empty and half empty glasses from the nearby tables, neatly stacking the ones that could be stacked and carefully placing them on his tray. He only stopped once he felt he couldn't fit any more on it, and the whole time Gerard remained sitting quietly on the edge of the stage. Frank was on his way back when he suddenly called his name.
"You were right," Gerard said, finally putting the money away. He jumped down from the stage but lingered there, leaning against it. He folded his arms across his chest and looked at him thoughtfully.
"I was right?" Frank repeated incredulously. "What do you mean?"
"I mean… What you said, about the transfer between ships being on me… You were right," he continued. "They only had me moved because I requested it."
Frank stared at him, deciding it was best he put the tray down, so he did.
"Okay…" he said slowly, frowning. "And why would you do that?"
Gerard's answer came immediately.
"To get away from you."
His arms were still folded, his hazel eyes fixed and intense. He became aware of the unsure expression his reply received, so he continued before Frank could open his mouth and ask what the hell he meant by that.
"Look," he said, rubbing his forehead tiredly, "for once I'm gonna be straight with you. I don't actually spend the day constantly thinking about sex, or booze, or whatever the popular belief is. The popular belief is just what it is; it's popular. If it adds some extra flair to my personality, however cheap it is, then I'll take it. Fine. I'm not gonna deny that I'm an attention whore. But it works, right? I make a lot of money on this and I'm not too many steps away from becoming really successful. According to my management I'm apparently the twelfth most Googled illusionist at the moment. And it's fucking Google so that's gotta count for something."
He paced back and forth for a couple of beats, biting the nail on his thumb.
"Whatever," he muttered and shook his head, almost annoyed with himself. "What I'm trying to get at here is... Well, it's the fact that I spend a lot of time thinking about my job. And that's the God's honest truth. Alright? It's not like I don't give a fuck. When it comes to my job, I really do care. I work my ass off because I want to give people something original. If people talk about me, I want them to talk about how I'm like nothing they've ever seen before. I want to be one of the best at what I do. I am one of the best at what I do. The point is, my success has all been thanks to me. The people I've been… involved with have never contributed to that. They never stood in the way for me either. I don't even find people to be worth my second thoughts. They're just people. You know? I don't sleep with them because I like them or because they affect me in any way. They're not inspiring or anything; and it's not like I even need a motherfucking muse. I just sleep with them because I think it's fun. Other than that they're useless and boring and I don't want them in my life for too long. I honestly thought I could do the same thing to you. I thought I could just conquer and forget, but…"
He interrupted his own flow of words with a short laugh, as if he was finding something a little too funny when it was supposed to trigger the opposite reaction.
"You cross my mind all the damn time, Frank. You fucking walk in and out of my head like you're living in there and I can't control it. You're always there. I never even got that close to you but it still feels like I'm tangled up in something complicated. I'd never met you before but you messed everything up in one fucking week and that caught me by surprise. And I saw the signs pretty quickly, I really did. I noticed it in the quality of my show, I noticed it in how I couldn't focus on anything. I didn't know how to deal with it. I hated that you were even able to do that. You're just another person, right? You're not supposed to make a difference." He sighed and stared at the soft, carpeted floor, looking lost and confused. "I don't know. I guess I wanted to save my act, before it got any worse. What I do is what defines me, and if that disappeares then what else is there? This is all I know. Physical removal seemed to be the only choice I had left."
Frank moved awkwardly on the spot; this whole thing was completely unexpected and he didn’t know what to say. He definitely didn't see this coming. He swallowed, his mouth gone sandpaper dry again. Gerard was standing right in front of him, talking to him with a voice that had rid itself completely of all boredom, of all rudeness, of all arrogance. This was not the distant illusionist, not the rude celebrity, not the guy with an undecided preference for sex partners. This wasn't someone who always got what he wanted, who hypnotized people with his presence, who smothered someone with his personality. This was just plain Gerard Way and he was average, ordinary and normal. Now that he'd gotten off his high horse it turned out he was a mortal just like everybody else. In all honesty he looked kind of pathetic. Frank hardly recognized him.
"I didn't notice any of that," he said eventually, trying to sound as casual as he possibly could.
"What can I say? I'm a good actor." Gerard shrugged. "I couldn't have you think that the reason I left was because you managed to break me or something. My reputation was involved."
"So the whole physical removal thing... Did it work?"
"What, are you fucking kidding me? Frank – I'm standing here like some idiot right now!" Gerard let out another short laugh and the sarcasm in it was obvious this time, his mouth not even pulling up in a smile.
"I begged the company to transfer me. I actually begged those bastards to get me on another ship. Those stupid cunts were so fucking pissed. You were right about that too; the last thing they wanted was for me to leave. I'm a goldmine for these people, of course they wanted to make sure I stayed, at least for the holidays. But then they eventually gave in, and when they did, they reduced my pay. They removed me from the entire Splendor class altogether. They even put me on their least successful liner, like that was some kind of punishment. But you know what? This time I didn't care. It was fucking embarrassing, yes, but I didn't argue. That's how much I wanted to get away from here."
He looked down for a moment, placing one hand on his hip and running the other through his hair, searching for words. He sighed heavily.
"I'll admit that I've been pretty beat down these past few months. I haven't been able to function anywhere. I couldn't do my job because I'd think about you and I'd lose my grip on everything. Going away didn't fucking work and I've been freaking out lately. And what good did it do to come back here? It's obvious that I still can't get my shit together. I don't know what I'm doing anymore because of you, Frank. This time it's just… I have no idea. I don't understand why things go wrong because of you.”
The silence that followed was deafening. Even the clatter and noise from the people backstage couldn't cut through it. Frank stood there as though he was nailed to the floor. Everything felt uncomfortable and weird and deep inside he just wanted to leave all together, but there was no chance in hell he'd be able to do that. All he could do was to just stand there and listen.
"My show obviously didn't turn into a train wreck tonight because I'm not feeling well," Gerard continued, apparently desperate to get everything off his chest; it seemed to be now or never for him. "Tonight was all about distractions, like it always is, but this time someone distracted me, and that someone was you. You wandered into my head again and now that you're so close it felt twice as bad. I froze; it's as simple as that. I fucking froze. I started forgetting my own tricks. How hilarious is that? The magician who forgets his own tricks? It's so damn stupid. What is it about you, Frank? And what the hell's going on in your life right now?" he added, hopelessly throwing his arms up. "There's so much here that isn't adding up. You've suddenly got a girlfriend and a kid who's actually your son, but you still care enough about me to ask why I went away. I'm trying to make you hate me enough to leave me alone but you just keep coming back – and I don't understand why you would care anymore. It's obvious that you've been working fast while I was away."
His voice was a mix of confusion and frustration, and it was intertwined so clearly with his expression that it was almost physically painful to look at him.
"Gerard, I know you're wondering about Caden and Lisa and everything…" Frank began, wanting to explain but he didn't know how to give him the shortest possible version, if there was any. "It's a long story, and I –"
"I have time for a long story," he interrupted him, nodding encouragingly. "It doesn't matter. If you have time then I have time. Just… please explain some of it."
So, hesitantly, Frank told him about his past life as a teenager and how he knew Lisa. He told him how he'd found out that he had a son named Caden. He told him that he was happy about this, that he didn't want it any other way. Gerard stood there listening, his arms hanging limply down by his sides, his head slightly tilted. He still looked like he was profoundly confused.
"Lisa isn't my girlfriend or anything," Frank said earnestly. "She's Caden's mother and my friend but…that's it. There aren't any benefits or whatever in our relationship, except from the fact that I've got a really good friend in her. What happened between us… Well, it happened a long time ago. I was young and dumb – the usual stuff."
He paused, biting his lip.
"You know, Gerard… You can't always conquer and forget. You can't keep fooling around with people thinking no one will ever affect you. Seriously, what kind of fuse fucking snapped in your head to make you act like that? That's the crappiest attitude I've ever heard about, it's bound to go wrong. There's always someone you're not immune to in this world, no matter how much you like to think that you are. I hate to say it but I kinda think you deserve this."
His words felt a little bit too harsh, but they were already out there and impossible to take back. Another moment of deafening silence passed by. Gerard folded his arms across his chest again, slowly and tightly, like he wanted to shrink or hug himself. His shoulders were hunching and his neck was bending. He looked down at his feet.
"But," he began slowly, "with me standing here, admitting that I'm not… immune." He glanced up again. "Is that too late?"
"I don't know," Frank hesitantly replied. "But there's been a lot of crap, like tonight. All this…" He threw his hands up in the air, looking around the room. "I mean, it's just so unnecessary. If you hadn't kept insisting on being you all the time, you probably could've avoided making an ass out of yourself tonight. There have been a lot of times when you could have just told me what you were struggling with. Maybe I'd… you know, maybe I'd feel differently about it."
Again he felt like what he'd said had been a little too harsh. Still, it was only the truth.
"But you don't. You don't feel differently. So it's not really enough that I'm sorry."
There was no question to be traced in what Gerard said. He was stating a fact, like he was talking to himself and experiencing a realization he had to come to terms with.
The two young men looked at each other. Seeing Gerard standing in front of him like that, insecure and at a loss of what to do, made Frank's heart ache more than he'd been prepared for. It really did make him feel bad. The part of him that had already fallen for him knew exactly what it wanted to say and what it wanted to do, but he couldn't listen to that. This wasn't about what he wanted; this was about what he should. There had been too much already. The rational part of him was in complete control and it was telling him that enough was enough. Don't buy or fall for anything.
"No, you're right," he said quietly, adding a slight shrug. "It's not enough. I've got a son, Gerard. I've got this amazing little kid who looks up to me and right now I honestly don't have time going back and forth like this. You and me can't just happen. You can't just decide that you wanna change everything, because it's not all about you and what you want. The world doesn't revolve around you. You've been dragging way too much shit into my life and I don't have more time to waste on getting over that. If I only had myself and my own sanity to worry about then maybe I could've let you do this to me, but I have to stay in one sane piece not only for myself, but for Caden too. And compared to him you'll always lose, it's as simple as that. I'm not gonna take that chance and trust you because I can't deal with heartbreak right now. So no, this isn't enough, I'm sorry. You're just gonna have to deal with everything in some other way. Suck it up, Gerard."
Gerard stared at him, slightly shocked at what he had to say. It seemed like there still was a part of him that had simply expected him to accept his confession and then everything would sort itself out. Eventually he nodded slowly, unfolding his arms.
"Okay," he said, giving him a vague, resigned smile. "I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm sorry for…well, for everything. But I do understand. I'm gonna have to suck it up, you're right. You've been right about most things all along. At least you know what the deal is," he added.
"Yeah. Yeah, I do. Thanks." A short, awkward silence fell between them. "I, uhm, I probably have to get back to the bar, help the others close up and everything…" Frank's voice faded as he gestured up the carpeted steps.
"Oh, right. Sure." Gerard nodded quickly and gave him another brief smile. "I'm sorry. Don't let me keep you."
As he made his way back with his tray, Frank felt strangely empty, like the bottom of his stomach had been ripped out and all that was left was a cavity, a gaping hole that caused a draft. It made his chest ache and he felt endlessly sad. Sad that Gerard hadn't told him earlier, sad that he'd gotten so confused he even had to move to another ship because of him, and sad that the situation just wasn't different. He was sad and angry that the rational part of him had won and that he actually didn't mind.
He stopped once and looked over his shoulder, checking to see if Gerard was still standing there, but he had already retreated into the backstage darkness.
Chapter 14: Thirteen
The next morning Frank stayed in bed for almost an hour after his alarm clock had gone off, just staring up at the wiry bottom of the empty top bunk. His shift didn't start until five in the afternoon, but as he was lying there and listening to the distant engine hum, he didn't really feel like leaving the cabin. The faint noise was enhanced by the total quietness of the room; no one was flushing the toilet, no one was rummaging about or getting dressed, no radio, no TV. All he could hear was the sound of being at sea. If he had been the only one aboard, this was the kind of silent noise he would have been left to deal with. That absurd thought sent a sudden jolt of needless fear through his chest, but it only took him a second or two before he realized that he was actually appreciating that feeling. That would've been kind of nice; to be completely alone on a cruise ship in the middle of an ocean somewhere. It would probably get a little boring with time but he'd certainly have something entirely else to worry about for a change.
His trail of thought carried him back to the real world and then slightly back in time, to the night before. He thought about Gerard standing in front of him, that sad figure that hadn't looked like Gerard at all. Imagining that scene still made his heart beat with some strange kind of bitter undertone, a dull pain that was hard to understand. Had turning him down been the right thing to do when he'd been pouring his heart out like that? Frank rolled over on the side, the bunk creaking. He stared out of the small porthole, seeing nothing but bright blue sky. Okay, so maybe it had been a dick move but he'd told himself that enough was enough.
And he stood by that, he really did; Gerard had been doing his own weird version of cry wolf all along, playing with all the levels of a person's emotional scale. He'd gone from making fun of him to kissing him. He'd been angry and threatening and sarcastic. He'd ignored him completely. He even left, with no warning whatsoever. In other words, he'd been acting ridiculous all along, and to top it all off, he had decided to turn everything completely around by saying he was truly sorry. The worst part was that he looked like he meant it.
Frank wasn't sure about anything and in the end it all boiled down to just that. He wasn't sure if Gerard was doing these things because he simply couldn't make up his mind, or because something was wrong with him. Maybe something in him had broken at one point, making him unable to act like any other rational, sensible person would; maybe this was, in his eyes, what it was like to be sensible. For all he knew it could all be just another trick; he certainly couldn't be sure that it wasn't. The guy was a good actor, he'd said so himself. Frank sensed how a wave of irritation washed over him and settled in his gut. He wallowed in that feeling for a while, allowing it to spread thoroughly, before he balled his hand into a fist and turned around to give his pillow an annoyed punch.
"Goddamned idiot," he muttered to himself. "Why are you making things so fucking difficult?"
He fell back against his pillow again and dragged his hand across his face. He didn't know who those words had been aimed at; Gerard or himself. Frank didn't have trust issues, but then again he was just a human being; wasn't every human being afraid of getting hurt? If he was to make a wild guess, he would guess that he just wanted to be able to put his trust out there without having to worry about any possible cuts and bruises. If only he could be sure.
He sighed. More than once he'd caught himself wishing that he'd fallen in love with Lisa instead. That would still have been a problem but somehow it just seemed like an easier one to solve. It was another one of those If only's in his life. But of course, of all the people in the world he had to go and fall for someone like Gerard Way. It didn't matter how angry or hurt or disgusted he was with him; he had fallen, there was no point in denying that. He could crawl his way back up if he wanted to but that would take him ages. It was just the aspect of being unsure that kept dogging his steps, keeping him from accepting the fact that he was stuck being in love with someone he didn't know if he even wanted to waste any more feelings on.
Frank went back to staring thoughtfully at the bunk above him. Somewhere deep inside he'd thought, maybe even hoped a little, that the love for Caden could replace what he felt for Gerard, but it didn't change anything. That was a different kind of love. His son had his own unique spot in his heart, nobody else could touch that. Still, just because that spot was already taken didn't mean that all the other places were heavily guarded; with a few clever combination guesses, anyone could get access, and Gerard was in the process of locking himself in. That didn't seem very surprising when he thought about it. When it came to love, you could have endless amounts of it to share. He guessed it was true that love was a fickle whore.
Before lunchtime, Caden spent a couple of hours at children's camp. Frank decided to ask Lisa if she wanted to grab a cup of coffee in the meantime. They were standing on the top deck and leaning against the railing when a bolt of warm wind swept down and grazed their heads. Frank looked up, squinting at the sun. Because of job opportunities his father had moved the family from Jersey to Miami while Frank was just a kid, which meant that he'd never been used to snowy Christmases. Still he truly wondered how this, a tropical Caribbean Christmas, was like for the guests who actually came from places where they were used to cold winters.
"Hey, did you stop wearing your piercings?" Lisa asked, interrupting his holiday musings. "You don't put them back when you're at home."
Frowning, Frank reached up to trace the skin below his lips, and he could feel the slightest trace of a bump where the hoop used to be.
"Yeah, I guess I did," he replied, slightly surprised at the fact that he hadn't taken the time to notice that. "I must've outgrown them," he added. "I don't really miss them, to be honest. One less thing to worry about."
For about half an hour the two of them continued to talk about everything and nothing, touching upon all those empty nonsense topics that didn't get them anywhere, which was pretty much just another way of beating around the bush. Frank glanced at Lisa; she didn't quite look herself. It seemed like the closer they got to the end of the week, and the more waves that were crushed underneath the ship's belly, the more she allowed herself to become worried. And he knew what she was worrying about; he was worried too.
"What are we gonna do, Frank?" she asked in the end, looking at him with a tentative smile that quickly faded. Her hands were cupped around her coffee and the warm breeze passed them by in rough punches, weaving in and out of her hair. "What happens when we get back home? Christmases and birthdays are one thing, but what are we gonna do about the rest of the year?"
"Good question… " Frank stared out across the ocean, sucking on his lip and absent-mindedly twisting the lid on his coffee cup. "I honestly don't know."
"I think Caden's expecting you to move in with us," she then added. "He's been asking whether or not you're actually coming home for Christmas."
Frank looked away, feeling a little uncomfortable; he knew this was eventually going to be an issue. "I can't… I can't actually live with you guys. And I love you both," he added quickly, "I really do. It's not that. I just don't think we can have that normal family life. We can't live together as Mom and Dad if we're just gonna be, y'know, friends."
He shrugged awkwardly; the words felt harsh no matter what he added to them. Lisa looked down at the water far below, her elbows resting on the paint chipped railing.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. 'Friends' is all we'll ever be anyway, I figured as much," she said, nodding. "And I totally agree with you of course. We can't force anything more out of this. I just don't know if Caden understands that."
"I really meant it when I said I loved you both," Frank repeated sincerely, suddenly afraid she would think he was going to disappear. "I'm not leaving or anything."
"And I don't want you to leave," she said quickly. "I really want you around and Caden definitely wants you around. I'm just worrying about all the arrangements, that's all – you know, with weekends and family gatherings and all that. I don't like the idea of splitting things up but I really can't see any other way to do it." She sighed. "It's gonna feel like we're just another divorced couple. It'll look like it, at least."
"Yeah," he muttered, nodding. He gazed at the horizon. "I don't like it either. But I'm sure we'll figure it out and just... get used to it. After all, we got this far."
They stood there in silence for a while, just admiring the view and sipping their coffee. It took him a while but eventually he noticed that Lisa was looking at him, a crooked smile playing at the corners of her mouth. She cocked an inquiring eyebrow at him.
"What?" he laughed.
"You're not really here right now, are you? You seem a little more distant than usual… I don't know. It's like you're thinking about someone else." Then her eyes widened and she grinned knowingly. "Wait, you're thinking about a girl, aren't you? Frank, did you get a girlfriend?"
Frank pulled a face, moving uncomfortably on the spot. Was he really that obvious?
"Not exactly. But yeah, you're kinda on to something." He turned his back on the sea, regarding the guests enjoying themselves by the pool. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back to feel the sun on his face. "How do you girls usually say this… Oh yeah; there's this guy…"
He left his sentence suspended in midair and opened an eye, giving her a sideways glance. He smiled slightly. It took Lisa no more but a split second before she caught up and her face lit up with comprehension.
"So you mean…?" Her eyes were urging him to confirm her suspicions before she actually said it out loud.
"Yeah, that's exactly what I mean," Frank admitted, his ears burning slightly. "I don't know, I do like both. Kind of. At least I've told myself that I like both," he corrected, sighing. "I think I have preferences though."
For a moment, Lisa almost looked offended by the fact that he hadn't told her before. Then she started laughing.
"Okay," she giggled, shaking her head. "Honestly? It's not like I can say that this was completely unexpected or anything; you sure enjoyed testing the waters back in high school as far as I remember. I also remember that you sometimes had the tendency to be very thorough. I thought that was just you going against the currents though. For whatever reasons I always figured you'd eventually end up with a girl."
"Hey, I still can," Frank shrugged. "There's a lot of untested water out there. I didn't say that this was it."
"But that's what it feels like, doesn't it?"
"Yes… And no. I don't know." He hesitated, rolling his eyes. "I can't believe I'm saying this – but it's complicated."
"Well?" Lisa gave him a nudge in the ribs. "Tell me who it is! Do I know him?" she added, and her voice suddenly dropped, like she was afraid someone might be eavesdropping.
Frank told her that the person in question was actually the one who had tried to make a move on her in the bar the other day. Then, before he could stop himself, he started filling her in on what had happened between them since he started working for Envision, about everything they'd been struggling with over the past few months. Finally, he told her what had happened last night. It was strange but as he was talking, Frank felt immensely relieved. To begin with he wanted to leave out parts of the story but soon realized that it felt good to confide in someone, so he poured his heart out. He hadn't really been aware of how much this had been weighing on him, how much it had been gnawing away on his mind, before he actually started talking about it.
When he was finished, Lisa had folded her hands around her coffee cup, her fingers intertwined as if committing to a silent prayer. She looked at him, slightly worried.
"You think the two of you will be able to work it out? Despite everything?"
"I have no idea," Frank sighed, shrugging again. "I still need to figure him out. I don't get him sometimes."
"What I don't get is why the both of you keep complicating things," she replied bluntly, and she suddenly sounded impatient, even a little angry with him. "You have a right to be skeptical and all, but who knows? He might be for real this time. Either way you'll both be miserable if you keep this up. You told him you wanted to stay sane for Caden's sake and that you couldn't deal with heartbreak. Well, maybe you already are heartbroken, Frank. Maybe you're just making it worse. Give the guy a chance. I think that's what you really need to do."
"But you have no idea what he's actually like," Frank replied, getting slightly defensive. "And I have tried giving him a second chance."
"Sounds to me like you haven't. If you had given him a second chance you would have handled last night differently; you wouldn't have turned him down. Some people just need to be given the benefit of the doubt before they start pulling themselves together."
He bit his lip thoughtfully. There was no doubt that he was annoyed with what Lisa had said, but that was just because he knew she was making perfect sense.
"Okay," he sighed eventually. "Maybe you're right. Either way, the whole thing is fucking stupid and pointless. I should just talk to him."
"I think you should," Lisa agreed, nodding. "From what you're telling me, the two of you are obviously crazy about each other. I can't see why else you guys would bother going through this crap."
Frank could feel himself staring at nothing and zoning out a little as he was trying to imagine how that would play out. He wasn't even sure what he was supposed to say. How would you start a conversation like that anyway? With an "I changed my mind" or an "I was wrong"? Both sounded equally awkward. A rough, short gust of wind ran through his hair, yanking him out of his contemplation, as though reminding him that there were other things to deal with first.
"Well, Gerard will just have to wait for now," he added at last, almost as an afterthought. "Caden's our main priority at the moment. Obviously we're gonna have to do like you said; live like most divorced parents do, except that his family will be way different from everybody else's. I mean, his Mom might get a new boyfriend but that goes for his Dad as well. Caden's in that awkward situation of having two possible stepdads; he's definitely not gonna have a typical nuclear family. What we need to figure out is how we're supposed to explain that to him."
For a second or two, Lisa just looked at him. Then she reached out and squeezed his hand. "You have no idea how happy I am that you're Caden's Dad," she said gently, an expression of genuine sincerity on her face. "Really. You have no freakin' idea. Of course I've always thought he was a beautiful person, but now that he's got an actual father in his life he's just blossomed so much. I think boys his age needs a father to look up to and I couldn't have dreamed of anyone better to take that place. You said you were new at being an adult and everything but you know what? Most adults aren't even like you. I bet someone with twenty years of experience in raising children couldn't have been better than you. I just wanted to tell you that," she added, giving him another smile and a half-shrug. "You should know that you're amazing."
Frank didn't know how to respond to that at all. His throat closed up tightly, an immediate lump forming in his windpipe, and he didn't dare open his mouth to speak. He was sure that if he so much as parted his lips his reply would come out as something unintelligible, squeaky and high-pitched. In the end he just reached out and pulled her into a tight hug.
"I'll talk to Caden afterwards," he muttered into her hair.
"Are you sure?" Lisa pulled away slightly, looking at him. "Because I can go with you?"
"Nah." He shook his head. "You've done everything else alone so far, so let me handle this one. I think you should take some time off and relax; go check out the spa or something. Don't forget that you're here on vacation. Let me worry about Caden."
It was right after lunch and the cruise was about to arrive at Philipsburg, where everything was set for shore excursion and a waterskiing Santa show. Frank picked Caden up at the camp and discovered that the boy was still bubbling with an enormous amount of energy; he kept running and skip-hopping three steps ahead of him, and more than once he forced Frank into a jog just so he wouldn’t lose him out of sight. He knew Caden had to eat something but at the same time he didn't want to waste any time on making him sit still. In the end he took him to the diner's kitchen instead, where he'd gotten to know quite a few employees over the months; that place was noisier and filled with a lot more action. Besides, he knew it wouldn't be difficult to find someone who was more than willing to fix his son a quick sandwich.
After Caden had proclaimed that he was full, he wanted to check out the top deck. Frank went willingly along with that request, thinking that maybe the view of Philipsburg in the distance would provide him with some inspiration on how to draw his son a good enough portrait of his possible future family.
"Hey, Caden," Frank began, having no idea how he was supposed to approach this issue in a way he would understand. Sure the kid was quick and grown-up for his age, but there were always limits. "Dad needs to talk to you about something."
Caden didn't respond; he'd lost some of his energy now, starting to look a little tired. He was leaning his forehead against the top metal bar of the railing and peering curiously down at the deep blue mass beneath them. He clutched the middle bar carefully with both hands while his feet were planted firmly on the ground. Frank was proud to see that the boy had listened to him when he'd strictly told him that none of the railings aboard the ship were for climbing.
"Moms and Dads usually live together. And you know that, right?"
"Uh-huh," the boy nodded.
"Well, sometimes…" Frank continued. "Sometimes they don't."
"I know that, too," he replied, still not looking up. "Like Thomas in my class. His parents won't live in the same house. They're…" He paused, searching for the word he was looking for. "Thomas says they're sep-rated."
Frank felt slightly relieved; at least now he had a somewhat clearer picture of his son's knowledge about this.
"Okay. Well, it's almost the same thing with your Mom and me," he continued tentatively. "The reason why I haven't moved in with you guys yet is because we're not going to live in the same house. We'll be separated."
This time Caden took his eyes off the sea and looked up at him with a mild sense of wonder. He squinted against the sun, trying to find his father's face in the bright light. It made him look utterly confused and Frank felt how his heart immediately received a stab of pure bad conscience.
He'd dreaded that question. That simple why. And this why in particular broke his heart. He knelt down to get on the boy's level, looking into his big, hazel eyes. It was like staring at a much younger version of himself.
"Alright," he said. He put his hands on Caden's shoulders, giving him a sincere look. "Before I tell you why, you need to know that I might say some things you're not gonna like. So if you get angry or annoyed with me, you just let me know and I'll try to explain everything a little better. Can you do that?"
The six year old regarded him contemplatively. Then he nodded a couple of times, looking slightly wary.
"Good," Frank smiled. "I'm not going to live with you guys because your Mom and I, we don't love each other like Moms and Dads should."
"It's been a really long time since I talked to your Mom. You know how when you guys came to visit me the first time, I almost didn't recognize her? And you know that I didn't know who you were? Well, sometimes, when grownups don't talk for a while, they forget about each other. And sometimes, things happen in the meantime. It doesn't mean that they stop being friends, but when they meet again, it's just not the same anymore."
"Is that what happened to you and Mom?" Caden asked, searching his face.
"That's right," Frank nodded. "When you get older you'll understand what I mean a lot better. But for now, all you have to know is that Mom and I are good friends, even though we don't want to live with each other. And just because I can't live with you guys doesn't mean that I don’t love you."
"I know, Dad," he nodded earnestly. "And it's okay. You have to live on the ship, too, and you're away a lot, but I think you have the coolest job of all the Dads in the world."
Frank laughed. "You really think so? Well, when I get back we're still gonna hang out and do lots of super cool stuff, right?"
"Yeah!" the boy grinned. "You and me, Dad."
"You and me, buddy," he repeated, beaming back at him and reaching out to ruffle his hair.
Caden laughed, his face shining gleefully. Then his expression changed and took on a shade of seriousness, making it seem like he'd remembered something of a far more troubling nature.
"But… when you're not on the ship and when you're not with us, you'll be alone," he frowned, and for a moment he looked worried. "I don't want you to be sad."
"Awh, Caden." Moved to the very depths of his heart, Frank couldn't help himself and spontaneously pulled his son into a hug. "I'm not sad or anything like that. I'm very happy. I got you, remember?"
When he let him go, Caden still looked a little skeptical.
"Yeah, but you're alone. It’s sad that you don't live with anybody when you're not with me or with Mom. No one's gonna be there when you go home."
"See, that's just the thing," Frank began, hesitating slightly. "I don't think I'll be alone. Maybe I'll live with someone too."
"Who will you live with?"
"Okay, uhm." He bit his lip, realizing that he was suddenly approaching the most complicated issue. "Sometimes, a girl can love another girl, and a boy can love another boy, just the same way Moms and Dads do. And, uh, sometimes, children can have two Moms or two Dads. But there's nothing wrong with that. It's okay to be with whoever you like."
Frank almost expected the boy to react with "yuck, cooties!" or something like that and pull a face at him, but instead his face lit up.
"Hey, Dad – guess what?" he exclaimed, his voice reduced to an excited gasp. He drew his breath, eager to let him know what was on his mind. "Once, I was at a birthday party for a boy in my class – his name's David – and when we were at his house his big sister was there too, and she had a girlfriend. Someone asked her how come she had a girlfriend and not a boyfriend, because it was weird that she'd have a girlfriend when she was a girl too, and then she said that sometimes faces can work like a spell on people, just like in fairytales. She said that falling for the spell is the same thing as falling in love. And Dad – it can happen to anyone because you don't get to decide for yourself who it's gonna be. That's why sometimes, boys and boys are together and girls and girls are together, because that's just the way the spell worked. It's just different, that's all."
Frank stared at him, caught in a moment's loss of words. It was so strange to hear all those sensible words come out of the childish mouth of a six year old. It made perfect sense; falling in love was the result of a spell cast by someone's face. How come he hadn't thought of an explanation like that? Whoever this David kid's sister was, she was a genius.
"Oh." He blinked, surprised. "Okay, well, uh… David's sister is totally right," he added hurriedly. "Totally. That's exactly how it works. And I think… that maybe I fell for a spell like that. But the spell didn't come from a girl."
Caden seemed to give this some very thorough consideration. "So are you going to have a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend, Dad?" he asked.
Frank simply nodded.
"Are you going to live together with him? Is that why you won't be alone when you go home?"
"Maybe," he replied, shrugging. "We'll see. We're still just friends."
"What about me?" Caden then continued. "Am I gonna have two Dads?"
"Hey, don't forget that I'm your Dad," Frank laughed, amused by how genuinely puzzled his son sounded. "But maybe you can – "
He was about to suggest that 'uncle' or 'stepdad' could be suitable alternatives for this 'other Dad', but he was interrupted by a shadow that suddenly appeared beside them and blocked the sun out.
"Hey, guys," a voice said, and they both looked up; Caden just turned his head automatically towards the sound, while Frank immediately recognized the voice.
Gerard was towering over them, his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his worn jeans. He had a dark blue and white leather jacket on, zipped halfway up over a grey t-shirt with an unintelligible red print. He reached up to remove his aviator sunglasses and hid them in his inner pocket. It was like a real blow to Frank's stomach when he realized how effortlessly gorgeous he looked; he stood there as though he was an anime character and rock star crossover, just waiting for a set of photographers to come running and take his picture. He looked infinitely better today than he had yesterday.
"Gerard," he said, nodding shortly at him as he got to his feet. He wasn't quite sure how to acknowledge his presence, so he chose the formal way.
Caden edged slightly away, reaching out and grabbing his father's leg in a one-armed embrace. He was retreating back into his usual shyness, like he always did when complete strangers were involved. He peered up at Gerard and the familiar look of suspicion clouded his face. Frank put an arm around the boy's skinny shoulders.
"Who's this little fella?" Gerard asked, tilting his head at Caden and smiling questioningly.
"Come on, buddy," Frank said gently. He gave his shoulder a careful, encouraging squeeze. "It's okay to tell him your name. Let's not be rude."
One half of the boy's face was in the shadows, while the other half was bathing in sunshine, one big, hazel eye turning slightly amber. He wasn't responding, but then again he wasn't shaking his head either.
"Caden," he eventually replied shortly, after another moment of hesitation.
"Caden? Wow, that's a pretty cool name," Gerard said. "Sounds like a real rock star name, if you ask me. My name's Gerard, which isn't that cool, so if you like you can just call me G."
Frank could feel the corner of his mouth twitch in an upward motion, creating a little smile on his lips. He couldn't help it.
"G's actually a magician," he told his son, playing along with what Gerard had started. "Maybe he can show us a trick?"
He looked inquiringly at Gerard, who slightly raised his eyebrows at him. Is that a challenge? he seemed to ask. Nonetheless he shrugged and began searching through his inner pocket. At last he pulled out a pen.
"Okay then," he said, kneeling in front of them. "Let's see."
Caden was still clinging to Frank's leg but he watched Gerard curiously, his eyes darting from his face, to the pen in his hand, and then back to his face.
"You like comics, Caden?" Gerard asked him. "Did your Dad tell you about X-Men yet? Or maybe you're too young for that?"
"No, I'm not," the boy insisted, almost indignant, replying more properly now that they'd touched upon a topic of interest. "I like comics, and Dad likes comics too. And X-Men is on every Sunday morning; Mom says it's okay for me to eat breakfast in front of the TV on a Sunday, so I can watch it," he added, as if he really wanted to confirm once and for all that he wasn’t too young for X-Men.
"Oh, so you watch the cartoon, huh?" Gerard replied, sounding a little impressed. "That's great, then you know who Magneto is, right?"
Caden nodded yet again. He edged a little closer this time, still making sure that he didn't let go of Frank's leg, although his grip had loosened considerably.
"I actually got magnets in my hands," Gerard admitted, with the world's most convincing voice, as if that was just natural for some people. "So I'm kinda like Magneto, but mine aren't very strong. Plus I can't actually control electromagnetic fields, like he can. Okay, so it doesn't really make me like Magneto at all, but anyway; what I can do only works on small things, like this pen."
The boy's eyes were wide open and shiny, looking like little marbles. He seemed awed by the fact that a little piece of super villainess was possibly kneeling right there in front of him.
Gerard carefully put the pen on the deck floor. He let his right hand hover above it, spreading his fingers wide, while his left hand was grabbing his right wrist. He pressed his hand down gently, and as he lifted it up again, the pen appeared to be sticking against his palm, almost hovering stiffly above the ground. He shook his hand slightly, demonstrating that it was indeed stuck. For a moment, Frank wondered how he did it, but then he noticed that the hand clutching his wrist was missing its index finger. Since he knew Gerard had all his fingers intact, his missing finger had to be what kept the pen in place. It was a simple trick but his hands were skilled. He did everything so subtly, quickly and with such a convincing facial expression of concentration that it all looked real. It actually looked like it cost him a considerable amount of energy to do it.
Caden was buying it, one hundred percent. He had let go of Frank's leg completely and was staring at the pen, fascinated.
"Wow," he whispered, tilting his head in a curious manner, "how did you do that?"
Gerard suddenly let the pen go, pretending that his magnetic powers were suddenly failing. The pen fell to the floor with a sharp clatter and the boy almost jumped, surprised.
"I told you I had magnets in my hands," he winked cleverly, hiding the pen away in his pocket as he got up. "But as you can see, they're getting kinda rusty. What I'm really good at is finding things though, like this."
He reached out towards Caden's ear, and when he pulled back he was holding a card in his hand.
"Whoops," he exclaimed, pulling a face and acting like he'd actually found the card sitting somewhere in the boy's ear. "That wasn't what I was looking for, I'm sorry. Best put that back where it belongs…"
His hand brushed the child's ear again and the card vanished. It made Caden giggle, and Frank couldn't help but chuckle at his reaction.
"Okay, wait," Gerard frowned. "Nobody move..."
His eyes were scanning the empty air, pretending that he'd spotted something whizzing around his head, like an invisible mosquito. Then he suddenly slapped his hands together, making both Caden and Frank twitch with surprise.
He smiled satisfactory as he parted his hands, revealing a coin in his palm. It gleamed in the sunlight and Frank was relieved to see that it was just a regular dollar and not one of his custom made phone number coins.
"It's not much, but these ones are real fast and not easy to catch," he said, throwing the dollar up in the air before catching it again. "I've knocked it out though, so it won't go anywhere," he added, placing the coin in the boy's small, cupped hands. "Here you go."
"Wow, thanks!" Caden responded, holding the money as though it was a national treasure. He beamed up at him; he was definitely over his skepticism now, his entire face radiating with boyish admiration. He almost had stars in his eyes.
"Sure thing," Gerard grinned. "Hey, I think there's a vending machine with toys down at the other end of the pool. I bet with a magic coin like that you might get a toy you like. Maybe you should check it out? Oh, but you better be quick," he added seriously. "That coin's gonna come back to life any second."
Caden turned to Frank and grabbed his hand, tugging at it excitedly. "Dad, can I go find it? Please, please, please?"
"Yeah, you can go find it," Frank nodded. "Just get back here when you're done. Don't play around by the pool or anything – watch where you're running, okay?"
He smiled as he watched him run off. Then he turned back and shrugged apologetically at Gerard, who responded with a facial expression that seemed to say Kids, huh?
A hesitant and slightly awkward silence settled between them. Frank wanted to tell him thanks and that he really appreciated that he'd been attentive towards Caden, but he wasn't quite sure how to form the words. At the same time he was a little suspicious; he had no idea what had made him perform those magic tricks. Strictly speaking, this was hardly considered Gerard's style; he hadn't exactly pictured him as a very child-friendly person. Again, Frank felt he couldn't be too sure; he almost found it necessary to be aware of some possible hidden agenda. However, doing these things for Caden was cool of him. He also wanted to apologize for last night and tell him that he knew it couldn't have been easy for him to come clean like that. To people like Gerard, acting humbly was almost the same as embarrassment. Maybe he deserved to be given the benefit of the doubt this time, like Lisa had advised.
Just as Frank opened his mouth to speak, a young woman suddenly approached them, killing his sentence off before it even reached his lips.
"Gerard Way…" she began, a hint of a smirk attached to the corner of her mouth. "What a pleasant surprise." The tone in her voice indicated that it was no surprise at all; pleasant maybe, but not surprising. It was apparent that their paths had crossed once or twice before.
It seemed like both Frank and Gerard had fallen into the trap of outright staring at her. Then again, she really was a head turner. There was an exotic touch to her appearance; something Western Asian, maybe. He didn't know. Either way, she was like a walking magnet for long gazes.
"What?" The woman smiled wryly at Gerard, an unlit cigarette dangling between her fingers. "You forgot my name already?"
"Tara," he replied immediately, and the slightly breathless tone in his voice caught Frank's attention. He glanced at him; judging from the look on his face it seemed like he was finding himself face to face with someone he hadn't seen in a while, and hadn't really expected to see again. "I had no idea you were on this cruise. It's – it's been ages."
"Obviously," she snorted sarcastically. "What's wrong with you anyway? Still feeling bad about ditching me?" She arched a perfectly drawn eyebrow at him. Then she smiled again. "Now don't just stand there like some idiot; be a gentleman and take care of this for me." She nodded towards her cigarette.
"Well, excuse me and my surprise," Gerard retorted and reached into his pocket, pulling out his purple lighter, "but I haven't seen you in – what? – a year? Two years? And don't say I ditched you," he added, giving her a sideway glance that said her comment had been un-called for. "I didn't, and you know that."
Tara put the cigarette between her lips and leaned forward, her dark, chocolate brown eyes fixed on Gerard's face during the quick second he spent to light it.
"Oh, I know, honey," she grinned, and as she straightened up she sent a cloud of smoke towards the sky. "I just love the look on your face whenever I claim that you did."
"I thought you were in Paris?" he continued, ignoring her last statement. "You said you were better off managing your perfume business from there?"
"So you remember that, huh? No, business can take care of itself right now." She shrugged indifferently. "It's Christmas; people buy perfume like crazy when it's Christmas. I figured I'd take a break and as I was looking at brochures, I realized that a cruise vacation had to be… perfect."
"You look good, Tara," Gerard said earnestly. "It's nice seeing you again."
She smiled at him, taking another drag of her cigarette. Frank moved awkwardly on the spot, unsure whether he should be leaving them or not. It appeared Gerard had forgotten all about him standing there. He wanted to clear his throat and remind him about his presence, but couldn't bring himself to do it. He suddenly realized that Gerard was actually talking with a woman who reflected his own personality, spot on; this definitely wasn't one of the easily impressed girls he usually seemed to go for. Their little conversation looked like a strange and subconscious battle for dominance which Gerard eventually allowed himself to lose.
"So, are you busy?" Tara looked at him questioningly.
"Oh, right..." It finally seemed to dawn on Gerard that Frank was still standing there. "I was just talking to my, uhm… friend here."
She flashed a look at Frank, regarding him with no apparent interest, as if she'd just noticed him. Then she raised her eyebrows at Gerard, something in her eyes saying Okay – and so what? She was clearly signaling that the conversation with Frank was over and that she certainly wasn't going to leave without him.
"Uh, Frank," Gerard began awkwardly, "would you mind if I just – ?" His voice trailed off as he gestured at some vague spot behind him, indicating that he was leaving.
Even though he had to admit to himself that he was slightly offended, Frank picked up on the hint. There was no point in arguing or making this moment more awkward than it already was. Besides, she was a guest; it didn't matter if he was off duty or not, she still had the upper hand.
"No, not at all," he replied, immediately putting on his work mask and smiling politely at the both of them. "I have to find Caden and get ready for my shift anyway."
Gerard bit his lip hesitantly and for a moment it seemed like he wanted to add "See you around", but he swallowed the words in the last minute, leaving it at that.
As he made his way over to the vending machines, Frank glanced over his shoulder. It went unnoticed; Gerard had put his sunglasses back on and was cupping his hand protectively around the flame of his lighter, with a contemplative frown tending to the cigarette he'd put between his lips. Then Tara hooked her arm into his and he turned around, allowing himself to be led away.
Chapter 15: Fourteen
"Hey, Gerard, I've decided that… Fuck, I can't say that, I haven't even decided anything."
Frank bit his lip and glanced helplessly at his reflection in the mirror, only to get caught in a staring competition with his own confusion. Earlier he'd spent several minutes debating and rehearsing with himself, something that only seemed to lead to more confusion and insecurity. In the end he came to the conclusion that he'd rather send a bullet through his own head than keep running around in circles. He had no idea what he was supposed to say but he decided to take Lisa's word seriously anyway; he would go down there and try to get a word with Gerard after his show. Now he had locked himself up in the staff restroom in an attempt to prepare himself for that moment, and so far he'd come up with a dozen possible ways to start the conversation, none of which seemed good enough.
"Damnit," he muttered irritably when he realized he was running out of alternatives. He absently reached up to straighten his vest and bow tie, sighing as he did so.
Frank didn't know if it was due to a real, deep-seated change or just a sudden wave of good moods, but Gerard seemed as though he'd changed, or at least that he was willing to try. Maybe this was the right time to talk to him; maybe all his other attempts had failed simply because of bad timing. And Gerard was right about one thing; Frank kept coming back. He would always keep coming back. At the end of the day he could slam his head against the wall as many times as he liked and deny everything, but he couldn't rid himself of the feeling that maybe there was something worth striving for after all. For once, he had to stop hesitating. Besides, it was obvious that he had competition. Gerard's relationships weren't all just a one-way deal for his enjoyment; the sudden appearance of this gorgeous Tara-woman was proof of that. It seemed like she wanted her piece and he could easily see her snatch Gerard away right in front of his nose while he wasted his time running around in his maze of pointless confusion.
He threw one more look at himself in the mirror, tugged at his bow tie once more, before he left to get started on his shift.
Everything was ready for Gerard's second attempt at a comeback, and it was supposed to be a real one this time. The moment he'd walked out of the restroom and his work night began, Frank felt like it passed in chunks. Most of those chunks were struggling by like snails and his watch hardly seemed to be moving. Whenever he glanced at the usual show poster he felt a strange jolt of excitement surge through his body, almost as if he was nervous on Gerard's behalf. When the guests started arriving he was beyond restless, hardly able to focus on his job at all. He trotted around aimlessly for nearly ten minutes after the show had started, his ears picking up the faint music that managed to make its way out in the lounge. In the end he couldn't help himself anymore and quickly snuck away from the bar, quietly vanishing into the show room.
Frank entered just in time to watch the dramatic explosion of a large wooden box that had been hoisted up in the air, and judging from the shocked collective gasp that emerged from the audience, Gerard had most likely been locked up inside it. The box collapsed like a frail house of cards and revealed that it was completely empty; its broken pieces were still chained to the roof, swinging limply from side to side, but there was no sign of the magician himself. Everyone started craning their necks and turning in their seats, excited to see where he had gone. Seconds later his crew unveiled another large crate, one that had been standing on stage all along. When this was cracked open it revealed a completely unharmed Gerard entwined by three female assistants. A surge of amazement and surprise raced through the crowd; they cheered enthusiastically as he gallantly stepped out to receive the praise. He looked out at his audience with a satisfied smile resting on his lips.
"I had to get some of the shipping formalities fixed, ladies and gentlemen," he began casually, once the crowd had settled down. "To abduct Santa's little helpers here would probably put me on his naughty list and I don't want that. I figured I'd think outside the box," he added, to everyone's appreciative laughter.
"I'm gonna be quite honest with you all," he continued. "I actually felt like I should have brought a couple of unchained, white tigers out here and make a big deal out of it, you know, just going totally extreme as a way of making up for cancelling yesterday's show. Because yesterday really sucked, didn't it? But then again, that would probably be the same as going from spectacular to batshit insane, seeing as I have no experience whatsoever with unchained, white tigers. You agree with me on that one, don't you, Sir?" he asked, his amplified voice cool and nonchalant as he randomly addressed someone sitting at one of the front row tables. "Yeah, I bet you'd be downing that whiskey of yours real fucking fast if a crazy ass tiger wanted to give you a lap dance."
The audience broke into unison laughter, scattered claps and whistling cheers filling the room. It instantly made Frank smile as well. Gerard seemed to be unstoppable tonight. He watched the magician's face on the screen as he stared satisfactory out at his admirers.
"Alright, so I know this isn't exactly Sigfried and Roy – I kinda like to work alone – and regrettably, I'm allergic to cats. But this was an alright kick-off, wasn't it? I bet you're all wondering how I got inside that box right now anyway. Just don't try this at home, guys, okay? Being in that box as it explodes really makes your ears ring. And I can't guarantee that you'll end up in a box full of pretty girls either, is all I'm saying."
People started cheering and clapping again. Gerard winked and grinned widely, running his hand through his hair to ruffle it up. His teeth were almost just as white as his complexion and he simply looked amazing up there. It almost seemed like he was possessing a certain kind of power, like the magic was real and not just illusions. This was a much different magician than the one they had witnessed yesterday. This was someone with a confidence that started to look very familiar. All of his past mistakes seemed to be admirably forgotten.
"So, anyway, like I said; I'm really sorry about yesterday. Definitely not my proudest moment, I'll admit that." He took a deck of cards out of his breast pocket and casually started shuffling them, his wireless microphone picking up their faint, rustling sounds and turning them into distant background noise. "I hope you all enjoyed your free drinks?" He paused and looked at his audience, who answered with a few confirming claps. "Okay, good. You all owe me one, by the way. Damn, that's gonna get me absolutely shitfaced." The people laughed again.
"So I'm not sure what yesterday was all about, really," he continued.
He stared thoughtfully at his cards. When he looked back up there was an unfamiliar expression upon his face, one that was hard to read. He seemed to waver uncertainly for a couple of seconds and as Frank followed his fixed gaze, he realized that Tara was seated among the audience. He could make out the silhouette of her perfect profile in the dark, the flicker from the candle lights dancing fleetingly across her features. She was resting her chin in her hands, looking back at Gerard with one eyebrow raised and a slight smile upon her lips.
"I guess... it was nothing," he shrugged. "Sometimes, what people do or say is just the same as a quickly passing headache or something. It was honestly nothing; it didn't mean anything. It happens; no big deal."
He stopped for another short pause. This time Frank suddenly felt like Gerard was talking directly to him, as if he'd managed to single him out – even though he couldn't possibly know that he was there. Then his eyes moved to another spot and he changed the topic, his voice returning to its normal level of confidence.
"Still, you know how the bosses would hate to see me get injured; after all I'm insured and if anything happened to me their asses would be on the line, so –"
In that moment the guests at one of the nearby tables made Frank turn around. Judging from their annoyed faces they were obviously eager to order drinks, having already made several attempts at catching his attention. He shook his head at himself and decided that he and Gerard hadn't made any eye contact at all; when someone on a stage fixed their eyes on a huge crowd like this one, it felt like they were looking straight at you, no matter what. He absently wrote down what the guests wanted, trying to divide his attention and jump into Gerard's monologue again, but he didn't seem to be able to keep up with the meaning of his words. In the end he was left with no other choice but to leave the show room.
On his way out, Frank still found himself frowning at what Gerard had said, despite his recent logic. He couldn't quite explain it but he felt a little strange, like he'd suddenly missed a step going downstairs; it made the bottom of his stomach drop. Then he caught himself wondering whether or not he'd been fooled again. What if Gerard hadn't been apologizing for yesterday's failure at all? What if he had spotted him in the audience and that the headache he'd been talking about was actually him; Frank? Maybe that's what he'd really meant when he said that yesterday had been insignificant to him. That couldn't be possible, could it? Frank threw a confused glance over his shoulder and almost tripped over his own feet. A trail of laughter followed his movements and it felt like the joke was yet again on him, even though it wasn't. He was nonexistent to them this time but still it felt like everyone was laughing at him; for being thoughtless and for falling for old tricks and empty words.
Whoa, okay, easy now, he thought, quietly passing his written order on to the first bartender he spotted. A million horses are going nuts right now and you need to rein them in, for fuck's sake.
He turned away, taking a moment to squeeze his eyes shut. He pressed his palms against his eyeballs until tiny, blinking stars appeared. His thoughts were running way too fast for his own liking; there were too many What ifs in the picture. He took a couple of deep breaths in order to prevent his entire emotional state from going completely haywire over what was probably nothing.
"Frank? Are you alright?"
Jill's out-of-nowhere question startled him slightly and he removed his hands from his eyes, turning around to take in the blurry sight of her worried face. He blinked and nodded, trying his best to give her a reassuring smile.
"Yeah," he said, waving his hand and turning up the level of confidence in his voice. "Yeah, I'm alright, my eyes were just itching. I'm gonna go wash my face and I'll be fine."
Without another word he left for the staff restroom and locked the door. He found himself staring at his reflection like he'd done earlier that evening, but this time the face that stared back at him was clouded by a different kind of confusion. For a brief moment he feared that the honest and heartbroken part of Gerard was just yet another mischievous act, and that his child-friendly side was just another shell, another cape or costume he'd throw on whenever he felt like it. For a moment he was afraid that the person in question was a two-faced conman nobody knew who really was.
"Okay," he muttered to himself, closing his eyes and interrupting his own trail of thoughts. "Don't go completely crazy over this. You're just nervous because you're going to talk to him later and now you're just – just reading stuff into it. Everything he says isn't about you; the world doesn't revolve around anyone. There are no hidden messages or fucking anything like that."
This was ridiculous. If there was anything correct about the stereotyped image of hurt teenage girls locking themselves up in the bathroom when stuff like this happened, then what the hell was he doing there? What good would it do? He reached out to turn the tap on and splashed his face with water, repeating what he'd done earlier that day. Then he dried his face without giving his reflection another glance. To stay in hiding all night would be a stupid thing to do, not to mention hard to explain. If anything, he was still on the clock.
When he got back to the bar he realized that there were only five minutes left until the intermission. Jill, a little more stressed out than usual, immediately thrust a tray in his hands and ordered him back inside the show room, telling him to stand by so he could start tidying up as soon as the guests had left.
Frank slipped inside the room just as Gerard was about to finish a card trick. He was holding up the Ace of Spades for the audience to see. With his free hand he made an elegant gesture in front of it, like a model showing off an item for sale. Then he concealed it with his palm and briefly arched his eyebrow at the audience, his lip curling up in that ever familiar smile. In only a matter of seconds and without so much as touching the card, he slowly removed his hand. Gradually, the Ace of Spades somehow turned into the Jack of Hearts; it almost looked like the card was melting away, that Gerard's fingers were emitting some invisible force that just wiped the black spades clean off the surface. It made the Jack of Hearts look like it was shedding a second skin.
The audience gasped and broke out into enthusiastic applause. The close-up images on the screen were clean-cut and sharp and the whole act was stunning to watch, everything from how his hands gracefully moved from card to card, never hesitating and not once making mistakes, to how the cards just changed, as if they were magically submitted to his will.
That trick marked the end of the first part of the show. Gerard smiled and pressed his fingers against his lips, blowing double kisses out to his applauding audience, reaching his arms out and with that telling them that if he could, he would have embraced them all in one single hug. He backed out of the swirling spotlight, still waving and grinning, until he had disappeared into the dark shadows backstage. The curtains dropped and soon the room was filled with the usual noise and bustle as the guests started leaving their tables. Frank waited politely and watched them with his most distant smile as they all passed by, clutching their handbags and half empty whisky glasses while slowly proceeding towards the exit. Most of them were exchanging excited reviews of Gerard's second comeback attempt, talking about what an amazing magician he was. He had most definitely redeemed himself tonight.
Frank had worked his way down to the fifth or sixth row, moving at a quick rhythm and making himself invisible, just like a good waiter should, when his ears suddenly caught notice of Gerard's familiar chuckle. He looked up, for a split second thinking that he might as well rise up to the challenge and talk to him right away, but the moment he came into view he changed his mind. He wasn't alone; he was walking out of the backstage area together with a young man Frank had never seen before. Gerard was pulling him close, his hand resting on the base of his neck. Automatically, Frank retreated into the shadows, carefully sinking down on the nearest chair and trying not to move another inch.
The unknown man was slender and lean, and there was something slightly awkward and serious about him. At the same time this also seemed very natural, even charming, like it was just a natural part of his personality. From what Frank could see he was very good-looking; his nose was straight and his jawline distinct. His dark hair had been styled into a handsome faux hawk and from time to time he would reach up and run his fingers through it, absently making sure it still looked the way he wanted it to. The two of them appeared to be very comfortable in each other's company; Gerard had a look on his face that made him seem completely different and unfamiliar to Frank. It was obvious that he had missed this man tremendously.
Gerard's lips were moving but he was too far away to eavesdrop on. His voice was reduced to nothing but a distant mutter. He did a weird shrug, giving the other one a puzzled look. The young man responded by shaking his head, before he reached out, put a hand on his arm and gave it a light squeeze. Then he leaned in closer, muttering something in Gerard's ear that made him look down, almost in embarrassment. With a serious expression upon his face he nodded, and his lips seemed to shape the words "Yeah, you're right".
Frank's peripheral vision suddenly picked up on movement close by. He tore his eyes away from the couple by the stage and looked to his right, realizing that Tara was standing a few feet away from him. Judging from the look on her face it was obvious that she as well had been aiming for a conversation with Gerard, but she stopped once she noticed that he already had company. She lingered hesitantly for a while, a thoughtful frown settling between her eyes. In the end she only shook her head and turned to leave, her lips pursed indignantly.
Frank stared after her, numbly surprised. When he turned his attention back to the stage, it was just in time to see Gerard pull the stranger into a tight hug. The young man shrugged apologetically as they broke apart and jabbed his thumb in direction of the exit, indicating that he was leaving.
"I'll see you later," Frank could briefly hear him say, waves of his voice reaching him the moment he turned to walk away. "Good luck with the second half, Gerard."
Gerard nodded again, smiling gratefully. "Thanks," he called back at him.
As he drew nearer, Frank could feel his body go rigid. He sat perfectly still, hoping intently that the shadows would provide a good enough cover and that the candle light on the table didn't flicker enough to give him away. He didn't dare steal a closer look at the unknown man as he passed; he just remained seated, his heart beating wildly while he prayed that none of them would spot his silhouette out there in the semi-darkness. However, there didn't seem to be any reason to worry about that; Gerard appeared to be caught up in his own, comfortable little bubble. He was leaning against the stage with his arms folded across his chest, looking after the young man with a tiny smile. There was such a great amount of admiration in his eyes that Frank had to take a moment to pull himself together, unless he wanted to collapse entirely against his seat. After a few moments of mulling things over, Gerard finally snapped out of whatever thoughts he was lost in. He shook his head, chuckling quietly at how he'd allowed himself to lose track of time.
Frank watched him disappear backstage, a salty taste growing in his mouth. He got up so abruptly that the chair wobbled and threatened to topple over. He let glassware be glassware and left his tray, running up the stairs two steps at a time and almost tripping over when he got to the top. Once he was in the lounge he tried to zigzag his way past all the guests without drawing too much attention, suppressing the urge to just use his elbows on them. When he finally reached the bar he felt like he'd been running for miles. "Frank?" An uncertain expression formed itself on Jill's face when she saw him.
"Frank, what's wrong? You're dead pale!"
He grabbed the first and best explanation that came to mind. "I don't know, it must be something I ate," he muttered.
He was hardly able to concentrate on anything but his jumbled thoughts. He kept looking out at the crowd of chattering guests, checking to see if Gerard's new mystery man was out there mingling with them, but he was nowhere to be seen.
"I don't feel so great," he said randomly. "If it's okay I'd like to leave for the night – ? I'll be fine tomorrow, I promise, but right now I just…" His voice trailed off; there was a disappointed lump in his throat that made it very hard to talk.
"But of course!" Jill nodded worriedly, putting the back of her hand against his forehead. "I don't think you have a fever, but yeah, it could definitely be something you ate… Either way, you don't look very good. The worst rush is over now though, so if you wanna leave now then of course it's okay. You can't hang around the bar if you're sick anyway."
Frank managed to croak a vague "thanks", before he hurried away from the lounge, swallowing like mad to rid himself of the salty, metallic taste in his mouth. Minutes later he could finally close the door to his darkened cabin.
Damnit, Frank, he thought determinately, his jaws set, just pull yourself together.
He quietly locked himself up in the tiny bathroom and stood in front of the mirror for a long time, not really focusing on his reflection. He found himself wondering how it felt like to actually lower his shoulders. How long had it really been since he'd truly relaxed, since he'd strolled through a day without a single worry on his mind? Did he even remember how his life had been before Envision, before his son, and before Gerard? He knew it hadn't been much to brag about or aim for, maybe it hadn't been much to live for either, but sometimes he missed that time, his happy-go-lucky days. Was this what it felt like to suddenly grow up? Maybe this was just the naïve, over-analytic side of him taking control again, but did he really have to keep dealing with these things? Frank had used to think that being grown-up was the final state where you could eat whatever you liked for dinner and go to bed with whoever you pleased; being an adult meant doing whatever the fuck you wanted. He thought he'd been an adult for a while now but it seemed that his true, grown-up life had been brought to him by Envision. Everything had started happening after he got this job; now he had a kid to take care of and an ever failing love life to be depressed about.
He pinched the root of his nose and closed his eyes. He had never in a million years expected himself to react this strongly to anything or anyone, and he had never expected himself to deal with it for so long. He caught himself thinking about the look on Gerard's face when he stared after the unknown man, and he realized that anyone who could soften him up and make him appear as a completely different man – that person was someone Frank couldn't compete with. Even Tara had been reduced to a complete nobody in this context; if the sight of them had been enough to drive her away without any protests, then Frank didn't stand a chance.
That's what Gerard had been trying to say during his show; yesterday hadn't meant anything because they were all nothing but a bunch of passing headaches. The problem wasn't the fact that he was at it again with someone new; the problem was that he seemed to have finally made up his mind, and that just didn't seem to involve Frank.
He sighed heavily. It hit him that he'd finally had enough of all the drama and confusion invading his life; he could feel it to the very core of his bones. He was sick of this. This wasn't what he wanted to waste any more time on. Standing there in front of the mirror, Frank decided to give up on Gerard Way, once and for all, and just start living his own life.
Chapter 16: Fifteen
December twentieth, Frank thought gloomily. December fucking twentieth.
Their journey had reached day nine and the ship was about to initiate its docking procedure, something that would wrap up this year's Christmas cruise. The Christmas of the real world awaited them back home, with endless hours of preparing meals, shopping insanity, gift wrapping, soaring blood pressure and family gatherings. Once they stepped ashore their guests would find themselves having to decorate their own trees, fill their own stockings and mix their own late night drinks. Driving home for Christmas – in a hurry.
Before he left with the cruise Frank hadn't even had time to go shopping for presents, let alone presents for his son's birthday, which was only two days away. He didn't seem to be able to find back to the excitement he'd first felt about the holidays. Actually, the holidays could already have ended and Frank wouldn't have noticed the difference. He just wanted to go home and sleep for the rest of the week.
The few remaining days he'd made carefully sure that he kept himself out of Gerard's way, but Gerard seemed to be more occupied than usual. After the magic show, Frank had only seen him together with the dark haired man once. They had been up on the sun deck, drinking coffee and looking out at the sluggish turquoise waves. Gerard had been talking and gesticulating about something that obviously annoyed him a little, while the other one was nodding thoughtfully to whatever important issues they were discussing. That was all Frank could make of it before he quickly turned around and walked the other way. After that he hadn't really seen either of them; he hadn't even spotted Tara hanging out with Gerard. He wasn't surprised about that. The unknown man seemed to be consuming all of Gerard's time anyway.
In an attempt to find back to his forgotten Christmas spirit and somehow rejoice in a halfhearted, awkward way, Frank had tried to focus all his attention on Caden. There was no chance in hell that the semi-toothless grin on that little boy's face would ever fail to work as a pick-me-up, but the effect was short-lived. That was the problem. By the end of the cruise he tried not to be with him too much because he realized that he was treating his son like some kind of painkiller. He was trying to numb out the sting in his heart by dedicating his undivided attention to him, and wonderful as it all seemed in the moment, he didn't want that in the long run. So he excused himself by saying that he was busy, although he promised that he would spend time with him once they were back home. It made him feel bad because he was lying, but he couldn't let himself obsess over his son like that. He needed time to think and sulk, which was something he knew Caden wouldn't fully understand, no matter how smart the kid was for his age.
The Destiny was expected to dock in half an hour and Frank was running his last usual errands. He was weaving his way past all the guests that had started to file into the lobby, trying to be graceful about it at the same time. As he crossed the room it felt like gravity was working on his face. The corners of his mouth were heavy, like lead, and it hurt to smile back at the colleagues and guests who passed him; they were so full of joy and Christmas spirit that it was almost annoying. He was pulling faces at them, that's what he was doing. His smile felt grotesque. The muscles around his mouth and eyes were screaming, as if they refused to do anything but mope.
He was on his way to the diner and more or less lost in his own thoughts when he looked up and spotted Gerard. He'd just been approached by a group of middle-aged women who were apparently asking for his autograph. They were fidgeting with their clothes and playing with their hair, giggling at every word he said. Gerard seemed to welcome their attention with his usual air of coolness, and when they asked if he was willing to pose for a picture he just smiled wryly and nodded.
Frank shoved his hands deeply into his pockets, focusing all his strength on becoming invisible and trying to shrink as much as he thought was possible. He passed them hurriedly and tried to avoid any stolen glances, but Gerard noticed him right away. Their eyes met, directly and inevitably, and even though Frank looked away as quickly as he could it didn't seem to matter. He heard Gerard excuse himself, before his muffled footsteps caught up with him.
"Frank – hey, Frank, wait a second."
He grabbed his arm firmly, giving him no other choice but to stop and turn around.
Frank tried to scrape together the thin amount of anger and irritation he had left and somehow dump it all into his voice. "What do you want?" he snapped.
"Okay…" Gerard replied warily, frowning. "What's wrong? I've been looking for you the past couple of days, but you –"
Frank interrupted him with a heavy sigh. Looking at Gerard now he could feel how incredibly sick he was of him; it was impossible to even comprehend it. He was sick of the fact that he wanted to quit his job because of him. He was sick and tired of how much he still cared and thought about him, and he was sick of regretting all the energy he'd wasted on him. He was sick of thinking about him all the damn time, but most of all he was sick of getting heartbroken. Heartbreak was bad enough, but it got a million times worse when the one responsible for it was someone you really wanted to hate but just couldn't – at least not one hundred percent.
"Yeah, I haven't been feeling very well," he said shortly, his irritation growing. "But you know, it was nothing – it was just a quickly passing headache," he added, and now his sarcasm was finally tainting his words.
The frown on Gerard's face stayed for a little while. Then it gradually disappeared when he realized what he was talking about.
"Oh…" he said, forming the sound very slowly, as if he was forcing an actual word that needed serious consideration across his lips.
For Frank, that was maybe one of the worst things he could have opened his reply with. It was the kind of response that in its own subtle way confirmed that he knew exactly what he meant. It was something you said when you were caught red-handed with your fingers grabbing inside the cookie jar, or with your dick stuck in an apple pie. You'd freeze on the spot, standing there with your eyes wide open and your mouth shaped in that stupid 'O'. It was just that particular sound you made when you didn't have anything else in your vocabulary that could describe the situation better. It was cheap, unfair and it hurt.
"Oh. Uhm, I…" he continued, looking uncertain. "Well, about that… I didn't mean that to sound so… I mean, I didn't even know you were listening to that part of the show. I'm sorry, I didn't know you were there." Frank had never heard him stutter like that. "But I can totally explain that! You just don't know everything that's –"
"Yeah," Frank muttered, not able to resist the urge of letting out a short laugh. "You're definitely right about that one. I have no idea about anything when it comes to all this crap."
"That's because you don't, Frank," Gerard insisted, staring at him. "Listen – earlier that day I tried to explain to Tara that I'm not interested in her anymore, but she's not exactly the easiest person to convince. I mean, you've seen how she's like. She's used to having things her way. I guess I was so caught up in it that it just incorporated into my show or something. I don't know, I'd just been thinking about that a lot, but what I said... It wasn't directed at you, if that's what you think. It wasn't aimed at you at all."
"Whatever, just spare me," Frank said wearily, rubbing his forehead with his knuckles and closing his eyes for a moment. "This isn't even about Tara, I couldn't care less about her. I don't wanna know 'everything' because I actually don't care. I'm going to leave now."
Gerard uttered an impatient groan, an unfamiliar shade of desperation slashed across the irises of his eyes.
"Frank, would you please –" he began irritably, but Frank just shook his head, interrupting him again.
"No. Seriously, Gerard – you don't have to tell me," he said, shrugging halfheartedly as yet another resigned laugh escaped him. "I don't want you to tell me anything. It doesn't matter because half the things you say aren't even true. Just do me a favor and don't talk to me anymore."
He lifted his hands, palms facing away as he was trying to convey the message of Stay right there; don't fucking follow me. Gerard opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again when Frank put his arms up. He stared back at him, something comical and sad about his tilted head and ruffled hair. Frank didn't pay an ounce of attention to any of it and turned around sharply, quickly stalking away.
He didn't get very far before Gerard had grabbed him by the arm again. He swirled around on the spot, violently yanking his arm out of his grip. He could feel his jaws set, as though he was suddenly ready to lunge forward and punch him. That was something he would have done as well if Gerard hadn't proceeded to cup his face in his hands. It was an unexpected thing to do, and it was executed without a single word. In one swift movement his cool palms were resting against his cheeks, his thumbs briefly caressing the corners of his lips and his fingertips connecting with his hair.
For a confused moment Frank didn't understand what was going on. Then, like a broken record, there was a part of his mind that began chanting a familiar message; Don't fucking do this to yourself again, don't let yourself fall for his tricks. It played over and over again, until it had manifested itself in the rest of his brain, and soon it was all he could hear. But despite all that, he found himself incapable of taking action. He couldn't move away. He wished he could lift his arms and tear his hands away from his face but the muscles in his arms wouldn't respond. He was just left frozen there, with his face cupped in Gerard's hands and staring back into his hazel eyes.
"Okay," Gerard said. "I don't have to talk. But if I shut up for a minute, then would you listen?" He wasn't asking as much as he was begging. "Would you maybe even believe me?"
No more than a second later, he pulled his face closer and leaned forward to kiss him.
The split second before Frank's eyelids closed, shutting out the lobby, the cruise and the world, he could hear a surge move through the people standing nearby. It was like a wave passing from one side to another, just like a swarm of bees that whizzed right past their heads. He could hear the guests whisper and gasp among themselves, as if they were witnessing a piece of juicy cruise ship gossip. The magician and the waiter; all front page material.
"Is that something you can believe?" Gerard asked again after they broke apart. "Or was that just another lie to you?" His eyes scanned his face thoroughly, searching for an answer.
Frank could feel his eyes moving away, looking for other excuses; he became aware of the fact that everyone was gawking at them and he felt embarrassed. He could hear people talk and murmur, and he blushed because he didn't know what they were saying. He wanted to get over there and tell them to mind their own business, but Gerard's hands hadn't moved. They were carefully holding his head still, quietly forcing him to stay there.
"Hey, don't care about them," he said. Frank looked back at him, his attention irresistibly drawn to the sound of his voice. Vaguely, in the very back of his mind, he hoped he wasn't getting hypnotized in any way.
"If I said that I have no tricks up my sleeve this time," Gerard began, "would you actually calm the fuck down and believe me? Or would you just think I was lying again?"
Frank didn't reply. It was hard to find words, hard to get his thoughts collected or organized or wrapped around anything at all. His mouth felt dry again. That was almost always the case when Gerard was near; dry mouth. It was like it had become some kind of symptom.
"This is the first real job I've ever had, Gerard," he managed to admit eventually. "This is the first real job I've ever had and ever liked."
To Gerard, that seemed to be an unexpected answer. He frowned and withdrew his hands. It was a slow process; his fingers carefully left his hair and brushed against the skin of Frank's neck, until they reached his shoulders. At last he reluctantly let go of him, the weight of his hands disappearing.
"Actually, I fucking love this job," Frank continued, finding it easier to pull himself together now that the physical contact between them had ended and his head was no longer locked between Gerard's palms. "But I don't know anymore. For the past couple of days I've been trying to think of several stupid things to do, something that would leave the bar manager no other choice but to sack me. Most of all I've considered getting a tattoo on my neck, just high enough so that the collar wouldn't conceal it. I mean, I still have to get Caden's name tattooed somewhere on me, so why not on the neck? Like I said, I love working for Envision but you know what? I don't think I even wanna be in the same company as you. And I don't think you understand how fucked up things have been lately. The problem is, I wouldn't have the heart to quit on my own, so I would have to be forced to do something stupid like that. I seriously considered it until I realized that no other company would wanna hire me with a tattoo on my neck anyway, so yeah, right now I don't know what to do. But most likely I'm gonna quit. I just have to figure out something else that'll make them sack me."
Gerard did nothing but stare at him for a couple of long seconds. He looked like he'd been listening to someone saying something in a language he didn't understand.
"You don't have to do that," he said at last, shaking his head slowly. "That wouldn't be fair. If we're down to quitting jobs here, then... then I'll leave," he offered surprisingly. He made a sad kind of shrug and his voice dropped. "I've considered leaving Envision lately anyway," he added quietly. "That would make it easier for you."
He paused, staring absently at the floor for a moment. When he finally looked back up it was with the tiniest spark of hope in his eyes. "I just really wish we could talk about this first," he admitted.
Frank shook his head. "There's really not a lot to talk about," he said, his eyes quickly sweeping the lobby. He searched for inspiration, for words, for anything that could help him, but all he saw were the couple of odd, curious onlookers still staring at them. "I don't see the point. It's just… I never know if you do something because you really want to do it, or if there's some other selfish motive that makes you do it. Just like now; I mean, you kissed me. What did that even have to do with everything? You can't just assume that kissing me is gonna make me believe you. And believe what, exactly? That you're a good kisser, is that it? Okay, fine; you're a good kisser. Now tell me how that proves or changes anything. It doesn't justify everything you've said or done to me, it doesn't make things right. Kissing me just to smooth things over would be typical of you anyway, so you're not really doing anything that favors you. This isn't a fucking movie, Gerard," he added angrily. "It doesn't work like that."
He stopped talking and just glared at the man standing in front of him. He vaguely noticed the painful strain that had settled along his arms and realized that he'd been balling his hands up in tight fists for quite a while. Gerard didn't seem to know what to say; he drew his breath and opened his mouth a number of times, wanting to give him a response, but every time he appeared to change his mind.
"Okay, I... I'm sorry you took it that way, I didn't mean that at all, I just..." He quickly cut himself off before he was carried away by his own ramblings. "But what I said about leaving Envision..." he added slowly, "I actually meant that. So if you don't wanna talk or anything..." He paused, shrugging halfheartedly. "Then I guess this is it? We're done?"
"We're done." Frank confirmed defiantly, although his words sounded strangely distant. "I don't need you to explain or tell me anything, and I don't care what you do as long as you just leave me alone. I don't know why you even bothered running after me in the first place," he muttered. "You've obviously moved on to better things already."
Gerard frowned at him, slightly confused. "Frank," he eventually began, ducking his head and trying to catch his eyes, "if this is about Mikey –"
"No, Gerard, I don't care!" Frank snapped, cutting him off. His face was burning and his ears had turned red-hot. He didn't know what sparked that sudden blow of irritation; the fact that Gerard simply didn't seem to be able to shut up, or that Mikey was an obvious abbreviation of Michael, making it clear that they were already comfortable enough to be on a nickname level. "What part of that don't you fucking understand? I don't care if you can explain or whatever. I don't want to know."
"Just fucking leave it," he interrupted him again. "Please. I don't wanna know. I'm not interested."
Gerard closed his mouth reluctantly, his jaws working; it looked like the words were stuck somewhere underneath his tongue and were putting up an actual physical fight in order to get out. He kept staring desperately at him for a few lengthy seconds. Then he directed his eyes at the floor.
"Okay, fine," he sighed and looked back up. He didn't say "fine" in the bitter, angry way, where you forced the word out through gritted teeth. He delivered his simple "fine" in a tone of giving up. He was admitting defeat. "If you're not interested anymore then that's… that's fine. I'm not gonna force you if you've already made up your mind. I'll… Uh, I'll ask the company to release me from my contract later. I won't be performing with Envision again. And... it won't be necessary for you to quit your job."
"Fine," Frank repeated flatly, his lips numb. "Thanks."
Gerard regarded him silently, his head still cocked into a sad and confused tilt. "I'd like to see you walk away though," he said, his voice breaking slightly. "There's no other way you can convince me that you really meant what you just said, so… get going."
Frank hesitated, moving his weight awkwardly from one leg to another.
"Watch me,” he managed to say in the end. His voice had turned into nothing more but a dry, papery sound but he continued nonetheless. "Good luck with your life, Gerard."
With that he turned away, quickly leaving him behind. He determinately stared straight ahead and ignored the urge to throw a glance over his shoulder. This is a good thing, he thought to himself, over and over again. I really want this.
Chapter 17: Sixteen
It took a while to get most of the decorations down, even though it went a lot smoother than Frank had first thought. Another couple of hours of cleaning and tidying passed by after that, before Jill glanced at her watch and told him that he was free to go home if he wanted.
"This trip really wore you out, didn't it?" she asked, regarding him thoughtfully. "At least you look pretty tired. But hey," she added brightly, "everyone feels like that after their first Christmas cruise."
Yeah, but I bet it's not as messed up for everyone, Frank thought irritably, although he felt himself copy her friendly smile automatically, answering her with a light shrug. If anything, she was right; he was tired.
"If you wanna leave now then I won't mind," Jill continued. "You've done an incredible job and you really don't have to hang around here any longer. Plus I'm pretty sure you'd like to go home to your family. I'll see you again once the holidays are over, okay?" She smiled at him. "Merry Christmas, Frank."
"Yeah, of course," he replied, still with that stiff copy of her smile plastered on his face. "Thanks, Jill. Merry Christmas to you too."
So that was it; his first ever Envision Christmas cruise was over. Snap your fingers and you're there. Clicking your heels however isn't complicated enough to get you back home. Frank felt like he'd been forced to open and close far too many doors to get back to their original departure port. The whole thing definitely hadn't been the blast that he had hoped for, that was for sure – even despite Lisa and Caden's company. Christmas still was, as far as he knew, terribly overrated. Especially this year.
A dull pain had settled somewhere by the root of his nose, causing a deep frown. Even though his thoughts seemed to be all over the place, it didn't take long for him to discover the pattern they had camouflaged themselves in. Frank realized that his head was hurting because he was actually thinking about Gerard. His mind would drift off and his thoughts would scatter, fooling him into believing that he was thinking about nothing in particular, until it dawned on him that Gerard was again occupying his mind. It was a game of forgetting and remembering that kept repeating itself. His thoughts were engaging in a sneaky little dance and it was hard to get a grip on the footwork that could get him out of it. Nobody could escape their own head. It hurt, both physically and mentally.
"Just wait and see," he muttered as he changed out of his Christmas uniform, finally allowed to put on something normal. "Soon you'll see his fucking face on huge billboards everywhere. The son of a bitch will be smirking and cocking his eyebrows at everyone like nothing ever happened."
He was halfway down the ship's gangway, vaguely wondering if Gerard had already disembarked, when his cell phone rang. He swore and juggled his luggage for a couple of clumsy seconds before he got to it; the caller ID revealed that it was Lisa.
"Hey, Frank!" she said brightly. "Where are you? Did you leave the ship yet?"
"I'm getting there," he replied, biting back another swear word as his suitcase lost its balance and toppled over. "Why?"
"Well, Caden and I've just made it home and I wondered if you have time to come see us?" she asked. "We really have to discuss his birthday party and I have no idea if his friends are available during the holidays at all. I'm starting to think we should have celebrated it earlier…"
Frank closed his eyes for a moment; Caden's birthday party. Of course. He'd almost forgotten all about it; he still had to buy presents. At least one thing was for sure; they were not going to hire a magician.
"Anyway," she added, "we have to figure something out. I'd really appreciate it if you could drop by." He detected a smile in her voice.
"Sure, I can," he nodded. "I'll get a cab and come straight over. Uh, give me fifteen, twenty minutes?"
"Okay, awesome," Lisa said. "See you then."
When Frank reached Lisa's apartment and locked himself in, he didn't even get the chance to let them know that he was there. His son was way ahead of him and had already heard him the moment he entered the narrow hall. He lingered by the door, listening to Caden's footsteps as he ran excitedly in his direction, the sound growing louder and louder. A blink of an eye later and he had rounded the corner. Caden stopped for a second to check that the new arrival really was his father, before he grinned widely and ran towards him.
Frank immediately dropped everything he was carrying, almost losing his balance when the boy jumped straight into his arms. He laughed and closed his eyes, hugging him tightly.
"Hey, buddy, I missed you! I'm sorry I wasn't around when you and your Mom went ashore." He loosened his grip to look at him. "I really wanted to help you guys with your stuff and everything but I was a little busy."
"Yeah, but only because you were working, so it's okay." The boy smiled and locked his arms around his neck. "I knew you were gonna get here anyway, because it's Christmas and you aren't going to work when it's Christmas, are you, Dad?"
"That's right, Caden, I'm not," he assured him, letting him go. "So how did you like the cruise?" he asked. "Your Dad works at a pretty cool place, huh?"
"Yeah, I wanna go again sometime!" Caden nodded eagerly. Then his face lit up, like he'd just remembered something important. "Hey, Dad – look!" He grinned widely, pointing at his upper teeth; there was a space in that row which definitely hadn't been there before. "I lost a tooth! My third one!"
"You lost your third tooth already and I missed out?" Frank exclaimed, and for a moment he felt genuinely disappointed. "Aw, man – when did it happen?"
"In the taxi," he replied, beaming proudly. "It was bleeding a lot but I didn't cry because it didn't hurt one bit."
"It had been loose for a while, so it was about time." Lisa came into view for a swift moment, passing by with a small stack of towels in her arms, apparently in the process of unpacking. "The funny thing is that we really lost it," she continued from the other room. "We looked all over the backseat of that cab and couldn't find it anywhere. So we have nothing for the Tooth Fairy this time, sweetie."
"I don't need my tooth," Caden assured her loudly. "Because I swallowed the other one I lost, remember, Mom? And the Tooth Fairy gave me money anyway. But Mom," he added, and the slightly grown-up, know-it-all tone in his voice made Frank break into a laugh, "I know she gives the money to you first, because she didn't even come into my room the last time. It was just you."
There was a short pause before Lisa appeared by the door, her eyes wide and her hands resting on her hips.
"You know, you are supposed to be asleep when it's that late! You are one clever little troll, aren't you?" She reached out and tickled him, causing the six year old to scream and giggle at the same time. "I'll be sure to let the Tooth Fairy know you said that! She won't come visit you anymore once she knows you're spying on her. Now go to your room," she commanded in mock outrage. "Mom and Dad needs to talk about something in private."
"Is it about the birthday party?" the boy asked, looking hopefully at them.
"Who said anything about a birthday party?" his mother joked, deliberately avoiding his question. "I haven't heard anything about a birthday party – have you, Frank?" She looked blankly at Frank, who shook his head in response and shrugged innocently.
"It is!" Caden insisted gleefully and started jumping up and down. "You are going to talk about my birthday party!"
"Okay, don't get too excited, honey – now go to your room," she repeated, more seriously this time. "I'm not gonna say it again. And no eavesdropping by the door!"
She smiled as their son uttered an annoyed and slightly offended groan, but he did what he was told and reluctantly left them. She kept her eye on him until he was out of sight.
"That kid is awesome," Frank chuckled. "I freakin' love him."
"He's six and he already acts like you," Lisa joked with a slight giggle. "That's awesome, alright. Oh, by the way," she added suddenly, "how'd it go?"
She raised her eyebrows in a silent question, watching him as he tucked his hands into his pockets and aimlessly began shoving his luggage against the wall with his foot. He knew exactly what she was referring to.
"How did what go?" he asked absently, acting dumb.
"Don't try that with me," she said, rolling her eyes. "How did it go with Gerard and all that. Did you actually get to talk to him?"
"Oh, that." Frank waved his hand carelessly, hoping that the tone in his voice was lighthearted enough. "That's… Well, let's just say that it's all over and done with." He shrugged indifferently at her surprised expression and made his way past her and into the tiny kitchen.
"What do you mean you're done?" she asked warily, hurrying after him.
"I mean it's over," he replied shortly, still trying to fake his lightheartedness. "For good. Hey, you wouldn't happen to have a beer or something?" He made an attempt at improvising an evasive maneuver. "Or if it's alright with you I'll fix myself something to eat, I'm starving…"
That was a lie, of course, but nevertheless he stuck his head inside the fridge, as if he thought he could climb into hiding in there and that way avoid answering her.
"Frank? Turn around and look at me."
Lisa's voice wasn't particularly strict but it had a short, cold tone to it. A warning was hiding in there somewhere, something which was far more threatening than any angry yelling. For a fleeting moment he guessed this was what she sounded like when Caden had done something wrong. When he eventually turned around he saw that she was standing by the kitchen counter, her arms folded across her chest.
"What happened?" she asked, pursing her lips.
"Nothing," Frank sighed heavily, closing the fridge. "He just lied again; that's what he's been doing all this fucking time. Now can we please just forget it and talk about Caden's birthday party instead?"
"The party can wait," Lisa said sternly. "Tell me what the hell's been going on between you two." This time she wasn't asking so much as she was commanding.
After another moment's hesitation, Frank reluctantly began telling her about the simple tricks Gerard had entertained Caden with. Then he started talking about Tara, who appeared to be a woman Gerard knew well, and by then he had talked himself warm. Frank said he'd seen him with another guy, again, during the intermission of his last magic show. He then ended his report by telling her everything Gerard had said earlier. He explained to her that he'd shown no interest in his explanations, not even when he said that he was going to break his contract with Envision.
"And then I left," he shrugged. "He comes with all this extra crap anyway, usually in the shape of other people. It's just way too much to deal with. We're done now and I honestly feel a ton lighter. Problem solved."
Lisa kept glaring at him for a while after he'd stopped talking, keeping her mouth shut up to the point where the silence started to get uncomfortable.
"And you can actually stand there and say that?" she asked in the end, her eyes narrowing in disbelief. "Even though you left him knowing that you didn't give the guy a chance to explain himself? You simply refused to talk about it? Wow, Frank, that must really make you feel great," she added sarcastically.
"I don't need to listen to his talk," he muttered, scowling. "I know what the deal is anyway. Bottom line is, he's never gonna change. I regret ever getting involved with him in the first place; he's just… just not a good person."
Lisa frowned, and for a moment she almost looked personally offended.
"Okay, this doesn't add up with what I know," she claimed, her voice harder than usual. "Sometimes people are the way they are because they can't really help it. You know? It's just them. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they're bad. That's what I've learned these past few years, and I know that because of us, Frank. We used to be absolutely disgusting before, but we're not bad people. Look at us; we changed."
"But then you've got people who just won't change," he argued. "They refuse. Gerard is one of them. I'm willing to bet that his so-called explanations would have been something stupid anyway, something he'd just made up. He'd sneak an insult in there somehow, I'm so fucking sure of it."
"Look," Lisa sighed. "I know I told you that you have the right to be skeptical, and I know he's said and done things to you that you didn't deserve, but you're honestly being ridiculous right now. There are a lot of logical explanations in this world, Frank. I bet there's one for Gerard as well; if you'd actually let him talk then maybe he would've given you one. And I'm pretty sure he didn't come clean to you about his feelings for nothing, or even bothered to show Caden those magic tricks at all if he didn't care."
"Oh, right," Frank snorted sarcastically. "Well, uh, I'm pretty damn sure he wanted to make himself look all nice and attractive just so he could get in my pants. I mean, not that I think very highly of myself or anyth–"
He was abruptly cut off mid-sentence when a searing pain suddenly shot through his left cheek. The feeling came out of nowhere and caught him completely by surprise. Only after a second or two did he realize that Lisa had taken a step forward and hit him. She had actually hit him, with a flat hand and with full force, right across the cheek. He quickly reached up, his touch intensifying the burning sensation on his skin.
"Wh – You –" he stuttered in shock, blinking at her.
"Next time I swear I'm gonna punch you," Lisa warned, the tone in her voice telling him that she was far from kidding.
"What – Lisa, what the fuck?!"
"You're gonna thank me later," she snapped, her face turning light pink with anger. "Seriously, Frank – you just told me that he's quitting his job! He's quitting his job for you. Hello? How does that even have anything to do with getting in your damn pants? Yeah, maybe he wanted to put himself in a better light by showing Caden those tricks, I'll admit that's possible, but so what? I mean, who wouldn't do anything to look good in front of the people they're interested in? And God, I'm just gonna say it again; he's actually leaving so you can stay. Do you even realize how drastic that is? To me that sounds like a strange way to hit on someone."
She stared at him for what seemed like ages. Frank stood there at a loss for words, rubbing his palm against his painful cheek and frantically searching his mind for something sensible to reply with.
"I can't believe you're on his side," he just said in the end, trying his best to look genuinely offended.
Lisa ran her hand through her loose ponytail, shaking her head at him.
"No – I can't believe you insist on being so stubborn. And I can't believe you're not even capable of recognizing a sacrifice when it's being thrown right at you. The poor guy was obviously trying to make an effort but you didn't even want to hear him out. Just listen to yourself! It's like you're obsessed with being unreasonable."
Frank opened his mouth to answer but he had nothing to attack her with, nothing besides the usual "I'm not!" He said it out loud in his head, only to realize that it sounded terribly childish and stupid.
"It doesn't matter to him if he quits his job or not," he muttered eventually, grabbing the first thing that came to mind. He scowled at her, continuing to rub his cheek absently. "He even said himself he wanted to leave, it's not my fault that he's sick of Envision. And you're forgetting that he's been doing his own thing in Vegas or wherever the fuck for ages. I bet there are tons of places that are more than happy to hire him. He'll survive."
"Don't even go there," she said impatiently. "We're not talking about Gerard's unemployment, that's way beside the point. You said that he was impossible to talk to? Well, you're not one bit better. Now you're just making up excuses."
Frank didn't answer. He remained by the fridge with his palm on his cheek, which was still aching dully. He was sure Lisa had given him a red patch that was going to stick for the rest of the day.
"Come on, Frank." This time her voice was gentler, and she sent a tiny smile his way. "You're so tangled up in being careful that you're not thinking straight anymore. And seriously; if you do get heartbroken and you guys fail then it's honestly not the end of the world. I'm sorry if that sounds harsh but you're not going to fall apart. You're made of stronger stuff than that."
Frank looked down. He started playing with a loose thread in his t-shirt and noticed that his hands were trembling slightly.
"But…" he eventually began slowly. "If I try to go back to him now and it really does fail… I'm gonna be out of it for a while if that happens, Lisa, I'm serious. And I don't want Caden to see me like –"
"I don't understand all this unnecessary worry you have for Caden's mental health." Lisa had folded her arms across her chest again, looking at him seriously. "Or whatever it is you think is so fragile about him. Where did that even come from in the first place? The kid's an only child, he's been without his father for almost seven years, his mother is too young and uneducated, and I've been forced to choose double shifts over him way too many times. On top of everything he's brighter than most other kids his age, and sometimes that makes him feel a little lonely. But seriously, have you seen him? He's doing awesome. Your son's much tougher than you think."
"Yeah, but –"
"Heartbreak isn't forever," she said, interrupting him softly. "And don't worry about us. You understand? We're actually here for you; that's a two-way deal. If this fails then don't think we can't help you move on."
"I don't know…" Frank hesitated, biting his lip.
"You do know, dumbass," she insisted, reaching forward to put an encouraging hand on his arm this time. "If broken hearts are hard to mend, then fine. That's just life. But it's even harder to stop beating yourself up about what could have been. You know? I think it's better to risk something you can fix later, instead of regretting you didn't do it for the rest of your life. Just… go find the guy. Hear him out, at least, so you can both sort your feelings out. If you don't, you'll keep blaming Gerard for everything that goes wrong until you start believing it yourself. And that's really something Caden shouldn't have to see. He looks up to you so much, Frank, you're his hero," she added sincerely, a pleading tone in her voice. "Don't confuse him by suddenly becoming a bitter Dad."
Frank kept sucking on his lip and stared absently into the air. He realized that Lisa had been talking more sense in ten minutes than most people had their entire lifetime. Then it suddenly felt like everything inside him dropped, like he'd swallowed something weightless that just had been claimed by gravity. Feeling slightly lightheaded, he walked over to the nearest chair and sank down on it.
"But – what if it's too late?" he asked shakily; it dawned on him that panic had started to seep into his veins, making him feel hot and cold at the same time. He started rambling, not able to stop his arms from gesticulating aimlessly. "What if he quit his job already? I'm never gonna see him again if he leaves Envision. And I don't even know where I'm supposed to start or what I'm supposed to say, I'm –"
"Jesus Christ, Frank!" Lisa reached out and gave his arm an annoyed shove. "Don't lose your head completely! You don't know if it's too late or not, but sitting in my kitchen and asking yourself 'what if' isn't exactly gonna help you find out, is it? What the hell's wrong with you? Just get a cab, locate him, convince him to stay with Envision and the rest will come to you. Seriously – I'm not a very violent person but I'm gonna smack you again if I have to."
They stared at each other for a little while longer. Then Frank broke into a laugh; he doubled over, laughing so much his shoulders shook, tears springing into his eyes.
"When the fuck did you become so straightforward?" he asked, struggling up from the chair once he'd managed to regain control of himself. When he straightened up he could feel that he truly needed that; he needed to be slapped and yelled at, and he definitely needed that laugh. "I'm so embarrassed right now. Look at me! I'm fucking blushing, what the hell."
Lisa grinned, shrugging at him while she began ushering him out of the kitchen.
"I've been used to being a young and single working Mom for a while now; I have to be straightforward unless I wanna be trampled on. Now get a move on, Frank," she added and pushed him out the door, talking as if he was about to enter the last round of a particularly exhausting boxing match. "Go!"
Chapter 18: Seventeen
If he hadn't kept his grip on the banisters, Frank probably would have tumbled down the staircase from Lisa's apartment and broken his neck. The word "Go!" had worked as a trigger on him, and he was covering three and four steps at a time as he made his way downstairs. Seconds later he was whistling and waving at the first yellow car he spotted down the street. After being ignored by the first two taxis, a wave of relief washed over him when the third one finally blinked its lights and swung out of the steady traffic.
"You in big hurry, Sir?" the taxi driver asked merrily, his English broken and heavily accented. He glanced at him in the rear-view mirror as Frank tore the backdoor open and dove inside. "Where you want to go?"
"Uhm," he began frantically, trying to catch his breath. He was searching his mind for the best way to explain that he wanted to go to a place he didn't know where the hell was. "Do you – do you know who Gerard Way is?"
"Vey?" The taxi driver turned a little in his seat, mildly puzzled as he looked over his flannel-clad shoulder.
"Uh, yeah," Frank nodded, "Way – Gerard Way. Do you know who that is?"
"Yes," he confirmed, a little annoyed. "Gerard Way. He's a magician; you've probably seen him on TV or something. You know who I mean?"
The driver still looked blank. Frank groaned impatiently, collapsing against the seat.
"He does magic tricks," he attempted, pronouncing the last two words very carefully. "With cards and fire and stuff. And explosions! Like, boom!" He waved dramatically and drew a wide, invisible circle with his hands. "He's done shows in Las Vegas and on cruise ships and – do you understand me at all here?"
Something finally seemed to dawn on the driver, his face opening up in a relieved moment of comprehension. He grinned and started to nod enthusiastically.
"Aaah, Las Vegas, yes!" he exclaimed, emphasizing the words as though he was correcting Frank. "Yes, yes, magic tricks! I know the Las Vegas magic, I know!" He gestured wildly, nodding even more. "I see him on the TV, many times."
"You know?" Frank repeated excitedly. "Seriously? Do you know where he lives? His house?"
The smile on the driver's face vanished and he shook his head, looking disappointed. Frank sank back against the seat once again and dragged his hands across his face. He then threw a hopeful glance outside the window, trying to spot another cab with possibly a more knowledgeable driver, but when he needed one there was no one in sight. That was typical.
"But Bogdan, he know, he know where the Mister Vey live," the driver said helpfully, after having thought about it for a while. "He drive him one time, I remember. I call Bogdan on cell phone – it's okay?"
Frank's face lit up, his heart performing a triple somersault in his chest.
"Yes! Of course it's okay!" He leaned forward again, nodding eagerly. "Please call your friend!"
While listening to the driver rambling on in his native language, Frank sat there biting his nails in anticipation. The only words he could make out of the conversation were "Las Vegas", "magic" and "television". Apparently, Gerard's fans included all sorts of people; he was much more famous than Frank had first thought. After what seemed like a loud, enthusiastic argument that lasted a lifetime, the driver finally hung up, beaming as he put the car into drive.
"Eurona apartments, Sir!" he proclaimed happily, throwing a glance at Frank's confused reflection in the rear-view mirror. "Mister Vey live in the Eurona apartments."
"And… And you know where that is?" Frank asked nervously.
"I know, I know," he nodded reassuringly. "I bring you there, no worry."
After twenty-five excruciatingly long minutes, minutes which suffered badly from the heavy traffic, the driver finally maneuvered the taxi to a halt next to an upscale apartment building. It was a pretty tall construction, facing the city with an exterior that was a mixture of pale brown and dusty red. Frank remained seated and glanced uncertainly around; he spotted an expensive looking hotel right across the street and a shiny office building next to it. Maybe he'd passed through here by bus or taxi, but he hadn't really been to this part of the city before. It struck him that his parents lived in a district that resembled this one; it was safe to say that it wasn't a place he would most likely hang out in – at least not by free will.
"Eurona right here," the driver said, looking over his shoulder when he realized he was hesitating.
"Yeah, I see it," Frank muttered. He glanced out of the window once more before he opened the door. "Thank you. Could you… Uhm, could you wait for me? Just let the meter run, I don't care."
As he stepped outside, the driver shrugged him an "okay", reaching into his glove compartment for a copy of a worn and well-read paperback novel.
Frank's steps against the pavement felt heavy, his Converses dragging along the concrete at an unsure, slow pace. His hands balled themselves into fists, growing sweatier the closer he got to the entrance. By the time he'd reached the door and the nearest potted Christmas tree, his heart was racing, something which formed an uncomfortable lump in his throat that wouldn't go away no matter how much he swallowed. Frank closed his eyes for a moment, trying to breathe steadily and ignoring the butterfly mosh pit in his stomach.
"Merry Christmas, Sir! May I help you?"
The voice came out of nowhere, thrown at him so unexpectedly that it startled him. His eyes flew open in an instant and revealed that a total stranger was standing there, looking at him. He was dressed in a dark red uniform; his military style greatcoat reached all the way down to his knees, his trousers were perfectly creased and his black shoes were shiny and spotless. The edge of his coat lapels and his double cuffs were decorated with silver bands, something which was mirrored in the hat he wore. The doorman; of course a place like this would have a doorman. That was something he hadn't thought about.
"Uh… Yeah," Frank began slowly, his nervousness gradually turning into irritation when he noticed that the man's eyes had moved, inevitably, towards the tattoos on his arms. Then he quickly looked back up, still with that stupidly polite smile plastered upon his face. "I'm here to see Gerard Way," he continued, straightening up. "If you could let him know that Frank Iero is here, I'd appreciate it."
"I'm sorry, Sir," the doorman replied, shrugging apologetically, "I'm afraid I can't do that; Mr. Way left about half an hour ago."
"He left…?" Frank's heart immediately sank. "Where to? Did he say?"
For a few seconds, the doorman just looked at him. Then he chuckled shortly, as if he was politely laughing at a joke he hadn't found funny at all.
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that. For obvious reasons."
Impatience came seeping back into Frank's veins and he threw his arms up, annoyed.
"Oh, come on!" he exclaimed. "Obvious reasons? Gerard knows who I am, I'm not gonna murder him or anything. Do I seriously look like a criminal to you? I'm fucking 5'4''!"
"Sir – this would have been very easy if Mr. Way had actually been at home. But since he isn't, and since you want to go after him, you'll have to prove that you and Mr. Way are acquainted before I can tell you anything, regardless of your height." The man rested his arms behind his back and tilted his head slightly, as though waiting for him to do just that. "It's my job to be sure about these things. That's why people choose to live here. It's our policy."
"Then fuck your policy," Frank snapped. "If you –"
"Hey – is there a problem here?"
Another unknown voice appeared out of nowhere, interrupting the argument. Frank turned his head sharply, searching for the source. A split second later his heart made a giant leap for his throat when he realized that the voice belonged to him, the lean, young man with the fauxhawk; the fucking Mikey-guy. He had just stepped out of the building and was now looking at them with a mix of mild confusion and amusement.
Oh, so he's spending Christmas with Gerard now? he thought acidly, narrowing his eyes. Wow, how fucking cozy.
He scowled as Mikey took his sunglasses off and hooked them into the neck of his t-shirt.
"Not at all, Sir, it's nothing to worry about," the doorman beamed. "This gentleman was just about to leave."
Frank felt his jaws clench, a whirling wave of anger and jealousy surging through him. For a moment he wished he could transform those feelings into something physical; in his mind, the anger was a punch in the doorman's face, while the jealousy was a kick aimed at Mikey's balls.
"No, this fucking gentleman is not about to leave," he said, gritting his teeth; he was determined not to let the sight of Mikey bring him down. "But hey, I know what you can do," he added, gesticulating at the doorman in a moment’s inspiration. "You can call him! He'll confirm everything I've said, he'll tell you that he knows me!"
"In that case, wouldn't it be easier if you called him?" He regarded him calmly and arched his eyebrows beneath the shiny brim of his hat. "Since you already know him? I'm just the doorman; I don't keep the residents' phone numbers."
Frank stared at him. Then he sighed loudly, realizing that he was more or less defeated. Of course he didn't have a way of contacting Gerard. Right now he would have gladly taken one of his custom made douchebag coins.
"I… I can't," he eventually admitted miserably. "I can't call him. But I'm pretty sure you can, there's gotta be someone you can ask. Just tell him that Frank wants to see him and that it's urgent. I really need him to stop whatever he's doing right now and listen to me. Please," he added, knowing that his last hope was to make the guy feel sorry for him, "I'm seriously begging you."
The doorman opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by Mikey.
"Wait – Frank?" He blinked at him, acting as if he was seeing him for the first time. "As in Frank Iero? You work aboard the Destiny, right?"
How the hell does he know that? Frank thought, his heart struggling through another worried jump. The butterflies in his stomach began hurling themselves at each other again, before another thought suddenly occurred to him: They've been talking about me. Gerard's been talking about me, to him. Why the fuck would he do that?
"I'm Frank Iero, yeah," he confirmed warily, frowning at him. "Why?"
"I didn't even realize you guys were talking about Gerard!" The young man beamed as he hurried forward and extended his arm towards him. "So you're Frank? Wow, it's great to finally meet you in person!"
Frank's lips parted in sheer confusion. He stared blankly back at Mikey, absently allowing him to shake his hand vigorously.
"It – it is?"
"Of course it is," Mikey chuckled, looking at him with slight frown. "Why wouldn't it be? Gerard's been telling me a whole lot about you. So the two of you finally worked things out now, huh? I mean, since you're so desperate about seeing him. I honestly thought you guys were never gonna get around to fixing things," he added. "I was getting a little impatient."
Another fist of irritation punched Frank in the stomach; this guy sure had some fucking nerve. He abruptly pulled his hand out of his grip. "What the fuck is this?" he snapped, his face immediately flaring up in an angry blush. "First of all, it's not your goddamn business, and secondly – well, I don't even know what I'm supposed to say. Gerard's just assuming he can have us both now or something? And you're okay with that? God, the two of you are seriously so fucked up! I'm obviously wasting my time here because I'm not into this shit –"
"Okay, what the hell are you talking about?" Mikey raised an eyebrow, suddenly looking slightly offended. "Maybe it's not my business, fair enough, but Gerard really needed my advice on this. He did ask me. And being his brother and all I kinda felt like I had to be there for him."
Frank's voice was way ahead of his thinking, not allowing his mind to become aware of what he'd just been told. When that finally happened he was already mid-sentence.
"You know what, that's just so – so –" He stuttered, then cut himself off, frowning. "...what? Brother?"
"Yeah." Mikey folded his arms across his chest. "I don't know about you, maybe you're an only child or whatever, but brothers stick up for each other – at least that's what they should do. And my brother was desperate to get a second opinion on what he was supposed to do about you, actually. I don't see what's so fucked up about that."
"You're – you're Gerard's brother...?" Frank could hardly get the words past his lips, his entire mouth suddenly gone numb. "Like, flesh and blood...?"
"Same parents and no adoption papers, as far as I know," he remarked coolly, the offended expression on his face not changing. "He's my big brother. If you have to know, my wife and I boarded the Destiny in Phillipsburg," he went on, explaining. "We've spent our honeymoon there and meant to catch a plane back home when Gerard called. He was freaking out and said he needed to talk to me right away, so he arranged for us to come aboard the ship instead. We're staying with him until tomorrow. Who did you think I was?"
"But, I –" Frank stuttered, although he had no idea what to say; all the blood in his body was rushing to his head, making him feel slightly dizzy. "I thought –" Then he abruptly interrupted himself, staring at him suspiciously. "Hold on – it's not like you can just hop on from any port you want. You have to be registered several weeks ahead to even get a cabin."
"Well, obviously." Mikey rolled his eyes. "But we're talking about Gerard here; if my brother dislikes a rule then he's gonna bend it. Or make up his own, more likely. So yeah, he just had to pull some strings and my wife and I got a cabin in no time. He really didn't tell you I was aboard?" he added, looking puzzled. "That's so weird; he said he'd get a hold of you so he could introduce us. When that didn't happen I just assumed you were too busy."
Frank pulled his hand across his face, leaving it clasped over his mouth. Oh God, he thought, pressing his clammy palm against his lips.
"N-no," he said eventually, letting his arm drop. "He didn't – he didn't tell me that. Or – well, I guess he was about to. I just… I wouldn't let him."
"What do you mean you wouldn't let him?" Mikey repeated, his offended face gradually taking on a suspicious shade.
"I've done…" Frank's voice was trembling slightly as he searched for words. He gesticulated aimlessly, like that was going to help him. "I've done something real stupid, okay – it's all a huge misunderstanding; a fucking… ginormous misunderstanding. But seriously," he added, his eyes desperate, "do you have any idea where he was going? Because now I really have to talk to him, like – right now."
"He didn't say, specifically," Mikey began doubtfully, eyening him. "He just said he was going to run some errands. And that he was probably going to be a little late but that he'd take us out for dinner when he got back... Oh, wait," he added, "I think he was gonna drop by the Envision HQ and fix something. Something about his contract, but he was a little vague on that. I don't know where he was going first though... He might have been there already." Mikey's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "So I guess this is why Gerard's been sulking all day. You guys haven't figured out shit, have you?"
Frank shook his head, the butterflies in his stomach tearing at each other as though their life depended on it. Up until now, it hadn't dawned on him for real that Gerard was actually being serious, that he was going to leave Envision for good. Somewhere deep inside he'd always had a tiny hope that it had all been nothing but words.
"Okay… I have to go to Envision HQ, obviously," he muttered, a chill racing down his spine when he realized the severity of all the misunderstandings. Mikey signaled for him to wait, his hand reaching for the cell phone in his pocket.
"You know, this is worrying," he said, frowning as he thumbed through his contacts. "I'm not sure if I even wanna know what's actually going on between you two. But you're obviously in pain right now so I'll call him for you, just – hang on."
Frank could only nod in response and immediately resumed his nail biting, his body bent slightly forward in an impatient, urgent fashion. Everything seemed to go quiet while they waited for Gerard to answer his brother's call; not even the sounds from the passing traffic managed to fully reach his ears. The entire world appeared to hold its breath together with him. In the end Mikey glanced up, shaking his head.
"I'll give it another try," he began, but Frank was already backing away.
"No, it's fine – really. Thanks for trying and everything but I think I should just head over there. I don't have time to explain, I'm sorry, but it was, uh… It was nice meeting you. Finally," he added, giving him an awkward and apologetic smile, almost tripping over his own feet as he fumbled for the taxi door.
A moment later the taxi was speeding away from the apartment building, leaving Mikey standing by the curb with his mouth hanging slightly open and a confused expression upon his face.
Chapter 19: Eighteen
Envision's offices were located light-years away from the Eurona apartments – or so it felt. Due to the holidays the traffic was unbelievable, and the streets were filled with people weaving their way past charity Santas and fellow last-minute shoppers. Frank had sunken back against the leather seats, the heat making his t-shirt cling to his back. He absently opened the window in an attempt to catch a soothing breeze, but all he got was exhaust and a dozen blaring car horns.
He didn't care. His mind seemed completely empty, a sense of nothingness having settled in him; even the butterflies had stopped trashing around. If this feeling meant that he was giving up then he was pretty much halfway there.
"Envision, Sir, right down the road," the taxi driver announced, yanking Frank out of his blank, empty thoughts. He pointed through the windscreen. "Faster if you run, no?"
Frank sat up and craned his neck. The driver was right; he could clearly see the vertical row of big, silver letters forming the word "ENVISION", which decorated the side of a tall, stony building. A number of large flags were waving in the distance, propped up right above the entrance, and Frank could make out the cruise line's logo on the nearest one. Now that he had the building in view he realized it provided him with new energy. He'd bothered to go this far; to give up now would be a waste. He found his wallet, pulling out a couple of dollar bills that he hoped covered it all and shoved them into the driver's hand.
"Keep the change," he told him, "and thank you so much."
"You have good luck!" he called after him, leaning out the window and watching him as Frank fought his way past waiting cars and motorbikes. "Good luck and Merry Christmas!"
Thankfully, the guard outside the building just threw one lazy glance at him, not giving him a harder time than what was necessary. Frank had pinned his work ID to the hem of his t-shirt, just in case; at least no one could deny him access to this building. The stinging sunlight had relentlessly attacked the back of his head with its insistent needles, and since he was drenched in sweat, the coolness of the marble lobby was welcome. Looking around, Frank immediately felt out of place; no matter where he turned he could only see people who were more or less formally dressed. He wavered uncertainly for a second or two, but then he took a deep breath and straightened up. Not allowing himself to hesitate any longer, he quickly strode across the floor, trying his best to give everyone the impression of total control and confidence.
The large information board next to the elevators told him that "Employment Affairs" were situated on the fifth floor. Frank's eye then caught the word "Management", something that made him linger. He chewed thoughtfully on his lip. Any other person would go to employment affairs if they had anything to discuss about their contract, but then again, Gerard wasn't just any other person. He'd always put himself far above the rest of the employees aboard the Destiny, giving the impression that he didn't belong together with the unworthy mass of waiters, casino dealers, chefs and deckhands. Most likely he would go directly to the boss, not wanting to deal with something as trite as employment affairs.
"You gotta think like him to find him," Frank muttered to himself, mentally crossing his fingers and glancing up at the board one last time before he hit the nearest elevator call button.
On his way up he was joined by three elderly men who were typically enough headed for the same floor as well. They all glanced at him as if he'd accidentally strayed from his usual pack and ended up on unfamiliar turf. Frank responded by leaning casually against one mirrored corner and folded his arms in an attempt to make it look like he didn't care. When they finally reached their destination, Frank's three elevator buddies strode off in their own separate directions. He glanced around, feeling a little lost when he realized that "Management" was actually quite a complicated thing. What had he expected anyway? That everyone would be gathered around a table and that he'd stumble upon them the moment he stepped out of the elevator? Besides, he had no idea where Gerard was, whether he was with the executive, the CEO or the director. He didn't know who was responsible for what and it wasn't like he could go knocking on every door. For all he knew he could be in the "Employment Affairs" section after all.
"Excuse me, but do you need help?"
A woman appeared next to him. She was carrying a bunch of folders and was looking at him with an uncertain frown. He guessed she was some kind of secretary.
"Uh…" Frank hesitated; he knew he wouldn't be getting anywhere unless he chose his words carefully – or lied. "Well, yeah… Gerard wouldn't happen to be here, would he? Gerard Way, I mean. I was supposed to meet him downstairs but I think he must've headed up here without me… Unless he's been here already?"
"Mr. Way..." she began slowly. "Well, he's in a meeting with Mr. Markham right now."
"Mr. Markham?" Frank tried to act indifferently as his stomach lurched, astonished by his sheer luck.
"Yes – Mr. Markham," she repeated, staring at him suspiciously. "Our Chief Executive?"
"Oh! Right." He made an attempt at a carefree laugh and actually felt a little impressed with himself; at least he'd been convincing enough to get that out of her. "Mr. Markham, of course. Okay, I guess they've started without me then. I was supposed to be there but I ran late and – yeah, you know what I mean."
The secretary looked like she didn't know what Frank meant at all. "I'm sorry," she said, her eyes suddenly alert, "I only recall putting Mr. Way up for an appointment… What did you say your name was again?"
"No, no, that's fine," Frank said quickly, carelessly waving his hand at her question. He was slowly edging away from her, having finally spotted the name "J. Markham: CEO" next to one of the nearby office doors. "I work for Envision, too," he added, pointing at his work ID. "Look; employee. No worries."
"But – but you can't use that for appointments," she stuttered, her voice increasing when it dawned on her that he was headed towards the CEO's office. "Sir!" she continued, the folders starting to slip out of her arms. "Sir, you can't just go in there – !"
It was too late; Frank had already sprinted down the corridor and pushed the door open without knocking. In his hurry he'd also put far too much strength in it; it swung open with great force, causing him to stumble clumsily into the room. For a moment all he could see was the splendid city view in the background, the large mahogany desk and the man seated behind it. Then he noticed Gerard sitting in the chair opposite to him, the only person he'd seen so far wearing a Rolling Stones shirt and jeans instead of the fancy Hugo Boss suits. He turned around when the door flew open, a mix of disbelief and wonder in his eyes, and now he was staring at Frank as though he was an alien who had just sailed right trough the window. All of a sudden he felt tremendously stupid. He deeply regretted the fact that he had interrupted them so abruptly.
"What the –" the man behind the desk began, slowly getting up from his chair.
Frank gulped nervously, discreetly trying to hide his work ID with his hand; he hoped he wasn't going to get fired on the spot.
"I'm so sorry, Mr. Markham," the secretary breathed, having caught up with him. "I couldn't stop him."
She sounded utterly horrified. Frank's mouth had gone dry in an instant. "I – I apologize," he began, finding it best he started talking, "but, uhm, I need to talk to Gerard, it's – it's really urgent. Like, 'right now'… urgent."
He hooked his thumbs into his pockets, unsure of what he was supposed to do with his hands. It didn't make him feel any less awkward so he unhooked them again, crossing his arms instead.
"Gerard?" CEO Markham regarded him doubtfully, before his eyes darted back to Frank. "Do you know this guy?"
Gerard didn't answer, his eyes narrowing slightly as they stared at each other. Frank thought he was going to shake his head and tell him that no, he didn't know this guy and that they could call security and take him away. It was probably just some nutcase anyway. Right there and then the space between them seemed like an ocean.
"Actually… Yeah," he said eventually, to Frank's great relief. "Yeah, I know him. And it's probably best I go with him. If Frank thought it was necessary to come all the way down here and interrupt our meeting in this... uh, interesting way, then I guess it's something extremely important. Right, Frank?"
"Uh, yeah." He nodded immediately, blushing violently. "Right. That's right. It is."
Gerard rose from the chair, still regarding him with slight wonder. He stepped closer and looked down at him with a frown, before he reached out to put an arm on his shoulder.
"We'll take this outside," he said, giving him a slight push. He arched his eyebrows at him, urging him to move. "If that's okay with you?"
"Oh, right," Frank replied. "Right. Yeah – we'll, uh, take this outside."
His thoughts raced through a bunch of profanities; he realized he'd answered him with "right" about a dozen times already, but his vocabulary felt no bigger than that of a two-year-old.
"Excuse us, Jim." Gerard smiled at his boss, acting admirably graceful about the whole situation. "I'm just gonna have to leave, I'm so sorry."
They walked out of the office. Gerard steered Frank determinately past the speechless secretary, not stopping until they were well out of earshot of everyone. When they'd reached the elevators he finally let go of his arm. He just looked at him and waited, the expression on his face not giving away anything. Frank couldn't help but think that this might have been a bad idea after all.
"So… I'm sorry about interrupting your meeting and… everything," he said at last, not knowing what else he was supposed to use as an icebreaker. He moved uncomfortably.
"That's fine," Gerard replied flatly. "Just tell me what the deal is."
"I… I met your brother earlier."
"Oh, did you finally?" His voice was void of any enthusiasm, his response lacking the interest it should have had; instead it just fell between them like deadweight sarcasm. "Good for you."
"Yeah… And he probably thinks I'm a total freak. Look, Gerard – I'm sorry about earlier." He shrugged one shoulder awkwardly. "You've got every right to be mad at me. If I hadn't been a first class jerk we wouldn't be standing here right now. I'm so sorry," he said again.
Gerard didn't answer. He had folded his arms across his chest and sucked thoughtfully on his lip, just looking at him.
"You know, there's a Starbucks located in the building next to this one," he said eventually. His voice was surprisingly casual, as if that was what they'd been talking about all along; where they were supposed to buy coffee. "You can walk right through from the lobby so it's pretty convenient. I've only had one cup this morning so if you don't mind, I'm gonna go down there. You can come with me if you like."
Frank stared at him, not sure what he meant about this random announcement.
"Uhm… Okay," he replied in the end, frowning. "Fine. I guess I don't mind."
Without wasting any more time, Gerard headed straight for the elevators and hit the call button. While they stood there waiting, Frank realized that there was nothing about him that suggested he was nervous or otherwise tense. He seemed absolutely relaxed; his hands were steady and the vague expression upon his face hadn't changed at all. He knew the guy was a good actor but his behavior was slightly unnerving. This was almost a little too creepy, even for Gerard.
They stood together in awkward silence as the elevator made its way down – at least that's how Frank felt. He had never experienced an elevator moving that slowly before. At the same time he hoped intently that somebody else was going join them but still, no one did. It was just the two of them and no one uttered a single word; the only sound was the faint, ambient music filling the enclosed space.
Okay, what now? Frank thought desperately. Lisa said the rest would come to me but when the fuck is that supposed to happen?
He tried his damndest not to look at him. He cleared his throat in an attempt to make Gerard turn to look at him instead, but he didn't react. Maybe he should stop beating around the bush and just head straight for the main point. Two ideas occurred in his head; he could stop the elevator all together and force Gerard to respond properly, or he could dive straight into it and kiss him. However, a light Ping! interrupted his thoughts before he could seriously consider any of it, and the doors slid open to reveal the lobby. Without hesitation and with his hands tucked into his pockets, Gerard quietly brushed past him and crossed the marble floor.
He nodded a couple of "Hi"s and "Hello"s at some of the business-casual people he passed, before he made his way through the shiny Starbucks doors.
"Regular coffee," he told the barista. He seemed to have forgotten all about Frank, who had to jog slightly to keep up with him. "Make that two," he then added absently, before he could cut in and order the same. "Short, mild, no room."
Frank stopped looking for his wallet, watching Gerard as he paid for the coffee and put a considerable amount of money into the tip jar at the same time.
Silence settled between them again while they were waiting for their order. He glanced over at Gerard, who was just studying the newspaper stand with mild interest. Frank wasn't sure how to deal with it; he'd never seen him act like this before. He didn't say anything when their order was up, he just wordlessly handed him one of the cups.
"Uhm, thanks," Frank said, uncertainly.
"Free table in the shade," he replied, sounding like he'd never even bought him any coffee in the first place. He was nodding towards the café on the pavement outside. "Come on."
He strode towards the exit, again forcing Frank to pick up a slight jog. By now he was starting to get a little annoyed.
At least he's telling me to come with him, he thought to himself, focusing on Gerard's messy dark hair as he followed him past all the occupied tables. As expected, the silence resumed after they'd taken their seats.
"Okay," Gerard nodded at last, talking to his untouched coffee. "There's a limit to how long I can keep doing this so I guess I'll start." He shrugged slightly; he glanced up for a split second, before looking back down. "What can I tell you, Frank? I've been a fucking jerk."
Frank didn't reply. He kept twisting the lid on his coffee absently, thinking it was best he let him talk without any interruptions this time.
"I think I've known that for a while too," he continued, "but this whole magician role… It's a complicated one, I can tell you that. It's not easy trying to be a normal person when you've been playing this part for so long – and I've been this person for years, twenty-four-seven. Ever since I was seven and my Dad got me a magic kit for beginners... Ever since then, it's been the only thing I was really good at. I'm good at fooling people into believing in non-existent things. I do it for a fucking living." He sighed. "I don't know, I honestly think I've got a crappy personality for magic. It takes a pretty levelheaded person to separate the image from the person and I'm not sure how I'm supposed to do that. I should have split my life into a private and a public one ages ago but… I guess I never got around to it. It's easier to just be the image anyway."
Gerard was still talking to his coffee. He ran his hand through his hair, only to let it fall back into his face.
"But I'm trying to change that," he said sincerely. "I'm honestly trying. I'm taking baby steps at the moment though, so maybe it doesn't seem like a lot to brag about, but… I decided I'd try to change anyway, whether it was gonna be with or without you. I figured if… if I found someone else, by any chance, I wouldn't do the same mistake all over again. Like you said, I don't wanna realize I'm a huge joke when it's already too late to fix it. There's no point in explaining it all away by saying that I fell back to my old tendencies or something. I can't tell people that I'm just like that; that I can't help it. I don't wanna hide behind that, so yeah, I really am trying." Gerard stared absently at the logo printed on his coffee cup. "Thing is, improving on your own isn't easy."
"I'm sorry I didn't want to listen to you earlier," Frank said, starting with the only thing he could think of. Then he let out a short laugh that only came out like an ironic snort. "I think I was just so hung up on wanting you to understand how big of an asshole you had been that I kinda became one myself. If I said yes to you, I thought I was only gonna end up waiting for you to change back into your old self. I guess I was just scared. But yeah, you surprised me. I never thought you were actually going to leave all together. You don't have to do that." He hesitated shortly, before adding: "I don't want you to."
"I already did, Frank." Gerard leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. "You came in about five minutes after the contract was officially cancelled. And I'm not going back to change it now."
Frank's hands tightened around his hot coffee, almost squeezing the paper cup too much. His jaws clenched and he stared at him, his heart dropping heavily.
"Fuck," he muttered, fighting to suppress the urge of repeatedly hitting himself in the face. "Gerard – if that was me who drove you to do that, then… I'm really sorry."
"Nah, you shouldn't be." Gerard smiled weakly and shrugged, almost a little embarrassed. "I had thought about it earlier, and that's the truth. I don't think I can continue working in a place where both my mind and the ground I walk on are constantly moving. And since you said you weren't interested anymore I figured I didn't really have anything to keep me there. My management's been pestering me about it for ages too, saying it's about time I looked at other possibilities and aimed a little higher again. Advancing within Envision means becoming captain of a ship or something anyway," he added jokingly, "and we definitely don't want that to happen."
"I'm still very sorry," Frank repeated, his mouth gone dry again.
Gerard nodded quietly, accepting his apology. Then he looked up at him, squinting slightly against the few rays of sunlight that had managed to break into the shade.
"Are you here because you're giving me a second chance?" he asked, a faint, hopeful tone in his voice.
Frank threw his eyes down, biting his lip thoughtfully.
"I was, yeah…" he began, sighing heavily. "And I'll forgive you and everything, of course. I'm glad things are kinda settled now, but... the main reason why I wanted to find you was so I could stop you from leaving, and you've already done that. I'm not gonna lie to you; it would be great if we could have sorted things out at work. It would've been convenient. I feel like I've tried to make an effort so many times now that going through one more is gonna kill me. I'm just not sure where we stand or... what we've got."
"Well… How about we try and sort things out during the holidays?" Gerard suggested. He looked slightly worried, even though he was trying his best to conceal it. "I understand that you feel that way and I know that most of this is my fault, but like I told you that night I fucked up my show; if I knew we'd end up like this, I never would've behaved the way I did in the first place. So… how about you spend some time with me these next couple of weeks and we'll just see how it turns out. It can't get any worse anyway."
"Gerard – I've got a kid," Frank pointed out. "I have to be with Caden. It's my very first Christmas together with him and he still comes first in line."
The man on the other side of the table hesitated, his fingers absently picking at the plastic lid on his cup.
"Of course," he nodded at last, "I know. But… I've got plenty of room in my apartment. Way too much for only one person anyway, and Mikey and Alicia aren't gonna stay for Christmas. So yeah. You've got a kid and... I've got room."
His voice trailed off and they exchanged a quick glance. When they looked away Frank couldn't help but laugh a little. That was Gerard's way of saying that he didn't really have any excuses.
"Alright, and how do you suppose I get hold of you?" he asked, his mouth still curled into a smile. "If we're gonna hang out then I'll need your number or something. I'm not keen on going through another crazy cab ride."
When Gerard looked back up, Frank realized that he was blushing; it was the first time he'd ever seen him blush.
"If you want it then check your pockets," he said, surrendering himself to a short, nervous laugh. "The right one. I meant to give it to you back on the Destiny, before we parted, but... you know."
Frank arched an eyebrow at him, slowly reaching into his pocket. Straight away he felt his fingertips touch upon something paper thin and stiff; he could easily tell that it was a playing card. He shot Gerard a confirming glance and rolled his eyes. Of course he'd already managed to slip something into his pocket; anything else would have been unexpected.
"When?" he asked as he pulled out the card, revealing a Jack of Hearts.
"In the elevator, right before we got out," Gerard admitted. "It was easy; you were too busy freaking out to notice."
Frank shook his head. "I should've known."
"I have to admit I wanted to see if you could put up with the silent treatment," he laughed. "I was just getting even with you."
"Well, fuck you for that," Frank replied, although he couldn't help but grin back at him. That was probably justified, all things considered.
He studied the card resting in his palm. It looked like any other, ordinary playing card, except from the 10-digit number scribbled in black across the red checkered print on the back.
"Do you have office hours for this number?" he asked, tracing the digits absently with his finger, not able to hide the skeptical tone in his voice. "I mean, I'm probably sharing it with a lot of different… people."
"Let me see…" Gerard began, pretending to think about it carefully. "Added Mikey and my parents I guess it makes four of you. Plus my management, but I don't really spend that much time on the phone with those guys. I dealt with my number when Mikey boarded," he explained. "That was the first thing he told me to change. So if you're thinking about the coins I've been handing out, they're pretty much useless now."
Frank looked up at him, hit by a sense of slight wonder. "Oh, okay. Wow." He hesitated, before he slid the card across the table towards him. "I'm a little curious though; what's the deal with you and the Jack of Hearts? Seems like a favorite."
"Uh, honestly? I'm not sure. But all the Jacks are a bit of a joke." Gerard shrugged, tilting his head curiously at the card facing them. "They're just this bunch of vulgar, misunderstood tricksters. A colleague of mine told me that the Jack in this suite has a reputation of being irritable and impulsive. Actually, he's an emotional person all together. Completely hopeless. But when he does something, whether it's in a good or bad way, he goes for it with all his heart."
"That probably applies to both of us," Frank nodded slowly. He reached out and pulled the card back. "What happens if I tear this thing apart?"
"I'm gonna try and restore it." Gerard gave him another one of his wry smiles, although this one was an entirely different version, completely void of all sarcasm and arrogance. This time his eyes were actually smiling as well. "I don't care if I have to fucking tape it together. Seriously, Frank – now that I've finally got you going you're not getting rid of me that easily."
Frank tried to fake his irritation the best he could, although he only ended up smiling again. They remained quiet for a little while, sharing a strangely calm and peaceful moment. It was like a weight had been removed from his shoulders, making it much easier to think and breathe.
"You're right," he said at last, grinning. "I guess oceans are meant to be crossed."
"You still have Christmas shopping to do?" Gerard then asked, looking at him with his eyebrows raised.
"Do I," Frank snorted. "I have fucking everything left. I even have to find something for my kid's birthday."
Frank looked up. There was still something oddly flamboyant about Gerard, something familiar that seemed to settle around him during his shows. It was a magician's trait that would probably never fade; it would always make him seem like a semi-God, whether he wanted to or not. After all, he had every illusion under control. The only difference was that this time, the semi-God had decided to descend and live among the mortals. He was someone who had grown used to being human and was finally ridding himself of all his diva tendencies, and he was okay with keeping himself humble and a little awkward. Frank didn't find him intimidating or intense anymore.
"Yeah," he nodded at last. "I'd appreciate that."
Gerard flashed him a smile and pushed his coffee away. He stood up and was about to leave the table when Frank reached out and grabbed him by the wrist. To hold him back like that felt like an involuntary spasm, something his feelings were doing in order to override his body and brain. Frank knew instinctively that he didn't want everything to begin with a casual day spent at the mall. Before they fell into the shyness that usually came with second chances, he needed to break the ice with something that could at least look like a promise.
"Please do it again," he eventually said, still with fingers closed firmly around Gerard's wrist.
"Uhm..." He frowned back at him, confused. "Do what again?"
"What you tried to do back on the Destiny earlier." Frank shrugged awkwardly, his face turning a shade of dark red. "You know... Kiss me."
Gerard stared at him, the confusion in his hazel eyes morphing into plain surprise. He opened his mouth slightly, as if he was about to ask why, but then he had a change of heart and closed it again. He looked at Frank with his head tilted, apparently considering what was requested of him, before he carefully pried his hand away from his wrist. Moving closer, he wordlessly reached out and gave his shoulders a light, friendly squeeze. For a moment Frank thought he was only going to laugh at him and say "I'm sorry, but I'm not doing that here". Instead, after an additional couple of seconds, Gerard looked at him with a wry smile and put his arms around him, pulling him into an embrace. Frank closed his eyes and rested his chin against Gerard's shoulder. He didn't know if he was trying to make him relax or if he was just playing for time, but either way he exhaled slowly, savoring the immense feeling of relief that rushed through him.
"You know that pretty much everyone is staring at us right now?" Gerard eventually pointed out, the light strain in his voice caught somewhere between excitement and impatience.
He stirred and pulled away slightly, still with his palms pressed against the small of Frank's back. He fixed his eyes on him, his eyelashes throwing the smallest shadows possible against the skin beneath his eyes.
"I know," Frank nodded and leaned in, his lips hovering just inches away from Gerard's. "And if that's why you're hesitating, then fine," he muttered jokingly. "I'll fucking meet you halfway."
Their lips met and Frank couldn't help but smile into the kiss. This time he felt that he was actually kissing the Gerard Way he'd been looking for all this time. He was still the impressive magician on stage, the intrusive man in the corridor and the Manhattan-drinking bar guest, but for the first time he also believed that the man he'd kept coming back to had finally emerged being himself. Frank was kissing them all at the same time. Pieced together like that, he had the magician figured out.
When they broke apart, Gerard reached up and brushed some of Frank's hair away from his face. Then he frowned at the light pink patch that was still blossoming on his cheek.
"What happened to you?" he asked, his fingertips carefully skating over the faint bruise.
"Lisa happened," Frank replied, giving him an apologetic, one-shouldered shrug.
"Oh." Gerard nodded slowly, dawning comprehension eventually replacing his frown. "Of course." He drew his breath, as if he wanted to say something more, but in the end he only pursed his lips and fell silent. "I seriously can't think of anything to say anymore," he finally admitted, a sheepish grin stuck on his blushing face. "I always know what to fucking say."
"I'll take it as a compliment that you're finally spellbound," Frank chuckled.
"Yeah, I know." He tucked his hands into his pockets, still smiling. "It's kinda in the cards that I talk too much."
"Hey, that would be pretty cool actually; if you could read cards. Like, Tarot or whatever it's called. I've never believed in that sort of thing but a magician's perspective on the future would be interesting."
Gerard shook his head. "I think you mean old women with heavy accents and headscarves," he joked, teasing him a little. "Magicians just make cards disappear. But you know what – I'll give you an educated guess. The future looks magical. Or is that just incredibly lame?"
"Oh, wow." Frank laughed and wrinkled his nose. "Yeah, that's pretty fucking lame." He hesitated and glanced up at him, squinting his eyes against the sun. "But if that's your best bet then sure, I'll believe you."
When they finally abandoned the café and their cold coffee, a bus decorated with a shiny Envision ad passed them. It edged by, stuck in the middle of the never ending river of cars. Frank spotted the slogan printed in big letters against the colorful photograph and smiled to himself.
Envision it. Now live it.