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Fog, Sheets and Thunder

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The small bell by Gerard's head rings once, twice, as someone pulls heavily on the wire down the hall. They're going to miss the drop. He writes frantically, but it's difficult to go any faster when the woman in front of him keeps pausing to weep.

"It lasted for hours," she says, blurred, her arms boneless across the top of the small table. "Hours. By the end he couldn't recognize my face, couldn't remember who I was."

Gerard nods, the ache in his hand mounting.

"How could I do that? How could I bring a child into this? We shouldn't have to bury our children. I shouldn't. I can't. I can't." She's weeping again, head down, like she can't support the weight of it.

Bury - the word sticks at Gerard, almost makes him pause, pen nib pressed to paper. Bury. They haven't buried anyone in years. A turn of phrase from years ago - she shouldn't have to burn her own children. Burn would be more correct.

He says nothing, and continues writing. The bell by his ear rings again, insistent.

Eric passed quietly in his sleep, Gerard writes. It was without pain, and for that, I am thankful.

He signs the woman's name at the bottom - Sara, her tag says - and scratches her ID number into the paper below it, then quickly folds the paper in his hands but without pressing too hard, so the still-damp words don't smear. He adds it to the stack at the side of the desk, and reaches out a hand to encircle her wrist, squeezing gently.

"I'll let them know," he says, but she keeps her head down, wrist limp.

//

"Storm's coming in," Saporta says, squinting at the small meter in his hands. He shakes it slightly and it beeps sluggishly in answer.

"He'll be here," Gerard says. The window is cracked a little around the edges, and some of the black frost has already started to accumulate in the seams. He leans against the wall to peer through the scratched glass and the stone is bitterly cold, even through the plastic bag of letters in his crossed arms and the thick quilting of his coat.

The sky outside the window is dark, darker than usual, and there's a low howl mounting on the horizon. It's a big one, heavy with static - even inside the tunnels Gerard can feel the hair on the back of his neck start to prickle, and he fights the urge to run a hand over it.

"You sure about that?" Saporta asks, watching him now. The meter in his hands goes dead, powering down. Gerard ignores it and stares ahead.

"Yes," he says, but it's swallowed by the wind and sounds weak, far away.

//

The first time they'd met, Gerard thought that he was dying, that Frank had killed him, had done something to him to make his heart drop in his chest.

Frank had blown in through the east door without following protocol and almost killed them all, actually, with the storm on his heels blowing sticky ash down a hundred yards into the tunnel. The others had rushed to shut the door closed behind him, but Gerard had gotten the brunt of it, had almost choked on the burn in his throat.

When he could finally see again all he could see was Frank - off his bike and standing so close they almost collided, and Frank's goggles were pushed up into his scraggly hair, leaving a clean, oval shadow around his eyes. His eyelashes were frozen, brittle thin, the rims of his eyes a raw new pink, but they were so close Gerard didn't have anywhere else to look.

Frank shoved at Gerard's coat to push a freezing hand against his chest, another on his back, feeling as Gerard unwittingly coughed against the pressure.

"You're fine," Frank said, dropping the contact, and immediately pulled the plastic bag of letters out of Gerard's arms. "This it?"

"Yeah," Jimmy said, from over Gerard's shoulder when Gerard didn't answer through the coughs. "Claret's fueled you up, you staying?"

"Nah, I'm out," Frank said, and slid the bag on his shoulders to the ground, landing with a solid noise in the slush by Gerard's toes. "For you."

"For me?" Gerard managed to get out, throat still rough with ash.

Frank grinned - Gerard couldn't see it, with the heavy mask still over his mouth, but his eyes smiled. He said nothing, just slid Gerard's packet of letters into his bag and restrapped it to his back, buckling it with one hand as he swung over the seat and kicked the bike back into gear. There was a blast of freezing air when he left, and whipped-back ash from his tires splattered against the hem of Gerard's pants. The others rushed to shut the door behind him again, but Gerard stared into the storm after him. He could still see the small light clipped to the back of his bike shining through the ash cloud before the heavy metal door slid shut.

//

His room is small, and cold, and the mattress in the corner is stained and pitted from previous use. It's a wide mattress, though, and Gerard isn't expected to share it. It should be a luxury, when so many others are packed so tight, but often it feels like a quarantine.

Someone's calling down the hallway outside, and the crowd outside Gerard's door starts to murmur, roused by the noise. It's time to get to work.

Gerard doesn't know why so many others have forgotten the words. He didn't ask to remember. They need him, so they take care of him, but sometimes they look at him like he did it on purpose, took the words away when they weren't paying attention and keeps them hidden out of spite.

Gerard shoves the pile of blankets off and stretches out, knees cracking. He half-heartedly attempts a stretch, but it's no use - the cold has made it almost impossible, and he settles with briefly sucking on his fingers to warm them enough to bend.

Ray's outside his door when he pushes it open, the line already forming down the curve of the hall behind him, and he nods at Gerard, sleep lines still on his cheek. Gerard nods back and motions him in.

Ray always sends letters to his brother up near the Trenton Tunnels. They're sweet, really, with more emotion than most people are comfortable with allowing Gerard to transcribe. Ray's one of the few people who speak to Gerard as if he's just a stand-in for whoever it is they really want. It's a little strange, but it's the closest Gerard comes to having extended conversations with the rest, even if all he does is nod to show that he's caught up on the dictation.

"I miss you," Ray continues, and then stops, looking down at his hands. "Christa's doing well, now. I wish you could see how well. I miss you so much."

Gerard nods steadily and writes, pausing to suck on the pen nib when the ink gets too cold to flow. It's bitter on his tongue, but he barely tastes it.

"I can't wait to see you soon," Ray says, voice quiet. They both know he won't. "I just - I wish. I wish it could be sooner."

When Ray shakes his head and stays quiet, Gerard scribbles his name into the bottom of the page his ID number below it. Ray exhales, and Gerard pauses.

"You going to see yours, soon?" Ray asks, so quiet, still looking down at his hands, that Gerard knows he's speaking to him, instead of him as his brother.

Gerard pauses, then nods with a short, stilted jerk of his head. Ray doesn't look up. They both know that he won't, either.

//

A crew comes back one night with a jackpot - they found the remains of a hotel, somewhere out in the ash, which means scrap metal and tin cans of food and things to burn and blankets that don't leave deep, red rashes on their faces anymore. Jimmy swings by Gerard's room that night dragging two long sacks through the slush, and Gerard pauses from his spot on the mattress where he's sewing up the edges of his boot. His toes have been frozen for days.

"They found these, too." Jimmy says, not looking him in the eye. He never does. Gerard can't totally blame him - he knows he looks a fright, with his forever black-stained hands and dark gums, black ink permanently creased in the corners of his mouth.

"Only on the east side of the building, 'cause the west side was mostly gone," Jimmy continues. He's obviously trying not to fidget, so Gerard stares at his hands wrapped around the handles of the bags instead, relieving him of the pressure to look him in the eye.

"Paper?" Gerard asks, breath catching in his throat.

Jimmy nods and releases his hold. "Lots."

//

It's wonderful. It's paper. Blank squares held together with some sort of cracking adhesive at the top, the faded name of the old hotel barely legible in the dark. Protected from ash, and wind, and soot, it's so pale in Gerard's hands he swears it glows in the dim light.

He has to save it, though. He has to. They've brought him other paper, as well, in the stacks of worn Bibles they'd pulled from dresser drawers. He should use those first. He hates using Bible pages for dictations - they're so thin, the ink bleeds through immediately, and he can't wind the words of his letters through the spaces between the lines as well as with the novels they sometimes find. He likes the Psalms, though. There's more room to write around the Psalms.

He carefully wraps the clean pads of paper back in the bag and hides them behind the loose, cracked stone in the wall. They're for later. For some other time. Something so clean needs to be protected.

He's methodically tearing pages out of Exodus when Wentz shows up, nervously peering around the corner. Gerard nods, and Wentz slides into the chair on the opposite side of the table. Wentz doesn't write letters, just recites nonsense words and bits of rhyme, prickly, dark phrases that stick in Gerard's brain even after he's finished transcribing them to the page.

Wentz doesn't remember the words, either, but he trusts Gerard to get them right, and he hoards them for the day they come back. He's one of the few who still believe they will, though, so Gerard never turns him away.

//

He sees Frank a few times over the course of the month through the carrier rotation. He's always on time, and he never stays.

Their hands brush, sometimes, when Gerard hands over the thick packet of letters, but Frank's always already half-turned back towards the way he came, ready to get back on the bike and into the storm.

The moment when the metal door shuts again always leaves Gerard's ears ringing, the difference between the howling winds outside and the stifling silence inside the tunnels sharp and unwelcome.

There isn't much time to dwell on it, though - he's got a sack of letters to prepare. There will already be a crowd by his door, waiting to see if there is news for them in the bag. When he slings the pack over his back it's still warm from resting against Frank's body and the bike's engine, and Gerard carries it until it gets cold.

//

"Martin is doing beautifully," Gerard reads carefully, holding the ripped paper in his hands together so the words flow across the seam properly. "He's just started walking again, and the doctor says he'll be ready for field duty again in no time. Mama says he can't wait, that they're starting to find bits that aren't so grey outside, and he wants to be the first to find something green to take home to us."

Doris nods along, eyes closed, small smile on her lips. When Gerard's finishes reading, she rises slowly as if awakening from a daze, and reaches out to gently cup Gerard's face in her hand. Her skin is dry, and strangely warm, and Gerard flushes at the touch.

"Thank you," she says, low, and Gerard can only manage a curt nod. They never look peaceful, and certainly not around him - he's not sure what to do in response.

He's so distracted by the gesture he fumbles and drops the pen when she leaves, and in the motion to stoop and retrieve it he misses it when the next one in line comes in. He's so surprised by Frank sliding into the seat across from him that he coughs, and it smears black across the back of his hand.

It only takes him a moment to piece the bits he knows of his face with the person in front of him, but the eyes are the same, and the unkempt, windswept hair. Frank's not wearing the mask, and the goggles are loose around his neck, scarf undraped down the front of his jacket. He stares at Gerard, hard, and Gerard feels caught in his gaze.

(The skin around his mouth is pale, his nose and cheeks pricked with pink from the cold. His jaw is shaped just how Gerard had imagined, but with more stubble, and set determinedly as he stares at Gerard.)

"I have a letter for you," Frank says, finally, but makes no motion to move. "I hear you're not just the dropper. I hear you're the Word around here."

A letter. Mikey. It must be.

"Give it to me," Gerard says, sharp, leaning forward in his chair. Frank still doesn't move, but his eyebrows rise just the slightest.

"How do you know the words?" Frank asks. He's not accusing, as so many are, like he sometimes hears spit at him from dark corners on the other side of the tunnels. He's curious.

Gerard is silent, and he realizes quite suddenly that his hands are balled into tight fists on the tabletop.

Frank waits.

"Give me the letter," Gerard says again, less harsh.

Frank reaches in his pocket and pulls it out, sliding it across the table to him. Gerard tries to pull it away, but Frank keeps his fingers on it, pinning it in place. He's messing with him.

Gerard yanks at it, hard, and unfolds it flat against the wood. Mikey.

He reads the whole thing with his heart pounding in his chest, hands sweating, but it's alright, everything's alright, he's still fine, if too far away from Gerard for him to be truly happy. He only looks up when he's reread it six or seven times, absorbing the slant of Mikey's handwriting woven through the cramped spaces on the page. Frank's still sitting there, hands shoved into his pockets, watching Gerard's face.

"How do you know the words?" Gerard asks. Frank had slid it over to him with the words facing the correct way, his finger on the swooping G of Gerard's first name.

Frank is silent.

"What I want to know," Frank finally says, leaning forward and dropping his voice. "Is if you know pictures."

//

The light in the small supply room is dim, tinged yellow, and Gerard is terrified, hands already sweating. Frank had been serious - he'd shown up the next rotation right off the bike with a roll of needles, a handful of ballpoint pens, and another letter from Mikey. It was Gerard's turn to hold up his part of the deal. A letter for a picture in his skin.

Frank strips off his shirt and tosses it over the shelf full of dented food cans. His back is almost blank, although there are rough, uneven scratches of ink over his shoulders and belly, and faint lines of dirt where the edges of his shirt had stopped. Gerard ignores it, and focuses on pulling out the ink wells from the pens and not letting his hands shake.

"Mind if I change the filter?" Frank asks, and Gerard looks up at him. He has no idea what he's talking about, so he just shrugs, but pauses in his work.

Frank pushes his fingers into his throat and gags a bit around them, and Gerard stares, shocked - is he - is he ill? Should he - but Frank just coughs again and pulls something out and tosses it to the corner. There's still a line of spit down his chin, tinged pink with blood. Gerard chews on his fingernail and tastes ink under his tongue.

"Hate those things," Frank says, and spits again.

Gerard doesn't reply, just watches as Frank rubs his own neck, sticking his thumbs into the nodes under his jaw like he's checking for swelling.

"Gotta change them out fewer than I used to," Frank continues. "I don't know if they're makin' them better or it's getting less shitty out there, but it's better than just the masks. Some dudes don't use 'em, but if your mask filter cracks, you're fucked."

Frank pulls a pack out of his pocket and rips at the seal with his teeth. The filter - it must have been the filter - he'd pulled out was black, slick like mud, but the one between his fingers now is white and clean. It's small, too, free of filth, but Frank turns his head slightly when he slides it into his mouth, so Gerard misses the motion he uses to secure it into place. When he takes his hand out his fingers are shiny and he wipes them on side of his pants, and then turns to Gerard.

"You ready?" Frank asks, and he's breathing easy. It must be the new filter. There's no way he actually trusts Gerard to do this. He swings a stool from the corner over and places it between Gerard's knees, immediately sliding onto it, back to Gerard.

Gerard's stained hands are black, like thick shadows against the pale curve of Frank's back as he leans forward in the chair. He wonders if he pressed in, whether they would leave a mark, like a bruise against the skin. Frank's so warm Gerard can feel it without even touching him, and his hand hovers nervously.

"You sure about this?" Gerard asks. His skin is so clean, so pale. It should be protected.

"Always," Frank says, and when Gerard starts inking him with the needle he goes quiet and still, like any tenseness inside gets sucked out as the ink slides in.

//

They lose an entire crew the next month, on a trek to the Hudson to find more supplies. They only find out when Frank comes back through with a packet of dirty, rusted tags instead of letters. He doesn't leave immediately, though. He stands behind Gerard as Gerard reads off the numbers over the sound of the weeping, and when Gerard thinks he can't read another one, can't hand out another tag, Frank wordlessly takes the stack from his hands and does it for him.

//

Frank doesn't care what Gerard inks into him, barely even looks at them when Gerard is done, and has wiped the red smears away and wrapped it up in gauze. He smiles, though, and looks so sated Gerard's a little embarrassed, can't look him in the eye. Gerard wants to ink words into him, curl them around his throat, but Frank would know what they mean, so he sticks to pictures.

Soon he's done most of his back, and started to move over the curve of his shoulders and down his right arm. Gerard wonders if he should slow down, but it's like an addiction, now - the inking or Frank, it all blurs together, he can't tell one rush from the other. Frank is covered in his marks, and every time he shows up there's a letter from Mikey carefully folded in his pocket. He used to get them every once in a while, sometimes, but now it's a certainty.

Gerard hasn't been certain of anything in years. He used to be certain that no matter what happened, he and Mikey could get through it together, but he was wrong about that. Frank never misses a delivery. There's always a letter in his pocket. He'll frown when Gerard starts to ink, then sigh, and when he leaves Gerard will feel it like an ache, like a bitterness in the back of his throat. He is certain of that.

//

"Why don't you go to him?" Frank asks, one day while Gerard's tracing the shape of some wood-blocked roses around the bones on his wrist. "You could, you know."

Gerard pauses, but continues again, hands steady. It's strange to actually talk about him - sometimes Gerard secretly thinks that Mikey is just another one of the things that he remembers that the others don't. "Mikey can't travel. His lungs got burned during one of the, uh, static storms a few years ago, and he got held back in the quarantine during the Flight. If he got caught out there he'd die, even with a mask."

"So? What about you? You could leave," Frank says. His wrist is strangely tense under Gerard's dark fingers, pulse thrumming through the skin.

"I can't. They need me here."

"They don't like you here."

"They're jealous," Gerard says, almost in a hushed tone. He's never said it out loud. "They hate that I remember."

"More people are writing letters," Frank says. "In the other tunnels. I've seen more. They could replace you here."

"Someday," Gerard says. "One day."

Frank's quiet for a moment, although his fingers twitch when Gerard runs the needle over the bone.

"Are you afraid?" he asks.

Gerard's hand freezes around the needle. "What?"

"Are you afraid?" Frank repeats, tilting his head to watch him.

"No." Gerard says. "I'm not afraid."

"I am," Frank says.

"Of what?" Gerard asks, genuinely surprised. Frank rides through hell every day of his life. There's nothing left to be afraid of.

Frank is silent, head slightly bowed, eyes on the stained tips of Gerard's fingers. Gerard looks down, and he's horrified to see that he's smudged the outline of the rose in his surprise. He opens his mouth to apologize but Frank is there, pressing his lips to Gerard's. His mouth tastes like ash and his grip is firm around Gerard's wrist, keeping his hand on his thigh, and Gerard finally realizes what it feels like to forget the words.

//

"That storm is insane," Saporta says, standing next to Gerard by the door, hand pushing the shade on the window back. "There's no way he'll be here in time."

"He will," Gerard says, firm.

Saporta's mouth quirks. "If you say so."

"I do," Gerard says. Keep the faith, Frank had told him before he'd slipped his mask back on, covering his mouth, lips still tinged dark at the corners from Gerard's.

//

Frank makes it through the storm, barely hitting his delivery window. His face is scraped up, face mask cracked, and Claret has to help ease him off the bike as if he's in pain.

He won't look Gerard in the eye, either, and Gerard's stomach drops. Not him, too. Frank hands off the satchel wordlessly, and Gerard accepts it without a nod. It feels heavy in his hands but when he opens it there are barely any messages inside, and the only real weight comes from inside his own chest.

//

It's a surprise to look up and see Frank standing in the doorway of his room. He's not slouched against it, like usual, but strangely hunched, keeping weight off his injured foot. Claret had wrapped it well. He'd be fine to ride.

"No letters from Mikey?" Gerard asks, hating how desperate he sounds, even as he focuses his eyes on Frank's belt buckle, avoiding his face.

"I missed the window," Frank says, quiet. He keeps his hands shoved deep in his pockets, eyes to the floor. He's never missed a window.

"Distracted?" Gerard asks, trying so hard not to sound defeated. Distracted by regret, most likely. Gerard won't force him to answer.

Frank is silent, hunched.

No letter, no deal. No ink. No curve of Frank's bare neck, no contented sigh, but when Frank backs quietly out of the room and down the hall it still aches the same.

//

There's a drill the next week that has them all huddling in the back bunker for what feels like days. Gerard's almost mad with it by the end, the way everyone hovers around him, so he just shuts his eyes and doesn't think about anything.

He wakes to a gentle tug on the edge of his coat, and is startled to find a young girl sitting close to him, their knees almost touching. Her hair is dark, eyes big and withdrawn, but she's staring him in the face, mouth set.

"I - " she starts, and pauses. "Do you - can you show me - " she begins again, and makes an aborted gesture with her hands. Like a pen, he realizes.

"What's your name?" Gerard asks.

"Rachel," the girl whispers, and Gerard quietly carves the letters into the dirt by their feet.

"That's yours," he says, "that belongs to you." She looks at him as if he has given her a gift, something precious, and when Gerard closes his eyes again she's tracing the letters with her own fingers. Someday. One day.

//

Frank doesn't show up on his allotted rotation.

"Huh," Saporta says, surprised.

The storm outside howls again, like it's in pain, and Gerard lets the bag of letters slump by his feet.

//

Frank doesn't show up the next rotation, either, and Gerard stops making the drop himself. He gets Rachel to take them, and ignores when she comes back still clutching the bag, shaking her head.

//

The bell by his head rings out, sharp and harsh, as if the person at the drop zone is trying to yank the wire out of the wall. Gerard's head snaps up, breaking his stupor, and he's immediately on his feet and down the hallway to the end of the tunnel.

It's hard to tell what's happening through the commotion in the back room and the uncommon amount of people and the settling of the ash storm kicking flecks into the air, but it only takes Gerard a moment to realize the cause. The other carrier - Dewees, Gerard remembers - is there, practically falling off his bike with the weight of Frank's body awkwardly slumped across his lap.

Gerard freezes at the head of the tunnel. He has to support himself against the stone of the wall, even as the others knock his shoulder as they rush by to help.

Frank's lips are blue, tinged grey, mask gone completely. There's a smear of dark, matted red in his hair, crusted over the ridges of his right ear. Dewees shifts as Claret grabs the bike and Jimmy and Ray go to help grab Frank, and when his arm swings down Gerard can see his hands - gloveless, contorted, the fingers black and swollen.

He dumbly wonders if that's why people hate looking at his own hands, the permanently ink-stained skin. Because they look like that. Like they're dead.

"Get the medic," Jimmy's yelling, "Jesus, somebody -"

"The medic's busy," Ray's saying, cutting him off. "There's nobody-"

"My - take him to my -" Gerard starts, half-stepping forward, but that's all Ray needs to swing Frank's weight against his chest and start down the hall to Gerard's room.

They wouldn't be calling for the medic if he was already dead. It repeats in Gerard's head like a pulse, and spurs him on.

//

Ray's already trying to help him breathe by the time Gerard catches up. Frank looks so small, stripped of his riding jacket and sprawled haphazardly on Gerard's wide mattress. Ray's covering his mouth, pinching his nose and trying to breathe for him, and something registers in the back of Gerard's mind.

"Filter," Gerard says, dropping to the mattress beside Ray. "He needs a new one, to - to breathe - "

"I'm out," Dewees pants from the doorway, hands on his thighs, coughing deep. "Used my last one on this run."

Gerard shoves his hand into Frank's pocket and - yes, there's a small, sealed packet deep inside. He rips it open with his teeth and knocks Ray's hands away so he can reach into Frank's mouth and pull out the old one. He feels it, in the pocket of Frank's cheek, and when he pulls it out it stinks like tar and crumbles like charcoal in his hands.

"Fuck," Dewees says. "That's so fucking gross."

Gerard ignores him, sliding the new filter into the pack of Frank's mouth, behind his teeth.

"Water," Gerard says, "and more blankets." He shoots a look at Ray, who's off his knees and out the door to the supply rooms immediately.

Gerard remembers this part. It was different, before, with Mikey, after the static storm that had fucked up his lungs, but he'd saved him then, too. Protected. Gerard counts the breaths as he pumps his hands against Frank's chest, ignores the way Frank's body moves bonelessly under his hands.

"Gerard-" Dewees starts, voice quiet.

Gerard ignores him, and pumps again.

"Gerard -" he starts again, but he's cut off by Frank gasping out, spitting ash onto the ground beside him as he jerks like he's been shocked.

Gerard slides a hand up under Frank's shirt, flush against the freezing skin, and he can feel it, right against his palm - a heartbeat - and when he looks up Frank is staring up at him in disbelief, sweat making tracks through the ash on his face.

"You're fine," Gerard says, but leaves his hand where it is. It's more to reassure himself than Frank, at this point, but when Frank tips his head back, exhales deep, it's almost like he needed to hear it too.

//

The frostbite in Frank's hands is deep, almost too deep, but Gerard keeps them warm between his own dark hands, gently cocooning them until they're warmed enough to wrap without damage.

It's weeks before Frank can breathe without wheezing, and sometimes Gerard still catches him wiping a smear of blood from his nose. Frank's half-crazy with cabin fever, off carrier duty until he's better, and sometimes Gerard catches him leaning against the stone wall, eyes closed and listening to the storm rattle the windows. He leaves him be.

But he's alive. He can't write while his hands heal, and can't speak much because of his lungs, but he sits quietly beside Gerard while Gerard takes dictations for the others. At night he sleeps in Gerard's bed beside him, their knees pressed together.

Gerard dreams often of waking alone, or - worse - of waking with Frank beside him, but frozen and still, chest unmoving. He wakes Frank up, then, mouths along Frank's neck until he curls in closer, lets Gerard slide an arm around his chest to hold him secure in place.

"I was distracted," Frank says one night, curled up on the mattress next to Gerard, bandaged hands on top of the blankets. The storm outside is loud, again, and even without windows in the room they can hear the rattling through the ground above them. "I was thinking about things - you - and I missed the turn. I missed the window, and I couldn't get a letter." Frank pauses, small line between his eyebrows, and swallows. "The way you looked when I came back without one," Frank says, then stops. "I couldn't think of an excuse to stay without it."

Frank doesn't need an excuse. He just needs to stay. He won't, though - as soon as he's healed, he'll be back on the bike. He has a job to do, just like Gerard does. He's needed too.

Frank turns and looks at Gerard in the dark. "You don't look much alike," he says.

"Is he the one who taught you the words?" Gerard asks, and traces a finger over the face of the woman he'd inked on Frank's arm.

"Yeah," Frank says, and Gerard smiles.

"Good," he whispers, and means it. It's like there are strings attached to him, now, pulling him in all directions, keeping him afloat when the darkness would pull him down.

He likes to think about Mikey and Frank sitting close, Mikey writing out Frank's name for him in the dirt, Frank watching Mikey's face for a glimpse of Gerard. Frank afraid of nothing, except the idea that Gerard only wanted a letter from him. How it might take years for him to see Mikey again, but he will, how the certainty of it sits warm in his lungs. Mikey breathing easier, one day, shielding his eyes against a sun, and smiling as they approach. Frank on his bike, Gerard's arms wrapped firmly around his waist, the way it smells like earth outside, after the dust they've kicked up settles.

"It is getting better out there," Frank says. "I've seen it."

In here, too, Gerard thinks. "Someday," he says out loud, and pulls Frank closer. He's never inked words into Frank's skin before, but he mouths them silently against him now, and when Frank arches against his touch Gerard can practically see them scrawled over the pale smooth of his skin.