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Cigarettes, Coffee and the Ghost of You

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Saturday, May 25th, 3:15 a.m., Belleville Police Department, Criminal Investigations Division.

"--he remains unconscious."

"And the brother?"

"Keeping vigil at Washington Memorial, Lieutenant. Asher and Conrad headed over there to see if they can get statements from either brother."

Head resting on his left forearm and hood up, Frank digs deep inside himself to keep still. Purposely facing away from the door left slightly ajar, whether or not by accident, he steadies his breathing as best he can. Eavesdropping takes focus. At this point, though, any news is good news.

"Very well, Simmons," the Lieutenant says. "Keep me posted."

"Yes, sir," Detective Simmons replies. "Come on," she says to someone. There's the swoosh of the door opening, bringing in the chaos of phones ringing non-stop and a station filled with perps claiming innocence into the interrogation room.

"All right, sunshine, wakey-wakey," a guy says, knocking on the table. "Brought you something," the guy continues, placing a cup of hot coffee in front of Frank.

His stomach growls at the familiar smell. Frank sits up, his eyes on the Styrofoam cup, proud that he didn't grit his teeth when he straightened up regardless of the pain flaring up all over his body. Reaching out pulls at the bandage around his right hand. The slow throb in his knuckles frustrates him. He switches hands, grabbing the cup with his left hand (scratched up, but less sore than his right) and takes a sip. Though only a few steps above pure sludge, Frank drinks half the cup. He shivers, whoever sets the temps for the entire police station must not know how to count past 40. Even with his hoodie zipped up, exhaustion is creeping in now that things have settled down. What he wouldn't do for aspirin and a bed somewhere.

"Man, you must have a stomach made of steel," Detective Simmons--Alicia-- says casually, nudging Frank out his thoughts. Face scrubbed free off the heavy eye makeup Frank had seen her wearing these past few weeks, she's nothing but a stranger. On the other hand, he finally understands why her tattoo is only a half-sleeve. Funny the things you learn when the cops invite you for an official chit-chat.

She nods at the short, kinda burly, blond guy standing by the corner of the room. "Not even my partner will drink that."

Frank shrugs and puts his cup down. Everything around his left eye is tender yet itchy. He flexes his hands; scratching a black eye would be a very stupid thing to do.

"Stump, you mind grabbing some of the doughnuts from the break room? Cortez brought a couple of boxes at the beginning of the shift." The glare from the fluorescent lights reflects on Alicia's glasses, hiding her eyes for a moment when she turns to face her partner. "Ignore the ones with sprinkles on them. Lieutenant Schecter would kill us."

"Sure," Detective Stump answers and walks up to the door.

"Get me a glazed one if there are any left, please?" Alicia opens the file in front of her and starts flipping through it like they've got all the time in the world. A few minutes later, she straightens up the papers and faces Frank, jerking her chin at him. "You had someone take a look at that, right?"

"Some EMT did at the scene," Frank answers, his mind assessing Alicia's calm voice and her straight posture. She could be trying to psych him out by playing the waiting game. Fuck that, he's only patient when he's getting paid. It's time to go on the offensive. "I'm not a suspect."

"No, you're not," Alicia answers matter-of-factly.

"Then, why am I--?"

"Because, Frankie, somehow you slipped under everyone's radar and made it all the way to the eye of the hurricane."

Well, shit. Frank stifles a yawn when the door opens. Man, he hates this part. "We're gonna play 20 questions, then?"

"Smart boy. Ah thanks, Stump." Alicia slides the box of Krispy Kremes towards Frank. "We want to know how that happened and why."

"And part of your plan is to get me high on coffee and sweets," Frank says while picking up a crueler. He's never been one to turn down either, especially in moments like this when he really needs a clear head. At least, it'll dampen some of his craving for a cigarette. Resting his injured hand against the half-empty pack of Malboro Lights in the front pocket of his jeans, he finishes his snack in two large bites.

"We're evil like that," Detective Stump says in a flat tone as he devours a powdered doughnut. "How about you start at the beginning?"

Frank stares at him, studying the calm, half-way bored expression that's in contrast with the curiosity in his green eyes.

There is plenty of yarn to go through; some of it filed under "none of your business, officers". Hopefully, things will level out without having to spill everything. He cracks his neck. "OK, so you want my side of the story?"

"From the top," Detective Stump says before he snags a second pastry.

"All right-y, then. Hope someone's recording this 'cause I'm only telling this story once." Frank drinks the rest of the rapidly-cooling coffee and gives Alicia the least asshole-y smile he can dredge up. Judging by her raised eyebrow, he's not too sure of his success. He leans forward, takes an éclair and gets as comfy as he can on his metal chair. "Well, this one day, I'm at the office, going through the notes for some of my pending cases. I've got Ella Fitzgerald on my iPod, a desk covered with a thousand sticky notes and a fresh pot of coffee brewing."

"So you're in the middle of a hot date with your office supplies. Way to go, Casanova." Alicia scribbles something on the pad in front of her.

"Hey, 's not my fault my dance card's been dusty for a while. Romance is something I know how to do. The problem is that everyone lies. Besides, I've got a dependent to think about," Frank says, wiping crumbs off his mouth. To his side, he hears Stump mumble "yeah, of the four-legged kind."

"Anyway, there I am, getting some paperwork in order and thinking that I could pick up some take out from the Korean place next door, go home and watch some Food Network. Basically, chill out, you know? And that's when I get Ray's text about the concert--"

Alicia taps her pen against the pad. "That would be Raymond "Toro" Ortiz, owner of Ray's Attic, right?"

"The one and only," Frank answers.

"Does he do that often?" Stump pushes his glasses up.

"Do what?"

"Throws work your way," Stump says with a serious tone.

"Sometimes," Frank says calmly. "Listen, Ray and I go way back. People will babble on about all kinds of things til closing time after a couple of drinks. Ray keeps his ears open while tending the bar. Every so often, he calls me in to help when said things are "iffy". He gets to be a good citizen, I get paid. Everyone goes home happy."

"He's the one who hooked you up to the Way case, then." Alicia jots down something and circles it twice.

"Yes and no." Frank squints. Normally, reading upside-down is easy-peasy. Alicia's writing, though, is too small to decipher. He rubs the bandage, hoping the scratches on his skin won't fuck up his tattoos. "I--I don't think he knew the full score."

 

Two weeks ago

Tonight, the mosh pit is on fire and Frank wouldn’t have it any other way. Ray’s Attic might be a hole in the wall, the kind of place you go when in the mood to get shoved around, do some shoving of your own and let everything go. Right now, it's an oasis of sweat and frantic bodies moving to the beat, ears perked to the deep bass and furious drums. The air's hot and a little hazy what with all the people cramped up in one tiny place, but no one seems to mind.

Onstage, Anything Goes tears things up, playing song after song like their souls depended on it. Frank gets it, that need to shake off his ya-yas, lose himself in the sweet-dirty chords of punk music. He's got the O'Reilly case in the bag, got paid for getting Mrs.Tuttio the photos of her husband having naked fun with the waitress from the One Last Cup diner and the weekend’s just begun.

Life is good.

Bratty B, lead singer of Anything Goes, takes a swig of his beer before tossing it to the side. "OK, this is our last song so, come on, motherfuckers. Let’s get fucking crazy," he spits into the microphone before playing the opening notes to "(I Puked My Guts Out) Last Time I Saw Your Face." Frank bounces with the crowd, careful not to elbow Dewees in the stomach when Alicia and Elaine get a little too enthusiastic with their pogoing. His throat is already getting sore from screaming the songs along with everyone else.

oOo

Once the concert’s over, Alicia and her friends slip out, with Dewees throwing an invitation to Gabe’s pub at Frank before leaving. Johnny River’s “Greatest Hits” album blasts through the speakers. “Last call,” Ray says, as if playing Johnny’s album isn’t enough of a hint.

The crowd’s thinning out, hardcore smokers making a beeline for the entrance to light up, leaving a couple of dudes helping Anything Goes pack up their gear and some people sucking face in the booths on the far side of the room. Now that there's nothing but reverb in the air, Frank makes his way to the bar for one last beer before heading out.

Sliding to the front of the bar, he whistles at Ray and mouths "Bud" at him, half-wishing he could light up a post-concert cigarette without having to go outside.

Deep down, he knows Ray wouldn’t kick him out for smoking indoors, but he would definitely give him one of his patented “disappointed” looks. Frank might be able to ignore many things but not that. Instead, he waits for his brew, wiping his face with the bottom of his t-shirt and trying to ignore the fact that he’s just moving grime and sweat from one side of his face to another. At least, all the jumping around he's done tonight totally counts as a workout.

"There you go," Ray tells Frank, placing a Budweiser in front of him after twisting off the cap. Frank chugs down most of his beer, enjoying the shock of the cold as it makes its way down his throat. He checks his phone, burping with contentment. It's ten to one. Time to head home, walk Sweat Pea, take a shower, maybe beat one off and definitely get some sleep.

Ray wipes his hands on a clean hand towel and picks up a bottle of water from the under-the-counter fridge. “Good show, huh? Booking Anything Goes to play here was such fucking pain. Their label kept, I dunno, cockblocking me at every turn. So consider this your very early birthday present, Iero,” he says good-naturally, tipping his bottle in Frank's direction.

“‘t was fucking worth it, Toro,” Frank says in between gulps of his beer. “I missed their last tour. Wasn’t in the mood to deal with the scene back then. Too much drama. Whatever.” He can avoid the exit to Memory Lane, particularly when it has to do with the messy hook-up and even messier break-up of whatever it was that he'd had with Ryland. Downing the rest of his beer in one go, Frank chooses to move past it and waves at Ray. "Be seeing you."

“I think you should stay,” Ray says in sotto voce, his eyes flickering to the guy who just walked on to Frank’s left.

"Okay," Frank replies, making a face at Ray for the lack of heads up. Though it's true that there isn't much he could've done to make himself look more presentable--what with his t-shirt plastered to his torso and his jeans needing a thorough wash--he could've been a little less 'oh, hey, let me sweat on you' and a lot more 'hello, there, I'm a dude who's into dudes that listen to hardcore music '.

"Can I get a sugar-free Red Bull, please?” The guy mumbles a ‘thanks’ as he pulls out his wallet and takes out a $10. “Keep the change.”

The vague familiarity in the guy’s voice scratches at the back of Frank’s mind. He stops trying to peel the label off his bottle and plasters on what he hopes is a friendly grin. Turning his neck to the left and up--if there is one moment to resent being 5'4" it is right now--he does a quick once-over. Standing in profile, the guy’s wearing a red, white and black hat that's got to be one of the ugliest knit hats Frank's ever seen. His blond bangs fall at an angle, covering most of his face except for a small, pouty mouth curved into a side smile. The black hoodie and bright yellow with black stripes t-shirt he's wearing makes Blondie like some kind of model. Not a look that would normally turn Frank's crank. However, that stupid hat is tacky enough to make Blondie appear approachable. Frank’s trying to come up with an opening line when Blondie tilts his head to Frank.

"Someone told me I'd find you here," Blondie says in monotone, staring down into Frank's eyes, like he’s sizing him up too. “You’re Frank, right?”

Oh, it's business or maybe someone looking for trouble.

"Depends on who wants to know," Frank replies with a jerk of his chin. The adrenaline from the show has begun to fade. Nevertheless, Blondie's lack of expression puts Frank on high alert. This wouldn't be the first time he has to deal with a pissed-off ex from one of his clients. It's been Frank's experience that thin (and pretty) dudes can fight just as dirty as the burliest construction worker.

Blondie shakes his head and stretches out his hand. “Mikey Way. I was told you’re the guy to hire for difficult jobs.”

Business it is then.

Frank snorts at Mikey’s comment, glancing at Ray (who, most conveniently, has gone to the other end of the bar to pick up some more drink orders.) “‘Someone,” he says doing air quotes, “made me sound like I’m some kind of ex-merc or Jason Bourne dude. I can bend the law, but not break it.” He shakes Mikey's hand for a couple of seconds before letting it go. No way is Frank gonna say no to earning some extra cash. "Never mind. What do you need?"

"I might. Um." Mikey surveys their surroundings like he's expecting someone popping up and yell boo . "It’s--it’s kind of a delicate matter. You mind if we meet tomorrow at your office?"

Frank makes a so-so gesture. On the one hand, nervous clients can be annoying. Frank's already paranoid enough, the last thing he needs is to be at the beck and call of a pretty boy who's afraid of his own shadow. Experience has taught him, however, that worried clients pay top dollar for mostly easy work. "Tell you what: there's an all-night diner on Garden Avenue called El Rancho. How about we head there and talk about whatever's on your mind."

"Well . . ." Mikey sweeps his bangs away from his face before tugging the front of his knit hat. It doesn't stop looking ridiculous while at the same time suiting him. Frank is impressed.

"It's just one block away." Frank's not in the habit of wooing clients--Shadow Investigations does very well via word of mouth, thank you very much--but everything in Mikey's body reads "lost little lamb". His instincts have never steered him wrong. "Dude, I'm telling you. This place makes the best coffee anywhere. They'd put Starbucks out of business if they became a franchise."

And that proves to be the tipping point. Mikey caves in. He puts the can of Red Bull on the counter. "Sounds good."

"Follow me." Frank grins and puts a few crumpled bills on the counter. He'll bitch at Ray tomorrow for springing this client on him.

"Hey, Iero! You forgot something," Ray says from the bar.

"What?" Frank looks over his shoulder and gets a faceful of hoodie.

"It's chilly out, man. Don't want you to get sick."

Frank flips him the bird, and then slides into the sweater, letting Ray's giggles fade into the background as he walks to the entrance without looking back.

oOo

The night is mild, nice enough to cool the back of Frank's neck. He takes out his pack, putting a cigarette in his mouth before offering one to Mikey.

"No, thanks."

"Suit yourself," Frank says, sliding his pack back in his pants and lighting up his cigarette, enjoying the burn in his lungs. Next to him, Mikey walks in silence. Now that they're outside, Frank's able to check out the tight fit of Mikey's jeans as well as his black sorta-biker, sorta-cowboy boots. A spark of want flares up inside him, but that's one bumpy road to Frustrationville. Pretty boys will break your heart, Frank reminds himself like the lesson he's yet to learn. The bright lights of El Rancho come into view right at the moment when all the quiet begins to grow heavy.

He waves hello at some people he recognizes from the show before flicking his cigarette stub into the night. "After you," he says, exhaling smoke while he holds the door open for Mikey.

Inside, the crowd is a mix of more people from the concert, a couple of taxi drivers and a handful of working girls and boys. Frank shakes his head, smiling at the feeling of home that sweeps through him. None of them are clients and that puts him at ease. He waits until after they've settled in a booth in the back and placed their orders for coffee to bring up business. "Go on, take a load off," he says.

"Been a while since I've been in a place like this." Mikey picks up a couple of packets of sugar, shaking them before putting them to the side. "Do you have any siblings?"

It's kind of a curveball, but Frank can roll with it. "Nope. I guess my parents were happy with having only me around."

"Oh," Mikey says, nodding at the waitress once she puts two cups of coffee on the table and leaves. "I've got an older brother. He--he is everything to me. We're close. Always have been, always gotten along, that sort of thing. In a way, it's what kept us going once our parents and then our grandma passed away.

"Gerard, that's his name, has always been very creative and out there, bigger than life. He's gone off to do off-beat but artsy things. I went into the music business."

At this, a roomful of lightbulbs switch on inside Frank's head. Mikey and Gerard Way, Belleville's millionaire orphans. He slurps some coffee in an attempt to hide his surprise and listens to Mikey's story.

"Gee's into, well, I guess you could call it "performance art". I mean, whatever, it's burlesque and he's often in half-drag, wearing make-up and being campy or, like Lindsey, his muse, says 'showing a lot of leg, Gee'. But there's a message and a method to his madness," Mikey says in a soft voice. "'Just trying to wake people up, make them think, Mikey,' was what he told me when he showed me the designs for his "Art is a Weapon" show.

"Anyway, Gee's got a very private side behind all the sparkle and the attitude and the limelight. After some dark periods and plenty of bad choices in partners, he's at this place in his life where he can enjoy things and be happy. And now, there's someone who's trying to take all of that away. That's where you come in, Frank."

"Go on," Frank says after placing his empty cup on the table.

Mikey signals the waitress for a refill. "Well, one of the reasons why my brother's happy is Bob."

"Bob?" Frank leans forward.

"Bob Bryar's been a part of Gee's life for two, going into three, years. They met right around the time Gee got serious about sobriety once and for all. He's not, like, the reason why my brother, erm, stopped going on coke benders and drinking like there's no tomorrow, but he's been supportive of Gee, of who he is. Bob 'gets' him in ways even I can't understand." Mikey shuts up when the waitress pour two fresh cups. He pushes one toward Frank.

"Okay," Frank can't quite make the connection just yet.

"He and Gee . . . The short version is that someone's trying to blackmail Gee. Threatening to publish photos of him with Bob."

"Let me guess, in these photos they're playing naughty pattycakes, right?" Frank quirks an eyebrow.

Mikey smiles for a second, then turns serious. "Yeah. Something like that. Erm. The thing is that Bob, well, his job is kinda, um, not open to. Well, um, any kind of naughty play." Mikey cracks his knuckles.

Frank lets his mind do jump after jump at Mikey's words. "Ah, he's in politics?"

"Yup, he's a Commissioner's Aide. Publicly, no one in the Mayor's office wants to be seen as a bigot." Mikey rolls his eyes. "But, privately, a lot of the people in power don't take kindly to one of their own being a cocksucker. Sorry. Um, that was rude of me."

Finishing his last cup for the day (because he'd like to catch some zzz's at some point tonight), Frank relaxes his hands and plays with his lighter. "Are you're apologizing because I'm a cocksucker? 'Cause, in that case, I might have to charge you double." He winks at Mikey, pleased at how quickly Mikey blushes while he runs a few numbers in his mind.

Mikey blinks a couple of times and searches his pockets. "Oh, here you go. This is from two months ago. Gerard's on the right."

Frank takes the picture from Mikey's hand. Two guys are standing in the middle of dirt road. One is Mikey, wearing a black t-shirt and grey hoodie and dark sunglasses, giving the camera what Frank now calls "the patented Mikey Way side grin". Standing next to him is a guy with fire engine red hair down to his chin and a yellow shirt with a creepy-funny clown face in the middle of it. Gerard's making a goofy face, his head turned toward Mikey, as if he's daring Mikey to crack up. The afternoon sun has turned Mikey's hair gold.

"Cool," he says handing the picture over. "OK, what you're looking at here is what I like to call the Skull & Dagger package. I'll sniff any clue available, chase every lead out there, leave no dog house unturned. My caseload is pretty light at the moment, so I could get back to you by the middle of next week with updates and shit."

Mikey leans to the side, takes out his wallet and picks a card. He calls the waitress over. "Can I borrow your pen? Thanks." He jots down a phone number on the back of the card. "That's my cell. It's always on and, since I'm pretty nocturnal, you can call at any time."

EYEBALL RECORDS, it reads in a dark grey font that pops nicely against the light blue background, Michael J. Way, President. Impressive. Frank flips the card over, memorizing the cell number. "Works for me." He yawns. "Gonna head home. I'll have Ryan, my assistant, email you the contract in the morning, fill it out and send it back, OK?"

"Sure," Mikey says, taking off his hat and scratching his head.

The fact that Frank is actively trying to sidestep the idea of Mikey being equally adorable and hot is a good incentive to leave. "Hey, one last thing."

"Hmm?" Mikey raises an eyebrow at Frank.

"How come you're running interference for your brother?"

"He's touring in Europe. I've got a key to his place, told him I'd pick up the mail, let him know if there was anything important. Most of it was junk mail except for this one envelope addressed to a "Mr. G. A. Way" with no return address. I thought it was weird so I opened it. Inside there was a typed note that said "I know your dirty, little secret. There's a price for my silence. We'll be in touch." no signature. Oh, and a photo of Gee sitting on Bob's lap. They're kissing."

"What did you do with it?"

"I burned it." Mikey grins at him.

"You what?"

Mikey bites his lower lip before snickering . "Duh, of course I didn't! Please, give me some credit here."

Frank glares back. "Thanks for the scare."

"I took everything and put in my and Gerard's safety deposit box in our bank." Mikey replies, impish expression on his face. "You know, I should've scanned it. Didn't think of it."

"Does your brother know?"

Mikey frowns. Frank can almost see him considering the question. "No, I don't think so," Mikey says after a few seconds. "The postmark is from three days after Gee left for Europe. We've talked a few times, but he hasn't acted weird or nervous other than his show, so maybe this is the first note? I couldn't go to the police. Not without putting Bob on the spot and people gossiping . . . But I couldn't wait until Gee came home either. So I thought I'd try my luck at handling the situation."

"Doing this out of the goodness of your heart, huh? I get that. We'll talk later," Frank says. He slides out of the booth in one easy movement, pays his and Mikey's coffees and walks out into the night.

oOo

Saturday begins with Sweet Pea barking at Frank's phone. The opening notes of "Vampira" echo in his bedroom. Frank snakes an arm out, grunting at the interruption from what could've been a sex dream and picks up his cell. "'lo?"

"Oh, man, you were sleeping. I'm sorry." Ray's one of those people whose apologies always sound genuine.

"'s OK," Frank replies, then clears his throat. "What's not cool is not telling me about the potential client last night, dude."

"Actually, I wasn't sure he was going to show up, Frankie. Mikey's always been very hard to read."

His stomach goes twing at the smidgen of nostalgia in Ray's voice. "What are you talking about?"

"Um, well, OK. I never told you, but, like, my first kiss was his brother Gerard."

Whoa. Frank sits up. "Whoa. Seriously? When did that happened?"

"I think it was right before Elena's death so, I was about 12? You were in Sacred Heart at that time."

"Huh."

"Gerard and I were in Rock Ensemble. We hung a lot over at his house and, like, one day we're talking about Maiden and Sabbath and how rockers had to be all badass and that's why they would hook up with chicks, right?"

"Right."

"But then, out of nowhere, Gerard starts waxing poetic about Bowie and Freddie Mercury and, I dunno, we ended up groping each other for the rest of the afternoon."

"Wow."

"Yeah," Ray says, his voice wistful. "Anyway, nothing came out of it. We made out a few times after that. But then, Elena passed on, the Ways went to some out-of-state boarding school, Gerard and I lost touch, you know, the usual thing."

Frank pulls the phone away from him and yawns before talking. "So how did Mikey find you then?"

"Dude, how many people do you know live in Belleville and can rock an afro like I can?"

"Hahaha, you've got a point there, Toro."

"Anyway, a couple of days ago I was flipping through the bargain bin over at Dewees' music store when this thin dude slides up to me and asks me if I'm related to Ray. We talked for a bit. Things were very cool between us until I asked about Gerard. I guess Mikey must be desperate because he kinda hinted that Gerard was in some kind of trouble. He didn't, like, go into specifics. Still, I could tell he was really worried, so I told him about you."

"Fucking small world, man."

"Tell me about it. Again, man, I'm sorry for last night."

"Hey, I've got a mortgage and a tiny dog that has a mastiff's appetite. Trust me, any business thrown my way is a good thing. Plus, dude, you had one of my favorite homocore bands playing in your bar last night."

"I'm forgiven then?" Ray's chuckles make Frank giggle too.

"You're forgiven, loser. Listen, I have to go, walk the Pea and spend some time on the treadmill. Not to mention doing some actual investigative work in between all those strenuous activities. I was thinking, though, that we can, like, go a few Halo rounds tomorrow afternoon?"

"No problemo, Frank. Text me later. Oh, and Frank?"

"Yeah?"

"Please be careful."

"Yes, mom. Sheesh!" Frank hangs up and bends down, scooping Sweet Pea, letting her lick his face. "So I met this guy last night, Pea. Don't be jealous, he's a client. What does he look like? Well, he's really pale and taller than me. He has hazel eyes that turn kind when he talks about his brother and, even though he doesn't smile much, he's not an asshole."

He puts Pea down on the floor where she starts to run around in a small circle. "Yeah, yeah, you don't care about my non-romantic prospects. I'm just the man who feeds you and makes sure you get your potty breaks. Let me take a whiz, get some pants on and we can go out, OK?"

Though his movements are a little stiff when he gets out of bed (that mosh pit was killer!), Frank smiles at the world on his way to the bathroom. As soon as he's done, he puts on a pair of camo shorts and a long-sleeved t-shirt, grabs his phone and heads out of the door, Sweet Pea trotting next to him.

The Way case is going to be a piece of cake.

oOo

The Way case is a mess.

It's been six hours since he went to his office and started doing the preliminary digging around. He's got a lot of pieces, but none of them really fit together. Starting with Bob Bryar.

Everything he's found on Bob has been on the level: not many late payments, the usual five or so credit cards an average American would carry and, other than a couple of parking violations, not much dirt. It's nice to know that one Bob Bryar, Commissioner's Aide, is not a sleazoid. Hooray for Gerard.

On the other hand, Gerard has more than enough muck to fill up a landfill. It's a good thing the Way family's coffers can cover lawyer fees on everything from possession of a controlled substance (pot) to indecent exposure (Gerard wagging his junk as part of a show does not qualify as performance art according to Essex County.)

And it's even better that Gerard's mellowed out in his early 30s (Only two speeding tickets. They're both from the first week after Gerard bought his old-new 1979 Trans Am.) Frank's curiosity is piqued by the three sealed records he finds in SearchPro. Based on the years the records were filed, Gerard must have been a minor--which explains the sealing.

Frank hits a few keys and leans back in his office chair. Waiting for the info to finish printing, he rests his hands on the keyboard. The temptation to hunt down info on Mikey pulls him in two directions. He's a client. A cute one, but a client nonetheless. Still, it's hard to ignore the idea that he could find out the truth--ugly as it might be--now rather than later. He already has Mikey's personal info and, at least, one of his credit cards on file. It'd be ridiculously easy to take a peek. Still, his curiosity has led to trouble with both potential and actual boyfriends.The beep of the printer alerting that it's run out of paper shakes Frank out of his limbo. He logs out of SearchPro and heads to the supply closet for an extra ream.

The long and the short of it is that there are plenty of people in Gerard's life who could be the blackmailer. He whistles at Sweet Pea, perched on the fluffy bed he keeps in the office for her, who comes running. "Well, girl," Frank says while scratching her head. "It looks like we're on for a stakeout."

Sweet Pea yips and goes sniffing his pockets for treats.

 

The one solid conclusion Frank can assert after four days of tailing Bob is that Gerard's boyfriend leads a very quiet (boring) life of work and being something of a hermit with the sporadic drum-playing session in the garage that hints at a rebellious side. He's got close to 150 photos of Bob in a double-breasted suit (which makes him look like a Viking mafia enforcer. Especially when he wears his sunglasses), Bob shopping for groceries in a black t-shirt and track pants, Bob looking bored at the gas station while paying for smokes, Bob taking a cigarette break after a long meeting with the Planning Board committee. It's tedious work but, at least, he gets to break out his new digital camera and the zoom lens that can photograph Bob's pores if Frank wanted to.

oOo

Frank wakes up Wednesday morning, thinking of calling Mikey when Ryan shows up at his house, Frank's best suit in hand. "You've got court today for the depo on the Dennis case."

He groans because, even after almost five years in the biz, going to the courthouse makes him jittery. "At what time?"

"Two hours," Ryan says, handing over the suit and crouching down to play with Sweet Pea.

"I've got time for a shave, then," Frank says as he walks to his bedroom

"How about you wear your leather shoes this time instead of your sneakers?" Ryan calls from the living room.

"How about I don't take fashion advice from someone who wears plaid and paisley in public?" Frank replies before closing the door behind him.

 

Just as expected, Frank has a generally crappy time at court. Between the guards (who give him the fish-eye and then some as soon as he makes the line for the metal detector) and the jury (ditto), not to mention the Perry Mason-Jack McCoy wanna-be defense lawyer--who apparently can't deal with Frank's many tattoos--all Frank wants to do once he gets home is curl up in the sofa while listening to Converge for a couple of hours or until he falls asleep (whichever happens first.)

Still, Mikey laid down almost triple the usual retainer fee; it's time for an update. Pulling into his garage, Frank admits that, if he's honest with himself, he'd love nothing more than to hear Mikey's voice even if it's only for business purposes.

Sweet Pea bounces up to him when he gets home. "OK, girl, let me change out of these silly clothes and uncomfortable shoes and I'll take you out." He heats up some his ma's leftover eggplant parmesan on the microwave and leashes Pea up. "Can we make it a short walk? I can barely feel my feet."

It's 10 p.m. by the time he's come back, gotten settled and chowed down his dinner. Picking up the phone, Frank can't help the internal debate on whether or not to update Mikey. He did say any time, Iero. He punches the number on the back of the card, half-hoping and half-dreading that his call will go to voicemail.

Two rings in, he gets an answer. "Mikey here. Hello?"

Whether it's the lateness of the hour or that Frank totally underestimated his attraction to his client is a moot point when his insides get all liquid-y at Mikey's friendly tone. "Ahem, um, Mikey? This is Frank. Um, you said I could call you whenever--"

"Yeah, no worries," Mikey answers (and, rather than deluding himself, Frank opts to think that Mikey sounds happy to hear him because he might have news not because he might like Frank). "How goes the private eye business?"

"Snooping my way to the top," Frank answers, then wants to smack himself after such a dorky reply.

"Huh, and here I was thinking that all you did was wear fedoras and have a Girl Friday fix you drinks in the middle of the day," Mikey deadpans.

"What?"

"Nothing. This old movie, like, from the 40s aired on TV the other night and I sat down to watch it. Wanted to know how you spend your days." Mikey clears his throat. "You've got news for me?"

Frank blinks at the change of subject (is Mikey flirting with him?) "Oh, um, yeah. It isn't much, really. Your brother's boyfriend is as normal as they come. I followed him for a few days. There wasn't anything dirty I could find."

"Oh, crap!"

"Bob being a good person bothers you?"

"No, I'm not--don't worry about that, Frank," Mikey answers, he sounds distracted. "Go on."

"Erm, I'm gonna tap into some contacts, see if there's anything shaking that people in shady businesses might be involved in."

"Hold on a moment, OK? My cat . . . Bunny, stop scratching the . . . Bunny, NO! I--I'll be right back." There's a sound, most probably the receiver hitting a table when Mikey put the phone down, followed by footsteps and some meowing.

The fuck?

"Frank?" Mikey sounds a little out breath when he returns to the line. "I'm sorry. It's my cat. She gets a little crazy on catnip. Like, sometimes she turns from the sweetest purr-y thing to a creature brought to life by the devil himself. Maybe she's got Balrog's blood in her. She was a stray. Anyway, you mentioned you're going to talk to some 'shady' people?"

"Uh, yeah. That's basically it," Frank says, curbing the urge to cheer Mikey's reference to Tolkien. "Oh, and maybe your cat's allergic to catnip? I mean, that's could be the reason for the crazies?"

"It doesn't happen every time," Mikey says, his tone slightly defensive. "Once in a while, she'll curl up on the sofa and stare at the cushions until she falls asleep."

Whatever clever retort Frank has fades away when his Call Waiting beeps. "Hold on," he says before he clicks over. "Yeah?"

"Frank, my man!" Travis says, his voice a little rough. "Guess whose two favorite bail jumpers were seen walking into The Velvet Trap five minutes ago?"

Butcher and Otter. "You're calling me from?"

"I'm off the highway in Merrick. Listen, you want in or not?" Travis is starting to sound a little annoyed. "You told me to give you a call when they popped up again."

Frank scratches his head. One hour of driving to Merrick and back; he better get on the road. "Yeah, I did. I did. Hold on." He clicks back to Mikey. "Listen, I have to go."

"Official business or something else?" Mikey says, his voice playful.

"Official. Very official," Frank replies with mock seriousness. "I'll call you after I talk to some of my contacts, OK?"

"Sounds like a plan," Mikey says. "Good night."

Frank hangs up and starts getting ready to go hunting. Before long, he has all the necessary documents, a just-in-case overnight duffel and even sends Travis a text telling him he's on the way. Sweet Pea trots around, her tail wagging excitedly. "Wish I could take you with me," Frank says after crouching down and picking her up. He buries his nose in her ruff, enjoying how she settles down in his arms, her black, wiry fur scratching his face. "Let's call Uncle Ray," he says, switching Sweet Pea to one arm and digging for his phone in the back pocket of his jeans. He hits 3.

"'sup?" Ray's voice comes clear.

"Erm, a friend in New York gave me a tip on a couple of bail jumpers. You think you could--"

"Swing by your house and pick up Pea after I close the Attic?"

"Dude, I hate it when you turn psychic," Frank says with a smidgen of grouchiness.

"No, man," Ray says, "you're just that predictable. Not a problem, Frank. I'll take care of your doggie while you go catch the bad men."

"Thanks, Ray. You're a life saver. I'll leave you a copy of the house key in the mailbox."

"Like I said, predictable."

 

40 hours later and 6k richer, Frank walks into his office, turning the lights on. He'll have to go out and meet his contacts, but first, there's a short stack of checks that need his signature. Ryan had texted him late last night-early this morning, cursing at the person who invented Long Island Iced Teas. Frank texts him "You swore you wouldn't drink that again. Will go by the office. I'll check on you tomorrow."

He's barely finished scrawling his name on the rent check when a knock on the door in the front office nearly makes him jump. "Hold your horses," he yells while taking his gun out of his ankle holster. There's no one in the calendar for today and whoever's on the other side of the door is knocking like the zombie apocalypse had just begun.

Frank unlocks the door, his right hand behind his back, the weight of the gun a reminder of the nasty side of his job. "Mikey?"

Wearing another one of his ugly hats (a blue knit one that reminds Frank of a bonnet), a hoodie zipped all the way to his neck and black jeans, Mikey steps in after looking over his shoulder. "Gee received another note."

oOo

"Show me," is the first thing Frank says after sitting Mikey down on the lobby sofa.

Mikey's hand tremble when he gives Frank the small envelope. "Someone--they slipped under the door."

"Tell me what happened."

"I swung by Gee's place after work, had to water his plants, feed his hamster." Mikey takes a deep breath. "I was in the kitchen, replacing the hamster's water, when someone rang the doorbell. I went to the foyer and that's when I saw the envelope sliding under door. I--I kinda freaked? Like, I remember opening the door and hearing footsteps. The door leading the stairs was wide open so I ran over there and then down. I didn't find anyone though."

"They took the elevator," Frank says as he reads the two lines : "20,000 DOLLARS OR ELSE. WILL CONTACT SOON. So, generic paper, generic font and, whoever the blackmailer is, he or she thinks that amount of money is a good starting point."

Mikey raises his head. "What do you mean?"

"Blackmailers rarely retire. Because if you can get 20k, why not 30, 50 or more? If the person being blackmailed has, um, the means to do that."

"Yeah, that makes sense," Mikey says, shoulders dropping.

"When does your brother come back?"

"In about two days," Mikey answers. "Why?"

Frank hmms. "You might want to start getting ready to talk to him about this." He checks his watch. "Listen, do you need a ride or want me to call a cab for you? I have to go meet--"

"Some people, yeah, I know." Mikey licks the corner of his mouth. "Do you--do you think I could come along? Safety in numbers, yeah?"

Frank shoots Mikey one of his "are you crazy?" looks. "No way."

"Why not? I'm the client. What about the saying "the customer is always right?"

"There's nothing right about me placing you in danger. You've already chased after the blackmailer once and, luckily for you, he or she slipped free. Go home and wait for my call. It'll be safer that way."

"Don't talk to me about danger. Back when Gee was using, I had to walk into scary-ass places more times than you would believe. Trust me, Frank, I can keep my cool."

A quick glance at his watch and Frank knows that he's got to make a decision. It's almost nine p.m. There are a few people he's got to see and the first one is highly peculiar about punctuality. "Fine! Fuck it. Just, stick to close to me. I'd hate to give your brother bad news as a welcome home present." Frank decides to ignore the tiny smile of triumph Mikey gives him.

Traffic is light on the way to the warehouse district. Glad that he's got such a generic car that no one would deem worthy of stealing, he rolls to a crawl until he finds the illegal club. He turns the engine off and fixes Mikey a serious look. "The guy we're going to talk to is a little, I dunno, "funny." He's got his hands in a lot of pies, both legit and not, and, even though we don't exactly see eye-to-eye, he's given me some good info in the past. "

Sitting next to him, Mikey bites his lip and pulls his hideous bonnet hat down until all Frank can see is Mikey's nose.

"If the blackmailer is someone who hangs around low places, this guy would know or can point us in the right direction." Frank checks his re-holstered ankle gun and unlocks the door.

oOo

"Boss? There's somebody here to see you."

Frank and Mikey exchange a look at Hurley's soft manners. He is, like many things in Pete Wentz' semi-criminal mini-empire, a juxtaposition: the demeanor of a hippie who, covered in badass tattoos, might've spent some time with a biker gang. He's little too twitchy for Frank to feel at ease.

Perched on a classic oak desk, Pete faces the door, his grin wide and obnoxious. Between his bright red sneakers, tight purple jeans and black t-shirt and the smudged eyeliner, he looks more like a skater rat than anything else. "Frankie, baby! I thought you'd forgotten all about little old--" Eyes growing big, he slides down, ignoring Frank completely. "Mikeyway! Long time, no see," Pete says, voice softened into what Frank thinks of as "poisoned honey."

Mikey scratches the back of his neck, that damn side smile creeping up. "Pete," he says in not-quite-a-whisper.

Pete beams.

Watching Pete's delight and Mikey's friendliness sets off a couple of alarms inside Frank's head. He hates how easy it is to connect the dots. Mikey and Pete?

"Frank. Frankie. Frankie the dandy. It's so cool to see that you're finally hanging out with the best people," Pete says, winking at Mikey with a familiarity that tastes like ashes in Frank's mouth. "Oh, but where are my manners? Anything to drink? If you want something else, tell me. I can make it happen. On the house."

Mikey shakes his head, everything from the expression on his face to the way he sits calm and collected is a kind of act. To Frank, it feels like the Mikey he knows is hiding under many layers. The Mikey sitting next to him is someone he's never met.

"No thanks," Frank says, reining in the impulse to clench his hands. Wanting to punch the hell out of Pete's teeth won't lead them anywhere. Focus on the business.

"You have to tell me to what do I owe the pleasure of seeing an old friend," Pete says, ogling at Mikey, "and Belleville's own gay punk private dick?" He wiggles his eyebrows at Frank. "Because this isn't a social call. Not for either of you," he says, his tone turning cold. This, Frank thinks, is the Pete who's half-crime boss and half-regular citizen.

The shrug Mikey makes is a little arrogant. Whether or not it's intentional--Frank wants to think it's not--it certainly provokes a minor reaction in Pete. Or, at least, enough of one to distract him for a nanosecond.

Frank decides to take control of the conversation. The last thing he needs right now is to bear witness to Pete and Mikey's weird-ass teasing. "You've heard of anyone, rogue or associated, going 'round blackmailing innocent people who occasionally misbehave?"

It is crime boss Pete who answers. "Let me see," he says, scratching his chin, "Saporta's crew went to Brazil on vacation. They were very successful with their last job. None of the Families would even think of playing a game like that in this little pond when they could do that in Atlantic City and it's not my brand of sleaze. Does that answer your question?"

In other words, either Pete doesn't know or it's a freelancer.

"Well, Pete. Petey. Petey the . . . I'm not gonna say it, am I?" Frank smirks, letting some of his dislike for Pete show in his eyes at last. He should back down, if only because he's the one asking for help. But, the Pete-Mikey thing has thrown him for a loop and he can't help pushing against it. For the first time since Frank and Mikey walked in, Pete's façade shows a crack.

"Thank you for seeing us, Pete," Mikey says, breaking the tension in the room. He gets up.

"For you, anytime. Happy to see that you're still knitting," Pete says, the light in his eyes dimming and quickly replaced by a murkier vibe. "Andy will show you out."

Following Mikey's cue, Frank stands up. He glances at Pete, now sitting behind his desk, his expression one of regret. Like it or not, a tiny part of Frank feels sorry him.

oOo

Their luck doesn't improve at the next place they go or the one after that. No one's talking. The kind of 'game' Gerard's extortionist plays is simply too small-time for it to be noticed by anyone in the Belleville underground.

"I'm sorry tonight was such a bust," Frank says as he drives to Mikey's apartment all the way on the other side of town. With the clock inching closer to 3 a.m., they've agreed to call it a night. Leaving his right hand on the wheel, he takes a drag of the cigarette hanging from his mouth. It's something of a pain to drive with smoke in his eyes. He tires of it after a while and crushes the rest of his cigarette on the ashtray.

"No worries," Mikey says, in between humming along with the Violent Soho song playing in the car radio. "How did you end up getting into the P.I. business, anyway? I mean, from the looks of it, you should be in a band or working in a tattoo parlor."

Frank breaks at the stop sign, flicking his directional on before turning. "Always been a nosy bitch, I guess."

Mikey's deep laughs fill up the silence as the song ends.

"Unnatural curiosity. That's what my Nana called it when I followed her around asking her a million questions about this and that. You know, it's funny. I wish I could've gone into music. Had the talent, my dad and my grandpa are musicians. Instead, I decided to train for the Police Academy."

"For real?"

Frank glances at Mikey's incredulous face. "Yeah. Unfortunately, I have the immune system of a firefly and had to drop out one month in. Went back to college, got a degree in psychology with a minor in criminal law for no reason other than I like to figure people out and I'm, like I've already said, nosy as hell. P.I. was the one thing I could see myself doing for years without getting bored. Took a lot of busting my ass, you wouldn't believe how much fucking studying there is to get your P.I. license. What a lot of people don't know is that, just like in everything, the P.I. business has a lot of niches. Mine happens to be the gay angle. Anyone who's ever waved the rainbow flag in the Essex County area gets sent my way whenever there's trouble. "

"That's cool," is all Mikey says, staring out the window.

Frank knows this is the moment when he's supposed to ask about where Mikey got the idea to start a record company or whether or not he finds gay punkish detectives attractive or whatever. Instead, he opens his mouth and says: "You and Pete, huh?"

Twisting his head left then right until a crack is heard, Mikey snorts. "Oh, that was a long, long time ago. Teenager, just-graduated-high-school, fuck-you-world rebellion shit. It was . . . what it was."

There isn't much that Frank can say that won't sound petty. He settles for nodding.

"In any case, one good thing came out it," Mikey says brightly.

"Oh, yeah?"

"I took up knitting after we broke up."

"Is that how you ended up with that?" Frank points at the bonnet Mikey's wearing. "'cause, I gotta tell you, I don't think you should be taking tips from Jane Eyre."

Mikey frowns. "That's not--I mean. I downloaded the wrong pattern over at some hipster knitter site. It was supposed to be Jayne's hat."

"Who?" Frank scrunches up his face.

"Character from a sci-fi show," Mikey answers, waving his hands. "I didn't realize I'd picked the wrong pattern until I was nearly done. Seemed like a waste to unravel it. Anyway, I like it. It tends to throw people off, keeps my ears warm. I've gotten more drinks bought for me while wearing this than when wearing any of my other hats. It's too cool for school."

"You can say that again," Frank replies as he pulls in front of Mikey's place. "I was thinking . . . mphhh!" Mikey's lips pressing against his own, Frank's surprise about being pounced on becomes a happy buzz. He closes his eyes, giving into the feel of Mikey's mouth, his taste, the warmth of his skin.

Mikey pulls away. "That's what you get for not liking my hats," he says, his eyes wide and shiny.

"That makes no--mmmph!" is all Frank is able to say before Mikey lunges at him once more. Frank slides his hands across Mikey's back, pulling him closer. In for a penny, in for a pound or the world's collection of ugly knit hats. Frank doesn't care. Not when Mikey kisses a path along his jaw and down his neck, sucking then licking until Frank's feeling more than a little cross-eyed.

"How 'bout we take this upstairs?" Mikey mumbles against Frank's neck.

"Sounds like a good--" He gets cut off by his cellphone ringing. "Vampira" echoes in the car.

Startled, Frank and Mikey jump apart.

"I gotta, ahem, it's Ray," Frank says, pressing the talk button. "Yeah?"

"Oh, you answered," Ray says. "I thought you'd be sleeping."

"Um, nope. I'm (all reved up) wide awake."

"Sorry. I thought my call was gonna go to voicemail. Wanted to tell you that it was OK to leave Pea with me for another day."

"Shit, I forgot!" Frank sucks his teeth.

"Dude, no worries," Mikey says almost-whispering. "We can, um, continue this some other time."

Yeah, like Frank didn't know the mood was kaput as soon as he answered the phone.

"Damn, Frank, tell me you didn't answer the phone when you were with someone?" Ray sounds like he's both making fun of and pitying him.

"Um . . . kinda?"

"Fuck, sorry, man. I didn't mean to be your anti-wingman." The worst part is that Frank knows Ray is sorry.

"No, um, no big deal. I'll be at your place to pick up Sweet Pea in like 15, OK?"

"All right, Frankie. Hey, and next time? Don't answer the phone."

Frank hangs up and faces Mikey. "I'm really, really sorry, Mikey. My phone rings, I answer. It's a bad habit."

Mikey shakes his head. Eyebrow arched, he gives Frank a side glance, his mouth curved into a mischievous smile. "I can wait. Til this whole blackmail thing has settled or, you know, I can wait til tomorrow." He slides closer to Frank. "Consider this a preview of coming attractions," he says before leaning in and kissing Frank breathless.

oOo

Frank wakes up the next day after a good-dirty dream about Mikey and biting. Dick hard against his stomach, Frank slides his hand down, relishing the tingling on his skin. Taking advantage of his morning wood, he wraps his fingers around his cock, jerking off in lazy movements, his mind replaying the kisses he and Mikey had the night before. Scrunching up his eyes shut, he bites his lower lip when he teases himself by rubbing the underside of his cockhead. A couple of drops of pre-come slide down his shaft, easing the glide of his hand. Soon, the kisses blur into the image of Frank taking all of Mikey's cock in, leg muscles burning with the effort of not collapsing as Mikey drapes himself over Frank's back, his teeth pressing down on Frank's right shoulder.

Hand moving faster, Frank tenses up as his imagination gives him every detail in glorious Technicolor. It's a great build up to a nice orgasm. And a great way to start the day. Riding the afterglow, he crosses his arms behind his head and smiles at nothing in particular. Maybe he could surprise Ray, invite him to lunch as thanks for taking care of Sweet Pea and then head to his office. Sometime today, he has to call Mikey and strategize on what they can do today since Gerard is definitely Belleville-bound sometime tomorrow.

Forty minutes later, Frank's parking his car a block away from The Attic. It's early afternoon, Ray should be in his office trying to make sense of invoices. Frank lets himself through the door that faces the alley since there's no way he'll remember the right combination for the alarm at the front entrance. Ray might bitch him out for giving him a scare, but there's no way he'll turn down an invitation to to the Shimmy-Shake BBQ joint on Gardenia Street.

The first shoe drops when he gets to Ray's office. Lights are off and the door is closed. There's always the possibility that Ray went out to grab a bite to eat. Though illogical, Frank's instincts ping in a bad way.

The second shoe falls right on top of his head when two sets of voices make their way to the back. One stays on an even tone while the other one rises and lowers. Thinking it's a robbery in progress, Frank sneaks his way to the front. It is then when a solid block of ice settles in his stomach. The first voice belongs to Mikey and the second one is Ray's.

oOo

"I never thought…" Mikey sounds exactly like he did back when they met with Pete. It's a voice without emotion.

"Shut up! Just shut the fuck up!" Ray's desperation (anger?) is unlike anything Frank's ever heard. "I need to think!"

Frank slide-walks forward, keeping his steps soft and his body a little hunched over. The good thing is that there no lights are on in the back. The bad thing is how it slows Frank down. Trying to maneuver around any possible obstacle takes time. Cursing inwardly at leaving his gun at home, Frank moves forward as smoothly as he can. After all, the only thing he's got is the element of surprise.

"Gee talks about you sometimes, you know," Mikey says. "He remembers your hair, of course, and how friendly you were. Open and warm. I think he'd understand--what you did. Um, if you talked to him."

"You think so? Really? He went away and forgot about me and that--that I cared about him. Still do. I think about him everyday." There's clear affection and more than a lot of hurt in Ray's voice.

Frank scrunches up his face, his mind filling in the blanks about whom has Ray been carrying a torch for over a decade.

"I know you do," Mikey says, finally seeing Frank approaching from the back. He frowns for a couple of seconds.

"That's why I sent those letters and photos. I had to show him the wrongness of what being with someone like Bob, someone who will only touch my Gerard behind closed doors, would mean in the long run. He could be safe with me. I was going to tell him myself. But then you showed up--"

"Is that what you think, Ray? See, Gee is safe. He's healthy and happy…" Mikey should get a job as a crisis counselor. He's really good at keeping calm when there's someone pointing a gun at you.

"No, he's not!" Ray straightens his arm, gun aiming squarely at Mikey. "How can he be happy when he's with someone who isn't proud of being with him?"

Frank can almost see Ray's profile as he inch-walks his way to Ray and Mikey. Adrenalin pumping, Frank keeps his steps as fluid as he can. Fucked up as this whole case has turned out to be, the only thing that matters is disarming Ray. Everyone has a chance as long as Mikey can keep Ray distracted. He glances over at Mikey, and then points at Ray, lowering his eyebrows to empathize his point.

"What do you mean, Ray?" Mikey's face might be calm, but his eyes dart over to where Frank's standing for the briefest of seconds.

"I can make him happy. I can fucking make him feel like the star he's meant to be. What can Bob do for him? Nothing, that's what."

"Don't you think that's up to Gee to decide?"

There's never been a day when Frank's ever been gladder that he's something of a daredevil as he throws himself at Ray, punching the gun out of Ray's hand. He hears a loud POP! behind him but is too busy tackling Ray, trying to subdue him (somehow) while avoiding getting the shit kicked out him. After all, Ray's got a whole foot and some 40 lbs on him.

Having used up the famed 'element of surprise', Frank's secondary plan is to fight dirty. He kicks furiously, like when he's in a really vicious mosh pit, feeling momentarily triumphant when his feet connect with some part of Ray's legs. Ray grunts, aiming a fist that connects with Frank's left eye. Head jerking backwards from the impact, Frank grabs fistfuls of Ray's hair and yanks hard, using the pain and confusion to elbow Ray on the left side of his head.

Ray goes down.

A little woozy ('cause, shit, Ray can really punch), Frank pockets the gun, taking his phone out of his jeans and dialing 911. "Man, way to back me up, Mikey," he says, finally turning around only to find Mikey on the floor, laying still while blood spurts from his right shoulder.

oOo

Saturday, May 25th, 6:37 a.m., Belleville Police Department, Criminal Investigations Division.

Somewhere on this floor, Ray's giving his statement. Frank doesn't know how to feel about that.

"And that's all that's fit to print," he thinks, running his hands over the stubble on his face. His "conversation" with Alicia and Detective Stump goes for so long the sun's up in the sky by the time they release him. He sends Ryan a short text to come pick him up at the police station. The plan: go home, change clothes and head to Washington Memorial. No way he's going to run into Mikey's brother looking like a chump.

Ryan turns up in the lobby not even 20 minutes later, a worried look on his face.

"Over here," Frank says while doing his best not to pass out from sitting on yet another uncomfortable chair. Somewhere along the way, they're going to stop for coffee not brewed from beans grown in 1982.

"He's awake," Ryan says.

And that's all Frank needs to hear before huffing as he struggles to get up. Fuck the clean clothes and even the coffee. Well, maybe not the coffee. "Try not to get us killed, Ryan," he says as they walk out into the sunlight.

Ryan hands him a pair of sunglasses (this kid is definitely going to get a raise) while rolling his eyes.

"Thanks," Frank says, putting the glasses on, his mood finally improving. He's got a Mikey Way to kiss.

oOo

There's one male nurse with a serious bitchface sitting at the nurses' station. Frank is simply too tired and shook up to even attempt to charm him.

Ryan smiles. "Don't worry. I'm gonna go do my 'thing', you just go and do you yours. OK boss?" he says, patting Frank on the shoulder before walking over to the nurse and starting a conversation about who knows what.

Frank waits until Ryan's got the nurse smiling and blushing to sneak past them and searching for Mikey's room. He knows he should be looking at the names outsides the door. Walking briskly--just in case Ryan's weird flirty charm wears off--he's too distracted to notice the imposing figure of one Bob Bryar until he bumps into him.

"Watch where you goin!" Bob says, lifting the Starbucks paper tray with two cups of coffee in it. He gives Frank a double-look. "Don't I know you from somewhere?"

Wearing a black T-shirt and black jeans, Bob is less boring Commissioner's aide and more totally imposing dude who could theoretically could rip Frank apart with his bare hands. Any other day, Frank would play it cool and keep moving. Instead, he nods. The faster he gains Bob's trust, the better. "How's Mikey?"

Bob frowns."Who did you say you were?"

"He's the man who saved my brother's life." Seemingly from out of nowhere, a shorter guy steps from behind Bob."Hello, Frank."

Frank waves as he takes in the vivid red hair, the light green plaid shirt and loose jeans. Gerard. "Can I see him?" He stands still, already starting to come up with a plan B in case Gerard and Bob decide to close ranks around Mikey. He ends up almost falling on his ass after Gerard gives him a surprise hug.

"Thank you," Gerard says, his voice somewhat rough.

oOo

"Michael James Way, what did I say about putting yourself in dangerous situations?" is the first thing Frank says as soon as he steps into Mikey's room.

Face paler than usual, Mikey opens his eyes. "I know kung-fu."

"Yeah, well, martial arts can't stop bullets," Frank says, stepping up to the bed and ignoring everyone else in the room. A heavy wave of guilt washes through him as he remembers Mikey laying on the floor and barely breathing. "I had no idea," he whispers, eyes lowered and focused on Mikey's hands.

"I know," Mikey replies, sliding his right hand to Frank, his fingers tugging at Frank's hoodie. "It was--it was your face. You looked so hurt and totally surprised."

Holding Mikey's hand, Frank exhales and lifts his gaze, staring right into Mikey's hazel eyes. "What were you even doing there, Mikey? Why didn't you call me?"

"He called. Gee's house, I mean. Didn't leave a message," Mikey says. "I waited a few minutes and dialed *69. It was weird when he answered 'cause Gee's phone is unlisted and there's no reason why Ray would have it. So I got curious and headed over to The Attic, thinking I could chat him up, see if I could find something out. Was going to call you, but my phone was dead. We started talking, but he figured something was up because he got angry really fast. Then, you showed up and, well, you know the rest."

"I should kick your ass, Mikey," Frank half-growls before starting to soften up at Mikey's possibly-remorseful face. "Oh, no. No. Don't give me those Bambi-eyes."

"How about a kiss then?" Mikey replies suavely.

oOo

One Year Later

Frank rolls to Mikey's side of the bed, trying to escape the (very evil) ray of sun that stirred him awake. He stretches his arms, thrilled at the mild soreness throughout his body. He opens his eyes, smiling at the sight of the half-empty bottle of lube and ripped condom wrappers on the nightstand. Said smile fades when his cellphone starts beeping and he picks it up to turn it off. Blinking on the screen is the word RAY and a reminder that he needs to get out of bed now or else not arrive in time to his destination.

He showers and shaves, his movements mechanical, directing the somber edges of his thoughts away from the image of his best friend behind bars.

The apartment is empty. Mikey must have left as soon as he woke up. Frank understands it. This isn't Mikey giving Frank "space". What it is falls more into the definition of truce, Mikey Way-style.

It's been a long way from the stretched silences after Frank told Mikey he'd visit Ray in prison. The flat line of Mikey's mouth hurt almost as much as the extreme quiet in their home after the first time Frank went north. It was a confusing situation: Gerard forgiving Ray for shooting his little brother, Mikey being unable to do that and Frank in the middle, torn between loyalty to his oldest friend and love for his boyfriend.

There's nothing Frank can pinpoint as the thing that finally eased the tension. One day, Frank talked and Mikey listened. He still doesn't know if Mikey's forgiven Ray and he's smart enough not to ask.

He steps into the kitchen and pours himself a cup of coffee. There's a note underneath the sugar container. CALL ME, it reads in Mikey's expansive handwriting.

Frank smiles at the implied I'm there if you need me.

Bunny hops on the counter, purring at him until he gives in and scratches behind her ears, almost as if she knew Frank needed all the love he could get. He contemplates this as he gets on the road to Northern State Prison.

oOo

"Oh, Samoas! Frank, you shouldn't have," Ray says as he rips open a package of Girl Scout cookies. "Mmm…

"Pshhh, you know how addictive those cookies are. I think I spent enough dough to buy a small island in Hawaii last time the Girl Scouts camped outside the supermarket by Gerard--"

"You can, um. You can say his name, Frank," Ray says softly. "Greta, my therapist, she says I need to create new points of reference for my psycho-emotional associations to him."

"I guess that's OK as long as that doesn't mean you renounce listening to metal, dude," Frank says and then starts to think of a way to move the conversation away from heavy topics. Early into Ray's sentence, he decided that it'd be best to be laid back when meeting Ray face-to-face. He's got a drawer full of Ray's letters if what he wants is to talk about Ray fucking up, about the cold realities of living behind bars and about the price of making amends. In some ways, he's getting to know his best friend for the first time in his life.

Back in the here and now, Ray makes a horrified face. "Nah, I think the world would end if I lost all taste for Ozzy's music. Come on, Frankie, have some cookies with me."

"All right." Frank accepts the invitation and grabs two cookies, grooving on hanging out with his best friend on a mild, spring day.

THE END