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Gerard would be killing twice as many dracs right now if his fucking spacebar would quit sticking. He spilled Mountain Dew on his keyboard last week and it hasn't been the same since, even though he turned it upside down to drain on a towel right away. It was probably a towel, anyway. Some kind of linen-y thing that had been balled up under his desk long enough that it'd probably already had worse things spilled on it than Mountain Dew.

"Quit jerking off and join us, would you, Poison?" Ray says over voice chat. He fires at a drac that's about to get Mikey, but he's too late to head it off, and Mikey gets a laser blast in the arm. "Goddammit. Poison, help me out here!"

"Sorry, sorry, it's my fucking keyboard, it keeps--" Three more dracs come around the rocky outcrop, and he breaks off to pound at his spacebar. He manages to down two of them, but the last one gets close enough for Mikey to knock it out with a roundhouse kick. Gerard pivots his view to get a look behind him and spots two more white cars with tinted windows fast approaching. Fuck.

"You're all morons," says Grace in his ear.

Gerard breathes a sigh of relief. "Steam! Thank god you're here, we're in serious trouble. They're dogpiling us like crazy."

Grace snorts. "They're not, you guys just don't appreciate how many of them I always pick off before they get to you. I'm behind the rock on your left. Try not to kill me this time."

"That was once," mutters Mikey.

"Uh-huh," says Grace. "Why do we even let him have a ray gun?"

Dracs start piling out of the cars, and there's no more time for teasing. It takes a while to kill them all, since they keep hiding behind the cars and there's no cover the gang can use to get behind them. Mikey is badly in need of a first aid kit by the time they're done, and no one has a pack on them, so they have to head back to base. Gerard and Ray do a quick check of the cars and corpses first, but there's not much to scavenge.

Their base is currently an abandoned gas station in Zone 5. They set off toward it, keeping Mikey in the center of the group to avoid any accidents wiping out the last of his precarious health bar.

They're done with the fight and they won't be crossing any major roads, so they drop out of VoIP to use text chat instead.

turbosteam: whyd you start without me?
the_kobra_kid: we didn't start anything
the_kobra_kid: the dracs were the ones picking a fight
turbosteam: hanging out around route petrichor for no reason IS picking a fight
turbosteam: obviously there's gonna be dracs there
JetStar: Kid was looking for his white whale again.
turbosteam: jesus christ
the_kobra_kid: he wasn't there this time

Mikey is convinced that one of the dracs is out to get him. Apparently the same drac has shown up on multiple occasions to finish him off. Never mind that finishing off players is what the dracs do, and never mind that there's absolutely no way to tell dracs apart. Mikey won't hear it, no matter how much the rest of them make fun of him.

PartyPoison: For fuck's sake IT'S AN NPC
JetStar: Are we really still bothering to argue with him about this?
the_kobra_kid: i can tell which one he is
the_kobra_kid: he does this shifting thing with his feet and his beady little eyes are always on me and nobody else
the_kobra_kid: he never shoots at anyone else either
the_kobra_kid: i have to get him before he gets me
the_kobra_kid: it was an important mission that could not wait for steam to finish her homework

They're passing by the dusty shell of a fast food restaurant. There's someone trying to climb up onto the roof. Gerard has tried that a couple times, but he's never put in the kind of effort this person seems to be investing in the attempt. He appears to be trying to jump from the top of a car onto the building. It's just a little bit too far, and he falls down every time, but he keeps trying. Presumably he doesn't have the keys to the car, or he'd move it closer.

turbosteam: youre a doofball kid
turbosteam: sorry about the homework thing, i wish i could sign on right after school but my mom is gay and so are her rules
the_kobra_kid: whatev, you got to us in time to save the day

The figure jumps off the car on the wrong side, away from the fast food place, and starts running toward them. Gerard watches, curious at first, then panicked when he sees the grenade the guy is holding. He starts to type a warning, but he's not fast enough. From a startlingly impressive distance, the guy hurls the grenade into the middle of their group. It explodes before it hits the ground, knocking out half of Grace's health and killing Mikey flat-out. Gerard hears a piteous howl from upstairs.

JetStar: What the FUCK.

That's just about what's going on in Gerard's head, too. It's not like PvP violence is entirely unheard of in Danger Days, but people usually want to save their weapons resources for battles that will boost their stats, so they don't tend to attack complete strangers with no provocation. This is not kosher in the slightest.

Gerard starts off after the guy immediately, firing laser blasts at him. He's heading back to the fast-food building, the only cover in the area.

JetStar: Poison, leave it. He's just an asshole, you're only gonna get hurt.
turbosteam: fuck THAT

The guy is almost to the car when Grace takes him down with two well-aimed shots to the head. Gerard stops chasing him and waits a moment to be sure he's not getting up before turning away.

Back at the gas station, as they wait for Mikey to respawn by the city and travel back out to Zone 5, Ray and Grace talk shit about the guy who attacked them. Gerard stays quiet, thinking. It seems like the dude did it just because he was bored, but something feels off about that. If he was just looking for a fight, he should have done it earlier. He definitely jumped off the car a few more times after he first saw them, and he was already on top of it about to jump again when he turned around to come after them. It doesn't seem logical.

***

When Gerard started playing Danger Days, Mikey had absolutely no interest in joining him. Gerard actually tried to talk him into giving it a shot several times, because his gang was in dire need of a sniper, but Mikey thought MMORPGs were pointless. No matter how many times Gerard explained that it wasn't a typical MMO, that it was more about survival and fringe society than about killing things, Mikey wouldn't try it.

Then the Killjoys found Grace, who could hit absolutely anything from between fifty and five hundred feet, so Gerard stopped asking. Then Mikey started dating a girl who played Danger Days religiously, and where brotherly pleas had failed, tits and true love prevailed. Mikey joined her gang and developed an addiction to the game almost as unhealthy as Gerard's.

Unfortunately, their love turned out not to be all that true after all. When they broke up, Mikey was the one who got kicked out of his gang, possibly because Alicia had been there first but probably because he was completely useless with a ray gun. His hand-to-hand stats were good, but that didn't mesh with their combat style. Mikey wandered around the desert solo for a while, but nobody was in the market for a martial arts specialist who couldn't shoot for shit, so after a while he mumbled to Gerard that he might possibly have changed his mind about joining the Killjoys. After the requisite laughter and shit-giving, Gerard agreed to let him in.

They've stuck together in the game ever since. When they get into a skirmish with the dracs, Grace hides out far enough away to catch them by surprise, Ray and Gerard handle most of the close-range shooting, and Mikey deals with the dracs that get too close. Mikey's also good at finding and hoarding supplies for them. Aside from that one incident with Grace and the friendly fire, which Mikey has never been able to live down, the group has worked together just fine.

They could really use an explosives specialist, though. They had Bob before Grace joined, but he quit the game cold turkey after the time he stayed up all night playing, slept through half a work shift, and almost lost his job. Gerard misses him, but he doesn't blame him. If he had a job, he'd probably sleep through shifts on a regular basis. Danger Days is like crack. When he's not playing it, he's either thinking about it or working on his epic doujinshi set in the same universe.

Without Bob, there's no one in the Killjoys gang who can throw a bomb with any precision. That, combined with the weird feeling about the grenade incident, is why Gerard walks up to their random attacker and says hi the next time he spots him.

PartyPoison: Hello!
PartyPoison: Please don't blow me up, I want to talk to you
funghoul: hi! won't blow you up if you don't give me a reason to :)
PartyPoison: Did Kid give you a reason?
PartyPoison: You kind of ganked him out of left field the other day
funghoul: sorry, collateral damage. he must've been on his last legs, a grenade blast at that distance wouldn't have been a problem for anyone at normal health. i was aiming for the jerk using my sexual orientation as trash talk.

A lightbulb blinks on in Gerard's head. He remembers Grace saying something about her homework being gay. The surprise bomb makes a lot more sense with that context. Actually, knowing the guy's motivation, he kind of sympathizes. It bothers him too, to be honest, but the slang is widespread enough within the game that he doesn't see much point in being annoying about it. Apparently funghoul disagrees.

His bombing accuracy is even more impressive now that Gerard knows it was specifically meant for Grace. Gerard wouldn't be able to hit even a group from that distance, but this guy managed to aim at someone on the far side of the group. That demonstrates exactly the kind of explosives chops their group needs.

Gerard focuses on that, rather than on the fact that this is the first gamer he's met who's openly into other guys. That's counting himself; Gerard isn't open about it. He wishes he could be, but he's not that brave. It would be really fucking amazing to have someone to talk to about that stuff, because he doesn't know very many gay people and he doesn't know any gay nerds. But that's not why he wants funghoul to join his gang. They need a bomber, and he's clearly got skills.

PartyPoison: Gotcha
PartyPoison: Wow, if you target everyone who says that shit, it's no wonder you're so good with a hand grenade
funghoul: thanks. it's sorta my hobby right now, since i don't have a gang to help me take on the dracs. vigilante activism via douchebaggery, that i can do all on my own.
PartyPoison: Oh, you don't?
PartyPoison: We're actually in need of a bomber, if you're looking
funghoul: and listen to the douche with the fro talk shit about who i sleep with? sounds like a party.
PartyPoison: :( I'm sorry about that
PartyPoison: I don't like it either, I'm just chicken about speaking up
PartyPoison: She doesn't connect it with actual gayness in her mind
PartyPoison: I know it's not an excuse, it's not cool to say that, but she's not homophobic, just oblivious
PartyPoison: I'll talk to her about it
funghoul: uh-huh. let me know how that goes for you.
PartyPoison: If she promises to stop, would you be interested in joining us?
funghoul: maybe. i like you.

Gerard really, really wishes he hadn't said that, while at the same time being utterly thrilled that he did. He can't mean it, obviously, not from three minutes of chatting. Gerard hasn't even said anything interesting. It's just because he's not an asshole about the gay thing, that's all. And he doesn't know this guy, either. He doesn't even know his name. There's nothing to get worked up about.

funghoul: ping me after you talk to your team, yeah? if your sniper can learn to play nice, it would be cool to have her on my side. that shot that took me out was kind of epic. i'm frank, btw.
PartyPoison: Yeah, her skills are pretty mad
PartyPoison: It's nice to meet you
PartyPoison: My name's Gerard, but we mostly use handles
funghoul: haha you're adorable, spelling "mad skills" in all letters. nice to meet you too. :)

Nothing to get worked up about at all.

Whatever part of Gerard's brain is dedicated to the development of debilitating crushes is really, really not listening.

***

Gerard doesn't go look for Grace right away, because he is, as stated, chicken. Anyway, she's probably not online yet, since it's still mid-afternoon on the West Coast.

Instead, he closes out the game and opens up his e-mail and RSS reader. He's been spending a lot of time gaming lately, and as a result he's behind on his feeds. He scrolls down, starting from the bottom, and reads a few blog posts before he gets to the first unread Grant Morrison comic. It's awesome, like always, because Grant Morrison is basically flawless. He writes one of Gerard's favorite webcomics of all time, The Invisibles, and everything else he does is amazing too. Gerard's positive that everything Grant does that he doesn't understand is just Grant being too brilliant for mortal comprehension.

Then he reads the newspost underneath the comic and stifles a shriek.

Seeking artist for paid collaboration on an upcoming project. Please e-mail art samples to the address below, along with name and phone number. Resumes will be ignored.

Gerard glances around his bedroom frantically, trying to come up with something to use as a sample. There are shitpiles of artwork everywhere in the room, stacked on top of and underneath everything else on his floor and bookcases and desk, but not much of it is comics-style. Everything he can think of is either traced, and therefore unusable, or unfinished. He doesn't have time to finish anything--this was posted almost a week ago, Grant could have picked someone already.

Except... he does have something finished, in the right style, that he actually really likes. It could be perfect, if he has the balls to send it.

Gerard minimizes his browser and pulls up the Danger Days doujinshi from his desktop. He flips through the pages, trying to look at them the way Grant Morrison would see them. The storyline is about a zonerunner and a drac, kind of a Romeo and Juliet situation except with twisted helpless obsession instead of love. It was inspired by Mikey's dogged pursuit of the one drac he thinks he can tell apart from the rest, although the zonerunner is definitely not Mikey. Especially since, in fine doujinshi tradition, there are some pretty explicit sex scenes. It's not something Gerard would normally consider part of his job application portfolio.

But this isn't a normal job application. Even aside from the whole no-resumes thing, Gerard has been following Grant's work for long enough that he knows the sex won't be a problem if Grant is the one evaluating the samples. If anything, it might not be edgy enough.

Gerard takes a deep breath and attaches it to an e-mail, along with an older horror-themed drawing he scanned months ago just in case the project calls for a more realistic style. He types his contact information into the body, along with a brief note saying that the comic is based on the Danger Days concept, since he doesn't want Grant thinking he's trying to pass off anyone else's ideas as his own. He fills in the recipient e-mail and then spends about five minutes deliberating over the subject line before settling on "Artist application" and hitting send before he can talk himself out of it.

***

JetStar: Wait, the guy who killed Kid for no reason?
PartyPoison: He had a reason
PartyPoison: Steam using "gay" as an insult pissed him off
turbosteam: that doesn't mean gay like homosexual gay
turbosteam: anyway its none of his business

Gerard doesn't actually have to say this right now. He could just agree with Frank on general principle, instead of telling them. They would accept it, because they're not actually assholes, and he knows Grace isn't trying to put anyone down.

But to be honest, he's kind of sick of hiding. He's been doing it by default for a while now without really thinking about it, and when he actually considers the question of why he hasn't said anything, he can't think of a real reason. He's not interested in running around brandishing grenades over it, but he's done with his turtle shell.

PartyPoison: The reaction might have been extreme, but I'm actually glad he got us talking about this, because it's been bothering me too
PartyPoison: On a personal level

He rereads the words a few times as he waits for them to reply, foot tapping anxiously against the leg of his desk, then decides he wasn't clear enough. Grace, in particular, tends not to pick up on subtlety.

PartyPoison: Because I like guys
JetStar: Right, got it, Poison. Thanks for sharing, we support you. Steam, cool it with the gay stuff, okay?
turbosteam: k
turbosteam: sorry :(
the_kobra_kid has signed off

Panic blooms in Gerard's gut and threads throughout the rest of his body, speeding up his heartbeat. He wasn't entirely positive about Grace, but he didn't honestly expect any of them to have an actual problem with it. And if Mikey has a problem with it, Gerard is totally fucked. Utterly and completely.

He hears footsteps clattering down the basement stairs, giving him a few seconds to freak out before the door swings open without a knock.

"Seriously?" demands Mikey. "I've been waiting for six years for you to get your shit together about this and spit it out, and you finally do it in a video game chat? Seriously?"

Gerard isn't even aware of how tense his back is until it melts with relief, making him slouch down in his chair. "Sorry," he says. "It was just, you know, easier."

Mikey sticks his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans. "It's cool. You need a hug?"

"Yes," says Gerard.

Mikey shuffles over and bends down awkwardly. Gerard squeezes him tight, peeking over his shoulder at the computer screen.

turbosteam: so are we inviting bomb dude to join the gang, then?
JetStar: I think we should wait to hear what Kid has to say about that, since he's the one who got ghosted.
JetStar: Poison? Everything okay?

Mikey extricates himself from Gerard's clutches and perches on the arm of the desk chair, leaning over to steal his keyboard.

PartyPoison: he's okay, kidhere
PartyPoison: i'm finewith inviting the guy,he's good with explosives and i trustpoison's judgment of character
PartyPoison: ffs poison wasn't kiddingabout his keyboard

"That's really annoying," says Mikey, prodding the spacebar.

"No shit." Gerard has been meaning to look up prices for a new keyboard, even though he probably can't afford it, since he's broke and unemployed. But this is important. It's affecting his gameplay.

JetStar: Well, we do need a bomber.
turbosteam: okay i guess
turbosteam: but poison can you tell him if he has a problem with any of us to try using his words first before he starts throwing grenades
JetStar: I think that would be a prudent and reasonable stipulation of the offer.

***

The Killjoys have been using this gas station as their base for about a month now without much trouble. It's pretty out of the way, but that's okay--it means they probably won't get ousted by a bigger group, and the place is otherwise great. It's got good cover, lots of places to hide stuff, and it even had some supplies tucked away in the back when they first arrived, although those are long gone by now. But the best thing about it, by far, is the storage tank.

Before he started playing Danger Days, Gerard never paid attention to where the gas in gas stations came from. He knew it had something to do with pipelines, and that was the extent of the thought he'd given it. If he'd considered the question more carefully, he probably would have figured out that there had to be some kind of large containers for the gas, and that those had to be underground, but the topic didn't become relevant until the Killjoys moved into the gas station.

"We didn't know about it at first," Gerard says as he leads Frank across the parking lot. He's already given him the grand tour of the little convenience store, which doesn't have much in it except empty shelving and broken glass. "It was me who found it, actually. I like poking around in this game. There's a lot of cool details I think people miss because they're not really looking."

"Me, too," says Frank. "I've spent so much time just exploring the desert, looking under stuff and climbing on top of stuff and figuring out what I can pick up."

They're using voice chat, because Frank said he preferred it. Hearing Frank talk makes Gerard feel all shivery, like Frank is somehow more real because he has a voice. Gerard has never felt this self-conscious in a game before. He's pretty sure he hasn't screwed anything up too badly yet, but he can't shake the feeling that he's about to.

Frank sounds like he's smiling all the time. He probably just sounds like that naturally. It's probably not because of Gerard.

They walk around the Trans Am, which currently has nothing in its tank. On the side away from the gas pumps, the side closest to Zone 6, where no one's going to approach from, there's a series of manholes set into the concrete. A few of them are small, only a few inches across, but one is bigger.

Gerard stops in front of the big one and says, "Click on that."

Frank's avatar bends down and lifts off the manhole cover, revealing a dark hole. "Coooool," he says, and jumps in before Gerard can respond.

Gerard follows him. It's pitch black inside. "It gets easier to see after a little while," he says. "Simulating our eyes adapting to the dark, I guess."

There's a clicking noise, and a tiny light appears. Gerard flails his hands a little in the real world, accidentally hitting his spacebar, which fortunately doesn't work. "Ack! Turn that off! Are you trying to kill us? No open flame in storage tanks filled with gasoline residue!"

"Oh," says Frank. The light vanishes. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense."

Gerard shakes his head. "You're nuts. Just wait a minute, I told you it'll get easier to see."

"I hate waiting. What are we gonna be looking at?"

"Supplies, mostly," says Gerard. "We keep spare inventory here so we don't lose it if we die. There's food and meds and batteries."

"Handy," says Frank.

There's a bit of an awkward pause. The dark is definitely taking longer to lift than it normally does.

"So," says Gerard. "I've never met another gay gamer before. It's cool that you're so open about it."

"Aw, fuck yes!" shouts Frank.

Gerard sticks his fingers under the edges of his headphones and rubs at his ears. That was loud. "Um... what?"

"I was really hoping you weren't gonna turn out to be one of those dudes who start out all awesome and flirty and then end up batting their eyelashes and calling themselves 'allies.' That keeps happening to me."

Gerard's heart starts freaking the fuck out. He presses at it with his palm, trying to get it to chill enough to let him hear himself talk. "I... was I being flirty?" He didn't mean to. He's never been able to tell when other people are flirting, though, and hiding his feelings has never been his strong suit, so he can definitely believe that he might have done it unintentionally.

"I thought so," says Frank. "It's okay if you weren't, but I was kind of hoping."

The tank gets a little bit lighter, and Gerard can see the outline of Frank's avatar and the supplies piled behind him. Not that it matters. It's not like body language in the game is going to tell him anything.

God, he has no idea how this goes. He can't think of anything to say that doesn't sound insecure or stupid. He should definitely give Frank some kind of indication that he's interested, he knows that much, but nothing appropriate is coming to mind. The silence is getting more awkward the more it draws out. This is why Gerard prefers text chat--there's way more room to think things through. You can't stop halfway through a sentence to edit when you're talking out loud.

A message pops up on Gerard's screen.

turbosteam: IT'S DRAC-SQUISHIN TIME
turbosteam: anybody here?

"I guess we should go help squish," says Frank. He sounds a little disappointed.

Something wobbles unpleasantly inside Gerard's torso. "Hey," he says. He can't let the conversation end there. "If I was flirting, it was, uh. Accidental but sincere?"

"Yeah?" says Frank. His voice is all smiley again, settling Gerard's stomach. "I think I can work with that."

***

When Gerard emerges from the tank, Grace appears to be trying to make her avatar dance in the parking lot. It's not working very well, since Danger Days doesn't actually let characters dance. She's mostly just hopping in circles and bending over periodically. Frank immediately begins mocking her for it over text chat. Gerard tenses up a little, but Grace takes the ribbing just fine.

Ray and Mikey show up soon, and they set off toward Route Petrichor. It's the closest road the dracs use, while still being far enough away not to betray the location of their base. They still loop around to approach from a slightly different direction, just in case.

They don't have to wait long. The dracs always show up pretty regularly on the major routes. The fight is their first with Frank, and it goes absolutely beautifully. Grace picks off the dracs on the motorcycles before they even make it off the road, Ray and Gerard get the ones coming out of the cars, and Frank nabs the ones that make it past them. None of them get close enough for Mikey to have a chance to do anything.

Everyone's flying high on the way back to base. There were a few grenades in the trunk of one of the dracs' cars, which made Frank happy, and the rest of them are excited about having a bomber again. There hasn't been any more interpersonal friction--in fact, Frank and Grace seem to be becoming fast friends, bonding over the hilarity of Mikey's inability to aim a weapon.

turbosteam: i was like "SHIT THERES ONE BEHIND YOU GUYS SHOOTING AT ME" and kid was like "uh... sorry, that was me"
funghoul: hahahahahaha
the_kobra_kid: yeah, you knucklefaces come talk to me after you beat me in hand-to-hand
funghoul: oh, is that all you need to succeed in this game? impressive, dude. you gotta teach me how to punch lasers sometime.
JetStar: Questions of Kid's competence aside, that was pretty fucking awesome. I think with Ghoul in the gang, we should be able to start fighting closer to the city.

The city is where the dracs come from. Skirmishes are tougher near the city outskirts, and winning them earns more XP. The spawn point is just outside city limits, and every player who comes into Danger Days without a warning learns very quickly not to engage the dracs there alone. Since Bob left, the Killjoys haven't been strong enough to get too close.

Above a certain level, it's possible to actually enter the city and face down the dracs on their own turf. Gerard is desperately curious about what's in there, but the one time he tried to get past the guards, he was shot down before he even made it out of the tunnel. That project is going to require a good team and a car.

Well, they have a good team now, and they have the Trans Am back at base, but it's not going to run off fumes from the storage tank.

***

The car bazaar is the Danger Days equivalent of a marketplace. It was entirely conceived and implemented by players, as far as Gerard knows. Some enterprising individual in possession of a van and a hefty inventory started driving around hawking their wares, and it blossomed into a whole tradition. The van has a few different drivers these days, all of whom know each other. Mikey tried to weasel his way into the lineup after his first gang kicked him out, but he never got them to trust him with the keys.

It takes some asking around, but Gerard eventually finds the car bazaar at the inner edge of Zone 3 on the other side of the city. It's parked in a valley, so it's out of sight from a distance. Dracs don't usually go looking for fights away from the main roads, but there's enough inventory at stake that the drivers like to be careful.

As Gerard steps around to the front of the van, he sees an unexpectedly familiar face in the driver's seat.

PartyPoison: Zoid!
lynzoid: Hey there, Poison. How goes it?
PartyPoison: When did you nab the car bazaar keys?
lynzoid: Not too long ago. It's a good time when I've got someone in the passenger seat to talk to, but it can get boring when I'm on my own.
lynzoid: Looking for anything in particular?

Zoid is another local gamer. Gerard met her through the Magic tournaments at the comic shop downtown, and kept in touch with her through Danger Days. She and her gang used to join up with the Killjoys for skirmishes sometimes. Gerard loves his gang, and he's proud of how well they do as a small group, but sometimes it's fun to team up and totally wipe out a whole bunch of dracs all at once, even if it means gaining less XP.

He hasn't seen Zoid's gang around lately, though, and she can't be doing much fighting if she's driving the car bazaar. He wonders what happened to her gang. It would probably be insensitive to ask.

PartyPoison: Actually, I was hoping you might have some gas in stock
PartyPoison: I know you usually hang on to it for the van, but I have a car and nothing to run it on :(
lynzoid: I'm not supposed to, but we do have a bit of a surplus at the moment. I could probably let go of a can.
PartyPoison: Awesome! What do you want for it?
lynzoid: Got any Power Pup? We're low on food.

Gerard does have Power Pup, and he's so happy about the gas that he doesn't even try to haggle her down. He's probably got the better end of the deal, anyway--it's a full can, and gas isn't all that plentiful out in the desert.

As he's clicking on it to pick it up, his cursor hovers over Zoid for a moment, and he notices that she's at level 16. That's weird. He thought she was at least a level 20 when they last fought together, and it's been a month or two since then, so she should be even higher by now.

lynzoid: ...you want your gas or not?

He must be misremembering. He takes the gas and doesn't mention it.

***

It's possible that the Killjoys should have done a few more practice runs with Frank before tackling a crowd of dracs right outside the city. Not that Frank isn't amazing--he really, really is--but having him there means the rest of them have to fight a little differently, and they maybe should have gotten used to it more before jumping in with both feet.

"Shit, shit, shit, they're closing in!" Ray screeches in Gerard's ear. "We're all gonna die!"

Just perhaps.

"Deep breaths, Jet," says Mikey, sounding way more in control of his own breath than he would be if he were actually performing the karate chops his character is dealing out to the incoming crowd of figures in white.

Gerard keeps his mouth shut and focuses on his shooting. His keyboard isn't any less fucked, and it is not helping one bit. He aims away from Mikey, trying to get the ones on the edge of the group closest to Frank. Grace is taking care of herself, as usual, but there are a lot of dracs and they seem to have figured out where she is, so it's rough going.

"I have an idea," says Frank. "Steam, do you have anything in your inventory you don't want to lose?"

"Extra gun and a bottle of water," says Grace.

"Give them to Poison. I'm going to blow you up."

"What?" says Grace. "No! Not again, you rat bastard mother--"

"The respawn point is right there," Frank interrupts. "You're still at half health, they won't expect you to show up behind them yet. Take them by surprise. You're good enough to do some serious damage to them at that range before they know you're there."

There's a brief, stunned silence, then Grace tosses her inventory items on the ground in front of Gerard. He picks them up quickly. "Got 'em, Ghoul," he says, and watches Grace explode.

It's still a long, hard fight, but they end up winning, and they definitely wouldn't have if Frank hadn't come up with that plan. With Grace on one side and Frank on the other, they somehow emerge victorious. They skedaddle as soon as the last drac is down--this close to the city, it won't be long before more show up, and none of them are rocking much health at the moment.

When they hit Zone 2, where they aren't likely to be ambushed anymore, they switch to text chat.

JetStar: Okay, Poison, good call on the new bomber.
funghoul: thanks, dude.
turbosteam: i think you just wanted another reason to blow me up
turbosteam: sicko
turbosteam: still that was pretty sweet
the_kobra_kid: i pretty much approve of all plans involving blowing steam up
funghoul: it was a welcome side effect of kicking drac ass. :P

Gerard is still kind of reeling from how utterly fucking badass Frank is. It's hard to pay much attention to other people during a fight, but it's also hard to miss a series of epic explosions each taking out at least five dracs. Or his eager, low voice constantly pointing out potential problems and helping everyone else in the gang.

They haven't talked one-on-one since that moment in the storage tank. Gerard is a little bit glad, because he has no idea what he would say, and a little bit disappointed, because he really wants to know what Frank would say. He doesn't even know what the guy looks like, but he doesn't need to. No one who fights like that could ever be unattractive to him.

They've got a while on foot before they get to the base, and Gerard only needs one hand to press the arrow key. The text chat conversation has died down; they all just want to get back to the first-aid kits squirreled away in the tank. No one will notice if Gerard... just...

A minute later, Frank scares the everloving shit out of him by saying, "Gerard?" in his ear.

Gerard snatches his hand out of his pants. "Uh. Yes."

"Are you jerking off?" Frank sounds more amused than anything.

Gerard considers denying it, but he's always been awful at lying. "I'm sorry, I forgot voice chat was on." His face is so hot it feels like he's actually in the desert. "Sorry," he says again.

"Hey, as long as no one else is here..." says Frank.

Gerard takes a moment to check that he's awake, that he is not feverishly hallucinating, and that his headphones are not malfunctioning. Then he says, "Are you serious?"

"I would never joke about sex," says Frank. "Phone sex. VoIP sex. Whatever."

"Yesterday you told Mikey that if he needed more XP to level up you'd grind with him any day."

"I'd never joke about sex with you," amends Frank.

He's probably bullshitting, but it still sends squirms through Gerard's belly. He tentatively slips his hand back into his jeans. He's not sure what to say. He's never done this before, out loud like this, and he's sure that if he tries to sound sexy he'll trip and land in ridiculous.

"You're being so quiet," says Frank. "You were louder when you didn't know I was listening. Do it like that."

Gerard didn't think he liked being ordered around, but it seems like he was wrong about that, at least when it comes to Frank. His breath rasps involuntarily as he squeezes his cock, and Frank says, "Yeah, fuck. Just like that."

Gerard can hear sounds from Frank's end too, now, soft but clear. "Tell me," he starts, and his throat catches. He starts over in a whisper. "Tell me what to do."

"Nipples," says Frank instantly. "Pinch 'em, hard as you like it. If you're wearing a shirt, take it off."

Gerard wriggles out of his zip-up hoodie and T-shirt. The shirt ends up hooked around the wire of his headphones, because no way is he taking those off even for a second. "Okay," he says, and rolls his nipple between his fingertips. "Fuck, oh my god. Wish you'd do this for me."

"If I were there I would," says Frank. His voice is scratchy. "I'd find out what makes you moan and do it 'til you scream. Touch your cock. Just hold it, don't rub until I say."

"Holy shit, Frank," says Gerard.

It's the first time he's said Frank's name out loud, he realizes. Maybe Frank noticed too, because he lets out a stream of swearing and follows it up with, "Jerk it, c'mon, how fast can you come for me?"

The answer is really fucking fast. It's a good thing Gerard's shirt is off, because he would not have had the coordination to keep that load from landing all over it. He lets out a long breath, riding out the aftershocks, listening to Frank cursing out his own orgasm.

Something on his screen catches Gerard's eye. He hasn't been paying any attention to the game. When he looks back, he discovers that he's marched straight past the gas station. He scrolls back up through the text chat.

the_kobra_kid: home sweet home
turbosteam: i claim first first aid kit
JetStar: Poison? Where are you going?
turbosteam: hey dude, we're here, you can stop walking
the_kobra_kid: uh
the_kobra_kid: see you later?
the_kobra_kid: have fun in zone 6...

***

Gerard is deeply emotionally invested in his computing equipment, but he has pretty much no clue how any of it actually works. However, he is poor, and his attempts to surreptitiously exchange his malfunctioning keyboard for his mother's working one have been unsuccessful, so he has no choice but to turn to Google and try his hand at electronics repair.

Mostly, his attempts consist of popping out his spacebar and scrubbing at the inside with an old toothbrush soaked in rubbing alcohol. He figures if it works sometimes, then the problem must be just the soda residue making it sticky, rather than any actual issue with the connection. The rubbing alcohol is a suggestion from the internet. Apparently it's not a good idea to pour water into a keyboard.

He's about to pop the spacebar back on when his cell phone rings. He doesn't recognize the number or the area code.

"Hello?"

"May I speak with Gerard Way, please?" inquires a voice Gerard could easily pick out of a lineup of Scottish accents based on all the webcomic podcasts he's heard.

"That's me," he says, trying to sound polite and professional and fully aware that he is in fact squeaking.

"Hello, Gerard. This is Grant Morrison. Do you have a few moments to chat?"

Barring life-threatening injury to his family, Gerard can't think of a single thing that could possibly prevent him from taking a few moments to chat with Grant Morrison. Except possibly abject terror. He tries to pull himself together. "Absolutely."

"Excellent. I'm looking at the art samples you sent in--impressive, and rather intriguing. Can you tell me more about this comic? Where it came from, why you chose it to represent your work?"

Fuck, he knew the doujinshi was a bad idea. He tries to focus on the 'impressive' part rather than the dubious 'intriguing.' "It's based on a game I play..." every waking minute of my life "...sometimes. In the game, the dracs are faceless--literally, they wear masks so they all look the same. I thought it would be interesting to examine the idea of their personhood by giving one of them a relationship. It's not a normal relationship, obviously, because they're enemies and they're trying to kill each other when they're not secretly meeting up, but that's why it felt appropriate to send to you. Your work is full of relationships that are complicated and messed up, and worldviews that mesh with the the Danger Days universe. It's bleak, and it could be depressing, but it's also about finding hope and not giving up, and seeing the beauty and complexity in the bleakness."

He stops before he forgets he's not talking to Mikey and starts comparing the Danger Days setting with other MMOs and sci-fi worlds. That might give away a little more about himself than is really necessary at this juncture.

"And this other piece, with the flesh-eating trees?" asks Grant.

Gerard talks about his artistic style and versatility, carefully dropping in a mention of his familiarity with Photoshop, since that's the sort of thing he would have put in the resume Grant didn't want. Grant listens and makes acknowledging noises and then thanks him for his time, and Gerard comes out of the conversation with absolutely no idea how it went. He's not all that socially sensitive at his best, and the pressure of making a good impression on one of his creative heroes does not bring out his best.

Also, he's pretty sure he didn't actually inhale any air at all during the entire phone call. That may not have helped his concentration.

Impressive, though. Grant Morrison called Gerard's art impressive. Even if he doesn't pick Gerard and they never interact again, this is still pretty much the best day of Gerard's life. He adds the number to his contacts list and sits there staring dreamily at it for way longer than he will ever admit to anyone.

***

The Killjoys are in the middle of wiping out a throng of dracs like the epic badasses they are when Gerard's mom hollers down the stairs, "GERARD! If you don't leave for the grocery store in the next fifteen minutes, I'm going myself, and I'm not buying any Mountain Dew!"

Mountain Dew may have betrayed Gerard's trust with its ruthless destruction of his property, but that doesn't mean he can live without it. "Let's hurry this up, Kid and I have to go soon," he says into his mic.

"Who says I'm coming with you?" asks Mikey.

"The delicious caffeinated beverages that are going to live in my room unless you do?"

It's an empty threat, since room-temperature Mountain Dew is gross. (Someday, some glorious day, Gerard will buy himself a mini-fridge to keep in his room, and then he will never again have to venture up the stairs and life will be perfect.) But Mikey's threat to stay home is empty too, and they both know it.

Somewhat to Gerard's surprise, Frank proceeds to orchestrate a series of explosions that neatly decimate the entire horde of dracs in only a few minutes. "Whoa," says Grace. "You been holding out on us, Ghoul?"

"Bombs are a little more valuable than ray gun blasts," Frank points out. "I try to let you guys feel useful sometimes. But we can't let Poison be late for his date with the Dew, huh?"

"Thanks," says Gerard. "Uh, talk to you guys later." He signs off and heads upstairs, squinting when he hits the brightness of the kitchen. Sunlight is evil. He can feel it destroying his retinas.

Mikey's waiting for him in the front hall. They're barely out the door when he says, "So, Frank?"

This is why Gerard tries to avoid meatspace as a general rule. He can't just pretend he's occupied by his browser and didn't see the message. "What about him?"

Mikey gives him a look.

"How do you always know?" grumbles Gerard. It should not have been as obvious as Mikey's eyebrow is implying it was. There has been no flirting whatsoever around the rest of the gang, as far as Gerard can tell. Frank just... sometimes blows up large numbers of dracs for him. That's all.

"What is there to know?" asks Mikey.

Gerard stuffs his hands in his pockets. "I'm not even really sure. He hit on me and I kind of awkwardly said I liked him too and that's it." He is not telling Mikey about the pseudo-phone-sex. "I can't even do this kind of thing in real life, I have no idea how I'm supposed to do it in between drac battles."

"Maybe you should talk to him outside the game," suggests Mikey, in the same kind of tone he uses to suggest going to bed when Gerard is complaining about being exhausted.

Gerard is not actually a total dumbass. He knows he should talk to Frank outside the game, in the same way that he knows he should go to bed when he's tired. If he's actually interested in Frank, he should get to know him better, maybe find out things like where he lives and what else he does besides gaming. That would be a good conversation to have, if he wants this to be anything beyond flirtation and long-distance mutual masturbation.

But in the game, they have a built-in topic of conversation, a reason to be there. A common purpose. If they talked on IM or on the phone or something, they wouldn't have that. Their common purpose would be testing each other out for compatibility, and Gerard always fails that kind of test by sabotaging himself with anxiety about whether he's going to fail it.

He doesn't say that, because Mikey wouldn't get it. Mikey might be quiet, but he's still an extrovert. He doesn't understand how talking to other people could drain someone's health bar rather than filling it up.

They tackle the grocery store with the skill and strategy of years of errand-running experience, splitting up to take the aisles two at a time and meeting at each endcap to transfer Mikey's items into Gerard's inventory. (Shopping cart. Whatever.) Gerard is so focused on speedy loot acquisition that he almost doesn't notice when he passes someone he recognizes in the soda aisle.

"Whoa!" he says three feet too late, spinning around and narrowly avoiding knocking over a bunch of bottles of tonic water with his cart. "Jimmy, hey!"

Jimmy is--or was--a member of Zoid's gang, and also a competitor in the Magic tournaments downtown. Gerard doesn't know him as well as he knows Zoid, but he's always seemed like a pretty okay dude.

"Hi, Gerard," he says, eyes flickering briefly toward him and then back to the shelves.

"I haven't seen you around in Danger Days in forever, where've you been? Did you quit playing?"

Jimmy stares very intently at the store's selection of Coca-Cola products. "Nope."

The terseness is odd for Jimmy. He's usually a lot more talkative than this. "I ran into Zoid the other day," Gerard tries. "Apparently she's driving the car bazaar these days."

"Is she? Haven't seen her in a while."

So their gang must have broken up. Clearly Jimmy doesn't want to talk about it. "Well, maybe I'll see you around," Gerard says.

"Maybe." Jimmy grabs a twelve-pack of cherry Coke and heads the other way. Gerard stares after him, confused.

Something lands in the cart with a loud rattle. "Slowpoke," says Mikey. "Hey, is that Jimmy?"

Gerard nods. "He was acting funny."

"Huh." Mikey yanks the cart out of Gerard's hands. "C'mon, let's go check out. There's a water main break happening soon, I want to get in on it before the city cuts off the pipeline."

Mikey has always been more interested in stockpiling resources than any of the other Killjoys. They've definitely been in better general health with him in the gang than they were before he joined. Gerard wonders how Alicia's gang is doing without him. Come to think of it, he hasn't seen them around lately either.

On the way home, arms full of groceries, Mikey tries to roundhouse kick a crossing button and almost falls on his ass. Gerard cracks up so hard he almost drops the bag with the eggs in it.

"Shut up," says Mikey. "At least I try to be as awesome in the real world as I am on the internet."

Gerard winces. That kind of hurts. "Okay," he says. "Point taken, asshole. I'll talk to him."

***

He intends to. He really does. Talking is going to happen, talking in a context that does not involve blowing up pixellated enemies. Gerard has a whole plan for the conversation that will lead to actual conversation, wherein he will obtain Frank's contact information in a smooth yet casual manner. There's a text file on his desktop with the exact words he's going to type (he'll retype them, obviously, because if he just copy-pasted them Frank might notice that the duration of the "PartyPoison is typing" message was unreasonably short). He might have made a little bit of a flowchart. He's got this.

All he needs to do is wait for him and Frank to be alone in text chat to initiate the pre-conversation conversation, because there is no way Gerard is doing this over voice chat. He cannot fake smooth yet casual out loud.

But before he has a chance to get Frank alone, everything goes to hell.

It happens while Gerard is down in the storage tank. He's been wandering through abandoned buildings scavenging for loot, and happened to find a couple of spare ray gun batteries in a long-empty bar off Route Saguaro. Gerard's got plenty of charge on his main gun and his spare, so he's putting them down in the communal pile in case someone else in the gang can use them when he's not around.

They don't have anything planned tonight, since Mikey's at a show and Ray has a date, so Gerard isn't expecting anyone else to be around, but it doesn't surprise him when Grace sends out a general greeting in text chat. They all tend to hang around the base even when they're not specifically meeting up.

turbosteam: hey, anybody around?
PartyPoison: Hi Steam
PartyPoison: I'm in the tank, be up in a minute
turbosteam: hey poison
turbosteam: i was thinking of stocking up on water and exploring outside the zones a bit, see what i can find
turbosteam: cant survive out there long, but if we leave our stuff here we can just rehydrate until we die
turbosteam: you in?
PartyPoison: Sure
turbosteam: cool
turbosteam: whoa there's a car coming straight at me
turbosteam: oh shit get on voice chat NOW

Gerard scrabbles for his headphones, trying to simultaneously turn on voice chat and climb the ladder out of the storage tank and failing thoroughly at both tasks. He finally gets the headphones on and logs into voice chat. "Steam? What's happening?"

"Get out here and help me right now, they're not shooting at me, they're grabbing me and there's this bald dude in a ruffly shirt I've never seen before and I can't do that karate shit to save my life, which really needs to be saved right now, why are you still in the tank?"

Gerard sticks his head out of the tank and immediately ducks back in, barely dodging the laser beams. "There's another car on this side of the Trans Am, there's like five dracs shooting at my head, I can't get out without getting killed. Did you say they're grabbing you?" He's never seen the dracs do anything like that before. The most they do up close is punching and kicking.

"Yes, they're grabbing me and they took away my gun and they're putting me in the car, what the hell--"

Grace's voice cuts off suddenly, and her username vanishes from the voice chat list. Gerard runs over to the pile of supplies to see if there are any bombs he can use to distract the dracs long enough to get out of the tank and figure out what the hell is going on. He's pretty sure all the bombs they have are in Frank's inventory at the moment, and sure enough, there's nothing in the heap he can use. He turns back to the ladder, hoping the dracs will try to climb down it to get at him. Assuming their vision is hampered like the PCs, it'll be easy to pick them off that way.

A white-clad foot is visible by the manhole, but they don't look like they're coming in. The drac is just standing there. Gerard only has a brief moment to wonder what they're doing before he sees a tiny orange light falling through the hole. It hits the bottom of the tank, and Gerard's screen fills with fire.

Everything goes dark, and the next thing he sees is the respawn point by the city.

It's going to take a while for him to get back out to Zone 5, and it's probably already too late for him to help Grace. He sets off anyway, using his free hand to get out his phone and text Mikey and Ray. Fuck, if he hadn't been such a chickenshit about Frank he might have his number too by now.

He's barely into Zone 2 when two white cars pass him. He shoots at them and they don't stop to engage him, which means it has to be them. The dracs always stop when they're shot at. He keeps trying, because Grace is in one of those cars, but they disappear into the distance. They must be taking her into the city.

Ray logs into voice chat and says, "Christa is going to fucking kill me. This had better be good."

"Not good," says Gerard. "It is not good at all. I don't know what's going on, but they blew up the storage tank and took Steam."

"What do you mean, they took her? They killed her?"

"No, dude, they put her in one of those white cars and drove away with her. I couldn't see, I was in the tank when they showed up, but she said there was a bald guy in ruffles or something."

"Whoa," says Ray. "I'm at base now. Everything's on fire. This is insane. Ruffles? I didn't think Danger Days even had mobs besides the dracs."

"Me either," says Gerard. "But we've never been inside the city. We knew there had to be something in there."

"I guess now we'll find out what. Right? We have to go after Steam."

"Yeah," says Gerard. "Yeah, of course."

***

"Ruffles?" says Mikey.

They're still on voice chat. There don't seem to be any more dracs coming after them for the moment, but no one has suggested moving to text chat. Shit is going down, and they don't know what it is, but they know they need to be prepared for whatever happens next.

"I dunno," says Gerard. "That's what she said. A bald dude wearing a ruffly shirt."

The convenience store part of the gas station is still on fire, but the storage tank seems to have burned out hard and fast. Gerard goes down to check it out. After his vision adjusts, he can see the sad little pile of soot where their supplies used to be. He pokes around in it without much hope and discovers the gas can, apparently intact.

"Guys," says Gerard. "I think we have gas." He adds it to his inventory, climbs back up the ladder, pops open the Trans Am's gas tank, and applies the can to it. The tank starts filling up. "Fuckin' A, who has the keys?"

"I've got 'em," says Mikey. "I should drive so you guys are free to shoot."

"No," says Gerard firmly. "I've played Mario Kart with you, you're the worst driver in the history of gaming. I'm driving." He nudges his avatar up against Mikey's until Mikey hands him the keys, then he hops in the driver's seat. Mikey claims the front seat, and Ray sits in the back.

"Hey guys," says Frank in Gerard's ear. "Holy shit, fire. What's going on?"

"Get in," says Gerard. "We'll explain on the way."

Mikey and Ray fill him in while Gerard drives. He doesn't pay them much attention--he's focusing on remembering what he can of the last time he tried to get into the city. The guards started firing on him from a couple hundred feet away, but he was on foot that time, and they saw him coming. He'll just have to gun it and hope Ray can manage them.

This would be so much easier if they had their goddamn sniper. Fuck. They should have gone for the city the second he got the gas can from Zoid. They already knew they worked well with Frank, they didn't need to practice that much, and then they'd have some idea of what they're doing right now. And they'd have someone with a prayer of hitting a moving target.

There isn't much time to think about it. The Trans Am eats up the distance to the city in under a minute, and before he knows it they're in the tunnel. The dracs' creepy black-and-white logo is everywhere, but Gerard doesn't look closely. They have a job to do.

It turns out the guards are easy to get past. They fire at the car as it bursts through the barrier, but their shots don't do anything at all. Apparently that level of security is just to keep players without vehicles out of the city. The shots fade out behind them, and Gerard keeps his gaze fixed on the end of the tunnel.

The city isn't small, but when they emerge, it's clear where they're supposed to go: there's a building complex just off to the left of the tunnel plastered with a three-story-tall neutral-face logo. Gerard takes the long driveway to the parking lot and stops the Trans Am next to a bridge leading to the complex.

"Let's fucking find her," he says and gets out of the car.

Halfway across the bridge, the dracs finally notice they're there. Gerard and Ray make short work of the ones at the door, and they rush the building before backup starts showing up.

It's less clear where to go from there, but they don't split up. There aren't as many dracs inside as Gerard expected, but he's not getting cocky. They stick together, only talking to decide where to turn. Mikey's the best at keeping track of where they've been, so after a while they let him guide their movements, and no one else says anything at all.

Finally, they find her in a surveillance room with glass walls. There's a drac sitting at the control panel on the wall and a woman next to Grace, smartly dressed in business casual clothes and holding something that looks incredibly menacing.

"Is that a fucking katana?" says Frank.

"Looks like it to me," says Ray.

The woman melts away into the shadows as they come in. Gerard fires a few times at the spot where she vanished, but she doesn't reappear. Meanwhile, Ray dispatches the drac and Grace races out of the room. The second she's through the door, her name comes up on voice chat and she's saying, "--hear me now? Can you hear me now?"

"Yeah, good to see you, Steam," says Gerard. "Do you know what's happening here?"

"No. They didn't tell me anything, just took everything I had and left me in there. Kid, gimme your gun."

"I have a spare bazooka," offers Frank.

"That works too," says Grace.

Frank hands it over. "Kid, do you remember how to get the hell out of here?

"Yeah," says Mikey. He leads them back through the maze of identical white hallways to the lobby where they came in. Gerard is already thinking about exit strategy from the city, hoping the Trans Am is still there, when the bald guy with the ruffles shows up.

They don't have a fucking chance. Gerard doesn't know what experience level this mob was designed for, but it is definitely higher than theirs. They fight as hard as they can, and he spots Ray and Grace booking it out the door, but then ruffles dude backs him up against a wall. Up close he looks a lot like King Mob, a character from The Invisibles.

Heh, thinks Gerard. King Mob. And then there's a gun under his chin, and his screen goes black.

A message pops up, along with a timer counting down from thirty seconds. The message says:

Welcome to Battery City.

Because we at Better Living Industries are committed to outreach and rehabilitation, we are offering you the opportunity to rebuild your life as a dedicated citizen. If you accept this offer, you will be permitted to retain your experience level and battle statistics as you redeem yourself by fighting back against the zonerunners. If you decline, you will return to the zones at level 0. You will not be extended a second chance.

Please make your choice.

There are two buttons underneath, one labeled BECOME A DRACULOID and the other REMAIN A ZONERUNNER.

What the fuck.

By the time Gerard has finished reading, the timer is down to twelve seconds. Voice chat is off, and there's no time to consult with the rest of his gang outside the game.

He doesn't need to. The reason he loves Danger Days so much is what it represents about the survival of free spirit and artistic integrity in a world of crushing conformity. Joining the other side would defeat the whole point. Gerard doesn't play games to beat them, he plays them for the experience.

It still kind of stings when he lands at the respawn point and sees LEVEL 0 in his stats.

No one else is around, which makes sense, since he was the first one to die. From the way things were looking in there, though, he doesn't expect to be waiting much longer. Sure enough, soon Mikey shows up, followed shortly by Ray.

"Oh, thank god, you guys stayed zonerunners," says Ray when he sees them. "I was worried I'd be out a gang. How crazy is this shit?"

"I'd've totally joined up with the bad guys," says Mikey. "Except Poison would have lectured me about artistic integrity and succumbing to conformity until the end of time."

Gerard is about to protest when he hears the sound of a motor approaching. He spins around. If it's a car full of dracs, they're about to have a ball getting killed over and over again until the dracs get bored, since they're still at the respawn point and none of them have any stats to speak of.

It's not the dracs. It's the car bazaar, driven by a blonde avatar Gerard recognizes as one of the regular drivers. In the passenger seat, still clutching Frank's bazooka, is Grace.

"Steam!" hollers Gerard, although she's not on voice chat. The van rolls to a stop, and a message from Grace shows up in text chat.

turbosteam: hey guys, this is chimp
djhotchimp: Hiya, nice to meet you.
turbosteam: she showed up in the city and saved me, so now i can give ghoul his bazooka back
turbosteam: whoa, why are you guys all level 0??
turbosteam: and where's ghoul? i def saw him die a while ago, he should be here

Gerard spins his viewpoint around, an awful feeling settling into his stomach. Frank is nowhere to be seen.

***

Chimp is level 73, which intimidates Gerard to the point of not actually being able to speak words to her. She could have squished him like a bug even before he lost all his experience. He's desperately curious about why she drives the car bazaar with those stats, and also how the heck she got those stats if she doesn't do anything except drive the car bazaar, but... words. He cannot speak them.

Mikey, apparently, can speak them just fine. "Hey, Chimp," he says when they get her logged into their voice chatroom, since there could be dracs showing up any minute. "Still don't trust me behind the wheel?"

"Hey there, Kid," she says warmly. Her accent makes her even more intimidating, since it reminds Gerard of Grant Morrison. "Sorry about that. We don't let people drive the bazaar until they've been in the city and made the choice to stay on our side."

"Well, you're too late now," says Mikey. "I've got a gang now. I've got responsibilities. You missed your shot at me."

"I'm crying inside," she says dryly.

They're inside the van, all packed in the back with the piles of weapons and Power Pup. Chimp made them promise not to take any of it before she let them get in. Gerard has no idea where she's taking them. He can't really find it in himself to care at the moment, because Frank is a drac now and that sucks too much ass to give a shit about anything else.

"So what the hell was that?" says Ray.

"A test." Chimp pulls the van to a stop, and the screen stops bouncing around. "There's an algorithm that determines when it happens based on the size of your gang and how much experience you each have. They kidnap your highest-level player to lure you in and wipe everybody out."

A realization suddenly hits Gerard, knocking the speechlessness out of him. "If Zoid is a driver, that means it must have happened to her," he says. "She knew about it and she didn't tell me."

"Are you planning on telling anyone?" Chimp asks.

He thinks for a moment. In retrospect, the last hour or so has been some of the most thrilling gaming of his life, and it wouldn't have been nearly as fun if he'd had advance warning. He hates it when people spoil him for books or movies; this isn't really any different.

"Huh," he says. "I guess not."

"Why did you save Steam in the city?" Ray asks Chimp.

She's quiet for a moment, then she says, "I see a lot in this game. People don't realize how much I see. And I've seen enough of this girl that I already know she's a zonerunner. She doesn't need the test."

Grace, being Grace, doesn't acknowledge the compliment. She probably doesn't even notice it. "But what about Ghoul?" she demands. "We have to go back and get him! You guys came after me, we can't leave him in there!"

There's a pause while everyone waits for someone else to answer that. In the end, it's Chimp who says, "They came for you because you were kidnapped. If your friend chose to become a drac, there's nothing you can do about it."

"We'll find him," Grace says. "We'll talk to him. Change his mind. He can make a new zonerunner character. He's our bomber, he's ours."

The van is silent. Gerard wants to say something, but he can't think of anything that isn't yes, that exactly, find him, change his mind, ours.

***

It's not that Gerard doesn't get the appeal of joining the dark side. He understands that from the perspective of exploring the game, it makes sense. Frank told him he liked checking stuff out, looking for hidden surprises. Approaching Danger Days from the dracs' side must be pretty different from being a Killjoy; it's reasonable to want to see what that's like.

But... well, even aside from the principles behind his choice to stay a zonerunner, Gerard would still have done it to stick with his gang. Danger Days might not be much of a social life, but it's basically all he has. He wouldn't give that up for the sake of curiosity about the city.

And, okay, so he and Frank aren't exactly BFFs. They just met. But they were getting to know each other, and Gerard thought Frank liked him, and now they'll never talk to each other again, and it's all terribly distressing.

He's about to go watch some shitty shoujo anime to cheer himself up when there's a knock at his bedroom door. "Yeah?" he calls, and shoots Mikey a puzzled look when he comes in. "Since when did you learn to knock?"

"Since you started this pining marathon," says Mikey. "Didn't want to walk in on you jerking off with your own tears or whatever."

"I wasn't--" Gerard starts.

"Uh-huh," Mikey cuts him off. "I just talked to Frank. He says he didn't become a drac, he just quit the game."

Gerard stares. "What... how did you talk to him if he's not in the game?"

"Texted him," says Mikey, like it's totally normal for him to have the phone number of someone he's been playing an online game with for a week.

Gerard doesn't even know how to react to that. No, wait, he's got it: utter indignation. "You had his number that whole time you were telling me to toughen up and ask him for it?" he says incredulously.

"What would you have done with it if I'd given it to you?" asks Mikey. "You'd've stared at it for hours trying to get up the nerve to use it, then you'd decide it was too creepy since he didn't give it to you himself, then you'd go back to trying to psych yourself up to ask for it. No point, dude. Anyway, he said to give it to you, so you can stop freaking out now." Mikey picks up Gerard's phone from his desk and pokes at it for a minute, then hands it to Gerard. "Here, it's ringing."

"Whatwhat?" screeches Gerard. "This is your idea of getting me to stop freaking out? You are a terrible, horrible, awful, cruel--"

"Hello?" says Frank. Mikey disappears out the door like the Cheshire cat, his smug grin lingering behind him.

Gerard curses Mikey's receding figure with his eyes. "Hi, Frank? It's Gerard. Uh, Poison?"

"I know your name, you goof. How's it going?"

"Fine." Gerard bites his lip. He is not actually fine. "Mikey said you quit playing."

"Yeah, I'm sorry. That thing in the city was bullshit. I really don't want to have to build up my stats from scratch again, and I'm not gonna be a fucking drac. Anyway, the game was eating up a ton of time. It's hard to stop once you start, you know?"

Gerard knows. Not that he's ever seriously tried to stop. He knows in the same way that he knows it would be difficult to give up breathing. It's not fair to expect Frank to be as much of a basement-dwelling computer addict as he is, but fuck fair. They had a good thing here, gaming at all hours of the day and night. There's no reason for Frank to go and decide he wants to have a life.

So Frank is just going to be gone, then. He supposes it's better than fighting against him, although it still sucks.

"I want to keep in touch with you guys, though," says Frank. "Especially you. Maybe we could hang out in person sometime soon?"

Holy shit, what? Frank doesn't even know where Gerard lives, and he's just casually suggesting one of them hop on a plane? Gerard panics and blurts out, "NO!"

There's a long pause while he tries to figure out how to rephrase that to make it sound less like... that. Before he can say anything else, though, Frank says, "Wow. Okay. Bye then."

"Wait," says Gerard, but the line is already dead.

Shit.

***

Mikey actually literally headdesks when he hears about the conversation. Gerard didn't know people did that for real. He tries to defend himself--it's not actually ridiculous to be wary of jetting who knows how far to meet up with a brand-new gamer buddy, okay--but Mikey just pounds his forehead against the desk repeatedly and makes noises like a wounded moose until Gerard leaves him alone.

Whatever. It's not like he could do anything to help, anyway. Frank is a deserter and an entirely-too-fast-moving breaker of hearts, and Gerard has no idea how to communicate like a fully grown primate, and there's nothing anyone can do about any of it.

Gerard spends the next two days miserably rebuilding his stats in Danger Days and glancing disconsolately at his cell phone. He wants to call Frank, but realistically he knows there's no way in hell that's happening. The disconsolate glances mostly stem from the feeble hope that Frank might call him and make everything all better.

When the phone finally does ring, it's a testament to how fucked-up Gerard's priorities have become that he's actually, for a split second, disappointed to see Grant Morrison on his caller ID.

Obviously, that doesn't last. He jabs at the button to answer, sternly reminding himself to breathe this time. "Hello?"

"Hello, Gerard, it's Grant. How are you doing?"

"I'm all right, and you?" He's almost positive he sounds like something resembling a functional adult.

"Doing well, thank you. I wonder if you could tell me whether your opinion of the Danger Days game has changed at all recently?"

That... makes no sense. Even if Grant plays the game himself, there's no way he could possibly know when Gerard went into the city. Unless he plays a character who knows who Gerard is, somehow. Or...

"Holy fucking shit," says Gerard. "It was King Mob. You did this to me."

Grant bursts out into a gleeful giggle that immediately puts to rest Gerard's concerns about not sounding professional enough. "I did," he confirms. "Well, I didn't program it. But the idea was mine, and Korse is my character. The fellow who looks like King Mob, as you so astutely observed."

It's a good thing this isn't an in-person interview, because the way Gerard's jaw is hanging slack can't possibly be attractive.

"I genuinely meant the question, though," says Grant. "Has your opinion changed?"

Gerard tries to tear his brain away from the distraction of major segments of his universe slotting together long enough to formulate a coherent thought. He manages to come up with, "Yes, of course it's changed. Knowing that I'm fighting real people makes a huge difference to the entire narrative of the game. It's fantastic, how it set up one reality in my head and then blew me away with the truth. It made me think of that one psychological experiment where they told people to shock other people."

"Milgram, yes, very relevant." Grant sounds delighted, which is probably a good sign. "We're starting work on an expansion now, making more of the city accessible. I need a concept artist to design it. Might you be interested?"

So submitting the doujinshi was the right call, then.

***

Gerard stumbles upstairs after he hangs up in a bit of a daze, vaguely intending to look for Mikey. His mom is in the kitchen gulping orange juice from the carton, which none of them are supposed to do.

"I got a job," says Gerard. "Art stuff for a video game."

She caps the carton and sticks it back in the fridge. "Hallelujah. Now you can buy your own makeup instead of stealing mine."

Gerard blinks. How can she possibly know about that? He's sure he put everything back exactly where it was.

She quirks an eyebrow at him.

"So," he says hesitantly, "um, have you figured out that I'm gay?"

"Sure as shit have, honey."

He nods faintly and heads up the stairs to find Mikey.

***

Now that Gerard knows he's about to have an income, the first order of business is a new keyboard. He needs it so badly at this point that he intends to actually leave the house and purchase it in a brick-and-mortar store instead of waiting days for it to show up in the mail.

"You should go to the Best Buy in Woodland Park," Mikey tells him.

Gerard wrinkles his nose. "Isn't there anyplace closer that sells them?" He starts to pull up Google Maps.

"Gerard," says Mikey. "Go to the Best Buy in Woodland Park, okay? Just do it."

Jeez. If it means that much to him.

Gerard borrows his mom's car and heads out right away. There could be traffic, and he's supposed to meet his gang tonight. The Best Buy is definitely further away than other potential keyboard retailers, which he's a little resentful about, but he's too excited about having a working spacebar to be all that upset.

He quickly finds a keyboard that looks suitable and heads to the checkout, but gets mildly sidetracked by the video game section of the store on the way. Their selection of Zelda-related products is a little bit mind-boggling. He's debating the wisdom of spending the last twenty dollars in his bank account on a new game--he's going to get money soon, right, it'll be fine--when he glances up and sees a face he recognizes.

It takes him a moment to place the guy. Gerard met him at a party a few months ago. Not that Gerard is the sort of person who attends parties; it was Mikey's party, really, and Gerard was just there to pick him up at the end of the night. But then he discovered some people watching zombie movies in the basement, and he'd ended up staying a while. This dude was one of the people he met there, the one who was really super-ultra-wrong about Romero. Gerard had a lot of fun arguing with him.

He's wearing a blue polo and a nametag and talking animatedly to an old woman. Gerard waits until he's finished with the customer and approaches him tentatively. "Hey," he says. "You were at Jason's thing, right? Sorry, I don't remember your name."

The guy takes one look at him and freezes. After a long moment, he clears his throat and says, "It's, uh. Frank."

Gerard knows that voice.

His heart is speeding up again, but he's too confused to be excited. "I don't get it," he says.

Frank grimaces. "Yeah, we should talk. I'm almost off work." He checks his phone. "Can you hang around for another twenty minutes?"

"I have to be online at eight," says Gerard. It's late enough that he'd need to leave in twenty minutes to get home on time, and however this conversation is going to go, he can't see it happening quickly. "But you could, um. Come over? I guess... obviously you must know Mikey."

"Yeah, okay," says Frank, looking relieved. Probably that Gerard isn't punching him or something. Which he might be more inclined to do if he had any idea what was going on.

***

"Mikey said I was a closet case?"

"No!" says Frank hurriedly. "I asked whether I had a chance, and he said not if I was blatant, because you weren't talking about it yet so you'd probably freak."

"He totally called me a closet case. Dick." Gerard pushes open the front door with slightly more force than necessary. "It wasn't a secret or anything. But if he thought it was, he shouldn't have been telling people."

Mikey pokes his head around the corner at the top of the stairs. "'Sup, Frank," he says, looking supremely unsurprised to see them both.

Gerard waves a finger at him. "We are having a discussion later," he says threateningly as he leads Frank down the stairs.

"C'mon, don't be mad at him," says Frank. "He was trying to help you out. Be mad at me, I'm the one who was all sneaky and creepy."

"Sneaky and creepy how, exactly?" Gerard realizes right as he's opening his bedroom door that the place is a complete pigsty, but by then it's too late.

Frank follows him in. He doesn't seem to notice the mess. "Mikey said the best way to get to know you was to game with you. I think he was kidding, but I asked what games you played, and he told me about Danger Days. I was going to just walk up to you in the game and say hi, but. You know. It's a really awesome game. I got involved."

Gerard can't help grinning at that. "You mean you got distracted by explosions."

Frank looks down sheepishly.

Gerard sits down at his computer and plugs in his shiny new keyboard. He logs into the game, Frank peering over his shoulder. "You and Mikey play from different parts of the same house?" Frank asks. "Really?"

Gerard shrugs. "There'd be weird echoing on VoIP if we were in the same room." He starts running along Route Petrichor, heading toward the gas station. It's not much good to them all burned down, but they haven't decided on a new base yet, so they're still meeting up there. "So you spent all your game time blowing shit up for, what, three months?"

"Well, yeah. I figured if the game was that important to you, you'd probably take me more seriously if my stats were decent, so I waited a while longer."

"Wait," says Gerard. "You worked up those epic bombing skills for me?"

Frank fidgets. "Yes? I mean, really it was mostly just an excuse to blow up more--"

Gerard cuts him off with his mouth.

"Mmph," says Frank, then more urgently, "MMPH!" Gerard pulls back, worried--there's no way he's read this wrong, he may not be the most socially adept of dudes but that right there was definitely a declaration of interest--and Frank says, "Drac! Behind you!"

Gerard whirls back to his computer screen just in time to dodge a laser blast and start breaking in his new space bar through violent hammering. It's not just one drac, because it never is. "Go tell Mikey to come help me," Gerard grits out, trying to focus on not dying. He has three batteries in his inventory and almost enough XP to level up; he really doesn't want to get ghosted and lose all that.

Frank trots upstairs, and a minute later Mikey arrives at the scene in the game. He must have been close by already. He's not much help himself, since there's no way to get close enough to the dracs to do any hand-to-hand damage, but Frank comes back and says, "He's on voice chat with Steam and Jet, they're on their way."

"Fabulous," says Gerard, and devotes his energy to hiding instead of trying to kill the dracs himself.

Soon Grace shows up and starts dispatching dracs hilariously quickly. They must be surprised that such a high-level player is in a gang with a bunch of level 4 and 5 characters, because they aren't at all prepared for her. Gerard breathes a sigh of relief and starts turning to Frank, hoping to get back to the kissing.

"Hey, pay attention," says Frank.

"Steam's got it." Frank's lips are really remarkably hot.

"You can't just ditch your gang in the middle of a skirmish, dude, what the hell." Frank prods the side of Gerard's nose until he's looking back at the screen.

On it, Grace has already wiped out the dracs and is checking out the car for lootable goods. "See?" says Gerard.

"Uh-huh," says Frank. "Okay. Now you can ditch your gang."

Gerard types "bio break, bbl" into text chat and logs off. He can hear Mikey hooting with laughter all the way up on the second floor. He ignores it, standing up and facing Frank, waiting to find out what comes next.

Gerard is not a virgin. A few people, all acquaintances of Mikey's, have mistaken his cave-dwelling hermitude for intentional mysteriousness and accidentally ended up in bed with him. They all cooed over his art and talked about souls a lot, and none of them seemed all too sure about their continued interest after they saw his Star Wars action figures.

No one has ever looked at him the way Frank is looking at him, like Gerard is a prize he just won, like he honestly has no desire to be anywhere else right now.

He takes Gerard's hand and walks backward to the bed, stretching out on it and pulling Gerard down on top of him. Gerard braces his elbows on either side of Frank's head and leans down to kiss him again. Frank's hands settle on his sides, stroking him gently, rubbing across his back. It feels amazing, just to be held. Gerard doesn't get to touch other people very much.

After they've been making out for a few minutes, Gerard touches his forehead to Frank's and whispers, "I don't have a lot of experience. I mean, I've done this, but I don't know how to do it right."

Frank nudges their noses together. "You know how you game for the experience of it, not the reward at the end of the quest? But, like, you still want the reward? That's how you have good sex. As long as you make sure everyone in your gang is having fun the whole time, and don't lose sight of that for the orgasms, you're doing it right."

That sounds a lot more reasonable than anything else Gerard has tried in bed. He kisses Frank's neck, open-mouthed, licking at his skin. Frank makes a soft sound and turns his head to give better access.

Gerard props himself up on his elbows and looks down at Frank's face. He can't fucking believe he gets to have this. "What do you want? Tell me what to do."

Frank grins up at him. "That's right, you liked it when I did that, didn't you?"

Gerard buries his face in Frank's shoulder, but he doesn't deny it. The memory of Frank saying just hold it, don't rub until I say has popped up in his mind pretty much every time he's jerked off since.

Frank squeezes his waist. "You're making out with a super-hot guy," he says in a mock-serious tone. "You are lying on a bed together, and you are both fully dressed. You can choose to continue making out or take off your shirt."

Gerard cracks up helplessly. "You're fucking adorable," he gets out between snorts of laughter, and tugs on his shirt.

Frank helps him get it off. "You are now shirtless," he informs Gerard. "You can go for the super-hot guy's shirt, or you can kiss him again."

Gerard kisses him, because nudity is great, but it can wait until he's fully expressed his appreciation for the gloriously epic nerdiness going on in his bed. He didn't realize it was possible for his Batman sheets to be out-nerded, but Frank apparently has some massive talent for dorkery.

Frank mumbles against his lips, "The super-hot guy is getting seriously into this. You can tell 'cause of the boner." He presses his hips up against Gerard's in demonstration.

Gerard's dick is definitely on board with the situation, too. He rubs it against Frank's, gasping when Frank sucks Gerard's lip into his mouth and nips at it. Frank is way better at kissing than anybody else Gerard's done this with.

He gets his hand on Frank's cock, stroking him through his jeans, and Frank says, "Fucking Christ, take off your pants. Do you have lube?"

That's never gone particularly well for Gerard either. The trepidation must show in his expression, because Frank says, "Hey, relax. I'm not gonna bang you up the ass our first time. Or ever, if you're not into that."

The implication that there will be more times makes Gerard break out into a grin as he roots around in the pile of random crap next to his bed, finally coming up with a bottle of hand lotion. He's about to ask if it'll work for whatever Frank has in mind when he realizes Frank is naked and kicking his underwear off his feet like some kind of Olympic speed-stripper.

Gerard reaches out to touch his bare skin. It's smooth and pale, unmarred by calluses, the skin of a gamer. He trails his fingers across Frank's stomach, and Frank smacks his hand away. "That tickles," he complains. "Didn't I tell you to take your pants off?"

Gerard complies at a slightly less impressive speed. It's kind of chilly in the room--there's a reason he wears hoodies all the time, he's not just being antisocial. He pulls his blankets up over them, hoping all those metaphors about the heat of passion have some basis in thermodynamic reality.

Frank grabs the hem of the blanket and yanks it up over Gerard's head. "It is pitch black," he intones. "You are likely to be eaten by a grue."

Gerard collapses in giggles again, and Frank ducks under the blankets to kiss him. Gerard squeezes him tightly. This asshole had better stick around, because Gerard is never going to find anyone more perfect for him in his entire life.

He doesn't say that out loud, because it would be creepy, and there has already been enough creepiness in this relationship. Instead, he rolls off Frank just enough to make room to slide his hand in between them and wrap it around Frank's cock. Frank's head rolls to the side and he says, "Suck me, fuck, please?"

Gerard wriggles down to obey. He wants to tell Frank not to say please, that he likes being told rather than asked, but he doesn't feel quite smooth enough to come out with that right now, with Frank's cock hard and waiting three inches away from his face. There'll be time for that conversation later.

He opens his mouth and takes Frank in. "Fuck yes," Frank says. "Someday I want to blow you at the same time. Yeah?"

Jesus, that's hot. Gerard mm-hmms his approval, and apparently that thing about humming during blowjobs is true, because Frank makes a seriously wanton noise and clutches at Gerard's hair. Encouraged, Gerard tries his hand at deep-throating. It doesn't really fit down all that far, but Frank doesn't seem to have any complaints, if the way he comes in two minutes is any indication.

"Sorry about the hair-trigger," he mumbles as Gerard crawls back up to kiss him again. "I've been thinking about that for a while."

Gerard shrugs. He doesn't get the whole thing about how people aren't supposed to come fast. The only reason he can think of is keeping your dick hard so you can keep fucking, and they're not doing that. And even then, there are other things to do besides penetration. Nobody should feel like they have to apologize for orgasms. Unless the afterglow makes them not want to get the other person off or something, and that's not happening here.

Frank's already sucking on Gerard's neck, feeling around under the blankets for his dick. His mouth moves down to Gerard's nipples right as his fingers find what they're searching for, and Gerard makes a noise so loud he's glad they're in the basement.

"You like having your nipples played with, huh?" says Frank. He's talking around Gerard's nipple, wet tongue flicking his skin on the Ls and lips closing around it on the Ps in a way that drives Gerard up the fucking wall. He moans incoherent assent, bracing his foot on the mattress and pushing up into Frank's grip. Frank gives the nipple a parting peck, which would be unbearably cute if Gerard's brain were working at all, and tugs the lotion out from under Gerard's shoulder blade.

Gerard starts to ask what he's going to do with it, but then bites his lip. If Frank isn't going to bang him up the ass, as he put it, then there's nothing to worry about. Frank seems to have a decent grasp of how this stuff works. Maybe Gerard should just trust him and wait to see.

Frank rolls onto his back, squeezing lotion onto his hand, and rubs it between his thighs. "C'mere," he says, pulling Gerard on top of him. Gerard's dick slides in between Frank's slippery legs, and Frank squeezes them together around it.

"Whoa," says Gerard, humping experimentally. The slick pressure of Frank's thighs feels a lot better than he expected.

"Pretty neat, huh?" says Frank, like he's showing Gerard his trading card collection or something. His fingers wander back to Gerard's nipples, and Gerard loses track of time. His next coherent thought is that he probably should have jizzed somewhere else, because now he's going to have to do laundry.

Frank nuzzles into Gerard's neck and commences cuddling with a determination that makes it very clear neither of them is going anywhere anytime soon. Gerard is just fine with that. He pulls the blankets up to their shoulders and closes his eyes.

After a moment, Frank says, "You know those sex dice that have, like, body parts on one and actions on the other? We should make some out of d10s and play with them."

"I thought you said you'd never joke about sex with me," murmurs Gerard.

"I am not joking one tiny little bit, dude, I would legitimately do that."

"Are there even ten actions that would be actually sexy?" asks Gerard.

Frank begins earnestly listing verbs. Gerard smiles and snuggles closer.

***

Frank refuses to come back to Danger Days, claiming that he has Gerard to take up his spare time now. This is obviously ridiculous, since any time he would spend in the game is time Gerard would be playing too anyway, but if Frank wants to hang out in Gerard's bed in various stages of undress reading all the comic books strewn around the room, Gerard feels that he has no place objecting.

He's actually spending less time in the game since Frank started hanging out in his bed, which he suspects may have been the point. It'll probably be even less after next Wednesday, when Grant is going to call to talk about the concept art Gerard will be doing. For now, though, Gerard is still working on leveling up as much as possible, which means a lot of fighting dracs.

"Behind you, Poison," says Ray, and Gerard spins around to deal with the errant drac. It's gotten close enough that he can't shoot it, which sucks, because he doesn't have anything like Mikey's hand-to-hand skills. The drac forces him around behind a rock, separating him from the rest of his gang, and that's not good.

"Kid, little help here would be awesome," he says, working on fending off punches. He's low enough on health that this guy is going to take him out in another minute. Or girl, he thinks. It's so strange, knowing that there's someone controlling the drac, that it's a character just like his.

"Dude, where'd you go?" says Mikey.

"Behind the rock."

Gerard can hear the eyeroll in Mikey's voice when he says, "We are surrounded by rocks. Which rock?"

The drac gets in a series of kicks, and Gerard's health drops to critical. "Fuck, the, the biggest one, over by where I was thirty seconds ago. I'm gonna die in a second here."

"Sorry, I'm all the way on the other side of this. If you're on the edge, I'm not gonna get there in time."

It's not that big a deal, there's nothing important in Gerard's inventory, but they're all the way out in Zone 5, so he won't get back in time to help them finish out the fight. He sighs and throws another punch.

Right when he thinks he's about to go down, the drac steps back far enough to be in shooting range and just stops. Gerard pulls out his gun, but something keeps him from firing. He just looks at the drac, and it looks back at him, insofar as looking at things is possible in the game. They stay like that for a long moment before Mikey comes around the rock and finishes off the drac with a few solid uppercuts.

"Here, eat this," Mikey says, handing Gerard a can of Power Pup. "Should keep you alive for the moment. We're almost done out there. Steam, you've got a first aid kit Poison can use, right?"

"If he asks for it really nicely," says Grace.

They've taken down the rest of the dracs by the time Gerard steps back into the area where they were fighting. They drop back into text chat, and he pulls off his headphones. "That was funny," he says.

"What was funny?" asks Frank, who's hanging upside-down off the edge of the bed with his shirt off.

Gerard shakes his head. "Nothing. Some drac was acting weird." He turns his attention to the chat on his screen.

turbosteam: hey kid i just thought of something
turbosteam: you know that drac you said was out to get you
turbosteam: when's the last time you saw your ex-girlfriend in the game
the_kobra_kid: ........
the_kobra_kid has signed off

Gerard grins and signs off too, after a more polite farewell to the gang. Mikey is probably texting either Alicia or someone else in his former gang right now, and Gerard figures he's got about ten minutes before he comes pounding down the stairs to tell them all about it. But Mikey has learned the wisdom of knocking when Frank is around, and ten minutes is plenty long enough to investigate the merits of that upside-down-off-the-bed position Frank is in.

Gerard automatically hits the button to refresh his e-mail as he's getting up, and a message pops up that makes him sit back down slowly. It's from Jimmy, and it's short.

We don't have chat on this side. It sucks. I shoulda stayed a zonerunner.

***

"I'm gonna drive the car bazaar when we're not fighting," says Mikey. "I talked to Chimp about it and she says I can." He's sprawled on Gerard's bed next to Frank. They've been sitting there sharing comic books all afternoon, occasionally arguing about when to turn the page.

Gerard turns away from the computer, where he's looking over the designs Grant already had worked up for the Danger Days expansion. It's very top-secret. He has his screen turned so Mikey and Frank can't see.

"Did you know she's Grant's wife?" he asks. "She's been playing since forever, even before beta-testing. That's how she's so high-level."

"Uh-huh," says Mikey, unimpressed. "Anyway, there's somebody else doing the bazaar now who sounds like he wants to stop soon, she said. Apparently there's a plan in the works for some kind of voice chat radio station."

"I heard about that," says Gerard. "Grant told me."

Mikey wrinkles his nose. "You hear everything from Grant. He's spying on us."

The rest of the Killjoys weren't quite as shellshocked by the revelation of Grant's involvement in the game as Gerard was. Grace even said, "Who?" which led Gerard into a passionate half-hour lecture involving a lot of links. Mikey, who was obviously familiar with Grant's work through sheer osmosis from living with Gerard, was interested at first but quickly got sick of hearing about it all the time.

"It's a pretty cool idea," says Gerard. "They're gonna use it to create a game-wide system for spreading information about the dracs' behavior. It might tip the whole game in favor of the zonerunners if they do it right. Grant's got his eye on it just in case, but he won't do anything about it unless it screws up the balance too bad."

"You mean in case we win," says Frank, who still considers himself an honorary Killjoy based on his backseat driving over Gerard's shoulder during skirmishes.

Gerard shrugs. "Then there wouldn't be a game. Anyway, it sounds cool. Grant asked if I wanted to get involved in it as an undercover GM to keep tabs on it."

"He what?" demands Frank, outraged. "What did you say?"

"Are you kidding?" Gerard waves at his computer screen. "That stuff, the concept art, that's what I'm doing for him. He doesn't get to make me his in-game lackey. I'm totally gonna help out with the radio station thing, but I'm not doing it for him. I'm a fucking Killjoy."

Mikey turns a page of the comic. Frank doesn't even seem to notice. He's smiling at Gerard, the same smile that was on his face after Gerard got Jimmy's e-mail and flopped all over him to wax poetic about Danger Days and freedom of expression and the power of emotional investment in a narrative. Mikey always starts drifting when Gerard talks about that stuff, but Frank doesn't seem to mind at all.

"Goddamn right," he says fondly. "You're a fucking Killjoy."