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Chapter 1

On.

No.

It...it...twitch.

Foot. Ner...ves. Con...click...connected click to brain. Wave.

System re...set. Leg: leg.

Foot + Leg =

Error.

Some...thing was. Malfun...click...ction. Wrong. Error. Malfunction in cerebral cortex. Synapses not...firing. Missed...synapses. Click. Fire.

Burn...click...wrong. Error.

Lights flashed red behind its...its...(his?)...eyes.

Error.

Danger.

Error.

Breath. Breathe. His...its...click...his...chest expanded, filling, straining, ab...click-domen in need of air. Air. Breathing. Motions steady, in-now-out-now-in, ribs surround...lungs.

Eyes opened. Skin taught, face...face...grimace. Mouth. Moving. Pulling. Face.

Hands reached. Dirt...click...under nails. Hands + fingers + fingernails =

Error. Skin white in front of eyes, arms...arms...hands + arms + fingers + fingernails + white skin =

Error. Click. Skin white.

No.

Black. Col...white. Black. Lines. Not white. Skin...click...not...skin. On. Skin.

Ink. Col...click...colour. Spread across its...his...knuckles. Fingers + ink + hands.

Chest burned with breath, lungs kicked into action, into pain.

A flash of light into his heart.

Beating.

Pounding.

Pain. Fully alive.

Alive. Click. Alive.

He squinted, eyes moving at the edges, skin pulling, vision narrowing. Endless brown below...eyes. Hand rest...ing. Knuckles painted. Mouth moving, his tongue did aerobics around...around...a word.

Click...click...click...H.

Letter.

Language.

He tried his mouth. Pushed air out of lungs, past throat. Fingers + ink.

“Halloween.”

He blinked. Click. Birthday. Click. Human. He was human. Alive. Click. Born on October 31, an ancient tradition. That was good. Somewhere to start. To push off. Ancient, unused tradition. Everything was different now. What was everything? What...

Next?

The web (literal) between thumb and index finger. “Hopeless.” His voice was dry, dusty in his mouth. Dirt. Sand. In his mouth. Below his mouth. Resting on sand. Face down. Click.

He pushed himself up after click working out his limbs. Which way they bent. How they moved. Hopeless.

Click. Sand. Desert. He was in a desert.

His mouth had been on the ground, his nose barely turned away from suffocation. His hand around.

Click. Green.

Plastic.

His?

“Gun,” he said. Click. It felt right.

His gun. His gun. Sticker, green, right. His chest burned again, but the gun wasn’t his only companion.

He checked his hands again.

“Romantic.” Ties to people. Romance? There were other people around him, unmoving. He felt drawn to the one with a yellow mask, but that wasn’t right. Not yet. Yellow yes...yellow...helmet. First. Necessary.

“Medic.” His chest burned.

Yellow Helmet. In front of him. Beside a. Gun.

Yellow Helmet had a gun too.

Red.

He blinked. Red. Glanced down at his chest. Red.

Hands moved, putting his gun into its...her?...holster.

So it was his, then. What else did he have?

No. No time for an inventory right now. First he had to get Helmet. Did Helmet have a name?

Fallen, the figure was on the floor, on its back. Visor of his helmet open. He reached out to touch a shoulder. This one was human too. Male. Friend?

“Hello?”

The figure - man - didn’t move.

His chest was frozen.

He frowned, reached to scratch an itch at the back of his neck, and.

His body contracted in on itself involuntarily. Shivers raced down his spine, muscles shuddering around the bone. He was cold in the heat of the sky. The heat of the sun. Unfeeling. One of his elbows accidentally nudged Yellow Helmet’s side and he tucked it instinctively to his chest, stifling a shuddering groan as it tried to escape. His hands curled around his neck, and his body tucked itself around his heart. Protecting.

White flashed upon his eyes: walls, ceiling, teeth.

Shrill laughter.

Syllables from another language.

Broken.

Broken. Arm. Elbow. Nose.

Broken. Soul. Broken.

Frank.

Click.

Frank. What are we going to do with you, Frank?

He’d been here before. Uncurled himself already, removed his hands from the back of his neck a different time. It had been wet then, a fresh wound. He’d fixed himself before. Frank. The floor had been white then, not sandy brown. Frank. His name.

My name is Frank.

He tried it on. “I’m Frank,” he gasped.

It fit. Felt...right.

His eyebrow twitched as a white hand reached down to adjust the sit of his shirt on his thin shoulders (white, borrowed, not mine). You weren’t supposed to do that, Frank. Now you’re a liability. They told me to put you down because you didn’t work. Now look at what you’ve done.

His eyes burned with unshed tears (he was in the desert, not white rooms, the desert) and his chest burned with something else, but he pushed it aside. He (Frank) knew these people. He had to. But they weren’t moving.

He took a deep breath, the pain of life pounding out his chest in violent red.

He needed a medic. A medic...a red gun caught his eye and he looked over. It had a snake on its hilt. A snake? Desert...rattlesnake. No. Viper? No. Cor...cob...Cobra. No.

“Kobra.”

Yes.

“Kobra Kid,” Frank said again, as the name fit itself into his mind. Frank. He moved closer, as much as he could with his chest the way it was. Another red chest, matching his own, except. This one wasn’t moving.

Fine.

His hands folded themselves over Kobra’s sternum, remembering. The position he was in was uncomfortable on the side. He straddled Kobra’s torso, sitting on his stomach. From his vantage point, he could see the way the man’s helmet had fallen to the side. The two other figures were just beyond his reach, unmoving like Kobra but close to one another. Like they knew each other: each was facing a different direction in their fallen positions. Different sides to the same square.

Frank ignored the way that Yellow Mask’s red hair made his foot twitch, and focused on Kobra. The flesh below his hands was still and cold, but not...not... “You’re still in there,” Frank said. He adjusted Kobra’s helmet so he could see his face, and took a deep, burning breath.

He pressed down with the heel of his palms, careful to press above the slick spot of red. Nothing. He released the pressure and worked hands down again, trying to keep a steady enough rhythm. Something moved beneath his palms. He pressed down. “Come on,” he said, to hear a voice. Himself. Speak. He wasn’t alone out here. Kobra was still there, still in there. The red. Blood. On his chest. Was dry. Almost brown. But still there. Still red. Still alive.

Another motion beneath his hand, a flutter.

Frank stopped pressing and flattened his hand over Kobra’s heart. For a second, he thought he might have to keep working, keep pushing past the pain in his own chest, but then...

Thump.

“Good. Come on,” Frank said. He pressed again, shoulders straining. Kobra’s eyes, beneath his visor, flickered. A small motion. Eyelids still closed. Those eyelashes fluttered again, as Frank pumped air in and out of his lungs.

His stomach, beneath Frank, twitched.

Kobra opened his mouth.

Nothing came out but air when Frank pressed down again, avoiding the spot of red, but pushing hard nonetheless.

“Ow,” Kobra croaked.

Frank pressed again.

Kobra’s eyes opened. They were unfocused, drifting.

Frank pressed again.

Kobra’s mouth moved. His eyes blinked, focused, zeroing in on Frank. “Ow,” he repeated. His teeth flashed when he pulled his lips back, baring them at Frank like a snake. The canines were slightly longer than the rest of his teeth.

Frank pressed again. Harder. Come on.

Kobra blinked. His eyebrows drew together. “Stop,” he snapped, and jerked his limbs, trying to get rid of Frank. He succeeded in twisting his torso to the side, and Frank pushed himself off and onto the desert floor.

“Finally, K--” Frank cut himself off. He couldn’t say his name: not yet. Kobra had to figure it out for himself.

Kobra winced. He slid his helmet off and sat up. “Ow.” His eyes were wide. The way they sat in his face and the way the lines stretched around his grimace made him look young.

I’m older than you, punk. You look like you’re twelve, shit.

His hands were hovering over his chest: not where Frank had been pressing, but below and above. “Alive,” Kobra said. His voice was rough, low. Sand on stone.

His eyebrows drew together a fraction, smoothing themselves out a moment later before drawing together once more. His eyes twitched, and his hand flattened out on his chest. His knees bent, straightened out.

Resetting himself.

“Human,” Kobra said. “Alive and human. Am I supposed to...be doing that?” He removed his hand from his chest and held it up to Frank for inspection. His palm was coated in red.

Frank watched as a drop of blood fell from the tip of Kobra’s pinkie finger. It stained the ground where it fell. He shrugged. “Is it?”

Kobra’s eyebrows drew together again. His eyes hardened, focusing on Frank for a second before he shook his head. “No.”

Good.

“Not supposed to be bl...bleeding. I know,” Kobra said. His mouth moved for a soundless moment, and, clearly frustrated, he grunted. The line of his jaw tensed and when he was able to speak, it was through gritted teeth. “I’m not supposed to be like this.” He blinked. “Medic. I’m a...doc...medic.” He squinted. “Do I have glasses?”

Frank twisted his mouth to the side. It wasn’t a question meant for him. He figured he could leave now that Kobra was in a mostly upright position. His hair: blonde strings that had once been swept back. It was flattened from being beneath the helmet except where removing it had caused them to bunch up. Some of the strands were falling into his face, past his ears.

With a breeze picking up the loose bleached tips, Frank could almost feel the tail end of a sight he’d seen, out of breath and with the sun in his eyes. He couldn’t quite grasp the emotions of the moment: the threads were gone as soon as they had appeared.

Frank crawled over to the one next to the blue helmet. He avoided Yellow Mask, whose head was in puddle of blood like Blue Helmet’s, but...it didn’t feel right, waking him up. There weren’t any burn...burn marks on his chest. Burn? Burns from the light. The guns. His hand flew to the one at his side, heart clenching for a brief moment before the cool plastic reassured his shaking fingertips.

They’d been shot.

“Gun,” Kobra said from behind Frank. “I think I’ve been shot.”

Frank glanced over for a second, watching Kobra stare down at his gun. His eyes skipped over Yellow Mask’s face and his stomach twisted, butterflies dancing around. Frank couldn’t figure out why, so he just looked under Yellow Masks’s chin, and around his head before crawling onward. There weren’t any marks under there aside from a streak of blood, and that had been there before.

Frank’s breath caught in his chest and he doubled over, the shock of staring into dead black eyes that fell a moment later. Dead. Just like the man with the yellow mask, who’d fallen backwards. Dead before he hit the ground.

Not dead, Frank reminded himself, clawing his way into breath again. None of them were dead, not if they could just wake up. He dragged his fingers through the dirt, inching himself towards Blue Helmet, who needed help first. Frank passed his helmet, which was melted on one side. It looked like it had been shot off, and Frank wondered why for a moment before he saw that the visor had shrunk, reaching in convoluted patterns for the hole left by a beam of light. “The angles were wrong,” Frank muttered. “It didn’t refract properly.” Glass would have blocked the rays. Rays from ray guns.

He reached for his, checking to see that it was still there. Blue Helmet had a blue gun, nestled in his hand. It had, what? A star on its hilt. Words along its barrel. Because I said so.

Frank gritted his teeth against the sliver of pain shooting between his eyes. Curly hair bouncing around a smile, a big hand holding...a smaller hand. “Star,” Frank muttered. “Jet Star.” He glanced over to Kobra, who had shoved himself to his feet.

“I’m a medic, I’m a medic,” Kobra said. “Is this my gun?” He was waving it around, but it fit right into his hand.

“Is it?” Frank asked. He couldn’t look at Jet Star’s face, where blood was streaking down from the matted mess around his right eye. He moved to straddle Jet Star’s stomach, giving his chest the same treatment Kobra’s had received. He felt the same beneath Frank’s mottled hands. Unmoving, but not dead. Still alive. Somehow.

Kobra frowned by moving his eyebrows a fraction closer to one another. He paused. His eyes darted down to the gun before he winced. “Yes.” Remembering.

Frank nodded. “Then it is.”

“That’s a snake,” Kobra muttered, and then: “Why are your arms like that?”

“Like what?” Frank asked. His breath was coming short now as his hands got into the rhythm of pumping air and blood in and out, around and around.

“Covered in pictures,” Kobra said. “Drawings. I...know someone who can draw. Tattoos? Tattoos.”

Interesting. Frank didn’t. Did he? He could vaguely recall a wall of faces, blacks and whites and brights. Scratches of lines. Maybe he did. “If you’re a medic,” Frank said, “Jet Star needs help.”

“You know who he is?” Kobra asked. “Who are you? You have a gun. Did you shoot me?”

“I know you too,” Frank said. “I wouldn’t.”

“No,” Kobra agreed. “You wouldn’t. There’s a snake on my gun.”

Jet Star twitched beneath Frank. Come on.

“It’s a cobra,” Kobra said. “That’s me, isn’t it? Cobra. No.” He hardened the sound. “Kobra. Kobra Kid. Oh.” He blinked once, twice, and then doubled over, head going between his knees. He clutched it with his hands, knuckles turning white with the pressure. A strangled moan escaped from the heap, and then he was up again. His eyes were watering but his head moved to the side, looking at something Frank hadn’t seen before. He’d been too focused on the people and not on his surroundings. “I am a medic,” he croaked, swiping a hand across his face. “And a tech. Is that our car? I would keep a kit in it if it was our car.”

“Check,” Frank said. He chanced a look down and to the left but had to turn away as his empty stomach stirred. “I think he got hit in the head.”

Jet Star was stirring now, left eye moving beneath its lid. His eyebrow moved in. “Grace,” he breathed.

Frank kept pushing on his chest. Come on.

“Get off,” Jet Star said, voice rumbling in his chest. “Get off.”

Kobra skidded to his knees beside Jet Star, a white kit in his hand. Frank slid onto the desert floor, keeping one hand on Jet’s chest, where his heart was beating.

“Hm.” Kobra’s eyes narrowed. Thinking. “What a goddamn mess.”

Frank’s right hand twitched, index finger contracting instinctively.

Whoever had done this to them, left them out here in the desert half-dead, was sick. Frank wasn’t even talking about himself, though he could kind of feel the space on his chest where the burn was still leaking blood. He wasn’t even talking about Kobra, who’d got shot twice. Or Yellow Mask, whose limbs were slowly moving in Frank’s peripherals.

But Jet Star...he had a big mass of hair on his head, and while it was usually a dark, curling brown, most of it looked too dark. A sticky kind of dark. A soaked with blood kind of dark. On one side, grey stained the natural colour, going from his roots to the tips. He was still resetting on the inside: Frank could see his appendages working themselves out, but it had obviously cost him something. Coming back.

Or had they ever left?

“That should have killed him,” Kobra muttered. His eyes were dark. “Frank, hold his hair.” He blinked, and a brief grin lit up his face. “Frank. I know you.”

Frank nodded, grinning back. So he was right, then. “Yeah.”

“How?” Kobra tilted his head to the side. “I have another name. You have another name. Not Frank. Something green, like your gun. Fungus.”

Frank wrinkled his nose. “No. My name’s Frank.”

“I know that,” Kobra said. “But you looked like a monster...” He clapped a hand to his temple and winced. “Fun Ghoul,” he croaked. “That’s your other name. What’s mine?”

“Dunno,” Frank said. He reached down as gently as he could to pull the hair away from Jet’s right eye, biting the inside of his cheek when Jet winced. There didn’t seem to be much left of the area: where there should have been a twin of his left eye, there was a raised red mass. A burn. It was bleeding down the side of his face, drip drip dripping all over the ground.

“We should be dead,” Kobra muttered. He was working his hands into white gloves that made Frank wince. They were quiet as he wiped Jet’s face with a cloth, dabbing wherever necessary. It cleaned away the blood, little by little. His hands were steady, and the pile of red tissues, cloths, (Frank didn’t know the proper term), piled up around them. “If not from the shots, then from the blood loss.” Jet hissed a little when Kobra moved his cloth down, but seemed to realize what they were doing.

Frank watched his face as he worked, the careful way his eyes were focused, the strong jut of his nose, the line of his jaw. “So why aren’t we?”

Kobra hesitated, but continued swabbing Jet’s face. “Fuck if I know,” he muttered.

Frank laughed. That was a new word. “Fuck,” he repeated. Right.

“Hold his head,” Kobra said.

Jet was moaning now, slips of sound escaping from his mouth. His forehead was bunched up, all lines and tension. The damage wasn’t spread above his eyebrow, now that Frank could see it more clearly, without the blood. Frank kept the hair away, and gripped both sides of his head. It was hard to find a solid surface beneath all his hair, but Frank managed.

Kobra returned from his white box, and Frank saw something. Blue sky. Kobra’s face. Pain in his side. Black.

“You fixed me before,” Frank said. On his back in the desert. He reached a hand under his shirt and traced his index finger over a jagged line.

“Hold his head,” Kobra said again. He grimaced at Frank, depositing a pile bandages from his hand onto Jet’s chest. His other hand had some kind of white cream in it. He spread it over the wound, spiny fingers agile. Jet bucked beneath Frank’s hands, but Frank held him down as best he could. He was stronger, even though he was smaller. When the place where Jet’s eye had been was nothing more than white, Kobra put the first bandage over the spot. His fingers were gentle but firm and they moved quickly to wrap the bandages around Jet’s head, which Frank lifted for him.

When they finished, Jet’s good eye was open, watching them.

“Ow,” he said. His voice was higher than Frank had expected, coming from such a big mouth. But now that he thought about it, it felt right. He couldn’t seem to form any more words, so Frank just put a hand on Jet’s shoulder.

“You should sleep,” he said.

Jet whimpered, and his good eye crinkled at the edges. Frank could see tears gathering there, so he quickly moved his thumb over, wiping the spot. “We fixed you,” he whispered. “It’s gonna be okay. Kobra, you got any...” Frank paused, searching for the word. “You know. To make the pain go away?”

Kobra looked down into his kit. He rummaged around, and pulled out a white bottle. “These?” he asked. He didn’t wait for Frank to answer, just removed the cap and spilled some pills into his hand. They were all different colours and sizes.

Kobra looked up at Frank for a second. “Pick which one you think is right,” Frank said.

“This one,” Kobra said. He sounded unsure, but nodded. “Yes.” He gave Frank a blue pill. His mouth twisted. “He’ll need water to swallow that.”

Water sounded like heaven to Frank's dry mouth, but he just took the small bottle Kobra handed to him. “Can you push him up?” he asked.

Kobra nodded. He shuffled closer, and braced his hands beneath Jet’s back. Frank grabbed one of Jet’s shoulders and tugged. Jet helped a little, hands moving to hold himself up until Frank took one of them and put the pill into it. “Take that,” Frank said.

Jet was breathing heavily, and his eye was still leaking tears, but he did as Frank told him to. “Fun Ghoul,” he said, once he’d swallowed the water. His voice was thick.

Frank ignored the way the name smacked him on the back of the head in favour of lowering Jet to the ground. “No crying now, you hear?”

Jet closed his eye and shuddered in a breath through his nose. When he answered, his voice was small, like it was coming from somewhere far away. “Okay.”

Frank used a clean corner of a cloth to wipe at Jet’s eye. When he tossed it onto the small pile of bandages, he had to pause a second to rub at his temple. He didn’t notice Kobra shuffling closer with the white kit until his bony knees were touching Frank’s.

“You now,” Kobra said. He was reaching for the base of Frank’s shirt when Frank looked up.

“Me?” he asked. Was Kobra usually like this? Putting others first in cases of emergency? His face was set: his mouth a thin line and his eyes dark beneath his thick brows. “No,” Frank said. “You first. You’re the medic. If you die, we all die.”

Kobra narrowed his eyes and glared at Frank. “Fine,” he conceded, mouth twisting into a grimace. He moved his arms to the hem of his shirt, but winced when his shoulders pulled at the skin of his chest. His face fell, and he looked beseechingly at Frank. “I can’t pull my shirt off.”

“I got it.” Frank moved around Jet as slowly as he could. Kobra was half-wearing a jacket, which Frank tugged the rest of the way off. He folded it up and placed it gingerly on the ground: it didn’t seem to be burned like their chests were, which meant the shots hadn’t passed all the way through their bodies. That, at least, was good.

It was hard to pull Kobra’s shirt off when his own chest hurt but he peeled it gingerly over the places where it was trying to stick to his skin. He could feel the fragile shell of Kobra’s chest shaking beneath his fingers from the pain.

Kobra let out a yelp when Frank’s thumb accidentally brushed the edge of the wound over his heart. Frank winced, but before he could open his mouth to apologize, he was being tugged away by a pair of hands fisted in the back of his vest.

“Get your hands off my brother, motherfucker!”

The voice that shouted was familiar. Hard. But even as Frank tumbled to the ground, trying vainly to tuck his arms around himself and cushion his fall, he got a flash of voices whispering in his ear. Curses, murmurs, soft pools of hazel light. His eyes burned and his lungs burned and his chest burned. “God fucking dammit,” he wheezed. Once the haze had lifted from his eyes and he could mostly see straight, he let his head fall back to the ground. He was on his back, and someone was sitting above him, their weight heavy but not unfamiliar on his stomach.

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” the man shouted again.

Frank blinked tears and sweat out of his eyes. He caught a glimpse of red hair and thought about the red on his chest. There was a yellow mask somewhere around them, and a yellow gun that went with it. The man repeated his question, louder this time.

“And what the fuck did you think you were going to do with my brother, shitface?” he added.

He was breathing hard, like tackling Frank had really taken something out of him. Well, good, because Frank felt like he’d lost about five years off his life from the scare and the way hitting the ground had sent a shock of pain throughout his entire body.

“Can you not talk?” the man snapped again. “I wake up in a pool of my own blood and you can’t even say anything? What the fuck?!”

Frank glanced down at his wrist, at the black stitches circling his skin, the words in red on the canvas of his body. I wish I were a ghost. He swallowed the lump in his throat. A low buzz filled his ears as strong hands gripped his wrist. You sure about this? It’s permanent. They’ll be able to see it, out on your wrist like this. Sure you want these words, too? People might ask questions, Peanut...

He blinked the spots away from his eyes. Your brother needs medical attention, he wanted to say. Shit, I need medical attention. But I was just trying to help.

Instead, he turned his head to the side and coughed, choking on the name that clawed its way up his throat and into the blood in his lungs. Dizzy, Frank let himself fall back down and squeezed his eyes shut.

“What did you say?” The man’s voice was low, but he leaned closer. Frank could feel warm breath tickling his nose. “What did you just say?”

Frank cleared his throat, wincing at the coppery tang on the back of his tongue. When he opened his eyes, the man was a few inches away from Frank’s face. His red hair was half-tucked behind one ear, falling down in a greasy curtain on the other side, where it brushed against Frank’s cheek. His eyes were wide, and Frank wanted to reach into them and find himself. Instead, he licked his lips. “I said,” he croaked, mouth dry and full of sand, “Party Poison.”

The man stared for one long moment, eyes focusing until they were sharp and hard before he surged forward, crushing his lips to Frank’s. His hands pushed Frank down, running from his shoulders and up the line of his neck. Frank blinked himself out of a vivid flash of strong hands running along the skin beneath his shirt. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth, and Party pressed closer, swallowing Frank’s moan. His tongue danced past Frank’s lips, curling around Frank’s tongue, scraping across the roof of Frank’s mouth. Frank moved his hands up the muscles of Party’s arms and fought back, reaching for every corner of Party’s mouth with his own.

When Party pulled away, Frank followed him. “Frank,” Party panted.

Frank’s eyes fluttered open to see the slack line of Party’s open mouth. “Party,” he whined.

“Fuck.” Party’s fingers were roaming, touching every inch of his face before he straightened up, eyes wide. His mouth thinned and he swallowed, still breathing hard. “Frank, oh my god.”

Frank blinked, trying to figure out what he’d done wrong and how he could get Party’s mouth back on his. Party traced his fingers down a path from Frank’s collarbone down to his stomach. Frank hissed out a breath, back arching with the sudden swirl of pain that settled somewhere near his stomach.

“They shot you,” Party said. His mouth twisted to the side and he pressed Frank back down again with both of his hands. “Shit. Okay, okay. I’m going to help Mikey first. He’ll know how to fix you, Frankie. He’ll know.”

A wave of exhaustion washed over Frank, and he just nodded. Party smiled, running his thumb over Frank’s jaw, smoothing down his eyebrows, and coming to rest on his lips. “You just lie here, okay? I’ll be right back.”

Frank wanted to cry with relief, but he also wanted to curl up around Party Poison and never let go. A few minutes ago he hadn’t even known that Party was one of the pieces missing from the puzzle that was his life, and now he couldn’t even breathe without remembering.

Party Poison’s hands gripping a steering wheel. Party Poison’s carefree grin lighting up his eyes, hair tossed by the wind. The reflection of the landscape in Party Poison’s eyes when he looked out at a sunset. Party Poison’s nimble fingers dancing over metal while a little girl laughed beside him, putting a toy together. Party Poison opening a can of food, mouth twisted in concentration. Opening his mouth while eating food. Laughing at Frank’s wrinkled nose with his entire body. His hands, holding a pencil, touching Frank’s wrist, his knees, his thighs. Curling up around Frank and soothing Frank’s arm. Holding him as his own body shook with sobs.

He hadn’t realized that any time had passed or that either of the two men had moved until there was a hand cupped beneath his back, pushing him up into a sitting position. Frank winced when he tried to help. The motion tugged at the blossom of heat in his chest. “Fuck,” he panted out past his teeth. He was out of breath: it felt like he’d run a mile in bare feet, hitting the desert floor, air skipping past his stitched-up side. His voice was clogged with sleep, and somehow the light seemed brighter now than it had been before. Like the sun was trying to eat its way into his eyelids.

“Easy, easy. You passed out,” Party murmured. Frank could feel the words rumbling somewhere at his back, so he squinted open an eye. He moved a hand up to knuckle the sleep out of his face and found that his hands had clenched themselves into fists.

Kobra was in front of them, kneeling on the ground. He was wearing the red jacket again and it hung open, revealing the bandages wound across his chest. His fingers were slipping into gloves, and if Kobra was sitting in front of Frank, that meant that the warm wall behind Frank was Party Poison. Another name stirred deep inside Frank, but he couldn’t muster the energy to find out what it was just yet.

Frank shuddered out a sigh of relief and let his head fall to the side. The warm skin of Party’s neck was there: Frank could feel the beating rhythm of his pulse beneath his forehead, soft and steady.

“We need to get his shirt off,” Kobra - Mikey? - said.

Party shifted beneath Frank, who protested the movement until he felt Party’s legs bracketing his, holding him in place. “It’s okay,” Party soothed, running his hands down Frank’s sides. “Just taking this off, Frankie. You just lean back, okay?”

Frank nodded. He tried to help by lifting up his arms, but the movement sent a blinding pain shooting up to his eyes, and he slumped back against Party.

“Motherfucker,” Party growled.

“Goddamn,” Kobra agreed. “Frank, hey. Frank? Can you look at me?”

Frank squinted his eyes open with some effort. Kobra’s eyes were focused on his chest and not his eyes, so he tilted his head down to see that his entire torso was covered in blood. Most of it seemed dry, but, shit. “Fuck,” Frank breathed.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” Kobra said. “More than I did. I don’t know how...you’re still sitting up, shit, how you’re still alive, but. You’re a fuckin’ fighter, Frank.”

“Mikey,” Frank said, closing his eyes against all the red. “That’s your name, isn’t it?”

He could hear the shuffle of cloth hesitate before Kobra moved again. He was pressing something to Frank’s stomach. The wet slide of the fabric almost masked the light sound of his sigh. “Yes.”

“So why do I want to call you Kobra Kid then?” He shifted, nose wrinkling at the sudden chill of Kobra pouring something over the lower half of his chest.

“You’re Fun Ghoul,” Kobra pointed out. “But you’re also Frank.”

“Party Poison,” Frank agreed. “And Ge...” He frowned as the name got stuck on his tongue. It didn’t want to come out. He wasn’t supposed to say it. He wasn’t even supposed to know it.

Kobra stopped wiping for a second, but Party heaved a sigh that tickled Frank’s ear. “Gerard,” he said.

With the way that Frank was leaning, he could feel every vibration of the name. They traveled through Party’s - Gerard’s - chest, and into Frank. He liked that, the idea of Gerard’s name nestling deep inside Frank’s bones. “Gerard,” he said, careful about the sounds. They made his mouth feel warm.

“Frank,” Gerard said. Party said. Frank could hear the smile in his voice.

“Mikey,” Kobra contributed.

Frank laughed. Just once, because the reverberations rattled at the wound on his chest. He winced, and opened his eyes to see Kobra’s progress. Most of his torso was clean now, clear of blood, except for the area around his heart, which was twisted and bloody. The sight was making him nauseated, but he managed to look away.

“Can finally see your swallows,” Gerard murmured. He reached a hand around to trace over the lines of wings inked into Frank’s skin.

Frank’s breath caught in his throat when Gerard’s finger moved up to follow the ‘x’ of the eye. Kobra pressed something over his heart just then and Frank saw a flash that was brighter than white.

“So you want me to follow these lines, right?”

Frank propped himself up on his elbows, managing not to wince when the cool metal of the table brushed against the scar he could still feel around the point of his left elbow. He looked down past the rise and fall of his lungs, to the white paths of raised skin around his midsection. He couldn’t remember exactly how he’d gotten them, but they looked like wings. Swooping lines of thin black ink were traced above them, following the scars and knitting them together to make birds. Swallows, Butcher had said. Sailors used to get them imprinted into their skin, down through multiple layers so the birds would be with them forever.

Frank didn’t know what a sailor was, but with the pen-made images hovering around his navel, he felt a connection to his own skin that he hadn’t more than a week ago. “Yeah,” Frank said, clearing his throat. Butcher looked up from the needles he was preparing, eyebrow raised. “Could you just...” Frank bit his lip and let himself fall back onto the table. “Start with the eyes.”

“X marks the spot, right?” Butcher joked. He pressed his foot to the pedal and the contraption in his hand started to buzz.

“X marks the spot,” Frank muttered. He got a mouthful of dust when he breathed in and choked on the coughs that shook his frame. It felt like his lungs were trying to escape. Maybe they’d take off and leave him the fuck alone for once, shit.

“Goddamnit, Mikey, I thought you said you put Frank’s bandana up.”

“Well sorry. If I wasn’t over here dying, I would have.”

“You’re not dying, I stitched you up but good. Ungrateful motherfucker, shit.”

Frank bit back a groan until he felt cloth covering his face.

“Hey, Frankie, hey.” Gerard was at his back, presumably tying the bandana. “Don’t open your eyes yet, there’s some kind of a dust storm --”

“Sand storm!”

“-- sand storm, what the fuck. Does it even matter what we call it? It’s still gonna mean shit flying around in the air, Mikey.”

“You should still call it a sand storm, Gee. It’s proper language.”

“I’ll show you proper language.”

Frank licked his lips with a dry tongue and tried to clear his throat. “We have,” he wheezed, “probably have some kind of thing.”

Gerard’s hands tucked around Frank’s shoulders. “Hang on, Mikes. Frank says we have a thing.”

“Could he possibly be any more specific?”

“If we’re out in the desert all the time,” Frank said, “we probably have masks.” Speech was a struggle. He could hear the wind now, howling around them, and he laboured to sit up straight.

“Masks,” Gerard said. “Fuckin’ masks, Mikey.”

“I told you to check the car, but you were all ‘Aw, Mikes, I gotta sit next to my boyfriend and make you vomit, la-de-fucking-da’.”

“Fuck off!” Gerard yelled. “Like you’re one to talk. I vaguely remember throwing up in my mouth because you had some kind of sickeningly cute thing going on.”

“I...remember that too.” Everything was quiet except for the sounds of the wind and feet on the ground. “Shit, Gee,” Mikey said, voice low. It cut through the wind like a hot knife through butter.

Butter?

“Yeah,” Gerard said. “I know.”

Frank wished he belonged to their secret club of telepathic brothers, but he could guess what they were talking about all the same. What else don’t we remember?

“Here,” Mikey’s voice said, muffled. “I think this one’s Frank’s. It was on the ground, near his...” puddle of blood, Frank thought. “Yours has to be the fucking ginormous mousekat head. Shit, Gee, you gotta be so dramatic all the time.”

“You love it,” Gerard said. Someone pressed something into Frank’s hands. He pulled the warm plastic over his head. It was familiar, made him think about leaning up against a car and waiting for rescue. Inside it, he was able to open his eyes as cool air blasted through the ventilation system.

His vision was limited by the holes cut into the outer layer of rubber, but at least he could see and breathe. Mikey was wearing a helmet, and Gerard had pulled on some kind of large contraption. Mousekat. The one from TV.

“Now that we can all breathe,” Gerard said, “anybody have a fuckin’ clue why we’re out here?”

Frank watched as both Mikey and Gerard sat down, shoulders hunched identically. “Maybe we’re a band of outlaws,” Mikey muttered.

“Yeah, Mikey,” Gee made a muffled sound that Frank thought might be a snort. It was hard to tell with his mask in the way. “We’re a band of fuckin’ outlaws. Kicking ass and taking names. That seems like the most likely scenario here.”

“Shut up,” Mikey snapped. His helmet was drooping a bit, pointing towards his toes. “It just...felt like the right thing to say.”

“We’re friends,” Frank offered. He knew that for sure. Outlaws didn’t quite feel like the right word. And he didn’t know what they’d be up against if they were.

“Brothers,” Gerard said.

“And we have a car,” Mikey added. “One of us must know how to drive it. All of us?”

“Not Jet,” Frank said. “He can’t.” He coughed, trying to get the dust out of his lungs.

“And we all have guns,” Gerard said. “Shit, maybe we are outlaws.”

“Maybe we live off the land,” Mikey said.

“What the fuck,” Gerard said. “Live off the land? There’s nothing out here, Mikey. We’d have to be fucking...fucking snakes, or something, to live off the land.”

“It’s just a saying,” Mikey muttered.

“Live off the land,” Gerard said, still breathing out a honking laugh. “You’re such a fuckin’ weirdo.”

“Maybe though,” Mikey said. “I mean, I saw cans of food in our trunk. Light sticks. Fuckin’ supplies you’d need to live out in the middle of a desert.”

“Show me,” Gerard said.

“You didn’t look when you were getting your mask?” Mikey groaned, pushing himself to his feet. “Making your injured brother traipse around the desert, shit.”

“Builds character.”

Frank struggled to stand as well. The brothers shuffled off to the car, only pushing each other once that Frank could see. He made his way over to Jet Star, who still seemed to be fast asleep. At least someone had tucked a bandana around his face, protecting it from the biting wind. He wasn’t sure that he could carry Jet Star in his condition, but he wrapped his arms around Jet’s big torso and dragged him as well as he could towards the car. It only seemed logical, to take shelter inside the vehicle.

“Well, there’s no fuckin’ gas,” Gerard was saying once Frank managed to get within a few feet of the vehicle. “But there’s definitely outdoorsy shit in this trunk. Frank!” he cried, turning the mouse head towards Frank. He rushed over and helped Frank haul Jet Star into the backseat of the car. Trans AM.

“Thanks,” Frank muttered.

Gerard wrapped his arms around Frank, who was just short enough that the giant, furry head of his mask didn’t get in the way. “You should lie down,” Gerard murmured.

Frank nodded. He wanted to lie down in a bed, with strong arms holding him together. He wanted to bury his face in the musty leather of Gerard’s shoulder. He wanted to tuck his nose into the sweaty skin at Gerard’s collarbone. But he settled for tightening his grip around Gerard.

“Hey guys,” Mikey called from the front of the car when they’d peeled themselves away from one another. “What would you call this contraption?”

Frank peered around Gerard to catch a glimpse of Mikey’s nimble fingers on some kind of a device.

“Radio,” Frank said.

“Transmitter,” Gerard said.

“Help,” Mikey said, and pressed a button.

The car started making noise, spitting out static like it had a bad taste in its mouth. Mikey had flipped up the visor of his helmet, and his eyebrows were drawn together. His fingers danced across the dials, making minute adjustments here and there until --

“crzck...cr...le...oys...fu...”

Mikey grunted and moved one of the dials a fraction, and there. A voice spilled out, dark and deep and it was exactly what they’d been looking for.

“-- fabulous fucking Killjoys, if they’d ever turn their goddamn radio on. Here we are, sitting in the middle of a torrent of broken glass, and they don’t even have the courtesy to answer their own damn distress call. Not that they’re in distress, motorbabies, you know our boys’ve got everything figured out. They’re probably just taking a fucking leak instead of picking up the phone like those of us in the realm of the civilized, but hey, it’s not like we’ve got anywhere else to be now, is it?”

Mikey scrambled for a small box that Frank assumed was the transmitter part. As he pressed the buttons in its side and picked up his voice from wherever it had fallen out of his mouth, Frank felt Gerard’s hand tighten on his shoulder.

“Hello, hello,” Mikey said. “Is anyone there? Does this thing work? It looks like a piece of shit, but it’s got blinking lights and --”

“Piece of shit, my ass! Killjoys, that you? Are those Kobra’s dulcet tones I hear scraping at the bottom of my eardrum?”

“Yes, yes,” Mikey said. Kobra. “Kobra, yes. And it is a piece of shit, I could build a better one with my eyes closed.”

“What, you want us to rescue you or not? Stop calling my equipment shit, you little shit.”

“Yeah, yes. Rescue. We’re out of gas, and we’re in the middle of...” Mikey took a breath, “fucking nowhere, dude. I don’t know jack shit about our coordinates or whatever, so.”

“We got it, crash queen. You already gave us your specs, and we haven’t been jumped today by a flock of nobody, so we’ll be there within the hour. Tommy says minutes, but Show’s makin’ her take no hard turns, so I’d guess an hour’s realistic.”

They all looked at one another, facial expressions hidden by their masks, but the spew of names had meant very little to any one of them.

“See you swiftly, boys. Now let’s crank up some jams, keep those Killjoys on their toes and hoppin’ for more. I’ve got a tape here left by an angel, gonna blast your ears with the sweet music of the heavens. First up’s Mad Gear and the Missile Kid, crooning you out with their hit single, “Fuck the Whole Wide World”. Keep your hats on, motorbabies, and drive like the fuckin’ wind.”

Fanart by
(their love is true)

Chapter 2

As it turned out, after two hours under the blistering sun of high noon, the inside of the Trans AM got hot.

Really, really fucking hot.

“I’m so goddamn hot,” Frank groaned. He'd lasted an hour in the car, facing forward and trying to relax. But he wasn't very good at sitting still when there was no imminent danger, and he’d turned around in his seat so he could look out the back. He was leaning up against Gerard’s seat, with half of his ass in the footwell. His legs were propped up against the rear windshield, and his head up against the back of Gerard’s headrest. When nobody answered him, he slammed his head back, relishing the vibrations and the noise of protest that Gerard made. It was satisfying to an extent, but now he just wanted to do it again. “Fuck! Who the fuck’s idea was it to sit in this car made of heat again?”

Sweat was practically pouring down his face. It was definitely dripping down his chest: he could feel all of the places where his shirt was glued to his body (under his arms, at his sternum, the small of his back). Jet Star was still unconscious, propped up against the door on the passenger side, but from what Frank could see of his face, he was sweaty, too. And pink. Kind of really pink, actually. The potential sunburn only caught his attention for a moment before he squirmed, because the seats were sticking to his pants which were sticking to his legs. “I’m fucking swimming in here, fuck.”

“Shut the fuck up, Frank,” Mikey snapped from the front. His voice was muffled by the helmet he was still wearing. “I told you to put on your mask, shitwad. It’ll recycle cold air back at your face.”

“Fuck that,” Frank groaned. “The air in there tastes weird, I told you.”

“We’re all hot,” Gerard grumbled. He didn’t have his mask on either, because for some reason, it was a gigantic mousekat head. So far, this life that they seemed to be living was like a cartoon. A cartoon where the sun wanted to kill you. “So jut...let’s just leave it at that.”

“Mikey isn’t hot,” Frank whined, slamming his head back again. Gerard grunted this time, which made Frank want to do it a third time. “He’s ugly as fuck.”

I’m ugly as --” Mikey spluttered, turning his helmet towards Frank. “Fuck you! Who the hell around here has a crooked fucking nose and a really shitty selection of facial features?”

You,” Frank snapped. He could glare, because he wasn’t wearing a shitty mask. Hah.

“No, lardass. It’s you, and if you don’t shut up about my face, I’m going to hit you with my fists.”

Frank barked out a laugh. “You couldn’t even clip me if you tried. I’m lightning fast, Mikey. You’d better stay on your side of the car, I’ll take you out.”

“God!” Gerard snapped. “Would you both shut up?”

Frank scrambled to turn around so he was facing the front of the car. He ended up crouching most of his body into the footwell so he could hook his chin over the back of Gerard’s chair and blow air into his ear. “But I’m hot, Gee.”

Gerard glared at Frank over his shoulder. “So am I, Frankie. So stop talking already, shit. Talking makes the temperature rise.”

Frank squinted at the side of Gerard’s face. Things looked weird from this angle. Like Gerard’s nose was a bright pink. “Oh. Hey.” He reached a finger out and poked the turned-up tip of Gerard’s pointy nose. “I think you got sunburned.”

Gerard’s eyes crossed as he tried to stare down at his own face. “Really? It isn’t even noon out there, how the fuck...”

“You’re white as a gh-- sheet is how,” Frank said, tumbling over the preferred term for the dead. They weren’t dead. Being dead was probably way cooler than this, temperature-wise. “It’d take five clicks for you to burn up faster than a ray beam. Maybe not even that.”

Gerard blinked. “Mikey, do I look burned?” he shifted toward Mikey in his chair, eyes wide.

Frank tightened his grip on the back of Gerard’s chair when Mikey flipped his visor up. “Uh. Yeah. Hey,” he said, crossing his eyes and looking down his nose, a mirror of Gerard. “I don’t think I got burned.”

“You had your helmet on when you d...when you died,” Frank said. “Gerard and Jet were face up. I think he got a bit too much sun, too.”

“What about Frank?”

Frank watched as Gerard turned to face him. They were close right now, and if Frank couldn’t practically feel the heat radiating off Gerard, if he wasn’t uncomfortably warm even without Gerard’s breath brushing at his eyelashes, he might have moved closer. “I was face down,” he said. “I guess the back of my neck might have got too many rays...someone want to check?”

He turned to give them a better look, kneeling on the seat and tugging down the collar of his vest. He brushed the ends of his hair away with one hand, using the other to steady himself.

Gerard muffled a gasp beneath his hand and then all Frank could hear was silence.

He shifted in his seat when he couldn’t stand to wait anymore. His knees were sore, like maybe he’d fallen on them earlier. He probably had, if he’d ended up with his face buried in the desert. “Um. What? You guys, what? Is it like, all red back there?”

“Holy shit,” Gerard breathed.

“There, uh,” Mikey said, but his voice was strained. “There is definitely a burn, but. I...I don’t think it’s from the sun.”

“A burn? What do you mean it isn’t from the sun?” Frank asked. “What other kinds of burns are there?” He moved his fingers from where they were holding down his collar to trace up the ridges of his spine.

“It’s...” Mikey started to say, voice hitching on the word.

“No!” Gerard yelled, voice loud enough in the small car to startle Frank into falling forward. The callused pads of his fingers missed whatever had Gerard sounding like that, with the threads of his voice strung tight, when Frank flung his hands out in front of him to catch himself. He barely avoided braining himself on the leather headrest of his seat and looked back over his shoulder.

“No?” he asked, eyes finding Gerard’s. “What is it?”

“I...” Gerard shook his head. His skin was white and his eyes were wide. “I just don’t...I don’t think you should touch it, okay? I remember...” He winced and shook his head. “I don’t remember, but I do.”

“What is it?” Frank repeated. The brothers exchanged a glance, the angle of their eyebrows matching. “Is it bad? Shit. Stop not talking. Can I see it?”

“You’d need two mirrors,” Mikey said. His eyes were wide too, but not as wide as Gerard’s. He blinked and cleared his throat, turning away from Frank to dig through the glove compartment. “I can get you one...” He trailed off, the sounds of items shuffling around taking over the conversation for him until he straightened up. “Use the side mirror for the other. Here.” He shoved a small disk into Frank’s hand.

Frank turned the mirror over in his palm. He glanced up from it to see Gerard’s mouth tilt in an angle that Frank knew, just knew meant he was concerned. He looked like he might be worried that Frank was about to break.

Fuck that. Frank wasn’t made of glass. He’d proven the dying theory wrong once today: there was no way this could even compare. He got out of the car, trying not to slam the door too hard behind him.

“Frank,” Gerard said, as Frank crouched down on his knees beside the side mirror of the car until he could see himself in it.

“Gerard,” Frank said. He looked up, dimly aware of having been on his knees in front of Gerard in the past. “I’m a tough little shit, remember?”

Gerard’s mouth twisted in almost-humour. “Okay,” he said, eyebrows drawing together. “But I just...last time...” He pressed the heel of his hand up to his left eye, continuing as though he might be unaware of the pain of memory. “It hits you really hard, that’s all. Before, you...you couldn’t even talk about it, Frankie,” he whispered.

“Gee,” Frank said. He leaned up so he could rest his cheek on the curve of the door. He pressed a soft kiss to Gerard’s knuckles which were gripping the door so hard that they were white, even in the hard press of the heat. “I’ll be okay. This feels really important. I think I have to do it. Just...trust me?”

Gerard hesitated, but Frank caught his eyes and held him there for a long moment. He didn’t blink, just watched the subtle shifts in the hazel depths and the muscles surrounding them. His eyes were so expressive that the gold flecks seemed to be moving, patterns changing until finally, Gerard looked away.

He sat back in his chair, the hand that had been kneading pain from his eye swiping across his forehead. It came away shiny with sweat and Frank forced himself to turn away from Gerard and toward the mirror.

He contorted his right arm behind him, holding the tiny mirror up so he could see the back of his head. His hair was getting really long: he tucked an errant strand behind his ear so he could see better. He frowned, wondering at how greasy it was. When was the last time it had been washed? Did they shower out here? He sure hoped so.

“Well?”

Gerard’s soft voice interrupted Frank’s miniature dream of hot water and soap. “Right,” Frank said. “It’s just.” He waved a hand expansively, as if to illustrate. “So gross.”

He looked up in time to see Gerard exchanging a confused glance with Mikey. “What’s gross? The mirror?” Gerard asked. “Did you see it yet?”

“My hair,” Frank said, holding up a finger to correct himself. “Our hair.”

Gerard’s pink tongue darted out to wet his lips. “Define...gross.”

“Greasy,” Frank said, staring. Was there not already a set definition for that word? “Dirty. Gross.”

“Dirty?” Mikey asked. “How’s it dirty?”

“It...it fuckin’ has blood in it!” Frank said, straightening up so he could see Mikey’s bewildered face. It looked pretty much the same as his normal face, except his eyes were a bit wider and his eyebrows were higher. “And dust,” Frank continued. “Dirt. Grease. Like, oil that comes from your body? It soaks into your hair.”

Gerard leaned to the side to peer at himself in the rearview mirror. “I think it looks fine,” he said, after a momentary inspection during which Frank was pretty sure he hadn’t once looked at his hair.

“Are you fucking with me?” Frank asked. “Oh my God. Yours hasn’t been washed in at least a week, by the look of it. Maybe two! Have we had this conversation before? Seriously, your hair is, like...it’s a solid mass. You can’t even call that hair, Gerard. For fucks’ sake.”

Gerard shrugged. “Whatever. Look at your neck thing already, would you?”

“You are not getting out of a shower,” Frank said, jabbing Gerard in the chest with his index finger. “We’re talking about this later.”

“Sure,” Gerard said, in a tone of voice that made Frank feel like Gerard was going to do everything in his power to avoid that conversation.

“Unbelievable,” Frank muttered, but his curiosity won over his desire to shave off all of Gerard’s mangy hair and scrub him until he was clean and pink. But only barely.

He leaned forward again, centering himself in the dusty surface of the side mirror until he could see the side of the Trans AM stretched out behind him. He lifted the tiny mirror again, holding it close to his neck and maneuvering it around. It was difficult to get to what he wanted to see: every time he tried to move his hand right, it moved left, and every time he thought tilting the mirror up might work, it needed to be tilted down.

Finally, he saw the greasy ends of his hair curling around the collar of his vest and nearly shouted with triumph.

Nearly, because the shout died somewhere in his chest when he brushed his hair away, impatient to see what was lying beneath.

It was...strange. It was definitely a scar, and the vaguely embossed nature of the thing coupled with its slight shine made Frank agree with Mikey: this was also a burn, and that there was no way for it to have come from the sun. The way in which it was concentrated into a perfect circle made a shiver crawl up Frank’s spine.

He leaned closer, practically pressing his nose up against the rearview mirror to get a better look. There were indentations in the circle, as clear as though they had been pressed into his skin by a stamp.

It was a dead-eyed face, its grotesque mouth a scar that stretched from eye to eye in an impossible grin. Its eyes seemed to be gleaming, but Frank couldn’t quite tell.

And it looked familiar, but when Frank brushed it with the tips of his fingers he couldn’t feel anything but the dullness of a scar worn so long that it had become part of his skin.

“Huh,” he said. He frowned, tilting his head from side to side. It looked the same from all angles. “Weird.”

“Fuckin’ strange,” Mikey said.

“Disgusting,” Gerard spat. “Whoever did this...they’re twisted.”

“As much as the guys who left us here to die?” Frank asked. He let his hand drop to his side and dragged his eyes away from the spot of sky that had been his neck only moments ago. Looking at the scar was making his stomach twist but he couldn’t remember why. He transferred his gaze to Gerard instead. His pupils were steady: Frank didn’t have to look at them for more than a second before he felt grounded. Safe. The black disks were glinting with sharp edges, and Frank knew that meant he was angry, even if he couldn’t hear it in Gerard’s voice.

“Yes,” Gerard said, finally. He glanced over and when he caught Frank staring at him his eyes changed, shifting towards something warmer.

It was already hot enough in the desert, but Frank stretched up when Gerard bent down, reaching for Frank’s face. “We’re gonna find whoever did this to you, Frankie,” he murmured. He tucked a strand of hair behind Frank’s ear, and ran his fingers up Frank’s jaw, the spots of warmth almost too much to bear.

They set Frank’s stomach churning in the opposite direction, made him lean into the softness of Gerard’s touch. “I don’t think that should be our main priority,” he murmured, darting his tongue out to wet his lips. They were dry from the stifling air, and getting chapped already.

Gerard’s hand twitched on Frank’s face before withdrawing. The smile on Gerard’s face was concentrated in his eyes. His mouth didn’t shift, but Frank could see the expression lurking in the corners. Hiding from anyone who didn’t know where to look. “Okay Frankie,” he said after a moment, voice soft. Frank rose to his feet and leaned forward, quickly pressing his lips to Gerard’s, and Gerard smiled for real then, the stretch of his lips making Frank’s quirk up into a matching grin.

“You guys,” Mikey whined.

Frank held up his middle finger in Mikey’s direction and opened his mouth to Gerard, drawing the other man’s tongue in. Frank traced his own against the ridges lining the top of Gerard’s mouth, and swallowed the surprised noise Gerard made when Frank curled their tongues together.

“I am going to barf everywhere and then you’ll be sorry,” Mikey said.

Gerard pulled back at that, relinquishing Frank’s tongue reluctantly. His pupils were swallowing up his irises and his mouth was definitely redder than it had been before. “Um,” he said, looking guiltily over at Mikey, though Frank suspected the look was mostly for show. “Sorry?”

Frank smirked. “I’m not,” he said, sticking his tongue out when Mikey glared.

“You’d better watch it,” Mikey snapped. “Or I’ll...I’ll...”

He trailed off when the radio crackled, snapping to attention in its direction.

“Killjoys, come in.”

“Fucking what?” Mikey snapped into the transmitter. “Are you coming to rescue us or are you going to be here in ‘an hour’ that somehow magically transforms into five?”

There was a sound that Frank guessed meant someone was scrambling for the transmitter on the other end and then a second unfamiliar voice crackled through. Whoever it was sounded like they were out of breath. “Shut the fuck up, Kobra. Fucking spoiled car of brats.”

“Now now,” the first voice said again, and the second voice muttered something Frank couldn’t make out. “That’s not fair, Show. Put the mic down nice and slow now, good boy. Ran into a spot of white out in the mains, Killjoys. Sorry about the delay, hope y’all are adequately hydrated. Forecast says sun on top of sun.”

“White?” Mikey asked them, forehead creasing. He made a face at Gerard and cleared his throat before pressing the button to transmit his voice again. “You aren’t leading them straight to our door, I hope.”

When Mikey lifted his finger off the button, Gerard frowned. “White is a person? People?” he hissed. “Are you sure?”

“I don’t know,” Mikey said. Frank could see the whites of his eyes flash when he looked to the side. “I don’t fucking know, okay? I’m the one they expect to hear, I think. Shit. I don’t know anything. I’m just bluffing as good as I can. They speak differently, did you hear that?”

The radio crackled again. “No, no. Tommy shook ‘em off, she reckons. Might have a bit of a chase on our hands, but they’re sub-level, barely a shot apiece. You all got juice?”

Gerard mouthed the word ‘juice’ back to Mikey who shook his head. “All out,” he said into the radio.

“Well, we’ll get you full up. We’re close, boys. Hold onto your masks.”

“Juice?” Gerard said, when the sound died. “What the fuck?”

“Shit,” Mikey said. His voice was shaking like he might be on the verge of panic. “It just sounded right, I don’t...fuck.”

Frank’s right hand twitched. He was still outside the car, and if their rescuers were just around the corner, he couldn’t see any reason for him to get back inside. But he paid attention to his index finger, and the way his hand moved to his holster, to the heart-settlingly familiar shape of Fun Ghoul.

The beginnings of Mikey’s hyperventilation receded to the background when Frank took his gun out. He turned away from the car and frowned. The raised plastic on the top of the gun moved smoothly back when he pulled it. When his finger curled around the trigger, his body adjusted itself so he was staring straight down the barrel.

“Fuck yeah,” he muttered to himself, and tightened his index finger. Nothing happened.

“Frank?” Gerard asked, from somewhere around Frank’s back.

“Batteries,” Frank said, tugging the top of his gun again. He knew it had turned itself off with whatever battery life it had left, so he shoved Ghoul back in her holster. “The juice means batteries. Though I suspect we’re also out of actual juice, whatever that is.”

“Batteries,” Gerard repeated.

Frank turned back towards them. “The power source for our guns,” he said.

Mikey’s face cleared suddenly, the spring shower of panic disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. “Oh,” he said, blinking owlishly. “Right. I remember that.”

He settled back in his chair, eyes flickering from side to side as though he were reading things in the air.

Gerard watched him for a moment and then turned to face the windshield, fingers tapping out a nervous rhythm on the steering wheel.

Frank rubbed the back of his head, trying to absorb some of the heat that had soaked into the thick black with his hand. “What’s wrong?” he asked, gesturing to Gerard’s fingers when the man looked over, an eyebrow cocked as though to ask Huh? “You’re doing that thing you do.”

Gerard glanced over to his hands. His other eyebrow rose to join the first. “The thing I do.”

“Yeah. When you’re nervous,” Frank said.

“You’re observant,” Gerard said, glancing idly at the insignia on Frank’s vest. Right. Both of the brothers were spacecases, always off in their heads. “I remember that. Quick too. And...” he paused, eyes narrowing. “Scared.”

Frank waited for him to continue, not wanting to break Gerard’s train of thought.

“I can just see you,” Gerard said, closing his eyes. His forehead creased with memory, and Frank had to clasp his hands together behind his back to avoid smoothing it out. “Going from shadow to shadow. Like you feel like you don’t belong anywhere. Like...like you think you have to hide. It’s all really fuzzy, just. I can get some images. I look at your boots and I can see them under a chair, or...outside a bathroom...and then it’s gone and I just know things. But there’s...we’re missing something here, Frankie.” He sighed, clearly frustrated. “It’d be fuckin’ useful to know, huh?”

Frank met Gerard’s eyes when they opened. “Yeah,” he said. “I feel it too. These guys who are coming...they know us.”

Gerard nodded. “What if we don’t get a flash of memory when we see them?”

“That’s exactly what I’m worried about,” Frank said. “I...I dunno.”

“We’re gonna have to fake it,” Mikey said, coming out of his trance. “Pretend we know them. Just do that thing...you have a really good blank face, Gee. Use that.”

Gerard looked unsure, but he nodded again. “Okay. You’ve got one too.”

“I know that,” Mikey said, rolling his eyes. “I think we all do. We’re all hard, kind of. Just...I mean, we can tell them we saw Jet get shot in the eye. Make like we’re traumatized or something. He’s our friend, right? That sounds plausible.”

“Think we should wake Jet up?” Frank asked, gesturing with his head towards Jet Star’s prone form in the backseat.

Mikey looked over his shoulder and shrugged. “Sure.”

“Take your shirts off,” Gerard said suddenly. When Frank and Mikey stared, he shook his head. “No, no. Not like that. Just turn them around. Hide the bloodstains. We don’t want them to think...whatever they’re going to think, I guess.” He looked from Mikey, whose eyebrow had lifted a fraction, to Frank before rolling his eyes and slumping back in his seat. “Fuck you both, just do it.”

Frank grinned at Mikey, but stepped away from the car to give himself space. It made sense. The man on the radio hadn’t sounded terribly concerned about their well-being, which probably meant that he didn’t suspect that anything truly terrible had happened to them since they’d last spoken. Whenever that had been.

By the time Frank had turned his shirt around, with considerable wincing, Mikey had shuffled over to Jet and seemed to be shaking him into consciousness.

“How is he?” Frank asked, tugging at the now too-high collar of his shirt. He’d pulled his vest back on, and when Mikey didn’t answer him, he decided to close it over the slight bulge of the bandages. He was struggling with the stubborn zipper, hands not wanting to close over the tiny piece of metal when Gerard’s hands came into his line of sight. He deftly zipped the vest up, moving slowly over the wound. Frank hissed, but held still, letting him work.

Gerard’s hands were gentle, and he fussed with the shoulders and the sit of the vest on Frank’s chest for a moment, fingers smoothing lightly over creases and worrying at the seams.

“How do I look?” Frank asked. The vest was tight around his ribs, and his breath hitched every time his wound pressed against the underside of the zipper, but it probably looked better than having an uneven chest.

Gerard’s lips pursed when Frank tilted his head up to see. “Like you got shot and lost a shit ton of blood,” he said.

“Oh.” Frank frowned. “I didn’t lose that much blood, I don’t think. I mean, I can still stand. Probably going to sleep for ten hours later, but. I think Mikey got it worse than I did. Jet for sure.”

A small breeze picked up, making the strands of hair framing Gerard’s face dance. “Do you think,” Gerard said, cutting himself off with a hesitant tilt to his lips.

Frank watched him for a moment, trying to see if he was going to continue. “You can ask,” Frank said finally. Gerard rubbed a hand over his jaw. “Anything,” Frank said. “If I can answer it, I will.”

“Well, I just.” Gerard frowned. Frank could see his wheels turning. He was trying to line his words up right so they’d make sense. “I mean, you woke up first.”

“Maybe I died first,” Frank said. He didn’t know where Gerard was going with this.

“No,” Gerard muttered. “That isn’t it. You remembered first, too. And I don’t think...the way we were lying, me and Mikey had to have been taken out before you and Jet. You two looked like you went down fighting, and the only way we wouldn’t would have been if they’d killed us first.”

“Okay.” Gerard’s eyes were wide now, honest and earnest, and Frank almost wanted to look away. “So...”

“So do you think, maybe...” Gerard bit his lower lip. It flushed red when he released it. “Maybe you’ve died before?”

Frank blinked. “What?”

“I mean, if your body already knew how to come back, kind of? If it knew how to power the thrusters once they’ve been turned off...maybe it’s happened before.” He paused then, and took a deep breath. “To you.”

Frank’s fingers edged up to cup the back of his neck before he even realized what he was doing. “I don’t remember,” he said slowly.

“Maybe you will,” Gerard said. “We should talk. Later.”

“Later,” Frank agreed. He returned Gerard’s smile, but his stomach was churning again with all the blank pieces of the puzzle in his mind pressing down on him.

“He’s up,” Mikey called, pulling Frank out of his reverie. Both he and Gerard turned to see the two figures limping over from the car.

Jet’s good eye was barely half open, but one side of his mouth curled upwards when he saw Frank and Gerard standing. “Hey,” he croaked.

“Jet,” Gerard said, rushing forward to wrap his arms around the man.

“Fuck, dude,” Frank said. I love you and Glad you aren’t dead didn’t sound very appropriate, so he just grinned and shrugged. “We’re gonna have to get you an eyepatch.”

Jet smiled grimly. “And a bed,” he said, wincing. “I feel like I’m about to pass out.”

“It’s the pills,” Mikey said. “I think that one is only supposed to put you to sleep for four hours, but they’re always stronger than you think they’re going to be.”

“Well,” Gerard said, pulling back from Jet, “You got up just in time, Jet.” He pointed off to where Frank could see a small cloud of dust on the horizon.

Jet frowned. “About that,” he said, rubbing his good eye with the heel of his palm, “Kobra...Mikey...he told me we have different names. I think mine’s...” he opened his mouth and closed it. “It’s hard to remember,” he muttered. “But. It’s Ray. My name’s Ray. I don’t know if you guys already knew that, or if you weren’t supposed to. But I know all of yours, and it feels important. Doesn’t matter if they’ve already killed us, right?”

Frank and Gerard exchanged a look. Gerard frowned. “Ray,” he said. “I’ve never heard that. I think we were keeping our identities a secret, for some obscure reason. However, if we can’t be killed it doesn’t matter if we each know each others’ names.”

“They make everything more real,” Frank said.

Gerard beamed at him, nodding enthusiastically. “Exactly. That too.”

Mikey shrugged. “Whatever,” he said. “We need to figure out what we’re going to say to these guys. And which one is which.”

“There’s at least three,” Frank volunteered. “We heard their names, Show and Tommy. And then whoever the radio guy is.”

“I know the names,” Mikey scoffed, rolling his eyes. “But how can we tell which one Show is?”

“We heard their voices,” Frank said. “The deep one, the higher one, and then whoever the last one is, that’s probably Tommy. That one drives anyway, right? Should be pretty obvious which one he is.”

Mikey blinked. “Oh.” He blinked again. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Frank resisted the urge to do a smug dance. Mikey was better with tech and with people he had to operate on than with the people themselves. “That’s why we’ve got each other,” he said. “We’re all kind of useless on our own.”

“We make sense as a team,” Gerard said. “It feels right.”

“If we’re a team,” Ray said, pointing to Gerard, “then you’re the leader. That feels right too.”

Frank and Mikey nodded.

“No, but,” Gerard said, looking at each one of them in disbelief, “I...that doesn’t make sense.”

“It does, Gee,” Mikey said. “You’re my older brother. It can’t be me. And Frank’s about as big as a kid, no way could he lead for a long time.”

“It could be Ray,” Gerard said desperately.

“Ray’s quiet,” Frank said. “He’s good at planning, but you’re definitely the boss. You probably talk us out of dumb situations like this one.”

Gerard swallowed. “Oh,” he said, and then again, quieter, “oh.”

“You’re good at it, Gee,” Mikey murmured. “Come on, look up. I know you, okay? I remember you. Everything about you. You’re...built for this.”

Gerard wet his lips, shifting his weight from side to side.

“You brought us together,” Ray whispered. “I remember.”

“As a group,” Frank said. “And to ourselves.”

“You guys,” Gerard muttered. “Fuck, fine. I’ll be your stupid leader.”

“We weren’t asking,” Mikey said. “That’s just the way it is.”

Gerard sniffed and straightened up. “Okay. Then I should stand in front when those guys finally get here.”

Frank rested a hand on Gerard’s shoulder and moved back to lean against the Trans AM. He wanted to look as casual as possible. Ray shuffled over to join him, good eye sparkling.

“This is the kind of shit we’re good at,” Ray said. “Walking into a situation where we know fuck all about what’s going on.”

Frank grinned. “Yeah.” He could feel the energy around them and it felt right: when Mikey kicked at Gerard’s shin and danced away, when Gerard hunched his shoulders over, when Ray folded his arms across his chest.

This was definitely what they were supposed to be doing.

Chapter 3

Frank was trying not to stare.

He really was. It just took a lot of effort not to gape when a van full of wide-eyed lunatics drove up beside a car you could only vaguely remember in a desert you’d recently been resurrected in for a reason that was not yet apparent.

It was especially difficult when one of the members of the ragtag bunch was wearing roller skates (in the desert), a threadbare cutoff shirt, and a pair of polka-dotted tights and helmet, respectively white-on-blue and blue-on-white.

In an attempt to stop staring Frank looked over at Ray, who mouthed “What the fuck?” His eye was wide; he was obviously running into the same difficulties Frank was.

Gerard was silent now, but Frank had heard him stifle a surprised squawk when the side door of the van had rolled open to reveal...

Well. Frank was still not entirely sure who these people were.

“Gas, right?” the guy wearing tights asked as he lifted a bright green canister out of the van. He was thin and lithe, with a toned stomach that Frank could see peeking out from beneath his short shirt. Frank folded his arms across his own chest self-consciously, curving his shoulders around to make himself smaller and shrinking back into the car. He could see Jet doing the same out of the corner of his eye.

Gerard nodded. “Thanks Show,” he said, confirming Frank’s fleeting suspicion about the man’s voice. “We appreciate it.”

Show grunted, skirting around Frank to pour the gas from the container into the car. Frank watched him as he fitted the mouth into the small hole that led down towards the reservoir of the car.  “How’d you guys get stuck out here with no backup anyway?” he asked, once the gas was pouring. “You usually keep some in the trunk.”

Frank glanced over to Gerard, who widened his eyes in Mikey’s direction before clearing his throat. “We panicked,” he said.

Mikey’s eyes were hidden behind his mask, but his shoulders stiffened a bit when Gerard looked over at him a second time. “Ambush,” he said.

“Told you to use your goddamn scrambler,” Show muttered.

“Maybe you oughta given us that info a little sooner,” Mikey snapped back. “I can’t do fuckin’ everything, Show.”

“We got enough shit on our hands, Kobra,” Show said, flicking his head around to glare at Mikey. Frank almost found himself drooling at how smoothly his hair moved with the motion, black and shiny like it had been washed that morning. The man pursed his lips and cocked his hip against the car. “We don’t need you spinning out and dragging us down too.”

Mikey snapped up his visor, eyes hard, but Gerard shot him a look. Mikey’s eyes narrowed, but he put his visor back down and folded his arms across his chest.

“Now now,” a deep voice drawled from the body of the van. “Let’s play nice, motorbabies. I’m getting a burned-rubber kind of smell over here, so you’d best power up and plug in. Show, finish the gas real quick-like.”

Frank peered around Mikey to see a black head disappearing into the van just as the driver flicked her shock of blonde hair to reveal a face shadowed by giant sunglasses. “If you’d let me drive over that one hill way back there, we woulda been tail free.”

Show snorted. “Tail, tire and floor-free, maybe.”

“Pack it up,” the gravelly voice said again, from wherever the man had disappeared to. “I see white on the horizon and it ain’t the sun. Cover our backs, boys, and we’ll spotlight you to dinner and a movie.”

Show finished with the gas and screwed the cap onto the canister. He looked in their backseat for a second and turned to Frank, empty can hanging from his left hand. “Thought little curly-hair was with you guys.”

Frank blinked. What?

“Grace,” Show said, putting a hand on his hip. “You said you had her in the back seat and that shiny old head case saw her.” He frowned when Frank glanced beseechingly at Gerard. “Where the fuck is she?”

Gerard cleared his throat. “We don’t know,” he said.

“Show!” the woman in the front seat shouted. Tommy, Frank reminded himself. “We gotta peel, come the fuck on already!”

“Batteries,” Mikey said suddenly. “We’re all out.”

Show grunted and jogged over to the van, leaving the green canister behind and snatching a handful of batteries from a white container. “Here,” he said, pouring them into Mikey’s hands before he hopped into the seat of the van.

The side door slid shut and the woman in the front seat leaned over Show to shout out the window as she started the car. “I’ll try to drive real slow-like so y’all can follow.”

Gerard lifted up his hand and the van crawled away. “Shit,” he said, eyes suddenly wide. “Get in.”

Frank pulled his gun out of its holster and popped open the battery compartment, catching the two batteries Mikey tossed in his direction before he slid into his seat. He primed his gun and propped himself up on the windowsill before Gerard even had the car started.

Gerard’s face was white beneath its patches of sunburn when Frank caught a glimpse of it in the side mirror. “What?” Frank asked. “Fucking go, they’re getting farther away. We’re all in.”

“I don’t...” Gerard said, voice grating and high. He took a deep breath. “I don’t remember...I can’t drive!”

“Close your eyes,” Frank said, meeting Ray’s wide eyes across the car. “Don’t think, just do it. Let go and your body will do the work. It probably remembers, even if you don’t.”

Gerard swallowed, throat working but he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “Fuck,” he muttered. There was a moment when Frank wasn’t sure if he should pull Gerard out of the front seat and jump in himself, but then he could see the change in Gerard’s face when he relaxed and let his muscle memory take over. When he shifted gears (neutral to first, could Frank drive too?), he opened his eyes. They were harder. Sharper. “Hold on to your fuckin’ hats,” he said, grinning wolfishly as the car leaped onto the road, growling beneath them with the same focus that Frank could feel in his limbs.

Fun Ghoul was humming quietly in his hands, a reassuringly familiar sensation that made Frank relax a bit. He had to keep adjusting his seating and rolling his shoulders back to try and alleviate the burn in his left elbow. No position was comfortable.

The burn in his elbow intensified as they neared the van that had brought them gas and caught sight of a black car flanked by white. He realized, when one of the motorcycles pulled up beside him and his elbow practically sang beneath his skin until he shot the monster-faced creature between the eyes, that it was reacting to these monsters.

“What the fuck?” he asked, to nobody in particular.

“What? Frank?” Gerard said.

“Never mind,” Frank said. He looked over his shoulder as Ray shot out of his window, beams flying uselessly around him. Frank could see fear freeze Ray’s face when the thing drew its gun and pointed it at him. Mikey ducked out his window without thinking and shot the thing between the eyes.

“Fuck,” Ray said. He wasn’t breathing.

“Your depth perception’s fucked,” Mikey said. “You’re going to have to learn how to aim again.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Ray groaned, slumping back in his seat and pressing the heel of his palm to his good eye. “Fuck, fuck. Fuck.”

“There’s more of them,” Frank said. “Coming up from behind.”

“Do they live out here?” Gerard asked. “What the goddamn shit. Frank, can you...”

“On it,” Frank said. He grabbed the edge of the roof and swung himself out the window so he was perched on the sill. There was a car again, and two motorcycles. It must be the weird vampire things’ usual formation. They must belong to some kind of organization.

The bikes whined their way closer to the Trans AM and Frank primed-and-shot them both as quickly as he could. He tried to shoot at the two things in the black car, but the glass of the windshield seemed to refract his beams.

Mikey popped his head out the other side, red gun perched on the hood of the car. “The radio says we have to kill them,” he shouted, long hair whipping away from him like a flag. “The white things.”

Frank turned to look at him, eyes narrowed against the wind, and in that moment, the things in the car shot at him and Mikey. He turned his head just in time to catch a beam of light across the side of his face instead of along the back of his head. The stripe of searing pain made him twist away from the car, hands clapping to his cheek instinctively. His shout of pain was whipped away on the rushing wind.

The car jerked beneath him, turning at a slight angle, but the small movement was enough to jostle Frank away. For one sick moment, Frank felt suspended, half of his body weightless. He scrabbled uselessly at the air in front of him, legs and stomach straining to keep him upright. But his stomach was still freshly bleeding from his earlier brush with death and the muscles around it gave way, unable to support his weight.

“Mikey!” Frank shouted, pointing at what he hoped was the black car. If he was going to die, then at least his friends deserved to live.

He heard Gerard scream “Frank!” from the front seat and then hands were at his back, tucked into his belt and supporting him.

The car drifted and started to slow. Mikey shouted “Gerard!” from inside the car and then suddenly, Frank was shoved back towards the car. He was sitting up just enough so the roof of the car clipped his upper torso, slicing across his wound. His head was slammed forward and he saw stars for one bright moment before hands tugged him back in the car.

Mikey was shouting something wordless in the front, a long string of angry notes, when Frank practically collapsed onto the leather of the seat. His eyes wouldn’t open and he felt like he might be floating instead of sitting in a car.

“Frank, Frank, Frank,” Gerard was chanting somewhere. Hands were pressing his face and trying to unzip his vest.

“No, no,” Frank moaned, curling up around his chest. “No, no, no.”

“Frank, come on,” Gerard said. Frank heard shuffling and a squawk of protest and then his head was being lifted into Gerard’s lap. Frank knew it was Gerard because the smell of his pants made Frank remember. They were full of dust and blood and fuck knew what else. Frank buried his face in the warm pillow of Gerard’s thigh. “Frank, come on, talk.”

Frank hitched in a breath and shook his head, moving it as little as he possibly could. “Hurts,” he said through clenched teeth. The waves of nausea that had crashed over him when he’d gotten slammed into the car were abating little by little. They left behind a deep ache that seemed to twist around the blinding pain and make him sore every-fucking-where.

“Where’d they get you, Frank, why’d you let go, Frank? Frank, Frank.” Gerard ran his hands through Frank’s hair again and again and, fuck. Frank didn’t want to, couldn’t really move, but he could feel the slick burn of blood dripping from the side of his face and knew he needed to get something on the burn right the fuck now.

“Face,” Frank spat out. His jaw felt locked, stuck, and he had to force himself to relax his face as he pushed himself up. He tucked a hand protectively over his cheek. They’d got him through the bandana even, shit.

“Mikey,” Gerard said, eyes focused on Frank’s face. “Switch.”

“Again?!” Mikey asked, bewildered.

“Mikes, he’s bleeding from his face. It’s coming out under his bandana, come on. You’re the fucking medic, what am I supposed to do with this? I don’t know any of this shit.”

“Fuck the fucking thing that shot you,” Mikey muttered. “I can barely drive and you want me to pull a fucking switch, goddamn. That fucking van’s getting father away, fuck.”

Frank forced his squinted eyes to look over at the driver’s seat, because if Gerard was next to Frank and the car was still moving, then...huh. Frank could see that Mikey was hunched over the wheel like an old man with back problems.

“I’m gonna go up front,” Gerard said, eyes still concerned. “You’ll be okay back here?”

Frank flapped his hand at Gerard, trying to motion for him to go. He did, but not until he’d leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Frank’s forehead. Frank’s stomach wobbled about like a fish at that, but then Gerard was gone and the car was rocking alarmingly with the brothers’ awkward movements.

Ray grimaced at Frank when he’d slumped back. “I shot ‘em. Aiming took a bit of figuring out, but they’re all gone now. Think I might be able to shoot straight so long as you're in mortal danger.”

Frank held the hand that wasn’t keeping his face together up for Ray to high-five. “Awesome.”

He had barely enough time to pull his hand back before Mikey was shoving his way between the two of them, bony knee jabbed into Frank’s thigh. “Get your fucking dirty hand off your face, shithead,” he muttered around some kind of tube. “You always manage to make everything filthy.”

“Sorry,” Frank muttered, pulling his hand away.

“Gross,” Mikey said, once he’d peeled the bandana away.

Frank just clenched his teeth against the pain and hitched in a breath. "Is it bad?"

Mikey made a face that Frank couldn't read through his squinted eyes. "Well, it's. I mean. Yes. It is a burn. But I can fix it. Mostly. Just shut up and let me work, dick."

Frank rolled his eyes as hard as he could, resisting the urge to punch Mikey when he squirted Frank’s face with something that made his skin boil. His eyes almost rolled back into his head at that one, but Mikey was quick to spread white cream from the bottle at his side onto the wound, hands gentle as he worked.

It felt like his face was falling apart until the cream and its blessed coolness started to soak in.

When he was done, he made Frank lie back in his seat and take a small blue pill. “I don’t know how far away the rogues in the van live, but this should help. Fights infection, and sleep helps to heal shit like your burn. We got to it pretty quick, so it shouldn’t burn like a motherfucker, but it’s definitely gonna scar.”

Frank nodded through the daze of the blue pill. “Will you love me even though I’m ugly?” he asked, voice slurring at the edges.

“No,” Mikey said, clapping him on the shoulder. His body shifted away from Frank and he thrust himself back into the passenger seat.

“Fuck off,” Frank muttered. He twisted in his seat so he could lie down and put his head on Ray’s leg. “Was asking Gee.”

Frank was kind of out of it: his eyes drooped closed as the pill started to work, but he could hear Gerard’s snort anyway. His dumb voice crawled through the haze surrounding Frank and into his ears. Brain. Mind. Self.

“Of course, you dumb fuck.”