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Chapter 4

Frank paused for a moment so he would have enough time to catch his breath. The hike up the cloven face of the mountain had been arduous at the best of times, and downright life-threatening at its worst. Frank had already dodged two boulders and made a bridge to cross over the Great Gorge, at the bottom of which lay a dreadful, syrupy death. He didn’t want to be chewed up like last night’s pancakes by the fearsome Kraken-sheep, thank you very much. He quite liked having all of his limbs present, accounted for, and not covered in either butter or syrup.

“You’re almost there!” chirped one of the swallows etched into Frank’s skin.

“You’ll never make it,” moaned the second bird.

“Can it,” the first one chirped. It sounded annoyed. “He’s doing just fine, just fine, just fine.

“He’s been sweating on me all day,” the second bird grumbled. “And we barely made it past Gina The Reanimated Masthead. Oh, bother.”

“You just shut up right now. Just because you’ve got ‘x’s on your eyes doesn’t mean you have to be so damn pessimistic all the time. X marks the spot, you insufferable fiend.”

“I do too. My soul is black on the inside, I’ll have you know.”

“Please. Spare me the melodrama. You’re just grumpy that he likes me best.”

“As if. I’m clearly the fan favourite. Even that gorge said so.”

“Fuck the gorge.”

“Fuck you!”

“Would you both shut up?!” The Frankenstein’s monster on Frank’s arm scowled at the birds, who at least had the good grace to look mildly chastened. “I need my beauty rest if anybody wants me to be able to deflect more spears!”

“Sorry,” the birds chorused.

“But you really can make it,” the first swallow said finally.

“We should probably get going, if we’re going to get to the peak before the sun sets,” the second one grumbled.

“Right,” Frank said.

He was a blink away from the peak, as it turned out, though it had looked much further when he’d been resting on the face of the mountain. He paid this detail no mind because up ahead, bathed in a golden beam of light, lay his prize.

He’d been voyaging for months, years, just to make it here. To the peak of this extremely normal mountain. Just to sample a crumb from what he’d heard was the most delicious, soft, white bread in all the land.

He could feel the crust beneath his fingers, could practically hear the crackle of the perfectly-baked dough, and oh, how he longed to sink his teeth into it.

“Finally,” he breathed. He reached out to pick up the bread and nearly cried when he broke it in half. It was so beautiful. So tantalizing. It was still warm from the oven that the sun had provided.

Finally.

He brought it up to his mouth and closed his eyes, the delightful bread just inches away from his face. He was just about to bite into what he knew would be soft and delicious when the ground beneath him jostled and he fell...

...into the backseat of the Trans AM.

He blinked against the harsh sunlight of the world that didn’t have cliffs made entirely of grass with no dirt involved. A world that was full of dust and dirt and a depressingly small amount of anything remotely delicious. A world in which his chest and face and elbows ached, and fuck, Frank missed bread.

He wished that this was the dream, and that he wasn’t actually lying with his face smushed into warm, dirty white denim. He closed his open mouth and forced his sluggish limbs to move. The side door seemed to be open, so Frank stuck his legs out of the car and let them hang over the edge of the seat. He rolled onto his back so he could swipe at both sides of his face. He squinted up at the vaguely blurry red-around-white shape he knew was Gerard’s head.

Gerard sniffed. “You drooled on my leg.” He sounded like maybe he regretted letting Frank sleep on his leg because of the subsequent drool.

Frank rubbed at his eyes, digging the heel of his palm into the soft skin until he saw stars. When he retracted his hand, he could see clear up Gerard’s nose. “You took away my bread,” Frank said, scowling as best as he could with half of his face frozen.

Gerard stared at him, eyebrows furrowing together as he tried to figure out what Frank meant. “What?” he asked, brushing Frank’s hair away from his face.

“Never mind,” Frank mumbled. He lay still for a moment, forcing himself to breathe through his nose to push back the waves of pain that seemed intent on keeping him level. It wasn’t just that there was a significantly painful burn on both his chest and his face: he could tell that he’d handled this kind of injury before and he knew that he could switch off the part of his brain that told him he was injured if he concentrated hard enough. It was mostly that both of his wounds were above fairly major arteries. Every heartbeat drove a fresh spike beneath his skin.

“How’re you feeling?”

Frank peeked an eye open to see Mikey’s face a few inches from his. “Like I fucking got shot a shitload of times, what do you think?”

“I can’t give you any salve for your, you know,” Mikey said, eyes flickering down to Frank’s chest and back up. “Not until we’re alone. But I can do something about your face.”

“Good,” Frank muttered.

“You’re fixing his face?” Ray asked, appearing behind Mikey as the brothers helped Frank into a sitting position. “I hope you mean you’re going to make it less ugly.”

Frank held up his middle finger. He closed his eyes again, waiting for the cool relief of the burn cream. “Fuck you,” he muttered as best as he could with half of his face feeling like it had been torn up.

“Shut the fuck up. I’m trying to work here,” Mikey snapped. He clearly remembered a significant portion of his medical training already, because he was really efficient.

Frank sighed when Mikey’s fingers pulled away.

“Better?” Mikey asked, raising an eyebrow. “You should try not to use your mouth until it heals. For anything. Got it?”

Frank shifted guiltily in his seat. He nodded instead of saying Yes or Fuck your stupid rules or I guess I shouldn’t blow your brother for a while, because, well.

“Where are we?” he asked instead, choosing to ignore Mikey’s eye rolling in favour of getting out of the car.

“We have no idea,” Gerard admitted. “But wherever it is, those radio people seem to be camping out here.”

Frank shoved Mikey away when the other tried to help him stand. He checked to make sure that his vest was still zipped up as high as it could go and then looked around. “Well,” he said. “This is anti-climactic.” It looked like they were just parked in the middle of the desert. “So they just live in their van, then?”

“There’s a whole bunker underground,” Ray said.

When Frank looked over at him, the bushy-haired man was pointing near the nose of the white van, where there did seem to be some kind of hole in the ground. “You’re telling me that these people, the same people who seem to know all about us even though we know nothing about them, the ones who attract crazy, raygun-toting monster creatures, that they just....live underground.”

He looked at all three of them and settled on Gerard, because he was the one who was supposed to be their leader, so why shouldn’t he look at him?

Gerard ran a hand through his mass of hair, leaving half of it sticking up. “Um, yes,” he said.

“Like, below the surface of the earth,” Frank said. “Like, where the motherfucking dead reside?”

Gerard shifted on his feet, hands hanging awkwardly in front of him. He cast a helpless look back at Mikey who shrugged. “Yes,” Mikey said.

“That’s messed up,” Frank said. “What kind of world are we living in?”

Mikey cleared his throat. “Based on the normalcy with which the radio people treated those white-suited things who wanted to kill us, I’d say we’re living in a fucking dangerous world.”

“Shit,” Frank muttered. “Okay. Wait.” He looked at each of them and then at the desert in which they were still standing instead of being underground. “Why aren’t we down there?”

“Show said he had to ‘clean up’,” Mikey said.

“And then Tommy giggled, which was the scariest fucking thing I’ve ever heard, and Radio man said there were probably ‘Drac’ bodies down there,” Ray added.

“And that they hadn’t been here in two months,” Gerard said. “They said we’d probably get in the way of their ‘system’. They’ve brought up four black bag things and I think...Show said we’d be able to come in soon the last time he emerged.”

“According to my calculations, that’ll be in a minute,” Mikey said.

“Your what?” Gerard asked, snorting. “What the fuck. You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you.”

“I was watching the sun!” Mikey swung out his fist and clipped Gerard on the shoulder. “I know more than you do, asshole.”

Gerard was still laughing when Mikey launched himself at him in the most awkward display of violence Frank had ever seen. The brothers scuffled until Mikey punched Gerard in the stomach. The redhead waved his gloved hands in front of him as he doubled over, wheezing.

“Say I’m smart,” Mikey said, punching Gerard on the shoulder once more. There was colour high in his cheeks. “Say it.”

“Okay, fuck,” Gerard said, rubbing his shoulder. “You’re a goddamn genius, there. How’s that?”

Something metallic scraped against concrete in the background.

Frank started when he felt a hand on his arm. He hadn’t realized that he’d slid his legs apart and angled his body so the smallest amount of surface area was facing the source of the noise. His hand was already on his gun, finger curled around the trigger with the butt of it nestled firmly in his palm.

He forced his shoulders to relax and darted his tongue out to wet his chapped lips. When he looked to the side Gerard was there. He looked like he knew something, like he understood. Frank didn’t know what it was that he was remembering, but the smile that flickered across Gerard’s eyes set Frank at ease. He let his hand drop but Frank caught it before he could pull it back and gave it a squeeze.

Gerard bumped their shoulders together before moving away. Frank could see him pulling his shields up, the mask that seemed to be Party Poison. Mikey was doing the same a few feet away, arms across his chest. Kobra Kid didn’t bother to brush the hair out of his eyes.

Ray just took in a deep breath, but he didn’t seem as confident as the brothers. Good, because Frank didn’t know who he was supposed to be, either.

“Oh good, you’re all still here,” Show said dryly as he somehow managed to get up what Frank assumed had to be a flight of stairs in, yes, the roller skates he was still wearing. “I’m overjoyed.”

He didn’t sound even remotely happy, but there was a wicked smile on his face when he waved for their ragtag group to follow him into the bowels of the earth.

Frank couldn’t quite make his legs work when he got up to the steps. Mikey was the first one down, and Ray quickly followed, but Frank found himself standing on the edge of the very first step.

“What’s wrong?” Gerard asked. His voice, suddenly appearing at Frank’s shoulder like a demon from below the earth, almost made Frank fall down the stairs.

“Don’t sneak up on me,” Frank said, when he could get air back in his chest. “What the fuck.”

“You were just standing there for, like.” Gerard squinted off into the distance, like he might be counting the minutes. “Forever. Whatever, it was a long time and I don’t have Mikey’s patience to watch the sun. So.” He spread his arms, palms facing up. “It’s just us out here. And it’s probably safer down there than it is up here, with those creepy white-faced things biking around this godforsaken wasteland. So why are we just standing here?”

Frank looked down at the open door to the bunker and shuddered. “Spiders,” he said. “Gigantic, radioactive, goo-infested spiders. Bugs of all kinds! Creepy people we don’t know but that we do know. Also, the earth is going to swallow me whole.”

Gerard smirked. “If there’s a private room down there, the earth isn’t going to be the only thing doing the swallowing. But, Frank. I’m sure it’s fine.”

“I know it’s fine,” Frank said. “I know spiders probably won’t swarm and eat me. I’m completely reasonable on the surface, here. But my subconscious is telling me that if I go down these stairs, I’m going to suffocate and die.”

“Die underground or die of heat stroke,” Gerard said. “At least underground you won’t be sweating through six layers as you pass on.”

Frank opened his mouth to shoot back a witty reply, but. He had nothing. “Oh,” he said. “Okay.”

He really didn’t like the heat.

“Good job,” Gerard said, at Frank’s shoulder again, although this time, Frank had anticipated the sound. His voice was softer, too, like he might actually be proud of Frank, probably for “conquering his fears” or something equally ridiculous, but, okay. Frank was pretty proud too. Even though his legs shook the entire way down the flight of stairs. Gerard only had to catch him once, and he didn’t even pass out.

Frank: 1, Phobias: 0.

Chapter 5

The bunker smelled distinctly like three corpses had been rotting underground for a solid six months. Frank just pushed past the wall of stench and walked right up to Show and demanded to know where he could wash the grime from his head. “Water ain’t fresh, but at least it ain’t spitting sparks,” Show said, pointing to a door. “Should still be a bar of soap in there somewhere.”

“Wonderful,” Frank said. He gave Mikey a curt nod and turned back to Show. “I’m taking Party with me.”

Gerard squawked at that, and Show looked taken aback, but Frank just shrugged. “If you don’t supervise he doesn’t wash behind his fuckin’ ears. Car smells bad enough as it is.”

“Right,” Show said. He’d moved his hand up to tuck a strand of his obviously clean hair behind one of his ears. “Not to mention his hair...”

“Don’t remind me,” Frank said.

And, oh.

The hair.

Apparently while Frank was strong enough to withstand a light bullet to the chest and enclosed spaces full of death-stench, the gunk accumulated in Gerard’s hair was stronger. The second he put Gerard’s head under the tap and tried to comb his fingers through it, his gag reflex had woken up like it had been killed and something disgusting in Gerard’s hair had brought it back to life.

“Oh god,” Frank muttered. The room was tiny, with a single, flickering bulb and a rusting tap, but there was a bar of soap and if Frank could just keep his non-existent lunch the fuck down, he might be able to return Gerard’s unmanageable mop into something that resembled actual human hair. “This is disgusting.”

“Fuck you,” Gerard garbled, beneath the running water. He shifted beneath Frank’s hands to spit into the sink. “You eat semen, there’s no way my hair is that bad.”

Frank swallowed rapidly and continued scrubbing Gerard’s head with the bar of soap. “There’s definitely some semen in your hair. And blood. And dirt. And fucking fuck, how did it ever get like this? I feel like I’m going to throw up. Do you store food in here? Is this food? Oh my god.”

“So stop washing!” Gerard said, trying to jerk his head away. Frank tightened his grip in Gerard’s hair until the older man whined and stilled beneath him. He was having none of that. He was determined. Gerard’s head was going to be clean or he was going to fucking die trying.

“Hold still,” Frank said through gritted teeth as he scrubbed at a particularly stubborn patch of something, “and I’ll suck your dick when we’re done.”

“Real romantic,” Gerard muttered. “You’re getting soap in my eyes! And your mouth doesn’t work, remember? How exactly are you planning on blowing me if you can’t use half of your fucking face?”

Gerard tried to jerk away from the water again like it was burning him, which was impossible because it was tepid: Frank had checked. Frank grunted and squared his feet on the ground, making sure he was anchored in place before he leaned forward, practically draping himself over Gerard’s back. Gerard stopped moving for a moment.

“You’re getting off on cleaning me, aren’t you?” Gerard asked, voice low.

Frank ignored him and the fact that he was, maybe, a little bit hard. “I won’t be the only one getting off if you’d just shut the fuck up and let me wash your goddamn hair already. If I thought you knew how to do it I’d let you do it, but nobody who knows how to wash their hair properly leaves it for this long, so if you would kindly shut the fuck up, I can get on with it.”

Gerard spread his legs a bit, in the pretense of lowering his head beneath the tap again, but it just made him press back against Frank. “Okay,” he said.

Frank had to clear his throat before his fingers would move again, frozen as they were around the soap. His chest hurt where it was rubbing against Gerard’s spine, but every now and then, Gerard shifted beneath Frank, grinding back a fraction. “Stop that,” Frank said, when he got his voice to work.

“Stop what?” Gerard asked.

“Gerard,” Frank said, warningly. “I’m dirty and bleeding and if you don’t stop right the fuck now, I am going to lose it.”

“Well, are you almost done?”

Frank rolled his eyes but ran his fingers through the mess of hair beneath his hands. He lathered some more soap around the hair near Gerard’s forehead. It felt a lot neater than it had when Frank had started, and there weren’t a great deal of knots.

“There,” Frank said. He pulled his hands back and let Gerard step away from the sink. His hair had lost some of the vivid kick it had had before they’d washed it, the red fading slightly, but the way it hung down the sides of his face made Frank’s mouth dry up.

“Gonna have to re-dye,” Gerard muttered, staring up at his own hair. He reached a hand up, probably to run through it, but Frank reached out and captured his wrist.

“No, don’t touch it,” Frank said. “Your hand is still filthy.”

“I thought you were just washing my hair,” Gerard moaned. “Come on, Frank, there’s no use washing everything. It’s just going to get all dusty and shit again.”

Frank raised an eyebrow, not willing to lose this battle and break eye contact. Gerard’s lips thinned, but he sighed and let his hand go limp. “Fine. But you have to wash your hair first.”

Frank nodded and tried to lean over the sink. The angle at which he had to lean to put his head beneath the tap left him clutching his chest as the vest dug into the battered flesh beneath it. He gasped and tried to ignore the burn, but the soap slipped out of his hand and fell into the bowl of the sink. He felt defeated with the soap spinning and the tap water running, just barely out of his reach. He tried to bend over again as he watched them, but couldn’t move an inch without making lights flash all around his eyes.

“Fuck,” he groaned, ready to give up and step back when a white hand reached in front of him and grabbed the soap.

“Hey, Frankie, hey,” Gerard said, curling an arm around Frank’s shoulders. “Let’s just get that vest off you, okay? Come on, sit down for me.”

“I’m not a baby,” Frank said, but as he was using Gerard for support, and his legs didn’t entirely seem to be working, he followed Gerard to the ground.

“I know you’re not, Frankie, you’re big and strong, okay? But you’re injured, so just let me take care of you for a minute? You don’t have to work through the pain in here, it’s just you and me.”

Frank nodded; it was about all he could do. He couldn’t really feel either of his wounds; the pain radiating from both of them should have been debilitating by now. He could tell that it existed, but it seemed to be far away, shoved into a corner of his brain that was locked up tight. His body was apparently aware of the pain though, and was shutting itself down without his consent.

He let his forehead rest on Gerard’s shoulder as the older man unzipped his vest and slid it down behind him.

“Wow, fuck, okay.” Gerard gripped Frank’s arm and tugged upwards.

Frank followed with some effort, moving his body in sync with Gerard’s. He was holding on to Gerard’s other arm, and with his head on the redhead’s shoulder, it felt almost like they were dancing.

“Just need some music,” he mumbled. Or, at least, he tried to. His mouth didn’t seem to be moving quite right.

Gerard’s voice, saying his name and other words that Frank couldn’t quite piece together, was getting farther and farther away. Frank was conscious of the fact that Gerard was steering him around and that his body was following all of the directions given to it, but it felt like he was floating somewhere high above all of their heads, deep in the mottled grout between the tiles on the ceiling.

From up here, he couldn’t really feel anything. There was the beat of his heart keeping time with Gerard’s precise breaths, but it was barely a murmur. His body’s arms hung limply at its sides and his head seemed to be tilted forward, still resting on Gerard’s shoulder as the man slowly peeled Frank’s shirt up. When the hem of the yellow shirt brushed over the wound, Frank snapped back into himself, pushing Gerard away without even thinking about it.

Gerard stumbled back, surprised at the sudden movement. “Frank?”

Panting, Frank stared at Gerard. “Uh,” he said, glancing down at his hands, which were posed protectively in front of him, as stiff and flat as blades. He forced his arms to fall and pushed the inklings of pain to the back of his mind. “Sorry.” He wasn’t half-asleep any more; the adrenaline of the moment had seen to that.

“Are you okay?”

“No,” Frank muttered. “Fuck.” He shoved the heels of his hands into his eyes until all he saw were bright stars. He couldn’t bear to look at Gerard’s eyes when his started to hurt. He was fifty different kinds of fucked up, and forty of those weren’t manifesting in any physical way. Nobody could see what was making him wrong.

In his peripherals, he could see Gerard nodding though. “We’ll figure it out.”

“What if we don’t, Gee?” Frank didn’t know. Gerard probably didn’t know. He just wanted to remember, fuck. “What if we never do?”

“Hey.” Gerard reached out and punched Frank in the shoulder. “If we don’t, we’ll make shit up. We’re some kind of fucking kamikaze outlaws, Frankie. I think we’ve got what it takes.”

“Ow,” Frank muttered, rubbing his shoulder.

“We will. But you aren’t going to be happy until we wash your hair, so let’s take off that shirt and I’ll wash it for you. Sound good?”

Frank looked up then, at the earnest sparkle in Gerard’s eyes emerging from behind his Party Poison mask, just for him.

“Wash my shirt too?” he asked, hoping.

Gerard snorted. “Fine. But then I get to bring Mikey in here to redress your eyesore of a chest.”

“Aw,” Frank said. “So romantic. You love my chest.”

Gerard rolled his eyes and stuck out his hand. “I love you, even though you’re a huge dick. Even if I don’t remember anything about who I am, that’s one thing I know.”

“What, that I have a huge dick?” Frank asked, eyeing Gerard’s hand. Shaking hands was for old people and BLI agents.

“Wait,” he said, interrupting Gerard’s probably lame retort. He screwed his eyes shut, trying to grasp the fragment of a thought, but it had already slipped away by the time he’d noticed it. “Fuck.”

“What?” Gerard asked.

“BLI,” Frank said, “fuck.” The first clue he’d gotten since he’d woken up and he couldn’t even pay attention for long enough to figure out what it was.

“What’s BLI?” Gerard asked.

“Search me, I don’t fucking know. I just thought it. BLI agents. I don’t know what the hell it is, but.”

“Huh.” Gerard was pursing his lip when Frank opened his eyes. He felt like punching a wall, but he was probably injured enough for the moment. “Well, it’s something. But your chest is bleeding again so do we have a deal or what?”

“Deal,” Frank said. Gerard motioned with his hand, but Frank had a better idea. He grabbed the water-splashed collar of Gerard’s blue leather jacket and tugged the taller man forward so their lips crashed together. There was too much teeth and Frank’s mouth was probably going to be bruised, but he could care less, and the moan Gerard made when he opened his mouth to Frank’s tongue made everything worth it. Gerard’s hands tried to grip the front of Frank’s shirt but Frank pulled back, latching on to Gerard’s bottom lip and pulling it with him for a long second before letting it go.

Gerard was already out of breath, panting into the space between them when he finally opened his eyes. Frank smirked, ignoring the pain on the side of his face. The way Gerard’s pupils were just this side of too big was extremely satisfying.

“I believe you said you were going to wash my hair,” Frank said.

Gerard swallowed, eyes flickering down to Frank’s mouth for a moment before coming back up to his eyes. “Fuck,” he said. “Did I really say that?”

“Mmhmm. We sealed the deal and everything. I believe you are now under a contractual obligation.”

“Goddamn,” Gerard muttered. “I hate you so much.”

The statement would be more believable if Frank couldn’t see that Gerard did not, in fact, hate him, and that he was, in fact, really into him. But his desire for clean hair won out over his desire to grope so he let it go. “Come on,” he said, folding his arms across his chest to protect it from the sharp edge of the sink and concentrating on bending his head beneath the tap and not on the way his heart felt like it might fall out of his chest at any minute.

“Dick,” Gerard muttered, but he turned on the water all the same.

* * * *

After Mikey removed the bandage from Frank’s chest and had finished making faces (“Not at the wound, that’s fine, but you’re really puny and I’d rather not look at your naked body”) he poured something all over the wound that smelled faintly of lemon and felt faintly like someone had set his skin on fire.

Frank didn’t think. He just kicked him in the shin.

“Ow, motherfucker!” Mikey yelped, doubled over on the ground with his hands around his legs.

“Ow, motherfucker!” Frank yelled back, hands clutching his chest protectively. He punched Mikey in the shoulder for good measure and then moved until his back was firmly against the wall just beside the door. “What the fuck did you do that for?”

“That was to disinfect your fucking chest, you little shit!” Mikey shouted, forehead flat against the floor.

“Well, you should have said before you poured it all over me!” Frank snapped. “It hurts like the fucking devil, goddamn.”

“I thought you would appreciate your skin not being devoured by bacteria!”

“WELL, I DO,” Frank yelled, flicking his wet hair out of his eyes. Gerard had done a good job cleaning it, and Frank had almost melted into a puddle from the feel of his long fingers caressing his scalp. He scowled. “You should have ducked or something.”

Mikey sat up and glared at Frank. “You’re too fucking fast,” he muttered.

Frank let his hands drop and pushed himself towards the blonde. “Well, I’m not sorry for kicking you. But I’ll let you finish.”

“Oh, wonderful, I’m so blessed to have this privilege.” Mikey rolled his eyes but accepted the hand that Frank dropped to help him up.

“You love me, don’t deny it,” Frank said, eyeing the cream that Mikey had picked up. He’d flung it at Frank when Frank had kicked him. His foot hurt a bit, because he’d taken off his boots to wash his feet, but he’d made sure to curl his toes under before he’d kicked.

“Yeah, you’re my fucking fairytale prince,” Mikey muttered. “This one won’t hurt. If you kick me again, I swear to god, I’m going to punch you in the face.”

“Does this feel familiar?” Frank asked, as Mikey was pulling the bandages tight around his torso. “This whole thing, not the chest region being injured specifically.”

“Well, you’re pretty fucking reckless, so I don’t doubt we’ve done this before.” Mikey tugged on one end of the bandage too tight and Frank had to restrain himself from slapping the smugly grinning man.

“That’s for my shin,” Mikey muttered.

“You need someone to do the thing on your chest?” Frank asked, hands twitching again, this time to pour that burning “disinfectant” all over Mikey.

“No, I don’t think you could do as good a job as me,” Mikey said. He paused for a moment and then pointed at the door before tugging at the collar of his shirt. “Now get out.”

Frank left because who wanted to look at Mikey’s dumb chest anyway? Not him, that was for sure.

Ray and Gerard were in the main room of the bunker, huddled around a small table that held a map with worn edges and dull colours. Frank poked Gerard’s shoulder and the man shuffled over on the chair he was sitting on, leaving Frank two inches of space in which to sit.

“I’m injured,” Frank said, pointing at his face.

“I just don’t think we would have gone there,” Gerard said, completely ignoring Frank.

So Frank sat in his lap. It looked like there were only two chairs in the entire bunker and Frank was not about to make Ray stand up, with his eye like that. Gerard squawked something incomprehensible and Frank squirmed until the older man stopped making noises.

“What are we looking at?” Frank asked.

Ray gestured to the series of concentric circles on the map. “The zone they found us in. G - Party, uh, doesn’t think it fits with his twisted memories of what kind of people we were.”

“I mean, walking around in the desert?” Gerard shook his head and leaned forward behind Frank. “I don’t know why we would have done that.”

“Unless we were running from someone,” Frank muttered. Gerard was warm behind him and he was nice and clean. He wanted to sleep. He wanted not to be in pain, really, but he didn’t like the way his head had felt after that pill Mikey had given him earlier that day.

Mikey emerged from the restroom just as Gerard blurted “But who?”

“Who what?” the blonde asked, fingers idly glancing off his own freshly-bandaged chest.

“Who were we running from,” Gerard muttered.

“The guys in white,” Ray said. “They were really organized. I bet it was them.”

“But someone has to lead them,” Gerard said. He shifted beneath Frank, moving closer to the map. Frank let his head fall back so it was resting on Gerard’s shoulders. The older man’s arms came around Frank, bracketing him in. “Do we know who that is?”

“I don’t remember,” Ray muttered.

“Me neither,” Mikey said. “And you definitely need a new bandage. I’m going to go get some supplies from the car.”

“Don’t get shot,” Gerard said.

Mikey patted his holster and slumped his shoulders forward as he left out the door.

Red hair shifted in the air above Frank’s eyes. “Ghoul, you remember anything?” Gerard asked, voice low.

“Tall buildings,” Frank muttered. He turned his face towards the warm skin of Gerard’s neck until he could feel a pulse beneath the bridge of his nose. The bunker wasn’t uncomfortably cold, but it wasn’t warm either.

“A city? Did we live there?” Gerard asked.

“Yes,” Frank said. “But we don’t. Not anymore.”

“What happened?” Ray asked.

Images flashed behind Frank’s eyes. A white doorknob coming up to meet him. Black gloves. Light reflecting off windows and off a head of hair darker than the night. “Something bad.” He sat up as the images came faster, glimpses of a world on fire and the world on top of that, sharp lines and clean corners hiding the destruction below. Lights pulsing and music blaring from a dark ceiling and from a radio.

Show skated through the door when Frank was just struggling to his feet, the weight of his memories too much to handle while sitting.

“You can crash here tonight, there’s no cots or couches but it should be safe for the time being,” the man said. “Too hard to see cams at night, right?”

“Fuckin ey,” Ray muttered. “Especially now.”

Show barked out a laugh. “Right,” he said. His grin was easier now, but the set of his shoulders made Frank want to run. “So you’ll figure out where Grace is in the morning, I guess.”

Gerard looked at Frank. His lips thinned before he looked away. Ray looked lost, like he was missing something important. Frank knew the feeling.

“Sorry,” Show said. “I don’t want to rush you. I know it’s hard. Losing people. Especially...well.” He cleared his throat. “Especially Grace. You’ll have to tell us what happened when you’re feeling up to it.”

Frank just stared when Show looked at him. Gerard and Ray had shut themselves off to guard against Show’s invasive questions about shit they didn’t know. “Up to it,” Frank agreed.

“Sleep good, Killjoys,” Show said and skated back towards the room filled with computers and strangers with wide grins and haunted eyes.

“I got the kit,” Mikey said, voice coming from the door to the surface before he even bothered to open it. “Found some other stuff, too. Cans of food, beans, probably. Uh. Bandanas for dust.” The door shook a second before Mikey got it open, apparently with his foot because when he walked into the bunker, his hands were full.

“I also found some cigarettes,” he said, dropping his armful of goods on the table, “and something weird.”

Frank grabbed for the cigarettes, suddenly desperate to taste paper and smoke. Gerard put a hand on Frank’s back, reaching for the small box with curiosity clear on his face. “What’s the weird thing?” he asked, hand competing with Frank’s for space on the box.

Mikey dug through the pile and pulled out a small hat. “This,” he said. “I thought it might be Frank’s,” he said, “but I think it’s too small.”

“Fuck off,” Frank grumbled. He let Gerard take the pack and reached instead for the hat.

Gerard rested his chin on Frank’s shoulder and huffed a breath into his ear. “It has a tiny little stop sign on it,” he mumbled. And then, “Looks like it would fit a kid.”

Frank could feel his face falling as quickly as Mikey and Ray’s. “Fuck,” Frank said. “A kid? Are you serious?”

“It’s too small for anyone else,” Gerard said.

“But why would a kid be traveling with us?” Mikey asked. He looked sick. Frank felt sick.

“Are you fucking serious?” Frank asked again.

“Grace,” Ray said. “That’s probably the Grace they’re all talking about. The one we lost.”

“She left her hat behind,” Mikey said. “Maybe she’s trying to tell us something. Like, leave a trail or whatever.”

“But what does the hat mean?” Gerard asked. “It says ‘Stop’ on it, Mikes. Does that mean we shouldn’t go after her?”

“How the fuck should I know, do I look like a fucking expert in hat lore?”

“No, you don’t look like you know anything.”

“Oh, ha ha. Very funny.”

“Not as funny as your face --”

“Stop,” Ray said.

Mikey and Gerard froze, locked in a glaring match. “He started it,” Mikey muttered.

“No, not,” Ray said. He was grinding the heel of his palm into his good eye. “I fucking...I just...there’s something. About the stop sign. You find those in a city. Like, on roads. They’d be out here, too, but. Shit. I keep just getting fucking pictures and I don’t know what the hell they mean.”

“No, hang on,” Gerard said. “That’s good. City. The people who were chasing us, you think they’re from the city, right? Fr -- Ghoul?”

Frank blinked. He’d been staring at the hat, at the little pins on the front. There were a pair of dice on one side and on the other, a flower with an ‘x’ through it. “I, uh,” he said, running his thumb over the flower. “I gave her this one.” He had to clear his throat. “She has, uh. She just looked up at me when I found it and she smiled, and she’s --”

“Mine.”

Gerard and Mikey looked at Ray in unison. Frank could feel them move, the energy created by their combined gaze. He waited a second, lingering on the warmth that came from Grace’s beam before he looked up.

Ray’s eye was wide. There was too much in there, so many ghosts that Frank could see running across his face and through his mind as the man stood up and took the hat from Frank. He stared at it for a minute and a single tear escaped from his good eye. It ran down the length of his strong nose and hovered a moment before falling on to the ‘o’ in ‘Stop’.

“She’s my daughter.”

Chapter 6

The first whiff Frank got of clean, desert air made him want to weep openly, praise a deity and then dirty the air with smoke, in that order. He decided to skip the tears and went straight for a “Thank God” before he shuffled over to hop on the hood of the Trans AM.

Gerard had followed him up into the fading embers of daylight, and blinked for a moment at the expanse of land before moving to sit next to Frank on the car. He looked sad as he pulled down the zipper on his jacket and scrubbed a hand through his clean hair, but more than that he looked like the guy who was still holding Frank’s pack of cigarettes in his right hand.

Frank nudged him with his elbow and Gerard turned his head to the side. “What’re you thinking?” Frank asked, voice low. The world was quiet all around and he didn’t want to disturb the silence if he could help it.

Gerard worried at his lower lip. It looked like he was trying to figure out what to say, trying to get the words to come out in the right order or in any order at all. “It’s just so fucked up,” he said. “Grace. You. Me. All of us. Everything. Just...it feels like we were doing something important, maybe, and now we’re just...”

“Lost,” Frank said.

Gerard nodded. “We don’t even have a fucking compass to guide us back to whatever we were before. And Grace, fucking...it’s, everything’s just a giant fucking mess.”

Frank could see him closing himself off, tucking everything that was Gerard away beneath the mask of Party Poison until that was the only thing left, a cold yellow shape that obscured the truth behind his eyes. “Hey,” he said.

Party Poison turned his face away,  but Frank wasn’t done with Gerard, not yet. “Hey, come back,” he said, taking a brief second to look around, making sure that they were alone. He dropped his voice anyway, out of remembered habit as much as nerves. “Come back to me, Gee. It’s not your fault.”

“I’m the fucking leader, Ghoul.” Party’s shoulders were tense, and his knuckles were white where his hands were clenched together around the slim, white pack. “Everything’s my fault. I fucking led us out into the desert, do you think you would have pushed us out there?”

“What, so you’re going to take the blame for everything then?” Gerard refused to look at him, concentrating instead on his stupid hands. “The bombs and the pills and the car chases and everybody’s wounds? The desert bit from yesterday, why the fuck ever we went out there, it doesn’t even matter. Okay? I mean, you didn’t want to kill us. You don’t. I...I know. Okay? I fucking know the flesh and blood heart in your chest like I know my own fucking brain, and even if that isn’t a lot of knowledge, I just-- it’s enough for me, it’s fucking enough. And everything might be a fucking mess but it’s our fucking mess.”

Gerard looked over then. A shock of red hair escaped from behind his ear. It swayed when a breeze brushed past them, on its way from here to there.

“Our fucking mess,” Frank repeated. He reached out and tucked the strands of red back behind Gerard’s ear. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Gerard said, leaning into Frank’s hand.

“Good,” Frank said. “Now gimme.”

Gerard’s left eyebrow quirked up. “What?”

“My smokes,” Frank said. “You’re holding them. Gimme them.”

“Give them to me,” Gerard corrected.

“I don’t even fucking care?” Frank said, making grabby hands. He didn’t know how much more obvious he could be about the situation, but. “Gimme.”

Gerard rolled his eyes but handed Frank the pack. He leaned back on his elbows, but Frank only had eyes for the slim visions in white.

“So, uh,” Gerard said as Frank pulled one out. “How were you planning on lighting those?”

Frank froze in the action of patting his vest’s pockets, a cigarette hanging loosely from one corner of his mouth. “Uh,” he muttered, checking his pants. Not there either. Fuck. If he smoked, then logically he would carry a lighter with him...

His hand glanced off the green end of Fun Ghoul.

Hm.

“No,” Gerard said, warning clear in his voice. “Frank.”

“Well,” Frank huffed, already priming Fun Ghoul. “I don’t see any other solutions here. Do you?”

“You’ll burn your fucking hand off, Frank,” Gerard said. He lunged at Frank, trying to reach for his gun, and Frank had to fling himself off the car in order to evade those pesky hands.

“Fuck off!” Frank shouted, scrambling to his feet. Fun Ghoul hummed her agreement, probably, and he shook her in the air. “She agrees, Gee, this is the only way!”

“I have a fucking lighter!” Gerard shouted back, grabbing at the empty air. He looked stupid with the way he was draped across the hood of the car. “In my goddamn pocket!”

Frank glanced down at Fun Ghoul. He’s probably lying, she hummed. “Hm,” Frank muttered. She was almost definitely right, she was quite wise for a hunk of mostly inanimate plastic. “Show me.”

Gerard pushed himself onto his knees and pulled something out of the pocket of his jacket.

You really want to fire me, Fun Ghoul said.

“Laser fire attracts the whitefaces,” Gerard said.

“Like smoke doesn’t?” Frank said, but, well. He didn’t really want those things in white to find their hideout. You good? he thought at Fun Ghoul, waiting for her I’ll live before he turned her off. “Fine.”

Gerard slapped the lighter in to Frank’s hand and Frank hopped up on to the car’s hood again. “I can’t believe you were gonna fire your fucking gun just to light a cigarette,” Gerard muttered, probably rolling his eyes as he said it. Frank wasn’t looking, he had much more important things to look at, namely the insides of his own eyelids after the cigarette lit and the first inhale.

“Oh, fuck,” Frank moaned, sucking in another breath and holding it for as long as he could before releasing it to the wild. “Oh, fuck.” He hadn’t even known that he wanted smoke in his lungs this morning, but now he couldn’t think of anything else.

Until Gerard’s hand pushed at his shoulder, and then suddenly Frank was thinking about maybe walking away to somewhere where peace and quiet were normal things. He tried to swat Gerard’s hand away, but when he moved his leg to improve his stability and opened his eyes by accident, he saw that Gerard was barely inches away from his face. “What the fuck,” Frank muttered. He went to pull the cigarette from his mouth, but Gerard grabbed his hand before he could. “What?” Frank asked again, because Gerard was just staring.

“Your face,” Gerard said.

“Uh,” Frank said. He tried to reach for his cigarette again but Gerard’s fingers were still wrapped tightly around his wrist. “It’s a face, I guess?” The look that the older man was giving him made him want to squirm.

“No, it’s, it’s...fucking...” Gerard said. He was trying to talk with his hands; Frank could feel both of them moving in minuscule motions even though they were holding his wrist and shoulder separately. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he huffed out a breath, looking from Frank’s mouth up to his eyes helplessly, unable to find the right words. “Just. Breathe in again.”

Frank wanted to frown but there was something in his mouth that was on fire and he couldn’t reach up to take it out. “Okay.”

He kept his eyes on Gerard and tightened his lips around the cigarette, trying to adjust its sit in his mouth before he sucked in a breath through the narrow tube. The smoke rushed down his windpipe and billowed around his lungs. The taste of it, different from a regular fire or from the burning rubber Frank was sure he’d inhaled at some point in his life, settled on his tongue like the most delicious fruit.

“Just,” Gerard said, eyes wide before he could exhale. “Open your mouth.”

Frank did, as slowly as he could, sucking in a tiny puff of smoke into the cavity of his mouth just before he did. A few tendrils of smoke escaped, tickling his cheek as they rose in the air. The cigarette hung limply from his lip, still burning slowly. He wanted to cough: the urgency of it was sneaking up behind him, wrapping around his lungs and trying to get him to rid his body of the intrusion but he quashed the feeling down when Gerard’s pupils widened a fraction.

Frank held his breath in until he thought he might die, which probably wasn’t very long because by now he had the lung capacity of a two year old. He blew it away from them, towards the empty desert. Gerard let his hand go and he pulled the cigarette from his mouth to ash it over the side.

“Fuck,” Gerard muttered.

Frank hummed his consent when he had enough clean air in his lungs to manage more than a wracking cough.

“Your face just,” Gerard said, waving his hands in a circle like he so obviously wanted to a few moments ago. “Fucking melted.”

Frank took another drag and nodded.

Gerard cleared his throat. Frank thought he might be getting ready to say something and kept his eye on Gerard’s fingertips, which twitched sometimes when he was about to speak. It always looked like he was holding jumbles of thoughts in his mind and putting them in order before starting to talk. When his hands didn’t move, Frank took another drag, reaching away from the car to ash his cigarette over the side. Gerard moved before Frank could even exhale, wrapping one hand around the back of Frank’s neck and tugging him close so that their lips were crushed together. He coaxed Frank’s mouth open with his tongue and when Frank moaned, Gerard kept their lips locked together and swallowed both the sound and the smoke that trickled out. Their tongues slid together, slipping against teeth, and Frank couldn’t help the second moan that escaped either. Gerard pulled back when the air between them was thick, just long enough for them to pant the remains of Frank’s lungful of smoke away.

Frank didn’t bother saying anything. He just watched, dazed, as Gerard shoved Frank back on the hood of the car and pinned his wrists over his head before swinging his leg over to straddle Frank’s hips. He licked his lips, watching as Gerard’s hair slipped out from behind his ear again. It cast his face in a gentle shadow, but didn’t hide the hungry look in Gerard’s eyes.

“Again,” Gerard murmured. He kept one hand on Frank’s wrists and lifted the cigarette with the other from where it was still clutched in Frank’s fingers. He placed it gently into Frank’s mouth, fingers barely brushing against Frank’s lips. This time, when Frank pulled in a lungful of smoke, it was Gerard who took the cigarette away, holding it safely beyond the edge of the car where no ash could stain the artwork with a constellation of burns.

Frank knew what was coming this time and waited for Gerard to come to him before releasing some of the smoke into Gerard’s mouth. Clearly, both of them had smoked in their past life, because Gerard sucked the dirtied air in without hesitating, and yet somehow, only Frank had remembered. The heavy heat of the smoke burned at their mouths, and Gerard pulled away only long enough to heave in a breath of fresh air before diving back down towards Frank again. The taste of the smoke and Gerard mingled together in Frank’s mouth, slipping beneath his tongue when Gerard’s did. When Frank moaned, Gerard sucked Frank’s lower lip into his mouth and tugged up on it as he ground down on Frank’s hips. Frank choked down another moan as his back and hips arched towards Gerard, desperately seeking contact as Gerard pulled away so only his hands were on Frank’s wrists.

“What,” Frank panted, but Gerard shook his head.

“One more,” he said, voice feathery at the edges. He put the cigarette back into Frank’s mouth, fingers resting there. His thumb traced the corner of Frank’s mouth. “Don’t want to waste a perfectly good cigarette now, do we? God knows when you’ll get another.”

Right. They lived in a wasteland desert where manufacturing had ground down to a halt thanks to a group of homicidal maniacs who thought that white was a good fashion choice. Gerard let go of Frank’s wrists then, and let him prop himself up on his elbows to finish his cigarette. His eyes glittered darkly in the fading daylight as he watched Frank blow smoke away from him.

After what felt like too long and yet not nearly long enough, Frank sighed and let the butt fall into a patch of sand, where it glowed and slowly put itself out, dying in white and red on the desert floor.

“Done?” Gerard asked. His voice was low, but from where he was still straddling Frank’s thighs, Frank could feel that he was strung tight.

Frank licked his lips, watching the way Gerard’s eyes flickered down to follow the motion. “Done,” he said.

Gerard didn’t wait another second. He leaned forward, capturing Frank’s mouth again. His tongue chased after every corner of Frank’s mouth and then wrapped around Frank’s tongue. They kissed until Frank could no longer breathe and then Gerard moved his mouth away, up Frank’s cheek and around the shell of his ear. “Do you know how I remembered you?” he asked, voice nothing more than a growl that vibrated straight to Frank’s toes. Frank shook his head. The hands that twined through Gerard’s hair tightened when Gerard scraped his teeth behind Frank’s earlobe. Gerard took the opportunity to push Frank back and to grind down again, moving his hips in a slow circle that left Frank gasping for air.

“No, fuck,” Frank panted, tugging at Gerard’s hair until the man moved up so he was looking right into Frank’s eyes. Frank pulled him in for a kiss that was harder than it should have been, that left Frank’s upper lip stinging where their teeth had almost collided. “How,” Frank panted when Gerard pulled back.

They were breathing in the same air now, and Gerard kept moving his hips, keeping up a rhythm that was going to make Frank come in his pants if they didn’t do something about all the denim in the way.

“It was your mouth,” Gerard said.

“Gee,” Frank moaned, and Gerard nodded. Their foreheads pressed together when Gerard tilted his head enough to unbutton their pants. He shoved both of theirs down just far enough so that their cocks came into contact, skin already slick with sweat and precome.

“Fuck,” Gerard groaned, stilling for a moment before starting to move again.

“Fuck,” Frank repeated, trying to hold on but losing all grips on reality when Gerard reached down between them and wrapped a hand around both of them. He lasted for two strokes before he was coming all over Gerard’s already disgusting black shirt and his own vest. Gerard didn’t hesitate before following, and he was barely holding himself up after he finished, arm visibly shaking where it was propped up on the hood.

Gerard grimaced and wiped at Frank’s vest with his shirt before he leaned back and did up his pants.

Frank grinned up at Gerard, limbs all rubbery when he tucked himself back in and fixed his own jeans. Gerard grinned back, lopsided and perfect.

“I was always pretty sure there was come on that shirt.”

The voice that threaded through the still air made both of the men jump. Gerard toppled off the hood of the car and rolled to pick himself up; Frank just pulled out and primed Fun Ghoul and slid to the ground, aiming at the small, dark-haired man trudging towards their hideaway. Gerard was reaching for Party Poison when the man stopped and held up his hands.

“Hey, woah,” he said.

“Halt,” Gerard snapped.

“Yeah, freeze, motherfucker,” Frank said.

“No, it’s okay,” the man said, and stepped towards them.

“I said FREEZE,” Frank shouted, and twitched Fun Ghoul down an increment to shoot at the ground right in front of the man’s feet before he could take another step. He moved forward, stepping around Gerard so he could aim steadily at the man’s face.

“Ghoul,” Gerard said, sounding bored and unaffected now that Frank was shielding him, the coward. “We don’t want to dig another grave if we don’t have to.”

“Gun on the ground,” Frank said to the man. He angled his head back a fraction while keeping an eye on the stranger’s movements. “I’d rather dig a pit for this fucker than for you.”

“Killjoys,” the man said, eyes wide. “Seriously, what the fuck --”

“I SAID,” Frank shouted, “GUN. ON THE GROUND.”

“I think you oughta do it,” Gerard said, carefree as all fuck. “Ghoul’s trigger happy.”

“Don’t I fucking know it,” the man said. “I taught you everything you know, motherfucker.”

Frank sucked in a shallow breath. “If I don’t see your motherfucking gun in one second and if it’s not on the motherfucking ground the motherfucking second after that, I’m aiming for your goddamn arm.” This man knew them? Maybe they should kill him then, to keep him from spilling the canned beans to the radio freakshow.

“I don’t think he’s here to hurt us, Ghoul,” Gerard muttered, just loud enough so Frank could hear him.

“Let’s hold off on making that assessment until after we’re holding his weapon,” Frank muttered back.

The man ran a hand through his short, black hair, but pulled a gun out of his holster. Frank watched his midsection for any signs of movement and didn’t let out the breath he was holding until the man had kicked the purple gun over to Frank. It looked vaguely familiar, but Frank couldn’t quite place it in his memory so he just picked it up before he put Ghoul back in her holster.

“Is this some new kind of security measure?” the man asked. “Like, protection against the Crows or something? Did they wipe someone?”

The look Gerard shot at Frank said his gun is purple.

No shit, Frank rolled his eyes.

“Not white,” Gerard muttered into Frank’s ear.

“Oh,” Frank said. Now that the potential danger had mostly disappeared, he stepped back to let Gerard take care of the situation.

Gerard hesitated and the man stepped closer again. “Look,” he said. “Is this holdup because I saw your dicks? Because I’m sorry about that.”

Gerard spluttered, and Frank wondered for a moment if the redhead really was their leader, because that was just not professional behaviour, there. “Were you watching?” Frank asked, when Gerard waved his hands in a squiggly arc and opened his mouth five times without saying anything. “Because that’s gross, dude. Are you like a desert pervert or something? Should we know about those? You’d think there would have been a memo.”

“No, no,” the man said. “Just a regular pervert. Wait, what?”

“I mean, if you’re going around sneaking up on people in the desert and checking out their dicks,” Frank said, “I think I might have a problem with that. I’m just saying.”

“No, wait, rewind,” the man said, scrunching his eyebrows together. “Don’t you...I mean, I thought maybe you were joking or something, before? When you...pulled a gun on me...” He blinked and let his arms fall limply to his sides. “Has something happened? Fuck, now I wish I hadn’t given you my gun.”

Frank looked down at the purple plastic. “Are you going to shoot us if I give it back?” he asked.

“That depends,” the man said. “Are you with Scarecrow?”

Gerard looked back at Frank. What the fuck was a scarecrow? Better yet, what the fuck was a crow? “Are you with Scarecrow?” Gerard asked, narrowing his eyes at the man.

The man blinked. “No.”

“Then us neither,” Gerard said.

This conversation was not going very well.

“So why were you looking at our dicks?” Frank asked, in an effort to reign it all back in.

“My bike ran out of gas,” the man said. “And I hadn’t run the electric long enough this week so it snapped out on me and I fucking stalled in the middle of the desert. And then D was broadcasting that he had spiders and snakes in his den of lies and I figured Ko...the, uh, I figured the Killjoys would be here. I just didn’t know you two would be...naked...like that...Fuck. You guys don’t know who I am, do you?”

Right. Shit. That was probably supposed to be a secret. Or was it? Who was Frank kidding, he didn’t know jack shit about what anyone else knew.

Gerard blinked. “You’re our ally,” he said. He didn’t sound very sure.

“Does Peanut mean anything to you?” the man asked.

Both Frank and Gerard shook their heads.

“Fuck. Well, I know you know your names at least, that’s good. How about Thriller? Ring any bells?”

When they shook their heads again, the man tugged nervously at his hair. “Okay, fuck. Really, really fuck. Does Kobra know you two have lost your memory? Do you know how it happened? Was the...naked writhing because of that, or. Actually, don’t tell me about that, the less I know the better.”

Frank frowned. “Has this happened before? You’re being pretty blasé about it.” That word had slipped right onto his tongue from the recesses of his brain, and with it, an image of red hair tufting out from beneath a hat, natural colour in an unnatural world.

“Long story that you probably don’t remember,” the man said, speaking above the memory of the kid, Frank’s height and age, shoved into the depths of the city, same as Frank. “I’m Thriller, okay, that’s my codename. As far as you know, it’s my real name. Is Kobra inside? D and Show too? How about you two just wait out here and I’ll go talk to them about this, okay?” He marched off towards the door to the bunker without waiting.

Frank frowned at Gerard. “What?” Gerard asked.

“Getting something,” Frank muttered, trying to fend off more afterimages of Kobra’s red back with a strong hand between his shoulderblades. When he blinked, the dark-haired man was gone. “Fuck. Hey, guy, uh. Thriller, wait! Fuck, don’t --”

“Fr-- Ghoul, what is it?” Gerard asked, following behind Frank, who had barreled down the stairs after Thriller. Frank made it into the bunker just in time to see Mikey look up at them, face in what Frank knew was his carefully neutral expression.

“I don’t know if you know,” Thriller was saying when Frank tripped over his own feet in an attempt to stop him from talking. He managed to avoid landing flat on his face by catching himself on the edge of the table that Ray and Mikey were sitting around, but the action twisted his arm back. In an effort to right himself instinctively, his chest muscles worked to counteract the arm-twisting, which in turn made Frank drop his hold on the table and curl up into a wheezing ball.

Frank heard Gerard and Thriller chorus his name together, but all he could do was spit curses into the concrete. A cool hand wrapped around the back of his neck, and Frank thought Mikey before another contraction ran through his body. His arms moved to protect protect protect the base of his skull and he tried, so hard, to shudder in a breath amid the chaos of the air around him.

“Don’t touch that”
“Woah, is that”
“Watch out for the”
“You’re interrupting my”
“Is he okay”
“That looks like”
“What’s happening”

Frank finally managed to force oxygen into his lungs to Mikey’s shout of “EVERYBODY BACK THE FUCK UP. More. Back up five steps. Give me some fucking room.”

Frank was vaguely conscious of the fact that he was shaking, all over, when Mikey touched him again, this time with a hand on his cheek. “Ghoul,” he said, voice soft like the tips of his calloused fingers. “I’m going to turn you over, okay? Can you move for me?”

Frank barely managed to shake his head before his muscles contracted again, straining and screaming around the beat of his own heart. His knees were tucked in against his chest, protecting. Saving.

“He did this before,” Gerard said.

“I’ve seen it too,” Thriller muttered.

“What is it?” Show asked.

“I don’t know,” Gerard said.

“Ghoul,” Mikey said, ignoring the background noise. He framed Frank’s face with his other hand, thumbs moving to Frank’s temples and rubbing in gentle circles. “Listen to me, Ghoul. Come here, come back to me. You’re in the bunker. With me, Party, Jet. Everybody else, too. Underground, where it smells like death and feels like it too. But it’s bright here, they painted the walls pink and blue and it’s like being inside our own skin, remember? With colour and life all around us, even if death is a few steps away. Breathe in for me.”

Frank did, shoulders slowly relaxing. The tension flowed from his arms into the floor as he breathed and as Mikey’s fingers moved.

“In and out, that’s right. Now I’m going to turn you over, okay?”

Frank nodded for him, let Mikey flip him onto his back. “Wait,” Frank croaked, catching Mikey’s hands on Frank’s zipper.

“I need to make sure you’re okay,” Mikey said, voice low. “We’re not losing you again.”

“But,” Frank said, trying to protest, that they needed to save face in front of the radio people. That they hadn’t even lasted a full day without blowing their cover in front of someone who supposedly knew them.

“Tell them,” Gerard said.

Frank cracked an eye open to see Gerard staring at Thriller.

“Tell us what?” Show asked.

“The Killjoys don’t know who we are,” the radio man said.

“I, what?” Thriller asked. “It’s just Ghoul and Party who don’t --”

The radio man shook his head. “Thrill, it’s all of them.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Show asked, hands on his hips.

Frank stilled Mikey’s hand again, ignoring the sound of protest in favour of inclining his head in Thriller’s direction. His eyebrows were drawn together and Frank pushed himself up on his elbows to catch Mikey’s answering face, which was still in neutral.

“That can’t be true,” Thriller said, almost pleading. “Kobra?”

Mikey’s eyes flickered to the side and Frank knew he was looking at Gerard, conferring, confirming. “I’m sorry,” he said, blinking in surprise when Thriller’s face crumpled. “I don’t...”

“We’re, fuck,” Thriller said, choking on the last word. He waved off the radio man’s hand. “D, I thought you said this wouldn’t happen again, that the triggers would be --”

“There’s no telling what will bring them back,” the radio man said, and now they had a name. Finally. Even if it was just one letter.

“Last time I just said my name,” Thriller said, “And Ghoul just --”

“What last time?” Frank asked.

“He came back, D, after they wiped him. They’re still in there.”

“I agree,” D said. “But I doubt they were wiped.”

Thriller frowned. Frank cleared his throat. “Hello, I’m not an object, I can hear you talking about us. Me. What last time, what happened?”

“You found us,” Thriller said, still staring at D, “one day you disappeared and then a few months later you found us and you were gone. And you were...there weren’t pictures on your skin, there were scars.”

“Still are,” Frank muttered.

“You were just patched together hanging by a thread and you came back...Kobra, fuck, it’s me. Thriller,” Thriller said, coming closer to Mikey with his hand outstretched. Mikey watched him, let him put a hand on his cheek but when he turned to look at Frank, his face was pleadingly helpless.

“I don’t know who you are,” Mikey whispered.

Thriller dropped to his knees, then. “You’re my,” he said, swallowing. “I don’t know. Something. Everything. Life and death.” He turned to D again, his breathing carefully measured. “What did you mean when you said they weren’t wiped?”

“Let Kobra finish his examination,” D said. “And you’ll see.” His eyes were as black as pitch, but Frank saw something in them that he remembered. He remembered cool hands on his neck and fetal positions and.

“Oh,” Frank said. “It did happen before.”

Gerard grimaced. “Fucking told you so.”

Mikey was still watching Thriller, but he turned when Frank touched his elbow.

“Do it,” Frank said.

“Okay,” Mikey said. He unzipped Frank’s vest and helped him sit up before pulling off his shirt. Thriller’s face paled, as did Show’s. Frank caught a glimpse of Tommy’s face, but she just peeked in for a second before disappearing to the mysterious third room.

“Bleeding again?” Frank asked, looking down at his chest.

“You act like you’re in the circus,” Mikey muttered. “Uh,” he said, looking up at Thriller for a second. “Could you get me my kit?”

Thriller nodded and brought the white kit from the table. He handed it wordlessly to Mikey and sat back. Pride mingled with sadness on his face but he waited until Mikey had unwrapped the bandages on Frank’s chest to say anything. “What the fuck?”

Show sucked in a breath. “Fucking looks like a...”

“Light burn,” D said. “It is. I was pretty sure none of you could have escaped, with no fuel and a host full of devils descending like a pack of rabid bears on you like that. But Ghoul’s been through this before, coming back, so I hoped...”

“That’s what happened when...when he was empty last time?” Thriller asked, twitching his eyes up from Frank’s chest to meet his eyes.

“Korse happened this time,” D said. “Yes. But last time...well, I don’t know enough about upper management to say for sure, but I’d say Korse isn’t the highest authority around.”

“Korse?” Gerard asked.

“Big shiny head,” D said. “Likes to shoot people for fun. Chases you lot around the desert. Gang of vampire zombie followers. Comes from Battery City.”

“Battery,” Mikey said, looking up from where he was slathering Frank’s chest with the burn salve. “We use those for our guns.”

Frank leaned into the healing touch, about ready to pass out. He didn’t care about crazy people or guns or what-the-fuck-evers. With the salve soaking into his skin, he wanted to lie down and fall asleep. When Mikey finished bandaging up his chest, Thriller moved to the other side of the room to talk with Show.

“How’s my face?” Frank asked.

“It’s a good thing I’m a fucking good medic,” Mikey said. “It isn’t even going to leave much of a scar, I don’t think. You just barely got kissed.”

“Speaking of which,” Gerard muttered. “We should get some rest.”

“I hope every day of living isn’t like this,” Frank groaned as the brothers helped him to his feet. He rested his weight on Gerard but pulled Mikey close to whisper in the blonde’s ear. “He can help with yours.”

Mikey looked unsure but Gerard nodded. “Jet,” Gerard said, beckoning with his head. “You too.”

Show cleared his throat. “We have mats,” he said. “We use them but...big gaping chest and head wounds and all. Think you’ve probably fought enough demons for one day.”

“One day, fuck,” Ray muttered.

“Thanks,” Gerard said, practically dragging Ray and Frank into the room Show had gestured to. It was dark in there, and Frank was sagging before he hit the mat. “Here, let me use...” Gerard muttered. There was a zipping noise and then something warm and Gerard-smelling was being shoved under Frank’s head. Frank heard Ray lying down and then Gerard shuffled away and came back. “We cleaned Frank’s shirt earlier, you can use it as a pillow if you’d like.”

“Thanks,” Ray said, voice soft and drifting. Frank wondered if he was still holding on to the little helmet.

“I’m going to go out there for a bit,” Gerard said, from the other side of the room. Soon, Frank felt his hands on his boots, undoing laces and pulling them from his feet. “Okay?”

Ray’s breathing was heavy and steady and the mat was surprisingly soft beneath Frank’s shoulder.

“Stay,” Frank said.

“We need to plan,” Gerard said.

“Stay,” Frank whispered. “Mikey’s with Thriller, they need to sort things out. Alone. Those radio guys have their radio thing to do. So just stay. Please? We can try and piece together our wrecks of lives in the morning, when everything feels less like is’t floating on a cloud. And I’m cold.”

“Oh.”

Frank held his breath and waited. Gerard hesitated but soon enough, Frank heard the sounds of him taking off his boots and then Gerard was behind him, warm and solid and holding him together with an arm across his chest.

“Can’t believe it’s been one day,” Frank murmured. He laced their fingers together and pulled Gerard’s hand up so he could hold it over his heart.

“There’s going to be another and then another,” Gerard muttered. His breath was brushing against the long hairs at the base of Frank’s neck. “Maybe a third if we’re lucky. Try not to get shot so much tomorrow.”

“Haha,” Frank muttered. “Fuck you.”

“Yes please,” Gerard muttered. He buried his nose in Frank’s hair and inhaled deeply. His calf wormed its way between Frank’s legs and Frank could feel him relaxing as his breathing slowly evened out. When his voice came again it was soft, almost inaudible, the last thing Frank heard before he let himself drop his guard and fall asleep too.

“Tomorrow.”