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Moth to Flame (or Whatever)

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Over the loud protesting from his back and shoulders, Frank tells himself that the phosphorus-rich organic manure isn’t any heavier than the run-of-the-mill synthetic fertilizer. The last bag seems to weigh twice as much as the rest of the shipment, but Frank didn’t grow up doing this for nothing. He just wishes that Dewees wasn’t such a clever (see: manipulative, devious, scheming) fucker, or that Bob Bryar hadn’t up and left for fucking Tennessee, what the actual fuck, because otherwise this process wouldn’t take so goddamn long. That guy could haul in the shipments in less than half the amount of time it takes Frank.

Heaving a heavily-burdened sigh, Frank creaks, snaps, and pops upright, stretching his hands high above his head where he presses his palms together. He gazes at his thumbs, focuses on breathing and releasing the tension as he expands his chest – and then quickly cuts the asana short because the storage shed, while familiar and not entirely pitch-black since he’d had the skylight installed, still gives him the willies.

“Dewees,” Frank calls, after he’s made his way back inside, “Did you order the jars yet, you lazy son of a –” He cuts himself off as he stumbles over a mislaid box containing vintage watering cans and sees that James is assisting an elderly woman in retrieving a standard issue Get Well bouquet from the top shelf of the cooler. Frank disappears into the back before he can further embarrass himself.

After a good fifteen minutes, the voices from the front die out and Frank hears the clunking of the cash register. He keeps going through the books, or, pretending to go through the books while playing a seriously enthralling game of Solitaire, until Dewees ducks into Frank’s office and Frank has to quickly minimize it and pull up the actual files he should be looking at.

“That lady said she knew your grandfather,” Dewees says, a softened expression overtaking his usual wry grin. “Said he and your nonna played a nasty game of bridge. And, based on your poker skills –” he takes a seat at the single chair in front of Frank’s desk, and this time his face splits in that familiar crafty smirk “– I don’t doubt that for a second. All cheating aside, anyway.”

Frank gives a delicate snort and retorts, “It’s not my fault that you’re the one that thought we were playing blackjack.”

“I was drunk!”

Shrugging, Frank concedes with a, “And that is why I didn’t make you strip –”

“Then why are there pictures of me –”

“You depantsed all of your own volition, man,” Frank says, holding up his hands with his palms fanned in innocence. “I am not to be blamed.”

Dewees narrows his eyes and opens his mouth to say something else, but the front doorbell jingles, signifying a customer. He makes to get up, but Frank stops him, saying, “I’ve got this one. Think you could take a look at the books? I fucked up in there somewhere…” and then he makes his way back up front, absentmindedly tracing a hand over the old wood paneling.

For a moment, Frank thinks that whoever might’ve come in had promptly turned around and left, but then he lays eyes on a person near the south wall’s shelves up by the front windows. Though their back is turned, Frank notes the strap of a camera around their – his – neck, messy dark hair slightly curling over the top half of it in shiny tendrils. Then he notices the strong lines of broad shoulders beneath a grey trench coat bisected by the worn strap of a brown leather briefcase followed by straight black slacks and shiny black shoes. (Suddenly, Frank feels spectacularly underdressed in his nondescript jeans and hoodie ensemble, smudged with grass and pollen stains.)

The rapid click of the camera’s shutter fills the relative silence of the shop, and the guy turns the camera sideways, eye still nearly flush against the viewfinder as he seemingly gets a better angle if the tiny happy-noise the guy makes is any indication. He turns again, moving on from the mason jar arrangement of bright red poppies, white baby’s breath and dusky orange zinnias to the unpacked box of ribbon and floral paint.

After he snaps a few more pictures, Frank realizes that he’s just watching this guy, which is sort of creepy, and Frank doesn’t want to be considered a creepy guy under any circumstances, so he clears his throat sort of obviously and asks, “Can I help you?”

The man jolts, of course, and whips around to face Frank. His eyes are massive, guilty and hazel, complimented by a sharp nose, and punctuated by a lopsided mouth. “Sorry, um, I was just,” the guy starts, immediately averting his eyes and running a hand through his (Frank wants to say, “tousled” but he’s going to draw the line, because he’s trying not to out-gay himself anymore) disheveled hair while the other remains curled protectively around his camera. His cheeks go red as he begins to babble. “The, uh, lettering on the windows caught my eye and then I saw the jars through the window and. I just. Got distracted. This isn’t illegal, is it? Because I’ll pay, if I have to. I don’t want to cause any trouble. I’m sorry, I –”

It seems like the guy’s about to work himself up into some kind of anxiety attack, so Frank cuts off his hasty apologies with a, “Hey, no, that’s totally cool,” even though it must be some type of infringement. Frank is totally willing to give the guy a break, because of those eyes, those hands, that mouth, that earnest voice. Those create a nice combination, and Frank knows all about nice combinations because he’s a florist for Christ’s sake.

When he opens his mouth again, eyebrows creased together with acute worry, Frank quickly heads him off. “Seriously, it’s okay. I promise,” he says, flashing a smile, because this guy is seriously, seriously cute – bordering on fucking adorable, Frank’s desire (and apparent inability) to subvert the homosexual stereotype be damned. “I don’t mind, really.”

“Um, okay,” the guy says. He scratches at his nose and continues to glance around the store, enraptured, albeit a little awkwardly. Eventually, his gaze lands back on Frank. “Is this your place?”

Nodding, Frank grins (that silly, prideful one that he absolutely cannot help) and opens his arms wide to gesture in a sweeping motion. “Pride and joy,” he quips. “It was my grandmother’s.” Unable to find an appropriate reason why, Frank adds, “It’s been in the family since 1949!” a bit uncouthly and is pleased to see the reaction it elicits.

At that, the guy’s eyes go even wider in wonder and his mouth quirks into a grin; his furtive glances around become a bit more obvious and sweeping, as if he’s trying to capture all of the history in a few moments. Frank knows the look. The guy only says, “Wow,” but Frank sees the way his fingers flutter against his camera.

Frank gives a grin and a shrug, balancing one hand back to steady himself on the counter. “So…are you like a photographer or something?”

The other man twitches a bit, like Frank had caught him off-guard, and shakes his head. “No, I’m just – I have a blog?” Frank isn’t quite sure what kind of face he makes, but it must be encouraging because he continues on, “It’s not a big deal or anything, it’s just. I like Jersey. And I like to keep reminders of why I do, so it’s just, yeah…” he trails off, blinks and then self-deprecatingly shrugs. “Sorry, I, uh. Babble.”

Waving a hand, Frank makes a “don’t we all, what can ya do” gesture and then approaches him. He’s taller than Frank, which really shouldn’t be as surprising as it is given that Frank is approximately the size of the average fifteen year old, but somehow he hunches in on himself, seeming smaller the closer Frank gets. Regardless, Frank holds out a hand, says, “Frank Iero. Nice to meet you.”

“Gerard. Uh, Way.” He shakes Frank’s hand – warm, solid, and somehow delicate with those long fingers – and quickly drops it, his eyes darting around again and his cheeks flushing a pretty shade deeper. “Really, I am sorry if –”

Up close, he’s even more attractive. “Really, it’s okay.” As Frank’s about to open his mouth again, maybe to pull some kind of line to somehow entice the guy, but he’s interrupted by a nuclear-fallout style ringtone, and Gerard blanches, mumbles, “Sorry, I’ve gotta—” and is out of the door without another word, extracting his phone from the depths of his coat pockets.

Frank is…he doesn’t know what. Intrigued, first of all. But, before he can dwell on that little exchange as he might’ve been prone to do, Dewees comes out from the back with a sheepish look and Frank banishes him on watering duty before he even finds out what it is that he’s done.

Closing comes upon them shortly after, right as the sun begins to set and the morning glories close up for the night. Frank sends Dewees on his way (even after he assures him he’s not mad about the spreadsheet thing, because at least Frank knows how to use the undo button), and then makes his rounds: the coolers are still clean and hovering at just about thirty-four degrees, the front door is locked, the till is sorted, the computers are all shut down, the security alarms are all set. He double-checks to make sure that the sprinkler system is set correctly to go off first thing in the morning, and then he locks up the back door. Frank runs his hands along the speckled bricks, minding the winding wisteria vines, and takes the back stairway up to his apartment.

*

Frank remembers coming to visit Nonna and Granddad in their place above the shop when he was little. It always smelled like home-cooked Italian and the lavender plants, or whatever was appropriate for the season, from the window sills. His dad always made comments about the view, but Frank never forgot the scents – meats and spices and oils and flowers. Even after they’d died, and Frank came to clean out the rest of their belongings, those smells lingered. Sometimes even now he catches a hint of sausage in the kitchen, even though he’s long since been a vegetarian and has never once cooked meat since he’s moved in.

It was strange at first; Frank had felt like at any moment Nonna would come around the corner with a plate of fresh cookies, ruffle his hair, and (with a wink) nag at him to change the channel to cartoons because the mobster movies were terribly inaccurate, never mind the fact that he was only seven. She’d leave a glass of water because she knew how milk upset his stomach. Sometimes, Frank still feels like he might catch Granddad sneaking a kiss to Nonna’s cheek, whispering, “Buongiorno, mio bel fiore,” when he walks into the kitchen in the morning. Those mornings make him crave pancakes most desperately.

Frank is slow and careful as he waters his own plants – the clematis, the peonies, the roses (as cliché as they are, he still loves the way they bloom in folds like secrets), the hollyhock and daisies; the ferns and the tiny wine-box garden of peas and green beans – and takes a moment to breathe in the last few rays of sunlight out on the balcony. The copper watering can is still heavy in his palm, and he sets it back underneath the bent back of the patio lounge chair so that it’ll be shaded from the morning sun.

Tea is next in his evening ritual. He adds honey and sips as daintily as he pleases in the privacy of his own home, never mind that he’s using a mug and not a teacup. For supper, Frank heats up some leftover rigatoni from when he visited Ma, and loses himself in a half hour of trashy reality television. He’d never ever say he was ashamed of Jersey, but these people don’t do anything to defy the preceding reputation. He begrudgingly notes what’ll happen in the next episode (because this show is a train wreck) and shuts it off in time for his eight o’clock yoga session.

Though he wouldn’t recommend them for out-of-the-house activities, yoga pants are the single most treasured article of clothing Frank owns. They’re really sort of embarrassing, but the way the cotton drapes, clings and conforms to his each and every curve, is so incredibly comfortable. He stretches, holds his poses, breathes through the strain and relaxation. His head is clear and his body is light. After a while, Frank doesn’t even notice the white noise of traffic down below.

The apartment is still empty, as cozy as he’s made it, when he comes back inside to shower. With damp hair, he settles between his sheets, shirtless and clad in only pajama pants. Frank reads pages and pages and pages of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, bored already of the politics, but persistent because it’s been on his list for quite a while. Eventually, his eyelids grow heavy and the hour grows late, so Frank turns to his side to shut off the bedside lamp and dog-ears the book until tomorrow.

*

Frank wouldn’t call himself lonely. He’s content enough, happy with his career, glad that he has Dewees, and it’s always nice to chat with the customers each day. Some days are just more meaningful than others, he decides, and some are just fillers until the next.

Business is the slowest of slow on Friday, surprisingly enough, and Frank is about ready to snuff himself out from boredom. Dewees has taken to trying to construct a ribbon ball tower, and Frank is brainstorming a new arrangement for the upcoming winter. Some people, he doesn’t understand why, actually want to get married when the most colorful flowers aren’t in bloom, and then make the most absurd requests, as if Frank could actually summon up some black goddamn magic to conjure some pink hydrangeas in the coldest months. Which, okay, he sort of can because of the workshop, but whatever. He just doesn’t like pink hydrangeas all that much.

Crumpling up the notebook paper, Frank sighs and aims for the trashcan on the opposite side of Dewees. Although he wasn’t even watching, Dewees’s hand darts out and smacks it away so that it lands tragically far away from the bin. Frank can’t help but snort.

The overhead bell chimes, and Frank looks up from gathering the ball of paper. It’s not the same guy from yesterday. It’s not Gerard.

“Hi, how can I help you?” he asks as he rights himself.

The man, clad in a simple black button up and slacks, with what could possibly be the most epic curly brown hair Frank has ever laid eyes on, strolls up to the desk and says, “Are you the owner here?”

Extending his hand, Frank nods, and replies, “Yes sir, I am. Frank Iero. What can I do for you?”

“Hello,” he says, and oh, this can’t be good. He shakes Frank’s hand and quickly drops it, fingers twitching back down toward his briefcase. Instead of a mask of indifference, this man sports an apologetic grimace, as if he really doesn’t want to be doing this, whatever it is. “Ray Toro. I work for the Internal Revenue Service. If it’s not too much trouble, I’m going to need to ask you some questions or set up a future date where I might be able to.”

Whereas a few years back Frank might’ve gotten angry or defensive, he now recognizes when he’s powerless. And, well, Frank has to hand it to the guy. At least he’s polite. “No, yeah. Sure. Now’s fine.” He makes a hand gesture at Dewees, who salutes him, and then – with his heart pounding wildly – leads Mr. Toro to his office in the back. Once they’re both comfortably seated, Frank asks, “I’m not in trouble, am I?”

Mr. Toro cracks a tiny grin, fidgets a little bit and says, “Well, that’s why I’ve been sent here. And, I’m going to be honest with you – I used to come here for years. I knew Miss Angelina, and if you’re related to her, then I know that you must be good people.”

Frank, though he’s all but scared shitless, smiles a little helplessly and blushes at the compliment.

“Do you do your own taxes, Mr. Iero?”

“Frank, please. You can call me Frank. And yes, I do. Er, I have been, for the past three years.”

The man nods, clasping his hands together, and then looks back up at Frank. “Would you happen to have your records on file?” he asks. “I’m sure that the discrepancies can be easily found and rectified, and I can be out of your hair in no time.” His smile is hopeful and genuine, and Frank nods.

*

That night, Dewees takes Frank out to Joe’s for beers and a well-deserved session of wallowing in self-pity. He was never much good with numbers in that respect – he majored in botany, so science was Frank’s forte. Sure, there was math involved, but because it was a science there were concrete results, things that Frank could touch and feel and recognize with his hands. Frank doesn’t drink enough to get drunk, just a few Guinnesses, but he’s pleasantly buzzed by the end of the night and he might fumble a bit with his key when he gets home.

“Audited,” he says to his empty house. “I’m being fucking audited.”

He lets his keys clatter into the bowl by the front door, and he kicks his shoes off into the pile. His shoulders are still heavy, and his mind is still a bit hazy from the alcohol, and his heart hurts. He’s sad and he feels stupid, and he will never not doubt himself again when it comes to the books.

Sighing, Frank fixes himself a cup of tea, and crashes on the couch for the night.

*

Saturday morning, Frank wakes to the tinny, far-away sound of his alarm clock, and he groggily protests until it does that thing where it settles into smug chirping every few seconds. He rolls his eyes, and then sits up, much to the screaming agony of his neck, shoulders, and back. And, well, that’s what he gets for skipping yoga and sleeping on the couch.

He shuffles to turn the alarm off, makes a quick pit stop to relieve himself, and then sleepily returns to the kitchen for coffee and breakfast. Frank yawns into the pantry, quells his sudden, intense urge for pancakes and chooses to have a package of Toaster Strudels, as he never really got over the thrill of being able to design his own patterns with the icing packets. With a careful hand, he fashions a rose on one and a peony on the other, and then licks the remaining icing straight out of the plastic with a gleeful little grin. Faster than he’d like, breakfast is over, and Frank is left with sticky fingers and a tiny frown. He cleans up after himself, and then shuffles off to shower.

Faceless, nameless people and their body shapes – curves of hips, the notches of an arched spine, the gape of open lips – flitter past Frank’s mind’s eye as he strokes himself slowly to a fairly satisfying completion. The water feels great on his skin, holding him in a warm embrace…but it’s never enough. Frank towels off, dresses in fitted jeans and an old green t-shirt that’s probably one more unfortunate strain away from tearing up the side, and then goes out on the balcony to get to work on his own plants.

He unlocks the cabinet withholding his personal gear, and then turns to his flowers, unable to quash the stupid grin that overtakes his face. Flowers are the biggest comfort in Frank’s life, reminding him of home and family and growing up. It’s no wonder he chose to major in botany while he was away at Rutgers.

“Good morning, babies.”

The mindless tasks of pruning and watering leave Frank’s chest feeling settled in a way that nothing else does. Petals are velvety soft between his fingers, like secrets and spring, and he finds peace in clipping away excess stems, fruitless bulbs. Thorns prick his fingers, but he wipes the bright specks of blood away on his jeans, and soldiers on. Sometimes he catches himself talking, or humming, as if his flowers can hear him, and sometimes he believes that they can – a stubborn rose bush that never wanted to bloom finally had last spring, and he’d done nothing different but singing a little melody – so he’ll do it purposely on occasion. Frank laughs at himself, at how absurd and old he seems, talking to his plants, calling them his pretties. He’s so damn weird.

He’s had relationships with people that called him out on it – Greg, who said Frank hadn’t a clue what fun entailed; Maggie, who laughed at him when Frank finally brought her up to his place; and Sam, who hadn’t even known the difference between a daisy and a sunflower – and only one that smiled fondly, petted his face, sat out on the lounge chair in the early rays of sunlight while he did his thing. Jamia would sometimes even pretend to be one of the flowers, talking back to Frank in a sinuous voice about how caring and handsome he was. Frank had imagined himself growing old with her. He still isn’t quite sure how or why that ended, but it did.

By the time the sun is high and peeking over the building across the street, Frank puts away his supplies and goes back inside to grab a hoodie, promising his plants that he’ll see them this evening.

The shop is dark and quiet, save for the hum of the coolers, and Frank works quickly to unarm the security system. Overhead lights flood the front room, illuminating the rows of shears and watering cans, sparkling like glitter off of the mirrors and jars and ribbon. Frank goes about opening the shop: cleaning out the coolers, bringing out the displays, starting up the register.

In the early hours, il bel fiore is visited by morning commuters aiming to charm their bosses or secretaries, little old ladies who need a fresh arrangement on the table each day, crazy soon-to-be brides and their mothers, families who’ve been in waiting rooms for far too many hours. Frank is kind to everyone who stops by his store, taking time to give answers to any questions, interrupting only to tell other customers that he’ll be right with them. He shows albums to the brides, takes down their wedding dates and floral preferences. He answers phone calls about which flowers have therapeutic qualities, which can be ingested or made into oils. He sells seed packets, watering cans, gloves, bags of fertilizer, and shears. He tells which flowers are best for grief, which colors mean “I’m sorry” and which mean
“Get well soon” and then suddenly it’s past two in the afternoon and Frank is ravenous.

With Dewees away visiting his mother, as he does every Saturday, Frank is left to his own devices and is forced to close the shop for an hour while he scrounges up something from his fridge. He culls a quick sandwich, and goes back downstairs to work some on the books. The hour passes quickly and Frank reopens, happy for the quietest part of the day. During this time, Frank wire-wraps more flowers and plans arrangements – orchids, daffodils, tulips, crocuses, roses; all as main features and never together. He takes a bit of time to research trees, fantasizing about vacations where he’ll hike in the Appalachians or Canada and do nothing but bask in the wilderness, take pictures of trees and birds and lakes.

The overhead bell chimes steadily for the rest of the afternoon, and Frank pushes his dreams to the background.

*

Sunday is the one day that Frank doesn’t open the shop to the public. He goes in for two hours in the morning, making sure that things are still clean and orderly, and then, once he’s sure that Mass is long over and his mother has had her fill of weekly gossip, Frank heads home to Kearny.

“Frankie, honey,” Linda says delightedly in greeting. “What are you doing?” Each and every time she says the same thing, as if she were surprised to see her one-and-only son like she does each and every Sunday. Mirroring her massive grin, Frank wraps his arms around his mom’s neck in a quick hug and steps in after her.

For years Frank would bring his mother a bouquet each visit – poppies, because they’d always been her favorite; or roses, or daisies, or carnations, or chrysanthemums – until she’d finally sat him down and asked him to stop. She’d said that she appreciated his intentions, but it reminded her a little too much of Frank’s father. Sometimes he thinks she still hasn’t forgiven him for his decision to study botany in college, let alone become a florist and take over il bel fiore. Now he arrives empty-handed, save for the times he’ll pick up some pastries from Patrick’s bakery, or a book that Andy from the café down the street recommends.

Linda sits him down at the table, talks for long minutes about the latest church gossip – “Mr. Florentine’s apparently cheated on his wife with their babysitter. Could you ever believe such a thing?” – and then catches him up on her favorite soap opera, and then she tells him all about what’s going on at her work, which mostly consists of more banal gossip. Frank doesn’t entirely care about the scandals, or the fact that his mother can’t help but involve herself in perpetuating that shit, but it’s nice to hear her talk, fill in the spaces that he’d normally have to ignore or fill with music if he were at home.

“So, Frankie. I’ve been talking for hours. You’ve been quiet. Tell me what’s new, honey.”

Frank runs a hand through his hair, leans back and rests his tattooed fingers over his (entirely too full) belly. “Well,” he starts. Bad news first, just like always. “The shop’s being audited. But –” She tries to admonish him, but he insists with a, “But, the auditor is a really nice guy and he seems to be really understanding. I’m worried, of course, but I know that there’s not any funny business going on. I’ve kept all of my records and I’ve always done my best with the books. If there’s a problem, it’s completely my mistake, and I’m okay with admitting that.”

She looks at him speculatively, and he can tell that she’s wondering when the hell he started sounding like he had his shit together. “Well, if you say so.”

And, yeah, that’s a little better than he was expecting.

“So, tell me about this auditor, Kiddo,” she says, a wry little grin sneaking its way onto her mouth. “Is he handsome?”

“Oh, my god, Ma.” Frank tries really hard not to blush, and scrubs a hand preemptively over his face. “Yeah, but no, he’s not my type. He seems a little…” He makes a vague motion with his hand, wondering how to word this politely. “Uptight. Or, like, I dunno, maybe he was just being all professional, but yeah, no, not really my type.”

Linda looks at him with narrowed eyes, because Frank’s aware that he’s doing that coughing, avoiding-her-eyes thing, and then she says, “Spill it.”

“Nothing!” he says too loudly. “There’s nothing to spill. Really.” And well, if he’s been thinking about that guy with the trench coat and the camera more than he’s ever thought about any other customer, then that’s not any of her business. Not yet. She gives him a wary, disbelieving, “Okay,” and then launches into a recount of some tale of her hairdresser’s son or something of the sort. Frank counts the change of topic as a win.

His mom sends him home with a massive tub of spaghetti with tofu “meatballs” (“Seriously, Frankie, I’m not going to eat that. It’ll go to waste if you don’t take it. At least I’ll know you’re getting fed.”) and a tin of homemade cookies as a token of her thanks for his visit.

*

Dewees wins at poker (only because Frank lets him) on Monday night so Frank is on sweeping duty for the rest of the week. He doesn’t actually mind sweeping, as it’s a nice, mindless task, and he always blares Black Flag or some Danzig so he can improvise some dance moves as he does so. At some point, James pulls out his phone and starts recording, and Frank offers him a middle finger with a sarcastic smile.

Mr. Toro is due to come by next week, and Frank casually ignores the impending doom that settles in the pit of his stomach like bad Chinese food.

Tedium sets in by Thursday, leaving Dewees making attempts at more tower figures of various supplies and Frank fidgety and unable to sit still to even so much as glance at the books. He has Dewees take care of them, and Frank does most of the manual labor.

Five minutes before closing on Friday, a frazzled woman rushes in talking a million miles a minute about her sister’s wedding and suddenly Frank and Dewees have a lot more work to do.

“The other goddamn florist is missing half a fuckin’ brain, and my sister’s going to eat my fuckin’ head off if I don’t find someone that can do this!” Dewees brings the woman, Marrie, some water – making, back off, she’s mine eyes at Frank (which, whatever, blonde hair, blue eyes, stick thin, and high-maintenance is so not his type; not to mention that Frank’s been favoring the male species lately) – and she is exponentially calmer afterwards. “It’s scheduled for Tuesday at noon, so do you think that you could do the bouquets and boutonnieres exactly like this?” She shows Frank the pictures on her iPhone, sliding her finger across the screen at a rapid pace.

Fifteen minutes after closing, Dewees starts making “I’m ready to go home now” noises, and Frank shoos him away while he manages to get Marrie calm enough to email him the pictures.

“So, let me make sure I have this perfect,” Frank starts. He looks back over his notes, showing her everything he has written down, reading them aloud too to verify everything. “Nine bouquets, six boutonnieres, and three arrangements – one for each tier of the cake. Does that look right? Do you need or want anything else?”

She quickly scans the list. “Yes, no, this is totally perfect, oh, my god. You’re a goddamn saint.” (He doesn’t point out the irony of that last statement.) Marrie looks up at him, and for a moment, Frank is a little scared that she might try to kiss him. She’s got this twinkly awe in her wide, blue eyes – one that he knows is the predatory hunting glint of a past-thirty single female. It’s terrifying.

Frank clears his throat, surreptitiously putting a few extra inches of space between them. “Alright,” he says, “I’ve got your account all set. We can have these at the venue before nine in the morning, this Tuesday.”

After Marrie thanks Frank about a million and a half times, Frank locks up and heads back to his office for planning. He supposes he could do this upstairs…but his desk chair is comfortable enough and at least here he won’t get distracted. Maybe he could even get a head start on this situation: white hydrangeas (of course), huge, pink and white peonies, bells of Ireland, pale purple heather…a pink hyacinth boutonniere for the groom and purple ones for the groomsmen.

It’s past nine by the time Frank deems himself finished for the night, well beyond exhausted after he does his last watering rounds and locks up. As he’s slowly making his way up the stairs to his apartment, Frank thinks of a nice, relaxing yoga routine, but by the time he’s actually gotten all the way inside (and gotten something to eat and gone back out to water his plants and then gotten back inside), Frank is feeling far, far too lazy to even think about yoga.

Instead, Frank takes a real, honest-to-god bath. (He totally outgays himself with the scentless candles and oil diffuser, but the lavender is so calming that he forgets to care.) It’s the nicest hour of Frank’s entire life. He even drains some of the water and refills the tub to keep it nice and warm.

He collapses into his bed, tosses the towel near the hamper in the corner, and promptly falls asleep bared to the world.

*

Bright and early the next morning, Frank wakes up warm and rightly exhausted. His alarm still hasn’t gone off, so he tucks into the covers a little deeper and ruts sleepily into the mattress, thinking of long, pale fingers and dark, tousled hair and wide, hazel eyes. He thinks nothing of it until he’s stripping his sheets, berating himself. The alarm goes off and Frank is reminded that he’s all on his own today.

When he gets down to the shop, Frank remembers his emergency order and Marrie’s creepily intense stare. He shudders, and as he’s going back to check on the coolers, he has to abruptly turn around and answer the phones. For a Saturday, it’s pretty much non-stop catering to the desires of seemingly each and every person in the tri-state area and much busier than Frank is used to. It’s three before things settle down enough for Frank to begin thinking about food, and right as he’s about to head over to flip the sign in the window to “closed,” a familiar face catches his eye.

The overhead bell chimes happily and Frank, for all that he is well and truly exhausted, smiles and says, “Hey, Gerard, what can I do for you?” Frank’s stomach gives a belated lurch as he realizes that, oh, yes, he definitely did jerk off to this guy this morning.

Gerard looks windblown, ruddy in the cheeks and bright in the eyes. “Hi, um, Frank.” He smiles, sort of shyly but delighted and huge and pretty with his tiny teeth, and Frank is so ridiculously charmed that he almost doesn’t bother to stop the giggle that’s bubbling up in his chest. He fidgets, shifting every few beats as his eyes flit around and his cheeks go a little redder. “I was just. In the neighborhood. There was a, uh, fire alarm incident at work, and so they sent us all home early since it’s already so close to the end of the day and yeah.” He gives a little huff-laugh and runs his hand through his hair to make it stand even more on end.

“Oh, man,” Frank says, trying not to grin manically. “That’s awesome. As long as, you know, it was just a glitch and not an actual fire.” If Dewees were here, he’d be making kissy faces behind Gerard’s back, or maybe humping one of the displays. “Well, I was just about to close up for lunch, but you’re more than welcome to –”

“Oh, shit, I can go,” Gerard interrupts, half-gesturing toward the door. He looks panicked again and Frank really, really wants to hold his hand before he pokes his eye out with the flailing. For safety.

“No, no, if you want to look around, or whatever, it’s cool. I mean, I’ve already waited this long; a little while longer won’t kill me.” Frank means it, but Gerard looks like he’s going to anxiety-attack himself into an early grave, so Frank amends (smoothly, because he is one smooth motherfucker) with a, “Or you could join me on my walk down the street to Patrick’s and maybe we could get some coffee and then come back?”

The answering smile that Gerard offers is nearly blinding. “I, um, yeah, that’d be cool. Coffee would. I like, yeah. Awesome.”

“Great!” Frank’s veins are bouncing under his skin and he feels like he’s going to vibrate right up into the air with how suddenly, overwhelmingly excited he is. He locks up with Gerard hovering awkwardly by the door, still alternately running his hands through his hair and stuffing them into the pockets of his leather jacket.

As much as he’d like to, Frank doesn’t grab Gerard’s hand as they walk the six stores over to Patrick Stump’s bakery. It’s a hole in the wall place, lodged between a Starbucks and the bookstore/café that Frank frequents. (He’ll never ever admit that Starbucks has better coffee than Patrick’s, but what Patrick doesn’t know won’t hurt him.) Frank steps up to the register, already intent on a gigantic blueberry muffin and a cinnamon scone and an order of the homemade potato chips. When he starts to get his wallet out, Gerard stalks forward and says, “Oh, I’ll be paying for his. Could I have a turkey sandwich, just the way it comes, and a large coffee?”

After they’ve found a place to sit, right by the front window so that they afternoon light is slanted brightly across their table, Frank stresses, “You didn’t have to pay for that, really.”

But Gerard just waves a hand, saying, “No, no, seriously. It’s the least I could do. I mean, you were, like, willing to wait so I could look around and stuff. And I took pictures before, so, yeah.” His cheeks are still pink.

Frank looks at him suspiciously, and then he asks, “So, why’d you really come by?” because as awkward as the guy is, Frank can smell a lie a mile away. That “work” story was completely bogus – and nobody wears leather jackets to work.

Gerard grins sheepishly and looks down at the table. “I, um,” he starts, voice cracking a bit. He clears his throat and continues. “I lied,” he admits. “I didn’t have work today. I actually came by because I wanted to ask you if you could do me a favor.”

Quirking a brow, Frank asks, “And what would that be?”

They’re briefly interrupted by Pete, a squirrelly emo-looking guy with maybe more tattoos than Frank, bringing them their food. He leaves the tray in the center of the tiny table with a wink, and says, “Enjoy!” much too brightly.

Frank immediately digs into his scone, and practically orgasms as he takes a first, massive bite. “Jesus motherfucking Christ,” he groans. He holds it out and says, “Seriously, take a pinch; you’ll love it.”

Hesitantly breaking off a tiny corner, Gerard pops it into his mouth and then goes, “Oh, my god,” all surprised and amazed and a little bit jealous.

“Hell yeah,” Frank says, smirking around another mouthful. “Now. Favor.”

“Oh, right,” Gerard says. He daintily wipes at the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin. “Well, like I said, those pictures I took…” He meets Frank’s eyes, still looking a bit scared. “I put them up, ya know, on my blog. And well, I got contacted by this journal I’ve been following like religiously and they’ve asked me to work for them part time. So, I was wondering if I could like, interview you, and maybe, um, take more pictures and stuff.”

The hopeful look in Gerard’s eyes could stop war and save puppies, or something. Frank doesn’t even really have to think about it before he’s saying, “Okay, sure. Yeah, it’ll be fun.” He’s never been interviewed before.

“Awesome! Oh, wow. Thank you so much,” Gerard says earnestly, practically melting Frank’s soul with how brightly he’s smiling. “It’ll sort of be like free marketing, too. Because you’ll get an article and we can add all of your information and yeah.”

He really doesn’t have to convince Frank, but Frank nods along regardless, watching Gerard talk and eat and sip at his (now lukewarm) coffee. When they get back to the shop after Frank swings by Starbucks for his own coffee, Frank reopens and allows Gerard to sit at Dewees’s stool in the front workstation while Frank mans the register, phones, computers, and customers. There’s a steady stream of chatter, Gerard going on about this journal that he’s obsessed with and his blog. Frank listens intently, commenting every now and again or asking questions.

It’s interesting, learning the lulls and cadences that make up Gerard’s speech, the gestures and motions he makes when he’s excited, the brightness in his eyes, the flush in his cheeks.

By the time closing rolls around, Frank has dealt with more customers than he can count, he still hasn’t gotten to work on the Wedding from Hell’s flower situation, and he’s remembered that Ray Toro will be at il bel fiore at nine o’clock sharp Monday morning. Frank is aware of the moment Gerard notices Frank’s frozen form, because he goes, “Frank?” and asks him if he’s alright.

Frank turns, gives him a half-grin and says, “Yeah, yeah. Just, it’s closing time and I still have a lot of work to do.”

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry. I’ve probably been distracting you all day and –”

“No, no,” Frank cuts him off. Seriously, this guy’s panic is concerning. “It’s not you. I swear. These past few days have just been kind of crazy. There’s this wedding on Tuesday and an auditor’s coming Monday, and just.” He makes a descriptive motion with his hand that he hopes explains things.

Nodding, Gerard says, “Oh, um. Okay.” He still looks unsure, like he’s ready to dash at any moment, but Frank puts his fingers around Gerard’s wrist – taking a moment to notice how sharply his tattoos stand out against the pale, pale white of Gerard’s skin – to assure him.

“Really, if you’re not busy, I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to stay,” Frank says, grinning up at Gerard. “It’s nice having someone to talk to on a Saturday night.” And oh, god, Frank didn’t mean to say that out loud, but there it is, his lameness, up front and wide open.

Gerard’s brows crease together, and he asks, “Why would I be busy?” kind of abruptly, and then immediately starts amending with, “I mean, no. Yeah. I’m not busy. I mean, I’ll be going back home to Belleville tomorrow afternoon like I do every Sunday. That’s basically the extent of my weekend plans.” He trails off for a few moments, running a hand through his hair again. “That or, like, another Lord of the Rings marathon.” Gerard snorts at himself.

’There is no other way,’” Frank quotes – and of course Gerard knows exactly which scene Frank’s thinking of, because he starts cackling, and manages, “’I ask only for the strength to defend my people!’” through his laughing, which starts Frank going too.

“Dude,” Frank says, blinking a few times, “I fucking love those movies.” If he’s looking at Gerard with something akin to awe; that’s because Frank is feeling something akin to awe. They start talking plot points and cinematic brilliance while Frank switches the sign over to “closed” and locks the door. Gerard follows him back to his office, still waxing poetic about the filmography when Frank takes him to the cooler.

The steady stream of words breaks off into a, “Whoa.” Gerard whirls around, and asks, “What is this magical place?”

He can see why Gerard might think it were magical. A series of small windows along the east and north walls allow patches of waning sun to provide a bit of natural light in the place. There are all kinds of plants suspended from the ceiling in white buckets, a large basin that spans the center of the room, housing a garden of all of the most commonly demanded flowers – bushes of red roses, white hydrangeas, baby’s breath, stalks of purple irises – and aside from that, the entire back wall is a set of industrial coolers holding shelf upon shelf of just about every type of flower Frank has ever used in arrangements. Finally, to the right and up a couple of steps is the work area.

Frank giggles. “This is the storage-slash-cooler-slash-workshop. I hoard off-season flowers in here, mostly...and work on big projects, like weddings and funerals and charity events.” He gestures everywhere, watching Gerard walk around with his hands behind his back, one wrapped around the other’s wrist as if he were restraining himself from touching. Frank can’t have that; it just won’t do.

He leans forward to stroke the petals of some hydrangeas, soft and velvety between his fingers, and he says, “They won’t bite.”

Gerard snorts and goes, “I dunno, Frank. I’ve seen Little Shop of Horrors. I don’t know if I want to take any chances.”

“Oh, man.” Frank laughs, a giggle erupting into a full-belly laugh. “I haven’t seen that in forever! Scared the shit out of me when I was a kid. I always thought Granddad would get eaten or Nonna’d have to turn into a serial killer or something.”

When Frank turns, Gerard is right there, elbow brushing his own, one hand finally extended to the same bunch of flowers Frank’s tending to. He slides his fingers up the petals, eyes going wide with awe again. “They’re a lot softer than I’d thought they’d be,” Gerard whispers.

“Please tell me you’ve actually felt flower petals before and I don’t have to jump from the roof right now.” Frank’s heart is beating loudly in his ears, and his fingers tremble a little bit, so he tucks them into the pockets of his jeans. His voice is breathy, not quite a returning whisper, but rougher. “You’ve had to have bought some before?”

Gerard quirks a lopsided grin, and Frank is positive he doesn’t imagine the way his gaze flits to Frank’s mouth. But then Gerard straightens up, clears his throat. “Yes, I have,” he says softly. “It’s just been awhile. But that’s a story for another day, I’m afraid.” He glances at the clock on the wall and says, “I really should probably leave. I don’t want to distract you any more than I already have.”

And well, Frank guesses that’s true. But this has been nice – having someone to actually have a conversation with rather than snarky banter, not that Frank would trade Dewees for anything in the world, but…well, Frank isn’t attracted to Dewees, either. He doesn’t argue, though. “Well, it’s been a real pleasure, Gerard,” Frank says after he’s walked Gerard back up front. He unlocks the door and says, “Feel free to come by any time and we can start on the, uh, thing.”

After another one of those blinding smiles, Gerard says, “Yeah, thanks. Goodnight, Frank.”

Dumbstruck, Frank answers, “Goodnight.” He manages to make it all the way back to the workshop before he sighs like a teenager in love.

*

“Frankie, are you sure you’re alright?”

So, maybe Frank had stayed up a little (see: way, way, way) too late working on the bouquets for the Wedding from Hell, and maybe Frank has spent the last ten minutes sneakily dozing while his mother yaps at him. His fingers are sore and stained, and his shoulders and back ache from stooping for so many hours straight.

“Yeah, Ma, ‘m fine.” Linda shoots him one of those don’t-believe-you-for-a-second glares, and Frank amends, “Okay, I’m just a little tired. Had to work late. There’s a wedding on Tuesday and we got the order on Friday, so I’m just playing catch-up. It’s not a big deal.” He yawns again.

“If you say so.”

Frank hears more gossip, and then Linda starts dogging him for any semblance of relationship-esque noises, but Frank’s been avoiding those kinds of topics since he was a teen, and manages to slip free unscathed. However, Gerard has definitely been on his mind for the past twenty-four hours, and Frank gets lost in his daydreams a few more times before his mom sends him packing with another tub of homemade food and another tin of cookies.

*

Monday, Frank tells Dewees that he’s in charge of manning the front because he will be with Mr. Toro all day. He’d honestly rather leave the guy alone to work in peace, but Frank has always been inquisitive at heart and he wants to know what mistakes he’s made, how he can fix them, if there’s anything he could do to improve.

They break for lunch at noon (probably the earliest Frank has ever had lunch in at least a year) and Frank takes Mr. Toro and Dewees to Patrick’s. The meal loosens Mr. Toro – “Please, you can call me ‘Ray.’” – up quite a bit, and by the time they reopen for the afternoon, he’s asking Frank if he has any music he could play. Metallica seems to be Ray’s favorite, but Frank plays a nice variety (including Black Flag, because it’s always a good time for Black Flag) that they both enjoy.

Ray packs up at closing and heads out with a cordial wave, saying he’ll see them on Thursday, and Frank ignores the Deweesy noises of anxiety.

“Dude, I’ve been working my ass off on these bouquets, and I only have two more. One’s the brides. The least you could do is make the boutonnieres for me.”

Dewees makes grumbly complaining sounds, but he cracks down and cranks them out in only two hours.

“How’d you even do that?” Frank asks, incredulous. He examines them closely, looking for errors (of which there are none) and then he says, “These are perfect. I could kiss you.”

“No, no, no, Frank. We all know how that always turns out,” Dewees says, holding his fingers up in a cross as he scoots away from Frank’s kissy face.

Frank laughs, and they end up working on the bride’s bouquet together.

It’s past ten by the time they’ve got everything in the cooler, packed and ready to go first thing in the morning.

*

Although he hates driving the van, Frank manages to make it all the way across town to St. Raphael Roman Catholic Church ten minutes before nine. He double parks, and prays that he’ll be able to get the flowers safely deposited inside before that gets noticed. An elderly woman comes out to greet him, speaking in Italian. Frank’s is a little rusty, so he simply replies, “Buongiorno. Uh, Marrie?”

The old lady bellows, “Marriangela!”

Marrie appears, looking exponentially more frazzled than she had on Friday, but this time in a thin, flower-patterned robe with her hair piled on top of her head and no makeup on. He has her follow him over to the van, peek in to make sure everything looks the way she wanted it. “Mr. Iero, you’re a lifesaver.” Up close, her eyes are brown and now Frank sees that the previous blue must’ve been contacts – but then her mouth is sticky and warm against his cheek and Frank tries really hard not to squirm away. “Thank you so much, these are perfect. She’s gonna love ‘em. Suzie!”

There’s a muffled, “What?!” and then a Marrie look-alike appears, only smaller and younger, and then Frank is shoved aside while the bride and her sister exclaim over the flowers. She turns to look at Frank. “These are goddamn perfect. Get ‘em inside and I’ll give you my sister as payment.” Suzie, apparently, winks and rushes back in for hair or makeup or whatever.

Frank sort of glances at Marrie, who’s looking at him predatorily again, and he blurts out, “I’m flattered, but I don’t think that’d work out, seeing as how, um –”

She just smirks at him and pats the back of her hand against his chest. “Don’t worry, she’s only kidding.”

With a subtle, relieved sigh, Frank starts unloading the bouquets. By the time he’s brought in the last load, Marrie comes out to thank him one last time and then she asks about his coworker, and Frank has absolutely no qualms whatsoever about giving out Dewees’s number.

*

Later that night, Frank goes home to apologize to his plants. The past few days have been non-stop work and his drooping peonies look saddened by his neglect. He pays special attention to each plant, watering slowly and thoroughly, humming and singing off-key.

He drags his yoga mat out onto the balcony, still giving his plants the gift of his presence as he does his asanas. Frank lies in the center of his mat with his knees bent and his arms extended. He begins with deep, pursed-lipped breathing, ensuring a pause between each exhale and inhale. It does a great job of clearing his mind – he forgets all about the traffic sounds, the hectic day, the anxiety of not knowing how this audit will conclude – and expanding his diaphragm. The stress flows out of Frank’s body – down his spine, out through his fingertips – with each pose, twisting and bending and stretching. He feels great, like he can really breathe.

Frank rolls his mat back up and, after he traipses back into the apartment, shoves it into his closet. It’s silent inside and it makes Frank’s chest feels funny. He blares Black Flag’s album Damaged because quiet is overrated. Frank spends the rest of the evening in his yoga pants finally finishing All the King’s Men.

*

Sleep should come easily to Frank. He finished his fucking book (and it did end up getting better, even though the governor’s name, Stark, made him want to pull out his old comics and have an Iron Man marathon) and did his fucking relaxation yoga, but there’s something niggling in the pit of Frank’s stomach that refuses to quiet: he wants somebody here with him. Badly enough to put one of his pillows in the spot beside him so that he can pretend he’s the big spoon. It’s not even just the fact that he hasn’t been laid since that one time he went bar-hopping with Dewees and woke up with a hangover the size of Russia (and made a note to never mix liquors again). He sighs and rolls over, wondering if it has something to do with the fact that every time he closes his eyes, he sees hazel eyes and a bright, sincere smile.

And if he doesn’t do something about this soon, this need to hold and be held…then he might do something stupid. Like ask Dewees to snuggle with him or something equally ridiculous.

*

Thursday, Ray shows Frank everything he’s found so far that doesn’t coincide with the records. It’s all on this Excel spreadsheet with the mistakes highlighted in red. They work together on going through proper procedures and Frank feels a little bit better after it’s all said and done.

“And actually,” Ray says. He rolls his sleeves up to the elbows and Frank is, for a moment, entranced by the size of his forearms. “These charity events…they can all be written off. You donated flowers and money, Frank. People rarely do that.” The appraised approval is apparent on his face, and Frank can’t help but shrug his shoulders and look bashfully away.

“Hey, Frank,” Dewees says, peeking his head around the corner. “Someone named Gerard’s here, says he’s supposed to interview you. Well, at least that’s what I gathered after all of the…” He makes an expansive hand gesture, and Frank knows exactly what he’s talking about. It takes Gerard a while to get to a point, Frank’s learned.

“Yeah.” Frank laughs. “Okay, cool, send him back.”

Ray’s making a puzzled face, but his eyes are still intent on the computer screen, so Frank doesn’t know what it’s about, but when he hears Gerard do his little shuffle in the doorway, Ray swivels around and shouts, “Gerard motherfucking Way! It has to have been six years since I’ve last seen you, bro.”

Gerard’s face is split into one of those earth-shattering grins, and he says, “Ray!” as he envelops Ray in a hug.

“Well, I guess I don’t have to do awkward introductions,” Frank comments.

There are a few minutes of “Oh, my god, how’ve you been?!” where Frank just watches Gerard’s face and Ray’s wild hand gestures, and eventually deduces that they must’ve gone to college together from a statement about a kegger once upon a time ago that got busted by the cops.

Frank awaits some sort of explanation that eventually comes in the form of, “Gerard here is the best accountant you’ll find on the whole eastern seaboard. He graduated top of the class, and I was his close second.” Ray’s beaming at Gerard, who has the gall to look abashed, and then he asks, “So what are you even doing nowadays?”

Gerard runs a hand through his hair and mumbles, “I run the accounting department at Real World Industries over on 86th.” Ray gives a low whistle, and Gerard shuffles a bit. “I know. It’s pretty soul-sucking, but it pays well. ‘Sides, I just got hired by this journal to do articles on local spots in Jersey, and Frank’s got the first spot.” He starts sounding excited, but peters off. “You still play?”

Ray looks impressed, and then he answers, “Yeah, just dallying here and there. Actually, my band’s playing a gig down at Joe’s tomorrow night. You guys are more than welcome to come check us out.” His voice does this squawky thing, and Frank can tell that he’s excited and really does want them there.

“Yeah, okay,” Frank says, glancing over at Gerard. He’s looking back at Frank, cheeks tingeing pink all the way down to disappear past his collar. Frank gets a little distracted by the line of the white bisected by the deep black of his tie, then his eyes trail down and he’s caught on the black of Gerard’s tight vest. He swallows thickly. “That sounds like fun.”

“I’ll be there,” Gerard assures Ray.

Clearing his throat, Frank gestures to the computer. “Well,” he says. “If you’re at a stopping point, maybe we could all go grab some lunch. How’s that sound?”

*

Lunch proves to be a great idea – Frank hears stories about Ray failing spectacularly with a beer bong and Gerard singing karaoke, absolutely shitfaced, with one of their professors and then nearly getting arrested for public intoxication. By far, though, the most interesting story happens when Ray thoughtfully says, “You know, I remember you trying to drag me and Mikey to il bel after…” he makes a vague hand gesture. Frank gets up to go get napkins, and as he’s returning he hears, “But you kept telling us there was a cute guy working there. We went back for months and we never did see him. I always thought you’d made it up, like a Tyler Durden scenario.”

Frank could kiss Ray Toro on the goddamn mouth for outing Gerard like that, but he keeps his facial twitching to a minimum and pretends not to have heard, as he sets the salvaged napkins in the center of the table.

Blushing, Gerard glances up and then back down, says, “Nah, my insomnia’s never been that bad and I don’t know anyone who sells soap.”

“Oh, man, I love that book! And the movie,” Frank responds. He shoves a handful of chips in his mouth and adds, “Palahniuk’s a genius.”

He and Ray chat back and forth about how the movie’s actually a damn good adaptation while Gerard slowly swirls his spoon in his potato soup. Because Gerard looks lost and a smidgen uncomfortable, Frank changes the subject by asking about Ray’s band, but he does make a note to ask Gerard about that later.

*

Gerard actually has to leave after they get back to il bel, because apparently he thought he’d spend his lunch break asking questions instead of eating, but Ray gets back to work in Frank’s office and Frank stays up front so that Dewees can get lunch.

He gets another wedding order, but this time far enough in advance that he doesn’t have to fret about working overtime, and as he’s answering the phone, an elderly woman walks in and glances around.

“I’ll be with you in just a moment,” Frank says, holding his palm down over the receiver. For the fifty-millionth time he explains that no, he does not sell marijuana because it’s illegal, and hangs up. “How can I help you?”

Frank comes out from around the register and approaches the woman. Her hair is so white it’s practically blue, and her wrinkles have wrinkles. She kind of reminds Frank of Nonna in that way that all elderly people do. In her hand is a pocketbook – literally, a pocketbook – and she shuffles in place a bit, gesturing around. “I like what you’ve done with the place, Mr. Iero,” she says in her shaky voice. Her smile is wide, showing off her (obvious) dentures.

Hunching in on himself, Frank blushes and says, “Well, thank you, Ma’am. I didn’t want to change it too much. It was my grandmother’s.”

“Oh, yes,” she says, nodding, “I remember quite well. My Maurice, God rest his soul, used to play bridge with the late Mr. and Mrs. Iero. And that Anthony, he was quick, I remember.” She smiles, voice rising with skepticism. “Did you know that he actually won this building in a game? Won fair and square on a January Sunday in 1949.”

And this is intriguing. Frank’s heard the stories about a million and a half times from his grandparents, his dad, but never from the opposite side. There are pictures and even a newspaper clipping, Frank’s granddad shaking hands with a sharp-looking man next to another picture of them both many, many years later, old and gray.

“Maurice always did have a gambling problem.” The phone begins to ring, and Frank dutifully ignores it, telling the woman that it’ll go to voicemail. She purses her lips, but continues nonetheless. “It was unblessedly cold out, so Angelina and I stayed in the den by the fireplace, sipping brandied hot chocolate – I still remember it clear as day. Maurice and Anthony were in the kitchen, smoking cigars and playing cards. Right when it began to snow, Tony comes in and he says, ‘Angie, my dear. I’m going to win you a flower shop, just like you always wanted.’ I knew right then that Maurice never stood a chance!” She breaks off into a laugh and Frank smiles fondly at her memories. “Sure enough, Maurice handed over the keys and signed it over right there on the kitchen table.”

They’re both still sharing a laugh when James comes back, smiling delightedly, saying, “Mrs. Webber!” He stoops to give her a hug, still smiling even when her back is to Frank, which must mean that Dewees is actually being sincere. “How’s your Maurice?”

Mrs. Webber chuckles, smoothing her hair down and tucking her scarf back tightly around her neck. “Actually, that’s why I came by today. I’ll be needing the nicest arrangement possible for his casket. We’ve got grandchildren flying in from Portland so the funeral won’t be until Tuesday.”

“Oh, I’m sorry –”

She waves a hand, dismissing their attempts. “No need for condolences, boys. It was his due time.” Ms. Webber smiles, patting a hand against Dewees’s cheek. “I did want to thank you for finding me that lovely arrangement last week, Mr. Dewees. Though it didn’t heal him, it did provide him a bit of comfort, like I’d hoped.”

Both Frank and Dewees see Ms. Webber out, fretting over whether she has a ride or needs an extra pair of gloves or something. She assures them she’s fine and reminds Frank which church the funeral will be held at, and says she trusts him to arrange something most wonderful. And oh, god, if that isn’t motivation. He’s probably going to be more stressed about this than he was the wedding…

Afterward, Frank goes back to his office to find Ray up to his elbows in the boxes of records Frank brought out from storage. “Ah, hey, Frank,” he says, continuing to dig through the files. “I think I’m on the last leg. This might be the quickest audit I’ve ever done.” Ray leans over, a file held between his lips, and types out a few digits on the laptop. “You really don’t have too many errors, and I’m fairly certain that the ones that I did show you will be countered by all of the charity work that could’ve been written off. I think I’ll check on that with my superiors and see what I can do about that.”

“Oh,” Frank says. That sounds a lot better than he had been expecting. Like a lot.

“Actually, after I finish up this last box and double check, I’ll be finished,” Ray says, looking up at Frank. He grins, and actually comes over to shake Frank’s hand. “I just want to thank you for keeping such pristine records, Mr. Iero.”

It’s been a few days since Frank’s seen the professionalism, so it makes him giggle but he shakes Ray’s hand nonetheless, and returns, “Why thank you!”

Ray goes back to digging in the box, pulling out files dated from 2009. “No evidence of fraud, just a few simple mistakes that could be avoided with the keen eye of an accountant or someone specializing in the books. Other than that, keep up the good work, Frank.”

*

Gerard returns Friday at one, introduced with appropriate fanfare by Dewees. Frank saves the spreadsheet he’d been working on and glances up to see him, grinning and shuffling and fidgeting about. He has his small leather camera bag secured tightly across his vest-ensconced chest to rest on his hip.

“Hi,” Gerard eventually breathes. “I was wondering if we could try again today?”

Frank smiles back, nodding and running a hand through his hair. It’s getting kind of long. “Yeah, yeah, I was about to break for lunch anyway.” The face Gerard makes in return is a little hesitant, so Frank continues with, “I’m a little bit tired of The Bakery, so I was just going to go home, if that’s alright? You could come with me if you want.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to intru—”

“It’s just upstairs. And maybe we could actually get some real interviewing done, eh?” Frank makes his very best hopeful smile.

Acquiescing with a slight nod, Gerard says, “Okay, I guess. As long as I’m not, you know, intruding. Or whatever.”

Rolling his eyes with a slightly exasperated sigh, Frank shuts down the laptop and motions for Gerard to lead the way down the hall. He glances toward the storage room and Frank makes a mental note to maybe let Gerard look around again before he has to be back at work for the afternoon. Dewees doesn’t even complain when Frank says they’re going for a quick bite to eat – in fact, he looks like he gives not a single shit. Which is terrifying because that means he’s definitely up to something.

Frank leads Gerard around the building toward the staircase, taking a brief moment to pull out his set of keys to unlock the wrought iron gate. Behind him, Frank hears Gerard whisper, “’One does not simply walk into Mordor.’” Frank starts giggling so hard that he actually drops the keys and fumbles with them, ignoring Gerard’s, “See?” until he calms down a bit. Frank allows Gerard through and gestures for him to head on up while he locks the gate back. When he gets up to the balcony, Frank sees Gerard looking around in mild awe. It sort of makes Frank weak in the knees.

“These are my babies,” he says weakly, throwing his hand out toward the wine-boxes and buckets and pots full of bushes and flowers and the lone fern by the front door.

Gerard turns back to him, still looking quite wowed, and says, “I’ve never met someone who actually brought their work home with them.”

Snorting, Frank says as he unlocks the door, “Oh, my god, no. These used to be my Nonna’s. Except for that—” He points to the box of tulip stalks in the corner of the balcony. “Those are actually mine.”

He quickly disarms the alarm system and drops his keys in the bowl by the door, allowing Gerard inside behind him before he shuts the door and shucks his shoes. Frank slides on his socks into the kitchen, just like he’d done for years and years growing up, and steadies himself against the fridge. “How do you feel about veggie lasagna? It’s either that or PB&Js.”

“Umm,” Gerard muses, looking sort of distracted as he keeps glancing toward the bookshelves opposite the kitchen on the far wall of the living room. “Either is fine. I’m not picky.”

“You can go check stuff out in there if you want, I don’t mind,” Frank says, quirking a smile as he takes out the latest container of homemade goodness.

As he’s popping the lid and shoving it in the microwave, Frank keeps an eye on Gerard. He’s walking along the wall, hands folded behind his back, restraining his wrist between long, pale fingers as if, again, telling himself not to touch. Frank checks the food, poking it to make sure it’s warm in the middle before deciding to let it go for another minute. Gerard’s leaning closer, inspecting the titles, and then he stoops, catching sight of the cabinets full of DVDs and CDs and records, respectively. Frank has never been considered far-sighted but he has to admit that he has a most spectacular view, even all the way from the kitchen.

The microwave beeps at him, and he pokes it again. The outer layers are pretty much molten lava and the inner ones are hot enough. They may need to warm it again while they’re eating it but it should be fine. (Frank’s never gotten lasagna to warm consistently throughout, so why should this time be any different?) “Soup’s up,” he calls. “Want coffee or water or…I think I have some lemonade? Also, soymilk, if that’s your thing.”

“Uh, water’s fine.”

In relative quiet, they eat. Occasionally Gerard will ask a question and Frank will answer with his mouth mostly full, because he’s never had the best table manners, and Gerard will laugh at him and wave a hand like, “I’ll just ask you later, my god,” only to ask another one three minutes later as if he’s forgotten. Frank is happy. He’s trying really hard not to spaz out of his chair, so he keeps himself mostly contained to only jiggling his leg up and down or shifting his feet. He runs into Gerard every now and then, but Gerard doesn’t ever say anything about it; he just takes another bite and blushes.

Gerard finishes first, declines Frank’s offer for more, and then rinses his plate in the sink. It makes Frank feel like a bad host, but he’s glad to see that Gerard sort of makes himself right at home. He gets another bottle of water out of the fridge and then sits back down across from Frank.

Grinning up at him through his mouthful of cheese and noodles and mushrooms and bell peppers, Frank asks, “Did you like it?”

He nods, gaze falling to where Frank feels a stray bit of mushroom sliding down his chin. Gerard laughs and says, “You got a little…” and points to his own chin. If Frank were dining alone, he’d probably try to get it with his tongue, but since Gerard’s actually pointing it out, Frank picks it off and shoots it toward the trashcan. He has no clue if it goes in, but Gerard’s laughing again, that delighted little chuckle, so Frank counts it as a win either way.

Frank rinses his own plate and gets himself a glass of soymilk before he sits back down at the table.

Gerard takes his phone out of his pocket, fiddles with it for a second and lays it on the table between them. The screen shows a little microphone and Gerard touches the screen over a little red circle. It makes a sound and then shows time elapsing.

“Oh, you’re recording?” Frank asks. Gerard nods, quirking half a smile. “Well cool.”

Immediately starting in with questions, Frank answers, as honestly as he can, the story about how he came to own the shop, what the most common flowers people like to purchase are depending on the season, any special bargains or offers they have, et cetera, et cetera. He makes sure to wrap up his rambling so that Gerard has enough time to make it back to work, and as he’s walking Gerard out and locking up, he (sort of awkwardly, much to his chagrin) blurts, “So, uh. Ray’s thing tonight.”

“See you there?” Gerard asks. He’s looking at Frank’s mouth again, and Frank wonders if he has more mushroom bits or something that he’d missed – and then feels a bit mortified because if Gerard let him babble that whole time with food on his face, agh. “At eight?”

“Yeah,” Frank says. “Yeah. Eight.”

Gerard smiles, and says, “Okay.”

“Okay,” Frank repeats, grinning back.

*

Dewees does not help. Well, he helps with flower arrangements and watering and the books, but he does not help when Frank is in dire need. He can’t decide what to wear. Because the bar is pretty laid back, but Frank’s sure he should stick to his usual ensemble of a hoodie and jeans because this isn’t work and he can’t show up with grass stains everywhere and he doesn’t even know if he has anything without grass stains and.

Frank might be freaking out.

“You,” James says, poking one finger into the center of Frank’s chest, “Need to chill the fuck out, my friend.” And yeah, he’s not worried because he looks all spiffy in his jeans and classic fucking Zeppelin shirt. He spins around, facing Frank’s closet, and then turns back with this twinkly, scheming look in his eye. “On one condition will I, James Dewees, help you, Frank Anthony Iero, the second, with your wardrobe crisis.”

“Oh, my god, what.”

“Can I have next Friday off?” he asks, cheesing insincerely at Frank.

Yes,” Frank stresses. “For the love of god. Please just help me.”

Within three minutes, Dewees has extracted the tightest pair of jeans Frank owns with the knees blown out, and a green v-neck shirt that looks almost like the top half of orderly scrubs (that Frank, frankly, had forgotten that he owned). He looks doubtfully at Dewees, biting at his lip and squinching his face just so.

“Do not doubt me, young grasshopper,” Dewees says sagely. “But seriously, dude: sneak peek of the ink…plus you’ve got these collar bones, so you should show ‘em off.” He shrugs, and then flops down onto Frank’s bed like he belongs there, reaching over to grab The Time Machine off of the nightstand.

Ultimately, Frank decides to wear a black undershirt, because he’s not going to show off anything – he’s going to be thirty years old in, like, a month for Christ’s sake – and then a black leather jacket on top of that. His reflection assures him that he doesn’t look like he’s trying too hard, even though he seriously feels nervous, what the fuck, and then he runs his fingers through his hair. Though it hasn’t worked since he was a kid, Frank pinches the skin at the base of his thumb, leaving a reminder for any time he might brush over the tender spot. He needs a fucking haircut.

Dewees drives, alternately, like a grandma or a NASCAR driver. They make it to Joe’s at half-past seven. Almost immediately, Frank spots Gerard and has to fight this silly (see: insane, ridiculous, juvenile) urge to giggle and hide. He makes a gesture to Dewees as he makes his way over to the booth, pleading for a beer, and wonders if they’ll have a good view of the stage.

“Mind if I join you?” Frank says, sounding all the part of a creep.

Gerard looks – concerned, appalled, confused, surprised, happy – at Frank and smiles. “Oh,” he breathes. “Hi, Frank.” His hand twitches up, and then across the booth to the empty seats, and only then does Frank notice that Gerard isn’t alone. He’s all angles and sharpness where Gerard is softer and broader, and he’s got to be Gerard’s brother because that’s pretty much the same face on two different people, just stretched differently to accommodate for differences in bone structure. He has this really awesome hair – sort of like a fauxhawk, but messier and dyed blonde on the longer strands, but shaved short and a more natural looking shade of brown along the sides.

The other guy, apparently sensing Frank’s appraisal, gives something that looks like it might someday be a smile and verifies, “Hi, I’m Mikey, Gerard’s brother.”

Frank shakes his hand and says, “Ah, yes. I think I heard a story about you involving kickball.” The look he catches from Gerard is the beamiest smile he’s seen thus far, and Frank is very, very glad that he can’t not listen to every single word that comes out of Gerard’s mouth. If he garners that reaction every time he proves it, then, by god, Frank will always listen (forever and ever, amen).

“That’s me; kickball champ since the third grade.”

Gerard laughs, beaming at his brother. This time Mikey really does smile and Frank’s a little winded from the intensity of both of them. After a moment, Frank has to look away, and luckily so, because Dewees is over by the bar with two bottles in his hand, scanning the room and looking a little confused. Frank waves really obviously and sure enough, Dewees catches sight and heads over.

He slides the beer across the table to Frank, who thanks him, and then introduces everyone as he slides in to allow James a place to sit. Gerard and Dewees talk about, Frank doesn’t know, shutter speeds affecting shot clarity or something, and Frank doesn’t notice he’s staring until Gerard’s staring right back at him, and then he feels the other eyes on him – and then he’s choking on his beer, spluttering until Dewees doles him a few hefty smacks on the back. “I’m sorry,” he says, after he finally regains clearance to his lungs. “I missed that last bit.”

Dewees shoots him a sly little look from his slanted eyes, and Frank tries really hard to control the color trying to crawl up his cheeks. “Gerard was just saying that you two bonded over Lord of the Rings.”

Nodding, Frank clears his throat one more time, and confirms, “Yeah. Totally did – oh, hey, look. There’s Ray.”

He comes over, waving, and greets them with this huge smile and says, “Frank, Gee, you guys made it! And Dewees, right?” And he does sound excited, but then he breaks off into an even bigger smile, goes, “Mikey motherfucking Way!” and practically vaults across the table to give Mikey a hug where he’s tucked away in the inside of the booth beside Gerard.

There are a few moments where Frank is a little lost, but he settles and watches and learns that, surprisingly enough, the three of them used to be in a band together right after Gerard and Ray had graduated from college. Apparently they’d spent a year touring, but they’d gone their separate ways not too long after.

A few minutes later, a big burly dude (that sort of reminds Frank of Bob Bryar) whisks Ray away for warm-up.

Frank polishes off his beer, feeling the pleasant tingle in his fingertips, and listens to Mikey and Dewees start up a conversation about local bands that Frank has never heard of. He takes a quick peek at Gerard and he looks just as oblivious, so Frank pulls a face and Gerard makes one back to show that he has no idea what the fuck they’re talking about either. When he catches Gerard’s eye a few moments later, he quirks an eyebrow and raises his beer, nodding his head toward the bar. Gerard nods, so Frank unceremoniously shoves Dewees out of the booth and informs him, “Gerard and I are getting refills before Toro goes on. You guys want something?”

“Another Arrogant Bastard for me, please,” Dewees requests, tilting his nearly empty glass toward Frank. Some amber sloshes dangerously near the lip from James’s precarious motioning before he slides back into the booth.

Mikey makes an eyebrow, head-tilt movement that must mean another of whatever he’s having, because Gerard grips Frank around the wrist and leads him toward the bar as Mikey resumes his conversation with Dewees. The place has gotten fuller, displaced air overrun by more bodies, the bitter perfume of alcohol, yet it’s still spacious enough to maneuver easily through the crowd with a quiet, polite, “Excuse me,” every few steps. And yet Gerard’s fingers are still loosely framing Frank’s skin, pressing lightly into the protruding bone, and there’s no way that he can’t feel Frank’s thundering pulse so close to the surface.

He keeps close, doesn’t dare lag, out of fear of losing that precious, tiny and warm and consuming, point of contact.

And Frank is grateful, enthused that Gerard absently secures his grip a little tighter as Frank nearly knocks into the back of him as he stops. Gerard, for all that he is mostly awkward and bashful, is almost commanding, a presence not to be ignored, immediately gets the attention of the bartender and orders all of the drinks with just as much ease as he finessed his way through the throng of bodies. Only as they’re waiting does he seem to notice that he’s still gripping Frank; he drops his wrist, blushes, and apologizes with the panicked innocence Frank has come to recognize.

“It’s okay,” he says, and his voice is rough, nearly breathless. “Really.” He blames the heat working its way up his chest, throat, neck, cheeks on the atmosphere – actually, no. Frank is wanting. So severely and immediately that his stomach swoops and he’s so utterly tempted to drag Gerard away to the nearest place with a door and a lock, the nearest shadow, Frank could cry.

An answering blush lurks just below the collar of Gerard’s shirt – and Christ, how does Frank only notice now the swooping angle of Gerard’s green t-shirt, showing off these sinful collarbones (fuck whatever Dewees said earlier, Gerard has fucking collarbones) and the stark paleness versus the sparse beauty marks – and then Gerard takes a deep breath, and says, “Didn’t mean to just –” waving his hand about in the air between them.

The bartender hands over the four drinks, for which Frank quickly lays down a couple of bills and Gerard looks scandalized. Frank, with a playful smirk, rolls his eyes at Gerard’s squawking and turns back toward the booth. When they return, Mikey and Dewees are still deeply immersed in conversation, so Frank just shoves Dewees further into the booth, closer to Mikey, and perches himself on the outside across from Gerard.

Not even a moment later, the lights go down just a bit and hooting and hollering takes their place. Frank spots the curly wave of Ray Toro’s head and lets out a cheer of his own. He catches Gerard’s eye and makes an excited grin – one that Dewees says makes him look like a small child – and counters that by taking a sip of his beer.

It’s not exactly what Frank was expecting, because given Ray’s penchant for Metallica and Zeppelin, Frank would’ve pinned the band to something a little heavier than this. The lead singer is, surprisingly, the big burly dude from earlier. He has an almost Kurt Cobain type of voice that rasps with certain pitches. The rest of the guys – the drummer, keyboardist, and bassist – all look fairly plain in comparison. Ray had said that they were just a ragtag compilation of guys from an accountant support group, of course, after he’d explained that accountants apparently had the highest rate of suicide out of every occupation. Overall, despite their obvious middle-aged-accountants look, they all play really well together. Ray pretty much stays hunched over his guitar the entire time, occasionally swaying or hopping on the faster-beat songs. They really do look like they’re just having fun though, amplified by the way Ray keeps beaming over at the lead singer.

After two songs, Dewees is shoving Frank out of the booth, shouting over the music that he and Mikey want to get closer as it seems a pseudo-pit has opened up front and center. Frank waves him off and scoots back in.

It’s only a few seconds later that Frank realizes Gerard’s trying to catch his attention. He looks over, sees Gerard’s wide eyes, the blush on his throat, the frantic, nervous way he’s jamming a hand into his hair, and then finally hears the, “You could come sit over here if you want! Better view!”

On autopilot, Frank scoots all the way around the booth to settle right beside Gerard, leaning in close to say, “Thanks,” so that Gerard can hear it (even though it’s not true, the view is actually worse, but Frank wouldn’t dare say otherwise).

Sometime between the next song and Frank leaning in to get a closer look at the stage, his hand has fallen to Gerard’s thigh. It might’ve been an accident, a quiet, “Sorry,” whispered at some point, but from the way that Gerard’s eyes flicker from Frank’s eyes to his mouth and back up again, Frank has lost patience and granted the slip as fate. Just like that he has (finally) pressed his mouth to Gerard’s with no qualms at all.

There’s a vibration, something that might’ve been a noise had the music not been so loud, right there against Frank’s lips, slick and warm as Gerard begins to kiss him back. It tastes like beer, but feels clear and sharp and refreshing like a trickle of spring water. Frank makes an answering noise, lost too amidst the boom of the drums, and brings a hand up to Gerard’s jaw, dragging against the slight stubble before he hooks it perfectly to tilt their mouths together just so.

Gerard’s lips are shiny and red once Frank pulls back. There’s a tiny sense of panic thrumming in his chest, but the thrill of throwing caution to the wind and taking a chance stomps that to the background. When they meet eyes, again, Frank is ecstatic to see Gerard’s bewildered smile and the way his chest heaves ever so slightly.

“Sorry, I just…” Frank says, but then Gerard’s mouth is on his, taking and tasting without his usual hesitation. It might be the best thing that’s happened to Frank in more years than he can count. Their tongues meet at the same time, like they were both getting antsy, egging for more, and Frank’s laugh startles him back. He’s leaning away; catching his breath and still watching Gerard’s mouth, wishing it were closer, wishing they weren’t in the middle of a club in fucking Jersey so that Frank could just have.

Although Frank should feel remorseful about missing the rest of Ray’s set, he absolutely, one hundred percent, does not in any way, shape, or form. He stays (probably too) close to Gerard’s side, fingers still resting over Gerard’s thigh, and cannot, for the life of him, think about anything else but the warmth and anticipation low in his gut.

Mikey and Dewees return as soon as Ray’s band is off of the stage, both shooting suspicious looks in Gerard’s and Frank’s directions respectively. Gerard’s eyes go wide in feigned innocence, but Frank knows he has the all-telling smirk on his mouth and he can’t even pretend to be able to fight it. Dewees offers him a surreptitious fist-bump as congratulations. Frank secures Gerard’s fingers between his own and sinks them toward the middle of the booth.

*

Frank doesn’t know how he would’ve finagled his way into this if there hadn’t have been a legitimate reason, but since Mikey’s opted to stay out with Ray and his band, Frank’s convinced Dewees to give him and Gerard a ride back to Frank’s so that they can work on Gerard’s article. (“He’s got a…a thing. And I’m helping him – come on, Dewees, stop laughing at me, you asshole – quit busting my balls, man.”)

Regardless, Frank now has Gerard bodily pinned against his front door, their mouths open and hot and slanted together so perfectly that Frank can’t help but rut against Gerard’s thigh. He slides his own in between both of Gerard’s, and his stomach fucking burns when he feels how Gerard is just as hard, just as into this as Frank is. “Jesus Christ,” he grumbles, low and breathless against Gerard’s jaw as he breaks off to gasp.

“Yeah,” Gerard answers just as breathlessly, bringing his hands to the back of Frank’s neck to hold him right where he wants. Frank is more than happy to oblige.

Well. For a few moments.

At the next intake of breath, Frank is practically climbing Gerard, tilting his head up, whispering shit in his ear that probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but, hopefully, aptly conveys some of Frank’s current wants. And right now Frank wants a soft place for his knees when he gets his mouth on Gerard’s dick. It must not translate, though, because Frank has to practically drag Gerard down the hallway to his bedroom.

“Been wanting to,” he says, hazy and thick-tongued against Gerard’s throat. His palms and elbows rest on either side of Gerard’s head, cushioned against his mattress. “Can I? Will you let me suck you?” He presses one more kiss and then he’s reaching down, fingers at Gerard’s zipper, begging with everything in his being. “Please?”

“Yeah…yeah, fuck.” Gerard’s eyes are heavy, slitted as he agrees, fumbles his fingers across Frank’s to fiddle with his zipper, coax it down. “God,” he chokes as Frank slides his hand into Gerard’s briefs, making immediate, impressive, contact. Frank wriggles down the mattress, nosing against Gerard’s chest to his stomach, and then back up again, because fuck, he never took advantage of those collarbones. He gnaws and nibbles, laves his tongue over the distressed skin to soothe, bites again, sucks bruises into them, probably more rushed than he’d like, but Gerard’s hips are already working against Frank’s palm, and Frank really just wants to blow him.

He leans up to press one more kiss against Gerard’s mouth, and then gets to work shoving Gerard’s pants down, his briefs soon to follow, and then, “Oh, my – yes. This is. Yes.” Gerard’s dick had felt thick and heavy in Frank’s palm, but it’s long too, flushed and leaking at the tip already.

With no more preamble, Frank hunches in close, splayed across the mattress so that he can rut against it as he mouths along Gerard’s length, breathing in the heady, musky, goddamn perfect scent. The noise that Gerard makes when Frank finally sinks his mouth over Gerard’s cock is, by far, the hottest sound Frank has ever heard; Frank makes an answering, strangled noise, slumping down to get an arm across Gerard’s belly. And, oh, Frank makes a mental note to visit that later, shove his face against the slight yielding softness of it to see if it makes Gerard squirm.

“Frank, this is…oh, so fucking good. My, fucking hell.” His voice is music, lifting and falling and rasping and breathy. Frank brings his hand to the base of Gerard’s dick, slick with the collected spit, and pumps his fist to meet his lips, groaning as precome floods his tongue. “How – I.” He pulls back just enough to really taste it, and then sinks down deep, moving his hand to splay against Gerard’s belly. Frank digs his fingers into it, focuses on working his throat once, twice. He pulls off to cough, and then breathe in great heaving ordeals, and then sinks down again.

Gerard’s hand sinking into his hair is a shockingly good surprise. Frank groans around his mouthful and has to (fucking has to) hump the mattress, just for a second. He pulls off and sucks in a deep breath, his chest quivering as Gerard shakes. “You can fuck my mouth, you know,” Frank informs him, voice already sounding abused. He smirks wickedly and opens his mouth just over Gerard’s dick.

Yeah,” Gerard breathes. And then he’s wrenching Frank up, fingers sinking into Frank’s biceps – still in the goddamn leather jacket, Christ – hard enough to bruise, and sitting upright. Frank practically flings himself to the floor, because, fuck, he loves being on his knees way more than rutting against the mattress, and makes (sure, he’ll even admit it) a whine as he watches Gerard scoot toward the edge of the bed.

When he anchors a hand back into Frank’s hair, sweaty and sticking together, Frank groans and opens his mouth just in time to be pressed against Gerard’s cock. He fans his fingers over Gerard’s thighs, strong with a little give, and lets him go for it. The first thrust is shallow, hesitant, and Frank makes a frustrated noise, until the next cuts it off, closes his airway. And that is fucking perfect. That is what he wants. Frank tries to make encouraging noises when he gets the chance between breaths, but he settles for scraping his fingers up and down the clenching of Gerard’s thighs. Gerard grips Frank’s hair tighter, holds him down just a little bit too long and pulls Frank off with a high, frantic moan, going, “S-sorry, sorry,” for getting carried away.

Frank doesn’t even care.

Actually, he has to drag a hand down and palm at himself through his jeans. The carpet is scratching rough purls against his knees, feeling bruised already, and he sinks forward on his own, gritting out, “Don’t apologize,” as he scrapes his fingers across Gerard’s pubic bone, getting them caught in the short, coarse hairs. “Fucking. Just.” He sinks back down, deep throating once more and then pulling off to get back to blowing him. Frank works his fist faster, sucks harder at the head, tonguing at that vein underneath it, giggling slightly, delightedly, at the broken curses Gerard releases in response.

“Frank, I –” Gerard gasps.

“Yeah,” Frank gravels, and then tongues Gerard’s slit.

Just like that, Gerard spills over Frank’s tongue, making this almost silent high noise that morphs into a deep, satisfied groan on his next exhale. He tenses and comes (and keeps fucking coming), so Frank sucks deeply, works his hand over Gerard’s shaft until he’s pushing at Frank’s shoulder, pleading oversensitivity. Frank swallows around Gerard’s dick one last time, grinning internally at the way he shivers from it, and then pulls off.

“Fucking fuck, Frank, that was –” Gerard leans forward, digging thumbs into Frank’s jaw and his forefingers into the hollows behind his ears to pull their mouths together. Frank groans, practically vibrating out of his skin, cock twitching against his zipper, as he wraps his arms around Gerard’s waist and leans into the kiss. It’s hot, dirty, and Frank can’t get enough of Gerard’s godforsaken tongue, but then Gerard is shoving at Frank’s shoulders, fingers working the jacket off of Frank’s arms and –

The moment Frank’s first arm is bared, Gerard gasps and makes this throaty sound that makes Frank’s cock twitch again. He trails his fingers across the overheated skin, looking enraptured, and Frank has to grab his wrist, shove his other arm out of the jacket so he can fling it into a pile on the floor. “Gerard, I,” he starts, but his voice is shot. Gerard gets it, though, gives a tiny sure nod.

Gerard ushers Frank up off of his knees, has him get up on the bed. “Yeah, Frank, gonna fucking…” he trails off, eyes still darting every now and then to Frank’s arms as he ushers Frank’s jeans down to mid-thigh. He breathes against Frank’s crotch, mumbles, “Wanna…Frank, I have to get my mouth on you, okay?”

While he sort of wants to warn Gerard that if he keeps talking then this will be over before it starts, Frank just gasps in a breath and nods. He nudges Frank’s shirt up, making another noise when he sees the smudge of ink against his belly, and Frank says, “Gerard.”

“Yeah, sorry, fuck, I just want to…Christ, Frank you never said you had ink fucking everywhere,” Gerard says, tone almost disbelieving. He presses his lips to the birds, first one then the other, and then he trails kisses, nips, tongue and teeth down to the edge of Frank’s underwear, edging them down to meet his jeans. Frank’s cock bounces up to get caught on the underside of Gerard’s jaw as Gerard hums, laving his tongue into the reddened grooves caused by the bend of his body as he sucked Gerard off and the too-tight waistband of his briefs, lapping at that hot skin.

“Fucking tease,” Frank grits out – and then chokes on his next breath as Gerard licks a thick stripe up the bottom side of Frank’s cock. Gerard’s eyes are sparkling, mischief incarnate, and his smirk is a dirty fucking promise. Gerard maneuvers Frank’s dick up against his belly, and licks and sucks down to the base, mouthing wet and warm and with a hint of teeth down to his balls and further. “Agh, holy shit. What are you –” He’s never – no one has ever – Frank is fucking squirming, trembling hard right from his bones as his nerve endings go alight at the sensation of Gerard licking down to his hole and fucking humming against it. His voice is high, strained when he says, “Jesus fuck,” and writhes against it.

Gerard makes a discontented noise as he tries to push Frank’s thighs farther apart, hindered by the clothes still looped around his thighs. After a bit of untangling, Gerard smiles and scoots up between Frank’s spread legs, saying, “Much better,” as he pets over Frank’s package, leaving his wide palm to span over the shaft and his thumb nestled around Frank’s sac. Gerard huffs out a breath and darts his tongue out again. “Taste so good, Frank. Jesus Christ.” He pulls and shoves until he’s got his shoulders beneath Frank’s legs and then he grips Frank’s ass in both hands, spreading him open so that he can lick inside.

Oh,” Frank gasps, thrashing, stomach blazing with the beginnings of what’s going to be a powerful fucking orgasm.

“Wanna touch yourself, Frank?” he asks, and then presses a noisy kiss to Frank’s right ass cheek before he rubs a thumb, light and teasing, against Frank’s asshole. Gerard strokes Frank’s cock twice with a firm, steady grip and keeps fucking talking. “Or d’you want me to do it for you? Think you could come from just my tongue in your ass?”

Frank doesn’t even have words – he’s a gasping, writhing mess and he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to parse together the pieces of himself to make a whole ever again. He shakes as Gerard presses his mouth against Frank’s rim again, tongue flickering inside in a hot, wet point as Frank relaxes. He honestly has no idea how he’s lasted this long, but then Gerard’s slowly sinking in one of those long, gorgeous, pale fingers alongside his tongue, crooking it, and Frank’s done. “Ah!” he keens, shaking and coming and holding onto the mattress for dear life as it rocks through him – even better after Gerard’s other hand comes up to work him over. Gerard’s rumbling, “Shit, yeah, Frank. So fucking hot, Jesus Christ,” against Frank’s ass; wave after wave of too much cresting into the best orgasm Frank has had in way too fucking long.

Spent, Frank tries to catch his breath as Gerard presses a last couple of kisses somewhere around Frank’s (numb) groin while he’s unfolding Frank. “Gonna have to soak this,” he says, gathering up a bit of the fabric of Frank’s shirt, making guilty little noises at it.

“Dude,” Frank says, panting. He’s surprised he didn’t jizz on the ceiling with how hard he just came.

“I know, I’m sorry, I should’ve –”

Waving a hand, Frank tries to stop Gerard while he’s ahead, still breathing heavily through the tingling in his limbs. He can almost feel his toes again. “I don’t even – Nope, no functioning. Give me a few minutes before you start the unnecessary panicking.”

Gerard, understanding, giggles this tiny laugh into Frank’s side and then there’s a lot of wriggling and Frank looks down to see Gerard tucking down his semi and doing up his pants. Frank frowns at this, and then down at his shirt because Gerard’s right. He will have to soak it. Or toss it, he doesn’t really care. Shrugging to himself, Frank sits upright after a few attempts and pulls it over his head from the back of the collar, and then the undershirt as well. He doesn’t really think about the fact that he’s completely naked until he stands up. Feeling Gerard’s eyes on him, Frank shuffles on his unsteady legs to his dresser and finds a pair of cut-off yoga pants to step into, deciding to forgo a shirt as he’s still overheated.

“Fucking hell,” he says, and then he stumbles back over to the other side of the bed where Gerard’s ruffling his hair and looking antsy as fuck and being suspiciously quiet. He stoops down and kisses him, tasting the faint musk of, Jesus Christ, his own ass and something sweeter beneath it. “Want a smoke?”

Looking eternally grateful, Gerard nods sort of frantically and Frank digs around in his nightstand for his pack of Marlboro’s. They relocate to the kitchen, sharing an ashtray and some nice, cold glasses of water in the dull light coming from the living room’s lamps. Gerard’s staring at Frank’s chest, his arms, and Frank stares right back at the heavy slant of Gerard’s eyelids, the way the cigarette dangles from his kiss-bruised crooked lips, looking entirely fucked out. Frank’s busy looking at the marks he’s left over Gerard’s neck, the base of his throat, his collarbones and shoulders – thinking of how much more damage he could do if he had Gerard’s dick in his ass instead of just his tongue and a single finger, if they hadn’t been so frantic in the rush to get off.

Gerard takes a long drag, holds it in for a beat too long and then shapes his mouth around the smoke of his exhale. It looks like sex itself – foreplay, friction, and an orgasm rolled into one – like it should be fucking illegal, and Frank knows if he attempted to do the same thing he’d look like a complete ass.

Finally starting to cool off, Frank takes the last drag from his smoke and stubs it out into the ashtray, bringing his arms together over his chest. Gerard looks up, startled, at Frank’s eyes and returns Frank’s slow smirk with a hesitant, almost shy (what the fuck, really) smile. “You have a lot more tattoos than I expected,” Gerard finally says, breaking the silence. “I really like the, uh, tulip.”

Beaming, Frank unfolds his arms and holds them out, allowing that specific tat to come back into view. “Thanks,” he says. “At least it’s not a rose, uh?”

Giggling, Gerard says, “Oh, my god,” and then takes a last drag on his cigarette. “Titty tats. So classy.”

Feigning a gasp, Frank says, “I take offense!” around a laugh, and then chuckles out, “It’s part of a chest-piece, I’ll have you know.”

“Oh, no, no. Your tulip is very classy, Frank. Dashing, even,” Gerard says, eyes scanning over the monstrosity of said chest-piece. From Frank’s angle it’s still a complicated mass of poppies and peonies and lavender and geraniums and the single tulip, all a bit faded from age. He’s probably overdue for a touch up, but he sort of likes how it looks now instead of bright and shiny and new.

Frank smiles a slow smile and says, “Oh! This reminds me.” He gets up, raising his voice, saying, “I wanted to show you some things,” as he shuffles off back into his room. He takes the worn box from his closet and brings it to the coffee table in the living room, motioning Gerard over. Rifling through it, Frank takes out one of the photo albums and flops down onto the couch.

“Frank,” Gerard says, running a hand through his (sex-mussed, awesome) hair, shuffling around behind the barrier provided by the arm of the couch. His voice is shaky, nervous, when he says, “Um. There’s something I should’ve mentioned…”

Blanching as possibilities skitter across his mind to settle with a twist in his gut, Frank blurts, “As long as it’s not a venereal disease contractible by mouth, I probably won’t care and you shouldn’t worry,” because it’s the first thing that comes to his mind.

“No, I don’t – what? No. This is –”

“Okay. Then, seriously, I won’t mind, whatever it is,” Frank says sort of softly, bordering on awkwardly. He sort of does want to know, so he says, “You can tell me.”

Gerard shuffles closer and takes a deep breath. “Um. Well, I don’t know if I gave the impression or not, but that time I was taking pictures? When we met? That wasn’t the first time I’d been to il bel and I don’t –” He breaks off, gulping a bit like he’s swallowing down some courage. “I know it’s probably really creepy, and I’m sorry, but –” another torturously deep inhale, and a breathed, “fuck” and then Gerard says, “This is sort of a long story, sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Frank assures him, gesturing for him to sit down. “And you’re not creepy, my god.”

Shooting him a “you might not think so in a minute” expression, Gerard shakes his head and looks down at his hands. “Okay,” he starts. “A few years ago, me and Mikey’s grandma died, and I…I didn’t deal with it very well, but I. My mom would give me things to do, ya know, to help. So after a year, on the first anniversary of her death, she sent me to go get flowers for her grave. Ma told me where to go, what to pay, which flowers to get, and, well…You probably don’t remember. I don’t even know if you saw me, but I saw you, and I don’t know. I just…saw you.” His eyes look faraway, but he’s still practically trembling with anxiety, fingers twitching as his words jumble out.

Frank sits patiently, wishing Gerard would’ve at least gotten close enough for Frank to grab his hand or something.

“I went back, tried to drag Mikey and Ray with me a few times just so that I’d know I wasn’t crazy, that you were…real. But I never saw you again. I went back for years, and only bought flowers twice. And then, I had to stay away because I knew I was getting, like, obsessed. I just, I couldn’t help it, you were so fucking beautiful, and you just looked so happy, like, surrounded by all these flowers and you had this smile, like nothing could ever make you happier.” Gerard laughs, sharp and short, saying, “I guess I wanted to get closer to that. Moth to flame, or whatever.” His eyes crinkle, and then soften around the edges. “But, I dunno, that hope, that I might see you again, it helped for a few years; and it’s sad, I know, but it really did. Christ, that was practically ten years ago.”

Ten years ago, Frank was nineteen and a freshman in college. Nonna had died and he’d come to help Granddad about twice a month on the weekends if he could get his studying done early. He had a shitty little band and hopes that were bigger than him. It was nice, but he’d known even then that this shop was where he belonged. Maybe that’s what Gerard had seen.

“I hadn’t forgotten you, obviously, but I just hadn’t intended to, ya know. A few weeks ago? I wasn’t even trying to see you. I looked in, and…I didn’t see anyone up front so I went in and, well. There you were.”

If Gerard weren’t so painfully earnest, apologetic, practically going hoarse with feeling, then Frank might (and that’s a very slight, miniscule, practically nonexistent chance) be worried or offended or creeped out or something. But instead, he’s touched. His stomach and heart rebel into a frantic flutter of uncontainable feelings that he swallows down with a shiver, and then a smile.

“Come here,” Frank says after a moment. Gerard still looks tense, ready to flee. “Come here, Gerard. Please.” And as soon as Gerard is close enough, still looking every part the skittish fawn, Frank drags him in by the wrist, photo album forgotten next to him on the couch cushion. Gerard stumbles right into Frank’s lap.

Frank gets a hand around the back of Gerard’s neck and pulls him in close and just kisses him. He’s not quite sure what he’s saying with it aside from, “It’s okay,” or, “I don’t care,” or, “I’m right here.” Maybe he’s telling Gerard just how much he’s already attached. How much he wants there to be a them. How much he wants this, right here, Gerard in his house, making the space his just by breathing and being. How he already wants so much and it scares him a little bit, but he’s sure of it.

Pulling away with a slick noise, Frank looks up at Gerard’s eyes. He doesn’t know what else to say, so he just repeats his earlier, “It’s okay.” He presses another kiss to Gerard’s mouth. “Really – you’re not creepy. I don’t think that. Okay, Gerard?”

Blinking away some shine, Gerard nods a bit hesitantly and then returns Frank’s statement with a kiss; forceful, bruising, grateful. “Okay,” he rasps. He falls beside Frank on the couch and leans back, head tilting over onto Frank’s shoulder like he’s expended every last bit of energy he had.

Frank pats Gerard’s thigh and presses a kiss into Gerard’s hair.

After a few minutes of just sitting there, glad for the warmth of Gerard’s body all along his side, Frank scoots closer, and finally asks, “Do you want to see?” gesturing to the photo album on his opposite side.

At Gerard’s nod, Frank’s opening the album and showing him picture after picture of Nonna and Granddad, the shop over the years, clippings out of the newspaper, even the pictures of Maurice Webber and his granddad from the late forties, early fifties, progressing until maybe fifteen years ago. He explains the pictures, smiling fondly and reminiscing on the things he remembers himself and the things his granddad and father have told him, glad to hear Gerard’s take on things, glad to answer his questions and wriggle into his warm side. Eventually, Frank can’t kid himself anymore and he stops stifling his yawns.

“You want to stay?” he asks as Gerard’s caught in a yawn of his own.

He looks at Frank kind of wide-eyed, and then says, “Um, I probably shouldn’t. I don’t want to intrude – and I know you open really early, even on Saturdays, what the hell is wrong with you, and I don’t want to be in the way, so I should. Go.”

Frank’s not really in the mood to fight it, still really blissed out from their little romp in (or on top of, whatever) the sheets and the post-sex cigarette and the post-cigarette snuggling on the couch, even after the bit of tension and doubt. “If you say so,” he acquiesces. “I’ll just go get my keys, and a fucking hoodie, Christ, since when did I keep my house so cold…”

*

It’s nearly three in the morning when Frank pulls up to a series of brownstones after following Gerard’s sleepy directions. He parks along the curb, grateful for the spot and lets the car idle while he turns to Gerard.

Blinking slowly, Gerard smiles softly back and says in a quiet voice, “I had…a really good time tonight, Frank. With you.” He leans in, pressing one last chaste kiss to Frank’s mouth, and then says, “Goodnight.”

Frank wants to drag him back in, keep kissing him, take him back home – but he doesn’t. He just gently smiles back, says, “Goodnight, Gerard,” and drives back home.

*

Blinking away the tiredness, Frank wakes early as per usual and opens the shop at the standard seven AM without too much grumbling and groaning. He bites back the hostility in answering questions he’s heard eight million times, and immerses himself in making more arrangements at the workbench up front while he deals with the ins and outs and odds and ends of Saturday customers. He suppresses the urge to frown each time the bell over the door dings and Gerard isn’t the one walking in. “Hi. How can I help you?” he says instead.

*

Sunday afternoon, Frank’s dejectedly staring into his coffee mug in his mother’s kitchen. She’s still on a roll with her weekly gossip and Frank’s not even bothering to hide the fact that he’s not listening. His belly is full, but it feels tight and wrong with doubt and worry.

“Alright. Spill,” Linda says. “You’ve been acting funny for weeks. You’re not sick, so tell me what’s wrong.”

Frank looks up at her, thinks, fuck it, and says, “I don’t know what I did wrong.” His eyes scan her face, and he notes that this is one of those rare times that she’s going to actually listen, so by god he’s going to take advantage of it. “There’s this guy, Gerard. And he’s…god, he’s gorgeous, Ma. He’s shy and he doubts himself, but he’s really smart and so earnest.” Frank realizes he’s gushing so he clears his throat, and gets on with what’s eating him – giving a sweetened, condensed version, redacting the mind-blowing sex. “We went out on Friday night, and I don’t know, I thought he’d come by on Saturday and he didn’t. He said he had a good time. And he’s come by for a few weeks and…I don’t know. Maybe I was too, uh, forward and scared him off or something.”

He scrubs a hand over his face and then takes a sip of his coffee.

“Sounds to me like you’re the one doubting yourself,” his mother eventually says. Her eyes are soft, sincere, and her voice is gentle. “Which you shouldn’t. You’re a kind, handsome, smart, sensitive man and I’m sure this Gerard fella knows it. You said yourself that he said he had fun.” She takes a sip of her own coffee and then places her hand on Frank’s wrist, giving a comforting squeeze. “Just give it a few days. I’m sure he’ll turn up.”

Heaving a sigh, Frank says, “I hope so.”

*

Monday, Frank keeps Dewees busy working on the rest of the funeral baskets – red carnations and some gladioli with a few white lilies and various types of greenery for contrast – and works on the casket spray, shooting him “I don’t want to talk about it” glares and saying, “Come on, we have to finish these.”

Ms. Webber had mentioned that Maurice’s casket would be a nice, dark mahogany. The additional arrangements are all blue hydrangeas, red roses, more white lilies. Patriotic. Just a few years older than Frank’s granddad, Mr. Webber served in the Second World War and returned with honors. Frank just tries to make him a funeral spread he deserves.

By the end of the day, Frank’s fingers are bleeding and numb, pricked by thorns and caught on wires. His back aches and his feet hurt. He’s tired and stressed out, and he can’t focus worth a damn. Dewees looks to be in about the same boat, and so, after less than a second of deliberation, Frank says, “I’m not opening tomorrow. I think we both need a break after this funeral.”

Dewees looks like he could kiss Frank. “I could kiss you, Frank Iero,” he says instead. “You’re a saint; the saint of flowers and mercy and kindness.”

Frank rolls his eyes and turns to say, “Yeah, yeah. Slave labor’s not over yet. Help me get these in the back cooler.”

*

Although somber should be the tune of Tuesday, Frank finds that most of the people inside of the large Protestant church have smiles on their faces, stories on their tongues, light in their eyes coupled with the depth of inherent (yet subdued) sadness.

Maurice’s service is lovely – full of people of all ages, packed with family and friends. It’s not too sad, as the man lived to be somewhere in his nineties, and lived a full, happy life with all of these people in it in some way. Numerous people go up to the pulpit to tell stories, characterize the man that Frank met only once or twice in his life as the man’s Alzheimer’s had already begun to set in by the time Frank was really able to remember things.

Frank’s never actually been to any funerals that he’s done flowers for, other than his granddad’s and even then he’d just assisted his father, and it’s strange to see the results of his hard work in use. The memories don’t come in a sudden onslaught, but bubble up and play before his eyes every now and again. Dewees pats his shoulder, and Frank is grateful. Frank is okay with it – the sudden grief. He feels it in his chest, through his flesh, right down to his bones, settling over him like a thin coat of dust. He lets himself recognize it, make peace with it – because it’s real. But the people here are happy, strangely enough, and Frank feels as though he doesn’t have the right to be sad when the people that actually knew this man aren’t.

Directly afterward, Frank and Dewees manage to whisk Ms. Webber away for a few minutes (but she still doesn’t accept their condolences) and she hugs them both and thanks them for the beautiful flowers. Even though she invites them, they don’t attend the wake or go to the gravesite as Frank already feels out of place and too emotional to handle seeing a casket buried.

He calls his mom when he gets home and tells her about it, because he has no idea what else to do. She lets him talk about how he feels and consoles him as best as she can, but it is Tuesday and she’s working, so Frank tries not to overwhelm her with worry. She tells him to call his dad, and so he does. The deep tone and the slowly spoken words soothe Frank’s frantic need to tell his parents just how much he loves them. Funerals have always freaked him out a little bit, and they’ve always known that. Frank Sr. tells Frank that he’ll be alright, he just needs to work through what he’s feeling and he’ll go right back to normal. “Do it however you need to, Kid.”

And so he does.

*

The cemetery off of Cedar and Olden isn’t too big, but Frank takes his time walking through the trimmed grass, careful not to step over the graves, looking at the dates to calculate how long each person lived, looking for any other family he might have buried here. It’s a little over an hour before he comes to the joined headstones of his grandparents; a surprise even though he sought it out. And Christ, the dates are startling, too – more than ten years since Nonna passed away and six since Frank got the call from his dad about Granddad. He was fresh out of college and looking for a job that beckoned to him instead.

Sighing, Frank crosses himself and bows his head – an old force of habit that couldn’t be stopped even if the universe itself were imploding – to pay his respects. Although he doesn’t quite condone or believe in the teachings of the Church anymore, it’s in his blood. It’s by the skin of his teeth, but Frank manages not to pray – because what’s the point if it’s insincere? He doesn’t want to disrespect his grandparents or their beliefs.

He’s seen people talking to headstones, weeping and wailing, or quietly sniffling, and Frank desperately wants to not be one of those people. However, there’s a feeling edging up his spine and into his throat, so he gets to his knees, squatting more than kneeling, and leans in close to their graves. He runs his fingers over them; the marble is smooth and cool. Because it’s the first thing that comes to his mind and because they’re her favorites, Frank thinks about telling Nonna that her lavender plants are still alive and that he’s doing his best to take care of them and her shop. He thinks about how she’d grab his face in both hands and give him a huge, smacking kiss right in the center of his forehead after she tells him how proud she is. He thinks of how Granddad would shuffle over to him and ruffle his hair, and shout some celebratory Italian phrase that doesn’t quite translate to English. He’d ask for guidance in the shop – about the plants that give him a hard time, the customers’ names he can’t ever remember, the auditing issue, if he’s paying Dewees too much or not enough – and then maybe some advice about dealing with his mom, talking to his dad more often. “A little effort won’t kill you, Frankie,” Granddad would say, and then flick him on the nose and tell him to try a little harder.

Frank sighs again, running his finger over their names before he stands and brushes the dirt and grass from his only nice pair of dress pants. He fiddles with his keys in his pocket as he makes his way out of the cemetery gates back to his car.

For a while, Frank drives around aimlessly, just taking in sights on the side of town that he doesn’t frequent, slowing down for the kids walking home from school, going faster when the douchebag college kids try to cross without looking both ways. He drives and drives and fills up his tank and keeps driving. Frank doesn’t think Jersey will ever lose its sort of rundown, chewed up, and spit back out effect. He loves it.

Eventually, his aimless cruising results in a location he seriously, seriously didn’t premeditate. He swears it up and down. But there’s Gerard’s brownstone, looking strangely polished and clean compared to the others lining the same block. Most of the others have broken shutters or a collapsed drainpipe or something along those lines, but Gerard’s is the spitting image of perfection with its immaculate, graffiti-free steps and unblemished door. Frank doesn’t realize he’s slowed significantly until the douchefuck behind him honks and swerves around him, sticking his middle finger out of the window. And Gerard thought he was creepy. Returning the sentiment without much feeling, Frank swings back into traffic with a blinking signal and heads home.

After some intensive yoga and watering his plants, Frank spends the evening reading and watching old horror movies from his collection, and tries, desperately, not to think about Gerard.

*

Wednesday morning Frank’s feeling a little more at peace with himself. His chest still feels heavy and strange, but he tags it up to a probable impending cold or something. He mostly stays up front, answering phones and rotating the flowers in the coolers and restocking the shelves, allowing Dewees to deal with the customers and the shipment of fertilizer (because fuck that). The shop is pretty dead anyway.

“Did you get laid or something?” Frank asks, because Dewees hasn’t even complained once.

James turns and grins that sly-fox grin of his. “Perhaps I found solace and comfort in the arms of a female companion without such behaviors, young Frank. A gentleman does not kiss and tell.”

“Oh, my god. You’re fucking Marrie, aren’t you?” he returns, because lie. He holds up his palm for Frank to high-five and Frank delivers a stinging slap with a sharp smirk. “Hell yeah. Good for you.”

“What about you, Frankenstein?” Dewees asks. “How’d it go with Mr. Way the other night?”

Something akin to panic flares up and then Frank’s clearing his throat, and biting back a ferocious cough. “It went,” he returns drily. He honestly doesn’t know what else to say, because seriously. What the fuck. He doesn’t really want to talk about it though, and luckily the phone rings before he has to elaborate. Dewees shoots him a skeptical look, but Frank ignores it.

Luckily, the calls come in pretty regularly for the rest of the morning, leaving Frank worn down to his soles by the time they break for lunch. He waves Dewees off, still feeling a little shitty about it, and goes upstairs to take a fucking nap on his couch.

Dewees calls him a little after half past one to unlock the shop, “Unless you want to close for the rest of the day, because I totally wouldn’t mind, you know.”

Frank’s feeling shitty, but not that shitty.

So he goes downstairs and works on the books for the rest of the afternoon, smiling to himself when he sees he has an email from Ray Toro. He opens it, and it goes through a ridiculously detailed explanation of the deficiencies he found, how he went about correcting them, the education performed, and his suggestions for the future. Frank realizes that he’s been forwarded an official report and sends Ray an email back that hopefully conveys just how grateful Frank is for Ray motherfucking Toro.

He doesn’t realize it’s time for closing until Dewees peeks his head in, says, “I’m gonna head out. I have a date,” with wiggling eyebrows. Frank waves and continues to look busy, but he goes up front after he hears Dewees finally leave. He does the watering rounds in the back, cleans out the coolers, straightens up the merchandise up front and rotates the flowers one more time before he locks up.

*

Thursday and Friday are much of the same. Boring, long days where Frank busies himself with menial bullshit until he can get home and wallow in self-pity and honeyed tea and shitty movies. He spends probably too much time on the balcony with his plants, pruning and humming and talking to them like a moron. He smokes too many cigarettes and snaps about a million times on the phone. He forgets that he gave Dewees Friday off and calls to bitch at him about not coming in and then feels like an ass when he finally remembers.

And then he feels even more like an ass when he realizes it’s only been a week since he fucked everything up and he’s already acting like an overly attached fucking girlfriend when they didn’t even mention seeing one another again. Maybe Gerard never had any intention to see Frank again. Hell, he probably already got everything he needs for that fucking article, too.

Frank doesn’t cry or punch anything, but it’s a pretty close fucking call. God, he thinks, I am such an ass.

*

Saturday is pretty uneventful as well, but Frank’s starting to get over himself. After a long day of doing nothing but tending to others’ whims and then catering to his plants, Frank drives down to Rutgers and walks around on campus for a while between the bare branches of the cherry blossom trees. He can practically smell them, memories of smoking up with his buddies and lying beneath them to watch the way the wind blew through the blossoms, saying androecium and stipule and hypocotyl because they sounded fucking hilarious when the professors weren’t droning them.

He chuckles to himself, tugging his hoodie closer around his ears, and shoves his hands back in his pockets, wondering if he could pass for a college kid right now. Sometimes he feels like he’s still the same punk-ass kid – authority problems and all – with dreams of a band and a different girl or guy on his arm every night, getting into fights, drinking himself sick on Tuesdays so he has an excuse to skip his eight AM class the next morning. Frank figures he’s sort of grown up a bit. Now he just wants tea, and his yoga, and his plants, and his books, and one stupid guy that he can’t get out of his head.

Bracing against the wind, Frank lights a cigarette and frowns at himself as he almost catches his hair on fire.

Haircut, he thinks for the millionth time. Only now, he’s intent on it, walking back to his car with an actual destination in mind. He lights another cigarette when he gets in, cracking the window just enough to ash because it’s actually getting closer to cold now instead of nippy now that it’s the end of September. Which – fuck, that means his birthday is in a handful of weeks. He’s going to be thirty. Jesus.

Frank hums along to the demo of Ray’s band he snagged from Dewees, taps out the rhythm on the steering wheel, sings the words he knows. It keeps his brain occupied for the drive, and by the time he’s pulled up to a place that accepts walk-ins and found a place to park, he’s got it in his head that he just wants his hair chopped the fuck off – and he actually does it. As soon as he’s told the lady he’s sick of looking like a dirty hippy, she’s giving him a smile with her heavily lined lips and smacks her gum, saying, “I’ll fix you up, sweetie.” She washes his hair, massages his scalp, and then sits him under the drier for a while. He lets the white noise lull him into a mental nothingness state, practically falling asleep, and he lets her – “Call me Sandy, sugar.” – lead him back up to her chair. She spins him around after he tells her he doesn’t care what she does with it, and that he’ll just buzz it when he gets home if he doesn’t like it, she pops a bubble and says, “Let’s not have that. Just trust me here; you’ll like it.”

In the end, she gives him this punk fauxhawk thing that he’s pretty sure he rocked back during college (how fucking fitting for today) and he likes it well enough that he doesn’t tell her that he’s going to even out the top when he gets home. He’s actually feeling more and more like an ass for saying that in the first place, so he leaves too big of a tip and makes a mental note to send their shop flowers.

The wind is sharp and biting his ears, no matter how snug Frank pulls his hood, so he hunches in on himself and hurries back to the car. In a little over an hour, he’s back at home, dumping his keys in the bowl by the door and shucking off his shoes. He scrubs a hand over his hair and – it’s fucking weird.

Whatever.

He plops down on the couch and scrolls through channels without much looking at what’s actually playing, and settles on something in black and white that provides a nice backdrop to his dozing.

*

In the morning, Frank wakes early as a force of habit and does a double dose of yoga to soothe his tension and stretch out his aching muscles. He lies on his mat in the middle of the living room, coffee table shoved near the bookshelves, and just breathes for a while. It feels good and he doesn’t have to think about anything but the next inhale. Standing, Frank stretches his arms high above his head to bring his palms together in an exhale. He takes a few deep breaths, gazing up at his thumbs, and then slowly brings his hands to the center of his chest.

Starting with bringing his palms down to lay flat on the floor, Frank takes deep breaths and slowly slides into each position – downward-facing dog, dolphin pose, and back up to wide-legged forward bend, and then the warrior poses, tree pose, the triangle poses, the lunges. After all is said and done, Frank feels awake and relaxed, a strange and comforting combination.

After a glass of water, Frank strips on his way into the bathroom and waits for the steam to spill from behind the curtain before he steps in. He showers, jerks off slowly, enraptured by the way his body feels at the moment and how the feeling is going to double when he comes. He thinks about curves, the give of flesh and pale skin, dark eyes and an honest smile. He doesn’t even pretend to stop or be ashamed once he realizes that he’s doing it again – “God,” he grits out, loud and desperate and echoing around the small bathroom. That’s Gerard in his head, the smile, the eyes, and his goddamn mouth.

Frank comes hard with an embarrassing squeak, and then a groan that’s much too satisfying in conjunction with the way he feels completely boneless and tension-free.

*

Ten ‘til ten is the best time to go to Patrick’s bakery on a Sunday. The churchgoers are still in whichever service it is they attend, whether it’s Mass or whatever, and most other businesses are closed along this strip, or not open until eleven. The block is pretty barren, and Frank is more than happy to be able to have space to breathe.

A chime sounds when Frank opens the door, the wave of spices and coffee assailing his senses without prelude. Pete’s behind the counter, scribbling furiously on a napkin with his brows creased together in concentration. Frank leaves him be while he scans the menu and the cases for something that he thinks his mother might like. Even after he decides, Pete’s still writing, so Frank kind of glances around the empty shop and shifts his weight from foot to foot until Pete finally looks up, eyes bright and smile even brighter. “Frank, hi! What can I get for you?”

“Hi, Pete,” he returns, smiling. “Two chocolate chip muffins, a cinnamon scone, and a dozen chocolate cookies with icing, please.” It’s a splurge, but Frank forks over the cash and reminds himself that it’s for his mother, the woman who pushed his big head out of her body so it’s the least he can do. He shudders a bit, because gross.

With a scarily big smile, Pete hands him a bag with all of the boxes inside and tells him to enjoy his morning. “Yeah, you too,” Frank says, and he actually means it. “Tell Patrick I say hey, would ya?” The door chimes again as Frank leaves and he isn’t even bothered by the cheery noise.

Frank makes it to his childhood home without much incident. Any residual road rage is wiped away as soon as he sees the way his mom’s face lights up at the bag in his hand. She jokes about him treating her like a queen and then, after they’ve devoured pretty much everything he brought, she playfully gripes at him about contributing to her fat ass. They go and see a movie at noon, and then come back home for lunch.

The distraction techniques don’t last forever though, because before he’s getting ready to leave, Linda stops him with a hand over his and asks him if Gerard’s been by, if they’ve made up, if that’s why Frank’s been so sweet to her today.

Sighing, Frank ruffles a hand through his (fucking weirdly short) hair, making it stick up in the back like it used to when he was a kid. “No, I haven’t seen him,” he admits. Like she can’t help herself, Linda leans forward and pats his hair back down. “I’m trying to not let it get to me,” he continues. “I don’t know. I’m okay though.”

“I worry about you all the time, you know,” she says. “I just want you to settle with someone that looks at you the way Jamia did –”

“Oh, my god, Ma. That was forever ago! You gotta quit bringing her up –”

“Doesn’t change the fact that she loved you—”

“Past tense! Loved.” Frank registers that he’s getting shrill, so he takes a deep breath and calms the fuck down. “Until she didn’t. Until I wasn’t what she wanted anymore. Until I wasn’t good enough.” And Jesus Christ, there he goes sounding every part the maudlin teenager that he’s been embodying lately. It really doesn’t help when his mom goes, “Oh, honey,” and pulls him into one of those patented mom hugs. His breath starts hitching off-cadence and it’s a close call but he doesn’t start crying. “Mom, seriously, no. It’s not about her. I don’t even really like girls anymore.”

She pulls back, pecks his forehead and pats his cheek as she looks at him. “That’s perfectly fine. You can like whoever you want, but if you think for one second that you’re not good enough for someone, I want you to remember that I’m calling bullshit, alright?”

Frank can’t help but snort at that and look petulantly away. “Whatever, Ma. Lemme go, Jesus.”

“Don’t say the Lord’s name in vain, Frank,” she scolds, accompanying a smack to the back of the head. “You’d better buck up, young man. Don’t think I won’t sick your cousins on you.”

Wide-eyed, Frank makes his excuses, apologizes and gets the fuck outta dodge.

*

Frank’s not pissed off at the world (see: everyone, Gerard, himself) too much anymore, so the next work week passes by much more smoothly and it leaves him much more relaxed by the next Saturday. He’s brought the laptop up front so that he can work on the books and posting a Craigslist ad for another employee, and he has his favorite playlist pumping through the speakers. Though he has to pause it every time someone comes in or the phone rings, he’s got the songs pounding in his veins so he hums them under his breath while he’s searching for or writing down information.

He might actually be in a good mood, strangely enough. It’s cold out and it’s almost his birthday and his hair’s already growing out a little from the fauxhawk so he doesn’t feel as douchey. He’d moved his sensitive plants from outside on the balcony to various places in his house, and it felt even homier. He ate a cookie for breakfast and now he’s thinking about how he’s going to have a massive bowl of spaghetti as soon as he finishes dusting the tops of the coolers and puts back the watering cans.

The door chimes and Frank chirps, “Hi!” and turns his head to look –

Gerard’s standing there.

Frank almost thinks he’s going to do something stupid, like fall off of the ladder or something equally dramatic, but he doesn’t. He climbs down the rungs slowly, wobbling only a little. “Hi, um, Gerard,” he says, voice shaking a little bit. He coughs to clear his throat, ignores the bitter blush crawling up his throat. “What can I do for you?”

He’s biting his lip, looking right at Frank. “Hi,” Gerard says.

And okay, Frank doesn’t know what to (say, think, or) do, so he’s left awkwardly turning back to the counter where he’d set the watering cans. He polishes them with a rag, feeling Gerard’s eyes on him, if that prickly feeling on his neck is anything to go by, and listening to the sound of Gerard’s fucking feet shuffling.

“Um.”

Frank looks up, and Gerard’s pulling on his wind-tangled hair, ruffling it back up, looking every bit as fucking attractive as Frank remembered. It sort of pisses him off, actually. “What.” He drops the rag.

“Mikey, um, said he wanted flowers for his girlfriend?” Gerard asks more than says. He clears his throat, and shuffles again, and then he says, “Lilies. But um, that’s not. I hadn’t realized – It’s been two weeks, and I’m sorry. I had –”

“Gerard,” Frank says, and he’s just tired. His eyes ache, so he rubs at them, and his chest is still fucking fluttering at him like all of that anger and doubt and resentment hadn’t been eating him up for weeks. It’s like picking at a scab. Just when Frank thought he was finally healing and starting to get the fuck over it, Gerard’s here and he’s exposing the new shiny pinkness to the elements before it’s completely ready. “You don’t have to bullshit. Seriously, if you don’t –”

“No, Frank, it’s not like that. Please just listen to me.”

And oh, he’s right there, right up close to Frank, grasping at his wrists and Frank shrinks back just a little. Gerard’s fingers are soft, like Frank remembers, and he smells so fucking good, and he’s wearing his earnest face – the one he made that night and…Frank doesn’t know why he’s fighting it so hard, so he just kind of slumps, relaxes, lets Gerard know he’s listening.

“It’s not bullshit. I’m going to tell you what has happened. You can hate me if you want, but I want you to know.” Gerard’s voice is low, the words quick and fervent when he says, “I really, really fucking like you, okay? Probably way more than I should so soon, but I don’t actually care, so I’m letting you know. I do. So just, don’t think that this is me blowing you off – er, well. That was a bad choice of words, but.” He huffs a laugh, and Frank is sort of startled to hear himself make one too. Gerard takes a deep breath and, as though he just realized that he’s still gripping Frank, he drops Frank’s wrists. “Sorry.” He ruffles his hair again, and then scans Frank’s face, his eyebrows creased with worry. “I finished the article about your shop, you know. And – I wanted to call you and tell you, but I realized I don’t have your number –”

“You could’ve called the shop,” Frank says skeptically, face pinching in a frown. And he’s still just tired, and he wants Gerard to get on with it, because shit, seriously. “It’s on the window.” As if summoning some kind of magic, the phone began to ring and when Gerard’s eyes cut to it, Frank snaps, “It also has voicemail.”

Gerard frowns, too, and blushes as he looks down. “I didn’t think about that…but. I didn’t have time, anyways. The fucking…I’m not supposed to say anything about it, but my fucking company is in like legal trouble, and they have me up there all the fucking time and we’re being audited by this whole fucking team and just. I know I haven’t been doing stupid shit, but there’s no telling what the rest of my guys have been doing.” He pulls a face, one that he probably doesn’t realize he’s making and Frank almost laughs, but he’s supposed to be pissed, and he is, so he doesn’t. “When I’ve gotten off of work each day, I’ve been too tired to do fucking anything, and I’ve been stressed out and unbearable and Mikey’s said that –”

He breaks off in a sigh, one of those “Fuck, okay…Okay.” sighs that Frank knows and shakes his head at himself, muttering, “He probably doesn’t care about all of that.” Frank clears his throat and crosses his arms loosely over his chest, waiting patiently for Gerard to gather his bearings.

“I just. There’s been a lot of bullshit, and I’m sorry. I really am. And I hope you’ll forgive me, because I’d really like to go out with you.” He looks down at his own hands, and then back up at Frank. “I’m sorry,” he whispers again, so sincerely.

Frank wants to punch him and kiss him and he doesn’t even know. He shouldn’t be this invested, this easily emotionally-controlled and he doesn’t even think he would be if it were anyone else. He’s never been this hung up about anybody so quickly. “I was so mad,” he admits quietly. “I thought…I thought I’d fucked up. You didn’t call or email or send a fucking carrier pigeon, and I just…I thought I scared you away.”

“Jesus Christ,” Gerard breathes. He takes Frank’s hands in his own, leaning in close so that their foreheads are almost touching where they’re both looking down at how their fingers intertwine. “Frank, after all I told you about fucking stalking you like ten fucking years ago, and you think you scared me away? What the hell.”

At that, he cups Frank’s jaw in his hand and brings their mouths together in a tentative, quick kiss that leaves Frank’s heart pounding in his ears. Gerard kisses his twice more, in quick succession, like he only wants to taste once more, and Frank grabs him by the back of the neck and holds him fucking still so that Frank can kiss him exactly like he’s been wanting to since he dropped him off, dragging him in and not letting him go. Frank opens his mouth, licks at the seam of Gerard’s lips to get inside for a better taste, and the noise Gerard makes – desperate, wanting, fucking appreciative, like Frank’s doing him a favor – tears up Frank’s spine to his tense fingers, and he can’t help but grind the tips of them into Gerard’s bones. The kiss is slick, Gerard’s tongue sliding against his, and nearly dirty with the way Frank can’t help but press closer, heightened by the subtle, yet frantic, way Gerard gasps into his mouth.

The overhead bell chimes and, oh god, they break apart so fast there’s an obnoxious smacking sound. But, Frank makes this face at Gerard and nods his head toward the back, like, “I’m not fucking through with you,” and then turns to help the customer.

Looking sort of oblivious, the teenager asks him if he has anything for beginners or kids, as she has a little sister that wants to start a window box because their parents wouldn’t let her get a dog. Frank didn’t actually ask, but he’s patient and he goes through all of the explanations that she might need to hear and relay. He gives her one of the wired daisies, free of charge, after all is said and done, and she thanks him with a massive smile.

After she leaves, Frank locks the door and flips the sign to closed, and walks (see: bounds, dashes, sprints) to his office and then, upon scanning and not seeing Gerard, goes to the storage room. Gerard has his back to Frank, stooping in close over the bed of rose bushes to poke at the petals.

“Gerard,” Frank says, voice rough.

He looks up at Frank, only a little startled at first, and then fond and curious. He’s illuminated by a patch of sunlight from one of the windows – his hair looking a dusky dark brown, his eyes a bright, sparkling hazel, his skin looking a shade darker than it really is – and Frank is breathless from it. Gerard stands upright, back into the shadowed place between the patches, smiling even brighter than those so that it doesn’t even matter.

Trying to think of an appropriate metaphor or simile or fucking anything, Frank stands there trying to get his legs to work, to get over there, to get his mouth fused back to Gerard’s. He had wanted so badly to kiss him and tug off that stupidly well-fitting vest and yank him around by the tie and bury himself inside of him – he still wants that, even though now it’s just a shirt and leather jacket, but fuck. He wants all of that so much that he’s trembling there, right where he stands. He knows that they should probably talk, because fuck, that was a lot of goddamn angst for barely two weeks of separation, but Frank can’t help but just want.

“Gerard,” he repeats, voice breaking on the second syllable.

Gerard steps closer, slowly, still smiling. He pecks Frank on the lips, once, and then turns back to look at the rose bush. “I really like these,” he states, like he has no idea that Frank is having these feelings about what Gerard does to him.

For once in his life, Frank does not want to talk about flowers.

“They’re like. I dunno, classic. Classy.” Gerard walks back toward the center basins, moving from the roses to the baby’s breath to the hydrangeas. “And these,” he says, running his fingers over the white and then the blue hydrangeas. A petal comes off and Gerard picks it up, with a small, “Oops,” and looks back over his shoulder at Frank. “These remind me of weddings.”

Frank clears his throat, conceding. “That’s their highest demanded event.”

“Mm.” Gerard clutches the petal and moves around again. “What are these?” he asks.

Taking a deep breath, Frank answers, “Chrysanthemums,” and takes a step forward, ducking around a low-hanging bucket of zinnias. “They bloom pretty much all year round.” His voice is quiet, and he keeps stepping behind Gerard, slowly keeping pace, like a predator to prey, like a bee to hollyhock – drawn toward him by disreputable laws of nature.

“I really like them,” Gerard says, and then he fingers some Gerberas and says, “And these are daisies?” hopeful, yet unsure.

Frank nods, verifies, “Gerberas,” and in return Gerard looks so goddamn proud of himself, beaming the kind of smile that captivates Frank, makes his knees wobble and his next step unsteady.

Gerard wheels around, nearly smacking into the gladioli. “Would you mind if I took more pictures?” he asks abruptly. “There’s just – I don’t have any pictures of in here. And I just. I could probably submit them too – they’d probably love a good picture of workspaces, I didn’t even think of that.” Gerard’s rambling, halfway to himself and half to Frank.

Biting his lip, Frank interrupts, asks, “Would you come back?”

“Of course,” Gerard says.

“Promise?”

He’s right there. Right in front of Frank and he’s looking at him intensely, apologetic and sincere and hopeful. “I swear,” he says earnestly, burning. “And –” He inhales, brings his hand up to brush his thumb over Frank’s bottom lip as his volume drops. “I promise, as soon as this stupid thing is over at work. You probably won’t be able to get rid of me.”

Frank’s breath catches, but he manages an, “Okay.”

*

In hindsight, Frank realizes that it’s probably best that Gerard had that sudden, intense urge to take photographs because Frank probably (see: definitely) would’ve gotten him backed around into a corner and begged for something that shouldn’t occur in a workplace. Besides, there were still five more hours left in the work day and Frank still hadn’t eaten anything aside from a cookie.

His home is saturated with the smell of spaghetti and his heart is still fluttering wildly, frantically like moths’ wings. He doesn’t quite taste his food, but he eats it, and then makes a hasty decision to brush his teeth before he heads back downstairs.

Reopening after lunch results in three voicemail messages that Frank promptly responds to – one being Gerard calling, sounding a bit winded as he rattles off his phone number and a “See you soon!” – and then a torrent of high-school aged teens looking for stargazer lilies.

“I don’t sell those. Here’s a list of seven other florists that do,” he says, handing over a laminated sheet to the one that looks to be in charge.

“But, why?” the tallest one asks.

“Because they look fake and cheap and remind me of funerals.”

The one with the curly hair blinks and says, “Huh.” And then they all start nodding in agreement and mumbling and asking Frank all nonchalantly what he recommends instead, what does this do, do these flowers mean anything.

Gerard returns while Frank’s still dealing with them, explaining that no, pink carnations supposedly mean a mother’s love and, “Will not get you laid.” He motions for Gerard to head on to the back without him. “Unless hot moms are something you’re into, I mean, I don’t judge.” The girls giggle at that and Frank smiles, and gets them all fixed up with proper flowers. No one asks him if Gerard’s his boyfriend, if that’s why his cheeks are turning red, and for that he’s grateful. Not that he’d deny it.

As they’re leaving, more people come in and Frank takes his time helping them, too. The mother and daughter purchase an array of things for starting a garden and the man in the suit buys a rose bouquet for his significant other. As he’s ringing up the man, Frank sees that there’s a coffee perched on the edge of the counter nearest the hall, and after he gets closer he sees that it reads “FRANK” in black sharpie right above the green logo. He has to ignore the way his heart pounds loudly in his ears, and make a reminder to thank Gerard later. And then the phone rings, and Frank’s answering question after question from an elderly woman that’s hard of hearing, and after that there’s another couple of customers and Frank treats them all with kindness and compassion, even though he wants nothing more than to go in the back and watch Gerard in action.

By the time the shop is dead, there are only fifteen minutes until closing and Frank figures he can wait it out just as patiently as he has been all afternoon.

But then he remembers – “Oh, my god.” – that he has Gerard’s cell phone number written on a sticky note somewhere and scrounges around the cluttered countertop for it; by the time he realizes that it’s pressed neatly to the cash register, he’s already practically reorganized the entire thing looking for it, and feels (appropriately) stupid.

Did you buy me this coffee? Frank thumbs in, feeling strange to be using his cell phone for once.

If this is Frank, then yes. If this is not Frank, then no, I didn’t buy you coffee. But I hope you enjoy your coffee regardless of whether or not this is Frank.

Frank snorts, and sends, Omg come up here so I can kiss you.

When Gerard finally does appear, looking curiously at Frank as he tucks his phone into his pocket, Frank blurts, “You’re so adorable,” and can’t help but laugh. “And so considerate.”

“Yeah, well,” he says, shrugging. “If it wasn’t you, I didn’t want them to think I didn’t care if they enjoyed their coffee. Everyone should always enjoy their coffee. I was just being sincere.”

Biting the bottom part of his smile, Frank reaches forward and tugs Gerard in by the wrist. The camera clunks between them. “It’s probably cold, but thank you very much.” He kisses Gerard, chastely, and then pulls back to grin at him.

“You’re more than welcome,” he returns. Gerard leans back though, just when Frank thinks he might be able to sneak a few more kisses, and says, “Do you want to see some of the pictures I took?”

He nods. Because he really does – he wants to see what it is that’s giving Gerard this flush high in his cheeks, what it is making his eyes spark and crackle like the flickering flame of a candle; he wants to know if it’s him or if it’s these pictures. Do the things Frank is passionate about give Gerard the same passion through a different medium?

Gerard powers his camera on, smiling down at it so that Frank can see the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, the way that spot between his eyebrow creases as he looks down in concentration, the camera beeping softly with each press of the left arrow button. “Ah,” he says, smiling a little wider and tilting the screen so that Frank can see. “This one’s my favorite.” The picture is a shot of the corner portion of the workshop area, littered with the remnants of the wedding array that Dewees delivered the day before – stems and leaves and petals and misshapen fragments piled and spread and smeared across the concrete floor in green and white and purple. There are arrangements still over the counter to be put into the cooler, the pine of the counter a nice contrast to the partial disarray of the work space. There are buckets and mason jars and vases and then the broom in the far right corner, all out of focus, and the whole thing is illuminated by the waning light cascading in through the windows.

“Wow,” Frank says, more than a little breathless. “That’s…”

“I know,” Gerard says, flailing out a hand. “It’s like, people always want to see the finish product, or clean lines and things like that, but I think that they forget that there’s the in-between. You can’t have the arrangements without the rest being cut away first. There’s always gotta be chaos before order. There’s beauty in that, too, ya know?”

For a moment Frank thinks Gerard’s about to start talking in metaphor, just how he likes to, but then he starts to follow and, “Yeah,” he says, “Huh.”

Gerard scrolls through thirty more pictures and then stops on another, a suspended bucket of daisies, and then another, the sharp line of the cooler and the entire spread of the room, and then a last one, from the basin in the center to the window in the far corner. It’s all very unique – Frank wouldn’t have ever had to think about these angles otherwise, and it’s sort of baffling. He goes through another series of beeps and then says, “Yeah, I think that’s all I wanted to show you…”

“Jesus. How many did you take?”

Biting his lip, Gerard creases his brows and puckers out his lips as he thinks. Frank just wants to kiss him. “Maybe three hundred or so?” He shrugs while Frank looks at him, wide-eyed. “I dunno, I take a lot of the same shot to make sure that I capture the exact thing I’m looking for.”

Frank nods, considering. Because shit. That’s a lot of pictures. “And did you find that?” he asks, sidling up in Gerard’s space. “Did you find what you wanted?”

*

Frank has never been known for his patience. Well, aside from work and work-related aspects of his daily life (e.g., taking care of his flowers, doing the rounds in the morning and the evenings, making meticulous arrangements, etc.) and visiting his relatives, of course. He’s really good at listening when it counts, but when presented with a potential to get laid, Frank is afflicted with a one-track mind and zero tolerance for much else.

Which is why when Gerard had taken his sweet time following Frank around for locking up, and then going up the back staircase, and then actually stopped and asked Frank where all the flowers had gone on the balcony, Frank had no time for questions, nor qualms about ushering Gerard inside with an urgent, “Come on, Gerard. Please.”

But now, thankfully, Gerard is compliantly sucking on Frank’s neck just right inside the front hall. The door isn’t even shut.

Gerard slides his hands up and down Frank’s sides, fingers catching in the thickness of multiple fabrics, and then they’re sliding up under it, patting and soothing Frank’s stomach through the thin material of his bottom t-shirt. He makes happy noises when Frank groans, hitches his leg around the back of Gerard’s and tilts his head back even further. It’s like Gerard just knows that just below that bee on the side of his neck marks a sweet spot.

“I’ve been thinking,” Frank says, words hitching the slightest bit as he drags in a gasp. “About what we could’ve been up to.”

“Oh?” Gerard pauses to ask, but quickly returns his attention to the opposite side of Frank’s neck, to the patch of red roses and then up to the thorns behind his ear. “Tell me.”

Shuddering at the tone and proximity, Frank starts rattling off half-coherent things about having Gerard’s mouth all over him again, about trying that whole rimming thing again, about sucking Gerard’s cock, about some time getting his dick in Gerard’s ass, about having Gerard’s dick in his ass, about being bent over or twisted up in a pretzel because he’s very flexible and “I do yoga, ya know.” He huffs out a breath as Gerard bites down on his neck, grinding his teeth into the meat of it and making Frank slide down the wall. Gerard just hoists him back up by a firm grip under his arms and Frank is overwhelmed by a flash of heat. “You could bend me however you wanted, Gerard. I’d do it. Fuck, I am so hard.”

“Me too, Frank. God, like you can’t feel that?” he half-laughs roughly into Frank’s ear, bites down again. A high noise leaves Frank’s mouth and then Gerard's is right there, kissing him through the sharp throb, the dull ache that settles into heat. “Fucking hell. You. You really do want me?”

Frank groans, a combination of petulance and the way that Gerard grinds his hips across Frank’s, slow and sweet. “You’re fucking kidding, right?” He doesn’t wait for an answer, as his patience is worn to tattered shreds, and instead Frank cranks his hips forward until Gerard matches his movement. Frank licks along Gerard’s jawline to his ear, sucks on the lobe and says, “I really want you to fuck me,” right in Gerard’s ear.

Burying his face in Frank’s hair, Gerard hitches his hips again, dirtier, more frantic, and makes a breathy sound that almost constitutes a whine. Frank brings his hands down from around Gerard’s shoulders to curl them around the nice, meaty part of his thighs, right beneath his ass. He squeezes.

“Jesus Christ,” Gerard groans, followed by a low, throaty noise when Frank slides his hands up to palm at his ass. Frank pulls back just far enough so that Gerard can see his smirk, see the need in his eyes, and then his eyes trail down to the dark splotches of red he’s stained to Gerard’s jaw, his throat. He wants them darker – a nice murky collar of red to stand starkly against the pale skin, the light pink flush of arousal – and when he says as much, he feels more than hears the rumble start from deep within Gerard’s chest and work its way up. “Uhhn. Fuck.”

He doesn’t do it, though – Frank stays poised, open-mouthed right over Gerard’s throat and hitches their hips together in a slow, filthy grind instead. His breath comes back to hit his own face in a cloud of humidity, and Frank’s more than aware of the fact that he’s sweating through his shirt (and other shirt and cardigan) by now, but he doesn’t even care. Pressing a hand around Gerard’s shoulder with his thumb resting in the center of his throat, Frank pushes Gerard back and promptly strips off all of his upper layers of clothing.

“Oh, Jesus, Frank,” Gerard whispers, and he’s standing there, eyes scanning intently over Frank’s torso, his tattoos, fingers twitching like he’s refraining from reaching out to touch. He bites his lip and tilts his head back with a groan – and oh, fucking hell. Oh, that’s not fair. Gerard runs his hand down his own chest, past his stomach, over his crotch to rest over that delicious goddamn bulge and squeeze.

The noise that escapes Frank is definitely a gasp. “Come here,” he orders. And as soon as Gerard is near enough, Frank twists a hand in his hair, the longer strands of the darkness a perfect contrast to Frank’s fingers, the coloring over his knuckles. He kisses him, slick and dirty. Gerard’s hand flips over to press against Frank’s dick through his jeans, the other coming to rest on the tiny bit of softness that squeezes over the waistband of his briefs. Frank groans into Gerard’s mouth and tongues between Gerard’s lips and teeth. It’s nice, but it is just so not enough.

Frank gets his other hand, fumbling over Gerard’s back, to push and pull and prod at Gerard’s jeans, slipping his left hand into the back of Gerard’s jeans, taking a nice firm hunk of sweaty ass to knead and squeeze. They’re both making noises, beginning to stumble backward with a vague idea of being horizontal in mind.

And then there’s a loud honk from outside and they’re startled apart enough for Frank to realize that he still hasn’t shut the goddamn door. Extracting himself for only long enough to do so (and fucking lock it, Jesus), Frank quickly returns and fuses his mouth to the side of Gerard’s neck, darkening the already red-bruised skin.

“God,” Gerard grits, and Frank feels his hands flailing out, and then they’re anchoring themselves into Frank’s hair, long enough to grab but nowhere near as long as before. “Oh,” he says, surprised and Frank pulls back just a bit, quirking a brow and then reattaching himself like a fucking leech. Gerard’s neck just tastes so fucking good. “Frank, your hair. It’s so much shorter.”

“Yeah,” he says, because oh, god, Gerard’s started intently running both hands through it, ten points of glorious contact and Frank is this close to an orgasm just from that. He repeats, “Yeah,” because yeah.

And then Frank can’t help himself, he really can’t.

“Can this all count as foreplay?” he asks, groping across Gerard’s chest, his stomach, his crotch. He tugs at the hem of Gerard’s shirt. “Because I really need to sit on your dick right now or I’m going to be out of commission and I’d kind of really like to come soon. Like yesterday, actually.” He works Gerard’s shirt up, and since he won’t lift his arms and help, Frank resorts to biting Gerard’s nipple, spreading his burning hands over the wide expanse of Gerard’s ribs. “Wanna come with your cock in my ass.”

Jesus!

“Come on,” Frank says, not giving Gerard time to give a proper response to all of that. He knocks Gerard back onto the couch, falling on right after him. He bites at Gerard’s nipple again, and then slides his face down to rub against the sweaty softness of Gerard’s belly. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he bites out. Because what, like he thought he was hard before but Jesus. He tries a third time to get Gerard’s shirt off and this time, Gerard shrugs out of his leather jacket (oh, right) and then pulls the shirt over his head. Gerard gets his hands back into Frank’s hair and tilts forward to kiss him again. Frank groans, open-mouthed and wanton and he doesn’t even care. “Come on. Need you to fuck me.” And if he has to say it one more time, he’s going to dig out his vibrator and do it himself, with or without Gerard.

And finally, fucking finally, Gerard seems to catch the wisps of Frank’s desperation because he’s sitting upright, saying, “Yeah, okay,” and wriggling out of his jeans, saying a strained, “You have lube, condoms?” as he gets them caught on his shoes.

“Gerard, shoes, first. Fucking. Okay, you’d better be naked when I come back. I swear to god.” And then Frank is heading toward his room, digging through his nightstand – where he finds his vibrator, a kit that’s been locked for years because he lost the key, a makeup bag, a couple of cock rings, and oh, fuck, wrist cuffs, maybe some other time – and then he finally gets a hold of lube and, upon closer inspection, unexpired Trojans. “Nicely done,” Frank comments after he returns as he finds Gerard kicking his briefs off of his right foot.

Gerard turns, beaming that stupidly bright and beautiful smile at Frank, and then he’s fidgeting around like he’s not quite sure where to put his hands. Frank, always one for problem solving, drops the condoms on the floor beside the couch, and then he slinks up and over Gerard’s lap, twining his arms around Gerard’s shoulders and licking into Gerard’s mouth. He feels Gerard’s hands settle, squeezing lightly on his hips and while Gerard is sufficiently distracted, Frank uncaps the lube and reaches back. He hasn’t fingered himself in quite a while, so the burn and stretch is there, but there’s also the burn and stretch, oh fuck. “Ah,” he gasps against Gerard’s cheek.

At that, Gerard’s pulling back, looking questioningly at Frank, and then trailing his gaze down Frank’s torso to his arms and –

“Jesus fucking Christ. Jesus, Frank. Seriously, fuck.” Frank feels Gerard’s cock twitch against his left ass cheek. “You’re.” And yeah, Frank is. “Jesus fucking Christ. Frank, wait, wait.”

And, no. Frank will not wait. Frank is fucking done with all the waiting.

Gerard’s shifting, scraping his fingers down Frank’s thighs. “I have to – Frank, please, let me see. Please. I want to see.” He whines a pretty noise.

Frank tips his head back, smiling a bit wildly because, well, “Okay, since you asked so nicely.” He extracts his fingers, and then rolls off of Gerard and walks on his knees over to the opposite end of the couch, resting one elbow against the arm before reaching up between his spread legs to press against his hole again. He ignores the desperate, needy sounds out of Gerard’s mouth (and his own, for that matter) because he needs to focus on stretching himself open without coming all over himself and the couch.

By the time he gets finger number two inside, Frank can hear the way Gerard’s touching himself, and when he peeks over his shoulder, Gerard’s staring right back, his gaze hot and desperate. “Frank.”

“Yeah,” he says, gasping. He crooks in a third finger, just a bit too soon, because they need to get this show on the road. “What, Gerard? Tell me.”

“I – I want.”

And Frank will be damned to an eternity of pain and suffering in the seventh circle of hell for his lying fucking tongue if he doesn’t admit that Gerard makes a pretty fucking picture back there. “Fuck yeah, you do,” he says instead. But he can’t help but notice the way Gerard’s trembling, his chest shuddering up and down as he pants, his fingers gripping tightly at the base of his thick, flushed cock. His hair is plastered to his face in spots, there’s a beautiful pink blush all the way from his chest to his cheeks. His lips are wet, swollen and bruised from Frank’s. Jesus fuck. “Get a condom,” he orders, breathlessly. “C’mon, Gerard.”

Frank takes out his fingers, squeezes the base of his own cock. He feels the heat of Gerard sidling up behind him, hears him say, “Lube?” and passes it back on autopilot. There’s the sound of Gerard slicking himself up, and then he’s leaning forward, pressing his own fingers against Frank’s hole, sliding them inside with a quick, smooth movement like he’s just checking Frank’s work. “Ready?”

“Just get inside me already,” Frank says, tilting his hips back and up. He feels the tip of Gerard’s cock sliding up and down his crack, teasing, and Frank grits out, “Quit playing around back there,” over the way his stomach tightens, drops, swoops, “And fuck me.”

One last infuriatingly teasing swipe and then Gerard sidles up closer, chuckling, and Frank twists to watch Gerard’s face as he slowly, slowly presses inside for the first time. Harmonized groans echo through the room and Frank has to twist back again, hang his head down onto his arm and squeeze at his cock. Because oh, Gerard’s cock is kind of huge and filling him up so completely and perfectly that Frank is gasping with it, regardless of the burning stretch. “Motherfucker,” he mutters against his arm, just as Gerard says, “Oh, my god.” He sounds a little bit awed. Then Gerard’s finally flush against him, hips to ass, and Frank lets out a louder groan. Gerard answers it with a quiet moan of his own, saying, “That’s fucking tight, Frank. Jesus.”

Stomach swooping and burning, Frank leans right back into the ache. “And t-that’s fucking huge,” he returns, aiming for cheeky and falling short over his broken words. He’s already gasping and panting and this is going to last all of three minutes, Frank is more than positive, because Gerard is leaning in close along Frank’s spine, pressing patient kisses to Frank’s shoulders as he waits for Frank to adjust – and just. The kindness in that is a bit overwhelming, and Frank is kind of more than a little turned on by that alone. “C’mon, come on.” He’s being pushy, he knows, but Gerard doesn’t seem to have a problem with it if the noise he makes is anything to go by.

“I’m probably not going to last long,” Gerard admits, voice hitching and strained.

“Yeah, me either,” Frank says. He twists slightly to look back at Gerard, and then does this slow arch of his back where his hips cant just perfectly and maybe his eyes sort of roll back a little bit in tandem with his gaping mouth and an “Ah.” His head falls back down to rest on his arm

“Oh, my god.” Gerard’s hips jump, like he can’t help but fuck into Frank even though he’d still been doling out these barely there, shallow things that accomplished absolutely nothing and waiting for Frank regardless of his instructions.

Ah,” Frank repeats. “Keep doing that – c’mon, please, Gerard.” He makes a happy groan when Gerard complies, supplying him with a series of hitching thrusts that leave him winded. Gerard slumps over him, slick skin to skin, and Frank can’t help but arch back into it – but then Gerard’s leaning back, pulling out just enough to fucking tease, Jesus fuck, scrape a hand down Frank’s back.

And then he starts talking – “God, Frank. Your tattoos. They’re – ah – you’ve got,” and Frank has no idea where he’s going with any of that, but his tone is fucking wrecked, pitchy and tight and broken. He leans forward and bites at Frank’s shoulder and then leans back again with a particularly hard thrust. His fingers trace around the crossed guns in the center of his lower back, sparking fire up Frank’s spine.

Frank isn’t. He can’t even. “Gerard,” he pants. “C’mon pull out, wanna ride you. Want to see your face. Wanna see you come, please.”

The hiccupping whimper that Gerard makes is not, in any way, a sound that anyone aside from Frank should ever hear again. Jesus fucking Christ. He squeezes the handful of hip in his left hand and says, “Okay,” almost enthusiastically, but completely and totally breathless.

And, oh, god. Frank wasn’t really prepared to be affronted with a full-on view of Gerard, naked and sheened in sweat and looking fucking desperate with the way he’s scanning all over Frank’s torso with his lip between his teeth and his head tilted back. When Frank looks down, he sees Gerard gripping the base of his cock, fucking hard and huge and flushed up until the tone neutralizes with the condom. He looks back up, chest heaving, and says, “Lie back or sit down, I don’t care which. Whatever’s comfortable for you. But I need on you now.”

Gerard swipes his sweat-damp hair from his face, smiling briefly at Frank before he situates himself just off center of the couch, leaning back all pale and looking fucking happy. Frank wastes no time in straddling his lap, sinking down onto his cock again with a groan. He settles his hands in a tight grip on Gerard’s shoulders as Gerard pulls him in closer with hands on Frank’s hips so that they’re chest to chest. Frank is still sort of busy settling, but he likes the feeling of their skin sliding together like that, so he really doesn’t care.

Except…it’s more like Gerard is hugging him – holding him close, and pressing his face to Frank’s neck with his arms wrapped securely around his back. That’s fucking nice, because Frank’s cock is leaking and hard pressed between them. After a few moments, he pulls back and looks up at Frank – and he’s fucking gorgeous. Frank’s heart is pounding way too loudly in his ears and he just wants to come.

He leans down, dropping his head for an unmade, sloppy kiss. Groaning, Frank flexes his thighs, and curses softly into Gerard’s mouth as he drops back down. He finds a rhythm – quick and concentrated – relatively soon, doing most of the work, sweating, and grateful that Gerard’s thrusting up to help every so often like he just can’t help it. Gerard’s eyelids are heavy and his face is flushed and he’s still making these noises, so that, combined with the fact that Frank’s been on edge for fucking hours and his cock is rubbing slick against Gerard’s belly – Frank comes, hot and sharp and out of left fucking field even though it should not be a surprise at all. He keeps hitching his hips through it, twitching and gasping each time Gerard rubs against his prostate, and then he can’t help but go boneless.

“Fuck,” he breathes, still struggling for breath.

Fuck,” Gerard echoes, desperate. “Frank, I gotta. I need to –”

“Yeah, yeah, come on Gerard.”

Frank only blinks and then he’s somehow on his back, legs hitched around Gerard’s hips. Gerard’s a warm, heavy shadow over him, hands on either side of Frank’s head after he presses inside again. And Frank can’t breathe, it’s too fucking much and making his stomach twist like he’s getting hard again or something, but there is no fucking way that that’s going to happen. Not with how hard he just came. Gerard only thrusts a handful of times, breaking off into a pitchy, “Ah!” that decrescendos into a hitched, low moan as he comes.

He’s sort of heavy when he slumps over Frank, but it’s a welcome weight and Frank just slides his hands over Gerard’s back as they both twitch through aftershocks. He runs his fingertips up through Gerard’s hair, pulling a bit so that Gerard’s face isn’t buried against Frank’s neck and the couch cushion. For a few moments, Frank watches Gerard pant, breaking into a smile right before he cranes in to press a single, sloppy kiss to Frank’s mouth.

Frank giggles, giddy with afterglow. Post-orgasm feelings are literally the best thing in the world.

“I agree,” Gerard says, and okay, Frank had no idea that he’d said that out loud, but that’s okay.

He hums, and leans in for another kiss. And this time Gerard laughs into the kiss. Frank sort of thinks he might’ve found his soul mate. “Do you want to watch Fellowship?” he asks.

Rolling off to the side of Frank, so that he’s wedged between Frank and the back of the couch, Gerard grins and replies with a fervent, “Yes.”

*

Before it’d started, Frank had resolved to make popcorn and as soon as he’d gotten up, had promptly stepped on the squishy condom. He’d play-smacked at Gerard, who just giggled and hid his face and shrieked, “Sorry! Sorry! Ahaha, I’m sorry!” without sounding sorry at all. But Frank had gotten rid of the condom and brought back an armful of snacks and a pack of cigarettes and then taken a second trip for cans of Diet Coke, having absolutely no qualms about walking around his apartment in the nude.

Frank had also somehow convinced Gerard that a blanket counts as clothes, so instead of cotton and denim, Frank is snuggled against the warm expanse of Gerard’s chest and thighs with the afghan draped across his front.

With the close proximity, Frank is listening to rumble of Gerard’s voice as he quotes along to, basically, the entire three hours of the movie. He drops popcorn in Frank’s hair and apologizes profusely before he picks it out and eats it. Frank laughs and joins in on the quoting. Gerard gets quiet when Merry and Pippin are captured, and then Frank is absolutely positive that Gerard’s crying when Sam joins Frodo for Mordor. And yeah, Frank knows those feelings. He brings Gerard’s hand up from where it’s curved around his belly and presses a kiss to his knuckles.

His eyelids are heavy and he’s probably the happiest he’s been in years.

*

Thanking his lucky stars that it’s cold outside, Frank bundles up with a nice, warm green WWF hoodie with the panda logo on it and a black jacket over that, a hat, and a scarf in order to hopefully cover the massive amounts of hickies covering his (see: throat, collarbones, chest) skin.

“Frankie, are you feeling okay?” she asks, pressing the back of her hand to his forehead. She looks intent on finding that old, awful oral thermometer.

“I’m fine, Ma. Just, uh. Chilly.” The excuse seems to work well enough, but she looks sort of suspicious for most of the visit. Frank, of course, ends up telling her all about how he and Gerard have made up and are now sort of dating. (Although they’d talked about how they’d basically been dating the entire time, and well, yeah. They were definitely dating now.) She appropriately congratulates him with a smug, “I told you so,” and spends a good five minutes gloating about how she’s always right.

Eventually she settles down and Frank refills their coffee mugs. She starts in on a question the way she always does – “Okay…so,” and then a massive pause where Frank just looks at her all wide-eyed until she continues. “Your cousin Angie is getting married.”

“Why didn’t Dad call and say anything –”

“Because your father is busy trying to keep your uncle from killing the boy for getting his perfetta principessa pregnant. Now, Frank,” she says, and if the next word out of her mouth is anything related to the word Plantae, Frank is not responsible for the subsequent things to come from his own. “Flowers.”

He holds it in for a few moments, but then he looses, “Motherfucker, Mom. When is the wedding?”

After smacking him in the back of the head with a scowl on her features, she says, “Don’t worry, you’ve got two months. It’s not until the thirtieth.”

Scrubbing a hand over his face, Frank starts in on bitching and groaning about his cousin – who he can’t refer to another place because she’s famiglia for Christ’s sake – choosing to get married on the least convenient, busiest days of the year. “So it’ll be at a church, okay. Which one? The thirtieth is a Sunday, so it’ll be hard for her to get one secured – do you know if she already has one in mind?” He rattles off question after question.

Linda finally gets fed up with his stressing, saying, “Why don’t you call your father or message Angie over Facebook? I don’t know anything. It’s not my side of the family, Frankie. Sheesh, what’s got you so wound up?”

Frank laughs, sort of loudly because he’s literally the most relaxed he’s been in ages –requited crushes and powerful orgasms will do that to a guy – and says, “I’m not! I swear.”

“Is it the auditing thing?” she asks.

“What? No, Ray said that we were fine…just suggested that I hire someone for extra help.” He waves his hand. “I already posted a thing on Craigslist, I just haven’t checked the email I set up for applications.”

He’s sort of (completely) caught off guard when she says, “You know, you should just ask Gerard to do the books. Part-time or something. You said he was an accountant, right?”

“Huh. Yeah, he is,” he answers. He speculates for a moment, wondering why the fuck he hasn’t considered this before and then says, “Well, isn’t there some kind of like. Office romance law or something? Because we’re totally dating now. Did I mention that? That we’re dating. Because we are.” There’s that giddy, overwhelming feeling bubbling up through his chest and manifesting on his face and making him feel like the biggest dork in the universe. He doesn’t even care.

Linda rolls her eyes. “Yes, you mentioned that once or twice,” she says faux-exasperatedly, smiling at him. “And I don’t know, did you write a policy on that?”

Frank still can’t stop smiling and he seriously feels like an idiot. “I don’t actually think I have. Do I have to have one? If I don’t, that means I could totally hire him, right?” He doesn’t even wait for her to respond before he’s pulling his phone out of his hoodie pocket, texting his boyfriend a friendly little How’s it going with the family? and, still grinning like a loon, says, “I’ll have to think about that.”

*

EPILOGUE

Neither tucked away in a secret nook nor ostentatiously obnoxious as golden arches, Frank Iero’s il bel fiore – intentionally typecast this way – stands modestly on the corner of Broad and Capner.

Frank pauses his reading to punch Gerard in the shoulder. “Modestly? My store is a motherfucking beacon of awesomeness, you asshole.”

“Agh, fuck, keep reading! Jesus,” he answers, rubbing at his arm. “Shit, I wouldn’t have let you read it if I’d known you’d be all –” Gerard waves a hand, “– querulous today.”

Frank smirks, repeats, “Querulous.”

“Keep reading, Frank.” Gerard looks back down at his own laptop screen, smirking lightly, and Frank leans over to bite his cheek. Giggling, Gerard squirms away until there’s a nice warm patch that Frank sidles into as he chases him.

You keep reading.” He pokes Gerard in the ribs, who nearly knocks both of their laptops to the floor with his flailing. Frank skims a few more lines, sees the phrase “unrivaled dedication and passion embodied by the heart of il bel fiore, Frank Iero” and then gets all up in Gerard’s space, smiling like the little shit that he is. “Is this just you flailing about me for a thousand words? Is this all just a clever ploy to get you laid?”

“…No comment?” Gerard says. He’s joking, obviously, because he spent so much time and effort and fucking heart on the article. There’s no way that that could’ve ever been true for a second. Gerard laughs at Frank’s pretend skepticism and then blanches, says, “Oh, my god. No. I swear to god, I was just – I’m serious, I love your store, and the way you are with flowers and that –”

Frank attempts to silence Gerard with a kiss, but he keeps talking through it, and Frank starts laughing at the buzzing of Gerard’s words against his lips. “Shut up,” he says, giggling. “Please.”

“But –”

“Stop it, Gerard. I know,” he says, closing the lids of their laptops and setting them on the coffee table one at a time. “We’re going to make out now, okay?” With a laugh, he wraps his arms around Gerard’s neck and presses in close for kisses.

Maybe someday Frank will get around to finishing the article. That day is not today.