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A Million Reasons

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Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other,
but in looking outward together in the same direction.

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1939

Ray liked this part best most nights, this freedom to observe. He watched Gerard from the wings, resplendent in a cold, white spotlight, crooning into the mic.

They had written “Cancer” on a weird day and recorded it on almost the first take, with Ray filling in for Mikey on bass during the long, strange period of his absence. When they’d put their live show together they’d clumsily manoeuvred around the fact that Mikey couldn’t play the bass line Ray had written; Ray still felt bad about that. It was worth it, though, for this: Dewees putting his big, sappy heart into the piano glissandos, and Gerard haloed at center stage with his eyes in shadow like an old film star. He looked beautiful - Ray always thought he looked beautiful. Suddenly embarrassed, he crossed his legs at the knee.

The tour had brought them all to the fore, made all of their natural qualities more emphatic: Frank was more wild and lively; Mikey more withdrawn into his near-psychic introspection. Ray wondered what was heightened within himself: his propensity for worry, maybe. His now-unignorable feelings for his close friend and bandmate, undoubtedly. Ray sighed. His guitar tech was moving towards him with purpose, the black Les in his hands. Break time was over.

“Thanks,” he said, slinging the guitar on, and he strode out onstage, already being subsumed by the person he was when they performed. The album had elevated them, and they were steeped in its music, its life, the way soldiers are steeped in war or monks in prayer. Ray felt at once his most essential - the core of him boiled down to his purest self - and completely transmuted playing The Black Parade. It was a heady high but his hands were steady on the polka beat.

He lost himself to the songs. When Gerard stalked over to him and tangled one hand in his sweat-dampened hair to share his microphone, growling, their faces close, Ray didn’t falter. He would remember it later and his face would heat, but in the moment there was nothing more natural than this, being close, offering up everything they had to the thing they’d created. When they reached “Famous Last Words” Ray howled the high notes into his mic and Gerard dropped to his knees the way he always did, they way he had when they’d written the song together in a haunted mansion in the middle of the night.

In retrospect, Ray guessed it was a wonder he hadn’t fallen for Gerard sooner. It had been a long time since anything about his relationship with Gerard was unfamiliar, and he would relish the novelty of it if it didn’t stress him out so damn bad.

All of them stumbled offstage together in a heap. The night was only half over but the second set was easier. Those songs were home. It had built them up, the Three Cheers stuff. It had breathed life into the band, and it was impossible to feel out-of-sorts in those chords. Three Cheers had never tried to kill them. Ray leaned heavily on Gerard and cracked a big, sunny grin. If this was all they had with one another, it would be more than enough. More than he deserved. Gerard gripped his shoulder, dragged his hand down Ray’s arm, and swanned away with a sultry backward glance.

If this was all they had together Ray would be fine, but it didn’t stop him from a guilty fantasy now and again.

*

They closed out their last show in Germany and drove to Prague in a rented van, like that didn’t reek of nostalgia. Their elaborate gear, the pyrotechnics, the gurney - which was more of a logistical nightmare than it had any right to be - came down by way of a massive eighteen-wheeler truck, and the trip wasn’t long enough to justify a bus with a lounge for the band. Mikey fell asleep on Gerard’s shoulder twenty minutes into the drive and stayed that way.

Gerard was itching to do something, to draw or read or dig out his iPod and play solitaire, but he didn’t want to jostle Mikey. He’d missed him too much. It had been necessary, Mikey had needed to leave and sort himself out and spend time with his wife, and all, but it had left Gerard feeling wrong-footed for weeks. He didn’t like to be away from Mikey for too long under ordinary circumstances; on the wheels of their bloated success, of the dream they’d forced into reality together, it felt awful.

So he didn’t want to move Mikey, but he was bored.

“Toro!” he hissed. In the seat in front of him, Ray’s curly head twitched. He twisted around. Frank was sprawled across the seat beside Ray, his feet in Ray’s lap, conked the fuck out the way he always was after a show, so Ray had more freedom of movement. No worries about waking Frank up.

“What’s up, Geeway?” Ray murmured. He looked tired, but not sleepy, his eyes alert and happy.

“‘M bored.”

Ray huffed a little laugh, restrained, like he was trying to be quiet. “What do you want me to do about it?”

There was no flirtation in his tone, but Gerard entertained the idea for a moment. It was a game he’d been playing with himself for years now. “Does Frankie have any books up there?”

Ray bent forward and rummaged around in the bags at his feet. His shoulders flexed under his t-shirt. He sat up and turned, holding up a Playboy with an embarrassed grimace on his face.

Gerard snorted. “Nothing with more substance?”

Obligingly, Ray leaned down again. This time he emerged with a beat-up paperback. His mouth quirked up at one side, doubtful. “Vonnegut?”

He considered it. Frankie and his Vonnegut thing. “Which one is it?”

Ray flipped the book over and scanned the back. “Looks like short stories. You want it? I dunno if there’s anything else in there, and I’m kinda scared to look.” He grinned, big teeth, dimples. “Even for you, Gee, I’ve got my limits.”

“Yeah, alright,” Gerard said. He reached his unoccupied arm out for the book. On his other shoulder, Mikey’s head lolled like a topheavy flower.

He fell asleep reading, somewhere after they crossed the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. He dreamed he was in the center of a vast, sprawling factory. Boulevards lined with warehouses stretched out in every direction. In front of him, in the intersection of two deserted roads, a deer stood. He approached it, reached his hand out to stroke it, and it spoke to him in Ray’s voice.

Gerard jerked awake. They were coming up on the lights of Prague, and on the bench seat in front of him, Ray was asleep, slumped over so his head was pillowed on Frank’s soft stomach. Gerard tossed the book over them in the vague direction of Frank’s backpack.

Fuckin’ Frankie and his fuckin’ Vonnegut thing.

After their show in Prague they flew to Amsterdam, where they were playing one night and staying several more in order to, in Frank’s words, “take in the local delicacies.” Frank and Bob were in the laborious process of dragging Mikey out to meet Dewees for a night of - Bob’s phrasing this time - “shenanigans,” and they paused at the doorway. For the longer stay they’d booked an apartment-style suite of rooms, connected by a shared living room with an intimidating, post-modern sofa. From the door, Frank was looking expectantly at Ray.

“I’m beat, guys,” Ray said, honestly. “Next time, okay?” He glanced at Gerard, subtle but not subtle enough. What was he playing at?

Probably nothing, Gerard thought. Probably he was doing his same worrying routine about Gerard, just wanting to keep him placated, not angling for an excuse to be alone with him.

“You don’t have to,” Gerard said.

Ray looked at him with an expression that said “you’re being stupid and vain.” Gerard felt appropriately stupid and vain.

“Have fun, don’t lose Mikey,” Ray said to Bob, and shut the door behind him when he followed Frank and Mikey out.  

“I was just gonna do some hotel TV voodoo and chill out,” Gerard said. “I can keep it down if you wanna sleep.”

But Ray had already retreated to the couch. “Nah, dude, we haven’t done a movie night in like a year.” He paused, unsure. “Unless you don’t want company…”

“You can stay,” he said quickly. He sounded overeager and he knew it. “I mean, I’ll see if I can find something good.”

Gerard had a sixth sense about these things, he could almost always be trusted to find some campy old horror flick on the hotel cable. Tonight, as it turned out, it was Phantom of the Paradise, and over the first twenty minutes he’d slid down the couch so that now he was singing along under his breath, his head resting on the solid muscle of Ray’s left thigh.

“Any reason you don’t want to be out enjoying the spoils of your victory?” Ray asked casually. He had his arms spread out over the back of the couch, all easy grace. Gerard patted his knee.

“What victory? We’ve got, like, twenty more dates just on this leg of the tour.” On the screen, the villain bared a mouthful of horrific metal teeth, and even though he’d seen it before, Gerard flinched. “You’re doin’ that thing they call ‘counting your chickens before they’ve hatched,’ Toro.”

“I’m saying we could go out and see the world a little before we ship ourselves back to Belleville to sleep for two weeks. And it’s not like Projekt Revolution goes to Amsterdam.” Ray grinned to show Gerard he was speaking in jest, as if Gerard didn’t already know. “Seriously, though. I worry when you don’t get out much, and I will fully cop to the fact that that’s the last nail in my coffin as the band mom. But you used to love touristy crap.”

“I mean,” Gerard started. He wriggled down a little. His cheek felt hot where it had been pushed against the cloth of Ray’s jeans. “I used to love getting trashed in overpriced bars full of novelty junk.”

Ray shrugged. “I guess. But we could go someplace and like, resist the fourteen-dollar beer. That is a possibility, dude.”

“Lies!” Gerard mumbled. “Everybody knows it’s impossible to leave home without being force fed illicit substances!” He laughed. “Why, are you tired of me?”

Ray turned away from the screen to look down at Gerard, that fond, sentimental look softening his face. “I haven’t gotten tired of you yet, Gerard, I don’t think it’s gonna happen. So you can stop hoping.”

Gerard smiled. They knew each other awfully well, but it was still nice to be reassured. “You don’t have to stick around here, though. If you wanna go get wasted with Dewees, me and my science fiction double feature won’t mind.”

“I get wasted with Dewees all the time, man. This is nice.” Ray patted Gerard’s hip with a big, clumsy palm. “I’m just making sure you’re not, like, isolating yourself.”

“Can’t be isolating if you’re here,” Gerard said with a little chuckle.

“Guess not.” Ray turned his attention back to the movie, but he kept his hand on the convex curve of Gerard’s hip, his warm palm anchoring them together. It was a few minutes before he spoke again. “Don’t you want to have stories, though? Adventuring, running around foreign cities where you don’t speak the language type rockstar stories? Without all the beer-swilling and debauchery, I mean. Or, with less of the debauchery.”

Gerard laughed, full-throated and loud this time. “Dude, don’t point out how sad this is, but I like having stories like this one. You know.” He paused. “That time we were in Amsterdam and we were so dead tired we stayed in to watch, fuckin’, Phantom of the Paradise on OnDemand and passed out while everybody else was out wreaking havoc.”

“You’re right, man, that’s pretty sad.”

“Hey!” Gerard smacked Ray’s knee. “What’d I tell you not to do!”

“Sorry, sorry.” Ray patted Gerard’s hip again.

“And we have the shows, and stuff, and all the crap we get up to during the day, and it’s not like we lock ourselves in every night. It’s nice to have this.” He took a chance on the mood between them, lighthearted and intimate. “So y’know, in thirty years when we’re married and sitting on our front porch we’ll have all these great stories about the time we conquered the world, and also about watching bad horror movies.” Gerard grinned up at Ray. He didn’t know what made him say it, give voice to the odd, secret future he imagined sometimes. Ray was still smiling, though. “For the grandkids, or whatever.”

“We’re getting married?” Ray laughed and moved his hand to settle on the side of Gerard’s head. He stroked through his hair once, twice, even though it was, to Gerard’s knowledge, pretty greasy, not to mention rich with the bouquet of sweat and gel.

“Well, yeah, I mean…” Gerard paused, pushed his head up into Ray’s palm like a needy cat. “I sorta need you around all the time to make sense of the world for me, so I should probably make an honest man outta you.” He laughed. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Ray turned the movie down just a little. “That’s an awfully lofty promise, Gee.”

“Yeah, well.” Gerard turned onto his side and nosed against Ray’s hip, breathing him in, that sharp, sweet smell of home. He ignored the fact that this closeness and the scent of Ray’s sweat made his dick twitch in his jeans. “I’ve got my long term goals.”

“One of these days you’re gonna have to figure out your short term goals, dude,” Ray said without reproach. That was a thought, to be sure. Gerard had a very clear idea of where and how he wanted to be - to be with Ray - ten, twenty years from now. It was so vivid in his mind that it seemed an inevitability, a given. The next months or years, the perilous gap between friends and lovers and partners… That was the part he hadn’t worked out. Typical.

Ray didn’t seem too bothered. He dragged his fingers down the back of Gerard’s neck and held him there, secure.

*

They stayed in Amsterdam long enough to see plenty of sights before flying to England for the Download Festival. Since their plane touched down, Ray had been having trouble keeping still. Their equipment was set up and they weren’t playing for another few hours, and truth be told he wasn’t even nervous about their show - they’d been doing this for too long for him to really get nerves anymore.

“It’s just. Fuckin’ Maiden, dude!” he said for the dozenth time. “We’re headlining a festival with Iron Maiden. Iron Maiden!”

“Yes, dear,” said Dewees from his spot on the green room couch.

Ray held his hands out, helpless, looking for one of the other guys to back him up. “Maiden?” he said vaguely to Mikey. “Steve Harris?” Then, to Frank: “Dave Murray?” He turned to Gerard with a last, pleading whine. "Bruce Dickinson?"

Gerard gave him a patronising look. “I know this is like, your version of what opening for Bowie would be for me, but you gotta chill out. You’re gonna be great.” He dug a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of his jeans pocket and shook them at Ray. “Come keep me company?”

Ray followed him out a service entrance onto a loading dock, devoid of anything but a stack of old pallets and an empty paint can full of cigarette butts.

“You freakin’ out for real, or are you good?” Gerard asked. He plunked himself down on the cement and crossed his legs, looking expectantly at Ray until he did the same.

“Nah, I’m okay.”

Gerard shook out a cigarette and put it between his lips, then dug in his pocket for a lighter. He came up empty handed. “Do you have -” he started, but Ray already had one hand in his jeans pocket. He leaned forward and cupped his palm around the tip of Gerard’s cigarette to light it. Gerard leaned into the motion and his cheeks hollowed as he breathed in. Ray could see the dusting of summer freckles across Gerard’s nose. He turned away and blew a stream of smoke into the mild English sunshine. “You sure?”

“Yeah. I just…” Ray turned away from him. It was hard to look Gerard in the face and talk about your feelings - he was too expressive, and too relentlessly sincere. “You remember when you were ready to quit after the first album?”

“Hold up, you’re not ready to quit, right?” Gerard put a hand on Ray’s shoulder and squeezed, hard and anxious. “We can’t replace you, Ray, you -”

“No! No, I’d never quit. I was just thinking about how, like, it could’ve stopped there.”

“Oh.” As quickly as he’d been riled up, Gerard settled again. “It would’ve, if you hadn’t talked sense into me.” He leaned on Ray’s shoulder. That conversation seemed like lifetimes ago - Ray remembered it like an out-of-body experience, like he was watching a movie about himself trying to convince Gerard to keep the band going, sitting there at Elena’s kitchen table. “It didn’t, though,” Gerard continued. “I asked you to save the world with me and you made good on it.”

“I don’t think the world’s totally safe yet, dude.” Ray tilted towards Gerard so that they were propped up against each other. “But I don’t think I ever thought about us making it this far. And like… It’s Maiden. That means it’s real.”

Gerard laughed, but in a way where Ray knew he wasn’t laughing at him. “Far be it from me to, you know, present you with the realities of your station,” he said, gesturing vaguely with the hand holding the cigarette. A whorl of smoke curved around his wrist, then away. “But you’re the shredding rock god lead guitarist of a pretty important band. Like, I think it’s safe to say you’re already some kid’s Dave Murray.”

Ray blushed and squinted out into the sunshine. “Shit,” he said. “Yeah, okay.”

Gerard ashed onto the concrete. They were warmed by the sun, and by each other, still leaning together like the uneven sides of a pyramid. “And like you said, the world’s not saved yet. You’ve got to make good on that promise.” He tilted his head to face Ray - they were very close. Ray could smell Gerard’s sweat, ripe with the overtones of tobacco and stale coffee, making his head swim. Gerard smiled. His sudden and vigorous sincerity was overwhelming.

“I’m a man of my word,” he said. He blinked owlishly back at Gerard. “I’m here till you tell me not to be.”

Gerard’s face shifted, going soft, almost pitying. He pressed forward and Ray twitched in alarm, thinking for a brief and horrifying second that Gerard was going to kiss him. His heart hammered in his chest. As often as he’d thought about it, he had no recourse for the actual thing. Instead, Gerard buried his face in Ray’s neck, under the cloud of his hair. “Thank you,” he said, muffled. Then, “Let’s go kick Iron Maiden’s ass.”

Ray wouldn’t say they kicked Maiden’s ass, because he was loyal and had spent more cumulative years in a Number of the Beast t-shirt than he had doing anything else, but he knew they were in top form. Their show demolished the crowd, none of them could deny it. They stuck around for the rest of the festival and got to watch Maiden’s set from the side of the stage, all of them wide-eyed and a little starstruck. Gerard stuck to Ray’s side, hanging onto his elbow with a loose grip.

“I don’t need babysitting, you know,” Ray said after the third time he caught Gerard watching him.

He thought he saw Gerard flush a little, but it was hard to tell in the heat of the evening. “I know, dude. I just like watching you watch them.” He squeezed Ray’s bicep once and then let it go and stepped a little further away, and Ray sort of wished he hadn’t said anything.

*

Their sojourn in England came to a close and they were hustled to another plane, another crowded rental van, another show where their same stage set was faithfully made up for them. Gerard didn’t know what he expected of Russia – slate grey skies and heavy-handed post-Soviet film imagery, vodka from the bathroom tap, something like that. It seemed more foreign in his imagination, more miles away from Belleville, than anything they’d seen so far. But it was… Nice. Their show in Saint Petersburg had been good, and now champagne-colored sunlight suffused his hotel room with a good, mellow mood. He stretched in bed. They’d played a good set and he’d stayed up too late with Ray and Dewees in a raucous skirmish with borrowed Magic cards in the hotel restaurant and he was tired, but a good tired.

He rolled his shoulder back and smiled when it popped. It was good to know he was still putting in the work, this far into the tour. Mikey was finally back out with them, at least for a little while, and they were all feeling revitalized, glad to have excised this album, still proud to play it. They had cut it out of themselves like a tumor and hefted it out onto the operating room table to find it was a hunk of precious gemstone, a beautiful, powerful thing. It demanded their reverence, their respect.

Gerard turned over to face the clock but couldn’t hold the time in his head long enough to determine a course of action for the day. That meant he needed coffee.

The hotel restaurant was all wide windows and white linen. Gerard cradled a heavy porcelain mug of coffee in both hands and searched around for familiar faces for a moment before spotting Frank and Mikey at a table by the window. As he got closer he saw that James was with them, slumped against the window and determinedly asleep. Typical.

“G’morning,” Mikey said around a yawn, scooting over to let Gerard join him on the bench. He had his own cup of coffee, light and sweet and already half-empty, and a stack of pancakes drenched in syrup.

“Mm-hmm,” Gerard replied. He plucked Mikey’s fork from his fingers and sheared off a bite of his pancakes. “What are we doing today?” he asked the table.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full, dude, that’s gross,” James said, eyes still closed. James was one to talk about being gross, Gerard thought, but kept it to himself. “I don’t know about you assholes but I’m finding an English-speaking pharmacy and getting an industrial size bottle of aspirin, I’ve got a headache that won’t quit and I couldn’t find Toro this morning to mooch his.”

“Gotta be prepared for these things, dude,” Frank said sagely. “Steal from Toro the night before.”

James cracked a bleary eye. “When’d you get so fuckin’ wise?”

“I’ve been in this band longer than you,” Frank replied. He shoveled a forkful of eggs into his mouth. “Ray goes running in the mornings. Like, almost every morning. You can’t count on that guy at all to save your ass before nine.”

They lapsed into companionable quiet. Gerard downed his coffee and found it refilled almost immediately by a smiling waiter. Mikey attempted two more bites of his breakfast before yielding the rest to Gerard in a time-honored tradition between the two of them; Gerard tried not to worry that Mikey was too thin, a time-honored tradition between him and himself. At about a quarter after nine Ray joined them, flushed and sweaty, in a pair of grey track pants and a Metallica t-shirt so faded and so familiar that Gerard’s mind automatically filled in the gaps in the logo. Ray’s hair was pulled back and damp with sweat. Their waiter set a fresh cup of coffee in front of him without being asked and Ray gave him a dazzling grin.

Gerard sipped his coffee and watched Ray over the rim of the mug. He didn’t look tired, even though they’d both been up late. He looked flushed and lively, and his sleeves were rucked up just enough to show the ombre edge of a farmer’s tan. It was hot, Gerard thought, in a butch sort of way. Ray’s body was athletic but soft, masculine and gentle the way his voice was, and his face. Gerard admired the scalloped shadow on his cheek cast by one loose strand of curly hair.

“How do you have the energy?” he asked. He was bone-tired, even with the coffee and the lingering, warm comfort of a night’s sleep in a real bed.

Ray’s lips quirked in a half-smile. He settled his gaze on Gerard. His eyes were intense, awash with light in the clarity of the morning, crinkling at the corners. “Oh, you know,” he said. “I have to keep fit to trick some poor idiot into marrying me.” He paused and took a long sip of his coffee without breaking eye contact. “Once I’m settled down I’ll quit it and get gloriously fat, you’ll see.”

Gerard felt his cheeks color. He drained his coffee to avoid saying anything incriminating.

“That’s the way to do it,” James said, eyes still shut. “You can grow up to be just like me.”

They all laughed, because of course they did, and Ray reached across the table to swat James on the shoulder and remind him that he was only a year older than Ray was. Underneath that was the pointed omission of the fact that James had just come off a pretty rough divorce and could hardly be called “settled down.”

“I mean,” James said, leaning back out of the way of Ray’s hands and putting an arm over his eyes. “You’re basically settled down, just with Gerard and your fuckin’ album instead of the love of a good woman.”

Frank snorted, and Gerard had the presence of mind to school his face into something resembling indignation. Ray was watching him out of the corner of his eye, his face an odd mix of smug and embarrassed. Gerard knew what they were both remembering. He slouched over to lean on Ray’s shoulder and link their arms together.

“You’re right, James, this is the portrait of wedded bliss,” Ray said, deadpan.

James cracked an eye and burst out laughing, joined by Frank, and - always more reserved, always accompanied by a measuring look - Mikey. They abandoned their breakfast detritus and made their way in an approximate group towards the lobby for bus call. Ray dropped his arm from Gerard’s to pick up his backpack and the place where it had been, spiralling from the inside of Gerard’s elbow to the outer joint of his wrist, felt fevered, as if all the heat in the world had been contained in that trail of contact. He rubbed his forearm with his other hand, and still felt too cold.

*

About a half hour before they were due on, they started the familiar rituals of warming up. Gerard was in one corner tugging on his tongue and making weird, vocal coach endorsed noises. Mikey was pacing, tapping out the world’s longest text message on his Sidekick. Frank had a bottle of water in one hand and an orange pill bottle in the other, and he shook a tablet out and downed it with a cheerful “See you guys tomorrow!” Ray leaned over and put his head on Frank’s shoulder in what he hoped was a comforting gesture. It was killing, honestly, that they were still falling apart with this much distance between them and the Paramour. That born performer, natural leader Frank Iero was so afraid of the stage these days he couldn’t go on without a thick veil of brain fog.

But the show was good. It was great, they were always great. He played his heart out and sweated clean through his increasingly ripe parade jacket, and fell to his knees in front of Gerard during the second set to give his “I’m Not Okay” solo one hundred percent. Gerard wound a hand into his hair and pulled tight so they were on the mic together, wailing the chorus. You’d think they’d be tired of this song. Ray didn’t think they ever would be.

When the lights dimmed they tumbled offstage together, all smiles, just inside the wings so they could listen to the static cheer of the crowd the way they might listen to waves crashing on the beaches back home. The house lights came up behind them but the audience kept cheering. The roar ebbed after a few minutes, the crowd milling back towards the exits and their waiting cars, or their parents’ cars. Ray looked around for the rest of his band.

Frank liked to spend everything he had onstage: he said it was the only time he felt like he’d gotten rid of all the garbage in him, all that junked up immune system and chronic illness just sweated out and left onstage for a little while. It left him warm and boneless, soaked in sweat, grinning through his medicated haze. He slid down the side of the amp stack where he’d been leaning and landed in a soft arrangement of limbs on the grimy backstage floor. He made a little “oomph” sound when he hit the ground, and Ray felt that familiar mix of fondness and vague embarrassment that he always associated with Frank.

“Okay, Frankie, up ya go,” Ray said, reaching down to hook his hands under Frank’s armpits. Frank rolled against him, all the usual biological processes that went into a basic motion like standing shut completely down. Worm was watching from the wings, and he gave Ray a look, like, I can carry that for you. Ray shook his head, still wired from the show. “I got it.” And he slung Frank over his shoulder, knowing if he’d been himself he’d have laughed and protested at the indignity of it.

“You got that?” Gerard asked, wandering up with a water bottle and a bright, sweaty grin.

Ray shrugged his unoccupied shoulder. “A guy picks you up off the ground enough times, you return the favor, y’know.”

Gerard patted the back of Frank’s calf and Frank kicked unenergetically back at him. “I can stand up,” he tried to say, but his mumble was lost where his face was pressed against Ray’s back.

“I know, big guy,” Ray said, hoisting him into a more stable position and setting off for the row of cars that would take them to the airport. Gerard tagged along, companionable, still feeling the post-show glow. The rush of the crew and the whole harrowing process of breaking down their set fell away around them and Gerard curled his hand around Ray’s elbow, pushing the hard tips of his fingers into Ray’s bicep for a brief moment, looking sentimental.

“Don’t let me get all corny,” he said, hanging onto Ray’s arm. “I was about to say some lame shit about, like, destiny and how I’m glad I called you when I decided to try to save the world. Don’t let me say that, it’s fuckin’ hokey.”

Ray leaned over, trying not to jostle Frank, who was at that point snoring arrhythmically into the dip of Ray’s spine, and set his head on Gerard’s shoulder. “You just said it, dude. You’re one cheesy motherfucker.” It was hard to walk and carry Frank and maintain this weird, intimate huddle at the same time but Ray managed it.

“Yeah, I guess.” Gerard tousled Ray’s hair with his free hand. The paused in front of the row of waiting cars, management, and things to be done. “And like, you should know it.”

Gerard left his hand at the side of Ray’s face. He drew his bottom lip into his mouth and sucked it, once, thoughtful. He had that look in his eyes, the same kind he got when they were in the last stretch of writing a song and he’d hit upon the missing ingredient, the magic that would bring it together. His face was hard and determined and, beneath all that, bewitchingly vulnerable.

“Gee?” Ray asked. He turned his face a little into Gerard’s palm. The sky above them was pitch black, stars blotted out by the lights of the city. The sodium lights along the parking lot painted them in shades of orange and threw deep purple shadows under Gerard’s cheekbones and the sharp point of his chin. One strand of his hair, spiked with sweat, cast a sharp shadow over the crest of his pointed nose. He looked like a painting; he radiated a surreal, alien beauty. Ray swallowed.

“If you’re gonna do a teen movie makeout scene can you at least put me down first,” Frank interrupted. He was groggy but indignant, wriggling under Ray’s arm.

“That’s my cue,” Ray said. He touched Gerard’s hand where it still rested on his cheek, then pulled away and went off to deposit Frank with Cortez. It wouldn’t do to dwell on anything - Gerard was like that. He was free with his affection, and they did have something great. Ray had never not believed in the music they made together. He was so proud of the record, this living, breathing thing bigger than all of them that they’d dragged up out of the jaws of hell. He was so proud of all of them. Gerard was a cheesy motherfucker, but so was Ray, and at least Gerard was upfront about it.

Ray found himself struggling, to be honest, not to make comparisons and not to get jealous. He knew, he was settled in the very core of himself, that Gerard still admired his musicianship and relied on him, and the thready substance between them to create the music they both loved. He was validated on that front, at least. But it had always seemed like a sort of kismet to Ray, the way they hadn’t talked in years until his phone rang, the way Gerard just believed in him from the start, the way their writing had taken off like a goddamn bolt from the blue. It was petty and Ray knew it and hated himself for it, but he was a little put out because he knew the fans didn’t really see it that way. And he was wondering nearly constantly these days if Gerard actually felt the same sort of awestruck disbelief about him that he claimed to, or if it even really mattered anymore. And if these sorts of odd, vulnerable moments they kept sharing were Gerard’s way of trying to show some reverence for the connection between them, or if they were just Gerard being Gerard.

Or, and the thought was so unpalatable that he forced it out of his mind immediately, if Gerard was subtly making fun of him.

It didn’t seem likely, but Ray couldn’t stop that doubt from bobbing to the surface of his thoughts every so occasionally, when Gerard got the way he was tonight, all tender and affectionate. He shook his head to clear it and found an empty spot in one of the cars next to Mikey. Sweet, uncomplicated Mikey. The only one of the lot of them who’d managed to get married and settle down, though Frank and Jamia were headed that way, and if they announced it tomorrow Ray didn’t think anybody would be able to conjure a surprised face for them.

“Hey, Mikeyway,” he said, dropping into the seat beside him. “You doin’ good?”

Mikey smiled his mild, content smile and nodded. “We kinda kick ass, huh?”

“Seems like that.” Ray rolled his head onto Mikey’s shoulder. “We missed you, dude. Glad you’re back.”

Mikey put his hand out to pat Ray on the side of the head but he missed, and put his palm fondly over his face instead. He laughed, but like everything about him, it was contained. “Me, too.” He patted Ray’s face again. “I’m glad I got out for a while, though, y’know?”

“Yeah. I hear you.”

Mikey leaned his cheek against the top of Ray’s head. It was a familiar gesture made strange by the absence of Mikey’s glasses. Ray missed them acutely for a moment.

“You think you’re gonna take any time off?” Mikey asked. “I mean, Cortez could fill in for you. He’s been doing it for Frank all the time.”

Ray’s immediate thought wasn’t that it was a lot harder than Mikey probably realized to fill in for a lead guitarist, especially one as stylistically particular as Ray was, even though it was perfectly true and a good reason for him not to take any days to himself. It was a lot easier for Cortez to fill in Frank’s parts, which were more subject to change from night to night, or Mikey’s, which were painfully simple. They could’ve found somebody, though, they had the resources. That just wasn’t why Ray was insisting on keeping on top of the relentless wheels of the Black Parade World Tour. He thought about lying, and knew Mikey wouldn’t buy it for a second.

“I don’t want him to feel like he’s up there alone, y’know?” He didn’t have to specify who he was talking about.

“Oh,” Mikey said. He patted Ray’s cheek again. “I mean, he’s not, though. He wouldn’t think he is.”

“I know -” Ray pushed himself up, determined to clarify. “It’s not - I’m not blaming any of you, like, you had to take time off, and Frank’s been sick, and Bob’s leg got all fucked up and if anything like that happened to me I’d go take care of it and,  you know, the show would go on.” He was talking with his hands the way he couldn’t help but do when he got worked up. “But if Gerard got sick we’d have to cancel dates, like, he’s the only one of us who’s not replaceable. And that seems like, I mean, a lot of pressure, probably.” He took a breath. “I just want to make sure he’s got a constant up there. You saw… I mean, you saw how he got when we were trying to write the damn thing.”

It was sort of an unspoken rule not to talk to Mikey about the time at the Paramour, or at least, not to do it around Gerard. Ray thought Mikey probably deserved more credit than that, but they were all overprotective of him, more so now that his childish edges had been filed off, somehow.

“James is up there with him,” Mikey pointed out, and they both laughed. Ray wondered if James would ever actually accept their invitation to join the band for real. He doubted it.

“Well, we both know what a stabilizing force there is in James Dewees,” Ray said, settling back onto Mikey’s shoulder. “You know what I mean, though.”

“I do. And… that’s fair.” Mikey looked at him, his mouth quirked curiously to one side. “You’re a good dude, Toro.”

“I’m really not,” Ray said, but he laughed. It was sort of a running joke that Mikey could see straight through all of them, but it was only funny because it was a little bit true. He settled back down on Mikey’s shoulder as the car pulled out and began its journey to the airport.

“You might not have all the noblest intentions,” Mikey amended. “But you’re a good dude. I mean it.”

“Yeah,” Ray said. Suddenly he felt exhausted, the adrenaline of the show draining out of him like a long exhale. He could sleep on the way to the airport, if he wanted. They had a little time. “You’re probably right.”

They flew to Italy. Gerard spent the whole ride napping on Ray’s shoulder, looking worn out and improbable under a mess of blankets. They landed before dawn and had time to settle in and explore, nearly the whole day spread out before them with only a soundcheck and a show at the end to hem them in. They had an odd-hours breakfast together in sleepy silence in the hotel’s restaurant, then split off variously to nap or explore Venice or, in Mikey’s case, to find someplace with decent cell reception to call Alicia while the timezones permitted.

Ray slouched off to his room to pass out. He was too nervous to sleep on planes under the best of circumstances, and even less so when Gerard was snoring hotly into the side of his neck. When he awoke a few hours later, he was feeling looser, more relaxed. Still tired - always still tired, on this tour - but awake. It took him a moment to locate what had woken him: it was Gerard at the door.

“Let’s go on an adventure,” Gerard said. He was irresistible. To Ray, he always had been.

An adventure, it turned out, was a long walk around the villa in search of a bookstore the concierge had evidently recommended to Gerard. Ray peered over his shoulder at a crude, hand-drawn map and tried to orient himself.

“That way?” he asked, pointing back in the direction they’d just come. “I think we were supposed to go down that alley.”

Gerard frowned at him. “Sounds potentially dangerous, I’m in.”

They did find the bookstore down the alley, at the bottom of a set of worn limestone steps, just out of view of the canals they’d been skirting. Gerard plowed into the stacks of old comics with a fervor he only possessed in places like this, and Ray lingered by the door, watching him. He paged through an Italian edition of Slaughterhouse Five and waited for Gerard to exhaust the entire inventory of comics, as was his way.

The honey-gold sun of that morning had faded impossibly quickly and the light filtering through the shop window was diffuse and grey, colored by a pendulous layer of clouds. Ray idled by the door watching Gerard pay for his books, glance at the ominous sky, and ask in stuttering attempted Italian for an extra plastic bag in case of rain. Ray held the door open and put a hand on Gerard’s back to steer him back towards the hotel. Behind them, the bell in the door of the bookshop chimed.

Gerard was pawing through the bag, his hair in his eyes, rearranging things, overeager to look even though the sky was turning perilous. A tense electricity crackled in the air. Ray felt the static in the humidity-spiraled curls of his hair, in the gooseflesh on his bare forearms. He kept his hand on Gerard’s back, a comforting weight, and guided him through a crowd of tourists he would have plowed right into, nose-deep in a faded issue of The Amazing Spiderman.

When the first rumble of thunder rolled overhead, Ray leaned over. “Gee,” he said, and Gerard looked up and beamed.

“I didn’t forget about you, don’t worry.” Gerard held his place in the comic with his forefinger. Ray put his palm over Gerard’s hand and Gerard looked up at him, eyes soft in the queer pre-storm light.

“It’s about to rain.” Ray smiled, wincing as the first fat, tentative droplets of an impending downpour struck the asphalt around them. Gerard started trying to get his bags back in order, cursing, and Ray grinned down at him even as he stepped close, crowding in to keep Gerard dry.

“Ha!” Gerard crowed, shoving the bag into his jacket and looking up triumphantly. The storm picked up, and a gust of wind off the canals whipped their hair together, soaked them in horizontal sheets of rain.

Ray leaned in and put his mouth to Gerard’s ear. “Do you want me to get a cab?”

Gerard was still beaming, tugging the lapels of his jacket closer around himself, and he shook his head. He reached out one hand and grabbed Ray’s wrist, tugging him along in the direction of their hotel, still a little ways off. A flash of heat lightning crawled the underside of the clouds above them, and the crack of thunder followed in its wake. Gerard swung the arm connected to Ray’s, looking delighted. Ray let himself look.

Gerard’s hair was plastered to his face, his eyes half shut against the driving summer storm, his mouth quirked in that odd little smile. The wind was strong and Ray leaned close, feeling body heat jump ship from Gerard’s shoulder to his, to speak. “You’re enjoying this too much.”

Gerard let out a full-throated laugh at that, and his grip on Ray’s wrist tightened, then slackened. He moved down to intertwine their fingers.

“I was just thinking,” he said. He slowed them almost to a stop, gazing out over the network of canals visible from the piazza, even through the sheeting rain. His face was flushed and slicked over with rain, and his hair clung to his face and neck in abstract tendrils and whorls. Ray brought his free hand up and smoothed Gerard’s hair off his forehead, tucking it behind his ear.

“What were you thinking?” He left his thumb on the square hinge of Gerard’s jaw.

“I was thinking that if you were ever going to kiss me, Toro, we’ve just been given a very cinematic opportunity.” He managed to sound both sardonic and tentative at once, and Ray’s lips twitched in a half smile. They reached for each other at the same time, Gerard putting his free hand around Ray’s waist and Ray curling his fingers around the back of Gerard’s neck. There was an inevitable moment of hesitation, just before the point of no return, when Ray saw Gerard’s eyelashes brocaded with rainwater and the way they fluttered shut, put half-moon shadows over his cheekbones in the weak light.

Ray shut his eyes and kissed Gerard, slowly and deliberately. He was overly sensate, aware in some base, brainstem way of how his soaked Metallica t-shirt was clinging to his back, how water wrung out of it when Gerard got a handful of cloth and tugged. Gerard’s hand in his was tight, and if he focused he was sure he could make out the spiraling patterns of each of Gerard’s fingerprints, the callous on his forefinger from holding a pencil, the hangnail he’d been worrying at that morning.

Ray broke the kiss and sucked in a breath, meaning to say something but instead starting up another, a thorough and luxurious kiss that pressed them together under the cording rain. He could feel the firm rectangular shape of the books under Gerard’s jacket. He kissed Gerard again and again, languid, the storm forgotten. He only flinched away when a passing cab threw a sheet of groundwater up to splash their legs. Gerard reached for him again and Ray gave him his most indulgent smile, showing all his teeth, and kissed him once, very softly.

“Gee,” he said, just this side of breathless. “We gotta go.”

Gerard untangled his hand from the back of Ray’s shirt and slid his fingers into his sopping curls instead. “Don’t get all responsible on me, dude,” he said, tilting his head up to kiss the corner of Ray’s mouth, the side of his nose, the broad slope of his damp cheek.  

Ray leaned closer, settling his chin in the juncture of Gerard’s neck and shoulder. They couldn’t stay here, as appealing as it was, the idea of bearing Gerard down against the centuries-old crumbling balustrades overlooking the churning Venetian canals, and undressing him in the eye of the storm and kissing him breathless. He pressed a kiss into the column of Gerard’s throat.

“There’s stuff I wanna do,” he said, shifting his weight against Gerard, pushing the damp shape of his lips to Gerard’s ear, crowding him in. “Stuff that would work better inside.”

Gerard pressed back against him for a long moment. “Let’s run.”

Gerard took off like a shot, down the piazza towards their hotel, tugging Ray behind him. His smoker’s lungs failed him after thirty seconds of sprinting, and Ray caught him around the waist and kissed him, and kissed him again for the pleasure of being able to. The rain wasn’t letting up at all, but they were both soaked to the bone so they hardly noticed, and they hurried through the square, finally tumbling, dripping, through the doors of the hotel.

Goosebumps sprang up over both of them in the blast of hotel air conditioning. Gerard gasped and laughed and clapped his hands against his arms, trying to warm them. The fervor that had propelled them back to the hotel simmered between them. Gerard was dragging Ray towards the row of gold-plated elevator grilles, towards their rooms, when they came face to face with Bob. He didn’t look wet, just tired.

“Did anybody tell you?” He asked. Under the sweeping thatch of his blond hair his eyes were ringed in purple circles of exhaustion. It had been a long tour. “Show’s off for tonight, some of our shit got wrecked. It’s hailing down at the festival stage.”

“Fuck,” Ray said, turning back to the hotel doors. The outside was abstract and grey, hard to see through. “Do you know what got fucked up? Do you know if my guitars –“

“I think they’re fine, all the techs were down there. An amp stack blew over, I don’t know the rest of the damage -”

“Are you kidding?” Ray looked pale. “A whole amp stack? Fuck, I gotta -” He made a jerky, aborted movement towards the doors, where rain was still sheeting down, mixed with increasing volumes of hail that bounced off the hotel windows in a staccato series of plinks. Then, with visible effort, he stopped. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he said, voice tight. “Like you said, right? I don’t have to go down there.” He brushed Gerard’s arm lightly with his knuckles.

It was absurd, and it was so Ray. Gerard could have - would have - kissed him.

“Here,” Gerard said and peeled off his jacket. He pushed it at Ray. “You’re not gonna chill out unless you go check. Be careful.”

The jacket, of course, was still soaked from the rain but Ray pulled it on and turned towards the doors, then back, lost. “Gee –“

“Go. I’ll see you later.”

Ray gave him a look so tender that Gerard was almost embarrassed to be the subject of it, and then he was off, first blurred by the rain, then indistinguishable from it. Gerard tipped his head back against the elevator grille and closed his eyes. When he opened them again Bob was giving him a meaningful, gentle look.

“You should dry off, man,” he said, clapped Gerard once on the shoulder, and wandered away.

He did go up to his room to towel off, and after he laid the towel out over the back of a chair he brushed a thumb over his lips. They felt bruised, kissed senseless, like he hadn’t been kissed in years. He put his books away and waited for Ray to come back and find him and do it again.

When Ray did come back he was soaked all the way through, trembling on the threshold of Gerard’s room, rubbing his hands together to try to bring sensation back into them.

“Dude, are you okay?” Gerard said, beckoning Ray in and closing the door behind him.

“Freezing. I was gonna change but I didn’t…” And he suddenly looked shy, disbelieving. “I wanted to see you.”

Gerard put his arms around Ray’s waist and pressed close. His dry clothes grew damp where they touched Ray. “I think we could both use a hot shower.”

Ray swallowed. Gerard could feel his adam’s apple jump in his throat. He pulled back and drew Gerard to him and kissed him hard, like the first time, until they were both dizzy from it.

“That happened, right?” Ray said weakly. “I just feel like I’m gonna wake up and this isn’t gonna be real.”

Gerard scraped his teeth over his bottom lip, deliciously swollen from Ray’s kisses, and led the way to the en suite bathroom. “I’ll show you how real it is, if you want.”

“God,” Ray murmured. He allowed himself to be led, and then Gerard was undressing him with careful hands, throwing his soaked clothes over the towel rack, letting the shower heat up so that steam began to fog the mirror. Ray grabbed Gerard’s shirt by the back of the collar and hauled it over his head. “Hurry up,” he said, pushing at the waistband of Gerard’s jeans. And then they were in under the hot spray of the shower, miles of warm, wet skin and nearly-chaste touches.

Gerard leaned up and kissed Ray, winding his hand into his dripping curls. It was a lush kiss, a nuptial kiss. It felt like a beginning. Gerard wrapped his arm around Ray’s waist and pressed as close to him as he could, dimly aware of the fact that Ray’s dick was hard and heavy against his stomach. It seemed less important, somehow, the very real eventuality of the sex they were going to have - less important than the more nebulous, more conceptual idea of being with Ray. Some familiar rattle in his chest had finally stilled. He pulled back and sucked his bottom lip into his mouth again, tonguing over the blooming shape of a bruise, and looked Ray in the eye.

“Come on,” he whispered. Under his hands, Ray was tense and still, his eyes dark, wet curls tucked back behind his ears except for one that splayed across his cheek in a thick tendril. He looked dangerous to Gerard, like a spring coiled tight with restless energy, and everything about him made Gerard’s stomach dip in anticipation. His spine straightened, his nerves prickled. He slid his hand from Ray’s shoulder to the back of his neck.

In one swift move, Ray pushed Gerard up against the tiled wall of the shower. His back made a wet smack against the ceramic. These kisses were not restrained or loving, they were harsh with desperation. Ray pulled Gerard’s bottom lip between his teeth and held it, his hands tightening on Gerard’s hips, overwhelming him until Gerard keened. “Please, please, please,” he panted against Ray’s mouth. His hands splayed over Ray’s broad shoulders, unsure whether to hold him back or pull him closer.

“Please what?” Ray moved his mouth down to the soft spot under Gerard’s jaw, biting him softly and then kissing him in the same place. The pressure sent Gerard spiraling into the depths of a lust-fueled vertigo and he slumped against the wall, weak-kneed. “Probably not a good idea for me to mark you up any?”

Gerard blinked, trying to focus around the bruising hold Ray had on his hips. “Nhh,” he managed, sinking back against the wall. “Nothing above the collar.” Ray hummed against his throat and Gerard could feel the shape of his wide smile, then his teeth just below his collarbone, nipping and sucking until a wine-dark bruise blossomed on Gerard’s chest. “God,” he gasped.

Ray leaned back to admire his handiwork. “That,” he said, and he punctuated it with a kiss over the bruise, “means you can’t take this back.” His mouth was still shaped in an easy smile but there was a self-conscious tightness behind his eyes. Gerard leaned up to kiss him.

“Dude,” he said, trying to sound as normal as possible under the circumstances. “You’re going to take me out to that bed and fuck me absolutely senseless, we’re going to order room service and watch Suspiria on Pay-Per-View, we’re gonna pass out for a few hours, and then you’re gonna fuck me again in the morning.” He paused. “If that’s, like, something you’re into -”

Ray shoved him back again and shut him up with a crushing kiss. “Jesus, Gee, go easy on me,” he panted. “Give a guy some room to improvise, yeah?” He kissed Gerard’s neck, his shoulder, the hickey on his chest. “Not that I’m against that itinerary, or anything.”

“Ghhnn,” Gerard replied succinctly. He arched up against Ray, against the kisses being dropped over his ribs and his stomach.

“Tell me what you want right now,” Ray murmured. He licked a stripe over the crest of Gerard’s hipbone because he was a goddamn, terrible tease.

The tiles were cool against Gerard’s back and he tried to focus on them, to take away the cutting need of Ray’s hands hot on his hips, Ray’s generous mouth against the crease of his thigh. He tipped his head back and whimpered.

“Thought you -” he bit out, struggling to keep his voice steady, “Thought you wanted to improvise.”

Ray laughed against Gerard’s stomach, and then he was dragging himself up to kiss Gerard once on the mouth, forceful, like he owned it. Gerard barely had time to react before Ray covered Gerard’s dick with his palm and stroked him roughly. Gerard thought, dizzily, Ray’s hand is on my dick, and he bucked his hips into it, chasing the friction.

“You’re touching my dick, dude,” he mumbled into Ray’s neck.

“I know.” Ray’s mouth was pushed against the shell of Gerard’s ear, and his voice sounded strange and resonant and dark. He wrapped his fingers around Gerard’s cock and pumped him in a steady rhythm for a few strokes, his thumb pressed against Gerard’s circumcision scar. “I’m gonna do more than that, if you want.”

Gerard groaned. “Fuck, don’t make me beg, man.”

Ray laughed into the juncture where Gerard’s neck met his shoulder. “Okay, okay, I’m going,” he said, and dropped to his knees, giving Gerard a brilliant grin before taking his cock in his mouth.

Gerard’s head smacked back against the tiles with a wet thud. He didn’t want to look down, he was pretty sure if he looked and saw the full shape of Ray’s lips wrapped around him he’d come his damn brains out right there, but he couldn’t not look. They’d been playing this game for too long for him to miss a second of it. He took a breath and tilted his head forward to watch.

Ray had big hands, and they looked bigger and more powerful, somehow, gripping Gerard’s hips. He had browned magnificently in the summer sun, the same way he did every year, and his broad, tanned fingers met the pale flesh of Gerard’s waist in a hard, dark line of shadow. Gerard bit his lip. The long, wet coil of Ray’s hair was still plastered to his cheek where it hollowed out around Gerard’s dick, making his cheekbones look broad and sharp and striking.

“God,” he said. “I’ve wanted this.”

Ray’s eyelashes were dark against his cheeks, but they fluttered at that, and he glanced up at Gerard before pulling off for a moment. He stroked Gerard slowly in one loose fist. The walls of the shower echoed with the wet sounds of skin on skin, and Ray blinked up into the diffuse spray of the water and watched Gerard’s face, a lazy grin spreading across his mouth.

“Not like I have,” he said, and dipped his head again to brush his lips against the side of Gerard’s cock, then take it into his mouth again.

“Christ,” Gerard tried to say, but it came out an odd, guttural moan. “Ray, I’m gonna -” He tugged helplessly on Ray’s hair but Ray just tightened his hold on Gerard’s hips and bore him down against the tiles until he came, shooting into Ray’s mouth in three long, hot pulses. Ray swallowed thickly and wiped his lips with the back of his hand.

Gerard’s knees gave out, then, and he slipped down the wall of the shower and landed beside Ray in a heap. The water was still hot, and it made him feel lightheaded and dizzy. He reached for Ray in a vague, directionless way, and Ray gathered him up and held him.

“Ray,” he said faintly. Ray kissed him. He tasted bitter. “Take me to bed.”

They managed, between the two of them, to switch the water off and dry off. Ray looped a towel around Gerard’s waist and reeled him in with it until they were pressed close, then kissed him, and kissed him. “Do you still want me to…” he said faintly against Gerard’s lips. His eyes were closed, and Gerard watched him, watched the expressions shift over his handsome features.

He put a hand up to cup Ray’s cheek. “Please,” he said. He kissed Ray with a renewed urgency. “Please,” he said again into the hollow of Ray’s lips. “Please.”

The bed was made up with crisp linens and an impractical number of pillows. Gerard pushed the heaps of pillows to the floor and collapsed back, rumpling the coverlet, arching his back and beckoning Ray closer. Ray’s eyes were huge and dark with lust, and he crawled over Gerard, pinning him down and kissing his neck. They were a good match, size for size, but Ray was just that much taller, broader, roped with muscle, that Gerard felt deliciously helpless underneath him.

Ray covered Gerard’s wrists with one broad palm and held them over his head, against the mattress. He reached down between them with his free hand and grabbed Gerard’s dick, already half-hard again. “Christ, Gee,” he said. His gaze didn’t leave Gerard’s face, just holding eye contact while he coaxed Gerard back into hardness with the calloused tips of his fingers. It was a gaze so intense and unfaltering that Gerard felt held in place more by it than by Ray’s body. His breath shuddered out of him in a jagged exhale.

“Come on,” he said. “I’m yours, Ray, you know I am.”

Ray released him in one rapid movement and then, just as quickly, turned him over. He slid his hands, big and rough with callouses, up the backs of Gerard’s thighs. Gerard felt pale and exposed - he pressed his cheek into the sheets and squeezed his eyes shut, resisting the urge to rut into the mattress as Ray manhandled him.

“Gee,” Ray said, and his voice sounded indistinct and far away. He had two big handfuls of Gerard’s hips and his wet mouth dragged up Gerard’s back, settling at his shoulder. “Gerard.” Gerard could feel the hard shape of Ray’s dick against his thigh. “Please tell me you have lube.”

Gerard squirmed underneath him. His brain was short-circuiting, a feedback loop of Ray and Ray’s hands and Ray’s dick and the surreality of the moment. He blinked several times, fast. “In my bag. Inside pocket.”

Ray pushed up off him and padded across the room to rifle through Gerard’s duffle bag. Gerard watched him through half-lidded eyes - the long, curving lines of his legs, the round swell of his ass, the way his powerful shoulders tapered towards his waist in an inverted triangle. His arms were well-built with muscle: even relaxed, the shadow of his triceps stood out. In the warm, stormy Italian light he looked dramatic and strong, the shadows and highlights of his body accentuated, a chiaroscuro in the middle of the room.

He shut his eyes when Ray moved out of sight, and after a moment felt the bed dip beside him and Ray’s warm hand smooth down his neck. It was a friendly, fraternal gesture - the sort of thing Ray did onstage to calm him down, sometimes. And yet here, the hand was moving lower, and then tugging at his hips to get him up on his knees with his thighs spread apart. Gerard heard the snap of a cap, the faint, wet sound of Ray slicking up his fingers, and then the shuddering sound of his own exhale as Ray curved a finger slowly into him. He crossed his forearms on the bed and rested his cheek against them, eyes shut, focusing on the feel of it. Ray’s hands were big and broad and elegant the way a weapon can be elegant, a way that intimidates. He pressed back into Gerard with two fingers, using his free hand to touch Gerard’s hip, his thigh, the sensitive spot behind his knee, the delicate bones of his ankle.

The bed shifted when Ray moved, and suddenly Gerard was struggling to keep still, not to rock back, because Ray’s mouth was on him,  licking around where his fingers split Gerard open. Gerard let out a noise that sounded more like a sob than a moan, willing his legs to stop trembling. Ray did it again and Gerard shuddered. “God,” he ground out, muffled against his arm. He was still sensitized, still recovering from his last orgasm. Ray was dragging another out of him before he was ready. “Christ, Ray -”

“I know,” Ray said. He patted Gerard’s hip and laughed a little. “I couldn’t help myself.”

“Just -” Gerard said, his breath catching when Ray spread his fingers, tagging Gerard’s prostate. “Go slow, Jesus.”

Ray was very patient with him. He curled his fingers until Gerard’s legs nearly gave out, until the noise that was finally pulled from his throat was a whiny, needy keening. He stretched him around a third finger and pushed his tongue down next to his hand, making Gerard tremble. Through the fucked-out fog of his brain he was dimly aware that he had already had an orgasm and was fast rounding the bases on a second one, and Ray was still stoically pushing him through it.

“God damn it, Toro, are you going to fuck me or do you -” He took a deep, shuddering breath - “Do you just hate having orgasms of your own?”

Ray laughed. It didn’t seem fair that Ray was the one keeping a level head. “Okay, okay. Gee, you really don’t know how good you look like this.” He slid his fingers out and Gerard moved experimentally. He felt wet and stretched and so turned on he could barely see. He could hear Ray tearing open the foil packet of a condom. “How do you want to do this?”

Gerard got shakily to his knees. “Dealer’s choice,” he said. He felt woozy with arousal, with the intensity of the stimulation he’d been receiving for the past god knew how long. He tried to focus on Ray rolling the condom down over his cock but it just made him breathe harder. “I just…” And what a thing to get embarrassed about, really, but he couldn’t help it. He blushed. “I just want to see you.”

Ray’s face, and the easy grin he wore, softened. He gave an involuntary, sideways smile and reached for Gerard, just pulling him close to hold him for a moment. “How about this?” he asked. He arranged Gerard’s limbs for him, so that he was straddling Ray’s lap, his thighs spread wide over Ray’s hips. “Think you can stay upright?”

“Anything for you,” Gerard said, indistinct, against the side of Ray’s face. He raised himself higher up on his knees, though, so Ray could slide down underneath him. Gerard felt Ray’s hand on his hip, his cue to move, and sank down slowly on Ray’s cock. “Ah, god,” he gasped, slumping forward.

Ray caught him. He looked blessedly concerned. “Is it too much?” He got his hands full of Gerard’s hips and tried to drag him off but Gerard batted him away.

“Don’t let your ego get the best of you, man, your giant dick isn’t gonna break me.” Gerard laughed, but he did it into the sweaty hollow of Ray’s throat. He felt, truth be told, pretty thoroughly fucked already, and he knew he wasn’t going to last long before he came again. He rolled his hips for the gratification of hearing Ray curse, low and sharp, into his hair.

“Up, up, come on,” Ray said, trying to get Gerard upright. “I want to see you, too, okay?”

Gerard dutifully pulled himself together. He wrapped his arms around Ray’s neck and looked into his eyes. It felt, all of a sudden, a lot less funny and a lot more intimate, and important. This was Ray. The room around them was dim as dusk rolled over Venice. The grey light caught the left half of Ray’s face and made his brown iris almost translucent, like the broken shard of a beer bottle. He looked serious and anxious, now, and Gerard didn’t know how to smudge away the mood he’d evoked by this odd eye contact.

“Hey,” he said, stupidly. Because it was stupid to greet someone whose dick you were actively riding. He shifted his hips and watched Ray’s eyes go hot. “I really, really want to get you off. Please.” He grabbed one of Ray’s hands and put it squarely on his ass. “Come on.”

Ray blinked hard and shook his head a little, and his hands tensed on Gerard’s body. Gerard lifted up and got them moving, and then Ray took over, using his hand on Gerard’s hip to regulate a steady pace. His hips snapped up against Gerard. He looked, from this angle, almost as desperate as Gerard felt.

“God, Gerard,” he mumbled. His hand tightened brutally on Gerard’s hip for a moment, sending a jolt of arousal straight to Gerard’s dick. Gerard wondered if Ray could get him off this time without touching his dick at all, and concluded, foggily, that he probably could. Just seeing him like this, his pouty bottom lip pinched under that row of straight, white teeth, the way his eyes were dark and hooded and unfamiliar, it was almost enough to make Gerard come right there.

Then Ray was hauling Gerard up, pushing him down onto his back, and sliding back into him in one fluid motion. He was surrounded on all sides by Ray, Ray’s forearms on either side of his face, his body, big and broad and strong, pinning him down. Ray was fucking him with a punishing pace, and Gerard was pushing back against him, needy and wanton. “Please, please,” he kept mumbling between deep, open-mouthed breaths. When Ray finally pushed his hand down between them to jerk Gerard off, he hardly needed it. He could feel Ray’s pace getting erratic as he chased the heady feeling of his own orgasm, his eyes slamming shut. He pushed into Gerard as deep as he could and held there, riding it out, spilling into the condom. His hand still worked sloppily on Gerard’s dick, and it had been so well-prepared for, so many waves crashing towards the shore of his release, that when Ray finally came, Gerard tried to hang on but he was powerless. He clung to Ray, dimly aware of their labored breathing and the cooling mess on his stomach, and of the world slowly filtering back into existence.

Ray pulled out and slumped down beside Gerard, making no move to clean up. The light had faded, and the room was suffused with the ambiguous grey light of dusk. Gerard turned his head to look at Ray through the gloom. Ray’s eyes were soft and unguarded. He looked thoughtful. Gerard’s mouth twitched into a smile, because, yeah, this was different, but it was still Ray. Still his curly hair haloing him in the half-light, the dark smudge of his lips, his big, lovely hands idling between them. He brushed Ray’s hands out of the way and leaned forward to kiss him.

“I’m gonna make myself presentable for room service,” he said. “Don’t you dare move.”

When he’d cleaned himself up a bit and come back into the bedroom, Gerard saw that Ray had moved. He’d turned the lamp on and was wearing a pair of Gerard’s boxers, the hotel phone cradled between his ear and his shoulder. He raised one arm in an invitation for Gerard to curl underneath it, and he did, listening to Ray thank the concierge in stuttering Italian before hanging up.

“There’s pizza on the way,” Ray said, settling in beside Gerard, comfortable and close. “I did a cursory check of the Pay-Per-View offerings and I’m leaving the tiebreaker up to you, because Suspiria and Opera are both on there and you know I can’t pick.”

Gerard leaned up and kissed the side of his face. “Let’s do both. Let’s do Opera first.” He hunted around for the remote. “We can fall asleep to Suspiria, nothin’ soothes the soul like screaming and prog rock.”

Ray’s arm was heavy and warm around his shoulders, and the smile he wore was indulgent more than anything. “Sounds good to me.”

They’d fallen asleep a million times together, a million nights where they couldn’t be bothered to think of getting up, or where they couldn’t afford more than one crappy motel room and Gerard had lain awake late aware of Ray as a column of heat radiating against his side in the bed next to him. And back before all this started, back when it was the three of them in Otter’s mom’s attic - the two of them, really… It had always been the two of them. Ray had crashed at Gerard’s place four or five nights a week, just staying up writing music with him, and they’d woken slumped together on the couch, reeking of weed and cigarettes and shot through with the golden knowledge that they were creating something important.

So it was the same, cranking up the TV and putting his cheek against the soft spot at the top of Ray’s chest, just above the juncture where his arm met his body. It was the same the way Ray ruffled the hair at the back of his neck, a casual, affectionate touch. Something well-known between them. But it was different, too. He could feel Ray’s pulse pick up when Gerard flexed against him. They were holding hands. They were still nearly naked. It had been a very long time since he’d experienced something unfamiliar with Ray.

“Hey,” he said, his mouth half-muffled where it pressed against Ray’s chest. Ray didn’t acknowledge him, and when Gerard looked up, Ray looked half asleep already. “Hey,” he said again, more clearly. “This is a good thing.”

Ray blinked at him, and his broad mouth split in a smile. “Yeah, dude. I think so.” He pulled Gerard closer and kissed him, and kissed him again, and by the time their pizza got there they were hardly presentable for it.

*

Ray was up early. He sat at the window of the hotel room in a pair of boxer-briefs and a Dropkick Murphys t-shirt so well-loved that the seams had split clean through both armpits. Beyond him, Gerard could see the glow of dawn, the way the sun seemed to spread out along the eastern horizon like the broken yolk of a runny egg, tinting the sky in shades of lavender and clementine. Ray’s curly head was haloed in this rich, buttery light, and even though he was facing away from the bed, Gerard could imagine the way the rising sun would kiss his broad cheekbones, the generous swell of his mouth.

“Good morning,” he said. His voice, low and creaky with sleep, stuck in his throat and he coughed into his fist to dislodge it.

Ray turned and grinned, that smile so bright that it put even the most picturesque Venetian sunrise to shame. “Come here,” he said. He held a hand out to Gerard, and god, the bed was comfortable, but the beckoning in those long, strong fingers was even harder to resist. Gerard untangled himself gracelessly and joined Ray by the window, letting out a little yelp of surprise when Ray pulled him down into his lap.

The storm had blown itself out overnight leaving the sky clear and calm.

The sunrise melted out in front of them, painting the palazzos in flat pinks and warm taupes. The city was sleeping, gondolas knocking against their moorings in the gentle tide. Ray pushed his mouth into Gerard’s bare shoulder. His eyes were at half-mast, gazing out towards the distant sun even as he traced a pattern onto Gerard’s hip with his fingers. It was beautiful, the view, and the company, and the comfortable feeling of Ray’s arms around him, both familiar and bewilderingly new.

Gerard wanted to say something, make some acknowledgment of the moment, but he didn’t. Ray kissed a cluster of freckles on the crest of Gerard’s collarbone. They watched the sun come up as the city roused itself. Boats were unfastened from their docks and began to circulate the canals, the arteries of this beautiful city. A boy on a bicycle swished by below their window, a fat bag of rolled up newspapers slung over his shoulder. The flat, alien light of dawn gave way to the glare of the morning.

“Come on,” Gerard said, finally, putting his hand over Ray’s. “We’ve got a plane to catch.”

*

And just like that, they were… Something.

Ray wasn’t sure if they were dating, and the thought of asking made him nervous and sweaty, but he was spending his nights in Gerard’s room or vice versa. It was, he thought idly, a relief they no longer had to double up for hotel nights - it spared them from having to explain anything to the band when they hadn’t really explained anything to each other. In the bus they would fold themselves into Ray’s bunk (less clutter) and sleep wound up in one another, both of them waking sore and stiff but smiling through it.

At a hotel in Bordeaux, they took a long, luxurious bath together, Gerard laying back against Ray’s chest, letting Ray wash his hair. In Barcelona they sat across from each other in a dimly lit restaurant underneath a used bookstore and Ray translated the menu for Gerard and ordered for both of them, his accent all wrong for Spain but his diction apparently acceptable. Gerard surreptitiously held his hand across the table. They shared a dish of crema catalana, and when Ray pressed Gerard into an unlit alley to kiss his tempting mouth, they both still tasted like cinnamon and lemon zest. That same night, both of them shivering from the sweat cooling on their skin in the chill of the hotel’s air conditioning, Ray teased Gerard for hours before they finally lost themselves in one another, in dizzying kisses and the hot press of skin. Ray skipped his run the next morning to stay tangled up in Gerard. They both smelled sweaty and worn out, like sex and cigarettes and, most intoxicatingly, like each other.

For three weeks, they saw the world together. They had sex in fourteen countries. They went out during the day, together or with the band, determined not to let the world pass them by. Ray stole kisses and Gerard pilfered them back one by one.

They were spending a lavish night in a beautiful, historic inn outside of Maynooth. The sets were being packed, the stage equipment looked after, the band and crew’s plane tickets back to Jersey booked for the following afternoon. Gerard was reclining in a sea of pillows looking debauched, his hair tangled under his cheek, lips bitten red. His eyes were closed, and Ray indulged himself a moment just to look. If he was going to be honest, he thought Gerard looked extremely well-fucked, and that was something to be rather smug about.

He got a handful of Gerard’s hip and tried to pull him closer, watching that wry smile go skittering across Gerard’s mouth even as he feigned sleep. In the wet summer breeze drifting in from the open window, fragrant with the heavy perfume of heather, a phrase from some half-remembered poem he’d read in school came to the fore of his mind: I want to do with you what spring does to the cherry trees.

“Come here,” Ray said. He shook Gerard by the hip to no avail, and instead got an arm around his waist and hauled him over like a ragdoll.

“You’re making me come here!” Gerard giggled, swatting at Ray’s hands.

“Only because you won’t do it yourself, lazy,” Ray said. He put his mouth onto the junction of Gerard’s neck and shoulder and dropped a kiss there. They settled against one another with odd familiarity of old friends and new lovers. Ray pushed his nose into Gerard’s hair and breathed deep; he smelled like soap and sweat and sex, a home smell, a bedroom smell. It quieted the anxieties Ray was still hanging onto, about the band, about himself and about a lot of other useless bullshit.

He breathed in again, for the pleasure of it, then moved carefully back to stare up at the ceiling. There was one scrape that the scent of Gerard’s brow would not salve, that Ray was trying more and more stubbornly not to think about, and that of course was: What happens when we go back to Jersey? This European romance, for all intents and purposes a secret affair with no clearly defined endpoint, was so far removed from their lives in Belleville. Gerard didn’t even live in Jersey anymore, he’d migrated to an apartment in New York before the tour had started. Ray hadn’t seen his new place. He tried to picture taking Gerard home to his little house with its racks of guitars and distinct lack of pantry staples and making a life with him, being an adult with him.

He tried to imagine laying like this with Gerard in his house back in Belleville. Maybe they would wake up like this; maybe he would hook one of his ankles around Gerard’s, like he was doing now, and hold him and listen to the traffic starting up outside on a morning when neither of them had anywhere to be. Maybe they could have this, but in the pit of his stomach, he doubted it.

The way they had been with one another, the gradual evolution of their relationship had been like a sweet, ripening fruit. Now it was full with the flush of summer, fattened on dew, and Ray was afraid it would ferment on the vine. What if it was meant to be finite? Some things, he knew, were made to be consumed, or to consume. They had been reaching towards this apex with one another for so long, they had shared so many almosts that having seemed impossible and dreamlike, every moment vivid with color but hard to remember after it slipped past. Ray tried to memorize the way Gerard fit beside him, how his mouth tasted, how he made Ray feel. He was preoccupied trying to organize his memories without scope.

He shook himself a little. It wouldn’t do any good to agonize about it now, even if that was his nature. The moment, the present, whatever hours they may have left together, were the only things that mattered. He kissed the top of Gerard’s messy hair.

Gerard squirmed in his arms, settling his head in the center of Ray’s chest. “Your heart is good,” he said, his voice low and sleepy. “Engine’s runnin’ just fine.”

Something protective and so far gone it was stupid curled behind the hollow of Ray’s ribs. “Yep,” he said, squeezing Gerard’s shoulder. He couldn’t bring himself to shake them out of this moment, not for all the silly neuroses and probable heartbreaks in the world.

*

“Look!” Gerard touched Ray’s shoulder, shook him gently awake. Their flight had been scheduled just before dusk and for the past hour their little chartered plane had been chasing the lip of the sunset around the supple curve of the earth. Now, though, the light had sunk down in front of them and they were hemmed in on all sides by a field of stars. The gentle lift and dip of the airplane’s fuselage, carried forth on a strong, unseeable current, unsettled Gerard’s center of gravity. The stars could be anywhere, could be their own reflections in the ocean below them. The night pressed its face to the window glass, cloudless and clear.

“Mmph,” Ray slurred. Gerard was familiar with the fact that it took Ray a while to wake up. He blinked, and his eyes were dark and heavy with sleep. He scrubbed his big palm over his face and then looked at Gerard with that kind of dopey early morning expression that Gerard was really getting used to. “What?”

Gerard dragged Ray over to the little window. “It’s beautiful,” he said. Then, lower: “And you’re beautiful, and I wanted to share it with you.”

The blush that started on Ray’s neck and worked up over his face was gratifying as hell. Gerard wanted to kiss all of it, so he did: his cheeks, his jaw, the side of his throat. “There is a very good, noble part of me that wants to tell you to get used to compliments because you deserve them,” he mumbled into the side of Ray’s neck. “And there is a very selfish part of me that hopes you never stop blushing. God.” He pressed a row of kisses up the taut tendon in Ray’s neck, nuzzled into his hair, kissed the shell of his ear.

“Gee,” Ray murmured, embarrassed. “We’re like, in public.”

Gerard grinned. He was lascivious, insatiable, all those dirty SAT words. “I know,” he said, low in his throat. “I’m gonna miss you,  you know.” He kissed him softly. “You should come home with me.”

“I am going home with you,” Ray mumbled. “We’re going home. That’s why we’re on the plane.”

Gerard rolled his eyes, because if Ray wanted to be difficult you had to let him. They hadn’t talked about seeing each other while they were preparing to go out on the ProRev tour. Gerard expected neither of them would have the time. Which was fine. He didn’t want to be needy, lord knows, he already had the propensity for it. He leaned his head against the window and gazed out at his own transparent reflection foregrounded against the void of the night sky. They could be floating, they could be nowhere. The earth was vast below them.

“Planet earth is blue,” Gerard began to sing under his breath, “And there’s nothing I can do…”

“Cornball,” Ray said. He settled his head into the dip in Gerard’s chest. “I’m going back to sleep.”

“Okay,” Gerard said. He absently stroked Ray’s hair and contemplated the sky, the unfathomable vacuum of space, the spiderweb of points all across this planet that he had touched on, however briefly, with Ray. He thought about his little apartment in Brooklyn with its dearth of  groceries and its charmingly finicky air conditioner, the water stain under the window where he’d left it open during a rainstorm. Ray snored against his chest, open-mouthed. Heavy, slow breaths.

They hadn’t discussed it, but Ray wasn’t coming home with him, not really. Ray had a house of his own and a family to dote on. Ray had the obligations that Gerard so keenly did not. Gerard would go back to his little apartment and buy a freezer’s worth of frozen pizzas and spend his free weeks drawing, writing, watching TV. He would take the train back to New Jersey with his hood pulled up to see his mom, or he’d drive down with Mikey. He’d marvel at all the little ways life had gone on in his absence - stores closing, restaurants opening in their place, old friends made older - and he would confront, again and again, that truth:

Nothing stays the same.

“Ray,” he whispered. Ray didn’t budge. There was a spot of drool seeping from the corner of his mouth into Gerard’s t-shirt, and he was doing a bad job of pretending not to be charmed by that, by how easily they had slipped from friends and confidants into something more. He spared a thought to be concerned by his inability to define whatever it was they’d become, and then scolded himself for putting so much stock in labels. No self-respecting artist subscribes to labels, after all. “Ray,” he whispered again, more insistent.

“‘M sleepin’,” Ray grumbled.

“Yeah, okay,” Gerard said and he leaned awkwardly down to brush a kiss to Ray’s temple. “Lemme get comfortable, alright?”

Ray mumbled something in the affirmative and leaned up on one elbow for long enough that Gerard could pivot enough to lean against the wall. He dropped back onto Gerard’s chest and was out again in moments. Gerard leaned his head back against the windowpane, cool in the night air, that void of sky and space and nothingness pressing back against their little craft, keeping them afloat. Against him, Ray was solid and comforting. He fell asleep, and didn’t wake up until they were circling over Newark.

*

The kitchen was unseasonably chilly when Ray wandered in on the morning of his thirtieth birthday. He filled the coffee pot and set it to brew, and it was only after he’d drunk two cups and seen that the pot was still half full that he realized he’d made enough to share with Gerard, like he’d done when they had shared hotel rooms over the last two weeks of tour. Which was embarrassing at best, and pathetic at worst, given that they’d barely spoken in the week since they’d gotten back from Europe.

He wasn’t avoiding Gerard, exactly. They didn’t even live in the same town anymore, and they hadn’t been back long, and they’d both been inundated with the sort of obligations that build up when you fuck off on tour for months on end. In fact, ordinarily this would be normal behavior for both of them - exchanging texts, taking care of things, waiting until the dust settled before getting back to the meat of their friendship, which was mostly enhanced, but occasionally complicated, by the fact that it was also both their jobs.

That was before, though, and Ray felt the distance keenly. He frowned. That still left the problem of the half full pot of coffee.

He begrudged himself another cup because it seemed wasteful not to, and felt jittery and out of sorts all morning. He wanted to tell Gerard about it but couldn’t think of a lighthearted way to phrase it, a way that didn’t imply he was losing his mind about them, so he didn’t. He had just finished this train of defeatist thought when his cell phone rang, Gerard’s name flashing on the screen, and he was momentarily perplexed until he remembered it was his birthday.

He flipped it open. “Hello?”

Gerard was loud on the other end of the connection, half-yelling, half-singing happy birthday. There was an odd distance, an echo, like Gerard was holding the phone out in front of him to shout more effectively into it. When Gerard finished, Ray heard a shuffling, clumsy sound - Gerard shoving the phone between his ear and his shoulder.

“Hi, Gerard,” he said.

“What are you doing today? I was thinking now that you’re properly grown up like me we could do something stupid like go to the arcade, or you could come up here and hit Midtown Comics with me and we could get that terrible pizza downtown, like we used to.”

Ray listened for any of the anxiety he’d been feeling about seeing Gerard and detected none, which was… Well, he didn’t know what it was. And it sounded like a nice way to spend the day, truth be told, but it didn’t matter. “I’ve got family shit all afternoon, dude,” he said, with genuine regret. It was only half true - he had dinner with his family that evening, because it was the first birthday he’d been in New Jersey in four years now and it was a milestone year. He could’ve gotten to the city and spent a little time with Gerard and gotten back in time, though, if he rushed. But he was haunted by the way they’d been together in Europe - he wanted to linger over Gerard, no matter what they were doing, and that disturbed him.

“Ah, shit,” Gerard said. He sounded disappointed. “I should’ve gotten in touch sooner.”

“Nah dude, we’ll do it soon, okay? I’ve spent the last, like, four birthdays with you. Let my mom have this one.”

Gerard laughed. “Okay, but only because I don’t think I could take Mama Toro in an honorable duel. I bet she fights dirty.”

“Dude, that’s my mom!”

“Sorry, sorry.” Gerard was still laughing, though. “I’m holding you to that, you know. If you don’t brave the midtown tunnel traffic for me I’ll suffer through New Jersey transit for you. I miss you, dude.” He paused. “Don’t make me wait til tour to see you again.”

“I mean.” Ray was letting his mouth get away from him the way he did when he got nervous, a bad habit he’d never kicked. “You could come to dinner, if you wanted.” There was a beat of silence. “Like I know it’s not comics and pizza and you’d have to put up with Lou but if you stuck around here tonight I could give you a ride back tomorrow and we could do Midtown and whatever.” The more he spoke the more it seemed like a terrible idea, like a lot of pressure he didn’t need.

“Oh!” Gerard sounded… Startled? Ray was trying to decode any hidden message in his tone. “I mean, are you sure your family won’t mind?”

“My mom thinks you’re one of us, basically,” he said. He left out her exact phrasing, which was ‘Gerard’s like another brother to you,’ unfathomably awkward in their present context. “I’m sure she won’t mind.” He waited a beat. “Is that a yes?”

There were more shuffling noises from Gerard’s end of the phone. “Where the fuck is my train schedule?” he muttered. “Oh, yeah, I’ll be there if you’re sure. Can you get me at the station?”

“The train schedule is online, Gee.” It was impossible not to be fond of him. “Yeah, I’ll get you. Just text me when you know which train you’re getting.

“You bet. I’ll see you soon.” Gerard never said goodbye before hanging up.

*

Ray’s car was idling at the train station when Gerard stepped onto the platform. He tumbled into the passenger seat, nervously eyeing a stand wide-eyed teenage girls. “Get a move on, Toro, they’re onto us,” he said around a smile.

Ray put the car in drive. “My mom’s so excited to see you, I think she thinks I don’t have any friends.” He snorted. “Some reputations die hard, man.”

“Well,” Gerard said. He kept his eyes on the road, the familiar turns to the Toros’ house. “We’re not really friends, I’m just doing this because I’m hungry and never learned to cook for myself.”

“I figured.”

They drove in silence. Gerard wondered if it was okay to take Ray’s hand. He shouldn’t feel so damn shy about it, but he’d gotten into the car like he had a thousand times, like he was going to his best friend’s house for dinner with his family, like it was nothing. It was hard to shake the feeling. And then there had been all the teenagers watching them… Well, it was like the song goes. It had been a bizarre and alienating experience to take the train back to Jersey, the same line he used to ride on his way home from SVA. He’d pulled his hood up and worn sunglasses and tried to look nondescript, but hadn’t managed to get out of there unnoticed. Jersey, it seemed, was always going to know him in some strange, intimate, immutable way.

He felt jittery. He felt - and this was rich, because Ray’s family was his family, he had no doubt about it - like he was going to meet his boyfriend’s parents for the first time. It was absurd on a thousand levels, not the least of which was the fact that he was pretty sure he wasn’t Ray’s boyfriend. They hadn’t discussed it, had let a tapestry of possibility unroll between them and failed to parse its meaning - but the term was so adolescent on his tongue he hesitated to use it. He was so unsure he’d actually called his mom and told her he might come home for the night, because he didn’t know if Ray would want him to stay over.

In the driver’s seat, Ray didn’t look nervous, but he also didn’t look like he had in Europe: besotted, overcome with affection. Against the grey and brown backdrop of New Jersey he looked very much like he had for years, comfortable and friendly and, well, like Ray. He glanced at Gerard and shot him a toothy smile; Gerard tried to analyze it, to hold it up against the early-morning ones he’d given him tangled up in bed together. The results were inconclusive.

“Happy birthday, by the way,” Gerard said finally. “Welcome to the old man club.”

Ray smiled again. “I think I’ve been an old man since I was about twenty-three, Gee, but I appreciate the sentiment.” He turned off the main road onto one of the side streets that would lead him to his parents’ house.

Gerard had only been to this iteration of the Toros’ house a couple of times - it was the first thing Ray’d done when they started making real money off the band, getting his family out of their old neighborhood and into someplace nice. The house was modest but comfortable, situated at the intersection of two quiet streets lined with cherry and willow trees. In the height of summer they were in full bloom, fluffy with pink and white blossoms, lending the air their sweet perfume.

Ray’s mom spent the first fifteen minutes after they arrived grilling Gerard about how well they were eating on tour and commenting on how thin they both were. Gerard thought they looked more or less the same as they had a year ago.

“Raymond says you’re getting all your basic food groups but I think he just tells me what he knows I want to hear,” she told Gerard in a conspiratorial whisper.

“Ma, what are you telling him?” Ray said from across the room. “Don’t listen to her, Gee, she’s convinced we’re still living off gas station coffee and hot pockets.” He was standing with Lou, catching up. The resemblance between them was subtle and strange - Lou was taller and darker, his eyes rimmed in dramatic lashes, the set of his shoulders making Ray look dainty by comparison. In profile, though, Gerard recognized the same broad nose and heavy brow that was so familiar on Ray.

Ray’s mom steered Gerard into the dining room, still pressing him for details about their tour life. He gamely offered stories he thought Ray wouldn’t mind him sharing - the Magic: The Gathering tournaments, the way they all still had to look out for Mikey, the touristy sight-seeing excursions during the day. He hesitated, then told her - with careful editing - about the restaurant they’d been to in Barcelona, because he thought she’d like to know Ray hadn’t lost any of his Spanish. She seemed pleased.

Over dinner Gerard tried to lose himself in the conversation. Everything about being there, from the way Ray’s mom kept pushing potatoes and corn salad at him to the way Ray’s dad helmed the table, laconic, with the sports section of the paper, was familiar from before. Not just before he and Ray had… Whatever they had, but from before they were famous. They didn’t treat Gerard any differently, and it was a relief. It also completely eliminated Gerard’s meeting-the-parents nerves, which was probably a good thing, except it made him worry that Ray was just as nonplussed by him as his family seemed. Maybe outside of the singular light in Italy there was nothing appealing about Gerard. Maybe their affair - if that was even the right word for it - was just one of the conquering-the-world type adventures Ray had talked about that night in Amsterdam.

But it was selfish to spend his time agonizing over what Ray was thinking, especially because he expected to ask him in due course. Gerard recommitted himself to the conversation at the table and wound up in a good-natured debate with Lou about Danzig versus Morrissey - an unwinnable argument, even when Ray brought up Dave Gahan as a suitable compromise. Gerard and Lou had both turned to him with identical expressions of skepticism and made him promise not to butt in unless he had something of value to contribute. After dinner and birthday cake and a lingering pot of coffee in the sitting room with Lou, they said their goodbyes.

“Happy birthday, nerd,” Lou said, giving Ray an affectionate - albeit painful-looking - noogie. Ray shoved him off but he was grinning.

“Yeah, yeah. Come see us next time we’re in town, I’ll show you who’s a nerd.”

His parents fussed over him, sweet and well-meaning but ineffectual, until he finally got over the threshold of the front door with an emphatic “Mom, Gerard needs to sleep, for his voice."

“Sorry, mijo, I’ve gotta be a mom sometimes.” She waved to their car from the front porch until they turned a corner and lost sight of her.

“Sorry, dude, I didn’t mean to keep you out this late,” Ray said. He merged onto the highway. “You’re not… Ah geez, are you like…” Gerard watched Ray’s face redden. “Is anybody expecting you? Or are you gonna stay at mine?” He glanced at Gerard, who was also, against his will, blushing. “Because you’re welcome to but I didn’t know if you, like, made other arrangements.”

Gerard was overtaken by a hot swell of courage. He reached over the center console and stroked the strong column of Ray’s throat gently with his knuckles. “I’d like to go to your place. I still haven’t seen it, you know.” He watched Ray’s adam’s apple bob in his throat.

“Cool,” Ray said. “That’s… Good.”

The silence between them was hot and thick. Gerard watched Ray’s hands on the wheel, the way the cords of muscle in his forearms shifted and tensed. He wanted, more than he had all night, to touch Ray and to reassure himself that his memories of Europe weren’t false. And yet, being so near to him and restraining himself held its own sort of pleasure - it was a courtly feeling, to enjoy his presence and not indulge himself in the physical aspect just yet. His heart sped up as Ray merged into the exit lane and decelerated off the freeway.

Ray’s neighborhood wasn’t as suburban as his parents’, but it was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of downtown Brooklyn. There were a couple of bars and restaurants, a little record store, an old-fashioned-looking movie theater that was screening films a couple of months past their initial run. Ray’s house was in the middle of a side street, set far back from the road behind a loosely landscaped approximation of a garden. A shaggy garland of wisteria brocaded the stoop and choked the porch light, so that when they approached the front door they were bathed in an ethereal glow that seemed to come from nowhere, from the flowers themselves.

“I can’t believe you’ve never been here before, like, you practically paid for this house,” Ray said. He was looking away, digging his keys out of his jeans pocket.

“Back at you,” Gerard replied. He put a cautious hand on Ray’s forearm.

Ray looked down at Gerard’s hand, pale and small and finely shaped next to his own. He left his keys in the lock. “I’m going to kiss you now,” he said, and he did.

Between the front door - fumbled clumsily open by Gerard, and kicked shut behind them by Ray - and the bedroom, they managed to barely break contact.

“Wait, wait,” Gerard gasped after Ray pushed him down onto the unmade bed. “I haven’t given you your birthday present.”

Ray pushed up the hem of Gerard’s shirt. “I thought that’s what we were doing,” he said under a broad smirk.

Gerard laughed, breathy, as Ray’s hand slid up over his stomach and ribs. “No, dude, I’m serious, hang on.” He rolled off the bed and retrieved his bag from the floor. “I didn’t wrap it because the line at CVS was too long and I got bored waiting but pretend there’s, y’know…” He handed Ray a cardboard poster tube. “Glitter and shit.”

Ray popped one of the end-caps off the tube and dug his fingers inside before pulling out a spiraled sheet of heavy paper. He unrolled it, stared at it, then reached over to turn the bedside lamp on so he could get a better look.

It was unmistakably Gerard’s work, thick lines and hard angles, but with a marked effort at softness. Ray recognized the pose, knew immediately the photo Gerard must have been working from, one of Frank’s old snapshots. It was the two of them from a few years back, when they’d been tracking Three Cheers. In the picture Ray was seated, his face cast down towards his hand on the fingerboard of his guitar. Behind him, Gerard was leaning against the mixing desk and watching him. Gerard had rendered them in brown ink and watercolors. The lines of Ray’s face were laid in with a heavy hand, but his fingers on the fretboard were carefully articulated, seemed to catch a nonexistent light. The color palette he’d chosen was nothing like the photo, all sepia tones with heavy blue shadows that made them look like they were being viewed through a half-glass of whiskey, warm and amber. Gerard had painted himself into the background with as little contrast as possible, so that he barely stood apart from the shadows except for the pale crescent of his face, and his eyes, a dark gleam focused intently on Ray’s hands.

“Gee,” Ray said, softly. He rolled the page back up, put it back in the poster tube, and set it on the bedside table before turning to Gerard. His eyes were huge and dark. “You’re a corny motherfucker.”

Gerard climbed back onto the bed and pushed Ray down, covering his mouth with a wet, uncoordinated kiss. “I know. Happy birthday.”

Ray wrapped a heavy arm around Gerard’s waist. “How about,” he said, peppering kisses down the side of Gerard’s neck, “you give me the rest of my present now?”

Gerard already had one hand on Ray’s belt buckle. “I think I can do that.”

The next morning they woke tangled together in Ray’s bed. “Good morning,” Gerard yawned hotly into Ray’s face, his breath ripe with sleep. “Are you ready for me to ruin any of my hard-earned sex appeal by letting you see me in a comic book store?”

“Dude I’ve seen it like… A thousand times. I think I can handle it,” Ray said. He shifted closer and threw his arm across Gerard’s chest. “Can I ask you a totally stupid question?”

“Shoot.”

“Is this…” Ray faltered, and his fingers tapped restlessly on the hard ridge of Gerard’s collarbone. “Should I be thinking of this as like - okay, don’t laugh, but like, as a date?”

Gerard frowned. “I dunno.” He turned to face Ray, blurry in the morning light. Ray reached across him for his glasses and crammed them onto his face. They were the same ones he’d had for years, thick lenses and wire frames that made his eyes look disproportionately big in his face. Gerard adjusted them with gentle fingers, waiting for him to speak.

“Do you want us to be dating?” Ray asked.

Gerard stretched. He wasn’t good at semantics. “We could just keep doing this and see how it goes. Decide when we’re not elbow deep in tour bullshit.”

Ray pulled him into his arms, close enough that their noses touched. “I could do that,” he said. When he spoke, his breath ghosted across Gerard’s lips, still warm. “I’m still gonna kick your ass at Magic, though.”

Gerard tilted his chin up, pushed his mouth against Ray’s without really kissing him, just letting him feel the shape of his grin. “Wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.

“Good.” Ray wormed a forefinger under his glasses and rubbed the sleep from his eye. “Can we take like twenty more minutes and then we can go?”

The sun streamed in through the blinds onto them. Gerard pulled back enough to tuck his face into the dark juncture of Ray’s shoulder. “Mm-hmm,” he said, already half-asleep.

Ray drove them into the city and swore at the traffic in the Lincoln tunnel, and they paid too much for a parking garage because neither of them wanted to risk being cornered by young fans - unpredictable and everywhere in the summertime - while taking the train in.

It was good - it was a great birthday. Gerard showed him a handful of weird indie comics he thought he’d like, and they got into a lengthy but mostly good-natured discussion with the cashier at Midtown about the merits of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run, and whether or not it would’ve been worth it for him to try working in a plot arc for Celsius rather than killing him off.

Outside it was a brilliantly sunny day, hot and pungent the way New York always was in the jaws of summertime. Ray swiped his hair out of his face with one broad palm, a gesture so familiar that Gerard’s chest ached a little just to see it. Ray’s hair was coiled tight and frizzed out in the humidity, so his shadow in front of them terminated in a mass of fluffy cloud where his head should be. Gerard spent some time imagining a hero with a face permanently obscured by clouds, a weather mage, someone mysterious and courageous and humble. He cleared his head.

They sat in the park and read in one another’s company and bought ice creams from a passing vendor. Ray caught Gerard’s chin in his hand and wiped a smear of melted chocolate off Gerard’s cheek with his thumb. The temptation to kiss him, to indulge himself this, was an insurmountable thing.

“I want to kiss you,” he said lamely. The long shadows of the Dakota loomed towards them as the sun made its graceful parabola across the sky.

“So kiss me,” Gerard said. He tilted his head temptingly to the side.

Ray looked around, nervous. “What if somebody recognizes us?”

Gerard shrugged. “We deal with that if we have to. It’s not… I mean, I don’t care if people know.”

Ray squinted at him. “I do.” When he saw Gerard’s frown, he amended, “For now. I care for now.” There was a vague silence between them, oddly chill in the verdant center of Central Park.

Then Gerard laughed. “Yeah, I get it. It’s cool, man.”

They lounged for a while and then went downtown for pizza, but passed by the awful dollar slices they used to live on in favor of something more grown-up, less nauseating. Like every restaurant in the village it was cramped and shaped oddly, fit around the angles of having once been something else, and something completely different before that. The sunset painted them golden, and when it dipped below the Western edge of New Jersey along the horizon, they were lit instead by candles placed surreptitiously at their table by an attentive waiter. Gerard paid the check and winked and said happy birthday again, and took the 6 train all the way back up to where Ray’s car was parked even though it was in the opposite direction of Gerard’s Brooklyn apartment.

Their floor of the parking garage was empty of watchers, and Gerard pressed Ray close against the driver’s side door and looked at him, pointed. “Can I?” He asked. Ray bent and kissed him, rough and impatient and grateful.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to come up again before tour,” Ray said against Gerard’s lips. He kissed him once, then again. “There’s so much shit to do, y’know?”

“Don’t worry,” Gerard said. “You’ll get fuckin’ tired of me on the bus, it’ll be great. I’ll never give you a minute to yourself.”

“Okay.” They kissed. They couldn’t stop kissing, once they started. “Okay, I have to go, traffic’s always a nightmare.”

He got behind the wheel and shut the door and Gerard leaned in through the open window to kiss the side of Ray’s face, giving Ray an accidental mouthful of his unwashed hair. “Happy birthday,” he said. “See you soon.”

He disappeared into the darkness of the parking garage’s stairwell and by the time Ray had manoeuvred out to the street he was long gone. It was a good birthday, a really good one. As he waited through the stop-and-go traffic in the Lincoln tunnel the moment in the park came back to him, though, and try as he might he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was an end as much as a beginning, an end of the era where they were uncomplicatedly happy just to be with one another. The simplicity of the morning seemed like lifetimes ago, or like some vanishing point set far into a circular future. He shifted hypnotically between first gear and neutral and hoped he was wrong, and knew that he wasn’t.

*

Projekt Revolution felt a lot like Warped Tour, in that they all sort of hated it even when they loved it. It was hard to find functioning showers. The air conditioning on the bus jockeyed in between frigid and barely functional. Their bus took on the gradual overripe stench of what was unmistakably eau de teenager, which was rich given that the band was hurtling swiftly into their thirties. Ray dug through his backpack for the least funky-smelling black t-shirt he had left and thought about how film editors could do their work from home.

Gerard came up behind him and hooked his chin over his shoulder so he could peer down into the heap of t-shirts and nearly-identical pairs of jeans.

“Whatcha doin’?” he asked.

“All my clothes smell like your pits,” Ray said. He pushed a t-shirt, dried stiff with sweat, into Gerard’s face to demonstrate and they both grimaced. “Do you know if the next stop has a washing machine?”

“Steal shirts from merch, it’ll be like old times,” Gerard said. He pressed his nose into Ray’s neck. “We’ll have showers, at least. Even I know that’s becoming, you know, imperative.”

Ray made a face. He tugged the shirt he was wearing off - it smelled strongly of beer and he got a faceful of yeasty armpit stink before he was free of it - and pulled on the one he’d determined was the least repulsive, bar pilfering from the merch table. It was webbed with wrinkles and had a split seam in one shoulder.

“At this rate my shirts are just gonna fall off me onstage, dude,” he said, tugging the seam up over a the sliver of his exposed arm.

Gerard smirked. “It’d do wonders for our critical reception, I’m sure.” He came around and slipped between Ray and the wall of bunks, wrapping his arms around him. “I wouldn’t mind.” They kissed, surreptitious but unable to help themselves.

“We should’ve built more breaks into this tour,” Ray said into Gerard’s ear. “I want to take you back to bed.”

Gerard laughed. It had been weird for a while - Mikey was gone again, and Gerard had sulked for the first few days and then pulled himself together for the sanity of the band, and because Mikey had scolded him roundly for being “a fuckin’ baby, Jesus Christ, Gee,” and they had finally reached a tenuous equilibrium. Gerard and Ray spent some nights in the back lounge together on the pretense of working through some writing ideas, not that anyone was fooled.

“We could just kick everybody else out of the bus,” Gerard said. He tilted his head at what he knew was his best angle. “Or I can demand a hotel night and cement my reputation as a big ol’ diva.”

“What reputation? You’re a marshmallow, Gee, everybody knows it.” Ray smirked down at him. They were close enough that their noses touched.

The front door of the bus slammed open and they sprang apart before Frank barreled between them. “God damn fuckin’ allergies,” he muttered as he bent to dig through his bunk. “Fuckin’ Florida grass,” he said vaguely, waving a blister pack of antihistamines at the two of them before hurrying back off the bus. The door banged shut behind him and Gerard burst into laughter, leaning his head against Ray’s chest.

“Yeah, I’d be into the concept of a door with a Frank-proof lock,” he croaked into Ray’s t-shirt. Ray rubbed the back of Gerard’s neck, up under where his hair was getting shaggy.

Luckily for Frank they were getting out of Florida, and luckily for everyone else they could drive to North Carolina over two days, which meant decent lodging somewhere on the other side of the trip. Their hotel had a laundry service on the premises, and Ray guiltily handed over nearly all his clothes, plus the majority of Gerard’s, which never seemed to stay clean as long as anybody else’s. They barricaded themselves in Ray’s room under the premise of having nothing appropriate to wear for a night out, and James had given them a pointed look - both in their pajamas with a Hitchcock marathon on TV - and muttered “just like my parents” to Frank as they left to locate the Raleigh nightlife, such as it was.

Gerard curled familiarly around Ray and passed out after the first half of Strangers on a Train, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

Ray stroked Gerard’s hair. He had noticed a definite shift between them, a growing and uncontrollable reticence on his part. He still desired Gerard, still wanted to be with him… That was the problem, really. He couldn’t stop going back to that conversation they’d had the morning after his birthday, the nonchalance with which Gerard had treated him. He didn’t… He told himself very firmly that he shouldn’t expect any sort of traditional relationship with Gerard - traditional relationships were nightmares, and neither of them were particularly good at them, and before they’d started this venture into whatever they were doing, they’d never had a traditional friendship. But Ray knew himself well enough to know he was a craver of stability, and as much as he knew he provided a solid ground for Gerard’s flights of fancy to return to, he had always been sure of something in Gerard, too. That they needed each other, and gave one another things no one else could. That might not have changed, but everything else had.

The tour seemed like an impossible limbo. They’d gotten the call a few days before from Brian, would they like to tack on another leg of stadium dates, and of course they would because they money was impossible to say no to and they liked to make things hard for themselves. Ray didn’t think he’d ever know if he and Gerard - whatever they ended up calling this thing they were doing - would work outside the context of the bus and stage and hotel room grind. Tour seemed to be a hallway in a dream, stretching out eternally in front of him with the door to the next room always out of reach. He buried his fingers in the hair at the nape of Gerard’s neck and held him the way he knew he liked to be held.

The morning they’d woken up in Ray’s house, it had almost been different. He’d made a pot of coffee and sat with Gerard in his sunny, small kitchen. He’d tried to memorize the details of what Gerard looked like in his home - the way he was silhouetted against the peeling wallpaper patterned with cabbage roses, the way his hands fit around one of Ray’s Genesis album cover set of mugs. Even the night before, with Gerard over to dinner at his parents’ house, the way he’d sat close to Ray on the drawing room sofa - not crowding him but keeping him comfortably in hand, touching his shoulder or his arm with the sort of familiarity and unselfconsciousness that married couples have.

And what was it that Gerard had said, way back in Amsterdam, before the many-layered thing between them had crystallized? Not the thing about getting married, which was obviously a joke, even if it made Ray blush to remember it. No, about needing him around to make sense of the world. That wasn’t something Ray was willing to go without. Gerard was a lens that let him see the world in brighter colors, that made music and travel and all those things that went along with it a sort of vibrant, daydreamy acid trip beautiful. And Ray was the tight focus, the element that allowed Gerard to see beyond his visions to what was actually there. It was too big a thing to risk.

And so, consciously or not, he’d been pulling back. He was selfish, unwilling to sacrifice the beauty Gerard showed him in everything for a shot at the something more that being with Gerard could offer him. He kissed Gerard’s brow, because he could be selfish in more than one way at once. They could be together like this, but it was less - they weren’t sleeping wound up in each other on the bus anymore, or taking risks with barely concealed backstage kisses, or brushing hands like teenagers flirting at a party. Ray was holding himself back for the sake, he told himself, of the band.

And Gerard was spending more and more time outside of the back studio, was having a wonderful time, was less dependent on Ray to ground him. He was vibrant and social, sitting around with Saosin or, particularly, MSI, and making everybody laugh. It was both gratifying and terrifying to watch. He wanted more than anything for Gerard to be able to do whatever he wanted, and to be tethered to no one unwillingly. He wanted Gerard to wind up happy, with someone who deserved him very much. He may be selfish but he wasn’t so cruel as to wish Gerard a lifetime alone, or a lifetime stuck with him. And yet as proud as he was to see Gerard flourishing, he couldn’t quite tamp down the sting of jealousy when that nervous and overbright smile was turned on anyone else.

*

Gerard, for his part, was willfully ignoring any strangeness from Ray. It wasn’t that he hadn’t noticed, because of course he had - Ray had the subtlety of a sledgehammer when he was upset, and even though he was making quite an effort to hide it, Gerard knew him too well, could see something odd and tight in his eyes when they were alone together. And he wasn’t… he convinced himself he wasn’t avoiding it, but he would admit that he was spending more and more time away from the band, giving Ray less of a chance to… Well, to leave him.

He might not. But he might, and that was enough of a dizzying and terrifying possibility for Gerard that was up and out of his bunk early that morning.

He tipped his head back and felt the giddy rush of blood as gravity shifted. He had his legs up over the back of the couch on the MSI bus, watching Lindsey and Kitty play a game of exquisite corpse across the formica tabletop with each other. Kitty unfolded her page and snorted. She held it up and, upside-down, Gerard could see that she’d drawn a pair of muscular, hairy legs in stockings attached to what Lindsey had put down, some sort of eldritch Cthulu-esque tentacle monster. Gerard smiled absently.

“What’s with you?” Lindsey asked. She folded one leg over the other.

“What d’you mean?” Gerard said. He could feel his legs getting pleasantly numb from the way he was sprawled out.

Lindsey and Kitty exchanged looks. “Well, like,” Kitty started, “You’re not even playing, you’re just laying there. And it’s not like we don’t, you know, enjoy your company…” She twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “But you have a whole bus for moody introspective emo crap.” She laughed a little.

Gerard huffed and started to sit up, but the head rush made him dizzy and he flopped back down. “Yeah, I know, I’m avoiding it.”

Lindsey raised an eyebrow. “Well that’s interesting,” she said. Kitty had an unconcealable smirk on.

“It’s not,” Gerard said. He was feeling petulant and he had the distinct impression he was being mocked, quietly, on some psychic plane between Lindsey and Kitty that was obscured to him.

Lindsey looked over at Kitty, the bow of her lips twitching like she was fighting a smile. “Can you give us a minute?”

Kitty winked and excused herself to the back lounge, and Gerard could hear the murmur of the TV back there in the space between the door opening and closing. Lindsey came to sit beside him on the couch, and from where he was still upside down he mostly got a view of her pale jaw and the curve of her cheek, the foreground of his vision taken up with her dark blue paisley pajamas.

“I think,” she said, putting a fond hand on his shoulder, “You should probably talk about it before you go crazy. And as your friend -” she gave a long-suffering sigh “- and because Mikey isn’t here… If you want to, you can talk to me.”

Gerard stared at her. The angle hurt his eyes. He hauled himself into a slightly more upright position and put his legs over Lindsey’s lap. He gave her a sorrowful look.

“So are you gonna tell me why you and your Brian May protege guitar guy haven’t been joined at the hip lately?” she asked. She pulled a crumpled pack of Newports out of her pajama pocket and shook one out, wedging it in the corner of her lips before offering the pack to Gerard. He took one, grateful to have something to do with his  hands.

She lit them both on the same match, first hers, then Gerard’s, the flame sputtering closer to her fingers as he leaned forward and touched the tip of his cigarette to the flame. He sucked a deep lungful of smoke and blew it out in a stream towards the ceiling.

“I think he wants to stop fucking me,” he said, keeping his tone as level as he could.

Lindsey cocked her head to the side in a considering nod. “Bummer,” she said.

Gerard nudged her legs with his foot. “Be nice, I’m in crisis mode.” He sucked on his cigarette until the cherry glowed.

“Well has he dumped you? Like, has he said so many words?” She dragged on her cigarette and blew a tidy smoke ring. “Or are you just being neurotic?”

He gave her a nonplussed look. “I know I’m neurotic but I also, like, know him pretty fucking well, Lynz.”

“Point taken.” She leaned over his legs to grab an empty beer can from the floor and ashed into it before stuffing it between Gerard’s side and the back of the couch. “You gonna do anything about it?”

Gerard shrugged. “I need him in the band, dude, I can’t write without him. I’ll get over it.” He ashed into the beer can. “It’ll be easier when Mikey’s back with us.”

Lindsey put her entire hand over Gerard’s face, then pushed it up into his hair. “No, I mean, are you gonna do anything like tell him how you feel?” She made a face. “This is really not my area of expertise, you guys would be so much better off if you just talked to each other like people.”

“I mean…” Gerard said, and he could feel the lie pushing against the back of his teeth before it slipped out. “I don’t know how I feel.”

“Bullshit.”

“Yeah, okay.” His cigarette had burned down to the filter. He dropped it into the beer can and cracked his knuckles. “That doesn’t change anything, though. I don’t ever want him to do anything he doesn’t want to.”

Lindsey rolled her eyes. “You realize you should probably be telling him this, right?” When she saw Gerard’s aggrieved face, her expression softened. “Look, dude, not for nothing but the guy literally has a tattoo based on where he stands in relation to you.”

Gerard stretched his legs and flexed his feet, and Lindsey patted him lazily on the shin. “I know how I feel, I guess, I just don’t know what I want.”

“That… is more complicated.” Lindsey admitted. Her delicate face, ordinarily twisted with a wry smile or a smirk, was soft and slack with pity.

Gerard tipped his head back against the arm of the couch. “You’re right, though.” He laughed humorlessly. “Can I crash on your guys’ couch if I fuck it up too bad?”

She tousled his hair into a mess of tangles stiffened with sweat. “Anytime, dude, you know it. Let’s get coffee.”

Being around Lindsey was a comfort because she expected very little of Gerard, and she wore her pajamas around everywhere so she never made Gerard feel underdressed. He followed her off the bus and down the block to a bustling Starbucks, and before they went inside she spun to face Gerard, tipping her face up towards him.

“Don’t let it go too long, okay?” she asked, but it came out more like a command. She was very, very beautiful and simultaneously frightening as hell. “You’re gonna break that boy’s heart, and your band will be crap without him.”

Her tone made Gerard want to stand up straighter, to assert himself. He tried, and when he spoke his voice came out humbled and awkward but certain: “I won’t. I don’t want to.”

*

For a minute Ray was stunned, and then, horribly, he wasn’t. Gerard was leaning up against the wall, doing his best to loom over Lindsey, a dopey smirk pulling his mouth to one side. Her chin was raised in defiance, her eyes bright with mischief. It was awful because he couldn’t even fault them. Ray liked Lindsey, and he honestly thought she and Gerard were good with each other. Besides, she was beautiful, and tough enough to kick Gerard’s ass when he needed it, and they had chemistry. They looked good together. Ray was betrayed by his own good judgment.

He was overwhelmed by the urge to clear his throat, to announce his presence and to try to make Gerard feel guilty – it was petty, it was one of the terrible, childish things about him that prevented him from ever being the kind of match for Gerard that Lindsey obviously was. He squashed the reflex down, turned around as quietly as he could, and headed back for the bus.

“What’s eating you?” Bob said when Ray plowed past him heading for the back lounge.

“I’m good, dude,” he mumbled. “I’m a-okay.”

Bob looked like he wanted to press the issue and also, because he was Bob, like he would rather cut off his own hand than pry into someone else’s personal life.

“Seriously,” Ray said. He tried to pull his face into a neutral expression.

And it did fucking figure. As the lounge door shut behind him, he allowed himself a moment of unadulterated self pity. Gerard had never been able to let a possibility go unexplored, be it an idiot cartoon about a breakfast monkey or a band that was going to save the world or giving in to the odd tension between him and his guitarist. Of course he’d go give a beautiful, terrifying woman who seemed to really like him his best shot. The only thing for it, he supposed, was to stand aside and let him make himself happy. Ray was man enough, at least, to know he deserved it.

He managed to mope himself into a fitful sleep, and woke up to Frank shaking him by the shoulder.

“Bob sent me in here on reconnaissance, I think he’s scared,” he said. He was cross-legged on the floor next to the bed, a tangle of limbs and overlong hoodie sleeves. “What’s up?”

Ray rolled his eyes. As much as he was dwelling on the inevitability of whatever he and Gerard were doing ending, and ending shortly, nothing was really up. What he’d seen could’ve been completely innocent, except that he knew Gerard too well. And it wasn’t like they’d been committed to each other, or anything. Hell, they’d talked about it, inasmuch as they talked about anything, and decided against it. He had no right to be cut up.

“It’d be awkward if I talk to you about it, dude.”

Frank shrugged one shoulder. “That’s true.”

Ray turned onto his back. “I like, really don’t want to talk about it, Frank,” he said.

“Fair.” Frank pushed the sleeves of his hoodie up to his elbows. “We can get wasted about it instead if you want.”

Ray shut his eyes and grinned weakly. “Knew we hired you for something.”

He was loathe to admit it, but Ray spent their entire set waiting for their set to be over. He wasn’t exactly phoning it in - the music never failed to overtake him, to pull him into its heavy sway, but most nights he felt like he was wrestling it, holding his own against it, and tonight he was just letting himself be swept away on its wave. Gerard was the opposite - he clawed at their songs with a ferocity that was at once terrifying and alluring. It hurt Ray to watch him, but he couldn’t look away.

He was volatile, too, getting his free hand full of Ray’s hair and pulling him close, touching him, then swanning off to sloppily make out with Frank, or grope himself for the girls at the barricade. Ray could feel two fierce red circles burning high on his cheekbones, an angry, jealous blush that would give him away in any other light. He kept his head down and his hands busy and flinched away when Gerard stuck one sweaty hand up the back of his t-shirt and leered over his shoulder at the crowd.

Ray got rid of his guitar as fast as possible and made for the bus with single-minded determination. He wanted to change into a clean shirt, at least, and then he wanted to go somewhere where Gerard couldn’t follow him. It was awful to think of it that way, it was deplorable to wield that weapon against him. Ray wanted to get massively, flagrantly drunk not just because he liked to, but because Gerard could not. He was in front of his bunk peeling off his sweat-drenched t-shirt when Gerard came through the bus door, still thrumming with energy.

“Hey, you,” he said, walking towards Ray. He looked beautiful. Beautiful and dangerous, honestly. Ray wasn’t going to say anything, was going to brush him off, but the flush of heat on Gerard’s face was so like the way he’d looked when they’d first had sex, and he couldn’t help himself.

“What the fuck was that?” Ray said. His voice was even, and he didn’t look up from the laundry bag he was digging through.

“What?” Gerard’s feral grin faltered. He reached out a cautious hand as if to touch Ray’s bare shoulder but thought better of it.

“You know what.” Ray tugged a rumpled Mot ö rhead t-shirt over his head. He kept his face carefully neutral. “I’m going out tonight, okay?”

“Wait, Ray, what?” Gerard’s voice was rising in pitch, panicky in a way that would ordinarily make Ray drop everything to tend to him. Tonight it just made him feel worse, more annoyed, more guilty.

“Just, fucking… That thing you do.” Ray turned to face him, finally. “Like, I know you’re damaged up to your eyeballs and you’re like, terminally incapable of caring about anybody else’s feelings, but god I thought you’d at least be upfront with me.”

“Dude, what are you talking about?” Gerard was beginning to lose the panicky edge to his tone; his seriously pissed off face was falling into place on his features. “What the fuck did I do?”

“Come on, Gerard, you know. It’s not that you treat me like crap, because you don’t, but sometimes I wish you would.” He shook his head to clear it and his curls fell into his face; he scrubbed them back with one palm. “Christ, I don’t know how to talk to you about it.”

“You could just fucking, you know, tell me, instead of being a passive aggressive asshole about it,” Gerard snapped. Confusion was giving way to genuine anger, something he didn’t see on Gerard often. It was as fascinating as it was horrifying, and he felt automatically ashamed as Gerard bore down on him. “It’s not my job to coddle your goddamn low self esteem all the time or read your mind and just magically be able to make you happy, you know.”

Ray could feel his face heating up. He hated himself for being so goddamn obvious with his emotions. “Fuck off,” he snapped, and made to pull away. Gerard caught his wrist and held him in place.

“No,” he said. His voice was harsh and unforgiving. “You don’t get to fuck this up and then walk away, that’s not how this works.”

“Fuck what up?” Ray asked, his voice hiked up into a panicky whine that he hated but couldn’t control. “I don’t even fucking know what this is. Maybe if you dialed back your commitment issues a little you could spend less time, you know, wondering what you did to fuck up and more time actually not fucking up.”

Gerard’s face colored. “Fuck you, Toro,” he spat. “You don’t get to go there.”

“Why not?” Ray wanted to clamp down on his own throat to stop the words spilling out. “Forgive me for thinking I might actually matter to you, like, a tiny fucking bit. Like I know I’m not Mikey, and I know just because you’re the fucking, most important person in my life doesn’t mean you’re gonna feel the same but I thought I’d at least rank higher than some girl in a band we meet up with once every two years, maybe.”

“Jesus, Ray, what do you think happened? You think I’m slutting around, because I’ve got so much time to kill? Like I’m not working my ass off on this tour?” His hand tightened on Ray’s wrist. “Y’know the big difference between you and Mikey, and, fuck, you and Lindsey, is that they’re both pulling for this thing to work.” He dropped Ray’s wrist abruptly. “ Asshole"

Gerard was breathing heavily. Ray watched the way his chest rose and fell, the way his neck and ears were flushed red with anger and embarrassment.

“Gerard,” he said, and it came out pained and sharp. “I’m trying."

“Yeah,” Gerard said. He was listless, the fire of the show and the argument drained from him abruptly and completely. He suddenly looked very small.

“I should just go,” Ray said, deflated. He flinched when Gerard reached to hold his wrist again.

“I’m not gonna force you to stay,” Gerard said, but he didn’t let go. “But don’t ever think that you’re not important. I just.” He released Ray’s wrist and scrubbed both hands over his face. “I don’t have the energy to prove it to you all the time, I thought…” He looked up at Ray then, all the hurt plain on his face, his mouth tucked down in a thin, careful frown. “I thought you and me were always gonna be solid, I guess.”

Ray felt all his lingering indignation crumble. He took Gerard’s hand and reeled him in and held him for a minute, cradled him against the wrinkled front of his Mot ö rhead t-shirt. “Gerard I can’t…” he murmured into Gerard’s hair. “I can’t deal with this right now, I’m sorry.” He cupped the back of Gerard’s head in his palm. “We will though.” He hesitated, waiting for Gerard to tilt his face up expectantly before leaning down to kiss him. It was all so fucking needlessly complicated, he thought. “I’m gonna go.”

He shut the door of the bus behind him, and on the other side of it Frank and James were calling a cab, laughing, both talking at once into a cell phone at a put-upon taxi dispatcher. When Ray walked up to them James ruffled his hair with both hands and Frank climbed up on his back, all monkey-limbs and bony knees.

They went to a bar in town and shared an endless number of pitchers of beer, and Ray laughed because you couldn’t not laugh with James and Frank, but he felt hollow and guilty doing it, thinking of Gerard back at the bus dwelling on things and missing his brother. Ray tried to quash the feeling by staying out as late as he could. By the time the three of them stumbled back onto the bus he was feeling scrubbed out and raw, already hungover. He wanted, more than anything, to find Gerard in his bunk and take comfort from the way his arms fit around him, but he didn’t even know if he could do that, anymore.

He passed out in the back lounge with his shoes still on and slept until soundcheck.

*

When Ray had kissed him goodbye it was perfunctory and awkward. What had been a bizarre undercurrent of wrongness had rent them entirely in half during the fight. Ray had held himself back, not wanting to make himself a burden on Gerard, until he couldn’t anymore. Now his kisses were selfish in their reticence, as if he could sever that part of himself that burned with jealousy. Gerard matched him, measure for measure, confused but determined not to guilt Ray into staying with him. The gap between them shifted and widened and rumbled; Gerard could feel it even alone on the bus with miles between them. He wished Mikey were there.

Knowing Mikey, he was probably the only one of them who could’ve parsed the situation, he just didn’t want to. Ray would understand that – he didn’t seem to want to, either. Gerard was  - for once, he thought bitterly - more proactive.

“Mikes,” he said, waving a hand at Mikey’s greeting when he answered the phone. “What am I supposed to do?”

He could hear Mikey huff a frustrated sound out of the side of his mouth. They knew each other so well - he could almost see Mikey narrowing his eyes, less menacing without his glasses, somehow, but deadly all the same.

“Make your own decisions without hassling me for my, y’know, sage-like wisdom?”

Gerard scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous, you know I can’t do that.” He pressed further back against the bunk wall and wriggled down to get comfortable. He wanted to feel secretive, even if he was all alone. “Come on. Tell my fortune.”

This was a game they used to play, back before… Before a lot of things. Back when they used to get stoned in the basement and pluck lackadaisically at guitars and call themselves Raygun Jones. Gerard would say, tell my fortune, and Mikey would exhale a plume of smoke and try to see Gerard’s future in it.

The phone line hummed. He could hear Mikey shifting around, imagined him shoving the phone between his ear and his shoulder, holding his hands out in front of him like he used to. “I see…” he began. His flat Jersey drawl was anything but mystical. “I see you… Growing up and figuring out what you want… without annoying me about it.”

“You’re such a fuckin’ brat,” Gerard whined, but there was no malice in it. As usual, Mikey was right.

And if Mikey had been feeling less put-upon, he’d probably tell Gerard that his obsession with finishing things neatly made him uniquely crappy at relationships that mattered, relationships that had no defined goal or endpoint.

The thing was, he was entwined with Ray. Even before, they had been two sides of the same coin, two halves of a whole: the words and the music; the vision and the action. He would no sooner go without Ray than he would give up his voice, because without one, the other hardly mattered. For a long time it had been pleasurable to entertain an attraction to Ray, a flirtation with him, a closeness deeper and more tensile than he had with anyone else. It had been a comfort to love someone so deeply and to be reassured that they needed one another in at least some of the same ways, and that they would never hurt one another intentionally.

And then, well. Wasn’t that the way of it.

Gerard breathed into the phone, and listened to Mikey doing the same thing. There were no such things as awkward silences. Mikey was probably texting at the same time.

The idea of venturing forward with Ray was simultaneously the most alien concept to him and the most natural. The idea of having to discuss his relationship with Ray was off-putting: their partnership, from its first seed, had blossomed organically and grown into a many-branched, beautiful thing. An old-growth redwood, like they’d seen out in California, something living and growing and somehow ancient. The thought of pruning it down or containing it with words like “boyfriend” and “dating” put a bad taste in Gerard’s mouth. He wondered if Ray wanted those things. Ray liked boundaries, he liked known quantities, and he liked to be sure of himself.

Gerard thought they’d always been sure of themselves with each other, and now he didn’t know.

“Mikey,” he said again. “Miiiiikey.”

“Gerard.” Mikey sounded like he was still texting. “You’re thirty years old.”

He felt appropriately shamed. “I miss you, Mikes.”

A shuffling noise came through the line as Mikey shifted. “Gerard, you know what you’re supposed to do. I’ll see you when you hit New York, okay?”

“Okay.” Gerard paused. He wasn’t good with naming his feelings but it was never hard with Mikey. “I love you, Mikey.”

“Love you, too. Now leave me alone.” It was barely perceptible in his voice, that smile that Mikey was so self-conscious of, but it was there. Just the hint of it settled Gerard in the core of himself. He heard the line go dead but held the phone to his cheek for a long moment anyway.

*

Gerard was still too wound up to sleep. He paced the bus from end to end, and when that failed to soothe him he busied himself with the menial tasks he was always putting off: folding his laundry, shaking the crumbs and dust out of his sheets and remaking his bunk, brushing his teeth with aggressive vigilance. He sat by the open bus window and furiously chain-smoked through the rest of his pack of cigarettes, and when the last had burned down to the filter he hunted down Frank’s bag to see if he’d been careless enough to leave a pack unattended.

Underneath a squashed mostly-empty pack of Marlboro Reds, Gerard discovered a familiar book. It was Vonnegut, short stories, the same book Ray had tossed back to him on that long drive to Prague, continents and plane rides and lifetimes ago. He scooped up the book and the cigarettes and brought both into his bunk.

Curled up against the wall, Gerard propped the book in one hand and held a lit cigarette loosely in the other. He read and smoked until his eyes wouldn’t stay open, and when he dreamed, he dreamed of Ray.

They were standing far apart in a vast orchard, the dusty orange sunlight coming through between the trees in great swathes, nearly tangible. Ray was walking away from him - still close enough that Gerard could see the way his shoulders shifted under his shirt, and the way the light diffused around his hair, embossing him in gold, making him look like a dandelion against the backdrop of trees.

Gerard called to him once. He saw Ray’s step falter, and then he was awake, blinking into the dimness of his bunk. He dropped the book out through the curtain onto the ground. Frankie could find it later.

*

By the time they made it to New York, the fault line cutting down the middle of the band had shifted and widened, and tensions were high. Ray was spending a lot of time in the bus’s back lounge moping with his headphones in. Gerard was splitting his time between avoiding the situation and stalwartly pretending like nothing was wrong. Frank and Bob were distraught. James was watching it all fall apart with the patient ease of someone who’s seen worse.

Mikey had to know it’d be bad, when he came to visit them before the show in New York. He probably hadn’t expected to find Ray dozing and listening to Pinkerton, stubbly and unshowered and not looking prepared to play later that day at all.

“You look terrible,” he said.

Ray knew he was right - he’d been wearing this near-toxic Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt for the better part of three days, he had spent so much time on the back lounge couch that he was afraid it was starting to fuse to him through some sort of depression osmosis, and he had his glasses on in the middle of the day, which was always a bad sign. Mikey was looking down at him apprehensively, and that… Well, the only reaction that came naturally to him when confronted with Mikey was to pull himself together and set a good example.

Ray turned onto his back. “I think your brother’s gonna dump me,” he said tonelessly to the ceiling. He didn’t need to look to know Mikey hadn’t broken his poker face, or that he was doing that half-nod, half-shake of his head that meant he was thinking.

“Why?”

“Why’s he gonna dump me, or what makes me think he’s going to?” Ray looked at Mikey, who was predictably blank, fiddling with the frayed cuff of one of his hoodie sleeves.

“Your call. I think one of those is gonna be more tied up in your self-esteem bullshit than the actual situation with Gerard though.” Trust Mikey to cut to the point.

“I dunno, dude, he’s into Lindsey, and like, they’re good together. They would be.”

Mikey’s lips twitched to the side. “He’s into you, and you’re good together.” Ray waited for him to go on. It took Mikey a minute, sometimes, to figure out what he was trying to say, but it was usually worth it. “I mean, I don’t know if he’s got a thing for her, I guess, but even if he does, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like you.” He folded his legs gracelessly under him so he could sit at Ray’s eye level. Ray was glad Mikey didn’t wear glasses anymore, because he didn’t think he could bear to see his reflection in them.

He laughed humorlessly. “Yeah, but it’s kind of no competition. I mean.” He waved one big hand down at himself. “I’m not, like.” He didn’t know how to finish. He figured Mikey got it. “Plus you know how he gets. He can’t just not go after something he wants.” Whatever glimmer in Ray that had, however briefly, fascinated Gerard wasn’t enough to keep him from seeing how beautiful Lindsey was, how impressive everything about her was. How good she would probably be for him.

Mikey leaned forward and rested his chin on the edge of the couch. “You don’t know him as well as you think.” He said it in a way that meant, You don’t know him as well as I do.

Ray pressed his face into the couch cushion and groaned in frustration. “Mikey,” he said, muffled, “Talk like a human being.”

Mikey rolled his eyes and pushed Ray over so he could haul himself up onto the couch. It was a tight squeeze, skinny as Mikey was. Ray thought about apologizing for the fact that he smelled like armpit before he remembered it was Mikey, who had no high ground to claim. “Okay so I’m going to give you some privileged information, and I’m only gonna do it if you promise to stop being a pissbaby.”

Ray frowned. “I’m not –“

“Dude, you are. Do you promise?”

Ray cut his eyes at Mikey, suspicious. “I think so?”

“When did you start having feelings for him.” It came out like a statement, like Mikey was an overworked nurse taking his vital signs. “None of this ‘it’s always been there under the surface’ bullshit because I know it hasn’t.”

Ray thought about it. “I guess when we recorded the album.” He paused, and it came to him. “It was the day we tracked ‘Cancer.’”

Mikey nodded. “Okay, well, Gerard has been harboring a thing for you since he saw The Rodneys at Loop Lounge in ’96. This is not speculation, this is a verified fact. He asked me to introduce you guys.”

Ray blinked. “What?”

“Just… Don’t think you’re a one-off to him, okay? He wouldn’t risk the band to fool around with you if he didn’t mean it. And if he’s messing around with Lindsey he’s probably hedging his bets because he thinks you’re gonna get tired of him.” Mikey paused. “He’s always been afraid you’re gonna realize you’re too good for this band and go join Anthrax, or something. For what it’s worth… Me and Frankie are always just trying to keep up with you.”

*

Ray took a shower. He shaved. He stuffed the Floyd t-shirt as far down in his duffle bag as it would go and put on a plain black one, clean-ish and relatively unwrinkled. He was tired of smelling weird and tired of looking like crap and, most importantly, tired of being sad.

“Nothing is fucked here, dude,” he told his reflection as he rinsed excess shaving cream off his face.

He wasn’t going to fight. He was going to let Gerard do what he needed to do to make himself happy. He was going to play his goddamn heart out.

Mikey wandered the beach before their soundcheck and then watched them set up, and nobody asked him if he wanted to play because it was last minute, but everyone wanted to be close to him. Gerard especially, he’d pause halfway through a song and beckon Mikey up onstage just so he could lean on him and sing.

He waited in the wings during their set itself, a pillar of salt in the middle of the way the crew was rushing back and forth. Just his presence there grounded them. Afterwards, Alicia had to pry Mikey out of Gerard’s arms.

“Come back soon,” Gerard whined, and Mikey ruffled his hair.

“Figure your shit out first, then worry about me,” he said sagely, and followed Alicia off to their car to go home.

Gerard wandered, looking lost, back to the bus and they hauled themselves back to Manhattan, where they were treating themselves to one luxurious night in an upscale hotel. Ray was looking forward to a real bed and a laundry service, and a little time alone that didn’t feel like he was willfully avoiding anyone, the way it did when he hung around in the bus’s back lounge.

They were all quiet on the drive back. Frank was deep in his phone, longing for Jamia a short but uncrossable distance away. Bob was reading, his legs up over Frank’s lap, looking worn out. James had left from Wantagh with his girlfriend so there wasn’t his usual undercurrent of odd chatter. Their bus pulled up outside of the hotel and the band and crew marched off, duffel bags and backpacks slung over their shoulders. Ray stood beside Gerard and tried not to look at him, and tried not to make it look like he was pointedly not looking at him.

“Hey,” Gerard said. The hotel and Times Square loomed around them, bright and hot, a crowded limbo between the midnight that it was and the timeless no-man’s-land New York created at its vibrant heart. “I’m gonna go back to my place for the night.” He put a hesitant hand on Ray’s forearm. “Will you come with me?”

And the answer was always yes, wasn’t it?

They rode the subway in silence, alone with their thoughts but alone together in the post-show glow, tense but not uncomfortable. At Clark Street they got off and Ray followed Gerard through the maze of the station and up above ground, then down a side street. It terminated in a dead end, with a view over the glittering bay of the East River, one spire of the Brooklyn Bridge visible against a narrow slice of sky. Gerard’s motioned towards a small post-war brick building at the end of the street and, fumbling with his keys, he let them both inside.

“I’m on the top floor,” he said quietly. Ray reminded himself that it was past midnight and they were in a respectable, quiet neighborhood, and made himself tread lightly. Gerard’s building was small and quiet, the stairwell dim after hours. In the intermittent windows on the landings he could glimpse a whole view of the Manhattan skyline, studding the sky with its staccato waveform of peaks and valleys. A view like this was the way Ray could tell they’d made it.

Gerard lived on the top floor because of course he did, because he liked to make things difficult for himself and liked to have what he wanted even when it was impractical. He was winded after four flights of stairs and he leaned on the door while he dug his keys back out of his pocket and let them into his apartment.

Inside, it was just like Gerard. There was clutter in the front room, an open-plan living room and kitchen. There was a chipped porcelain mug full of pencils and paintbrushes on a stained kitchen table, a draining rack full of dishes that Ray doubted were ever properly put away, a coffee maker and a microwave but a distinct lack of any other typical cooking utensils. There was a couch and a coffee table and a big TV mounted on the wall, and Ray could imagine Gerard sprawled sideways on the couch the way he liked to be when he was sketching, putting some well-loved B-movie on in the background and frittering the day away on unstable superheroes and kids who would save the world. Behind him, Gerard flipped on a lamp and the room was suffused with warm, amber light.

“Hi,” Gerard said lamely. He nodded towards the couch, and they sat down.

Ray’s heart was thudding uncomfortably against his ribs. The fact that he knew, in his head and in his gut, that he was completely safe with Gerard, did nothing to mitigate the flood of anxiety and dread building in his throat. He didn’t say anything, just watched the line of Gerard’s profile where the light limned him in gold.

“I can’t believe you’ve never been here,” Gerard said. He gazed out around the apartment, lost in thought. “It doesn’t…” He paused. “It doesn’t really feel like it’s really my home until you’ve been in it.”

Ray sucked his bottom lip into his mouth. He didn’t want to say anything, he didn’t want to jinx this. Anticipation and guilt and anxiety curled warmly in his stomach. He waited for Gerard to find his point, because he always did.

When Gerard turned to face him, Ray felt something in his chest stutter. Gerard’s face was serious and solemn. “I’m always going to want you in my life, Ray, I wouldn’t ever do anything to… To jeopardize that.”

And ah, fuck, Ray knew a hint when he heard one. This was the moment where Gerard would say “Our friendship is too important for me to be with you,” or some entirely true and simultaneously bullshit cliche line just like it, and Ray would swallow it like he always did, because he trusted Gerard even when that meant getting hurt.

“I know, Gee,” Ray said. “Don’t worry.”

Gerard smiled at him, but wouldn’t meet his eyes. “See, I know you’re not happy like this and I don’t know what to do to fix it,” he said. “But it seems like maybe you just want out, and I should’ve… Ah geez, I dunno, I should’ve just said when we started that you could tap out whenever you wanted. I know that… Like, if you’re sticking around to spare my feelings or because you think I’ll try to kick you out of the band -” and he looked genuinely aggrieved at that - “I can deal with it. And I never would. And if you want to go back to how it was before it’ll be hard but I’m not gonna, like, burden you with my feelings or any of that bullshit. Okay?”

Ray stared at him, which never did any good besides making him look walleyed and bleary, but he didn’t know what else to do. “What?” he said, finally.

“What d’you mean, ‘what?’” Gerard asked.

“I mean - ah, fuck, I can’t tell if you’re breaking up with me or confessing something big,” Ray sputtered.

Gerard winced. “I think it was both, actually.” He cracked his knuckles, a nervous habit. “I know we said we were just gonna see where it went and figure it out from there, and I know I’m. Fuck, I still don’t like labeling it because you’re… You’re my Ray and I’m your Gerard and there’s a lot there that, like, isn’t gonna get covered if I try to call you anything else.” He gave Ray a lopsided smile. “But I can’t help it, dude, I wanna know that you’re in this as deep as I am. And lately it doesn’t seem like you are, so… This is an out, if you wanna take it.”

“Gerard…” Ray said. He put a hand out and brushed his knuckles across Gerard’s cheek. Gerard nuzzled into his palm, reflexive, and kissed the hollow of his hand.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t hack it as chill friends with benefits,” he mumbled apologetically against Ray’s wrist.

“Dude, I never wanted you to,” Ray said. He curled his hand around the back of Gerard’s neck and tugged him close so he could drape his arms around him. “You know I’m like -” he could feel his face heating up - “I’ve like been in love with you. For. A while.”

Gerard laughed and it was a relieved, half-broken sound. “Fuck, dude, why didn’t we start with this part?”

“We’re fuckin’ bad at relationships, man, we knew that going in.” The words were out there and Ray felt lighter and better, but his blood hummed with anxiety. He tightened his grip on Gerard.

“Hey,” Gerard said against his neck. He shuffled up to nose through Ray’s hair until his chapped lips brushed Ray’s ear. “You know I love you, right? Like, I am. God, I have been… In love with you just since forever. I don’t even want to say how long.”

“It’s cool, man, Mikey told me,” Ray said. He pulled Gerard up and kissed his sputtering, indignant mouth until he quieted. “You have awful taste, though, I was fuckin’ ugly in the Rodneys.” He kissed the hollow of Gerard’s eye, right by his nose. “I’m still fuckin’ ugly, man, what are you doing?”

“Shut up!” Gerard said, and he pushed Ray back into the couch and attacked his mouth with a furious fervor. “You were totally ugly back then but so was I, it balanced out. And now we’re both radiantly handsome, so like, it makes sense.”

“Maybe we’re both still ugly, think of that?” Ray smirked against Gerard’s lips.

“No way, dude, you’re too shallow. You wouldn’t go for me if I was still ugly. It’s gotta be that we both got beautiful.”

“Fair enough.” Ray smacked a kiss to his lips. “So at the risk of sounding like a fuckin’... Teenager… What does this make you? Are you my boyfriend or something?”

“If you want me to be. Or your partner. Your…” Gerard raised his eyebrows. "Lover."

Ray grimaced. “You’re my Gerard, okay?” He kissed Gerard’s brow. “That’s enough.”

Gerard shuffled closer, his arms on either side of Ray’s body, resting his full weight on him. He looked intently into Ray’s eyes. “Ray…” he started, and he looked so tender that Ray felt himself start blushing. “You’re a corny motherfucker.”

“You love it,” he said. He put his wet mouth against the side of Gerard’s face and dragged over to his ear. “You love me so much you goddamn cornball.”

“Shut up and take me to bed,” Gerard said, his voice hitching up on the last word as Ray scraped blunt teeth over his earlobe. When Ray hauled him up by the waist Gerard yelped, put his hands on Ray’s shoulders to steady himself, and yelped again when Ray scooped him up into his arms.

“Where’s your bedroom?” he asked, peering around the semidark apartment.

Gerard gestured vaguely with one hand, his other arm clamped firmly around Ray’s neck. “Hurry up,” he mumbled.

Ray carried him into the bedroom, all dark and very Gerard, a bed and a large desk covered in paints and brushes and jars of ink and stacks of Bristol board. He dropped Gerard in a heap on the bed and turned away to just look. The walls were dotted with thumbtacks holding up sketches, pages of lyrics Ray had seen already and some he hadn’t, scraps of paper with Gerard’s unreadable chicken scrawl handwriting. He wandered over to examine some of it.

Most of the room was bare - apart from the cyclone of Gerard’s ideas put to paper, there were no decorations. Coffee mugs with varying rings of dark residue in the bottoms sat on every flat surface: the desk, the windowsill, the top of the bookshelf. There was a framed photo of Elena on the desk, and another, smaller just behind it. Ray picked it up and squinted in the dark at it.

The photo was blurry, probably from somebody’s disposable camera. He knew the tour immediately, because it had all of them there: after Warped, before the harrowing process of The Black Parade, when they’d gone out and taken Reggie with them. In the photo Frank was the obvious focal point, poised in midair, a huge grin on his face. In front of him, Bob was a blurred shape, blond and unsuspecting as Frank leapt towards his back. To either side James and Mikey were twin masks of horror and amusement, James’ in full Reggie regalia with one hand raised to catch Frank by the collar, Mikey with his hands over his mouth and his eyes gleeful. And then to the right of the frame, Ray and Gerard were together and laughing uproariously. Ray had an arm slung around Gerard’s shoulders and his grin was big and blindingly bright. Gerard was leaning against him, pointing weakly at Frank, his smile splitting his face to show both rows of his tiny, even teeth.

“Ray,” Gerard said from where he was still slumped on the bed. It hit Ray that it was very late, that they had an early bus call and this was their only opportunity to be alone. He set the photograph down.

“What do you want?” he asked, sitting down on the bed and putting one big hand on Gerard’s breastbone.

“Oh,” Gerard said vaguely. “You, just you.”

In the light filtering across the East river from the city, everything was very, very blue. Gerard arched up and let Ray pull off his sweaty t-shirt before greedily sliding both hands under Ray’s shirt, palming his sides, feeling too warm and still craving more heat. He rucked Ray’s shirt up to his armpits before peeling it off and pressing his mouth to Ray’s chest, tasting his sweat, pushing his nose into the hollow of Ray’s throat. He pressed Ray back into the pillows and went after his zipper with both hands, determined.

“I love you,” he said, offhand, because he could. He tugged Ray’s jeans down and palmed his cock. “I love you,” he said again. He rubbed a kiss against the side of Ray’s dick with the seam of his lips, then pulled back and grinned.

Ray tried not to buck up when Gerard wrapped his lips around him. It had been sort of a surprise to both of them, that Gerard wasn’t as much of a champion cocksucker as he let on. He wrapped his hand around the base of Ray’s dick and inched his lips down to meet the edge of it, and Ray could feel his mouth, hot and dripping, the way he was trying to force it further.

“Dude, you don’t have to,” he said, cupping the back of Gerard’s head.

Gerard made a noise that had probably started out as an indignant exclamation but ended up a muffled, choked off whimper. Ray shuddered. He stroked through Gerard’s hair with a shaking hand as Gerard started moving, bobbing his head arrhythmically around Ray’s dick, moaning and drooling on his own hand. It was a rush, still, to see Gerard’s face flushed and his eyes squeezed shut, determinedly forcing Ray’s cock further into his mouth. It was hot, of course it was hot.

“Gee,” he gasped, tugging a fistful of Gerard’s hair to get him up. Gerard tipped his head back so that Ray could cradle the base of his skull and smiled, his lips wet and red. “I mean,” Ray said, and his mind stuttered, hooked like a skipping record on Gerard’s flushed mouth and the dirty promise in his smile and the fact that he loved him. “I mean, I mean I want to touch you.”

Gerard was still half-dressed, his shirt off but his jeans hanging open from his hips. Ray shoved them down one-handed and drew Gerard close to him. The rough, dirty friction of his hand on Gerard’s cock made a sweet, delicate contrast to the way he kissed him. It was tender and sentimental, the way he was at the very core of himself. Gerard groaned and pulled him closer.

“Please, Ray,” he said between wet kisses. “I’m yours, please, I want to be yours.”

“You are,” Ray mumbled, pushing his mouth to the corner of Gerard’s lips, then dragging down to his throat and sucking a bruise over his pulse point.

Gerard whined, tipping back to expose his neck and holding Ray there. Ray knew an invitation when he was given one, and he bit down under Gerard’s jaw and held until a broken groan slipped from Gerard’s lips. “You’re the one who’s gonna have to explain this to Brian and Stacy,” he said, sucking a dark ring of lovebites into a collar around the base of Gerard’s pale throat. Gerard nodded, blissed out, both hands in Ray’s hair. His cock was hard between them.

"God." Gerard cursed when Ray slid his hand up to wrap around the ring of bruises, light but firm. “Please, Ray, you have to fuck me.”

“I will, I will,” he panted, pressing Gerard gently back onto the bed with a light pressure on his neck. “Lie still.”

It was a dizzying power, to have Gerard like this. Sweat beaded on his skin in the remnants of the summer heat, and he was trembling in anticipation, his thighs spread apart, waiting. Ray fumbled through three drawers in the night-table before finding anything useful. He knelt over Gerard on the bed and leaned up to kiss him while he stroked haltingly into him with two slicked fingers. Ordinarily Ray was more of a tease - he liked to watch, liked to get somebody so wound up in him that they didn’t know anything else but his weight against them. He couldn’t bring himself to do that with Gerard just now: they had weathered too much to get where they were, and Ray was as desperate to validate it as Gerard was. He bent and licked a stripe up Gerard’s breastbone, then kissed over his chest and pulled his nipple between his lips, then his teeth, until Gerard arched up from the bed and groaned.

“God, Ray, come on,” Gerard murmured, bearing down on Ray’s hand. Sweat was already beading along his arms and chest - New York in the summer was stagnant and hot even at night, and Ray could feel himself sticking to Gerard already.

“Yeah, yeah,” he murmured, lost in Gerard’s body underneath him. “Come on, turn over.”

He got Gerard onto his side, panting and trembling and waiting for more, then fumbled around in the rumpled sheets for the condom he’d tossed there earlier. God, he wasn’t going to last. He rolled the condom on with as little hand-to-dick contact as he could and spooned up behind Gerard, pushing his nose against his neck, breathing him in.

He liked to be able to watch Gerard, but right now he was only concerned with touching him as much as possible, fitting their bodies together in a tight seam.

He pressed his cheek against the back of Gerard’s head and reached down to push Gerard’s knee up and over, opening him up and nudging into him, slow. Gerard was shaking and grinding back against him, and when Ray finally pushed the rest of the way in, he had to clamp his arm over Gerard’s chest to keep him still.

“Jesus Christ, Gerard, hang on,” he muttered against the side of Gerard’s face. From this angle, behind him but close, he could just see the way Gerard’s cheek was creased up from his smirk. He pushed the heel of his hand barely against the ring of hickeys around Gerard’s throat and watched the smirk wither, subsumed by a heavy gasp.

“Ray,” Gerard croaked, rutting barely back against him. If Ray shifted, he could just see the dark head of Gerard’s cock standing flush against his stomach, leaving a glistening thread of precome on his abdomen when he shifted back.

“I’ve got you,” Ray said. He held him close and rocked into him, slow and deep. He pressed his fingertips against the base of Gerard’s throat and felt, more than heard, the shuddering breath he took. For a while they moved together, slow. Ray dipped his face against Gerard’s neck and kissed him there, and touched his chest and stomach and thighs with a careful hand, trying to take him all in. Like he could memorize him, like they didn’t have all the time in the world.

Eventually, though, Gerard started up a stuttering whine in his throat and reached for his cock. He gave himself a couple of rough strokes before squeezing carefully at the base of his dick.

“God, Ray, I’m not gonna last,” he choked out, and Ray was almost relieved because it had been a struggle to hold himself together this long. Gerard buried his face in the bend of his elbow and tried to hang on.

“Okay,” Ray murmured, and he sounded wrecked even to his own ears. He pushed at Gerard’s hip to change the angle and draped himself over him, fucking into him hard and deep. He listened closely for the way Gerard’s breath snagged when he reached down to palm his cock. It was too much, too intense, he wasn’t going to keep this up much longer. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his face close to Gerard’s, following the unsteady rhythm of his breath. He felt Gerard shudder against him, felt his body go taut as a bowstring when he came. Ray fucked him through it with the diligence only Jersey boys have. He felt the way Gerard seemed to unspool in his arms, warm and pliant, and Ray pushed him onto his stomach and fucked him with enough desperation for the both of them. He felt raw and exposed, a live wire, overwhelmed just from touching Gerard, so that when he finally came he was swept out of himself entirely, he was gone.

When he blinked his eyes open it was into the impressive snarl of Gerard’s hair. He pulled out carefully and tied off the condom, then rolled to the side, gratified when Gerard shifted to sprawl against his chest.

“That was,” he breathed.

“Yeah,” Gerard said. His voice was shot. Ray tried to muster the decency to feel bad about that.

“Different,” he said. “For me. Intense.”

“Yeah,” Gerard said again. “I love you.”

Ray peered down at him, at the come drying on his stomach and the dark cluster of bruises around his throat like a wreath of violets. The way his hair tangled to one side where he’d been pressed into the mattress. He looked debauched, but more than that, he looked claimed. Ray’s chest felt tight.

“I love you,” he said back. And then, because he was pragmatic and they had an early bus call to think about, “Do you have an alarm set?”

Gerard hummed sleepily into Ray’s neck. “On my phone, yeah,” he said.

The lights were already off. They were messy and sweaty and exhausted from the show and one another, and they were endlessly comfortable. Ray wanted to want to get up and shower, but his eyelids were already heavy and Gerard was heavy on top of him. Sleep ebbed at his shorelines. He held Gerard a little closer.

*

Morning came too early. Gerard’s phone woke them both rattling around on the bedside table, and as much as they both wished they could ignore it, there were places they had to be. Gerard stumbled into the kitchen like a sleepwalker and set a pot of coffee to brew. He and Ray took an abbreviated, decidedly unsexy shower together to save time, and brushed their teeth together hunched over the little bathroom sink.

“If we take a cab we have time to get bagels,” Gerard told Ray between greedy slurps of coffee. It was barely seven - they were running on a couple hours of sleep, both half-dead and goofy with the joy of being together. They leaned on each other the whole way through the line at the bagel place, both of them complaining loudly about their heavy bags and the ungodly hour. Ray grinned at Gerard through his whining, and paid for their bagels like a gentleman.

Outside there were a handful of yellow cabs idling. Ray helped Gerard into the back of one and the climbed in after him, giving the address of the band’s hotel to the driver. They ate during the stagnant crawl over the Manhattan Bridge, then Gerard slumped against Ray’s shoulder and shut his eyes while they traversed lower Manhattan and made their way over to the FDR Expressway. Ray put a big hand on Gerard’s thigh, out of sight of the driver, and leaned down just a little so he could press his lips to Gerard’s temple.

They coasted on the expressway. From where he was leaning against Ray, Gerard could just see the shape of the East River sparkling under his lashes. He was desperately homesick already, and he tugged one of Ray’s hands into his lap and held it in both of his own for the weight of it, the comfort of it. He was nervous, of course he was still nervous about his own propensity to fuck things up and about the way Ray deserved better than probably anyone in the world could give him, but he felt a queer sense of hope. He and Ray were confident in each other like they’d almost always been.

There were things beyond his control. He still felt keenly the ache where Mikey should be, and how guilty he still was for what had happened to him no matter whose fault it was. He would come back eventually and Gerard would be ready to protect him, would be strong enough to do it right. He would have Ray with him to help him.

There was chatter from the label already about a follow-up album, and it was giving Gerard more anxiety than he wanted to let on, but he knew Ray could see right through him when he tried to brush it off. And that… It would come together. He would find the words and he would wait for Ray to tell him the right melodies and they would build something together, and there was always such pleasure in that. He burrowed closer into Ray’s neck even though it was warm in the cab. Writing with Ray had always been a labor of love for both of them, something which took indiscriminately from them but rewarded them in splendor.

And there was the rest of this tour to account for. They always seemed to want to do things the hardest way possible, the five of them. Probably it was too much early influence from James, who was effectively homeless, he was out on tour so much. Probably it was the fact that none of them knew what to do with time off, although now, sitting in the cab with Ray being whisked away from the comfort and privacy of his apartment, Gerard had a couple of ideas of what he’d like to do with a week away from the touring grind. They had another six months of near-ceaseless touring, at least, and even that light at the end of the tunnel didn’t detract from the fact that they’d been on the road for nearly a year. Exhaustion was pulling at the lot of them, and it wouldn’t get easier but time would pass anyway.

There were things Gerard couldn’t control, and this relationship was one of them. He was inexplicably but undeniably glad for that. There was room in the world for pleasant surprises and happy accidents, and falling in love with best friends and every complicated, messy, provably human thing that goes along with that. He held Ray’s hand tighter and when Ray leaned over to kiss him he smelled like the soap in Gerard’s apartment and the coffee they’d had together at his little kitchen table, talking about nothing. It made Gerard feel so helpless.

Their cab pulled off the expressway and battled down 44th street to deposit them in front of their hotel. Gerard sorted through a mess of credit cards and paid their fare without looking at it. The way he knew they’d really and truly made it, he guessed, wasn’t about the police escorts when they arrived in some cities or the amphitheaters full of kids singing every word he’d written back to him. He felt it most keenly in little moments like this, the ability to take a cab across boroughs in New York City without feeling anxious about the cost. He over-tipped because he could.

Their bus was waiting, its doors ajar, crew circulating around it. Ray carried both their bags up the stairs and shoved them into his bunk - Gerard followed behind him and watched him do it. He was still… And here was Gerard being a corny motherfucker, because despite the years and what they’d become he still caught his breath at how beautiful Ray was. The muscles of his arms were sharply defined, his clothes fit him well, the way he was wearing his hair suited his handsome face. But under all that was what had attracted Gerard in the first place: the guy he’d seen at the Loop Lounge in 1996 with his corkscrew curls and thick wire-framed glasses, the way he’d been so shy but commanded attention so easily, and the way his smile seemed to fill the dark room with sunlight.

Sometimes it hurt, a little, to look at him. It was overpowering, it felt like the way sunflowers can’t not tip their faces towards the light. More than that, though, it was gravity: they were the twin masses of a binary star, circling one another and sharing the same light. Symbiotic.

“What are you looking at?” Ray asked him, and there was that smile, nervous but sincere.

“Just you,” Gerard said.

They were interrupted by the rest of the band trooping onto the bus, Frank and Bob seeming well-rested and James looking even more exhausted than Gerard felt, having had to make the commute from Long Island that morning.

James glanced from Gerard to Ray and quirked an eyebrow. “Just keep it down, turkeys, I gotta sleep,” he said, smirking, and retreated to his bunk.

There were things to be optimistic about. They were plotting a course for Ohio today, and then the world. Their next steps were laid out for them. Gerard moved forward, intending to press Ray back against the wall of bunks and kiss him where anyone might see them. He paused, though, just before the point of no return, and cocked his head to the side like a question.

Ray leaned forward and kissed him, and kissed him again because he wanted to.

“Back to bed?” he asked Gerard between kisses. He was blushing but he looked worn out, and Gerard felt the same.

“Please,” he said, and they both waved vaguely to Frank and Bob before crawling into Gerard’s bunk together and settling down.

Gerard only realized he’d fallen asleep when he felt the bus rumble to life underneath them. “Ray?” he whispered.

“Mmph,” Ray said into Gerard’s hair. “What.” His voice was rich and dark with sleep, and he coughed a little, to clear his throat. Gerard loved him so much his chest felt tight with it, and he couldn’t help the way he wriggled further into his arms.

“This is a good thing.”

fin.