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Grant was enjoying his stroll back to the university. The air was cool and crisp, hints of autumn in the twilight hour. The weather would turn bitter and cold soon, and he was looking forward to it. The summer had been long and hot, and Grant was glad for the reprieve. He was just thinking about what sort of tea to make when he returned to his office, when he noticed a man standing outside the university gates.

As Grant got closer, he was surprised to see that he was more a boy than man. His clothes were shabby but well mended, and he was smoking a cigarette. Even from far off, it was clear he was a Variant. Their slim figures and pearlescent skin always gave them away, at least from a distance. Up close, it was their square pupils.

Grant could see tattoos on his fingers, and he wondered what he was doing there; most Variants didn't venture to this part of Glasgow. Unsurprisingly, a guard approached, and he shoved the boy. Grant rushed up and asked, "What do you think you're doing?"

"Beggin' your pardon, sir, but he's loitrin'," said the guard, while the boy glared.

"There's no need to shove him," Grant admonished.

"He ain't supposed to be here!" The guard insisted.

"Nonsense, it just so happens that we have an appointment, he's here at my invitation." Grant was lying of course, but he didn't like how the guard was treating the boy. He looked to the boy and said, "If you'd follow me, please." Grant added to the guard, “And you, mind yourself. Such behavior is unbecoming in a university employee.”

The boy tosses out his cigarette, and follows Grant inside the gates while the guard stood there, flummoxed. Once they were out of earshot, the boy said, "Thanks. I don't know what crawled up that guy's ass and died but he didn't like me hanging out."

"Not a problem. What were you doing out there? The campus will be closed soon," said Grant.

"I'm actually here to see you, Mr. Morrison," said the boy. "I'm Frank Iero. I've tried contacting you a couple times but you're a hard man to get a hold of."

Grant smiled a bit at that, saying, "I'm notoriously difficult to reach when I'm working. I was heading to my office anyway, follow me, Mr. Iero."

"Frank, please."

"And you must call me Grant."

The rest of the walk was in silence, though Frank seemed tense. He looked nervous to Grant, though he couldn't figure out why. When they reached the office, Grant asked, "Would you like some tea? I also keep coffee around for my teaching assistant. Bit of a fiend about the stuff."

"Tea's fine," Frank replied, but didn't sit down. Instead, he had his hands shoved in his pockets and was looking around the office.

"Don't be so anxious," said Grant as he turned on the electric kettle. "There's no one else here."

"Sorry, the guard at the gate kinda shook me up," Frank explained. "I mean, I get that all the time but I thought for sure I wouldn't get to see you again."

"What do you mean again?" Grant asked, curious.

"I've been trying to meet you for the past two months. The guards always chase me off before I even spot you, but this was the first time they ever got physical."

Grant raised an eyebrow. "My, you are persistent. Whatever you have to tell me must be a matter of great importance."

"It is," said Frank.

"Then have a seat, and please don't be nervous." Grant told him. He walked around the room, locking the doors, then flipped a switch behind the grandfather clock. A light flashed, and he explained, "That should temporarily disable any recording devices." Grant hoped it would put Frank at ease. Grant hardly needed to use such a thing, but cameras were everywhere nowadays.

"Thank you," Frank said, sighing in relief. He visibly relaxed, and Grant sat behind his desk while Frank took one of the chairs in front of it. "So, I know about you, and what you used to do, and I found something that you need to see."

"And what is that?" Grant asked, curiously.

"It's kind of a story..." Frank said. Grant gestured for him to continue "See I used to work for Delta Corporation. I was one of the iron miners that worked on the asteroid belt in the Sinalas system. It's kind of lonely work. They send you out with a ship and how much ore they want you to bring back that day, no company, and no radio. I'd spend most of my days digging and talking to myself.

"One day, I found a new ore deposit on an asteroid a bit farther out than usual. I managed to get my daily requirement, and was packing up when I saw it. Pirates. Pretty easy to identify since their ships are always a wreck. They started firing and I turned tail to run. See Delta has a policy, if you're under attack, jump to hyperspace and go to the nearest Delta outpost."

At this point, Frank stopped talking, and Grant was concerned. The tea was done by then, so he got up and retrieved the tea set. He set it down on his desk, and asked, "How would you like it?"

"Uh, sugar, no cream," said Frank. Grant fixed the cup for him, then passed it to Frank. He thanked Grant, then after taking a sip, said, "So, something went wrong with the jump. Instead of ending up at the outpost, I was... No where. It wasn't on the maps, it was completely uncharted. And of course I couldn't do another jump like that for another 12 hours, so... I drifted."

Grant's expression changed to concern. That couldn't have been, easy, but he didn't want to interrupt. And Frank shook his head, then stood. He took a data chip out of his pocket, and asked, "You got a holo reader?"

"Yes of course," said Grant, gesturing to the globe on the edge of his desk.

Frank fed the data chip into the holo reader, and the display came to life. It was a map, though Grant didn’t recognize the system. “Since I didn’t have shit to do, and I was too freaked out to try to sleep, I took readings. Got about a sector’s worth of info.”

Grant studied the stars in fascination, but one in particular caught his eye. “Is this a binary system?”

Frank nodded. “Yeah, and it’s pretty close to what I wanted to show you.” He reached out and zoomed in next to the binary system. “This kinda looked like our own sun; it’s got about three planets revolving around it, and this one is really damn interesting. I used what power I had to get in close.” Frank selected the planet from the display, and instructed, “Run slide show.”

Grant could hardly believe what he was seeing. The planet was similar to Earth, but completely untouched. “It’s in perfect condition. According to scans, its gravity, atmosphere, even the water, should be close to human living conditions. And there’s animals. Nothing huge, at least that I saw. The hyperdrive was coming back online and I didn’t have a suit so I couldn’t really investigate.” Frank explained, sounding apologetic.

“I’d say you did well,” Grant replied, staring at the pictures in fascination. “Certainly better than many of the survey teams I’ve worked with.” He had more questions about the planet, but he wanted to hear the end of Frank’s story first. “How were you able to return to charted space?”

“I did a shitload of math and crossed my fingers,” Frank said, a smirk playing across his lips. “It worked, managed to get back to the home station. I thought I was pretty hot shit, but then they fired me.”

“Dear lord, whatever for?” Grant asked.

“They thought I took off. I told them everything about the pirates but to them I’m just another fucking tweak, so they told me to pack my shit and get out. Didn't help I had to dump the ore I'd mined to get back to a recognizable sector.” Frank’s voice was bitter, and Grant couldn’t blame him. The injustice of the situation rankled him.

“Why did you bring this to me?” Grant asked. “I’m sure any number of companies would reward you handsomely for the information.”

“Those companies can fuck off!” Frank said, venom in his voice. “They fucking destroy places like this and pay people like me to do it. And it’s shit pay! They line their pockets while Variants are forced to work in brutal conditions and die to make these places fucking ‘safe’ for fucking Blanks!” He paused, then drew in a deep breath. “Sorry, just… It’s not right.”

“No, I’m in agreement,” Grant replied, unperturbed by the term. He knew of several insulting ones about unaltered humans Variants liked to use, and Blank wasn't one of them. “However I am one of those Blanks, so again, why bring this to me?”

“You’re not like DiDio or that fuck Millar,” Frank insisted. “I was following the news when you tried to conserve that planet in the Zenith sector.”

Grant barely managed to keep his face calm. While he’d won the day in court, it hadn’t mattered as DiDio and Millar had ravaged the planet of its natural resources while the judges deliberated. Several unique species of flora and fauna were now forever extinct.

It had stung more that Variants had terraformed the planet then been banned from it, and Grant had been a very vocal opponent to the segregation. But if Frank was using that as an example, then Grant understood why the boy had come to him. “You want to save the planet.”

“For study,” Frank confirmed. “I’m no scientist, but this place? It’s beautiful, and I don’t wanna see it turned into another suburban nightmare.”

“I should remind you I haven’t been on an expedition in years. Many of the people I’d trust with something of this magnitude have long since moved on, or retired.”

“Are you saying no?” Frank asked, his expression between disbelief and shock.

Grant didn’t answer right away. Instead he turned his attention back to the slides. There were pictures of waterfalls, lush forests, rocky terrain,  desert bluffs, vast fields… It was truly beautiful, and very diverse. He knew Frank was right. This was worth saving, and should be studied.

“We’ll need funding, and a small team. I think no more than six, including the two of us,” Grant said, getting up from his chair.

“Wait, what?” Frank asked, confusion in his voice.

“You discovered it,” Grant pointed out. “I don’t see why you shouldn’t be on the team.”

“Are you serious? I barely finished my basic regs! I don’t know how to—” Grant cut him off.

“From what I’ve seen so far, you’d be an asset. You’re a highly skilled pilot, and clearly a maths genius to get out of that situation. But more importantly, you’re observant. And for a mission like this, we’ll need that. Consider yourself employed, Mr. Iero.”

"Emplyed?" Frank asked, jaw nearly dropping to the ground.

“Yes, I’d like you to come and work for me. I can employ an assistant through the university, so technically that’s who you’re working for. I’ll file the paperwork,” said Grant.

Frank was staring at him like he was crazy. “You can’t be serious, no Variant has ever worked for—”

“Then you will be the first. And high time if you ask me.” Grant smiled kindly at Frank. “I’m sure this is a lot to take in. If you decide you’d rather have no part in it, I’ll understand. But I think this would go much more smoothly if you were with us.”

“I gotta think about it,” Frank replied.

“Understandable,” Grant said. He turned off the holo reader and went to give Frank the chip back.

“No, you keep it. That’s a copy, I have the original.”

“Thank you. I’d like to share this with my teaching assistant if that’s all right.”

“If he can keep a fucking secret, then yeah sure, go for it.”

“He most definitely can. I would also like to arrange for the two of you to meet. I’m sure he’ll have his own questions for you.” Grant took a business card from his desk, and handed it to Frank. “You can call me any time if you have any questions.”

“Yeah, yeah I’ll do that.” Frank pocketed the card. “Guess that’s my cue.” He headed to the door, but turned around. “Uh, hey… Thanks for listening.”

“Thank you for telling me,” Grant said to him. That got a smile out of Frank, and then he departed.

Grant sat back down, and turned the holo reader back on. As he watched unfamiliar stars swirl over his head, he felt anticipation. And he had to admit to himself, attraction. Frank was a passionate young man, that paired with his youthful looks… But Grant couldn't think about that now. He had phone calls to make. This was going to be an adventure, and Grant had a good feeling about it.

As Grant had predicted, many of the people he would want for the team weren’t able to drop everything and sign on. Some were able to refer him to others, but the one person Grant wanted to speak to was also the most likely to turn him down. It was with some trepidation that he dialed into the telemail.

The first thing he saw was a scraggly, unkempt beard. Then Warren sat back down and frowned. “Grant. Do they not have clocks in Scotland anymore?”

Grant smirked a bit. “It’s eleven in the morning, Warren.”

“Far too early for an old man to be awake.”

“I’d have waited for your check in, but given that it’s close to noon, I thought it best to make sure you hadn’t died.”

“You can’t die if you’re already dead, Moz,” Warren replied.

“Late night?”

“They’re all late nights when you’re on a deadline.” Warren groaned a little, and seemed to be looking for something off screen. “To what do I owe the misfortune that has you calling me on a weekday?”

Grant decided it was easier to cut to the chase. “I’m going to be running an expedition.”

Warren paused in his search, startled. “You mad bastard, you can’t be serious!”

“I am. I also wished to know if you’d like to accompany me.”

Warren snorted. “You’d have a better chance of Millar repenting for his evil ways and making amends by gluing a dildo to his forehead for all to see.” He chuckled and added, “We could hang a sign from it that says ‘I’m a greedy prick.”

Grant burst out laughing at that. “That is a lovely picture, but as you said, unlikely.”

Warren raised an eyebrow. “I am curious though. What sort of expedition?”

“An exploration, though I can’t go into details just now.”

“In that case, the only way I’m leaving this planet again is if they’re shooting my earthly remains into space and directly into God’s eye. You’re on your own.” Warren took out his tablet. “But I may have some leads for you, since you’re clearly determined to make a fool of yourself.”

“I’m listening,” Grant replied, ready to write down whatever names Warren gave him. That was the main reason that he called. He had known there was no chance Warren would come but that he would volunteer plenty of others in his stead.

“If you’re looking for that kind of funding, talk to Neil. He’s been put in charge of some endowment fund, and he’ll know which pockets have money burning a hole in them.” Warren continued to flick through the information on the tablet. “He’s just gotten Gillen and that baby McKelvie on board, so that’s more resources. For preservation, you’ll need to talk to House DeFraction.”

“I’m not familiar with that organization,” Grant admitted.

“They’re relatively new, only been around for two years. But you’ll know the owners. They’re Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick.”

That made Grant smile. “So they did get their firm off the ground.”

“Certainly did. They’re fighting like hell right now to preserve some planet that fucking rains diamonds, but if you give them a call they’ll be able to start the paperwork on whatever it is you’re up to.”

“Excellent.” Grant made a note to call. “Any advice on transport?”

Warren thought about it for a moment, then nodded. “I’d say contact Jill, she can get you what you need without it costing an arm and a leg. Or your non-existent first born.”

“I can’t promise my first born to her, I already promised it to you for that expedition to Sirius Midnight,” Grant reminded him.

“That’s right. And you also own me a bottle of whisky for putting up with Akira for more than an hour on that trip.”

“I’ll deliver before I leave. And perhaps I’ll even throw in another bottle for this conversation.” Grant was grinning now. “Oh, is there someone you can recommend for medical?”

Warren shook his head. “I’d volunteer my GP but only because I’d like you to throw him out the airlock.”

“Unfortunate. But then again if he were to come with me he would be deprived of your sunny disposition. And how could I do that?”

“Oh fuck off.” Warren was dimming the lights in the background. “I’m going back to bed, and I’m going to pretend this was a nasty dream. Good luck to you.”

“Sleep well,” Grant told him, and disconnected the call. He had a lot to think about.

Two days later, Grant was eager to show Gerard the maps that Frank had left with him, but he also knew it was important to wait until he was properly caffeinated. There had once been a time that Grant had made the mistake of giving Gerard quizzes to grade before he’d had his morning coffee, and the results hadn’t been pretty. Though it had made for an amusing day.

Gerard came into the office, travel mug in hand, waistcoat unevenly buttoned, shirt tail coming out of his trousers, and his hair looking as though a tiny cat had been rolling around in it. But he grinned at Grant, eyes bright, and said, “Good morning!” So likely, he was on his second or even third cup of coffee. Grant returned his smile.

“Good morning, Gerard. I have something interesting to show you,” Grant said as Gerard set his things on his own desk. Grant had prepared the large holo-reader in the center of the room, the one that he usually used to test run his lectures. He fed the data chip into it and said, “Before I play this, you must promise that you won’t tell anyone.”

Gerard frowned a bit as he sipped from his mug. “I promise.” Though his eyebrows knit in confusion. Grant nodded, and hit play.

“A young man brought this to me,” he explained, as the display came to life. “He’s discovered a planet, much larger than Earth, and amazingly similar. In pre-human conditions.” Grant pointed out the appropriate planet on the map, and then set the slideshow to play.

Gerard’s jaw dropped, and he stepped forward, his coffee temporarily forgotten on his desk. His mouth was still slightly hanging open as he stared at the pictures. “This is… Amazing! Grant look at this! Those have to be some sort of mammal, and look at this stream! Such a strange color! Does the whole sky look like that?” And he fired off several rapid questions.

“Gerard, please calm yourself,” Grant said, but he was chuckling.

Gerard was grinning at him. “Are you going to present this?”

“In a way,” Grant replied. “We’ll be going to this planet.”

Gerard gaped, then let out a loud whoop of excitement. “Really? When? How? Don’t you need funding for that?”

Grant held up his hands, saying, “Please, slow down, Gerard. I have a plan for acquiring funding, but what’s most important right now is I need your help.” He couldn’t help an amused tone. Gerard’s enthusiasm was infectious.

Gerard stared for a moment. “My help? With what?”

“Nearly every person I’ve asked to join us has turned me down. But we still need three more people for this expedition, at least. We will specifically need a doctor,” Grant explained. “Do you know anyone who would fit?”

Gerard shook his head. “I don’t, but my brother likely would.” But then he frowned. “Didn’t any of your colleagues show interest?”

“I haven’t shown them what I’ve shown you,” Grant admitted. “However I did propose an expedition and most if not all have stated they would prefer to remain Earth bound.” He smiled, with only a little bitterness. He was feeling old again.

Gerard took Grant’s hand, squeezing it lightly. “Remember what you keep telling me, age is just a number.” He smiled warmly at Grant, and he returned the smile, genuine this time. It occasionally surprised him when Gerard seemed to read his mind.

“Thank you Gerard,” Grant went and picked up a tablet from his desk, saying, “I have a list of supplies we’ll need, and preferred specialties of whomever we select.”

“We select?”

“Yes. I value your opinion,” he said, and Gerard blushed. “What we really need, however, is a mechanical engineer. Someone who can fix a ship as well as any machinery we might need.”

At that, Gerard nodded. “I know someone! She can fix anything, she’s amazing. I can give her a call this afternoon.”

“Excellent,” Grant replied. “And I’ll need to introduce you to Frank. He’ll be our pilot and our guide.”

“I’m free all this week, I can’t wait to meet him! This is a real wonderful discovery; I can’t wait to hear how he came across it.” Gerard was watching the slideshow on the holo display again.

“It’s a rather sad story, as a matter of fact,” said Grant. “But for now, let’s make a plan to see this planet.

Gerard was beaming at him. “All right, let’s do it.”

Frank wasn’t really sure what to think when Grant had covered for him with the security guard. And there were a few times when they’d talked about the planet that he was pretty sure he’d gone too far. But Grant had taken it all in stride, and Frank was relieved he’d agreed to study the planet he’d found. What had surprised him was when Grant had insisted that Frank come along. He’d thought he’d report it to the right person and that would be the end of it.

Now he was on his way to the university again, this time to meet someone that Grant had said was his teaching assistant. He’d also said this guy was coming along on the trip, so Frank was hoping that whoever he was that he wasn’t annoying.

The guard didn’t stop Frank this time, but he did give him a surly look. Frank grinned at him and kept walking. A small part of Frank wanted to hit the guy, or rub it in his face that Frank was back on campus. But he’d run the risk of getting kicked out, and maybe even banned. Frank could rein it in for now.

It wasn’t hard to find his way back to Grant’s office, and he knocked softly. He hadn’t been expecting a familiar face to answer. It had been several years, but his hair was as messy as ever. His eyes were the same shade of amber, and though he’d always been a little on the pale side, it seemed extreme now. He’d lost weight as well, though he still had the same shy, crooked smile.

“Gee?” Frank said, because he could hardly believe it.

“Frankie Iero!” Gerard yelled, and pulled him into the office, slamming the door. “I haven’t seen you since forever! How’ve you been? How’s your mom? Where the fuck did you end up?”

Frank was giggling, because of course that hadn’t changed. Gerard still talked a mile a minute. He pulled Gerard into a hug and said, “Good to see you!”

“You too! Mikey’s gonna shit when I tell him!” Gerard said, grinning.

“What’s Mikey up to these days?” Frank asked as they broke apart.

“You’ll never fucking believe it!” Gerard grinned. “He’s married, settled on the frontier with Ray. They fucking do radio broadcasts and have a farm and shit now!”

“Gerard Way you are a dirty liar!” Frank said, laughing. “Skinny little Mikey Way bagged Ray Toro?!”

“Scout’s honor!” Oh I should give you his telemail, he’d love to hear from you.”

A throat cleared, and they both turned their heads to see Grant had entered the room. “Am I interrupting?” He asked, but he sounded amused rather than annoyed.

Gerard blushed and said, “Sorry. This punk used to live down the street from me and my brother.”

“Hey, I was a punk but you were a fucking scaredy cat!”

“I was cautious!” Gerard shot back. “I didn’t go picking fights with kids twice my size!”

“Instead you got your ass kicked by every Variant and Blank kid on the block.” Frank mocked.

Gerard went beet red and said, “As opposed to you getting your ass kicked by every bully for eight blocks.”

Frank would have kept going, but Grant was chuckling. Frank looked at him and couldn’t help staring a little. Even dressed casually, Grant was a striking figure. But more than that, Grant had a calm demeanor, and it drew Frank to him. It also made Frank want to impress him, which was why he shut up.

“This is likely unnecessary, but I did promise an introduction. Gerard, this is Frank Iero, the pilot responsible for bringing me the data I showed you. Frank, this is Gerard Way, my teaching assistant and colleague.”

“I’m not really a colleague,” said Gerard. “I’m still working on my dissertation.”

“You’re getting a doctorate?” Frank asked.

“Yeah. That way I can run my own expedition. Most universities won’t let you run one without a PhD.” Gerard explained.

“Holy shit, good for you!” Frank exclaimed, and he meant it. Gerard beamed at him.

“We have some business to attend to,” Grand said, and gestured for them both to be seated. Once they were, he said, “I’ve made some progress since we last spoke.”

“Okay, hit me.” Frank leaned back in his chair and listened.

“We still don’t have a team, beyond the three of us, but I have a few leads. Including funding and preservation.”

“We’d need lawyers filing paperwork to make sure that companies like Delta Corp can’t sneak up on us and jump our claim,” Gerard explained to Frank. “So they’ll be fighting for us in court while we prove the planet fits all the criteria for further scientific study.”

“Which I’ve been informed shouldn’t be too difficult,” said Grant.

“How long do we have to prove it?”

“Three months after our initial landing.”

“Shit.” That didn’t sound long to Frank.

“Nah, it’s good. Like two plant samples, one water sample and a live animal should be enough,” Gerard said to him.

“Okay. But let’s say one of those companies decides to say fuck it and ignore the legal mumbo jumbo. It’s not like we can fix it once they start tearing the place apart.”

“There are defenses for cases like that.” Grant pursed his lips together, as though he were thinking. “We can make the planet safe, and make sure that people who aren’t supposed to be there, aren’t there.”

Frank nodded. “Okay. So what’s next?”

“I’m working on assembling a crew, as I said. At least for our first trip,” Grant replied. “And we’re missing a few key players.”

“Do you know any doctors that would be good for this?” Gerard asked. Grant looked at him and Gerard mumbled sheepishly, “Doesn’t hurt to ask.”

“You’re right.” Said Grant. “I’m ashamed I didn’t think of it first. Frank, is there anyone?”

Frank shook his head. “All the people I know who work in engineering or medical are at Delta Corp. And I wouldn’t recommend any of them even if they weren’t.”

“Damn,” Grant murmured. “I have a lead on another scientist we can invite, but what we need a mechanic and a doctor.”

“Oh! Actually I have a mechanic in mind!” Gerard reminded Grant. “I’ve got a meeting set up. And Mikey’s still looking for doctors who fit the criteria you gave me.”

“Mikey’s helping?” Frank asked, surprised.

“Yeah. He still knows a billion more people than I do.”

“And we can trust him, which in this early stage is very important,” Grant concluded.

Frank nodded. “Yeah, that works. What else you gotta do besides all that?”

“I’ll be looking at ships in a few weeks,” said Grant. “As you’ll be the primary pilot, I’d like you to come with me.”

“You want me to help you pick out a ship?” Frank asked. He couldn’t have been more surprised, since no one of Grant’s status had ever taken his opinion seriously before.

“Yes. I know what we’ll need for the study, and living quarters. But as you’ll be the one flying and navigating, it’s important that it meets your needs, and can hold up against whatever we might encounter on the journey.”

When Grant put it like that, it made sense to Frank. “Okay. Let me know when you’re ready to do that and we’ll go.”

“Excellent. There’s a few more things we’d like to go over with you.”

“We need coffee,” Gerard said, hardly able to keep the whine out of his voice. “And food, it’s almost dinner time!”

Grant laughed, and agreed. “Show Frank the take away menus, then we can get to work.”

“A cup of coffee would be great too,” Frank interjected.

“You’ll have to fight me for it,” Gerard joked.

“I’d win.”

“Not when coffee is involved!”

Both Frank and Grant laughed.

Grant was preparing for his next lecture, and was surprised when Gerard and Frank burst into the office, looking harried. He could tell something was wrong, so he asked, "What is it?"

"Delta Corp just released a press statement," said Gerard.

"You gotta see this shit," Frank added, and he went to the telescreen Grant had in the corner.

He switched it on, and found the right channel. Miller was addressing a group of reporters, and looking quite pleased with himself. But it was at the end of the press conference, and a cheery news anchor with bright blonde hair related the story in a smiling voice.

"And there you have it folks. CFO Mark Millar confirming that Delta Corporation LTD will be expanding into the uncharted zones near the Zenith sector in the next six months. The company assures the public that every precaution will be taken as they take the next steps in expanding the galactic frontier."

The camera switched angles, and the anchor turned to face it, smile still plastered to her face. A picture of Warren came on the screen with the caption, "Gone too far?"

"Critics are already decrying this move, stating that the company has a history of shady business practices and mismanagement of planetary resources. According to biologist Warren Ellis:

"The Delta Corporation is interested in profit for profit's sake and will step on anyone and anything that stands in its way. If they are allowed into the uncharted zones unchecked, it will be a great loss of scientific discoveries that would greatly benefit the human race in the long run better than expanding the frontier."

The rest of Mr. Ellis' statement about the company and Mark Millar in particular were not suitable for release to the general public."

Gerard muted the TV and said, "He probably called Millar a dog fucking, rat piss guzzling, demented asshole again."

"Hm, that does seem to be his preferred term," Grant replied.

"They must know about the planet, why else would they be heading out there?" Frank asked. His hands balled into fists, and suddenly he punched the wall. "FUCK! I was careful! I destroyed the hard drive, I wiped the travel specs off the fucking ship! We haven't even fucking TOLD anyone where we're going! How the fuck did they find out?!"

"Frank, calm down--" Gerard said, but Frank cut him off.

"Fuck calm! We're still weeks away from launch and they're gonna expand! They're gonna find the planet and then it's gonna be too fucking late!" Frank hissed.

"Frank, stop," said Grant, coming closer. Frank looked ready to revolt, but Grant was surprised when Gerard cut in.

"You didn't do anything wrong. Look, Delta Corp has been running out of new planets to turn over for a while, everyone knows that. Their mining operations aren't pulling in what they once were, and a lot of the planets they have converted to human living conditions they've pretty much sucked dry or sold every bit of land that was viable." Gerard reasoned.

"He's right, it was only natural that this would be their eventual course of action," Grant  added. "They're working now to begin expansion, which means they haven't started yet. We'll beat them to the punch."

"Right. We've got that meeting with Neil," Gerard reminded him. "We'll get the funding, and we can get the rest of the team together in no time. We can do this."

Frank frowned, but then sighed, finally calming down. "Yeah, okay. But we gotta work fast."

"We will, I promise." That won a smile from Frank, and Gerard returned it.

"Speaking of the meeting, I have errands I need you two to run," said Grant.

"What's that?" asked Frank.

"We'll need more scramblers now, we can't be too careful as to who might listen in. And a private holo-reader, one that can prevent hacking and transmission of its information." Grant went to his desk, and made a list of the requirements for the equipment. He handed it to Frank.

"Yeah, I know where I can pick something like this up," Frank said.

"Good. Gerard I need you to meet with Jamie and Kieron, see if we can get that meeting moved up, and Neil will have to come alone," Grant replied.

Gerard frowned. "Are we being paranoid about this?"

"I prefer cautious, and given what we've just seen, I think a little extra caution wouldn't be unwarranted."

Gerard nodded. "Okay, I can do that."

"All right then what are we still fucking doing here?" Frank asked. "Let's go fuck this shit up."

Gerard laughed, and the two left. Grant went back to his desk and sat down to think.

He couldn't help but be proud of them. Both Frank for recovering himself so quickly, and Gerard for talking him down. Frank was passionate, and while it could lead to bursts of anger, he was trying to reel himself in. Grant had enjoyed several telemessage conversations with Frank, and found him to be a clever, engaging young man.

Grant knew his feelings for Frank were growing; after all, he'd had the same experience with Gerard.

And Gerard, how wonderfully he'd handled the situation. He'd been quick to point out the truth, and to take the blame off of Frank. He'd known precisely what to say, and how to say it. Gerard truly had a gift with words, when the situation called for it.

That gave Grant an idea. One that he turned over in his head a few times before smiling to himself. Grant could certainly convince Neil to give them the money, but it could take several hours. While they were friends, they didn't always see eye to eye, and Grant had a penchant for saying the wrong thing while expounding on certain subjects. Or sometimes losing his audience all together.

Gerard would ramble, he was as prone to it as Grant was. But he wouldn't take much prompting to get back on topic and stay there. Gerard seemed to have an innate ability to determine what people needed to hear, and how they needed to hear it. And while Grant had never taken advantage of it before, he thought now was the time.

This was an opportunity they couldn't miss. Grant set to work. It was going to take his own brand of convincing to get Gerard to do this.

Gerard still couldn't believe Grant’s plan. He knew that it was very important that Grant be able to convince Neil that this expedition was necessary. But what had surprised him was that Grant wanted Gerard to do the presentation. This seemed like something that Grant should be doing himself, but he'd insisted Gerard be the one.

Frank was coming to the meeting as well, and he wasn't happy about it. Frank had protested, but Grant had insisted. "This is your discovery," Grant explained. "And I want you to receive proper credit for it."

"Also it will help if you're there," Gerard had interjected. He was nervously going over his notes for the hundredth time. "Since you actually saw the planet. If he has questions we can't answer we can defer to you."

"You're trying to get money out of this guy," Frank reminded him. "You really want me talking to him? I’m not a super eloquent person.”

"Neil doesn't stand on ceremony, and neither do I," Grant replied calmly.

"Except the bit where you've got us dressed up in these monkey suits."

It was true. Grant had insisted that they dress up a bit, which found Gerard in his second favorite suit, an electric blue number. His waist coat was properly buttoned, shirt tucked in and hair brushed. The color of the suit made him look even paler, and reflected the blue sheen of his dyed black hair.

Grant had selected a white suit, with a black shirt and violet tie. Gerard had stared when he'd first come into the office, and wanted to take pictures. But he'd kept that impulse to himself. He knew Grant had a multitude of beautiful suits, and enjoyed every chance to trot them out.

Frank on the other hand only had his Sunday best, which Grant had said wouldn't do. So he wore a dark green suit, brand new and made just for him. Frank had said it was too expensive, but Grant had waved him off. "Sometimes, the old adage is true. You must spend money to make money." In the end, Frank had agreed when Gerard had pleaded with him and promised to take him out for pizza as a reward.

In the handsom carriage over to the meeting place, Frank was fussing with his tie. "I hate these things," Frank muttered.

"Here," Gerard leaned forward, adjusting the tie and collar. In his nervous state, Frank had done them up too tightly.

Frank was watching his fingers, and Gerard had to keep from blushing. "Thank you," Frank said, and they lapsed into silence for the rest of the journey. They didn't have far to go, as luckily, Gaiman happened to be in the city for business with the university.

Which was how they found themselves in a quiet conference room at his hotel.

"Any last words, gentlemen?" Frank asked as they sat down.

"Do you think he'll be mad if I throw up?" Gerard asked in return, and Grant laughed.

"You'll be perfect," Grant assured him. Gerard wanted to ask, again, why he had to give the presentation when Grant and Neil knew each other better. But at that moment, the doors at the other end of the conference room opened, and he walked in.

He'd refused security, or to even have a secretary there, so it was just the four of them as Grant had requested. As Gerard had seen many times, Neil was dressed in black from head to toe. He'd often stated that, rather than being a melancholic reason, he did so simply because he couldn't match colors.

Gerard couldn't help but think of that now, and the urge to laugh was strong.

They were about to rise, but he held up his hand, shook his head, and sat down. "Grant, lovely to see you again."

"And you, Neil." Grant introduced Frank, and Neil already knew Gerard. Once pleasantries were exchanged, it was time.

Gerard gulped; this was it, the moment of truth. While Gerard didn't have the same stage fright as his brother, he knew how important this was, and he didn't want to screw it up. He felt the press of another person's hand, and looked over.

Frank was squeezing it, and he gave Gerard a small smile. Gerard then looked to Grant, who was wearing the same smile.

Taking a deep breath, Gerard started talking.

It felt like the presentation took hours, and yet time was standing still. He'd arranged the pictures Frank had taken in a very specific order, and told Neil about his theories of the ecosystem on this new planet.

Occasionally, Neil did have a question about the planet or possible studies, which Frank or Grant answered depending on the situation. They'd decided before they walked into the meeting that embellishment was unnecessary; they weren't trying to sell the planet. What they were trying to sell was themselves, and that they deserved the chance to explore it.

When Gerard had finished with the presentation, Neil was quiet, going over some of the pictures again. Finally, he looked up and said, "This is quite the discovery. And what's the size of the team again?"

"Myself, Gerard, Frank, and three more people," Grant answered.

Neil nodded. "Excellent. I need you to start making inventories and possible itineraries right away. I'll also need profiles on the other three people you select before you take off. I trust your judgement, but I would like to know that they'll look out for you."

Grant chuckled. "Do I need a minder?"

"Yes, you do. Otherwise you'll wander off in the wilderness and no one will see you for six months," Neil replied, and Grant laughed.

"Oh I wanna hear that story," said Frank, grinning.

"It's slander and lies. The entire thing," Grant insisted.

"I'd like to hear it too!" Gerard said, barely suppressing a giggle.

"I'll tell you another time. I have a lunch appointment soon, and as much as I love to embarrass Grant, it can't wait." Neil got up, and the other three followed suit. "Thank you all, I'm excited to see what you find once you get there."

"Thank you for listening," Gerard said, though he was surprised he managed to say anything. They had the funding! They were going! He was so excited he wanted to jump out of his shoes and shoot into the air.

"I believe this calls for a celebration," Neil said, smiling kindly at Gerard and Frank. "I'd like to treat you all to dinner, if that's all right."

"That would be wonderful, thank you," Grant replied. Neil shook hands with each of them in turn, and then left the room.

Frank said softly, "Holy shit, this is happening. We're fucking doing this."

Gerard grinned at that and hugged Frank. "Hell yeah we are!" He then gestured to Grant, saying, "Group hug!"

Grant chuckled, but didn't protest.

They'd been out for hours. Neil had treated them to dinner in a private dining room of a restaurant, some of the patrons giving Frank dirty looks. It wasn't just his status as a Variant, but his numerous tattoos, which were visible even in the suit he was wearing. Frank didn't give a shit. They had the credits, they were going! In two weeks they'd have everything ready and they'd be firing off into the void.

It had been a great dinner, the fancy joint having a fairly decent vegetarian menu. Now as they waited for their dessert and coffee, Frank was watching Gerard talk Neil's ear off about some weird paper he'd read. He was grinning and making a lot of hand gestures, so whatever it was, Gerard must have been excited.

Frank couldn't help joking, "Should we rescue Neil?"

Grant smiled and shook his head. "No, he's enjoying himself. As a matter of fact, he knew Gerard before I did so they have a lot of catching up to do."

"What? Really? I thought the two had never met before," said Frank.

"Not in person, but they knew each other through online contacts. I'm sorry to say I've kept Gerard rather busy lately so he hasn't been able to keep up on his correspondence as much as he'd like."

"Huh." Frank was surprised. With how he'd talked about Neil, he'd assumed the two were strangers. "So how'd you meet Gerard?"

"Through Neil," Grant said, and his voice was fond. "A paper had crossed my desk that was from my field of study, and it caught my interest. It was something Gerard had written about the ecosystem of a particular tide pool. He theorized it was actively destroying itself as the organisms in it had needs the pool couldn't provide.

"I was impressed, and asked Neil if he knew the young man who'd written it. He and Gerard were acquainted, and Neil agreed to set up a meeting. Once I spoke with him in person, I determined I had to have him as a student. He was already going to school here, but had missed out on signing up for my class as it filled up quickly. I made an exception for him, and the rest is history I suppose."

Frank chuckled. "You sound like you were looking to put him into a collection or something."

"I suppose it does, doesn't it?" Grant asked, laughing. "Truthfully, I admire Gerard. He wants to follow in my footsteps, but I think he'll surpass me."

"Wouldn't surprise me," Frank replied. He could see the similarities in their interests and personalities, but Gerard and Grant were still different people with different thought processes.

Grant turned more to Frank, leaning with his elbow resting on the table. "And what about you, Frank? I confess I don't know as much about you as I'd like."

Frank raised an eyebrow. "Why would you wanna hear about me? My story's the same as any other Variant. Life sucks, then we die."

"I think you do yourself a disservice," said Grant. "As I stated before, I don't think you got lucky with those calculations."

Frank was going to make another flippant remark, but he reconsidered. Grant was focused on him, listening intently. So instead, he said, "I was always good at math. I've wanted to fly since I was a kid. I thought I was gonna be the first Variant to work for one of those big companies and be a galactic class captain."

"What happened?" Grant asked.

"Same thing that always happens with dreams like that, I got my ass handed to me by reality. I got sent off to the Delta Corp training camp when I was a teenager, it was the last time I saw the Ways. I mean, looking back it was pretty weird that a Blank family was living around Variants, but they were broke and I guess their folks figured that a nice home in the Variant district was better than a crappy one in a Blank district."

"Yes, I could understand that. Go on."

Frank sipped his drink. "So I get to the training camp right? And I start maxing out the score for every test for astronautics. And I thought that this was it, I can become a pilot like I always wanted to. Delta Corp had other ideas. I got approached by this Blank corporate guy, and he says to me, 'You've gotta pay your dues before we can accept you into the pilot program'. Which I figured, okay, I can do that.

"But then I got stuck on that mining detail. Sure you gotta be able to fly a bit to do those supply runs and stuff so chalked it up to getting experience. And I kept reapplying to do the flight program, the real one. I wanted to fly star liners, and patrol ships, but what I really wanted to fly was a colony ship. Helping a bunch of settlers get out into the great wide open void was the one thing I wanted more than anything."

Grant was giving him a concerned look, and he asked, "And after that?"

"I got wise to Delta Corp's line of solid gold bullshit," Frank said bitterly. "After my fifth time applying for the pilot program that same guy comes to me and says, 'You need to learn your place, and mining is the best place for you.' And that's around when the mess with Zenith happened so I wasn't drinking Delta Corp's Kool Aid after that.

"But I couldn't just quit, those contracts are a fucking mess to get out of. You're in debt to them before they even send you out on your first job! They charge you for lodging, school, supplies, everything. I didn't even start making money until about two years ago." Frank smiled bitterly. "Guess it's a good thing they thought I was a thief or I wouldn't have gotten out from under them."

Grant was quiet for a moment, and then he said, "I'm glad you did. You were wasted there, no doubt about it. I'm sorry that happened to you." He paused, and took Frank's hand, squeezing it. "And I am grateful that you're working with us."

Frank didn't know what to say to that, and he couldn't keep from grinning. He felt warm all of a sudden, in a way that Frank wasn't overly familiar with. And then the penny dropped and Frank nearly made a choking noise. He wasn't just attracted to Grant, he liked him. Liked him in a way that could lead to loving him.

He smiled back at Grant and said something about being glad as well, and was grateful to whatever higher power there was that dessert had arrived. They broke apart and set in to eat, but Frank had lost his appetite. He'd had crushes before, but none like this.

This could completely derail everything that he was trying to do. But he had to push it aside for now. He owed them that much.

Grant returned home that night in good spirits. He'd known that Gerard would get them the funding, and having Frank participating was an added bonus. He wanted Frank to feel as though he were a part of the team, not just some hanger-on they kept around. He was vital to the operation, and Grant hoped that he knew that now.

As Grant undressed, he couldn't help but think of that smile Frank had given him. After hearing what Delta Corp had done to Frank, Grant had been unable to resist taking his hand and attempting to comfort him.

Grant wasn't surprised at Frank's treatment. Delta Corp saw their employees as assets rather than people; both Blank and Variant and everything in between. It was one of the many reasons he'd sworn he'd never work with them again. Of course Mark had disagreed, preferring money to scientific research. Sometimes he wondered how he and Mark had ever been friends in the first place.

Grant changed into his night clothes, and thought that one last cup of tea couldn't do any harm. They'd all lingered over the dessert and coffee, nearly until closing time. Gerard and Neil had talked and compared notes, and then it was Neil's turn to address the group.

"Grant, I feel this is more than enough to take to House DeFraction, if you'll let me," he'd said.

"Warren had recommended them," Grant admitted. "But I haven't spoken to Kelly Sue yet."

"Then I suppose it's a good thing that it's not terribly late where they are," Neil had teased. He offered to take them to the hotel so they could all speak with her, but Gerard had begged off, exhausted from the long day. Frank had bowed out as well, saying he had something he had to do.

Grant would have bet almost anything that Frank didn't have anything to do. He'd been acting strangely since Grant had taken his hand. He wasn't sure what to make of it; if Frank had been displeased, he would have said so. Instead he kept silent, and when they parted company wished everyone a good night.

Grant had returned to Neil's hotel with him, and once they reached his room Neil sent a telemessage to Kelly Sue. She appeared almost immediately, a smirk on her face.

"So which deity did I please that you're both calling me?" She teased, and Neil chuckled while Grant barked out a laugh.

"We have some urgent business. Would you kindly activate your data scrambler?" Neil asked. He'd already done the same for his own console.

"Sure thing." She stepped out of frame for a moment, and there was a second of distortion before she reappeared. "All set. What have you got for me?"

"Something I hope that you and Matt will be able to assist us with," Grant said. "I'm sending you a file."

Neil plugged in the data chip that Gerard had given him from the presentation, and they waited as it transmitted the message to Kelly Sue. They could tell when it arrived, because her jaw dropped.

"Holy shit," she said. "Where'd you find this?"

"I'd rather not say as we're not speaking in person," Grant said to her. "But Neil is funding my expedition to the planet. We were rather hoping that you and Matt would be willing to take on the case."

"What's your goal?" She asked, still looking at the pictures they'd sent her.

"We need to conserve this planet straight away. While we can't confirm it, there's a possibility Delta Corp has an idea of its existence."

Neil added, "We're sending the team out shortly. How much information do you need to get the conservation order?"

"This and a general location will get you the field study paperwork in 24 hours," said Kelly Sue. "You know the drill though, samples have to be submitted to the Senate, the Parliament, AND to the Federation."

"The Federation?" Grant asked, surprised. "I thought they were purely a commercial organization."

"They've been reorganized into a bureaucracy," Kelly Sue explained. "After that Zenith mess it was felt that there needed to be a branch of the government that would regulate companies so they can't do that again. They will represent the interest of an entity like Delta Corp but they'll also make them back off if you can prove this planet is what you think it is."

"So what will we have to do?"

"I can set up a conference where you and your team present your samples and field work, and a three person panel will make the judgement about conservation. Just name a place that's convenient once you've started work and I'll make sure that it happens within the three month limit."

Grant smiled, nodding. "I'm certain that can be arranged. I'll send you the general coordinates in the morning."

"Excellent." Kelly Sue leaned forward, and she asked, "Are you sure about leading the team? I know how much Zenith took out of you."

It rankled, but Grant understood why she was asking. He assured her, "I can do this, don't worry."

"Great. I'll let you know when I get the paperwork. Oh, and if this all goes well you have to name it Bitch Planet."

Grant laughed. "I didn't discover it, I can't do that."

She pouted. "Sure, ruin my fun. But if you ever discover another planet you're naming it Bitch Planet."

"You have my word," Grant said, unable to keep the amusement out of his voice.

"Great. I'm gonna go rescue Matt from the little ones and we'll get to work. See you later, Grant." And she disconnected. Grant had talked a little more that night with Neil about what would be needed for the trip, and Neil pointed out that both Kieron and Jamie had proved themselves capable quartermasters. Grant agreed to speak with them, and, feeling suddenly exhausted, returned home.

And now, he was alone, sipping his tea but his mind was buzzing. Not just with the coming work, but about Frank.

He was becoming more than a crush. Every new bit of information Grant learned about Frank fascinated him more. While of course he was easy on the eyes, his fire and brilliance were a force to be reckoned with. Grant suspected that Frank could feel it too, and Grant wanted to pursue.

But he was hesitant. Not just because he was so much older than Frank, but another factor that wasn't fair to him. Grant had been thrilled to watch Gerard work his magic on Neil, he was so proud. He could feel the stirrings of his old crush coming back. Grant chuckled at that; he seemed to like torturing himself.

Gerard had been young and vulnerable when they'd first met, starstruck by Grant though he hid it well. Grant had wanted him, but he didn't want to take advantage of him. Instead he'd let him go, and grown to respect Gerard as a trusted friend and colleague.

Watching him come into his own was stirring things up again. Add to that Frank, and it was quite a mess. There was only one thing for it. He would need to put his focus on the mission. Whatever feelings there might be between himself and the other two, they would have to wait.

Grant could claim all he wanted that his intentions were altruistic, but in truth he was a coward. He preferred to bury his head in the sand and hope that whatever it was would work itself out, or disappear altogether. His track record with relationships was horrid, and he wouldn't wish to visit his past mistakes on either Frank or Gerard.

He finished his tea, and went to bed. There was a lot to do tomorrow.

Frank wasn't sure what to expect when they went to the shipyard. It was an open space, like a stadium, but there were several awnings that blocked the sun. It was hot and dusty, which was such a difference to the rest of Glasgow he almost felt as though he were on another planet. He wondered if it was intentional; from what he'd heard of Jill Thompson and her artistic inclinations, he thought that it might be.

They'd gotten a late start, as Grant had a last minute meeting he couldn't cancel. Frank had gone through Grant’s personal library, and found a few books to entertain himself until Grant was ready to go. When he'd appeared looking somewhat haggard, Frank had suggested coffee. Grant had fervently agreed. They'd stopped by a coffee shop on the way to the yard.

"So what happened?" Frank asked as he sipped his drink.

"One of the things about academia that many people forget is that there are many boring meetings that go into keeping schools running," Grant replied. "This one was about next year's curriculum and who would be teaching my classes."

"You think we're gonna be gone that long?" Frank asked, surprised.

"If things go well I expect we'll be gone for at least a year. If they go poorly, six months." Grant gave him a wry smile. "How long did you think we would be gone?"

"A few months," Frank admitted. "I kinda thought once we proved our point that that was it."

"There's still quite a bit of work to be done after that," Grant explained. "Once we prove the planet is worth conservation, we would need to begin the real studies right away. That can take a long time, and of course we'll have larger and larger teams coming out in order to do that."

Frank couldn't help frowning at that. He wasn't a scientist, he didn't know the first thing about these kinds of studies. How much use would he be once the hard part was over?

Grant seemed to be reading his mind when he asked, "You would like to stay on for the study, wouldn't you?"

"Yeah. I don't know how useful I'm gonna be, but I wanna see this through."

At that, Grant smiled. "We can make you useful, Frank. You've a ready mind, it won't be difficult to teach you."

Frank returned Grant's smile, but didn't know what to say in return. So they finished the ride to the yard in silence.

They were walking along, both drinking their coffee, when a woman's voice called out, "Grant Morrison!" They both turned around to see a woman with red curls and a wide smile walking towards them. She was dressed in a practical jumpsuit, that also had a very impractical ruffled skirt that went to her knees.

Grant was returning her smile, and they laughed as they hugged each other. "Jill, it's been too long."

"Yes it has! I'd thought you'd vanished off the face of the Earth! And now I hear you're going on a mission!" She said, then turned her attention to Frank. "And who's this?"

"Jill this is Frank Iero, he'll be our pilot, and one of my students. He's quite gifted," Grant replied. Frank felt a flush of pride at that.

"Must be a pretty good pilot then!" Jill exclaimed. She asked Frank a few technical questions, about his flight experience and what sort of system he was used to. When Frank explained that he'd been part of a mining operation and the sort of ships used for it, she beamed. "I know just the line. Come with me."

She led them to a more isolated part of the hangar, where an Asian woman was working on a small hovercraft while a tubby black cat tried to get her attention. Occasionally, she would reach out and give it a good scratch around the ears. There were several ships in the dock, each one larger than the last.

"These will have the sort of drive and propulsion you're used to, but they'll also have the resources you need for the expedition," Jill told them.

Frank whistled. The smallest of the ships was about the size of an apartment building. "Is there any way I can test the flight systems?"

"Absolutely, this way," Jill said, and she took him and Grant to an alcove in the wall. There was a station there that was set up with a seat and a set of controls inside of a strange ball. "This flight simulator accurately logs how each ship handles, including faults and possible errors. Just strap yourself in, and select the ship you want to try."

Frank grinned at that, and climbed into the simulator. This promised to be fun, but he looked over at Grant and asked, "You gonna be okay while I check this out?"

"I'll be going over the specs with Jill. Come find us when you're finished and we can compare notes before picking a ship," Grant instructed.

Frank nodded, and got to work. He spent hours trying each ship, what he liked, what he didn't, what needed repairs, and what absolutely wouldn't work. He didn't realize how hungry he was until he killed the simulator and climbed down. He checked the time and realized that it was well past lunch time and very close to dinner. The woman with the cat was gone, and most of the shipyard was empty.

He found Grant by one of the ships, sitting at a picnic table and talking quietly with Jill. He smiled when Frank approached, saying, "We've ordered supper, I hope you're hungry."

"Starving," Frank admitted, sitting down with them.

"What did you think of the simulator?" Jill asked.

"It was the most realistic one I've ever seen!" Frank said enthusiastically. "That was amazing!"

"Thank you."

Grant chuckled. "Jill designed and programmed it herself."

Frank stared at her for a moment in awe, and then said, "You're a genius."

"I try," she said, looking pleased.

A teenager arrived just then, placing a wooden box on the table. Grant paid the kid, and they settled in to eat. Grant had ordered Thai food, all vegetarian of course. Frank realized it was from his favorite restaurant by the university. He quietly thanked Grant, then settled in to eat.

"So what'd you find?" Frank asked.

"I think the two largest ships would be a waste of time and money," Grant admitted. "Perhaps later, but for our first time out they're excessive."

"Glad to hear it, that behemoth does not handle well."

Grant handed over his tablet and asked, "Which ones did you like?"

"These two," he said right away, selecting the midsize models.

Grant looked at them, and asked Frank about their flight capabilities. Frank knew he was rambling from pretty much the moment he started to talk, but neither Jill nor Grant told him to stop. When he finally did, Grant said, "I think I know which one we'll take."

He selected the AKA-2426, and Frank grinned. "That one is my favorite. She's got shuttles too that have hyperdrive on them. If something, God forbid, goes wrong, we won't be stranded out in the void waiting for a ship to come pick us up.”

“How many shuttles?” Grant asked.

“Three, and the cockpit can convert into one as well in case of ‘oh shit the ship is blowing up’ so that makes four.”

"I think, then, that she meets all of our needs," Grant concluded.

Jill, who up to this point had been silently observing, smiled. "All right, I'll start the paperwork. I can get an inspector here tomorrow to make sure she's skyworthy."

"Excellent, thank you Jill."

"Thank me when you get back. And bring me something interesting, I still have that farting cactus from last time and I think it needs company."

Frank laughed so hard he nearly hit his head on the table. "A farting cactus?!"

Grant smiled serenely. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Frank snorted, and took a bite of his noodles.

Frank was a little confused. He understood that they were going to meet some mechanic, and supposedly she was some of the best in the country, maybe even the Western world. However…

“Why are we meeting her here?” Frank asked. The bar was called The Rat and the Butt Plug, and Frank wasn’t sure if he could think of a more horrifying name. And as they entered he realized that wasn't the worst part.  

It was probably one of the worst dive bars he’d ever been to. The floor was sticky, and the woman behind the bar was sipping what looked like engine coolant. Watching as a guy three times his size puked into a bucket and then handed the bucket to the bartender, Frank shook his head.

“She works here,” Gerard told him, shrugging. He smiled and gently took Frank’s arm, adding, “Just relax, everything is going to be fine.” That only brought up more questions. Like how a Blank like Gerard ended up in a place like this in the first place? Why one of the “best mechanics ever” according to Gerard, worked in this shit hole? And, though not really important, where had Gerard and Grant gotten their outfits for the occasion?

Frank couldn’t help but circle back to that, when they both looked so edible. Grant wore a shirt with an odd geometrical design, a black leather suit (which he assured Frank was vegan leather), with lace up ankle boots. To complete the ensemble he wore round tinted spectacles that gave him a brooding, almost alien, look. If Frank hadn’t known who he was, he would have assumed Grant was some organized crime boss.

Gerard on the other hand had gone fanciful as well as flashy. His suit was velvet, with a black shirt that had a high, stiff collar. A blood red cravat and some eye makeup completed the look, which to Frank said “rent boy”. He’d made mention of it before they’d left, for fear someone got the wrong idea. Gerard had only smiled at him and winked.

Frank however hadn’t done anything special. He was in a shabby shirt and stained trousers, braces barely keeping them up. He’d felt under dressed when he’d seen them, but both had insisted he looked perfect and that he didn’t need to change. Frank had wrapped his pea coat around himself a little tighter and pulled on a flat cap, which neither Gerard nor Grant debated.

Seeing where they’d ended up, he could understand why it wasn’t necessary for him to change clothes. He looked like every other Blank and Variant patronizing the bar. And though he enjoyed the sight of Grant and Gerard all dressed up, he couldn’t figure out why they’d done so.

It was only when he saw how people’s eyes slid over them, or avoided looking at them all together, that it clicked for Frank. To anyone else, it would look like a deal was about to go down. A man in charge, pretty arm candy, and a Variant who looked down on his luck? Frank wasn’t sure that he liked the conclusion they were jumping to. But given how the three were dressed, luring Frank into a life of sin would be the most obvious one. And since no one would want to get involved, people would go out of their way to ignore them.

Frank made a mental note to stop underestimating Gerard; despite appearances to the contrary, he seemed to know what he was doing.

They went to a room in the back, which was occupied by two people. One was a Blank man, who looked to be unconscious, and was lying on the floor. The other was a Variant woman in a garish outfit with ruby red lips and black hair in pigtails. She was counting some money, and when she looked up, she beamed. “Hey Gee!”

“Hi Linds,” he said, and the woman pulled him into a hug. She kissed him on the cheek, and there was no mark left on his skin. Frank raised an eyebrow and wondered if the red lips were somehow permanent. She kept her arm around his shoulders as he introduced them. “Gentlemen, this is Lindsey Ballato. Mechanic, engineering genius, musician, artist, and occasional hustler.”

“That’s quite a resume,” Grant commented.

“Times are tough,” she replied. “And if you’re a Variant you need to be able to do a lot of things if you wanna survive.”

Frank chuckled. “Yeah no shit.” He pointed at the guy on the ground. “What’s the story?”

She rolled her eyes. “Tried to cheat me out of some money I won fair and square. Then tried to put his hand up my skirt so I put him down.”

Gerard went over to the man and looked down at him. “Did you hit him in the face with a bottle?”



“How do you two know each other?” Frank asked, gesturing between Lindsey and Gerard.

“He’s my ex-husband,” Lindsey said matter of factly. Frank gaped at her, and was about to ask for details, when she laughed and said, “I’m just fucking with you, he’s my ex but he was a boyfriend not a husband.”

“I totally would have married you if you’d let me,” Gerard pointed out.

“And that would have been bad because you’re gay,” she reminded him, and Gerard pretended to look awed.

“Oh yeah…” And they both laughed.

“Gerard tells us you can fix anything?” Grant asked, getting back to the task at hand.

“He’s kind of exaggerating, I can’t fix everything. I can fix most things,” she replied. “I haven’t met a machine I couldn’t mend yet, but given the law of averages that’s bound to happen eventually.”

Frank stepped a bit closer and asked, “How do you do it?”

Lindsey shrugged. “I’m good at spacial analysis. I take a look, figure out what goes where, what’s working and what’s not, and go from there.”

That caused Grant to chuckle, and he said, “That makes sense.”

“What do you mean?” Frank asked, frowning. It almost sounded like Grant was making a crack.

At least until the older man calmly explained, “I’ve noticed that while you’re excellent at running through the higher maths quickly, you seem to have little to no idea how you reached the answers that you do. I believe Miss Ballato is much the same way with mechanics.”

“So, what, our brains crunch the numbers too fast for us to catch it?” It sounded like a load of shit to Frank, but there was some truth to it. After all, he’d managed to calculate a precise trajectory to get himself back to home base on the fly. And he still wasn’t one hundred percent sure how he’d done it.

“It’s a theory.” Grant then said to Lindsey, “Would you be interested in giving us a practical demonstration tomorrow? I’d like to assess your skills in a controlled environment before we discuss the particulars of the expedition.”

Lindsey stared at him for a moment, then looked over at Gerard, who was silently pleading with her. Lastly, she glanced at Frank, and he wasn’t sure what she saw in his face, but it seemed to cause her to make up her mind. “Fine by me.”

“Excellent,” Grant took out a business card and handed it to her. “Call me in the morning so we can arrange a time later in the day.”

“You got it.” Lindsey secreted the card away, then smirked mischievously. “Can I buy you guys a drink?” She gave a slight kick to the man who was still unconscious on the ground. “His treat.”

Frank grinned; he liked this woman.

They were at the bar for hours, Gerard more than happy to be the designated minder (none of them had driven). He made sure that both Lindsey and Grant got into taxis that would take them home, and when he asked Frank where he was going, he snorted.

"I'm staying in a doss house. But fuck they won't let me in like this," said Frank. Indeed, he'd had more than his fair share of the libations.

Gerard frowned. "Why didn't you say something? We could have set you up with rooms at the university. As a matter of fact, that's what I'm gonna do tomorrow."

"Doesn't do me a whole fucking lot of good tonight though does it?" Frank asked, then leaned on Gerard, smiling a bit. "You're so pretty..."

"Yeah yeah I'm fucking gorgeous. C'mon, you're coming home with me." He got a good grip on Frank's arm, and they began to walk. They'd have to get to another corner to hail a cab, as Gerard had already sent the only two available on the block off with Grant and Lindsey.

As they walked, Frank was humming a tune to himself, and then he asked, "Remember that time you got drunk then sang the whole score from The Wizard of Oz?"

"It was Cabaret, and yeah I remember," Gerard replied. He wasn't sure if he should be annoyed or flattered that Frank remembered that. It had been a low point for Gerard and it was something he didn't like to think about.

"You were good. Your voice was kinda weird but it was good." Frank reached up and touched Gerard's hair. "How come you don't sing anymore?"

"I still do. But the kinda lifestyle that goes with being a troubadour? Didn't work for me." Gerard sighed, fully annoyed now. There was no cab on the next block. Given the time they might all be off. It wasn't a terribly long walk to his flat, but it would seem like forever with Frank drunkenly clinging to him the way he was.

"You're not drunk!" Frank exclaimed, as though he'd just come to this important realization.

"I don't drink anymore," Gerard clarified, changing their direction. They'd just have to walk. Hopefully Frank would stay awake.

"You don't? Fuck, Gerard Way doesn't drink... And Mikey Way is married. Did you guys get personality transplants while I was gone?"

Gerard couldn't help laughing at that. "No, we grew up. That does happen with some people."

"Okay but did something happen? Tell me about you. Tell me about you from after I got shipped out."

Gerard wasn't sure that he should. He'd talked about the trouble he'd run into before with Grant, but that was different. But then he looked at Frank, and remembered the kid who'd defended him against neighborhood bullies despite being tiny and younger. And the adult who now was going to make one of Grant's dreams come true. Frank was fierce and loyal, and likely his opinion of Gerard wouldn't change.

"After you left," said Gerard, keeping a steady hand on Frank's waist, "things got kinda complicated. I started drinking more. At first it was just for fun, and it made me feel like an adult. I was still Mikey Way's creepy hermit older brother, but the alcohol took the sting off. Then when I got accepted here, I uprooted and moved to fucking Scotland. For a while, things were okay.

"But then it went downhill around when I started my master's degree. I was in a bad relationship, and I was drinking and doing coke, blowing off my classes... Thank God it was before Grant took up a post here, or I'd never be able to look him in the eye again. Anyway, so things got really bad after my grandma passed away."

"Elena passed?" Frank looked as though he were about to cry, and Gerard nodded.

"Yeah, she did. It was peaceful. But that was kind of the last straw. Things started to spiral out of control, to the point that I quit school altogether and was living in a shit flat with this person I didn't even like that much. But he was willing to at least fuck me sometimes, until he found someone with more money and drugs than I had. Then I was alone a lot, drunk or fucked up on coke, and one day I couldn't reach Mikey on the telemail and I was really low.

"So I called Brian, you remember Brian Schechter right?" Frank nodded. "I called him and told him I was gonna kill myself."

"Jesus Christ Gee!"

"I don't even really remember why I called him. It must have still been early morning there. But I'd been up three days straight drinking and snorting and hadn't eaten the entire time. I'm still kind of amazed I didn't die just from that. Brian came through though, he spent hours on the line with me, then when it was actually fucking daytime where he was he told me that Mikey was on his way. Him and Ray came out and babysat me for a few months."

"But... Why?" Frank asked, and Gerard could hear the pain in his voice.

"Like I said, I was low. I was out of school because the pressure was getting to me. I thought I'd fail big time, and I wouldn't be able to face anyone when I did. And things weren't exactly great in my personal life either, I had friends but they were people I either scored off of or got high with. Not a great combination."

They finally arrived at Gerard's building, and he could have cried in relief. He didn't really want to talk about this anymore, but Frank kept asking questions. As they rode in the elevator up to Gerard's floor, he asked, "So what snapped you out of it?"

"If you mean what my moment of clarity was, it was seeing my baby brother and his fucking boyfriend at my door looking like hell," Gerard admitted. They got off on his floor, and Gerard steered Frank over to his door. Gerard unlocked it and they both went in. Frank got the lights and Gerard kept talking as he went to the kitchen.

"It was so last minute you know? But they jumped on the light rail and were here within two hours of Brian sending Mikey a message. I guess Mikey was crying on the train and Ray had been having a hell of a time calming him down."

"I'm glad they came, and that you didn't do something stupid." Frank sounded more sober now, so Gerard peaked his head out of the kitchen to look at him.

"Well, after that, I threw myself into my work, got off the booze and the drugs, and have been a productive member of society since. You want some tea?"

Frank nodded. "Yeah, sounds good." He flopped on the sofa, and asked, "So who else knows about this?"

"You mean that time I spectacularly failed at being a human being and almost killed myself?" Gerard asked, he couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice. He filled the kettle and put it on the stove. He then went into the living room and sat on the couch with Frank. "Pretty much everyone. But the only people who know the details are you, Mikey, Ray, Brian, and Grant."

"Guess I'm special then," Frank grumbled, the sarcasm clear in his tone. He rested his head on Gerard's shoulder. His voice was sleepy, and he was out in moments.

"You sure are," Gerard muttered. He kissed the top of Frank's head, then set about taking care of him. He took off his shoes, hat, and coat, then helped him lie down on the sofa. He covered him with a blanket, and made sure that Frank was comfortable, before going to the kitchen and taking the kettle off the fire. There wouldn't be any need for it now.

Instead of tea, he left a large glass of water on the coffee table for Frank, and went to his own room. He stared out the window for a few minutes, thinking. Why had he told Frank all of that? It wasn't like he needed to know. But Gerard knew exactly why, and he had to admit it was silly.

He didn't want Frank to find out later and be angry. And a small part of him wanted to see what he would do when exposed to Gerard's lowest point. And he hadn't cared. He'd been concerned, and hadn't judged him. That made Gerard smile.

Feeling slightly cheerier, Gerard got ready for bed.

Frank woke up before Gerard did. He had a killer headache, not that he was surprised. He and Lindsey had gotten into a shots contest and she was the undisputed winner. He groaned, arm flailing out and nearly knocking over the water on the coffee table. That was when last night came rushing back. 

The walk back to Gerard's flat, the talk about Gerard's past, how much trust Gerard had placed in him telling him that. Frank had been flippant when he'd made the comment about being special, but either Gerard didn't realize it or he hadn't cared, and now Frank felt like an asshole.

He managed to sit up and drink the water, then got up fully to use the restroom. It wasn't a large flat, so it wasn't hard to find. But the apartment was cluttered. Frank tripped over a pile of clothes, then a pile of books on his way to the can.

When he'd finished his business and walked out again, he frowned. It wasn't so much that the apartment was dirty, clearly Gerard did some cleaning. But it was so disorganized it was a wonder that Gerard could find anything. As he was contemplating cleaning up, Gerard came out of his bedroom.

His hair was even more of a mess than usual, his night shirt was rumpled, and the top portion unbuttoned. Frank couldn't help staring at the bit of exposed chest. Gerard didn't seem to notice.


"Hey. So, about last night--"

Gerard cut him off. "You were fine. Besides I'm glad you stayed over. If I'd known where you were staying I'd have invited you here much sooner."

"I don't wanna impose," Frank told him.

"You're not. Really, you can stay here as long as you like."

Frank felt a swell of gratitude at that, but he also felt a sting to his pride. He said, "I'm not a fucking charity case, Gerard. I'm in this same as you, you don't have to feel sorry for me."

Gerard's face fell, but he recovered quickly. "It's not charity, but that's okay. If you don't wanna stay with me, it's like I said last night we can find you lodging at the university. Consider it part of your employment package with Grant." There was some false cheeriness to his voice, and Frank hated that he was the reason for it.

Gerard headed to the kitchen, and Frank followed. "No, wait, Gee I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that."

But Gerard didn't respond. Instead he asked, "You want some coffee?"

"No I want you to turn around and talk to me," Frank snapped. Gerard sighed, but at least he turned around. "I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you like that. I really appreciate what you're trying to do for me, it's just I'm not used to--"

"People being nice to you and treating you like a human being?" Gerard asked, a small smile on his face.

"Yeah. Most of the time in the past if someone was asking to help it was with that "Oh you poor underprivileged Variant, let me soothe my own guilt about being an asshole by giving you a few credits" kinda thing."

"Yeah, I get that," Gerard shrugged and turned back to his coffee maker, filling it with ground coffee.

"So, I really am sorry."

"It's okay."

Frank wasn't sure if he meant it, but decided to drop it for the time being. "So what's the agenda for today?"

"I already called Grant and Lindsey, they both made it home okay. Grant's a little hungover but we'll see him this afternoon to review flight paths. I guess he and Lindsey worked out whatever mechanical test Grant wanted to do, so she’s clear. Also we need to file for some permits. Lindsey's going to go out and have a look at the ship today, she asked you to go with her."

Frank blinked. "Wait really?"

"You are the pilot and navigator, she's going to want your opinion," Gerard pointed out.

"Oh, yeah I guess that makes sense." Frank stepped a little closer. "Gee?"

"Hm?" Gerard was almost completely focused on the coffee maker.

"Could you talk to Grant about that lodging?"

Gerard turned around, practically beaming at Frank. "Absolutely."

Frank grinned back at him. "Thanks."

Frank was feeling a bit tense. The days were stretching out into weeks, and he wasn’t a patient man. Grant, Gerard, and even Lindsey had been great, but Frank wanted to get back out there. Every day they spent on Earth, Frank was worried someone else would find the planet. It wasn’t likely, as pure chance had brought him to it in the first place. But it wasn’t completely out of the question.

He was watching Grant go over files (more financials, of which Frank was bored to death of) and Gerard was going over the initial inventory. Lindsey was back at the ship, completely overhauling the engine. She’d flatly refused to let Frank help, which was why he was once again in Grant’s office, bored.

After the third restless sigh in twenty minutes, Grant looked over at Frank and asked, “Is there a problem?”

“There’s nothing for me to do, at least not until we get up in the void,” Frank told him.

“Perhaps take some leisure time?  There won’t be much of that while we’re gone.” Grant said. “Indulging in a hobby would do you well.”

Frank snorted. “Variants are supposed to work until we die, we don’t have hobbies.”

“Lindsey plays bass,” Gerard chimed in. “And she’s an artist.”

“Whoop-de-shit for Lindsey.”

“Frank,” said Grant. “There must be something you like to do.”

Frank couldn’t keep up his annoyance, not in the face of Grant’s calm acceptance. “I like to read. And play guitar.”

Grant seemed to consider that for a moment, then nodded. “Gerard, perhaps you should give Frank a tour of the library.” He turned back to Frank. “I’d do it myself, but these estimates have to be finished today.”

Gerard put down his fountain pen and smiled. “Yeah, I can do that. C’mon Frankie.” He put his things away, and grabbed his jacket. Frank followed him out of the office. Even if it wasn’t getting them back to the planet, at the very least he’d feel like he was doing something. He couldn’t help glancing at Grant on his way out. Bent over a tablet, meticulously going over the information. Frank let his gaze linger; casual or no, Grant always looked good.

Frank shook himself out of it and caught up with Gerard. He chuckled and said, “You’re barely dressed.” Once again, Gerard’s waistcoat was missing, his shirt untucked and ink stained, and the jacket he’d brought with him didn’t match the trousers he wore.

Gerard laughed. “Yeah, I know, but everyone here is used to me by now.” He’d pulled the jacket  on, and Frank raised an eyebrow.

“How is it I never see you in the same jacket twice?” He asked.

“I have a bunch of jackets. I’m a jacket slut.” He said it with a mischievous smile, and Frank laughed.

They arrived at the library, and Gerard said, “I feel like I should make you wear a blindfold or something. But then I’d have to be your guide, and no one wants that.”

“Oh come on, you can’t be that bad.”

“I got lost in my own apartment building once.” Gerard said to Frank, which made him laugh. Gerard held the doors open for Frank, and he stopped on the threshold. He’d been expecting a bit more than a bland wall, and he told Gerard so.

“This is the lobby,” Gerard explained, then beckoned for Frank to follow him. When they passed through a second set of doors, that was when his breath was taken away.

There were in the center of the library, and it looked as though it went up forever. There were more shelves than Frank could easily count, and people and small hover droids going about their business. Frank saw holo readers everywhere, and communication consoles all up and down the hallway on the ground floor. It was nearly too much to take in. “Can I live here?” Frank asked Gerard in a dreamy voice.

“I don’t think so, but they’re open 24/7,” Gerard replied. “What do you wanna see first?”

That was difficult for Frank to decide, but he had an idea. “Where’s the ecology section?”

Gerard beamed at Frank. “This way.” He led him down one of the halls to a hovering disk. Gerard climbed onto it, then gestured for Frank to do the same. Once they were both aboard, he said, “Ecology, please.”

“Confirmed,” a smooth voice replied, and suddenly metal clamped around their legs. Once they were secured, the disk lifted free from the ground and gently floated them along. They rose to three storeys, then were taken along a hallway that seemed the length of two city blocks. As they did, Frank took in the sights. There were so many books, and so many people who were reading or studying. He wished that he were a real student; he’d never been fantastic at it, but the opportunity would have been nice to have.

Finally, they came to an open space. In the center were scattered various chairs and tables, and against one wall was a desk, behind which a pleasant looking older woman with silver hair was studying a hologram. She looked over as their disk landed in front of her, and smiled kindly at Gerard and Frank. The disk released their feet, and Gerard helped Frank down.

“Mr. Way,” the woman greeted. “Is there something I can help you find today?”

“No thanks Ms. Andrews, just showing my friend around.”

She smiled again. “If you need anything, let me know.”

“Will do.” Gerard smiled at Frank as the disk floated into the air, leaving the room. “This is the ecology study room. Cool huh?”

“Yeah, but those things,” Frank pointed in the direction the disk had gone, “Are fucking weird. Why do you have those?”

“This library is the size of a small city. If we walked, it would take all day,” Gerard explained. “So what do you wanna see?”

Frank was about to answer, when he heard someone say, “Hey, Way!”

They turned around, and a man approached, though he was barely that. He had dark hair and eyes, and pouty lips. He was trailed by another man with nicer hair and lovely blue eyes.

Gerard smiled at them and said, “Hi! Fancy seeing you two here.” Gerard then made the introductions. “Frank this is Brendon and Spencer, they’re in one of the undergrad programs. This is Frank, he’s our new assistant and math genius.”

Frank was surprised when not one but both of them shook his hand. While no one besides security had been particularly snobbish, his clear status as a Variant hadn’t won him friends on campus. But these two didn’t seem to care. “Math genius, huh? Do you tutor? Because I’m getting my ass kicked in pre-calc,” said Brendon.

“I told you not to take that class,” Spencer said.

“But the TA is hot! What was I supposed to do, say no when she asked if I was signing up?”

“Yes, that is exactly what you should have done instead of tanking your GPA to talk to a pretty girl.”

Brendon got a dreamy look on his face, and sighed. “She’s worth it.” He then snapped out of it and asked, “So do you have any helpful hints?”

“Yeah, if you’re failing you’re probably not impressing her. Drop the class and ask her out,” said Frank. Brendon blinked, then laughed and clapped Frank on the shoulder.

“Way, you’ve gotta keep this guy around, he’s awesome,” said Brendon.

“I’ll do my best,” Gerard replied, smiling at Frank. “You’ll have to excuse us, I promised I’d show him around.”

Brendon and Spencer said goodbye, and Gerard and Frank headed into the stacks. Frank was still reeling, and kept tossing looks over his shoulder at the other two.

“What’s the matter?” Gerard asked.

“Nothing. They were nice.”

“Yeah, they’re good guys. I mean they’re kids but they’re still pretty cool.”

Frank shrugged. “I guess I’m just not used to Blanks acting like that.”

Gerard frowned, clearly confused. “Like what?”

“Like I’m a person.”

“You should get used to it, because you and every other Variant ARE people,” Gerard said, suddenly impassioned. “I think it’s disgusting how these illiberal fascists continue to try to impose some stupid caste system! It doesn’t work! And anyone from any walk of life should be afforded every opportunity- -”

“Hey, that’s enough,” said Frank, holding up his hands. “I get it, you’re really into equal rights.”

Gerard had the good grace to look sheepish. “Sorry. But the point is, most of the students and faculty feel the same way. And if anyone IS being a prick to you, make sure to let me or Grant know.”

“I can fight my own battles,” Frank said, frowning.

“I know you can, I remember you fending off the Giacomo twins when you were eight,” Gerard said to him, chuckling.

“You remember that?!”

“They were twice your size!” Gerard reminded him. “But no one should harass you here. This is a safe space, and that applies to everyone. So if someone’s giving you shit, tell us and we’ll make it stop.”

Frank wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he browsed the titles around them. Gerard wandered off after a few minutes, leaving Frank with his thoughts. On the one hand, he liked it at the university, and that Grant and Gerard were trying to look out for him. Another part of Frank, however, balked at it. After he’d been separated from his family and put into trade school, he’d only had himself. And being on the small side, it had invited a lot of trouble.

He’d been fighting for equal treatment and his livelihood for so long, Frank wasn’t sure what to do now that the fight was over. He wanted to trust it, to trust them; maybe he had come home at last. But he still was expecting the bottom to drop out, because that’s the kind of person he was.

He closed his eyes, and silently prayed that this time, it wouldn’t.

Early morning the next day, Frank was in the ship yard. He was going over a run through of system checks with Lindsey. They would be leaving in a week, and he was nervous, but also excited. It was easier to concentrate now that he had something to do. He was just checking one of the aft boosters when he heard someone loudly shout, “BOO!”

Frank jumped, hitting his head, then spun around. A man with dark spiky hair, brown eyes, and a big grin was standing there. “That looks like that fucking hurt.”

“No, it felt awesome,” Frank said sarcastically. “Yes it fucking hurt! That has a tendency to happen when some goofball sneaks up and scares me!”

The guy frowned a bit, and stepped closer. “Here, let me look at that.”

Frank shrank away from him. “Fuck off. What do you think you’re a doctor or something?”

“Sure hope so,” he said. “Since they gave me a degree and a license and everything.”

“Bullshit.” Frank replied.

“No, really! And I’m gonna be your doctor, so you may as well let me look.”

“Uh… No. We’re supposed to be getting a guy, uh… Dr. Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz III.” Frank recited.

“I just go by Pete. Dr. Pete if you wanna be formal,” he replied, grinning again. “I’m your medical officer!”

Frank stared at him, this goofy looking moron dressed like he was in a zyla band, with dumb tattoos and stupid hair. “No you’re not,” he said, his disbelief obvious.

“Hey, it’s cool! I’m much more sane during an emergency,” Pete assured him. “Also Lunchbox is coming with us and he’s like, my boss. Soul mate. He’s super cute and cuddly, you’re gonna love him, I promise.”

Frank was becoming more confused by the minute. Before he could ask who (or what) Lunchbox was, he heard someone yell, “Pete!” They both turned to see a pasty ginger kid coming towards them. He was very young, and looked as though he hadn’t been outside in about a year. He had on a flat cap and thick glasses, and a nice suit with a bow tie. He was a little on the chubby side, but it could have been puppy fat or that the guy was short.

Pete apparently knew him, as he threw his arms around the kid and said, “Lunchbox! I thought I’d lost you!”

“You tried to lock me in the fucking car! And don’t call me that,” he said, smacking Pete in the side. He then said to Frank, “I’m really sorry if he’s being a pain. He’s a little over excited this morning.”

“This guy is a medical doctor?” Frank asked, still stunned.

“Believe it or not; I sure don’t and I was there when he graduated,” he said, then held out his hand. “I’m Patrick Stump.”

It took a minute for the name to click, but when he did he smiled and shook his hand. “You’re that wonder kid outta Chicago! Bob’s friend, right?”

“Yeah,” Patrick replied. “He asked me to sub in on this thing since he’s in Melusine for the foreseeable future.”

“Don’t you have like eight PhD’s or something?”

“Three PhDs in botany, chemistry, and biology. I’ve also got a bachelor degree in ecology.” Patrick looked a bit sheepish as he said it.

“That’s cool. So you’re a genius right?”

“I wouldn’t call myself that, no.”

“He’s SUPER SMART!” Pete declared, grinning. “He’s the smartest person you’re ever gonna meet.”

Patrick rolled his eyes and smacked Pete again. Pete was pouting now, rubbing his side where Patrick had hit him. “Why don’t you love me, Trick? You know I love you.”

Patrick sighed, and gave Pete a quick hug. “You know it drives me crazy when you start acting up.”

“You love it,” Pete insisted.

Patrick didn’t answer that, instead he asked Frank, “Is Gerard around?”

“No, he’s at the university. But me and Lins were just doing checks, you can come with us when we head back.” Frank raised an eyebrow. “So you guys know Gee?”

“We’re better acquainted with his brother,” Patrick admitted. “But since Gerard works in a field so closely associated with my own, we’re pretty friendly.”

“Mikey’s the fun brother, just so you know,” Pete interjected.

“Gerard seems pretty fun to me.” Frank pointed out, frowning.

“Don’t listen to him, he’s jealous because Gerard wouldn’t sleep with him.” Patrick said, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Hey I was asking for platonic snuggling! That was it!” Pete insisted.

Frank couldn’t help it, that made him laugh. Gerard was touchy with people he knew, but if he’d been confronted with this jacked up human version of Tigger begging for cuddles, it must have been hilarious. His laughter turned to slight giggles as he said, “If you keep the cuddle requests to yourself, this should be a quick trip to campus.”

“It’s cool. Trick lets me cuddle him all I want,” Pete said, and hugged Patrick from behind.

Patrick elbowed him in the stomach.


Frank shook his head, chuckling. Sure this doctor was amusing, but Frank wasn't so sure about him going on the expedition. Frank figured that Grant would take one look at Pete and give him his walking papers. Slightly cheered by that, Frank got back to work.

They were studying some notes when Frank came in, saying, "We got company." Grant looked up to see two young men following him, one of whom he knew on sight.

"Dr. Stump," he said, getting to his feet.

"Dr. Morrison, it's a pleasure to meet you," he replied, and shook Grant's hand.

"Likewise, I've heard a great deal about your work with carnivorous algae."

"Wait carnivorous what?" The other man asked, and Gerard grinned.

"It's super weird, Pete. There's like these water plants that look totally harmless right? Then they see a tasty fish and--" Gerard made a slurping noise, and clapped his hands together.

"Let me guess, you're why he's heard so much about it," Patrick said, and Gerard nodded, still grinning. Patrick couldn't help smiling back.

Grant raised an eyebrow, and Gerard blushed. "Oh! Sorry. Grant, this is Pete Wentz, he's registered as a GP but has a couple specialties that should come in handy when we're out and about."

"Such as?" Grant asked.

"Surgery and pharmacology. Oh also obstetrics, just in case anyone gets pregnant." Pete was grinning, while Patrick rolled his eyes and Gerard giggled.

Grant laughed as well. "Certainly not, or at least I hope not. May I ask, how is it that you're not a surgeon?"

"Couldn't focus," Pete said, shrugging. "I qualified and everything but I couldn't continue with the practical training." He didn't elaborate, and Grant didn't ask. It was a little too early in their acquaintance, and it sounded as though there was a story there.

Frank, however, said, "So you're a flake?" Gerard shot him a look, but Frank ignored it.

Pete didn't seem offended, and he said, "Yeah, guess you could say that."

"Great, we're going to an alien planet with a flake," Frank grumbled.

Patrick drew himself up to his full height (which admittedly wasn't much) and looked ready to argue, but Gerard interrupted with, "Hey, we're all pretty flakey right? I mean why else would we get involved in this mess?" And he forced a laugh.

Pete went along with it, saying, "Yeah remember that time that you found that bat in your house and you named it and everything, then stopped feeding it after a week?"

Gerard grinned. "YEAH! Drac the Bat! Oh man it's a good thing she could hunt for herself. I was so not ready for a pet."

Frank looked ready to interrupt again, so Grant stepped around the others and blocked his view. "May I speak with you privately?"

"Yeah, sure," Frank sneered, and they left for Grant's private office.

Once the door was closed, Grant said, "I would appreciate it if you wouldn't antagonize our fellow team members."

"You can't be serious!" Frank shot back, looking shocked. "You're actually gonna take Pete? He's a flakey asshole!"

"I appreciate that you have your opinion, but I have read up on him and Dr. Wentz is a brilliant physician." Grant went over to his desk, activating the holo reader.

"Hey he's a cool guy, okay? I like him and all but we're trusting our lives to... That!" Frank replied.

"To a man who's saved countless lives through quick thinking and an intuitive knowledge of the human body," Grant countered. He pulled up Pete's file, and set it to project so Frank could see.

He stepped forward, pushing his dark hair out of his eyes. Grant watched his lips move as Frank quietly read to himself. Once he was finished, he sighed. "Okay yeah, he sounds good on paper. But I'm not looking forward to being stuck on a ship with him."

"I'm sure the feeling is likewise." Grant moved closer to Frank, adding, "I understand that you've had a difficult life, but you must get that chip off your shoulder if you're going to continue to work with us."

"What, you're gonna steal the planet out from under me? I'm the only one who knows where it is remember?"

"I haven't forgotten, but you have been rude and disrespectful to people that we must work with in order to achieve our goals."

Frank crossed his arms, glaring up at Grant. "They can't handle it, that's their problem."

"It is entirely your problem and we won't be able to get this expedition going if you keep behaving like this." Grant was trying to stay calm, but it was difficult.

"Oh yeah? Didn't know you were a shrink too, Grant. So what's my problem huh?" Frank challenged.

"You are a skilled and intelligent young man who has been roundly ignored and mistreated due to your genetic status. You are also unwilling to acknowledge that that status doesn't matter to some people, and are still behaving as though you need to prove to those around you that you're top dog. Which is completely unnecessary as we know your value," Grant replied. Before Frank could interrupt, he continued.

"I have no idea what being a Variant is like, that much is clear. But I want you to know that it doesn't mean one whit to me what you are, but who you are. So if you could stop with the grandstanding, and tell us when you're upset instead of lashing out at others, it would do us all a world of good."

It was hard to read the look on Frank's face. It went from shocked, to hurt, to guilty, to angry so quickly that Grant almost couldn't keep up. He was a torrent of emotion, and Grant wasn't quite sure what he would do or say next.

"You fucking--" But Frank didn't finish. Instead, he grabbed Grant by the lapels, pulled him down and kissed him. To say he was surprised was an understatement, but Grant went with it. He kissed back fiercely, letting his fingers tangle in the raven locks he'd spent his nights thinking about.

Grant could hear that Frank was breathing hard through his nose, and when they kiss deepened, they both moaned. Grant crushed Frank to himself, never wanting to let go. Frank kissed like he did everything else, rough and fast, and with all his being.

But they broke apart, gasping for breath. Frank's cheeks were flushed, and they stared at each other for a moment. Frank grinned. "I should have done that weeks ago."

Grant kissed him again briefly, then chuckled. "You still owe Dr. Wentz an apology."

"Okay yeah, I was being a dick for the sake of being a dick," Frank admitted. "But if maybe there was some kind of reward for bettering my behavior?"

"And what sort of reward were you looking for?"

"How about dinner tonight?"

Grant nodded. "I believe that can be arranged."

Gerard had to admit, it was a good party. They were leaving in the morning, and everyone had checked into a hotel for their last night on Earth. They’d rented out several suites, one of which had a large parlor. And that was where the party was.

They’d kept it relatively small, but still a lot of people had shown up. Pete and Patrick’s friends, Andy and Joe, had come out from Chicago, along with Patrick’s mother. She’d left early, which was probably good for Patrick as she’d spent nearly an hour fretting over her “little boy going on his first mission.”

Pete had briefly teased Patrick about it, until Patrick had punched his arm.

Frank had invited a couple of his friends, which included a very strange Variant named Dewees, who had insisted that Variants came about because of an astronaut named Scott Kelly and the makers of Pop Tarts. Frank had laughed at Gerard’s confused face.

“Okay so you know that Variants were bred and altered for deep space jobs, right?” Frank asked. Gerard nodded; while Variant history hadn’t been taught in school, that he did know. “It really started back around 2016 when this guy Scott Kelly spent a year in space. He came back and was all kinds of fucked up. His skin was so sensitive it hurt to get dressed, he had poor circulation, fucked up eyesight, the whole nine yards.”

“So some bioengineers figured that by making some DNA changes and with selective breeding, they could make people who could spend years in space without it affecting their health,” Dewees added. “But they needed funding, so they turned to major corporations for it. The first one to sign on was Pop Tarts.”

“Don’t you mean Kelloggs? They make Pop Tarts,” Gerard said, sipping his soda.

“Still Pop Tarts.” Dewees smirked serenely, his skin giving off the same pearly sheen as Frank and Lindsey.

“So Variants started out as the first deep space explorers, and now that it’s safe for Blanks we get shafted to second class citizens,” Frank said bitterly.

“It’s sadly common throughout history.” Grant had joined them now, and he handed Frank a drink. “The hard work done by those who are considered low class, and the higher classes taking all the credit.”

“It’s still fucked up,” Frank said. He and Grant began talking about class and the social structure’s negative impact, and within minutes Gerard knew they were in a world of their own. Dewees could see it too, so he wandered off to talk to Kelly Sue.

Gerard pretty much floated around the party after that. He really wished that he’d had someone to invite, but still, he did try to join conversations here and there. Lindsey and her wife were holding court in one corner, so Gerard listened in for a while. But he couldn’t help glancing over at Frank and Grant repeatedly.

As the night wore on, Gerard could see that they were becoming more wrapped up in each other. Frank would casually touch Grant’s arm, or Grant would smile a certain way, and Gerard couldn’t quite figure out why it was bothering him. But at one point, Lindsey had tapped him on the shoulder and invited Gerard outside to smoke.

Once they’d both lit up, Lindsey said, “So you seem to be pretty captivated by those two.”

“What? No! I just- ” But the look Lindsey gave him, he sighed. “Okay, yeah, I am.”

“Do you know which one you wanna ask out?” She queried.

Gerard exhaled, watching the smoke curl into the sky, carried away by the breeze. “Grant’s not interested in me, I’m not sure how Frank feels.”

“Then ask, dumb ass.”

“I’m not great at that, remember?” The only reason he and Lindsey dated was because she had asked him out, he’d been too shy to do so.

“I know, but you should ask him out anyway. We’re gonna be on this new planet for a long time, it’s gonna be awkward as fuck if you guys don’t clear the air before we leave.”

He knew she was right, and he stayed out on the balcony to think about it long after Lindsey had gone to rejoin the party. He watched as ships left the port across the city, easy to pick out in the dark with their flashing lights. Gerard thought about how tomorrow, that would be them. It would be an all new chapter in their lives.

It made him giddy, which made Gerard suddenly feel reckless. He went back inside, determined to find Frank. He’d long ago missed his chance with Grant, and he didn’t want to make the same mistake again.

The party had wound down by the time Gerard came back. Many of the guests had already gone home, though a few were still drunkenly laughing and conversing. Gerard saw Patrick talking with Andy and Neil while Pete slept, his head in Patrick’s lap. Dewees and Lindsey were playing a game while Joe kept score. But Gerard didn’t see Frank anywhere.

He walked out of the room, thinking that perhaps Frank had gone to the other balcony to smoke. He opened the doors and stepped outside. The sight that met his eyes broke his heart.

Frank had Grant pressed against the wall, and Grant was leaning down to kiss him. Their arms were wrapped around each other, and their mouths worked ferociously as they kissed. Frank was practically growling into Grant’s mouth, and Grant sighed in response.

They pulled apart, and when they saw Gerard, Frank jumped. “Oh! Uh… Hey Gee.”

“Hey. Uh, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. Guess I’ll smoke on the other balcony,” Gerard said, putting on a bright smile. He went to leave, but Grant stopped him.

“Are you all right?” Grant asked.

“Yeah! Just surprised is all. So you guys are a thing now?”

Frank was biting his lower lip, but he couldn’t quite repress a smile. “Uh, yeah. Guess we are.”

It was at that moment that Lindsey, Patrick, and Pete came out on the balcony, laughing and chatting about something. They saw Gerard, then they saw Grant and Frank holding hands.

“Ooo what’s going on here?” Pete asked.

“Don’t be so nosy,” Patrick chided, but was clearly wondering the same thing. Lindsey looked at Gerard, but he smiled and shrugged like nothing was wrong. Thankfully, she bought it, or at least was willing to let it go.

Pete was annoying the hell out of Frank, poking and teasing him until Frank snapped, “Yeah, okay, Grant and I are going out! You happy now?!”

“Yes!” Pete exclaimed, grinning.

“I’m so happy for you guys!” Gerard said, surprised that not only did his voice sound level, but genuinely pleased. It wasn’t a lie, he was happy for them. They looked content, and he was glad to see it. But Gerard knew what this meant. He’d been left out in the cold. Again.

Pete declared they would need to throw another party to celebrate, and Patrick smacked the back of his head. Lindsey laughed, clapping Frank on the shoulder and teasing him. Grant managed to separate Patrick and Pete and… It was all a blur until Gerard found himself alone in his hotel room.

Gerard was shaking as he pulled on his pajamas. Now that he didn’t have to pretend, he could let himself feel what he’d kept a lid on at the party. He crawled into bed, pulling the covers up to his chin. It was so quiet, his breathing sounded loud. He tried to focus on that, on anything other than the dark thoughts at the edge of his mind.

He was alone. He’d always be alone. Gerard could be as good and sweet as a child, or as mean and bitter as a crone. It didn’t matter, because at the end of the day, he’d always end up in the same place. Home, wherever that was at the time, by himself. It would always be that way.

Gerard knew he was being dramatic, and ridiculous. But that didn’t stop the tears, or the stinging fire in his heart. It sang through his blood, making his head and wrists hurt. He sighed, and rolled over. He’d have nightmares tonight, he knew it. That was the only advantage to being alone, and the biggest drawback. No one to disturb with his night terrors. But no one to comfort him when he awoke. “I hate my life,” he whispered to himself, and rolled over to go to sleep.

The day of the launch, Frank was a bundle of nerves. Everything was set, they had the right permits, their supplies were loaded, it should have been all right. But a few reporters had shown up, as apparently Grant Morrison leaving Earth was a newsworthy event. Frank had no problem ducking the reporters, to them he was just another Variant working around the spaceport. They'd never suspect he was the pilot.

He'd been worried some last minute hiccup would keep them earthbound, but Kelly Sue and Matt had done their jobs amazingly well. They'd even managed to supply him with a pilot's license. Kelly Sue had used his experience at Delta Corp and the work he'd done on the simulator with Jill to bypass the normal required class. She'd given it to him last night at the party and said, "This is long overdue, Frank."

Frank couldn't help thinking back to the party. Neither he nor Grant had really meant to announce their relationship, and definitely not like that. The only part he'd been worried about was Gerard's reaction, but as far as Frank could tell, he'd taken it well. Frank felt guilty, however, and he wasn't sure why.

They weren't doing anything to be ashamed of; Grant was a consenting adult, and so was Frank. It wasn't as though Frank had anything going on with Gerard, and as far as he knew, Grant didn't either. But part of Frank still felt a little guilt.

He was doing final system checks when Pete came into the cockpit, grinning at him. "Guess what?" He asked in a sing song voice.

"You've changed your mind and decided to stay here?" Frank replied, smirking. He still wasn't fully on board with Pete being on the mission, but Grant had vouched for him so he let it go. But Frank wouldn't be Frank if he didn't give Pete shit.

"Nope! Wouldn't miss this for the world! Not even a world full of golden siren babes who feed me noodles and grapes!"

"I'm terrified of how quickly you came up with that."

Pete grinned. "Might have been thinking about it for a while."

"So are you here just to bug me or what?"

"Kinda. Oh also you gotta name the ship in the next thirty seconds."

Frank turned, his jaw dropping. "WHAT?!"

"Yeah turns out you guys forgot to fucking name this thing and you gotta do it like RIGHT NOW or they're not gonna let us take off. Grant says it's your baby so you gotta name it," Pete explained.

"Fuck!" But only one name came to mind. "Her name is Sweet Pea."

"Cool! I'll go tell Grant!" And Pete left the cockpit.

Frank was left alone with his thoughts. It was admittedly a panic decision, naming the ship after his old pet. But the more he looked around, the more it fit. She wasn't the most beautiful ship out there, but she had personality, and she was reliable. Frank had to admire the work the designer had put into her.

He was interrupted in his thoughts by more people coming into the cockpit. It was the entire team, and as Lindsey buckled herself into the co-pilot seat, Frank asked, "What now?"

"We wanna see this!" Pete said excitedly, and Gerard nodded enthusiastically in agreement. Even Patrick was smiling.

Frank looked to Grant, who said, "It is a momentous occasion."

He thought about it for a minute, then nodded. "All right. Everyone strap in." There were extra seats in the cockpit, and everyone did as instructed.

A woman's voice crackled over the radio. "Final check complete. Sweet Pea, you are cleared for takeoff. Acknowledge."

Lindsey flipped on the mic and said, "Received. Thank you, dock. See ya when I get back, baby."

"I'll hold you to that," the woman said, voice amused. "Dock out."

Frank had been checking the fuel levels, and he shot Lindsey a questioning look. "What was that about?"

"My wife paid off one of the guys in the control tower to let her do our sending off," Lindsey replied, smirking.

Frank frowned. The voice had sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. He made a mental note to ask later; the engines were warmed up, and they were as ready as they would ever be. "Okay, let's do this." He said, and initiated lift off.

That they didn't explode right then, which Frank considered a great triumph. He kept her steady, and within minutes, they were leaving Earth. Frank held his breath as they ascended, and when they broke orbit, cheers sounded through the cockpit.

Frank couldn't help but laugh. He was doing it, what he was always meant to do. The ship handled like a dream, and as he set their course, he said, "Looks like smooth sailing from here."

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and then lips on his cheek. "You did well, Frank," Grant told him."

Frank didn't stop smiling for hours.

Gerard was reading, but it hadn't escaped his notice that Frank was getting antsy. They'd been in hyperspace for two days now, on their way to a station that Gerard had never heard of to pick up the last of their supplies. Frank knew the owners, and said that while they were morally ambiguous, they wouldn't tip off Delta Corp to what the group was up to.

After the fourth time that Frank walked by, Gerard asked, "Are you okay?"

"Super," Frank snapped. "We're only wasting time by going to Cobra but yeah everything is great!"

Gerard sighed and put his tablet down, turning towards Frank. "We can only keep certain foods in our stores for so long before they go bad. This way we lessen the chances of us getting to the planet and then not having anything to eat."

"I still think this is stupid, there's gotta be plants to eat there, right?"

Gerard knew damn well that Patrick had given Frank a two hour lecture the previous day as to why they couldn't eat anything they found. So instead he tried changing the subject. "So how do you know the owners?"

Frank rolled his eyes, but he stopped pacing and sat down. "Gabe was a slum kid, too. But for his family it’s because of their 'dubious genetic status' instead of being broke like yours." Gerard could practically hear the sarcastic finger quotes.

"They thought he might be Variant," Gerard concluded.

"That's the thing, no one really knows for sure, not even Gabe. He doesn't have any of the usual signs that give us away. But his DNA is all fucking weird, so he wasn't treated as bad as us. He wasn't treated like a Blank either," Frank said, shrugging. "He ended up in the same trade school I did but he left soon after. He didn't have a binding contract so he said adios motherfuckers to Delta Corp. He went and founded this station of his with this girl he met while he was out fucking around."

Gerard smiled a bit at that. "How'd he get the money?"

"From his Dad, and her too I think. But it doesn't matter because he makes bank," Frank said, smirking. "His place isn't as strictly regulated, and it's not like any of the planetary governments can touch him as Cobra is out in the middle of nowhere. Since the place is privately owned, anyone can do business there without having to worry about big brother or one of the corporations coming down on their head."

"Sounds like an interesting guy."

Frank laughed. "When it comes to Gabe, you either love him or hate him. Until you get to know him then you love him despite the fact he's a fucking asshole."

Gerard laughed at that, too. It was then that Grant came into the lounge. His face lit up when he saw Frank, and Gerard had to turn away.

"Ah, Frank, I've been looking for you. I was wondering if perhaps you would like to go over some plans I have for when we reach the planet," Grant said, and it took everything Gerard had not to roll his eyes. They'd all been over the plans about a hundred times, to the point even Pete had them memorized. It was really code for inviting Frank back to Grant's quarters.

Frank beamed at Grant, and said, "Sure, when?"

"No time like the present," Grant replied, and Frank nodded.

"Okay. Later Gee!"

"Later." But they'd already left. Gerard sighed, and went back to his reading. It stung that he'd been trying to make Frank feel better, and once he'd gotten him cheered up, Grant showed up. He knew it wasn't on purpose, and that Gerard was being unfair. But that didn't change how he felt.

Two hours later, the alert sounded, and everyone got ready to board Cobra Station. They'd been given instructions to land at the far hangar, and also, quote, "Wear something hot."

"He can't be serious," said Patrick, as Pete tried to take his hat. Patrick swatted at his hand and Pete grinned at him.

"He's totally serious," Frank replied. "Dress like you're going to a club."

"I hate going to clubs," Patrick muttered, and Gerard nodded.

"You and me both."

As ridiculous as the instructions were, everyone dressed for a night out. And when they arrived, they were greeted by a tall man in probably the loudest suit Gerard had ever seen. It was in neon purple and blue, with a gold shirt and no tie. He wore white glasses and was grinning.

"Frankie fucking Iero!" He yelled, and pulled Frank into a hug.

Frank laughed and hugged him back. "Hey man. Everyone this is Gabe Saporta, he owns the place."

Gabe let him go, then grinned wider and seized upon Patrick. "Hey conejo ! I didn't know you and Pete were coming!"

"I should have known it was you," Patrick said quietly, but he let Gabe hug him, the taller man practically picking him up off the ground.

"You guys know each other?" Lindsey asked, barely hiding her amusement.

"Sure, I love these little guys!" And Gabe put Patrick down, only to pick up Pete in a hug. "Hey! How's your mom? Does she miss me?"

Pete laughed. "Not even a little!"

"Damn. Tell her I'm still waiting for her." Gabe said, then moved on to Lindsey. He was grinning at her, and she was barely holding back laughter. "How're you doing?"

"Okay that's enough." They looked over to see a pretty brunette woman in black, being trailed by a Variant with tattoos and piercings and probably one of the fluffiest 'fros Gerard had ever seen.

Gabe pouted at her. "C'mon Vic, there's still two people I haven't greeted."

"Maybe not everyone wants your particular brand of sexual harassment to be their first experience at Cobra," she replied, but there was a teasing smile on her face. "Hello, I'm Victoria Asher, this is Travis McCoy. I'm co-owner, Mr. McCoy is our director of operations."

"Call me Travie," he said, and shook hands with Grant.

Victoria (call me Vicky) shook hands with everyone, then said, "You'll be happy to know your stores have arrived and are going through inspection now. Once they've finished we can have them loaded into your cargo bay."

"And what is the estimated time?" Grant asked.

"My boys will have it ready in three hours," Travie told him.

"Which is enough time for me to give everyone a tour and go for a drink in our new bar," Gabe said, coming up behind Travie and Vicky and throwing his arms around their shoulders.

Gerard blanched at that. He was getting better about being around alcohol, but a bar was asking for trouble. At least in his current emotional state. He cleared his throat and said, "I'm sorry, I can't."

Gabe frowned at him, and asked, "How come?"

"I don't drink," Gerard replied, hoping that would be enough.  It wasn't. Gabe let go of the others and came over to Gerard.

"You sure? It'd be a shame if I couldn't buy someone as beautiful as you a drink."

Gerard was sure he heard someone snort, but he didn't know if it was Pete or Frank. "That's really nice of you, but no thanks."

Gabe looked like he was going to press it further, but thankfully, Vicky stepped in. "It's okay, there's a lot to do here. You won't be bored."

Gabe smiled at that and said, "She's right, lots to do! We have a water slide now."

"Why the fuck do you have a water slide on a space station?" Frank asked. Gerard saw that he was standing with Grant now, and Grant had an arm around Frank’s shoulders.

"So people will ask me why we have one!" Gabe replied, then laughed at his own joke. Gerard rolled his eyes, which Gabe didn't miss. "Come on gorgeous, let me show you around."

Travie left for the other side of the hangar, and Gabe and Vicky led them into the station proper. It was not what Gerard was used to. Everything was in loud, garish colors, and there was more of a party atmosphere. Vicky was the one giving the tour, while Gabe would give them anecdotes of something funny that had happened at various locations.

"You okay?" Lindsey asked. Gerard realized he was staring ahead at Grant and Frank, who were holding hands.

"Yeah, super," Gerard replied, and put on a fake smile. "That Gabe guy is kind of intense huh?"

"Yeah, and he thinks you're hot," she said to him, giving him a nudge in the arm. "I say go for it."

Gerard laughed, and shook his head. "Nah, I'm all right." She gave him a dubious look, and he added, "No, really, I'm great." They'd fallen behind the others, and Lindsey lowered her voice.

"You're a terrible liar."

Gerard sighed. "I know. But I mean... Look at them." Frank was listening to something Gabe was saying, but had his head on Grant's arm. "They're happy. Grant's been alone for a long time, and he deserves someone nice. And Frank, same deal. I'm happy for them, really."

"I know you are," she said to him. "But you're pretty fucking miserable."

"I'll get over it. And who knows, maybe once this is all over I'll meet someone nice." There was optimism in Gerard's tone that he didn't feel, and he was proud of himself for it. "Don't worry about me."

"That's not gonna happen," Lindsey replied, and squeezed his arm.

"I know." They had fallen way behind, and they went to catch up. They did just in time to hear the start of a funny story involving Gabe and a very small green monkey that had gotten loose on the station.

It turned out that Cobra Station was the last bit of fun they were to have. They were weeks out, and couldn't make a direct hyperspace jump to the planet. As the system was uncharted, it was up to them to create the charts. Thankfully, Grant had experience in that area, and with Frank's help he was able to map the system. 

He was continually amazed at how talented Frank was, though he shouldn't have been. Frank was proving to be a genius in so many areas it was sometimes difficult for Grant to keep up.

Lindsey had quite a few hidden talents of her own. She had been described as a mechanic, true, but Grant found her to be more of an engineer. She loved to build, and with tools and supplies that they'd picked up at Cobra, she was working on something she called a secret defense project. Grant hadn't the slightest idea what it was, but she assured him it would be useful when they reached the planet.

Gerard had been putting his people skills to good use, as Pete was becoming increasingly antsy the longer they were in space. But Patrick, with Gerard's help, had been able to keep him out of trouble.

It was a long trip, and at last, they reached their final destination. The atmosphere in the ship tingled with excitement, as Frank announced over the PA, "All crew get your asses up here, you're gonna wanna see this." Grant and Gerard had been reviewing one of the charts, and he shot Grant a grin before bolting from his seat and running up the stairs.

Grant followed at a more sedate pace, and was the last one to arrive. Frank and Lindsey were at their stations, while Gerard, Pete, and Patrick were leaning on the backs of their chairs, staring out the window. They were close now, and Grant stared in wonder.

There it was, several times the size of Earth, with three moons and various other rock formations orbiting around the planet. It looked as though a few meteors had broken against the atmosphere rather than burned up. The planet itself, rather than being the green and blue of Earth, was instead purple and red. The pictures had prepared him for it, but they paled in comparison.

"DUDE LOOK! Blue clouds!" Pete said, pointing over Lindsey's shoulder.

"Why is the water purple?" Patrick asked. "Like, the whole planet, all the water is purple."

Gerard didn't say anything, instead he was content to watch in fascination.

Frank was running a scan, and when it finished he grinned and looked at Grant. "No signs of Delta Corp. We're definitely the first ones here."

"I am relieved to hear it," Grant told him, and squeezed his hand.

They were broken out of their reverie by Lindsey asking, "So... Where are we gonna land?"

"Fuck, I dunno," Frank replied.

"I suggest we fly over, take in as many scans as we can. We can decide on the best location after that," Grant said.

Frank nodded, and went to do as Grant said. He then told the others, "Looks like we'll be doing the scenic route. Anyone expecting a tour can fuck right off."

"Ugh! No tour? I want my money back," Pete said in a snotty tone, and Gerard laughed.  His laugh sounded shrill, almost forced, and Grant looked at him for a moment. But Gerard had already turned his attention back to the planet.

For hours, they flew over. There was so much to see, but Grant was looking for something in particular. But the planet was so massive, it was going to be difficult to narrow down an area. Over the largest continent, Patrick made a suggestion.

"What if instead we select an area for base camp that has what we need, and hopefully won't have adverse weather? If it doesn't suit us, we can always move on."

Grant thought about it, then nodded. "You're right. Frank, go back about two hundred kilometers, I saw a valley back there I think would suit our purposes."

"You got it, boss."

"Excellent. Everyone else, get your envirosuits on. We'll need to take air and water samples right away."

"Aye aye captain," Lindsey said jokingly. Gerard snorted, and followed her out, Patrick and Pete on their heels.

Alone in the cockpit, Grant smiled and kissed the top of Frank's head. "You did it."

"We did it," Frank corrected, but he was smirking.

They'd chosen a valley with a nice, grassy clearing to land in. There was a lot of vegetation around, and a river as well. It was as good a place as any to set up base camp, and they were ready to explore.

It was when Lindsey was helping him with the straps on his envirosuit that it hit Gerard. It was really happening. He was going to set foot on an untamed, alien planet. He felt both excited and sick, like something was about to go wrong. Though his feelings didn't seem to be shared by the others.

Pete was bouncing around in excitement, while Patrick was carefully checking his oxygen supply and occasionally telling Pete to shut up. Lindsey was grinning as she helped him with his suit, already locked into hers. Frank was just as antsy as Pete, while Grant appeared as calm as ever.

Gerard wanted to go to him, ask him how he was feeling. Maybe even ask for some advice. But when Frank went over to him and bumped his arm, Gerard stayed where he was. He turned back to Lindsey, who was giving him a significant look.

"Don't," he told her.

"Not saying anything," she promised.

Once everyone had their helmets on and did a mic check, Grant hit the controls, and the door opened. Gerard wasn't sure what he had expected, but absolute stillness didn't seem right.

Grant was the first out, followed closely by Frank. But they were easily surpassed by Pete who ran out screaming, "One small step motherfuckers!"

"I fucking hate you," Patrick said, and Pete's laughter echoed over the radio.

"So how are we doing this?" Frank asked.

Gerard held up a small metallic box for Frank to see. "I use this, and if it's safe to breathe I take off my helmet."

"Wait what?" Frank said but Gerard waved his hand, a signal for Frank to be quiet.

“The readings you got from your ship did say the air is breathable. But we need to make sure there isn't some atmospheric imbalance that could cause issues, either now or later. That's what the machine is going to check for.”

Gerard didn't waste time comforting Frank. He needed to focus on work, though that was a little difficult when suddenly everyone's attention was on him. It made sense though, that if the tester kit was wrong he be the first to try.

Everyone else on the team was too valuable, and Gerard was the only one who didn't bring anything indispensable to the table. Or at least that was what he'd told Grant. He had agreed to let Gerard be the guinea pig the previous week. Grant had tried to argue, but couldn't in the face of Gerard’s logic.

Gerard activated the kit, which unfolded steadily. He put it down, and watched as it turned into a full console with a holographic interface. He selected the correct conditions that were needed for them to breathe, glad that everyone on the team was from Earth. It would cut down on any complications for the testing.

As he waited for the machine to do its work, he was glad to see the focus was off of him once again. Pete and Patrick were crowded around a plant that looked like a Triffid, though it didn't appear to have any legs. Lindsey was poking at a rock with her foot, while Frank was taking pictures, Grant by his side.

Gerard sighed, and looked at the analysis as it finished. The air didn't have any known toxins or imbalances, and it was the moment of truth. For one reckless moment, Gerard entertained the idea of not calling the others. He could take off his helmet, and if there was anything wrong, he could...

But he shook himself out of it. He couldn't even think those thoughts. It would hurt Lindsey and Grant if they knew, and maybe even Patrick and Pete. Frank he wasn't so sure about, but Gerard had enough affection for him that he wouldn't want to put him through that either.

"Pete, get over here, we're ready to roll."

Pete looked up from the plant and skipped over to Gerard, who could see him grinning from several meters away.

"You ready?" He asked, and Gerard gave him a thumbs up. He undid the catches on his helmet, and carefully removed it.

He was glad that his lungs didn't instantly explode, or that he wasn't inhaling some unknown poison. The air was cooler than he thought it would be, and there was a light breeze. He sniffed a bit, and said, "I smell lilies."

Pete looked around and said, "I don't see any flowers, Gee."

"Yeah me neither. Maybe the whole planet just smells like that?" Gerard wondered aloud. The others were coming over now, Frank and Grant holding hands. Gerard pretended not to notice.

Pete was running diagnostics with the console, and he said, "Okay looks like Gerard's not gonna die on us. Air's safe to breathe." And with that, Pete immediately removed his helmet, grinning at the others.

Slowly, everyone followed suit, putting their helmets by the console. There were sighs, and Lindsey even laughed.

"That's one hurdle out of our way," Grant said. "We'll need to split into teams, explore the immediate area. Patrick, you'll be teaming with Pete, Frank you and Lindsey--"

"No!" Gerard shouted, then blushed when everyone turned to him, varying expressions of surprise on their faces. "That is, uh... We should have one technical person and one scientist on each team."

Grant gave him a strange look, but he didn't argue. "Then Gerard you go with Lindsey, and Frank you're with me. Split up, and meet back here in an hour."

Pete and Patrick went west, Frank and Grant went north, and Gerard and Lindsey headed east.

"Real smooth," she teased, and he sighed.

"I fucking panicked okay?"

She smiled and threw her arm around his shoulders, giving him a squeeze. "I figured. Come on Chekov let's go explore this strange new world."

"Aw why do I gotta be Chekov?" Gerard asked, frowning. "Shouldn't I be Spock or something?"

"With how emotional you are? You're totally Chekov. Patrick's McCoy he's fucking cranky like McCoy," Lindsey said and Gerard laughed.

"So who're you then?"

In probably the worst accent he'd ever heard, Lindsey said, "I'm Scottie!"

He laughed, and said, "I think I can hear your ancestors rolling over in their graves."

"They can suck it, because that was hilarious." She smiled and he managed to smile back. "Come on, let's see if this planet has Tribbles."

They managed for a week before something went wrong. During that time the team had already made some fascinating discoveries. Patrick was the one who determined why the water was purple.

"There's a very tiny difference on the molecular level," he'd explained to Frank. Pete wasn't there to hang off his every word, and Patrick loved to lecture. "But the most significant difference, I've found, is that the water has algae in it."

"Algae?" Frank asked, looking at the beaker of purple liquid Patrick was swirling around.

"Yes. It's very small, almost microscopic. But there's so much of it that it's changed the water for the entire planet."

"Can we drink it?" Frank asked.

"Certainly, though don't boil it first," Patrick warned.

"Why not?"

In answer, Patrick pointed at another beaker, the contents of which seemed pretty solid and a violent shade of yellow. Frank made a face at that, and decided he'd lay off the local water, at least for now.

And it was Lindsey who first spotted the burleys. Frank was sure the animals would all get long, scientific names later, but for now everyone called them burleys. Lindsey said the name just fit, and it certainly seemed to.

They were about the size of hippos, and covered in orange fur with blue stripes. They came to the river to drink, but didn't often stick around. They could move surprisingly fast for such large animals, though they preferred to lumber about at a leisurely pace, and graze around the river.

They didn't seem to mind their party one bit. One had even snuck up behind Gerard and stuck its nose directly in his hair, making him cry out in surprise. It made everyone else laugh and Gerard flipped them off.

Gerard determined they were coming from a thicket of trees that was at the edge of the valley, which he was dying to explore but Grant had forbidden it. "At least for the time being, I'd rather we fully map this part of the valley first."

They'd found plenty to keep them busy in that regard. Frank was having the time of his life. Cataloging plants, observing the burleys, and then there had been discovering the octofrogs.

Pete had been in the river water, fucking around but also helping Patrick with gathering aquatic plants, and then he felt something attach to his bare ankle. He'd screamed and fallen in the water, only to emerge with several small creatures with tentacles stuck to him.

Patrick had nearly killed himself laughing, before helping Pete to gently disentangle the small creatures. Frank had taken several pictures.

They were a dark blue-ish green color, with bright pink eyes and heads similar to frogs. But their little bodies had tentacles protruding out of them, which was what they used to latch onto rocks, plants, and Pete. They were harmless, and subsisted off of the plants that lived in the river.

But they swarmed Pete every time he got in the water. Patrick's hypothesis was that Pete was the only one dumb enough to go in the river barefoot.

Towards the end of the week, Grant had wandered off alone a few times, and while the valley wasn't large, it did worry Frank a little. It worried him even more when Grant wasn't back by lunch time.

"I'm gonna go look for him," said Frank, but Gerard had jumped up at that.

"Wait! I'm coming too!" Gerard caught up to Frank, pulling a pack on as he did so. They left camp together, Frank setting a brisk pace that Gerard seemed to keep up with easily.

"What's in the bag?" Frank asked as they walked.

"Uh... First aid kit, water, and a camera. Oh also a sketch book," Gerard told him.

"No food?" Frank teased.

Gerard frowned, looking back in the direction of the camp. "I can go back for a couple sandwiches?"

"Gee, I'm kidding, c'mon," said Frank, and they headed in the direction of the copse of trees.

"We haven't been finding any bugs," said Gerard, and Frank looked at him, bewildered.


Gerard blushed a little, then explained. "It's something I find weird. We should have found dozens of new species of insects by now, and nothing. Patrick thinks that the ecosystem has somehow managed to survive without them, but I don't think that's right."

"Well, it's cold out? So maybe the bugs are in hiding or something because of the cold," Frank offered, and Gerard beamed at him. It was good to see him smile, he hadn't been doing much of that lately.

They kept walking, chatting about different subjects. They were on 20th century horror films when they reached the trees, and the sight that met them was a shock. Grant was sprawled on the ground, and though he was conscious, he appeared to be out of it.

Frank went to his side immediately, but didn't want to touch him too much. Pete had drilled in their heads repeatedly not to disturb a person if it looked like they had suffered a fall. His heart was pounding in his ears, and he was calling Grant's name.

Grant’s eyes opened, and he smiled a little at Frank. "Hello," he said, and Frank couldn't help sighing in relief. Grant looked normal, and didn't seem to be in much pain.

Gerard was on the other side, opening the backpack and taking out the first aid kit. "Are you injured?" He asked.

"I fell," he said, pointing vaguely at a tree. "I appear to have twisted my ankle. I managed to get here to the edge of the trees but I couldn't go any further. I thought it prudent to rest and try again later."

Gerard nodded and set to tending to Grant's ankle, while Frank held his hand. "You're the dumbest smart guy I know," said Frank.

"Oh really? Do tell."

"We've got the buddy system for a fucking reason, Grant," Frank admonished, but he couldn't be stern or angry when he was so relieved that Grant was all right. Grant at least managed to look sheepish.

Frank looked over at Gerard, who was focusing hard on tending to Grant's ankle. He wasn't the medical genius that Pete was supposed to be, but his touch was gentle. "Doesn't look like it's broken," said Gerard.

"Did you bring a radio?" Frank asked, and Gerard blushed.

"I uh... I kind of forgot to?"

"You academic types sure are dumb sometimes,"  Frank teased, and Gerard frowned.

"Hey I didn't see you stuff a radio into your pocket either," Gerard pointed out. He was wrapping Grant's ankle now. "That should help until we get you back to the ship."

"Thank you Gerard," Grant said, giving him a fond smile. Gerard smiled back, but it looked pained.

"I'll go get the others. You should stay with him," Gerard said.

As he was leaving, Frank noticed something and called, "Hey, your backpack!"

"I'll be back for it!" Gerard replied, and set off at a jog.

Frank turned back to Grant, and couldn't help chuckling. "All alone in the woods... Whatever shall we do?"

Grant smiled back and sat up, saying, "I can think of a few things." And he pulled Frank in for a kiss.

It turned out that the sprain was mild, and Grant was only laid up for two days. He was grateful, but he also felt ridiculous. He knew better than to wander off alone, but sometimes he couldn't help himself. Frank had fretted over him the entire time, which Grant didn't protest. He did like the attention.

When he returned to the ship, Lindsey had cursed at him, and then disappeared for two hours. When she returned, she handed everyone flare guns and said, "Here. These have been modified. Now if you run into trouble this will send up a homing beacon so we can find you."

"When did you make these?" Grant asked.

"When we were stuck on board and I didn't have anything else to do." Lindsey replied simply.

"Was this your secret project?" Gerard queried, a puzzled look on his face.

"No, that's something else, and it's not ready yet," Lindsey told him.

That got everyone curious, and speculating about what Lindsey could possibly be up to.

"Maybe it's a death ray," Pete said.

"Maybe it's a robot," Frank offered.

"Maybe it's something she made up to keep you fuckers busy and out of her business," Patrick said through gritted teeth. He'd been trying to analyze one of the grass samples, becoming increasingly annoyed by Frank and Pete's conversation. Grant had done his best to suppress a laugh.  

Pete shrugged, then tapped Gerard on the shoulder. "You know her best, what do you think it is?"

"I don't know, but it'll be amazing."

Three weeks later, Gerard and Lindsey went up in one of the shuttles, but didn't bother explaining where they were going or why. They'd cut the radio off, so they weren't able to reach them that way.

"Okay this is getting fucking suspicious," Frank said, frowning. "You don't think she's a mole, do you?” One of the first rules when they landed had been to shut off all forms of communication to prevent tracking, and Lindsey had been very unhappy about it.

The last transmission they'd made had been to Cobra to let them know they'd arrived, and to start the countdown for the three month trial. Lindsey had asked to make one more call, but Grant had been forced to refuse. He didn't want to risk Delta Corp overhearing anything.

"Gerard trusts her implicitly," Grant had told him. "And so do I."

Hours later, the alarm for the homing beacons went off, and Pete and Frank responded, leaving Patrick and Grant alone on the ship. Patrick kept quiet, but it was obvious that he was worried about Pete. Grant did the only thing he could think of to comfort him, he gave him more work to hopefully keep his mind off of it.

They were studying one of the octofrogs when they came back, Gerard and Pete carrying Lindsey onto the ship. She and Gerard looked as though they'd been in a crash, and it turned out that was exactly what happened.

"It was debris from one of those asteroids in orbit," Lindsey said, as Pete worked on her leg. She'd taken a chunk of shrapnel in her thigh and he was doing his best to stitch it together. But she was sitting up, awake and alert. "It hit the left engine and we were going down in seconds."

"Fuck! Are those asteroids made of fucking adamantium?! It shouldn't have taken down the whole engine like that!" Frank said.

"We've got a piece of it, so we can find out," Gerard said, then looked over at Lindsey. He was holding her hand, and she was clutching his back. She was clearly in pain, but didn't cry out.

"Which leaves the question of what you two were doing up there in the first place," Grant said sternly. He could understand Lindsey's love of the dramatic, but this was going too far.

Lindsey sighed, and pulled a remote out of her jump suit. "I was setting up our defenses."

"What now?" Patrick asked, raising an eyebrow.

"We don't want Delta Corp jumping us right? I've been working on that for over a month." She patted Frank's shoulder and gestured to one of the hand held consoles, asking him to bring it to her. He did, and after she hit the button on the remote, she turned on the console and explained everything.

"See I got the idea from Cobra's defense system. They have that EMP field that keeps out ships they don't want visiting the station. Sounded like a good idea but I figured something less extreme was in order. We don't need ships crashing into the planet."

She pulled up the information on the console, and showed everyone. She'd placed nearly 40 relay stations around the planet, each emitting a field of energy. Grant smiled. "You created a force field."

"Yeah. It only works on ships though, so if they decide to just parachute in or something it won't do much good."

Grant pulled her into a hug, which was difficult with how she was positioned, but they managed. "That was brilliant, thank you."

"Hey, no problem." Grant let her go, and saw that she was smiling and looking quite pleased with herself.

"So what about the shuttle? Is it a total loss?" Frank asked.

"Nah, I can fix it. May as well get started on that now since I probably won't be out and about for a while," Lindsey said, gesturing to her leg.

"I'd say you'll be back to your evil ways in about two weeks, one if you actually listen to me and stay off that leg," said Pete, putting the finishing touches on her sutures.

"I can help!" Gerard said, looking at Lindsey. "Anything you need, I'll be there."

"Aw Gee, you're the sweetest," Lindsey said, and pinched his cheek. Gerard laughed, and Grant felt a twinge of jealousy, though why he wasn't sure.

Grant nodded and said, "Gerard you'll be doing the home studies until Lindsey is better. Patrick, Pete, I'll need you back in the field."

"YES!" Pete said, doing a fist pump. "I get to go visit my babies!"

"They're not your babies Pete, and you need to stop encouraging the octofrogs to cling to you like that. You could end up developing an allergy," Patrick said.

"Nah, they're my babies, they love me," Pete replied, still grinning.

"I hate you a lot."

"No you don't."

"Awww, nerds in love!" Frank cooed, then cackled. Patrick flipped him off.

"Come on, let's get Lindsey to her room so she can get some sleep," Gerard told them, and he and Pete picked her up and carried her out of the med bay.

As they went, Grant couldn't help but wonder, would he have been so calm if it had been Gerard who was injured? He would have been inconsolable if it were Frank, but Gerard... He wasn't sure. It was something he didn't want to think about. And when Frank took his hand and kissed it, Grant put it out of his mind.

It didn't take them long to catalogue the life in the valley, nor in the small forest where Grant had been injured. The ecosystem of the planet was just starting to reveal itself, and they needed more information. Which was why Grant, Frank, Gerard, and Patrick were going to explore beyond the valley.

"I still don't see why Lindsey couldn't come," Gerard said, a bit of a whine in his voice.

Grant chuckled. "She's still recovering from her accident, I would prefer that she stay at the ship."

"And you didn't want Pete out here," Frank teased.

Patrick was checking his bag for the fourth time, and he asked Gerard, "Do you have the flares?"

Gerard nodded, and Patrick strapped his pack on. Grant found it a little funny that even on a planet in the middle of nowhere, Patrick insisted on wearing his hats. He had a collection of them, though where they were stored Grant had no idea.

The four of them set out, taking a shuttle out of the valley and up to one of the ridges surrounding it. Grant felt they didn't need to stray too far, and proffered the shuttle even though they could hike the distance.

But Grant was starting to worry. While the animals and plants they'd discovered were fascinating, he wasn't sure they were quite enough to secure a conservatorship for the planet.

A planet that had yet to be named.

Grant had felt it was only right that Frank name it, but he hadn't decided on anything yet. "I keep calling it Planet X in my head," Frank had said jokingly, and Grant had laughed. For now, its official designation was 9545FI Prime.

When they departed the shuttle, Gerard shivered. "Fuck, you know I think it's actually colder up here than it is down there."

"It makes sense," Patrick told him. "The walls of the valley keep us protected from all this wind."

"So how are we doing this?" Frank asked.

"We split up. Gerard, Patrick, if you would be so kind as to investigate those rock outcroppings. But be careful, and use the flares if you run into trouble," Grant instructed.

"Got it," Patrick said, and he lead Gerard over to the rocks. Patrick was very much a control freak, and while Gerard could be as well, he'd deferred to Patrick each time the two were paired up. It looked as though this occasion would be no exception.

"Frank, you and I are going to be investigating there," Grant said, indicating what looked like the mouth of a cave.

"Oh because we can't possibly run into trouble there," Frank teased.

"According to one of the scans I did yesterday, this might be a way in and out of the valley that wouldn't require shuttles." Grant explained, but he was smirking. "And there may be some worthwhile objects of study there."

"Yeah yeah, let's go for the creepy cave," Frank replied, rolling his eyes. They made sure to secure some ropes to rocks at the entrance. That would keep them from getting lost, or so Grant hoped. After a quick radio check, they were ready. However, Frank held Grant's hand as they entered the cave.

They lit their torches, and as they walked, Frank said, "Fuck is it me or is it really hot in here?"

"It's certainly warmer than outside." It was humid, and Grant could see steam along the ceiling. It made Grant raise an eyebrow, and he was about to comment when he heard Frank softly curse.

He looked forward, and saw there was an eerie, blue glow coming from up ahead. "The fuck is that?" Frank asked.

"There's only one way to find out," Grant said, and they kept moving forward.

They found themselves at the edge of a lake. Instead of the purple water they were used to seeing, it was Caribbean blue. And it was softly glowing.

"Uh... Don't see any zombies in the water do you?" Frank asked, edging away from it.

"No, and I suspect the glow is likely from something in the water rather than the water itself," said Grant. He carefully extracted a vial from his pack, and gathered a sample. When he pulled away he said, "Frank I'm going to need the temperature gauge from your bag."

Frank exchanged the gauge for the vial, an apprehensive look on his face. Grant lowered the gauge in, and after a minute he said, "That's what I thought."

"What?" Frank asked.

"The heat and humidity are coming from the water," Grant told him. "Like a hot spring."

"Can we swim in it?" Frank asked, raising a curious eyebrow.

"I'm not sure. I'll need to get some probes out, this water might be fathoms deep. And I'll want to collect samples of the rocks as I believe that's where the light is coming from."

Frank was about to ask more, but there was a crackle and their radios activated. "You guys need to come see this, we found something!" Gerard said excitedly.

Unsure what to make of it, Frank and Grant walked back out. The path seemed more treacherous this time, and Grant was glad they'd used the lines to help them find their way back. Once they were clear, Frank called, "Hey where are you guys?"

Gerard appeared from behind some rocks, waving his arms. "Over here! You have to see this!"

Frank and Grant joined him, and Gerard led the way to a small, craggy area where Patrick was kneeling, taking pictures of something on the ground.

"We found nests!" Gerard said, grinning. On the ground were small nests made up of black reeds, with broken egg shells and bits of fur littering the ground.

"There's also tracks, so watch your step, I want to fully catalogue all of them," Patrick said, still taking pictures.

Grant looked down, and indeed there were various tracks in and around the nests. He began taking pictures himself as Gerard said, "Patrick guesses these nests have been abandoned for a few months."

"It's my best guess, I can't say for sure without observing more of the weather patterns here. But it looks like there were some adults and a hell of alot of infants," Patrick explained. "The tracks are pretty interesting."

"How so?" Frank asked. He'd taken a small digital notepad out of his pocket, and was writing down what Patrick said. When he caught Grant's eye, he winked. Grant smiled back at him, glad to see he was taking his role as a student seriously.

"They almost look like rodent tracks mixed with lizard and something else," Patrick said to him. He turned and shooed Gerard and Frank back, pointing at one set in particular. "See there? There's little pads like you'd see with a rodent or maybe a cat, but the way the toes split off makes it look more like a lizard. And there's indentations in the ground from claws."

"Nasty," Frank said. He put his notepad down for a moment to look closer. "So it's like some weird combo animal?"

"I won't know until we find whatever made these. Also I'd like to see if I can find where these came from," Patrick said, gesturing at the reeds. "There's nothing like them in the valley and I'm assuming they'd have to be around here somewhere."

"We'll have to leave it for later," Grant said. "I'd prefer to get back to the ship before dark."

"I don't--" But Frank cut himself off and shrieked. "What the fuck is THAT?!"

He'd gone to pick up his notepad, and there was something lying on it. Grant said quietly, "Frank, stand slowly, and come to me please. Patrick, Gerard, back up." They did as he said, and once Frank was safe, he leaned forward to look at it.

It had colorful fur around its face and the top of its body, but the feet and underbelly were dark red scales much like the color of the local plant life. Its body was long, and reminded Grant of a ferret, while its ears and tail reminded him of a cat. The snout however was very reminiscent of a lizard. It flicked its tongue out for a moment, then wrapped its tail around the notebook and took off.

"Hey get back here!" Frank said, tone indignant.

"...Did that thing just steal--" Gerard asked, but Grant interrupted him.

"It certainly did," it was hard to keep the amusement out of his voice. "Come on."

The group chased after the little creature, and what they found was surprising. They came to a hill, where there were dozens of the creatures about. When they approached, several dove underground into holes, while others sat up on their hind legs like meerkats. The one that had stolen Frank's notepad seemed to reconsider, and let it go before running for cover.

"You little asshole," Frank said as he picked it up. There were only two or three left, and they stood at the top of the hill, staring at the group.

"What do you think they're doing?" Gerard asked, and Patrick shrugged.

"Fuck if I know."

"Likely attempting to determine if we mean them harm," said Grant.

"Oh man I need the fiber optics!" Gerard said excitedly. "Can you imagine what it looks like down there?"

Grant chuckled. "I take it you would like to study these creatures?"

"Please?" Gerard turned to him, excited. "They're so cool! They're like alien cat ferret Gila monster things!"

Grant thought about it. Gerard had been having some trouble focusing; it wasn't as though Grant had missed his sudden downturn in mood, but he was reluctant to speak with Gerard about it. Mostly because he wasn't sure if he could or even should help. A project sounded like just the thing to get him back to his old self, so he nodded.

"I'll leave them to you, then. But don't come up here by yourself. Bring Patrick or Lindsey with you."

"It'll have to be Lindsey," Patrick said. "I've got something else I'm studying down in the valley. That strange plant from when we first got here? I think might have some curative properties."

"Very well." Grant looked at Frank, who was glaring at the little creatures and flipping them off. "Shall we return to the ship?"

"Hang on!" Gerard got his camera out, and snapped some pictures of the little animals. "I'm gonna call them quarrels."

"I'm gonna call them toast if they try to take my shit again," Frank said sourly.

Grant laughed and threw an arm around Frank's shoulders. "Let's go."

Frank was still grumbling, but there was a little smile tugging at the edge of his mouth. Gerard was talking excitedly about what he would do in order to study the quarrels, while Patrick determined they should be kept away from Pete at all costs. "We don't need a repeat of the octofrogs."

Grant felt that it had been a good day.

Pete and Frank were having coffee in the med bay, Pete asking Frank a few questions about his health. Frank was pretty sure he was doing it to pass the time rather than anything serious. They were on Frank’s sexual history (Pete teasing him about Grant of course) when they heard shouting.

The doors to the medbay burst open, and Lindsey and Gerard were practically carrying Patrick into the room. Patrick was normally pale, but now he was sickly white. His eyelids were fluttering, and he groaned quietly.

Pete went into business move immediately, pulling on rubber gloves as he asked, “What’s wrong with him?”

“He took a hit of spores to the face,” said Gerard. “Then he collapsed.”

Frank moved out of the way, but didn’t leave the room. The look on Pete’s face made him pause. His jaw was set, lips pursed, eyes intense as he instructed Gerard and Lindsey help Patrick to a gurney. However, his touch was gentle as he examined Patrick.

“Patrick, can you hear me?” Pete asked, and Patrick groaned. “What’s your pain, one to ten?”

Patrick didn’t answer, but instead sang softly, “Where is your boy tonight…”

“Fuck,” Pete cursed, and he went to grab a syringe. He asked Lindsey as he filled it, “Do you know what kind of plant it was?”

“It was the pink and purple one he’s been studying,” she told him.

“Shit.” Pete rushed to grab another syringe and fill that as well.

Gerard asked, “Do you know what’s wrong with him?”

“He’s been getting a lot of samples from that plant. It’s got some sort of weird hallucinogen as a defense mechanism,” Pete explained as he went back to Patrick’s side. “He was studying it for something. I know that he was trying to figure out the reproductive system, but he must have triggered the plant’s defenses instead.”

“Oh shit,” Gerard said softly.

“Exactly. Everyone be quiet now, this is going to take some concentration,” said Pete. Patrick was muttering to himself, his eyes were open but he didn’t seem to be seeing anything, at least nothing that was in the room.

Pete gave Patrick both injections and then gingerly touched his face. “Patrick?”

Patrick turned his gaze to Pete, and smiled a little. “Pete…”

“Hey, you okay?”

“They’re coming,” Patrick replied. “They’re gonna try again! They’re gonna take my hand!”

“No,” Pete replied. “You’re safe, Patrick. No one is gonna hurt you. And they’re gone, they’re not coming back for you.”

But Patrick was shaking, and he started to scream. “Help me strap him down!” Pete said, pinning Patrick to the table. Frank leaped forward and helped Pete hold him down, while Lindsey and Gerard strapped him in. It was at this point that Grant came into the room.

“What’s going on?” He asked.

“Patrick got spores to the face from the weird plant,” Gerard explained, as Patrick continued to scream his head off.

“Is there anything we can do?” Grant asked.

“Check his research, there might be something in there,” Pete told him. “But for now he’s gonna have to sweat it out.”

“What did you give him?” Lindsey asked.

“A tranquilizer and anti-nausea medication.” Pete explained. “They should help, but he’s going to have a hell of a trip. I could only give him a low dose since I don't know what this shit is gonna do to him.”

Hours later, Patrick was still out of it. Occasionally, he would scream like a wounded animal, or an enraged demon. Once he was tied to the gurney, everyone had backed off. Patrick couldn’t hurt himself, or them. Frank had been unwilling to go, because Pete wouldn’t leave Patrick’s side.

Anyone could see this was tearing Pete apart. He carefully checked Patrick’s notes as well as his own, before handing both over to Grant. And Pete was right back at the gurney any time Patrick so much as groaned. Frank hadn't seen this side of Pete before. He was completely focused, and there was no trace of the goofball Frank was used to.

Frank still wasn’t sure if they were dating or not, but he’d never doubt Pete’s devotion to Patrick.

Patrick fell silent, but he wasn’t really sleeping. Occasionally, he’d mutter something, but for the most part he’d been staring into space. They were holding a vigil over him; Lindsey sitting with Gerard, her arm around around his shoulders, while Grant continued to read Patrick’s notes about the plant.

Frank had been trying to make himself useful by fetching coffee no one drank and food that was only picked at rather than eaten. Pete looked close to collapse, so Frank said, “Maybe you should get some sleep.”

Pete shook his head. “He wouldn’t leave me when I was like this, I won’t leave him.”

“When you were like this?” Frank asked, and Pete nodded, his eyes not leaving Patrick’s prone form.

“I’m diagnosed as bipolar, and once several years ago, I hit a real bad patch. I couldn’t sleep, at all, and I was having these thoughts… So I overdosed on my meds. Patrick was there the whole time I was in the hospital.”

Frank wasn’t sure what to say to that. This was another facet of Pete’s personality that Frank was unfamiliar with.There was a dark, haunted look in his eyes, and Frank was pretty sure it wasn’t just because of the suicide attempt.

Which was why Frank asked the question he knew everyone was dying to hear the answer to. “What did Patrick mean about people taking his hand?”

He could practically hear everyone’s heads turning. But Pete continued to stare at Patrick’s pale, distressed face.

“Around the same time I hit that bad patch, Patrick was going for another degree. He thought that psychology would be a nice tie in with biology. He’s so fucking smart, you know? He probably could have just tested out for the whole degree, but he said it was important to do at least one semester of the actual classes.

“He got this professor, guess he fancied himself the next Scarecrow or something because he was always doing these fear experiments. I was so fucking wrapped up in my own shit I totally missed what that fucker was doing to him. Yeah, Patrick’s smart as fuck, but he was still in classes with people older than him. And the professor figured he’d found the perfect subject and asked Patrick to join the study. Patrick just wanted to help.”

Pete swallowed, and Frank thought he was done talking. But he continued.

“He put Patrick through a year of hell, and Trick wouldn’t tell anyone, he thought it would compromise the experiment. The prof had moved way past the point of experiment and was torturing him for fun. What finally broke him was when the guy fucking cut off his hand.”

Frank heard a gasp from Lindsey, and a soft, “oh shit” from Gerard. Pete kept talking, he couldn’t seem to stop himself.

“He reattached it after, he had one of those regenerative lasers. You can’t even tell. But that was it. Patrick was in a constant state of flat out terror. He cut himself off from us, I thought he was just finally sick of my bullshit. But then I found out he wasn’t talking to Joe or Andy, and he hadn’t been to his mom’s house in weeks.

“We found out what was happening to him from the prof’s assistant. She ratted him out because he wouldn’t give her a recommendation. Which what the fuck! She knew- -” Pete cut himself off. “Doesn’t matter, we got Patrick away from him, and we got him help.”

Everyone was silent for a few minutes. But then Gerard got up and went to Pete’s side, asking, “What happened to the professor?”

“He’s dead,” Pete replied, but he didn’t elaborate. Frank had an idea of what happened to the professor, judging by the look on Pete’s face. But he didn’t ask, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

Gerard pulled up a chair, sitting next to Pete. He grasped Pete’s hand, and Pete squeezed back. Frank heard Grant get up, and Frank looked over in time to see him storm out of the room. Frank glanced back to Pete and Gerard, who were staring after Grant in surprised confusion. Frank got up and went to follow him.

He caught up with Grant in one of the lower corridors and called, “Hey, what the fuck Grant?!”

Grant stopped and turned to Frank, looking both mournful and filled with rage. But he got himself under control and said, “I’m sorry. I was angry, I needed to leave.”

Frank stepped closer and pulled Grant into a hug. Grant squeezed him back as Frank said, “You scared the shit outta me.”

Grant leaned down, and gently kissed his lips. “I apologize. I know there are unscrupulous academics out there, but knowing how far another went? It disgusts me. Patrick is a brilliant and sweet young man, that anyone would do that to him…” He trailed off.

“I know what you mean,” said Frank. “When he’s not being a bossy bastard and keeping a leash on Pete, he’s like this marshmallow bunny man he’s so fucking nice. I’d have never guessed he went through something like that.”

“I rather imagine that was the point,” said Grant. He kissed Frank again, and asked, “Accompany me to my quarters? I’ve finished with the research.”

“Did you find anything that could help him?” Frank asked, but Grant shook his head.

“No, unfortunately Pete’s right, Patrick will have to endure it.” Grant replied.

Frank sighed, then hooked his arm with Grant’s. “We should go back to the medbay first, let them know what you found. Then we can go to your place.”

“Excellent idea,” Grant replied.

Patrick took several days to recover, though he was awake and aware the next morning. He wasn't pleased to be put on bed rest, and fought Pete tooth and nail over it. But Pete pulled rank, and told Patrick if he didn't agree to bed rest that he'd lock him in the med bay. Patrick relented, but only if he was given something so he could record his experiences with the Nightmare Vine.

At the name, Pete raised an eyebrow but Patrick said, "It does have vines at the base and that was a nightmare, hence the name."

"Just sounds like something I would come up with."

"I know."

They smiled at each other, and Pete handed him a notebook. Frank had rolled his eyes and left the room.

Frank and Grant had been out exploring the cave with the lake. It turned out that indeed there were natural gases heating the water, and they killed off the purple algae before they got a chance to turn the water yellow from the heat. The rocks were the source of the glow but they couldn't explore that further, as there was a problem.

The lake had been formed by a collapsing cave. Grant had been correct there was an entrance to the valley from the top of the ridge, it was blocked off by the glowing rocks. If they were to try to utilize it, they’d have to drain the lake first or risk flooding the valley.

The lake was fed by a spring they hadn't found the source of yet, and any run off seeped through the cracks at the bottom. Frank had wanted to take a dip, but Grant had advised they wait as it might not be safe.

It was when they were coming back that he saw Patrick was out of bed again. Frank broke off from Grant and said, "Hey if Pete catches you out here he's gonna steal your hat and eat it."

"My pen ran out of ink," Patrick said petulantly.

Frank shrugged and grabbed one of the tablet computers from the supply room. "Here."

"Thanks." Patrick headed back to his room, and Frank followed after him.

"You know, I don't get you guys," said Frank.

"What do you mean?"

"Are you guys together or what?"

Patrick looked at Frank and frowned. "I don't really see how that's any of your business." He didn't sound angry, or even annoyed. But he was giving Frank a stern look.

"Kinda isn't I guess," Frank replied. "I was just curious."

Patrick was still staring at Frank, but then he said, "You know, I like you Frank. But I'm not really comfortable discussing this with you."

That made Frank pause. He was pretty sure that Patrick hated his guts, especially with how Frank had treated Pete when they first met. "Hey, it's cool, I admit I was kinda being nosy."

Patrick went in his room, but left the door open, which Frank took as an invitation. Patrick never left his door open when he wasn't up for visitors. Patrick settled back in bed with a lap desk, and he said, "Now I'm going to have to transcribe everything all over again."

"The tablet scans, you don't have to type it up," Frank pointed out.

Patrick poked around with it, and when he realized Frank was right he sighed. "That's a fucking relief."

"So did Pete tell you he spilled the beans about what happened to you?" Frank asked, and winced. He couldn't seem to help putting his foot in his mouth.

"He told me, yes," Patrick replied. He wasn't looking at Frank, but he appeared to be calm.

"How come it didn't get out?" Frank asked, settling in the chair by Patrick's bed.

"I never had to testify in court because Professor Paulson disappeared. The university bought off as many witnesses as they could with money from the alumni fund." Patrick looked up at him, as if daring him to say something. "I didn't wanna go through it again so I took the money and left the university. Transferred out to Los Angeles. I hated leaving Chicago but I couldn't stay after that."

Frank didn't flinch. "I kind of did the same thing. When Delta Corp fired me I stole and erased all the information I had on this place and haven't looked back. And I wouldn't go back to that part of space or Delta Corp for all the gold on Midas Eight."

"Grant told us you managed to correctly calculate a route back to inhabited space." Patrick was still watching him. "How did it feel?"

"Like I fucking hit the jackpot," Frank said honestly. "I was pretty sure I was going to die. If that jump hadn't worked, I probably would have." It was something Frank didn't like to think about. Those hours trapped in a tiny cockpit that was feeling more and more like a coffin with each passing second. The planet had been a relief, but he'd wanted to go home.

Patrick nodded, looking satisfied. "Yeah, I get that."

But something Patrick said hit Frank as odd. "I thought Pete said the guy was dead."

That made Patrick pause, but then he went back to scanning his notes. "Pete says he is. But as far as the rest of us know, he disappeared."

That certainly gave more credence to Frank's theory about the professor's fate. But watching Patrick's hands tremble as he did his scans, Frank couldn't say he blamed Pete. Frank changed the subject to music, which he knew Patrick loved.

They spent hours talking about different guitars and artists, and when Frank left the room, Patrick was smiling.

 Gerard was excited. He had been given free reign in studying the quarrels, and he loved the little creatures. He spent over a week observing them, and in that time he'd learned some very interesting things.

They came in multiple colors, which didn't seem to have a rhyme or reason. They didn't camouflage well, and they seemed to be omnivores (if the eggs and small rodent like creatures they brought back to their hill was any indication). What was very interesting was when he inserted the fiber optic camera into their mound and observed them.

They were very social creatures, and made one hell of a racket when they were excited about something. Gerard knew they worked like a pack, who shared whatever food or goods they brought back to the mound. He also discovered they really liked to steal shiny things, which was why the camera lasted about a day before one of the quarrels took it and ran. Gerard selected another fiber optic camera that was the same color as the dirt and not nearly as shiny.

So Gerard had to get more creative, and he noticed too that the quarrels communicated by singing. It was eerie to watch, as their voices sounded human. When he'd discovered it, he nearly dropped his notebook in surprise. He wondered if perhaps they would respond to human singing, but he didn't want to test it right away.

Over dinner, he told the rest of the team what he'd found. It had been Lindsey's turn to cook, so they were having vegetarian stew with fresh bread. She was the only one out of their group who could manage to make a decent loaf, and she always made extra. When Gerard mentioned the singing, Pete found it hilarious and said, "Singing rats! That's so fucking cool!"

"They're not rats, Pete."

"What are they then?" Pete asked, smirking.

"I... Don't really know. We don't have a classification for hybrid animals, and that's definitely what these little guys are."

"What else have you learned?" Grant asked. He'd put his spoon down and was looking at Gerard with interest.

Gerard suddenly felt a bit hot under the collar, with everyone staring at him. "They have weird gender structure, I've never seen anything like it in a non sentient species."

"How do you mean?" Frank asked.

"Remember back in the old days? When everyone thought that humans only had two genders?"

"You mean the fucking second Dark Age," Patrick said, snorting.

"Right. These animals seem to have evolved beyond the gender binary," Gerard said. He grabbed his sketchbook and started passing around some of his drawings. "There are male, female, male and female, from male to female, from female to male, and the last two I have no idea what they're supposed to be."

"You were staring at rat genitals all week?" Pete asked, studying one of the sketches.

Gerard flipped him off, then explained his observations. How he figured out the genders, how he figured out which ones actually changed their genders, and concluded with, "There's gotta be some kind of reason for it. Maybe something in the environment necessitated the different variations?"

"Gee we've got people like this on Earth," Frank pointed out but Gerard shook his head.

"We have one of two choices for a physical gender, three if you count intersex. At least outside of genetic engineering and surgery," Gerard reminded him. "We also have people who are born into the wrong body, switch back and forth between genders, are a gender we can't define or don't identify as having a gender at all. These animals seem to reflect the physical rather than the psychological side of that."

Lindsey smiled at that and said to Gerard, "So the next time some illiberal douche sucker says that's not natural according to old outdated shit we can throw a quarrel at him and tell him to sort it out?"

Gerard laughed at that. "That'd be cool, but might hurt the animals." He then said to Grant, "I'd like to spend more time studying them."

Grant was engrossed in the sketches, and when Gerard spoke to him he looked up. "We do need to study the entire ecology of the planet, not just one species."

"I know," Gerard replied. "But I think this could be really important, especially in advancement for different gendered people on Earth."

"He's got a point," Patrick chimed in. "It may be more accepted than it was two hundred years ago but a majority of humans still don't consider it natural."

"Blank humans maybe," Frank interrupted. "Variants aren't as fucked about gender. If you say you're a guy, you're a guy, even if you have tits and a vagina."

Lindsey threw a napkin at Frank and said, "Nice way to put it. But he's right we don't have that same kind of bias. It might give the Blank illiberals something to choke on."

"Which would also give us more of a case for conservation," Gerard concluded.

Grant raised an eyebrow and asked, "And there's no personal interest in this?"

Gerard shrugged. "I could give dozens of scientific reasons that have nothing to do with my non-binary status, but I'm not going to lie and say this doesn't affect me."

"I didn't know you're non-binary," Frank said softly.

"It doesn't come up much, and it can get a little complicated since I still use male specific pronouns," Gerard admitted. "I don't consider it a big deal."

"That's because it's not," Lindsey cut in, then reached over the table and ruffled Gerard's hair, making him laugh.

Grant nodded, and handed the sketches back to Gerard. "You've made your point. If you'd like to make the quarrels your solitary project, I have no objection. So long as you're available on other studies when we need help."

"Oh yeah totally, I'm not gonna like blow you guys off or anything," Gerard promised.

"I wanna see if the quarrels can sing pop music," Pete said.

"What?" Frank said, looking at him in mock horror. "It's gotta be punk or metal, dude."

"No but they're like.... Singing rats, we gotta get them to sing pop. Or zyla."

"No zyla music, I will fucking kill you," Patrick replied.

"You're just jealous because you can't play the pipe accordion."

"Neither can you! You can barely play bass!"

The rest of dinner was Pete, Patrick, and Frank arguing about the best kinds of music, with occasional commentary from Lindsey. Gerard laughed so hard he finally had to stop eating his soup, or he might have gotten sick.

After dinner, when the dishes were cleared away and everyone went to their various tasks, Grant said, "Gerard may I speak with you privately?"

"Sure." He followed Grant to his quarters, and Grant closed the door. "You didn't change your mind, did you?" He sat down in one of the chairs, at Grant's direction.

"No, I haven't, I wanted to apologize," Grant said, sitting across from him.

"For what?" Gerard asked, confused. His brain instantly went to Grant and Frank dating, but that wasn't something Grant would apologize for. And Gerard wouldn't want him to.

"I didn't think about how I phrased my question about your interest in the quarrels," Grant told him. "While you have made me aware you're non-binary, I know you're not... Out, to everyone."

Gerard frowned at that. "It's not something I'm ashamed of."

"But it's also something you don't like to discuss, as you said."

Gerard gave an exasperated sigh. "I'm not mad at you for that. If I'd wanted to avoid the subject entirely I would have ignored you questioning my personal interest. Give me a little credit, I can redirect a conversation away from that topic."

Grant was giving him a considering look, and finally, he smiled. "I suppose you're right. Then I'm sorry for underestimating you."

"It's okay."

Grant held his hand out for Gerard's sketch book, which he still had from dinner. Gerard gave it to him, and Grant was thumbing through the pages again. "These are beautiful. Why did you decide to sketch the quarrels rather than photograph them?"

"I did take pictures. Regular and holo," Gerard said. "I just... I dunno I was reading up on some of the old explorers? The ones who studied animals for hours to draw them and I wanted to try it out."

"You haven't drawn anything in ages," said Grant.

"Yeah, I know. That's the other reason. And you know they make pretty good subjects."

Grant chuckled. "I'm sure they do." He selected one of the sketches, the one that happened to be Gerard's favorite. It was a male to female quarrel, and she'd spent half of the day lying out in the sun, looking like roadkill. Gerard had been concerned, until he got close enough to really look at her. She'd bolted upright, squawked at him, then found another patch of sun to sleep in.

"May I keep this one?" Grant asked.

"Sure," Gerard said. It was his favorite sketch, but if it was Grant's too, Gerard didn't mind if he kept it.

They talked a bit longer, about gender politics and the quarrels. When Gerard felt himself drooping, Grant gave back the sketch book and said, "I believe it's bedtime for us both. Sleep well."

"Thanks, you too."

Back in his own bed, with the lights out, Gerard couldn't help smiling as he thought about the conversation. Grant had been concerned about him, and apologized for something that was kind of silly. He hadn't been offended by Grant's question, it was a legitimate concern as personal interest had ruined more than one scientific discovery.

What Gerard took from the conversation though, was that Grant still cared. And that made Gerard smile until he fell asleep.

Frank hadn't figured that Gerard would want everyone along for the sound experiments. It seemed like the kind of thing that would piss the quarrels off, or at least scare them so they didn't want to interact with anyone. But he'd insisted, saying that a wide range of voices was needed.

They discovered a few things that still made Frank laugh when he thought about them.

The first, was that Pete couldn't sing. Or that he couldn't sing very well. One quarrel came out of the nest and made an aggressive chittering noise in Pete’s direction. Frank had joked that Pete probably insulted its mother and Pete had flipped him off.

The next person they tried was Lindsey. That was enough to get the critters out of their holes, and watching the group curiously. After Lindsey was Frank, which got the quarrels sitting back on their hind legs and looking around tensely.

"I think that must mean some kinda danger thing to them," Frank said.

"That's my hypothesis," Gerard agreed. Grant got about the same reaction that Pete did from the quarrels, but they didn't go back into their nest.

Patrick was next, and Pete was grinning. "They're gonna love it. Patrick's got a golden voice, like you will fucking cry when you hear it."

"Cry from relief maybe," Frank teased. "I think my ears still hurt from your singing."

Patrick didn't look nearly as confident in his singing abilities, but on Gerard's cue, he did sing. It was an oldie, something from the revised glam glitter rock movement from the previous century. But Frank realized, Pete was right. If Patrick weren't already a scientist with several degrees, Frank would recommend he go into music.

The quarrels seemed to really like it. They moved closer to listen to Patrick sing, a few even flopping over and going right to sleep. Frank and Lindsey were trying to stifle their laughter, not wanting Patrick to think they were laughing at him. He looked pretty damned uncomfortable.

When Patrick finished, Gerard grinned at him and said, "That was great! And they really liked it!"

"Great, I can form my own fan base of alien ferrets," Patrick said sarcastically, a small smile on his face.

"Oh yeah! Patrick's the ferret charmer!" Pete said, laughing and throwing his arms around Patrick. Patrick gave him a light shove.

"Are we done?" Patrick asked.

"I think one more person needs to sing," said Grant, looking at Gerard. Gerard was blushing.

"Yeah well if I'd known I was gonna be singing after that I'd have gone first," Gerard replied, looking embarrassed.

"Oh c'mon Gee, you can do it!" Lindsey encouraged.

"You made me sing so you have to," Frank pointed out.

"Yeah what Frank said," Patrick agreed.

Gerard frowned, but then sighed. "Okay."

Frank wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but a Judy Garland song sure as hell hadn't been it. Gerard had a rough edge to his voice, and clearly wasn't a trained singer. But Frank thought it sounded pretty damned good.

The quarrels agreed. More of them came out of hiding, making pleased noises and one was even running in circles. They seemed to like it much better than Patrick's singing, which was pretty surprising.

When Gerard stopped singing, one quarrel came up to him and sat on its hind legs, tilting its head side to side. It had something in its mouth, and they found out what it was when the quarrel dropped it at Gerard's feet.

"What the hell?" Pete asked.

"It's an egg," Gerard replied, looking at it carefully. "It's not one of theirs."

"These things lay eggs?" Lindsey asked, and Gerard nodded.

"Yeah, big orange ones." Gerard gingerly picked the egg up. It was small and green, with blue speckles on it. "It's kinda pretty, I wonder what it belongs to."

But the quarrel wasn't done. It kept bringing Gerard things out of the ground, while the rest of the quarrels sat back and cheered it on (or so Frank guessed, it was hard to know what they were actually doing). It brought Gerard another egg, a dead mouse looking creature, a button that had come off one of their coats, and last of all, a plant.

The roots were still intact, and it was a beautiful specimen. It looked like a blue and gold lily that was gently glowing.

"'Oooo," cooed Lindsey. "That's beautiful."

"Is it toxic?" Patrick asked warily.

"It doesn't seem to be, but we'll have to run tests." Gerard replied. He'd been sitting on the ground by their mound, letting the quarrel bring him things. He held a hand out for it to sniff, which it did gladly.

It made a terrifying sound, and Frank couldn't tell if it was purring or growling. But when it bumped its head against Gerard's hand and rubbed, Frank was pretty sure it didn't mean Gerard any harm.

Gerard grinned and carefully pet the creature, saying, "I'm gonna name you Jolene."

"Jolene?" Patrick asked.

Gerard was still grinning as he sang, "Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, please don't you take my man."

Lindsey laughed at that, shaking her head. The quarrel, Jolene, seemed to like this development, and threw itself into Gerard's lap, belly exposed and eyes closed.

"Aww it likes you!" Pete said. "Okay so Gerard's been adopted by a quarrel, we can leave him, they'll take it from here. Teach him the ways of this strange planet you weird scaly things."

"Don't be an asshole," said Patrick, smacking Pete's shoulder lightly.

Frank couldn't help grinning at Gerard as the other quarrels went back to the mound, apparently finished. Jolene was still lying on Gerard, and Frank asked, "What's it feel like?"

"Like a cat with the world's worst case of mange is lying on me," Gerard told him. But he looked so happy, and it was infectious.

Everyone spent the next hour cooing over Jolene, trying to see if they could get it to react to them like Gerard had. But clearly, Gerard was Jolene's favorite. And when it came time to leave, it made sad hooting noises that made Frank stop and stare at it.

"It's okay, I'll be back tomorrow," Gerard assured the quarrel. Frank doubted that Jolene understood, but it did return to the mound where the rest of the quarrels were bedding down for the night.

"Gerard, you're the coolest fucking person on this expedition besides me and Patrick," Pete said, grinning.

"That was so awesome," Lindsey agreed.

Gerard was blushing, but he was smiling so hard it had to hurt. He was very carefully holding the flower that the quarrel had brought him, and he said, "If this turns out to be non toxic I wanna keep it."

"Absolutely. Just let me get a look at it first," Patrick assured him. "Then you can have it back."


Grant had slowed his pace, and Frank did the same. Grant was staring at Gerard with a small smile on his face and he said, "I think today went very well."

"A space ferret asked Gerard to marry it," Frank replied. "Today was awesome."

Grant laughed, and they linked hands. Together they trailed behind the others on the way back to the ship.

It was Gerard's turn to make dinner, and he was having a slight panic attack. He wasn't sure what to make, and he wasn't as good a cook as some of the others. At least he wasn't as bad as Grant (who only knew how to make two dishes). He was going through the cabinets, and Gerard sighed in exasperation.

"Everything okay?" Gerard turned around to see Frank at the entrance of the galley.

"Yeah everything's great except I don't know what to make and I'd like for you guys to not starve to death," said Gerard.

Frank smiled and went to the cabinets. "Let me help you."

"Frank, you cooked yesterday."

"Yeah but you look like you're about to cry."

Gerard smiled. "You're a fucking life saver, Frank Iero."

Frank got out a pan and said, "I'm gonna show you how to make my favorite vegetarian Italian dish."

"That kind of seems like a contradiction in terms," Gerard pointed out, but Frank grinned at him.

"Nah, it can still be Italian even if it's vegetarian."

Frank got the supplies together, and step by step, showed Gerard how to make spinach and mushroom lasagna. It took ages, since most of it was chopping vegetables. Gerard had been in charge of mincing garlic, and after about ten minutes said, "I fucking hate this."

"You're part Italian, you should love garlic," Frank teased.

"Yeah well I'm also half Scottish and possibly part vampire and I don't like the way it's sticking to me," Gerard said, holding his hands up. Indeed, small bits of garlic were stuck to his fingers, and he whined, "And it burns."

Frank laughed and shook his head. "Just push the little bits off and wash your hands. I think that's enough."

Gerard did as Frank said, then asked, "So where'd you get this recipe anyway?"

"My grandmother," Frank explained. "She passed this on to me before I went to the training school. Said I'd probably be cooking for myself and I should know how to make something that wasn't totally disgusting."

Gerard raised an eyebrow at that and asked, "Did you use it a lot?"

Frank snorted. "Not hardly. The schools have changed since her age, they don't do stuff like communal cooking anymore."

"I'm sorry." Gerard wasn't sure what else to say to that, but Frank smiled.

"I get to use it now," Frank pointed out. "I wanted to save it for a special occasion."

Gerard raised an eyebrow, a little confused. "So you saved it for when I was having a meltdown?"

Frank laughed. "I was saving it for when I could cook it with someone. Now seems like the best time. And you know, I am glad I could share this with you."

Gerard blushed at that, and went back to layering the vegetables with the ricotta and pesto mixture. Gerard was surprised you could make a lasagna without sauce or meat, and he said to Frank, "I hope this tastes okay."

"It's gonna be great, I promise," Frank replied.

"I'm not the best cook," Gerard pointed out.

Frank snorted at that. "Okay yeah you're not head chef at a five star restaurant. But you're not a bad cook."

"Kinda feels like it sometimes," Gerard admitted. "I mean look at that thing Patrick made the other day. What even was that?"

"You know he must have told us six times but fuck if I can remember. I know it's Korean. But yeah you can't compare yourself to Patrick. We're all different and good at different things."

Gerard snorted at that. "Yeah right."

Frank was frowning now, and he turned to Gerard and asked, "What's that about?"

"You're kind of forgetting the part where everyone here is good at something except me," Gerard said bitterly. "You're the best pilot and navigator ever along with being a total math genius. Then there's Lindsey "haven't met a machine I can't build or fix" Ballato, Pete's an idiot but he's still the best doctor I've ever seen, Patrick can do pretty much anything if it's to do with science. Oh and let's not forget he's also a brilliant musician and cook. Then there's Grant..."

He sighed and went back to sprinkling cheese over the lasagna. "I can't do any of that stuff, and what I can do everyone else on this team can do ten times better than me. I don't know why Grant had me come along." He could feel Frank staring at him, but was surprised when he felt skinny arms wrap around him.

"You are good though, Gee," Frank said. "Think about it, who can draw better than you? Who's been getting the best pictures? Who's preserved our best samples for the meeting? And you've been writing the proposal pretty much since we got here."

They broke apart, and Frank was smiling at Gerard. "C'mon, man, give yourself some credit. You don't have to be a prodigy or anything, but you're the heart of this team and we're gonna get that conservation certificate because of you."

Gerard felt himself blushing, and he wanted to ask Frank if he meant it. But Frank never said something he didn't mean, so instead he smiled back. "Thanks Frankie."

"Anytime. C'mon let's get this in the oven."

They got back to work, and that night everyone enjoyed vegetarian lasagna. It was a hit with the rest of the team. And all during dinner Frank was smiling at Gerard. It made Gerard's fractured heart melt.

It was when he was going to bed that it hit Gerard. He still liked Frank and Grant, perhaps even loved them. And for a moment he wanted to despair over his situation. But... Frank had been so kind. And Grant had been looking out for his well being. It wasn't out of character for either of them, but it felt like something more.

Gerard wondered if perhaps he was taking it out of context, but he'd rather die than ask them. As he settled in for the evening, he idly wondered if they'd be interested in him. Poly relationships weren't unheard of, and if anyone would be open to that sort of thing it would be Grant. He sighed and muttered, "Keep dreaming Gerard."

Grant wouldn't have said that all their luck had been bad. They had run into difficulties of course, but that was to be expected with a new planet. Injuries and poisoning were par for the course. But things had been quiet for weeks. At least until the storm.

It had started as a light drizzle that morning, and of course they'd wanted to study it. Gerard had been out placing collection pans, and said he'd be going to see the quarrels afterwards. But rather than go with Gerard, or ask someone else to, Grant said goodbye and returned to his quarters to write.

As the day wore on the rain increased. It was slightly worrying, but Grant thought there was no danger. He promised himself if it got any worse he would call Gerard back to the ship.

It was when they heard a thunderous roar that they knew something was wrong.

"What was that?" Grant had asked, but Lindsey and Frank were already running to the cockpit while Pete and Patrick were closing up the ship.

"Flash flood, we gotta get outta here," Patrick had said.

"Wait a second. Gee! Gee where are you?!" Pete had shouted, and Grant's blood had run cold.

"He's outside."

Pete ran towards the cockpit with Grant hot on his heels. They were lifting off, and Pete said, "Frank! Gee's still out there!"

"Motherfucker! How are we supposed to find him in this?!" Frank shouted. And Grant could see the problem. The cave they'd explored had water gushing out of it, and Grant knew the dam must have broken.

The rain was getting worse, and Grant could see lightning in the distance. He looked at Lindsey and asked, "Can you track the flares without them being activated?"

"No," she said mournfully. But then she snapped her fingers and said, "The radio! He's got that on him we can track that!"

She and Frank worked together, and were quickly able to track his signal to the edge of the valley where the burleys lived. Frank carefully piloted the ship there, but Grant's heart sank when he saw that the trees were quickly being overtaken by the water.

"Fuck fuck fuck fuck." Pete was muttering to himself, but then Patrick shoved past him and pointed.


Grant looked, and saw pale skin and dark hair. Frank moved the ship closer and said, "Someone's gonna have to go down and get him." Grant could see Frank’s hands shaking with the effort to keep the ship aloft. Though it was a large ship, the wind and rain were fierce.

"On it!" Pete said and ran out of the cockpit.

Grant was paralyzed for a moment, but it was long enough to make a decision. He'd gotten Gerard into this, he wanted to get him out. He squeezed Frank's shoulder and said, "Keep her steady." He then followed after Pete.

Even months later, those events were a blur to Grant. He remembered taking the harness from Pete, and giving instructions in case neither of them could be pulled back up. Then there was cold water and howling wind, and wet tangled hair in his face. Grant didn't remember anything clearly until he saw Gerard lying in the med bay.

He was pale, and his skin was tinged blue. He looked as though he were dead. Pete had been working on him, with Patrick and Lindsey helping. Grant felt as though the breath had been knocked out of his lungs. He hadn't realized that Frank had joined him until a warm hand wrapped around his own cool fingers.

"Jesus..." Frank said softly.

"He'll be all right," Grant said, with more conviction than he actually felt.

They watched for any signs of improvement, Grant was torn between terror and also guilt that he hadn't gone with Gerard. It hadn't seemed important at the time, but now... "This is my fault."

"No it isn't," Frank said immediately. "Shit happens."

"I should have gone with him," Grant replied.

"Any of us should have," Frank growled. Grant looked at him and saw he was angry. "So if it's anyone's fault, it's everyone's."

It felt like forever, but finally Pete said, "Okay, he's out of immediate danger, but he's not out of the woods yet."

"What the fuck happened to him?" Frank asked.

Pete shook his head. "Looks like he was on his way back to the ship when the dam broke. Climbed a tree to get out of the water, but it was pretty fucking cold water and from what I remember he's not the best swimmer. Likely passed out from shock. He did aspirate some of the water so I'm gonna keep him under observation for the night." He shrugged and added, "You can see him if you want."

"Thank you," Grant said, and squeezed Pete's shoulder.

They approached the bed, where Lindsey was holding his hand while Patrick checked his vitals. Though Patrick wasn't a doctor, he had become something of a nurse to Pete since they'd started the expedition. He looked at Grant and Frank curiously, but left the room. Lindsey did the same, and it was the three of them alone.

Gerard was still unconscious, and Grant reached out and brushed some hair away from his face. "I'm so sorry," he said quietly. It was seeing him like this that Grant felt his old feelings for Gerard resurface. He wanted to pull Gerard into his arms and hold him until he was better.

But it was impossible; he loved Frank, and he wouldn't give him up. But as he glanced at Frank, he saw a familiar expression. He was staring at Gerard with the same longing that Grant felt.

Grant made a mental note to ask about it later, when Gerard was feeling better and everything didn't feel like such a mess.

Frank hadn't anticipated being in Pete's shoes so soon. He and Grant kept vigil over Gerard, and it was about as fun as being repeatedly hit in the head with a broom. Patrick, Pete, and Lindsey were there too, but it was hard to focus  on them. Frank had managed to find a new place for them to set up camp, but the entire time he'd been worried sick about Gerard.

He'd meant what he said to Grant, it was everyone's fault if Grant was going to blame himself. But Frank knew that logically that wasn't true. Everyone had their jobs, it just sucked that Gerard had almost been killed doing his.

Gerard looked half dead, lying in a hospital bed with tubes and wires coming out of him. Occasionally Frank would reach out and touch his arm or his hand, just to reconfirmed for himself that he was still alive. It wasn't very comforting.

Frank was angry; he wished there were someone he could turn on and blame for this. He'd already snapped at Lindsey for choosing to repair the shuttle instead of going with him, and she'd reminded him it was Frank who'd asked her to make it a priority. Next he'd set on Pete asking why he and Patrick hadn't gone with Gerard. Pete hadn't taken that lightly.

"Don't you dare fucking drag Patrick into this," Pete hissed, shoving Frank away. "Shit happens okay? You wanna get mad at me if I fuck up his medical care? That's fine. But don't get pissed because your backup boyfriend had a fucking accident."

"My what?!" Frank yelped in surprise.

"You fucking heard me," Pete shot back. "You know maybe you and Grant should fuck him and put him out of his God damned misery. Heaven knows the rest of us are sick of the tension."

Frank was so stunned that for a moment, he didn't know what to say. Pete seemed satisfied with that, and walked away.

And now, sitting by Gerard's bedside, Frank was thinking about it again. Frank still had feelings for Gerard, maybe even loved him. And if it was so obvious Pete fucking Wentz could tell, then probably everyone could including Grant.

Frank didn't know if his feelings were deep enough to fuck up what he had with Grant. And he didn't want to jeopardize that in any way.

So he made a promise to himself. He'd completely back off of Gerard, focus more on Grant. At least once he'd made sure that Gerard would be okay. It was a plan that made as much sense as any.

He looked at Grant, who was watching him. He smiled, and Grant smiled back. They reached across Gerard and held hands.

Gerard would be okay. And they would be, too.

Gerard felt warm, and it made him smile. He felt good for the first time in forever. It came back to him gradually, but he didn't panic. He was safe.

He remembered climbing the tree, clinging to the branches, arms coming around him as he lost consciousness. Then flashes of worried faces over him, Pete yelling something at him, but Gerard couldn't remember what it was. Then he woke up in the med bay with Grant and Frank by his bedside, and his heart felt light.

They'd talked, and once Pete had given his permission, they went to Grant's quarters. Pete had a strange look on his face, as though he were hesitant, but he said, "Someone's gonna have to watch him for the next 24 hours."

"Leave that to us," Grant had assured. Pete had frowned, but hadn't argued.

Gerard could walk, but Frank had insisted on helping him. He'd giggled and asked, "What, afraid I'm gonna disappear on you?"

"Just don't want you straining yourself." Frank smiled a little, and he and Grant got Gerard into bed.

He'd expected them to leave right after, but instead, they stuck around. Frank sat on the edge of the bed, and they began talking about their favorite old horror films. Grant sitting in a chair nearby and occasionally offering his opinion.

They talked like that for a long time, and when Gerard had started to feel sleepy, Frank had curled up next to him. Grant had tucked them in, but hadn't left, instead preferring to return to his arm chair.

When he woke up again, it was the same. They fed him, and when he didn't fall asleep immediately Grant would read or Frank would talk. And it was... Nice. Exactly what Gerard had wanted.

It was when they settled in for the night that Gerard thought his heart would pound out of his chest. Gerard asked, "Uh... Do you want me to go back to my room?"

"Nah, it's a big bed, we can share," said Frank. "Right Grant?"

"Exactly right." Grant had smiled at him, and pulled Gerard close. Frank had settled against Gerard, and they'd fallen asleep.

Gerard wanted to stay this way forever. But he realized what had woken him up, and it was Frank and Grant whispering. They weren't in the bed with him anymore. He cracked an eye open, and saw they were by the door.

"So what should we do?" Frank asked.

"I think it best that Lindsey watch over him now." Grant replied.

"Yeah, I mean she should be okay with that right?"

"She should be. We can't keep him here."

"Yeah, I guess it could get pretty weird if he stayed."

His heart paused. He assumed they must have figured out his feelings. Had Gerard been talking in his sleep? Touched one of them inappropriately? It didn't matter, they knew, and it sounded like they weren't happy about it.

Gerard stretched, faking as though he were just waking up so they would stop talking. His heart was crushed; of course this hadn't meant anything to them. They were trying to be nice and he was being a fucking weirdo about it. They had each other, they didn't need him.

Frank came over to the bed, and he smiled and said, "Hey Gee, sleep well?"

"Yeah. Think I'm ready to go back to my room now." Gerard said, managing a smile for Frank. He wouldn't ruin this, he wouldn't make them feel guilty for something that wasn't their fault. It was Gerard getting his hopes up as usual.

Frank's brow knitted in confusion, and he asked, "You sure?"

"Yeah, I don't wanna intrude," Gerard replied, keeping his tone light and airy.

Grant was giving him a concerned look, but he simply shrugged and offered to get a robe and slippers for him. "Would you like anything?" He asked as Gerard pulled on the robe.

"Could you get Lindsey to bring me some coffee?"

"Absolutely," Grant said. For a moment, it looked as though Grant was going to touch Gerard's hair. But instead, he smoothed the collar of the robe. "I'm glad to see you're feeling better."

"Thanks you guys, for looking out for me." He said quietly. He wasn't able to meet their eyes.

"Anytime, Gee," Frank said.

Gerard fled to his quarters.

He was curled up in his easy chair, staring at the plant Jolene had brought him when Lindsey came in. She had a carafe of coffee and a mug, and she said, "Already fixed the whole thing just how you like it." She set the tray down on the table.

"Thanks," Gerard said listlessly.

She filled the mug and handed it to him, and sat on the arm of the chair. "What's wrong?"

"They know. And they think I'm weird." He said quietly.

"How do you know?" Lindsey asked.

"Heard them talking. They thought I was asleep."

Lindsey didn't say anything. Instead she wrapped him in a hug and said, "It's gonna be okay."

"Sure," Gerard replied. But he didn't believe it. And she could tell by his tone.

"Tell me what happened."

So Gerard did. He told her about how they'd spent the day, how things had just seemed to work, and then what he'd heard.

"So you didn't tell them you love them," Lindsey said.

"No, but they knew," Gerard told her. "They couldn't wait to get rid of me."

Lindsey frowned, and she said, "Whoa now Gee. I know you're hurt but don't jump to conclusions like that. Maybe they were talking about something else."

“Unlikely. We spent yesterday together remember? And I even offered to go back to my room but they asked me to stay.”

“Then maybe they need time to figure this out.”

Gerard snorted bitterly. "Time to figure out how to tell me to pack my bags, probably. This is supposed to be a serious expedition. And look what's happened. I almost fucking drowned because I’m stupid. And then I just had to fuck it up further by letting them figure out I love them."

At that, she got up and knelt in front of him. "Oh honey... Do you?" She was holding his hands, her permanently red nails glinting in the low light.

He didn't hesitate. "Yeah, I love them. Not that that's gonna do me much fucking good. They don't need me like I need them."

"Hey," she admonished. "You almost died okay? You're not thinking straight and neither are they. It's gonna work out for you this time, Gee, I know it."

Gerard could have pointed out how their relationship had crashed and burned like all his others. Or his complete lack of friends back in Glasgow. Or any number of things that would have hurt her and made her angry.

Instead, he fell quiet. There was nothing else for him to say, and Lindsey didn't press him. They sat together, holding hands, and Gerard wishing desperately for even a little of what the others had.

Grant had woken up before Frank and Gerard, and it warmed his heart to see the two asleep beside him. Something about it felt... Right. As though this was how life was supposed to be. He carefully left the bed, going to the lavatory. When he came back, he saw that Frank was up, out of bed, and watching Gerard.

"Something wrong, love?" Grant asked.

"No, I mean, not really," Frank replied, not taking his eyes off the sleeping figure.

Grant enveloped Frank in his arms, and kissed his temple. "What is it?"

"I thought he was gonna die," Frank said quietly. "And it... I don't know how to describe it."


Frank sighed. "I felt like someone had ripped my heart out, shit on it, set it on fire and thrown it out the airlock. Pretty much how I felt when we found you in the forest."

"He's very dear to us," Grant offered, but Frank shook his head.

"No I mean, like if it had been you I woulda had the same reaction. I don't fucking know." Frank looked distressed and angry, so Grant held him tighter for a moment.

"It's all right, Frank."

"I don't love him," Frank insisted. "I love you. But if we'd lost him I don't know what I would have done."

"There are different kinds of love," Grant pointed out. "And I wouldn't say this is a bad thing, or an awful development."

"You know I kinda had a thing for him," Frank admitted. "Before we hooked up. I don't know if he was into me but if he'd asked me out I wouldn't have said no."

Grant chuckled. "That doesn't surprise me."

"You're not mad?"

"How could I be?" Grant stroked Frank's hair. "I felt the same way about Gerard, a long time ago. He's a person who's easy to love."

Frank's brow knitted in confusion. "You love him?"

"In my own way, yes," Grant shrugged. "Not the same way that I love you, but I do love him."

He could see various emotions chasing each other across Frank's face, and finally he settled into determination. "Are you in love with him?"

"No. Are you?"

Frank shook his head. "No, I'm not." He sighed. "This is so fucking confusing."

"Perhaps we should talk further, once he's recovered," Grant pointed out. It wouldn't do them any good to have that conversation, not when Gerard could hear them so easily. Grant didn't want him to get the wrong idea, or to get his hopes up.

"Yeah I guess. I mean I don't want him getting creeped out by this."

"Neither do I."

"So what should we do?" Frank asked.

"I think it best that Lindsey watch over him now," Grant replied.

"Yeah I mean she should be okay with that right?"

"She should be. We can't keep him here." Though the thought was tempting. Keeping Gerard to themselves in Grant's quarters. But it would be stifling for Gerard.

Frank seemed to have the same thought. "Yeah, I guess it could get pretty weird if he stayed."

Grant was about to reply, but then they heard Gerard stirring and they looked at him. Grant wasn't sure how to feel when Gerard said that he wanted to go back to his room. But mostly he was disappointed, and irrational as it was, he felt rejected. Once Gerard had gone, Grant sighed and collapsed into his arm chair.

"That... Was kinda weird," Frank said, and sat in Grant's lap. "Do you think he heard us?"

"I'm not certain, and I don't dare ask him," Grant admitted, and wrapped his arms around Frank's waist.

Frank sighed. "It's kinda hard to know what's going on in his head sometimes."

"I agree." Grant kissed Frank's neck and asked, "Shall we have that talk now?"

"Yeah maybe later, cuddle time now," Frank replied. Grant happily agreed.

But he couldn't help but wonder. What had Gerard heard? What did he think? And would he be all right? Grant didn't have the answer to any of those questions, and he knew that it would consume him in the days to come.

However, there was so much to do. And as Grant glanced over at the calendar above his desk, he realized how little time they had left. They would need to finish soon, and return to Cobra.

Frank couldn't help noticing that he was getting some weird looks from Pete and Patrick. Ever since Gerard's close call, they'd been talking quietly and looking at him and Grant in a way that Frank found a bit unsettling. He was pretty sure they were talking about him. And he wasn't sure if it was because of Frank being an asshole to Pete.

Then, a week after the accident, Frank was checking the controls on the shuttle. Lindsey had put it back together as she said she would, but Frank hadn't tested its flight capabilities. When he saw Patrick outside holding two mugs, Frank killed the engine and stepped out.

"Hey," Frank said cautiously.

"Brought you coffee," Patrick said, handing him a mug.

"Thanks." Frank sat on a crate next to the shuttle, and Patrick sat next to him. "Something I can do for you?"

"More like something I'm gonna do for you," said Patrick.

Frank raised an eyebrow. "Like what?"

"I know about that crack Pete made about Gerard," Patrick replied, sipping his own coffee.

Frank tried to play it off, snorting. "Yeah that was pretty fucking wild."

"You can be dating someone and not having sex with them."

That nearly made Frank spit out his coffee. "Excuse the fuck out of me?!"

"You remember I said I didn't want to talk about my relationship with Pete?" Patrick asked, and Frank nodded, still in shock. "We don't know how to define it. But he's mine and I'm his."

"What does this have to do with me and Gerard?" Frank asked.

Patrick sighed, and gave Frank a disappointed look. "Let me explain. I love Pete more than anyone in the universe, and that's including my mom. But I'm not sexually attracted to him. Or anyone, actually."

Frank blinked. "You're asexual."

"I am. It presents us with some problems, because while I'm not sex repulsed I don't enjoy sex as much as Pete does." Patrick was smirking at that, and took another sip of his drink. "But I don't doubt that he loves me as much as I love him, maybe even more so. He pisses me off sometimes and I just want to strangle him, and he gets just as pissed off at me. At the end of the day, though, we're in love and always will be."

"Okay... That's great but why are you telling me this?"

"Because you don't need sex to be intimate, which is what I'm trying to say without saying it. And failing spectacularly. I knew I should've had Pete talk to you he's better with words than I am," Patrick muttered.

Frank sighed. "Look I don't know what you guys think? But there's nothing going on. I'm not keeping Gerard on the hook or anything okay? I'm with Grant and that's that." Truthfully, he was becoming annoyed.

"I didn't say there was. But you have to admit, the relationship you have with him is… Different" Patrick was getting frustrated, and he sighed and said, "Here, come with me. Stay out of sight though, I'm gonna visit Pete."

"Are you inviting me to spy on you and your boyfriend?"

"Yes." And Patrick put his mug down and walked away.

Frank wasn't so sure about it, but he was too curious to stay in the hanger. So he got up and followed Patrick to the med bay. He stayed outside the door, peeking around the corner.

"Pattycakes!" Pete shouted, and got up and hugged Patrick. "How'd it go?"

"I fucking suck at this, you gotta talk to him." Patrick replied.

"Mm maybe later," Pete replied. His grin had softened into a smile, and he kept his arms around Patrick as he sat back down. With some tugging, he got Patrick to sit on his lap. "Want some cuddle time with my sweet dude."

"Because you don't get that enough already," Patrick said sarcastically, but he was smiling.

"I don't! You're so mean to me baby."

"You love it."

Pete slipped his fingers under Patrick's chin, tilting his face up. "I love you." They were smiling softly, and Pete kissed Patrick. It was chaste, but Frank felt uncomfortable watching. They were in a world of their own, and talking quietly. Pete was gently stroking Patrick's cheek, sometimes petting his hair.

Patrick in turn seemed to have forgotten about Frank's presence. He had relaxed against Pete, and was toying with the collar of his jump suit. Frank couldn't hear what they were saying, but he could tell it was a personal conversation. He'd seen that look before, with Gerard.

Frank left, going back to the hangar.

He could see what Patrick was talking about now, and Frank wanted to kick himself. The things that he and Grant had done with Gerard hadn't been sex. But it had been little moments like that one. Intimate, like Patrick said.

It hadn't been just after the accident either. There were at least a dozen similar incidents Frank could think of involving Gerard. And he was sure that Grant could think of just as many. In seeing that Gerard was distancing himself, Grant and Frank had tried to pull him back into the fold. But not as a friend, when Frank thought about it, it was more like dating.

No wonder the whole crew knew his feelings. And now Frank was confused. Gerard had been alright with it, at least until after spending the night. He'd pulled away that morning, and had barely said two words to Frank or Grant since then.

Not that Frank hadn't tried talking to him, but it hadn't gotten far. Gerard would nod along with whatever Frank was saying, but find an excuse to get away from him. He couldn't blame Gerard; Frank could have dialed it back a bit. And he and Grant hadn't needed to invite Gerard to their quarters after the accident.

And now, they were getting ready to make the big presentation to the big wigs to save this planet. They'd been packing samples and debating which species they should bring. Pete had been insisting on the octofrogs while Gerard had said quarrels. They'd been busy, that was putting it mildly.

Frank thought that perhaps, they'd have a talk when they got back. When the planet was safe, and they achieved their goals. They'd have to talk eventually, Frank knew that. And maybe he was postponing it. But they were all so close, why fuck it up now?

Frank went back to testing the shuttle, and put it out of his mind.

The flood hadn't destroyed much of the valley. The quarrels, the burleys, the octofrogs, and various other creatures they'd discovered were completely unharmed. It seemed as though the burleys had instinctively known about the flash flood, and had left the forest that very morning. The quarrels had abandoned their underground tunnels for higher ground, and the octofrogs, being aquatic creatures, didn't appear to be affected.

They had lost some equipment, but nothing irreplaceable. Though they did need to switch to another camp. They settled the ship on a high cliff, the opposite end of the valley from where they'd found the quarrels. After testing to make sure that the cliff wasn't in danger of collapsing, they'd started their exploration once again.

They'd been forced to improvise an elevator system to get back into the valley, but Lindsey was a miracle worker, and had managed to have something working within a day with their cargo hover lift. Grant couldn't help but admire her.

But as things got back to normal, Grant couldn't help noticing a change in Gerard. He was becoming depressed and downtrodden agai. Grant had tried asking him about it several times.

However, when Grant asked, Gerard would plaster on a wide smile and insist nothing was wrong. Gerard would claim that he was tired, and nervous about the presentation. Grant knew he was lying, but still unsure as to how to approach him.

When Gerard was cleared to leave the ship, he spent nearly all his time with the quarrels. He was accompanied by Lindsey or Patrick, and on one occasion Pete. Whenever Frank or Grant would volunteer, one of the three would step in and say that Gerard had already asked them and they were going.

Grant finally cornered Patrick and asked, "Why is Gerard avoiding myself and Frank?"

Patrick frowned, and said, "Dunno that he is."

Grant barely suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. "Please, don't play dumb with me, Patrick. It doesn't suit you."

"And Pete's better at it than I am," Patrick concluded. "Look he's going through a rough time and we're trying to help him, that's all."

"Because of the accident?" Grant asked.

"Sure," Patrick said, but it wasn't convincing. Grant hadn't questioned him further. He had a lot on his mind, and though Gerard's well being was a concern, it wasn't the most pressing.

The deadline was coming, and now Grant was nervous. They would only have one chance to submit their proposal, and if it was rejected, it was very likely that Delta Corp would descend and raze every part of it that would interfere with their plans. Grant had been carefully honing the presentation, taking notes and suggestions from everyone on the team.

There was video, pictures, drawings, holographic interface, and one very important guest they would be bringing.

It had been the most logical choice. The quarrels were social creatures, and if they brought one they might need to bring the entire colony. The burleys were too large and cumbersome, and likely wouldn't be allowed on the station. It came down to the octofrogs. But the question was, could they sustain them on the trip to the station?

Pete and Patrick had been studying them for days, and Pete said, "We can take them with us but we’ll need a shit ton of water."

"It has to be fresh water. They can survive and even thrive in Earth’s water, but wee want to make sure the trip will be good for them. So I would advise changing the water in the tank every twelve hours," Patrick added.

They were watching two of the octofrogs swim about happily in the tank, while a third was plastered to the side.

"What about their food sources?" Grant asked.

"Oh that's easy enough," said Pete. "They can live off of fish food and stuff. They love it as a matter of fact."

"However, because of their size they don't actually eatmuch at any one time," Patrick said, and pointed at the one that was stuck. "Like this guy, he's eating the scum on the side of the tank caused by the algae in the water. He'll do that for about an hour then swim around with his friends and be good for a couple days."

"Do they sleep?" Grant asked, peering at the little creatures.

"Yeah, but when they do they kinda just free float, it's fucking weird. We need to get micro tags for these guys so we can see what they're up to when we're not watching," said Pete.

"If you don't mind my asking, why do they attach to you?"

Patrick chuckled. "It's Pete's skin. Almost everyone on this expedition is vegetarian or vegan."

"And I'd rather be shot than give up meat altogether," Pete pointed out.

Patrick nodded. "So it makes him secrete more oils, which would have slightly more protein than the rest of us. They like the way it tastes, but they don't get nourishment from it."

"They'd probably suck on Gerard too if he wasn't such a chicken," said Pete, laughing. Grant frowned at that, and Pete explained, "I tried to get him to stick his hand in the river to prove the hypothesis. Wouldn't do it."

"Because you said you were gonna shove him in the river if he didn't," Patrick told him, frowning.

"I wasn't really gonna do it!" Pete shouted.

"And nor will you," Grant said, suddenly angry. His hands balled into fists as he continued. "Don't threaten him with something like that. After his encounter I'd be surprised if he would even want to be near the water."

Pete held his hands up and said, "Whoa, dude, c'mon it was a joke, Gerard knows it was. I don't mean anything by it, and he was totally fine. Take it easy."

Grant was about to say something further, but the expressions on their faces made him pause. He relaxed his hands, took a deep breath, and stepped back. He was behaving irrationally. Of course Pete wouldn't have really shoved Gerard into the water, he wasn't that kind of person. But it had brought out Grant's protective streak none the less. "I'm sorry, I--"

"It's cool," Pete said, cutting him off. "So, ah... Back to it, the octofrogs can totally come with us. Just don't let Gabe see them because he'd probably want one as a pet."

"I don't believe Mr. Saporta is invited to the meeting," Grant pointed out, glad for the change of subject.

"Oh dude he wouldn't want to miss it, he loves this shit," Pete said.

"Perhaps we can find another way to occupy him."

Pete grinned and started joking around about various ways to distract Gabe Saporta, while Patrick went back to observing the octofrogs.

It was later that night, when Grant was working on his eighth draft of the presentation, that he thought about what had transpired. He had apologized, and felt bad. But he was more angry at the thought of Gerard being hurt, or traumatized.

Grant swore to himself after this was over, he would talk to both Frank and Gerard. If they were successful, and allowed to study the planet indefinitely, they would need to air this out. Otherwise there would be more incidents like that one.

The return to Cobra Station was smooth, but it didn't help Gerard's nerves. They had nearly a week of presentations and questions to be answered. The delegates had been selected, and when it was revealed the Federation delegate was none other than Eddie Berganza, Gerard's heart sank.

"What's that mean?" Frank asked.

"Berganza is in Delta Corp's pocket. If he's the Federation's rep you can be assured he'll be looking at the company's best interests over any of scientific discovery," said Grant.

Lindsey shrugged and said, "Fuck him. There's three judges we only have to convince two."

"Right on!" Pete said, and high fived her.

Gerard wasn't feeling overly hopeful, but he was glad the defenses were still in place back on the planet. He wished he could have brought Jolene with him, but that likely wouldn't have been good for it.

When they arrived at the station, it was to Gabe's enthusiastic greeting. He was wearing a bright colored suit again, this one lime green with black and white accents.

"Welcome back! Thought I'd never see you guys again!" He said, and grabbed Patrick, Pete, and Frank into a hug. Vicky was nice enough to pry him away.

"Everything is set for the conference tomorrow," Vicky told the group. "It will start at 0800 sharp."

"Have the delegates arrived?" Grant asked.

"Yes, they're here and sequestered on a separate part of the station to eliminate any impropriety," Vicky informed Grant.

"Excellent. Thank you, Miss Asher."

"Okay now that the boring stuff is out of the way, who wants food?" Gabe asked, clapping his hands together. He was leering at Gerard as he said, "I'd love to buy you dinner."

"The way you're looking at me I kinda think you'd rather eat me for dinner," Gerard said, frowning. He almost instantly regretted it. He wasn't always so forward, but he was still feeling raw.

That startled a laugh out of Gabe. "One thing at a time, gorgeous." He drew Gerard close, and Vicky to his other side. "I'm in a committed relationship so I gotta ask Vicky if I can screw around first."

Vicky smirked and looked at Gerard, then said, "He's cute, I wouldn't mind."

Pete and Lindsey were choking back their laughter. Patrick was smirking, but Frank and Grant were who stood out to him. Frank looked angry, while Grant's expression was concerned.

Gerard felt a surge of guilt. But he reminded himself, they didn't want him. And Gabe, if he wasn't joking, sure seemed to. So he smiled back and said, "Then I guess you're buying me dinner."

"Great! It'll be just you and me," Gabe said, grinning. He kissed Vicky's cheek and added, "See to it all our guests are taken care of huh?"

"Got it." Vicky was smirking just like Patrick, and she pulled away and joined the others.

Gabe lead Gerard out of the hanger and asked, "So what kinda food do you like?"

"Honestly I'd probably kill someone for a pizza right now, like they make back home." Gerard told him.

"You're Mikey Way's brother right?" Gabe asked, and Gerard stared for a minute.

"You know my brother?"

"Babe there was a time everyone on the East Coast of the US knew your brother, but yeah Mikey's a friend. I was kinda surprised you didn't recognize me when we met the first time. I mean yeah it's been a few years but I definitely remember you." Gabe was grinning now.

Gerard shrugged. "I'm sorry, I don't. But to be fair if we met back when Mikey was the scene king I was kind of fucked up a lot back then."

"It's cool, it was a long time ago. Gabe Saporta from Midtown ring any bells?"

Gerard's jaw dropped. "You're THAT Gabe Saporta?! Fuck!"

Gabe laughed. "Yeah that's the reaction I was expecting."

"I mean Frank said he knew you back when you two were in school together, and Pete and Patrick had mentioned you, I had no fucking idea you're the same guy from the Midtown Crisis."

"The one and only. And to be fair I didn't start that fucking thing but I finished it," Gabe told him.

Gerard remembered when it had happened. Midtown Manhattan had become a refuge for Variants and people who were considered different. The governor of the East Coast had declared Midtown nothing more than a hobo camp and that it should be cleared then burned. Variants of course had protested, but it wasn't until Gabe Saporta and several activists of Blank background got involved and kicked up a fuss that the plan was dropped.

"That was amazing what you did," Gerard said honestly. "I know Mikey was in the thick of it."

"And if you hadn't been on the other side of the ocean I bet you woulda been too," Gabe replied.

“But we’ve met?”

“Yeah, before you fucked off to Scotland. It was at one of those basement shows.”

Gerard tried to remember, but he shook his head. “No, I'm sorry, drawing a blank.”

“It's cool.” He gave Gerard's shoulder a squeeze and asked, "So you can tell me to fuck off if you wanna, but I was kinda sensing some tension between you, Frankie and the old guy."

Gerard shook his head, saying, "I don't wanna talk about that." Just thinking about Frank and Grant made Gerard's head hurt and his chest tight.

"Okay, it's cool. I'd rather show you a good time instead."

"About that," Gerard said. He took a deep breath, and then continued. "What is it you want out of me? I mean, are you actually interested in me? You kinda seem to flirt with everyone. Or almost everyone." He hadn't seen Gabe flirt with Grant.

Gabe gave him a considering look, then said, "You look pretty fucking sad every time I've seen you, I don't like that and I wanna fix it. And you're hot so I'm interested. If you don't wanna hook up that's okay, but if you do I'm into it."

Gerard could appreciate the honesty, but one other thing was bothering him. "Vicky's your girlfriend?"

"Yep. I've got a boyfriend too, you've met him," Gabe replied, smiling easily. "I'm polyamorous, Gerard. So are they. So if I occasionally see someone I'd like to hook up with, I ask them and if they're good with it then I go for it."

"I've never met a poly person before," Gerard admitted. The idea sparked some interest, but he let it go just as quickly. Frank was seriously into commitment, he doubted that he or Grant would be interested.

"Now you have. And hey, you know, Vicky does think you're cute so maybe you can get double laid," Gabe said, and Gerard laughed, shaking his head.

"You're so ridiculous you're awesome."

"Pretty much my appeal," Gabe told him. "So, pizza? See where things go?"

"Yeah, okay."

Gerard didn't think they were going to go anywhere, not with him still being hung up on Grant and Frank. But it was nice to be reminded that someone out there might be interested in him.

Just not who he wanted.

Grant was almost regretting taking on this venture. With the way the hearings were going, he thought that his brain might leak out of his ears. While the other delegates had been curious and asked the right questions, Berganza seemed to delight in blocking them at every turn.

He questioned their methods, their motivations, and most of all was derisive of both Frank and Lindsey as part of the crew due to their Variant status. What was worse were comments he made privately about Lindsey herself, that Grant wanted to punch him in the throat for.

It had taken everything he had to politely shut Berganza down. Grant was still sorely tempted to resort to physical violence.

It was during the final phase that Grant was losing his patience. Some of Berganza's arguments were swaying the other delegates, and it was difficult to keep their attention on the bottom line. If it hadn't been for Gerard, they would have lost the argument completely.

He'd asked Grant to let him speak, and Grant nodded and gestured, saying, "The floor is yours."

Gerard had his sketchbook in hand, and he said, "I'm not going to rehash everything we've said. This planet is fascinating, and it deserves further study. So instead, I'd like to tell you a story."

Gerard took several drawings out of the book, and passed them to the delegate's table. "These are the animals I named quarrels. They're a hybrid of felines, rodents, and lizards. We've mentioned them several times, but what you don't know is that one of them saved my life."

Berganza cut him off with a snort. "And how is that possible?"

Gerard smiled kindly and said, "If you would let me finish, I'll tell you." He turned away from him to address the rest of the room. He paused, and Grant nodded for him to continue. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Gabe and Vicky throwing Gerard a thumbs up, while Travis McCoy smiled at him. Gerard nodded at them, and started talking.

"Last month, it had started to rain, and after setting out water collection tins, I went to the mound that the quarrels call home. I was observing them when Jolene came up to me and scratched at my knee.

"This wasn't unusual behavior, as it had done this a few times. But this time it scratched and bit, and nudged me until I stood up. It was then I noticed the quarrels were leaving their tunnels in droves and heading for higher ground. Jolene was screeching at me in a way I hadn't heard before, and didn't stop until I was heading back towards the ship."

He paused to gather himself, and the room was dead quiet. Grant didn't think anyone had the nerve to interrupt him now.

"The quarrels knew that the rain would be too much, and one that I have a rapport with warned me to get to safety. Though Jolene lacks the ability of human speech, it did its best and got the message across. Unfortunately, what it couldn't know was that a natural dam that would break from the rain. However, if I hadn't left when I did, I would have been directly in front of the flooding water, and I wouldn't be here now.

"These creatures knew there was danger, and warned me to leave. It demonstrates an intelligence that's rare in a non sentient species. That alone is worth study, and this is just one small corner of the planet. Imagine what else there is to find."

He thanked everyone for their attention, and went back to his seat. He visibly relaxed as he sat between Lindsey and Pete, Lindsey pulling him into a hug.

Grant himself wasn't sure what to say. Gerard hadn't told them about the quarrels warning him, and knowing how much closer he'd been to danger stole his breath away. But he pulled himself back and looked at the delegates, saying, "As you can see, this is a project we're all quite invested in."

"I don't see how some goofy rats make any difference. And Way hasn't even finished his dissertation, we can't rely on his opinion," said Berganza, but he was silenced by the Parliament delegate, Shelly Bond.

"We've heard quite enough of your opinion Mr. Berganza," she said, then looked at Grant. "I'm moving to vote now."

Berganza balked at that. "But shouldn't we confer--"

"There’s no need," Bond told him. "All in favor of passing the conservatorship for Planet 9545FI?"

Bond raised her hand immediately. The Senate delegate, an androgynous person with grey tinged skin and a silver undercut, was quiet for a moment. But, eventually, they raised their hand too. Berganza was glaring daggers at them.

Bond smiled and said, "I suppose there's no reason to ask for an opposing vote. Measure passes, the planet has protected status. And I would like to add for the record," she glared at Berganza, "That I feel it's highly inappropriate for the Federation to have a delegate with an obvious personal agenda to this conference. And I will be speaking with the Federation’s governor about this."

Grant sighed in relief and smiled, while the rest of the team shouted in glee. Berganza made a swift exit, but Bond and the other delegate came over to congratulate them and ask questions about what they'd experienced. Frank was grinning as he threw himself at Grant, pulling him into a hug.

"We did it!" He yelled, and Grant laughed, his enthusiasm contagious.

"We did, my darling, congratulations," Grant told him, and kissed him. There was some hoots and hollers from their crew, but Grant ignored it. This was everything they'd worked for, every hardship and trial was worth it. When he pulled away it was to see the silver haired delegate speaking with Gerard.

Gerard was smiling, but it was brittle. He was giving the delegate his attention, but just barely.

Grant was about to ask Frank to intervene, when Gabe appeared and said, “Hey, congratulations!" He shook Grant's hand and added, "I'm throwing you guys parties all fucking week!"

"That is kind of you, but we should likely return--"

Shelly had appeared now, and she said, "No, please stay for a few days. I want to hear everything about this planet."

Grant thought about it. Now that the measure was in place, they didn't necessarily need to hurry back. And they all deserved a little time off. "Very well. We'll stay another week."

"Awesome," Gabe said, then went over to Gerard and the silver haired delegate. He gave Gerard a hug and whispered something to him, and Gerard's smile instantly went from forced to genuine.

Grant vaguely wondered what that was about, but turned his mind back to Shelly and Frank.

They had so much to talk about.

The parties really did last a week. The delegates had returned to their systems, and once they were resupplied, the team was heading back to the planet to continue their studies. Everything was going great, but it was the night of their farewell party that things changed.

Frank took a long pull off his beer, and turned his head when he heard shrieking laugh. He looked over to see Vicky giggling, and dancing with Travie. He’d picked her up and swung her around, which caused her to shriek again. One guy was glaring at the two, but no one else seemed to notice. Gabe followed Frank’s gaze, and he grinned. “They look good don’t they? They’ve got the moves.” He jokingly waved his arms and hands.

“I thought you and Vicky were…” Frank trailed off.

Gabe shrugged. “We are.”

“Okay I’m confused.”

“She’s my girlfriend, and Travie’s my boyfriend. And they’re dating too,” Gabe said, speaking slowly as though he were talking to a child. He poured out two shots of whiskey. “To tell the truth, I kinda figured that you, baldy, and super nerd were in the same boat.”

“Don’t call Grant ‘baldy’,” Frank muttered, suddenly too tired to really argue.

“Sorry. I thought you three were an item.” Gabe raised an eyebrow at Frank. “Unless Pete’s been giving me bad gossip? Which if that’s the case I’m going to kick that little bitch for lying to me.”

Frank frowned at him. “Pete’s been saying that?” He growled in frustration and shook his head. “We’re not a thing. Not all of us. It’s me and Grant.” He downed the shot that Gabe had put in front of him, not even shuddering. “And Pete needs to mind his own fucking business.”

He raised an eyebrow at Frank. “So you don’t want Gerard? That’s cool.” He smirked. “I think he’s hot, Travie and Vicky do, too. We wouldn’t mind adding him to our group. If he wants us, anyway.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You can’t just—” But Gabe cut Frank off.

“What? You don’t want him, that creepy gargoyle you two work for doesn’t want him, the hot biker chick is married, and Pete and Patrick are so fucking codependent no one’s getting between them.” Gabe leaned closer, his eyes inquisitive. “So why shouldn’t I ask him if he wants in?”  

“I never said—” But he stopped himself. Frank stared at Gabe for a moment, mostly wanting to punch him. Frank had noticed that Gerard was spending his free time with the trio. And since Gabe had been hitting on Gerard since the beginning, it rankled Frank. It was bringing out his possessive streak, and he wanted nothing more than to grab Gerard and declare that he was Frank’s.

But he took a deep breath, calming himself down. Gerard didn’t belong to anyone but himself, and Frank had made his choice. He was with Grant. Frank didn’t have any claim to Gerard. And if Gabe wanted to pull Gerard into his weird threesome, who was Frank to stop it?

Gerard was an adult and could make his own decisions. So he said, “I guess nothing. Never mind, man. If he’s into you then go for it.”

Gabe shook his head, suddenly giving off an air of disappointment. He muttered something in Spanish and walked away, going to Travie and Vicky on the dance floor. They both smiled, pulling him in close. The three of them started to dance. Travie and Vicky were good, but Gabe was terrible. And they were having fun, that much was clear. It was when they started kissing that Frank felt a pang of jealousy.

A few obnoxious assholes were cat calling them, but the three didn’t seem to notice. Instead, Gabe was tenderly kissing Travie, and then Vicky. They looked… Blissful. Anyone could see how in love they were. It made Frank’s mind wander, but he shook his head. That was a place he couldn’t let it wander to. He had Grant, and Gerard had been nothing but pleased for them and supportive since they announced their relationship. Frank didn’t need more. But that sure as shit didn’t stop him from wanting it.

He snapped himself out of it when he saw Gerard enter the bar. He looked hesitant, and Frank wasn't surprised. Gerard avoided alcohol like the plague, and being in a bar was a big temptation.

Gerard waved a little at Frank, and looked like he was coming to his table. But he suddenly changed direction, and headed over to where Travie, Gabe, and Vicky had settled. It struck Frank as odd, but they were smiling and welcomed him.

Frank heard the bottle crack in his hand, so he put it down and took a breath. He had no right to act this way. Gerard was his own person, Frank had to keep telling himself that. It was just then that Pete and Patrick showed up at Frank’s table.

“Hey Frank— Whoa, what the hell’s wrong with you?” Pete asked as he sat down. Patrick, however, wasn’t the least bit confused. He tapped Pete on the shoulder, then pointed in Gerard’s direction.

“No shit? Saporta’s going for it?” Pete smacked Patrick’s arm. “You owe me twenty bucks!”

“He hasn’t sealed the deal, I don’t owe you shit,” Patrick shot back, punching Pete’s shoulder.

“You two knew about this?” Frank hissed. It was hard to keep from shouting.

Pete frowned in confusion. “Uh, yeah. I don’t know if this occurred to you? But Gerard’s pretty hot. And he’s totally their type.”

“THEIR type?!” He couldn’t keep from shouting this time.

Patrick held up a hand. “Frank, calm down. I know Gabe’s kind of an ass, but he wouldn’t pressure Gerard into something he doesn’t want to do. And Travie’s a perfect gentleman. Vicky can get pretty frisky but she knows when to back off. Don’t worry, he’s in good hands.”

“Hey that reminds me,” Frank pointed at Pete. “You stop fucking spreading rumors about shit you don’t understand, you got me? Me, Gee, and Grant aren't a thing.”

Pete laughed. “I told Gabe you three SHOULD be a thing, not that you were. It’s not my fault if he misunderstood.”

Frank looked past them to where Gerard was. Vicky had her head on his arm. Gabe had an arm around his shoulders. Travie was holding his hand from across the table. He was talking about something, and they were hanging on his every word. He looked happier than he had in weeks. Gerard wasn’t tense, or avoiding eye contact. It made Frank happy to see, but also sad that it wasn’t directed at him.

“Is Gerard mad at me?” Frank asked, looking back at Patrick and Pete.

“Not that I’m aware of.” Pete shrugged. “He’d tell you if he was.”

“He’s been down, though. I mean he’s happy-ish around me and Grant but it seems kinda fake.” Frank admitted.

Patrick pressed his lips together, looking at Pete. Pete was looking back, and then they turned to Frank. “I’m gonna tell you the same thing I told Grant,” Patrick said. “If you wanna know, you gotta talk to him.”

“I tried! He tells me he’s fine then finds an excuse to leave!”

“Then maybe he doesn’t wanna talk to you,” Pete pointed out.

Patrick was looking over at the other table, a small smile on his face. They were getting up to leave, Gerard still under Gabe’s arm. Vicky was on his other side, while Travie was next to Gabe. When they got to Frank’s table, Gerard paused for a minute and went over to them. He refused to meet Frank’s eyes, instead addressing Patrick. “Hey, I’m gone for the night. I’ll see you guys tomorrow okay?”

“Fine. Remember, we’re heading out at 0900,” Patrick reminded him.

“I know. Thanks guys,” Gerard said, waving a little. He looked at Frank for a moment, managing a smile. But even Frank could tell it was strained. He then walked off and left the bar with Vicky, Travie, and Gabe. Frank stared after him, unsure what to do.

“Are you okay?” Pete asked.

“Yeah, fine,” Frank replied. “Gerard’s an adult.”

Pete rolled his eyes and said, “Dude, you are so fucking stupid sometimes. C’mon Pattycakes let’s go.”

“I told you to stop fucking calling me that,” Patrick replied, and they got up and left, leaving Frank alone.

Frank growled, and wasn’t aware of the beer bottle shattering in his hand.

Their supplies were loaded, along with some new equipment and tools. Grant had spent a lot of the celebrations speaking with Shelly, and making arrangements. He'd contacted Warren, Neil, and Kelly Sue and gave them the good news, and in return they were securing more funds. There were grants, and of course they would need to begin selecting more people to study the planet.

Grant had wondered what to do about the octofrogs, as he realized exposing them to a different environment like Cobra meant they wouldn't be able to return them to the planet. Thankfully, they adapted well and could be kept in an ordinary tank, and their diet was easy to maintain. So two he gave to Shelly for further study, and one he gave to Gabe Saporta as thanks for their stay.

Gabe had been thrilled when presented with the octofrog, and he said, "YES! I've always wanted my own tentacle monster!"

Patrick frowned at him, and gestured to the palm sized animal. "Gabe, this is about as big as they're gonna get."

"Shhhh conejo ," Gabe replied. "Let him dream of being a giant space squid." Grant had laughed.

Grant was the first one back at the ship. Nearly every person showed up an hour before take off, but the only one missing was Gerard. Grant was concerned, and wondered if he should call him, when he spotted Gerard crossing the hangar.

He had three people with him, whom Grant recognized. He was a little surprised, especially as Travie and Vicky had their arms around him. Gabe easily strolled beside them, cracking jokes. Gabe held up a hand in greeting to Grant and called, “Hey! Sorry we’re getting him here late, we overslept!”

“That’s fine,” Grant said, startled. Gerard looked… Different. Happier. In fact, he looked more lively than Grant had seen him in weeks. Gerard was smiling, and his eyes were bright. Gerard smiled at Grant, then turned to Vicky, Travie and Gabe. Grant would have looked away, maybe given them a moment of privacy, but they didn’t seem to notice his presence.

“Thanks so much you guys, I had a great time,” Gerard told them, and hugged Vicky.

“Hey, no problem,” Vicky replied. “Call us when you’re coming back, we can do it again.”

“I’d like that.” Gerard moved over to Travie and hugged him as well. “I’m gonna miss you guys.”

“We’re a transmission away if you get lonely,” Travie told him.

Gabe nodded and pulled Gerard into an embrace. They were quiet for a moment, and Grant couldn’t tell what they were saying. But then Gabe raised his voice. “Any time you need us, corazon . I mean it, any time.” And he kissed Gerard on the lips.

Grant couldn’t help staring. This was certainly a new development. It made something in his chest tight. He knew what the feeling was. He was jealous! Grant couldn’t believe it; he wanted to kick himself. But he kept his face schooled, as Travie and Vicky were watching him. It was difficult, and the effort made him clench his hands behind his back.

Grant wanted to pull Gerard away. He wanted to kiss him, tell him how brilliant and beautiful he thought he was. Tell Gerard how much he’d loved him ever since he’d been Grant’s student at the university. And Grant also wanted Frank, who was bright and gorgeous as well, but in a different way. Grant already had Frank, and knew he had to let Gerard go to live his own life.

Gerard pulled away, slyly wiping at his eyes. It didn’t escape Grant’s notice that Gerard had been crying, but he didn’t ask. Instead he watched as Gabe gently stroked Gerard’s hair and gave him another kiss. Gerard smiled at them, then turned back to the ship. He didn’t look at Grant, instead he boarded the ship without saying a word. That stung more than seeing someone else kiss Gerard, and Grant wasn’t sure how to process that. Instead, he followed after Gerard. He said to Lindsey, “I believe we can take off now.”

“You sure?” Lindsey asked, raising an eyebrow. “Gabe may wanna dry hump him goodbye.”

Grant frowned at her, but didn’t respond. She snorted and closed the door, heading to the front to tell Frank it was time to depart. Grant went to one of the jump seats, but paused. Pete and Patrick were sitting next to each other, with Gerard sitting several seats away, alone. Grant couldn’t pass up the opportunity. So he went and sat next to Gerard, buckling himself in. Gerard didn’t look at him, and Grant could see he was much more subdued than he had been in the hangar.

“Are you all right?” Grant asked.

“Fine,” Gerard replied, but gave himself away when he wiped at his face. There were still some tears clinging to his face.

“Gerard, please, if there’s something wrong, you can tell me.”

Gerard shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“It’s something to do with me, isn’t it?”

Gerard took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. “You don’t wanna hear it, trust me.”

“Gerard, please,” Grant said softly, “if this is something to do with me, I would like to know what I can do to fix it.”

“You can’t.” Gerard reached to undo his seat belt and move, but the ship was beginning to take off. The seats were on lock down, and he couldn’t get free until after the jump into hyperspace.

Grant put his hand on Gerard’s shoulder. “Please. You’re one of my dearest friends. I want to help you.”

He was quiet for a minute, eyes still closed. At last, he took a deep, shuddering breath and opened them. Looking at Grant, he said, “You can’t because it’s my problem, not yours.”

“And there’s nothing I can do to help?” Grant asked.

“Not unless you wanna dump Frank and start dating me. Or he could dump you and date me. But I wouldn’t like either of you as much if you did that.” Gerard’s shoulders slumped, his expression was downcast as he continued.

“It’s stupid. I know how stupid it is, but I’m lonely and I have been forever. Back on Earth, when I wasn’t at the college or with you, I was home alone wishing I had someone to share my life with. And I thought maybe you could be that person, but that never happened because I was too shy to make the attempt, and you weren’t interested anyway.

“No one was, and I probably would have gotten a cat or something but I’m allergic. I was living in a huge city full of thousands of people and every night I was alone because I’m weird and fucking stupid.” Gerard chuckled, but it was bitter.  Grant wanted to interrupt, but he didn’t dare; Gerard wasn’t done.

“Then we met Frank and I felt about him the same way I feel about you, and I thought maybe this time I’ve got a chance. And if I do, this time I’m going to say something. Until I saw you two kissing and I knew I didn’t have a fucking prayer.” Gerard confessed.

Grant could hear the strain in his voice from holding back tears, but Gerard wouldn’t meet his eyes. He stared at the ground instead. “Don’t worry about it. You guys are good for each other and I hate feeling this way. I’ll get over it. I promise, it won’t interfere with the work.”

Grant wasn’t sure what to say. He’d been fond of Gerard ever since he’d met him, and had wanted to bed him shortly after getting to know him. But he’d kept his distance due to Gerard’s age, and once they became colleagues he’d kept that attraction in check.

He couldn't imagine the pain he was feeling. Especially as Grant had chosen Frank. “Gerard…” He took a moment to gather his thoughts. “I’m so sorry.”

The bell sounded, signaling they were in hyperspace. Grant had been so focused on Gerard he hadn't even noticed the take off. Gerard got out of his seat belt and said, “Keep it to yourself, please? I dunno what I’d do if Frank found out. He hates me anyway.”

“Frank does not hate you,” Grant said immediately.

Gerard got up, and barked out a laugh, the bitterness still there. “Yeah? You shoulda seen him last night! When I was leaving that stupid dive I thought he was gonna rip my face off!” He shook his head and walked off. Grant wanted to go after him, but he left Gerard alone. He was clearly in pain, and Grant could only hurt him. He didn’t know how to fix this, or even if it could be fixed. But he wanted to help Gerard if he could.

Grant had been avoiding Frank since they’d gotten back from the station. They’d landed the ship in the old spot in the valley, and Grant was gone as soon as they doors were open.

He wasn’t sure why Grant was distancing himself, but he was pretty sure it was because of Gerard. He knew they’d talked about something but Frank had no idea what. And now Grant was off on some fucking nature hike, and no one would tell him anything.

It didn’t help that Frank’s stomach was still in knots from what he’d seen. Usually, he liked Gabe. He was loud and obnoxious but fun. But now he hated him, because Gerard had slept with him. And probably Vicky and Travie too. Frank knew that this jealous streak was completely unfair; Gerard was single after all, and Frank didn’t have a claim to him. But he couldn’t seem to help himself.

He could hear laughter coming from the cargo bay, and Frank followed it to find Pete, Lindsey, and Gerard taking a break and talking.

“Where’s Patrick?” Frank asked.

“Molesting his new guitar,” Pete replied. “He’s cheating on me with a vintage Gretsch.” He fake pouted and Gerard and Lindsey laughed.

“I don’t blame him, I’d totally cheat on my wife with that thing. It’s fucking gorgeous,” said Lindsey.

“I still can’t believe that he bartered it off Gabe!” Gerard said, grinning.

“Well Gabe was in a particularly good mood,” Pete replied, waggling his eyebrows at Gerard.

Gerard blushed and said, “I guess he was.”

“Must have been a good time,” Lindsey teased, and that was what finally set Frank off.

“Yeah, must have. Just hope that Saporta wasn’t comparing notes,” Frank said acidly.

Everyone turned to look at him, varying degrees of confusion on their faces.

“What does that mean?” Gerard asked.

“Oh please, like you don't know. Everyone knows that Saporta likes to collect fuck buddies, and I KNOW he hooked up with Mikey,” said Frank. “He probably wanted to see how you stacked up against your brother. Guess it must have been good, since he gave up that guitar. Although, I don’t think even Mikey would agree to a foursome, so maybe that was the only reason.”

Pete was staring at Frank in shock, and Lindsey was furious. But the look on Gerard’s face, that was what made Frank instantly regret what he’d said. Gerard had been genuinely happy, and Frank saw the joy drain from him. So when Lindsey was yelling at him demanding to know what his fucking problem was, he barely registered that she was there.

Pete was by Gerard's side, saying something he couldn’t hear. In fact, Frank’s ears seem to be muffled, like he was in shock. Lindsey was shoving at him, and he hardly noticed. Then Gerard stood up and stared at Frank.

“That’s enough,” he said to Lindsey, shrugging Pete off.

“Gee- -” Frank said, but Gerard cut him off.

“That was really low Frank, even for you,” Gerard said quietly. He was looking at the ground, refusing to meet his eyes. When had been the last time Gerard locked gazes with Frank? It had been a long time. Frank suddenly wanted nothing more. He wanted to see those amber eyes, no matter what Gerard was feeling.

But Lindsey was blocking his way, and Gerard was turning to leave. “I’m going to the south ridge. Count some quarrels,” he said. “I’d rather be alone.” He seemed to be adding that for Pete and Lindsey’s benefit rather than for Frank. And with that, Gerard left.

Pete sighed, shook his head, and headed in the direction of Patrick’s room. Lindsey said, “You’re such an asshole,” before elbowing Frank in the stomach hard enough to knock the wind out of him. That he didn’t fall over was pretty amazing.

Lindsey grabbed him by the hair and whispered harshly, “If Gerard wouldn’t have a total meltdown over it I would kick your scrawny ass into next week and set you on fire. As it is, if you ever hurt him like that again I will make you pay. You get a pass for now because you’re a fucking moron.” She shoved him away, and stormed off the ship.

Frank rubbed his scalp and watched her go. He wanted to yell at her, pick a fight, and get rid of the anger. But in the same breath, he hated himself, because she was right. He knew he’d really hurt Gerard with that crack about Gabe and Mikey. Frank still couldn’t figure out why he’d done it. Sure, he was pissed and jealous, but even when he’d been saying it Frank knew it was going too far.

He wanted to talk to Grant, but who the fuck knew where he was. So Frank decided to finish emptying the cargo hold. If anything, the physical exertion would help him to calm down.

And that was what he did. For hours, he worked up a hell of a sweat and no one came to interrupt. Until, finally, Grant returned as Frank was moving the last box.

“I was under the impression that Lindsey and Gerard would be unloading,” Grant said.

“They were, but then I decided to open my stupid fucking mouth. Gee’s off counting those lizard ferret things and I dunno where Lins went,” Frank replied, wiping his forehead with his arm.

Grant put an arm around him, and guided him out of the cargo bay. They went to Grant’s quarters, and he asked, “What did you say?”

Frank wanted to lie, do something so Grant wouldn’t give him that disappointed look. But he couldn’t, he had to own up to it. “I said some things about Saporta and Gee’s brother.” Overcome with shame, Frank told Grant exactly what he’d said. He then added, “I don’t know why I did that! I didn’t mean to but I was so fucking mad!”

Grant did look a little disappointed, but it was mixed with something else too; guilt. “Will you apologize?”

“Yeah, I was pretty much sorry when I said, it,” Frank replied. “And the worst part was, he was so… Dejected. He didn’t get mad or anything.”

“You likely wounded him,” Grant explained. “I’ve known Gerard for a long time. And despite outward appearances, he is quite insecure.”

“Rub it in, babe,” Frank replied tersely.

“I’m sorry,” said Grant, wrapping his arms around Frank to hold him. He stroked his hair and added, “We’ll have to make it up to him.”

“We?” Frank asked. “You didn’t do anything.”

“No, I haven’t, which has led to just as much pain for him,” Grant replied softly.

“I don’t get your meaning.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t explain without breaking his confidence.” Grant withdrew enough to cup Frank’s face in his hands. He smiled, but there was as trace of bitterness to it. “Frank, am I correct in assuming you’re now in love with Gerard?”

Frank wanted to deny it, to swear up and down he loved Grant only, but it wasn’t true, they both knew that. Because Frank wasn’t blind, he saw how Grant looked at Gerard. And that Grant was well past the stage of platonic love. And Frank was, too.

“Yes,” Frank admitted. “I am.”

“As am I,” said Grant. “And I think perhaps Mr. Saporta has the right idea.”

It took Frank a moment to understand, but when he caught up, he snorted. “No way. Gerard’s not gonna want anything to do with me after this.”

“I’m certain he’ll forgive you,” Grant replied, stroking Frank’s hair. “But we’ll have to tread carefully, or we may drive him away all together.”

“Yeah I think I already did that,” Frank told him bitterly.

“And you will apologize, and he will forgive you. As it is in your nature to lash out and injure those around you when angered, it’s in his nature to forgive and forget.” Grant pointed out. “But the issue at hand is, how to convince Gerard that we love him, and want him to join us?”

That was a problem. As Grant and Frank had grown closer, Gerard had drifted away from them. Frank shrugged and said, “Why don’t we just take him out on a date and ask?”

Grant smiled. “The direct approach?”

“Yeah, all this dancin’ around hasn’t worked so far,” Frank said.

“I believe you’re right.”

Frank grinned, then kissed Grant. “You go put together a date idea, I’ll go apologize.”

“Be careful,” Grant warned.

“I’m always careful!” Frank called back, and left the room. He could hear Grant laughing.

Gerard wasn’t sure how long it had been since he’d left, but he wasn’t willing to go back just yet. He knew he’d have to, because it was getting dark. But he was going to delay as long as he could.

He couldn’t face Frank after what he’d said. And it wasn’t true anyway. He and Gabe hadn't had much of a spark when it came down to it. And Gabe was happy with Travie and Vicky. But it had hurt, Frank’s words, and Gerard didn’t want to deal with it. He wished that he could stay out until Frank was asleep, so that he wouldn’t risk running into him.

Jolene was curled up nearby, and Gerard had alternated between singing to it and quietly petting it. He still wasn’t sure if the quarrel had adopted him, or was possibly sizing him up as a future mate. Gerard probably would have accepted; he'd been doing better when they left the station. But now he was back to being lonely and miserable.

Gerard sighed; the sun was near the horizon, and was ready to go down. “I should head back,” he said. Jolene made a sad cooing noise, and he shrugged.

“I gotta go, I’ll be back tomorrow,” Gerard promised, and began to climb down from the ridge. Once he was down in the small canyon, he felt his mood sink further. He had a long way to climb down, and he wasn’t looking forward to seeing Frank. Grant had repeatedly assured Gerard that Frank didn’t hate him, but what else was Gerard supposed to think after that? Gerard couldn’t even meet his eyes, he was so embarrassed and hurt.

Mikey had always been the more sociable of the two, and the best looking. He was taller, thinner, and while he suffered from anxiety like Gerard did, he was always the life of the party. That he didn't have the same hang ups about sex was also a boon. Gerard wasn't a prude, but he'd spent most of his youthful rebellion drunk or fucked up on drugs rather than hopping bed to bed.

He didn't blame Mikey, actually he admired him. Mikey knew what he wanted from others, and had been more than willing to go for it. And he made sure that his lovers were just as satisfied as he was. Gerard wasn’t nearly as confident in his abilities, and he sometimes wondered if that was why he was perpetually single.

He was drawn out of his thoughts when he heard yelling. Curious, but cautious, Gerard managed to creep along the rock wall, following the sound. When he reached the entrance to the canyon and looked into the valley below, his heart dropped into his shoes.

Gerard didn't know how to describe the creature, the only thought that came to him was "dragon". It was large, easily 40 feet long. It lacked scales, instead it had a leathery blue hide. There were spikes that gleamed like metal sticking up along its back. Yellow eyes like a cats were following the movement of something, and Gerard felt his blood run cold when he saw what it was.

It was Frank, cornered in one of the rock formations in the valley. And he was attempting to avoid its steel claws. The dragon had him backed into a crevice, and while its head was too big to reach in and bite him, it was doing its best to drag him out.

Without thinking, Gerard rushed forward, waving his hands in the air and yelling. "Hey asshole! Over here!"

This got the dragon's attention, and Gerard could hear Frank yelling something, but what he wasn't sure. Just then, the dragon roared and turned, heading straight for Gerard. Instead of turning for the shelter of the canyon, Gerard pulled a flare gun from his bag. It was the only weapon he had, and it would have to do.

Rather than firing it at the dragon, he fired it into the air. The flare exploded, raining red fire between himself and the unknown creature. It cried out in surprise, flapping its wings in distress. Gerard loaded another flare into the gun, and did it again. This time, rather than crying out, the creature took flight, and Gerard watched as it flew away.

Gerard, not wanting to miss this opportunity, took his camera out of the bag, taking as many pictures as he could before it was out of sight. The adrenaline left him, and Gerard's legs wobbled. He barely managed to stay on his feet as he went to where Frank had been trapped between the rocks.

"Are you okay?" He asked, extending a hand to Frank.

"That was a motherfucking dragon!" Frank yelled, taking Gerard's hand, and together they pulled him out.

"No shit! Dragons are real and they live in space. Fuck I hope we find some vampires here too that would be amazing!" Gerard replied, grinning.

Frank looked at him as though he were crazy, then he started laughing. Gerard couldn't help it, he busted up too. They laughed until they were coughing and crying, the stress of the situation finally catching up with them.

"How did you even know the flares would work?" Frank asked.

"I didn't, I was improvising," Gerard admitted, shaking his head. The flares were still fixed in mid air, pulsing a distress signal just as Lindsey had designed. "They should be here soon. You'll need to see Pete, some of those cuts look pretty bad."

Frank had lacerations on his face, hands, and arms, with superficial cuts over his forearms and legs. While he wasn't bleeding heavily, he didn't look to be in good shape. He sighed, sitting on the ground and muttering, "A fucking dragon."

Gerard couldn't blame him, he was still in shock himself. He wanted to review the photos immediately, but it could wait until he was sure that Frank wasn't going to die. He sat down next to him and asked,  "What were you even doing out here?"

At this, Frank looked sheepish. "I was trying to find you." Gerard frowned at him, but before he could ask why, Frank continued. "I came to apologize for being an asshole."

"Being an asshole is your default state of being, Frank," Gerard replied, trying to make a joke of it and failing. He was tired. He was tired of being jealous, he was tired of being lonely, and he was especially tired of Frank's laundry list of problems and Frank taking them out on Gerard.

But Frank didn't take it as a joke. "I know, I'm trying to fix that." Frank looked guilty, and it didn't suit him. It made Gerard feel bad, and he wanted to fix it.

"I don't know what I did to make you hate me," Gerard said. "But if there's something I can do to fix it, please tell me. I miss you being my friend, even if you are an asshole."

"Oh fuck, Gee..." Frank wrapped his arms around him, and hugged Gerard tight. "I don't hate you, man. I never did. I'm sorry about what I said about Gabe, and about Mikey. That was bullshit. And I'm sorry I've been treating you like shit. I'm gonna fix it, I promise, okay?"

It wasn't okay, it was far from it, but it was a start. Gerard hugged him back and said, "Apology accepted."

At that moment, they heard honking in the distance. Gerard let go and saw that Lindsey and Pete were on their way in one of the new hover carts, Pete leaning out of the side and waving like an idiot.

"Thanks be to the space gods for Pete Wentz and his perpetual bad timing," Gerard muttered, and Frank laughed.

When they returned to the ship, Pete got Frank bandaged up. While some of the cuts were deep, thankfully he didn't need stitches. They talked about what they'd seen, and Patrick said, "I was wondering when we'd run into a predator. And you said it flies?"

"It's a fucking dragon, Pat!" Frank said, flapping his arms a bit.

"Don't call me that, and it can't possibly be a dragon they don't exist."

Gerard showed Patrick the pictures, saying, "It looks a lot like a dragon. We should probably find out where they hang out, monitor their eating habits."

"Their eating habits include trying to pick off tiny tattooed assholes," Pete said, smirking at Frank.

Frank snorted and said, "Guess that means you're on the menu, too." Pete laughed at that.

Grant appeared in the med bay, and pulled him as gently as he could into a hug. Pete and Patrick suddenly found something much more interesting to do on the other side of the room.

Frank sighed, relief washing over him. But when he saw Gerard looking to leave, Frank reached out and caught his hand. "No, please stay?" Gerard looked at him for a moment, then nodded.

Frank pulled away from Grant and turned to Gerard. "Again, I'm really sorry, especially about what I said about Gabe. He's probably the nicest asshole I've ever met, he wouldn't be comparing notes."

Gerard looked at Frank, then at Grant, and back to Frank again. "I didn't have sex with them."

"What?" Frank and Grant said in unison.

Gerard was blushing now and he said, "I didn't have sex with any of them. They knew I was lonely, so instead of hooking up we went to their place and watched movies. They were all really nice about it. The first night when me and Gabe went to dinner, we hit it off. But then when we got to his place I started... God this is embarrassing.” Gerard was blushing. “I started crying, so he said it was okay we didn't have to do anything and we watched movies instead."

"Not to pry, but you all seemed quite close the morning we departed," Grant pointed out.

"Yeah, I spilled my guts to them and they felt sorry for me. They wanted to make me feel better. So we cuddled and they let me get it out. No sex involved," said Gerard. He was bright red now.

Frank was surprised, to say the least. He wouldn't have blamed Gerard if he'd had sex with all three of them, despite being an asshole about the situation. "How you feel?" He asked.

Gerard looked at him again, and his face crumpled. "It's not as though it's a secret or something, Frank."

Frank almost kicked himself when he realized what Gerard was saying, but he managed to resist. "I'm sorry, again. Like, really sorry."

Gerard shook his head and didn't respond, instead he pulled away and left the med bay, mumbling something about filing the photos.

"That... Could have gone better," Frank said, sighing. Grant hugged him.

"It's all right, we'll speak to him," Grant assured him.

Frank looked over and saw Pete and Patrick whispering to each other, and he frowned. "And it would probably help if nosy little bitches weren't eavesdropping on this conversation."

Pete looked over and flipped him off. "Hey, nosy little bitches are better at this shit than you so maybe you should shut the fuck up." Patrick smacked his arm and hissed something at him that Frank couldn't hear.

"And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Frank shot back, but Grant squeezed his shoulder.

"That's enough Frank. Is he free to leave?" Grant asked.

Pete was still frowning, but he said, "Yeah get him the fuck outta here, I'm sick of seeing you guys anyway."

"Love you too baby," said Frank, rolling his eyes. He and Grant left, and headed back to Grant's quarters. Frank groaned as Grant had him lie down, saying, "Fuck this hurts..."

"Perhaps we should wait for you to heal," Grant muttered.

"No!" Frank sat up, fast enough he aggravated his injuries. Grant helped him to lie down again, and he continued. "We can't leave it lying the way it is. We've gotta tell him how we feel."

Grant nodded. "If you insist. I think that I may have a plan for the date."

"Oh yeah? What's the plan?" Frank asked.

"Simple. We invite him to dinner, just the three of us. We can talk things out then."

"That's gonna be awkward as fuck to arrange." They only had one dining hall, and they all ate at the same time.

"Leave that to me, I'll get it sorted." Grant kissed Frank's forehead and added, "Rest, please. I was so worried when I heard."

Frank snorted a bit, and sighed. "A nap does sound good."

"Excellent. Sleep well."

He did.

Grant was feeling on edge. While he was glad they could continue to study the planet, the encounter with what was dubbed a dragon was unsettling. After expanding their search area, they discovered why they hadn't run into such creatures before.

"You know all those asteroids orbiting around the planet?" Patrick said, pulling up a holo display. "That's where these animals live."

"Hey wait," Lindsey moved closer to look at the asteroids, then pointed to one particular area. "This was where we were when the shuttle took damage and went down."

"It might not have been rocks then, it could have been one defending its home turf," Gerard pointed out.

"Dude! Space dragons! They're dragons, in SPACE!" Pete said, breaking into a wide grin.

"You're such a dork, and we can't just call them space dragons." Patrick was frowning.

"We can and totally should!" Frank enthused, making Grant chuckle.

"Have we figured out why it went after Frank?" He asked.

At that, Patrick shrugged. "I'm not sure, we won't really know more unless we go up there and study them."

"That would be so badass!" Said Gerard, giggling.

"Ooh! Me! Pick me!" Pete yelled, waving both hands around like an idiot. Patrick rolled his eyes.

"Settle down everyone," Grant said, and then added. "We'll likely have to rotate teams to observe the dragons, but more importantly we'll need safety measures in place so that we don't have a repeat of the shuttle crash or what happened to Frank."

"Yeah those fucking things are mean," Frank told the others.

"Is there any more you can tell us about the encounter?" Patrick asked.

Frank shook his head. "Nope. Pretty much just walking along minding my own business when I heard this WOOSH noise and a roar and suddenly I'm being dive bombed by a fucking dragon."

Patrick looked slightly disappointed, but he nodded and went back to his notes.

It was then that Lindsey asked, "So now that we're not trying to hide this place anymore, is it cool for us to pull up the telemail systems?"

Grant hadn't even thought about that. "Yes, of course. I apologize I should have approved it sooner."

"It's cool, I just wanna talk to my wife," Lindsey replied.

Frank stared, then asked, "Okay who is your wife? I know she came to our going away party but I never met her. Hell I never even saw her."

Grant was a little puzzled himself; there had been a lot going on that night. And while he hadn't been inattentive, he couldn't recall meeting the woman. But apparently Gerard, Patrick, and Pete knew because they busted up laughing.

"It's Joan Jett," Gerard said simply.

Frank stared at him for a moment, his jaw dropping. He then looked at Lindsey and said, "He's fucking lying ain't he?"

Lindsey laughed in return. "He's not. I met her after I broke up with Gerard. I was doing some work over at her place in New York and we ended up hitting it off."

Frank just couldn't seem to wrap his brain around it. "You were fixing something at Joan Jett's house, the fucking legend herself, goddess with a fucking holotar, and you guys ended up getting married?"

"Yeah, that happens when people fall in love and wanna stay together," Lindsey teased, and pinched his cheek. "Don't worry Frankie baby, I'm sure someone's gonna wanna marry your dumb ass someday."

Frank smacked her hand away while Lindsey and Pete laughed at him. Gerard was looking at Frank in a way that said very clearly he'd love to marry him. But then he looked at Grant, blushed, and went to leave the room.

Grant found himself following before he knew what he was doing. He caught up with Gerard in the hall, and touched his arm. "I'd like to speak with you a moment."

"Yes?" Gerard asked, looking up at him. He was more able to meet Grant's eyes, but there was still some pain there.

"Frank and I were wondering if you'd join us for dinner this evening," said Grant.

Gerard raised an eyebrow at that. "You sure about that?"

"Is there a reason we shouldn't be?"

Gerard snorted and shook his head. "Frank almost got eaten by a dragon, I figured you two would be busy sucking each other's faces off." At that, his eyes widened and he added, "I'm sorry, that was rude."

Grant laughed. "Perhaps, but it's an accurate observation."

But before Gerard could reply, they heard a shout from the lab, and they both ran back inside.

Patrick was in the process of hitting Pete with his notebook, while Pete tried to defend himself with his arms.

"What happened?" Grant asked.

"This moron just ate one of my fungi samples!" Patrick said.

"Iero bet me 20 bucks I wouldn't do it," Pete added.

"I did not!" Frank exclaimed.

Lindsey was trying very hard not to laugh. "Actually, Pete said he dared himself to do it and Frank would have to pay him if he didn't die."

Grant gave Pete a stern look, and said, "That was incredibly foolish of you."

"Nah it's fine, 'Trick said they're edible," Pete replied, but Patrick was glaring at him.

"I said theoretically they're edible, we have no idea what this is gonna do to you." Patrick was glaring at Pete, who had the good grace to look sheepish. "Come on, I'm taking you for quarantine."

"Hey you can't do that, I'm the doctor on this ship," said Pete.

"I can and I will because you're a fucking moron! Come on." Patrick shoved him out of the room, the two bickering the whole time.

Lindsey was still laughing, and she shook her head. "I'm gonna go get our comms system up and call my wife. I'll see you guys tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Gerard asked, surprised.

"Yeah, I didn't get much of a chance to vidchat with her while we were at Cobra, so I'm gonna be taking advantage of the moron twins being locked in med bay for the night," Lindsey informed him. She was smirking as she left the lab, adding, "Have a pleasant evening!"

It was just the three of them now, and Gerard was looking between Frank and Grant. He asked, "That dinner invitation still on the table?"

"It most certainly is," Grant replied.

"Cool. See you guys tonight then." And he walked out.

Frank stared after him, then looked at Grant and asked, "You get the feeling Pete did that on purpose?"

"I do," Grant replied.

"I may have to thank him if Patrick doesn't murder him first."

Privately, Grant agreed.

Gerard was feeling pretty nervous. With Pete and Patrick locked up and Lindsey occupied talking to Joan, he didn't have anyone to ask for advice. And now he was having dinner with Grant and Frank, and he wasn't sure what to do. What was worse is he didn't know what it meant.

But he suspected this was it. They were going to ask him to leave. Now that the fact finding part of the expedition was over, they didn't really need him anymore. Not that they'd needed him in the first place. And after his confession to Grant, and nearly telling Frank flat out he was in love with him, Gerard figured his days on the planet were numbered.

He'd dressed up a little, instead of the usual jump suits they wore. He'd pulled on his favorite black suit, with a white shirt and black tie. If this was going to be one of the last meals he had with them, he wanted to look good. He thought he'd feel ridiculous, until he walked into the mess hall.

Grant was wearing a beige suit, with pink and lavender stripes. A beige shirt and pink tie completed the outfit. Frank was in the same dark green suit that he'd worn to their meeting with Neil, which seemed lifetimes ago now instead of a few months. They both looked amazing, and it stole Gerard's breath away for a moment.

"Hey," Frank said, "glad you could make it."

"Yeah, well, I didn't eat any alien mushrooms today," Gerard joked, though he couldn't quite smile past his anxiety.

Frank giggled, and gestured for Gerard to have a seat across from him. Grant was at the head of the table, and he gently touched Gerard's hand. "Thank you for coming. We wanted to speak with you."

That made Gerard's anxiety level go up. Frank and Grant seemed to be silently debating on who should talk, and Gerard blurted out, "If you want me to leave, I'll leave.” They were both staring at him and Gerard couldn't help babbling. "Uh, I mean, Cobra isn't too far by shuttle. And if you send someone with me they'll get the shuttle back to you. I can get back to Earth from there."

The shared look of surprise made Gerard want to kick himself. Frank shook his head and said, "No, no Gee, why would you think we want you to leave?"

"Because I love you both but you're practically married! You don't deserve this," said Gerard. He knew he was blushing, but he needed to get this out. "You don't need some lovesick lonely heart fucking everything up when we've JUST gotten conservation status, and there's so much work to do and I'm just--"

"Gerard, stop," Grant commanded, holding up a hand. Gerard knew he was still blushing.

"We don't want you to leave," Frank told him, but then looked to Grant as though he was having trouble finding the right words.

"We absolutely don't want you to leave," Grant affirmed. "Please, calm down." He gently touched Gerard's shoulder, then got up. He went to the galley, then returned with a tray.

"Look let's just eat then we can talk more okay?" Frank offered.

Gerard agreed, but he was also very confused. They should have been telling him to pack his bags, instead they were insisting he shouldn't leave.

The meal was a lovely mushroom and spinach risotto, with sun dried tomatoes thrown in. The garlic bread served with it was home made, and Gerard couldn't help asking, "Who baked the bread?"

"Frank did," Grant said, giving him a proud smile.

Frank preened a bit and said, "Someone had to, you know he's fucking useless in the kitchen."

"Not entirely," Grant countered. "Everyone enjoyed my vegetable curry."

"That you needed help making because you forgot the portions for the ingredients," Frank teased.

Gerard managed a smile, but his nerves were making it difficult to eat. There was a sour taste in his mouth, and it wasn't the risotto.

Grant and Frank exchanged looks, and then Frank said, "I told you it'd make him more nervous if we waited."

"Hm, you were right, but I still think it would have spoiled dinner," Grant replied, wiping his hands with a napkin.

"Too fucking late now."

"What's going on?" Gerard asked. He'd put his utensils down, and pushed away from the table a little. He felt the urge to run, to get as far away from this as he could. But he stayed seated, wanting one of them to get to the fucking point before he went crazy.

"Gerard," said Grant, and he gently took Gerard's hand. "We wanted to talk to you. Not about anything bad, and no, we aren't going to send you away."

"We know you're in love with us," Frank added, leaning forward.

"What you don't know, and perhaps never realized, is that we love you, too," finished Grant.

"Yeah, as a friend," Gerard said derisively. "If this is your way of trying to let me down gently I'm fucking going to be sick." He was surprised at himself, he didn't usually go from anxious to angry so quickly. But he couldn't seem to help it, not when it came to them.

However, Grant shook his head. "No, not as a friend."

"We're in love with you too," Frank added. "I mean it's not an excuse but it was why I was being such a dick about Gabe and Vicky and Travie."

Gerard felt as though his heart had stopped. He looked at Frank, and then Grant. Two pairs of dark eyes settled on him, similar but so different in a hundred ways. For a moment, Gerard had completely forgotten how to breathe. But then he asked, "Really?"

"Yes," Grant assured. He still held Gerard's hand, and Frank reached across the table for his other one.

"But then... Why did you say those things? After I almost drowned?" He asked. Gerard was willing himself not to cry, but he could feel tears stinging his eyes.

"What things specifically?" Grant asked.

Gerard haltingly relayed what he'd heard, and then he added, "I thought you guys found out how I felt and you hated me."

"That's not true," Frank responded. "We knew we loved you, and it... Grant help me out here."

"What he means to say," said Grant, "is that we were coming to terms with our feelings for you, and thought that it would be unfair to keep you to ourselves. We'd intended to speak with you about it much sooner."

"But then when you backed off we thought maybe you heard us," interrupted Frank, "and that you were weirded out or something. And then I figured, maybe it wasn't a big deal. At least until Patrick got nosy."

"Patrick?" Gerard asked, a bit confused.

"Long story. But him, Pete, and Lindsey have been conspiring to try to get us to pull our heads out of our asses," Frank said to him.

"Sometimes we're blind when it comes to ourselves and our happiness," Grant chimed in. "But the point is, Gerard, that we love you very much, and would like for you to join us."

"What, for a night?" He asked, unable to keep the bitterness out of his tone.

"Stop that," Grant admonished, squeezing his hand. "Don't speak about yourself like that, we happen to hold you in high regard."

"And I don't do one night stands," Frank concluded. "So if you join us, it's for the long haul."

Gerard's first impulse was to say yes, to jump into their arms and hopefully live happily ever after. But he'd been burned so much, it was difficult for him to say it. He gazed at the two of them, felt their hands around his, and Gerard couldn't help the hesitation.

But then he remembered something Gabe had said to him, that night when they'd first been together. Gerard had kissed him, and it looked as though they were in for a wild night, but then he'd stopped because he was thinking about Frank, and started crying when he thought of Grant. Gabe had been kind, helped him get his shirt and jacket back on, and held him until Vicky and Travie had come in.

"What's wrong with him?" Travie asked with concern.

"Poor boy's heart broken," Gabe had answered, which caused both Travie and Vicky to sit down and listen as Gerard explained.

"I don't know why I'm telling you all of this," Gerard said, sniffing.

"Maybe you need to talk to someone who hasn't been stuck on a deserted planet with you for three months," Vicky replied.

"Poor pretty boy," said Travie, and he'd touched Gerard's hair. Instead of jumping, or pulling away, Gerard had melted into it. It felt so good to have someone that wasn't Lindsey touching him again.

"That sucks for you, mijo ," Gabe said. "Look, if it makes you feel better? Love is something that doesn't have to just be about one person."

"Yeah look at us," Vicky said, gesturing. "I'm in love with both of these morons and I know they love me."

"Hey! Who are you calling a moron! You know Travie's pretty smart," said Gabe, which made Travie and Vicky laugh. Gerard had managed a weak smile at that.

"She's right though," Travie added. "We love her, and I love this fucking douche noodle like no tomorrow."

"You can tell they don't really love me because they call me names," Gabe had said, pouting.

"Or maybe because they know you and love you anyway they call you names," Gerard had offered, managing to smile through his tears.

"Yeah there's that," Gabe had admitted. "I dunno what's up with Frankie and this other guy, but you're a sweet dude and you're fucking beautiful. And I hope they'll come to their senses and see that."

"But they're together," Gerard pointed out. "And I don't think either of them is poly."

"Maybe they'll change their minds when they stop being damn fools about you," Travie said.

"And when that happens, don't rush in, you gotta think about if this is the right thing for you, too. Poly's not for everyone," said Vicky.

They'd spent the rest of the night talking, and now that the moment was here, Gerard couldn't help but think of the conversation. But Gerard knew what his answer was going to be. Even if this didn't work out, even if his heart was burned out and he became a loveless husk of a person, he wanted them. And he loved them.

"I say yes," Gerard said softly.

Frank grinned and looked at Grant, who was smiling too. They both got up, and Gerard stood as they moved towards him. Frank hugged him first, and pulled him into a kiss.

It was exactly how Gerard thought it would be. Frank kissed like he did everything else. Full of passion with an undercurrent of dormant anger. Gerard opened to him, and Frank thrust his tongue into his mouth. Gerard fisted a hand in Frank’s hair, tugging on it as they made out. Frank moaned at that, and only broke the kiss when it was getting hard to breathe.

Gerard was panting, as Grant enveloped him in his arms. “That will be a tough act to follow,” Grant teased.

“Don't let him fool you, he kisses way better than me,” Frank said.

"Let's find out,” Gerard replied, and kissed Grant.

It was different from Frank. Grant kissed Gerard breathless, with just as much passion, but more subtle. Gerard found himself moaning into it as Grant’s arms tightened around him. Grant’s fingers were in his hair, and Gerard felt as though his heart would burst.

Gerard gasped as he pulled his mouth away, saying, “I think we should, uh… Move this somewhere else.”

“Agreed,” said Grant.

Frank looked at the table, which was still a mess from their dinner. But after a moment he shrugged and said, “Fuck it, we can clean it up in the morning.”

Gerard giggled, and Frank took his hand and led him out of the room, Grant trailing behind.

“So who’s room are we going to?” Frank asked.

“Mine, I have the largest bed,” Grant told him.

“How did that happen anyway?” Gerard shot Grant a curious look.

“Perks of being in charge,” Grant teased.

When they got to Grant’s quarters, Frank pushed Gerard against the bedroom door, attacking his mouth with another kiss. Gerard certainly didn't mind, kissing back just as fiercely. He felt Grant move closer, and he gently guided Frank away.

Gerard didn't open his eyes, and when he felt Grant’s lips on his he melted. It was different with each of them. Frank made Gerard feel energized and tense, while Grant made him feel calm and relaxed. He loved it, and his heart was beating so hard Gerard was worried it might burst out of his chest.

He heard fabric hitting the ground, and both Gerard and Grant turned to look at Frank. He was already naked, and grinning at both of them. Gerard couldn't help but laugh, and Grant chuckled. “Eager are we?” Grant asked.

“As always,” Frank told him. Grant stepped away from Gerard, and gave Frank a light kiss. It was the first time he'd seen them kissing since the party, and something occurred to Gerard.

“You know, come to think of it, I’m a little surprised at you two,” Gerard said.

“How so?” Grant asked.

“Well… You've been together for a while now, and I don't think I've ever seen you two do that gross PDA thing most new couples do.”

Frank laughed at that. “Grant doesn't like it, and neither do I. Sure holding hands and stuff in public is okay. But after we got busted making out at the party is when we decided to keep it private.”

Gerard smirked. “And Pete giving you guys shit has nothing to do with it, I'm sure.”

“Haven't the slightest idea what you mean,” Grant said, but there was a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Grant unbuttoned his jacket, adding, “I believe it's time to shed our clothing and make gloriously erotic memories.”

“Is he always this poetic before sex?” Gerard asked, taking off his own jacket.

“Sometimes. Other times it's a lot of biting and swearing,” Frank said.

“It does depend on my mood,” Grant added. He was down to his trousers now, and held a hand out for Gerard. He took it, and Grant pulled him close. “Tell me what you want, darling.”

Gerard blushed. “I… It's not just about me.”

“C’mon Gee,” said Frank, flopping on the bed. “It's your first time with us, we want to make it special.”

Gerard looked at Frank, admiring the sheen of his skin in the low light, and the contrast of his tattoos. He then gazed at Grant, who appeared as imposing as when Gerard first met him, but still alluring. He knew what he wanted then, but found it was difficult to vocalize.

Grant seemed to understand, and he kissed Gerard before saying, “Why don't you join Frank on the bed?”

Gerard nodded, and shed the rest of his clothing. He'd never felt so naked in his entire life as with the two of them staring at him. But Frank sat up, patting the bed next to him. Gerard slid onto the bed, taking in more of Frank. Frank was staring too, and he said, “Fuck you look good.”

“Not as good as you,” Gerard replied, eyes still tracing Frank’s tattoos.

Frank noticed and teased, “See anything you like?”

Gerard tapped his shoulder and asked, “Could you turn over?” Frank chuckled and did just that, lying on his stomach. Gerard stared for a moment, then, feeling bold, he straddled Frank’s legs. He traced his fingers over the ink, saying, “Fuck this is beautiful… A jack o lantern?”

“Yeah, my birthday is on Halloween,” said Frank. “Here, watch this.”

Gerard wasn't sure what Frank meant, until the jack o lantern smiled wider. Its mouth was moving, and Gerard jumped. “How the fuck did you do that?!”

“Nanobots in the ink. It's a type of tattoo only us Variants can get since the bots irritate Blank skin,” Frank explained. “Just have to think the code phrase and the tattoo moves.”

“That is fucking amazing,” said Gerard, and he ran his fingers over the tattoo again. He then smirked, and kissed Frank’s back, right where the jack o lantern’s mouth was.

Frank sighed. “You can keep doing that.”

“Thanks.” Gerard kissed a line down Frank’s back, occasionally nipping and licking him. The further down Gerard went, the more that Frank squirmed. Gerard moved off of Frank’s legs, and placed a kiss at the base of his spine. He said, “I need lube.”

It was when Grant handed it to him that Gerard realized he'd joined them on the bed. He was nude, and looked delectable. He gave Gerard a small smile, and asked, “And what are you doing?”

“I want to finger him, then I wanna fuck him,” said Gerard. He looked down and added, “If that's okay with you you, Frank.”

“Fuck yeah!” Frank said.

Gerard grinned, and took the cap off the lube. He had Frank get up onto all fours, and carefully coated his fingers. He met with some resistance of course, but then Grant slipped under Frank, and leaned up to kiss him. Frank instantly relaxed, and Gerard couldn't help smiling. They were good together, and hopefully they'd be even better with him.

He wriggled his index finger, until Frank was loose enough for Gerard to slip it inside. Frank moaned, and asked, “Why are you going so slow?”

“You in a hurry?” Gerard teased. “Have places to be?”

“No, but I want you fucking me right now.”

Gerard shook his head. “I wanna do this right, and that involves making sure I don't hurt you.”

“I like a little pain,” said Frank.

“Or a lot,” Grant chimed in. “But now is not the time for that.” He kissed Frank again.

Gerard stared at them for a moment, a bit surprised. But he shook his head. That was a question for another time. “Actually, Grant… Would you come here?”

Grant carefully removed himself from beneath Frank, and sat up. He kissed Gerard’s cheek and asked, “How can I help?”

“I know what I wanna do, just not sure how to do it,” Gerard told him.

“And what do you want?”

Gerard was blushing furiously, and he said, “I want you to fuck me while I’m fucking Frank.”

Grant smirked, and kissed Gerard’s neck. “We can make it happen. Keep prepping Frank and give me the lube.”

Gerard did as Grant said, but wanted to make Frank more comfortable. He grabbed a pillow and placed it under him, managing to keep his finger inside Frank. He guided Frank so he was lying on the bed once more, carefully spreading his legs. Once Gerard had Frank where he wanted him, he said, “Adding another finger now.”

“Fucking finally,” Frank said in a false grouchy tone.

Gerard smacked Frank’s ass with his free hand. “Knock it off will you? The more you talk back and bitch the longer this is gonna take.”

“Fine fine.” Frank sounded highly amused.

Gerard rolled his eyes, and concentrated on maneuvering another finger into Frank. It was made all the harder by Grant. He moved Gerard so that he was on his knees, in a similar pose as to where Frank had been. Gerard could feel Grant behind him, and yelped when he felt cool, lube covered fingers over his hole.

“Sorry,” Grant said, laying a kiss on Gerard’ hip.

“It's okay,” Gerard assured, though his voice was a little higher than normal. It didn't stop Gerard from trembling. He wasn't afraid, or at least not completely. He was excited. Gerard shifted his focus back to Frank, and tried to ignore what Grant was doing to him. He had a third finger in Frank now, and Gerard was steadily working his digits to loosen Frank up.

“How's that feel?” Gerard asked.

“Fucking good. Keep going.”

Gerard stopped and gasped. Grant’s finger had breached him, and he shivered. “Oh shit.”

“Tend to Frank,” Grant reminded him.

“Yeah, got it.” It was hard, when Grant moved his fingers like that, it made Gerard feel jittery and unfocused. But Frank was moaning, and encouraging him, telling Gerard just how he liked to be fingered.

It seemed to go on forever, but then Frank gasped, “I’m ready, please Gerard, I need you!”

Grant gave an amused chuckle, and asked, “And you? Are you ready for Frank?”

“Yes,” Gerard gasped. Grant crooked his fingers, and Gerard could feel them brushing his prostate.

Grant handed Gerard the lube, saying, “Don't keep him waiting.” He then pulled out of Gerard, making him whimper.

Gerard took the lube and used it to slick his cock, then spread Frank wider. And slowly, Gerard sank into him.

“Fuck yes,” Frank hissed.

“Jesus Frank, you feel amazing,” Gerard told him.

“So do you. Just… Don't move for a minute or I’m gonna fucking come.”

Gerard had no intention of moving, especially when he heard a wet sound coming from behind him. He wasn't surprised when he felt Grant’s hands on his hips, or the press of his cock against Gerard’s entrance. Grant kissed Gerard’s neck again, and with one swift movement was inside him.

“Oh my God,” Gerard whispered.

No one spoke for a few minutes, each trying to get used to the new sensations. But then Frank said, “Okay, you can move again.” And Gerard wasn't sure what to do for a moment. But Grant helped, using his hands to get Gerard’s hips moving at the right pace.

It was intense, and a pleasurable blur. It started out slow, and somewhat awkward. But soon the three of them were moving together, and Gerard was losing his mind. He felt Grant buck his hips, and Gerard in turn snapped his hips into Frank. Frank was moaning continuously, and then he said, “Not gonna last.”

“Don't have to,” Gerard told him. Frank pushed himself up, and Gerard’s hand went under him, grasping Frank’s dick. Gerard was stroking him without much finesse, but it didn't matter to Frank, as he came shortly after.

Gerard moaned, and thrust into him one more time, before pulling out. Frank rolled to the side, short of breath, and Gerard said to Grant, “Stop, wait a minute.”

Grant stilled and asked, “What is it?”

“Just… Hang on.” He pulled away from Grant, and then flopped on his back. “Now, please.”

Grant smiled at him, and re-entered Gerard in seconds. His thrusts were faster, and Gerard gripped the covers under him. He wrapped his legs around Grant’s waist, saying, “Close, so fucking close.”

Frank had slithered over to them, and he kissed Gerard, asking, “Want some help?”

“Yes, oh God please!”

But instead of jacking him off, like Gerard expected, Frank was smirking and moved lower. Gerard only had a second to wonder what he was doing. Then he felt Frank’s mouth envelope his cock, and he cried out.

At the brutal pace Grant was going, and the sinful way Frank’s mouth worked on him, Gerard was coming harder than he had in his entire life. He was breathing hard, and barely registered that Grant was coming inside him.

Gerard went limp, and Grant pulled out of him. Gerard had his eyes closed, and felt Frank and Grant wrap their arms around him.

“That was so fucking good,” Gerard said.

“God damned amazing, mind blowing sex is more like it,” Frank commented.

Grant chuckled, and Gerard could feel it rumbling in his chest. “An apt description, I must say.”

“Fuck… I don't think I can open my eyes.” Gerard felt a sudden wave of exhaustion hit him, and he yawned.

“Sleep, love,” Grant told him.

“Yeah, fuck knows you earned it,” Frank teased. Gerard managed a small smile, before drifting off.

One year later

Frank let out a sigh of relief when the shuttle touched down in Zone One. He could see various techs and scientists bustling around the hangar, of what Gerard liked to call Battery City. It wasn't a city, it was barely even an outpost. But it was permanent, and Frank considered it home.

Warren and House DeFraction had been invaluable when it came getting them the help they needed. It was a fascinating planet to study, which after much debate, Frank had called Patience. No other name really fit, and they'd all waited so long for the opportunities it gave them.

Teams of scientists came and went, but the flight paths were heavily monitored. No one wanted to disturb the animals, especially not the dragons, which had a tendency to attack any shuttles that came near their caves.

A special team studied them too, not too long after the conservatorship was established. They discovered the dragons preferred the thinner air of the planet’s orbit, and only descended to the planet to feed. Their preferred prey was burleys, which they would make a feast of over the course of a couple days. Once the dragon had its fill, it returned to the asteroids above. There was still a lot to learn about space dragons, and other animals on Patience.

Which was why there was now a permanent center. The facility was unique in that it was made specifically to blend into the scenery of the planet, and though it sometimes caused problems when a stray burley ended up in the hangar, for the most part the animals weren't disturbed. What made it even more unique was that it was staffed by mostly Variants.

Grant had insisted, once they had their pick of who could come to Patience, that it mostly be Variants. A few people accused him of reverse classism, but Grant had laughed it off and said there was no such thing. When Frank had asked him why he did it, Grant said, "Look what treasures you and Lindsey are. I want the best, and I want others like you two to get opportunities they may not otherwise."

And Grant had been right. There were plenty of Variants out there with amazing skills and even more amazing brains. They'd come up with revolutionary discoveries, and one who worked in the chemistry lab (a girl with blue hair, Frank thought her name might be Halsey) had even discovered a use for the Nightmare Vine.

It was causing quite a stir, and giving activists for Variant rights a prime example that they were equal to Blanks. Now, people were starting to listen. It would take years, but there was finally progress.

Frank had just gotten back from dropping Lindsey at Cobra. She'd been out to visit for a week to see the new facility, then went right back to Earth. She and Joan were talking about kids, and it was an exciting time for them. Frank hoped they went through with it, as he couldn't think of two better parents.

Pete and Patrick were in residence again. Unlike Lindsey, who'd left a month after the planet was secure, they weren't inclined to leave. Though they had to occasionally to log samples in an off planet data base. And so that Patrick could go on his lecture tour. He'd published a paper about the strange plants on Patience, and he'd been asked to talk about it. Pete had gone with him for moral support.

The best news of all had been Gerard. He'd written his dissertation on the quarrels, which had earned him his PhD. Frank had teased him for weeks, insisting on calling him Dr. Way every chance he got. Gerard had blushed, but hadn't asked Frank to stop. He and Grant had shown Gerard privately just how proud they were.

Though they'd been together for a year, sometimes it still felt like yesterday that this had started. It hadn't all been easy; Gerard still had abandonment issues, Grant worried about the age difference, and Frank was still an asshole. But they helped each other. And now Frank couldn't picture sharing his life with anyone else.

But sometimes, he still wanted to punch his friends. He'd been right about Pete, Patrick, and Lindsey conspiring to get them together. What he hadn't known was that Gabe, Vicky, and Travie had joined up with the cause too. The night that Gerard had poured his heart out to them, after he'd fallen asleep was when they'd hatched a plan to get them together.

When Gabe had mentioned the plan to Pete, Pete had spilled the beans about what he, Lindsey, and Patrick were doing. And the six had teamed up for Operation: Polyhook. It was a stupid name in Frank's opinion, and most of it was making Frank and Grant jealous. It had also involved lying and game playing, which nearly blew up in everyone's faces.

Frank had wanted to punch Gabe and Pete when he'd found out. But he was saved the trouble when Patrick actually did hit them. Apparently eating a possibly vomit inducing mushroom hadn't been part of the plan. Pete had come up with that on impulse.

The only real side effect had been Pete's skin turning blue for a couple of days. What also hadn't been part of the plan was Gabe kissing Gerard in front of Grant. Patrick had read them both the riot act, and Frank almost felt sorry for them.

Frank snapped himself out of his reverie. He was home, and there were two very attractive men he wanted to see.

When he left the shuttle, it was to see them both waiting for him on the tarmac. Frank grinned when Gerard ran to him, pulling him into a hug and saying, "I missed you! Everything go okay?"

"Yep, everything went fine. Lindsey's at Cobra and plotting to murder Gabe as we speak," Frank replied, laughing.

He pulled away, and hugged Grant next, who said, "We have missed you terribly."

"That's because I'm so fucking adorable." Frank insisted.

Grant took his suitcase, and Gerard had an arm around his shoulders, saying, "So we've got something for you."

Frank was smirking, "Oh really? Is it hard and pink and sometimes needs a condom?"

Grant snorted. "No, but there could be later on."

Frank raised an eyebrow, but followed them back to their shared quarters. That had been the main interest in building the station. Not just a permanent place for study and advancement, but real bedrooms and beds. It never felt that comfortable on the Sweet Pea .

Frank heard a weird snuffling sound as they walked in, and when he saw a black and white puppy pawing at one of the doors, Frank grinned. "You didn't." It was a little French bulldog, and when it saw them it squeaked excitedly and came right over.

"Patrick finished up the assessment while you were gone," said Gerard, grinning. "He says dogs and cats are totally allowed on base now."

"Which is a relief, Pete has been complaining for some time about missing his dog Bowie," Grant added.

"So when Pete arranged to have Bowie transported here, we asked Mikey and Ray to include this little guy for you," Gerard said to him. "Lucky thing that he was ready to be separated from his mama when it all went down."

"Remarkable good timing, really," Grant said, trying to look innocent.

"You two don't fool me for a second," Frank replied. He smiled and knelt, offering his fingers to the puppy to sniff. It pawed at them a little, then nipped them. Frank laughed and asked, "What's her name?"

"He doesn't have one yet," Grant said. "We were waiting for you to return."

Frank smiled and picked up the small dog, saying, "I'm gonna call you Cesare."

"Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?" Gerard asked, grinning.


They went into the living room, and Frank stopped Grant from taking the suitcase into the bedroom. "Since we're exchanging gifts and all." He had Gerard and Grant sit down, then opened the suitcase. The first box he pulled out he handed to Grant, and the second to Gerard. "Go on and open them."

Frank loved watching their faces light up when they saw what was inside. For Grant, Frank had managed to get a vintage tie pin, paired with an old Batman comic that had been hard as hell to track down. For Gerard, it was a set of drawing pencils and a new moleskin, as he was almost completely out of blank notebooks when Frank had left.

Gerard grinned and practically tackled Frank, Grant taking Cesare out of his arms and placing him on the floor. "I love it!" He said as he kissed Frank.

"These are very thoughtful gifts, Frank." Grant agreed, and gave Frank a kiss of his own.

“Glad you like them,” Frank replied, and he was grinning.

“Welcome home Frankie,” said Gerard, and both he and Grant held Frank.

Frank couldn’t have been happier.