His mouth was bleeding.
Mikey licked his teeth slowly, shuddering a little at the thick copper taste. He'd hit the sidewalk hard when he fell down the two steps from the house--stupid, clumsy, but he couldn't see them in the dark.
He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and looked up and down the street. It could've been any street in any suburb anywhere. Even the flowers weren't a giveaway, not in the dark.
Well, he sure as fuck wasn't going to knock on doors. The risk of being pulled inside and caught, however slim, was too much for him right now. He just got out. He wasn't going back for anything.
He needed to just pick a direction and go.
He went left.
Walking hurt. His cuts and bruises throbbed, both the fresh ones from falling and the others. He knew some of the older cuts were breaking open and bleeding anew, he could feel it, but he wasn't going to stop now. He wasn't going to stop until he got home.
He didn't even have a blurry picture to conjure up when he thought "home." Just a vague idea that it was a safe place, with Internet and a door that didn't lock from the outside and where if anybody had a fucking knife, it was him.
He reached a road with real traffic, even in the dark. He stopped at the edge of the street and waved his arms, squinting against the blinding headlights.
It took a really long time for someone to call the cops on him. He never thought he'd be that glad to see flashing lights as when they came out of the car, drew on him, and told him to put his hands up.
He laced his fingers on top of his head and closed his eyes, calling as loudly as he could. "I need a doctor."
"You're gonna get a cell," one of them said. Mikey's stomach heaved.
"Holy shit, man," the other cop said. "Look at the blood."
The hospital was well-lit, at least. Clean and bright and generally not a basement. They even agreed to leave the restraints off in consideration of how chafed his wrists already were. Practically a hotel.
And Gerard was there, a voice shouting from the hallway until the cops let him in, outside of visiting hours and against all kinds of rules.
Gerard wanted to hug, and it drove him absolutely fucking crazy that he couldn't. He held Mikey's hand instead, the one without the IV in it, between both of his. When he needed to gesture, he only took one hand away, like Mikey would disappear if he wasn't touching him.
Mikey wasn't totally sure that wasn't the truth.
"You were called in twice as a zombie,” Gerard said, holding Mikey's hand close to his face. "Did they tell you that?"
"No, they didn't."
"Totally. Two different people called in a zombie at that intersection. The blood, I guess. And how pale you are."
"Three months in a basement kills a tan, I guess." He still had a hard time believing he'd been gone for three months. He couldn't tell if it felt like longer or shorter, though. His sense of time had slipped away from him a long time ago, on tours and late nights in bars, and in the dark nothing felt different anyway.
"I didn't even think about scaring anybody," he said, blinking himself back to the room and Gerard. "I wondered why it took so long for anybody to stop."
"They thought you wanted to eat their brains."
Mikey shook his head. "Just wanted somebody to call either the cops or an ambulance."
"The footage from the cops' dashcam is online. It's really freaky."
Mikey's stomach churned and he closed his eyes. "That's cool, I guess."
"Jeff's got the lawyers trying to get it taken down."
"But it's out there now." Mikey nodded. He was intimately familiar with the process. It's out there, poof, nothing anybody could do about it.
It was quiet for a moment, Gerard rubbing his thumbs slowly over Mikey's knuckles. "I'll tell Sarah she can come see you tomorrow," he finally said.
Mikey shook his head. "Don't want her to see me like this."
"Mikes, she won't care."
"Not yet. Not until I get my teeth fixed, at least."
"That's gonna be a while. You have to recover, like, a lot before you get cosmetic dentistry."
"It's cosmetic that I broke my teeth on fucking concrete?"
Gerard shrugged. "Technically."
Mikey took a deep breath and tried to relax against the pillows. "I'll talk to her on the phone."
"Explain to her that I need some time."
"I really only want to see you right now."
Gerard squeezed Mikey's hand tightly. "Okay."
The tears were unpredictable. Tricky.
The cops weren't bothered by them, at least. They just handed Mikey the box of tissues and let him mop his eyes and nose while they kept asking questions. How many, how long, how much, how? How in the fucking first place?
"You were walking alone at night?" one of them asked, his voice neutral tinged with disapproval. Mikey had heard that a million times, in slasher movies and crime shows. Always to a woman, though. He thought that thing was something that only happened to women.
Apparently anyone could be a woman. Or a woman could be an anyone. He hadn't totally sorted it out yet.
"I was putting gas in my car," he said. "I went to that station because it's never busy."
"As secluded as anything gets around here, I guess."
Mikey shrugged. "You tell me. Did you get any calls?"
The cops glanced at each other and then at their notes. "Not until your brother reported you missing."
"By your girlfriend's timing, that was three days after you went out for gas," the other one added.
Mikey nodded. They both kept staring at him. "What?"
"Can you explain that time gap, Mr. Way?"
"My brother knows that sometimes people need to, like, get away and clear their heads." Mikey shifted in his seat, wincing as the bandages pulled. "But we promised each other a long time ago that we'd always at least call or text once in three days."
"Why is that?"
Mikey cut his eyes up to the ceiling. Ugly hospital tiles. Ugly hospital light. "We both get stuck in the dark places in our heads sometimes. If we couldn't get out enough to talk to each other once in three days, then... then it must be really bad."
They stared at him again. "I guess this counts as really bad," one of them said finally.
Mikey shrugged and wiped his eyes again. He didn't even really notice when he started crying now.
"I need you on your stomach, Mr. Way," the nurse said.
Mikey shook his head, twisting his fingers in the sheet. "I really don't want to."
"I know, Mr. Way, but it's important to keep this taken care of so it heals."
"Can I just sit up?" He was whining and being pathetic, but he couldn't help it. Turning over and letting her hold him down was too awful to contemplate.
"We can try that," she said patiently, "but if I can't get the right angle I'll need you to lie down."
"I understand." He wished Gerard was there and was glad that he wasn't at once; having someone's hand to hold would be good, but if Gerard saw the cuts he would flip the fuck out.
"These are really nasty," the nurse said. Mikey nodded, mostly occupied by bracing himself against the pain as the bandages peeled off.
"It's wings, right?" she asked. Mikey ducked his head, biting down on his tongue as his stomach twisted. "I see the feathers and how the bones fan out."
Mikey swallowed and nodded, keeping his head down. "Angel wings."
She started dabbing at the cuts, cleaning or putting on ointment or--something. All he knew was that it hurt again. "What did he use?"
Mikey turned his head enough to peer at her over his shoulder. "A knife?"
"A box cutter, maybe? Not a kitchen knife."
"I don't know. I couldn't see very well." On his stomach, hands tied, pressure on the back of his head and the base of his spine, holding him still through the cut, cut, cut.
"Same instrument as the ones on your arms and legs? Those are older."
"Yes." He didn't want to talk about this. He didn't want to talk at all, to nurses or cops or Gerard.
"Don't worry," she murmured, her hands moving carefully over his skin. "We're going to knock the infection out of you, fatten you up, and get you home."
"Mostly right now I just want more painkillers."
"That, too." She patted his shoulder. "Your chart says three months. You're very brave."
"No." He was going to have this conversation with Gerard, too, once Gee felt okay enough to stop clinging and start asking questions. He should practice his arguments in advance.
"I sure couldn't do it."
Mikey felt heat rising under his skin, in his face, his back, everywhere. "Don't say that. It isn't like I did it on purpose. You either live or you don't, and I did. It's chance."
"But you escaped. That wasn't chance."
"Yes, it was." The door not quite catching the latch, unnoticed in whatever euphoria of vision the guy went into after spending time in the dark with his angel-in-progress. Mikey seeing it... hours later? Minutes? Who could fucking tell?
His fingers scrambling at the edge of the door, pulling it open by millimeters, ripping his fingernails back from the skin in overeager terror.
"Total random chance," he said, blinking fast to chase the memories away. "Can I..."
He leaned off the bed and puked on the floor before he could finish the sentence. So much for brave.
Gerard arrived a few hours later, when everything had been cleaned up and Mikey was propped against the pillows again, doing his best to pretend that none of that had ever happened.
"I have stuff for you," Gerard announced.
"What kind of stuff?" Mikey tried to sit up, winced, and hit the painkiller button.
"Comics. iPad. Messages." Gerard dropped a bag at the foot of the bed with great satisfaction. "You look tired."
"They changed my bandages." Mikey rubbed his eyes. "Messages from who?"
"Oh, everybody. Frank and Ray. Jeff and Jon and Brian. Rickly. The Maddens. Wentz. Bandit made you a card."
"Crayons or paints?"
"Pastels. She leveled up." Gerard handed him the card and pulled the visitor's chair up to the edge of the bed. "Everyone says they love you and they're glad you're safe and to get well soon."
"I appreciate that."
"I told them you didn't want to see anyone but me yet." Mikey smiled weakly and Gerard barreled on. "The Internet's glad you're okay, too. What else... oh, Mom's coming, won't take no for an answer."
"I really don't want Mom to see me like this."
"I know, Mikes, but... well, you know her. You try telling her what to do."
"Tell her I can't." Mikey's voice broke. "Seriously."
Gerard shifted in his seat. "I'll try."
They were quiet for a bit, Mikey struggling to get control of his breathing and Gerard watching him with uncertain eyes.
"The FBI wants to interview you," Gerard said finally.
"The guy's, like, a serial."
"You're the first one who's survived."
"Do you want me there when you talk to them?"
"I don't want to talk to them at all. I don't have anything to say that would help."
"You don't know that."
Mikey closed his eyes tightly. "I know enough."
Gerard's hand settled on Mikey's leg, patting and rubbing in an awkward rhythm that Mikey recognized as the beat of Gerard's anxiety, the helpless way he moved when he didn't know what to feel.
"Can we talk about it?" Gerard asked quietly.
"Talk about what?"
"Don't try to stonewall me. I know you." Gerard squeezed Mikey's leg. "I love you." Another squeeze. "Please tell me what happened."
Mikey swallowed against the raw taste of bile in his throat. "It doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters."
"The details don't matter. He took me, he hurt me, now I'm back. Why does any of the rest mean anything?"
"So I know how to help you."
Mikey opened his eyes, staring at his brother skeptically. "How you treat me depends on how many details you know?"
"I want to know what you need from me, Mikes."
"No," Mikey corrected. "You just want to know. You can't stand not knowing everything about me."
"You're my little brother!"
"I know!" Shouting was too much. Mikey took a painful breath and slumped against the pillows. "And I know you'll help me anyway, whether I tell you or not, because you're my big brother and you love me."
"I do." Gerard grabbed Mikey's hand in both of his and squeezed tightly. "I love you so much."
"I love you too." Mikey looked down at their hands, Gerard's strong and guitar-callused, his own pale and shredded at the fingertips. "And I can't talk about it, okay?"
Gerard was quiet for so long that Mikey was afraid they were going to have to fight more, but finally he nodded. "I'll talk to Mom. See what I can do."
"And Linds is already setting up the guest room for when they let you out of here. You won't have to be alone."
Mikey tried to imagine it, but he couldn't, really. It might as well be a myth. "Okay."
"Whatever you need," Gerard said, bending over their joined hands. "Everything."
The FBI agents were not nearly as accommodating. Probably because Mikey lacked any leverage for emotional blackmail with them. Zero leverage, zero pressure points, just him sitting there, Gerard to one side and behind him so they couldn't influence each other, and an endless series of questions specifically designed to dig up the dark stuff.
One of the agents was a tall man with dark, sad eyes who seemed to regard everything Mikey said with disappointment. Even when he said, "You're being very helpful. Everything you can tell us is meaningful," Mikey felt like he was wasting the guy's precious time.
The second agent was more talkative, and more encouraging. Maybe they were playing good cop/bad cop with him. "He's a serial killer, not a murderer," the second agent said. "From what we can tell, he doesn't kill anyone intentionally."
"He cuts them up all over, but he doesn't mean for them to die," Gerard said with heavy skepticism.
"Exactly," the tall agent said. "They die of blood loss or infection coupled with malnutrition. There's no killing blow. No sign of intent."
"They can't survive the process," Mikey said, "which proves they weren't worthy."
They both looked at him with something almost like respect. "Yes," the second agent said. "Can you tell us more about the process?"
Mikey hunched his shoulders, feeling the pull of bandages and damaged tissue across his back. "He's trying to make an angel. First you have to be purified, then bleed as a sacrifice, then the wings, and I don't know what was going to happen next but I'm sure it was totally horrifying."
"Putting out the eyes and removal of the external sexual characteristics," the second agent said. "From what we've been able to determine from the other victims."
Mikey swayed in his chair and put his head down on the table. "Oh."
"I'm done. I'm done. If you ever catch him, call me. If he kills more people and you don't catch him, don't call me. I don't want to know. I don't want to know any of this. It was bad enough to hear about his visions of angels, to have him fucking-- touching me and praying over me and cutting me-- but you--"
His throat closed and he shook his head, curling in on himself over the table. Distantly, he felt Gerard's arms around him, holding him up, holding him together. it didn't help, but believing his brother could help him was one of the deep-down cornerstones Mikey was built on, and thinking it had to help was almost the same as really helping.
"I think we're done here," Gerard said. "Okay?"
Mikey could hear the disappointment multiplied by ten when the agent replied. "We'll be in touch."
Gerard patted Mikey's arms and held him for a long time, until Mikey could manage to sit up and wipe his eyes on his own. "Can we get out of here?" Mikey asked, blinking away blurry tears. "Just sign me out and get out of here. I can't be here anymore."
Being at Gerard's house was better in some ways and worse in others. The quiet was good, and the way people would leave him alone if he asked. Gerard changing his bandages, the absence of good painkillers, and the anxious-curious-confused way Bandit looked at him all sucked.
Lindsey left him alone mostly; she was making up for the split in Gerard's attention toward Bandit, Gee insisted, and Mikey let him think he'd successfully convinced him that that was the whole truth. It was easier to go with it. Easier to to never argue, just sleep, sleep through the pain of healing his body and the utter pointlessness of trying to heal his mind.
He still didn't want to talk to anyone but Gerard. He and Sarah were e-mailing and IMing, regressed to the sneaking-around stage of their relationship, but there was no thrill of illicit excitement this time. There wasn't much of anything, just another task to get through every couple of days so he could tell Gerard he'd done it and that he wasn't isolating himself or giving up or whatever angle Gee came at it from this time.
"Ray wants to see you," Gerard shifted his weight back and forth in the doorway. "Frank wants to fly out and see you. Mom isn't going to let me talk her out of it much longer, you better call her. And Wentz keeps fucking sending food. We could cater a wedding. Why is he sending food?"
Mikey shrugged. "He knows I don't give a shit about flowers."
"He texted me asking if he could send kittens."
Mikey sighed. "Just tell him no."
"I did. He sent a thing of cheese the size of my head."
Mikey smiled, just a little. "That sounds like Pete."
"Let him come over."
"Let me set you up with a new phone so you don't have to do everything on the iPad."
"Let me..." Gerard hesitated. "Let me call your shrink."
"I'm 100% detoxed for the first time in, like... ever. Maybe I'm enjoying it."
Gerard stared at him. He didn't laugh. His eyes were too awful for Mikey to look at, so he turned away, shoving at the pillows like they were what was making this suck.
"You're not enjoying anything," Gerard said quietly. "And you're scaring me."
"I'm sorry I didn't come back from being tortured in a better mood, Gerard. I'll try harder next time."
Gerard took a deep breath and stepped back. "I'll let you sleep."
"Probably like two hours til dinner."
"Okay." Mikey turned on his stomach and pressed his face against the pillow. He loved the pillows after all. He could scream into them and nobody knew it. He could cry. They didn't fucking want him to do anything. They didn’t want anything from him at all.
Things didn't steady out, exactly, but he found his way among them a little better. Remembered how to bend himself to fit the kinks. He left his room more often, going downstairs to watch TV or eat or just sit with the cat for a while, staring into its big eyes while it purred so hard its weird, hairless body shook.
"Grandpa likes you," Bandit assured him, dragging the cat off his lap and putting it over her shoulder, an experience the cat took with more grace than Mikey expected. "He purrs extra-loud for you."
"He's a nice cat." Talking to Bandit made him happy and sad at once; she was so bright and happy and fierce, so everything that had been scraped out o him, or that he'd never been anyway. He didn't want to mess her up by being too close for too long.
"Daddy is taking me to the park," she said. "Will you come?"
"I don't think so. Not today."
"I don't know."
She frowned at him, the expression so perfectly Gerard that it freaked him out. "Why are you so boring now?"
He looked at her for a minute, thinking about how to answer that, and finally punted with, "Ask your dad."
He heard her doing just that as Gerard walked her out to the car, but he didn't catch his brother's reply. He and Grandpa were investigating the food Pete had sent, which was definitely above and beyond any kind of reasonable attempt to help. But then, that was Pete. Above and beyond in most things.
There wasn't just food; he found a stack of boxes in the living room full of shoes and jackets that were exactly Pete's taste. Mikey couldn't think of any circumstances where he would want to wear purple Supras, but the impulse made sense. Give stuff, any stuff, until the other person smiled.
He was pretty sure Gerard had already gone through the jackets. That did make him smile. His brother didn't change, not at heart. That was why Mikey was here, really, why he'd gone to ground at Gerard's instead of anywhere else. He could count on Gerard to be who he was.
He dozed off on the couch after a while, and when he woke up he could hear Gerard and Bandit in the kitchen, going through some kind of parent/child ritual that was beyond what Mikey could understand. He drifted toward the doorway, listening.
"Where's Mommy?" Bandit asked.
"She's at dinner with Aunt Alicia," Gerard said, and something in Mikey's chest bounced around off his ribs like a hockey puck.
"Ohh, so she'll be out late."
"Probably. So you and me will have whatever you want for dinner."
"What about Uncle Mikey?"
"He's sleeping. I'll make him something when he wakes up."
Mikey stepped carefully back from the door and retreated to his room, crawling under all of the blankets and pulling the pillows over his head for good measure. Jesus. This house was a minefield. He'd forgotten.
He stayed still for hours, holding his breath every time Gerard looked in. Hunger was less important than being invisible for as long as he could.
Gerard left the door ajar, so Mikey heard when Lindsey got home. Her shoes clicked across the first floor to the doorway to Gerard's office space, and he heard their conversation as a series of low murmurs that overlapped at the edges. Then she came up the stairs, paused at Bandit's door for a while, and moved down the hall toward the master bedroom.
He didn't know why he did it. It was like something else spoke through his throat. "Lindsey?"
She stopped. He could hear the surprise in her voice. "Yeah?"
Of course he didn't actually have anything to fucking say. "Um. Goodnight."
"You need anything?" She sounded suspicious. Maybe that was uncharitable. Maybe she only sounded confused.
"No. I'm fine. Sorry."
"No problem." She took a few steps, and when he looked up he found her leaning in the doorway, watching him. They stared at each other for a moment.
"Alicia said to tell you she's glad you're okay."
That was worse than a hockey puck. Maybe a cannonball. "That's, um. That's nice of her."
"Yeah." She tapped her fingers against the door. "Well. She's a nice person."
Right. He deserved that. "Can I ask you a question?"
She folded her arms across her chest and shrugged. "Shoot."
"Did he relapse? While I was gone?"
It wasn't the question she was expecting, he could see. "No. No, he didn't."
"He went to a lot of extra meetings, and he had Jeff or Jon or Brian over here any time I wasn't home, just in case, but... he didn't. I'm very proud of him."
"So am I."
She looked at him for a moment, but it was more like she was looking through him. "I was thinking about it the other day. About how sometimes it seems like all you ever do is hurt people I love." Her eyes snapped into focus on his face. "But then I remembered you are someone I love. Complicated."
He nodded, his throat too tight to speak. After a moment, she stepped back into the hallway. "Let me know if you need anything. I'll be up for another hour or so."
"Is he practicing?"
"He's drawing. I'm sure he wouldn't mind company."
She walked away and he lay still for a while, listening to his heartbeat echoing off the walls of his skull, before he finally got up and went downstairs.
He knocked on the door to Gerard's little office, hesitating a beat before he spoke. "Gee?"
Mikey opened the door just enough to look in. "Busy?"
"Just doodling. Bullshit mostly."
"Can I come in?"
"Of course." Gerard swept his sketches away and waved at the chair by the window. "You never have to ask."
"I've kind of been a dick lately."
"You sort of have a reason. And I never hold it against you anyway." Gerard seemed to be trying to clean up, or maybe desperately trying to control the desk content was a regular ritual. Mikey pulled the chair closer to the desk before he sat down, watching the mess of pens and e-cigs and scraps of paper fly under Gerard's hands.
He reached out and caught Gerard's wrist. "Stop."
"It's a mess."
"Like I care?"
Gerard looked at him and relaxed minutely. "Right. Right."
Mikey let go and sat back, looking around the room. It was different than he remembered from before; the same framed drawings and splash pages on the wall, gifts from Grant and the twins mostly, but the shelves were mostly empty, and the half-finished projects weren't stacked up anymore.
"I got rid of a bunch of stuff while you were gone," Gerard said. "Like. I needed to keep myself busy, so I sorted through the projects and either finished them or trashed them. I got rid of old books and kept, like, a case file. Like on TV."
Gerard's face spasmed. "I threw it out on a bad night. I thought maybe you were... I had a bad night."
Mikey cleared his throat carefully and looked down at his hands. "I'm sorry."
"Not your fault. So not your fault. God, Mikey."
"Lindsey just told me. I mean, I asked her." Mikey looked up at him again. "You didn't slip up."
"It was close. Very close."
"Close doesn't matter. You didn't do it."
Gerard shrugged, looking away. "I had to be baby-sat like a kid."
"Don't be ashamed of asking for help." Mikey reached toward him again. "I'm proud of you, Gee."
"I'm proud of you, too."
"You haven't tried to drink or smoke or anything since you got home."
Mikey stared at him for a moment. "Well... I don't have any money. Or my phone. And there's no booze in your house, for obvious reasons."
"I know. I'm still proud."
"Gerard, I don't go outside."
"I'm proud anyway. I love you and I'm proud and you can't stop me."
Mikey couldn't tell if the catch in his chest was wanting to cry or to laugh. "I love you too."
Gerard reached out, grabbing Mikey by the arms and pulling him into his lap before he quite knew what was going on. "I was so fucking scared."
"I'm sorry." Mikey closed his eyes and felt the heat of Gerard's body against his, the most familiar thing in his life. He knew Gerard's heartbeat as well as his own, if not better.
"I can't live without you, you know. Not in a creepy way. Just fact."
"I never think you mean stuff in a creepy way."
"I appreciate that about you." Gerard hugged him again. "Are you going back to bed?"
"No. I'm okay. Are you going?"
"Not yet. Like another hour."
"I'll watch you draw?"
Gerard smiled and rested his head against Mikey's arm for a moment. "Yeah. Please."
Mikey moved back to the other chair and settled in, his head propped at an angle that let him see Gerard's face and hands, but not the page. It was kind of like being young again.
Steps forward, steps back. For a few days things were better, and then suddenly everything turned horrible and raw again, like everything he touched, every movement of the air, cut right through to his bones.
He faced it down the way he faced everything else: by sleeping all day and not getting out of bed until he could see streetlights out his window and hear Bandit shrieking downstairs about how she should get one more episode of Teen Titans before bed.
Gerard reasoning with her was an epic process. Mikey listened to it for a while, then slipped down the hall to pee and wash his face, catching his own eye in the mirror with the startlement of seeing a ghost. Or possibly a ghost seeing itself; he barely recognized his face in the mirror, blinking and frozen like a rabbit in the harsh light.
Something in his head screamed louder than usual. He had to get out.
He sat down on the bathroom floor and waited through the sounds of Bandit being put to bed, and then Lindsey and Gerard's low conversation about the next day's schedule, and who should clean the litter box, and him--just a quick mention of him and who was going to get him to his follow-up appointment in the morning, but it was enough to make his pulse race hard enough that he could feel it in his fingertips.
Out out out. Get out. Run.
He heard both sets of footsteps move down the stairs, and made himself count to sixty before he moved. Down the stairs, pausing just a beat to sort out the noises--the TV, that must be Lindsey, and the low thrum of Gerard warming up on his guitar in the office.
Mikey ducked into the kitchen, which had a door out into the yard. Gerard's shoes were by the door, and his jacket was hanging from the knob. Mikey put them on and slipped out into the dark.
Half-dark; the security halogens went on as soon as he moved. But they went on every time a squirrel sneezed, so he didn't stop moving.
Out the side gate, down the narrow strip of an alley between their fence and the neighbor's and--he was out. Standing on a sidewalk blinking and alone, just like when he escaped from the torture house.
He definitely couldn't hold still after that thought registered. He turned left again and set off down the street, his shoulders hunched as if the streetlights were watching him.
Just walking was exhausting. After about four blocks he came to a house with a for-sale sign out front and the dark, dull look of a place that was empty at the moment. He veered off the sidewalk, made his way to the side yard, and lay down on his back in the grass, staring up at the sky, bronze and half-lit with the lights of hundreds of neighborhoods.
It was quiet. Really fucking quiet.
He let his mind wandered, and it ended up in the most obvious place: the dark, quiet corners of himself that had always been there, since he was a kid, but that had grown over the years. Not just dark, but sucking, pulsing anti-light eating everything it touched. Tentacles of darkness that reached out and grabbed anything good.
Suffocating fucking sadness. How did it manage to be so familiar without being the slightest bit comforting?
He shoved his hands into the pockets of the jacket, scrambling for anything that could be a distraction--e-cig, real cigs, a lighter, a scrap of paper he could shred between his fingers. Anything.
He was a special kind of unobservant idiot, apparently. Gerard's wallet was in one pocket, and in the other, balancing the weight, was his phone.
Mikey pulled the phone out and stared at it, cradling it carefully in his palm. Gerard didn't use a lockscreen. Mikey thumbed the main screen open and flicked through three pages of apps. Gerard craved constant stimulation. Not that Mikey could talk--his phone had been about the same.
Gerard's contacts list was right there. Mikey remembered their talk in the office and knew there were at least a dozen names he and Gerard had in common who could hook him up. Booze, pot, pills. He could shut his brain up, blunt the edge of the sadness, and it would be easy.
He scrolled down through the list until he reached Pete's name, and hit dial.
He knew he only had thirty seconds to think of something to say, and that that wouldn't be enough. He and Pete weren't friends, not anymore, not in any meaningful way. They were buddies. Crew. Pete's endless loyalty would pick up the phone, but his heart would stay distant. Mikey knew that; he'd seen it, seen Pete's eyes when he stupidly went backstage at the FOB show in LA like he had any right to be there--
"Gerard?" Pete's voice was blurry and frightened. "Gerard, what the fuck? What happened?"
"It's me." Mikey choked a little, cleared his throat, made himself say it again. "It's me, Pete."
"Oh. Oh, shit." Pete took a gasping breath. "Mikey. You're okay? It's like, midnight, it scared me."
"Sorry. I didn't realize." He really didn't. He must have been lying in the fucking grass for hours without realizing it. Jesus Christ. "I'll let you go."
"No, no. It's fine. It's good to hear your voice."
Mikey closed his eyes. "Yeah?"
"Uh, yeah, dude. You got out of the hospital and went in deep hiding and Gerard was all mysterious. I was worried he'd chained you to the wall or something."
Mikey had to laugh, a weird, harsh burst of air. "No. No chaining."
"Sorry. That was... wow. That was dense of me."
"It's okay. I laughed, actually."
"Yeah." Pete was quiet for a moment. Mikey tried to picture him and found that he couldn't, not quite. Pete's face wouldn't come into focus. His hair and his jaw, the angle of his cheekbones, were all blurred and uncertain, all the changes over the years fusing in Mikey's head and refusing to come clean. He didn't fucking know what Pete looked like anymore.
The eyes, though. He could picture Pete's eyes.
"How are you?" Pete asked quietly. "For real, not bullshit."
"That sucks. The whole thing just... I mean, I can't believe someone would do that. People are so fucked up."
"They are." Mikey took a breath, turning his head to look at the street as a car went by. "It happens, though. Every day."
"It shouldn't have happened to you."
"It shouldn't happen to anyone."
"No, but you--"
"Don't say I'm good. Or special. Or--whatever." Mikey took another breath and felt tears sting his eyes again, another unwelcome burst of grief. "I'm not either, and I've done plenty to make it karma, if karma's even a thing."
"Mikey." Pete's voice was rough. "Don't say that."
"I don't even know if I believe in it."
"I don't think that's even how karma works. I think karma's is about how you reincarnate or something."
"You should Google it."
"Don't try to distract me."
"I'm not." Mikey rubbed tears away with his knuckles. "I swear I'm not."
They fell quiet again. Mikey knew his hiccuppy breaths were probably betraying him, but Pete didn't say anything.
A dog barked in the next yard over. Mikey sat up and squinted into the dark, holding the phone tighter.
"Where are you?" Pete asked.
"Not far. I walked a couple blocks."
"You took Gerard's phone?"
"Not on purpose."
"Dude." He could hear Pete moving around. "Give me the cross-street. I'll come get you and take you home."
"Couldn't you take me somewhere else?" He could hear how pathetic he sounded, like a kid begging for a reprieve. Bandit with the TV. Pete had to recognize the tone, Bronx probably did the same thing.
He didn't answer like a dad, though. He just sounded like Pete, checking if he was on the edge of an adventure. "Where do you want to go?"
"Um." He thought frantically for a moment, trying to come up with anything he wanted. Those muscles were all weak too, the ones for wanting things. "A diner."
Pete laughed. "I might be able to make that happen. Tell me where you are."
Mikey gave him the street and the house number and moved back toward the sidewalk and its spill of light. "You sure you don't mind?"
"Mikeyway. If you don't know I'll go a hell of a lot farther than Tarzana for you, then I don't know what to tell you. I'll see you soon."
Pete pulled up in an SUV the size of a tank. He leaned across the front, pushed the passenger door open, and said, "Get in, loser. We're going shopping."
Mikey stared at him from the sidewalk. "How often do you use that one?"
"As often as I can get away with it. Which isn't as much as you'd think."
"C'mon. Get in."
Mikey got in, pushing the seat back a good foot and a half to make room for his legs. "You know you look like an elf driving this thing."
"No respect. I get zero respect."
"Sorry." Mikey buckled his seatbelt and watched out the window as they pulled away from the curb. "Any trouble finding the place?"
"Nope. Plugging an address into the GPS does magic."
"And kills a whole category of small talk."
Pete laughed. "Right. Sorry." He glanced at Mikey and back to the road a few times. "You should call Gerard and let him know you're all right."
"I can't call him. I have his phone."
For a minute Pete looked truly stumped. Then his face brightened. "Call Lindsey."
"I'll wake her up."
"If Gerard realizes you're gone, he'll wake her up, and it won't be pretty at all."
"Shit." Mikey took a breath and shut his eyes. "Can you do it?"
"Conversations that might turn into yelling are very not my strong point right now."
"Can't fight you on that." Pete pulled over and held his hand out. "Give."
Mikey handed the phone over and watched silently as Pete detoured through the apps before turning to Gerard's contacts.
"Your brother has some weird fixations."
"Can't judge a man by his apps."
"I can, though." Pete's hand settled on the edge of Mikey's seat while he waited for Lindsey to pick up--not quite touching him, but not staying away, either. Mikey wondered what Pete would do if he edged closer, made contact. He didn't try it, though, just waited until Pete took a breath and spoke, his voice going up the awkward half-octave of talking on the phone to a stranger.
"Lindsey? No. It's not--no. It's Pete Wentz. No. I know it's Gerard's phone. I have Mikey, and he had the phone, and--no. Everything is fine. He just..." Pete looked at Mikey helplessly. "He went for a walk."
Mikey couldn't hear what Lindsey said in reply, but it made Pete's eyebrows do all kinds of things.
"Well, we're going to get some food, and then I'll bring him home. Tell Gerard we have his phone, and that Mikey's okay. All in one piece. Yeah. What? Oh, sure." Pete held the phone out. "She wants to talk to you."
There was no escape. The SUV had child locks. Mikey took the phone. "Yeah?"
"You are such a Way," she said wearily. "This is what I have to look forward to with Bandit, too, right?"
"Pretty much. Yeah."
"Wonderful. Please bring Gerard's phone home. He needs that."
"Have fun with Pete. I'm glad you're getting out a little."
Pete was maneuvering back into traffic. Mikey half-closed his eyes so the other headlights on the road blurred. "Thank you."
There was silence for a moment, and then Pete reached out and turned his iPod on. "I think diner, I think pancakes. I hope you're ready for this, dude."
Mikey was more ready than he realized for pancakes and stories about tour and Bronx.
"He outsmarts me every day," Pete said, shaking his head over his chocolate shake. "Every day. He sees the whole world, you know? He gets things."
"Sarah's son is like that." Mikey poked at his pancakes. "It's pretty amazing."
"Oh yeah, you're all in the know about the dad experience now."
Mikey shrugged. "Not really. Wacky uncle."
Pete watched him for a beat, then took a loud sip of his shake. "Oh man. Did you see the thing where we were right near One Direction in Australia?"
"What's One Direction?"
"Mikes. Let me educate you."
Pete was good at this. Mikey could've kicked himself, because of course he was. Talking around the trauma and the hard shit, bobbing and weaving to find the route that didn't hurt--that was Pete's gig. Had been as long as they'd known each other.
"--and now they all have these sick tattoos," Pete said, waving his glass. "I want to try to get them on Best Ink, but they're way above that level right now."
"What goes up must come down."
"Deep." Pete made a face at him and put his glass down. "Anyway. It's weird being the old dude on the scene. I'm still getting used to it."
"You guys are going to be like the Stones. Still kicking and doing shows at seventy."
"Everyone hates the Stones for still doing shows."
"Not the people who buy tickets."
"Shit. Seventy and still playing Sugar." Pete grinned. "Am I Mick or Keith?"
"You can't be anyone but Pete," Mikey said honestly.
Pete's smile changed, turning into something sweeter and less bold. "I'm not sure if that's really a good thing, but I'll take it as a compliment."
"I meant it as one."
"I know." Pete pushed his plate away and rested his chin in his hands. "So how bad is it?"
Mikey bit his lip. "Scale of one to ten?"
"Eight. Eight and a half."
"You seeing anybody?"
Mikey sighed. "I can't."
"Can't or don't want to?" Pete's voice was gentle. It made it a little easier for Mikey to remember that Pete really did know what this was like, to have to fight his brain for every inch.
"It feels like I can't. Like it's too much. My chest closes up and my head gets all loud when I even think about it."
"That sucks. But it probably means you really need it, you know? Need help to bring things back into line."
Mikey sat back in his chair, wrapping his arms around himself. "I detoxed, you know? In that fucking basement. I detoxed off everything. I'm... I'm clean right now."
"No interference to get you back on the right meds."
"Maybe it, like, rebooted me. Hard reset. Maybe I'm not going to cycle up and down anymore." It sounded stupid out loud. Another childish, desperate hope.
Pete was only looking at him with compassion, though. "Maybe."
"You don't think so." Mikey picked up his napkin and wiped at his eyes.
"That's not usually how it works."
"It's not even how it's working now." Mikey dropped the napkin back to the table. "I cry all the fucking time. I'm not sitting at zero, I'm at like negative ten."
"Negative eight." Pete gave him a tiny smile. "Eight and a half, maybe."
Mikey had to laugh. He reached across the table impulsively, and Pete caught his hand, squeezing it gently.
"I'm sorry it's so hard," Pete said. "No joke intended."
"Your dick's no joke." Mikey tried to match Pete's smile. "Thanks for... all of this."
"I'd do a lot more."
"You don't have to say that."
"I mean it."
Mikey looked at him, then lowered his eyes. "Can we hang out again?"
"My schedule is all yours."
"I don't want to freak Bronx out."
Pete's eyebrows went up. "It takes a lot to do that, dude. But he has preschool and playgroup during the day. And he and Megs do this all-ages yoga class on Wednesdays. You want to come over on Wednesday?"
"Yes." Mikey was surprised at how much he meant it. "I'd like that a lot."
Pete punched the table. "Done. I'll pick you up after I drop Bx at school."
Gerard was waiting in the living room when Mikey got back, his face set in the careful, blank expression he wore when he was too upset to trust himself.
Mikey held the phone out to him. "Truce?"
"Are you okay?"
"Pete would never hurt me."
Gerard's expression didn't change. "Are you okay?"
Mikey sighed. "Yes, I'm okay."
"You scared me a lot."
"I don't think you have any idea how much it hurts to think I've lost you."
Mikey closed his eyes and took a breath. This wasn't any kind of time to get in a fight. "I'm sorry."
Gerard rubbed his eyes and finally took the phone. "I'm glad you called Pete."
"You're mad I didn't call you."
Gerard didn't look at him. "I'm not mad."
"You're hurt." Why Gerard ever tried to keep anything from him, Mikey didn't know. Everything was always written on his face, as far as Mikey was concerned. Gerard never had secrets.
Gerard shrugged and stared at the phone. "Yes."
"It's not because I don't love you." Mikey waited for a response, but none came. "I just needed to see someone... outside it, I guess."
"Outside me. You're a part of me, you know?"
Gerard looked up. "An important part? Or, like, an extra toe or something?"
"Super-important. You're like a kidney. Or a lung."
Gerard didn't quite smile, but the mask-like look of his face eased. "You're like my liver."
"Shit. I hope I'm not that beat-up."
"Oh, fuck you." Gerard rubbed his eyes and reached for Mikey. "You're right next to my heart."
Mikey let Gerard draw him in, and hugged him tightly. "I'm going over to Pete's on Wednesday. Just to hang out. Getting out of the house is good, right?"
"Yeah. Getting out is awesome."
"I'm sure you can come too, if you want."
"Don't take this the wrong way." Gerard's voice was muffled against Mikey's neck. "But the idea of hanging out with you and Pete makes me want to hide under the couch."
Mikey hugged him tighter. "Okay."
"I know I can trust him to take care of you, though."
"Totally." Mikey hesitated a moment. "He thinks I should see the shrink."
Gerard went very still. "Oh?"
"I really don't want to. But I guess I can't really argue with both of you."
Gerard exhaled roughly. "We both fight dirty."
"You do. And if I upset you too much, you cry, and I can't deal with that."
"Pete doesn't cry."
"You have no idea." Mikey breathed him in for a moment, then pulled back. "I'm going to go to bed. You should too. You look wiped."
"I feel like I got hit by a truck."
Mikey couldn't bring himself to apologize again. "C'mon. Bed. Linds can take me to my appointment so you can sleep in."
"Ha. The day the Beezle allows that will be a cold day in hell." Gerard sighed. "Can I sleep in your room with you?"
Mikey's breath caught in his chest. "You want to?"
Gerard shrugged. "I need to know you're there."
Mikey blinked away tears. "Yeah. Of course, Gee. C'mon."
Mikey almost asked Gerard to call Pete and cancel the whole thing at least half a dozen times before Wednesday. It was objectively a bad idea to go. It would be awkward and strange, and he would broken and distant, and Pete would--
He didn't even know what, exactly. Something terrible. Shattering.
But the idea of Gerard's confusion and Pete's hurt feelings was just as bad. And he did want to go, sort of. He wanted to see if anything hurt less when he was breathing different air.
So he waited for Pete to arrive, and he got in the car, and he stared in confusion at Pete's dog in the back seat, panting and wiggling and whining for affection.
"Bear needs walkies," Pete said. "Very energetic walkies, or he eats our stuff. He prefers high-quality leather, and if Bronx hears me yell at him, he cries. So... I hope you don't mind walking with us?"
"I might not keep up the whole time."
"That's cool. We'll loop back for you. Or maybe I'll just set him loose to live in the canyons."
"No. Bronx would be devastated." Pete sighed. "Dad ethics."
"You love it."
"I do." Pete drummed his hands on the steering wheel. "Control of the iPod is yours, my friend."
Mikey glanced at him. "Pretty big responsibility."
"It's my iPod. There's nothing on there I don't like." Pete grinned. "Pre-screened."
Mikey snorted and scrolled through Pete's playlists. This was suspiciously normal. It might be a trap.
They spent two hours in the canyons, plus the drive, but the trap never snapped. Pete didn't do anything. He kept up a steady monologue of making fun of Bear, talking about Bronx, describing clothes he might buy, and doing really bad impressions of everyone they both knew. It was comforting white noise that didn't require Mikey's participation at all.
Mikey hoped it was on purpose, because if not, Pete had become the most boring man alive. That would be sad for a lot of reasons, but the top one in his head right then was that he would've wasted all the effort of choking down his helpless gratitude.
"Dog," Pete said when they got back to the car, "I hope you feel like you can cope with life now without desecrating Louis Vuitton."
Bear whined at him.
"Usually Megs takes him running, but she had a meeting with her agent." Pete squinted up at the sky. "I'm probably less fun to walk with. Definitely less attractive."
Mikey couldn't answer for a minute. He'd--forgotten, somehow. Forgotten about Meagan, about Pete's functional, grown-up life. Remembering that made him remember everything else, bringing a flare of pain in his back and a reminder that this wasn't a good a day out with a friend. It was pity for the fucked-up and broken.
"No argument?" Pete laughed. "Not even a little reassurance that I'm still cute?"
"Sorry." Mikey's throat was tight, the words coming out near a whisper.
"Eh. Don't worry about it. Bear's the cute one." Pete glanced at Mikey and frowned, though his voice stayed light. "Think we hit your limit, huh? You want to go home or head back to my place?"
"I don't want to be in your way."
"Dude, I already told you. You're not. I cleared my schedule. We'll hang, we'll play video games, we'll order enough tacos to make ourselves sick. It'll be cool."
Mikey closed his eyes and tried to breathe. He could vaguely, sort of, remember feeling something other than panic and humiliation. But he had no idea how to get back there from now.
"Hey." Pete's voice was closer, soft. Mikey silently begged him not to touch him--that would send him over the fucking edge, right now, all the way to fucking breaking--and somehow Pete knew. No contact, just that soft voice. "Hey, or we could take you to Gerard's and schedule hangs for this weekend. After you get some rest."
"Please stop being nice to me," Mikey whispered.
"I can't, brother." Pete's voice was rough with sympathy. "Not in my nature."
"Too fucking nice."
"It's a curse."
Hot wet curled around Mikey's fingers and he jumped, looking down wildly. Bear stared up at him, wide-eyed and wagging and clueless. He didn't know there was anything bad in the world.
"If we go to your place, I'll probably fall asleep," Mikey said finally.
"That's cool. Bear and I are into a good nap." Pete rested his fingers on Mikey's elbow, just lightly enough to nudge him toward the car. "And the guest room is awesome. Approved by both my mom and Gabe Saporta."
"I knew Gabe when he'd sleep in the backseat of a car." Mikey let Pete steer him along.
"He has threadcount requirements now. Then again, so do I." Pete opened the door for him and waited. "Do you want Bear in your lap? Would that help?"
Mikey wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "Not safe."
"I'll let him on the bed with you when we get there. Seatbelt, dude."
Pete treating him like a kid was horribly comforting. Mikey closed his eyes again and waited for the car to start. Giving in felt good. Still humiliating, but it was harder and harder to care as his own exhaustion caught up with him.
Mikey woke up too warm, fuzzy-headed and confused. it was dark, the vague halo of the security light outside the curtains the only way to orient himself. It took him a minute to remember that he was at Pete's house, in Pete's guest room. Safe.
He sat up and looked around for a lamp or a light switch. He rubbed his eyes and listened for a moment, frowning when he heard familiar voices.
Pete, obviously. And a high, childish piping that must be Bronx. And--
He rubbed his eyes, ran his hand through his hair, and hurried toward the sound. A referee might be necessary with Pete and Gee in the same place.
When he found them, though, Pete was sitting on the couch with Meagan, while Gerard and Bronx lay on the floor with a pile of Legos. Bear padded over and licked at Mikey's hand, and Mikey let him, lost in the quiet sweetness of the scene.
"Freeform sculpture," Gerard said seriously.
Bronx shook his head. "They're just Legos, Mr. Gerard."
"Right. Let's make a dinosaur."
"A blue dinosaur!"
Pete laughed softly, shaking his head, and turned to say something in Meagan's ear. He saw Mikey in the doorway and smiled, waving his hand. "Hey, duder. Good nap?"
"How long was I asleep?"
"Four hours, give or take."
"That is a long nap," Bronx said. "I don't nap like that."
"You will when you're old," Gerard said. "Come help us with the dinosaur, Mikes."
"He might want to eat something." Pete raised his eyebrows at Mikey. "You want tacos?"
Mikey shook his head and rubbed at Bear's ears. "Coffee?"
"There are like a million different kinds of K-cups," Meagan said. "The hazelnut's really good. Oh, and there's decaf, since it's late."
Gerard wrinkled his nose. "We don't really believe in decaf."
Bronx nodded. "I don't believe in broccoli."
"You have to eat it anyway," Meagan said gently. "And Mikey should maybe have decaf."
Mikey didn't know if he should feel grateful or annoyed by how they were talking about him like he wasn't there. "What about Coke Zero?"
"Phosphates!" Bronx shrieked.
Bear huffed and scurried out of the room. Mikey stared at Bronx. "What?"
"Uncle Andy says phosphates are bad!"
Pete winced. "He came on tour with us, you know?"
"Did Andy try to make him a vegan, too?"
"Yeah, but I put a stop to that before we got to slaughterhouse stories on YouTube."
"Smart," Gerard said. "I went veg but just told Bandit it was an adventure."
Mikey realized he was never going to make it out of the room to the kitchen unless he took control of the conversation. "So... no Coke Zero?"
Meagan made a face. "There's juice?"
"Pee juice!" Bronx said.
"Apple juice," Pete corrected. "Here, Mike, I'll just come help you, cool?"
They retreated to the kitchen together, Bear at their heels. "How are you doing?" Pete asked softly.
Mikey thought for a minute. "Bad but not awful? Six and a half, maybe."
"Cool." Pete bumped him with his shoulder. "Here's your K-cup options. Have caffeine if you want it, I won't tell."
Mikey poked at the cups. "Why's Gerard here?"
"I called him to let him know you were sleeping and I'd be late bringing you back. He got a little anxious, so I told him to come over and see for himself that you were okay."
Mikey sighed. "Sorry."
"Dude. It's totally okay. He was worried about you." Pete shrugged and popped a K-cup into the machine. "He loves you."
"I love him too. He's my brother." Mikey stared down at the floor. Pete was wearing red socks with skulls on them. They were kind of perfect. "But it's like..."
Pete waited, watching him at first and then turning away to get Bear a treat when Mikey wilted under his gaze. "Like what?"
Mikey shut his eyes. "If he's this concerned about me and all over me now, where was he before? Where was he when he ended our band and just fucking left me?"
There was silence for a minute, and Mikey forced his eyes open to see Pete looking at him with real understanding, more than Mikey had ever expected to find. "Mikes," Pete said softly. "Maybe he's all over you now because he wasn't before. Maybe he feels guilty."
"That doesn't really help me, you know?"
"I know." Pete ran his hand over his hair. "Believe me, I fucking know."
"Sometimes I look at him and I get angry. And I can't. I mean, I shouldn't be angry right now. He's taking care of me. He loves me. Being angry at him is... it's a horrible thing. I'm being horrible."
"It's not horrible. It's human." Pete touched his hand. "You're human, Mikey."
Mikey laughed, the sound aching in his chest and his throat. "I don't want to be human anymore."
"I don't think there are any other options."
"Fuck." Mikey stepped back and wiped his eyes. "Fuck."
"Here." Pete tore a paper towel from the roll and handed it to him, then turned away to get his coffee. "Sit down and drink this and catch your breath. Bronx will keep Gerard busy for a while. Legos are serious business."
"Then what?" Mikey asked hopelessly.
"Then we make plans for when you're going to come over again. So there's a future. Right? There's always going to be a future."
Mikey sipped the coffee slowly. "That might help."
"Even a dumb thing to look forward to is better than nothing. Or at least that's how it works for me."
Mikey reached out this time, touching Pete's arm where the tattoos curved around the bone. "You're pretty much the smartest guy I know."
"I wouldn't go that far."
Mikey shrugged and pressed his fingers just a little harder, wishing he could draw Pete's strength in through his skin. "I would."
When they got back to Gerard's, Mikey lingered in the entryway while his brother greeted Lindsey and Bandit with hugs and questions about their day. He watched Bandit tug at Gerard's shirt until he picked her up. He remembered feeling like that, like there was a secure place in the universe, somewhere safe with love.
Gerard came back to him a few minutes later, a tense smile back in place. Mikey hated that unsure smile. "Tired?"
"Wide awake, actually." Mikey made a face. "Maybe Meagan was right about the caffeine."
"She was really nice. Did you know she's a model?"
Mikey had to smile. "Yeah."
"Great kid, too. Pete and I are going to take him and Bandit to the zoo together sometime soon."
"That's awesome, Gee."
Gerard's smile grew wider, more honest. "You look like you feel better, a little."
"A little, yeah."
"I'm glad." Gerard cleared his throat. "Bandit wants me to do bath and bedtime, but after that we can watch a movie?"
"Sure." Mikey nodded and took a deep breath. "I think I'll go call Mom while you do that."
Gerard's face lit up. "She'll be so glad, Mikes."
"She'll yell at me."
"Only a little bit!"
Mikey swallowed hard. "Can I use your phone?"
"Of course. Go in my office if you want. She'll be so happy, she's so worried. You're her baby, you know?"
"I'm in my thirties, Gee."
"You're still her baby. I get that now. Bandit will be my baby when she's ninety. It's a thing."
Mikey nodded and took the phone. "I'll be in your office."
The call was good and sucked at the same time. It was good to talk to his mom, to touch the edge of that safe place of his childhood. It sucked to answer the questions, and to hear the roughness in her voice that wasn't there before, that came from worrying about him and chain-smoking to chase the worry.
"I'm sorry, Mom," he said softly. "I'm so sorry."
"Don't apologize. Just fucking call me, all right? Every day."
"Don't ma'am me, Mikey."
"Love you, Mom."
"I love you too, baby. Fucking call me."
Mikey promised he would, then again, and finally hung up and put his head down on his arms on the desk.
He heard Gerard, then smelled him, warmth and sweat and Bandit's bubble bath, before Gerard's fingers combed through his hair. "Did she yell?"
Mikey shook his head. "She sounded tired, though. Fucked-up tired."
"I'll send her to a spa or something."
"She'd probably rather see Bandit."
"Good idea." Gerard petted him some more. "You sure you don't want to go to bed?"
"Can't sleep now."
"We should put the ointment on your back."
Mikey took a shaky breath. "I guess. If we have to."
"I'll get it. Take your shirt off and sit still."
Mikey did, bowing his head to stare down at his knees while he waited. His mind was still loud and crashing with sorrow and exhaustion, but it was just marginally less, something like a half-inch of space in his heart he could use to breathe. He couldn't do anything, that was for fucking sure, but he could breathe, just a little bit.
Gerard came back with the ointment and sat down behind him. "It's healing. I can totally see the difference."
"It'll scar. I'll always have them."
"Plastic surgery. Tattoos."
Mikey shook his head. "Maybe the scars will be good. Like... reminders."
He could hear Gerard's frown in his voice. "Reminders of what?"
Mikey shrugged and winced. "What goes around comes around?"
"Mikes." Gerard sighed unhappily and kept painting the ointment on, one cool-slick finger tracing over the lines of healing flesh. Mikey felt hot and cold in the pit of his stomach; this was horrible, an exposure of his vulnerability that was almost too much--
But it was also Gerard. No matter what feelings he was fighting with about his brother, no matter if he was angry or hurt or so fucked up he couldn't see, or so sad he couldn't move... he trusted Gerard. Completely.
Gerard pressed a careful kiss to the base of Mikey's neck, and Mikey let himself exhale, sagging slightly in relief.
"All done," Gerard said softly.
"Would you hate it if I did a drawing of this?"
"My back? It's not art, Gee."
"There's art in it. Or I could make art out of it. You know?"
Mikey's chest tightened again, his breath catching behind his ribs. "Just don't ask me to look at it, okay? I'll ask when I'm ready. If I ever am."
"Deal." Gerard kissed his neck again and rubbed his shoulder. "I made you an appointment."
It took Mikey a moment to remember what Gerard was talking about. "Oh."
"My old doctor or a new one?"
"New. Same practice, fresh eyes. Your old doctor thought that would be helpful for you."
Mikey shook his head. "I guess. I don't know."
"Well, we'll find out, okay?"
Gerard's hands were tentative on Mikey's shoulders, not quite shaking. Mikey reached up to cover one of them with his own. "Yeah."
"You don't have to do it alone, Mikes."
It wasn't true, but it was the best kind of lie, the kind that kept people alive through the night. "Thanks, Gee. I know."
Pete had booked the next Wednesday for their something-to-look-forward-to day. He showed up early with coffee, doughnuts, and instructions for Mikey to wear comfortable shoes and bring his sunglasses.
"Never leave home without them," Mikey said, poking through the box of doughnuts. "Any custard?"
"This is LA, dude. Nothing that meets Jersey standards."
"It's a crime," Gerard said. "What time will you be back?"
Pete shrugged. "I don't have a schedule. I'll keep you posted. Pinky-swear."
Gerard frowned, but nodded and took a doughnut. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"My life motto," Pete said. "C'mon, Mikes."
Pete drove them on a long, looping route that Mikey didn't even try to follow. He scrolled through Pete's playlists and DJ'd on the fly, picking songs by gut and impulse.
"You're telling me a whole novel in songs, Mikey Way," Pete said after a while.
"You're, like, free-associating and it's telling me about your heart."
"That must suck. Sorry."
Pete shook his head. "It makes me want to wrap you up forever."
Mikey bit his lip and stared down at the iPod, trying to make his heart stop beating so fast. "I kinda wish you could."
"I can stare at you a lot, if that helps."
Mikey actually smiled. "In a creepy way?"
"You know me, dude. Nothing but the creepiest."
Mikey shook his head and scrolled for another song. Pete hummed softly and took a left turn, and suddenly Mikey realized where they were going.
"The beach?" he asked in disbelief.
Pete shrugged. "Get away from it all. Sun and wind and ocean."
"Sand in everything."
"You will like it." Pete parked the car and gave Mikey a rough approximation of a stern look. "Because I say so."
"Oh wow. Dad powers."
"Darn right." Pete got out of the car and stretched, tilting his head back toward the sky. "C'mon, dude. There's blankets in the back seat."
It took a good twenty minutes of lying stiffly between sun and sand, eyes closed behind his sunglasses and the slow rush of the waves in his ears, before Mikey realized what Pete was doing.
"This is the exact opposite of a basement," he said, reaching blindly to thump his hand against Pete's side.
"Is it? Huh."
Mikey thumped him again. "You didn't have to. I'm doing better."
"I just like the beach, man."
"You've got a million ulterior motives."
"They're all true."
Mikey felt around until he found Pete's hand and held it tightly. "Thanks."
"You never have to thank me."
"I'm gonna do it anyway."
Pete squeezed his hand back and they fell silent again, listening to the surf move like the breath of the world.
"I saw a new shrink on Monday," Mikey said.
Pete answered like he was reading from a prompter, so carefully neutral it went over the top. "Oh?"
"How was it?"
Mikey rubbed his thumb against Pete's hand. "Awful. But okay."
"That's the best you can ask for, I guess."
"Fuck, right?" Mikey sighed. "I told her I did this to myself, I made it all happen by fucking up my life and fucking up my meds and being a fuckup. I deserved all of it."
Pete was quiet for a moment, his fingers tensing against Mikey's. "What did she say?"
"That it doesn't work that way. And that maybe I should think of it as, like, the shit's all balanced out and I can start over from here."
"Is that what you're going to do?"
"No. That's not how it works, either, you know? The shit I did isn't going away. There are still, like. Echoes. Consequences."
Pete shifted onto his side, looking at Mikey directly. "What'd she say to that?"
"That I was three steps ahead of where she expected." Mikey couldn't quite laugh. "But we can start from here and deal with the consequences as they come."
"She sounds smart."
"She's pretty okay." Mikey took a deep breath. "I've been thinking a lot."
"That part sucks."
"You want to talk about it? Nobody here but you, me, and the seagulls."
Mikey swallowed hard, glad his sunglasses hid his face. "I've been thinking about... Alicia. Everything that happened." Pete stayed quiet, his hand not wavering. Mikey made himself draw another breath and keep speaking. "I guess when I got back from tour, we just... it was weird. It was like we didn't have anything to say to each other. We still liked each other, I still loved her, but... nothing to say to each other. And you know how it is, when you have nothing to say? How you, like, start actively looking for ways to avoid each other, avoid that silence? That happened."
Pete nodded, looking down at his hands clasped over his knee. "That was more like what went wrong with my band than with Ash, but yeah. I get it."
"Right. Then the band." Mikey stopped, closing his eyes tighter. "And then... hypomania's so much easier to ignore than full-blown mania, right? You can totally brush it off. I stayed up all night playing video games, three nights in a row, and I wasn’t even tired. Coincidence. I bought two thousand dollars worth of action figures on Ebay. Totally a coincidence."
"You met a girl. Coincidence."
"Yeah." Mikey laughed painfully. "Only not totally a coincidence. I met her, that was a coincidence, but..."
"She wanted to talk to me. She wanted me to talk to her." Mikey shook his head. "She wanted to hear what I had to say. She wanted to hear everything I had to say. It had been so long since anybody had wanted to listen to me, you know? Gerard was busy with his stuff and Ray and Frank were gone and Alicia didn't want to talk to me anymore. And at some point those had become the only people I talked to about real stuff. Heavy stuff. I didn't have anywhere else to go. And I did it to myself, I know that." He turned his head toward Pete. "The hypomania got me there but I did it to myself. I chose, you know?"
"Yeah," Pete said softly. "I hear you."
"I don't know what to do."
"Sarah texted me yesterday that she's not going to wait forever."
"But I don't know if I can go back yet."
"You don't have to."
Mikey laughed a little, harsh and bitter. "Whose side are you on, anyway?"
"I'm not on anybody's side, man." Pete shook his head. "You're not good and evil, here. You're two people. Doing fucked-up people things. I get it. Wow, do I get it. But that doesn't mean I have any answers for you."
"What do I do?"
"You keep trying," Pete said softly. "You keep going. Even when it hurts. Because you matter, Mikey. You do. And you've got people on your side."
"What else do I have to do to drive you all away?"
"Why do you want to?"
"You know. You know. You've been here before."
Pete pulled him into his arms. "Yeah. Yeah, I know. It's gonna be okay."
Mikey fell asleep like that, Pete's arms around him and the sun beating down on both of them. When he woke up, his skin was sore and achy and sand had worked its way down to the roots of his hair.
Pete had gone down to the edge of the water, his shoes in his hand. Mikey watched him but didn't follow, wondering what Pete heard in the wind and the waves.
When Pete walked back to the blankets, he offered Mikey his hands and a tentative smile. "Ready to go?"
"Yeah." Mikey let Pete pull him up and held his hands for an extra moment. "Thanks. Thank you."
"I told you that you don't have to thank me."
"And I'm doing it anyway."
Pete made a face at him and walked him back up to the car. "You feel okay?"
"Not really. But closer."
"Six and a half?"
Mikey smiled. "Something like that."
Pete drove slower on the way back, letting the car drift with the curves of the road. Mikey closed his eyes and rested his head against the window.
"Hey," Pete said softly. "Call your brother."
"I totally forgot to do it earlier. He's probably freaking out."
Mikey started to laugh, and after a moment Pete did, too. The road hummed beneath the tires, and for a minute while he waited for Gerard to pick up the phone Mikey thought that maybe there was a chance things could get better, someday.