Actions

Work Header

Remember Me as a Time of Day

Chapter Text

Frank exhaled slowly, watching as his breath formed a cloud and blew across the yard. If he looked hard enough, he could almost see the path of the wind that carried it, an invisible line that curled around each stray autumn leaf and up the sides of the house.

“What do you think?” his mother said softly. Her words turned to puffs of white on the air.

“I don’t know yet,” said Frank. “Can’t tell until we go inside, I guess.”

He wasn’t being entirely truthful. Looking at the house, he had his doubts. The windows were dusty at the corners, and the white paint coating the sides was faded, chipping off in patches that revealed the weathered beams underneath. The place was probably filled with issues. Drafts, leaks, boards that creaked; all the hallmarks of a house just a little too old to be a home. But Mom wouldn’t call them issues, of course. They were “quirks.” The house had “character,” that was all. She wouldn’t be wrong in saying so - it was brimming with character. Frank just wasn’t sure he wanted to live there.

“Frank?” Mom prompted. “Do you want to check out the inside?”

“Oh, right. Yeah.” Frank shoved his hands into his pockets and set off towards the house, his footsteps unnaturally quiet against the stone walkway. It was like the sound was absorbed directly into the ground. The whole area felt oddly still, like it was frozen in time. It was frozen in a more literal sense, too. Frank focused on opening the door and getting inside as quickly as he could, wincing against the October chill.

The screen door smacked shut behind him. He poked it back open so his mother could follow him in, taking his first step into the house he’d be living in for the rest of his high school career.

It was better than Frank had expected. There was definitely a draft, and the floor creaked loudly as he gave it an experimental prod with his foot, but it wasn’t all bad. As he padded further into the house, he could see a staircase with a railing carved of dark wood, and the halls were wide enough that he didn’t feel trapped. There weren’t any suspicious patches of mold or mouse droppings, either. As far as old houses went, this one seemed to be in pretty good condition.

Frank could hear Mom walking around somewhere nearby. “It needs a little love,” she called, “But I think we’ll like it just fine.” Frank followed the sound of her voice and found himself standing in the kitchen. Mom was running a hand along the stone countertop. She smiled softly as she glanced up at him. Those smiles had been rare lately.

“So,” she said. “I have a little proposition for you.”

Frank waited for her to continue.

“I know you hate being smothered,” she began. “Normally, I’d tell you to suck it up and let me worry, but this move is gonna be a fresh start for both of us. If you promise not to get yourself hurt, I promise not to be overprotective. Deal?”

Frank chewed on his lower lip. He wasn’t sure how much he bought into that “fresh start” stuff. The trouble he got into wasn’t unusually his fault; that made it hard to avoid. He’d have to get a better feel for this place before agreeing to take a positive outlook.

But, what the hell. If she was making an effort, he could, too.

“Deal,” he said, and Mom’s smile broadened. She opened her arms, and Frank rolled his eyes before hugging her. “C’mon, Mom, you’re gonna ruin my reputation before I even get one.”

“Of course I am. It’s my job as your mother to embarrass you wherever you go.” She pressed a kiss to Frank’s forehead.

“You could take a day off,” he said hopefully.

Mom pulled away, smacking his cheek lightly. “Why don’t you take a day off from being a smart aleck? And while you’re at it, you should go check out the rest of the house. See which of the bedrooms you want. There are three - one’s gonna be a guest room.”

Frank nodded. He wriggled out of her grip and fled the kitchen.

“Save me the biggest room!” Mom called after him.

“No promises,” Frank responded. He bounded upstairs, the wood groaning in complaint beneath his feet. Upstairs, there was a hallway with a couple bedrooms and a bathroom at the end. Frank selected one of the doors at random and pushed through it.

He decided in an instant that the room was going to be his.

It was just the right size; open enough that he wouldn’t feel claustrophobic, but small enough to be cozy. There was a window overlooking the front lawn that would make for a pretty good view, too. Frank could already imagine his posters tacked up on the walls.

“Hey, mom?” he shouted. “I picked a room!”

He looked around once more, nodding with approval. Yeah. This could work. Mom had said the moving van would arrive that evening; hopefully he could start decorating right away. This place needed to be spruced up. Without any personal touches, it was a little depressing.

He rubbed his hands over his arms. It was warmer inside than it had been outside, but it still wasn’t exactly a sauna. Hopefully they could get the heat working soon. If they didn’t, he would probably catch pneumonia and die, if the hypothermia didn’t kill him first. There was an old-fashioned radiator beneath his window, but when he nudged it with his foot, willing it to spring to life, it did nothing. The metal was icy to the touch.

Frank turned to the door. There were still a few rooms for him to check out, but first, he had to remind his mom about the heat. He blew a breath of hot air into his palms as he stepped back into the hall, pulling the door shut behind him.

“Hey, mom?” he yelled as he jogged down the stairs. “When are we gonna get the furnace working?”

There was no answer. Frank jumped the last few steps, heading to the kitchen. “Mom?” The second he walked in, he froze. “Shit, sorry.”

Mom had one finger pressed to her lips, her cell phone clamped between her ear and shoulder. She stared intently at the ground. “Mm-hmm… Are you sure? No, of course…” Frank waited for her to hang up before saying anything.

“Who was that?”

“The movers,” she said wryly. “Apparently there was some sort of problem, and the truck won’t be arriving with our things until later this week.”

“How late are we talking?” Frank asked.

“They said Thursday at the very latest.”

“Well,” said Frank, raising his eyebrows. “Shit.”

“Watch your mouth. We’ll be fine, we just might not be living in the lap of luxury quite yet. I bet you’re glad I told you to pack your suitcase in the car, huh?” Mom tossed him the keys. “Go grab your stuff. There should be some blankets in the back seat we can sleep on.”

“We’ll need them. This place is freakin’ freezing.” Although, now that he thought about it, the temperature downstairs wasn’t nearly as bad as it was upstairs. In fact, it was moderately warm. The window in Frank’s new bedroom must’ve been sapping the heat.

“I’ll see what I can do about the furnace.” Mom patted his shoulder. “You hungry? We passed a Chinese place on the way here, I could see if they’ve got anything vegetarian.”

“Yeah, that sounds awesome. Be right back.”

Frank darted out the door, hitting the button to unlock the car before he was halfway to it. The trunk popped open automatically. Inside was his suitcase, crammed in alongside the rest of their luggage. He tugged it out with some difficulty, then slammed the trunk shut, rounding the edge of the car to pull open the side door and retrieve the blankets from the back seat. By the time he’d gathered them into his arms, his fingers were turning red with cold. He raced back inside and dumped the suitcase onto the floor.

“Frank!” Mom called from the kitchen. “If you’re already getting into the habit of leaving your stuff on the floor, I swear -”

“Didn’t do anything!” Frank yelled, yanking his suitcase back up.

“Sure you didn’t. Go put that upstairs, I assume you’ll want to sleep in your new room.”

“As long as I don’t get frostbite,” he grumbled. He dragged his suitcase across the floor and up the stairs. As soon as he reached the landing, the temperature seemed to drop two degrees. At the end of the hall, his bedroom door was wide open.

Hadn’t he closed it before?

Frank dismissed the notion, tugging his suitcase inside and laying it down on the floor. If there was a problem with the door’s hinges, it would just have to wait along with the rest of the tasks he was determined to put off. Unpacking as at the top of that list. He was perfectly content to live out of his bag for a few days until it finally caught up with him.

“Hey, Frank? I found a menu online. You like veggie fried rice, right?”

“Let me look at it!” Frank shouted over his shoulder. “Just a minute.”

He arranged the blankets into a sort of pile on the floor, then unzipped his suitcase, pulling out a hoodie to use as a pillow. It was a little sad, but it would work.

“Okay, I’m on my way!”

He scampered back downstairs, this time making sure his door clicked firmly shut.

***

If Sunday was the day of the Lord, then Monday was definitely the day of the devil. On any typical Monday, Frank would be pissy in the morning, but this was no typical Monday. No, this Monday was Frank’s first day at a new school. He had a crick in his neck from sleeping on the floor, a burnt tongue from drinking his coffee too quickly, and fingerless gloves that really didn’t do shit to keep him warm. Needless to say, he wasn’t in a good mood.

“Do you want me to drive you in?” Mom asked over the rim of her coffee mug. Any other high schooler would have shuddered at the prospect, but Frank took a moment to consider it. If he didn’t get a ride, he’d have to catch the bus, which was completely uncharted territory.

But then again, he was a senior. He could handle it.

“Nah, I’ll be fine,” he said. “Thanks, though.”

“You’d better hurry up, then. The bus should be coming any minute.” Mom set her mug on the counter. “Do you have your backpack?”
Frank lifted it from the floor next to him, swinging it onto his back. “Yup. The stop’s at the end of the street, right?” Mom nodded. “‘Kay. See you later, then.”

“Not so fast!” Mom said crossly. “Don’t I get a hug?”

“I’m almost eighteen, Mom -”

“Exactly! I can see my little boy slipping away before my eyes.” She wiped away a fake tear. “I need to cherish every moment I have with you, Frankie. Soon enough you’ll be all grown up.”

“Okay, okay.” Frank hugged her quickly before heading toward the door. “See you later.”

“Good luck, honey!” Mom called after him.

Frank hastened down the walkway, tugging his beanie down over his ears. If there was anything good about his new school, it was the blessed lack of a uniform. His Catholic school days were behind him. No more blazers, no more ties that made his neck itch, no more restrictions on what type of print he was allowed to wear. Belleville High School barely even had a dress code. He could wear ripped jeans whenever he wanted, and nobody would bat an eyelid. They probably wouldn’t even care about his lip ring, whereas it had nearly gotten him expelled from Immaculate Conception.

As he came up to the corner of what he thought was the bus stop, he pulled out his phone. He’d been so busy helping around the house last night, he hadn’t had the chance to check it. There were fourteen messages waiting for him, all from the same number.

Yoooooooo how’s belleville

Did your mom like the mix I made for your car ride?

If 3 hours listening to against me doesn’t convert her idk what the fuck will

Frank smiled down at the screen. He’d been more nervous than he’d like to admit about leaving his friends behind, but some things never changed. It would take a lot more than moving to a different city for Dewees to forget about him.

The bus pulled up to the corner, spitting a cloud of noxious fumes and pulling Frank from his thoughts. He would have to respond later. He took a deep breath, hitched up his backpack, and stepped inside.

His stop must have been one of the last on the route. The bus was already full of kids, most of whom looked half-asleep, headphones buried deep in their ears. The back few rows, however, were the cursed exception. They were far too rowdy to have just woken up. Frank knew their type without even having to look. Cookie-cutter boys and girls with their perfect hair and teeth, divided into pairs that would, with a little time, evolve into unhappy marriages. They probably all played sports or had parents with seats on the board of education.

Jesus, Frank thought he’d left these type of kids back in Catholic school.

Sitting near them was not an option. He glanced at the first rows of seats, but they were already filled. The only available spots were in the middle.

He sat down next to a baby-faced boy with the worst case of emo sidebangs he’d ever seen, inserting his earbuds to make it abundantly clear that he wasn’t interested in conversation. The boy seemed to take the hint. He didn’t look at Frank once over the course of the ride, and when they finally got up to leave, he didn’t say a word.
That was a good sign. If there was one thing Frank was looking forward to about attending a bigger school, it was the anonymity. He could be as quiet or as loud as he liked, and he’d still probably end up lost in the crowd. There would be no small town gossip revolving around his every behavioral shift; no bigger, tougher guys always lurking around the corner, ready to make his life hell.

Frank didn’t want to get his hopes up too high, but honestly, there was no way Belleville High could be worse than his old school.

He stepped out of the bus and pulled his earbuds from his ears.

Upon first glance, Belleville High was deceptively normal. It was all red brick and flat-topped buildings, with an orange sign reading Home of the Tigers. Frank followed the sidewalk up to the door. Now came the hard part. He’d printed his schedule from the district website, but he didn’t know where each classroom was. He’d have to get directions if he wanted to get anywhere. Normally, he’d just blow off class and spend the day wandering, or leave the school outright, but this was his first day. His mom wouldn’t be happy if he started the year by playing hooky.

Frank looked at the printout in his hands and sighed. A visit to the office was going to be necessary.

The office was just down the hall. He found it easily and slipped inside, hating the awkward feeling of being a senior who had no idea where to go. A lady was sitting behind a desk, typing away at her computer. She looked up at him and smiled.

“What can I do for you this morning?”

“Um,” said Frank. “I’m kinda new here, so I’m not sure where my classes are.” He handed her his schedule in lieu of further explanation. She looked it over and nodded, taking out a pen and scribbling something down in the margins.

“You’ve got calculus with Ms. Caulfield for first period,” she said, and he had to stifle a groan. “That’ll be upstairs in room 224. It’s on the left, right near the second staircase. Then you’ve got English with Mr. Osborne…”

Frank tried his best to pay attention, but after a while, the woman’s voice and the scratching of her pen all started to blur together. He nodded and smiled at what he hoped were the right points, then took his schedule and beat a hasty retreat. The bell for his first class was about to ring. Much as he’d like to take his time getting there, he couldn’t afford to be late and make a bad first impression. He needed to win his teachers over so he could skate by the rest of the year.

He was halfway up the stairs when he realized he probably should have paid attention when the lady was telling him where to go. The notes on his schedule were nearly illegible. He squinted hard, holding the paper close to his face as he weaved through the hallway. Thankfully, the crowd was beginning to thin; only a few stragglers still occupied the halls.

Had she said room 224 or 242?

If he tilted the paper the right way, he was pretty sure it said 224. Frank looked to the small metal numbers on the doors, and there was his destination, only a few doors down. He eyed it with apprehension. First-period math was a special kind of torture. It didn’t make for a good omen.

He slipped inside the room and headed for the back, taking a seat in the corner furthest from the teacher’s desk. She had her face buried in a stack of papers. Frank set his backpack down and nudged it under his desk with his foot.

He was just about to dig out a pen when he realized everyone was staring at him.

They were utterly silent, but as he looked around, he found every set of eyes in the classroom looking directly back at him. It was beyond unnerving. Frank slowly took out a pen from his backpack and set it on his desk, waiting for the moment someone would look away. No one did. Some of them shrank back ever so slightly, but none dared to break the spell.

So much for anonymity.

The teacher - Ms. Caulfield, if his schedule was to be believed - lifted her head. “Oh,” she said. “We have a new student, do we?” Her gaze was piercing. Frank got the feeling that, unlike those of her students, this was a stare that should not be met with silence.

“Yeah, I just moved,” he said. As soon as he spoke, a quiet murmur rose up through the classroom, like he’d given them permission to speak.

“Lovely,” Ms. Caulfield said, though it didn’t sound as if she meant it. “What’s your name, then?”

“Frank,” he mumbled.

“What was that? Speak up.”

Frank could feel the eyes of the other students on him, watching, whispering. His stomach twisted with discomfort.

“I’m Frank,” he said, a little louder this time. “Frank Iero.”

“Welcome to Belleville High, then, Mr. Iero,” said Ms. Caulfield. Frank didn’t have the heart to correct her pronunciation. “Any interest in joining mathletes?”

He couldn’t have shook his head emphatically enough.

She pursed her lips. “Well, I’m glad to have you in my class anyway. I’m sure you’ll do well.” Frank could still hear the whispers of the students around him.

Definitely not a good omen.

***

School didn’t seem half as bad once first period was over. Frank’s English teacher was the lazy type - Frank could tell after half an hour that they wouldn’t be doing shit for the rest of the year. Half the students were on their phones, and he was sorely tempted to join them. Later, he found his government teacher to be tolerable, if strict, and after that, he didn’t even bother to make a profile of his gym teacher. He’d only be attending that class often enough to pass it. In previous years, he’d blown it off altogether, but he wasn’t going to be the one senior getting held back because they missed half a gym credit.

Fifth period lunch was both a blessing and a curse. Frank squinted at his schedule, trying to make sense of the instructions written in the margins before giving up. All the students in the hall were moving in one direction, presumably to the cafeteria. Frank allowed himself to be carried in their wake. He entered the lunchroom toward the front of the group and actually managed to snag a spot toward the front of the lunch line. As he waited, he looked all around the room. Something felt off, but he wasn’t sure what it was.
There were sporty kids and stoners and geeks, all the stereotypes stuck together in one place. There were overcrowded tables and trash cans and lunch ladies. Really, there wasn’t anything to set it apart from any other high school.

Except one thing.

It was too quiet.

The tables were full of kids, but they weren’t talking to each other. They ate in relative silence, with only a low hum of whispers in the background. There was no shouting. No one stood up or wandered around the room in search of their friends. Instead, they all sat still, with watchful eyes that followed any trace of movement, but never commented on it.

Whatever. It was creepy, but it still wasn’t as bad as his old school.

He turned his back to grab a tray of whatever the fuck they were serving, and a loud crash echoed from behind him. Frank startled. He whipped around again, and he saw every student’s head mirror the motion at once. They were talking now, leaning in close to one another to exchange murmurs and looks that bordered on fearful.

In the center of it all were a pair of girls snarling at each other. Frank couldn’t make out their conversation, but he could still feel the venom embedded in every word. He knew enough about girls to recognize the calm before the storm. One of them took her earrings out, and a teacher appeared from the side of the room, sprinting toward them.

He didn’t make it in time.

One of the girls shoved into the other, and then they were screaming in each other’s faces, something about one of them being a bitch and the other not knowing shit. The shorter one ended up flat on the ground, and was in the process of being beaten bloody before the teacher managed to haul the other off her. The sounds of her struggle were amplified in the otherwise-quiet room; her shoes squeaked against the tile floor, and she was still muttering insults when the teacher finally dragged her out of the cafeteria.

The shorter girl sat up, wiped her face, and slipped back into a chair.

And just like that, it was over. The whispers died out quickly, and the silence returned, as deafening as ever.

Frank decided it might be best to skip lunch.

He left the line and made his way out of the cafeteria as quickly as he could, hyper-conscious of the hundreds of eyes pinned to his back. That was a feeling he would need to get used to. The second he was outside, he was able to breathe more easily. When no one was around, the quiet felt natural; less eerie.

Frank shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and started walking. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but as long as it was empty, he’d be happy. The electric lights of the hallway hummed overhead. Frank kept wandering the halls for a while, his eyes roving over the lockers and classrooms before he finally slumped against the wall, sliding down to the floor. He tucked his knees into his chest and rested his head on them with a sigh. The minutes passed by in a haze of boredom.

“Hey,” said a cautious little voice. Frank’s head snapped up. Standing over him was a boy with a huge head of hair and a backpack that looked like it weighed fifty pounds.

“Are you okay?” the boy asked.

“I’m fine,” Frank said. He sized the kid up as subtly as he could. He looked just like any other student, but the vibe he gave off was different. Not timid or withdrawn. Just nice, with warm brown eyes and friendly smile.

The boy sat down next to Frank without being asked. “I’m Ray,” he said. “What’s your name?”

Frank relaxed a bit. The more words came out of Ray’s mouth, the more normal he seemed. It couldn’t hurt to talk with him a bit. “I’m Frank.”

“Hey, Frank. Do you have lunch right now?” Ray asked.

“Yeah, I do,” said Frank, fighting off a shiver at the very thought. “Why?”

“No reason. It’s just that I haven’t seen you around before. Are you new?” Frank nodded. “Yeah, I thought so,” Ray said with a grimace. “Listen, if you’re planning on going to the lunchroom, don’t. It sucks down there.”

“I’ve noticed,” Frank said, raising his eyebrows. “What the hell is this place, Silent Hill?”

Ray winced. “Yeah, it is a little…”

“Creepy?” Frank suggested. “Weird?”

Ray smiled briefly. “Yeah. People don’t trust very easily here. Just ignore them if you can - a little creepiness is better than getting sucked into the middle of it all.” Frank expected him to elaborate, but he didn’t. He just shook himself and brightened, asking, “So, you’re new here? Where’d you transfer from?”

Frank paused. He didn’t really want to talk about the move. It’d been stressful as hell, what with getting booted out of his old school, his mom looking all over for a new job, and her ultimate decision to pack up and start a new life in a new city. But if he was going to talk to anyone about it, Ray didn’t seem like such a bad candidate.
“Washington,” he said finally. “The town, not the state. Washington, New Jersey. It’s west of here. We just moved in on Saturday.”

Ray nodded again, his hair bouncing with the motion. “How are you liking it so far?”

“Aside from the creepy shit, you mean? It seems okay. It is school, though.” Frank shrugged. “Can’t expect to like it too much.”

“Aw, sure you can!” Ray encouraged. “What teachers do you have?”

“I’ve got first period with Caulfield -”

“Oh, God,” said Ray, looking horrified. “Nevermind.” Frank actually laughed at that; it was hard not to when Ray looked so genuinely concerned for him. “Jeez, I don’t like trash talking teachers, but she’s horrible. I’m so sorry, man.”

“I’ll survive. Hopefully.” Frank leaned his head back against the wall, looking up at the ceiling. “Do you know what time it is?”

Ray pulled out a cell phone and clicked it on. “It’s almost the end of lunch. What class do you have next?”

“Forensics. You?”

“Psychology.” Ray pushed himself to his feet, then stuck out his hand. Frank took it and pulled himself up. He was brushing off his jeans when Ray touched his shoulder.

“Hey, listen,” he said. “I usually eat in the library, so, do you wanna meet me there tomorrow? It’s a lot better than sitting in the hall by yourself.” He tugged at the straps of his backpack, looking hopeful.

There was no way Frank could say no to the first decent person he’d met.

He grinned. “Yeah, sure. As long as I can find my way there.”

Ray beamed. “Awesome! It’s not hard to find, just turn right from the first staircase.” The bell rang just as he finished speaking, and his eyebrows shot up. Students were beginning to stream out into the hallway. “Well, I’ve gotta get going. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, see you,” said Frank. Ray waved and turned around, walking down the hall until the only part of him visible through the crowd was his hair. Frank watched until he was completely out of sight, a small smile playing at his lips.

Maybe this school wouldn’t turn out to be so bad.

***

The rest of the day passed by in a blur. Frank got off the bus with a heavy backpack and heavier limbs. After just a day of dealing with academic bullshit, he was exhausted. As he trudged up the walkway to his house, Frank could see his mother through the living room window. She was doing something on her phone, but judging by the way she kept glancing up, she was just killing time until Frank got home. She’d pounce as soon as the door opened.

When she would inevitably ask about his day, Frank really didn’t know how he would answer.

He wasn’t keen on bringing up the fight that had happened during lunch, or any of the weirdness that had surrounded it. It had infected his entire day. It seemed like everywhere he turned, there were small clusters of people exchanging tense words, but they always went dead silent whenever they caught him looking. An aura of tension ran thick through every corridor.

But there was one ray of sunshine that made it all seem bearable, and that was Ray himself. As it turned out, he and Frank had Environmental Science together at the end of the day. They’d spent the entire time talking about music. Frank thought Mom would be much happier to hear about his possible new friend than the latest lunchroom showdown.

He was dimly aware that he had stopped at the edge of the yard, and the cold air was seeping into his bones. He stared up at the house, taking it all in. It still didn’t really register that he would be living there for the next year. It felt like they could pack up and head back to Washington at any minute. Like all this was just a temporary thing, and his new life would dissolve once he snapped back to reality.

Frank’s eyes landed on his bedroom window. There was one more thing for him to worry about. He hoped the movers would arrive soon, or at least someone to fix the heat -

He did a double take.

There was someone standing in his bedroom window. A boy, probably around Frank’s age, with black hair and skin so pale it almost glowed. Frank might've seen him at school, but honestly, he couldn't remember.

It made his spine prickle. Some kid showing up at his door would be one thing, but that was his fucking room.

Frank raised his hand in a little wave. The boy startled, and Frank could just make out the panicked look that crossed his face before he was backing away from the window and out of sight.

“The fuck?” Frank said under his breath.

He hitched his backpack higher on his shoulders and walked up to the door. Just as he had predicted, his mother was there in an instant.

“Frank! How was your day?”

Frank stepped around her, effectively dodging both her and her question. “It was okay, who’s upstairs?”

“Upstairs?” said Mom, puzzled. She pulled the front door shut. “No one, why do you ask?”

Frank furrowed his brow. “But I saw… uh. Give me a minute.” He dropped his backpack to the floor and raced upstairs to his bedroom. The door was wide open, as if waiting for him.

But there was no one there.

Frank stepped inside the room, slowly looking around. The room was empty except for his half-open suitcase and the clothes spilling out of it. He tried the handle of his closet door and it swung open easily. The only things inside were a few dust bunnies and a bare lightbulb. He was either hallucinating, or there was a stalker in his house who was very good at hiding.

He was sure it hadn't been a hallucination - he’d seen that kid clear as day. But the alternative was far too creepy to consider.

Maybe if he tried really, really hard, he could convince himself it’d been his imagination.

“Frank?” Mom called from downstairs. “Honey, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Frank shouted back. “I thought I saw something, that's all.”

The best thing to do was forget about it, he supposed.

***

Frank knew the moment he woke up that it was far too early. He laid still for as long as he could bear, then, bracing himself, opened his eyes and clicked his phone on.

He hissed at the sudden brightness, squeezing his eyes shut again. The afterimage of the glowing screen danced across his eyelids. When it began to fade, he slowly opened his eyes once more, gradually letting them adjust to the light.

The clock read 4:08.

He let his head fall back against the floor. Shit. Now that he was awake, there was no way he was getting back to sleep.

He let his eyelids drift shut again, listening to the wind whooshing against his windowpane. After a few minutes, the radiator kicked on, adding a low hum to the white noise of the night. Being awake so early always felt a bit surreal. The rest of the world was sound asleep, but there was Frank, quietly observing all the moments that were never meant to be seen. It felt as if he was alone in the world. Every other soul had vanished into the darkness.

Downstairs, the floorboards creaked.

Frank sat up slowly, stretching his heavy limbs. He could already tell he was going to be cranky from sleep deprivation by the time school rolled around. Maybe he could sneak a nap during English. And if all else failed, he could just pass out during lunch. All he had to do was stay alive until then.

He rubbed his bleary eyes, rolling clumsily to his feet and slipping on the hoodie he had been using as a pillow. The house was just as chilly as ever, and he shivered as he padded into the hall.

He paused at the top of the stairs, listening to the small creaks and groans of the floor below.

It wasn’t uncommon to hear noises in an old house. He knew that. The wood expanded and contracted with the temperature, and the house would always be finding new ways to settle its weight. A multitude of bumps in the night were to be expected.

But, if he listened carefully, it wasn’t just bumps he heard.

It almost sounded like footsteps.

“Oh, hell no,” Frank muttered to himself. “Not today, thanks.”

He trudged down the stairs as loudly as he could, broadcasting his presence to whatever creature of the night or burglar might be creeping around. Something thumped in the kitchen as he reached the bottom of the stairs. He took a deep breath and forged ahead, his heartbeat quickening as he peeked in.

It was empty.

“Fuckin’ wuss,” Frank said to himself. Of course it was empty. He wasn’t a kid, he wasn’t scared of creaky floorboards and shadows on the wall. He made his way over to the coffee machine, his fingers stopping just short of the switch.

It had already been turned on.

Frank frowned. He didn’t remember turning it on the night before, but he wasn’t one to complain - not as long as his coffee got made faster.

He poured a cupful of water into the machine, savoring the bitter scent that filled the room as the carafe began to fill. He’d probably have to take an extra thermos to school in order to keep awake. The mere thought of school made him irritable, but his mood perked up slightly once he had a steaming cup of coffee in his hands.

He slid into a chair at the kitchen table and took out his phone, scrolling through Twitter as he sipped his coffee. If it hadn’t been four in the goddamn morning, it wouldn’t have been a bad way to start his day.

***

By second period, the caffeine had started to wear off, and Frank’s eyelids began to droop. He resorted to repeatedly poking himself with his pen in order to stay awake. By lunchtime, he was basically a zombie. He found Ray waiting for him outside the library, and could barely manage a tired, “Hey,” before shuffling inside.

“Someone stayed up late last night,” said Ray, amused.

“Don’t even talk to me,” Frank mumbled. He made a beeline for the nearest seat, a faded old sofa with a spring poking out on one side, and flopped down onto it. Ray rolled his eyes and walked past him.

“Where’re you going?” Frank asked, his voice muffled by the couch cushion.

“I’m getting lunch,” said Ray. He rounded the counter and disappeared through a door. A minute later, he reappeared carrying a thermos and sandwich bag.

“The librarian lets me eat in here,” he explained, sitting down on an armchair beside Frank. “Technically speaking, students aren’t allowed to bring food in, but she knows I hate the cafeteria.”

Frank sat up a little bit, grinning. “Aww, Ray! Are you the teacher’s pet?” Ray made a noise of disagreement, but Frank was already laughing. “I fucking knew it! What was it you said earlier? Man, the first thing you said to me was ‘I don’t like to make fun of teachers -”

“Because they don’t deserve it!” Ray protested. “I mean, usually not. A lot of the time it’s just people getting mad because they were misbehaving in class and the teacher yelled at them. It makes no sense.”

“It makes perfect sense,” Frank snorted. He leaned back against the couch again, positioning himself so he could lie down and talk to Ray at the same time. “Teenagers are assholes. That’s just how the world works.”

“You’re a teenager,” Ray pointed out.

“So? I’m an asshole, too. I’m not gonna deny it.”

“I don’t think you’re an asshole,” said Ray.

Frank was about to explain the number of times he’d gotten in trouble at his old school for mouthing off when a high-pitched voice interrupted them.

“Is that a new student I see?”

Frank looked up to see a petite blonde woman standing behind the counter and eyeing him with curiosity. She looked young, but definitely too old to be a student. Judging by the ID card hanging around her neck and the little book-shaped earrings in her ears, Frank guessed she was the librarian.

“This is Frank,” Ray said helpfully. “He moved in a few days ago.”

“Really? How lovely!” The woman beamed at Frank. “I’m new this year, too. I bet you’ll find your way around much quicker than me, though - I still get lost on the way to the gym.” She winked, and Frank almost winced. He could only handle so much perkiness.

The librarian’s eyes widened. “Oh! But I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Ms. Halloway.” She stuck out her hand, and Frank got up to give it a quick shake. When he sat back down, Halloway turned and craned her neck to see the lower end of the library. “Be right back,” she said. She hurried off and disappeared between a pair of shelves, reappearing a moment later with a girl in her wake. “This is Alicia, my intern!” she said proudly.

“Hi,” the girl said. She spared Frank the briefest of unimpressed glances, brushed a strand of dark hair out of her face, and turned to face Halloway again. Frank got the feeling she wasn’t actually listening.

“She’s a senior just like you!” Halloway said cheerfully, oblivious to Alicia’s disinterest. “I’m just assuming you’re a senior - you are, right?” Frank nodded. “Ah, yes. Your class is a good bunch. I’ll miss you all when you graduate, especially this one.” She patted Alicia’s shoulder. “I’ll have to find someone else to shelve the books for me once she’s gone.”

“Can I go back to doing that?” Alicia asked, looking bored. Frank had to laugh; she was the very picture of an antisocial teenager.

“Go ahead,” Halloway said, waving her hand. “And grab that textbook from the table, too, please, I need to get it back to Ms. Jacobs.” She turned her attention back to Frank, smiling. “But anyway! Us newbies should stick together. Tell me about yourself, Frank! Where’d you transfer from?”

Frank was tempted to tell her the whole sob story - that’d teach her not to ask questions - but he reeled himself in. If an adult actually liked him, he wasn't going to throw that advantage away. “I’m from Washington,” he said. “The town, not the state. We moved here for my mom’s work.” It wasn’t entirely true, but it wasn’t all false, either. Telling Halloway that he’d gotten kicked out of his last school would likely destroy any chances of her favoring him.

“Oh! What does she do?” Halloway asked, hopping up onto the counter.

“She’s a nurse,” Frank said with a shrug. “She gets to save people all the time.”

Frank was willing to engage in conversation, as long as it wasn’t an unbearably long one, but it quickly became clear that escape was impossible. Halloway ended up blabbing to him for the rest of the period. She dragged a painful amount of detail from him, all the while chiming in with her own experiences and anecdotes. She was even more eager to talk to him than Ray had been, but unlike Ray, she had no mercy. When the bell finally rang, Frank didn’t think he’d ever been more glad.

“Sorry about that,” Ray apologized as they headed out of the library. “I can cover for you next time, I know how to deal with people like her. Or we can find someplace else to go for lunch.”

Frank had to stop walking.

“Don't take this the wrong way, man, but who the fuck are you?” he asked. Ray looked confused. Frank gestured helplessly, trying to find the right words. “You’re so… nice. It's like you’re trying to get a good Yelp review from me or something. High school students are supposed to brood and make bad decisions, not take in the new kid and protect him from the overly social librarian. Seriously, how do you exist?”

Ray laughed. “I don't know. That's just how I am, I guess? You wanna get to class, or are you too busy trying to wrap your head around my existence?”

“Oh, fuck off.” Frank grinned. He took his schedule out of his pocket and unfolded it. He hadn’t committed it to memory yet, and finding his classes was still kind of difficult. “So, where am I going next?” He handed it to Ray.

Ray looked it over quickly. “Okay, you're gonna go down the stairs and take a right, then head down the hall. It should start to look familiar once you get past the pool.”

“Sweet.” Frank had to swallow a yawn. Maybe he should’ve pretended to fall asleep while Halloway was talking to him - or, better yet, actually fallen asleep. He definitely needed it.
Oh, well. He would manage. He plodded down the stairs, calling out a goodbye to Ray, and wondered if he could get away with napping during Forensics.

***

“So,” Mom said hopefully, “How was school?” She stood in the kitchen doorway, effectively blocking the only exit. Frank shrugged, nonchalantly turning on the tap and pouring himself a glass of water. He didn’t really need it, but he wasn’t keen on making eye contact. He’d been distracted when Mom had asked him the day before, and hadn’t given her a good answer; she wouldn’t let him stay silent on the matter for long.

“It was good,” he said. “I made a friend, I think.”

“That’s great, Frankie,” Mom said softly. “What’s his name?”

“Ray. He’s cool, he likes Metallica.”

Mom smiled. “Maybe you should invite him over. You’ve got to finish unpacking, of course, but as soon as this looks like an actual house, your friends are welcome.”

Frank rolled his eyes, taking a sip of water. “I wouldn’t use ‘friends,’ plural. But that’d be nice, yeah. I can ask him tomorrow.” He set down his glass. “Thank God this place has at least one cool person. You know they’re already assigning us homework? I’ve got an entire page of calc to do.” He shook his head in disgust, and Mom laughed.

“I guess you should get started on that, then.” She pointed at him. “But I’ll want more details at dinnertime, okay? I want to be able to spend time together before I get stuck on the evening shift.” Given that she’d just taken her new job, she’d probably be on the crappy shifts for a while. Frank wouldn’t see much of her as long as she was working evenings or nights. He supposed that was a good enough reason to humor her.

“Yeah, okay.” Frank dumped the rest of his water into the sink and scooted past his mom, heading up to his room. When he reached the top of the stairs, he stopped and sighed. The door had swung open again. He pulled it shut behind him as he stepped inside, mentally scolding himself for forgetting to mention the faulty hinge to Mom.

Frank’s cell phone buzzed from inside his pocket. He pulled it out to read the message Dewees had sent:

Hey do you wanna skype tonight or are you still doing moving shit

Frank eyed his backpack, but typed out a response anyway.

yeah ive got some hw but i can probably finish quick

Dewees replied in less than ten seconds.

Don’t be a fool stay in school!!

I’ll be online in like an hour, see you then

Frank smiled to himself as he leaned over to unzip his backpack. He could easily finish his work in that much time, and maybe even pass out for a few minutes, too. He wasn’t as tired as he had been earlier, but lying down for a while did sound nice.

As he was pulling his papers out of his bag, he thought he saw a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, and his heart skipped a beat.

He froze, very slowly setting the papers down before turning around.

There was nothing there, but he could’ve sworn he’d seen something by the closet door. Frank took a cautious step towards it and pulled it open. It was empty as ever. He thought back to the kid he’d seen in his window, and a shiver went down his spine.

He pushed the thought out of his mind once more and sat down to work on his homework. It was just mind-numbing enough to distract him.

***

Frank balanced his laptop on his lap, grinning down at the pixelated image of his best friend. “Your connection fucking sucks, it’s lagging like crazy.” The pixels rearranged into an image of Dewees’ middle finger.

Your connection sucks,” he said, his voice sounding crackly over the line. “Why couldn’t you move into a house with good wifi?”

“I did it just to spite you.”

“Of course you did. I bet you’re over there torturing yourself for my sake. How’s school? Better than here, right?”

Frank grimaced. “Not really.”

“Bullshit,” said Dewees. “Don’t lie to spare my feelings, Iero. I’ve accepted my fate, and it wears a uniform.”

“No, I’m serious,” Frank said honestly. “It kind of sucks. I’ve met one decent person, and the rest are all assholes. I think my math teacher’s secretly the devil.”

“Wouldn’t find that in Catholic school,” Dewees said, grinning.

“Damn right you wouldn’t. And I thought the nuns were bad.”

“Ah, the nuns,” Dewees said wistfully. “Sister Marie yelled at me on the first day for not having my shirt tucked in. If only you’d been there to distract her. You were always the worse offender between the two of us.”

“Don’t worry, public school isn’t much better. It’s fucking weird, honestly. Nobody talks.” That didn’t feel like an adequate description, but Frank couldn’t find the proper words to describe the prickle that went down his spine whenever he passed by a group of somber, wide-eyed strangers.

Dewees wrinkled his nose. “Aren’t public schools supposed to be rowdy as hell, though?”

Frank shrugged. “Not this one, I guess.”

Dewees didn’t say anything. Frank started to think the call was lagging, but then he spoke again, softer than before. “Is it better, though?” he asked. “Like… for real. Fresh start and all that?”

Frank almost laughed. Belleville High might have been strange, but he’d rather spend fifty years there than set foot in Immaculate Conception again. A little creepiness was nothing in comparison to the minefield of memories he’d left back in Washington.

“Yeah, it is,” he said. “Loads better.”

He adjusted the angle of his laptop so his face was more centered. “How is it back there, though? Aside from the nuns, I mean. What’ve I missed? Oh, shit - who moved into my house, have you seen?” It was a blatantly obvious change of subject, but it seemed to work, judging by the face Dewees made. His image froze that way for a minute, and Frank had to suppress a snort.

“God, don’t get me started. It’s this young couple with two kids, and they’re gross,” Dewees whined. “Twin three-year-olds. They never stop screaming. Ever! I can hear it from across the street, it’s torture.”

Frank groaned. “They’re gonna puke all over my house, God. Listen, you gotta get yourself invited over. Defend my old stuff.”

“I’ve already been invited over! My mom’s gotten all buddy-buddy with them and we had this dinner party - there was quinoa, Frank. They had quinoa.” Dewees sounded so dismayed, Frank couldn’t help but laugh.

“Well, damn. Here I was thinking my new house was bad, but it sounds like you’ve got the shorter end of the stick.”

Dewees perked up. “Your house is bad? How come?”

Frank grimaced, looking around his room. “Well, it’s not terrible. But it’s not that great, either. I dunno. The doors are funky, it’s always cold… I think there are issues with the wiring, too, my phone hasn’t been charging right. But it’s livable for this year, and that’s what matters, I guess.”

Dewees snorted. “You lying bitch. I bet you’ve been complaining every time you open your mouth.”

Frank paused. “You’re not wrong,” he admitted.

Dewees laughed. “Hey, man, just call it like you see it. Don’t be the stupid white guy in the horror movie who ignores all the warning signs. And, y’know, if you ever need to escape, there’s always room on my couch.”

Frank smiled. “Yeah, I know.”

“Frank?” Mom yelled from downstairs. “Are you on with James? You’d better let me say hello!”

“Looks like we’re getting interrupted,” Frank said as Mom’s footsteps sounded on the stairs. She poked her head in not a moment later, beaming at the computer screen.

“Hi, James!” she said. “How are you? Goodness, it feels like it’s been ages!”

“Not ages,” Dewees said reasonably. “Just fifty miles.”

Frank let them chatter back and forth, occasionally inserting a comment of his own. Even if it was only through Skype, it felt good to talk to Dewees again. Just a few minutes with him made Frank relax. He had desperately needed a bit of familiarity. He hadn’t left everything back in Washington - friendship was something that couldn’t be destroyed by distance. It would do him good to remember that.

Even if he was starting over, he wasn’t doing it alone.

***

When Frank went to claim his seat on the couch, he found it already occupied by Ray and a blond boy he didn’t recognize. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited.

“Oh, come on,” Ray complained. “You sat here for one day, you don’t own the spot.”

“Yes I do,” said Frank. “First come, first served.”

“Yeah, and I got here first,” Ray pointed out.

Frank huffed. “Move over, then.” This compromise seemed satisfactory to Ray, because he shifted to the side until there was just enough room for Frank to squish in between him and the other boy. Frank ended up half sitting on Ray, but he didn’t really mind. It was comfortable.

“So,” said the blond boy, eyeing Frank’s knee, which was pressed up next to his own. “Anybody gonna tell me who the hell you are?”

“Oh!” Ray said, startled. “Right, sorry! Frank, this is Bob, he usually eats lunch with me. He would’ve been here these past couple days, but Ms. Parker was holding him hostage. Bob, this is Frank. He’s new.”

Bob nodded. “Nice shirt,” he said. Frank looked down at the Black Flag t-shirt he was wearing and grinned - he already liked this guy - as Bob continued. “Ray can play a bunch of their stuff on guitar.”

Frank turned to Ray, surprised. “Dude, you play? Me too!”

Ray’s face lit up. “Seriously? That’s awesome!”

“Yeah, why didn’t you say anything before?”

“Because he doesn’t like to admit that he’s a legend,” Bob said, ignoring the way Ray sighed. “You know it’s true, there’s no point in pretending to be humble. Seriously, ask him to play for you, you’ll understand. He’s like a teenage Van Halen.”

“I am not,” Ray said under his breath,then addressed Frank more loudly. “I’m sure you’re awesome, Frank. Do you have pictures or anything?”

“Of my guitar? Yeah, sure.” Frank pulled out his cell phone and went scrolling through his photo library. He flicked past a bunch of pictures from the dog park, some shitty selfies he’d sent to Dewees as a joke, and a concert video or two before landing on a photo of his prized possession, more commonly known as Pansy. He held out the phone for Ray to see. Ray took it eagerly, oohing and aahing with exactly the right air of appreciation before handing it over to Bob. Bob raised his eyebrows and gave a little nod; a much smaller reaction, but somehow conveying the same emotion.

Frank liked Bob. Bob was cool.

“I play drums,” said Bob, and Frank mentally upgraded his status to awesome.

“We should hang out sometime,” Ray said suddenly. “All three of us. Maybe jam together. Would that be cool with you?”

Frank laughed. “Yeah, definitely. Actually, my mom was just telling me last night that you need to get your ass over to my house. I think she’s pretty happy that moving hasn’t turned me into a hermit. Fair warning, though, you might get smothered with motherly affection if you do come over.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” Ray said, smiling. “It’d be cool to meet your mom.” He didn’t say a word about Frank’s dad, because he apparently had some kind of superpower that told him which topics to avoid. Frank loved him for it. Re-hashing the move was one thing; the divorce was another.

Bob reached his hand into Ray’s bagged lunch and stole a bag of chips. “I’m free most of the time, but I have to watch my sisters.” Ray nodded. Frank gave a moment of thought to his schedule, running through the chores that hadn’t yet been done and the pile of work that would appear once the movers arrived with their things.

“I think I’m free on Friday,” he said. He would probably be finished unpacking by then.

Bob lifted his bag of chips in what Frank thought might be a toast. “Cool. Can’t wait for your jaw to hit the floor when you see Toro shred.”

Ray rolled his eyes and dug into his bag instead of replying, passing Frank an apple.

“If you’re not gonna get the school lunch, you’ve got to eat something,” he said by way of explanation. Frank took it and bit into it, smiling a little.

He had told his mom that he might have made a friend, but it was looking like there was no more might about it.

***

Frank was enjoying the privilege of having an actual bed to lie on when the doorbell rang.

“Frank,” Mom called from downstairs. “Your friends are here!”

Frank sat up and rolled out of bed, taking the stairs two by two on his way down. He jumped over the last few, landing with a thump, and ran for the door. The moment he pulled it open, he was met with an exasperated Bob, who was saying something to Ray, still lingering on the sidewalk.

“Come on, dude, don’t be weird. It’s not a big -”

“Hey,” Frank interrupted. “You wanna come in?”

Bob turned around and nodded. He stepped inside, Ray following close after him, and Frank’s mom pounced.

“It’s so good to meet you boys!” she said, beaming. “Frank’s told me so much about you!”

Mom,” Frank complained. He’d known Ray for a week, and Bob a little less time; he knew they wouldn’t make fun of him, but he didn’t need Mom acting as if he’d been gushing over them. He’d mentioned them once. Maybe twice.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Mrs…” Ray paused. “Sorry, I actually don’t know your last name,” he said sheepishly. Mom laughed.

“It’s Iero, honey.”

“Don’t bother trying to pronounce it, nobody can,” said Frank.

“You can call me Linda!” Mom added. “Simpler that way. And you’d be Ray and Bob, hm?” Ray and Bob nodded in unison. “Are you boys hungry? We just went grocery shopping, feel free to help yourselves.”

“That’d be great,” Bob said sincerely. “Thank you.”

Frank coughed into his arm, just loudly enough to hide his mumbled ”Kiss-ass”. Ray held back a snort, and his mom looked like she was doing the same.

“Well, I’ve got some more work to do on the house. Moving is a job never complete, I’m afraid. I trust you three will be able to handle yourselves. Oh, Frank, you did finish cleaning your room, right?” She gave him a stern look, and Frank was quick to rise to his own defense.

“I did it last night, it’s fine.” He headed toward the stairs and leapt up the first few, hanging on the railing as he waited for his friends. Bob was muttering something to Ray, whose smile had dimmed slightly. “You guys coming?”

And just like that, Ray was as bright as ever. “Yeah! We’re there,” he said, and traipsed up the stairs after Frank. Bob caught up with them just as Frank stopped in front of his door, heaving a sigh. It was wide open again. He’d talked to Mom about it, and they’d both tried Googling solutions, but neither of them were very handy around the house. The hinge would just have to stay broken for the time being.

He stepped in ahead of Ray and Bob, then turned around and made a sweeping gesture toward his XBox. It was already booted up, the screen lit with an inviting glow. “This,” he declared, “Is our saving grace. I found most of my games, but I think Resident Evil got lost in the move, so we’ll have to make do without it.” He hopped onto his bed, relishing the bounce of the mattress. He’d never appreciated how good it was to have an actual mattress until he spent a week without one.

“I have Resident Evil,” Bob mumbled. “You could take it if you want. I can’t use it anymore, I lost my console.” He sat down next to Frank and grabbed the controller, flipping through the menu to see Frank’s game collection. Ray sat between him and Frank, watching over his shoulder and making comments about which games had which cool features until his arm shot out to point at one of them.

“Grand Theft Auto!” he said, looking delighted as he turned to Frank. “Oh, we are so doing this - I have it, but Bob always hogs it when he comes over. Dibs on the first turn!”

Frank laughed. “It’s all yours.”

“It’s no fun when you play it,” Bob complained. “Who the fuck drives under the speed limit in GTA?”

“Oh, shut up, just because I told you not to run over a pedestrian one time -”

“It was more than once, dude.”

“Well, all you do is blow things up!”

“That’s the fucking point!”

Ray rolled his eyes and pressed a button on the controller. Bob glowered at him for a minute, pausing only to rub his hands over his arms. “Jesus shit,” he said. “Why is it so cold in here? It was never this -”

“Bob,” said Ray.

Bob ignored him and turned to Frank. “I mean, it, dude, something’s up with your heating.”

“I know,” Frank said with a groan. “My mom called a guy about it and he said he couldn’t find anything wrong, but there obviously is. I swear I can see my breath at night.”

Ray cleared his throat. “Can I talk to Bob for a minute?” he asked.

Frank raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, sure.”

“Alone?” Ray added. His voice was a bit more high-pitched than usual.

“Yeah, whatever you need.” Frank looked to Bob, confused, but his face gave nothing away. He just slipped off the mattress and padded out into the hallway. Ray darted after him, shooting Frank an apologetic look. He shut the door behind them.

For once, it stayed closed.

Frank stared at the loading screen. Something felt vaguely off, but he didn’t know what it could be. It was probably nothing, he knew, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something had gone wrong. He hoped it wasn’t his fault.

Just as his thoughts were heading into doom-and-gloom territory, the door popped back open and Ray hurried inside. His face was flushed as he sat down next to Frank. Bob looked more calm, but there was something in his blue eyes that hadn’t been there before, something Frank didn’t recognize.

“So,” Frank said slowly, “Are we still playing?”

“Yes,” Bob said firmly. “Sorry. I just had to remind him about something.”

He took the controller and turned his attention to the game. Ray did the same. As the minutes went by, the red tinge of his cheeks evened out, and he relaxed into a more comfortable posture. Frank tried not to notice. But every time Ray laughed, it was just a bit louder than usual, and he never allowed silence to fall between the three of them, filling every moment with a comment or joke. There was a subtle kind of desperation in it, like he was trying to be normal, but not quite making it.

It was driving Frank nuts.

If Ray was determined to pretend nothing was wrong, Frank would let him pretend. But he couldn’t stop himself from wondering.

***

Frank was many things, but dishonest wasn’t one of them.

He spoke his mind. It was what he did. It wasn’t always a good thing - it led to fights more often than not - but he didn’t play games. If he had something to say, he said it, and that was that.

The only problem was, other people didn’t always do the same.

Ray was walking next to Frank on the sidewalk, eyes pinned to the ground. Bob was just ahead of them. Frank had hoped the awkwardness of the day before would fade, but, much to his frustration, it had lingered throughout the school day. If he didn’t know what was wrong, he couldn’t fix it.

“All right, spit it out,” he said bluntly. “Ray, what the hell is up?”

Ray startled. “What?”

“You’re acting weird,” said Frank. “I wanna know why. Did I do something, or?”

“No!” Ray said hurriedly. “No, of course not. Everything’s okay, it’s just…” He trailed off. For a minute, he just looked thoughtful, the breeze ruffling his hair. “Well, it’s not really okay, but it’s not the end of the world or anything,” he said. “I was just trying to figure out how to tell you.”

Frank stared. “You’re not about to confess your undying love for me or anything, are you?”

Ray huffed. “Shut the fuck up, this is serious.”

“But you just said it wasn’t serious.”

“It is serious,” Bob cut in, “But it’s stupid, too. Let him talk.”

Frank shut his mouth.

“Do you remember your first day here, when you asked me why everybody was so quiet?” Ray asked. “It has to do with that. It’s… a long story, really.” He paused, and Frank could see him struggling for the right words. “This school year has been insane. Something happened over the summer, or right in the beginning of the year, I don’t know, but there’s been a bunch of drama ever since then. Nobody’s safe. If you tell someone a secret, the whole school knows in an hour.”

“Okay, so the people here are a bunch of petty bitches,” said Frank. “So what?”

“It’s not like that,” Ray said, shaking his head. “It’s not just petty stuff. Believe me, I wish it was - this shit’s evil. There’s something new every week. Somebody took pictures in the girls’ locker room, somebody called Greta Salpeter’s boss and lied about her to get her fired, people are saying Gabe Saporta’s drugs are laced... I don’t think that one’s true, but Pete’s mad at him over it, so something’s definitely going on.” He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “All I’m saying is, people take it way too far. It can get dangerous.”

Frank took a moment to absorb Ray’s words. At first, it sounded ridiculous, but as he considered it, it started to make sense. Teenagers knew how to wreak major havoc. This situation definitely sounded like the kind that could go south quickly.

“Damn,” he said, for lack of something better to say. “So people don’t talk because they’re scared of people overhearing them?”

Ray nodded. “They’ve all gotten paranoid ‘cause they don’t know where the rumors come from. It could be anyone, even their own best friends. Everybody’s got something to hide.”

“Do you?” Frank asked. “Is that why you’re acting all weird?”

Ray winced. “No. It’s not me I’m worried about.”

Frank stopped walking. “What?”

“They’ve started talking about you,” Bob said matter-of-factly. “You’re a psycho. You’re gonna shoot up the school. You’re in cahoots with Ashlee Simpson and you’re gonna help her sabotage the football team. Y’know, that kind of shit.”

Frank laughed. “And people believe that? Come on, look at me.” Ray’s expression didn’t change, and Frank gave him an incredulous look. “Wait, seriously? What the fuck, I just moved here!”

Bob shrugged. “These are the same people who believed Jimmy Euringer pissed on the principal’s car.”

“Didn’t he actually do that, though?” Ray asked, giving Bob a sideways glance.

“Doesn’t matter. You say one thing to one person, and then they’ve all got their tits in a twist. It doesn’t have to be true.”

Frank paused. “Panties, Bob. I believe the expression is ‘panties in a twist.’”

“Didn’t we just establish that I don’t give a fuck?” Bob said impatiently. “The point is, one of the football players, Ian Walker, he thinks you’re the devil. The rumors aren’t coming from him, but he’s sure as hell buying into them, so he doesn’t like you, and if he doesn’t like you, there’s a good chance nobody else will. Ray was worried about how you’d handle that. You handled it well. The end. We can move on now.”

“Actually,” Ray interjected, “That wasn’t all.” Bob sighed, but Ray shot him a look that said to keep his mouth shut. “I want to find out who’s spreading these rumors,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but this decides it. Frank isn’t part of this at all. He just got here, for fuck’s sake. Why should they come after him? If nobody else is gonna put a stop to it, we should.”

“What do they say about you and Bob?” Frank said curiously.

“Nothing true,” Bob said. He kept his attention on Ray. “We don’t even know how many people are involved, man. It could just be a bunch of people running their mouths.”

“It’s not,” Ray said firmly. “It’s too organized for that. The way they go after specific people, the detail involved… and the social media accounts. There’s one person behind this, or a few people, at most. I can feel it. We have to start somewhere.”

“And you want to play investigator?” Bob said warily.

“Yeah,” said Ray. “You, specifically, if you’re up for it. You fly under the radar pretty well.”

Bob studied Ray closely. He put a hand on his shoulder and lowered his voice. He was too quiet for Frank to understand what he said next, but it sounded like a question.

Ray murmured something in response. Frank listened hard, and he just barely made out Ray’s words when he sighed. “He wouldn’t have stood for it, Bob,” he said softly. “And what if it makes somebody else feel as bad as he did? I can’t just let that happen.”

Bob gave his shoulder a squeeze and let it go. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said quietly.

Frank watched the exchange in silence. He was burning with curiosity, but something in Ray’s expression told him not to inquire further.

***

It started with little things.

When Ray had told Frank that people were talking shit about him, Frank hadn’t paid much attention. It was just talk. Honestly, it was almost relieving - in this school, they didn’t have anything true to say about him, so they had to make it all up. Frank couldn’t have cared less. He could bear a nasty look or two.

But it didn’t stop at nasty looks.

Frank could take the rumors, but the physical harassment wasn’t quite so easy to brush off. There were only so many times he could take being knocked over in the hallway.

After one such incident, Frank picked himself up off the ground, face burning, and watched the culprit saunter down the hall as if nothing had happened.

That was the second time in one day.

He forced himself to relax, unclenching his fists as he began walking again. Everything in him was screaming for him to run after that asshole and give him a piece of his mind, but he had already vanished into the sea of faces, and Frank wasn’t about to waste time chasing him.

He hated moving on like it was nothing - it felt like adding insult to injury, just walking along and surrendering to such treatment - but for the moment, it was all he could do.

Well. There were a few more things he could do, most of which ended with all the assholes who pushed him around bleeding from their faces, but if Mom got word that Frank was already getting in fights, she wouldn’t be happy. There would be shouting, but above all else there would be the concern, the questions, the conversations that made Frank’s skin crawl.

He didn’t need help. Not from her; not from anyone. Not anymore.

Someone shoved into Frank’s shoulder, hard. “Fuckin’ move,” a girl’s voice snarled from behind him. “You’re blocking the hall.” Frank sidestepped, scowling as she brushed past him. He was already thinking of the complaints he’d make to Ray later on. Shit talking the entire school with him was the one thing that made it all seem bearable.

But for now, the hallway was getting too crowded. Frank glanced back and forth from one end to the other, then decided to improvise a new route to the library. Maybe there would be fewer people if he went through the upstairs hall.

Or nicer people, at least.

Frank kept his head down, earbuds planted firmly in his ears as he started in the direction of the stairs. His music was turned up so loud that everyone could probably hear it. If he tried hard enough, he could pretend that was why they were staring.

The stairwell was empty when he reached it, and by the time he reached the second floor, the hall was almost empty. The precious few minutes between classes were ticking away. This time, when people passed by Frank, their eyes didn’t linger quite so long. They had their own problems to deal with; most notably getting to class on time.

Frank was just starting to relax when his bookbag was yanked backwards, making him stumble. While he was off-balance, someone shoved into him from behind, knocking him to the ground. Frank just managed to catch himself on his palms. When he pushed himself back up, there was a tall, sharp-faced kid scowling down at him.

“What the fuck was that for?” Frank spat.

The kid sneered. “Like you don’t know. Fuckin’ freak.” He tried to shove at Frank again, but Frank batted his hands away.

“Seriously, what the hell? I don’t even know you,” he said.

“Doesn’t matter. I know you, and I know you’ve been talking to Ashlee.”

Frank closed his eyes, breathing deeply. Of course. The fucking gossip. When Frank looked at the kid again, he thought he recognized him - a football player, maybe? Definitely some species of jock. There was another kid hovering behind him that Frank hadn’t noticed before. He wasn’t as tall, but he was definitely muscular, and the look he was giving Frank was decidedly unfriendly.

“Listen, man, I barely even know who that is,” Frank said tersely. “Can you just leave me alone?”

The two boys loomed over him. Frank kept his feet planted on the ground, glaring defiantly up at them and resisting the urge to step back.

“Maybe,” the taller one said. “Are you gonna stop running around with the wrong people?” He cracked his knuckles, and Frank snorted with laughter - he couldn’t help it. Who the hell did this guy think he was, a mob boss?

Laughing was evidently not the right response. The shorter kid grabbed him by the collar and hissed, “Okay, douche, you wanna play it like that? I’m Kyle. That’s Ian. You tell Ashlee and Jessica and all their crew to apologize, and then you don’t breathe a word of this to anybody, got it?”

Frank ripped Kyle’s hands off him. “Don’t fucking touch me,” he said coldly. “I’m not a part of this unless you make me part of it.”

He turned to walk away, but a pair of hands grabbed the back of his collar before he could move.

He saw it coming. He whipped back around and raised his arm just in time to block a punch from Kyle. Frank didn’t hesitate before punching back, catching him in the jaw. His knuckles ached with the impact. It was a good ache, though. It meant he wasn’t losing.

Kyle lunged for Frank again, shoving him up against a locker. Frank twisted out of his grip immediately; being stuck with his back against a wall was just about the worst thing that could happen. He pushed Kyle away. Ian tried next, his peaceful demeanor exchanged for a snarl as he grabbed Frank’s shoulders and tried to force him back again. They scuffled for a minute, Frank digging his shoes into the floor in order to hold his ground. Kyle intercepted to slam Frank against the lockers once more. This time, Frank’s head snapped back and hit the metal, and he groaned with pain.

Kyle just smirked. In his moment of gloating, Frank saw a chance; he wound up and kicked him between the legs as hard as he could. Kyle cried out and stumbled back.
Frank paused for a split second to laugh, and Ian’s fist caught him in the mouth. He tasted blood. It sent a flicker of fear through him, but he pushed it aside as quickly as he could, making room for the fury that followed. He’d been defending himself before, but now, he just wanted to hurt someone. He was fully prepared to throw himself at Ian and hit him ‘til he couldn’t feel his own fists, but before he could, Ian reached behind him and opened up the locker.

There was a creak of metal, and next thing he knew, Frank was being hauled up and tossed into it. A bolt of panic shot through him. Frank’s hand shot out to grab the edge, but it was too late - he barely managed to jerk his fingers away before the door slammed shut. The resulting crash echoed between his ears.

It was dark inside the locker.

Frank could hear the sound of his own shallow breathing, amplified by the metal walls that pressed close around him.

“Don’t let me hear you talking shit on my friends again,” said a voice from outside.

The sound of footsteps faded into the distance.

Fuck. Frank could work himself into a rage thinking about how dumb his attackers were, but at the moment, his attention was stolen by the tiny walls forcing his arms to stay squished up against his sides. He swallowed hard.

This had happened to him before, more times than he could count, but it never got any less terrifying. The first time had been when he was in eighth grade. He remembered it like it was yesterday. The thickness of the air, how hot and stuffy it was; the feeling of the metal hooks digging into his back. It had been an hour until anyone found him. The second time, it was a little less than that. The staff started to look out for him, take notice when he was missing. He’d usually be rescued within thirty minutes.

But here, nobody knew where to look.

Frank’s heart raced. It was getting harder for him to breathe. He couldn’t tell if it was his imagination or not, but he could almost feel the walls pushing in closer, squeezing against his chest. His shoulders were cramped against them. He imagined the walls drawing in just a bit more; just enough to crush the air out of his lungs, and shuddered. The slits in the front of the locker offered a bit of light, but otherwise, it was dark, and silent but for Frank’s own breathing.

He forced himself to breathe deeply, clenching his sweaty hands into fists. This was fine. He was at a new school, and the second he got out, he’d find Ian and kick his teeth in. And he would get out. He just had to wait.

Frank kicked at the door. The metal crashed loudly. It hurt his ears, but he kicked it again, then once more for good measure. The sooner he could get someone’s attention, the sooner help would come.

He listened for the sound of footsteps, but none could be heard.

He let his forehead bang into the door. The pain was beginning to set in where Ian had punched him, a dull ache resonating in his eye socket, but he couldn’t focus on it now. Not when he was trapped between a cramped set of walls.

Frank exhaled slowly and tried not to think too hard.

When the door swung open, he almost fell flat on his face.

A girl blinked down at him. “Oh,” she said. “Hi.”

Frank picked himself up and stared at her. After getting a proper look at her, he thought she looked familiar. There was something about her heavily-lined eyes and black hair that rang a bell.

“Oh!” he said suddenly. “You’re Alicia, right?”

She nodded slowly.

“Okay. Well, thanks, I guess.” Frank brushed off his jeans and closed the locker door, making sure it clicked firmly shut. He could feel his face heating up already.

“It’s nothing. You were late, and your friends went looking for you, so Halloway told me to join in.” Alicia paused. “But you’re welcome, I guess.” And with that, she turned and walked off down the hallway, her boots falling heavy on the floor.

Frank watched her for a brief moment before hurrying off down the hallway, touching a finger to his lower lip as he went. It came away stained red. He could only hope that he didn’t look like too much of a mess. Ray and Bob would undoubtedly want to know why he was late, and no excuse would save him if he looked like he’d just gone through a blender.

He slipped into the library as quietly as he could. Ray was nowhere to be seen, but his lunchbag was sitting on the couch, so he couldn’t be far off. Frank sat down next to it, surreptitiously wiping at his mouth.

Ms. Halloway leaned out the door of her office, giving a little wave. “Hi, Frank!” she said brightly. “You’re late today! Ray and Bob went looking for…” Her voice trailed off.
Frank took his hand away as quickly as he could.

“You’ve got blood on your face,” she said.

“Yeah,” said Frank.

There was no way for him to play dumb. He was sitting there with a split lip and quite possibly a black eye; he’d obviously been in a fight.

Ms. Halloway leaned against the counter, her face softening. “Do you need to talk to a guidance counselor?” she asked.

Frank shook his head vehemently. “That’s not happening.”

She frowned. “Well, will you at least tell me what happened?”

“Somebody was being an asshole. I punched him, he punched back. End of story.”

Halloway sighed. “All right. Go wash up, then, you’ll get blood on the books.”

Frank grinned and hopped up from the couch. “Sure.”

He’d known from the start that she wouldn’t get him in trouble. Despite her never-ending cheerfulness, Halloway was actually pretty cool. Every day over the past week, she had puttered around the library while Frank and his friends ate lunch, occasionally chiming in with comments about books or music Frank wouldn’t expect her to have recognized. She didn’t even try to stop them from swearing.

Plus, her name sounded like Halloween. That was awesome.

“Don’t think you’re off the hook!” she added quickly. “Fighting isn’t acceptable behavior, Frank. I won’t call your mother, but we should talk -”

“I’m gonna drip blood all over your books,” Frank threatened, backing away from her. She shuddered, and he took advantage of her brief silence to turn and leave. The bathroom was located in the hall directly outside the library. When he pushed the door open, he found it empty. He approached the mirror with apprehension, then paused in front of it, looking himself over.

“Son of a bitch,” he said to himself.

His lip was well and truly busted. There was blood smeared down to his chin, and a bruise was rapidly forming around his eye. He ripped off a wad of of paper towels and held them under the faucet, soaking it through before dabbing at his lip.

Barely two weeks into the year, and he was already back where he’d started.

Frank felt like he was fifteen all over again; showing up to school and thinking things would be okay only to have the rug ripped out from under his feet. He’d been so fucking stupid. Switching schools wasn’t going to change anything. There would always be someone who didn’t like the way he looked, the way he talked, the way he fucking existed. Frank scrubbed harder at his face, willing the bruise around his eye to disappear. It was bad enough to have lost a fight; he didn’t want it to be obvious.

His reflection stared back at him, jaw set with anger.

Next time, he would settle the score. And there would be a next time. He was sure of it.

When he came back to the library, he found Ray waiting for him, arms crossed over his chest.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said Frank, falling onto the couch beside Bob, who gave him a look. Frank scowled. “I got punched, okay? It’s not a big deal.”

“Frank,” Ray said sternly. “What happened?”

“He picked a fight,” Ms. Halloway piped up from behind the counter.

Frank groaned, and Ray looked scandalized. “Frank! What the hell happened?”

“Nothing,” Frank said defensively. He didn’t want to talk about how he’d gotten his ass kicked, but Ray clearly didn’t get the message.

“Was it Ian?” he asked. When Frank didn’t answer, he bit his lip, looking worried. “Frank. He’s… he’s bad news, okay? If he’s picking on you, that’s not good.”

Frank shrugged. “I’ve made it this far. Can’t really get much worse, can it?” He positioned one of the couch cushions underneath his head, and when he looked back at Ray, his face had gone pale.

“What do you mean, you’ve made it this far? Has he been getting physical with you before this?”

Frank closed his eyes, resisting the urge to snap at him. Of course Ian had gotten physical with him. Everyone had. Frank was small, they were big. Frank was an easy target, Ian was an asshole. That was how things worked.

“Yeah,” he said. “A bit. It wasn’t much, but I got the royal locker treatment today, so. Perks of being five foot five, I guess.”

Ray blanched. Frank almost felt bad for him - he was so sheltered. Ian’s actions must have seemed a lot worse to someone who wasn’t used to similar treatment.
“Oh, God. I knew they talked shit, but they do that to everyone. I didn’t think - I didn’t think this would happen!” Ray sat down and buried his face in his hands. “Fuck. I’m so sorry, Frank, I should’ve noticed.” He sounded totally distraught. Even his hair seemed to droop. Frank gave him a tentative pat on the back.

“It’s not that big a deal,” he said. “But, thanks?”

“Um,” said Bob. “Hate to burst your bubble, dude, but that kind of is a big deal. The more you get yourself tangled up in the drama, the worse it gets. They’re gonna be after you now. I’m serious.”

“They’re not after me,” Frank said, exasperated. “I didn’t even do anything! I mean, I might’ve said some shit about them, but I totally had the right, okay, and now they’re all over me for no -”

“We can’t let this happen again,” said Ray. He sat up straight, suddenly fierce. “If they hurt you, you have to tell someone. I mean it, Frank, if they touch you again -”

“Then I’ll fucking deal with it,” Frank said. He appreciated Ray’s concern, but it was bordering on too much. He wasn’t a child; he could fight his own battles.

“What if you can’t?” Ray asked. “You won’t always be able to fight back, Frankie. If they -”

That was crossing the line. Frank held up his hand. “You’re my best friend, but if you say that again I’ll fucking punch you,” he said, sounding calmer than he felt. “Don’t tell me I can’t fight them. I know what I’m doing.”

Ray sighed. “It’s just a fact. You’re a lot smaller than they are, and if they gang up on you, or if they have weapons or something -”

“Then I’ll kick them in the nuts and run for cover.”

Ray’s face hardened. “I’m being serious.”

“So am I,” said Frank.

“Oh, really?” said Ray, sounding genuinely angry for the first time. “Well, you aren’t fucking acting like it!”

“Ray, chill out,” Bob said under his breath. Ray ignored him, his cheeks flushing red with anger as he went on.

“Why can’t you understand that I’m just worried? I know you want to do this all on your own because you’re so strong or whatever, but you don’t need to. We’re here. I want to help, but I can’t do shit if you don’t let me!”

“Ray,” Bob repeated.

“I don’t need you to worry about me,” Frank retorted. “Just because you’re scared of Walker and all the other douchebags out there doesn’t mean I am.”

“I’m not scared!” Ray said shrilly. “I just know what he’s capable of, unlike you! He’ll fucking jump you if you’re not careful! If you let him make you crazy, you’re done for!”

“The only person going crazy here is you,” said Frank. “This isn’t even a big deal. I got a little fucked up, so what? I’ll only mess with him if he keeps messing with me.”

“If you believe he won’t, you’re an idiot,” Ray said quietly. “He’s not gonna let this go.”

Frank snorted. “Are you even hearing yourself?”

Ray made a noise of frustration, raking his hands through his hair. “Ugh, Frank, you don’t get it! You don’t know this school like I do! They’ll never let anybody get away with having the last word, especially not someone like you!”

“Someone like me?” Frank said incredulously. “What, a little faggot with attitude problems? I get enough shit as it is, Ray, I don’t need you telling me I can’t stand up for myself.”
Ray’s eyes widened, and Frank’s breath caught in his throat.

Fuck.

He hadn’t meant to say that, but there was no way to play it off now.

“Frank,” Ray said hesitantly. “I… Sorry, I didn’t mean to -”

“Don’t,” Frank muttered. “Please. Don’t.” He avoided eye contact with both Ray and Bob, wishing he could sink into the couch cushions and disappear. Shit. Shit. He hadn’t known if he was going to come out to them at all, but if he’d decided to, he would’ve liked to have time to prepare first. But no, he had to open his stupid mouth. They knew now. There was no coming back from that.

He didn’t expect them to instantly hate him or anything, but… it felt weird, having it out in the open. Vulnerable. Like they could see right through him.

“So,” said Frank, his voice more unsteady than he would’ve liked to admit. “That just happened.”

“Yeah,” Ray said cautiously. “It did. Is that okay?”

Frank shook his head helplessly. “I don’t know. I’ve only done this, like… three times, maybe. Is it okay with you?”

Bob shoved his shoulder. “Of course it’s okay, stupid. You think you’re the first gay friend we’ve ever had? Please. We knew a guy who wore eyeliner, you’re practically straight compared to him.”

Frank shoved him back, but he couldn’t ignore the warm feeling that bloomed in his chest, and he knew he was grinning from ear to ear.

Ray smiled back, and Frank couldn’t find it within himself to be angry anymore.

***

Frank’s speakers nearly blew out from how loudly Dewees was laughing.

You?” he wheezed. “They think you’re dangerous? Little Frankie Iero, in all his five feet of height?” He wiped tears from his eyes, then busted out laughing again, his shoulders shaking with it. “Everybody watch out, Frank’s gonna shoot up the school! Wait - oh shit, do they think you’re in the Mafia? Please say yes.”

“I wish. I think they mostly just think I’m against them or something.” Frank wasn’t sure how to properly explain the dynamic of Belleville High to an outsider. Hearing about it was one thing, but walking down the muted halls every day was another. How could he explain the terrified expressions that flickered across people’s faces when he passed them by; the paranoia that their deepest secrets might be bared for all the world to see?

“There are a lot of cliques here,” he said hesitantly, searching for the right words. “Like the football team, they’re all pissed at the stoners. And volleyball’s having a feud with soccer for some reason. The drama kids were originally hanging out with the chess club, but then one of the chess guys started talking to Brent Wilson, and I guess that’s against the rules? That’s weird, though, ‘cause I’m pretty sure he’s friends with Brendon, and he does drama -” Frank abruptly cut himself off.

When the hell had he started keeping track of this stuff?

It definitely wasn’t intentional. He never made an effort to stay in the loop - but then again, he didn’t need to try. The gossip seeped into every nook and cranny of the school. He might as well have been breathing it in. Whispers drifted through the halls like mist, thick and poisonous; no matter what he did, they were inescapable.

“Sounds like a chick flick,” Dewees said with a grin. “Way more entertaining than a bunch of tightass nuns, though.”

Frank grimaced. “I’d think so, too, but I’ve kinda become public enemy number one.”

Dewees’ smile vanished. “What do you mean?”

“Ah, y’know. People pushing me, looking at me weird, that kinda shit. A couple of the football guys tried to corner me after school the other day, but I got the fuck outta there before they could do anything.” Frank edited some of the details out. He’d gotten knocked on his ass earlier that very day, and avoiding the jocks had become a daily struggle. He knew he wouldn’t be able to run forever - after all, they’d already caught him once - but he could certainly try.

He wasn’t sure what kept him from telling Dewees. Once, he would’ve spilled it all in a heartbeat. But things were different now; Dewees was hours away, and what could he do? Nothing. It would only make him worry. They hardly ever got to talk, now that Frank had moved - Frank didn’t want to waste all their time complaining about something he couldn’t change.

Dewees didn’t buy it for a second. His eyes narrowed. “Frank,” he said.

Frank sighed. “Listen, man -”

“Tell someone,” Dewees ordered. “You went to Belleville to get away from this bullshit, there’s no reason for you to suffer through it again.”

“This isn’t like before,” Frank said. “It’s just because of the gossip stuff, not… not the queer stuff, you know that. I would’ve told you.”

“I don’t care!” Dewees snapped. “Jesus, Frank. It doesn’t matter why they’re beating on you, it just matters that they are. You need to tell somebody.”

“I’ve told you a million times, telling people doesn’t work,” Frank said through gritted teeth. “Remember what happened last time? They didn’t do shit, and then when I got my ass kicked, I’m the one who got thrown out.” He glared at Dewees through the webcam. “They don’t want to listen.”

“I know. I know how stupid it is, and I know how stupid this sounds, but things might be different there, okay? No, don’t look at me like that. Try it, at least.” Dewees’ face softened. “I just want you to be okay, dude. Otherwise you’ll have abandoned me for nothing.”

Frank laughed, and Dewees broke back into a smile. “We’ll see what happens,” said Frank.

“I assume that means you’re going to do absolutely nothing,” Dewees said, rolling his eyes.

“Yeah, pretty much. But it’s whatever, man. I’ll be okay. I always am.”

“I sure fucking hope so.”

***

It took Frank approximately five seconds to realize that Ray Toro was a god among mortals.

He could only stare, open-mouthed, as Ray worked his fingers up and down the frets of his guitar. Bob was sitting in the corner behind his practice pad, looking quietly pleased - which, for Bob, meant that his expression was a little less stony than usual.

“Dude,” said Frank. “You’re fucking awesome.”

Ray ducked his head, grinning. “Shut up. You play standing up better than I do.”

“You’re ignoring my point,” Frank said patiently. “Which is that you’re fucking awesome.”

“So are you, though. You want a turn?” Ray held up his guitar, but Frank gently pushed it back down.

“You made me play for you all morning, dude. The spotlight’s yours. Plus, my fingers hurt.” He wiggled his fingers, the tips of which were red and bearing the indentations of his strings.

“But -”

“Your modesty is physically hurting him,” said Bob. “Give it a rest. Play some Metallica, come on.”

Ray sighed, but began to play anyhow. Frank sat down on the floor a few feet in front of him, watching intently. After a few minutes, Ray got more into it, his shyness melting away. His movements were precise; his riffs perfect. Frank didn’t know if he should be jealous or inspired.

He was mostly just impressed.

“We should start a band,” he mused. “That’d be cool. We’d need a singer, though.”

Ray fumbled a chord and paused to look up at Frank. “What’d you say?”

“We should start a band,” he repeated, grinning. He turned to ask Bob his opinion when his phone vibrated in his pocket, making a loud buzzing noise. He winced. It was probably a text from his mom. A quick glance at the screen confirmed his suspicions, and he sighed. “Sorry, guys. I think I’m gonna have to head home soon.”

Ray gave him a sympathetic nod, reaching over to switch off the amp. Frank lifted the strap from his shoulders and began packing up his guitar.

“You’re lucky you play something that’s easy to carry around,” Bob grumbled. “I need an actual drum kit, it’d be way better than this.” He tapped one of his drumsticks against his practice pad, as if lamenting the lack of a real instrument. Frank smiled over at him.

“We should go to your house next time, then. Challenge Toro to see who can reveal the most inner talent.”

“I’d lose,” Bob said with a shrug. “Plus, I like it better here. Ray’s mom is way cooler than mine.”

“True,” Frank agreed. “No offense to your mom, but it’s hard to top the Toros.” Ray’s mom was fucking awesome. She let them play as loud as they wanted, provided they stayed downstairs, and she made really good guacamole.

Frank pushed himself up to his feet. His phone buzzed again, and he typed a quick response before shoving it back into his pocket. He waved to Ray and Bob and went running up the basement stairs, calling, “See you guys later!”

“Have a good night, Frank!” Ray’s mom called from the kitchen.

“Thanks, Mrs. Toro!” Frank yelled back. He pushed the door open, and there was a skip in his step as he walked down the front steps.

Ray didn’t live that far from him, a fact which made traveling between their houses infinitely easier. After jogging down a couple blocks, Frank was pushing the front door open and calling out a greeting to his mother. He headed straight up to his room. It was early enough in the school year that Mom still expected him to be doing his homework, and he had things to get done by the next day.

Once he got in his teachers’ good books, he’d skate by with ease, but for now, he had to reluctantly fulfill his duties.

Frank’s bedroom door was already open a crack. He nudged it open with his toe, pushing his way inside, and let his guitar case slip from his shoulder. He propped it against the wall, positioning it carefully so it wouldn’t fall over.

When he straightened up, he nearly had a heart attack.

Sitting in the middle of his bed was a black-haired boy, completely absorbed what looked like one of Frank’s comic books. If Frank wasn’t imagining things, it was the same kid he’d seen in his window on the first day of school. He hadn’t noticed Frank yet, judging by the way his eyes continued flicking back and forth over the pages.

How the hell had he gotten inside? This marked the second time he’d showed up in Frank’s bedroom, and Mom didn’t seem to have any knowledge of his presence, yet there he was, reading through Frank’s comics like they belonged to him.

“Um,” Frank said. “What the fuck?”

The boy let out a startled yelp and dropped the comic book. He looked up at Frank, panic written across his face, and they locked eyes for a split second before he vanished.

As in, vanished into thin fucking air.

“What,” Frank said to the empty room.

He rubbed his eyes, then looked again. The boy was gone, but Frank's comic was still there, the pages lying open.

What.”

He stooped over and picked it up, cautiously turning it over. It was one of his tattered old issues of Watchmen, the one he automatically turned to whenever he was bored and in search of something good to read.

He wondered if this was what it felt like to go crazy.

People didn’t just disappear. It must have been a hallucination. The product of sleep deprivation, a bad reaction to his medication; something. He’d never hallucinated before, but he was sickly enough that it wouldn’t come as a surprise. His body was always finding new ways to fuck with him.

Frank repeated the words over and over. His heart thumped against his ribs, still trying to recover from the shock, and there was a feeling of terror creeping into the back of his mind, a hysteria that he knew he wouldn’t be able to control if he gave in to it. He couldn’t give in.

He shoved the fear back down as hard as he could, taking a deep breath to steady himself. His imagination was playing tricks on him; that wasn’t anything to get worked up about. He would be fine. He might be getting sick, but he’d be fine. He always was.

Frank set his comic book back on the shelf and slowly sat down on his bed.

He was being paranoid, he knew, but he couldn’t help but feel as if he were being watched as he settled in to do his homework.

***

Frank dropped his backpack onto the floor under his desk, sliding into his seat with a sigh. Ray glanced up at him from the next desk over. “You look worse than usual,” he said suspiciously. “Did something happen?” He leaned in closer, looking Frank up and down. “Don’t tell me you got in a fight again.”

“Nah, nothing like that. Just got a shitload of homework, that’s all. I have to do a paper tonight.” Frank set his arms on the desk and buried his face in them. It wasn’t the most comfortable; he wished he could go back to the couch in the library where he’d been so comfortably lounging earlier that day.

“Oh, come on,” said Ray, and Frank could hear him rolling his eyes. “Papers aren’t that bad. It’s only October, they haven’t started giving us real work yet. I bet it’s not even over three pages.”

“That doesn’t make it any easier,” said Frank, his voice muffled. “I hate essays.”

Hate wasn’t a strong enough word. Every time Frank tried to sit down and do an assignment that was longer than a page or two, his entire body started screaming at him to give up and forget about it. It was soul-sucking work, sitting and typing endlessly, trying to stay focused while he reread the same line over and over. The boredom made him twitchy. More often than not, he’d toss the paper aside, and a huge weight would be lifted off his shoulders as soon as he found something else to do. As long as he didn’t think about the deadline, he’d be fine - but it always bit him in the ass when the paper was due and he realized he hadn’t written a single word of it.
He had something of an aversion to schoolwork.

“It can’t be that terrible,” Ray chastised him.

Frank groaned. “You don’t get it. You’re a total kiss-ass, you probably do essays for fun.”

Ray ignored his last comment. “You can get it done in an hour or two,” he said lightly, patting him on the back. “Don’t worry. It’s for Forensics, right?”

Frank nodded without lifting his head, his cheek rubbing against his sleeve. “Maybe the class can do a lesson on my dead body after I shoot myself in the fuckin’ face.”

Ray’s hand stilled.

A moment later, the teacher’s voice cut through the chatter of the students, marking the official beginning of class. Frank sat up and rubbed at his eyes, mumbling a quiet curse. When he glanced up at the board, his eyes wandered over to Ray. He was furiously scribbling down notes, despite the fact that they hadn’t really done anything yet. It made Frank smile a little.

He waited until the teacher was distracted to poke Ray in the side. “Hey,” he whispered. “Wanna help me with that paper later?” Even though Ray wasn’t actually taking Forensics, he could probably write a better paper than Frank in his sleep.

He didn’t look up, so Frank poked him again. And again.

“Ray,” he said, tapping the paper Ray was writing on. “Come on, look at me -”

“Stop,” Ray said under his breath. “I’m trying to pay attention.”

Frank huffed. “Fine, be that way.” He reached under his desk to pull out his notebook, flipping to a blank page. It was only a few minutes before his gaze migrated to Ray again, and his fingers slowly crept across the table to poke him once more, but before he could, Ray swatted him away.

“I’m serious,” he said. “Stop it.”

Frank listened for a hint of laughter, or at least playful exasperation, but found nothing. Shit. He hadn’t meant to actually annoy Ray. He drew his hand back, trying his best to signal an apology through expression alone, but Ray just scowled and turned his attention back to his notes.

He didn’t look at Frank once for the rest of class. When the bell rang, he shoved his binder into his bag and was out of the room before Frank could even blink. Frank stared at his empty chair for a moment before shaking himself and gathering his things together, following as hastily as he could. Ray was already at the end of the hall when he stepped out the door. Frank darted through the crowd of students, stepping on more than a few toes in the process, before finally catching up with him.

“Dude,” he panted. “What the fuck, why didn’t you wait for me?”

“Sorry,” Ray said, keeping his eyes fixed on the door.

“It’s cool. Seriously, though, about that paper, you wanna help me work on it? We can probably hang at my house, my mom won’t mind if I say it’s for homework.”

Without missing a beat, Ray shook his head. “Can’t. I have to do some stuff with my dad.”

Frank’s brow furrowed, and he fell a few steps behind Ray. Ray didn’t seem to notice, and kept walking until Frank’s hand shot out to grab at his backpack.

“Hey,” he said. “Did I do something?”

Ray turned around, his expression blank. “What? No.” He almost started walking again, but Frank tugged at his backpack, pulling him backwards.

“You’re a terrible liar,” he announced, “And I wanna know what’s making you so pissy. So spill it, or you’re not moving.”

Ray sighed hard, breaking character for a moment to let his frustration bleed through. “You didn’t do anything. I’m just busy, okay?”

“No, not okay. You’re still lying. Maybe it isn’t because of me, but you don’t act like this. Something’s got you pissed off. Why can’t you tell me?” Frank let go of Ray’s backpack, hoping he wouldn’t immediately run off. Ray shifted a bit, and Frank’s heart briefly sank, but he didn’t move. He just eyed the door and sighed again before facing Frank.

“It’s nothing. Just forget about it, I’m sorry if I’m acting like an asshole.”

He still wouldn’t meet Frank’s eyes. If he thought he was being subtle, he was woefully incorrect. Frank frowned. “That still doesn’t answer my question. Tell me if I did something and I’ll get off your ass, I swear. I mean, are we cool? Are we good?”

Ray paused before answering. “Yeah, we’re cool.”

He was certainly determined to be dodgy, but Frank didn’t let things go that easily. He crossed his arms. “I’m still waiting on an answer. Yes or no, man. Did I do something to piss you off?”

Ray finally looked him in the eyes. He was silent for a minute, but it was an anticipatory silence; the kind that built up to something, not the kind that signaled an end. Frank could feel it when he relaxed, when his energy changed from angry to awkward.

“Shit,” said Ray, looking embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to get all…” He waved his hand in a vague gesture, but Frank knew what he meant. “Look, it’s just… Okay. You know how you were complaining about that essay, and you exaggerated a little?”

“Exaggerated, my ass,” Frank snorted. “I wasn’t kidding, I’d rather off myself than do that paper on my own -”

“That,” Ray said stiffly, “Is what I’m talking about.”

Frank stared at him, uncomprehending. “What, you care about homework that much?”

Ray didn’t say anything, and that was when it finally clicked.

“Oh,” Frank said, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes. “Shit, I’m sorry. Is that a touchy subject?”

“I’ll let you figure that one out,” said Ray.

“Okay. Got it, right. No more suicide jokes, Frank is an idiot, and we all live happily ever after. Cool?” Frank uncovered his eyes and peeked out at Ray, who seemed mollified.

“It’s not that big a deal,” he said. “Sorry for being a dick. I wasn’t lying, though, I actually do have to do stuff with my dad tonight. You’re just gonna have to suffer alone.” He gave a small smile, and Frank knew that he was forgiven.

“Well, that sucks,” he said, grinning in spite of himself. It was always a relief when things worked themselves out.

***

Frank delicately tapped the enter key, then shoved his laptop away and sat back, breathing a sigh of content. The work had sucked, but it was over now. He sat in silence for a while, letting his thoughts wander aimlessly. It was a pleasant contrast to the focus his homework had required.

“Frank?” Mom yelled from downstairs. “How’s that homework coming?”

“Just finished,” he called back.

“Oh, good! I can’t find my keys, can you come and help me out?”

Frank swung his legs over the side of his bed and padded out of the room. He went down the stairs to meet his mother, who was pacing to and fro across the house, purse in hand. “I set them down for one second,” she said, exasperated. Frank smiled and started looking with her.

A few minutes later, he picked up a set of keys from beside the coffee maker and jingled them in the air. “Found ‘em!”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Mom’s voice floated in from the next room. As Frank turned around, she appeared in the doorway, and he tossed her the keys. She caught them easily, smiling as they landed in her hands. “I’m just going to go do some errands, but if you want to come with me, we could check out the city. We’ve lived here a while now; it’s shameful how little we’ve seen.”

Frank thought it over for a second. He’d been planning on fucking around with his guitar for a while, but it would be nice to hang out with Mom, too.

“I think I saw a comic shop when I was out the other day,” Mom wheedled. “Early birthday present?”

Frank supposed he could postpone fucking around until later.

“Okay,” he said, grinning. “Meet you at the car!” He ran for the door, throwing it open and letting it clatter shut behind him as he bounded toward the minivan. This would be good for him. It was true, he really hadn’t seen much of Belleville yet, and there was no way he’d be able to keep up in conversations with Ray if he wasn’t up to date on the world of comics. He hopped into the passenger seat and waited for his mother to lock the front door before slipping in beside him. She turned the key in the ignition, the engine making a satisfying rumble, and they were pulling out of the driveway before Frank had even buckled his seatbelt.

“How are things going with Ray?” Mom asked, looking at Frank through the corner of her eye as she turned down the street. “And Bob. You three seem to fit well together.” She wasn’t quite smiling, but Frank could hear the satisfaction in her voice. Seeing her son happy for once must have been nice. Belleville wasn’t perfect, and Frank certainly wasn’t going to tell her about how much he was getting pushed around, but overall, she was right: he was pretty happy. That was what mattered.

“Things are good,” he said. “Bob got in trouble for swearing in class earlier.” If his mom were more like other parents, he might’ve hesitated to tell that particular story, but she just laughed.

“That boy? I’m surprised the teacher could hear him; he hasn’t raised his voice once in the times you’ve had him over.”

“‘S only a matter of time. He can get pretty loud, actually, all you have to do is steal his chips. You know he has, like, an entire backpack full of food? I tried to get a granola bar from him one time and he got pissed.” Frank smiled at the memory.

He wove as positive a narrative as he could, including all the funniest moments from his life at school and leaving out the worst ones. There were many to avoid - the time someone had shoved his head forward when he’d been drinking from the fountain and spilled water all down his front, the time someone had “accidentally” thrown his test in the recycling bin, the rapidly-growing hostility whenever people passed him by in the hall - but he felt his story was convincing enough. And besides, things were getting better. Bob was starting to walk him to class more often, and nobody tried anything when Bob was around. Frank wasn’t sure if it was the broad shoulders or the death glare, but he made a pretty awesome bodyguard.

By the time his mom pulled the car up in front of a decorated shop window, he’d run out of stories to tell, and it was with relief that he jumped out of his seat. He slowed down by the door, taking in the shop with an appreciative eye. The words Galactic Junction were emblazoned across the front, and a painted spaceship was zooming across one window. It wasn’t big, but it wasn’t small either; it was somewhere around the middle, just the right size to feel homey.

Frank pushed open the front door.

A bell tinkled overhead as he stepped inside. The interior was bigger than he’d thought, but that didn’t make it any less inviting. There were shelves arranged throughout the store, some filled with neatly-organized graphic novels, others displaying collectibles still in their original packaging. A table strewn with cards and dice sat in the corner. The back wall was filled with posters, and only a few feet away, Frank spied a rack full of comics labeled “new releases.”

The bell chimed again. He barely looked up at his mom before asking, “Can I live here?”

She smiled. “I did think you’d like it.”

***

An hour later, Frank emerged from the shop with a new issue of Doom Patrol, a few issues of Batman that he’d missed, and a little figurine of Jack Skellington that he just hadn’t been able to resist. He was already thinking ahead to how he’d pay for the next trip. His birthday only came once a year, and his allowance was looking thin following the strain of the move. He could always try and get a job, but the chances of anyone hiring a teenage punk with dyed hair, piercings, and attitude were slim at best. Frank stared at the window, pondering solutions to this problem.

He didn’t dwell on it long. As soon as he was back at home in his bedroom, he abandoned the thought - he had better things to do. Checking out his new comics was a priority.

Frank set his new figurine on his bookshelf and fell back across his bed to read.

He didn’t know how much time passed before his laptop started to beep, but when he sat up, a glance out the window told him the sun had already gone down. The darkness of dusk was beginning to creep in. He opened his laptop to see a notification from Skype and clicked on it without hesitation.

“What’s up, fucker?” Dewees yelled, his voice cutting in and out. “You haven’t called in days, I thought you died!”

Frank turned up his volume and waited for the video to load. “Am I not allowed to have a life?” he said dryly. A second later, his face popped up in the corner of the screen, and not one, but two others appeared in the center.

“You’re allowed to have a life,” Dewees conceded. “But -”

“It still has to involve us,” Hambone finished. “You haven’t called me once, you little shit. I should drive over there and kick your ass. Shaun’s pissed at you, too - he couldn’t be here, though, he’s gotta babysit.”

Frank grinned. Fuck, he’d missed his friends. “Who the hell trusts Shaun to watch their kids?”

Hambone snorted. “Don’t ask me. But that doesn’t answer my question - why didn’t you call?”

“‘Cause you’re an asshole, that’s why.”

“I think you’re the asshole. All it takes is moving fifty miles away for you to forget about us, apparently,” Dewees sniffed.

“You’d better watch out,” Hambone warned. “I was serious, I’ll come over there and beat you up.”

“I’m already getting enough of that here, thanks,” Frank said without thinking.

Dewees’ smile vanished instantly. “Frank,” he said. “You said things were fine.”

“Wait, are bad things happening?” Hambone demanded. “Frank, what the fuck? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Nothing’s happening!” Frank said defensively. He wished he hadn’t opened his mouth. “I was kidding, guys, come on - “

“You weren’t kidding before,” said Dewees. “If things have gotten worse, you’ve gotta be honest with us. That’s what friends are for.” He somehow managed to give Frank a death glare through the webcam, and combined with the look Hambone was giving, Frank had to surrender.

“Okay,” he said grudgingly. “Fine. Yeah, I might’ve gotten pushed around a bit. But it’s not a big deal, it’s just a few people being dicks. I can handle it.” Dewees looked skeptical, and Frank sighed. “It’s not like before, man, I already told you. They’re not bothering me ‘cause I’m gay. It’s a whole different issue.” He plowed ahead with a change of subject.
“My biggest worry is this fucking house, honestly. You hear all that stuff about problems in old houses and you don’t think it’s that bad, but dude, it sucks. The doors don’t shut and it’s always cold as hell. Seriously, you walk up the stairs and it’s like stepping into a freezer. I’m gonna end up with pneumonia again, just you wai - “
A loud creak interrupted him as the door swung open.

Frank waited for a second, expecting to see Mom standing there but there was no one there. Fucking hinges.

He sighed. “Give me a second, the door’s being dumb again.” He set his laptop aside and reached toward the door, but before his fingers touched it, it slammed shut of its own accord.

Frank stared.

Slowly, he reached for his laptop again, positioning it back on his lap. “That was weird,” he said. “Did you see that?”

“Yeah,” said Hambone. “Totally weird. You good, man? Your hands are shaking.”

“What?” Frank looked down at his fingers. Hambone were right; they were trembling. He hadn’t noticed. A shiver ran down his spine, and he pulled his hoodie tighter around himself. “Yeah,” he said. “Like I said, it’s really fucking cold in here.”

Dewees and Hambone were silent for a minute.

Then a grin split Dewees’ face in two. “Dude, this is just like in the movies.”

Frank raised an eyebrow. “Because I’m the underdog hero with the dumbass best friend?”

“Fuck you, I’m the sidekick that everybody likes better than the hero,” Dewees replied. “But that’s not what I meant. I meant that your house is creepy as hell, and it’s totally haunted.”

Frank rolled his eyes. “I am not. My mom’s too smart to be the white lady who buys the house even though it’s shady as hell.”

“It checks off all the boxes, though,” Hambone said thoughtfully. “You said it gets cold a lot, right? And the strange presences, and the doors moving on their own…”

“Hey, I never said anything about strange presences,” Frank argued.

“Ah, but you will,” Dewees said with a wink. “You will. Call me when you find the secret door in the basement.”

Frank giggled. “Yeah, sure. I’ll send pictures of the skeletons in the closet, too.” His eyes automatically flicked to the closet door. The only things inside were some spare clothes and empty cardboard boxes left over from the move, but for the sake of the joke, he imagined opening the door to find a pile of crumbling bones.

The ceiling light flickered.

“Oooooh,” said Dewees, wiggling his fingers toward the camera. “See? Totally haunted, bitch. Better stock up on salt, you’ll thank me later.”

Frank didn’t take his eyes off the closet. An uncomfortable memory had risen to the forefront of his mind: a silhouette, barely seen in the corner of his eye as he turned the door handle. The feeling of being watched.

A black-haired boy sitting cross-legged in the center of his room.

Frank tugged his sleeves down over his hands to keep them warm, deliberately not thinking about the phrase strange presences.

He turned his attention back to the computer and forced a smile. “You’re a lifesaver, man. What would I do without you?”

“Well, you wouldn’t be smoking nearly as much weed, let’s just say that.”

Frank smiled, letting Dewees and Hambone direct the conversation. He laughed at all the right moments, and it was almost real. Almost.

But every few seconds, the cold would make him shiver, and a face would flit across his memory, half-glimpsed through a window and pale as the fallen snow. The sense of comfort talking to his friends had brought on was all too quick to disappear.

***

Frank slowly pushed his laptop away. He wasn’t sure if it was just his imagination, but he could almost feel it again; that presence, the sense that someone else was in the room watching him. It was just paranoia, of course. Nothing more than anxiety brought on by his friends’ dumb jokes.

But a small part of him wondered if they were jokes at all.

They hadn’t been serious, he knew that - but there was some logic to it. The house was old, old enough to be considered spooky, and some of its defects raised a few eyebrows. He couldn’t stop thinking about the way the door had slammed shut right before his eyes. He’d never seen anything like it. It was probably a draft or some other minute detail that made the door swing shut, but it was gnawing away at him, and he just couldn’t let it go.

Before he could convince himself that he was being completely idiotic, Frank found himself digging into his backpack for a pen and paper.

He scribbled down the alphabet, then a haphazard “yes” and “no.”It wasn’t an actual ouija board, but it would work. He didn’t know whether to feel reassured that he wasn’t crazy enough to get a real board or foolish for trying to recreate one.

Whatever. It was a stress relief thing. Once he proved to himself that there was nothing wrong with his house, he could rest easy.

Frank set the paper on the middle of his bedspread and cleared his throat. He felt supremely fucking stupid, but he forced himself to speak out loud.

“So, like… My friends have turned into paranormal investigators, I guess. Apparently, houses can’t just be weird anymore. They’ve gotta be haunted.” The last sentence was followed by a nervous laugh. He didn’t know why he was so on edge, but something was prickling at his nerves, making him jumpier than he should’ve been. “So, is… is there any truth to that? Do I have a ghost in here?”

He set the pen in the middle of the paper. It wasn’t a planchette, but he didn’t think ghosts were picky. Moving the tip of a pen couldn’t be that hard. Frank watched it closely, almost forgetting to feel stupid as he searched for any sign of motion, even the tiniest twitch.

The pen didn’t move.

He revised his previous thought. Ghosts weren’t picky because ghosts didn’t exist. Frank crumpled the paper into his fist with a sigh, pitching it back into his bookbag. There was no reason to get all worked up.

He settled back against his pillow with a copy of Doom Patrol. The tension he’d previously felt in the air had melted away, and his breathing came easy as he flipped through the pages. He hesitated to call the feeling relief; that would imply that he had initially been scared of something.

And he wasn’t scared.

***

Frank wanted to slam his head against the desk as hard as he could. Unfortunately, he probably wouldn’t succeed in knocking himself out. He would have to suffer through the period fully conscious, and fully aware of the fact that he’d left his goddamn paper at home. After all the work he’d put into it, he’d gone and forgotten it, and his Forensics teacher was a bitch when it came to late work.

The paper itself wouldn’t be such a big deal if he hadn’t already been in a bad mood. He hadn’t slept much the previous night. When he’d woken up, he’d barely been able to down a cup of coffee before dragging himself to school. It was to be expected that he’d pass out as soon as he sat down. However, his math teacher wasn’t so quick to agree. She’d chewed him out in front of the whole class for at least ten minutes. Frank had lost track of the time after a while; he’d been busy trying to keep his eyes open.

After that, he had been stuck in a pissy mood. Everything was going wrong. He got tripped up in the hallway, his paper ripped when he erased it too hard, and one of his earbuds had stopped working. Not even hanging out with Ray and Bob had made him feel better.

And now this fucking essay. He was bound to get points taken off for handing it in late. Frank didn’t really care about the grade; he was more angry at himself. He’d spent a lot of time trying to finish it - but if he couldn’t turn it in today, he might as well have used that time for something else. Damn it.

A girl came by to collect the papers, and Frank waved her off with a sigh.

He set his head down on his desk. He wasn’t in the mood to pay attention. Instead, he spent the period drifting in and out of consciousness, Ms. Jacobs’ lectures morphing and twisting into dreams. Every once in a while he would catch a clear thought, but then he was out again.

But of course, good things weren’t meant to last. Frank was startled awake by the ringing of the bell, and having to open his eyes sent him straight back into his bad mood. He just wanted to go home. As he shuffled out of the classroom, bag slung over one shoulder, he was already planning which classes he cared enough about to stay awake in. He could probably pass out during Environmental Science; Ray would let him copy his notes. The only question was if Frank’s sleep would be interrupted. It was a gamble - if the teacher woke him up after two minutes, there was barely any point to it, but if he managed to get a good half hour in, he’d feel a whole lot better.

Frank was so deep in his muddled thoughts, he barely noticed the figure stalking up to him. By the time he did, it was too late; Ian had a fistful of his shirt collar and was shoving him into a row of lockers. Frank’s back hit the metal with a crash and a jolt of pain, and suddenly, he was awake.

“Aw, fuck,” he said through gritted teeth. “Seriously? Give it a rest, dude, I didn’t even do anything to you.” Sleep deprivation may have loosened his tongue, but he just didn’t feel like dealing with any bullshit today.

“Didn’t you? Hmm. I really thought I’d heard you saying some shit about me and my friends the other day. You telling me I’m wrong?” Ian grabbed onto Frank’s jaw, squeezing so hard Frank could almost feel bruises forming. “Think about that before you answer, freak.”

Okay, well, Frank might have cussed out one of Ian’s minions the other day, but that had been totally justified. The guy had shifted from making fun of Frank to making fun of Ray, and that wasn’t acceptable. He’d deserved much more than a few creative swear words, and he would’ve gotten what was coming to him had Bob not dragged Frank away.

Frank chose not to dignify Ian with a response. Instead, he grabbed Ian’s wrist and wrenched it away from his jaw. “Fuck you,” he spat. “You know, last time I checked, people in the real world don’t get their way by beating on anybody they don’t like.”

“Oh, really?” Ian sneered. “Funny. It’s always worked before.”

“Probably because everyone’s afraid to tell you how idiotic you are,” Frank said, and then pain was exploding through his skull as his head was smashed back against the locker for a second time. Black dots swam across his vision. Ian let him go, and he slid down the wall, his legs weak beneath him.

“Watch your fucking mouth,” said Ian. “I’ve been nice to you. Real fuckin’ nice. That ain’t gonna last long.”

He stalked off down the hallway, melting into the crowd of students in an instant. It was like he’d never been there in the first place. A couple girls gave Frank a pitying look as they moved past him, but for the most part, it was like he was invisible. People’s eyes skated right over him as they walked by. Maybe Ian was right - in this place, he really could get away with anything he wanted.

There was only one thing that could top Frank’s hatred of people getting away with bullshit, and that was public humiliation. He grabbed onto a locker handle and pulled himself up, hunching his shoulders and wishing to be as invisible as people treated him.

There was an ache rapidly blooming in his head, and a furious heat burning in his veins. He blinked away the fuzziness at the edges of his vision, shouldering his way through the crowd and wishing that once, just once, things could be easy.

***

As soon as the door slammed shut behind him, Frank dropped his backpack on the floor and trudged up the stairs. He’d get scolded for it later, but he didn’t care. His skin still felt like it was on fire, and right now, all he wanted to do was shred his fingers raw on his guitar strings. Everything else could wait.

He kicked his bedroom door open. His guitar was sitting against the wall on the other side of the room, and he grabbed for it automatically, the first touch of the neck easing some of the tension in his shoulders. He plugged in the necessary cords as quickly as he could, itching for the sweet catharsis of music, of playing and sweating and bleeding out pure emotion until he was too tired to be angry anymore.

Frank loved the guitar. It was his thing. On his good days, it was the best way to kick back and have fun, and on his bad days, it was a release. It just felt… right, somehow. Like this was how he was meant to exist, with aching fingers and feedback screeching in his ears. He didn’t even need to play a specific song; all he needed was the sound.

Frank looked up to check the fingering on a trickier chord, and his gaze landed upon a boy sitting in the corner, staring at him with wide eyes. Frank’s fingers slipped, the last chord ringing out and then fading into silence as he froze.

“You’re really good at that,” said the boy.

“What the fuck,” Frank said faintly. “What the…” He never finished the sentence, instead ripping the strap from his neck and throwing his guitar onto his bed with a reckless amount of force. The boy watched him cautiously, his face betraying nothing. Frank knew that face. He’d seen it twice before; once through his bedroom window, and once in this very spot. Both times he’d convinced himself that he’d imagined it.

But this was no figment of his imagination.

“Who the hell are you,” Frank said, his voice shakier than he would’ve liked, “And how did you get in here?” He hadn’t heard a thing. To be fair, his amp was turned up to the highest volume setting, but he hadn’t even seen the door open. And who the fuck just walked into somebody else’s house? This kid must have had some crazy ninja skills. If he didn’t explain, Frank was about two seconds away from flipping his shit.

“Uh,” the boy said, sounding a little worried. “I didn’t mean to scare you, sorry - are you okay? You don’t look so good.”

“How did you get in here?” Frank repeated, taking the slightest step back.

“Oh, jeez,” said the kid, his hands fidgeting at his sides. “Shit, I fucked it up, didn’t I? I didn’t mean to - sorry, I’m sorry. I’ll try again later. Don’t be scared, okay?”

And with that, he vanished.

Frank stared at the spot the boy had occupied only seconds ago, his brain taking a few seconds to process the sheer impossibility of the information his eyes were giving him. He couldn’t even begin to accept that it had actually happened.

But it had.

His mystery boy, his master of disappearances, had struck again. Frank rushed through the door, half-hoping he would see a figure hurrying down the stairs, but of course he didn’t. The boy hadn’t run away; he’d just disappeared.

Frank wanted to call himself crazy. That was the rational explanation, after all. He’d cracked under a bad combination of sickness and stress, and now he was seeing things, and he should be locked up before he hurt himself.

But he didn’t feel crazy. No one ever did, he was sure of that, but this was different. He had definitely seen that kid; heard him speak.

Maybe the boy was a stalker with some freaky tricks up his sleeve, Frank reasoned. That would make sense. But no matter how hard Frank tried to make himself believe it, he couldn’t. It didn’t feel right. When the boy had looked up at him, his gaze had been one of pure admiration. It shouldn’t have been off-putting. In fact, it might have been nice, had Frank actually known who the kid was. But there had been something otherworldly in those eyes, and Frank couldn’t think on it without shivering.
The pieces were adding up into a picture he really didn’t want to think about, but it was staring him right in the face.

He was living in a haunted house.

Frank buried his face in his hands, forcing deep, even breaths. It didn’t do much to help. What the hell was he supposed to do? He couldn’t tell Mom, obviously; she’d never believe him, and there was no use making her worry about his mental state more than she already did. He considered telling Dewees, but quickly let go of the idea. Dewees might have been one of his best friends in the world, but he wouldn’t take this seriously. He’d probably think Frank was joking. No, Frank needed to confide in someone who would listen without judgement.

Maybe if he could prove this ghost’s existence to someone else, he would stop feeling so damn paranoid. It would certainly be a relief to be sure of his own sanity. But at the same time, he wasn’t sure he wanted it to be real. Not if it meant he was living in house infested with potentially-violent spirits.

Jesus, maybe he could just call an exorcist and be done with it.

Frank let out a slow breath. No, that wouldn’t work. He didn’t even know how one went about contacting an exorcist; much less how they operated. It could be his backup plan, but for now, it was up to him and whoever he chose to tell - which brought him back to his original question.

When the answer came to him, Frank wanted to slap himself, it was so obvious. Ray. He could tell Ray. Even if he thought Frank had lost his mind, he would listen. Bob probably would, too, although Frank expected a few more raised eyebrows from him.

It wasn’t much of a plan, but it made Frank feel more secure. A quick Google search told him to line all his windows and doors with salt, and after doing so, he was able to sit in the living room and distract himself by watching TV. He had mostly calmed down by the time Mom got home from work.

At night, though, all his confidence disappeared. He didn’t sleep; he couldn’t. He didn’t feel the same presence he had earlier, but every shadow was a threat, and every whisper of the wind sounded like a voice calling out to him.

Frank kept his eyes shut, for fear of what he might see if he opened them.

***

For once, Frank found himself wishing the school day was longer.

He welcomed any excuse not to be in his house. No matter how hard he tried to distract himself, his thoughts kept circling back to ghosts, and the adrenaline rush kicked in all over again. After a few hours, Frank felt like he was vibrating out of his skin. His leg wouldn’t stop bouncing underneath his desk. He barely even felt it when his phone buzzed with a new text message from Dewees - he only noticed when he went to check the clock for the third time in five minutes.

Got any updates on the haunted house business?? If so, you should call the guys from ghost adventures you could totally be on tv

Proposed episode title: the ghosts of belleville drive

Frank’s stomach twisted. Just what he needed; another reminder. His phone buzzed again before he could shove it back in his pocket.

You should start asking around to see if there are any creepy local legends abt your house… figure out why it’s haunted in the first place

Frank sighed. He put his phone on silent and stowed it in his desk without answering. Dewees was just joking, he knew that, but his nerves were stretched thin. He needed to stop thinking about his ghost infestation, not make a Hollywood deal out of it. If he didn’t, he’d just give himself a nervous breakdown.

Frank let his Government teacher’s voice drone on, only half-listening.

He tried not to think about what Dewees had said, but if he did, it started to seem more rational. Asking people about local legends might not be such a bad idea. It’d give him an idea of where to start, at least. At the moment, he had absolutely no clue what to do about his ghost, or if anything could be done - that was half the reason it was so frightening. He needed a plan of action. If he could find someone who knew the local ghost stories, they’d probably know how those stories ended, and that was what he needed to know.

Frank hoped they ended with the ghosts being expelled and not the humans being brutally murdered.

The only question was who to ask. He couldn’t ask Mom; she’d want to know why. He couldn’t ask his teachers for the same reason.

That left him, once again, with Ray and Bob.

In retrospect, they were the perfect candidates. He had to tell them about the ghost anyway, so he wouldn’t have to come up with a reason for his questions, and they’d lived in his neighborhood long enough to be familiar with his house. If anyone could figure out what was going on, it would be them.

With this plan in mind, Frank felt much better. He sat up straight, suddenly energized, and waited impatiently for the lunch bell to ring. When it did, he bolted from his seat and made for the library. He met Bob in the doorway and nearly knocked him over in his haste to get inside.

“See, Iero,” said Bob, rubbing at his arm where Frank had collided with him, “There’s this thing called walking. It’s where you run, only - get this - you go slower. It’s really nice, you should try it sometime.”

“Yeah, sure,” Frank panted. “Do you know where Ray is?”

Bob jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Getting his bag from the back room. Why, you wanna take him down too?”

“No, no, I just need to talk to you guys.” Frank leaned against the doorframe, bending over a little to catch his breath.

Ray appeared behind the counter. “Guys?” he questioned. “Are we gonna, like, eat? Or are we just standing in the doorway now?”

With that, Frank remembered his purpose. “Yeah,” he said. “Actually, is there somewhere more private we could go? I need to talk to you guys about something. It’s kind of serious.” He was comfortable asking them - well, mostly comfortable - but he didn’t want anyone else to overhear. The last thing he needed were a bunch of rumors branding him as the kid with the ghosts.

Ray tossed his lunch aside in an instant. “Of course,” he said, leading Frank and Bob toward the back room. He lowered his voice as they walked. “Did Ian try something?” he said anxiously. “Or did something happen with your family? Did -”

“Not yet,” Frank cut in. He waited until Ray had shut the door behind him, then turned to Ray and Bob, hesitating. The room was small and slightly cramped, with a counter and fridge taking up the space that they didn’t. There was a book bigger than Frank’s head sitting on the edge of the counter. He stared at the dull cover, trying to ignore his nerves. He trusted his friends not to judge him, but believing him was a different matter.

“So,” he said slowly. “Do you guys… know anything about my house?”

They were both silent.

“Like, more specifically, if anyone who lived there ever died?” Frank asked tentatively. The question alone was innocent enough; it was where it was leading that could get him in trouble. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear their answer.

Ray turned his head, staring down at the floor. Bob sighed and gave him a little nudge. “He was going to find out eventually,” he said. “You knew that.”

Frank’s heart leapt into his throat. “Wait, what?”

“How much do you know?” Ray asked quietly, still not looking at Frank.

“What do you mean?” Frank’s jaw dropped. “Dude, I was just asking - holy shit, did somebody actually die there?” He hadn’t expected such a fast confirmation. And it was a confirmation, it had to be. Ray’s continued silence said it all.

“Yeah,” said Bob, his eyes on Ray. “It was someone… close to us. A friend.”

Best friend,” Ray said fiercely.

Bob nodded. “When me and Ray were freshmen, we met these two guys, Mikey and Gerard Way. They were our best friends.” Frank was surprised to hear a genuine note of sadness in his voice, as opposed to his usual monotone. It took a moment for his words to process. When they did, Frank drew in a sharp breath.

“They - one of them died?”

“Gerard,” Ray said softly. “It was last August.”

“Oh, shit.” That was recent. Frank knew he hadn’t done anything wrong, but he felt awful. It was no wonder Ray had acted weird when he first came over to Frank’s house. He must have been walking through old memories with every step. “Shit, man, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to upset you,” Ray said with a watery smile, and it made Frank’s heart sink even lower. “I mean, it’s weird, isn’t it? Knowing that you’re living in a dead guy’s house?”

It couldn’t be any worse than meeting someone new only to discover that he had taken over your former best friend’s home.

“I told him he was worrying too much,” Bob said placidly. “But he wouldn’t listen.”

“You try telling somebody about it, then!” said Ray, his voice wobbling a bit. “You can’t just bring it up off the bat, that’s not how it works -”

“I know,” said Bob. “I know.” He leaned his head against Ray’s shoulder, and Frank’s insides twisted with discomfort. He shouldn’t have been witnessing his; it was too personal. He was trying to figure out how to give them some space when Bob shifted a little bit and held out a hand, making a clear invitation.

“C’mon, Iero,” he said gruffly. “You’re one of us. The emergency therapy sessions are mandatory.”

Frank smiled, then stepped forward and allowed himself to be folded into a group hug that was mostly just Bob squishing them all together.

“Sorry,” Ray said, wiping at his eyes. “Shit, I didn’t mean to get like this, it’s just - it’s just hard to talk about it, y’know?”

“Yeah,” Frank said with a nod. “Definitely. You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to.”

“No, it’s okay. You should know. It’s important.” Ray went quiet again, the hum of the electric lights filling the silence.

“It’s nice to have someone to talk to again,” he said finally. “Besides Bob, I mean. I haven’t seen Mikey in ages.”

“Yeah, not since he moved. It’s been months,” Bob commented. Ray nodded, his hair brushing up against the side of Frank’s face. As if only just realizing their close proximity, Ray stepped back, a blush rising on his cheeks.

“Oh, jeez. I really didn’t mean to dump all this on you, I’m sorry. I probably should’ve told you before -”

“No, don’t worry about it,” said Frank, waving a hand. “I get it.”

Ray smiled and turned to open the door. Frank opened his mouth to ask a question, then thought better of it. He couldn’t ask about ghosts now. Ray would think he was being made fun of or something. Frank didn’t want that; not after Ray had opened up to him about such a heavy subject. It could wait.

Besides, if his ghost really was Ray’s late best friend, he probably didn’t mean any harm. Frank had probably overreacted.

There was always the possibility that he’d turned malevolent after he died or some shit, but Frank didn’t want to think about that. He focused instead on following Ray and Bob out into the library, smiling at them as if nothing was wrong. Ray was holding himself differently; he seemed more relaxed than Frank had ever seen him. It was nice to see him at ease, but at the same time, Frank couldn’t stop thinking of the questions he would inevitably have to ask.

Maybe he could do some investigation on his own before he got Ray and Bob involved.

***

Frank’s laptop sat in front of him, whirring quietly as he stared at the blank screen. The cursor blinked over the search bar. His fingers hovered over the keys as his thoughts ran in circles, searching for the necessary words. What had Bob said their surname was? Way?

He carefully typed in the name Gerard Way. The first suggestion was “gerard way obituary.” He swallowed hard and hit enter, then clicked on the first available link.

”Gerard A. Way, 18, of Belleville, passed away unexpectedly on Tuesday, July 14th. Born on April 9,1997 in Belleville, NJ, Gerard was a recent graduate of Belleville High School. Throughout his life, he was a passionate artist, and planned to attend the School of Visual Arts in New York City. More than anything else, he loved art, music, and his family.

”Gerard is survived by his brother Mikey, and his parents, Donna and Donald Way.”

Following the obituary was a short paragraph that gave the location of the funeral and calling hours. Frank scrolled past it, his eyes landing on a small picture at the end. The boy in the photo - Gerard - had been caught-mid laugh. Frank wondered what had made him smile like that; so joyful and carefree. Upon further examination, Frank recognized the logo on his t-shirt and had to fight off a smile himself. Of course Ray’s best friend would’ve listened to Motorhead.

As he looked at the photograph, he knew there was no way to deny it any longer. This was undoubtedly a picture of Frank’s ghost. They were almost identical. The only difference was in their expressions. Frank had seen his ghost looking eager - or, more often, looking nervous - but never smiling like that.

No, not his ghost, he had to stop thinking that. Gerard. He had a name. He wasn’t just a shadow half-glimpsed in the corner of Frank’s eye. He was a person, a person with friends and interests and dreams, who just happened to be dead.

That was weird as fuck to think about, but mostly just sad.

Frank closed his laptop. His pulse quickened as he looked around the room, the knowledge of what he was about to do suddenly weighing on him.

“Hi,” he said. It came out quiet, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “Hi. I, uh, I know we haven’t been introduced yet, so I thought I’d do that. I’m Frank. You’re Gerard, right?”

There was no response, but he went on anyway.

“Sorry for freaking out the other day. This is just, uh, new territory for me. I don’t really believe in ghosts.” Frank’s hands twisted in his lap. “I guess I have to, though. The evidence is kind of overwhelming.”

He glanced around the room, half-expecting to see someone pop up out of nowhere, but he was still sitting alone.

“Dude, say something so I don’t feel like I’m just talking to myself. Are you even here?”

No answer. Frank sighed. Great. He wasn’t sure if Gerard wasn’t around or if he was just fucking with Frank, but either way, it would do no good to keep talking to him. Part of Frank’s mind cried out that this was proof, proof that ghosts weren’t real, but he was too far gone to listen to it. He’d seen the photograph. That was all the proof he needed.

He resolved to try again soon. If Gerard was going to haunt Frank’s house, they’d have to get to know each other. That was how these things worked, right?

Frank buried his face in his hands and laughed.

Chapter Text

Frank fumbled for his alarm clock, squinting at the time. He sat upright an instant later, swearing under his breath. He’d meant to get up early, but it was already almost noon. He threw on a t-shirt and sweatpants and headed downstairs, calling out to Mom on the way down.

As he was falling asleep the night before, he’d devised a plan. It was a Saturday, so he had no school, and Mom had the day off. It was the perfect time to do some paranormal investigation. She probably wouldn’t notice anything amiss, but if things went wrong, he could always yell for help.

Today, Frank was going to talk to Gerard. He was sure of it. He just needed to figure out how to make it happen.

So far, he only had a few leads. Gerard had seemed impressed by Pansy, so he could try playing again. If that wasn’t enough to coax him out of hiding, Frank had a backup plan - but he would need a ride.

“You’re up early,” Mom said with a smile, leaning against the doorway to the kitchen. “It’s not even noon yet.”

Frank rolled his eyes. “You can’t make fun of me for sleeping in on weekends, that’s the whole reason they exist.” He sidestepped past her to grab the cereal box from the shelf. “Hey, do you think you could take me to the comic store again later?”

“So soon? It’s only been a few days, Frankie. Have you already read the ones you got?”

Frank nodded, not looking up as he poured himself a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. “Mm-hmm. And a new Doom Patrol just came out, I wanna get it.”

“We’ll see. I’ve got to do some errands, but maybe this evening we can make time.” Mom smiled as Frank pulled out a seat at the kitchen table and sat down. “I’d tell you to walk, but I don’t really trust you not to get lost.”

“I wouldn’t get lost,” Frank protested through a mouthful of cereal. “I have a phone. Phones have maps.”

Mom laughed. “Whatever you say, Frankie.” She pressed a kiss to his forehead and swept out of the room, leaving Frank to pull out his phone and scroll through Twitter for a while.

He spent most of the day zoning out on his computer. The internet was an endless void of cute dog videos, and his ability to resist it was pretty damn weak. He did manage to get up at one point and fuck around with his camera - he hadn’t got the chance to go out and take any cool pictures of Belleville yet, he’d have to do that soon - but mostly, he just sat in his bed like a lazy teenage lump.

It was the best way to spend a Saturday.

But when Mom called for him, Frank was tripping down the stairs before he could even respond. He tapped his fingers against his seat as she drove, filled with energy that came from either nerves or excitement, he couldn’t tell. It was probably both. There was some understandable fear lingering in him, but once he moved past that, this was kind of cool. He had a ghost.

He wasn’t sure what kind of comics Gerard would like, though. The shelves at Galactic Junction were stocked with everything from sci-fi to superheroes to fantasy. Frank had no clue what would be most likely to catch Gerard’s attention. In the end, he just grabbed a few random titles and the issue of Doom Patrol he’d wanted to pick up. Even if they didn’t strike a chord with Gerard, he hoped the effort would be appreciated.

Frank’s nerves began to dissipate as Mom pulled the car into the driveway. If Gerard had intended to hurt him, he would’ve done it long ago. Maybe he was just shy.

Frank could fix that easily enough.

He wasn’t sure where the best place to do this was. His bedroom was the logical choice, after all, that was the only place he’d ever really seen Gerard. He’d nicked a couple candles from his mom’s room, too, just in case. A full-scale ritual probably wouldn’t be required, but it never hurt to be prepared.

Frank set the candles on the floor and laid the comic books next to them. Then he sat down on his bed, folded his hands in his lap, and waited.

“I hope those are okay. I dunno what your taste is, but I tried,” he said by way of explanation. “I don’t know why you ignored me yesterday, but you’ll have to respond eventually.”

Frank jumped nearly a foot when a boy popped into existence in front of him.

“Hi,” the boy said, holding up his hands in a gesture of peace. “Don’t freak out. I mean, you’re the one who tried to get me in here, so I guess you’re over it or whatever, but -”

“Holy shit,” Frank breathed.

He leaned forward automatically, like that would make it any more clear that this was real. Gerard was real. He looked just like he had in the photo, all unruly black hair and wide eyes, too pretty to be natural. He was chewing on his bottom lip, looking uncertain as Frank took in the sight of him.

“You’re real,” said Frank, awe-struck. “Holy shit. That’s so cool.” He stared for another minute before shaking himself. “Anyway. Hi. I’m Frank.”

At that, Gerard’s lips curled up into a smile. “I know.” He knelt down and took one of the comics, glancing back and forth between it and Frank, his smile growing by the second. “So… you got me Doom Patrol?”

“I got us Doom Patrol,” Frank corrected. “I still have to read it.”

Gerard sat down on the floor. “You don’t seem scared anymore,” he said, tilting his head slightly.

“That’s ‘cause I’m not.”

“You were before.”

Frank shrugged. “That was before.”

Gerard raised an eyebrow. “Oh, well. That changes everything.”

There was a moment of silence, and then he burst out laughing. It was quite possibly the dorkiest thing Frank had ever heard. “God, this is so weird,” he said through his giggles, and Frank couldn’t help but smile as he rolled his eyes.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, man. This is totally fucking normal.”

“Oh, right. You talk to dead people all the time, don’t you? That’s why you flipped out last time?” Gerard’s eyes shone bright with amusement.

“I didn’t flip out,” he argued. It was a bullshit lie, but he had to maintain his dignity somehow.

Gerard wasn’t fooled. “You did flip out. You put salt in your door, man -”

“That was a reasonable reaction!”

“It also qualifies as flipping out!” Gerard laughed. “I mean, I’m not judging you or anything. Honestly, I’m surprised you aren’t freaking out now. What changed your mind?”

Frank shrugged. “I dunno. You haven’t hurt me yet, so I don’t think you will. You seem cool. And I talked to Ray.”

Gerard’s smile faltered. “Oh. Yeah, I… I thought you would, eventually. What did he tell you?”

“That you were his best friend and he misses you a ton. Well,” Frank amended, “He didn’t say the last part, but it’s fuckin’ obvious as shit.”

Gerard winced. “Yeah. I know. He came over before, with Bob, and he… didn’t take it well.”

Frank’s eyebrows shot up. “You remember that? Were you listening to them?”

Gerard gave him a look. “No, Frank, I didn’t pay any attention to my best friends who I haven’t seen in a year.”

“Why didn’t you show yourself?” Frank asked. “They love you. Even if they were scared, I bet they’d get over it.”

“Would if I could,” Gerard said with a grimace. “You’re the first person who’s ever been able to see me.”

Frank stared. “Seriously?” Gerard nodded. “Why?”

“No idea. I’ve tried to talk to people, but they never hear. When you saw me that first time, I kind of panicked. I didn’t expect you to see me.” He shrugged. “I didn’t wanna freak you out, so I stayed away.”

Frank couldn’t argue with that. He’d questioned his own sanity the first few times he saw Gerard, after all - if Gerard had just up and introduced himself, he might have totally broken down.

But now, it didn’t even cross his mind to be scared. Gerard was too interesting for that. Frank had a million questions running through his mind; he didn’t know where to begin. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to know.

“What’s it like?” he burst out. “Can you walk through walls and stuff? Or float? And you can go invisible too, right? That must be so cool!”

Gerard tugged at the strings of his hoodie, frowning. “Not really. I can’t leave the house.”

“Seriously?” Frank frowned. “That sucks.” He’d imagined haunting the neighborhood to be the best part of being a ghost. He mentally crossed out a few questions from his list, then moved on, his curiosity having only grown. “So, what do you even do all day? Did you ever prank people when they came looking at the house? Or, wait!” He snapped his fingers. “My door! Are you the one who keeps opening it? And making my room cold all the time?”

Gerard looked down at his lap. “Yeah. I was kinda trying to show you I was here.”

“I knew it!” Frank said triumphantly. “That’s why the heating guy said there was nothing wrong. He didn’t know this place was fucking haunted!”

Gerard chewed on his bottom lip. “Frank…”

“Wait, wait, I’m not done. You were reading my comic that one time - how’d you do that? I mean, how can you pick stuff up if you’re a ghost?” The gears in Frank’s mind were whirring at top speed. “Is it like a telekinesis thing? Or -”

“Frank,” Gerard repeated. The corners of his mouth were pinched into a tiny frown. “Can we… not talk about this?”

Frank’s thoughts ground to a halt.

Gerard was still staring resolutely at the floor, the very picture of discomfort.

Frank suddenly felt very stupid. He didn’t know anything about navigating conversations with the undead - he’d probably just plunged right off the deep end into personal questions. “Sorry,” he said hastily. “I didn’t mean to get up in your business or anything.”

“No, don’t apologize. I’d be curious too. I just… I’m not a thing, y’know? I’m not a science experiment. I know you want to ask me about the afterlife and everything, but can it wait?” Gerard glanced anxiously up at Frank. “It’s easier if I’m just me. Is that okay?”

“Yeah, definitely,” said Frank, relieved. At least he hadn’t offended Gerard. He’d hate to drive away someone so fascinating just because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He pushed away any lingering curiosity. If Gerard told him not to ask questions, he wouldn’t.

Well, he would try, at least.

But for now, all he had to do was treat Gerard like any other living being. That wouldn’t be so hard. They’d been doing great before Frank had started fucking interrogating him.

He slipped down off his bed and sat down in front of Gerard so they were eye-to-eye. Once again, he found himself struggling for the right thing to say, but now it was for a completely different reason.

Frank couldn’t fight the flicker of pity that shot through him. He couldn’t even imagine what it must be like to die; to lose everyone you cared about, to have them lose you. Gerard was so pale, sitting there on Frank’s rug, and his presence made the room feel heavier, somehow. It was a bittersweet feeling, like the barest graze of fingertips, or a whisper not meant to be heard. It made total sense that he wouldn’t want to be reminded of it.

He closed his eyes and thought about what he would say if they were just two normal kids hanging out for the first time.

When he framed it that way, it came easily.

“Do you play anything?” he asked.

Gerard tilted his head, puzzled.

“Like, instruments,” Frank clarified. “Do you play?”

“Uh… Not really? I can play a little guitar, but not, like, well or anything. Not like you.” Gerard glanced over at Pansy. “You’re awesome. Sorry for interrupting you the other day.”

Frank shook his head. “I’m not as good as Ray.”

Gerard shrugged. “Doesn’t have to be a competition.”

“I’m not saying it’s a competition. I’m just saying Ray’s better than everybody on the planet.”

“I’m sure you’re way better than me, though. Guitar was never really my thing.” He hesitated. “I don’t play much, but I do sing a little bit? We kind of had a band going, me and Mikey and Ray and Bob.”

“What?” Frank exclaimed. “That’s so cool! Did you have demos or anything?”

“God, no, we weren’t that serious -”

“But that’s so cool!”

“Frankie?” Mom’s voice called from downstairs. “Who’re you talking to?”

Frank pressed a hand over his mouth, holding back a guilty smile.

“Go on, tell her,” Gerard said, a grin slowly spreading across his face.

Frank turned his head to yell back down the stairs. “It’s just Dewees, Mom!”

“Dewees?” Gerard raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t he the one who told you your house was haunted?”

Frank rolled his eyes. “You shut up.”

Gerard raised his hands in surrender. “Just saying! You should’ve believed him, he’s smart.”

“Shut up, oh my God.”

“Or what, you’ll exorcise me?”

Frank opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. Gerard’s eyes widened with glee. “Oh my God. You totally wanted to exorcise me, didn’t you?”

“You can shut up,” Frank grumbled. “I could still do it if you act like an asshole.”

“You wouldn’t,” Gerard said confidently. “You bought me comics. That’s like, a fuckin’ commitment. We’re best friends now. Best friends don’t exorcise each other.”

“Gerard,” Frank said, covering his eyes, “Please shut the fuck -”

“Gee,” said Gerard.

Frank uncovered his eyes.

“You can call me Gee, if you want,” Gerard said with a shrug. “It’s what my friends do.” He looked away from Frank, but in a few moments, his eyes flicked back, and Frank felt himself smile. Gerard smiled shyly back.

Being friends didn’t sound at all bad to Frank. He sat talking with Gerard for another few hours, stopping only when he heard his mother’s footsteps on the stars. Gerard disappeared in the blink of an eye when she opened the door to say goodnight. He didn’t reappear, and Frank was left wondering where he was, if he was standing in the shadows or maybe wandering around downstairs.

Once they’d started really talking, Frank had forgotten all about his unanswered questions. When he wasn’t focusing on the whole ghost thing, Gerard was just a normal person - and a fun one, at that.

Frank supposed that was the point.

***

“And I thought she was gonna bust my ass, but then she just told me to be careful, and that was it! I’m not even grounded or anything!” Dewees said happily. “Who knew my mom was so chill?”

Frank shrugged. He was comfortably settled in a pile of blankets with a box of pop tarts and his computer in his lap, listening as his friends chronicled their latest adventures. “I mean,” he said with his mouth half-full of raspberry, “Pretty much every teenager nowadays does it. She probably wasn’t that surprised.”

“Especially because it’s you,” Hambone added, nudging Dewees, who fell momentarily out of the frame. “You’re not exactly subtle, dude.”

“I bet she smokes whenever you’re not around,” Shaun chimed in.

“Yeah, to help cope with the stress of parenting,” Hambone sniggered.

“Oh, shut up,” Dewees grumbled, shoving Hambone aside so he could squeeze into view again. “Your mom would have to do heroin to cope with you.”

“Are you saying she doesn’t already?” Frank asked. Shaun cracked up. The sound almost masked the quickly-stifled giggle that came from across the room, but not quite. Frank looked up from his computer and raised an eyebrow.

Gerard appeared just long enough to mouth a shame-faced “Sorry” before vanishing again. Frank rolled his eyes, grinning. He supposed he should be angry with Gerard for spying, but he couldn’t stay mad at a face like that. And it wasn’t really spying - there was no malicious intent involved. Gerard just wasn’t used to having another person around that he could actually interact with. Frank made a mental note to set some boundaries soon.

“Frank,” Shaun said, snapping his fingers in front of the webcam. “What’re you looking at? Pay attention to us, we’re interesting.”

“What?” Frank turned his eyes back to the camera. “Oh, sorry. I was just thinking.”

“Whatever you were thinking about must’ve been nice,” Hambone teased. Frank quirked an eyebrow.

“What’re you talking about?”

“That smile!” said Hambone, grinning. “You look like an idiot, it’s great. And…” His eyes widened. “Is that a blush I see? Frankie!”

“What?” Frank protested. “What the fuck, no!” He wasn’t sure if it was true or not, but he could definitely feel his cheeks heating up at the mention of it. Dewees hooted with delight and pointed at the camera. Frank buried his face in his hands. “Guys, come on,” he whined. “Seriously?”

“Who’s got you so whipped you’re daydreaming about them?” Hambone demanded.

“Oh my God -”

“Is it that Bob kid?” Dewees guessed. “The picture you sent me wasn’t bad, I didn’t know you had a thing for blondes -”

“Shut up,” Frank groaned. “It’s not him, you fucker.”

“Ray, then?”

“No! God, no. He’s my friend, you sick fuck.”

Dewees wiggled his eyebrows. “But there is someone, right?”

“No,” Frank said firmly. “There is not, and this conversation is ending now.”

“You didn’t deny it, though!” Hambone crowed. “C’mon, Frankie, tell us! We don’t judge!”

“I’ll fucking hang up on you,” Frank threatened. To prove his point, he held up his finger so they could see it hovering over the trackpad. “One click, motherfucker.”

“Aw, Frank, just tell us about your Belleville boy -”

Frank clicked “end call,” then banged the back of his head against the wall. His face was burning hot. It only took a second for his computer to start beeping with an incoming call, but he let it drop. His friends could wait a minute. Hopefully they’d learn not to be so fucking embarrassing.

Frank really, really hoped Gerard hadn’t stuck around to listen.

***

Talking to Ray and Bob was difficult, to say the least. Frank was itching to tell them about Gerard, but Gerard had insisted he keep it secret.

“Knowing I’m still around would only hurt them,” he’d said, then changed the subject. He seemed quite content to avoid any topic that related to his death. Frank didn’t want to pressure him, but he had to admit he was curious, and keeping secrets from his friends just felt wrong.

He could do it, though, if that was what Gerard needed.

In the meantime, there was enough going on to keep him distracted. Bob was taking his investigation of the school gossip quite seriously - Frank had even seen him talking to some of the cheerleaders, a group who he normally wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. It was kind of impressive. And what was even more impressive was the fact that it was actually yielding results.

“It’s all cyclic,” Bob explained one day over lunch. “A rumor spreads about one person, they think they know who started it, and they start a new rumor about that person. That’s what happened with Vicky and Travie. She thought Travie was the one saying she hooked up with Gabe, so she accused him of stealing shit from her locker. But Travie thought Nate was the one who accused him, so he started saying stuff about Nate, and that got messy fast ‘cause Gabe got mad at him and started talking shit back. It gets tangled, but if you track it back to the source, you can make sense of it.” He frowned. “Except when people lie. That makes it harder.”

Trying to absorb that much information made Frank’s brain hurt. “I’m gonna pretend I understood any of -” He cut himself off, frowning. “Wait, who’s Nate? I thought Travie was fighting with Gabe ‘cause of Will.”

Bob grimaced. “That’s a whole ’nother thing, don’t even get me started.” He tore open a bag of chips and offered one to Frank. “This place would be a hell of a lot simpler if people were upfront with each other.”

“To be fair, a lot of the gossip comes from girls,” Frank pointed out. “They don’t know what direct communication is.”

Alicia’s voice carried across the library: “I heard that!” She had gotten up from her seat at one of the tables to glare at Frank.

“No yelling in the library!” Halloway scolded from behind a shelf.

“No sexism in the library!” Alicia retorted. She sat back down and reopened her textbook, shooting Frank a defiant look.

Frank groaned and leaned back against the couch. Bob smirked at him. “That seemed pretty direct to me,” he said.

“Oh, fuck you. Haven’t you got cheerleaders to eavesdrop on?”

“Nope. I’m on my break.” Bob poked him in the side. “You better watch out, though. I’m in the loop now. I could tell everybody your darkest secrets.”

Frank snorted. “Oh, really? And what are those?”

“I’ll find some,” Bob said confidently. “It’s only a matter of time.”

Frank doubted it. Bob might have been dedicated to his search, but even he would never expect the secret Frank was hiding. Gossip was one thing; ghosts were another. If he ever found out, it would be because Frank had told him.

Frank knew Gerard didn’t want him to say anything, but he couldn’t imagine keeping it hidden forever.

***

Arguing with Gerard about Ray and Bob had thus far been proven useless. With the right amount of coaxing, Frank was sure he could convince Gerard to show himself, but for now, he wasn’t budging. Frank figured he should let the issue rest for a day or two before bringing it up again.

In the meantime, he had an idea. It was a fucking awesome idea.

“Hey, Gee!” he shouted when he got home from school. “We’re gonna do something cool!”

Gerard appeared in an instant, and his face lit up. “What kind of something cool?”

“You’ll see.” Frank hopped up the stairs two by two, heading straight into his room to grab his laptop from its charger. He brought it to his bed and patted the space beside him. Gerard sat down, peering over Frank’s shoulder to see the screen, but Frank shoved him away. “Not yet, fucker, it’s a surprise.” He would love it, Frank was sure. Imagining his face when he saw it sent a little thrill up Frank’s spine.

He went to Google, entered a quick search, clicked a link, and presented the computer to Gerard.

“You haven’t seen any of the movies or shows that came out this year,” he said by way of explanation. “We’re gonna fix that. Take your pick.”

Gerard’s eyes went wide. He took the computer and scrolled through the available titles. After a few minutes, he audibly gasped, and when he looked up at Frank, his face was filled with delight. “The new Star Wars movie’s out, oh my God! I totally forgot about that!”

Frank giggled. “What, you mean Rogue One? I wouldn’t really call it new -”

“Shut up, it’s new for me.” Gerard beamed down at the screen as he clicked on the movie, then scooted over so he could lean against Frank. It caught Frank by surprise, but he definitely didn’t mind. Gerard was cold, but not unpleasantly so, and Frank couldn’t exactly turn off the part of his brain that was very happy to have a cute guy cuddled up next to him.

“Is this okay?” Gerard asked, glancing up at him. There was a hint of embarrassment in his expression. “Sorry, it’s just - you’re warm. It’s nice.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Frank said with a smile. Gerard nestled in closer, and his eyes returned to the screen as he clicked play.

“How does this work, though?” Frank wondered out loud. “If I try and touch you, my hand goes through, but you can touch me… I don’t get it. Is it like, because you’re the one interacting with me? Wait,” he shifted to face Gerard better, “Can you make yourself solid?”

“Frank,” Gerard whined. “I’m trying to watch the movie.”

“We’re five seconds in, you fucking snob, just tell me.”

“Fine. Yes. I can, but only if I concentrate really hard. Now, shh!”

Frank went quiet, smiling to himself at the aura of content that radiated from Gerard. He watched the screen with rapt attention, occasionally taking a breath as if he was going to say something, but staying silent. During the most suspenseful moments, he’d press closer to Frank, his hands clenched into fists beneath the baggy sleeves of his hoodie, and he would barely blink as he watched with wide eyes.

He had to wipe his eyes on his sleeve at the ending, glaring at Frank as if daring him to make fun, but Frank just grinned. “Good, huh?”

Awesome,” Gerard said reverently. He paused. “Well, it wasn’t as good as The Force Awakens, and there are a few things I didn’t -”

“Oh, God, you’re one of those people,” Frank groaned. “Do you already have a speech prepared?”

“I’m allowed to have opinions!” Gerard protested. He sat up and promptly launched into a dissection of the movie, waving his hands around and generally being a dork. Frank had so not been prepared for this. It wasn’t the information that caught him off guard, no; it was the excitement with which Gerard explained it, the passion that made his eyes sparkle. He was still sitting close enough that Frank could trace the curves of his eyelashes.

Frank tightened one hand into a fist, his nails digging into his palms, and gave himself a firm warning.

***

Bob dropped his XBox controller to check his phone. His eyes flicked back and forth over the screen, then he cursed under his breath. “Bad news, Ray,” he said. “Apparently you’re a fraud.”

Ray paused the game. “I’m a what now?”

Bob held out his phone. Frank caught a glimpse of blue on the screen, and grabbed it before Bob could pass it to Ray. “What is this?” he asked.

“The gossip Twitter,” Bob said. He scrolled down a bit and pointed to a tweet on the screen. “See that? According to some anonymous douche, Ray gets his good grades from stolen answer keys. Shocking stuff.”

“What?” said Ray, indignant. “I do not!”

“Answer keys that Bob steals for him, apparently,” Frank said slowly, reading through the thread. He shook his head, scowling. “Anybody who actually knows you knows that’s not true.”

“Exactly,” Bob said smugly. Frank raised an eyebrow at his tone, but Bob waved him off. “People usually don’t say much about me and Ray beyond the usual shit about what bad friends we are. But now they’ve changed it. Any guesses why?”

Frank’s stomach flipped. “Is it because you’re hanging out with me?” he said uneasily.

Bob frowned. “What? No. I think it’s ‘cause they’ve noticed me investigating.” He paused, and when either Frank nor Ray gave him a reaction, he sighed. “Oh, come on. Don’t you get it? Whoever it is spreading the rumors, they know I’m on their tail, so they’re trying to throw me off.”

Frank was only half-listening. He was mostly focused on the Twitter feed he was scrolling through, which turned out to be a veritable stream of bullshit. There was information on just about everyone. Frank doubted any of it was reliable. None of the tweets had very many likes or reposts, but the account had hundreds of followers, many of whom he recognized. Almost the entire school was tuned in. He kept scrolling down and paused to read about how Matt Walters was allegedly stalking Chelsea Price.

A rhythmic clicking noise finally succeeded in stealing his attention back. Frank glanced up to see Ray fidgeting with the knobs of his XBox controller. “Bob, we could get in big trouble from this,” he said. “We should talk to somebody. A teacher. Or a guidance counselor.”

“Hell no,” Bob said sharply. “Patrick tried to tell a guidance counselor and he got death threats. Or do you not remember when he -”

“Got jumped after school, yeah, I remember.” Ray rubbed at his eyes. “It’s just… This isn’t stupid like everything else. Like, I dunno, it could have an actual effect on our lives. That’s… not good.”

“Don’t worry,” said Bob, picking up his XBox controller. “I’ll sort it out. And then I’m gonna figure out who the hell is behind all this.”

Ray didn’t seem convinced.

Frank looked down at Bob’s phone and kept reading.

***

When Frank stepped through his front door, he barely made it two steps before Gerard appeared and scared the shit out of him. He startled violently, almost dropping his backpack in the second it took him to register Gerard’s presence.

“Oops,” Gerard said guiltily. “Sorry.”

“You’re fine,” Frank said, pressing a hand to his pounding heart. “Fuck. Okay, new rule. No appearing out of nowhere.”

Gerard’s nose crinkled. “I’m not sure there’s any other way to -”

“Can you fade in or something? Or, like, appear on the other side of a door and walk through it. Jesus.” Frank shook his head and started up the stairs, Gerard trailing apologetically after him. Frank couldn’t help but notice the way his feet never seemed to touch the steps.

“Sorry. It’s just force of habit at this point, I’ve never really had to worry about scaring people before. Nobody else knows I’m here.”

“Yeah, about that,” Frank said, pushing his bedroom door open. “I can’t always see you, can I?”

Gerard shook his head. “Not always. I can be invisible when I want to.”

“Okay. Rule number two: if you’re gonna be in the same room as me, I have to know,” Frank said. “You’re not allowed in here when I’m getting dressed or when I’m sleeping, or anything like that, got it?”

Gerard went pink. “I wouldn’t!” he spluttered. “I’m not that creepy -”

“I’m just making sure!” Frank said defensively. In the most private corners of his mind, he didn’t think he’d mind Gerard watching him dress, but that was a road he definitely didn’t want to start down. No matter how pretty he was, the whole death thing marked Gerard as solidly unavailable. Frank went on before he did something stupid like blush. “And no coming in my room when I’m Skyping my friends. That’s private.”

“Anything else?” Gerard asked.

Frank racked his brains for anything else. It probably wasn’t necessary to tell Gerard when to butt out; he had common sense, after all. But it was reassuring to have things all laid out so he didn’t have to worry about being watched when he was in the shower or any other stupid shit.

“I think that’s it,” he finally said. “Just don’t be creepy.”

“Noted,” said Gerard.

Frank let his backpack fall to the floor and kicked it to the wall. He had an English assignment to do, but there was no way he was doing it now. Knowing him, he’d end up scribbling it down two minutes before the teacher collected it. He’d much rather spend his time hanging out with Gerard.

“Question,” Gerard said suddenly. “Can I use your stuff while you’re at school?”

Frank glanced up at him. “What do you mean?”

“I… It’s just that things get boring around here, y’know? I need something to do. I was reading your comics before we got, like, formally introduced, but I feel like I should get permission first now that you know I exist.” Gerard’s eyes were fixed on Frank’s shelf full of books and comics. “So… is that okay?”

Frank went over and grabbed a book at random, tossing it to Gerard. Gerard flailed a bit, tried to catch it, and knocked it out of the air. His face went red as he bent down to pick it up. Frank giggled. “You don’t need to ask my permission for that kind of thing. Just take ‘em, dude, I don’t mind.”

Gerard’s face lit up. “That applies to your CDs, too, right?”

“Yeah, knock yourself out.”

Gerard scrambled for the bookshelf. Frank’s CDs were scattered throughout it, with the Misfits stuck in between issues of Batman and the Bouncing Souls hiding under a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. Now that he thought about it, Frank wasn’t sure what music he even had. He’d been assembling his collection since before he turned 13, picking up records and CDs from garage sales that sold them for two bucks apiece, but they usually just sat around gathering dust. If he wanted to listen to music, he used his phone.

But Gerard didn’t have a phone. Shit, had he gone an entire year without any music to listen to?

Frank suddenly felt really, really bad for him.

Gerard took no notice. “This is so cool,” he said happily, stacking the Smiths on top of Nirvana. “I haven’t listened to anything in ages, fuck. Thank you!”

“What can I say? I’m a lifesaver,” Frank said with a shrug.

Gerard paused. “Did you just make a pun about me being dead?”

“Maybe?” Frank said, grinning.

Gerard threw a CD at him.

***

It was getting harder and harder for Frank to stay positive at school.

Maybe things weren’t as bad as they’d been at Immaculate Conception, but they were still fucking bad. Ray and Bob could only help so much. Even after nearly a month, people still pushed him around, still laughed and jeered and talked shit. And on top of that, his schoolwork was exhausting. What little resolve he’d started out with hadn’t lasted long, and his grades were starting to slip again - but unlike in previous years, Frank now had the pressure of college applications hanging over him.

It sucked.

Today was no exception. After a meeting with his guidance counselor, who seemed much too busy and not nearly interested enough to deal with him, Frank wasn’t able to escape until twenty minutes after the final bell. He strode through the halls as quickly as he could, frustration making his footsteps fall hard. The school was nearly empty, all the other students having already cleared out - they had better things to do than sit in a cramped office and listen to boring spiels about their futures.
Frank cut through one of the side entrances. He’d already learned not to walk out through the main entrance when the school was mostly deserted - those few stragglers who were still around took it as an opportunity to gang up on him. He wasn’t keen on coming home with a second bloody nose. His mom had nearly had a heart attack the first time. He’d played it off as one of those nosebleeds caused by a shift in temperature, but she hadn’t seemed convinced.

He cut across the courtyard, intending to loop around to the street and walk home that way, but a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye made him pause.

A figure was standing by the gym doors, leaning over a smaller one. Frank could hear the taller one’s laughter echo across the courtyard. His fists clenched around the straps of his backpack. He knew that laugh - in fact, it was exactly what he had been aiming to avoid.

“You gonna cry, huh?”

Ian’s voice carried to where Frank was standing. He shoved the smaller figure - a boy, Frank thought - and knocked the case from his hands. Frank couldn’t help but wince. That was an instrument case; those shits were expensive. He thought the boy said something, but he couldn’t make it out. Ian just scoffed.

“You gonna go cry to your boyfriend? Beats me how he puts up with a skinny little rat like you. But then again, you’re both fuckin’ disgusting. You make the perfect pair.”
Frank’s feet were moving before he even thought about it.

As he approached, his heart sank. The kid cowering against the red brick wall was tiny; a freshman, most likely. Neither he nor Ian had noticed Frank. Frank halted a few feet behind Ian and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Get the fuck away from him,” he said.

Ian startled. He turned around, and his eyes narrowed when he saw Frank. “You.”

“Me,” Frank said, sounding a lot calmer than he felt. “I’d say it was nice to see you again, but it really fucking isn’t. If you’d kindly fuck off now, that would make things a lot easier.”

Ian didn’t step away from the freshman. He shifted his weight slightly, turning to face Frank.

“He’s just getting what’s coming to him,” he said.

“What, for existing?” Frank asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Maybe,” Ian said, smirking. “I don’t think I should have to look at something like that every day. That should qualify cruel and unusual punishment, don’t you think? Oh, wait - you wouldn’t think so. You’re just like him, aren’t you? That explains a lot.”

Frank’s heart seized. He forced himself to take a breath, reminding himself that it was just a taunt; Ian didn’t know. None of them knew. Not for sure, anyway.

“If we want to talk about cruel and unusual punishment,” he said, just barely able to keep his tone steady, “Let’s talk about your girlfriend, huh? How much do you pay her not to throw up after she kisses you?”

Ian’s features twisted into a scowl. “You’d better walk away real fast, you little bitch.”

“Or what?” Frank challenged.

He wasn’t sure who moved first.

All he could focus on was winding up and delivering the hardest punch he possibly could. His knuckles ached with the impact against Ian’s jaw. Ian swore, but he was only set back by a split second. He surged forward, and his fist connected with Frank’s left eye in an explosion of pain. Frank saw stars as he stumbled backwards.

The freshman scooped up his case and went tearing off in the opposite direction, not looking back once.

Frank tore his eyes off the kid’s retreating form just in time. Ian swung for Frank’s nose, but Frank dodged, plowing into him and sending him staggering back.

“You motherfucker,” Ian hissed. He “You suckin’ his dick too, huh? You fags like sticking up for each other?”

“Fuck you,” Frank snarled. “Did your parents never teach you how to be a decent human being? Or were they too busy dropping you on your head? It’s like -”

Ian interrupted him with a hard shove, leaving him momentarily winded. “Shut the fuck up,” he hissed. “God, just do us all a favor and go kill yourself like the last one, why don’t you?”

Frank saw red.

He gave Ian a vicious knee to the balls, and from there on out, it was a blur. Nothing could hurt him; not the collision of his fist against bone, not the scrape of his knees when he pushed Ian down and jumped on him, not the ache in his arms from constant motion. All that mattered was that Ian hurt. Frank was sick and fucking tired of being treated like shit. No matter where he went, he was looked down on, and for what? He was a freak, a faggot, an outsider. Nothing more.

He’d show them exactly what he was.

Frank lifted his arm once more. It lingered in the air.

Underneath him, Ian’s face was beginning to bruise, a line of red blood beginning to trickle from his nose. He wasn’t unconscious, but he was past the point of fighting back.
Frank spat in his face, then shifted off of him and pushed himself to his feet.

He grabbed his backpack from where it had fallen to the side, swung it onto his shoulders, and started on his way home.

***

Frank slammed the door shut behind him. He stood in the doorway for a moment, letting out a heavy sigh, before pushing onwards and almost walking directly into Gerard.

“Frank!” he said shrilly. “What happened to your face?” He darted forward before Frank could respond, tracing his cool fingers along Frank’s jaw with a sort of horrified fascination. “Oh, God, Frankie -”

“I’m fine,” Frank muttered. He pushed past Gerard and headed for the bathroom, but before he could step through the door, Gerard appeared in front of him again.

“What happened?” he demanded. “Did somebody jump you?”

Frank scowled as he reached for a washcloth. “Just one of the assholes from school. It’s no big deal.” The anger was still bubbling beneath his skin. He stuck the cloth under the faucet and got it wet, ignoring the way Gerard bit at his nails, his eyes round with concern.

“You fought him?” he asked.

Frank nodded shortly. His reflection stared back at him, eyes narrowed, as he began to scrub away some of the blood leaking from his nose.

“Frank.”

Frank stuck the cloth back under the faucet. The water ran pink as it swirled down the drain.

“Frank, look at me,” Gerard ordered.

Frank sighed, but finally turned to give Gerard an irritated look. “What?”

“Are you okay?” Gerard asked, looking troubled. “You’re giving off some really weird vibes right now. It’s not like you.”

“I said I was fine,” Frank said tersely, sticking his hands under the hot water. “Lay off, will you?”

“You don’t seem fine,” Gerard said, and something inside Frank snapped.

“I fucking hate this, okay?” he shouted, throwing the washcloth into the sink with a wet smack. “We moved so I could get away from this shit, but it never fucking stops. They never stop. Everybody always has something to say about me, like they know who the fuck I am!” Gerard had taken a step back, and some distant part of Frank felt bad, but he couldn’t control the words coming out. All the rage was burning its way out of his body at once.

“Maybe I can knock somebody out and make them look twice, but they’ll never see, because they don’t fucking want to. Everybody thinks they know how the world works, but they don’t, because their world doesn’t extend an inch beyond them,” Frank spat. “They can tell me to kill myself without a second’s thought, and no one calls them on it. That’s such bullshit. So, no, I’m not fine, thanks for fucking asking.”

Gerard opened and closed his mouth, looking lost. It took him a minute to form words. “They told you to kill yourself?” he finally asked.

“Apparently, some other poor fuck did,” Frank said bitterly. “Guess they want me to follow in his footsteps or whatever.”

“I…” Gerard swallowed hard. “Oh, God. Frank, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I can’t believe they’d say that to you, that’s…” His voice trembled. It was enough to distract Frank from the fire in his veins. It cooled and died, quickly replaced by concern.

“Gee,” he said. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m good,” said Gerard, even paler than usual. He was almost hyperventilating, hands twisting helplessly at the hem of his hoodie. “Sorry, Frankie, I didn’t mean to -”

“Gerard,” Frank said with a sigh. “You just told me not to lie; don’t be a hypocrite. You’re panicking.” He gently took Gerard’s hands in his own. “What’s wrong?”

Gerard wouldn’t meet his eyes. He swallowed hard before whispering, “I thought you said you’d talked to Ray.”

Frank’s brow furrowed. “About what?”

“About me.”

“I don’t…” Frank’s voice trailed off. He took in the sight of Gerard, blinking rapidly and refusing eye contact, and all at once, the pieces fell into place.

“Oh my God,” he said. “Gerard -”

“I’m sorry,” Gerard said miserably. “I really thought you knew.”

“Gerard, tell me you didn’t.” Frank was surprised by the ferocity of his own words. He tried to squeeze Gerard’s hand, but his fingers just went right through with a sudden chill. Seeing him like this, with his messy hair and bitten-dowl nails, so fucking beautiful even on the verge of tears; it sent another hot burst of anger through Frank. How could anyone not see the good in him? How could they keep him from seeing it?

“Tell me you didn’t,” he said again.

Gerard just shook his head.

Frank was such a fucking idiot. He’d never known how Gerard died; he’d never even put much thought into it. From the way Gerard avoided talking about it, he’d assumed it was a freak accident or something. But this made sense. Of course it did. Jesus, it was no wonder Ray got so upset talking about it. For a fleeting moment, an image of Gerard slumped on the floor of the very bathroom they were standing in popped into Frank’s mind, and the thought alone made him feel sick.

“I didn’t mean for you to find out like this,” Gerard said, his voice shaking. “It’s kind of a bombshell to drop on somebody out of nowhere, I don’t want you to be uncomfortable or anything. Are we… are we good?”

“Of course we are,” Frank said firmly. Uncomfortable wasn’t even close to what he was feeling. Pissed off was closer to the mark. He wanted to know everything, every douchebag’s name who’d ever made Gerard feel less than perfect, and kick each of their asses individually. He needed revenge, for his own sake as much as Gerard’s.

But before that, he needed to understand.

Frank stuck his hands under the faucet, running cold water over them for a minute before he trusted himself to speak. “So,” he said evenly, wiping his hands on his jeans. “Why’d you do it?”

Gerard slowly moved to take a seat on the counter. Frank hopped up next to him, waiting for a response. Gerard looked down into his lap, then tugged at the strings of his hoodie and gave him a quick, sad smile. “Why does anybody?” he asked.

Frank winced. He started to apologize, but Gerard waved him off. “No, it’s fine. I’d be curious too. It’s just… nothing special, y’know? Just your standard combo of mental illness and getting beat on one too many times.” He smiled again, but it was too self-deprecating to be genuine; more of a grimace. “I just… decided it wasn’t worth it anymore. Came home, popped a bunch of pills, and here I am.” He spread his hands to the room around them.

Frank bit back an argument. He didn’t know what he wanted to say, but it would probably involve a lot of aggressive positivity, and something told him Gerard wasn’t prepared for aggression at the moment, not even the supportive kind. Frank forced himself to take a deep breath. He needed to focus on what would make Gerard feel better, not what would satisfy his own desires to punch something.

Gerard studied him closely. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t think you’re the one who should be asking that question,” said Frank.

Gerard shook his head. “It doesn’t matter if I’m okay, I’m dead. The real question is if you are. I mean, you look like you’re taking it pretty well, but… this is still weird, right?”

Frank ignored the last part of Gerard’s sentence. “Of course it matters if you’re okay, what the fuck?” He frowned at Gerard, bumping his shoulder against his. It sent a cold tingle across his skin. “You’re the one whose feelings really matter here. Trust me, I’m fine. Don’t worry.” If he couldn’t be aggressively positive, he’d just be positive. That would work.

“You’re not -”

“It’s fine,” Frank repeated. Without thinking, he reached out and laid his hand over Gerard’s. “You’re a fucking ghost, dude,” he said with a grin. “You think this is the weirdest thing you’ve ever told me?”

He was glad he’d been able to get everything he wanted to say out in one go. With Gerard’s shy little smile, he didn’t think he’d be able to form coherent sentences for a while.

“You’re the coolest person who could’ve moved into this house, you know that?” Gerard asked. Frank started to roll his eyes, but Gerard cut him off, looking serious. “No, really. It sucked here before you came around. It was just…”

He paused before he went on. Frank waited patiently.

“For a while, it was just my family,” he said. “And then it was just real estate agents. Or nobody.”

“Were you scared?” Frank asked.

Gerard considered the question, his brow furrowing into an expression of concentration.

“Yeah,” he finally said. “Yeah, I was. It was mostly because of Mikey, I think. I was so scared for him, I mean, fuck. He wasn’t supposed to be there. I didn’t think he’d come home so soon. And then watching him… It took him a while to start… to start talking again, y’know? I can’t say I blame him.” He let out a shaky breath, and Frank could almost feel the air grow colder. “But yeah, the fact that I didn’t die was freaky, too. I knew I’d taken enough to do the job, but it got fucked up somehow.”

“But you did die,” Frank pointed out.

Gerard shook his head slightly. “No. Not properly. I’m not alive, but I don’t really think I count as dead, either. That would feel different.”

Frank frowned. “How would it feel?”

Gerard shrugged. “Don’t ask me. But if I were really dead, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you.”

Frank inched a little closer to Gerard. Their hands were still touching, Frank’s held just above Gerard’s so it wouldn’t sink through. He felt slightly lost. Gerard wasn’t happy, that much was obvious, but he didn’t seem devastated, either.

Frank was sort of devastated.

He wanted to do so much. He wanted to punch everyone who’d added even an ounce of negativity to Gerard’s life; anyone who’d ever pushed him closer to the decision that ended his life. It was a visceral sort of need - there was nothing he could do to change the past, and it hurt, a physical ache in his chest coupled with deep frustration. The only way to release it was to do something. To make someone else feel the way Gerard had, if only for a moment. Give them a taste of their own medicine.

But Frank wanted other things, too. Softer things. He wanted to run his fingers over Gerard’s pale skin, tangle his fingers in his hair, reassure him that he was perfect and amazing and beautiful and didn’t deserve to hurt any longer. Frank wasn’t sure if that was what Gerard needed, but it was what he wanted.

Want, want, want. What did he want?

He wanted Gerard to stop looking so sad.

“What does it feel like?” Frank whispered.

“What does what feel like?”

“Being a ghost.”

Gerard was silent for a minute.

“Have you ever been to the beach?” he asked. Frank raised a curious eyebrow but nodded anyway. Gerard looked down at their fingers, lacing them together and taking a breath before moving on. “It’s like… when you’re watching the waves, and the water’s rolling down and you can almost pinpoint the moment right before the crash, y’know? When it’s right about to crest.” He paused for a minute, staring into space as he collected his thoughts.

“When it comes down, I think that’s what dying feels like,” he said. “One minute you’re alive and breathing, and then you’re not. You’re gone. You don’t exist as anything more than a memory. But with me, it’s different. It’s like I got caught right in that last moment before the wave. Like I’m stuck in between stages; not alive, but not dead. Always about to crash, but never quite making it. Frozen in time. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” Frank said. “That sounds terrible, though.”

Gerard squeezed his hand. “It’s not so bad,” he said.

“Isn’t it, though?” asked Frank.

Gerard looked up at him. There was a sadness in his eyes that didn’t belong there; it was too profound for someone like him, someone who deserved the best the world could offer. “It’s not that bad,” he said. “It’s just… lonely. It’s really lonely, Frankie. I’m glad you came here.”

“Me too,” Frank murmured. He hesitated, then looked Gerard in the eyes and asked, “Would you do it again?”

“Do what?”

“You know what,” said Frank. “If there was a way for you to really die, would you want that?”

Gerard’s answer was almost instant. “Yes,” he said simply, and Frank had to close his eyes.

“Why?”

Gerard didn’t answer, and the more Frank thought about it, the more he realized what a stupid question it had been.

“Didn’t you say you could make yourself solid if you concentrated hard enough?” he asked suddenly.

It was Gerard’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Um, yeah. Why?”

“Just do it,” Frank said impatiently.

Gerard still looked confused, but he nodded anyhow. His hands balled into fists, and he squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating hard.

“Okay,” he said after a second, his voice a bit strained. “I think that worked? It won’t last long, though. Why’d you -”

Frank threw his arms around Gerard’s waist and hugged him tight.

Gerard wrapped one arm around him, squeezing back, and Frank was struck by the fact that he’d never actually touched Gerard before. Not for real. He was chubby and soft and oh-so easy to lean against, and now that Frank knew what it felt like, he never wanted to let go.

It didn’t last long. After about thirty seconds, Gerard went ghostly again with a mumbled “Shit,” and Frank very nearly fell into the sink. Gerard went pink in the face and apologized profusely, but Frank silenced him with a prod to the cheek and a grin.

He hadn’t gotten to hold Gerard nearly as long as he’d wanted, but it was enough to lessen the itch inside him. Maybe Frank hadn’t changed the past, but he’d made Gerard’s present a little more bearable, and that was something.

That was the most important thing.

***

Ray and Bob were some of the coolest friends Frank had ever had. Gerard had to take the top spot, because, hello, ghost friend, and Dewees was up there, too, but Ray and Bob were definitely special. The second he’d gotten a glimpse of Frank’s black eye, Bob had marched out of the library with the full intent of finding Ian and pounding his face in. Ray had been only a few steps behind him - in search a less violent option, like telling the principal, but no less determined. Ms. Halloway had to give Bob a long talk in order to get him to abandon his idea, but even she couldn’t stop him from glaring at Ian and his cronies in the halls.

In truth, Frank had almost completely forgotten about the fight. He’d been a little distracted by Gerard. Well, he was almost always distracted by Gerard, but this was different. After their talk, Gerard had started to open up more. Sometimes Frank would ask a question about his ghostly powers and he’d answer willingly; even excitedly. He’d hovered a foot above the ground when Frank asked him to, and he’d gone adorably pink when Frank had told him how awesome it was, landing back on his feet and hiding behind his bangs.

Given how well things were going with all his friends, Frank thought it was high time to make the two worlds collide - he just wasn’t sure how. Gerard would probably spazz out if he proposed the idea, and Ray and Bob would never believe him in a million years if he tried to explain the situation.

Frank ended up deciding to surprise them both. It was risky, but there wasn’t any other option. He had to tell them somehow. This was as good a method as any.

Waiting until the end of school was torture. Frank would check the clock once, wait a while, then check again, only to find that barely five minutes had gone by. When the final bell rang, he jumped out of his seat and ran for the door. He and his friends usually walked home side by side, or as close as they could get on the narrow sidewalk, but today, Frank was always a few steps ahead of them.

Ray was quick to pick up on it. “What’s up with you?” he asked. “You’re in an awfully big hurry.”

Frank slowed his pace, allowing Ray to catch up with him. He forced a grin. “Nothing. Just had a long day, y’know? I wanna get home.”

Ray smiled. “I think we all do. Don’t leave us behind, though.” Frank nodded distractedly. He was gazing off down the street, his thoughts already speeding ahead to their arrival at his house. It was only a few blocks away.

“Could you guys stay at my house for a bit?” he asked. “There’s something we need to talk about.”

Bob’s head snapped up. He shoved Ray over so he could fit on the sidewalk next to Frank, looking suddenly fierce. “Did Walker try something again? Or any of his people? ‘Cause you know I could break his nose if I tried.”

“No, no,” Frank said quickly. “Nothing like that. I’m all good.” Bob eyed him suspiciously, and Frank sighed. “Seriously, man, I’d tell you if anything was up. I just want to show you something.”

“What kind of something?” Ray asked, then: “Slow down, dude, this isn’t a marathon.” Frank hadn’t realized he’d been speeding again. He waited for a moment so Ray could catch up.

“What kind of something?” Ray repeated. “Is it a surprise?”

The corners of Frank’s mouth twitched. He couldn’t imagine the expression on Ray’s face if he tried to explain what was waiting for them. “Yeah. It’s a surprise, all right.”

“That’s not ominous at all,” Bob mumbled, but he said nothing more.

Frank was conscious of every step that carried him toward the house. One foot in front of the other; one inch closer, closer, closer.

He stepped up to the front door, unlocked it, and pushed it open.

He was the first to make it inside. As Ray kicked off his sneakers and Bob dropped his backpack to the ground, Frank raced up to his room, his footsteps thumping against the stairs as he hopped up two by two.

“Gerard,” he whispered. “You there?”

Gerard appeared in front of his bedroom door with a little wave.

“Okay, good,” said Frank, glancing back down the way he’d came. “Look, I know this is sudden, but Bob and Ray are here, and -”

“It’s okay, Frank. They can’t see me, remember?” Gerard gave a small smile, but Frank hurriedly shook his head.

“No, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m gonna tell them about you.”

Gerard’s face went white. His form flickered, and for a fleeting moment, Frank could see right through him. Then he was just as solid-looking as ever, his eyes wide with panic. “What? Are you crazy? They won’t understand, Frank!”

“I have to try,” Frank said stubbornly. “It’s not right for them to mourn you when you’re still right here.”

“Yes it is.” Gerard hovered a few inches above the ground, peering nervously over the banister. “It is right. I know them, Frank, better than you do. If you tell them, they’ll think you’re crazy. Ray’ll try and get you a therapist or something. It’s better this way. Like I just said, they can’t see me. Even if they believed you, they wouldn’t be able to talk to me. It would just hurt them. It’s better for them to move on.”

“How can you say that? They’re your best friends!” Frank argued. “Even if they can’t hear you, I can tell them what you’re saying!”

“It’s not that simple,” Gerard said, looking pained.

“It is, though! I can’t just keep this secret. I’m gonna tell them,” Frank said firmly. “If you don’t want them to think I’m insane, you’d better back me up.” He turned and headed back down the stairs without another word. Thinking about the terrified look on Gerard’s face made his skin prickle with discomfort, but Frank shook it off. He understood why Gerard was scared. This was crazy, all of it, but it needed to happen. Gerard had been alone for far too long. He didn’t deserve it; that loneliness. He needed more people to believe in him.

There weren’t many things Frank could help him with, but he could help with that.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs, Ray was waiting for him. Bob had already disappeared, most likely to the kitchen, judging by the sound of cupboards thumping open and closed. “You can have the pretzels,” Frank called. A muffled “Sweet” came in response.

“Who were you talking to?” Ray asked, watching Frank closely.

Frank hesitated. There was really no way to talk around it, but he couldn’t bring himself to spit out the words. Bob came up behind him, crunching on a mouthful of pretzel sticks. “Wha’s goin’ on?”

“Frank talks to himself,” Ray supplied.

“No I don’t,” said Frank. Ray raised his eyebrows. Bob looked back and forth between him and Frank. Frank sighed and sent a quick prayer up to the ceiling. “Okay,” he said reluctantly. “I have something I need to tell you guys.”

“We already know you’re gay,” said Bob. Ray stifled a snort.

Frank rolled his eyes. “Not that, dumbass. It’s something else. I kind of have to… show you, I guess.” He bit his lip. “Yeah. Okay. Follow me.”

He led them out into the living room, where they both sat down on the couch. Frank could feel the confusion radiating from them. He stayed standing, waiting until they were both settled before turning to the stairs and clearing his throat.

“Can you come down?” he asked. “Please?”

There was no response.

“Come on, man. I need your help.”

The seconds ticked by, and Frank’s heart began to sink. But just as he was thinking that nothing would happen, Gerard faded slowly into view, his eyes fixed on Ray and Bob.

“Frank, don’t make me do this,” he whispered.

“You have to,” Frank said, with just a hint of pleading. “For both of us. Just back me up, okay?”

“Frank?” Ray said cautiously. “What’s going on?”

Frank turned back to them and closed his eyes. “There’s someone you guys need to talk to. It’s gonna sound crazy, but I swear I’m telling you the truth. Just hear me out.”

“Duh. We’re your friends, man, we’re not gonna laugh,” said Bob. He put his feet up on the coffee table. “Who do we need to talk to?”

“Frank,” Gerard said shakily. “I can’t -”

“Yes, you can,” Frank said sharply. “No backing out now.”

“Frank,” Ray said slowly. “Who are you talking to?”

Frank opened his mouth, then closed it again. He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, and looked to Gerard. “Fuck. Okay, help me out a little? I don’t know what the hell I’m supposed to say right now. Can you just make something float or whatever?”

“Maybe,” said a white-faced Gerard. “Or I could just…” His image flickered, and Frank grabbed at his arm.

No, motherfucker! I need you here!”

“Should I be worried?” Bob asked, observing without expression.

“No,” he said. “It’s fine. Just -” Frank looked to the side, and Gerard was gone. His heart plummeted to his feet. “Gerard!” he hissed. “You get the fuck back here, this isn’t any easier for me!” He could feel Gerard’s nerves rubbing off on him. He was starting to freak out a little, and the looks on Bob and Ray’s faces weren’t helping.

“What did you just say?” Ray said faintly.

“This is a bad idea,” said Gerard, popping back into view and wringing his hands. “This is a really bad idea, Frank -”

“No, it’s not. You guys need to talk.” Frank took a deep breath, steeling himself, then: “Guys, this house is haunted.”

“You are not saying what I think you’re saying,” Bob said flatly.

“I am,” said Frank.

“No, you’re not. You can’t be,” Ray said desperately, and Frank’s stomach twisted. “Your sense of humor isn’t that shitty.”

“It’s not a joke,” Frank said, but one look from Bob got him to shut his mouth.

“You listen to me,” he said, looking Frank in the eyes. “If you think for one fucking second that you can play my best friend off as a joke, your face is gonna get real acquainted with the sidewalk. I don’t give a fuck if you’re my friend. Gerard was my friend first, and nobody gets to use him like that. Nobody.”

“Gee,” Frank said helplessly. “Back me up. Please.”

Gerard bit his lip.

“All right,” he mumbled. “For you.”

He floated over to the couch, the tips of his sneakers dragging against the carpet, and picked up one of the cushions that was positioned next to Ray. Ray startled violently. Gerard looked over to Frank, unsure. “More?” he asked. Frank nodded, and Gerard looked all around the room before picking up the TV remote and setting it in Bob’s lap. Ray yelped and scooted back.

“What the hell?” he said shrilly. “Frank!”

“It’s not me!” Frank said defensively.

“Yes it is,” Ray said, nodding fervently. “It is.”

“It’s not,” Frank repeated.

“Yes it is!” Ray cast a frightened look at the couch cushion that was still in Gerard’s hands, which to him must have been floating in midair. “Ghosts aren’t real, Frank. Ghosts aren’t real!

Bob was still staring at the remote in his lap. Frank didn’t think he’d blinked once.

“If you’re really there, turn it on,” he said.

Gerard immediately grabbed the remote and pressed a button. In the corner of the room, the TV set lit up, the voices of sports commentators filling the room in an instant.

“Oh,” Ray said weakly.

Bob slowly lifted his head.

“Iero,” he said. “Either you have some crazy pranking skills, or you’ve got a ghost.”

“The latter,” Frank said nervously. Bob wasn’t smiling, and Frank hadn’t forgotten his previous threat.

Bob nodded. “Why can’t we see him?”

“Bob,” Ray said incredulously. “You don’t - you don’t believe him?”

Bob shrugged. “Have you got any other explanation?”

“No, but…” Ray struggled for words. “Ghosts aren’t real! And I’d know if it was him. I’d know. And,” he pointed at Frank, “How come you’re the only one who can see him? Huh?”

“I have literally no idea,” said Frank. “I’ve been wondering the same thing.”

“Oh, great. That’s a great explanation.” Ray’s voice was rising with hysteria. “What the hell is going on right now, honestly?”

“Ray,” Bob said calmly. “Quit it. You’re flipping out.”

“Like I don’t have the right to flip out?” Ray yelled. “You’re smarter than this, Bob! Why are you just accepting all this like it’s nothing?”

“Why aren’t you?” Bob questioned.

“Because it’s… It doesn’t work like that,” said Ray, his voice breaking. “I want him back, too. But he’s gone, Bob. We have to accept that.”

Gerard wordlessly dropped his cushion and sat down next to Ray. He leaned his head against Ray’s shoulder. Ray shrieked and flinched away, his eyes wide as he stared at the seemingly-empty space beside him, but after a moment of heavy breathing, he relaxed. Gerard pulled his feet up onto the couch.

“It’s me, Ray,” he murmured. “Listen to Frankie. It’s really me.”

Ray went still.

“Frank,” he said. “Did he say something just now?”

Frank nodded.

Ray looked lost. “I… I couldn’t hear, exactly, but I felt something. And it’s cold. He’s cold.” He looked down at Gerard, staring right through him. “I feel like I’m dreaming.”

“You’re not,” said Frank. “It’s real. I swear.”

Ray didn’t seem to hear him. “Gerard?” he whispered. “I can’t see you. And I feel… kind of crazy right now. But if that’s you…” He lifted his hand, and Gerard placed his palm against it. Ray shivered. “Oh, wow. Hi.”

Gerard gave a tiny smile. “Hey.”

“He says hi,” Frank informed Ray.

Ray glanced up at Frank. “How come you can hear him? You really don’t know?”

Frank shook his head. “No clue. Sorry.”

Bob leaned over Ray and mirrored him, holding up one hand. Gerard grinned and poked it. Bob’s eyebrows shot up. “Huh. That’s freaky.”

Frank couldn’t help but giggle. “Dude, how are you so chill about this? I can see him and I freaked out more than you are.”

Bob shrugged. “Just doesn’t bother me, I guess. If he’s real, he’s real. I’m not complaining.” He reached out as if to shove Gerard, but only succeeded in putting his hand in Gerard’s shoulder. “So, you’ve been around all along, huh? That must’ve sucked.” He went quiet for a minute, and when he spoke again, his voice was softer than Frank had ever heard it. “I’m sorry, man. There’s so much shit I’ve wanted to say to you. It’s mostly heartfelt bullshit, but the most important thing for you to know is that you’re my best friend. I don’t care if you’re dead. I don’t care if you’re sad. I fucking love you, dude, and I’m sorry I didn’t help you more when you needed it.”

“Yeah. And this isn’t your fault, either,” Ray said fiercely. “Don’t even think about it. It’s the world’s fault for being so shitty to you.”

Gerard laughed to himself, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. “I’m fucking dead and you still know what I’m thinking, Jesus.”

“What’s he saying?” Ray demanded, looking at Frank.

Gerard sat upright. “Wait, Frank, no -”

“You were right,” Frank said cheerfully. “He’s beating himself up like always.”

“Gerard!” Ray said with a glare. “What did I just say?” He only managed to keep a straight face for a moment before he laughed, shaking his head. “Stop being so fucking invisible, I wanna hug you.”

“And give you a therapy session,” Bob added.

“That too,” Ray amended. His face softened. “Really, though, Gee. I missed you. And I’m really glad you’re here now.”

“Who needs conventional friendships?” Bob said. “I see dead people.”

“I’m technically the one who sees dead people,” Frank pointed out.

Bob rolled his eyes. “That’s not the point, asshole. The point is that I have a friend who’s a ghost. There’s literally nothing more badass than that.”

“Damn right there’s not,” Gerard mumbled. Nestled against Ray’s side, he was more relaxed than Frank had ever seen him. The corners of his lips were turned up into a tiny smile. He glanced up at Frank, and it grew into a full-on grin, so wide and full of affection that it made Frank’s heart swell just to see it.

“I’m not saying I told you so,” Frank said smugly, “But I told you so.”

Gerard rolled his eyes, but he didn’t argue.

“So, what’ve you been doing?” Ray asked. “Can you get into movies for free?”

Gerard shook his head. Frank did the same, and answered Ray’s question before he could speak it aloud: “Nah, he can’t leave the house. We don’t know why.”

“Damn,” said Bob, disappointed. “That must suck. What do you do all day, then?”

They went on like this, with Ray and Bob speaking to Gerard and Frank repeating his replies. His role as translator for the dead made him fairly removed from the conversation, but that was okay. This time wasn’t for him. It was for them, and hearing Gerard laugh as he talked with his friends made it all worth it. When Frank’s mom got home from work, they had to relocate to Frank’s room, and after another hour or so Bob got a text from his mom saying it was time to come home. Ray got the same message not too long after. They both lingered as long as they could, talking quickly and exchanging their last few words with Gerard, but in the end, they were both forced to step out the front door.

“We’ll be back!” Bob yelled from the street.

“You’d better be!” Frank shouted back. Gerard laughed from somewhere behind him.

“Okay,” he said as Frank headed back upstairs. “You were right. That was good.”

“Good?” Frank scoffed. “It was great. I’m a genius. You don’t need to be scared of them, they love you.”

Gerard shrugged. He drifted through Frank’s open door and landed on the bed. “I’m not scared of them, just… for them, I guess.”

Frank hopped up next to him, the mattress bouncing beneath him. “Why? You think you’re gonna turn into an evil spirit or something? I think that only happens in movies. You don’t even like killing bugs, you’d never hurt them.”

“I’m fine with killing bugs, it’s just gross when you smash spiders with your textbooks,” Gerard muttered. “You want spider guts all up in ‘em? I don’t think so.”

“As long as they aren’t living spider guts,” Frank said, flopping back against the pillows and making himself comfortable. “But seriously, what do you think is gonna happen to Bob and Ray?”

Gerard shrugged again. He was suddenly very interested in picking at his fingernails. Frank eyed him closely, but didn’t say anything. The minutes passed by in silence. Eventually, Frank’s mom called him down for dinner, and he sat up with a groan, but before he went downstairs, he poked Gerard in the shoulder.

“If you ever wanna talk,” he said, “I’m here.”

And then he left.

There were things that Ray and Bob hadn’t yet discussed with Gerard; Frank knew that. Important things. Personal things. The kind of shit you wouldn’t want to talk about with someone else acting as the middleman, like death, and apologies, and probably some shed tears. Frank hoped they’d be able to figure out a way to make Gerard visible so he could talk to his friends directly. This afternoon had only proven that he needed more people in his life. Or death. Whatever.

But until they fixed the problem, Frank was more than happy to be Gerard’s main confidant. In fact, he liked it a lot. He wanted to be the one Gerard went to for help, or the one he went to in general, just for fun. Maybe that was selfish, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

“Frank?” Mom asked as she spooned a small pile of brussels sprouts onto his plate. “You’re zoning, honey. Did you hear what I said?”

Frank blinked. “What?”

Mom gave him a knowing smile. “Something’s got you awfully pleased. You wanna tell me what it is, or should I go on talking about the hospital?”

“What?” Frank hadn’t realized he was smiling. He quickly arranged his expression into something more neutral and nodded. “Hospital, yeah. Did you find out what happened to that girl in the ER from the other day?” His cheeks felt slightly warm, but thankfully, Mom didn’t mention it.

“Funny story, actually,” she began with a smile, and after that, Frank didn’t need to talk. He focused on listening, eating, and determinedly ignoring his own blush which refused to fade.

And he didn’t think about Gerard.

He definitely didn’t.

***

After that, Frank’s house became Ray and Bob’s second home. They came home with him every day after school, staying as long as they could before they were needed back in their own houses. In their first few conversations with Gerard, Frank let them chatter on without adding many comments of his own, but after that, he found his own little role in the conversation, laughing along with them and joking about things Gerard had said. It was easy; natural. He felt wanted.

It was a good feeling.

Frank’s mom tried to hide how thrilled she was, but didn’t do a good job of it. It must have been good for her to see Frank so happy. She’d always liked Ray and Bob, but now, they might as well have been her adopted sons. She always made sure that the snack cabinets were amply stocked with their favorites.

“Iero, I think I’m in love with your mom,” Bob said after demolishing a bowl full of tortilla chips. “She’s single, right? Can I propose?”

Frank snorted. “I think you’re supposed to ask her dad, not her son.”

“You’ll do,” Bob said, stealing one of Ray’s pretzels. “Do I have your blessing?”

“She’s all yours, dude, but fair warning, I don’t think you’re her type.”

Bob stared into his empty bowl. “Damn.”

That Saturday, Ray showed up at Frank’s front door with an armload of books and a determined expression. Bob was close behind him, carrying a second pile of books. Upon seeing Frank’s bewildered expression, he shrugged and said, “Don’t question it.”

“Here’s the plan,” Ray announced, dumping all the books onto the living room floor. Frank picked one up, running his fingers along the cover, which was so old and threadbare it was nearly falling off. His fingertip came away smeared with dust. “These are all the occult books I could find at the library. They’re probably all bullshit, but it’s a starting point, and I’ve got more on hold in case we don’t find anything.”

“And what are we looking for, exactly?” Frank asked, picking up another book and examining it. It was just as ragged as the first. “Damn, what kind of library has all these?”

“Libraries have everything if you know where to look,” Ray said smugly.

“He has the Dewey decimal system memorized,” Bob said under his breath. “Never partner up with him for a research project. It’s a nightmare.”

“Shut up. Anyway, we’re gonna find a way to see Gerard!” Ray said excitedly. “And maybe get him out of this house. I’ve already been looking at some ritual stuff online. I’m not sure how much of it is real, but I figure we can test some out and see what happens.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” said Frank, holding up a hand. “We’re just gonna fuck around with it? Isn’t that the plot of, like, every horror movie ever?”

“We’re not gonna be doing anything bad. No summonings, nothing like that,” Ray explained. “I just wanna see what works. Like, a lot of websites were recommending herbs for rituals, I wanna see if those work. And crystals. Lots of crystals.”

“I raided my mom’s spice cabinet,” said Bob, holding up a bag of various leafy plants. “Let’s do some witchy shit.”

“Why do I get the feeling this is going to end badly?” Gerard wondered out loud, making Frank jump.

“Can you please start using the doors?” he complained.

Gerard grinned. “Sorry,” he said. He didn’t look sorry at all.

Ray disappeared into the kitchen and came back with as many bowls as he could carry. “Do you think your mom will mind if we use these?” he asked. Frank shook his head. “Cool.” Ray pulled a box of matches out of his pocket and sat down on the floor, taking the bag of herbs from Bob and dumping it onto the carpet. The scent of mint and other plants Frank couldn’t place quickly filled the air. Ray arranged them by type in small piles, then held out his hand. Bob set one of the books in it. Ray opened up to a page with the corner folded down and scanned over it.

“Okay,” he murmured. “Just a couple more things. Frank, you have salt, right? Can you grab it?” He produced a hair tie from somewhere and pulled his hair back into a bushy ponytail as Frank retreated into the kitchen. The cupboards had been left open. He grabbed the small box of salt his mom used when she made tofu dishes and brought it back out to the living room, where Ray and Bob had set to organizing the books. Gerard was hovering off to the side and watching with interest.

Ray set his book to the side, leaving it open. “First test,” he announced. “Make a salt line on the floor.”

Frank paused, suspicious. “We’re not doing the Supernatural thing, are we?”

“It’s not just from Supernatural,” Ray sighed. “Basically every occult source recommends it. Can we just try it out?”

“Okay, but if you get it in the carpet, I’m not vacuuming.” Frank opened the box and shook out a line of salt roughly a foot long. “Good?”

“Perfect,” said Ray. He looked sheepishly at Frank. “I assume Gerard’s already here?” Frank nodded with a smile. “Okay, cool. Try and cross it, Gee.”

“It’s not gonna work,” said Gerard. Frank gave him a questioning look, and he shrugged. “When you first saw me and put salt all over the place, I couldn’t cross it. Here, watch.” He floated over to the line and stuck his foot out, but it bounced right back, as if he’d kicked a solid wall.

“Well?” Bob asked. “Can he do it?”

“Nope,” said Frank. He mentally gave Supernatural a few points for accuracy.

“Oh, good,” said Ray, relieved. “I’m glad there’s at least one thing that’s real. Gerard, see if you can break the line at all.”

Gerard touched down onto the floor and nudged the line with his toe. It didn’t budge. He knelt down and tried to shift it with his fingers, which still yielded nothing.

“Interesting,” Ray murmured. He leaned over to the pile of books and retrieved a small pen and notebook, which he opened and began scribbling notes in. “I wonder if there’s any way to get through it? Or maybe it’s completely unbreakable… Hmm. Okay, next thing. I’ve got instructions for how to do a séance somewhere, let me find them.”

“Wait, don’t you need a medium to do séances?” Bob asked.

“I’m hoping Frank will be enough. It probably won’t work,” Ray admitted. “But I wanna see. Just for the heck of it. And I’ve got loads more to do after that!” he added. “Herbs and smoke and EMF meters and all kinds of stuff…”

“Wait, where the hell did you get an EMF reader?” Frank demanded.

“Well, I don’t have it yet,” Ray amended. “But I will soon. I ordered it from Amazon.”

Frank buried his face in his hands while Gerard giggled.

“Look at us,” Bob said dryly. “Ghost hunters of the modern world.”

In the end, the salt line was their most successful test. They tried rituals for opening the third eye, communicating with spirits, or any other subject that seemed helpful, but most were ineffective. Bob thought he saw movement in the corner of his eye after one of them, but Gerard was on the other side of the room at the time, so it was probably just his imagination. The protection spells were similarly inconclusive. Burning sage reportedly gave Gerard a headache, which was the strongest reaction they got, but they couldn’t rule out any of the other spells, due to the fact that they were designed to repel malevolent spirits. Ray wasn’t sure how they’d work on a benevolent spirit like Gerard.

After a few hours of work, Frank’s living room smelled like an herb garden had caught on fire. Bob was covered in smoke dust, and Ray’s hair had started falling out of its ponytail, but he was beaming as he started packing up his books.

“I’m gonna come back tomorrow,” he said happily. “We found out so much good stuff today! And it’s only just the beginning…”

Frank got the feeling he wasn’t going to be having much free time in the near future.

***

When Frank’s alarm clock began to beep, he threw his arm out to smack it into silence, but only managed to knock it onto the floor. He groaned and rolled out of bed, groping around on the floor until he found it and pushed the button to make it shut up.

It wasn’t the best of mornings.

He shuffled over to the light switch, mentally preparing himself before flicking it on. The sudden brightness made him wince, and he kept his eyes narrowed to a squint as he rifled through his dresser for a fresh t-shirt.

By the time he was dressed, he was able to open his eyes fully. He had on two hoodies - it was colder than usual, and he shivered a little as he slipped out the door. The temperature made his lungs feel tight, like everything inside him was squeezed into a space too small.

Frank really wasn’t surprised when he doubled over in a coughing fit.

He’d seen it coming from a mile off. With an immune system as shitty as his, the slightest breeze could have him sniffling and sneezing for days. He thumped his fist against his chest, and the coughing subsided a bit. In a few moments, he could breathe clearly again. That was a good sign. At least he hadn’t reached the point of wheezing.

That didn’t stop his mom from instantly appearing at the bottom of the stairs, radiating motherly concern. “Frankie?” she asked. “I heard you coughing, are you okay?”

Frank nodded, taking another few deep breaths. “Yeah. I’m good. Probably getting sick again, though.” By this point, the “probably” was just a formality. The only question was how long it would take.

“Are you sure?” Mom said worriedly. “We haven’t gotten you set up with a new doctor yet, but you could stay home from school if you need to.”

As tempting as the offer was, Frank had to turn it down. Bob had borrowed a few of his Black Flag CDs and had promised to return them; getting them back was priority. Plus, if he stayed home, that would just be one more reason for Bob to make fun of him. His delicate constitution was apparently hilarious.

“I’ll be okay,” he said.

Mom pursed her lips. “All right. But take the cough drops with you, okay?”

Frank nodded. “Okay. Can you let me down now?”

Mom let out a good-natured sigh and let him pass her on his way down the stairs. “At least you aren’t begging me to let you stay home. That’s certainly something."

Frank ignored her, sticking a piece of bread into the toaster and double-checking to make sure he’d put his earbuds in his backpack. His breath stuck in his throat a few times as he waited for the toast to pop up, but it was manageable, and that was really the best he could hope for.

***

Frank glanced back over his shoulder toward Ray’s house. Ray was waving from the front window, the soft yellow light of his living room glowing through his hair. Frank waved back, and Ray drew the curtains shut.

Frank let his hand drop.

He was fucking tired.

He had just spent an hour at Ray’s house, listening to him prattle on about elemental associations and whatever the fuck else he’d found online. Frank was interested - or, he tried to be - but he would’ve been a lot more interested if any of their experiments actually worked. So far, they hadn’t found anything that seemed terribly effective. He hadn’t even been able to share the pain with Bob, because Bob had gone off to babysit his sisters like the asshole he was. Frank half-thought he had been been pretending just so he didn’t have to help.

And on top of it all, he hadn’t even returned Frank’s Black Flag CDs. That was two strikes against him. Frank wouldn’t have cared so much, but Gerard had wanted to listen to them, and, well. Frank couldn’t just let him down.

Once Frank had made it halfway down the street towards his house, he found himself wandering toward Bob’s.

The trip was made a bit more difficult by the fact that he’d never actually been to Bob’s house. Whenever the three of them hung out, it was always at Frank’s or Ray’s, and Frank had never really had a reason to independently seek out Bob before now. He knew Bob lived somewhere on an adjacent street, but he didn’t know the house number, or what it looked like, and that was a problem.

Frank pulled his phone out of his pocket to text Bob.

hey im on your street which house is yours

Bob was quick to respond. why are you stalking me?

cause i wanna get those fuckin cds

Frank could practically hear Bob sigh. can’t i bring them to you tomorrow?

no! i want em now tell me your house number already

no.

why not???

because i don’t want you in my house, fuck off.

Frank huffed. Knowing Bob, he wouldn’t cave to any amount of pestering. A logical person might give up in the face of his stubbornness, but Frank was no logical person.

hey how old is your sister again? he asked.

Frank’s phone buzzed with the reply. which one, abby or evelyn? Another buzz. wait shit why

Too late. Frank cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled, “Hey, Abby! Evelyn! Bryar kids! Your older brother sucks, come out and back me up!”

He glanced at each of the nearby houses as quickly as he could. None of the doors opened. Most of them looked deserted. Frank was just about to try again when a flicker of movement caught his eye - and there they were. Two little girls with their faces pressed up against the window, eyeing him with curiosity. Frank grinned to himself. Gotcha.

He bounded up to the door and knocked. There was no answer. He knocked again, the again, and after a few minutes of waiting, the door cracked open to reveal a cross-looking Bob. “I hate you,” he said.

“You love me,” Frank said cheerfully. He tried to slip inside, but Bob blocked the way.

“I don’t know where I put them, okay? I’ll give them to you tomorrow,” he said. “Bye.” He tried to close the door, but Frank stuck his foot in before he could.

“Don’t be pissy,” Frank scolded. “I’m the one who just spent an hour listening to Ray’s magical bullshit.”

“Don’t swear in front of my sisters,” Bob said, scowling.

“And that’s another thing! I still haven’t met them, what the fu - I mean, what the heck?” Frank craned his neck, trying to see around Bob’s head into the rooms beyond. “I’m pretty much an honorary part of the Bryar clan, aren’t I?”

“Who’s that?” a tiny voice asked from the background.

“This is Frank,” Bob said, turning his head to look at who Frank assumed was one of his sisters. “He was just leaving, weren’t you, Fr -”

Frank pushed his shoulder against the door and darted inside just as Bob was turning back to look at him. He stumbled and almost ran into the wall, laughing all the while. When he straightened up, two little girls were staring at him with wide blue eyes. They looked to be around six or seven. Frank gave them a little wave. “Hi!” he said. Neither of them said anything. They just clung to each other, their fingers knotted tightly together. Frank cracked up again. “Jesus, Bob, they’re as quiet as you,” he said - but when he looked up, Bob wasn’t smiling.

“You need to leave,” he said.

Frank’s smile faded. “What? Why, what’s wrong?”

“Bob?” a voice called. There was a muffled thump, and a woman shuffled into the room. She looked at Frank with bleary eyes. There was a cigarette clutched loosely between her fingers, smoke curling from the tip. She took a drag from it, her gaze not leaving Frank. It felt like she was looking right through him.

“This a friend?” she asked.

Her words slurred together, and a red flag flipped up in Frank’s mind.

“Yes,” Bob said quietly. “This is Frank.”

The woman laughed. It was like she hadn’t heard him. “Ha. Friend. I didn’ know you still had those.”

Bob’s expression was like stone. “Go back to bed, Mom.”

“‘S that any way to talk to your mother?” She took another drag, her vacant eyes fixed on a point in the distance, then turned and slunk back out of the room. Bob’s sisters hurried after her, leaving Frank and Bob alone.

Frank didn’t know what to say.

If this meant what he thought it did… there would be trouble, to say the least. He was frozen; his throat blocked by a thousand unspoken questions. No matter how hard he wanted to believe everything was okay, the signs were all there. As he looked around the room, new details suddenly jumped out at him. The cracks in the walls. The gaps between the floorboards. The sheer emptiness of it.

And Bob, standing in the middle of it all like an island in a storm-tossed sea. His jaw was set, and he was glaring at the floor, but not even that could disguise the fact that he was more vulnerable now than Frank had ever seen him.

“Bob,” Frank said.

Bob turned and walked out the door. Frank followed him. As Bob let the door fall shut behind them, Frank braced himself for a scathing comment.

“What part of ‘you need to leave’ did you not understand?” Bob asked. There was no real fire in his words. Above all else, he just seemed tired.

If Frank had felt guilty before, that was nothing on how he felt now. Jesus.

The memory of Bob’s sisters kept flashing in front of his eyelids. They held each other so tightly, with their clothes hanging off their tiny limbs, two sizes too big. And their mother, with her sharp tongue softened only by the slur in her words. Frank tried not to think about the implications.

It didn’t work.

Bob had his arms crossed tight over his chest. Frank almost reached out to touch his shoulder, but thought better of it. “Are you okay?” he asked instead.

“I’ll leave that one to you,” Bob said, scowling. “You don’t seem to have much of a problem butting into other people’s business.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” Frank sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Can you just tell me what’s going on? Like, with your parents?”

Bob went quiet.

“What do you think is going on?” he asked.

“Your mom, uh...” Frank tilted his thumb up to his mouth, miming drinking something. “Yeah?”

Bob sighed. “Yeah.” He leaned back against the door, but his posture was stiffer than ever.

“What about your dad?”

“Hasn’t been around for years,” Bob muttered. It was visibly painful for him to force out a response.

“Shit.” Frank exhaled slowly. “Did she… y’know, start drinking before he left, or after?” It made him wince to even say it out loud, but he couldn’t talk around it. It would be wrong. It would be like pretending Bob and his sisters and their near-empty house didn’t exist.

“After,” Bob mumbled.

“Does she have a job?” Frank asked.

“Take a guess.”

Frank felt like total shit. How the hell could he not have noticed something like this? It had been hiding in plain sight all along - Bob never mentioned his home life except to reference taking care of his younger sisters, and no matter how many times they hung out, it was never at his house. He was always the first to thank Frank’s mom whenever she extended the slightest gesture to him. He was always the one saving his lunch food and tucking it away in his backpack. In retrospect, it should have been obvious.

Another piece of the puzzle clicked into Frank’s brain, and he cursed under his breath. “Ray doesn’t know,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

“He knows we’re not rolling in cash, but that’s it. And it’s going to stay that way,” Bob said sharply. “I’ve worked way too fucking hard keeping it from him for you to tell him now.”

Frank shot him a look of pure incredulity. “Bob, you can’t expect me to -”

“I’m handling it.”

To anyone else, Bob’s tone would have sounded defensive - but there was more to it than that. A tiny hint of desperation, hidden away where only those who knew him best could find it.

“Listen, Ray has enough shit to deal with, okay? He already beats himself up because he didn’t stop Gerard from killing himself. If he knew about this, he’d have a heart attack. You can’t tell him.” Bob was openly pleading now, and it cut Frank to the bone.

“I can’t just -”

“Frank, please.”

Frank looked Bob in the eyes, and he felt himself wavering. “How exactly are you handling it?” he asked.

“I’m getting her to go to job interviews, and I’m trying to force her into AA meetings,” Bob said quickly. “And I’m getting food for Abby and Evelyn. We’re actually doing pretty okay. Like, we can still pay our bills and stuff, and we’re not starving, so.”

“That doesn’t mean you’re okay,” said Frank, wincing. “It just means you have really low standards.”

Bob shrugged. “Same difference. Just don’t tell Ray.”

Frank hesitated for a long moment, then: “Fine,” he said grudgingly. “I won’t tell him yet. But this isn’t over. If you need help, you’d better fucking tell me, and you have to tell him soon.”

“Deal.” Bob offered Frank his fist, and Frank bumped his knuckles against it. There was a moment of silence, then Bob half-smiled. “I can bring you those CDs tomorrow.”

Frank grinned back at him. “Thanks.”

Standing in front of Bob, his expression unusually sincere, Frank felt like something had shifted. There was a secret held between them now, and with it, a newfound level of trust. It was sort of humbling to see who Bob was when he let down his guard.

Frank wished he didn’t need to guard himself so carefully.

***

There were fake cobwebs draped over the windows, candy wrappers strewn all across the floor, and two little Bryar kids high on sugar running around Frank’s house.

“Abby!” Bob barked. “Quit it with the candy corn, you’re gonna throw up if you keep eating. And make Evvie stop jumping on Frank’s bed, I can hear her from here.”

Mom came in from the kitchen with a bowl full of apples in her arms. “Don’t worry about them, Bob. I’ve got it under control,” she said warmly. “You just relax with your friends, okay?” Abby tried to run past her, but Mom placed a hand on her shoulder. “Can you go get your sister, honey? We’re gonna bake a pie.” Abby’s eyebrows shot up. She turned on a dime and raced up the stairs.

Bob watched her as she ran off. “All due respect, Mrs. Iero, but I don’t think it’s possible to have them under control,” he said.

There was a loud thump from upstairs. A second later, the sounds of a squeaking mattress resumed. Frank stifled a laugh. “Bob, I’m the one who invited them, chill out.”

“Yeah! And we’ve got a movie to watch,” said Ray, who was crouching down by the DVD player. “Do we want… Oh, Jesus. Frank, are all your movies Halloween movies?”

“Not all horror movies are Halloween movies!” Frank protested. “They’re just scary. Or funny, depending on how old they are.”

“Whatever.” Ray continued rummaging through Frank’s DVDs before pulling two out. “Okay, do we want Beetlejuice or Nightmare Before Christmas?”

“It’s Frank’s birthday, he should choose,” said Gerard, hovering over Ray’s shoulder.

Frank groaned. “Don’t make me choose, they’re both good.”

“Beetlejuice, then,” said Gerard, taking the disc from Ray and popping it into the player. Ray startled. When Gerard turned to face Frank, he was grinning. “But just so you know, everything in that movie’s bullshit. Nobody gives you a book telling you what to do after you die. Wish they did, it’d be a hell of a lot easier that way.”

“Hopefully I won’t have to worry about that for a while,” said Frank. He shifted to the side on the couch so Gerard could flop down next to him.

“Hey, you never know,” Gerard said, settling in with his head on Frank’s shoulder. “You’re another year older. It goes by fast.”

Frank snorted. “Yeah. Eighteen whole years old, I might as well just keel over and die now.”

“Frank?” Ray asked. “Where’s he sitting?”

Frank glanced up at Ray. “What? Oh, right here.” He pointed to Gerard. “You can sit next to him.”

Ray sat down on the couch a couple inches away from Gerard. Bob handed him the remote, and he skipped past the commercials to the menu. When he hit play and the opening titles began to run, a feeling of content settled over Frank, the kind that could only be brought on by a blustery Halloween night spent huddled in the dark with his friends.

Abby and Evelyn’s footsteps thundered down the stairs. “Mrs. Iero!” Evelyn hollered. “Can I eat the pie mix?”

“It’s not mix, dummy, it’s apples,” said Abby, elbowing her sister. Evelyn fell into the wall, but kept scrambling for the kitchen. Frank watched them with a smile. After a second, he returned his attention to the TV. He could feel Bob looking at him.

“Hey, Frank?” Bob said. The TV bathed his face in a blue glow, and Frank could barely make out his tiny smile before it disappeared. “Thanks.”

Frank nodded. Bob might have forbidden him from telling Ray, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to help. When he’d heard Bob’s plans to take his sisters trick or treating, he’d known he had to do something. Bob already took care of his family every other day; he deserved the holiday off. Plus, if Frank ever needed to lend him a hand in a more serious manner - though he hoped it would never come to that - this would help the girls feel more comfortable around him and his house. They certainly seemed happy chattering away with his mom in the kitchen.

Bob looked back at the TV. “I can’t believe you’re eighteen now. I can’t make fun of you for being the youngest anymore.” He sighed. “At least you’re still short.”

“Fuck you,” Frank mumbled.

“Shush,” Gerard whispered. “The movie.”

Frank was silent after that. The wind was howling outside, audible even over the sounds of the movie. Every once in a while, the doorbell would ring, and they would take turns getting up to give candy to the trick or treaters. But for most of the night, they just sat together, watching and laughing and talking until one of them yelled at the others to shut up.

Bob took his sisters home after the end of the first movie, but he came right back afterwards. They kept a marathon going deep into the night, well after Mom had gone to sleep. Ray passed out somewhere in the middle of Hocus Pocus. Bob had a bit more stamina, but Frank saw his eyes close after another half hour.

And then Frank himself was the one fighting back yawns.

“Frankie, you should sleep,” Gerard whispered. “It’s like, three in the morning.”

“Sleep is for the weak,” Frank mumbled. His eyes were burning with exhaustion, but he had principles, damn it, and one of them was staying up as late as was physically possible to watch Halloween movies.

“Frank.”

“‘M a legal adult now, don’t tell me what to do.” Even as he said it, Frank was swallowing a yawn. He turned and nestled himself deeper into the couch. At this point, Gerard was half on top of him, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. It was comfortable, and he’d retrieved extra blankets from his bedroom to keep him warm.

“You’re not tired, huh?” Gerard asked, amused.

“Mm-mm. Not even a li’l.”

“Whatever you say.” Frank vaguely registered his blanket being tucked up to his chin. He could feel Gerard breathing against his side. A few minutes passed, and it was getting harder and harder for him to process the voices from the TV, when Gerard touched his hand.

“Hey,” he whispered. “Happy birthday, Frankie.”

If Frank had been more awake, he might have recognized the cool press of Gerard’s lips to his cheek.

***

Frank was lying on his stomach on the living room floor, idly picking apart a sprig of rosemary while Ray paced back and forth across the room. He was reading a Latin passage out loud from one of his books. Frank was pretty sure he was mispronouncing most of the words, but he didn’t have the heart to correct him. Bob, however, had more than enough. He stood up and took the book from Ray, who paused mid-sentence with a small, confused noise.

Bob tossed the book onto the couch. “Dude,” he said. “It’s been an hour. Give it a break.”

“But it’s important,” Ray protested, reaching for the book again, but Bob sidestepped to block him.

“Ray,” he said calmly. “It has been an hour. Sixty minutes. And you’ve been doing this every day. Take a break, or I think I speak for everyone when I say we’re gonna kill you, and no protection spell is gonna keep you safe from that.” Frank nodded vigorously.

Ray blinked. “Oh. Sorry.” He at least had the decency to look embarrassed. “I might’ve gotten a bit… carried away, I guess.”

“You think?” asked Frank, raising one eyebrow. He gestured to the pile of burnt-out candles and open books strewn around them.

“I dunno,” said Gerard, who was sitting on the edge of the couch and looking through a set of tarot cards. Frank wasn’t sure where Ray had gotten them, and he didn’t care to find out. Gerard held up a card with a sword printed on one side, squinting as he examined it. “I actually think this is pretty interesting,” he said.

“You would,” Frank grumbled. “You just like watching us make idiots of yourselves when none of this works.”

“The ouija board worked,” Gerard pointed out.

“That wasn’t a surprise, though. We already knew you could move shit around. And what’s the point of it, anyway? It’s faster for me to just tell them what you’re saying.”

“Speaking of which,” said Ray. He and Bob had long since gotten used to hearing one side of Frank’s conversations with Gerard. “I wanna try something new. I’ve got the spell right here, look!” He got up and started rifling through his pile of notes. Frank groaned and rolled over onto his side.

“Yeah, you do that. I’m gonna make my escape. See ya later.” He pushed himself to his feet, waving over his shoulder as he headed for the door.

“Wait, Frank!” said Ray, stricken. “Don’t go. We can do something else if you want.”

“Nah, it’s cool,” said Frank. “I need to get some fresh air anyway.” Just as his hand touched the doorknob, Gerard popped up right between him and the door, making Frank jump back, startled. “That really shouldn’t be surprising anymore,” he muttered, but Gerard just frowned.

“Don’t leave,” he said.

Frank grinned. “What, you starting to think it’s not so interesting after all?”

“No, it’s just…” Gerard scuffed the toe of his shoe against the floor. “It’s your house, isn’t it? It’s weird if we’re all here and you aren’t.”

“It was your house before it was mine,” Frank reminded him. “Look, if you’re worried about talking to them, it’ll be fine. You’ve got the ouija board. It’s slower, but it works, right?” He lowered his voice. “I’m sorry, but I really gotta get out of here. For a minute, at least.”

Gerard still didn’t smile, but he melted out of sight so Frank could step through the door.

The second he was outside, Frank felt himself relax. The November air had a bite to it, but it was easier to breathe than inside the house, which now had a scent of smoke and herbs that refused to fade. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, but it made Frank’s lungs feel thick and constricted. He made a mental note to open some windows after Ray and Bob left. Whenever that would be.

He shoved his hands in his pockets and began to wander down the road. He didn’t have a destination in mind; wherever his feet took him would be fine. He just needed to escape his house for a while. He liked having his friends around, he really did, but lately, they had taken it to an excessive degree. They were always there, talking and laughing and needing Frank to translate for Gerard. Frank didn’t think it would be so bad if it was just Gerard, but having all three of his best friends in the same room was getting exhausting.

He needed some alone time.

The leaves crunched underneath his feet as he walked, orange and gold against the gray pavement. More fluttered down from the trees overhead. They danced in the wind, flying down the road to destinations unknown; not unlike Frank at that very moment. He smiled to himself as a dried maple leaf skittered past his shoe. Autumn was by far his favorite season. True, his immune system didn’t like it much, but it was so damn pretty.

The pavement beneath Frank’s feet began to slope up a bit. He hadn’t gone this far down his street before; he usually took the other direction. Here, the trees were thinner, the houses growing gradually farther apart. At the end of one yard, there was a spindly iron fence that stretched on for what looked like blocks. A crow was sitting on one of the bars. It cocked its head and fixed one beady eye on Frank, who paused, hoping it wouldn’t fly away. He was starting to wish he’d brought his camera.

The crow ruffled its feathers and took off. Frank watched it go, touching his hand to the cool metal of the fence. He traced each spine as he walked alongside it. In the distance, he could hear more birds cawing; two groups responding to each other. It was the only sound save the quiet crunch of fallen leaves.

He looked down at the fence, then at the space beyond it. His pace slowed to a halt.

“Woah,” he whispered.

It was a graveyard.

A massive graveyard, full of ancient-looking tombstones, with letters worn into faint indentations and stone angels crumbling to dust. The grass was overgrown, and some of the headstones had vines snaked all around them. Fuck. Frank really should’ve brought his camera.

Without thinking, he grabbed onto the fence and hopped over it.

He walked slowly, leaving a trail of flattened grass in his wake as he drifted from stone to stone. Some were ornate, with fancy carvings of roses and quotations etched into the bottom, but others were small, not much more than a slab of rock with a name carved into it. Most were old, with death dates as early as the 1800s, but they grew more recent as he went on. The newer part of the cemetery was neater. The grass was clean-cut, and some of the gravestones had wilting flowers leaned against them. They weren’t as interesting to look at, but Frank perused each one just the same, touching the tips of his fingers to the smooth marble or rough-cut granite of each one.

He didn’t realize he was searching until he stopped in front of a small gray headstone, neatly engraved with the name Gerard Way.

Beneath his name were the years of his birth and death, followed by a Latin quote that Frank couldn’t understand. He pulled out his phone and took a quick picture. Ray could translate it for him later. He’d been reading so much Latin lately, he might as well have been fluent.

Frank put his phone away and lowered himself to the ground, taking a seat in front of the grave.

It was definitely strange, seeing the place where Gerard was buried. The more he thought about it, the stranger it got. Not so long ago, they must have lowered the coffin down, laying Gerard’s body to rest and delivering prayers for his eternal peace. Imagining it gave Frank a weird feeling in his chest. An ache, the kind so filled with sorrow it made you feel like there was a hole between your ribs.

Frank knew Gerard was fine. He was back at home, probably lounging around and listening to Ray ramble on about invocations and summonings. But however much he acted like the rest of them, he wasn’t the same. He wasn’t alive.

The weight of it hit Frank all at once, crashing over him like a tidal wave.

He’d always known Gerard was dead, but it was all too easy to ignore with him walking around acting so damn normal. Frank had always tried not to think about the specifics of it; the exact moment Gerard’s final breath left him, dooming him to a state of half-existence. He’d avoided the thought for a reason. It made his eyes sting, and he had to swallow hard around the lump in his throat.

Frank checked the date listed on the headstone and ticked off the years on his fingers. If Gerard had been alive to see his birthday, he would’ve been nineteen this year. Nineteen fucking years old. A year older than Frank, but still so young.

It had always pissed Frank off, knowing that there were people in the world who would see someone like Gerard and wish death upon him. It made him furious. But now, thinking about the consequences of it all, there was another dimension to it. Frank exhaled slowly and let all his anger and bitterness drain away.

Without it, there was only grief.

Even that wasn’t a suitable word. Frank didn’t think there was any phrase powerful enough to capture the feeling, the heartache, the knowledge of all the things Gerard would never experience because he had been miserable enough to give them up. There was no one in the world who deserved that fate less than Gerard. Gerard deserved life and love and art, not a square of cold stone in the center of a cemetery.

Frank bowed his head. He let his eyes drift closed, not moving to wipe away the tears that clung to his eyelashes. The sound of his uneven breaths was lost to the sighing of the wind.

Below the surface, Gerard lay silently, as if asleep forevermore.

***

The next day, Frank woke up to a coughing fit, his airways seizing up every time he tried to draw breath. After a few minutes of wheezing, they cleared up, and he sagged back into his pillow, exhausted. He could already tell today was going to suck.

An hour outside without a jacket, and look where it had gotten him. Bob teased him all the time, calling him a fair maiden, but he didn’t know how true it really was. Frank felt like shit. He swore under his breath, but it got stuck in his throat, prompting another cough.

The door creaked open to reveal a very scared-looking Gerard.

“Frankie?” he whispered. “Are you okay?”

Frank could only manage a small nod. Gerard slipped inside and closed the door behind him. He hovered uncertainly at Frank’s bedside, his hands fluttering around as if he wasn’t sure what to do with them.

Frank patted the space next to him.

Gerard laid down on his stomach beside Frank and propped himself up with his elbows. “Jeez,” he said to himself. “I know you said you get sick a lot, but I didn’t know it was like that.”

“Yup,” Frank mumbled. “‘S a real shitshow. At least it’s not bronchitis this time, though, I think this is just a cold.”

“A cold?” said Gerard, disbelieving. “It sounded like fucking pneumonia.”

“I get that too,” Frank said with a grin. “Almost died from it once, actually. I was four.” Gerard’s eyes widened with concern, earning a raspy laugh from Frank. “Yeah, they had to give me CPR and everyth -” His sentence was interrupted by a hacking cough, which devolved into another three-minute struggle for air.

Being sick scared him sometimes. Every once in a while, he’d choke and flash back to that hospital bed, where the darkness had swallowed him whole only to spit him back out. By now, sickness had become commonplace to him, but he could never escape that first dance with death. The only upside was that he didn’t remember it very well.

He sucked in a deep breath, then let it out, relief washing over him with the sweet intake of oxygen.

Gerard’s eyes were round as saucers.

“Is it always like that?” he squeaked.

Frank nodded tiredly, his eyes falling shut. “Mm-hmm. Don’t worry, it’ll pass.”

“I -” Gerard cut himself off, vanishing abruptly as the door opened.

“Morning, Frankie,” Mom said with a sympathetic smile. “I could hear you from downstairs. I brought the thermometer up.” She held up the little device, and Frank turned his head over automatically. He’d always kind of hated getting his temperature taken - having a little plastic nub jammed into your ear wasn’t the most pleasant experience, and it always beeped too loudly when it was finished reading. This time was no different. He made a face as Mom pulled the thermometer away, knowing Gerard was probably watching, invisible.

“100.2,” Mom read out loud. “Well, that’s that. No school for you.” She gently ruffled Frank’s hair and tucked his blanket up to his chin. “Enjoy being lazy, I’ve got to go to work. The one time I get the day shift, huh? I left instructions on the fridge in case you need to call me from the work number. And there should be food hanging around somewhere, you can help yourself.”

“Mmm. Later. Right now I’m just gonna…” Frank stifled a yawn. Days off were nice, but he couldn’t fully enjoy them if he was too tired to think straight.

Predictably, he started coughing up a lung the second he exhaled. Mom rubbed his back through it and placed a kiss on his cheek once he could breathe normally again. “Hope you feel better soon, honey.”

When she left the room, Gerard faded into view again, looking more relaxed than before. Frank assumed it was due to his mother’s reaction. If Mom didn’t freak out, then things were okay. Frank wanted to say something, but he was having a bit of trouble chasing down his thoughts, and his eyes were starting to close on their own.

The last thing he saw before he passed out was Gerard smiling down at him.

***

Frank’s dreams were muddled and hazy the way fever dreams always were, with barely-connected images drifting back and forth across the surface of his mind. He was walking through a castle made entirely of paper when the scene shifted, and he was suddenly at school, and then it shifted again, and he was at his old school. The walls of the hallway were too close together, and stuffed to the brim with people. They pressed in around him with smiles sharp enough to wound. Frank tried to turn back, but he was frozen in place, helpless as they pushed him down. Their greedy hands tore at him, ripping his uniform, tugging at that stupid tie until he could barely breathe - and then, as quickly as it had began, it was over.

No - not over.

He was on the outside now, watching it happen. The crowd seethed like a living thing, swarming over their victim before dissolving into dust. Frank watched as the air cleared, and when he could see again, he saw Gerard, lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. For moment, his heart stopped beating.

Then he was on his knees, Gerard’s head cradled in his lap, frantically pressing two fingers to his neck, checking, praying, running from the inevitable. He waited a second, then two, then three, for any sign of life, but was met with nothing.

A cold wind whipped around them, and the hallway transformed into a vast expanse of gravestones.

Gerard opened his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said hoarsely.

Frank didn’t think twice before he tilted Gerard’s chin up, leaned down, and let their lips touch just as the ground rushed up to swallow them whole.

***

“Frankie? Frankie, wake up, come on.” Something cold was pressed against Frank’s forehead. He woke with a gasp, fighting for breath from the moment his eyes opened. It only took a moment for the cold sensation to register as Gerard’s hand touching him, but his body took a minute to catch up, dragging him through the usual minute of suffocation before he could clear his throat and breathe like a normal human being.

“Well,” he wheezed. “That sucked.”

“Did you have a nightmare?” Gerard was sitting with his legs crossed on top of the blankets, looking troubled. “You were mumbling a bit.”

“Mmm. Fever dreams, they always fuck with me.” Frank sat up on his elbows. Vague memories of his dream still echoed in his mind, but they were rapidly slipping away. The only thing he could remember clearly was -

Oh.

Frank turned his head as quickly as he could to grab at his alarm clock, hoping Gerard would notice the instant flush of his cheeks.

Fuck.

He’d been trying so hard. He’d thought that if he just didn’t acknowledge it, it would go away, but clearly, his heart couldn’t be controlled that easily.

Stupid fucking crush. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It wasn’t Frank’s fault Gerard had to be so damn appealing. He was always walking around with his dumb smile and good taste in music and those eyes, holy shit; it was a goddamn miracle that Frank hadn’t let himself fantasize. But he had to stay strong. Gerard was his best friend. If he knew what Frank was thinking, he’d probably get weirded out and stop talking to him, which was the opposite of what Frank wanted.

Frank wanted more, and more, and more.

And he’d been trying so fucking hard not to think about it.

But there he was, getting butterflies for his best friend - his dead best friend - with no idea what he was going to do about it.

Fuck his life, honestly.

“Frank?” Gerard asked. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah! Yeah, I’m good.” Frank took a quick look at his alarm clock - it was going on eleven - and shot Gerard a lopsided grin, which he immediately regretted. Gerard tilted his head slightly, then leaned closer and put his hand on Frank’s forehead again. He frowned.

“You feel better, but you still look kinda flushed -”

“I’m good!” Frank said, a little too loudly. He moved away as quickly as he could without being obvious. When he rolled out of bed and stood up, his head spun for a minute, but he clung to the doorknob and didn’t sit down again.

Gerard followed him downstairs, taking a seat at the kitchen table while Frank rummaged around for some breakfast. He was inspecting the cereal selections when he heard the rustling of paper, then Gerard’s voice reading aloud: “Hey, Frankie. Thought you might like to check these out while you had the time. Let me know if you see anything that interests you. Love, Mom.”

Frank turned around to see Gerard holding up a handful of leaflets. “Someone’s got college on the brain,” he said. Frank mimed gagging and reached for the box of Frankenberry. “What, you don’t wanna think about it yet?”

“More like I don’t wanna go,” Frank said heavily, bringing his bowl of cereal over to the table so he could sit with Gerard. He held up one of the brochures to briefly examine it, then let it drop. “Haven’t told her yet, though. She’s not gonna like it.”

“Saves you money,” Gerard said with a shrug. He picked up the brochure Frank had dropped and started flipping through it. “Does make it harder to get a job, though,” he said. “What do you wanna do?”

“Something with music. I was in a band before I moved.”

Gerard dropped the booklet. “What?” he said, delighted. “Why didn’t you tell me? That’s awesome! You must’ve played guitar, then, right?”

“Yeah,” said Frank. “I was the vocalist, too, though.”

“Don’t tell me you can sing, motherfucker -”

Frank giggled. “I can’t. Trust me. But I can scream, and I’m brave enough to get my ass on a stage. That was all we needed.”

“A stage?” said Gerard, awed. “I used to jam a lot with the guys, but we never did anything that wasn’t in somebody’s basement. Wow.”

“It was pretty cool,” Frank agreed. “That’s why I wanna keep doing it.”

“What were you guys called?” Gerard asked.

“Pencey Prep. Like from Catcher in the Rye.”

“Wow,” Gerard said again, and his voice was so filled with admiration that Frank couldn’t help but grin and duck his head.

Frank still felt pretty damn sick - he went through an entire box of tissues in one day - but with Gerard around, his day wasn’t so bad. The college brochures were forgotten in an instant. Gerard made him play all the Pencey songs he could remember, though Frank refused to sing along to any of them, and by the end of the list, his fingertips were aching. At one point they tried to read through a book on witchcraft Ray had left lying around, but when Frank saw that the author’s name was ”Silver Ravenwolf” he tossed it aside without a second thought. The rest of the afternoon was spent playing vicious matches of Mario Kart.

It was pretty much the perfect day.

Embarrassing as it was to admit, Frank had missed having one-on-one time with Gerard. Hanging out in a group was fun, but the tiny, selfish part of Frank’s brain liked having him all to himself. And when he almost passed out on the couch and Gerard started fussing over him, that wasn’t so bad, either.

Frank settled himself under his pile of blankets, Gerard sitting on the end of his bed. He fought off a yawn. It wasn’t very late, but between sickness and victory dancing over video games, he was tired out.

“Good night, Frankie,” Gerard said, smiling.

“G’night, Gee,” Frank mumbled.

Gerard faded out of sight, and Frank closed his eyes.

What felt like an hour later, he opened them again.

Trying to sleep was useless. Sickness had a way of lulling him into a false sense of security - each time he drifted off, just beginning to slip into unconsciousness, his lungs would seize up and jolt him awake again. His entire body was heavy with exhaustion, but he couldn't sleep. Frank turned over with a sigh.

"Gerard?" he said.

The response was almost immediate. "Yeah?" Gerard appeared at the foot of his bed. His skin glowed softly in the darkness, as if bathed in moonlight. It was just enough for Frank to make out the concern in his expression. "What's up?"

"Can't sleep," Frank said gruffly, rubbing at his eyes. "Stupid fuckin' cough."

"You wanna stay up and talk for a while?" Gerard offered. He moved up so he could sit beside Frank, but Frank flapped his hand, silently ordering him to lie down. Gerard complied and curled up next to him. He was far enough that they didn't touch, but Frank could feel the chill of his skin.

Frank tried to say something, but it immediately turned into a coughing fit. Gerard laughed. "How could you get this sick out of nowhere? You’re like a disease magnet."

"I know," Frank grumbled. "It's 'cause I went outside yesterday, I was out for way too long. Should've worn a jacket." He sniffed and reached for the box of tissues on his nightstand. When he turned back, Gerard had his head on his pillow and was looking up at Frank with curiosity.

"What'd you even do out there? You were gone for ages."

Frank opened his mouth, then closed it again. He considered lying, but there was no point to it. "I went to the cemetery," he said truthfully. "I didn't know it was there before, so I explored for a while."

Gerard went still. "Oh," he murmured. "So, did you, um..."

Frank nodded.

"What's it like?" Gerard asked, sounding just a bit wistful. Frank was confused for a moment before he remembered - Gerard couldn't leave his house. Of course he hadn’t seen the gravestone.

"It's nice," Frank said. "Classy. I dunno how to describe it, but it's good." He felt clumsy, trying to find words for that which could not be spoken. It was less about appearance and more about emotion, he thought. He couldn't possibly translate the way he'd felt, standing there in front of the headstone. He wouldn't do it justice.

Instead, he took his phone from the nightstand and clicked it on, opening his photo library and tapping on his most recent picture. He handed the phone to Gerard.

Gerard took it with wide eyes. "Oh," he said. "Wow." He stared for a moment, transfixed. "Dude, this is so trippy."

Frank giggled. "I can't even imagine." He took the phone back, opening his web browser. "Here," he said. "I was gonna translate the Latin bit but I forgot." He quickly typed it into Google Translate, then read it aloud. "Vita mutatur non tollitur. Life is changed, not taken away."

"How very fitting," said Gerard, amused.

"Right?" Frank managed to laugh again without coughing. Gerard sat up suddenly, looking worried.

"Wait, should I not be here? I know I'm cold, I don't wanna make it worse -"

"Gerard," said Frank. "Stop being stupid and sit down."

Gerard bit his lip, but consented to lie down again, this time nestling himself against Frank's side. Frank’s heart skipped a beat. He forced himself to relax, lest Gerard take notice, but he couldn't ignore the soft sound of Gerard's breathing just beside him.

His brow furrowed. "Why do you do that?" he asked, turning over to face Gerard.

"Do what?"

"Breathe. You don’t need to, do you?"

Gerard shrugged. "It’s just force of habit, I guess."

There was a minute of silence.

"Why do you do that?" Gerard asked.

Frank got the feeling he wasn’t talking about breathing. "Do what?"

"Notice," Gerard said simply. "You notice everything."

Frank could still feel him breathing.

"I pay attention," he said.

Gerard smiled. He didn’t look tired, not the way Frank felt, but his face was soft in the darkness in a way it wasn’t in the daylight. A contented silence filled the room. Frank’s eyelids were heavy, but he didn’t want to sleep. Not now that he’d seen Gerard smile so like that, like there was no place in the world he’d rather be.

“Thank you,” Gerard whispered.

“For what?”

“Paying attention.” Gerard shifted just a bit, not breaking eye contact. “You’d be surprised how few people do.”

“They’re missing out,” Frank murmured. He was beginning to drift off against his will. His body was so cruel; keeping him awake when he didn’t want to be and forcing him to sleep when all he wanted was to keep his eyes open.

Gerard breathed a laugh. “You think so?”

“Mm-hmm. Anybody who doesn’t pay attention to you is crazy.” Exhaustion made the words come too easily, but Frank was past the point of caring.

“You say that, but I still don’t think I’m the interesting one here,” said Gerard.

“If you call a guy who gets in fights and plays shitty guitar interesting.”

“I do,” Gerard said honestly. “I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

At that, Frank couldn’t help but grin. He forced his eyes back open. The darkness was a blessing; it hid the dull heat that crept up on his cheeks, but by the faint glow of Gerard’s skin, he could still make out the small smile Gerard wore.

“You should sleep,” Gerard said gently. “Don’t let me keep you up, you need to rest.”

“I’m good,” Frank mumbled. “I’m not tired.” They both knew he was lying, but Frank hoped against hope for another minute, and another, and another. Gerard was not compliant. He pushed himself up, ignoring the tiny noise of dissatisfaction Frank made.

“Good night, Frankie. Sleep well.”

“Night,” Frank murmured.

Sleep was quick to steal him away, dragging him down into a shifting sea of dreams, but before he was completely lost to the world, he heard Gerard’s voice, quiet and unaware of observation.

“You really are something special, you know,” he said.

***

During lunch later that week, Ray was uncharacteristically quiet. He didn't even laugh at Bob's expression when Ms. Halloway used slang in the wrong context, which normally would have had him cracking up. Instead, he stared off into the distance, unresponsive until Frank snapped his fingers in front of his face.

"Hey, dude. What's up with you?"

Ray blinked, turning his head to face Frank. "What? Nothing, I'm good."

"Lies," Bob said through a mouthful of Doritos.

"No, I actually am good. I'm just... thinking," said Ray, his brow furrowing. "I've got an idea, and I'm trying to figure out how to make it work."

"Then spill it," said Frank, helping himself to a handful of Bob's chips and receiving a punch in the shoulder along with it. "We'll help."

Ray hesitated.

Bob rolled his eyes. "Come on, man, you can tell us."

"Okay," Ray said, raising his hands in surrender. "I wanna bring Mikey home."

Bob nearly choked on his Doritos. After taking a moment to regain his composure, he gave Ray an incredulous look. "Dude. The last time I saw him, he told me to go fuck myself."

"You were being an asshole," Ray pointed out.

"I wasn't!" said Bob, outraged. "What the fuck, I was worried about him -"

"He needed space! But that's not the point; I'm sure he'll want to see us again. I know I want to see him."

"He didn't talk to us after he left," Bob said flatly. "I think that says enough about how much he wants to see us."

Ray was undeterred. "I'm sure there's an explanation for that. But this isn't about us. Even if he doesn't care about you and me, don't you think he'll want to see Gerard?"

Bob’s mouth was set in a hard line. After a minute, he sighed and admitted, "Yeah."

"I'm a little lost here," said Frank, who had been sitting on the sidelines, stealing Bob's chips and listening. "Mikey is Gerard's brother, right?" Bob nodded. "Your other former best friend?" Bob nodded again. "The one who moved away?"

"Yeah," said Ray. "I haven't talked to him in months. He just turned eighteen, though, so I think if I call him, I can get him to drive over here. He only lives like an hour away."

Frank nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

"The only problem with the plan is that he hates us," Bob grumbled.

"He doesn't hate us," Ray said sharply. "It was rough for everyone, okay? We can make amends. Or, I know I can."

"I'm not saying I don't want to!" Bob protested. "But think about it, Ray. He didn't even return your birthday text. If you call him, he's not gonna answer."

"Well, we have to try!" Ray argued. "For his sake and Gerard's. Don't you think they have the right to see each other again?"

Bob rubbed at his eyes, heaving a deep sigh. "Yeah. Yeah, of course I do. You're right. Sorry."

Frank looked back and forth between the two of them.

"So, I assume it's my job to tell Gerard about this plan?" he asked.

***

"No," said Gerard, white-faced.

"Don't be an idiot," Frank said sternly. "You were scared to talk to Bob and Ray again, but look how that turned out."

"No, that was - this is different," Gerard said desperately. "I'm still worried about them, and about him, too, if we do this, but - Frank, I don't think I can."

"Of course you can, he's your brother!"

Frank knew it must be hard for Gerard to face his loved ones after such a long time, but it was something that had to be done. It wasn’t something to be scared of - at least, not this scared. Gerard had his eyes shut tight, looking like he wanted to crawl under a rock and disappear. When he spoke, his voice was very small.

"Frank, he's the one who found me. After I did it."

Oh.

Right.

How could Frank have forgotten?

"I had to watch him cry," Gerard said miserably. "It totally fucked him up. He had to see a therapist, but it didn't help, he just sat in his room and didn't talk to anyone. Not even his friends. And then when he did start talking again, he started fighting with them, and -"

"Gerard," Frank said gently. "Stop. I get it."

"I can't do it," said Gerard, and Frank sighed.

"Do the thing," he said. Gerard looked confused. "The solid thing," Frank clarified.

Gerard nodded slowly and bit his lip, concentrating hard. When his eyes flitted back to meet Frank's, there was something different about them; something stronger.

Frank grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a small shake.

"Stop," he said firmly. "It's not your fault. If you think Mikey is gonna blame you for what happened, you're nuts. And if you really blame yourself, that's crazy, too. You're gonna see your brother again, and you're gonna have a totally tearful reunion, and I'm not gonna let you fight me on this one, okay?"

He gathered Gerard up into his arms and squeezed him tight.

Neither of them said anything, but Gerard buried his face in Frank's neck, and Frank thought they had an understanding.

***

Ray ended up making the call at Frank’s house. He didn’t give a reason, but Frank suspected he didn’t want to do it alone. Which wasn’t a big deal, of course - it would be a good way for Gerard to prepare for seeing Mikey. He had avoided the topic at all costs ever since Frank proposed the idea, but Frank was determined to make it happen anyway.

“Okay,” said Ray, staring down at his phone. “Let’s do this.”

He hit call, put the phone on speaker, and let it ring.

It went to voicemail.

Ray didn’t blink twice. “Hey, Mikey,” he said. “It’s Ray. It’s been a while, huh? Look, I don’t know if you’ve been avoiding me or anything, but if you have, can you please stop? Me and Bob miss you a ton. And there’s something we really need to talk about. Like… really need to. It’s important. Whenever you get this, call me back. Please.”

He waited for a moment before ending the call.

“Well,” he said. “I guess all we can do now is wait.”

Gerard pretended not to be relieved.

The three of them sat around watching TV for a while, but there was an aura of anticipation in the air that could not be erased. After half an hour of fidgeting, Ray gave up and reached for his phone.

“I’m gonna call again,” he said. When the voicemail box beeped, he plowed straight into his message. “Mikey, we need to talk. For real. It’s nothing bad, I promise, I just want to hear your voice again. It’s been months. Just give me five minutes, okay? Call me back.”

He dropped his phone and sank back against Frank’s pillow, defeated.

Two minutes later, the phone rang.

Ray stared at it, as if unable to process the sound. Then he lunged forward to grab it, accepting the call and pressing the phone to his ear with a breathless, “Mikey?”

“Speaker!” Frank hissed. Ray nodded quickly and pushed the button just in time for Frank to hear a voice say, “Ray?”

“It’s me,” Ray said, grinning widely. “Hi. Oh my God, hi!”

“Hi,” said the voice, which must have belonged to Mikey. “Sorry I haven’t called you in so long. It just kind of… happened.” He sounded a little bit like Gerard, but lower, less nasal. Frank looked over at Gerard, trying to imagine what Mikey’s face would be like, but Gerard’s expression made him forget his train of thought in an instant.

Gerard kept his arms wrapped tightly around himself, looking fragile as glass, like he might fall apart if he let go. As it was, he looked only moments away from shattering.

“His voice has changed,” he said distantly. “Just a little.”

“Yeah!” Ray was saying. “Dude, you’ve got to come out here. I can’t believe we’re both eighteen now! And Frank is, too.”

“Frank?” Mikey questioned.

Ray smiled at Frank. “Yeah. He moved here last month. He’s totally awesome, you guys are gonna get along great. He plays guitar!”

“Really?” said Mikey, sounding interested. “Cool.”

“Right? But anyway, Bob’s gonna be psyched when I tell him you’re coming. He was too chicken to call you himself, but he really wants to see you.”

“Yeah.” Mikey paused. He sounded as if he was about to say something else, but the silence stretched on. “I can probably use Mom’s car,” he finally said. “She’ll be happy to hear I’m hanging out with you again. It’ll be a while, though. I’m grounded right now.”

“Grounded?” Ray asked, his brow furrowing. “Why?”

“I stayed out all night after a concert and Mom got pissed. Guess it was one too many times for her to let it slide. It’ll be fine, though. I can probably come by in a couple weeks.”

“Yeah!” Ray said enthusiastically. “That sounds awesome! Just let me know when you’re free, anytime is good for us.”

“Mm-hmm.” There was a thumping noise from the other line and a muffled shout before Mikey’s voice returned. “Mom’s calling,” he said. “I gotta go now, but…”

“It was nice to talk to you,” Ray said softly.

“Yeah,” Mikey agreed. “Really nice. I’ll text you later, okay?”

“Yup! Talk to you then.”

The line went dead. Ray set his phone down with a smile, but once he looked over at Frank, it faded. “Is he okay?” he asked.

Frank shook his head. Gerard hadn’t broken down, but “okay” wasn’t the right word to describe him. He was staring at a point on Frank’s wall, frozen, as if in shock. “Mikey’s coming home,” he said faintly.

“He’s wigging out a bit,” Frank muttered to Ray.

Ray nodded. “Hey, Gee?” he said carefully. “We aren’t gonna tell him about you until you’re ready. You know that, right? We’re gonna ease you both into it.”

Gerard ignored him. “He won’t be able to see me,” he said quietly.

“No,” Frank said softly. “He won’t. I’m sorry.”

Gerard’s eyes narrowed. He turned to look at Frank. “Sorry doesn’t fix it,” he said. Frank’s heart stuttered, and he rushed to apologize, but Gerard waved him off with a sigh. “That’s not what I meant. Tell Ray to go and get his spellbooks. We’ve got a problem to solve.”

A grin slowly spread across Frank’s face, and he relayed Gerard’s message.

***

The next few days were a blur of incantations, blackened candles, and unsuccessful trials. Frank was exhausted by the end of it, and with good reason - Ray had burned through every book he’d found at the public library, but despite the amount of work they’d done, they had still accomplished next to nothing.

“We need a new source of info,” Frank said, staring up at the ceiling of the school library. His legs were stretched out across the couch, and his head was in Bob’s lap. Bob didn’t look too happy about that, but Frank could only really see the underside of his chin, so it was a little hard to tell.

“You know what we need? A way to tell if something is bullshit or not,” Bob said. It was funny to watch his jaw move as he talked. Frank poked him in the neck, and got cuffed over the head in return.

Ray was sitting on one of the armchairs across from them. He was deep in thought as usual, his fingers steepled beneath his chin. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “I think we’ve got enough of a knowledge base by now that we can just skim through stuff. We don’t need to read the whole thing if it doesn’t seem legit. But where are we gonna find books that are legit?”

“Doesn’t have to be a book,” Frank said. “Maybe we can hit up a witch. Get some tips from a pro.”

“Well, yes, primary sources are always good, but if we can’t find a reliable book, how are we going to find a reliable person?”

There was a thumping noise, and Halloway popped up from where she’d been working in the lower library. “Hi!” she said brightly. “Did I hear something about primary sources?”

“Did you just jump up the steps?” Bob questioned.

“Maybe,” she said, without missing a beat. “But was I right?”

“Um, yeah,” said Ray. “Do you know anything about how to find a good primary source?”

Frank fought to keep a straight face, digging his nails into his palm so he wouldn’t laugh. You could pass anything off as academic if you put the right spin on it.

“Depends on what you’re looking for!” said Halloway, oblivious to his struggle. She took a seat on the counter. “I’d always suggest a good database, though. You should have access to a few nice ones if you’re taking any college classes. And we’ve got one for the district, too, you can use your normal login to get into that.” She was warming up to the subject, Frank could tell; he rushed to stop her before she rambled for the rest of the period.

“Do you know anything about witchcraft?” he asked.

Halloway pursed her lips. “Again, depends on what you’re looking for. Are we talking Salem witch trials, or…”

Ray winced. “No, not quite. We’re talking about it in a more… modern sense, I guess?”

“We want to hit up a witch and ask her shit,” Frank piped up. Bob hit him in the head again, but Halloway didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. On the contrary, she sat up straight, leaning in toward them with eyes shining.

“Oh, that sounds like a wonderful idea! Admittedly, I don’t know what this is for, but I can already tell it’ll be awesome. If you analyzed the differences between the modern practice and the history, and where it all came from, ooh… I’d highly suggest sticking Salem in there anyway, it’d make for a great contrast!” She leapt up and scurried into her office, chattering on as she went. Frank pushed himself up so he could stare after her.

“Did that just happen?” he asked.

“Librarians are always cool,” Ray said fondly.

“My sister used to be really into this stuff! I don’t know anything compared to her, of course, but she did leave this old thing lying around my house,” said Halloway, reappearing with a small blue book in her hands. She presented it to Frank with a flourish. “It’s a spellbook. I can’t make any claims as to its legitimacy, but it’s a start!”

Ray smiled. “Thanks, Ms. Halloway. Do you know anybody we could get in touch with?”

Halloway shook her head. “‘Fraid not. I can do some digging, though! And let me know if you want more info on Salem, seriously.” She gave them a mock salute, grinning. “Whatever you may ask, I can guarantee I’ve seen something weirder. Ask me about my internship in New York City sometime - now there’s a story for you.” She jumped down the steps to the lower library, landing with a thump. Frank watched her ponytail swish as she sauntered over to the computer lab.

“Am I the only one beginning to think she’s a little crazy?” he asked.

“The best people are,” Ray said airily.

Frank looked down at the book in his hands. It didn't appear to be anything special. The cover was navy blue, with golden letters that read The Spellcrafter's Handbook. In all honesty, it looked like most of the books Ray had read through and dismissed as bullshit. He opened it up and flipped through - the pages were bright white, practically brand new. That was another bad sign. None of the books they’d had success with had had such a pristine quality to them.

"At least she tried," Frank said to himself.

"Let me see," said Ray, taking the book from Frank. His eyes flicked back and forth across the first page, and he hesitated. "Well... Let's not throw it out just yet. I'll look at it more tonight and tell you if there's anything we can use."

“And that’s why you’re our resident optimist,” said Frank. He gave the book to Ray, who stowed it away in his backpack.

It probably wouldn’t yield any results, but Frank wasn’t the one who had to read it, so there was no harm in trying.

***

Life at Belleville High was nothing if not eventful.

While Ray had been poring over Halloway’s book, Bob had been disappearing more and more frequently, tracking down the source of the school’s gossip. On the rare occasions when Frank did see him, he was always heading off somewhere with a clear purpose. He’d give Frank a curt nod, then keep walking, his jaw set with determination. Frank was definitely curious as to what he was up to, but he would wait for Bob to share before he asked any questions.

Bob showed up at lunch that day looking more relaxed than he had in days. He dropped down on the couch beside Frank, tossing his backpack onto the floor, and sank in with a contented sigh. “You have no idea,” he mumbled, eyes closed, “How fucking annoying the people in this school are.”

“Pretty damn annoying, if you’re any indication,” said Frank, grinning. He leaned back a few inches, preemptively dodging a blow, but Bob didn’t even move to hit him. Frank’s eyebrows shot up. “Woah, you’re in a good mood. What’s up?”

Ray sat bolt upright, his lunchbag clutched tight in his hands. “Did you find them?” he asked, wide-eyed. “The person who’s spreading all the rumors?”

“Keep your voice down,” Bob muttered. “I might have. I’m not sure yet, though. I need to test one more thing.” He got to his feet, scanning around the library. After a moment, he seemed to find what he was looking for, and he beckoned for Frank to follow him.

“Where are we going?” Frank asked, letting Bob lead him toward the lower library.

“Computer lab,” Bob said under his breath. “Don’t ask questions, just play along.”

They reached the bottom of the steps, and as soon as Bob had his hand on the door to the computer lab, he started talking: “And I just don’t know what to do. My mom’s out of work again, but she’s having trouble looking for a job ‘cause she has to watch my sisters all the time.” He let the door swing shut behind them, sighing dramatically as he made his way to a computer. Frank tried not to let his bemusement show.

“The food stamps don’t do shit,” Bob continued, not bothering to lower his voice. “I’m basically giving Abby and Evie everything I’ve got. It’s not gonna last long, though.” Frank cast a furtive glance at the other people in the lab. A girl from Frank’s math class was tapping away at one of the computers in the front of the room, the keys clacking loudly; Alicia was sitting in the corner, reading something on her screen; and a boy who Frank thought was named Adam was scribbling something down onto a sheet of paper. None of them were paying any attention to Bob. “Hurry up and print your thing, Frank, I gotta get home.”

Frank raised an eyebrow. Bob gestured impatiently toward a computer, and Frank sat down to log himself in. As soon as the desktop had loaded, he opened up a blank file and typed out a message.

ok what the hell is going on

Bob leaned over to write a response. “Wait, let me do something,” he said. “See? That makes the paragraph flow better.”

Frank nodded slowly. “Yeah… uh, thanks.”

just pretend you’re printing an essay, read the screen. i want them to overhear us.

why? Frank typed.

Bob sighed. “Frank, we haven’t got all day. It looks fine. Just print it, I have to pick up my sisters.”

Frank closed the file and clicked a few random spots on the screen, then logged himself out and stood up. “Done,” he declared. “We can go now.”

“Thank God.” Bob steered him out of the computer lab. “Hey, do you have granola bars in your bag? We ran out,” he said on their way out the door. Once it swung shut behind him, he glanced over his shoulder and said, “Okay, coast is clear.”

“What was that about?” Frank asked, craning his neck to look back at the computer lab.

Bob hit him in the shoulder. “Stop looking,” he hissed. “I wanted them to hear shit about me. If it starts circling around in a couple days, then I’ll know they overheard me, and I’ll know who it is. Then we can finally take them down.”

Frank stared. “If you wanted to spread rumors about yourself, why the hell didn’t you just lie? You didn’t have to say something true!”

“They would’ve found out soon anyway,” Bob said shortly. “Whoever the source is, they’re onto me. It’s only a matter of time until I get fucking followed home or something. I wanted to do this my way, not theirs. Nobody gets to say shit about me but me.”

He sat down on the couch, where Ray was waiting, looking just as confused as Frank had been. “What just happened?” he asked. “Who’s saying shit about Bob?”

“That,” said Bob, “Is exactly what we’re about to find out.”

Two days later, Frank heard it. The whispering. He’d gotten good at tuning it out, but this time, it caught his attention. This time, Bob’s name was mixed in.

“Did you hear about that Bryar kid?”

“I hear he steals food all the time so he can feed his family. Poor guy.”

“Somebody should help him!”

“Hm. I’d watch your purse if I were you. Amanda said he was eyeing her bag in gym.”

Bob didn’t seem at all bothered by it. In fact, when Frank first brought it up he looked nothing short of delighted. “They’re talking about me? Mother fuck, I was right. I was right!”

And then he ran off down the hall, leaving Frank confused and alone.

For the rest of the day, he was impossible to track down. Frank only managed to corner him after the final bell had rung. He was waiting by the main entrance, and Frank barely managed to wait until Ray had caught up with them before blurting out, “Okay, what the hell is going on?”

“I found the gossip girl,” said Bob, looking pleased with himself.

“Well?” Ray demanded. “Who is it?”

“Alicia,” said Bob.

Frank stared. “Not… Halloway’s intern?”

“Alicia Simmons?” Ray squeaked. “What? No way! She’s so nice!”

“Is she, though?” Frank mused, picturing Alicia’s blank stare, the snap of her bubble gum as she looked the other way. “It’s always the quiet ones.”

“It’s her, no doubt about it,” Bob said grimly. “She was in the computer lab with us, remember?”

“She wasn’t the only one, though. What if it was one of the others?” Frank asked.

“Nope. It was her. I hacked into her district login and checked her history.” Bob held up his phone. “She was on Twitter that day, probably at the same time we were there. I’m willing to bet it was the gossip account.”

“How the hell did you get her internet history?” Ray asked, wide-eyed.

“What, you scared he’s gonna check yours?” Frank said, smirking.

Ray elbowed him. “I’m serious!”

Bob shrugged. “I called in a favor with one of the tech-heads. They owe me.”

Frank didn’t even want to know.

“So, what do we do now?” he asked.

Bob smiled. There was an evil glint in his eyes. “I say we give her a taste of her own medicine.”

“Fuck yes,” Frank said instantly. “What are we talking here? We should say she’s having an affair with a teacher.”

“No!” said Ray, scandalized. “That could get somebody fired!”

“Shut up, I’ve already got a plan,” Bob said calmly. “She took the early SATs this year. I checked the website, and we’re still within the timeframe to report instances of cheating.”

They all went quiet.

“Bob,” said Ray, awe-struck. “That’s serious. That could ruin her applications.”

“Exactly.”

Ray hesitated, but Bob cut him off. “Come on, don’t tell me she doesn’t deserve it,” he said scornfully. “How many times has Frank gotten hurt because of her? How many friendships has she destroyed? She turned this school into a war zone, Ray. This is better then she deserves.”

“Can we think about it for a while?” Ray said in a small voice. “I want to get back at her, I do, but that’s… it feels like too much. Let’s just focus on Gerard for a while and then see what happens.”

Frank wasn’t sure where he stood. He definitely agreed with Bob on one front - the thrill of revenge was one unlike any other. He’d be glad to get back at Alicia for everything she’d done. But Ray had a point, too. Frank didn’t know what Alicia’s life goals were, but he hesitated to ruin them over a drama that they’d all leave behind in a few years.

“Fine,” Bob huffed. “But I’m totally telling everyone she has an STD.”

Frank grinned. Now that, he could get behind.

***

That afternoon, Frank walked home by himself for the first time in weeks. Bob had a meeting with his guidance counselor, and Ray's mom had picked him up early for a doctor's appointment. He promised that he would text Frank later if Halloway's book yielded anything interesting. In the meantime, Frank was left to trudge across the parking lot in the direction of his house, blaring the Bouncing Souls through his earbuds.

When he walked alone, he didn't think. He just put one foot in front of the other, losing himself in his music and forgetting the world around him. The sound of a car pulling up was lost in the smashing of the drums. He barely noticed it until a flash of movement caught his eye, and he looked up just in time to get a bottle of water thrown at his head. It smacked into his forehead and spilled over his shirt. “Fuckin’ fag!” a voice yelled.

For a second, Frank could only blink, his mind slow to process what had just happened.

Then the shock faded, and it was replaced by anger. “What the fuck?” he shouted, and Ian’s face smirked at him from the open car window before it sped away with a roar. Their jeers and laughter faded away into the distance.

“Fuck,” Frank said again. He watched the car shrink into the distance, acutely aware of the damp patches in his shirt. He wiped at his face, cursing under his breath. This was getting ridiculous. Having to keep his head down at school was one thing, but out here, in the real world? That was too much. If they tried it again, Frank would kick Ian’s teeth in, consequences be damned. They wouldn’t catch him with his guard down.

The hot fury in his blood only cooled when he remembered Gerard, who was waiting at home as always, and would undoubtedly freak out when he heard what had happened. Seeing Frank angry would only make him more worried. Frank took deep breaths, his heart rate beginning to slow as he started walking again. His shirt was already beginning to dry. Really, there was no harm done.

Okay, that was a bullshit lie, but he didn’t need to stew any longer. He would be okay.

Ten minutes later, Frank unlocked his front door and went inside.

Gerard was quick to appear at the top of the stairs. Frank couldn’t help but smile up at him, but Gerard didn’t smile back. He knitted his brow in concern and popped up right before Frank, tugging at one of the damp patches in his shirt. “What’s this?”

“It’s nothing, I just…” Frank searched for a suitable lie, but came up with nothing. There was no ordinary reason for him to come home soaking wet. He grimaced and went for the truth: “I got a water bottle thrown at my head.”

Gerard scowled. “Tell me it wasn’t the same fuckers as before.” He let go of Frank’s shirt. “It was, wasn’t it? They always piss you off like this. I can, like… feel them on you. I don’t like it, it’s weird.”

“Yeah, it was them. Doesn’t matter, though. They can all eat shit,” Frank muttered. He started heading up the stairs, Gerard on his tail.

“You have to tell your mom,” he said.

Frank stopped and looked over his shoulder. “No, he said firmly, then turned and kept walking.

“What? Why not?” Gerard vanished and reappeared at Frank’s bedroom door, upset. “Look, I know she probably can’t do much to help, but she should at least know. Maybe she can talk to somebody who can.”

“Nobody can help,” Frank muttered. “That’s not how it works. Nothing any adult says is gonna put them off. If they touch me again, I’ll kick their asses myself.”

Gerard sighed. “I know. I… Believe me, I know.” His feet touched down on the ground, and he pulled on the strings of his hoodie the way he always did when he didn’t know what to say. “Would you please talk to her, though? For me?”

Frank waited for Gerard to step aside so he could get into his room. When he didn’t move, Frank shook his head wearily. “Whatever. If she’s off work any time soon, I could try. Maybe.”

Gerard smiled and let Frank pass. Frank’s concession seemed to have put him in a much better mood, because he floated right up to his usual seat on Frank’s dresser. Frank set his backpack on his bed. Without his friends over, he could get some homework done, but he dismissed that thought as soon as it occurred to him. Later. Maybe. If he had the energy.

Just as he was resolving to waste the evening away doing nothing, his phone buzzed. It practically vibrated out of his pocket by the time he pulled it out, notifications from Ray filling the lock screen. “Hey, Gerard?” he said slowly. “Remember that book I told you about? The one we got from Halloway?”

Gerard nodded. “The one you think is bullshit, yeah.”

“Yeah, about that. I might’ve spoken too soon. I think Ray found something.”

The screen lit up with an incoming call.

Frank accepted it. Before he could even say hello, Ray burst out with, “Okay, hear me out - this whole time we’ve been trying spells to open our eyes and see ghosts and shit, but what if the problem isn’t with us? What if it’s with him?”

Frank blinked. “Say that again, slower?”

“All I’m saying is, maybe there’s a reason we haven’t had any luck,” Ray explained. “Maybe we’ve been trying to solve the wrong problem. I couldn’t find any spells for making spirits visible, but I did find one to make them stronger. What if we can’t see Gerard because he’s just not strong enough?”

“That still doesn’t explain why I can see him,” Frank pointed out.

“Well, it’s not a perfect theory,” Ray amended. “But it’s something. I think we should try this spell. I’d come over now, but I’ve gotta make dinner, so… Could we do it tomorrow? Bob should be free, too.”

“Yeah, that’s fine with me. See you then.” Frank hung up, then looked at Gerard. “Sounds like we’re gonna be levelling you up tomorrow.”

“Which means?” Gerard questioned.

Frank shrugged. “Ray thinks people can’t see you because you’re not a very powerful spirit, so we’re gonna try a thing to make you stronger. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else, but for now it’s the best lead we’ve got.”

Gerard’s face lit up. “It’s a start,” he said, and he sounded so damn hopeful, Frank couldn’t bear the thought of one more unsuccessful trial. One way or another, Gerard’s friends would see him again. Frank was determined to make it happen. Maybe it wouldn’t be tomorrow, but it would be soon.

It had to be.

***

“I think it’s time we held an intervention,” Bob murmured to Frank, who nodded. Ray was crouched down on the floor, lighting a row of candles with a match. His hair was tied up into a messy bun at the back of his head. He pretended not to hear Frank and Bob, retaining dignity as he moved on to the next step of his setup, but he lost it when the match burnt down to his fingers, causing him to swear loudly and drop it on the floor. Bob stamped on it to put it out.

“See, this is what we’re talking about,” he said patiently. “You’re gonna burn the place down if you’re not careful.”

“Well, maybe if you’d stop standing around and actually lend me a hand, we wouldn’t have that problem,” Ray retorted. Bob raised his hands in surrender and sat down next to him, awaiting instructions.

Ray set down the box of matches. “This spell is more complicated than the stuff we’ve attempted in the past,” he said. “We have to finish it at exactly midnight, and Gerard has to be standing in there.” He pointed to a circle he had drawn on the floor with chalk. Patterns of white criss-crossed through the center and wound around the edges. It was slightly reminiscent of a pentagram, but less foreboding, somehow. Frank checked his alarm clock. It read 10:47. They had just enough time to prepare before beginning the ritual.

“What else do we have to do?” Bob asked.

Ray grimaced. “A lot. There’s a shit ton of Latin -”

“Dibs on not doing that,” said Frank.

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to. You’d probably fuck it up,” Ray said, a little apologetically. “No offense. I’ve been reading up on pronunciations, and if you say it even a little wrong, the spell can go bad.”

“How do you have time for all this stuff?” Bob wondered. “I can’t even finish my calc assignments.”

“Well, I don’t sleep much,” Ray said, a little too brightly. “But that’s okay! We’re getting things done. Anyway, I’ve got to do the incantation work, and you and Frank can tackle the other stuff. I’m gonna need you to wash these with salt water,” he said, grabbing a small bag and holding it up. He shook it, and it made a rattling noise. “Gems,” he explained, before either of them could ask.

“I’m on it,” said Bob, taking the bag and leaving the room.

“Careful with the calcite, it dissolves in water,” Ray called after him.

“Which one is calcite?” came Bob’s muffled voice.

“The one that tastes like salt.”

There was a pause. “Dude, I’m not licking a rock.”

Ray rolled his eyes. “Bob, it’s literally salt in crystal form. Just lick it.”

“I’m not licking it! Why the hell am I washing salt in salt water, anyway?” There was a hiss and rush of water as the tap was turned on.

“No, you’re not washing the calcite, that’s what I’m trying to…” Ray heaved a sigh. “Okay, let me do it. Frank, look in my bag, there should be a couple things of incense. Could you light them for me?” He pushed himself to his feet and padded after Bob.

Frank nodded and dug into Ray’s messenger bag. Anyone who wasn’t familiar with him would have been completely bewildered by the contents, but Frank had gotten used to it. He sorted through a mix of half-finished homework assignments, little cloth bags labeled “banishing spell,” stubby pencils, and what looked disturbingly like a bird skeleton before he found the incense.

“Got it,” he called. “Bob, you brought the holder thingy, right?”

“Yeah, it’s in my backpack,” was the response. Frank unzipped Bob’s bag. Sitting on top of a few papers was a round wooden incense holder. Compared to Ray’s war zone of a bag, Bob’s was much more barren. The only things inside were a few stray papers and fruits from the school lunches - two pears and an apple, tucked safely into the inside pocket.

The sight of them sent a twinge of guilt through Frank’s stomach. So much had been going on, he hadn’t been paying as much attention to Bob’s problems. He made a mental note to talk to him sometime soon, just to make sure things were okay.

Frank took the incense holder and set it on the floor. After popping the sticks in, he gave them a cautious sniff, and made a face. On their own, they weren’t bad, but it was a weird scent combo.

“Ray, you’re gonna make my room stink!” he complained.

Gerard stuck his head in the doorway. “I don’t think it smells that bad,” he commented. “It’s like one of those hippie cosmetics stores.”

“It’s… cinnamon and cedarwood,” Frank said, reading aloud from the packages. “Why couldn’t we have picked ones that work well together?”

“They do work well together,” Ray said, appearing in the hallway outside. “Maybe not in terms of scent, but their magical properties complement each other quite nicely - oh!” He had accidentally walked right through Gerard, and cut himself off with a shudder. Frank thanked the lord for interrupting what probably would have been a long-winded explanation.

“That feels so fucking weird,” Gerard said, shivering almost as hard as Ray.

“Well, hopefully after tonight we won’t have that problem anymore,” said Frank.

“Yes! Exactly,” said Ray, rubbing his arms, which were now covered in goosebumps. “Now, this ritual isn’t specifically for making him visible, but it will make him stronger, and I’m hoping that might equate to the same thing.” He knelt down and arranged the candles and incense in a ring around their chalk circle. “Now comes the hard part.”

Bob came into the room with a dripping handful of colored stones. “Where do I put these?” he asked.

Ray glanced up. “Just set them anywhere for now, we don’t need them until later.” He reached into his bag and pulled out - yeah, that was a definitely a bird skeleton. Frank stared at it for a minute before giving up and asking, “Okay, what the fuck?”

Ray’s cheeks went pink. “I didn’t kill it,” he said defensively. “My dad found it on a hike a while back. We needed some kind of remains from something living, and this is better than a blood sacrifice, isn’t it?”

“Better,” Frank concluded, “But still weird.”

“At least it’s clean,” Bob mumbled. It was true; the bones were bleached white and dry to the touch, like something you would find in a classroom. Frank wouldn’t have set foot near them if they weren’t. Dead things were a cool concept, but if somebody brought a rotting bird corpse into his bedroom, he would probably flip out.

Ray gave them both a look and returned to his work. Frank and Bob watched in silence; at this point, there was nothing more they could do. The details of witchcraft were way beyond Frank’s realm of knowledge. He didn’t have the patience to wade through books and experiments the way Ray did.

“You know,” Gerard said thoughtfully, floating on his back, “This is probably the coolest thing that’s ever happened in my room.”

“Spoken like a true virgin,” Frank said with a grin. Gerard spluttered and fell by a few inches while Ray gave Frank the side-eye.

“I’m guessing your conversations will make more sense when I can hear both sides of them,” he said.

“Definitely,” said Frank, climbing up onto his bed. “They’re great. You’ll see.” He shot an evil grin up at Gerard, who stuck his tongue out.

They watched Ray work for another few minutes before he sat back on his heels, wiped his forehead, and declared them ready. According to Frank’s alarm clock, they had two minutes remaining. Gerard floated over to the chalk circle and touched down within it.

“I just wait here?” he asked. Frank repeated the question to Ray, who nodded.

“I’m gonna start the ritual now,” he said. “Frank, Bob, be quiet; I need to concentrate. Don’t do anything unless I tell you to.” And with that, his expression shifted into something more serious, and Frank swore he felt the air grow cooler.

Wisps of smoke curled from the tips of the incense sticks. Ray held his hands palm-up, crooking his fingers in a way that somehow drew the smoke toward him. He hummed under his breath, taking his book and opening to a bookmarked page. The smoke circled slowly above it. Ray reached for a clear stone and passed it over the burning candles; his motions methodical and practiced, betraying no anxiety.

Frank looked at Bob. In the flickering candlelight, his silence was made solemn. Their eyes met, but neither of them spoke. Frank hardly dared to breathe. From within his circle, Gerard’s skin glowed with a soft light.

Ray began to read.

Conteram per vincula vitae,” he murmured. “Spiritus quidem libera.” Frank glanced down at the markings at Gerard’s feet and was surprised to find them glowing too; with every word from Ray’s lips, the light grew a little brighter. It was a crackly red-orange, like the light of dying coals. Gerard looked somewhere between excited and freaked out.

Exaudi orationem meam,” said Ray, raising his voice, “Et spiritus erit crescere sua potestate.”

“Woah,” Gerard breathed, his voice barely audible. He held up his hands, turning them over as if seeing them for the first time. “Dude, that feels weird.”

Frank opened his mouth to ask what he meant, but Ray silenced him with a glare as he went on with the incantation. Frank kept quiet after that. Before, he’d been a bit skeptical as to whether this would really work, considering nothing else had - but looking at Gerard, all his doubts vanished instantly.

The markings at his feet were burning, with waves of heat rising from the floor, distorting the ember glow. Bob’s jaw was tense. Frank could only watch in wide-eyed wonder as the flames of the candles flared. Ray raised his hands.

Rogamus audi nos.”

A cold wind blew through the room, extinguishing all the candles with a puff of smoke.

Ray lowered his hands.

“I think that’s it,” he whispered.

“Did it work?” Frank asked. “Can you see him?”

Ray shook his head. He and Bob both looked disappointed, but Gerard was practically bouncing with excitement.

“Frank!” he said. “I think it did work! Not the way they thought it would, but I feel different. Stronger. It’s like… something got opened. Oh!” Gerard’s eyes went wide. “Oh, I’ve got an idea!” He jumped out of the circle and tackled Frank to the floor. All the air was knocked out of Frank’s lungs as his back hit the ground.

“Jeez, dude, you’re fucking heavy,” he groaned.

“I know!” said Gerard, thrilled. “Isn’t it awesome?”

Frank’s eyes snapped open. “Oh. Oh.” He shoved Gerard off him and struggled to sit up. “Dude, are you solid now?”

“Not - not permanently, I don’t think. But it’s easier. Like I can just flip a switch, and,” Gerard snapped his fingers, “Boom.”

“Holy shit,” Ray said faintly.

“He’s got a solid form now,” said Frank, not looking away from Gerard, who was gleefully poking him in the knee. “Kind of. He could do that before, but it was hard. He always crashed afterwards.”

“We know,” Bob said blankly.

Frank raised his eyebrows.

“We can hear him,” Ray said, and all at once, he was smiling so hard it must have hurt. “Get over here, asshole!”

Gerard didn’t need to be told twice. He threw his arms around Ray, and Ray shrieked, but his surprise quickly turned to delight. He hugged Gerard back with all his might. “Wow,” he said giddily. “You really are freezing.”

“No I’m not, you’re just warm!”

“Quit hogging the ghost,” Bob said irritably. “Don’t I get hugs?” He held out his arms for what might have been the grumpiest hug ever, but Frank saw the way he smiled when Gerard squeezed him.

“Gerard!” Ray said suddenly. “Do you think you’d be able to leave the house now?”

Gerard opened his mouth, shut it, and disappeared without a trace. Frank ran to the window just in time to see him bounce off the fence.

A moment later, Gerard reappeared in the bedroom, frowning. “That’d be a no,” he said. “I still can’t get past the edge of the yard.”

“Well, shit,” said Bob, disappointed. “No going out and haunting the neighborhood for us, then.”

“We couldn’t do that anyway,” Ray reminded him. “It’s getting late. Actually,” he glanced at Frank’s alarm clock, “We should probably turn in now. Tomorrow’s another big day!” He held up his notebook, and Frank heaved a sigh.

“No,” Bob groaned. “ We just spent hours on this shit. I’ve got nothing against helping Gerard, okay, but I need rest. Tomorrow is pizza and video games and mindless fuckery, and if you try to get a book in my face, so help me, I will summon a demon on your ass.”

Ray chewed on his lip, but nodded. “Yeah, okay. Help me clean up and we can pass out.”

Clearing up was easier than Frank expected. Gerard’s good mood was infectious. No work could seem too hard while he was tossing Ray’s crystals from hand to hand, smiling to himself before finally letting them drop into Ray’s bag. Bob packed away the candles, Frank stowed the spellbook away, and between the four of them, the work was done in record time. Frank’s floorboards still held faint smears of chalk, and a heavy scent of spices and pine still lingered in the air, but some things just couldn’t be avoided. Frank was far too tired to care. Once the magic died, exhaustion was quick to creep up on him, and no one was going to keep him from the comfort of his bed any longer.

He wasn’t surprised when Gerard laid down next to him. By this point, it wasn’t unusual. Gerard didn’t need to sleep, but he liked having body heat nearby, and if he closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift away, it was almost like dreaming. Frank wasn’t complaining. Any excuse to cuddle Gerard without seeming like a weirdo was a blessing in his eyes.

“Night, everyone,” Ray whispered. “Night, Gee. Today was good. I bet we’ll be able to see you soon, huh?”

Gerard mumbled something indistinct and wrapped one arm around Frank’s waist. Frank resisted the urge to lean back into his touch.

Instead, he closed his eyes and willed sleep to come.

***

Frank was about to slip into his first period class when Bob caught up with him, grabbing hold of his arm. “Frank, we’re gonna do it today,” he said.

Frank blinked. “Do what?”

“Talk to Alicia. We don’t actually have to report her to the College Board, but we can still threaten her, right?” Bob smirked. “It’s gonna be good. See you at lunch.”

He let go of Frank’s arm and swept off down the hall. Frank stared after him, a grin slowly spreading across his face. Finally. He could already picture the look on Alicia’s face - she so had it coming to her.

For the next few hours, his mind was filled with thoughts of sweet revenge.

Bob met him outside the library. As they waited for Ray, Frank imagined what the hallways would sound like with people talking at a normal volume, not caring who might overhear them. What the students would be like when they weren’t caught up in petty rivalries. What would happen to Alicia once they exposed her.

That was the part that made him smile the widest.

“You look evil,” said Ray when he set eyes on Frank. “We’re about to turn her whole life upside down, don’t look so happy about it.”

Frank snorted. “Don’t pretend you’re not excited.”

“I do feel a little bad,” Ray began, but Bob elbowed him in the ribs, and he cut himself off with a shake of his head. “Okay, fine. Yes. She’s a bitch, and she totally deserves it after what she did to you, but don’t smile like that, Frank. It’s fucking creepy.”

Frank stuck his tongue out. Bob tugged them both into the library.

It took Frank a second to locate Alicia. She was sitting at one of the tables, absorbed in a textbook. Bob made a beeline for her and pulled out the chair across from her. As he sat down, Frank and Ray took the other two chairs.

Alicia looked up. “Hi, guys,” she said. “Come to suffer with me?”

“No. Actually, we came to ask why you’ve been spreading bullshit lies about everyone since school started,” Bob said bluntly.

Alicia startled. “I - what?”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. The volleyball-versus-soccer feud? The cheerleaders’ thing? The Gerard-Way-killed-himself-because-Bob-and-Ray-are-shitty-friends thing?” His smile was cold. “Don’t play dumb.”

Alicia’s face had been growing steadily paler as he spoke. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “I never said anything about you.”

“Stop it. We figured it out, okay? You don’t need to pretend anymore. All you need to do is admit that you fucked up and apologize to everyone you hurt.” Bob pointed to Frank. “Starting with him.”

“But I…” Alicia looked bewildered. “Bob, you know me.”

“Kind of,” said Ray. “A little. Not really.”

“But I didn’t - do you really think I’m the one behind everything that’s been going on?”

Frank’s brow furrowed. Alicia was a really good actress. Almost too good. He cast a furtive glance over at Ray, and they made eye contact, silently asking the same question.

“Bob, maybe we’ve got the wrong person,” Ray murmured.

“No we don’t,” Bob snapped. “It’s her. I was hunting her down for ages, okay? I know it was her.” He stood up and put his hands on the table, leaning over it toward Alicia. “I know what you did,” he said. “And you can’t hide it anymore. There are two ways we can do this. One - you can come clean. Or two - the College Board can find out you cheated on your SATs. Make the right choice.” He pushed his chair out and stormed off.

“I’ll go after him,” Ray said immediately.

Alicia watched him go, aghast. “Wh - Frank, they don’t actually believe I did this, do they?” She waited for a response, and when she received none, she leaned forward. “You don’t, do you?” she asked worriedly.

Frank frowned down at the table. Alicia sounded sincere. She looked sincere. But he trusted Bob, and he’d seen how hard Bob had worked to track down the right person. That work hadn’t been in vain.

“I don’t know,” he said honestly.

Alicia looked down at the table.

“What if I told you I didn’t know, either?” she said quietly.

Frank pushed out his chair and followed Ray and Bob. He didn’t turn his back to look at Alicia.

He didn’t know what to make of what she’d said, but it sounded like a confession, and that was good enough for him.

***

Frank hadn’t forgotten his promise to Gerard. He didn’t like it, but he did plan on telling Mom about Ian and Alicia and everybody who was bothering him. The only problem was finding the right time. Due to her busy schedule, they didn’t have much alone time until a few evenings later. With the homey scent of Mom’s vegetarian lasagna filling the air, Frank hesitated to say anything that might offset the comfortable mood, but he couldn’t procrastinate any longer.

“Hey, Mom?” he asked.

Mom looked up from the steaming pan in front of her. Her spatula hovered in midair over a plate, laden down with spinach and noodles. “Yeah?”

Frank took a deep breath. “Can I talk to you about something?”

Mom set down her spatula. She turned and leaned her back against the counter, waiting for Frank to continue.

Frank wasn’t sure where to begin. He’d done such a good job keeping it from her. All he had to do to hide the bruises was steal a bit of her concealer, and boom, problem solved.

Keeping secrets was a lot easier than letting them go.

“I got in a fight again,” he said.

Mom sighed. “I know.”

Well, shit. Maybe Frank wasn’t so good at hiding things after all.

“I know it must not be as bad as before, or you would’ve said something earlier, but I do wish you’d told me. I’ve been waiting for this ever since you came home with that bloody nose. I thought you would’ve come to me by now.” She sounded disappointed, and even though Frank knew it wasn’t directed at him, he hated to hear it in her voice. This was supposed to be over. They were supposed to have left it behind at his old school, but there he was, still getting in trouble.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s not as bad as before, don’t worry. It hasn’t even been that bad in general. Ray and Bob watch out for me. But I thought you should know.” Honestly, Frank would have been content to keep it secret if it weren’t for Gerard’s request. He could handle things on his own. But he supposed Mom did have the right to know.

“Is this something I need to talk to your guidance counselor about?” Mom asked. Frank shuddered.

“No way. From what I’ve heard, the counselors here don’t do shit. I don’t need them. I’m a senior, it’s not that big a deal. It’ll blow over or it won’t, but whatever happens, I’m getting out of here in a few months.”

“But you shouldn’t have to suffer through those months,” Mom said gently. “You’re supposed to enjoy this year.”

“Anybody who enjoys high school is out of their mind, nevermind what year they’re in,” Frank snorted. Mom looked like she wanted to argue more, but she just shook her head.

“All right, all right. I get it,” she said, raising her hands. “You’re a strong independent man who doesn’t need anybody. But remember that it’s fine to need help, okay? It doesn’t make you weak.”

“I know, Mom.”

“I’m glad. But just so you know, I will be speaking with the principal; you’ve got to allow me that much. I assume he’ll take it up with whoever’s causing trouble. I’ll ask him not to reference you by name, if that saves you any embarrassment.”

“It doesn’t, but thanks.” Frank eyed the lasagna on the counter, which had stopped steaming. “Can we eat now? I’m starving.”

Mom laughed. “Yes, of course.” She resumed scooping out servings for the two of them and carried them to the table. Frank dug in eagerly. Mom watched him for a moment, then laced her fingers together and rested her chin in her hands.

“So,” she said. “As long as we’re talking about enjoying your senior year, have you given college any thought lately?”

Frank made a face. “The words ‘college’ and ‘enjoy’ don’t belong in the same sentence.”

Mom frowned. “I’m serious. I hate to rush you, Frankie, but there are deadlines to think about. Did you look at those brochures when you stayed home from school that time?”

“Yeah,” said Frank. It was only half a lie. He had looked at them, it just hadn’t been for very long. Five seconds counted as a look, right?

“And?” Mom pressed.

Frank hesitated. He could make something up. That’s what he’d been doing for a while; feeding her half-baked ideas about majors or scholarships or whatever would keep her satisfied. But that wasn’t what he wanted. If tonight was a night for honesty, she needed to know.

“Mom, I don’t know if I want to go to college.”

Frank braced himself for the lecture. He had already imagined every possible reaction; he was prepared for shock, for anger, for her to order him to go.

Instead, Mom gave him a half-smile.

“I suspected as much,” she said. “Never could get you away from that guitar of yours.”

Frank blinked. “And you’re… okay with that? You’re not disappointed?”

“Disappointed? Never,” Mom said dismissively. “It’s not my job to decide what you do with your life.” She paused. “In all honesty, it does worry me a bit. You’re going to have a very tough time, honey - but you know that already. You must.”

Frank nodded.

Mom’s eyes twinkled. “Well, if there’s anybody who can make it out there, it’s you, Frankie. You’ve got something special.”

Frank ducked his head, blushing a bit. “Mom, don’t.”

“It’s true! Ever since the first time I saw you pick up an instrument, I knew you’d never put it down.” Mom smiled. Frank had been so sure she would be disappointed, but he could only find pride in her gaze. “If there’s one thing you learn as a parent, it’s that you never tell your child to give up on their dreams,” she said. “Music is a rough path, but if it’s what you want to do, I’ll be at your side every step of the way.”

Frank grinned widely, and he couldn’t resist leaning over the table to give her a hug.

After dinner, he found Gerard waiting for him upstairs. Sometimes he floated around in the background when Frank was with his mom, but for the most part, he left them alone. They had a right to privacy.

That didn’t mean he didn’t occasionally listen in, though. “See?” he said happily. “I told you everything would work out if you just told her.”

“Everything hasn’t worked out yet,” Frank reminded him. “There’s no guarantee anything’s going to change.”

Gerard shrugged. “Even if nothing does, at least she knows. That’s the first step.”

Frank was tempted to argue, but deep down, he knew Gerard was right. Even if absolutely nothing changed, it was nice to have nothing to hide. It was one less burden for him to carry.

“But let’s hope all of this is irrelevant and you don’t get beat up anymore,” said Gerard.

“Beat up?” said Frank, offended. “I don’t get beat up; I get in fights. There’s a difference.”

“You come out of fights with black eyes and blood on your face,” Gerard corrected. “That seems pretty beat up to me.”

“Yeah?” Frank snorted, reaching for the TV remote. “I’ll show you beat up. You’ll never see me admit defeat ‘til I come home with broken bones.” He clicked the TV on and scrolled aimlessly through the channels, searching more for a way to kill time than for an actual show to watch.

When he glanced up, Gerard’s smile had faded.

“Don’t joke about that,” he said, suddenly distressed. “I wish… I wish they wouldn’t bother you so much. You don’t deserve it.”

The air between them had shifted, like a cloud passing over the sun. All of a sudden, Gerard was staring off into the distance, biting his lip. Frank sat up, slightly confused. He felt like he’d missed a step, fumbled, and now he was rushing to cover his mistake.

“Dude, it’s okay. I’m fine, you don’t need to worry about me.”

“But I do,” said Gerard, and he still had that kicked-puppy face on, the one with the big sad eyes and the tiny frown that made Frank want to lean over and kiss him until it went away. “Frank, can you even imagine what it’s like? You keep coming home with your face all fucked up because some asshole decided to screw with you, and I’m just stuck here. I can’t do anything about it. I can’t protect you like Bob or Ray.”

Frank turned the TV back off.

“Gerard,” he said. “Everything is gonna be fine. I’ve seen way worse shit in my life than Ian Walker.” He knocked his knee against Gerard’s. It was thankfully solid; Gerard had been keeping his form substantial as often as he could now that it was easier.

“But that’s the point!” said Gerard, upset. “I hate how people only see what they want to. You’re not just… whatever they think of you. You’re amazing! You can play guitar and write poetry and take cool pictures and kick Bob’s ass at Smash Bros, and people think they can just reduce you down to a target, and it’s… It sucks. You don’t deserve any of that.”

“Neither did you,” Frank said simply. “The world sucks.”

“But it was different with me,” Gerard said. He raised his voice, gesturing with his hands a bit more, and Frank could tell he was leading up to something. “I was different, Frank, I didn’t stand up to them the way you do. I just let them walk all over me. I was the weird kid with the dyed hair and the vampires -”

“Vampires?” Frank said interestedly.

“I went through a phase, shut up - but that’s not the point. The point is, I was…” Gerard waved his hands around helplessly. “I was me. You’re you. I was a nobody, but you’re fucking amazing, Frank, and it just seems wrong that there are people out there who would treat you like anything less!”

“Again,” Frank said. “You just said everything I’ve been thinking about you.”

Gerard still didn’t seem convinced. Frank searched for any words to explain what he was thinking, to capture the fierce affection that burned on in his heart, but came up with nothing.

So he grabbed Gerard by the front of his hoodie and kissed him.

It was like flicking a switch. Gerard's mouth opened instantly beneath his, soft and cool to the touch. He sighed into Frank's mouth, and Frank shivered, pressing closer. His fingers curled into Gerard's hair. His heart felt like it might jump out of his chest, and there was an electric current buzzing beneath his skin, tingling in every spot they touched. This was happening. After all this waiting, he was kissing Gerard.

He wished he could stop time and tuck this moment away, as a keepsake to hold deep in his heart forever, safe beneath layers of sweet memory.

Gerard was the first to pull away. His cheeks were flushed red, and Frank realized with a start that he was almost sitting in Gerard’s lap. He shifted back, but it was reluctant - the slightest signal from Gerard, and he’d be all too happy to resume his former position.

"Frank," Gerard said, his voice slightly hoarse. It made Frank shiver.

"Yeah?" he asked. Any other time he might have been embarrassed by the need so apparent in his voice, but now, all he wanted to do was close the gap between them and kiss Gerard stupid. There was a magnetic force between them that grew stronger every second they were apart. Frank was powerless to resist its pull.

He leaned in again, but Gerard placed a hand on his chest to stop him.

"Frank," he said quietly. "We can't."

Frank stopped, confused. "What do you mean?"

"What do you think I mean?"

It was hard to take Gerard seriously when his gaze kept flicking down to Frank's lips, but Frank felt something inside him slowly drop.

"You want to, though," he tried. Gerard bit his lip, and that was all the confirmation Frank needed. "You want to,” he said, more confidently this time.

Gerard made a frustrated noise. "What do you think?" He waited for Frank to respond, but was met with silence. "Of course I do! I wouldn't have - I mean, obviously! But we can't. I wanted it, but I never thought it was mutual, or I wouldn't have..." He raked his fingers through his hair, agitated. "Fuck. I'm sorry, Frank, I fucked it up. I'm sorry."

Frank reached out for him, but Gerard disappeared before their hands could touch.

"Oh, come on," said Frank, then, louder: "Come on! Gerard, you can't just run away from me!" His insides churned with conflicting emotions; initial delight upon hearing Gerard admit that he wanted Frank, apparently enough that it should be obvious; leftover adrenaline from the feeling of Gerard's mouth on his; and a sick, swooping feeling of anticipation for the words he didn't want to hear.

We can't.

"Gerard," he said desperately. "Please. Come back."

He waited for Gerard to appear, to fill the empty space, but he didn't.

Nearly twenty minutes went by before he returned.

He appeared at the foot of Frank’s bed, shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry," he mumbled, not meeting Frank’s eyes. "I just needed to think for a bit."

"Okay," said Frank. His heart beat in an irregular rhythm; waiting for the moment it would stop, kick, restart again. The disappointment was sure to come. It was only a matter of when.

"How long?" Gerard asked in a small voice. "How long have you..."

“A while,” Frank said with a shrug. “Since I met you. Always, I guess.”

“Oh.” Gerard hesitated, then blurted out: “Me too. With you. Just so you know.”

Frank couldn’t help but smile; he just couldn’t. Gerard just winced and looked away.

“You know how it is, Frank. I’m…” He gestured down at himself. “You don’t really want this. Trust me.” He met Frank’s eyes, and though his own were clouded with sadness, it did nothing to diminish the intensity of his gaze. He wouldn’t be swayed easily. “I’m dead. Even if I pretend it’s not true, it is. I’m not sure if you understand that.”

Frank bristled. “Of course I understand. I’ve seen you walk through walls, Gerard -”

“That’s not what I meant,” Gerard said sharply. “You don’t understand the consequences. You might like me now, but what about later? What about when you’ve grown up and I’m stuck here like this?”

“But we’re working on that,” Frank reasoned. “You’re solid almost all the time now, we can totally find a way for you to leave the house -”

“Frank, stop it!” Gerard half-shouted. Frank startled, and guilt flickered across Gerard’s face, but he quickly regained his resolve. “Sorry. But we’ve got to be realistic here. I mean, even if we do find a way for me to look human again, what would we do? Pretend I’d magically come back to life? Give me a fake name, spend the rest of my life running? You’re not gonna want to be stuck with that when you’ve got a life of your own.”

“I wouldn’t be stuck with you,” Frank argued. “I want to help. You’re my best friend, I’d never just ditch you!”

“But you would!” Gerard said, throwing up his hands. “Any sane person would! Listen, according to the rest of the world, I’m not real. If you keep yourself chained to me, it’s only going to hurt us both. I wish… I wish I hadn’t acted so normal around you.” His voice had broken down to a whisper once more. Frank wanted to hold him close and tell him that everything would be okay, but he couldn’t, not even now that he had the power to.

He was lost; floating in a vast sea with nothing to tether himself to. He didn’t know what to do or say. All he could do was listen helplessly as Gerard went on.

“Maybe if I just let you see me for what I actually was, this wouldn’t have happened,” Gerard said bitterly. “You shouldn’t want me, Frank. You’ll get over it and you’ll wonder why you ever thought I was anything special. I’m not. I’m a memory. I’m a ghost. If you really understand that, you’ll know that the two of us would never work.”

And with that, something in Frank snapped.

"I do understand!" he exploded. He could handle rejection, he could handle almost anything - but he just couldn’t bear the idea of Gerard thinking he didn’t get it. Frank always got it. He’d been Gerard’s confidant from day one. They’d bared their souls to each other, and if Gerard was stupid enough to think Frank could miss the significance of his death, that was his problem. He hadn’t been there when Frank was crying over his grave. He didn't know just how much Frank understood. "I get it, Gerard, I really do, I just don't care!"

His words were followed by a ringing silence. Frank's mouth went dry.

In the past, when he had entertained thoughts of Gerard that went beyond what was strictly platonic, he never worried too much about the details of the future. They were insignificant in his eyes. The road ahead was a great unknown, but together, they would work it out. Frank would never allow anything to stand in their way.

He hadn’t really thought it, but he’d unconsciously thrown in his lot with Gerard, easy as blinking.

It just felt right.

"I've never cared that you're dead," he said quietly. "I just care that you're you."

Gerard buried his face in his hands. "God damn it," he said, voice muffled. When he took his hands away, they were shaking. "That's the problem. This is the fucking problem, Frank!" His voice broke, and Frank could see the tears shining in his eyes. "Why can't you see it? Ray, Bob, Mikey - I was never scared that they'd blame me. I was scared that they wouldn't. That you wouldn’t! I knew I’d get too attached, and then you wouldn’t want to let me go, and you - God, you made me feel like that was okay.” He shook his head, smiling, but it was a bitter smile, sharp as a knife’s edge. There were tears slowly tracing down his cheeks. “I really believed it for a while. I thought I could just pretend I was alive, and everything would be fine.” His voice cracked, and he swallowed a sob, scrubbing at his face with his sleeve.

“I might have stolen my own chances at a real life, but god damn it, I'm not stealing yours, too.” he said thickly.

At that, Frank gave up.

He held out his arms, not caring that Gerard might turn away.

Gerard didn’t.

He let Frank hold him, let him whisper softly; words that meant nothing in the long run, but were soothing in the moment. Maybe it helped, maybe it didn’t, but at least Frank felt like he was doing something. At least he could soothe the ache in his own heart.

Gerard wiped his eyes again, drawing a shuddery breath. “I want it so bad, Frank. Please don’t think I don’t. But I just… can’t.”

“I know,” Frank said softly. “It’s okay.” It hurt - it felt like a squeezing pressure in his chest, his heart twisted in all the wrong ways - but he couldn’t ask Gerard for something he wasn’t willing to give. That would be even worse.

“I’m sorry.”

Frank kissed his forehead. “Don’t be.”

“Wow,” Gerard said, managing to roll his red-rimmed eyes. “That really helps. Why didn’t I think of that before?”

Frank giggled, and when Gerard offered a watery smile in return, he almost felt better; as if nothing had happened, and they were just two best friends joking around on a perfect day.

Almost.

But not quite.

Chapter Text

Frank spent the next few days wanting to bang his head against a wall.

Talking to Gerard was awkward now. There was no avoiding that. Frank was only human, and rejection stung; dancing around the topic of his and Gerard's not-relationship took effort. It was like a set of boundaries had been put in place, but nobody had bothered to tell Frank where they were. He was feeling his way through the darkness with no idea where he was going.

Gerard had never been complicated before. In fact, he'd been the simplest thing in Frank's life; the one audience in front of which he could be completely honest. But all that had changed in an instant - Gerard didn't sleep next to him anymore, he didn't suddenly appear within inches of Frank's face to surprise him, he didn't hold eye contact. Sometimes, Frank would glance over at him just in time to see him quickly look away.

Every time it happened, Frank wanted to sink into the floor.

There was an itch under his skin, a feeling of discomfort that refused to fade. He'd pinned his heart to his sleeve, making his feelings impossible to miss, but after everything that had happened, he still had no idea what Gerard must be thinking. It was probably best that way.

But that didn't stop him from wondering.

Ray and Bob knew something was up. Bob was the first to notice, giving Frank’s shoulder a light shove as he passed him by in the hallway. “What’s up with you? You’re looking more emo than usual today.” Frank rolled his eyes and kept walking. Bob didn’t question it, as he had to duck through the door to his next class, but by lunch, the jig was up. Ray met Frank just within the entrance to the library with his arms folded over his chest.

“Bob said you looked sad,” he said. “What happened?”

In any other situation, their dedication to being there for him would have been sweet, but now, Frank kind of wanted to die. He mumbled something inaudible and tried to push past Ray, but Ray wouldn’t budge.

“Frank, I just want to help,” he pleaded. “We’re in this together, okay? Please -”

“It hasn’t got anything to do with Alicia,” Frank said. Ray must have recognized the truth in his voice - or maybe it was just bitterness - because he backed off immediately.

“Do you want to talk about it anyway?” he asked. Frank shook his head vehemently. He started heading over to the couch, where Bob was sitting and working on an assignment, but stopped before he made it halfway. “Actually,” he said abruptly, turning around to face Ray, “Question. Can we go to your house instead of mine today?”

A flicker of understanding passed through Ray’s expression. Frank didn’t know whether he should be embarrassed or relieved by it. “Yeah, of course,” Ray said with a smile. “My house is fine.”

Frank knew he was acting like a pussy, running away from the situation he didn’t want to face, but it was well within his right. His friends almost always tagged along to his house; they could afford to have him over this once. And Gerard could manage an afternoon without him. He’d probably be glad of it.

Frank didn’t want to be the one to break the awkward silences between them. Not today. He was still more than a little sore, and he needed space to breathe.

For the rest of the day, Ray didn’t mention Gerard once. Frank wasn’t sure if it was intentional or not, but given Ray’s usual tendency to ramble on about his paranormal discoveries, it probably was. He did a good job avoiding the subject. When Bob made offhanded references to Gerard, Ray neatly directed the conversation away. When he could have said something about his research, he didn’t.

It was a little freaky how good he was at protecting Frank’s feelings.

“Okay,” Frank murmured to him as they left the library, “Are you a mind reader, or am I that fucking obvious?”

Ray looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“You’re being all…” Frank gestured vaguely. “Y’know. Not talking about him because of me. Right?” He crossed his fingers and prayed to every god in the universe that he’d interpreted Ray’s actions correctly and hadn’t just made an idiot of himself.

Ray nodded, and Frank thanked the gods for their mercy. “I mean, I don’t know exactly what the situation is, but it’s pretty clear you need a break. We’re over at your house all the time, talking about him, doing shit for him... It’s a wonder you didn’t crack before now.”

Frank let himself relax. Ray wasn’t wrong; it was draining to constantly be working on helping Gerard. But he hadn’t guessed what had transpired between the two of them, and that was what mattered.

Things got better with time. Ray started talking about Gerard again after a couple days - it was impossible to avoid - and Frank found that it didn’t bother him as much. The awkwardness with Gerard began to fade away as well. Things weren’t the same as before - Frank went to Ray’s house more often, and he didn’t keep up conversations with Gerard for hours on end - but at least they were friends again. At least Frank got to see him smile. It wasn’t everything he wanted, but that was okay.

Or, he told himself it was.

It was easier to bury the twinge in his heart that came whenever Gerard shifted away from him than to face it head-on.

Instead, he plastered on a smile and dove into research with Ray. He still didn’t understand most of it - and honestly, didn’t believe in half of it - but it was something to do. A distraction that no one would question. Every once in a while, Ray would give him this searching look that made Frank wonder if he’d caught on, but he never said anything. Frank wasn’t sure what Bob thought of it all, aside from disgust at how Frank had “turned traitor” and joined Ray in the tide of library books.

And it truly was a tide. Ray lay on his bedroom floor, holding an open book over his face. With a sigh, he let it drop down onto his stomach. "Nothing for us in this one. There’s stuff about banishing ghosts, protecting yourself from possession, poltergeist attacks… Plenty of info, but it's all geared toward malevolent spirits. The closest thing I could find was how to conduct a proper séance, and we’ve got no use for that." He frowned up at the ceiling. "Seems like we're stuck for now."

"Really? Ray Toro, master of all things supernatural, admitting defeat?" Bob feigned shock. "I never thought I'd see the day!"

"Oh, shut up," Ray sighed. "We'll work something out eventually, we always do. Maybe we can get another book from Halloway."

Bob raised an eyebrow. "And have to deal with the questions she'll ask? It's already bad enough that we took this one for so long, we can't ask for another. It'll look weird."

Ray started to argue, but Frank cut him off. "Maybe we don't need another," he said, holding up a hand. The tiniest seed of an idea was beginning to grow in his mind. "Face it, dude, we've already looked through everything we can. You're practically a practicing Pagan at this point."

"Nice alliteration," said Bob.

"You're our expert now," Frank continued, taking no notice of Bob. "If we can't find anything that fits our needs exactly, why can't we make something up? I bet you could put a spell together if you tried." It was a long shot, but it was better than nothing. Frank waited for Ray's response.

"I'm really not as much of an expert as you think I am," said Ray, embarrassed. "But... I don't know. Maybe. I could try, but it'd need to be powerful magic. I'm not sure -"

"Great!" Frank said brightly. "What'll we need?"

"Now, hold on," Ray said hastily. "Don't get ahead of yourself. The stronger a spell is, the weirder it is - bird skeletons aren't gonna cut it anymore."

Bob blanched. "Oh, hell no. Please say we haven't moved on to blood sacrifices. That is so not what I signed up for."

"We may have," Ray admitted. "There may be grave digging involved, too. But there'll be other prices, not just physical -"

"Wait, did you say grave digging?" Bob said incredulously. "Fuck this, I'm out." He got up from the floor and left the room. Frank was tempted to follow him. He looked to Ray for an explanation.

"I don't like it any more than you do," Ray said defensively. "Actually, I hate it." He shuddered. "I hope it's not necessary, but a lot of spells dealing with specific entities need something with a strong connection to the deceased in order to work. Bones are the best."

"We'll have to settle for second-best, then," Frank said firmly. "I'm not touching Gerard's bones."

"Well, maybe if we found something he was really emotionally attached to..." Ray trailed off, lost in thought. "I’ll look into it. But let's not think about that now, I don't even know if I can make a spell for this." He frowned. "Plus, there are two issues here: making Gee visible, and getting him out of the house. We can't tackle them both at once."

Bob came back inside and sat down in his former spot. "We still don't know why we can't see him. Can’t fix a problem if we don’t even know what the whole problem is. I'd say we work on the leaving thing first."

Ray nodded in agreement. "Yeah, you’re right." He leaned over to grab his notebook, but just as his fingers touched the cover, there came a loud buzzing noise from inside his bag. He snatched for it as quickly as he could, rummaging around inside and answering his phone with a rushed, “Hi! What’s up?”

“Who is it?” Frank whispered.

Ray flapped his hand in irritation and didn’t answer. He listened intently, his phone pressed close to his ear. Frank opened his mouth again, but Bob shushed him before he could make a sound.

“Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think so,” said Ray. “How come?” There was a pause, and then he gasped, looking thrilled. “Seriously? Shit, that’s awesome! I already talked to my mom, we’ve got a room ready if you want to stay with us.”

Bob’s eyebrows shot up. “Is that Mikey?” he hissed. Ray grinned from ear to ear.

“Dude, we have so much to talk about,” he said into his phone. “I can’t wait.” He held his hand over the phone and lowered his voice, glancing over at Bob. “His mom confirmed it. He’s coming this weekend.”

“Nice!” Bob said enthusiastically. “Tell him I’m gonna kick his skinny ass for staying away so long.”

Frank listened idly. He shared his friends’ excitement, but not to the same degree - how could he? He didn’t have any history with Mikey. Meeting him would be cool, but until then, he could only speculate on what it was that made Ray and Bob so delighted to hear from him.

Frank figured he must be like Gerard - impossible not to love.

And then there was the issue of Gerard. It was a good thing he could actually touch people now - Frank didn’t know if Mikey was a skeptic, but having indisputable proof on their side could never hurt. That way, they could skip the hysterics and denial and skip right to the reunion. It would be good to see them together. Gerard could do with some cheering up. They all could.

It was still hard for Frank to breathe when he saw Gerard smile, but if there was anything that could keep him going, it was that.

***

The rest of the week passed in the blink of an eye. Ray and Bob were practically jumping for joy by the time Friday evening rolled around. Frank had originally intended to wait until Saturday to meet Mikey, so they all could have some alone time, but Bob insisted that he be on the welcoming committee.

“You guys will get on great,” he said. “Plus, the whole meeting-someone-new awkwardness will cancel out the seeing-your-best-friends-who-you-haven’t-talked-to-in-ages awkwardness. Probably.”

Frank rolled his eyes, but didn’t argue.

After school on Friday, the three of them sat in Ray’s driveway, filling the air with useless chatter to distract from the way Ray kept getting up to peer down the street every five minutes. Every time the headlights of a car could be seen in the distance, he would jump to his feet, only to sit down again, disappointed, when it rolled past. His excitement was infectious. Even Frank was getting a bit jittery.

When a mid-size black car turned onto their street, Ray got up and ran.

Bob was hot on his heels. The two of them sprinted a block or so down the road until the car slowed to meet them. The door opened, and Frank could barely make out the figure of the boy who stepped out before Ray slammed into him, enveloping him in a hug that could probably have broken his ribs. Frank could almost feel the suffocation.

They stayed that way for a while. Ray only backed off to let Bob take his place. Bob’s affections weren’t quite as bone-crushing, but he hugged Mikey and rumpled his hair, which, for him, was just as significant a gesture.

Frank watched it all from a distance, still sitting on the rough pavement of Ray’s driveway.

Ray’s voice carried far down the street. It was amplified by excitement, every word half-shouted, and his raucous laughter brought a smile to Frank’s face. There was a reason he’d stayed behind. Just because he had been invited didn’t mean he should intrude on their moment. He would introduce himself when the time was right, but for now, he was content to sit and watch from afar as Bob punched Mikey in the shoulder.

Besides, it gave him time to think of what he would say.

Telling Ray and Bob about Gerard had been a dangerous move. Frank had put his friendship with them on the line; if they hadn’t believed him, or thought him insane, all would have been lost. But this was a whole ‘nother level of risky. This was Mikey Way, Gerard’s brother, who Frank didn’t even know. He couldn’t describe how lucky he was to have Ray and Bob on his side. Without them, he might not have been brave enough to go through with it.

“Frank!” Bob shouted. “Quit being an antisocial asshole and get over here!”

Frank rolled onto his feet and jogged over to them.

Upon first glance, he could see Mikey’s resemblance to Gerard. He had the same eyebrows, the same mouth - but the similarities were purely physical. There was an aura of quiet dignity around Mikey that wasn’t present in his brother, and where Gerard’s eyes were constantly darting from one place to the next, Mikey’s gaze was steady. It was almost creepy how little he blinked.

Frank got the feeling he was being sized up. Mikey looked him up and down, assessing whatever there was to assess, and then he stuck out his hand. Frank shook it with a grin. “Hey, I’m Frank.”

Mikey nodded. “I’ve heard about you.” He let go of Frank’s hand. “I’m Mikey. You moved into my house, right?”

Frank nodded. “Uh-huh.” There was a bit of an awkward pause, and he blurted out, “Your friends are cool.” He internally cringed - fucking stellar conversation skills, Frank - but the corner of Mikey’s mouth twitched, and Bob snorted.

“Damn right we are,” he said. “But can we go inside now? It’s fucking cold out here.”

As they traipsed back to the house, Ray turned around and walked backwards so he could keep talking to Mikey. “I told you Frank plays guitar, right?” he asked. “He’s awesome.”

Frank rolled his eyes. “Oh, here we go again. Shut your fucking mouth, Toro, you know you’re better than everyone else on the planet.”

“Acting humble just makes you look like an asshole,” Bob added.

Mikey raised an eyebrow. “Does it? I kind of thought it was the opposite.”

“It makes him an asshole ‘cause he’s lying, and lying is for assholes,” Frank huffed. “So shut up, Ray.”

“You shut up!” Ray protested. “You’re awesome. I was just trying to get Mikey to play with us, jeez.”

“Oh, yeah!” Frank recalled. “You guys had a band, right?” He was pretty sure Gerard had mentioned that once or twice. He pointed to Mikey. “Bass?”

Mikey nodded. “I didn’t bring it, though. Sorry.”

“That’s okay!” said Ray. “There’s other stuff to do. You have to get me caught up, dude. What’ve you been up to without us?” He sped ahead to his front door and swung it open, holding it so the others could pass through. It smacked shut once Frank was safely inside.

“Not much,” said Mikey. “School sucks.”

“Amen to that,” Bob agreed. He started down the stairs to Ray’s basement without waiting for an invitation. They all followed him. Downstairs, they found a set of cushy beanbag chairs arranged around a TV screen. One of the chairs was laden down with papers and books, while a visible layer of dust covered the top of the TV. Frank was starting to wonder if Ray had left his sanity back in freshman year.

Mikey picked up one of the books. When he flipped it over, Frank recognized the cover; it was the one Halloway had given them. Brightly colored bookmarks were sticking out at every end. Mikey held it up to Ray, raising his eyebrows in a silent question.

Ray snatched it from his hands, cheeks going pink. “That’s nothing! Just, um, a project. Yeah.”

Mikey looked utterly unimpressed. Frank didn’t blame him; Ray might have had unrivaled instrumental skills, but he was a shit liar. “You picked up some interesting hobbies while I was away,” said Mikey.

“Uh-huh,” Ray mumbled. Frank swallowed a laugh, and Ray gave him a dirty look.

The initial awkwardness between Mikey and Frank faded with time, and Mikey started to feel less like a stranger and more like an old friend; someone who had been there all along. He exceeded all of Frank’s vague expectations. He was quiet, but not shy, and though he was usually softly-spoken, it didn’t detract from his capacity for sarcasm. Frank found himself repeatedly cracking up at Mikey’s muttered comments. And Mikey seemed to like him, too. Once or twice, Frank managed to draw out one of his little half-smiles, which he was learning were fairly rare.

When the aura of tension returned, it wasn’t because of Frank.

“So,” said Bob, shifting uncomfortably in his beanbag chair, “I gotta ask, man. Why didn’t you call back?”

Mikey looked down at the floor.

“It’s... stupid, honestly,” he mumbled.

Ray nudged his shoulder. “You’re here now, you can tell us.”

Mikey seemed at a loss for words. “I didn’t mean to yell at you,” he finally said to Bob. “That last time. I was just stressed out.”

“I know,” said Bob.

Mikey looked like he would’ve rather been anywhere else. Frank felt a little bad. The mood had gone from casual to intense in about five seconds, and even he wasn’t sure how to handle it. He had a couple ideas, though. He started to get up and leave the room, but Bob motioned for him to sit back down.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You’re one of us.”

Frank might have laughed if he didn’t sound so serious.

He slowly sat back down.

“I was… mad, for a while,” Mikey said slowly. “At everything. I just didn’t want to talk.”

“We know, Mikey,” Ray said softly. “You needed your space.”

“Yeah, but I still acted like an asshole. I shut you out, but you… you still kept trying.” Mikey’s speech was hesitant, full of pauses and empty space. Talking about his feelings clearly wasn’t his strong suit. “That pissed me off, I guess. I just wanted to forget.”

“I get it,” said Bob. “I mean, back then I was just mad at you for not talking to us, but I get it now.”

Frank felt a little like he was intruding. He was intimately familiar with Gerard’s side of the story, more than anyone else, but he didn’t know Mikey’s, and it wasn’t time for him to learn. Not yet. He wasn’t close with Mikey like Bob and Ray were - they were the ones who had stood by his side all along.

“No, it was good,” Mikey said. “It was good. That you tried, I mean. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. But…” He shrugged. “I did. And then we moved. And then I…” He chewed on his lip, somehow looking even more uncomfortable than before.

“I need to tell you something,” he mumbled, his voice barely audible.

“Go on,” Ray prompted.

“I…” Mikey exhaled slowly. “Okay, you know Alicia Simmons, right?”

Just hearing the name sent a flicker of anger through Frank. He scowled. “Yeah, we know her. Better than we’d like to, if I’m being honest.”

Mikey raised his eyebrows. “What, you don’t like her?”

“None of us do,” Ray said hotly. “She’s been saying nasty shit about Frank all year. He’s gotten beat up because of it. And it’s happened to loads of other people, too!” He shook his head, disgusted. “I can’t believe I used to think she was nice.”

All the color had drained out of Mikey’s face. “Wait, seriously?”

Bob nodded. “She’s a bitch.”

“But…” Mikey looked slightly dazed, like he’d been clubbed between the eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again, frowning.

“What, do you know her?” Frank asked.

“Vaguely,” Mikey said. “She’s my girlfriend.”

It was like he’d dropped a bomb into the room. Ray startled, and Bob leaned forward, gaping. “You what?” he spluttered. “The queen bee of Belleville High is your girlfriend? Since when do you even have a girlfriend? What the fuck, Mikey, why didn’t you say anything?”

“Yeah!” Ray said shrilly. “Don’t you have better taste than that?”

“Hold on, hold on!” Mikey said hastily. He shifted in his beanbag chair. “Just let me explain, okay?”

“You’d better,” Bob said darkly.

Mikey waited until Ray and Bob seemed reasonably calm before he began. “We started hanging out toward the end of sophomore year,” he said hesitantly. “And she was cool, so, y’know. One thing led to another. At first it was just, like, a casual thing, and we didn’t want to tell anybody in case nothing came out of it, but then it got more serious.”

“Wait, is that why you were acting so weird that year?” Bob demanded. “‘Cause you were seeing her on the side?”

“Why didn’t you tell us when things got serious?” Ray asked. He seemed more hurt than angry. “I thought you could tell us anything.”

“I could,” Mikey said, averting his eyes. “But there was… a lot going on that summer.”

There was a pause as Ray and Bob digested his meaning.

“Ohhhhh,” said Ray, closing his eyes as it dawned on him. “Okay.”

“Your love life tends not to feel so important after your brother dies,” Mikey said, his voice tight.

Ray leaned over and gave him a quick hug. Mikey stiffened, but didn’t move away. When Ray sat back down, he just looked at Mikey for a minute. Then he sighed. “Damn it, Mikey, you know we wouldn’t have cared, right?”

I cared. I spent that whole summer with her and I didn’t even notice anything was wrong,” Mikey said bitterly. “I should’ve been paying more attention.”

“Oh, come on,” Bob said with a frown. “Don’t blame yourself, man.”

“Wow, thanks. Haven’t tried that before,” Mikey said sarcastically.

“What he means to say is,” Ray cut in gently, “It wasn’t your fault, Mikey.”

Mikey shrugged. “Whatever.” As he looked down at the floor, shoulders slumped, Frank could suddenly see a lot more resemblance between him and Gerard.

He glanced over at Ray, and they didn’t need words to communicate: they had to get Mikey and Gerard together as soon as possible. To save them from their own guilt, if nothing else.

“But, anyway,” Mikey said tonelessly, picking at a loose thread in the carpet. “We broke it off pretty quick. That was right around when I was fighting with you guys. And then I moved, and it all kind of went downhill from there, I guess. I lost my phone somewhere in all the boxes, and I had another big asthma attack, and shit kept getting in the way for ages, but by the time I got my phone back again, I… kind of figured you wouldn’t want to talk to me.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Bob said scornfully. “You thought one fight would make us hate you? Shut the fuck up.”

“I didn’t need to think,” Mikey said. “Alicia told me.”

Ray paused. “She what?”

Mikey adjusted his glasses. “She said you’d pretty much forgotten me, and the only times you ever did bring me up, you were making fun.” His gaze was piercing. “Are you saying she lied?”

For a moment, Ray could only gape at him.

“Wh - yes! Of course I fucking am!” he said, furious. “Did you honestly believe that? God, you must be head over heels for her - you never would’ve let anyone else say shit about us like that. And you didn’t even think to confirm it?”

Mikey shrank back. “I dunno,” he said in a small voice. “I just thought you’d want me to leave you alone.”

“Jesus Christ, Mikey!” Ray said angrily. “We’re your best friends. You think we didn’t understand what you were going through? You think we wouldn’t have wouldn’t have forgiven you for anything? I don’t know what the hell you see in Alicia, but if you’re still together, I hope to God you won’t be for much longer.”

“I… Yeah.” Mikey still looked shell-shocked. “I have to talk to her. Soon. Maybe I can stay over this weekend and talk to her at school or something. I just… I can’t believe she’d do something like that. She’s not… she likes you guys; she wanted to start hanging out with you once we came clean.”

“Well, now it’s her turn to come clean,” Bob said fiercely.

“Yeah.”

Frank watched this exchange with his heart in his throat. Watching people fight made him nervous, especially when they were his friends. He’d just started getting to know Mikey; he’d hate for something to come between them before they could really get acquainted. And dating the girl who’d made Frank’s life hell was definitely something that could get between them.

Mikey let his head fall back against his beanbag.

“So,” he said to the ceiling. “You guys got anything more to tell me?”

Frank couldn’t help but pity him.

He hadn’t seen anything yet.

***

Only twenty four hours later, and Frank was poised to shake up Mikey’s world once more.

Telling him about Gerard was a necessity. After some debate, Frank and his friends had decided to do it sooner rather than later. The only one left unsatisfied was Gerard. As time wore on, he grew twitchier and twitchier, and Frank could only take so much before it began to rub off on him. Gerard didn’t voice his concerns, but they were clear enough in the way he kept moving from place to place, biting his nails as he drifted through the walls. It was kind of getting on Frank’s nerves. He was tense enough without Gerard flitting all over the place.

Gerard had circled the room twice more before Frank gave up. “Jesus Christ,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Dude. Chill. You’ve done this before. Mikey’s gonna be here in ten minutes; don’t give yourself a panic attack before he even walks through the door.”

“I won’t,” Gerard said distractedly. “I’m just thinking.”

“No, you’re overthinking,” Frank corrected. “So stop.” Gerard kept staring into space. He didn’t respond even when Frank waved his hand around, so Frank went over and grabbed him by the shoulders, turning him so they were face to face. “Gee,” he said. “Chill. Out.”

Gerard’s eyes flew open wide. Frank could see all the little flecks of amber in them; how the light made them glow. Gerard kept his mouth shut, but Frank could feel him breathing, like a cool breeze on his cheeks.

He realized too late how close they were standing.

What would surely have been an awkward moment was shattered by the ringing of the doorbell. Gerard startled, going momentarily translucent, and Frank’s hands fell through his shoulders. “Fuck,” Gerard said, panicked, “Shit - Frankie, you said ten minutes!”

“It doesn’t matter,” Frank said. “He’s here, and he’s staying. It’ll be okay. Trust me.”

“Frank!” Ray’s voice shouted from downstairs. “You there?”

“Yeah!” Frank called back. He pushed open the door and headed downstairs to where Ray, Bob, and Mikey were waiting.

“Nice place you’ve got,” Mikey observed. “Almost feels familiar.”

“You think this is familiar? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Bob said with a smirk. Ray gave him a not-so-subtle kick to the shin.

“That’d be more compelling if you would actually explain what was going on,” Mikey said.

“Can’t explain it,” Ray said quickly. “It’s something that has to be shown.” He turned to Frank, looking somewhere between hopeful and nervous. “He ready?”

“Nope,” said Frank. “But if we were waiting for that, we’d wait forever. Let’s do it.” He glanced over his shoulder, not bothering to raise his voice before saying, “Get your ass down here, it’s time.”

It took Gerard a minute to appear. Frank waited patiently until he looked completely solid, fidgeting as he took in the sight of his younger brother, then patted him on the back. “See? It’s all okay. Told you.”

“He doesn’t know yet,” Gerard muttered.

Ray rushed to speak before Mikey could ask questions. “Mikey, you’re our best friend and we love you and we need you to trust us on this, okay, because I know it’s crazy, but I swear -”

Gerard stepped forward and hugged Mikey as tightly as he could.

Mikey’s eyebrows shot upwards with the force of a speeding bullet. He struggled, but Gerard didn’t let go. “What the fuck?” he yelled. “What?” Frank was surprised his voice could even go that loud.

“Stop,” said Gerard, his voice shaking ever so slightly. “Just… stop. I’m trying to help you understand, and I can’t do that if you keep wiggling.”

Mikey stopped moving.

“What,” he said weakly, “The fuck.”

“Ghosts,” Bob said helpfully.

Mikey was silent.

“I would flip you off so hard right now, but I can’t move my arms,” he said.

“It’s called a hug,” Frank said. “Try doing it back.”

Slowly, Mikey lifted his arms to squeeze Gerard around the middle. Gerard let go of him after a moment, but Mikey kept one hand on his side. He traced Gerard’s arm up all the way up to his shoulder, then up to his head, running his fingers through his hair.

“Gerard?” he asked. Gerard smiled.

“Hey, Mikes,” he said softly.

“Holy shit. I… God, fuck. Gerard.” Mikey pulled Gerard in closer, squeezing as tightly as he could. He buried his face in Gerard’s neck. His shoulders shook with his muffled sobs, and Gerard hummed soothingly, rubbing his back.

“It’s okay, Mikey. I’m here. I’m here now.”

“How? I mean - how? Oh God, I don’t even care. I missed you so much.” Mikey’s voice cracked. “So fucking much, Gee.”

“I know,” said Gerard. “I missed you too.”

Mikey pulled back, wiping his face with his sleeve before looking to the others. “How come I can’t see him? Can you?”

Bob shook his head. “Nah, Frank’s the only one who can. Dunno why.”

Mikey gave Frank a once-over, as if seeing him in a new light. Then he turned back to Gerard. “There’s so much shit I want to say to you, I don’t even know where to start,” he said, and tears welled up in his eyes once more. “But first I’m gonna need some questions answered.”

Frank smiled. “I think we can help you out with that.”

***

Frank ended up sleeping on the floor. Mikey had taken Frank’s bed, Ray had already passed out in his sleeping bag, and Frank was reasonably sure Bob was asleep, too. Mikey, though. Mikey was still awake.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” he murmured. His voice was slightly muffled, like he had half his face pressed into a pillow. “I was… God, I felt like such an asshole after. I was so caught up in Alicia, I didn’t notice anything was wrong. Who does that?”

“Normal people,” Gerard supplied. “You had a girlfriend, you loved her, you were excited about it. Nobody’s gonna blame you for that.”

“I do,” Mikey said miserably. “I mean, I loved her and everything - I do love her - but she wasn’t more important than you. Nobody is.”

“I didn’t say she was. What I’m trying to say is, you had the right to be distracted,” said Gerard. “Don’t blame yourself, it was my fault. You couldn’t have known.”

“I could have, though!” Mikey argued, keeping his voice low. “I always knew. I was supposed to watch out for you.”

“That’s not your job,” Gerard said gently. “You don’t have to feel responsible, okay? I would’ve done it no matter what.” Mikey started to say something, but Gerard cut him off. “Mikey, I know you feel guilty. I watched you from the moment I died, okay? I’ve seen how guilty you are. And I just wanna tell you that’s bullshit and you don’t deserve it. I’m sorry I ever gave you a reason to feel like that.” His voice was tinged with sadness.

Frank wished he could fall asleep.

“Don’t apologize,” Mikey said roughly. “You’re not the one who should.”

There was a minute of silence.

“You know I love you, right?” Mikey asked. “And Mom and Dad, too. We all love you.”

“Never doubted it. I love you guys, too. Even if I did a bad job showing it.”

“You didn’t,” Mikey said tiredly. “We’re the ones who let you down.”

Frank could hear the smile in Gerard’s voice. “We’re gonna fight about this all night, huh?”

“Unless you admit how fucking wrong you are.”

“We’ll be fighting ‘til the end of time, then.”

As the minutes went by, their voices grew softer, whispering back and forth until Frank no longer had the energy to pick out the words. It was with great relief that he finally found himself drifting off. He didn’t want to eavesdrop, but it was nice to know things were working out. Gerard deserved closure with his baby brother, at the very least.

Gerard giggled at something Mikey said. He whispered something in response.

With this as his soundtrack, Frank fell asleep smiling.

***

It seemed that Ray had finally found someone who could match his capability for hard work. His books ended up in Mikey’s hands while no one was looking, and for the rest of that weekend, Mikey sat off to the side, quietly reading. He wasn’t fanatical about it the way Ray was, but Frank could tell he was just as determined. He could feel it. At the end of the weekend, when Mikey’s mom finally requested he come home, she was met with a quiet “No” before Mikey hung up on her.

“Dude,” Bob said disbelievingly. “She’s gonna kill you.”

Mikey paused, thought for a minute, and called her back.

If Frank had tried that, his mom would’ve flayed him alive. Mikey either had a laid-back family or some serious guts. Frank debated with himself about which it might be as Mikey mumbled into his phone, and decided that it must be both.

Mikey set down his phone again. Frank waited with bated breath for the verdict. It was impossible to tell just from looking - Mikey’s poker face was too good.

“She says I can stay,” he said.

Ray and Bob cheered, and the shadow of a smile crossed Mikey’s face. “So, who’s got room in their house this week?”

“You can probably just stay at my house,” said Ray.

A plan quickly began to emerge. Mikey would sleep at Ray’s house, and while the others were at school, he would go and hang out at Frank’s. That way, he could get some research done while catching up with Gerard. He’d drop by and give Alicia a talking-to at some point. They didn’t have many ideas beyond that, but honestly, they didn’t need any. Mikey wasn’t only there to be part of the labor force, after all. They needed another Mario Kart player.

A few days went by before they found anything important.

During their last class together, Ray bumped Frank’s shoulder while the teacher’s back was turned. “I have an idea,” he murmured. “Let’s find Bob and I’ll tell you both.”

That was enough to pique Frank’s curiosity. He bit down his questions until the final bell rang and they were reunited with Bob, but after that, he couldn’t stop himself from bursting out with, “What’s your idea? Did you find something?”

“It’s just an idea,” Ray warned. “Don’t get excited. But I was reading the Handbook -”

“Halloway’s book?” Bob interrupted. “You haven’t given it back yet? She’s gonna fine you like crazy.”

“No, she won’t. Anyway, there’s some stuff in it about how ghosts move around. Apparently they’ve got something called a ‘point of placement’? It’s like a place that their soul is particularly attached to, so they can’t move away from it,” Ray explained.

Frank started leading them down the sidewalk, turning and walking backwards so he could listen to Ray. “So, what’s Gerard’s point of placement?” he asked. “It’s gotta be the house, right?”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” Ray said reluctantly. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a place. It could be, like, an object, or even a person. Anything, really. It’s probably more specific than just the house, too.”

“So we ask him where he’s placed,” Bob said with a shrug. “Done.”

Ray winced. “Again, not that simple. He probably doesn’t know. We’re gonna have to figure it out ourselves.”

Frank’s shoes scuffed against the pavement.

“We have to look through the whole house?” he finally asked. “That’s gonna take a while.”

“Especially since we don’t know what we’re looking for,” Ray said. “But we’ll know it when we see it. Or, Gerard will. Probably.”

“Probably,” Frank muttered. “How reassuring.”

***

“The whole house?” Gerard echoed. “Fuck, I dunno. It could be anything.”

Frank threw up his hands. “See, that’s what I said!”

“It’s not gonna be just anything,” Ray insisted, hugging a cushion to his chest. “The book said it usually has some sort of emotional significance.” He looked at Mikey, who was sitting next to Bob on the couch. “Could you guys have left something here when you moved?”

Mikey shook his head. “We cleared everything out.”

Frank sighed and laid back across the floor. The living room rug wasn’t the most comfortable thing to lie down on, but the mere thought of searching for whatever it was that kept Gerard within the house was making him tired. “Are you sure?” he asked the ceiling. “Maybe you forgot something. Dropped it. Or hid it and then forgot about it, I dunno.”

It was Gerard’s turn to shake his head. “They didn’t. After they left, I kept hoping I’d find something, but I never did. And I looked everywhere.”

Ray was undeterred. “Okay, so maybe it wasn’t something from your family. Maybe it’s just a part of the house?” he suggested.

“If it’s a part of the house, we’re pretty much fucked,” said Bob. “It’s not like we can just take an entire room out.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Ray said, waving a hand. “What matters most is figuring out what we’re looking for. Gerard, do you have any ideas of where it might be?”

“Emotional significance,” Gerard mused. “Hmm… My bedroom, maybe? Mikey’s old room?” He paused. “Wait, what kind of emotion does it need to be? It could be the upstairs bathroom.”

Mikey and Frank both winced. It took Ray a second to catch the meaning, but when he did, he hugged his couch cushion tighter. “If that’s where you… Yeah, it could be,” he said hesitantly. “I dunno. We don’t know much about this subject, honestly. It would help if we could learn some more.”

“I think we know all there is to know,” Bob said thoughtfully. “This isn’t really something books will help with, ‘cause it’s different for every ghost, y’know? We’re gonna have to find it on our own.”

“You just don’t want to read any more books,” Frank said under his breath. Bob swung his leg at him, but Frank rolled out of the way.

“There’s always something we don’t know,” Ray said determinedly. “It’s best to get all the information we can. If we can’t; fine. We’ll figure it out. But we at least need to start thinking outside the box.”

Frank pushed himself back up into a sitting position. “You said it could be a person, too, right? Maybe it’s Mikey.”

“Mikey?” Ray said, his brow furrowing. “But Mikey hasn’t been here.”

“Maybe that’s the point. Maybe he needs to, like, be here in order for Gerard to leave with him.” Frank shrugged. “I dunno, I’m just brainstorming.”

“It’s the best idea we’ve had today,” Gerard said. He got up to his feet and went to open the front door. “C’mon, Mikes, let’s try it.”

Mikey went along with Gerard. Frank glanced at Ray and Bob to see what they were doing, and they came to a silent agreement. They all got up and padded after. Mikey stepped outside and strode across the lawn.

“The boundary’s at the edge of the yard,” Frank heard Gerard say. Mikey stopped for just a moment, then sped his pace, continuing on into the street.

Gerard stopped at the line between the grass and the pavement.

Frank sighed.

“No luck,” Gerard said to Mikey, then turned and drifted back toward the house, his toes skimming over the grass. He passed by Frank in the doorway and gave him a smile, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“It’s okay,” Frank said, following him back to the living room. “We’re gonna find it.”

“Yeah,” Gerard said. “I dunno what the hell has as much emotional significance as Mikey, though.” He glanced back at the doorway. The others were hanging back, as if to give them a moment of privacy. He sighed, and Frank took a step closer.

“We’re gonna figure it out,” he said softly. “Don’t worry.”

“I know. I mean… it’s better to not get my hopes up, but I want to believe we will.” Gerard leaned in and rested his chin on Frank’s shoulder. He wrapped his arms around Frank’s middle, hardly seeming to notice as he did so. Frank tried not to notice either. It was easier said than done.

“I’ve tried so many times to get out of this place, Frankie. I was here for a whole year before you moved in. Trust me, I tried, and nothing worked. Maybe we’ve got fancy terms for everything now, but I don’t think anything’s actually gonna change.” He didn’t sound sad. Quite the contrary, his tone was almost nonchalant; like he was just stating a fact. It was somehow worse than watching him break down.

“It is gonna change,” Frank said. “We’re gonna get you of here.”

“How can you be so sure of that?” Gerard murmured. “I’m just saying. There’s a lot of things we don’t know, but what we do know isn’t promising. Bob was right. It’s probably a place in the house, and that means I won’t ever be able to leave.”

“Gerard, I would personally demolish my own house if it meant breaking you out,” Frank said, and Gerard huffed out a laugh. Frank backed away so he could look Gerard in the eyes, smiling. “I know this against your nature, but seriously, don’t worry. Nothing’s gonna get in our way. You’re gonna be walking down the street in no time, and that’s final. Okay?”

Gerard almost smiled, but he faltered before he made it there. “Frankie, I know you want me to, but I don’t know if I can -”

“Believe it?” Frank scoffed. “Bullshit, you totally can. Just decide to be hopeful about it, and bam, there you go.”

Gerard frowned. “It’s not really that simple.”

“Yes it is. As long as you know you’re never gonna stop, then nothing’s ever gonna stop you. Now shut the fuck up, you’re making me sound like a motivational speaker.” Frank poked at the corner of Gerard’s mouth. “And you have to smile so I feel like I helped.”

Gerard grinned, and Frank grinned back. “There, perfect. My work here is done.” He turned back to the others and hollered, “We’re done with our moment, you can come in now!”

Gerard burst out laughing. It made Frank’s heart kick.

He wanted to help Gerard for a thousand reasons. Because they were best friends, because it would make Gerard happy, because Gerard deserved it.

But there was also a tiny, selfish part of Frank that just wanted to be the one to make Gerard smile.

***

Gerard’s hair was falling down into his face. He was looking down at the screen of Frank’s camera, scrolling through the photo library. He hadn’t looked up once since he began; he stayed utterly absorbed, lingering on each picture for a long while before clicking through to the next. Frank thought that was a good sign.

“So,” he said tentatively. “You like them?”

Gerard glanced up as if startled. “What? Of course, Frankie, I thought that was obvious. These are awesome.”

Frank grinned. “You got a favorite?”

“Can I say ‘all of them’ without sounding cheesy?”

“No. C’mon, which do you like best?” Frank leaned over Gerard’s shoulder to take a peek. Gerard hummed, then scrolled back to a photo Frank had been particularly proud of. He’d taken it back at the cemetery where Gerard was buried. It had been a blustery day, with wind that stirred the fallen leaves about and a layer of gray clouds that gave perfectly soft lighting. A hill sloped gently up the side of the frame, with gravestones scattered below it. A line of trees was positioned in the background, with dark, jagged firs providing a stark contrast against the washed-out sky.

“This one’s cool,” said Gerard. “It’s nice to see how everything’s laid out. Seeing my grave was nice, but this kinda captures the whole vibe of the place, y’know? Almost as good as being there.” He touched a finger to the screen. “Plus, it just looks cool.”

“Yeah, speaking of looking cool,” Frank said, taking the camera from Gerard’s hands, “I’ve got a question. Can I take some pictures of you?” He’d wanted to in the past; God, had he wanted to. Sometimes Gerard would be lost in a comic book or doodling on one of Frank’s old homework sheets, completely unaware of how gorgeous he was, and it took everything Frank had not to break out his camera and start taking candid shots.

But Gerard would probably have asked why, and if he asked, Frank knew he’d wind up blurting out the truth.

So he kept it to himself, memorizing the curves and contours of Gerard’s face instead of putting them on film. It was just as good, but he did still wish for the click of a shutter every now and again.

Maybe this way, since he’d asked permission, it wouldn’t seem so odd.

Gerard certainly didn’t seem put off by it. His face lit up. “Really? That’d be awesome!” He jumped up from the bed. “We could take some totally freaky ones, with me floating around or halfway through the floor or something? And if you showed them to anyone, they’d think it was Photoshopped or something, but you can be like, ‘no, they’re totally real,’ and everyone would laugh, but they are real! That’s what makes it funny!” He beamed, and Frank laughed.

“Did you want to be a model when you were alive or something?”

Gerard made a face. “God, no.” He paused, and a frown slowly worked its way into his expression. “Hmm… Do you think I’ll show up in the pictures? Or will I just be invisible?”

Frank slung the camera strap over his shoulder. “That’s a great question. Let’s find out.” He led Gerard down the stairs, imagining possible shots as he went. There was room for some silly ones, but he could make Gerard look pretty damn striking, too. Not that he needed any help with that. Frank pictured him in different poses; with his jaw angled, eyes half-lidded. Just imagining it made his face heat up a bit. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea. If Gerard looked at him like that, even if it was through the camera, it’d be hard not to jump him then and there.

Frank realized too late that Gerard was in the middle of a rant. He hadn’t heard any of it.

“But that’s ‘cause old cameras used silver for the development process,” Gerard was saying. “And that’s why mirrors didn’t work, either - they were lined with silver, too. Dunno what it is about silver. Everybody talks about it as a werewolf thing now, but it started with vampires.” he paused. “Well, I think it did. I’m not sure which story came first. Maybe they came from the same time. I should Google that.”

“Find a vampire and ask them yourself,” Frank suggested.

“A year ago, I would’ve laughed at that,” Gerard said thoughtfully. “But you never know.” He drifted through the front door without waiting for Frank to open it. Frank doubted he even noticed it was there.

The grass outside was crisp with frost. A set of dark footprints followed Frank as he crossed the edge of the yard and into the street. His camera swung by its strap until he finally came to a stop, raising it up and angling it toward the door where Gerard was waiting. Frank could see him on the screen, looking further away than he was in real life.

“Say ‘paranormal activity’!” he called.

“Paranormal activity,” Gerard said, rolling his eyes, and Frank snapped the picture. The lens clicked, and a second later, the photo popped up on the screen. It had caught Gerard mid eye-roll. He looked like a bitchy teenage goth, leaning against the doorframe with his disheveled black hair. Frank couldn’t seem to take his eyes off it.

“Dude, you look awesome,” he said, still staring at the camera.

“It worked?” Gerard said excitedly. “Let me see!” He bounded over to Frank, snatching the camera from his hands and examining it. “Nice!” he exclaimed. “You’re such a good photographer, fuck.”

“Nah, you’re just a good model,” Frank said, the words slipping out before he could stop himself. Gerard’s face reddened a bit, and Frank moved on quickly. “It’s good that you show up in pictures, though. Now we just gotta see if other people can see you in them.”

“Yeah,” Gerard said. “It’d suck if they’re just another thing only you can see.” He handed the camera back to Frank and looked back toward the house, frowning. “Man, being dead is so…”

He paused.

“Frank,” he said blankly. “Am I crazy, or are we in the middle of the street?”

Frank glanced around. “Um, yeah. We are. You wanna move?”

“Are you kidding?” Gerard shrieked. He grabbed Frank by the shoulders, and his hands were trembling with sudden excitement. “Frank! We’re outside - I’m outside!”

“Holy shit,” Frank said dumbly. It took a moment to really hit him, and when it did, his eyes flew open. “Wait, seriously, holy shit! How’d that happen?”

“I have no fucking clue!” Gerard said gleefully. He turned in a circle, drinking in the sight of the neighborhood. His head whipped back and forth, like he couldn’t pick what to focus on; it was all too fascinating. “Oh my God. Oh my God, Frankie, I’m out! We did it!”

He stood frozen for a second, grinning like a madman.

“Give me a second,” he said.

He turned on his heel and went tearing off down the street. Frank didn’t follow. Gerard was too fast - if it weren’t for the sound of his shoes smacking against the pavement, Frank would think he was flying. He couldn’t help but grin as he watched. Gerard’s excitement was infectious. There was a warmth in Frank’s chest that was spreading from head to toe, a giddy feeling that came solely from watching Gerard run free. His cheeks were starting to hurt from smiling.

Gerard kept going for a few blocks before he stopped and fell to his knees, panting.

Frank walked after him, standing a few feet back with his hands in his pockets while Gerard caught his breath.

“How does it feel?” he asked. Really, he didn’t need an answer. When Gerard looked up, the wind had swept his hair into an even crazier mess than usual, and there was a flush riding high on his cheeks.

“Fucking amazing,” he said breathlessly. “I forgot how good it was. Jesus, Frankie, the shit you can take for granted…”

His eyes were bright, with not even a hint of doubt or fear bogging him down, and when he spoke, his voice was pure elation.

Frank couldn’t speak. If he did, he wouldn’t be able to resist telling Gerard how fucking beautiful he was.

***

Frank’s bedroom really wasn’t big enough for this many people. Mikey and Gerard were sitting side by side on the bed, Bob was on the floor, and Ray was perched awkwardly on the windowsill. There was enough room for Frank to sit on the floor with Bob, but for now, he kept standing. That was where he wanted to be.

“Two things,” he announced. “One, I want to test something.” He took his camera from the nightstand and handed it to Mikey. The screen displayed one of the pictures he’d taken of Gerard. “Can you see anything there?”

Mikey examined the camera closely, tilting it to the side.

“Nope,” he said. “Just the doorframe.”

Frank sighed. “Damn it. I really thought we’d found a way to cheat the system with that one.”

“Speaking of cheating the system,” Gerad cut in, unable to hide the excitement in his voice, “Frankie, tell them the rest!”

Frank cleared his throat loudly. He waited for a moment, dragging out the suspense until it was almost unbearable, then said, “Me and Gerard went outside yesterday.”

Mikey raised an eyebrow. “Good for you?”

“No,” Frank said impatiently. “Like, outside outside. All the way down the street.”

Ray gasped so loudly it was almost comical and almost slipped off the windowsill. “Oh my God! Seriously? I - wow! Gee, I’m so happy for you!” He reached out his hand, waiting for Gerard to indicate his location. When Gerard took it, Ray pulled him in for a brief hug, then pulled back, beaming. “So, you found your point of placement? What was it?”

Gerard opened his mouth and closed it again.

Frank stepped in to rescue him. “We don’t actually know,” he said sheepishly. “It just kind of happened.”

“It just happened?” Bob questioned.

Frank shrugged. “Yeah. I mean, one minute I was taking pictures from the middle of the street, and then Gerard walked right over to check them out. Boom.”

“Just like that?” Ray knitted his brow. “But that… that doesn’t make sense.”

“I think it does,” said Mikey. All eyes turned to him. He looked at Gerard, then at Frank, raising his eyebrows. “What, does nobody else see it?”

“Obviously not,” said Frank. “Care to elaborate?”

Mikey sighed. “God, you’re all so fucking dense.” He slipped off the bed and left the room.

“Did he just - hey!” Frank yelled after him. “I’m not dense!”

“You are,” came Mikeys muffled response. “Now hurry up and follow me, all of you.”

“Am I dense?” Frank asked Gerard on their way down the stairs. Gerard stifled a giggle.

“You’re not dense, Frankie.”

“Both of you are horrible,” said Bob, shoving his way past them. Frank tried to kick him, but missed by a mile.

Mikey stopped them at the edge of the yard. “Frank, go across the street,” he directed. He didn’t offer any explanation, but Frank sensed one coming and did as he was told. He strode across the street and turned back to face his friends. Mikey nodded. “Okay. Now you go, Gee.”

Gerard drifted over the pavement and stopped beside Frank. “Why are we doing this?” he questioned.

“You’ll see in a second. Just stay put. Frank, you come back over.”

Frank crossed the street again. “I’m with Gerard on this one,” he said when he was back at Mikey’s side. “Why are we doing this?”

“Because of that,” Mikey said simply. He pointed to Gerard, who had silently appeared at Frank’s side.

“Because of what? I’m -” Gerard did a double take. He glanced over his shoulder to the other side of the road, then turned to Mikey, looking confused. “I didn’t do that on purpose,” he said.

“I know. Now try and go back,” said Mikey.

Gerard slowly took a step toward the road, but as soon as he reached the edge, he froze.

“I can’t do it,” he said. He reached out, and it was like he was touching a solid wall. His hand could go no further. “What the shit?” he asked, whipping around to stare at Mikey. “You knew that’d happen, didn’t you? How?”

Mikey shrugged. “Frank isn’t with you.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Oh,” Ray breathed. “That does make sense.”

“Can someone explain what’s going on?” Frank asked. He had a sinking feeling that he already knew.

“Remember when I talked about points of placement before?” Ray said, scratching at the back of his neck. “They, uh. They just have to be something that means a lot to the spirit, something their soul’s really attached to. Something that feels like home. It… doesn’t necessarily have to be a place, remember?”

Frank felt like the air had been knocked out of his lungs. He forced himself to breathe deeply under Ray’s careful eye, but it was like he’d been sucker punched; he could barely even think.

Gerard was gaping at Ray. His face had gone rosy red, and if the waves of heat crawling over Frank’s skin were any indication, his own had done the same. Gerard’s eyes flicked over to him, and they could only stare at each other.

“Something that feels like home,” Frank echoed. Gerard flushed even darker, if that was possible, and vanished abruptly.

“See? Dense,” said Mikey.

Silence fell once more. Frank could hear crows cawing in the distance. He wished he could disappear as easily as Gerard could.

Mikey glanced at him, his expression unreadable. “I’m not gonna bite your head off,” he said. “What, you thought I couldn’t tell? I don’t need to be able to see my brother to know when he’s making moon eyes.”

“Can we not talk about that?” Frank asked. He felt like a spotlight had been pinned directly on him; he was sweating under its bright focus.

“I always knew you’d be the one with the weird fetishes,” Bob said under his breath. “Casper the friendly ghost gettin’ a little too friendly, huh?”

“Shut the fuck up!” said Ray, swatting him in the arm. Frank willed himself to sink into the ground, but instead he just stood there, wanting to die. And possibly wash his brain out with bleach.

“Anyway!” Ray said. “This is actually great! Now that we know how to get him out of the house, we can start trying more stuff! Like, how long can he be out here? How far away from you can he get? Is there a distance limit? Can -”

Frank tuned him out.

Mostly, he was thinking about Gerard, and how he apparently cared about Frank enough to attach his soul to Frank’s. Or however it worked.

Whatever the specifics were, it made Frank’s stomach flip.

***

“One more time,” Frank ordered. “What are the rules?”

“I don’t make myself noticeable,” Gerard said promptly. “No picking stuff up, no pranking people, and no getting you in trouble.”

“Good. And I mean any trouble, got it? No making me laugh during class, no - no fighting anybody... No nothing.” Frank let out a slow breath. He wasn’t nervous, exactly, but this was uncharted territory. He didn’t know what he should feel.

Six hours of school with a ghost.

Today was going to be interesting.

It had been Gerard’s idea. He wanted to get out of the house more, and Frank could never say no to him, especially not on matters like this. With a bit of discussion, the plan was put into place: Gerard would hang out with Frank until lunch, at which time they’d see how he felt. If he was losing energy, or any other problems arose, they’d go straight home. If not, Gerard was free to stick around for the rest of the day.

There was definitely room for things to go wrong, but Gerard wouldn’t take no for an answer. He had one hand on the doorknob before Frank had even picked up his backpack.

“Slow down,” Frank said irritably. “I haven’t even had breakfast yet, jeez.”

He finished pulling on his socks and went down the stairs with Gerard hovering just over his shoulder. They somehow made it out of the house without Mom noticing anything amiss, which was a minor miracle, considering how careless Gerard’s excitement made him. Frank had to stop him from picking up the box of pop tarts right in front of Mom.

It was better once they were on the school bus. There, Gerard’s aimless chatter was unnoticeable in the buzz of voices. He had a comment for just about everything - which students had gotten taller since he died, new trees that had been planted on the side of the road, the step that he’d always tripped over on his way into the school building. Frank didn’t think he would be able to pay much attention in class with Gerard rambling on, but that wasn’t a bad thing. His quips were more interesting than anything the teachers had to say, anyway.

“You have Ms. Caulfield?” Gerard gasped as Frank walked into first period, momentarily forgetting to keep his voice down. “I’m so sorry. Wow. I didn’t have her, but I heard the stories. Is she as bad as everyone says?”

Frank dropped his backpack to the floor underneath his desk. He couldn’t respond, lest someone see him talking to himself, but he cast Gerard a dark look of confirmation.

Ms. Caulfield wasted no time in proving his point. When she noticed that he’d left a problem blank on his homework sheet, she gave him a lecture in front of the entire class. Normally, it would have been annoying, maybe even a little embarrassing - but with Gerard silently flipping her off the entire time, Frank had to fight to keep a smile off his face.

The rest of his classes continued in a similar fashion. Frank quickly realized that the no-laughing-in-class rule was made to be broken. He got a few weird looks from his classmates, but he just couldn’t help cracking up at Gerard’s comments, especially when he got to waxing philosophical.

“Literally nothing has changed in this place,” Gerard complained in a whisper. “I mean, some little things. The kids. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s all the same!” The ball rang shrilly, but he kept on going: “The same stereotypes, the same assholes walking around - maybe they’re different people, but they’re all the same personality, you know? Like fuckin’ cardboard cutouts. Makes you wonder if it’s like this everywhere.”

“I think it’s different after you graduate,” Frank murmured, pushing out his chair.

“Maybe,” said Gerard. He didn’t sound convinced. “I never went to college, I wouldn’t know. I hope it’s different. It’d just be sad if the rest of the world was this static.”

“It can’t be. Not when there are people like you,” Frank responded without thinking. He shoved his way out of the classroom, focusing on weaving through the hallway instead of the stupidity of what he’d just said.

“Well, if those people are really like me, they’re all dead,” Gerard said dryly.

That wasn’t what Frank had meant, but he wasn’t going to correct him. He hitched up his backpack and dodged a group of freshman standing in the middle of the hallway. Now that they were surrounded by a sea of faces - and therefore much less noticeable - it was safe to speak out loud, so he went ahead and resumed a normal volume. “It’s lunchtime now. You still hanging in there?” he asked.

“Yeah, I feel great!”

“Not tired or anything?” Frank persisted.

“Nah, I’m fine,” said Gerard. “I think if I was gonna get tired, it would’ve happened by now. I should be good for the rest of the day.”

“Cool. You remember the way to the library?”

Gerard snorted. “No, it’s not like I went to this school for four years.”

“Lead the way then, mister graduate,” Frank said with a grin.

Gerard hurried a few steps ahead of him, cutting through the crowd with ease. He had promised not to walk through anyone, but Frank suspected he might have cheated a bit - he made it to the stairs far too quickly. Frank arrived a few seconds later. His phone buzzed before he could start heading up, and he paused to read the text that popped up on his screen. It was from Mikey.

hey this is ur lunch period right? im gnna come n hang w u then talk 2 alicia is tht cool

Frank sent a quick message back - yeah thats cool meet us in the library - and went up after Gerard.

He didn’t hear the footsteps behind him until it was too late.

Someone shoved him forward, and he tripped over the stairs. His hands hit the ground first, but it wasn’t enough to slow the fall, and his head slammed into the wall. Frank’s skull exploded with pain. For an eye-watering moment, he thought he actually saw stars. He groaned out a curse and clutched at his head. “Jesus fucking shit, man, what the fuck -”

Gerard whirled around. “Frank! Are you okay?”

His eyes landed on something behind Frank.

Frank turned to see Ian smirking down at him, a satisfied gleam in his eye.

Shit.

“Fuck off,” Frank muttered. He scrambled to his feet and ran up the stairs, ignoring the high-pitched laughter that echoed after him. The pounding of his head was inescapable. He gritted his teeth. He was pretty sure Halloway kept ice packs on hand, but even with that, he’d be lucky to escape a migraine.

“What the fuck was that?” Gerard demanded as Frank trudged into the library. “Was that him? Ian? Frank, talk to me!”

“Yeah, that was him,” Frank muttered. “Don’t worry about it, though. It’s fine.”

“I thought you’d talked to your mom about this,” said Gerard, upset. “Is it still happening?”

“Yeah. I didn’t expect it to stop or anything. That was more for her sake than mine.” In reality, it had been for Gerard’s sake, but Frank wasn’t about to admit that. He made his way to the couch automatically, falling into it with a sigh. Bob was already waiting. He raised his eyebrows, but Frank waved him off.

“I’m sorry,” Gerard said softly.

“Don’t be,” said Frank. “High school doesn’t last forever, I’ll be out of this shithole soon enough.”

Ray came out from behind the counter with his lunch bag, frowning. “Wait, what’s going on? What happened?”

“Frank is talking to his imaginary friend,” Bob said lightly.

“Shut up,” said Frank, but his heart wasn’t really in it. Gerard was still looking concerned. Frank wished there was a way to convince him that it wasn’t a big deal - even if that wasn’t necessarily true. He hated Ian, of course, and he wouldn’t hesitate to kick his ass if given the chance, but he didn’t want Gerard to worry.

His head fucking hurt. He could do with an ice pack.

He looked around the library, which was completely deserted. It took him a few seconds to locate Halloway. She was puttering around in the back room, flipping through a huge old book. Frank waved to her. She glanced up for a second, and they made eye contact. “Hey!” Frank said in a stage whisper. If he shouted in the library, she just might kill him. “Do you have ice packs?”

She frowned and set the book down before coming out to meet him. “What was that?” she asked, making her way over.

“I hit my head,” Frank said. “Do you still have ice packs in the fridge?”

Halloway clucked her tongue and disappeared wordlessly into the back room.

“Aren’t you going to tell her what happened?” Gerard asked.

“No,” Frank muttered. “I don’t want to have to explain about Alicia. She’d make a huge deal out of it. Maybe later, but not now. I’d have to mentally prepare for a rant like that.”

“But she should make a big deal out of it!” Gerard argued. “That’s the only way things will get better!”

“Wait, Ian did something?” Ray asked. Frank stopped rubbing at his head, but it was too late; Ray had noticed, and he looked horrified. “What did he do? Frank, you have to tell us these things, what the hell!”

“What’s going on?” asked Mikey, who was leaning against the counter. Frank jumped. He hadn’t even known Mikey was there, he’d slipped in so quietly.

Thankfully, Halloway interrupted them when she returned with a little blue ice pack.

“You need to stop getting hurt,” she warned Frank. “You’ll be lucky to make it to the end of senior year in one piece.”

Frank grinned. “Yeah, you’ve told me.” He held the ice pack up to the side of his head. The icy cold was a shock at first, but after a minute, the numbness started to feel nice.

“So,” Ray said pointedly. “What happened?”

“Tripped on the stairs,” Frank said with a shrug. Gerard made a noise of disapproval.

Ray sighed, but he allowed Frank to go and sit down without further interrogation.

Gerard was less forgiving. “Frank,” he started, but Frank jerked his head toward Halloway. Gerard looked confused for a second, then he caught on and lowered his volume. “I don’t like this,” he whispered. “It feels wrong. Every time he picks on you, you feel different. All mad and stuff.”

“Well, that can’t really be helped,” Frank murmured, keeping one eye on Halloway. ”Getting punched in the face is going to piss me off.”

“No, that’s not what I meant. It’s like… a gut feeling, I guess? Bad vibes. It’s not just that you’re angry, it’s more like there’s this whole aura of anger around you. It’s never there otherwise. Like, remember that time he threw a water bottle at you? You felt super weird after that.” Gerard sighed. “It just doesn’t feel like you, Frankie.”

Frank didn’t know how to respond to that. “Maybe I’m just an asshole,” he said.

“No! That’s not it at all,” said Gerard, his voice momentarily rising before he remembered to be quiet. “That’s the entire point; you’re usually different. It’s just when you come home from school, or…” He paused, stricken. “Or right now, actually. Can you feel it? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think it is.”

Frank shrugged. “I dunno. I don’t feel anything.”

“Are you sure?” Gerard persisted. “Think about it.”

Frank half-smiled. There was no point to it, but he supposed it couldn’t hurt to indulge him.

Frank was silent for a minute, staring absentmindedly at the rows of bookshelves. The library was a good environment for introspection; there was nobody else around, and therefore fewer distractions. He was free to breathe deeply, close his eyes, and focus inward.

It didn’t do much.

Honestly, Frank was feeling pretty normal. His initial anger at Ian had faded away, and what was left was just his average mood, with a few stray thoughts thrown in. Maybe a little school-related stress. Maybe a few repressed impulses to touch Gerard. But that was it.

Except…

There was something else. He’d barely noticed it before, but running just beneath his thoughts was a current of anxiety. There was no particular reason for it; it was just there, like a hissing mess of static. It grew larger and larger until it all but filled his head with tangles of black and white.

There was no way it was just his imagination.

Frank slowly rose to his feet. It wasn’t just in his head anymore; the mood of the entire room had shifted. Ray and Mikey had gone stock still. There was sense of impending doom in the air, like the moment before lightning struck.

“Frank,” Gerard said uneasily. “Something’s wrong.”

Frank looked to the others. “Is anyone else getting major bad vibes right now?”

Ray’s eyes were wide. He was the first to nod, followed by Mikey and Bob.

“Okay, let’s get out of here,” Frank said under his breath. “Like, right now.”

He didn’t hesitate before turning and running for the door.

It all happened in a split second. Frank was running, his pulse pounding in his ears, reaching for the door handle; then he was frozen. It was like running into a brick wall. The second he got within a foot of the door, he couldn’t move. His limbs refused to obey him.

The bolt on the door slowly slid shut.

“Oh shit,” said Gerard, almost hyperventilating. “Oh, fuck.”

“What the hell is happening?” Bob demanded.

“I should ask you the same question,” said a woman’s voice.

Frank’s breath caught in his chest. He forced himself to breathe deeply, then turned around.

Halloway was sitting on the edge of the counter, her legs crossed neatly as she observed them. The tension in the air didn’t seem to worry her. In fact, she was almost excited, her eyes sparkling as she looked them over. Her fingernails tapped out an irregular rhythm on the wood beneath her.

“You’ve brought a spirit with you,” she said.

Ray laughed nervously. “Spirit? That’s a, um, funny joke -”

“You don’t need to pretend,” she said, waving a hand. “I can see him.”

“Oh,” Gerard said weakly.

“I must say, I expected this to happen sooner,” said Halloway, her eyes glinting with interest. “I thought he would’ve come here as soon as he could. Oh, well. I suppose school just isn’t of as much interest to this generation.” She slid off the counter, her feet landing softly on the ground.

Mikey’s eyes were narrowed behind his glasses. “Who are you?” he asked.

“No one special. But you, on the other hand…” She grinned. “You four are quite intriguing. Or, you five, as I should say. Isn’t that right, Gerard?”

Frank startled. “How do you know his name?”

“I’ve been waiting,” Halloway said eagerly. “Gerard Way, right? Dead as of last August?”

“Wait, wait, wait,” said Ray, holding up a hand. “You knew about Gerard this whole time?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Why didn’t you say something before?”

“I didn’t know for sure,” Halloway admitted. “I knew his spirit was around somewhere, but I wasn’t sure if you’d made contact with him.” She brightened. “But now I’m sure! Giving you that book was so hard; I kept wanting to tell you where to look. Being open about it is way easier. I can tell you things about the spirit world that’ll save you an infinite amount of trouble.”

Frank and Mikey exchanged raised eyebrows.

“Okay,” Frank said. “Tell us. But if you say anything weird, we’re out.” After that initial burst of tension, he wasn’t feeling very trusting toward Halloway.

She smiled. ”We’re dealing with ghosts, Frank. Everything is weird.” She turned to Gerard, focusing on him for the first time, and beamed. “Hi there! You’d be Gerard, then?”

“Yeah,” Gerard said. “Who’re you?”

“Who I am…” she said thoughtfully. “Well, there’s a complicated question. Let’s skip to the good part, shall we?” She leaned back against the counter, looking Gerard over. “You’ve been dead for about a year, right? Have you done any thinking about why you stayed behind as a ghost?”

Gerard shook his head.

Halloway hummed. “You haven’t got much time left, then. If you don’t find out what your unfinished business was and finish it, you won’t be able to hang around your friends much longer.”

Gerard’s eyes widened. “What does that mean?”

“It means spirits don’t stay benevolent for long,” Halloway explained. “Give it another month or two, and you’ll be dangerous. A poltergeist, at best.” She grimaced. “Bloodthirsty, at worst.”

“What?” Ray squeaked. “But - but the books never said anything about that!”

Halloway sighed. “Unfortunately, most spellbooks offer palliative cures only. They can tell you how to eradicate a ghost, but stopping one from becoming evil is another story.” She smiled. “That’s where I come in.”

“You could help me?” Gerard asked, and Frank felt the spark of hope that accompanied it. “How?”

“I can keep you safe,” she said. “I’m one of the few people out there who’s well-trained enough to do it. How do you think I found you? I was looking for someone to save.” She spread her hands. “All you have to do is let me have a look at your soul. That way, I can protect it.”

Frank wasn’t sure if he’d heard her correctly.

Gerard didn’t miss it, either. He paused. “My soul?”

Halloway nodded. “Mm-hmm!”

“I don’t even know how to do that.”

“Oh, that’s okay! Just leave it to me, I know how all this works.” Halloway smiled encouragingly.

Frank didn’t buy it.

He could see the first hints of doubt appearing in Gerard’s expression, and knew they must be mirrored in his own. This conversation was quickly turning down a path he didn’t want to follow. One look at the others told him they felt the same way.

“Give us a second,” Gerard said quickly. He pulled Frank down the steps to the lower library and led them behind a bookshelf. Once they were out of earshot, he whispered, “Is it just me, or is this sketchy?”

Frank nodded fervently. Sketchy didn’t cover half of it. A man in a trench coat beckoning you into a dimly-lit alley was sketchy. A stranger on the internet asking for your social security number was sketchy. A perky woman with nails painted hot pink asking to see your soul? That was downright creepy.

Gerard returned to Halloway with Frank trailing behind him. “I don’t know if I want to do that,” he said.

“I understand,” Halloway said ruefully. “It’s a strange request. But I have enchantments that can keep your soul from becoming corrupted. If you don’t protect yourself now, it might be too late. You could hurt someone.” She glanced over at Mikey. “Everyone around you would be put in danger.”

Gerard hesitated.

Frank didn’t. He shook his head firmly, answering for Gerard. “No. If you want him to do that, you’re gonna have to give us more detail on how this works. ‘Cause right now, I’m not all that convinced.”

“Really?” Halloway challenged. “Is the idea of Gerard turning evil not enough? Imagine it, Frank. Imagine looking at him and seeing a monster. He would lose his sense of self. He would try to kill all of you, and maybe succeed in doing it. Your friends, your family. All gone because of him. And he’d be gone, too. Is that what you want?”

“I didn’t ask what the risks were,” he said, scowling. “I said explain how the protection works. I’m - I mean, we’re not gonna let you take a peek at his soul if you don’t tell us what you’re doing.” He glanced to his friends for affirmation, and they all nodded.

Halloway’s smile faded. “It’s complicated magic, Frank. I’m not sure I could put it into terms you’d understand.”

“Try us,” he said.

All at once, it was like the light in her eyes was shut off. They were left cold and empty.

“Oh, Frank,” she said. “I had so hoped we could do this the easy way.”

She snapped her fingers, and Mikey was thrown back against the wall. His head slammed into a shelf, and he fell to the ground like a rag doll with cut strings. A bolt of panic shot through Frank. “Mikey!” he shouted, but before he could move, Halloway snapped again, freezing him in place. Beside him, Gerard struggled to move, his eyes fixed on Mikey.

“Let’s be honest, shall we?” she said. Frank searched for any sign of the bubbly librarian he’d come to know, but found nothing. She was replaced by a stranger; a woman with a cruel smile, who looked upon Mikey’s limp form with nothing but satisfaction. “You don’t have a choice. Let me in, or he dies.” Her eyes narrowed. “They all die.”

“No,” Frank said through gritted teeth. “You’re not touching him.”

“Mikey,” Gerard said desperately. “Frank, I have to -”

“I’m not letting her take you!” Frank snapped.

“But Mikey!”

Halloway let her hand fall, and Frank stumbled forward, his ability to move restored. “This is your one chance,” she said. “Surrender yourself, or pay the price.”

Frank glared at her and spoke without a moment’s hesitation. “He’s not paying you shit,” he said.

Halloway smiled, her teeth too sharp, and inclined her head. “So be it.”

“Frank, wait!” Gerard shouted.

Too late.

Halloway lunged forward. Frank blinked, and she was in front of Mikey, drawing her hand back and scoring her clawed fingers across his torso. He awoke with a scream of pain. Halloway laughed as she retracted a hand dripping with blood. Ray grabbed his bookbag and stumbled backward, petrified, while Bob just stared at the blood that was rapidly soaking through Mikey’s shirt.

Halloway’s eyes flicked over to him. Frank’s veins filled with ice. He could see what was about to happen; the red streak of her hands reaching for Bob’s throat -

“What the hell is going on in here?” shrieked a girl’s voice.

Halloway’s head snapped toward the sound. Standing in the doorway was Alicia, with her books clutched tight to her chest and an expression of pure terror. For a split second, there was a stand-off. The pendulum of fate swung back and forth, only moments away from deciding the course of events.

Then Ray shouted, “Ad infernum!,” and a small satchel hit Halloway in the face.

She disappeared into thin air.

Frank stared.

“Oh my God,” Ray said faintly, clutching his backpack. “I can’t believe that actually worked.”

Frank turned to him. “What the hell did you do?” he asked incredulously.

“I banished her! I had the stuff in my bag, I always do. It’s only temporary, but -”

“Both of you, shut the fuck up!” Alicia darted across the room to Mikey, who was lying still again, his breathing labored. “What happened?” she demanded. “What was that?” She pulled out her phone before they could answer, dialing at the speed of light and raising the phone to her ear. “Hello? This is Alicia Simmons, I’m at Belleville High School and I’ve got a medical emergency.” She pressed her hand against Mikey’s wound, ignoring his strangled noise of pain, and glared at the rest of them. ‘Well?” she hissed. “Don’t just stand there, do something!” She returned her attention to her phone call. “His name’s Mikey Way… I don’t know, I think he got stabbed or something. He’s bleeding a lot. Please hurry.”

“Where did she come from?” Frank said, bemused.

“I don’t know, but we’re damn lucky she did,” Gerard said, his voice shaking with anger. “How could you fucking do that?” His eyes were burning. Frank had never seen him so pissed off. It made him feel small, like he could just wrap himself up into a tiny speck and disappear.

“I’m -”

“No! What the fuck, Frank?” Gerard shouted, shoving him a step back. “I was handling it! How could you just -”

Frank pushed Gerard’s hands away. “You weren’t handling it, you were going to let her kill you!”

“How do you know?” Gerard’s voice rose higher, bordering on hysterical. “Maybe things would’ve been fine! Maybe I could’ve spoken for myself and not gotten my brother -” His voice broke, and he swallowed hard. “Frank,” he said, his voice trembling. “If he’s really hurt, I’m never gonna fucking forgive you, I swear to God.”

“Hey!” Alicia snapped. “Frank, help me! You can fight with your disembodied voice later. If we don’t get more pressure on this, Mikey’s going to bleed out.”

Frank jumped to attention. He ran to Alicia’s side and knelt down to align his hands with hers, pressing down on Mikey’s stomach. A set of diagonal cuts ran down from his chest to his navel. They were deep enough to expose the glistening red beneath his skin.

Frank kind of wanted to throw up.

There was so much red; brighter than he’d ever seen. Mikey’s shallow breathing was the only thing that kept him going. It gave him something to focus on. All they had to do was keep him breathing.

He had to keep breathing, god damn it.

“Yeah,” Alicia said into the phone. “100 Passaic Ave, I think… No.”

Mikey groaned with pain. Bob stared down at him for a moment, then shrugged his hoodie off, balling it up and shifting Frank’s hands to the side so it could absorb the blood. He hadn’t said a word since Mikey had fallen. His expression was as closed off as always, but his eyes seemed to look straight through everything around him, and for once, Frank had no trouble guessing what he was feeling.

Alicia lowered her cell phone. “There’s an ambulance on the way,” she said. As calm as she appeared, her voice was thick, and Frank was startled to see tears in her eyes.

He could only nod mutely.

“If he dies, I’ll fucking kill him,” Bob muttered. Part of his hoodie was already stained red. He adjusted it so the dry side covered Mikey.

No one said anything.

It didn’t take the paramedics long to arrive. Once they did, the entrance to the library was suddenly swarmed; every student wanted to know what was going on. They only cleared out after a bit of shouting from the principal and stern warnings by the EMTs.

The EMTs, it turned out, did a lot more asking than answering. They strapped Mikey up to take him out to the ambulance, all the while bombarding Frank, Alicia, and anyone else in the vicinity with questions. Frank tried to follow Mikey, but was cut off by a man in a uniform.

“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding sympathetic, but firm nonetheless. “Only family members can ride along.”

Gerard blanched. “Oh, shit. Frank, if you can’t go with him, I can’t either. Shit.” He cast a panicked look at the door. “Oh no, oh no, fuck -”

“I’m sorry,” Frank said miserably. Now was the most inconvenient time ever for Gerard to be stuck with him. He’d felt shitty enough when Mikey had gotten hurt, but knowing he was the reason Gerard couldn’t follow his brother was salt in the wound.

“It’s not your fault, I just…” Gerard ran a hand through his hair, exhaling sharply through his nose. “God. Fuck this.”

A distraction quickly presented itself in the form of a woman in uniform. She kept Frank busy answering as many questions as he could, which, admittedly, wasn’t many. He let Alicia do most of the talking. It was simpler that way; she didn’t know the whole truth. She could only attempt to explain what she had seen.

“It was the librarian,” Alicia said slowly. “Ms. Halloway, I saw her.” She hesitated. “I don’t know what kind of weapon she had, but she got Mikey and then... ran away, I guess.”

Frank and Ray exchanged glances.

“What about you?” the woman asked Frank. “Did you see what kind of weapon she had?”

Frank froze. “Um…”

“It was like a little knife or something,” Ray said quickly. “It was hard to see, it happened so fast.”

The woman nodded and walked away, tapping on the principal’s shoulder.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Alicia turned to them, her eyes narrowed. “Start talking,” she said.

Bob eyed the paramedics. “Outside,” he said. Alicia headed straight for the door. Frank followed her. Someone called out for them to wait, but neither of them stopped until they were in the hallway with the door closed behind them.

Alicia crossed her arms over her chest, examining Bob, Ray, and Frank in turn. She pursed her lips, took a deep breath, and -

“What the fuck just happened?” she screamed. “Mikey just got stabbed! Only he didn’t, because Halloway didn’t have a knife, Ray, I saw her! She just took her hand and…” Alicia choked on her words. She took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then burst into tears.

Ray looked on the verge of doing the same. Bob just stared. Neither of them seemed to be rushing to help, so Frank took it upon himself. “You want the truth?” he asked. “‘Cause the truth is crazy.”

Alicia glared at him with red-rimmed eyes. “I just saw a woman disappear with my own two eyes,” she said roughly. “Try me.”

Frank braced himself and let the words tumble out:

“Mikey’s dead brother is a ghost and Halloway wanted his soul and when he said no she got mad and attacked Mikey and also, I don’t think she’s human? Anyway, Ray banished her with a spell but I’m not sure how long it’ll be effective and we should probably get out of here before she comes back because when she does, she’ll be pissed,” he said in a rush.

“Nicely put,” Gerard mumbled.

Alicia blinked.

“Say that slower, and there’s a chance I’ll believe you,” she said.

“Let me do it,” Gerard said impatiently. Alicia startled. Gerard plowed on ahead without waiting for her to ask. “Yes, it’s me, I’m Gerard, I’m a ghost, whatever -”

“I’ve taken a lot of shit in stride today,” Alicia said flatly, “But I’m drawing the line at disembodied voices. Somebody else tell me what’s going on. In detail.”

“That’s going to take a while,” Frank admitted.

“Tell someone who gives a fuck. I want the story, and I want all of it.”

Frank sighed and rubbed at his eyes. “Can’t we just stick to your version for now? That’ll be easier if someone asks us to testify or some shit.”

“Oh, shit,” said Ray, alarmed. “That’s a good point. What if they want our help finding Halloway? What would we say? She could kill all of them.”

“Let’s get out of here before they can ask,” said Bob.

Frank looked back at the library door. Nobody had come to get them yet, but someone surely would.

They all ran for the stairs.

***

Frank’s leg wouldn’t stop bouncing.

It had been hours since they’d arrived at the hospital. Hours spent waiting in stiff, uncomfortable seats, watching the mini televisions in the corners of the ceiling and trying not to think of what was going on just beyond those walls. Ray and Bob were sitting next to him. Alicia was there, too, sitting and staring at her cell phone without ever touching the screen.

They weren’t alone in the waiting room. There were plenty of strangers, too; people with different stories, but all the same fears. There were the ones with tear-streaked faces whose lips formed silent prayers, and the ones with smiles that stretched too tight as they made small talk, and then the subdued ones, who stared into their styrofoam coffee cups and only looked up when the nurse came by.

She tiptoed through the room once every few hours, whispering updates. Frank always sat up straight when she came near, anticipating what she might or might not say. But he wasn’t the most anxious to hear the news.

That title was reserved for Mikey’s mother.

Calling her had been stressful beyond belief. Ray had been the one to do it, since he knew her better than Frank did, and Bob still wasn’t saying much. She’d shown up within the hour, looking haggard beneath her heavy mascara and waves of blonde hair. Her arrival was accompanied by a quiet sigh from Gerard, but he hadn’t said anything yet, and Frank didn’t push him to. He just sat, watched, and waited for a sign.

The door opened.

The nurse headed straight for Mrs. Way, her expression grim.

“The physician needs you in the update conference room,” she said. “If you could come with me, please.”

Mrs. Way paled. “Mikey?”

The nurse beckoned her forward.

Mrs. Way stood up and followed the nurse through the door. The undercurrent of anxiety that had been buzzing through Frank for hours ratcheted up a notch.

Gerard got up and bolted after them.

After what felt like hours, but was probably less, Mrs. Way came back out, looking exhausted. Gerard drifted through the door behind her. Frank’s heart skipped a beat, and for one terrible moment, he feared the worst.

But when Mrs. Way looked down at him, she smiled. Behind her, Gerard did the same, and Frank felt a weight lift from his shoulders.

“He’s gonna be okay,” Mrs. Way said.

Ray jumped up and hugged her tight. She let out a little huff of surprise, but squeezed him back. “Goodness, Ray, I haven’t even said a proper hello to you with all this going on. It’s been way too long, hasn’t it? I’m glad to see you.” She let go of him and smoothed his hair down on one side, then looked at Bob. “Well? Don’t I get a hug?”

“Can we do a respectful fist bump?” Bob asked.

Mrs. Way rolled her eyes. “I see you haven’t changed, then.” She leaned over and bumped her knuckles against Bob’s. “The two of you are too polite for your own good. After all these years, you’d think you’d be calling me Donna by now.”

“Not a chance, Mrs. Way,” Ray said, grinning.

Mrs. Way sighed. “Of course. But you!” She pointed at Frank. “Let’s start out right, you and I.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Donna - please call me Donna - and in my free time, I’m Mikey’s mom.”

Frank shook her hand. “Frank Iero. I moved into your old house.”

Mrs. Way - Donna - brightened. “Oh, really? I’m sure we’ll have plenty to discuss, then. But first we’ve got to go to the concierge desk, and then we can hang around the PACU until I’m allowed to see my son. Hospitals,” she said under her breath. “So strict. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve carted him through this place for asthma attacks, and they still make me wait around.”

“PACU?” Alicia questioned.

“Post-anesthesia care unit,” Frank said automatically. Alicia stared, and he shrugged. “I get sick a lot.”

Donna nodded approvingly. “Mmm. I like this one. Now,” she waved to them all, “Come on. Let’s go!”

She led them through the halls at a brisk pace, chattering away as they went. As it turned out, when she wasn’t fearing for her son’s life, her personality was free to shine through - and shine it did. Maybe it was just relief and leftover adrenaline, but she was quite brash, and she didn’t censor herself for anyone. Frank liked her instantly.

“This is your mom?” he asked Gerard, incredulous. ”Did you somehow not get any of her genes?”

“I dunno. I think Mikey takes after her more than I do,” said Gerard. Frank was about to call bullshit, but then he remembered how deadly Mikey’s sarcastic streak could be, and it started to make more sense.

“I think I got the makeup thing from her, though,” Gerard mused. Frank nearly choked on his own tongue.

“The makeup thing?” he asked, his tone carefully controlled.

“What? Oh, yeah, have you not seen me in eyeliner yet?” Gerard grinned. “It’s awesome. I’ll have to show you later.”

Frank pushed that image as far away as it would go, reprimanding himself as sternly as he could. There were certain thoughts that just weren’t appropriate when you were about to visit your gravely injured friend.

Unfortunately, they had to wait a while before Mikey was allowed to have visitors. Gerard went quiet again so his mom wouldn’t hear his voice - now that would be a tricky situation - and he ended up leaning against Frank’s shoulder as they sat around the waiting room. Ten minutes in, he straightened up and whispered in Frank’s ear, “I’m sorry for yelling at you earlier.”

“It’s okay,” Frank whispered back. “I get it.”

Gerard settled in again, and they didn’t say anything more. The knot in Frank’s chest slowly began to unwind. He hadn’t even noticed it before.

When the nurse finally gave them permission to see Mikey, Frank was disappointed to find that only two visitors were allowed in at a time. Donna and Ray went inside while Frank, Bob, and Alicia stayed behind. This time, though, the room was much more bearable. Without the threat of Mikey’s imminent death hanging over their heads, it was more boring than stressful. Frank texted his mom with an update and scrolled through Twitter, but his feed was fairly dead, so he quickly gave up on it. The hospital wifi wasn’t that good, anyway.

He set his phone down and looked at Alicia. Now that the initial panic over Mikey had faded, it was a little uncomfortable to be sitting with her like they were friends. Now wasn’t the time to bring up their own personal issues, but he had to admit, it was bugging him.

She glanced up from her phone, and they made eye contact.

“What?” she asked.

Frank looked away as quickly as he could. “Nothing.”

“Doesn’t seem like nothing. You were looking at me funny, what’s up?”

Frank bit back a sigh. No turning back now. “I dunno, it’s just...” He examined her, wondering how much honesty he could get away with, and decided to be blunt. “You’ve talked shit about me more times than I can even count,” he said. “I’ve got my ass kicked because of you. Maybe you don’t feel the same way, but I think it’s a little weird to be hanging out with you like that never happened.”

Alicia slowly set her phone down.

“Do you remember what I said, last time?” she asked. “About me not knowing if I’d done it or not? Well, I did do it, and I know I shouldn’t have lied, but it’s complicated. Looking back on everything I’ve said, I…” She trailed off. “It’s like watching a different person. I don’t have anything against you, Frank. Nothing at all. I know you probably don’t believe me, but I swear I’m telling the truth.”

“Okay,” Frank said, raising an eyebrow. He didn’t know what else to say. She had reacted more calmly than he’d expected, but it sounded like she was still trying to deny it, and that left a bad taste in his mouth. It wasn’t easy to forgive when some of his bruises had only recently faded.

“Wait,” Bob said suddenly. “You said it was like watching a different person?”

Alicia nodded. “Yeah. I know I said all that stuff, but I don’t know why. None of it’s… I don’t how how to put this.” She wrung her hands helplessly. “I don’t really believe any of it. Like, before this year I’d never used a slur a day in my life. I thought anybody who did was disgusting. And I always thought petty drama was dumb, but...” She looked stricken. “God, I’ve caused so many fights. What was I thinking?”

“Is that an expression, or are you saying you literally don’t know?” Bob asked, studying her closely. “There’s a difference.”

“No, I literally have no idea. I can’t remember. It’s like…”

“Like you couldn’t control yourself?” Bob finished. Alicia nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. You intern at the library, right?”

Alicia nodded. “Since I was a sophomore.”

“Wait, are you suggesting Halloway did something to her?” Frank asked. “Why would she care about student drama?”

“I don’t know,” Bob said with a shrug. “But this sounds a lot like possession. And that makes perfect sense, too, since Alicia’s around the library so much. She’d be a prime target.”

“Hold up,” Alicia said incredulously. “Possession?”

Bob started to say something, but just then, Donna and Ray appeared in the doorway. “If any of you kids want a crack at him, you can go in now,” Donna said cheerily. “He’s pretty tired, though, so don’t go getting him riled up.”

“You got it,” said Frank, jumping to his feet. Bob got up to follow him, but Alicia got up at the same time. They eyed each other, an unspoken challenge hanging between them.

Frank walked through the door without waiting to see the results of their standoff.

A nurse accompanied him into the PACU. She led him past other recovering patients, each bed separated by a thin curtain, until they came to Mikey’s. He was propped up on a few pillows, looking bleary but very much alive. Gerard was sitting on the edge of his bed. He waved hello to Frank with a wide smile. Frank pulled up a chair.

“Hi,” said Mikey. His voice was slightly hoarse. “This is maybe not the best day of my life.”

“What?” Frank asked. “Why not? Getting ripped into by a psycho librarian is all the rage now, didn’t you know?” Mikey huffed out a laugh. It was short and laced with pain, but somehow comfortable, too.

The silence that settled between them was easy. A machine steadily beeped Mikey’s vital signs.

“Who’s gonna be the first to tell him?” Gerard murmured.

“Wait ‘til Bob’s here,” said Mikey.

That very moment, Bob appeared in the doorway. “Your girlfriend’s crazy,” he said sourly. “You’d better be prepared for the lecture of a lifetime. She’s not happy with you for getting mixed up in all this supernatur - I mean, all this stuff,” he said, glancing at the nurse, who was flitting back and forth between the different patients.

“Okay, back to your secretive bullshit,” said Frank, pointing at Mikey. “What were you about to say?”

Gerard looked at Mikey, then back at Frank, beaming. “He can see me now!”

Frank’s jaw dropped. “What? How?”

“I have a theory,” Mikey said casually. “So, during the surgery, my heart stopped, right? Not for long, obviously, but -”

“Your what did what?” Bob said blankly.

“I know,” Gerard said, grimacing. “I didn’t want to think about it either.”

Mikey rolled his eyes. “Calm down. I’m fine now, aren’t I?”

“I know, but… God.”

“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, that happened, and then when Gerard got in here, I could see him. I’m thinking there’s a connection.” Mikey glanced at Frank. “Had a near-death experience lately?”

“Not all of us go out and provoke undead monsters for fun,” Frank said dryly. “I’ve always been able to see Gerard.”

“I know, yeah, but have you ever had one? When you were a kid, maybe?”

“No, I...”

Frank thought for a minute.

“You know what?” he said slowly. “I have, actually. I almost died of pneumonia when I was four.”

Mikey looked smug. “See? There you have it.”

“Oh, great,” Bob snorted. “So all I have to do to see my best friend is jump off a building, then.”

The nurse appeared over his shoulder. “Two more minutes, boys,” she said kindly. Frank froze up for a second, wondering if she’d overheard, but she moved on without comment.

Mikey sunk deeper into his pillows. “Alicia’s totally gonna kill me,” he mumbled.

“It’s only because she cares,” said Frank, giving him a pat on the shoulder.

“I still can’t believe you have a girlfriend,” Bob muttered.

***

Frank stuck his hands under his armpits, teeth chattering as the wind blew across the parking lot. Alicia was huddled close to him for warmth. He hadn’t really packed for November temperatures when he’d been rushing off to the hospital, and now that night had fallen, he was in dire need of an extra layer or three. His hoodie wasn’t cutting it.

“I can’t leave you kids shivering in the cold,” Donna said with a frown. “Are you sure you don’t want rides? There’s plenty of room.”

“Nah, my mom wants to pick me up so I explain everything,” said Frank. He wished he could go with Donna; her car practically radiated warmth. Ray, and Bob had already locked themselves inside to bask in it.

Bob rolled down one of the windows and leaned his head out. “If you get hypothermia, it’s your own fault,” he said.

“My mom’s fault, you mean,” Frank said with a grimace. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

“Yeah, we’ve got a lot to talk about,” said Bob. He rolled down the window.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” Donna persisted. “I’ve had one child injured tonight, I don’t want two more freezing their toes off.”

“My mom’s already on her way,” Frank assured her. “It’s fine, I swear.”

Donna pursed her lips. “All right. But you text one of the boys once she picks you up, hear me? I want to make sure you both make it home safe.” She hopped into the car and pulled the door shut behind her. Frank saw her turn back to say something to Ray and Bob, and then the car was pulling away, out of the parking lot and into the street.

“So,” said Alicia, rubbing her hands over her arms. “Tell me about your ghost.”

“Do you want me to?” Frank asked, glancing over at her. The industrial lights of the parking lot cast deep shadows across her face, making the dark circles under her eyes appear even darker. She had pushed forward all day, accepting each new insanity like it was nothing, but now, her carefully-composed mask was beginning to crack, revealing the exhaustion beneath. Frank didn’t blame her.

“I can do it, if you want,” Gerard offered. He was standing beside Frank; close, but not so close that he made it even colder than it already was. Alicia flinched at the sound of his voice.

“Either one of you can. I don’t care,” she said. “I just want to know what’s going on.”

Frank exhaled slowly. It came out as a plume of fog, drifting through the air before dissipating. “Halloway wasn’t human. You know that much.”

“Yeah. And she was… possessing me. Or something.” Alicia shuddered. “I should’ve known. There was always something weird about her, don’t you think?”

“Maybe,” said Frank. In retrospect, her neverending good cheer should have revealed the evil within. “There was no way you could’ve known, though. None of us did.”

“Yeah. If we didn’t notice anything wrong after she gave us a book on witchcraft, nobody could’ve,” Gerard said with a small smile. “We were a little stupid.”

“She gave you a book on witchcraft?” Alicia asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Yeah. We’ve been trying to make Gee here visible,” said Frank, nudging Gerard with his elbow. “No luck so far, though. You’d think a book from a dead lady would do us some good.”

Alicia shook her head, making a face. “That’s so… God. It makes total sense that she’s dead, nobody has books that old lying around. But what is she? A ghost?”

“I have no idea,” Gerard said honestly. “We’re just assuming she’s dead. The only thing I really know is that she was trying to take my soul, and when I didn’t cooperate, she attacked Mikey.” Frank winced a bit, and Gerard touched his wrist. “It’s okay, though,” he said softly. “At least now we know who our real enemies are.” Frank got the feeling his last sentence wasn’t directed at Alicia.

“True,” Alicia agreed. “And I won’t be stuck spreading lies about people.” She took her hands out of her pockets and blew on them, rubbing them together for warmth. “So,” she said, not looking at Frank. “What do we do now? We can’t let her go back to the school, that’s her territory. Is there any way we can keep her away from it?”

Frank nodded. “Ray can probably work something out.”

“Good. I don’t want anyone else getting hurt. But what comes after that?”

Frank looked at Gerard, who shrugged. “I’m not really sure,” he admitted.

Alicia’s face hardened. “Well, I am. She hurt Mikey, and I’m sure she’s hurt other people, too. We need to kill her. Or exorcise her. Or whatever.”

Frank nodded. He couldn’t say he was surprised by the suggestion. It had been floating around in his head, too; present, but unvoiced. Deep down, he’d figured it was inevitable. When you encountered an evil spirit, you got rid of it. That was how these things worked.

“The question is how we do that,” he said. “The only book that’s given us reliable information so far is the one she gave us, and I seriously doubt she’s just hand us the instructions on how to kill her.” He sighed. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do.”

“We’ll figure something out,” Gerard reassured him. His fingers wrapped around Frank’s wrist again, this time giving it a light squeeze. “We always do. Ray’s the master librarian, remember?”

“Wait, are you getting all your info from books?” Alicia said suddenly. “Why don’t you just take another one from her?”

Frank stared at her. “Does she have more than one witchcraft book lying around?”

“Probably. She’s got all kinds of old stuff, remember? She never let me touch any of it.” Alicia was getting excited now, her voice rising. “I bet that’s why - she didn’t want me finding out her secrets! But if we go back, we could get them. Shit, there’s this huge old thing she keeps in the back room, I always thought it must’ve been some kind of encyclopedia…”

Frank furrowed his brow. “Wait, you mean the big brown one? No words on the cover?”

“Yeah!”

“I think I’ve seen it,” he said. He remembered a book matching that description sitting on the back counter. “If we could get out hands on it, that’d be awesome.”

“But you have to let Ray do his spell thing first,” Gerard interjected. “You can’t go back there without making sure it’s safe first.”

“No, yeah. Of course.” A pair of headlights were approaching from the other end of the parking lot. If Frank squinted, he could make out the shape of his mother’s car. “Oh, my ride’s here.” He turned to Alicia. “You said your dad was coming to get you, right?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll be okay. Might not be in school tomorrow, though.” She stifled a yawn with one hand. “I gave Ray my number. He can text you about getting together to kill this evil bitch.”

Frank grinned. “Gotcha. See you later, then?”

“See you.”

The car pulled up in front of them. Frank dipped his head to Alicia, then yanked open the side door and hopped inside. The warmth hit him all at once, and he sighed with relief, holding his hands out in front of one of the vents.

“Hey, honey,” said Mom. She was smiling, but he eyes were filled with worry. “Everything okay?”

Frank nodded. He pulled his door closed and then went right back to warming his hands Gerard got into one of the seats behind him. “It’s been a long day, but yeah. I’m good.”

“You didn’t tell me much,” Mom said, shifting the car into drive and pulling into the street. “And you scared me half to death with what you did say. But I won’t push you for now. I think you’ve had enough action today without having to retell it.”

“Amen to that,” said Frank. He let his eyes slip shut as he leaned back against the headrest. “Thanks, Mom.”

“Of course, honey.” Mom reached over and patted his knee. “I’m no stranger to trauma, I know you’re not gonna want to relive it all right now. And I’ve been able to piece some things together from the news, anyway. Just promise me you’ll explain soon? I have to know you’re okay.”

“Yeah, I will,” said Frank.

He would give her an explanation. It wouldn’t be the truth, but he’d give her one.

And if things kept working out, soon enough, none of this would be a problem anymore.

***

The morning sun shone through Frank’s bedroom window. He squinted, then opened his eyes fully. Judging by how light his room was, it was late morning; far past the time he usually woke up for school.

“You have the day off,” said Gerard. Frank jumped.

“How many fucking times do I have to tell you to warn me before you do that?” he said, clutching at his chest. “Jesus. You’re gonna give me a heart attack before I’m twenty.”

“You really should be used to it by now,” said Gerard, smiling. He was sitting in midair on the other side of the room, and looked as if he’d been there for a while.

“Forgive me for not being prepared every second of the day,” Frank grumbled. “I don’t usually have to deal with people popping up out of nowhere.” Someday, that was going to lead to a very awkward situation. Frank prayed that day wouldn’t be anytime soon.

Gerard flapped his hand. “Whatever. Anyway, the school’s closed. They’re not so keen to let people in the day after their librarian stabbed a kid.” He let his feet fall to the ground as if he were hopping off an invisible ledge. “Ray and Bob are downstairs.”

Frank startled. “What? You could’ve told me that first!” He pushed himself up to his elbows and grabbed his alarm clock. It was almost noon. If he listened hard, he thought he could hear soft voices from downstairs. He sat up and rubbed at his eyes, sighing. “When did they get here?”

“A couple hours ago. We’ve been making plans with Alicia,” Gerard said cheerfully. “She’s here, too.”

“Right,” Frank said blankly. “And who invited all these people to my house while I was sleeping?”

“Me,” said Gerard. “I used the house phone. Anyway, Alicia’s pretty cool. She’s pretty good about the whole boyfriend’s-ghost-brother thing.” He grinned briefly at the door, then looked back at Frank. “Mikey’d better not fuck things up with her; she’s a keeper. Anyway, you should get down there. There’s some interesting stuff happening.”

Frank sighed. “Okay. Get out, then, I need to put clothes on if we’re doing this now.”

“Just come down when you’re ready!” Gerard chirped. He disappeared. A moment later, Frank heard his voice join the others down below, laughing about something Frank couldn’t make out.

Frank rolled out of bed. He slipped on a fresh t-shirt and pair of jeans, then padded out into the hallway and down the stairs. Bob and Alicia had made themselves at home on the living room couch, and Ray was sitting on a cushion on the floor. Frank gave them a little wave as he passed into the kitchen.

“Do you always sleep this late?” Ray asked, raising his eyebrows. “I was starting to think you’d died or something.” Frank flipped him off and went to search for something to eat. After he had a couple pop tarts in his stomach, he was feeling much more awake, and went to sit on the floor next to Ray.

“So, we all went into school this morning to scope it out,” Alicia began, “And the library was closed -”

“We had to sneak around the cops,” Bob chimed in.

“Yeah. Ray got us through with a little spellwork, though.” Alicia flashed a grin at Ray, then returned her attention to Frank. “Remember that book we were talking about last night?” She picked up a hefty book that was lying on the couch next to her and handed it to Frank. “I was right, it’s a magic thing. We nabbed it from her office.”

“And then we did that enchantment to keep her away from the school,” Ray added. “It wasn’t much, but this way we have a day or two to prepare before she comes back.”

Frank nodded. “Cool.”

He turned his attention to the book in his lap. It was ancient-looking, with letters so faded he couldn’t read them and yellowed pages one touch away from falling out. He ran his fingers across the dull cover and opened it up. The first few pages were blank, but after that, every square inch was covered with words. Most of it was neat black handwriting, but there were pieces of paper that had been pasted in as well; pages from books, or newspaper clippings. There were inked illustrations scattered through it, showing pentagrams, sigils, the shapes of different leaves, and on one page, a human skeleton.

“This doesn’t look like a spellbook,” he said. “What is it?”

“It’s Halloway’s journal,” Ray explained. “Her grimoire, actually. A compendium of magical shit. Like a spellbook, only handmade.”

Frank glanced up. “Does it have anything we can use against her?”

“Hell yeah, it does,” said Bob. He took the book back and flipped through the pages, stopping toward the end. “Here. Look at this.” He thrust the book out to Frank, who took it.

“November 4th, 1897,” he read out loud. “I have never visited a town that gives off such a negative energy as this one. The people are sharp and quick to anger, but this disposition is clearly unnatural. A witch may have been here recently. There is an aura of black magic that clings to every -”

“Skip that part,” Bob interrupted. “Go to the bit when she starts talking about spectres.”

Frank lowered the book, incredulous. “Are we just ignoring the fact that this is dated from 1897?”

“Just keep reading.”

Frank shook his head, but went on anyhow. The bottom half of the page was sectioned off by a thick line. Beneath it, the word “spectre” was circled several times and followed by several disjointed paragraphs, each dated slightly after the next. They were long enough that he opted to read them silently instead of out loud.

January 4th, 1898. Spectre - a particularly powerful type of spirit. They gain their power by feeding on the life force of humans. They are supernaturally strong, and can take on a corporeal form if they so desire, rendering themselves identical to human beings. I have not yet devised a way to differentiate a spectre from a human.

What differentiates a spectre from a spirit? - to be investigated

January 17th, 1898. After piecing together local reports, I have been able to gather this much information. Spectres seem to appear in areas where there has been a recent death. They remain for a very short period of time before vanishing. If a human happens upon them, they may become violent, but they are otherwise unobtrusive. Perhaps they are some sort of guide for the dead?

March 25th, 1898. Forget my previous entry - I have gained more information in the months following it. Spectres are not guides. Quite the contrary; they are scavengers. I believe they seek out recently deceased souls with the hopes of consuming them. This, as well as human life force, is what gives them their power. It is a sort of spiritual cannibalism. Quite intriguing.

There were a few scratched-out paragraphs, then:

April 3rd, 1898. I have managed to kill one. Or eradicate it, at the very least. I am not sure how well the term “kill” applies to a being which has already died. Notes are below.

Below the writing was a set of bullet points, and on the following page was a drawing of a large sigil. Frank spared it a brief glance before moving to the next page, where the log entries continued.

May 12th, 1898. Though my recent goal has been the extermination of spectres, there is something about them that fascinates me to no end. I wonder how they are created? Spirits are created through death… Are spectres of similar origin, or is there something more?

Frank looked up from the book. “You think Halloway is one of these spectre things?” he guessed. Bob nodded, and Frank frowned. “But this makes it sound like she’s fighting them. Or just learning about them, at least.”

“Keep reading,” Ray and Bob said in unison.

After that, the entries grew much shorter, and the time between them spanned years, even decades. Frank skimmed through them, his heart sinking into his stomach.

September 18th, 1901. Success at last. It was less painful than I expected, and the benefits are innumerable. Really, I find this preferable to being alive.

June 30th, 1916. I must get better at tracking down the deceased. Several spirits have managed to evade me as of late. I am drawn to their general area, but it is difficult to pinpoint their exact location.

October 1st, 1923. It appears that one soul is equivalent to roughly 80 years of power. A human lifetime, in short. Anything beyond that is simply excessive. More notes on soul power to follow.

October 5th, 1923. Is there sin in excess? I am beginning to wonder where the boundaries of my power lie.

May 21st, 1947. I must get better at modern language. My speech keeps betraying me.

August 8th, 1965. I get more power from consuming a deceased soul than sapping the energy of a living one. I should just start killing people, that would be easier. Saves me the time of hunting down people who have already died.

August 10th, 1965. Killing people is harder than I thought. I think I need to drain them more before I try it.

March 4th, 1978. Draining experiments a success. Minimum one year of contact required to kill. I wonder if there’s any way to accelerate this?

February 13th, 1990. Why stop at one? If I could find a way to drain an entire group at once, I could kill them easily, given a little time. And then I could take them all. Hmm… It gets easier and easier to appear human with ever excess soul I take - what would happen with many souls at once? Something to think about.

September 1st. Found a new ghost. I know where he is, thanks to Google, but I think I’m going to stay put for a while. Teenagers are the perfect people to drain. Nobody’s going to notice if they’re acting strange, it’s what they’re known for (LOL)! I’ll have them all eventually. It’s just a waiting game. In the meantime, I need to figure out how libraries work.

Frank’s eyes were wide by the time he finished reading. “Well,” he said. “Shit.”

“Yeah,” Ray said grimly. “If you read from the beginning, it’s kind of sad. I think she was a good person at first, but then there was black magic, and it all kind of started to go downhill. And now we’ve got a bloodthirsty superghost after us.”

“But hey,” Bob said with a shrug. “At least we know Alicia doesn’t actually hate you.”

“And that she wasn’t actually being possessed,” Ray added. “We think Halloway was feeding on her and a few other students. That’s why they were so mean to everyone; they were getting all the good energy sucked out of them.”

“Oh, God.” Alicia groaned and covered her face. “Frank, I’m so sorry about everything. I know I said this before, but I’d never say anything bad about you normally. Or anybody else, unless they did something to really piss me off.” She lowered her hands and scowled. “I can’t believe I spent all that time as her intern, sucking up for college credit. So not worth it.”

“Guys,” Gerard said, rolling his eyes. “You’re forgetting the good part.” He flipped back a few pages and pointed to an illustration. “She told us how to kill her!”

“It’s not gonna be easy,” Ray warned, as if Frank had thought for a moment that it would be. “We’ll need to get her in an enclosed space and trap her, and then someone else has to keep her subdued while somebody else reads the incantation to weaken her. And then we have to get our hands on an enchanted knife.”

“But we can do it,” Gerard said firmly. “And that’s what matters.”

They were all silent as the gravity of the situation settled over them.

“Are we gonna be, like, saving people?” Frank asked. “Is that what we’re doing here?”

Gerard grinned. “Fuck yeah. We’re gonna save everyone.”

He leaned over to give Frank a high five, and Frank smacked his hand as hard as he could.

His life was insane, but he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

***

As it turned out, being mortally wounded and confined to a hospital bed had no effect on Mikey’s capacity for sarcasm.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “You just found out that your school librarian is an ancient undead freak who eats souls, and your solution is to try and fight her. And you don’t think this plan is going to get anyone killed.”

Frank grimaced. “I know. But we’ve got to do something, don’t we? She’s not gonna let us walk away from this. It’s better for us to make the first move.”

Mikey stared off into the distance. He wasn’t as pale and sickly-looking as he had been back in the PACU, but he was far from healthy. The doctors said he’d have to stay in the hospital another two weeks. The signs of his injury were impossible to ignore - there were tubes and machines snaked all around him, and he always seemed tired, like even holding a conversation took effort. But even more impossible to ignore was the reason why he was there in the first place.

“Don’t get your intestines ripped open,” he said. “It’s not nearly as fun as it looks.”

Frank rolled his eyes. “I won’t,” he said. “We’ll be okay, dude. Ray’s like a full-on wizard by now, and Gerard’s got cool ghost powers.” He grinned. “And, y’know, if all else fails, Bob hits really hard.”

Mikey made a displeased noise. “Yeah, good luck fistfighting a demon. That’ll end well, I’m sure.”

“She’s not a demon.”

“Whatever. Hey, speaking of Gerard, where is he? I thought he’d come with you.”

Frank shook his head. Back at home, Gerard had worried himself sick trying to decide if he should visit Mikey or help Ray with preparations for fighting Halloway. Frank had eventually taken it upon himself to intervene.

“Gerard,” he’d said, grabbing Gerard’s arm and looking him in the eyes. “Shut up. Mikey isn’t going anywhere, okay? Just stay put and help Ray. I’ll tell Mikey you say hi.”

Frank gave Mikey the shortened version. “He wanted to be here, but he had to stay and help Ray put a spell on a knife,” he said with a shrug. “I dunno. I’ll tell him you asked, though.”

Mikey sat up with some difficulty. Frank moved to help him, but Mikey waved him off. Once he was fully upright, he sat and breathed deeply for a few minutes before saying, “He’s why, you know.”

“He’s why what?” Frank asked.

Mikey looked at him, his gaze quietly intense in the way only he could master. “He’s why you can’t get hurt,” he said. “It’d fuck him up.”

Frank nodded. “I know.”

“No, you don’t,” Mikey said tiredly. “He cares about you. That much is obvious. And I don’t know what happened between you guys, but I know you care about him, too.” He met eyes with Frank, like he expected confirmation, but didn’t really need it. After all, Frank was the reason Gerard was able to leave his house - that was all the proof in the world. Frank looked away. After a moment’s pause, Mikey nodded to himself. “It’s been ages since I’ve seen him this happy,” he said. “I can’t see him staying that way if you get killed.”

Frank sighed. “I’m not gonna - ”

“Just don’t die on him,” Mikey said firmly. “That’s all.”

“Okay,” Frank said with a shrug. “I won’t die. There.”

“You promise?” Mikey persisted.

“Yeah, I promise,” Frank said with a smile. Mikey didn’t need to worry - he knew that much for certain - but Frank would give him whatever he needed to feel more secure.

Mikey watched him closely.

He didn’t say anything more, but he didn’t seem satisfied, either.

***

Frank had expected to be at least a little nervous, but when the time came, he was remarkably calm.

He and his friends were all packed into the living room, each of them in various states of preparedness. Alicia was sitting within a pentagram ringed with salt. Bob was lying on the ground with a short dagger beside him. The only people who really seemed anxious were Ray, who was pacing back and forth with a baseball bat in his hands, and Gerard, who was sitting in the corner, hugging his knees.

After a minute, Ray stopped pacing. “Okay, everybody,” he declared. “Let’s go over the plan.”

Bob sat up, and Gerard scooted a little closer to the rest of them. Ray looked down at the bat in his hands and let out a slow breath.

“Alicia,” he began. “You’ll do the summoning. Halloway’s been feeding off you all year, so she’ll probably recognize your call. She knows you’re the weakest one of us, so she might think of you as an easy target and come running. You’re the bait, essentially. Bob -”

“Please don’t call me the bait,” Alicia said with a nervous laugh.

Ray shook himself. “Right, sorry. Anyway, as soon as she appears, you’ll need to switch over to another spell that’ll keep her here. I’ve set the boundaries at the corners of this room.” He pointed to each of them, where he’d stashed four small satchels. “As long as you keep reciting the incantation, she’ll be trapped in this room, fully visible and fully tangible. It’s like a cage. The only downside is that it’ll trap us in here, too. But whatever happens, you can’t stop reading, okay? This might be the only chance we get.” He turned to Bob. “Bob, you’ll be protecting Alicia and the boundaries. There’s a good chance Halloway will try to disrupt the incantation. Your job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Ray pointed to the knife sitting on the floor beside him. He’d nicked it from his dad - hopefully Mr. Toro wouldn’t mind it being used for supernatural purposes. “That’s yours,” said Ray. “Me and Gerard enchanted it; it’s pretty much the only thing that could kill her. We would’ve made more, but it would’ve taken a lot more blood, and it was hard enough as it was.” He grimaced. “My point is - if you get the chance, use it.” Bob nodded curtly.

“And that leaves us.” Ray looked to Frank and Gerard. “Once we get her in a good place, Bob can use the knife on her, but that’s not the hard part. The hard part is subduing her. Gerard, your powers are gonna be really important for that. I’m thinking me and Frank can distract her while you attack.”

“Wait, how come I have to be the distraction?” Frank demanded. “Why can’t I do something cool like Bob?”

Ray looked uncertain. “I dunno. You could switch roles, I guess. There wasn’t really a science put into this, I just thought…”

Frank sighed. “It’s because I’m the smallest, isn’t it?”

“No!” Ray protested. “It’s just that you -”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. Make the short one be the bait. It’s been nice knowing you all, I’ll see you on the other side.”

Ray was laughing, but Gerard scowled, prodding Ray in the back. “He’s right. Why does he have to be the bait? If anybody should distract her, it’s me. It’s not like she can kill me.”

“She can eat your soul and use it to get even stronger,” Ray pointed out.

“Yeah, but I can avoid her more easily than Frank can!” Gerard argued. “Does he look like he can duck through a wall or go invisible if he needs to? No!”

It was Frank’s turn to interject. “Gee, it’s not that big a deal. I’ll have you and Ray at my back. Plus Bob, if he’s not busy protecting Alicia.” He paused. “And at least if she kills me, I can move on and have a normal afterlife. If she gets you, you’re gone.”

“Who cares if she gets me?” Gerard said shrilly. “I’m already dead!”

“Gerard, you’re overreacting -”

“I’m not letting her kill you!”

“Nobody is getting killed!” Ray shouted. There was a moment of silence. Frank hadn’t even realized how loud they’d gotten.

“Nobody’s getting killed,” Ray said again, more quietly this time. “Gerard, if you’re really that worried, just remember that Frank isn’t being singled out here. I’ll be helping him. Yes, he’s going to be put in danger, but the rest of us are, too. I’ve got his back. As long as he’s okay with that, there shouldn’t be a problem. Are you okay with this plan, Frank?”

Frank nodded. “Like I said, it’s no big deal.”

Gerard turned away. “Fine,” he said, his voice trembling. “Let’s just fucking do it, then.” No one responded. He turned back, scowling. “Well? What are we fucking waiting for, let’s go!”

Ray hesitated.

He cautiously reached over to the coffee table, like Gerard might explode if he went too fast, and took the grimoire. There was a bright green bookmark sticking out from between the pages. He opened up to the marked page and handed the book to Alicia. “This part is the summoning,” he said, pointing to a passage. “And then this is the one that’ll trap her here. It’s repetitive, so all you have to do is keep chanting it over and over. If she tries to break the salt circle, just…”

Frank stopped paying attention.

Gerard had drifted back over to to his place in the corner, where he was biting his nails and refusing eye contact with anyone. Frank could practically feel his anxiety. He wished there was a way he could reassure Gerard that things would be okay, but he got the feeling Gerard wouldn’t listen if he tried.

“Are you guys ready?” Ray asked. Frank glanced up.

Everyone seemed to be prepared. Bob had gotten to his feet, knife in hand. Ray had his baseball bat slung over his shoulder. All eyes were on Alicia.

She held her head high, holding out the grimoire like it was a bible and she was a preacher, ready to read out the gospel with a ringing voice and unshakable conviction. Looking at her, Frank couldn’t help but feel confident. There was a spark in his chest just moment away from bursting into flame.

They were going to take that bitch down.

“Now?” Alicia asked.

Ray nodded. He flicked off the lights, then produced a pocketknife from his pocket. Alicia grimaced as she took it. Frank quickly averted his eyes. There was a sharp intake of breath, and when he looked again, Alicia’s finger was bleeding, oozing small droplets of red. As they fell to the floor, she began to read aloud.

“Get ready, guys,” Ray said under his breath. “It’ll be any second now.” He took the pocketknife back and gave it to Frank. Frank pried open the sharpest-looking blade and held it out in front of him, gripping it tight.

Postulamus conspectu tuo,” Alicia read out. Frank watched with wide eyes as the drops of her blood began to twist and flow along the lines of the pentagram at her feet. If it alarmed her, she didn’t show it. She just kept reading, not faltering even as the floor around he lit up with an eerie red glow. Her voice grew louder and louder, and with a shout of, “Nunc!” she flipped to the next page.

A rumbling pressure was rapidly building in Frank’s head, like someone was squeezing it with all their strength. The feeling built up to a point where he thought his skull might actually split in two, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the pain, but then his ears popped, and it was gone.

When he opened his eyes, Halloway was standing in the middle of the room.

Her appearance was starkly different than it had been the last time Frank had seen her. She was even paler than Gerard, and the shine had left her hair, leaving it dull and straw-like. Dark shadows were carved into the hollows of her face, and when her dead eyes shifted to Frank, he shivered.

For the first time, she really did look inhuman.

The second she appeared, Alicia’s tone shifted. She read more quietly, her words blending seamlessly into one another so Frank could no longer tell what she was saying. Halloway raised one eyebrow.

“Well, aren’t you a right little enchantress?” she asked, her voice raspy, like dead leaves blowing in the wind.

Ray wasted no time. He raised his bat and swung it at her head as hard as he could, she sidestepped easily, and he stumbled, off-balance. Halloway just laughed.

“You’ve taken a leaf out of my book, I see,” she said. “Literally. Should’ve known better than to keep that thing around.”

Quick as a flash, she lunged for Alicia. Frank caught the briefest glance at Alicia’s terrified expression before Bob leaped in front of her, brandishing his knife. At the sight of it, Halloway stopped dead. Her lips twisted into a sneer. “You think that little toy is going to stop me?” she asked.

“I was hoping so, yeah,” Bob said with a shrug.

When she moved, her limbs almost seemed to blur. One second, she was standing in the middle of the room; then she was pinning Bob to the wall, her clawlike hands wrapped around his throat.

Before Frank could run to his aid, Bob had raised his dagger. Halloway backed off in an instant, but not too far. As soon as she had let go of him, she sliced her clawlike nails across his face, gouging a set of deep cuts into his cheek. He cried out in pain, but manage to stumble forward, slashing in the direction of her throat.

“Hey!” Ray shouted. “Come and pick on somebody your own size!”

Halloway turned away from Bob, her lip curling.

Frank didn’t hesitate before running to Ray.

He made it there a moment after Halloway did. Ray swung his bat, and Halloway ripped it out of his hands with ease, tossing it to the side. In this split second of distraction, Frank saw his chance. He jumped forward and stabbed his pocketknife into the side of her neck as hard as he could.

Time slowed to a halt. Halloway turned to Frank, and the look in her eyes was one of pure murder. Frank swallowed hard.

Then Ray aimed a punch at her. She spared him a brief look of contempt and threw him into the nearest wall with a flick of her fingers. He smacked into it and fell to the ground with a thud, unmoving. Gerard appeared at his side in an instant, hastily leaning over him and checking for a pulse.

Frank tore his eyes away from them just in time. Halloway made a grab for him, but he dropped to the ground and scrambled away as quickly as he could. A hand was held out to him, and he used it to haul himself up. When he was back on his feet, he was eye to eye with Bob, who gave him a quick nod before taking a jab at Halloway.

Halloway just backed away and bared her teeth. The two of them circled each other, poised to spring. Bob’s cheek was still bleeding. To Frank’s dismay, the wound in Halloway’s neck had almost completely closed up. She smiled, and it was cruel, twisted; the mark of an opponent certain of her own victory.

She carried no weapons, but next to Bob, who clutched his knife like a lifeline, it was clear which of them was the predator and which was the prey.

That was when it hit Frank.

They were completely out of their depth. They had thought they were prepared, but really, how could they be? They were teengers; they were kids. Halloway was an undead creature of pure evil, and they had invited her in, thinking they stood a chance against her. How could they have been so stupid?

Fear was beginning to creep its way into the back of Frank’s mind, flooding his limbs with icy cold.

The tension in the air became suffocating, then, it snapped. Halloway leapt forward, and Bob was fending off the storm. She clawed at every exposed patch of skin, forcing him further and further backwards. Gerard tried to jump between them, but she sent him flying back with a single touch. Bob’s shirt was stained red. He was holding his own, but Frank could tell he wouldn’t last much longer.

Gerard tried to knock her feet out from under her. Halloway picked him up with one hand and threw him. He hit the wall - the spell must have kept him from flying straight through, Frank thought - and when he stood up again, he swayed, his gaze unfocused.

There was too much going on. Everywhere Frank looked, the tide was turning against them. Alicia was still reading off the incantation in the corner, looking petrified. Ray was lifeless on the ground. Gerard was making his way toward Halloway again, and Frank knew he should help, but he was frozen in place, unable to move through the paralyzing fear.

They were going to lose.

Halloway screamed. It sounded like nails grating against a chalkboard; a howling chorus of the damned. She lunged for Bob once more. This time, he raised his guard a split second too late. She knocked the knife out of his hands, and it hit the floor with a clatter.

Frank’s heart stopped beating.

Then it kick-started back to life, and he found himself shouting, “Get away from him, you ugly son of a bitch!”

Halloway turned to him, and that was when he realized he had no plan at all.

Frank saw her shove Bob out of the way. He saw Gerard dive for the knife. He saw Halloway smile, every one of those impossibly sharp teeth on display, and he backed away, but there was nowhere to run.

There was nothing he could do.

She slammed him into the wall. As she reached back, Frank was hit with a vague sort of déjà vu.

Then her fingers sank deep into his chest, ripping him open from the inside, and his world dissolved into a haze of excruciating pain.

His vision went red at the edges. He couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t see. Every second was more agonizing than the last. People were shouting, and there was blurred movement all around, but he couldn’t make sense of any of it. One moment he was standing, his back against the wall; the next, he was in a crumpled heap on the floor. The ceiling swam above him. He could taste his own blood, a metallic tang in the back of his mouth.

This was it, he thought. He was going to die.

The realization didn’t even scare him, it hurt so badly. He just wanted it to be over.

His senses were going fuzzy. Unconsciousness would surely take him soon, and he welcomed it. Frank closed his eyes and let the chaos wash over him, voices overlapping voices until they held no meaning.

Except one.

He knew that one.

Frank struggled to open his eyes again. He turned his head slightly, just enough to make out a familiar face. Gerard. He was a few feet away, holding someone else - Halloway? The others were scattered all around. Frank couldn’t see Ray, but Alicia was a fuzzy shape in the corner, and there was Bob, tossing something to Gerard.

Gerard, who was still screaming.

Frank had to fight to keep his eyes open, but he saw Gerard drive something into Halloway’s throat. He heard the screech that escaped her, ancient and terrible and piercing to the bone.

Then there was a blinding flash of white, and Frank could keep his eyes open no longer.

***

A steady beeping noise filled the air.

Frank breathed slowly in and out. Something soft was draped over him, but he didn’t know what it was, and he didn’t really care. He was floating through a hazy state of mind, only vaguely aware of his surroundings. All around him was empty space. In some distant place, he could hear voices, but they echoed and blended, so he couldn’t tell what they were saying.

He breathed in again, and it struck him how stiff his chest felt.

It was odd enough to jar him from his wandering thoughts. The discomfort sharpened into pain, and the voices grew clearer; clear enough to recognize.

Frank forced his eyelids open.

Ray was sitting on a nearby chair, in quiet conversation with Frank’s mother. They both looked exhausted. There was something fragile in the way Mom held herself, like she might shatter at the slightest breeze.

Frank dimly realized that he was lying down.

And with that realization, it all came crashing over him. Halloway clawing at his chest, voices shouting his name, the flash of light that had pushed him over the edge into unconsciousness. He tried to sit up, but a sharp burst of pain forced him to sink back down, wincing.

“Frank!” Mom cried. She leapt to her feet, taking Frank’s hand in hers. “Oh, honey…” She leaned over and hugged him. Her grip was tight, but not tight enough to hurt.

Frank tried to respond, but Ray flapped his hands to cut him off. “Don’t try to talk, Frankie. You’ve got a breathing tube in, you won’t be able to.”

Frank’s brow furrowed. If he looked down, he could see the tube; a snakelike blue thing that wound down and connected to a machine. He could feel it in his throat, too. Logically, he knew it was supposed to help him breathe, but that didn’t stop the anxiety that flared up from having a big clunky thing stuck down his windpipe.

Also, it hurt like a bitch.

Mom drew back, her lip quivering. “Frank Anthony Iero, don’t you ever scare me like that again!” She gave his hand a firm little shake. “Never.” She wiped her eyes, and only then did a smile begin to appear. “I’m so glad you’re okay, Frankie. I’ve been worried out of my mind.”

“Hey, at least your heart didn’t stop like Mikey’s,” Ray said encouragingly. “You made it through the surgery fine. Now all you’ve got to worry about is infection!”

Mom shuddered. “Don’t even say it. It’s all too likely, knowing him.”

“Our favorite delicate flower,” Ray said with a smile. Frank managed to smile back, and Ray’s gaze softened. “You look like you’re doing better already. You’re probably wondering what happened, huh?”

Frank nodded.

Ray glanced at Mom. “You pretty much got the same deal as Mikey. Halloway broke into your house and attacked us. She didn’t hurt anybody except you, but you got a punctured lung and a whole lot of internal bleeding. It’s a miracle she didn’t get you in the heart.”

Frank tried to speak again, but just ended up choking a little bit. Damn. He hadn’t been intubated since he was a kid; he’d forgotten how much it sucked.

“The police are still looking for her,” Ray said helpfully. “They think she might’ve left the area by now.” A hint of a smile played at his lips. Frank resisted the urge to laugh. If the police really wanted to find her, they’d have a rough job ahead of them.

“And your friends are fine,” Mom added. “Don’t you worry about them.”

Frank looked to Ray, eyes wide. He hoped he could convey what he was asking through expression alone.

Ray seemed to understand. He patted Frank’s hand. “They’re all okay. All of them.”

Frank relaxed a bit.

“Bob had to get a few stitches, but he’s all right,” said Ray. “And it… well, it really freaked out his mom. Kind of a wake-up call, I guess.” Frank’s eyebrows shot upwards, and Ray winced. “Frank, I know you were trying to keep his secrets, but would it have killed you to tell me? This whole time, I thought the rumors about his family were bullshit like everyone else. Things are gonna be better now; she said she was gonna quit drinking, but...”

Frank tried to look as apologetic as he could.

“It’s okay. I’m not mad.” Ray offered a small smile. “Not that much, at least.”

“Well, I am,” said Mom, frowning. “You should have said something, Frankie. In situations like these, people’s safety is always more important than loyalty. Do you know how many people get admitted to the hospital because their friends kept their problems secret? This is a conversation for later, of course, but I’m very -”

“Anyway,” Ray said hastily. “Everybody’s doing fine. Some bumps and bruises, but for the most part, they’re just worried about you.” He smiled. “Some more than others.”

Frank’s heart stuttered; this was the conversation he really wanted to be having. Yet again, he opened his mouth to speak, only to remember his current predicament. He made a frustrated gesture.

Thankfully, Ray knew what to say. “They’ll be visiting soon, don’t worry,” he said. “I mean… Alicia and Bob will. Yeah.” An apologetic look briefly flashed across his face. Frank frowned. He had a lot more questions - namely, why the hell Gerard couldn’t visit - but he couldn’t ask them in front of Mom, and especially not with this fucking tube in. Christ.

“You’ll be able to see your friends soon,” Mom said gently. “But you only just woke up, honey. You’re still recovering. I’m sure they’ll be able to visit you, and I’ll be here, but the most important thing to do is get some rest.” She tucked Frank’s blankets up. “The doctors said it’ll be another week or so. We’ll see how you’re healing up.”

“You and Mikey can have a party when you get out,” Ray laughed.

Frank wanted to talk to him more, but he was starting to get tired again, much in the same way he did when he was really sick. It was easier to surrender than to keep fighting his own body. He listened to Ray ramble on about the state of chaos the school had fallen into following Halloway’s disappearance, but in very little time, his voice turned to background noise, and Frank slipped back into dreamless sleep.

***

No matter what injury or ailment you were admitted for, hospitals never got any less boring.

Frank spent most of his time consulting with nurses, getting treatments, sleeping, or staring at a wall. After two days, he was ready to crawl out of his skin with restlessness. He was definitely showing signs of recovery - he didn’t pass out as often, and they’d taken the tubes out of his chest, thank God - but it wasn’t enough. He wanted to go home.

Visiting times were the only thing that kept him from going nuts.

The first couple of times Frank’s friends came in, Mom had beaten them there. She practically lived by his bedside. The only times she left were when visiting hours ended or she had to work a shift of her own. Frank was glad to be able to talk to his friends, but with Mom there, they could never talk freely. There were always words left unspoken; unanswered questions hanging over them like a black cloud. It was incredibly frustrating. Thankfully, Mom’s visits became fewer as the week wore on and she became more convinced that he could survive if left alone for an hour.

As soon as Ray came in and found the room empty, his face lit up. “Finally!” he said, throwing himself down into one of the empty chairs.

“Tell me everything,” Frank said immediately. Ray pulled the chair closer to him. “What happened while I was out? Is she dead?”

“Yes,” Ray confirmed. “Gerard freaked out after you went down. He pretty much just,” Ray grimaced, “Did it, y’know? I gave him the knife, and that was all he needed.”

“That’s it?” Frank said suspiciously. “That sounds too easy.”

Ray rolled his eyes. “Yeah, all it took was you almost dying. Real simple.” He smiled, but there was something off about it; something almost forced. Frank’s eyes narrowed.

“What aren’t you telling me?” he asked.

Ray’s smile faded. To his credit, he didn’t try to play dumb. He just hesitated and said, “It’s… I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, okay?”

“That’s the worst sentence you could have possibly begun with,” Frank said. “But go on.”

Ray shifted in his chair. “Remember Halloway’s journal entries right after she died?” Frank nodded. “Well, she would’ve been a spirit then. A ghost. But in order to become a spectre, she had to consume another soul, right? Another ghost.”

“Yes,” Frank said slowly. He didn’t know where this was going, but he could already tell he didn’t like it.

“Well… I don’t know how it happened, but there was something weird about the way Halloway died, okay?” Ray hesitated. “Gerard was really angry, he didn’t know what he was doing.”

Frank’s stomach dropped.

“There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it. We called an ambulance for you as soon as she was gone. But when the paramedics came, one of them started asking him questions.”

Frank’s thoughts slowed to a standstill. His mind was utterly blank; nothing would process. Then:

“They could see him, Frank,” Ray said quietly. “We all could.”

“And what the hell does that mean?” Frank said, more harshly than he’d meant to.

“We don’t know for sure,” said Ray. “But we’re pretty sure he somehow absorbed her soul when he killed her.”

Frank let his head flop back against his pillows. He stared up at the ceiling and exhaled slowly. “Again, what does that mean? Does that… is he a spectre now or some shit?” A thousand terrible possibilities were swarming in his brain, and he wanted nothing more than for Ray to disprove them; to say there was some fucking chance of things working out for once.

“Technically, I think he is,” Ray admitted. “He can stay fully corporeal now. And we can see him, obviously. That part’s pretty cool.” His face brightened. “But so far, there don’t seem to be any negative side effects! Halloway was probably just evil because she chose to be. If Gerard doesn’t decide he wants to live forever and go around eating people, he should be fine.”

Frank replayed that explanation over in his mind.

He should be fine.

Frank felt a smile slowly spread over his face.

“Seriously?” he asked. “You really think so?”

Ray nodded. “I mean, yeah. We’ve obviously got a lot more research to do about spectres, but nothing we’ve read so far suggests that they’re inherently evil. They’re just corrupted ghosts.”

“Thank God,” Frank said reverently. He gazed at the ceiling for a minute, a wave of contentment washing over him. Considering how chaotic his life had been lately, it was odd to have nothing to worry about, but he definitely liked it. “So, Gerard can pass as human now? Does that mean he’s gonna start trying to go out in public?”

Ray smiled. “That’s a question for him, not me.”

Frank sat bolt upright, sending a flare of pain through his chest. He winced and sank back down. “Ow, shit. You just reminded me, why hasn’t he come to visit? He could’ve come with me when the ambulance took me away, right?”

“He did, actually. He wanted to make sure you were okay. But after that he started getting weird and he went home.” Ray rolled his eyes. “He’s being a fucking baby. I told him to come back, but he’s too busy moping.”

Frank raised his eyebrows. “Why?”

Ray shrugged. “Why does he ever? I don’t get it either, man. You’ll have to ask him when you get home.”

“But that’s days from now,” Frank whined.

“Gives you something to look forward to,” said Ray.

Frank grabbed one of his pillows and swung it at Ray’s head. Ray yelped and ducked. “Dude, stop! You’re gonna take out your own life support!”

Frank giggled and shoved the pillow back behind his shoulders. “That’s the last thing you should be worrying about, asshole. I can’t believe you’re making fun of me when I’m injured.”

It was good to have something to joke about. If Frank was to spend another few days cooped up in the same room, he’d need a little entertainment. Something to distract him from his thoughts.

If he’d been impatient to go home before, now, he was all but burning with it.

He had a lot of questions for Gerard.

***

Frank slammed the car door shut and all but ran for the house.

“Frank!” Mom shouted. “Slow down, you’re going to hurt yourself!”

Frank ignored her. His chest hurt like hell, and it was a little hard to breathe, but none of that mattered. He kept running until he could throw open the front door and hurtle inside, stopping only once he reached the foot of the stairs.

It was odd, seeing the house look so normal after he’d seen Halloway tear through it. He could almost picture it; Alicia in the corner, Ray out cold a few feet away, Bob fending her off as best he could. Frank got the feeling he wouldn’t ever see his living room the same way again.

But none of that was important now.

“You’re an asshole,” he said to the empty room. “Why didn’t you come?”

Behind him, Frank heard Mom step through the door. “Frank, you can’t keep rocketing around like that!” she scolded. “You’re supposed to be resting!”

“You know what?” Frank said, turning to face her. “You’re right. I’m gonna go pass out now.”

“If you don’t start taking better care of yourself, you’ll - wait, what? Really?” Mom looked surprised, but she recovered quickly. “All right. I’ve got dinner in the oven. If you’re hungry, I’ll call you down when it’s ready.”

Frank started heading up the stairs, deliberately controlling his pace. He considered faking a yawn, but thought that would probably be overdoing it.

“If you’re resting, you’d better actually be resting!” Mom called up after him. “That means no computer!”

“Got it,” Frank called back. He waited for her footsteps to recede, then bolted to his room.

Inside, he found Gerard sitting on the bed, waiting.

Frank pulled the door shut behind him. The latch fell into place with a soft click.

“Hi,” said Gerard.

Frank raised his eyebrows. “That’s it?”

Gerard flinched a little. “No, I -”

“Where the hell have you been?” Frank demanded. “I wanted to see you!”

“I’m sorry,” Gerard mumbled. “Things have been… weird.”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Frank scoffed.

Gerard didn’t say anything. He was clearly nervous about something, but what, Frank didn’t know. He didn’t really need to know. He’d been a little angry at Gerard before, but now, all he wanted to do was fix whatever was wrong, and there was only one way he knew to go about doing that.

Frank crossed the room and wrapped his arms around Gerard. He rested his chin on Gerard’s shoulder, taking a moment to just hold him and breathe in the scent of his hair.

“I missed you,” he said quietly. “Now tell me what’s going on, asshole, and don’t say nothing.”

Gerard’s arms tightened ever so slightly around his waist.

“I thought you were dead,” he said. “You were just lying there on the floor, and I thought you were dead, Frankie, I really did.”

Frank drew back so he could look Gerard in the eyes. “I’m not dead, though,” he pointed out, brushing a lock of hair from Gerard’s face.

“But you could’ve been. And even if you didn’t die, you got hurt so bad…” Gerard trailed off. His fingertips landed on Frank’s chest, just over the bandage where his air tube had been.

Frank sighed. He thought he understood now. “Gerard, how many times do I have to tell you shit like this isn’t your fault?” He didn’t wait for Gerard to protest. Now that he’d figured it out, he had a lot to say. “There was nothing you could’ve done,” he continued. “Halloway chose to show up here, she chose to come after us, and she chose to rip me up. She hurt me. Not you. You wouldn’t do something like this in a million years.”

“That’s another part of it, though,” Gerard said worriedly. “What if I did? I mean…” He bit his lip. “Ray did tell you about the -”

“About the soul thing?” Frank finished. “Yeah. But I’m not worried. Like I said, it’s a choice, and you’d never do something like that.”

“But there’s so much we don’t know,” Gerard fretted. “What if I can’t control it? What if I end up like her? What if -”

Frank pressed a finger to his lips and sat down the mattress beside him. “Tell me how it felt,” he instructed. “When you killed her.”

Gerard gave him the side-eye. “Why?”

“Just do it.”

Gerard stared at the floor. He collected his thoughts for a minute, then tentatively began with, “I didn’t really think about what I was doing. After… after she got you, all I wanted to do was kill her. Like, completely destroy her. So Bob gave me the knife, and I…” He drew one finger across his throat. “Y’know. But then there was this light, and something hit me, and then I felt… different. Stronger. More real, I guess? I dunno how to describe it, it was weird. But I feel closer to alive than I have since I died.”

“That doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me,” said Frank.

Gerard shook his head. “It’s more complicated than I made it sound. Frank, we don’t know anything about spectres. We didn’t even know they existed before we found her book. How are we supposed to know where this leads?”

Frank paused. He tucked his legs up onto the bed and shifted so he could face Gerard. “Okay, here’s what I think,” he said. He didn’t quite know how to articulate what he was feeling, but he’d give it his best shot. Anything to give Gerard a dose of optimism. Frank took a deep breath and began. “You wanted to destroy her, right?” Gerard nodded, and Frank spread his hands. “So you did. Simple as that. You don’t feel like you’re suddenly evil, do you?”

“No,” Gerard said doubtfully.

“Then you aren’t. She never mentioned anything about the souls she ate controlling her, so why should you worry about it?” Frank nudged Gerard’s knee with his own. “You’re a good person, Gee. That’s all that matters. Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

“But -”

“Don’t worry about it,” Frank said firmly. “Everything I’ve ever seen you do tells me that you control your own powers. You only used to be able to go solid through willpower, remember? That was you controlling it. Why shouldn’t you be able to do the same thing now? You’re still the same person, just stronger.” He touched Gerard’s shoulder. “You’re just like new.”

“But what if something goes wrong?” Gerard asked. Frank could tell his resolve was weakening; each protest was a little more halfhearted than the last.

“Nothing’s gonna go wrong,” Frank reassured him. “We’re gonna find a way for you to start living again. No use keeping you cooped up in here now that people can actually see you.”

Gerard had switched over from biting his lip to biting his nails. “I don’t know if I can do it,” he admitted. “I feel like people will know. That I’m not like them, I mean.”

Frank heaved a sigh. “Oh, Jesus, when did this turn into talk therapy? Gerard,” he took Gerard’s hands and held them in the space between them, “That’s how literally everyone feels. We’ve all got shit to carry. Yours is just a little heavier than most. Maybe you won’t ever be normal, but who gives a fuck? You’ve got people who get it.” He squeezed Gerard’s hands. “I get it. And I’m not going anywhere.”

“How can you be so sure of that?” Gerard asked softly.

Frank stared at him. He didn’t know how Gerard could possibly still be asking that question.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said. “Have you seriously not noticed that I’ve been in love with you this entire time?”

For a moment, they just blinked at each other.

“Shit.” Frank clapped a hand over his mouth, mortified. He had not meant to say that. “Oh my God, I’m sorry -”

“Don’t apologize,” said Gerard, blushing furiously. He wouldn’t meet Frank’s eyes. “You don’t have to, it’s - you’re not the only one.”

Frank was still holding Gerard’s hands. Neither one of them moved away.

For once, Gerard wasn’t moving away.

The significance of it wasn’t lost on Frank.

“So,” he said, his mouth dry. “People can see you now. Like, if I told somebody about you, they’d believe me.”

That finally got Gerard to look at him. His pupils were blown out wide, deep black against hazel irises. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s… something else I’ve been thinking about.”

“And you have an actual body now,” said Frank. His heart was beating so hard, it was a wonder Gerard couldn’t hear it.

Gerard nodded slightly.

A moment later, he gave in. “Oh, fuck you,” he muttered, and then his mouth was on Frank’s, and Frank forgot anything else existed.

He’d waited too fucking long for this to waste time. He let Gerard push him back against the mattress and pulled him in closer, always closer, biting his lower lip and making him gasp. All the times he’d imagined this, and he’d never once done it justice. No fantasy could ever compare to the feeling of Gerard pressed up against him. He kissed Frank hot and impatient, like he’d been waiting just as long; all traces of hesitation long since vanished.

“I’ve never understood you,” he breathed. “You always know what you’re doing. Every fucking time.” His teeth scraped the side of Frank’s neck, and that was it, Frank really thought he might die. Either that, or he’d already made it to heaven. “It’s like you’re not even scared.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Frank managed. It was hard to form coherent thoughts with Gerard mouthing at his neck. “I get scared sometimes. But I just know I’m not gonna let anything get in my way, so I’ll - oh, fuck - I’ll always get what I want, y’know?”

“And I’m what you want?” Gerard murmured.

“What the fuck do you think?” Frank bit out.

Gerard sat back and swept his hair out of his face. The hungry look in his eyes lingered, but he was still for a moment, just on the edge of speaking.

“I never know what I’m doing,” he said. “Usually, just try not to get my hopes up. I can’t be disappointed if I don’t wish for anything, y’know?” He seemed to expect a response, so Frank shrugged.

“Look what happens when you do,” he said.

“Exactly. I want to be like that. I want to just… to just go after something and not care about what’s in my way. To know that no matter what happens, I’m never gonna let it stop me. ‘Cause that’s how you think, isn’t it?”

Frank nodded.

Gerard rubbed his thumb across Frank’s cheekbone. “I want this,” he whispered. “I want you. And I’m tired of being scared of everything.” He hesitated for a moment, just enough for Frank to see the nerves still hiding beneath the surface. “I just... I want to change, Frankie, but I’m not sure I know how.”

Frank pulled him down so their faces were only inches apart, his breath ghosting over Gerard’s lips. “Let me show you,” he whispered.

He kissed Gerard deep and slow, letting the silence do the talking. Gerard sighed into his mouth, his fingers lightly tracing Frank’s jaw, and Frank knew he wouldn’t voice any further protest. There was something heavy in the air; something intimate beyond words. Frank hoped Gerard could feel it, too.

“I love you,” Gerard murmured.

They had a long way to go, Frank thought, but this was a good place to start. It felt like a sign of good things to come. But really, he didn’t need signs. He knew where his path led. They had already taken the first step.

The only thing left to do was keep going.