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Bulletproof Heart

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Gerard drove into the desert as fast as he dared, until the dry, cracked pavement looked like a river flowing underneath his wheels. One of the three passengers in the backseat – the one in polka dots - leaned forward between him and Mikey occasionally, giving him directions in a musical murmur. He obeyed unhesitatingly, shooting over the web of highways, access roads, and suspension-shaking dirt lanes as his headlights slashed through the dark.

It was really fucking dark, until he looked up through the windshield and saw the smear of stars.

Finally a structure loomed up on the right, and his navigator said, “Home sweet gas station,” with a little chuckle. Gerard pulled the car around behind the building and through a creaking garage door it took all three backseat passengers to open. “Cover the car,” the guy continued, rummaging in the faint moonlight seeping through the boarded-up windows for something by the door, which proved to be a kerosene lantern. All five of them squinted at the sudden light, and Mikey found an old tarp on a workbench a moment later. He and Gerard pulled it over the car together.

“Now what?” Gerard said.

“Now we go over the rules,” answered their de facto leader, cheerfully but firmly. “Follow me, tumbleweeds.”

Gerard brought up the back of the little pack of refugees. Their leader went first, carrying the lamp. He was wearing an eye-poppingly bizarre combination of a biker jacket with the polka dotted leggings and had a bright pink ray gun holstered to his thigh. The other two strangers followed Polka Dots. They were a guy and a girl about Mikey’s age, and the girl appeared to be helping the guy walk. Mikey followed them, hunched into his dusty leather jacket. They walked through what had once been a small convenience store attached to the gas station, cracked windows now boarded over, and into a smaller room: an office, with a table, an ancient hotplate setup, and a pile of blankets in the corner.

“Oops, real first order of business,” Polka Dots said in that same gently cheerful voice, “anyone injured?” He set the lantern on the table and adjusted it to maximum brightness, turning to fetch a battered first-aid kit from the counter.

The girl spoke up, the first time Gerard had heard her say a word. “My brother - I think he sprained his ankle running for the Tunnels after they got the tail end of the convoy.” Polka Dots nodded, ignoring the brother’s protest that he was fine, really, and pulled a length of bandage from the kit. He and the girl pulled the boot and sock from the offending foot and wrapped it tightly. Gerard met the guy’s eye as they did it, and he winced slightly, but didn’t look away. Gerard nodded at him - why, he wasn’t even sure - and the guy looked back at his sister.

“Good enough.”

“Anyone else?” Polka Dots asked.

No one replied for a moment, then Gerard said, “Mikey -“ and Mikey shushed him. “Your shoulder,” Gerard protested.

“It’s fine,” Mikey replied. “Blast got the jacket, not me.”

“Okay,” said Polka Dots. “The rules.” He hopped up onto the counter, drumming his heels gently against the cabinets. He was, at close range, almost jaw-droppingly pretty, and he had kind eyes to match his gentle voice. What didn’t match were his words. “So,” he continued, “this is a safe house. Except it’s not a house, and it’s not really safe. That brings us to rule number one: you may have come out here to the zones with your brothers and sisters, your friends, your lovers, but it doesn’t matter who you are anymore. The desert’s in charge now, and it’s not gonna give you nada except dirt and ruins. You want more, you beg, barter, or steal. Stealing’s not a great idea, because the only people around to steal from are the dracs and the runners, and either way’s gonna get you dusted for sure, unless you’ve got a neon fucking angel on your shoulder.”

Gerard had been staring at Polka Dots, but he looked at his brother when Mikey cleared his throat. “We didn’t exactly bring the kitchen sink with us, Pony,” he said.

“I know, kiddo. We keep the safe houses stocked with Baby’s First Survival Kits, don’t you fret. You’re lucky you ended up with me; the rest of your people went with Doc, and he’s still got that military approach to comfort, poor things. This is my favorite rabbit hole; I stocked it myself.”

“What’s in a survival kit?” Gerard asked, and Polka Dots - Pony - gripped his knees, leaned forward, and smiled. His knuckles were tattooed SHOW PONY across the fingers of both hands. “Show Pony,” Gerard read out loud. “Is that your name?”

“It is now. Out here in the brave new world we like to pick a new one, or else someone else’ll give us one. As for the survival kits … well, you’ve got a party on wheels out there in the garage. Gas is the fucking gold standard, and you’re a king with a chariot as long as it’s still rolling. But that’s rule number two in a nutshell: keep your boots tight and your gun close. Like I said, we’re not really safe, and you never know when you have to run.”

“We don’t have guns,” Mikey pointed out, and Show Pony chuckled and pointed at a crate on the floor. Mikey pulled the scrap of burlap off the top of it; inside were half a dozen gleaming white BLI-issue ray guns like the ones the other two had dropped on the table in front of them. Mikey pulled two out and handed one to Gerard.

“I have no idea how to use this,” Gerard said.

“You’ll learn,” Show Pony said wryly. “I hope. You’re too pretty to be dusted so soon.” He shook himself a little. “Okay - survival kits. Guns. Rebreathers.” He reached into a box next to him on the counter and pulled out several funny little contraptions, like the mouth parts of a gas mask. When Gerard said that out loud, he nodded. “That’s what they started out as. You find yourself a friend who likes to tinker with things, you can build yourself a nice little helmet, mask, whatever you please, but this’ll keep the nasty stuff at bay. Keep it close.”

“What kind of nasty stuff are we talking about?” It was the brother asking.

“You name it, we got it,” Show Pony answered. “Rule two-and-a-half: get a map of the zones, learn it, live it, love it. Some zones are never safe. Most have areas that get nasty, depending on the weather. That doesn’t count the surveillance drones, the drac patrols, and the poison gas our friends the SCARECROWs like to surprise us with.” Gerard, who’d been idly tapping a finger against the grip of his new ray gun, startled at the mention of SCARECROW. “You know the SCARECROWs?” Show Pony’s eyes were keen, curious. Gerard hadn’t thought about the way it would look, driving a sports car into the zones. He’d just been thinking about power, about speed, and the keys had been right there. Well. Better they think him a thief than … the alternative.

“Let’s just say they know me,” Gerard replied.

“Let’s not talk about it right now,” Mikey said tensely.

“Fair enough,” Show Pony said. “There’s only one more rule, anyway, and it’s the most important one: find somebody you can trust to have your back, and make sure you’ve got theirs.”

“I thought the runners were all on the same side,” Gerard said quietly.

Show Pony laughed. “The zones have more sides than a stop sign. That’s the reason for rule number three.”

“And this is supposed to be better than the Battery? At least there it’s all laid out in black and white.”

“What’s life without a little color?” Show Pony pushed himself off the counter and started rummaging in the cabinets underneath. He pulled out a handful of tin cans and stacked them on the table. “Dinnertime, tumbleweeds. Then bedtime. The waves are too quiet at night. We’ll try to get in touch with the rest of your group tomorrow.”

Gerard twitched again at the mention of the radio waves, camouflaging it by reaching for a can of beans and popping the top. He ate methodically, without tasting a bite, and thought it over. Show Pony had mentioned a Doc; did he mean the DJ, Dr. Death Defying? Did they have a transmissions set somewhere around here? He wasn’t sure what kind of channels he’d be able to pick up all the way out here, or if he’d be able to decode them without his console, but there was a good chance someone had woken Korse up by now, and the very last thing he could do with that on his mind was -

“Sleep, Gee,” Mikey said, taking the empty can and the spoon from him. The others had already grabbed blankets and curled up in various corners of the room. Show Pony was still sitting up, stripped down to a sleeveless tee shirt emblazoned with the word “noise” in big block letters and watching Gerard like he was a magic eye puzzle. Gerard ducked his head, tossing the can in the trash with the others and grabbing his own blanket, lying down next to Mikey and attempting to sleep. As soon as his head hit the folded blanket Mikey was using as a pillow, the lantern blinked off.

*

He woke in the watery gray light of dawn with a gasped-in breath, hand shooting to touch his own throat, but the hands on his shoulders were Mikey’s and they were just shaking him awake. “It’s just me, just me,” Mikey whispered, like he’d already been repeating it for a little while. His eyes were dark, disturbed. Gerard pushed himself out of the cocoon of blankets, looked around. Everyone else was still asleep, though Show Pony was showing signs of stirring. Gerard motioned Mikey to lie back down. “Sleep,” he murmured. He picked his way through the abandoned convenience store and into the garage, tugging the cover off the car.

Korse’s car. It was filthy already, the high-speed trip through the zones to wherever the hell they were having left its traces on the white paint. Gerard circled to the passenger side, frowned when he saw the damage the draculoids’ blasters had done to the passenger door. “Fuck,” he murmured, running his fingers over the scorched metal.

“We can check the junkyard outside, maybe find you a new door,” said a voice from behind him. Gerard whirled around; it was the brother, leaning on the door frame and watching him. “Sorry if I scared you,” he added.

“We can do what now? I wasn’t - good morning,” Gerard started over. “What’s your name?”

“I guess that means I should think one up,” the guy replied. “Guess you can call me Apollo, and her Diana. We’re twins,” he added.

Gerard nodded. “Well, Apollo, I know jack shit about cars. So I’m not going to be finding anything in the junkyard or otherwise.”

“You’re a stellar fucking driver, for a plebe,” Apollo said. “Car like this, you gotta learn how to take care of it. Tell you what, you help me get out there, I’ll find you a new door panel and help you hang it.”

Gerard was already halfway to the door when he said, “Shit, wait,” turned back to the workbench, and grabbed his ray gun. He stuck it awkwardly through his belt and offered his arm to Apollo again. Rule two.

An hour later, he and Apollo had located a suitable door and Mikey had been woken and recruited to help carry it. Reattaching it to the car wasn’t as hard as he’d imagined, and when it was hung, he stared at the car for a minute, gently kicking a toe against the t-top panels he’d leaned against the side before sticking them back in the trunk. “What the hell, it’s the fucking desert,” he said, and Mikey and Apollo laughed. The new door was black, but it fit, and what was more important, it wasn’t shot all to hell.

“Needs some color,” a voice murmured in his ear. He spun around, hand on his pistol grip, and Show Pony laughed at him. “You might make it after all. That needs some color, too,” he added, nodding at Gerard’s ray gun. “There’s spray paint under the workbench.”

“You want me to do art projects in the not-actually-safe safe house?” Gerard asked, lifting his eyebrows.

“Where else? Besides, there’s bad weather coming in, we’re gonna have to hold off on the rendezvous with the rest of your group for another day or so.”

“Not my group,” Gerard muttered, but he saw the look on Mikey’s face and abruptly remembered - right. Ray.

“What kind of weather?” Mikey asked from where he was perched on the workbench, drinking a tin cup of something Apollo had called barracks coffee, which he swore tasted just like regular coffee. From Mikey’s expression, Gerard wasn’t so sure.

“Rain, and a hell of a lot of it, from the look of those thunderheads,” Show Pony answered. Gerard peeked through a crack in the boards over the windows. He couldn’t remember anything like it; the City’s atmospheric grid had only malfunctioned a handful of times in recent memory, one of which had been yesterday. “When you’re out on your own, you’ll want to stick close to your home base when the storms roll through. One storm like that in the right zone’ll give you a nice acid peel. Two might peel off more than you’re willing to part with. And that’s not even counting the flash floods. She’s a beautiful girl, but I doubt she’ll fly, or float.” He gestured to the car.

Gerard frowned, walking over to Mikey and stealing a swig of his coffee. Yep. Not like regular coffee at all. He paced back and forth a few times. The car was beautiful, but the stark white didn’t suit her mean silhouette. He squatted and rummaged through the cardboard box full of spray paint cans, pulling out colors and handing them up to Mikey. When Gerard had gone through the entire box, he stood back up and studied the line of cans.

“You’re really going to paint it?” Mikey asked. Once upon a time, before the drugs and the drinking, before the downward spiral, Gerard had done art all the time. He stared at the car now, and his hands twitched in a way that he recognized. It was the same itch he felt in front of a radio console, concentrated into a loop of movement - eyes-brain-fingers, eyes-brain-fingers.

He picked up a paint can, and it all disappeared. Beautiful, imperturbable Show Pony, the mysterious twins. The storm rolling over them, pouring danger and destruction. Mikey stayed; he handed Gerard the colors he called for and drank his faux coffee. Gerard didn’t stop with the car; he painted over all the black and white in the room, Mikey’s and his own ray gun taking slick coats of cherry red, sunshine yellow. He ruined his black coat with paint and threw it aside, sweated through his black tee shirt and sliced off the sleeves for rags with metal snips from the workbench. When he ran out of surfaces to paint, he stopped abruptly and leaned against the newly-graffitied wall, spray can dangling from his fingers.

“Party on wheels, huh?” Gerard murmured to Show Pony, who’d materialized in the doorway like he’d been waiting for Gerard to finish. He probably had been. “She’s poisonous now.” A giant black spider crawled over the white hood.

“Well, aren’t you a regular killjoy?” Show Pony tugged on the ragged shoulder of Gerard’s shirt. “Not looking quite so starched and pressed anymore either, are you?” At Gerard’s raised eyebrow, he let out another of his musical laughs. “There are some old jackets in a box in the office, go help yourself. Holsters too, for your shiny new ray guns.”

“What about rule number one?” Gerard asked.

“Well, if I’m offering you’re not begging. But look what you did to the walls!”

“I’m sorry,” Gerard said, turning red, “I just sort of went on autopilot and - “

“No, they’re amazing. Artwork like that’s well worth trading for.” Gerard started to walk into the building, and Show Pony called after him, “You just earned your new name, pretty.”

Gerard turned around, hands on his hips. “Oh yeah? What is it?”

“Party Poison, of course.” Show Pony waved a hand at the car. “You think you can answer to that?”

“Depends who’s calling.” Gerard grinned a sudden sharp grin and went to look for a new jacket, humming under his breath.

*

“We try not to move around too much at night,” Show Pony explained as they loaded into the Trans Am at the crack of dawn the next morning. “We’re zonehopping today, back to Three.” He’d raised the Doctor on the transmissions set just a few minutes ago. Show Pony’s four proteges were embracing rule two. Gerard tugged at the hem of his replacement jacket from the gas station’s stash - dark blue with the Dead Pegasus logo on the breast - and revved the engine.

“Point me in the right direction,” Gerard said.

“I’ll do better than that,” Show Pony said, handing Mikey a map with a little black dot in the middle of a bullseye field. “Rule - “

“Two-and-a-half, I know,” Mikey said. “Okay, is this where we are? So basically just head west until you link up with Route … does that say Guano? Seriously?” Show Pony laughed and nodded. “I’ll tell you from there when we get closer.”

The map and Mikey, with Show Pony’s assistance, took them across the zones to a dilapidated warehouse-type building hunched in the lee of a hill.

“Wow,” Gerard said, killing the engine. “It’s got a lot of … character.”

“Takes one to know one, Party Poison,” Show Pony said. Gerard huffed.

Mikey huffed too, and Gerard turned to him and said, “What? You jealous of my alias?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly it,” Mikey said sarcastically. Gerard could tell he meant it, just a little bit, and he reached across the gear shift to pat his knee.

Several figures had come to the doorway of the building, and Gerard and Mikey popped the doors open, pushed the seats forward to let the backseat passengers out. The watchers were silent until Show Pony emerged, then they called out greetings and started forward. Gerard could see when they got closer that they were all armed with brightly colored ray guns like Show Pony’s. No polka dots, though. Gerard couldn’t say he was surprised. He doubted anyone else could pull them off.

It was dark inside when they all stepped through the door. Gerard heard a happy cry and when his eyes adjusted he could see the twins being embraced by a girl about their own age. He smiled; clearly they were missed. He was still grinning vaguely when another, entirely familiar voice said, “Oh fuck, Mik-” then corrected itself. “Hey, kid.”

It was Ray - of course it was Ray - and his voice barely contained its layers of worry and relief. He wrapped Mikey up in a hug and they just clung to each other for a second. Gerard looked away, eyes wandering to an alcove that was bursting with color, photos and posters and maps on the walls - and to Show Pony bending over a long-haired man in a wheelchair. He couldn’t see either of their faces, but from the way a large hand was curling around Show Pony’s waist, he was obviously spying on yet another private moment. He fidgeted, ran a hand through his hair, coughed.

“Gee?” Ray said, barely above a whisper, and Gerard turned back to him and Mikey. “Shit, man, I never thought … you really had me convinced you weren’t coming.” Ray reached out and grabbed him, folded him into their hug. “You found Mikey. I was so fucking worried when we realized the end of the convoy got cut off.”

“It was dumb luck,” Gerard whispered back miserably. It was only hitting him now, how close Mikey and the others had been to capture or worse; how lucky he’d been that his insane gambit to trap Korse had actually fucking worked.

“I don’t believe in luck,” Mikey said, muffled where his face was smashed against Gerard’s jacketed shoulder.

“Of course you don’t,” Gerard said, resting his cheek against Mikey’s greasy hair. Mikey had always believed in him.

“Gerard,” Ray continued in a quiet voice, pulling back to peer out the front windows, “is that the car you came in? That’s -”

“I think it’s obvious where it came from,” said a new voice, deep and smooth. Dr. Death Defying, in the flesh, rolling his chair up to where Gerard, Ray, and Mikey stood. “I think some of us are wondering how you got your hands on it, ….” He trailed off.

“Party Poison, Doc,” Show Pony said, resting a hand on Dr. D’s shoulder.

“Huh. So, he’s got you on his side already. That’s a Pony moniker if I ever heard one.”

“Doc -” Show Pony started.

“It’s fine,” Gerard interrupted. “You’re Dr. Death Defying,” he added.

“I am until I’m not,” Dr. D answered easily enough. “Who are you?”

“My brother,” Mikey put in, frowning.

Dr. D looked from Mikey to Ray. “This is your inside source, is it, boys? That’s a little farther inside than I was expecting, if you could get your hands on that car.”

“So maybe I’m just that good. What’s your point?” Gerard asked.

“Did Show Pony go over the rules with you, Party? You remember rule three?”

“You don’t trust me.” Gerard eyed Dr. D. “I’m not saying I blame you. Just saying I don’t know what to do about that.”

“Oh, there’s plenty do to around here,” Dr. D said easily. “Maybe some honest labor’s just what you need.”

“You mean what the doctor ordered?” Gerard replied. He couldn’t help it.

Dr. D chuckled and turned to Mikey. “Kid, your brother’s a smartass. I see where you get it from. Get that car out back and covered up and have Jet Star show you two the storage room after.”

With the Trans Am tucked safely out of sight at the rear of the warehouse, Ray led them through a back door and into a large room made dim and cavernlike by the stacks and drifts of boxes against the walls. “Half of this came from the City. They had to dump it and get the vans restocked for the runners when the convoy got split up. Needs sorted out. I told Dr. D I’d do it, but -”

“But this is my busy work. Since I’m so untrustworthy.” It rankled, a little.

“Gee.” Ray sounded upset. “It’s not -”

“It sort of is,” Mikey interrupted. He and Ray shared a look for a moment. Gerard watched and tried not to be too jealous. There were so many things he wanted to say. He’d missed so much over the past year. Maybe too much. He was a stranger in his own skin here, without even the comfort of his old name.

Though maybe that was a comfort. He tilted his head, looked at Ray curiously. “Jet Star?”

Ray smiled a little sheepishly and unbuttoned his jacket to show a bleach-spotted blue tee shirt with the old video game character on it. A bandage peeked over the collar. Gerard hadn’t noticed before. Neither, apparently, had Mikey. “You’re hurt,” he said accusingly.

“Looks worse than it is,” Ray said. “I promise. There was a nurse here earlier with the group that left.” He popped the top on a box, started sifting through the contents and sorting them into piles on the floor.

“What’s with that?” Gerard said idly, reaching for a box of his own. Fucking might as well.

"What's with what?" Ray repeated. "People leaving so soon?" Gerard nodded. "I'm not, like, an expert, Gerard. I just ... the runners, a lot of them work together when they need to, but they're private. Everyone has their own reason for being out here or for coming out here and you don't - no one talks about it. Do you want to talk about yours?"

No. No, Gerard did not want to talk about his, or think about his. When he didn't answer, Ray looked away, pink and apologetic. Mikey asked, "What are we gonna do, Ray? Do you still wanna -"

"I still want to find someplace to set up a workshop," Ray said. "Dr. D said I could trade labor on his mobile transmissions setup for any materials I find in here." Gerard perked up at the mention of the transmissions setup. He'd been mechanically unpacking the contents of the boxes closest to him for a while, listening to Ray talk, and for the first time he noticed that Ray's piles of clothes and foodstuffs were hiding another smaller pile of mysterious electronic components.

"His transmissions setup?" Gerard tried to sound casual.

"Maybe you should come with me, Gee," Ray said thoughtfully. "I haven't been able to find the problem with it yet, but you might know."

"Don't think he trusts me, Ray." Gerard was able to keep himself from adding a “Like he trusts you" on the end of that statement, but he wasn't able to keep the bitter tone out of his voice.

"Give it time, Party Poison," Mikey told him softly. He emphasized the nickname just the slightest bit.

"That's gonna take some getting used to," Gerard said.

Ray laughed. "Yeah, sorry, I keep forgetting too. Fuck, this is ... I've known you two for ages, but it's different out here." He turned to Mikey. "You need a new name, too, Mikes."

"I've got one," Mikey replied smugly, lifting something cherry red out of the box he was working on. It was an old Kobra logo motorcycle jacket, slick red leather.

"Shit," Ray breathed. It was a nice jacket, fuck only knew why it was in a stained storage carton in the back room of a warehouse.

Mikey shrugged it on, and it fit really well, just a little too short in the sleeves. "Kobra Kid," Mikey said. "Sounds like a fucking outlaw, doesn't it?"

"Yeah it does," Gerard told him approvingly.

"I'm gonna go see what Dr. D wants in trade for this," Mikey said, tucking the jacket under his arm.

"Put it in with these parts," Ray told him, nudging the box with his foot. "You should definitely have that."

They kept working, mostly in silence, until Ray said, "I think I'd better stop for now. Mikey?" Mikey wandered over and poked through the box, taking things out and nodding every once in a while.

"Yeah," he said, "this is - we gotta - well, we've got a car now, so..." They both looked up questioningly at Gerard, who rolled his eyes.

"We have a car. We need to find - that is, I don't know how long we're supposed to stay here."

"I think most of the runners have their own boltholes. Mikey and I, we sort of thought we'd start a workshop, but -" Ray stopped.

"You should," Gerard said. "Maybe ... maybe I'll talk to Show Pony about it. He doesn't hate me, at least."

"No one hates you," Mikey told him. "No one knows you. Even if they think they do. You can be anybody now."

Gerard was still thinking about that after Ray and Mikey lugged the boxes of components out to the front room. He was still sorting through increasingly thrashed and ancient-looking boxes of stuff, stubbornly determined to finish the entire stack, as if it would prove something to Dr. D. He had no idea what time it was, only that the sun had shifted in the sky, changing the pattern of shadows on the floor, and he was faintly, insistently hungry.

He found the half-smashed little boxes in with a jumble of bottles of bath salts and other toiletries that Gerard imagined didn’t get a whole lot of use in the desert. One was plain bleach, and Gerard idly set it aside and reminded himself to ask Mikey if he wanted it. Once upon a time, before BLI, Mikey’d worn bleached-blond hair. The second, when he inspected it, was fucking neon red, if the illustration on the box was to be believed. Gerard’s fingers tightened on the box; it was startling, a crimson “fuck you” in the midst of stained cardboard stolen goods, bland black and white BLI packaging.

If he closed his eyes and let his mind wander, he could remember the feel of Korse’s fingers stroking through his hair. Gerard shuddered once. He had to get it out of his head, he had to -

Show Pony stopped him in the hallway, looking curiously from the box of hair dye to Gerard’s face. Gerard wondered if his expression was as blank as his mind. His head was pounding with the thoughts he was holding back. “There’s a bathroom, with a shower,” Show Pony said gently. “Back behind the old kitchen. And since it rained yesterday, the cisterns are full. You won’t have a better opportunity for a while.”

Gerard just nodded wordlessly in thanks. He was practically on autopilot now, searching out the tiny, grimy bathroom, hands following the instructions on the box while he measured the steps of the process - bleach, rinse, dye - on his pocket watch, incongruous now in the pocket of his Dead Pegasus jacket. Gerard’s hands didn’t shake once, not until the dye was swirling down the drain around his bare feet. Then, water slipping lukewarm down the back of his neck, he closed his hand around his cock, leaned his forehead against cracked tile, and let himself feel the phantom fingers in his hair again.

This is the last time, he told himself. It felt like a lie, like the hollowest promise he’d ever made to stop drinking, but when he stepped out of the shower stall and dried off with a shabby towel, a red-haired stranger watched him in the mirror, jaw tight and eyes wary. Party Poison didn’t give a shit about the past. Party Poison would hold him to his word.

Dr. Death Defying whistled when Gerard passed the alcove where he’d set up his transmissions module. “You’re gonna have to run, with looks like that,” Dr. D told him. “You ain’t gonna be able to hide.”

“I never thought I could,” Gerard replied.

“Brightest crayon in the box,” Dr. D muttered, shaking his head. He lifted an eyebrow over the frames of his aviators when Gerard just stared at him.

“Move over,” Gerard said, reaching for Dr. D’s console. The DJ kept his hands where they were.

“Why?”

“Ah, Jet Star, he said he would try to fix this for you, right? Well, did he tell you I can do it better?”

“He did,” said Dr. D. Gerard put his hands on his hips and waited. Dr. D tapped his fingers against the edge of the desktop a few times. “All right, sunshine, let me see what you can do.” He pushed himself away from the desk and let Gerard pull a chair in front of the console.

Gerard stifled a sigh as his hands curled over the controls. The phantom itch between his shoulder blades suddenly disappeared. He cut his eyes to Dr. D, who had removed his shades and was twirling them in his fingers and watching him, eyes quiet but attentive. Gerard ran his fingers over the setup for a minute, less than familiar with the broadcast components. “What’s the problem?” he asked quietly.

“Feedback on some of the channels,” Dr. D told him. “It’s not a wiring problem; I already replaced any damaged connections.” Gerard nodded, already reaching for the headphones propped against a coffee mug emblazoned Hope You Die. Once they were on, the noise disappeared, he disappeared into the frequencies, tweaking, re-adjusting the levels. He wasn’t sure how long it took, just that Dr. D watched him the whole time.

“You’re still going to have issues on the lower frequencies,” Gerard told him, tugging the headphones down to rest around his neck. “I think I solved most of the problems, though. Your levels were miscalibrated. I fixed that, and, well....” He paused. The next thing … he’d either win Dr. D over or confirm all the reasons he wasn’t to be trusted. “I unlocked some encrypted channels for you.” He keyed one up, slid the faders up and handed Dr. D the headphones.

Dr. D took them and slipped them on without comment. He listened for a few minutes, also without comment. Gerard started to get nervous after a while and nudged one of the faders so he could hear what was coming through the headphones. It was one of the draculoid unit to unit transmission stations. He reached over and tuned the console to another station, the frequency the BLI supply trucks typically used. It was Dr. D’s turn to stare.

“How -”

“I’m sure you can put it together,” Gerard told him. “If they had half a brain, they’d have changed the encryptions once they realized I was gone. They will soon enough, I’m sure. He’ll think of it before anyone else does.” Gerard didn’t clarify who he was; he knew Dr. D had more than half a brain. He was actually shocked that Korse hadn’t already ordered an overhaul of the whole broadcast system. It made him wonder, with an insistent, sinking pain in his gut, exactly what Korse was doing.

“And when they do?” Dr. D asked.

“Come find me. I’ll break them.”

Dr. D was still studying him like he was a fucking unicorn when the front door slammed and a blur of color blew through. Gerard turned to watch as the small cyclone of green, black and yellow coalesced into a short guy in an army vest with a star spangled bandanna tugged over his face.

“Fuckin’ hell, Doc, warn me the next time you lend me a van with busted heat.” The voice was eerily familiar, and Gerard froze. It couldn’t be … but of course it was. The guy from the party was revealed when he tugged the bandanna off his neck and slipped mirrored aviators into his collar.

“It’s the desert, punk. No one told you to stay out in it overnight.” Dr. D crossed his arms over his chest.

“Sure, like you want me painting the patrols a fuckin’ picture with my headlights.”

“The new surveillance drones are all equipped with infrared anyway,” Gerard murmured, and the guy spun to face him.

“The fuck you say. Who are you?” They looked each other full in the face for the first time, and Gerard for his part was frozen, staring way too long, but this guy.... Gerard still remembered what that pink fucking mouth tasted like, and there wasn’t even a spark of recognition in his eyes. Fuck. Gerard didn’t know if he was relieved or pissed.

Dr. D cleared his throat. “Fun Ghoul, meet Party Poison. He’s new, don’t be a jackass.” Gerard had a moment to feel the abrupt bloom of pleasure at Dr. D’s sudden support before Fun Ghoul was laughing, an entirely incongruous giggle of pure amusement.

“Doc. You know what they say about zebras and stripes.”

Zebras, stripes, black and white … it made something click for Gerard. “Fun Ghoul,” Gerard realized. “From the broadcast, with the Stooges.” Dr. D made a surprised little noise, maybe that Gerard remembered the song, but Frank was already groaning.

“Yeah, thanks for that, Doc. Had every wavehead I ran across for days asking me that same dumb joke.”

“What is black and white and red all over?” Gerard couldn’t help it.

Dr. D chuckled, and Fun Ghoul flipped him off before looking Gerard up and down, from the tangle of red hair to the dusty black toes of his boots. “Maybe it’s you,” he said with a half-hearted leer. “Party Poison.” When Gerard didn’t react, Fun Ghoul rolled his eyes and let out a put-upon sigh. “A dead drac,” he answered.

Oh. Well, of course. Gerard suddenly sobered. That tone was the tone of the guy on the balcony, the one with the darkness in his eyes.

“Is that what you’re doing with yourself these days?” Dr. D asked. “I’ve been getting reports this morning from Zone One of important things exploding.”

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Fun Ghoul intoned, raising one oddly perfect eyebrow. “Spent some time in the hills, watching with the buzzards. Saw your little convoy come through in pieces, speaking of driving after dark.” He sounded like he wasn’t trying to sound concerned.

“Everybody made it,” Dr. D told him. “Even your special delivery. We lost the last van in the City, but thanks to this one, they got out.”

“The last car? That was you?” Fun Ghoul looked Gerard up and down again, skeptical. Gerard opened his mouth to reply, but Dr. D beat him to it.

“Him, Pony, the kid and the twins.” Dr. D and Fun Ghoul had a silent conversation for a moment, and Dr. D continued. “I was going to ask you to take Jet Star and the kid out, find them a nice little workshop somewhere. Party Poison’s going with them; he can drive you.”

Fun Ghoul looked less than thrilled. “Why can’t they stay here?”

“I don’t even stay here all the time, Ghoul. You know that. Be your do-gooder little self and help out. You punk.” Another exchange of silent words. Finally Fun Ghoul rolled his eyes.

“And you call me a do-gooder? Fine.” Fun Ghoul looked Gerard up and down again, focusing on the holstered yellow gun. “I hope you can use that. If we’re taking the fucking scenic tour, you’re gonna need it.” Gerard was quiet for long enough to answer that question, and Fun Ghoul rolled his eyes again. “Doc, you’re gonna fuckin’ owe me.”

Dr. D just tapped the earpiece of his shades against his teeth before slipping them back on. “We’ll see.”

*

“Seriously, dude, are you trying to find all the potholes?” Fun Ghoul bitched from the backseat. Gerard had refused to let him drive since a brief and terrifying incident the day before when Mikey had gotten them lost and Fun Ghoul, frustrated, had taken the wheel to get them back out on the road and had proceeded to catch air three or four times in a two-mile stretch. He never flinched, hands steady as a rock on the wheel, and Mikey predictably had thought it was great. Fun Ghoul told them stories about the stunt shows one of the runner crews in Two ran during the dry season. Gerard bit his tongue and tried not to say anything overtly big-brotherly, and took the wheel back as soon as they’d stopped to wait out a drac patrol.

“It’s a fuckin’ dirt road,” Gerard mumbled. “It’s all pothole.” Two days they’d been out on the road, running from abandoned shack to warehouse to gas station, their path dictated only by drac cycle tracks, by the zone map that was Mikey’s new most treasured possession. By Fun Ghoul, leaning loose-hipped against the hood of the Trans Am and verbally sparring with squatters in some half-comprehensible patois that still stuck to Gerard’s tongue like molasses.

“Cycles,” Ray announced tersely from the back seat. He was staring through the back window; Gerard had seen him swivel around in the rearview and glanced in the side mirror himself. Ray had the sharpest eyes out of any of them except maybe Fun Ghoul, but as they had discovered when Fun Ghoul drilled them in marksmanship in a dry creek bed earlier that day, the worst aim. These cycles were far off, though. They didn’t swerve from their course when Gerard turned the Trans Am onto an even bumpier dirt road and parked them behind an outcropping of rock.

Gerard and Fun Ghoul both popped their heads out of the driver’s side t-top at the same time, and Gerard twitched a little at having him so close. It had been almost a week, and still no sign or mention of their previous meeting. Gerard tried to tell himself that this was a good thing, that the neon-red hair was a good enough disguise to throw off anyone in search of Gerard Way from SCARECROW.

A tiny part of him was disappointed. It was the same tiny part that stared whenever Fun Ghoul licked his lips.

“We’re not going to be able to make it upzone before nightfall,” Fun Ghoul said quietly. “Not with them holding that course. There’s a SCARECROW outpost three klicks ahead of them; hasn’t been used for a while but that must be where they’re going. It’s too close to where we were going.”

Gerard squinted off into the distance, but all the hills and creek beds still looked the same to him, unless he had Mikey’s map. Even that was only so much help. He rested his arms on the crossbar and his chin on his arms. “How long have you been out here?” he asked quietly.

When Fun Ghoul just gave him a long, silent look Gerard was afraid he’d asked a question he shouldn’t have. They were still finding their feet in the avalanche of names, places, customs, slang that they’d slid into. But then Fun Ghoul licked his lips and answered, “Since I got discharged and refused to wear a white suit.”

“Discharged?” Gerard asked automatically. Dr. Death Defying was clearly a veteran. Gerard himself had only missed the draft because he’d had custody of Mikey. Fun Ghoul looked.... “Aren’t you a little young for -” At Fun Ghoul’s long, narrow-eyed glance he cut himself off. Definitely a question he shouldn’t have asked.

In the car below them, Ray and Mikey stopped rustling the map around and Ray called up, “Uh, guys, did you take a look to the north? So what’s the plan for that?”

Gerard and Fun Ghoul both whipped around. Behind them, a bank of thunderheads was gathering fast. Fun Ghoul swore.

“Shit,” Gerard echoed. “We need to get under cover! Don’t we? Where -” He slid back into the driver’s seat; Fun Ghoul hesitated for a moment before he dropped down into the back seat. He leaned forward to talk into Gerard’s ear.

“There’s one old safe house near here, I’ll tell you where to go. Get us back on that access road we passed right before this turnoff.” His hands were wrapped tightly around Gerard’s seat back. Gerard could feel the nudge of his fingertips against his shoulders and shivered unthinkingly. A few turns and a harrowing drive along the edge of a rockfall brought them around a blind corner where a valley opened suddenly in front of them, a long low building sprouting from the other edge. “There,” Fun Ghoul murmured against Gerard’s ear. “Drive around back.”

“Whose place is this?” Gerard asked, mentally bracing himself for more questions about his car, their crew.

“Mine,” Fun Ghoul said. “As much as it’s anyone’s.” His voice was clipped; the tone was one that Gerard had begun to identify as his close-to-the-vest tone.

“Uh, Fun Ghoul?” Mikey spoke up from the passenger seat. “I hate to tell you, but it looks like you lost a couple letters up there.” He was squinting at the roof, which spelled out “DI E” in crooked letters.

Fun Ghoul snorted. “Who said it was an accident, Kid?”

Gerard pulled the car around the back of the building and parked near some dilapidated gas pumps, and Fun Ghoul circled the perimeter of the building before returning to where Ray, Mikey and Gerard huddled under an overhang and letting them in the back door. “I checked my tripwires, it’s safe,” he said, shooing them inside and bolting the door behind them.

They were in a small diner kitchen, dim and gloomy and getting more so by the minute as the thunderheads rolled in. Several appliances showed signs of use. Fun Ghoul saw Gerard swipe a finger along the porcelain surface of a stove and laughed. “Don’t get excited, it’s just the same old BLI slop in the cabinets. Go on into the front room, get comfy. Storm looks like it’s gonna be a bitch.” He started rummaging in a cabinet, and Ray stayed behind to help him. Gerard trailed Mikey out into the front room, where a few worn diner booths lined a windowed room. The attached service station was through another door, a small hallway leading to several more back rooms of some sort.

Gerard and Mikey exchanged a look. This was a nice place, bigger than one person would conceivably need. Cleaner than Fun Ghoul’s description of it as an old safe house had suggested. It was actually pretty much exactly the kind of place Gerard thought Ray and Mikey would want. Every squat and bolt-hole they’d stopped at in the past week had boasted at least a few occupants. That this one was deserted except for Fun Ghoul - and he clearly didn’t stay here all the time - struck Gerard as odd.

The storm blew in just as Ray and Fun Ghoul carried BLI rations in from the kitchen and set them on one of the diner tables. The rain on the flat roof made it sound like they were actually underwater, and killed all chance of conversation until it slowed down from a deluge to a steady patter. When Gerard finished his food, he pushed the can away and crossed his arms over his chest, watching Fun Ghoul until he looked up. “Spit it out, Party,” Fun Ghoul said, rolling his eyes.

“Why isn’t this place a safe house anymore? It’s decent sized, it seems secure, I’m surprised no one’s using it.”

“I never said no one was using it,” Fun Ghoul said, still in that same clipped tone. He pushed himself out of the booth and grabbed their empty cans, disappearing into the kitchen. Gerard looked between Mikey and Ray. Ray shrugged and kicked back, stretching his long legs along the bench seat and closing his eyes. He was still favoring his shoulder, even though he wouldn’t admit it.

Gerard made a face; once in a while he recalled the serious Fun Ghoul, the one who seemed very far away, who’d called him brave for detoxing. Even the one who’d spent hours adjusting their gun stances and drilling them - albeit mockingly - on their marksmanship. But most of the time he just seemed to confirm he was exactly what Dr. D had called him - a jackass. Mikey shrugged too, but Gerard could read his motion with the ease of big-brotherhood. Worth a try, he was saying. Mikey slid out of the booth and followed Fun Ghoul, and after a moment Gerard followed Mikey, just in case.

Fun Ghoul had disappeared down the tiny back hallway, and Mikey caught up with him as he was pulling a stack of much-mended blankets off a shelf. The room looked like it had been an office once, but there were several thin mattresses stacked in the corner. Mikey knocked softly on the open door, and Fun Ghoul took his time turning around.

“Look,” Mikey said evenly, leaning against the wall in that weird but nonchalant way he had. “Doc asked you to help us find a place. This place looks pretty much exactly like what we need. You gonna blame us for asking? Isn’t that exactly what we’ve been doing everywhere else all week?”

Fun Ghoul looked between Mikey and where Gerard was hovering in the doorway. “Yes and no,” he said. “Doc coulda found a place for you through the grapevine eventually; everything worth knowing goes through him.”

“I was wondering,” Mikey said slowly. “So why -”

“Why the grand tour? Maybe just to make sure you wouldn’t get jumped by the first drac patrol you ran across. Let the runners get used to your faces, to that fucking ostentatious car.”

“Ostentatious?” Gerard repeated, eyebrows raised.

“Fuck you,” Fun Ghoul said, with a little bit of heat behind it. “I know all sorts of big words. They’re all sizing you up, okay? They will be for a while. And for some reason to which Doc did not make me privy -” a pointed emphasis on the last word - “he wanted me to give you my personal attention.”

Gerard got the feeling that Fun Ghoul had several guesses about why Dr. D had asked him, and wasn’t happy about any of them.

*

They stayed at the diner when the rain lasted past sundown, bedded down on the mattresses in the old office. Gerard deliberately picked one on the other side of the desk from Mikey and Ray, who’d curled up together in one corner. Gerard rolled up in a blanket, faced the wall, and tried not to think about it. He didn’t know what was going on with them, and he didn’t much care. He’d slept alone for so long anyway that he barely remembered what it was like to have someone’s breath in his ear. He wasn’t jealous. He wasn’t fucking remembering, except - he was.

Korse walked his dreams again that night - like a specter, except solid, vibrant, impossibly warm. Later, Gerard couldn’t remember when the taste of his skin and the twist of his fingers in Gerard’s hair had turned into the sensation of hands around his throat, only that he’d woken up pleading, with Fun Ghoul shaking his shoulder. “Hey man, hey, hey, it’s all right. You’re safe,” he was whispering. Gerard forced himself not to recoil and as soon as he recognized Fun Ghoul, he sighed and sat up.

“Sorry, fuck, sorry,” he whispered back. A quick glance showed that Mikey and Ray hadn’t woken yet. When he looked back, Fun Ghoul pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his vest pocket and waved them in silent inquiry. Gerard nodded, and they both trooped quietly outside.

It had stopped raining, and the first signs of sunrise were showing in the east although it was still mostly dark. Fun Ghoul stood still for a moment, then leaned against the front of the diner and lit a cigarette. “Gonna be a scorcher today,” he muttered around the filter as he passed Gerard the pack and matches.

“Isn’t that every day? How can you tell?” Gerard asked, lighting his own cigarette and passing the pack back.

“Zones’ll turn you into a weatherman too, within a month or two,” Fun Ghoul answered.

“Well, nobody trusts a weatherman either,” Gerard said acidly, sucking in a lungful of smoke and shrugging. Fun Ghoul looked at him a little sideways.

“I’m gonna let you and your crew take this place over,” he said after a moment’s silence.

Not that Gerard wasn’t grateful for the change of heart, but - “They’re not my crew,” Gerard protested. “I followed them out here, not the other way around.”

“Just calling ‘em how I see ‘em, Party Poison. There’s something about you....” He trailed off, and Gerard stopped breathing for a moment, but Fun Ghoul just went on, “You may have been following them, but you’re in the driver’s seat now. For real. If you don’t want to be, it’s sort of too fucking bad. But hey - maybe they’ll make it on their own.” He took one last puff on his cigarette and flicked the butt into the dirt.

Gerard watched the embers fade, clenching his teeth, but he couldn’t stop the words from trickling out in an icy little cascade. “I will not let anything happen to my brother,” he hissed.

Fun Ghoul looked coolly back at him for a moment, expression unreadable. Then he nodded once. “Then get ready to drill, motherfucker. If fucking Dr. D wants me to train you, I’m gonna do it right.”

Gerard blew out a slow stream of smoke, trying to hide his surprise - and his annoyance at the tone. “You always this nice to newbies?” he drawled sarcastically.

Fun Ghoul snorted. “You don’t want to see mean, baby.”

That was how it started, but maybe Fun Ghoul wasn’t quite such an ass when you got used to him, or maybe Gerard was more of a jackass than he remembered. It had been a long time since he’d had many – well, maybe “friends” was a stretch. Either way, it was a bit of a shock how easily they took to working together, and Gerard quickly learned drac routes, boltholes, which runner dens to avoid and which ones would put you up for the night no questions asked. The ones where you watched your back, and the ones where you kept your ears open.

Gerard learned to keep his ears open at other times, too. Each time Show Pony glided into the diner on his trademark roller skates - which was often - he solemnly noted their intel to take back to Dr. D along with the latest finished electronics for trade from Ray and Mikey’s workshop. He always had a teasing compliment or two for Gerard, who had inexplicably begun to develop a bit of a reputation among the runners as someone important, someone to know; Show Pony had, for whatever reason, decided to embroider this even further. Fun Ghoul and Party Poison, as well as Kobra Kid and Fun Ghoul, or Jet Star and Party Poison, appeared with regularity in Dr. D’s broadcasts.

The one regular occurrence for which it was useless for Gerard to keep his ears open was, annoyingly, on his own turf. Show Pony’s arrivals usually meant messages for Fun Ghoul that they disappeared into a back room to discuss. None of the rest of them were invited. Sometimes Fun Ghoul disappeared for a day or two after these little meetings.

Gerard couldn’t help being curious.

He waited until one afternoon when Fun Ghoul was in a foul mood already, because he figured at least he probably wouldn’t make it worse. He was perched on a stool in the workshop, tinkering with an old grenade launcher someone had traded Ray and Mikey in exchange for droid gyros - no one had asked why he needed them - and scowling. Show Pony had just left after an hour shut away in the office with Fun Ghoul.

Gerard leaned against the workbench and said, carefully, “Don’t you worry?”

“About what?” Fun Ghoul asked shortly around the lengths of wire clamped between his lips.

“Well,” prevaricated Gerard, rethinking the wisdom of this conversation even as the words tumbled out, “about Dr. D, and Show Pony, and -”

“I do worry about them,” Fun Ghoul said seriously. “It’s a dangerous job, running WKIL. But they’re big boys,” he drawled.

“No, I mean -” Gerard said. “That Dr. D will find out about you - and -” Fun Ghoul started laughing before he could even spit out the rest of the sentence. “It’s not funny, asshole.”

“Fuck yes it is,” Fun Ghoul wheezed. “You’re on the wrong track, there. Are you jealous, Party Poison? Oh, no, I know what it is, you just don’t want anyone to get any action around here. Maybe you wanna pass that little edict along to Jet and the Kid too, killjoy.” He chuckled again. “Me and Pony, man. Doc would kick my ass if I tried. You better watch it, you keep flirting like you do and he might kick yours.”

Gerard sputtered. He wasn’t fucking jealous. “I’m not flirting. And...stop trying to fucking distract me. What the hell are you doing back there, then?”

Fun Ghoul’s face clouded with the same old implacable look. “It’s none of your business.” He spat out a coil of wire and started twisting it into the trigger mechanism of the launcher.

Gerard watched him for a few more minutes in silence, then turned and walked out. He grabbed a pair of binoculars from one of the diner tables on the way outside and climbed up to sit on the roof. The hills behind them blocked their view upzone, but crews occasionally cut through the valley. After a while he set the glasses in his lap and just watched, back propped against the “D”, and he was idly wishing for a sketchbook like the stack he’d abandoned in his and Mikey’s apartment so long ago, when he heard the noises. It was the trunk of the Trans Am popping, the electronic whine of the mobile transmissions set firing up. He crept closer to the edge of the roof until he could see a dark head, then Fun Ghoul started talking quietly.

“We still on for tonight, KK? Yeah, he just left. No, I can get away, can you come get me? The normal junction, I’ll wait just off Redemption. Twenty-two-hundred? Yeah, come at nineteen-hundred and that’s enough time. Ok.” He laughed quietly. “Look alive, killer.” Gerard heard the clicks of the set being powered down and the trunk closing, then the back door of the diner opened and shut below him.

Gerard lay down on his stomach and pillowed his head on his arms, waiting. Before long, the door opened again and Fun Ghoul slipped away along the edge of the valley. Gerard tracked him with the binoculars. He was wearing a black jacket, his usual colorful clothing zipped out of sight. Gerard knew that jacket.

Fun Ghoul was going to the City. Gerard was sure of it. He lay on the roof and watched the dark figure until it reached the turnoff to Redemption Road. Then he watched even longer, until the sun started to slip behind the hills and a brown van pulled off the side of the road. He hesitated for a moment, binoculars in hand, then made a decision and climbed back off the roof.

When he hurried back into the diner, Mikey and Ray were still in the workshop. “Guys!” Gerard shouted. Mikey dropped the small pot of oil he was holding and it splattered all down the sleeve of his jacket.

“Shit, Party,” he swore.

“What’s up?” Ray asked, milder, silently handing Mikey a handful of rags as Mikey shrugged out of the jacket.

“Fuck, sorry, I - let’s go out,” Gerard said. This was probably stupid, probably a total fucking waste, but he just couldn’t -

“Go out?” Mikey asked.

“There’s a droid club in One. Heard they have good bands. That new band, Mad Gear whatever? They crash the place sometimes.” Gerard smiled winningly.

“A droid club?” Ray asked. He sounded interested, and Gerard bit back a smile. The lure of a robotics contact for Ray, a droidcore band for Mikey. If this didn’t work....

“Where’s Fun Ghoul?” Ray asked.

“He went out,” Gerard said. “It’ll just be us.” Mikey narrowed his eyes.

“What am I supposed to wear?” he bitched. “That sleeve needs to soak.”

Gerard shrugged out of his own jacket. “Here, wear mine. Come on, it’ll be dark soon, let’s go.” Mikey shrugged on the Dead Pegasus jacket and Gerard urged him and Ray out the door and into the car.

The roughest clubs in the Battery had nothing on the zone clubs. They were usually in half - or more - derelict buildings, with derelict furniture, and booze you could use to strip paint, or set something on fire. Farther upzone, they usually had blacked-out windows as well, so even if you walked in at high noon, it was like walking into a cave.

Strangelove’s, the droid club in Zone One, actually was underground. Gerard assumed it was for security - anyone running a club this close to the City had to have a few screws loose. So to speak. Gerard parked the car outside and looked at Ray and Mikey. “Keep your helmets on until I scope this place out,” he said thoughtfully, tugging his own rebreather on to hide his face.

Inside, band gear littered a small stage, but the place was filled with pumping club music. A few rickety-looking droids gyrated on pedestals around the room, and the room itself was a mix of bright colors, dusty leather, and dented metal.

As the three of them stood scanning the bar for an open table, a figure in a ripped net shirt and dirty jeans slunk up to them. “Heeeeeeey,” he drawled. “I know you. You’re Party Poison.” Gerard startled, then realized he was talking to Mikey. A quick nudge of his fingers against Mikey’s side had Mikey turning to face the guy, Ray stepping up to his side.

Ray flipped up his visor. “Maybe, maybe not. Who are you?”

“Tommy Chow Mein, but you can call me whatever you want.” His smile showed yellow teeth, and too many of them.

Mikey flipped up his visor too. “Do we want?”

“Hey hey, your crew’s got that sweet workshop, and I could be your main man for Battery operations, Party, if you were into that. Lotta market there these days. Let me buy you a few drinks, a few dances, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

Mikey looked back at Gerard, and Gerard leaned close to whisper to him. It was almost twenty-two-hundred now. “String him along, Kid, there’s something I gotta go do.” Mikey shot him a narrow-eyed glare, but nodded minutely.

Gerard stepped back outside, shivering in just his sleeveless shirt now that the sun had gone down. The black fabric blended into the rock wall behind him, and scaled it to the top, slinking along the rocks with his eyes on the road from the City.

He waited in the dark. He wasn’t sure how long. One thing was for sure, though: he never would have heard it from inside, but now that he was outside he could see it, a lone vehicle rocketing along the road with a sputter and squeal of overworked cylinders, three drac cycles tearing along behind it. It was the van he’d seen earlier, hurtling through the darkness with its headlights out, apparently hanging on to the road by the light of the moon alone. And by the light of the bike headlights weaving and racing after it.

“Shit,” he spat out, scrambling back down the rock face and shoving his way through Strangelove’s front doors, pulling off his rebreather helmet and shaking his hair out of his face. “Jet! Kobra!” he barked, and Ray and Mikey looked up immediately, along with about half the club. Tommy looked confused that the telltale red hair was now on view halfway across the bar, but Mikey just shoved at Ray until he slid out of the booth, threw a couple credit notes on the tabletop, and steered them both out the door.

"Get in the car," Gerard snapped, jumping into the driver's seat and revving the engine. Mikey was still pulling the passenger door shut as Gerard punched the accelerator and sent the Trans Am down the road. The van and its pursuers had pulled away, but the larger vehicle's engine was no match for the Trans Am and they managed to catch up, just in time to see its taillights swerve crazily as the pursuers managed to shoot out both back tires. "Shit," Gerard yelled again and floored the accelerator.

The van's driver managed to keep the vehicle upright, but it had slowed to a crawl. The cycles slowed with it, obviously closing in for the kill, but the trailing drac bobbled his handlebars at the roar of the Trans Am's engine. If they hadn't yet realized they had their own pursuer, they were realizing it now. The three cycles weaved and scattered to opposite sides of the road, one pulling in front of the ailing van. Gerard flashed his high-beams, hoping the driver got the message: pull over.

The van swerved abruptly to the shoulder, and the trailing cycle had to take evasive action to avoid a collision. Gerard dodged the foundering bike and Mikey leaned out of the passenger window and took the shot. The drac went down. His two companions slowed; Gerard took the opportunity to pull up beside the closest one. This drac had managed to pull his weapon, and a few stray bolts hissed along the side of the car before Ray popped out of the t-top and took him out too.

The last cycle wavered, and Gerard imagined its rider was assessing his options: close in on the crippled van, pursue the Trans Am, or escape. Gerard wasn't taking any chances. He whipped past the cycle and wrenched the wheel, sending the Trans Am fishtailing across the road until it blocked both lanes. The cycle wobbled as its rider decided whether to risk off-roading or making a turn of its own, and Mikey calmly sighted along the barrel of his ray gun and took the drac down. The cycle, riderless, toppled and skidded several dozen yards along the roadway before scraping to a halt nearly at the Trans Am's door.

They were now several hundred yards down the road from the van, so Gerard steered carefully past the downed cycle and drove slowly back that way. The van flashed its high-beams as they approached, then went dark. Gerard's own headlights picked out several figures slowly climbing out of the doors. An unfamiliar blond woman climbed down from the driver's seat, circling immediately to check out the damage to the rear wheels and swearing softly. The passenger door opened to reveal familiar polka-dotted leggings, but Gerard only had eyes for the figure sliding open the rear van door - Fun Ghoul. Then he saw the small figures huddled behind him. Kids, three of them, wearing dark clothing and expressions running the gamut from excited to bewildered to terrified.

Gerard wasn't sure which one to pick, himself. He'd been terrified when he first saw the dracs pursuing the van, and once he'd gotten behind the wheel he'd been focused, exhilarated, controlled. Now, he was back to being unsure. Fun Ghoul could always do that to him with one lift of a perfect brow.

He wished someone would just say something.

Someone, of course, ended up being Show Pony, who stepped in smooth as always. "I knew you were a party on wheels," he teased gently. "But that was some dance, Party Poison. And you've brought the whole box of crayons with you, I see. Didn't recognize you at first without the jacket, Kobra."

"Hey, Pony," Ray said, and Mikey echoed him. "Hey, Fun Ghoul." Ray nodded politely, and Fun Ghoul shook himself, expression shifting from considering to provocative.

"Fancy meeting you here," he drawled. Gerard knew him well enough by now to guess what the bravado was covering, and his next words confirmed it. "So, which one of you overheard?"

"That would be me," Gerard told him.

"And you decided to tail me. I'm actually impressed." It was more sarcastic than impressed, and Gerard jumped into the breach.

"Considering we just saved your asses, you'd better be." He could do attitude too.

"Always such a fucking killjoy," Fun Ghoul muttered.

"He's right," the blond woman chimed in from where she and Show Pony were murmuring to the kids. "Whoever he is. This van's junked."

Show Pony shook himself. "Oh, sorry, KK. Guys, this is Killer Klown. KK, meet Party Poison, Jet Star, and Kobra Kid, the most fabulous killjoys I know." He shot Fun Ghoul a meaningful look. "They're running out of the diner with our favorite Ghoul."

"Shiny," KK pronounced after a moment, then actually stepped forward to shake all their hands. "I hate to rush things along, but we're drac bait here. Can we bum a ride?"

"Fuck," Gerard muttered, counting heads and scanning the horizon. "Guys, check the bikes, see if any of them are still drivable. Put the kids in the backseat and squeeze in anywhere."

Two of the cycles looked relatively undamaged, and Ray and KK rode them in a few slow figure eights before nodding and declaring them road-ready. Show Pony had already climbed in the backseat with the kids and pulled the smallest one onto his lap. Mikey looked expressionlessly between the Trans Am and the bikes and pulled his helmet back on, hopping up behind Ray.

That put Fun Ghoul right where Gerard was starting to get used to him: slouched in the passenger seat, watching him in judicious silence.

"Where to?" Gerard asked him.

He turned and had a silent conversation with Show Pony for a moment before sighing and answering, "To the diner."

Gerard knew night driving made most of the runners nervous, but he found it soothing to hurtle through the dark with his headlights slicing the path ahead. Dracs didn't usually run at night either, and closer to their turf he knew - because Fun Ghoul had drilled it into his head, Gerard admitted - all the vantage points, blind corners, and shortcuts. Ray and Gerard had earned Dr. D's unswerving devotion only weeks after their arrival in the zones - if keeping his transmissions console tapped in to SCARECROW security feeds hadn't already done it - by hacking several SCARECROW camera drones to broadcast an endless loop of empty desert.

It was a bit of a losing battle; Gerard knew they'd never find all the drones unless they actually caught the dracs installing them, but they could at least keep sabotaging the old ones. It kept the area around the diner fairly off the radar, and so Gerard was feeling at least semi-secure as he parked the Trans Am behind the building, the two stolen cycles pulling in behind him. The adults hustled the three kids inside, and Ray and KK got them settled in the booths with some food while Show Pony and Mikey headed for the office to get extra mattresses and blankets ready.

Fun Ghoul looked at Gerard, and Gerard looked back, then dug his cigarettes out of his pocket and tilted his head toward the back door. Fun Ghoul nodded tightly and followed him outside. Gerard didn't stop outside the door, but headed straight for the ladder that led to the roof. He didn't stop until he was sitting with his back up against the "D", just like he'd been earlier that day. Fun Ghoul settled down against the "I" and lit a cigarette. Gerard snuck a look at him. He was looking across the valley, but he looked over after a moment and met Gerard's gaze.

"You were up here, huh," he said.

"Maybe I shouldn't tell you my secrets," Gerard said, voice deliberately light.

"How many do you have?" Fun Ghoul answered in the same tone.

Gerard laughed, a little sourly. "More than I'm willing to share. But maybe -"

"How about I start, and we see how it goes."

"I'm impressed at your generosity," Gerard said dryly. "Okay, fine. First question: the kids. Explain."

Fun Ghoul sighed. "That's fair, I guess. It was the whole reason I didn't want to show you this place. That's what we use it for - a way station after we get the kids out of the Battery. They go on to different zones, after this, to family or whoever agrees to foster them, but they usually start here."

"Okay," Gerard said slowly. "But...why are you getting them out at all? Where are their parents?"

Fun Ghoul inhaled sharply, then had to cough a little. When he answered, his voice was still a little watery, incredulous. "Did you actually live under a rock?"

"Is that your first question?" Gerard sniped.

"Yeah, actually, it is," Fun Ghoul answered after a beat.

Gerard huffed out an irritated breath. "You are such a fucking asshole," he commented mildly. He hadn't felt the need to point it out to Fun Ghoul lately, but it wasn't the first time he'd said it. Fun Ghoul, as usual, just shrugged and blew smoke out of the side of his mouth. "I lived in the City, you know that."

"Did you ever watch Fact News? Did you ever bother to read the papers? Does the name Harmony Act ring any bells?"

It did, actually. Gerard fought back through the medicated haze of his first months at BLI, to the droid club with the mariachi band - the blatant falsehood of "this song isn't about the Harmony Act" - and he said, "I don't think I know about that part of it."

It was dark, but Gerard could still see Fun Ghoul's lip curl. "It's about the kids. Part of it. BLI-run orphanages and schools, with job training."

"They've always been around," Gerard pointed out, though not without a tiny shudder of memory. They'd wanted to take Mikey to an orphanage, After. Gerard had taken guardianship instead, he hadn't wanted...to see his baby brother go to a place like that. Okay.

"I know," Fun Ghoul said. There was something poisonous in his tone, like there was something personal there. "But now they want to make them compulsory for all children. Seriously, you missed this?"

"Apparently," Gerard murmured. No, the Gerard of a few months earlier wouldn't have paid attention. He didn't know any children, Mikey was of age, it wouldn't have affected him. He'd had...other things on his mind.

"Well...that's what we're doing. Getting them out. If the parents want them out but can't run themselves, if they're orphans and they don't have anyone to do it for them...it doesn't matter. They should be given the choice." He said it like someone who hadn't had a choice, and Gerard itched to ask him, but it wasn't his turn yet.

"So, it's you, and KK, and Show Pony."

"And others. People on the inside. Don't ask, that's not part of this."

"I wouldn't ask," Gerard said quietly. He knew what it was like to be the one on the inside. "But why -" He stopped himself. Why didn't you trust us? was a stupid question, because rule three was always going to be the answer. "We'd have helped you, you know. How can we prove ourselves to you?" Gerard asked finally.

"You did, tonight," Fun Ghoul said after a moment of silence. "Fucking killjoy."

"Fabulous killjoy. Show Pony says so."

"He'd know," Fun Ghoul murmured, sounding fond. Gerard couldn't even explain it, but that tone, just the hint of warmth, unlocked the things he usually kept stifled away around Fun Ghoul. He was suddenly aware of the light slanting over Fun Ghoul's disturbingly pretty face and of how close they were sitting - not nearly close enough. Not that he was going to do anything about it, but it made him forget for a moment and ask one of the things he'd been dying to know. One of the things you weren't supposed to ask.

"Fun Ghoul," Gerard said in a low voice. "Tell me your name."

He didn't answer right away. Finally he ground out his cigarette on the roof and said, "Does it even mean anything anymore?"

"There's no right answer to that question."

"That means there's no wrong answer either."

Gerard took a drag on his own cigarette, burning forgotten in his fingers. "It does to me," he said finally.

Once again there was a pause, just long enough for Gerard to come up with an excuse to jump up and leave. Then Fun Ghoul answered, "Frank. I'm Frank."

Frank. It suited him, somehow, and - "Your mask," Gerard realized. "It's Frankenstein." Fun Ghoul - Frank - was known for a garishly colored monster mask. "Is -"

"Old nickname," Frank told him, then paused. "That's a lot more than I meant - I mean -" He stopped talking completely, and Gerard rushed to fill the silence.

"Frank. Hi. I'm Gerard."

"Gerard." He sounded a little funny, and when Gerard looked over, he had his head tipped back against the "I", neck stretched in a pale curve against his hair, his jacket, the sky. He had his eyes closed. "Sometimes I feel like I already know you."

Gerard bit his lip, nervousness about discovery fighting against a wash of remembered sensation that crept from his fingertips to his stomach to his dick. "You do now," he answered.

Frank just hummed in response, then answered, "No. But it's a start." He lit another cigarette, handed it to Gerard, then lit a second for himself. They smoked in silence this time, until it was time to go back inside.

*

Gerard hadn’t assisted in any other runs since that night, but now that he knew what Frank was doing, Frank’s conversations with the runners at the places they stopped on their patrols had begun to make a lot more sense. These days, Gerard had plenty of contacts of his own, but he always stepped back when he knew Frank was making plans.

Frank was in the middle of negotiations with the Pit Vipers, who ran the service station at the border of Zone Two, for bunk space for the night when one of them sidled up and nudged Gerard in the ribs. "Party Poison, gotta call for you."

"A call?" Gerard repeated. It was the gangly, skinny one they called Slim Jim, and he didn't talk much. In fact, he was mumbling now, and turning sort of red.

"Onna radio. Broadcast channel. You or Fun Ghoul. S'Pony."

Gerard nodded. "Okay, Jim. Show me where." He caught Frank's eye and jerked his head toward the retreating Slim Jim. Frank nodded shortly and kept talking. Slim Jim led him into an office and pointed. It was an even older model console than the suitcase model they kept in the Trans Am, and he slipped the headphones on and punched the blinking channel button, then hit Transmit and leaned over to speak into the mic. "Party Poison. Come back at me."

The connection was crackly, but Gerard could make out, "Party, it's Pony. You've got Fun Ghoul with you?"

"Other room. What's up?"

"I need wheels. The timetable changed up on us."

He was talking about the kids, of course. Gerard was just about to tug the headphones down and call into the other room when he heard a voice cutting in. Dr. D. "Pony, is that Party or Fun Ghoul?"

"It's Party Poison," he said into the mic.

"Sorry, Pony," Dr. D said, "you're gonna have to work something out. I need Party to meet me, the main antenna just shit the bed."

Show Pony swore, then there was a murmured discussion that Gerard couldn't quite hear above the static. Then he was back on the mic. "Meet Doc. He's gonna need both of you. I'll make other arrangements."

"Ten-four." Gerard punched a few buttons to reset the console to receive and dropped the headphones. "Ghoul?" he called out, hurrying back into the other room.

"Yeah?"

“Gotta go.”

Frank didn’t question him, just tugged his bandanna up, then flipped the head Pit Viper a quick salute and got one in return. Gerard tied his own bandanna over his face - it was a windy afternoon - and led them back out to the Trans Am.

"It was Pony on the radio. He needed us and the car for the, you know," Gerard said when they were inside the car. He'd tried out several different code names for Frank's little project, but Frank had yelled at him for most of them. "Delivery time got changed. But Doc needs me at the station, so Pony said to take care of him instead."

Frank smirked. "Oh, he did, did he? Boy, do you get around.”

"Ghoul -" Gerard said warningly. “We’re gonna need your help, too. The fucking antenna’s broken.”

Frank didn’t react noticeably to that, but as Gerard pulled onto the road, trailing dust, he continued thoughtfully, “I’m just saying, Gee, you’re a busy boy. Doc and Pony? I didn’t know they were into that. Or do you just alternate?” His voice was oozing faux curiosity.

Gerard glanced at the passenger seat out of the corner of his eye. Frank's lips were twitching. He trusted Frank to have his back, but he was torture in more ways than one. The more worked up Gerard got about things, the more Frank seemed to enjoy giving him shit. "Fuck you, Frank."

"If you think you can spare the energy, after all these people who need you," Frank drawled.

He waited a moment, then dropped three words into the silence inside the car. “Wanna find out?” Let Frank think he was fucking with him. Let Frank think he was serious. Gerard had bitten back one too many replies to Frank’s teasing.

In the passenger seat, Frank wasn’t saying a word. Gerard clenched his jaw and kept driving. He didn’t know what that meant. After so many nights rolled up together in a stack of cheap blankets, picturing the edges of half-covered tattoos, he didn’t want to admit how much he wanted it to mean something.

*

Dr. D. was waiting at the warehouse, and when he saw that Gerard had brought Frank along, he grimaced a bit. “I tried to raise you at the diner, so I knew you were out running with Party,” he said to Frank. “If I had an extra vehicle, I’d send you to Pony instead, but -”

“He’s got the twins on call since KK’s in Five for a few weeks. They haven’t made a run yet, but they know the drill.” Frank sounded more confident than he looked.

“Well, if I can’t get this antenna up and running, the radio system for three zones is fucked, so do you think you could lend your considerable talents to something other than explosions for a few hours?” Dr. D drawled.

“I said yes, Doc.” Frank shot an amused glance at Gerard, who smirked a little half-smirk of his own. Dr. D had had a busy news week with Fun Ghoul’s latest exploits.

“Well, then.” Dr. D scowled and thunked irritably at one of his leg braces. Frank and Gerard both looked. The metal was scored and twisted in a way that looked fresh.

“What happened?” Gerard asked, nodding at the damage.

Dr. D rolled his eyes, crossed his arms over his chest. “Dracs paid us a visit at one of the secondary locations a few days ago. Roughed me up some.”

“Doc!” Gerard cut off at an irritable gesture from Dr. D.

“I roughed them up worse.”

“Take that off, Doc,” Frank interrupted. “I’ve got a torch in the Trans Am, I’ll reshape it for you.” He started unbuckling the lower straps himself, hands gentle, and looked up over his shoulder at Gerard. “Guess that means I’ll see you on the roof, Party. Again.” He gave Gerard a cheeky little wink. Gerard flipped him off, turning away to hide the breath he’d just skipped.

As he walked out, he heard Dr. D grumbling at Frank to “pay attention to what you’re doing, princess” and something in his stomach gave a little extra twist.

Gerard was stripped down to a single layer, roof cinders sticking to his sweaty face and arms, by the time Frank emerged. “Thought you were some sort of genius,” Frank commented mildly, dropping a box of spare parts next to Gerard. “Still not done?”

“Still a smartass?” Gerard darted a look over his shoulder. Frank was smiling a little to himself. “Get your ass over here, this coupling is frozen. I need leverage.”

“It’s the fucking desert, nothing is frozen,” Frank sniped, but he moved in next to Gerard with a wrench. It took fifteen minutes of swearing and maneuvering until they got to the damaged wiring compartment. Frank grinned and leaned in to tap his shoulder against Gerard’s, and Gerard, letting out a slow breath of relief at their success, deliberately leaned back, pressing to keep the contact. He watched Frank bite his lip and twist in slow motion to face him. Overbalanced, their chests bumped, slid as Gerard reached to catch himself, Frank’s breath puffing over his cheek.

“Gee -” Frank started, eyes tracking over Gerard’s face. He licked at the red mark on his lip, and still Gerard couldn’t look away. “Move over so I can look at that wiring,” Frank finished quietly.

Gerard moved. It didn’t matter. He was still aware of every move Frank made.

The sun was miserable from the start, but they worked through even the hottest hours to get the station back on line. Gerard was back inside, tweaking the console connections with Dr. D, when he heard Frank shout from up on the roof. He rushed outside. A lone cycle was streaking down the road. It skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust, and the rider tumbled off. When the helmet came off they could see Diana, brown skin streaked with dried blood from temple to jaw. She limped towards the door, and Gerard caught her by the shoulders, looking her over quickly. “Are you -”

“I’m fine. Where’s Fun Ghoul?”

“Here,” Frank called, climbing down from the roof and tugging his vest back on. “What the fuck happened? Where are the others?”

“I was on point, we got split up. They were running but they had dracs backing them into a corner. We need you.”

Frank and Gerard exchanged a look, then Gerard turned. Dr. D was in the doorway. “Go,” he said. “I’ll try to raise some extra runners for you on the waves to cover the exit routes.”

Gerard grabbed his jacket and jumped into the driver’s seat of his car while Diana and Frank tumbled in the passenger side. He took one last look at Dr. D, watching from the doorway, and peeled out onto the main road.

Diana directed him cross-zone and he realized Pony had been running for the gas station where he’d first taken Gerard, Mikey, and the twins. His favorite rabbit hole, he called it. Shit. They’d be golden if they made it there without a tail. If they didn’t.... Well. Gerard didn’t want to think about what would happen if they didn’t.

*

“Trust Pony to run a Drac tail straight into a fucking maze,” Frank said when they parked on the other side of the junkyard. “Shit, the kids must have gotten busted. They’ll be trying to draw off the guard and pick them off one by one, if I know them. We need to split up,” he hissed. There were vehicles clustered outside the garage bay doors - several cycles and a white van. Small figures were already being loaded into the van by one of the dracs. “Diana, from the west. I’ll come in from the north by the gas pumps and see if I can get to that van. Party, you get the south side. Keep your eyes open for Apollo and Show Pony.” Gerard and Diana both nodded grimly.

From the south meant through the junkyard. Gerard wound gamely through the broken-down hulks of cars and rusty oil drums, ray gun in hand, eyes scanning for signs of white suits or for Apollo’s coffee-brown skin and Show Pony’s polka dots. He heard shouts and gunfire and froze for a moment, then took off in a hunched run in the direction of the scuffle. He stopped abruptly, catching himself and scraping his hand on an oil drum, when he rounded the corner of a scrap pile and caught sight of the vehicle crouched next to the gas pumps.

A dangerous-looking sports car could mean several things in the city, but it really only meant one thing in the zones. He was here, Gerard knew immediately. It was just a question of if - no, when - he’d find Gerard.

It never crossed Gerard’s mind to run. Not that he would have anyway, with Frank and Diana and Show Pony and Apollo all in the wind. He leaned his forehead against the rough rust-stained surface of the car body next to him and closed his eyes, just for a moment.

When he rounded the last corner nearest the building, Korse was there, standing looking out over the desert, coat flapping in the wind, gun loose in his hand. Gerard tightened his grip on his own. He didn’t stop walking, though, and Korse looked over at the sound of footsteps. He was alone; Gerard could have shot him by now.

But now. Korse’s eyes were on him, raking over him from neon head to the dusty toes of his boots. “Gerard,” he said softly. “You have, after all, managed to surprise me.”

“Don’t you mean, ‘again’?”

“Do you presume to know what I do mean, Gerard?”

“I know you.”

Impossibly, Korse smiled. “Are you sure?”

Gerard wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

“But if you’re wondering, my boy: yes, I have been looking. So helpful of you to make an appearance. We never finished our last conversation.”

Gerard felt something cold and heavy settle in the pit of his stomach; the weight of Korse’s gaze, the knowledge of the trust he’d betrayed. He still found it incomprehensible, knowing what he now knew, that someone like Korse could ever trust anyone. Perhaps he was wrong, and he’d never been trusted, just watched for the first sign of dissent. He’d hidden his rebellions well, he knew, up until the last moment, his one reckless act of open defiance. It made him wonder if this was a game to Korse after all.

“We were finished,” Gerard said grimly.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Korse growled, but if he had anything else to add it was lost as running feet rounded the corner, resolving into the small frame of Frank coming at them at full speed, skidding to a stop on a patch of gravel at the sight of them. He took in the tableau for a moment then launched himself at Gerard. “Down, motherfucker,” he snapped, body hitting Gerard’s and taking him down himself, rolling in the dirt just as a flash of flame and a wall of heat preceded a terrible boom. Over Frank’s shoulder, Gerard saw Korse go stumbling down a few yards away.

All three of them struggled to their feet when the patter of debris died down, Gerard and Frank clutching at each other’s arms, Korse atypically covered in grime and moving slowly. He’d also lost his gun in the explosion but he started to advance on Frank anyway. “I know your face,” he growled. “What did you blow up this time, Fun Ghoul?”

“Other than the gas pumps? Your car,” Frank sneered. He took a step towards Korse, empty-handed but bristling with aggression.

Korse returned the look coolly, staring straight up the barrel of Gerard’s gun. “Keep running, Fun Ghoul, but know that I’ll catch you. I’ll put out cigarettes in your eyeballs, I’ll carve that ink right out of your skin. I’ll ghost you just to bring you back to do it again.”

Korse had always read Gerard like a book, and he wasn’t above breaking other people’s toys. Not that Frank was a toy; he was so much more, and Korse would be so much more cruel because of it. Gerard shuddered when Korse’s eyes shifted back to meet his. “And you, Party Poison. You -”

Gerard didn’t wait around to hear what Korse would do to him. His dreams were already too full of possibilities. He wrapped an arm around Frank and dragged him away from the gas station, back into the junkyard.

Frank stopped struggling once they’d gotten back under cover, shoving Gerard back in the direction they’d come from. A heartbeat later, the Trans Am came roaring up, and Frank and Gerard both tumbled in the passenger door. Apollo was behind the wheel, Diana in the back seat with a pale, sweating Show Pony stretched out over her lap. Gerard wrapped his arm around Frank’s waist, holding on for dear life as Apollo shot away from the gas station. Only one cycle was still standing, and while it pursued them for a mile or two, a few targeted blasts from Gerard’s ray gun soon sent it skittering back to its comrades.

It was Frank doing the shooting, twisted around in Gerard’s lap, leaning chest to chest as he steadied his wrist on the side of the car. Gerard clutched him even closer when Apollo sent the car into a skid going around a corner onto a dirt access road. They didn’t know what else to do, and they were close enough to the zone border that an old bunker Dr. D used to use for storage was their best option.

Frank picked off the last pursuer as Gerard called out directions to Apollo that would take them down a relatively surveillance-free route. Every nerve in his body was on high alert, and his hands itched to be on the wheel of his car. He was grateful for the backup, sick with worry over Show Pony in the back seat, but mostly - numb. Even the weight of Frank in his lap - the subject of more than one late-night fantasy - couldn’t erase the memory of Korse’s face. Angry, assessing, and oh-so-patient; Gerard hadn’t intended to make an enemy, hadn’t been thinking of how Korse would retaliate at all. Maybe he should have been.

He’d been doing a good job, up until now, of shaking off the memories like so much dust.

When they pulled up in front of the bunker, Show Pony was barely conscious, and Diana’s face was looking pinched. Apollo insisted on carrying him inside, and Frank cleared a long table with a few frustrated movements. Gerard went and fetched a medical kit, but Frank took it and shooed him away before Gerard got more than a glance at the mess the laser blast had made of Pony’s shoulder. “Go call Doc,” Frank murmured.

“Is he gonna -”

“Go call Dr. D,” Frank repeated, “and let me patch him up.” He sent Diana away as well, but kept Apollo as an extra set of hands. Gerard swallowed hard and headed for the transmissions setup.

“Doc, where are you?” Gerard murmured, punching buttons and tugging a set of headphones over his ears. He keyed up a broadcast channel the runners used for chatter and said, “Party Poison to Dr. Death Defying, come in.”

Dr. D wasn’t answering, and Gerard frowned, flicking through the channels. He repeated the message once more before the static spit back, “Cherri Cola to Party Poison, step up and come back.”

Gerard tuned to the next channel up and sent back, “Party Poison, hit me.”

“Got the good doctor here in my nest. It’ll be a minute. When are you gonna come round and visit me, Red? I hear such nice things.”

“Lies, I’m sure,” Gerard replied tensely. He wasn’t in the mood for small talk.

“Eh,” the voice answered airily, “That’s more fun anyway. Come tell me lies, sweet thing, I’ll light a fire, it’ll be like birthday parties and soundwaves had a beautiful baby.”

“Party,” another voice cut in on the same frequency. “Dr. DD. Hit me.”

“They got jumped. Fun Ghoul sent some things sky-high. Pony got lit up. We got him to the bunker in Three. It’s not bad, but -”

“I’ll be there.” Dead air.

“That went well,” Gerard mumbled to himself.

“He’s going to be fine,” Diana said from behind him. “Can you make one more transmission? We need to tell our people in the City about the kids.”

“Fun Ghoul hasn’t told me who they are,” Gerard said. Diana rolled her eyes.

“If I hear the phrase ‘need to know basis’ one more time, from him or my brother, I’m going to kick them in the nuts. Soldiers,” she sighed, shaking her head. “It’s Frequency 97. Ask for JD.”

Gerard keyed up the frequency automatically, but he was still thinking. What turned one soldier into Korse, and another into Fun Ghoul or Doctor Death Defying? He snapped back into the present when the radio cracked, “JD,” in a familiar voice. Battery City Droid Club, of course. Mikey and Ray had always spent a lot of time there. Hell, Gerard had spent a lot of time there. How had he missed … oh right, the drinking. “State your name, or kiss my battery,” JD continued.

“It’s Diana. Things went pear-shaped out here.”

“No shit, princess. My eyes in the skies say that three little piggies came wee-wee-wee-ing back home with the blind mice.”

“Three? Are you fucking sure? Should have been four.” Diana’s eyes went wide. “Shit,” she hissed, yanking off the headphones and tossing them on the console. She went running out of the room, yelling Fun Ghoul’s name. Gerard pulled off his own headphones and followed.

“What the fuck, Di? It’s not like I’m doing minor surgery or anything here,” Frank snapped.

“We lost a kid,” she snapped back.

“Lost. A. Kid.”

“Pony came out with four, dracs took three back into the City. Need help with the math?”

“Shit, shit, shit,” Frank muttered, dropping the roll of surgical tape he was holding. Apollo caught it before it rolled off the table and gently shoved him aside to finish taping up Pony’s shoulder. Pony was stirring, and Frank absently smoothed his hair off his forehead. Gerard caught his eye, looked between Frank’s face and his hand, and Frank turned a little red.

Interesting. Fun Ghoul was showing a few new layers.

“Which kid was it?” Frank asked Diana.

She shrugged. “JD doesn’t know that kind of stuff! He didn’t even know we were missing one.”

“Well, it would make it easier to find him. Her. Whichever.” Frank was pacing, lost in thought, tugging at his hair, and Diana just made a disgruntled noise.

“I’m going to make up a cot for Show Pony.” She stalked off.

Frank growled a little and kept pacing. “Ghoul,” Gerard snapped, so he’d stop and look up. He continued, more gently, “We’ll find the kid. I promise.”

“Oh, you promise, do you?” Frank answered with half-hearted sarcasm. His color was still high, his eyes a bit blurry.

Gerard couldn’t stop himself: he reached out and laid a hand against Frank’s cheek, forcing him back into eye contact. “Call the guys on the shop frequency, they’ll come help. It’ll be okay. Trust me.” After a moment and another wordless look, Frank hunched his shoulders and turned away. Gerard watched him leave the room, then turned back to Apollo and Show Pony. “Let’s move him,” he said to Apollo, who scooped Pony up as gently as possible. Gerard led the way and opened doors, and by the time they’d made it into the bunk room, Show Pony’s eyes were open again.

He waved the others off, but grabbed Gerard’s wrist to keep him there. Gerard nodded at the twins and turned back to Pony, smoothing his hair in much the way Frank had done. “Dr. D’s on his way,” he said quietly. “I called him. He’s gonna kill me when he sees this.”

“‘M’a big boy,” Show Pony whispered. “Not your fault.”

“If I hadn’t asked Fra- Fun Ghoul - to stay and help me, he’d have been with you. The twins are green.”

“They’ve been out here as long as you have, Party.” Show Pony chuckled weakly, then coughed.

Gerard reached for a cup on the floor by the cot, sniffed it warily and almost wished he hadn’t. Rotgut whiskey, the zones’ only painkiller not in capsule form. Pills had been in short supply at the last swap meet, and Gerard was pretty sure he wasn’t the only runner who refused to keep them on hand, anyway. Leave that to the public houses and their Tommy Chow Meins. He handed it over. “It’s -”

“Different,” Pony finished. “I know. Why do you think Doc sent you off with Frank?”

“I was pretty sure it was punishment, for one or both of us.” Gerard couldn’t help the fondness that snuck in beneath the wry tone, and Show Pony gave him an inquiring once-over. Gerard felt himself flush. “You called him Frank,” he said.

“We’ve known each other for a long time,” Pony murmured. “You did too.”

“I....” Gerard stopped himself. “Nothing. It’s not important. You - how are you feeling?”

“I’ve had worse,” Pony joked.

“Make sure you tell that to Doc.”

“So sassy, Party Poison.” Pony closed his eyes for a few minutes while Gerard sat quietly at his side. When he finally opened them, he looked back at Gerard. “Do you know why Doc sent you off with Frank?”

“No,” Gerard said quietly.

“Fun Ghoul needed a distraction. The Harmony kids, running the zones with you, repping Jet and Kobra at the swap meets....” Gerard nodded. Frank was the most irritable when he had nothing to do. “...better to keep the pins in your grenades when you can, Doc says.”

“He’s a little bit more than a weapon,” Gerard commented after thinking about that for a moment.

“That’s why I wanted him to stay with you,” Pony replied. “Because you realize that.”

“Realize what?” It was Frank, leaning in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest.

“That you’re more than a punk with a detonator,” Show Pony told him.

“Lies,” Frank shot back. “What kinda Zoner cocktail are you hopped up on, Pony? I already had to convince him once that we’re not fucking, you’re making it worse.”

Show Pony laughed. “You put on a good show, Fun Ghoul, you really do.” He fell silent as Frank came further into the room, crouched by the side of the cot.

“Don’t put me through this again, Ricky,” Frank said quietly. Gerard flinched at the unfamiliar name. It was like they’d forgotten he was there, until Show Pony lifted his eyes to meet Gerard’s for a moment before looking back at Frank.

“I can’t promise you that, Frankie, you know that.”

“I brought you out here for a reason. So they couldn’t take your choices away like they tried to do to me.”

“I know that. So let me have them. We’re never going back to that place, Frankie, never. If I die out here, at least it’ll be out here.”

“You’re not going to die!” Frank snapped.

“Not today.” Show Pony smiled. “Now take your partner and go find the lost lamb.”

"We’re waiting. Jet and Kobra are on their way," Frank said tightly.

"Sun's going down," Gerard replied. He was as tense as Frank looked.

"Survival gear's in the back room," Show Pony added. The desert at night was just as dangerous as it was during the day, on the other end of the spectrum.

"Hope we don't need it." Frank checked the charge on his ray gun, a habitual tic, then said "Keys," to Gerard. Gerard tossed him the car keys and he stalked out of the room.

"He's pissed," Gerard said miserably after Frank left. Show Pony grimaced.

"At me, maybe. Not you."

"Bull," said Gerard. "At me, because we weren't there."

"Bet you can add me to the list, for keeping you away," said Dr. D from the doorway. He pushed his chair as close to the cot as it would go, leaned in to kiss Show Pony. "Asshole," he murmured.

"Ghoul or me?" Show Pony asked with a twist at the corner of his mouth.

"Both of you," Dr. D grumbled. "Getting shot, Pony? The kids -"

"Are worth it, Doc."

"Need you in one piece," Dr. D corrected. "So do I," he added more quietly, then looked up at Gerard. "Your box of crayons just pulled up behind me, Party."

"Thanks," Gerard said, and left, giving them a shred of privacy for whatever else they were murmuring back and forth.

Frank was outside, loading supplies into the Trans Am's trunk and talking quietly to Ray. Mikey pushed off the bumper of a black van where he was leaning, talking to Apollo and a tall, thin runner Gerard didn’t recognize. Gerard waved his team into the Trans Am and pulled out onto the road. "Do we need to fill you in?" Gerard asked.

Ray shook his head. "Frank did."

"We gotta do this on foot," Frank said, "So be careful in case the -"

"- Dracs are still in the area," Mikey finished. "We know. We've been practicing our fighting."

Gerard snorted. He'd seen what Mikey considered fighting moves. Luckily he was a better shot than he was a hand-to-hand fighter, and he had way better gadgets. "Cool it, Batman."

"Fuck you, Gee, if anyone is Batman it's me," Frank said from the back seat.

"You're a little short," Gerard said mildly.

"That's not why," Frank said, his tone taking a turn towards dark. Gerard eyed him in the rear view mirror but didn't reply.

It felt like an echo of earlier that day, pulling the car over behind some rocks, dividing the area into quadrants, setting off with guns drawn. The sun was low in the sky already, and they searched on foot until full dark, checking behind every rock and scrub bush, calling softly. When it got too dark to see, they congregated back at the car, grimy and grim-faced.

"If the kid's still out here, he or she is hiding," Ray said. "Or -"

"- Or isn't out here," Mikey finished for him, shooting him a quelling look after glancing at Frank's tight expression. "What now?" he asked.

"We could go back to the safe house, if Frank hadn't blown it up," Gerard commented dryly, trying to break the tension. It didn't work.

"Fuck you," Frank growled. "It was compromised anyway. And we got Show Pony out of there without Korse pursuing, didn't we?"

"You saw Korse?" Mikey snapped at Gerard.

Frank shot them a considering glance, and Gerard hurried to say, "Can we just decide what we're doing, here?"

"There's a valley in the section I searched, would hide a campfire," Ray offered.

"We don't know if there are still dracs in this sector," Frank said.

"Did you see any?" Gerard asked. "I mean ... we'll take turns on watch, anyway. It doesn't look like rain, and it's better than sleeping in the car." He and Frank had done it once or twice. It was manageable with two, not so fine for four.

"The kid might see the fire," Ray commented.

"Dracs might see the fire," Frank repeated.

"Then we deal with it." Gerard headed back to the car himself, and after a moment he heard the sounds of the rest of them following him.

They got set up for the night; Frank built the fire himself in the end. Gerard dragged the portable transmissions unit out to call Dr. D.

"How's Show Pony?" Gerard asked.

"Fine. Resting. Where the fuck are you?"

"Camping out until first light. No luck."

"I assumed. Well, sing a round of Kum Ba Yah with the dracs for me."

"Not funny, asshole," Gerard told him. Frank sniggered behind him.

"Wasn't meant to be. Watch your tail, Party." Gerard rolled his eyes and signed off. Ray was jumpy and Frank was disturbingly silent. Gerard settled in, shoulder to shoulder with Mikey.

"Korse, Gerard?" Mikey repeated his earlier question quietly. Gerard saw the flash of Frank's glance from across the fire.

"It was fine. We got away. Obviously."

"You were talking to him when I found you," Frank put in. "Korse isn’t the type to chat. You didn't even try to take him out, what the fuck did I teach you to shoot for?"

"I wasn't going to shoot him in cold blood," Gerard answered weakly.

"He would," Frank sneered.

No, Gerard was pretty sure Korse wouldn't. Not him. But he couldn't exactly tell Frank that. "We got away," Gerard repeated. He was beginning to think he'd never get away from the memory of that face, but that was beside the point. It didn't matter, not right now. Frank was watching him with narrowed eyes, smoking and saying nothing. It was a bad sign.

They split the night into watches, but Gerard couldn’t sleep. Frank was up, staring off into the hills beyond the fire, and Gerard grabbed his bedroll and his cigarettes and went to sit beside him. Frank looked over, watched Gerard get settled silently. “Can’t sleep,” Gerard told him, offering a cigarette. Frank nodded and took one, lit it and inhaled. Gerard twirled his own in his fingers for a moment before following suit. “I’m sorry,” he added.

Frank’s eyes flicked back to Gerard’s face. He didn’t ask what Gerard was sorry for. “No guarantee it wouldn’t have happened anyway,” he answered finally. “No guarantees at all out here. We all know that.”

“Show Pony’s not just any runner to you - Ricky, that is,” Gerard reminded Frank, dropping his voice on the name. Frank looked at him steadily for a moment.

“We grew up together. Ever heard of Harmony House?” Gerard nodded; it was the BLI orphanage that had lent its name to the Harmony Act, as Gerard had discovered in a flurry of research after their last late-night conversation. “He’s younger than me. It’s a … bad place. I took care of him.” Frank paused. “So no, there are no guarantees out here, but does that matter to you when it’s Mikey?”

“No,” Gerard said quietly.

“Well, then. But that’s really on me,” Frank told him.

Gerard took a few puffs of his own cigarette. “They wanted to take Mikey after my parents died,” he admitted. “I was old enough to take guardianship until he was of age. So I did.”

“He’s one of the lucky ones, then,” Frank said darkly. “And it’s only gotten worse since then.”

“This is why you do it,” Gerard mused.

Frank met his eyes. Frank met his eyes and didn’t look away, past the point when someone else would have looked away. Should have looked away. So Gerard didn’t look away either. He watched the shadows from the fire lick across Frank’s face, but he bit his tongue.

After a long pause, Frank’s eyes slipped down and away. “Do you hear that?” he asked quietly.

Gerard paused, listened. “...yeah,” he said. “What is that?”

It was footsteps. There was really no question. Shuffling steps, some distance away over the ridge. “Wake the others,” Frank told him, drawing his ray gun.

Gerard went and crouched by Ray, shaking his shoulder. “Something’s out there,” he whispered. “Get Mikey up, meet us by the car.” Ray leaned over Mikey and Gerard crept back to the portable console, easing the case closed and carrying it back to the car. Frank slipped it through an open window as Mikey and Ray hurried over. Frank jerked his head in the direction of the footfalls. Gerard nodded and the four of them filed off into the shadows of the scrub.

Something was moving in the gloom. Ray stepped up close to Gerard, put a hand on his shoulder. “White suit,” he murmured.

“They usually don’t travel alone,” Gerard whispered back. “Fan out.”

Beside him, Frank nodded. Gerard tightened his grip on his gun and took the middle, going still behind a dead tree and watching. As the figure cleared the ridgeline, he could see ripped cotton tee instead of a suit coat. No mask.

“This isn’t a good spot for a stroll, pal; we’ve got three barrels trained on you from the brush, can you see them?” Gerard called out, and the man stopped, hand jerking toward his own holster before he froze. “That’s not counting mine,” Gerard added.

“Sounds like a party,” the man replied. Definitely not a drac; they’d largely replaced words with masks. This intruder was bareheaded, but still a stranger. He spread his hands wide. “And me without my pinata.”

“A name would be enough,” Frank called from the shadows.

The man turned his head. “Fun Ghoul?”

Frank stepped close enough to catch the stranger with a match flare. “Cherri? Thought you’d gotten yourself good and dead, it’s been so long. What’s with the outfit? You’re asking to get dusted by some Wavehead.”

“Urgent intel for the good doctor. Forgot my party dress.” He paused. “Man, Doc was right, Ghoul. You’ve become quite the killjoy.”

“Maybe I have,” Frank answered. “Follow me.” He turned back deliberately and led the way to the fire. Gerard fell in behind Cherri, who looked him up and down as soon as he cleared the ring of firelight.

“Well, now, Party Poison. Looks like we’re meeting sooner rather than later.” He cocked his head. “Agent Cherri Cola at your service.”

“Did Dr. D send you out here?”

Cherri Cola eyed him, and Gerard didn’t miss how he avoided the question. “I have intel for you too, Red. Unusual drac activity near the Dry Sea Motel. Like they were looking for something. They don’t like to stay in the zones too long, not this far out. Maybe this interests you?”

“You know it does, Cherri.” Frank sat down on Gerard’s other side. Ray and Mikey also settled themselves around the fire.

Cherri looked them over, too. “Is it singalong time? Boy, this is some party.” He hummed a few bars of an old song. “And said dear boy, gonna make you a man … no?” He stopped when Frank growled.

“You’ve been out here too long,” Frank told him, and Agent Cherri laughed.

“That’s the pot calling the kettle radioactive,” he answered, and shifted closer to Gerard to sling an arm around his shoulders. “Ghoul thinks I’m polka dottie,” Cherri whispered. “He’s right, maybe. I’m still looking for a dance partner.” Gerard bit his lip, forcing himself to relax under Cherri’s weight. Cherri Cola’s holster poked him in the ribs, and Gerard shifted, then forgot it as Cherri started telling them stories, "news from the zones", he called it, a mix of the known and unknown, the mundane and fantastic. They fed him. Ray nodded off again.

Stretching and grimacing, Cherri Cola appeared to run out of steam, pushing himself to his feet using Frank's shoulder as leverage. "I'll keep my eye out for you in the zones, killjoys. You're on Cherri's good list." Saluting them lazily, he dusted himself off and headed back over the ridge.

"Wait, Cherri, it's -" Mikey cut himself off. "Still dark," he finished to Gerard and Frank.

"How'd he even get here?" Gerard asked. "Should we go after him? If there are dracs a klick away...."

"I don't know much about Cherri Cola," Frank said, "But what I do know is that it's no use worrying about Cherri Cola." He checked his gun again, then shot a glance at Mikey. "Your watch. I'm gonna go sleep in the car."

Gerard watched him go. "Bad blood?" he asked.

"I don't think so," Mikey said. "Frank just doesn't seem to trust people."

Gerard laughed, a little sourly. "Well, he hooked up with the wrong crew then, didn't he?" he muttered.

Mikey eyed him for a moment, eyes dark with concern. "Everyone out here has secrets."

"Not everyone's secrets are like mine. And I made you and Ray keep them."

"You're out now," Mikey said quickly. "Doesn't that mean you can let it go?"

"Even if I did, Mikes, even if I did...." Korse wouldn't. Mikey might not know that, but Gerard was sure of it.

"Then maybe you should tell him the truth."

"Maybe I can let him punch me in the face and watch him walk away." Gerard would take the fist to the face, but he was beginning to think that Frank leaving would take something else, something Gerard wasn't sure he was prepared to lose.

Gerard thought for a second about following Frank, but lost his nerve and settled against Mikey’s side instead. Mikey leaned against a tree stump and watched the fire. Gerard fell asleep to the sensation of Mikey smoothing wayward strands of his hair.

They were up and moving at first light, approaching the area of the Dry Sea from the desert. Gerard did his best to ignore the barbed wire and gleam of something that could have been bone just off the path. The wind was strong; they were all wearing their rebreathers.

Gerard saw it first - a small form picking its way through the brush, a drac unit sweeping in. Taunting. He took off at a run, and the draculoid was so intent on nonverbal baiting that he missed the yellow barrel to his head until it was too late for him. The rest of the unit converged, but it was too late for them too. The other guys took them out while Gerard gathered the kid close and out of harm’s way.

She - it was, upon closer inspection, a girl - wriggled to get free as soon as the laser blasts died down. Gerard kept a hand on her shoulder and looked her over for any obvious injuries. “It’s okay - are you okay? - we’re friends.” The girl nodded jerkily, hugging a robot doll to her chest. Gerard looked over his shoulder, following her gaze. Frank came up behind him, yanking his Frankenstein mask up out of the way. He laid a hand on Gerard’s shoulder and added, “We’re friends of Show Pony’s. He sent us to look for you.”

“Show Pony?” she asked, brightening, and Gerard nodded.

“The one and only. What’s your name?”

“Grace,” she said.

“What’s your robot’s name?” Frank asked.

“Mr. Steele,” Grace said.

“Okay, Grace, we’re gonna get you out of here and take you someplace to get food, and cleaned up, okay? You and Mr. Steele. Do you know how to use this?” Frank pulled a rebreather mouthpiece out of a pocket of his vest and handed it over. Grace nodded and held it to her mouth, clutching Mr. Steele with the other hand and trudging after Frank with squared shoulders. Gerard brought up the rear.

Their little trio stopped where Mikey and Ray were crouched over the fallen dracs’ cycles. “Salvageable?” Gerard asked. Mikey shook his head.

“That tall guy I was talking to back at the bunker? That’s Casanova. He runs with a gang out of Five. He was telling me the newer bikes have tracers. See?” Mikey pointed to an area where he and Ray had pulled back the bike fuselage. The small metal disc looked like exactly nothing, but that was certainly the point. Gerard, Frank, Mikey, and Ray had demolished and rebuilt just about every mechanical component the zones had to offer by this time, and Mikey and Ray’s swap meet contacts were constantly bringing them more. Gerard winced.

“Is it....”

“Hardwired,” Ray told him. “I’m afraid of what it might activate or detonate if we try to yank it.”

“No time,” Frank said. “We gotta get the motorbaby here under cover.”

Ray looked up, seemed to focus on Grace for the first time. He smiled. “Hey, kiddo. Nice robot!”

“He’s just a toy,” she said.

“I like toys.” Ray flicked the robot’s arm up and down a little bit in a wave. “Especially robots.” Grace beamed, and Frank nudged the rebreather forgotten in her hand.

“Don’t forget this. We gotta move.”

They wound their way back to where they’d left the car and loaded in. Gerard sent them hurtling through the desert while Mikey kept watch for pursuit from the passenger seat. Ray and Frank sat on either side of Grace in the back, and Gerard listened with a tiny half-smile as Frank gave her a kid-friendly version of Show Pony’s welcome speech.

“We all pick nicknames for ourselves,” he told her. “Like being in a club. Mine is Fun Ghoul. This is Jet Star.” Ray ran a hand through his hair, and Grace beamed. She’d made a delighted noise when he’d taken off his helmet and she’d seen his hair, even curlier and wilder than hers, and insisted that Mr. Steele sit with him in the car. “Up in the front seat,” Frank continued, that’s Kobra Kid. He’s easy, his name is on his jacket.” Frank tapped the letters on Mikey’s sleeve. “And Party Poison’s driving.”

Grace repeated all their names. “I get a nickname too?” she asked, and Frank nodded.

“Anything you want.”

“I need to think about it,” she announced, sounding very adult. Gerard bit his lip so he wouldn’t laugh. He could see Mikey doing the same thing in the passenger seat.

“Show Pony will be glad to see you,” Frank told Grace.

“Is he wherever we’re going?” Grace asked.

“Not right now. We’ll go see him soon. He got hurt, a little bit.”

Gerard glanced in the rear view mirror. Grace’s face got serious, and she said, “By the dracs? Because of us?”

“He’s okay,” Gerard repeated. “Fra - Fun Ghoul fixed him.”

“We take care of each other out here,” Frank said. “And Show Pony’s sort of like my little brother.” He met Gerard’s eyes in the rear view mirror.

“Ohhhh,” Grace said, sounding like she’d just remembered something. “You’re the one.”

“The what?” Frank asked.

“The one who knew the way out of Harmony House, and told Show Pony! He told us you were very smart,” she said proudly. Mikey and Ray were both turning to look at Frank now too, and he turned to look out the back window for a moment, hair falling across his face.

“I don’t know about that,” Frank said. “Jet Star and Kobra here, they’re pretty smart. They build robots.”

That got her started with a million questions for Ray and Mikey. The next time Gerard glanced in the rear view mirror, Frank was looking silently out the window again.

*

Maybe it was because Show Pony was out of commission and they were busy organizing the next swap meet run in his absence. Maybe it was because she’d sit wide-eyed and silent in the workshop for hours, looking like nothing so much as a miniature version of Ray down to the goggles shoved into her curly hair. Maybe it was the three days straight of high winds and klaxons ringing cross-zone. Whatever it was, a week later Grace was still with them, and none of them had even so much as suggested they do anything about it.

Grace - “You can keep calling me Motorbaby,” she told Gerard from her perch atop the trunk of the Trans Am, drumming her heels against the back bumper while they waited for Mikey to finish haggling with his spare parts dealer - was smart. She liked to tell that particular brand of jokes that nine-year-olds - or Frank - found particularly hilarious. Gerard gave him a withering glare when he heard Frank tell her the “black, white, and red all over” joke. Frank winked and delivered the punch line about newspapers. Grace shrieked with laughter.

Frank looked infinitely appealing with that kind of easy smile on his face.

With the swap meet approaching, the four of them - five of them - had to split their time and energy between Frank and Gerard’s patrols and Ray and Mikey’s supply runs. They spent a lot of time in the Trans Am. Mikey and Grace emptied every BLI vending machine they could hack while Frank and Ray bartered for spare parts. Gerard, for his part, talked to the runners they met, marking the reported sites of SCARECROW activity on a tattered zone map with one of Grace’s crayons.

Crayons in the desert. She’d come with four of them, red, yellow, green and blue stuffed in her pockets, squirreled away from Harmony House. “They didn’t give them to us,” she’d confided in Gerard as they drew dragons - Grace’s request - on scraps of heavy paper Gerard had found in the diner’s kitchen. “We were only allowed pencil, for our math and writing lessons, you know? But one of the older girls found them in a cupboard somewhere and passed them out, and said not to tell. It was right before she turned eighteen, so she left Harmony House.” Grace had paused. “I wish she hadn’t left before we could say thank you.”

Gerard’s stomach had twisted. He was picturing a teenager, a blank wall, a can of spray paint. When Grace cocked her head at him, he’d forced a smile. “You draw well,” he’d told her.

“My mom always told me that.” Grace had said, tugging at a dangling thread from her sleeve. “I used to draw her pictures every day, leave them under her pillow.” She’d started fidgeting after that, and soon enough was gone, back in the workshop, handing Ray bolts and bits of wire. As he was cleaning up, Gerard had noticed she’d taken her drawing with her.

The next time they went to see Dr. D, Show Pony was up and moving around. Hesitantly, yes, but it was a start. Gerard didn’t want to admit how petrified he’d been that they’d have to bury a friend. It had happened before to people they knew, runners from the swap meets that had zigged instead of zagged when they ran across a drac patrol. It was best when there was something to bury, though. If the dracs took you alive, there were no guarantees.

It was the worst, though, when the dracs took you dead. Because to BLI, that really wasn’t an impediment.

Gerard didn’t want to think about being ghosted right now. They had other things to worry about. Like Motorbaby. Show Pony and Frank were talking in low voices on the other side of the room, while Ray and Grace flipped through Dr. D’s records. He was pretty sure they were making a play list for his next show, because he could hear them talking, something about Zeppelin. He couldn’t hear what the others were saying at all.

Mikey nudged Gerard with his elbow. “Stop twitching and go over there,” he said. “You have a say in things too.”

“No, I - I wish people would stop saying that,” Gerard complained. “Since when am I the leader?”

“Since always,” Mikey said. “Stop acting like you’re fucking surprised. You’re not still on all that shit, okay? I recognize my brother again. This is who you’re supposed to be.”

Gerard made a face. “You have a say in things too,” he sniped.

“I know,” said Mikey. “I figured that out already.” Of course Mikey had figured it out already. If there was one thing Gerard could count on, it was Mikey’s surprisingly deep grasp of things when his attention appeared to be elsewhere. He’d proved it the night of the camp-out and Cherri Cola, and he’d proved it when they’d talked about Frank.

Gerard went to join Show Pony and Frank, and got a grin in response from Show Pony, as easy and beaming as ever. Frank gave him the edge of a smile and kept talking. Gerard settled into an easy slouch next to Frank, pretending to ignore the way their shoulders rubbed together when Frank shifted.

“I think I’d feel better if we kept her with us for a while, Ricky,” Frank was saying in a low voice. “That run was planned for a long time, but even after we adjusted the timetable.... If the dracs jumped you so quickly, I’m afraid - there’s got to be a hole in the runner network somewhere.” Show Pony made a face, and Frank added, “You know I’m right.”

“Rule Three,” Show Pony said with a shrug.

“I don’t give a shit about Rule Three or any other rules, not when the kids are involved. If it’s not someone I know I can trust, they’re staying the fuck out of it from now on, you got me?”

“Loud and clear, Ghoul,” Show Pony answered.

Gerard bit his lip.

*

After a week or so of playing Telephone with drac movements and monitoring the frequencies, unusual activity in Zones One and Two turned out to be BLI vending machines getting a mysterious upgrade - ray guns were now dispensable just like food and batteries. Dr. D frowned even more than usual when he found out, and refused to mention it in his broadcast. “Go check it out?” he asked Ray and Gerard, who were half-underneath his console at the time, trying to replace a finicky circuit. Gerard collected Mikey and Motorbaby and took them for a car ride, leaving Frank behind to hold wires for Ray. He’d bet a week’s salary worth of credits that one or both of them would end up singed by the end of the day. As long as it wasn’t him again....

The closest machine was at a service station just over the border in Two. Gerard idled on the far side of the pumps, motor running, while Mikey and Motorbaby headed around the corner to get a better look. He saw Mikey slipping their homemade Vend-a-Hack code replicator into his jacket pocket as they climbed out of the car and sighed. Mikey’s gadgets always worked somehow, no matter how improbable it was that they would, but something always went wrong.

They were back in minutes, grinning and carrying handfuls of supplies, including a shiny white and very fancy-looking ray gun. “New model,” Mikey told him, handing it over. Gerard studied it for a moment before setting it aside. He’d give it to Frank to take a closer look.

“Did you disable the security camera or just block it?” Gerard asked as he pulled back onto the road. He was greeted by silence from the passenger seat, and he glanced over to see the smile disappear from Mikey’s face. “You didn’t look for cameras, did you?” he added quietly. “Did you think they’d go to all the trouble to install that shit and not monitor it?”

“Fu - frick,” Mikey amended, looking back into the backseat where Grace was sitting, a pinched expression squeezing her face. “Party’s not mad,” Mikey jumped to tell her. “He knows it was a mistake.”

“We were really fast?” she offered hopefully. “I’m the one that used the machine. Kobra told me how but it’s easy-peasy. I’m just a kid, they don’t know me.”

Gerard didn’t point out that if it got back to SCARECROW that they’d been seen with a kid, one of the analysts would, quite literally, make it their job to know her.

When they got back to the station, Frank was indeed looking slightly singed, and Gerard raised an eyebrow at Ray, who shrugged innocently. “Your parents should have named you Liability,” Gerard told him.

“You used that line on me last week,” Frank commented, sucking on his fingers absentmindedly. Gerard bit the inside of his cheek and looked away, grabbing the new ray gun as a diversion.

“And you deserved it,” Gerard told him, handing the gun over. “Professional opinion?” Frank took it and turned it over a few times, fiddling with the settings, sighting down the barrel, finally carrying it outside to take a few test shots.

“Not military grade,” he pronounced. “Long recharge time between bursts, probably to stretch out how long until the charge dies; a temporary measure for stranded dracs, maybe? Not sure why BLI would risk stocking it out here though.”

“Unless they were planning on sending that many dracs out here,” Dr. D pointed out, exchanging concerned glances with Gerard and Show Pony.

“We’ll keep our eyes and ears open,” Show Pony assured him. “What are you going to do with that?” he asked Frank, who was still holding the white gun.

“Teach Motorbaby to shoot,” he replied promptly. “It practically has built-in training wheels.”

Frank did, as promised, teach Grace to shoot, and despite the gun being far too heavy for her, she wasn’t half bad. “Better than me,” Ray commented self-deprecatingly, watching over the rims of his aviators as he plucked at a splintery old guitar Mikey had found in an abandoned restaurant in One.

“You have other talents,” Mikey replied, and Gerard pretended to gag. Mikey threw a handful of gravel at him, Gerard countered with a shoulder to the chest, Mikey went for the tender nerves at the nape of Gerard’s neck and pinched, and when Frank and Grace rejoined them, she threw herself into the scuffle with a delighted war-cry.

*

"They say they got a runner in Zone Four last night," Gerard said, bursting through the door to the diner with his rebreather clutched against his chest.

"What did I tell you about the loud noises when I'm working with fucking C-4?" Frank said calmly, setting a magnifying glass and a small screwdriver on the table in front of him. “Who says? Who was it?”

"Dunno, maybe Manic Panic? He was out that way last I knew. Last WKIL broadcast had drac sightings, headed upzone to the Lucky Dog Motel. I'm going up there to check it out." Gerard dropped the helmet on a table, grabbing his mask and a handful of fresh batteries from their stash. He was out the door before Frank could even reply, and halfway to the Trans Am before he heard,

"Wait up, asshole. Did you forget the rule about not going anywhere alone?" Frank had his shoulder rig hanging off of one arm and his mask pulled haphazardly over his hair.

"Ray and Mikey - "

" - are on a run with Motorbaby for swap meet shit. Why don't you want me to go?"

Because the scuttlebutt over the waves was that a mean-looking sports car - undoubtedly Korse's car - had been spotted heading that direction, and Gerard wanted to keep Frank and Korse as many zones apart as possible, after last time. But that wasn’t an excuse that Frank would be likely to listen to. For one thing, Frank still didn't know the personal reasons behind it.

Gerard had been driving for a while, occasionally pushing handfuls of red hair out of his eyes, when it occurred to him to ask, “Where the fuck did you get C-4?”

“Last drac Mikey ghosted had it in his saddlebag. Lucky us. The base the Zone Two boys took over’s been hot for weeks. We’re practically tapped out on munitions.” Frank had been frowning out the window, but he grinned suddenly. “Oh well, there’s always the old purification plant. Whiskey burns as well as anything else.”

“Pyro,” Gerard said.

“You didn’t complain when I torched that drac party in that pumping station in Three.”

“I never complain,” Gerard replied easily. More easily than he felt like; Frank was one scary motherfucker when he wanted to be, and more so since the failed Harmony run.

“Bullshit.” Gerard swerved the car as a drac cycle came roaring up behind them; Frank leaned out the window and picked it off with a shot to the front wheel. He twisted back around, leaned close enough that Gerard could feel his breath on his cheek. “Why’d you try to leave without me, Gee?”

Gerard swallowed. He sometimes thought, especially after a string of particularly lonely nights, that Frank did it on purpose, pushed the right buttons to get what he wanted. It didn’t matter, really. Gerard couldn’t lie for shit. Not to any of them, not anymore. There was one big lie holding this whole thing together, like a sandcastle, and if one little part collapsed it might take everything with it. Gerard thought about it constantly. “Korse was spotted heading this way,” he mumbled, fingers clenching harder around the steering wheel.

“Motherfucker,” Frank growled in his ear. “Do you have a fucking deathwish?”

“You blew up his car, Frank. He told you when he caught you he’d put out cigarettes in your eyeballs!”

“He got a new one. Apparently. And he’s got to catch me first.”

“Which is why you shouldn’t be waltzing into his clutches!”

“Waltzing, Gee?” The smirk was back.

“What the fuck ever. I just want to confirm the situation in Four. It’s not a two-person job.” And you’re not the one he really wants, but he won’t hesitate to use you, Gerard thought.

Gerard pulled over a couple hundred yards from the Lucky Dog Motel. They left the car behind some scrub and walked the rest of the way. The sign - an overly cheerful cartoon dog with a four-leaf clover - was leaning even farther off perpendicular than it was the last time they’d been up this way. There wasn’t much activity, but a telltale cluster of motorcycles and a sleek Italian sports car made Frank grab briefly at Gerard’s sleeve.

“He’s here,” Frank whispered. “Somewhere.”

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Gerard murmured back. “We gotta split up, see if they’re holding anyone here or -“ He cut himself off. Or, the alternative.

Frank grimaced. “Gotcha. I’ll take the west wing?”

Gerard nodded in acknowledgement. “Meet me back at the car if we don’t find anything.” Promise me you won’t do anything stupid, he wanted to say. He wanted to say more. He wanted to kiss the frown lines between Frank’s eyebrows. He did none of these. Instead, Gerard crept around the building to the end of the east wing.

Half of the room doors were hanging open; busted down by scavengers ages ago. Gerard checked anyway, poking his head in room after room. Some of the doors were shut, but there were no signs of life. Runners used to use this motel as a rendezvous, but it was too close to SCARECROW’s patrol routes now. He felt like the search was taking forever, and his skin was already crawling by the time he reached one particular room, close to the apex of the two wings, where a trickle of light leaked out into the hallway. Easing open a partially closed door, he saw a lit lamp, a sea of red on the bed - a body, he corrected himself, wearing.... Yellow shirt, black vest. His chest felt tight. His heart skipped a beat. “Frank,” he whispered, rushing over to the bed. “How -“

He stumbled to a stop a few steps away from the mattress. It was a close enough resemblance from a distance, but up close he could tell it was just a similar style of clothing. It wasn’t Frank, he realized with a sick rush of relief. And a rush of sickness, because whoever he was, the things that have been done to him were....

“Such a shame that you had to show up and interrupt,” said a voice like greased gravel. All the hairs on the back of Gerard’s neck stood up. He turned to see Korse leaning negligently against the door jamb. “Though he wasn’t who I thought he was under the mask.” He paused, apparently just to let his words sink in, and then added, “And after all that, he didn’t have any useful information. Shame.”

Gerard darted his eyes to the breezeway behind Korse, but it was empty of dracs. It was just him and Korse, and the corpse of someone who Gerard suspected was Manic Panic on the bed. Korse had done that, was all he could think. Korse had done that, thinking, wishing it was Frank. He could escape this room - maybe - but there was no escaping that knowledge.

“What’s useful,” Korse continued, straightening up and taking a step further into the room, “is that you’ve showed up. Party Poison,” he purred.

“How exactly is that useful? I won’t tell you anything,” Gerard snapped, dropping his hand to the vicinity of his ray gun. Korse shook his head slowly back and forth, tucking his jacket back over the grip of his own gun.

“You’re not going to shoot me, Gerard,” he drawled. “Are you? You didn’t shoot me last time, either, and you could have.” He stepped closer. Gerard was caught, staring at the column of his throat corded with tendons, at the reptilian eyes partly hidden by smoked-glass shades which he then pulled off and tucked away in a pocket. “No, I didn’t think so. Maybe I just wanted to see you.”

“Go ahead and look.” Gerard lifted his chin defiantly. “What, is that supposed to be touching? You missed me?”

“Oh, Gerard. It’s hard to miss you when I’m always watching you.” He smiled, and it was terrifying. “You had to have realized. Look alive, sunshine.”

Korse was close enough to reach out now, and he did, skimming a hand up Gerard’s arm. Gerard shuddered. Those hands had touched him in so many other ways, and he couldn’t stand it now. He looked away, but that put his eyes on the corpse on the bed, so he looked back at Korse.

“Did you think it was him?” Korse murmured. “Even after I realized my mistake -” He cupped Gerard’s neck, pressed his thumb against the pulse under his jaw. “- it was still satisfying to pretend.”

“You’ll never touch him,” Gerard hissed. He was so angry he was seeing stars, but he was frozen. “Him, or any of them. I’ll kill you for that. I promise you.”

As terrifying as Korse’s smile was, it was more terrifying when he stopped. “We’ll see about that.” He twisted a bright red strand of hair around his fingers. “When you’re back in the city, this has to go,” he sneered.

That was the last straw. “It. Will. Never. Happen,” Gerard snapped, aiming a shove at the center of Korse’s chest. “I’d rather die.” Gerard gasped as Korse reeled him back in with a handful of hair, grabbing both sides of his face in a punishing grip. He scrabbled helplessly at Korse’s wrists.

“That trick won’t work twice,” Korse growled, squeezing tighter and tighter until black spots started swimming in Gerard’s vision and he struggled to suck in a breath, hoping to whatever gods had forsaken them that he would go quicker than the poor soul on the bed, when he heard a wordless snarl and a sickening thud and the wicked pressure was suddenly gone.

He was falling and someone’s arms were around him and he flailed automatically until he heard a “Gee!” He smelled cordite and cigarettes and moaned, curling into the embrace as Frank whispered frantically, “Come on, please walk, help me here.”

Then the hot wind was swirling sand around his legs and he squinted against the sun, stumbling automatically through the dust to the car just as the sound of a commotion and motorcycle exhaust pipes registered from the direction of the motel. Frank shoved him in the passenger seat and jumped behind the wheel, gunning the engine. The wind whipped his hair across his face and he shuddered again, fumbling for his ray gun, but the pursuers apparently went the wrong way, too far behind, and Frank tossed his own gun in Gerard’s lap and jerked the Trans Am onto a dirt access road, winding through the desert until he could stop behind an outcropping of rock.

He was half in Gerard’s lap immediately, kneeling across the center console and running his fingers across his face and throat. “What the shit, Gerard? Was that Manic Panic in there? What happened? What was he doing to you?” His voice cracked, still half-frantic, eyes black with...something. Anger, maybe. Fun Ghoul wouldn’t be afraid. Maybe Frank would. If he knew....

Gerard was scared enough for the both of them. “What the hell did you do to him, Frankie?”

“Clocked him with my pistol grip,” Frank muttered. “I wasn’t going to shoot him, you were right there.” He sounded so disgruntled that suddenly Gerard was laughing, mostly soundlessly, letting his head fall forward against Frank’s as his shoulders shook. “Gerard, Gerard, Gee.” Frank was calling his name, fingers sliding into Gerard’s hair to tilt his face back up.

“He wants me back,” Gerard whispered, not caring that Frank didn’t know, didn’t understand. He’d have to know now. Things were going to get a million times worse.

“No,” Frank said instantly, insistently. “Never gonna happen, no.” Then, out of nowhere, he was kissing Gerard, tiny brushes of pressure across Gerard’s cheeks and lips, and Gerard gasped and grabbed a handful of his shirt, reeled him in and opened his mouth. Impossibly, Frank jerked like he was surprised, too - Gerard hadn’t thought he was hiding his feelings particularly well - then he was groaning into Gerard’s mouth and melting into him like he resented the space between them.

Gerard resented it, just like he resented everything else in their way: gloves, holsters, jackets, clothes, the stupid bucket seats in the stupid car and the buzz of static warning them that it was suicide to stop running for long. Frank, rough unwashed grimy Frank with dirt on his face and gasoline splashed on his skin, was the best thing he’d tasted or smelled or felt in forever.

Then Frank was entirely in Gerard’s lap, fingers twisting in the ragged ends of Gerard’s hair, rocking his hips against Gerard’s. Gerard slid a hand up the back of his shirt, under his vest, fingers slipping across the sweaty skin as he tugged him closer, and Frank was muttering dirty things against his lips - swear words, Gerard’s name, things Gerard had only ever dreamed of hearing - when in the distance there was a horrendous explosion.

They jerked apart. Gerard’s chest hurt from the breath he choked on, from the sudden increase in his heart rate. Frank twisted himself around, pulling himself up through the t-top to scan the horizon. “Shit,” he hissed. “They blew up the fucking motel.”

“You weren’t actually - going to go back?” Gerard gasped out the question as Frank threw himself back into the driver’s seat. Stupid, really. Of course Frank was going to go back. They barely knew Manic Panic, but he wouldn’t have been the first fallen zonerunner Frank had insisted on burying. The zones were dotted with memorials made out of tires, rusty car parts, scrap wood, spray paint, whatever was on hand. Bodies were hidden and then buried in secret - everyone did it. It was the only safeguard anyone had against being ghosted. Gerard had helped construct his share.

“Guess I’m not now,” Frank grumbled. “We gotta clear out of here.” He paused and added, his voice gentler, “If you’re all right?”

If he was all right. Gerard laughed. He was scared, he was woozy, his head was pounding, he was angry, he was viciously turned on, and every time he stopped looking at Frank he saw the mutilated shell on the motel bed. He’d been less all right, he supposed, maybe when Show Pony had been shot, maybe that time Mikey went all Evel fucking Knievel to lose a drac and they thought he was a goner.... When he’d pulled Frank away from a seething barehanded Korse and the smoking shell of his second favorite car. He shuddered. Frank was rocketing the Trans Am down a spider’s web of connecting access roads, way too fast as usual, but his hands were steady on the wheel, profile sharp in silhouette against the setting sun.

When they pulled back into the dirt lot outside the diner, Mikey and Ray were back, motorcycles shrouded with a dusty drop cloth back by the gas pumps. Frank killed the engine and slammed out of the car. He was already halfway around the bumper by the time Gerard got out the door and waved him off. “I’m fine,” he said, and Frank leaned on the hood of the car instead, lighting a cigarette and staring across the chaparral. Gerard joined him, propping the sole of one boot against the bumper and taking the cigarette Frank handed him. His eyes caught Frank’s when he leaned in for the light Frank offered, and he straightened, exhaled a small puff of smoke and held the eye contact.

“You gonna tell me what you were talking about back there?” Frank’s voice was mild enough, but Gerard knew he wasn’t going to be distracted.

“I don’t know if - “

“Because I think it’s only fair. I’ve been sticking my neck out for you since I met you, man. I don’t -“ He stopped. “I trust you. I just - I want to know. I want to -“ He bit his lip.

Gerard wanted to touch his mouth, clenched his hand into a fist by his thigh instead. He took a deep breath. “A long time ago - a fucking lifetime ago, when Mikey and I still lived in the city, before we ran away, before we knew ... we worked for them. For BLI.” Frank, who’d been fidgeting, went completely still, and Gerard swallowed around a suddenly-dry throat.

“I know that,” Frank said carefully. “Mikey worked in the lab with Ray, doing robotics stuff, and -”

“Yeah, they did. And I was wasted all the time on booze, Timewarp, Zoner. Mikey was the only reason I ever left the house. I got cleaned up, though, because of him, because he worked for them, and - they wanted me. SCARECROW. You don’t exactly refuse.“

He stopped. He stopped, because his voice was shaking. Frank was turned toward him now, eyes wide, cigarette smoldering forgotten in his fingers.

“You worked for SCARECROW.” Frank sounded like he was trying to figure something out. Was this when Frank would finally remember?

Gerard looked down at his own cigarette and tossed it away, shook his head to clear it, running rough fingers through the tangles of his hair. “For them. For him. But the rest of it … it all just happened. I never thought he’d take an interest in me, and - he’s not exactly someone you say no to.”

“Gerard -“ Frank blurted, and Gerard raised his hand, palm out.

“Don’t - just, don’t say anything yet.” Frank shut his mouth, but Gerard could still watch the thoughts play across his face. He was disturbed, Gerard could tell, and angry, but that wasn’t the emotion that won out. He slowly reached out and matched his palm to Gerard’s, folding their fingers together. He didn’t say anything. Gerard didn’t deserve someone that good, and it hit him like a dart. “I was fucked up, and I was stupid,” Gerard whispered desperately. “He’s very ... convincing, when he wants to be, and I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t know -“

“Gerard.” Frank’s voice was firmer, this time. “Are you explaining, or apologizing?” He was still holding Gerard’s hand, so instead of flinging his hands up in the air Gerard was reduced to a full-body shudder.

“Don’t you think I should be apologizing? He’s not ... I walked out on him, I betrayed him, and he’s never going to forget that. That’s not even counting all the things that I’ve done since. But you - he’d leave you alone, maybe, if it wasn’t for me.“

“Gerard,” Frank said, for the third time. Gently, this time. “I think I’ve done plenty to piss him off on my own. We all have.” He stopped, raises an eyebrow. “And it’s not like we’re gonna stop.”

Gerard’s breath caught. Frank was beautiful, painted red by the setting sun, looking all the more fearless with his solemn mouth and earnest eyes, and the bottom dropped out of Gerard’s stomach, fear and guilt warring with something - more. Bigger. Shinier. “Did I say we were gonna stop?” he asked with a hint of his usual swagger.

“Hell no,” Frank answered, the corner of his mouth lifting. “Full speed ahead.” He pitched his cigarette butt into the dirt and leaned closer, shoulder bumping Gerard’s as he pressed their clasped hands to Gerard’s chest. “I guess if I stick to our agreement, it’s your turn,” he murmured. “To ask me a horribly personal question. If you want.”

“You kissed me,” Gerard blurted, before he could get control of his mouth.

“You kissed me back. That’s not really a question,” Frank answered, sounding somewhat amused.

“Is it - was it a holy-shit-we’re-still-alive thing, or....” The enormity of his hope battled the regret, the self-hatred, the chaos and callousness and mental fucking instability that was their lives out here, and became overwhelming. If he could just have this one thing, he would earn it, Gerard told himself. If it was the last thing he did. And it very well could be.

Frank smiled unexpectedly, a small private smile that Gerard had never actually seen before. He wanted to see it again. He wanted to die seeing it. “It’s not exactly how I envisioned our first kiss.”

Our first kiss. The fact that Frank had thought about it threw him enough that he blurted out the first thing to cross his mind. “It’s not really, though.” Frank’s blank look told Gerard that he didn’t understand. “I knew you didn’t remember the first time,” Gerard said. He couldn’t keep a tiny ooze of disappointment out of his voice. “But I do.” No more secrets.

“The first time?” Frank’s voice was quiet now.

“I remember everything about it,” Gerard said, equally quiet. “I ought to - I was four days clean of the fucking BLI drugs, and you were the first person other than him to touch me in … a long time.”

“No, I wasn’t,” Frank said automatically. His fingers jerked in Gerard’s and he tugged Gerard to his feet, looking him up and down carefully. “We’ve never.... Really? But -”

“Look at me, Frank,” Gerard insisted. “It’s just fucking hair dye.” Frank reached out with his free hand and pushed Gerard’s hair out of his face, looking him just as carefully in the eyes.

“That was you?” Gerard could practically see the gears clicking together. “Fuck, Gee, that was the cream of the crop of the BLI execs, that night. I kept fucking waiting for the dracs to descend. The guys said I had a guardian angel watching over me, and I fucking laughed. Figured I got lucky.” He rubbed at his eye, like he did when he was tired, when Dr. D was giving him crap, when - “You had to have figured it out. What did you do, lie to their fucking faces?”

Gerard just stared at him for a few beats, then said, “Well, yeah.”

“For me - a stranger. The enemy.” Frank’s mood had clearly taken a turn; he pushed himself off the hood of the car, took a few steps away. When he spoke again, his voice was muffled, face turned away. “SCARECROW never came after me.”

“SCARECROW didn’t try to find you, I did. You were like a ghost; the files I could hack were no help. I wouldn’t have turned you in, Frank, I just wanted - You weren’t my enemy. We’re both the enemy now.” Gerard paused. “You had to know I was still out there somewhere. Didn’t you ever think about me?” Dangerous territory.

Frank sighed. “I can’t believe you were. Working for him.” He cut himself off with a bitter little laugh. “Not just working.”

“I wasn’t really working for him anymore, not after I got off the BLI drugs. I’d been so proud of myself for actually finding something I was good at, that I hadn’t stopped to think about what I was actually doing. Eventually I figured it out. Being clean, really clean, helped. Mikey helped.”

Frank shifted to look back at Gerard, eyes flitting up and down Gerard’s body. “Not just working,” he repeated.

Gerard held back a sigh. The sleepless nights, the chilly pre-dawn watches in the Trans Am with Frank breathing quietly beside him - Korse was never far from his thoughts in those moments, and he’d already thought of every possible explanation.

“Sometimes you realize someone’s terrible for you, and you stay with them anyway,” Gerard said quietly. “Doesn’t mean you don’t recognize something really good when you see it.” He stepped close enough to wrap his hand around Frank’s arm and tug him close again. “Meeting you - the first time - gave me the motivation to stay clean. Which brought me back my brother, which sent me running out here, which brought me you, again. Can you blame me for thinking that means something?”

“I’m pretty sure it means you have fucking awful taste in men,” Frank sniped, but he didn’t pull away, and Gerard leaned in, touched Frank’s cheek with his free hand. Frank stood still for it for a moment, then turned his head. “Enough,” he said quietly.

“Frank -”

“Weather sirens are about to start,” Frank said, and though Gerard was still unable to predict the weather as well as Frank or Show Pony, he trusted Frank to know his shit. “We need to go inside.” Frank pulled away from Gerard’s grip and headed for the diner door. It wasn’t like him to walk away from a conversation, much less a fight - though Gerard was pretty sure this hadn’t been a fight - and Gerard could only stare.

Inside, Grace was eating dinner with Mikey and Ray, back from their run. Initially, they’d balked at taking her out on the motorcycles, but she’d insisted she wanted to try it, nagged until Ray had taken her for a short ride one afternoon. She’d loved it so transparently that they had allowed her to go on their shorter, safer runs ever since.

Mikey gave them both a narrow-eyed stare. They’d been outside talking for a long time, and heaven only knew what type of expression each of them was wearing. “S’okay,” Gerard mouthed at Mikey, but when they grabbed food and chairs of their own, Grace piped up with a great deal of nine-year-old concern.

“Your neck!” she said to Gerard. “You’re hurt.” Gerard reached up to feel for a wound. He knew he’d have bruises for days, but he couldn’t bear to go look in the cracked mirror in the bathroom.

After all this time, this was the first time Korse had left marks, and Gerard didn’t want to think about what that meant.

“What happened?” Ray asked around a mouthful of beans. Gerard attempted to communicate Not in front of the kid in the brotherly shorthand he and Mikey had perfected long ago, mostly a series of nods and eyebrow wiggles. Ray understood and nodded back, but it was just a beat too late. Grace was already looking back and forth between them and frowning.

“I’m not a baby,” she said disdainfully.

“Then what are you?” Gerard shot back without thinking.

“A Killjoy,” she answered promptly. “Like you guys. I’m nine, Party, I know how to keep secrets.”

Gerard thought back to Grace’s prize crayons, hidden from the wardens of Harmony House; to Frank saying to Show Pony, I brought you out here for a reason. They’d let her stay out here with them. They’d taken her into harm’s way enough times by now that she had a right to know. He took a deep breath and told her, “SCARECROW is after us now more than ever: me, and Fun Ghoul, and the rest of us, and they’re closer than I thought. Somebody died today, Motorbaby. Somebody who didn’t run fast enough, or hide well enough.”

“People die, Party,” she said, eerily matter-of-fact. Then again, she was good at keeping secrets. He didn’t have any idea the kinds of things she’d seen before, and after, her stint at Harmony House. “Are you sad?” she continued, leaning closer, bending over the arm of her chair to whisper, “Do you need a hug?”

Frank caught the back of her chair and set it back on all four legs before she could tip it over. It was enough of a diversion for Gerard to swallow the shout of hysterical laughter that bubbled up in his chest. “I...yes,” he answered with a measure of composure. “I would like a hug.” Grace was out of her chair and in his arms before he could even blink, and he rubbed her back and rested his cheek against her halo of hair for a moment before gently moving her back to arms’-reach. “This is why we need you to keep being brave, and if we ask you to do something, kiddo, you need to listen. That’s what it means to be part of a team.”

Later that night, when Ray was off putting Grace to bed, Gerard lounged in the vestibule of the diner with Mikey and Frank, watching low-flying clouds of something undoubtedly noxious blow across the sky. “Did you actually give the kid the ‘there’s no I in team’ speech in there, Gee?” Mikey asked.

“Is that the BLI corporate training coming out, Party?” Frank drawled, sparking a cigarette. “What pearls of SCARECROW wisdom can we expect next?” Despite the sarcastic tone, the upturned corner of his mouth suggested he was joking. Gerard was still taken aback for a moment, and Mikey opened and shut his mouth several times in succession - a vast show of surprise, for him.

You told him? his expression said.

“He told me,” Frank answered out loud. Clearly he was getting good at reading their shorthand, too.

Mikey looked over at Frank. “And?”

“And what? We’re all running from something,” Frank answered.

“We figured you’d be pissed no one told you.” Mikey said it expressionlessly, but the fact that he’d said it at all demonstrated his level of concern.

“You told me now.”

“Really?” Mikey asked. “That’s all you’re gonna say?”

Frank blew a cloud of smoke in their general direction. “If I have anything else to say, I’ll say it to your brother,” he said dismissively, but he didn’t even look in Gerard’s direction. Mikey flicked Gerard a look, and Gerard just shrugged. Right now, Frank was as closed off as he’d ever been. The Frank who’d let Gerard touch him, caress his face, that Frank was the only Frank Gerard could think about now. Gerard knew he was in there; he just didn’t know how far under the surface he’d be forced to look.

Not looking was not an option. Not with the taste of Frank’s mouth still lingering in the corners of Gerard’s lips.

When they went back inside, they scattered to the far corners of the diner without any attempts at small talk or idle amusement. After hearing the rest of Frank and Gerard’s story at dinner, it had been clear all of them were up for nothing more than seeking what few moments of relative privacy they could steal, but Gerard inevitably spent his thinking about Frank.

He’d finally resorted to pacing, which was the only reason he was so close to Motorbaby’s door when the whimpering started. He froze, then took a few steps closer to the closed panel, then slipped quietly through the door and knelt next to her mattress. “Hey, kiddo. Hey, it’s all right.” He smoothed her hair away from her face, clasped a hand around the point of her shoulder and held on. Grace shuddered herself fully awake and flung herself into his arms, suddenly sobbing outright. Gerard didn’t know what to do; she’d had nightmares a few times before but someone else had always gotten to her first.

Eventually he could make out words twisted up in Grace’s sobs, but he didn’t understand much more than “Mom.” That was probably all he needed to understand, though. “Hush, motorbaby, I know, I know. But you’re with us now,” he crooned. “With us and we’re glad.” She clung to his neck and he rocked her and then a small scuffing sound caught his ear and he looked up. Frank was hovering in the doorway, watching silently, and when Gerard met his eyes he turned and walked away, just as silently.

It took a while for Grace’s breathing to settle back down, and Gerard rocked her until she was relaxed and let him tuck her back into her raggedy quilt with barely a murmur and let himself back out into the corridor. It was late; the office where they slept was quiet, but Gerard only hesitated for a moment. Sleep wouldn’t come, not easily, not for him. He climbed the ladder to the roof instead.

A small figure stirred over in the shadows by the tilting sign letters. Frank, of course. Gerard couldn’t even bring himself to feel surprise. Frank didn’t show any surprise either; he was sitting with his knees drawn up against his chest, watching far-off methane-laced clouds flit across the moon, and when he heard Gerard’s approach he shifted slowly onto his knees, sitting back on his heels and preparing to stand.

Gerard didn’t let him get that far. He crossed the roof with a few swift steps, dropping to his knees and clasping Frank by the shoulders, tugging his body close and kissing him, licking into his mouth without hesitation or warning.

“Gee!” Frank groaned against Gerard’s lips.

“Tell me you don’t want me,” Gerard whispered, “and I’ll stop. Tell me.” Their hips were snug together, and he could feel that Frank was as hard as he was. His lips wandered along Frank’s jaw to his ear and back. “Tell me,” he urged.

“Of course I fucking want you,” Frank panted. “Damn you to hell.”

“M’sure that’s where I’m headed,” Gerard replied, pushing Frank’s vest off his shoulders to land with a thump on the concrete roof, shrugging out of his own Dead Pegasus jacket and sending it after the vest. The surface was still warm from the day’s sun, rough under his palms when he pushed Frank down to lie on the discarded clothing. “But not yet. Let me fuck you. Please, Frank.”

Frank moaned when Gerard’s teeth fastened once more on the blade of his jawbone. “Who do you think you are, Gerard?”

"The thorn in your side. The voice in your ear, if you trust me."

"That wasn't really a - ah, fuck, Gee, just fuck me," Frank hissed when Gerard palmed over his dick.

"Strip first," Gerard murmured, chuckling when Frank immediately shoved him out of the way to pull off his shirt. The noise froze in his throat when he caught sight of the seldom-visible designs crawling across Frank's chest and arms. The edges of Frank's tattoos mocked him constantly, but he always forgot the sheer effect of all that art.

Frank twisted a hand in Gerard's shirt collar and tugged him close to nip at his neck. "You too, motherfucker." He shoved Gerard away again to pull at the fastenings of his boots and pants, wriggled out of the mass of fabric until he was lying propped on his elbows, naked and hard, glowing skin and twisting ink in the moonlight. Gerard followed suit, absently stripping off the rest of his clothing, reaching out a hand to trace the curve of the bomb on Frank's sternum. Frank grabbed his hand and spit into his palm, and Gerard froze with a strangled noise of surprise, eyes flying to Frank's.

Frank returned the look evenly, eyes dark as he guided Gerard's fingers down between his legs, behind his balls. "Well?" he asked. "This is what you -" He gasped and stuttered into silence as Gerard traced the sensitive skin around his opening and then pushed in with a gentle finger.

"Yeah," Gerard whispered. "That's what I want. You're what I -" He trailed off, biting his lip in concentration as he closed his free hand around Frank's cock, jacking it in an almost-even rhythm as he fingered Frank open with the other hand. Frank just gasped again and writhed under his hands, under Gerard's lips as he licked his way across Frank's chest and up to his mouth.

Soon enough, Frank was muttering against his mouth, "I'm gonna -" and Gerard sped up his strokes until Frank arched into his grip and came in Gerard's hand. Gerard pulled back far enough to close his now-slick fingers around his own cock, hissing at the contact with his own hot skin. He lined up and pushed into Frank in one single slow motion, and Frank arched under him, equally slowly, as he wrapped his legs around Gerard's waist and urged him closer.

Gerard wrapped Frank tightly in his arms, breathing slow and measured through his nose as he rocked his hips against Frank's. Frank was tight and perfect, as warm underneath him, around him, as the wind tickling the skin of his back was cool. Gerard didn't want this to be over, but he could feel his control edging away with every thrust, and Frank was gasping Gerard's name and other half-formed words as their lips met and wandered, trailing kisses over each other's faces. Finally Gerard could do nothing but squeeze his eyes shut and let go, coming with his hands twisted in Frank's hair and his mouth pressed against the scorpion on Frank's neck.

The wind was picking up again; Gerard rolled off of Frank and to the side, keeping his arms tight around him so that Frank was still cradled against him. The zipper on his jacket was digging into his shoulder blade a little, but Frank was warm and solid and smelled like sweat and cigarettes and come and Gerard didn’t care.

He looked back up at the sky. “They’re sort of beautiful,” he said softly.

“Hm?” Frank mumbled. “The clouds? For toxic gases floating around in the sky, sure.”

“How romantic.”

“If you’re looking for romance, you’ve got the wrong guy,” Frank grumbled.

“Have I?” Gerard said softly. Frank turned his head slowly, met Gerard’s eyes. His own were dark, his gaze velvety-thick.

“I’ve got nothing, nothing but my mask and my gun,” Frank said simply. “It’s hard to make promises.”

“I have a stolen car and a pocketful of enemies.” Gerard pushed closer, nuzzled at Frank’s jaw until he lifted his mouth to meet Gerard’s. “Frank,” he whispered. “I need you.”

Frank sighed into his mouth, kissing him until their skin was too chilled to continue. They tugged their clothes into something passing for fully-dressed and climbed back down to ground level. The diner was dark and silent, and when Frank pushed open the door to the office-bunkroom, they were greeted by two threads of sleeping breath from the guys. Frank pulled his boots back off and settled onto his mattress, curling up with his back to Gerard, and when Gerard followed suit, he stared at the dark smudge of Frank’s shoulders until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He reached out and slid his hands around Frank’s waist, tugging until Frank’s back was tucked securely against Gerard’s chest. Frank didn’t resist.

One of the last things Gerard felt before drifting off to sleep was Frank’s fingers settling gently over his own.

*

Gerard hadn’t actually spent a lot of time considering what it would mean, to tell Frank the whole truth and to be forgiven the omission. As it turned out, it sometimes meant everything, and it sometimes meant exactly nothing. It did reliably mean one thing, though. Gerard could touch Frank all he liked now, even though they barely had time to sleep these days.

SCARECROW had discovered and captured one of the runners’ reclaimed oil wells. Now there was a permanent geyser of flame near Silver Dollar Creek in Zone Two, and sharp eyes in the zones were tuned to gas gauges like they’d only ever been tuned to the barrels of ray guns. As often as not they ate on the run, tin cans and meal replacement bars; tilting the car seats back for an hour or two of rest in the shade of a rock outcropping or a stand of scrub pine was less interminable when he had Frank’s busy mouth to wake him for his turn on watch.

As if they didn’t have enough to worry about, after the third or fourth attempt in as many weeks to siphon from the reserve tanks they shared with WKIL and the Cyanide Dolls, their two closest neighbors, the four of them - the Fabulous Killjoys, as everyone called them these days - got a bigger shock. They dropped Grace off with Show Pony for the afternoon to go pay a visit to a Dead Pegasus station in Four, and when they pulled alongside the pumps, they were greeted by their own faces, larger than life and daubed with a crimson “X”, glaring out from a line of posters on the garage bay doors.

“‘Exterminate’ - that’s new,” Gerard commented.

“That’s not good,” Ray said, peering around the gas pump at their four faces.

“I’d like to see him try,” Frank muttered. He got out of the car and walked over to the magazine rack, spitting on the ground in the general direction of the posters and strolling back with a paper. He tossed a copy of Shiny in Mikey’s direction while Ray went to negotiate with the station attendant.

Mikey flipped through the magazine for a minute, frowning, then he threw it through the t-top, where it almost whacked Gerard in the face. “Sorry,” he said vaguely, wandering off to poke at the BLI vending machine. Gerard tipped his head back against his headrest and watched Frank flip pages. After a minute, Frank strolled off after Mikey - probably low on cigarettes again - and Gerard was distracted by Ray’s slightly raised voice.

“What do you mean, reward?” Ray was saying to the masked attendant. “I don’t give a fuck if there’s a reward. How long have we been coming here?” The attendant shrugged. “And you won’t fucking take them down?” Gerard’s eyes narrowed, and he opened his car door. He rounded the hood of the Trans Am, and Ray glanced in his direction and shook his head minutely.
Ray sighed and ran a hand through his hair, then looked back at the attendant.

“Two boxes of soldering supplies,” Ray said casually. “Delivered by tomorrow. And the posters come down and you’ve never seen us.” He leaned against the passenger door and folded his arms across his chest. The attendant looked from Ray to Gerard, and after a moment he nodded.

“Good choice,” Gerard said quietly, then in a louder voice, “Kobra! Fun Ghoul! Ready or not.” They were gassed up and peeling out in a minute or less.

The car was silent for a few minutes, faces turned towards the windows, hands - from what Gerard could see in the rearview and from the corner of his eye - draped too-casually near the grips of ray guns. Gerard took a looping, circuitous route back to Dr. D’s, and no one commented. They startled a lone drac near the intersection of Route Guano and Resurrection Road and Mikey picked him off with a couple well-placed shots.

“We’re screwed, aren’t we?” he said when he turned back around.

*

“You’re screwed,” Dr. D greeted them the next time they walked into his lair.

“Always such a pleasure to see you, Doc,” Gerard drawled. “You wanna electrocute me again today too, for shits and giggles?”

“That was your own damn fault, sunshine. Jet and Kobra never have a problem with my wiring.”

“I feel so special,” Gerard told him without real heat, rolling his eyes at Frank, who patted him on the shoulder.

“You are special, Party.” Frank’s tone was teasing, but he let the pat trail off into a sweep of his hand down Gerard’s arm, his fingers squeezing the bare skin just above Gerard’s glove for a moment.

“But still screwed.” It was ironic, Gerard thought, mind wandering. Gerard wanted to be screwed, more than a little, more than anything. He hadn’t been alone with Frank for more than two minutes all week, and while he couldn’t guarantee he’d last any longer than that, not at the moment, he wanted - he just wanted -

Mikey’s jaw worked a bit from where he was crouched by a crate of records. “Depends what the reward is. If there is one.”

“If your faces made the Exterminate list, I’m sure there’s a reward.” That was Show Pony coming in the door with Grace, expression unusually bleak. He shooed her across the room to where Mikey was talking to Dr. D and let Gerard tug him back out the door.

“Tell me the truth,” Gerard said in a low voice, “how likely is someone out here to go after that reward?”

“The reward? Less likely than you apparently think, but we’ve got all kinds out here. No, I’d be more worried that someone would get pinched by the dracs and use your crew’s location as a bargaining chip. Those posters are everywhere. Sooner or later someone’s gonna talk.”

If dracs found the diner, it wouldn’t just be them in harm’s way. It would be the rest of Frank’s Harmony crew, the kids who occasionally stayed overnight. Grace. What were they going to do about Grace? “Guess that’s the drawback of having these pretty faces,” Gerard joked to cover his confusion.

“You talkin’ about me again?” Frank said in his ear, and Gerard jumped. He hadn’t heard Frank approaching, and the puff of breath - and the hand curling gently around his waist under the hem of his shirt - startled him.

Show Pony eyed them both with a considering look, and an utter lack of surprise. He looked like he was dying to comment. Gerard’s face felt hot, so he turned away. Which, of course, turned him even more into Frank’s arms. “Talking about how long we have before someone rolls over on the diner - and us,” Gerard told him miserably.

“I’d rather we were talking about my pretty face,” Frank replied, and it was all Gerard could do not to kiss him, but he pulled away.

“I guess we’ve got to stay off the grid somehow,” Gerard said, rubbing his eye tiredly. “But - shit, Pony, the swap meet. We’ve got to - we’ve got -”

“It’s up to you,” Show Pony said. “We’ll manage without you, so unless you’re low on supplies....” Gerard made a face. “Oh. Well, I’d tell you to go incognito but that’s sort of a problem for you, isn’t it, Party?”

Frank cracked out a laugh. “Isn’t it, Party?” Gerard glared at him, tugging a lock of hair broodingly.

“Fuck it,” he said finally. “I’m redyeing it even brighter, and then we’re going to the swap meet. And we’ll see.”

*

“I’m worried about the swap meet,” Gerard murmured into Frank’s hair one night as they sat in their spot up on the roof, watching the turnoff for KK’s running lights. The SCARECROW presence in the zones had increased to the point where more and more smugglers were risking night runs on clear nights.

“Because of the reward?” Frank turned his head and pressed his lips against the side of Gerard’s throat.

“The reward. The new patrols. The new cameras everywhere. They’re popping up as soon as we can disable them. He said he was watching, Frank,” Gerard said softly, “and I can practically feel it. When we’re zonehopping, when we’re running with Grace, when -”

“I hope he’s watching right now,” Frank growled softly, pushing Gerard over and straddling his hips. “I hope he can see my hands on you.” Of course no one was watching. It was just the two of them, alone in the dark, but Gerard could still do nothing but whimper and swear, fearful and viciously aroused, as he shuddered apart under Frank’s hands.

*

Zonerunner swap meets, for all that they were planned and negotiated for weeks ahead of time, tended to bloom from the desert like a diseased flower and disappear just as quickly. Half armed standoff, half carnival, they were colorful and loud and prone to evaporate at the first sign of BLI infiltration.

Frank offered to run interference for this one, since it was happening on the border of their territory. Gerard hadn’t realized at first that what this entailed was baiting drac patrols and leading them on a wild goose chase across the desert.

They were the bait, of course, and it was bad enough that they had Motorbaby with them - no one could watch her, and Gerard refused to leave her at the diner alone - but Gerard honestly thought he’d have a heart attack when Frank flipped down one of the back seats and pulled a bazooka out of the trunk.

“This is not a fucking tank, Fun Ghoul,” he yelled over the wind and the noise rock on the radio.

“I don’t think you could drive any slower if it was, sunshine,” Frank called back. “Just hold her steady, and try to drive faster than the tumbleweeds, willya?”

Gerard gritted his teeth and averted his eyes from the rear view mirror, especially after Frank and Grace both popped up through the t-tops to sight in on their drac pursuers. Ray had a hand clamped on each of their belts. Mikey was busy shooting out the passenger window and seemed unconcerned. “Fucking insane,” Gerard muttered under his breath. “Absolutely fucking insane.”

He repeated it later, when they’d pulled over to scan the area for surveillance drones, and Frank laughed. “Motorbaby liked it,” he said smugly, then leaned in to whisper against the shell of Gerard’s ear. “You like it.”

He did.

*

They were up early the next morning, Frank re-dyeing Gerard’s hair for him in the kitchen sink, cupping Gerard’s jaw in his stained hands and licking into his mouth. Gerard didn’t bother washing off the dye. He’d rather carry Frank’s marks than...but no, he wasn’t thinking about that, not today.

Gerard stalked around the swap meet with narrowed eyes, unashamedly eavesdropping on any conversations he could overhear, a hand hovering over his thigh holster. Motorbaby trailed along behind, wide-eyed and clutching Mikey’s portable radio, tuned to WKIL and trickling bursts of music. He wondered what the circus atmosphere looked like to someone like her, someone who couldn’t remember Before. Before BLI, before everything went black and white.

Frank found him after a few hours, slipping through the crowd and touching Gerard’s wrist. He had that devilish gleam in his eye again, and he bent down and whispered into Grace’s ear. She nodded and slipped off through the crowd. Ray was two stalls over, gesturing over some circuit boards, and he tugged at one of her curls when she approached, shooting Gerard a glance and a nod. “Come on,” Frank urged, and Gerard let Frank tug him back through the warren of plywood shanties until the ocean-roar of voices died away.

“This better be good,” Gerard told him snottily, and Frank barked out a laugh.

“Oh, it will be,” he answered, shoving Gerard up against the splintery panels and dropping to his knees in the dirt. Gerard groaned at the first touch of his hands, his eyes practically rolling back by the time Frank had his jeans open. It had been - well, not long, comparatively, but longer than Gerard wanted to go since they’d done this last. Frank was addictive, mesmerizing, and only Gerard’s awareness of the roving traders just a few walls away kept him anywhere near quiet.

“Frankie,” he murmured, over and over, threading his fingers through Frank’s dirty hair. He couldn’t say more; Frank’s mouth, his hands, the pleased little hums Gerard could feel vibrating through Frank’s throat were too fast and too much for words. Before he was at all ready he was coming in Frank’s mouth and choking on a strangled sound that resembled Frank’s name.

Panting, hands shaking, Gerard fumbled for the shoulders of Frank’s vest and tugged, already planning his reciprocation. Frank rose to his feet, stumbling a little, and the slide of dusty denim against Gerard’s oversensitized skin made him gasp and clutch Frank and press him close and still. He barely heard the noise over the twin rasps of their breath, but when he did, his fingers bit into Frank’s shoulders even tighter.

“Frank,” Gerard hissed in horror. “Look over there.” Frank obediently turned his head and peered into the scrub at the edge of the cleared land, then cursed. “That’s a drone,” Gerard added unnecessarily.

“Not anymore,” Frank said grimly, leaning back far enough to draw his ray gun. He sighted down the barrel and shattered the device with a single shot.

“They’ll have units out here, probably within the hour,” Gerard said as steadily as he could. “I don’t think they’ll have missed that.” He bit his lip as Frank gently set his clothes to rights, mind already showing him the SCARECROW headquarters, some pale-faced analyst with Korse hovering over his shoulder and grainy footage of them on his screen. He felt sick, filled with anger and horror and pervading cold despite the merciless sun.

“No, they won’t have,” Frank replied flatly, and Gerard could hear his words from the other night, I hope he can see my hands on you in a quiet growl. Frank had probably gotten his wish. And there was no way this particular intel would receive anything less than Korse’s personal attention.

Caught between terror and defiance, Gerard made his choice.

Gerard tugged Frank out from behind the buildings, stalking over to where Show Pony was watching the proceedings from under the overhang of the power station shack and saying without preamble, "Turn on the sirens. Everybody needs to get up and go. Dracs are on their way."

Show Pony didn't ask questions, just nodded and whispered to the old man sitting next to him, sending the geezer limping off to the control panel on the side of the shed. "I'll start directing traffic," he said, leaning down to tighten the laces of his roller skates, and Gerard stopped him with a soft "Ricky." Show Pony turned back. Gerard continued, "Give Doc a message to broadcast?" He scrawled down a number sequence, then a short phrase. "All public channels, unencrypted, ten-second bursts in the bottom of the hour. Got it?"

"I think so," Pony said as he took the scrap of paper. "'Catch me if you can,'" he read out softly. "Party -" His eyes traveled from Gerard to Frank's stoic face. "I don't know why, but...okay."

The sirens kicked on and suddenly the air was full of bright noise. Frank and Pony exchanged one last silent look before Frank slipped out the door. Gerard followed him through the quickly-scattering crowd.

Ray and Mikey were already waiting by the Trans Am when they got there, and so was Motorbaby. Gerard swore under his breath. It was their job to run interference for the runners leaving the meet, but he hadn't been thinking about Grace being with them, and he started mentally calculating mileage. Show Pony was here solo, and he was on his skates. Gerard couldn't very well leave her with Pony, and he didn't trust anyone else with her. If he burned rubber they'd be able to get her back to the diner before the dracs descended, he thought to himself.

Once the others - the Killjoys - were inside, he sent the car careening back onto the highway, skidding through a few turns to get them onto the least-traveled access roads between them and the diner. No radio-blasting joyride this time; they were grim-faced and all their ray guns were drawn and ready. Frank had filled the others in with a few terse sentences and that was all they needed.

The back roads ate precious time, but they were a lot safer. Unfortunately a creek bed had washed out the back roads a few miles from the diner, and once they got that far Gerard couldn't avoid the main roads any longer. I doubt she'll fly, or float, Show Pony had said when he'd first sent Gerard and Mikey and the Trans Am out into the zones. He wished now that she would. Maybe they were still running ahead of the dracs. Maybe.

He could see as soon as he made the turn onto Resurrection Road that they weren't. Screaming white cycles arrowed their way, a sleek black vehicle on their tail spitting blue lights. Korse. How had he gotten here so fast? They must have set up a command post somewhere in-zone, maybe somewhere in One.

It didn't matter now. They couldn't get Motorbaby to safety with dracs right on their tail, so all that mattered now was keeping them away from the diner. Gerard spun the wheel hard, sending the Trans Am into a drift on the dusty road, fishtailing onto a secondary road that led off in the opposite direction. The cycles followed, others feeding into the pursuit as they sped off down Route Guano.

Gerard kept his foot heavy on the gas until he'd buried the needle, mouth twisting wryly as he heard echoes of every time Frank had mocked his driving. It gave him something to think about as he clamped white-knuckled hands around the wheel, holding desperately to a steady line as Frank and Ray let loose with periodic laser bursts through the t-tops, as Mikey methodically picked off pursuers on his side.

The possibility of a getaway faded with every mile. He had no destination in mind but safe and sound, and where his wheels ended up carrying them was the canyon near the Dry Sea Motel where they'd found Motorbaby. She'd hidden here before. Maybe she could hide here again.

"Grace," Gerard called out over the wind from the open windows. She leaned over the center console to listen. "Do you recognize where we are? This is where we found you. If I stop here, can you find someplace safe to hide?"

"We all can," she said insistently, and he bit his lip and shook his head minutely.

"You, Motorbaby. Just you. You said you'd listen," he reminded her. Mikey took down the closest cycle, and Gerard screeched to a stop just over the rise of the canyon rim. "Out, Motorbaby. Run. Hide!" He didn't watch her go, just turned and with the rest of his team, his brothers, his friends, he spread on foot out to wait for SCARECROW to descend.

And descend they did. Gerard and the Killjoys were irresistible bait. White suits swarmed, inexhaustible, like bloodsucking insects. Gerard could barely keep track of what was happening after a while. Amid laser fire, he would sometimes see the yellow and black arch of Frank throwing a punch. A smear of red, which was Mikey with his improbably functional gadgets. The flash and crash of breaking glass. It was folly, maybe, to think they could get away, but that was the difference between them and the dracs - they could think. They could choose.

Today, they were choosing not to run anymore. Still, when Gerard ended up facing a firing line of draculoids, watching the feral stride of a figure in gray walking their way, the noise all faded.

All noise - except for one thing. Faint but growing, the hiss of transistors, a familiar voice creeping from the speakers of a familiar boom box held by a familiar girl. Even as Korse closed in on them, Gerard turned to Grace and said helplessly, "I told you to run."

"Not without you," she answered firmly. She lifted the radio. "It's for you. He's playing you a song."

Gerard listened. Beside him, Frank laughed. Gerard glanced in his direction, held his gaze for a moment while Iggy screamed about a "Death Trip" from the speakers. He still had a sardonic smile curving his lips when he turned to face Korse.

"How convenient. All four Killjoys at last," Korse said coolly. "And your young stowaway; some people in the city will be quite pleased to see you, young lady." Frank growled from behind Gerard, but Korse ignored him. His eyes were on Gerard. "I fail to understand why you keep defying me, Gerard. You must know how futile it is."

"Maybe I don't care," Gerard said in a low voice. "Maybe that's the point." He shifted until he was shoulder to shoulder with the others, flanked by Ray and Mikey, and watched Korse's lips quirk.

"Suit yourself," Korse said. He paced back and forth behind the row of draculoids, pausing a few times to study each of them in turn. Gerard clenched his jaw and refused to let loose any of the questions, accusations, pleas bubbling up inside. Finally Korse nudged a drac aside; it was the one facing Mikey, and Gerard couldn't bite back the moan of protest.

Korse smiled; the expression was there and gone in the blink of Gerard's eye. Then he lifted his ray gun in a curiously formal salute. Gerard braced himself to draw. He blinked once, twice, and then he knew nothing more until he came back to himself in a haze of pain. Not dead, then, just stunned. He sucked in a breath, focusing slowly on the flapping tails of a frock coat. Korse was standing unmoved, untouched, flanked by dracs. One of them had Grace by the arms, and she gasped and squirmed uselessly.

They’d take her, Gerard knew, take her away and back to the Battery, back to Harmony House; he was powerless to stop it. They’d been outgunned, and this had been less of a duel than a numbers game in the end. Those shots had come from all sides. He’d fight, swear, cry, something if he wasn’t stunned into immobility, able to do nothing but meet Korse's eyes. Korse stared back, his thoughts as opaque as ever, and then he spoke. Two words. "Keep running."

Keep running, he told Gerard, then left in a cloud of dust with Grace and his unit of draculoids, left them where they'd fallen. Gerard couldn't run. He did the only thing his slowly reviving limbs would allow – he crawled, but crawling was enough to carry him to Ray, to Mikey. To Frank.

They were alive, all of them; breathing, streaked with blood, stunned speechless, but alive, more or less. Gerard found himself surprised. He was no closer to understanding Korse than he’d ever been. Gerard knelt by Frank's shoulder, chest heaving as he panted air back into his abused lungs. He had to avoid the blood oozing from a cut on Frank's cheek to do it, but he rested his fingertips against Frank's mouth. Frank, the last to wake, stirred enough to press a weak kiss against them. "'M still here," he whispered. It wasn’t the words, but the tone said I love you.

“I know,” Gerard answered. I love you too.

Behind him, Mikey wheezed like he hadn’t since he was a kid, and Gerard turned to see him pressing a hand against his ribs. He was struggling to get Ray to his feet. Gerard turned back to them, taking off his bandanna and handing it to Ray to press against his bloodied eye. Between Gerard and Mikey, they got Ray to his feet.

Frank wiped a hand through the mess on his cheek, spat blood into the dirt, and then pushed himself to his feet as well. He threaded an arm around Gerard’s waist on the other side, and between the four of them they limped in a tangle of limbs back to the Trans Am. Gerard looked at Mikey first, then at Ray, still holding the bloody cloth to his face but standing on his own two feet. Finally he looked down at Frank, resting his head on Gerard’s shoulder. The same look was on all their faces. Grace was gone, and they were broken, beaten, but they were still moving, and that was something.

“Where are we going?” Gerard asked him, pressing a kiss against Frank’s hair.

“Home,” Mikey said. One by one they climbed into the Trans Am, tentative but still game, and Gerard turned the key.

****

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