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Away With The Boys In The Band

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**March 2002**

Mikey leans in close to the mirror, her nose an inch from the glass. Her hands always shake a little, just enough to be annoying and make her breathe in and out for a count of three before she starts putting her mascara on.

Gerard's lying across her bed, his feet thumping in a slow, erratic rhythm against the wall. She can see him out of the corner of her eye, and reflected in the mirror. "You taking the car?"

"Kelly's picking me up." Two coats of mascara so her eyes stand out stark. Eyeliner next, thick and heavy. "It's all yours."

"Cool."

"You got plans?"

"Nah." She can't quite see him as more than a blurry outline, but she can tell he's playing with her shoes, dancing them across the bed. "Might just run to the video store or something."

"Take mine back for me, huh?"

"If I go."

She finishes drawing the eyeliner on and smudges it with a tissue, then steps back, blinking at herself until she gets her glasses back on her nose. Eyes are good. Hair is good. She just needs her lipstick and to get her shoes away from Gee.

"Is what's-his-name going to be there?"

She grabs two tubes of lipstick and frowns at them, trying to decide. "That's the plan." She can feel Gerard's frown without bothering to look up or turn around. He doesn't like what's-his-name, any of the guys she dates. This one's name is Steve, not that it matters.

"So, like...the show, and then the bar, and his place, and you'll be home at, like, three?"

She chooses the darker shade, dragging it across her lips and then pressing them together. "Knock it off."

"I'm just wondering."

"Gerard."

"Fine. Whatever." He huffs softly and tosses her shoes on the floor at her feet. "Let me see."

She turns to face him, raises her eyebrows, and waits, while his eyes wander from her face down across her t-shirt--collar torn out, bra straps showing--to her jeans--low on her waist and tight across her hips, the knees torn out and the hem frayed to ragged pieces.

"Those shoes don't go," he says after a minute. "Sneakers or shitkicker boots, not shoes with a fuckin' heel."

"Not taking fashion advice from you."

"Fuck off." He digs his lighter out of his pocket and she tosses him the pack of cigarettes from the top of her dresser. "Fine. Wear what you want."

"I was going to." She drops down to the floor to put her shoes on, drawing the buckles tight. The lighter clicks and hisses and then she can smell the smoke. Smoke, sweat, and dirty socks. Smells like home.

"There's Kelly," Gerard says, exhaling toward the window. "Fuck, she's still got that POS her brother used to drive."

"Yeah." She shoves her lipstick in her pocket and her ID in her bra, then comes over to the bed and rumples his hair gently. "See you in the morning, Gee."

"Have fun." He shifts his cigarette between two fingers and leans up, pressing a kiss above the arch of each of her eyebrows. "Be safe."

She wrinkles her nose at him. "Don't get pregnant and don't fall in love, right?"

"That's right." He taps her on the end of the nose and settles back on the bed. "You always gotta love me best."

"Yeah, yeah." She grabs her house keys from the dresser and turns to go, sticking her tongue out at him over her shoulder. "You know it."

**

Ray's car is a piece of shit. Mikey silently curses it, and Ray's brothers for buying it, and Ray for not driving it into a wall and putting it out of its misery. She's standing with one hip cocked awkwardly out, holding the door open while she tries to cram her gear into the little bit of room left in the backseat. The door won't stay open and the panel is held on with creatively placed duct tape and prayer. Fucking piece of shit car.

"Mikey, we're gonna be late." Gerard peers around the back of the passenger seat at her. "Hurry up."

"I'm trying. You guys have all of your shit back here." She shoves one-handed at Ray's duffel bag of God-knows-what, trying to wedge it between Ray's seat and his amps.

"Well, if you got down here sooner..."

"Shut up." She shifts her weight, balancing her guitar case across her free arm while she shoves at the duffel one more time and finally makes enough room to boost her own backpack into the seat. "Why the fuck is all of this in the back seat anyway? What's in the trunk?"

"Bodies." Gerard's doing his dramatic voice, looking at her all wide-eyed in the rearview mirror now while he flicks his hair out of his eyes. "Dead zombie bodies."

She gives up on moving stuff and frees her hand enough to flip Gerard off. "It's my dad's stuff," Ray interjects. "Sorry. I asked him to clean it out but I guess he didn't have time."

"It's fine, just..." She shoves her amp in and kicks it until it fits, which makes her lean forward and stop bracing the door so it swings half-closed and smacks her in the ass. "Fuck!"

"She was out late last night," Gerard says, holding his hair back off his forehead. "She's all tired and cranky." Mikey grits her teeth and gives one last shove, finally getting the amp in.

"Otter's meeting us there," Ray says, drumming his hands on the wheel and shooting an anxious look at her in the mirror. "So we're cool, I think."

"Yeah, if she gets her butt in the car. Mikes--"

"God, shut up." She climbs inside and wedges her bass in between her legs, half-jammed into her crotch. "I'm in, go."

Ray eases the car into the street, and Gerard whoops and shoots finger-guns at the windshield, then reaches back blindly between the seats. She grabs his hand, squeezing tight. Her stomach's clenched and shivery, the way it always gets when she's going to play a show or have sex while she's sober. Half panic and half anticipation.

They're playing Passaic Park, opening for Pencey--fucking Pencey. Part of her still kind of can't believe that; another part wants to spit on them when she walks offstage. Going to try out for Pencey and not even getting plugged in before Hambone said "No cunts on our stage" and they all laughed...not exactly her finest hour. Not something she should waste time dwelling on, either, especially since none of them have ever brought it up any of the times the bands have played together. Don't be so sensitive, she reminds herself, tapping the ragged ends of her nails against her case. Don't be one of those girls. Fucking roll with it.

It's not hard. She isn't one of those girls. She's Mikey fucking Way, queen bitch of the scene, and she plays bass in My Chemical Romance.

"Gee, where's the beer?" she asks, flicking his shoulder. "Let's get psyched up."

"Let's not get pulled over," Ray mutters.

"Aw, c'mon, Ray, don't be like that." Gerard laughs and grabs Ray's arm. "Gotta get psyched, right?"

"When we get there. We'll get totally psyched. Right now just...sit, okay?"

"Fine, fine." Gerard heaves an exaggerated sigh and looks up at the ceiling. "Gonna be fucking sweet."

"Gonna remember all the words," Mikey says, tugging the ends of his hair.

"Ow. Quit it. And fuck you. You gonna actually play all of the notes, this time?"

"I will pay you guys actual money to not have the exact same argument you have before every show," Ray says, hitting the turn signal.

"That would work better if we didn't know that you don't have any money," Mikey says.

"And it's not an argument," Gerard adds. "We don't argue."

"We engage in spirited discussion."

"You engage in being completely demented." Ray shakes his head. "Call Otter and make sure he's on his way."

**

Backstage is a shitty little room that probably started its life as some kind of storage closet. Mikey dumps her stuff in the far corner and helps Gerard carry the beer in, taking two cans for herself. The Pencey guys show up about fifteen minutes later, claiming space and greeting the guys, loud and rowdy. Mikey watches them from under her hair, nodding in response when the guitarist and drummer glance over at her and wave.

She gets her bass out of its case and tunes up, humming under her breath. She's got good pitch; not perfect but it doesn't have to be perfect, not at this point. Ray will bring the box tuner around before they go on stage anyway. Then warm-ups, slow at first, flexing her fingers and getting them moving over the strings.

"Everything cool, Mikey?" Ray asks, leaning over her shoulder to watch her hands.

"Think so."

"Keep 'em loose. Don't tense up."

"I know." Ray's a good teacher, a good coach, but she does know this shit by now. She works hard at it.

"Let me see how you're going to come in on Vampires."

It's like having two big brothers instead of one. She exhales through her nose and shifts her fingers through the hammer-and-slide opening of Vampires, playing the whole intro out and looking at Ray over the top of her glasses. "Okay?"

"Sounds good. Let me see Honey."

And just like with her actual big brother, fighting would be pointless. She blows out another breath and moves into the song, playing the fast, tricky intro and knowing damn well it's not up to his standards. Ray's standards are from some other planet. Too fucking bad.

She can see the Pencey guys watching them, leaning back against the table and talking back and forth amongst themselves. Hambone and Moog are grinning, but Frank's just looking at her, chewing on the fingernails of one hand while the other taps out Honey against his thigh. She didn't know he knew their songs that well.

She knows Frank a little bit, from parties and whatever, from seeing him around. She doesn't know him well. But he's something less of a dick than the other guys in Pencey, and he's a good guitarist. She meets his eyes for a second as she plays the slide into the chorus, half acknowledgment and half challenge.

"Nope, you're buzzing," Ray says, covering her hands with his. "Have your finger like this when you close it, dude."

Fucking figures. "I got it, Ray." She shrugs him off and plays the slide again. "Okay?"

He stares at her hands for a minute, his brow furrowed. Any other guy, she'd suspect he was actually staring at her chest, but this is Ray, who honestly is just as interested in music as he is in tits any day of the week. Since she's Gerard's little sister and therefore as sexless as the actual bass, she has no doubts regarding what he's looking at.

"Yeah," he says, and slaps her on the shoulder. "Yeah, that's cool. I'm gonna grab a beer, then we'll tune up, cool?"

"Cool." She sets her bass against the wall and turns to grab her backpack, jumping a little as turning runs her right into Otter. "Oh! Hey."

"Hey." He leans against the wall and smiles at her. "How's it going?"

"You know." She smiles back quickly and unzips her bag, bracing it against her thigh and rummaging through it for her hairspray. "Getting fired up."

"Yeah." He reaches down and drags his fingers slowly along the waistband of her jeans, tracing the curve of her hipbone. "We've got a few minutes."

She curls her fingers around the hairspray bottle, staring down into the bag for a minute and then glancing back over her shoulder, looking for Gerard. He's standing over by the far wall, cigarette in one hand and can in the other, staring steadily at them. Otter's hand is settled solidly on her hip now, his big wide palm and strong fingers curved back against her ass, thumb rubbing against her skin in a promise. Drummer's hands. And God knows he knows how to use them.

Stupid things Mikey Way has done but isn't actually sorry for: hooking up with her brother's friends. Parts she's maybe a little sorry for: still doing it after they started the band.

Gerard finally looks away, his jaw tight, and she lets herself relax a little bit. "Not before the show," she says, glancing up at Otter with a quick smile and leaning her hip into his hand. "I've gotta...you know. Headspace. Later, okay?"

He doesn't look happy, but he nods, pressing his thumb into her hip just a little and then taking his hand away. "You're going to the party, right?"

"I'm always going to the party."

He laughs and steps back, pulling his drumsticks out of his pocket. "Course you are. What was I thinking? Can't be a scene queen if you don't party."

She rolls her eyes and flips him off, then grabs her second beer can and moves away. She really does need a few minutes to find her zone and drink a little more before the nerves hit her. Fucking stage jitters never get any better.

Gerard and Frank are standing by the door now, talking about something or other, both with cigarettes jammed between their fingers and burning down toward their skin. She turns sideways to slip past them, nodding vaguely at her brother when he cuts off mid-sentence to Frank to bark, "Ten minutes, Mikes, don't be late."

"Won't," she mutters, heading down the hall and out the door to the parking lot, where she can chug her beer and stare up at the sky and make deals with saints she memorized when she was little but has never believed in. If they get her through this without throwing up, she'll be really really thankful, even if she can't promise to be good.

**April 2002**

They told everyone to bring booze to Gerard's birthday party in lieu of gifts, which turns out to be one of Mikey's more successful ideas: the windowsill in Otter's living room is lined with a respectable assortment of cheap, nasty hard liquor, with six-packs of shitty beer on the floor. There's one bottle of decent gin, which Mikey grabs and hides behind the couch to take home later. No point wasting that on their idiot friends.

Her own contribution to the lineup was a bottle of Finlandia, with "FOR G. WAY ONLY" written across the label. The birthday boy should get the good stuff, even if he doesn't actually give a shit what he's drinking as long as it's appearing regularly in his hand.

She glances around the room and finds Gerard in the far corner with Ray, frowning into his glass with the puzzled expression that means it went empty and he isn't sure how to make it go again. She grabs another cup and splashes in vodka and orange juice in an indifferent mixture that's heavy on the former, then cuts through the crowd to his side. "Here you go, Gee. Drink up."

"Thanks, Mikes." He beams at her, wrapping his arm around her waist and tugging her in close. "It's my special day."

"I know." She rests his forehead on his shoulder and he kisses the top of her hair before pushing her back a bit and wrinkling his nose.

"Taste like hairspray," he says, waving the empty cup at her. "Gross."

"Get your own drinks, then, asshole." She dodges his retaliatory gesture and heads back to the window, nodding at the Pencey guys, who just showed up with more shitty beer and a bag of what she hopes isn't entirely awful weed.

"Mikey Way," Frank says solemnly, hoisting a bottle of Jack in her direction. "What's the word?"

"Gerard's another year older and we're all getting drunk."

"Awesome."

"He's over there if you want to talk to him." She's not going to stoop to active manipulation--it's shitty to poach off another band--but there are rumors going around that Pencey isn't long for this world and having someone else on the rhythm line would be awesome. And Frank loves them. Sending him off into Gerard's orbit to get drunk-loved-on is good for everybody. Plus it means he'll put the Jack down so she can have it.

Frank takes a hit right from the bottle and then heads for Gerard and Ray. Mikey wipes the lip off with her sleeve and pours herself a double shot, adding a splash of Coke to the top and heading back toward the kitchen. She isn't looking for anyone in particular, just seeing and being seen. It's nice, moving through the buzz of the crowd without really being expected to add to it unless she wants to. It's like she's the invisible puppetmaster. Sometimes that freaks her out, if she's had too much or she thinks about it too long, and she ends up cornering somebody and demanding to know if they can see her until someone else gets Gerard to talk her down. Tonight it's awesome.

On her second circuit through the apartment she runs into Saporta, literally; he's balanced on one foot on one of the folding chairs that makes up Otter's kitchen set, and vaults off it without looking around first. She walks into his windmilling arms and takes a knuckle in the teeth and a splash of warm liquid down her bra.

"If I didn't know you were edge, I would kick your ass for wasting booze, Gabe."

"If you take your top off, I'll lick you clean, baby."

"You're not that lucky."

"You're not that hot."

She looks at him over the rim of her glasses and he laughs, throwing his arms around her and pulling her in tightly. "Fuck, I missed getting looked at like I'm shit on your shoe. How's it going, Waysita?"

"Living the dream." She rests her forehead against his chest for a minute, then bumps him until he lets go. "You?"

"I'm good. DJing tomorrow night, you should come." She shrugs and he rattles on undeterred. "Hey, what're you playing now? A Precision, right?"

"Yeah. I like it."

"Thought you were asking around for a short-scale."

She bites back a sigh, bracing herself for another lecture on gear. "I didn't have any luck. Everybody's selling Precisions."

"Cause you switched from guitar, right? Yeah, a shorty's good for that. But let me see your hands--" Mikey barely manages to set her cup on the floor before Gabe grabs her wrists. She obediently spreads her fingers, opening up her palms. "You've got freakish beast-hands for a chick. You can totally play a full-size."

"I know. I just said that I am playing one."

"Right. Course." He's still holding her wrists, thumbs rubbing over her pulse points. There's always a manic, buzzing energy around Gabe, crawling up from under his skin, whether he's got a whole crowd to play to or just one person. Having it all focused on you is kind of a trip. She raises her eyebrows at him and smiles.

"You're a beast, Way," he says with utmost sincerity. "We should jam sometime."

"I bet you say that to all of the girls."

"You've got no proof."

"Have you said hi to Gerard yet?"

It's his turn to raise his eyebrows and shoot her a look as he lets go of her wrists. "I need permission from your brother to ask you to jam?"

"No. But you should say hi to him, since it's his birthday."

"All about manners with you all of a sudden."

"Something like that." She could keep this up all night, if she wanted to; back and forth with quick little lines, short and sharp, twice as much in tone and eyes and angle of the body as in the words. But she doesn't actually feel like talking all night. Just a little more to establish the upper hand, and then skip ahead to the good stuff.

"Go say hi," she prompts, reclaiming her cup. "And bring me a beer."

"I see how it is. I'm your errand boy, huh?" He rolls his eyes and steps back, but he's grinning, and she feels that tightening in her stomach again, heat and nerves and anticipation. She takes another swallow of warm Jack and Coke to feed the good parts and drown out the bad, smiles at him over the lip of her cup, and turns to join another conversation.

The next hour or so is a blur--Gabe slides the beer bottle down between her breasts when he comes back, earning himself a sharp elbow in the ribs; Ray leads the whole apartment in singing happy birthday to Gerard, who spends the whole time doing some sort of anxious bob-and-weave dance in response; a neighbor comes by to tell Otter she'll call the cops if they don't keep it down; and Mikey ends up sitting on the kitchen floor with Gabe, her hand tucked into his lap and her chin dug into his shoulder so she can talk right against his ear.

"I like boys." She rubs her thumb along the seam of his jeans. "I like boys a lot."

"I know you do, Mikeyway. I've heard stories."

"Yeah, they tell stories." She rolls her eyes and sighs, warm breath against Gabe's sweaty neck, knowing it'll make him shiver. "They're all like, she's such a slut, but I just like boys."

"I think that's very cool."

"I like the accessories boys come with."

"That's, like, a really bad pun, Mikey--oh." He closes his eyes and she smirks against his neck, rubbing a little more firmly.

"Let's go find the bedroom."

"Yeah. Yes. We should--wait."

"What?" She pulls her hand back and frowns at him. "Wait what?"

"This is Otter's place, right?"

"Yeah. So?"

"And you and him are, like...a thing?"

She stares at him, feeling her jaw set into a tight line. What the fuck. "No. Sometimes we hang out, not that it's any of your business."

"No, I know that, I don't care about that. Just, like. Hooking up with you in his bed, when you guys are, like...it's tacky, dude."

"Tacky."

"I have a strict policy of never being tacky."

"You're tacky all the fucking time."

"Okay, but I believe there's such a thing as a code between men."

"You've got to be kidding me. For one thing, neither of you are men."

"Let's not be harsh just because you're drinking."

"Believe me, I could be a lot harsher." She stands up slowly, bracing herself on the counter. "You're a pain in my ass, is what you are, Saporta."

"We should still jam. Call me."

"Whatever." She stalks back to the living room and the remains of the booze, scowling at the empty bottles. God, she hates everything tonight. So much for her buzz.

Gerard's pouring himself more vodka, weaving on his feet a little and singing happy birthday to himself. She drapes herself against his back, hooking her chin over his shoulder. "Share?"

"Mikey." He gropes in the air blindly until she catches his hand and threads their fingers together. "Where have you been?"

"Talking to Gabe."

"Oh, yeah. He said hi. We're gonna hang out after he DJs tomorrow night."

"Sweet."

He turns around slowly and she steps back to let him, squeezing his hand once he's facing her. "Happy birthday, Gee."

He blinks, the slow, wide-eyed one he gets when his brain is sailing off somewhere else on a quiet boozy sea. She smiles at him and touches two fingers to the tip of his nose, making him scrunch up his face. She laughs, taking her fingers away again and kissing where they were.

"I love you, Mikes."

"I love you too."

"Love me best?"

"Always love you best," she affirms. He smiles, wide and happy, and wraps his arms around her, pulling her close and pressing a kiss above each of her eyebrows.

"Any luck with Frank?" she asks, leaning into him and closing her eyes.

"He thinks we're awesome."

"We'd be awesome-er with a rhythm guitar. Did you tell him that?"

"Yeah. Things are percolating. Wheels are in motion." He lets go of her and grabs his drink from the windowsill. "Planets are aligning."

"So no promises, then."

"We hugged."

"You've hugged everybody here, Gee."

He shrugs and takes a drink. "Let's go home."

"We're staying here tonight." No one in the apartment is sober except Gabe, she's not asking him to drive them home, and she and Gerard will absolutely get hit by a car if they try to walk.

"You want to sit on the couch?" she asks when he starts to frown. He nods and she snags the vodka bottle--an inch left, good enough--and hooks her arm through his, steering him slowly across the room.

"Great party," he says, and she nods, bumping her shoulder against his. "This is going to be our year, Mikey."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Planets are aligning."

"Awesome." She deposits him on the couch, then sits beside him and closes her eyes tightly when the room threatens to spin. "I can't wait."

**October 2002**

Mikey only has two rules for life in the van: if the guys insist on peeing in cups and bottles, they can't leave them sitting around in the cupholders, and nobody touches her backpack. Her birth control pills and her tampons both live in there, and getting between her and either of those is punishable by death, a kick in the crotch, or taking all of her driving shifts until she feels forgiving. (She never feels forgiving.)

Frank catches on to the rules pretty fast, which makes sense when Mikey stops to think about it; Jamia probably has him pretty well-trained in not messing with a girl's personal gear. He still steals her food and her booze, though, so it's not like he's giving her special treatment, which is also punishable by death or kicking. Plus he's small, so he fits in the back corner with the gear that Mikey alway got shoved into before, and he's the new newbie, so now he's the one who gets sent running through the rain to the convenience store for cigarettes, Twizzlers, Cherry Coke, and Excedrin.

"I'm starting to like having you around, Iero," she says as they get on the road again somewhere in Ohio.

"Because I provide caffeine and drugs? Yeah, that makes me like a god to you."

"You have to provide something a lot harder than Excedrin to hit god status." She pops four of the pills and washes them down with the Coke, then stretches her leg to kick Gerard's elbow. "Twizzlers. Share."

"They're mine."

"Share."

"Leave me alone."

"Share, Gee."

"You're such a brat." He passes back the candy and she grins, ripping off a bite and looking out the window. It's still raining. Her entirely unscientific survey of personal experience leaves her suspecting that it's always raining in the Midwest.

Frank's been good for their sound, too, and their heads; his energy and enthusiasm is catching. He's a maniac on-stage, and Gerard feeds off that. It's fun to watch them, as much as she can spare any attention from her bass and trying to stay in a groove with Otter. She taps her fingers against her thigh, miming out the run in Honey that she's finally beaten down but can't ever let get away from her, and glances over her shoulder at Otter in the backseat. He's slouched down low, his headphones on and his eyes closed. She'll catch him at sound check to drill a little. They haven't been clicking lately, and if she doesn't suggest a practice Ray will demand one, which is a fast track to everyone being resentful and pissed off.

Except for Frank, again, because he's a happy little weirdo. She turns her head the other way and squints at him, stuffed back between a box of merch and the window. He looks glad to be there, still. She shoots him a fast smile and faces front, sipping her soda and listening to Gee and Ray talk about Anthrax. Gee's voice is rough and raspy enough to make her frown and lean forward, bumping her Coke bottle against his arm.

"Drink," she prompts. He takes it and does without missing a beat. She snatches another Twizzler before sitting back and looking out the window again. Even if it never stops raining in Ohio, at least she's here with her band.

**

They sell enough merch to have a hotel night instead of a "park the van at a Wal-Mart" night. "The only way this could be more awesome is if Mikey showed us her boobs," Frank says as they drag themselves out onto the pavement and stretch.

Mikey frowns and looks around. "Is there anyone here who hasn't seen my boobs?"

"Gerard, I hope," Ray says.

"We've spent our lives in a house with one working shower," Gerard says flatly. "I've seen things I can't even talk about."

"Yeah, you think you've had it bad," Mikey starts, but Frank throws his hands in the air and waves them like he's signaling down a plane.

"No. No 'weird stories of the Ways' right now. Let's split up the rooms so we can get inside and I can wash about six inches of sweat and gross off me. I seriously will fight anyone who gets between me and hot water."

Gerard shrugs, grabs his duffel bag, and starts off across the pavement. "Well, I'm rooming with Mikey."

Mikey takes her own bag and rolls her eyes. "Why do I always have to room with Gerard?"

"Because you're his sister," Frank points out, bouncing a little on his toes. "It's, like, propriety."

"I don't know if you're aware of this, but Gerard is a vicious cockblock."

"Again, that's because you're..." Frank stops and frowns. "Wait, can you still say cockblock? Wouldn't you say, like, vagblock?"

"Don't be an idiot."

"Besides, take a look around, dude." Frank slams the van door and kicks it for good measure. "This parking lot is not exactly crawling with groupies looking to take you to the magic land."

"Wow. Nice."

"Thanks."

"And it's the principle of the thing. Cocks are being blocked. Trust me."

"Huh. Well, in that case, no, nobody else is going to room with him."

"Like you would care, Mr. My Girlfriend Keeps My Balls on a Leash."

"It's a sexy leash." Frank does a bizarre little shimmy that really doesn't evoke sex at all. "She makes it worth my while."

"I'm very happy for you. That doesn't help me."

"Tell him that if he doesn't let you get laid, you'll just start bringing your vibrator to hotel nights."

Mikey wrinkles her nose. "I think that's a little over the line."

"That's what makes it an ultimatum, babyface." He boosts his bag higher on his shoulder. "But if you really want a break, you can room with me and those three can hang out. Hey! Guys! Mikey's rooming with me."

Gerard stops in his tracks and frowns back at them over his shoulder. "What?"

"She's gonna room with me. It's cool."

Gerard's eyes flick to Mikey, then Frank, then back to Mikey again. "Mikes?"

She shrugs. "Just one night, Gee."

His frown deepens, and he jabs one finger at Frank. "Don't try anything funny or I'll kick your ass."

Frank rolls his eyes. "Be reasonable, dude. It's much more likely that Mikey will violate my tender virtue than the other way around."

Gerard thinks about that for a minute, shrugs, and heads for the building again. "Yeah, good point."

"Hey!" Mikey protests, but the only answer is Frank's giggling.

**

"So, Mikeyway," Frank drawls, clutching the remote control to his chest and rolling protectively onto his stomach to keep her from changing the channel away from some fucking PBS thing about space. "I am so honored, and pleased, to finally be here, alone with you like this. I've waited so long."

"I'm not going to sleep with you."

"I know. That isn't what I meant."

She frowns and kicks him in the ribs, hoping he'll drop the remote. "Then what's so exciting about it?"

"I can finally get an answer to the question that plagues the entire Jersey scene."

"It's nobody's goddamn business whether I shave or wax."

"That's not what I meant either. And stop kicking me."

"Get to the point and I will."

He rolls onto his back and tucks the remote down the front of his pants. "Are you and Gerard, like...Oedipal?"

She stares at him for a minute, then scowls. "You've got to be fucking kidding me."

"Just a question."

"First of all, Oedipal means wanting to fuck your mom, you moron."

"Hey, I'm a college dropout."

"Yeah, so am I, and I still know that Oedipal isn't about doing the nasty with your..." She punches him in the arm.  "Don't be gross."

"I'm not.  I'm just saying, you guys are close."

She shrugs and scoots a few inches away, rolling her eyes at him.  "Yeah.  That's not a big secret."

"Obviously."  Frank folds his hands over the end of the remote where it pokes up from his waistband.  "People make the gross assumption a lot, huh?"

"Not a lot.  Sometimes."  She frowns and bites at her thumbnail, wishing she had a beer.  "I guess we did weird out our parents at one point, though."

Frank chokes, clapping his hand over his mouth for a minute before he gets his breath enough to giggle. "Shit.  Really?"

"God, it was so fucking..." She makes a face.  "I would fall asleep down in Gee's room with him all the time, for, like, my whole life.  Then when I was fourteen my mom stopped me on the stairs one morning when I was coming up for breakfast and said we needed to talk.  And Dad went downstairs to talk to Gerard, and it was this...fucking awkward, horrible thing about how I was a woman now and Gerard was a man and there were things about women and men that I didn't understand yet, or at least I had better not understand yet or she was going to beat my ass into next Tuesday."

"Wow."  Frank stares up at the ceiling for a minute.  "Wait, did they actually think you guys were..."

"Not really.  They were just afraid of, like, Flowers in the Attic style experimenting going on as our hormones consumed us."

"Then they probably should've had the intervention when Gerard was fourteen, not you."

"Gross.  Fuck."  She smacks him on the shoulder and then slumps back against the headboard.  "Anyway."

"Wait, what did your dad say to Gerard?"

"I don't know.  Something manly."

"Yeah, I doubt that."

"Fuck you."  She glances at him. "You know, I'm a woman and you're a man and we're sitting on the same bed.  Is that going to be a problem?"

"I don't know, do you understand things about women and men now?"

"I've done a little research."

"Fucking sweet.  Too bad I'm afraid of my girlfriend."

"Yeah, me too." She reaches out and snatches the remote before he has a chance to cover himself. "Loser. You should go call her. She's fuckin' scary."

"Tell me about it." He slides off the bed and stretches, then grabs his phone from the nightstand. "Don't lock me out. And don't try to make me watch any douchey chick-flick bullshit."

"Cause that's so my thing, asshole."

"It's Gerard's thing, and you two are close." He makes a hand gesture to illustrate the concept and she flips him off with both hands, holding the remote against her chest with her elbow so it doesn't fall into fair territory again.

"You love me, Way." He saunters out the door, shooting a grin back over his shoulder. "We're gonna be hetero platonic lifemates forever."

**December 2002**

"I feel good about tonight," Gerard says, swinging his feet back and forth so the heels of his shoes scuff across the tile.

Mikey glances at him in the mirror. They're in the bathroom backstage at the venue, Gerard sitting on the toilet and watching her do her makeup. It reminds her of being at home, of so many nights in her room, him keeping her company while she got ready to go out, his voice wandering back and forth in the rhythms she's known all her life.

"Yeah?" she asks, grabbing her comb and teasing a stray lock of hair back to where she wants it. "Got something special in mind?"

He shrugs, kicking again, leaving long black marks across the floor. Not that anyone's likely to notice. "Nah. Just...I feel like there's good energy. We've been really on lately."

They have. Mikey thinks a good share of the credit goes to Frank--his enthusiasm is good for all of them, plus he's got more experience. He's done all of this before, so he can snap them out of it when they get too starry-eyed. Usually by saying something pretty fucking rude.

She realizes she's just standing there with the comb in her hand, staring at the mirror. Fuck, her mind wanders all over the place these days. Being on tour makes her tired, distracted, spinny; she only really feels centered and focused when they're on-stage, and that could be the lights or the buzz of the amps or just the fact that if she fucks up she'll have to deal with the Wrath of Ray.

On-stage is one thing; the rest of the time she can fake it with booze. "Fake it till you make it, baby girl," she says to herself in the mirror, her breath fogging the glass.

"What?"

"Nothing." She picks up her mascara and starts layering it on. Thick and black, destined to leave smudges on her glasses. "I think you're right, by the way."

"About what?"

"It's going to be a good night."

He grins and stands, coming up behind her and digging his fingers into her hair. "Fuck yeah."

"Fuck you, how much time did I just spend on that?"

"Nobody's looking at your hair, Mikey." He heads out the door, yelling for Ray before she can muster a retort.

"Asshole," she mutters, leaning in until her nose touches the glass and adding a final coat. She can already hear the buzz of the crowd coming in, energy crawling back through the walls and floorboards. Going to be a hell of a night.

**

Hell is one word for it.

She's trying to keep her head down, stay in the song, just keep playing and not look up, because if she sees their faces--too many of them, pressed too close, howling like a storm trying to break up over the stage--she's going to lose her shit.

Gerard is howling back at them, screaming into the microphone without any semblance of the melody. She can't even tell if he's singing the same song she's playing, right now. Frank is; she can see him out of the corner of her eye, glimpse enough of his hands moving over the strings to know they're in the same place. But Gerard and Otter and Ray might as well be on the far side of the moon. It isn't a big stage, but the crowd's pressing in and filling up all of the air.

The first kid climbs up onto the stage and there's a split second where she thinks it's a prank, and kinda funny. Then the whole room seems to surge and move and it isn't a storm, it's a wave, crashing down all around them and threatening to wash them away.

She keeps playing, that's the stupid crazy thing. She keeps her hands on her bass and sets her elbows out, sinks her weight down into her heels and tries to keep playing while they rush the goddamn stage. People knock into her left and right and she can't hold her balance, there's just no way. She stumbles back once, then again, and they still keep coming, pushing and yelling. She has a vague, distant thought that they're going to spill her beer, and then she's hit the amps and there shouldn't be anywhere else to go. One of the kids charges in from out of nowhere and hits another one in front of her, knocking him down and sideways, and his legs fly out and knock her off her feet.

She's going down, she's falling into the mess of the crowd, and she's got her arms wrapped around her bass, trying to protect it. She's kicking with everything she's got, eyes closed and elbows still flying left and right making contact as she tries to stay afloat, but there's no way, just no way she's coming out of this without getting hurt and she doesn't know what to do.

Hands grab her under the arms and she screams out loud, a hoarse yell of protest. She slams her head back as hard as she can against whoever's holding her, but the hands don't let go, and a heartbeat or two later she realizes that they're not pushing her down, they're pulling her up, out of the mess and onto the riser with the amps and Otter's drum set. Another heartbeat and she realizes that it's Ray who's pulling her up, with wild eyes and a bloody nose where her head slammed into him.

But his hands don't flinch, they stay tight and solid until he's pulled her out, and then he puts his arms around her and they stand there shaking on the riser while club security runs the kids out of the way.

"The fuck, Mikey?" he gasps, and she shakes her head. She can't do words, not now. She can barely do air.

She looks around for Gerard, her heart clenching even tighter in her chest. For a minute panic rushes up and she loses her balance, closing her eyes and bunching Ray's shirt in her fingers. He rubs her back and holds her up, and she breathes in the smell of his sweat and silently screams at herself to get it together.

"Gerard?" she asks, gagging the word out around the choke in her throat.

"Over there." He turns her gently and nods toward the wings, and she sees Gerard and Frank and Otter, all gesturing wildly and talking to security.

"How'd they get there?" she asks stupidly.

"We all ran as soon as we realized what was happening. Why didn't you?"

She blinks at him. "We were playing a song."

He stares at her for a minute, then kisses the middle of her forehead. "Okay," he says, his voice unsteady and with a note of something underneath that she can't quite parse but sounds a lot like respect. "Wow. Let's...let's go to the guys, huh? Let's do that."

**

"Okay," Gerard says, his voice a choked rasp and his beer bottle shaking in his hand. "So. Um. We're all alive. And...what did we, um, what did we learn?"

Frank giggles, high and nervous. "What did we learn? Are you fucking high?"

Gerard scowls at him. "Fuck you."

"We learned we need a barrier," Ray says, shoving his hands into his pockets so she can't tell if he's shaking, too. "I think from now on we need to tell venues we need a goddamn barrier."

"Yes. Barrier. Good." Gerard nods stiffly and gulps down some beer. "What else?"

They stand there for a minute in stunned silence, until Frank giggles again. "We learned Mikey Way is a fucking badass. Did you see her up there? Holy shit."

"Holy shit is right." Ray shakes his head. "Tried to break my fucking nose, man."

"Mikey is totally a badass." Gerard frowns and shifts his weight, digging his cigarettes out of his pocket. "Also fucking crazy and from now on she's going to be on a fucking leash, don't even think I'm kidding, Michaela Jane."

Mikey starts to laugh and then she can't quite stop, not even once she's sunk down to her knees on the floor and pressed her face into her hands.

**

Later that night she slips back into the bathroom, staring at herself in the mirror. There's a bruise on her cheekbone and a massive scrape across the back of her left hand, though she can't see that now because there's a bandage taped over it. She tugs her t-shirt off over her head and undoes her bra, shrugging it off and staring at her bare torso.

There are bruises across her arms and chest, some of them vague solid shapes and a few clearly fingers, grabbing tight and holding on. She touches a mark on her breast, then presses against it slowly and carefully, wincing at the pain and trying not to get lost in the static in her brain that's trying to tell her she must've done that herself, because there's no way what actually happened could've happened.

"Mikes?"

Gerard starts to open the door without actually waiting for an answer. She clutches her t-shirt to her chest--no time and too stunned to actually put it back on--and turns to face him, swallowing hard as he stops in the doorway and looks at her. His eyes move up and down her body, staring at the bruises.

"Oh, honey," he says softly.

She swallows hard before she speaks, but her voice still shakes more than she wants it to. "I'm a fucking badass, Gee."

"You are, honey." He reaches for her and she goes to him, leaning against his chest and closing her eyes, only letting herself shake when his arms are wrapped tight around her. "You're the most badass thing in this fucking band. Most badass thing I've ever seen."

"What the fuck was that?"

"They love us." He's petting her hair, soft slides of his palm that cling to her hairspray and tug, again and again. It's a soothing little sting. "They love us so much they want to kill and eat us and assume our power."

"Well...tell them not to do that."

"I'll make a sign." He sighs against her hair, then kisses her forehead above each eye. "Frank has decided that to celebrate not being run over, we should smoke, quote, 'the good shit,' and he and Otter have both contributed. You want to kick in and come hang too?"

"This is good shit by objective standards or by Frank standards?"

"At this point I would probably smoke something I found growing under the van."

"So what else is new?"

"Well, you must feel better if you're going to be a brat." He tugs her hair again. "I take it you're in?"

"Of course." She wipes the back of her hand across her eyes and steps toward the door, stopping when Gerard grabs her shoulder.

"Put your shirt on first," he prompts, rolling his eyes. "God, were you raised in a barn?"

**

It is objectively good shit. They smoke in the dressing room until the venue asks them to leave, then walk back to the van, their breath visible in the chilly early-morning air.

Mikey walks with her eyes half-closed, relying on the guys' voices to keep her on the sidewalk. Gerard and Frank are talking about finding a convenience store, arguing in high-pitched voices about whether they need Twizzlers, Doritos, cigarettes, or all of the above.

"Kit-Kats," Mikey says, pushing at Gerard's shoulder. "Or something chocolate."

Frank snorts. "That time of the month, huh?"

"Fuck you."

"You couldn't handle me, Way."

"What?" Gerard frowns and looks around, his gaze wandering around the street in a wide arc before it finds Frank. "I can't handle what?"

"Other Way," Frank says, squeezing Gerard's elbow.

"Cause I can handle anything. I'm a fucking goddamn superhero."

"We know."

"And I want some fucking goddamn Doritos."

"We know that, too."

Mikey tugs at Gerard's hair and then lets herself drop back, falling into a slower pace while they skitter ahead, aimed for the 7-11 up the block. Ray has his phone open, probably texting his girlfriend, so Mikey veers away from him, tilting her head back to study the dull gray-orange of the sky under the streetlights.

"Hey."

She looks over her shoulder at Otter, blinking slowly until he comes into focus. "Hey."

His hand closes loosely around her arm. "Let's go back to the van."

"Going to the store."

"They can get stuff. C'mon." He smiles at her and she almost shivers, not from the air but from the familiar electric charge creeping up from her belly to her spine. "Let's go back to the van."

"Yeah." She licks her lips and nods, turning to face him. "Yeah, let's."

His smile gets wider. "Cool. C'mon."

"Gerard," she yells, not looking back. "We're going back to the van. Get me some Kit-Kats."

Otter tugs her arm and she goes with him, muscles tight with anticipation. He rubs his thumb over her pulse point and she glances at him, smiling.

"It's not that time of month, right?" he asks, smirking at her. She rolls her eyes and pulls her arm free, speeding up her pace. She can see the van up ahead, parked all by itself at the end of the street.

"You're going to be eating it either way, dude."

"You're so disgusting."

"What's your point?" She pulls the van door open and then tugs her hoodie off. "Get in here and get your pants off. They won't be gone all night."

They're gone for exactly as long as it takes for him to go down on her and her to give him more handjob than blowjob--he takes too fucking long to come when he's stoned and her jaw can't hold out forever. Frank flings the door open just as she's getting her t-shirt back over her head.

"Why Miss Way, I do declare," he says with an exaggerated drawl. "That ain't ladylike."

"You would know."

He flips her off and throws a Kit-Kat at her head. "You've got jizz in your hair, dude."

"I do not."

"Gerard, does your sister have jizz in her hair?"

Gerard frowns and climbs into the backseat, his eyes already closing. "I don't want to know that."

"Neither did the rest of us, but it fuckin' reeks in here. Roll down a window or something next time, kids."

"I will end you," Mikey says flatly, twisting around to look under the seat. "Where the fuck is my bra?"

"That's what we're going to call the next album," Ray mutters, climbing into the driver's seat and setting a Big Gulp in the cupholder. "Assuming we live to record it. Seatbelts on, idiots, we have to be in North Carolina today."

**

They crawl back into Jersey on Christmas Eve, snow in the air and the van rattling with Ray and Frank's matching raw, hacking coughs. They have five whole days off before they play Boston. Mikey plans to spend them asleep.

She hugs her parents and heads up the stairs to her room, trying not to think about their upcoming schedule--she's so tired of the van she wants to scream, but they're touring steady for the next couple of months, and she's just going to have to deal with it. She definitely needs to bring some more books. And sleeping pills. And fuck, she forgot to make an appointment with her gyno, so it's going to be some random Planned Parenthood to get her birth control renewed. Fuck it.

She flops face down on the bed, suddenly very aware that her clothes are filthy and her skin is filthy and there are probably small colonies of elves living in her hair because she is disgusting. It never bothers her until suddenly it does, and "suddenly" never seems to come until she's too tired to move.

Her phone buzzes from her pocket. She shifts to the side, rolling onto her hipbone, and drags it free to squint at the screen.

hey mikey its gabe just saw ray drive by. ur back u should come over

She stares at the text for a long minute before punching in a reply. srsly? just got home. sleeeeeeeep.

lol 2nite then. make it worth ur while promise.

fine ok. She tosses the phone to the floor and rolls herself up in her comforter, silently promising the imaginary elves that she'll wash them down the drain before she goes out.

Her mom gives her one of those looks when she comes down the stairs dressed to leave, but doesn't say anything. Her dad taps his knuckles on the top of her head. "Don't stay out too late."

"You haven't told me that since I was sixteen," she says, looking at him over her glasses. "You don't get to start up again now."

"Wouldn't want you to miss Christmas," he says, picking up his newspaper. "Your grandmother wants to see you, Miss Rock Star."

She kisses his cheek and hurries out the door, her stomach flip-flopping at the tone of his voice, all matter-of-fact like they've already made it. Her parents believe in them more than makes any sense, more than they should. Sometimes she wants to ask them why they never told her and Gerard to be more practical.

Then again, they've known her and Gerard for a while now. So probably they know that practical isn't an option.

She parks down the street from Gabe's house--Gabe's dad's house, and she's tempted to give him shit for that except God knows she doesn't have a leg to stand on--and walks the last block, shoving her hands in her pockets and hoping she looks casual and relaxed instead of like death on legs.

Dr. Saporta opens the door, and from the look on his face, her hope was not successful. "Hello," he says cautiously. "Do you need help?"

"Is Gabe home?" she asks, forcing a smile. Fuck her entire range of shitty luck.

"Ah. One of Gabriel's friends." He nods and steps back. "Come in. He's downstairs. Would you like a sandwich?"

"I'm fine, thanks." She hurries down the stairs and rolls her eyes at Gabe. "Your dad thinks I'm homeless. Hi. Hi, Ricky."

"You do kind of look homeless." Gabe comes over and wraps her up in one of his ridiculous hugs. "Hi. Go away now, Ricky."

"Manwhore," his brother mutters, heading for the stairs. "Nice to see you, Mikey."

"I don't look homeless, I look like I'm in a band." She flops on the couch and glares at him. "And your brother just assumes we're going to have sex? What did you tell him?"

"Nothing. He's just, you know, met you." He dodges her halfhearted kick and sits down, pulling her legs into his lap. "So. How was the tour?"

"Good. Really good. We've got, like, actual fans. It's awesome." She closes her eyes as he pries her shoes off and starts rubbing her feet. "I love that you don't even ask, you weirdo."

"It's my number-one seduction move."

"You have a foot fetish."

"No, I have a 'get girls arching and moaning in my lap' fetish. Also known as 'just being a guy.'" He presses his thumb hard against her arch until she gasps. "So I saw the video of the stage rush. Fucking hardcore, Mikeyway."

"There was a video?"

"Oh yeah. Someone in the back of the crowd had a handheld."

"Shit. I'll have to find it."

"Hold on." He swings her legs free and goes to grab his laptop. "Seriously, it's cool. You're all badass and shit while the guys run like squirrels."

"You mean they acted smart and responsible while I stood there like an idiot and got knocked down."

"That's no way to talk." He brings up the video and sets the computer on her belly. "See? Fucking hardcore. Listen to them talking about you."

She can't really decipher any of their comments through the screaming from the crowd, so she just watches herself, a tiny stick-legged figure holding her bass like a shield and not giving way until they make her. "Huh."

"That's it? Just huh?" He laughs and takes the laptop away, closing it and setting it on the floor. "You're so stoic I think you might be dead, dude."

"I'm not."

He shifts, then, getting up on his knees and planting them on either side of her thighs. "Prove it."

As seduction goes, it's laughable. It's ridiculous and way too cocky and kind of stupid. But looking up at him, she doesn't really care. She reaches up, curving her fingers around his shoulders--beast-hands for a chick, he said before, see how much he likes it now--and pulls him down into a kiss, holding him there for a beat before she slides her hands down his back and up again, dragging his t-shirt to his armpits.

"Off," he says, raising his arms. "Off, off. You've been gone for weeks."

She pulls the t-shirt over his head and tosses it to the floor, then settles her hands on his chest, splaying her fingers wide. "Well hello there."

"Hi."

She wiggles out of her t-shirt, laughing breathlessly as his hands slide up her sides and around her back to find the catch of her bra. "Careful. Tickles."

"Way too much talking." He presses his mouth over hers, kissing deep and rough while he fumbles at her bra and finally gives up, shoving it down around her ribs instead. She arches up and wraps her legs around him, gasping in approval and biting at his mouth.

He works fast, opening up her jeans and getting his hand in her underwear while she's still getting her glasses off and dropping them to the floor. "Jesus," she hisses. "Getting right down to business."

"Been weeks." He ducks his head and drags his mouth down her chest, kissing and sucking, dragging his teeth over the skin. "I want to fuck you."

"Yeah." She shoves her hand into the front pocket of his jeans, digging around until she finds the condom he carries because he's a goddamn cliché. And she's thankful for it. "C'mon."

"All over but the shouting, baby girl," he says, grinning and sitting up to shuck his jeans. And he's close enough to right.

"Fuckin' hot," he mumbles against her throat afterward, rolling his hips against her one more time. "Should set up, like, a schedule, where you and all the other chicks I'm banging go out of town and come back so I get reunion sex all the time."

She rolls her eyes and jabs her heel into the small of his back. "Idiot."

"You love me." He moves off her slowly and goes to throw away the condom. She pulls her bra back up into place and watches the lines of his back.

"I wouldn't go that far."

"Ouch. You're cruel." He sits down beside her again, snagging both of their t-shirts from the floor. "You want to watch a movie?"

"I should get home."

"Wham bam thank you Gabe? Damn, Mikeyway. I'm hurt."

"It's Christmas Eve, dude."

"What do I care?"

She shakes her head and stands up. "My mom's making dinner and stuff. Plus I still have to do laundry."

"Yeah, yeah." He walks her upstairs, his hand lingering on her back. "We'll go out one night, okay? Text me."

"Sure." She smiles at his dad as they pass through the kitchen. Dr. Saporta glances up and says something in Spanish. It turns out that condom sounds the same in both languages, as does Gabe's indignant squawk in response.

She jogs the block back to her car, ducking her head against the chilly promise of snow in the air. Her phone buzzes in her pocket just as she gets behind the wheel.

merry pagan holiday of oppression, it says under Gabe's name. ill bring u a present when we go out. nice big present that u like lots. :)

She rolls her eyes and starts the car, heading back toward home. Someday she'll meet a guy who knows the art of when to shut the hell up. Someday.

**February 2003**

Gerard is on the phone again, sitting on the hood of the van and kicking his feet slowly against the grill. Mikey watches him from the corner of her eye and flips through a three-month-old issue of Cosmo that she's pretty sure Frank only has for jerking-off purposes. Which kind of makes her not want to touch it anymore. She tosses it back into the van and sighs, looking across the parking lot at the venue.

They arrived early for once and got all of the gear inside, and now they've got a few hours with nothing to do. Ray, Frank, and Otter went off in search of anything interesting. Mikey thought about going with them, but someone needed to stay with the van, and she and Gerard hadn't had much time to hang out lately.

Of course, he's spent the whole fucking time on the phone.

"Okay," he said, sliding down off the hood and squinting up at the sun, smiling. "Good talking to you. Yeah, we'll see you tonight. I can't wait to meet you, man. I think this could be really awesome."

Mikey raises her eyebrows and sticks her head out the van door. "Who was that?"

Gerard hangs up and shoves the phone into his pocket. "Nobody. Brian."

"Brian who?"

"Brian...something with an S. I dunno."

"Who is he?"

"God, so many questions." He comes over to the door and pokes halfheartedly at one of the grocery bags they've been using to store beer and candy bars. "We're out of beer."

"Yeah. I know."

"Well, fuck. What are we going to do before the show?"

"Buy at the bar, I guess."

He sits down on the floor of the van and stares out at the parking lot. "The guys aren't back yet?"

She bites back the obviously on the tip of her tongue and just nods, rubbing her knuckles against the back of his neck. "Who's Brian?"

"He's a manager."

She stops, staring at the dark strands of his hair against her hand. "Why are you talking to managers?"

"Well, we need one. And he really likes us."

"When has he even seen us?"

"He's been following us for a while, I guess. He's, like, a fan. It's pretty cool, actually. He thinks we're awesome."

"We are awesome." She twists his hair between her fingers. "But we don't just want some random guy off the street as our manager, you know?"

"That's why we're going to meet him tonight. See if we like him. Then he won't be a random guy, he'll be...Brian something with an S, who likes us, and who we like, and who wants to manage us so we're not accidentally fucking ourselves over all the time."

"We're not."

"Mikey." She tugs his hair and he hisses, reaching back to slap at her hand. "Ow. Quit it. And we are, maybe not all the time, but, like, sometimes. And that sucks."

"So you're just going to sign us on with some random guy who talks himself up to you on the phone. How did he even get your number?"

"Jesus." He huffs in frustration and stands up, hunching his shoulders and shoving his hands into his pockets. "You're being weird."

"I'm not. I just...I don't get it."

"I haven't signed a fucking contract. We're going to meet him. Just like anybody else we might sign on with. So calm the hell down." Gerard digs his cigarettes out of his pocket and she looks away, listening to the sounds of the familiar ritual of him lighting up.

"Whatever."

"Whatever yourself. I'm gonna go inside."

"Don't smoke any more than that one. Your voice is going to sound like shit."

"Fuck you." He walks off toward the building and she lies down on the seat, stretching her legs out so her feet dangle over the edge. The sun coming in the open door heats up her jeans against her knees. She could move, or close the door, but airing out the van seems like a good idea. It's been starting to smell like death this last stretch of tour.

She arches her hips up off the seat and takes her phone from her pocket, scrolling slowly through her messages. There are a few from Gabe, one about a movie he saw and one that's kind of dirty. She replies to the second one, sets the phone on her chest, and waits.

The phone buzzes a minute later and she flips it open and reads it over the edge of her glasses. She grins, catching her lower lip between her teeth. Text sex is awkward and kind of inherently stupid, but Gabe's pretty good at it. Not that she can do much lying in the van with the door open in the middle of the afternoon, but it's fun to think about.

More fun than the fact that apparently Gerard has been going around promising the band to random managers. Who knows where the fuck this Brian guy came from or who he is? She's going to have to watch their backs, like always. It's going to be up to her to run this guy off. Always stuck with the fucking dirty work.

**

The S stands for Schechter, and the name is attached to a short guy with a lot of tattoos and a serious expression. Mikey hangs back by the door, sipping at her water bottle, while the guys go through the required rounds of bullshit. She doesn't listen; this stage is all dick-measuring and trying to figure out who has more scene cred, throwing out the names of obscure bands and hoping the other guy flinches. She's done the dance herself, plenty of times, but she's not interested in it right now. She wants to know where this guy's coming from on a different level.

He definitely knows how to talk to Gerard. Gee's grinning, beaming, waving his hands and talking a mile a minute. Mikey's eyes narrow as she watches them, and she takes a big enough gulp of water that she almost chokes. What has this guy been saying to Gerard on their little private phone calls? How long have they been going on, anyway, and why didn't Gee tell her from the start? Being out of the loop drives her fucking crazy, and Gerard isn't supposed to do it to her. None of them are, but she can almost deal with the others doing it--what do Frank and Ray and Otter know about her, anyway--but Gerard is supposed to be hers. She doesn't have to tell him anything.

She's going to punch this Schechter guy in the mouth.

"So let's get down to it," he says, leaning back in his chair and balancing it on two legs. "I want to represent you."

"I think that's great," Gerard says, beaming even more, clutching his beer to his chest like a bride's bouquet. "I can totally feel, like, awesome chemistry right here, just talking, don't you think, guys?"

And the fucking traitors, they all nod.

Mikey just got outvoted without anybody even looking at her.

She takes another pull from her water bottle and then turns, walking out of the dressing room and toward the parking lot. She remembers there being a bar across the street. She needs a drink, and some air, and to be away from whatever the fuck is going on back there, since apparently it doesn't concern her.

**

She's on her third vodka tonic, listening to some local guy tell her about...something to do with cars. A car he has or used to have or is rebuilding or something like that; she isn't really listening and she doesn't care anyway. He's tall, and has really nice shoulders, and she's pretty sure he'll fuck her if she looks at him right when she finishes this drink. He's never heard of My Chemical Romance and she told him she goes to college in the next town over and is studying interior design.

Maybe she should study interior design. She could make her name putting together black-on-black houses with black accents and just a little bone-white around the corners. And refuse to ever do any work for her fucking loser of a brother who doesn't even look her way before he hands the band, their band, the band she named off to some random asshole with a name that she doesn't even know how to spell.

She slams back the rest of her vodka, shuddering as it slides down, and reaches out to touch Car Guy's wrist. "Hey," she says. "Hey, let's go back to your place. You live near here, right?"

"Mikey?"

She looks over her shoulder and scowls. "Go away, Frank."

"Gerard's looking for you."

"Who's Gerard?" Car Guy asks, catching her fingers. "Your boyfriend?"

"My brother. Tell him I'll be back later, Frank."

"He really wants to see you right now."

"Why doesn't he talk to Brian some more? Since they're best friends and everything."

Frank squints at her, wrinkling up his nose in the way that means he's about to be a grade-A dickbag. "Seriously? Don't do this to me, Mikey. You know I hate it when you act like a fucking girl."

"I am a fucking girl, asshole. And I'm busy. I'll be back later."

Frank nods and turns to Car Guy. "Have fun, dude. She hasn't quite finished the latest round of antibiotics, but you should be good. Don't let her be on top, though. You let it go to her head that she's in charge and she'll bust your balls like you wouldn't believe."

Car Guy's face crumples in confusion, and Mikey curses under her breath, shaking her hand free and walking out of the bar without looking back at either of them. Fuck Frank. Fuck Gerard. Fuck Brian the unspellable. Fuck guys. She fucking hates this band.

She hears Frank scrambling after her and lengthens her stride, hitting the crosswalk just as the light changes to red. "Mikey! You want to fucking get hit?"

"Try it. Just try it, Frankie."

"I meant by a car, dude." He's stopped on the curb, just his toes over the edge, staring at her all wide-eyed and shocked. "Get back here before someone has an accident."

"Don't tell me what to do."

He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Fine. Don't come back here, Mikey! Whatever you do, don't come back! Definitely get hit by a car so we have to find a new bassist and you have to have your legs replaced with chain saws or something!"

"Chain saws can only be arms. Chain saw legs wouldn't work at all."

"I bow to your superior knowledge. Get out of the street now."

She crosses back and stands in the gutter in front of him, not stepping up to the curb. "Better?"

"Close enough." She tilts her head back, staring up at the sky and taking a deep breath. "You're not really pissed about Brian, are you?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

His hands paw at her face, tucking her hair behind her ears, and she smacks at him blindly. "Were you really going to hook up with that guy?"

"Before you cockblocked me?"

"Vagblocked."

"Yeah. I was."

"Wouldn't that kind of piss Gabe off?"

She opens her eyes and stares at him blankly. "Gabe and I aren't dating. We're not exclusive."

"Oh. He struck me as more of the possessive type."

"I don't do well with being possessed." She looks over her shoulder and watches the light go red again. They missed their whole chance to walk. "Goddamn it."

"Gerard was really worried."

"Gerard doesn't know how to worry. Gerard is worried about. That's, like, his primary purpose in life. To give other people something to worry about." She sounds more bitter than she knew she felt. It's an odd sensation.

"I don't think you mean that." Frank reaches to touch her again and she jerks way, taking a step back into the street and shaking her head.

"I'll talk to him, okay? Not tonight. I'll talk to him tomorrow."

"And Brian?"

"What about Brian?"

Frank shrugs. "He's going to ride with us for a few days, get the feel of it. If he still wants it, we'll get the contract drawn up and sign him, like, next week, probably."

She stares at him for a minute, until the reflection on the wall behind him turns from red to green, then turns away to cross the street. "Great. That'll be...great. Awesome."

**

She doesn't talk to Gerard the next day. Or Brian. She avoids talking to either of them for the better part of a week, which is pretty goddamn difficult when they're living on top of each other. They take turns driving Brian's car behind the van, and Mikey takes as many shifts as the others will give up. She changes all of his radio presets from hardcore to a mix of NPR, pop, and oldies, then finds a station playing something she actually likes and smiles the smile of deep satisfaction and extreme pettiness for 20 or 30 miles.

She knows what he's doing; it's pretty fucking obvious. He's taking his time in the van to get to know everybody, talk to them one-on-one, plus get a sense of the band dynamics. It's bullshit and she isn't going to play along. When she does ride in the van, she puts her headphones on and fakes sleep, knowing he won't push against that boundary. The rules are different for girls, in weird and tenuous ways that she rolls her eyes at most of the time, but she'll take the advantage this time. He doesn't know her well enough to wake her up, and if she has her way, he never will.

"You're being ridiculous," Gerard tells her two or three times, the last one with a sharp "Michaela" added when she jerks free and walks away from him. He does know her well enough to push, and pry, and be a pain in the ass, but she knows how to push back with him. And how to stonewall, and how to just plain refuse to play along. They know each other inside out. Brian's never going to have that, no matter how much he tries to divide and conquer.

"That isn't what he's doing," Frank says patiently while they sit on a bench outside some godforsaken Midwestern McDonalds. Mikey's on a hunger strike of principles and cramps, feeling like rusty teeth are chewing up her guts while her head pounds with righteous indignation and loneliness and that clawing dark feeling in the back of her mind that crops up sometimes. Sometimes more than sometimes. She's fine, she is, she just wants to be alone and she wants someone to hold her and she wants to cry and she doesn't know how she can keep breathing when it hurts so fucking much just to sit there.

"He's not dividing and conquering." Frank rubs at her shoulder cautiously. "Mikey, come on, you're blowing this way out of proportion and I don't get why. Just because Gee didn't ask you first? He didn't ask any of us first. He's kinda clueless. It's not anything you did."

"You don't get it." Talking hurts, too. Thinking hurts. She really should at least get a Coke or something. Sugar and caffeine to keep her bloodstream jacked up where she likes it to be.

"No, I really don't." He squeezes a little. "Explain it to me."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because I don't get it either." She shrugs his hand off and stands up, jamming her hands into the pouch of her hoodie. "I'm going back to the van. Sorry. It's not you. I'm just...you know, PMSing, or whatever. Don't worry about it."

"Mikey..."

"Not now, Frank." She walks away before he can say anything else, ducking her head and hurrying across the pockmarked pavement, silently wishing she had a drink or some pills stronger than the ibuprofen in her backpack, something to make her sleep all the way through this stupid fucking black mood and let her wake up able to think and breathe and smile and be normal again.

It's not Brian, and it's not Gerard. It's her. It's always her.

She lies down in the backseat and curls up facing the upholstery, breathing into the stuffy little cave made by her chin and her nose. Her glasses dig into her skull above her ear too hard, it hurts, but she ignores it, closing her eyes and concentrating on breathing in and out, in and out.

Back home, when she felt like this, sometimes Gerard would give her some of his antidepressants, saying they might make her feel better. She never took them consistently enough for them to do any good, but then, neither did he.

In and out, in and out, and she jumps like she's startled when a warm hand rests on the back of her neck and rubs a little at the bulge of the top of her spine, but she's not, really. Part of her knew he'd come.

She coughs a little, blinking at the upholstery. "You're supposed to be eating."

"I finished." He rubs back and forth at the edge of the neckline of her shirt, tracing lines on her skin. "And Frankie said I might actually be able to catch you if I moved fast."

"Frankie needs to mind his own business."

"You're in the band. You are his business."

She closes her eyes again. Stupid to think this conversation was going to go any better. "No, I'm not."

"Mikey." He shakes her by the shoulder and she closes her eyes tighter, trying to pull away. "Honey, what's wrong? Why are you so mad at me?"

"I'm not." She is, but it's stupid and there's no point saying it. "I'm not mad."

"I'm pretty sure you are. I've known you for a while now. I can usually tell."

"Just leave it be, Gerard. For once?" His hand slides away and she exhales sharply, catching her lip between her teeth.

"You're scaring me, Mikes."

"What?" She can't turn her head far enough to see him; she ends up kind of staring up at an angle at the ceiling. "How am I scaring you?"

"I don't know what you're thinking. You won't talk to me. You won't even look at me if you don't have to. That isn't...normal. That's not how we are. It scares me."

"You don't get to know what I'm thinking all the time."

"I always did before."

"Jesus, Gerard."

"Is this about Brian?"

Her breath catches, hiccups, and she lets her head fall again, her nose tucked into the seam of the cushions. "No."

"Mikey." She doesn't answer. "Michaela."

"Fine. Fucking...fine. Yeah, it's about Brian. Are you happy now?" She sits up, making him jerk back against the middle seat while she swings her legs down to the floor and turns to face him, her arms crossed protectively over her chest. "It's fucking about Brian, Brian we're on a first-name basis with even though we've only known him a week, Brian you're handing the band off to without even asking."

"We took a vote."

"You didn't even look at me during that vote."

"Well, why don't you like him?" His voice is going up, getting squeaky like it does when he's upset. His face is all scrunched. He looks like a Muppet. If she starts laughing now, she will lose this entire argument.

She's not even sure she has a valid argument, but better to lose for that than because her brother has a Muppet face when he's confused.

"You barely even know him, Mikey. You haven't talked to him. He asked me why you won't talk to him. He noticed. He really wants to get to know you, he wants to get to know all of us."

"Exactly!" She really didn't expect to yell that until it happens. From the way Gerard flinches back and his eyes get bigger, he didn't expect it either. "Exactly, Gerard!"

"Exactly...what?"

"He has to get to know me. He doesn't already know me." Her tongue is too thick, too slow; she's almost stumbling over the words. There's a sudden rush of adrenaline and embarrassment in her blood and her brain, the sinking feeling of putting the pieces together herself just a few seconds too late to stop herself from having to explain them to Gerard.

"I don't get it."

No way out of it now. "Who got Geoff to do Bullets, Gee? Who got our practice space? Who knew a guy who knew a guy who got us that first gig? And, like, all of our first six months of gigs? Who...fuck. Who knew who to ask for any of the shit we have? Who had the fucking connections? Me. I did. I did all of that. I'm the connections. That's what I do. That's what I give to the band."

"You're also our bass player, in case you forgot."

"That's not why you kept me around to start with and you fucking know it. That's not why you let me in. You let me in because I knew people, and I could talk to them, and now you're off talking to people yourself and bringing in people I don't know and what am I supposed to do now, huh? What are you going to do with me if I don't do that?"

"Mikey." He's staring at her all wide-eyed and horrified and even more like a goddamn fucking Muppet and she starts laughing because she can't help it, but it turns into tears pretty fast.

"Honey." He drops to his knees between the seats and pulls her into his arms. "Oh, honey. It's not like that at all. Mikey. Shit. You're not the connections. You're...God, you're our heartbeat. You're my sister. You're...shit, Mikey, you're the only reason I'm still out here in this piece of shit van instead of saying fuck all this and going back to Jersey to sell shoes. We're not going to do anything with you. We love you. I love you."

She swallows hard, choking on more tears that she won't let out because Mikey Way does not fucking cry. Not ever. "Since...since when do you fucking want to sell shoes?"

"I don't know. I can have secret dreams."

"About shoes." She works one arm free and wipes at her eyes. "Fetishist."

"Don't judge me." He hugs her closer and she gives in, forcing herself to relax and fall into the hold. Gerard is safe; Gerard's arms are the first safe place she remembers. "I love you, Mikey. Don't ever doubt that, no matter what, okay?"

"I love you too, Gee." She swallows and turns her head, wiping her eyes on his sleeve this time. "I love you best."

He kisses her cheek and rests his chin against her head. "And if you really, really don't like Brian, I'll tell him to fuck off."

"Don't do that. You're right. I don't even know him."

"You could get to know him. At this point he's so freaked out trying to figure out what he did to offend you, I bet he'd even buy you dinner."

"Oh, well. In that case." She sighs and rubs her cheek against his arm. "Sorry I scared you."

"I missed you."

"We live in a van, Gerard."

"I still missed you."

She kisses his arm. "I missed you too."

**

It turns out that Brian is everything Mikey likes in a person: funny, sarcastic, fast on his feet conversationally, passionate about music, and willing to buy her beer. In fact, after ten minutes at the shitty sports bar down the block from the venue, she's considering the possibility that he might actually be her soulmate.

Probably not--he's too short and their areas of geekiness don't overlap enough. But they can definitely be friends.

"So," he says, waving a french fry at her. "You forgive me for whatever it was I did?"

She shrugs and takes a bite of her somewhat questionable burger. "Yeah."

"You going to clarify exactly what it was?"

"Probably not."

He barks a short laugh and shakes his head. "Okay. Well. I'm just going to say upfront that I'm not going to hit on you or anything. No weird sexual implications. Total professionalism."

"How do you know I'm even into guys?"

"It came up in one of my discussions with...okay, let me rephrase that, it came up in one of Gerard's monologues."

"What if I was going to demand sexual favors in exchange for not telling Gerard to drop you like a bad habit?" He stares at her, another fry hanging forgotten from his hand, and she laughs. "Dude, don't let me have my way when I'm being a dick."

"When should I let you have your way?"

"The rest of the time."

"Uh-huh. Got it." He studies her for a minute. "When do I let Gerard have his way?"

"Check with me first."

"And the rest of them?"

"They can take care of themselves. Well. More or less."

"Fair enough." They fall quiet for a few minutes, eating and watching each other.

"I think you guys can be great," Brian says after a while. "You've got something."

"I know."

"Half of it is just pure luck, though."

"More than half."

"Yeah." He takes a drink, his eyes never leaving hers. "So. How's your luck, Mikey Way?"

"Awesome. How's yours?"

"I feel like I'm on an upswing. Leprechauns everywhere."

"Leprechauns?"

"Yeah. I tripped over a pair of them fucking, out on the sidewalk. That's how I knew it was my lucky day."

It's a genuinely bizarre thing to say. He's going to fit right in.

**March 2003**

Mikey's main reaction to Europe is to wish that she'd paid more attention in school, because she has no fucking idea where they are and it's kind of freaking her out.

"At least at home I have a general idea," she tells Ray, hugging her backpack against her chest and staring out the van window at all of the cars that stubbornly persist in being on the wrong side of the road. "I don't know how all of the states fit together, but I know Iowa is Midwest and Mississippi is south and if we're in Idaho we're kinda northwest...ish. I have no fucking idea how Europe works."

"You don't have to know," he says patiently. "We'll get where we're going. Just try to relax."

"I'm relaxed. I'm just also freaking out."

"I don't think it works that way."

"Don't tell me what to do." She huddles down smaller behind her backpack and he pats her on the head, tugging a little at her hair until she puts her head down in his lap for the next few miles. No, kilometers. They don't even have miles here. Europe is fucking scary.

The tour is pretty sweet, though; there are actually people coming to see them, tiny groups of people with way more enthusiasm than she expected. They have word of mouth in Europe (and how does that work, when everybody here speaks different languages? Europe is fucking weird), and that means they're picking up steam, they're going to break through and be famous and tour with the Pumpkins and maybe she'll have her face on a t-shirt or something.

Or maybe they'll get lost in Europe and all die. That could also happen.

Ray kind of runs away from her when they stop for a break. Fueling up the van, stretching their legs, grabbing quick showers at a hostel; these breaks aren't really built into the schedule, but they're necessary. They just drive all night to make up for them, which makes Mikey even more nervous because at night they really can't tell what part of Europe they're in, and also that's when the vampires come out.

Shit, she needs to take a pill or three. Much too paranoid to go on like this.

The guys and Brian go off to make phone calls or pee or take pictures, she's not really sure and she's too paralyzed by continental dread to find out. She stretches her legs out and lies across the middle seat, staring up at the ceiling. It takes a minute to re-focus her eyes when a beer bottle appears in her field of vision.

"American beer," Bob says from the other side of the bottle. "One of the ones we smuggled in in the amp cases. Maybe it'll be comforting."

She takes the bottle and sits up. "You're a lifesaver. Thanks."

He shrugs and blushes, which is the most common reaction any of them get from Bob. She pops the bottlecap on her belt and takes a drink, watching him thoughtfully. He's a friend of Brian's, who came along to sound-tech as part of the package deal where they got Brian's life savings for this trip and he gets a reward to be named later. It freaks Mikey out if she thinks about it too much, that kind of faith in them. Gerard takes it in stride, and the other guys seem to, but she just can't; they definitely haven't done anything to deserve it.

"Are you having fun?" she asks after a minute, which makes him shrug and blush again.

"It's cool," he says. "First time I've been over here, and everything."

"Yeah, us too. It's crazy."

"And it's great working with you guys."

She wrinkles her nose at him and takes another drink. "Dude, you don't have to suck up to me. I don't have any authority."

He has a really soft, gentle laugh. She kind of likes it, like she likes the shrugging and blushing. Bob is soothing, quiet. She likes to sit near him and try to soak up his calm. "I'm not sucking up. And you kind of have all the authority, actually."

"What? No."

"Seriously. Watch sometime. If you're not into something, they all end up voting it down. They pay attention to you. Trust your judgment."

That's weird to think about. She looks away from him, taking another drink of warm, sour American beer. "Anyway. I'm glad you came along. You make us sound good."

"I do what I can. Some of these venues, man. I don't know."

"Right? Fuck." She can see Frank over by the hostel, taking a picture of Gerard and Otter posing with t-shirts they probably can't afford. "How'd you get into doing tech stuff? Brian?"

"I don't know. Just kind of wandered into it." He shifts in his seat, resting his head against the back of it so he can look at her more directly. "I drum, too, you know?"

"Yeah, you've mentioned. I still want to hear you play."

"Sometime. Anyway, like, there are a hell of a lot more guys trying to break into the business as questionable drummers than there are decent techs. So it's a more efficient in-road."

She looks at him for a minute, trying to tell if he's joking. He doesn't seem to be. "Efficient?"

"Yeah."

"I definitely want to hear you play. Tonight. Do Otter's sound check for him."

He laughs his soft little laugh and smiles at her. "Yeah, okay."

She kind of desperately wants to make out with him right now, just for not being any of the other guys she knows. But they're all headed back to the van, loud and stupid and rowdy, so she just smiles back and sits up, opening her backpack to find her headphones.

**June 2003**

Brian does have some kind of crazy luck or mojo or something. He starts working and a blink of an eye later they're in talks with Reprise.

Mikey can't take it; she's bouncing off the goddamn walls because this is it, this is for real, this is Reprise Records and motherfucking Warner Brothers. This is the big leagues and the deep end of the pool. This is sports metaphors.

She can't take her nervous energy out on the guys, because they're just as wound up. They can't even be in the same room with each other for more than an hour before nerves turn into weird, pointless shouting matches. That even includes Gerard, which is new and strange in exciting ways that she doesn't fucking need right now.

Mikey ends up moving in with her grandmother about a week into the negotiation period, because Donna's started playing the "I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it" card and nobody's seen Dad in days.

As far as Mikey can tell, Elena finds her nerves funny. There's a lot of little smiles while they watch the soaps, and outright laughter whenever Mikey's phone rings and she dives on it like a grenade. "You answering faster isn't going to change what they're calling to say, you know, Michaela," she says, waving her coffee cup in Mikey's direction. "You could breathe before you say hello."

"This is it, Grandma," Mikey says as patiently as she can manage. "This is our chance."

"That was Gerard calling to ask where you'd hidden something of his, judging by your end of the conversation."

"I didn't hide it. He's just a slob."

"The beam in your eye, the mote in your neighbor's, dear."

"My eyes are fine." Mikey flops down on the couch again, staring up at the ceiling. General Hospital is over and she doesn't want to watch Oprah. "You need anything from the grocery store?"

"You've asked me that five times today."

"I'm a little restless."

"Why don't you call that young man of yours?"

Mikey blinks and shoots a sideways look at her. "What?"

"The tall one that you think you've been sneaking in the back door without me noticing."

"That is always after you go to bed, nosy."

"It's my house, Michaela." She shakes her head and takes another sip of coffee. "What's his name?"

Mikey bites at her thumbnail and shrugs. "Gabe."

"And what does he do?"

"He's in a band."

"Of course he is." Elena nods and turns the volume down to compensate for a blaring commercial. "He's very tall."

"I guess." Mikey has a sinking feeling this is going somewhere horrific and there's nothing she can do about it.

"And very vocal."

Yes. Horrific. "Please don't, Grandma."

"What? I'm old, Michaela, I'm not dead. And I certainly hope I don't have to explain the facts of life to you at this stage of the game."

She bites down harder on her thumbnail. "We're just having fun."

"He's good to you?"

"Yeah." He is. In ways that she isn't even quite sure what to do with, because some of them seem like things you do with someone you're dating, and she's pretty sure they're not, still. It wouldn't make any sense to be dating. They're both on the road all the time. They're just having fun, and if she keeps repeating that, it will remain true and Gabe won't get all weird and solicitous at her any more.

"That's good. You should call him."

There are no words for how much she doesn't want her grandmother to be orchestrating her sex life. "Fine." She flips her phone open again and hits his number. "Hi," she says when he answers. "Want to come over?"

"It's the middle of the afternoon."

"So?"

"So your grandmother is awake?"

"Oh. Apparently that doesn't matter."

There's a long pause. "Maybe you could come over here."

"Yeah, okay."

"But we're just going to play video games and hang out. No sex."

"What? Why?"

"Because you pretty much fucking broke my dick last night, woman. You're some kind of crazed, unstoppable sex machine right now and it's scary."

"I'm just a little restless."

"Whatever. If we have sex, you don't get to be on top." He hangs up without waiting for a response.

Mikey stares at the phone for a minute then looks at Elena. "So, I guess I'm going over there. Be back in a few hours?"

"We'll have scalloped potatoes for dinner."

"Sweet." Mikey kisses her cheek and grabs the car keys off the table. "Love you."

**

Mikey agrees to not being on top, but she isn't going to be flat on her back, either, because she can't get off that way and she tends to start laughing at inappropriate times when she watches guys' sex-faces from that angle. She's lost more than one fuckbuddy that way.

At any rate, it means she's on her knees, holding on to the headboard and getting plowed from behind with respectable enthusiasm from the guy whose ass she just kicked at Halo when her phone rings.

"Give me it," she gasps, which Gabe interprets all wrong, but all wrong in an interesting and distracting enough way that she lets it keep ringing until it goes to voice mail.

And afterward there's cleaning up and kissing and letting him play with her tits some more--if there's a category above and beyond "breast man," that's where Gabe Saporta lives--before she hears the beep that means a missed call. "Quit it," she says, kissing Gabe's jaw and squirming away from his hands. "I gotta check my phone."

"You have no idea how proud I am that you didn't answer it while I was fucking you." He props himself up on his elbows and watches her crawl across the mattress. "I'm gonna brag about that, just so you know."

"It's your funeral." She squints at the screen. "Where are my glasses?"

"I don't know, probably with your shirt?"

"Fine, then read this for me." She shoves the phone at him.

"Says Brian."

"Brian? Shit." She fumbles to punch in the code for voice mail, sitting up and push her hair off her face while the message comes up. It's not a long message, but she hits the button to repeat it twice, staring across the room into Gabe's closet and trying to believe what she hears.

"Mikey?" Gabe's hand trails across her shoulders, light and careful. "What's up?"

She closes the phone. "We have a photo shoot next week."

"A what?"

"Photo shoot. For, um. For promo stuff." She blinks slowly and turns to look at him. "For Reprise."

His eyes get wide. "Holy shit, Mikeyway. For real?"

She nods, because words are way, way beyond her right now.

"For fucking real?" He tackles her, pushing her down to the mattress and kissing her hard enough that she can't breathe. "Holy shit. I just fucked a rock star. A real fucking honest to God..."

"Not until Friday. We sign the contract Friday." She shakes her head, looking up past him at the ceiling. "Holy fuck, we sign the contract Friday. I've gotta...I've gotta call the guys, I've gotta call Gerard."

**

"Okay," Dave, the rep from Warner, says, clapping his hands and giving them that smile that makes Mikey want to tell him to stay three feet back. "So, we've got wardrobe set up for you. Mikey, you'll need to get dressed first because you've got more hair and makeup to do than the guys."

She goes back to the dressing area and stares at the hangers with her name on them. A tiny, flared plaid skirt, a bra that's going to push her breasts up around her chin, a ripped black tank top with lace around the neckline that's really more of a...chest line. Torso line. She's going to be showing a lot of skin.

Plus fishnets and knee-high boots. What a goddamn cliche.

But they agreed. They want this, and the guys from Warner are professionals, they know best. They have to save saying no for things that are really too much. And this isn't. She can do this.

She gets dressed and goes over to the stylists, who put giant rollers in her hair and go to work on her face. She keeps her eyes closed as much as she can and just waits.

"Um," Frank says, and Mikey opens one eye a crack to look at him. He's staring at her all wide-eyed, surprised enough that if it was anyone but Frank she might be tempted to blush.

"They're just my tits, Frank. You've seen them before."

"No, not those. I meant..." He gestures at his face and she frowns, turning to look at herself in the mirror.

Well. No wonder Frank looked fucking shocked.

They've given her a black eye and a bruised cheekbone, with a trail of blood coming from the edge of her lips. The make-up artist is painting more bruises on her shoulders now, dabbing black and purple and green over her skin so it looks like someone grabbed her.

"What the fuck," Mikey says, if not at the top of her lungs than pretty close, loud enough to bring everybody else running.

**

The photographer and Dave both have really indulgent smiles on their faces. Mikey wants to punch them in the teeth.

"Photo shoots like this have a concept," Dave says. "I was going to explain it to you once you were all ready. You just need to relax, there's nothing to be so upset about."

"She looks like she's had the crap beaten out of her," Gerard says, hunching his shoulders. Mikey shoots him a dirty look, because he's wearing a fucking awesome leather jacket while she's sitting there barely decent. She would kill for that jacket. "What's the concept in that?"

"We're going to have her posing on the ground," the photographer says, gesturing at the camera set-up and the backdrop. "With you boys standing in a circle around her."

Frank's the first one to speak. "So...the concept is that we beat her up?"

"It's ambiguous," Dave says. "Maybe you beat her up, maybe you rescued her from someone else beating her up."

"Why does she have to be beaten up at all?" Ray asks.

"It's edgy. It appeals to the young male audience. We want you guys to look tough. Dangerous."

Mikey frowns a little and looks at Frank, trying to communicate with her eyes the idea that Dave may have never actually met their band before.

"Dangerous," Gerard echoes. He touches Mikey's arm. "It's up to you, Mikes."

She glances around at the guys. They all look uncomfortable, unhappy. Frank keeps opening his mouth like he's about to say something, then closing it again, shrugging, and looking down at the floor. Ray's worrying at a hole in the hem of his t-shirt. Gerard looks like he swallowed a facehugger from Alien. Who the fuck is she to decide? Or any of them, really? Just the band. They've never done this before.

Dave and the photographer are looking at her impatiently. There's not a lot of time, and they know best. They do. Dave knows what sells. "Yeah, okay. What do you want me to do?"

The photographer beams at her. "Good girl." Yeah, she's back to wanting to knock out teeth again. "Lie on your stomach. Prop your chin in your hands, elbows on the ground...yes, like that. Now. Legs bent at the knee, up in the air...ankles crossed...great. Hold that pose right there. Boys, you stand around her...good...you, in the hat, what's your name? Okay, Matt, I want you to stand back another step...good...right, like you're looking up her skirt, just like that."

Frank goes to run his hand through his hair, stopping when he feels the hairspray coating it. "Looking up her skirt? Really?"

"You maybe just beat me up," Mikey tells him, "and now you're maybe going to take turns fucking me, I think."

"The young male audience," Dave says again. "We want them wanting to be you guys."

But not me, Mikey thinks, looking up at the camera. None of them want to be me.

**August 2003**

"Got a copy," Frank says in a singsong voice, taking a magazine from the bag under his arm and tossing it onto the table.

The motherfucking table in the motherfucking lounge because they have a motherfucking bus. Mikey can't quite get past that part. A bus. Not a van. With bunks, and storage space, and couches, and a TV in the back they can hook the video game systems up to. It's like a magical fucking fairyland on wheels.

"It's only like a two-page spread," Gerard says, ashing his cigarette on the edge of the table. Mikey leans against his shoulder and tugs at his hair, frowning until he looks at her.

"Don't mess the bus up already, Gee. Come on. We've only had it for a day."

"It's ours. What's the point if we can't mark it up a little?"

"Use a fucking ashtray. Or a Coke can. Come on."

"Fine, fine." He exhales smoke at her and turns back to Frank. "Let's see it."

Frank's flipping through the pages, turning the magazine back and forth and looking for the piece on them. They all know it's going to be short, and kind of stupid, and use the pictures they don't like, but whatever, it's in AP, and that's awesome.

"Here we go!" Frank whoops, pushing the magazine to the middle of the table. They all lean in, noses an inch from the paper, staring wide-eyed.

It's a picture from the end of the shoot, not one of the uncomfortable ones but one where Mikey's wearing Gerard's jacket and leaning back against him. She sends up a fast, silent prayer of thanks for that. It would kind of wreck the moment for it to be one of the shots she doesn't like.

"Frontman Gerard Way brings a raw, throaty dynamism to the sound," Frank reads. "Raw and throaty. That's good. I think."

"It sounds like I have strep throat," Gerard says.

"But you're dynamic," Mikey points out, nudging his ribs with her elbow. "You bring dynamism. That's good."

Frank reads again. "Instead of the madonna/whore complex one might expect her to play to, Way displays a pouty, disaffected androgyny."

Mikey frowns. "Can you be pouty and disaffected? Do those go together?"

Frank jabs two fingers at the page and then waves them in the air. "We're going to need someone who actually reads books. Ray! Find us someone literate."

"Shut up, Frank." Ray leans in over his shoulder and runs his finger down the column of text. "What does it say about the rest of us?"

"Good things. All good things. AP likes us. We win."

Mikey grins and sits back. "We should celebrate."

"Fuck yeah, Mikeyway." Frank bounces a little on his toes. "What did you have in mind?"

"Let's get wasted."

Otter laughs. "It's three in the afternoon, but okay."

"Time has never stopped us before." Mikey stands up, tugging at Gerard's hair again until he swats absentmindedly at her hand. He's still staring at the magazine, smiling a little and rubbing his thumb over the headline. She catches his hand and squeezes it tight.

"So," Frank says, moving over to the refrigerator. "Beer for everyone? And then we'll hit the hard stuff once we get on the road?"

"Party bus," Ray intones dramatically. "All aboard the party bus."

"Breaking it in right," Mikey agrees. "All the good stuff."

"Did someone say party?" They all look up to see Gabe and Rob leaning in the bus doorway. "Dudes, does this thing lock? I think it's supposed to be locked, but it's really not."

"We can't figure out how it works," Frank says. "Come on in. Don't steal anything."

They climb inside and Gabe leans in to kiss Mikey quickly. "Hey, you."

"Hey." She rubs the back of her hand on his arm and nods at the magazine. "We're in AP. A for-real profile, not a look at the cute little try-hards one."

"Awesome." He catches her hand and squeezes gently. "They say nice things about you?"

"She's pouty and disaffected," Frank says.

"That's hot." Gabe squeezes her hand again. "You got a few minutes? And a bunk?"

"Hey." Gerard looks up and frowns. "Flag on the play, Saporta."

Mikey laughs and elbows Gerard in the ribs, then kisses Gabe again. "I do, but we're going to have to hold off on the whole...full-service special for a little bit."

"Kill me," Gerard mutters, digging his phone out of his pocket. "Gouge out my eyes...ears...whatever, just make this stop."

Gabe ignores him, taking Mikey's other hand and swinging them both in slow arcs while he looks into her eyes. "How come? You okay?"

"Frank threw my pills off a bridge to prove a point. So, you know. Few more days before I get them replaced."

"What point does that prove except that Frank is an asshole?"

"That is what he was proving." She shrugs. "It's a long story. Don't worry about it, in a couple days I'll get it fixed and we'll be back in the saddle."

Gerard clicks his tongue, staring rigidly at his phone. "First of all, ew. Second of all, you should really just get the shot this time. Then you won't have this problem."

"First of all, I'm not discussing this with you. Second of all, it wouldn't be a problem at all if Frank would stop being an asshole."

"I'm not going to stop," Frank says. "And I'm sitting right here."

"You're very protective," Rob says, squinting at Gerard. "Some people might say to a weird degree. I'm not being judgmental, I'm just saying."

"No, you're right," Ray murmurs, turning a page in the magazine. "It's weird."

"Sometimes it's to the point of violence," Frank adds. Otter snorts to himself and moves back into the body of the bus. Rob glances after him and raises an eyebrow at Mikey, who shrugs. Really no point even going there at the moment.

"Violence," Rob echoes instead, looking at Gerard again. "I'm not sure I believe that."

"Gerard got into it with plenty of my old boyfriends." Mikey rests her chin on Gerard's shoulder. "Remember, Gee? That time you got kicked out of the bar for going after Tony?"

"They were all named Tony," Gerard mutters, frowning down at his phone.

"They were not."

"Were too. All of your meathead wannabe mobbed-up gold-chain freakshow boyfriends. Tonys."

"They weren't that bad." Mikey shakes her head. "Anyway. He'd get all worked up about protecting my honor or whatever. My virtue."

"As if," Frank sing-songs.

"You're my little sister." Gerard's still scowling at his phone, the only one in the bus not laughing. Even Gabe's laughing, with one of his eyebrows raised like Mikey might hear something about this later. Fucking hell. "I wasn't going to let them push you around."

"They didn't."

"Sometimes they did."

Mikey sighs. "No, they really didn't."

"The one with the Camaro did."

"The Camaro you smashed up with a brick?"

Rob's eyebrows go up. "No shit?"

"No shit." Mikey shakes her head and wiggles out of her seat, going to grab a Coke out of the fridge.

"I was going to smash up his face, too." Gerard snaps his phone closed and grabs his cigarette and lighter from the table. "He hit you."

"No, he didn't."

"He pushed you."

"Not the same thing."

"Still not fucking acceptable," Gerard mutters, lighting up. "Not on my watch."

"Damn straight," Gabe says sincerely, and he and Gerard high-five over the table. "I'd think less of you if you didn't, man."

"You guys know I'm not a china doll, right?" Mikey takes a sip of her Coke and shakes her head. "I don't need protection."

"It's a big brother thing," Gabe says, taking the magazine away from Ray. "You wouldn't understand."

"If you were hoping to get your dick sucked, this isn't the way to do it."

"Mikey," Gerard shouts, waving his cigarette at her. "Oh my God."

She rolls her eyes and backs toward the bunks, raising an eyebrow at Gabe. "Are you coming or what?"

"I give it two minutes," Frank says. "In fact, I've got five bucks on two minutes, who's with me?"

Ray takes the magazine back as Gabe frees his hands to flip everyone at the table the deuce. "I'm in. Five minutes."

"I hope you all die," Mikey says sincerely.

Gerard is already headed for the door. "Not half as much as I do, Jesus Christ."

**October 2003**

By the fall, the novelty of the bus has worn off completely. It's just another crowded, messy space, more breathable and more comfortable than the van but not by much. It's easier to avoid Otter's barbed comments about Gabe, though, and she has more privacy when she texts Gabe, lying in her bunk on the touring version of a date.

Midtown is writing, and his updates on that are interesting, anyway. She looks forward to the daily update on which of his bandmates is going to die horribly and painfully. They're little insights into his world and his life, sharing it with her. Gabe has this way with words.

Gerard is theoretically writing, too, but it's heavy on the theoretical. Sometimes he and Ray have a vague conversation about style and impact and how many guitar solos is too many. Sometimes someone makes the mistake of asking him about lyrics and he retreats to his bunk with all of their beer. Mikey never asks. If he was writing, she would know, because he would show her. Currently he's not even drawing, which means he's freaking out and taking the edge off it by drinking all of their beer. It's a process.

She takes care of him. She sticks her head into the bunk semi-regularly and asks him to please return the beer, she brings him home from Static Lullabye's bus when the party starts to wind down into weirdness, she tracks how much shit he's buying from the techs when she goes to make her own purchases, and she gets him to soundcheck and stage call, every show, without fail, whether it's an easy matter of walking him from dressing room to stage left or a more complicated one of crawling under a bathroom-stall door to drag him out by his ankles.

She's only had to do that once. It was actually kind of funny, in retrospect. Maybe not at the time. But it turned out okay.

"I am sick and tired of this fucking bus," he shouts one night, when she's retrieved him from being facedown with the bassist from Christansen and is walking him back to sleep through the morning. "I am sick and tired of gas stations and fucking...potholes. I want to go home, Mikey."

"I know." She props him up against the bus and punches in the code to unlock the door. Brian had made them memorize it after some kids let themselves on the bus and held Frank hostage in the bathroom for half an hour.

"I want to go home."

"I know, Gee. We're going home after this tour. We're going to write and record and sleep and you'll get to see your awful girlfriend and it'll be great."

"She's not awful."

"She's completely awful."

"You don't get to talk, you're dating Gabe."

"You love Gabe."

"Whatever."

"Exactly. C'mon. Up." She gets him up the stairs and back to his bunk, muscling him inside and tucking the blanket haphazardly over him before smoothing his hair back and kissing his forehead. "Go to sleep."

"I want..."

"Soon. I promise."

He looks up at her for a minute, then smiles, his eyes sliding half-closed. "I love you, Mikes."

"I love you too."

"Love me best?"

She kisses his forehead again, closing her eyes. Even when she feels like she doesn't know what the fuck is going on in any other part of her life, she'll never get this one wrong. "Always love you best, Gee. Always."

**

The interview doesn't start out bad. Mikey sits still and grips the edge of her chair, curling her fingers against the plastic and watching Frank, who's tucked up next to Gerard like he's huddled for warmth. She can see Frank's hand, pressed against Gerard's thigh, tightening in warning every time Gerard starts wandering too far off into the atmosphere. Frank's little signals don't really bring him back to coherent sense, but it's better than leaving him totally to his own devices.

She isn't sure if the interviewer and crew really can't tell that Gerard is high off his ass, or if they just don't care. Probably it doesn't matter, since they're getting through things, anyway. Gerard is at least providing words in response to every question, even if they don't make tons of sense, and Ray and Frank are chiming in to cover the gaps when they need to. It's going fine.

"And Mikey." The interviewer glances up from his cards and smiles. "Well, for one thing, I think we'd all like to know: Why Mikey?"

She blinks, startled, drawing her shoulders in for shelter as they all turn to look at her. "What?"

"Why do you go by Mikey? Has to be a little confusing, a boy's name and all."

"Gerard kinda gave me the nickname. When we were kids."

"Oh, yeah?" The interviewer and the guys laugh together, fake little chuckles.

"Yeah." The thought pops into her head and she says it before she has time to think herself into quiet again. "He always wanted a little brother."

The interviewer laughs and moves on, but Mikey sees Gerard's body jerk in surprise, feels the glances he shoots at her through the rest of the interview and the ride back to the bus. She holds back until they get there, until Worm peels away and goes to find Frank something to drink, then turns to Gerard, raising her eyebrows in question. Before she has time to actually ask, though, he's up in her face, waving his hands until she takes a step back toward the wall.

"Why did you say that?"

"What?" She glances at the others, but they look just as confused. No help. "What are you talking about?"

"How could you tell him that?" He's up close enough that she can feel the heat of his body, can smell his sweat and his breath, warm and rank and something else--a little like plastic--from the fucking pills.

"Tell him what?" She's frustrated, with his obtuseness and his stupid fucked-up high bullshit, enough that her voice comes out almost as a shout. "Speak fucking English, Gerard."

"That I call you Mikey because I wanted a brother."

She stares at him. "That's what you're all upset about? Jesus Christ. Gerard, what the...nobody gives a shit about that."

"It's out there now. On the fuckin' permanent record. People are going to think that I don't love you."

"Gerard, you're fucked-up and talking bullshit, okay, just--"

His hand cracks against her face before she can blink or breathe. The pain doesn't quite register for a minute, and she just stares at him, her mouth open a little, her brain stuck on the idea that Gerard hit her. He hasn't done that since she was too little to remember; she only knows he ever did at all from their parents telling stories.

She hears Frank's "Whoa!" and Ray's "Hey!" but if either of them steps forward she doesn't see it, because she's watching her own fist lash out and connect with Gerard's nose. Then he's doubled over forward, cursing a mile a minute and with blood running between his fingers, and Otter's hauling her back away from him and into the lounge.

"Fuck you," she spits at Gerard, shoving at Otter. "Fuck you and you go to hell, Gerard. The problem here's got nothing to do with us loving each other, you asshole, and you know it, or you would if you weren't too fucked-up to care."

"You're a spoiled brat," Gerard says, wiping blood on his shirt. "I can't believe you, Mikey. I can't believe you!"

"Shut up, Gee."

"You spend all your time fucking hovering over me, following me around, trying to ruin my fun--everybody thinks you're the partier, but you're a fucking buzzkill these days, Mikey--"

It shouldn't be possible for the bus to get quieter, since nobody was saying anything. She takes a shaky breath, then another.

"Fine," she says, her voice hurting her throat. "Fine, then. I'll stop wrecking your fun. You can fuck yourself up as much as you want."

He storms off the bus leaving streaks of blood behind him. She crawls into her bunk before any of the others can say a thing.

**

Her bunk is like a cave, a den; she pretends it's on another planet from the rest of the bus, and that when the curtains are closed no one can hear her or even know she's there. She's not crying; she's not that girl, she never cries. Mikey Way never cries. Her rules are stupid, but they're hers, and she's holding on to them.

She isn't talking to Gabe, either; she's got nothing to say right now, nothing she knows how to put in words that will keep the status quo between them, not push harder than she wants or ask for stuff he's willing to give and she doesn't know how to take.

She doesn't even want the guys to hear her breathing. She wants to be alone with the inside of her eyelids and what she has on her iPod. Screaming music, tonight. Burn-things-down music.

Light falls across her face, brightening the world from black to red. "Go away."

"Mikey." It's Gerard's voice. She shakes her head, touching her headphones so he can see that she's somewhere else, without him, and she wants to stay there.

"Mikey." The headphones pop away from her ears, scraping across her face, and she makes an inadvertent noise of protest as she opens her eyes. His fingers are tangled in the cord, the earpieces dangling down like something gutted. She can vaguely still hear the guitars and screaming coming from them, tinny and sad from here.

"I don't want to talk right now." She can't lie to him, and honesty will be worse. It's better to wait until her feelings burn themselves out and she can go back to being cold again, scraped-out and locked-down and empty.

"We need to," he says. She shakes her head and sits up, switching the iPod off.

"I don't--"

"Mikey, I'm sorry."

"I know that."

"I'm so sorry, and I'll never do it again, I swear."

She knows that, too. She knows what he'll say before he even thinks it. And he should know what she'll say, too. He would know, if he would just pay attention.

"Please forgive me?"

He never pays attention. That's the problem, right there. Gerard is oblivious to the concerns of others, she thinks, in a detached part of her mind that apparently fills out elementary-school report cards. Gerard has no clue.

"I do forgive you," she tells him, hugging her knees to her chest. "That's not the issue here."

"Well, what is the issue?" He drags both of his hands through his hair, leaving it standing up like wings. "It's not that I don't love you, and it's not that you won't forgive me. What is it?"

She looks at him for a long moment. The circles under his eyes are sickly purple-grey, and the tone under his skin is sallow, tinged with poison and insomnia. This is the first love of her life, her protector, her heart's blood, and she has a sudden sinking, horrible realization that all these years, she's been swearing to love him best without ever realizing what that means.

And also that he's right: the love and forgiveness are guaranteed, so what's left that isn't inconsequential?

"You have got to remember that other people have feelings, Gerard," she says, her voice shaking just a little. "And they matter. You've got to learn to remember that. You hurt people, and you don't mean to, but--"

He half-falls onto her bed, crawling up to her and putting his arms around her. He smells like cigarettes and stale beer and sweat, like safety and home, and even though he's an impossible inconsiderate jackass she can't help it. He's her brother.

She buries her face in his shoulder and breathes him in while he whispers in her ear. "I love you, Mikey. I'm sorry. I'll never, ever do that again, I swear. Cross my heart, rip out my eyes, I--"

"I know," she says over and over, muffled into his t-shirt and skin. "I know. No more promises, okay? I know, I know."

"We'll be home soon. Everything will go back to normal."

She laughs a little, pulling back to wipe her eyes on her sleeve. "What's normal?"

He shrugs, shifting back and rubbing at his chin, fingers twitching like he's looking for a cigarette. "You know. Home."

"I'm not staying at the house." She makes up her mind even as she says it. The idea had been out there, floating around as a maybe, but she hadn't locked it in until right now.

He blinks at her, brow furrowing in puzzlement. "What? Why not?"

"Because it's...I mean, I'm an adult. I've got money. I don't have to live with Mom and Dad. I haven't lived there in ages. It's not...home home."

"Yeah, because we're on the road. We don't have a home-home."

She rubs her forehead, pressing her fingers hard against her temples and wishing he didn't have this compulsive need to argue with her all the time. "Well, whatever. I'm not going to stay there."

"Then where are you going to stay? You want to get a place together?"

Any other day, any other night, she would've said yes to that without blinking. But her face still hurts a little and he looks like he crawled up out of his grave to have this conversation and if she isn't allowed to be selfish once, just once, something's going to snap.

"Frank and I are going to go in on an apartment."

"You and Frank?"

"We've been talking about it." He's brought it up once. It might have been a joke. It doesn't matter, right now.

"You can't live with Frank."

"Why not?"

"Because...because he's..."

"What?" She raises an eyebrow at him, the expression Gabe calls her danger face. Gerard always kind of slides past it like it's not even there.

"Well, he's a guy."

"So are you."

"I'm your brother."

"I am aware." She presses the heel of her hand over her left eye, not sure if she actually has a headache or it's just the slow-grinding sadness looking for a way to get out. She's tired. She doesn't want to talk anymore. "If I want to fuck Frank, it's my business."

"Wait, you want to fuck Frank?"

"What?" she hears distantly from beyond the curtain. "Who wants to fuck Frank?"

"Nobody," she yells, dropping her hand and rolling her eyes at Gerard. "Don't be an idiot. I'm just saying. It's my business and I can do what I want. You're not the boss of me, Gerard." She shouldn't say the next part, but she does, because sometimes she's stupid. "You never were."

He flinches back, his hands going up like he's trying to shield himself from being hit. "Got it," he says stiffly. "Hear you loud and clear. You should live with Frank. That'll be awesome. You guys can practice together."

It's an asshole thing to say and he knows it. She grabs her headphones and shoves them back in place, turning away from him and flipping her iPod back on, loud, and doesn't look up as he climbs out of the bunk and leaves the curtain open behind him.

**November 2003**

There are some parts of this that she really didn't think through.

Not just Frank-in-general; she knows Frank-in-general pretty well by now. He is what he is, and if they can live together on a bus, sharing an apartment is like a vacation. Once they figure out shower rules and significant-other rules, living with Frank is fine on a bad day and awesome on a "Frank just visited his dealer" day, because for some reason Frank's dealer is a lot better than hers, which isn't fucking fair, but whatever.

So Frank's not the problem. The problems are Jamia, Gabe, and Gerard, in no particular order, plus lurking behind and above all of that, the album. She can't think about that one too much, or look directly at it, without getting sick to her stomach. It's too big, too abstract, and too infuriating. The people are real, and being irritated as shit with them is easy.

Mikey's never lived in a house with another girl, except for her mother, who doesn't count for obvious reasons. Jamia's name isn't on the lease, but she lives in the apartment half-time if not more. She cleans things. She puts things in the refrigerator, and the bathroom. She's sitting on the couch when they come back from the studio, a lot of the time. It's like they both have a girlfriend, and it's weird.

Mikey tries to explain this to Gabe, but it doesn't make much of an impression that she can see. "You're weirded out because she's too nice to you," he says, squinting at her over the edge of his sunglasses. "That's a very special and pretty stupid problem to have, Way. But then, you get weird whenever anybody is too nice to you, so...maybe you're just pretty and special and weird."

"You're not listening." She slouches lower in her seat, fussing with the coffee cup in front of her. Gabe insists on doing shit like this, taking her out to diners and buying her breakfast and resting his knee against hers under the table, and there just must be something wrong with her because she doesn't know what to do with any of it.

"I am listening. She's nice to you. She asks you if you want anything when they order dinner, she tries to make conversation, she restocks your coffee when she uses up the last of it. What a bitch."

"I didn't say she was a bitch. I said it's weird and I don't get it."

"If I had a pen, I'd draw you a map." He leans across the table and catches her hands. "She wants to be your friend, Mikey."

She frowns at him. "We are friends."

"She wants to actually be friends, not that thing you do where you're sorta-friends with everybody but don't let anybody in past the crispy shell."

"I am not a taco, Gabe."

"Whatever." He lets go of her hands and flops back into his own seat. "You're not good with girls, is the problem."

She shrugs and looks away, trying to pick out their waitress. There's no point answering that one. She isn't good with other girls. She used to be, kind of; she had girlfriends when she was younger, but it's different now. It must be her who changed. Now she has casual friends, scene friends, people she knows, but she's always focused on being one of the guys, because that's what will get her somewhere.

And most of the girls she knows these days tend to turn out to be those girls, and part of not being one of those girls is not hanging out with them and picking up bad habits.

"I just think it's weird that she's always around," she says finally.

"They're dating." And there's that edge in his voice again, the one that makes her grit her teeth and brace herself and that's the reason he's on the list of problems in her life, too. Fuck.

"Don't start, Gabe."

"I'm not starting. I'm just saying. People who are dating sometimes like to see each other."

"We do see each other. We're seeing each other right now. We wouldn't be at the same table if we weren't seeing each other."

"Mikey."

"We saw each other last night, too, unless that was somebody else who was fucking me, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't, because you've got some distinctive moves."

"Oh, well, thanks for that. I'm flattered." He takes a drink of his own coffee, looking down for a minute and then glancing at her with that goddamn vulnerable thing he does, all looking up through his lashes. Not fair. "I just, you know. I like spending time with you, Mikes."

"I like spending time with you, too." She does. She just likes spending time with movies, or at a club, or video games, or sex. He wants to go out to dinner, or take her shopping, or into the city to just walk up and down the street holding hands, and she doesn't get that. "I'm just really busy with the album, you know? And when I do actually have some free time I'm kinda wiped. You know how it is. I know you know."

"Yeah. I do." He nods and smiles, fast and crooked, catching one of her hands in his again and kissing the back of it. "I'm not pissed or anything."

Well, thank God for small favors. "Let's split the pancakes."

"Awesome." He lets it go, and smiles at the waitress as she comes over, striking up one of those easy, rambling conversations that he's so good at. She watches him and thinks about how the thing is, she does love him, she really does. She loves being with him. She loves him being a part of her life. She just has to figure out how to make the parts fit.

He glances across the table at her and smiles again, all wide and sweet. She smiles back and silently promises again that she will figure it out, she'll make it work, because when it is working, it's worth it.

**

Gerard is the third problem, and the hardest to deal with, because the problem that is him runs right into the problem that she's not thinking about. The album. Their collective nemesis.

She's talked to enough people to know that second albums are always weird. For a first album, there are years of stuff built up, and all that energy of just-starting-out. For the second one, the well is a lot drier to start with, and they're all completely exhausted. What they're going through isn't even all that bad, comparatively. It's not like they're not accomplishing anything; pieces are coming together. It's just slow, and they're all second-guessing themselves way too much.

Well, Gerard is second-guessing himself too much. But he drags the rest of them into tailspins if they're not careful.

Mikey feels it like a weight around her neck. Gerard being tense and unhappy is something she's supposed to fix, either by tracking down what's causing it and making it die or, if it isn't that kind of thing, by being there for him. There are hugs and bad movies and stupid jokes and just...Gerard and Mikey time, lifelong rituals that have healing powers. If they just spent some time together, she could get some of this choking weight off of both of them.

But Gerard's still pissed. Or maybe his feelings are hurt; when he's hurting he lashes out the way anyone else does when they're mad. She can tell the difference, but no matter what the motive is, getting knocked back on her metaphorical ass still hurts.

She turns her back on the rest of the studio and re-tunes her bass, humming softly and closing her eyes. She can hear Gerard and Ray talking, trying to decide what they want to do with a guitar run.

She glances back over at Otter, who's staring at the ceiling like he's wondering why he even bothered to show up today. It's a valid question. The rhythm section isn't really being allowed any input at this point in the process; even Frank only gets an occasional word in edgewise. They could probably go home and not come back until the whole thing's ready for tracking.

She pushes that thought down and turns toward the wall again, grabbing her water bottle. If she starts down that road it's all going to end ugly. Better to concentrate on the good things. Or coming up with a plan to get Gerard to let her back in, because that might avert the ugly before tempers start getting lost.

**

She gives in first. There's no way around it; she isn't mad anymore and she can't stand either seeing him miserable or not having him to talk to. Surrender is the better part of valor.

She shows up at the door of his apartment with beer and Chinese food, peace offerings that don't mean as much as the fact that she's there at all, ready to say I'm sorry and I love you and please quit freaking all of us out and finish the songs.

It's the way they are. They fix the things that go wrong between them. They don't know how to do anything else.

Gabe and Frank both told her to stand her ground, that she doesn't owe her brother anything. Gabe and Frank are wonderful and lovable and wrong. It isn't owing, it's a fact of the universe, like oxygen and carbon dioxide and breathing.

"Hey," she says when the door swings open. Gerard blinks at her, holding his cigarette to his lips for a beat and then exhaling a sharp burst of smoke.

"What're you doing here, Mikes?"

She holds up the food and the beer, raising her eyebrows in quiet enticement. He smiles a little, just a twist of his mouth around the cigarette.

"Bribery?"

"Peace offering." She shrugs. "Fighting sucks."

"Yeah." He rubs his knuckles over his eyes and steps back, waving at her to come in. His apartment is small and nearly bare, more so than she expected. Gerard collects things, the weird and macabre, the bright and dark, the interesting. There's none of that here.

He reads her face and the track of her eyes around the room, and it's his turn to shrug. "We go to LA at New Year's. That's pretty soon. No point getting a bunch of stuff just to pack it up again."

"I guess. This is kind of depressing, though."

He laughs and stabs his cigarette out on the table. "That's where the songs come from, right?"

She winces and holds out the beer, a talisman against the way this conversation might try to go. He takes a bottle and pops the cap off on the edge of the table, an inch from the ashes.

"Are we going to talk about it?" she asks after a minute, once he's swallowed half of the beer and stared off into space like she isn't there. "Or can I get some forks?"

"I'll get them." He retreats and she drops to the couch, silently wishing this was easier. She wishes a lot of things were easier, lately.

"Is it kung pao chicken?" he asks, lingering in the doorway like a ghost. She nods and swings her feet slowly over the carpet. He'll come over to join her when he's good and ready. Or he won't. Either way, she can't figure out her next move until he makes his.

"Mikey..." He exhales sharply and crosses the room, sitting on the floor at her feet and going to unpack the food. "I don't like fighting, either."

"So let's stop."

"Well, that's the obvious solution."

"What do you have against obvious solutions?"

"Nothing." He scowls and dishes out the food. "I am totally in favor of keeping things as simple as possible."

"Why exactly are you so mad at me?"

"I'm not mad."

"Try that one on somebody who doesn't know you."

His jaw clenches tighter and he stabs at his food with his fork. "I'm trying to stay out of your way, okay?"

"What?"

"You don't need me, that's fine. I won't get in your way."

She picks her plate up and then puts it down again. "What the fuck are you talking about?"

"You said..."

"When did I say that I didn't need you? Because that's bullshit and you know it's bullshit. Of course I need you. Don't be stupid."

"Don't call me stupid!"

"Then don't be stupid!"

They glare at each other for a minute, and Mikey clenches her fork in her fist like a weapon, because seriously, if he's being this much of a dick about something she said probably months ago, without even realizing that she said it, she is going to stab his eyes out and fill the holes with sauce from the kung pao.

He looks away first. "Well, I don't know," he says sulkily. "Sometimes you mean things."

"Not things like that. Not things about us. Come on."

"Sometimes things change."

"Not us, Gerard." He's still looking away, so she reaches out, grabbing the collar of his shirt and pulling until he looks at her. "We don't change. We're always."

He meets her eyes, then bites his lip. "I think you mean we're both Ways. There's only two of us."

"You're a dork." She holds on for another minute, then kisses his forehead and picks up her plate. "Now stop being ridiculous and tell me what you've been up to. Besides brooding and reading Batman. I can guess those parts."

"Oh, whatever. You've been smoking with Frank and having sex with Gabe."

"Yeah. My life is awesome." She takes a bite and nods at the seat next to her. "Get up here. I miss you."

**February 2004**

Funerals always suck, but Elena's sucks to an exceptional degree, worse than Mikey expected. It's cold and gray, rain hovering in the air but refusing to quite fall. Her mouth tastes like stale wine and bile, from sitting up on Gerard's bed most of the night passing bottles back and forth, trying not to think and failing not to talk. She can't remember everything they talked about, but she knows almost none of it was about Elena.

All she can tell is that her stomach hurts and her head hurts, her eyes are swollen to where she almost can't see, and her mouth tastes sour. Gerard looks about as bad. She watches his lips move through a hymn, no sound coming to carry the words, and her stomach makes another nauseated jerk as she wonders what this will do to him, which of his monsters it will make stronger.

They talked about that last night, on his bed, over the bottle. Their monsters, what they look like and what they say. Thank God the wine blanked most of that out again.

The rain starts falling for real. Mikey ducks her head and taps her fingers against her thigh, keeping the beat of "Venom." At least when they get back on the road she can be someone else. Mikey the rock star hurts a hell of a lot less than this.

Gabe's fingers thread with hers, his thumb rubbing over the back of her hand. "Mikes?" he says softly, and she shakes her head, lifting her chin a little and fixing her eyes on the priest. He has her Xanax in his pocket, but he's been a real asshole about doling it out, only giving her one at a time and making her wait hours in between. She has a feeling that if she took a handful more, this would be more bearable.

The rest of the formalities pass in a blur, and the next time she's really aware of what's going on, Gabe's putting her in the car. She grabs his hand tighter, holding on until he climbs in beside her and she can lean against him. "Take me home and fuck me," she says in his ear, rubbing her thumb over his knuckles.

"I think you've got family stuff, baby."

"I don't care. They won't care. Take me back to your house and make me do dirty, crazy shit."

"Mikey." He exhales slowly and slides his arm around her, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "I don't think that's a good idea."

"What, all of a sudden you don't want to fuck me? Because my grandma died? That's stupid."

"You're kind of worked up right now." She jerks her head away from him and looks out the window, but his arm stays around her, warm and tight. "Besides, I think Gerard needs you."

Gerard's in the other car, with their parents. She blinks rapidly and cranes her neck, trying to see them through the rain. "He was really close to her."

"Yeah."

"He was her baby. I mean, the oldest grandchild, and a boy. That whole...thing. She thought he hung the moon and stars." She blinks more, against tears that aren't actually there. "He's taking it hard."

"So he probably needs you."

She doesn't know how to explain that maybe that's why she needs sex, needs Gabe, needs a few minutes of grounding in her body and some pleasure through the sadness, needs someone touching her just for her before she goes back to sit with her brother and get loaded on bad wine and go walking down into the dark together.

"You're right," she says, and keeps looking out the window. "I'll stay with him."

**

They get loaded, they cry, they talk about death and how they've both seen it following them around at the edges of things as long as they can remember.

And Gerard starts writing down a few lines, broken-edged phrases that she can tell, before he even gets very far, are going to be a song. A good one.

She's going to love and hate that song, at the same time, no matter how many times they play it. She just knows.

**February 2004**

David takes her to lunch without the others in LA, which is weird.

"Don't look so suspicious," he says, smiling across the table. "This is a good meeting."

"I'm just confused. I mean, I can't really...do anything. Agree to anything, or whatever. On behalf of the band. I don't have that kind of..." She waves her hand vaguely. "Authority. Or whatever."

He nods and sits back while the waiter fills their water glasses. "Of course. I wouldn't ask you to, Mikey."

A fraction of the tension eases in her shoulders. She's been worrying about this all morning. She told Gerard she was going shoe shopping, because lying is much better than getting him worked up. They've both been edgy and sad since they came back to LA, all over the place and easily upset, the album both not as important as it used to be and more important than they can stand, in cycles. "So what is this about?"

"We got a request. Actually, let me flip that around. An offer."

She rubs her fingers over the table edge and waits, hoping that will be followed by something that makes sense.

He laughs. "Wow, you really do that stoic face. Okay. Well, the thing is, Mikey--Mikey or Michaela, by the way, when it's just the two of us? Which do you prefer?"

"Mikey," she mutters, gulping her water. She took a Xanax before this, but it isn't working. She doesn't want to play word games. She wants to sleep, or maybe text Gabe--he's been in a funk for a few days and that sucks, even though it's not like the can do anything about it from the other side of the country or anything, but a good girlfriend shows an interest and is there for him, like he's been there for her this whole time, and--

"Mikey." He's smiling when she snaps back to attention, the smile that she doesn't really like, for no good reason. "We got an offer from Maxim."

That still doesn't make sense.

"A girls of rock feature," he says patiently. "Up and comers. We didn't have to pitch you, they offered. That's really significant."

"Like...an interview?" she says after a minute, turning the idea around and around in her head until it completely fails to make any sense at all.

"Photo shoot. A few questions. You'll get a full page, probably."

"I'm not exactly Maxim material."

"They think you are. And they have a whole editing department for anything that you're insecure about."

"I'm not insecure. I'm...realistic." She reaches for her water again, her hand shaking. "I don't know. I mean, Gerard might not--"

"They didn't ask for Gerard. They asked for you."

"Well, yeah. I look better in a bra than he does."

"You don't need Gerard's permission."

"Well, the band's image, that's his--"

"That's also ours." His smile gets distinctly sharper, and she wonders if he really means also or actually. "And it's a fantastic opportunity. I really think it would give you a chance to spread your wings a little."

"I don't know."

"It's your body. Nothing wrong with wanting to show it off. Celebrate it."

That is painfully transparent bullshit, but it still feels good. Fuck, she's one of those girls on the inside, if nothing else. And she's sad, she's fucking sad, all the way through, she aches with sad, and maybe this will be a distraction. Pretty colors and bright lights. Why not?

"Can I think about it?" Talk to the guys, she wants to say, but they don't have veto power over her. David's right about that. She doesn't need permission. Fuck that.

"Sure. I said I'd call them tomorrow, so just get back to me by, let's say, noon?" She nods and he smiles, signaling the waiter again. "I have to recommend the duck. It's fantastic."

**

"No."

Mikey exhales slowly and looks from Gerard to Frank. "Did he not hear me say he doesn't get a veto?"

"I'm not getting involved in this," Frank says.

"We're not selling this band on your body, Michaela."

"We're not doing anything with my body. I am."

"This is beneath you."

"I don't even know what that's supposed to mean."

"It won't even be you. They'll Photoshop and airbrush and...just turn you into a plastic doll. It's manufactured beauty."

"Because I don't have any of my own?"

"I did not say that. Don't even try to play that game with me."

"I'm not playing a fucking game, Gerard. And you look at plenty of girlie photo shoots. You don't have any kind of fucking moral high ground."

"You're my sister. That's different."

Mikey throws her hands in the air and turns away, fighting for control.

Frank clears his throat carefully. "You do realize that by telling her not to do it, she'll do it just to spite you."

"Shut up," Mikey snaps. "I'll make up my mind for myself."

"Yeah, I can tell."

"Ray, what do you think?"

Ray shifts uncomfortably, eyes fixed on his laptop screen. "Mikey should do what she wants."

"Right. Thank you."

Gerard points his cigarette at her. "What will Gabe say?"

"Are you serious?"

"I don't think he'll be very happy about his girlfriend posing for Maxim."

"You and Gabe do not get to dictate what I do. Jesus Christ, Gerard."

"Do you want to be a bass player or a whore?"

The silence after that stretches on too long. Mikey turns and walks out.

The problem, she thinks distantly as she dials David's number, is that she isn't 100% sure that Frank isn't right. Maybe she's just acting out.

But every time she and Gerard fight lately it's like someone's peeling off a layer of her skin. Acting out on shit like this lets her remember where she begins and ends, just enough to keep herself together the rest of the time.

**

The photos are gorgeous. They turn her into a cancan dancer with a smear of blood-red lipstick that just hints at vampire. Her dress is deep, deep blue, not quite black, with foaming lace on her breasts and high-cut layers of skirt. They take her glasses away and add layers and layers of shadow and liner, then smooth her hair into a satiny fall over one eye.

She doesn't look like herself at all. She can't stop staring at the proofs, reaching out to touch the computer screen over and over, catching herself just short every time.

**April 2004**

Gabe texts her the day the issue hits stands. looking good baby girl

thx. said nice things abt u. They'd asked her ten questions and used four of them. By some miracle one of those was the one where she talked about her great boyfriend.

saw. ur sweetest.

She smiles at her phone, touching the screen to her lips. call me 2nite? She glances up as the door swings open. Gerard and Otter come in, muttering at each other. Gerard's shaking his head, Otter's rolling his eyes, and neither of them seems to be aware of her at all.

will. have a good day hottie

u2. She snaps the phone closed. Otter stalks off to his bunk and Gerard sighs, staring up at the ceiling.

"What's up?"

"Nothing." His eyes flick to her. "I'm your best friend?"

They'd kept that question, too. "Of course you are."

He smiles just a little bit. "Fin de siecle vampire dancing chick."

"Show-off."

"Hey." He comes over and kisses her forehead, once over each eyebrow. "You look gorgeous."

"Thanks."

"You also look gorgeous right here and now, for the record."

"Thank you."

"My little sister, the Maxim babe."

"Yeah, don't say that again."

"Got it." He kisses her again, on the cheek this time, then steps back. "C'mon, let's watch something. Too fucking quiet in here."

"Oh, no," she says. "You can hear yourself think?"

"Don't even fucking joke about it." He holds his hand out and she takes it, letting him draw her to the lounge. "Scary shit, Mikey. Scary fucking shit."

**May 2004**

The scary shit seems to feed on the schedule they're keeping.

The run-up to the album dropping is intense. Insane. The kind of thing where she thinks she might snap, but that would require her to hold still long enough for the stress to sink in.

It's worse for Gerard, she knows. He doesn't just have to play his part and hold up stage right. He has to talk, and keep the crowd into it, and talk up the album and all the other shit. Any time Mikey starts to feel bad or overwhelmed she tells herself she has no right. What's on her shoulders is nothing compared to what's on Gerard's. She needs to be there for him. Her shit comes later. That's the way it should be, and it's fine. She's better at looking after him than dealing with herself anyway.

She's just tired, that's all.

The publicity ramp-up brings one thing after another. Everyone she knows is sending her links, all the time. Did you see this? This is awesome. Look at what they're saying about you! LOL! This is crazy.

Most of it she can take. Most of it's fine. There's just some things.

She never knows if it's going to be one of them until she clicks and it's too late to look away. There's a sick car-crash fascination to reading what people say, seeing what they think. Once she starts, she can never look away, jumping link to link for hours, trying to see what they see. She tries their vision on until her own eyes blur.

One night in LA, staying in a hotel while they do press left right and sideways, Gerard finds her on her knees at the side of her bed. He comes to her side and kneels beside her, talking softly, then less so as she shakes her head and drags her fingers through her hair.

Gerard's hands close around her wrists, not tight enough to hurt but too firmly to argue with. "Mikey. Stop it."

There are strands of hair wound around her fingers. More than strands, really, more like clumps. "Let go."

"You're hurting yourself."

"Let go of me."

He does, and she shakes her hands clean, turning away from him and reaching for her laptop. "Why are you reading that shit?" She doesn't bother to answer him, just clicks another link. "Mikey, you know better than to read that. They don't know you, they don't know what they're talking about, it doesn't matter."

"You wouldn't say it didn't matter if they were saying it about you."

"They don't know what they're--"

"You think it matters if it's true? Like you give a fuck about that when they start rumors about you."

Gerard exhales slowly through clenched teeth. She refuses to look at him, because she knows the look he'll have on his face, all overly-patient and indulgent big brother and she'll have to punch him. "Okay, what are they saying that's so awful?"

"She doesn't know how to play. They keep the bass turned down to zero at live shows and play a backing track instead. Ray tracks her parts on the albums. She's only in the band at all because she sucks their dicks. She fucks everyone at Warner to keep the band signed. You want me to keep going?"

"Mikey..."

"They think I don't deserve it, Gerard. They think I don't belong."

"You know better than that."

"Nobody would let her within twenty feet of a stage if she was ugly. There's like twenty replies to that on the theme of but she is ugly, and then the person comes back and says fine, nobody would let her within twenty feet of a stage if she didn't have tits."

"Well, if you keep ripping your hair out, you'll be able to test the ugly theory, anyway."

"Fuck you."

"Well, you know what, Mikey..." He shakes his head.

"No, go ahead. Say whatever it is you want to say."

"I bet that fucking Maxim shoot didn't help with this at all, now, did it? How's owning your sexuality working for you now?"

She closes the laptop and stands up. "Get out."

"Mikey, come on."

"Get out."

He reaches for her arm and she jerks back. For the first time in her life, she tells him "Don't touch me," and means it.

"Fine," he says. "That's fine. You asked me to say what I thought, and I did, and you don't want to hear it, that's...that's whatever. Jesus, Mikey."

"You have no idea, Gerard. You have no fucking idea what it's like."

"Yeah, yeah, it's different for girls, you've told me that before. You know what? I think it's only different because you make it be different."

"Get the fuck out of here."

He goes and she flings herself down on the bed, fighting not to cry.

**June 2004**

When she's on stage, she can fight back some of it. She watches her own hands on her bass, sliding over the neck and working the strings. She knows that she knows what she's doing; she can feel that her hands are strong. These songs are hers, she does know them, she does deserve to stand here.

She tucks her hair up under her hat, lines her eyes dark so they're wide and stark behind her glasses, dresses the same as the scene boys who flock around Gabe. Their skin is like androgynous armor. If she slides between the spaces, maybe everyone else will lose sight of her.

They don't; they never do. She closes her eyes and plays, strings throbbing under her fingers, drumbeat in her pulse, the stage rocking under her feet, and she thinks let me make it one more night, one more, one more night and I can do one more day.

**

And then sometimes it's good, sometimes it's really fucking good, sometimes the adrenaline and the booze and the pills and the circumstances all click click click and it's so good she's fucking flying. She's on top of the world.

It's the album release party and she is drunk, fabulously, awesomely drunk. They all are. They played a short set earlier and now they have been set free to enjoy themselves, which apparently means debauch themselves like Romans.

"We just need, like, gladiators," Ray says, swaying a little on his feet. Mikey throws her arm around his waist so they can coordinate their swaying and steady each other. "Thanks, Mikes. But yeah. Gladiators. Like, and a pit. Where they can fight."

"Russell Crowe," she says, nodding and holding on to him tighter. "Russell Crowe in a skirt."

"That wasn't a skirt, that was armor."

"Showed a lot of leg."

"Armor, Mikey."

"Okay, okay." She bumps him with her hip and stands up a little straighter, pushing her hair out of her face and looking around. "Where's Gerard? Let's find Gerard. I miss him."

"You can't miss him."

"I do. Where is he? And Frank. I miss Frank. And Otter. We've gotta find everybody."

"And do what?" He's laughing at her, she suspects, a little bit, though it's kind of hard to tell sometimes with Ray. He gets giggly in general when he's drunk. He might be laughing at the whole world, not at her. Still, she has to glare at him on principle.

"I don't know. We'll figure that out when we have everybody." She pushes him away. "Go find Otter. I'll find Gee. Frank is little, I bet we'll trip over him."

This is when the bad times are worth it, nights like this, when everything is good. Somebody thinks they're good enough at what they do to give them a party for it. And she has her band and Gerard, all the family she's ever really going to need. Once she finds Gee and Ray drags Otter over and Frank turns up from the crowd, she can make them all stay close enough to touch, at least for a minute. She can link arms with Gerard and Ray, sit on Otter, snag Frank's belt loop with one finger. She can drag them all out on the floor with her and force them to dance to "Crazy in Love" against their will.

And they'll do it, because they love her, too. They're all in this together. That's worth all the bad shit floating around in her head and her heart, at least for tonight.

**June 2004**

Techs don't count.

She doesn't remember where she was when she made that rule, but when was just this spring, when they came out on the road again from recording. Techs always counted before, but now they don't. She hasn't mentioned it to Gabe, but she doesn't have to, because they don't count. This doesn't count.

This is her legs wrapped around the venue sound guy's waist, holding her up and anchored on his dick. He's thrusting up and it isn't doing much for her, but it's better than nothing, better than an empty frantic ache in her head with nothing but thoughts to fill it, better than being on the fucking bus watching the guys try to keep Gerard sober until sundown. That's close enough to showtime that they'll let him go from there. She doesn't want to watch that either.

The tech curses under his breath and comes, his hips jerking hard. She eases her grip and leans back against the wall, waiting for him to set her down.

"You want a smoke?" he asks while she's doing up her jeans. She glances at the pack he's offering--something unfiltered and ungodly, what her Uncle Ronny smokes--and shakes her head.

"I gotta get back to the bus."

"Cool. Let me know if you want to hang out after the show."

After the show is supervising Gerard, and calling Gabe, and trying to avoid Frank and Ray and Otter enough to get them to take the hint and leave her alone.

"Maybe." She heads back down the hall, pushing her hair off her face. Her forehead's broken out horribly along the hairline, bad enough that the front row can probably see it. Shit.

"Mikey."

She trips, startled by Otter's voice, and he reaches out to steady her. His hand closing around her arm makes her jump again; it's been a long time since she felt that. Actually, it's been a long time since they talked at all beyond discussing songs or sets. She looks up at him and for a minute it's like he's a stranger, back there in the shadows, not only a stranger but one speaking a language she's never heard.

"You okay?" he asks, and she nods. That question she knows, she's got it memorized. She's okay. She's fine. Because I'm telling you the truth, I mean this, I'm okay. Trust me. God, fuck her brain for that.

His eyes flick up the hall and then back to her face. "Do you even know his name?"

It takes her a minute to realize he means the sound guy. "No." He doesn't count. Doesn't matter. Doesn't exist, now, except the hot slick left in her panties and the ache in her thighs.

"Jesus, Mikey." He shakes his head. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing." Her voice sounds small. It doesn't shake, but it sounds small, uncertain.

"Yeah, okay. Whatever." He steps back, shaking his head again. "I don't know anything about you anymore."

"I'm the same I always was."

"Sad but fucking true, I guess."

"Anything else you want to say?"

"I feel sorry for your boyfriend." He walks away and she stands there for a minute, sore and stupid and a little wild at the edges, like if she isn't careful she'll scream, and if she screams she won't stop, not ever, not until something in her cracks.

They sold eleven thousand records in a week. They're taking off. It's real. They're rock stars. And she feels like she's falling half the time. Who can she talk to about that? Who wants to hear her bitching about how tough it is on the climb up? That would just make people want them to fall.

She makes her way back to the dressing room and curls up on the couch, pulling her hoodie over her head, and dozes fitfully until the others show up.

That night she and Otter can't find a mutual beat to save their fucking souls, and Ray's so pissed he reams them both out on the bus until they're all an hour late to the party. That means she's only half as drunk as she wants to be when she needs to stop and take Gerard back to his bunk to sleep.

**

Gerard's making wet little noises in his throat, like a laugh or a cough that can't quite find its way free. She rubs his back slowly, humming something flat and tuneless in his ear and wishing she knew what the fuck to do. Gerard has always been her big brother, her rock, the source of all the answers.

He turns his head toward her, bumping the rim of her glasses. "Mikey."

"Yeah, Gee. I'm here."

"Love you."

"I love you too." She does, so much it hurts inside her chest.

"You love me best."

"Always." Her eyes sting and she blinks hard against the threat. Mikey Way does not cry. Not ever. Not for anything.

"Love me more than anything."

"That's what best means, yeah." He laughs, his breath warm and damp against her face, and then he kisses her cheek. It's sloppy and wet, catching the corner of her mouth, his tongue lapping clumsily down to her chin. It's like having a drunk, overly affectionate puppy hanging on to her. She turns her face away. "Gerard. Stop it."

"Love you."

"I love you too." She's tired. Really fucking tired. And he's drunk, and being clingy and needy and out of his head, and she just can't do this right now. "Come on. You should lie down."

He leans on her all the way back to the bunks, his head pressed against her shoulder. "Stay with me?"

"Yeah." Frank peers out of his bunk and she shakes her head at him, silently willing him to actually listen for once. She can deal with one thing right now, if she gives it all of her attention and all of her self-control; if she has to split her focus between two, she's going to lose it.

Frank raises his eyebrows at her but lets the curtain fall closed again. She takes a deep breath and manhandles Gerard into his bunk, pushing him back against the far wall. She pulls her hoodie off before she climbs in after him, turning so her back is to him and she's looking out at the narrow strip of walkway between the bunks. He wraps his arm around her waist, pulling her back tight against his body, which is warm, intensely warm, his clothes damp and stiff with accumulated sweat.

She closes her eyes, breathing in and out slowly. "Gee."

"Hm?"

"Sleep now."

"Yeah." His voice is muffled and thick. There's no reason to worry, nothing's wrong. He's just fucked up. "My head's all swimmy, Mikes."

"I know, but it's okay. Sleeping will help."

"Yeah. Yeah, they always say that." He presses his forehead between her shoulder blades, and she wants to move away because it's too hot, he's fucking burning up. But she stays still, and counts her breaths, and waits, and he falls asleep before very long. She doesn't. She's awake all night, watching the light change on the strip of carpet outside the bunk.

**July 2004**

"Paaaaaaarty," Frank sings, gripping the edge of Ray's bunk and doing chin-ups. "Party party. Move your ass, Mikey Way, everyone is partying without us."
 
"Fuck off." Mikey squints at her compact mirror and smudges her eyeliner with the edge of her knuckle. It's combining with the late-tour circles under her eyes to make her look like she's been punched, but there's nothing she can do about that now. "Find my shoes."
 
"Find them yourself. Gerard! Gerard, come on, Mikey's finally ready, let's go."
 
When Mikey climbs out of her bunk, Gerard's leaning against the wall, her shoes in his hand. "Thanks," she says, dropping to the floor to lace them up. "You're a much better brother than Frank."
 
He doesn't laugh, and she glances up, pushing her bangs out of her face to look at him. "You okay, Gee?"
 
"Yeah," he says distantly, rubbing his eyes. He never cleaned off his makeup from the stage show, and it smears under his fingers, streaking down his face like tear tracks. "Yeah, I'm fine, Mikes."
 
"You look like you've got a headache, maybe."
 
"Yeah, maybe that's it." He offers his hands and she lets him pull her up. She could keep pushing, they could fight about it, but that's the same old script they've been doing for such a long time now. She's tired. She's just…really tired. So she smiles at him.
 
"We'll have some fun and you'll forget all about it, okay? You'll feel better." He always feels better after a few drinks, right up until he feels worse. She pushes that thought away; there'll be time to worry about that later. Another city, maybe. Another album, another year.
 
His fingers trace along her jaw, slowly, and he looks at her like he's never seen her before. "Mikes," he says, barely above a whisper. "I…"
 
"It's cool," she says, catching his hand and squeezing it tightly. "Whatever it is. I promise."
 
"I don't think it's that simple." He frowns and she squeezes tighter, wanting to chase the look away from his face. She should ask, she should dig, but she just wants a fucking drink and a night off. It'll fix him, too. Always does.
 
"I love you, Mikey. Forever, no matter what, okay?"
 
"I know, Gee. I love you too." She holds on tight, waiting for him to respond and finishing the game herself when he doesn't. "Love you best. Always."
 
He doesn't kiss her face, but he almost smiles. They walk to the party hand in hand.
 
**
 
She's lost her bra in a game of strip quarters when Ray asks her if she's seen Gerard. Kept her t-shirt, lost her bra, because nobody set the order that items had to come off in and she is a master strategist, she is a genius of the game, as she tells Ray when he walks her away to a quieter corner where they can talk.
 
"That's awesome," he says, taking her glasses and cleaning them on the sleeve of his shirt. "You're a wizard. Have you seen Gerard?"
 
She shrugs and takes a sip of her drink, glancing around the party. "Not since we got here, I guess." She scans the crowd, eyes sliding over everyone. She would recognize Gerard in a heartbeat if he was there, would know him from a quarter of his face or the angle of his shoulders or a glimpse of a clump of dark hair. She doesn't see him. "Not sure where he went."
 
"Weird."
 
"He wasn't feeling so great. Maybe he went back to the bus." She takes another swallow, shuddering at the mix of harsh vodka and cheap juice. "What did you need?"
 
"Nothing important. I was just looking for him." Ray shakes his head. "Guess I'll catch him later. You cool? You need anything?"
 
She gives him a double thumbs-up, tricky to manage while curling her other fingers around the cup. "I'm awesome."
 
"Yeah, yeah." He tugs at a tuft of hair that's sticking out under her hat and walks away, leaving her unsteady on her feet and holding her drink for balance. The quarters game has probably moved on without her. Time to find something else.
 
She wanders around the party for another hour, migrating from group to group and refilling her cup with this that or the other as she goes. Frank is standing back in a corner, frowning at his phone, and she leans half against him and half against the wall, trusting them both to hold her up. "Hi."
 
"Hi." He scowls at the screen. "I've got two missed calls from Brian."
 
"Call him back."
 
"Wow, you're like a goddamn genius." He glances sideways at her. "Are you not wearing a bra? I feel things. Against my arm. Boob things."

"Mmm." She rests her chin on his shoulder and squints at the phone as well. "Call him. See what's up."
 
"I am, you're such a nag." He punches the call button and tilts his head back into the wall, staring past her out at the party. "Hey, Schechter, it's me. Just saw you called. What's up?"
 
Mikey closes her eyes and hums under her breath, rubbing her chin against Frank, then frowns as he goes tense. "What's up?"
 
He pulls away from her and waves his hand, signaling her to shut up. "Is he okay? Shit. He's on the bus? Yeah, Mikey and me will go right back…what?" He frowns, looking down at the floor now. "What do you mean he doesn't want her, that doesn't make any sense. Brian…"
 
Mikey wraps her arms around herself and waits.
 
"Fine. Yeah, okay, okay. I guess. I'll…yeah, I'll find Ray, we'll go back and stay with him. Okay. Yeah, she can crash on any of the other buses, nobody will mind. Yeah. I'll call you back. Yeah." He snaps the phone closed and stares at it for a minute, then at Mikey. "Um."
 
"Is it Gerard?" Her voice sounds normal to her own ears. Just a question.
 
"Yeah, it's…um. No big deal."
 
She nods, digging her fingers into her arms as hard as she can. "Yeah, I can tell."
 
"Look, I'm not totally sure what's going on, okay? But I'll let you know as soon as I do. Okay? Mikes?"
 
"I need another drink."
 
"Mikey."
 
She walks away, trying to remember to breathe every time her vision goes fuzzy around the edges.
 
**
 
Frank calls an hour later. She's sitting in the far corner of the bus lot, leaning back against the fence, a bottle of something dark and foul that might be really cheap rum braced between her knees.
 
"He's okay," is the first thing Frank says when she answers. "He's all right. Tucked into his bunk snug as a bug."
 
"What did he do?"
 
"He called Brian."
 
"You know what I mean, Frank."
 
"No, that's just it, he called Brian before he…did anything. That might have turned into something. He called Brian first."
 
"Oh." She stares up at the sky, dull and gray and starless through the lights. "Well. That's good."
 
"It is, Mikey. Really, it is good that he called somebody."
 
"I know." She takes a deep breath and wraps her fingers around the neck of the bottle, rolling it loosely between her knuckles and then flinging it out in an arc across the lot. It shatters and splashes somewhere out of sight. "So…now what?"
 
"What bus are you on?"
 
"I'm just out in the lot."
 
"Dude." He sighs. "Well, like I said, he's asleep, so just come back here, then."
 
"I don't want to be in the way."
 
"You're not. Just come back and we'll all talk in the morning, okay? You and him will talk. I think first we all need to sleep. Really. A lot."
 
"Yeah, okay. I'm on my way." She curls her fist around her phone, looking down at the pavement. She doesn't want to go back. She doesn't really want to talk to any of them, Gerard least of all.
 
But she doesn't have anywhere else to go.
 
She dials Gabe's number while she walks, rubbing the back of her free hand over her eyes to keep any threat of tears at bay. "Hi," she says when he picks up. "It's me."
 
"Mikey? Shit. ‘s like four AM." He coughs and she stops walking for a minute, picturing him stretched out in his bed, thinking about the warm hollow of his side where he always makes room for her.
 
"Everything okay?" he asks, clearing his throat again.
 
She didn't really have a plan when she called, but she kind of wants to tell him everything, spill out her guts over the phone where she won't have to worry about him looking her in the eye. Tell him how fucking scared she is for Gerard, and how much all of this hurts --he doesn't want her--, and how she doesn't know how much longer she can keep her head up while the others watch her, because as soon as she worries they know they can let their own fear go up to eleven.
 
She could tell him all of that, but it's the kind of thing that once you put it out there, you can't ever take it back.
 
"Baby girl? What's wrong?"
 
"Tell me something good," she says softly, starting to walk again. "Just…something good, something happy. Anything. I'm okay, everything's just…really fucked right now."
 
"You want to talk about it?"
 
She wipes her eyes again and this time her hand comes away wet. Goddamn it. "Just tell me something good."

**August 2004**

The whole time they're in Japan, she tries to forget about what's going on before it's even finished happening. It doesn't work, of course; Gerard's puking his life out never more than six feet away, and the others are all staring at her like she's got some magic fix tucked away in her pocket and just hasn't felt like using it so far. Like there's something she could do if she just wanted to.

If there is, nobody's told her about it. She can't think of anything except hold Gerard's hair back, let the bile and booze and whatever the fuck splash on her shoes and the legs of her jeans. Try to remember to breathe, so she can remind him to. Curl her fingers around the pill bottle or her cell phone when she's alone in her bunk. Not meet anyone's eyes.

Rock bottom looks a lot like any other Wednesday. He swears it's all going to be different now.

She kisses his jaw because she doesn't know what else to do. She can't say anything. If she does, she'll definitely choke and she'll maybe cry. and neither one of them can take that right now.

The plane ride is a little piece of hell, probably worse for him than for her. She bites her lip to keep quiet when he digs his fingers into her arm hard enough to bruise, and watches one stupid, shitty movie after another. It'll be over soon, she thinks. It'll be over, it'll be over. It has to be over. This can't happen forever. The laws of physics can't stand it.

They land in the States and she finds a bathroom to splash cold water on her face and comb it through her hair. Her eyes are huge behind her glasses, her skin pasty and sick-looking, her eyes red-rimmed and puffy without any makeup. She looks like she's dead. She looks like she feels.

Ray's waiting outside the door. "Who's with Gerard?" she asks, hugging her backpack closer. If they set him loose in a goddamn airport all by himself, she's going to lose it, she really is.

"Frank. They're getting coffee." He hesitates a minute, his fingers hovering over her arm without quite touching. She shifts away, making more space between them. She isn't sure she can be touched without screaming right now. "Mikey, look..."

"What?"

"I know this isn't the greatest time."

"What?"

He takes a breath and shoves his hands into his pockets. "I need your vote. On Otter." She stares at him blankly and he jerks one hand free to run it through his hair. "About, you know...letting him go. Because of everything. We talked about this."

She remembers that talk. Vaguely. It might as well have been six years ago and on Mars. "Are you fucking kidding me, Ray? You want to do this now? You want me to make a decision right now?"

He shrugs a little, clenching his hand against his jaw, fingers pressing hard against the bone. "We kind of have to. Clock's ticking."

"Fucking...the label?" He nods and she laughs, not able to stop the sound. It feels more like a punch in the stomach, but at least she knows those muscles still work. "Wow. Wow. I can't...wow."

"Just go with your gut feeling, Mikey."

"My gut feels like I want to sleep for a year. My gut feels like my brother just...My gut is not available for polling, Ray."

"Mikey. Come on."

"My vote is whatever your vote is. Okay? My vote is a free agent. Whatever you want to do, I'll back it up." She swings her backpack up onto her shoulders and scrapes her fingernails against the nylon. "I need to go find Gerard."

"Frank's got him."

"Frank is little. He could knock him down and escape." He opens his mouth to protest again and she shakes her head hard, stepping away. "I just need to find him, okay, Ray? I need to. Which way did they go?"

He points and she goes, dodging bodies left and right while she weaves through the terminal. She needs to see Gerard, to be close enough that they could touch if she could stand it. She just doesn't have room for anything else right now. The band is the least of her problems. If Ray can handle thinking about it, then good for him.

**

Mikey doesn't have a lot of patience or attention span for anything at the moment, so she doesn't take part in any of the angsting and wibbling and whining that Ray and Frank and Brian might be doing over the drummer situation. She's busy watching Gerard sleep, and making him stay hydrated, and lighting his cigarettes for him so he can get a fix of something he wants without setting himself or his bed on fire.

When the other guys show up at the apartment, she meets them at the doorway, blocking their entrance with her body. "He's resting. Don't bug him."

"We kind of need to talk to both of you," Brian says, rising up on his toes to look over her shoulder. "And we're worried about him, too, you know."

"He's resting. So just stay out here and whatever you have to say, I'll tell him."

Brian looks at Ray, who shrugs, then turns back to her. "Okay. Well. We're kicking off a tour pretty much now, and you've got a video shoot tomorrow, so we called Bob."

"Oh." She nods, angling her body to block Frank's attempt to get around her. "That's great. I like Bob."

"And Bob likes you guys, so that works out well."

"You like Bob?" Frank frowns. "Wait, you're not going to fuck him, are you?"

"Shut up." She kicks him and nods at the door. "I'll tell Gerard. You guys can leave now. We'll see you tomorrow at the shoot."

Brian looks over her shoulder again. "Gerard's going to be up for it?"

"He'll be fine."

"I'd really like to talk to him."

"I will punch you in the crotch, Brian, I swear to God."

"Why do I do this to myself, again?" Brian sighs and puts his hands up in defeat. "Yeah, okay. Tomorrow. Be on time."

"We will be. Go away now."

"Not just on time, but showered and on time."

"We'll be there. Get lost."

She locks up behind them and goes back to the bedroom, sitting on the edge of the mattress and stroking Gerard's hair. It's thick and heavy with grease and sweat. She really is going to have to get him into the shower before they can go to the shoot.

"Who was that?" he asks, not quite opening his eyes.

"Brian and Frank and Ray."

"Shit, why didn't you let them in?"

"Because you're supposed to be resting."

"I'm fine."

"You're not fine. If you try to sit up, you're going to puke. Don't test that theory."

He breathes in and out a few times, slowly, like he's testing his lungs. "What did they want?"

"They found us another drummer. We're going to use Bob."

"Bob? Oh."

"We like Bob, Gee."

"I know. Bob's cool. But...does he know..." His mouth twists into the ghost of a smirk. "Does he know what he's getting himself into, I guess."

"Brian talked to him. I'm sure he knows everything."

"Well, that makes me feel like dog shit, Mikey."

"A lot of things are making you feel like dog shit right now." She puts her fingers over his lips before he can answer. "And we'll deal with them tomorrow." She kisses his forehead and covers his eyes with her hand. "Just go back to sleep."

**

She can understand why Bob is nervous, but it doesn't make her want to hit him any less.

"We're not going to make you be in the acting part," she tells him again. Fifth time, at least. "Just playing in the performance scenes. You won't even have any close-ups. It's going to be okay."

"I know." He shrugs and twirls his drumsticks, looking at her with that blushing smile she still finds pretty damn charming. "Just...my first time on this side of the stage, that's all. Give me a few minutes to hit the ground running, huh?"

"Well, when you put it that way." She sits on the edge of the craft services table and rubs the back of her neck, eyes automatically tracking around the set for Gerard. He's still with makeup, where they're trying to work with his pallor instead of against it.

"So, I've got all the drum tracks, and I've been drilling on them with my iPod," he says, tapping just the ends of the sticks along the edge of the table in a pattern she almost recognizes, but not quite. "And I'll definitely be ready when we hit the road next week, but I was just wondering what kind of practice--"

"We're probably not going to have time for full-band practices until, like, two days before."

"Okay, but what about me and you?"

She blinks at him. "What?"

"Well, we're the rhythm section. I want to practice with you, if we can't get everybody together. Get the feel of it."

She shakes her head, smiling a little. He's so...new. "You don't need to drill with me. Just know your part and we'll work it out."

"I'd really feel more comfortable if you and I are in synch."

"Okay, I'll be a little more blunt." She pushes her hair back off her forehead and looks at him directly, meeting his eyes. "I'm not very good, Bob. I play the bass because we needed a bassist. I'm better than I used to be, by, like, miles, but I'm still not exactly the powerhouse strength of the band."

He doesn't seem fazed. "You're the other half of the rhythm section," he says, shrugging again. "I need to fit to you. We'll bring each other up."

"You're serious."

"I'm very serious."

She exhales through her teeth, mentally shuffling around the chunks of time she had plotted out for watching Gerard, and sleeping, and possibly curling up under a blanket and shaking a little, which she's been wanting to do for days and hasn't let herself. "Day after tomorrow. I'll clear the afternoon? I'll come to your place."

"Awesome." He nods and spins his sticks, looking over his shoulder at the set. "Shit, I don't know about this."

"It's fine."

"I was never the kid who dreamed about being a rock star."

"You were the kid who came running when he was needed, though, right?"

"What gave it away?"

She laughs and slides down off the table, reaching out to touch his shoulder. "Well, we need you. So c'mon. Let's do this."

**December 2004**

"In the air," Gabe sings under his breath, bumping his hip against Mikey's as they walk from the cab to the door. "In the air there's a feeling of..."

"Christmas," she supplies after a minute, when he doesn't try to fill the gap. "In the air there's a feeling of Christmas."

"In the air there's a feeling of sectarian oppression."

"Don't start," she says, tugging her hat off and rubbing at her hair. "It's a Christmas party. They should've called it a holiday party, but they didn't, and you're just going to have to deal."

"Can't believe Eyeball is oppressing me. Douchebags." He shrugs his jacket off and hands it over to the coat check, palming his flask from the pocket.

"Let's just have a good time, huh?"

"I intend to."

"Great." She smiles quickly at the waiter holding the door for them, then dodges sideways as Gabe steps around her and pushes into the room first. "Gabe."

"What? I'm having a good time."

"You're..." She rolls her eyes and shoves her hands in her pockets, nodding at people she recognizes. "You're being an ass."

"Whatever." He pulls away from her and cuts across the room toward the bar. That's the most abruptly she's been ditched at a party since she was eighteen. Fuck him and his moods.

It's a good party. Open bar, people who knew her back in the day, people who've never met her but like her band, people who've never met her and hate her band but are good at lying. All the key ingredients for a party where she ends up feeling awesome, and buzzed, and very likely to get laid at the end of the night.

Except that after an hour security is tapping her on the elbow and murmuring politely in her ear that there's a situation and Mr. Saporta has been asked to leave, but he won't leave without speaking to her, and of course they could simply remove him but there would be a scene, and could she please...?

Yes, of course she can.

She grabs him by the elbow and drags him out the door, glad she kept her coat as an essential part of her outfit instead of checking it. "What is wrong with you?"

"The fuck do you care?"

"Don't be a fucking child right now, Gabriel, I am so very not in the mood."

"Yeah, you never are, are you?" He takes a drink from the flask that somehow evaded getting confiscated and plants his heels, glaring at her across the square of sidewalk. "Never in any goddamn mood that I can see."

"What's that supposed to mean?" The wind's picking up, tossing her hair across her eyes. She pushes at it and squints at him through the suddenly streaky lenses of her glasses.

"It means you're fucking...stone-faced Mikey Way, the queen bitch of the scene, and I'm supposed to be your boyfriend, right? I'm supposed to be...the one who knows better, the one who knows you, the one you let in. But you don't fucking do it. You don't fucking let me in. I don't see anything but what everybody else sees. Fucking...robot. Fucking statue."

She stands there for a minute, staring at him. "You're drunk."

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fucking drunk. I'm drunk and maybe if you were drunk I'd get an emotion or two out of you. Maybe even a smile. But you've gotta be really fucking drunk for that, and there's a word for guys who get their girlfriends really fucking drunk just because they want a goddamn reaction when they take 'em to bed, and it's not a word I like very much."

"You're seriously going to fight with me about our sex life in the middle of a hotel parking lot. You're really going to do this."

"That's not what we're fighting about, Mikey!" He's shouting now, really shouting, and she realizes that she's never heard this before, never seen him this mad.

"Then what are we fighting about, Gabe?" she manages, gritting her teeth and clenching her hands in her pockets. "Enlighten me."

"I can't read you. You shut me out. You lock me out and throw away the key and it's like..."

"I don't want to have this conversation right now."

His shoulders drop, and suddenly the anger seems to go out of him. He half-turns away and takes another drink, and when he speaks, his voice has dropped, too, almost too low to hear. "You never want to have this conversation, baby girl. That's the problem."

"So...so, what? I'm not an open book and that's suddenly a problem for you? I never was. This isn't new. I haven't changed."

"I know you haven't. Maybe I have. Maybe...I don't know. I just...I can't do this anymore, Mikey."

"So it's over?"

"I think it's got to be. I'm not what you want. You look at me like you don't even know why I'm in your space half the time."

"That's not how I feel."

"I can't feel like a chore, Mikey. A chore or a convenience, I don't even know which, but...I can't feel like I'm wrecking your day by being here."

"You aren't." She swallows hard, fighting the tightness in her chest. "I swear, Jesus Christ, you aren't."

He shakes his head just a little. "I don't feel it."

She stares at him for a minute and tries to fight back the anger rising in her chest. She does try. She just doesn't succeed. "Is it really that you don't know how I feel, or is it that you do know how my band's selling compared to yours?"

He jerks back like she hit him. She's never gotten that reaction from him before. "What?"

"Is this about you being neglected or you being jealous?" She can hear the cold, nasty twist to her voice, she knows she should stop it, but she can't. He's going to fucking break up with her, because she's a freak, because she's awkward and cold and not good enough, and she can't just take that without hitting back. It isn't fair.

"You think I'm fucking jealous?" He laughs, sharp and harsh, and steps into her, jabbing his finger at her chest. "Yeah, that's it, Mikey, I'm jealous of your fucking bullshit fake wannabe-hardcore half-Goth screaming in the basement."

"Yeah? Tell me more about how the kids are all into you screeching about your fucking feelings, you whiny sack of shit."

He whirls around and kicks the car behind him, sending the alarm screaming into the cold air. "Fuck you, Mikey. You can fucking go to hell for all I care."

She takes a breath, then another, waiting for it to feel normal. Apparently it's going to take a few more. "I can't believe you just dumped me in the parking lot of the Hilton."

"Well, if you weren't such a..." He takes a ragged breath, then kicks the car again and walks off across the lot.

She digs in her pockets for her keys, her phone, something she can throw. "Goddamn it, Gabe."

He doesn't look back.

She grips the phone in her fist for a long time, but in the end she doesn't throw it. She sits down on the curb and flips it open, staring at the rows of cars while she waits for Gerard to pick up. "It's me." Her voice is shaking, just a little bit. She wouldn't let anyone other than him hear it that way. "I need you to come get me."

"Are you okay?"

"Just come get me, Gee."

"What happened to Gabe?"

"Gerard." Her voice actually breaks this time. Fuck. "Please."

He's quiet for a minute. "Oh, honey. I'll be right there."

"Thank you." She hangs up and presses her hands over her eyes, pushing her glasses against her face until it hurts. By the time he gets there, she's shaking with cold and everything hurts, inside and out.

"There's a blanket in the backseat," he says when she climbs inside. "Wrap yourself up, you look like you're freezing."

"Why is there a blanket in your backseat?" She wraps her arms around herself. "Is this your girlfriend's car? It smells like patchouli."

He hands her his cigarettes and a lighter, then reaches in the back and grabs the blanket, draping it around her shoulders before he puts the car back in drive. "You want me to beat him up?"

She shakes her head and takes a long, slow drag on a cigarette. "I want to forget he exists, and I want to get the fuck back out on the road."

"I can make that happen," Gerard says solemnly. She glances at him and snorts.

"Yeah, you're the magic man, aren't you."

"I totally am. My powers sort of come and go, but for you, Mikey..."

"Can I come back to your place to sleep?"

He stops at a light and looks at her, genuine surprise written on his features. "I...didn't even think about taking you anywhere else, actually."

She nods and pulls the blanket closer around her with one hand, flicking ashes to the floor with the other. "That's why I love you best."

**

The whole documentary thing is a lot more confusing to her than it seems to be for anyone else. Not that she doesn't understand the concept of a documentary in general--thank you very much, Gerard, for explaining the meaning of nonfiction film when she said aloud that she didn't get it--but she doesn't get why anyone would want one about them.

"You have very rabid fans," was all Brian would answer. "If they're going to scare me, I'm at least going to sell them more stuff."

Bob also doesn't understand the documentary in general, so she's been sticking close to him in solidarity all day while they filmed really confusing b-roll and now their Secret Santa exchange. The exchange has been cleaned up considerably from past years, with illegal substances banned by Brian and alcohol banned by nobody wanting to be a dick to Gerard.

Okay, another reason she's been sticking tight to Bob: he's a very soothing presence, and she kind of needs that right now. She feels raw as shit. He gives good hugs and he doesn't mind her leaning on him and if she doesn't want to talk about anything but bass riffs and rhythm lines, he will talk to her about that until they both are bored to silence. And then they can be quiet together, and neither of them minds, and it's awesome. She will fight any one of the others for access to Bob.

Frank hoists a shopping bag in the air. "I've got a present for Mikey. You probably want to turn the cameras off for this one."

Brian sighs like he's in pain.

Mikey rolls her eyes and slouches lower on the couch. "Bring it, Iero."

"Oh, it's brought." He throws the bag at her and she yelps, ducking and then picking it up from where it fell to the floor. "God, you're an unathletic loser, Mikes."

"Shut up." She digs through tissue paper to a box, opens that to find more tissue paper, and finally comes to a collection of leather straps, metal rings, and...

"Jesus Christ," Gerard gasps when she holds it up. "Jesus fucking Christ, is that a cock?"

"It's a dildo," Frank says gleefully. "It's a strap-on dildo."

"Why the hell would you give that to my sister, you freak?"

"Cause Mikey's got the biggest metaphorical dick in the band," Frank says, "and I thought she should have the biggest literal one, too. Check it out."

"It's purple," Bob murmurs.

It's very purple. And very big. With veins molded into the shaft, and detailed shaping of the ridge and head. Mikey runs her fingers over the surface, blinking a little at how smooth and flexible it feels. The leather's nice, too, all soft and curling easily in her other hand.

"Mikey, please stop fondling that," Brian says. "And if the camera wasn't off, edit that the fuck out of the final version. Christ, Frank. You're going to be the death of me."

"You love me," Frank says. "Mikey, c'mon, put it on. Let us see you fuck something."

"No!" Gerard stands up, holding his hamster cage in front of him like it will ward off the dildo. "Absolutely not."

"Relax, Gee." Mikey tucks the toy and harness back in the bag, shooting a smile at Frank. "You're not the one who's going to get it when he least expects it."

They all start laughing and veer off into something else, and Mikey sits back, shaking her head. Fucking idiots. She loves them.

She catches herself reaching for her phone to text a picture to Gabe and curls her hand into a fist. She can picture his reaction; he would think it was hilarious and awesome, and then remind her that it was never coming anywhere near him when he was naked.

But she can't do stuff like that with him anymore.

She curls her legs up under herself and watches Ray and Bob play keep-away with Frank's gifts. Well, whatever. Fuck him. She has her band, and they're going to go far and be amazing, and that's all that matters anyway.

It is.

**June 2005**

Frank thinks it's fucking adorable.

"It's not adorable," Mikey says, keeping her eyes firmly on her magazine, refusing to give him the satisfaction of making her look up. "It's not anything that deserves an adjective."

"You have your very own minion. Or stalker. It's totally adjective-worthy, Mikes."

"He is not a stalker."

"He's always showing up wherever you are."

"It's only day three of the tour."

"That's kind of the point," Gerard mutters, jabbing his fingers at the coffee maker as if that's an effective way of making electronics work. "Day three and he's around all the time. Lurking."

"He doesn't lurk."

"True." Bob nods. "Lurking would imply that he was existing quietly. He does not do that."

Retreat is probably the better part of valor. "You're all losers," Mikey says, closing her magazine and standing up. "Wentz and I are friends."

"You are a friend he'd like to make a baby with," Frank says with utmost solemnity. "I hope you realize that."

"Don't be gross."

"Sex isn't gross, Mikey," Ray says from the bunks, his first contribution to this whole stupid conversation. "You of all people should know that."

"Suck my left tit, Toro."

"Oh, now we're going for it." Frank bounces in his seat a little. "You want to make a baby with him. You want him to stuff you full of baby fruit."

"You're disgusting. And do you mean Wentz or Ray?"

"Wait, you want to have Ray's baby fruit too?"

"Stop talking about babies," Gerard says, waving his mug at them. "I mean it. No baby talk on the bus. I'm instituting a ban."

"And I'm stating for the record that I don't want to make babies with either Pete or Ray."

"But you'd like to enjoy a frequent, unproductive baby-making process with him. Right?" Frank wiggles his eyebrows. "I hope you get my drift?"

Mikey flips him off, goes back to her bunk, and shuts the curtain. She hates her band more than words can express. And she isn't going to fuck Wentz. Probably. At least not before they get to Texas.

**

Two hours out of Kansas City, en route to Dallas, Gerard corners her in the bus bathroom.

"I am in here to pee," she says, hitting him with a toothbrush. "Go away."

"I need to talk to you."

"After I pee. Get out."

He frowns, but he steps far enough into the hallway that she can close the door behind him before she takes a breath and drops her jeans. Lately they're acting like they're completely normal, that their relationship is flying high and clear. Probably it is, really. She only feels like she's faking it about a third of the time, and that might just be the fucking paranoia she can't seem to shake these days, the feeling like she's performing even when she's just lying in her bunk, that somebody's watching and she needs to be a perfect example of Mikey Fucking Way even when she's asleep. Or on the toilet, for that matter.

Piss, zip up, stare at herself in the mirror, flick water on her hair, open the door. Gerard's standing two inches outside it, close enough that she can see the smudge of ink on his face where he wiped his hand after holding his pen. "What did you need?"

"I need to talk to you about Wentz."

"Jesus fucking Christ."

"Hear me out."

She pushes past him and walks back to her bunk. "You get two minutes, and if you say anything I've already heard from Frank, I'll spit on you."

"What? No you won't."

She climbs into her bunk and squints up at him from the dark. "Talk, Gerard."

"I'm not going to tell you what to do."

"I appreciate that."

"But you need to be careful with him."

"Meaning what?"

He shrugs, pulling his hands up into his sleeves. "He's...loud. Dramatic. He's an attention-seeker."

"Yeah. Most people who decide to form a band are."

"Well, you're not."

"What's your point, Gerard?"

"He's not all that stable, either."

She waves her hand in a circling motion. "Again, most people who decide to be in a band..."

"Look, Mikey." He exhales sharply in frustration. "Fine, I'll be blunt. You need to be careful."

"Careful."

"You already went through this with the Maxim shoot, and that didn't go so well for you. Do you really want to go through it again? Do you want to be the bass player for My Chemical Romance, or do you want to be that chick Pete Wentz fucked?"

She shuts the curtain in his face as an answer, but ten minutes after they get to the next gas stop, she's across the lot banging on the door of the Fall Out Boy bus.

"Pete here?" she asks when the door opens. "Cool. In the back?" She pushes her way back to the lounge as soon as she gets a nod.

Pete's lying on the couch with a video-game controller in his hands. He looks up in wide-eyed confusion when she kicks the door closed behind her and switches the TV off. "Um. I was using that?"

"Shut up." She tugs her t-shirt off and kicks off her shoes in one set of awkward motions. It has to be the least sexy thing in the history of her life, but his eyes keep getting bigger and he's definitely not trying to make a break for it. "And take your pants off."

"Wow. This is...unexpected."

She goes over to the couch and straddles his hips, reaching for his fly to take care of things herself. "I'm here to prove a point."

"That makes me feel like thirty percent less sexy."

She slips her hand inside his jeans, rubs, squeezes. "Seventy percent still enough to get you there?"

"Yeah," he says faintly, "yeah, that'll do it."

She smiles and leans down to kiss him. "Good."

She works her hand over him slow and steady while they kiss, smirking against his mouth at his little gasps and groans. "Yeah," she murmurs, "there you go."

His hands come up and catch her wrists. "Wait."

"Wait?"

He nods, looking up at her wide-eyed. "I want...let me taste you?"

She hasn't heard a line like that since she was still practically a teenager and Otter was whispering sweet bullshit in her ear, trying to get her to take her clothes off while Gerard made a beer run. "Yeah?"

He nods and licks his lips. "Yeah. C'mon."

She sits back and lets him crawl out from under her, then push her down on her back on the seat. "I've been thinking about this for ages," he says while she pushes her jeans down off her hips.

"You mean since the beginning of the tour? Because that wasn't even a week ago."

"Since I saw your Maxim shoot." He flashes her a quick grin and lowers his head to lick a hot line down from her navel. "I still have that issue in my bunk, actually."

Her laugh breaks off when her breath catches sharply as his fingers drag against her and he guides her underwear down. "That's a little creepy."

"Sorry." He whispers the word against her, his breath stirring the coarse dark hair. "How can I make it up to you?"

She curls her fingers in his hair and pushes him down. "Don't talk so much."

**

They're in Arizona, just outside Phoenix, and Mikey thinks the desert is starting to get into her head, crawling under her skull and filling it up with light.

"Fucking sun never stops," she tells Gerard while she stands at the bus door, tucking her hair under her sunglasses and trying to psych herself up to face the daylight. "How do people sleep here?"

"They sleep at night." He brushes her hair off her forehead, pulling a chunk of it out from under her glasses and leaving her stuck starting over again. "No vampires out here."

"Way too dangerous for them here. Like, the homeland of their enemies."

Gerard almost smiles. She's starting to get used to that look, the held-back half-finished expression, like if he felt something fully then all the structures he's been building will fall down and wash away and something will run wild again.

She doesn't know if he thinks of it as himself that gets away, or something else that lives in him, uses him as a host. Once she would've known that, but things are weird now. Different.

"Where are you off to?" he asks, his hand grazing her shoulder gently before he pulls it back to his side. "Fun in the sun you don't really like very much?"

"Pete and I are hanging out."

That isn't even half a smile. "Oh, fun."

"Yeah." She bumps her sunglasses up on her nose again and reaches for the door handle. Awesome job bringing the awkward in, Michaela, as usual. "See you later."

Frank told her flat-out that he thinks she's using Pete to hide from actually dealing with things that have changed. "Which is cool, don't get me wrong," he'd added. "I just think you should be aware that that's what you're doing."

"I'm so lucky I have you to read my mind, asshole," she'd told him. "If that is what I'm doing now, what the fuck was I doing for the last fucking year, huh?"

"Exercising Olympic levels of denial. Seriously, Mikey, they should name a building after you."

She wishes Frank would shut up, and Ray and Bob can take their silent concerned glances and shove them where the sun doesn't shine along with Gerard's half-smiles and big-brother speeches that he's forfeited the right to, not that he knows it. She wishes they'd all just fuck off and mind their own business and let her spend her time with Pete, who doesn't have any past selves she can see wrapped around him like shadows, and who likes her, just for her, not because she's a bandmate or Gerard's sister or there's money and time invested in her that needs to be recouped.

Sometimes it's like she can feel that shit, the money and time and expectations and demands and old stale gone-bad love, all stuck under her skin and rotting, going black and sticky and growing outward through her veins.

She pushes the image away, shoves it down the back of her throat with the taste of bile, and bangs on the door of Fall Out Boy's bus. She's going to spend the day in all this hot sharp sunlight, with Pete. It'll keep filling up her head, dry up the rot, and leave her clean inside.

**

They end up sitting at the table on My Chem's bus, her holding a pair of snow cones and him holding a flask, jacking the shaved ice full of vodka. "Best idea ever, Mikeyway," Pete says, taking a sip from the flask before capping it and setting it aside. "Let's go up on the roof."
 
"It's too hot." She passes him his cone and takes a bite of her own, wrinkling her nose at the cold. "I'll burn."
 
"You don't burn."
 
"I do, and then it peels off and I'm all tan. I dunno." She looks up as the door swings open. "Gee tans right off, though. Like a real Italian dude."
 
"Half," Gerard corrects absently, coming over to kiss her on the forehead. "Pete."

"Gerard."
 
"You know we've got soundcheck in an hour, Mikes?"
 
"Yeah." She takes another bite of her cone and gives him a thumbs-up. "Be there with bells on."
 
He snorts and pokes her between the eyes, the way he always gets when Pete's around, aggressively big-brother like he's trying to remind everyone around that she's his little sister and there will be hell to pay as necessary. "Glad to hear it."
 
"Go away now."

"Yeah, yeah." He runs his thumb over her left eyebrow, tracing the arch. "Love you."
 
"Love you too."
 
He raises his own eyebrow at her, a smile tugging at his lips. "Love me best?"
 
"Always love you best." She gently knocks his hand away and takes another bite of her cone, waving at him until he laughs and leaves the bus.
 
Pete's watching her thoughtfully when she looks at him again, but he doesn't say anything, just drizzles more vodka over the ice.
 
**
 
That night, though, they slip away from the barbecue together and stretch out on some grass just far enough away that they'll be able to hear anyone coming. He slips his hand under the waistband of her jeans, pressed flat against her belly, and she tucks her own hand down the back of his shirt, splayed out between his body and the grass, trapped by his heartbeat.
 
"What's that thing you and Gerard do?" he asks after a while.
 
"Gonna have to clarify."
 
"The I love you, I love you too, love me best thing."
 
"That?" She shrugs, flexing her fingers a little. Her knuckles bump against his ribs and he squirms. "Just a thing. Since we were kids."
 
"You always promise to always love him best?"
 
"Yeah. Why?"
 
It's his turn to shrug, looking up at the sky. "That's just not…fair, you know? Promising somebody that. Or, well. Asking somebody else to promise that. You can't promise that. You never know what's going to happen, what's going to change."
 
She pulls her hand back, rubbing at it like it's gone numb. "I think you're kind of reading too much in. It's just a…a stupid thing."
 
"Yeah, okay."
 
"Besides, he's my brother. That's not going to change."
 
"Sorry. I shouldn't have said anything."
 
"No, you shouldn't have." She hates him for it, a little bit, because she's got one thing, one thing on the whole goddamned earth that she can count on, and it's hard enough to convince herself that she can count on it after last year, and the shit that happened, and the things that got said. It's hard enough without somebody trying to cut the remaining legs out from under it, make it not right. "It's none of your business."
 
"Sorry." He's quiet for another minute, then slowly gets to his feet. "I'm sorry."
 
She doesn't say anything, and he walks off, back toward the buses. She digs her fingers down into the grass, into the dirt, and reminds herself that she can't scream out here. She's not as alone as it feels like.

**July 2005**

She avoids Pete the next couple of days, not because she's still mad so much as because it seems like she should still be mad, and because she doesn't want him to think she's one of those girls who gets led around on a string just because he's Pete Wentz. So what if he is? She's Mikey Way. According to the ancient principle of fake it till you make it, if she acts like that's a big goddamn deal, it will be.

She ends up sitting back behind the bus with Bob, his drum pad, her bass, and a metronome. This kind of drill is comforting and mindless. They count off the songs in their standard setlist one by one and just run them, making sure they both feel the beats easy and steady as their heartbeats, that they dance together without having to think about it. Sometimes he speeds up or throws in a run and she moves with it, tucking her chin and rocking into the notes, feeling the warm solid form of the instrument under her hands like it's alive.

"Fucking sweet," he says after a while, flipping his sticks slowly and shooting her a crooked grin. "Think we're good?"

"Yeah. Thanks for the check-in." She and Otter didn't drill like this very much; sometimes, but usually they practiced as a full band when they did at all. Bob likes having rhythm line check-ins, though, and she's starting to look forward to them. She feels more quiet inside her head after an hour of just rocking in and out of the beat with him.

He starts folding up his pad and she stretches slowly, raising her palms to the sky and leaning back, feeling the weight of the bass shift against her torso. When her head's upside-down looking behind her, she blinks in surprise to see Alicia the tech sitting on the bumper of the bus. "Oh. Hey."

"Hey." Alicia's smiling, all relaxed and easy like the first time Mikey saw her. "You guys sound good."

"Thanks."

"Is that a short-scale?"

Mikey lifts the strap off her shoulders and holds the bass out. "You want to take a look?"

Alicia slides off the bumper and walks over, settling the instrument on with easy familiarity. "Fucking sweet."

"I just got it before the tour." First one not right off a rack; she'd been able to ask for specifications and modifications and they just did them for her. So weird, but kind of awesome. "It's, like, fucking smooth as shit to play."

"I can tell." Alicia shifts her fingers on the frets and picks out the line to "Say It Ain't So."

"What do you play?" Mikey asks, leaning against the bus. The metal's hot enough to hurt even through her t-shirt, but she kind of likes it. It's a good, steady hurt.

Alicia shrugs and makes a face, still playing. "Piece of shit. Full-scale, though. I like this."

"Yeah. Ray gives me shit sometimes about moving down to the little leagues, but whatever. I like how it feels and it gets the job done."

"Your guys just like giving you shit."

"You noticed, huh?" They both laugh and Alicia takes the bass off, handing it back to Mikey. She leans forward to shake her hair out and then pulls it back into a high, tight ponytail while Mikey puts the guitar back in its case.

"You want to go get some lunch?" Alicia asks, squinting at her cell phone. Mikey digs her own out and glances at it; no messages, no calls. No reason not to go with Alicia, and she actually wants to, which is a little bit of a surprise. She's used to the idea that she's not good at being friends with girls, just takes it for granted by now. She hasn't talked to the girls back home in ages now, and most of the time on tour she's surrounded by sausage as far as the eye can see. It's like breathing testosterone instead of air. The idea of hanging out with someone who might actually not ask if she's wearing a bra at any point is majorly cool.

Plus Alicia's funny, and nice, and seems to want to talk about bass. Way better than going back to the bus and watching Ray and Frank fight over video games while Gerard chews his fingernails and draws zombies eating children.

"Yeah," she says, settling the case under her arm. "Just let me drop this off, then I'm down."

**

Alicia also likes to talk about books, and music, and what movies are the right kind of shitty for being high at three AM. She's just like all the friends Mikey used to have back home, the ones she did know how to be friends with, the ones she doesn't talk to anymore. Turns out she missed this more than she thought.

She's just finishing her sandwich and ripping open a bag of chips when she looks up and sees Pete standing at the end of their table. "Oh. Hey."

"Hi." He glances back and forth between them. "Is this a bad time?"

"We're just hanging out," Alicia says easily, raising an eyebrow at him and reaching out to bump her knuckles against his hand. "What are you up to?"

"I actually kind of wanted to talk to Mikey. If that's cool."

Alicia looks at Mikey, who shrugs and eats a chip. Pete's the one who fucked up. If he wants to apologize, she's not going to stop him.

Of course, if he doesn't apologize, she's going to throw her drink at his head.

"I should probably get over to the stage anyway," Alicia says, getting to her feet and tugging her jeans back up to her waist. "I'll catch you later, Mikey."

"Yeah. Swing by the bus and I'll give you those books."

"Cool." Alicia gives her a thumbs-up and then leans in and plants a kiss at the center of Pete's forehead. "Smile a little, Wentz, frowning's gonna give you wrinkles."

She walks away and Mikey looks at Pete. "You and Alicia?"

He shrugs. "Once or twice."

"Huh." She doesn't care, actually. It's really kind of predictable. Pete and Alicia should be drawn together; like calling to like or whatever.

"Can I sit down?"

"Can't stop you."

He sits in the chair Alicia vacated and wipes his hands on his jeans. "Look, Mikey..." She waits, refusing to let herself react, until he takes a frustrated breath. "I'm sorry."

"Okay."

"That's it?"

"What's it?"

"Just...okay?"

She shrugs. "If you're sorry, then we're okay."

"I've spent the last two days freaking out that you hate my guts and all I had to do was apologize?"

She squints at him. "Did you skip kindergarten or something?"

"Wow." He slumps back in his chair. "I don't know if I want to kiss you or throw something."

Mikey laughs and shakes her head. "I don't like anybody criticizing Gerard."

"I wasn't criticizing. I was just...observing."

"Then I guess I don't like anybody observing Gerard."

"Duly noted and I won't do it again."

"Cool." She holds out her hand for a high-five.

He catches her fingers and threads them with his, holding on tight across the table. "You're a sweet little thing, Mikey Way."

"I don't think I like that. Rephrase."

"A sweet little...dude?"

"That works." She squeezes his hand and then stands up. "C'mon. Let's go find someplace more comfortable."

**

They don't actually end up anywhere comfortable; they just walk around all day, drifting from place to place across the setup, talking about nothing. And then gradually nothing turns into the heavy things, the shadowy things, the shit that they both haul around like the textbooks they never wanted in high school.

They end up right back at the food tent, sitting side by side and picking halfheartedly at burgers. She rips her napkin into pieces slowly, trying to make each one a perfect shape. "Who did you call? I mean. When you..."

"My manager."

She blinks, fingers going still with the paper all twisted around them. "Really?"

"Yeah." He laughs a little and shrugs, looking away and taking another sip of his drink. "I know, it sounds kinda fucked."

"Why him? I mean. You must've..."

He looks at her, surprised and confused, and that's why she's never been able to ask Gerard the question, that exact look. It's hard enough making Pete look that way. She shrugs and looks down, shaking the napkin clear of her fingers. "Sorry. Never mind."

"No," he says after a minute. "No, it's cool. Just...you know, you think I had an actual reason. With rational thought behind it and everything."

"You really don't have to."

"A manager fixes things, right? Makes the pieces click together. Gets you out of the shit you get into." He smiles slightly. "Like running to your mom and dad to make everything better, but without the part where you freak the shit out of your mom and dad."

She nods slowly, taking a sip of her Coke to chase away the sudden sourness in her throat. "That...yeah, that makes sense."

"You don't want to freak out people you love, so you call people who are paid to take care of you." He laughs suddenly and crumples up the wrapper from his burger, tossing it into the empty bag. "Or, if you're me, you call both, just to make sure you've ruined everyone's day."

She watches him for a minute, then tosses her own wrapper away. "Let's go back to the bus, huh?"

Back in his bunk she slides down on him slow and easy, her hands clutched tight with his, their fingers woven together and pressing white marks into their skin. They move together slowly, eyes closed and heads back, gasping wordless secrets into the too-hot, too-still air of the bus, and they pretend there's nobody else in the world.

**

"This is what rock stars do," Mikey says solemnly, shifting her weight on Pete's lap and taking a long drink of the multi-booze concoction Travis mixed for her. "We play high-school games and get wasted."

"We get wasted and play high-school games," Pete corrects, leaning in to nibble at the curve of her neck. "When you do in that order it makes the games more fun."

"I stand corrected." She takes another sip and squints at the bottle on the ground in front of them. "Is it my turn again?"

"If you want it to be." Garrett from Senses Fail grins and leans back on his elbows. "Me this time, c'mon, Mikey."

She rolls her eyes and slides forward off Pete's lap to reach for the bottle, balancing neatly on her knees. "You'll all get your turn, I bet. We've got all night."

"We've got all summer," someone else giggles, and she flips off the circle as a whole and gives the bottle a crooked, wobbly spin. It makes a slow arc, threatening to stop in front of Joe and Gene the Tech. She's messed around with Gene before; his mouth tastes like stale hot dogs and chewing tobacco. She gives the bottle a little mental shove and it actually works for once, bobbing ahead two more people and pointing at Alicia.

"All right," Garrett whoops, clapping his hands. "Girl-on-girl. I wish I had a fucking camera."

"No cameras in the spin the bottle circle," Pete says sternly, but he's grinning like an idiot, staring at Mikey all starry-eyed. "You gonna kiss her or what, Mikey?"

"Yeah, yeah." She crawls across the circle, wrinkling her nose at Alicia. She gets a grin in return and a cheerful eyeroll, a wordless communication of these fucking guys, right, they're so damn predictable, and settles her hands comfortably on Mikey's hips as Mikey climbs into her lap, knees braced against Alicia's thighs.

"Hi," Alicia says, fighting to keep her voice from breaking into giggles.

"Hi." Mikey carefully tucks Alicia's hair back behind her ears. "I gotta kiss you now."

"Sweet." Alicia tilts her chin up and licks her lips, and it is sweet, it's very sweet, lipgloss-sticky and the taste of rum and Coke.

"You guys should take your tops off," somebody says when Mikey eases back and crawls back over to her drink. "That would be even hotter. New rule for future girl-on-girl kissing: no shirts."

"New rule for guy-on-guy kissing: get your cocks out," Alicia says, lighting a cigarette off of Frank's. "Now spin the fucking thing, Pete, it's your turn."

Pete spins with one hand and wraps the other arm around Mikey's waist, pulling her in against him. "Guess I'm kissing Patrick. Hot."

"Not again," Patrick groans over the laughter of the rest of the circle. "I quit. Can't we play something else?"

"The only thing left after spin the bottle is truth or dare," Frank says, jabbing his cigarette in the air. "And that usually leads to drunken shenanigans and at least one arrest."

"Fucking bring it on," Pete says, his eyes lighting up even more. "I love truth or dare."

"You would," Mikey says, catching his chin and turning his head for a kiss. He tastes like beer, flat and warm, and she thinks vaguely that she should probably switch to that if this game's going to go on for a while.

Which it does; the game goes on for over an hour and a half. She loses most of that time in a pleasant haze of finishing her Travis concoction and putting away two beers, resting her head on Pete's shoulder and breathing in the warm smell of his skin, occasionally meeting Alicia's eyes across the circle and grinning happily at jokes that never quite get said out loud. She zones in and out of the game based on when people shriek in laughter, but somehow she and Pete seem to be in a little bubble of their own until Ray finally raises his glass and tells Pete it's his turn.

Pete takes a drink and smiles, bright and wide. "I choose Mikey Way."

Mikey rouses herself to sit up a little and rubs at her eyes. "Yeah, okay. I'm game. Dare."

"I dare you to wear that thing you've got in your bag for the rest of the night."

Mikey stares at him, stunned for a minute. She'd forgotten that he even saw that. She hears the murmurs of questions going around the circle, and Joe nudges Pete in the ribs, asking "Dude, what? What thing? Like, a costume?"

"C'mon, Mikey," Pete says evenly, staring into her eyes. "Go put it on. Unless you're a chicken."

"Fuck you," she says evenly, finishing her drink and getting to her feet. "I don't fucking run out on a dare. I'll be right back."

It only takes her three tries to find their bus, which is good, comparatively. And the bag is still lying up on top of her bed, because she got her makeup out of it right before she went to the party, so that's lucky. The strap-on harness is wrapped awkwardly around the dildo, all of it stuffed away in the side pocket of the duffel, easy to access and rarely even looked at.

Her first thought is to wear it under her jeans, though she's got no idea how she'd get them zipped again over it. Pete would probably cry foul on that, though, since the whole idea is for everyone to see. So she puts it on over her clothes, snugging the harness as best she can and settling the base of the dildo carefully over her zipper. It feels weird, walking back to the party with it bobbing in front of her, but the looks on everyone's faces are worth it.

"Holy shit," Travis gasps, falling back against Andy and starting to laugh so hard he wheezes. "Holy shit, Mikey Way fucking wins this fucking game."

"You don't win Truth or Dare," Patrick says kind of primly. He's blushing furiously, not looking directly at Mikey, but she knows he's sneaking glances out of the corner of his eye. "That doesn't make any sense."

"Shut up, dude." Pete grins at her, looking up from his place on the floor. "She definitely wins."

Mikey smiles at him and raises both hands, flipping him a deuce.

"Ouch. You wound me, Mikey Way." He raises his phone and snaps a picture of her defiant pose. "Hot as hell, though."

**

Later, when they're curled up in his bunk, the taste of beer and blowjob mingling and drying on her tongue, she nudges him in the ribs. "You know you've gotta delete that picture, right?"

"It's awesome."

"Yeah, but it's not the kind of thing..."

"Come on."

She falls quiet, tracing her fingers over his arm. "You really think it's hot?"

"You're always hot."

"But the...thing."

She sees a flush rise under his skin. "It's, you know. Whatever."

Sometimes the direct approach is best. "You ever been fucked in the ass, Pete?"

"No!"

"Ever fingered, even?"

"No. Jesus, Mikey. Why would you ask me that? You know I'm not like that."

"There's nothing wrong with it. It feels good."

His mouth falls open a little as he looks at her. "You've done that?"

She nods, hoping she looks cool and worldly and experienced all the shit she's supposed to be. She let Gabe try it one night when they were both drunk and giggly and curious. Then they did it again sober a few weeks later, and a couple times since. She still prefers sex that makes her come, but it's pretty cool as far as things go.

"Wow." He blinks a few times, lying back against his pillow and looking up at the bottom of Joe's bunk. "Huh."

"How about this?" She traces her hand up his chest. "You do me and I'll do you."

"With the...the purple thing? No way."

She rolls her eyes and smacks his shoulder. "No. Fingers. I couldn't even take that thing, it's a beast."

He's quiet again, covering her hand with his. She weaves their fingers together and rests her chin on his arm, waiting for him to make up his mind.

"Yeah," he says finally. "Yeah, okay. Deal."

"Next hotel night, then." She kisses his chest and closes her eyes, feeling sleep crawling up from under her skin. "Rock your world."

**

Him inside her is good; he's careful, going so slow it's almost irritating, and then afterward he's ridiculously giddy and solicitous. He eats her out for an hour before she kicks him out of bed on the grounds of overstimulation and his face looking like a glazed doughnut. Then she sleeps for ten hours, which means there's no time for her to return the favor.

Somehow, with one thing or another, it's almost a week before they're alone again. Maybe that's on purpose, it's hard to tell. But when it happens, it's in her bunk, early afternoon while everyone else is off on a Wal-Mart run. They're making out, slow and lazy, her teeth catching on his lower lip again and again for the way it makes him whimper, a low catch of noise under his breath.

"My turn," she whispers against his mouth, and he blinks at her in puzzlement, his eyes glazed until she holds up the packet of lube she had hidden under the pillow. Then his eyes get wide, and she feels his heart pick up speed in his chest, suddenly thumping away underneath her body like a bass drum.

"It's cool," she says, coaxing and soothing as she gets up on her knees and smiles down at him. "I promise, it feels good. Spread your legs, Wentz."

He does as she says and she pulls his jeans down, pressing kisses over his stomach and tracing his tattoo with her tongue. She rubs her hands up and down his thighs, enjoying the feel of the hot corded muscle underneath the soft skin and the soft rasp of hair. She likes the way he shaves to show off his ink, it's hot, but the parts of him that are hairy are hot, too, holding heat and salt under her mouth when she tastes them.

"You ready?" she murmurs against the curve of his hip. He shudders under her, his muscles clenching and thighs pressing together. She looks up at his face, waiting for him to meet her eyes. "We don't have to if you don't want to."

He swallows hard, staring at her and then flicking his gaze back to the ceiling. "I keep my promises. We made a deal."

She nods and kisses again, scraping her teeth along the curve of the bone. "Then relax. I won't hurt you."

"Not ever." He nods and lets his knees fall apart. She guides his legs open, smiling up at him and leaning in to lick the length of his cock as a reward. He shudders again, all over, and she takes the head between her lips, teasing it with her tongue while she pops the lube open and slicks up one finger. He's good and distracted right up until she presses the tip of her finger against him, then he gasps, his head falling back and his body arching up like a bow.

"Relax, relax," she whispers, and goes back to licking. He's soft as she pushes her finger in to the first knuckle, curving it gently, trying to coax him past the strange feeling of intrusion and get him to the other side, where the fun lives.

She fingers him for ten or fifteen minutes, working a second one in when his muscles ease. His cock twitches a little under her lips, thinking about making a comeback, and she hums against him, encouraging. She looks up his body, opening her mouth to tell him how hot he feels, how good, then stops. He has his arm flung across his face, hiding his eyes, and under it his mouth is twisted like he's fighting to hold back a sound.

"Hey," she says softly. "Hey."

"It's okay," he mumbles. "Keep going, it's fine, I'm cool."

"No." She works her fingers free and moves up his body, shaking her head and kissing him. She takes his hand and guides his arm away from his face, resting her forehead against his and closing her eyes when he still can't quite look at her. "We won't do that again, okay?"

"Sorry."

"Don't be." She kisses him again and again, on his cheek and his eyelids and his mouth. "Don't ever be sorry and don't ever hesitate to tell me no, Pete. I don't want to hurt you."

He catches her hands and looks up at her. "I love you, Mikey." His voice is rough and thick, meaning behind the words in a way that they've mostly dodged around so far this summer, hiding behind booze and laughter and conversations about nothing. But here it is, now, out there in words.

She shivers, heat running through her, and squeezes his hand tightly. "I love you too."

**August 2005**

Pete crowds her up against the bus and kisses her, laughing against her mouth and running his hands up under her tank top to curve over her breasts.

"There are people around," she says, laughing a little as he pinches her nipple. "You ass."

"Oh no, we'll scandalize the good people of this...parking lot in Virginia Beach." He laughs and kisses her neck, grazing his teeth over the skin. "Mikey Mikey, you've gotta live."

"Yeah." She closes her eyes and tilts her head back, her breath hitching a little as he slides his knee between her thighs and presses it against her. "Stop it."

"Fine." He eases back with a last kiss, easily enough that she opens one eye to study him.

"You're up to something."

"I am not."

"Liar."

"I'm not a liar. I'm enjoying this beautiful sunny day of only a week left on Warped."

She swallows and lets her arms drop to her sides, wrapping them around herself to keep his hands away. And there it is. "Thanks for bringing that up."

"Yeah." It's his turn to tilt his head back, studying the sky. "Mikey..."

There isn't anything to say. She wants to kick him in the crotch and yell at him to stop trying.

"Let's go somewhere."

"What?"

"Let's get out of here."

"We sort of have shows to play, Pete."

"I know, but...but that's later. Let's..." He licks his lips and looks at her, and something about his eyes sends a jolt down her spine. "I did some research."

"About what?"

"Um." He laughs a little, high and nervous. Not his usual laugh at all. "States where you can get a marriage license and do the ceremony without a waiting period?"

For a minute she doesn't know what to say, or remember how to breathe.

"Specifically, states where you can do that that overlap with the, uh, the tour path of Warped." He rocks back and forth on his heels, suddenly agitated, his muscles tensing under the swirling black ink on his arms. "I mean. I don't know if you...but I've thought about it, and...and we could've done it in Arizona, but that was, like, back at the beginning and you didn't even really like me yet, but then it turns out Virginia has the same laws, so...I mean..."

She finds her voice, sort of. It's whispery and strained, but it makes words. "You call this proposing, Wentz?"

"I...I could if you would say yes to it."

She stands up straighter, wrapping her arms around herself. "What do we need?"

"Um." His eyes are huge and a little wild. "I'm not sure."

"I thought you did research."

"I did. I...okay, we need ID to get the license. And...well, somebody who's ordained. Or a judge. Or whatever. And a witness."

"I'm pretty sure you have to book a judge in advance, Pete."

"I bet there's somebody on this tour who's ordained. Come on. There's gotta be. Let's get the license first and then worry about that part."

She grabs his arm, digging her fingers in until he looks at her. "Are we really going to do this?"

He looks at her, all wide-eyed and wild and he loves her even though he doesn't have to. "I'm in if you're in, Mikeyway."

**

It takes longer to get the license than they expect, and then there are rings to worry about--she's fine with just going to a Wal-Mart but he wants something a little more significant, so they end up at a mall and barely make it back to the venue in time for their sets. He takes the certificate back to his bus to hide in his notebook, squeezing her hands tight before he steps away. "We can duck over the line from DC back into Virginia," he says, leaning in for a kiss. "Don't worry, Mikey. We can still pull this off tomorrow."

"I have total faith," she says, bumping her nose against his and letting him go. Her stomach's tight and shivery, more than just the usual pre-show jitters; she still can't tell if this is actually happening or if it's just Pete being Pete, dragging chaos and magic along in his wake, the good kind and the bad kind all mixed up together until there's no difference.

The next day's one thing after another, never five minutes to get away, much less a couple of hours to sneak off with Pete. He texts her every fifteen minutes during his relentless comb through the crew, searching for someone with an ordination off the Internet.

cant believe i cant fucking find anyone what is this

She smiles despite herself, rubbing her thumb over the screen. yeah weird even my exbf is a minister on internet

dont worry mway ill figure this out. im on the job

im not worried She isn't; either way, she wouldn't trade the summer. Maybe it's even better if it doesn't go on any longer than that. As the day wears down, she pretty much lets go of the little twist of nervous disappointment in her stomach and focuses on that idea, that they've had the summer and that's good enough.

She should've remembered that this was Pete, not lesser or less-crazy men.

She stands side-stage to watch Fall Out Boy's set, like she does whenever she has a chance. They're fun; energy and passion and chords, Patrick stomping his feet and Pete jumping like he wants to punch the sun in the mouth, crossing back and forth with Joe while Andy does...fancy drum shit that Otter and Bob both always tried to explain to her and that she will never understand, even if she's in the band until the day she dies.

Pete saunters up to the mic and she smiles, leaning out almost to where she'll be visible and wondering what bullshit story he's going to tell now. It's getting close to the end of their set, just one more song and then "Saturday."

"Hey," he calls into the mic, wrinkling his nose when the crowd screams back. "No, hey, listen--anybody out there happen to be ordained to marry people? Do we have any ministers in the house? Ordained in a church or, like, on the Internet, it's all cool. Anybody?"

They scream again, but this time it's more confused. She can't blame them; she's confused, too. She wraps her fingers around the edge of the post and leans out more, staring at Pete like she can somehow send a psychic message right into his brain, like what are you doing? or shut up crazyass or oh my God you are nuts I love you I love you.

"I have no idea what that answer was!" He throws his arms high and laughs, all wild and joyous and fuck, she wants to kiss him, wants to be that wild and stupid and carefree together. "But, like, if any of you are, come over to the side stage entrance there, where the security dudes are, after our set. I'm gonna come out and audition ordained people!"

"Are you going to bring a special girl with you?" Patrick asks, laughing like this is a big joke, if a tenuously-planned one. Mikey knows better. She can see the death-grip he has on the neck of his guitar. Patrick is pissed, and in case she couldn't tell that, Joe and Andy are openly looking at her.

More like staring in accusation.

She shrugs at them helplessly. How was she supposed to know? How was she supposed to stop him? That's not what they do.

**

"So you got married." Frank's voice is carefully neutral.

"Yeah." She twists the ring around her finger, looking at the way it flashes brightly even in the bad light of the bus. "You should've been there."

"Oh, I don't know," Ray says. "Us being there might have ruined the whole shotgun wedding vibe you had going on."

"There weren't any shotguns. We checked."

"We have to be in Boston tomorrow," Frank says. "I hope you aren't thinking you get a honeymoon."

She shrugs, twisting the ring again. It feels weird, still. Heavy. She definitely can't play bass with it there. "Tour's over in a week. We figured we'd do something then."

"Oh, in the three days before we fly to the Netherlands?"

Shit. "I...okay, I forgot about that, but..."

"He's not coming with us."

"Don't be an asshole, Frank."

"No, Mikey, he's not coming with us. Travel arrangements are already booked. There is not room for a bipolar psychotic extra bass player to hitch a ride."

She grits her teeth and stands up. "You guys could at least pretend to be happy for me."

"Happy for you making bad, bullshit decisions just because you want to act out? Yeah, that makes sense."

"I'm not actually the little sister of this band." Her voice is rising toward a shout and she can't make it stop. "The only one here who has any right to be upset with me is Gerard."

They let their silence speak for them. Bob dragged Gerard off somewhere...else, as soon as Mikey and Pete stumbled giggling back to the bus from their trip across the state line, holding newly be-ringed hands and drinking vodka from the bottle because nobody had any champagne.

"Fuck you both," she says, which isn't mature or even a real argument, but it makes her feel better. "I'm gonna go sleep on Pete's bus."

Ray snorts and shakes his head. "You really think his band is done yelling at him yet?"

**

They aren't. Pete and Mikey spend their wedding night on Avenged Sevenfold's bus.

Brian sends her an e-mail that just contains the dictionary definitions of "public relations" and "nightmare."

Alicia and Bob actually say congratulations, but Alicia's the only one who hugs her when she says it.

**

Her parents come to the show in Camden. They were always going to, but now they've got an extra reason.

There's a lot of hugging, a lot of horrific awkwardness, and the distinct weirdness of Gerard standing next to her, but as far away as he can get. His eyes slide over her like she's something that hurts to look at, but that's better than Pete gets; he doesn't acknowledge that Pete's in the room at all.

Her mom and dad hug her tight and kiss her goodbye, whispering things in her ear that are probably congratulations and I-love-yous but that she doesn't really quite parse, because she's exhausted and strung-out and doesn't have any room left for emotions anymore. Pete disappeared an hour or more before, either to give them family time or just because he couldn't take it anymore.

She wanders a slow arc through the backstage area, then starts back for the buses, detouring into the first party she sees. Nobody seems surprised to see her; not happy, but not surprised, either, and she'll take it. She only wants them for their alcohol anyway and they seem to know it.

She goes for whiskey, because tonight she needs courage. Whiskey usually makes her mean, which is enough like courage to do the job. After a couple of shots she feels ready to go. Ready to do this. Ready to declare her womanhood and her independence and then cry all over her brother and demand that he still love her.

Gonna be great.

She corners him in the bathroom on the bus, a nice little bit of symmetry. He looks at her with wide-eyed betrayal, like his heart is broken or some other kind of shit he might put in a song.

"Yeah," she says. "How dare I have a life of my own, make a decision of my own, love someone without your goddamn seal of approval. How the fuck dare I."

"It's not love, Mikey."

"The first thing you say to me in days and it's that I'm wrong? Fucking typical, Gee."

"I'm just worried, Mikey. I love you. I want--"

"You want me to be a helpless child forever."

"You weren't helpless when you were a child. You have always been stubborn and impossible and crazy and perfect and..." He's shouting now, right up in her face, matching her glare for glare. "I want you to be happy."

She stands her ground. "I'm happy with Pete."

"Are you? Are you really?"

"Yes."

He stops. He doesn't move, he just...stops, and blinks, and it's like something comes into focus in his eyes. "Are you sure?"

"Yes." Her voice breaks.

"And you think it'll last? Long-term, you'll still be happy?"

"I don't know. I don't know about that. But now. Right now. He makes me happy. And he loves me. And...god, be happy for me being happy, Gerard, please. It's the only thing I've asked you for in such a long time."

"It is. You're right." He stares at her for a long moment, then reaches to touch her face. "Be happy, Mikey. I'm glad for you."

"Thank you."

He pulls her into a hug. "You smell like Jack Daniel's."

"I know."

He kisses her forehead, once over each eye. "I love you."

"I love you too."

She waits for him to finish it, but he doesn't, just smiles a crooked, careful smile and hugs her again.

**December 2005**

She doesn't really get to stop until mid-December, not for any length of time that makes it make sense for her to go to him instead of him meeting her at a hotel somewhere. It's weird, it's really weird, to walk away from the others to find the gate for her flight to LA when they're all going back to New Jersey. It's weird to sit alone on the plane. She's planned to sleep through it, but she can't. She stares at the issue of Rolling Stone she bought in the airport and doesn't absorb a word, no matter how many times she reads and re-reads the same paragraphs.

She's flying to meet her husband. Who the hell is she?

She takes three Xanax and drinks two airline-sized bottles of vodka by the time the plane lands. Chemicals take the edge off the panic, reliably as ever, leaving her fuzzy and muddled and soft when she walks out into baggage claim. She figures she'll get her bags, text him, get a coffee while she waits for him to bring the car around to the curb. If he's even left home yet, she can't really remember what he said the plan was--maybe she should get a cab, actually, she isn't--

"Mikey."

She stumbles and catches herself on a tall woman who shoots her a nasty look. "Pete?"

He's holding a sign--a fucking sign--that says "Welcome home, wife," and he's smiling bigger than she's ever seen. He's smiling like she's the best gift in the world.

"Hi," he says, lowering the sign. "You're here."

"I'm here," she says stupidly, still staring at him from three feet away. "You...you're here."

"I'm here to pick you up," he says, patiently--he's not good at patient, why is he being so patient with her?--reaching for her hand. "And take you home."

"Home," she echoes, and she still sounds stupid, but she doesn't quite care. And she's starting to smile. Having someone meet you at the airport, it turns out, feels really fucking good.

She lets him pull her in close and leans against him, surprised as always at how warm he is, a fucking furnace. "Hi," she says, and kisses him. "Hi, hi."

"You've been boozing it up." Another kiss, this one longer and lingering, and she's vaguely aware that people have stopped to stare at them. "I approve."

"Makes it easier for you to take me home and seduce me."

"Is that what we're going to do?"

"Like seven times, Wentz." She hooks her arm with his, tugging until he follows her toward the baggage carousel. "Seducing all over the place. And then I'm gonna fall asleep."

"And then we'll wake up together." He laughs, the sound echoing in the flat acoustics of the airport. "Isn't that fucking awesome?"

It is. She starts to laugh, too, and they stand there for a while, leaning on each other in the ugliness of baggage claim, laughing.

**

They fight. Of course they fight. They both have tempers, and they both have dark sides, ugly places in their heads or hearts where things they shouldn't think or say live, and claw their way out to be said out loud when they get a chance.

They fight ugly. They fight dirty. And when they make up, it's good, it's really fucking good. The best sex of her life is on Pete's bed, and Pete's couch, and Pete's living room floor, when they're both still going ninety miles an hour on adrenaline and spite, his teeth marking up her tits and her nails tearing his back into ribbons, neither one of them willing to give an inch until they come apart together.

But that's only half the time. The other half they never make up at all--the fight drifts away into silence and they both pretend it never happened at all, picking up the thread of their lives a few hours later by ordering Chinese or turning on the TV or wondering aloud why Hemmy's been hiding under the couch all afternoon and then coaxing him out for treats and belly rubs.

The fights are something she knows how to deal with. They're both there. What she hates are days like this, when he isn't there, not really.

She rubs Hemmy's head slowly, her other hand picking out a text to Alicia. hes been locked in the bedroom for 3 hrs

Hemmy sighs, his breath huffing warm against her knee. She scratches behind his ears and looks down the hall again toward the bedroom door until her phone chirps with a reply.

can u hear him?

talking 2 himself. pacing. threw smth a while ago

Threw something heavy that crunched when it hit the door. She hopes it wasn't his laptop.

hes prbly writing babe. doesnt g kind of get that way u said?

She prefers not to compare Pete and Gerard if she can avoid it. They get mixed up enough in her stupid racing thoughts and dreams that she can't stop. Pete on his knees puking up everything but his socks. Gerard alone in a car with his phone and a bottle of pills, and she's always there but invisible, a ghost, helpless and ignored and neither of them is looking for her anyway, not ever.

yeah I guess ur right

Hemmy hops down from the couch and goes to paw at the bedroom door, staring up at it expectantly. When nothing happens he sighs and curls up on the floor, nose to tail. Mikey wishes she could make herself that small.

take care of urself mikey ok? worry abt u

im fine

will call u l8r ok?

Mikey puts her phone away without answering and laces her fingers together, folding her hands in her lap like she's waiting for her name to be called. She doesn't like to think too much when she's alone, these days.

**

"I think your problem is that you don't know what to do with free time."

Mikey doesn't dignify that with a response or even a dirty look, because if Pete can't figure out that that's the pot calling the kettle black, he's dumb enough that she can kill him in his sleep.

"I mean, I know what it's like having been on tour since forever and you don't really know what to do with just sitting around? But there's a solution for that."

She doesn't look up from her book. "If your solution is having more sex, I'm going to hit you."

"There's a lot of violence in this marriage."

"Only when you deserve it."

It takes her a minute to realize he hasn't answered. She lowers the book a wary half-inch and finds that yes, indeed, he's sitting at the end of the couch just staring at her.

"It's really unsettling when you do that."

"That's kind of the idea." He grins and slides off the couch, hiking his pants back up onto his hips and heading for the kitchen. "Hey, you're coming with me to the thing tonight, right?"

"What thing is that?"

"The premiere."

"Oh." She tucks her bookmark in place and hugs the book to her chest. "No?"

"Why not?"

"Because I hate them?"

"Mikey."

She closes her eyes and wonders if it's better or worse that they're having this conversation by yelling back and forth between the living room and the kitchen. "Pete, you know I hate them. You have seen me at them. I'm unhappy and I make everyone around me unhappy."

"Well, this time we'll get drunk first. Drunk-er. Than last time."

"Pete, no."

She hears a bottle hit the kitchen counter a little bit hard. "Fine. You stay here and hang out with Hem. I'll go and then come home early."

"You don't have to come home early. Stay as late as you want. I don't care."

She remembers that's the wrong thing to say an instant after she says it. Shit. He hates being told she doesn't care, even though he knows perfectly well that isn't how she means it. Shit, shit.

Well, he'll probably sulk in the kitchen for a good ten minutes now before he comes back. She bites back a sigh and grabs the remote, flipping slowly through channels and shifting to dig her phone out of her pocket. She's got a few missed texts--Alicia, Frank, Rubano, Gabe.

Gabe's is just asking her if she remembers the name of a restaurant they went to in the Village once, and what the odds are that it still exists, but it reminds her. "Pete?"

"Yeah?" There's definitely an edge to his voice, but it's the kind she can ignore until it goes away.

"You know what you should do?"

"Get a haircut, probably?"

"No. Well, yeah. But, besides that."

He comes back to the doorway and leans against it, looking at her. "What were you thinking of?"

"You should talk to Gabe Saporta."

His brow furrows a little. "Why? Midtown broke up."

They stare at each other for a minute, playing awkward-conversation chicken. Or at least, it's probably supposed to be awkward; she actually doesn't feel weird in the slightest, which makes her feel weird by extension since Pete apparently seems to think she should.

"Why should I talk to him?" Pete says finally. "I mean, he's cool and all. We know each other. But we're more associates, you know, not like...friends."

"He's kind of poking at a project. He could use some backing and creative support and somebody who's good at helping neurotic, insecure artists feel good about themselves."

"Funny, I could also use all of those things."

"Well, yeah. But you're good at providing them to others."

"So I should...cheerlead him."

"You should sign him to your damn label, you ass."

His eyes flash a little dangerously and she bites back a sigh. He's not in the mood for sparring; if she keeps it up it'll probably turn into fighting. And she's not exactly opposed to that idea, but she's not eager for it, either, so she should probably back the fuck off and let him stew. "It was just an idea."

"I'll think about it."

"Fantastic." She tosses the remote down and stands up, stretching slowly to crack her back. "I'm going to go call Gee."

He catches her arm as she goes by, rubbing his thumb gently over her elbow. "I'll call Gabe."

"If you want to." She tugs her arm free and walks to the big sliding door that leads into the backyard. She sits on the edge of the deck and stares into the pool as she waits for Gerard to pick up.

"Way."

"Hey, it's me."

"Mikey!" He always sounds so fucking happy to hear her voice. Today it twists in her chest like a knife. Fuck, he's so far away.

"Hey, Gee. How's it going? How's the writing?"

"I'm good. Things are good. Writing is...well, we're meeting and talking and, like, ideas are percolating. We talked about a concept album today."

"Concept? Wow." She's pretty sure nothing will ever come of that. No way will the guys go for a concept. "That's awesome."

"Yeah. I'll email you my notes tonight and you can tell me what you think."

"Great."

"How are you? How's Pete?"

She doesn't answer right away, which is a mistake. If she can read him, he can read her, too. She always forgets that.

"Are you guys fighting again?"

She closes her eyes and rests her forehead against the rail, feeling her shoulders tense in anticipation of an argument. Her shoulders, her neck, her back, her heart; everything aches all the time, lately. Her head. It's like she's sitting at the bottom of a pit, too far down for even a pinprick of sun, and she's too tired and hurting and sad to even try to climb for light.

"Mikey? Are you there?"

"Yeah, Gee."

"Well, are you fighting again?"

She can't lie to him. "Yeah. But it's not bad."

"You're not afraid of him?"

She would laugh if she could remember how. Being afraid would mean there was uncertainty. She loves Pete, she trusts him, she can tell what he's thinking more than half the time. That's actually the problem. "Of course not, Gee."

"But you're not happy."

"I'm trying." She's trying so goddamn hard. It's like trying to take hold of something with cold, numb hands; the muscles won't obey and the joints are too stiff to move and the thing falls away from her no matter how hard she tries.

"Mikey." Gee's voice is soft. "You shouldn't have to try. Not this hard."

"Relationships are work." She rubs her eyes with the back of her wrist. "Besides, it's not the relationship that's the problem. It's not him. It's me. I'm...all fucked up and don't know how to be happy."

"That's not true."

"It is. I don't know, Gee." She stares down at the deck. "I think I might just be too fucked up for anyone to love."

"I love you. I love you no matter what."

"I know. I know you do." It's always been enough before. It should be enough now. If it isn't, the problem is her.

It always is.

"I've gotta go," she says, shaking her head and stepping back from the wall. "I've gotta go talk to him. Make up."

"I love you," Gerard says again. She knows he'll keep saying it all night, if she lets him. "Call me, okay?"

"Every day." She nods and clears her throat, squaring her shoulders to go back inside again. "Goodbye."

**

One night it's not a fight, and it's not him having a downswing. She just looks at him across the room, typing away on his laptop. He's relaxed and content and happy, and all she can think about is how much she wishes she was back in Jersey, watching a midnight marathon of bad sci-fi with Gerard and the guys.

She slips out and lets herself out onto the deck, sitting by the pool and watching the water move under the lights. Gerard is autodial-one in her phone, there's no excuse for fumbling the call, but somehow her thumb slides across the buttons and chooses six instead.

"Mmph. Mikey? Time zones, dude, 's late here."

Mikey digs her fingers into her palm. "Hey, Alicia. Sorry about that."

"You okay?"

"I'm sorry."

"Hon, what's wrong? You sound upset."

Once she starts talking, she can't stop, the words tripping over to get out of her throat. She and Alicia don't have calls like this, emotionally intense girl-talk calls. They text each other. They spend hours on IM. They don't...they don't talk, out loud, in words.

Except apparently tonight they do.

"It's not him," Mikey says when she finishes the crazy torrent of words and can finally breathe enough to say something that's coherent and solid. She closes her eyes tight. "It's me. It's just...me. I don't want the things I'm supposed to want."

"What do you mean?" Alicia's voice is soft and careful. Mikey can imagine what she's holding back; nothing pretty. She doesn't deserve anything pretty. She's being selfish and wrong.

"He wants...he wants to play house, you know? He wants to be a couple and do couple shit and talk about kids and he wants me to be here when he gets home and he wants to be here when I get home and tell each other everything and..."

"Like, he doesn't want you to tour?"

"No. No, he doesn't care about that, he of all people understands about that, he doesn't want to fuck up my career or anything. He just..." She laughs in weary frustration. "He wants me to act like a girl and I don't do that."

"Have you told him?"

"A thousand times." She stares up at the sky. "He's not doing it on purpose, is the thing. He doesn't mean to. He's just...following the script. The same script everybody else gets and I never did. I don't know how to be a wife."

"There's no one way, Mikey. Everybody comes up with their own way to make it work."

"I don't know if I can."

Alicia's quiet for a minute. "That's okay, too. Sometimes it just isn't meant to be."

She fights back the sob with everything she has. "But I love him so much."

"I know. I know you do. He knows, too."

"Why isn't it enough?"

"I don't know, honey. I wish I did."

**February 2006**

There's a tipping point, a breaking point. She's been hoping there wouldn't be, that if it had to fail it would just fade out quietly, but no; there has to be a dramatic fucking moment that's going to burn itself into her head.

Her shouting, fists clenched and shoulders aching with the tension and voice cracking on the words. "I can't do that, you know I can't do that, stop asking me."

Him throwing his hands in the air, red-faced and bright-eyed. "Well, if you loved me, you would change!"

The silence that falls after that hits worse than a fist.

"Oh," he says softly. "Oh."

She swallows hard. "Pete..."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

She wraps her arms around herself to hide that her hands are shaking. "You kinda did."

"Mikey, no. Please."

"This isn't working."

"Please."

"It's not going to work." She looks at him, feeling her face twist and hurt, hoping that for once it's conveying everything she's feeling, that her eyes are speaking instead of guarded. "It's just...not going to work, Pete."

"But I love you."

"I know. I love you too. But we can't...do this. We can't."

He takes a step back, then another, then sits down hard on the edge of the coffee table. "What are we going to do?"

She goes to the computer, because she doesn't know what else to do. He stays sitting there on the other side of the room, watching her blankly while she Googles what they need to know, what they need to do. Beginning and ending with a Google, she thinks distantly. The truly modern marriage.

"Papers we have to file," she says after a few minutes. "Lawyers and shit."

"Whoever files is the bad guy," he says. His voice is flat, empty. It makes her spine crawl. "I'll take the hit."

"No."

"It's fine. People expect me to be an asshole."

"We'll do it together." She blinks at the forms. "Well, okay, only one of us can file, but we'll go to the courthouse together. Throw 'em off the scent."

"Irreconcilable differences?" His voice breaks and she pretends not to notice.

"I wonder if there's a space where we can write in 'too dumb to get married.'"

He actually laughs a little, but it breaks up into a sob.

"Pete. Please don't." If he cries, she will, too, and she doesn't know if she'll stop.

"Mikey, please."

She goes to him, and the tears are starting for both of them. She can't help it. He can't help it. They kiss again and again, and she guides him down to the floor, and they fuck there in the living room while the computer screen glows with the next step, with them coming apart again.

They walk into the courthouse to file hand-in-hand. TMZ has the paperwork an hour later, showing that she's the one who signed on the line, but the pictures show them side-by-side, together.

Three days later, she puts her stuff in storage and leaves for the Paramour.

**March 2006**

It takes a while before she realizes that she hates the house.

At first she thinks she feels bad because she's sad. She managed to fuck up at marriage, after all; she hurt Pete, she hurt herself, she proved that she can't be a fucking adult even in this one goddamn area, she proved that she still can't have a real, lasting, meaningful relationship without fucking it up. It would be weirder if she didn't feel bad.

Being cold, hearing weird shit, feeling like someone's watching her; well, that's just because she's oversensitive as hell right now, because she feels bad. She explains that to the guys at the top of her lungs when they won't stop pushing. Frank with his questions and Ray with his concerned face and Bob touching her shoulder and Gerard, fucking Gerard, fucking best beloved. Gerard giving her breaks, and calling a halt to writing if she looks tired, and always taking her side, and glaring furiously at anyone who points out that she's fucking up the music. Gerard who doesn't say anything when her breath smells like booze when he hugs her. Gerard who insists on treating her like she isn't a disaster, like she's doing any of this right.

It gets worse, though. She thought it would get better, but it just gets worse. The cold, and the voices, and the way the lights in her room flicker no matter what she does. She lies in the bed and she can feel the rot under her skin all over again, pumping through her veins, spreading and thickening. She can feel it rising in her throat, choking back even the thought of a scream.

She's going to rot from the inside out in this house. She's going to die, alone in a cold bed in a cold room where the lights flicker eerie and blue. And once she's dead, they'll look at her body and see how the rot's taken over, how there's no person left, just decay and filth, and they'll be so fucking glad she's gone. Thank God we dodged that bullet, they'll all say, and slap each other on the back and laugh.

She dreams about them laughing, loud and sharp and cutting, and Gerard laughs the longest and loudest, every time.

"Stop being crazy," she tells herself in the mirror, every time she passes one. She traces the outline of her face, pokes her finger at her eyes, and says "Stop it, just stop it. Get those fucking thoughts out of your head. You're not rotting. You're just a baby. You're a selfish bitch and you hurt a good guy and the only thing wrong with you is that you're useless."

It's hard to sleep with all that going on in her head. She rations out the alcohol for bedtime, a shot to remember and another to forget, like the saying goes, like the song says.

And when that doesn't work anymore, she does what she's done since she was a baby. She admits defeat and she goes to Gerard, and he takes her in, just like always. He loves her in all her weakness, and that's almost enough. It has to be.

**

"'The Five Of Us Are Dying,'" Frank intones, hitting a chord and arching back, thrusting his hips and his guitar toward the ceiling. "That needs to be, like, the centerpiece of the thing. It's good. It's a good concept. We can make it work."

"We haven't made it work before," Gerard mutters, running his hands up and down his arms. It's cold in the house, goddamn fucking cold, but he still wants to work in sleeveless shirts. Mikey doesn't understand him sometimes. She's muffled in two hoodies and wishes she could put on a third without making it too awkward to play. "And it's not like we haven't tried with that song, Frank."

"We can make it work this time," Frank insists, pivoting on his heel to face Mikey. "Tell him. Tell him we can make it work."

She shrugs indifferently, hugging her bass to her chest. "Are we going to play at some point today, or just keep brainstorming on concept?"

"We're going to play." Ray shakes his head and drags his fingers through his hair, leaving it rough and lumpy and crawling out in all directions. "Let's run through one of the songs we have, and we can take another look at 'Dying' after that."

"It needs another name," Gerard says with a frown. "We can't call it that. I don't like that."

"Gerard." Ray shakes his head and Mikey thinks, distantly, that with anyone else he would be on the way to a genuine shouting meltdown, but this is Ray, so mild frustration is the most they'll get. Too bad. A meltdown would be a distraction, and it might warm up the room. "Focus. Let's do 'Teenagers.' Come on."

"I think Frank's right, though, maybe, I think we should at least talk about the other one while we're all thinking about it, and--"

Mikey slips her bass off and sets it against the wall. "I gotta go to the bathroom," she says to no one in particular. Bob nods at her and she goes, letting the heavy door fall closed behind her and leave her alone in the blessed quiet of the hallway. In ten or fifteen minutes the other three will notice she's gone, and Bob will tell them she went to the bathroom, and they'll all go back to their argument without missing a beat.

She walks right past the bathroom and out the back door, cutting across the grounds toward the two-by-three-foot patch of ground where she can actually get some reception on her phone. It's warmer outside, even with the wind, and she pulls her outer hoodie off to sit on.

It's quiet. She closes her eyes and tries to let it just soak into her through her skin, the quiet, the honest, warm quiet, instead of the strange, chilly quiet of that fucking house.

It's not the house, she reminds herself.It's you. Me. Inside. The problem is inside. Black rot, spreading through every cell and the spaces between them. Liquefying her guts. Reaching outward for her skin, going to crawl out through her eyeballs.

She flips her phone open and punches out a text to Pete and Gabe. u ever remember it being rotten inside me?

Pete doesn't answer; she didn't really expect him to. He's probably posted a million things on his blog, anger and heartbreak and bitter acceptance, but there's no Internet out here in this fucking hellhole, either, so she's been denied the special game of looking at it over and over. She always was the kid who picked at scabs.

Her phone buzzes with an answer from Gabe a few minutes later. ???? what r u talking about mway? u ok?

She presses her knuckles against her eyes for a long moment before she types back. fine just kidding sorry dumb joke

hows writing?

The only question she expected Gabe to ask, really. u know. whole fd up process

lol word. tell the guys hi. call me when ur east coast again ok?

It should make her feel better that they're at this point again. It really should. definitely

She's been gone from practice for more than half an hour. She flips the phone open again and texts Alicia. hows the weather?

Her answer is almost instant. it sucks lol how r u?

She stares at the phone for a long time. She can't answer I'm lonely and I'm scared and I'm cold and I'm choking and I'm rotting and please help me, please, please.

She sends back good just taking a break & wanted 2 say hi gotta get back 2 practice and doesn't turn the phone off before she goes back inside. It'll suck down the battery to nothing in a few hours, and then she won't even be tempted anymore.

**

It gets worse. It just gets worse and she doesn't know why she ever, ever, in her entire life, thought any of this might get better. It never does. It always comes back, and it always comes back darker and more miserable than before.

She can taste rot in her throat all the time, morning to night. She can taste it when Frank is shouting at the ceiling about solos and when Ray is muttering to himself about "House of Wolves" and when Gerard is making sweeping, frantic arm gestures about what he's trying to say with "Cancer." It's hard to concentrate when all she can think about is the foulness in her mouth, in all of her, spreading and digging in until it's impossible to get out.

She stands in the bathroom of Gerard's suite, staring into the mirror. The circles under her eyes are black and blue. It looks right; she's beaten. Defeated. The bad shit wins, the rot wins, it always wins.

She leans in closer, closer, staring into her own eyes, twitchy hazel iris, pupils that won't contract, letting in all the light they can to try to kill the rot, but it doesn't work, it just gives her a headache. She's been putting makeup over the rot for years, but it isn't working anymore, it's not enough. Nothing's enough.

"Mikey?" she hears Gerard call from the bedroom. "Hey, Mikes? You coming down? We're going to heat up a pizza and work on some stuff, c'mon. Not a party without Mikey Way."

She can't answer. Her throat's too thick, too blocked, and she's hypnotized by herself, by her own eyes. She reaches for the glass sitting by the sink, the one she uses for water in the middle of the night and for her painkillers and birth control every morning and for her vodka at bedtime.

She cuts her fingers when she slams the glass against the counter, blood running down between them to drip on the countertop and the floor. That blood runs red, no sign of rot in it. Not enough. It might not have reached her extremities yet. Fingers are a long way out from where it started.

"Mikey? What are you doing in there?"

She picks up the biggest piece of glass, a nice long triangle with a clean edge. She can get it out. Drain it all out and be clean inside, empty and clean and they won't be horrified when they see her body.

"Mikey, what the fuck are you doing?"

Gerard's voice is too close. She didn't hear the door open. "Go away."

"Put that down, Mikey."

He sounds scared. She doesn't have time for his fear. "Go away." Her voice is thick and hoarse, a croak, because she's choking on this shit, she's been choking for weeks and it isn't getting any better, it will never get better unless she gets it out, and she takes a gasping breath, brings the long sharp edge up to her throat, and cuts.

**

"I had to get it out," she says, curled in Gerard's arms, not fighting because all the fight left her somewhere in the middle of the helpless tears, the crying that left her throat completely raw. She pictures it under the pair of Frank's clean boxer-briefs that are folded up and taped over the damage she did before Gerard grabbed her wrists. Two cuts on the outside, but looking like a cheese grater went over it on the inside, probably. Fucked up.

"Shh." Gerard holds her closer, cradling her head against his shoulder. She lets him. She can't fight and this does feel good, nice, being close to Gerard. They haven't been this close in a long time. "Don't try to talk, Mikes."

"I just wanted to get it out of me."

"Stacy's coming." Frank leans against the wall, watching them with guarded eyes. She used to be able to read Frank, she knows she could, but right now he's blank as a wall. It's a weird feeling. "We'll figure out what to do when she gets here."

"She needs to go to a hospital," Ray says. He's been saying that for a long time now, she's pretty sure. Ever since Gerard brought her downstairs. "She's sick and she needs help."

"I'm not sending her to a psych ward." Gerard holds her tighter, enough that it hurts, a little, his arms against her ribs. "Fuck you if you think I'm sending my little sister--"

"She needs help, Gee!"

"Fuck you if you think I don't know that, I'm the one who took the fucking glass out of her hand, Ray!"

"Stop it," she manages to say, pulling back as best she can, pushing against Gerard's chest for balance. "Stop it, don't fight, fuck."

"Yeah." Bob goes over to the window, looking out in the general direction of the road. "This really is not the time for fighting."

Frank takes a deep breath and walks out of the room. Mikey has to laugh, even though it comes out as an awful croaking noise.

"What's so funny, baby?" Gerard asks, pulling her close again.

"He can't even look at me."

"Oh, honey. It's not like that." He rocks her like a baby, back and forth, back and forth, and she can't even fight it, because what good would fighting it do? "It's not like that at all."

It is, and it's going to be for a long time. She can see it, plain as the blood on both their hands.

**April 2006**

It's quiet at Stacy's, good-quiet, warm and alive. She doesn't crave it as desperately as she did at the house, but it still feels good, like she can wrap the still air around her like a blanket.

Getting better is a lot more difficult than she thought it would be. Maybe she didn't even know what it meant. She thought she just needed to climb out of the worst part of the pit, get the idea of rot out of her head, and go on like she was before. But the doctors don't think that's good enough, they think she needs to change everything. She has to see three therapists and take medications and it turns out it's not just a pit, there's this whole mountain at the edge of the pit she never noticed before, and she won't be better until she gets to the top of it.

The mountain's called bipolar, and she kind of fucking hates it, but it's either climb or die, and to her own surprise she doesn't quite want to be dead yet.

She texted Pete about a week after she left the house, saying i get what u meant now, abt not wanting to die exactly just wanting it to stop. She didn't expect an answer, much less the one she gets.

u cant b done yet mway theres so many summers left

She cried for three hours and through an entire therapy appointment and she's pretty sure neither Stacy nor the doctor really believed her when she said they were the first happy tears she can remember in years.

Gabe sent flowers, and books, a whole box of books. She can't concentrate well enough to even read the back covers yet, but it's the thought that counts, and he thought about her enough to do this, he still cares about her enough after all this time to do this, and would he do that for someone irredeemably rotten? Would anybody?

"He totally wouldn't," Alicia tells her on the phone, laughing a little. "He's way too lazy to waste time on somebody rotten, dude."

"You've never even met him."

"All guys are too lazy. So, look, I've already got my bag packed, you just tell me when you're ready and I'm on the next plane, okay?"

She's not ready yet. She's not even close. Seeing friends, seeing anybody except Gerard or Stacy or the goddamn doctors makes her puke. And if she does that at the wrong time then she's puked up her meds and the whole day is messed up, chemically speaking, it's a write-off, and...

Her attention span is pretty well fucked these days. Along with her appetite, and her sleep schedule. It's a real fucking adventure.

All of Pete's ramblings about insomnia are starting to make sense. She walks around the house in the middle of the night, looking out the windows at the sleeping world, trying to keep quiet and not wake up Stacy, and it's like she's a ghost among the living, or an alien visiting a world that doesn't operate on the same laws. Nothing makes sense. Nothing feels real.

Two weeks in she can't take it anymore, and she does the only thing she can think of at two AM, alone, scared, and miserable. She calls her mother.

"Michaela?" Donna's voice is thick, and the name ends in a cough. "Baby, what's wrong?"

"I'm sorry, Mama."

"Baby, are you hurt?" She can hear the fear in her mom's voice; for a minute it doesn't make any sense to her, but then her brain catches up and she remembers.

"No! No, I didn't hurt myself, I'm okay. I'm safe. I'm at Stacy's."

Donna's rough exhale doesn't quite cover the click-hiss of the lighter. "Jesus, baby. Scared me."

"I'm sorry."

"It's all right. Just...I'm an old lady, Michaela, you gotta start the call with 'I'm okay.'"

"You're not old."

"Older than I used to be." She inhales and exhales and Mikey thinks she can almost smell the smoke, dirty and unfiltered, the smell of her childhood and home. "Now tell me what's wrong."

"I can't sleep." It comes out in a child's voice, thin and scared.

"The medicine?"

"And just...everything. My head's too loud and fuzzy and I just can't."

"Why didn't you call Gerard?" It's not an accusation, but a real question. She stopped reaching for her parents before Gerard almost before she could talk.

"Because I'm crazy?"

"Michaela."

"If I call the house and he doesn't answer, it means either he's working, and I should be too, I'm letting them down by not being there."

Donna waits a beat before she prompts. "Or?"

"Or it means the house got him." Mikey blinks back tears, hating them, hating herself for being stupid and crazy and weak. "I know, it's bullshit, I just..."

"It's not bullshit, baby."

"It is."

"Are you arguing with me, Michaela Jane?"

Mikey laughs a little, startled by the sound. "No, Mama."

"You call me whenever you want to, baby. Old ladies don't need as much sleep."

"You're not..."

"Shut your mouth."

They laugh together, both wheezy and rasping and with a note of fear at the end. "What should we talk about?" Mikey asks finally, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.

Donna inhales and exhales again. "You been keeping up with the soaps?"

"No. But I could."

"If you call me in the evening your time, I think we can watch them together on that SoapNet channel. They rerun the day's episode at night. Fucking genius."

"That is genius." Mikey lies down on her bed, wrapping her free arm close around herself. "Thanks, Mama. I feel a little better."

"You think you can sleep?"

"I can try?"

"Good." Mikey closes her eyes and just listens, imagining she can feel her mother with her from across the country, imagining the world is smaller and things are better than they are. "I love you, baby girl."

**June 2006**

"Are you sure you're ready for your own place?" Gerard rocks back and forth on his heels, frowning. "I think you should live with me. I don't want you to be alone, Mikey."

"The label's ponying up for the apartments. I think we should demand as many as possible. Stick it to the man."

"I'm pretty sure they're going to take the costs out of our sales, you know that, right?"

"It was a joke, Gee." Her clothes are scattered all over Stacy's guest room, and the bathroom, and possibly other rooms of the house. God, she's a slob, and somehow she never quite realizes that until she's trying to move out of somewhere.

"So you'll live with me."

"No."

"Mikey!"

"I want my own place." She gathers up a few more t-shirts and tosses them on the bed, next to her suitcase. "I need...I need to do this, Gee. Prove that I can be on my own. That I'm not broken."

"You aren't. You don't have to prove it, it's just a fact."

Sometimes it's best to just ignore the words coming out of his mouth and pick up another shirt off the floor. "I really want to do this."

"And I'm really not comfortable with you being alone. I'll be really worried. I'll be scared."

She stops for a minute, staring at the fabric wadded in her hands, then looks over her shoulder at him. He's looking at her all Muppet-faced and big-eyed with sincerity. Shit.

"Let's figure out a compromise," she says after a minute.

"You could live with Frank."

"That's the same as living with a brother."

"Hey."

"Functionally the same."

He frowns more and walks over to the window, looking out at the yard. "Well, what about Alicia?"

"What about her?"

"You said she wants to come visit. And she's not working right now. How about she comes out and is your roommate?"

"Are you planning to pay her to be my friend, Gerard? Seriously?"

"No!" He turns to face her and sits on the edge of the windowsill. "She totally will not get paid."

Mikey closes her eyes for a minute and counts to ten. "You want me to ask her to throw her whole life up in the air and come live with me so I won't be alone. And not even get paid."

"She's your friend. And like I said, she's not doing anything. She's up for it."

Mikey's eyes snap open again. "You already talked to her?"

"Oh." Gerard actually has the grace to blush. "Um. Yeah."

"You ass."

"She called me! She was worried about you too!"

"I cannot believe you guys."

"We just love you a lot."

"I love you, too, which is lucky for you, because if I didn't I would punch you in the face."

"She's already packed, pretty much. She just wants to know if she can bring her cat. I don't know. You should call her."

Being outmaneuvered by Gerard is kind of embarrassing. She can't ever tell Frank that this happened.

**

The apartment is tiny and painted flat, sterile white. There are too many windows in the bedrooms, so Mikey has to nail unzipped sleeping bags over them to create a properly cave-like atmosphere.

"You're really weird about sunlight," Alicia informs her, watching her balance on the foot of the bed and wield her hammer.

"I can't sleep if it's too bright."

"Your windows face west. Do you do a lot of sleeping in the middle of the afternoon?"

Mikey sets another nail in place and scowls at it. "Is that a trick question?"

Alicia laughs. "Yeah, okay. You need one more at the end there."

Mikey finishes working and lies down on the bed, looking around to make sure there aren't any gaps where light can get in and wake her up.

"All good?" Alicia asks solemnly. Mikey gives her a thumbs-up and she comes over to sit cross-legged at the foot of the bed, smiling.

"Bunny finally came out from under the couch about half an hour ago. We're becoming a real little household."

"Cool." Mikey smiles back and shifts onto her side, curling her hands under her head. "So what are you going to do all day while I'm at the studio?"

"I dunno. Read. Play video games. Practice. I might try out for some bands while I'm out here. Might as well, right?"

"Sure."

Alicia picks at the comforter and glances at her. "Are you ready to go back?"

"I kind of have to be."

"But are you? Really?"

Mikey shrugs, digging her fingers into the pillow. "I don't know."

"You know the guys will give you as much time as you need."

"I don't want them to baby me."

"It's not babying. It's helping."

"It's pity. I hate that."

Alicia sighs and shakes her head. "You're really bad at letting people love you, you know that?"

"Have you been talking to my exes?"

"Ha. No. I've just been...being your friend." She reaches up and rubs Mikey's leg, like she realizes that what she said is going to sting. "It's cool. You're like a cat. They're bad at letting people love them, too, but people do, because they're awesome."

Mikey's quiet for a minute, staring at the doorway. Bunny sticks her head around the frame and gives them a suspicious look. "So now you have two cats?"

"Hopefully you shed less than the other one."

"I'll try. Are you going to dress me in little outfits?"

"Fucking duh."

When Mikey looks at her, Alicia's grinning, wide and goofy and so real that Mikey just has to smile back.

"I've been thinking about getting a dog, too," Alicia says. "If you're into that."

"I love dogs."

"Sweet. We can co-adopt. Provide a stable two-parent home."

"Two parents and a cat sibling?"

"It's the American dream, dude." They both start laughing at the same time, and that feels good, really really good, in a way she hasn't felt in a while.

**

The first day in the studio, she throws up twice. Which is actually better than she expected, so she chalks it up as a win.

She knows what the guys put together after she left the house; they all kept her updated as much as she was able to handle, and Gerard has shown her the sketches that go with the concept as a whole. She's flipped through them again and again, staring through the looking glass into this world that lives inside her brother's head, a marching band that escorts a man to the other side, and all the wonders and horrors that live there.

"It's about life," he'd told her, sitting beside her on the couch, holding her hand that isn't turning the pages of the sketchbook. "A celebration of life through the metaphor of death."

"And also 'Teenagers.'"

"Well, we have to fill out the track list."

She laughed and kissed his cheek and he just wrapped her up in his arms and held her for a while. Then he showed her 'Famous Last Words' and made her cry, because he has absolutely no sense of timing. Her brother.

So she knows what she's supposed to be doing; she's learned the tabs and she's been practicing with a metronome, but that isn't anything like actually playing in a way that fits with a band. She's really fucking lucky they're recording this with Bob and not any other drummer on earth.

"Take it from the top," Ray says patiently, giving her his big smile of encouragement. "You can do this."

"You're more confident than I am." She stares down at her bass, flexing her fingers against the strings. "I'm sorry, I thought I had this down."

"It's fine, Mikey. Take your time. It's cool."

"I can't really take my time, we don't want to run over on the studio time, and--"

"Mikey. We'll worry about that shit later. Right now I just want to hear you play."

She plays the first note, holds it, then lets it go, string buzzing under her misplaced fingers. "Can you turn and face the wall?"

He blinks. "What?"

"I really can't handle it if you look disappointed or anything. So I need you to not look at me."

"I won't be disappointed, Mikey, you know that."

"Ray, please. Please indulge my crazy?"

He looks at her for a long minute, and she manages to meet his eyes, silently begging him to understand. She trusts Ray like another brother, and she can only hope he knows that, but this is hard. It's really, really fucking hard, all of it, and they can't really understand.

"That's like your family motto, isn't it?" he says finally. He stands up and lifts his chair, flipping it to face the wall before he sits again. "Okay. From the top, Way. Let me hear it."

She sets her fingers to the strings again, takes a breath, and plays. It's still not quite right, but she can feel the shape of it under her hands, just out of reach. She can get there if they have time. She can get strong again.

**

The only one she can't do is "Cancer." Gerard's singing about dying and she can't do it. Her hands shake and her throat closes up and she gets this glimpse in her head of an empty bed and a coffin and being alone forever and she can't do it, she can't, she won't.

Ray tracks it instead.

"What are you going to do for the live shows?" Frank asks her, keeping her company in the parking lot while Ray plays the notes she can't.

"I don't know yet."

"I'm not accusing you or anything." He flicks ashes off the end of his cigarette and squints out at the road. "Just asking."

"Hopefully I'll be less crazy by then."

"You're doing really well, Mikes." He tosses the rest of the cigarette down and grinds it out under his heel. He looks at her, meets her eyes, and she realizes with a start that she can't remember him doing that since the Paramour. "I'm really proud of you."

"What?"

"Kind of fucking in awe of you, actually. You're so insanely tough. I couldn't do what you've done. I couldn't come back like this." He tucks his hands in his pockets and bounces on the balls of his feet for a minute, then seems to realize she's staring at him. "What?"

"You...you think I'm strong?"

"Duh."

"You're in awe of me?"

"Yes." He blinks at her, then rolls his eyes, reaching out to grab her wrist and spin her into a hug. "Oh, come on, Mikey, you knew that, right?"

**July 2006**

"Pigtails," the Warner rep says, squinting at her. "Pigtails and a modified version of the uniform--short skirt, high boots. Like she's the majorette of the marching band. Colleen can do that, right?"

"Colleen can do whatever we ask for." Gerard frowns a little, tucking his hands in his pockets. "But I really did picture, you know, a marching band, all the same? That's kind of the idea, right--that we're all the same in death, identical sorta, or at least--"

"We need to sell this, right?"

"Well, yeah."

"It's your vision and your record and your tour and you can do whatever you want, but I'm just telling you, we need to sell this, and it might be easier to sell this way." He claps Gerard on the shoulder and heads for the door. "Think about it. This is my job, Gerard. I didn't just fall off the turnip truck."

Gerard sits and frowns for a while after he's gone. Mikey stays on the couch, watching him. She watches his face at first, but when he reaches for his sketchpad after a while, she watches his hands. She knows what he's doing; sketching it over and over, both ways, one with her in the skirt and the other with the uniforms that match.

**

She gets home that night and tosses her bag down right inside the door. "Licia?"

"In here."

She follows the voice into the living room, where Alicia's sitting cross-legged on the floor with the video game controller in her hands, kicking zombie ass. "Can you give me a hand with something?"

"Yeah, sure." Her eyes don't leave the screen. "What is it?"

"I bought a magazine and some scissors but I don't think I can do it right myself. I can't see the back of my head."

That makes her hit pause and look up, blinking. "Huh?"

Mikey holds up the copy of Allure, flipped open to the pixie cut she stared at for a good fifteen minutes in the store. "With the long pieces over the ears, right? I'm gonna look like fucking Tinkerbell, but I figure I'll dye it black, and--"

"Mikey, what?"

Mikey frowns and looks at the magazine, then at Alicia again. "Oh. Sorry. Jumped ahead, huh?"

"Yeah." Alicia smiles and stands up, stretching her arms over her head. "So...what are we doing?"

"I'm gonna butch it up for this one."

"Butch it up." Alicia starts laughing, reaching to take the magazine from Mikey's hands. "That's fucking awesome." She plants a kiss on Mikey's cheek, fast and light. "Okay. No, there is no way I can do this, but let's go drink wine and hack at your hair and tomorrow I'll take you to Supercuts and they'll fix it."

"Oh, thank you." Mikey tosses the magazine to the couch. "That's gonna be a hell of a lot easier."

"Right? Let's order pizza, too. It'll be like a fucking sleepover." Alicia wanders into the kitchen and grabs the menus off the top of the refrigerator. "Was this Gerard's idea?"

"No. He's having an existential crisis over pigtails and a miniskirt, so I'm just going to fix it for him."

"You're a good little sister." She finds the menu she wants and grabs the phone. "And your brother's existential crises are weird."

"I know." Mikey boosts herself up onto the edge of the table and swings her legs slowly, thinking about not being able to run her fingers through her hair. "I love him anyway."

**August 2006**

She can't stop giggling the first time she puts her uniform on for a photoshoot. "I feel silly. I feel like I just stepped out of Star Trek or something."

"Hey," Frank says sternly. "We are a very serious zombie marching band."

"Marching band of the damned," Ray corrects. "And stop making jokes or you'll piss Gee off and he's already wound up tight about this shoot."

Mikey nods, looking over at where the make-up artist is putting the final touches on Gerard. "He's excited."

"We're all excited." Ray tugs at the collar of his jacket. "Even if I do kind of feel like a tool right now."

They stand there giggling until Gerard comes over, squinting at them suspiciously. "What? What's funny?"

Mikey sobers first, thinking fast for something plausible. "I was just saying that, like, we have creative control of this, right?"

"Yeah." Gerard bounces on his toes a little. "Totally."

"So, like, we could tell them we want to do a shot with Frank lying on the ground, and my boot on his dick, and you three, like, whipping it out--"

Frank actually drops to his knees, he's laughing so hard. Mikey silently gives herself ten points as the winner of the day.

"What?" Bob asks. "Why would we do that?"

"Long story," Gerard gasps. "Oh, fuck, that would be awesome. If it wouldn't confuse the shit out of people, I would be so for it."

"You're no fun." Mikey taps Gerard on the epaulets and starts off for craft services. Bagels, fucking excellent. "At least I get to wear pants this time."

**

Mikey stops in the doorway and frowns. "Alicia? Why are you packing?"

"I like having a change of clothes or two when I'm on a tour. Call me crazy."

"Oh." Mikey nods. "Wait. What?"

Alicia sighs and looks at her. "I know we don't leave until next week, but I'm doing a dry run so I know what I still need to buy."

"That's not the what."

"What is the what?"

"Huh?"

Alicia rolls her eyes and takes a shirt out of her bag. "Exactly."

"Where are you going on tour? What tour? Warped? That's over."

The look Alicia shoots at her is pure exasperation, then melts into something a lot like confusion, then pity, then annoyance. "Wait. You really have no idea?"

"I really, really don't. It's not nice to fuck with the crazy girl, Licia."

"I'm not fucking with you, babe." Alicia sits down on the edge of the mattress. "Gerard asked me to come along with you guys."

"Gerard did."

"He didn't tell you."

"No."

Alicia nods slowly. "Now you're going to want some space to call him and yell at him."

"He's actually on his way here to go over some tour stuff. I can yell at him then."

"Are you going to want privacy for that?"

"I would broadcast it on a Jumbotron if I could." Alicia shakes her head and holds out her hands. Mikey crosses over to her for a hug. "Goddamn Gerard."

"You don't want me to go?" Alicia rests their foreheads together and breathes in time with Mikey. It's comforting, grounding. Alicia's figured out a lot of things that steady Mikey and bring her calm when she needs it, without ever having to ask.

"It's fine if you come. It'll be...it'll be great, actually. I just wish he would discuss things with me first. Not all things. Things that affect me. Or my friends. Things like hiring my friends as my babysitter."

"It's not like that."

"What's it like, then?"

Alicia shrugs and lets Mikey go, leaning back on her palms. "Personal assistant?"

"Are you just saying that to make me feel better?"

"You're annoying when you're paranoid." Alicia looks up as the doorbell rings and they hear Bunny claw her way up the back of the couch. "That's probably Gerard. I'm going to clear out of here for the yelling after all."

Mikey follows her to the door. "I won't hurt him."

"What do I care?" Alicia opens the door and squints at Gerard. "You forgot to tell her, moron. Now she's pissed. Have fun with that."

"I thought you were going to tell her!" Gerard protests.

"No." Alicia turns and kisses Mikey on the cheek. "Have fun. See you later."

Gerard watches her go and turns back to Mikey with a puzzled frown. "She kissed you goodbye."

"What?"

"Is that like, a...a thing?"

"Gerard, now is so very much not the time for this kind of shit. I will kick you down the stairs."

"It's weird that I know you feel better when you're threatening violence." He follows her inside and flops down on the couch, taking his notebook from his bag and waving it at her. "This is going to be awesome."

"I'm not ready to talk about that yet. First we're going to talk about you paying my friends to babysit me."

"Not babysit." He shakes his head and brushes everything off the coffee table so he can open the notebook. "No babysitting. Just, you know. Getting you stuff when you need it. Keeping an eye on your meds. Helping you out when you get tired. That kind of shit."

"I don't need help."

"Mikey?" He looks up at her, his eyebrows high up by his new, pale hairline, and she really just can't get used to that. The bleached hair freaks her out more every time she looks at it. "Can't you let me do a nice thing for you just this once?"

"You didn't have anybody backing you up when you were just coming back from...having a hard time."

"I had you."

"Yeah, and I have you."

"We can afford to do better than that now, so I don't see any reason why we shouldn't." He taps at the pages of his notebook. "Now sit down and look."

"Gee..."

He laces his fingers together and looks at her again. "I trust you. This isn't about that."

"What's it about, then?"

"I had your blood all over my hands, Mikey. You wanted to die, and I had no idea it was that bad. I missed it, and you could've died, and...if I have to hire every single person you have as a contact in your phone to come on tour with us and make sure you're okay, I will. I won't even hesitate."

"That would be excessive."

"Then Alicia coming along is a compromise, right?"

"No. But I won't fight you on it."

"Thank you."

She sits down next to him and rests her head on his shoulder. He leans his own against it, then presses a kiss to the top.

"It'll be fun to have her there, too," Mikey says after a minute. "Some estrogen to balance out the sausage on the bus."

"Our sausage cannot be contained."

"Yeah, believe me, I know." She sits up and reaches for the notebook. "Now explain all this to me. What are you picturing?"

**August 2006**

"It's like riding a bike," Frank says, staring up at the monitor that shows them the crowd. "Right? Does anyone here ride bikes?"

"For me, riding a bike implies crashing and blood and pain," Mikey mutters, staring right along with him. "That is a lot of people."

"It's Summer Sonic. That's the whole point." Frank takes a deep breath. "We can do this, right? We're ready for this."

"We're out of practice."

"Like riding a bike."

"Blood and pain, Frank."

"Stop it. Jesus." He turns in a small circle, like a nervous puppy. "I'm gonna throw up."

"You are not."

"Where's Gerard?"

Mikey can't help laughing. "Um. Throwing up."

"Fucking awesome." He takes a breath and tilts his head back. "We can do this.

"Sure."

"Guys?" Ray waves at them from up in the wings. "Time to get set."

Mikey gives him a thumbs-up, then grabs Frank's hand and squeezes tight. "If we get to the third song and it's not working, I'm going to stage-dive. You coming with me?"

"Hell yeah, Mikeyway." He squeezes back and starts walking. "Let's go."

**

No stage dives required. By the third song they've fallen right into the groove like they never left, and it feels like she could fucking fly.

**November 2006**

"Who thought it would be a good idea to come to England in November?" Mikey stares out the window at the rain. "I hope they're stuck somewhere shitty, too."

"They're probably in LA," Alicia mumbles, turning a page in her magazine. "Sorry."

"You can't manage any more sympathy than that?"

"Nope."

"You're kind of a mean friend." Mikey flops across the bed on her stomach at Alicia's feet, staring at the far wall. "You want to go out?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Weren't you the one just bitching about how it's raining?"

Mikey snorts and turns her head to look at Alicia. "When have I ever believed in being consistent?"

"True." Alicia reaches down and cards her fingers through Mikey's hair, fluffing it up in front. "You should do the faux-hawk thing again tonight. It looks cool."

"Okay." Mikey closes her eyes and rests her head on Alicia's leg. "You going to come to the show or wait here?"

"I'll probably come watch." She bends at the waist and kisses Mikey's forehead. "Hey, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"We kiss sometimes."

"That's not a question."

Alicia sighs in frustration and pulls Mikey's hair a little. "Well, what's that about? I mean. We kiss, but you don't...I mean, I know it's not kissing just to turn the guys on, or whatever, because we tend to usually do it when we're alone in the apartment."

"I don't do that. I'm not one of those girls."

"You say that a lot and you know it doesn't make any sense, right?"

Mikey shrugs and sits up, tugging her shirt straight. She should've known this conversation was going to happen at some point. Yet another conversation she doesn't know how to have. "So I won't kiss you anymore, then. It's not like we make out, it's like...little kisses. On the cheek or the forehead or whatever."

"Have you ever wanted to kiss me?" Alicia's voice is odd, closed-off. "Or any girl?"

"I told you, I'm not..."

"Yeah, I know, you don't do it because you don't want to be one of those. But you did, that time with me. On Warped."

"Do you want me to apologize? Is that what you're trying to say?"

"No, Mikey." She sounds like she's struggling for patience, fighting back exasperation, and Mikey wants to flinch or get up and leave. Walk away from the tension. "What I'm trying to say is, I'm not asking if you do kiss girls, I'm asking if you want to."

"I...I don't think about it."

"Because you know you're not going to do it."

"Because...what's your point, Alicia?"

"What if I'm asking if you want to make out with me? What if I want to make out with you?"

Mikey's mouth snaps shut on the next sound she might make. "What?"

"I don't know, does that make me one of those girls?"

"There's not...I mean...what?" She doesn't want to walk, now, she wants to run; this is dangerous ground, this is shit she closed up and locked away when she left Pete's house. She is done with this.

But it's not done with her, and she owes Alicia too much to run away from her.

"Some girls kiss girls just because they want to," Alicia says in that same tight, working-for-patience tone. "Not for anybody else."

"I wasn't born in 1952. I know that."

"I guess what I'm trying to ask here is if you're interested or if we're going to keep being friends and roommates and cat-coparents or...if you're going to tell Gerard to send me home, or what."

"Why would I do that?"

"Maybe I've massively offended you. I don't fucking know." Alicia wraps her arms around herself and looks away, toward the window where the rain is still pouring down the glass.

Mikey sits there for a minute, trying to collect her thoughts. "I like guys."

"So do I. I'm bi." Alicia cuts a glance toward Mikey and raises her eyebrows. "It's a valid option."

Mikey is aware that she's flailing, opening and closing her mouth like a fish. "I...don't like labels."

"You don't like labels." Alicia stares at her for another minute and Mikey's stomach twists, waiting for the bomb to go off, for Alicia to get up and leave the room.

Instead she starts laughing, so hard she turns bright red and gasps for breath and falls back against the pillows.

"You don't fucking like labels," she gasps. "Oh, Mikey. Mikey fucking Way. What am I going to do with you?"

"Kiss me?" Mikey asks, lost for other suggestions, and she does want to, she does, she's kind of been thinking about it for a while but pushing it back into the parts of her brain where she keeps stuff she doesn't know what to do with.

"Get over here," Alicia says, smacking the mattress beside her. "I am done chasing your ass, Way."

"I didn't even know I was being chased!"

"Apparently Wentz had the right idea. You really don't like subtlety." Alicia reaches out and catches Mikey's arm, pulling her in against her. "You remember that game of spin the bottle?"

"Yeah."

"I'm gonna kiss you like that. Only better."

And she does.

**

The guys are obviously going to figure it out. Being subtle about a relationship is completely impossible when you live on a bus.

"Being stoic doesn't mean you're a good liar," Alicia tells her, sitting cross-legged in the bunk and watching Mikey do her hair. "You should probably just tell them."

"What if they get weird?"

"Do you think that's likely?"

"I don't know. They are weird. All of them."

"They love you. They won't be weird."

Mikey stares at herself in the mirror and tries to fluff up the back of her hair. "What if Gerard is weird?" Alicia's quiet for long enough that Mikey looks at her in the mirror anxiously. "Licia?"

"If Gerard's weird, then I'll go home." Alicia looks at her and shrugs a little, her jaw set tightly. "I'm not going to try to get between you two, Mikey."

Mikey looks at her for a minute. "I just won't tell them. They might not ever notice. They're not very observant."

"I'm pretty sure Ray's figured it out already."

"Why do you think that? Has he been being weird?"

Alicia flops down on her back and stares at the bottom of Gerard's bunk. "The word weird has lost all meaning, you know that?"

"Yeah." Mikey turns back to the mirror and reaches for her mascara. "I'll talk to them."

"Do what you want."

"Don't go home. Even if Gerard is...you know."

She laughs, soft and wistful more than bitter. "Like I said, Mikes, I won't even try to get between you guys. That's just about the dumbest thing anybody could ever do if they love either one of you."

**

She tells the guys before they go on stage. Not because that's the best time to do it, but because sometimes words just sort of happen to her, when she's theoretically doing something else, like helping Bob do up his uniform and listening to Frank and Gerard argue about the most awesome kind of squid.

"Fuck you, man," Frank says with complete sincerity. "Fuck you right in the face for thinking vampire squids are awesome. That's bullshit. They don't even do anything."

"No, fuck you, you don't even know what you're talking about. I watched like six hours of documentaries on squid last night, you asshole."

"How does that make me the asshole, asshole?"

Mikey hooks the collar of Bob's jacket and blinks at him. "You want me to make this argument stop?"

"God, yes," he sighs, leaning back against the wall. "I don't know how you're going to do it, but I will seriously kiss you if you do."

Mikey nods and turns to face the others. "Hey, guys? Gee, Frank, Ray. Hey."

Their eyes all cut to her and she crosses her arms as best she can in the jacket, smiling a little. "Alicia and I are together. I just thought you should know."

Frank's brow furrows. "And by together you mean...I mean, we all know you live together."

Ray clears his throat awkwardly. "I think she means..."

"Fucking?" Gerard's voice is high and squeaky enough that she's concerned for the upcoming performance. "Wait, what?"

"Well, it's only been about five days, so...so, like, there hasn't been a lot of chances for fucking, but...well. Yeah. Fucking is on the menu now."

"Wow." Frank's eyes have gotten really wide. "I...would like to see that menu."

"Shut up, Frank," Ray says, watching Mikey closely. "Mikey?"

"Yeah?"

He walks over to her and she bites her lip, trying to keep her smile in place. She can feel it wobbling. She probably looks very silly.

"Happy for you, kiddo," he says softly, and pulls her into a hug. "You two are good for each other."

"Thanks." She closes her eyes and hugs him back, as tight as she can. "It's...apparently we were sort of dating and I didn't realize it?"

"That happens sometimes."

"Not to normal people," Frank says. "I want my hug, Toro, move. And hey, I guess you don't want that kiss from Bob now, huh?"

"Shut up, Frank," Bob sighs.

Mikey looks over at Gerard, trying to read his face. "Gee?"

"Are you happy?"

She meets his eyes and nods. "Yes. I don't know the whole...long-term or short-term thing, but yeah, I'm really happy."

"Okay. Cool." He walks over to them slowly and shoulders Frank out of the way, leaning in to kiss her gently on the forehead, once over each eyebrow. "You ready to play a show now?"

"If I have to. I guess."

He cups her jaw on one hand, rubbing his thumb gently over her cheek. "Well, you know, there's just all these kids out there, and if we don't show up, they might riot."

"Oh, in that case." She smiles at him, not moving until he smiles back. "Let's give them what they came for."

**February 2007**

She buys her copy of Infinity On High like a regular citizen, ducking out to the store as soon as she wakes up from her coma nap of time-zone confusion on their tour break after Australia. She texts Pete a picture of the purchase as soon as she leaves the store. He writes back, don't miss the bonus track, so she skips ahead to that, frowning as she eases the car into traffic.
 
The beginning is a deep crunch of drums and guitars, pretty typical for Fall Out Boy. She taps out the bassline against the steering wheel and lets Patrick's voice slide past her ears, not fighting to pick out the words. She can never understand him on the first run-through and she's not going to beat herself up trying. The first listen is for meter and rhythm, figuring out just how fast Pete's words and thoughts were racing on this one, whether it's a growl or a howl or a--
 
Patrick goes up into full voice as he rounds the chorus and words snap into place so fast she hits the brakes. "…Star Wars, hair dye, sticky sweet revenge…oh princess that's my heart with all those bullets in your hands."
 
She texts him again once she's safely pulled over. u never once called me princess
 
cant give them everything
 
might as well have called the song the one about mikey way
 
thot about it patrick wouldnt let me
 
She stares at her phone for a long minute, thinking of and discarding responses, before finally sending its a good song. u should be proud

She waits a solid two minutes--much longer than it ever takes him to answer--then ejects the CD. "Well, fuck you too, Wentz," she tells the empty car.

Their ability to understand each other when it counts--the deep-down stuff, the things that live in the dark subsoil under skull and skin--was the good thing about them together, and why she's still pretty sure they will never stop reaching out for each other when things are hard, when they hurt. They see the pain in each other and they come together over it, bringing comfort for the bruises. She doesn't think she'll ever lose track of the value of that.

And their inability to understand each other on the other stuff--little things like how to live their lives, and where, and what model to use to figure out domestic arrangements they both had always ignored as not quite punk rock--well, that's why they're not together anymore.

Another thing for that second category: disagreement on whether or not it's appropriate to write and sell passive-aggressive songs. The impossible little shit.

She flips her phone on again and texts Gerard. need a hug

hug hug comes back immediately, followed by whats wrong?

nothing big just needed bro hug

all hugs for you

She smiles at the screen and sets her phone aside to ease the car back into traffic. Once she gets home she'll have Alicia hugs, and kisses, and listening to the rest of the album with someone who knows exactly the right level of mean, the one that says everything she wants to say and covers up everything she doesn't.

**March 2007**

Being back on the road is exhausting.

She knew it would be; this has been her life for too long for her to not know, but she'd forgotten the details. The ache in her bones and her muscles, the way her vision swims when she's at the peak--or maybe it's the valley--of tired, how weird it is to look out at an audience and realize that she literally has no idea where she is. Not even what side of the country.

And this time they're doing a goddamn Broadway show out there, not just playing their songs. The Black Parade, Gerard's vision in all of its horror and glory. None of the responsibility for the details is on her, but she feels the weight anyway, feels Gerard's fierce need for everything to be perfect.

He's so proud of this, of something coming together exactly as he envisioned it, and reaching people, selling, coming back to him in a wave of cheers and screams every night. She's never seen him so happy. It has to keep being this perfect for him, he has to keep smiling like this forever. No off nights. No mistakes.

Her meds make her want to sleep more than she used to, and keep her from eating on the grab-what-you-can-when-you-can schedule of tour. Plus it's hard even to remember to take them with her head swimming the way it is, with the constant overwhelming presence of the Black Parade in the shadows around her, with Gerard's smile a glass statue just waiting to be smashed and ruined if she ever slips up.

These are all the thoughts she can't share with anyone. Ever. Definitely not Gerard, who panics if she picks up a pair of scissors to trim her hair back out of her eyes. Not Brian, and not even Alicia, who both follow her around with cell-phone alarms and her meds in hand and grim, stern expressions.

"You're better, little Way," Brian tells her, his hand still on the back of her neck from their forced march to the sink with her pills. "Stay better. No relapses in this band."

"I don't think that's realistic."

"Leave me one of my goddamn illusions, Mikey. Please. Throw me one fucking bone."

She looks at him in the mirror, one cupped hand full of water and the other holding her pills. "Brian? What's up?"

"Nothing." He loosens his grip, rubbing the back of her neck gently. "Just need you to help me out, okay? Stay on top of things. Take your pills."

"Yes, sir." She swallows them obediently, making a face. "Okay?"

"Ship-shape." He kisses the top of her head and walks away, leaving her to frown down into the sink and think about how they're all tired, and they all deal with it differently.

Tired, tired, the schedule and the crowd noise and the chemicals in her blood sucking her energy like vampires. She has a bottle of vodka hidden in one of her bags, totally forbidden but sometimes it's just the only thing that helps her keep floating. (She can't call it swimming. Swimming would imply she has any control over any of this.) She's got her bass and her band and her brother and Alicia. She has all those screaming kids who want to give back at least as much as they take.

Sometimes when she's so tired her vision blurs, instead of faces she sees skulls. Her own in the mirror, Frank and Ray and Bob's across the stage, Alicia's pressing kisses to her thighs, Gerard's when he leans in to kiss her cheek.

She's walking a line between coping just fine and running screaming from all those skulls, and if she loses her balance she really doesn't know what she's going to do. Better not to look down.

**

Alicia is a tattooed, sleepy-eyed, wicked saint. She also has a mouth like a sailor, which they're all reminded of all over again the day she finds Mikey's vodka stash.

What were you thinking? is the repetitive theme, which they all take up in chorus once Alicia runs out of breath and curses. Frank says it with a quick look at Gerard, Ray with an even quicker look at Alicia, and Gerard just says it over and over like there's an answer she could give that would possibly be good enough.

She wraps her arms around herself and shrugs, staring at the carpet instead of any of them. "I need it."

"You can't mix booze and your meds, Mikey," Brian says sharply.

"Obviously I can. I'm still here, and it took you all this long to notice."

"Don't play that card," Ray says, his voice all soft and worried in the way that makes Mikey want to stick her hand in a garbage disposal, because fuck, she cannot handle Ray's compassion in contrast to all of the self-loathing mess in her head. They're chemicals that can't mix. It burns where they touch.

"It's hard for me," she tries instead, then shuts up as soon as the words clear her mouth, because that offends them all. Doesn't she realize how much they're doing for her, and why is she so ungrateful when they're all trying so hard, too, trying for her, because they love her.

Their love is crushing the air out of her lungs, it's a pack of wolves lurking with the Black Parade at the edge of her vision, it's everything she can't bear right now.

But she can't say that. So she lets Brian pour the vodka out, and she agrees to let Alicia check her bags every few days, and she apologizes over and over until they're satisfied and go away, leaving her alone to crawl into her bunk and sleep.

**

When she wakes up she can feel a warm body beside her, and a hand resting over her chest, fingers spread to cover her heart. "Licia?" she asks, not opening her eyes.

"No." Gerard's voice, soft and low, like when she woke up from falling asleep in his bed watching
movies when they were young. "It's me."

"I'm sorry." She'll keep saying it until they give her credit. That might take forever, but it's better than being thrown out alone.

"Can I ask you something, Mikes?"

"Of course."

"And you'll be honest?"

"Yeah."

"Look at me?"

She opens her eyes slowly and blinks until they adjust, turning her head to meet his eyes. Traces of last night's stage makeup linger on his face, and the bleach job of his hair is fresh and stark and pale as bone, but his eyes are Gerard's, the look she's known all of her life, the one place she's never doubted was home.

"Are you okay, Mikey?"

She swallows hard, suddenly hypnotized by his eyes, and shakes her head before she knows what she's doing.

"Do you want to go home?"

She bites down on her lip hard as she nods, fighting to keep back the thread of tears or making a noise. She doesn't do that. She doesn't cry. But god, she wants to right now.

"Okay," he says. "Okay. We'll make that happen for you. You can take a break. Go home and feel better."

"I'm sorry."

"Baby. It's okay. All that matters is you being well."

"I can't handle it. I'm weak."

"Never say that. You're my Mikey, you're the strongest person I know. You're my rock." He traces her jaw slowly, gently, and leans in to kiss her forehead. "I'll talk to Brian. Cortez can step up. It'll be fine."

"I'll...I'll just take two weeks, okay?"

"Take as long as you need, honey."

"I'm letting all of you down."

"Hey. The only way you could let us down is if you stop trying. Stop fighting. As long as you're not giving up, we're behind you one hundred and ten percent."

She rolls on her side to face him and wraps her arms around him, burying her face against his chest. The tears are going to come, she can't help it, but she doesn't have to let him see.

He rubs her back while she shakes and chokes, her tears and snot and dignity soaking his t-shirt. "Do you want to tell the guys or do you want me to?"

"You do it." She can't see the looks on their faces when she bails on them. There's just no way.

**

They all insist on driving her and Alicia to the airport, because they are assholes who won't let her hide like that. They all insist on hugs. They apparently want her to cry in public, but she won't give in, she can keep that much for herself.

She cries on the plane instead, her face against Alicia's shoulder, all the way to New Jersey. Alicia pets her hair and whispers soothing nonsense, but it's not enough, she can't stop. She feels like her lungs are going to burst, her heart break, her eyes melt out of her skull. She's fairly sure she's going to die.

"You won't die," Alicia tells her. "I won't let you. Breathe. Blow your nose. Cry all you want, Mikey, I think you've fucking earned it by now."

Donna's waiting for them at the airport, with the keys to their new rental, where the dogs and cats are already moved in. Mikey puts her bags down in the bedroom and turns in a slow circle, staring at the blank walls and not-yet-unpacked boxes moved straight from the storage space to here.

She doesn't know when she's leaving again, and it's the weirdest fucking thing.

**

For the first two weeks, she mostly sleeps. Then Alicia stops letting her.

"You have to get up and move around. You're starting to grow fungus. I need help with the pets. C'mon, Mikey Way, you've got to start living like a normal person now."

Mikey isn't sure if normal people live in a weird fog that makes it seem like they're touching everything through cotton. Her therapist says not, but that she should just keep faking it until things click into place. That'll happen in time.

"I've been faking it for years," Mikey tells her. "I thought I was supposed to be changing my habits now."

"One major change at a time." Dr. Miller smiles blandly. "Tomorrow, why don't you try going to the mall and just walking around?"

She doesn't, but she thinks about it. Half-credit for that.

Her hair grows out, and she stops dyeing it, letting it reach toward her shoulders in mousy brown. She stops wearing black out of probably misguided symbolism, given that she just switches to grey.

She reads books off recommended reading lists. The classics. She walks the dog and brushes the cats and kisses Alicia for hours in the tangle of blankets on their bed, before she slides her hand down the pale arch of Alicia's body to work inside her and make her come, again and again until they're both sweaty and spent and allowed to sleep for hours because they're doing it together.

And one day late in June she looks up from her book and says "I'm so angry I could cry."

Alicia hits pause on her video game and shifts to look at her, brow furrowed. "At who? About what?"

"My band." She is angry, so angry, and she can't help starting to cry. Her throat is thick and her eyes hurt and she's going to snot all over the place, but she can't help it, and for the first time in years she doesn't want to. "They didn't notice. They never saw. I was fucking...howling in pain and they didn't even notice. Gerard didn't. None of them. They love me and they didn't fucking--"

Alicia sits still, not reaching for her, letting her rock back and forth through the storm. "The second time, they did."

"Yeah. Yeah. That's...yeah. But years, Alicia. Years and fucking..." She can't talk around the sobs, tearing out of her throat hard enough that they scare her. She doesn't know how to cry like this. She's never let herself do it before.

Alicia waits until she can breathe again, until the shaking stops. "Okay," she says, her voice soft like it's no big deal, but Mikey can see her fingers curled around the controller tightly enough that her knuckles are white. "Can you forgive them?"

"Of course." She wipes her eyes on the back of her hand and blinks at Alicia through the blurry mess of her vision. "But I think maybe I need to just...be mad for a while, first? Is that okay?"

Alicia nods. "Yeah. Yeah, it's okay. It's cool. You be as mad as you want, babe. Nobody here's going to judge you."

Mikey hugs her knees to her chest, pressing her eyes against them for a minute. "That was one thing about me and Pete. We were really good at being mad together."

"You want me to call him? See if he can ditch his tour for some yelling and a threeway?"

Laughing hurts, too, after the sobbing, but kind of in a good way. "Maybe."

"Let me finish this level first."

"Okay." Mikey lifts her head enough to watch Alicia unpause the game and start to play again. She feels wrecked and horrible, but also just a little like she might actually be getting somewhere.

**August 2007**

She's not on the tour, but it's a second life, just out of sight. The guys text and email and call when they can, and Mikey fills in the gaps with YouTube clips and fan reports, filtering past the giddy lens of the audience to guess what it all might have looked like from the stage.

She's still angry, glad to have the space between them to sort this out; and she's still tired, eaten up from the inside out by all the coping and processing and healing she has to do. She has therapy twice a week and lunch with her parents every Tuesday, plus walking the dog for an hour every morning and every night. Piglet doesn't appreciate it much, but it makes her feel better.

Hearing from the guys helps, though, it really does. Every night Frank sends the fan gift wrap-up, with pictures and commentary; Ray never misses sending her a crowd photo from her side of the stage with a wish you were here; Bob sends actual packages, with dumb souvenirs and local specialties from wherever they are, always enough for her and Alicia both plus something they can share with the pets.

Gerard asks questions. How are you, how do you feel, what did you do today, did you see, what did you think, when will you come back? Talking to him reassures her that they haven't forgotten her in all the rush of tour. Cortez hasn't taken her place forever.

She thinks about that, sometimes; about letting him take it, just stepping down from the band forever and doing something else. Hanging out with her pets and Alicia and her parents, watching TV, reading, trolling comics message boards. It's kind of like having a life.

"You're going back to the band," Alicia says the one time Mikey brings it up.

"Maybe I won't."

"You will. For one thing, you have no other marketable skills."

"Hey!"

"And you're already feeling better and starting to be a pain in the ass because you're bored."

"I'm not bored."

"You are too."

"This is just how I look. I'm not bored."

Alicia gives her a disgusted look and Mikey slumps low on the couch, frowning.

"You are going back to your band."

"I'm not ready yet."

"That's fine. But you will get ready and you will go back. End of discussion."

"You're bossy."

"You like that about me."

"Not always."

"Don't try to make me feel bad, Way. It won't work and I won't change my mind. You're not quitting that band."

"Fine. Whatever."

"Even if you tried, they wouldn't let you go."

"Gerard would if I told him I needed to."

"Maybe. But you'd never get all four of them to agree."

**

Frank calls her one afternoon during a stretch of days when it's too breathless-hot to even be alive. That's in New Jersey, so she can't imagine what it's like where they are on the road, down in the Southwest.

"Greetings from Projekt Revolution," he says. "We miss you. Come home."

"Soon."

"It's been almost six months, Mikey."

"I'm almost better." She is better; she could go back now. She isn't sure how to tell anyone that, so she's been lying to her therapist and ignoring her bass. Her calluses have softened and she's grown out her nails. Alicia is starting to get suspicious. She needs to get better at being sneaky. "Good shows?"

"Yeah, yeah. Good shit. Awesome shit. Mikey, we need you."

"Cortez is probably a better--"

"I'm not talking about musically. Give us a whole tour, we could probably train a smart chimp to play a bassline. That's not the point at all."

"You're a dick."

"Suck me, then. The point is, we need you for Gerard purposes."

Mikey thought she'd forgotten how to feel that particular kind of fear. But no, here it is, ice wrapped around her heart and her throat all over again. "Is he..."

"Huh? Oh. Sorry. I should've said that first. He's fine. It's not that kind of situation."

"Jesus, Frank." She takes a breath and presses the heel of her free hand against her eye. Maybe she does need to go back to the band just so she can murder Frank. "What, then?"

"Shit, Mikeyway." He stops to laugh, soft and fond as always when he's talking about Gerard. "Your brother, with his inevitable sense of being a dramatic moron with questionable timing, has fallen in love."

**

She puts the pieces together over a series of phone calls that same afternoon, none of which involve Gerard.

Frank gives the basics, once Mikey swears at him enough that he stops being cryptic. Lyn-Z from Mindless Self-Indulgence, you remember her, thighs like you wouldn't believe, mouth like a hooker in every sense of the phrase. Gee's head over heels.

Bob adds texture: Gee is in fact besotted, and Lindsey seems to be, too. They sit in the lounge and talk about art. Then they fuck like wild animals.

Brian isn't especially helpful. I don't make it my job to tell Gerard what to do anymore, Mikey. He runs his own life. When are you getting your butt back on the road, anyway?

Ray sinks the final nail: Mikes, she makes him really happy. I don't know when I've seen him smile like he does at her.

Mikey gets her bass out that night, settling it on his strap and taking stage-stance. Her knees protest. She tunes up slowly and taps her foot, then starts out a basic four-four countoff. It feels more alien than it has any right to. "Fuck," she mutters, shifting her weight and starting again. Piglet gets up and leaves the room.

Alicia leans on the back of the couch and watches her. "Ready, huh?"

Mikey doesn't look up from the strings. "I can't leave him alone for a minute, Jesus fuck."

**September 2007**

Gerard calls her late in the afternoon. "Hey."

"Hey." She curls up around herself on the floor in front of the couch, slapping at the remote until the yoga DVD she was mostly fucking up anyway goes quiet. "What's up?"

"Well. Actually."

She waits. He breathes at her. "Gee?"

"You remember that time you got married?"

Mikey closes her eyes and counts to ten. Then to thirty. Her stomach hurts.

"I think you'll really like her," Gerard says.

"I'm sure I will."

"We're going to slip away this weekend, okay? Fly out to see you. She wants to meet you, too. I've told her all about you. How we're close, and stuff."

She blinks at the carpet a few times and can't think of anything to say to that. "I'm probably going to come back to the tour in Mexico."

"Yeah? That's awesome!"

"Yeah. So...we can...have you told Mom and Dad?"

"No. I'm calling them next. Had to tell you first, Mikes. You're happy for me, right?"

"I'm happy you're happy, Gee." That is completely true. She always wants him to be happy. "That's all I want."

"I love you, Mikey. I can't wait to see you."

"I can't wait either. I love you too." Love you best, she thinks, the old game they haven't said in years now but that's suddenly choking her throat. "I love you like...like crazy. I'll see you soon."

**

"I do not want to do this." Mikey drums her hands on the edge of the luggage return belt and frowns down at her shoes. "I don't."

Alicia snaps her gum and bumps her hip against Mikey's. "Suck it up."

"She's like me, only the final release. She's the, like, 3-D sound effects version. She's prettier, and she's got bigger boobs, and she has stage presence and an actual personality, and..."

"Quit fishing for compliments."

"She's better than me."

"Then it's a good thing you don't want to fuck your brother, huh?"

Mikey sighs in frustration and kicks the side of the belt. "You're not being supportive."

"I never am."

"That's true."

They stare at the arrivals door for a few minutes. "You're going to love her," Alicia says finally.

"How do you know?"

"Because Gerard loves her."

"Gerard has a history of questionable decisions."

"Pot, kettle. Hey." Alicia kicks her ankle lightly. "There they are. Stand up."

When Gerard sees Mikey, he drops Lindsey's hand and runs a few pace ahead to fling his arms around her and swing her off the ground. "Mikey. Fuck, Mikey. You're here. I missed you."

"Here I am." She hugs him back, fierce and tight. "You're all tan."

"Projekt Rev." He laughs and kisses her cheeks and her nose and her forehead. "So good to see you. Jesus."

"You've gotta do introductions."

"Right! Right. Mikey, this is Lindsey Way."

"We've met before," Lindsey says with a really pretty, perfect smile.

"Yeah, but you weren't a Way then."

"Baby, I'm not a Way now. The paperwork hasn't gone through." She laughs and shakes her head, then holds her hand out to Mikey. "Hi. It's really nice to see you. Um. Surprise?"

"Hi." Mikey shakes her hand, very aware that her own calluses don't measure up yet. "And I can't really talk when it comes to surprise weddings."

"Yours was probably classier than ours. We made unicorn shirts and got married by a merch girl."

Mikey smiles despite herself. "I married Pete Wentz in a McDonald's parking lot."

"Classy doesn't even begin to cover it," Alicia adds, resting her chin on Mikey's shoulder.

"You're Alicia, right?" Lindsey reaches around Mikey to shake her hand. "I'm so glad you came too! I really wanted to meet the whole family."

Oh, well-played, Mikey thinks. Very well-played. Her eyes move to Gerard, ready to catch him out as having coached to say that.

He's looking at Lindsey like she's the sun and the stars. Her hand is resting on his waist, and he's reaching for it unconsciously, seeking without thinking.

And suddenly she's not jealous at all. There's no turf to fight over. She hasn't lost anything, and Gerard has only gained. She can see what Ray meant about his smile.

"We were going to take you guys out to lunch," she says, letting her own hand reach back for Alicia's. "That way we figure we don't have to help with the reception Mom and Dad force you to have."

"Not it," Alicia adds, leaning into her, warm and steady and close.

"That's not fair," Gerard protests. "We need help with that kind of thing."

"Shit outta luck, dude."

"She's the worst sister," Gerard pouts, hiding his face against Lindsey's shoulder. "Did I tell you that part? The worst ever."

**May 2008**

Six months back on tour feels a hell of a lot longer than six months off.

"Seven months," Gerard corrects, hooking his fingers through her belt loop and tugging her against him. "You've been back for seven months. I did the math the other day."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I was doing the math about a bunch of things." He lets her go and walks up to the edge of the stage, dropping down to sit with his feet dangling over the edge. She follows and stands behind him, staring out at the floor.

Madison Square Garden. Their last show. It doesn't feel real at all.

The whole last leg of the tour hasn't felt real at all. Mikey remembers things, disjointed events out of place like pictures scattered across the floor. South America. Gerard's comic taking off. Opening for Bon Jovi, playing with the Smashing Pumpkins. Pete picking up a goddamn phone and inviting her to be seen with him in public again at his club. Frank getting married, for-real in-public married instead of stealth shit. Getting called a suicide cult. Definitely not real. It all happened to another Mikey Way, another My Chemical Romance, in another universe, and just the pictures got through to this one.

"Sound check was good," she says.

"It was fine." He shrugs and kicks his feet in slow arcs. "We'll be fine. I mean, we've got this shit in our DNA by now, right?"

"I guess so." She looks up at the spotlights, then out to the floor again. "Can you believe it?"

"I can't believe anything, no."

"Gerard."

"I'm actually half-serious, Mikes." He laughs and shakes his head, lying back on his elbows and looking up at her. "Sorry. I'm being an ass."

"You're always an ass." She rubs her calf against his head. "Luckily you bring in the big bucks."

"Ha!" He closes his eyes and they're quiet for a minute. Mikey wonders where Bob and Ray and Frank have gone off to, if she should go find them, if they want to talk about the soundcheck. It was good, but there's always one or two things they can tweak, always stuff they can dig into and polish and make better for next time.

Right. No next time, this time. Fuck.

"Do you remember..." She doesn't finish the thought. There are too many things she could fill in there, too many shows they took the train up to see here, on this stage, on that floor or up in the stands before they were old enough to realize that the floor was the place to be.

"The Pumpkins show." He smiles, his eyes still closed, tilting his head toward her like a cat. "Yeah, I remember."

"And all the other shows. I can't fucking believe we're here."

"Me either." He lies still for a minute, then gets to his feet and turns toward her, putting his arm around her waist and resting his head on her shoulder. She waits for him to say something deep, meaningful, dramatic. It's Gerard. That's the kind of thing he does. He knows how to read a moment.

"I'm so fucking tired, Mikey," he says to the skin beneath her ear.

"I know." She swallows and slips her arm around him, hugging him tight. "I know, Gee. Me too."

"I just...fucking numb, you know? I've got nothing left. They're gonna want stuff, tonight, they're going to want a hell of a show, and I don't think I can give it."

"You can. You always do. You're amazing."

He laughs and shakes his head, pulling away from her a little. "You've got too much faith in me, Mikes."

"Stop that."

"Yeah." He nods and turns his back to the floor, looking at the backdrop and then at her. "I've been trying to think of what I'm gonna do, you know? With time off. That's some of the stuff I was doing the math about. When I last had a big chunk of time off, how many days, all that shit. I don't even know."

"Get some sleep, first."

"Well, yeah. Obviously." He rubs at his eyes, and it makes him look like a little kid. She wants to pull him in and hug him again, kiss his hair and tell him everything's going to be fine, but it would feel like a lie right now, out here with the ghosts of all their idols.

"It's like...I mean, I want the break. I think we all need it, like crazy. If Frank doesn't get some solid time with Jamia, she's going to murder all of us."

Mikey thinks about Frank's wedding, squeezed into a tour break, remembers standing up for him with so much pride and then tripping into a discussion of trying some feedback at the end of "House of Wolves" while they were pouring the champagne, because none of them know how to turn it off anymore.

"And Ray wants time with Christa, and we all need some fucking downtime where nobody's calling us a cult, for Christ's sake. I would really love that."

"Me too." She rubs the back of her neck and watches him. He's weaving back and forth on his feet, not enough to worry her but enough to notice. "And you probably want to see your wife."

"I really, really do. If by 'see' you mean 'bang.'"

"Ew."

"Whatever." He actually smiles, though, so it's a win. "Did I tell you she thinks maybe she wants to try for a baby? Like...soon. Soonish."

"A baby?"

"Yeah."

"Like...a human baby?"

"Yeah."

"But what would you do with it?"

"That's exactly what I said!" He throws his hands up and starts to laugh, and once he starts he can't stop, leaning forward with his hands on his knees and his face red. "Shit. What would I do with a baby."

"Yeah, well." She tilts her head back and looks up again. "Still time to figure it out."

"You're supposed to tell me I would be a great dad. Boost my ego."

"Sorry. Missed that memo."

He shakes his head and walks over to his microphone stand, curving his hand around it and striking a halfhearted pose. "It's like, I know we all need this, I know I desperately need it, but...but I think about the fact that there really is tonight and then there's nothing, there's a vast empty abyss, and I just..."

"Hey." She waits for him to look up and then points at him sternly, wagging her finger. "We don't joke about vast abysses in this band."

This time he only laughs for a minute before he comes to her, wraps his arms around her, and hugs her tight. "We did it, Mikes," he whispers into her hair. "We're fucking playing the Garden."

"Fuck yeah we are."

"Let's give those kids a hell of a show."

They walk offstage hand in hand, cutting through the backstage chaos to find their band for the last night of the world as they know it.

**June 2008**

When the meeting ends, everybody leaves except Mikey. She sits at the conference table and looks down at her reflection in the shiny surface.

She looks tired. That makes sense. They've only been off for a few weeks. Even though she's been feeling less tired lately, it takes time for it to get through to her body.

And of course, right now she feels like she's been punched in the face, so there's that. She wouldn't be surprised if she looked worse, considering.

"Mikes?"

She nods, giving a vague thumbs-up. "Still here."

Ray leans in the doorway. "Are you okay?"

"That depends on whether or not what just happened...happened."

He doesn't say anything for a long moment, until she looks up and meets his eyes. "It did."

"We fired Brian."

"He quit."

"It was kind of half and half. I didn't realize that could happen."

"Well, when you have a stalemate..." Ray sighs and runs his hand over his hair. He looks tired, too, she thinks distantly. She wonders if he wakes up the same way she does, flailing around in a panic because she doesn't know her call times or when the next time she's getting on a bus will be.

"He wasn't asking for that much more," she says quietly, rubbing her thumbnail against the edge of the table. That was the worst part, how he wasn't asking for much, but the look on his face was like he was asking for the world, because he had never asked them for anything before, just gave everything he had.

"Mikey, it wasn't about the money."

"Well, what was it about, then?"

"He...he hadn't been happy for a while. A long time." He falls quiet for a minute, looking down at the floor. "There was a lot of stuff. This was just..."

"The last straw?"

"The last straw, a pretext, something. I don't know for sure. But it wasn't really about the money."

She shakes her head. "I can't believe I didn't know."

"You've kind of had other stuff on your mind, Mikey."

"Still."

He takes a deep breath. "I don't want to talk about it anymore, okay?"

"Yeah. Yeah. Sorry." She slumps back in her chair and closes her eyes. "Well...well, we're taking a break anyway. A lot of things can change while we're on break, right?"

"He's not going to come back."

"You don't know."

"I do know. Man has a lot of pride." She hears his footsteps crossing the room, fading as he goes around the table and then getting louder again as he comes toward her. His hand settles on her shoulder and she reaches up to cover it with hers, tapping her fingers against his knuckles.

"This sucks."

"Yeah." He takes hold of her other shoulder, too, and squeezes. Kind of like a hug. "Go get some rest. It's done now."

"I think I need to talk to Gee."

"Well, at least get something to eat, first. You look peaked."

She snorts and sits up, shrugging him off. "Wow, thanks, Mom."

"C'mon. I'll buy. That's how much of a gentleman I am."

"In that case." She walks out of the room and he follows, pausing to turn off the light. She waits for him in the hallway, and when the door closes behind him with a solid click like a bounce off the bass drum, she takes his hand.

**

Mikey always has a key to Gerard's place, wherever they are. It's an unspoken deal.

She lets the door slam closed behind her and leans against it, waiting for Gerard to look up from his magazine. He's apparently in the mood for a standoff. "Gee."

"What."

"Gerard."

He shakes his head and turns another page, cupping his jaw in his hand like it would hide him. "Come in if you want to."

"We need to talk about it."

"No, we don't."

"What the fuck happened today?"

He turns another page, slow enough that she can see his hand is shaking, just a little. "We let Brian go."

"Yeah. And you didn't fucking say anything, not a word, you just let him..."

"Yeah, I was there too, Mikey. I know."

"Well, what the fuck, Gerard?"

He shakes his head again, bringing his hand up to shield his eyes. "I don't want to talk about this."

"Did you even talk to him?" Another shake of his head. "You asshole, fucking call him."

"Not now. When he's had some time to calm down. Then I'll call him, and we'll talk, and he'll...he'll understand."

Mikey exhales slowly, setting her teeth together and counting to ten. "I don't think it's going to work that way this time, Gee."

"Yeah, well." He pushes the magazine away and stood up, walking away from the table. "I don't know what else to do."

**

She calls Brian's phone every day for two weeks. She doesn't start leaving messages until the second week, but by that Friday she's said pretty much everything that comes into her head.

On the fifteenth day, when she calls, she gets the computer voice telling her that the call could not be completed as dialed.

And that's that.

**November 2008**

She hasn't had a Google Alert on her name in years, for obvious reasons. For one thing, overwhelming; for another, most of it she doesn't even want to know.

Unfortunately, that means she's about three days late in finding out that Gabe is taking her name in vain.

One of Alicia's friends sends her the link, and Alicia laughs so hard she chokes on a pretzel and Mikey has to pound her on the back while squinting at the screen, trying to read Gabe's post on Cobra's MySpace without letting Alicia die.

Special Thanksgiving treat for our fans! In one week I will release a very special video from my private collection! It dates back to when I was dating Mikey Way--yes, that Mikey Way, from My Chemical Romance! I know, she's sooooo hot!--so you know it's gonna be something spicy! Speculate away, but you'll just have to wait and see!

“That's a lot of exclamation points,” Alicia says when she can breathe again, resting her chin on Mikey's shoulder. “You never told me you guys made a sex tape. Hot.”

“We did not make a sex tape.”

“That's definitely what he's hinting at.”

“Well, he's kind of an asshole.” He isn't, really, or at least not this much of one. It's the persona he's doing for Cobra Starship, and she gets it, mostly. She wishes he wouldn't, wishes he didn't have to, wishes he had been able to make it straight-up and sincere, the way he wanted to from the beginning, but...well, life's a bitch, sometimes.

“What do you think the video actually is?” Alicia asks.

“I have no idea.” She can't think of any time they recorded anything while they were together.

“You going to call him?”

“I can't decide if I should call him or Pete.”

“Yet another discussion about the need to keep his bands on leashes.”

“He's pretty committed to letting them run amok.” She rubs the side of her head and picks up her phone, punching in a text to Gabe. not amused gs

haha dont worry its all in good fun

i was dumb back then but not dumb enough to let u have anything dirty

u know me better than that

yes She smiles at her phone and shakes her head, realizing that that's actually true. She does know him better than that. Better than a lot of people.

“What's he up to?” Alicia asks, wrapping her arms around Mikey's waist and hugging her close.

“I have no idea. We'll find out next week with everybody else, I guess.”

**

The video is of the two of them sitting in Gabe's dad's basement, wearing matching Hannukah pajamas, playing Monopoly. The raciest thing in it is when Gabe trades a kiss for a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

The Internet professes deep disappointment. Mikey can't remember the last time she smiled so hard.

She puts up a short blog post of her own. Hey guys, go watch the video at Cobra Starship's site. I'm glad to have Gabe in my life.

It's fun to remember good times with good friends. Especially when I'm making new good times with my girl and my pets. Happy holidays to all of you fans, and I can't wait to see you in the new year.

“I think you just confirmed us,” Alicia says, reading over her shoulder and kissing the back of her neck.

“I think I did.” Mikey blinks at the screen. “I wonder what the PR guys are going to say about that?”

“It's out there now.” Alicia's arms wrap around her, warm and safe. “Fuck 'em if they don't like it.”

“How long before Pete texts me a string of exclamation points, do you think?”

Mikey's phone goes off before Alicia can even answer, and they both collapse giggling against the chair.

**December 2008**

Christmas is in New Jersey, in the house they grew up in, probably for the last time. Gerard has just about talked their parents into moving into a nice condo, and starting to have holidays out in LA in the sun.

"Gotta get you out there, Mikey," he tells her, sitting cross-legged on her old bed. "It's weird living away from you."

"Well, who told you to move to LA at all?"

He sighs and leans back against the wall. "Let's not do this again, huh?"

She puts a hand up in surrender and goes back to poking through the dried-up makeup on top of her dresser. "Why did you ever let me think that black lipstick was a good idea?"

"Um, you were being goth. Black lipstick was required."

"Fair enough." She scoops all of the containers up together and tosses them into the trash can. "What am I going to do in LA?"

"The same things you do here, except with seeing me all the time."

She rolls her eyes and starts gathering ancient, brittle magazines off the desk. "So this is more for your benefit than mine."

"Mikey, come on. I miss you." He thumps his head against the wall a few times. "What, is Alicia against the idea or something?"

"Alicia? No. Alicia loves the idea. She's sick of the weather here."

"How are you guys doing, by the way?"

She blinks and looks at him, sitting there with his head tilted and his face settled in its serious, concerned expression. "Me and Alicia? We're doing great. Why?"

"I care deeply about your happiness."

She takes a deep breath and tosses the magazines into the trash. "I'm telling Lindsey not to let you watch daytime TV anymore."

"I'm learning a lot."

She is not taking that bait. She's just not. "Where are Alicia and Lindsey, anyway? I thought they were just running to the store."

"Lindsey is a pregnant lady." He sounds so fucking smug about that, still. She's tempted to throw a book at him. "According to her, that means she's allowed to be opinionated and take her time about things."

"God, she is playing you so hard, Gee."

"I know. It's awesome."

She laughs and leans over the desk, picking at the edge of a piece of tape holding a poster to the wall. "You're cute about her."

"Mikey. Leave it alone and come sit with me. I miss you."

She goes over to the bed and sits beside him, resting her head on his shoulder. "Here I am." He catches her hand, threading their fingers together, and she squeezes gently. "You miss me?"

"So much. Every day."

She's quiet for a minute, feeling his heartbeat against her hand. "You've found the good comic shops?"

"Absolutely."

"And the good coffee places?"

"Of course."

"And I can tell Frank and Ray it's all your fault so they don't call me a traitor?"

"I will take on all of the blame."

"I'll talk to Alicia." She closes her eyes, breathing him in. "I've missed you too."

**May 2009**

Bandit is the size of a puppy.

Gerard seems to accept that as a reasonable thing to say about his daughter. Donna and Lindsey's mother both give Mikey slight, disapproving frowns, but Mikey ranks their opinions as less important than the person who actually has direct legal and emotional responsibility for the little thing.

"You did good," she tells him, peering over his shoulder at the little blanket-wrapped red-faced object she has been reliably informed is a person. "That's cute."

"You have to call her a she, not a that." Gerard ducks his head to either kiss or sniff Bandit's head. "I kept messing that up, too, but Lindsey's pretty firm about it."

"Got it. She's cute."

"She's really soft. Her skin."

"No exoskeleton. That's good."

Gerard rolls his eyes and laughs softly. "God, we're acting like idiots. Here. Hold her. You're her Auntie Mikey, she's got to get to know you."

"Yeah, she's just going to call me Mikey, no Auntie, okay?"

"Whatever. Take. Hold. Talk to."

Mikey holds out her arms and lets them be filled with baby. Bandit doesn't even open her eyes at the shift. "Sound sleeper."

"Yeah. The nurses say she doesn't cry much, either. She just looks at things. Stares. She's smart."

"Of course she is." Mikey bounces her gently, rocking her back and forth. "Wow, Gee. She's half you."

"Right? How fucking trippy is that?" He starts giggling, high-pitched and a little on-edge. She rolls her eyes at him.

"Sit down and breathe. You're going to freak out or hyperventilate or something, and I can't slap you out of it when we're in the middle of a hospital."

"You could." He sits down anyway, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. "Can you believe it?"

"I can, actually. A baby usually is the product of a chick being pregnant for nine months, and Lyn was, like, crazy pregnant. She was the size of a Buick."

"She was beautiful. Is beautiful."

"I hope she's getting some sleep."

"Yeah." He hasn't taken his eyes off the baby once. Mikey smiles and brings Bandit back to him, settling her in his arms as soon as he makes a cradle for her.

"You're gonna be an awesome dad," she says softly. He grins up at her, crooked and sweet and so fucking happy she could burst just from looking at him.

She leans in and kisses his forehead, then Bandit's. "Tell her you love her best, Dad. Always."

**June 2009**

"I can't believe you didn't wear a costume."

Mikey grins and shakes her head, carefully pouring more soda into her glass. "Happy birthday."

"Thank you." Pete throws his arm around her and she leans into the hug, still balancing glass and bottle. "I'm glad you're here. Seriously can't believe you didn't wear a costume."

"I'm not going to get away with claiming I don't own a costume, am I?"

"Nobody would ever believe you don't own an appropriate costume for a Star Wars theme party, Mikeyway. At least not anybody who knows you."

She sets the bottle down and hugs him back, closing her eyes. "Good point. Hi."

"Hi." He grins and steps back, glancing over his shoulder at the rest of the party. "I didn't see you come in. How long have you been here?"

"Only about ten minutes. Alicia and I were over at Gerard and Lindsey's. Visiting the baby."

"Yeah?" Pete's face lights up a little. "How is she?"

"She's good. Noisy. Which makes sense, she is Gerard's." She sips her drink and smiles. "And I know you were just excited that you could use that as a segue to tell me all about your kid, so go for it."

"Ha! No, I'm trying not to do the whole over-excited parent thing at everybody. He's been around for seven months now, he's old news."

"Bullshit." She can't help it; her voice softens, and she reaches out to brush Pete's hair off his forehead. "He's your kid. He's never going to be old news."

Pete grins more and takes his phone out of his pocket, thumbing through to his photos. "Well, since you asked, I do have pictures."

She looks through the gallery and oohs and ahhs appropriately, smiling more at Pete's obvious happiness than anything to do with the stern-faced little kid in the photos. "He's definitely as stubborn as you are. I can tell."

"God, he's a monster. It's awesome. I can't wait for him to start talking." He looks at the screen one more time, his face open and vulnerable and completely besotted in a way that makes her heart ache, just a little bit. It's vastly outweighed by being happy for him. "I am inevitably going to completely screw him up, of course."

She shrugs and takes a drink, looking across the room for Alicia. "That just means he'll grow up to play bass in a band, you know?"

He laughs and follows her gaze. "Nice. Oh, I should go say hi to Licia. Seriously, how did I miss you coming in? I suck."

"Nah, we're just ninjas. Ashlee let us in, it was fine." She waves at Alicia to come over. "You guys are so stinking adorable it's gross, by the way."

"Whatever." He hugs Alicia tightly, then steps back and traces the ink of her sleeve. "Wow, I haven't seen this since it was much more of a work in progress."

"Came out pretty good, huh?" Alicia smiles and kisses him on the cheek, then leans against Mikey's side. "Good party. Happy birthday."

"Another year older, but not any more mature." He puts his hands on his hips and looks around the room. "I guess I can't be mad at you two, like nobody's in costume."

"If we'd come from home, we'd have them. Gerard has a whole thing about us not scaring the baby by showing up dressed like an Imperial guard and captured Rebel pilot."

"She's implying sexy interrogation stuff," Mikey says, rolling her eyes and smacking Alicia on the arm. "In case you missed her incredible subtlety."

Pete studies them for a minute. "Which one of you is the guard?"

Alicia smirks. "We switch."

Mikey smacks her again while Pete doubles over laughing. "I know that's supposed to be sexy and tantalizing and shit," he says when he gets his breath back, "but mostly I'm just like, seriously, you two are made for each other."

"Aw, thanks, dude." Alicia kisses Mikey's cheek and grins. "That means a lot coming from you."

"Which isn't to say I'm not a little tired of all the 'you turned her into a lesbian' shit I get from people."

Mikey winces slightly. "Yeah, I guess that was inevitable."

"It's okay. I just tell them I prefer to think of it as I ruined you for other men."

"You at least refined her palate," Alicia says solemnly. "High-five."

They slap palms and Mikey rolls her eyes, draining the last of her drink. "This is where I stand up for my right not to be labeled--"

"We know, babe," Alicia murmurs.

"--and ask you to show me where the bathroom is, please, Pete."

"This way." He starts across the room and she falls in step, letting her hip bump against his. "I'm really glad you could make it, Mikey. I know I was a dick for a while there, but--"

"Water under the bridge, Pete. It was ages ago now."

"Not that long."

She has to laugh. "You stubborn little shit."

"Some things never change, huh?" He stops and nods at an open door. "Here you go."

"Thanks." She catches his arm when he starts to turn away. "Hey. I'm really happy for you. Like...I'm not a words person, so I can't say it nicely, but I'm really, really happy for you."

His face relaxes into the wide, sweet smile she's always loved the best. "I'm really, really happy for you, too. Even if you did decide to end up with a woman who is more than likely an evil puppetmaster."

"You have no idea how right you are."

"Wait, really? Details."

Mikey blinks at him in perfect wide-eyed innocence. "Well, she gets her whole hand--"

"Mikey." They both end up doubled over laughing this time, holding each other up with the help of the wall, and she can't believe she ever forgot how good this could feel.

**June 2009**

"This is a studio." Ray flings his arms wide to encompass the space. "For those of you who may not remember, a studio is where we write and record music, and generally behave like professionals at all times, without fucking around."

"Lies," Frank says, thrusting his hand into the air. "I accuse you, Toro, of spreading vile lies about the purpose of a studio."

"Frank, it's only fair to tell you that I've purchased a Taser with your name on it."

"Kinky," Mikey murmurs, resting her head against Gerard's shoulder. "Gee, you smell like barf."

"It's Bandit's, not mine."

"I figured, but still, that's gross."

"Well, her little tummy is sensitive."

"It's really fucking weird to hear you talking like that."

"I know, right?" He giggles, and at least that's still normal, high-pitched and weird just like it ought to be. "Okay! Okay, let's do this. I have some stuff I've been working on, and I'm sure Ray has some stuff because he doesn't have a life, and if we're going to do some sneak shows by the end of the summer we should probably get cracking."

"Aren't we going to have group hugging and calisthenics time first?" Frank asks.

"I hugged all of you fuckers at the airport. And I don't do goddamn calisthenics."

"Mikey. Help me out."

She shrugs. "I'm not hugging him, he smells like barf."

"You all suck," Frank sighs. "I thought we were a family."

"I'm still offended that none of you objected to him saying I have no life." Ray shakes his head and taps at his laptop. "Maybe I won't give you any of these songs."

"Do we have a plan?" Bob asks quietly from his seat in the corner, twisting his wristbands in slow circles. "I hesitate to use the word vision."

"The plan is that there is no plan." Gerard flicks his hair back behind his ears and waves his hands in the air, spreading his palms wide. "No message. No vision. No...none of that bullshit. Not this time. We're going to have raw, dirty, messy rock 'n roll, straight-up."

"So, like Bullets?" Frank asks. "Harder, less polished?"

"Kind of. But not necessarily hard. Just...rock-er. More rough around the edges. No radio singles."

"Somewhere, our Warner rep just had a seizure and doesn't even know why," Mikey murmurs. Gerard snaps his fingers sharply at her.

"Stop that. I mean no pop. No top 40. We're going to play this one for the classic rock stations. The...the...do they even have classic rock anymore? Do we use that word?"

"The bigger question is if we can just declare ourselves classic," Frank points out. "I don't think it works that way."

"We need to appeal to an impartial panel," Mikey nods. "Possibly at the UN."

"I sense that you're mocking me, but I don't care." Gerard puts his hands on his hips and nods at Ray. "Show us what you've got, Toro. We're here, let's fucking do this."

Mikey smiles behind her coffee cup and closes her eyes to listen. It's good to be back.

**August 2009**

Feeling good lasts a few whole weeks, right up through the shows at the Roxy.

The shows are good, the shows are fucking amazing. She'd forgotten how it feels to have crowd-love coming back to her. The yelling and screaming, the cheers, the way they surge forward to meet the beat; as soon as she feels it again she can't believe she ever forgot, because it's that powerful, that much of a physical jolt. The adrenaline rush is almost sexual, except that she's sharing it with her brother and three guys that she decided a long time ago that she isn't going to fuck.

The new stuff gets a good response; not the blow-the-roof-off kind Gerard was hoping for, but good. Solid. And they've got time to tweak and adjust, they've got plenty of time, there is no stress here.

Except that Gee, in his infinite wisdom, seems to want to bring stress with him.

"They liked it too much," he says, sitting hunched over the control panel in the studio, a pen shoved in his mouth and a notepad in his lap with giant question marks scrawled all over the top page.

"Too much?" she echoes from her place on the floor, stretched out on her back with her feet propped up on the trash can.

"Yeah. They liked the new stuff too much."

"Yesterday you were jittery because they didn't like it enough."

"I was wrong. I was stupid. They like it too much. They got it too quickly."

"Elaborate, because you're not making any sense."

"You don't get good art quickly. Good art disturbs. It makes you uncomfortable. You have to sit with it. We're still too accessible."

"Too pop?"

"Too close to the pop borderline. Yeah. Shit." He scowls down at his notepad and draws another question mark, following it with a series of exclamation points as sharp as knives. "There should've been an awkward silence in that theater."

"Gerard, awkward silences are a bad thing. Trust me. I'm no expert, but I think that one's pretty clear."

"I don't just want to do The Black Parade Two: Parade To Hell."

"AC/DC already took that one." They're doing some pretty solid mid-grade rock, from what she can tell. Ray and Frank are happily wallowing in guitar solos. Bob actually is smiling on a regular basis while playing around with his drum riffs. Mikey's happy to play whatever comes her way, but she's having fun with the lines Ray's giving her. "It's not like Black Parade at all."

"I want it to be even less like it." He drags his free hand through his hair and scribbles a circle on the pad, filling it in with an angry face. "No deep emotional revelations. No dragging up the hard shit. Just making music."

"That's what we're doing." Right now is about calming him down; she'll bring up the fact that music without emotion in it is kind of a bad idea later. Probably after rehearsing the conversation with Alicia once or twice.

She misses Alicia. They're keeping weird hours and that means not enough time at home. She misses her pets, too. She looks down at her shirt and barely even sees any cat hair. That settles it.

"Go home, Gerard."

"What?"

"Go home. See your wife. Play with your kid before she forgets what you look like."

"That's a low blow, Mikey."

"Yeah, well."

"She's still practically larval. She has no idea who I even am. She thinks of me as the one who doesn't have lunch strapped to its chest."

"We will address your parenting inadequacies another day." She gets to her feet slowly, wincing at the sharp spike of pain in her back. Not as young as she used to be. "Go home. Relax. Let the songs happen, okay? Don't think yourself to death."

He looks up at her, worrying the pen between his fingers. "I just...really want to get this right, Mikey. I really, really want to get this right."

"I know, Gee. We all do." She holds out her hand and he shakes his head.

"Go ahead, I'll just do a little more and then let myself out."

"I'm sorry, was I replaced with someone who looks stupid? Taking care of you is my job, Gerard. Get up."

"Not your job."

"My hobby, then. Get up."

He sighs in frustration, but he gets up and follows her out the door. She breathes out through clenched teeth and reminds herself that this is round four, it's going to go smooth as silk. They're all experts now.

**November 2009**

"And what, pray tell," Frank asks, "does pre-press consist of when we don't have a finished album yet?"

"Fuck off, you know what it is." Gerard paces across the room, dragging his hands through his hair. "I talk about what we're working on, the style, the attitude, the differences from the last one. They take my picture. It reminds people that we're still alive. We've gotta do it, since we took a break. It's important."

"You know what else is important?" Mikey asks, not bothering to lift her head from Ray's lap. He's petting her hair and it's nice. Gerard being high-strung is less nice. Therefore. "Finishing the album."

"I'm working on it. I'm thinking. I can't perform on command, I'm not a trained monkey."

"That's not what Lindsey says," Mikey and Frank say at once, and air-five each other across the room.

"You can both go to hell," Gerard says sincerely. "I mean that."

"Whatever," Mikey mumbles. "Ray, scratch behind my ear."

"And how come I don't get petted?" Gerard demands, stalking across the room again. "So unfair. It's because she's a girl, isn't it?"

"No, it's because you won't sit still." Bob sits back in his chair and drums his hands on the edge of the table. "Seriously, though, why isn't the album done? We have twelve solid songs. They flow. Last time I checked..."

"It doesn't feel right." Gerard stands still for a minute, staring off into the corner. "It's just not quite..."

"Anyway," Mikey says, sitting up and cutting them off before they can go round twenty on the it doesn't feel right fight card. "Gee's doing pre-press, the rest of us can track another demo or two. The pot of demos is bottomless. It's fine."

"Fine isn't the same as good," Bob points out quietly. Mikey cuts her eyes to Frank, who looks away. No fucking backup in that corner. "I just want some kind of assurance that at some point we will stop demoing and move forward, that's all."

"Obviously we will," Gerard snaps, drawing himself up a little taller. "I mean, what the fuck, Bob, do you think you're the only one here who understands how contracts work? We have an album to deliver and we will fucking deliver it, but not until it's ready."

His voice rises steadily with each word, and by the time he stops the room feels deathly quiet.

Mikey remembers when Bob would have flinched, or at least looked away. Now he just stares back at Gerard, steadily, eyes unwavering and mouth twisting with something she doesn't want to have to call contempt. "When it feels right, you mean."

"Yes. When it feels right."

"I just want to point out that that's not the same thing as when it's ready."

It's Ray's turn to say stop. It's Gerard's turn to walk out of the room first. Mikey wishes she wasn't keeping track of this shit.

**

Mikey lets herself into the house, dodges around the baby junk stacked in the entranceway, checks the kitchen and the den, and finds Gerard sitting on the back porch with the baby in his lap and a cigarette in his mouth.

"That better not be lit," she says, closing the door behind her.

"It's not. I'm just sucking on it."

"That's what she said?"

"Ha." He shifts in his seat, settling Bandit against his chest. "What brings you over here?"

"Ray showed me the proofs for your interview."

"Oh."

"I didn't realize pre-press meant taking a golf club to Black Parade."

"You're exaggerating."

"Not really. Did that album kill your dog or something?"

"It almost killed my sister, if you want to talk about that."

"Don't." She sighs and sits down on the steps, looking out across the lawn. "Seriously, what the hell, Gee?"

"They all ask the same questions."

"That's not new."

"Yeah, but it's like...I don't know. It feels like they're trying to fucking choke me, this time." He rubs Bandit's back in slow, small circles, and she makes a hiccuping noise in her sleep. "I don't know. I just...I don't want anybody to be disappointed. I don't want them to expect the same thing and then hear what we put together and freak out because it isn't what they wanted."

"You can't control expectations."

"I can try to lay some fucking groundwork, though, can't I?"

"Can't you do that without putting the other stuff down?"

"I'm saying the truth. I'm saying what I think." He shakes his head and sucks at the filter of the cigarette. "Fuck 'em if they don't like it, I'm not going to sugarcoat things."

She sighs and puts one hand up in surrender, rubbing at her eyes with the other. "Fine. Fair enough."

They sit quietly for a few minutes, Bandit hiccuping every so often and Gerard exhaling loudly around the cigarette. "How's the new song coming?" she asks finally, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye.

"It's not."

"Maybe Bob's right, you know? Maybe it's done."

"Fuck off, Mikey."

"Gerard..."

"You think Ray and Frank haven't shown up here to do the same sneaky-sideways thing, trying to get me to sign off on something that isn't done? It's not going to work. You're not going to fucking trick me. It's not ready yet. The end."

"Yeah, I would love to see you throwing this shit-fit at Ray."

"He was nicer about it than Frank. Frank called me some words I don't even know."

"And you're surprised?"

"No." He sighs, resting his chin against Bandit's head. "I'm sorry. I know this is frustrating for everybody. It's frustrating for me, too. But it's not...it's not done. You guys know it, too. In your hearts. I can tell. You're just sick of fighting, so you're willing to call it good enough. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe that's actually the smarter thing. But I can't. I wish I could explain why. I just can't do it."

"Okay." She looks down at her hands for a minute, then nods. "Okay, then."

"Yeah? Really?"

"Really. I'll run interference with the rest of them."

"Good. I think you're the only one that everybody still likes."

"That's because I'm awesome." She shifts around to rest her head against his knee. "You think this new song might be able to bring it all together, though?"

"Yeah. Definitely. If I can just get it right." He strokes her hair gently. "Lindsey and I have been talking about it. She has some good insights."

"That's great. We'll take any insights we can get right now."

"I've been thinking of going away for a week or two? Take Linds and Bandit out to the desert."

"You will bring them back, right? This isn't, like, a human sacrifice thing?"

"Oh, bite me." He sighs and shifts Bandit against his chest again. "I don't know. Change of scenery. Fresh air and whatever."

"That sounds nice. You should do it."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Okay. I think I will." He's quiet for a minute again, tucking his nose against Bandit's head to breathe her in. "She's so little, you know?"

"Yeah, she is."

"And I've gotta be her hero. I'm her dad, so I'm her hero. That's how it works." She nods, but doesn't say anything; she can hear him working through this, fitting pieces together in his head, and it's better to be careful when he's doing that, not to throw anything off. "I mean, I tried being a hero for people, right? I tried being a...big-scale hero. And I didn't have a fucking clue how to do that. And I'm not sure it even worked. But I've gotta be a hero for her. I've gotta focus on that now. I can't...do it for everybody everywhere, this time. And I just want them to know that in advance, I think."

She kisses his knee and reaches up to cover his hand with hers on Bandit's back. "That's cool."

**January 2010**

The thing about being in a studio is that when it gets quiet, it gets really quiet. Expensive professional acoustics quiet.

When that quiet is coming from a horrible, awkward silence, the level of quiet is downright scary.

"What?" Frank says finally, breaking the moment for all of them. "Say again?"

"I was thinking. Over the holidays." Gerard takes a deep breath and shoves his hands into his pockets. "And I think we need trash it and start over."

"Trash it," Ray echoes. "The whole album."

"Not the whole album. I think we can rework a few of them. And, like, we definitely should keep the last one, with the na-na-nas."

"Definitely." Bob's voice is flat enough that Mikey winces and ducks her head, looking down at her shoes. "Why definitely? We're not even done working on that one yet."

"Because, like...don't you guys feel it? That's the spark. The energy. The...the light. That one's got light. The rest of them...everything else...it's so dark. It's heavy. It's weighted down." He looks from face to face, and Mikey wants to wince again at his hopeful expression. "Don't you feel it?"

"It does have more energy," Frank says carefully. "But couldn't we just re-mix some of the others, maybe re-track a couple things to get them more uptempo, if energy's the problem we can..."

"No! That's not...you guys, come on. I'm talking about the soul of the thing. The insides. The guts. The songs are good, but they're dead. Lifeless. There's no energy, there's no art."

"God, tell me this isn't about fucking art," Bob snaps, slamming his hand against the table. "Just for once can't we do something for craft instead? Just for the novelty?"

"Fuck you," Gerard spits. "Just fucking fuck you, I don't know what your problem is but you haven't been contributing anything except bitching and moaning in months, I don't know why you think you should get a vote now."

"Why should I get a vote? I'm part of the fucking band, aren't I?"

"Let's all take it easy," Mikey says, lacing her fingers together behind her back and holding on tight. "C'mon, you guys, calm down."

"I'm not doing the entire fucking album over again, Gerard. Do you have any idea how much we're going to owe the label if we pitch it all and start over? Do you care? Do you care about how long we'll have to tour to recoup it, since nobody fucking sells enough to pay that shit off anymore? Have you been paying any attention at all or is your head too far up your ass?"

"Hey! Whoa!" Ray shakes his head and points at Bob. "That's out of line. Back off."

"Oh, fuck yourself, Ray. You guys and your goddamn band of brothers Jersey bullshit. That doesn't mean you have to let him have his way all the time. The album is good. It's done. Take a vote, call it done, master it, and let's get it out there."

Ray's eyes flick back and forth between Bob and Gerard. "Gee, do you have, like...any thoughts on what a new album would look like, any ideas, just so we're not starting over without even a map?"

Gerard's got his arms wrapped around himself now, his shoulders tense. He shrugs slightly. "Light. Color. Energy. Um. You guys remember that comic I was working on, the Fabulous Killjoys? Like that. Racing cars, shooting bad guys, deserts, sunlight, heat and--"

"A comic? Jesus fucking Christ, you want to do a concept album about a comic book." Bob shakes his head and slams his hand against the table again, hard enough this time that Mikey flinches. "Yeah, that's so fucking different from Black Parade, Gerard. Wow. Way to break some new ground."

"It's not the same thing!" Gerard shouts. "It's not that fucking simple, it's different, it's...God, you guys, fucking help me out here?"

"It's hard to help you out when we don't understand what you're talking about, man." Frank says. "Walk us through it?"

"Trust me." Gerard drags both hands through his hair, his voice thick with frustration. "Just...you've just gotta fucking trust me, please?"

Silence falls again, and this time it's worse, so full of tension that Mikey thinks she can feel it crawling under her skin. She swallows once, then again, and finally opens her mouth to say something just to break up the awfulness. She'll beg them to calm down again, maybe suggest a break until tomorrow--

"I want a vote," Bob says.

"Oh, come the fuck on!" Gerard snaps, turning on his heel to face the wall.

"I mean it. If this isn't a fucking dictatorship, we can take a vote on whether or not we're scrapping it."

Ray nods slowly. "And whatever the majority says, goes?"

"Yeah." Bob nods and looks at Mikey, then Frank. "Fair?"

"I guess so." Frank rubs his neck and exhales roughly. "I guess that's fair."

"I want a blind vote," Mikey says quietly. They all look at her, even Gerard, turning his head over his shoulder. "Pieces of paper in a hat, or something. Not a fucking...show of hands with us all looking at each other."

"Wow," Frank says. "I can feel the trust in this room."

"Just get some paper, Frank," Gerard says, grabbing a bowl from the table and dumping the remains of popcorn in it onto the floor. "Let's get this done."

"You two probably don't actually need to cast votes," Ray points out, tossing a pen onto the table while Frank tears the paper into five pieces.

"I want the record to show five votes." Gerard tosses his head and reaches for his scrap of paper.

"There's no fucking record," Bob says, digging his own pen out. "Which is kind of the fucking point."

Mikey scribbles down her vote without looking at any of them, folds the paper twice, and tosses it into the bowl. "I'm gonna go get some water."

She lingers by the vending machine for way longer than she can justify. Somehow she's not surprised to walk back in and find the papers already unfolded on the table, and Bob already gone.

"Will you talk to him, Mikey?" Gerard's paler than usual; green around the gills, their mom would say. It always hits him ten minutes too late when the stands he takes have consequences. "You guys are...well, you're closer than the rest of us are to him, right now, I think. Will you talk to him?"

"And say what?"

"Just...try to get him to calm down. To come around."

"I can try. Don't hold your breath, though." She glances at Ray and takes a deep breath, fighting the helpless, inappropriate urge to laugh. "Man's got a lot of pride."

**

If she knows Bob, he'll still be in the parking lot, kicking things and cursing. Sure enough.

She sits on the hood of his car until he finishes, kicking her feet slowly against the bumper. "Hey," she says when he's been quiet for a minute. "Hey."

"Hey, Mikey." He exhales and walks over to her, sitting down beside her on the hood. "Don't."

She swallows and leans against him for a minute. "You're sure?"

"I can't...do this. Not again. Not the...drama and the...I can't fucking do it." She nods, just a little, and he makes a sound that might be a laugh. "I mean, this whole time, I haven't been...not a hundred percent, you know?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I know."

"I've tried. Fuck, I have tried."

"I know that, too." She swallows again, hating the lump in her throat and ordering it not to become a waver in her voice. "Please don't go."

"Mikey...Mikey." He puts his arm around her shoulder and she leans into him more, closing her eyes tightly. "Please don't ask me."

"I won't."

They sit in silence for what feels like a really long time, but can't be, because it doesn't get any darker and none of the others come out looking for her. "You know you don't always have to give him his way," Bob says finally. "He's not always right."

"Of course I know that. I grew up with him. He's almost never right."

"But you give him his way. You all do."

She has one limit, one breaking point. She shakes her head against his shoulder, willing him to understand that he's getting too close. And he does. She and Bob could always read each other, right from the start. It's why they mesh so well in the songs. It's why they sent her out here to do this.

"It's not that simple," she says when she feels like she can.

"Yeah. I get that." He kisses the top of her head, then pulls his arm away, and she forces herself to sit up. "I'll call management tomorrow, okay? Get things...started."

"Yeah. I'll tell them."

"Don't...don't call for a while, okay? Not you, but not them, either. Tell them that, too."

"I will." She slides off the hood and turns to face him, shoving her hands in her pockets. "Really nothing I can say?"

He shakes his head. "Nothing I can think of."

"Then I'm just gonna say thank you." She catches his hand and squeezes tight, feeling the calluses and the strength of his grip. "Take care of yourself. No playing with fire. I mean it."

"You take care of yourself too, Mikey." He pulls her in and hugs her, tight enough that she gasps and a few tears spill free despite herself. "You take care of you."

"I'm working on it." She manages a smile as she steps back, and keeps it in place while he gets into the car and starts the engine. When he puts it in reverse, though, she turns and hurries back to the building before she has to watch the car leave.

**

Gerard's the only one still in the studio when she gets back. "They went to get coffee," he says, clasping his hands between his knees.

She leans against the door and looks at him from across the room. Right now it feels like too much to even take a single step.

She can see his breath hitch, his shoulders drop. "No go, huh?"

"He's going to call management and get it started tomorrow."

"Shit." He thumps his head back against his chair, staring up at the ceiling. "Shit, shit...fuck."

"It's done now." She wraps her arms around herself. Studios are always so fucking cold. "So...well. It's done."

"Maybe Frank can talk to him."

"He doesn't want any of us to call him."

"Fuck."

She rubs the back of her hand over her eyes and turns the door handle again. "I'm gonna go home."

"We need to talk about things. You should stay."

"I'm going home, Gerard."

"Mikey..." He catches himself and nods, looking down at the table. "Fine."

"I'll see you tomorrow."

"Mikey? Did you vote with me?"

She shoves the door open hard enough that it hits the wall and bounces back. "Don't fucking ask stupid questions, Gerard. Jesus Christ."

**July 2010**

The album is born on a warm summer night, with a little beep from the computer and the appearance of a pop-up window.

"That's kind of anticlimactic, don't you think?" Mikey leans in to squint at the screen, touching the little "okay" with her fingertip. "Doesn't have that big...moment."

"We could all get drunk," Frank says. "That would be a moment. And also, like, a throwback to when we finished the first one."

"I need a shitty haircut if we're going to do that. So does Gerard."

"Instead of the shitty bleach job?"

"Fuck off," Gerard says from his seat in the corner, his head resting against Lindsey's shoulder and Bandit asleep in his lap. "It's gonna look great after I dye it."

"Fire-engine red." Mikey smirks and steps back from the computer so Ray can finish working his magic. "You're going to look like Ronald McDonald."

"You have to cooperate, too. Show some imagination. A little creativity. Did I tell you Grant suggested we put you in a corset?"

"I don't do corsets."

"But you should." Frank wiggles his eyebrows and stands up, digging his phone out of his pocket. "I gotta go check in with the wife and the unborns."

"Yeah, yeah." Mikey sighs and flops down on the other couch, kicking idly at Gerard's foot. "Ray and I will just keep carrying the rock-star flag by not having babies all over the place."

"This is my baby." Ray points at the screen. "This is my infant child."

"That's creepy."

"Have a real baby, Ray," Gerard says, smiling over the top of Bandit's head. "They're great."

"They smell," Mikey counters.

"You're both right." Lindsey strokes Gerard's hair and then stands up. "I've gotta go find the bathroom."

Gerard reaches out once she leaves and Mikey catches his hand, squeezing tight. "We did it, Mikey Way," he says solemnly. "We did it again."

"We totally did." She smiles and glances over at Ray, then leans in closer to Gerard. "Tell you a secret?"

"Yeah." He leans in, too, curling his body over Bandit, his hand steadying her in her sleep.

Mikey rests her forehead against his and smiles. "I wouldn't go back to back then for anything. I wouldn't trade a single thing."

"Not even the bad shit?" He's smiling, too, still holding her hand.

"Not even."

"Get your ass over here so I can hug you, doofus."

"Bite me, jerkface." But she climbs over onto the couch with him, settling in close to his side. "Ray! Get over here."

"I'm not done yet."

"We're done working. Now we're going to play," Gerard says, with the tone of someone making a very important proclamation.

"He's using Gandalf-voice, so you know it's true." Mikey eases Bandit away from Gerard and lays her on the other couch. "So she doesn't get squished."

"Damn that lack of an exoskeleton."

When Frank comes in, they're all laughing, and they can't explain the joke at all, but that's kind of what makes it perfect.

**October 2010**

Before the first show, she laughs all the way through sound check. The guys yell at her over and over again, but they're all laughing too, because it's ridiculous. It is. Not just the hair and the costumes and the fact that they're checking Steve's voice-overs for theatrical purposes, but the bare bones, the basics that once were as much a part of them as breathing.

The stage. The lights. The taped X's for their marks. Ridiculous.

"This is gonna be awesome," Gerard gasps, hanging off his microphone stand. "Oh, God, this is going to be either awesome or a complete clusterfuck."

"Awesome," Mikey says, shaking her hair off her face. "Fuckin' awesome. We've had more than our share of clusterfucks. We get to win one this time."

"Listen to Princess Optimism here." Frank bounces on his toes, then steps back to touch the picture of his daughters lightly. "I mean, you're right, Mikey, but if you're going to say that shit out loud, you need to knock on wood or turn around three times and spit or something."

"Right, right." She drops down to her knees and raps her knuckles on the stage. "We get to win one this time!"

"Look at this nonsense." Gerard's giggling so hard now he can hardly talk. "We are a mature and grown-up and serious rock band, Miss Way."

"Says the guy who dyed his hair Crayola red and asked his favorite comic-book writer to come play dressup in the desert--"

Ray sighs and speaks into his mic. "Are we going to sound-check or are we going to make fun of Gerard?"

"Oh man," Frank announces into his own mic. "That is a tough choice."

"You are the worst band ever," Gerard informs every corner of the arena. "I hate you all."

"What about me and Pedicone?" James calls. "Do you hate us?"

"No. You're the only ones I love."

"I feel like we need a group hug," Mikey says, still on her knees on the stage. They roll their eyes at her, but they come to her, tugging her up to her feet, and then they all wrap their arms around each other and stay like that for a minute, rocking back and forth under the house lights.

**

It seems like only a minute later that they're playing the encore. Gerard's telling the crowd this one's for all of you, but it's also for us and Mikey runs her fingers up and down the neck of her bass, staring out past the lights to where the fans are. She can't believe they're here, they're doing this, they've come full circle again. It doesn't feel like coming home, not at all, but it feels good. Really good.

Mike counts them off and she starts to play, closing her eyes and rocking back on her heels, letting the beat come up through the stage and go through her to her hands. Just a conductor. Just get out of the way.

Gerard is singing and the fans are crying out, throwing their arms up; she can see it in the few rows lit up at the front of the stage, their hands reaching for Gerard like he can save them. It isn't scary anymore. They'll learn, in time. You can only save yourself; in the end, everybody else can only steady you as you go. They'll figure it out.

You only hear the music when your heart begins to break.

But she can hear it, she can feel it, coming up through the soles of her boots and running through her bones, through her veins, through every part of her. And her heart isn't breaking. It's been beaten and broken, but now it's beating steady. And it's full, with life and hope and all kinds of hippie shit she would never say out loud. She doesn't have to.

Gerard bows and walks offstage. DeWees's spot goes out just before Frank and Ray wind down to their last chords, slip their guitars off, and head for the wings. It's just Mikey and her bass and the drums, out there under one bright, shining light.

She tilts her head back and keeps playing. She can go forever.