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We Used To Be Friends

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July 1, 2003

At first, the notes are so familiar they don't even register in Frank's mind. He's heard them so many times; from when Mikey's fingers were stumbling over the strings clumsily, until they flowed out as easy as breathing. It takes a few bars before Frank even realises he's hearing one of those songs, one of Mikey's songs.

 

When it hits him, he nearly drops the CD he's holding. He spins around, glancing up and down the aisles of CD racks like he could pinpoint exactly where the sound is coming from. That's when he sees the music video for The Used's The Taste Of Ink playing huge and bright on the massive screens that hang from the ceiling of the music store.

 

It's the first time he sees Mikey's face on television.

 

"Holy shit," Frank swears, already scrambling for his phone. He hits Mikey's number, wishing he could take a photo at the same time.

 

On the televisions, the camera swings past Bert's face screaming, and there's Mikey's image splashed across the screen, his brow furrowed, reflections flashing in his glasses. He looks… well he looks like Mikey, a little glossier, a little more attitude, but Mikey.

 

And he looks fucking cool.

 

"Fucking rockstar." Frank beams at the screen, the phone warm against his ear as he waits for-fucking-ever for the call to connect, willing it to hurry up, it would suck if the song ends before he gets Mikey on the line.

 

Finally, he hears the click of the connection, "Mikey, I'm-" he breaks off when the phone squeals a tone in his ear, and a cold voice tells him the number is no longer connected. Frank stares at the phone in confusion for a long moment, then he tries again, but with exactly the same result.

 

The third time he tries, he has to admit the number is dead. He snaps a photo of Mikey's face on the screens with his phone camera and tries to stamp down his disappointment. He'll email it instead.

 

He never does get a reply to that email.

***

January 13, 2007

The jukebox at Dino's is anything but subtle. It's an old clunker that should have been ushered into a relaxing retirement by now, but Bob insists that it has character, so it remains in the bar. So between songs, when it should smoothly change from one album to another, there's a long, loaded silence and a lot of audible clicking and shuffling. Frank has plenty of warning that it's coming, but it still takes Frank by surprise to hear familiar chords when they fill the air of the bar.

He glances at Ray, who has of course noticed the song that's playing and is bouncing his head along to the rhythm lines as if Mikey were here to play them.

There's a twist in Frank's stomach, but he asks the question anyway, because apparently he's a masochist. "So, when was the last time you heard from Mikey?"

Ray shrugs, stirring some sugar into his coffee. "I don't know. It's been a while. Maybe a year? Fuck, no, more that that, I think." He blows back the froth on the top of his mug. "How about you?"

Frank frowns, he doesn't need to do the math, but pretends he does. "Nearly two years now, since I've had a working number for him."

"You mean you didn't just get his new number off Gee?" Ray asks, like it's no big deal.

Frank traces his thumbnail down a scar in the table. "I've done that three times now. I shouldn't have to keep doing that."

"Yeah, I'm sure it's way more fun to just get pissy about it."

"I'm not pissy."

"You are so pissy. Come on, Frank, they were recording, then touring nonstop, he's probably got a million things going on. I doubt he's ignoring you on purpose."

"But he is ignoring me."

"You can't call it ignoring if you're not actually contacting him. That's more like mutual non-communication."

Frank spins the sugar jar violently between his fingers. Ray reaches over and settles his hand on the lid, stilling it. "You want to talk about this?"

"No," Frank says, resolute, releasing the sugar jar to Ray's careful hands and slumping back in the booth. "I really don't. Tell me about your new band."

Ray hesitates, obviously fighting between pulling the truth out of Frank and his own untamed enthusiasm for his new project. In the end, enthusiasm wins out over concern, for which Frank will be eternally grateful. "I think we're going pretty well. What did you think of that demo I sent you? It's pretty rough, just a home studio job but-"

Frank snorts, cutting Ray off mid-sentence. The only way the demo Ray gave him could be considered rough was the way it was labelled in sharpie instead of being a pressed and printed CD. The tracks were perfectly recorded and the songs were hard, fast, and full of awesome guitar solos. "Bullshit it's rough, it's fucking awesome. I loved it. Sort of MC5 with a little Stooges thrown in. Rough dirty rock. You gonna shop it around?"

It's not like Frank was going to say anything but good things, but Ray still smiles like the string of compliments is a surprise. It lights up his face so much it's like trying to stare into the sun. He rubs his hands together. "Not yet, we just want to like, be a band first, play some gigs, find a groove. Besides, we still need a rhythm guitarist."

"Who was I hearing on the demo?"

Ray's cheeks darken. "Oh, that was just me."

Frank snorts out a laugh. He totally knew it. "You mean you're not going to be able to play both parts live?" he asks with a smirk.

"Not without growing another pair of hands," Ray says, tossing a napkin at Frank.

"Got anyone in mind?" Frank asks, turning his mug 180 degrees.

"Oh, I don't know, it'd be better if it was someone local, who can shred like a motherfucker."

"Tall order."

"Yeah, plus we don't exactly have a lot of cred, so it'd be good if he had some tattoos, and you know, everyone else in the band is pretty normal sized so it'd be great if we could find a midget, or maybe someone just really, really short," Ray says, and Frank can see the smile tugging at his mouth.

It's really fucking sweet that Ray is just not giving up on this, but Frank's not changing his answer.

"I'm not joining your band, Ray." He keeps his voice flat.

"You still haven't given me a good reason," Ray prods, leaning forward on his elbows and pinning Frank with a serious look.

"I gave you plenty, dude. Number one being no fucking time. I'm teaching five days a week and I've got grading and lesson plans on weekends. I'm fucking useless for tours."

"And I'm not?" Ray says, his voice pitching up in a squeak. "Between my hours at the store and my regular students I'm fucked for touring too. It's not that kind of gig, Frank, we're talking evenings and weekends. The rest we'll figure out as we go along. It's not about living it twenty-four seven. It's for the love."

Frank shakes his head, picking at the scar in the table with annoyed motions. "If you're not gonna live it twenty-four seven, then what's the point?"

"Because it's more fun than sitting on your ass in your living room playing old songs trying to remember how once upon a time you could've made it? It's not like you're gonna stop playing, that'd be like asking you to stop breathing."

Frank scowls at the table. Fuck Ray for knowing so much.

Ray taps the table until Frank finally drags his gaze up to look at him. Of course, Ray being Ray, he doesn't look angry, or satisfied, or even disappointed. He just looks earnest. "Just say you'll think about it, okay?"

Frank nods, because he's not going to pick a fight with Ray over this and he can't bring himself to lie out loud. He's already firmly dismissed the idea though, and he won't be changing his mind.

Mikey's got the right idea. If you're going to play, then play - live it, eat it breathe it, even if it swallows you whole and leaves nothing of you for anything else.

Even if it costs you your best friend.

***


May 12, 1999

It's not supposed to get this hot in Jersey.

Frank drops his feet into the tepid water, gravel under his fingers as he drifts his feet back and forth, toes brushing undergrowth. The creek that runs round the back of the old estate is so low it's barely deep enough for swimming, so Frank's just rolled up his jeans to dunk his feet in. If the water level were higher he'd go in.

Mikey won't, but Mikey never goes in the water, even when it's boiling hot. He'll sit on the bank, brow dotted with sweat and wave Frank off, tell him he's fine. Right now he sits a few feet back from the shoreline, his skinny jeans dirty at the knee and ass from sitting in the dirt.

Frank leans back, closes his eyes against the too-strong sunlight, seeing the red glow of blood through his eyelids.

"So, are you gonna fuck her?" he asks, reaching back for the thread of conversation they'd lost.

"Michelle?" Mikey's brows draw together, pressing a deep crease in his brow. "Why would I, I mean... why would she-?" He palms a handful of hair back from his face, letting the question hang.

Frank shakes his head. Mikey is so fucking oblivious sometimes. "She's so hot for you, dude. You should go for it. Cash in your V-card"

Mikey wrinkles his nose. He's huddled by a too-short bush, with the hood of his hoodie up like that could protect against the pounding sun. "I don't like her like that."

Frank kicks his leg out of the water, wiggling his toes. "Fair enough. How about Miranda?"

Mikey just shrugs. If Frank were talking about comic book characters or the best grisly deaths in a horror movie Mikey would be stumbling over himself to get the words out. He never wants to talk about girls.

"Prom's only a few weeks away dude, we have to find you a date."

Mikey shifts again, drawing up his knees and wrapping his arms around his legs. He rubs his nose on the dirty knee of his jeans. He might as well be hanging out a sign for Frank I don't want to talk about it, but Frank's done with being subtle.

"You going with Jamia?" Mikey asks in a monotone.

Frank shrugs and says, "Probably." Jamia's not his girlfriend, exactly. She's a girl who is his friend, practically from the womb. It’s just the fact that she's a girl and he's a boy that means they're constantly getting mistaken for a couple. "You know, she's got a lot of cute friends, I bet we could get you-"

"No," Mikey butts in, too quickly, and Frank stops talking.

"Just a thought." It's a peace offering.

"It's cool." Mikey shrugs again. "I probably won't go." He tilts his head, expression going distant, and Frank watches as he gets up, nearly running back to the tree where they left their schoolbags. Well, as close to running as Mikey gets, which isn't that close. It's more an awkward scramble of arms and legs. Mikey's a weird looking dude, kind of like the guy in Willy Wonka who shrinks himself with the shrink ray and then gets stretched back out to normal size like chewing gum. He scrambles for his bag, digging through it for a while before holding up his phone and frowning at the screen.

"Thought I heard it ringing," he explains, stuffing it into the pocket of his hoodie and coming back to flop beside Frank in a small cloud of dust.

"Who'd be calling you, anyway? We're supposed to be in class." Frank wiggles his toes under the water, cool against his skin even as a trickle of sweat runs down his back between his shoulder blades.

Mikey's hand brushes the outside of the pocket holding his phone, like he's checking it's still there. "Gee sometimes calls between classes, just in case. "

Frank doesn't know Mikey's brother Gerard all that well, he went off to art school not long after Frank and Mikey started hanging out, so Frank's really only gotten glimpses of the weird, smelly, hermity dude Mikey talks about so much. He knows him more from Mikey's stories.

"You miss him something fierce, don't you?"

Mikey bites his lip, nodding a little. One more thing he doesn't want to talk about. This time Frank doesn't push, he just reaches into the pocket of his hoodie to dig out his cigarettes. He lights two, giving one to Mikey who takes it with a small smile. They smoke quietly, the sounds of the crickets echoing around them and Frank wonders if Gerard is missing Mikey too. He probably is, Frank decides; after all, they're brothers.

He can't help being a little jealous of Gerard for that. "I'm way cooler than your stupid brother anyway, and I’m right here." Frank points out with a wave of his smoke.

"Don't badmouth my brother." Mikey says, his protective streak a mile wide, "he's way cooler than you."

"Believe what you wanna believe, sucker, but you know what, Mikes?" Frank waits until Mikey turns his bored expression toward him, "I'm the one who's gonna get you laid."

Mikey snorts out a laugh, which is exactly the outcome Frank was aiming for.

Frank sticks his fist out and Mikey dutifully fistbumps him. Good boy. "You and me, right Mikes?" Frank poses the question, already knowing the answer.

"Yeah," Mikey chimes in, grinning around his cigarette, "fuck everybody else."

***

January 15, 2007

The bell sounding startles Frank more than his students. He drifted off somewhere between "turn over your papers" and what should have been "pencils down." He swallows down a curse - he's pretty much trained himself out of swearing by now, thank god - and stands up at the desk.

Show no fear, he reminds himself. He dusts his hands on his trousers and announces, "Pencils down, pass your papers forward."

He can see the kids are antsy to get out, but he doesn't hurry, collecting the papers and shuffling them into a stack before he dismisses the class.

While the rest of the kids rush the doors like it's a show they want barrier for, one kid hangs back. Dylan reminds Frank of himself at that age. He's even wearing Frank's old uniform of jeans with the knees ripped out and a band shirt. He's got his test in one hand, and a stack of books under his arm. "Mr. Iero?"

"What's up, Dylan?"

"I didn't get this right. I just, I know I messed up the last question - is there any way I can do it again?" His face is all screwed up like it might crack.

" I'm sorry Dylan, but if I give you more time on it it's not fair to everyone else."

"But I know exactly what I did wrong."

"Yeah, I'm sorry. It's just not fair." Frank shakes his head. "That question's only worth three points anyway, and if you've shown your work you might get partial credit."

Dylan bites his lip and hands Frank the test. Frank glances at it - yeah okay, he did screw it up, but he doesn't let that show on his face.

"Thanks anyway," Dylan says, and starts to shuffle toward the door.

Frank's gaze falls to the books under his arm and the cover of one catches his eye. "Hey, is that-?"

Dylan pauses, shifting the books and Frank can see he's covered one of his notebooks with a poster of a band. It's one of those shots where they're all standing glaring up at the camera, and one of the faces in the picture Frank knows.

"Bert McCracken?" Dylan asks, skimming the notebook out and handing it to Frank, pointing to the guy in the centre of the photo. But it's the guy he's standing next to that Frank can't stop staring at.

It's Mikey, and fuck, it's a wonder Frank recognised him at all - he's not wearing his glasses and he looks totally different.

Frank taps Mikey's chest in the photo. "No, Mikey Way. We went to high school together."

Dylan arches a brow in what is clearly a sure you did kind of way, but asks, "So you're going to their show next month then?"

"They're playing here?" Frank's usually pretty good at keeping up with which bands are coming through town, but it's the beginning of the semester so he's barely been able to sleep, much less read music news.

"Yeah, at Starland." Dylan's look is sceptical. He probably thinks Frank is making it all up.

This is the point where Frank should tell Dylan that he and Mikey aren't really in touch anymore, but he just can't say the words. Instead, he just shrugs and says "Probably," like he goes to Mikey's shows all the time. Like it's not a big deal.

"Right," Dylan says, and there's an awkward moment, broken by the minute bell. It's more of a relief than Frank would like to admit.

"You should get going, you'll miss your next class."

"It's study hall anyway." Dylan shoulders his bag and Frank doesn't realise he's still holding Dylan's notebook until he tugs it from his hand on his way out.

Frank leans back on the desk for a moment. It still doesn't fit in his brain, that Mikey is someone whose face could be on one of his student's notebooks, that Mikey is actually a celebrity that kids like Dylan look up to.

He shakes his head like he could shake out the thoughts and goes back to his desk, pulling out his lesson plan and trying really hard to think of something else.

***

The rest of Frank's classes speed by in a blur of lectures, assignments, and quizzes. He's got a sheaf of documents under one arm, the ground soft under his Chucks as he makes his way to his car, when he hears his name being called.

"Mr. Iero!"

Frank turns around to see Dylan running at him, cheeks pink in the cold air. "Sorry Mr. Iero, I just-" Dylan nearly topples when his foot hits a pothole and Frank reaches out a hand to steady him.

"It's all right, I'm not in a rush. What is it?"

"Was it true, what you said about knowing Mikey Way?"

Frank raises an eyebrow, giving the kid a look instead of actually saying do you think I would make that up? aloud.

"Okay, um, it's just." Dylan fidgets. "I am like, a really, really big fan of his band. Major. Their music really helped me through some sh- um, stuff and I just - I didn't get a ticket - to the show, so if there was anything you could do..."

Frank gnaws his lip. Now he feels like a total asshole for leading the kid on. God, he should really come clean; Dylan's got a better chance of getting a ticket from a scalper than from Frank. He opens his mouth to say the words, but they stick in his throat.

Dylan just looks so hopeful. It's an echo of Frank's sixteen year old self, the tiny, angry kid who used to sneak out to shows with his bad dreadlocks and chipped black nail polish.

"I'll see what I can do." The words are out before he's even finished thinking them and Frank's a goddamn idiot.

Dylan's already beaming at him and Frank chokes out, "Don't get your hopes up, okay? He's really hard to get in touch with." But Dylan's bouncing in place, eyes bright and smiling wider than Frank's ever seen.

"Thanks so much, Mr. Iero, holy sh- I mean, wow. Thank you."

He takes off before Frank can try to get his hopes back down. Frank sighs, calls himself a few more choice nouns he wouldn't say in front his students, and heads for his car.

***

Frank paces the length of his living room and back again four times, his phone in his hand, thumb hovering over the send key.

It's Gerard's number on the screen.

Frank doesn't have a working number under the "mikeyfuckingway" contact in his phone. He's thought about deleting the contact a bunch of times, but he's never managed to bring himself to do it.

The number Frank used to send texts to in high school stopped working about six months after Frank started seeing Mikey on MTV. The second number he had for Mikey worked for about a year. The third one didn't last six months, by which time Mikey had stopped responding. Frank's still not entirely sure why, but he refused to ask for a new one.

Gerard's number hasn't changed, but then, Gerard's not a rock star. He writes comic books that are pretty popular, as comic books go, but he's not exactly a celebrity outside of comic book conventions.

All Frank has to do is ask Gerard for Mikey's new number. Better yet, he can just ask Gerard for tickets to the show. Gerard can say no and then Frank can tell Dylan that tried - and he did try - and that will be it.

Or he could just not call and tell Dylan the same thing.

The thought is tempting for about a quarter of a second, but no, he really, really can't do that. He's a shitty-ass liar and it would be downright unethical to lie to a student.

"Man up, you fucking pussy." He tells himself, and hits send.

It rings four times. Gerard's voice is muffled when he answers, like he's got his finger over the mouthpiece or something. "'Lo?"

"Gerard?" Frank's voice comes out too high and strained. "Hey, um, it's Frank. Frank Iero."

Gerard laughs, light and musical. "I know who it is, Frankie, fuck, I've still got your number in my phone."

"Wow, how long have you had that phone?"

"Oh it's new, but my assistant is fucking magic, she makes all my numbers come back whenever I switch phones."

Oh, Gerard has an assistant. Comics must be doing okay then. "Cool. Hey, I saw Umbrella Academy got optioned for a film version, congrats, man."

"Oh god, it's such a fucking nightmare. They keep calling me in for fucking meetings and they want to change everything and fucking - ugh. Anyway, you don't need to hear that shit. You hear Mikey's in town next month? You're coming to the show, right?"

"Um." Frank's voicebox seizes up. Fuck, it's really going to be this easy? "Well, I don't have tickets-"

"Don't be a dick, Frank, we'll put you on the fucking list. Mikey's been asking about you, you know?"

"He has? I mean, I haven't-" Frank has to stop, take a breath. That doesn't fit in with the picture in Frank's head. The one where Mikey's got a whole new life now, the life of a fucking rockstar, and there's no space it in for Frank. "I haven't heard from him."

"You haven't? Oh, um, I just thought- look never mind. You're on the list, you need a plus one? Fuck, I'll just give you one, bring whoever. Stick around afterwards, there'll be some kind of after-thing and Mikey will want to see you. Okay?"

Frank's about to say something, not sure yet if he's going to argue or agree, but he has to hold the phone away from his ear when Gerard starts shouting "No Tricia - not the blue one, can you get-" he drops his volume a little, "Sorry Frank, I've gotta - big deadline, you know? So sorry, but come, okay? You're on the list, it'll be really good to see you, dude. Promise?"

Frank's breath sticks in his throat, but he manages to make his voice work. "Sure Gee, I'll see you then."

"Great! Tricia! Tricia, no not-" His voice cuts off as Gerard hangs up, and Frank is left staring at the screen of his phone as it goes blank.

Now he kind of has to go to the gig, and he's going to have to see Mikey as well.

He's not sure how he feels about either of those things.

***

Frank calls Dylan over at the end of fifth period, as the rest of the kids are making their way out the door.

"Do you want the good news or the bad news first?" Frank asks Dylan.

Dylan clutches his books to his chest, a deep furrow in his brow. "Whatever order you like, sir." There's something hopeful in his eyes though.

Frank swallows, may as well be honest. "I can get you into the Used gig, but-" he raises a hand, even as he can see Dylan starting to bounce on his heels, "I have to go to, 'cause the tickets are in my name. You'd have to go to a show with your English teacher."

"No way." Dylan doesn't look unhappy about that at all. He doesn't seem to have processed everything Frank's said, he's just beaming up at Frank. "You got guest list tickets?"

Frank hadn't actually thought about it like that, but, "Yeah, I guess that's what they are."

Dylan freaks out good and proper then. "No way. No way. Holy sh- I mean, wow. Mr Iero. Wow, that's so amazing. Oh my god, my friends are going to be so fuc- I mean, holy - wow. Just. Wow."

"I'll need to talk to your parents, obviously,” Frank says, trying to force the words between Dylan's happy exclamations. Frank's not entirely sure how going to a rock concert with a student fits into the whole idea of a responsible student-teacher relationship, but he's not doing anything without talking to the parents.

"Sure of course, you can talk to my mom." Dylan nearly drops his books in his rush to get his phone out of his pocket.

"Dylan, I don't need to talk to her right now. Give me her number, I'll call her when it's not making you late for class, okay?"

"Right of course, yeah." Dylan's still grinning so wide it looks like his face is going to split in two, but he flips open one of his notebooks and scrawls down a number, ripping out the page messily and handing it to Frank. Frank takes the page and Dylan still doesn't leave, just keeps smiling at Frank like Frank just gave him a million dollars.

"If you miss your next class, the deal's off." Frank uses his teacher voice and Dylan juggles his books into place before dashing off, calling more thanks over his shoulder. Frank's smiling when he walks back to his desk to put Dylan's mom's number somewhere he won't lose it.

Okay, so maybe this will be worth it. At least for one of them.

***

There's a line of kids that winds right to the parking lot when Frank gets to the venue. It's still twenty minutes to doors, so the sea of black hoodies isn't going anywhere yet, but some of them look like they've been there all day - possibly even overnight. Frank's never done the camp out all night thing; he was more likely to try and plough his way to the front the old-fashioned way, through the mosh pit.

He did keep Mikey company one long Saturday waiting to see the Pumpkins - sitting around on the cold pavement outside Madison Square Garden, bored shitless and cold as fuck - but it was worth it for the look on Mikey's face when they were up the front for Tonight, Tonight. Frank remembers bumping elbows with him and grinning right back when Mikey turned that smile on him full beam.

Right now, Frank feels like a conspicuous asshole walking down beside the line instead of joining it, trying to ignore the glares and jealous looks from the kids who've been waiting so many hours to be there. He just tries to act more like a music exec or some kind of VIP than a lowly school teacher who knows someone who knows someone.

The chick at the window is really helpful, handing him an envelope with his name on it and explaining where he can find the backstage area. Because when he opens the envelope there's two tickets, but also two VIP passes. Of course. Frank says thanks to the girl and has to concentrate a little on steadying his breathing. He's not really ready for this.

Dylan's going to flip his shit.

Dylan totally does flip his shit. Frank's caught between laughing at him and feeling embarrassed for him. Then Dylan goes from completely ecstatic to panic in seconds. "But what am I going to say to them?" he asks Frank, eyes wide and manic.

"Just tell them you like their music."

"Do you think I should get them to sign something, or is that like-"

"I'm pretty sure they'll sign your ticket, or whatever, if you want. They're probably used to it."

"Mr. Iero, man you have no idea, this is huge, this is like." Dylan pauses, looking up from his shaky hands to meet Frank's eyes, and says, "This is the best night of my life."

"Maybe you should wait until after the show before you say that."

Dylan just shakes his head. "No way anything's gonna top this. Not a chance."

Frank grins and shakes his head. Sure. It'll probably hold top spot until Dylan loses his virginity. If he hasn't already, that is, kids start young these days.

Their tickets get them in before doors and Dylan races for the front well before the crowd fills out. Frank only stalls him long enough to point out the doors to the backstage area, and tell Dylan to meet him back there after the concert.

The openers are all right, a little rough, full of spit and death metal screaming. The crowd are into it, but not as into it as they are when The Used are announced. The screen in front of the stage goes up, the lights dim and the crowd starts to scream and chant. Frank takes a couple of steps to get a better view of the stage and waits for the stage lights to come on.

When the first figure steps onto the stage the crowd go fucking mental, volume rising and howling like a jet plane about to take off. Kids push to get to the front and Frank tries, then quickly abandons the idea of trying to see Dylan in the crowd. There's just too many of them, all jockeying for position.

More backlit figures carrying guitars step onto the stage and Frank tries to pick out which one is Mikey. He can't really see well enough to tell. Then the final band member takes the stage - no guitar this time, just striding up to the microphone stand. That would be Bert, the singer Dylan seems so taken with.

The drummer bashes in a count and the band burst to life in a howl of guitars and a crash of drums. The stage floods with light and Frank's eyes immediately lock on Mikey. He's slightly stage left, legs in a wide stance, fingers moving fast over the frets of his guitar. Frank knows it's Mikey, but he still has to blink, squint a little against the bright stage lights, because this is not the Mikey he remembers.

Sure, he's seen glimpses of Mikey's new rockstar look in music videos, the odd photo in a magazine, but seeing him live is more of a shock. The familiar hunch of his shoulders is gone, he's standing straight-backed and strong, like his guitar is a shield against the world. His hair is shorter, blonder, but still long enough at the front that it hangs in his face when he's not whipping his head back and forth.

Bert's a real showman, he holds his mic in both hands and shrieks into it like he's expelling demons. He plays up to the other band members, touches them, falls to his knees in front of them. Frank has a hard time keeping his eyes off him, but he's more fascinated by Mikey, how different he is to the awkward kid Frank used to know. He looks completely at home up on the stage, which Frank would never have expected, not after seeing Mikey's early shows where he was all but terrified of the audience.

There's an itch under Frank's skin watching them. He'd dreamed of this for himself, once. Long late nights of band practice, tiny gigs in basement venues; he'd even considered dropping out of college when it looked like it might actually happen. But then Pencey imploded. And it hurt. It hurt a lot, to give up the idea of it all, but it just made more sense to finish his degree, switch into the teaching strand and try to save kids some other way, a more practical way.

He still has both his guitars though, and calluses from playing them regularly. It's not something he'll ever be able to give up all the way.

And it's how Mikey makes his living. Frank still can't get over that.

When the show amps up and they burst into a run of songs Frank knows - songs Frank likes - he lets the crowd sweep him up and winds up at the edge of the moshpit. Fuck it, he decides, and just dives in, bouncing and bumping, copping elbows in the gut and head, but this is the real way to get into a gig, the proper way. He lets the crowd carry him forward, until he's nearly at the stage, until he can see Mikey's blonde head over the sea of kids. He just stops thinking and lets the music wash over him, push him like the crowd, pull him where he wants to be.

It's a fucking good show.

He's sweaty, battered and high by the time Bert says goodnight and the band leaves the stage. The house lights stay off, and the stage lights on, techs slipping onstage to make adjustments - an encore is obvious. Frank makes his way out of the moshpit anyway, thinking a couple of songs to calm down will do him good. As much fun as reliving his high school concert-going days is, he should try for a semblance of responsible adultness before the student he's chaperoning comes back to find him.

The crowd work themselves into a frenzy, chanting and cheering, by the time the band make it back on stage. Mikey's hair is damp and fucked up, like it was tousled with a towel or a hand while he was offstage.

"You want more?" Bert screams into the mic, hair flying as he races across the stage. "You want more, you fuckers?"

Mikey's grinning as he plays into the intro of the next song and Frank's own face stretches into an answering smile. Fuck, he looks good up there. He belongs up there.

Frank gets stuck looking at Mikey onstage, a halo around his head from the hot lights as he looks out into the audience proud and strong, not even his old trademark glasses between him and the crowd. He's fucking made it. Frank's heart squeezes up.

The crowd cheers long after the final song finishes, long after drumsticks and guitar picks are thrown towards eager hands. Frank's heart is still going a mile a minute when the house lights come up. He runs a hand through his hair and it comes back wet. The place empties out pretty quickly, only the hardcore kids down the front trying to score a setlist or souvenir from a kind roadie sticking it out. Frank's scanning the crowd for Dylan when something bumps his arm and he turns around to Dylan grinning at him. He's covered in sweat, hair a wreck and eyes lit up.

"That was fucking amazing! Holy shit, Mr. Iero, that was so good. They were on fire!"

Frank lets the cursing slide and smiles. "They were pretty good. Really tight, very good stage presence."

Dylan grins, "I saw you in the mosh pit, dude, you were into it."

Frank laughs, knowing he can't deny it. "Yeah, okay, I guess I'm a fan. They hit it pretty hard. I'm impressed."

The venue's emptied out fast, and security are already starting to usher people toward the doors. Frank and Dylan make their ways toward the backstage doors. Security take one look at their VIP passes and let them through to the hallway. When Frank sees they're about to pass the bathrooms, he glances at the wreck that is Dylan. "You want to hit a bathroom first?"

Dylan looks down at his sweat soaked shirt. "Yeah, that's probably a good idea."

The venue bathroom is empty, but for a handful of kids on a post-show high, singing snatches of the songs, and yelling at each other about the best parts. Frank waits for a chance at the sinks and splashes some water on his face. Dylan sticks his head under one of the hand-dryers, which is shockingly effective.

Frank dries his face off with the corner of his t-shirt, which pulls his shirt up, flashing the two swallows he's got tattooed on his hips.

"Cool tatts, sir."

Frank meets his eyes in the mirror, but Dylan's expression isn't teasing, just honest.

"Thanks," he says, tugging the shirt down and straightening the hem. It's just a plain black t-shirt, teamed with plain black jeans and a canvas belt. The outfit hovers somewhere between Responsible Adult and Show. It's a far cry from Frank's old concert uniform of ripped up jeans, metal studs and dreadlocks, but he's a pretty far cry from that old life himself. He runs a hand through his hair, too short-cropped to have really gotten fucked up by all the sweat and moshing.

He flicks his eyes to meet Dylan's in the mirror, wiping his palms on the front of his jeans. "You ready?"

"I think so."

Frank takes a breath and tells himself this is no big deal. He's going to see some old friends, that's all.

"Let's go then."

***

It's easy enough to find the after party. There's nothing else down the hallway but the green room and they can see a few other people with coveted VIP passes is going inside.

Dylan looks sick with nerves as they near the doors. Frank thinks he's doing a pretty good job of not showing his own discomfort. "Hey, there's a chance they won't even be there. There's never a guarantee the band will stick around for these things."

The words don't help, and they're lies anyway. Frank knows at the very least Mikey will be there. That thought isn't helpful as they show their passes and walk through the door.

The backstage area is small but really crowded. There's a guy across the room that looks familiar - he's either a daytime soap star or a radio celebrity, Frank's not sure. Mostly it's people Frank doesn't recognise.

Until a hand grabs his shoulder and a voice says, "Frank?"

Frank turns to find Gerard grinning at him, wide and happy. "You came!"

Before Frank can reply, Gerard catches him in a hug. It takes a moment, but Frank hugs back, mouth stretching into a smile. "Thanks for getting me on the list." He eases back and nods at Dylan, "This is Dylan, one of my students."

"Hey, good show, right?" Gerard smiles at Dylan, and sticks out a hand. "I'm Gerard." Dylan shakes it like he's worried it'll be withdrawn any second, eyes a little wide. Frank figures he either knows Gerard is Mikey's brother or he's a closet comic fanatic. Or he's already starstruck.

"C'mon." Gerard says, "Mikey'll want to see you." He grabs Frank around the wrist and drags him across the room without a backwards glance. Frank glances behind to make sure Dylan's coming, inclining his head furiously to indicate he should keep up with them.

"Mikey! Hey, where's Mikey?" Gerard directs the question at the general crush of people around them.

Frank snares Dylan's wrist so they don't get separated, letting Gerard pull him through the hangers-on. He cops a few elbows and someone splashes their drink on his arm. He glances up to frown at whoever that asshole is and finds himself face to face with Bert McCracken.

Bert grins at him like Frank having a damp arm is fucking hilarious. Gerard glances back to find out why Frank's paused and glares at Bert. "Asshole."

"You love me, Geeway. Just admit your love for me and we can make beautiful assbabies together." Bert reaches over to pinch at Gerard's cheek, but Gerard pulls away with another glare that could melt steel.

He doesn't answer Bert, just turns back to Frank, "Do you know Bert?"

"I think we met once, but it was ages ago."

"Oh hey, you're Frank, right? Mikey's Frank?" Bert grins and spins around, nearly elbowing someone behind him, shouting. "Mikey, your boyfriend's here!"

Frank doesn't blush. He doesn't. He doesn't correct Bert, either, it's all just too weird. There's too much going on; it's all starting to blur around him. It's all a joke everyone but him knows the punchline to. Of course, there's one person here who's even more out of his depth than Frank, and that's Dylan. Focusing on him gives Frank something to concentrate on. He half-turns to find Dylan staring bug-eyed at Bert and Frank forces his mouth to move.

"Oh hey, Bert, this is Dylan - a friend of mine. He kind of likes your music a little."

Bert seems to sense that Dylan is a fan and his attitude slides into something more polite. He sticks his hand out at Dylan and shakes it. Dylan still hasn't actually said anything, and Frank's about to kick his foot to get his attention when Dylan opens his mouth and blurts out "In Love And Death really helped me through some bad shit. So like, thank you, for that."

Bert's smile looks genuine, and he starts to say something about how writing In Love And Death helped him through some bad shit himself, but Frank loses track of the conversation when there's a tug on his arm. He turns around to find Mikey standing right in front of him.

Fuck.

He looks every inch the rock star, from his tight jeans and leather jacket to his bleached hair. It's still strange to see him without glasses - Frank's never noticed exactly how killer Mikey's cheekbones were before. Somehow, though, Frank can still see the kid he grew up with behind the denim-and-leather facade. Mikey actually looks a little tired, light bruises under his eyes and fine lines around them.

"Frank," Mikey says, sounding a little breathless, his mouth stretched in a smile. Frank hugs him before he even realises he's doing it. It's not until he's got his arms around Mikey's too-thin torso and his forehead resting on Mikey's shoulder that he realises just how much he's missed him.

When they pull apart Mikey's still wearing a smile, though it looks a little strained. His mouth twitches like he wants to bite his lip but he doesn't. "Fuck, it's been awhile."

"It has." Frank agrees, "Shit, dude, look at you. You're like a different person."

Mikey laughs, his teeth flashing white in the dim light. "Not that different. It's all window dressing." He pauses, smile fading as he looks Frank up and down. "How are you? God, it feels like forever since I've seen you."

"It has been," Frank agrees. There's more words behind those in his mouth, the questions of why did you disappear? and what did I do wrong?, but Frank doesn't let them out. He turns to introduce Dylan instead, because apparently Dylan's acting as Frank's coping mechanism tonight.

Dylan is less wide-eyed at Mikey, but still pretty wide-eyed. He stumbles over an introduction and Mikey is completely charming with him. He offers to sign his ticket and tells him a few ridiculous stories about life on the road. He calls Jepha over and introduces Dylan to him too, and signals Quinn to come over as well. If Frank's honest, he's pretty charmed by Mikey himself. It was easier to be annoyed with him when he wasn't right in front of him.

Mikey catches his Frank's eye once Dylan is deeply involved in a conversation with Jepha and Quinn. "You still smoke, right?"

"Only tobacco these days," Frank admits.

Mikey smiles, inclining his head toward the exits doors. "Come grab a smoke with me."

Frank turns to check on Dylan and find Gerard waving a hand at him "I'll keep an eye on him, don't worry."

Frank raises an eyebrow. Mikey laughs softly and says, "He hasn't killed any children in at least a few years."

"That's so comforting," Frank says, but follows Mikey outside anyway.

They slip out the exit doors, past a bored looking security guy. Once they're outside, Mikey scoots down to sit on the concrete stairs, his too-long legs stretched out in front of him. There's a chill in the air, but it's nice after the warm crush of bodies inside. Frank drops his ass down beside Mikey on the stairs, reaching for his cigarettes and borrowing Mikey's lighter to light up.

Once he's got some smoke in his lungs he leans back, the concrete gritty under his palms as he lets the smoke drift out from his mouth.

"So, how are you?" Mikey asks,, ashing his own cigarette outside the stair railing.

Frank shrugs and nods, sucking on his smoke instead of answering. He's still not entirely sure why they are having this conversation.

"You're teaching now, right? High school kids like Dylan in there?"

"Yeah, sophmore and junior English," Frank says, his head spinning a little from drawing too much smoke into his lungs. He shakes it out.

Mikey lets out a long breath in a cloud of smoke, shaking his head a little. "That's such a mindfuck."

"What, because I'm teaching? Dude, you're on a fucking headline tour across America. Who's the mindfuck now?"

Mikey bites his lip, glancing sideways at Frank. The way the streetlights bounce off his hair make it look golden. "I think we both are." He takes another drag of his cigarette before crushing it out on the cement. "I'm glad you called Gee. I'm sorry I haven't been in touch." He keeps his eyes down cast, rubbing the cigarette butt out until it starts to come apart. "I got your messages, I just, I don't know… it was all so crazy and then when I wanted to call it felt like it was too late."

"You've been a little busy," Frank says, trying to keep his tone light. If he can joke about it, then it doesn't hurt, right?

"A little," Mikey says, a tiny smile tugging at his lip. He finally tears his eyes from the ground at looks up at Frank. He looks unsure - a familiar enough expression on the old Mikey, but not this one, not polished superstar Mikey.

"I've got a few days off before the next show. I'm staying in town, with Gee, and I'd..." Mikey's gaze slips back the ground, but he pulls it back up again and continues, "I'd like to see you, you know, if you've got time, while I'm here."

Frank's not sure about that, but apparently his mouth is, because he's already saying, "Sure. Yeah Mikes, I'd like that."

"Yeah?" Mikey's smile is genuine and it lights up his whole face. "Awesome. You know, I've missed you. Well, you probably don't know that. I've been shit at keeping in touch - sorry."

"It's okay." Frank says, even though it isn't, even though he has so many questions. He knows Mikey knows how to work a phone. Gerard's had Frank's number this whole time; if he'd wanted to get in touch it wouldn't have been that hard.

It's not the time to ask those questions, though. Maybe they'll never get back to that point again, where they can be straight up with each other like they used to. Maybe they'll turn into those friends who just call and email from time to time, who meet up when it's convenient and talk about bullshit - all skin deep, nothing real. Fuck, Frank doesn't want that.

Mikey shifts on the uncomfortable stairs. He looks tired, but wired. He used to get like this before a show, or when he had to be somewhere he didn't want to be - school, or if he was planning on talking to a girl. He didn't used to get like this with just Frank around. It feels wrong.

"Are you all right?" Frank asks, even though it's probably too soon to ask questions like that.

"Yeah," Mikey answers, too quickly. Not genuine, just rote. Frank doesn't push, though, just shuts his mouth to see if he can get more words out of Mikey. The trick still works. "It's just - being home. It's weird." He glances up at Frank, his mouth pulled a little to the side. "Good-weird. But still, you know - weird."

Frank nods. He can feel it too. The two of them sitting on the back steps of a venue, smoking after a show, sweat drying stiff on his t-shirt. It could be ten years ago - except Mikey was one of the guys on the stage tonight, not one of the kids in the crowd. They don't have X's on their hands to identify them as being underage. Frank's going to go home to a pile of papers to grade and he has to face a roomful of kids to teach tomorrow so he's not even drinking even though he's allowed to now.

"So what's it like, you know, being a rockstar?"

Mikey snickers, arching an eyebrow at Frank. "What's it like being a teacher?"

"You first, mister fucking 'sponsored by Fender'."

Mikey flips him off, but he considers a moment and answers. "The shows are good. I used to be terrified of being onstage, but I think I've got it now. Sometimes, on the right nights, it feels like you're - I don't know - getting your life force charged by the crowd." He shrugs, his hand coming up like he's going to adjust his glasses, and then coming back down like he's just remembered he doesn't have to wear them anymore.

"But what about the rest?"

"Travelling's shit, after a while. It just gets so tiring, you lose track of where you are, the days all blur together. It's like being a werewolf or something."

"Don't you mean a vampire?"

Mikey laughs. "Yeah, okay, if you insist."

Frank laughs, and for a moment the smile lingers on his mouth, and Mikey's does too. It feels good. It feels like old times.

"It'll be nice to have a break though. I mean, I wouldn't change it, not for anything, but I need a break. It'll be nice to be around people who don't care that I'm Mikey Way of The Used, you know?"

"I hear you," Frank says. "It's nice not to be Mr Iero sometimes."

Mikey smiles at him. "I still can't get over that." He shakes his head, making his bangs flop over his eyes. "Frank Iero, corrupting the minds of the young. I bet you're the cool teacher. The one the girls crush on."

"Yeah, I'm such a fucking sex god."

Mikey leans over and bumps his shoulder to Frank's. "You're not bad looking, for a dude."

Frank keeps his eyes downcast, glad for the darkness and the cold night air against his warm cheeks.

"You like it though, right? The teaching?"

Frank leans back, resting his elbows on the stair behind him. "Yeah." His lips stretch into an involuntary smile. "It's fucking hard work, and the kids - they don't appreciate that. They're kids, you know? High school's a shitfight, and it's all about their issues. All you can do is try to force some information into them while you've got the chance. You get one or two good ones for every fifty little shits."

"Like Dylan?" Mikey asks, and yeah. Dylan's a good one.

"Yeah. He'll do okay. He's fucking smart when he applies himself." Frank presses his palm to his face. "Oh god, I can't believe I just said that out loud. Applies himself. I'm such a fucking teacher."

"There's no hope for you now, dude. You gonna start quoting Shakespeare at me?"

"Only if you're nice. I save the Shakespeare for my real friends." Frank regrets the words before they even make it out of his mouth. "I mean- I don't mean-"

"It's okay." Mikey's smile looks strained. "I know what you meant. I've been kind of a shitty friend lately. I'm sorry."

Frank has absolutely no idea how to respond to that. "It's okay," he lies, "I totally didn't miss you."

"I didn't miss you either," Mikey says, twisting the words so Frank can hear the sarcasm. And maybe Frank's a ridiculous sentimental idiot, but it squeezes his heart up a little to hear it, to know the real I missed you hiding underneath. He grabs Mikey by the shoulder and pulls him into a hug, holding him too tight and probably for too long.

"Thanks for coming." Frank feels the words more than hears them, his ear pressed into Mikey's neck.

"Anytime." He says, and he's not surprised to find that he means it.

***


April 28, 2003

"Fuck, Frank, I don't think I can do this."

"Don't be an idiot, you can totally do it." Frank reaches up and adjusts Mikey's guitar strap. "You already know all the songs, and you've played with the guys and they all fucking love you. Don't be a dipshit."

"It's different playing session. This like, to be in the fucking band permanent."

Frank flicks Mikey in the shoulder. "It's only different in your head Mikes, don't be dumb. Play the fucking song."

Mikey places his fingers on the strings, gripping the pick in his fingers so tight his knuckles are white. He goes to strum the first chord, and then stops, putting his hand down. "I can do it well enough here on my own, but on stage? You know they're way past basement shows now - they're playing clubs, they're playing the fucking Loop-" Mikey stops himself, breath coming short. "I think I'm gonna be sick."

Frank grabs Mikey by the shoulders, looking him dead in the eye. "Don't be such a pussy."

"It's fine for you, asshole, you've played plenty of shows."

"And so have you, fucktard. Just don't look up. Stay in the song and make like you're not on the stage. Just be here, on your own, in your mind, right? Don't let them see your eyes."

"That isn't going to work." Mikey slits his eyes at Frank.

"How the fuck do you know, you haven't even tried it. You've practised the shit out of these songs, Mikes, you'll be awesome. Stop being such prissy little fuck." Frank kicks Mikey's heavy boot with his Chucks. "Stop being such a girl, Mikeyway."

Mikey averts his gaze, but Frank still sees the smile before he turns his head.

"Such a fucking girl. You're so girly you sit down to pee. You're such a chick you're afraid of a little club show. Like a little girl. Like a little pussy." Frank punctuates the words with kicks to Mikey's boots, waggling his eyebrows at Mikey comically.

It totally fucking works. Mikey snorts out a laugh, trying to press his mouth into his shoulder and hide behind his hair. He giggles and Frank head-bumps him, laughing himself and watching the tension slip out of Mikey's shoulders. He waits until Mikey's shoulders stop shaking before he says, "Now play the fucking song."

Mikey plays it, and even without a backing track he hits every note perfectly. Frank nods along, hearing the drums, the lead, the lyrics sound in his head as Mikey plays the rhythm lines. He steps back and sits on the amp, feeling the notes vibrate through his ass and up his chest, head bouncing along in time.

Mikey plays the last notes, nodding out the final drum beats and holding the last chord longer than he needs to.

Frank jumps off the amp, grinning wide, walking up to Mikey and punching him in the shoulder. "See. If you just listen to me you're fine."

"You're such an asshole," Mikey says. But he's smiling when he says it.

Frank just returns the grin. "I know."

***

Mikey calls the next day. Frank's teaching, so he can't answer it, but he sees his phone screen flash an unknown number and makes a note to check his voicemail later. He's a little distracted for the rest of the class, but he puts it down to the lack of sleep from the show.

He's more eager for the bell to sound than his students, and he's got his phone to his ear before the last student makes it out the door. He's half expecting the message to be a wrong number, or his dentist, but when the computer voice finishes telling him the message was left at "one oh three PM" it's Mikey's voice on the line.

"Oh hey Frank, it's Mikey." Frank can hear Gerard talking in the background, something about paisley. "So hey, the Sunshine is doing an Evil Dead marathon tomorrow night if you're up for it. I'll buy the popcorn. This is my number, by the way, so like, call or text or whatever. I'm staying at Gee's."

A small smile tugs at Frank's lips as he ends the call and clicks through the menu to save Mikey's number, overwriting the old long-dead number under his "Mikeyfuckingway" contact. For the first time in a long time the name of that contact makes him smile. His next class are already filing in, so he sends Mikey a text instead of calling.

Evil Dead. It's a date.

He hits send and pockets his phone, turning to face his students. Maybe he can trick them into learning something today.

***


October 4, 1999

"Frank, you're missing it! It's the fucking best part and you're missing it!" Mikey shouts from the living room. Frank can hear the rising tones of music for a massacre and the odd scream leaking into the kitchen.

"Fucking hit pause then, asshole!" he shouts back, wedging a bottle of Coke under his arm and juggling a bag of Cheetos, a cheap bottle of bourbon and two glasses in his hands. How the fuck is it always his turn to get the movie snacks? Mikey's superpower is getting people to get shit for him while he sits on his ass. Frank needs to find a way to absorb this power and put it to good use. Frank hip-checks the fridge door closed and walks into the living room where the movie is still running, Mikey sprawled on the couch watching it. He hasn't even reached for the remote.

Frank puts his load down awkwardly and drops his ass on the couch beside Mikey. "I told you to pause it, asshole."

"What?" Mikey doesn't even look away from the screen. Frank glares at his ear and reaches over him for the remote, making sure he elbows Mikey on the way. He points it at the VCR and hits rewind.

"Hey!" Mikey objects, grabbing for the remote, but Frank's faster, pulling it out of his reach and keeping an eye on the screen. Whatever he missed it looks bloody - was that a decapitation? Fuck yeah. He's just about to hit play when Mikey grabs the remote back and hits fast forward.

Oh, now it's on.

Mikey wrenches the remote back, holding it at arms' length. Frank climbs over Mikey, kneeling on his leg; Mikey winces and Frank grabs the remote back before Mikey can retaliate. Before he has a chance to use it, Mikey grabs him around the waist, somehow managing to flip him clean off the couch. Frank lands on his back on the grody carpet, wind knocked out of him on impact with an audible oof. Mikey - who has clearly been watching too much pro-wrestling - presses his knee into Frank's solar plexus like he's a freshly-conquered country, leans over, and grabs the remote back from Frank's failing grip.

He taps Frank on the head with it. "Don't touch the remote."

He hits play, somewhere so deep into the movie Frank's never gonna be able to follow the plot now. It doesn't matter to Mikey, he's seen the Evil Dead trilogy approximately five billion times. He can pretty much recite the dialogue - screams included. Frank sits up, breathing hard as Mikey settles on the couch, remote wedged under his leg as he pours two bourbon and Cokes. Well. Bourbons with a splash of Coke.

Frank climbs up onto the couch, bouncing his ass on the cushions hard enough to make Mikey slop Coke onto the table. Mikey glares at him, but still hands him one of the drinks, so he's not really pissed. Frank takes it, chugging the whole thing in one long slurp and slamming the empty glass down on the table.

"You do realise I'm just going to have to ask you all the questions about what the fuck happened in the part that I missed."

"I don't have to answer you."

"True, but what if I-" Frank digs a finger into Mikey's side, right into the spot where's he's so ticklish it makes him squeal. And he does squeal, leaping sideways and sloshing his drink over his fingers.

"Dick," Mikey swears, putting his glass down and wiping his sticky-wet fingers on Frank's cheek. Frank goes on the offensive, trying to lick Mikey's hand before he remembers this is Mikey nothing grosses him out, so he bites Mikey's palm, getting another high-pitched squeal before Mikey pulls another fucking ninja wrestling move and Frank winds up with his face pressed into the back of the couch and Mikey sitting on his legs. The couch cushions smell like cigarettes and Way-funk. Frank tries to move, but Mikey's got a firm hold on his neck, the vibrations of his laughter shaking down Frank's back.

Frank makes a totally hilarious one liner that even he can't understand because his mouth is smushed into the upholstery and scissors his legs. The movement is violent enough to unseat Mikey and Frank uses that to his advantage, flipping over and flinging himself onto Mikey in a whirl of elbows and knees. By now they're both laughing uncontrollably. Mikey tries to get a grip on Frank's wrists but he keeps twisting out of the way, his hands leaving Indian burns all over Frank's forearms. Frank shoves Mikey backwards and the coffee table rattles, knocking one of the glasses over. It splashes cold drink all over Frank's thigh and down Mikey's back. Mikey squeals again, his eyes bugging out and he looks so ridiculous that Frank loses his shit, dissolving into giggles and rolling back and forth on the carpet.

"Your fucking face!" Frank snorts, hiccuping between gasping laughs. Mikey glares down at him, his hair so fucked up from the scuffle that parts of it are standing vertical.

Frank recognises Mikey's evil grin a moment too late to avoid getting a face-full of bourbon and coke. Then Mikey can't stop laughing. Frank spends the rest of the night with his neck sticky and his t-shirt damp, but it's still a fucking good night.

Later, much later, when they've run the gamut of all three Evil Dead movies and the TV's on informercials because they can't be bothered channel surfing, Frank's limbs are weighted with lead and there's a happy warm buzz in his skull. He could really go for some weed if only he hadn't smoked up his stash last weekend. Mikey's sprawled bonelessly on the couch beside Frank, their legs in a tangle under the coffee table. His glasses have slipped right to the end of his nose and his hair is equally divided between the sections that are standing upright and the sections that are plastered flat to his skull. The only light comes from the television and it plays over Mikey's face and hair, casting weird patterns over his skin.

"What?" Mikey says, and only then does Frank realise he was staring.

"Oh. Nothing. I'm drunk."

Mikey smiles messily. "Me too." He rubs his eyes with the back of his hand. "We should probably go to bed."

"Yeah," Frank agrees, but he doesn't move, and neither does Mikey.

They watch an ad for an abdominal exerciser and then one for a mop. Frank's just starting to really get into the one about the steamer when Mikey says, "So Gerard hooked up with someone at school."

"Go Gee! College pussy is where it's at." He gropes for his glass to toast with, but it's out of his reach and he's pretty sure it's empty anyway, so he fistpumps in lieu of a toast. Gerard would understand.

Mikey makes a non-committal noise, which forces Frank to look up, because Mikey's non-committal noises generally require some kind of tied-in facial expression to decode what they mean.

"What's the problem, he needs to get laid, right?"

"Yeah, but it wasn't a chick."

"Oh. Okay." Frank considers the idea. Gerard and a dude? Yeah okay, he can see that. On some level it actually makes a lot of sense. "So, is it like serious, or is it just-" Frank waves a hand like a half-assed orchestra conductor, "an experimental thing?"

" I don't know." Frank tries to read Mikey's facial expression, but between the dark and his general state of inebriation, it's not easy.

"Is that, like, a problem for you?" he asks Mikey carefully.

"Fuck no. Not my business who he puts his dick in."

"Um, okay." Frank's not entirely sure he wants to be talking about this. "Not really my business either." Frank takes a breath, his mouth curving downwards in distaste when he remembers the stupid shitheads who used to throw the word 'faggot' at him in school. Gerard didn't have a much better time of it either, though he kind of brought it upon himself by wearing tights in that play freshman year. "He's not going to like - cop shit for that is he?" he asks. Because maybe this is why Mikey's bringing it up. Maybe he's worried about Gerard getting the crap beaten out of him.

" Frank, he goes to art school. In New York." The twist in Mikey's voice says it all.

"Okay, so, it's fine then. Gerard's getting some, which means he's not being a hermit freakazoid weirdo and actually going out and having, y'know, life experiences and shit at college. That's good, right?"

"So, it doesn't bother you then?" Mikey asks, voice softer than usual.

"What doesn't?"

"The gay thing."

Oh. Oh. Right.

"Why the fuck would it bother me? He's your brother. Whatever. Him banging dudes isn't going to change anything."

They watch another ad for a toaster and then one for a non-stick frying pan where the guy doing the demo manages to make eggs stick to the non-stick frying pan. Now that's talent.

"What if it was me?" Mikey asks. It takes a moment for Frank to process the question, because his brain has to fly from the how the fuck do you make eggs stick to teflon, nothing sticks to teflon? zone to the Mikey is talking about serious shit and he looks kind of worried zone and Frank's still pretty drunk. It's not a fast transition.

"What?" Frank rolls the question back in his mind, weighing up the words. "What if what was you?"

Mikey sinks deeper into the couch. "What if I was into guys?"

"Are you?" Frank asks, which is totally not an answer, but he can't help it, it just comes out.

Mikey just shrugs, which from Mikey is as good as a yes. Frank tries to force his brain to work. Does he actually care if Mikey likes dick? Hmm. Well, half the scene guys Mikey hangs out with look like chicks anyway with all the eyeliner and sideways hair and skinny jeans. It isn't really that much of a change.

Frank echoes Mikey's earlier answer, "Like I care where you put your dick." He gives Mikey's foot a soft kick and that makes Mikey smile. Only a little smile, but Frank counts it as a win.

The amazing Teflon-destroying guy gets out two sentences about a waffle iron when Frank asks, "Hey, so does that mean you can hook me up with the chicks you don't want to date?"

Mikey kicks him. It hurts.

"Ow. Dude. I'm being helpful and supportive here. You are so ungrateful." He goes to bitchslap Mikey, but Mikey has clearly been watering down his own drinks tonight, because he moves like a ninja, grabbing Frank's wrist and biting his hand. Frank yelps and pulls his hand away, shaking his fingers.

He glares at Mikey, considering retaliation, but decides he can't be bothered and just kicks him again, aiming for his bony knee and getting more shin than anything. Man, Frank is fucked.

He's lost all interest in the ridiculous informercial guy now. His mind is swimming around the idea of Mikey being into dudes. He tries to imagine what that would look like. He's seen Mikey make out with chicks before - way too often, the guy has serious hook up karma and no sense of privacy. Frank tries to overlay a guy's face on the last chick he saw Mikey make out with. At first it's a little slippery, but once he gets a handle on it, it makes a weirdly large amount of sense.

Huh.

"Hey, so is this like a theoretical thing, or have you like, actually done stuff? With dudes, I mean?"

Mikey turns to look at Frank, one eyebrow raised.

"What?" Frank asks, "You brought it up!"

Mikey drains what's left in his glass. They ran out of Coke so they're doing bourbon and Sprite now and it's just weird tasting. "Sort of."

"Sort of? Sort of how? Oh wait, - with who? Dude, I can't believe you've been sitting on this." He digs his knee into Mikey's side. "Some best friend, you are. God, if I was getting some you'd know all about it."

"Yeah, I know that, believe me."

Frank beams a huge smile at Mikey, swirling the dregs of his drink around the bottom of his glass. "Sharing is caring. Now spill."

Mikey climbs off the couch, teetering a little as he kneels beside the coffee table to pour himself a fresh drink. Frank wields his own empty glass under Mikey's nose insistently until Mikey takes it. "Who was it?"

"No one you know." Mikey doesn't look up from the drink he's pouring.

Frank knees him in the back, making Mikey sway forwards, slopping sprite onto the coffee table. "Tell."

Mikey makes that annoyed throat-noise. "This dude, he was in town with his soccer team."

"Woah, you got it on with a jock?" That doesn't fit with the mental image Frank created earlier. He tries to imagine Mikey making out with some dude in shin-guards and a soccer jersey and he starts laughing. He wriggles lower on the couch until his legs are dangling, laughing until he's gasping for breath.

Mikey picks up the two drinks and sits carefully back down on the couch, holding them near his chest. Frank reaches for one and Mikey pulls it closer. "No way man, you don't get to laugh at me and then still get this. I pour drinks for real friends."

"Real friends don't sit on sex gossip, come on, give me the drink and we can call it even."

Mikey hangs on a little longer, but it's only for show. Frank pries Mikey's fingers off the glass and slugs back a mouthful. Fuck, it really does taste weird. "So did you fuck him?"

"No."

"Did he fuck you?"

"No."

"Blow job?"

"No."

Frank's running out of options here. "What then? Did he give you his letter jacket and ask you to the prom?"

Mikey flips him off.

"You suck at this. How am I supposed to vicariously live your hot gay sex life? Mikeywaaaay," Frank whines, turning Mikey's name into a twenty syllable word.

Mikey raises an eyebrow at him and turns his hand so instead of flipping Frank the bird he's making a... demonstrative hand motion.

So now Frank's mental image of Mikey and the guy in the shin-guards now involves hand jobs and Frank laughs so hard he can't even breathe.

Hours later, they end up on the back stairs, heavy jackets over old their old sweats, smoking in the open air so the smell won't carry into the house. (The Ways' isn't a non-smoking household and Donna used to be pretty relaxed about the boys smoking inside, but when she got an earful from Frank's mom about his fucking immune system, he and Mikey had to start being more sneaky.)

Frank squints up at the sky, watching the curls of smoke rise from the burning cherry of his cigarette, turning orange against the streetlight glare.

They smoke quietly, really only concerned with the nicotine hit so they can get back inside where it's warm. Mikey's the one who breaks the silence.

"So, have you ever...?"

The question hangs in the air between them like the smoke. "Ever what?" Frank asks, turning his cigarette and watching the ash flutter to the ground.

"You know." Mikey inclines his head. "With like, a guy."

"No. Believe me, you'd know if I had."

"Yeah. Only too well." Mikey shakes his head, taking another drag from his cigarette. He still doesn't look completely comfortable talking to Frank about this, but he's getting better now.

Frank sidles up to Mikey, leaning his head on his shoulder. "You know I'm saving my ass cherry for you, Mikeyway."

That makes Mikey laugh, a startled little snort that's totally genuine. Mission accomplished.

***

Frank ends up going to the Gerard's to pick up Mikey, because somehow despite being a rockstar, Mikey still doesn't have a car. He could probably borrow Gerard's, but Frank's okay with driving. He's been in a car with Mikey behind the wheel.

Gerard answers the door, his hair standing pretty much vertical, wearing a shirt that was once black but has now faded to a dull grey and is streaked with paint.

"Oh hey, dude," he says, grinning at Frank and shoving his hair out of his face. The movement streaks red paint across his cheek and Frank's not sure if he should mention it. "Mikey's upstairs." Gerard says, and then leans up the stairwell and shouts, "Mikey! Frank's here!"

The Ways' intercom system hasn't changed in the past ten years then.

"You want some coffee or beer or something?" Gerard asks. Frank hums thoughtfully and peers up the stairs, wondering how long it's gonna take Mikey to come down.

"He's doing his hair," Gerard says, with a meaningful eyebrow. Because that could take hours.

"Make it coffee then."

By the time Mikey does make it downstairs, Frank's on his second cup (in a mug which has a blue paint smear on the rim) and Gerard's deeply involved in explaining the plot of his next graphic novel. It sounds really good and Frank is so swept up in Gerard's hand-gesticulating descriptions that he doesn't notice Mikey's joined them until he steals Gerard's coffee to take a sip. He slides into a chair beside his brother, smiling at Frank over the rim of the mug.

Mikey is looking a lot less rock star and a lot more typical Mikey tonight. He's got a grey knit cap pulled over his hair and there're a few wisps of blond sticking out from under the brim, sitting in front of his ears. He's wearing an old Star Wars t-shirt, the design cracked and peeling, and a pair of faded jeans with a hole in one knee.

Frank loses track of what Gerard's saying about the evil corporation that runs the show in 2019 for a moment. He shakes his head to try to clear it and get a grasp on Gerard's world. Gerard's still talking despite Frank's distraction; Frank's starting to think he could talk underwater. He only stops, mid-sentence, when he reaches for his cup and it's empty. He glances forlornly at the bottom of his mug before glaring at Mikey.

"You drank all my coffee."

"Hey, you said I could help myself to anything while I'm here." He glances across the table at Frank. "Hey, Frank."

"Hey, Mikes."

Gerard sighs a put-out Italian grandmother kind of sigh. "You're so lucky you don't have a little brother," He says to Frank. "They just take all your shit, without remorse, and they don't even apologise."

Frank snickers, but something in his chest squeezes up at the word brothers and his smile feels a little stuck on. Honestly, he'd be happy to put up with the bullshit if it meant he got to have a little of what Mikey and Gerard have.

Mikey rolls his eyes and gets up from the table, refilling Gerard's cup and sliding it back in front of him. "Happy?"

"I don't take it black."

"I know."

Gerard groans and gets up for the creamer. "Fucking useless little brothers."

"Love you too!" Mikey ruffles Gerard's hair as he walks past, then glances at Frank. "We should probably..."

"Yeah." Frank drains the dregs of his coffee and gets up.

Frank drives an old Honda that makes a funny noise when it's idling. It's not much of a step up from the clunker he used to drive in high school and he's a little embarrassed by it. He could afford something nicer if he wanted, but he's got other things he'd rather spend his money on, so he keeps an old juice container full of water and a bottle of oil in the trunk because old Bessie tends to overheat and she churns through oil so fast he has to check the levels about once a week.

He tries not to think about how Mikey could probably afford to buy some kind of ridiculous sports car if he wanted to. Maybe he already has.

Mikey doesn't give him shit about driving a crappy car. Frank almost thinks he would feel more comfortable if he had. He just digs open Frank's glove compartment and finds his CD wallet. (The one luxury Frank allowed himself was a decent sound system and a CD player. There's fuck-all good music on the radio anymore.)

"Madina Lake? Are you shitting me?"

"What, they've got good rhythm and their guitarist is awesome."

Mikey keeps flipping pages. "Frank, this is so sad. Tell me you've got something in here I can actually listen to."

"What? There is plenty of good shit in there, don't be an asshole." Frank glances over and flips a few pages back, pointing at a CD with "for Frank" scrawled across it in Sharpie. "That one."

"What, you mean this isn't like, a copy of someone's porn collection?" Mikey holds up the CD, his index finger through the hole in the middle.

"No, you dick, it's a demo of Toro's new project. It'll melt your face off."

Mikey laughs and puts it on. Halfway through the first track he cranks it really fucking loud and shouts, "Holy shit, this is awesome."

It's like someone hit rewind on Frank's life, tearing down the streets with Mikey in control of the music, blaring metal out the windows into the wind. It's almost a shame when they get to the theatre – and the music dies abruptly, mid wailing guitar - as Frank kills the engine.

"Fuck man, they're good. They played many gigs?"

"Nah, it's still early days."

Mikey gives Frank a doubtful look. "That doesn't sound like early days."

"You know Toro, fucking perfectionist," Frank says, getting out of the car. It's not until he hears Mikey tapping on the window that he remembers his front passenger door catch is still fucking broken, and he jogs around the front of the car to open Mikey's door from the outside. "Sorry dude, I keep forgetting to get that shit fixed."

"Dogs die in hot cars, you know."

"Good thing it's spring, not summer. And you're not a dog."

"True. So, are you still playing too?"

Frank shrugs. It gives him a twinge to talk about it, especially to the person who's living his rock n' roll dream. But it's Mikey, and if anyone deserves it, Mikey does. Besides, Frank's not even sure he'd want it now. He'd miss his kids. If anyone told him ten years ago he'd wind up teaching he would've laughed them out of the room. "Sometimes," he admits, "more for me though. I jam with Ray from time to time too, but that's just for fun."

"We should jam sometime," Mikey says, eyes bright and earnest.

"Yeah," Frank says, suddenly smiling. "That'd be fucking awesome. I'll call Ray too. We can piss off my neighbours. Their fucking cat keeps pissing on my lawn."

When they get inside the theatre it's nearly empty. They sit up the back row anyway, their traditional spot. Once upon a time it was about not getting caught sneaking in, now they've actually paid for their tickets. There's only a handful of other people, so Frank takes advantage, propping his feet up on the seat in front of him and balancing the planet-sized box of popcorn they got on the seat beside him.

They've seen Evil Dead so many times by now that they could both recite it word for word. Mikey does a few times and Frank joins in on the killer lines when he can't resist. No one is sitting near them, but Mikey still leans in to whisper to Frank. It's just commentary along the way, stupid bits of trivia about the movie and memories of dumb shit they did when they were watching it, but it feels good.

"Hey, you remember when we tried to recreate the thing with the blood?"

"Fuck, that was messy. My mom still brings that up sometimes when she wants to talk about how much of little shit I was."

Mikey snorts under his breath. "Was? Like, you're not anymore."

"I think she's pretty happy I didn't go into music. I'm like, a functioning member of society and everything now."

"Yeah, those rock n' roll kids are dipshits. All drug addicts and people who need to be in jail."

"Totally," Frank says, stealing some of Mikey's junior mints.

In the intermission between movies they go outside, loitering in the parking lot and smoking. It's like a million other nights they've had. The only thing missing is warm cans of beer from under the seat in Frank's car or a dimebag of weed to top off the night.

It's well into the early hours by the time the third movie is done and Frank spends the second half of it fighting sleep. In fact, he must actually nod off because he misses the final showdown altogether and wakes up to the houselights already on and Mikey shaking his shoulder gently.

"Dude, you're such an old man." Mikey grins. His hat's slipped back on his head a little, and it's gone sideways, leave his hair all fuzzy where it's been rubbed. Frank blinks at him, still somewhere between asleep and conscious.

"Did I miss the end?"

"Yeah. It's okay though. Good guys won. Killed lots of bad guys. That kind of thing."

"Cool," Frank says, and lets Mikey drag him to his feet and steer him out of the theater. He goes for his keys, but Mikey grabs them out of his hand.

"It's cool man, I'll drive, you're probably too out of it."

Frank wants to argue that Mikey is the worst driver ever, but he's so fucking tired. Whatever, if he dies on the way home at least it won't be his fault. "Fine."

The moment Mikey turns the ignition the radio starts blaring. He turns it down to a low mumble, so Frank doesn't manage to stay awake on the ride home either. He wakes up when the car stops, and blinks through the windshield, recognising his house. "No, dude, we need to go to Gee's."

"It's cool, I can call a cab from here. You should get inside."

"Don't be dumb, man, I can drive ten fucking minutes."

"No. I really don't think you can." Mikey reaches across Frank to shove the passenger door open. It doesn't budge.

Frank says, blearily, "Broken, remember?"

Mikey actually gets out of the car, jogging a little awkwardly around the car to let Frank out, ignoring Frank's weak protests. He shoves Frank towards his front door. "C'mon. Just get inside. You're about to fall over. You're such a senior citizen."

Frank flips him off, but it loses some of its impact because he's yawning at the time. He fumbles through his keys and it's not until he's inside that he realises that Mikey hasn't seen his place. It's nothing special, just a little two-story brick house, with a postage stamp sized backyard and a decent sized garage that's crammed full of too much shit for Frank to park his car in it. The bank owns more of it than he does, but it's still Frank's place - shitty carpet, ugly feature wall and all.

"It's nothing special," he tells Mikey as they go inside, somehow feeling like he needs to warn Mikey, as if Mikey's highflying rockstar lifestyle wouldn't have prepared him for Frank's solidly middle class existence. He flicks the light switch on, illuminating the jumble of mismatched furniture, the random collection of posters scattered on the walls from Black Flag to Kimya Dawson and Metropolis to Batman. His record and CD collections take up a corner of the living room, along with his two guitars. His TV's still an old tube type, but it's widescreen and huge, and he's got two different kinds of games consoles for it. Most of the furniture is covered in throw blankets, because it's all old and the throws are better than sitting on threadbare upholstery, and most of the shitty-ass carpet is covered with a giant rug his mom gave him.

It's nothing fancy, but it suits Frank fine.

"Cool place," Mikey says, coming inside, already shrugging out of his jacket. He wanders over to Frank's CD collection and starts browsing. He smiles when he gets to CD player and finds the case to The Used's last album sitting on top, empty because the CD is in the player. Frank had been listening to it before the show - trying to get familiar with the songs. Mikey picks up the case and waves it at Frank. "What'd you think?"

Frank nods. "It's good. Solid. At least three singles on there, I bet. Not that I know what I'm talking about." Frank's manners kick in, a little late and sounding suspiciously like his mom. "You want a drink? Coffee? Beer? I think I've got some juice?"

Mikey's mouth starts to form the word "coffee" but he cuts himself off. "No, dude, you're supposed to be going to bed. I'm just gonna go."

Frank rolls his eyes. Now that he's not in the car he's feeling more awake anyway. "Don't be an idiot, Way. I'll put the pot on."

When Frank comes out of the kitchen with two mugs of coffee, Mikey's on his couch peering at the top paper on a pile of grading Frank brought home to do over the weekend.

"Oh, you should take a closer look at that one. It's killer."

Mikey raises an eyebrow, accepting the mug and taking a long sip. Frank picks up the paper, and clears his throat - "So Doctor Frankenstein thought he was bringing something good to the world, but the world didn't understand and thought his monster was a monster, so them going after it is like the persecution of the Catholic church."

Mikey carefully swallows his coffee. "Um, what?"

"I think that kid didn't actually read the book. I don't even think he watched the movie. Oh wait, this one's a kicker." Frank rifles through the pile until he finds the paper he covered in red writing. It's not that the kid who wrote it isn't smart; he just apparently didn't feel the need to explain any of his opinions, so it reads like a really strange manifesto. Frank shares a few choice passages with Mikey until they're both giggling.

"So this is what you do now." Mikey taps the pile. He shakes his head. "It's still a headfuck, Frankie."

"Yeah well, having a copy of your album in my CD player that isn't a burn from your computer is kind of a headfuck for me, Mikes." Frank puts his empty mug down, settling into the couch. "What's it like, really?"

Mikey looks down into his empty mug. "It's hard, sometimes. It sounds stupid, but it can get really hard. I like the playing though, the shows. Every night you get up there and there're all these kids and they just keep coming. Sometimes you see the same ones at shows night after night, and you're like - what are you doing back here? It's not like we're gonna do anything different, you've already seen it."

Frank smiles at Mikey, feeling warm. "You got fans, man. True fans."

When Mikey smiles at Frank there's something faraway in his eyes. "Yeah. Yeah we do."

"We used to be those kids.Remember camping out for the Pumpkins? I fucking hated you for that, it was so fucking cold."

"We got barrier though, didn't we? So worth it."

Frank kicks Mikey's knee. "Whatever." The rest of the word is lost on a yawn. Okay, Frank maybe has to admit he is tired this time.

"Oh my god, go to bed, old man." Mikey pushes up off the couch, groping his pockets for his phone. "I'll call a cab."

"You can just crash here if you want." Frank says. "I've got a spare room and everything." Frank's pretty sure he changed the sheets since last time Ray crashed.

Mikey weighs his phone in his hand, then puts it away. "Okay, cool. I don't want to deal with a cab, anyway."

"Awesome," Frank says, scrubbing a hand over his face. Okay, he's really whacked. "Let me give you the two cent tour, then I'm gonna go fall over."

"It's cool, man, I'm sure I can figure it out."

Frank doesn't listen to him, just grabs Mikey's bony wrist and walks up the stairs, dragging Mikey behind him. When they're at the top, he points. "Your room's there, bathroom's there, my room's there. Don't break anything. See you in the morning."

Frank gets to his bedroom doorway when he hears Mikey's, "Hey, Frank?"

"Yeah?" Frank turns to see Mikey standing awkwardly on the landing.

"It's good to see you."

Frank's face stretches into a wide smile. "Yeah. It's good to see you to Mikeyway. Welcome home."

***


May 1, 2003

"This can't be everything I own." Mikey's voice sounds pitifully small and confused.

Frank looks at the pile of clothes on Mikey's bed, and the pile next to it of random electronics and toothbrush and hair gel. It is a pretty small pile.

"What else do you need? All your gear's going to be in the trailer with everyone else's right? So it's like, clothes and toiletries and shit." Frank inclines his chin at the pile. "What's all that?"

"Clothes and toiletries and shit," Mikey says, his eyebrows furrowing deep.

"As long as you've got ID, money and like, phone, if there's anything else you don't have you can pick it up on the road."

"Yeah, with all the money I'm gonna be raking in."

"Shut up Mikeyway, living on the road is cheap, as long you don't mind eating crap and stealing booze from other people's buses."

Mikey laughs and crawls onto the bed, flopping onto his side beside the precarious pile of all his worldly possessions. "Tell me all your wise road advice, oh experienced one."

"Fuck you, dude, this is an actual tour. Pencey's only done pissant shit. This is like, actual venues and you're gonna be playing with fucking Underoath." Frank shakes his head, staring at Mikey, awestruck. "Fuck, man, I'd kill to be you right now."

Mikey sits up, deadly serious. "You could you know. You're better at guitar than me, you could pick up the songs like that-"

"Shut the fuck up, Mikeyway." Frank surprises himself with the strength of his own voice. "Don't talk shit. This is your gig, you've earned it, and you're gonna fucking rock their faces off."

Mikey pulls his knees up to his chest. It makes him look small. "I'm gonna shit myself and puke all over the front row."

"Now that's a gorgeous mental image." Frank leans over the side of the bed, grabbing Mikey's duffel and throwing it at his head. "Pack up your shit so we can go and get drunk. You're leaving tomorrow, and it's bad luck to start a tour not hungover."

They do get drunk that night. Stupid, falling down, randomly telling everyone "I love you" kind of drunk. It's awesome.

It's so late it's early when Frank stumbles outside the bar to piss behind the dumpster because he can’t be bothered waiting for the bathroom. He zips up and turns to head back inside, bumping right into Mikey.

"Mikey!" Frank throws himself at Mikey, catching him in a hug. "Fuck, man, where did you go? I haven't seen you in ages."

"What? Dude, you just told me you were coming outside for a piss and a cigarette."

"I did? Oh yeah, totally did!" Frank still hasn't let go of Mikey. He doesn't want to, either, so he tightens his hold. "Can't believe you're going dude."

"It's only for a few months," Mikey says, but his voice doesn't sound that reassured.

"You're gonna go and get all fucking famous and then you're never gonna come back. What the fuck am I gonna do then?"

"The same thing you already do now dude, I just won't be here."

"That's gonna suck. It's gonna be so fucking boring, Mikey." Frank's lips brush against Mikey's stupid leather jacket as he talks. He wriggles closer to Mikey, until he can touch the tips of his fingers to his elbows where they're wrapped around Mikey. Fuck, he's so skinny. Fuck, he loves this guy. "I love you, Mikes." Frank doesn't mean to say it, but he's at the point in the night where anything he thinks is going to come out of his mouth anyway. It's not like it isn't true.

Mikey ruffles Frank's hair. "I love you, too Frankie." His voice sounds weird. Not drunk weird. Mikey doesn't seem to be that drunk at all yet.

Mikey's arms tighten around Frank. Frank nuzzles his face into Mikey's neck. He could just stay like this for the rest of the night. He can stock up on all the hugs he's not gonna get while Mikey's gone. Put 'em in the hug bank.

Mikey's hold loosens a little and he leans back. Frank blinks his eyes open. His movements are slow, all the corners softened by the booze. He peers at Mikey, trying to read his expression. His eyes are soft, a little sad, but the line of his mouth is determined. "Frank, I just wanted-" He bites his lip.

Frank's brow furrows as he tries to figure out what Mikey could want that he'd not just ask for - or take, in most cases.

"Anything, Mikes." Because even if he was sober, Frank's pretty sure he can't think of anything he'd say no to Mikey over.

Something twitches across Mikey's face, so fast Frank doesn't have time to read it, then he leans down and covers Franks mouth with his own.

Mikey's kissing him. Mikey's kissing him. Frank's hands spasm, gripping Mikey's jacket. He doesn't really kiss back right away, but he doesn't not kiss back either. His mouth softens under Mikey's, opening up a little. He leans up into it, and before he realises, he's gone from being kissed to kissing.

He doesn't think about what it means, just that it's a kiss, and a good kiss. Soft and deep. He loses himself in it, gives himself up to it, when suddenly it's over.

When he pries his eyes open, Mikey's sputtering, "I'm sorry. Fuck, I'm so sorry."

Before Frank can reprogram his tongue from kissing to speaking, Mikey's disappeared back inside.

Frank doesn't see him for the rest of the night. It's not for lack of trying; he circuits the room several times looking for him. Mikey just isn’t there. When Frank finally tracks down Gerard, he shrugs and tells Frank he's probably gone home. Frank lets himself get dragged back into the party and drinks himself stupid. It's easier than thinking about what happened.

He doesn't go after Mikey. That doesn't mean he doesn't want to. He just doesn't go.

***

Frank's body hates him. Apparently, even going to bed well after 2am is not enough to reset his ridiculous internal clock and he wakes up as usual, ten minutes before his weekday alarm. Not that he's set his alarm, no. And not that he wants to be awake either. Hell no. He rolls over and closes his eyes, but it doesn't matter how deep he digs, he can't find an ounce of sleepiness.

He rolls on his back and pulls a pillow over his head. Yeah no, that's not working either.

"Fine," he mutters at the empty room, and gets up.

The house is unsurprisingly quiet - Frank's pretty sure Mikey won't surface before noon. He's probably still living on rock n' roll hours. Frank puts on the coffee machine and zones out watching Food Network.

When Mikey finally shuffles out into the living room, Frank's on his third cup of coffee, his fourth episode of House Hunters, and he's about halfway through the pile of marking he brought home. He's reading a fifteen year old's rather confused take on Oedipus Rex and he's nearly ready to tear his hair out.

"Is there coffee?" Mikey asks.

Frank, thankful for any distraction at this stage, pulls his eyes away from the page. "Good morning to you, too."

"I'll be nice when I've had coffee."

Frank points at the machine. "I saved you a cup."

Mikey shuffles into the kitchen and Frank turns his attention back to the abomination purporting to be a paper. When Mikey gets back into the room, Frank just can't contain it anymore, he has to whine to someone.

"You know, they could actually read the play. Not just make up some shit based on what they found online."

Mikey flops down on the couch beside Frank, clutching his coffee mug in two hands. "Where's the fun in that? I'm pretty sure I got a B on that paper I did on Hamlet and I didn't understand a fucking word of that thing."

"You watched the movie, though."

"The movie rules. There's so much blood in that last sequence and everybody dies."

"You probably would've loved Titus Andronicus then. Lots of blood and chopping off limbs," Frank says. He stares at the words in front of him until they blur together. Fuck this, he can do it later. "Wanna go get some breakfast?"

"Sure. We going to Sweetheart's?"

Frank shoves the paper back on the marking pile, dropping his red pen on top of the pages. "Where else would we go?"

***

Sweetheart's does the best pancakes in Jersey. Mikey figured it out years before Frank did, but let Frank constantly suggest new places to try out anyway. Every time, the pancakes were utterly substandard and Frank wouldn't hear the end of it. Eventually he gave in and admitted that - on this single issue - Mikey was right, and didn't try to argue the point anymore. Plus, they do bottomless coffee.

Frank doesn't even need to look at the menu to order. He gets his usual tall stack with butter and maple syrup and a coffee. Mikey looks at the menu like he always does, dithers about ordering something different like he always does, and winds up getting the same.

They don't talk about old times over breakfast. Frank catches Mikey up on mutual friends he's lost touch with, and they compare notes over people they've both lost touch with, trying to guess where they wound up.

It's easy. Weirdly easy. It's like Mikey hasn't even been gone, things just slide back to the way they've always been. Frank kicking Mikey under the table and telling him he's an idiot. Mikey flipping Frank off and telling him his taste in music sucks. Both of them discussing in ridiculously fine detail the deeper motivations of characters from Lord Of The Rings.

Frank's plate is empty, pushed to the side, and he's nearly finished his second cup of coffee. He leans back in the creaky old booth, snorting out a laugh at the story Mikey's telling about two roadies getting into a scuffle on their last tour. Mikey grins as he tells it, arms waving in front of him, rushing the words like he can't get them out of his mouth fast enough. It's his real smile, the one Mikey won't do for cameras, because he thinks he's got bad teeth.

Something twists in Frank's chest and he realises that he's missed this. He's missed Mikey. It's not news, it's just, he didn't realise how acutely it had been affecting him, until now he has him back.

But it's not permanent. Mikey's never going to be back for good. There's no use dwelling on it.

"So when do you go back?"

"Huh?" Mikey pauses with his coffee cup halfway to his mouth. "Back where?"

"Back on tour."

"Oh right, our next show is in DC on like, Thursday. But we've got some MTV thing on Wednesday morning so Brian wants me at the airport Tuesday night."

"Wow," Frank says, his chest deflating. "That's really soon."

Mikey shrugs. "I know. God, I can't believe there are more people out there who still want to see us."

"You gonna be coming back this way at all?"

Mikey runs his finger around the rim of his cup. "I don't think so. I think it's all in the Midwest for the rest of the tour."

Frank's mouth pulls to the side. He'll just have to try not to get too used to having Mikey around. But either Mikey can still read him like a book, or Frank's just ridiculously transparent, because the next thing Mikey says is, ""You could come along, if you wanted."

"What?"

"Spring break's coming up, right? You could come on tour with me, hang out, see some shows and some bumfuck towns. Eat some shitty food."

Frank goes to shake his head. No way could he do that. "Break's not really a break dude, I'll have all this grading to do, classes to plan, all that shit."

"So?" Mikey shrugs. "You can do that anywhere right? Bring it with you."

"I'd be in the way."

"You're not that big."

"Fuck you," Frank says with a smile.

Mikey leans forward, eyes slipping down to the table top. "I'd like it, if you could. It'd be like, bringing a little bit of normal with me."

"Dude, if you think I'm normal, you really need help."

"You know what I mean. I'm gonna be on tour for the rest of the year. It's not like I've got a lot of options."

"MIkes-"

"Just think about it. You don't have to decide now. Or like, ever. I won't bring it up again."

"I'll think about it." Frank promises.

***

The thing is, Frank does think about it. He considers it. He gets online and checks The Used's tour schedule, compares it with when spring break is, calculates where he'd have to go, how long it would take, how long he could stay away.

In a nine day break, he could probably afford to be away for seven days. He can catch a last minute ski bunny sale, so the flight to Salt Lake City is pretty cheap. The flight times are doable. All of his grading is papers and tests, not dioramas and project boards.

He doesn't even realise that he's planning it until it's pretty much planned. The only thing he hasn't done is book anything - or tell anyone what he's doing.

The last day Mikey's in town, Frank stops by to see him at Gerard's place after school. There's a pile of bags in Gerard's front hallway, by the door. The sight makes Frank's chest clench up.

"Back on the road," Frank says, by way of greeting.

Mikey smiles, his hair smushed down under his knit cap. "Yeah well, Gerard was gonna kick me out if I stayed any longer."

"Lies!" Gerard yells from the kitchen. He appears in the kitchen doorway with a bottle of beer in each hand. "Mi casa, su casa." He walks over and hands a beer to each of them. "That means get the fuck out of my house in Spanish."

"You know, I used to teach Spanish, Gee."

Gerard shushes him. "Don't tell Mikey my secrets. It'll go to his head." He hooks an arm around Mikey's neck, leaning into a hug. "I don't see why you have to go. You know, if all these kids were true fans, they'd come to Jersey to see you play."

"You know, if you really loved me you'd follow me all over the country to watch me play. There are fans out there I haven't even met yet who'd do that for me." Mikey's voice is muffled into Gerard's hair.

"I guess I don't love you enough," Gee says, hugging Mikey tighter.

"Yeah, I guess not," Mikey says, tilting his head to rest his cheek on Gerard's messy hair.

"God, you guys are like a Kleenex commercial." Frank jibes.

"Whatever," Gerard says. He grabs Frank by the back of the neck, pulling him into a group hug. Frank goes willingly, wrapping his arms around the brothers and holding on tight, trying not to spill his beer.

When they pull apart they're all smiling, and Frank takes a pull from his beer.

"So does the rule about it being bad luck to start a tour not hungover still stand?" Mikey asks around a mouthful of beer.

"Technically, you don't have a show until Thursday, so getting drunk tonight doesn't count. Plus, I have classes tomorrow."

"You're such an old man," Mikey says, crawling onto the couch.

"Dude, I'm younger than you." Frank slumps down to sit beside him.

"I'm not talking about age in years. Your mental age is about eighty five."

"Yours is twelve."

"Thanks!" Mikey raises his beer. "I'll drink to that!"

Gerard reappears from the kitchen with a beer of his own. "That isn't worth a toast. Make it something worth drinking to." He slides down onto the sofa on Mikey's other side.

"You call it then." Frank says.

Gerard pauses for a moment of thought, then raises his beer. "To Mikey. Don't fuck off for too long."

"Here, here." Frank clinks his bottle to Gerard's and glares Mikey down until he clinks his with the other two.

"I'll do my best. I don't make the schedule, you know."

"Excuses, excuses," Frank says, swishing the beer around in his bottle.

For a moment there's only the sound of The Misfits coming out of the stereo. Gerard breaks it, "So Frank, you gonna go on tour with Mikey on spring break, or what?"

"Gee," Mikey hisses, glaring at him.

"What? I'm just asking," Gerard says, shrugging at Mikey, before turning questioning eyes on Frank.

"I don't know," Frank says. "I'm thinking about it. It's just-"

"Just what?" Mikey asks, looking way too interested.

Frank shrugs. "It's not my tour. I don't know. I'd be weird."

"Look at it this way - you can see how shitty touring is, and be glad you have a nice comfortable job where you get to sleep in your own bed every night."

"Or I quit my job because the call of the road becomes far too strong."

Mikey laughs. "I guarantee that won't happen. A week on the road with Bert will put you off touring forever."

Frank wavers. Mikey leans in, giving him the puppy eyes Frank's never been able to resist. "Come on. It'll be fun. If you hate it you can come home early, no strings, promise."

Frank was already more than halfway there. It's not that much further to fall. "Fine. Fine, I'll fucking come. But remember - you asked for this."

Mikey grabs Frank around the neck and pulls him into a hug that smushes Frank's face into his shoulder. When he blinks his eyes open, Gerard is beaming at him.

***

In the lead up to Spring Break Frank is as antsy as his students. Perhaps even more.

He lays out his clothes to pack and no matter how he stacks them it always looks like more than he should take. He whittles it down to bare basics and tells himself he can buy anything he's missing. He puts together a folder with all his grading and lesson plans for April and throws in a bunch of spare pens. At the last minute, he adds three extra pairs of clean socks, because that's the one thing he always seems to run out of first.

When his bag is packed and his boarding pass is printed, he stands in the middle of his living room, loaded down with his bags, jacket and scarf on, ready to face the cold of the mountains. He looks around the living room, trying to think if there's anything he's forgotten. His gaze lingers on Pansy in the corner of the room, gleaming white on her guitar stand. But no, this isn't his tour. If he wants to noodle around on a guitar in the next week or so he can just borrow one of Mikey's.

His phone vibrates in his pocket, the alarm he set to tell himself he should be leaving for the airport. He silences it and realizes there's also a text from Mikey.

see u soon.

Frank smiles and heads for the door.

***

Everything after Frank's flight is a blur. There's a guy covered with tattoos waiting for him, holding up his name on a sign.

Frank waves at him, a little weakly. He's wearing old torn up jeans, a faded band t-shirt and a Black Flag hoodie, but he still feels conspicuously ordinary. It only gets worse when they arrive at the venue.

"They're already in at sound check," the driver, who insisted Frank call him "Worm," says. He hands Frank a backstage pass and points him towards the stage entrance. "Show this to that lady over there, she'll tell you where to go."

Frank goes to pick his bags up, but Worm stops him with, "Don't worry about your bags, I'll take them to the hotel with the rest of the guys' personal shit."

"Oh, okay." Frank thanks the guy and heads for the venue. It's about the size of The Starland Ballroom and in a town like this that says something impressive about the popularity of the band. There's also a lot of kids already lined up outside. Like, around the block. Frank can feel their eyes following him as he walks up to the stage door. They whisper, pointing at his backstage pass. He hears some of them speculating that he might be in one of the openers. He keeps his eyes forward, trying not to blush or laugh.

The woman on the door sees him coming, and opens the barrier to let him through. She picks up his pass and studies it. It's a shiny laminate about the side of Frank's hand, with a stylised picture of the band and the details of the tour on it, with a bunch of official-looking holographic stickers. The bottom of the laminate has Frank's name written in sharpie and there's an initial in the box labelled "Access All Areas".

Fifteen year old Frank would have been hella impressed with it.

The woman nods at him and opens the back stage door. The kids waiting behind Frank crane their heads to look inside as the woman points down the hallway, directing Frank to the third door on the right. Frank thanks her and goes inside.

He feels weirdly out of place as he walks down the hall, passing a lot of guys in t-shirts and tattoos. Some are carrying equipment and some aren't, but all of them have a look of determined concentration. When Frank gets near the door the woman directed him to, he can hear the random dissonance of instruments tuning up. He pushes the door open and his breath catches in his throat.

He's side stage, among a mess of techs and roadies, the stage stretched out in front of him. The Used are on the stage, instruments out and all of them standing in place, but not playing. Mikey's tuning up and Bert's saying something into the mic, gesticulating madly in front of him.

Frank looks past the band to the auditorium below, and it's just breathtaking. It's all lit up, so he can see every seat, right to the back row. He tries to imagine what it must look like during a gig, mentally replacing all those chairs in his mind with faces, bodies, bouncing, screaming and clapping. It's mindblowing.

"Can I have some more vocal please, I feel like I'm talking to myself," Bert's saying, holding his mic close to his mouth and pitching his voice low. "Dear Penthouse, last week I woke up at the bottom of a pile of women, they were heavy. Okay, yeah that's better."

Frank doesn't realise he's blocking the doorway until a tech bumps into him from behind with a road case.

"Sorry dude," he says, scooting to the side, trying to find somewhere to stand that doesn't put him in front of someone who's actually working.

That's the moment Mikey looks up and sees him. The smile that spreads across his face is worth every minute Frank spent on the plane. He jogs over to Bert and says something Frank can't hear, hands his guitar off to a tech and then he's loping side stage and sweeping Frank into a hug.

"Dude, you made it!"

Frank smiles into Mikey's shoulder. "I think there were some kids outside who were planning to mug me for my backstage pass, but I got past them alright. Your fans are hardcore."

"Some of them camped out last night. Worm showed me a picture, all these kids out on the pavement wrapped in comforters and sleeping bags."

"Your fans are nuts."

"Fuck yes they are." Mikey eases back, still smiling, so big his eyes are all lit up. "Thanks for coming. I gotta finish sound check, but then I can hang out."

"Cool." Frank nods.

"Mikeyway, please report to stage left. We're all waiting on your ass," Bert intones into the mic, waggling his eyebrows at Mikey across the stage.

Mikey flips him off, but heads back to his spot. Bert keeps his eyes on Frank. "Hi Frank. Welcome to the tour," he says into the microphone, his voice bouncing around the auditorium. "Everyone say hi to Mikey's friend Frank!"

The chorus of Hi Frank that comes back is mostly roadies and venue staff, but when Frank glances down to the auditorium floor he can see there's a small group of fans down there too, giggling and waving at him. He waves back and tries not to blush. Thank god this is only a sound check. He hopes Bert never decides to try to pull this in front of a real crowd.

"Bird and the Worm, guys," Bert says, and their drummer taps out a beat. The band comes to life, crashing through the song.

Frank's been side stage before, but only in tiny little venues. He wonders if he'll be able to be up here at least once in front of a real crowd; it'd kick ass.

As the band pounds through the song, his eyes get stuck on Mikey. Mikey's still got his rockstar stance on, much like he did the night Frank saw him play in Jersey, but it's looser now. He looks more relaxed around the shoulders, more settled. Frank's pretty sure he can put that down to the lack of crowd, and not his own presence, but either way it's good to see.

He stays side stage for the rest of the sound check. The band's fun to watch. Bert's a brat during sound check, but the guys seem used to it - to even expect it. He steps on Mikey's guitar cable at one point, but Mikey just holds still and keeps playing until Bert moves on. He hangs off Quinn and sticks his tongue in Quinn's ear until he bursts out laughing, but Quinn doesn't miss a note. Jepha gives back as good as he gets, going to his knees in front of Bert and trying to bite him, playing perfectly the whole time. Frank can't stop laughing and he's glad the music's loud enough to cover it. They make it look like fun.

As soon as sound check's over, Mikey's at his side again, catching Frank around the shoulders as they walk down the hall with the band to the dressing room. Mikey makes a point of introducing Frank to everyone, even though the only person he hasn't already met is their drummer Dan, though he doubts anyone really remembers him.

The dressing room isn't anything fancy. Frank's not sure what he's expecting, but it isn't all candles and roses and piles of fanmail. It's just a sizeable room, with carpet that needs replacing, some comfortable well-worn couches and a bench lined with makeup lights and mirrors. Everything has a well-used look about it - scratched and faded and comfortable.

There's a table in the corner with a spread of food and a few buckets of ice with drinks in them. Mikey digs through until he finds a diet soda. "You want something?" he asks Frank.

Frank nods and says, "Same."

They settle into the couches with drinks and Frank can't help asking, "So that's it, you just hang around here until showtime?"

"Might go out and sign for a while. I think we've got a radio interview back here, too," Mikey says.

"Yeah," says Jepha, settling on the couch with a beer. "Some local station. That'll probably take most of an hour." He pulls a paperback novel out of his bag and settles in to read.

Bert digs through one of the buckets on the table, grumbling, and shouts, "Why is there no Coke Zero?"

Quinn digs a can of Coke Zero out of the other bucket and shoves it under Bert's t-shirt until he squeals. Bert licks him in retaliation and it quickly devolves into a sloppy wrestling match.

"So this is the exciting touring life then?" Frank says, dragging eyes away from the ungainly pile of legs and arms that is Bert and Quinn.

"Mhm," says Mikey.

"It's kind of boring."

"It usually takes a lot longer for people to notice that," Bert says from somewhere underneath Quinn. He raises his hands and golf claps in Frank's general direction. "Bravo."

***

Frank stands side stage at the show and it's even more mindblowing than he expected. The noise of the crowd reaches right to the back of the stage, loud in his ears.

The band is on fire tonight, their performance turned up so much higher than at sound check. They sound tight, fast and loud. Frank leans against a road case and watches, letting the sound of the guitars and the screams of the kids wash over him, feeling the chords throb in his chest, like Mikey's reached inside and is strumming his spine.

It's not the same as being out there, but it's close enough that Frank can get the idea of what is must be like. He can see why Mikey's addicted to it. He would be, too. It'd be worth the travel to be out there every night, to feel this, to see all those faces chanting the words back at them, expressions on their faces as manic as Bert's, every emotion echoed back at them.

Yeah, Frank can understand it.

Frank can still feel the performance high throbbing through the whole band when they leave the stage. Bert runs around hugging everyone, even Frank, and he's so sweaty his hair's wet and it sticks to Frank's face, but he doesn't care. If what he's feeling is a tiny slice of what they're on, he gets it.

They hang around the venue after the show for a while, some of the guys going for showers, some just changing into clean clothes. When it's time to leave for the hotel, they wind up back at the same side door Frank came in, and there's even more kids waiting this time than before the show. There's a titter of eager chatter as the door opens, and a couple of venue security go out first.

"You ready for this?" Mikey asks Frank, and while his expression is blank, his eyes are bright and nervous.

"Probably not," Frank admits.

"Too bad!" Bert laughs and pushes them out the door. The moment the kids catch sight of Mikey, they start calling his name. He smiles at them shyly and walks towards the reaching hands, taking tickets and posters and CDs, scrawling his name on them and handing them back. The shouting gets louder when Bert comes out, then Quinn and Jepha - they're the original members so the hardcore fans would love them best, Frank supposes. The guys are endlessly patient with the slightly crazed fans, chatting to them as they sign, answering questions, wishing people happy birthday.

Frank hovers back, feeling ridiculously out of place, but he's not sure where they're going next so he doesn't want to wander off. He hovers behind Mikey, who glances back at him occasionally with an apologetic look, but Frank just shrugs. Whatever, I'm in no rush he tries to say with his eyes, and Mikey just smiles and asks the girl he's signing for how to spell her name.

The group of kids doesn't seem to get any smaller and the number of reaching hands doesn't seem to lessen. The cold starts to seep through Frank's clothes and he shifts from foot to foot.

It's Worm who calls it, signalling to the guys that they're done and stepping up to tell the crowd loudly, thanks for coming but the guys have to get back to the hotel, they have another show, they appreciate you all coming out.

The ride back to the hotel is quiet. Frank stares out the window watching the lights of the city slide past and wonders what it'd be like to do this every night. He's not sure he would want to.

At the hotel he's rooming with Mikey. It makes sense, and he takes the swipe card when it's handed to him. Of course, the first thing Frank notices when they get in the room is that there's only one bed. One huge king size bed, in the middle of the room.

"Um," he says.

"Do you care?" Mikey asks. "It happens a lot. We can call down and wait to get changed or we can just deal."

"Fuck it, let's deal. It won't be the first time," Frank says. Then he remembers Mikey's one of the band members who didn't shower after the show. "You have to shower though."

Mikey gives a put-upon sigh. "Fine," he says, but he doesn't sound that disappointed.

Once they've both showered they sprawl out on the giant bed watching Law and Order re-runs and Frank quizzes Mikey on all the questions he's come up with that day.

"So are you in hotels every night?"

"Fuck no, man, you timed it well. We're on the bus for the next week, but we've got another one when we get to Cleveland. You managed to get two hotel nights in while you're here dude, I'm impressed."

"The buses are pretty fancy, though."

"You'll see tomorrow. They're pretty slick, but after a while it doesn't matter how well designed something is, it just gets too small when you've got this many people staying in it for weeks and weeks."

"The guys are okay, though right?"

"Oh yeah, totally." Mikey nods. "It's a little weird sometimes, when they start talking about shit that happened years ago, before I was around. Like, half the time they forget I wasn't always in the band and just start being all 'oh hey, remember when' and I'm like, dude I wasn't there."

Frank laughs. "As far as work related bullshit goes, that's not too bad."

"No," Mikey agrees. "I'm pretty lucky."

"You are."

They watch Benson and Stabler solve another heinous crime in relative silence, then Frank realises the adrenaline's finally worn off and he's ready to crash. He crawls under the sheets, rolling onto his side. "I'm gonna bail. Keep watching if you want. I've seen these so many times now they're practically a lullabye."

"Okay, Frankie," Mikey says.

Frank hears Mikey resettle on the pillows. He reaches behind himself to blindly pat at Mikey's leg. "Night Mikes."

"Night Frank."

Frank's starting to drift off when he feels Mikey's hand gently card through his hair. "Thanks for coming."

***

When Frank wakes up, his right leg is tangled around Mikey's and he's got an arm thrown over Mikey's chest. It takes him a moment to remember where he is, why he's looking at an unfamiliar ceiling, why there's a warm body beside his. His eyes fall on Mikey's sleeping face, his features soft and relaxed. There's a long piece of hair across his eyes and before Frank can stop himself, he's reached across to gently move it aside.

For no reason at all he finds himself thinking of that one time Mikey kissed him, years ago. They'd never talked about it afterwards. Mikey had gone on tour and it hadn't come up in phone calls or text messages and Frank had started to wonder if it had even happened. He was pretty fucking drunk that night, after all.

He finds himself staring at Mikey's mouth. He blinks and drags his gaze upwards, tracing the line of Mikey's cheekbone, the curve of his eyebrows, the soft curl of his eyelashes. His hand is still hovering over Mikey's face and he has to pull it back, to actually tell himself to pull it back instead of reaching down and touching Mikey's cheek, rubbing his thumb along Mikey's cheekbone like he wants to.

Because fuck, he wants to.

He can admit that to himself, right now, in a hotel room miles from home, with Mikey asleep beside him. He can admit that in his own head, and no one else has to know.

He pulls his hand back, tucking it against his chest.

It's not like there's any point doing anything about it.

***

The next few days blur together. It's strange how quickly Frank falls into the rhythm of touring. The late nights somehow manage to reset his body clock and he's as surprised as anyone when he starts waking up later and later.

Frank goes to every show. In Minneapolis, he goes down onto the floor and gets the audience view, peering over the waving arms and bouncing heads to see the stage, the crowd loud in his ears. It's a great way to experience the show, but he still prefers to be side stage.

He still gets the itch when he watches them play, still feels the pull of the stage that used to keep him driving through the night in a van with the rest of Pencey, playing basement shows to kids who could care less about the music, throwing himself out there over and over, letting the music consume him.

Eventually he gives in and asks Mikey to borrow a guitar. Mikey all but shoves one in his hands and they end up in the back lounge of the bus, swapping licks with each other. Mikey makes him play old Pencey songs and Frank giggles his way through Heartbreak in Stereo. He's still laughing as he plays out the last chords.

"I was a shitty lyricist," he says, his fingers still tapping out the beat of the song on the front of the guitar. She's not Pansy, but she's a lovely instrument.

"Hey, at least you can sing."

"Barely." Frank snickers, and strums a few chords. "How about this one?"

It takes Mikey all of five seconds to recognise it as Metallica. He joins in, playing the rhythm while Frank plays lead. Frank throws himself into it, headbanging along, doing his best metal voice and basically acting like a tool. Soon they're both laughing too hard to keep playing, and Frank collapses against the back of the couch, fingers still pulling random dissonant noises from his guitar as he laughs until he's nearly choking.

When he finally manages to get his eyes open long enough to focus, Mikey's grinning back at him, eyes bright and his breath short. Frank thinks I did that, I made him smile like that and just like that he knows he's gone. He's in so much fucking trouble.

This is not the time to start falling for Mikeyway. The time to do that was ten years ago, before he got his face splashed all over Kerrang and NME, before he got a job that keeps him on the road more than half the year. Before he could cut off communication with a simple change of phone number and leave Frank out in the cold, just another helpless fan trying to reach out to the guy in the spotlight.

Bert breaks the moment by bursting into the bus lounge and flopping down onto the couch beside Frank. "So you really can play," he says with a grin.

Frank's mouth opens, but before he can form any words, Mikey beats him to it. "He's better than me. Taught me everything I know."

"That is such bullshit," Frank says, throwing his pick at Mikey.

"You know I tried out to play bass in Pencey and they turned me down?" Mikey asks Bert.

"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?"

"I was pretty shit, at the time," Mikey explains.

"I guess it's a good thing you got better," Bert says, rolling his head to the side to ask Frank, "You know any good songs?"

"Oooh burn," Frank retorts, but he starts strumming through the rhythm lines to Pretty Handsome Awkward.

"Way to be a suck up," Bert cracks up, but he ends up singing along anyway. Mikey joins in and they while away a chunk of the long drive playing songs until Frank's fingers are sore.

Mikey catches him sucking on one. "Pussy." He grabs Frank's hands, studying his calluses. "You're not playing enough. Getting all soft."

Frank tears his hands away, but not before his heart trips over at having Mikey so close.

He's in so much fucking trouble.

Luckily, Mikey's phone starts trilling and he leaves Frank alone, groping across the carpet for it. His eyes light up when he sees the caller ID and he answers, "Gee!"

Frank can hear the soft tinny cadence of Gerard talking to Mikey, fast and excited.

"That's awesome dude, wait - Hey Frank, Gerard might be up for an Eisner. Fuck, man, when do you find out?"

There's more excited talking, then Mikey lifts his chin away from the handset, telling Frank "Oh, and Gee says hi."

"Hi Gee!" Frank yells in the general direction of the phone.

Bert snorts, "Don't I get a hello?"

Mikey rolls his eyes, telling Gerard, "Bert says hello." Frank doesn't hear exactly what Gerard says back, but he thinks he hears the word 'asshole' somewhere in there.

Mikey rolls his eyes again, nodding to Bert, "Gee says hi."

He totally didn't say that, but Frank's not going to point it out. Mikey is kind of a shitty liar though.

"Love you too, Gee!" Bert shouts at the phone.

Mikey glares at him. "Fuck you both, I'm going to my bunk," Mikey declares, and does just that. It leaves Frank alone with Bert and nothing but a guitar that's not even his for protection.

"I don't bite, you know," Bert says, wriggling around on the couch until he's lying on his back, resting his feet up on the armrest. "Don't look so freaked out."

"I'm not freaked out." Frank shrugs. He's a little stiff, maybe, but it's not like he and Bert hang out one on one much. Or even at all. He settles the guitar in his lap, trying to think of something to say. "Thanks for letting me tag along, I know it can't be easy having another person around, especially when I don't need to be here."

"Dude, it's no trouble, believe me. Mikey's been doing so much better since you got here. Stay as long as you like."

"Better? He wasn't doing well?" The words spill out of Frank's mouth before he can stop them.

Bert's expression flickers and it becomes very obvious to Frank that Bert is not supposed to be talking about this. Bert shakes his head.

"It's nothing serious, right?" Frank presses, because fuck privacy - if it's something important he wants to know.

"Who am I to call what's serious? Whatever. Look, everyone's got their own road tolerance - mine's pretty high, I could live on tour permanently, but not everyone can rock as hard as me. Jepha runs out of steam around three months, but if we get his girl to come out with us for a while, we can stretch that to six. Mikey just... he just hit his threshold. But that's cool because now we know his antidote."

"His antidote?"

Bert pokes him in the arm. "You, asshole. Now play me Pretty again, prove it wasn't a fluke."

Frank fits his fingers to the strings and plays the song again, glad of the distraction. Bert's words rattle in his head anyway, and he can't help wondering what it means to be Mikey's antidote, trying not to wish too hard for it to mean one thing in particular.

***

Frank knows he's fucked it up big time when Ray answers his phone with just, "Time zones, asshole."

But he still answered, so Frank knows he's fine. "I'm sorry, alright, this is important."

"Important enough that you need me to be awake, or can I just go back to sleep and pretend to listen?"

"I think I've got a hard-on for Mikey."

Ray groans. "You've always had a hard-on for Mikey."

"No, I haven't! He's my best friend."

"You're always a little bit in love with your best friend." Frank can hear the movement of sheets and Ray grumbles, "I need coffee to deal with this. Call me back in five." He hangs up without saying goodbye, which isn't really that rude on most people's scales, but on the Ray-scale it's off the charts.

This is worth pissing Ray off over, though. Frank needs answers, and he needs them now, because he's flying back to Jersey in two days and he has no idea what to do - or if he even should do something.

He paces the dressing room nervously, glancing at his watch. The boom of drums reassures him that the guys are still on stage, so he's fine, he can have this conversation. Fuck, it really is difficult to get privacy on tour.

After four and a half minutes he decides that's close enough, and he dials Ray's number. Ray picks up after three rings.

"You have coffee now?" Frank asks carefully.

"Yes, but you're still an asshole."

"Come on, Toro, this is important." He can hear Ray rubbing his eyes, sighing tiredly. Wow, Frank really is an asshole.

"Turn it into a question, Frank."

"What do I do?"

"Um, you make a move? You do remember how to do that right? You used to be pretty smooth back in the day."

This is the problem with staying friends with your exes. They can call you out on your bullshit and they know all your moves because they've seen you use them.

"And wreck the friendship."

"Yeah because it's not like you're good at staying friends with your exes or anything," Ray mutters, and Frank hears a voice in the background.

"Shit, sorry, Spencer's not over tonight is he?" Frank really is an asshole.

"No, you dick, you're lucky he's got a gig tonight. It's the TV." Spencer and Ray have been dating for a while. (Frank likes to give Ray shit about the age gap), so he's familiar with Spencer's bitchface which can melt steel when he's pissed. Frank's glad he's not there to get woken up by Frank's call.

Ray sighs down the phone. "Break it down for me. Pros and cons."

"To what, making a move?"

"Yes." Ray's voice has got that tone usually reserved for when Frank's drunk the last beer. He should tread carefully.

"Um, okay - cons. If he's not interested, it could fuck up our friendship. It could fuck up my friendship with Gerard. It would be really embarrassing. If he is interested, it's an impossible relationship, he's on tour all the time, I'll never see him, and my students will never take me seriously if they find out I'm dating a rockstar."

"That's a lot of cons," Ray says, all compassion. "Pros?"

Frank sighs, leaning back on the wall. He shrugs even though Ray can't see him. He can really only think of one. "It's Mikey."

Maybe he only needs one.

***

Frank's standing side stage, watching the band sound check in Milwaukee when Mikey points at Frank and demands, "Frank, do this one."

It's some kind of conspiracy, because Jepha and Bert wrestle him onto the stage and manhandle him over to Mikey, who shrugs out of his guitar strap and hands it over.

"What are you doing?" Frank asks, taking the guitar, but not putting the strap over his shoulder.

"I'm taking a break. Play this one for me, Frankie." He smiles and ruffles Frank's hair, then slings the shoulder strap over Frank's head and gives him a shove forward so he's facing the empty auditorium.

The empty, fucking huge auditorium. At least it's empty, Frank tells himself as he fits his fingers to the frets, already knowing which song it is, that Mikey wouldn't put him on the spot for one he didn't know. When he manages to tear his eyes away from the echoing chasm of seats, Mikey grins at him and Bert sends him a questioning look. "You ready?

He doesn't wait for an answer before nodding at Dan, who counts them in and then they're playing.

Frank's playing. On a stage bigger than any he's ever been on, hearing his notes bounce through the auditorium, coming back at him through the monitors. He wants to savour it, to remember it, because this is a cherished dream, one he didn't imagine he'd get to fulfil. All he can manage, though, is to throw himself into it, let the music carry him, feel it vibrate up his arms and out into the venue.

It's fucking awesome.

After sound check, Mikey shoves a setlist in his hand for the night's show. Written in Sharpie next to Pretty Handsome Awkward is simply, "WITH FRANK."

Frank stares at it a moment before it really sinks in. They want him to do this again - in front of an audience. In front of that fucking amphitheatre full of kids. He swallows, staring at his name on the page until the letters start to blur together.

He hands the page back to Mikey. "I can't."

Mikey just shoves it right back into Frank's hand, crumpling the sheet a little. "You totally can. Don't be a pussy. You just did."

"That was for fun. This isn't-" Frank cuts himself off, searching for any words to say, anything that isn't just that he's a coward who'd shit himself in front of a crowd that big. "Those kids aren't coming to see me, man. They're coming to see you. I'm no one. No one's wants to see me up there."

Mikey shakes his head. "I do. You moron." He fits his long fingers over Frank's, pressing them into a grip around the setlist. "Do it for me. Just this once, okay? And you can totally blame me when everyone has to bug you to stop fucking telling the story already."

"Mikey-"

"For me, Frank? Please?" And he turns the fucking puppy eyes on Frank - Frank really has no defence against that.

He opens his mouth to say no, but what comes out is, "Okay."

Mikey catches him around the neck and pulls him into a bony hug. Frank really isn't good at saying no to him.

By showtime Frank's pretty much sick with nerves. He has no idea why he's doing this and he can't even complain to anyone because all the guys he's with do this every damn night. He tries to remember how he used to do it back in Pencey. He's pretty sure he just used to get really fucking drunk. Which... well it is an option, but not a very smart one. He'd kind of like to pull this off tonight. He'll never live it down if he doesn't.

Mikey catches him pacing in the dressing room. "You're gonna wear a track in the carpet."

"I don't know how you do this every night, dude."

Mikey shrugs. "You get used to it." He blinks, his eyes getting faraway. "No, that's a lie. You don't ever really get used to it." He scratches a hand through his hair, his brow furrowing. "It never really stops being like... scary and terrifying and fucking... amazing."

Frank's stomach does a weird flip and it makes him feel sick. "Wow, Mikey that is so totally not helping me."

"Okay, how about this?" Mikey steps in front of Frank, pressing his fingers under Frank's chin until he looks up, "Don't let them see your eyes. You know the song, so just stay in the song, okay? Just play and make like the audience isn't even there. Got it?"

Frank snorts out a laugh so sudden it even surprises himself. "Who the hell told you that?"

"I don't know, some shithead," Mikey says with a wide grin. He catches Frank around the waist and pulls him into a hug. Frank wraps his arms around Mikey and holds on a little tighter, a little longer than he probably should.

He can do this. He can totally do this.

***

Somehow the crowd that night is so much louder. The auditorium is so much more packed than any other night. Or at least, that's how it looks to Frank. He watches the set from side stage again, but this time instead of the noise vibrating through him like electricity, sparking him to life, it just makes him want to throw up.

It must show all over his face. Mikey catches his eye several times during the set and gives him an encouraging smile or nod. It doesn't help much, but it does help.

Frank's name isn't on the setlist until the encore, so he gets to wait the whole set before having to step out onto the stage. He's torn between wanting to get it over with early, while being childishly happy to put it off for as long as possible.

At the end of the main set Bert calls out a goodnight to the audience and the band comes off stage, leaving the audience going absolutely fucking nuts out there. Mikey jogs over to where Frank is totally not pacing and grabs him by the shoulder. "You ready?" He's all sweaty and high from playing, his eyes alight with excitement.

Frank's brain says "no" but his mouth says "yes."

Too soon, the stage manager is giving the band the all clear. Mikey squeezes Frank's arm before he takes the stage again. Bert shoots Frank a smile and says, "Piece of cake, dude," like Frank isn't about to crawl right out of his skin.

The crowd goes mental when they see the band is back. Bert snatches the mic from its stand. "Don't pretend you didn't know we were coming back," he says with a smirk.

Mikey's guitar tech hands Frank one of Mikey's guitars, and Frank settles it over his shoulders. He's working totally on autopilot, his heart stuttering in his chest as he adjusts the strap. His movements are jerky, his fingers thick and clumsy. He's pretty sure his hands aren't going to work at all.

"Now we all know Mikeyway is getting older, past his prime, you know?" Bert banters to the audience, "So before he collapses, he's gonna go have a little nap, and luckily his good friend Frank Iero is here to give us a hand. Frank?"

Bert turns his eyes to Frank and it's all Frank can do to work his legs, his grip on the neck of the guitar death-tight as he walks out on to the stage.

He can feel the weight of all the eyes in the audience on him with every step he takes, until he makes it to stage left where Mikey's waiting for him. He gives Frank an awkward one-armed hug around their guitars and the crowd roars its appreciation. Frank tries not to think about how they're basically yelling for him as he gives Mikey a smile that's only half faked. He flexes his fingers, ghosting out the first chords of Pretty Handsome Awkward as Mikey melts away, stepping backwards until he's in the wings, out of sight of the crowd.

Dan bashes his sticks together, counting them in, and then it's do or die. Frank's fingers find the strings, and for the first verse it's all muscle memory and Frank's mind is rush of sound and noise. He reaches for focus, shutting down everything in his brain that isn't the music, letting it wash over him, pull him through it.

In defiance of all evidence to the contrary, by the second chorus Frank is actually enjoying himself. He bounces on his heels, bangs his head, throws himself around to the beat. The noise of the crowd becomes just one more thing pushing him on, making his fingers move, his body spasm. The guitar under his fingers is familiar while everything else is new. He lets the music sweep him up, hearing the notes he's playing echo back at him through the monitors, hearing the screams of the crowd.

It's incredible.

The song ends before he's ready for it to, and he finally looks up, nerves himself to look out into the audience, seeing nothing but arms and faces, a surging mass of people as far as the light reaches. His heart trips and he knows he's wearing the most ridiculous expression of awe on his face but he just doesn't care. He glances to his right and finds Mikey smiling at him, his eyes soft, pride written all over him.

Frank didn't think his heart could beat any faster, but it does. Mikey walks toward him and Frank barely manages to get the guitar off his shoulders and handed off to a tech before Mikey sweeps him into a hug. A burst of camera flashes go off as Mikey spins him around, laughing in his ear, and Frank hugs him back so tight he imagines he can feel Mikey's heart beating through his shirt.

Mikey pulls back first, turning Frank to face the audience as he links their fingers and raises Frank's arm above his head. They cheer louder - and Frank knows this time that it's for him. He lets it roll over him, beaming out at the audience for a moment, before squeezing Mikey's fingers and turning to leave the stage.

He watches the rest of the encore from side stage, adrenaline still thrumming through him. He can't take his eyes off Mikey.

When the band comes off stage he gets hugs from each of them in turn. Mikey's the last and he clings like a limpet. Without the roar of the crowd dulling everything down, Frank can hear him speak this time. "You were great, Frankie. A real rockstar."

Frank laughs and squeezes closer, until his cheeks pressed against Mikey's neck, until the short crisp hairs at the nape of Mikey's neck are rubbing at the palm of his hand. "Thanks for making me do that, Mikes. That was amazing. Such a fucking rush."

He pulls back a little, needing to see Mikey's face. They're both high from the gig, panting and smiling fit to burst. The rush of adrenaline is still coursing through Frank's veins - he's invincible, he could do anything right now.

The one thing he wants to do is kiss Mikey.

It wouldn't take much. He'd just need to tighten his fingers on the back of Mikey's neck and pull his mouth down to Frank's. Their faces are so close already that Mikey's breath is bouncing off Frank's lips. He flexes his fingers on Mikey's neck, eyes searching Mikey's face looking for any kind of sign that he still wants this. That he ever wanted it in the first place.

Mikey's looking back at him, his breathing still quick, his eyes all intense like he knows something up. Like he knows what Frank's thinking. He doesn't move though, and neither does Frank. The moment drags for what feels like an eternity, but could be only a few seconds for all Frank knows.

"I was just-" Frank starts, trying to force out the words, "There was, I just want-"

"Want what?" Mikey's voice is deeper than normal, and he's just fucking gorgeous like this.

"You." The word is barely out of Frank's mouth before the panic sets in, the total fear. He's stumbling out more words before he can stop himself. "You said I could stay longer if I wanted. I mean, I could go another day or two, I think and still be ready for work."

It takes Mikey a moment to respond, like Frank's speaking Japanese. Frank doesn't even know where that came from, but he can't take it back now. Mikey's already easing back, and Frank misses the warmth of his body, his touch, immediately.

"Of course," Mikey says, with a smile that doesn't really touch his eyes. "As long as you want. It's good to have you around, if you're not too bored with it all by now."

"Oh yeah," Frank grins, waving an arm out at the arena floor that's still slowly emptying out, "This is all a huge bore." He shakes his head and catches Mikey around the waist as they head for the dressing room. He sticks close to Mikey all the way back, feeling the warmth of his skin through his t-shirt, and tells himself this is enough.

He doesn't need any more than this.

***

Contrary to what Frank might have believed, The Used don't party after every show. In fact, they don't party after most shows - tonight is an exception. When Mikey and Frank get back to the dressing room, the rider is already laid out, ready to be drunk away. Bert's already nursing a beer and he raises it in greeting when Mikey and Frank walk in the door.

Jepha shoves beers at them and Mikey clinks the neck of his bottle to Frank's, still smiling, though Frank is having more trouble reading it than he usually does.

They proceed to get really drunk, really really fast.

It's probably not the smartest thing Frank's ever done, but whatever, he doesn't have anywhere to be the next day, just some papers to grade and another show to be at. He gets down in it, stops counting his drinks and lets it roll. He's still got a buzz in his bloodstream from being onstage and he rides it.

Mikey joins him, but he can tell Mikey's not as drunk as he is. He can actually walk in a straight line on the way to the bus, while Frank's own trajectory is rather crooked. Mikey drags him inside and rolls him into a bunk. Frank protests weakly, smacking Mikey's arms.

"C'mon it's not bedtime, I'm totally awake."

"Course you are," Mikey says, but Frank can tell he's lying because Mikey's totally laughing at him right now, even as he's untangling the knots on Frank's shoes and removing them from his feet. He drops them on the floor and works Frank's belt open. An alarm starts screaming in Frank's head because oh god he wants this, but he's probably too drunk to do a good job and then Mikey will think he's bad at sex. And when did he get around to making a move on Mikey, anyway? Wow he must be drunk.

The thing is, even though Mikey strips off Frank's jeans, all he does is drop them onto the floor on top of his shoes and pull the blanket up to Frank's neck. He leans in and ruffles Frank's hair. "Sleep now, you fucking rockstar."

"Takes one to know one," Frank mumbles. And fuck Mikey for being right, because now that he's warm and horizontal he is falling asleep. Still, there's something niggling, something he needs to ask, and it has to be now. He grabs at Mikey's hand and tugs, not letting him lean out of the bunk. "Mikey-"

"Yeah, Frank?"

"You remember back before the Warped tour? How you kissed me?"

Mikey freezes. Frank blinks up at him, trying to read him. Fuck he's too drunk for this, but he just, he needs to know. "Why did you do that?"

He feels rather than sees Mikey's shrug. "Because I wanted to."

Frank hums. Now he can't remember why he asked, and he's all warm and sleepy. He keeps his grip on Mikey's wrist though, turning to nuzzle his face into Mikey's hand, pressing a kiss to his palm. "Night Mikey."

Mikey doesn't move his hand straight away. In fact, Frank's pretty sure he doesn't move his hand away until after Frank's dead to the world.

***

Hangovers are no fun. Suffering a hangover on a moving bus is even less fun. Frank wakes up with a splitting headache and so thirsty his throat feels like sandpaper. He pries gluey eyes open to stare at the roof of his bunk. No, wait. This isn't his bunk. He glances around and spots Mikey's iPod tucked into the shelf beside the bed, and picture of Gerard and Mikey taped to the wall next to it.

Mikey must've put Frank in his bunk. Right, of course, Frank's bunk is on the top, and he was probably too drunk to get up there, even with Mikey's help.

He rolls onto his back. Oh god, that hurts. Everything hurts. He blinks blearily at the bottom of the bunk above him, where Mikey is probably sleeping. He finds himself staring at his own face from ten years ago. Mikey's got a bunch of old photos taped to the ceiling, and this one looks like it was taken just after they'd graduated, Frank with his ugly pot dreads and Mikey with his birds nest hairdo and heavy-frame glasses.

Mikey's got his arm around Frank's neck, and Frank's got an arm wrapped around Mikey's waist - his hand is visible, tucked into Mikey's front pocket. Frank's pulling a face, all teeth and squinched-up eyes, and Mikey's just staring the camera down like he always does, he always refuses to smile.

Frank's heart trips, and his eyes rove over the motley collection of photos. There's a few of Mikey with various members of the band; a lot of those look like they were taken when Mikey wasn't aware of it. There's a lot of Mikey with Gerard - one with Gerard grinning wide and Mikey looking strangely solemn as Gerard holds up a first-run print of The Umbrella Academy comic. Another looks like a print-out of the one Frank's seen in a frame back at the Way's household - Mikey and Gerard as round-faced babies. Almost as numerous as the photos of Mikey and Gerard are the photos with Frank in them. In fact, there's a few that are just of Frank.

He reaches up a hand, tracing a finger over the tape holding one to the bunk. This one, he can remember Mikey taking. He's caught Frank mid-giggle, one finger pointing down the lens, the rest of his fingers wrapped around the neck of a beer. He's red in the face and his hair's messed up. It was at a party at Otter's not long before Mikey was due to go on tour that first time. Mikey had taken a bunch of shots of Frank that night, saying it was an important to "memorax" this night.

Frank trails his fingers over the collage, following the line of sticky tape to another photo. This photo, Frank remembers taking. It's of the two of them, Frank's arm tight around Mikey's shoulders as he holds the camera aloft. The picture is weirdly framed because he was shooting blind, so he's cut off Mikey's ear, but they're both smiling.

There's one photo Frank's never seen before. Judging by Frank's hair, it's an older one. It's a shot of Frank sitting on the back steps of the Way's porch, a cigarette held loosely between two fingers with a curl of smoke rising from the end. His legs are in an easy sprawl and he's staring off somewhere outside of the frame, looking thoughtful, maybe even a little sad. The bottom edges of the photo are worn and frayed and the colours in the picture look faded. Given the number of cigarettes Frank's smoked on the Way's porch, it could have been taken anytime in college. It's weird that he can't remember it being taken.

He hears soft voices outside the bunk, and recognises one of them as Mikey. He pulls the curtain on the bunk open, wincing as the sound of the Velcro ripping is not at all kind to his sore head. "Mikey?"

Mikey's leaning on Jepha's bunk, and Frank can see Jepha peering at him over the pages of an issue of Rock Sound. Mikey turns around, tilting his head to the side and giving Frank a sly smile. "How's your head?"

"Can you get me a new one?" Frank squints out into the hallway. It's too bright and the sunshine's making his head hurt.

"Sure. I'll look for one at the next gas station. I'll make sure it's really ugly so I'll recognise you."

Frank flips him off, more out of habit than anything. He's too distracted to think about more than one thing at a time, and he's stuck on that photo. "Can I show you something in here?"

Jepha snorts and lowers his magazine. "Frank, what's happening to you is perfectly normal. It's called a boner and every little boy will have his first one one day."

Frank redirects his middle finger at Jepha, who just blows him a kiss. This band is fucking weird.

Mikey sighs and swats Jepha on the leg, before shifting over to lean into Frank's bunk. "What?"

Frank shuffles to the side, making space for Mikey to squeeze in next to him. When Mikey's safely inside, Frank reaches up to tap the faded photo of him with the cigarette. "Where's that from?"

There's not a lot of light in the bunk, but Frank could swear he sees Mikey's cheeks colouring. "Oh, um. I don't know, maybe 2003?"

Frank hums, looking at the photo thoughtfully. It's a good shot. "I don't remember it being taken."

"You weren't really paying attention," Mikey says, confirming Frank's suspicion that he was the one who took it. "The lighting was just really nice and..." Mikey shrugs, like that's enough. It kind of is.

"It's a good picture," Frank says, letting his eyes trail over the pictures stuck to the bunk. "I didn't realise you had all these up here."

"I guess I just miss you guys sometimes. All the time," Mikey says. He rolls onto his side, and even though Frank's not looking at him, he can feel the weight of Mikey watching him. "I missed you," Mikey says, and it sounds like a confession.

When Frank turns his head to find Mikey's face, his expression is serious. Frank doesn't even have to ask to know that this is Mikey's way of apologising for the years he vanished, when Frank didn't even have a working phone number for him. Frank's stomach clenches up, and it's nothing to do with his hangover.

He reaches down and pulls Mikey's hand up from where it rests on the sheets between them. He laces their fingers together and brings Mikey's hand to his mouth, brushing a dry kiss across his knuckles. "I missed you too, Mikes. It's been fucking shitty, to be honest, not being able to talk to you."

"I'm sorry," Mikey says, squeezing his fingers around Frank's.

"What happened?" Frank's voice comes out as a whisper.

Mikey brushes his thumb over the back of Frank's hand. "I fucked up," he says. Frank knows there's more, so he waits for it. They haven't talked - really talked about why Mikey fell out of touch yet. "I just, I don't know. I let it get to me. I let myself think this was everything there was, that my new life and my old life weren't the same. I let it all slip away and... I don't know, I guess by the time I realised just how much I missed it, how much I missed you - I didn't know what to say anymore. And then it went too long and I didn't know how to get back in touch, how to start it up again and I-"

Mikey stops talking so suddenly it's like he's cut himself off. Some tiny part of Frank is already trying to put together the rest of the aborted sentence, stupidly hoping it's something like what Frank's been feeling lately. Something like these scary new heart-speeding feelings he's got for Mikey that he doesn't know what to do with.

"You what?" Frank prompts, but it's too late, Mikey's already self-censored.

He shakes his head. "Stupid shit. Stupid shit that doesn't matter and I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry." Frank says, pulling Mikey's hand closer to his chest, pressing their elbows together. "We're okay now, right?"

"Right."

When Frank's gaze finds Mikey's eyes this time, they're dead serious. "I won't do that again," he promises. Frank's nearly asks for a pinky swear, but he doesn't need one. He knows Mikey means it.

"You and me, right, Mikes?" Frank says, the words familiar in his mouth as he leans his head against Mikey's.

"Yeah," Mikey answers, his response just as familiar. "Fuck everybody else."

***

Frank spends most of his last full day as a special guest on The Used's tour grading papers. He's definitely neglected the folder full of schoolwork he brought with him in favour of... well, just about anything else, and he really needs to reduce the pile a lot more before he gets back to Jersey, or he'll be spending the last night of his so-called vacation with no time to do anything else.

He's ensconced in the corner of the front lounge, a pile of papers in his lap and his red pen in hand an hour before his fellow travellers are even due to be awake. It's good, it's quiet enough he can concentrate and try to make sense of his students' sometimes impossible attempts at logic with no distractions.

No distractions, that is, until Bert drags himself out of his bunk. He's not usually the first one up, but he did go to bed pretty early the night before, so it's not all that surprising when Frank's attempt at translating a word that could be "preternatural" or "performance" is interrupted by the sound of Bert rifling through the cupboards in the kitchenette. Bert emerges moments later with a box of Pop Tarts under his arm. He flops down on the couch beside Frank and hands him a pack without Frank even needing to ask.

"Highlights?" Bert requests, hopefully.

Frank smiles and flips back a few pages, reading aloud "William Shakespeare lived in London but born in England, and was married to Elizabethan Era."

"Seriously?" Bert giggles, crawling closer to peer over Frank's shoulder. "Oh man, I don't know how you do it."

"They're young." Frank shrugs. "We all were once." After saying the words he suddenly feels about a thousand years old.

"Fuck once, man. I'm still young. And I know what an "era" is. Are kids getting stupider?"

"No, I think just more careless." Wow, this is a really grown up conversation they're having.

"Mind if I channel surf?" Bert asks, waving the remote.

Frank's got the TV on, but it's really only for background noise, so he nods. "Be my guest."

They get through half an episode of the Jersey Shore before Bert interrupts the relative silence.

"So, dude?"

"Yeah?" Frank answers absently, trailing his pen down the margin of the page he's trying to decipher.

"What's the deal with you and Mikey?"

Frank nearly drops his pen. He tightens his grip on it before it slips through his fingers. He deliberately doesn't look up from the page. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, what's the deal? Are you guys fucking, or what?"

Frank's mouth presses into a line and he pulls in a breath before answering. "No, we're not."

"Not yet," Bert adds.

Frank finally looks up from the paper he's now totally not concentrating on anymore. "What do you mean?"

Bert twirls the remote in his hand. "It's inevitable, isn't it? You guys are so, like, inseparable."

"He's my best friend. He always has been." Frank shifts a little to look at Bert while he's talking. "Like you and Quinn."

"Quinn and I aren't fucking."

"Yet."

"Ever." Bert laughs. "What, you think I haven't tried? He doesn't like dick. It's a crying shame. We're destined to be platonic lifemates when we could have had the cutest ass babies."

"That must suck."

"It does a little." Bert surfs past a travel show and a news report to land on a different reality show. "But you know, I think it would suck more if he was actually into dick and I was just too much of a pussy to do anything about it."

"Bert-"

"Speaking entirely hypothetically, of course," Bert says with a wicked grin, before abruptly changing the subject. "I don't understand how the blonde is still even in the running for this man, she's a total bitch and that other chick that looks like a suicide girl shits all over her looks-wise."

Frank makes a throwaway comment he forgets immediately after, pretending to be completely absorbed in the paper he's grading, though it's really just a blur of letters.

He can't stop thinking about Mikey.

***

Bert's little heart-to-heart does zero for Frank's concentration. If he grades these papers any slower he'll be going backwards. He ends up taking the rest of his stack into the venue and, as much as he hates to, he skips sound check. He's that behind. He hides in the dressing room with his red pen, trying to catch up.

He can hear the dull, muted tones of the sound check reverberating through the dressing room walls. He shifts around on the couch, trying to tune it out and concentrate on Anthony Corbitt's take on "The Outsiders", but after he's read the same sentence five times without really processing it, he has to admit he needs a break. He sets the paper aside and climbs off the couch, stretching his arms and rolling the cricks out of his neck.

He leaves the dressing room, following the call of the music down the venue hallways. He figured out pretty early on in the tour that it's easier to just follow the sound than to try to decipher a map. No point memorising a floorplan for a venue when it changes every night. When he gets to the stage doors, he lingers. If he goes in and watches sound check, he'll definitely stay for the whole thing, and that's a long break that he hasn't really earned. He changes his mind, pats his pockets to make sure he's got his cigarettes, and searches for a venue exit so he can grab a smoke outside before he tries to get back into it.

It isn't until the exit door slides closed behind him with a solid sound that he realises he doesn't have his pass on him. He grabs for the handle, but knows before he even tries to turn it that it will be locked from the inside. It is. Fuck. He pats his pocket for his phone even though he knows it's sitting on the dressing room couch, next to his pass. He's an idiot.

Okay, he just needs to find someone from security he knows to let him back in. He can do this. It shouldn't take too long. He hops down the steps and turns a corner - and is faced with the line. Which is huge. It's about 4pm and there's already a line of kids going right down the block. He's near the end of it, so the venue doors must be near the front.

He's at least ten years older than most of the kids in the line, maybe more like fifteen, really, most of them dressed in black. A lot of them look around the age of his students, and he's so fucking glad they're in some random state on the other side of the country so there's no chance he'll run into any of his own kids. He scans down the line - the closer to the venue doors they get, the more evidence that the kids in the line have been there a long time. Food wrappers and trash are scattered around and near the front the overnight campers are wrapped in dirty comforters.

Calling himself seven shades of fucktard, he starts to walk, already starting to get cold in just his hoodie and t-shirt. He doesn't get two steps before a couple of girls near the back of the line corner him. One's wearing a lot of eyeliner and a vintage Used t-shirt. The other one has an impressive mohawk.

"Did you just come from inside?" Mohawk asks, pointing at the venue door like Frank needs to be reminded of how severely he fucked that up.

"I just need to find someone from security-" Frank starts to explain, when Eyeliner interrupts.

"Hang on, are you-" She turns to Mohawk, whispering, "The guy from Milwaukee," before turning back to Frank, "Are you Mikey's friend? Frank somebody? Did you play Pretty Handsome Awkward in Milwaukee?"

Frank's voicebox seizes up for a moment. He coughs to get it working again and says, "You were at the Milwaukee show?"

Eyeliner shakes her head, "It was on YouTube. Oh my god, it was you." She tugs on the sleeve of Mohawk's t-shirt, "Em, he played with them. He's with the band."

Mohawk's - or rather, Em's - eyes widen. She turns to Frank, dead serious and asks, "Can you get us inside?"

It takes everything Frank's got to not burst out laughing at that. "I don't even know if I can get myself back inside. Have you seen anyone from security?"

"Where's your pass?" Eyeliner asks.

"Inside." Frank admits.

"Oh my god, you're kidding."

"Sadly, no. Way to fail, right?"

"Okay," Em says, pressing the tips of her fingers together, "You need to find someone from band security, not venue security, because the venue guys are useless. We should try out back by the buses."

Frank waves toward the line. "I was just going to try the main doors."

Em's eyebrows shoot up, and she exchanges a glance with Eyeliner, who just shakes her head. "Amateur mistake."

"C'mon," Em grabs Frank's hoodie by the sleeve, dragging him toward the back entrance to the venue, "Jen and me will show you how to do this."

"Aren't you gonna like, lose your place in line?" Frank protests. To be honest, he's not sure if having these girls with him is actually going to help him or hinder him.

"This is more important," Em says, not letting go of Frank's sleeve.

"Our friends will save a spot for us. We're cool." Jen's boots make a smacking noise on the pavement as she runs - they're heavy and buckled like the ones Mikey wears onstage. They take him to the back entrance by the loading dock. It's sealed off with a heavy metal barrier, keeping the hardcore fans out of the venue lot where the buses and trucks are parked.

There's a small group of kids loitering at this entrance, sitting and standing around, some peering through the barrier. This spot has a view of the buses and the stage access door the roadies used to get their equipment inside. That's the exit Frank should've used for his ill-fated cigarette. He's such a fucking moron.

"Is anyone around?" Jen asks the group, stepping up to peer through the bars.

"They're sound checking," a boy with blue streaks answers. "No one will be coming out right now."

"Hey!" Em starts calling through the bars, "We need someone from security! Hey! Hey you in the vest!"

Frank wants to crawl into a hole and hide, but somehow, it works. The guy who comes over is huge, but young, wearing a high-visibility vest with the name of the venue on it. "Look guys, you might as well go line up out front, nothing's happening back here."

Em pushes Frank forwards toward the gate. "This guy's with the band, he needs to get back inside."

The guy looks Frank up and down and then turns back to Em. "Nice story kid, but I've got work to do here."

"I got locked out without my pass. It's on the couch in the dressing room, I swear." Frank offers, feeling like the biggest loser and way too aware of the hardcore fans around him that are no doubt listening to every word he's saying. "Can you get like, Brian or Worm out here? They'll vouch for me. My name's Frank Iero."

"Frank what?" the guy asks, squinting down at Frank.

"Eye-ear-oh." Frank draws the words out slowly.

"Fine, I'll ask, but no promises." He takes off, which is probably a blessing because Frank's starting to get annoyed with being treated like some kind of groupie.

Of course, Frank is currently surrounded by groupies that are doing a poor job of hiding how they're sneaking glances at him and how they absolutely heard everything that just happened.

Frank does his best to ignore it, thanking Em and groping in his pocket for his cigarettes. He wanders away from the cluster of waiting fans and lights up, more for the distraction than any real need now. He thinks about the pile of papers he left in the dressing room and sighs. If he actually manages to get back inside he's going to have lost so much time. He might as well have gone to sound check after all. He can't believe he's stuck out here on the whim of some random security guy. What an idiot.

"So are you really with the band?" Blue streaks kid asks, and Frank knew it was inevitable that someone was gonna start talking to him about this.

"Not really. Well, sort of." He explains, "I'm a friend of Mikey's, just, you know, keeping him company for a while on tour."

"He played with them in Milwaukee," Jen butts in before Frank can stop her. "He took Mikey's spot for Pretty Handsome Awkward."

Frank schools his features so he doesn't glare at her.

"No shit," the nosy kid says. "What are they like?" A few more kids wander over and Frank can tell the ones who aren't moving are listening to him. It's a little ridiculous.

"The band? They're cool. They've been putting up with having me hanging around." He takes another drag of his cigarette to give him a reason to stop talking. He's acutely aware that anything he says right now will likely be repeated and circulated among Used fans everywhere. He needs to watch his mouth. This must be what it's like for Mikey when he does interviews.

"How do you know Mikey?" asks a girl with a pink hair and a lip-piercing, who's appeared behind blue-streaks kid.

"We went to school together," Frank says, willing the security guy to hurry the fuck up already. More of the kids are starting to inch closer and it's not like Frank can go anywhere. He takes a breath and pretends it's a class. Well, maybe a class on a field trip. "We've known each other a long time."

"So was he really dating Pete Wentz?" a blonde girl asks.

Frank nearly chokes on his cigarette. "What?"

A girl in a Misfits t-shirt beside her smacks the blonde's arm, hissing, "Tayla!"

Tayla shrugs. "I'm just asking."

Frank takes a drag of his cigarette to give himself time to form an answer. "Even if I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn't tell you."

"So he wasn't then," Tayla states with finality. Her friend in the Misfits t-shirt smacks her and hisses at her again, but Tayla just shrugs and says, "Well, if he doesn't know the answer then is must not have happened, right?" She turns back to Frank. "I mean, you're his best friend. You'd know."

"I didn't say that either." Frank keeps his voice carefully level. He goes to take another drag from his cigarette only to find he's smoked it down to the filter. Fuck. He shoves the butt in his back pocket. He doesn't think about whether Mikey may or may not have dated Pete Wentz. He gets another cigarette.

"So you aren't his best friend, then?" This Tayla chick just doesn't know when to shut up.

"I don't speak for Mikey, okay?" Frank's lighter takes three tries to light and he doesn't swear or make a face about it. He doesn't tell off the girl for being nosy either, but apparently all that does is encourage her to keep talking.

"Well, is he your best friend then?"

Frank fingers freeze on his lighter. The question should be just one more thing to dismiss and ignore, something to keep his trap shut about, and yet for some reason, he answers. "Yeah, he is."

It makes no sense at all, but somehow that's the thing that finally shuts Tayla up. Frank's lighter starts to cooperate and he wanders away from the group of kids to try to smoke his cigarette in peace. They leave him be, stuck alone with his own thoughts, uselessly trying to analyse what Mikey is to him, what he is to Mikey.

He's getting on a plane back to Jersey tomorrow. He'll be lucky to get the odd phone call or text message. He should cut his losses. He can't expect the kind of friendship from Mikey they used to have, not now, not with Mikey being away all the time, not with him being famous. And he'd be a true idiot to hope for anything more than friendship.

He crushes out the butt of his cigarette into the sidewalk, thinking about Mikey inside the venue, of the walls and security that separate them.

He calls himself a fucking idiot again, but this time it isn't for forgetting his stupid pass.

***

The first sign that Frank might actually get back inside is a shriek, followed by hushed whisperings and a few people calling out, "Mikey! Mikey, over here!"

When Frank looks up from the gutter he's sitting in, like some kind of homeless person, he can see the familiar shape of Mikey Way emerging from the venue doors on the other side of the metal barrier. The venue security guy that Frank sent in oh - nearly two hours ago - is with him and Frank is more than a little satisfied to see that it looks like Mikey is giving him an earful.

Of course, Mikey stops frowning once he's in spitting distance of the fans, who are calling for him loudly now, pressed up against the barrier and reaching through the gaps for him. Mikey smiles at them and gives a wave, eyes scanning the crowd. Frank tries to find an empty spot to squeeze into, and when he can't he just jumps up and waves his arm over his head. Fuck being short, he'll be lucky if Mikey can even see him at this point.

Fans from the main line are starting to trickle around the corner now, and the cluster of kids at the back gate is getting thicker. Frank tries to call out to Mikey, but his voice is just one more in a chorus of fans calling the same name and he doesn't really want to have to fight his way to the front of a crowd just to get back inside.

He cranes his neck to try and see over the crowd, and between heads and flailing arms he can see Mikey's working his way down the bank of fans, smiling and being nice, signing things that are passed to him. He's flanked by the clueless venue security guy who's peering into the crowd like he actually wants to help Frank out now, and Frank can see Worm on Mikey's other side.

"Has anyone seen Frank?" Mikey calls out over the crowd. "My friend Frank's out here - you guys seen him? Frank?" That gets the kids stirred up and looking around, repeating Frank's name. Frank waves again and yells "Over here!" but it isn't until Em and Jen - who are somehow pressed up against the gate at the front - start yelling through the bars and pointing that Mikey even starts to head in the right direction.

Worm gives a yell and the crowd parts little, finally giving Frank the opportunity to push to the front. He gets to the gate and catches Mikey's relieved expression.

"Frank, what the fuck?" Mikey asks, reaching through the bars the grab Frank's hands.

"I just wanted a cigarette," Frank admits, embarrassed but still smiling. Mikey laughs, and even though Frank knows he's laughing at him, he can't help but laugh too. Worm ushers Frank down to one end of the sliding gate and they open it just far enough for Frank to squeeze through, both Worm and the venue guy keeping any other kids from slipping past.

Mikey pulls Frank into a hug the moment he's through the gate.

"I know, I know, I'm an idiot," Frank admits.

Mikey pulls Frank's pass out of his back pocket and puts it back around Frank's neck. "Don't leave it behind again, okay?"

"Not a lot of opportunity between now and tomorrow morning."

"Whatever, this isn't the last time you're gonna come on tour with me, is it?"

For a moment Mikey looks hellishly unsure, but it slips from his face when Frank says, "Course not! I can have all the glamour of the rockstar lifestyle without actually having to be a rockstar, right?"

"Whatever," Mikey says, "Go on back inside, you're fucking freezing. I should probably stay out and sign for a while."

Frank is pretty cold, but before he takes off back inside where it's warm and he's got papers to grade, he directs Mikey over to the barrier where Em and Jen are. "You should meet these two; they helped me get back inside."

It's worth it for the looks on their faces when Mikey says thanks, and that he owes them a favour. They're happy enough to collect in the form of early access to the show, and Frank can see them down in the front row, smushed up against the barrier and screaming their heads off the whole gig.

***

The guys are on fire that night. Frank perches on top of a road case side stage and watches, entranced. He can't help but mouth along to the words now and he knows all Mikey's stage moves by heart. Frank's so swept up in the show he might as well be there on stage himself, living it through Mikey. Mikey knows it too, and plays most of the set with an eye in Frank's direction, sending him smiles and nods.

Mikey heads straight for Frank's side when they come off stage before the encore. He catches Frank in a sweaty hug.

Frank pushes up on his toes to lock his elbows around Mikey's neck. "Fucking good show dude."

He pulls back and hands Mikey a bottle of water, which Mikey drinks half of without before coming up for air. Frank would be a liar if he said his eyes weren't drawn downward, tracking the movement of Mikey's Adam's apple as he swallows.

Mikey wipes his mouth of with the back of his hand. "Fuck, man, I can't believe you're going home tomorrow."

"Me neither," Frank says, a little breathless, like he's the one who was just onstage.

A stage hand calls time, and Frank tunes back into the crowd, who are chanting and clapping and calling for their band. "Better get back out there," Frank says, catching Mikey in a last hug that's all sweat and elbows before the guys head back out.

Bert crashes into Frank as he passes, and Frank swats at him. Bert turns around, points at Frank, grinning. "You better be ready, Frankie!"

"Ready for what?" Frank yells, but his voice is lost in the cacophony of the crowd.

He finds out two songs later, when the band's reached the end of the setlist but they don't leave the stage. Bert calls out to the teeming masses, "You want one more?" They scream back at him loud enough to make Frank's ears roar, but Bert just shakes his head, cupping a hand to his ear. "I can't hear you! Do you want one more?" Frank can't help laughing to himself when the crowd calls back even louder, but Bert just keeps acting like they're doing nothing. "I guess you don't, but fuck it - we'll do it anyway. Frank, get out here!"

Frank stops laughing at that and stares at Bert in confusion. Bert grins at Frank, his microphone still in his hand as he points at him, then twists his hand around to beckon him with one finger. Frank looks over to Mikey, who's already pulled his guitar off and is holding it outstretched, pointed at Frank.

Fuck. He better get his ass onstage.

He's not ready for the way the crowd cheer when he steps out of the wings into the open. On some level, his brain can compute that those cheers are for him but he still doesn't really believe it. Bert points at him, telling the crowd that Mikey's a slacker who needs his friends to fill in for him. It's all just echo in Frank's ears as he walks over to Mikey. The rest of the world blurs around Mikey's wide smile and his hands holding out his sparkly guitar.

"I can't believe you're springing this on me. I hate you," Frank shouts over the cheers.

"You love me," Mikey throws back, settling his guitar strap around Frank's shoulders, and Frank can't deny the statement so he doesn't talk at all. He knows he's smiling like a fucking idiot as Mikey adjust the strap so the guitar hangs just right. He never considered this could happen again, hadn't even hoped for it.

Mikey straightens the guitar and leans in to say loudly near Frank's ear, "Give 'em a show, Frankie." He nods to Bert and Frank scrambles to get his hands on the strings as Dan counts them in with claps of his drumsticks. He doesn't need to ask the song - of course it's Pretty Handsome Awkward and it's so obvious now that they were planning this because they never leave it off the setlist.

Frank gets lost in playing immediately. He turns to face the crowd this time, as his fingers fly and he drinks in the experience, committing it to memory. The screaming fans aren't terrifying this time, they're with him, they're screaming for him. The monitors feed the music back to him, clear and loud, the crowd noise layered over the top, and it's fucking magic. The first time he did this the nerves robbed him of all but a sense memory - this time he wants to ink it into his mind like a tattoo. He lets the music sweep him up, pull him around, throwing his body to the beat and the chords.

It isn't until he's spinning around that he sees that Mikey isn't side stage this time - he's sitting on his amp watching, fingers tapping in time to the beats, looking enthralled and proud. Frank's heart is too big for his chest, his own fingers are moving faster than he can track. The music fills him and spills out of him, pouring off the stage into the crowd and he could get addicted to this so easily.

The song ends too soon. Frank's breathless and sweating, his pulse pounding in his ears and chest, looking out into the sea of faces, just trying to process this moment. He can hear Bert talking to the crowd, thanking them for a good show, telling them goodnight. He knows it's over, but it doesn't compute. Suddenly Mikey is beside him, his bony arm winding around Frank's shoulder, pulling him into a hug. Frank clings to him, the guitar skewed awkwardly between them, and presses his smile into Mikey's shirt.

"I'll never forget this, Mikes," Frank tells him, no idea if Mikey can even hear him over the crowd, but Mikey squeezes Frank's shoulder so maybe he does.

Mikey straightens up, helping Frank get the guitar off and handed safely to a tech before dragging him downstage by the arm, to join Bert, Jepha, Quinn and Dan. They all link arms and bow. The audience screams their appreciation at them, ringing in Frank's ears. When he straightens up he catches sight of Em and Jen down the front. Em's mohawk is wilting and Jen's hair is plastered to her face with sweat, but they both look ecstatic. He sends them a wave and they clap and cheer up at him. Then he's being dragged off the stage by various hands, out of sight of the crowd and Mikey's arms are around him again, hugging him tight and Frank can't fathom not hugging back. He winds his arms around Mikey's neck, spinning them around until they're stumbling and laughing, riding the high of the show and the crowd and the noise.

Frank's still smiling when he leans back, seeing the same ecstatic beaming grin he knows he's wearing mirrored back at him on Mikey's face. It's pure instinct when he murmurs Mikey's name, the word dropping from his mouth as he leans up on tiptoe and kisses him.

Either Mikey's riding the same high as Frank or he wants it just as bad because there's no hesitation, not even a pause for breath. His mouth opens under Frank's and he presses closer, his hands slipping to Frank's shoulders, his fingers tight points of contact as he grips Frank through his damp shirt and kisses back like a motherfucker. There's no room in Frank's head for any doubts, any thoughts about why they shouldn't do this. It's right. It's time. It's fucking overdue.

Mikey makes a small noise that reverberates against Frank's lips and he pushes closer, making Frank stumble backwards until there's a roadcase against his back. Mikey kisses him up against it, lips firm and warm over Frank's, their tongues sliding together and it's all Frank can do to hold on, to slide a hand into Mikey's hair and hold him there, even as his other hand slips down to hang on to Mikey's waist.

Distantly he thinks he can hear the guys laughing at them, wolf-whistling, clapping, but Frank doesn't spare them a thought. He opens his mouth under Mikey's, strokes his tongue with his own. Mikey's hands slide down Frank's chest and around his waist to grab handfuls of Frank's ass. Frank can't think, he's burning up. He grabs a handful of Mikey's shirt, groaning into his mouth, pushing up on his toes, needing more, needing it all.

It isn't until he's hooked an ankle around the back of Mikey's thigh, trying to climb him, grind on him, that any sense of the outside world starts to penetrate his skull. He breaks the kiss, panting, pulling back just far enough that they're apart but sharing breath. Mikey's eyes are dazed and warm. His mouth is wet, loose, and Frank just wants it back on his. He leans in and takes it, fuck everything else, fuck talking, it can all wait. He's waited for this way too long.

"Frank." Mikey's voice is a wet whisper, forced out between kisses. "Frank, what are we doing?"

"I don't fucking know," Frank says, his voice rough and shot. He takes Mikey's mouth in a biting kiss. "But can we not stop?"

"Okay," Mikey says, his hand dragging upwards over Frank's ass. His fingertips slide into the waistband of Frank's jeans, warm points of contact on Frank's sweaty skin.

Mikey slips his hand up to cup Frank's face, holding their mouths apart a moment longer between kisses. "Probably not here though, yeah?"

Frank blinks and forces himself not to lean in for another kiss. "Huh?"

"Frank," Mikey says. His tone says it all as he glances to the side where Bert and Quinn are still watching them, not even trying to hide how entertained they are by it all.

Bert raises his hands, golf clapping. "Nice work guys, can we fucking go now?"

Frank blinks a few times. He's still pretty lost to the world. It still doesn't really compute that they're only side stage, that they've just put on a hell of a show for a bunch of roadies and techs. As much as he knows he might regret it later, at the moment he can't bring himself to care. He's got Mikey warm under his hands, still smiling at him, still looking like he'd kiss him up against the wall all over again. He can't think of anywhere he'd rather be.

Mikey's the one to pull back first, sliding his arm around Frank's shoulders and leading them both backstage, following behind the other guys. Frank gives a wave to their audience of crew as they pass. He's still not really on the planet. It's like his feet aren't even touching the ground. He's going to come down from this high eventually and maybe it'll be a crash, like the world's worst hangover, but right now he doesn't even care.

Right now he's got Mikey's arm around him and it's fucking hotel night.

***

There isn't any discussion at all back at the hotel about room assignments. Mikey takes two key cards and shoves them in his back pocket. Frank knows that Bert and the guys are laughing at them but he's so far from caring it doesn't even register on his radar. They were damn well behaved in the van on the way to the hotel and they continue to hold themselves in check through the now-familiar dance of check-in, mostly because Frank has a feeling if he even lets himself casually touch Mikey right now he won't be able to stop himself.

They're quiet in the elevator, and Mikey fumbles the key card twice when he tries to get the door open. He glances sideways at Frank and they share an embarrassed giggle. Closing the door feels somehow final, and Frank struggles for a moment with how to start. When they came off stage it just happened, he didn't even think about it, it was like two magnets being pulled together. Now, anything he does is deliberate, he can't write it off as a mistake, a lapse in judgement, anything.

They hover for a moment, just inside the door. Frank clenches his fingers closed and stretches them open again. Then Mikey says Frank's name, softly, his voice rough and lifted at the end like a question. Frank meets Mikey's eyes and he can see the same confusion, the same barely-held-in desire reflected back at him. It moves his feet the two steps closer into Mikey's space. It raises his hands to Mikey's face, until his fingers are on Mikey's cheek, gently guiding Mikey's head down for a kiss that feels fragile. Mikey's lips are light on his, and he tastes a little of cigarettes and sweat. Frank leans up, stroking the seam of Mikey's mouth with his tongue until he opens up and kisses Frank back.

They linger like that, long slow kisses, chests barely brushing and their bodies not touching anywhere else except for Frank's hand on Mikey cheek. It almost feels like high school, the way Frank's free hand dangles by his side, the way he wants to reach up and touch but he's not sure if he can - if he should.

Then Mikey's hand falls lightly on Frank's shoulder. His fingers slip down over Frank's chest to settle on Frank's waist, warm like a brand. Frank shudders a little, a vibration that runs down his body like a perfectly strummed chord. He grabs for Mikey's shoulder with his free hand, presses in closer, deepens the kiss. The throaty noise Mikey makes is so worth it. His tongue strokes into Frank's mouth, then he presses Frank back against the door, just getting all in there. His kisses get rougher, firmer, biting lightly at Frank's bottom lip. Frank groans and pushes up against Mikey, wanting to get closer, to feel more, for their bodies to merge.

Frank hooks his leg up over Mikey's, his foot brushing the back of Mikey's thigh. God, he wants to climb him, and Mikey must read his mind because he tucks his hand under Frank's knee and lifts, until Frank's off the floor and their groins are aligned. Mikey moans into his mouth and grinds on him, his tongue painting over Frank's lips and fuck, it's good. So good.

Mikey eases closer, pushing his tongue into Frank's mouth as he gets a grip on Frank's ass with his free hand, rubbing up against him. Frank can feel how hard they both are through two layers of denim. He lets out a strangled noise, hooking his other leg up around Mikey's waist, so he's wedged between the door and Mikey's body.

It feels awesome right up until Mikey stumbles, breaking the kiss and leaning an arm on the door. "You're fucking heavy, Frankie."

"Wow, you say the sweetest things."

Mikey narrows his eyes and leans in to bite Frank's lower lip in retaliation. It doesn't really work as a punishment because it just leads to more wet, needy kisses, until Frank comes up for air, panting. "The fuck are we doing?"

He means their ridiculous position, but Mikey must take it a different way. "I have no idea, but can we keep doing it?" He wobbles a little, nearly dropping Frank.

Frank yelps and grabs Mikey's shoulders so he doesn't hit the floor, barking out a short, startled laugh. "There's a bed, you know."

"Yeah, there is." Mikey punctuates the statement with a wet kiss. His eyes are dark and his mouth looks like sex. "We should probably use it."

"You have the best ideas, Mikeyway."

"Hold on," is the only warning Frank gets before Mikey steps back from the door, stumbling across the floor in an ungainly fashion with Frank still hanging onto him for dear life. He dumps Frank on the bed with no fanfare at all, bending to pull off his shoes before crawling onto the bed to straddle him.

He presses Frank down into the mattress, a delicious weight and Frank rolls his hips up, watching the way the movement makes Mikey shift in his lap, his head tilting forward and hair flopping into his eyes as he groans and rocks down against Frank.

Sure, Frank's seen Mikey make out with people, mostly not on purpose. But seeing Mikey like this, all undone and high on sex, to have his fuck-me eyes directed at Frank - it's a side of Mikey he's only ever glimpsed before, and he had no idea it would undo him so thoroughly.

"Mikey," Frank pants, his voice sounding breathless and pathetically needy. He reaches for Mikey's belt, clumsy fingers trying to pull it open, and Mikey takes the cue to start on Frank's. Mikey's jeans are button-fly, because he's apparently some kind of masochist, so by the time Frank gets them open Mikey's already sliding a hand into Frank's jeans, his long fingers shaping Frank's cock through his underwear. Frank can't help squirming, nearly unseating Mikey and totally losing where he's at with getting Mikey's pants open.

Mikey curls down over him, kissing him slow and easy as he squeezes Frank's cock through the worn-soft cotton of his briefs. He breaks the kiss, leaning his forehead to Frank's, shaking his head a little. "I can't believe we're doing this. After all this time."

"I can believe it," Frank admits. "I just can't believe it took us so long."

"Took you so long," Mikey says, his voice hot on Frank's lips. "You could've had me years ago."

"It was nice of you to tell me," Frank says, finally getting the last stubborn button open and his hand into Mikey's jeans. "Imagine how many blowjobs you've missed out on." He squeezes Mikey's dick, making Mikey gasp in a breath. He's hard in Frank's hand, the cotton of his underwear damp with precome. Mikey twitches over Frank, mouth working soundlessly. Frank knows he's trying to come up with a clever reply, but Frank keeps teasing, stealing away any words with the movement of his hand until the only sound that leaks from Mikey's mouth is a breathy moan. He rocks down against Frank's hand, writhing sinuously, and he's just so fucking gorgeous to watch.

Mikey either can't come up with anything or he gives up trying because he tilts his head to take Frank's mouth instead. Frank's happy to go with it, hooking his free arm around Mikey's neck and kissing back, getting into it - mouths, tongues, teeth. He swallows the delicious noises Mikey makes against his lips as he moves his hand. Mikey seems to remember his own hand, still loosely gripping Frank's dick and he starts to move it again, firm knowing strokes that have Frank making his own noises into their joined mouths.

It's long moments of bliss and agony. Frank wants so much more, wants to suck Mikey off and be sucked off, to fuck and be fucked, but he can't make himself move from this spot, can't even fathom how to get his clothes off. He can't give up Mikey's mouth for anything.

Mikey's the one who breaks it, panting against Frank's lips. "That stuff about blow jobs, was that an offer?" He looks down at Frank, the question held in the curve of one raised eyebrow - a patented Mikeyway expression. He leans down again, licking across Frank's lower lip.

Frank's brain is barely able to form words, let alone clever ones, so he opts for honesty. "You want it to be?" His voice is shot, gravelly and rough.

"Hell yeah," Mikey says, giving Frank's cock a few fast strokes. Frank stutters out a groan. Mikey writhes down against him, skin warm and slick everywhere their bodies touch. Frank loses what scrap of resolve he might have once had. He's desperate for anything, anything Mikey wants.

It's a cool shock when Mikey rolls off him, and Frank doesn't manage to swallow the needy whine that escapes his lips at the loss of contact. It takes a moment for Frank to realise Mikey's rolled on to his back so he can wriggle out of his stupidly tight jeans, and an even longer moment for Frank to figure out he should probably follow suit. He gets his shirt off, but before he can slide his shoes off, Mikey's naked and Frank forgets about getting undressed, just needing to get his hands on Mikey - now.

Mikey's stretched out on the bed, all naked skin and Frank can't drink him in fast enough. Mikey's more filled out now than he once was, lean muscle where once it was just skin stretched over bone. His arms are little darker than his shoulders and chest, and the light hairs scattered over his chest are almost invisible, flaring golden where they catch the light of the bedside lamp. Frank's hands follow the trail of his eyes, tracing his fingertips up Mikey's arms, over his shoulders, down his chest.

Mikey moves under his hands, slow and languid, pushing into Frank's touch. His eyes are at half mast, watching Frank with a heat that burns Frank up from the inside. Frank traces his hands lower, around Mikey's belly button, following the line of hair that gets darker as it leads down to his cock. Frank stops a moment to take that in, really look at it. He might have caught glimpses of Mikey naked over their years together, but he's never really let himself look. He does now. Mikey's cock is long and elegant, like his fingers. He's hard, straining up from the nest of dark blond curls, shiny at the tip with precome. Frank's mouth waters and he lowers his head.

He traces his tongue up the side of Mikey's shaft, avoiding the head to lick back down the other side. It's their first time, he wants to make it last, make it good. Mikey makes a throaty noise somewhere between desire and frustration. Frank smiles to himself, and does it again. Mikey paws at his shoulder, gropes up Frank's neck to catch in his hair.

"Frank, c'mon. Don't tease."

Frank giggles. Mikey knows better than to make demands; it only makes Frank want to do the exact opposite. He stops licking Mikey's dick altogether, turning his head to bite lightly at the top of Mikey's thigh. Mikey makes a wounded noise, his fingers tightening in Frank's hair, trying to direct his head back where he wants it. Frank giggles again, ducking his head out of Mikey's grip and leaning up over him.

"Are those the best moves you've got, Mikey? I thought you were a rockstar," he teases.

"Oh, I've got moves." Mikey isn't even sulking; Frank has to work this harder. He barely finishes the thought when Mikey flips him, using a totally unfair WWE move Frank never did get around to learning. Except clearly, Mikey's decided to use his powers for good instead of evil. Before Frank's even managed to catch a breath, Mikey yanks his jeans down and ducks his head to take Frank in his mouth, no warning, no hesitation. He goes for it - hard and fast, sliding his mouth to the base of Frank's dick and back up again - wet, sucking, gorgeous.

Oh fuck, it's so good - too good. Frank's seeing stars, heat building low in his belly, threatening to send him off way too soon. Frank has to catch Mikey by the hair, cup his chin, hold him there.

"Fuck, Mikey, you have to, I'm gonna-" he stutters out. Mikey doesn't move his head again, lets Frank hold him there, still swirling his tongue around the head of Frank's dick, making him whimper.

When he finally pulls off he's smirking like he knows he's a total asshole and - worse - that he's proud of it. "What were you saying about moves?"

Frank wants to play, he does. He wants to throw something back at Mikey, to wrestle him into submission, to win, but he can't right now. He's balancing on a knife's edge and he just, he just wants.

"You have to fuck me," he says, panting and breathless, not enough brain cells left to even feel embarrassed about it. He grabs at Mikey's hip, feeling the hard jut of his hipbone under his fingers, pulling Mikey forwards. "Now, Mikes, please."

This is Mikey's cue to tease him some more, to demand a prize, to make Frank admit he's lost, that Mikey is the master. But when Frank focuses on Mikey's face there's nothing in his expression but naked desire. His colour's high and he's looking at Frank like he's everything he could ever want, like Frank's just uttered the hottest words he's ever heard.

"You sure?" he asks. His hands are already tightening where they lie on Frank's hips, squeezing hard, and Frank presses up into the touch.

"Yes. Yes, please, yes." Frank knows he's babbling, but he can't help it. Mikey's with him though, Mikey's just fucking awesome, because he's already in motion, dragging Frank's jeans down and off, taking his shoes too. He vanishes from Frank's eyesight for a moment, but when he comes back there's a shine of foil in his hands as he rips open a condom. Frank knows he should do more, he should do something, but all he can do is watch, stomach trembling excitedly, as Mikey rolls it on his dick.

Mikey leans over him then, taking his mouth in a kiss that Frank's desperate for. Mikey does have moves. Though Frank never sees a lube bottle he knows there is one, because Mikey's fingers are sliding slick against his ass, fingertips gentle as they feel him out. Frank groans affirmative noises into their kiss and grinds down on Mikey's hand, everything in his movements saying "yes, more, yes".

Mikey kisses him again, sucking on his tongue as he presses a fingertip against Frank's hole. Frank pushes down against it, wanting Mikey inside him already. He gropes between their bodies, finding Mikey's sheathed cock and stroking it, his fingers sliding easily on the slippery latex. It pulls a groan from Mikey, his probing finger losing rhythm for a moment, then sliding out.

Frank breaks the kiss on a whimper. Mikey's face hovers above his, their lips a breath apart as two of Mikey's fingertips press at Frank's entrance. "Tell me if you need me to stop," Mikey whispers, his voice low, throaty, gorgeous. Frank nods, already knowing he won't need to. Fuck, he's so ready.

Two fingers is barely a stretch. It's nowhere near enough but Frank still rocks down against it, stroking Mikey's dick in time with his own staccato movements. Frank's own dick is trapped between their bodies, wet with precome, smearing on their bellies. He pumps Mikey's cock, harder, faster, until Mikey catches his wrist in a tight grip. "You've got to-" Mikey breaks off, panting, "I can't."

"Fuck me, already then," Frank demands, wriggling up against him.

"God, you're so bossy," Mikey complains, but there's no venom in it. He slides his fingers out, then he's lifting and spreading Frank's legs, leaning up over him, one hand still low and tight on his dick. "Like this?" he asks, like he hasn't already decided, and it's not like Frank's going to want to change position now, now when they're this close and he's fucking dying for it already.

"Oh my fucking god, will you just do it-?" The words choke off on Frank's lips as Mikey leans that little bit lower, raises Frank's ass that little bit higher, and then his dick is pressing at Frank's opening, hard, hot, ready and Frank could fucking faint from how good it is. He growls in his throat, gripping Mikey's hips, pulling at them, trying to urge Mikey inside, but Mikey's set on moving at his own pace. Which is slow - too slow.

"Mikey, fuck. Mikey, c'mon." Frank's voice is thready and desperate. Still Mikey resists any urge to hurry, leaning heavily over Frank on one elbow as he inches in. Frank bites his lip and pushes down with his ass, feeling the slow stretch as Mikey fills him up, until he's balls-deep in Frank.

Frank sighs,. "Yeah, that's what I'm talking about."

When he manages to pry his eyes open, Mikey's looking down at him, his mouth pulled up in a smile like Frank's the most amusing thing he's ever seen. "You talk a lot."

"You say that like it's a surprise," Frank answers, distracted. Most of his brain's still in his dick but he's with it enough to know Mikey should know this better than anyone. More importantly, though, they should get on with the fucking. "C'mon Mikey, just-"

The word chokes off because Mikey does. He pulls out and shoves back in again, and again, each movement pulling a whimper from Frank. Mikey brushes his lips across Frank's, whispering "Yeah?"

"Yeah," Frank echoes, on a long drawn-out breath, as he pushes back to meet Mikey's thrusts. His toes curl and he grabs onto Mikey's shoulders, riding him as much as he can while on his back. There's a stretch through the back of his legs where they're pressed back by Mikey's arms, but it's good, he can take it, he's not moving from this position for anything.

"Oh fuck, Frankie. Oh fuck." Mikey pants, moving faster, like he can't help himself, can't get enough. He covers Frank's mouth in a desperate, sucking kiss, licking into his mouth, groaning. Frank gropes between their bodies because his dick's so hard he might explode, fuck, he needs to touch. Mikey gets there first and fits long fingers around Frank's dick, jerking him in time with his thrusts. Frank's eyes flutter closed and he sucks hard on Mikey's lips as he shoves his ass back against Mikey's hips.

There's only breath, the scent of sweat, the slick sounds of their moves, the slaps of flesh hitting flesh. Frank gives himself up to it, breaking the kiss to stutter out broken noises, every cell in his body buzzing. He's so ready to break.

Mikey comes first, his movements blurring, shoving into Frank hard and fast. His hand on Frank's dick falters and he chokes out a loud, strangled noise. Frank watches as his eyes crease shut and his mouth falls loose as his dick pulses in Frank's ass. It's the hottest thing he's ever seen. He holds tight to Mikey as he shakes through it, his head dropping forwards like a puppet with cut strings, tucking his face into Frank's neck. Frank wraps his arms around Mikey's sweaty back, breathless, almost as high as if he'd come himself.

Mikey lies boneless, his hitching breaths painting a cool path down Frank's neck. Frank strokes his fingers down Mikey's spine as he waits for his breathing to even out. His own dick aches between them, reminding him insistently that he hasn't come yet. Mikey shifts, and the movement brushes his belly against the tip of Frank's dick. Frank can't contain the groan fast enough, but it's okay, Mikey's already moving, already firming his grip on Frank's dick, leaning up so he can watch Frank's face as he jerks him off.

His dick's still in Frank's ass - softening a little but still there - and his fingers are fucking perfect, hard calluses rubbing up the sensitive underside of Frank's cock. Frank can't help but writhe down against Mikey's touch, moaning and gasping for breath. When he can focus his eyes all the can see is Mikey's face, watching him, his eyes dark and intense. It undoes something in his chest to see him looking like that.

It's so intimate, like being on show, like letting Mikey look into his soul while he does this. It's intense, but it's not scary - if there's anyone Frank trusts to see him like this, to see everything of himself, it's got to be Mikey.

Mikey switches his grip, getting his thumb under the head of Frank's dick on every upstroke, and Frank's spine melts. He groans, loud and long, then starts chanting, "Oh fuck. Oh fuck, Mikey, that's it, that's it, don't stop, oh god."

Mikey doesn't stop. He speeds his hand up and lowers his head to attack Frank's mouth, kissing him hard and messy, chasing his mouth as Frank wriggles under him, writhes up into him, moaning and whimpering, utterly lost to himself. Mikey breaks the kiss with a whispered, "Come on, Frankie," and that's all it takes to tip Frank over the edge. One more stroke from Mikey's hand and he's gone, whimpering loudly, bucking and writhing under Mikey as his dick pulses and shoots all over Frank's belly and Mikey's hand. Frank's heart pounds in his ears as Mikey strokes him down from it, riding out every last sensation. He feels amazing, alive, every cell buzzing.

He blinks dazedly at the ceiling as Mikey pulls out gently, disappearing off the bed to dump the condom. He's back before Frank can complain, flopping down beside him hard enough to make Frank bounce on the mattress. Frank rolls onto his side, flopping an arm over Mikey's chest and resting his head on Mikey's shoulder. It's really fucking bony.

"You make a shitty pillow." he complains, the words muffled into Mikey's skin.

"You make shitty pillow talk," Mikey says, but he lifts Frank's head up and slides a pillow underneath, a soft layer between his shoulder and Frank's face.

"Thanks," Frank mutters into the pillow. His eyelids are already heavy. They should get under the covers before the air conditioning makes them cold. He really doesn't want to move though.

Mikey lays a warm hand over the back of Frank's arm where it lies across his chest. He traces his fingertips up Frank's skin, sweeping upwards to follow the lines the lines of ink around Frank's upper arms. The tattoos that betray Frank's punk rock past, the ones he has to wear long sleeves to cover even when the weather's too warm, but that he has never once regretted. They're part of him, part of his past as much as Mikey is.

The combination of Mikey's gently stroking fingers and the cool air in the room gives Frank goosebumps. He shivers and Mikey reaches out to the empty side of the bed, grabbing hold of the coverlet and flipping the part they're not lying on over the top of them. Frank hums, "Mmmm, better," his voice sounding about two octaves lower than usual, and snuggles in.

His eyes are closed and he's nodding off when Mikey's fingers skate through his hair. "We gonna talk about this?" he asks, gently.

Frank makes a face, pressing in closer to Mikey and muttering, "Mmmph. Tomorrow." He pats Mikey's arm clumsily. "Sleep now, Mikeyway."

They do.

***

Frank hasn't woken up with that 'just got laid' feeling in a long time. God, he's missed it. He's extra relaxed and floppy, with aches in all the right places. He's also got a warm Mikeyway wrapped around him like a blanket, his chest pressed to Frank's back, his arm heavy across Frank's chest, his breath blowing warm across the back of Frank's neck. From the cadence of his breathing - slow and even - he's still asleep.

Frank opens his eyes, letting the unfamiliar hotel room slide slowly into focus. He and Mikey had sex last night. They fucked, and it was hot and awesome. He rolls the thought around in his head, but no matter how many ways he looks at it, he can't bring himself to be worried or regret what happened. He knows he should be freaking out, at least a little. He tries to remember all the cons he mentioned to Ray on the phone when he was trying to talk himself out of this, and while he can recall what most of them were, the fear and worry attached to them doesn't feel anywhere near as strong now.

He slides his hand up, covering Mikey's where it lies across on his chest. He slides their fingers together in a loose grip and wriggles backward into Mikey's warmth. Mikey stirs a little, making a low noise, and his arm tightens around Frank even in his sleep. Frank doesn't try to fight the goofy grin that pulls at his lips in response to that. He just squeezes Mikey's hand and snuggles in.

Of course, Frank is still only human, and he's awake, and he has a naked Mikeyway and probably only a few hours left to make use of that. So he maybe wriggles around a little more than necessary, until he hears Mikey's breathing hitch and he shifts behind him, making a low noise is his throat as he wakes.

"Huh," is the first word out of Mikey's mouth, low and thick with sleep. Frank rolls onto his back so he can see Mikey's face. His eyes are all sleepy and he has a crease on his cheek from the pillow. His hair is tangled up, flat on one side and rumpled on the other. In the soft light leaking through the drawn curtains he looks flawless and beautiful.

"Huh, what?" Frank asks, not even bothering to try not to stare.

Mikey blinks at him slowly, glancing down between their bodies then tracing his gaze back up Frank's torso, over his chest, to meet his eyes. "This actually happened," Mikey says, following his eyes with his hand, warm fingers sliding up Frank's chest, lingering over Frank's heart.

"Mmmm, yeah it did," Frank says, shifting closer to Mikey, until their bodies are flush and he can feel Mikey's dick heavy against his thigh.

Mikey traces a circle around the flames on Frank's chest, watching his own fingers, and says, "So, are we gonna talk about this now?"

Frank's mouth tugs down at the side. He doesn't want to talk now. He's warm and relaxed and already half hard from Mikey just being this close. "We can talk if you want," he says, his tone teasing as he presses up against Mikey. He hooks an arm around Mikey's shoulder and flips them over so Mikey's on his back. It's not quite as ninja a move as when Mikey does it, but he thinks he pulls it off. "Or, you know, I still owe you a blow job."

Mikey's eyes go dark. Frank doesn't even wait for a reply. He slides downward, painting a trail down Mikey's chest with his tongue. Mikey's hands are in his hair before Frank even gets to crotch level, loosely gripping. He makes a noise in his throat, low and growly, that makes Frank dick jump.

"Mmmm, I guess we can always talk later." Mikey's fingers flex in Frank's hair and Frank ducks his head, taking the head of Mikey's cock in his mouth and sucking lightly, swirling his tongue around to get it nice and wet. His fingers trail down Frank's face, over his hollowed cheeks as Frank dips his head lower, taking more of him in. Mikey moans appreciatively, his hips rocking up a little into Frank's mouth. "But fuck, Frankie, your flight. You're leaving soon, we're not gonna have time."

Frank pulls off, jacking Mikey's dick, his fingers sliding smoothly over slick skin. "I hear phones are good for talking, but they're shit for blowjobs."

"Point," Mikey grunts, then Frank's on him again, his palms pressed flat over Mikey's hips as he takes him deep, right to the back of his throat. Mikey makes a beautiful, hungry noise and Frank squirms, rubbing his dick on the mattress, needing some kind of contact. Mikey's fingers flex in his hair and Frank works him slow and steady, sucking and licking until Mikey's hips push up off the bed. Frank works with that, moving his mouth in counter to Mikey's rocking hips and it isn't long before the hold Mikey has in his hair gets tighter, just an edge of pain.

Frank goes faster, losing himself in what he's doing until it's all just the musky scent of Mikey all around him, the salty-bitter taste of him in his mouth. He's making it good, pulling the most gorgeous noises he can from Mikey. Mikey tugs at his hair and says, in a desperate whisper, "Frank, Frankie, I'm gonna." Frank pulls up just enough that he doesn't choke when Mikey comes, so he can swallow it down, milk him through it as Mikey's dick throbs against his lips.

Frank's just as breathless as Mikey by the end, mouth stretched and used in that oh so good way. He crawls up to flop beside Mikey, both of them breathing hard.

Mikey's a mess, sweaty and flushed, still panting a little. He looks beautiful. He shoots Frank a sloppy smile, then leans in kiss him, messy and wet, no doubt tasting himself on Frank's tongue. That thought is hot enough to make Frank squirm closer, rubbing up against Mikey and letting his hard cock press against Mikey's thigh. Mikey takes the hint and reaches down to fit his hand around him, stroking him off slowly as they continue to kiss, licking inside each other's mouths.

Frank growls in his throat and tries to get closer, but Mikey pushes him onto his back instead. Frank lets out a startled laugh which gets muffled against Mikey's mouth when he kisses him again, just long enough to tease more than it satisfies. Mikey breaks it with a wicked smile before sliding down the bed, every movement designed to maximise skin to skin contact. Frank catches a breath at the first brush of Mikey's lips across his lower belly. He licks his way down, following the trail of hair the leads from Frank's belly button to his dick and blowing lightly over the wet skin, making Frank shiver and writhe on the bed. Mikey's hands close firmly over Frank's hips, holding him in place as he lowers his head to lick at the tip of Frank's cock, where it's already wet and leaking with Frank's need.

Mikey doesn't tease, and Frank chokes out a startled gasp as his cock is enveloped in wet heat. Mikey sucks down, wrapping his hand around the base of Frank's dick, jerking him as he sucks, his lips meeting his fingers on each stroke. It feels amazing and Frank falls into it, closes his eyes and just feels it. "Mikey, fuck. Fuck, Mikey, your mouth."

Mikey hums around Frank's dick, making every sensation that much more intense. He slides his free hand under Frank's ass, rolling his balls in his fingers until Frank's whimpering, startled desperate noises, already so close to the edge. Frank grips the sheets, tilting his head down, wanting to see Mikey doing this. The sight itself nearly melts his brain. Mikey's eyes are closed, his expression focused and zen, his fingers working smooth over Frank's dick as he sucks. Frank's eyes get caught watching the tips of Mikey's blond bangs brush over his belly, shifting strands making patterns over his inked swallows.

Frank has to reach down and touch his fingers to Mikey's. cheek. Mikey opens his eyes and Frank nearly forgets to breathe at their dark intensity. Frank hiccups out a slightly hysterical noise. It's just so surreal that this is Mikey. Mikey who he's known forever, Mikey of the gangly knees and messy hair, Mikey who knows him inside out. Ten years ago he'd never have thought he'd have Mikey's lips around his dick one day.

"Mikey," he groans, not sure what he wants to say, but he keeps saying it, chanting Mikey's name on repeat, his hips thrusting, his torso curling over as he gets closer, closer.

Mikey pulls off at the last moment, jerking Frank through it as his cock spasms and he comes. Mikey lowers his head, letting it hit his chin, turning his head so it swipes over his cheek. If Frank hadn't just come he'd come all over again from just seeing that. He's flying somewhere five feet above the bed, his heart thumping like a kick drum and Mikey looks incredible - beautiful, debauched, sinful.

Frank grabs Mikey under his arms, pulling him up until he's a sweaty blanket all over Frank's body. He arches up off the bed to lick a trail up Mikey neck, over the line of his chin, across his cheek, tasting his own release bitter on his tongue.

"Fuck, Mikes. That was amazing," he whispers. He licks his lips and kisses Mikey's, slow and deep. Mikey kisses back, fisting a hand in Frank's hair, his other hand on Frank's chest, warm and heavy over his heart. Frank could do this forever, and he does make a good try of it, but they're interrupted by a pounding on the door, Brian's muffled voice reminding them that Mikey's bus call is imminent and Frank has to be at the airport soon.

Frank releases Mikey's mouth reluctantly. There's a long moment where all they do is breathe, and Frank struggles through his post-orgasm haze to find the right words to say. They are beyond his reach, apparently, but he speaks anyway. "You're gonna call me, right? So we can have that conversation we traded for blowjobs?"

It makes Mikey smile, wide and crooked, eyes crinkling a little at the sides. "Yeah," he breathes. "We'll talk. About... this." His fingers flex a little, pressing his palm firmer over Frank's heart. His smile falters a little, and Frank leans up, laying a kiss over it, pushing into it as much as he can, how much he wants this, Mikey and him, together.

Mikey's the one to break it, pushing Frank away, breathless. "Brian wasn't kidding, dude, we've really gotta-"

"Yeah, I know." Frank doesn't want to. Really doesn't want to, but there's no answer for it. He's pushed his flight back as far as it can go, he'll barely get back without taking sick days at this rate. Already, he'll be grading the whole flight back. He takes another long look at Mikey, eyes tracing from where his feet are tangled in the sheets, up his lean body to where he's watching Frank right back. He doesn't lean in for one more kiss because he knows it'll become two. He makes himself wriggle out from under Mikey and rolls off the bed. "Think I've got time for a shower?"

"I doubt it." Mikey shrugs.

"You're not going to have one either way, are you?"

"Nope."

Frank smothers a laugh into his hand and heads for the bathroom. He can at least brush his teeth.

When he steps back into the hotel room after washing his face and giving himself a quick wipedown, Mikey's already dressed. Frank takes a moment to mourn the sudden lack of naked skin, trying not to think about how long it'll be before he gets to see it all again. "You're not even going to wash your face?" Frank asks, catching Mikey's chin with his thumb, remembering, and his voice drops an octave lower. "I came all over you."

"Maybe I like it," Mikey says, and he's not even joking.

Blood shoots to Frank's dick so fast he nearly swoons. "Fuck, Mikes," he mutters. The words get muffled as he kisses Mikey hard, pressing up close, his naked body flush against Mikey's, denim rough against his dick. They share a few more desperate biting kisses before the door bangs again and they break apart reluctantly, out of time.

Mikey can't come to the airport with him, so they say their goodbyes in the hotel parking lot, in front of the waiting tour bus. It's too out in the open to really do anything, but Mikey pushes Frank onto the bus, kissing him in the scant cover of the stairwell, at eye level for once because Frank's standing on a higher step.

Frank breaks the kiss, hands clinging to Mikey's shoulders as he says, "Don't forget about me, now." It sounds pathetic to his own ears and he bites his lip to swallow more words down.

"Not a chance," Mikey says, linking their fingers and squeezing. "You and me, right?"

Frank nods sharply. "Yeah. Fuck everybody else."

***

When Frank gets off the flight, the first thing he does is check his phone for messages. There aren't any, but that doesn't mean anything, he tells himself. Sometimes it takes a little while for his phone to find a network, and even though his voicemail usually gives a text message notification, it's possible there's a delay in delivery. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened. Plus there's always a chance Mikey actually paid attention to what times Frank would be in transit and decided there was no point in calling while Frank was still in the air.

He dials his voicemail anyway, just in case, and gets a cheerful message from the automated robot woman that he has no new messages. He shakes it off. He's not worried. He should get to baggage claim anyway.

He hasn't bothered to arrange for anyone to pick him up from the airport, so once he has his bag he makes for the exit, following the signs to the taxis. There's a long line, and he waits in it, feeling itchy and unsettled. It's weird being by himself after a couple of weeks of always moving in a pack, always being herded. There's no one talking to him, no one bothering him, no one by his side. It feels wrong. He puts it down to a post-tour comedown and pulls out his phone to distract himself. No new messages, but a small number of emails. Three are to do with work and two are notifications of upcoming shows at a couple of local venues he's on mailing lists for. None are from Mikey.

Without really thinking about it, he taps the symbol for text messages, scrolling down to find the last text Mikey sent him. It's from the day before, prior to the gig, Mikey asking Frank to grab him some cigarettes on a run to the store. It feels like a million years ago, already.

He starts to tap out a message, just a "hey, landed, not dead" kind of thing, but he stops himself before he presses send. He should probably wait for Mikey to text first. Being back on the ground in Jersey and by himself again, it all feels so far away, like it happened on another planet. He puts his phone away, resolute. It's cool, it'll feel less weird when he's heard from Mikey. Anyway, that next cab is his.

The house is dark and smells stale and closed up when he gets home. The silence is overwhelming. He puts up with it for as long as he can - which is about as long as it takes him to dump his bags and dig out his laundry - before he goes through and turns on every light in the house, blindly hitting play on the stereo as he passes it by. He nearly drops the handful of clothes under his arm when the music assaults his ear. Of course, the last CD he played before he left was The Used and now they're blasting from his speakers. If this were a movie it would be Pretty Handsome Awkward but it's real life, so it's a different track. It would be a weird overreaction to turn it off.

It would also be a weird overreaction to feel like he can't turn it off without it meaning something deeper, he reasons, and puts on Black Flag instead. He piles the couch with paperwork and settles in, Rollins growling around him as he rushes through the last of his preparations. He's lost in lesson plans when the phone rings, startling him and he jumps for it, not even checking the caller ID first.

"Hello?"

"Hey Frank, are you back?" It's Ray, of course it's Ray. Frank glances at the clock and subtracts one - Mikey would be at a show right now, it makes sense that it's not him.

"Yeah, I'm back," Frank says, groping across the couch for the remote to turn down the Black Flag a little. "Got in a few hours ago."

"So, how was it? I heard you got up onstage and played a couple of times. Must have been rad."

Frank laughs, remembering how shit-scared he was to get up the first time, the rush of being out there, the sea of screaming faces. "It was pretty rad."

"How's Mikey doing?"

Frank fights down another wave of memories at Mikey's name, sweat-slick skin, Mikey's eyes fixed on him, intense as he bottomed out inside him. Frank coughs a little to clear his throat before answering, glad Ray can't see his face. "He's good, he's doing really well. Seems to be handling the rockstar shit okay."

"So was it all parties, chicks, drugs and booze?"

"Far from it, dude." All Frank can picture in his head is how many afternoons they spent in dressing rooms, Jeph with his nose in a book with Bert and Quinn playing sudden death solitaire while Mikey read out amusing entries on the Texts From Last Night website. "They're not exactly party animals."

"More just rock n' roll then, not so much the sex and the drugs."

"Well, not so much the drugs," Frank hedges,"I can't really speak for the sex, well, not for everyone in the band..." Frank trails off, having said too much already.

"Holy shit, Frank, don't tell me you actually grew a pair? You and Mikey boned?"

"That's such a sweet way of putting it, Ray," Frank snaps in his most cutting tone, but Ray's not even listening. He's calling out to Spencer, saying, "You were right, baby, they totally boned."

"You and Spencer were taking bets on this?"

"Um, not like money-bets. Just, you know, playing Devil's Advocate." Ray says, his voice too hurried. Frank's pretty sure he can hear Spencer in the background saying something that sounds suspiciously like "You owe me twenty bucks," before Ray shushes him. "Are you guys, like, a thing now?"

"A thing?"

"A couple? Dating? Something?"

Frank rubs a hand over his face, suddenly tired. "I should know the answer to this, shouldn't I?"

"You don't?" Ray asks, sounding genuinely worried.

"Not really." Frank shifts on the couch, moving his papers into neater piles. "We haven't really had a chance to talk about it since it happened."

There's a short pause before Ray says, "You will, though, right?"

"If he ever calls me," Frank says, then immediately wants to take it back. "Oh god, if I ever say something like that again I want you to punch me in the face."

"Okay, but I'm going to remind you that you told me to do it beforehand."

"Whatever." Frank waves the thought away. He waves all the thoughts away. Mikey will call when he can and Frank is not gonna turn into a giant girl about it either way.

"You found a rhythm guitarist yet?" Frank asks, deliberately switching conversation gears. It takes a moment for Ray to catch up with him, but he does, and slips right back into familiar territory.

"We've auditioned a couple of guys, but no one as charming as you." Frank waits, already knowing the next part. "Why don't you just come to a rehearsal? No strings, just see how it feels. You can't tell me you didn't enjoy being onstage again, I saw the videos."

"Oh god, you saw them too?" Frank makes a mental note to check YouTube later. He should know what he's up for if any of his students get wise to this.

"Sure did, Gerard told me. Come on, just one rehearsal, then you can tell me to fuck off and I promise I'll drop it."

Frank hesitates for just a moment before he says, "You're a fucking sweet talker, Ray Toro."

"Is that a yes?" Ray asks, his voice already pitching up in excitement.

Frank grins into his handset and says, "Yeah Ray, that's a yes. To a one off rehearsal and then you leave me alone."

"Sure, Frank. Promise," Ray answers, but the smile in his voice gives him away. He thinks he's already got Frank, now.

The truth is, he probably does.

***

Frank drives onto the lot on his first day back at school feeling woefully underprepared. Between staying up late finishing his neglected paperwork, and tossing and turning for hours in his too-quiet bedroom, he didn't get a lot of sleep. It's his own fault for pushing back his flight so late, not leaving himself enough time to properly adjust back to a normal schedule like he'd originally planned. Still, he can't bring himself to regret it.

He winds down more as the day goes on. Winging his way through lessons he was worried about being underprepared for but suffering no real problems helps him to regain some confidence. He puts his phone into his desk drawer during classes to make sure it won't distract him. He still checks it between each class for texts or missed calls, but none are from Mikey.

It's cool, he's not worried. It's only been a day. Mikey's probably not even awake yet, he reasons. He doesn't let himself dwell on it and keeps his concentration on his kids. They're demanding today, all distracted and antsy after being on vacation. Frank draws them in with interesting stories about what they're learning and lays out the assignment work to make sure they're paying attention.

By lunchtime the lack of sleep is wearing on him, and he's glad for a break. He chills out in the teacher's lounge with a strong cup of coffee, trying to bring himself back to life before he has to face a period of lunch monitoring.

The chatter in the cafeteria seems to be tuned to the exact frequency to give Frank a headache. He better get over this jetlag - or tourlag, or whatever it is - soon, or the kids will eat him alive.

Then, within minutes of taking up his preferred vantage point, he gets cornered by Dylan and two friends Frank vaguely recognises.

"Sir?" Dylan's tone is careful, but he's brandishing a Sidekick, the screen showing a paused frame of familiar footage. "This is you, isn't it?" Dylan hands him the phone. The image is of course Frank, mid head-bang, holding Mikey's sparkly guitar aloft as he plays.

Frank had checked YouTube last night, finding a handful of shaky phone camera videos of The Used's performances of Pretty Handsome Awkward in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Of course Dylan would be the one to find it.

There's no point denying it, so he nods.

Dylan's face breaks into a huge grin and he immediately elbows the friend to his left, a shorter kid with a shock of ginger hair and freckles. "I told you, man. It's totally him. He went on tour with them and everything." He grabs the phone back, hitting play on the video, making music and crowd noise spill out of the tinny speakers.

"Just as a friend," Frank clarifies, an alarm going off in his head. "It was a one off thing, Mikey was doing me a favour."

"But you did it in Milwaukee too."

"Well it happened twice, but that was all," Frank explains dumbly.

Both of Dylan's friends crane their heads to see the screen, blocking it mostly from Frank's view, but he can tell by the sound that the song's finishing up, can hear the crowd noise picking up and he knows what they're seeing, between waving arms and camera blur. This is the part where Mikey comes back into frame, wrapping Frank in a hug. Even with the shitty mostly-out-of-focus footage, Frank's ridiculous expression of glee is all too obvious.

"You guys are pretty close, huh?" Dylan asks, something like awe in the way he's looking at Frank. It makes Frank feel a little uncomfortable, knowing what happened moments after he and Mikey go off screen, but he fights it down, not letting it show. It's an honest question, so Frank just nods.

"He's my best friend." It's no less true than it was ten years ago, and something in Frank's chest shifts as he says it. He excuses himself from the group to do a round of the cafeteria, before they can start asking more questions. He's only a few steps away when Dylan says, "Hey, Mr. Iero?"

Frank turns, steeling himself for an awkward inquisition, but Dylan just says, "You can shred, man."

"Thanks." Frank turns back and keeps walking before they can get an eyeful of his stupid grin.

***

Frank's still flying a little high on his pseudo-celebrity status when the bell rings, signalling the end of lunch. It's his planning period, and he's behind, but he wanders around outside instead of doing work, thinking. When he stuffs his hands in his pockets against the chill wind and his fingers brush his phone he pulls it out. He doesn't bother checking it for messages this time, just spools through his contacts to put Mikey's number on the screen.

He's being an idiot about this. Mikey is his friend, has been for more than half his life, all this pussying around over calling him is just plain stupid. No matter how the (incredible, mind-blowing) sex factors into things, he doesn't want to lose that - to lose them. Mikey's probably as nervous as he is, and this stupid staring contest needs to end. He might as well be the one to end it.

He presses send, his heart pounding too hard for what he tells himself is a casual call. He switches hands as it rings, turning so the cool wind is hitting his face, keeping him alert.

It rings a few times before the telltale click of voicemail. Frank's heart sinks, but he doesn't hang up. Mikey might be at sound check, or doing an interview, anything really. He listens to the short, clipped message, ignoring the ache in his chest at hearing Mikey's voice - even in a shitty recording - and waits out the beep.

"Hey Mikey, it's Frank. Um, hi? Give me a call when you can. Okay, bye." It's a physical effort not to say more, but he already feels like the needy girlfriend just leaving a message. He hangs up and switches his phone back to silent.

It's weird, he's barely gone twenty-four hours without seeing Mikey and he already misses him. It shouldn't be so surprising; they've been living in each others' pockets for over a week. It's just withdrawal. He'll get past it. Mikey will call him back when he can and Frank will finally be able to put this weird unsettled feeling aside.

He puts his phone back in his pocket and heads back inside to tackle his next class.

***

Mikey doesn't call. He doesn't text. He doesn't email. Days pass in a blur of classes, staff meetings, one pot meals, and bad TV. Frank tells himself it doesn't mean anything, that he's not going to turn this into something it isn't, but the longer it goes on the harder it is to believe that.

The day after he left the voicemail message, he sends Mikey a text. The day after that he sends Mikey an email. All of them are short, casual, not much more than a hello - I'm here. All go unanswered.

By the end of the week Frank's not sure if he's pissed off or worried. He checks the internet for news of Mikey, half expecting to find out he's been injured or mysteriously vanished, but there's fresh video from last night's show online already. Mikey's fine, rocking out as hard as ever, looking beautiful and completely inaccessible. Frank gets stuck in a YouTube vortex, seeing the familiar lines of Mikey's face through waving hands and blurred lights. He watches clip after clip, each time waiting for the camera to turn toward Mikey. He's wearing the same shirt he had on the Cleveland show, and he looks fine - great even.

Frank's pauses the footage and looks away, feeling like a creep, like one more overinvested fan who thinks they know more than they really do about Mikey Way.

He clicks the browser window closed in disgust.

***

Exactly a week has passed since Frank got back from tour. The Used have played five shows, and had two days off. Frank hates that he knows this, but it's all there on the tour dates page of their website for him to see. Today is one of their days off, a travel day, so they shouldn't be doing anything.

He swallows down the sinking feeling he gets when he scrolls through his phone to Mikey's number. He'll call, Mikey will answer, they'll talk, and Frank can stop acting like a freak with a crush. Mikey will have a reason for not calling and Frank will get his friend back.

"And go," he whispers to himself, hitting send on the keypad, taking a breath to calm himself. He's cool. They're just going to talk, Frank's not going to be weird or pissy. It'll be fine.

His phone takes forever to connect before chirping in his ear, "We're sorry; you have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this recording in error, please check the number and try your call again."

It repeats before giving Frank the busy signal.

He throws his phone across the room, swearing.

***

Frank doesn't want to go to a rehearsal for Ray's new band. He wants to stay home and sulk and watch shitty TV. Sadly, this isn't an option, because Ray is a tenacious fucker and he texted Frank that morning to remind him that rehearsal is at 3pm sharp, so Frank can't even plead forgetfulness.

He shows up at the practise space ten minutes early, because he's a fucking professional like that. Of course, Ray's beaten him there because no matter how conscientious Frank is, Ray is a goddamn Boy Scout. Ray helps him lug his gear inside. The practise space isn't far from Ray's music store, just a little further out of town, in a more industrial area.

"Glad you could make it, Frankie." Ray pulls him into a hug and it takes Frank a moment to realise this might just be the first real physical contact he's had in over a week. He wraps his arms around Ray's waist and leans into it for a moment before pulling back.

"Just one rehearsal, that's what I said," Frank repeats. Ray nods, looking serious, but Frank can see the smile that keeps tugging at his mouth.

They enter their designated practise room. Spencer's already there, adjusting a cymbal on his kit. When he sees Frank he smiles, leaning over his bass drum to shake Frank's hand and give him a one armed hug. "Glad to see Ray finally talked some sense into you," he says with a grin that wrinkles his nose.

"One rehearsal," Frank says. "No strings."

Spencer laughs, sudden and musical, and the way it opens up his face is a little like looking into the sun. Frank can see why Ray fell for him. "I wanna hear you say that again in about three hours."

"Oh, I will," Frank asserts, and goes to set up his amp and his gear.

He's tuning his guitar, focused on the notes over the background sounds of Spencer checking his kit and Ray running cables, when the inevitable question finally gets asked. Spencer actually gets in with it before Ray. "So how's Mikey?"

Frank's grip on his guitar falters a little, but he keeps strumming until he gets a clean E. "Don't know."

The room goes silent except for Frank's E, which he moves to an F. Silence in a soundproofed room is extra-silent, and Frank can feel two sets of eyes heavy on him, can hear the questions hovering. Luckily, it's right on 3pm and James Dewees is a professional, too.

"Yeah, I haven't heard from him," Frank says, in a light tone that is completely fake, as he puts his guitar down on the stand and crosses the room to meet James at the door. "Dewees, you fucker," he says, his smile mostly put-on but the emotion is genuine when he catches James in a tight hug. Frank met James through Ray years ago, and they've been on and off drinking, jamming and gigging buddies ever since.

James envelops Frank in a bear hug and lifts him off the ground, spinning him around before dropping him back to the floor unceremoniously. Frank lets a slightly hysterical laugh spill from his chest and James gives him a friendly shove. "You're such an asshole, making us wait for you like some kind of virgin in a chastity belt."

"I don't know what Ray's promised you, man, but I said one rehearsal. Enjoy today, dude, I'm not staying longer."

James doesn't argue with him like Ray and Spencer. He just nods and says, "Sure, Frankie, whatever you say," and ducks back into the hallway to fetch his gear. The moment he's out the door Ray grabs Frank's arm, whispering. "He didn't call? Did you call him?"

"Of course I did." Frank goes back to his amp, needing to do something with his hands. "Called, texted, emailed." He plugs in his pedal and adjusts its inputs on the amp with sharp motions. "I'm sure he's real busy being a rockstar. It's fine." His voice is surprisingly level given the hot throb in his head, the burn under his skin, the choking thickness of his throat. He moves the pedal, placing it carefully in front of his amp, taking a breath to push the heat down into his stomach.

"Frank," Ray starts.

"Don't." Frank cuts him off. He can hear voices in the hallway, Ray's bassist, Matt Cortez, talking to James as they're nearing the door. Frank glances up at Ray, knowing there's a plea in his eyes, a please, not now; Ray nods incrementally, turning to greet Matt and ask James something. He keeps them talking long enough for Frank to swallow down whatever's in his throat before he joins them with a pasted on grin, shaking Matt's hand warmly.

Ray cuts the small talk off pretty fast, and not just for Frank's sake, either. Frank knows him well enough to be aware of his workaholic tendencies. The first song Ray proposes is one from the demo, so Frank's already pretty familiar with it. Ray walks him through some chord progressions while Matt and James get set up, and Frank's glad to have something to concentrate on that's nothing to do with his phone or romantic life. By the time everyone's set, Frank's focus is all in his fingers and hands. Spencer taps them in with his sticks and they burst into a rally of sound.

They're a little loose and Frank's fucks up his fingering a few times just by being unfamiliar with playing the song, but it still sounds pretty good. Ray gets them to run it again and it goes off the second time around, tighter and stronger - nearly as good as it sounds on the CD in Frank's car. Frank still has to think too hard about where he's putting his fingers to really just let go and give himself up to it, but it commands all his attention just the same, forcing any other thoughts right out of his brain.

He gets lost in the music for the next three hours. Between songs he proposes changes to some of the rhythm lines, and he and Ray try them out. Some of the changes are going to stick, he can tell on first listen.

By the end of rehearsal he's sweated through his t-shirt and his fingers are screaming at him, reminding him he hasn't played this long and hard in a while. Ray calls time and when Frank looks up from his guitar, Ray's beaming at him - that blinding smile that's all teeth and glee, his hair a halo of damp ringlets and his shirt dark with sweat. Ray doesn't say anything straight away. He waits until everyone's bumping out, coiling cables and packing their gear, before sidling up to Frank where's he's bent over his amp.

"So, same time next week?"

It's not that the whole room goes silent, but Frank knows they're listening. He rubs his thumb over the tips of his numb fingers, thinking how painful it will be to grade papers with new calluses blooming. He considers the proposed mid-week rehearsals and the toll they'll take on his sleep patterns during busy midterms and finals. He thinks about trying to squeeze playing shows in around his already busy life, and losing most of his down time and vacations to practise and shows.

Then he thinks of the new rhythm lines he's played today, that he already feels territorial about, and the ones that are already bubbling in his head for the loose jams that they can't even call songs yet.

He looks up at Toro's fucking knowing smile and admits his own defeat.

"Sure, Ray, next week."

***

Frank is laying his guitar and amp across the back seat of his car when Ray strolls around behind him.

"Want to get a beer?" he asks, and Frank already knows what this is about, because Ray can be so fucking transparent, standing there with his hopeful, earnest face.

"Not if do you want to get a beer is really code for making me talk about Mikey." Frank throws his armload of cables into the trunk beside his amp, slamming the door shut with a too-hard motion before turning to face Ray. "Besides, you've got all your gear and stuff."

"I'll send it home with Spencer," Ray offers, and Frank snorts. Spencer won't be happy about that. Ray lays a gentle hand on Frank's shoulder. "Come on, it's been ages since we just hung out."

Ugh. Saying no to Ray when he's like this is like kicking a puppy. "Fine," Frank says, "But we're going to Dino's."

"Cool." Ray doesn't argue. He jogs a few yards to his SUV and tucks the keys into Spencer's pocket as he walks towards it with a drum under each arm. Spencer doesn't say anything, though he flashes his best bitchface, but it fades when Ray gestures at Frank, no doubt giving Spencer the Earnest Face Of Doom.

Frank gets in his car and switches out the CD for something loud and angry. He guns the engine and turns the dial up loud, not turning it down when Ray gets in the passenger seat.

Dino's is pretty quiet for a Saturday, but it's still fairly early in the night, Frank supposes. They give the bartender a wave and slide into one of their usual booths toward the back.

It's not until there's a tall glass of beer in front of Frank that Ray drops the pleasantries and says, "So what happened?"

Frank fidgets with his beer, turning the glass and swiping a finger through the condensation on the side. "You know as much as I do, man."

"Which is?" Ray asks, arching an eyebrow.

"I tagged along on the tour for a week, the last night I was there we boned, and now he wants nothing to do with me."

Ray's brow furrows. He leans over the table, toward Frank. "Did he say that?"

Frank flicks a few droplets of water off his glass. "He doesn't have to say it. He's made it pretty clear."

"So you haven't heard from him at all? That's so weird."

"It's not weird, Ray. This isn't the first time he's done it, okay? And he promised - fucking swore to me - that he wouldn't just fall off the radar like this again." Frank takes a swig of his beer, barely tasting it. "And you know what? He has. So fuck him."

"You don't mean that."

"I really do."

"Have you tried calling Gerard, he'd know-"

"No." Frank cuts him off. "I'm not going running to Gee just because Mikey's ignoring me. If Mikey wants to talk to me, he knows how to reach me. I'm not running after him anymore." Frank's got some pride left, god damn it.

Ray goes quiet, taking a sip of his beer and Frank follows suit. It turns into a deep swallow and he can feel it hitting him a little when he puts the half-empty glass down. He hasn't eaten much today; that's probably why he's all melancholy and shit. "I just thought it would be different this time," he says, and god, he's such a fucking girl. "I should've seen it coming."

"He's been your best friend since you guys were kids."

"Yeah, and now I don't even get to have that anymore." Frank slumps down in the chair. Not that he's really had Mikey as a friend, not for those years when Frank stop chasing him down and they lost touch. It's just so fucking hard to go back to nothing after being so intensely close again. It's downright cruel. "It would've been easier if he'd just stayed away."

"Don't say that." Ray leans forward, concerned. "I'm sure there's a reason."

"Oh, I know there's a reason," Frank says decisively, because there is.

It's just not a good one.

***

There's something weirdly cathartic about talking to Ray about Mikey. Now that Frank's actually said the words out loud to someone, he knows it's really over. He doesn't really know why, just that it is, and that anything he might have hoped for that last night with Mikey, anything he felt he'd been promised that last morning on the bus, when he told Mikey not to forget - that none of it meant anything. Now that he knows that, he can put it behind him. Right?

To all outward appearances, he does. He goes to work each day and teaches his classes with gusto. He goes to band rehearsals with rocks out, helping the guys build a catalogue of songs. He spends his time at home divided between grading, guitar practise, and sketching out songs and melodies. He's busy. He's social. To any outsider, he's fine, and most of the time he feels fine, too.

He still does the odd internet search on Mikey, most of the time just finding an interview with the band where he barely contributes, or a shaky video from a recent concert. Frank doesn't clear his browser history afterwards but he sort of feels like he should, like he's doing something wrong, or unhealthy. He's supposed to be moving on.

He's just pulling up outside the practise space when his phone rings. The line at the gas station was huge and he hit a bunch of traffic because a pile-up near the turnpike, so he's running late for practice. He scrambles for his phone as he hops out of his car, making his way to the trunk to fetch his guitar. He hits 'send' blind, because Ray's a fucking slavedriver and no doubt it's him calling to check.

"I've just pulled up, dude. I'll be like five minutes," Frank says in a rush, already popping the trunk. He grabs for his guitar and nearly drops it when he hears the voice on the other end of the line. It's not Ray.

"Frank, hey. It's Mikey."

All the breath rushes out of Frank's lungs and he takes a step back, leaning against the car. His first instinct is to hang up, but he stops himself a moment before his finger hits the button.

"Hi." His voice comes out flat. He puts his guitar back down, gently.

"Hi." Mikey says, and then nothing else comes down the line. Frank starts to wonder if Mikey's still there at all. If he's hung up.

He knows he hasn't though. He's just waiting for Frank to talk first, like he usually does. Frank knows it, and he stays silent on purpose, forcing Mikey to speak first.

"Frank." His voice sounds strained. "I'm really, really sorry."

For the last three weeks, that's all Frank's wanted to hear. Mikey's voice, apologising. Except now that he's hearing it, it's not enough. He stands in the parking lot, turning his body to face the sun, closing his eyes at the glare.

"Is that all?" Frank asks, keeping his voice level - no inflection at all.

"Frank, please. I don't. I mean. I didn't-" Mikey's voice drops away, but Frank can hear him breathing down the phone, rough breaths that push static down the line. "I freaked out. I'm sorry."

"Yeah, I figured as much," Frank says, his voice cold even to his own ears - hollow. "Is that all? Because I need to get inside. Ray's waiting."

"Frank, wait-" Mikey says, the words a rush, but all that comes after them is more silence.

Frank opens his eyes again, squinting against the sun, feeling like he's outside his own body. Numb.

"I miss you," Mikey says finally, and something inside Frank's chest clenches painfully, but it's like pressing a bruise, an old wound, a pain he's grown used to. He lets his eyes slide closed again, seeing red as the sun hits the blood in his eyelids.

"I can't do this again, Mikey," he says. "I'm sorry. I have to go."

He hangs up, fetches his gear from the trunk and goes inside to practise.

***

Frank saves the number that Mikey called from into his phone as "Don't Answer."

"Don't Answer" calls once a day for the next week. Frank nearly answers twice, but manages to stop himself, letting it go to voicemail. The first two times Mikey doesn't leave a message. The third time he does.

A notification trills, and he slumps down onto the floor, staring at his phone.

Frank shouldn't listen to the message. It's just going to make things complicated. He dials his voicemail with every intention of deleting without listening, but he just can't do it. He leans back, the hard base of his bed digging into his back as the message plays back.

"Hey Frank. I guess I know why you're not answering." Mikey sounds tired. Frank can hear a low hum in the background, like he's calling from the bus while it's in motion. "Look, it was a shitty, shitty fucking thing for me to do, or like, not do, I guess. I know you think I'm crap at this, at keeping in touch, but I don't have to be, you know?" Mikey sighs, and his breath hits the microphone, making it crackle. "I know I fucked up. I just. I guess I want one more chance. I know I probably don't deserve it." There's long pause, and Frank doesn't realise he's holding his breath until Mikey speaks again and it rushes out. "I just miss you. I miss us."

Frank hears a few more stuttering, static-laden breaths in the earpiece, then Mikey hangs up.

The automated voice recites the time and date of the call back at Frank, listing through his options, to call back, save or delete. Breathing is a physical effort for a few long moments, as he stares at the phone, the distant tinny voice of the automaton repeating his options back to him, press three to call back, press four to save the message, press five to delete the message..

Frank presses five, and hangs up. Then he flips off the light, crawls into bed and pulls the covers over his head, willing himself to unconsciousness.

***

Frank deletes more voicemails over the next week, but "Don't Answer" doesn't call Frank on the tenth day. Frank nearly doesn't notice - it's a Monday, busy and rushed, and he has two classes prepping for tests the next day. By the time he gets home he's exhausted, debating frozen meal versus takeout, because the thought of cooking actual food is too much effort to even consider.

He's staring at his pile of menus for local eateries when his doorbell rings. He's not expecting anyone, but it's not out of the ordinary for Ray or any of his friends to drop by unannounced, so he goes to answer it.

He is not, however, expecting the person on his doorstep to be Gerard. But it is. Gerard's wearing his usual outdoor uniform of a long coat, two scarves and a ridiculous fur-lined hat, though it's almost May. He's also holding a phone to his ear.

"Hi Frankie," he says, with a huge smile that wrinkles his nose. He waves with the hand that's not holding the phone.

"Gerard- um, hey. What-?"

Gerard doesn't wait to be invited in, he just steps inside. He takes Frank's hand and puts his phone in it, fitting Frank's fingers around it and pushing it up to Frank's ear. Frank just stares at him, totally confused.

"Just talk to him. Please," Gerard pleads, and it's not like it's news to Frank that the puppy dog eyes of doom run in the Way family, but it's been a long time since Gerard's used his on Frank. He keeps his hold on Frank's hand, pressing until the phone is touching Frank's ear, warm like the call has been connected for some time.

"Frank, please don't hang up." It's Mikey, of course it's Mikey. Mikey's using Gerard as his agent now and it's totally not fair.

"Mikey," Frank says, inflecting it like a greeting, keeping his voice neutral. "What do you want?"

Gerard stays a moment longer, probably just to make sure Frank doesn't hang up. Then he nods earnestly at Frank, squeezing his fingers - before he ducks into the living room and gives Frank some semblance of privacy.

"I don't know," Mikey says, and it's a little bit of a comedown after all the drama of him sending Gerard to Frank's house. "I just. I don't want you to hate me."

Frank sighs, the air taking the energy out of his body as it leaves his lips. He kicks the door gently shut and leans back on it. "I can't hate you, Mikes." He palms his eyes. So tired. "I know, I've tried."

He had plenty of time to try, the first time Mikey went to radio silence. It wasn't as sudden that time as it was this time. Then, the phone calls and messages grew more and more rare over a long period of time, until he didn't have anything left of Mikey but old photos and stories and an infinite number of mutual friends.

It was almost easier this time, like going cold turkey.

Mikey laughs, but there's no joy in it. It just sounds dry, empty. Frank hears him take a breath before he gets the next words out. "How can I fix this?"

"I don't think you can," Frank says, the words sound hollow to his own ears. "Even if I get over this, I don't know that I won't always be expecting it to happen again. Even if we can make... something out of this, I just." Frank sighs again, leaning his head back until his head hits the door. "I don't think it can work."

There's so much stacked against them - time, distance, Frank's job, Frank's own stupid head. "I'm sorry, Mikey."

The line is silent for a long time. "Other people do it," Mikey points out, weakly.

"We're not other people, Mikes. Look, I should go, your poor brother is trapped here until I give him back his phone." Frank pushes up off the door, ready to walk back into the living room to Gerard.

"Wait," Mikey says, sounding panicked. "Frank, wait. Just-"

Frank pauses. "What?"

"Do you remember the time we went to see the Souls at the Loop, the night you had sneak out and I was supposed to meet you with the car around the corner of Willow and Birch, but I ended up on Birch and Tenth and you couldn't find me?"

Of course Frank remembers; he'd circled four blocks in his too-thin jacket trying to figure out if Mikey was late or lost. "Yeah, so?"

"I mean, you found me, right? In the end? We missed the opener but we made it for the Souls and that was the night we stayed after and ended up meeting the band."

"So, what, Mikey? Of course I remember that." Frank's voice comes out prickly, but he doesn't get why Mikey's bringing this up. This is ancient history.

"I got mixed up, and ended up in the wrong place, but you found me, you kept looking until you found me."

"Mikey, you're not making any sense." It must be a Way thing.

"I just want another chance," Mikey says. Frank has to lean his hand against the wall to prop himself up, breathe deep and try to remember why he has to say no to this. He's having trouble remembering.

"Mikey-" Frank loses the rest.

"Frank, just. Please."

Frank closes his eyes, feeling the roughness of the paint under his fingers, breathing through his indecision. He could try this, right? He could give it another chance. Would it be any different to where they are now, except he'd be talking to Mikey on his phone instead of Gerard's? Mikey would still be a world away, in orbit, circling an entirely different planet, always out of reach, always able to switch off and move on, to leave Frank behind. Shit, Frank doesn't even know what city he's in right now.

He opens his eyes, blinking in the too-bright light of his hallway fluorescents. "I have to go," is all he manages to say, and goes back into the living room to return Gerard's phone.

Gerard looks up when Frank enters the room. His face is hopeful at first, but once he sees Frank's demeanour his expression slips to sadness and confusion. He gets up off the couch, putting the Sandman trade he was leafing through down on his coffee table. Frank gives him back his phone.

"You want a coffee, or something?" he offers, unable to turn off his ingrained politeness, even in the face of his startlingly depressing personal life.

Gerard opens his mouth, then obviously pauses and rethinks.

"I should go," he finally says. "You know, deadlines and shit." He pockets his phone and follows Frank to the door.

"Bye Frankie," Gerard says sadly as he steps outside, winding his scarves around his neck. Frank starts to close the door, but Gerard stops it with the flat of his hand, looking at Frank all earnest. "He really regrets not calling, you know. Like, he's really, really fucking sorry."

Frank can see so much of Mikey in Gerard's expression at that moment that it's more than a little painful. "Yeah," he says, "So am I."

He closes the door.

***

Mikey doesn't call again after that. Frank thinks that might finally be the end of it, but instead of relief he feels unsettled and itchy. He shakes it off. It was the right decision. The grown up decision. He should be making more of those.

He lets himself get sucked into work - it's the end of the semester, so finals and exams and projects command all his attention, and the little free time he has left goes to Ray and the band. Frank's up to speed with all their established tracks now and some of the loose jams they played that first time he rehearsed with them are becoming real songs. Ray and James are starting to talk about actual gigs. Sure, just small club gigs, but real gigs, at real venues that are more than just a practise space or someone's living room.

It's good, it gives Frank room to breathe, plenty to hold on to. He goes nearly a week without checking the internet for news of Mikey. When he does, he doesn't expect anything other than the usual, the odd few sentences from Mikey in an interview, more shaky concert footage where Mikey will occasionally be in frame. It's a surprise when most of the buzz seems to centre on some kind of mysterious number-code that has something to do with Mikey. There's a flurry of conjecture from fans and journalists about what it means.

Frank's brow furrows, but he's intrigued, so he clicks through a bunch of links until he finds some fan-made posts with pictures.

The pictures cover the last week of shows Mikey's done, with a few screen caps from interviews on websites and music channels. In each picture, there's a number written somewhere in plain view on Mikey's skin or clothes. A string of numbers down his arm in sharpie at the San Antonio show, a different set of numbers written across the chest of an inside-out t-shirt he wears in Austin, one scrawled across the back of his jacket at a show in El Paso, and another date in sharpie written on his neck during an interview on Steven's Untitled Rock Show.

Frank clicks the link to the SURS interview, and finds the very first question Steven asks Mikey is what it all means.

Mikey smiles secretly, eyes sliding down and to the side the way they doing when he's trying not to give too much away. "You know how when you were a kid, you used to have a secret code with your best friend, so that you could send like, messages to each other and stuff without other people knowing? It's kind of like that."

Somewhere on the edge of frame, Bert looks like he's laughing. Steve presses Mikey more. "That's all you're going to give me? Come on Mikey, the world wants to know."

Mikey just shrugs, "It's not about the rest of the world."

The interview cuts to a bumper, and when it cuts back they're talking about something else. Frank clicks the window closed, but he can't stop thinking about it. After getting nothing done for the next half an hour, he goes back in his internet history to find the page with all the pictures of Mikey with the numbers written on him. Calling himself seven shades of idiot, he studies the pictures, writing each number down. The way they're written, they've got to be dates. There are four of them, spanning from 1996 to 2003.

10-31-99
09-17-96
10-02-01
05-05-03

Frank writes them down in chronological order, trying to remember if any of them are significant. The only one he recognises off the top of his head is 10-31-99. His eighteenth birthday, and the day he got his first tattoo - the smiling jack-o-lantern on his back. Mikey had come with him to the tattoo parlour, calling him names whenever he showed weakness and generally distracting him until the piece was finished. They'd gone back to the Ways afterwards and made Gerard look at it, Frank describing the needles until Gerard looked green and told him if he didn't stop talking about it he'd puke all over him.

They'd gotten drunk on Southern Comfort that night, and smoked up out in the Way's backyard until they were giggling messes on the grass, Frank so gone he didn't even feel the ache in his fresh tattoo anymore.

Frank finds himself staring at the number written on the notepad in front of him, a smile pulling at his lip at the memories. He shakes it off, and goes back to preparing the exam. Stupid nostalgic bullshit.

He doesn't think anymore of it, until the mail comes in the next day and hidden among his bills and the newest copy of NME is a postcard, one of those hokey ones with a picture of The Alamo on it, postmarked San Antonio.

Frank flips the card over to find it has 10-31-99 scrawled across the top of the clean section in Mikey's rounded handwriting. Underneath it just says "the day you got your first tattoo."

Frank stares at the postcard for a long moment, his brain struggling to put the pieces together. So, okay, he got that one. Gold star for him. He slaps the postcard against his hand, his brain already whirling around the other three dates, but he can't quite remember what they were. He wanders back inside, still clutching the mail, and as he walks past the kitchen table where his grading is scattered, he reaches for the notepad with the dates on it.

He knows what Mikey is doing. He wants him to think about these dates, about him and Mikey, to get all nostalgic and sappy and let him off the hook. Frank's lip curls. Mikey is such a fucking asshole, but he's playing him like the first level of Super Mario on easy. He knows Frank's not going to be able to stop thinking about this now, not until he figures it out.

Frank huffs, "you fucker," somewhere between annoyance and endearment. He pockets the postcard and goes into his bedroom, pulling out an old shoebox full of random crap he's never thrown away because he's a hoarder. He digs through the ticket stubs, old letters, and flyers until he finds a few from 1996.

He doesn't even need to check the date to know he's got it when he finds himself holding the ticket stub for the Pumpkins at Madison Square Garden. He digs some more until he finds a few things dated 1998, but none of them match up with the date Mikey wrote across his back in El Paso and if he doesn't get in the shower right now he's going to be late for band practise.

He shoves the contents of the shoebox back inside and pushes the box back under the bed. His mind ticks over the dates the whole time he's in the shower and on the journey to the practise space He obsesses over it for the rest of the night, so much that Ray calls him out for being distracted, and the whole following day at school it's on him mind.

When he gets home from school there's another postcard nestled among a gas bill and a catalogue for the local hardware store. This postcard features a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughn with a bunch of birds flying overhead. The back is covered in Mikey's scrawl again, this time with 09-17-96 written across it, the note underneath reading "The Pumpkins at The Garden. We waited for 12 hours. Best show."

Frank's mouth pulls into a smile, and he's not sure if it's nostalgia or just the satisfaction that he got it right. Either way, he's playing right into Mikey's hands, and he's not sure he can bring himself to be annoyed about that.

***

No postcards arrive the next day. When Frank checks his box in the afternoon, there's the usual junk mail, but no postcard. If Mikey is sending the postcards from the road as they stop through different cities, there's every chance the time will vary as they find their way to Frank's house. There's even a good chance of them getting lost in the mail. USPS isn't infallible, certainly not in some of the small towns and rural counties The Used's tour bus would be weaving its way through.

A voice in Frank's head slyly whispers that maybe Mikey just didn't send any more. Maybe he got bored, or maybe he's being stubborn and he's not going to send any more until he hears from Frank. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The thing is, it just doesn't feel like either of those options is right. Frank knows Mikey, and his instincts tell him the other postcards are already sent - that Mikey would have made sure to send them from the towns they were in when he wore the dates on his body. It's just the kind of thing that Mikey would follow through on. It's just the way he is.

Frank goes inside and digs around in his shoebox again. He still can't find any memorabilia for 05-05-03 but he does have a breakthrough with 10-02-01 - a ragged flyer that sports his own face and three others', dates listed down the centre. He photocopied all these himself, and he and Mikey went around to all the local music shops and restaurants, sticking them up and leaving them in stacks anywhere the owners would let them. The first date on the flyer matches up with the date Mikey wore on his neck for the SURS interview.

It's the date of Frank's first show with Pencey Prep.

Mikey was there, of course. He was down the front, shouting and hollering between songs, surrounded by everyone whose arm he'd twisted to come along. He was with Frank before the show too, holding his beer while Frank tuned his guitar, listening to Frank moan and complain about how nervous he was, how he was so sure he was going to puke any second. The show wasn't actually anything special. The crowd was small, and mostly only their friends and family, but that at least meant they were well received. Frank can remember standing up there at the end, , grinning at the scattering of faces and saying goodnight, thinking this was it. This was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

He'd jumped down off the stage, because there was no side stage, and was instantly dragged into a bony hug from Mikey, which had turned into a group hug when Mikey had dragged Gerard and Ray into it too. Again, Frank finds himself smiling down at the postcard. Fuck, Mikey's got him. He really does.

He still can't figure out that fourth date and it's bugging him like crazy. He empties his shoebox of memories and doesn't find anything. He finally resorts to digging through his email, checking his sent mail to try and figure out what was happening around that time. When he finds a clue he slaps a palm to his face and calls himself an idiot out loud. Because of fucking course - he should have guessed - it's the date of Mikey's audition for The Used, the day he found out they wanted him to play rhythm for him on the tour. The day he fucking made it.

Frank drove Mikey home after the audition that day and hung out at his place for the two twitchy hours Mikey spent waiting for a phone call that could change his life. Frank still remembers the expression on Mikey's face as he took the call, how he grabbed Frank's arm tight enough to hurt when he got the answer. The breath-stealing hug after he hung up when Mikey told Frank yes, they wanted him and Frank holding onto Mikey so tight.

Yeah, Frank remembers that day.

Frank closes down the email window and goes to bed feeling way too satisfied with himself.

The next day, two postcards arrive, postmarked as being sent a day apart. Frank was right, it was the mail that failed, not Mikey. He's like a fucking kid at Christmas, looking at the tacky cards from El Paso and Tuscon, and he has to force himself to go inside before he reads the backs because he doesn't want his neighbours to catch him hovering by the mailbox reading them.

He's right on both counts. One postcard of the The Grand Canyon with Mikey's scrawl on the back saying "Your first show with Pencey," and another random "Wish You Were Here" postcard that reads, "The day I started playing rhythm for TU."

Frank doesn't really know what to do with this information. His first thought is to call Mikey, tell him he got it, get some sense of satisfaction over winning this cryptic quiz about their shared past. He nearly pulls out his phone, but stops before he gets his hand into his pocket, heart sinking as he remembers the last conversation they had. He's not sure what to do, and he doesn't really have time to think about it, because he's got a stack of grading to finish before the morning.

It's still playing on his mind during his third period English class the next day, which is a written test so he doesn't really have to do anything but supervise for the bulk of the class. He ends up flipping through his notepad to the page where he originally wrote down the dates and doodling around them for half the period. It's not until the bell is sounding that he realises that he never checked to see if there were any more dates - there might be another postcard in the mail. He springs to his feet and dismisses the class, fingers twitching to get at his computer.

He barely manages to wait for the classroom to empty out before he turns for his desk. Dylan is standing beside it, looking at Frank's notebook. "You know what it means, don't you?" he says. Of course he knows about it.

Frank shrugs, trying not to give anything away. "Maybe."

Dylan steps away from the desk. "Can you tell me?"

Frank hesitates and then finally says, "I could, but honestly? You wouldn't get it. It wouldn't make sense to most people."

That's kind of the point.

***

There are more dates. In fact, Mikey hasn't been photographed without a date somewhere on his person since this whole thing started. Frank backtracks and discovers the first day he was photographed with a date on his arm was the day Gerard came over and put his phone in Frank's hand.

So this is Mikey proving a point. He's using the media power he has, gained by the very thing that was getting in the way of them being together, to win Frank back.

It's working, is the thing. Frank's too proud to let it lie. He can't stand the idea of not figuring out what a date means before he's told via Mikey's scrawl on the back of a postcard, so he digs through memorabilia and emails. He even calls Ray and his mother for clues when he's having trouble fitting the pieces together. They aren't terribly helpful, unfortunately. Mikey has picked some pretty specific dates, and sometimes it's events that only the two of them would know about.

Frank's stack of postcards from Mikey is seven deep when he finally hits a date he can't figure out. The closest he can get to it is Mikey's first show with The Used, but that was three days after the date Mikey's got scrawled on his upper arm in Reno. Maybe Mikey got a date wrong? But everything else has been spot-on.

Frank gets so frustrated trying to figure it out that he nearly calls Mikey. When the postcard comes the next day - featuring a glowing neon sign proclaiming Reno to be "the world's biggest little city" - he doesn't even manage to wait until he's inside to flip it over and solve the mystery.

When he does read the card, he nearly drops it. Fuck, how could he forget this one? He should have seen it coming, should have guessed.

The card is like all the others, the date across the top in Mikey's chicken scratch. Underneath it he's written simply, "the first time I kissed you."

They'd never talked about it afterward - not with each other and certainly not with anyone else. This is something that only he and Mikey know about. Knowing that makes something melt inside Frank's chest.

He clutches the card to his chest and goes back inside, heart pounding. He's already reaching for his phone, but he doesn't have time to call, doesn't know what he wants to say. He's not sure of anything right now except that he needs to tell Mikey that he's got the message.

He opens a new text message and types out some numbers - a date only a few months ago, one that's burned into his memory. The day he faced the crowd at Cleveland. The day Mikey sat on his amp and watched Frank rock out with his band. The last day Frank was on tour with The Used. They day he got locked out. A lot of shit went down that day, but his text is short.

03-17-07 - the first time I kissed you

It's pretty much an admission of defeat, and Frank's never been happier to lose.

***

Dino's is packed. Ray had argued that it was a stupid idea for them to play their first gig there, but Frank was convinced it would only be a small show and the nostalgia factor would be worth it. As it is, they can barely move in the small storage room backstage that's acting as a dressing room. Frank's crammed into a corner, checking the tuning on his guitar. He's done it twice already, but Frank needs to do something with his hands.

Ray walks over and elbows him. "It didn't detune itself in the last five minutes, dude." He grabs Frank's guitar strap and lifts it over his head, taking the guitar off him and putting it back in the stand. "Go get a beer or something, you're all wound up."

"I'm not wound up," Frank lies. "I've played way bigger crowds than this. It's not a big deal."

"Yeah sure. It's not a big deal that everyone you love is out there waiting to hear us. It's not like they're an important audience or anything," Ray says, and Frank pulls a face at Ray's stupid grin.

"Not everyone I love," he points out. Mikey's tour break starts tonight, but it's not physically possible for him to get back to Jersey in time for the show. He was pretty bummed to miss it, but as Frank assured him on one of their regular phone calls, there will be more shows. Definitely.

Of course, Frank has to pull out his phone then; it's compulsive now every time he thinks of Mikey. He can't help a little flutter in his chest when he finds a new text from Mikey wishing him a good show. Frank texts back, thanks. hope the morning flight doesn't suck too hard.

It's been a hard slog the last month or so, since this thing they have has become a real thing, as much as it can with phone calls and texts. Frank's looked at flight schedules dozens of times, trying to figure out if he could get away for a weekend, but it's just not physically possible. By the time he'd get to Mikey he'd just have to turn around and fly back to Jersey. Besides, it's not like Mikey will be on tour forever.

That first text message that Frank had sent Mikey - the one that broke the radio silence - had led to more text messages and eventually phone calls. Mikey had stopped writing dates on himself after that, trading the cryptic messages for real communication. The postcards are still sitting in a pile on Frank's bedside table; eventually they'll find their way into the shoebox of memories under his bed, sharing space with the flyers and ticket stubs that carry the same dates.

"From Mikey?" Ray asks, peering over Frank's shoulder.

"Yeah," Frank says, feeling his face pull into a telling soft smile. He holds the text up so Ray can read it. (After he carefully checks that there's nothing explicit in the earlier texts that are showing on the screen, of course. Ray would never let him live that shit down.)

"Pity he can't be here," Ray says, and Frank nods.

"The timing is so shit man, I can't believe there aren't any flights out of Las Vegas after midnight. It's such crap."

"So he gets in tomorrow morning?" Ray asks, reaching over Frank's amp to pick up his abandoned beer.

"Yeah, I'll be dragging my ass out of bed at the fucking crack of dawn for that asshole," Frank groans, stealing Ray's beer and taking a gulp. He hands it back before Ray can grouse at him too much.

Spencer joins them then, locking an arm around Ray's waist and leaning on his shoulder. "So, are you going to come around our place for breakfast then? Ray can cook pancakes."

"Not a chance. We're going to be - otherwise occupied," Frank says confidently. He and Mikey have a got a lot of lost time to make up for, and he doesn't plan on wasting a moment of it.

"No details, please." Ray says, looking traumatised. Spencer just laughs.

***

The stage at Dino's is pretty small, more of a barely-raised platform than a stage per se. It's a pretty major downgrade from the venues Frank played on his two brief cameos with The Used, but he doesn't care, even though he had to load in and set up his own gear. It was good, getting a feel for the room and checking out the view from there. The bar is packed and the vibe Frank's getting from them is amazing.

It feels different, though, when he steps back out on stage with his band. There's enough light spilling from the stage that he can make out most of the faces in the crowd, and more than half of them are familiar. Dylan is down in front, Frank's dad and uncle are up the back by the bar, Gerard and his parents are somewhere around the middle. It's a full house.

James takes the mic while Ray, Frank and Cortez get their guitars on, greeting the crowd and giving a shout out to the venue guys for having them. He keeps it quick and then nods his head to Spencer, who taps them in, then they're busting into the first track on the setlist - a song that's hard and fast and has James growling his way through the lyrics. Frank falls into the music, his fingers moving over the frets automatically, not even feeling it. He spins and headbangs his way through the song, feeling the energy of the crowd bounce back up at him, pulling him along.

They're three songs into the setlist when James takes the mic again, pausing to banter with the audience.

"Hey, so we know some of you have come a long way to be here tonight, and we really appreciate that," he says, and he must be talking about someone Frank doesn't know, because as far as he's aware no one in the audience had to come further than NYC. Frank glances up from his guitar to scan the crowd, looking to see if James is singling someone out, but James isn't looking into the crowd. He's looking side stage.

Frank follows his gaze to see Mikey standing there with a bag on his shoulder, his hair a wreck and still wearing one of his stage outfits. Frank doesn't even think, he just tears offstage, to grab Mikey by the shirt and pull him down, needing to get his mouth on him. Mikey goes easily, his fingers curling into Frank's shoulders as he kisses back, all tongue and teeth as the guitar bangs between their bodies.

It's too much and nowhere near enough. The roar of adrenaline in Frank's body teams with the hot press of Mikey's lips over his and drives him crazy. When Frank breaks the kiss, blood roaring in his ears, Mikey's laughing at him.

"I can't believe you made it," Frank says, his brain still not able to catch up. It's still out there on stage, still trapped in the music, while he rushes to put together this new information, Mikey actually being here, now.

"It was touch and go," Mikey admits. "I had to skip the encore and I think Worm broke a land speed record getting me to the airport, but I got lucky."

Frank grins wide, then leans up on tiptoe to kiss Mikey again, messy and dangerous, their teeth crashing together because he can't stop smiling. Mikey breaks it this time, pushing Frank back. "Hey, hey, you gotta get back out there champ."

When Frank can concentrate enough to pay attention to what's happening onstage, he can hear James saying something about their missing guitarist, could one Frank Iero please report back to the stage. Which is all of three feet away.

"Later," Frank promises, his eyes lingering on Mikey's lips, still wet from their kisses.

"Later," Mikey echoes, and the way he says it is a promise.

Frank goes back on stage and plays his fucking heart out.

 

end