As soon as Frank walks into the courier office, Dewees looks up from behind the desk and says, “The next run to the university isn’t until tomorrow, Frank, and it’s not your name on the roster anyway.”
“Fuck you,” says Frank automatically. “What makes you think I’d be asking about that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Dewees, rolling his eyes and eating a pretzel. “Maybe the fact that you’ve been begging me for the university bag every day for the past month?”
Frank scowls and unlocks his bike. Dewees is a terrible boss, and an even more terrible friend. Frank doesn’t know why he ever agreed to take this job. He should have applied to be a blacksmith's apprentice when he had the chance.
“I haven’t been begging," he insists. "And whatever, man, maybe I just want to soak up some knowledge. I’m expanding my fucking horizons.”
“You’re mooning over some doe-eyed academic,” Dewees snorts. “Which is fine, but you gotta do it on your own time, man, we’ve got a schedule to keep.”
“I’m scheduling time with your mom tonight,” Frank tells him, and Dewees laughs at him and throws a ball of paper at his head.
It’s basically business as usual.
Frank leaves the office with a bag full of letters and parcels all bound for the business district. It means a route along the river, which is always kind of nice. But it also means that Frank’s chances of running into Gerard are basically nil for the day.
Frank has known Gerard for a couple of months, as much as you can say you know someone you usually only see by accident. And if Frank has maybe been trying to land the university run more often... well. The two things might be connected, but he's sure as shit not going to admit that to Dewees.
Frank knows where Gerard’s office at the university is, because he’s made a couple of deliveries there: mostly from bookshops, and the archives of the city museum. And he knows Gerard’s favorite place to get coffee in the afternoon, because he’s run into him three times coming out of the same little cafe, nose buried in a paper cup and looking blissed out. But from what Frank can tell, Gerard rarely strays from the university and its surrounding environs. He has no idea where to find Gerard outside of business hours.
Which is fine: it’s not like Frank’s obsessing over the guy. Really.
It's just that every time he runs into Gerard he’s always late for his next delivery, because they always get caught up talking about something or other. Gerard is fucking fascinating, and he’s smart, and he’s talented—his office is covered in amazingly detailed sketches and diagrams, the kind you’d find in books, and Gerard had blushed when he’d admitted that they were his. Gerard is really pretty when he blushes. He’s really pretty all the time.
Okay. So Frank might have a little bit of a thing.
He shakes his head to clear it and slings the mailbag across his chest, hopping up onto his bike and pointing himself towards the business district. Maybe if he gets his deliveries done quick enough, he’ll be able to swing by the university quarter before the evening bells.
Of fucking course, Frank’s third-to-last delivery turns out to be kind of a shitshow. To be honest, he sees it coming as soon as he sees the elegantly scripted Th.D below the name on the office door.
A wizard. Motherfucker. Frank really, really doesn't like wizards.
The office is, predictably, gilded to the rafters; the receptionist is perfectly-dressed and looks bored with everything. "Do you have an appointment?"
Frank fishes his courier badge out of pocket and shows it to her. "Delivery for Mister Liefeld from-" he consults the schedule, "-the offices of Dickenson and Clark."
She takes the folio Frank hands her like she thinks it's going to give her some kind of disease. Frank would be more than happy to leave right then, but the delivery requires a signature from the recipient himself. "I'll go see if Wizard Liefeld can be interrupted," she tells him, and Frank has to hold in an eye-roll at the correction. Frank has met a couple of wizards who weren't pretentious douchebags—well, Gabe is actually both of those things, but he’s also a decent guy and a good drinking buddy—but they were definitely the exceptions, not the rule.
It takes what feels like an hour for the receptionist to return with the signatory. He sniffs and complains about having waited so long for the delivery, and he's clearly annoyed to have been interrupted. He's also wearing a smoking jacket enchanted to look like the night sky, twinkling stars and all.
It's typical wizard fashion, which means it's the tackiest fucking thing that Frank has ever seen in his life. But it's magic, and for some reason, that makes it haute couture or some shit.
The bastard makes Frank stay until he can confirm that the documents are all present and correct, and then there turns out to be a mislabeled requisition form, which is empirically not Frank's fault, but he takes the stink-eye for it anyway. By the time Frank gets out of there, he’s so far behind schedule that the evening bells are starting their song by the time he makes it back to the courier office to turn in his bag.
Frank likes the city bells. He likes the way they divide the day, how the dawn bell sings the streetlamps to sleep, how the cheerful morning bells ring out when he’s headed to work and the noon bells toll to remind the city to take a breath. He likes that the evening bells are deep and rolling, and that the moonrise bell is calm and slow, like the tide.
But the evening bells also signal the closing of the day, and Frank knows there’s no point in going by the university tonight. Gerard will be headed home, or out to do whatever it is that a person like Gerard does on their own time. Something interesting and artistic and important, probably.
“Come down to the pub,” says Dewees, once Frank has handed over his empty bag and taken his day’s pay and they’re closing the office together. “I’ll buy you a drink. You can complain about the pangs of despised love.”
“That’s not-” Frank starts, frowning, but Dewees flaps a hand in his direction.
“The details aren't important,” he says airily. “The pub. Beer, and those fried root things you like, and who knows? Maybe the man with the mouth organ will be doing a gig tonight. The world is our oyster, my friend.”
“You’re allergic to oysters,” Frank reminds him, because the last time Dewees had forgotten they'd had to take an emergency trip to the Houses of Healing. Dewees just slings an arm over his shoulder and ushers him out the door and onto the cobblestones. As they walk, the streetlamps above them start magically flickering into life.
The man with the mouth organ isn’t gigging, but Frank has a good time at the pub anyway. He and Dewees run into some friends. Frank ends up staying at the pub until late, and stumbles home to the tune of the midnight bell’s solemn song.
He stops along the river, though. A lone dragon and its rider, probably one of the Queen’s, are looping and diving in the air a hundred feet above the water. Frank watches them for a long time.
The next morning, he drags himself out of bed and down to the little diner halfway between his tiny set of rented rooms and the courier office. Chantal, his favorite waitress, looks him up and down and says, “Honey, you look terrible.”
He moans at her pitifully and she huffs and brings him a mug of coffee the size of his head. “You’re my favorite,” he tells her.
“I know,” she says airily. “So, how’s your pretty little academic doing? You sucked it up and asked him out yet?”
“Oh my god,” Frank says, and buries his face in his hands.
When he gets to the courier office he discovers that Dewees has, indeed, given today’s university run to somebody else. Furthermore, the bag that Dewees hands him is suspiciously light.
“You’ve got a pickup this afternoon,” Dewees tells him gleefully, and he hands Frank a card with the address and the package specs. It’s in Old Town, and there’s no indication if it’s a house or a shop or what.
Fuck. Frank hates doing pickups. People only schedule pickups if they have something really weird—or really dangerous—that they don’t want to risk moving at all themselves. And it's in Old Town, as well—that's Frank's least favorite part of the city.
“It’ll be fun!” Dewees tells him, because Dewees is an asshole. “Quit worrying, we don’t take contracts from the Alchemists Guild anymore. I made it a company policy.”
"Yeah, but we still take jobs from wizards," Frank points out, scowling. Wizards are worse than alchemists. The last time he did a pickup for a wizard, his thumb had been blue for two weeks because whatever had been in the package had leaked.
"We can't afford not to take jobs from wizards," Dewees reminds him. "They might be a bunch of pretentious assholes with bad hair, but they pay a lot better than the alchemists do. And their parcels aren't nearly as likely to explode. Here, you want some almonds? They're good for you."
Sighing, Frank takes the little packet of nuts that Dewees is shaking at him, grabs his bag, and heads for his bike. “If it’s another motherfucking giant spider, I’m taking it out of your face,” he calls over his shoulder. Dewees’s laughter follows him out the door.
Objectively, Old Town is really historically important. It's where Jersey had begun, hundreds of years ago, before it had outgrown itself and started sprawling outwards into the city it is today. Frank's pretty sure that some of the buildings here date back at least a hundred years before the Calamity.
But as far as Frank’s concerned, Old Town is just a warren of narrow streets and buildings that are way too close together, penned in by the original city walls. These days Frank can navigate it just fine, but he's never been able to shake the sense of claustrophobia he gets here. When he finishes his deliveries in the area before the noon bells, he buys a stuffed vegetable roll off a cart for his lunch and eats it on the steps of the old city hall. At least in the town square he can see a bit more of the sky.
The address on the pickup slip leads him down a winding mess of side streets. It turns out to belong to a shop with dusty windows, tucked into the ground level of an old, faded sandstone building. The sign hanging above the door says, in spidery writing, “Curiosities.”
A bell tinkles when Frank pushes open the door. The shop looks like it’s seen better days; half the shelves are empty, and what’s left isn’t anything to write home about, all scuffed furniture, tarnished brass, and musty books. The light that filters in through the murky front window is dancing with dust motes.
It's definitely not flashy enough to be the kind of place a wizard would run, so that's something. And hey, no giant spiders yet. Frank’s cautiously optimistic.
“Hello?” he calls.
A man steps out from a doorway behind the counter. He’s tall and much more well-dressed than Frank would have expected, given the state of the shop he apparently runs, but okay. He gives Frank a calculating look. “Are you from the courier service?”
“That’s me.” Frank flashes his courier’s badge, then reaches into his bag. “I’ve got a receipt for you to sign, and I’ll need to you fill out a delivery slip.”
“Of course,” the man agrees, placidly. He’s got an accent—a Northerner, maybe. “I’ll go and fetch the package.”
The package, when the man reappears from the back room and sets it on the counter, turns out to be a smallish rectangle wrapped in plain brown paper. In the “contents” section of the delivery slip, the man writes, “a naturalist’s observations re: the healing properties of mermaid song; rare.”
When Frank picks up the package to tuck it away in his bag, he sees that there’s a hand-drawn symbol on the underside. It’s simple, but something about it draws Frank’s eye. He wonders if it’s the curiosity shop’s logo, or maybe some sort of guild sign.
Frank's not getting paid to ask questions, though, so he just gives a mental shrug and indicates where the man needs to sign on the delivery slip. His signature is an illegible flourish.
“The shop may be a bit difficult to find,” the man warns him, once the paperwork and the payment is all squared away. “And when you do find it, you’ll need to knock three times on the left side of the front door. There shouldn’t be any problems after that.”
“Okay,” Frank says, looking over the paperwork for the address and already plotting a route in his head. It’s a little weird, but it’s not the weirdest delivery instruction he’s ever had to follow. It’s not even the weirdest delivery instruction he’s had to follow this month.
“Also,” the man adds, snapping his fingers like he’s just remembered, “you’d best avoid taking the parcel near the water. Just in case.”
That’s weirder, but whatever. Frank can deal.
Frank politely bids the man a good day and heads back out to the street. There’s a crow sitting on the handlebars of his bike and giving him a shrewd look. "Fuck off, birdbrain," Frank tells it, shooing it with his hands.
The crow flies away.
He’s headed to a neighborhood on the edge of the capitol square. Normally he'd just take the esplanade along the river, but keeping the man's weird delivery instructions in mind, he plots a different route, spinning the city map in his head around until it shows him the way he needs to go. He cuts up around Old Town’s northeastern edge and cycles up through the residential districts that get grander and grander until they become the Heights.
From there, he rides west. The wide tree-lined avenues and gilded mansions gradually give way to the gaudy official residences of the palace’s pet magicians, and then to government brownstones. He’s not headed towards the capitol itself, which he’s grateful for—the streets up there are always murder—so he cuts northwest through a park block and ends up in spitting distance of the street he's looking for.
As promised, the shop is difficult to spot. It’s another older neighborhood, and the storefronts all fucking look the same. He passes a tannery and a printshop before he finally finds the street number that matches the one on the delivery slip. There’s no shop name anywhere to be seen, but painted on the window he can make out the words “Books Bought and Sold.”
Frank goes to try the door, but it’s locked. He knocks, but there’s no response. Peering through the window doesn’t help; he can’t make out anything in the shop’s shadowy interior. He’s about to give it up and leave an attempted delivery notice when he remembers that the man had given him more than one set of fucking weird delivery instructions.
He knocks three times on the door’s left side. It opens immediately.
“Package for you,” he says, startled. The woman on the other side of the open door has curly red hair and sharp eyes, but she grins at him.
“About time!” she exclaims, and beckons for him to follow her into the shop. “He’s been promising me this book for months.”
Unlike the shop where he’d made the pickup, this shop is stuffed to the gills. Every shelf is filled to bursting with books, and there are more books stacked on side tables and on chairs. Perched on the back of an old, sagging sofa, a tabby cat stretches and yawns and fixes Frank with a glare.
Frank pulls the parcel out of his bag and hands it over, along with the clipboard for the woman to sign. “Are sure you need more books?” he asks, before he can stop himself. The woman just laughs.
“There’s always room for more,” she tells him, winking. She hands him back his clipboard, and sends him on his way.
All in all, it’s one of the more painless pickups Frank’s had to deal with. No giant spiders, and he’s finished a full hour before he’s scheduled to report in at the courier office. Frank decides to celebrate with coffee.
There’s a little café that Frank likes in the next district over, so he heads there. The guy behind the counter remembers how he takes his coffee, and Frank likes that; he likes that he’s left enough of himself scattered around the city to be remembered. Everywhere else he’s ever lived, before he came here, he’s had to be careful not to leave any of himself behind.
He’s standing by the little table with the cream and sugar, blowing on his coffee to cool it, when somebody behind him says, “Frank?”
Frank turns. Gerard is standing there, wallet out like he’s about to order, and his smile gets wider when he sees Frank’s face. “Frank! I thought I recognized the bike out front.”
For a long, embarrassing moment, Frank’s brain is a complete and utter blank. He’s spent so much of the past few days trying to orchestrate another run-in with Gerard, it seems impossible that Gerard should be here, standing in this café in the sixth district wearing a ridiculously zippered coat, without any effort on Frank’s part. Frank isn’t prepared for this at all.
“Hi!” he says, too late. “This... isn’t the university.”
“Nope,” says Gerard cheerfully. He leans a little closer to Frank—oh gods—and says, low, “I’m playing hooky. Promise you won’t rat me out?”
He sounds delighted. Frank can’t help the stupid answering grin that spreads across his own face.
“No worries, man, your secret’s safe,” Frank promises. “But, uh, this is a little far for you to go for coffee.”
“Oh, this place has great bagels, too,” Gerard tells him. “And I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t run into the head of my department, and also to see if- anyway, I caught the tram over. Are you here on a delivery?”
“Nearby. I finished early,” Frank says.
Gerard grins at him and says, “Cool.”
They stand there smiling at each other. Gerard is bouncing in place a little bit, and Frank’s still holding his mug: things are definitely about to tip over into "awkward," because that's how things always seem to go with Frank. Fuck.
And then Frank’s goddamn traitor mouth opens all on its own, and Frank hears himself say, “Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
“Oh!” Gerard bites his lip around his smile, looking... nervous? “You don’t have to,” he says.
“I want to,” Frank says, because, well. He does want to. Has been wanting to. He didn’t plan on it going quite like this, but he’s a slick motherfucker; he can go with the flow.
Maybe Frank’s imagining it, but he thinks some of the nervousness leaves Gerard’s smile, then. “Well, okay,” Gerard says. “Sure. I’d like that.”
Gerard is a coffee murderer, it turns out.
“It’s better this way!” Gerard insists, when he sees the appalled face that Frank can’t quite rein in. Frank holds his own coffee closer to his chest, protectively, side-eyeing the little jars of sugar and cream that Gerard is all but emptying into his mug.
They wind up at a table tucked away in the corner of the café. Gerard sighs happily and sinks down in his seat. “Fuck, this is so much better than being stuck in a meeting.”
“Is that what you’re skipping out on?” Frank asks.
Gerard nods. “A budget meeting,” he says, with feeling. “The head of my department is going to be mad, but I can just say I forgot. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Why would you need to be at a budget meeting?” Frank asks. He's not one hundred percent sure what a university budget meeting would involve, but it sounds like torture.
Gerard throws his hands up, somehow managing to avoid spilling his coffee. “This is what I’m saying! It’s not like they’re going to listen to Art History, anyway; they’re going to give Magical Sciences most of the funding no matter what. And the university’s coffee is awful.”
Frank knows that Gerard is a professor in the Art History department because it says so on the address forms of the packages he delivers. All the art in his office is a big clue, too. But he doesn't actually have any idea what that means, beyond mentally picturing Gerard poring over dusty old books and possibly paintings on cave walls. So he asks, "What do you do all day, anyway?"
The second it’s out of his mouth, he regrets it, because way to look like a moron, Iero. But Gerard just laughs. “Fuck, I have no idea. Mostly I read a lot? And I paint, like, all the time. And sometimes I teach classes." Gerard takes a sip of his coffee and looks thoughtful. "I do research. Right now I'm working with some of my grad students on a big installation for the museum downtown."
Frank raises an eyebrow. "The big one?"
"The big one," Gerard agrees. "We get a whole gallery. The history of the city through its art, and the art of the city itself. Because the city's fucking full of art, you know? Like, right down to the foundations of the buildings. There's this whole language of signs that we don't really think about any more— anyway. I think it's really fucking cool." Gerard's cheeks are pink, like he's embarrassed to have gone off like that.
"That sounds amazing," Frank tells Gerard, truthfully. He's always thought the city was beautiful, and it's fucking rad that Gerard apparently feels the same way. Frank really wants to kiss him.
"Thanks! I had to argue for like three years before we got the funding for it," Gerard says. He studies his cup of coffee for a second, then he looks back at Frank. "So I guess, mostly, my job is think about art, and also pretending to know what I’m talking about so the students don’t realize that I’m making it up as I go.”
Frank grins. “Fake it ‘til you make it?”
“Exactly!” Gerard says, smiling back. “Don’t tell anybody, academia would be ruined forever. And then we’d all have to get real jobs, and we’d be terrible at them.”
“I’d talk to my boss, see if we could get you a spot working the front desk,” Frank tells him. “There’s lots of paperwork, you’d be right at home. He's kind of an asshole, but he always has snacks, and sometimes he brings his dog in. It's great.”
“Excellent,” says Gerard, toasting Frank with his coffee mug. “Anyway, speaking of your job, it’s a lot more interesting than mine. You said you had a delivery in the area?”
“Yeah, it was a package run,” Frank nods. “A bookshop near here. Not actually that interesting, sorry to say."
“A bookshop!” Gerard’s eyes light up. “Which one?”
Frank shrugs. “Didn’t really have a name,” he says. “It was a fucking tiny little place, up on...” He stops, because he can’t think of the name of the street. Which is weird; Frank knows street names. He's been all over the city, these past few years, and his mental map is really fucking comprehensive. He doesn't usually just forget this shit. "Um."
He fishes around in his bag and pulls out the delivery confirmation, but it’s not helpful; the man at the curiosity shop might as well have just been scribbling, for all that Frank can read his handwriting. That's weird, too, because Frank's pretty sure he'd been able to read it just fine when he was making the delivery.
Frank looks up from the paperwork to find Gerard watching him, curious. “Nearby,” he finally says. “I guess I don’t remember exactly where.”
For a second, there’s a weird look on Gerard’s face. But it’s gone quick enough that Frank couldn’t swear it was ever there. Then Gerard asks him a question about his bike, and Frank can talk about his bike for hours, so it’s easy to let the whole thing go for now.
Frank ends up drinking three cups of coffee, which means he’s jittery as fuck when he finally realizes that he's supposed to be back at the office in twenty minutes. He tells Gerard this, and Gerard looks sheepish and says, “Yeah, I should probably get back, too. Brian will be wanting to terrorize me about missing the meeting.”
They stand up and gather their things, and they walk outside together. The late afternoon sun is slanting through the trees and turning the sidewalks gold.
“Thanks for the coffee,” Gerard tells him. “And the company. I’m really glad I ran into you.”
“Me too,” says Frank. They smile at each other for another too-long moment. And then Frank takes a deep breath, screws up his courage, and says, “Maybe you’d want to... do it again sometime? Like, on purpose?”
Gerard beams at him. “Yes,” he says. “Definitely. Here, I’ll-” He pulls a scrap of paper out of his pocket and scribbles something. “Here’s my direction. Coffee, or. Maybe we could do dinner next time?”
Frank’s stomach swoops, and he takes the piece of paper and tucks it safely away. “It’s a date,” he says. He almost hits three people and a mailbox while he's biking back to the office, but he’s smiling the whole way.
Dewees gives him the expected amount of shit, even though he’s not actually that late to turn in his bike and his bag and the paperwork from the day’s pickup. And anyway, everybody knows that Dewees sleeps at the office; it’s not like Frank’s keeping him from having a life. He tells Dewees this, and Dewees punches him in the arm, which Frank knows means he’s being a dick, but also that he’s forgiven.
He heads out to the chorus of the evening bells, and he can’t help the smile that’s still stretched across his face. His gut is sparking with the excited little bursts that come from the knowledge that the person you like likes you back.
He picks up a curry from a brightly-painted food cart in the square a few blocks from the office, and he settles down to eat it at the foot of the large bronze dragon in the square's center, watching the kids running around the statue and playing at being part of the Queen’s dragon riders. There’s something sticking in his brain, though. Later, as he walks the familiar streets towards home, he tries to figure out what it is.
It hits him as he passes a used bookshop a few streets up from his apartment. Why hadn’t he been able to remember the name of the street he’d delivered that book to? Sure, it had been a little hard to find, but if anything, that should have made it more memorable, not less: that's how Frank's brain works. But the name is just gone, like the words were scooped right out of his mind.
It doesn’t feel like forgot; it feels like he can’t remember. Frank is no stranger to feeling like his brain doesn’t quite belong to him, and this... It feels like there’s something in his head that’s stopping him from remembering.
Usually, that means magic.
“Fuck that,” Frank mutters, and he turns around and heads for the nearest tram stop.
It’s fully dark by the time he’s retraced his steps and made his way back to the right neighborhood. Above him, the night messengers are already at work. Their wingbeats measure his footsteps, and he reaches into his pocket to run his thumb over Gerard’s direction. Tomorrow, he promises himself. Tomorrow, he’ll write to Gerard.
Frank combs the streets, marking them off one by one on the map in his head. He mutters each street name out loud to himself, but none of them are right.
Finally, he turns a corner and sees something familiar. There’s a tannery two shops down, and a printshop directly beside it, and Frank is abruptly sure that he’s found the right place: he recognizes the curling letters on the printshop’s sign. He glances at the street sign.
“Grimsea Bottom,” he murmurs. The words feel right in his mouth. He walks past the tannery, past the printshop, and then he stops dead.
He’s in the right place. He’s fucking sure of it. But where the bookshop ought to be, there’s nothing but an empty storefront.
“No fucking way,” Frank says, flatly. He walks up to the window and peers inside: it's dark and completely vacant, no furniture or anything, bare floors and bare walls. He tries the door, but it's locked up tightly, and there's two boards nailed over it in an 'X'; when he raps the boards with his knuckles, they feel solid enough.
Frank reaches into a pocket and pulls out a silver coin that he keeps around for times like these. He taps it against the facade twice and sets it down on the street. It doesn't move at all.
If this is an illusion, it's a fucking powerful one. The kind a wizard would have to work to keep up. The kind that would cause a scene. But there’s no wizards here; there’s nothing, the street is completely empty. Surely, there's no reason to use that kind of power here.
Remembering, he knocks on the door's left side three times. Nothing happens.
There’s a sharp caw behind him, and Frank whirls around to see a crow perched on the sign of a shop across the way and staring at him, head cocked to the side like it’s asking him a question. For a single, horrible second, Frank’s back on the eastern plains, and there’s a tree full of blackbirds shrieking at him to take shelter from an oncoming storm, and his hands are bound and a wizard is chanting and there's something scratching at the edges of his mind, and-
Frank shakes his head to clear it. That was a long time ago, and he’s a long ways away from there, anyway. But his heart is still beating faster than it should be.
The crow is still sitting there, watching him. "Fuck off," he tells it. Then he turns and heads back towards the top of the street as fast as he can without running.
Frank has a hard time falling asleep that night; he stays up long past the midnight bells, fucking around on his shitty, beat-up guitar the way he always does when he needs to relax, thanking his lucky stars that his neighbor is elderly, sweet, and deaf as a post. By the time dawn bells start ringing, he’s decided that his best plan is to just forget about the whole thing.
The thing about living in the city is that it's big enough for anything to get lost, if you try hard enough. The bookshop and the empty store, the way that something had rummaged through his memories; maybe those can just be one more thing to fall between the cracks. He'll go on, and the walls he's spent so fucking long building up will stay intact. It’ll be better this way.
So when Dewees tries to hand him the Old Town mailbag the next day, Frank crosses his arms and says, “Nuh-uh. Not this time.”
Dewees frowns. “The roster-” he begins, but Frank cuts him off.
“Fuck the roster. You make that shit up as you go, anyway.” Dewees makes a face at him. Frank remains stoic. “I’m not doing that run again, man. It’s bad for my mental health.”
Dewees clearly wants to argue—he is actually opening his mouth to give Frank shit—but then he seems to change his mind. He closes his mouth and squints at Frank instead. He asks, “You okay, dude?”
“I’m fucking fine,” Frank tells him. Fuck, he sounds like a kid. He takes a breath and runs a hand through his hair, tugging a little. “Just... give me a different run, okay? I don’t fucking care, I just don’t want that one.”
He works to try and keep his face blank, but he’s pretty sure Dewees isn’t buying it. Whatever Dewees sees in Frank’s expression, it’s enough to make him put down the Old Town mailbag.
“You can have the market district,” Dewees says finally, after consulting his clipboard. “Don’t say I never did anything for you, my friend.”
Frank likes the market district. It’s loud and it’s vibrant and it’s always bursting with color and sound, even on days when the market itself isn’t running. The effect is a little overwhelming. Today, it’s exactly what Frank needs.
Getting a bike down these streets is a fucking impossibility, so Frank leaves his at the office and takes the tram down instead. It helps that it is market day, which means that the avenues are swarming with tightly-packed stalls and vendors hawking everything under the sun. Their calls echo back and forth, up and down the market aisles.
Frank’s done this run enough times to know the most efficient way to navigate the maze of stalls and carts. He goes counterclockwise, starting at the old fountain and heading down. By the time he’s hit the first half of the circuit, he’s found his groove again.
This is his city: he picked it, and he’s sticking with it. What happened yesterday was probably just wizards being wizards, fucking around with things because they’re there and they can. Sure, it got him a little ruffled. But what the fuck ever. Frank doesn’t give a shit.
Besides, he has other things to think about.
“Have you asked out the boy from the university yet?” asks Kitty, who carves toys out of driftwood she finds at the edges of the river. Her stall is filled with blocks, toy trains, marionettes. She and Chantal from the diner are roommates. The worst part about Frank’s job is definitely the fact that, no matter where he goes, there’s always somebody who knows him to give him shit.
“It’s none of your business,” Frank tells her, firmly. “But, uh, kind of. I still have to do the actual asking.”
“You dog,” Kitty grins. “You should take him to the vertical gardens. Guaranteed to make the panties drop. Unless he’s not that kind of boy.”
“None of your business!” Frank repeats, adamant. Kitty laughs, low and throaty, and it makes the chains on her corset jingle.
Still. At the end of the next aisle, there's a bright blue City Mail kiosk. Frank scribbles out a quick note—nothing fancy, just the name of a restaurant he likes near the Briars, with Tomorrow night, evening bells? scrawled below it, along with his own direction so Gerard can reply if he wants. He folds it up carefully, fishes a coin out of his pocket, and hands both of them to the woman sitting at the kiosk and cooling herself with a handmade fan. She takes them without comment, and Frank beats it out of there before he can change his mind and ask for the note back.
There, he thinks, and he heads to his next delivery with a grin on his face.
When the noon bells toll, he finds a cart selling packets of spicy noodles and stakes out a spot on a low dividing wall. He sits there, bag cradled across his chest, eating his noodles and looking out across the market. Midway across the square, there’s a woman wearing gauzy skirts with color all up and down her arms. As Frank watches, she blows a kiss to the crowd and spits a jet of flame into the air.
The onlookers gasp and clap, awed. A couple of little kids tug their mothers’ hands and point and say, “Magic! She’s doing magic!”
Frank grins. He knows enough to know that there’s nothing magic about what the woman is doing: alchemy, maybe, the right combination of chemicals combined with the well-concealed strike of a match. The royal wizards would scoff at the very idea, but Frank doesn't give a shit about those pompous assholes. This is real. That's a kind of magic that Frank trusts— that he can fucking believe in.
The woman takes her bows, and the crowd disperses. And that’s when Frank sees the man from the curiosity shop.
He’s standing at a stall thirty feet away, hand to his chin, intently examining what looks like... a birdcage? Fuck if Frank knows. The man is wearing another well-cut suit today; fine, but not flashy. He certainly doesn’t look like a wizard. And yet, if he'd been involved with whatever the fuck had happened yesterday, with the mysteriously vanishing bookshop, what else could he be?
Frank is frozen in place. He wants to get up and go and give the guy a piece of his mind. At the same time, he wants to get the fuck out of here. He doesn’t fucking need this.
Like he can feel the weight of Frank’s gaze (or maybe the little tornado of emotions that's set Frank to spinning) the man startles and turns. His eyes scan the crowd, and before Frank can do much more than jump to his feet, the man’s gaze finds him, and he tilts his head, curious.
Shit. Frank grabs his noodles and heads back towards the fountain.
There are plenty of people in the market; more than enough to lose himself in the crush. He finishes his noodles on the way and starts in on the second half of his deliveries. If he’s a little more cautious than normal, it’s just because he doesn’t want to get run over by a rickshaw driver or accidentally trip over somebody’s merch. That’s all.
An hour later, Frank’s bag is almost empty, and he’s handing off an envelope filled with (apparently) hallucinogenic legumes to the wizened old woman who runs the apothecary. He’s just putting away his clipboard when he hears a polite “Excuse me,” from behind him. He turns.
Of fucking course, it’s the man from the curiosity shop again.
“Pardon me,” says the man. Frank notices his accent again: a Northerner, but posh, like he’s quality. “You’re the man from the courier service, aren’t you? Frank.”
“That’s me,” Frank says. He steps out of the way of an oncoming marketgoer, and the man follows. “You, uh. You should’ve got your delivery confirmation in the night post, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Oh, I did,” says the man. “Along with a note from Miss Thompson, thanking me for finally unearthing that particular volume. She runs a very interesting shop.”
“Very interesting,” Frank echoes, barely holding back a snort. “You were right about it being hard to find, anyway. Especially once I’d left and tried to go back again.”
The man nods. “Ah, yes. Jill’s books... Let’s just say it’s better for her to be harder to find. That’s the purpose of the misdirection sigil. Most people don’t notice.”
“Yeah, well,” Frank says, crossing his arms. It's probably fucking stupid, arguing with a wizard, but nobody ever accused Frank of being smart. “I noticed. I thought it was bullshit.”
“I know,” says the man. “Jill’s note mentioned that somebody had been nosing around the facade last night. I can’t say I’m surprised that it was you.”
Frank goes cold. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
The man holds up his hands, placating. “Only that like calls to like,” he says. "Ordinary people don't notice the sigils. But I think that perhaps you are less ordinary than you want to think you are."
“I think you should fuck off,” Frank snarls—quietly, because they're in the middle of the market, but vehement. “What the fuck do you care, anyway?”
“I run a curiosity shop, Frank,” the man replies, smoothly. “I like to encourage people to ask questions. Especially these days.” He reaches into a pocket and pulls out a card, which he hands to Frank. “Here. In case you do decide to start looking for answers. Keep your eyes open: you might be surprised."
Frank doesn't fucking know why he takes the card. He thinks maybe he wants to tear it up, show the man that Frank doesn't want any of whatever bullshit he's trying to sell him. But the man says, "Good day, Frank," gives a short bow, and departs. Frank is left standing there and staring at the card in his hand. It reads, “Grant Morrison: Purveyor of Curiosities.”
He flips the card over. On the back, etched in scarlet ink, is the same symbol from the package he’d delivered to the bookshop yesterday—a whirl of lines and circles that might, if you looked at it the right way, take the shape of an eye.
He doesn't tear it up.
Despite Frank's protests, Dewees drags him out after work to a seedy tavern near the docks. One of their part-timers is playing a show there with his band. Frank enjoys himself, dives into the pit and throws himself around and takes a couple of elbows to the face. It's good, like it always is, but he finds it harder than usual to give himself up to it and let the music overpower everything else.
Fuck Grant Morrison, he thinks, sneaking out for a smoke break and glaring up at the sky. Fuck him, and fuck his fucking questions.
Morrison's wrong, anyway. Frank doesn't need to ask questions about himself— he already has more answers than he's ever wanted. The whole point of coming to the city was that it was big enough, loud enough, to drown all of that out and help Frank keep his own head.
"Fuck it," Frank snaps, flicking away the end of his cigarette and heading back inside, resolving to forget about the whole fucking thing. But even though it's just a flimsy square of paper, he can feel the card's weight in his pocket like it's a stone.
He's heading out the door the next morning—too many late nights this week; he needs coffee from the diner or he will fall over and maybe also die—when he sees that there's something in the little postbox attached to his kitchen window. He stares at it for a moment, bleary and pre-caffeinated, before he remembers that he'd given Gerard his direction yesterday when he'd sent him that note about dinner. Fuck. Frank dives for the postbox handle.
He unrolls the little scrap of paper and notices that there's a coffee stain on it, which makes him grin like a moron. The note itself just says See you tonight! That makes him grin even more. Fuck yeah.
He's still grinning when he gets to the diner. Chantal gives him a considering look when she hands him his coffee. "What's got you in such a good mood?"
Frank thinks about Gerard's note, which he'd folded up and stuffed in his pocket on his way out the door. He sticks his face in his mug and smiles.
When he reaches the office, Dewees, who looks annoyingly well-rested for having stayed out just as late as Frank last night, hands him the bag for the waterfront run. Then he says, alarmed, "That's not what you're wearing tonight, is it? Come on, man, at least change your shoes." Frank cheerfully flips him off.
It's a beautiful day. Frank spends the morning biking up and down the esplanade, criss-crossing the many bridges that span the river. The noon bells find him on the third floor of a shitty walk-up, delivering a intricately wrapped paper orb to a man with a parrot on his shoulder. The parrot swears at Frank and calls him a coward, but the man shushes her, looking at Frank apologetically, so it's alright— it isn't anything out of the ordinary, anyway.
The job can be pretty fucking weird, sometimes, but Frank can't say he doesn't love it.
When he heads back onto the street, he catches a glimpse of towering stone in the distance. The old city walls, rising up on the other side of the rooftops. That means he's in spitting distance of Old Town.
Fuck. He'd managed to avoid thinking about Grant Morrison, and his goddamn curiosity shop, for almost the whole morning. He'd like to go right on not thinking about it, really. Whatever Morrison thinks about Frank and what Frank can do, whatever Morrison wants, wizard or not, Frank doesn't want anything to do with.
Uneasy, Frank reaches into his pocket to touch the card that Morrison had given him, like it's a charm that can ward away the man himself, and with him his fucking questions. But his fingers brush up against rough, folded parchment paper instead. Gerard's note. See you tonight.
It's enough to help him find his balance again, and he turns his bike back towards the river. He doesn't give Old Town a second glance.
Frank finishes his run early enough that he has time for a smoke before he drops his bag off at the office. Unfortunately, he'd finished his pack last night at the show. But Shaun, the guy who sells newspapers at the little stand next to the courier office, is good people, and he'll usually let Frank bum a cigarette or two.
Today, he's more than happy to share, and he pulls out one for himself while he's at it. "Slow news day?" Frank asks, after he's taken his first drag.
Shaun shrugs. "Same old, same old. Did you hear about the ambassador who was eaten by a bear?"
Frank grins at him. "Shut the fuck up, asshole, you made that up."
"I swear on my mother!" Shaun tells him, making a vague gesture in the direction of his heart. "At a state banquet. It's all there on page three. My sources are only the finest, Iero." Frank blows a cloud of smoke at him, which Shaun waves away. Then he says, quieter, more solemn: "Did you hear the Queen’s Riders lost another dragon?"
"…Fuck," Frank says. This time he knows Shaun isn't joking around, because that isn't something that you joke about, around here. Not even these days, when dragons don't have quite the same gravitas they used to have, once upon a time.
"Fuck," Shaun agrees. "It's buried pretty deep—page seventeen, and the article is fucking tiny—but that's the word. Nothing from the government, barely anything from the palace."
Frank finishes his cigarette and stubs it out on the brick. He thinks about the dragon and rider that he'd seen over the river a few nights ago. He tries not to think about the dragons he'd known back home, and what had happened to them, and mostly he manages. He ignores the tight feeling in his chest. "Thought the war was supposed to be over," he says.
"Something like that," Shaun agrees, flicking the end of his smoke into the gutter. He leans back against the wall and crosses his arms, looking up at the sky.
That night, Frank gets to the restaurant a few minutes late—fucking tram—and he's so focused on getting through the doorway that he almost misses Gerard standing out front, smoking a cigarette. It's only Gerard's pleased "Frank!" that slows him, and he throws Gerard a sheepish smile that probably turns a little wide around the eyes when he sees what Gerard is wearing.
Gerard just grins when he notices Frank looking, and cocks a hip out, showing off the tight cut of his dark pants. It's definitely a different look than the clothes he wears to work. "Hey," he says.
"Hey," Frank echoes, feeling like an idiot. Again. Gerard seems to have that effect on him. He keeps moving until he's standing directly in front of Gerard, and Gerard's grin gets a little softer around the edges.
"You look great," Gerard tells him. His cheeks are a little bit pink. "And this place looks awesome. The menu is really interesting."
"Uh, thanks," Frank says. He feels suddenly self-conscious, even though he's wearing a nice shirt. Probably because he's wearing a nice shirt. They stare at each other for another minute.
"This is a date, right?" Gerard blurts. Frank gapes at him. Gerard apparently takes that as a cue to start babbling. "Because it really seemed like you were asking me on a date, the other day, but I guess we never really said one way or another, and I just-"
"Yes," says Frank, relieved because apparently Gerard is just as much of a loser as he is, even in sinfully tight pants. "This is a totally a date. I mean. If you want it to be one."
Gerard beams at him. "I totally want it to be one. Hi. Let's date. Sounds awesome."
Frank cracks a grin and offers Gerard an arm, which Gerard takes, giggling like a dork. He can't help but notice, as they walk into the restaurant, that Gerard's skin is really warm.
This place isn't Frank's usual thing, mainly because it's an actual restaurant and not a cart or a window out the side of a building—Frank likes food he can eat while he walks. But he knows this place, and he's been here a time or two, because a buddy of his is one of the cooks. Thankfully, he's a fucking good cook, and Frank gets to watch the faces Gerard makes as he exclaims happily over his plate.
"Oh my god," Gerard says around his fork, and Frank laughs and takes a bite of his pasta.
They seem to have gotten all of the awkward out of the way out front, and just like always, it's easy to fall into talking to Gerard. Gerard tells him about the university—apparently the head of his department is threatening to cut off Gerard's funding for paintbrushes if he doesn't start showing up to faculty meetings. "He'll do it, too," Gerard tells Frank. "Brian's a great guy, but he's really fucking serious about meetings."
"So you did get into trouble for the other day?" Frank asks, grinning at him. "Delinquent."
"Fuck you," Gerard says. "And, uh, maybe. Whatever, it was worth it."
Then Gerard tells Frank about Brian going head to head with the dean of students about some kind of ridiculous bureaucratic mandate, and Frank is in stitches by the time Gerard gets to the end of the story. It reminds him of the time last year when Dewees had gotten them into a feud with another courier company the next district over, and he tells Gerard about that, which starts Gerard off on a story about his brother and the city watch. Frank hardly notices when he finishes his food.
He does notice Gerard asking hopefully about coffee, because he teases him about the time, and Gerard waves a hand airily and says, "Oh, I'm not planning on sleeping much tonight." Frank doesn't choke on his water, but it's close. Gerard goes pink as he realizes what he'd said. "I didn't mean it like that!" he tries to explain. "I just don't sleep very much. Mikey says I'm nocturnal, but I get a lot of my best work done at night."
"Uh huh," says Frank, raising an eyebrow, but he grins to show that he's teasing.
They both linger over their coffee—Gerard asks for a second cup—but eventually they can't ignore the chairs being put up on tables around them, or the looks they're getting from the waiters. Frank insists on paying ("I asked you," he points out, and Gerard cedes the point with a grumble), and they slowly make their way back outside. Frank would normally duck in the back to say hello to Hambone, but tonight is... special.
He's trying to figure out what to do next, because doesn't fucking want this to be over already, when Gerard says, "Uh, so. A friend of mine is actually playing a show with her band tonight, if you're into that?"
"Awesome," Frank says emphatically, bouncing on his toes. Oh yeah.
The venue is tiny and the sound is shit, but the band is loud and weird and the pit is awesome. Gerard's friend turns out to be the bassist, and she shreds, and Frank maybe stares at her a little too long trying to figure out where he's seen her tattoos before.
Eventually it clicks. "Does your friend breathe fire?" he shouts at Gerard, once they've pushed their way out of the pit for a breather along the wall.
"Once in a while," Gerard grins. "She's working on a performance piece about the Mother Dragon and the founding of the city. It's fucking badass."
Frank watches Lindsey thrash around the stage and thinks about the kids in the market yesterday, who'd thought she was doing magic. She certainly looks like a sorceress.
When the set ends, and the band starts hauling their gear off the stage so the headliner can start setting up, Frank expects that Gerard will want to go and greet Lindsey. But Gerard jerks his head towards the door to the club. "Let's get out of here?"
Once they're outside, Gerard pulls out a pack of cigarettes and offers Frank one. They lean against the brick and smoke together, quietly. It's properly late now, and there aren't as many people out as there had been earlier.
"Do you want to walk down by the river?" he asks Gerard, as he's stubbing out his cigarette. "Unless, uh. If you need to get home, that's fine."
"No," says Gerard, quickly, and Frank feels his gut sink. But Gerard's quick to correct himself. "I mean, no, I don't have to go home. Yes. Let's go to the river."
Their wrists and fingers keep knocking together as they walk, until finally Gerard huffs and grabs Frank's hand. He shoots Frank a nervous little glance, like he's checking to see if that's okay, and Frank just tangles their fingers together and squeezes.
This is easy. Frank hasn't been with anybody for a while, and he hasn't dated anybody for even longer than that, but he doesn't remember it ever being like this right from the beginning. Gerard keeps looking at him with this big, happy smile, and Frank keeps catching himself beaming back, and he kind of can't believe that this is happening.
There's not much moon tonight, so the river is reflecting the streetlamps and the stars. They wander along the esplanade until they find a little overlook and they stand there, watching the lights in the water and talking, softly.
Then a bell rings.
Frank isn't sure he recognizes it: it's not the midnight bell or the moonrise bell or even one of the little bells that summons the city watch, which are the bells you normally hear at this time of night. It's slow and melancholy and, Frank thinks, sad.
The bell tolls three times, pauses, and then tolls three times again.
Once the last of the bell's echoes has faded from the rooftops and the surface of the water, Frank lets out the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "I don't know that bell," he says, very quietly.
"It's the mourning bell," Gerard says, in the same kind of hushed tone. He's staring out over the water, and he looks like he's gone someplace else. "It's special. They only ring it when one of the old dragons dies."
"Oh," Frank says. He doesn't know what else to say, so he says, "We had dragons, back where I'm from." That's not something he's told anybody else in the city.
It seems to bring Gerard back from wherever he'd gone. "Really?"
"Yeah." Frank looks away and wraps his hands around his middle, even though he isn't cold. He takes a deep breath. "I'm from out east, right up at the foot of the mountains. Dragons would come down sometimes. A few of them stayed."
"Wow," Gerard says, voice tinged with awe. "The big ones?"
Frank nods. There'd been one dragon who would sleep curled up in the town square on warm summer nights, back when dragons were still good luck for the kingdom's outer provinces. Back before the war.
"That's amazing," Gerard tells him, and Frank shrugs. It hadn't seemed strange at all when he'd been five. These days it makes his stomach hurt to remember, so mostly he tries not to. He's not even sure why he'd said anything about it.
He finally looks back and Gerard, and Gerard is giving him a soft, wondering look. That's kind of making his stomach hurt, too.
"It was a long time ago," Frank says. He tucks his hands into his pockets and looks at the moon. "It's pretty late."
"Yeah," Gerard agrees. He hesitates, and then he extends a hand. "Walk you back to the tram stop?"
"Yeah," Frank nods. He tangles their fingers together again and squeezes.
They're the only ones at the tram stop. Gerard's headed back up towards the university district, and Frank's headed in the opposite direction, and they stand on the platform together to wait. They're still holding hands.
"I had a really great time tonight," Gerard says.
"Me, too," Frank tells him. He smiles, and Gerard smiles back. Maybe they're both a little bit more fragile than they'd been earlier in the evening, but fuck it. It's still one of the easiest things Frank's ever done when he asks, "Can I kiss you?"
Gerard doesn't answer, but he cups his free hand around the back of Frank's head and draws him in.
The first touch of their lips together is soft and a bit unsure. Then Gerard shifts, and Frank angles his head a little differently, and then they're kissing, and it's really fucking good. Frank feels like he might float away.
Gerard pulls back, too quickly. "Okay?"
"Get back here," Frank says, and tangles both his hands in Gerard's messy hair to pull him in again. Gerard laughs, but he lets it happen.
Gerard is a generous kisser. He opens his mouth for Frank's tongue, and then he pulls back just enough so he can suck on Frank's lower lip and make him gasp. Gerard keeps his one hand at the back of Frank's head, and he rests the other one at the dip of Frank's spine, fingertips splayed out wide.
The distant whistle of the tram, probably at the next stop out, breaks them apart, and they take a second to just breathe together, foreheads touching. "Oh, fuck me," Frank says, when his breath comes a little bit easier.
"Not on the first date," says Gerard, with a grin that's both delighted and a bit wicked. His lips are already a little swollen. Frank can't help darting back in and pressing another quick kiss against them.
"First date," he repeats, just to make sure. "As in, we're going to do this again?"
"Fuck yeah," Gerard says. There's another sharp whistle from down the tracks, and over Gerard's shoulder, Frank can see the eastbound tram heading towards them.
"There's my ride," he says. "I'll see you soon, okay?"
"Definitely," Gerard says. This time he's the one who goes in for one more kiss.
Frank almost misses his tram, but fuck. It's totally worth it.
When Frank wakes up the next morning, there's another note from Gerard in the postbox. It says, I had an awesome time last night. Do it again soon?
For a second, Frank just stands there in his kitchen, one fingertip pressed to his lips, remembering. Then he grabs a piece of parchment from his stash in the unused flour canister and scribbles, Definitely. Your turn to do the asking, though.
He tucks it into his pocket—he'll pass a dozen city mail kiosks on the way to the office—and grabs his coat, heading out for the diner. Chantal is probably going to give him a lot of shit, but as long as she also gives him a lot of coffee, he doesn't mind. And anyway, he's kind of excited to have something to tell her.
Dewees is waiting for him at the office with another mug of coffee and one of the amazing apple donuts from the bakery down the street. It's still warm. Frank looks at Dewees suspiciously and crosses his arms. "Okay. What do you want?"
"We've got another pickup," Dewees says. "And you're the only guy who can do it."
Frank scowls. "What the fuck, man, I'm not the only one who works here. Make Matt do it."
"Matt's lived here his whole life, and he doesn't know the city half as well as you do," Dewees tells him. "And it's a cross-city job, and I need you to do a run this afternoon, since Tim has the flu or the plague or ants or something."
"Jamia has her own run." Dewees raises an eyebrow. "You're good, but no way could you do what she does." Frank has to concede the point. None of the other couriers can do Jamia's run, which spans almost entire eastern half of the city, and which she completes, every day, with time to spare. He's pretty sure the only way Jamia manages Jamia's run is through some sort of pact with one of the old gods. "There's nobody else, Frankie."
"What the fuck, man!" Frank groans, throwing his hands in the air. "What kind of a shitshow are you running here?"
"The kind of shitshow that keeps you gainfully employed," Dewees reminds him. "Now take your fucking donut and the coffee and saddle up, soldier."
"You're a horrible boss," Frank tells him, but there's not much venom in it because Dewees hands over the mug. Frank has to admit that more coffee is probably required if he's not going to fall off his bike today. Especially if he's doing a cross-city job. Fuck.
The pickup is up in the northwest neighborhoods on the other side of the capitol district, so Frank turns his bike in that direction and sets off. His most direct route would be the Garden Bridge, but it's bound to be packed with people commuting at this time of the morning, so he skips it and rides a little farther north until he reaches the Three Arches. It's a smaller, older bridge, a little more rickety, but it's nicely uncrowded, and Frank cuts across it with ease.
He sticks to the smaller, more out-of-the-way streets when he can. There's a map in his brain that's more detailed than any city map he's ever found, and he knows this alleyway connects to that one: how he can skip a busy intersection if he goes two streets up and cuts across the park.
He might not know every inch of the city—he thinks he could live here a hundred years and still not know every street—but he knows enough of its secrets to feel like he can maybe trust it with his own.
Which is why, when he stops for a breather and takes a look at the pickup slip to figure out what neighborhood he's heading for, he swears a blue streak that startles away nearby flock of pigeons. The street he's looking for is Grimsea Bottom— home of the mysteriously vanishing bookshop.
"Motherfucker," he says under his breath, scowling at the slip of paper.
He swears again when he actually reaches the street itself, because there's the bookshop, like it had never been gone. Like he'd happened across the wrong street, that night he'd come to look, even though the shops on either side are exactly the same. And when he looks at the pickup slip, the street number matches the little brass numbers hanging above the door.
He should have known.
This time, he doesn't need to knock three times, because the door is propped open with a stack of cookbooks. The same red-headed woman is sitting behind the counter, paging through a dusty old tome, and the disapproving cat is sprawled out beside her. She looks up when he enters the shop and says, sounding surprised, "Oh! Hello again."
"Is this some kind of a thing?" Frank demands. He's had too little sleep and too much coffee and he is done. "Why me? What do you and Morrison know about me? What do you people fucking want?"
The red-headed woman gives him a curious look. "All I want is for somebody to deliver this book to the southern terraces," she says slowly, pointing at the paper-wrapped package on the desk in front of her. "Normally I'd go myself, or use the city mail, but this was a rush order."
"Are you a wizard?" Frank asks, point blank.
"No, I'm just Jill," says the red-headed woman, shaking her head. "And Grant's not either, if that was going to be your next question."
"Then what is this?" Frank asks her, crossing his arms and jutting out his chin.
"This is my bookshop," says Jill, shrugging like Frank isn't basically throwing a temper tantrum in front of her. "I have one of the city's biggest collections of books about history and practice of the old magic. That's how I hide the shop when I don't want to be found, by the way—Grant did the sigil for me a long time ago, and it works really well, unless somebody who's a little bit magic themselves comes up against it." She look at him, levelly, and he's pinned in place by her gaze. "You know something about that, I think. Though I get the feeling you'd rather not admit it."
"I'm not-" Frank says, mechanically. In his mind's eye, storm clouds rumble. He's edging towards the door to the shop without thinking about it.
Jill's gaze softens. "There's no need for that," she tells him, gently. "I mean, I won't stop you. But I do need this book delivered." The tabby cat jumps down off the desk, radiating disdain, and pads over to a food dish tucked away in an alcove.
Frank takes a deep breath. "I thought. Old magic's been outlawed since the Calamity." Sure, the hunts had stopped before Frank's mother had been born, and they'd never really reached Frank's hometown, anyway. But the laws were still there.
"Well, yeah." Jill sounds amused. "But that hasn't stopped people from practicing it, or honoring what it means. The old magic has been around a long time. It's not going to go away just because people are afraid of it."
Frank winces. "So you and Morrison... are you part of some kind of underground conspiracy, or something?"
Jill laughs. "Gods no, no conspiracy. That sounds like it would be a lot of work, to be honest. We're just... people who remember the old magic. We're not even particularly underground these days, if you know how to look."
"Then why the fucking... mind games? Why hide?" Frank glances back at the shop door, still wide open. Outside, a man in military dress walks past, face buried in a book.
"Because there's a difference between being confident and being stupid," Jill tells him, shrugging again. "I'm sorry that coming up against my wards was uncomfortable for you: like I said, most people don't notice, and the ones who would notice mostly have the key. Now, about the book?"
"That's it?" Frank asks, disbelieving, because it can't, it can't be that simple. Nothing ever is.
"Your name is Frank, right?" Jill asks him. He nods, wary, and she continues, "Grant told me. He also said you had some issues with magic. And if you do, that's fine. Nobody is going to force you to do anything you don't want to do."
Frank snorts. "Right."
"Not here," Jill insists. "Whatever you have going on, that's your business, and you get to decide how to deal with it. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do."
And maybe Frank is just tired. Or maybe he's getting soft. But something about the matter-of-fact way she says it makes him almost believe her. At the very least, he's starting to think that maybe, just maybe, this isn't like it had been... before.
He takes another deep breath, lets it out. "So. I have a receipt for you to sign, and I’ll need to you fill out a delivery slip.”
"Sure," Jill replies smoothly, rummaging around her desk for a pen, and just like that, the conversation is over.
He thinks about it while he's biking south. Jill's parcel is tucked away in his messenger bag, slung securely across his chest, and her words are tucked away in a corner of his mind. He's turning them over and over, feeling them out, trying to figure out how they fit with the things he knows are true.
The terraces are down at the far end of the city proper, where the land slopes steeply to meet the river as it curves below the hill. The neighborhoods down here are poorer, and the houses are smaller and more run-down, but the people are cheerful and the streets are a wild, tangled riot of overgrown gardens that get the benefit of a full day's sun.
Frank wouldn't admit it aloud, but he likes coming down here because it reminds him a little bit of the little town where he grew up. He's been thinking about home a lot more that usual, these past few days. He's not sure how he feels about that.
The building he pulls up in front of looks ordinary enough. It's a house, not a business, although as he looks closer he sees that the entire first level of the house appears to be one giant workshop. The workshop has a vertical doorway that spans almost its entire width, and it's been raised to let in the light. There's a man in a welding mask standing just inside, bent over two twisted pieces of metal, a jet of flame arcing from the palm of his gloved hand.
Frank says, "Excuse me?" but he's not surprised when there's no response. He waits: flame spells, like the ones enchanted into the man's gloves, usually can't sustain themselves for long before they have to be re-charged. Sure enough, a moment later the flames sputter out, and the man pushes the mask up his face, examining his handiwork.
Frank says, "Excuse me!" again, a bit louder, and the man startles, turning towards him.
"Hello," says the man. He peels off his gloves and carefully sets them on a table, and then he takes off his welding mask, unleashing a mass of curly brown hair that's barely being contained by a tie. "What can I help you with?"
"Courier service. I've got a parcel for you, from a Miss Thompson," says Frank, reaching into his bag for his clipboard and the carefully wrapped book.
The man's face lights up. "Wow, really? That's fucking awesome! I was hoping she'd be able to get it to me before moonrise tonight."
Frank shouldn't ask. He wants to stay out of things, he reminds himself. But he still finds himself saying, as he offers the clipboard, "What does a book have to do with moonrise?"
The man grins at him and signs his name to the delivery slip. "It's a book about celestial harmonics, written by an astronomer from one of the Northern observatories, like, four hundred years ago. There's a whole section about mapping the phases of the moon to the octatonic scale. I've been finding all kinds of references to it in other places, but I've never been able to track a copy down. Can't believe Jill found it for me."
"Oh, you're a scientist?" Frank asks, a little surprised.
"Nah, dude; I'm a musician," says the man. "I just like messing around with shit and building things, you know? Right now I'm working on an instrument that'll change its tone based on the lunar cycle and where the moon is in the sky."
"...Fuck. That sounds awesome," Frank says. He can't fucking help himself; it's true. That's exactly the kind of DIY music shit that he loves, crazy and messy and loud.
The guy beams at him and says, "Thanks! I'm actually working on the setup right now; you want to take a look? I'm Ray, by the way."
He shouldn't. He really shouldn't, but, "I- shit, yeah," says Frank. "You don't mind?"
"Come on in," Ray grins, gesturing towards the workshop. The door's wide open; he'll be able to see his bike the whole time, and if anything happens, he'll be able to get out pretty quick.
And, well, what the fuck. Frank has ten minutes to spare.
"Wait, so," says Frank, half an hour later, holding one of Ray's experimental guitars and gesturing at the fretboard, "so, you're going down an octave on that one?"
Ray nods, curls bobbing up and down. "Yeah— I think it makes the intention resonate more, you know?"
Frank doesn't know, but it doesn't seem to matter, because Ray strums a chord and Frank feels it in his bones. "I see what you mean," he says, and Ray beams.
Frank had kind of expected that Ray's musical experiments would have something to do with magic— the old magic. After all, he knows what kind of books Jill's shop sells. Why else would Ray be ordering something from her?
But Ray talks about what he's doing like it's nothing out of the ordinary at all. Like it's no big thing, how he's taking the old lunar rituals of prosperity and protection—outlawed for the past hundred years—and transposing them into strings and tuning pegs and echo chambers. How he’s building instruments that evoke an intention and enact the ritual every time they're played, spreading prosperity and protection through the music they make.
"It's a language," Ray tells him, pointing at a series of music notes scrawled on a piece of staff paper. "And we still use it all the time, it's just that people don't pay attention anymore; so I thought, what if we took the arrangement from here and reversed it? Check it out!"
Ray is enthusiastic and he obviously knows his shit. But he actually asks Frank his opinion on things a couple of times, like Frank's somebody whose opinion matters. And he hasn't asked Frank anything personal, or at least anything Frank doesn't want to answer. And he let Frank play one of his guitars.
Frank decides that, old magic or no, he really fucking likes Ray.
"And the more of them you have together, the greater the effect," Ray explains. "Like how you get more power the more people you have working a spell."
"So you could have a whole band," Frank says.
Ray grins. "A whole orchestra all playing together! Wouldn't that be fucking awesome? You could protect the entire city with that kind of magic."
The whole idea reminds Frank a little of how his mother would sing old songs while she worked in the garden, and how the whole village would sing those same songs together at the harvest festival. He'd still been just a kid, the last time they'd had a harvest festival to sing at, but he remembers how powerful it had felt, the whole village singing together for a bountiful harvest and a safe winter.
He doesn't tell Ray that, though. He just says, wryly, "And they say music never did anybody any good."
"I don't know who says that," Ray tells him, "but they're fucking morons."
"Word," says Frank, and they bump fists. That's when the noon bells start ringing. "Shit!"
Ray's eyes go wide. "Fuck, you're probably supposed to be working, huh?"
Frank nods ruefully, and hands Ray back his guitar. "Sorry to take up your time, man."
"Are you kidding?" Ray asks. "Come back whenever. Actually, wait, let me find the flyer for that band I was telling you about."
Frank finally leaves Ray's workshop five minutes later. He has to use every back-alley shortcut and he knows—and a few he's never seen before, but that turn out to be incredibly useful for helping him make it through the southeast industrial blocks—but he makes it back to the office only kind of late. "Traffic," Frank says, when Dewees raises an eyebrow at him, and Dewees just sighs and mutters about his delinquent employees. Then he gives Frank his leftover noodles, because he's a softy like that.
That evening, Frank's walking home from work when he sees something out of the corner of his eye.
Whatever it is, it's enough to make him turn his head to look. And then do a double take, because there's a tree walking down the street.
It—it? Frank doesn't fucking know. What do you call a walking tree? A tree with legs, kind of, and arms, four feet taller than the tallest person nearby—it's walking down the street, heading in the opposite direction as Frank. And nobody else seems to be paying any attention. Nobody else is staring like there's anything weird going on.
Frank turns around.
The tree keeps walking, slowly, swinging its arms back and forth and dodging a little to avoid the other people on the sidewalk. Frank follows at enough of a distance that he can be sneaky about it, at least. Everything feels kind of surreal right now, like he's not himself; like he's some other Frank, following a magical walking tree that no-one else can see down a street in the growing twilight.
After a few blocks, the tree turns down a side-street. Frank's been down here a few times; it's a good shortcut when he needs to get to a bridge and the main roads are crowded. But the tree stops in front of a door that Frank doesn't remember ever seeing before. The tree pulls the door open, and pub sounds spill out into the street—clinking glass, loud voices, the high, sweet song of a fiddle.
The tree says, in a scratchy voice, "Are you coming in?" Frank realizes that the tree is talking to him, holding the door open politely. Frank can just see the inside of the pub from here; he thinks he sees a flash of scales, maybe.
"Uh," says Frank. "Uh, no. Thank you, though."
"Fair weather," says the tree, and it ducks under the doorframe and into the pub. The door swings closed behind it.
That's when Frank sees it, carved into the doorframe: a familiar symbol, lines and loops that look a little bit like an eye. He reaches into his back pocket, fishes out Morrison's card, and flips it over.
The symbols match exactly.
"Huh," says Frank. He looks at the doorway to the pub again. He's been down this side-street before at least two dozen times. He's completely certain that he's never seen this pub before. He looks at the card.
Then he turns around and walks back, almost to the head of the street. He stashes the card in the metal loop around a water barrel, squeezes his eyes closed, counts to ten, and then he opens his eyes and walks back down towards the mysterious pub.
He says, "Fuck." Because sure enough, the door is gone. The place where it had been is smooth stone. Frank reaches out and trails his hand along it the wall, feeling it rough against the pads of his fingers.
"Fuck me," says Frank. He goes back to the head of the street and grabs the card. It feels warm in his hand. When he looks back, he sees the doorway like it had never been gone.
art by chimneythunder
He's sitting at his kitchen table, turning the card over and over, when he hears scrabbling at the window. He makes it over in time to see a little brown bat wearing a Night Post sash winging away to the next window on its route. There's a folded piece of parchment in his postbox.
Festival in the Gardens tomorrow night? Evening bells, meet you at the entrance? Some friends of mine are doing a show. Chances of getting splattered with fake blood = VERY HIGH.
Frank grins and grabs his own piece of parchment. Sounds fucking rad. See you there.
The next day, Morrison's card is back in his pocket, and Frank keeps his eyes open just a little bit wider when he's walking to work. He doesn’t notice anything big—not like yesterday, with the walking tree. It's just little things: a doorway here, an alleyway there. A postbox painted, not the bright blue of the city mail, but all in black, except for that same symbol in stark white relief.
When Frank walks into the office, Dewees says, "Got something for you, Frankie! You're gonna like it."
Frank makes a face. "I've told you before, Dewees, I don't want to see that shit."
Dewees flips him off. Then he hands him the university mailbag. Frank stares at it for a minute, convinced he's seeing things. "Seriously?"
Dewees laughs. "Happy end of the week, asshole."
Frank bounces up on his toes and gives Dewees a big smacking kiss on the cheek. Today is going to be awesome.
Frank plans his route around the university quarter so that when he finishes up he's within spitting distance of the building where Gerard's office is. He hesitates for a second, because what if this is crossing some kind of line? Then he decides, fuck it. There was kissing—enthusiastic kissing. He's probably allowed to stop by and say hello to Gerard at work.
There's a building at the edge of the university campus that he's never seen before, and that he knows isn't on any of the maps. It doesn't look out of place at all; the bricks are the same shade of brown, and the building's west side is covered in ivy like it's been growing there for decades. As Frank watches, two students walk up to the front door and go inside.
Frank looks at the building for a little while longer. Nobody else walking by seems to pay it any mind.
He makes his way up to Gerard's office and finds the door partially open, but he knocks anyway, just to be polite. Gerard is sitting at his desk, frowning at a book. When he looks up and sees Frank he grins, big and happy. "Frank!"
"Hey," says Frank. "I had this route today, so I figured I would, uh. Stop by."
"I'm glad you did," Gerard tells him, "I've been looking at the same paragraph for the past half an hour." He closes his book—carefully marking his place with a piece of braided rope—and stands up. There are other open books all over his desk, and scattered all around them are thick pieces of parchment filled with twisting serpentine curves.
"Art history?" Frank asks, reaching out to gently trace one of the looping ink lines. It looks oddly familiar, although he can't quite figure out why.
"Mmm hmm," says Gerard, coming around the desk to stand in front of Frank. He's dressed up a little bit; like he's got plans after work, and isn't planning to head home beforehand and change. "It's going to be a mural of the history of the city. Part of that installation at the museum I was telling you about?"
"Oh!" says Frank, because suddenly the loops resolve themselves into a shape he recognizes. "That's the river, huh. And the old city walls?"
"Right!" says Gerard, beaming at him. Fuck, he's pretty.
Gerard blushes, and Frank realizes he must have said that part out loud. Fuck. But then Gerard is kissing him, so Frank decides that he'll forgive himself for letting his mouth run away with him, just this once.
"Sorry," says Gerard, when they finally break apart. "I just really wanted to do that. Maybe I should have waited until tonight."
"No, no, that was totally fine," Frank assures him. "You can do that whenever."
"Yeah?" Gerard asks, grin taking a turn for the filthy.
"Yeah," Frank says.
"Cool." Gerard leans in and kisses him again. Then he says, "Were you heading back to your office? I'm done for today; I could head over that way with you."
"I biked here. Wanna ride on my handlebars?" Frank asks, raising an eyebrow, and he laughs at the alarmed look Gerard gives him at the suggestion. "Or we can grab the tram, if you want."
"That would probably be a better idea," Gerard agrees. "Hang on, I'll grab my bag."
"So this is where the magic happens, huh?" Gerard asks, peering at the outside of the courier office.
"I don't know if I'd go that far," Frank tells him. "Also, you maybe want to wait outside. My boss can be kind of-"
"Kind of what?" Dewees shouts from inside. "You know the windows are open, right Frankie? Get in here."
Frank sighs. Gerard laughs and pats him on the shoulder.
As soon as they make it through the door, Dewees bustling over and giving Gerard the gimlet eye. "So you're the academic that our Frankie's been mooning over, hm?"
"James," Frank groans, "can you please not?"
"Mooning?" Gerard asks curiously, looking at Frank with a pleased little smile.
"...Kind of," Frank admits.
"Totally mooning," Dewees confirms. Frank flips him off. Dewees blows him a kiss, and Gerard giggles.
"Here's the mailbag, asshole." Frank tosses the empty bag at Dewees. "Now give me my cut so I can get out of here. I got a boy to take out."
"You sure you know what you're in for?" Dewees asks Gerard, seriously. "He's like this all the time."
"I'm looking forward to it," says Gerard, easily, and the look he gives Frank makes heat spark low in Frank's belly.
There’s a line to get inside the Gardens because of the festival, but Gerard tugs Frank up to the entrance and has a quiet word with the woman at the gate, who smiles at him and waves them both inside without a fuss. “My hero,” Frank says, and Gerard smiles sheepishly.
The show is in an open-air amphitheater at the center of the garden’s maze-like paths. It’s an adaptation of one of Frank’s favorite horror stories and, as promised, it’s incredibly gory in the very best way. Frank gets fake blood in his hair. Gerard gallantly offers him a handkerchief to clean up with, but it turns out he doesn’t actually have one. Frank just laughs and kisses him, leaving Gerard with a smear of fake blood on his cheek.
Afterwards, Gerard leads them to a little kiosk selling steamed dumplings, and buys them a coneful to split. They wander the garden paths eating dumplings and holding hands, watching the fairy lights in the trees flare to life as the sun sets. It’s stupid, and romantic, and Frank loves every fucking second of it.
“There’s supposed to be fireworks,” Gerard says. “Part of the festival. We should find someplace to watch.”
Frank glances around and grins. “I’ve got an idea.”
He steers Gerard over to a squat little gazebo. It’s a little too low to the ground, and surrounded by too many trees, to have a good view of the sky from inside. That's okay, though. Frank isn’t planning on staying inside.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Gerard demands, alarmed, when Frank jumps up onto the gazebo’s railing and grabs for the roof. Frank scrambles up until he’s sitting with his feet dangling over the roof’s edge, waving down at Gerard.
“I’ll pull you up!” Frank says, wriggling his fingers. “We’ll be able to see the whole sky from up here. Plus, it’s nice and private.” He waggles his eyebrows.
Gerard squeezes his eyes shut. “Broken bones are not sexy, Frank.”
“C’mon,” Frank wheedles. “I won’t let you fall.”
It takes some doing, but eventually, Gerard is up on the roof next to Frank. It’s flat enough to be a decent place to lie down, especially when they move upwards a little. Gerard is still grumbling a little bit, but he’s got his fingers twined securely with Frank’s, so Frank isn’t really paying his grumbles too much attention. He’s a lot more interested in the way that Gerard’s thumb keeps tracing a line on Frank’s palm.
“See?” Franks says, after a little while. “Private. S’nice.”
“Mmm,” Gerard agrees. His thumb keeps tracing the same line. "You like the places that most people don't go, huh?"
Frank shrugs. "They're usually more interesting."
Gerard hums. He moves his attention to the tattoos on Frank's wrist, just visible in the glow from the fairy lights and the floating lanterns. Frank makes a low noise in his throat.
"I like interesting," Gerard says, after a few minutes. His fingertips tap a cadence on the inside of Frank's wrist bone. Far overhead, silhouetted by the stars, Frank can just make out the soaring shapes of two of the Queen’s Riders on patrol. Gerard says, “I’m still not convinced we’re not going to fall to our deaths, though.” When Frank looks over, he's watching Frank through the curtain of his dark hair, and there's the hint of a smile playing around his lips.
Frank sighs dramatically. “Ugh, fine.” He pushes himself up, rolling over and up so he’s straddling Gerard’s hips, hands on either side of Gerard’s chest. “There. Now you’re not going anywhere.”
“Yeah?” Gerard asks, grinning up at him like he’s got nowhere else in the world where he’d rather be.
“Yeah. Also, I’m going to make out with you,” Frank announces, and Gerard giggles like a dork underneath him, so Frank does the only thing he can do and shuts him up with his tongue.
Eventually, the fireworks start. It takes them a while to notice.
"Fuck," says Gerard, shuddering when Frank bites at the place where his neck meets his shoulder. Frank files that reaction away. "Fuck, Frank- we're like, two blocks away from my apartment, can we-"
Frank considers this. Really, he does. But the tram ride back to the university quarter had been endless fucking torture, with Gerard pressed tightly up against him in the crowd of people coming home from the festival. Really, he's amazed that they'd made it even a block away from the tram station before he'd tugged Gerard into an alleyway and pressed him up against the wall.
"Sorry," he gasps, and Gerard moans and grinds up against him. "Sorry, I just- your fucking mouth, Gerard."
"What about it?" Gerard asks, breathless. His fingertips slip under Frank's waistband and rest at the curve of Frank's ass.
"Your mouth," Frank repeats, uselessly. He gives up and dives in for another kiss.
"I'll use it on you," Gerard promises, when they pull apart just enough to pant into each other's mouths. "Just, not here, okay Frankie? C'mon."
Frank takes a deep, shaky breath. Fuck, this is crazy. Gerard makes him feel crazy. And from the looks of things, Gerard isn't much better off. He lets Gerard grab his hand and tug him back out into the street.
They cool off enough to make it the rest of the way to Gerard's apartment, but Gerard still drops his keys twice before they finally make it through his front door.
"Home sweet home," he says, with a little ta da gesture. "Sorry I didn't clean or anything."
Frank looks around, his curiosity briefly overtaking his need to be touching Gerard. He remembers wondering, before, what kind of a place Gerard would live in. Sure, it's messier than his apartment—a lot messier, with open books and paint supplies and half-finished sketches covering every available surface—but that just means that it looks like somebody actually lives here. Somebody who isn't always planning, in the back of his mind, his best escape route. Frank likes it.
Gerard is biting his lip, like he's nervous, so Frank steps in close and puts a hand on Gerard's hip. "I like it," he says.
"I like you," says Gerard, helplessly. Frank tilts his face up, and Gerard meets him for a kiss. It's different than the ones they'd been trading before—like the urgency from the alleyway has been transmuted into something slower and hotter. Frank's hand settles at the dip of Gerard's spine. Gerard tangles his fingers in Gerard's hair.
Frank is just about to suggest that Gerard show him his bedroom now when something butts against the back of his leg. He looks down, expecting a cat, maybe. He says, "Um."
"Oh," says Gerard, after a moment. "I probably should have mentioned that, huh?"
Frank stares down at the little dragon that's rubbing itself against his shin. "You… have a pet dragon," he says.
"Her name is Moira," Gerard tells him. He crouches down a little bit and scratches the base of the little dragon's neck, and her eyes roll back in pleasure. "She's a Crimson Sickleback. Mikey used to date a dragon breeder."
"You have a pet dragon," Frank repeats, because he's still kind of stuck there. Moira chirps at him quizzically.
"I'm allergic to cats," Gerard explains. He's quiet for a second, and then he asks, carefully, "Is... is that a problem?"
Frank realizes that he probably looks like an idiot. Or maybe like one of those people who has a problem with dragons, and thinks they're more of a nuisance than they're worth. Thinks the Riders are overhyped and not worth the taxpayer expense, and that the little dragons that run wild around the city are vermin that should be dealt with.
"No way," says Frank firmly. He squats down and offers his hand to the dragon, who considers it for a moment before deigning to butt her nose against it.
Gerard grins, relieved. "You had dragons back home, right?"
"Right," Frank says. It’s weirdly easy to say. "Not this kind, though. The big old mountain dragons."
Moira chirps at him again. "Hey there, pretty girl," Frank murmurs, stroking the place where her wing meets her back. He can feel a little part of his mind trying to stir. But he's good at ignoring that part of himself, even with the shit that's happened lately lately. Moira croons at him, and he scratches her under her chin.
"Shit, I can't believe you have a pet dragon," Frank murmurs, looking at Gerard. "Got any other surprises for me?"
"A few," says Gerard. There's a flush on his cheekbones. "I should probably feed Moira, but then, uh. Did you maybe want to go to my bedroom and find out what they are?"
"I might be into that," Frank tells him. He grabs Gerard's hand and kisses his palm.
"Awesome," Gerard says fervently. "Give me two seconds."
While Gerard goes into the kitchen and starts opening cupboards—Moira follows him, because she clearly knows what's up—Frank snoops around the living room. He's admiring a painting above the fireplace, which he suspects is Gerard's work, when he feels Gerard's arms wrap around him from behind.
"C'mon," Gerard murmurs in his ear, and Frank shivers. "Let's go while she's distracted by the food."
Gerard leads Frank down a hallway and into his bedroom, which is small but really fucking cozy-looking. Not that Frank is really paying attention to the room, per se.
Gerard shuts the bedroom door firmly, then turns to Frank. "Hi."
"Hi," Frank echoes, smiling at him. "So this is where the magic happens, huh?"
Gerard groans. "I'm shutting you up now," he warns, and Frank just laughs and pulls him in.
Gerard is fascinated by Frank's tattoos.
Frank's cardigan was the first thing to go, discarded in a little puddle near the bedroom door. "Off, off, off," Gerard chants, pushing at Frank's undershirt until he manages to get it up and over Frank's head.
"Oh," Gerard murmurs, fervently. Frank is on his back on Gerard's bed, and Gerard is on his hands and knees above him, eyes wide. He presses his lips to Frank's collarbone, to his sternum, to the skin above Frank's heart.
"Gerard," Frank complains, shaky and turned on and impatient.
Gerard traces his fingers up Frank's arms, and and Frank shivers. "Sorry," Gerard says against Frank's stomach. "Sorry, I just- you're so fucking gorgeous, Frankie. There's art all over you."
"Always an academic," Frank teases, breathless, and then he gasps when Gerard bites at the inside of his arm.
"I could be so much worse," Gerard promises, laughing a little bit as he traces his lips down Frank's sleeve, kissing every star. "I could give a whole lecture on nautical imagery, or. Fuck. I could write a fucking book about these right here."
And then Gerard is looking at Frank's birds, touching them reverently with his fingertips. "These are incredible," he whispers. "I've seen these birds before, you know? In history books. They're sigils that are older than the city, and now they're on your skin."
Frank feels the familiar urge to hide from what Gerard is saying: what those particular tattoos have come to mean. Instead, he finds his hands and lifts them to pluck at Gerard's shirt. "Fair's fair," he demands. Gerard bites again, right at the crease of Frank's hipbone, and Frank barely holds back a shout.
When Gerard doesn't show any signs of halting his exploration of Frank's hipbones, Frank takes a deep breath and surges upwards, flipping them. Gerard says, "Oh!" when he finds himself on his back.
"My turn," Frank grins down at him. "C'mon, baby. Show me what you've got."
Gerard, as it turns out, is actually kind of filthy in bed. He moans when Frank bites at his neck—that's definitely a thing for him—and he grinds up against Frank, and he pants and swears and tangles his fingers in his own hair, all without a speck of shame.
"Yeah," he gasps, when Frank finally manages to get their pants off and line them up so their cocks slide together. "Fuck, that's so fucking good."
“What do you want, Gerard?” Frank asks. He rolls his hips, and they both moan.
“This is good,” Gerard tells him. “This is- ah- this is really fucking good.” He grabs Frank’s ass and pulls him down hard, so they’re pressed together everywhere. Frank has to close his eyes and just breathe for a second.
“Gerard,” he pants. “If you keep doing that, this is gonna be over way too fucking soon.”
Gerard rolls his hips up again, gives Frank an absolutely wicked grin and says, “That's okay. We’ve got all night.”
Sheer force of will is the only thing that keeps Frank from losing it right there. He goes in for another kiss, swallowing Gerard’s moans when as they grind together. Gerard bites at Frank’s lower lip, and Frank hisses and jerks his hips, and they both shudder with pleasure.
Frank had wanted to take his time, but fuck it. He works a hand between their bodies and fists both of their cocks, and the spike of pleasure is so sharp that it's almost pain.
“Fuck,” Gerard bites out, tensing and writhing up against Frank's body. “I’m gonna-“
“Yeah,” says Frank, low. He bends down to scrape his teeth against Gerard’s neck, and Gerard shouts and bucks his hips and comes all over Frank’s fingers.
Frank keeps moving his hand while Gerard shudders through the aftershocks, until Gerard is limp and panting beneath him. “Fuck,” Frank chants. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, you feel so fucking good.” He shifts them so he’s rutting into the crease of Gerard’s thigh, and he can’t stop. Gerard is peppering his face with kisses, and Frank can’t- he can’t-
“C’mon, Frankie,” Gerard murmurs. He palms the curve of Frank's ass and slides down, curling his fingers around Frank's cock, and Frank’s world goes white.
When Frank swims back up, Gerard’s face is buried in his neck, and they’re breathing together. “Holy fuck,” he says, scratchy.
“Mmmm,” Gerard agrees. He noses at Frank’s jaw. They're both sticky and sweaty and Frank feels amazing, and also suddenly exhausted.
"All night," he murmurs drowsily, and Gerard laughs softly into his throat. Frank kisses the skin under Gerard's ear until he can't keep his eyes open anymore.
Early the next morning, Frank wakes up with his cock in Gerard's mouth. It takes him an embarrassingly short time to come.
"Told you I'd use my mouth on you," says Gerard, smugly, while Frank is panting up at the ceiling and trying to find his brain again.
And, well. Frank may still be sleep-hazy, and a little sex-stupid, but he's still got his pride. He pins Gerard's hands to the bed and slithers down.
Frank wakes for the second time a little later. Gerard is just slipping back into the room, gently closing the door behind him. He grins ruefully when he sees Frank watching him.
"Sorry," he murmurs, sliding back into the bed. "Moira needed a sunstone. I tried not to wake you up."
Frank stretches. His entire body is humming with how good he feels. "You can make it up to me with breakfast, maybe."
Gerard smiles at him. "I could do that."
Frank sits at the kitchen counter, sipping a mug of coffee (Gerard had set some going when he'd gone out to feed Moira, which is further proof that Gerard is wonderful) and watching Gerard make pancakes. Gerard moves around his kitchen like he's comfortable there, although he admits, "I only know how to make, like, four things. Pancakes are one of them."
Moira has insinuated herself into Frank's lap. She's rumbling quietly, a steady thrum under his hand as he strokes his hand over her back and skritches at the places where her wings meet her back. Occasionally, she sighs out a little cloud of steam.
Frank tries to remember the last time he'd eaten a meal that was cooked in somebody's kitchen. Last month, maybe, when Dewees had invited him over to jam for a while. It had been nice, but it hadn't felt like this. This feels... cozy. Domestic.
There's a little part in the back of Frank's mind reminding him why he hadn't let himself have this. Because someday, maybe, the city won't be loud enough to drown out the things he can't let himself listen to. Or somebody will find out. And then he'll have to leave again. He's always known that it could happen. It's always happened before.
Frank really, really doesn't want to leave.
And anyway, there's another little part in the back of his mind that's started wondering, these past few days. There's an underside to the city where people treat the old magic like it's ordinary. Frank's still not sure what that means, but it has to mean something.
He decides to stop thinking about it when Gerard sets a plate in front of him and asks, "More coffee?"
"Please," says Frank gratefully. Gerard tops off Frank's mug, and pours himself another one, which he then murders with cream and sugar. Frank tells Gerard how gross he is, and Gerard flips him off.
It's the best breakfast Frank has had in a long time.
Later, they're curled up together on Gerard's couch, drinking coffee and listening to a record, when Frank decides to just fucking ask about the thing that's been nagging at him all morning. "So, you said something. Last night."
"Mmm?" Gerard shifts so they're facing each other. "I said a lot of things," he says, thoughtfully. "I talk a lot when I'm- uh."
"Yeah, I noticed," Frank grins, remembering. Fuck, he could be ready to go again pretty quick. But he wants to ask this first. Maybe he shouldn't, but. He's curious.
"You were looking at my birds," he says. "You said you'd seen them before. What did you mean?"
"Oh," says Gerard. He reaches out to palm Frank's hip; his hand is big, and warm, and Frank think this must be how Moira feels when they pet her; he just barely stops himself from arching up into Gerard's touch. "They’re an old design. Used to be really common in places that were dedicated to the sky. Hang on, I think I still have that book somewhere..."
He untangles himself from Frank and pads across the room to the overflowing bookshelf, where he hums and runs a finger across a dozen different spines before he finds the one he needs. "Yeah, I think it's this one."
Gerard carries the book back to the couch and sits down, flipping through it as he talks. "Symbology—uh, the language of sigils—used to be a really big deal. I mean, you still see sigils around, especially in stuff that's older, but it's not like it was. I think they're fascinating. That's actually pretty much why I do what I do."
"Art history?" says Frank, and Gerard nods. He taps the page he's settled on, and Frank sees them there, his birds. The ones in the book are more intricate— loops and swirls and curlicues all joining together to form the basic shape—but Frank still knows them on sight. He reaches out to run his fingertips over the page, carefully.
"They're an evocation," Gerard says quietly, reading. "For faith, and clear skies, and easy travels. See, look at the lines, here— that's where the intention is written out. And it says they're emblematic for travelers and messengers. Is that why you got them? Because of your job?"
"No," says Frank. Moira jumps up onto the couch and insinuates herself into Frank's lap, and he skritches her absentmindedly. "I got them a while ago, before I came here. I didn't know they meant anything."
"Well, they must have meant something to you," Gerard says, reasonably.
"I guess," Frank agrees. He can't stop staring at the birds on the page.
He almost asks Gerard about the symbol—sigil—on the back of Morrison's card. The one that seems to be some kind of key that unlocks the city's secrets. He thinks that Gerard would probably know how to name it, has probably seen it in a book somewhere. Or maybe Gerard has his own card, tucked away.
Something holds him back. This thing that they have is new enough that Frank wants to keep it safe, separate from the chaos that's starting to spin in the rest of his life, for just a little while longer. If Gerard knows about the other side of the city, if he's part of it, well. That's his business, and unless he says something about it, it doesn't matter.
So he doesn't ask, and Gerard doesn't ask anything else, either, just hums to himself and occasionally turns a page. After a while, Gerard puts the book on the coffee table and goes to change the record, then he comes back and lets Frank pull him down onto the couch again and they trade lazy kisses. Moira huffs at being displaced and retreats to a nearby chair.
Frank drifts, and his thoughts are a swirl of lines and curves. Morrison's sigil, but also the symbol his mother used to chalk above their doorway at the turning of the year, and the one that they would burn into the fields for bounty the coming summer. He wonders how long the old magic has been right there, just out of his sight, waiting for him to see it.
"Stay a while?" Gerard asks, softly. He wraps his arms around Frank's chest.
"I want to," Frank says. He means it in a lot of different ways.
art by chimneythunder
Over the next month and a half, Frank makes a lot of interesting discoveries.
He keeps Morrison's card in his pocket everywhere he goes, and he keeps his eyes open. He adds dozens of alleyways and side streets to his mental map of the city, all of them tucked carefully out of the way, under the protection of Morrison's sigil. Some of the streets turn out to be useful shortcuts—Frank shaves entire minutes off some of his routes. Some of the streets don't turn out to be useful at all, but he explores them anyway, following his nose to brightly-colored carts selling food like he's never tasted before.
Word apparently gets around that he's in the know, and they start getting business from a slightly different clientele. Frank delivers packages to witches, and to old men who call themselves fortune tellers; he sees more of the walking trees, and occasionally living rocks, and once, memorably, a figure made out of writhing, twisting flames. He adds all of them to his mental map, too.
Frank had started out wary, and he still is, a little. But it's hard for him to hold onto his initial suspicion and anger, because this hidden side of the city is strangely... ordinary. The people who still honor the old magic are largely the same as the people who don't. Even the walking trees—wood spirits, Frank learns, when he works up the courage to ask Ray during one of their jam sessions—turn out to enjoy a night at the pub and a morning-after mug of coffee as much as the next resident of the city. Frank sees one at Chantal's diner, and they share a bleary-eyed look of the pre-caffeinated commiseration before going back to their respective mugs.
(When he asks her, Chantal shrugs and doesn't seem bothered by—or even really aware of—the fact that she'd been pouring coffee for a tree. "I like that guy. He always leaves acorns for tips."
Frank opens his mouth to say something, to ask her what she sees. Then he closes it again. It's probably not really worth it.)
Frank stops by Jill's shop sometimes, when he's in the area. Occasionally he'll ask her questions about the city, but a lot of the time they end up talking about books. She sends him home with a collection of legends from one of the western islands, and a slim volume of poetry from the country across the mountains. Her cat doesn't warm up to him, but he's used to that. Cats have never liked him much.
He doesn't run into Morrison again, though he thinks he sees him, once or twice.
Nobody says anything to him about anything he doesn't want them to know. Nobody seems to assume anything about him at all. He starts to think that maybe, just maybe, the thing inside of him isn't as obvious as he'd always thought. Maybe he isn't as obvious. Maybe the city is still big enough to hide his secrets, even though it seems smaller than ever now that he can see the other side of it.
Frank also discovers things about Gerard.
He learns, through observation, that Gerard drinks more coffee than Frank had ever thought it was possible for one person to drink. Breakfast is his favorite meal, but he only really knows how to make one thing, and that one thing is the pancakes he'd made for breakfast that first morning. His kitchen cupboards are full of cereal and instant noodle packages.
Gerard gets distracted when he's working, and Frank learns to tell what kind of work Gerard is doing on a given day from the type of smudges on his face and clothes. Ink smudges around his temples mean he's been researching, taking notes and getting ink on his fingers and forgetting himself when he runs his hands through his hair. Colorful splatters on his arms and neck mean he's been painting. Frank explores Gerard's skin with his lips, seeking out every last trace of ink and paint.
"We match," Gerard murmurs, holding up his arm next to Frank's, paint splatters against tattoos. Frank hums, because he likes the look of their arms together. He wonders if Gerard would paint on him sometime.
Gerard likes to touch him. The dirty kind of touching, definitely. But the easy, everyday kind, too. Whenever he gets the chance, Gerard will tangle their fingers together, or rest a hand at the small of Frank's back. When Frank stays over, he always wakes up with Gerard curled tightly around him, no matter how they'd fallen asleep the night before. And when Frank touches back, Gerard gives him this gorgeous fucking little smile that basically makes Frank want to touch him all the time.
Not that it's a hardship or anything.
It's not casual, what they're doing; Gerard admits, after the first couple of weeks, that he's never been good at casual. And Frank's still afraid that something is going to happen to make this disappear. But he can't bring himself to stop, or even to slow down. He's too happy. This is too good.
They don't spend all their time together—they're both too fucking busy for that, although sometimes all Frank wants to do is grab Gerard, drag him into bed, and not let him out for days and days. But they both have their jobs, and on top of that, Gerard's got his installation at the city museum coming up.
So they date. Frank shows Gerard his favorite places. They go to the gaming hall hidden two stories underground, below one of the city's oldest hotels, and listen to a woman with a smoky voice sing the blues. Frank takes Gerard to the courtyard out back of the abandoned theater on the east side that's been turned into a sculpture garden; they eat waffles that come from a window cut into the side of an otherwise ordinary red brick office building, and Gerard gasps when he breaks his waffle in half and finds a fortune inside.
"Dating you is awesome," Gerard says happily, taking another huge bite of his waffle—now fortune-free. "You know where all the best food is."
Frank raises an eyebrow. "That's the only reason?" Gerard blushes and stammers and flails, trying to backtrack, and Frank grins and lets Gerard dig himself deeper, until Gerard catches on and pokes him in the arm, all mock-offended. Getting Gerard flustered is one of Frank's new favorite hobbies, because he knows that tonight, when they fall into bed together, Gerard's going to pay him back, and they're both going to really enjoy it.
When it's Gerard's turn, he teaches Frank about the city's history. Frank knows the streets like the back of his hand, but Gerard knows how—and why—they fit together the way they do. He tells Frank about how the walls of Old Town form a shape that means "peace" in the ancient language of symbols. He knows the intimate history of each of the city's bridges, and the way he talks about them, it's almost like they're alive. The next time Frank crosses the Bridge of Thorns, he takes a moment to stop and run his hand along the rust-colored metal, its reverberations humming under his fingertips.
One day, Gerard uses his academic credentials to get them into the Bell Tower, which is one place that Frank has never been in all his time here. Gerard gestures a lot, and babbles excitedly about how the bells were forged ("In dragon fire, Frank!") around the time the city was founded, hundreds of years ago, and still sound just the same today as they had back then. Frank just stands in front of the evening bell, three times as tall as he is, and he looks out over the city and feels very, very small.
Dewees gives him shit when he shows up in yesterday's clothes for the third time in a week, raising an eyebrow when Frank walks into the office. "Have a good night, Frankie?"
"Fuck you," Frank says, because it's habit. Dewees laughs at him.
"That was almost sweet," he declares, grinning. "Your academic must be a good influence on you. He can stay."
"You can suck it," Frank tells him, but it's for show. He's tired, and he's sore in all the best ways, and there's a bruise just below the collar of his shirt. His mailbag rubs up against it, and he hisses a little bit, but the memory of getting the bruise blooms low in his chest.
It had been a really good night, actually.
Dewees snaps his fingers in front of Frank's face and hands him a little sachet of dried berries. "It's important to keep your energy up," he says gravely. "Can't have one of my couriers falling asleep on the job because he's too freaky in the sack."
Frank punches him on the arm; Dewees laughs his stupid honking bird laugh and walks away.
One morning they’re making breakfast—they're not having pancakes, so Frank is cooking—when he notices that Gerard had gotten something in the post the night before.
“Gee,” he says, pointing at the box attached to the kitchen window.
Gerard is still only on his second cup of coffee, so he's not quite up to full speed just yet. He shambles over to the box and fumbles the latch open, pulling the letter out and looking at it dubiously. Frank laughs a little, and turns his attention back to poking vegetables around with his spatula. So he’s surprised when Gerard suddenly says, “Motherfucker!”
“What?” Frank says, whirling back around, spatula in hand. Gerard is staring at the letter with a dark look on his face.
“You know that antiques dealer I’ve been talking with about the blueprints from the secondary expansion?” Gerard asks. Frank nods; he vaguely remembers Gerard putting all those words together in the same sentence. Gerard's been running all over the place and talking to all kinds of people, prepping for the installation at the museum.
“He says he’s got them, but there’s another interested buyer coming in this afternoon, and if I want them I have to get down there today before the noon bell. Fuck, I'd heard this guy was a dick. I should have known he'd try and pull something like this.”
Frank looks out the window, where the morning sun is already well overhead, heading for the center of the sky. “Shit.”
“Exactly,” Gerard says, glum. “He’s all the way over in southeast; there’s no fucking way I’d be able to make it there in time.”
Frank turns off the burner and sets the spatula down. “What are you standing there for? Go put some fucking clothes on. We’re gonna go show this fucking antiques dealer asshole what’s what.”
They stumble out onto the street outside Gerard’s apartment less than five minutes later, and Frank immediately steers them east. “We can cut across the market and take the esplanade,” he explains. Gerard is clearly wary, glancing up at the sky, but Frank just tugs him along.
This is what he knows how to do; this is what he’s best at, navigating the city, coaxing it into giving up the most direct routes from place to place. He knows, bone deep, that they can do this, if Gerard just keeps hold of his hand.
He doesn’t go anywhere near the main roads. Instead, he leads Gerard through alleyways and across courtyards and, once, over the roof of a cobbler’s shop. They cut across the market, ducking and weaving in and out of stalls, and hit the esplanade just as the bell chimes to mark the half-hour.
“Plenty of time,” Frank says, confidently. Gerard looks a little wide-eyed—Frank had almost lost him a couple of times in the chaos of the market—but game, and fuck, Frank really loves his smile.
In the end, they make it to the antiques shop ten minutes before noon, a little out of breath but none the worse for the wear. The proprietor greets Gerard solicitously (although he does look a bit surprised) and offers him the use of a table in the back to examine the scroll for himself. Gerard goes, and Frank amuses himself by wandering around the shop for a while.
There’s a little ceramic dragon on one of the shelves, and Frank ends up standing in front of it and just staring, a little bit lost in his own head. A gentle hand on his arm brings him back. “All done?” he asks, eyeing the carrying tube Gerard’s got slung over his shoulder.
“Yeah,” Gerard says, smiling at him. They walk out of the shop together.
“My hero,” Gerard tells him once they’re back out on the sidewalk. “These are going to be a fucking huge help.” He leans in to lay a kiss on Frank’s cheek, but Frank turns his head at the last moment, and their lips slide together. It’s just quick, but Frank’s still a little breathless when they pull apart.
Later, sitting on a park bench and eating spicy vegetable skewers, Gerard says, “You’re really amazing, you know that?”
Frank shrugs and pops a piece of carrot into his mouth, and Gerard continues, “I’m serious. I’ve never met anybody who knows the city like you do, and you're not even from here. It should have taken us two hours to get from my place to the shop. It's fucking incredible how you can just cut a path through like that."
Frank shrugs again, looking out across the park. "It's just what I'm good at. I mean, I can't paint for shit, so."
"I bet you've got a map in your head that's better than anything the royal mapmakers have ever drawn," Gerard tells him earnestly. "I've seen those maps, anyway; they're all way out of date. And I fucking study the way the city was built, but I still get fucking turned around when I'm trying to get to a new coffee shop. You're magic."
"Is that why you always go to the same place to get coffee?" Frank teases, to cover up the little clench in his gut. That sets Gerard off—he can talk about coffee, and his favorite coffee shops, for ages. Frank can't help but be a little relieved when they leave the subject of magic behind.
The thing is, he still hasn't figured out if Gerard knows about the other side of the city.
Gerard clearly knows something about the old magic, in an academic way; a lot of the spells and rituals are based around symbols, a visual language that Gerard thinks is incredibly important to understanding the history of the city. He's shown Frank his designs for the mural he's putting together for the walls of his museum installation, and even on just that small piece of parchment, it takes Frank's breath away: a wild tangle of lines that crash together and then ebb apart, faces and the flash of dragon's wings. And the old sigils, all scattered throughout. Gerard had traced his fingertip across the paper as he'd pointed out the symbol for wisdom in a gnarled tree limb, the symbol for growth in a flurry of vines.
Frank hasn't figured out, though, if Gerard's knowledge is just academic, or if there's something more to it than that. Honestly, he hasn't tried very hard. He's not exactly sure what he wants the answer to be.
In retrospect, Frank thinks he should have known that avoiding the issue was just going to come back and bite him in the ass sooner or later. He's not really sure why he thought things would be different this time.
They're walking down one of the quiet little streets to the north of the garden district, pausing occasionally to duck into one of the tiny shops. Gerard has an ice cream cone because Frank insisted on buying him one; Frank has some sort of root vegetable on a stick, fried and cut into a spiral. They pass a busker, a kid with a crooked grin and a guitar, singing about the weather.
"Ooh," says Gerard, peering through a shop window. "Can we-?"
"Sure," says Frank.
When they walk inside the shop, a little cuckoo clock beside the door whistles, three times. At first Frank thinks it's a just a junk shop, but then he sees that the piles of scrap metal on the shelves are actually sculptures. Some of them... tick.
"Look!" Gerard says, tugging Frank's hand. A little automata clatters across the floor towards them, stopping just before it runs into Frank's leg. It chirps and scuttles away underneath a shelf.
"Woah," says Frank, blinking, and Gerard says, "I think that was a clockwork golem! One of the other professors in the arts department is working with those."
While Gerard is being enthusiastic about gears, the shopkeeper appears from around the edge of a display, a second automata perched on her shoulder, and she asks them politely if they're looking for anything in particular. Gerard asks, "Do you use intention sigils carved into the components themselves, or do you dictate the intention during the forging process?"
Apparently this is totally the right question, because the shopkeeper lights up and they start talking at each other excitedly. Frank only follows about half of the conversation—something about scrolls, and true names, and possibly also the melting point of bronze—and after a little while he sees the first automata peering around a table leg. He walks over and crouches down. "Hi?"
It chirps, alarmed, and scuttles away again. He laughs a little. When he glances up again, Gerard is looking at him warmly.
The shopkeeper excuses herself to the back to check on something, and Frank and Gerard wander around the shop together; Gerard keeps up a running monologue about metalworking and the old druidic traditions, and Frank nods along.
Then the cuckoo clock above the front door whistles again, and a moment later he hears voices from the other side of the shop floor. Frank doesn't think much of it—they've found another automata, a lizard with a articulated tail that swishes back and forth with a series of musical clicks, and he's trying to figure out if the notes are on the pentatonic scale. Then someone says, "Gerard?"
Gerard looks over his shoulder, and then he says, "Grant!" and turns around. And then Frank sees Grant Morrison standing behind them, a broad grin on his face. Gerard beams and holds out a hand; Grant takes it and shakes it warmly. It's obvious that they know one another well.
"How have you been?" Grant is asking. "Did you ever manage to track down that scroll we were discussing the other week?"
"I did!" Gerard says, grinning at him. "You were right about that antiques dealer, though— he was a jackass. I never would have managed to get my hands on the scroll if it wasn't for Frank. Oh! Grant, this is Frank! My, uh— I told you about him." He blushes a little bit, and he turns to Frank and says, "Frank, this is Grant. He was a huge help to me when I was working on the research that got me the job at the university."
"We've met," says Frank, blunt.
It's probably rude, but his brain is careening off without his permission and kicking into panic mode. Gerard knows Grant Morrison; apparently they're good friends? Two parts of his life that he's been deliberately trying to keep separate have just crashed into each other, and he's still trying to stop reeling and find his fucking footing.
Grant—who doesn't look surprised at all, motherfucker—nods. "It's good to see you again, Frank. I hope you've been well."
Gerard is looking between them curiously. "I didn't realize you two knew each other."
"A brief acquaintance, in a professional capacity," Grant says easily. "Frank once delivered a time-sensitive package to Jill for me, on a day when all the usual sources were otherwise occupied. I was exceedingly grateful for his help."
"Oh, you've met Jill, too?" Gerard asks Frank. "Fuck, that's awesome. Isn't her shop amazing? I swear I can't ever leave that place without buying like five fucking books that I didn't know I needed."
"I-" says Frank. He feels- fuck. Dizzy? Sick, maybe.
"Frank?" asks Gerard, and he's giving Frank a concerned look, so Frank probably looks about as great as he feels right now. "Are you okay? You're not getting sick again, are you?" Frank darts another look at Morrison—Grant—and he sees concern there, as well.
Grant, who knows that Frank is a little bit magic. Grant, who is friends with Gerard. Fuck. Has he told Gerard? Has Gerard known this whole time? Is that why he's here, why he's dating Frank in the first place; is he just waiting for his chance?
Frank had been so fucking stupid, to think that he'd finally run far enough- that his fucking stupid power wasn't going to come pushing its way back to the surface and ruining his life again. He was so fucking stupid to have trusted this thing between him and Gerard.
He'd made that mistake before, and look where it had gotten him.
On the shelf directly across from him at eye level, an automata that he hadn't noticed before, sculpted in the shape of a dragon, unfurls a pair of mechanical wings. It cocks its head to the side and says, Okay?
"I'm going to go throw up," Frank announces, and he turns on his heel and walks out of the shop.
Frank goes home and starts packing up his things.
It used to be that he could leave a place behind in under an hour. But he's lived in the city long enough that it isn't as easy as it had been. His traveling bag is buried under the bed. His good coat, the one that's lined with oilskin, is in the very back of the closet, because he hasn't needed its protection against the rain and cold in months: the city's seasons are milder than the ones in the little towns on the foothills and the plains where he'd been before.
The bundle where he keeps his important things, like the protective charm his mother made him when he turned ten, is tucked carefully away underneath the contents of his second dresser drawer, and every thing he pulls out to get to it is a thing that he didn't have when he'd come here.
Fuck. He's going to miss the city, because it's become his city, these past three years. He's so fucking angry at this whole stupid situation—at Grant Morrison and at Gerard and at every single thing these past couple of months that's made him feel like maybe, just maybe, he could stop being afraid, and nothing bad would happen. That he could stop running for good, because he was finally someplace loud enough to drown out the voices that Frank didn't want to be able to hear anymore.
Clearly, he'd been wrong. And that's why he knows, he fucking knows, that he has to leave.
But eventually, he starts reaching for things that aren't there. He's confused until he realizes that the sweater he's looking for is somewhere underneath Gerard's couch, where he'd left it last week. He'd taken his guitar over to Gerard's to play him some of Ray's music, and never gotten around to bringing it back. And he'd loaned Gerard that book he's trying to find, in exchange for a book about sea monsters.
Gerard has all of these pieces of Frank, because Frank had given them to him willingly, and Frank can look around his tiny shitty apartment and see Gerard's things scattered around and mingling with his own. Pencils, sketchbooks; an ugly-ass scarf that Gerard says his mother made for him when she first took up knitting. He picks up the scarf and just stares at it, feeling gutted.
He's going to miss Gerard so fucking much.
He's just sitting on his bedroom floor and clutching Gerard's stupid scarf and aching with how much he doesn't fucking want to leave, even as his every instinct is still shrieking at him to run before it's too late—before the walls he'd spent so long building up are gone completely, and the things he can do start rising to the surface again. But now he's thinking about Gerard, and how worried Gerard had looked before Frank had run out of the shop earlier. How Gerard wears everything he feels right there on his face. What he looks like, when he looks at Frank.
Frank takes a deep breath. Then he takes another. He gets up off the floor and he walks over to the window and looks out onto the street, and he stands there for a long time, thinking.
Gerard answers the door almost immediately after Frank knocks, and he looks immensely relieved. "Frank! Are you okay?"
"Sorry," Frank says, as soon as Gerard moves back enough to let him into the apartment. "I'm sorry I just- fuck."
Gerard reaches out and touches the scarf around Frank's neck. "What happened? Are you sick again?" he asks. "I tried to follow you, but you're like the fucking wind. And I was going to go to your apartment, but, uh."
Frank grins at him, only a little unsteady. "You got lost," he guesses.
"You live in a rabbit warren!" Gerard tells him, not for the first time. He's worried, and over-caffeinated, and exasperated, and fond, and he looks nothing at all like someone who's just using Frank for what he can do.
Frank had been panicking, before; it's the only way he knows how to survive, really. But once he'd managed to fight his way past the alarm bells ringing in his head, he'd realized that he couldn't, couldn't believe that Gerard would do that to him—not willingly. Not Gerard.
He takes another deep breath.
"Gee," he says, because he has to know. "Do you- the old magic. You know about it, obviously, but. Do you actually believe in it?"
"Well, yes," Gerard asks, sounding surprised. "Sigils are, an integral part of the architecture of the old artistic traditions—that's why they're such a huge part of my art, because I think it's fascinating to think about art changing the shape of the world. I talk about it all the time. How… Did you really not know?"
Frank shakes his head, even as he's looking around the apartment and seeing the books about the history of magic, and the paintings, and Moira, who's sitting on the back of the couch and watching them with interest. In retrospect, he has to admit, he was maybe willfully ignoring some pretty obvious clues.
"I didn't want to know," he tells Gerard, honestly. It's like ripping off a bandage. "I have some issues, I guess. It's totally me, it's not anything you did. I just. I've had some bad experiences."
"Is that why you ran away when you saw Grant?" Gerard asks, and he doesn't sound angry, just curious.
"...Kind of," Frank admits, looking away. Moira gets up off the back of the couch and leaps onto the floor, and she pads over and twines around their ankles. "Grant didn't do anything either," Frank feels compelled to add, after a moment goes by and Gerard doesn't respond. "He's just... he showed me that there was this whole part of the city that I didn't know was there. I spent so fucking long running away from magic because I didn't want the things that happened before to happen again, and then suddenly I found out that it was right there the whole time. I freaked out. I'm kind of still freaking out."
"Frank," says Gerard, softly. Frank looks back at him. Gerard looks a little tentative, but he's reaching out a hand, and Frank takes it, squeezing their fingers together. "I can't- magic is part of who I am. It has been ever since my grandmother taught me how sigils worked when I was seven. But I swear, I would never ever hurt you. I couldn't."
"I know," Frank tells him, and he means it. "I just don't know how to do this. I was going to run away again," he admits, and Gerard looks horrified. Frank continues, "but I really fucking don't want to, so. I'm going to try and deal with my shit, okay?"
"Okay," Gerard echoes, tugging him closer and pressing their foreheads together. "Whatever you need from me, just ask."
"This is good," Frank murmurs. He leans in to kiss Gerard. Gerard meets him halfway, and Frank realizes that he never stood a chance of being able to leave this behind. He's still panicking a little bit; he can feel the cracks in his mental walls spiderwebbing outwards. But everything but this can wait just for a little while.
Afterwards, they're lying tangled together in Gerard's bed. It's dark, and Gerard's breathing is even in that way that means he's just on the edge of falling asleep, and maybe that's what gives Frank the courage to whisper, "You know what's out underneath the Eastern Plains?"
Gerard makes a blurry, sleepy noise of alarm, because everybody knows what's out underneath the Eastern Plains, trapped underneath the Scar. It's only been a hundred years since the Calamity made the old magic illegal. You don't forget something that big that quickly.
"I'm a little bit magic, I guess," Frank says, whispering the secret into Gerard's neck, where it'll be safe. "The old magic, not the stupid flashy shit that most of the wizards do. I. There were some people—wizards—and I thought they were my friends. But they tried to use my- my power, to get through to the thing under the Scar."
Gerard's arms tighten around him, almost enough to bruise, but he doesn't say anything. Frank says, "That's when I started running. I haven't really ever stopped."
After a moment's silence, Gerard says, low, "If I ever meet those people, I'm gonna fucking rip them apart." The words have the weight of a promise.
They lay in silence for a while longer. Frank feels something huge bubbling up inside of him; he feels like he's about to do something really, really stupid. Gerard's fingertips brush across his wrist, slow and steady. If Frank tells him now, maybe he can pretend that it was a dream.
He shifts so his lips are right up against Gerard's ear. Then, so quietly that Frank can't even hear his own words, he does something that he hasn't done since he was ten years old. He tells Gerard exactly what he can do.
Frank spends the next few weeks wandering around half-terrified, half-giddy. He'd told Gerard. He'd told Gerard. It feels like everything should be different now, but the thing is, absolutely nothing changes.
Mostly, his life is just the same as its always been. He goes to the diner in the mornings before work, and Chantal clucks at him and holds his coffee hostage until he gives her details about his love life. He goes to the office, and Dewees makes fun of him and only gives him the university run when he's "earned it," because he's a fucking terrible boss. But he also gives Frank snacks, and lets Frank pet his dogs and drags him out to see good bands in truly shitty clubs, because he's a fucking great friend. Shaun continues to let Frank bum cigarettes on a regular basis. Frank brings Kitty pieces of wood that he finds when he walks along the river, and she rewards him with intricately-carved figurines.
Then there are the parts of his life that are newer, like his weekly pilgrimage down to the southern terraces to jam with Ray. Or stopping in at Jill's bookshop to see if she's got anything set aside for him. Biking through streets he hadn't known about, three months ago. Nodding to wood spirits in the marketplace, and drinking with the ogres in the seedy pubs down by the docks. Learning how to live alongside ordinary, everyday magic, and not being constantly afraid.
Being with Gerard, and going to bed with Gerard, and waking up with Gerard. Of all the new things, that might be Frank's favorite.
He'd told Gerard, and Gerard had come up behind him the next morning and wrapped his arms around Frank's waist, and whispered, "Thank you." He'd never said another word about it. For the first time since he'd left his village after the war, somebody Frank is close to knows about his magic, and it's terrifying and amazing all at once.
Frank doesn't quite know what to do. So he just keeps doing what he usually does. That seems to be working just fine.
He does ask Gerard about Morrison's sigil, hesitantly pulling the card out of his jacket pocket one day shortly after his confession. Gerard grins at him and reaches into his coat, pulling out a little charm on the end of a braided band. "It's called the Dragon's Eye," he explains, showing Frank how the symbol on the charm matches the symbol on the back of the card. "They say it's what the Mother Dragon etched into the stone over the Queen's tomb, to protect her and watch over her. People who practice the old magic have been using it for a long time."
"Huh," says Frank, because he'd always thought it looked like an eye.
"Guess what?" Dewees says cheerfully, when Frank walks into the office. Frank just looks at him blearily—he'd overslept, and he hadn't had the chance to stop by the diner for Chantal's coffee before work—but Dewees seems to take this as a signal to continue, because he claps his hands together and says, "You've got a pick-up today! And it's not even a wizard; I checked."
"Ugh," says Frank, scrubbing a hand over his face to try and get some of the sleep out. Dewees pats him on the shoulder and gently pushes him in the direction of the coffee maker. It's not Chantal's, but it'll do.
Two hastily-downed cups of coffee later, Frank is awake enough to squint at the pickup slip Dewees hands him and say, "Huh." The address looks familiar; one of the little neighborhoods in Old Town. He's almost positive that this is somewhere he's hit before.
Forty-five minutes later, standing in front of Grant Morrison's curiosity shop, Frank is wishing he'd thought to have another cup of coffee. He has a feeling he's going to need it.
The little bell above the door tinkles softly when he steps inside. Like last time, the place looks like it's seen better days; the shelves are mostly empty, and covered in a thick layer of dust. But Frank is willing to bet that the shabby looking collection of wares on the shelves aren't nearly as ordinary as they appear.
Frank thinks that Grant Morrison, of all people, knows a lot about hiding a thing in plain sight.
There are footsteps from behind him, and Frank turns to see Morrison emerging from the shop's back room. Once again, he's wearing a fine suit with a fucking ridiculous tie; it's almost wizard fashion, except that there's nothing visibly enchanted about it. When Morrison spots Frank, something curious flits across his expression, but it's gone before Frank can figure out what it was.
"Mr. Iero," Morrison says, coming to a halt a few feet away and giving a short bow. "Good to see you again. I hope you're feeling well."
"Better," Frank tells him. Then he adds, "Thanks," because he's realized that he's been pretty rude to Morrison, when they've met before. And really, like he'd told Gerard, Morrison hadn't done anything to him except give him some kind of secret key to the city. If anything, Frank is grateful. Things haven't gone as expected for him since the first time he met Morrison, but he can't say that he feels like he's gotten a shitty deal out of it.
"Glad to hear it," Morrison says, politely.
Frank's pretty sure that they're going to be making small talk about the weather in a second. He rummages around in his messenger bag and pulls out his clipboard, busying himself with writing in information. "So, you scheduled a pickup?"
"I did," Morrison agrees. Something about his tone makes Frank hesitate with his pen over the paper and look up. Morrison looks... uncertain? Just for a moment. And then he squares his shoulders and says, "However, there is a matter of some importance that I would very much like to discuss with you. I admit, that was my primary motive for engaging your services."
Frank blinks. "Why didn't you just ask me to meet with you, then? That's the normal way to do things." Well. So much for being polite.
"It's an issue that calls for a good deal of discretion," Morrison replies easily. "And this way, you've a perfectly legitimate reason to be seen coming and going from the shop. And a perfectly legitimate reason to turn around and walk out as soon as you've heard my proposal, if it comes to that."
"Proposal," Frank repeats, slowly. He takes a breath to try and calm the little voice in the back of his mind that's insisting, loudly, that the other shoe he's been waiting for is about to drop.
"A project, with which your help would be immensely useful," Grant tells him, and Frank has to force himself not to shudder at how familiar the words sound. This isn't before, he reminds himself. These aren't the Eastern Plains. Still, he feels the first stirrings of panic in his gut.
"The choice is entirely yours, Mr. Iero," Morrison continues. He looks Frank in the eye, and Frank holds his gaze. "I would understand if you wanted nothing to do with me, and I would never force you into a situation you'd rather avoid. Say the word, and this is nothing more than an ordinary parcel pickup. But... know that your help in this matter would be invaluable. In fact, it may very well save a life."
"Not that you're trying to convince me or anything," Frank says flatly, and Morrison chuckles, a little ruefully.
"Perhaps," he admits. He gives Frank a considering look, and after a moment he says, "I am going to go into the back room now. In a minute or so, I'll come back out with a package for you to deliver. Alright?"
Frank nods, and Morrison turns and walks away through the door at the back of the shop, leaving Frank alone. Frank takes a deep breath.
Three months ago, he'd have already been out the door. But he'd told Gerard that he was going to try and deal with his shit, and this feels like a part of that. Morrison is giving him the opportunity to decide for himself; to walk away. Frank doesn't entirely trust it, but maybe he can give it a chance, and see what happens.
He walks to the back of the shop and slips through the door to the back room.
As it turns out, the shop's back room is considerably more interesting than the front is. Less dusty, too.
The shelves are crammed full of all manner of boxes—wooden, metal, ivory, carved stone. All of them are closed, and each of them is fitted with an ornate lock. There is also a small desk, covered in loose sheets of parchment and open books. There are no windows, but there's one door tucked away in a corner; it's facing the wrong way to go outside, Frank's pretty sure.
There are also no shadowy figures waiting to jump Frank, tie him up, and force him to open his mind and speak with the terrifyingly powerful eldritch creature locked away underneath the Scar. Frank is going to count this one as a win.
Other than Morrison, who's rummaging around on a shelf near the desk, there's one other person in the room: a short man with dark tattoos and olive skin, dressed in riding leathers. Before Frank can get a better look at him, Morrison turns and sees Frank, and a smile breaks out over his face.
Frank's not actually sure he's ever seen Morrison smile before. It turns out that he's pretty good at it.
"You know," says Frank, to say something, "I'm not a shopkeeper, but I hear it's a good idea to keep your wares out front, Morrison. So people can actually buy them."
"I'll take that into consideration," Morrison tells him. "It does depend on what wants to be sold, of course. Also, Grant is fine."
He turns to the man in the riding leathers. "Captain Wentz, this is Frank Iero, the courier I was speaking with you about. Mister Iero, this is Captain Peter Wentz."
"Call me Pete," says the captain, extending a hand to shake.
"Frank," says Frank, throwing a quick glance over at Morrison- Grant, apparently- as he says it. "You're with the Queen's Riders?"
"That's what they tell me," Pete replies. He's got a firm grip; his skin is calloused and leathery, and it reminds Frank of dragon hide. "So, you're going to help us out?"
"I'm not sure yet," Frank says. "I have no fucking idea what a guy like me could possibly help the two of you out with, to be honest."
Pete grins at him, all teeth. "Oh, that's simple. Stealing a dragon's egg out of the hatchery and smuggling it out of the city."
Frank can't help it; he laughs, because right. Sure. But a moment goes by. Pete's grin doesn't go away, but it gets a little sharper around the edges. And Grant just looks at Frank steadily.
Frank stops laughing. "You're fucking serious?"
"Like a heart attack," Pete agrees. Frank looks back at Grant in disbelief.
Grant spreads his hands. "I did say that it was a matter that required discretion. You can still refuse, of course. But Captain Wentz is correct; that's the long and short of it."
"Okay," says Frank slowly. "I'm going to need you to go over it for me one more time, maybe."
Grant crosses his arms and leans back against his desk. "Three weeks ago, Hemmingway, the dragon partnered with Captain Wentz, gave birth to an egg—a rare thing. There was a time when such an event would have been announced to the city with bells and celebrations. But the government of today doesn't hold much with the old traditions, it seems."
Pete snorts. "We're a pain in their ass," he says. "The royal family still favors the Riders, but the fuckheads in Parliament think we're outdated and fucking hate having to fund us, and they'd like nothing more than to see the Queen's Riders disbanded. They've actually tried, a couple of times. But we're still important enough to people that they've never been able to push the legislation through. So instead they slash our resources to almost nothing and send us out on suicide missions, hoping we'll do them a favor and snuff ourselves out. Can't have dragonriders with no dragons."
"I thought you said there was an egg?" Frank asks. "That'll hatch into a new dragon for the Riders, won't it?"
"If it makes it that long, sure," Pete says, and there's something cold and bitter in his voice that makes Frank's stomach hurt. "The last three eggs haven't. A lot of bad luck going around the hatchery, these days."
Frank realizes that he's clenching his fists, and he forces himself to relax. He thinks about Shaun telling him the corps had lost another dragon and nobody cared about it; about hearing the mourning bell. He thinks about the dragons he'd known back home, and how smart and fierce and loyal they'd been, and what had happened to them during the war. He feels sick. "Why isn't anybody doing anything?" he demands.
"Captain Wentz suspects that the hatchery guard may be involved somehow," Grant interjects, before Pete can reply. "He came to me and asked me to help him move the egg to safety, before it could meet the same fate as its predecessors. That's where you come in, Frank."
"What can I do?" Frank asks, feeling completely lost.
"Your job," Grant replies. "Between Captain Wentz and the rest of his unit, we can move the egg out of the hatchery. But our best chance to get it safely out of the city is on a boat, via the southern terraces. I'm sure I don't have to tell you why this poses an issue."
He doesn't; the aerial corps' barracks are hewn into the bluffs at the city's northern edge—the farthest possible distance from the docks at the city's southernmost point.
"A dragon's egg is a powerful thing," Grant continues. "There's a reason that the hatchery is buried under a mountain. Once it's out in the open, if it stays in one place for too long it will attract... unwanted attention, and unfortunately the only methods of concealing the egg's power require large quantities of shielding materials—more than can be quickly transported.
"To keep the egg safe, we must get it to the docks as fast as possible. That means that its carrier must be someone who can move through the city quickly, without attracting a great deal of notice that might cause delays. Someone who regularly performs such tasks. Say, for example, a courier."
"You want me to take it," Frank realizes.
Grant nods. "You might think of it as any other delivery," he says, spreading his hands. "More exotic than the normal fare, I'd imagine, but the basic principle is the same. No one will think twice about a courier speeding across the city with a parcel."
His expression turns serious and he continues, "I won't pretend it won't be dangerous, Frank. A dragon's egg contains immense magic, of the sort that's rarely seen these days. There are creatures that can sense that, and they will come after the egg, and it will be up to you to outrun them. But I can promise that you'll have help. And I really, truly believe that this is our best chance."
Frank looks at Grant, and then over at Pete, who has his arms crossed and isn't smiling at all anymore. "You heard the man," Pete says. "You in, or what?"
"I-" he says, and then he closes his mouth again, because he doesn't know what to even say.
There are so, so many reasons why he should just walk away from this right now. Just because this doesn't sound anything like what had happened before doesn't mean there's not a catch. Grant had flat out admitted that it would be dangerous, after all.
On the other hand, letting somebody hurt a dragon goes against every single bone in Frank's body. And this... this sounds like something that Frank can do, easily. Just another pickup. Simple. Right.
He looks back at Grant. "Just, why me?" he asks. "There've gotta be a couple hundred couriers in the city, and at least a few of them have to be friends of yours. Why ask me?"
Grant gives him a thoughtful look. "Because, Frank, from what I've observed, and from what Gerard has told me about you, you have a special skill set that is, shall we say, particularly well-suited to this task."
The bottom drops out of Frank's stomach.
"...Gerard told you that?" he asks, mouth suddenly dry. The little voice in his head—the on that always knew this was going to end badly—is crowing in triumph.
Gerard had told Grant about Frank's powers. Frank can't- He'd thought that- oh.
"Gerard speaks very highly of you," Grant says, apparently failing to notice that Frank's heart is in the process of breaking. "He thinks your abilities are incredibly impressive. Based on what I've seen, I'm inclined to agree. I think that you are exactly the person who can do this job."
Because of course, of course it was too much of a coincidence, that Grant would ask him for help with something involving dragons. Frank should have fucking known.
"Can I take some time to think about it?" Frank hears himself saying.
Pete frowns. "We don't fucking have time-" but Grant stops him with a raised hand, and looks back at Frank.
"We don't have long," he says. "The egg will have fully hardened in a week or so; once that happens, it won't need its mother to brood over it any more, and she and Captain Wentz will be returned to active duty. We'll have a very brief window in which to move."
"You'll know my answer by tomorrow," Frank promises. He's telling the complete and utter truth, and Grant must see that, because he nods.
"Tomorrow, then," he says. "Now, why don't I get you that parcel? You have places to be, I'm sure."
Frank nods. That's true, too.
Five minutes later, Frank is leaving Grant's shop, the promised parcel tucked safely away in his bag.
He hadn't been lying; Grant is going to know his answer by tomorrow. Because by tomorrow, Frank plans to be somewhere far, far away from here.
At the tolling of the evening bells, Frank is curled up on a bench inside the downtown train station, knees tucked up close to his body, waiting for the conductor to call for boarding. He's pointedly not thinking about how this is probably the last time he'll hear any of the city bells. It shouldn't be long, now, anyway.
His bag is practically empty, but whatever; he's started from scratch before. He can do it again. He'd finished his deliveries, gone back to the office to drop off his mailbag (Dewees had been out—Frank is both relieved and a little sad about that. He had kind of wanted to say goodbye to Dewees), and gone back to his apartment for less than five minutes before getting on the next tram across the river towards the trains.
He's got a ticket for the coast. He hasn't been to the coast for a while. It's probably shitty this time of year.
The station is full of people, families. All of them are either waiting to board the incoming train or to greet people coming off of it. He wonders if any of the other people sitting on the uncomfortable benches are running away like he is. He doesn't think so. None of them have the right look.
He's watching a little girl play with a red balloon, tugging it down over and over and giggling when it floats back up towards the ceiling, when somebody sits down right next to him. For a moment, whoever it is just sits there in silence, but Frank finds himself holding his breath.
After a minute or so Gerard says, "I thought you didn't want to run away."
Frank's heart turns over in his chest, and even though he knows he probably shouldn't, he turns. Gerard's hair is sticking up at all angles like he's been running his hands through it. He has ink on his cheek. He looks worried, and relieved, and a little sad.
"How did you-" Frank asks, and Gerard gives him a crooked smile and holds up a creased sheet of parchment paper, on which Frank can see his own handwriting—one of his letters. Over top of the writing, Gerard has scrawled and intricate series of circles and lines in deep black ink. A sigil.
"For finding," Gerard says, like he can read Frank's mind. "Sorry. I was going to surprise you after work, and then Dewees told me that you'd finished early and taken off. And I knew Grant was going to talk to you today. I just... had a feeling."
Frank jerks his chin up and glares. "You told Grant about me."
Gerard looks taken aback, and then puzzled. "I tell pretty much everybody about you, Frankie. I'm kind of stupidly in love with you. I'm not very good at keeping that kind of thing quiet."
Frank forces himself not to get stuck on that; it's not easy, but he manages, even as a part of his mind is chanting love, love, love. "You told Grant about what I can do," he clarifies, and he's not proud of the way his voice breaks a little.
"What?" Gerard says, and now he looks completely bewildered. "What are you talking about, I-" he stops, and stares at Frank, and says, "Oh. Oh, Frankie, you thought I-?"
Frank tries to turn away, but Gerard is reaching out and prying his hand off of his knee and wrapping their fingers together, and Frank can't make himself let go.
"Frank," Gerard says, insistently. "Look at me. Please?"
Frank shouldn't. But he does.
Gerard says, softly, slowly, "What I told Grant, the only thing I told Grant, is that you know the city better than anyone I've ever met. I told him about the way you can go from place to place like you don't even have to think about it— like you could do it with your eyes closed, or asleep, and it wouldn't matter. You know every alleyway and every door. I don't even think you really needed Grant to give you that card to know all the city's secrets, you know? It's like magic, what you can do.
"That's what I told him," Gerard continues, voice getting a little louder now. "Nothing else. I wouldn't- I wouldn't tell him anything else, Frank. Anything else is yours, and you get to decide what you do with it." He tugs their linked hands up to his mouth and presses a kiss to Frank's knuckles. "I wouldn't ever betray your trust like that. I couldn't. I love you too much."
Frank lets out a shaky exhale and says, "Gerard."
"I love you, Frank," Gerard repeats, choking on it a little. And Frank uncurls and surges forward and into Gerard's arms.
"Frankie, Frankie," Gerard murmurs into his hair. Frank is shaking. Gerard doesn't mention it.
"I thought-" says Frank.
Gerard says, "I'm so fucking sorry" and "Never, never." It's maybe too personal a moment to be having in the middle of a train station, but fuck it. Frank is at the end of his ability to care about anything that isn't the solid shape of Gerard underneath his hands, steadying him.
Frank says, after a while, "You love me, huh?"
Gerard pulls back just enough to give Frank another crooked smile, this one a lot less sad. "Kind of a lot, yeah. Pretty sure Brian is going to kill me the next time I bring you up because I'm such a sap about you."
Frank chokes out a laugh, and he tangles his fingers in Gerard's stupid hair, pulling him down for a kiss.
Somewhere to their left, somebody is clapping. Frank doesn't give a shit. They kiss and they kiss and they kiss until a train whistle blows, and a conductor's voice booms out an all aboard.
Gerard looks at Frank, uncertain. "You, uh. You need to get that train?"
"Nah," Frank tells him, squeezing their still-linked hands. He moves his other hand up to cup Gerard's cheek, and smiles at him. "You know what? I'm good here."
They're walking between the brick and sandstone buildings of downtown, heading for the tram stop that will take them back to Frank's place, when Gerard says, "Hey, can I show you something?"
"Sure," says Frank, because those words usually lead to good things when it comes to him and Gerard. He still feels a little shocky, like he'd almost dropped something fragile. From the way Gerard keeps looking at him, and how tightly they're gripping each other's hands, Frank thinks Gerard probably feels kind of the same way.
Gerard tugs him down a side street, and then into an alleyway between two of the imposing buildings in the downtown arts district. He stops in front of a door tucked away to the side of a loading dock and, fishing a key out of his jacket pocket, unlocks it and ushers Frank inside.
Frank has an idea of where they are, but Gerard hasn't said anything yet, so he waits. Gerard leads him down a warren of hallways, and at one point he waves to a man in a guard's uniform. Eventually, he takes Frank through another, bigger door, and Frank finds himself standing in a vast, echoing room.
The only light is the light from the moon coming through the skylight high above their heads. The room is completely empty, except for the half-finished mural splashed across the walls.
Frank turns to Gerard, who's biting his lip nervously. "This is your installation!"
"Ta da," says Gerard, wiggling his fingers. "We're not going to start setting up for a couple of weeks, but I've been coming in to work on the mural whenever I get a chance."
There's more than enough illumination to see the striking, dark lines that form the mural's skeleton. Frank squeezes Gerard's hand. "Show me?"
Gerard leads him over to the place where the white of the museum wall is first interrupted by ink. "This is where it starts. It's the history of the city; see? This is the Mother Dragon." He points to a shape that's more the impression of a dragon than anything, lines and circles. "This is a sigil in the druidic style. They were the ones who helped the Queen of Sorrows set the first stones in the old city walls, when she vowed to stop the raiders from the north who had been killing her people."
Frank forgets himself and reaches out, stopping just before his fingertips hit the wall. "It's okay," says Gerard. "It's dry."
"I don't ever touch things in museums," Frank tells him. "I'm always afraid I'll get in trouble."
"I've got some pull with the boss," Gerard promises, and Frank can't handle the way Gerard is smiling at him, so he turns back to the mural and reaches out. "After the walls were built, the city grew up between them," Gerard murmurs into Frank's ear. The lines get thicker and closer together. "The Queen of Sorrows, with the help of the Mother Dragon, was able to defend the city against the raiders. More people, from all over, heard about the city and started to travel here. And they brought their magic with them, see?"
Frank does see: the lines change, flowing out into curves and spirals, loops and tight points. Frank remembers from Gerard's drawings how these lines are eventually going to be filled in with people, animals, buildings. But even without those things, they're still expressive.
"There was peace, except when there was war," Gerard continues, leading Frank down the wall. "Hundreds of years passed. The wizards started to practice a new kind of magic, one that didn't use the same language as the old magic did." Here, gaps begin appearing—empty spaces interrupting, but still somehow a part, of the pattern as a whole.
"And then the calamity happened, and the old magic was outlawed." Gerard points to a series of jagged, angry lines that end in a single point, after which there's only white space. Until Frank looks closer, and sees one thin black line continuing on. Slowly, it blooms into more and more lines, more subdued but no less powerful than the ones that had come before. Gerard stops in front of the mural's end and says, "Do you see?"
Frank looks at him curiously. "See what?"
Gerard says, "What it means. I've taught you about sigils, c'mon."
Frank turns and looks back at the mural as a whole. He doesn't quite know what Gerard means; it's all just a bunch of lines and curves. Lines and curves that are connected to one another, almost like- "Is this... is this whole thing a sigil?"
Gerard beams at him. "Took me months to get it right."
Frank gapes. "Holy shit." He's used to little sigils, like his mother's protective charm, or the dragon's eye on Grant's card. This is like nothing he's ever seen before. "What does it mean?"
"It's for memory," Gerard says, softly, looking out across the moonlit room. "I just wanted to... remind people, I guess. You can't make the old magic disappear, because it's in us too deep. Just because people are afraid of it, and try to ignore it, doesn't mean it's gone away. It's always going to be there, underneath everything, and someday people are going to remember it and realize that it was never something to fear."
The moonlight splashes across Gerard's face, illuminating his nose and his cheek bones and the stubborn set of his jaw. Frank stares at him and he can't help himself, he laughs and says, "You know, Gee, you're not very subtle." Gerard looks at him, sheepish, and pulls their linked hands up to his mouth so he can press a kiss to Frank's knuckles in apology. "It's okay though," Frank continues. He feels like he did that night that he told Gerard about his magic: that giddy, terrified rush, like he's about to say something stupid but he can't stop himself. "I love you anyway."
A slow, warm smile spreads across Gerard's face. "You love me, huh?" he asks, tugging Frank in close. Frank reaches up and tilts Gerard's head down so their foreheads are pressed together.
"Yeah," Frank murmurs. "Yeah, I really do."
The next morning, Frank marches into the office and says, "I want the Old Town bag."
Dewees gives it to him, possibly just because he's surprised that Frank had asked; recent events aside, Frank's made no bones about the fact that he hates the Old Town run practically since he'd started working here. Frank takes the bag with a grin, accepts the little bag of dried fruit that Dewees tucks into his jacket pocket, and goes to unlock his bike.
The bell above the curiosity shop's door tinkles a half-octave lower than it had yesterday. Frank notices, but he doesn't say anything. What he does say, when Grant looks up from (ineffectually) dusting one of his front shelves, is, "I'm in."
The grin that spreads across Grant's face is big, and sharp, and maybe even a little bit proud. "Glad to hear it. I'll inform Captain Wentz and his unit; I know they've been anxious. Thank you," he adds, sincerely.
"Thank me when the egg is on the boat," Frank tells him, but he's smiling. He turns to go; the things in his bag won't deliver themselves, after all. "Oh, and, uh. Gerard says hi."
Grant smile goes softer around the edges, and he nods. "Tell him the same from me?"
"Will do," says Frank, flipping Grant a wave. "Take care."
When he steps back out onto the street, there's a pigeon on a railing just above his bike. "How's it going?" he asks. The pigeon flies away without answering, but Frank keeps smiling anyway.
Which is how, six days later, Frank finds himself pulling his bicycle up short outside of the Queen's Riders' barracks.
After everything that's come before this—and Frank includes most of the last three months in that: meeting Grant, falling in love with Gerard, learning the secrets of the other side of city—the pickup itself is almost laughably easy. He follows a trail of well-marked signage to an office, where a cadet in a blue sash peers at his credentials and the pickup slip.
"I don't think I have anything for you," she begins, doubtfully. A door opens at the rear of the office, and a red-headed aviator slips through, a well-wrapped parcel under his arm.
"I think this is what he's looking for," says the aviator, passing the parcel to the cadet, who examines it and says, "Huh." Frank steals a glance at the crest on the aviator's jacket; it matches the one he'd seen on Captain Wentz.
"Okay, well. I guess this is it," says the cadet, handing the parcel over. "Do I have to sign, or?"
Frank collects her signature and gives her a copy of the pickup slip, promising her that a confirmation of delivery will arrive in the night post. The red-headed aviator tips his hat to Frank and slips back out the rear door. Frank takes the package; it's larger than he'd expected, but still small enough to be tucked away in his messenger bag.
He takes care, even though both Grant and Captain Wentz had assured him that once the egg's shell had hardened, it would take far more than jolting around on a bike around to damage it. He knows it's ridiculous to think that the package feels warmer than normal, considering how many layers of cotton batting he knows must be in there, keeping the egg safe.
He knows that, back in the hatchery, Wentz's dragon is brooding over an egg that is almost identical to the one Frank is carrying; the only difference being that the "egg" now in Hemmingway's nest will never hatch, and if Frank has anything to say about it, this one will.
Then it's back out, following the trail of signs in reverse. As he makes his way outside and unlocks his bike, movements quick, he feels his heart start beating a little bit faster.
This is it.
Once you begin, you mustn't stop for anything, Grant had warned him the night before, as they'd pored over a map of the city. Frank had ink on his hands, from where he'd been marking in things the mapmakers had missed, and Gerard had teased him for it. There are things that will sense the egg, and come looking for it. If you stop, or even if you're too slow, they will find you.
Frank keeps those words in mind as he coasts down the hill that leads off the bluffs. What kind of things? Frank had asked, and Grant had said, The kind of things that ooze out of the shadows when they sense a strong enough power. Shadows. Frank hadn't asked him to elaborate.
This is our best hope, Grant had said, after telling him about other ideas they'd considered and rejected.
He knows, because they'd gone over the plan enough times that he could probably recite it in his sleep, that Grant has people stationed all along Frank's route to take care of any shadowy interference. Grant had promised that he and the others would do their utmost to keep Frank safe as he moved through the city. And he'd told Frank what to do if anything went wrong; if he was about to be overwhelmed.
The bottom of the slope looms in front of Frank and he leans forward to pick up speed for the slight rise and the sharp left that come next. As he crests the rise, his bike lifts off the ground for just a moment, and for that split second, he's weightless.
Even though it seems counter-intuitive, Frank doesn't make for the main road that will lead him straight across the river. Instead he cuts south, weaving through the tenements and the grimy industrial buildings that make up a large part of the city's eastern sprawl. He sticks to side streets, and avoids the more populated roads whenever he can possibly help it. Which is most of the time, especially with Grant's card in his pocket.
Once he's put a fair bit of distance between himself and the bluffs, he starts angling southwest. In his mind's eye, he can see the entire route sprawling in front of him; he's planning to cut around the downtown congestion by aiming for one of the southernmost bridges, which will land him within spitting distance of the terraces.
In the hands of the wrong navigator, this route might take twice as long as the more well-traveled ones, with one wrong turn leading to a maze of dead ends. But Frank knows this city like the back of his hand, and he knows that this is the most direct route from the bluffs to the terraces, and the one with the least likelihood of having to stop for any reason. This is how he's going to keep the egg safe.
"You're going to be okay," he tells the egg. He feels a little foolish, but he decides not to to care. He has more important things to worry about, just now.
He sees the first shadow just after he passes the halfway point.
At first he doesn't pay attention to the flash at the corner of his vision, because he's going fast enough for that description to apply to most things. But this is different in that it stays with him even as he whips around corners and ducks under overpasses, just there, just out of sight.
Frank feels the slightest touch at the edge of his mind. It's barely an echo of what it had been like to feel the thing under the Scar, but it's still revolting, and Frank mentally recoils and picks up speed. When he crosses under the next overpass, the thing winks out of existence; he sends up a silent "thank-you" to the woman standing above him with her arms outstretched, holding a crystal. He keeps moving.
He picks up the next shadow five minutes later. He's weaving his way through older neighborhoods filled with colorful houses with sprawling yards, and this time the shadow flits from tree to tree. There are two men sitting at a table outside of a cafe, and as he pedals past them, one of the men makes a sign with his hands while the other slaps his palms against his thighs. The shadow vanishes in the act of moving between trees.
It goes on like that; Frank rides, and he picks up shadows as he goes. And one by one, the shadows are banished by the people stationed along the path. The plan is working.
As he crosses the bridge, Frank would almost swear that he feels the egg pulse against his chest, just once. Like it's excited. Frank can't help the stupid grin on his face, because fuck, he gets it. He's excited, too.
The first thing that goes wrong is that there's construction happening that blocks off two streets on Frank's route. It's not anything too bad; he's automatically heading up a block, two blocks, and recalculating. It only adds thirty seconds or so to his trip clock, but during those thirty seconds, a shadow appears.
He makes it back to the set route just in time for a short woman with red hair, who he thinks he's seen around Jill's shop once or twice, to banish the shadow using what looks like a bottle of ink. But he's barely made it a half-block up before another shadow is teasing at the corners of his vision and the edges of his mind, and he curses inwardly; they're coming more quickly now.
The second thing that goes wrong is that he leaves the southwestern residential district and enters the maze of twisting, turning roads that make up the neighborhoods on the other side of the hill from the terraces. He knows that if he makes one wrong turn here, he'll be caught in a dead end, and that this is where it's most important for him to stick to the route they'd planned.
And then he goes to turn left, and there's a mass of shadows blocking his way, forcing him to careen to the right instead. And that's it. He's off the path.
"Motherfucker," he hisses, ducking his head down and wracking his brain to remember what this area looks like, which turn he should take to get out of here and back to the roads he knows. The shadows blocking his path hadn't been something that Morrison had anticipated when he'd told Frank what to expect of them. "Fuck, fuck, fuck," he chants. He's going to have to go deeper into the maze to get out, and hope that some of Grant's friends will be stationed somewhere along the way.
He gets lucky once; he's amassed a huge cloud of shadows, and is barely staying ahead of them, when suddenly they all whoosh out of existence at the same time. He doesn't see who's responsible; he just keeps his eyes open, looking for his next turn.
But the roads keep twisting and turning, and he keeps acquiring more shadows. And he's realizing there's a fear that doesn't belong to him echoing in his chest, layered on top of his own worry. It's very definitely coming from the egg.
Frank doesn't have time to deal with that realization properly, so he just goes with it. "It's okay," he murmurs, cutting another corner. Buildings whip past him faster than he can see what they are. "It's okay," he repeats. "We're going to be fine."
He keeps up the mantra as they duck in and out of side streets and around the old hospital buildings, long abandoned. They're almost to the base of the terraces. If he can just make it a few more miles, they're home free.
The shadows recede, and Frank crows out a laugh, thanking whoever it was that dispelled them this time. He makes a left, then a right, and then he realizes that he is in deep, deep shit.
He's just biked into a long alleyway between two rows of empty buildings. And floating two hundred feet in front of him is a cloud of shadows—the ones who had been following him until just now, not dispelled after all. Just waiting.
"This wasn't in the plan," Frank says. The egg pulses with fear and Frank says, "It's okay" again, even though it kind of isn't.
He skids to a stop and whirls around, but there are shadows there, too. And the alleyway has no exits the the side that Frank can see. He's trapped.
If anything goes wrong, and your life is in danger, leave the egg. He remembers Grant's face when he'd said it—like it was the last thing he wanted to say. They won't bother with you if you're not trying to protect it. You don't have anything they want. Leave it and run, and you'll be safe.
That's what he should do, Frank knows. His fingers are going to the straps of his messenger bag as he thinks it. Leave the egg. He'd tried to save it, and he'd failed, and Grant had promised that no-one would blame him.
"No fucking way," Frank says. He takes a deep breath and looks up. There's a crow sitting on a window ledge about ten feet up, watching him.
Help me, Frank begs, in the language of the winged ones—the language he was born knowing how to speak. Help me help me help the egg help me please-
For a single, heart-stopping moment, nothing happens. The shadows at either end of the alleyway swoop towards him in a rush. He wraps his arms around his bag, and the egg inside of it, and squeezes his eyes shut.
And then there's a mighty noise, a thousand wings flapping all at once. Frank opens his eyes and sees a great black cloud descending on the alleyway from above. But this cloud isn't made up of shadows.
Hundreds of crows start shrieking and cawing, lashing out with beaks and claws and sending the shadows scattering. He's surrounded by a whirlwind of wings and feathers, and a hundred voices are telling him to fly! Fly! Fly fly fly!
He shoots out the other end of the alleyway and oh, thank fuck, he sees the sunlight glinting off the river in the distance. Above him, crows are circling like an honor guard. Every time a shadow tries to manifest, it's torn to ribbons before it can fully form.
"We're going to be fine," he tells the egg again, and he gets a wave of emotion in response that almost tips him off his bike. "Woah there," he says. "Keep it together, okay? Almost there."
To his left, a shadow appears. A second later, it disappears into a shrieking cloud of wings and feathers. The crows are all very pleased with themselves.
Thank you thank you thank you, Frank murmurs, trusting the wind to carry his words. Even if he hasn't needed it in a while, it's always been a faithful messenger before.
art by chimneythunder
He skids to a stop in front of the dock and sees that Grant is standing there waiting for him, standing beside one of the larger carved wooden boxes that Frank had seen on the shelves in his back room. Frank jumps off the bike, letting it fall over onto its side, and rushes to Grant, scrambling at the ties on his bag. Crows circle above them and settle onto nearby surfaces, watchful.
"Easy," Grant murmurs, putting a hand on his shoulder. Frank takes a deep breath as he reaches into the bag and picks up the egg. It pulses warmly against his fingertips.
He carefully sets it in the nest of padding inside the box, and Grant closes the lid with the click of a lock engaging. Frank feels the last of the shadows at the edge of his mind winking out of existence as soon as the egg is shut away.
"This will keep it safe on the next part of its journey," Grant says softly, running a hand over the carvings on the lid of the box. He looks at Frank; there's stark relief in his voice when he says, "My agents lost sight of you. I was afraid..."
"There were more of them than you'd thought there would be," Frank tells him. "It's okay, though. We made it."
"We?" Grant asks. He looks at the crows sitting along the fencing at the edge of the dock and then back at Frank, curious.
Frank juts out his chin and says, "We." The egg and the crows had been right there with him the whole way; he'd felt it. He can still feel it, a little bit, in the part of his mind where he's always been able to feel dragons and other creatures with wings. It feels strange, but not bad, to be listening to that place again now that the walls in his mind are gone.
"Oy!" yells one of the men standing on the dock beside a small riverboat. He has dark skin, and his face matches the face of the other man who's untying a sturdy rope from a docking post. "We need to get underway, Grant!"
"Alright," Grant calls. He steps aside, and the man walks over to them and lifts the box. He walks back up the pier and steps onto the boat, disappearing down a set of steps. He reappears a few moments later, empty-handed.
"Safely stowed," he reports.
"Thank you, Gabriel," Grant says. "You'll contact me when you reach your destination?"
"Of course," Gabriel promises. He looks at Frank and says, "Hell of a thing you did today, friend."
Frank shrugs, looking out at the river. Gabriel laughs, and claps Frank on the shoulder, and goes to untie the last line before jumping into the boat, which rumbles to life beneath his feet. He waves as the boat pulls away from the dock. Grant and Frank stand side by side, watching as the little riverboat gets smaller and smaller in the distance. Frank exhales, finally, letting out the breath that he feels like he's been holding in for months.
"He was right, you know," Grant says. "It was a hell of a thing you did today."
"I carried a package," Frank says, shrugging again. "It got a little hairy there, maybe, but it wasn't a big deal." A crow sitting on a nearby dock post vehemently disagrees with this statement, but Frank ignores it.
"Because of you, that egg is going to hatch," Grant tells him. "And then there will be a little bit more magic in the world that wasn't there before. That is, well. A big fucking deal, actually."
Frank laughs a little, startling a crow that had been inching closer to them into panicked flight, and that makes Frank laugh even more.
Grant watches the crow fly away. Then he says, "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Frank asks, curious. A thought strikes him. "Did you know those shadow things would get smart and block off the road? Because if you knew that and didn't tell me, that's fucked up."
"No," says Grant. Frank notices that he's looking at the crows again. "I didn't realize that the shadows would be so organized; I suppose it's a long time since they've had the chance at an egg, and they were particularly eager. But that isn't what I mean." He gestures to the crows, and looks back at Frank.
"I don't know you well, Frank, though I hope that perhaps I one day might. But I knew that you had… issues, with magic, and that you didn't seem interested at all in confronting them. If I had known the shape of the thing—if I had known what protecting the egg would mean for you—I would have asked someone else, or found a different way."
"There was no other way," Frank reminds him. "You told me that. And it's okay." Frank is a little bit surprised to find that he means it. A little ways away, a flock of seagulls surges up from the shoreline, and it's strange but good to be able to understand their cries again.
Grant still looks apologetic. "I have always believed, very strongly, that people must chose their own paths to the old magic, whether it's part of them from birth or something that they come to. I'm truly sorry if you feel that the choice was taken from you."
"I think…" Frank starts, and he pauses to try and give form to the thoughts rolling around in his head. "I think maybe this is exactly what I needed, actually. It's my magic; I need to own it, because otherwise somebody else will. And it wasn't ever going to go away just because I was afraid of it."
"I find that magic rarely does," Grant agrees after a moment, a small smile on his lips. He pauses, looking out over the water. The riverboat is just a speck on the horizon now.
"I'm very glad you came into my shop that day, Frank Iero," Grant tells him.
"Me too," says Frank, and he thinks that it's maybe one of the truest things he's ever said.
There's a shout from the head of the dock, and Frank turns to see Gerard running towards them, Ray hot on his heels. Frank laughs and braces himself just in time to not be knocked completely off the dock when Gerard ploughs into him and gathers him into his arms. "Frank," Gerard is repeating, "oh my god, Frank, you're alright."
"'Course I am," Frank murmurs into his hair. "You kept me safe." He's pretty sure he knows who it was that helped him that first time when he was lost in the maze of the abandoned hospital grounds. He takes Gerard's hand and gently pries open his fingers, revealing the same finding sigil that Gerard had used that night at the train station. "See?"
Gerard takes Frank's face in his hands and kisses him, kisses him, kisses him, and Frank gasps and winds his fingers through Gerard's hair and kisses back with everything he has.
Grant laughs, and Ray says "Guys," in a long-suffering tone, and the crows still scattered around the dock squawk and caw and wonder about Gerard's hair and his worm-giving abilities and the shiny zippers on his coat. Crows are gossips, Frank remembers, but he can't bring himself to care about any of it just now.
He's alive, and he's done running away, and he's got Gerard and he's got his city, and he's got a life that he isn't going to give up for anyone or anything.
Somewhere to the north, one of the city bells starts to sing.