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Truth on the Airwaves

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“I’ve got bad news for you, motherfuckers,” Gerard crows into the microphone, wrenching it forward by its stand. Sweat drips from his hair where it’s fallen into his face and he shakes it like a dog, letting it spray onto the screaming crowd. He stares over the sea of people — the fists and the open, bloody mouths — to smirk wildly at the SWAT team busting through the front door. “We’re sold out! Didn’t your pretty friends in the MPDC tell you that?”

The crowd roars like a beast in response and Gerard lets it crash over and consume him. Their energy keeps him on his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches sight of Frank, whose smile is so wide that his lip has started to bleed again. His band isn’t fucking scared of anybody.

“Cut to the last verse,” Gerard snarls into the dead mic, head down so the crowd can’t read his lips. His eyes follow the SWAT team as they shove through the mass, clear riot-control shields getting in the way of punches and bites. “They grab you, you keep playing. Okay?”

No one answers verbally, but Frank struts over while Ray takes on the heavy guitar section and spits in Gerard’s hair, and that’s just as good. Gerard screams his way into the final verse and his band matches the energy. One collective heart beating into cardiac arrest.

Though no one says it, they all know what this is about. There have been shows like this before, close calls that end with hopping fences and breaking windows — but even in the face of a SWAT team, priorities never change. If this is the last time that these kids see them, My Chemical Romance needs to be remembered as a fucking force of nature, something that only tranquilizer darts could pacify.

The point is to shake kids up, to make them go home and find their own damn catharsis. So they can’t back down — they have to fan the flames and hope that the fires in the crowd will burn on even once the original spark has died. One band can’t change the world, Gerard knows that. But a generation of bands can.

Gerard kicks out at the first guy in uniform to grab him, slamming the microphone stand into the man’s knees as hard as he can without missing a lyric. Behind him, Ray is backing up to cover Bob at his drum kit; Bob wouldn’t hesitate to take out an eye with his sticks, but seriously, there’s only so much he can do sitting down. The crowd fucking loves it — they surge up against the stage, lashing out at anyone near them with a shield labeled POLICE. It only intensifies as Frank hits another SWAT member over the head with his guitar, his fingers back on the frets less than ten seconds later and blood dripping off of the scratched black finish. He notices Gerard staring and yells something, but Gerard can’t hear it over the blood roaring in his ears.

The pressure between Gerard’s temples is nearly unbearable, but he lets adrenaline carry him to the last few words. Panting, he listens to Bob and Mikey hammer out the final beats. Both hands on his microphone, he leans over the crowd as far as he can without falling into it. The edges of his vision contain too many SWAT guys to count. Closing in from every side. They’re blurry to Gerard’s mind, like mirages. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he booms, drawing on every bit of strength left in him. “I’m afraid it’s time for us to go. But don’t you worry — we’ll be back. We hope you won’t forget about us.”

A hand grabs him, firm and unforgiving, and pain shoots down Gerard’s arm. “Remember what brought you here tonight!” he screams to the mass. Their faces are masks of horror and fury, and the image makes pride swell up in Gerard like a balloon. “Remember what it feels like to be fucking free!”

In front of him, he sees Mikey wrenched to his knees, hands pinned behind him as he gets cozy with a pair of handcuffs. Frank stumbles as he’s shoved by a hoard of SWAT members and almost falls off of the stage before catching himself. His eyes flash at Gerard, and they both share a grim sense of resignation. This is the last run, at least for a little while.

“We are My Chemical Romance!” He shouts as someone punches him square in the stomach. The pain radiates everywhere but Gerard holds himself upright, because they’ve come too far to hit the ground now. “But you are the revolution!”

The next fist hits his jaw, and then everything goes black.

*

It didn’t start quite so dramatically.

The first shine of rebellion that Gerard ever saw was a dusty bottle of Jack Daniel’s glinting in the sun by the side of the road on his way to work. Unbidden, his foot moved from the gas to the brake so he could peer out of his window. It seemed to be empty, just clear glass winking back at him, and Gerard could hardly believe his eyes.

The bottle occupied his mind for the rest of the day; he zoned out in his meeting until someone tapped his shoulder and asked for the sales report, please, didn’t he hear them the first three times they said something? And Gerard rifled through his folder until he came up with a graph about how many cans of cat food they’d sold that month. As he handed it over and met the eyes of his boss with her tight, blonde bun and her grey suit, the only thing he wanted to do in the entire world was lean across the table and ask, hey, have you ever seen a bottle of whiskey? Do you know anyone who’s seen a bottle of whiskey?

Instead, his tongue allowed him, “The new blue labels have upped sales by about three and a half percent.”

The bottle was still lying there on Gerard’s commute home, mocking him. He wanted to know who put it there. He wanted to know who made it, who sold it, everyone that was involved in an empty container of Jack Daniel’s somehow turning up on the side of the Jersey Turnpike.

The asshole behind him honked as Gerard signaled and pulled off onto the side of the road, turning on his hazard lights. Engine trouble, he mentally rehearsed in case a cop showed up and asked him what the hell was doing disrupting traffic like that. He waited until the road had cleared marginally before he opened his door and hopped out, crossing over to the grass in three strides. He snatched the bottle up and hugged it beneath his coat. Back in the car, he stowed it in the footwell of the passenger seat, fingertips buzzing like he’d just stuck his hand in an electrical outlet.

When he’d called Mikey and asked him to come over without offering any form of explanation, Mikey had given him one of his trademark long-suffering sighs. He came over anyway, because he always would for Gerard, and when Gerard brought out the whiskey bottle, Mikey swore softly and said, “What the fuck, Gee.”

“It was just lying there,” Gerard said, equally amazed. “No one seemed to notice it.”

“For the whole day?” Mikey picked it up gingerly and turned it in his hands, looking at it from all angles. “You’d think that someone would have called it in.”

Gerard’s mouth quirked in a tiny, hopeful smile. “Maybe the PMURT thugs are finally giving up.”

Mikey whacked his arm gently. “Don’t say things like that, Gee, c’mon. This one must have just slipped through the cracks.”

“You’re right.” Gerard’s eyes followed the bottle as Mikey twisted it, watching the overhead lights catch on different facets. “But — I don’t know. You can’t blame me for hoping, Mikes. The country was a better place back then.”

“Because people could buy whiskey?”

Gerard gave him a sour look. “You know what I meant. Those laws did more than spill our whiskey.”

“But I don’t remember any of it,” Mikey said. “I don’t know what the world was like before. I wasn’t old enough. You can tell me it was better, but old bottles are never going to mean the same thing to me as they do to you.”

“I know,” Gerard conceded. “I wish you hadn’t had to grow up under those laws. If I could just — if we could trade places, Mikes, you know I would.”

“The stories are enough.” Mikey looked at him with resignation in his eyes. “Now are we ordering takeout, or what?”

*

It should have stopped after one glass bottle, Gerard was well aware. It would have, honestly, if he hadn’t seen an empty container of Seagram’s Gin a little over a month later. It was rolled under a table belonging to a restaurant’s outdoor seating patio, minding its own business in the shadows. After looking furtively both ways, Gerard crouched down and grabbed it, shoving it into his bag. Its glass was intricately detailed and its label was torn along the edges. Carrying it felt like strapping a bomb to his back.

Two bottles slowly became five, and every time Gerard found one, he couldn’t help but feel like he was picking up clues to something bigger — with four years of jail time as a consequence of consuming alcohol, leaving emancipated bottles on the street seemed reckless. It had to mean something. No one would risk so much just because they were too lazy to find a discreet trash can.

He kept the collection of them under his bed in his apartment, and no one went in there, not even Mikey — it felt too sacred to show off. Plus, if word got out, the police would be at his door faster than he could blink.

The Kools showed up next. The box was empty (Gerard triple-checked), but he kept it anyway and hid it with the illegal bottles. Sometimes he’d take it out and run his fingers over the green and white packaging. For a moment, it was like things had never changed.

His mother had smoked — Marlboros, not Kools — and the couple of months after the Protective Media Uniformity and Regulation for Tomorrow bills had passed had been hellish for her. She’d been forced to turn in every last cigarette or face being taken to court, where the judge would sneer something about how America was better this way and sentence her to a maximum of seven years. Mikey had only been six years old, so he didn’t remember their mother’s terrible withdrawals and the way she’d run over the neighbor’s shrubs at fifty miles an hour, but the memory was still crystal clear to Gerard. Everyone’s lives had changed when the President signed PMURT into law. Only the lucky ones forgot how it had been before.

Try as he might, Gerard never found a Marlboro box. He kept an eye out everywhere; at work, wherever he drove, the streets he walked on. Nothing turned up. He almost convinced himself it was a fluke.

Then a book appeared in his apartment complex’s gutter.

Gerard was only down there because he’d overslept and forgot to put his trash out (again) and seriously couldn’t go another week with it stinking up his house. The paper wasn’t reflective, so Gerard considered it a stroke of luck that he noticed it at all. The front cover was torn off, and underneath it were printed black letters, spotty in places from water but still legible. Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance.

Gerard didn’t know who Irvine Welsh was or how his book had ended up there, but he picked it up anyway and shoved it against his chest. In his haste, he’d forgotten to grab a jacket, so he just did his best to cover it with his arms and not raise any suspicion as he hurried back to his place.

The next logical step was to call Mikey.

“Dude,” Mikey said flatly as Gerard presented the beat-up novel to him. “It’s like you want to be arrested.”

“So it is banned, then.” Gerard flipped through the first few pages and stretched out on the couch, feet falling in Mikey’s lap. Mikey frowned but didn’t shove him off. “I mean, I figured, but I haven’t seen one in years.”

“That’s because they burn them, Gerard.” Mikey rubbed a hand over his face and peeked through his fingers, like maybe if he looked at Gerard from a different angle, this would all just go away. “Or they black them out. And then they burn them.”

Gerard hummed noncommittally, eyes skipping across inked words. “I think we should read it.”

“I think you’re insane.”

Gerard lifted his gaze, settling on Mikey. They’d grown up together; Mikey could bullshit all he wanted, but Gerard still read him better than anyone. “You’re curious. Admit it.”

“Only because it’s got a cool title,” Mikey conceded. “That doesn’t make it a good idea.”

“According to who, the President?”

“And every branch of law enforcement,” Mikey added in a tired voice. “And every jury. And every prison warden in America.”

“So we won’t let them find out.” Gerard shrugged. “There’s a reason they outlawed this stuff, Mikey, and it’s not because it’s better for us. It’s because it’s better for them.”

Mikey gave him a long, pained look before reaching over and stealing the book. He cleared his throat with obvious exasperation before saying, “Rebecca Navarro sat in her spacious conservatory and looked out across the bright, fresh garden. Perky was. . .”

They stayed up all night on Gerard’s couch, trading the book back and forth when their throats got tired from reading aloud. Gerard’s eyes were blurry and bloodshot by the time the sun rose and the novel came to an end, and Mikey looked no better.

Work was hell that day. He fell asleep at his desk in the middle of analyzing competitors’ color schemes versus sales, and he dreamed of chemical romance and acid houses and a world that didn’t exist. Maybe never had. It was hard to tell, because everything seemed like fiction if you stared at it long enough.

He jolted awake as his boss shook his shoulder, blinking rapidly and trying to shake Irvine Welsh out of his head. His boss’ mouth was set in a disapproving line, and her gaze raked him up and down, taking in his bird’s nest of hair and unironed clothes. “Go home,” she told him. “Get some sleep and come in early tomorrow.”

So he drove home, feeling like he slept-walked the whole way, and read the entire book over again.

Three days later, Mikey showed up at his door clutching something that Gerard hadn’t seen since he was ten years old.

“I met a guy.” Mikey brushed past him into the living room and sprawled out on the couch. “No, not like that,” he amended after catching Gerard’s wiggling eyebrows. “He’s cool. He’s on our side.”

Gerard blinked at him. “We’re on a side now?”

Mikey squinted at him like he was the stupidest motherfucker alive. “We read banned books and have a collection of enough illegal goods to get us a life sentence, probably. Are you trying to tell me that we’re not on a side?”

“Point taken. What’s his name?”

“Pete Wentz.” Mikey opened his fist so Gerard could get a good look at what he was grasping: a cassette tape. “He was passing through Jersey on his way back to Chicago, and I ran into him at the grocery store. He took me out to his car and gave me this.”

“You met a total stranger at the grocery store and went back to his car with him just because he asked?” Gerard’s eyes went wide. “Mikes, what if he’d been a fucking cop?”

“He wasn’t,” Mikey said firmly.

“And how the hell did you know that? Those motherfuckers go undercover all the time!”

“Because.” Mikey fixed him with a steady look. “When I say I ran into him, I mean he literally collided with my shopping cart. He was high as a kite.”

“Oh.” Well. He probably wasn’t a cop, then. “Um. What’s on it?”

“His band’s stuff.” Mikey caught the tape by the plastic spool coverings and wiggled it back and forth in the air. “Told me there’s a whole movement going on underground in Chicago. Apparently he and the three other guys in his band are kind of a big deal up there, and now they’re trying to spread the word past the city limits. To find recruits for the rebellion and stuff.”

“Badass,” Gerard said thoughtfully. “Wait, rebellion? Are you serious?”

Mikey tilted his head at Gerard. “What, you figured we’re the only assholes in the entire country who think the PMURT laws are bullshit?”

“Well, no, but.” Gerard tugged on his hair. “I didn’t realize it was so organized, I guess. I’ve never heard anything about it.”

“I think that’s kind of the point. Clean-cut guys like us may as well have the police on speed-dial.”

Gerard snorted.

Mikey’s eyes glinted at him. “So, my car is too new to still have a tape deck installed, but as far as I remember, your piece of shit still does.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Gerard said dryly. Still, he rose, tugging Mikey up with him. “Let me grab my keys. We’ll take this thing around the block.”

*

“They’re not terrible.” Mikey was the first to break the silence forty minutes later, once the music had crackled out and left them sitting quietly in Gerard’s parking space. “Is it bad that I expected them to be terrible?”

Gerard shook his head. “You met the dude in the produce section. I had my doubts too.”

“Dairy, actually.”

“Whatever.”

For another silent minute, neither of them moved. Maybe that was what shock felt like, Gerard wondered idly. His core had been shaken, his brain a little bit melted around the edges. It wasn’t even that the music was that great — though it was certainly good. The mind-blowing thing about it was that people were still making music.

“We need to start a band,” he said finally. Not should, because the time for choices had long since passed. Need to.

“Yeah,” Mikey said, shifting in his seat now that Gerard had spoken and broken the spell. “Fuck, we do. We do.”

They scrambled out of the car, and Gerard had to lean back in to grab the cassette tape and tuck it in his pocket. They couldn’t afford to lose it. Mikey also stuffed both of his hands in his pockets, coming back up with a slip of paper and his phone. Gerard looked at him sideways. “What are you doing?”

Mikey didn’t even look at him, too preoccupied with his dial pad. “Calling Pete.”

*

It felt wrong to go back to work after their revelation, but Gerard did anyway. Listening to his coworkers drone on and on about their weekends of doing absolutely nothing was even more torturous than usual, so Gerard sipped his coffee in silence and kept to himself in the break room. It was all unimportant now, tiny and insignificant with the PMURT laws still stifling them, when there was a revolution building in Chicago. Gerard had spent the sixteen years since those bills had been enacted sitting on his ass and doing nothing about it. There was a movement, now. There were people like him and Mikey. Gerard didn’t have an excuse to stay on the sidelines anymore.

Pete, somehow, hooked them up with instruments. Gerard had no clue who even manufactured them anymore — PMURT had purged the country of musical artists through threats and prison cells, promising to reinstate the use of music once they had figured out a way to regulate it effectively so Americans could consume it safely. Sixteen years had come and gone, and that promise still hovered in the air, unfulfilled and forgotten.

“I have some guys in Jersey,” Pete relayed to Mikey through the phone. “Downtown, in the alleyway next to the tire shop. Tell them I sent you and that I made it back to Chicago in one piece.”

And then, in typical Mikey fashion, he went without notifying Gerard and showed up at his older brother’s apartment with two awkwardly-shaped black bags and a sideways smile. “Hi. I got us instruments.”

Gerard groaned at the ceiling. “Doing shifty shit alone like that is how people get killed, Mikey.”

“Not this time,” Mikey said breezily. Sometimes Gerard wanted to strangle him, seriously. “Help me hide these somewhere, and then we’ll go get the drum kit. It’s still in the back of my car.”

Right then would have been kind of a stupid time to start giving a shit about getting caught by the police, but it occurred to Gerard that they were officially passing the point of petty curiosity. These weren’t things they just found and kept. This was intentionally disobeying what had been the status quo for more than a decade and a half.

He looked up at Mikey. “Okay, hang on. Let me find a tarp or something.”

*

“So.” Gerard stood arms akimbo in his living room and stared down the three instruments leaning against his wall, gorgeous and very much illegal. “Who the hell are going to play these?”

“Pete told me I should try bass,” Mikey said. “That’s what he plays, and he offered to teach me as much as he could over the phone as long as I’m willing to commit to it.”

“Okay, sure.” Gerard toed the drum kit, eyebrows furrowed. “I — uh, I don’t know how to play anything, though.” Maybe that should have occurred to him before Mikey had risked getting jumped in an alley.

“Are you kidding? You can sing. Even I remember that.”

“It’s been a while,” Gerard said, uncertain. “I don’t know if that would actually work, Mikes. I want us to be, like, a real band.”

“And real bands need singers,” Mikey said evenly. “Look, we both know you can, so stop acting like a self-conscious middle schooler and just do it.”

“Mikey, I don’t—” One hard, unforgiving look. “Okay, fine, we can try it out. Happy? That doesn’t change the fact that we’re still missing drums and guitar.”

“I’ll poke around,” Mikey said vaguely as he picked up the bass and ran a finger across the strings. “I know people. We’ll figure something out.”

And, well, okay. Gerard couldn’t argue with that, because Mikey really did know people. Between coworkers and his extensive circle of acquaintances (which Gerard didn’t really understand), Mikey was well-equipped for the job. Definitely more so than Gerard would be.

Gerard never doubted that Mikey would deliver, so it shouldn’t have surprised him when he came home from work to find his door unlocked and his brother inside with two guys he didn’t know. He jumped about a mile anyway.

“Hey, welcome home. I found some totally illegal musicians.” Mikey smiled slowly, pleased with himself. “Guys, this is Gerard, my brother and our vocalist. Gerard, this is Otter, he’s on drums.” A stocky guy wearing perhaps the rattiest t-shirt Gerard had ever seen waved from where he was slumped against the wall. Gerard nodded back. “And Ray. He kills it on guitar.”

“That’s an exaggeration.” Ray stepped forward and reached out a hand for Gerard to shake. Underneath Ray’s mass of hair, though, Gerard watched his eyes crinkle happily at the compliment. “I think it’s really cool that you guys are trying to put something together here, seriously. Takes guts.”

Really, the whole thing was much easier to stomach when people weren’t reminding Gerard of how dangerous it actually was, but Ray obviously meant well. Gerard took his hand and pumped it. “You’re in, then?”

“I am,” came a different voice. Gerard peered behind Ray to see Otter staring right back, face set in determination. Gerard smiled.

“I’d like to be, too.” Ray scratched his neck. “I mean, opportunities like this don’t come around a lot. It’s just — you’ve thought this through, right? Because people who violate PMURT laws don’t get second chances. There’s no safety net.”

Gerard’s heart sank, because Ray had just verbalized every doubt that had been hanging around his neck since the idea had been conceived. He knew that getting caught would be the end of the line, and they would never get their old lives back. Game over.

Mikey must have sensed Gerard’s floundering because he caught his eye and then flicked his gaze back to Ray, like, say something.

“We don’t need a safety net.” God, Gerard hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. “Because we’re going to succeed.”

Ray gave him a dubious look. Otter and Mikey, behind them, made no comment.

“Look, okay.” Gerard rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth, trying to collect his thoughts into something coherent. This was the part where he was supposed to step up and act like a leader, to prove why this band was worth putting it all on the line for. Even if Gerard still had his own reservations, maybe he could convince these guys. “I know that music is illegal. I know that Mikey and I are asking you to risk it all. I guess, in the end, what it comes down to is whether or not you think you can live with yourself knowing that you had the chance to change things and didn’t go for it. I won’t blame you if you decide it’s not what you want, but.” He paused and sucked in a breath. “Every day, we’re losing more of what makes life worth living because of PMURT. The world has never needed a shitty punk band more than it does right now.”

The room was quiet for a long moment, and Gerard felt his stomach start to tie itself into knots. If Ray or Otter decided they weren’t on board, if they went to the police and handed over Gerard’s address, this thing would be over before it had even begun.

Then Otter nodded, just once, and Ray said, “Okay, but we can’t practice here.”

*

Otter’s mom’s garage was the best they could swing. It was rent-free, at least, and tucked in the very back of a neighborhood with no houses in revealingly close proximity.

Ray was tuning his guitar by ear as Otter plugged cords into the amp by his feet. Gerard had no clue how either of them knew what the hell they were doing. “So.” Ray strummed a chord and then made a displeased face. “What are we called?”

“Um.” Gerard looked up from the notepad in his lap and took the pen out of his mouth so he wouldn’t have to talk around it. He wasn’t making groundbreaking notes or anything, anyway, just doodles with lines of poetry scribbled in the margins. “We’re not entirely sure yet. We’ve been thinking about it a lot, we just don’t want to pick something that isn’t, you know, perfect, or—”

“My Chemical Romance,” Mikey interrupted. What? Gerard tried to catch his eye, but he didn’t look over. They’d considered that, yeah, but they hadn’t agreed on it.

No one else protested, though. Gerard decided to keep it to himself.

“That’s cool.” Ray nodded, his ‘fro bouncing in agreement too. Below him, Otter attached one last wire, and the chord Ray had been strumming echoed around the garage in technicolor. A massive grin split across Gerard’s face without his say-so.

“How’d you do that?”

“I fix things around the house a lot.” Otter shrugged. “Plus some lucky guessing.”

Ray lit up the garage with another strum, tossing his head back and practically moaning, “Jesus Christ, I’ve missed rock ‘n roll.”

Otter nudged his leg with a drumstick lying on the ground. “Come help me get my kit back together.”

By the time they had everything up and running, it was well into the evening; the light coming in through the window on the side door was blue. Gerard listened as Otter tapped out a beat and Ray eased himself into it, Mikey eventually dropping in a few notes on his bass. He sounded good, all things considered; Pete must have been phenomenal if he could even teach over the phone.

“Are you gonna sing at all, dude?”

Gerard startled, his notepad almost falling off of his knee. “Huh?”

“You’re the vocalist,” Otter repeated. “You gonna sing?”

“Oh, uh.” Gerard chewed on a hangnail. “Yeah, I will. Maybe tomorrow.”

Mikey sighed like Gerard’s antics were causing him great pain. “Gee, you can’t seriously be nervous about this. It’s only us four, and we all suck. That’s why we’re practicing.”

“You guys don’t suck,” Gerard said weakly, even though it was sort of a lie. They weren’t bad, but it wasn’t anything coherent yet; there was no punch to it. They weren’t like Pete’s band yet.

“We do. But we’d suck less if we had a vocalist.”

“Tomorrow,” Gerard promised, making intense eye contact with the words on the yellow page in his lap. He could do this. He just needed some time.

*

“Just sing, like, the Ramones or something.” Mikey sat down on a stool, taking his bass off of his shoulder and wedging it between his bony knees. “Then it doesn’t even matter if you sound good.”

“Teenage Lobotomy?” Ray suggested from the other side of the garage, mouth turning down in offense when Mikey shot him a skeptical look. “What? It’s the only Ramones song I learned before they outlawed this shit.”

“Yeah,” said Gerard, deciding to pick up that thread instead of dwelling on his own shortcomings. “How are we supposed to play covers when we don’t have any source material?”

“Easy.” Mikey rolled his eyes. “We write originals.”

“Not as easy as you might think,” Otter warned. “I think we do need to play covers first. To find our sound, or whatever.”

Mikey’s eyebrows creased. “We don’t have time to waste.”

“No one’s going to pay any attention to us if we’re shit,” Otter shot back. “This is how you do things.”

“I hate to break it to you, but I think we’re pretty far past following the crowd.”

“Why don’t we do both?” Gerard cut in. He doubted anyone else could tell, but he knew Mikey wasn’t going to let this one drop on his own. “I sort of — I write stuff, I guess. We can work on putting that to music, and in the meantime, learn some covers.” He risked a glance over at Otter. “You know. So we don’t sound like shit.”

Ray looked up from his frets. “Covers of what?”

“Uh,” said Gerard. “I’ll — get back to you on that.”

*

It took another phone call with Pete, but they managed to find a contact in New Jersey with tapes. This time, Gerard didn’t let Mikey go into the alleyway alone.

“Dead Kennedys.” The cigarette in the dealer’s mouth wobbled up and down as he pointed to the nearly illegible scrawl on the top of the otherwise identical white cassettes. It was pretty damn gutsy, Gerard thought, to carry not one but two articles of contraband on his person. “Sex Pistols. Black Flag. Misfits. Devo.”

Mikey quirked his eyebrow a quarter of an inch. “Devo?”

The dealer narrowed his bloodshot eyes. The whites were so jaundiced that Gerard could barely tell what color the rest of them were supposed to be. “You got a fuckin’ problem with Devo?”

“We love Devo,” Gerard said hurriedly, because he knew there was no way in hell Mikey would ever back down from that argument. “How much for each of them?”

The dealer clicked his tongue and shook his head as Gerard made to reach for his wallet. “I don’t want your money, boy.”

Panic flashed at the forefront of Gerard’s mind. Pete had warned them that it would likely be a tough bargain, but this — this could mean anything. “Do you trade?”

Plucking the unlit cigarette away from his chapped lips, the dealer seemed to consider for a moment. “Tell me what you want ‘em for.”

“We miss music,” Mikey said. Technically not a lie.

The dealer chortled like metal on metal. “Pete Wentz ringed me from the goddamn Windy City to set this up. I know that boy. He doesn’t just call in favors for any old sucker who misses their collection. Tell me why you really want ‘em.”

Mikey looked to Gerard, mouth carefully wired shut. Gerard knew what he was doing; he wanted to give his older brother the final call, to decide how they were going to play this. To step into the shoes laid out in front of him.

Damn being a frontman.

He took a deep breath. “We’re starting a band.”

“I see.” The dealer reached into his pocket, and Gerard thought with certainty that that was it, it was either going to be a cell phone or a knife. Either would end his life. But when the dealer’s hand reemerged, all that gleamed in it was a scratched-up lighter.

They waited in itchy silence as the dealer took a drag, trying not to flinch when he blew smoke right in their faces. “Free. Take what you want.”

“What?” Gerard stared, shocked, and waited for the punchline. All the dealer did was smile with one corner of his mouth and nod.

“I said free, kid. Pete believes in you, and I believe in Pete. Bands exist to help inspire new bands. It’s the circle of life, or some shit.”

“Thank you,” Mikey said, sounding a little less monotone than usual. Hesitantly, he reached out and grabbed the Misfits tape. When the dealer made no move to stab them, he took another, shoving the cassettes deep into his pockets.

“The name’s Dewees.” The dealer stuck out his hand, which Gerard shook. “Don’t let me find out you let all this go to waste.”

“We won’t,” Gerard told him, and he almost believed it.

*

“You’re humming, Gerard. That’s a hum.” Ray reached up to adjust a tuning knob on his guitar.

Gerard looped the cord of the microphone around every other finger. “No, you guys just made your amp too loud.”

“Fine.” Ray leaned forward and killed it, and the garage suddenly felt like a black hole. “Now sing.”

For the lack of anything else to do, Gerard looked over at Mikey. They were brothers, and at one point or another, they’d also become best friends; Gerard knew he could count on him to have his back whenever an argument cropped up. This time, though, Mikey was staring at the ground.

“Mikes?”

“If you want My Chemical Romance to mean anything,” he said quietly, “we need a voice. It’s time.”

“Why doesn’t someone else be the frontman?” It was almost a whine.

“Because I know you, Gerard.” Mikey rubbed a hand over his face. “You’re the only one who can.”

*

The four of them had just nailed down their rendition of “Astro Zombies” when they heard sirens outside of the garage for the first time.

“Shit,” Ray muttered under his breath, kicking the amp until the static died. An eerie silence took over in its place, and for as long as he could manage, Gerard didn’t even breathe.

“Is that for us?” he finally whispered. “Did someone call in, like, a noise complaint? Who the hell lives around here, even? Aren’t there fields on either side?”

“My mom wouldn’t have said anything,” Otter whispered back fervently. “She wouldn’t.”

“We believe you,” hissed Mikey, just to get him to shut up.

No knuckles rapped on the door. As they crouched in silence, the police siren faded away without incident.

They were in the clear. A relieved laugh tore its way from Gerard’s throat, and it was contagious; soon they were all sprawled out on the dirty garage floor, looking at each other with wide eyes and letting out quiet, pathetic giggles.

It should have felt like a victory. Nonetheless, a new weight settled over Gerard’s shoulders.

*

As Mikey walked into the garage, both Ray and Gerard looked up from their instrument and notepad, respectively. Mikey jutted his chin towards the vacant drum kit. “Where’s Otter?”

Ray frowned; he was kind of a stickler about things that most of them didn’t give two fucks about, like punctuality. Most of the time he let it slide, but Otter had fallen into the difficult habit of rolling up whenever he felt like — even at his own mother’s house. Gerard didn’t doubt his commitment to the band, necessarily, but it had still begun to grate on everyone’s nerves to have to wait around for percussion to arrive every day. “Late. Again.”

“Sorry fucker won’t get to hear the good news, then.” Mikey paused to glance at both of them and make sure they were fully paying attention. When Gerard finally got the hint and put his pen down, he said, “I booked us our first gig.”

“Already?” Ray’s face lit up like it was fucking Christmas. “Are you serious?”

“We’ve been at it for more than two weeks,” Mikey pointed out. “I got a call from Pete, and he offered up an opening spot at Ringer’s on Friday. Figured it was time we bite the bullet.”

Suddenly, Gerard’s throat felt tight. “That’s in three days.”

“It is,” Mikey said.

“Which is great.” Ray’s tone didn’t quite match his words. “It’s just that we only have three-fourths of a band.”

Gerard tilted his head to the side. “I’m sure Otter’ll show up.”

Ray looked down. “I wasn’t talking about Otter.”

Oh. Oh. “Well, I can—”

“Can you?” Ray snapped. “Can you really, Gerard? Because you’ve been promising a voice for over half a month, now, but we’re still just a fucking instrumental track.”

“I can be the voice,” countered Gerard as the tips of his ears turned red. “It — it takes time, is all. I don’t want to be the wrong voice.”

“There is no wrong voice!” Ray burst out. Mikey glanced nervously out of the side door window. “Because you’re the only damn one we’ve got!”

“Take a deep breath, Gee.” Mikey shot Ray a scathing glare to make him keep his mouth shut. “You’re the only one here who doesn’t believe you can do it.”

“Let’s wait until Otter gets here,” Gerard tried.

Mikey quirked an eyebrow. “You want a bigger audience? And don’t say you’re waiting for a rhythm, because I’m right here.”

Nothing was more annoying than little brother logic. “I haven’t warmed up yet.”

“You’ve been warming up for two weeks.” Mikey’s hands had begun to move over his strings with a threatening determination. “We’re playing Six Pack. You know those lyrics?”

Gerard resisted the urge to scoff. Damn right, he knew those lyrics. He’d just — never sung them anywhere but the shower.

Ray’s guitar kicked in, the two of them impressively in sync by now. Gerard might have complimented them if he wasn’t so busy freaking the fuck out. “Guys—” he started, but Ray just turned up the amp and strummed harder.

“Sorry, you’re gonna have to talk louder if you want us to hear you!”

Gerard leaned into the microphone. “Guys!”

Ray squinted and tilted his head, feigning deafness. “What was that? Mikey, did you hear something?”

Smirking down at his bass, Mikey shook his head. “Nope! Maybe there’s a fly in here!”

Gerard couldn’t stand them and their fucking matching smug-ass expressions. He considered going over there and just ripping out the amp cords altogether, but he honestly doubted even that would put an end to their crusade.

“Fine!” he shouted into the microphone, pissed off and teeth-first. “Have it your fucking way!”

And then he started to scream.

Mikey let out an undisguised whoop of joy as Gerard cut in with Black Flag’s lyrics, and Gerard honestly couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard his brother do that. He got a few lines in before his voice cracked, not used to this, and he dropped off mid-sentence.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Mikey yelled, breaking his gaze from his bass to glare. “Keep going!”

Jaw clenched and knuckles white on the mic stand, Gerard swung back into it, squeezing his eyes shut so he didn’t have to see anything but black. Ray ripped into the chorus and Gerard was right there with him. Something in his body was moving, even if his feet were planted to the ground, and it was a kind of catharsis Gerard had never felt before.

“He’s actually good,” Ray said to Mikey after the last notes faded out, a surprised lilt in his voice. Gerard tried not to take offense. A tiny bubble of pride welled up in him, and he focused on that instead.

“Fuck yeah, he’s actually good,” came Otter’s voice from the side door. “That was fucking great! Why didn’t you tell me you were singing today?”

Gerard shrugged awkwardly, still breathing too hard to form a proper sentence. His throat felt shredded up. “Didn’t know.”

“We’re really a fucking band now.” Otter grinned so wide that Gerard could see all of his teeth. He moved to stand behind his kit. “Shit, guys.”

Mikey looked up at him. “Which means it’s time to stop showing up late. We have a gig on Friday.”

Otter dropped the drumstick in his hand. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” Gerard said, then winced. “Is singing going to hurt so bad every time?”

“Only if you decide to unleash a banshee like that again,” Ray said.

“You’re the ones who pissed me off.” Gerard brought a hand up to his throat and massaged it a little. “Ow.”

Mikey walked by and punched Gerard’s shoulder companionably. Gerard gave him a tight-lipped smile and pretended it wouldn’t bruise. “You’ll get used to it.”

*

“Jesus Christ,” Spencer whispered harshly, popping his head up over the cubicle to stare down at Gerard. “Could you stop that already?”

“What?” Gerard almost asked, before he realized that he’d been jiggling his leg so hard it was shaking the desk and the divider between their cubicles. The tips of his ears burned red. “Oh. Sorry. These things are kind of flimsy, though.”

Spencer rolled his eyes, but not enough for it to actually mean anything. He was new here, so he hadn’t become completely and irreversibly annoyed by Gerard and his antics yet; he still smiled at him every morning. Gerard smiled back, even though he knew it wouldn’t last. Especially if he kept letting his nerves rattle the whole damn building. “What’s got you so jacked up?” asked Spencer.

Gerard’s mouth went dry, but he swallowed and managed, “Too much coffee.”

“This is why PMURT limited us to a hundred milligrams of caffeine a day, man. So squirrels like you don’t lose their minds.” Spencer shook his head.

“Yeah, well.” Gerard shrugged and hoped it came off casually. Better to get busted for overdoing it on the break room coffee than for being the frontman in a totally illegal punk band who had to perform that night. “I’ll try to take it easy.”

“Thanks.” Spencer’s mouth turned up in relief. “And make sure you stick to one cup a day, at least while you’re here. I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

If only he knew.

*

Mikey eyed Gerard up and down and frowned with his eyebrows. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” Gerard said again, even though the green room they were in had humidity clinging to the walls and he couldn’t take a breath deep enough to fill his lungs. The leather jacket he’d arrived in was already on the floor. “It’s just hot in here.”

“It’s not hot in here.” Mikey was in short sleeves, though. He didn’t get to weigh in.

“You’re freaking out, man.” Otter pointed a finger in Gerard’s face. “Look. His mouth is all green around the edges.”

Gerard swatted his hand away. “Thank you. That’s very helpful.”

“It’s a tiny bar, Gee,” Mikey said. “No big deal. People are just here to see Thursday, I doubt they’ll even show up for the no-name opening band playing a covers set.”

The sound of footsteps echoed, and then Ray’s head appeared around the corner of the green room door. “Guys, I just got back from side stage. This place is packed. Like, at least two hundred. I think it might even be sold out.”

“Oh, fuck.” Gerard groaned like someone had just punched him in the gut. “I can’t do this, Mikes, that’s—”

“Who else is gonna?” Mikey said, his nice-guy act forgotten. “Or are we just supposed to keep waiting on the sidelines until some other assholes decide to overturn PMURT?”

Gerard looked up at him incredulously. “How the hell are you not scared?”

“Oh, I’m scared. Scared shitless. We could go out there, and we could totally suck. We could get bottled. We could get thrown out. But more than any of that? I’m pissed. Don’t you dare throw away our chance to change things.”

Otter made a noise in the back of his throat. “Funny. I never would have gotten all of that from his face.”

Ray eyed Gerard. “Mikey just gave a hell of a speech, man. I think you’re kind of obligated to do whatever he wants now.”

“It wasn’t that great of a speech,” mumbled Gerard. They all looked at him. “Fine. When do we go on?”

“Three minutes,” Ray informed them after sticking his head back into the hallway and asking someone walking by. “We’ve got this, right? We’ve got this.” He had begun to rock back and forth a little.

“Give me your arm.” Mikey made a come-hither motion at Gerard. Gerard’s eyebrows furrowed.

“Why do you need my arm?”

“So I can sharpie the setlist onto it.”

Gerard scoffed. “You think I don’t know the setlist?”

“I think this wouldn’t be your first time cracking under pressure,” Mikey said coolly. He had a point, which was the most annoying part. Gerard had told too many horror stories from work to try and deny it. Plus, Mikey had known him while he was in high school. There was no redemption from that.

With a huff, he extended his forearm. “Try to make it legible, for once.”

“Then try not to squirm,” Mikey said around the marker cap in his mouth.

Two minutes later, they were waiting in the wings of the stage, a place that was a fun blend of moldy and damp. Gerard stared down at the writing on his skin like it was his own death certificate. “Mikey—” he started, but his voice cracked.

Mikey looked at him with an unfamiliar intensity. Gerard wanted to know what had happened to the kid who had chastised him months ago for collecting old bottles. “Nothing’s as hard as you think it is, Gee.”

The stage lights went up, and the momentum of the three bodies behind Gerard pushed him forward until he was front and center. He cowered behind the microphone stand, trying to remember how to make his tongue form syllables.

“Where’s Thursday?” some dickass yelled from the back of the crowd. The round of laughter that followed made Gerard’s intestines knot together like a pretzel.

“Yeah!” came another voice. “Who the hell are you?”

That, at least, Gerard had an answer to. “We’re My Chemical Romance,” he said shakily into the mic, his hands in a deathgrip around its cold metal. He felt like he needed another line; something to follow that statement, something to convince these people that his voice was worth listening to. Nothing came. The memories of every band practice from the past two weeks dissipated like they had never happened at all.

Belatedly, he realized Ray had started strumming. His guitar sounded huger in here than it ever had in the garage — possibly due to a change in amp, but Gerard suspected it had more to do with having an audience to bounce the sound off of for once. Mikey joined in at the same time as Otter, and Gerard didn’t have to look down at his arm to know they were playing Dead Kennedy’s version of “I Fought the Law”. Gerard took a deep breath, felt his pulse kick up even higher than before, and crashed into the lyrics.

They tore through the setlist. It didn’t take a genius to tell that it wasn’t perfect; maybe they were a little out a sync, or under-practiced, but it felt incredible. Like Gerard was simultaneously stitching his wounds up and tearing himself apart. He was drenched in sweat by the last song and his heart was one more scream away from exploding, but he held the microphone cord in his fist and strutted along the edge of the stage, spitting Black Flag lyrics like a madman. Somewhere along the way he’d forgotten all his inhibitions and let something deep inside of him loose. He wondered how long he’d had this in him. If he always had.

Otter’s last drumbeat crashed, and Gerard took a shuddering breath. This was it. The only moment Gerard had to leave the crowd with something to make them remember My Chemical Romance.

“Why are you here tonight?” he bellowed, and the crowd yelled right back. “Is it because you’re missing something? Something PMURT took away?”

The audience screamed like someone had set a match to them at the mere mention of the law. “We’re here to take it all back, motherfuckers! Are you with us?”

They were a raging flame, and Gerard was gasoline. “I asked you a fucking question! Are you with us?” He leaned down over the crowd of faces and snarled wickedly. Like hell they wanted Thursday anymore. “That’s what I fucking thought. We are My Chemical Romance! Goodnight!”

*

The brick wall against Gerard’s back was no longer warm so many hours after sunset. He let the hard surface dig into his shoulders a little. The venue wasn’t vibrating with music anymore, and it left behind an odd hollow feeling.

“Hey!” a throaty voice called, and Gerard looked up to see a few of the guys from Thursday ambling their way. Beside him, the rest of My Chem snapped to attention. “Weren’t you guys our openers?”

Mikey stuck out a hand. “My Chemical Romance.”

“Sweet name,” said the one in front. There were two more members of the band standing behind him, but they didn’t introduce themselves. One of them had tattoos all the way down his left arm, and the other one had dried blood under his nose. Gerard tried really hard not to stare. “I’m Geoff.”

“Mikey.” They shook.

“Oh, I see. The one that Wentz is training.”

Mikey’s face darkened. “Excuse me?”

“Yeah, I hadn’t gotten a call from Wentz in a year. Or any of Fall Out Boy, for that matter,” said Geoff. Bloody Nose Dude reached forward and handed him an unlit cigarette, which he accepted with a grateful nod. His lighter’s click was too loud in the silence. Gerard had to wonder where the hell they had even acquired a pack in the first place. “And then he rings me up out of the blue yammering about this new scene band and begs me to let them open for us. I told him he was fucking crazy.”

Otter spoke for all of them. “Then why’d you let us?”

Geoff took a drag and blew it out of the corner of his mouth. Gerard couldn’t help but watch, transfixed. “Pete doesn’t place bets on people who don’t pay out, not anymore. So you’re either the real deal, or you’re great fucking liars.”

Mikey lifted an eyebrow. “And which one is it?”

Geoff laughed, smoke escaping with it. “We’ll see.”

Gerard couldn’t keep his mouth shut. The dam on his curiosity finally busted, and he blurted out, “How’d you get those tattoos?”

The stoic guy behind Geoff looked over. He twisted his arm back slightly so it was hidden from the street lamps. Fuck, that hadn’t been Gerard’s intention. “Needle. Ink.”

“No, I didn’t mean—” Since PMURT had decreed it illegal, Gerard had seen less and less body modification out in the open; people who already had tattoos covered them, and people who wanted them had nowhere to go. “—I like them, is all. You don’t see it a lot. I mean, I don’t want any myself, because the whole needle thing kind of freaks me out, but I can appreciate them. I mean, yeah. I like them.”

The guy didn’t respond, but he shifted back into the light just enough for Gerard to make out what might have been the tail of a dragon wrapped across his bicep. Gerard coughed into his fist and tried to keep his face from turning red.

“You guys were great up there,” said Ray, and Gerard sent him a telepathic thank you.

“Yeah, you liked it?” Geoff handed his half-smoked cigarette to Bloody Nose. “You want some advice, band to band?”

After conferring with Mikey via side-eye, Ray nodded.

For the first time the entire night, Geoff smiled ear-to-ear, and the nasty black gaps between his laterals became glaringly obvious. “Fuck whatever Wentz is telling you. Quit this shit now, while you’ve still got all your teeth. I ain’t ever going back to work with a face like this.”

The three of them turned and left without so much as a goodbye, the cherry of the cigarette flicked carelessly to the ground and not even crushed underfoot. Had he been alone, Gerard might have picked it up.

“That went well,” said Otter.

*

Later, Gerard stopped Mikey as he was reaching for the car door handle. The moon was slanting in through the windows, and it gave his little brother an otherworldly glow. “Mikes?”

“Mhm?”

“Do you think — are we going to turn out like those guys? Like Thursday?”

Mikey looked at him long and hard. Maybe it was just the exhaustion in his eyes, but he seemed much older than Gerard ever remembered him being. “I think that’s up to us, Gee.”

*

The bassline dropped off halfway through the song they were practicing, so Gerard looked up. Mikey was fishing in his pocket for his cell. “Do you really have to answer that now?”

“It’s Pete,” Mikey said without looking at him. That made Gerard bite his tongue. “Do you want me to put him on speaker?”

“Yeah.” Ray kicked the amp off and unslung his guitar from over his shoulder. He’d gotten so good at that in the past few weeks, it was just one smooth move now, not an accumulation of short, awkward bursts.

“Mikeyway!” crooned Pete through the phone. “You goddamn rock star! Where’s your band?”

“Right here,” Gerard said flatly. Well, three-fourths of them were.

“Cool, cool.” From the way Mikey had described him, Gerard had anticipated Pete to be an excitable guy, but this was a whole other level. The dude spoke like he was trying to win a marathon. “I saw your show last night. Fucking wicked.”

Mikey made a strangled noise. “You were in Jersey and you didn’t tell me?”

“No, no, I don’t mean I was there,” Pete clarified. “I saw a video. Hey, didn’t you say that Gerard was supposed to be shy? Because I don’t know about you, but getting all up in kids’ faces like that doesn’t seem like the most—”

Gerard cleared his throat. “You saw a video?”

“Yeah, it was awesome.” It must have finally dawned on Pete what the issue with that was, because he sped up even more, all of his words blurring together at the edges. “Oh, shit, I know what you’re thinking. Don’t worry, someone just sent it to me. I have people everywhere. It’s not on the web, no one’s going to find it.”

Gerard was sure he wasn’t the only one who let out a shaky breath.

“You guys were good,” Pete barrelled on with complete disregard to their collective sanities. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, you guys were really good. But you need to start writing your own stuff. All the bands you played were amazing, but those songs were written about different problems. You gotta write some shit about today’s problems.”

“We’re working on that,” Mikey told him. “Gee’s been holding onto some lyrics, we’re gonna put them to music soon. Make something new.”

“You better.” Even through the phone, it was obvious that Pete was grinning. “And — hold on, Patrick’s telling me I have to go — no, one sec, c’mon.” The line was nothing but static for a moment. “One more thing, okay? Something’s missing. I haven’t figured out what it is yet, but you’ll find it. You’ll find the missing piece.” Pete’s voice became distant. “Joe, tell Patrick to chill out! Jesus Christ. Okay, okay.” He sighed. “Talk to you soon, Mikey.”

The call cut off, but it took them all a second to stop staring at the disconnected phone. “I would like to say he’s not always like that, but.” Mikey shrugged.

“I guess we better write something.” Ray scratched the back of his head. “Gerard? You’re up.”

*

The first song they wrote was called “Skylines and Turnstiles”, and it made Gerard feel like he was being ripped in half.

“That’s a good thing,” Mikey told him when he described it like so. “If you feel it, the audience will to. Pain makes people react.”

Ray grimaced. “Morbid.” Mikey just shrugged one shoulder.

The two others that followed came easier. Slowly, the four of them — three, sometimes, when Otter couldn’t be bothered to show up — worked out a system of putting things together. Gerard had the lyrics; it was up to Ray to change them into something musical, and then Mikey and Otter tied it all together. It didn’t work every time, but it worked enough.

The more they created, though, the more glaringly obvious it became that they really were missing something. Gerard just couldn’t quite put a finger on it.

“We’re playing Ringer’s again in six days.” Mikey hovered over Gerard’s shoulder and took in what he was scrawling, all the while absently plucking out a rhythm on his bass. “Are we going to have enough material ready?”

Gerard’s hand froze where it was halfway through a line. The page was almost filled, margins and all, but the music in Gerard’s head was only half-formed; it could take days until it was realized on Ray’s guitar.

Still. The band had three songs. That was three more than the last time they’d played a show.

“We’ll make it work,” Gerard said, and he actually believed it.

*

The kids didn’t scream as loud at their next gig. They’d never heard the songs before. Gerard spent a long time trying to convince himself that he was okay with that.

About halfway through their setlist was when Gerard finally worked up the courage to look the crowd in their eyes. He gazed out at them, drinking it in. Per usual, the front rows were full of headbangers and moshers; towards the back it became more stationary. Which meant the dude standing next to the door and jumping up and down like there was no tomorrow stuck out like a sore thumb.

Gerard stared at him for a moment, trying to see if he recognized the face, but it was too dark that far back.

Ray began the opening riff to a new song, and Gerard moved on.

*

Gerard was in the middle of wiping sweat off of his face with the front of his shirt when something moving too fast for the human eye to process hurtled itself at Mikey and almost knocked him off of his feet with a hug.

Ray stepped forward immediately and pulled himself up to his full height. Before he could do anything, though, Mikey put a hand on his chest and said, “It’s just Frank, chill.”

Ray eyed the newcomer warily. “You know him?”

“I invited him.” Mikey rolled his eyes, attempting to peel Frank off of his body with minimal success.

Gerard’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head. “You—”

Mikey knew him way too well, because he cut in before Gerard could even get his thought started. “We can trust him.”

“Yeah, dude, I’m no rat,” Frank said against Mikey’s chest. Mikey pulled on his faux hawk a little until he finally huffed out a breath and released his vice grip. He turned to face the rest of them, and Gerard’s breath caught in his throat.

Frank was hot. Suddenly, Gerard was hyper-aware of his own unattractively sweaty state. He nailed Mikey with an intense side-eye that he hoped conveyed just how fucking uncool it was of him to invite a gorgeous boy around and not warn Gerard to wear something other than striped leggings and jeans with a hole in the crotch.

“You really think I’m buddy-buddy with the feds?” Frank gestured up and down at himself, pointing out his extensive tattoo collection and seriously shredded jeans, and Gerard’s eyes followed the movement involuntarily.

“I’m Gerard,” he said, sort of dazed.

Frank raised a perfect eyebrow and smiled. “I know.”

“He knows all about us. He tried to come out to the first show but couldn’t make it,” Mikey explained.

“Glad I finally did. You guys killed it.” There was that grin again. It glowed like the fucking moon, and Gerard couldn’t look away. Frank leveled a finger at Ray. “You fucking shred, dude. I’d say you’re almost as good as me.”

Mikey whacked him upside the head, and he let out a snort of laughter. “Fuck off, Mikey, he knows I’m kidding.”

“You play?” Gerard found himself asking without really meaning to.

“Whenever I can.” Frank shrugged, and Gerard really enjoyed the way it made his shoulder muscles move under his t-shirt. Jesus Christ, he needed to get a grip. “Which isn’t very much anymore, but. It’s better than nothing.”

“So you’re not in a band?” Frank definitely looked like he should be in a band.

“No, no.” Frank shook his head and gave them a look Gerard wasn’t able to read. “I couldn’t find any fuckers as crazy as you guys to back me up.”

“I gave him Pete’s number, though. And vouched for him. Pete can set almost anyone up,” Mikey said.

That was true. For all of Mikey’s mingling superpowers, Pete somehow managed to know even more people. Pete had Mikey-power on steroids.

Frank punched Mikey’s shoulder. “So, hey. What are you guys up to tonight?”

The four of them looked at each other. Mikey started to say something with his eyebrows.

“I’ve got work in the morning,” Gerard blurted out, then immediately wanted to slap himself in the face. Thirty seconds of awkward silence around an attractive guy, and he was already trying to run away. Too late to backpedal now, though. “I mean. It’s not that we don’t want to, like, I don’t know, but most of us have to be up early, so we should probably—”

“We’re just gonna head back,” Mikey interrupted smoothly before Gerard could continue with his train wreck of a sentence.

Frank looked crestfallen, but it was gone in an instant, and after Gerard blinked he was sure he’d imagined it. “Text me next time you have a show, okay? I won’t miss it.”

When they finally made it outside, Mikey leaned in close to Gerard’s ear. “Would it kill you to be more subtle when you eye-fuck my friends?”

Gerard scowled and shoved him against the concrete side of the building. Mikey went easily, cackling the whole way.

*

Predictably, Pete called them the next evening while they were tuning up in the garage.

“Decent show,” he started without so much as a hello. “The originals still need some work, but they’re getting there.”

“Uh, thanks,” Ray said, since Mikey was too busy doing something with his bass.

“Yeah, yeah. I also figured out what you guys are missing. You know what you’re missing?”

Ray gave Gerard a dubious look. Gerard rolled his eyes back but didn’t interfere. “What?”

“Well, it was kind of a latent realization, really. But I got this call. And, you know, a lot of people call me, so it’s hard to tell what’s the real deal and what’s not, but I decided to pick it up anyway, and then this guy—”

Mikey gave the phone and exasperated look from over his glasses. “Get to the point, Pete.”

“Right, sure. You need Frank, you dumb motherfuckers.”

Gerard startled and almost dropped his notebook onto one of the many gasoline stains on the ground. “Uh, Frank? As in, dude-from-last-night-Frank?”

“Iero was the last name he gave me, but sure.” Pete paused. “So you all know him?”

“We’ve. . .met,” Gerard managed.

Even Ray’s hair was frowning. “We already have a guitar player.”

“I know, and you’re awesome,” Pete reassured him quickly. “But Frank is awesome too. And he sounds different. You need him. He’ll balance you out. Plus, you should have more eye-candy than just Mikey.”

“This is about the music, Pete.” Mikey sighed very much like someone who had heard that line before. Then, as an afterthought, “Have you even met Frank?”

“I know people.” Right. Of course. “And I am talking about the music. I’m talking about how Frank’s guitar will make your music better.”

“Does he already have an instrument?” Gerard asked.

“Yeah. Frank doesn’t really play by the PMURT rules.” Gerard thought back to all the ink he had seen last night. That didn’t take a genius to figure out.

“And you’re sure he can play?”

Pete made an offended noise. “Have I ever steered you wrong?”

“First time for everything,” Ray grumbled. Pete ignored him.

“Trust me on this one. Call him.”

*

In lieu of an actual audition process, they had Frank come over for a practice and jam with them. Even Otter bothered to show up.

Frank sat and watched for a spell, tapping his feet and fingers on the garage floor, before some switch in him flipped. He grabbed his guitar and slung it over his shoulder, cutting into the Sex Pistols cover they were playing loud and hard and messy. And somehow, it worked. It shouldn’t have, but it did.

Ray’s mouth hung open. “He sounds just fucking like Steve Jones.” The rest of them just stared at Frank.

“Fucking Pete,” Mikey said finally, shaking his head. “I hate it when he’s right.”

Frank looked at them hopefully. His fingers were still on his frets, and it took a lot of willpower for Gerard to not stare at the ink splayed across them. “So, uh. Does that mean I’m in?”

“Duh,” said Ray.

Frank’s face lit up like a fucking firework, and before they knew it, all five of them were being squished into a group hug.

Gerard had to take a long, cold shower after that.

*

The news garbled in the background as Gerard hunched over a sketchpad in Mikey’s kitchen. When he’d opened it, he had intended to draw, but somewhere along the way it had turned into words again.

“That’s fucking dumb,” Mikey said as he crunched on a breakfast bar. “How are they letting him get away with that? Isn’t this why we have checks and balances?”

Gerard didn’t even look up; he’d read the morning headlines. “Are they still talking about OneSource?”

Mikey made a sound like a drowning pigeon. Nowadays, politics were one of the only things that could get him worked up. “Yes. They’ve got eight supposed experts around this fucking table, and not even one of them is calling it what it is. Our fucking President is already dictator of every other type of media, he doesn’t get to have journalism too!”

“It’s fascism,” Gerard said simply.

“Fucking Christ,” Mikey agreed. They listened in silence for a minute more as faces on the television sold lies about how OneSource would create an easy news-gathering system for every citizen by only providing access to Presidentially approved articles. Then Mikey stood up to throw his wrapper away and switched the screen off, sitting back down by Gerard with a huff.

“You’ve been writing a lot lately,” Mikey said, probably just attempting to change the topic for the sake of his own blood pressure.

Gerard shrugged with the arm that wasn’t holding his pen. “There’s a lot to write about right now.”

Slumping in his chair, Mikey pressed his mouth into a line. “Don’t I fucking know it.”

*

The third time My Chemical Romance played a show, there were five people in the band, and they didn’t have to play a single cover song.

Frank wasn’t stupid enough to not be nervous, but he flung himself around onstage like a demon anyway; he spun and jumped and fell but he never stopped, and the kids fucking ate it up. Gerard was very grateful that Mikey had demanded he write the setlist on his arm again, despite how smug the fucker had been when he’d implied that Gerard would probably be distracted tonight.

He had good reason, though — Frank was a spectacle. Beforehand, Gerard had worried that maybe Frank wouldn’t fit in with them, or he’d decide that being in a band wasn’t all he’d hoped and dreamed of. But watching him out of the corner of his eye, Gerard was hit out of nowhere with the distinct, irreversible feeling that this was right.

As soon as they were offstage, Ray shook his hair out and sweat flew everywhere. Screwing up his face, Gerard cursed as some of it landed on him. “You are disgusting, motherfucker.”

“I showered this morning. Did you?” Ray looked Gerard up and down haughtily, obviously already knowing the answer. Even though Gerard did sweat about enough to fill a rain barrel under the hot stage lights, there was no way it had made his hair that greasy. Grease like that was an art form. It took time, patience.

When he turned to quip something at Mikey, he saw that Frank was staring at him with wide eyes. Gerard blinked at him, but he didn’t drop his gaze. “Your voice is all raspy,” he said.

“Um, yeah.” Gerard touched his throat self-consciously and tried to clear it. It was still sore. “It’s like that after every show. It’ll go away in a minute.”

“Yeah, okay.” He nodded, looking kind of unfocused. Gerard didn’t know why.

The five of them pressed their backs against the venue’s sticky wall and watched while the headlining band came on. Gerard had never heard of them before, but they weren’t bad. Their lead singer was a girl, which was a nice change of pace, and she definitely knew how to command a crowd. His eyes followed as she flipped her hair and fell to her knees, leaning out over the crowd. They screamed and reached for her like she was the Messiah.

Gerard knew what that felt like, but only in the smallest degree — when My Chemical Romance was up there, the crowd liked them enough to cheer them on to the end of their set. But from Gerard’s vantage point, it seemed that if this girl asked the audience to jump off a bridge, they wouldn’t hesitate to march dutifully over the edge.

If they were going to fuel a revolution, that was the power they needed. Gerard took notes.

“Hey!” he leaned close to Mikey’s ear as soon as the set slowed down enough that he felt like he could take a breath. “Do you know what this band is called?”

Looking over at him, Mikey opened his mouth to answer but then shut it. “Where’s Otter?”

“What do you mean, where’s—” Gerard glanced over his shoulder, expecting to see Otter’s tall build right where he had been next to Ray. All he was met with was empty space. “Shit.”

He elbowed Ray and repeated Mikey’s question. “He went outside to get some air. Said he’d be right back.” Ray scratched the side of his neck. “That was like fifteen minutes ago, though.”

“Shit!” Gerard cursed, louder this time. “You don’t think—”

Ray’s jaw clenched. “Knowing him? I do think.”

As if on cue, a fight broke out right in front of the stage.

The band’s singer dropped off halfway through a line and rose up to her full height. “Break it up, assholes! If you want to stomp on someone’s face, go do it out back!”

The crowd split into two sections almost immediately; people who wanted to get in on the action, and people who didn’t feel like breaking any bones tonight. Gerard started to back up until Mikey grabbed his wrist and hissed, “Fuck, Otter’s in there.”

“Are you kidding me?” Gerard whipped his head around. “Great, our drummer’s going to fucking die.”

Mikey looked at Ray. “You’ve known him the longest.”

“Long enough to know that he doesn’t ever back down.” Ray grimaced. “Dumbass.”

“Then why don’t we go get him?” Frank said. Up front, the singer was still working on disengaging the situation, but it only seemed to be spurring them on.

Gerard looked at Frank like his head was on backward. “What, so we can die too?”

Frank rolled his eyes, and Gerard’s neck flushed with heat. He wasn’t wimping out. This was self-preservation. “For fuck’s sake,” Frank grumbled. Then he launched himself into the mouth of the beast.

Gerard made a pathetic face at Mikey. “I have to follow him, don’t I?”

“Knight in shining armor,” Mikey said, and shoved him.

Stumbling over his own feet before righting himself, Gerard tried his best to weave through the throng of people. Frank was shorter than him, but he wasn’t shy with his elbows; it took a minute to catch up, and by the time Gerard got there, Frank already had a grip on Otter’s elbow and was about to haul him away. His face dropped in surprise when he noticed Gerard next to him. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Um.” Any answer Gerard had for that seemed inane now that Frank obviously had the situation under control. He was so not Lancelot. “Helping you?”

Frank had the goodwill to humor him with a smile. He gestured vaguely at all of the people blocking their way to the door. “We need to clear a path.”

That, Gerard figured, he could probably manage. He began to push his way through again, one hand on Frank’s wrist to keep them all together. Someone let out a low groan of pain and Gerard realized he hadn’t actually seen the damage on Otter; he turned his head to ask Frank, but before he could, some stranger’s flying elbow caught him in the face and sent him staggering back.

Vaguely, he heard Frank call his name over the blood rushing in his ears, but he ignored him and kept them moving through the crowd. He could deal with a little pain. This wasn’t the place to talk, anyway.

Frank was all over him as soon as the door swung shut behind them, face so close to Gerard’s that his features were blurry. Gerard closed his eyes. “Are you okay? Where did you get hit?” One of Frank’s fingers reached out and prodded Gerard’s cheek. “Can you feel that?”

“Ow,” Gerard managed.

“Shit,” breathed Frank. “You need ice. Where’s your car?”

“I’m fine,” Gerard said, swatting his hand away blindly. “I’m not the one who got caught in a fist fight. How’s Otter?”

“Bloody,” came Ray’s voice from somewhere on the left. “It’s just his nose, though. Face wounds bleed a lot. I don’t even think it’s broken.”

Mikey huffed. “What the hell were you thinking, man?”

“It’s not that big a deal.” Otter’s voice was all nasally, presumably from having his nose pinched shut.

“Not that big a deal?” Mikey demanded. “Gee’s going to have a black eye!”

Gerard tried to snap his eyes open only to find out that one of them wouldn’t. Shit. “I will?”

“Um. Sorry,” Frank said quietly. Gerard could feel his breath on his face. “It’s going to be a hell of a shiner.”

“We’re a punk band,” Otter tried again. “Stuff like this is going to happen.”

“I don’t care if you let stuff like this happen on your own time.” Even with his eyes closed, Gerard could tell Mikey was seething. He was usually the quietly resentful type, but it was evident that something had snapped. “But in this band, with my brother, you better keep that shit under control.”

A stunned silence followed. Gerard cracked open his good eye to see that Frank was still roving his eyes around Gerard’s face and worrying his bottom lip between his teeth. When he noticed Gerard was looking back, he tried for a smile, but it came off more like a grimace.

“We should go home,” Ray said finally. He put his hands on Mikey’s shoulders and tugged on him gently until he started to move towards the parking lot.

“C’mon,” Frank whispered to Gerard, taking his hand and leading him in the same direction. Gerard focused on the way his face was throbbing in order to ignore the confused signals his brain was sending him about how warm Frank’s palm was.

Otter walked alone.

*

After that night, My Chemical Romance’s entire dynamic changed. Otter showed up to practices even less frequently than before, and when he did, it took nothing short of a miracle for him to be punctual. It was easier to write with Frank around, but they could never actually finish anything with such a crucial instrument missing. They were all so tense that every rehearsal was like dancing around a landmine.

Gerard didn’t think his week could get any shittier, but of course it did.

“Gerard.” His boss was using her patient voice, and it made him grit his teeth. “I’d like to talk to you in my office for a moment, if you’ll please follow me.”

Head bowed, he shuffled after her, catching Spencer’s gaze over the cubicle divider. Spencer flashed him a thumbs-up, but Gerard couldn’t manage to return his optimism.

The chairs in his boss’ office were much more comfortable than his, and he sank into one easily, folding his hands in his lap.

“You may have heard rumors about downsizing.” Gerard hadn’t, but he didn’t interrupt his boss to mention that. “Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you they are true.”

Shit. “How much?”

“About a fourth of our employee base has to go. The economy is in a rough place, I’m sure you know, and we can’t afford to keep anyone—” she looked up at him, “—nonessential.”

A sick chill gripped Gerard’s spine. But marketing was essential. Every company needed marketing. Right?

“I’m going to be blunt,” she said. “We are not happy with your recent performance in the office.”

“Ms. Rose—” he started, but she held up a hand to silence him. His stomach twisted.

“You’re late more often than not, you never volunteer to lead meetings, and now you show up to the workplace with a black eye?” She gestured to his face. He would have covered it up had he owned makeup or had the time to buy any, but late shows and early mornings didn’t mix well. “What has gotten into you, Gerard?”

“It was an accident,” Gerard said to his lap. He figured the less eye contact he made, the better. “My brother is moving apartments, the corner of his armoire got me.”

She lifted an eyebrow. “And all of your late mornings?”

“Um.” Gerard watched his fingernails dig into the flesh of his palms with a detached kind of hopelessness. Telling the truth would land him in situations much worse than unemployment. “I’m an insomniac?”

Ms. Rose sighed and reached into her desk.

*

Gerard let the door to Mikey’s apartment slam behind him and rattle on the hinges. “Good news!” he called despite having no clue whether or not anyone was even home. “I got fucking fired!”

Mikey was in his bedroom, on the bed with his knees pulled up against his chest and his eyes trained on the television. “We’re calling that good news now?”

“No one else is going to hire me.” Gerard flopped face-down onto the bed next to Mikey. “I’m the frontman in a shitty punk band and I have a black eye. I wouldn’t want me either.”

“Hey. The world needs our shitty punk band.” Mikey stuck out one leg and nudged Gerard with his big toe. “But you should probably go ice that thing some more.”

A minute later, Gerard returned to the bedroom with frozen peas pressed against one side of his face. The cold hurt, but it was good. “I hated that job, you know,” he told the ceiling. “Hated every single day there. But I put up with all of their consumerist bullshit! And look where that got me.”

“Uh huh,” Mikey agreed distractedly. He was usually very attentive to Gerard’s rants about the injustice of the universe; Gerard rolled onto his side to see what was hogging his attention. He was still staring at the television.

Gerard tried and failed to not be jealous of an inanimate object. “What’re we watching?”

It took Mikey a second to respond. “The House is voting on OneSource.”

“Oh, shit.” How did he not know about this?

“Yeah, shit.” Mikey dug his knuckle into his eye. “It’ll be any minute now.”

Gerard’s newfound lack of employment suddenly seemed much less important.

They watched together, Gerard with his non-pea covered eye, until a man in a crisp suit stood up at the front podium and a hush fell over the huge room. It was almost like a courtroom drama, the tension was so thick in the air.

“Subsection eight-zero-four of the Protective Media Uniformity and Regulation for Tomorrow Act has been passed,” he said simply.

And just like that, an anvil fell on Gerard’s sternum. It had been awful sixteen years ago, with a different president and a different legislature, to witness PMURT take away their freedoms, but free journalism — that was their last stand. That was the difference between a fighting chance and an uphill battle. Now they were staring at a mountain.

“Oh my god,” Mikey whispered.

“The Senate still has to vote, right?” Gerard couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. “Right?”

Mikey’s voice was hollow. “The Senate passed it this morning.”

Fuck. Last night Gerard should have done more than just sing. He should have put his nerves aside. Enough riled-up kids calling their representatives might have made a difference, or at least bought them another day.

Mikey caught the look on his face. “It wouldn’t have mattered.”

Gerard finally managed to squeeze his eyes shut, but the backs of his lids still glowed with headlines he never wanted to read. All of his sentiments felt threadbare. “The President could veto.”

“He could. But he won’t.”

They both knew it was the truth.

*

Even though he had been sitting on the concrete of Otter’s mom’s driveway for so long his ass had started to go numb, Gerard couldn’t muster up the motivation to go inside with Mikey and Ray. He’d go in when Otter came around, he told himself.

That might be never.

He just didn’t understand how some people could have it all. How was it was possible to go to work, put in the hours, be a functioning member of society, and still make the world a better place? Without deep pockets or a stake in politics, it was hardly feasible — but the people who did have those things sure as hell weren’t looking out for the little guy. Did helplessness breed empathy, or did power breed callousness? Would that cycle ever stop?

A shadow fell across him and forced him to look up. “You look like a man dealing with existential dread,” said Frank.

He didn’t know the half of it. Gerard jabbed a thumb at the garage. “Mikey and Ray are already in there.”

Frank‘s eyes obediently followed, but then they came back to Gerard. “And why aren’t you?”

There were a lot of answers to that. “Existential dread.”

“Then you should be in there, working that shit out with the music.” Frank frowned, but he rested his back against the wall and slid down until he was sitting next to Gerard, so Gerard knew he wasn’t really being judged. He wasn’t a huge fan of letting Frank see him like this, but he was too shitty of a liar to come up with an excuse to leave. “Talk to me, dude.”

He watched as a small group of ants worked together to move a leaf five times their size from point A to point B. They made the big jobs look easy. “S’just a shitty day.”

“I don’t think so.” Frank studied his face. Gerard had to look away so he wouldn’t blush. “There’s more to it than that. Tell me what’s up.”

Gerard took a breath. He didn’t feel like rubbing salt in that wound yet. Instead he asked, “Why did you join our band?”

Frank blinked. “I told you. I don’t know any other musicians who are serious about this stuff.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“No. I wouldn’t risk this much jail time for the hell of it, Gerard.”

“Right. Sorry.” Gerard shook his head at himself. “It’s just, when we started it, when Mikey and I had the idea — I thought it would be more. I thought things would get better. Not the whole world, obviously, but.” He paused and carded a hand through his tangled hair. “I couldn’t even make my own life better. And then OneSource passed earlier today, and it hit me all at once that maybe things won’t ever go back to the way they were sixteen years ago. Every time I turn around, shit gets worse.”

Frank was quiet for a moment. “How old were you? When it passed, I mean?”

Gerard did some quick mental math. “Ten.”

“I was five,” Frank said. He wasn’t looking Gerard in the eye anymore. “A lot of people tell me they can remember exactly where they were when it was signed into law, exactly what they were doing that day. It was huge. But I was too young. The only reason I know what life was like before PMURT is because of my dad. He was a musician.”

“Was?”

Shrugging, Frank said, “Might still be. I haven’t seen him in years.”

Both of them stared at the pavement as it turned gold in the setting sun. Gerard didn’t really know what to say to that. His own father had been kind of a deadbeat, but at least he could contact him if he wanted to.

“I lost my job today.”

As soon as the words came out, Gerard worried it that Frank would take it the wrong way. Like he was trying to one-up him on today’s greatest tragedy. But all Frank did was look at him. “What’re you gonna do?”

Gerard had been asking himself the same question for hours. “I don’t know.”

“Yeah.” Frank ducked his head so he didn’t have to squint against the sun, and a grey shadow washed over his features. “Yeah, me neither.”

*

Without Gerard’s job, the writing was simultaneously better and worse; when he went to work every day, he got so bored that his mind couldn’t help but produce words. Now he finally had the time to string them out and get music behind them, but with no other distractions, sometimes he just stared at a blank page for hours.

They practiced, played a show, practiced some more, wrote three songs, scrapped two of them, talked to Pete, and played another show. Things moved slowly, but at least they moved.

Then Gerard ran out of money.

“Evicted,” was the only word he said when he showed up at Mikey’s door with five lumpy duffel bags by his feet.

Mikey, all in all, was not very surprised. He was no stranger to a downward spiral. “Is this everything?”

“Everything I need.” The furniture in his apartment had been repossessed; apparently, if it was there when he moved in, he wasn’t allowed to sneak out with it.

Mikey shoved the throw pillows off of the sofa and pulled it out until it was a functional bed. That was one of Gerard’s favorite things about him, that he never made Gerard ask. “You gonna get a new job soon? I asked around at the office already and we don’t have any positions open, but one of our partner companies probably do. I know you think data analysis is hell on Earth, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Actually.” Gerard shifted in the doorway, tentative to come in. He knew that Mikey would still put him up even if he rejected what Gerard had to say, but the factor of the unknown made his palms sweat. “I’ve been thinking.”

Mikey paused in the middle of stretching a fitted sheet and peered at him over his glasses. “Tell me it’s not as bad as your face is making it look.”

Gerard dropped his expression immediately. He hadn’t realized he’d been doing anything. “No, it’s just. We’ve been getting a lot done lately. With, y’know, the — project.”

Mikey rolled his eyes. “This place isn’t bugged, Gee. You can talk about the band.”

“Right, so the band has been getting a lot done. Compared to how it was before I got fired, I mean.”

“Plus the government has been doing even more bullshit than usual.”

“Exactly. We can’t afford to slack off right now.” Gerard stared at Mikey, silently begging him to understand what he was trying to say. Despite common belief, though, they weren’t actually telepathic.

Mikey just waited. He knew Gerard would untie his tongue and get to the point eventually.

“I think we should tour,” Gerard said at last. “I don’t want to get another job. I want to get in a van and go play shows outside of Jersey.”

Mikey couldn’t help it, his eyebrows shot up. “We don’t have a van.”

“We can buy a van.”

“You don’t have any money.” Gerard winced. He knew that already, of course, but it was another thing entirely to have your little brother say it to your face. Mikey caught his expression and backpedaled. “Shit, sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know.” Gerard did suppose it was kind of pathetic. “But I can sell my car.”

Mikey thought about that for a second. “We’d all have to quit our jobs.”

“Yeah.” Gerard looked at his shoes.

“Quit our jobs and throw everything we have into buying a van so we can play illegal music and probably get arrested. That’s your plan.” Mikey hummed to himself. “Well, it’s about damn time you take some initiative with this thing.”

Gerard’s face went from sullen to disbelieving so fast it hurt. “Are you serious? You’re in?”

“What’s the alternative?” Mikey shrugged. They both knew the answer; nothing worth sticking around for. “It’s up to you to convince the other guys, though.”

*

One week later, they were the proud owners of the shittiest van known to man. The inside smelled like a rat had used it to raise a family before spontaneously combusting and every seat had a minimum of four holes in it, but the engine ran.

“We’re so broke,” Ray said into his hands. “We are so, so broke.”

The engine clicked and then chugged as Otter turned the key in the ignition. The rest of them watched, fingers crossed, as he eased it into drive and took his foot off of the brake.

The van moved about three feet before the rear bumper fell off and crashed to the driveway. They all stared at it.

“Well,” said Frank, “this was definitely worth cashing in my student loans for.”

Gerard did a double-take. “You’re in college?”

“Not anymore.” Frank looked up at him and squinted. The sun was getting low. “You seriously didn’t know that?”

“Shit,” cursed Gerard. Frank was obviously younger than the rest of them, but college? Even if Gerard had never managed to get a degree himself, he didn’t want to sabotage some other poor dude’s life. If this went south, Gerard didn’t have anything to fall back on. He didn’t want Frank in the same boat.

“It’s no big deal. I was there for three years and didn’t learn a thing.” Frank shrugged. Gerard had no idea how he could be so nonchalant about this. He didn’t want to treat Frank like a kid when he clearly wasn’t, with his cocked hip and his lip ring and ink sprawling down his arm, but adult seemed like a bit of a stretch.

“But what if — what about your future?”

“My future?” Frank put a hand on top of Gerard’s head and looked at him steadily. “Man, you have got some brainwashed shit going on up there. This is my future.”

He sounded sure, but Gerard couldn’t help his doubt. He definitely hadn’t known what his future was when he was twenty-one. But Mikey was barely any older, he had to remind himself. This was everyone’s future now. This smelly, wretched van was their future.

Good lord.

*

It was strange, saying goodbye to Jersey, even if it was just for a little while. He promised the crowd that night that they would meet again in a dingy venue soon — what he didn’t say was that it would either be because they ran out of food or floors to sleep on.

For the first time ever, they were headlining, which meant enough kids knew the lyrics to scream them back at Gerard. It was incredible, like finally hitting gold after months of digging through gravel, all those gleaming eyes looking at him like he was the god they’d never been given. The pride in his chest was massive, but the bittersweet lacing on it made it hard to swallow. Gerard couldn’t help but feel that they were about to leave behind something that had barely begun.

They had to, though, so they did. Duffel bags were squeezed into the space between instruments and then bodies were folded up in whatever room was left, which wasn’t much. Mikey got an elbow to the face and bit it without even bothering to check who it belonged to, and Ray yelped and swung out his other elbow to hit Frank in the stomach. Frank wheezed out a curse and lunged, and Gerard had to get in between them really fast before a scuffle broke out and accidentally punched a hole in the drum kit.

It was calmer after people began to fall asleep; once post-gig adrenaline wore off, the crash was imminent. Gerard’s brain had never been built for sleeping, though, so he sat up front with Otter and watched headlights replace the new moon. In the rearview mirror, he could see Mikey with his long legs draped across Frank’s lap and his head on Ray’s thigh, all three of them letting out quiet snores through slack jaws. Gerard didn’t notice he was smiling until Otter smiled back.

Together, they drove to New York.

*

Gerard wasn’t sure when he fell asleep, just that he woke up because his ass was buzzing. On autopilot, his hand found his phone in his jeans and held it up to his ear. “Wha’?”

“Mikey didn’t pick up. It’s Pete.” Gerard had to take a moment to process Pete’s rapid-fire speech. He glanced over his shoulder. Mikey was still slumped in the back seat, dead to the world. “I’ve got big news. Like, really big news. Huge news.”

“Me too.” Gerard stifled a yawn. “We left Jersey.”

For the first time in his entire life, Gerard suspected, Pete was silent. “Without telling me?”

“It was a group decision.” Gerard’s eyes slipped shut, and it took a lot of effort to pry them back open. “How did you get my number again?”

“I can get anyone’s number. You left Jersey?”

“Yeah. I mean, it was time. You leave Chicago sometimes, don’t you?”

“‘Course we do. But it took us two years to get there.”

Gerard flicked the air conditioning vent, but since the engine was off, he was out of luck. “We don’t have two years to spare anymore.”

“You’re right.” Pete still didn’t sound ecstatic about it, but Gerard was too tired to worry about the implications of that. “My news is about that, actually, kind of. I know these guys in San Diego who are working on a way around OneSource.”

“By impeaching the President?”

Pete huffed out a laugh. “I wish. No, they’ve started an underground radio station to pass on real news to anyone who wants it.”

Gerard sat up a little straighter. “And how the hell did they do that?”

“There were a lot of satellite radio stations abandoned after PMURT passed, and it costs a lot to dismantle their signals, so no one bothered. Gabe and Bill — those are the guys I know — figured out how to hijack one of them. Bill’s a wizard with that kind of stuff, and Gabe doesn’t know how to shut up, so they’re perfect for it. You can listen to it all over the country.”

“That’s like painting a target on your back.” Gerard was sure his eyes were bugging out.

“Give me liberty or give me death,” Pete recited solemnly. “Point is, they’re good guys and you can trust them. So if you see or hear anything that OneSource wouldn’t want you to know about — you know where to send it.”

Gerard sucked in a breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I will.”

“Good. Make sure you tell the others.”

It was common knowledge that Pete would hang up on you as soon as he got bored with the conversation, and Gerard could already hear the notes of finality in his tone, so he forced his mouth to move before he could think twice about it. “Pete?”

Pete’s voice came back a beat later, like he had already taken his phone away from his ear. “Yeah?”

“Are we doing enough? I mean, like, me? My Chemical Romance?”

“You’re doing something,” Pete said. “And when everyone else is doing nothing, that’s enough.”

*

“Good afternoon, ladies and gents. In case you’re just joining us — you’re listening to the Cobra, and I’m here to tell you that the government can kiss my ass.”

Ray pressed his lips together and turned down the radio in the van. They were lucky that the previous owner had decided to upgrade from the original piece, which would have no doubt have been too old to pick up satellite, not to mention fossilized. “He’s charming.”

“He’s what we’ve got,” Gerard said.

Frank grinned. “I like him.”

Though he wasn’t going to say it, Gerard liked Gabe too. They’d only listened to half an hour of his program, but his no-bullshit attitude was infectious. He told it how it was with the help of the occasional musical interlude, which was usually some techno piece that Ray rolled his eyes at but Gerard secretly thought was kind of fun. Not everything had to sound like the world was ending. Even if it sort of was.

Knuckles rapped on the side of the van by Gerard’s head and he startled, moving away just in time to not fall out of the door when Mikey opened it and popped his head inside. “I talked to the guy who runs this place.”

Ray perked up. “Are we allowed to bring our gear in yet?”

Mikey shook his head. “No. He wants to know who our manager is.”

Gerard’s stomach clenched. “I take it ticket sales weren’t through the roof.”

“Shockingly,” drawled Mikey. “So I told him I had to make a phone call and snuck out the back, because we don’t have a manager.”

Gerard looked over at him tentatively. “We have a Pete.”

“And Pete has his own band.” Mikey rubbed the skin around his eyes until it looked like it was disconnected from his face. “He’s busy. We can’t crash in on that. So we either need to figure out how to book gigs the right way, or we need to find someone stupid enough to do it for us.”

“I would prefer the term brave,” said a new voice, and they all jumped about a mile in the air. Gerard turned to look, but had to drop his gaze another half of a foot before he actually saw who was speaking; the guy standing there was short and tattooed like Frank, but with spiked-up hair and a more feral curl to his smile. “Hi. I’m Brian, the guy that Mikey just snuck out to avoid.”

“Okay,” Gerard said hesitantly, and stuck out a hand to shake. Then, as an afterthought, “Gerard.”

“How—” Mikey’s eyes were wide, because he’d always believed anyone as skinny as himself could practically disappear when they wanted to.

“An alarm’s installed on that door. Fire code.” Brian must have seen the look they all shot him. “What? I’m not totally lawless. If this place burns down, I’m screwed.”

“We were just talking about our manager.” Mikey’s face was carefully schooled.

“Or lack thereof,” said Brian, and Gerard had to wonder how long he had been standing there. “I’d like to propose something.”

Mikey gestured with one hand, like go ahead.

“When I talked to Wentz, he said you guys were pretty good. Sent me a video and everything.” Gerard resisted the urge to groan, because Jesus Christ, Pete knew everyone. “It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen. So if things go well tonight, I’d like to manage you.”

Mikey’s eyes flattened into slits. “That’s very flattering—” he started, but Brian cut him off.

“I’ve been doing this longer than you guys have. I’ve been doing this longer than Wentz has. I’ve owned three venues and am yet to be thrown in jail for it, and I know how to make a crowd show up.”

“We’re not really looking for anyone,” Mikey said, even though they hadn’t officially discussed that.

“Your type usually isn’t. That doesn’t mean you don’t need me.”

Ray exchanged a look with Mikey. “We can’t pay you.”

“I know.”

“Then what’s in it for you?”

Brian lifted an eyebrow and pointedly looked at Frank. “Not having to wear long sleeves all the fucking time?”

Frank nodded, mouth quirking up. “Point.” No one else was smiling, though.

“Look.” Brian sighed. “Just play the show and think about it. But I sincerely doubt you’re going to find anyone with a resume like mine.”

The door was halfway closed when Brian turned to them again. “Oh, hey. Where are you guys from?”

“Jersey,” said Frank.

Brian grinned, and Gerard could actually see his individual teeth. “Yeah? Me too.”

*

That night, they played to approximately fourteen people, and Gerard was pretty sure they were only there for the opening band.

“It’s not approximate.” Mikey flicked his arm. “I counted. There were literally only fourteen people out there.”

“We made the most of it,” Gerard said, trying to sound more confident than he felt. When they had packed up and left, they’d all known that out-of-state gigs would be harder to promote and there was no guarantee that any scene would take kindly to new faces, but fourteen people. That was rough.

When he looked up, Ray was already staring at him. So was Otter. He knew that they were all thinking the same thing.

“We don’t have room in the van,” Mikey whined, a last-ditch effort. Gerard knew he wasn’t actually opposed, he just didn’t like to be proven wrong.

“We’ll make room.” Frank eyed him. “You’re a skinny fucker.”

“What if he’s an axe-murderer?”

Ray rolled his eyes. “He’s, like, Frank’s size. I doubt he could even pick up an axe.”

“Hey!” Frank slapped the back of Ray’s head. “I could totally be an axe-murderer.”

Ray’s chin twitched as he barely concealed a smirk. “That…was not the point.”

“Don’t worry.” Reaching over, Gerard patted Frank’s knee consolingly. “I definitely think you could murder someone.” The grin Frank gave him in return lit up the room.

“Off-topic,” muttered Otter with a knowing look, and Gerard had to work really hard not to blush.

“I like him. We should hire him,” said Ray. “I mean, minus the part where he gets a paycheck. Does that still count as hiring?”

It was hard to know who to trust, sometimes, without being able to turn to the law and ask them to sort things out. But Gerard had a gut feeling on this one, the same magnetic tug that told him to pick up that whiskey bottle and have Frank join their band. They were all waiting on him to speak, so he let his thoughts roll around and stitch back together, searching for any indication that this was the wrong choice. He didn’t find anything.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, let’s do it. He’s a good fit.”

*

Having a manager had more perks then selling out shows, they soon found out. It also meant having someone to find them places to sleep that weren’t under the drum kit in the van.

“Her name’s Stacy,” Brian told them all for the thousandth time like they were toddlers. Which, okay, fair. “And she’s being very nice by letting us have her basement for the night, so no one is going to do anything stupid or break anything, okay?”

Gerard nodded and felt Frank copy his action against his neck. They were all exhausted, pushed to the edge by sweaty shows and shitty food and four hours of sleep a night, and about twenty minutes ago Frank had given up entirely on supporting his own body weight and leaned up against Gerard. Gerard didn’t exactly mind, even if the warm huffs of breath hitting his skin were making it hard for him to keep his hands to himself.

“Okay. Good.” The dark circles under Brian’s eyes were huge. It was impressive how quickly he had fallen into rhythm with them, but unfortunately that had included adopting everyone’s shitty sleep schedule. “She said there are drinks in the kitchen if you want any. I’m going downstairs, and if any of you wake me up, I swear to god I will cut off all of your toes so you have to hop around on stage like a bunch of birds.”

“Night, Brian,” Ray called as they watched his slouched form recede.

“I think he’s going to have a heart attack by the end of the month,” said Mikey. He was probably right.

Wandering into the kitchen with his Frank-tumor, Gerard watched through a tired fog as Otter opened the fridge and then turned around, slack-jawed.

“What?” Gerard said, half expecting to find a severed head as Otter moved out of the way. But no — where he had been anticipating soda cans, there were beer bottles.

“Dude,” Frank mumbled against his neck. “This chick is hardcore.”

“Don’t call women chicks,” Gerard replied automatically before slipping into a tone of wonderment. “But, yeah. She fucking is.”

Ray scratched the side of his head. “I guess I can stop worrying about her reporting us.”

“Can we have any?” Otter reached forward, but Gerard smacked his hand away.

“That stuff must have cost a fortune. We can’t just drink it.”

“She did say we were welcome to the drinks in the kitchen,” Mikey pointed out. “This might have been what she meant.”

Gerard glared at him, trying to weigh the consequences in his mind. Sometimes it was hell to have to be an older brother and a frontman. He sort of wished Brian hadn’t gone to bed yet.

Still. She had offered.

The final straw was when he turned his head sideways to see Frank looking up at him with big, pleading eyes, hair messy and tickling the underside of Gerard’s jaw. Fuck.

“One each,” he said finally. “Seriously, that’s it. We’re guests.”

A minute later, everyone had their caps off and was tasting their first sips of beer. Gerard felt just like a teenager in one of those coming-of-age movies he would have been able to watch sixteen years ago.

Frank screwed up his face and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. Gerard suppressed a laugh. “That’s…kind of gross.”

“I like it,” said Otter, easily taking another swig. Gerard watched his features for any sign that he was lying, and upon finding none, lifted his own bottle to his mouth and tried it. It wasn’t horrible like Frank had made it out to be, but it wasn’t that great, either. Gerard wondered why so many people had spent years lusting after it after the enactment of PMURT.

About twenty minutes later, it became pretty clear as to why.

Since Gerard had no frame of reference, he couldn’t really tell how bad it was, but he was fairly certain that he wasn’t drunk. At least, he knew that if he had gotten drunk off of just one beer, he definitely shouldn’t tell anyone else about it. The exhaustion had turned into something else, something warm and cozy and pleasantly numbing, and it made it much harder to keep his eyes off of Frank.

“What?” Frank’s mouth curved up as he caught Gerard staring. His eyes were half-lidded, though Gerard wasn’t sure whether the beer or lack of sleep was to blame. “What?” Frank asked again, and Gerard shrugged lazily. Frank was just pretty, and if Gerard wanted to look, so be it. Though Frank was standing up on his own now, he was still close enough to share body heat, and Gerard pressed up against his side absently.

“We should sleep,” he murmured against the shell of Frank’s ear, because his eyelids were heavy and had a mind of their own.

“You think we can get down there without waking Brian up?”

Gerard nodded; it had been nearly an hour since they’d split up, and all of them slept like rocks nowadays. It probably wouldn’t be much of an issue.

“Good,” Frank said softly. “Because I really like my toes.”

Gerard giggled. Luckily, he managed to snap his mouth shut before he said something dumb and incriminating about how he liked Frank’s toes too, even though he’d never seen them before. The reality was more that he just liked Frank. Reaching around the countertop to poke Mikey’s side, Gerard tilted his head in the direction of the basement staircase, saying a quick goodnight. Mikey quirked an eyebrow at his closeness to Frank but ultimately dropped it, waving them off and rejoining Ray and Otter’s conversation.

Frank tugged on Gerard as he tried to take his first step down the stairs. “Walk on the edge of them,” he whispered, and placed his feet right next to where stair met railing. “Like this. It’s got more support. Quieter.”

Gerard didn’t know if that was strictly true, but he did it anyway, creeping down to the basement with Frank behind him. All he could hear in the dark room were their own footsteps and Brian snoring.

“Kind of creepy,” he said lowly. Frank didn’t answer, placing a hand on Gerard’s waist instead. It was likely just an act of reassurance, but heat still shot through Gerard’s body.

Once they got to the bottom, Gerard stuck his shoe out and tested to make sure there wasn’t another secret step for him to trip on and make a fool of himself. Frank nearly crashed into him but managed to stop at the last second. Gerard felt his damp breath on the back of his neck.

“I have no idea if there are beds down here,” Gerard realized all of a sudden. He couldn’t expect Brian to tell them everything, of course, but now they were kind of fucked.

“We can feel around?” Frank suggested, more a question than a solution. They began to walk zombie-style, arms out with staggered steps, narrowly avoiding face-first greetings with walls and a television, until Frank grabbed Gerard’s wrist and planted his hand on something squishy.

“That feels like a mattress to me,” Gerard said.

Even in the dark, Gerard could hear Frank’s grin. “Only one way to find out.” Before Gerard had the chance ask what the hell that meant, Frank got both hands on his hips and pulled him down, both of them landing on the bed with a satisfying bounce. Gerard was pretty sure his heart was going to hammer out of his chest.

“Hunch confirmed,” Frank whispered smugly, and Gerard used the sound to figure out that Frank’s face was, in fact, right next to his. They were together. On the same bed.

Gerard thought about dirty socks, Presidential broadcasts, and his grandma’s underwear.

Warm fingertips brushed up Gerard’s arm, prompting involuntary goosebumps. He just hoped it wasn’t too obvious. “Goodnight,” Frank said into his ear, his fingers disappearing from Gerard’s skin as he rolled over onto his side to get some sleep.

Gerard couldn’t even close his eyes.

*

After a show in Albany, they ended up in the two-bedroom apartment of a guy named Ryland. He explained that he lived alone and therefore had too much space for his own good, so they were welcome to the extra room and his two pull-out couches. He also told them that he thought their set was great, and Gerard tripped over his own tongue a few times trying to say thank you.

Ray claimed the bed immediately, since he had been the communal human pillow the past two nights sleeping in the van. Brian clambered in with him because he was small and stubborn. Mikey didn’t look too pleased at the prospect of sharing leg space with Otter, so Gerard quickly claimed him and tried his best to send Frank telepathic apologies.

When he woke up the next morning, though, Frank’s face was hovering over him. Mikey was nowhere to be seen. Gerard blinked and attempted to deduce if he was dreaming.

“Oh, uh, sorry. Good morning.” He sat back quickly, fidgeting with his hands.

“Are we supposed to be in the van?” Gerard asked groggily, because that was the only logical explanation he could come up with as to why Frank would be waiting for him to wake up.

“Not for like, another hour.” Frank crossed and uncrossed his legs. Gerard raised an eyebrow. The dude wasn’t particularly skilled at being still, and sometimes he’d jiggle his leg so hard while they were driving that Ray would have to slap him, but he rarely seemed nervous.

“Then why are you—” Gerard cleared his throat and tried to make it sound less accusing. “Do you need something?”

“A favor, actually, yeah.” He drummed his fingers on his thigh. There was ink on his hands, but Gerard had no clue what lied beneath the denim. “Mikey, uh — he told me you’re sort of an artist?”

“Did he say ‘sort of’?”

“Uh, no.” Frank smiled, but it vanished just as quickly. “He said you went to SVA for three years before it got shut down, and that you were the best in your class. But that was more of a mouthful.”

Color rose to the high points of Gerard’s cheeks. “He tends to exaggerate.”

Though he didn’t argue, Frank hardly looked convinced. “So you draw, right?”

Gerard’s eyes flickered over to where his notebook leaned up against his bag, more words than art by now, but definitely still crammed with doodles. “Not as much as I used to.”

“Can I see?” Frank asked, his gaze fixed on the same point across the room as Gerard. Gerard hesitated, because he usually didn’t even let Mikey look in there, but it was impossible not to trust Frank. He nodded slowly. Frank stood up and grabbed it, coming back and tucking his legs underneath himself on the bed.

Flipping through until he found some full-page illustrations, Gerard tilted the notebook so Frank could see. Frank didn’t say anything, only stared, and Gerard’s stomach twisted uncomfortably.

“Mikey wasn’t exaggerating,” Frank murmured at last, sounding a little awed. Gerard breathed easier. “Any other hidden talents you’d like to tell me about?”

“Sorry to say that’s all I’ve got.” Gerard closed the notebook and pretended he didn’t see Frank’s disappointed face. “But, uh, what has this got to do with your favor?”

“Oh! Right.” Frank’s expression cleared. “I want to get another tattoo, and I was hoping you’d design it.”

“Where?” Gerard furrowed his brows, and before he could stop himself, asked, “Why me?”

“I’ll find someplace. They’re not as uncommon as you might think, if you know where to look.” Frank shrugged with one shoulder. “And it’s for the band, so I figured why outsource the job when I’ve got a great artist right here?”

A warm feeling crept into Gerard’s fingers at the praise. “You’re getting a tattoo for the band?”

“Yeah.” Frank grinned wide enough to show teeth. “I’m in this thing for life, permanent as ink. Or until they stick me with a needle of potassium chloride, at least.” Gerard winced at that imagery. Not noticing, Frank picked up Gerard’s hand and guided it to where his shoulder curved into his neck. “I want it right here.”

Gerard tried to keep his face neutral. “Isn’t that kind of conspicuous?”

“It’s supposed to be.” All of a sudden, Frank seemed more like a twenty-one-year-old than ever. Gerard wanted to help him out, but he couldn’t justify being a catalyst to recklessness.

“Have you really thought this through?”

The tip of Frank’s tongue darted out to wet his lip ring. “Since the day I joined.”

Well, shit. Gerard couldn’t argue with that.

*

After about three weeks on the road, it became abundantly clear that the old version of Otter — the one that hadn’t shown up to practice on time and didn’t put any effort into drums — had returned. Except now he was onstage.

They all noticed it, but only Brian had the guts to bring it up. “Drums were sloppy tonight.”

Otter, who was behind the wheel, jerked the van hard enough to make the cymbals clash in the back. Gerard’s shoulder hit the door with enough force to bruise, but that wasn’t what made his stomach flip. They were on the road all night, trading off shifts driving for the lack of a place to sleep. If a fight broke out there was nowhere to go.

“Drums were sloppy last night, too,” Brian continued before Otter had a chance for rebuttal. “And the night before that. Are you sensing a theme?”

“My drums were fine.” Otter glowered at the road. “Maybe the sound system was off.”

Considering Brian’s extensive background running his own venues, Gerard doubted that Otter had the upper hand on that topic; Brian grumbled something under his breath and looked over his shoulder at Gerard, who averted his gaze. “Look. This band is going places. So tighten up, or you’re going to get left behind.”

Otter tore his eyes from the stream of traffic, and Gerard’s stomach swooped in panic as he watched them roll towards the car stopped ahead of them without slowing down. “Otter!”

Everyone lurched forward as Otter slammed on the brakes. He and Brian were still glaring at each other. Gerard leaned up between them, which felt a little too much like sticking his neck out for a guillotine. “Can we have this discussion later, maybe?”

“I can’t believe you’re threatening me,” growled Otter, either not registering or not caring about what Gerard had said. In front of them, the light turned green and cars started to move, but the van stayed put. “You’re new around here, so you don’t know this, but I’ve been here since the beginning. This band would not exist without me.”

Brian lifted an eyebrow coolly. “You’re replaceable.”

That was too far, and they all knew it. Gerard put a hand on the back of the seat. “Brian—”

“What, you think guys are lining up around the block to live in a shit van and run from the law? Because I don’t. There are no upsides. None.”

Gerard blinked at Otter. Surely he didn’t mean that. He’d said it himself, he’d been there since day one — they had a reason for doing this. This was their purpose.

“Nobody’s asking you to leave,” said Brian. “But whatever’s keeping you from playing right, you need to figure it out and you need to fix it. That’s it.”

The rest of the ride to Rochester was pretty quiet after that.

*

Gerard stood in the doorway of the room Frank and Ray were sharing for at least a minute before plucking up his courage and clearing his throat.

Frank, who had been absent-mindedly strumming chords on the bed, startled and looked over. He really was pretty, draped over a guitar like that; it was a sharp contrast from when he was hot and furious onstage like he had been an hour ago, but Gerard liked both facets of him.

“How long have you been standing there?”

“Only a second,” Gerard said, even though he knew Frank would see right through it.

“Most people just knock, you know. You could try that.” He grinned and patted the spot next to him. “What’s up?”

“I, uh.” Stepping into the room, Gerard moved his notebook so it was held in front of him instead of behind. “You know that tattoo you wanted?”

Frank’s eyes went wide. “It’s finished?”

“Well, yeah.” He flipped to the correct page and held it out for Frank to see, breath caught in his chest. “Sorry it took so long.”

“Are you kidding me?” Frank ran his finger along an inked line. It wasn’t an incredibly complex design, just a scorpion, but Gerard had toiled for days over what the hell he could possibly ask Frank to ink on his body forever. Fuck, forever was so scary. “This is beautiful. I would’ve waited months for this.”

Gerard knew Frank was exaggerating for the sake of his emotions, but he couldn’t help the warm feeling that bubbled up in him. “I know it’s not, like, directly related to the band or anything, but I thought a lot about this movement, and what it means, and like—”

Frank rested a hand on Gerard’s forearm. “Hey. You don’t have to sell me on it. I already love it.”

“Oh. Okay.” Heat crept up Gerard’s neck. “I, uh. Yeah. Thank you.”

“Thank you.” Frank’s grin was the best thing in the world, seriously. He stood up abruptly and got halfway to the door before he looked over his shoulder. “Are you coming, or what?”

Gerard blinked at him. “What?”

“To go get this done.” Frank pointed at the drawing in Gerard’s lap and then at his own neck.

Gerard wasn’t sure he had heard him right. “It’s already past midnight.”

“Which means we won’t get caught.” Frank waved a hand towards the door. “C’mon.”

Gerard waited for a beat, but no, Frank wasn’t joking. The idea of watching a needle full of ink dig into skin didn’t have Gerard particularly psyched, but he was even less psyched about letting Frank duck into dark alleys alone this late at night. Not that Gerard was any use in a fight, but still. He was better than nothing.

Plus, Frank wanted something that Gerard had drawn on his body forever. Fuck. Gerard really needed to start thinking before he signed up for these kinds of things.

They snuck down the street, creeping around the sickly glow of street lamps, until Frank grabbed his arm and pulled him into an alleyway. Gerard felt a puddle of something he desperately hoped was water soak into his shoes.

“Is this where—” Before he could get the question out, Frank slapped a hand over his mouth. Rude. He was contemplating licking it when two police officers strolled right past them, chatting and not even sparing a glance down the alley. Gerard froze. He was surprised they didn’t hear his heartbeat, it was so loud in his ears.

“No,” Frank answered preemptively once the officers were out of sight, and dragged Gerard back out onto the street. “It’s this way.”

“We weren’t doing anything illegal yet,” said Gerard.

Frank didn’t stop walking. “That wouldn’t have mattered to them. After the sun goes down, just looking like this is probable cause to put us in cuffs.”

“So glad this couldn’t wait until morning,” Gerard muttered under his breath.

The tattoo shop, it turned out, was in a different alley and then down a flight of stairs. “It used to be a bar,” Frank explained as Gerard narrowly avoided faceplanting on a cracked step. “A bar below a club. But when music and alcohol were outlawed...”

“You turn it into something else illegal.”

Frank’s smile glowed in the darkness. “Exactly. Something different that’s illegal. Something they don’t know to look for.”

Gerard stepped into another puddle. Ew. “How’d you even know it was here?”

“The girl who did all my other ink hooked me up.”

“Oh.” They stopped suddenly as the stairs bottomed out, and Gerard waited while Frank did some kind of complicated knock. “How many do you have?”

“Nine so far.”

“Really?” Gerard looked Frank up and down, but even in the daylight he never saw more than half that number. “Where are they?”

Frank smirked at him just as the metal door groaned and opened. “Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“You must be Frank.” The woman on the other side of the door had dark hair and a glint in her eyes that made Gerard nervous. “I’m Lindsey. You guys should come in.” She stepped to the side and glanced both ways down the alley before letting the door swing shut, bolting it in three places afterward.

They followed her down a sparsely lit hallway until it opened up into a fluorescent room with a few reclined chairs, one of which was occupied. Gerard’s stomach turned over at the sheer amount of needles he already saw.

“So what are we doing today?” Lindsey guided Frank into the chair and rolled a tray of tools over to him. Gerard had to look away.

“Just one on my neck,” Frank said. “My friend’s got the design.”

Eyes glued to the floor, Gerard released his white-knuckle grip on the notebook and handed it over. He felt Lindsey’s gaze linger on his face and looked up to see furrowed brows.

“You’re Gerard Way,” she said with an alarming amount of certainty. “You guys are from—?”

Gerard felt the blood run out of his face. Getting recognized should be good news, in theory, but not everyone was who they seemed.

“My Chemical Romance,” said Frank, unconcerned. “You know our stuff?”

“Of course. We play it in here all the time.” She leaned over to prep a needle, and Gerard had to drop his gaze again.

“But we haven’t released anything,” Frank said.

Lindsey smiled ruefully. “Like anyone records albums anymore. No, videos from your shows have been getting around. Most of them are shit quality, but it’s better than nothing.”

Frank hissed as cold disinfectant swiped over his skin, and Gerard watched as Lindsey made quick work of redrawing his design. Then the unmistakable sound of a tattoo gun buzzing started up. Gerard’s whole arm went numb.

“Uh, Gee?” Frank said. Gerard didn’t look at him. “You’re a little green, dude.”

“No, I’m fine, it’s just—” He tried to smile and look up, wanting to convince Frank that he wouldn’t wimp out on him, and that was his big mistake. Bile rose to the back of his throat. “I’m just gonna—” He hurried back out into the hallway, ears ringing too hard to process what Frank yelled after him, and slid down against the wall. Once he was in fetal position, his stomach stopped churning so hard. At least it was dim enough that he didn’t have to close his eyes. A rhythmic noise moved in and out of his head, and it took him a minute to realize it was his own labored breathing.

It could have been hours until he heard Frank’s voice again, even though it probably wasn’t. “Hey.” Frank stood over him, and Gerard felt so fucking small. “Hey, it’s over now. Everything’s fine.”

“Sorry,” Gerard croaked, and squeezed his eyes shut so he didn’t have to see the expression on Frank’s face.

“You could have just told me.” Frank laughed quietly and it echoed in the empty hall. A hand brushed along the side of Gerard’s face, and he leaned into it without thinking. When he opened his eyes again, Frank was squatting in front of him, a clear bandage taped to his neck.

“I didn’t want you to go alone.” Gerard shrugged, feeling very much like an idiot. “I don’t know.”

“It’s okay.” Frank traced his thumb along the contour of Gerard’s cheekbone. “Lindsey did a good job with your design. You want to see it?”

Gerard considered for a moment. Needles were the problem, not blood or ink; he nodded, and Frank’s mouth lifted the tiniest bit. Gerard really wanted to kiss him.

“Here.” Frank adjusted their positions to make the most of the light spilling out from the main room. It was sweet of him to not ask Gerard to go back in there.

The tape obscured some parts of the design, but Gerard could see enough to breathe out, “Wow.”

“I know, right?” He pressed Gerard’s notebook back into his hands. “You’re the best, man. Seriously.”

“Did it hurt?”

Frank grinned like a kid. “Like an absolute motherfucker.”

Gerard couldn’t help but stare at the new tattoo on their walk back. Part of him was terribly worried, because there was no way in hell people weren’t going to notice it, and it was too high up for anything but a turtleneck to cover it — he could not imagine Frank in a turtleneck. The other half of him, though, was walking on air at the sight of his art on Frank.

Permanent as ink, Frank had said. Maybe he was right.

*

Brian huffed and climbed back onto the bus. “They’re not going to let us into the venue for another two hours.”

“Two hours?” Ray looked ready to tear his hair out. They had driven through the whole night to get to Pittsburg, so some of them were, understandably, cooped-up.

“It’s not like you have to stay in the van the whole time,” Brian said, and Ray’s frown deepened at the word van alone. “Don’t look at me like that, it’s not my fucking fault. Go do some street-teaming for tonight’s show, or something. Just don’t get arrested.”

Mikey grabbed Ray by the arm and hauled him out of the van before he could bite Brian’s head off. Ray protested, but considering how easily he could have picked Mikey up and slung him over his shoulder, Gerard figured he didn’t mind as much as he was letting on. Otter slid out behind them and followed them down the street.

Brian eyed Frank and Gerard. “You guys staying here?”

Gerard widened his eyes at Frank, silently begging for a rescue from angry Brian. “I need new bandages,” Frank said hurriedly. “For, y’know.” He tilted his head to the side, showing off his healing ink. Gerard really owed him one.

“Yeah, that’s cool,” Brian called after them as they scurried out of the van. “I’ll just hang out here all alone!”

Though Gerard winced guiltily, he tried to let it slide off his back; Brian was insightful enough to know when he wasn’t going to be good company, and he obviously needed some time to cool off.

They only made it a block before Gerard got the itchy feeling he was being watched. Perturbed, he glanced over his shoulder, but Frank smacked him in the side before he could really take in the scene. Gerard whipped his head over to him. “What?”

“There’s two of them, both armed. I’ve been keeping an eye on them.”

“Cops?” Gerard started to look over his shoulder again, but Frank made an angry noise.

“Don’t look, it’ll only give them a reason to approach us.”

“Come on, we’re just walking. They can’t give us shit for that.” Gerard rolled his eyes, trying to make light of it, but Frank’s dour expression didn’t let up. “Can they?”

“Well.” Frank gestured to the rest of the pedestrians around them, all of whom were in light colored-clothing, lacked body modification, and appeared to shower at regular intervals. Gerard’s fear of needles had kept him relatively clean, and he rarely got second glances. But standing next to Frank in public was a whole new experience. “We don’t exactly blend in.”

Gerard’s entire body tensed. Normally, he tampered down his anxious instincts, because he was known to overreact — but if Frank was unsettled, that seemed like a pretty good reason to panic. “Frank—”

“Just keep your head down,” Frank interrupted. “If we get thrown in jail, Brian will break us out just so he can kill us.”

“Lecture us, first,” Gerard said. “Then kill us.”

They trekked the rest of the way to a convenience store in quick, even paces, with Frank stomping a bit more than strictly necessary. Inside, Gerard stepped back and gave Frank room to make annoyed faces at the display shelves until he found what he was looking for. He only needed tape; Lindsey had supplied him with more than enough bandages. It was just because it was a tricky spot, he explained to Gerard. Every time he moved his head, the tape came a little more undone.

The cashier stopped halfway through saying, “Did you find everything okay?” to drag his eyes very obviously from the roll of tape on the counter to the tape currently on Frank’s neck, and Gerard could practically see the puzzle pieces snap together behind his eyes.

“Yeah, I just needed this to wrap some gifts.” Jaw set, Frank stared the kid down, daring him to call him out on it.

The cashier swallowed audibly. Gerard could see the phone on the other side of the register; it would be so easy for him to just pick it up, call the authorities and have them haul Frank away. A flash of irritation sizzled through Gerard at Frank’s lack of foresight — and then at himself for practically taking him to go have the ink done.

“We have, uh, wrapping paper in aisle four,” the cashier spit out finally. “If, you know. If you need that too.”

“I think I’m fine, thanks.” Frank’s grin came off more like a baring of teeth as he passed money over. Even Gerard had to look away.

“Have a nice day,” the cashier squeaked to his register.

Frank grabbed the tape and stormed out, and Gerard had to speed-walk after him to keep up. He’d seen Frank angry before, at the President on television or at the mere concept of Congress, but never so directly. Especially at a stranger.

“Hey.” Gerard caught his arm, but he didn’t slow down. “Frank, hey. He didn’t mean any harm.”

“He needed to mind his own fucking business,” Frank snarled. “None of these motherfuckers need to be concerned about what I do with my own body.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Gerard saw a police officer slow down and look at the pair of them curiously. Gerard pulled harder on Frank’s elbow, trying to make him face the opposite direction, but it was too late. On his heel, Frank spun until two-thirds of his body was in the officer’s line of sight. His tattooed, illegal body. “None of them.” Gerard knew Frank wasn’t talking to him this time.

The cop raised an eyebrow, and the alarm bells in Gerard’s head amplified. “Frank, come on. You got what you needed, let’s just go back.”

But Frank wasn’t listening to him anymore, even though he was making direct eye contact. Without so much as a word, he rolled up both of his sleeves.

“Frank—” Gerard warned frantically, because this was so not the time or place for one of Frank’s trademark I Hate the Government bitch fits, even if he was completely right. They had stages for that, clubs for that. Not streets in the broad daylight with a cop watching.

Frank’s eyes barely moved, but it was enough for Gerard to tell he was looking at the officer now. She had stopped walking completely and one of her hands had dropped from her coffee cup, lingering worryingly close to the phone clipped to her belt. Gerard shook Frank’s arm, trying to regain his attention and communicate what an awful idea this was before it went too far for them to reverse.

When Frank finally looked at him again, though, something in his eyes had changed. “You know what’ll really piss her off?”

Against his better judgement, Gerard asked, “What?”

“This.” Gerard didn’t even have the chance to breathe before Frank was kissing him.

Gerard’s mind rolled through about a thousand different emotions at once, the predominant one being fuck yes but with what the fuck and this is how I die hot on its heels. Frank’s mouth was hot and insistent and Gerard could feel it in his fucking knees, and it took every ounce of Gerard’s brainpower to not forget where they were and just shove Frank up against the nearest wall and do things that would definitely be illegal, PMURT or not.

“What the fuck?” he settled on finally, shoving Frank away by the chest and trying to feel anything besides turned on. He was pretty sure his face was red, and his lips were wet, but so were Frank’s, and that was even worse.

“Uh,” was all Frank offered. Then he grabbed Gerard’s hand and sprinted.

Gerard’s mind was still so caught up on the very confusing thing involving their mouths that he almost ate pavement before getting his legs in gear and tearing after Frank. He wasn’t sure what they were running from, exactly, until he risked a look over his shoulder and saw the police officer marching towards her car and throwing the door open. That couldn’t be good.

“I hate you!” he yelled up to Frank, who cackled gleefully and ducked into an alley. Since he had no other choice, Gerard followed, even though Frank had just proven himself to be someone who should definitely not be trusted with decisions.

Halfway through the alley was a gate, clearly locked even from their vantage point on the other side. “That’s a gate,” Gerard stated dumbly. Most of his brain cells had been fried the moment Frank had decided Gerard’s mouth seemed like a good place to hold his next political protest.

“Jump it.” Like it was the simplest thing in the world, Frank tossed Gerard his tape, then pushed a nearby garbage can next to the gate and hauled himself onto it until he found a foothold in the metal and launched himself over. Thank god there weren’t spikes at the top. Once he was on the ground, Frank nailed Gerard with an expectant look.

“Oh, hell no.” Gerard wasn’t bulky or anything, but he also wasn’t a fucking cat-ninja, and he was pretty sure he wouldn’t land on his feet like Frank just had. In the distance, a police siren wailed. “Fuck you. It’s like you want me to die.”

“I don’t want you to die,” Frank said, even though all evidence begged to differ. He pointedly dropped his gaze down to Gerard’s mouth. “Clearly.”

“You.” Gerard leveled a finger at him. “Are the worst.”

Frank rolled his eyes at him so hard it probably hurt. “Do you want to get caught?”

Gerard made a noise like a dying dog. “They can’t arrest us for PDA, can they?”

“No, but.” Frank looked down at himself. “Body mod occurring after PMURT passed? Being in a punk band? Definitely.”

“They wouldn’t know about the band just from looking at us,” Gerard muttered stubbornly, but Frank gave him a truly exasperated look. “Fine!” He threw the tape back, pulling himself up onto the trash can.

He knew it wouldn’t be as easy as it looked, but it also wasn’t as impossible as he’d made it out be in his head; he took more time than Frank had to make sure he wouldn’t break anything on his way back down, but in the end, they were both on the other side with only a few scratches as penance.

“Congratulations,” Frank said with a wicked sort of smile, looking at Gerard appraisingly. “Running from the cops, hopping fences. You’ve officially experienced what I call an Iero Friday night.”

Tires screeched outside of the alley, and the siren wasn’t far behind. “Speaking of that running part,” Gerard said, and they took off again in spite of his lungs’ protests.

Though Gerard had no clue how Frank knew where they were going, he followed him through town, weaving in and out of alleys and side streets and staying in the shadows. Once they couldn’t hear the siren anymore, they slowed down to a walking pace, even though they still didn’t quite fit in with the crowd around them. Gerard got the feeling he was going to have a monster of a headache as soon as all of the adrenaline wore off.

He kept cutting Frank little sideways glances, waiting for him to explain what the hell had just happened. But he just kept walking and wheezing in tired breaths.

“Are you okay?” Gerard finally asked for lack of anything better to say.

“Yeah,” Frank said, and looked over. “Are you? Gate didn’t snag you or anything, right?”

“No, I’m good,” said Gerard, even though he wasn’t. What he really felt like doing was shaking Frank down in the middle of the street until he confessed or apologized or, damnit, fucking kissed him again. Something.

“Let’s not tell Brian about this,” is what he said out loud, and then they both laughed until it hurt.

*

“You’re stewing.” Mikey sat back and rested his hands behind him on the green room floor. “I don’t know why, but you’re stewing.”

Gerard huffed. He wouldn’t call it stewing. He was just thinking, was all.

Mikey poked him with his shoe. “Tell me what happened.”

“Nothing happened.” Eyes glued to the wall, Gerard swatted his foot away.

“Then why is Frank sitting alone out back and you’re moping in here?” Damn Mikey and his logic. “C’mon. I’m your brother.”

Gerard sighed his deepest, most put-upon sigh and buried his face in his arms. “Frump fersped mer.”

Mikey blinked comically slow. “Sorry, I didn’t learn the new English yet.”

After furtively glancing around the room to make sure they were still alone, Gerard leaned in close and tried to speak. A strangled noise came out instead. Mikey waited patiently.

“Frank kissed me,” Gerard breathed out. “Earlier today. On our way back from getting tape.”

Mikey’s eyebrows scrunched. “Then why the fuck are you all — mourning, or whatever? I mean, you’re clearly into him.”

Gerard slapped his bony elbow. Little brothers knew too much. “He only did it to piss off a cop. And then, cherry on fucking top, we had to run like a mile so we weren’t caught. I’m just — I’m collateral damage in his goddamn anarchist agenda, or whatever the fuck. We could have been arrested.”

“Gerard.” Mikey looked at him with an expression he couldn’t read and didn’t finish his sentence.

“What?”

“You’re so dumb.”

Now Gerard was thinking about strangling Mikey too, fucking hell. He wasn’t going to have any bandmates left if this kept up. Although he sort of doubted Ray and Otter would try to get involved in his love life. “Thank you, Mikes. That’s exactly what I needed to hear.”

“Gerard,” Mikey said again, like that meant anything, and ran a hand over his face. Gerard just put his head between his knees.

*

A bunch of kids in the crowd screamed and Gerard’s eyes instinctively darted to the door. No one was there. Oh. Ray was just soloing.

Frank came over and rested his forehead on Gerard’s shoulder, heat rolling off of him in waves. His fingers kept dancing on the frets. “You’re paranoid,” he said into Gerard’s ear, quiet enough for only him to hear it. Gerard shoved him away, singing through a growl.

Five minutes later, it happened again; Gerard’s gaze flicked over before he could stop it, and even though he dragged it back almost immediately, Frank still noticed. Of course he noticed. Gerard ignored the smirk slung his way.

He wasn’t paranoid. But even if he was, it was Frank’s fucking fault — Gerard wouldn’t have to worry about the entire police force crashing their show if Frank hadn’t decided it was his life’s mission to enrage every authority figure just for the hell of it. Okay, Gerard understood that he had a reason. But that didn’t mean he had to drag everyone else down with him. He didn’t have to use people.

Gerard had never been one for violence, but he needed to punch something. And if Frank came back over, it was going to be him.

He almost made it, too. They had just finished Vampires — the second to last song in their set, according to Gerard’s arm — when Frank spun over to him, pressed up behind him, and said as clear as day, “Relax, sunshine.”

Completely disregarding the audience, Gerard turned on his heel to face him. He was grinning like a jack-o-lantern, the motherfucker. There was a moment when their gazes locked, and Frank’s eyes flashed as he realized that this wasn’t a game anymore. That Gerard was fuming. And that he was trapped between his body and a monitor.

“Shit like this can get you arrested,” Gerard roared into the microphone, speaking to the audience but refusing to break eye contact with Frank. “Shit like this can make them lock you up and throw away the key, kick your teeth in until you bleed. And once you’re there, you know what they’re gonna do? You know what they do to guys like us in prison?”

He grabbed Frank by the collar of his dumb fucking shirt, and then he kissed the absolute hell out of him.

The rhythm guitar line dropped immediately and Gerard saw Ray panic out of the corner of his eye as he struggled to pick up Frank’s slack on the intro, but Gerard didn’t care. He shoved a hand into Frank’s hair and pulled, pressing them together from mouth to toes, biting and clashing teeth. He was fed up.

He tugged Frank’s hair again, and he moaned loud enough for the microphone to pick it up where it was pressed uncomfortably between their bodies. Now it was Gerard’s turn to smirk.

“Don’t ever call me paranoid,” he whispered against the shell of Frank’s ear, dragging his teeth over the lobe of it just to feel Frank’s breath hitch. Then he spun back around and closed out the goddamn show.

Brian didn’t even wait until he was completely offstage to yank him into the wings. “What the hell was that? Are we advertising softcore porn on your tickets now?”

“I wouldn’t call that softcore,” muttered Mikey as he walked by, lifting off his bass.

“I don’t know,” Gerard told Brian honestly, because he didn’t. “It just happened. I didn’t — it wasn’t planned, or anything.”

“Oh, god.” Brian looked like he was growing grey hairs as they spoke. “Is Frank going to be bitchy about this? Am I going to have to deal with the ‘no homo’ act for another three hundred miles?”

Just then, Frank had the misfortune to walk past in Brian’s line of sight. Brian snatched him by the arm and dragged him over to stand next to Gerard. He jabbed a finger at Frank, face thunderous. "Explain yourself."

Frank threw both hands up. “I didn’t do anything!”

“Oh, yes you did,” growled Brian. “Because Gerard would not have attacked you up there if you hadn’t provoked him. I know you fuckers better than that. So you better tell me what it was, because this band is too important for you two to fuck it up.”

Frank eyed Brian and then Gerard before grabbing Gerard’s belt loop and tugging. “We’re going to go talk,” he fumed. Gerard shot Brian a panicked look. Now that his stage persona was starting to fade away, it was becoming obvious what a bad idea that had been.

Their green room was empty, so Frank shoved him in there and locked the door behind them. Fuck. Gerard gulped. “Don’t kick my ass,” he managed.

Frank rolled his head around on his shoulders and tensed like he was restraining himself from something. It was not particularly settling. “You need to explain yourself. Like right now.”

A tiny flare of the angry he thought had already burnt out ignited in Gerard. “I need to explain? You started this. You can’t just go around making out with people because it’s a political statement.”

“I didn’t—” Frank spluttered, though Gerard had trouble believing he was actually as shocked as he looked. “That wasn’t a fucking political statement. You don’t get to do it just to rile up the crowd!”

“You did it to piss off a cop! I was getting even!”

Frank stepped forward a little and then rocked back. “You dumbass,” he groaned, “I did it because I like you!”

“Yeah, right.” Gerard scoffed, ignoring the way his heart was doing a loop-de-loop. “That’s why you gave me the silent treatment almost all the way back here and then hid from me until the show started. Makes perfect sense.”

“Gerard.” Why was everyone doing that today, seriously? “I finally worked up the nerve to kiss you, and you pushed me away. I mean, granted, my timing could have been better, but still, what was I supposed to think?”

“I don’t know,” Gerard said, an unexpected wave of guilt turning his stomach over. “That’s not why I pushed you away.”

“And that’s not why I kissed you.”

They stared at each other for a moment. The tingling feeling that had been building in Gerard for minutes spread to his fingers and the base of his spine, and he fought off a shiver.

“Come here,” Frank said softly, and Gerard’s feet moved towards him automatically. Frank reached up and cupped Gerard’s jaw in one hand, the other one settling at his waist. Gerard could feel his breath on his lips. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” Gerard said, but Frank didn’t finish the move he’d started. He was waiting, Gerard realized. He was letting Gerard choose.

It wasn’t a tough decision.

Gerard leaned in and gently pressed their mouths together. Frank sighed with his entire body and relaxed against him. Slowly, they walked backward together until Gerard’s back pressed against the wall; he wasn’t even sure which one of them had started moving. Frank seemed to be in no rush, at least, sucking Gerard’s lower lip into his mouth tentatively and taking his time licking inside. It was an abrupt contrast from the messy, bruising kisses from before. This one felt more durable. More permanent.

Gerard stroked his thumb along the arch of Frank’s brow bone just to feel the warm skin underneath his hands. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he murmured.

Frank pulled away the slightest amount to answer. Gerard couldn’t look at him without his eyes crossing. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because,” Gerard started, but then Frank kissed him again and he lost his train of thought.

Something pounded against the door. “Hey! Unlock the door!” yelled Brian. “Frank, if you killed him, I swear to god I will drag you down to the ninth circle of hell myself!”

Separating himself from Frank, Gerard’s mouth scrunched up in an offended manner. “How come I’m the one who dies in this scenario?”

“You’re too nice,” Frank said, and then occupied his mouth on Gerard’s throat instead. Gerard tried and failed to not arch against the wall.

The knock came again, somehow even angrier. “Unlock the door!”

“He’s no fun,” Frank breathed out against Gerard’s skin. Though Gerard also didn’t enjoy Brian’s supreme cockblocking abilities, it was probably better to stop things where they were before Gerard’s dick started to pay even more attention than it already was.

“We’re fine,” drawled Frank as he swung the door open. Brian stormed in, face all creased like he was geared up to lecture some more, but then his gaze fell on the two of them and he sort of deflated.

“You—” He took in Frank’s bird’s nest of hair, which was usually more Gerard’s style, and the tell-tale way that Gerard still clung to the wall with a dopey grin on his face. “So that was—?”

“I don’t believe that’s any of your business,” Frank said loftily, but the air of smugness around him wasn’t hiding a damn thing.

Brian went through about three different emotions before settling on annoyance. They were going to give the poor man an aneurysm. “Don’t let it fuck up the band.” He slammed the door behind him. A moment later, it opened again and his head popped into view. “And no sex in the van.”

Gerard’s mouth pinched. “Ew, Brian, how could you—” but the door had already slammed shut again. When he looked over at Frank, he was holding back a laugh. “You have no shame, do you?”

“Our entire audience heard me moan tonight.” He shrugged. “That was a little bit shameful.”

Gerard flushed pink. “Sorry.”

By some miracle, though, Frank didn’t hold it against him. “Hey, I wouldn’t have moaned if I didn’t like it.”

*

Before he was even fully in the room, Mikey shielded his eyes. “We go on in ten. And stop doing that.”

Gerard looked down at their ankles, hooked together from opposites sides of the green room couch while Frank replaced a string on his guitar. “We’re barely even touching.”

Frank didn’t look up, but his mouth twitched tellingly. “Mikey can smell afterglow from a mile away.”

With a gag, Mikey went from shielding his eyes to fully covering them, staggering blindly out of the room and muttering something under his breath about how that was his brother, Frank, gross.

“He’s a drama queen,” said Frank. Gerard nodded absently, watching Frank’s fingers work.

There was a knock on the open door. People had started doing that, like now that Gerard and Frank had kissed onstage they were hooking up all the time or something. Both of them were lucky to catch five hours of sleep a night; it wasn’t a fucking honeymoon. They had to cork up all their energy to get them through the night’s show, and then anything left over could turn into blowjobs. Gerard rolled his eyes at Frank, and they shared a private little smile. “Yeah?”

It was Brian. “Oh, good, you’re decent,” he said, just to be an asshole. “Has Otter been in here?”

Gerard shook his head. “Mikey was a minute ago, though.”

“Yeah, but we didn’t lose Mikey.” Brian leaned his head against the doorframe. He looked tired.

“You lost Otter?”

“We lost Otter,” Brian emphasized, because apparently Frank and Gerard had to be accomplices even though they’d done nothing but sit on the couch after they’d dragged all their stuff into the venue. “So now we don’t have a drummer.” Oh. Gerard understood why it was a group problem now.

“Have you checked the bus?” Frank tested out his new string. It vibrated satisfyingly.

“No, Frank, I started on the roof.” Brian ground his knuckle into his eye. “Yes, I checked the fucking bus.”

Gerard bit the inside of his lip. “Have you checked the roof?”

Something down the hall crashed loudly enough to make Brian’s scowl intensify by a thousand percent. “Just an amp!” yelled Ray, as if that would make them worry less. “Also, we found Otter!”

Gerard sprung up so fast that he almost brought Frank’s ankle with him. Otter was side stage next to Ray, leaning against the fallen amp.

“Where the hell have you been?” Brian was livid. Otter looked up at him from under drooping eyelids and swayed a little until Ray steadied him. The pieces slotted together immediately, and Brian narrowed his eyes at Ray. “Don’t tell me he’s drunk.”

“Uh.” There really wasn’t any hiding it.

“Fuck. How? They don’t even serve anything here!”

“I met someone.” Otter grinned, then mimed unscrewing a flask and chugging. It was not very graceful.

“Jesus Christ.” Brian looked at Gerard, who panicked and looked at Ray. “We have five minutes. I don’t care if you have to throw him in a freezing lake, just sober him the fuck up.”

Ray grabbed Otter under one arm, so Gerard followed his lead, and together they hauled him to the bathroom. Ray gave the sink a speculative glance. “It’s not a lake, but.”

They turned it to the coldest setting and dunked Otter’s head under it.

He came up spluttering, mouth open and red, beads of water running down his face until his shirt collar soaked them up. “What the fuck, guys?”

“Three minutes,” was all Ray said, and then he left them to it.

“What’s up his ass?” Otter rubbed his face against four paper towels at once. Gerard shifted awkwardly from foot to foot.

“You’re drunk, Otter.”

Otter stopped wiping his face off to scowl. “I’m allowed to have fun.”

“Not at the expense of the whole band.” Gerard knew he sounded like a stick-in-the-mud, but it was true. They hadn’t risked this much just to let it fall apart at the hands of a bottle.

Otter threw out the paper towels and bumped Gerard’s shoulder on his way out the door, not at all in the friendly way. “Whatever, man.”

Needless to say, the show did not go off without a hitch that night; Otter’s drumming was never tight, but it became almost tragic. As soon as they got offstage, he was puking into a trash can. The crowd cheered for an encore they couldn’t deliver.

Ray handed Otter a bottle of water. He took a sip and swished it around in his mouth before spitting it back into the trash can. “When you feel up to it, we need to talk.”

Still bent over, Otter moved his head just enough to look up at Ray with red-rimmed eyes. “Oh, god. Don’t tell me you’re here to pedal more of Brian’s bullshit.”

“It’s not just Brian,” Ray said quietly. Gerard stepped away from the wall and closer to him; he doubted a fight was going to break out, but Ray was a nice guy. He brought people water and waited patiently for them. Otter didn’t get to talk to him like that. “We don’t have to have this conversation now.”

“No, I want to.” Otter stood up straighter. Gerard unconsciously moved towards Ray again. Maybe this was going to end badly. “If you’re going to bitch about my drumming, I’d like to get it over with.”

The instant that Ray switched from flight to fight was obvious. He rolled his shoulders back and lifted his chin up in a way that made Gerard wish he was taller. “The drums are the backbone of the band, but they sound different every night. How the hell are the rest of us supposed to adapt to that?”

“People come for a live show.” Otter started to roll his eyes but gave up halfway, letting them slip shut. His brows furrowed like he was in pain. “They don’t come to see a bunch of robots repeat the same fucking thing over and over again.”

“They come for good music.” Ray kept his voice even, but it was obvious how much it costed him. “Because we’re some of the only people who can give it to them. No one’s going to fight PMURT if the music they’re fighting for is shitty.”

“Why should we care?” Otter’s body sagged against the trash can. It was kind of pathetic. “We’re doing what we want. If they want something else, they can go do it themselves.”

“Not everyone has that option,” Ray got out between gritted teeth. “That’s why this band exists.”

“No, this band exists because we decided to throw away our lives and make it.” He leveled a finger at Ray, which made Gerard flinch. Ray didn’t so much as blink. “I gave up everything for this shit, and you all need to stop acting so ungrateful for that.”

“We didn’t ask you to,” Gerard said, surprised when his voice came out hoarse. He hadn’t planned to cut in, but he couldn’t let Ray go it alone. “You didn’t have to.”

“But I did. Because just like the rest of you, my life fucking sucked. I thought that maybe this would change things for me, right? But you’re too absorbed in your self-aggrandized purpose, or whatever the fuck.”

“It’s not self-aggrandized.”

Otter ignored him. “We already have what we need. It’s right in front of us. If you’d stop obsessing over changing the world for one goddamn minute and look around, you’d see that.”

“Frank lost his dad because of PMURT,” Gerard said. He had started with empathy, but now he was cold. “This was never just about the band.”

Otter looked like he’d been slapped. “Maybe you can carry the weight of an entire country on your shoulders, Gerard, but I can’t. I just can’t.” He pushed away from the trash can and gave them both a long look as he backed up towards the stage, which was now dark and vacant. Its shadows draped over him and then he was out of sight, presumably threading back through the crowd. Maybe to find whoever had gotten him wasted in the first place. Even as Gerard’s brain told him to go after him, he couldn’t make his feet budge.

“So he’s—?” Ray’s voice was nothing more than a shell-shocked whisper.

“He’s out,” Gerard said, hardly even able to believe it himself.

*

After Gerard broke the news, no one spoke for twenty minutes. Brian had simply turned and walked away. Gerard understood; even though it had been building, Otter had still been one of them. One of whatever they used to be, at least. His departure amounted to more than just a lack of drums. It meant reevaluating. It meant that maybe he was right. That maybe they had ruined their own lives to try and improve everyone else’s.

When Gerard looked over at his band — Mikey and Frank with their shoulders pressed together and legs spilling out of the back of the van, Ray on the rocky parking lot asphalt — it wasn’t that he couldn’t imagine any other place he’d rather be. It was that he couldn’t imagine any other place he could be. This was their lives.

“We live with our choices,” he said into the silence. He wasn’t entirely sure if they’d get what he meant, but it was better than nothing. “He’ll have to live with his.”

Frank looked up. The street light lit up half of his face, making it look sunken and yellow. “What do we do now?”

Mikey pulled out his cell phone and tapped a few buttons before handing it to Gerard. It was already ringing. Gerard didn’t have to ask to know who was on the other end.

“It’s two in the morning,” Pete said, but it was more of a fact than a complaint. He didn’t sound very tired. Guys like them tended to operate on the same schedule.

“We have a show in D.C. in two days and no drummer.”

“Wow.” For a moment, there was no sound but breathing. “I bet there’s a hell of a story behind that one. Okay, I know a guy. It’s been a while since he’s played, I think, because he mostly does tech stuff now, but he used to be huge in the Chicago scene. Still lives up here.”

“How long is a while, exactly?”

Pete choked out a short laugh. “What, do you think any of the rest of you could do any better? Don’t answer. I’m no good on drums either. If I can track him down, I’ll try to convince him to make the drive down there.”

Gerard swallowed something sticky in his throat. “Should we, like, talk to him or anything? Tell him about the music?”

“No need. He already knows who you are.”

“Oh,” said Gerard, then realized the line was already dead.

*

A giant man was waiting for them outside of the venue in D.C. Gerard tilted his head to try and get a better view out of the smeared side window, but it was no use. If the guy noticed their arrival, he made no indication.

“Is he a bouncer or something?” Frank said in his ear.

“No,” Gerard said, a little wonderingly. “I think maybe he’s the drummer.”

Brian, of course, put on his professional face as soon as he heard that. He was out of the van before Ray had even shifted into park, walking towards the stranger with his head held high despite easily being a foot shorter and a fifty pounds of muscle lighter.

Gerard watched as Brian shook hands with the guy and led him over to the bus. The doors opened, and then everyone else was shaking hands too.

“Bob Bryar,” is what the blonde giant introduced himself as. “How long until you go on?”

Apparently, Bob did not fuck around. “About four hours,” Gerard told him. “But Brian convinced the venue to let us in early so we can practice with you.”

Bob walked around the side of the van and threw open the back doors to size up their kit. His expression didn’t change as he took it in. Gerard didn’t know whether that was good or bad. “I already know a few of your songs. Wentz has been sending me videos since the day your band was conceived, basically.”

“Really?” Frank’s eyebrows shot up in spite of the fact that he wasn’t even technically there when My Chemical Romance was conceived. “How many?”

Bob shrugged. “A few.”

“Let’s get this shit inside, then,” Brian said, reaching for an amp.

*

When Bob had claimed to know a few of their songs, Gerard had expected maybe some of their older material, the stuff that had been circulating through the underground for a while. But even as they moved onto Venom — which had only officially existed for the past three shows — Bob was tapping out a solid beat and barely slipping up enough for it to be noticeable.

Gerard tried to keep his jaw attached to his face instead of the floor. “Pete said you hadn’t played in a little while.”

“Pete says a lot of things.” Reaching up, Bob steadied his cymbal with two fingers. “If you were trying to keep something under wraps, would you tell the king of Chicago underground?”

Point. “Why’d you come down here, then? If you were trying to be discreet?”

Bob’s countenance didn’t change, but his gaze did become more sincere, sort of. Gerard could already tell he was the sort of guy who only said things he meant. “Easy. I finally heard music worth giving all that up for.”

*

The Washington D.C. crowd was unlike anything Gerard had ever seen before. For a bunch of musicians, it was probably the most dangerous place in America.

The stage was twice the size of anything they were used to, and at first it intimidated Gerard, kept him within arm’s reach of the microphone stand. He grew into it, though, like he always did.

“We have someone very special here with us tonight!” Gerard spread his arms like a magician presenting his final trick, grinning maniacally. “Mr. Bob Bryar on drums!”

The audience roared. Bob gave a little wave to them, and Gerard pretended not to notice the scowl burning into his back. Whatever. If Bob was going to be onstage, he was going to be a part of the show.

Frank spun over and pressed his sweaty face into Gerard’s neck, and Gerard threaded a hand into his hair to hold him there. Behind them, Bob started to tap out the beat to Hang ‘Em High. “Are you ready to sing, Washington?”

Frank lifted up his head to come in on guitar, letting his mouth slide hot and open up the side of Gerard’s face. The crowd got even louder. Gerard had no idea if it was due to his own request or Frank, but either way, he’d take it.

“I want you to scream loud enough that the Suits sitting on their asses in their pretty white houses can hear you!” Gerard held the microphone out to them. His neck was wet, a mixture of spit and sweat. “Let me hear you, Washington!”

The wall of noise that came back at him was nearly enough to knock him off his feet. “Oh, that’s beautiful,” he crooned. “You’re angry, huh? They have something that belongs to us! Those Suits want to tell you what you can read, what you can watch, what you can make, what the truth is — tell me, Washington, would I lie to you?” He bent over in half, belting out the song’s first lines like someone was tearing them out of him.

When he straightened back up, his heart seized. The venue’s front door was being kicked down.

His voice warbled on the lyric he’d been spitting and he backed up to get to the dead mic, trying to play it off like he was just catching his breath as he whispered, “Company. Twelve o’clock.”

“Shit,” Frank answered out loud, and a ripple went through the crowd as the real microphone caught it. Gerard looked back up to glimpse a blue police uniform. Over at side stage, Brian was making frantic gestures and yelling something Gerard couldn’t hear. Fuck.

Another officer appeared, this one brandishing a megaphone. The crowd began to part around them, unsure of what to do. “Metropolitan Police Department! Put your hands where I can see them!”

The entire room froze, feedback ringing out as everyone’s instruments died out. Then, very slowly, Frank raised his hands over his head. He closed them into fists. Both of his middle fingers lifted into the air.

All hell broke loose.

Someone grabbed Gerard’s arm and shouted, “Come on!” and he followed them without hesitation. Only after he blinked did he recognize Frank’s tattooed knuckles.

“Back door?” Gerard gasped, feet pounding on the linoleum almost as hard as his pulse in his ears. Frank nodded and slowed down just enough to avoid careening into a wall.

“Go!” Mikey shouted from behind them, and Frank cursed at him before picking up the pace again. It was a relief, though. They were still together.

“Is Ray here?”

“Yeah!” came Ray’s voice. “Bob is too!”

“And Brian!” called Brian. “Thanks for fucking asking!”

Frank slammed into the back door shoulder-first and it gave in to the force of him. The six of them spilled out into muggy D.C. air and hit the concrete running.

“Who has the key?” Brian got out through heaving breaths. Ray shouted. “Toss them to me, I’m the only one crazy enough to get us out of here!”

Gerard ducked as the keyring flew over his head, then stayed down as he heard the first siren wail. He felt Frank’s hands on his back, shoving him forward. “In!” He hadn’t even realized they had reached the van.

“What about the kids?” he asked no one in particular as Brian fought with and cursed at the sputtering engine. “If they’re storming the venue, are the kids going to be okay?”

“That crowd was huge. They can hold their own.” Mikey leaned forward to whack the dashboard, which miraculously made it work. The van lurched forward and they all threw out their arms to avoid going through the front windshield.

“But what if—” They screeched out onto the road. Brian caught a glimpse of flashing lights in the mirrors and floored it, hopping the curb and cutting across the grass of what must be a park. “What if they can’t?”

No one answered. Frank leaned over absently to drop a kiss on his forehead. Gerard found his hand squished between them on the seat and clung onto it for dear life.

“Do that again and my head is going to bust through the roof,” Bob growled at Brian. “Do your gigs always end like this?”

“Unfortunately not,” Mikey deadpanned. All of them jumped as a tree branch scraped along the roof and side windows.

“Can you try driving on the road, Brian?” Ray’s voice was even more high-pitched than usual.

“The cops are on the road!” Brian jerked them hard to the right and everyone slid against Bob. Bob barely grunted. “Jesus Christ, why is this place so crowded?”

“Because it’s the capital of the fucking country!” Ray lunged for the wheel but Brian smacked his hands away. “Brian, Brian, pedestrians!”

“They moved,” Brian said distractedly, flapping a hand at Ray. Through the window, Gerard saw four terrified looking teenagers running in the opposite direction. “The cops are probably going to set up a perimeter. Anybody know another way out of town?”

Craning his neck, Mikey looked out the back window. There were at least three police cars flashing not too far away. “Are all of these people really after us?”

“Not helping!” Ray was almost hysterical.

“They’re going to expect us to try and get to the highway,” said Bob. “Try the suburbs.”

“Aren’t there people in the suburbs?” Brian yanked the wheel to the left anyway; they skidded onto the road, going way too fast and weaving in between traffic.

“What, do you guys have wanted posters already?” Gerard couldn't tell if Bob was joking.

They barely slowed down for an intersection, but a police car was waiting around the corner. Brian made a sharp left and Frank fell onto Gerard’s lap. “Hey,” he said in a low voice when he noticed Gerard looking down at him. “Come here often?”

Gerard shoved him until he fell halfway into the footwell, biting the inside of his lip to keep from smiling in spite of himself. “Not the time, Frankie.”

“Fuck!” They veered left again as Brian noticed another siren barreling towards them down the street. “I feel like we’re going in circles, someone get me some fucking directions!”

“Uh.” Gerard scanned the signs as they whipped past, squinting to make out the letters in the ambient light. “Bethesda? Does that sound like a suburb?”

The brakes squealed. “Left or right, motherfucker?”

“Right!” Gerard squeaked, clinging to Frank as they cleared the curb once more in order to tear past the traffic. Thank god most of the pedestrians had already gotten wind of what was going on and cleared the area.

“He really is insane.” Bob almost sounded reverent.

Another sign caught Gerard’s eye. “Left!”

“Fuck!” That seemed to be about half of Brian’s vocabulary at the moment. “Do we even know anyone in Maryland?”

“Pete might,” said Mikey, hand already in his pocket. His fingers flew over the dial pad.

“Matt Squire,” he told them a minute later. “In College Park. Used to be in the production business. Pete says he’s in LA right now, but he keeps a spare key under his mat.”

Brian floored it.

*

“I hope he doesn’t care about his grass.” Brian steered carefully past the driveway and into the backyard until the van was mostly obscured by the fence and house.

They all clambered out and dragged themselves into the house, adrenaline highs fading into exhaustion. The last thing Gerard remembered was mumbling something against Frank’s lips, and then he was out.

He woke up to Mikey insistently shaking him. “Gee. C’mon, this is important.”

Gerard rolled onto his side and groaned. He was on the floor, he realized. “Is someone dying?”

Mikey shook his head. “Look.” At the front of the room — the living room, fucking hell, they hadn’t even made it as far as the kitchen last night — a television was playing on low volume. The logo in the corner said OneSource.

“Why are—” Gerard started, but Mikey shushed him. Gerard decided he was too tired to argue and trained his bleary eyes on the screen.

“—at the illegal disruption in Washington, D.C. last night,” an anchorwoman was saying. “Luckily, D.C. Police received an anonymous tip hours before the event and were able to contain things.”

“They’re calling us a disruption? Are they not even allowed to say music?” Gerard carded a hand through his knotted hair. Then it dawned on him. His hand went limp where it was. “You don’t think—”

When he looked over at Mikey, Mikey was already looking at him. “No. He wouldn’t,” Gerard said. It sounded empty even to his own ears.

“He might,” Mikey said quietly. “He didn’t leave on good terms.”

“But he left on his own terms. He chose to.”

They both looked back up at the television, which was switching from one glory shot to the next of the police saving the day. There was nothing shown about the kids there or the officers’ methods of crowd control, which Gerard doubted entailed just asking nicely. “He might not have seen it that way.”

It was hard to believe that Otter would betray them after being a part of the effort for so long, but with the way he had been acting right before they parted, it was all too plausible. He knew where the next gigs were. He knew their operation inside and out. The easiest way to take someone down was to first know their strategy.

Gerard buried his face between his knees and tried to tune out the woman’s voice as she continued on about police heroics. The same words over and over again, just packaged in a different way. Presidential-approved. Easily consumed. Worthless. “Where’s the rest of the story?”

With a rattle, Mikey brandished the key to the van. He must have swiped it off of Brian at some point. “We can go find out.”

*

Gerard’s heart was in his stomach before Gabe even finished his sentence.

“And in case you missed the news, we did confirm three casualties and one fatality last night at a My Chemical Romance show in Washington, D.C. after police opened fire on the crowd. We are unsure whether authorities first tried—”

Gerard’s hand shook as he held it out to Mikey. “Do you have Gabe’s number?” Without a word, Mikey dialed his cell and handed it over.

The phone rang and rang until finally the radio cut to a song, and then a different voice filled the line. “Bill speaking. Have anything to report?”

“It’s Gerard Way. I need to speak to Gabe.” Gerard barely kept his voice from cracking.

“Gerard—?” The moment Bill put together the connection between who Gerard was and their last segment was blatant. “Oh, man, okay. Let me patch you through.”

“You’re on with the Cobra. What’s happening?”

“It’s Gerard Way.”

Gabe cut him off before he could get any further. “Look, dude, I swear I wasn’t trying to make your band look bad. But I had to report on it. That’s my job.”

“No one’s mad.” Gerard’s vision went spotty; he had to blink a few times before the van’s interior came back into focus. “I just — I need to know who it was.”

“Oh.” Gabe’s voice turned soft. “Okay, yeah. Just one second.”

There was a sound like a chair rolling, and then a new song started playing out of the van’s speakers just as the other one faded out. “That should give us a few minutes,” said Gabe. “How much do you already know?”

“As much as you’ve said. One fatality and three casualties.”

“They really don’t report on anything over there, do they?” Gabe sounded wistful. “We only got the name of the fatality. Courtney Rodriguez. Gunshot wound.”

“Shit,” breathed Gerard. He’d thought he wanted an identity, because he couldn’t stand the idea of someone’s life being brushed under the rug like OneSource had done, but now the guilt was twisting through him twice as fast like a thousand needles under his skin. “How old was she?”

“Seventeen. Were you guys there when the police showed up?”

“Yeah, we saw them and we — we ran.” Saying it out loud was a punch to the gut. “I didn’t see any weapons. I didn’t think they would — not on a bunch of kids...”

On the van’s radio, the end of the song was nearing. “I’ve got to go,” Gabe apologized. “Stay safe, okay?”

Everyone was awake back inside. Mikey and Gerard shuffled into the kitchen with their sullen faces tilted towards the floor, absolutely no appetite despite the food in front of them. Frank came up behind Gerard and wrapped his arms around him. “You okay?”

Gerard didn’t turn to look him in the eyes. He couldn’t. “A seventeen-year-old died at our show last night.”

Like they had suddenly been sucked into a vacuum, the whole room went silent. Then Frank, arms stiff around Gerard’s waist, said, “Are you serious?”

Gerard slipped out his hold and stumbled down the hallway until he found a bedroom to slam the door and lock himself in.

*

He didn’t mean to write The Light Behind Your Eyes. Somehow, though, pen and paper found their way into his hands, and suddenly he was looking at two pages of lyrics.

“Two weeks is the closest I can get you,” Brian informed them after he got off the phone. “And it’s a tiny venue. People aren’t exactly keen to open their doors after what happened last night.”

Gerard cursed. Those venue owners likely didn't even know the half of it. “That’s too far out. People need to hear this song now. People need to know.”

“I’m booking it anyway,” said Brian. “It’s the best you’re going to get.”

“We could record it,” Ray suggested. “Like people used to. You know.”

“Cell phone quality is shit.” Just sending it out to Pete wouldn’t be enough, anyway.

“Dude, the guy who owns this place used to be a producer. There’s an entire sound booth and studio in the basement.” Ray lifted an eyebrow at their bewildered expressions. “Didn’t either of you bother to explore?”

Gerard refused to feel stupid for not rummaging through the house of some guy they’d never met. “Do you know how to work that stuff?”

Ray scratched the side of his head. “Yeah, that’s the flaw in the plan.”

Bob propped an arm up on the back of the couch to turn around and look at them. Gerard hadn’t even noticed he was listening. “I do.”

Brian looked at Gerard with wide eyes, as if he would have some explanation for the superpowers of Bob. “Is there anything he can’t do?”

Bob shrugged, which wasn’t really an answer. “It’s not like I’m an expert or anything. I just used to work in sound. You learn your way around that stuff.”

It took them four days to get the song together and another two to engineer it. Gerard was being even more critical than usual; he kept stressing how it needed to be perfect, how this was their shot. It was probably intended to be motivational, but it only left everyone feeling guilty and strung-out.

Bob, thank god, did actually know how to operate the soundboard. It wasn’t rocket science, it turned out, and Ray caught onto the basics quickly enough that Bob was able to pass the metaphorical baton to him and go in to track drums. Though recording was a new process for all of them, it was alright; the only major issue arose when Gerard decided he needed to redo the vocals for the thirty-second time that day.

“No,” Bob said firmly into the microphone connected to the sound booth. “And if you ask again, I’ll turn your voice into a fucking chipmunk.”

Gerard’s eyes were wide and ringed with purple. He hadn’t slept through an entire night in days. “Just one more time. It isn’t right yet.”

“It’s been right since take three. Take three from yesterday.”

Frank walked into the room with his guitar in hand. “Hey, Bob, do you still need—”

Bob spun around in his chair to glare at him. Immediately, Frank dropped his guitar by his feet and put both hands in the air. Frank was pretty used to being on the receiving end of looks that could kill, but usually he did something to warrant them.

Bob jabbed a thumb towards the sound booth. “Your diva in there won’t let me do my job.”

“I’m asking him to do his job!” came Gerard’s voice through the speakers. “He’s the one refusing!”

Bob ignored him. “Take care of him, or I swear to god I’ll break him.”

“Jesus Christ, okay.” Frank walked over and opened the booth. “Give us a minute.”

Bob turned his back and shut off the microphone connection, because all threats of bodily harm aside, he was a gentleman.

“Gee, hey.” Frank caught him by the arms. He was twitchy, like a deer who would run for the hills if Frank approached this wrong. “Tell me why Bob’s homicidal.”

“Anger issues,” Gerard muttered to the wall.

With two fingers under his chin, Frank turned Gerard’s gaze until they were looking at each other. “We’ve all been listening to you record, Gee. It’s really good. You don’t have to keep pushing it.”

“It needs to be better.” Gerard’s hand inched towards the microphone mounted to the ceiling, but Frank caught him on the way there and pulled it forward to rest on his chest, covering it with his own. “She died because of us, Frankie. This is for her.”

Frank looked intently at him like he really needed his next point to sink in. Gerard could feel his heartbeat through his shirt. “She died because of the police.”

“Who were there because of us.”

Frank made a frustrated noise. “It’s not your fault that they fired on unarmed kids, okay? None of it is your fault.”

Gerard’s fingers tightened on the fabric covering Frank’s chest. “But we left. They put everything on the line to come see us, and we just left.”

“We had to get out of there. You can’t take care of everyone, Gee. If you try, you’ll drive yourself crazy.”

Gerard was afraid he already had. “What if it happens again?” he whispered. “What if it had been one of you guys? What if it had been Mikey?”

“Gee, okay. Be with me right now. Stay with me.” Frank pressed their foreheads together, his words coming out as puffs of air against Gerard’s mouth. “We can’t change the past. This isn’t how to make things better. Stop obsessing, let Bob do his job, come upstairs with me.”

Gerard took half a step forward before collapsing against Frank’s chest. Frank sagged underneath the weight of him but managed to hold him steady. “Everyone’s okay. Mikey’s okay.”

It took Gerard a second to realize why Frank’s shirt was wet. “She gave her life to us, Frank. And all we can give her is a song.”

Frank didn’t answer that, probably because he knew Gerard was right. Up against a seventeen-year-old’s death, everything else fell into shadow, dripping red from a debt they could never repay.

“All we can do it move forward,” Frank said finally, stroking a hand through Gerard’s hair. “Remember, and move forward.”

*

Once the song was finished, they sent it to Gabe and Bill. Gabe called Mikey’s phone almost immediately after, and he sounded a little choked up. “I’ll air it tonight,” he promised. “Seven o’clock west coast, whatever that is for you. That’s when most people tune in for the nightly news. Everyone’ll hear it.”

“He cried like a baby,” came Bill’s voice in the background.

Gabe made an affronted noise. “Hey, you did too!”

They all squished into the van when ten rolled around. It wasn’t as bad as it usually was, since all their instruments were in the house and everything else had been lost at the venue, but Frank still bitched about Ray’s elbow pressing into his stomach.

Brian turned on the radio and twisted the volume knob until it drowned out the complaining. Gabe’s voice spilled out of the speakers. “We have a new track for you tonight from My Chemical Romance. Bit of a slow one — if you’ve got somebody to hold, hold them. The band would like to dedicate this to the victims of the recent tragedy at their D.C. show, and to serve as a reminder to keep each other safe out there. Long live what we lost.”

Involuntary goosebumps rose on Gerard’s skin as the slow opening chords began to play. He had specifically asked Gabe not to mention Courtney by name; he had no idea if anyone she knew would be listening, but it wasn’t their place. Her memory didn’t belong to them.

He pressed his cheek against Frank’s shoulder as the song broke into the chorus, absentmindedly tapping out the beat with a finger on Frank’s thigh. Bob had done a much better job recording it than anyone had expected; it didn’t sound like a rough cut or a demo. It sounded like a proper tribute.

Suddenly, the song screeched to a halt and was replaced by deafening microphone feedback. Brian reached for the radio’s tuner knob with the hand that hadn’t gone to cover his ear, adjusting it to find the signal again, but all that came through was white noise. “What the fuck?” Brian pounded on the dashboard, but nothing happened. “Mikey, do that magic thing that always makes it work.”

When Gerard turned to look at Mikey, he was as white as a sheet. “I don’t think it’s the van, Brian.”

“OneSource is here to provide you with accurate and up-to-date news across America,” said a robotic voice that was most definitely not Gabe. “OneSource is here to provide you with accurate and—”

Brian jammed the radio with his finger until it shut off. “Call Gabe,” he said, but Mikey was already on it.

Gabe picked up on the first ring. “You’re on with the Cobra, kind of busy right now—”

“It’s My Chem,” Mikey said as he put the phone on speaker. “What the fuck is going on over there?”

“I don’t know,” Gabe barked frantically, his voice sounding like it was coming from five different places at once. “Here, talk to Bill, Bill knows about this shit—”

“Hi,” Bill’s voice interrupted at a much steadier volume. “Sorry, Gabe’s already fielding calls from Pete and like three other people. We don’t really know what’s going on, but it looks like someone in Homeland Security found our signal and hijacked it.”

“Can you get it back online?” asked Gerard.

“We’re not sure.” In the background, it was easy to hear Gabe yelling. “I’m trying to pinpoint their signal so I can reverse-engineer it, but things are kind of — shit. Oh, shit.”

Gerard was fairly certain his lungs had stopped working. “What’s going on?”

“If they found our signal, that means they can — they’re probably—” Bill’s voice became distant like the phone was no longer next to his mouth. “Gabe! Fuck, Gabe, stop messing with that shit, we need to go!”

“What?” Gerard and Gabe said at the same time.

“I think they’re trying to track our signal.” Gerard didn’t know which one of them Bill was talking to, but it didn’t matter. “And if they do, it’s going to lead them right to the studio.”

“Fuck!” Gabe shouted as something crashed and shattered, and then the line went dead. Gerard stared at Mikey’s phone. Gabe and Bill were all the way in California. The police could have them surrounded by now, and there wasn’t shit that Gerard could do about it from Maryland.

When were people going to learn to stop risking their lives for him?

*

When Mikey showed up outside the door of the bedroom Frank and Gerard were sharing at three in the morning, Gerard was still wide awake. Company or not, Gerard figured he would be up until the sun rose. There was no quiet place for his mind to recede into, not even as he looked down and saw Frank curled up beside him.

There was a phone in Mikey’s hand. He didn’t look like he had been sleeping either. “It’s Gabe.”

Gerard was out of bed in an instant, and he didn’t slow down until he was sitting on the kitchen counter with the phone pressed hard against his ear. “Are you guys okay?”

“Yeah.” Gerard knew it wasn’t as late over there, but Gabe still sounded exhausted. “Well, no, but we made it out of there. Bill’s friend Travis is letting us crash.”

“Thank god,” Gerard breathed out, feeling less like his chest was going to collapse inward. “I’m so sorry, man.”

The line was silent for a moment. “Don’t be. I knew what I was signing up for when I started this thing with Bill.”

Unbidden, Gerard’s gaze cut over to where Mikey was leaned back against the opposite countertop. “Yeah. Yeah, I get that.”

“Fight’s not over yet.” Gabe sighed. “I might have to sit out the next few rounds, though.”

Gerard frowned. “Can you not get the station back up?”

“No, we could, it would just take a few days.” Gabe paused. “Maybe a little longer, now that they know we’re out here. But it took months to obtain the audience we had before things whited out. It’d be hard to get people listening again.”

Gerard’s train of thought slowed to a crawl and then froze. Get people listening. “You need an audience?”

“Yeah, man.” Gabe obviously had no clue what ideas were ricocheting around in Gerard’s mind.

“We have a show in four days,” Gerard said. “Do you think you can get the station back up by then?”

There was a brief bout of low murmuring that Gerard assumed was a discussion with Bill. “I think so. It’s not like we can leave this house anyway.”

“Good.” A hopeful feeling welled up in Gerard, and he tried to squish it down, at least until he knew if they could really pull this off. It was stubborn, though, pushing the corners of his mouth up and quickening his pulse. “Tell me the station number when you do. I’ll take care of the rest.”

*

“Grab every speaker you can find down there. Big, small, whatever. Bob, help me carry them out to the van.”

Bob took one look at Gerard struggling under the weight of equipment a third of his size and laughed. “Yeah, I don’t think so. Get Ray up here.”

So Gerard was demoted to rummage duty, but he didn’t really mind. He got elbow-deep in junk with Brian and Frank as they sorted through old storage closets, searching for anything that could pick up a satellite signal. Mikey — what did he call it? — “supervised.”

“This guy is a hoarder,” huffed Frank. “No wonder he’s in LA. I wouldn’t want to live with all this shit either.”

Brian grunted as he hauled something out of the closet. “Are you sure he’d be cool with us using his stuff?”

Gerard shrugged stiffly. “Yeah, like Frank said. He’s a hoarder. We’re helping him out.” The reality of it was that no matter how this ended, Gerard sincerely doubted their biggest problem would be an angry ex-producer yelling at them for getting their greasy fingers all over his stuff. Besides, he’d promised Gabe. He would do whatever he had to in order to hold up his end.

Once they were done, Gerard stepped back and looked at the van, which contained roughly twenty speakers of varying shapes and sizes. Crammed into any space they could find was their instruments and a few amps they’d also borrowed from Matt’s basement. There was barely any space for the band, but that would change soon. “We might have to strap Mikey to the roof.”

Mikey rolled his eyes. “Hilarious.”

“Alright, fearless leader.” Brian clapped Gerard on the back. “You ready to get this show on the road?”

*

With six of them, it was quick work, which was necessary because they only had a few hours between the time the sun went down and the time they were scheduled to be onstage. After leaving the suburbs, they drove the van through less conspicuous areas and took other places by foot, keeping their heads down and their feet moving forward.

“They’re already all patched into Gabe’s station,” Gerard reminded everyone before they split up. “Just make sure they’re on, drop ‘em, and get out of there.”

The twenty-something speakers were dispersed throughout the city, hidden high or low in places no one would recognize them. The larger ones were harder to disguise, but they managed — behind a column of a building, on a fire escape, tucked beneath the twisting above-ground roots of an oak. At the moment, all that played was white noise. But Gabe would be there soon.

This was the boldest thing the revolution had ever done, and Gerard knew it. Most operations occurred underground within a trustworthy network; never out where everyone could hear them. Never blocks away from the homes and workplaces of those responsible.

The White House was pretty, Gerard thought. But it was too perfect.

“That was the last one,” Ray told them after they all congregated back at the van. Sweat dripped down the curve of his brow.

Brian checked his watch. In the background, their own radio crackled with static. “Gabe’s due on any minute.”

“Should we head to the venue?” asked Frank.

“Probably better to be off the roads when shit hits the fan,” Brian said with a nod. It was much easier to pile in with their newly acquired free space, and even Bob’s drum kit didn’t feel like that much of a nuisance anymore.

They had timed it wrong, though. The venue was close, just a few more turns, when the radio came to life in front of them. In a perfect imitation of OneSource’s robotic monster, Gabe’s modified voice said, “The Cobra is here to fuck shit up across America. The Cobra is here to fuck shit up across America.”

Frank rolled down one of the windows. Cutting through the air outside was the same message, blasting from hidden speakers on one block and the next. Law enforcement was already running around, disoriented by the noise that seemingly came from all directions.

“We’re here in memory of those the government wants you to forget,” said Gabe’s normal voice. “Tonight at Tower. 10 p.m. Let’s show them what we’re made of.” Then, like a thousand pissed off angels descending from the sky, the whole city lit up with punk so loud and fast it couldn’t be ignored.

Gerard looked around. His whole band was grinning ear to ear, even Bob. He couldn’t take it anymore — he threw his head back and cackled with total disregard to who might hear him through the open window. They were loud, now. They were unstoppable.

Frank grabbed his face and kissed him square on the mouth. “Here we come, motherfuckers!”

*

The broken street lamp overhead flickered from bright to dark, and its yellow light cut in stripes across the van’s interior. “One hour,” said Brian.

Even with all six of them there, it was eerily quiet. They had turned Gabe’s broadcast off not too long ago, because even though it was incredible, it was too much of a reminder of what they were doing tonight. Gerard couldn’t afford to get psyched out, not this far in.

No one spoke. They needed something, Gerard could tell, but he had no words. He was their leader, but he had no speech. It took a lot just to keep his own labored breathing on track.

Frank shifted to settle in closer against Gerard’s side and accidentally pushed Gerard’s elbow into the van’s door pocket, making something rattle. Gerard looked down and squinted against the darkness to try and uncover the source of the noise.

It was their old cassette tapes.

“Hey,” he said, voice coming out as a croak. “Hey, Mikes. We never did listen to that Devo tape.”

Gerard didn’t have to look over to know that Mikey’s mouth quirked up. “Yeah? Want to put it in?”

He passed it up to Brian, and they both pretended that they didn’t notice each other’s hands shaking. The van’s mechanics clicked quietly as the tape started up. It only took a moment before Gerard noticed something was wrong.

“This isn’t Devo,” he said. What should have been weird-ass new wave music was the strum of an acoustic guitar and a low, mellow voice.

“It’s Bob Dylan,” Ray said, eyebrows knit. “My mom — she used to play this when I was little. Fuck, it’s called like — like, row. Row something. Oh! Desolation Row. That’s it.”

Brian turned in his seat to fix Gerard with a skeptical look. “Want me to take it out?”

Gerard almost nodded, but something stopped him. “Let it play,” he said. “I like it.”

They listened to the whole thing, almost twelve minutes of it, in complete silence. Gerard had no idea why, but he felt something in him relax. Not in a docile way — in a confident way, the kind of self-assuredness he never had in the minutes before a show started. It was like finally seeing clearly after looking through a haze of nerves all day.

“Cut the Dead Kennedys cover on the setlist,” Gerard said after the song had finished. It might have been a long shot, because they only had an hour to be onstage — but Gerard’s instincts told him that this was right, and listening to them was the only thing that had gotten him this far in the first place. They’d thrown things together in less time before. “Start that tape again, and everybody listen. That song. We need to play that song.”

*

Fifty minutes later, an officer arrived at a white van that had definitely seen better days parked against a curb. The police force had managed to dismantle enough hidden speakers to bring the noise down to a manageable level, but this van was blaring that damn radio broadcast so loud it was shaking on its dirty wheels. Whoever was behind all of this, this must be their operating base — or at the very least, a temporary hideout. After chasing these bastards around all day, it was about damn time he put someone in cuffs.

“Open up!” the officer yelled, slamming the end of his baton against the door. All the windows were covered, but it didn’t matter; he would force his way in if the punks didn’t cooperate. “This is the Metropolitan Police Department! Come out with your hands in the air, or we’re coming in!”

Although he was not usually very patient, he counted backward from ten per his commanding officer’s orders. No response.

Good. This was the fun part.

He grabbed the battering ram and backed up, slamming it into the side of the van as hard as he could. The door buckled, lock coming undone. With a nasty grin, the officer reached for it and yanked it open.

The van was empty.

*

Eight blocks away at Tower, Gerard stood over a sea of kids in dark clothing, each and every one of them staring up at him with fire in their eyes. The venue was way past capacity, the line to get in extending out into the street, and the place was certainly hot enough to prove it. Gerard had never felt so fucking alive.

“Oh, Washington,” he crowed. “Did you miss us?”

*

“Where the fuck are we?” is the first thing Gerard asks when he wakes up. There’s an awful crick in his neck, and his jaw is sore for some reason. So is his stomach. Oh, lord.

“Jail,” Frank says bluntly. “Cozy, right?”

If Gerard had any doubt about Frank’s claims, it vanishes the next second when he tries to scratch his face and encounters handcuffs. He looks around. Everyone’s got them, even Brian, who looks entirely undignified by the situation.

“First time in the slammer?” Bob asks, and they all turn as much as they can to look at him.

“Is it not yours?” Bob barely raises an eyebrow in response to Ray’s question. “Oh, man, I am never going to figure you out.”

“Probably not,” Bob says, and doesn’t give them any more clues.

“Right. Anyway.” Brian looks around the cell’s bars as best he can, trying to gauge whether or not they’re alone. “This is the part where someone comes up with an escape plan.”

“Uh.” Gerard thinks for a moment but only draws a blank. “Would anyone happen to have a shovel on them?”

Brian taps his foot against the ground, which is very obviously concrete, before fixing Gerard with a tired look. Whatever. He can’t expect everything that comes out of Gerard’s mouth to be gold.

“How long do you think we were out?” Frank presses his forehead against Gerard’s arm. It’s the only bodily contact they can really manage, but Gerard still appreciates the comfort.

“I woke up a while ago,” says Mikey. “I mean, I think so. There’s not a clock in here or anything.”

“At least they kept us all together,” Gerard says, and he means it. Ending up in prison had been his recurring worst nightmare since the start of all this, but as long as he’s with his band, it’s easier to breathe. He tilts his head down to kiss Frank’s hair.

Just then, something taps against the bars. Gerard looks up, snarl already half-formed on his face, but there isn’t a muscly, scowling guard on the others side like he’d expected. It’s a lanky kid, probably only out of high school for a few years now. Still, he’s in a police uniform, so Gerard doesn’t get comfortable.

“Hey,” the kid whispers. “You guys are My Chemical Romance, right?”

They all let Mikey take this one, because he’s the best at sounding bored. “Yeah.”

“I’m not supposed to be saying this, but, uh.” The kid looks both ways down the hall. “I’m a big fan.”

“Uh huh,” drones Mikey. It’s flattering, sure, but they aren’t exactly in the position to sign autographs right now.

Somehow not deterred, the kid rolls up his sleeve, and they all catch a glimpse of the ink on his arm with their band’s name on it. Woah. “What you guys did last night — that was, well, that was the kind of thing I could only dream about. Totally badass.”

Brian squints at him. “Are you actually a cop?”

“New around here,” says the kid, then shakes his head at himself. “I can’t believe I’m about to do this, but.” With a metallic clink, he pulls a set of keys out of his pocket.

“Are you going to—” Frank gasps out, but by then the keys are already in the door.

“Cuffs, c’mon, quickly,” says the kid, and they lift their hands up to get the metal off. The kid’s hands move deftly, and he walks ahead of them, checking behind doors before they go through. Gerard’s boots start to squeak in the silent corridor, so he takes them off.

“Hey,” Gerard can’t help but whisper, because he has to know. “Did Pete send you?”

The kid looks back at him over his shoulder. “Who’s Pete?”

Gerard grins. They reach an open garage, and Gerard realizes for the first time that it’s the middle of the night. No wonder they haven’t run into anyone yet. “Here,” says the kid, tossing a different pair of keys at Gerard. He catches them with his free hand. “Your van’s in the corner. Drive safe.”

The kid disappears back into the main building, presumably to continue with his rounds. The six of them look at each other with matching pairs of wide eyes. After all they’ve been through, it almost seems too easy — but Gerard isn’t going to let this opportunity slip through their fingers. Sticking around would mean a trial and, more likely than not, enough years to turn them all into grizzled old men.

Gerard hands the keys to Brian. “You’re the only one crazy enough to get us out of here.”

Brian grins like a shark, all his teeth on display. As they careen out of the garage, van empty except for a band of dudes hanging on for dear life, they hear a guard shouting after them. “Stop! I need to see some I.D.!”

With a roll of his eyes, Brian floors it. They’ve got shit to do.

 

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