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Rock and Roll Never Looked so Beautiful

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Frank stumbles out of the venue with an arm around Tim’s shoulder, smiling so wide his cheeks ache. There’s a bruise forming on his hip; it throbs dully whenever he moves. He’s pretty sure there are more, too, smaller ones that he won’t feel until later. He cherishes them all.

“Dude,” he says to Tim. “Dude. That was fucking awesome.”

“It was pretty fucking awesome,” Hambone agrees. He’s appeared out of nowhere with a can of beer in hand. He shoves it in Frank’s face, and Frank takes it without a word, throwing it back and chugging half before he hands it back. Hambone rolls his eyes, but doesn’t complain. Frank figures he’s earned it.

The alcohol makes his throat burn. It shouldn’t be pleasant, given that he just screamed himself hoarse onstage, but he likes it. He lifts his chin and lets the cool night air wash over his face, soothing the embers that burn beneath his skin. “Fuck,” he says. There’s nothing else to say. His bandmates echo the sentiment.

“There were crowdsurfers,” Tim says reverently. “Multiple.”

“No fucking wonder, you were killing it!” Hambone elbows him. “That’s gotta be the best show we’ve ever done, come on.”

He’s right. They’ve had good shows in the past, but not even their album release felt like this. For maybe the first time ever, nobody has anything to criticize or complain about or shrug off as acceptable.

“Where’s Shaun?” Frank asks, looking around. Sweaty kids mill around the venue, some smoking, some chatting up their friends as they lean against the dusty windows of the building.

“Merch table,” Hambone says promptly. “Making bank for us.”

Frank snorts. “Yeah, you wish.”

“No, I’m serious. People are actually buying tonight, look.” Hambone points over at a girl who’s crossing the street. Emblazoned across her back is a broken heart logo with Pencey Prep written in big letters. A smile spreads across Frank’s face at the sight of it.

“Man,” he says, shaking his head. “I fucking love this. All of it, it never fucking gets old.”

“That’s the spirit,” says Tim, clapping him on the back. “Keep it in mind when you’re driving tonight.”

Frank groans. “Fuck you, I was having a moment.”

Another kid in a Pencey shirt walks past them. Frank kind of wants to flag him down and talk to him, get in some interaction with the fans, but he also kind of wants to go grab another beer. Frank’s watching the crowd grow thin and thinking it over when he spots the guy.

He’s sitting on the curb a ways away, smoke curling from the tip of the cigarette in his hand. At first glance, he’s just like everyone else; black hair, denim jacket, combat boots. It’s good camouflage. If Frank wasn’t paying attention, he’d have missed him. But there’s something magnetic about his face, something different - now that Frank’s seen it, he can’t look away.

He steals Hambone’s beer again and drains the last of it. Hambone flips him off, but Frank’s already walking away.

He drops down onto the curb and asks, “Can I bum one?”

The guy glances up at him. “Yeah, sure.” He reaches into his pocket, and Frank sees it dawn on him: “Wait, you’re the guy from Pencey, right?”

Frank nods. The guy passes him a cigarette, and he takes it. “How’d you like the show?” Frank asks as he lights up. A flare of orange licks at his fingers.

“It was good,” the guy says with a nod. “Like, really good. You guys are local, right?”

“If you’re from Bellville, yeah.” Frank raises his cigarette to his lips and inhales, sick-bitter smoke flooding into his lungs.

“I am. I don’t know how I haven’t seen you guys before, you were awesome.” The guy’s somehow gotten closer without Frank noticing. Frank’s not complaining; he’s definitely easy on the eyes. There’s a softness in his face that Frank wouldn’t typically look twice at, but it works for him - he’s almost pretty. Scratch that, he’s definitely pretty.

Frank blows a cloud of white into the street, then glances at him, grinning. “I’m Frank,” he says.

“Gerard,” comes the reply.

Gerard. Frank turns the name over in his mind, testing the curve of the sound, the way it fits the guy’s face. Yeah. He likes it.

“So, Gerard,” he says. “If you’re local, and this is your scene, how come I haven’t seen you around either?” He glances at Gerard. “I know I’d remember if I had.”

Gerard smiles and looks away. “I dunno,” he says. “I don’t, um - I guess I don’t get out that often.”

“You should,” Frank says.

Gerard’s eyes flick up. There’s black makeup smudged beneath them, Frank notes with interest. “Yeah,” Gerard says, a smile creeping onto his face. “I should.”

Frank looks away. He tilts his chin up to the sky and lets out a breath, smoke billowing from his lips. He can feel Gerard’s eyes on him. It’s an itch on his skin, a voice that whispers for him to turn his head, give in. But he won’t. Not yet. The game is too thrilling for him to forfeit so soon.

“You want a drink or anything?” Frank asks. He asks partly because, hey, it’s nice to bond with fans, and partly because, hey, this fan is kinda hot. Two birds with one stone and all that.

Gerard raises an eyebrow. “There’s no way you’re old enough to be buying people drinks.”

Frank finally looks over at him, grinning. “Fuck you,” he says. “If I’m too young, then you definitely are. What are you, nineteen?”

“I’m twenty three!”

“And I’m twenty one. Suck on it, asshole.”

Gerard rolls his eyes. Frank giggles; he can’t help himself. Gerard is much too cute and much too easy to tease, and if Frank’s not careful, he’s going to get himself in trouble.

He can’t wait.

“Be right back,” he says, pushing himself to his feet. He lets his hand brush Gerard’s shoulder as he goes.

Once inside, he goes over to the bar and waves to Bob, who sighs and sets a pair of bottles down on the counter. Frank takes them in one hand. “You know I love you, right?” he says seriously. “I might be in the process of hitting on a hot guy, but you’re the one for me, Bob Bryar.”

“Whatever,” Bob says gruffly. “Be safe.”

Bob is a good dude. He’s been running this place ever since Frank started coming as a teenager. At first, he was just a face Frank would see in the crowd, but sometime between Frank’s first time crowdsurfing and his first time playing in a band, they ended up friends. One time someone crashed into one of the walls so hard they broke clean through it - Frank gave Bob a Misfits wall flag to cover it up with, and they’ve been cool ever since then. He lets Frank have free drinks as long as he pays for them later. It’s more than he does for most.

Frank goes back and hands one of the bottles to Gerard, giving him a subtle once-over as he sits down. Every time Frank looks at him, he notices something new, like the quirk of Gerard’s mouth when he talks or the way his hair falls behind his ears. And the eyeliner, God. He has to know what he’s got - you don’t walk into a show all made up like that unless you’re looking to catch someone’s attention.

Something nudges Frank’s back. “Hey,” says Tim’s voice. “You’re driving tonight, remember? We have to pack up soon if we want to hit the highway by one.”

Frank sighs. “Thanks, Tim,” he grumbles. Damn it. He was really hoping they’d have another few hours to themselves.

He looks up, and Gerard is stifling a smile. That motherfucker.

“I have to go,” Frank says regretfully. “Maybe I’ll see you around?”

“Definitely. Next time you’re in town, I’ll be here,” Gerard says, his smile widening. Frank gets the feeling he’s being laughed at. He can’t blame Gerard, though. If the situation were reversed, he’d be laughing too.

“Well, we’re from Belleville, so we’re bound to end up back here eventually,” Frank says. “And I’ll be around a lot even when I’m not playing.”

“Oh, you will?”

“Definitely.” Frank stands up and extends his hand to Gerard. Gerard takes it and uses it to pull himself up. Frank doesn’t let go of his wrist for a long, lingering moment. Gerard smiles at the ground.

“Frank!” Hambone hollers. “Get your ass over here, I’m not carrying this whole drum kit myself!”

Fuck it.

“Give me a second,” Frank says quickly, and runs for the door. Just inside is a table stacked with flyers for upcoming shows. Frank leans over and grabs a couple, then runs back outside. He thrusts one into Gerard’s hands. “Whatever this is for, I’ll be there. So, uh - if interested, check yes, if not, guess it’s time for me to fuck off now.”

Gerard glances down at the paper and bursts out laughing. “Oh, man,” he says. “Yeah, I’ll definitely be there.”

“So is that a yes?” Frank says hopefully.

“Yes.”

“Okay then.” Frank is well aware that he’s making a total idiot of himself, but he doesn’t care at all. He’s too busy grinning at Gerard. “See you soon?”

Gerard nods. “See you soon.”

Frank stuffs the flyer into his pocket and goes to help his band. Hambone wiggles his eyebrows at Frank, but Frank just rolls his eyes and hefts one of the drums into his arms. It’s not until they’re on the road that he allows his thoughts to wander, and they always come back to a black-haired boy, tousled and made up all pretty as a goddamn picture.

Frank gets the feeling he’s headed towards something beautiful.

***

Touring is a whirlwind. Frank bounces back and forth across cities, playing shows, arguing with his band, then getting wasted or stoned enough that they’re all laughing and forget why they fought in the first place.

But even in all the chaos, he can't forget Gerard. Frank usually forgets his hookups’ names within a few days, if he ever knew them in the first place, and Gerard wasn’t even a real hookup - he was just a pretty face. Really, he shouldn’t be anything special.

Except that pretty face keeps popping up in Frank’s mind, over and over again. He’s itching to see what Gerard looks like when he's not all sweaty and rumpled from being in the pit - or maybe when he’s all sweaty and rumpled for a different reason.

Yeah. He definitely wants that.

Frank would feel like a total creep if he wasn't sure it was mutual. He saw the way Gerard looked at him; there was no mistaking it. Even so, he’s careful not to let his thoughts wander too far. Part of it is just respect, but he also doesn't want to end up popping a boner right in front of his bandmates. After living in the van together for weeks at a time, they've all got things they give each other shit for, but he's not giving them any extra ammunition.

Shaun’s in the driver’s seat now. They’re headed back from upstate New York, working their way towards Belleville. They have a few shows left on this trip, but after that, they’ll be free for a good long while.

“I can’t wait to get home,” Shaun says wistfully, echoing Frank’s own thoughts.

Tim grunts in agreement from the back seat. “I want a real bed,” he says. “I can’t lay down in here. And it smells like ass.”

“Your mom smells like ass,” says Hambone.

“As soon as I’m home, I’m gonna take a shower for like, two hours,” Shaun says. “And then do a huge load of laundry. It’s gonna be great.”

Frank giggles. If only their mothers could hear them now. “I’m gonna eat real food and take a nap,” he says. And after that, he has other plans: “Maybe I’ll go to a show,” he says thoughtfully. “I dunno. See if I’m up for it.”

Hambone snickers. “You gonna find that twink from before?”

There’s a beat of silence. Frank’s brain has to take a minute to process the word “twink” coming out of Hambone’s mouth; once it does, he isn’t sure if he should laugh or cry. He fights hard to keep a straight face, but fails miserably.

“Do you,” he says, trying in vain to hold back a fit of giggles, “do you even know what that means?” he asks, and bursts out laughing.

“I thought I did,” Hambone says, uncertain. “Wait, is it like a sex thing?” Frank cackles. “Is it a sex thing?” Hambone demands. “Frank, you're so fucking - “

“I don’t think it’s a sex thing,” Tim says with a frown.

“Well,” Shaun says thoughtfully. “I think it - I mean. It could be, in the right context.”

Frank can’t fucking breathe, he’s laughing so hard. Tim kicks the back of Hambone’s seat. “Damn it, Hambone, you broke Frank.”

“Okay,” Frank wheezes. “First of all, he wasn't a twink, and second of all, please never say that again. Ever.” He takes a deep lungful of air. Okay. He’s calm now, he’s calm. His abs are sore.

“So… are you gonna see him again?” Hambone asks, wiggling his eyebrows.

“Maybe,” Frank says airily. “I might see him around.”

Something nags at the back of his mind.

He lurches forward. “Shit!”

“What’s up?” Shaun asks.

Frank pats frantically at his pockets. He pulls out his wallet and a half-empty pack of cigarettes, but that’s all he’s got. He swears again. “I had a fucking flyer,” he says. “Y’know, the little shits they give you after a show to get you to come to more? I had one, and I told him I was gonna be there - “

“Didn’t you get his number?” Hambone asks.

“No!”

“Why the hell didn't you get his number?”

“Which pants were you wearing?” Shaun asks. “Maybe it’s still in your pocket.”

Frank tries to think back. “The ripped gray ones?” he says.

“That’s literally all of your pants,” says Shaun.

Tim leans over into the back of the van and starts rummaging around. “The ones with the big holes in the knees, or the tighter ones?” he asks.

“The tighter ones,” Frank says.

Tim tosses a shirt over his shoulder. It lands on Hambone’s neck. He makes a face and swats it off. After a minute of searching, Tim sits back up and throws a pair of jeans at Frank. Frank catches them and turns them right side out, then checks each of the pockets.

His fingers find a crumpled ball of paper, and he lets out a sigh of relief. He digs it out and flattens it against his thigh. At first, when he reads the name emblazoned across the top, he thinks he’s read it wrong. He smooths it out again.

But it still says Gerard Way.

“That motherfucker,” Frank says out loud. Gerard isn't exactly a common name; it's got to be him.

“What is it?” Hambone asks, leaning over to read.

Frank shakes his head, laughing. “It’s his fucking show!” he says. “He’s playing! Damn it, that's why he was laughing at me!”

“Gerard Way,” Hambone reads. “What’s his music like?”

“I have no fucking clue.”

“Well, you know what that means, right?” Shaun asks, looking at Frank through the rear-view mirror.

“What?”

“Now you have to go.”

Frank grins and looks back down at the paper.

The show’s less than a week away.

***

Frank likes house shows. He’s small enough that he can weave through the crowds, and it’s nice to have actual bathrooms instead of the literal shitholes most venues come equipped with. But this? This is a little ridiculous.

The house full to bursting with people. Frank gets his toes stepped on more than once as he’s squeezing through to the living room. One band has already played; they’re packing up their shit, making room for the next act. The only question is where the hell that act is.

It takes Frank a minute to spot him.

Gerard’s over in the corner, kneeling down in front of an amp and messing with the dials. Frank leans against the wall and watches. He can’t resist when guys bend over while wearing tight jeans; sue him. He spends a minute enjoying the view before he makes his way over.

“Need some help?” he asks. Gerard shakes his head without looking up.

“I’m good,” he says distractedly. “Just setting the levels right - “ He finally looks up, and his eyes snap open. “Frank!”

“Gerard,” Frank says with a grin.

Gerard smiles broadly. He adjusts the knobs once more and stands up, brushing his hair out of his face. “I - wow. I wasn’t sure if you were going to come.”

“As if I could stay away,” Frank scoffs. “You didn’t tell me it was your fucking show!”

“What, and spoil the surprise?”

“Fuck you.”

Gerard looks away, still smiling. “I have to finish setting up,” he says. “But I’m glad you’re here. It’s… I hope you like it.”

“I’ll love it,” Frank says. “I don’t even know what the fuck you play, but I’m gonna love it.”

Gerard goes back to messing around with his amp. His hair’s falling into his face again, but Frank thinks he can detect a hint of pink on his cheeks. Score.

He wasn’t entirely sure what to expect tonight. He remembered Gerard being cute, but memories aren’t always true to life; there was always a chance he’d see Gerard differently when he wasn’t coming off a performance high. He’d promised himself not to leap into anything before at least verifying that Gerard was as good as he remembered.

And Gerard isn’t.

He’s better. He’s just as pretty as Frank thought, with a shy little smile that’s just begging to be kissed, but there’s an edge to it, too - his leather jacket hugs all the right places, and his hair is just messy enough to make Frank want to sink his fingers in and pull. He’s fucking irresistible.

But Frank will have to resist a little longer. He goes back to his little patch of wall, allowing his gaze to wander around the room so it doesn’t look like he’s staring. He doesn’t see anyone he recognizes in the crowd. That’s fairly unusual - Frank knows pretty much everyone in the hardcore scene, he’s guessing Gerard’s music is a few steps away from his usual taste. He’s got a good feeling about it, though. Gerard just has this aura around him. Even if Frank didn’t know him, he’d take one look at him and think music. There’s no way someone who radiates that kind of creative energy could make a shitty record. It’s just impossible.

Frank glances back over every few minutes, getting glimpses of Gerard tuning his guitar, talking to someone Frank doesn’t recognize, setting a little stack of CDs on top of the amp.

Then he clears his throat, adjusting the mic to his height. “Hey, guys,” he says. “We’re gonna get started in just a sec.” There’s another guitarist next to him, with a drummer behind them and a guy on bass off to the side. Gerard looks back at them. “We ready?” he asks. The bassist nods.

The drummer counts them off, and the first song begins.

It’s catchy. Frank drums his fingers on his thigh, following the beat. It’s not the machine-gun rhythm of a hardcore band - if he had to guess the genre, he’d call it rock, leaning towards pop. Not what he’s used to, but not bad.

Then Gerard starts singing.

Frank freezes.

He’s good. Frank knew he would be, but holy shit, he’s good. A little shaky, maybe, but his voice does something to the crowd. People are moving to the music; there’s a girl dancing over by the kitchen. Gerard closes his eyes, and with the harmony of the guitars layered beneath his voice, it feels like he and Frank the only people in the room.

The sound tugs at something in Frank’s chest. He lets it pull him forward, a magnetic force showing him the way. It’s strong enough to drown out all conscious thought.

By the time Gerard’s set ends, Frank’s migrated much closer to him, and he’s pretty sure he’s in love. Gerard thanks the crowd and gets a few hoots in response. Frank doesn’t snap out of his trance until he realizes Gerard has left the stage. He’s talking to the other guys now, one arm slung around the bassist’s shoulder. Frank scrambles over to them.

“Holy shit,” he says fervently. “That was fucking great.”

“It was okay,” Gerard says modestly.

“No it wasn’t, are you shitting me? It was awesome. Are you guys touring?” If they are, Frank’s following them to every show.

“No, we’re - we’re not really a band,” Gerard says apologetically. “So we don’t tour… collectively. It’s just me. The music, I mean, it’s a solo project. I get people to play with me when I can, but there’s not really a solid group? I’ve always got Mikey, but it all depends on who I can find to back me up.” He pushes the bassist forward. “This is Mikey. My brother.”

Mikey lifts his chin in greeting. Frank can’t see much family resemblance between them. Mikey’s wearing a shirt at least two sizes too small - Frank can see his hipbones where it rides up - and he’s unreadable behind his glasses. Gerard, by contrast, is pink-cheeked and grinning, still clad in his leather jacket despite the heat of the room. Between the two of them, Frank would pick Gerard any day.

“Whenever you get to play again, I’ll be there,” Frank promises. Gerard giggles.

“Same for me,” he says. “Pencey’s been off touring for a while, right?”

Mikey lets out a long sigh. Gerard elbows him hard.

“Yeah, we just went down the east coast,” Frank says.

“Seriously?” Gerard looks impressed. “That must’ve been crazy.”

The armrest of the couch is open. Frank sits down on it, laughing to himself. “Oh yeah. Man, you haven’t really lived ‘til you’ve lived on truckstop food for a month.”

Gerard’s eyes are bright. Frank is drawn into their light like a planet orbiting the sun. They talk late into the night, and Frank doesn’t look away once.

Later, as Gerard’s heading out the door with Mikey, Frank grabs his jacket sleeve. “Hey,” he blurts. “Do you wanna get coffee sometime?”

Gerard blinks. “Yeah,” he says, and a smile spreads across his face. “Yeah, that'd be great.”

He takes his phone out and hands it to Frank. Frank enters his number. He’d like to think he’s playing it cool, but judging by the way Mikey’s smirking, he's probably not.

The pleased look Gerard’s face makes it worth it.

***

One. Two. Three. Four.

Frank bobs his head to the rhythm, switching chords with each count. The guitar part’s so easy he barely needs to pay attention to it. It’s bugging him a little, actually. He could make it better if he tried; there’s a melody hiding beneath the chord progression, just waiting to be fleshed out.

Maybe he should have Gerard take a look at it. Get a fresh pair of ears.

He can’t stop thinking about last night. There wasn’t a single part of Gerard’s set he didn’t enjoy. Gerard hardly ever lifted his head to look at the audience, and there were times when his voice wavered a little, but he was never bad. Just nervous. If he gets over the stage fright, he’ll be incredible. He’s got real spark. His lyrics alone would be enough to get Frank hooked, but God, that voice will be the death of him. It shouldn’t be as alluring as it is. Just remembering the raspy edge of it makes Frank shiver.

“Earth to Frank,” says Tim. “Dude. Where are you?”

Frank looks up. Everyone else has stopped playing; he must’ve missed his cue. His face goes hot. “Sorry,” he says. “I zoned out there for a second. Can we go again?”

“Sure,” Hambone says. He plucks out a short note on his bass and glances over his shoulder at Tim, waiting for the beat.

Frank positions his fingers for the first part of the song, then stops. “Wait!” he says. “Actually, could we change this guitar part up a little bit?”

Hambone raises an eyebrow. “Why? I think it’s good.”

“It is good,” Frank assures him. “I just think it could be better, y’know?”

“It is a little boring,” Shaun concedes.

“What? It’s not boring,” says Tim. “Besides, if we have any more shit going on in this song it’s gonna get too chaotic.”

“It will not - “

“Frank needs to be able to sing while he’s playing it,” Hambone argues.

Frank bristles. The part is barely more than a few power chords; it’d take some major fucking changes for him to have any difficulty with it. “I could sing a goddamn opera playing this,” he says.

“And yet you couldn’t, just now,” Tim points out.

“Because there was nothing to focus on! I got bored!”

“Can we deal with this later?” Shaun interrupts. “We’ve got a song to practice.”

Tim scowls, but he doesn’t say anything more. Frank counts it as a victory. He’ll go home and write a little on his own. Tim probably won’t even notice if he slips it into their next practice, and if he does, he’ll just have to deal with it.

Tim taps his sticks against the hi hat, and Frank positions his fingers once more.

One. Two. Three. Four.

Maybe Gerard’s music is so good because he doesn’t to argue about it with any bandmates.

***

Frank’s standing outside the coffee shop, his second cigarette lit between his fingers. His entire body is buzzing. He wants to move, maybe take a walk down the street, but Gerard should be here soon. Frank scuffs the toe of his boot against the ground, glancing up at the parking lot.

Logically, he shouldn't have anything to worry about. Gerard already said yes. But there’s so much room for Frank to fuck up - what if Gerard didn't realize this was supposed to be a date? What if he’s not looking for a relationship? What if Frank’s wasting his time?

He’d ask Hambone or Tim for advice, but they'd just make fun of him. Shaun would be a better choice, but he just broke up with his girlfriend; she couldn't handle him being away on tour all the time. Frank doubts he wants to hear about his bandmates’ romantic lives right now.

Christ, Frank feels like a teenage girl. He doesn't usually spazz out like this. It’s just coffee, for fuck’s sake. It shouldn't matter.

But it totally does.

Frank stubs his cigarette out and goes inside.

Gerard runs up to the door a few minutes later. He spots Frank through the window, and his face lights up. He makes a beeline for the little table where Frank’s sitting.

“Hi!” he says. “Am I late? Sorry, there was traffic.”

“Nah, you're good.” Frank hops out of his chair and inclines his head toward the counter. “Do you want to…”

“Yeah!” Gerard looks over to the chalkboard above the cashier. “I don’t know how I’ve never been here before, I’m kind of a coffee freak. Where’d you find this place?”

Frank does an internal victory dance. He knew he’d made the right choice. Back when he was a broke teenager saving up for his first guitar, he’d happened across a little cafe called Dandy’s, and he’d worked there for about three months. He ended up getting fired for mouthing off too much, but he got a guitar out of it, plus the location of a cute coffee shop - perfect for dates.

“Luck,” he says airily. He steps into the line beside Gerard.

Gerard raises his eyebrows, impressed. “Damn. You got any to spare?”

Frank smirks. “Depends, are you asking to get lucky?”

Gerard blushes and looks away. Frank, one, Gerard, zero.

They spend the next half hour tucked into a little booth, talking nonstop. Frank’s got a lemon ginger tea; Gerard’s got a latte piled high with whipped cream. It looks like it contains more sugar than coffee. Frank swipes his finger through the cream and sticks it in his mouth. “Five bucks says you go to Starbucks,” he says, and takes his fingertip out of his mouth with a pop.

“Okay,” Gerard starts, holding up his hands. Frank giggles. “Say what you want about Starbucks, but that shit is so goddamn good - “

Frank sits up, jabbing a triumphant finger in his face. “I knew it! Nobody gets a drink like that unless they’re used to frappuccinos. I know your game.”

“You don’t even drink coffee!”

“I do sometimes,” Frank says, taking a dignified sip of his tea. “But when I do, it’s not Starbucks.” It’s usually the horrid shit from truckstops, the kind that tastes like someone put a few coffee beans in hot water and let it sit for a week. If he’s honest, Starbucks would be way better, but it’s not like he has the budget for that. Gerard shouldn’t, either, considering he’s a musician. He’s not touring, though; that must make up the difference.

“That reminds me!” Frank says suddenly. “Are you gonna try and find solid bandmates? You totally should. You could make some huge progress if you toured.”

Gerard winces. “I dunno. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that. I’ve only got the one EP out, and I’ve only ever played shows in Jersey and New York…”

“Bullshit,” Frank says. “My band’s been on the road since our first EP, you can do it too.”

“Yeah, well.” Gerard frowns into his coffee. “That’s different. You’ve got, like… fans.”

“And so could you!” Frank leans across the table and grabs Gerard’s hand. “You think I started out playing real shows? Dude, I was playing in front of nobody. There was one time only three people showed up. You’re gonna be amazing once people know who you are.”

Frank realizes too late how over-enthusiastic he sounds. He quickly retracts his hand, but Gerard doesn’t seem to mind; he’s smiling a little. “Maybe,” he says.

Frank grins. “Awesome! I’ll tell everybody to buy your album.”

“Do you even know what it’s called?” Gerard asks, raising an eyebrow.

“I totally do!” Frank says, insulted. “It’s…” He pauses. Shit. He’d been too busy watching Gerard perform to actually look at the CD.

Gerard laughs. “It’s called Look Up,” he says.

Frank snaps. “Yeah, that! I knew that.”

“Sure you did.”

Frank’s not going to answer that. Instead, he asks, “Can I have a copy?”

“Depends,” Gerard asks. “You got eight bucks?”

“Probably not,” Frank says, “but I’m sure we could work something out.” He wiggles his eyebrows. Gerard looks thoughtful.

“Sure,” he says, a smile spreading across his face, “you can have one.”

“Fuck yeah!” Frank pumps his fist.

“On one condition,” Gerard says, holding up a finger. Frank sits back warily.

“And that is?”

“You have to go out with me again,” Gerard says. He’s grinning even as his face goes pink.

Frank smiles. “I’d do that for free,” he says.

***

Impulse Records is Frank’s second favorite place in the world, after the stage. It’s his own personal heaven on Earth - shelves and shelves full of vinyl and plastic. Plus, Frank’s known the owner, Ray, since they were little kids. He's awesome.

A bell tinkles over Frank’s head as he throws the door open. He scans around the shop before spotting Ray at the cash register. Bingo. His messenger bag thumps at his side as he races for the counter.

It’s a testament to their friendship that Ray only staggers a little when Frank tackles him. “I went on a date with a hot guy,” Frank announces, hanging off Ray’s shoulder. “And I’ve been texting him every day. I’m pretty sure it’s true love.”

“Whatever happened to ‘hi, how are you?’” Ray inquires.

“Priorities, Ray! Did you not hear me? Hot guy! True love!”

“You say that every time,” Ray points out.

Frank ignores him. “This is different,” he insists. “He’s not like the others. He’s special.”

“You say that, too.”

Frank is willing to overlook Ray’s cynicism - just this once - because he’s never met Gerard and obviously has no idea what he’s talking about. Frank lets go of him and fishes a paper out of his pocket. “His name’s Gerard,” he informs Ray, “and he makes music. So you should totally check him out.”

“Isn’t that your job?” Ray asks, smirking.

Frank rolls his eyes and dangles the paper in front of Ray’s face. It’s a flyer for Gerard’s next show. If Ray isn’t there, Frank will make sure he never hears the end of it. “He’s got a show at the Knitting Factory in two weeks. You should come.”

Ray raises his eyebrows. “Knitting Factory, huh?” He takes the flyer and skims over it. When looks back up at Frank, he seems mildly impressed. “When you said he makes music, I was thinking more along the lines of SoundCloud rapper,” he says. “But this looks pretty cool.”

“I know, right?” Frank says smugly. He lifts his bag off his shoulder and plops it on the counter. He digs out the CD Gerard gave him and presents it with a flourish.

Ray laughs. “I’m guessing that’s his?” Frank passes him the CD, and he examines it. The cover shows a boy’s silhouette sitting in a window, with a starry sky laid out before him. “Look Up, huh?” Ray reads. “Nice art.”

“He drew it himself,” Frank says proudly.

“What genre is it?” Ray asks, flipping the CD over to look at the tracklist.

Frank thinks for a moment. “Like if Freddie Mercury had a baby with Lorde,” he says.

Ray nods. “I’ll give it a listen later.” Frank raises his eyebrows, and Ray rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he says. “I’ll see if I can make the show too.”

They’re interrupted as a customer comes up to the counter. “Hey, I think one of your amps is busted,” he says apologetically. “It's not working right.”

“Let me check it out,” Ray says. He smiles briefly at Frank and follows the guy over to the cluster of amps where customers can try out instruments. Frank hops up onto the counter and lets his gaze wander around the shop while he waits. His legs kick aimlessly.

It’s crazy, how big this place has gotten in only two years. Frank remembers the day it opened like yesterday. He thought Ray was nuts, opening a store with his senior year of college looming ahead, but it all turned out okay in the end. Hard work is built into every bone in Ray’s body, and it shows. Looking around the shop, with its walls covered in posters and customers milling around, Frank can’t see even a shadow of the hole in the wall it once was.

It must be nice to be Ray. He’s got his shit together.

Ray comes back to the counter, shaking his head. “It was unplugged,” he says, exasperated. “Some people, I swear.”

“You’re the one who chose to run a business,” Frank says cheerily. And he’s lucky Ray did. As the owner of the best music shop in town, he’s got connections that Frank needs. “Can you do me a favor?” he asks, reaching into his bag.

“Depends,” Ray asks. “If you want me to talk you up to your new boy toy, no.”

“That was one time!” Frank protests. “And Gerard’s not a boy toy, I really…” Ray grins at him. Frank flushes and stops talking before he can say something that Ray will hold over his head later. He takes a stack of CDs out of his bag and dumps them on the counter. “I need you to talk these up, not me,” he says.

Ray looks at the pile and giggles. “You want me to sell your boyfriend’s CDs?”

Gerard isn't Frank’s boyfriend - not yet, a least - but the word sends a little thrill up his spine. He can’t help but beam at Ray. “Yep,” he says. “Will you?”

Ray smiles. “Yeah, sure.” He straightens up the pile and slides it to the corner of the register. “You wanna sort records for me? We just got a new shipment in.”

Frank jumps off the counter. “Hell yeah!”

“They’re in the back, you know where to look.”

Frank runs to the back room without another word. “Don’t break anything!” Ray calls after him.

“Can’t stop me now!” Frank yells back. He finds the unopened crate sitting on a table. As he’s tearing open the packaging, he catches himself humming a familiar tune. He’s pretty sure it's from the CD he just gave to Ray.

He smiles to himself and rips the tape off the box.

***

Frank stands outside the door, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. This has to be the place; the room number’s the same as Gerard gave him. The little peephole in the center of the door glares at him.

Frank rocks onto the balls of his feet, lifts his hand, and knocks.

He quickly stuffs his hands back into his pockets. The electric lights of the hall buzz faintly. He looks down at his feet, listening hard, and he can almost hear a faint thump of movement before the door swings open. “Frank!” Gerard said brightly. “Hi!”

Frank looks up, smiling. “Hey,” he says. “Sorry for the wait, I was at work when you texted.”

“No problem. C’mon, I’ve got zombies.” Gerard turns around and disappears into the apartment, offering zero explanation for the words that just came out of his mouth. Frank blinks, then takes a step inside.

There’s a couple pairs of shoes beside the door. Frank kicks his boots off. He can hear Gerard’s voice somewhere down the hall, and another that sounds vaguely familiar. He follows the sound until he reaches the kitchen. Mikey’s sitting at the table eating a bowl of cereal, his eyes glued to his phone. “Just don’t be loud,” he’s saying.

“Shut up,” Gerard says, shoving Mikey’s head forward. He looks up, and his eyes land on Frank. “Hey! You remember Mikey, right?”

Frank nods. Mikey doesn’t look at him.

“Okay, cool. We can go in my room - he won’t bother us, he’s just hanging around.” Gerard dips past Frank, leading him to another room. There’s a mattress on the floor, covered in a pile of blankets and stray pens. A sketchpad lies half-buried in the comforter, along with what looks like a pleated skirt.

He nudges it with his foot. “Pro tip,” he says. “When bringing dates home, don’t leave your hookups’ stuff out.”

Gerard freezes. “Shit,” he says. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. Oh my God!”

He looks so horrified, Frank has to laugh. “It’s fine, I don’t actually care - “

“No, it’s not mine! I mean, I didn’t - Mikey had the spare key last weekend, he must’ve brought a girl home again.” Gerard gingerly scoops the skirt up and flings it into his closet like it’ll burn him if he touches it too long. He leans out the door and shouts, “Stop fucking people in my room, Mikey!” Frank giggles.

“Sorry,” Gerard says again, his cheeks rosy red. He picks up the sketchbook and looks as if he’s about to throw it after the skirt, but Frank touches a hand to it before he can.

“Can I see?” he asks.

Gerard pulls it slightly closer to his chest, hesitant. “Um… I dunno if you want to, it’s not that good.“

“Sure it is. You did the art for your EP, right? That was awesome.” Frank takes the book from him. It falls open to a page full of monsters - vampires and werewolves and creatures from the black lagoon, all rendered in black ink. The lines are thick; the angles sharp. It looks like something straight out of a comic book.

Frank loves it.

He flips through the pages. There’s a sketch of a park, a few buildings, some character designs that give way to more monsters. Some of them are watercolor, but they’re mostly ink and marker, dark colors that make him think of stormy nights. The last few pages are covered in doodles of stars and scorpions, their tails arching high over their backs. Frank touches a hand to his neck.

In the bottom corner of the final page, there’s a sketch of a boy. The corner of his mouth curls up into a grin. He’s looking down into a coffee cup, his fingers covered in scratches of ink. It’s sharp and balanced with style, but it’s unmistakably Frank.

Gerard snatches the book back. “Sorry,” he says hurriedly. “I didn’t mean - “

“That’s fucking amazing,” says Frank, awestruck. “Is there anything you can’t do? I mean, holy shit. Can I see it again?” He leans in to get a peek at the drawing. Gerard chews on his lip for a second, then hands it over. He sits down on the mattress while Frank pores over it.

Frank knew Gerard was an artist, but this… He had no idea it was like this. He shakes his head. Talk about a triple threat.

Gerard clears his throat. “So, um,” he says tentatively. “D’you like zombie movies?” He picks up a DVD from the floor and holds it up.

Frank looks up from the drawing, grinning. “Dude,” he says. “I was born on Halloween. I’m practically legally obligated to like horror movies.”

Gerard’s jaw drops. “No way! You were born on Halloween?”

“Yup.” Frank drops down beside him, the mattress bouncing beneath his weight. He wiggles his fingers at Gerard, orange and black ink flashing on his knuckles. “‘S why I got these.”

“I was wondering about that.” Gerard takes Frank’s hand and holds it up, studying the tattoo. His grip is gentle. Frank quickly looks at the floor.

“What about these ones?” Gerard points to the letters on every other finger. Frank laces them together.

“Bookworm,” he says. “‘Cause I like to read. It’s kinda dumb.”

Gerard smiles. “I like it.”

He hasn’t let go of Frank’s hand.

They don’t end up watching the movie after all. Frank pulls up his sleeves and shows Gerard each of his tattoos, telling the stories behind each of them. There’s still a fair amount of empty space he wants to fill. He tells Gerard about all the designs he wants to get, and Gerard grabs his sketchbook, doodling as he listens.

Frank’s pulling his shirt up to show Gerard the birds on his hips when he sees Mikey lurking in the door. His hands jump back down, and he flushes. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, but the blank look Mikey gives them makes Frank feel like he walked in on them fucking or something.

“Am I interrupting something?” Mikey asks.

“No,” Gerard says, but he sounds a little annoyed. “What do you want?”

“Can I talk to Frank real quick?”

Gerard heaves a sigh. “Mikey, I told you not to - “

“I just want to talk to him.”

“You really don’t have to.”

“But I want to.”

“I’ll talk to him,” Frank ventures.

Mikey raises his eyebrows at Gerard.

Gerard huffs. “Fine,” he says. “But don’t say anything stupid.”

Mikey beckons Frank out of the room. He’s silent as he leads Frank to the kitchen. Frank can’t help but think of the ferryman rowing damned souls across the river to hell. Mikey takes a seat at the kitchen table. His gaze is intense; it feels like he can see straight through Frank and into his bones.

“Gerard likes you,” he says. “A lot.”

Frank swallows. “That’s… good to know,” he says. Mikey’s gaze pulls him in like a magnet. He wants to look away, but he can’t.

“He’s a genius,” Mikey says flatly. “And he’s gonna do great shit someday. But a lot of the time he’s a mess. You have to be careful about what you say to him.”

Frank nods. Opening his mouth doesn’t seem like a good idea.

“You’re really fucking lucky to have him, so don’t fuck it up. Okay?”

“Got it,” Frank says. Mikey nods, seeming satisfied. He pulls out his phone and starts scrolling through it. Frank takes that as his cue to leave.

He goes back to the bedroom, where Gerard is sitting on the edge of the mattress, biting his nails. “Did he give you the whole speech?” he asks.

“I think so? Or an abbreviated version, at least,” Frank says, sitting down next to Gerard. “He’s a little bit terrifying.”

Gerard sighs. “I told him not to do that,” he says under his breath. “I swear to God, it’s like you’re not really my boyfriend until Mikey threatens you. As if I can’t handle myself.”

Frank freezes. Gerard looks up at him, eyes wide. “Shit, sorry - is that okay? I know it’s still early, we haven’t really talked about - “

“More than okay,” Frank says quickly.

“So you’re not - “

Frank gives him a kiss. “Boyfriends,” he says. “No takebacks.”

Gerard grins widely. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I don’t want to.”

***

“Wait, wait, wait.” Shaun stops playing and waves his hand. “Hambone, you’re behind.”

Hambone looks up at him, frowning. “What? No I’m not, Frank was ahead.”

“Yeah, but the rest of us were, too. So that means you were behind.”

Hambone scowls and adjusts the strap of his bass. “Fine. Start again.”

Frank bites back a sigh and repositions his fingers. He knows that tone all too well; it signals an incoming bitchfit. Tim counts them in with a click of his drumsticks, and they make it to the end of the first verse before Hambone starts lagging again. Shaun opens his mouth, but Hambone cuts him off. “I know,” he says tersely. “Do it again. I’ll fix it.”

Frank stops playing. “Do you want to go slower?” he asks bluntly.

“No,” Hambone snaps. “I’ve got it, all right? Just go again.” He quickly runs through the bassline once, twice, and fucks up on the third try. He swears under his breath. “Just go again,” he says.

“You could try playing it with Tim,” Shaun says cautiously. “That way it’ll - “

Tim winces. “Actually, I have to leave in a second,” he says.

The spotlights swivels away from Hambone and lands squarely on Tim. Shaun stares. “It’s barely been an hour,” he says.

“Sorry, man,” Tim says with a shrug. “I’ve got plans.”

“Plans more important than your band?” Frank asks incredulously.

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Hambone demands. “We could’ve rescheduled!”

“Damn it, I could’ve been working extra hours right now, too.” Shaun rakes a hand through his hair, frustrated. “Okay, how long do you have?”

“Like five minutes,” Tim says meekly.

“Damn it. Fine, okay, let’s do it again. I’ll practice with Hambone more later.”

“What’s the fucking point?” Frank says. “We’re not gonna get anything done in five minutes. He should just go now.”

“Wouldn’t want to be late for your super special plans,” Hambone says under his breath.

“Shut up,” Shaun orders. “We’re going again. Tim, count it off.”

“Who made you the boss?” Tim mutters, but he taps his sticks together all the same.

Frank lets out a slow breath, letting his jaw relax. As the song begins, he presses down on the strings a little harder than he needs to, and the metal bites at his fingers. But it’s fine.

They aren’t bleeding yet.

***

Gerard’s room looks like a demolition zone. Normally, Frank doesn’t care - his own is no better - but it does make it hard to find anything. He left his capo in here somewhere, and now it’s been swallowed up into the mounds of dirty clothes and discarded art supplies.

Gerard’s off in the kitchen doing something, probably making himself yet another cup of coffee. Frank can hear him humming to himself the way he does when he’s waiting for it to finish brewing. “Gerard?” he calls.

“Yeah?” comes Gerard’s voice.

“Have you seen my capo anywhere?”

“I dunno, is it at your place?”

Frank bites back a sigh. No, it’s obviously not at his place, or he wouldn’t be looking here. “I think it’s in your room, can you help me find it?”

“Yep! Give me a minute.”

Frank gets back to work. After digging up two empty water bottles, a crusty tube of paint, and a tartan skirt - Mikey really needs to start checking what room he’s going into when he brings girls home, Jesus Christ - he’s forced to give up his search. He sits back and swears under his breath. He shouldn’t have let Gerard make him coffee; it just makes him antsy.

The thing is, if you get down to technicalities, the capo isn’t really Frank’s. It used to be Shaun’s. Ownership of it has always been kind of loose - it gets passed around between them pretty frequently - but now all of a sudden he wants it back, and if Frank doesn’t find it for him, he’s gonna be pissed.

And what’s worse is, they wouldn’t be able to do that acoustic set they’ve been planning. That’ll make Tim and Hambone happy, but it’ll have consequences - the entire reason Frank wanted to do it was so they could play a few songs without Hambone’s bass dragging them out of tempo. He could always get a capo from somebody else, or do all the barre chords by hand, but it’d be simpler if he could just find the fucking thing.

“Gerard!” he yells. “Are you done yet?”

“Almost,” Gerard says in a sing-song voice. Frank rolls his eyes. Him and his fucking coffee.

Gerard probably won’t be able to navigate this any better than him. He always insists that he has a system, but then he ends up losing all his markers in his blankets and not finding them for weeks. Frank’s capo might as well be lost in the Bermuda Triangle.

Shaun’s capo. Fucking whatever.

“Gerard,” he shouts again.

From the other room, Gerard stops humming. “Okay, I’m coming,” he says. His footsteps draw nearer to the bedroom, and he pokes his head in. “What’s up?”

“This,” Frank says, irritated. He gestures to the piles of crap all around him. “Do you have to leave your shit all over the place? I can’t find my fucking capo.”

“I don’t do it on purpose,” Gerard huffs. “It just happens.”

“Well, can you make it not happen? Or help me look?”

Gerard slips inside and crouches down beside Frank. “Let’s see,” he mumbles, shoving some of the clothes aside. “When did you lose track of it?”

“How should I know?” Frank says. “I just know it’s gone.”

Gerard bends over to peer under the mattress. “Did you have it at your last practice?”

Frank strains to think back. They didn’t practice the acoustics last time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have it. He tries to bring up a mental image of his guitar case when he was packing up, but all he can remember is Tim yelling at him, himself yelling back, and Hambone cussing them both out.

“Fuck,” Frank mutters, raking a hand through his hair. “Shaun’s gonna fucking kill me.”

“And you’re sure it’s not at your house?” Gerard asks, rifling through his desk drawers.

“No, I looked there,” Frank says shortly. “I had it when I was playing in here last week.”

Gerard sits up with a sigh. “Well, I’m not seeing it. Sorry, Frankie. I’m gonna - ”

“What do you mean, you’re not seeing it?” Frank says, his voice rising against his will. His skin itches with relentless heat. He wants to get up and pace the room, anything to get his blood moving. “We have to keep looking,” he says. “We can’t just take a look and call it a day, that’s fucking useless!”

Gerard frowns. “I’m just getting my coffee,” he says, looking a little hurt.

“Oh, right, ‘cause that’s the most important thing in the world,” Frank says sarcastically. He wads up a shirt and tosses it in Gerard’s direction. “I’ll keep looking on my own. See if we can survive the next practice without it.”

“I was gonna come back - “

“Don’t bother,” Frank mutters. His face is hot. He needs Gerard’s help, but at the same time, he kind of wishes he’d leave. It makes for an unpleasant combination of feelings churning inside him.

Gerard stops.

“Why are you being such an asshole right now?” he asks.

Frank scowls at the floor. “I’m not,” he says, but Gerard cuts him off.

“You totally are. I’m sorry your capo’s lost, but it’ll turn up eventually. Don’t yell at me ‘cause you’re mad about it.”

“When is eventually?” Frank demands, inadvertently doing exactly what Gerard just told him not to do. “We’re supposed to practice tomorrow!”

“Then you’d better find it before then!” Gerard snaps. “But I’m not going to help if you keep acting like a dick!”

“Fine!” Frank yells.

“Fine!”

Gerard storms off to the kitchen. Frank glares at the floor for a second before pushing himself to his feet and whisking out the door. He doesn’t say goodbye to Gerard on his way out. In the car, he drums his fingers hard against the steering wheel, his thoughts tossing and crashing into one another in a furious tide.

Stupid capo. Stupid fucking band.

Frank doesn’t even know why he’s so pissed off. It just came on out of nowhere, a red haze descending over everything he sees. He knows it’s irrational, but he doesn’t care. All he wants to do is punch something.

Jesus, he feels like his dad.

The thought brings him to a screeching halt at his front door. He stares at the peephole, feeling slightly sick. Most of the time, he tries not to think about those memories. His mom would always make excuses - he’s stressed, he’s tired, just give him a break, Frankie. But no matter how they tiptoed, there was no avoiding his anger. It was like a living thing, a beast that would rear its head and roar at them if they woke it from its sleep.

Is this what it feels like to wake up?

Frank jams the key into the front door and twists it open, fighting off a wave of nausea. That’s not him. He’ll never let that be him.

He just has to calm down. This isn’t such a big deal, really; it’s not the end of the world if he can’t find his capo. He’ll just have to borrow one from somebody, or buy one if he has to. They’re not that expensive.

He goes straight to his room and flops down on the bed. It’s equally as destroyed as Gerard’s. He really had no right to say anything. He sighs and rolls over onto his front, burying his face in a pillow. Fuck. He’s such an idiot.

He reaches into his pocket to pull out his phone. On the way, his hand brushes over a clump of blanket that feels just a little too solid.

Frank pauses and places his hand directly on it. Yeah, there’s definitely something wound up in there.

He sits up and pushes the blanket off the bed. It falls to the floor with a clunk. He reaches into the tangled heaps of fabric, searching until his fingers close around a small, hard object.

It’s the goddamn capo.

“Fuck,” Frank says to himself.

The trip back to Gerard’s apartment takes only a few minutes. Frank spends more time waiting on his doorstep than he did driving. He shifts back and forth, trying to work up the nerve to knock. He really doesn’t deserve to show up here, not after the way he acted, but the least he can do is apologize.

He braces himself and knocks on the door.

It takes a while for Gerard to come to the door. When he does, he opens it slowly, giving Frank a wary look. “Hi,” he says.

“Hi,” Frank says, averting his eyes. Before the silence can get too awkward, he blurts out, “I’m sorry for being a dick earlier.”

Gerard nods.

Shit. Frank isn’t good with apologies. They make him want to crawl under the doormat and die, especially when he knows how needed they are.

He coughs. “I’m just really stressed out about the band,” he mutters. “Things… aren’t going that well right now. But I shouldn’t have taken that out on you. Sorry.”

Gerard opens the door a little wider. “I could tell something was up,” he says. “You’ve been kind of edgy lately. You could’ve just talked to me about it, though. You don’t need to bottle shit up.”

“I know,” Frank says miserably. “I’m sorry, Gee.”

“It’s okay.” Gerard pulls him inside and gives him a quick kiss. “Did you find your capo, at least?”

Frank nods. “I did, actually.”

“Where was it?”

“In my room,” Frank says sheepishly.

Gerard grins. “See? I told you.”

“Yeah, you did.” Frank smiles and leans against Gerard, relaxing when Gerard automatically wraps an arm around his waist. “Okay, new rule; when something’s bothering me, I talk to you about it instead of treating you like crap.”

“That sounds like a good rule.”

“You have to do it too, though.” Frank lifts his chin and kisses Gerard’s jaw. “No yelling at me when the coffee machine breaks. Cool?”

“Cool,” Gerard agrees. “Just as long as you’re not the one who broke it.”

Frank laughs. “I’m not stupid enough to do that in front of you, I’d be putting my life at risk.”

“Then we’ve got no problem here!” Gerard says cheerfully. “C’mon, you can show me that acoustic song you were talking about.” He closes the door behind them.

Frank smiles and lets Gerard pull him toward the bedroom, relief sweeping sweetly over him.

***

Frank strums an experimental chord.

The sound rings out through his amp, the notes grating viciously against one another. He grins. Fuck yeah. Tim smacks his drum kit, a few beats pounding through the venue. They match up with Frank’s heartbeat, quick and electric.

Tonight’s going to be a good one. Considering how small the venue is, they’ve managed to draw a decent crowd; there are at least thirty kids milling around outside. They’re the good kind, too. Frank can feel it. He can see it in the way they move. They started a pit during one of the opening bands; that was proof enough. There’s bound to be a few more before the night’s end. Hell, they might even get some crowd surfers.

“You ready?” Shaun inquires. Frank runs through a quick riff, twists the A string into tune, and nods.

Tim cracks his sticks together, laying a beat of one, two, three, and they’re off.

The kids start to flood back inside in an instant. Their eyes are hungry. Frank glances up from his guitar to watch as they fall into formation, a semicircle in front of Pencey’s makeshift stage. Heads bop to the rhythm of Tim’s drums. Frank flashes them a smirk and takes the floor, seizing the microphone.

The high of performing kicks him right in the head. He screams, and the crowd screams back, a feedback loop of energy running unbridled through the airwaves. Sometimes, in the chaos of it all, Frank thinks he’ll punch a hole in this reality and into another. He grips the mic tight to keep himself grounded, and lets something explosive crawl its way out of his chest.

He forgets to watch the crowd until their third song. He’s lost in the haze of blood and sweat and music, his fingers aching against the strings of his guitar. Frank opens his eyes, and he sees the lights. He sees the faces shining back at him, mouths moving to his lyrics, kids smashing into each other to his music.

This is why he does it, he thinks. This is what makes it all worthwhile.

Once the set is over, he chugs an entire water bottle in one go. His head is a whirling cocktail of adrenaline; he’s too high to come down quite yet. He stumbles offstage and heads for the back door. Some fresh air will do him good.

He spends a few minutes outside, breathing deeply until he feels like a human being again. The tingling current in his brain fades away. The monster in his chest quiets and curls up between his ribs. The air sinks into his skin, and he’s calm again, placated by the cool breeze.

Ray is waiting for him when he comes back inside. “Hey,” he greets Frank. “Nice job.”

“Thanks,” says Frank. He combs his fingers through his sweaty hair, slicking it back. “How’d we do? Everybody stuck together all right?”

“Like I said, it was good.” Ray tilts his head toward the bar. “You wanna grab a drink?”

“Yeah, sure. Give me a minute, though - Gerard said he was coming, I want to introduce you guys.” Frank sidesteps Ray and heads out into the crowd. It’s a sea of black denim and leather, kids in smeared eyeliner and steel-toed boots. He finds himself near the stage again, searching through the masses for a familiar face.

Gerard crashes into him out of nowhere. “Frankie!” he says delightedly, throwing his arms around Frank. “You did so good, oh my God!”

Frank leans into him, smiling. “You don’t wanna hug me, I’m all gross.”

“I’m pretty gross, too. I think I’ll survive.” Gerard plants a kiss on his cheek.

Frank pulls away, laughing. “You’re such a dork. C’mon, I want to introduce you to somebody.”

He drags Gerard to the bar where Ray is waiting. He’s already gotten them drinks. Frank takes one and passes the other to Gerard. “Gerard, this is Ray,” he says. “He’s cool. I’ve known him forever. Ray, this is Gerard. He’s my boyfriend.”

“So I’ve heard,” says Ray, rolling his eyes. He sticks out his hand to Gerard. “Nice to finally meet you. Frank’s been talking my ear off about how amazing you are for the past week.”

Gerard grins and shakes his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you, too. Frank hung some posters for me at your shop, right?”

Ray smirks at Frank. Frank gives him his best death stare. In all the years they’ve known each other, he’s accumulated more embarrassing stories about Frank than anyone else in the world. The rainbow keychain he wore to school as part of his coming out process, the time he pierced his own ear and passed out at the sight of blood, or even - God forbid - his junior prom. If Ray’s inclined to do so, he could tell Gerard all of it.

But he’s a merciful soul, so he just chats with Gerard about music. Frank makes a mental note to show Ray how much he appreciates their friendship sometime soon.

They hang around for a while until Ray has to leave. “I wish I could stay, but I’ve got a store to run,” he says, smiling regretfully.

“Must suck to be a mature adult,” Frank says cheerfully. “We’ll party extra hard in your honor!”

Ray just shakes his head, waving to them as he walks out the door. Gerard checks his phone. “Shit, it’s late,” he says. “I should probably go, too.”

Frank glances up at him. “You want a ride?”

“Yeah, that’d be great, actually.”

Frank takes his hand and motions toward the door. “C’mon then, let’s get outta here.”

Outside, the night air is warm. Frank keeps the window rolled down as he drives, one hand on the steering wheel, one hanging out into the open. The Smashing Pumpkins play from his shitty car speakers while the engine rumbles softly. In the passenger’s seat, Gerard has his head turned to look out the window. Frank can’t make out his face in the dim streetlights.

When he pulls up in front of Gerard’s apartment, he hits pause on the music. It’s replaced by the song of cicadas and crickets, hidden in the dark.

Gerard doesn’t move. He looks over at Frank, chewing on his lip.

“Do you want to come in?” he asks. “You could stay the night. If you wanted.”

Frank turns the key, and the engine cuts out.

Gerard grins at him.

They scramble up the stairs like teenagers running from the cops, holding hands tightly and giggling at their own daring. Gerard unlocks the door and slams it shut behind them. Frank doesn’t hesitate before dragging him in for a kiss. Gerard responds enthusiastically, gripping Frank’s hips and holding him close.

They stay wrapped around each other for a while, lips colliding hard and hot. Frank backs up a little, just enough to bait a little forward motion, and Gerard takes the hint, pushing Frank up against the wall. Frank’s pinned in place, Gerard’s chest flush with his. His mouth falls open, and Gerard kisses him deeper. It’s an overload of sensation, the press of Gerard’s body against his, the sharp scrape of teeth, the wet heat of his mouth. Gerard buries his fingers in Frank’s hair and tugs slightly. Frank gasps. Gerard tugs once more, and Frank bites his lip hard to hold back a moan.

“Is that good?” Gerard says, uncertain. “Do you - “

“Yeah,” Frank says breathlessly. “Do it, I like it.”

Gerard’s grip on his hair tightens. He jerks Frank’s head back, and Frank lets out a choked noise. Gerard drags his lips across Frank’s jaw and down to his neck.

“Bedroom?” he murmurs.

Frank nods fervently. Gerard tugs him forward by his belt loops, and they go stumbling toward Gerard’s room. Frank has his shirt off before they’re halfway down the hall, and by the time they reach the doorway, he’s working on unbuttoning his jeans. It’s pitch dark in the room. He flicks the lights on, but Gerard switches them off again.

Frank switches them back on.

Gerard opens his mouth, but Frank places a finger to his lips. “You wanted to see,” he says. He lets his fingers trace down his stomach to his hips, where his tattoos are on full display. Gerard closes his mouth abruptly.

Frank smirks and lets his fingers dip lower. He follows his waistband all the way to the zipper and pulls it down slow. Gerard’s eyes follow every movement. It makes Frank hot all over. He drags his jeans down inch by inch, not once looking away from Gerard.

“Can I - “ Gerard starts, and Frank yanks him in by his shirt. Gerard is quick to help him get his pants off, and he’s left in only his boxers, with nothing to hide the way they’re tenting up in the front. Gerard cups him through the fabric, and Frank shivers. His touch is feather-light, almost teasing, and it just might drive Frank crazy.

“Touch me,” he says. “Please.”

Gerard pushes him down onto the bed and straddles his hips. Frank’s knees fall open automatically. Gerard kisses his neck, softly at first, then biting down hard. He sucks at the sensitive skin where it’s sure to leave marks, red-purple bruises trailing down to Frank’s collarbone. There’s no way he’ll be able to hide them come tomorrow. The thought sends a jolt of heat to the pit of Frank’s stomach.

Gerard hooks his fingertips into the waistband of Frank’s boxers. Frank’s rocks his hips up automatically. The friction sends a sweet wave of pleasure over him, and he can feel Gerard hard and hot against his thigh. Gerard pulls his boxers off. His fingers hover at Frank’s hips.

“Can I - “ he begins again, and Frank makes a frustrated noise.

“Quit teasing and fucking touch me,” he says. He cuts him himself off with a gasp when Gerard finally gets a hand on his dick.

They’ve never done anything like this before. They’ve spent a few nights grinding and making out on the couch, and they’ve gotten each other off, but there’s always been at least some clothing involved. Frank has dreamed about it, of course, but the real thing is so much better. Gerard strokes him softly, making Frank thrust up into his hand.

“More,” he gasps out. “Please.”

Gerard bites at the spot where his shoulder meets his neck. He jerks Frank off tight and slow, reducing Frank to a panting mess beneath him. It’s not enough, but it feels so goddamn good - and if Frank is honest with himself, part of him likes being denied. He wants Gerard to touch him just like this and bring him to the edge, then make him beg for it.

Gerard speeds up a little, and Frank’s head hits the pillow. “Fuck,” he moans. “Oh, fuck me.”

Gerard’s breath is hot against Frank’s neck. “You want me to?” he asks, his lips ghosting over Frank’s skin.

“Fuck, please.”

Gerard leans over to the nightstand and yanks one of the drawers open. Frank stares up at the ceiling, breathing deeply as Gerard rummages through it. His heart is hammering in his chest. He reaches down and touches himself slowly, trying for the same rhythm Gerard had given him, but he can’t resist; he goes faster, closing his eyes and letting his mouth fall open as he works himself up.

Gerard grabs his hand. “Hey,” he says. “That’s my job.”

“Then take your fucking clothes off and do it,” Frank says.

Gerard takes a deep breath and shifts to the edge of the bed, turning away from Frank as he slips his shirt off. He tosses it to the floor, his pants and underwear following shortly after. As soon as they’re off, he gets back on Frank and kisses him until his brain is a muddled mess.

“How do you want it?” Gerard whispers.

Frank takes a moment to catch his breath. “On my back, like this,” he says. “I wanna see you.”

Gerard reaches over him for a pillow. Frank lifts his hips, and Gerard slips it beneath him. He runs his fingers across Frank’s thighs, pushing them up and apart. Frank shivers. There’s a quiet snick as Gerard pops the cap off the lube. Frank’s skin is buzzing wherever Gerard touches him, trembling with anticipation.

He bites his lip hard when Gerard finally pushes his finger in. He moves slowly - usually Frank likes it hard, but with Gerard kissing him so softly, unraveling him from the inside out, he melts. Gerard licks into his mouth, and Frank grabs his hips tight to keep him close. Gerard gets a second finger inside him. Frank hisses through his teeth. It burns, but he pushes back into it, forcing Gerard deeper. With a little time, the pressure shifts from too much to not enough.

“Come on,” he chokes out. “I’m good, I’m good.”

Gerard nips at his jaw. “You sure?” he asks.

“If you don’t fuck me right now, I swear to God - “

Gerard slides his fingers out. Frank inhales sharply. There’s a crinkle as he rolls a condom on, and then he’s pushing in for real, and Frank lets his head fall back against the pillow with a moan. “Fuck,” he says. Gerard’s fucking big - he’s known that for a while, fucking dreamed about it, but the real thing is so much better.

“Oh my God,” Gerard gasps. His hips kick hard, and there’s a flare of pain, but it’s coupled with pleasure, a sweet desire that bubbles up inside him and spreads throughout Frank’s entire body. “Fuck, Frank, you’re so - “ He presses Frank’s knees further back, almost up to his ears, and Frank’s eyes almost roll back into his head. He wants to sink deep into the feeling, ride it out until it crashes over him like a tidal wave.

“Just like that,” Frank moans. “Keep going, I - fuck, I’ve wanted this forever.”

Gerard pauses for a split second. “Really?”

“Don’t stop, motherfucker,” Frank whines. Gerard thrusts into him again, and Frank has to bite his lip before continuing. “Fuck, I’ve been thinking about this ever since I first saw you.”

Gerard nips at his neck. “Really?” he asks. “What were you thinking?”

It sounds more genuinely curious than seductive, but Frank shudders just the same. He rolls his hips, and the friction is so good, it makes his head spin. “What it’d feel like,” he says. “How you’d fuck me. If you’d do it fast or slow, or,” he swallows hard, “or tell me what to do, or just take what you wanted.”

It’s then that Gerard looks at him directly, his eyes dark. “You want that?” he asks. “You want me to take it from you?”

“Yes,” Frank says in a rush. “Please. Fuck.”

“Jesus, Frankie.” Gerard bites Frank’s neck hard. His voice is muffled when he speaks. “You’re so fucking hot like this, I can’t - fuck.” He quickens his pace, fucking hard into Frank. Frank arches his back into it. He lets his eyes slip shut, little breathy noises escaping whenever Gerard moves.

Gerard stops. “Here, wait a sec,” he says, and shifts a little bit. Frank adjusts the pillow beneath his hips.

When Gerard thrusts in again, Frank sees stars. “Fuck,” he gasps. “Right there, right there, shit - “

“Keep talking,” Gerard says, his voice strained. “I like hearing you, it’s - “ He hits the spot again, and Frank cries out, gripping Gerard’s hips tight enough to bruise. A steady pressure is building in the pit of his stomach, a fire that keeps burning hotter and hotter.

“Don’t stop,” he begs. “Keep going, please, just like that - “

“God, Frank - “

“Gerard,” Frank gasps. “I’m gonna, tell me, please - “

Their lips crash together, lips moving at a frantic pace; Gerard pushes Frank down against the mattress. “Come for me,” he murmurs into Frank’s mouth. It goes straight to Frank’s head, a dizzying surge of heat, and then he’s coming with a drawn-out moan. All he can feel is Gerard, touching him, kissing his neck, whispering sweet things in his ear. It’s heaven.

It takes him a full minute to come down. He lets out a shaky breath, staring at the ceiling. “Holy shit,” he says faintly.

Gerard huffs out what starts as a laugh, but his breath hitches halfway through. Frank is suddenly reminded of what they’re doing. He shifts back, wincing a little as Gerard pulls out. Gerard sits back on his knees, but Frank sits right up and grabs his hands. “Let me,” he says.

Gerard bites his lip, looking away. “Are you sure? I don’t want to - “

Frank raises his eyebrows. “Did you not hear the part about me waiting to do this ever since we first met?”

“Yeah, but I’m…” Gerard hesitates, wrapping his arms around himself. “I don’t want to pressure you.”

Frank rolls his eyes. He pushes Gerard’s hands down to his sides. “You’re lucky you’re pretty,” he says, “‘cause that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. If I didn’t want to fuck you, we wouldn’t be here.” He lets his fingers trail up Gerard’s thighs. Gerard’s fucking beautiful like this, sitting back just waiting to be touched, his cock standing up hard and flushed against his belly. He’s still not looking at Frank, though. Frank pauses.

“You do want me to, right?” he asks slowly.

Gerard’s eyes snap to meet his. “Yeah,” he says quickly.

Frank grins. That’s all the encouragement he needs. He strokes a finger up the underside of Gerard’s cock, watching with fascination as Gerard shivers.

Frank’s not shy to admit it - he loves sucking dick. Gerard is no exception. He threads his fingers through Frank’s hair, holding him in place, his breathing labored as Frank swirls his tongue around the tip of his cock. Frank can feel him tense up, trying to keep his hips still. He won’t be able to keep that up for long; not if Frank can help it.

“Frankie,” Gerard says hoarsely. “Can I - “

“You’d fucking better,” Frank growls. Gerard’s hips snap forward almost immediately. Frank chokes a little bit, but finds his rhythm again quickly. He sinks down lower, and Gerard’s fingers tighten in his hair. He makes the prettiest sounds - broken, bitten-off moans as he’s fucking Frank’s mouth.

“Fuck, I’m not gonna last,” he pants.

Frank hums around his cock, then pulls off and strokes him up and down. “Good,” he says. Gerard swallows hard. His face is flushed, his chest heaving. Frank smirks, looking up at him with half-lidded eyes, and jerks him faster, tighter. Gerard tilts his head back, his mouth falling open. His breaths come out as hitching moans. If Frank could get hard again just from listening to him, he would.

“I’m gonna - fuck, Frankie, I’m - “

Frank keeps jerking him off hard and fast. “Do it,” he says roughly. “Come on.”

Gerard shudders, thrusts into Frank’s fist one last time, then comes all over his hand with a cry. Frank strokes him softly, dragging it out until Gerard’s thighs stop shaking. Gerard falls back onto the mattress with a sigh. Frank grins.

“Good, huh?” he asks, flopping down next to Gerard.

“Uh-huh,” says Gerard, dazed.

Frank pecks his cheek. “You’re pretty,” he says, then rolls off the bed. “I’m gonna go get something to wash up. Be right back.” Gerard mumbles something unintelligible in response. Frank smiles to himself as he steps out.

He pads off down the hall, the world around him coated in a hazy amber glow. As he steps into the bathroom, he glances up at his reflection in the mirror. His hair is a mess. The sides of his neck are covered in ruddy purple bruises, and there are red marks at his hips. Frank grins, and his reflection grins back at him, flushing pink.

He goes to wash his hands. The water is as warm as the feeling of contentment that has settled beneath his skin. He shakes the droplets from his fingertips, looking around for a towel. There’s usually one hanging from a hook beside the sink, but it’s not there now. Frank wipes his hands off on his leg and opens the cupboard. Maybe Gerard has some paper towels laying around.

No such luck. There’s a hairbrush that Gerard never uses, a stick of deodorant, a bottle of medication, and, interestingly enough, a tube of lipstick, but nothing to wash up with. Frank closes the cabinet and heads for the kitchen.

Once he’s retrieved a wad of wet paper towels, he returns to the bed, where Gerard is curled up on top of the covers. Frank cleans him up and climbs in next to him. Gerard wraps his arms around Frank’s waist and kisses him softly. Frank can feel his heartbeat where their bare skin touches, even and steady.

He relaxes into Gerard’s arms and closes his eyes.

***

Pencey supposed to be practicing right now, but Tim is nowhere to be found. Again.

Frank tries not to look at the glaring empty space behind his drum kit. It makes the room feel bigger - normally, they can fill the place with sound, but with the three of them, there just isn’t enough.

Hambone shrugs his bass strap off. “Well,” he says bitterly, “we can’t fucking practice without our drummer. See you guys later, I guess.”

“Nuh-uh.” Shaun points at Hambone. “We’ve had to practice without you enough times before, we’ll make it without him. Put that shit back on.”

“What the hell are we supposed to do without drums?” Hambone argues. “We’ll have no rhythm!”

“You always fall off the beat anyway, why should it matter?” Frank mutters.

Hambone leans toward him. “Sorry, what was that?” he says.

“Frank, don't be an asshole,” Shaun warns.

“Who’s being an asshole? He can't just leave, we have to practice!”

“Well, somebody should’ve told Tim that!” Hambone snaps.

“Guys, come on,” Shaun complains. “Let’s just - “

“Just what? Pretend like this isn’t the third time he’s skipped in two weeks?” Hambone shakes his head in disgust. “He’s probably just getting stoned or something. Christ.”

Frank’s fingers tighten around the neck of his guitar. He counts backwards from ten before speaking. “We’re paying for this practice space,” he says tersely. “We might as well use it.”

Hambone stays silent. For a moment, Frank expects him to sling off his bass and leave.

But he just exhales and adjusts the strap. “Let’s do this,” he says. He doesn’t look happy, but at least he still cares enough to be there.

***

Frank doesn’t even know what they’re fighting about. It happened in a split second; nerves frayed and stretched thin until they just snapped.

“Fuck you, Frank!” Hambone yells. “It’s not like you’re some fucking musical genius! If you quit acting like you were fucking better than the rest of us - “

“I never said that!” Frank snaps. Everything is a vicious red. He’s only half-aware of the words as they tumble out, burning his throat with acid. He’s so fucking done. He’s long past caring; he wants to make Hambone hurt. “You just need to shape the fuck up, nobody else is - “

“Oh, right. I’m the problem, huh?” Hambone says sarcastically. He drops his bass. He’s not careful with it; it lands with a loud thunk and a buzz of the strings. “Fine. Guess I’ll be going, then, since you can’t fucking stand me!”

“Then go!” Frank shouts.

“Fine! I’ll go hang out with Tim, even he’s realized it’s better to sit on his ass and get stoned than be in a band with you - “

Shaun stands up and grabs Hambone’s shirt. Hambone shakes him off at once.

“Touch me one more time,” he warns, “I swear to - “

“You can’t leave,” Shaun insists. “We’re a band, we don’t walk out on each other.”

Hambone laughs in his face. “Oh, don’t we? Where the fuck is Tim, then?”

“Forget him,” Shaun snaps. “We have to finish practicing - “

“Fuck practicing,” Hambone spits. “Fuck all of this. I’m not coming back.”

“Good riddance,” Frank snarls.

Shaun rounds on him. “What the fuck are you doing?” he shouts. “You’re not fucking helping! Do you want to fix this or not?”

The world moves too fast. They trip from one exchange to the next, jumping faster and faster, the brakes shattered on impact. They’re about to crash head-on, and Frank can’t stop it.

“You call this fixing it?” he says incredulously. “Because, what? Ignoring him is going to solve all our problems?”

“You’re one to talk!” Hambone yells. “I’m not the only one being a dick here! You’re just too far up your own ass to admit you could ever - “

“Sit down and shut the fuck up!” Shaun roars. “I am not letting you walk out of here until we make this work!”

Hambone laughs again. It’s nasty, spiteful. “Newsflash, asshole,” he says. “It’s not going to.”

He picks up his bass off the ground and storms out of the room. Shaun takes a few steps after him, then slows to a halt. He turns to Frank, and all the anger seems to melt out of him at once.

“Shit,” he says hoarsely. “What did we just do?”

“See if I give a fuck,” Frank mutters. He lifts off his guitar and packs it up, not looking at Shaun once as he stalks out the door. He’s still seething inside. It crowds his mind; there’s no room for regret, and sure as hell not enough for forgiveness.

***

When the regret finally does come, it hits him like a train. Pencey Prep was Frank’s reason to go on. He doesn’t know how to live without it.

That band is carved deep into his bones. Every performance is a blur of screaming, raging sound, but he can never lose himself as long as he has Shaun, Hambone, and Tim behind him. They’re his blood brothers. They understand what it’s like to hurt for their music, to put in a piece of their souls and watch it transform. With them, Frank could conquer the world. He’s always trying to go faster, further, higher. The only thing that ties him to earth is gravity.

But someone’s just snapped his tether, and instead of flying, he’s free-falling.

Getting up takes too much effort. He can’t find ground to stand on. Instead, he lies in bed like a stone, letting time slip by unnoticed. His thoughts detach and stray in opposite directions. He doesn’t eat. He doesn’t answer his phone.

He just sleeps.

After what feels like years, his consciousness rises to the surface. Frank’s eyelids are heavy as lead. He forces them open, and it takes a moment for the haze to clear, his room solidifying around him.

There’s a banging sound coming from the living room. Another loud thump, and a voice shouts, “Frank! Open the door!”

Frank knows that voice. The recognition comes slowly: it’s Gerard.

He should probably get up.

He pushes himself into a vaguely upright position. His thoughts slowly crawl back from far-off places, and he shoves his blankets off, swinging his legs around to the edge of the bed.

The hallway is fifty miles long. He takes it one step at a time. The stitches holding him together are fragile; they could unravel if he moves too quickly.

The banging gets more insistent as he approaches the door. “I know you’re in there,” says Gerard’s muffled voice, frustrated. “Let me in. Please.”

Frank unlatches the door and pulls it open.

Gerard stares.

“Hi,” Frank says.

Gerard opens his mouth, then closes it again.

“You look like shit,” he finally says.

Frank nods.

Gerard hesitates, shuffles a little bit, and pulls Frank into a hug. “I’m really sorry,” he says. His grip is gentle, but tight enough to hold the pieces of Frank together. “This is… not what I was expecting, but I’ll work with it. It’s gonna be okay.”

He steps inside, closing the door behind him. It’s only then that Frank notices the plastic bag in his hands. “What’s in that?” he asks, but Gerard’s already breezed past him into the kitchen.

“Food,” Gerard replies. “DVDs. Other stuff. I asked Ray what to bring, and he gave me a whole list. He says you’d better eat something or he’s gonna come by and force-feed you soup. He’ll probably stop by anyway; he’s pretty worried.”

Frank enters the kitchen to see Gerard dumping the contents of his bag out onto the table. There’s a thermos, a tupperware filled with what looks like baked ziti, a few yogurt containers, and an apple. Gerard glances up at him. “When was the last time you ate?” he asks.

Frank has to think about it. “Yesterday?” he says. “Maybe the day before?”

Gerard gets this sad look in his eyes.

“What?” Frank says defensively. “I just forgot, it’s not a big deal.”

Gerard pops the top off the tupperware and sticks it in the microwave. It beeps loudly as he punches the buttons. Frank watches the container revolve, a mechanical whir filling the silence.

“I texted you,” Gerard says nonchalantly. “A lot. And I called.”

Frank averts his eyes. He gets the feeling he should say something, but his mouth is glued shut.

“I had to ask Ray what was going on,” says Gerard. “He told me the band broke up, and that you might need a little space. So I waited. But it’s been a week, Frankie. You’re kind of scaring everyone.”

Frank’s head snaps up. “What? It hasn’t - it’s only been a couple days, hasn’t it?”

Gerard shakes his head. “Ray hasn’t seen you in a week and a half. He said he came by a few days ago but you didn’t answer the door.”

Frank gapes at him. There’s no way it’s been a week; it feels like Pencey broke up yesterday. God, has he really been out of it for that long?

The words he was missing finally come to him. “Fuck, I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know. I… goddamn.”

The microwave beeps. Gerard takes the container out and drops it on the counter, shaking his fingers and wincing a little. “It’s fine,” he says. “I just got worried. I didn’t know what was going on at first; I thought you were mad at me.”

“I’m not mad at you.”

Gerard gives him a small smile. “I know.” He pulls out a drawer, peers into it, and shuts it again. He’s looked through two others before Frank realizes what he’s doing. He goes over and pulls out the silverware drawer, passing Gerard a spoon. “Thanks,” Gerard says. He sticks it into the container and pushes it into Frank’s hands. “Now eat, or Ray’s gonna kick my ass.”

Frank sits down at the table and frowns at the tupperware. The scent is mouthwatering, and his stomach is growling like a beast, but he can’t bring himself to eat. Now that he’s up and moving again, his brain is starting to function normally, and there’s too much to process.

“I’ve been totally blowing you off, haven’t I?” he says.

Gerard cautiously sits down next to him. “Yeah,” he says. “But it’s okay. I mean, I get it. I’ve been there.”

“And Ray, too.” Frank buries his face in his hands, sighing loudly. “Motherfucker. I need to get out of the house.”

“Yup,” Gerard agrees. “But you mostly just need to talk to another human being, I think. So that’s why I’m here.” He pushes the container a little closer to Frank.

Frank takes a heaping forkful of pasta and digs in.

“Do you wanna talk about it?” Gerard asks as he’s eating. Frank shudders. He’s out of bed, yes, but he’s not running at full capacity yet. Talking about the band is going to take time. He shakes his head firmly.

“Okay,then... d’you wanna watch a movie?” Gerard suggests.

Frank thinks for a minute and nods. He can handle a movie.

Once he’s finished, they go into Frank’s room, and Gerard sticks Dawn of the Dead into his laptop. Frank settles onto the bed with his head rested on Gerard’s chest, and together, they watch the story unfold. Gerard’s chest softly rises and falls.

Frank listens to him breathe. It makes him feel a little more solid than he did an hour ago.

***

Frank leans over the sink, bracing his hands on the counter. His reflection gazes back at him with bleary eyes. He’s got a hint of five o’clock shadow around his jaw, and the ink of the tattoo on his neck stands out darker than ever. He tugs the neck of his t-shirt up in a futile attempt to hide it, then lets it drop with a sigh. He’d need a fucking Dracula collar if he wanted to cover it up.

He always thought the band was going to last forever. It keeps hitting him over and over - they’d been on the road to greatness. He’d felt it. But something threw them off course. He doesn’t know what it was.

Take a look in the mirror, says a nasty voice in the back of his head.

Frank rubs his eyes. The future he dreamed of is gone. It’s over, and he’ll just have to deal with it, because if he doesn’t do something quick, he won’t have a future at all. It’s time for him to find that white-collar job his mom always wanted him to have.

Or blue-collar, honestly. It’s not like he has that many options.

He’s not looking forward to finding a job. Any place willing to hire a college dropout with piercings and neck tattoos isn’t going to be pleasant. A better man might sacrifice the piercings, or get the scorpion lasered off, but Frank has already lost too much. So he plays the game. He searches the internet. He fills out job applications. He calls back the next day - “Hi, this is Frank Iero, I’m calling to follow up on an application I sent in. Any news on that?”

He’s met with hedging or polite rejections. He wishes they’d just tell him to fuck off; it’d be easier that way. He’s used to approaching club managers after shows and exchanging Facebook contacts, not pretending he cares about customer satisfaction at Barnes & Noble.

“We’ll let you know as soon as any information becomes available,” says the woman on the phone.

Frank bites back a sigh. “Yeah, thanks,” he says. “I appreciate it. Bye.”

He hangs up the phone and thunks his head down on the table. “Ray,” he groans. “Nobody wants to hire me. My parents were right, I’m gonna die broke and alone.”

Ray gives him a weird look. A spreadsheet takes up half the kitchen table in front of thim. Crunching the numbers for your own business looks awful, but right now, watching Ray fill out the papers leaves a bitter taste in Frank’s mouth. He’d kill for that much work.

“You’re not alone,” Ray points out. “You’ve got me. And Gerard.”

“I’m spiritually alone. I’m gonna starve to death and die in a ditch.”

Ray laughs. “Hey, man, you can’t complain about spiritual loneliness. You’re the one who abandoned Catholicism.”

“Catholicism abandoned me,” Frank grumbles.

Ray sets down his pencil with a small smile. “How many applications did you send in?”

Frank thinks for a second. “Like fifteen,” he says.

“Where?”

Frank grimaces. “Plead the fifth.” He’s not about to admit that he applied for a job at Hot Topic. He’ll cling to his dignity, if nothing else.

“You know you could just work with me at Impulse, right?” Ray asks.

Frank’s brain crashes and reboots, taking a minute to process what he just heard.

He sits up so abruptly he almost falls out of his chair. “Are you serious?” he demands.

Ray nods. “We need extra help anyway. I would’ve asked earlier, but I wasn’t sure if you were gonna make another band.”

“I probably will,” Frank says, “but not right away. If you need some extra help - dude, I’d owe you big time.”

“I’ve been thinking about hiring somebody else for a while now,” Ray says with a shrug. “Dewees and Pedicone are great, but I can’t keep dumping this much work on them.”

Frank launches himself into Ray’s side, hugging him tight. “I knew there was a reason I loved you,” he says happily. “D’you think Gerard would mind if I proposed?”

“If the alternative is dying alone in a ditch, I think he’d prefer it this way,” Ray says dryly.

“Thanks so much, dude. You’re a lifesaver, you don’t even know.” Frank clings for a second more before he releases Ray.

Working at Impulse Records is a million times better than anything Frank imagined he’d get. While it is technically retail work, it’s cool enough that it barely falls under that umbrella in his mind. Selling records is as good a deal as he can possibly get.

“I’m gonna call Gerard,” he says, sliding off the bench.

“Tell him I say hi,” says Ray, not looking up from his spreadsheet. He’s punching a long string of numbers into a calculator.

Frank isn’t so jealous anymore.

***

The first awesome thing about working at Impulse is that Frank doesn’t have to wear a uniform. There are no rules keeping him from wearing band shirts and ripped jeans every day - in fact, it’s encouraged.

The second awesome thing is literally everything else. While Frank isn’t playing in a band anymore, he still gets to work with music all day. It’s a small staff, too - Ray hadn’t been lying about needing extra help - so Frank doesn’t have to deal with too many other people. Apparently they used to have a couple others, but then they went off to grad school, so now it’s just Ray and two dudes named Dewees and Pedicone.

Dewees is cool. He royally fucked up the pronunciation of Frank’s surname the first time he attempted it, so, naturally, he now refers to Frank exclusively by said mispronunciation. Frank’s in the middle of a conversation with a customer when he interrupts them. “Hey, Iero!” he yells across the store. “We got a donation, come check it out!”

“Just a second!” Frank calls back. He turns back to the girl he’s talking to. “So, yeah, it’s really a question of the quality of your equipment and the quality of the vinyl. If it’s scratched or warped, there’s nothing you can do to make it sound better. If you have a decent record, though, it’s gonna sound different depending on what kind of turntable you get.”

The girl nods. “Okay! Do you have any recommendations?”

Pedicone appears over Frank’s shoulder. “Yeah, I can show you some.” He nudges Frank and inclines his head to Dewees. Frank flashes him a grateful smile. Pedicone might not announce his presence as loudly as Dewees does, but he’s always there when Frank needs him. Half the time, Frank has no idea what he’s doing with customers - it’s only his deep knowledge of music that lets him bullshit his way through interactions - but Pedicone must have some kind of sixth sense. He always knows exactly what they want.

Frank leaves him to escort the girl around the shop. Up at the counter, Dewees is holding a small stack of records. “AFI,” he says, laying out a copy of Very Proud of Ya. “Descendents. And Britney Spears.”

Frank snorts. “That’s some… diverse music taste.”

“Yeah, no kidding. You wanna put ‘em away?”

“Sure.” Frank takes the pile. “How much did you get for ‘em?”

“Ten bucks,” Dewees says proudly.

Frank eyes the pile. There are at least five or six records in it.

“I know,” Dewees says, wincing a little. “But that’s how it works, dude. Gotta buy ‘em cheap and resell ‘em for a profit, y’know?”

“It still feels kind of criminal.” There’s a reason Frank has such a big vinyl collection at home. He doesn’t listen to half his records anymore, but selling them would be useless. It’s better to keep them around. They’re like little pieces of his past self’s music taste.

Dewees shrugs. “That’s the industry. Oh, and there’s one more.” He reaches below the counter and pulls out a CD. “I think I’m gonna keep it, if that’s okay with you.”

Frank freezes. The album’s colors are quiet, unassuming; for most people, they wouldn’t stand out. But every streak of brown and pale blue takes up space in his memory. The title is scribbled into the corner, lingering there the same way it does in the back of Frank’s mind: Heartbreak in Stereo.

“I never got a copy of my own,” Dewees says. “Do you mind?”

Frank shakes his head mutely. He picks up the CD gingerly. It won’t break as easily as the band did, he knows that, but he can’t bring himself to hold it any tighter. He can’t. It’s not really his anymore. Just a memory, fragile and fleeting.

“It’s really good,” Dewees says with a small smile. “I saw you guys play a few times. Thought you were cool. I would’ve stayed to talk, or got something, but… I dunno. It’s cool to have you here now. The shop’s gotta have some star power, right?”

Frank forces himself to look up from the CD. “Sure. You want me to sign it?” he says, keeping his face blank.

“Oh, absolutely,” Dewees says earnestly. “I’m your biggest fan. I have a poster of you on my wall, can you sign that, too?”

“When you learn how to pronounce my name.”

“Goddamn it. I guess can live without it; I don’t like you that much anyway.”

Frank giggles. He doesn’t mean to, but there’s something about the way Dewees says it that’s just so fucking funny, Frank forgets the hurt. It just slips out, and it doesn’t stop. Dewees raises one eyebrow and starts to laugh, too.

With the jagged shards of his past sitting right in his hands, it’s a wonder Frank can even smile. But somehow, he does.

***

Frank is half asleep when his phone rings. He lifts his head up, squinting, and gropes around in the darkness. His phone screen is lit up with Gerard’s contact. Frank hits accept.

“What’s up?” he asks, yawning.

There’s a moment of silence. Static crackles over the phone; it wakes something up inside Frank. He sits up. “Gerard?” he asks again. “Is everything okay?”

Gerard asks, “Do you ever feel like you’re not good enough?”

Frank senses a heavy conversation in the making.

He rubs the sleep from his eyes. “Yeah,” he says slowly. “A lot. I mean, you’d know, you saw me all fucked up after Pencey. Hell, I’m still not totally over that.”

“Yeah, but you had a reason, then. I’m just talking about in general. Like, you always know you’re not gonna amount to anything. There’s no particular reason for it, you just… know.”

Frank takes a moment to think. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I’ve felt like that. Why?”

“Do you actually want to know?” Gerard asks quietly.

Frank rolls his eyes before he remembers Gerard can’t see him. “Duh. I’d be kind of a shitty boyfriend if I didn’t.”

Gerard is silent.

“I’m listening,” Frank says gently. “You got to see me at my worst, remember? It’s around time you return the favor.”

There’s a sigh and a rustling noise. “I dunno,” Gerard says. “It’s just… I’m not special, right? I want to be. But there are so many people out there just like me, all trying to make it, and I can’t… I can’t see myself going anywhere. I feel like I’m gonna be stuck here forever.”

There are so many things wrong with what Gerard just said, Frank doesn’t know where to start. He throws off his blankets. “Where are you right now?” he asks, scooting to the edge of his bed.

“Frank, it’s one in the morning.”

“Don’t care. Where are you?” Frank’s already up and searching for his shoes.

After a moment, Gerard mumbles, “My apartment.”

“I’ll be there in a second,” Frank says, squeezing his phone to his ear while he wrestles his sneakers on.

“You don’t have to,” Gerard starts, but Frank cuts him off.

“Yes I do. I’ll see you in a second, okay? Don’t go anywhere.”

It’s weird to drive through the neighborhood at night. The roads are all quiet, empty but for Frank’s headlights cutting through the dark. He gets to Gerard’s place in record time. The clunk of his car door shutting sounds too loud against the still backdrop. He jogs up to the front step of Gerard’s apartment and rings the bell.

He waits by the door for a minute before Gerard opens it.

He’s a mess. Frank can smell the alcohol on him a foot away. Gerard gives him a small smile. “Hi,” he says.

“So, you’re drinking alone at one in the morning,” Frank notes. “And you told me I didn’t have to come?”

Gerard’s smile fades. “I mean, you didn’t have to,” he says, uncertain. “I just - ”

Frank leans over and hugs him. “You’re an idiot,” he says softly. “Now let me take care of you.”

The first thing he does is go to Gerard’s room and scoop the beer cans off the floor. They go straight into the trash. Then Frank flops into the bed, tugs Gerard down beside him, and lays his head on his chest. He gives Gerard a minute to breathe before he voices his thoughts.

“You were saying?” he asks.

Gerard pauses. “Are you really - “

“Talk to me,” Frank says. “What’s wrong?”

Gerard shrugs. His shoulder shifts against Frank’s head as he moves. “I dunno,” he said. “I’ll be over it in the morning. I just get worried sometimes.” He still smells like booze, and his speech is a little slurred. Frank settles in closer to him.

“You think you’re gonna be a starving artist?” he asks.

“With an emphasis on starving, yeah.”

“I used to feel like that a lot,” Frank says with a nod. “Especially right after the band. But I had to…” He pauses, his heart freezing in his chest. “Wait, this isn’t because of Pencey, is it?”

“Nah, it’s kind of always been there.” Gerard sighs and combs his fingers through Frank’s hair. “It doesn’t help to see how quickly it can all fall apart, though.”

Frank scoffs. “I was in a band with a bunch of people who couldn’t be in the same room for an hour without arguing,” he says. “I love ‘em all, yeah, but that just wasn’t going to work. It’s different with you.” He prods Gerard. “The only person you have to worry about is yourself.”

“That’s the problem,” Gerard mumbles. “I feel like I’m gonna fuck it up. It - it feels so fucking impossible, y’know?”

Frank doesn’t know what to say to that. He knows exactly how Gerard feels, and no amount of reassurance is going to break him out of it, especially not corny mantras like “nothing’s impossible.”

Frank buries his face in Gerard’s chest. It’s the best he can do.

Gerard stops running his fingers through Frank’s hair and lets his hand fall to the side. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” he says helplessly. “I don’t know what to fucking do. I thought - I thought maybe once I started doing music for real, I’d stop sitting around worrying all the time, but it’s just gotten worse. I never fucking do anything.” His voice wobbles a little. Frank sits up at once and smushes his face into Gerard’s neck.

“Please don’t cry,” he says. “If you cry, I’m gonna cry like a little bitch, please don’t - “

He’s too late. Gerard curls into him, shaking with silent tears. Frank clings tight, rubbing little circles into his back.

“I wish I was somebody else,” Gerard chokes out. Frank’s heart sits heavy in his chest.

“Why?” he says softly, still rubbing Gerard’s back. “You’re so amazing, Gee.”

“I don’t,” says Gerard, his voice muffled. “I’m always just… just thinking about what I could be, but then I never get there, and I fucking hate it.”

“So get there,” Frank suggests.

Gerard’s breath keeps making these little hitching noises as he cries. “I don’t think I can,” he says.

“Bullshit. You can be whatever the hell you want to be.”

“But I don’t know how,” Gerard whispers. Frank leans down and kisses him high on the cheekbone, just beneath his eye. His lips come back wet and salty.

“You’re getting in your own way,” Frank murmurs. “Just breathe. What is it you wanna do that’s fucking you up so bad?”

Gerard shrugs. He loops his arms around Frank’s waist, and they’ve somehow switched positions so Gerard is the one resting his head on Frank’s chest. “Go to the moon,” he says.

“That’d better be a metaphor.”

Gerard chokes out a laugh. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s, um… Y’know my EP?”

“I’m familiar with it,” Frank says lightly.

“Shut up,” Gerard says, but Frank can feel him smiling. “The night I was working on the cover art, I - I was thinking about all this stuff. And that’s where the title came from. I kept looking out the window, and it was like, damn. I keep looking up at the sky and thinking about how beautiful it is, but I know I’ll never get there.”

“That’s really fuckin’ depressing,” Frank says.

Gerard shrugs. “It’s me.”

“Also, it’s kind of stupid.”

That makes Gerard pause. “What?” he says, sounding a little hurt. He lets go of Frank’s waist, and Frank scrambles to explain.

“I mean - I’m just saying, like, how many people actually get to see the stars up close? Like, five? In all of history? You can’t beat yourself up for not doing something that’s literally impossible.”

Gerard goes silent.

“Right?” Frank prompts him.

“I guess,” Gerard says hesitantly.

Frank’s heart lifts. “See?” he says encouragingly. “Looking isn’t so bad. Like you said, it’s beautiful, right? If you keep thinking about what you can’t do, you’re gonna miss what you’ve already done. And you’ve done some pretty beautiful shit, too.”

He shifts onto his side so he’s face to face with Gerard. “You’re gonna make it, Gerard,” he whispers.

Before Gerard can say anything, Frank kisses him gently.

It’s tempting to stay there forever. Gerard is soft beneath Frank’s hands, and he melts into every touch. When they kiss, there’s a new kind of softness in it. Frank sinks into something deep and warm, and it surrounds him, eclipsing everything else but Gerard.

“We should sleep,” he murmurs against Gerard’s lips.

Gerard hums, his fingertips stroking Frank’s side where his t-shirt’s ridden up. “‘M not tired.”

“I’ve got work tomorrow, babe.”

Gerard makes a displeased noise.

“What, do you have other ideas?” Frank teases.

“Maybe,” Gerard murmurs. His fingers slide a little lower.

Frank kisses his jaw. “You’d better show me now, then, before I change my mind.”

“Mm.” Gerard bites his neck oh-so softly, just enough for Frank to feel the heat of his mouth. Frank shivers.

And in the darkness of night, he falls slow.

***

Frank crouches down so he can get into the bin of t-shirts. “You said a medium?” he asks.

“Yep!” says the girl. Frank grabs a shirt in her size and tosses it to her. She catches it and asks, “You got change for a twenty?”

“Yeah, hold on.” Frank flips open the cash box and takes out a ten.

As Gerard’s boyfriend, there are certain things that are expected of him. When Gerard needs help, Frank gives it. When Gerard finally has stuff to sell and no one to man the merch table, Frank volunteers. And it’s a good thing, too - they’ve sold a bunch of shirts already. They really should have been doing this sooner.

After the girl pays, the traffic starts to slow down. Frank drops into his plastic chair and kicks his feet up on the table. Gerard should be done soon; the last time Frank saw him, he was packing up his stuff. Thank God. Frank can’t wait to get him back into his apartment; there’s something irresistible about watching him perform.

As if by magic, Gerard pops up behind him. “Hey,” he says, leaning over and kissing Frank’s forehead. “How’s it going?”

“Good,” Frank says, grinning over his shoulder. “I sold a couple of the telescope ones.”

“See, I told you it was an awesome design.” Gerard gives him another peck, on the cheek this time. Frank resists the urge to drag him down and kiss him properly. “Mikey’s taking the van, so we can leave whenever. You ready?”

“Yeah.” Frank puts his feet down and bangs on the lid of the t-shirt bin. It feels secure. He hefts it up onto the table, and he’s just about to walk off with it when a teenage boy runs up to them.

“Wait!” he says, waving a sharpie in the air. “Wait, um - Gerard! Can you sign my CD?”

Gerard blinks.

A smile slowly spreads across Frank’s face. He sets down the bin and nudges Gerard, who’s standing there like a deer in headlights. “Go on, superstar,” he teases. Gerard’s cheeks go red.

“Um, I, yeah?” he stammers. “Sure.”

The boy beams at him and pulls a CD out of his pocket. He hands it to Gerard along with the sharpie. “I’ve been listening to your stuff on Bandcamp forever!” he says. “My name’s Walter. I’m from Philly - I drove out here to see you.”

Gerard’s jaw drops almost as fast as Frank’s eyebrows shoot up. That’s a two hour drive at the very least; with traffic, it’s got to be more. “No fucking way,” says Gerard.

“Yeah!” Walter says excitedly. “Me and all my friends came out - guys!” He turns over his shoulder and waves his arm wildly. “C’mon! It’s okay!”

Another boy and two girls are lingering by the door. Frank recognizes one of them; she was the last to buy a shirt before he closed up shop. She’s the first to approach. The others hide behind her, eyes fixed on Gerard. They look completely awestruck. Gerard does, too.

Frank squeezes Gerard’s hand.

“Hi,” one of the girls says shyly. “You were really good up there.”

“I, uh. Thanks,” Gerard says, flushing red.

“One question,” T-Shirt Girl interrupts. “Why the hell didn’t you play Natural Disaster? That’s the best song on the EP!”

“Oh. Um.” Gerard fidgets a little. “Well, the thing is, I borrowed a friend’s pedal to record that one? But he’s got it back now, and I can’t afford one of my own, so I can’t really do that one live. It just doesn’t sound right,” he says apologetically.

“It’d still sound good, though!” T-Shirt Girl protests.

“Shut up, Kelly,” the second boy interrupts her. “I’ll buy enough shit to cover a pedal, no sweat!” He sticks out his hand to Gerard. Gerard takes it, looking bemused, and the kid gives it an enthusiastic shake. “Hi! I’m Ethan - can you sign my CDs?”

“He got, like, three,” Kelly mumbles.

“Kiss my ass. Ten years from now I’m gonna sell ‘em on eBay for a million dollars, and then who’ll be laughing?” Ethan sticks his tongue out at Kelly and hands Gerard a stack of CDs. It’s definitely more than three. Frank’s pretty sure it’s more than they even put on sale tonight.

While Gerard’s scribbling his name down, the other girl comes up to introduce herself as Lilah. She’s shaking like a leaf. Her voice is almost inaudible, but Gerard leans in a little closer, listening attentively. Frank can’t resist anymore. He leans over on his tiptoes and gives Gerard a peck on the corner of his mouth. Gerard swats him away, grinning like an idiot. Walter beams at them.

They end up hanging around for another twenty minutes, talking to the kids. After a while, Gerard stops fidgeting. The kids stop looking nervous. The only thing that doesn’t change is the smiles they’re all wearing. Frank sets the t-shirt bin down, watching Gerard blush his way through like the fucking dork he is. He’s so pretty, Frank thinks he must look just as starstruck as the kids.

Eventually, Lilah taps Walter on the shoulder. “We gotta go,” she says. “My mom’s gonna be mad if we get back after midnight.” She looks directly at Gerard, and her expression is so sincere, Frank almost wants to look away. He feels like he’s intruding.

“Thank you,” she says.

“No, thank you!” Gerard says enthusiastically. “Come back sometime, okay? You guys are awesome.”

Walter takes a small, hesitant step forward, then runs up and throws his arms around Gerard. Gerard startles, but hugs him back. Walter stays there for a moment before backing up, looking embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry, I just - “

“No problem,” Gerard says, smiling. “Anybody else?”

They each take a turn giving him a hug. It’s so adorable Frank could puke.

When they finally trail out the door, Frank grins at Gerard. Gerard smiles at the ground. Frank slings an arm around his shoulder. “How’s it feel to be famous, huh?”

Gerard shakes his head. “That was fucking crazy,” he says. “I mean. Wow. Holy shit.”

“They were smart,” Frank says lightly. “Those albums gonna be worth a lot of money someday. You think you could sign one for me, too?”

Gerard blushes. “Stop,” he says, looking away. “They were just - it was just a novelty thing, probably. I’ll bet they throw them out as soon as they get home.”

“I doubt it. They looked pretty fucking psyched.”

“They weren’t that excited,” Gerard says, rolling his eyes again.

“You sure? That girl was totally checking you out.” Frank rests his chin on Gerard’s shoulder, wrapping his arms around Gerard’s waist. Finally. Those kids were awesome, but he needs a little one on one time. “I can’t say I blame her,” he murmurs. “You know you’re super hot when you’re being a rock star, right?”

Gerard goes still. “I am not,” he mumbles, but there’s no heart behind it. Frank hooks his fingers into Gerard’s belt loops.

“You sure?” he says. “‘Cause every time I watch you up there onstage…” He shifts a little, turning his head so his lips brush against Gerard’s neck. “I get a little distracted,” he whispers.

Gerard’s breath catches in his throat. “Frank,” he says. Bingo. Frank’s got him now.

“Hmm?” Frank lets his fingers slip beneath the hem of Gerard’s shirt, dancing feather-light over his bare skin. “It just makes me think, that’s all. You always sound so goddamn good. It gets everybody in the crowd going. I can tell.”

“Frank, there are people around,” Gerard says under his breath.

“So take me someplace where there isn’t.”

Gerard looks at him from the corner of his eye. Frank bites his lip, tugging at his lip ring with his teeth.

“Jesus, Frank,” Gerard mutters.

“Is that a yes?” Frank says with a smirk.

“Yes. Fucking hell, come on.”

Gerard drags him off to the car. Frank can’t keep his hands off him. While Gerard’s driving, Frank keeps one hand rested on his thigh, creeping ever so slightly upward. Gerard’s fingers are tight on the steering wheel.

Time moves too slowly. By the time they’re at Gerard’s front door, Frank is buzzing out of his skin. He’s counting down the seconds.

Gerard turns the key, shoves the door open, and drags Frank inside. The moment the door is closed, he slams Frank against the wall and kisses him hard and hot. Frank sighs into his mouth. Gerard presses closer, wedging his thigh between Frank’s legs. “Fuck you,” he says fervently. “Fuck you, Frank, I swear to God - “

Their mouths crash together again before he can continue. Gerard bites at Frank’s lip ring. “Such a fucking tease,” he says, dragging his lips down Frank’s jaw. Frank’s panting. Gerard presses soft kisses to his neck, then bites down, sucking what are sure to be dark red bruises into his skin. Frank can’t fucking stand it. He rolls his hips up against Gerard’s, and the friction is so good he could cry.

“You’re one to talk about teasing,” he says. “Fucking hell, your voice.”

Gerard pauses for a little too long. “Yeah?”

Frank flushes. “Yeah, I - it’s nothing, I just. I like it, that’s all.”

A smile starts to spread across Gerard’s face. “You do, huh?”

“Shut up,” Frank mumbles.

“No.” Gerard leans in close, so their mouths almost touch, but not quite. “Tell me what you like about it.”

God, that never gets old. Frank has to remember how to breathe properly.

“You just - those parts where you go all falsetto? Or when your voice gets all scratchy?” he asks, averting his eyes. His face is burning. Admitting it makes him squirm, but he can’t get enough; not when Gerard tells him to. “I always think about what you’d sound like when - “

“When what, Frankie?” Gerard asks. He buries his fingers in Frank’s hair and pulls. Frank stifles a moan.

“You like that?” Gerard jerks Frank’s head back, and Frank bites his lip hard. “Yeah?”

“Can we move this to your room now?” Frank says, bordering on desperation. “Please?”

Gerard takes a step back. Frank bolts for the bedroom, wrestling off his t-shirt on the way. It falls to the floor as he races down the hall. He can hear Gerard laughing from behind him, but he doesn’t care; he’s too busy trying to shove his jeans off.

When Gerard catches up to him, Frank pounces. “No more teasing,” he says, pulling Gerard’s jacket off. “Get that shit off, c’mon.” He lifts the hem of Gerard’s shirt. Gerard’s hand shoots back and hits the light switch.

“No,” Frank whines. “Keep ‘em on this time, I never get to see you.” He tugs Gerard’s shirt off and reaches for the switch. Gerard retracts his hand so Frank can flip the lights back on. In the bright light, he keeps his arms wrapped around his middle.

It’s just enough to flip up a red flag in Frank’s brain.

Frank frowns. “Gerard,” he says.

Gerard doesn’t meet his eyes. “Yeah?” he asks.

And there’s the second flag. Gerard never looks strangers in the eye, but he always does with Frank. The only times he won’t are when he’s embarrassed or when he’s hiding something.

Frank’s heart sinks.

“Baby, look at me,” he says. Gerard’s gaze slowly flicks up to him. “Why does it matter if we keep them on?”

Gerard shrugs and looks away again. Frank grabs his hand. “I’m serious,” he says softly. “You want to see me, right?”

“Of course,” Gerard says instantly. “I always do, Frankie, that’s not - “ He swallows.

Yeah. That’s what Frank was afraid of.

“You don’t want me to see you,” he says.

Gerard is silent. It tells Frank all he needs to know.

“Why didn’t you say something before?” he whispers. “I want you to enjoy this. You shouldn’t have to worry about anything.”

“Sorry,” Gerard mumbles. “I didn’t want to - I don’t know.”

“Don’t apologize,” Frank says firmly. “There’s nothing to be sorry for - you’re fucking beautiful, you know that?” Gerard’s face goes red. Frank’s hands come to rest at his hips. Gerard goes tense, but Frank doesn’t move away.

“You’re beautiful,” he repeats.

“I’m really not,” Gerard mutters.

“Shut up. You are.” Frank presses an open-mouthed kiss to his neck. “Let me show you,” he murmurs. “Please.”

Gerard opens his mouth to argue, but Frank sucks gently on his neck, sliding his hand between Gerard’s legs, and Gerard’s breath hitches. He tilts his head back, the curve of his throat exposed when he swallows. Frank smiles.

He leans over to the nightstand to grab the bottle of lube. Gerard looks confused; Frank presses a finger to his lips. “Shh,” he whispers. “You get to watch.”

He pours some of the lube over his fingers and reaches back. Gerard’s eyes get wider and wider. Frank shifts against his fingers, leaning forward just enough to reach that perfect angle, his body shuddering over Gerard’s. Gerard bites his lip. Frank can feel how hard he his against his thigh. It hits him right in the gut, and he swallows a groan as he rolls his hips.

“Fuck,” Gerard says under his breath. “Oh my God, Frankie.” He runs his hands up Frank’s thighs, the touch light as air, but somehow firm enough to keep him in his place. Frank gasps for breath and pulls his fingers out. He’s almost unbearably hard; if he doesn’t get Gerard’s hands on him right this second, he’ll die.

“You’re so…” Gerard trails off. “Fuck.”

“All yours,” Frank says with a brief smile. He adjusts his position so he’s straddling Gerard’s hips, lines up, and starts to ease down on his cock. Gerard squeezes his eyes shut, inhaling sharply. His hips rock up, but Frank pushes him down, pinning him to the mattress. “No,” he say. “This is me showing you, remember?”

“F - fuck, Frank, you don’t have to - “

“Shh, baby.” Frank sinks lower, grinding down hard. Gerard lets out a choked moan. Frank keeps him right there, all the way in. He can feel the tension in Gerard’s hips, how fucking badly he wants to move, to fuck, but Frank presses him down and keeps him still. “You’re fucking perfect,” he breathes. “How come you can’t see it, huh?”

“I just don’t think - I can’t, Frankie, I just - “

“Shut up,” Frank says. “How many times do I have to tell you, huh? You’re fucking perfect.” He punctuates the sentence with a roll of his hips. “Drives me crazy - I want you all the fucking time, Gerard. You’re too fucking beautiful. You’re so… God.” He eases up a little, then grinds down harder. Gerard moans into his neck.

“The things I’d let you do to me,” Frank says roughly. “You have no fucking idea.”

Gerard’s mouth is open, brows drawn together in pure bliss. His eyes are closed. Frank forces himself lower, moving his hips in tight little rotations; he wants Gerard to feel it. “Look at me,” he says.

Gerard slowly opens his eyes. His pupils are dilated, huge and dark and fucking swimming with lust. The pull is magnetic. Frank’s rock fucking hard, and he lets out a breathy moan as he lifts up faster, not looking away from Gerard once. “So good,” he whines. “Don’t ever turn the lights out on me again, motherfucker, I want to see you just like this.” He lifts up and starts to move faster, riding Gerard fast and hard.

Gerard captures his mouth in a kiss. Frank moans into it, letting Gerard’s tongue slip into his mouth. He feels fucking filthy, bouncing on Gerard’s cock and kissing him so deep; it’s almost too much.

“Fuck,” Gerard chokes out. “Frank, I’m - fuck - “

It doesn’t take much longer. Gerard’s nails dig into Frank’s back; his hips snap up harder, his moans get higher. “C’mon,” Frank whispers. “Come on, let me see. So fuckin’ pretty.”

Gerard bites down on his neck and comes with a groan. Frank gets a hand on his own cock and jerks himself off fast and hard, shuddering at the fucking sounds Gerard makes, the way he looks - it pushes him right over the edge, and he spills all over his fist.

He has to take a minute to catch his breath.

Once the head rush fades, he slides off of Gerard and flops onto the mattress beside him. His thighs are still trembling. “Goddamn,” he mumbles.

Gerard is quiet. Frank glances over at him. At first, Gerard just stares at the ceiling, but his eyes slowly flick over to meet Frank’s.

“You really think I’m pretty?” he whispers.

Frank grins. “Yeah,” he whispers back. “The fuckin’ prettiest.”

Gerard almost smiles. Frank pulls him in closer, nestling into his chest. They’re both a sticky mess, but Gerard is warm and his skin is soft and Frank really doesn’t give a fuck.

Next time, he’ll make sure the lights stay on.

***

A bell jingles from the other room. Frank doesn't look up. He’s on lunch break; Pedicone can deal with the customers. Right now, the only thing he cares about is making sure Dewees didn't steal his burrito from the fridge. Again.

“Hey, how’s it going?” he hears Pedicone ask. “Anything I can help you with?” Frank opens up the fridge and sticks his head inside. His food is still there, thank God, but one of Pedicone’s protein bars is gone.

“Yeah, is Frank around?” asks a familiar voice. Frank straightens up and immediately bangs his head on the inside of the fridge. He backs up, clutching his head and swearing under his breath.

Gerard pops into the room just as Frank’s kicking the door shut. “Hi!” he says brightly. He’s got two Starbucks cups in his hands. “I’ve got good news! Plus tea, I got the ginger kind you like - hey, are you okay?” He frowns at Frank, who’s still rubbing his head.

Frank lets his hand drop. “I’m fine,” he says sheepishly. “Just hit my head.” He grabs one of the cups from Gerard and inhales deeply, the herbal scent filling his lungs. Maybe he’s imagining things, but it feels like his skull hurts a little less. “You said something about good news?” he asks, taking a seat on the couch.

“Yeah!” Gerard grins from ear to ear. “So, you know how I had that show a couple weeks ago? And those people were asking me to sign stuff?”

Frank smirks. “Hell yeah I do.”

Gerard flaps his hands. “Yeah, yeah - but, okay, so this guy was there, right? Actually, a few guys were there. That’s really weird to think about. But they were label reps, apparently? And this guy wants to, like, talk to me, and I thought he might be a scammer so I was talking to Mikey about it and he said he knew the labels so I should definitely - “

He’s talking so fast it’s hard to catch what he’s saying. Frank throws out a hand. “Hold up,” he says incredulously. “Are you getting signed?

Gerard bounces on his toes. “I mean, I might not,” he says, “but there are a couple people, so I’m hoping at least one of them - “

“Holy shit!” Frank jumps up and crashes into Gerard, hugging him tight. “That’s fucking awesome! Oh my God!”

“And guess where one of them is from?” Gerard asks, grabbing Frank’s shoulders.

“Where?”

“Oasis,” Gerard says gleefully. “Fucking Oasis Records, Frank!”

Frank’s jaw drops. Getting signed is one thing; most local bands can attract a label with enough work and talent. But Oasis is different. It’s not just for shitty hometown bands - it’s a big fucking deal.

“Holy shit!” he shouts. Gerard beams.

“What’s going on back there?” Pedicone yells from the front of the store.

“Gee’s getting signed!” Frank yells back.

Gerard shakes his head. “Don’t jinx it,” he says, still smiling. “We don't know for sure yet.”

“Yes we do,” says Frank, planting a kiss on Gerard’s cheek. “You’re gonna be a star.”

Gerard’s face goes red. It only proves Frank’s point. He’s talented and adorable - the world’s going to love him.

Frank kisses him, but he has to pull away because neither of them can stop smiling.

***

Gerard strums absentmindedly at his guitar. He’s been playing the same chord progression for an hour. Sometimes he changes it, humming to himself, but he always returns to the same melody in the end.

Frank’s sprawled out on his stomach, half-laying on top of Gerard. He was scribbling in his notebook, writing down ideas for lyrics and poems whenever they came to him, but now he’s mostly just listening to Gerard. The bedroom is dim and quiet. Outside, rain beats down on the roof, a dull murmur of ambient noise. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Gerard’s humming is barely audible over it. Frank listens carefully.

Gerard frowns, lost in thought. He runs through a scale, then back down, plucking at notes that seem random. They eventually coalesce into a melody, and he nods to himself. Frank smiles.

“Gee?” he asks.

Gerard looks at him. It takes a moment for his gaze to focus. “Huh?”

Frank rolls over onto his back. “Play me something,” he says.

Gerard shifts in place. “You got something in mind?”

Frank didn’t, not really, but a song pops into his mind like it was meant to be there all along.

Stand Inside Your Love?” he asks tentatively.

Gerard smiles. He adjusts his fingers and plays a chord, looking down as he starts to sing.

Frank lets the sound of his voice wash over him. He closes his eyes, and it feels like he’s suspended in time, just him and Gerard and the rain.

When Gerard stops playing, Frank opens his eyes. Gerard is blushing a little. Frank smiles.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Gerard asks.

Frank shrugs, still smiling. He knows why. He's not going to say it, though. Not yet.

For now, he lets the feeling sit in his chest, patiently waiting for the day he’ll call it love.

***

Gerard won’t stop biting his nails. Frank takes his hand and tugs it down from his mouth. “Gerard,” he says. “Don’t freak out. It’s gonna be fine.”

“You don’t know that,” Gerard says. He glances through the windshield at the building looming before them. His eyes widen by a fraction, and he looks away, grasping the steering wheel tight. “What if they don’t like me? Or they do, but they want me to do something stupid like - like write my music for me, or - “

“Gerard,” Frank says firmly. “They went to see you play, remember? They like you. They want you. Now all you have to do is go in there, smile at them, and let them know you’re not making any compromises. They aren’t in control here; you are. If they don’t like it, you’ll go and find a label that does. Got it?”

Gerard takes a deep breath. “But what if - “

“Got it?”

Gerard gives a jerky nod. “Got it.” He exhales slowly. Then he pushes the door open and gets out of the car. He keeps his head down as he walks up to the building. He doesn’t look like a rock star when he’s hiding behind his bangs and keeping his hands in his pockets; it’s not until he opens his mouth that the light within starts to peek through.

They’ll see it. Frank knows they will.

But just in case, he crosses his fingers.

***

Frank pulls the car up to the entrance. Gerard runs to throw open the door.

“Well?” Frank asked.

Gerard pulls Frank in by his shirt collar and kisses him. He breaks away laughing, and the sound of it makes Frank giddy, like he’s tumbling down a mountain at top speed. It’s only Gerard’s smile that keeps him steady.

“I’m signed,” he says.

“I know,” Frank says, grinning.

***

Frank keeps a tight grip on Gerard’s hand as they go up to the house. His heart is beating faster than it should be. They’re celebrating Gerard’s record deal, that’s all. It shouldn't matter where the party is.

Except it’s at Gerard’s family’s house.

With his parents.

“They’re going to love you,” Gerard assures him. “I’ve already told them all about you and they said you’re perfect. My mom’s convinced you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me - she thinks anybody willing to date this starving artist is a saint.” He smiles, but it does nothing to loosen the knot in Frank’s chest.

“I have tattoos all over,” he frets. “They’re going to think I’m a total - “

“Blessing,” Gerard finishes. “I make music for a living, Frankie. They’d be shocked if I brought home somebody who’d blend into a crowd.”

Frank never thought he was going to be that guy. He doesn’t get worked up over meeting the family; he never has. That’s not his style. Or, he thought it wasn’t. Now, the idea of Gerard’s family not liking him sends a spear of ice through his heart. Mikey was one thing, but his parents are a totally different game. If they don’t like him -

“If they’re too stupid to see how awesome you are, they’ll just have to deal with it.” Gerard smiles. “I’m the one dating you, not them.”

He squeezes Frank’s hand and leads him up the front steps.

The second Gerard’s knuckles touch the door, it flies open and Gerard is enveloped by a whirlwind of blonde. “Gerard! Oh my goodness, look at you! This is all so exciting - I didn’t know what to do for the party, so I made a pie, I hope that’s all right. Mikey said it would be nice, and I thought so too, but you’re the future rock star here! Who knows, maybe we need something with more pizzazz!” Mrs. Way pauses to fuss with Gerard’s hair. “You’re gonna have your name in lights, honey, I’m telling you - remember what your music teacher in eighth grade always said? You’re gonna be up on a big stage, with - oh, and this must be Frankie!”

She throws her arms around Frank. Frank stumbles a little. She’s stronger than he expected - he can feel her grip bruising his ribs - and the heavy scent of roses clings to her peroxide-blonde curls.

“Mom,” Gerard complains. “I told you not to jump him.”

“You jumped him at the first opportunity you got, dear. You know what they say about people in glass houses.” Frank chokes on air; Gerard goes beet red. Mrs. Way beams and tweaks Frank’s cheek. “It’s very nice to meet you, Frank. I wish you’d come by sooner! I keep telling Gerard to bring you home, but he’s always got an excuse up his sleeve.”

“Mom,” Gerard groans. He’s hiding his face in his hands, but he can't hide the rosy red of his cheeks. Frank is delighted.

“I’m Donna. Now come on, you have to meet Don and Mikey!” Donna marches Frank inside. Gerard trails after them.

Mikey comes into the dining room carrying a pie. He’s wearing pink floral oven mitts. He sets the pie on the dining table, nodding to Frank. “Hey, Frank. What’s up?”

“Have you met him already?” Donna sighs. “Nevermind, of course you have, you know everyone on the planet.” She shakes her head. “I thought you'd be the first to nail someone down, Mikey, honestly - I mean, no one could blame me, your brother never left the damn basement - “

“Mom,” Gerard whines.

“What, you haven't told Frankie about your caveman phase? You can't keep it secret for - hey!” Donna points threateningly at Mikey, who freezes with his fingers hovering over the pie. “Don't you touch that crust, young man, I spent hours on it.”

A man comes into the kitchen. “Gerard!” he says, throwing out his arms. “Congratulations!”

Gerard hugs him. “Thanks, Dad.”

“Don, this is Frank,” Donna says, steering Frank over to Don’s side. “Do me a favor and tell him all about Gerard’s teenage years, I have to go check on the soup.” She darts into the kitchen.

“My friends are gonna be here in a second,” Mikey says, his eyes glued to his phone. He still hasn't taken the oven mitts off.

“Hey, Mom?” Gerard calls. “You remembered Frank’s vegetarian, right?”

There’s a clatter from the kitchen. “What?” Donna shouts. “You never told me that!”

There’s a loud banging at the front door. Mikey slips out of the room like a shadow. There’s a crash as the front door opens, and the sound of Gerard arguing with his mom is lost under a cacophony of voices. Mikey comes back into the room with two guys even shorter than Frank and one who’s almost tall enough to bump his head on the doorframe.

Donna stomps into the room. “I was doing so well,” she fumes. “I got everything kosher for Gabe, and I got beers everybody likes, and now look at me! I’m off my game.”

A guilty twinge goes through Frank’s stomach. “It’s okay,” he says. “It's not that big a deal, really - “

Donna softens at once. “No, honey, don't you worry,” she says kindly. “I’ll fix you up something special. Is there anything else I should know about first?”

There’s a delicious smell wafting in from the kitchen. Frank avoids looking at Donna. She’s got two sons, a son’s boyfriend, and a crowd of Mikey’s friends in her house, and she’s already made food for all of them. She shouldn’t have to put in any more effort.

“He’s lactose intolerant,” Gerard tells her.

Donna nods decisively. “Right then. I’ll fix this up, you all just get along.” She bustles back into the kitchen, then pops out to jab her finger at Mikey. “No touching that pie crust!”

Mikey rolls his eyes. His friends have hung back until this point, but the short one with the sidebangs bounces forward. “Hi!” he says. “I’m Pete. Who’re you?”

Frank hesitates, still looking off toward the kitchen, but Gerard speaks for him. “That’s Frank,” he says cheerily. “He’s my boyfriend.”

“Cool! Patrick’s mine.” Pete pushes the guy in the cardigan forward. “Introduce yourself, Pattycakes.”

“And there go all my hopes of a good impression,” Patrick says with an overly-bright smile. “Hi. I’m Patrick. I keep Pete under control, when I can.”

“Which is never,” says the tall one. “I’m Gabe.” He gives Frank a once-over, furrowing his brow. “I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere before,” he says slowly. “Have we met?”

Mikey stares at him. “Are you kidding me?” he says. “He’s my brother’s boyfriend.

“I didn’t mean it like that!” Gabe yelps. Pete giggles. “I’m just saying he looks familiar! Do you go to - well, you’re dating Gerard, obviously you’re in the music scene. Maybe I saw you at a show somewhere?”

That actually makes sense. “You ever go to see Pencey Prep?” Frank guesses.

Gabe snaps his fingers. “Yeah! You’re the frontman, right? Fuck, I love you guys.”

“We actually broke up a couple months ago,” Frank admits. Thinking about Pencey still sends a faint pang through his chest, but the dismayed look on Gabe’s face makes it vanish quickly. It brings a smile to Frank’s face, and a real one, at that.

“The good ones are all dying out,” Gabe says mournfully.

“Good thing Gerard’s here to save the industry!” Pete pipes up. He gives Gerard a high-five with a loud smack. Frank can practically feel his own palm stinging. “So when’s the album coming out?”

Gerard smiles. “Not sure yet. I’ve got a contract, so it should be sometime within this year, but I’ve got a tour to do first.”

Pete whoops. “Who’re you opening for?”

Gerard crinkles his nose. “Some indie-pop group from Montclair? I don’t remember the name. I think it had ‘sunset’ in it, I’ve got it written down somewhere. And I don’t know if they’re any good, but like, I kinda don’t need them to be? A tour’s a tour. I mean, obviously it’d be awesome if I got to - ”

Frank rests his head on Gerard’s shoulder as he talks. He rambles on about the label for a while; Frank’s heard it all before. Gerard kept him up all night on the phone talking about it. Frank woke up late for work, but he didn’t regret it for a second.

Mikey’s friends are suitably impressed. Frank likes them - they make him seem more real. Frank’s only ever seen Mikey silently taking up space in Gerard’s kitchen, or leaning against a bar, masses of people filling the space behind him. It doesn’t seem like he exists outside that context. He’s a jack of all trades, master of none, sipping drinks with a bored expression and girls on either side.

But this is different.

Here, Pete hangs off his arm, Gabe teases him, Patrick tries to have a normal conversation before he gets interrupted. They get Mikey to smile more than Frank has ever seen. He’s less party god and more awkward little brother, still wearing his floral oven mitts and arguing with Gerard about Star Wars.

During dinner, Gerard holds Frank’s hand under the table, but Frank isn’t nervous anymore.

Don is cool, if a little quiet. Mikey must take after him. Donna is a total mother hen, but she can be hilarious when she’s not fussing over him. She starts giving Gabe a lecture about safe sex halfway through the meal and Frank almost spits out a mouthful of water.

“Mikey has definitely fucked either Pete or Gabe,” Gerard says to Frank under his breath. “I’m not sure which. Might be both.”

Frank’s eyes go wide. “But what about Patrick?”

“It was before Patrick,” Gerard says quickly. “Although - “ He pauses for a second. “If he was okay with it, I could see that, too.”

Frank bursts out laughing.

“What?” Pete demands. Frank covers his face, laughing even harder.

By the time dessert rolls around, Frank feels dizzy, and not just from the beers Donna proudly plonked down in front of them. He’s strung out on jokes and smiles and a good feeling so strong it makes his chest feel crowded. There's no room for all the emotions bottled up in him. He loves it, but it's a little hard to breathe.

Gerard must feel it too. After a couple hours, he takes Frank and excuses them both for some fresh air.

He closes the back door behind them with a quiet click, smiling at Frank. “I told you you had nothing to worry about.”

Frank smiles back. “Yeah, I know.”

Gerard takes Frank’s hand and leads him into the back yard. The sun has long since set, and the yard is bathed in moonlight; it gleams in the darkness like liquid silver. “Sorry about my mom,” Gerard says with a grimace. “And Gabe. And… all of them, really.”

“Don't be,” Frank reassures him. “They’re great.”

“They’re crazy.”

“And it’s great.” Frank takes a seat on the ground. He lays back, the grass making a soft carpet beneath him. It tickles his neck.

“You looked a little… I dunno.” Gerard lays down beside Frank, hooking their fingers together. “Was it okay?”

“It was awesome,” Frank says honestly. “I don't think I’ve ever had anything like that.”

He doesn't talk about his family often. Gerard knows his parents are divorced - Frank's not trying to hide anything. It's just that he doesn't think about them much. He wasn't really close with them to begin with, but when they split up, and then later Frank dropped out of college, they didn't have much tying them together anymore. Just blood.

The crowd in Gerard’s kitchen looks more like what Frank always imagined a real family would look like. He’s not sure how to process it, but he knows he wants more.

“It’s yours now,” Gerard says, squeezing Frank’s fingers in his. “Mom’s practically adopted you. First there was Pete, then Gabe, then Patrick came along…” He turns his head to grin at Frank. “And now you.”

“So what you're saying is, this is my last chance to run.”

“I’d prefer if you didn't.”

Frank gazes out into the night sky. It would be easy to get lost out there, in the endless black, if it weren't for the light streaming through the windows of Gerard’s house. He can hear Donna’s voice shouting about something or other, and the peals of laughter that follow.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says softly.

“Good,” says Gerard.

They lay there in silence for a while.

“I told you,” Frank finally says.

Gerard shifts next to him. “Told me what?”

“That you had nothing to worry about.” Frank grins. “Look at you, with your record deal and your adoring fans. You’re going somewhere.”

It’s dark, but from the way Gerard hides his face in Frank’s shoulder, Frank knows he’s blushing. “I have the right to be nervous,” he mumbles.

“You do,” Frank agrees. “But you don't need to be. Look.” He points at the stars above them. “We might be stuck looking up for now, but give it time, and you're gonna be up there. I promise.”

He feels Gerard smile. “I thought you said that metaphor was stupid.”

“It’s only stupid when you're using it to talk shit about yourself.”

Gerard just shakes his head. Frank turns over onto his side. Gerard is smiling, his face just barely visible in the faint starlight. Frank shifts closer and kisses him, a soft press of his mouth against Gerard’s.

“You know I love you, right?” he says quietly.

Gerard kisses him this time. “Yeah,” he whispers, his breath ghosting over Frank’s lips. “You know I love you, too?”

“Yeah.”

Gerard runs his fingers through Frank’s hair. Frank moves in closer, the warmth of Gerard’s body sinking through his skin. Gerard tugs at his shirt, and Frank ends up half on top of him, kissing him deeply. Gerard strokes his hip gently. Frank’s heart beats to the rhythm of Gerard’s gentle touch, of their lips moving together, of the world spinning beneath them.

The back door bangs open. “Hey, lovebirds!” Gabe yells. “We’re going clubbing with Mikey, wanna come?”

Frank sits back up, rolling his eyes. “We’re good,” he calls back. Gerard stifles a laugh.

“Okay. Use a condom!” The door smacks shut again.

Gerard and Frank both burst out laughing.

***

Gerard stares into his mug of coffee, both hands wrapped tightly around it. Frank watches him with eyebrows raised.

“So, what exactly did you want to talk about?” he asks.

Gerard clears his throat. “Okay,” he says, mostly to himself. “Okay, so,” he looks up at Frank, “I have a question.”

Frank nods. “Shoot.”

“So, you know how I can never schedule shows that well because I don’t have consistent bandmates?” Gerard says. “Those days are pretty much over now. The label said they’ve already got people lined up to be my backing band, if I want them.”

Frank grins. “It’s about time.”

Gerard smiles back. “Yeah. But the thing is…” He hesitates. “I told them to wait for a bit. ‘Cause I might know somebody who’d be interested in playing guitar.”

There’s a moment of silence. Frank’s eyes go wide. “You mean - “

“You can totally say no,” Gerard says in a rush. “But that way I wouldn’t have to leave you when I go on tour, and you know way more about touring than I do, anyway, so you could kind of show me how it works? And I know you miss playing. It’d be just like Pencey!”

He winces. “Well, not really. Fuck, sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. But we’d get to play music together, and that’d be cool, right?”

“Yeah, that’d be awesome,” Frank says without thinking.

Gerard smiles tentatively. “So… is that a yes, then?”

“Yeah, it’s…” Frank pauses.

At face value, the idea of touring with Gerard sounds fucking amazing. He’d get to be onstage again - and playing his boyfriend’s songs, no less. They’d get to be together all the time.

Like, every waking hour. Maybe the sleeping hours, too.

Frank hasn’t done that since Pencey. It was always fun in the beginning, but by the end of a tour, it was hellish. While they were sharing 500 cubic feet of living space, there was no way to escape the tension that inevitably built up. Frank can remember far too many car rides passed in surly silence. And that was when they didn’t spend them fighting.

A lot of the arguments were his fault, too. They were all sick of each other, but Frank could never keep his mouth shut about it. Remembering the things he said makes his stomach twist. He never meant to fight with them - it was just the combo of sleep deprivation, cabin fever, and boredom that wore down his temper. In other words, the usual tour routine.

The same one he could be heading back into.

“Frank?” Gerard asks. “What’s up?”

Maybe things would be better, since it’s Gerard. But then again, Frank used to get along perfectly with his bandmates. They were his best friends before he went and fucked everything up. Who’s to say he’s gained any more self control since then? Who’s to say he wouldn’t fuck up even worse this time?

They say you’re supposed to wait before moving in with your partner. Living together is a big adjustment, apparently - big enough that people reevaluate relationships because of it. And touring would mean living way closer than if they just shared an apartment.

“Frank,” Gerard says. “Are you good?”

Frank shakes himself. “Yeah, sorry. I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

Fank sighs and looks down at his hands. “I don’t think I can come with you, Gee,” he says.

Gerard frowns. “What? Why not?”

Frank hesitates.

“You said the label already has people lined up,” he finally says. “I don’t want to cheat them out of a job. And it’d just be weird to have your boyfriend on tour, wouldn’t it? I feel like that’s not very… professional.”

Frank doesn’t give a rat’s ass about professionalism, but it’s better than telling Gerard he’s scared it’ll break them. That he’ll break them.

“I think it could work,” says Gerard, looking a little hurt. Frank wants to bash his head against the wall.

“I’m sorry,” he says miserably. “I really want to, okay? I just think it’d be better if I stayed home. Maybe I could come on one of the later tours?” Once he’s sure he can keep his fucking temper under control.

“Yeah,” Gerard says. “Yeah, maybe later.” Frank’s tempted to change his mind just to get that unhappy look off Gerard’s face, but then he thinks of how much worse it would be if they split up.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly.

Gerard gives him a small smile. “It’s okay. I get it.”

Frank gets up and wraps his arms around Gerard from behind, kissing him on the cheek. “We should go do something,” he says. “You wanna watch a movie? Go get coffee?”

“I already have coffee,” Gerard points out, holding up his mug.

“Has that ever stopped you?”

Gerard laughs. “A movie sounds good.”

“Awesome.” Frank kisses him again and goes into his bedroom to get some blankets. A few minutes later, they’re snuggled up on the couch, Frank’s laptop sitting on top of them. Frank clings to Gerard’s side.

He can’t lose Gerard. Not because of a stupid tour.

***

Frank buries his face in Gerard’s hair. For the moment, he tunes out the idling engine of the tour bus. He forgets everything but the feeling of Gerard’s arms around him, the smell of his shampoo, the pressure when he squeezes Frank tighter.

“Two weeks,” Gerard murmurs in his ear.

Frank kisses his cheek. “Two weeks,” he says. “Then you’re all mine again.”

Gerard smiles. “I’m always yours.”

“All right, all right.” Gerard’s manager, Brian, waves his hand at them. “It’s a tour bus, not the Titanic. You can survive two weeks apart. Gerard, I’ll be inside when you’re ready.” He hops up the step and disappears into the bus.

Frank tugs on Gerard’s shirt, grinning. “Hey - call me, okay?” he asks, for what feels like the millionth time. “I want to hear everything.”

“I will,” Gerard promises. “I’ll bring you truckstop souvenirs.”

“Don’t pick up groupies. And don’t shit on the bus unless you want to die.”

“Noted,” Gerard says with a giggle. “You hang out with Mikey while I’m gone, okay? He might get lonely.”

Frank snorts. “Sure he will. Then he’ll turn those big lonely eyes on some girl, and bam, problem solved.”

Gerard laughs. He cups Frank’s face, his eyes sparkling. Frank could melt in a puddle at his feet whenever Gerard looks at him like that. “I love you,” Gerard says. He leans in and kisses Frank for a long moment. Frank lets his eyes slip shut.

When they break apart, Frank leans his forehead against Gerard’s. “I love you so damn much,” he whispers. “See you in two weeks?”

“See you.” Gerard finally steps away, for real this time, giving Frank’s hand a squeeze. He waves, and then he’s hopping onto the bus, the darkened windows swallowing him up and out of sight.

Frank waves at them.

He puts the Pumpkins on when he’s driving home. “Your home is here, within my heart,” he sings along under his breath. The landscape passes by in a familiar blur. Soon enough, Gerard will be on the road too, but much, much further from home.

It’s mostly a northeastern tour, with a dip into the midwest toward the end. Nothing too insane, but it’s a big step for Gerard, considering he’s never gone further than New York to play shows before, or had an actual bus. And he’s not even the headliner. The magic of big-time labels will never cease to amaze Frank - but it’s just further proof of how incredible Gerard is going to be. Once people outside Jersey get a taste for him, they’ll be dying for more; Frank’s sure of it.

Frank drums his hands against the steering wheel, grinning. That’s his fucking boyfriend.

***

“It’s a lot of driving, honestly,” says Gerard.

Frank giggles. He’s hanging off the edge of the couch, his phone pressed to his ear. “Yep. You starting to go stir-crazy yet?”

“Nah, not yet. I’ve got books and my sketchpad and shit. Plus the guys from Amp Six are pretty cool, we’ve been talking.”

Frank hums. “They any good?” He probably should have listened to the band Gerard is opening for by now, but he’s got a one track mind; he’s in it for Gerard and Gerard only. Everyone else is background noise.

“Yeah! They’re pretty cool. I like their guitar parts. They’re kinda math rock-y, it’s cool - the only shitty part is that a lot of their songs are tuned weird, so it gives the techs hell trying to change out the guitars between songs.” Gerard laughs. The sound soothes something deep inside Frank, washing over him like he’s just sunk into a warm bath. He smiles softly at the ceiling as Gerard keeps chattering about tour life. He’s only half listening to Gerard’s words - mostly, he just likes listening to the sound of his voice.

“There’s one thing, though,” Gerard says, sounding unhappy. “The crowds are way bigger than before.”

“And that’s bad because?”

Gerard sighs. “I still get so fucking nervous,” he says. “Last night, it felt like I couldn’t even breathe. It got better about halfway through, but…”

Frank frowns. “But?”

“But I’m scared it’s going to get worse from here and it’s gonna ruin the tour for me,” Gerard says in a small voice.

Frank pushes himself back up onto the couch. “How’ve you been dealing with it so far?”

“Um… not at all?” Gerard laughs weakly. “I dunno, I’ve been drinking a little bit. Plus breathing exercises. If there’s one thing you get out of therapy, it’s breathing exercises, right?”

Frank chews on his lip. He’s never really had a problem with stage fright; he’s been performing in front of people since he was eleven. It just… doesn’t bother him. He gets onstage, and it’s like he slips into another skin, one made of music and art so powerful no one can touch him.

But Gerard doesn’t have that, and Frank doesn’t know how to build it for him.

“Why does it scare you so much?” he asks.

Gerard goes quiet. “I dunno,” he says. “I guess I just… I don’t want to fuck it up. Like, I’m finally out here doing this shit - I can’t lose it now.”

“You’re already signed,” Frank reminds him. “They’re not just gonna take that contract back.”

“It’s not about the contract.”

Frank doesn’t respond.

“It’s about meaning something,” Gerard finally says. “My music, it’s… I want it to affect people. Or make them think, at least. But if I fuck up onstage, then they’ll end up thinking about that instead of the music.”

“Mmm. Nope,” Frank says, stretching out over the couch cushions. “That’s where you’re wrong. Literally nobody cares if you fuck up, Gee. Most of the time they won’t even notice. Yeah, it’ll happen once in a while, but it doesn’t matter in the long run.”

“But it does. That’s the kind of thing that makes the difference between a good set and a bad set, and I want to be good, Frankie - “

“You already are,” Frank says soothingly.

“I don’t feel like I am.”

“Well, there’s the problem, then.”

There’s a whoosh of air on the other end of the line. “I can’t just get self-confidence overnight, Frankie,” Gerard says.

“Nope,” Frank agrees. “You can’t. But you can work on it, right? And everybody who comes to see you already loves you; that’s why they came in the first place. They wanted to see you play, fuckups and all. So give ‘em what they paid for, huh?”

There’s a long pause.

“You’re smart,” Gerard mumbles.

Frank grins. “That’s how it is, baby. I’m the smart one, you’re the hot one.”

“No way, you’re totally the hot one.”

“I beg to differ,” Frank says lightly. “Speaking of which, are you alone right now?”

“Yeah, I… Wait. You’re not - Oh my God, Frank, it’s four in the afternoon.”

“So?”

“So I’m not talking you off at four fucking PM, you horny piece of shit.”

Frank pouts. “But I miss you,” he says, his hand creeping down toward his waistband.

Gerard is silent.

Eventually he says, “Let me kick Brian out of the lounge.”

Frank grins.

***

The tour only lasts two weeks, thank God. After that, it’s back to business as usual, and Frank can take Gerard out or hold his hand make out with him on the couch whenever he wants to. When he’s not working, that is.

He drives back from Impulse a little faster than he should, but he doesn’t get caught, so it’s worth it. He unlocks the door and slips inside. “Gerard?” he calls out. “I’m home!”

There’s a clatter and a quiet “Fuck” from somewhere deeper in the apartment. Frank kicks his shoes off and wanders inside. He gets to the hall just in time to see Gerard dart into the bathroom - and the flash of red fabric at his hips.

The bathroom door locks with a chunk. Frank furrows his brow and takes a step towards it, listening carefully. Muffled cursing comes from inside. Frank knocks on the door.

“Babe?” he asks. “You okay?”

“Yeah!” Gerard says, his voice a little higher-pitched than normal. “I’m fine! I just, um - give me a minute, okay?”

“You sure? You sound a little - “

“Yeah! Oh man, actually, you know what? We ran out of toothpaste. Could you go get some?”

“Now?” Frank asks.

“Yeah. It’s, like, urgent.”

Frank crosses his arms. “Open the door, Gerard.”

“Why?” Gerard says defensively.

“You’re acting weird. What’s up?”

“Nothing’s up, I just - “

“Gerard, open the door.”

There’s a long pause, then the door cracks open. Frank nudges it open all the way. Gerard’s sitting on the rim of the bathtub, staring down at the floor. The counter is covered in makeup wipes. They’re smeared with color, blacks and reds hastily wiped away. Gerard’s eyes bear the same smudges.

Also, he’s wearing a skirt. And fishnets.

Frank blinks. “Are you okay?” he asks.

Gerard doesn’t look at him. “I’m fine,” he mumbles.

Frank waits for an explanation, but it doesn’t come. “I feel like I’m missing something here,” he says.

Gerard’s hands are clenched in the fabric of his skirt. He tugs it down a little, as if it can hide the mesh wrapped around his thighs. “I’m sorry,” he says shakily. “I didn’t want you to know - “

“Yeah, I got that,” Frank says. “But, like. Why?”

Gerard looks up at him, uncomprehending. “What?”

Frank gestures at him. “What is all this? Why did you…” He falters. “Wait. Is this, like, a transgender thing?” Oh, fuck. That would explain why Gerard looks so scared. Frank’s stomach drops out from under him. He wouldn’t have a problem if it were, but that’s a huge bombshell -

“Not really,” Gerard says, squirming a little.

That clears up exactly nothing. “What is it, then?” Frank asks, furrowing his brow.

Gerard shrugs. “Nothing,” he says. “I just… like it.”

“Cross-dressing?” Frank asks.

“I… yeah.” Gerard frowns at the floor. “I guess.”

Frank moves the makeup wipes to the side so he can sit on the counter. “Talk to me,” he says.

“You’re not mad?” Gerard asks timidly.

Frank raises an eyebrow. “Why would I be mad?”

“Okay, that’s not the right - you don’t think it’s weird or anything?”

Frank shrugs. “I’ve seen weirder.”

Gerard nods to himself. He takes a deep breath and starts out slow, every word hesitant, like he’s still scared Frank’s going to change his mind and start yelling at him.“I like wearing stuff like this,” he says. “I started doing it when I was younger. Like, sixteen, maybe. Only when my parents weren’t home.”

“Does Mikey know?”

At that, Gerard almost smiles. “He walked in on me one time, same as you. We didn’t really talk about it, but he’s cool. He just asked me if I wanted to be a girl, and I said no, and that was kind of it.”

Frank nods. Gerard smooths out his skirt. “I’m more comfortable like this,” he says quietly. “I don’t know why. It just feels right, y’know? More… free. I don’t see any reason why guys shouldn’t wear dresses or anything like that. And I’m not saying I need to be ultra femme all the time, but… If I could wear my normal jacket and just put on a skirt on under it, too, that’d be cool. Y’know?”

Frank nods again. “So, you just don’t like gender roles is what you’re saying?” he asks.

“Yeah, exactly. I don’t really like calling it cross-dressing, either, ‘cause that’s like… It makes it sound like I’m pretending to be something I’m not. I’m not trying to dress like a girl or act like one, ‘cause there’s nothing about this that’s inherently girly, y’know? I’m just dressing like me.” Gerard glances up at him. “Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Frank studies him closely. There’s something different in the way he carries himself. He’s still tense, but at the same time, he looks more relaxed, like a weight’s been lifted off his shoulders.

And he looks good. He really does. There’s always been a touch of femininity in Gerard’s features, a hint of pretty that Frank was so inexplicably attracted to, and now it’s on full display. His makeup is fucked up after he tried to wipe it off, but even with smeared eyeliner, he’s gorgeous.

“Is it weird if I think it’s kind of hot?” he asks bluntly.

Gerard blushes. He’s so fucking pretty, with his long eyelashes and his hair falling loose around his neck, Frank wonders how he didn’t see this coming sooner. It was initially a surprise, but the longer he looks at Gerard, the more natural it feels.

“That’s not weird,” Gerard says. “It’s… not really what I was going for? But not weird, no.”

Frank grins. “Yeah. If you had it your way, I never would’ve known what I was missing.” That brings him pause. “Why did you keep it a secret, anyway? You know I love you no matter what.”

“Of course,” Gerard says quickly. “I wasn’t sure how you’d take it, is all. It can be weird to talk about.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Frank frowns down at the counter. “Would you have ever told me?”

Gerard pauses for a minute, looking thoughtful.

“Yeah,” he says. “I think so. Probably soon. I’ve been getting more… I don’t know, it’s been on my mind a lot. Something about touring makes me think about it. Like, if I can get up onstage in front of all these people, maybe I can put on lipstick, too, y’know? It doesn’t seem as scary anymore.”

Frank smiles. “Good,” he says softly. “I want you to be happy, Gee.”

Gerard grins stupidly back at him. “I love you,” he says.

“I love you too, baby.” Frank picks up one of the stray tubes of lipstick and examines it. He glances up at Gerard and feels himself blush. “Could you, um… could you put it back on?” There’s a niggling curiosity in the back of his mind that’s just dying to see what Gerard looks like when he’s properly made up.

Gerard grins from ear to ear. “Definitely,” he says.

***

Gerard has many talents, but cooking is not one of them. He can make pancakes, chickpea curry, and basically nothing else - maybe toaster waffles on a good day. Frank, unfortunately, is not much better. He knows a few vegan recipes, because sometimes the only way to find food without meat or dairy is to make it himself, but they never turn out very well.

The two of them might starve if it weren’t for Mikey.

“I love you,” Frank says sweetly. “I changed my mind, you’re my favorite Way.”

“I would be mad if he wasn’t totally right,” Gerard says morosely. He’s sprawled out over the couch. Even across the room, Frank can hear his stomach growl. “Mikey, you’re saving both our lives right now. You know that, right?”

“And you know I’m just making you soup, right?” Mikey’s flipping through Gerard’s record collection for an album to put on. “Like, canned soup. Which requires no talent whatsoever.”

“Gerard tried to make soup once and he burnt it,” says Frank.

Mikey keeps flicking through the bin of records. He pauses and pulls out a well-worn sleeve, eyeing it closely. “Gerard, is this new?” he asks.

Frank leans over to try and make out the cover. It’s faded brown, with white lettering at the bottom. One of the corners is ripped up from years of being taken out and put away - he recognizes it instantly. “That one’s mine,” he says. “I’ve just kinda been leaving it over here.”

The corner of Mikey’s mouth twitches.

“What?” Gerard says suspiciously.

Mikey shrugs and puts the record back. Gerard sits up. “Mikey! What’re you looking at me like that for?”

Mikey shrugs again. He pulls out a sleeve and sets the record up to play. “I was just wondering when Frank’s gonna move in for real,” he says. “He basically lives here already.”

Frank chokes. Gerard gapes at Mikey. “He does not! We go over to his place a lot, too!”

“He has a toothbrush in your bathroom, Gee.”

Gerard blushes. “Well, that’s just - I mean, so what?”

Mikey smirks.

“Shut up,” Gerard says, pointing a threatening finger at him. “Don’t look at me like that. Shut up.”

“I was just wondering,” Mikey says nonchalantly.

Frank feels his face heat up, too. “We haven’t really talked about it,” he says.

“Maybe you should.”

“Mikey!” Gerard says shrilly.

“What?” Mikey asks. “Am I being embarrassing?”

“Yes!”

A hissing noise comes from the kitchen. Frank turns his head to look. “Hey, Mikey?” he says. “I think the soup might be burning.”

Mikey slips back off into the kitchen. Frank pointedly does not look at Gerard.

“Um,” Gerard says. He coughs. “Just for the record. The only reason I haven’t asked is ‘cause I don’t know how often I’ll be touring, and I didn’t know if you’d want to come home to an empty apartment all the time.”

Frank grins. “I don’t think I’d mind.”

Gerard doesn’t move an inch. “You wouldn’t?” he says cautiously.

“Nope,” Frank says. “I guess we could… see what happens?”

Gerard smiles shyly at him. “Yeah,” he says. “I guess we’ll have to see.”

***

Frank pulls out a pair of thumbtacks from the corkboard and sets them aside. A couple more, and the paper comes free. He sets it on the floor in the growing pile of posters and paper scraps.

They have to clear out the board at the shop every couple of months. As of now, it’s full to bursting with want ads for band members, numbers for guitar teachers, and posters advertising concerts that have long since passed. They’ve left it unattended for way too long - it’s going to be impossible to take all these down. Frank’s carefully plucks the tacks from each one, making sure the corners don’t get ripped.

Pedicone leans against the counter and watches him work. “Why don’t you just rip ‘em off?” he asks.

Frank shrugs. Ripping them would be a lot faster, but for some reason, he doesn’t like to. “I save some of them,” he says, taking down an ad for a used drum kit. “The ones with cool art, at least.”

“Mm. You think they’re gonna be worth something someday?” Pedicone comes over and takes a flyer from the very top of the board, where Frank can’t reach. He scrutinizes it for a second. “No offense, but I can’t see ‘Rodents in Residence’ selling out venues.”

“Really? I think they’d fit right in in New York City,” Frank says with a straight face. Pedicone rolls his eyes. Frank laughs and takes the paper from him, laying it down on the pile. “Nah, it’s not a money thing. If it were, I’d at least get them signed or something. I just like them. They mean something to somebody, y’know? I don’t want to just throw them in the trash.”

“Unless their art is bad.”

“Unless their art is bad,” Frank agrees.

Pedicone picks at a staple that’s wedged deep into the board. “I get that, though,” he says thoughtfully. “You’d know what that feels like, wouldn’t you? ‘Cause you were in a band. Did you ever do stuff like this?”

“Like sticking crap up in record stores?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you kidding? I did that all the time.” Frank pulls too hard on a tack, and it tears the corner of the paper. “Fuck - no, dude, that’s just what you have to do. We were doing everything to get ourselves out there.” He and Hambone used to do poster runs together. They’d stick them up on telephone poles, in music stores, anywhere they could find the space. Anything to get even one more person to come to their shows.

Pedicone pries the staple out of the board with his fingernail. “Was it hard?” he says curiously.

Frank snorts. “What do you think?”

Pedicone laughs. “Okay, dumb question. You had fans, though, right? Lots of ‘em.”

Frank shrugs. “We had a few. Enough to keep us going, at least.”

“You really did,” Pedicone says dreamily. “An actual album, and tours, and fans… God, you’re so lucky.”

Frank raises an eyebrow. “You know we broke up, right? Like, it was a total dumpster fire.”

“But at least you got the chance to be something,” Pedicone says. He stares into the distance, a faraway expression crossing his face. Frank goes back to ripping out pins. Pedicone eventually shakes himself, and when his gaze lands on Frank, it’s more intense than it was before. “You would’ve done anything for that band, wouldn’t you?” he asks.

Frank focuses hard on taking down the next poster. “Yeah,” he says slowly. “Probably. Before we started to hate each other’s guts, that is.” He doesn’t talk about Pencey very often, and it’s rarely to sing their praises. He loved being in the band - fuck, of course he loved it - but it certainly wasn’t as good as whatever Pedicone’s thinking.

“Me and my friends have wanted to start a band for ages,” Pedicone says, mostly to himself. “But we don’t have enough money for a van or anything. We can’t even afford instruments; we’d never be able to get it off the ground.”

Frank shrugs. “If you really want it, then go for it. That’s the only way it can happen.”

“But I’m broke,” Pedicone points out.

“You have a job, don’t you?” Frank asks. “Start saving. You’ll get there eventually.”

Pedicone rolls his eyes. “Thanks, Frank.”

Frank grins back at him. “‘Course. Just don’t go off on tour too soon, okay? We’ve still only got four people working here, I don’t want it to come down to three.”

Pedicone laughs. “Okay, I won’t.”

He takes down one of the highest posters and hands it to Frank. It exposes a square of flecked brown cork - the first piece of the board that’s not covered in paper.

Maybe this job isn’t so impossible after all.

***

Frank blinks, and Gerard is packing up again.

He’s been home a few months, which is honestly a decent block of time, but it passes by in an instant. It feels like Gerard just got back, and now they’re sending him out on tour again. It’s a bigger one, too; he’s going all the way to the west coast this time, opening for some band.

Gerard’s got all his clothes laid out on his bed. He’s been staring at them with his arms crossed for a good ten minutes now - which is weird, because for the last tour, Frank’s pretty sure he just shoved a few t-shirts in a bag and left. Frank comes up behind him and rests his chin on his shoulder. “What’s up?” he asks.

Gerard leans his head against Frank’s absentmindedly. “I don’t know what I should bring,” he says.

“Does it matter? You’re not Lady Gaga yet, nobody’s expecting you to come out looking like a model.”

“Yeah, but…” Gerard bites his lip. Frank glances down at the bedspread - and that’s when it clicks.

It’s not just shirts and jeans Gerard’s put out. He’s got a few skirts in the mix, too, and a couple crop tops Frank’s sure he’s never seen before.

“I want to bring them, but I feel like they’d just end up sitting in my bag,” Gerard says, frowning.

“Then wear ‘em instead,” Frank says, poking him in the side. “You’d look good as hell. And that’s one way to make people remember you, right?”

Gerard sighs again. “Yeah, but…” He doesn’t finish the thought.

“Is this like an outing-yourself thing?” Frank asks. “‘Cause… I get that, if it is.” As hot as Gerard’s fishnets may be, wearing them onstage would send a pretty damn loud message - and not everyone wants that. Frank didn’t, when he was in Pencey. He was never the type to brand himself as a queer artist. If people liked his music, it was going to be because he made good music, not because he liked dick.

Gerard shakes his head. “I don’t care about that,” he says. “I don’t need to hide. If I’m going to be on a stage, I might as well use it to say something.” Frank catches his hand before he can start biting his nails.

“I just don’t think I can,” Gerard frets. “I’m such a pussy about this stuff; it’s just a shirt, it shouldn’t matter - “

“It doesn’t,” Frank says, giving him a kiss on the cheek. “Do whatever you’re comfortable with. You’ll have bigger stages to make statements on.”

“But I want to wear them,” Gerard mumbles. “They’re cute.”

Frank giggles. “You’ll still look gorgeous, don’t worry. You’d better send me pics every day.”

Gerard uncrosses his arms. “Speaking of that,” he says, turning to face Frank. “There’s something I wanted to ask you.”

Frank nods. “Shoot.”

Gerard looks at the floor. “So,” he says hesitantly. “I know you said no to this before, but I wanted to ask again. Remember how I said you could come and be my rhythm guitarist, if you wanted?”

Frank goes still.

“That’s still an open offer,” Gerard says, fidgeting a little. “I know you said you didn’t want to, like, cheat someone out of a gig, but I’m not even the headliner - it doesn’t really matter that much, does it?”

Frank winces. “Gerard - “

“It’s just that this tour’s going to be longer, and probably bigger, and it’s going to suck being away from you that long,” Gerard persists. “Wouldn’t it be so much better if you were just there?”

Frank stays quiet. Gerard’s absence has a way of crawling underneath his skin and eating away at him. After work, he’ll find himself driving to Gerard’s place, and even once he’s corrected his course, his own apartment always feels desolate. To say it sucksis an understatement.

But the very idea of touring again makes him freeze up.

There would be so many ways things could go wrong. What if he starts arguing with Gerard? What if he fucks up Gerard’s songs onstage? What if - God, what if people see them together? Fran swallows hard. Gerard’s sexuality might not be a big deal to him, but it is to the rest of the world - and who knows what could happen if he gets pushed into that particular spotlight?

In the best case scenario, they get to tour together, and it’s awesome. But in the worst case, Frank could ruin his entire fucking career.

Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there’s no way of knowing. It’s a big, crazy world out there. Frank never had trouble throwing himself into it before, but he didn’t have anything to lose back then. Now… It’s fucking terrifying.

A look of sadness crosses Gerard’s face It’s only momentary; he shakes it off quick, but Frank’s already seen it. It makes his chest hurt.

“It’s okay,” Gerard says with a small smile. “Worth a shot, right?”

“I’m sorry,” Frank says miserably. Gerard calls himself a pussy because he can’t wear a skirt in front of a thousand people - what does that make Frank?

A fucking nuclear bomb, that’s what. Too scared of the fallout to take a step out his own front door.

Gerard leans in and kisses him softly. “I’m gonna miss you,” he says. “But we’ll make it work, hm? I love you.”

Frank rests his face in Gerard’s neck. “I love you too,” he murmurs. “Always.”

***

Gerard paces and back and forth, glancing over his shoulder every few minutes. His lips are pressed together in a thin line. Each time he looks out at the stage, his face goes white, and he quickly turns to face the wings again.

This show technically isn’t a part of the tour. It’s like a prelude, a way for Gerard to get back into the swing of things before he sets out for the big leagues. The venue’s nice; it’s got that intimate atmosphere without being a total shithole. The crowd’s fairly big, but that’s to be expected from a hometown show - it’s certainly nothing Gerard hasn’t done before.

But there’s no opener this time.

That must be what’s got him so freaked out. He’s got a beer can clutched in his fist, the aluminum slightly dented where he’s gripping it.

“You’ve done this before,” Frank reminds him.

“Not as the headliner,” Gerard says, wide-eyed, and yeah. Looks like Frank was right on the money with that one.

“It’s the same principle,” Frank says. He catches Gerard’s arm, stopping him mid-pace. “All you have to do is get out there and focus on the music. Nobody else cares if you fuck up, remember?”

“I do,” Gerard mutters, his voice barely audible. He holds himself too stiffly, like he’s seconds away from bolting.

Frank takes his hand and gives it a quick squeeze. “You’ll be fine.”

Gerard swallows hard. Frank can feel his pulse jackrabbiting in the hollow of his wrist. “I don’t know if I will, though,” he whispers. His eyes dart back over to the stage, and Frank can practically see the panic setting in, glazing over his irises and whirling through his mind like a hurricane. He snaps his fingers in front of Gerard’s face, and Gerard startles. It takes him a second to look back and focus on Frank.

“You’re going to be fine,” Frank says.

“I’m going to throw up,” Gerard says.

And sure enough, he rips his hand out of Frank’s and runs off like he’s got the devil on his heels. Frank stares after him for a moment. He’s honestly not sure if he’ll come back.

But the show must go on, so he heads toward the bathroom.

He’s greeted by the awful sound of retching. Frank freezes in his tracks. Gerard is prone to both stage fright and dramatics; Frank didn’t think he was serious.

The middle stall is locked, but Frank can see Gerard through the crack. He knocks tentatively on the door. “You okay, Gee?”

“No,” Gerard says hoarsely.

Frank pauses. “Is there anything I can do?”

Gerard sighs. “It’s too late to cancel, isn’t it?”

Frank thinks for a minute. “You have to do what’s best for you,” he says. “I mean, it’s… it’s pretty late in the game, yeah. But if you’re really sick, you shouldn’t play.”

Gerard groans. “I’m not sick, I’m just fucking nervous. And I think I drank too much.”

Frank can’t argue with that. He wasn’t really keeping track of how much Gerard drank, but even one or two beers would probably be enough to get him sick when he’s like this; alcohol and nerves aren’t a good combo. Frank makes a mental note to pay more attention next time.

“What do you want to do?” he asks through the stall door.

Gerard is silent for a while. “If we were going by what I wanted, I’d never get anything done,” he says.

“Is that your way of saying you want to play?” Frank clarifies.

“I don’t want to…”

“Are you sure you’re up for it?” Frank asks.

“I… yeah. I guess. Fuck, I’d better get out there or I’m gonna talk myself out of it. Move.” The door unlatches, and Gerard stumbles out. He passes by Frank and heads straight for the stage.

Frank’s half concerned and half proud.

The venue doesn’t have a bar, but there’s a corner store right next door. Frank slips out to get a water bottle. When he returns, Gerard is hovering backstage like a nervous moth. He flits to the edge of the stage, drawn to the sound of the audience chattering below, but never gets close enough that they can see him.

Frank knocks the bottle against his arm. Gerard looks surprised at first, then a grateful smile stretches across his face as he takes it. He leans in close to Frank’s ear and whispers, “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Frank says, smiling back.

By some miracle, the rest of the night passes without incident. Once he’s actually onstage, Gerard settles into the rhythm of performing. Frank sits backstage, closing his eyes as Gerard’s voice echoes through the venue. It feels like a familiar embrace, a warm contentment that washes over him in one easy wave.

Gerard’s going to be fine on tour. He might be scared to show his face, but in the end, all that really matters is his voice.

***

They don’t get to video call as often as they used to. There are more shows scheduled this time around, and the space in between is packed with interviews and press work. In Gerard’s free time, though, he’s all Frank’s.

They’re supposed to FaceTime at four - only a minute to go. Frank sets down the laundry he’s folding and takes out his phone. Almost as soon as he opens it, a new text pops up. It’s not from Gerard; Frank doesn’t recognize the number.

Hey Frankie!! This is Gerard. I’m so dumb, I left my charger in Buffalo and my phone died. Everybody else is using the outlets right now but the bassist from the headliner lent me his phone so I could call you. Is that okay?

Frank rolls his eyes. Only Gerard. ofc, he texts back. just call me now fucker i miss u.

His phone lights up and rings loudly. He accepts the call, and the ringing cuts out. “Hey, baby,” he says, grinning at nothing. “Lost your charger, huh?”

“God, don’t even start,” Gerard huffs. “Listen, having a backing band is great, having the same group of people who’re always there to play music with me is awesome - but they’re awful about the outlets.”

“Better than Mikey always leaving the shows early to pick up chicks, though, right?” Frank asks.

“Barely!” Gerard laughs. “I miss playing with Mikey, though. I think I wanna bring him on tour with me someday.” He pauses a moment. “Are you still sure you don’t want to come along sometime, too?”

Frank’s stomach twists. It’s such a small question. It should be so light - it is - but there’s weight behind it that bears down on his chest. “Yeah,” he says. “I’m sure. Sorry, Gee.”

“Still don’t wanna tell me why, huh?”

Frank bites his lip. “I just… It’s not you, okay? It’s got nothing to do with you. It’s just a stupid personal thing.”

He wants to be with Gerard. He wants to be able to see him whenever he wants, not whenever there’s a charger cord or adequate cell service. He wants to help him get through his stage fright and then kill it onstage, playing just as hard as he used to and enjoying every second of it.

But if his playing is as intense as it was before, who knows what else might be?

“Okay,” Gerard says, sounding unconvinced. “So, um… I miss you. How’s everything at home?”

Boring. Frank would much rather be on tour with his boyfriend.

“It’s good,” Frank says. “I’m gonna go over to the shop in like an hour. There’s a band playing tonight, we’ve gotta help them set up.”

“Oh, seriously? I didn’t know you guys - oh, wait, I think I remember Ray saying something about that. Wait...” Frank can almost see Gerard crinkle his nose. It makes him smile in spite of himself. “How do you even have enough room for that? Impulse is kinda tiny.”

“That’s why I’m going over in an hour,” Frank says ruefully. “We have to move a bunch of shit out of the way before we can even start setting up.”

Gerard giggles. “Oh, I’d pay to see that.”

Frank tries to keep it light as they go on, and Gerard laughs in all the right places, but something’s off, and they both know it. Frank should just fucking tell him. But if he does, Gerard will just start trying to change his mind, and it’ll just turn into a fight. He’ll take a little awkwardness over fighting any day.

About half an hour later, Gerard cuts himself off with, “Oh, the guy wants his phone back. I’ll get a new charger the next time we stop, okay? Hopefully there’ll be an open outlet.”

Frank nods automatically. “Yeah, definitely. I’m here whenever. Just let me know when you can call.”

“Of course. Love you, Frankie.”

“Love you too, Gee.”

The line goes dead. Frank lowers his phone and stares at it for a second. He’s being so dumb about this. He should just tell Gerard what’s up - or, better yet, go on the fucking tour with him. It’d probably be fine. It’s not Pencey. It’s just one tour, for fuck’s sake. Frank loves Gerard; one tour couldn’t break them.

But it’s because Frank loves him that he can’t risk it.

***

Frank is not going to be a teenage girl waiting by his phone. He’s not.

He shoves his phone under his pillow so he isn’t tempted to check it again.

Gerard’s been a lot busier on this tour than he was before. Frank supposes that’s a good thing - it’s a mark of success - but by this point, he hasn’t seen Gerard’s face in three days. He’s getting impatient.

His phone buzzes. Frank’s hand shoots underneath his pillow to grab it.

Bad news, the text reads. Apparently I have an interview in half an hour that I totally fucking forgot about. I know the time zones suck right now, but could you wait up for me? :(

Frank sighs. It’s already late; if he stays up waiting for Gerard, he’s going to regret it in the morning.

But then again, it’s Gerard. He’s worth it.

yep, Frank texts back. see u ltr. xo

He rolls out of bed and goes to make a pot of coffee. He’s going to need it.

***

Frank glances down at his side, tilting his phone up just enough that he can check it under the counter. The message he sent Gerard stares up at him. The little grey text beneath it says delivered. He sent it last night - eleven hours and thirty eight minutes ago.

But who’s counting?

Something inside Frank squirms at the blue text bubble, sitting there unanswered. Gerard had played a show last night, so he probably passed out right after, but today’s a travel day. He should have a big block of free time. Back on his first tour, he texted Frank every single day with updates, usually more often than that. This time, his texts are a little more sporadic.

Maybe Gerard figures Frank knows what to expect by now, and he doesn’t need detailed updates. Frank does know what to expect - he’s done his fair share of touring - but he liked hearing about Gerard’s experiences anyway, and Gerard knows that. He wouldn’t leave Frank hanging.

Maybe he’s still asleep.

Frank slips his phone back into his pocket before Ray can see him using it. That’ll earn him a scolding, or worse, teasing. Ray doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, but Frank’s just not up for anyone pointing out how often he’s checking his phone right now. He knows he’s being clingy. He knows he’s overreacting.

He just misses his fucking boyfriend, that’s all.

***

Frank thunks his head down on the counter. He’s trying not to act like a little bitch, but a heavy sigh forces its way out of his lungs anyway.

“Uh-oh,” says Dewees. “I know that face. Is Emo Frank coming out to play?”

Frank makes a disgruntled noise. Dewees sets down the guitar he’s been tuning. “What’s up?” he asks, poking the side of Frank’s head. “Boy troubles?”

“As usual,” Frank mumbles into the counter. “Gerard’s not answering his phone.”

Dewees nods wisely. “Musicians,” he says. “All they do is break your heart and write songs about it.”

“He’s not breaking my heart.” Frank sighs again and sits up, propping his chin on his elbows. “It’s not intentional. He’s just really fucking busy. He’s on a big tour, he’s working on an album, all that kinda shit.”

“So he doesn’t have time for you?” Dewees clicks his tongue. “That sucks.”

“It’s not like that. It’s…” Frank searches for the right words. “This is everything he’s ever wanted.”

Gerard has the right to be busy. He’s gone from writing songs in his basement to performing them in front of hundreds of people - soon to be thousands, if his manager’s projections are to be believed. He’s worked his ass off to get this far. Frank isn’t going to nag him for attention, not when he’s got so many other things to deal with.

Dewees frowns. “He should still call you.”

“I don’t want to distract him,” Frank mutters.

Dewees studies him closely.

“Be honest,” he says. “Is he going to hit it big?”

Frank nods.

“Then you’d better talk to him now, ‘cause he’s only gonna get busier.” Dewees picks up his guitar and goes back to tuning it. Frank rests his head on the counter once more.

He’s right.

Frank has been Gerard’s biggest fan since day one. There’s never been any doubt in his mind that Gerard will make it. Ever since he first saw Gerard play, he’s been waiting for the day he’d see Gerard’s name in lights. That day has come and gone, and the lights are only getting bigger and brighter. Frank will always be the one cheering the loudest, but now, there’s a sea of other voices to drown him out.

Gerard’s moving into a great big world, and fast. Almost too fast for Frank to keep up with.

But Gerard doesn’t need him to keep up anymore.

Frank used to be able to give him advice, to laugh with him and share stories from Pencey’s touring days, but this is beyond anything he’s ever experienced. It’s only a matter of time before Gerard breaks into the mainstream. When he does, he’s not going to have a free minute. Not for Frank; not for anyone. And there’s nothing Frank can do about it. He can only cling to Gerard’s hand and hope he doesn’t let go.

And while Gerard’s touring, Frank can’t even do that.

They should probably talk.

***

Frank’s lying on his stomach, his chin rested on his hands. His phone is propped up on the pillow in front of him. Gerard smiles at him from the screen. “Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” Frank says softly. “It’s good to see you.”

“God, same here. I want to be home already.” The image lags behind as Gerard moves, the pixels rearranging and adjusting into a new shape. He blows a kiss at the camera. Frank smiles.

“I miss you,” he says.

“I miss you too,” Gerard says. “As soon as I’m home, I’m gonna fuckin’... I dunno. Do some dumb shit. Kiss you a lot.”

“Aww, you sap.”

Gerard grins. “Shut up. You’re gonna be the one kissing me back.”

“True,” Frank agrees. He takes his phone and rolls over onto his back. His bed feels too spacious without Gerard taking up half of it. To compensate, he sprawls half across it, filling the empty space as best he can. It helps a little. It’s nothing like lying with Gerard, though.

“Things have been fucking crazy out here,” Gerard says. “I swear, there are more people every night. There are these girls who’ve been at, like, every show since Boston. Can you believe that?” He shakes his head in wonder. “I’m never gonna get used to it.”

“You’d better,” Frank says. “It’s only uphill from here.” He takes a deep breath. This is where he should say something.

“It’s never been like this before, Frankie. I feel like…” Gerard bites his lip, smiling. “I dunno. I just feel like I’m finally on the right track, y’know?”

Frank exhales slowly.

“Yeah,” he says. “You are.”

He can’t do it.

He’s spent the past three days turning Dewees’ words over in his mind, checking his phone for texts from Gerard, and staying up until three in the morning staring at the ceiling. Ray has asked him more than once if he’s okay. He never knows how to answer. Because the truth is, he’s not. He’s tired and stressed and he misses Gerard so much, it’s like someone carved out a piece of his chest, but if he says it out loud, then he’ll be admitting that they have a problem.

Gerard is making his dreams come true. Frank can’t turn that into a problem.

He rolls over onto his side, listening as Gerard rambles on about his newest adventures. Even with the shitty camera quality, his smile is as magical as ever. He’s got more makeup on than usual - eyeshadow as well as liner. He looks happy. Relaxed, even. Frank takes note of every pixel, committing the image to memory.

It’s probably the only chance he’ll get to see Gerard for a while.

***

Frank tugs on Ray’s sleeve. “Ray,” he says. “Ray. I need help.”

“When do you not?” Ray asks without looking up. He’s leaning over a box, his head half buried in it. He sits up, frowning. “Hey, have you seen new drums floating around anywhere? We were supposed to get a kit today.”

“I dunno, maybe they’re late. But seriously, man, I don’t know what to do.” Frank sits down heavily on a crate. “I need to talk to Gerard.”

“About what?” Ray moves to the other side of the room and starts rifling through another box.

Frank shrugs listlessly. “Him being away all the time. I haven’t seen him in a month, and he never answers his phone anymore.”

Ray pauses. “That’s kind of shitty.”

“It is,” Frank says miserably. “I talked to Dewees about it and he said I should be honest or whatever, and I was going to do it last night when we were FaceTiming, but we hardly ever get to talk. I don’t want to spoil it when we do.”

“Avoidance doesn’t solve anything.”

“I know, I know. But it’s… I don’t want to be an asshole! He’s out there having the time of his life - how am I supposed to tell him to stop?” Frank buries his face in his hands with a groan. “God, this sucks.”

Ray closes his box and turns to face Frank. “Are you happy?” he asks.

“No,” says Frank.

“Then talk to him. The problem won’t go away if you don’t.”

Frank nods wearily. “Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d say.”

He wishes Ray wasn’t right all the time.

***

“Hey. Is everything okay?” Gerard asks. His voice is muffled by background noise. “You sounded kind of… I dunno, what’s up?”

Frank tugs at a loose thread in the sleeve of his hoodie. “I wanted to talk,” he mumbles.

“What?” The white noise cuts out abruptly, and Gerard’s voice is clear again. “Sorry, there should be better reception in here. What’s going on, Frankie?”

He sounds anxious. Frank’s not doing so well himself. He’s been pacing the apartment for half an hour before he worked up the nerve to call. He sits down on the couch, forcing himself to breathe. “I’ve been thinking,” he says slowly. He’s rehearsed this, but it’s like his airways have closed up; he can’t get the words out.

“Yeah?” Gerard asks.

Frank rips the thread from his sleeve and picks at another. He winds it around his finger, tight enough to make his skin go white. “I’m not mad,” he says. “I don’t want you to think I’m mad at you, and I hate even doing this, it’s so stupid - “

“Frank,” Gerard says nervously. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“You don’t talk to me anymore,” Frank blurts out before he can stop himself. “You’re always busy and you’re never here, and you don’t pick up when I call, and when you do it’s always rushed. I know you’re doing super awesome stuff, and I’m sorry, but - “

“Fuck.” There’s a thump from the other end of the line. “Oh, God. I’m so fucking sorry - fuck, why didn’t you say something sooner?”

Frank shrugs before he remembers Gerard can’t see him. For some reason, it makes his chest hurt more than it already is. “I dunno,” he says.

“Baby, you have to tell me this stuff. I know things have been crazy lately, but I - shit, I didn’t know it was affecting you that much. Is that all that’s bothering you?”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Frank lets the thread go. It unwinds from around his finger, leaving indents behind.

“Are you sure? We have to be open with each other or this is never gonna work. You know that, right?”

“Yeah. That’s… that’s it, I think.”

“Okay, good. I’m so sorry, Frankie, I really, really am.” Gerard sounds guilty as hell. If Frank is honest, it makes him feel a little bit better.

“It’s okay,” he says. “Just. Like. Call me, okay?”

“I will,” Gerard says immediately. “I promise. And I’ll see if there’s any way I can come home sooner.”

“No, it’s fine,” Frank says quickly. “Don’t. I just miss you, that’s all.” The last thing he wants is for Gerard to have to limit himself because of Frank’s insecurities. When he comes home, Frank will be glad of it, but he has to finish the tour first.

“I miss you too. It sucks for me, too - you know that, right? I miss you all the time.” Gerard sighs. “It’s not the same without you here.”

“You’ll be back soon enough,” Frank says. He’s not sure which of them it’s meant to comfort.

There’s silence on the line. It’s the nice kind, though; the warm of connection without words, not the icy cold of anticipation.

“I love you,” Gerard says softly.

Frank smiles. “I love you, too. Keep doing your rock star stuff, I’ll be right here.”

“And I’ll be waiting to come home.”

The tour ends in a month. It can’t go by fast enough.

***

It’s ironic. Frank used to be the one going away on tours, leaving loved ones behind, forgetting everything but the road. Now it’s been turned on him. Gerard’s out there living the good life, and Frank is stuck here, sitting in an empty apartment.

He never realized how much this would suck.

The silence eats away at him. Frank gets up and goes over to his box of records, flipping through for something loud or upbeat enough to distract him. His options are kind of limited, given that he’s left almost half his vinyls laying around Gerard’s place. He could go and get them, but being in Gerard’s apartment alone would be even worse than being in his own.

Frank puts on Black Flag and goes back to the couch, dropping down with a sigh. Not even Nervous Breakdown can cheer him up right now. He keeps expecting Gerard to walk through the room on his way to get coffee, or ask Frank to put on Bowie. But he never does.

Frank wants Gerard to succeed, but right now, the selfish, sad part of him is taking over.

He just wants Gerard to come home.

***

Frank snorts into his phone. “He’s your fucking manager, he’s allowed to tell you what to do,” he says.

He can’t make out Gerard’s response. There’s a customer in the front playing one of the new basses; it’s not the optimal environment for a phone call. Frank technically shouldn’t have picked up - he is on the clock, after all - but he takes what he can get. He stuffs his fingers into his ear. “What’d you say?”

“He gets so bossy,” Gerard complains. “Like, I love him, and I’m super glad to have him, but seriously! I’m not gonna get attacked if I leave the bus for a smoke.”

“You never know. Fans can be crazy.”

“I’m not that famous.”

Frank giggles. “I love how that’s a sentence you can actually say now,” he says. “Listen to Brian, babe. He’s on your side.”

There’s a powerful blast of distortion. Frank presses his hand to his ear, throwing an annoyed look at the front of the shop. He thinks Gerard says something, but it’s completely drowned out by the bass. “What was that?” he asks. “I can’t hear.”

There’s a thumping sound from the other line. “Nothing,” Gerard says quickly. “Sorry, it’s just - “

“Gee! C’mere, baby, we gotta get you lookin’ pretty!”

Gerard sighs. “I’m on the phone,” he says, his voice muffled. “Can it wait?”

“Nope! Who’re you talkin’ to? Your boyfriend?”

“Yeah.”

The amp shrieks. Frank winces and clamps his hand harder over his ear. “ - what you’re doing with him,” the voice continues. “You could be fuckin’ anybody, doll. I mean, look at you!” The voice gets closer. “Hey, Frankie!” it drawls. “You don’t mind if I steal your man for a bit, do you? He’s gotta get his face on before the big night, he’ll call you back. Bye!”

There’s a click, and the line goes dead.

Frank stares blankly at his phone.

Someone clears their throat. Frank looks up to see Ray standing in the doorway, giving him a pointed look.

Frank stuffs his phone into his pocket, but it’s too late; he’s been caught red-handed. “Sorry, Ray,” he says guiltily.

“I get it,” Ray says heavily, holding up his hands. “It’s gotta be hard with him away on tour, but man, if you’re working, you’ve gotta be - “

“On task,” Frank sighs. “I know. I’m sorry.”

Ray nods. “It’s fine. Just don’t let it happen again, okay? You’re my friend. I don’t want to yell at you.”

“It won’t happen again,” Frank mumbles.

“Good. I didn’t come back here to lecture you, though.” Ray motions for Frank to follow him and backs out of the room. Frank hurries to catch up with him. “I need you to help me look through the new shipments,” Ray continues as they walk. “We were supposed to get two Gibsons last week, but they haven’t come in.”

Frank frowns. “Are you sure you didn’t just overlook them?”

“I’m hoping I did. Otherwise I’ll have to switch suppliers, these guys have been unreliable as hell so far.”

Frank listens as Ray complains. He tries to be attentive - Ray deserves that much from him, especially after catching him sneaking a personal call on the job - but his thoughts keep returning to that stranger’s voice.

Something about it makes his skin crawl.

***

Frank is woken by a loud buzz. He rolls over and slaps at his nightstand until he gets a grip on his phone. He clicks it on, squinting at the screen. Gerard’s calling.

Also, it’s four in the morning.

Frank hits accept.

“Hi, Frankie!” Gerard says happily. “Did you know all the truckstops look the same out here? It’s weird, I think they’re all clones.”

“Mm-hmm.” Frank swallows a yawn. “Babe, you remember that talk we had about time zones?”

“Yeah, I - oh, shit. Did I wake you up?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Oh, shit. Sorry, Frankie. You should sleep now, you need your sleep.” Maybe it’s just the cell reception, but his voice sounds weird; he’s talking too slow, the words muddling together.

Frank squints.

“Are you drunk?” he asks.

Gerard giggles. “Only a little bit,” he says. “Or a lot. I forget.”

Frank sighs and lets his head fall back against the pillow. “Yeah, okay. Cool. Where are you, exactly?”

“I’m…” There’s a pause. “I’m on the bus. Yeah. I was out with Kenny and then we came back.”

Frank should just hang up. He’s tired as all hell, and Gerard is smashed; he probably won’t even remember this by tomorrow morning. But instead, he sits up, rubbing at his eyes. “Right. And who’s Kenny, again?”

“The bassist. You talked to him before, remember?”

Frank pauses. “Is he the one who hung up on me?” he says slowly.

“Yeah! I told him not to do that again. He’s annoying sometimes, but he does my makeup, so he’s worth it.”

They really, really should not be having this conversation right now. But Frank, like an idiot, keeps going anyway: “He does your makeup?”

“Yeah!” Gerard chirps. “He says it makes me look pretty, but I’m always pretty so I don’t need it. I like it anyway, though.”

Frank’s stomach clenches. “Okay,” he says. “And is that… is that it?”

“Is what it?”

“Does he do anything else?” Frank asks through gritted teeth.

Gerard giggles. “He can do shots like a motherfucker.”

“Right.” Frank can’t think of anything else to say. Something hot and ugly has reared up inside his chest. He’s not sure what it is, but it steals the words from his mouth, leaving a bitter taste in their place. “So, is this what you do now? Go out and get smashed with Kenny?”

“Nah. Not every night. I was jus’ feeling bad ‘cause I missed you, and he said we could go out and make me forget about it.”

Frank’s hands tighten into fists in his bedsheets. “Okay,” he says.

Gerard pauses. “Is that bad?”

“No,” Frank says shortly. It isn’t; not at face value. Just friends helping friends, right? Just friends who share living quarters getting drunk to forget about their boyfriends at home?

“Oh my God,” Gerard says gleefully. “Frankie, are you jealous?”

“No,” Frank snaps.

“You totally are! Oh my God.” Gerard bursts out laughing. “Frankie, he’s not - he’s so not my type.”

“Okay, but have you considered the possibility that you might be his?” Frank says tersely.

Gerard goes quiet. “Frankie,” he says. “You know I love you, right? I love you. So much. I don’t wanna make you feel bad.” He sounds so sad, Frank would hardly have believed he was laughing his ass off only moments ago.

Frank sighs. “I love you, too,” he says. “You should go to bed. Drink some water first, you’ll thank me in the morning.”

“Frankie?” Gerard says timidly. It’s the alcohol, Frank knows, but it makes his chest tighten to hear Gerard sound like that.

“Yeah?” he asks.

“Are you mad?”

Frank has to think for a moment. “No,” he says. “Not at you. But I am really fucking tired.”

“Okay, okay. Sorry. You should sleep.”

“I should,” Frank agrees. “G’night, Gee.”

“Sleep well, Frankie. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Gerard hangs up. Frank stares down at his phone.

The sick feeling in his stomach still hasn’t left.

There’s an idea slowly eating away at the back of his mind. He doesn’t want to think about it. Every time he does, his heart seizes up, and he has to take deep breaths for a few minutes before it feels normal again.

But it’s growing. It gets blacker and sicker every day, and he hates himself for it.

He loves Gerard. It’s an immutable part of him, written into every cell in his body; he loves Gerard with all his being. It had stopped being casual a long time ago. Somewhere along the line, he stopped imagining a future without Gerard. He’s the endgame. There has to be a solution. Things will get better with just a little more time, patience, effort, insert variable here. Frank loves Gerard, and Gerard loves Frank. That ought to be enough. Frank wants to stick it out; he needs to.

But it just might kill him if he does.

Frank shoves the thought away. He can’t think about that now. Now, he can only close his eyes and let sleep carry him someplace far away.

***

Gerard nearly tackles Frank to the ground. They stagger backwards, clinging to each other for dear life, Gerard peppering kisses all over Frank’s face. “I missed you,” he says, giving Frank a peck on the lips, “so goddamn much.”

“You too,” Frank giggles. “Fuck, I can’t believe you’re finally here.”

“Me neither.” Gerard squeezes him tight. “God, I love you so much.”

“I love you too, you sappy bastard.” Frank lets him go and finally takes a good look at him. Gerard’s hair’s grown out a little, and there are dark circles under his eyes, but he looks happy. Frank knows the feeling. There’s nothing like a tour to lift you up and wear you out at the same time. A consistent blast of adrenaline every night can be thrilling, but once you’re home again, the withdrawal is killer. He’ll give it a few hours before Gerard crashes.

“You’re probably exhausted, huh?” he asks. Gerard nods.

“I need to sleep for a million years,” he says. “And shower. In that order.”

“Then let’s do that.” Frank takes his hand and leads him to the bedroom. He’s got a pile of blankets and pillows set up for them already. Gerard flops into bed at once and wriggles beneath the covers, sighing contentedly.

“Did I mention how much I love you?” he asks.

“Nope,” says Frank, grinning. “You’d better tell me again.” He climbs in next to Gerard and nestles in close. In their blanket pile, everything is soft and cozy. He presses his face to Gerard’s neck and inhales deeply, just to make sure he’s really there. It feels too good to be true.

Gerard waves his hand at something in the corner. “Can you - “

“Yeah.” Frank sits up and grabs his laptop. He picks something from Netflix at random and sets it up to play, then falls back into Gerard.

They watch until their eyelids get heavy. Gerard is the first to doze off; Frank doesn’t blame him. He’ll be more coherent in a couple days.

Until then, he’ll stay in Frank’s bed, where the world is quiet.

***

Having Gerard home again is like being reintroduced to oxygen. Frank doesn’t know how he survived without him. The first few days are sensory overload, kissing and touching and sex so good it makes Frank’s head spin. He’s drowning in Gerard, and he fucking loves it.

The hype settles down into something more normal after a week or so, but that’s okay. Frank just appreciates the fact that they can have a normal.

Gerard’s sitting on the living room floor, scribbling feverishly in a notebook. He’s wearing his favorite skirt, the black pleated one with the buckle on the side. The skirts have started showing up a lot more often lately. Frank’s seen him wearing them in video calls when he didn’t have a show scheduled that night, and now that he’s home, it feels like he’s got something feminine on every other day.

It makes Frank stupidly happy. They’re just clothes, but given that Gerard once hid their very existence from Frank, it feels like something more, too.

Gerard’s been sitting there working on a song for hours now. Frank sips at a cup of tea, watching Gerard toss the pen down and pick up his guitar, fumbling to find the right notes.

“You want some help?” he asks.

Gerard keeps distantly plucking at the strings. It’s a good thirty seconds before he looks up, startled. “What?”

“Do you want me to help?” Frank repeats. “I could get Pansy out if you need another set of hands.”

Gerard looks thoughtful. “That might work,” he says. “It might - hmm. I dunno, let’s try it. See what happens.”

Frank sets down his mug and retreats to his bedroom. His guitar leans against the wall of his closet. He hasn’t been playing her nearly as much as he did when he was in Pencey - which is to be expected, of course, but he feels a little guilty about it. Like he’s betraying their history or something.

It feels right that she should get to help Gerard create something new.

Frank takes her back out into the living room and sits down next to Gerard. “What do you need me to do?”

Gerard stares off into space. “Can you, like… Here. Try this.” He passes his notebook to Frank. A chord progression has been hastily scrawled at the top of the page. Frank studies it closely, his fingers finding the correct notes as he reads. Gerard nods. “Keep doing that,” he says.

He hums to himself as Frank plays. Frank can’t work out the melody just yet, but it sounds nice all the same.

A few minutes later, Gerard’s eyes fly open. “Holy shit, I got it!” He grabs his pen and starts scratching away at the paper, words and chords and notes that won’t make sense until later. When he looks up at Frank, he’s grinning widely. There’s a smudge of ink on his cheek.

“Frankie, I think this is the album,” he says.

***

Ray Toro is probably the nicest dude Frank’s ever met. But he does have his moments.

When Frank opens the door to Impulse, he walks right in on Ray giving Dewees the lecture of his life. Usually, that would mean Ray explaining what he did wrong and how he can do better, with a side of “I hate to have to do this” and “It doesn’t really matter, don’t sweat it.”

This, though. This is different. Ray’s really laying into him.

“You know, a lot of the time I think I go too easy on you guys! We’re all friends here, but you have fucking responsibilities to attend to, and if you don’t, I’m not putting up with it!” Ray shouts. “We’re understaffed enough as it is, I don’t need you slacking!”

“Sorry, Ray,” Dewees says meekly.

“You’d better be. Don’t pull this shit again, Dewees. Are we clear?” Ray glares at him. It’s suddenly very apparent how much taller he is than Dwees. Dewees shrinks back and nods.

“Good,” Ray spits, and stalks off to the back room.

Dewees exhales slowly. He looks over at Frank and lifts his fingers in a little wave. “Morning,” he says.

Frank stares. “What the hell was that about?” he says in a low voice. He walks over to Dewees, keeping a careful eye on the back of the shop; he doesn’t want Ray to storm back in and start chewing him out, too.

“I didn’t show up for my shift yesterday,” Dewees mumbles, rubbing his hand over his face. “I guess there was a rush or something; he and Pedicone had to field it on their own.”

Frank frowns. “Why weren’t you there?”

Dewees looks guilty. “I was hungover and I didn’t want to get out of bed,” he says.

“That’s kind of a shitty excuse, dude.”

“It is,” Dewees says, hanging his head. “I just - he’s right, honestly. I take him for granted sometimes.”

“I think we all do,” Frank says, watching the door to the back room. “I’ve never seen him that pissed off.”

“He’s been pretty snappy lately,” Dewees says, leaning back against the counter. “If I had to guess, I’d say something’s got him wicked stressed out. He said he met a girl, right? What was her name? Crystal?”

“Christa,” Frank corrects. That would make sense. Ray can take anything the world throws at him, but once he starts taking on other people’s burdens, too - that’s when he gets pissy. It can be easy to forget how much he’s juggling when he’s all smiles. Between girls, unreliable employees, and trouble with the shop -

“Ohhhh,” Frank says, realization dawning on him. “I think I might know what it is. We keep having that issue with stuff not coming in, remember? He said he was gonna switch suppliers soon, maybe he’s finally doing it.”

“Shit, you’re right.” Dewees clucks his tongue in sympathy. “Damn. Poor guy. I’d have a short fuse too if I was doing all that paperwork.”

Frank hums in agreement. There’s a minute of quiet; the speakers continue playing lo-fi beats in the background.

“We should do something for him,” Frank says suddenly. “Get him a coffee later or something.”

Dewees smiles. “Yeah. He’ll need it, too, I’m pretty sure he’s been living here for the past few days.”

Frank laughs. “Let’s make it a lunch, then.”

Ray deserves a break; he’s working himself to death. Besides, it’s just weird to see him without his trademark sunny smile. He needs it back. And if Frank’s honest, the rest of them need it, too - even when things are going to shit, Ray’s the one thing they can depend on to put a positive spin on things.

Lately, whenever Frank lets his guard down, he can feel himself slipping. He needs something to keep him together.

And if buying Ray lunch is all it takes, he’s all for it.

He gives Dewees a fist bump, and they settle into their day’s work.

***

Frank strokes his thumb across Gerard’s cheek. His hair’s a mess, and there’s makeup smudged beneath his eyes; he’d stayed up past midnight writing and then fallen straight into bed. It’s almost two o’clock now. Frank should be asleep.

But he can’t stop thinking.

Gerard’s been working on this album for a while now. He won’t play Frank any of the songs, insisting that they should be a surprise, but Frank has picked up on a few details. Namely, that they’re almost done. Gerard finished most of them on the tour; this has got to be the last one. That would explain why he’s so excited about it.

He’s due to record it soon, then release it, and then… well. Then, they’ll have to see.

Frank already knows what’s going to happen.

He’s not stupid; he knows how to read the signs. The album is going to be huge. Gerard will probably tour it for at least a year or two, and when he’s home, things will be different. Success is a game-changer. If Frank thought a three-month tour was stressful, he hasn’t seen anything yet. Gerard can only go up from here.

And he’s never going to stop.

Outside, cars are rushing past. Orange streetlight filters in through the blinds. Gerard sleeps soundly, his breathing deep and slow. Frank presses a soft kiss to his cheek. He took it for granted, before, that he could have Gerard in bed with him. At arm’s reach. Now, he knows it won’t last.

It feels like a lead weight in his chest.

He just wants Gerard. That shouldn’t be so difficult. But with miles and miles between them, and cameras flashing, and songs climbing up the charts, it seems impossible.

Frank’s eyelashes are wet. He wipes his face on a blanket, drawing a shuddery breath. It’s a good thing Gerard’s asleep. If he woke up and asked what was wrong, Frank wouldn’t know what to tell him. He doesn’t really know himself.

That’s a lie.

He knows. The only question is what he’ll do about it.

***

There’s only one thing he can do, and that’s try. Frank’s not giving up on this without a fight.

He paces back and forth around his living room, running a hand through his hair. He’s been rehearsing this conversation in his mind for days now, and it sounds shittier every time. What is he supposed to say? He can’t just admit that he’s been keeping quiet about how he feels; that makes him look like an asshole. Or - not an asshole. A coward. And that’s what he is, really.

There’s no guarantee that talking will fix anything. If it’s a choice between silence and raising an issue that might not even be resolved, Frank would rather just stay silent.

But he can’t avoid it anymore. This isn’t just an issue of answering the phone or hanging out with flirty guys. This is bigger than that. It’s constant, irremediable separation, and all the heartache it causes, and if Frank doesn’t at least try to fix it, it’ll never go away.

Maybe it won’t go away either way, says a voice in the back of his mind. Frank ignores it and hits call.

The phone rings once. Twice. Three times.

Gerard had a studio session today, but he should be done by now.

Four. Five.

Maybe he’s in the middle of talking to the producer. Or maybe the track’s playing too loudly and he can’t hear the phone ring.

Six. Seven.

“Hi, this is Gerard! I’m busy right now, but you can leave me a voicemail if you want. Honestly, I never listen to my voicemail, though, so you should probably just text me. I’ll try and get back to you. Um… bye!”

The pre-recorded voice telling Frank to leave a message after the tone begins to play. When the phone beeps, Frank opens his mouth, but the words are suddenly gone.

He hits “end call” and lowers his phone. The screen blinks up at him, displaying a blue text bubble that Frank sent hours ago. The tiny bit space beneath it says “read.”

The voice in his head has only gotten that much louder.

***

Frank stares at the wall, his fingers wrapped tight around a steaming mug of tea. It should burn his skin, but the pain doesn’t register. An icy numbness has flooded his senses. His heart thumps dully in his chest. The minutes crawl by.

“Frankie?”

Frank looks up. Gerard’s sitting on the couch with his sketchbook, giving him a questioning look. “You okay?” he asks.

Frank nods mutely.

Gerard grins. “You were pretty zoned out.” He taps his pencil box. “Have you seen my HB anywhere? I can’t find it.”

Frank shakes his head. Gerard gets up from the couch, shuffling off towards the bedroom. Frank stares into his cup.

The words sit on his tongue like stones.

When Gerard comes back into the room, Frank forces himself to take a deep breath. “Hey, Gerard?” he says.

“Mm-hmm?” Gerard plops back down onto the couch. Frank’s chest tightens. He could turn back now; there’s still a chance. He could shield Gerard’s heart with words left unsaid, wrap him up in layers of falsehood, and he’d be okay. They both would.

Instead, Frank drops the bombshell.

“Can I talk to you?” he asks.

Gerard’s eyes flick up to meet his. He must detect the shift in Frank’s tone; he slowly lowers his sketchbook. “Yeah,” he says. “Is everything okay?”

Frank stays silent. Gerard has gone utterly still. Frank can see him getting nervous; his knuckles are white around the edges of his sketchbook. “What are we talking about?” Gerard asks.

Frank can feel the walls closing in. He’s pinned to his chair. Even when he looks away, he can’t escape the weight of Gerard’s gaze. His heart pounds like a gong, sending shockwaves through his body. Three. Two. One.

“Us,” he says quietly.

Gerard inhales sharply. Frank pretends not to hear. He has to say it now, or he never will. The words claw their way out of his throat against his will, each one tearing at a piece of his heart on its way. “I don’t think I can do this anymore,” he says, his voice barely audible. “You’re away so much, and I’m stuck here, and I just - “

“But I’m here now,” Gerard whispers. “What - “

“You won’t be,” Frank interrupts him. “You’ll be gone again soon. I know how this works, okay? You’re going to leave on tour again for the album, and it’ll be for even longer than before, and then it all just keeps going. It won’t stop for me.”

“I don’t have to be away long,” Gerard says. He’s shrunk back against the couch, looking small and scared. Frank’s heart twists, but he forges on ahead.

“You do,” he says. “You should. You… Fuck, you’re gonna do so fucking well, Gerard.” His throat closes up, and he can’t manage anything more. Gerard’s lip is trembling. He shakes his head, eyes shining with tears, and he looks so fucking betrayed, Frank can feel his eyes start to burn, too.

“You said you’d always be there,” Gerard whispers. A single tear rolls down his cheek.

“I can’t,” Frank tries. “That’s the point, Gerard, I - I can’t go with you. And I don’t want to be left behind anymore.”

“You were okay until now!”

“Barely,” Frank says helplessly. “It hurt. Don’t tell me it didn’t hurt you, too.”

Gerard draws in a shuddery breath. “Don’t do this,” he says. “Please.”

“Gerard…”

Gerard looks up, and his eyes are wild, bloodshot with desperation. “Please,” he whispers. “We can still make it. I want - can’t we just try?” He scrambles to sit up, hugging his sketchbook to his chest. “We could do it,” he says quickly. “I’ll be better, I promise, I won’t take any long tours or - “

“Gerard,” Frank says quietly. Gerard falters, and something wet falls down Frank’s cheek. “I’m not going to be the one holding you back.”

“You wouldn’t,” Gerard says forcefully.

“If you turned down tours because of me, then yeah, I would be.”

“You don’t even know if I’ll make it!” Gerard shouts. His voice cracks on the last word. He opens his mouth again, but what comes out is an awful, broken sob. He buries his face in his sleeve, his shoulders wracked by the force of it. Frank scrubs at his eyes with the back of his hand. Any excuse to look away. He can see Gerard falling apart, and he desperately wishes he couldn’t.

“I love you,” Gerard says thickly.

Frank stares at the floor. Tears cloud his vision. He loves Gerard more than anything in the world; he loves him like breathing, like music, like art. He loves Gerard so goddamn much, it’s burning him up from the inside out.

In a perfect world, that would be enough.

“Frank,” Gerard says desperately. He’s begging at this point and they both know it. “Frank, please don’t go, please don’t - we can make it work, okay? You know I’d give up all of this for you - “

“Don’t,” Frank says roughly. “Don’t ever let me hear you say that.”

Gerard swallows hard. “I would,” he whispers.

Frank shakes his head. He can’t stop himself from crying. It’s like being a child again, helpless to hold back the tidal wave of grief that crashes over him. It knocks him off his feet, holding him underwater until his lungs are straining and his eyes sting.

“I love you,” Gerard says again. “Please, Frankie. Please.”

Frank wishes he didn’t know Gerard so well. He can see every single crack where Gerard has shattered. He wants to wrap him up in his arms and never let go, piece him back together, make him smile again. But that’s not his place anymore. It can’t be.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers.

“Frank - “

“I have to go.” Frank pushes out his chair and stumbles toward the door. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he has to leave. He can’t watch Gerard any longer, or he’ll break down and do something stupid like kiss him just to make the pain go away.

“Frank, wait!”

“I’m sorry,” Frank mumbles. The world spins around him. It feels like he’s moving in slow motion. He wrenches the door open and tumbles out, heading for the parking lot.

He doesn’t remember the drive home. In an instant, he’s slamming the door to his apartment behind him. He stares down at his trembling hands.

Fuck, what did he just fucking do?

Frank collapses into the wall. He leans against it for support, his breath coming in shallow gasps. He squeezes his eyes shut, tears falling thick and hot down his cheeks.

Frank slides down the wall into a sitting position, buries his face in his knees, and doesn’t move but for the shakng of his shoulders.

***

Frank skips work the next day. And the next. Half an hour after his shift would have ended, Ray shows up at his doorstep.

“Somebody keyed your car,” he says.

Frank nods wearily. He’d almost made it to work that morning. He’d gotten out of bed, given himself a pep talk in front of the mirror, and dragged his ass out of the house, only to discover his car scratched all to hell, with a post-it note stuck on the windshield that read fuck u. There was a little smiley face drawn on it. It wasn’t signed, but Mikey Way might as well have carved his name into the glass.

Frank had gone back to bed after that.

“I’m not gonna ask if you’re okay, because that would be stupid,” Ray says. “But I brought you these.” He hands Frank a tin full of what appear to be chocolate chip cookies. “I was going to go with ice cream for the stereotype’s sake, but I figured you’re miserable enough without lactose intolerance kicking your ass, too.”

Frank tackles him. Ray stumbles, but he’s laughing as he pats Frank on the back. Frank squeezes him tight around the middle. He’s glad his face is hidden - he’s smiling, but his eyes are watering a little, too. He’s not sure if he’s about to burst out laughing or sobbing, and he sure as hell can’t find the words to thank Ray, but he’ll be damned if he can’t make up for it with brute force.

“Okay, okay, you’re crushing my ribs,” Ray squeaks. Frank lets him go. He takes the cookies and hurries back inside, wiping his face on his sleeve.

Ray’s footsteps fall soft behind him. “So,” he says cautiously. “How’d it go?”

Frank thinks for a second. “Shitty,” he says.

“What happened?”

Frank looks at the floor. Up until now, his day has mostly consisted of crying like a bitch, eating Pop Tarts, and sleeping. When he’s awake, memories of Gerard always overwhelm him. The hurt in his eyes. The way he’d grabbed at Frank’s hand, desperation cracking in his voice.

A month ago, Frank would have punched anyone who made him sound like that.

Frank shakes the thought away and sets the container on the counter. He cracks it open, and it smells incredible, like rich chocolatey goodness, but when he stuffs a cookie in his mouth he can barely taste it. “He cried,” he says through a mouthful of crumbs. “And tried to get me to change my mind. I mean, I saw that coming, but that doesn’t mean I was ready for it.”

Ray nods. “Yeah. You did what you had to do, though.”

Frank swallows. He’s quiet for a minute, then he says, “See, that’s the thing. Listening to him, it was like… Maybe I didn’t, y’know? Maybe if I’d just tried harder, or waited longer, then - “

“Then you would’ve been upset longer,” Ray says. “You knew it was going to hurt. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t necessary.”

Frank sighs. “I really fucking hope you’re right.” Gerard is - was - quite possibly the best thing that’s ever happened to him. If Frank gave him up for no reason, he might as well have given up everything.

Ray walks over to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. “I know you feel like shit,” he says softly. “But it’s gonna be okay. I mean that.”

Frank can’t meet his eyes.

Maybe it’ll be okay, but it’s never going to be the same. That’s what makes his chest ache the most.

***

Sometimes, Frank wakes up and stretches out his arms, expecting to bump into a sleeping Gerard. It takes him a second to process the empty space in his bed.

When he does, his stomach drops out from underneath him.

He hates feeling like this - fragile, like he could break down on a whim. Most of the time, he does. He’s spent a truly pathetic amount of time crying into bowls of tortilla chips while watching horror movies. He needs to stop thinking about Gerard, or he’ll drive himself crazy, but he can’t seem to. It’s like an addiction. He’ll be doing fine, and then he randomly decides to take a scroll through Gerard’s Twitter, and then he’s falling apart again.

At least he hasn’t drunk texted Gerard yet. He’s got that much going for him.

He just needs to figure out where to go from here.

***

Frank doesn’t find out about the album until three weeks after it comes out.

It’s called Secret Kingdoms. According to Rolling Stone, it’s good. Frank has absolutely zero intention of listening to it, but when he stumbled across the review, he couldn’t help but read.

They call it melancholic, drifting some place between rock and indie. From the defiant power chords of i don’t wanna be cool to the bare, stripped-down verses of kindasorta, it’s beautiful. It’s art. Gerard has a way of writing that blends poetry and metaphor with simple, down-to-earth phrase guaranteed to cut you deep. It’s like he opens up a vein and out comes the music. No matter who you are, you’ll find some way to relate to it, and you’re sure to end up crying by the time the album wraps up with nothing left to burn.

Or so the article says.

Frank’s not going to listen to it.

He’s sure they’ve got it in stock at Impulse, it’s been out long enough, but he’s not going to look for it. It’s a miracle he hasn’t happened across it by now. He has a sneaking suspicion this is Ray’s doing, but he doesn’t bring it up. Ray hasn’t mentioned Gerard since they split up. It’s one of the reasons Frank loves him.

But just to be safe, he lets Ray handle the indie shipments for a while.

***

It’s a stupid radio show that breaks the news.

Frank just wants to listen to some fucking music. He’s not expecting to hear Gerard’s voice and nearly swerve off the road. And he’s definitely not expecting the announcer to ask, “So, how’s life? How’s the boyfriend?”

Gerard giggles. “He’s good,” he says. “I was with him last night, actually, we had a - ”

Frank flicks the radio to a different channel and turns up the volume as loud as it’ll go. His hands are tight on the steering wheel. He’s breathing hard, and something inside him feels like it’s being bent in half, close to the point of snapping.

Boyfriend.

Right.

When he’s home, a Google search brings up the name Bert McCracken. He’s in a band. Apparently, he’s been with Gerard for a month now. Frank’s first instinct is to punch something. Bert, Gerard, a wall; he’s not picky. Even Ray would do, considering he didn’t fucking tell Frank any of this had happened. He must’ve known. He keeps track of things way better than Frank does. He should’ve fucking said something.

At least Bert’s not that good-looking. Gerard totally downgraded.

Not that that makes Frank feel any better.

***

“Excuse me?” says a timid voice. Frank glances up from the bin of metal records he’s been flipping through. Standing in front of him are two teenage girls. One of them is blonde, with ripped jeans and a tank top. The other is small, fidgety, with a beanie pulled down low over her ears and a flannel that hangs too low on her wrists. Frank’s guessing she’s the one who spoke. Her eyes are fixed on the wall of guitars behind him, and she’s biting her lip.

The blonde one nudges her encouragingly.

“Do you think I could try one of those?” the girl says in a rush. Frank nods and lets the records fall back into place.

“Yeah, sure,” he says, making his way back to the wall. “You got any idea what you’re looking for, or just wanna fool around?”

“I want that one,” she says, pointing up to a powder-blue Les Paul. Frank smiles. It’s one of his favorites; the girl has good taste. He grabs it off its hook and passes it to her. “Watch out,” he advises, “it’s heavy.”

She grabs it with two hands. A smile slowly spreads across her face. She looks at it like a best friend, or maybe a lover; someone unexpected that’s just found its way into her life and will stay there forever.

“Go on,” says her friend, prodding her. “Go play it!”

She looks up at Frank with wide eyes. “Can I?”

“Yeah, no problem. Let me grab you a pick.” Frank goes to the counter and grabs a pick from a bowl overflowing with them. He tosses it to the girl. She squeaks and catches it.

It only takes a moment to get her situated. Frank shows her how to work the amp, reminds her to turn it off before she unplugs the guitar, and leaves her to run wild. He’s lying if he says he doesn’t sneak glances while he looks through his box of records, though. He can’t resist the magic of someone getting acquainted with a new guitar.

She’s obviously a new player, but she’s not too bad. She runs through a few simple chord progressions, playing around with the rhythm, before she moves into power chords. Her friend giggles. Frank returns his attention to the bin in front of him. Some idiot left Metallica in with Megadeth again. He knows they start with the same letter, but would it kill people to put shit back in the right place?

The tune catches him out of nowhere.

It reverberates through the shop, notes hanging on air. It makes Frank’s chest hurt for a reason he can’t place. He looks back over at the girl, and she’s fumbling through a riff. She fucks it up the first time, and she’s too slow on the second, but Frank knows the melody. He just doesn’t know why.

“Hey,” he calls out. The girl startles and looks up. “What song are you playing?”

She gives him a tentative smile. “Uh, Holden Caulfield? It’s by Gerard Way.”

Frank’s chest squeezes tighter with every breath.

He remembers now.

“Do you know it?” the girl asks.

Frank wants to laugh. He knew this song before she did; before anyone did. He never got to hear the finished product, though. When he heard it, it was a riff or two, bits and pieces of a melody that had yet to emerge. Gerard played it whenever he was warming up, adding new lines or taking them away as he saw fit. Frank never thought too much about it. It was a work in progress; not even that. A shadow of a song.

Not anymore.

Fucking Holden Caulfield. It’s an obvious allusion to Catcher in the Rye - maybe even to Pencey Prep specifically - but Frank can’t figure out what it’s supposed to mean. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything; maybe Gerard assumed he wouldn’t listen to the album. He knows Frank well enough to make that inference.

But maybe he wanted Frank to see it. Maybe he wanted it to hurt.

“Yeah,” Frank finally says. “Yeah, I know it.”

He’s glad he’s never listened to the song. It tugs at his heartstrings enough as a tune plucked out by an amatuer guitarist - he doesn’t want to hear the lyrics.

***

Frank likes his job. He really does. He loves it, even; most people aren’t lucky enough to work with their best friends in a job they enjoy.

But sometimes, he maybe feels a little shitty about it.

Now is one of those times. A girl just walked out of the shop holding a copy of Secret Kingdoms, and Frank slammed the cash register shut with a little more force than was necessary. It’s always Gerard, he thinks bitterly. Perfect Gerard, with his pretty face and his angel voice and his bestselling album. He must’ve been born under a good sign.

When Gerard makes music, people instantly love it. When Frank made music, he couldn’t even get his bandmates to like it.

***

Frank is restless. He hasn’t been to a show in weeks. He needs it bad tonight; there’s no other way to get rid of the itch. He needs to feel the riot in his bones, to punch and smash and weather the blows until the pain finally starts to make it through. Bruises are proof that he can feel. As long as he bleeds, he’s still human.

He doesn’t pay attention to what band’s on the bill. He just shows up, forks over ten bucks at the door, and throws himself into the fray. There’s no time to think. He lets his instincts carry him, giving himself over to that primal side that just wants to burn.

Halfway through the night, a boy catches his eye. He’s got ink all over his arms and a killer jawline. He gives Frank a lazy smirk, looking him up and down, and crooks his finger to draw him closer.

Frank doesn’t think.

The guy is rough with him, gripping hard enough to leave bruises in the shape of his fingers. It’s almost too much, and Frank’s glad of it; the edge of pain keeps him present. He lets the guy suck hickeys onto his neck, fuck him, trash him up and use him. It’s exactly what he needs.

Before the sun rises, he slinks back home. His entire body aches as he collapses into bed.

He never got the guy’s name. But then again, he didn’t want it in the first place.

***

The pictures make Frank’s stomach hurt.

They’re ugly. There’s no other way to describe it. From the bottle in Gerard’s hand, to Bert flipping off the paparazzi, to the gleeful captions in the trash mags. They delight in what they’ve done to Gerard, like he’s a circus animal suffering for their entertainment. He’s fallen so far so fast, and they’ve been there to document every second of it.

There’s a video, too. Frank watched it. He wishes he didn’t.

“Say hi to my friend Rachel,” says a girl’s voice from behind the camera.

Bert’s eyes are bloodshot and half-lidded. “Hi, my friend Rachel,” he says, grinning at the camera.

“So, this is what a day in the life of a rock star is like?” the girl filming asks.

Gerard giggles, hanging off Bert’s shoulder. “It’s not even daytime,” he says, his words slurring together. “It’s… it’s six o’clock somewhere, right?”

Bert stumbles into him, cackling. “It’s five o’clock!”

“No it isn’t! It’s like,” Gerard waves his hand around, “it’s like three!”

“Jesus Christ,” says an annoyed voice from offscreen. “Do you have any goddamn idea how long I’ve been looking for you? And now you’re - God, how much did you have? Nevermind, don’t answer that. You - shut that shit off, will you?”

The camera jolts and cuts out.

Sure, celebrities get fucked up. Everyone does. It’s normal.

It wouldn’t mean anything if this wasn’t becoming a daily fucking occurrence.

Frank had expected a lot of things from Gerard’s musical career, but not this. Gerard isn’t one to fall prey to the dark side of fame. He’s too… Gerard. He’s the type who’d stay in on a Saturday night drawing Star Wars fanart, not go out and get drunk or stoned or crossfaded out of his mind.

Except he is, apparently.

Frank’s hands tighten into fists at his sides. It’s got to be Bert’s influence. Frank never fucking liked him, but this seals the deal. Not that there’s anything he can do to change it. What - or who - Gerard does is none of Frank’s business anymore.

But it still eats at him. Bert wouldn’t even be part of the picture if it hadn’t been for Frank.

***

Ray snaps his fingers in front of Frank’s face. Frank startles. “There you are,” Ray says. “You’re zoning out hard today, dude.” He hands Frank a guitar. “Here, try this out. It’s new; maybe it’ll wake you up a bit.”

Frank stares at it, uncomprehending.

Ray sighs. “Dude,” he says. “Quit moping. It’s been almost a year now, the world hasn’t ended. Are you gonna stop acting like the walking dead again any time soon, or should I go ahead and write your eulogy?”

“That’s - “ Frank stutters. “What? I’m not - “

“You are.” Ray shoves the guitar into Frank’s hands.

“It’s not because of that,” Frank mutters, taking the guitar. Ray’s got it all wrong. Is Frank mopey? Maybe. Is he depressed? Probably. But it’s not because of Gerard. Frank doesn’t let himself think about Gerard anymore.

Besides, Ray got the timing wrong, too. It hasn’t been a year yet. It’s more like eight months, give or take a few - Frank tries not to keep track.

“I don’t care why it is,” Ray says brusquely. “I liked you better hyper. And that’s saying something.” He inclines his head to the guitar. “Go on, try her out. I wanna hear how she sounds.”

Frank slides up onto the counter, resting the guitar on his knee. It’s weird - he hasn’t played since Gerard left, but his fingers fall into place the same way they always did. It’s like he hasn’t missed a day of practice.

He’s not sure how he let music slip away from him. After the breakup, he just never had the energy, and after that, there was always something else to do. Go to a show, go to work, smoke, drink, fuck. Anything that didn’t remind him of bad endings. It was deliberate avoidance at first, but there was never any reason for him to stay away for this long. Inertia, he supposes. An artist at rest will stay at rest.

Frank runs his hand along the body of the guitar. It’s gorgeous, with sleek curves and a buttery yellow finish. Much lighter than Pansy. He strums his fingers across the strings. It’s not plugged in, but the sound brings a ghost of a smile to his face all the same.

“That’s more like it,” says Ray, pleased. He hands Frank a cord.

Frank grins up at him and plugs in the guitar. He should say something to Ray, acknowledge the clouds parting, but he doesn’t need to. Ray’s already smiling.

“See? You just needed to get back on the horse,” he says. “Maybe in more ways than one.”

Frank rolls his eyes. “The one time I’m not asking for romantic advice, and you give it to me anyway,” he says.

“Eh. I can tell when you need it.” Ray pats his shoulder and retreats to the back room.

Frank tweaks the guitar into tune, cranks up the distortion, and plays.

***

There’s a shelf full of magazines at the corner store. As Frank’s reaching for a six-pack, it catches his eye. A splash of neon red coats the front page. He lets his hand drop, and reaches for the magazine instead.

Gerard smirks up at him, his hair hanging at his chin in scarlet locks. Frank grins to himself. He looks good. He looks really good, if Frank’s honest with himself. Rehab must’ve worked like a charm. This new color’s certainly harder to hide behind than the black mess Gerard used to walk around with. Now whenever he walks into a room, all eyes will be on him.

Well - they were always on him.

But Gerard wouldn’t have liked it, before.

***

“Ray!” Frank hollers. The guitar bounces on its strap as he jogs toward the back of the shop. “I need to ask you something!”

Ray pops his head out of one of the aisles. He opens his mouth, then does a double take. “Frank,” he says sternly, “what have we said about running with guitars?”

Frank skids to a halt. “Sorry,” he says quickly. “But that’s actually kind of relevant - I wanted to ask you something. So, I’ve got money now because I have a job - which I love you for, by the way, have I mentioned that I love you? But I’ve been saving up, and now that I’m actually playing again - “

“You know you’re just as entitled to buy stuff as the rest of our customers, right?” Ray asks.

“Yeah! But could I, like, get a bigger employee discount if I said I would never use it again after this?”

Ray looks bemused. “That’s… not really how it works.”

“Why not?” Frank persists. He holds up the guitar. “What if I just got this for cheap, and then I never used my discount again? It’d be the same amount of money, kind of!”

Ray smiles. “You like her, huh?”

Frank nods. Ray had been totally right; Frank did need a good kick in the ass to start playing again. Now that he’s started again, he doesn’t know how he survived without it. The guitar hanging off his neck is different from the Les Pauls he usually plays - it’s lighter, with a slimmer neck and a killswitch. Frank’s fallen fast and hard. He’s even got a name for her - 13.

“I hate to disappoint, but I don’t think you can do that,” Ray says apologetically. “That’s kind of…” He pauses and chews on his lip, staring into the distance. “Actually, that reminds me of something else I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Shoot,” says Frank.

Ray glances at the door and takes a step closer to Frank. He leans in a little closer before quietly asking, “Have you seen a new Fender around here anywhere?”

Frank raises an eyebrow. “No,” he says. “Why?”

“Because there’s supposed to be one, and there isn’t.”

Frank’s jaw drops. “No way,” he breathes. They haven’t had a problem with shipments vanishing in months; not since Ray switched suppliers.

Ray nods unhappily. “I know. Are you sure you haven’t seen it?”

Frank shakes his head. “Sorry, man. I’ll keep an eye out, though.”

“You’re totally sure?” Ray presses. “You haven’t seen anything?”

There’s something odd about the intensity of his gaze. Frank feels like he’s under a microscope. He shakes his head again, slower this time.

Ray takes a step back and sighs. “Okay,” he says. “Thanks anyway. We’ll… see what happens, I guess.”

He wanders off toward the back of the store. Frank watches him go, his brow furrowed.

He’s known Ray since kindergarten. He’s seen him at his highest highs and his lowest lows. It’s a blessing and a curse - they’re close, but they can’t hide shit from one another.

And right now, something’s definitely up.

***

Frank is exhausted. Between the weirdness with Ray and the day-to-day hell of working retail, he’s had a long day. Some pretentious hardcore dude tried to get in an argument with him about the differences between skate punk and garage punk. Frank tries to keep his sarcasm to a minimum when dealing with customers, but there are only so many stupidities he can indulge.

So, he’s fucking tired. And also a little drunk.

He’s flipping through the channels on his TV, sipping his third beer. He couldn’t sleep - he’s hoping the shitshow that is late-night television will be enough to make him pass out from sheer boredom. He switches from a soap opera to a talk show to some shitty adult cartoon, each option duller than the last, but not quite dull enough.

He pauses and switches back to the talk show.

Gerard’s sitting in a chair with his legs crossed, laughing at something the host just said.

Jesus, Frank isn’t drunk enough for this.

“Yeah,” Gerard says. “Yeah, I used to. Not anymore, though, not as much.”

“And why is that?” the interviewer prompts. “Did it just come with experience, or? Got any tips for aspiring performers?”

Frank should change the channel.

“Oh, jeez. Well, part of it was definitely experience,” Gerard says, ruffling his hair. “But also, like. The thing about stage fright is that it mostly comes from self-doubt, I think. I used to be terrified whenever I went onstage because I thought I would mess up. My voice would crack, or I’d forget a lyric or something, and then that’d be the impression of me people walked away with.”

Frank should really change the channel.

“But I had help,” Gerard says with a smile. “There was one time… I was about to go on, and I was freaking out, but somebody reminded me that people come to my shows because they like my music. It’s about more than just me personally, y’know? I’m just the agent of the music. If I forgot a lyric, that’d suck, but it doesn’t ruin the experience for anybody, and it shouldn’t ruin my experience, either.”

Frank takes a shaky breath and turns the TV off.

Without thinking about what he’s doing, he reaches for his phone.

It doesn’t take long to find it. Gerard’s picture fills the top of the Spotify homescreen, with a link inviting Frank to listen. It’s a bigger version of the art for the new album, RUNAWAY.. Gerard’s sitting against a hot pink background, knees spread casually, wearing fishnets and a huge white fur coat that should be illegal, it’s so fluffy. His lips are painted firetruck red to match his hair. Frank hesitates for only a moment before he taps the link.

His heart twists the second the first song begins to play. He wants to laugh, but he can’t quite manage it.

It’s called prettyboy. In the lyrics, Frank hears the ghost of the skirt stuffed under Gerard’s bed, an echo of the makeup he would always wipe off before going outside. But it’s confident this time. Like he hasn't got a care in the world. He sings about boys and girls and blurred lines that never existed in the first place, and Frank can hear the smile in his voice the whole damn time.

Frank keeps it together for the next few songs. They’re fucking good - not that he expected anything less. He finds himself tapping his fingers along to the beat.

Until the sixth track hits.

The drums are softer; the synths, gentler. The guitar is clean, with the barest trace trace of an echo.

Gerard sings about turning back time. His voice is strong, but there’s a ragged edge to it. Frank sees why so many people cried listening to Secret Kingdoms now. By the time the first chorus fades out, he’s clenching his jaw hard, blinking rapidly.

Gerard sings about missing someone. About things you can never take back. About hopeless hopes and wishing on crossed stars.

Frank wants to pause the music, but he doesn’t. He sees it through until the end. It takes longer than that for his breathing to come steady again.

He blames it on the beer.

***

When Frank has an emotional problem, there’s only one solution: to go and get fucked up in a huge pit. So that’s exactly what he does.

His shirt is soaked with sweat. He hasn’t gone this hard in a while. He got knocked down at one point - his knees are still aching from the impact - and there’s a long white scratch on his arm from some fucker’s spiked bracelet. He’s only just reached the point where the physical exhaustion outweighs the mental, and he’s glad of it.

It’s distracting enough that he can sit down at the bar without fearing where his thoughts will wander. He just wants to get his hands on alcohol. Once he does, the burn of liquor in his throat adds another layer to the distraction, and he floats away from worldly troubles.

There’s a guy at the other end of the bar, knocking back a shot. His hair is long on the top, cropped short on the sides. When he looks up, his face is sharp - arched brows, piercings, defined jaw. The polar opposite of Gerard.

Frank takes another swig and lets the whiskey numb his brain.

Before he knows it, he’s sliding in next to handsome stranger. “Hey,” he says, putting on his friendliest tone. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before, you local?”

Handsome stranger shrugs. “Eh - Brooklyn. You?”

“Belleville, born and bred.” Frank leans his elbows on the counter. “So, what brought you out?”

Stranger inclines his head to the stage. “I’m friends with the band.”

Frank takes a peek over at the band that’s performing. They seem pretty good - or, rather, they’re not bad. They’re intense enough that he can smash into people as hard as he wants in the pit. That’s all he really cared about tonight. Up until now, that is. “I used to be in a band,” he says. “Pencey Prep. You ever hear of ‘em?”

Handsome stranger shakes his head apologetically. A grin spreads across Frank’s face.

Yeah. Polar opposites.

“I’m Frank,” he says. “You?”

“Luke.” Luke steals Frank’s drink and takes a sip. He makes a face. “Is it just me, or is the alcohol here super shitty?”

Frank laughs. “Look around, man. Everything here is shitty.”

“Touche. Although,” Luke smirks, “maybe we shouldn’t be saying that as we’re, y’know, right in front of the barkeep?”

“Eh, they’ve heard worse.” Frank bangs his fist on the counter. “Hey, Bob!” he yells. “You’re an asshole!”

Bob hardly even looks up from where he’s stationed at the opposite end of the bar. It’s only because Frank knows him that he can make out the subtle eye roll. Luke laughs. “Damn. I stand corrected. You must know this place pretty well, huh?”

“Yeah, I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager,” Frank says easily. He plucks his drink from Luke’s hands. “You should’ve seen the look he gave me back then when I tried to convince him I was twenty-one.”

Luke grins. “Yeah, no. Good-looking, yes; mature-looking? Not exactly.”

Frank giggles. “Yeah, yeah, get your height jokes in while you can, motherfucker. I run this place now.”

And there it is. The spark. A smile that turns to a laugh, a comment that stretches into a conversation. It’s been so long, Frank had almost forgotten how to do this, but it comes back all at once. He stumbles a few times, says the wrong thing, but Luke just laughs it off every time.

As they’re walking out, Luke catches his arm. “I’m thinking of coming out here more often,” he says. “Are you gonna be around?”

There’s an invitation there. A “can I see you again?” in fewer words. Frank doesn’t know how to answer. He had fun tonight, sure, but that was for tonight. A random encounter, seen to fruition and - presumably - laid to rest. If Frank says yes, it’ll turn into something more. A connection. It isn’t what he was looking for. He isn’t sure if he wants it.

But a startlingly large part of him wants to say yes.

“I was just thinking, my friends in the band would love to have more people around here coming to their shows,” Luke says hopefully. “Could I get your number? Y’know, to put you guys in touch?”

Before he can stop himself, Frank’s pulling out his phone.

The drive home is quiet. Frank keeps the radio off; his thoughts are loud enough on their own. He doesn’t need another distraction. As it is, he can barely keep his eyes on the road. He really shouldn’t be driving - he passed buzzed a few hours ago - but that’s the least of his worries.

Life has snuck up on him again. He’s built walls around his memories of Gerard so carefully, but all it took was an ill-fated channel flip to crack them. And look at Frank now. One trip to the club, one chance encounter, two phone numbers exchanged.

Every single action has consequences Frank can’t possibly foresee. He’s been out of the game too long; he’s forgotten how disarming it is. Or maybe he never noticed it, before. He didn’t know how much he stood to lose.

But now he knows.

He could let this grow. See it out, wherever it may take him, to a quick ending or something more significant. He should. That’s what he used to do - take chances, dive in, live life to the fullest. It’s probably not even a big deal. They talked, they flirted, so what? Frank could fuck him and leave before morning, the same way he has with so many others.

Or he could stay. Life’s funny like that - you make one decision, and with the flap of a butterfly’s wings, a thousand different futures ripple out.

Frank has nothing to lose. But somehow, even the tiniest thought of belonging to someone again has him scared shitless.

***

“So,” says Ray.

Frank tenses up automatically. That’s Ray’s overly casual voice - also known as his about-to-broach-a-difficult-subject voice. There’s no mistaking it. The last time he used it, he dumped a bunch of extra shifts on Frank because he had to go to his cousin’s wedding. Frank focuses on the guitar in his hands. Maybe if he just ignores him, he’ll go away.

“You’ve been seeing this guy pretty often. Last night was the second time, right?”

Damn it.

“Yeah,” Frank says, not looking up. “He’s cool, I guess.”

“You haven’t been to shows with anyone in a while.”

“I went with you last week,” Frank points out.

“Anyone new,” Ray says, and Frank doesn’t miss his meaning.

“It wasn’t anything,” he mutters. “It was just… I dunno. Fun.”

“I’m not accusing you of anything.” Ray leans against the counter, considering him. “And even if it was something, would that be a bad thing?”

“No,” Frank says quickly. The last thing he wants is Ray getting on his case about his mental health or whatever. It’s been nearly two years since Gerard; he’s over it. Mostly.

Ray keeps looking at him, and Frank’s resolve wavers.

He sighs and rubs his eyes. “I dunno, man,” he says. “I think… it could be something. I had fun. He’s pretty cute, too, but I just… I don’t know.”

Ray hops up onto the counter. “What’s holding you back?”

Frank is quiet for a minute.

“I guess I never really pictured myself moving on,” he says. “I really thought he was gonna be the one.”

“Frank,” Ray says softly, and Frank shakes his head.

“I know,” he says wearily. “I know. I don’t think about it much anymore, but I just keep putting everything off, like there’s still something to wait for. It’s all in my head, but I just… I don’t know, man.”

“Ask Luke out,” Ray suggests. “Make it official. Then you won’t have room for so many what-ifs in your head.”

Frank strums idly at the guitar strings. “Maybe,” he says. “Yeah, maybe.”

“You know he’s been dating,” Ray says carefully.

They aren't talking about Luke anymore.

Frank grimaces. “Yeah, I know.” He’d hated Bert from the very first time he saw his picture in a tabloid. He’d always justified it to himself with the knowledge that Bert was a drug addict, that he was no good for Gerard, that their breakup was the only reason Gerard started writing songs about recovery. It was all true, but he’d mostly just hated him because he had to see pictures of Gerard pressed up against him every time he opened Twitter.

With Lindsey, it was harder. There was nothing immediately despicable about her. She was sweet and pretty, and there were never any paparazzi pics of her getting blackout drunk with Gerard. Just photos of them smiling goofily at each other and holding hands.

It was probably a good thing, in the end. When they broke up, Frank hasn’t been as relieved as he’d expected. He was almost sad for Gerard.

Ray slides down from the counter and claps Frank on the back. “Ask Luke out,” he says. “You’re ready, even if you don’t know it. Just jump in, man.”

And with that, he goes to help a guy wandering around the folk section.

Frank picks out a few notes on the guitar, lost in thought.

***

Frank can’t fucking sleep.

He’s been tossing and turning for hours. When he pushes his blankets off, he gets too cold, but if he pulls them back up he gets too hot. He can’t get comfortable. Plus he’s pretty sure there’s a pair of cats fighting outside, based on the screeching outside his window. He kind of wants to get up and throw something at them.

He gropes for his phone and winces at the bright light. It’s three in the morning. Of fucking course it’s three in the morning.

Frank rolls out of bed and opens the window. “Shut the fuck up,” he says loudly. There’s a meow from somewhere in the darkness. Frank scowls. “Shut up,” he says again, then slams the window shut.

He falls back into bed with a sigh. He opens up Twitter on his phone, turning the brightness all the way down. His feed is fairly dead, which understandable based on the fact that it’s, y’know, three in the goddamn morning. There’s enough activity for him to keep mindlessly refreshing every few minutes, though.

Somebody’s complaining about politics. Somebody else is posting memes he doesn’t understand. Somebody else is flipping their shit about a song.

Frank squints. That’s not someone he follows. He knows that for a fact - there’s no way in hell he would be following someone with a picture of Gerard in a photoshopped flower crown as their icon. Fucking Twitter recommendations. He doesn’t need an algorithm filling his feed with irrelevant bullshit, thanks.

It takes a second for his brain to process what the tweet says. There’s a new song, apparently. A demo, if Frank understands all that keysmashing correctly. The fangirl posted a link.

He clicks on it.

It takes him to Gerard’s blog. He’s not entirely sure what to expect - a promo for a new project, maybe? A love note to the fans, as Gerard’s posts so often contain?

But whatever he expects, he doesn’t find.

It’s just an audio post. No title, no art, no tags. Just an audio file and a caption.

Fame ain’t everything, it says.

Frank’s heart skips a beat. His fingers jump to the play button.

The sound quality is the first thing that strikes him. It’s shitty. As in, actually shitty; it sounds like Gerard recorded it straight from his phone. Frank can hear the buzz of the guitar strings when he strums too hard, and some of the chords come too slow, almost hesitant.

Then Gerard starts to sing.

It gives Frank goosebumps. Gerard has never sounded like this on a record. His voice is raw, shaking with barely-controlled emotion. It sounds like he’s been crying. They’d never let him sound like this on a record.

You’ve got a whole lot of faith,” he sings, “if you think I’ll ever be more than what I am.

Frank’s grip on his phone tightens. He doesn’t want to read into it. Lyrics, as a general form of writing, are usually vague. They’re more relatable that way. Gerard could be talking about anyone or anything; to read into it would be laughable, even narcissistic.

Let’s find a place where we never have to leave, and we never have to sleep.” Gerard’s voice aches with something profound. “Let’s run away, baby, you and me, ‘cause you know I’d lose it all for you.

Frank’s hands are shaking.

It’s been two years.

Frank is over it, he’s over it, he’s over it.

Gerard’s voice breaks. He stops playing abruptly. There’s a jolt and a clatter from the speakers, and the track ends.

Frank’s heart is hammering. He can only stare at his phone, uncomprehending. There’s no room for doubt. It’s about him; it has to be.

He feels like an old scar just got ripped open again, left to bleed while Gerard pours the fucking salt right in. Frank’s throat constricts as the lyrics play over and over in his mind. They’re about him. They’re about him.

He has no idea what he’s feeling, except that it fucking hurts.

Frank lets his phone drop onto his chest. He needs a drink, or two, or ten. Something in his heart is screaming to be acknowledged, but he doesn’t know what it is, and it’s making his head ache. Everything aches. He turns over and presses his pillow over his ears, wishing it was enough to drown out the echoes of Gerard’s voice, wrecked with emotions Frank can’t begin to analyze.

There’s no way he’s getting any sleep tonight.

But just as the echoes start to fade, and it seems like he might at least get to lie there in peace, the burning in his chest makes itself apparent. His stomach lurches violently as he realizes what it is.

It’s hope.

***

If Frank has learned anything in his twenty-two years of life, it’s that hope can only lead to tragedy. It’s better to kill his dreams before the world does it for him.

But he’s too late. The spark in his chest has taken root, and he’s helpless to stop it now. Even while he’s helping a customer find an Arctic Monkeys record, he’s only half there. His brain is busy churning out endless possibilities and what-ifs. When he’s ringing up the girl’s vinyl, he almost forgets to give her the receipt, and by the time she’s out the door, he’s forgotten she was ever there at all.

Fame ain’t everything.

What in the fresh hell is that supposed to mean? The song itself is definitely about Frank; the lyrics made that clear enough. But why? The previous night, Frank had stared at the caption for hours, trying to make some fucking sense of it, like it was a code he could decipher if he looked at it in the right light.

He woke up with his phone sitting on his chest, the battery drained down to five percent. When he checked Gerard’s blog page, the demo was gone.

It makes Frank want to tear his hair out. He doesn’t know what to fucking think. Did Gerard want him to see it? The lyrics are direct enough that Frank can almost believe that. But it was deleted before the morning, so maybe he didn’t want Frank seeing it. But maybe it wasn’t his choice to delete it; maybe his manager found out about it and made him take it down. Each possibility is as likely as another.

That’s what has him going crazy.

He’s internally freaking out, the shop speakers are playing an Iggy Azalea song he hates, and on top of it all, he’s fucking exhausted. He’s sure he didn’t sleep more than two hours before the neighbor’s car alarm woke him up. He’s got too many things to think about and not enough processing capacity to think about any of them.

Maybe that’s why he goes to Gerard’s website and clicks on the banner labeled tour.

His heavy eyelids snap open wide when he reads through the dates. There’s a show in New York not two weeks from now. The cost of tickets makes him wince - Gerard must not control the prices, he’d never rob kids of their money like that - but his finger hovers over the button anyway.

He almost hits it.

But then he remembers his impulse control, which is currently holed up in the back room, working on inventory.

“Hey, Ray?” he shouts over his shoulder. There’s no response. Frank actually hasn’t seen Ray since this morning, when he popped out just long enough to drink half of Frank’s coffee. He hasn’t come out since. Frank wonders if he fell asleep at his desk again. If he did, Frank probably shouldn’t wake him. He’d looked almost as tired as Frank felt.

Frank looks down at his phone.

Yeah, he’s gonna need to bring in the big guns for this one.

But first he needs to change the goddamn song.

He sets down his phone, changes the pop playlist to a more tolerable 80s mix, and goes to find Dewees, who’s replacing the string on a guitar. “I need to talk to Ray about something, can you man the front?” Frank asks. Dewees nods without looking up.

Back behind the rows of vinyl and instruments, the door to Ray’s makeshift office is closed. Frank bangs on it with his fist.

“What do you want?” says a muffled voice.

“It’s Frank. I want to ask you something.”

After a moment, the door cracks open and Ray appears. “What is it?” he asks. “Customer need something?”

“No, it’s…” Frank fidgets a little. “It’s personal. Can I come in?”

Ray rubs his eyes. “Sure,” he mutters. “I needed to talk to you anyway.”

Frank slips in and closes the door behind him. The air inside the room is stuffy. There are spreadsheets and receipts scattered across Ray’s desk, and his laptop sits open, the screen glowing brightly. Frank sits down in his chair and spins it around a couple times before looking up at Ray.

“So, I wanted to ask you about - “ Ray begins, but Frank cuts him off.

“Some weird shit happened with Gerard last night,” he says.

Ray blinks. “Um. Okay? What kind of - “

“He posted a demo,” Frank says. Once they’re out, the words hang there, staring at Frank in bold flashing lights as if to say: You’re fucked! His head reels. He grips the armrests of Ray’s chair, but the reality is still there.

“Oh, God,” he says to himself, then looks up at Ray, swallowing around the frantic beating of his heart. “It was about me. And then he deleted it. I think he wanted me to see it but I also don’t know for sure and I don’t know why he would want me to see it but he must have, I mean, anything you post online these days is going to - ”

“Frank,” Ray says. “It’s… It’s been years, man.”

Frank bites back a sharp retort. He knows how long it’s been, thanks; he’s the one who’s had to fight through every second. “I know,” he says, his voice even. “That’s why it’s so weird. There was no information, either. I don’t know when he recorded it, or why, or why he’d post it now of all times!“

Ray furrows his brow and wanders to the other side of the room. “And… you want me to do what, exactly?”

Frank bites his lip. “There’s a concert,” he says. “Soon. I was thinking… Like, would it be a good idea if I were to… y’know.”

“I thought you were going to ask Luke out?” Ray asks warily, moving closer again.

Frank winces. “I was. I mean, I am. I just don’t - “

“What’s - I mean, have you been thinking about this a lot?”

Frank stares at him, uncomprehending. “What?” Of course he’s been thinking about. It’s been all he can think about for the past nine hours.

“I’m just saying,” Ray says, looking uncomfortable. He’s full-on pacing the room now, hands shoved deep in his pockets. “Do you really need my help?”

Frank almost laughs. “Ray, you know me. Do I look like I know what the fuck I’m doing? Ever?” He looks pleadingly at Ray. “Come on, man. I just need to know if I’m about to fuck things up worse, I honestly can’t tell anymore.”

Ray sighs. “You’ve been asking for help getting over Gerard for two years. I feel like you should - “

“Get over it, I know.“

“ - Figure it out on your own,” Ray finishes. “You know yourself, dude. You know what’s best for yourself. Or you should, at least.”

“But I don’t!” Frank argues. “Look at me, I never have! Can you tell me what you think, at least?”

“I just did.” Ray turns his shoulder and does another lap around the room.

“Ray,” Frank whines. “You’re smarter than I am, come onnn.”

“And why do you think that is?” Ray asks without slowing his pace.

Frank sighs and spins around in his chair. “I don’t know. You never have to deal with shit like this, you’ve got it all figured out. Could you just - “

“Are you kidding me?” Ray says flatly. He stops walking.

Frank stops mid-spin. “What?”

“I never have to deal with anything?” Ray asks, his voice rising with incredulity. He laughs, and it’s a little hysterical. “Are you - you’re shitting me, right? Look at this!” He gestures at the pile of clutter on his desk. “I feel like the only person around here who is dealing with anything!”

Frank pauses and looks at Ray, really looks at him for a minute.

There are bags under his eyes, and his hair has lost its usual bounce; it hangs unkempt at his shoulders. There’s a scrape of stubble at his jaw and a red mark where he’s nicked himself shaving. His eyes are wild behind his glasses, and he’s twitchier than Frank’s ever seen him.

“Are you okay?” Frank finally asks.

Ray laughs shrilly. “Am I okay? Wow, thanks for asking! It sure took you long enough!”

Frank freezes. Something has definitely gone wrong here, and he has the sinking feeling he’s fucked up again. “What - “

“But you wouldn’t think to worry, would you?” Ray turns and throws up his hands. “Who needs to pay attention to Ray? He doesn’t have any problems!”

“Dude, you’re freaking me out a little,” Frank says uneasily. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, I’m freaking you out?” Ray smiles. It’s too strained, twisted; it looks wrong on his face. “Great. Just another problem for me to fix. ‘Cause that’s all I do, right? I’m the smart one. I have everything together. I’m the one who always gives advice, ‘cause that’s all I’m good for!” His voice rises into a shout, and he turns and kicks a box. It makes a thoroughly unsatisfying thump. He makes a frustrated noise and kicks it once more. It produces a more solid thunk this time, and he swears, clutching his foot.

“Motherfucker,” he says, breathing hard. “Goddamn shitting fuck.”

Frank watches in slightly awed silence.

Ray slowly lowers his foot again. He clears his throat, averting his eyes The silence stretches further, and Ray sighs. He sits down on the floor, still not looking at Frank.

“Sorry,” he says quietly. “I’ve had… a lot going on lately.”

“I can see that,” says Frank, wide-eyed. “You wanna talk about it?”

“Yeah. I was planning on it.” Ray tucks a strand of hair behind his ear and finally looks up at Frank. “Frank, we’re… the shop isn’t doing too good right now.”

Frank frowns. “What?” He’s noticed Ray marking up the prices as of late, but he’s never thought on it too much. He doesn’t concern himself with the nitty gritty details of their business. That’s always been Ray’s job.

And that, he thinks with a wince, is why they’ve ended up here. Ray was right. He really hasn’t been paying attention.

“You know how I was having trouble with the suppliers?” Ray asks.

Frank nods slowly. “I thought we fixed that problem, though?”

“I thought we had,” Ray says. “But I don’t think it was a problem with the company after all. Shit kept disappearing, and…” He shakes his head helplessly. “I thought I could handle it, y’know? I kept trying to convince myself there was an explanation. I love all you guys. I didn’t want it to be you.”

 

Frank freezes. “You don’t - Ray. You know I’d never - “

“I know,” Ray says with a nod, and Frank can breathe again. “But a whole set of instruments just vanished, and Pedicone hasn’t come into work for a week. He’s not picking up his phone, either.”

And just like that, the air gets knocked out of Frank’s lungs all over again. “What?” he gasps. “No way! You don’t think - “

“I didn’t want to think,” Ray says heavily. “But then this happened.”

Frank’s ears are ringing. He doesn’t want to believe it, either. Pedicone is… Pedicone. He makes up one fourth of their little Impulse Records family. He’d never steal from the shop; it’s unthinkable. He’s a good dude - he would only stoop that low if something had him really desperate.

Something he would talk about for hours with a wistful look on his face. Something that would draw him into a record store just to be around music.

“Fuck,” Frank says out loud. “He always talked about that band, didn’t he.”

“And how he couldn’t afford to start it,” Ray says.

“Guess he’s got his start now.”

“And we’re out a few thousand bucks.” Ray sighs and rubs his eyes. “I think we’re gonna be okay, but it’s just… can you please try and figure out your own shit for once? I’m not your mom. I can’t afford to be taking care of you anymore. I never want to say anything, ‘cause I like being that guy, y’know? I like helping. But this is too much for me.”

Frank winces. “Yeah. I’m really sorry, man, I didn’t know - “

“It’s fine,” Ray says, shaking his head. ”I just had to say something; it’s been long enough. And for what it’s worth, I’m still rooting for you. I hope it works out, whatever you do.”

“Thanks,” Frank says, giving him a small smile. The air in the room feels lighter than it did a minute ago. He gets up from the chair and gives Ray a pat on the back, then slips out of the room.

It feels like stepping back into the real world. The shop is bright, and the Smiths are playing along in the background, quiet and calm.

Frank lets out a slow breath.

He had really been counting on Ray’s advice to point him in one direction or the other. Without it, he’s walking blind. All he can do is pick a course of action and hope for the best.

It’s fucking terrifying.

There are too many variables in this equation. Too many heartlines intersecting, red strings tangling together in an intricate puzzle. If he cuts one, the whole thing will fall apart. He’s frozen. But Ray’s right. Everyone has to grow up sometime.

Frank’s phone is still on the counter where he left it. He goes and picks it up, staring hard at his own reflection in the darkened screen. It feels like it weighs fifty pounds.

The music plays softly from a speaker overhead. ”I know it’s over, still I cling. I don’t know where else I can go.”.

Frank unlocks his phone and taps the tour banner.

***

This may not have been as good an idea as Frank thought it was.

The ticket price was bad enough. He really can’t afford an expense like that, but he went ahead with it anyway, because he’s a dumbass. He’ll figure out a way to make it up. He doesn’t know how, but he’ll manage it.

Until then, he has to stand in this giant ass line with a bunch of teenage girls, sweating and checking his the clock on his phone every five minutes. He stands out like a sore thumb. He’s one of the only guys there, as far as he can see, and he’s definitely the only one with arms full of ink. He doesn’t belong here. It’s obvious.

Frank tries to imagine Gerard standing in the crowd with him, and is slightly comforted by the fact that he wouldn’t fit in, either.

It takes him an hour to get through the line. He hasn’t been to a show this big in years; the last time was the Misfits, and even then, the fans weren’t this rabid. Frank would be much more comfortable in a crowd full of punks with faces full of metal than a mob of teenage girls with braces.

He shoulders his way through the crowd and finds a spot relatively close to the stage. The venue’s standing room only, which is good for him. He’ll be able to get closer as the show goes on. For now, he’s content to stay wedged between a guy wearing bright pink eyeshadow and a couple of girls who can’t be older than twelve.

“I’m so excited!” one of them squeals to her friend. “Oh my God, can you believe he’s going to be right there?”

“I’m definitely gonna cry during Nothing Left to Burn,” her friend agrees.

“We’re so close, too! Oh my God.” The girl starts to bounce on her toes. “I’m gonna die. Here, feel my heartbeat.”

Frank smiles to himself. They’re not the crowd he’s used to, that’s for sure, but they’re not a bad one.

The first opening band is some kind of indie-pop, while the second edges more into rock territory. Neither of them strike Frank as particularly remarkable, if he’s honest, but he trusts Gerard’s judgement, so he makes a mental note to listen to a few of their songs later.

He can feel the tension once the second band has cleared out. The buzz of talk has reached a feverish level. Everyone knows what happens next. The girls next to Frank clutch their phones to their chests like lifelines, poised to spring.

A light flickers on and off. The crowd cheers. Frank rolls his eyes a little. There’s nothing to cheer at - nobody’s even onstage yet but a couple of techs.

A figure crosses the back of the stage. The crowd cheers louder. Frank keeps his mouth shut. He’s tapping his fingers against the side of his leg at a relentless pace.

Another light glows for a split second, and there comes the loudest cheer yet. The crowd is working itself into a frenzy. Frank is so jittery, he might vibrate out of his skin.

The lights all go out at once.

A screen lights up behind the stage. Waves of pink ripple across it. The drums kick in a steady rhythm, and a splash of red covers the screen while a synth hums. The girls next to Frank are screaming. He’s frozen in place. His heart skips and trips to a halt. The rollercoaster in his chest reaches its peak, poised to drop - and for a moment, he forgets to breathe.

The lights slam on.

A chord plays, and the crowd goes wild. Frank vaguely recognizes the song, but the music is distant; all he can see is Gerard, lights shining down on him as he grins from ear to ear.

Frank has seen this Gerard before. He’s pasted across the front covers of magazines, posters, online fan accounts. His music videos are on the YouTube home page. He cocks one hip out, leaning into the microphone as he sings. It straddles the line between playful and sexy. Frank has seen this Gerard before, but never in person.

It’s so much more when he’s up close. He’s so much more.

For a minute, Frank loses himself. He forgets why he’s there. Gone is the wide-eyed wonder of Gerard’s first few shows. In its place is a smirk, a swagger, some kind of fucking magic that Frank’s can’t pin down. Gerard is fucking magnetic, and he knows it. He runs his hand through his hair and sings like it’s just another day, like these people wouldn’t kiss his feet if they asked him too. It’s like he owns the world.

And he does.

Sometime after the first few songs, Frank realizes with a jolt that he’s been singing along. He’s not sure when that started. He’s not sure when he learned the lyrics. But he sure as hell can’t stop now.

The next song is a blur of light and sound and spin. The crowd keeps pushing forward, jostling Frank back and forth and pressing him between bodies. By the time the song ends, he’s only a few feet from the stage.

Gerard tosses his hair out of his eyes and smiles. “Hey, everybody,” he says. The crowd roars. It doesn’t faze him. He just gives a dorky little wave. “How’re you guys doing tonight?”

There’s glitter on his cheeks. The stage lights reflect off it, dazzling anyone who dares to look directly at him. “I just wanted to say, thank you so much for coming,” he says. His grin is infectious. “Seriously, this is a dream come true. Thank you all so very, very much.”

He waits for the audience to stop cheering before he continues.

“So I put a new album out pretty recently,” he says. “You might’ve heard it, it’s called RUNAWAY.” More cheering. “I’m pretty proud of it. I think it’s the most personal thing I’ve ever written, in a lot of ways. And I know,” he laughs, “I know you must be thinking, ‘come on, man. How can you get more personal than Secret Kingdoms?’”

Someone hoots loudly. Frank stifles a smile.

“But personal doesn’t always mean depressing. Granted, a lot of my personal songs are depressing, but the most important ones aren’t.” The cheering starts up again, but Gerard waves his hand, and the crowd hushes almost instantly. “I was a miserable fucking kid in high school. Not just high school, actually. A lot of my adult life has sucked too. And part of the reason for that was that I was lying to myself about who I really was.

“When I was a kid, I used to steal my mom’s makeup kit when she wasn’t home and try on her stuff. I would’ve worn it all day if I could’ve. I didn’t, though, ‘cause I was too scared of what people would say to me. And believe me, if I’d showed up to school dressed the way I wanted to, they would’ve said some shit.”

The audience sways, leaning in closer to drink in his every word. He’s got them wrapped so tightly around his finger, they’ll never break free.

“And so I spent a while feeling like I was trapped in my own skin. I wanted to be somebody else. I still felt like a guy, and I still identify as one now, but I didn’t want to dress the way guys usually did.” Gerard bites his lip a little. “And I know that doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but it was suffocating. I would spend all this time dreaming about who I could be in another life, but I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be that person.

“And about a year ago I thought to myself,” he spread his hands, “fuck it. Why not? Why not be who I want to be? And I wrote a song about it, and here we are.”

“I love you!” a girl’s voice screeches. Gerard ducks his head a little, beaming. Frank wants to roll his eyes and laugh and maybe cry all at once.

“Love you too, hon,” he says. The crowd screams. When they quiet down a little, he goes on, laughing as he speaks. “I’m almost done! I’m almost done. I know I’m here to play music, but I wanted to tell you one thing first.”

He pauses, and a change comes over him. His chin is tilted up, his jaw set with a defiance Frank has never seen in him before. “Just remember that when society tells you who you can or can’t be, that’s total bullshit,” he says firmly. He holds the mic tight and points out into the audience with one hand.

“Nobody gets to tell you who you are and what you can do!” he shouts. “You’re a guy who wants to wear dresses? Awesome! You’re a girl who wants to shave her hair? Go for it! That’s your fucking business, and I promise, no matter where you are in life, you will always be happier if you’re being true to yourself!”

It takes a long time for the crowd to quiet down after that. Frank hollers right along with them.

“So this is me, living my truth,” Gerard says. There’s a moment of quiet, then: “This song’s called Prettyboy.”

Frank is swept away.

He thought this would hurt. He dreaded it. But the only thing in his heart is pure joy at what Gerard has become. It’s impossible to see him up there, strutting from one end of the stage to the other in his heeled boots, and not be proud of him. The spark has been inside him all along, but now, it’s burned into a blaze that could reach the stars.

This is what it looks like when dreams come true.

Gerard saunters to the edge of the stage. He’s only a few feet away now. The bass is buzzing through Frank’s chest, and he can't feel his own heartbeat, but he knows that if he could, it'd be pounding through his ribs. Gerard leans out and extends his hand into the crowd. Girls and boys and everyone in between stretch towards him like flowers reaching for the light. They jump and scream and fall over each other for the chance to even brush against Gerard’s skin.

It’s a little terrifying. Gerard would've thought so, too, once. But he just smiles, grabbing onto people’s hands before releasing them and moving onto the next, letting them each get a taste of heaven. He’s getting closer. Frank can see the hint of stubble on his jaw, the sweat at his brow, the makeup tinting his eyelids.

He leans further into the crowd, his eyes scanning for an open hand.

His eyes lock on Frank.

It happens in a split second. Shock flashes across his face, and he recoils ever so slightly. For the briefest of moments, all the glitter and shine is stripped away. Staring back at Frank is a kid with black hair and a shy smile, a boy who once kissed him under the stars, the one who’d thrown up at the prospect of performing in front of people. That same fear is in his eyes now.

But then Gerard’s expression smooths over, and it’s gone. He gets up and makes his way to the middle of the stage to sing.

The girl next to Frank is sobbing. Frank’s eyes are wet, too, but not for the same reason.

***

Frank needs to leave. The show is over, he’s gotten what he came for; he should go now. Make it a clean break.

Instead, Frank lingers. The people are slowly filing out. The girls next to him have already dashed off to their parents, shrieking about how they “touched him, oh my God!”

The stage is dark and empty. It’s smaller than Frank thought it was. Without Gerard, it’s just a platform, no more special than any other floor. Down below, the ground is covered in scraps of confetti. Frank crouches down and picks one up. He tucks it into his pocket.

Everything has gone quiet. He feels like he’s just run a mile, and his throat is tight from cheering, but the memories of flashing lights are already beginning to fade. He clings onto the details so he won’t forget.

Although, forgetting is exactly what he’s supposed to be doing.

Frank stands back up and wipes the sweat off his forehead. He needs a smoke.

Outside, it's much cooler. The night air is fresh against his skin. Frank picks a spot at the corner of the venue and leans against the wall, lighting up with a tiny flicker of heat.

Frank closes his eyes and he inhales deeply. He can practically taste the cancer eating its way through his lungs, smoky and bitter as death. He exhales a cloud of gray. It drifts off and blots out the stars for half a second before it dissipates, lost to the inky night sky.

His cigarette burns down to the filter, and he lights up another. Time passes in a slow drag.

The sound of footsteps cuts through the haze. They get closer, louder, then stop abruptly. Frank glances up.

He instantly chokes on ash and drops his lighter.

Gerard stands frozen in the mouth of the alley.

There’s a long silence before he says, “So it was you.”

Frank can’t stop staring. It’s so odd, seeing Gerard like this. For the longest time, he’s only existed in faded memories, lingering in the back of Frank’s mind like a dusty box of tapes shoved under the bed. But here he is, in technicolor flesh and blood. Frank’s eyes are still adjusting to this new version of reality.

“What are you doing here?” Gerard finally asks.

Frank crouches down and picks up his lighter, not looking away from Gerard. “I could ask you the same thing,” he says.

“I… needed to think.” Gerard shifts his weight from one foot to the other. People always say that stars look smaller when they’re offstage, but Frank doesn’t see it. Gerard doesn’t look small. He just looks like Gerard.

“So, um. Can I bum one of those?” he asks, pointing towards Frank’s pack. He takes a step forward. Frank wordlessly pulls out a cigarette and passes it to him, along with the lighter. “Thanks,” Gerard says as he lights up, his hair falling into his face for a moment, enough to finally sever the eye contact. Frank’s glad one of them is finally looking away. He still can’t seem to.

As soon as Gerard’s got the cigarette lit between his teeth, he glances back up at Frank. “So,” he says. “What’d you think of the show? Was it good?”

Frank can’t stop himself from laughing. As if could have been anything but. He almost says so, but bites his tongue at the last moment and settles on, “Yeah. Yeah, it was good. I’m pretty sure the girl next to me pissed herself when you came on.”

Gerard’s smile widens. For a brief moment, it looks real. “Really?” he says, passing Frank his lighter back.

“Hell yeah.” Frank should stop there, he really should, but the words fly out before he can stop them. “You did it, man. You really fucking made something. I mean, that was amazing, seriously.”

Gerard’s eyebrows jump up a little bit, but he smiles. “Thanks,” he says. “That means… a lot.” They look at each other a moment more, then Gerard’s eyes flick down. “I guess you were right about me after all.”

Frank freezes. He doesn't dare look up at Gerard. If their eyes meet, he has no idea what he’ll say. They’ve been teetering on edge this entire time, pushing the bounds of possibility, like they’re playing a game, seeing who’ll crack first. Frank doesn’t want to be the one to break the silence.

“Why are you here?” Gerard asks quietly. “Really.”

Frank forces himself to breathe.

“I wanted to see this,” he says. He tries to make it casual, but it comes out too soft, too close to betraying the flutter of his pulse. “What you’re like as a celebrity. But, uh…” His hand tightens into a fist around his lighter. It’s now or never.

“Fame ain’t everything, huh?” he says, and this time, it’s almost a whisper.

Gerard stills. “They do say that,” he says, his voice carefully neutral.

“You say that,” Frank says, not looking away. “You said it.”

Gerard nods almost imperceptibly.

Frank’s heart is in his throat. He swallows hard. “Was that song -”

“Yeah, it was about you.” Gerard tilts his head back to blow smoke up at the sky, his eyes half-lidded. They’re lined with black and shadowed in shades of red. Even offstage, the streetlights make him look otherworldly, like some hallowed creature too beautiful to be looked upon. A monster. An angel. A god, maybe.

But beneath it all, he’s still human.

“Almost all of them are,” he says quietly. “Even the ones you wouldn’t expect.”

“Which ones do you think I would expect?” Frank asks.

Gerard shakes his head, smiling a little. “You really like twisting the knife, huh?”

Frank’s gut clenches. “Sorry,” he says. Fuck. If there was any hope of passing this off as a normal conversation before, it just died a brutal death.

“It’s fine,” Gerard said, waving him off. “It’s just… Well, if you thought the breakup songs off Secret Kingdoms were about you, you’d be right. It’s not hard to guess. I fucking hated you, I wasn’t trying to hide it.”

Frank winces. He wants to apologize, but -

“Don’t worry, I’m over it,” Gerard says with a small smile. “Wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. I just… needed to write a lot of angry songs to get here.”

Frank shifts uncomfortably. Even if Gerard is over it, the fact that he ever hated Frank is… not nice to think about. But he can’t say he doesn’t understand.

“I get that,” he says. “But you said that’s - you said ‘even the ones I wouldn’t expect.’ Which ones would I not expect?”

Gerard bites his lip.

La La La,” he says, and Frank can make out the nerves behind his voice. His eyebrows shoot up.

“Seriously? But that one’s so…”

“Happy?” Gerard suggests. “Popular?”

Frank flushes. “Well, yeah.”

Gerard rolls his eyes. “We weren’t all bad times, you and me,” he says. “There were enough memories to write a happy song.”

Frank opens his mouth, then closes it again. La La La is a good song. Some say it’s the best on the album. It’s light and carefree, like driving with the windows down on a summer night, like how Frank used to feel when they’d walk out of a show together. Those were some of the best nights of Frank’s life. Frank would bet Gerard’s entire net worth that once upon a time, they were the best nights of his, too. Frank isn’t too surprised that Gerard wrote a song like that about him.

He’s just surprised that Gerard would release it. That he would take the time to write a hook, a lyric, an entire song, and then go through the entire process of having it recorded and produced and put on the fucking album.

It’s been years, and he still went through with all of it.

Frank balls his hands into fists so his nails bite into his palms. He has to stop thinking like that. They’re ancient history, him and Gerard. He should be over it by now. He nearly is. Was. He doesn't know anymore. He can't control the words coming out of his mouth.

“So, the breakup songs, and some of the happy ones,” he says. “What about the regretful ones?”

His eyes meet Gerard’s, and he doesn’t take them away. Gerard takes a deep breath, and Frank thinks he hears it shake a little.

“All of them,” he says. “I don't know what you've been doing all this time, but I’ve mostly been wondering how I got everything I ever wanted, but lost everything that mattered.”

The silence that follows bears down on Frank’s chest like a lead weight.

He can barely breathe, his heart is beating so hard. He wonders if Gerard can hear it. It’s overwhelming. His pulse pounds in his ears, through his bones, through his very core.

He’s falling.

“Tell me if I’m wrong,” he says, his voice cracking on the last word.

He steps forward.

When he cups Gerard’s face in his hands, Gerard doesn’t say a word.

And when Frank kisses him, he kisses back.

It feels like they stay that way forever. Frank’s arms are wrapped tightly around Gerard’s waist, like if he pulls him in close enough, it’ll make up for all the years they spent apart. He wants to sink through Gerard’s skin and into the fiery core of him, to give himself over to heat and touch and everything he’s missed so goddamn much. His mouth moves hungrily against Gerard’s. Gerard still kisses the same, still tastes the same, like teeth and tongue and something inexplicably Gerard. It makes Frank stupidly happy. No matter who’s touched him, no matter what’s changed, his fingers still feel the same way tangled in Frank’s hair. Maybe even better.

Gerard backs him up against the wall. Frank’s back hits the brick hard, and he savors it. He feels like he’s twenty one again, and they’re necking out back in the alley until Hambone comes to throw something at them. Gerard licks into his mouth, hot and wet, and Frank shivers. God, out of anything that could’ve happened tonight, he never expected he would get to have this.

He breaks away for a second, panting. “This is real, right?”

Gerard’s lips are bitten and red. “It’d better be,” he says. “I’m gonna be fucking pissed if I wake up now.”

Frank feels himself smiling. Gerard smiles back. The glitter is starting to flake off his cheeks. He never needed it to begin with; he has a glow all his own, like the stage lights sunk into his skin and now they shine out of him, brighter than the sun.

“Come home with me,” he says softly.

“You’re on tour,” Frank reminds him. “You live on a bus.”

“Not tonight, I don’t.” Gerard grins. “It’s a hotel night.”

“Oh,” Frank says. “Well, in that case.”

***

They fall into bed faster than Frank can blink. Distantly, he knows that this is probably a bad idea, but the feeling of Gerard’s body pressed against his makes all thought melt away. It’s all fumbling hands, sudden gasps as skin brushes against skin, an electrical jolt going through Frank’s spine every time they touch. Somehow, he ends up in his briefs with Gerard on top of him. Frank kisses him feverishly, half looping one leg around his hip to keep him close.

Gerard doesn’t hesitate to get his clothes off anymore. He sits back on his heels and lifts his shirt off, tossing it to the side. Frank’s eyes wander over every inch of exposed skin. It looks like Gerard’s lost weight; his belly is still soft, but he’s leaner than he used to be, and he doesn’t shy away from Frank’s gaze. He even smirks a little bit, tossing his hair back. “Like what you see?”

“You have no idea,” Frank says.

Gerard slides his thigh between Frank’s, where Frank’s hard-on is making itself completely obvious, and smirks wider. “I think I’ve got a pretty good fucking idea, sugar.”

Cocky bastard. Frank shouldn’t find that as attractive as he does. He shuts Gerard up by pulling him down and kissing him. Gerard keeps him pinned to the bed, and Frank’s brain shuts down into a loop of touch, feel, want.

Gerard stops kissing him long enough to examine his neck. “You got new ink,” he says, interested.

Frank nods. The scissors are new - new enough that Gerard wouldn’t have seen them, at least. “Jawbreaker,” he says. “You like it?”

“Yeah, it’s sick.” Gerard traces the outline of the blades, then lets his fingers slide down to Frank’s side. “Any more new ones I should know about?”

“Why don’t you find out for yourself?”

Gerard grins.

He moves more smoothly than he used to, the split-second of hesitation that used to precede every move lost somewhere between the years. There’s a sense of ease to it now. He teases moans from Frank’s throat, gets him gasping with only a crook of his fingers, and he smiles. He’s so confident, Frank would almost think he’s being played. That this is just another hookup.

But Gerard holds him tighter than he used to.

Frank digs his fingers into Gerard’s back as Gerard drives in hard. “Fuck,” he moans. “Oh, please - “

“You like that?” Gerard growls. He yanks Frank’s head back by his hair. It sends a sharp jolt of pleasure-pain through Frank’s body, running up and down with a tingling heat. A broken, needy sound escapes from his mouth, and he lifts his knees higher.

“Fuck yeah, you do,” Gerard says under his breath. “Fuck, Frank, you’re so fucking good like this.” He fucks into Frank faster, harder, almost aggressive. It’s an edge he never would have given before. He’d always been too sweet, too tender to risk hurting Frank.

Frank wants it to hurt. He’s spent so long feeling fragile because of Gerard; now, all he wants to do is break. It’s half golden sparks and honey-sweet pleasure, half savage desire, wanting Gerad to bend him and fuck him hard and rough until he shatters once and for all. It’ll be his ending, or his salvation.

He clings to Gerard and lets his voice arch higher and higher, a breathy song of the bittersweet. Gerard kisses his neck, soft and hot; too soft. It burns Frank’s skin. His heart is made of broken glass; he needs the pain, needs it like breathing.

“Harder,” Frank rasps.

Gerard fucks into him roughly. Frank cries out, dragging his nails down Gerard’s back in a scratch of red. “Fuck me,” he chokes out. “Fuck, fuck, Gerard - “

“Frankie - “

It’s not until after Frank comes, his vision whiting out for the briefest of seconds, that he realizes he’s crying.

Gerard rubs his thumb across Frank’s cheek. He’s pulled out without Frank noticing, and he hovers over Frank, looking concerned. Something hot and wet rolls down Frank’s cheek. He looks at Gerard, and something inside him crumbles. The desperation he had felt only moments ago is gone.

This isn’t what he wants. He thought it was. It felt right. It felt like maybe, if he just burned hot enough, it could cauterize the wound, scar it over and leave him in peace. But this goes deeper than the skin. It’s a fractured bone set incorrectly - it has to break again to heal.

Frank doesn’t know what this is, but it’s not closure.

He needs to know where they stand.

“What are we doing?” he asks softly.

Gerard lowers himself down onto the pillow beside Frank. He spends a minute just looking at Frank, closely, intently, the way he used to when he drew portraits. Frank had forgotten what it felt like to bear the weight of his gaze. It’s intimate; more so than anything they’ve done tonight. There’s still eyeliner smudged around Gerard’s eyes, but no amount of makeup could change that brilliant hazel, the way it sends a shiver down Frank’s spine.

“I don’t know,” Gerard finally says.

“Don’t,” Frank says. “Don’t play that game with me, Gerard.”

“No, I’m…” Gerard sighs and moves his hair out of his face. “You can’t talk about games, all right? Think about this. I’ve been through a hell of a lot these past two years, and now you’re here, and it’s just… a lot to process.”

“Does it change anything?” Frank asks.

“That depends on what’s already here. And I don’t… I can’t tell you what that is. Not right now.” Gerard rolls over onto his back.

“Do you know what you did to me?” he asks quietly. “Do you even understand?”

Frank winces. He wants to say yes. He saw the drinking, the drugs, the stint in rehab. But that was all from a distance, and even then, how much blame could he have shouldered? There were a million portions of guilt to dish out - to the industry, to the pressure. How much did the ex-boyfriend deserve?

Frank would have taken it all, but he’d never know Gerard’s version of the truth.

“I spent so long hating myself because of you,” Gerard says, almost to himself. “I thought I had done something wrong. I was trying so hard to be everything you wanted, even ’til the very end, but you… you told me not to try. Like I could never be enough.”

Frank reaches for Gerard’s arm on instinct. “That’s not - “

“I know,” Gerard says. “I stopped blaming myself after a while.” He glances over at Frank. “I know we weren’t perfect, Frank, but you never even talked to me before you decided we were through. You never explained why. I had to fill in the gaps somehow, didn’t I?”

Frank swallows hard. He’s always known how Gerard must have felt - that was part of the deal, when you dumped someone. You know they’re going to hurt. But hearing Gerard say it out loud makes his chest constrict.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. That’s not enough, and it never will be, but it’s all he has.

“You don’t need to apologize.” Gerard shifts to face him, a frown briefly crossing his face. “I would… like to know why, though. If that’s okay.”

Frank closes his eyes, and, after a moment, nods.

“I was stupid,” he says. “I think I was scared of how much I… There were a lot of things, honestly. I thought if I just didn’t talk about our issues, then they’d go away, and we could just stay… normal. Happy.”

“But you weren’t happy.”

Frank shakes his head. “That’s why it was stupid.”

Gerard takes Frank’s hand so it’s on the pillow between them. He studies the ink on Frank’s knuckles, tracing the lines with his fingertip.

“You weren’t the only one who made mistakes,” he says. “I knew something was wrong, but I was thinking something kinda similar. Like, if I just waited, maybe you’d come talk to me about it. Or work through it on your own, I guess.”

The thought of this conversation initially made Frank’s entire body freeze up, but now, it comes a little easier. It stings like hell, but it’s better to feel the pain than live in the anticipation of it. At least now he knows what really caused it.

“I don’t think I was ready for you,” Frank says simply. “I was too scared to fuck it up.”

Gerard smiles. “Ironically enough.”

Frank rolls his eyes. “Yeah. Thanks for pointing that out.”

“Sorry.” Gerard goes quiet. “I hated you for a while,” he says. “I was… kind of angry with everything, but especially you. I really hated you for walking away from me like that.”

Okay, that one hurt. Frank tries not to cringe, but it must show in his face, because Gerard squeezes his hand lightly. “It’s okay. I forgave you a long time ago.”

“You shouldn’t have needed to.”

Gerard shugs. “We were young. We made mistakes. All we can do is live with it.”

Frank’s not sure he agrees with that. They could live with it, yes - or they could make a new life.

“Can I ask you something?” he asks.

“Sure.”

“When did you write the song?”

“You mean Runaway, right?” Gerard asks.

“Is that what it’s called?”

Gerard blinks. “Yeah, it’s - oh, right. I didn’t say that in the post, did I.”

It seems like there’s a lot he didn’t say in the post.

“I wrote it a couple months after the fact,” Gerard says. He’s suddenly very focused on Frank’s hand, but he’s stopped tracing Frank’s tattoos. Frank can feel his pulse racing where his wrist touches Frank’s. “It was right around when Secret Kingdoms came out.”

“So why post it now?”

Gerard looks away, his smile self-deprecating. “Sentimentality?” he says. “I dunno. It was stupid, I’m sorry you had to listen to it. I was kind of a mess back then.”

“I was, too. And I don’t think it was stupid,” Frank says. “It’s -” he catches himself and almost stops, but then keeps going with, “It’s why I’m here, so I’d say it was pretty important.”

Gerard snorts. “What, because you’re so special?”

“No,” Frank says without thinking. “Because you are.”

Gerard doesn’t move.

“God,” he says with a sigh, “I knew there was a reason I missed you.”

With the first touch of Gerard’s lips to his, Frank gives in. It was one thing to kiss him, one thing to fuck him. But now, for the first time, Frank lets himself really want it. Gerard kisses him, and it feels like he’s dismantling Frank piece by piece, stripping him down from flesh and blood to pure emotion and soul. He kisses fiercely, like he wants to sear the feeling into Frank’s lips, make sure he never forgets it.

Frank thinks he might not be the only broken one here.

Maybe, he thinks, they could put each other back together.

***

When Frank wakes up, Gerard is gone.

He sits bolt upright and throws the blankets off, looking all around for Gerard’s clothes, or some indication of his presence, but there’s nothing. His side of the mattress has gone cold. Frank’s heart sinks lower and lower with every passing second.

He’s done it again. He went and got his hopes up, and now he’s alone.

“God damn it,” he mutters to himself.

Gerard pops his head out of the bathroom. “Oh, good. You’re up!” he says, his voice muffled by the toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.

Frank startles. Gerard gives him a little wave and leans back into the bathroom to spit out the toothpaste. “Slept well?” he asks.

“I… yeah.”

Gerard comes out of the bathroom and leans against the wall. He’s fully dressed; he’s even got his boots on. “Did you think I’d left?” he asks.

Frank nods, abashed.

“Fame didn’t make me a total douchebag, you know,” Gerard says. He leans over and starts to lace up his boots. “Brian’s been on my ass trying to get me back to the bus on time, but I wasn’t going to leave before you’d woken up.”

“Sorry,” Frank mumbles.

“Don’t be. I know what you were thinking.”

Frank doubts that.

Gerard comes and sits on the edge of the bed. He holds out his hand and says, “Give me your phone.” Frank hands it to him. “I’m giving you my number,” Gerard says, tapping away at the screen. “Don’t leak it.”

“I’m not a total douchebag, either,” Frank says.

Gerard laughs. “Yeah, I know.”

The air between them is… weird. The previous night was electric, charged with lightning intensity, and now, remnants of that energy hang off every word; present, but not openly acknowledged. Everything looks different in daylight. Frank is acutely aware of just how much time has passed since they last met, and it’s a lot to come back from.

He wants to kiss Gerard again.

“I have to go,” Gerard says, and hands Frank his phone back. “Text me, okay? I think we still have stuff to talk about.”

Frank nods, relieved. “Yeah, definitely.”

Gerard smiles. He shifts a little closer, then hesitates. It looks like he’s about to draw back again, but before he can move, Frank sits up and kisses him on the mouth. It’s soft and chaste; just enough to get the message across.

When he pulls back, Gerard’s smiling even wider.

“Go,” Frank says. “Brian’s gonna kick your ass.”

“Fine, fine.” Gerard jumps up and runs for the door. Before he slips out, he turns and winks at Frank. “Text me,” he says. Frank laughs.

“Go, you asshole!”

Gerard rolls his eyes and shuts the door, vanishing from sight. Frank watches the door for a while, then picks up his phone, quickly locating a new contact. There’s a note, too.

A lot happened last night. I think we’re both going to need time to take it all in, but I also I think it’s obvious that this was more than a one-night thing for me. So, talk to me me when you get the chance. Hopefully we can figure out how much more it really was.

Frank’s heart feels like it’s going to beat right out of his chest.

***

Gerard sends Frank a picture from backstage. There’s no caption, but Frank knows it’s him. The picture shows a side view of the stage, all lit up in pink and red like it was when Frank saw him.

A few hours later, he sends another, and the stage is empty. The house lights are on; the magic is over.

Travel day tomorrow, Gerard says. We should talk.

Frank agrees.

***

Frank swallows hard. He can’t bring himself to hit send. He wants to, he needs to, if he does, there’s no taking it back. He’ll be at Gerard’s mercy.

He hits send.

so what are we going to do? the text reads.

Frank lets his phone drop onto the bed next to him and stares up at the ceiling. He’s tracing each crack in the plaster when his phone buzzes. He sits up at once and grabs it.

I don’t know, Gerard’s text reads. That depends on what you want.

That’s what Frank was afraid of.

This can’t be up to him. He’d rather drown himself than open his heart now. It’s obvious that Gerard still feels something, but there’s no way it’s love, not after all this time. Frank’s not that lucky. But he has nowhere to hide. If there’s even the slightest chance he can get Gerard back, he’s going to fight for it.

answer the question, Frank says. what are we going to do?

It takes a long time for Gerard to respond. Frank waits with his heart in his throat.

I think we should talk face to face.

Frank’s about to ask him to answer the goddamn question when a second message appears.

I want to start over, if that’s okay with you.

Frank lets out a huge rush of air. He falls back against the pillow, his heart hammering. If that’s not a confirmation, he doesn’t know what is. He can get Gerard back. He still has a chance.

His fingers can barely keep up with him as he types. i want to, he says.

There’s another lull in the conversation. Frank isn’t sure where to go from here, but it doesn’t seem as terrifying this time. He may be groping through the darkness, but at least he’s not alone.

I missed you, Gerard finally says.

Frank smiles. It’s a poison seeping through his veins; it stings, but there’s such a sweet edge, and he leans into it. i missed you too, he says. so fucking much.

I just want everything to be normal again, Gerard says. I know that’s not going to happen immediately. But small steps, right?

Frank snorts to himself. when have we ever done anything in small steps?

True. Let’s at least try to take it slow, though, okay? I don’t want to mess this up again.

That’s one thing they’ve got in common.

***

Frank pushes the door open. A bell tinkles over his head as he steps inside, and the scent of coffee washes over him. The cafe is alive with the sound of machines hissing and workers chattering to each other.

Gerard waves at him from a little table. Frank makes his way over and pulls up a chair. “Hi,” Gerard says, giving him a small smile. “Is this corny? I dunno, I meant what I said about starting over, but - “

“It’s good,” Frank assures him. “Don’t worry.”

This place has changed a lot since their first date.

The chalkboard menu is still there, but the lettering is different. They’ve changed the flooring, too. It used to be tiled; now it’s hardwood. Frank looks around, taking in all the details. He can’t bring himself to look at Gerard.

“Okay, so,” Gerard says, “this is awkward.”

Frank bursts out laughing. It helps release some of the tension that’s built up inside him. “Yeah,” he agrees. “It really fucking is.”

“I don’t want it to be, though,” Gerard says, setting his elbows on the table and lacing his fingers together. “So let’s forget about it. If you were just meeting me right now, what would you say?”

Frank thinks for the moment. “Nice shirt,” he says.

Gerard laughs. He’s wearing a Misfits logo shirt, draped loose over his shoulders. “That’s a start. You like the Misfits, huh?”

“Totally. I work at a record store, so I’m kinda obligated to have good music taste.”

Gerard’s eyebrows jump up. “Oh, seriously? I thought you’d be back to playing in bands again by now.”

“You don’t know me,” Frank reminds him.

Gerard nods quickly. “Right, sorry. So, why the record store?”

Frank shrugs. “My best friend owns it. It’s pretty fun; we’ve got guitars and stuff, too. There was a bit of a shitstorm with that recently, though. One of the guys ran off with a bunch of shit.”

Gerard’s jaw drops. “What? Who the fuck would do that?”

Frank giggles. It really isn’t something to laugh at, but Gerard looks so outraged, he can’t help himself. “Pedicone,” he says. “It sucked. I mean, it really sucked.” Thinking about it is sobering. “We’re still in recovery mode. Ray’s pretty stressed out.”

“No kidding.” Gerard shakes his head. “Wow. What an asshole.”

“I know, right?” Frank agrees.

Gerard makes a face. “Why are there so many shitheads in the music industry? It’s like, every time you walk around a corner there’s another motherfucker trying to swindle you out of something. Like ticket scalpers! I keep hearing about people snatching up all the good tickets and reselling them for, like, ten thousand bucks. And people actually buy them!” Gerard throws up his hands. “I’m not worth ten thousand bucks, come on! That makes me feel like shit, people bleeding out that much for me.”

“Must be rough,” Frank deadpans. Gerard rolls his eyes.

“So why haven’t you started another band?” he asks, changing the subject.

Frank shrugs. Honestly, he isn’t sure. He hasn’t felt the need to yet. It used to be that whenever he wasn’t playing music, it felt like there was a gaping hole inside him, but he’s unwittingly settled into a routine at the shop. It hasn’t filled the empty space, exactly, but made it less noticeable. It doesn’t threaten to overwhelm him anymore.

He does miss performing, though.

“Just wasn’t the right time, I guess,” he says. “I might be starting something soon. Me and Dewees have been tossing around ideas.”

Gerard’s face lights up. “Really? That’s awesome!”

And just like that, it’s normal again. A slingshot throws Frank three years back in time. The details have shifted, but it feels like just another day. In an hour, Frank will head out to band practice and fight with Hambone the entire time. When he’s finished, he’ll come home to Gerard, and they’ll spend the night talking until they fall asleep on each other.

Everything is different now, but it feels just the same.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking. Frank isn’t kidding himself; he knows Gerard has changed. Anyone could see that. It’s obvious from the roots of his firetruck-red hair to the toes of his platform boots. And Frank has changed, too, in ways he can’t even measure. But as he watches Gerard lean across the table, laughing out loud for the whole world to hear, he thinks maybe change isn’t so bad.

He’s changed, yes, but not so much that Frank can’t fall for him all over again.

***

Have you seen Us and/or LifeStyle yet? reads Frank’s homescreen. If no, don’t look.

It’s like Gerard doesn’t know Frank at all.

It only takes a quick Google search, and his stomach drops out from underneath him like he’s skipped a stair. The photos are blurry, but they’re definitely of Frank and Gerard, and they’re definitely holding hands.

Frank can only stare at his phone in shock.

wtf???? he texts Gerard. how did they even get those? there was nobody around!

Gerard’s quick to respond. That’s just kind of how it is, his message reads, and Frank hears the apology as if he’d said it out loud. They’re everywhere, it sucks. I’m really sorry.

Frank studies the pictures more closely. They’re from the cafe; Frank is laughing at something, and Gerard has his elbows propped up on the table, chin in his hands. His smile is dazzling; it puts the sun to shame. Looking at it, Frank can’t help but grin. Honestly, the photos aren’t that bad - if they weren’t taken by some anonymous creep, they’d actually be pretty cute.

His smile fades once he gets to the article below.

Everyone’s speculating on his identity. They want to know who he is, what he’s doing with Gerard, why Gerard looks at him like that. The demand for details is endless. It makes Frank’s skin crawl. People are saying he’s a hookup, or a business associate, or a new boyfriend. Even the better guesses don’t come close to the real story. They don’t know the context, they don’t know anything - but they don't care. They’ll make up a story of their own. That’s why it’s fun.

It’s like Frank is trapped in a glass bubble for the whole world to point at and laugh.

I’m really fucking sorry, Gerard says again.

don’t be, Frank responds. ur not the one who was taking creepshots.

I should have known better.

That makes Frank pause. do u regret it or something?

The reply pops up barely an instant after he hits send. No! God, no. Do you?

hell no. i mean it does kinda suck that ppl r like this but i know what im doing here. if u go on dates with celebrities, this is ur life.

Frank deletes the last sentence.

Then he rewrites it and hits send. Fuck it. He waits with bated breath, watching the three little dots appear as Gerard types out a message.

Okay good, I just needed to know you’re still on board.

Frank grins at his phone.

I’m gonna be heading out on the west coast tour next week, so I obviously won’t be around, but do you want to see a movie when I’m back?

hell yeah, says Frank. u better call me while ur away motherfucker.

Of course. I’m gonna need it, honestly. A little bit of familiarity is always nice when you’re away from home.

There’s a pause, then: Plus, I’ll miss you if I don’t, so there’s that.

Frank’s grin widens. ill miss u too u sappy fuck, he says. come home soon.

After a moment’s deliberation, he tacks an xo onto the end.

***

A notification pops up on Frank’s phone. He taps on it without thinking. That in itself is a mark of how much has changed - a month ago, he wasn’t following Gerard on any social media. In fact, he made it his mission to avoid any mention of him online. But now he can view Gerard’s newest post without so much as a thought, and Gerard can do the same for him.

It’s the simple things that make Frank smile the most.

He recognizes the photo immediately. It’s a Bouncing Souls record - and judging by the tear in the bottom corner, it’s the same one Gerard took home from Frank’s apartment.

Just uncovered an old favorite! reads the caption. An oddly relevant one, too. Must be a sign from the universe telling me I’m on the right path. (Thanks, universe, but I knew that already!)

It’s already racked up a hundred comments. Most of them have nothing to do with the actual picture; they’re just asking for new music or promos or telling Gerard how beautiful he is. Frank taps the screen to add a comment of his own.

give “i think that the world” a spin for me, he says. i’m with the universe on this one.

He hits enter and lets his comment fly away into the stream of teenage adoration that’s flooding the page. It doesn’t get much attention. His username doesn’t mean anything to most people. That’s fine - there’s only one person that matters.

Gerard replies within a few seconds. I’m on it. By the way, can I do something stupid and possibly premature?

Frank’s heart skips a beat. the suspense will kill me if you don’t, he says.

A moment later, his phone rings.

“Listen,” Gerard says in a rush. “I know what I said about taking it slow, but I just - I have a really good feeling about this, and I want you to know that. Like, this is for real, okay? I mean it. We’ve waited long enough; I’m all in.”

Frank can feel himself grinning from ear to ear. “You know, when people say they want to take it slow, they usually mean - “

“I know,” Gerard says. “But you were right, when have we ever taken anything slowly? I just - oh, God. Fuck. Fuck it, do you want to be my boyfriend?”

Frank bursts out laughing. Just hearing those words has him giddy. His head spins like a carousel, and it’s the best feeling in the whole goddamn world. “Yes,” he says. “Fuck yes, obviously.”

“Good.” Gerard lets out a breath. “I don’t know why I got nervous over that, I knew you were going to say yes.”

“Because you’re you?” Frank suggests.

“Yeah, that’s probably it.”

Frank giggles again. He can’t help it; laughter keeps bubbling up in his stomach like champagne. The line is quiet.

“It’s gonna be hard,” says Gerard, his tone more serious this time. “The tabloids will be all over you. The fans, too.”

“And you’ll be away all the time,” Frank adds.

“I’ll forget to answer my phone,” Gerard says.

“I’ll probably get jealous,” says Frank.

Gerard exhales again, a whoosh of air over the receiver. “Are you sure about this?” he asks.

Frank snorts. “If you haven’t gotten the message by now, Gee - “

“No, I just - we need to be sure, Frankie.”

“I’m sure.”

“You really are?” Gerard presses. “It’s gonna take work. We have to communicate better, and be honest with each other, and I’ll try to come home and see you more often, I swear - “

“Gerard,” Frank interrupts him. “I want to. I know it’s gonna suck sometimes, but it’ll be worth it. Okay?”

“Okay.”

There’s silence on the line.

Gerard giggles. “So you’re a celebrity boyfriend now. Welcome to the club.”

“Oh, God, do I have to go to red carpet parties?” Frank makes a face. He can’t even imagine it. Mingling with A-listers and talking about who they’re wearing; it sounds worse than death.

“Yep. There’ll be champagne and cameras. You’ll hate it,” Gerard says cheerfully. “You’ll have to steal me away and take me someplace better.”

“Gladly.” Frank grins to himself. A thought pops into his mind, and he opens his mouth, only to close it again.

“Can I do something stupid and definitely premature?” he says hesitantly.

“Shoot.”

“I…” Frank’s throat goes dry. He coughs, rubbing his eyes. Fuck, he can’t do this over the phone. There’s no way to hide. It’s better than in person, but not by much. “I’m not going to say it,” he says, choosing each word carefully. “‘Cause, like. Taking it slow and all. But I just want you to know that I still… like, y’know. I never really stopped.”

He holds his breath. The line is so quiet, he wonders if Gerard is doing the same.

“You know what I mean?” he whispers.

“Yeah,” Gerard says. “I do. And, um. Me neither. Just for the record.”

Frank can breathe again. “Good,” he says.

***

Frank leans over the seat to give Gerard a kiss. “See you after work,” he says. “We’re watching Night of the Living Dead. Don’t punk out on me, or I won’t get you coffee.”

“It’s a date,” Gerard promises. He cranes his neck to see through the windshield, looking out at the record shop. “Would it be okay if I came in for a bit? I haven’t seen Ray in forever. Or any of the guys, shit.” He unbuckles his seatbelt and hops out of the car. Frank jumps out after him.

“Wait,” he says quickly. “You might want to - just take it slow, okay? Ray doesn’t…” He grabs Gerard’s hand and pulls him to a stop. “Ray doesn’t know we’re together again.”

Gerard furrows his brow. “Seriously? It’s been, like, two weeks.”

Frank winces. “I know. It’s just… we had a fight a little while ago? I kept asking him for advice about you, and it was too much for him, and I just… I don’t want him to think I made the wrong choice, y’know?”

“Do you think you did?” Gerard asks. Frank shakes his head at once. “Then who cares? It’s your life.”

Frank doesn’t have an answer for that. Gerard smiles and leads him up to the door. Frank pushes it open and goes inside, searching for a familiar head of hair. “Hey, Ray?” he calls out.

“Yeah?” Ray appears from one of the aisles, carrying a calculator. There’s a pencil stuck behind his ear. “What’s - “

His eyes flick from Frank to Gerard.

“Woah,” he says, eyes widening. “Wait, what?”

Frank is suddenly hyperaware of his hand still clasped in Gerard’s. He’s almost tempted to pull away, but instead, he squeezes Gerard’s hand tighter. He was right. Frank doesn’t need to rely on Ray’s opinion anymore, whether it’s solicited or not.

“I took your advice,” Frank says, looking directly at Ray. “Fixed shit on my own for once.”

Ray sets down his calculator, still staring at Gerard. “So you two are…”

“Yep,” Frank says.

“Huh,” Ray says, raising his eyebrows. That’s it. Frank can’t read his expression at all.

But then he shakes himself, his face brightening. “Okay, I have a million questions right now, but first - ” He crosses the room and throws his arms around Gerard. “How are you, dude? It’s been forever!”

Gerard hugs him back, looking pleased. “Pretty fuckin’ awesome,” he says. “How about you? This place looks great as ever.”

Ray pulls away with a grimace. “I’m glad you think so. We actually just came off a pretty bad month.“

“With Pedicone?” Gerard asks. “Yeah, Frank told me. Are you gonna be okay?”

Ray glances at the calculator sitting on the shelf, then looks away with a sigh. “He made off with a lot of shit,” he says. “These next few months are gonna be… tight. That’s all I can say. Frank, I might end up owing you a paycheck for a bit.”

Frank nods. “That’s totally fine, I get it.”

Gerard looks torn. He hesitates, then says, “Ray, you know I’m… Look, if there’s anything I can do to help, I’d - “

“I don’t take handouts,” Ray says with a smile. “Even from celebrities. Which reminds me,” he raises an eyebrow, “How did you guys get ahold of each other? Don’t you have bodyguards all over you or something?” He gestures at the both of them. “How did this even happen?”

Frank shrugs. “Luck,” he says.

“Luck?” Ray says skeptically. “Like, you just saw each other on the street?”

Frank heaves a sigh. “I went to one of his concerts,” he says.

“And we caught each other outside,” Gerard finishes. “It was kind of crazy.”

“I can only imagine,” says Ray. “But whatever works for you. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy for you.” He smiles at Frank.

Frank steps forward and gives him a hug.

“Aw,” says Ray, pleased. “See, isn’t this nice? If you could just do this instead of jumping on me, you wouldn’t break anything.”

“But where’s the fun in that?” Frank asks, still clinging to him.

“Well, y’see, Frank, we can’t really afford to have you breaking all of our merchandise right now.”

As soon as Frank lets go of him, the room flashes with light. It’s only there for a split second, and it’s not so bright, but it’s definitely there. Frank furrows his brow. There wasn’t any lightning in the forecast today.

“Oh, great,” Gerard mutters.

Frank looks over his shoulder. There’s a girl standing outside the front door, peering through the glass with a giant camera in her hands. She raises it again, and it flashes with white light.

Frank looks at Gerard ruefully. “They really follow you wherever you go, huh?”

Gerard gets an odd look on his face.

“You know, Ray,” he says slowly. “I think by tomorrow, you might not need handouts, after all.”

***

He’s right.

The hardcore fans start showing up as soon as the pictures hit the net. For a while, they make up most of the customer population, but things don’t go back to normal after the hype dies down - they get even bigger. Frank figures word must have spread beyond Gerard’s fan base. He’s not sure how he feels about it. On the one hand, Impulse is getting great business, and any worries leftover from the Pedicone incident have long since vanished. But on the other, Ray has a lot to manage.

And Frank has a lot to process.

He didn’t really think about what would happen once the fans were physically inside the store. He just figured they’d poke around, maybe wander the city a bit in the hopes of finding Gerard. It’s weird to actually interact with them, though - they’re more human than he expected.

He has very limited experience with Gerard’s fans. He’s heard the horror stories - the attempted stalkings, the creepy love letters, all that good stuff - and the awesome stories. From what he’s heard, fans are generally really cool or really terrifying.

His own experiences are a little different. On the whole, they’re nice, and they ask after Gerard, which doesn’t surprise him.

But they recognize him, too. That’s what surprises him.

Frank supposes he should’ve seen it coming. Now that the paps have caught him with Gerard a few times, he must be something of a known quantity. It’s definitely strange when strangers talk to him in such a familiar tone, though. Just that morning, he’d been greeted with, “Hi, Frankie! How’s Gerard?”

He’s not sure how to feel about it, but at least he’s finally getting used to it. And at the end of the day, he always has Gerard. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.

And he has the feeling it isn’t going to.

***

Gerard paces back and forth across the open area backstage. In his platform boots, he’s a good half a foot taller than Frank. He runs his fingers through his hair for the fiftieth time, ruffling it into a scarlet mess. Just beyond the stage, the rumble of voices can be heard. The lights have been out for a while now - they’re getting restless.

“Twenty thousand,” Gerard says under his breath. “Twenty motherfucking - “

Frank wraps an arm around his waist and pulls him in. “It’s kind of cute that you still get nervous over this,” he says cheerfully.

“It’s twenty thousand people!” Gerard protests. “Anybody would be nervous!”

“Mm-hmm. Still cute, though.” Frank He gives Gerard a kiss - quickly, before he can start complaining about Frank fucking up his lipstick. The way Frank sees it, a little smudging only adds to the vibe; with the fishnets and the fur coat, it’d be hard for Gerard to look any more debauched.

Gerard looks over across the stage. He’s got that faraway look he gets when someone’s talking in his in-ear mic. The lights have started up; beams of pink rove across the stage. The countdown should start any minute now. Gerard gives Frank’s hand a squeeze and steps away. “I gotta go,” he says. “See you in an hour?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Frank says with a grin.

The crowd roars. Gerard ducks behind the lights display. As the intro music starts, the lights darken just enough for him to creep onstage unnoticed. A synth wavers through the arena, the vibrations tingling deep in Frank’s chest.

He looks away from Gerard and out at the audience. It’s filled with shining lights as thousands of people hold their cell phones at the ready. Almost two years ago, Frank was among their number. Counting down the seconds. Holding his breath. Gazing ever upward with his heart on his sleeve, still chasing the fragile hope that he and Gerard still had a chance.

And look at him now.

A feeling of contentment washes over Frank as he looks out over the sea of lights. They wave wildly in a spontaneous dance, frantically gleaming out through the darkness. Frank can’t see the people behind them, but he feels their presence. It’s there, in the rumble of sound beneath the music, the aura of pure excitement running through the air like a current.

The stage lights go on, and it’s like the sparks of a live wire; the arena explodes into motion.

Frank sits through it all, watching from his backstage vantage point. He smiles as Gerard struts across the stage, singing and dancing and basking in the charged atmosphere. He belongs onstage; it’s in his blood.

An hour later, he’ll sweep Frank up into a hug, laughing loudly and pressing kisses to his cheek. Frank will smile and kiss him back.

Gerard was born for this. His place is under the spotlight, blazing for the whole world to see. Frank used to think he burned too bright - nothing could possibly hold him down. Now, he knows better. It’s true; Gerard can’t be held down. But he doesn’t need to be.

Wherever he goes, Frank will be right there with him.