If God can work through me, He can work through anyone
- St. Francis of Assisi
"You know what it is," Frank said, watching Luke prep his needle. "What it is, is that God hates me."
"God gave you food poisoning?"
Frank shrugged, and felt the cracked leather of the chair scraping through his shirt. "Why not?"
Luke rolled his stool closer to Frank and shifted his cigarette over to the other side of his mouth without touching it, a weird, practiced little movement that made his grey-stubbled chin ripple. "Maybe he has more important shit to do than curse your guts, you ever think of that?"
"He's got more important shit to do than taking care of my fucking life, that's for damn sure."
The food poisoning, as Frank had already explained to Luke, was just the start of it. If he hadn't had food poisoning, he wouldn't have had to take time off work, and he wouldn't have gotten two messages from Brian talking about how disappointed he was that Frank hadn't taken their discussion about his absenteeism seriously, and he wouldn't have forced himself back into work early, and he wouldn't have had to run off in the middle of piercing Darren Haywood's scrotum to throw up, and Darren Haywood's lawyers wouldn't have sent Brian a nice letter to say they were being slapped with a lawsuit because Darren Haywood's pierced scrotum had ballooned with infection and was apparently leaking pus.
"I mean, I washed my fucking hands," Frank said now, watching Luke wipe alcohol over the back of Frank's hand. "I wasn't piercing the guy's balls with my tongue, you know what I'm saying?"
Luke nodded. Ash dropped onto the floor, some of it getting caught in Luke's raggy long hair. "I hear you, brother."
"Anyway, today I kind of lost my shit at work." Luke turned on the light over the chair and Frank closed his eyes against it. Luke's hand covered his own and rested there for a second, an odd, intimate gesture that felt kind of weird but sort of comforting at the same time. "Brian was on my case again, and I fucking love that place, you know, I put my heart and fucking soul into it, and he thinks I'm faking to get out of work. I mean, the fucker knew I had shitty health when he hired me, I don't know what the fuck he wants me to do."
Luke hummed, and Frank felt the wet nib of a Sharpie start to trace over his knuckles.
"So answer me this," Luke said as he drew. "If you work in the business, what the fuck are you doing out here getting a tattoo from a stranger? Your boys won't be pissed you went looking outside the fold?"
Frank had thought about that, when he found himself standing outside Luke's shop, staring in through the window and already feeling the phantom pain of the needle in his skin. Bob hated it when his clients went elsewhere, Frank knew, and this probably wouldn't do anything to help Frank's Get Bob to Teach me to Tattoo campaign, which was mostly him asking Bob over and over and over to teach him, and Bob putting him off. This was just going to earn him a lecture about not understanding the sanctity of the relationship between artist and client, Frank could tell, but he'd come home from work, still sore from his dressing-down from Brian, and yet another brush-off from Bob, and found his door broken down and his guitar and TV fucking gone, and worst of all, Ella was missing and probably dead under a bus somewhere.
Luke narrowed his eyes. "Ella?"
"My dog," Frank clarified. "So I went looking for her, and I thought I saw her so I left my car on the corner and went looking in this fucking alleyway, you know the kind you see on TV with the dumpsters and the dead end and probably a fucking corpse hidden under all the trash bags?" Frank shifted in the chair.
"Don't move," Luke told him, the Sharpie still moving over Frank's hand.
"Sorry," said Frank. "Anyway there was no dog, I don't know what the fuck I thought I saw, but when I came back my fucking car was getting towed, so I had to fucking walk and I don't know this neighborhood anyway, and I found myself outside this place, and I just thought, I don't know. Tattoos make me feel better."
That wasn't the whole truth. Frank had been trudging down the street with his useless wet collar pulled up tight around his face, his mind a constant loop of Brian's disappointed face and Ella, dead under a variety of vehicles, and the letter he'd gotten from Medicaid explaining why they couldn't help him, again, and his Mom's offer for him to move back home until he got himself back on his feet, and all of a sudden he'd looked up and seen the words, outlined in flickering, buzzing neon like a sleazy sign from above: TATTOO.
And she'd been right there in the window, on a piece of yellowing paper tacked up high in the corner, getting drowned out by all the Celtic symbols and sexy she-devils, her blank face and soft feathers so different from anything Frank had ever seen, and Frank had thought, I know you and felt a tug in his belly, like a fishhook embedded under his navel, a pull towards the surface, and he was stepping through the door before he even knew what he was doing.
He didn't want to tell Luke that, though. He'd already spilled his guts to the guy. It was so weird - Frank was a chatterbox, there was no doubt about it, but he didn't usually go around laying his shitty weeks out for total strangers to see.
And he felt at home in tattoo parlors, he always had. The smell, that sharp, wet scent of ink, and the way the pictures on the wall and ceilings made it seem smaller than it was, a bolt hole, cozy somehow. This old guy, grey and torn-looking like he'd come from a long fight, had ambled out from the back of the shop in a leather fucking vest, of all things, work all up and down his arms and across the sliver of chest Frank could see, and the guy had a weird way of looking at you, like he was seeing something you were trying to keep a secret.
"I want the girl with the wings," Frank said, shifting on his feet, suddenly aware of the wet footprints he was leaving all over the guy's floor. And as if blurting that out wasn't weird enough, he'd then found himself volunteering, "I'm Frank. I don't have an appointment."
There was a silence, during which Frank had time to get hold of his senses a little and start to stutter out something about a mistake and needing directions, but then the guy had just held out his hand, though, and said, "Luke. Come on over, brother, I can see you right."
Back in the present, Frank felt Luke's hand on him again, this time sweeping from his elbow to his wrist. His fingers were rough and his palm was warm, and there was a strange smell in the air, like the smell of dirt under a wet rock, and Frank wanted to open his eyes, he should check the outline Luke had drawn, make sure it was right, but Luke said, "Easy, easy, it'll go better if you're quiet," and that was the last thing Frank knew for a while.
When he woke up - woke up, who the hell fell asleep during a tattoo? Frank was comfortable with the process, but it was still a fucking needle in his flesh - Luke was wiping Frank's throbbing hand off with a rag.
"Shit," Frank said thickly, struggling with his sleep-stupid tongue. "Fuck, man, I'm sorry. That never happened to me before."
Luke laughed, a hoarse creak that didn't sound like it got that many outings. "Don't worry about it. You want to check her out?"
"Yeah, shit." Frank got upright and leaned over his hand. "Oh, dude. She's beautiful."
It was the wings Frank had liked, her tattered wings, one out to each side and two stretched out above her head. Two more twined downwards, like legs - she was like a woman, Frank thought, a woman laying back on a bed before - no, after sex, everything on display except there was no body, just the wings, just the wings and her face, which was sad somehow, despite not actually having any features, sad and beautiful.
She was just as good as she'd looked in the window. Better, because now she was Frank's.
"You got a tattoo from a stranger?" Bob was holding Frank's hand and staring at it like the Virgin Mary had just appeared on it or some fucking thing. "What the fuck, Iero, we're not good enough for you anymore?"
Frank rolled his eyes. "Look at her, dude, she's amazing."
"I don't know." Mikey was leaning over Bob's shoulder, peering at Frank's hand where Bob had lifted the wrap. "It's kind of creepy, don't you think?"
"Totally creepy," Ray confirmed over Bob's other shoulder. "Since when are you into chicks, anyway?"
"Fuck you, don't you have hair to cut?" Frank pulled his hand back and cradled it against his chest. He pressed the wrap back down and smoothed it gently over her face. "She's awesome."
"I feel like I've seen that somewhere before," Mikey said, touching his fingertips to Frank's wrist. "Not a tattoo, like…art, or something."
"See," Frank told Ray. "Art."
"What the fuck is that shit you got smeared all over it?" Bob wrinkled his nose. "Smells like my Grandma."
It wasn't the usual goo Frank used - Luke had given it to him in an unmarked jar and said, "Promise me you'll put it on three times a day and you can have it free of charge."
"It's homemade," Frank said to Bob.
Bob stared at him. "It's homemade? Fuck, Iero, that shit could have anything in it, what the fuck."
"It's just herbs and shit, Jesus." Frank was getting pissy, he knew, and he was using the tone of voice most likely to earn him a slap on the back of the head from Bob, but he didn't care. He knew accepting the gunk from Luke was weird, he knew the whole thing was weird. He didn't need people to point it out.
"Why are you even dropping money on new ink when your car's been towed, man?" Ray looked up from his customer's head and pointed his scissors at Frank in the mirror. "You know you have to pay to get it back."
"I can't afford it anyway," Frank replied. Brian was on the phone in the back room, but Frank could see him throwing disapproving glances his way. Frank moved back over to the door to his room in a way he hoped made it look like he was doing some actual work. "You know they charge you like an extra sixty bucks every day your car stays there? Forget it, man, my car's gone. I can just barely afford to eat this month."
"You could ask Brian to front you some cash until payday," Ray suggested. Frank gave him a Look. Ray sighed. "Yeah, I know."
"You ought to sue his ass for discrimination," Bob commented. "It's not your fault you're a wilting lilac."
"Man, shut the fuck up." Frank shook his head, but smiled despite himself. "Whatever, you know? C'est la vie. Hey, are you gonna teach me to use that thing today?"
Bob turned his needle over thoughtfully in his hands. "Maybe tomorrow."
"Tomorrow never comes," Frank sighed, but he tried not to sound too sulky about it because he knew Bob was just hazing him. It had only been a few months - if he kept on asking Bob would have to give in eventually. It was just a matter of time. "It's okay, buddy. I can wait."
Ray stared at him. "Seriously, did you put Ritalin on your cornflakes this morning? What happened to 'If Bob doesn't teach me to tattoo right this minute I will die'?"
"Your two o' clock tongue is here," Mikey said then.
Mikey had this weird thing where he never wrote anything down, but he always knew when any one of them had an appointment. Frank gestured to the nervous-looking girl and her two giggly friends standing by the door. She'd probably look a lot more nervous if she knew Frank was getting sued for infecting a guy's balls.
The girl talked a lot, which would have been fine if Frank hadn't been trying to pierce her talking apparatus, and her friends kept interjecting loudly, and in the end Frank had to send them back out to the main room.
His hand throbbed steadily while he was working, but nothing out of the ordinary, and Frank kept looking down at his new ink and just…feeling pleased, calm, the way he'd felt since he'd walked out of Luke's shop the night before. Things didn't seem so bad all of a sudden - his dog would probably get picked up, he could make some fliers after work, and he didn't ever really have time to play his guitar anyway, and TV was all bullshit, and even Brian's umpteenth hissyfit that morning - this time over Frank getting new ink on his hand, where all the customers could see the bandages - didn't seem so terrible.
The tongue girl didn't seem to care anyway, swinging her feet happily from her perch on the end of the padded bench. She stared up at Frank as he told her to take a deep breath in, and then out as he pushed the needle through. She was good, she didn't cringe or try to pull her tongue back when Frank was screwing the ball on, and she went off with her friends happy.
Later, Frank got lunch with Mikey and they had a seriously enjoyable gossip session about the chick who'd been dancing on a table at the club they were at last weekend with not a stitch of underwear on under her pretence of a skirt, and when Frank got home he felt more or less okay.
He had something of a routine on the nights when Mikey didn't drag him along to the latest this or the newly-opened that. Get home, feed Ella, feed himself, walk Ella, call his Mom, play his guitar/watch TV/jerk off, go to sleep. He didn't have a TV or a guitar or an Ella anymore, though.
He sat on the edge of the bed for a minute, feeling the spaces where she ought to be; her little claws clicking on the tile floor, her wet nose pressing against his hand, her impatient, whuffing commentary on his every move if he dared to take a piss and light a cigarette before feeding her.
He'd only rescued her a couple months ago. His heart hurt.
He decided to be proactive - he made a flier with a picture of her stupid dopey face and the words 'PLEASE COME HOME :(' and his details underneath, and walked the six million blocks to Kinko's to get it copied. On the way back he stuck a flier on every streetlight, tree and empty patch of wall he could find, and by the time he got back his wrists were aching weirdly, probably from the cold outside, from the damp and putting too much pressure on his good hand, holding his newly-inked one strangely to protect it.
Frank didn't really think about it, but when he woke up the next morning they were still sore.
He checked his hand out while he was rubbing his wrists under the hot spray of the shower - the work really was beautiful, he thought, intricate and bold. It wasn't like anything Frank had seen before. He dressed and worked the goo Luke had given him over his hand, spreading it carefully over the slightly raised lines. He had a little more redness than he usually did after getting inked, he thought, but otherwise it looked like it was going to scab up nicely.
The goo seemed to ease the throb in his hand, numb it or cool it or something, and after a minute of deliberation Frank rubbed some into his wrists, too. It helped more than the Advil he'd taken before his shower.
When he got to work, Bob hustled him immediately into the corner and said, "Don't fuck up today, Frank."
"Nice," Frank said, shrugging off his jacket. "Good morning to you too."
"I mean it." Bob looked over his shoulder - Frank didn't know what for, because nobody was around yet except Mikey, and he wasn't listening, he was reading a magazine article over the phone to someone. "Look, I didn't want to say anything, but you've given me no choice, running off to get inked by a fucking stranger like that."
"What do you mean?"
"I want to start training you up by the end of the month," Bob said.
Frank smacked Bob's shoulder. "Don't shit me, motherfucker."
"I'm not," Bob said, rolling his eyes. "But Brian already thinks you're unreliable as fuck, okay, he's watching you."
"You're serious about training me?" Frank grabbed Bob's hand in his good one and squeezed hard. "Dude, that's awesome, oh my God!"
Bob rolled his eyes again, but in the pleased way this time. "Yeah, well. Don't make me look like an idiot, okay; I had to spin all this shit to Brian about your passion and determination, whatever, and fucking, fucking commitment. Don't make me a liar."
"I won't," Frank promised. He waited for Bob to turn away and then latched on immediately to his shoulders, hauling himself up to kiss Bob's ear. "You're the best, Bob Bryar."
Bob grunted and shook him off.
Frank spun in a little circle, and then danced over to Mikey to share the good news.
"Me too," Mikey said, holding one long finger up to Frank. He laughed into the phone and said, "All right, I can't wait to see you. You too. Bye."
He hung up and looked at Frank. "Well," he said. What he meant was, "Well?" but it didn't always come out right, with Mikey.
"Who was that on the phone?" Frank asked, but then decided he didn't care. "Dude, Bob said he's going to start training me!"
"I know," Mikey said, slithering off the counter and making a beeline for the coffee machine.
"You know everything," Frank complained, following him. Mikey futzed with the machine while Frank hopped impatiently behind him. "Come on, don't fucking stonewall me."
Mikey shook his head and turned around, tucking his hands behind him to lean against the counter. "I just know you gotta keep your nose clean, bro. Brian's pretty pissed about all the time off. And this lawsuit thing isn't helping."
Frank threw his hands up. "What the fuck - Mikey, that piercing was a work of fucking art, okay. The fucker barely bled, I disinfected the shit out of everything just like always, there's no way it was my fault."
Mikey nodded slowly. "And you're sure you didn't-"
"I didn't," Frank interrupted him loudly, speaking slowly just to make sure, "I didn't fucking breach. What am I, an amateur here? I've pierced like a hundred ball-bags, I know what I'm fucking doing. I could pierce yours right now with my eyes closed."
Mikey made a face. "Please don't try."
Frank was booked solid all morning - fucking ears after noses after eyebrows after ears, boring as hell, and by lunch his wrists were fucking killing him. He was in the back room downing a handful of Tylenol when Brian walked in.
"Don't," Brian said, looking at the bottle in Frank's hand. "Don't fucking tell me you're sick again."
"No, just a headache," Frank lied. He washed the pills down with orange juice and plastered on a big smile for Brian. "How's your day going, man?"
"It'd be going better if I hadn't spent the morning talking to a lawyer." Brian dumped his stuff onto the table and slumped in the chair behind it. He rubbed his hands over his face and looked up at Frank, his fingers pulling on the skin under his eyes and making him look tired and drawn. "Frank, I gotta ask."
"No, Brian." Frank sat down in the chair opposite. He managed to speak without gritting his teeth, but he couldn't stop his hands from balling into fists inside the picket of his hoodie. "I definitely am not to blame for Darren Haywood's exploding balls. I wasn't to blame the first time you asked, and I'm still not to blame now."
Brian rubbed at his forehead and the bridge of his nose and his chin. His stubble made a raspy sound in the quiet office. "He wants you fired."
Frank didn't say anything. His wrists were throbbing again. He unclenched his fists.
Brian said, "He's claiming you breached the inner scrotum."
Frank uncurled his hands and tried to rub discretely at his wrists. "Oh, for fuck's sake."
"Breaching the inner scrotum carries serious risks, Frank," Brian went on. "Infections can travel into the stomach, the testicles can necrotize-"
"You can end up a fucking eunuch or die," Frank finished for him. "You don't think I know this shit? Brian, I told him. I told him there were risks, I had him sign the disclaimer, I gave him those fucking printed aftercare instructions you love so much and I didn't breach the scrotum."
Brian stared steadily back at Frank from across the table. Frank realized he was leaning forward and probably yelling. He took a deep breath and tried to relax.
Eventually Brian said, "Okay."
Frank raised his eyebrows. "What?"
"Okay," Brian repeated. "I believe you. I'm gonna need you to meet with the lawyers to prepare a statement, me and the other guys will make statements backing you up, and Frank - this is important - you must not have any contact with Darren Haywood, okay?"
"Aw, but we were gonna spend the weekend in Vermont!" Frank rolled his eyes. "Jesus, if I never see that guy or his balls again it'll be too soon."
"I mean it, Frank," Brian cut him off, his voice sharp. "Don't speak to him, don't go looking for him, don't engage him if he comes looking for you, don't even look at him. Are we clear?"
"Guess that nixes my plans to show him what a breached scrotum really feels like," Frank muttered, and then jumped like nine feet in the air when Brian slammed both fists down on the table.
"God dammit, Frank!" he yelled, actually yelled, like Frank was a little kid or something. "This shop is my fucking world, do you understand that? They could take it away! They could shut us down! Do you ever think about that? Do you ever think about anyone else for one fucking second?"
"What about me and Ray and Bob? What about Mikey?" Brian railed, clearly getting into the swing of it. "Do you think anyone else is gonna hire him to sit around on his cell phone all day? Do you think anyone else is gonna understand that he's fucking, fucking magic or whatever the fuck it is he does to get people to come through the doors? You wanna see him lose his job too?"
"I'm sorry," Frank said, startled.
"Don't be sorry, be better," Brian insisted. "You got a perfect record, Frank; I've never known you to fuck up with a needle - that better still be the case when this shit gets into court. You come to work every day, you keep your nose clean, you help little old ladies across the street, you keep the noise down in your apartment, you get a fucking crew cut if you need to, you're a model fucking citizen, do you understand me?"
Frank blinked. "Yes, Brian."
"Good." Now he'd got all the yelling out of his system, Brian seemed to deflate a little. "I really have a lot of time for you, Frank. I don't like being this angry boss guy, c'mon."
"I know," said Frank. He did know. He and Brian had been pretty tight before they'd started working together.
"But you make it really hard sometimes," Brian continued.
"I know," Frank repeated. His wrists were going crazy, this weird, throbbing ache that sent little shooting pains up the backs of his hands. He ignored them and said, "I'm really sorry, Brian. I'll be better."
Brian looked at him tiredly. "I yell at you a lot, huh."
Frank shrugged. "I guess I deserve it."
"Fuck." Brian rolled his shoulders and looked up at the ceiling, saying something to himself that Frank couldn't make out. "All right, get back to work."
"Okay," said Frank. He stood up and walked over to the door, then turned back. "Brian - thanks, man. For having my back. It means a lot to me."
Brian made an almost-laugh sound. "Yeah, well. You fuck up again and I'll have your fucking balls, never mind Darren Haywood."
Frank slunk back to his room and sat down on the stool in the corner, trying not to look too dejected and guilt-ridden. Around two nano-seconds went by before Ray was hovering anxiously in the doorway. "What," said Frank.
"He didn't mean it about the crew-cut, right?" Ray said worriedly. He stepped into the room and reached a hand out to smooth over Frank's hair. "Because I really don't think you have the bone structure for it."
Frank laughed and flipped him off. "Fuck you, I have the bone structure of a God."
Ray grinned at him and pulled him up and out into the main room. "C'mon, you need a trim. I got a few minutes before my next customer, right Mikey?"
Mikey turned a page in Cosmo Girl. "Fifteen."
"Awesome." Ray pushed Frank down into the chair and shook out a cape with a snap and a flourish. "Why the fuck does the hair on the back of your head grow so fucking fast, Iero, you wash it in Miracle-Gro?"
It was always soothing, having Ray do his hair. Mikey came in early every morning to be flat-ironed and waxed and primped and pampered, which - seriously, Frank loved Toro, but he loved his sleep more. Ray was actually really good, though, like he could have been working in one of the expensive salons in the city, no problem, but he said he wasn't interested in doing the same three haircuts all day, and anyway, the girls in those salons scared him.
"I mean, why are they orange?" he said now, when Frank reminded him of it. "It's not right. And they make you shill all that crappy designer hair shit, no thanks."
Ray felt about hair products the way Frank felt about food - as few animal products and as much 'shit from the Earth' as possible. He only used his own range of weird homemade hippy potions that were all named after Iron Maiden songs. The kids were crazy for it; Brian was trying to get it all okayed by some Board or another so they could sell it in the shop.
He finished buzzing the back of Frank's neck and stood up, kicking his wheeled stool off to the side. "You still thinking about growing it out?" he asked, pumping the pedal at the base of the chair to raise Frank higher.
"I don't know." Frank looked at his face in the mirror, considering. Behind him he could see Mikey staring out of the window, ignoring the ringing shop phone. He couldn't see Bob, but he could hear his needle buzzing. "Maybe."
"Just as long as those dreads remain a thing of the past," Ray said darkly. He snipped away a little, tilting Frank's head this way and that with the tips of his fingers. "Hey, what's up with your hands, man?"
Ray nodded downwards. "Either you're in pain or you're really, really, really not."
Frank looked down at his lap and realized he was rubbing his wrists again, the back and forth motion making the cape covering his arms billow rhythmically in a decidedly sketchy way. "Oh," he said, and giggled. "Yeah, my wrists are fucking sore, I don't even know."
"You want a massage?" said Ray sympathetically. The year before, Brian had made Ray take an Indian Head Massage course and Ray now thought of himself as a master.
Frank shook his head. "No, man, but thanks."
"All right." Ray put his scissors down and rummaged in the bin by the chair. "This is new," he said, displaying a tub of what looked like spackle to Frank. "I'm calling it Charlotte the Harlot."
Frank closed his eyes as Ray worked the Charlotte stuff into his hair. "Fuck, that smells amazing."
"I know, right?" Ray plucked fussily at the short hair by Frank's temples and ran his fingers through Frank's bangs, making them do this twisty thing Frank could never, ever replicate at home even though he did exactly what Ray did. "Better than that shit you're putting on your tattoo. I'm all for avoiding synthetics, Frank, but if you wanted something herbal, you know, you could have come to me."
"I know," Frank said, looking away guiltily. "I just didn't think."
Ray was just taking Frank's cape off when Mikey gave a sudden squawk, launched himself off the counter and ran out of the door.
"The hell," said Bob, looking up.
Mikey returned a minute later, tangled up with a dark-haired dude in a long black coat and like nine scarves. "Motherfucker," he was saying with his mouth mashed up against the dude's cheek. "Don't you ever leave me for that long again."
The dude laughed and hugged Mikey closer. "I missed you too."
They stood there cuddling and giggling for like, a hundred years. Frank raised his eyebrows at Ray in the mirror, but Ray wasn't looking, he was exchanging boggled expressions with Bob. Eventually Brian, who had slipped out of the back room at some point, cleared his throat and said, "Mikey, I like to think of myself as being pretty, uh, relaxed when it comes to your workday schedule, but I really think some things are best confined to the -"
"Oh," Mikey said, disentangling himself finally. "Gee, this is my boss, Brian, and that's Bob, and Ray, and Frank," he pointed to each of them in turn, then slung his arm back around the dude's neck. "Guys, this is my big brother Gerard."
"Hello," said Gerard, waving shyly.
"I don't hang on my brothers like that," Ray murmured to Frank as he got up from the chair.
"For real," Frank agreed, even though he didn't have any brothers. He offered Gerard his best smile and his hand to shake. "Hey, man, good to meet you. Mikey's told us exactly nothing about you."
Gerard smiled back and started to say something, but then stopped and took Frank's hand.
There was a sudden, marked, blessed drop in the pain in Frank's wrists. It was all Frank could do not to yelp out loud, it was so sudden.
Gerard turned Frank's hand over and bent down to inspect the back of it. "Interesting tattoo."
"Thanks!" Frank said, shooting Bob a look that said see?. Brian and Bob both rolled their eyes. "I just got her a couple days ago."
"Do you know what it is?"
"Um," said Frank. Gerard's hands were really warm, and the longer he touched Frank, the less Frank's wrists hurt. It was - it couldn't be real, Frank thought, it must be a brain trick of some kind, serotonin from sexual attraction distracting him or something. Gerard was pretty cute, after all. "An angel?"
"It's a seraph," Gerard said, looking up at Frank from under his bangs. "One of the seraphim, the highest choir of angels."
"I knew I'd seen it somewhere before," Mikey said. "Gee, c'mon, let me show you around."
"Okay," Gerard said. He straightened up, waited for a second, then said, "Uh."
"Oh!" Frank let go of his hand - fucking hell - and stepped back, laughing. "Sorry."
"It's okay," Gerard said, smiling again.
Frank's stomach flipped right over, and the pain flooded back into his wrists.
Mikey dragged his brother off to the other side of the shop, and Ray looked down at Frank's hand, frowning.
"Dude, that's so weird." Ray looked at Bob and said, "Yo, come check this out."
"What?" Frank looked down at his hand, too. "Oh."
"It's healed," Bob said, holding Frank's hand up and inspecting it. "It's - how can it be healed?"
"It can't be," Frank said. "I just got it, like - it can't be. It didn't even scab yet."
Bob ran his palm over the tattoo, frowning. "What the fuck is in that shit you're putting on it, Frank?"
Frank shook his head, trying not to flinch or wince at the pain every time Bob turned his hand over or back again. "I don't know. It wasn't healed this morning."
Bob raised his eyebrows.
"It wasn't!" Frank pulled his hand away and hid it behind his back, like that would make it less weird. "Maybe he used a special needle, I don't know!"
"A special needle," Ray said flatly. Frank gave him the finger with his free hand.
Bob was still frowning. "This is too weird."
"What's weird is a tattoo artist with no ink," Frank shot back. "You're a freak of nature, Bryar, don't go pointing fingers."
He went back to his room, vaguely aware of Mikey saying his brother was leaving. Frank was too busy staring at his hand to say goodbye.
It couldn't be healed already. It couldn't.
But it was.
By the next day, the pain was unbearable. Even repeated applications of the stuff Luke gave him weren't touching it, and Frank finally had to admit defeat after his last appointment when a spasm almost caused him to pierce some poor dude's skull during a routine industrial.
"Jesus," Frank groaned, curled up in a chair in the back room, both hands held close to his chest. "Fuck, fuck, what the fuck is it now?"
Brian stood in the corner of the room, watching Frank with his arms folded and his mouth all pinched up like he'd eaten an entire bag of lemons. "You're fucking kidding me, Frank, right?"
Frank opened his mouth to tell Brian to fuck off, but then another wave of pain went shooting through his wrists and all that came out was a moan.
"I don't think he's faking, Brian." Ray was crouched next to the chair, one hand rubbing Frank's knee. "I think he needs a doctor."
Frank banged his head against the back of the chair. "I fucking hate the free clinic, man."
Brian frowned. "Why can't you just-"
"They refused his Medicaid again," Bob said quietly from the corner.
Brian, who Frank knew wanted to offer them benefits but just hadn't figured out a way to afford it yet, let his face shift minutely away from rage and towards guilt. "Oh."
Frank closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing and not throwing up from the pain. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
"I'll drive you," Bob said.
Mikey rode along and Bob dropped them off - he offered to cancel his afternoon appointment but Mikey said, "No, the guy's leaving for Africa next week and you're booked solid."
"You need anything?" he asked, when he'd filled in Frank's forms for him and they were getting settled in amongst the drunks and the bums for the inevitable year-long wait.
"Your brother," Frank said without thinking, and then wanted to bite out his own tongue. What the fuck was he supposed to say next, 'your brother's hands have magical healing qualities and if my wrists don't stop hurting soon I'm going to break down and cry?'
Mikey didn't even look surprised. He just sighed and said, "Dude, there's something you need to know about Gerard. He's-"
"Jesus Christ," said a voice, and Frank looked up to see a familiar face staring down at him with an equally familiar look of exasperation. "Frank, what the fuck, I thought we agreed I wouldn't have to see your face for at least a month?"
Frank smiled weakly. "Hi, Doctor Durning."
Durning rolled his eyes and gestured at Frank. "Come on, asshole, let's make this quick. There are other people in this state need medical care, you know."
"I missed you, what can I say?" Frank waited for Mikey to gather their things, then followed Durning off to one of the treatment rooms on the side.
Durning motioned at Frank to hop up onto the examining table and snapped on a pair of gloves. "What is it this time, the aliens in your sinuses or the cave trolls in your stomach?"
"Uh." Frank shot Mikey a look, but Mikey just looked intrigued. "Neither, actually. It's - my wrists hurt."
Durning rolled his stool over to sit in front of Frank and clicked on the overhead light. "'Jerkoff marathon' hurt or 'nanobots mining you for calcium' hurt?"
"Nanobots with napalm," Frank told him. He gritted his teeth and looked away when Durning took his hands and gently extended his forearms. "It started two days ago."
"Any trauma you know of? Throw yourself off any buildings?"
Frank rolled his eyes, and then hissed when Durning pressed his thumb against his veins. "Motherfucker, that was only one time, okay, you have to let that shit - fuck me that hurts - go."
"He got a new tattoo on his hand," Mikey piped up from the corner, ignoring the glare Frank threw him. "He's been rubbing this weird crap on his skin."
Durning gave Frank a hard look, then turned to Mikey. "You bring it?"
"Yeah." Mikey dug it out of Frank's bag and threw it to Durning. "Also his dog ran away, his apartment was broken into and he might have made a guy's balls turn black and drop off."
"Mikey!" Frank yelped. "I will fuck you up."
Mikey looked unperturbed. "Stress can manifest in strange ways," he said knowingly.
Durning sniffed the ointment and made a face. "Smells like my Grandma."
"That's what Bob said," Mikey told him.
Durning waved the tub at Frank. "Who gave you this?"
"It's just for my tattoo," Frank said, his fingers twitching with the urge to snatch the tub back. "The guy who inked me made it."
"You know the guy?" Durning asked Mikey.
"Nobody does," Mikey shook his head. "Bob was mad."
"Our tattoo artist." Mikey shot Frank a wounded little look. "We're not supposed to go to anyone else, let alone a stranger."
"Frank." Durning shook his head. "You have the immune system of a blueberry muffin, man, it's bad enough you stick shit under your skin and through your nose and God only knows where else, but now you're slathering on some concoction made by some skank you don't even know?"
"It's just herbs," Frank gritted out.
"You don't know what it is." Durning took a Q-tip and dipped it into the goo, then screwed it into a sterile container. "I'll see if I can swing a favor in the lab, get this tested. Plants can be really dangerous, Frank."
Frank rolled his eyes. "I don't need a botanist, doc, I need some fucking painkillers."
"Your wrists aren't even swollen," Durning said, standing up. He snapped off his gloves. "Try warm or cold compresses, rest and elevation, Tylenol."
"Tylenol don't do shit," Frank said, scrambling off the table. "I need something stronger. Vicodin, whatever, Oxy-"
"OxyContin?" Durning folded his arms. "You think I'm gonna write you a scrip for OxyfuckingContin because you give me the big eyes? I've been working here fourteen years, Frank, I'm not some fucking green intern."
"And I'm not some fucking junkie!" Frank snapped. "I can't work like this, man, come on."
Durning shrugged. "Your friend said you were under stress, why don't you take a few days off, get some rest."
"I'll lose my fucking job!" Frank darted around Durning when he turned to leave, blocking the door. "Man, do you think I would be here in this shithole if I could afford to take time off? You know me, Durning, please!"
His voice cracked on the please and he looked down, hot and embarrassed. The room was silent except for the hum of the fluorescent light. Frank could see Mikey's feet on the floor, toes turned in.
"Two days' worth," Durning said finally. "Vicodin, not Oxy. That's the best I can do."
"Thank you," said Frank resisting the urge to hug Durning. "Thank you."
"Stop putting that crap on your wrists," Durning ordered as he left. "And I don't want to see you for two months this time, got it?"
"Got it," said Frank.
Mikey kept hold of the pills until they were back in Frank's apartment, not letting Frank take one until he was settled in bed. "It would have worn off otherwise.".
Mikey went to the bathroom, then made a phone call in the other room. By the time he came back the Vicodin was starting to work, blurring the edges of the throb under Frank's skin. Frank waited for Mikey to get under the covers, then shifted closer, rolling onto his stomach.
Mikey pushed Frank's hair out of his face, then tucked his skinny arm around Frank's shoulders. "You okay?"
"I don't know," Frank said. Mikey hummed and rubbed Frank's back a little. "Brian's gonna yell."
"He won't yell," Mikey mumbled. "Bob was really worried. Brian won't yell."
"He'll yell," Frank insisted. "He'll yell in front of everyone and it'll be the worst thing ever."
Mikey touched the back of his neck. "You're stoned," he said fondly, drawing his arm back. "Go to sleep."
"Thanks for staying," Frank slurred. "Hey, what did you want to tell me about-"
There was a split second pause between the impact and the pain, like getting hit with something heavy, all the breath knocking out of him and then the air rushed back into his lungs and his back was on fire.
"What the fuck," he choked out, and then he couldn't talk anymore, because he was screaming.
The blows came one after the other, never enough time between them for Frank to get his breath. He could barely breathe anyway - there was something on the back of his head, someone holding him down, he could feel their fingers digging into his scalp, keeping him there, pushing his face deep into the mattress. The pain was like nothing Frank had ever felt before; not coming from inside him but down onto him, heavy and sharp and so big, striking him from shoulders to knees, up and down, again and again and again. He tried to turn over, tried to get enough purchase in the sheets to pull himself away, to get away from it but there was that hand on his head and his wrists were tied, he could feel it now, feel the rope cutting into his flesh whenever he twisted and pulled and tried to get free.
He could hear Mikey, hear him yelling Frank's name and Frank thought, shit, shit, Mikey, get out of here but then another blow fell between his shoulder blades and he felt his skin tear with a bright, wet flash, like being slit open with a knife and peeled.
It didn't stop. It still didn't stop, he was bleeding and they were still beating him, they were going to take off his fucking skin. The pain wasn't like a wave or like anything he'd ever read about, it was just constant, it just went on and on and on, he was drowning in it, it was filling up his nose and ears and mouth and getting inside him, he could feel it everywhere, there was nowhere to go. He tried to call out, tried to beg for them to stop, but his voice was muffled by the mattress and clogged with tears, his throat hoarse from screaming and the noises he could make were lost under these sounds he could hear, these sounds like hundreds of people murmuring to each other.
How can they watch this?, he thought, and then, they hate me, and then a blow fell with a sick, sharp thud right under his ear, and he felt the darkness rushing up to meet him and fell gratefully inside.
When he woke up, it was to Mikey's face, white and tear-stained and striped all down one side with blood.
"Shit," Frank croaked, his throat dry and raw. "Mikey, did they hurt you? Did they hurt you?"
Mikey shook his head. He was holding Frank's hand.
"Are they gone?" Frank managed, carefully not looking at the red sheets under his arm. They were white before.
Mikey shook his head again. His mouth was pressed into a tight, pale line, like he was trying not to throw up or cry out or something.
Frank took a few deep, slow breaths, fighting his own battle not to throw up all over the bed. "Mikey, what is it? Are they still here? Who was it?"
"It wasn't anyone," Mikey said eventually, in a tiny voice Frank could barely hear. "Frankie, it wasn't anyone."
"What do you mean?"
"There was nobody here," Mikey said, his voice cracking. "It was - you were screaming, and you were jerking around everywhere and then, and then you were bleeding, and there was nobody here."
There was silence for a few minutes. The blood in Frank's veins pulsed in time with the hot, sick throb of his back.
"We should call an ambulance," Mikey said, standing up. "We should - shit, Frank, you're going to fucking bleed to death and I'm just fucking sitting here-"
"I'm okay," Frank said. Mikey barked out a laugh. "Really, no, I'm - I think I'm okay."
It was the truth. It hurt, yeah, Frank felt like he'd gone up against a giant cheese grater and lost, but it didn't hurt like - like he thought it should. He moved his arms and legs a little, cautiously, and it pulled at his back but wasn't unbearable or anything. "Can you help me get up?"
"I don't think you should move," Mikey said, but he came to Frank anyway, hooked his hands under Frank's armpits and levered him up onto his hands and knees.
Moving was worse, moving made it feel like his skin was held together by cobwebs or something, like it would all rip away and fall apart if he stretched the wrong way. But they went slow, and Mikey helped him, and eventually Frank managed to stand up by the bed, holding on tight to Mikey's forearms.
"Dude, this is fucking sick," Mikey said. "You're hardcore."
Frank laughed a little, holding on tighter when his knees wobbled under him. Mikey walked him to the bathroom, which took a really long time and was not a journey Frank wanted to repeat. He gripped the sink and tried to catch his breath. "Can you take a look?"
Frank braced himself while Mikey peeled his T-shirt away, lifted it over his head and worked it down his arms, muttering apologies whenever Frank hissed and winced. He pulled the waistband of Frank's sweats out as far as it would go and levered them down too, lifting Frank's feet in turn to get him out of them. Frank got a glimpse of shredded, wet fabric and closed his eyes, swallowing against the acid nausea in his throat. "Well?"
Mikey didn't say anything for a second. Frank felt cool fingertips tracing gently over his shoulders, down his spine, a careful touch on the back of his thigh. Then he said, "You're not bleeding."
"What?" Frank tried to turn his head to look and then changed his mind in a hurry when his skin screamed at him. "Mikey, there's blood everywhere."
"I know," Mikey said shortly, "And you're fucked up, dude, you're a - you're a mess, but you're not bleeding. I mean, anymore."
Frank rested his forehead against the mirrored cabinet over the sink. "This is fucked up."
"That too," said Mikey, with feeling.
Mikey helped him into the shower and climbed in with him, still in his shirt and boxers. Frank clung to his hands and bowed his head under the spray - the water stung like a bitch and he had to push his face against Mikey's bony shoulder and concentrate on breathing.
It was sort of Zen after a while, if he kept his eyes on Mikey's soaking socked feet and not the rust-colored water swirling around them into the drain. Mikey kept the spray cool at first, then slowly let it warm up. "Let me take another look," he said, urging Frank around to rest against the wall.
Frank slumped where Mikey put him, pressing his hot face against the cool, wet tile. "Do I even have any skin left for you to look at?"
"Yeah, dude, it's so bizarre." Mikey pressed the flat of his hand against the back of Frank's neck. "I wouldn't believe this if I hadn't - it's mostly healed already."
"It doesn't fucking feel healed," Frank said incredulously. Then he had a dreadful thought and said, "Oh, fucking hell, are my tattoos all fucked up?"
There was a silence.
"Fuck," said Frank, thunking his forehead off the wall.
"Well, at least you're maintaining your sense of perspective," Mikey said dryly, stepping out of the shower. He stripped off his socks. "Hold still, I'll get a towel."
"Not the yellow one, it pills," Frank called after him. He felt strong enough to move by himself, so he stepped gingerly out onto the floor and went to stand in front of the sink again. "Mikey, can you bring the mirror from the other room?"
Mikey came back with the mirror and two pink towels. "Dude," he said doubtfully when he saw where Frank was standing, "I don't know if you should-"
"I want to see," Frank interrupted him. "Hold it up."
Mikey hesitated for a second, then rolled his eyes and held the mirror up in front of Frank, so Frank could see his back reflected in the bathroom cabinet.
"Oh," said Frank. "Oh, shit."
It wasn't as bad as he'd been expecting - he didn't know what that was, exactly, but it had felt like he was being flayed down to the bone, so he didn't expect the marks to be so slender, the skin knitted roughly back together with long, skinny, livid scabs, each one raised and red around the edges, like someone had thumbed a wide stripe of blush over the top. His 'Keep the Faith' was illegible, the pumpkin looked like someone had gone at it with a hacksaw (with a fucking whip laughed a nasty, hysterical little voice in Frank's mind) and the marks clawed their way down over his ass and thighs, too, the lowest tailing off before the crease of his knees.
But he wasn't bleeding. The wounds weren't open. He really was mostly healed.
"It's like your tattoo," Mikey said softly, putting the mirror down and handing Frank a towel to wrap around his waist. "The tattoo on your hand."
It was only then that Frank realized the pain in his wrists had completely disappeared.
The bedroom was a fucking mess. The sheets were ruined, stained a dirty, deep orange-red, and more blood was smeared over the floor and spattered over the wall.
"How are you not dead?" Mikey said, and then snapped his mouth shut when Frank raised his eyebrows. "I didn't mean - it's just there's so much. It looks like, well…"
"Like somebody bled to death," Frank finished dully. He felt exhausted suddenly, too tired to think about what had happened, about the pain, how it had felt, that awful certainty that he was hated and nobody would help him. "I need to sleep."
"The guy from the apartment across the hall came over before," said Mikey, going to Frank's closet and opening it. "He heard you screaming. I told him we were watching a movie."
Frank dropped his towel on the floor and let Mikey help him into sweats and a soft T-shirt he usually only wore to sleep in. "Some fucking movie."
"Yeah." Mikey moved around, getting more clothes and putting them in Frank's backpack. He dropped his own wet shirt on the floor and put on a pair of Frank's jeans, which were way too big and hilariously short on him, and his own hoodie. "Come on, you can sleep at my place."
Work the next day was pretty much hell. Frank's back didn't hurt any worse than, say, a new tattoo would, but there was a reason you didn't get tattooed from your shoulders to your knees all in one go. Frank knew he was moving weirdly, but he just ignored Ray and Bob's questioning glances and kept his head down.
"You shouldn't fucking be here," Mikey said in his ear at one point.
"What was I supposed to say?" Frank snapped on a fresh pair of gloves. "Sorry Brian, I can't make it in today, last night I got held down and whipped by an invisible sadist?"
"I'd back you up," Mikey shrugged.
Frank snorted and shook his head. "I appreciate that, man, but-"
"Frank!" Brian appeared from nowhere and smiled. "You're here!"
Frank avoided Mikey's eyes. "I'm here."
"Your wrists are okay?"
"Yeah, they don't hurt at all," Frank said, which wasn't a lie.
"Awesome, man." Brian beamed at him and slapped his shoulder on his way out of the back room.
Frank bit down so hard on his tongue to keep from crying out that he tasted blood.
"Shit." Mikey ran over and dug in Frank's bag until he found the Vicodin. "Here," he said, shaking out a pill. "Take this, come on."
Frank swallowed it dry and leaned heavily on Mikey for a minute. "Great, now I'm gonna be piercing stoned."
"Better than writhing in agony," Mikey said.
"What the fuck is going on?" Ray whispered, sidling in. "Shit, Frankie, are you okay?"
Frank shook his head. "It's nothing."
"It's not fucking nothing, you're green." Ray folded his arms and looked hard at Mikey. "What's wrong with him?"
"Nothing," Mikey repeated, his eyes darting around shiftily. The phone rang then and Mikey practically raced to answer it.
"Okay," said Ray, watching him. "Now I know something's going on. Mikey hasn't answered the shop phone in two months." Ray turned back to face Frank and wrinkled his forehead anxiously. "What really happened at the clinic?"
"Ray, forget it." Frank walked out in the main room and beckoned to the kid with a mohawk sitting by the door reading Home and Garden. "Hey, man, you wanna come on over?"
Ray stepped back to let the kid through. "You know, most people tell their hairdresser everything."
Frank rolled his eyes.
"We're taking you out after work," Ray said, leaning in the doorway. "Me and Bob and Mikey. To get shitfaced, okay?"
Frank said fervently, "So very, very okay," and got down to business putting a hole through Mohawk Kid's lip.
The club they went to was noisy and dark and Frank had drunk enough at the bar beforehand not to care about the fact that his shoes stuck to the floor. It didn't matter. He had the best friends in the world and his back didn't even hurt anymore, and through the haze of booze and loud music it felt like the whole haunted whipping thing had been a really disturbing dream.
"Going out with you is like Goodfellas," he yelled in Mikey's ear after the doorman had given Mikey some complicated handshake and waved them all through free of charge. "You know, the part where Ray Liotta says he's in construction."
"You shouldn't even be here," Mikey yelled back. "What if you start bleeding through your shirt, or the…the thing from last night happens again?"
Frank waved him off. It felt really good to be out, to be dancing and laughing and doing normal stuff, the stuff he should be doing, not worrying about infected scrotums and fucked-up wrists and angry, violent ghosts. Frank danced with a girl who had a flower painted on the side of her face, and a boy with those grafted-on fangs that Frank thought were stupid and kind of hot in equal measure. A few more scary blue drinks and he was on the fucking podium with one of the club's dancing girls making an idiot out of himself, but whatever, he was having a good time.
"Your friend is good dancer," the girl said to Mikey when they were taking a break at the bar. "You don't bring him here before, Mikey, you make me sad."
"You have an accent," Frank giggled, with his head on her shoulder.
The girl patted his face. "You have hangover in morning."
Mikey was looking into Frank's eyes. "Frank, I think you've had enough to drink."
"Noooooo." Frank levered himself upright and fell forward against the bar. "You just want to keep all the fun for yourself, Mikeyway."
"You had all that Vicodin before," Mikey reminded him. "Bob'll kick my ass if I let you drink yourself to death."
Frank waved him off. "Whatever, you're - you're hoarding the fun. You're a fun-vampire. Funpire."
"Funpire," said the dancing girl, and laughed. Mikey had his arm around her waist.
"Hey," said Frank, leaning close to be heard. "Why didn't you bring your brother out tonight?"
"Not really his scene," Mikey said. He looked uncomfortable, Frank thought, but that might be because dancing accent girl was sticking her hand down his pants in front of everybody.
"Your brother's hot," Frank said, tossing back the last of his drink. "Your brother - Mikey, did I tell you how it feels when he touches me?"
Mikey wasn't listening. Mikey was doing a little pants-exploring of his own. Fucking Mikey. The dude had more sex than anybody Frank knew, and he didn't even seem to try.
"I'm going to the bathroom," Frank said to nobody, and stumbled off in what he thought was the right direction.
When he had to close one eye to see straight enough to pee, he thought maybe Mikey was right about the booze. Frank rinsed out a glass someone had left and filled it up with clean water. He drained the whole thing, then twice more, then splashed some water on his face and leaned heavily over the sink, staring at his face in the mirror.
"You're drunk," he told himself. The dude pissing behind him gave him a weird look. Frank ignored it. "You're drunk and you should go home."
Except he couldn't go home, because he didn't have any money for a cab and he didn't know how to get back from here, and also there was the whole bedroom covered in blood issue, the thought of which did more to sober Frank up than any amount of water.
He slipped out of the bathroom and was making his way down the narrow hall back to the main room when a hand shot out and grabbed his shirt, yanking him through a door he hadn't even noticed was there, into the alley outside.
"What the fuck," Frank said. The lamp over his head cast a tight circle of light around his feet - he couldn't see a fucking thing outside of it. "What the fuck is this?"
"You got some nice moves, Iero," a voice Frank didn't recognize said. He could make out shapes moving in the darkness in front of him. "Saw you dancing. Pity you're not so smooth when you're working."
"What?" Frank tried to move away from the wall, but one of the shapes rushed forwards and transformed into a mean-looking skinhead, who slammed Frank back into the wall. Frank cried out - he was only wearing a T-shirt and the sharp brick scraped over the wounds on his back. "Motherfucker, let me go, I will fuck you up."
The skinhead sneered at him. "Like you fucked up my buddy's balls, is that it?"
Frank stared at him, everything slotting into a place that made sense as two more dudes shifted out of the darkness behind him. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."
"No joke," said the skinhead, and pulled his fist back behind his head.
Frank was drunk and hurt and kind of shitty at fighting, but he was small and he was fast, and he ducked out just in time to send the skinhead's fist flying directly into the wall. The guy yelled angrily and whirled around - his friends grabbed Frank, an arm each, practically lifting him off the ground.
Good citizen, good citizen, he thought frantically. What the fuck would Brian want him to say?
"Guys, I get that you're pissed off," he said out loud, trying to sound reasonable and confident and not scared out of his mind. "Okay, but hurting me isn't gonna help Darren's case at all."
"We don't care about his case," said one of the dudes holding Frank. "We care about justice."
"Justice? What - ah, fuck!" Frank cried out again when they slammed him back up against the wall, pinning him there. They were so much stronger than him - Frank struggled and struggled but he could barely move, and he had a horrible flashback of the night before, of being pinned and helpless and at the mercy of someone who had none. "Come on, this is stupid, the lawyers-"
The back of the skinhead's hand connected with Frank's face with a noise like a whip cracking, and Frank's head practically spun on his shoulders.
"Shut up, dickbreath," the skinhead said. "The lawyers are gonna take your money," he smiled, the expression bizarrely sweet in his mean-ass face. He slid something out of his pocket - fuck, Frank thought, what is it, a gun, a condom, he's going to fucking rape me oh Jesus Christ - and leaned close to Frank. He whispered, "And we're gonna take your balls."
The thing in his hand was a flick knife.
Fuck being a good citizen. Fuck that.
"I swear to God, if you lay one finger on me I will bite your fucking dick off," Frank spat, writhing and kicking as hard and fast as he could.
"Hold him," the skinhead ordered, and he was reaching for Frank when the entire world went white and Frank's head was filled with blinding pain.
He was dimly aware of his body arching and twisting, of them letting him go, letting him fall heavily to the ground. Mostly the only thing he knew was the pain, though, the sharp points of pain driving themselves into his scalp.
Something heavy hit the back of his head and the needles - they were needles, Frank realized. He knew what it felt like to have sharp things rammed into your flesh - around his head drove in further, making Frank grab at his head and try to pull them away, pull them off, but someone - the guys in the alley, what were they doing to him - grabbed them and held them down and the heavy thing hit him again, and the needles scraped further down inside his skin, against his skull, he could feel them snapping and embedding inside him.
Warmth ran down his face, warmth and wetness - blood, Frank thought dimly, I'm bleeding again - and dripped into his open mouth. There were those sounds again, the murmuring crowd, but this time there was laughter too and someone was calling him names. It wasn't English, he couldn't understand them and he tried to tell them that, tell them he couldn't understand why they were so angry, but whatever it was he was sorry, he just wanted them to stop, and then someone was shaking him and pulling him up, cradling him, and saying his name over and over and over again.
"Frankie, Frankie, come on, wake up!"
Frank opened his eyes blearily, blinking blood away and squinting up into Mikey's face. "What," he said thickly.
Over Mikey's shoulder there was movement, and Frank realized it was Bob and Ray and some guys he didn't recognize, security maybe, and that the guys who'd jumped Frank were pretty much on the floor.
"Don't," he tried, and had to turn his head to the side and cough out a mouthful of blood before he could carry on. "Don't hurt them."
"What?" Bob stared at him crazily. "Frankie, you-"
"Because of the case," Frank said, letting his head fall back again. Mikey hugged him close. "Brian said I gotta keep my nose clean."
"Fuck Brian! Fuck your nose!" Bob had his knee in the middle of the skinhead's back and his arms twisted up behind him. "You look like road kill, Frank, what did they do, try to rip off your face and wear it as a mask?"
"It wasn't us," the skinhead said, and then screamed when Bob did something twisty with his wrists.
"Shut the fuck up," Bob said grimly. "I will pound you into the fucking floor."
"It wasn't us," one of the other guys repeated, a security guy's big hand fisted in his jacket. He looked terrified. "I mean, we were gonna-"
"Shut your fucking mouth!" said the skinhead, and then Bob made him scream again.
"But then he was just screaming and bleeding and shit," the other guy continued, looking at the third guy for confirmation, Frank guessed, but the third guy looked so freaked out he was practically rocking back and forth. "But it wasn't us, I swear to God!"
Ray looked over at Frank. "Frankie? Was it them?"
Frank looked up at one of the security dudes. "You guys got security cameras out here?"
The guy shook his head.
"Yeah," Frank said, spitting more blood out of his mouth. "Yeah, it was them."
"You fucking liar!" the skinhead started yelling, and then everyone was shouting, the security guards were barking into their walkie-talkie things and Ray and Bob were yelling about the police and public safety.
Frank just clung to Mikey's jacket. Mikey touched Frank's sticky forehead and Frank saw his fingers come away wet with blood.
"Was it them?" Mikey asked quietly, wiping his thumb under Frank's eye.
Frank didn't say anything.
"Shit," Mikey said.
"I still don't understand why the fuck you aren't pressing charges," Ray said when he was giving Frank a ride back to his place from Mikey's the next morning. "They could have killed you."
"But they didn't," Frank said, looking out of the window. He could see his own pale face in the wing mirror, distorted by the angle and the glass. The marks on his forehead stood out, red and stark - he pushed his hair forward to cover them. "Besides, I think Brian would have a fucking heart attack."
Ray thumped the steering wheel, making Frank jump. "This is so fucked up. You get jumped by three crazy ball-harvesting assholes and you have to let it go because, what, it won't look good in court if you complain about it? No jury on earth is gonna blame you for not being okay with that, dude."
Frank laughed under his breath. "Probably not."
"So then why wouldn't you let the club call the police?" Ray flicked his wipers. "You're just gonna let them get away with it? That's not like you."
"I'm pretty sure Bob broke that guy's arm," Frank reminded him. "And I was drunk, and the whole club saw me on that fucking podium, wasted out of my mind - ah, fuck." Frank's head throbbed suddenly and painfully, his hangover and the cuts in his skin really working together as a team of horrible pain.
"Are you gonna hurl?" Ray leaned over and started winding the window down, his elbow jabbing Frank right in the ribs. "I love you, man, but I just had these seats re-upholstered."
"I'm not gonna hurl on your fucking seats," Frank bit out, pressing both of his hands flat over his forehead. He ground the heels of his hands into his eyes until he saw red. "Fuck, I should have saved some fucking Vicodin for this."
Ray made a sympathetic noise. "You didn't think to keep one back in case of forehead-abuse?"
Frank laughed and then moaned when that made it worse. "I always did lack foresight."
Ray pulled over outside Frank's building and waited for Frank to get his stuff from the back seat. "Hey, any news on Ella?"
"What?" Frank was distracted trying to persuade all his crap to not fall out of his unzipped backpack as he levered it over the headrest.
"Ella," Ray repeated. He looked at Frank like he was crazy. "Your dog? The one who went missing? You put fliers up all over town?"
"Oh." Frank blinked at the windscreen. "You know what - I'd forgotten."
"What? You were crazy about that stupid dog, Frank."
"I know." Frank's stomach felt weird, cold and upset somehow, the creeping dreadful feeling sliding out slowly into his limbs, like when you realize you forgot your homework, or someone overheard you talking shit about them. "Fuck. I don't know, man, I guess there's been a lot going on."
"Hmm." Ray looked at him doubtfully, then reached out suddenly and pushed Frank's hair off his forehead, touching his fingertips to Frank's skin. "You know, these don't look like they were made with a knife."
Frank stayed as still as he could, staring down at his bag in his lap. The cuts stung and he felt like if he concentrated enough he'd be able to feel it again, the sharp points driving in, the sick drag of them in his skin and against his skull. He'd pushed his fingers into his own hair in Mikey's bathroom that morning and felt the raised lines scoring his scalp in a jagged, broken circle, all the way around.
Ray sighed and took his hand away. "You need me to come up?"
Frank got a sudden flash of the scene in his apartment, blood everywhere, and swallowed. "No, man. Thanks for the ride."
"Any time," said Ray, leaning over Frank to open the door for him. "I'll see you Monday."
His bedroom was even worse than he remembered. Two days had turned the blood this awful brown color, and the stink when Frank opened the door almost knocked him unconscious for like, the fifteenth time in two days.
Mikey was right. It really did look like someone had bled to death.
Frank dropped his bag, took a deep breath, and got to work. He opened his windows first, because the street outside his house smelled like car fumes and hotdogs, which was infinitely preferable to eau de murder scene. The sheets were a fucking write-off, so he just grabbed the corners with the least blood on them and used them like mittens to bundle everything into a ball, which he wrestled into a trash bag. His pillows went in another one, and he set them both by the door.
Fuck. He didn't think 'soft furnishings soaked in your own life force' was on the list of Suitable Items for the Trash Chute the super had given him the day he'd moved in. He'd have to burn them later, instead. That's what people always did with blood-stained stuff in those crime dramas his Mom liked so much, CSI New Hampshire or whatever.
"What happened to those sheets, I bought you, sweetheart?" he said to himself when he was scrubbing blood off the wall with dishwashing detergent. He dunked his sponge in the bucket of water next to him and squeezed it out. "Oh, yeah, thanks for buying those for me, Mom. I have a ghost who's into sado-masochism or some shit, and I guess he forgot to give me a safe word, and the sheets kind of got caught in the crossfire."
Once the wall was free of bloody aftermath, Frank mopped the floor like ninety-seven times, pouring bucket after bucket of brackish water down the toilet until his knuckles were raw from scrubbing and he couldn't smell anything but Lysol Pine Action.
He was standing by the bed, rubbing his aching head and wondering if he could call his Mom to ask her how the fuck you got a shitload of blood out of a mattress when there was a knock at his door.
"Shit." Frank checked his clothes for blood spatters, shut the bedroom door behind him and went to look through the peephole.
It was Mikey's magical brother. The peephole made him look three feet tall with a gigantic head, but it was definitely him, wearing a leather jacket and even more scarves than last time and peering anxiously at the door, biting his nails.
"Shit," Frank said again, and then Gerard's eyes met his and Frank knew he couldn't see him, he knew that, but he ducked anyway and ran quickly over to - fuck, fuck, his fucking mirror was in the bathroom from the other night. "Just a second!" he called, and raced in there to make sure he didn't have a giant blood smear on his cheek, or anything more mundanely unfortunate like spinach in his teeth.
He pushed his hair down over his forehead again, wiped his hands on his shirt - fuck, he was stinking of cleaning fluid, but there was nothing he could do about that - and went back to the door.
"Okay," he said to himself, and opened it.
"Hi!" said Gerard, pulling his fingers out of his mouth and giving Frank the same shy wave he'd given when they'd met. "Uh, do you remember me? I'm Mikey's brother, we met at your work the other day?"
"Oh, yeah, I think so," Frank lied, leaning against the doorjamb in a way he hoped looked nonchalant. "Gerard, right?"
Gerard beamed at him. "Yes! Man, people never remember that. I always get called Gareth or Jeremy, for some reason."
"You don't look like a Jeremy," Frank told him.
"I know!" Gerard nodded enthusiastically, still smiling. "Anyway, uh, I brought you a mattress."
Frank blinked at him. "A what?"
"A mattress!" Gerard stepped back and Frank followed him out into the hall. Sure enough, there was a mattress leaning against the wall next to Frank's door. "Mikey said something happened to yours? And this one was donated to our lady just yesterday."
"Your lady?" Frank raised his eyebrows. "Who's your lady?"
Gerard laughed and waved his hands. "No, no - Our Lady. Our Lady of Compassion? It's a church a few blocks from here. They have charity drives, you know, clothes, food."
"Mattresses," Frank grinned.
Gerard grinned back. "Yeah. Anyway, I asked if you could have it, and they said nobody else was interested, so I got a friend of mine to give me a hand getting it over here, and, well, here I am," he finished uncertainly, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Is this totally weird"?
"Not compared to most things that have happened to me lately," Frank said, shaking his head. A mattress. Mikey's gorgeous brother brought him a mattress. Maybe things were looking up.
"Nobody died on it or anything," Gerard said anxiously. "I mean, I think it's pretty new."
"It's awesome," Frank said, really meaning it. "Can you help me get it inside?"
Gerard helped Frank push and pull the mattress into his apartment, then followed Frank into the bedroom to get rid of the old one.
"Wow," he said, staring down at the stains. "Bad nosebleed?"
"Don't even ask," Frank said, grabbing the handles on his side. "Okay, over to me and then we'll shove it out into the hall, okay?"
Gerard nodded. "Okay. Oh, wait, let me take my jacket off."
"Put it on the couch," Frank nodded towards his living room. Gerard headed off and Frank called after him, "You know, this is a first for me."
"You don't usually accept bedroom furniture from strangers?" Gerard called back.
"Nobody ever gave me any before." Frank noticed a stray spatter of blood on his nightstand and licked his thumb, rubbing over the mark. "A girl sent me flowers once, but hot guys bringing me beds is new."
"First time for everything," Gerard said, coming back into the room.
Frank rubbed at the mark one last time. "Yeah, some might even say it's a little presumptuous for a-" he looked up and completely forgot what he was going to say. "Priest."
Gerard said, "What?" and then touched the collar around his neck. "Oh! Yeah. Mikey didn't tell you?"
"He did not," Frank said, staring at Gerard's throat. A priest. A priest. And here Frank thought the worst that could happen was that he might be straight. Frank snapped his eyes up to Gerard's face and said, "Oh, God, I called you a hot guy!"
Gerard nodded solemnly. "You did."
"Augh." Frank covered his face, hoping it might all just…go away if he thought hard enough about it, but when he peeped through his fingers, Gerard was still there. "I called you a hot guy," Frank moaned. "You're a priest and I called you a hot guy."
"It's okay," Gerard smiled, rolling one of his sleeves up. "You actually made my day."
Frank stared hopelessly at the ceiling. "Oh, man, my Mom is really angry with me right now and she doesn't even know why."
Gerard laughed - he had the same laugh as Mikey, Frank thought, high-pitched and scratchy and stupid and totally infectious - and rolled up his other sleeve. "Forget it, it's fine. Are we moving this mattress or what?"
Frank didn't think they could leave the mattress out in the hall without someone calling the cops or like, a news crew, so they had to wrestle it down to the alley outside. Gerard was obviously a seriously nice guy if he went around bringing people mattresses and praying for their immortal souls, but the dude couldn't tell left from right when he was going backwards, and more than once Frank thought he was going to have to explain to Mikey why his brother was dead in the stairwell of Frank's building with a broken neck and a mattress on top of him.
Finally they managed to get the mattress down and out in the alley, and between them they managed to lift it into one of the dumpsters.
"Fuck," Gerard panted, wiping his hands on his shirt. "Those things are heavier than they look."
Frank laughed, more out of surprise than anything else. "I don't think I ever heard a priest swear before."
"You ever hear a priest talk outside of a sermon?"
Frank had to think about it. He held the door open for Gerard on the way back into the building. "You know what, I don't think I have."
"Well, that's why." Gerard flashed him a grin.
In the elevator, Frank had to actively work on not staring at Gerard like an idiot. All the priests Frank had ever met had been grey or balding, with wrinkled hands and round, solid stomachs under their robes or plain, staid clothes. Gerard was young. Gerard wore a leather jacket. Gerard was hot. Gerard was, by definition, celibate.
Frank was the unluckiest person in the world, ever.
"You want a coffee?" he asked when they got back to his apartment. "It's the least I can do, man."
"Sure," Gerard's face lit up at the mention of coffee. "Hey, can I smoke in here?"
"Knock yourself out." Frank went into the kitchen and thumped his head deliberately against the cabinet over the sink, which was a mistake because it made all the cuts in his scalp yammer angrily at him.
Gerard was sitting on the couch when Frank carried the mugs into the living room, smoking and looking at a picture of Frank and Mikey that Frank had on his coffee table. "Hey, when was this taken?"
"Like a year ago?" Frank handed Gerard one of the mugs and sat down next to him. "It's so weird he never told me about you."
Gerard took the mug gratefully and closed his eyes to take a sip. "Mmm," he said, then, "I think, you know. Mikey's world and mine - we're really close, but they're just not the same. I think he finds me hard to explain."
"I never met a priest before," Frank said. "I mean, in real life, not at school or whatever."
"I never met anyone who does body modification," Gerard said, with a little wince.
Frank grinned. "You never considered it?"
Gerard shook his head vehemently. "I'm afraid of needles."
"Understandable." Frank nodded and took a slow sip of coffee. "I'm afraid of altar boys."
Gerard cracked up, and this time his laugh was totally different to Mikey's, a big, loud HAHAHA that almost made Frank spill his coffee everywhere. "I don't actually spend that much time giving sermons, though, so my life is pretty light on the altar boys."
"Glad to hear it," Frank said automatically, and then felt like an asshole when Gerard rolled his eyes. "I didn't mean-"
"No, it's not." Frank rubbed his forehead and sighed. "This is why Mikey doesn't tell people about you, isn't it?"
Gerard kind of shrugged and smiled, and made a little forget it movement with his hand.
Frank drank some more coffee so he couldn't accidentally be a dickhead for at least three seconds, and watched Gerard tapping his cigarette into Frank's yellow ashtray with the smiley face on the bottom.
"You're not gonna tell me you had a bad experience when you were an altar boy, are you?" Gerard said suddenly, turning to look at Frank intently.
"Christ, no." Frank grabbed his own cigarettes and lit up. "My Mom tried, but it was all she could do to get me to go to Mass once in a while, never mind volunteer for a walk-on."
"Yeah, those early Sunday mornings are killer." Gerard's eyes flicked quickly up to Frank's forehead and back down again.
"Not for me. I'm very strict about spending mine in bed."
Gerard looked surprised, for some reason. "You don't go to Church?"
"No," Frank shook his head.
"At all?" said Gerard, his eyes doing the flicking thing again.
"No," Frank repeated, trying not to bristle, and failing, mostly. "What, are you gonna try to save me now, is that it?"
Gerard dragged his eyes back to Frank's and made an unhappy face. "I've offended you."
Frank did the same forget-it wave Gerard had given him earlier. "It's no big deal. I don't go to Church because I don't believe in God."
"Oh," Gerard said. He looked thoughtfully at Frank for a minute, then his eyes went back up to Frank's forehead.
Frank rolled his eyes, irritated. "Take a picture, it'll last longer."
"You're staring at my head."
"What?" Gerard made a ridiculous who-me face. "No I'm not."
Frank pointed at him accusingly. "Thou shalt not lie."
"Oh, now you know your Bible," Gerard said, rolling his eyes. Frank stared at him for another second, and Gerard wavered visibly before leaning back in the couch with a sigh. "All right, fine. Fuck. I really gotta work on my stealth."
Frank ashed onto the smiley face. "There a lot of call for stealth in your line of work?"
"Hey, it couldn't hurt." Gerard leaned forward and said seriously, "Okay, let me lay it out. Mikey told me what happened with the mattress."
"Oh." Frank looked down at his lap. He didn't know what would suck more - Gerard thinking he was crazy, or trying to convince him it was a Sign that Frank had pissed off the Almighty with his disbelief. "He did, huh."
"Yeah." Gerard was quiet for a second, and it was a shock when his hand suddenly appeared in front of Frank's face, hovering with his fingers stretched out wide. "He also said - he said you got beat up at a club."
Frank didn't say anything. Gerard wasn't touching him yet, but Frank could feel what it would be like if he did, he could already feel the way the pain just…get better, like turning down the volume or a dimmer switch set too bright.
He leaned forward, just a tiny bit, just an inch, but it was enough and Gerard's fingertips slid over his forehead, pushing his hair out of the way and touching gently around the marks.
Frank had to bite his tongue so he wouldn't moan out loud with relief. It was like spreading lotion on sunburn or sliding between clean sheets after a whole day on his feet. He couldn't help it; he pushed forward a little more and Gerard's palm flattened against the side of his head for a minute, and Frank felt the last of the pain melting away, receding through his arms and hands and dripping off his fingers onto the floor.
"Frank," Gerard said, and Frank realized his eyes were closed only when he had to make the effort to open them. Gerard was staring at him, his forehead wrinkled with concern. "Do you want to tell me what really happened?"
Frank really did, which was stupid - he'd just met the guy, for Christ's sake. Maybe it was some leftover automatic reflex thing from being brought up Catholic, maybe it was Gerard's freaky hand-magic, whatever, but he wanted to…shit, he wanted to fucking confess.
He sat back, his body immediately protesting the disconnect with a new and exciting combination of wrist/head pain, and grabbed for his cigarettes. "Like Mikey said, man, I got beat up."
Gerard dropped his hand. "Are you sure?"
"What, like I imagined it?"
"Those marks don't look like they came from somebody punching you," Gerard said gently. "They look like they were made with something really sharp."
"Like a knife," Frank said, lighting his cigarette. He dragged in a lungful of smoke.
Gerard shrugged slightly. "Or a needle."
Frank held his breath.
Gerard continued casually, "You said you're a body piercer, right?"
Frank coughed on the exhale, his head pounding with every spasm of his lungs. "Fuck you," he choked, blinking against the smoke he'd managed to blow in his own eyes. "You think I fucking did this to myself?"
"I didn't say that."
"Thanks for the mattress," Frank said decisively, standing up. He didn't know why he was so mad - he felt betrayed, or something, like Gerard had just come to tease him with the prospect of something making him feel better, and it was all just an excuse to accuse Frank of fucking up his own face. "You probably have places to be, right, sermons to give."
Gerard's face fell. "I wasn't accusing you, Frank."
"What the fuck were you doing coming here in the first place? You don't know shit about me."
Gerard looked down. "I thought - something Mikey said made me think…" he trailed off.
Frank folded his arms irritably. "You thought what?"
"I was wrong." Gerard started winding his scarves back around his neck. "I'm sorry."
Shit, thought Frank. If he wasn't pretty sure he was damned before, yelling at a priest for being nice to him was probably going to seal the deal. Frank let Gerard get both arms into his jacket before he caved and sat back down. "No, I was an asshole. I'm just fucked up right now. Things are…not great."
Gerard scrunched his mouth up. "I can see that."
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Gerard's leg brushed against Frank's knee when he shifted, and there it was again, that instant of relief. Frank was seriously losing his mind if he thought Gerard had healing fucking hands.
Gerard looked at him curiously. "Share the joke?"
"Forget it." Frank shook his head. "So tell me - if you're a priest and you're not giving sermons, what do you do?"
"I'm an investigator for the Vatican," Gerard said, all off-hand like I'm a plumber or whatever. "You know, if people think they saw a miracle."
Frank was actually impressed, but he tried not to show it. "Like statues of Jesus crying blood?"
"More like the Virgin Mary's face appearing on a piece of toast in Maine," Gerard smiled. "I was only ordained five years ago, so my assignments are pretty low-key. Most of the really crazy stuff happens in South America, for some reason."
Frank nodded. "You ever see a real one?"
Gerard grinned. "South American?"
"Miracle," Frank said, rolling his eyes.
Gerard shook his head. "So far," he said wistfully, "It's always just been toast."
Gerard left his number for Frank, "Just in case," and Frank spent the rest of the weekend lying in a series of increasingly hot baths, popping painkillers like a junkie and resisting the urge to call Gerard and beg him to come back and let Frank sit next to him for a while.
It was ridiculous. It wasn't until after Gerard left that Frank realized even just having him in the apartment made him feel better; not in the painkilling way that touching him did, but his presence was calming or whatever, fucking therapeutic.
Probably it was all in Frank's mind. Probably this whole fucking thing was in Frank's mind. Probably he had already been locked up in a mental hospital somewhere and this was all a hallucination.
On Sunday he dragged himself out of the apartment for groceries and new shit for his bed - lying on the bare mattress got really old, really fast, and couch pillows were not meant to be slept on for a whole night - and on the way back one of the fliers he'd stuck up about his dog caught his eye.
A bunch of the number strips had been pulled off, which could mean somebody found her, but could also mean someone had been bored waiting for a bus. Frank promised himself he'd remember to check his fucking messages when he got home.
He was so fucking spacey lately, he thought as he waited to cross the street - fuck, he missed his fucking car, and there was another thing he'd forgotten about since he started getting beaten up by the invisible man.
The lights changed and Frank moved with the crowd, shifting his bags in his arms to ease the pressure on his newly-aching wrists. It was so weird how the pain was localized like that. He didn't know what the hell he would do if everything started hurting at once.
He got home and put his groceries away, then managed to get the new sheets on his bed before his wrists gave out completely and he just sat on the floor for a while, holding them close to his chest and trying to breathe through the pain.
Fuck Doctor Durning, he decided suddenly, scrambling up and digging clumsily through his back pack. Two fucking days' worth of Vicodin, that wouldn't even get Frank through a really bad headache. His stupid fingers closed finally on the tub of ointment Luke had given him and he wrenched the lid off with a moan, scooping out way too much and spilling some onto his jeans in his haste to get it on his skin.
"Aaaaah," he hissed, rubbing it in as quickly as he could. It wasn't as good as Gerard, but it was pretty fucking sweet to get any kind of relief, and whether it was the goo or the rubbing, the throb eased off enough he could move his hands properly again without feeling like they were just going to snap right off.
Frank spread the excess ointment over his tattoo. It was healed already, sure, but it couldn't do any harm. She was really beautiful, now she'd settled, she looked like she'd been part of Frank for years, like she was meant to be there all along.
Frank heaved himself up into bed and managed to call his Mom and lie to her for twenty minutes about everything being fine before he passed out into uncomfortable dreams about being followed and watched by someone he couldn't see.
He forgot about checking his messages.
On Monday Frank told Brian about everything that happened with the guys at the club, leaving out the parts with the invisible laughing crowd and phantom lights.
"You did the right thing, Frank," Brian said, already getting out his cellphone and filofax and giant stack of papers. Brian was the most organized person Frank had ever met. He was pretty sure the dude could take over the world with a bullet-pointed list and a big enough diary. "This is going to be great for discrediting that asshole, man, this is really awesome."
"Awesome," Frank repeated dully, trying to burn holes in the side of Brian's head with his eyes. "I especially liked the part where they almost scalped me." So it wasn't strictly true, whatever. Brian didn't know that, the dickwad.
"It would be better if you hadn't been drunk, though," Brian said absently, flicking through his filofax.
Frank gritted his teeth. "Yeah, well, I've had kind of a shitty couple weeks, Schechter, excuse me for blowing off a little steam."
Brian looked up, surprised at first and then, when he visibly replayed what he'd said inside his head, guilty. "Shit, Frankie, I didn't mean it like that. I just meant, you know, anything that can protect you-"
Frank cut him off. "I know, man."
Brian looked completely miserable. "This sucks."
"It does," Frank agreed, trying not to laugh hysterically at how much Brian had no fucking idea.
"All right," Brian started shifting papers around briskly. "I'm gonna call the lawyers. You get to work, you have a busy morning."
"Yes, boss." Frank pulled himself to his feet and was almost at the door when Brian called after him,
"You're with Bob this afternoon."
Frank whirled around. "Seriously?"
Brian was already on the phone - he covered it and said, "Do not fuck up," and then shooed Frank away.
Frank had the best afternoon he could remember in a really long fucking time. Bob wouldn't actually let him do anything, of course, he just had to sit still and watch, which would have sucked more if sitting still and not moving his hands wasn't exactly what Frank wanted to do for the rest of his life by that point.
It was still amazing, anyway, getting to watch up close without Bob telling him to get out of his light or whatever, and drinking in every little bit of commentary and wisdom Bob threw his way. Bob might have been an inkless freak but he was a fucking knowledgeable inkless freak, and a meticulous motherfucker to boot.
Frank really fucking loved tattoos, like that wasn't news, obviously, but he loved everything about them - the way ink virgins were always vibrating with excitement and nerves, the way old hands came in a little twitchy and went away look like they just got fucked six ways from Sunday and had the time of their fucking lives. He loved the moment before the needle touched down, when it was still just a drawing, just something that could be washed away, no more permanent than writing your name on a steamed-up window pane, and he loved the first press of the needle to the skin, when everything changed and it became a part of you forever.
It felt like no time at all had passed when Bob started packing up his shit, showing Frank how to clean and put everything away, even though Frank already knew that shit, he wasn't some fucking newbie. He also knew Bob did things his way or no way at all, though, and his way was pretty fucking awesome, so Frank went along with it and only jumped up and down and demanded to know when Bob would let him do something a couple of times.
"You look like you won the fucking lottery," Ray commented when they were sitting around in the closed shop after hours, waiting for Mikey to finish sweeping up hair at a glacial pace. "And then had sex on top of all the money."
Bob smiled out from under his stupid beanie. "Standard procedure after an afternoon with me, right Iero?"
Frank spun in his chair. "Make fun of me all you want, motherfuckers, this is the best thing that's happened to me in weeks."
"So you feel good, right?" said Ray in a strange voice. "Like…happy?"
Frank shrugged. "My life sucks a little less than it did this morning, if that's what you mean."
Mikey came over and perched on the arm of Frank's chair. "So my brother brought you a mattress, huh?"
"Your brother accused me of self-harm," Frank said, shoving at Mikey so he wobbled, but didn't fall off. "Can you believe that shit?"
There was a silence. Looks were exchanged. Frank said, "Oh, hell no."
"It's just that you've been under so much stress," Ray said earnestly, leaning forward. "Sometimes it can manifest itself as-"
"Getting jumped by a skinhead and his fucking prison bitches?" Frank said incredulously, giving Mikey a look that said back me up!
"We're just worried about you," Ray went on. "There are people you can talk to - "
Frank stood up and stalked over to the coat rack. "Fuck you, Toro, I don't need to hear this shit."
Bob said, "Take it easy, Frank, we're just trying to help."
"I don't need your help," Frank said sullenly, pulling on his jacket. All the good feelings from the afternoon were disappearing and the pain was flooding in to take their place. "I don't fucking believe this."
"Frank," said Mikey. "Come on-"
"You were there!" Frank yelled, pointing at him. "You fucking watched me, motherfucker, you saw it, don't try to fucking retcon this!"
"What does he mean?" Ray said, his voice rising in pitch as well as volume. Brian stuck his head out of the back room in time to hear Ray say, "What does he mean you watched him, Mikey? What did you see?"
Mikey folded his arms around himself miserably. "I don't know."
Frank stared at him in disbelief. Mikey avoided his eyes and mumbled something about having taken a lot of caffeine pills that day.
"Thanks," said Frank, grabbing his bag and heading for the door. "Thanks a fucking lot, you guys, this is exactly what I needed."
"Frank," he heard Brian call, but whatever else he was going to say was lost when Frank slammed the door behind him.
Mikey sent him a text message five minutes later that said, 'wtf was I suppsd 2 say,' and then another five minutes after that which said, 'dont B mad sry,' and yet another one which said, 'do U want me 2 cm over.'
Frank ignored them all and turned his cell off, even going so far as to unplug the landline in his apartment when he got home.
"Fucking Ray," he said to himself, rattling violently through his kitchen drawers and slamming cabinet doors. His stomach was way too tied up in knots for him to eat anything, but he needed to make noise. "Fucking Bob. Fucking Brian and his precious fucking court case."
He grabbed the bottle of vodka he kept in the freezer and threw himself down on the couch with it, taking a giant swig that made him wince and gasp.
"Fucking Mikey," he muttered before taking another one. "Fucking Judas."
He missed his dog. He missed her stupid dumb face and the snuffling commentary she kept up when she was walking around the apartment. He missed the wet press of her nose to his shin or the side of his hand, and he missed her getting all in his face first thing in the morning and growling at the mop and the noise it made when she tried to jump on the coffee table and missed, ending up in a sprawled, thumping heap on the floor.
He missed his dog and his TV and his car and his guitar, oh God, and he missed being a normal person who didn't get mad at their friends for not saying something Frank had asked Mikey not to say in the first place.
"Fuck," he said thickly, out loud, and took two deep swallows from the bottle. "Fuck."
Then he took another swallow, and another. He stared at the space where his TV used to be, and kept on drinking until he didn't care that it was missing any more, and he didn't care about those motherfuckers who called themselves his friends, and he didn't care about his fucking wrists and his fucking back and his fucking head. Didn't miss anything, didn't care about anything, didn't notice when the bottle slipped from his hand and his eyes closed and the world slipped dizzily away.
In the morning, he woke up feeling like shit run over twice. He managed to roll over enough to find his cell and turn it on to check the time, but no sooner had he switched it on than it started ringing at him to tell him he had a voicemail.
Frank didn't need to listen to know that it would be Brian.
Fuck. He was so fucking late, and his head felt like it was going to split open and his wrists were screaming at him, and he couldn't even blink without feeling like he was going to throw up, he was so hungover. He was going to be late, and he was going to be fucking useless all day, and Brian was probably going to fire his ass.
He really wanted a fucking shower, but he couldn't turn the ancient temperature control without tears prickling up in his eyes. It felt like his fucking bones were grinding together, like all the flesh and cartilage had worn away and instead there were sharp edges scraping along each other, splintering from the pressure and pressing sharp points of pain out through his skin.
He managed to get halfway out of last night's clothes, but then had to sit down and hold his head really still in both hands because the room was doing some fucking galloping swing thing, like a GAP dancer on a carousel. In the middle of the ocean. During a storm.
Coffee would help, if he thought he could get to the kitchen. And he couldn't actually remember the last time he ate anything - but his stomach did a horrified, swooping recoil at the thought of food, anyway.
His phone rang, the shrill ring setting off a fresh round of agony in his head, and he opened one eye and leaned over enough to see the display.
Brian. Again. Fuck. And now he was two hours late for work, fuck.
Fuck his wrists. He needed to shower or he was never going to get out of the apartment. He struggled back into the bathroom and managed to turn the shower on using his elbows and a towel, and he was reaching down to push his jeans off when a red, wet drop fell on his hand.
"What?" said Frank. He touched his forehead and looked at his fingertips - they were crimson, and when he straightened up to look in the mirror, he saw that the cuts in his scalp had re-opened and blood was trickling rapidly down his face.
"My head split open," he said dumbly to his reflection. Suddenly his feet were kicked out from under him and he was lying on the bathroom floor, arms splayed out wide, staring up at the ceiling.
"What?" he said again, and then he felt something wide, cold and sharp drive straight through each of his wrists.
He didn't scream. He didn't scream because he couldn't breathe, the pain so massive, so overwhelming, so out of the range of anything Frank had ever had a nightmare about experiencing that it stole his ability to use his lungs or his eyes or do anything but writhe helplessly in place.
He was being nailed down, he was being nailed to the fucking floor, he could feel the nails driving rhythmically through, feel his bones being forced to make room until he though they would burst through his skin on either side.
There were white flashes behind his eyelids, and he was making noise now, ragged animal sounds being dragged from his chest with every heavy, metallic thud against his hands. His body was shutting down already, Frank felt as though he was scrambling up inside his own skin, curling into a ball and leaving his hands to suffer by themselves, far out on the edges of his consciousness. Frank concentrated on that, on the safe, lonely place inside himself where nobody could help but nobody could hurt him anymore, and the noises got further and further away until Frank was enveloped in silence, in darkness.
Frank could feel it already, what it would be like to have this over with, to be away from the noise and the hurt. He was ready for it, he was ready for it to be over. He couldn't win. He felt the air leaking slowly from his lungs, felt his straining muscles start to give in and relax. It was almost over, it was almost done, he was almost, almost there.
I'm going to die, he thought. The image of his mother's face flashed up in front of him, far away and stained with tears, and he felt a wave of grief and regret and sadness so intense it was almost sweet.
He floated in the darkness for a while. He didn't know how long. It would be over soon.
Except that there was something. Some noise, some touch, something tethering him to his body like a balloon on a string. He willed it away - he didn't want to go back there, where it was bright and loud and everything hurt. He wanted to follow this calm, endless darkness wherever it went - but there it was again, a tugging reminder of what it was like to be alive.
"Frank," he heard dimly, as if from miles away. "Frank."
He knew that voice.
"Frank," it said again, louder this time, and then more words, which Frank could barely make out. "Frank…die on me….fucking bring you back…kill you myself."
Frank laughed, and that's what brought him back into himself with a rush, crying out as the air filled up his lungs and the pain took over again.
"Okay, Frank." It was Brian, cradling Frank's head on his knees. "Frank, take it easy, it's me, it's me."
"Brian," Frank tried to say, but it came out as a wet, messy, unintelligible croak.
Brian said, "Shhh," and gathered Frank up a little tighter. "It's okay, it's okay. The ambulance is on its way. Just hold on a few more minutes, okay? Just a few more. Just stay with me."
Frank looked down - Brian was pressing both of Frank's wrists tight between his hands, towels wrapped up around them, darkly red. "Agh," he managed.
"Don't try to talk," Brian said firmly, squeezing harder. He was keeping pressure on the wounds, Frank thought, just like they did on TV. "Just - nod if you can hear me."
Frank nodded, struggling to turn his head up to look at Brian's face.
Brian was frowning like he did when he was organizing staffing rotas or negotiating a renewal on the shop's insurance. His mouth was in a tight line and his face was kind of white, but his voice was steady when he spoke. "You're going to be okay. We'll get you to hospital, and we'll get you stitched up. You'll be fine."
Frank wasn't so sure, and it must have shown on his face because Brian's expression settled into something a little kinder.
"We're going to get you some help." Brian started re-wrapping the towels around Frank's wrists, really obviously checking his watch. "We're going to fix this. You don't have to feel like this anymore. We'll figure something out, meds, a shrink, whatever you need."
Oh. "Brian, I didn't-"
"Don't talk," Brian said again, in a voice that was calm, but brooked no disagreement. He moved Frank so his head was resting against Brian's shoulder, and held him still.
Frank could feel Brian's heart beating frantically, feel his quick, uneven breaths. They stayed there together like that until the ambulance arrived.
"I didn't try to kill myself," Frank said for the nineteenth time.
The doctor wasn't listening. "Look at this," she kept saying to the nurse helping her sew Frank up. "Look at this; he's not even bleeding anymore. And he missed the artery by less than a centimeter."
The nurse nodded and leaned over to take a closer look. She looked like she might be pretty under the mask, Frank thought. "And they're both exactly the same shape and size on both sides. I don't know how he did that."
"Stop saying 'he'," Frank gritted. "I told you, I didn't do this."
"What do you do for a living, Frank?" the doctor asked, carefully pushing the little curved needle through the ragged edge of Frank's skin.
"I'm a body piercer."
The doctor's eyes flicked up to meet his. "You must need to know a lot about anatomy for that, right? So you don't hit anything important?"
Frank rolled his eyes. "Where's Doctor Durning?"
"Are you under a lot of stress in your life, Frank?"
"There's not enough stress in the world to make me suicidal, lady. You don't know me."
"So what happened?"
Frank didn't say anything.
The doctor snipped off the end of the thread. "Frank, self-inflicted wounds are usually a sign of - "
"I didn't inflict anything!" Frank shouted, making the doctor jerk back a little. "I can't tell you what happened because I don't know, all right, just sew me the fuck up so I can get the fuck out of here."
"You'll need to stay at least overnight for observation," the doctor said calmly. "And I want you to talk to someone from psych-"
"No," Frank interrupted her again. "I don't need a fucking shrink, all right, I need, I need a fucking exorcism or something."
"Your friends seem to agree," the doctor said, standing up.
Frank said, "What?"
She took off her mask, and so did the nurse. They were both pretty, actually. "I'll be back in a little while, Frank, don't think about making a run for it."
They left, and a few seconds later Brian appeared in the doorway, towing Mikey Way behind him. They stepped into the room, followed by - oh.
"You should have called me," said Gerard, coming straight over to the bed and pulling up a chair. He looked back at Mikey and Brian. "Can you give us few minutes, guys?"
Brian's eyes kind of bugged out of his head. He was used to being the one who knew what to do and what was going on, Frank knew, but who could tell a priest to back off? "I'm not sure-"
"I need to talk to Frank," Gerard insisted.
Mikey exchanged a complicated, wordless series of facial expressions with Gerard - Frank could do that with Mikey too, a little, but this was seriously Olympic standard - and tugged on Brian's sleeve.
"Come on," he said. "Let's call the shop and make sure Bob and Toro are okay."
"I want to stay with him," Brian said obstinately, taking another step towards the bed. "He shouldn't be with a stranger."
Mikey looked at Brian like he was crazy. "It's not a stranger, it's Gerard."
"Yes," said Brian, "And it's awesome that you two are mind-meld buddies, but we don't know him."
"Oh." Mikey turned that over in his head. "Huh. I guess."
"It's okay, Brian," Frank told him
Brian followed Mikey reluctantly out of the room, and Gerard turned back to Frank. "How are you doing?"
"I have fucking holes through my wrists," Frank said. "I've been better."
Gerard finished piling his scarves and jacket on the empty chair, and leaned in to inspect Frank's wounds. "You mind?"
Frank shrugged. "Knock yourself out."
By some miracle he kept his voice casual, but the truth was his toes were curling with the effort of not rolling sideways and just pressing his face into Gerard's shirt. He felt better just being near him, like before in his apartment, but the urge to touch him, to get that blissful relief the contact brought was overwhelming. Gerard's fingers were brushing his skin where he was lifting Frank's bandages and peeking underneath, but it wasn't enough.
"…so strange," Gerard was saying. He took Frank's hand gently and turned it over so he could see the other side. "I've never seen it happen like this before."
"Seen what happen?" Frank's fingers twitched with the urge to slide them over Gerard's palm. "What the fuck is happening to me?"
Gerard let go and fished around in his scarves until he came back with a little camera. "You mind," he said, not a question, and didn't wait for Frank to answer before he started snapping away.
"If this turns out to be some fetish thing…"
"Your sense of humor is still intact, I see." Gerard brushed Frank's hair out of his face and took a few more pictures. "Frank, have you ever heard of stigmata?"
"Sure." Frank didn't nuzzle Gerard's hand or anything, but he might have turned his face towards it very slightly. Whatever, he was only human. "Crazy nuns bleeding from the palms, right? Like…" Oh. Oh, no fucking way. "You have got to be fucking kidding me."
Gerard stayed silent, setting the camera down on the chair.
Frank protested weakly, "I don't believe in God."
"I know!" Gerard burst out, waving his hands around. "That's why this is so weird!"
"Right, the part where an invisible man nailed me to the bathroom floor was totally mundane," Frank replied. "Anyway, I thought stigmata was hands and feet, not wrists and forehead."
Gerard nodded. "People manifest them in all kinds of ways, usually however they imagine it in their own heads, you know?"
"But I don't imagine-"
"I know." Gerard was leaning all the way forward now, both elbows propped on the bed. "Stigmatics are without exception deeply devout people, Frank. They love Jesus so completely, feel such intense sorrow for His pain that it manifests itself physically in their own flesh - atheists don't get the stigmata. They just don't."
"Then you can't help me," Frank said dully, closing his eyes. He opened them again with a start when he felt Gerard's hand cover his own, sweet relief.
"First time for everything, right?" Gerard gave him a tiny smile.
Frank, despite himself, smiled back.
"All right." Gerard pulled out a Dictaphone and set it on top of the blankets covering Frank's leg. "I want you to tell me exactly what's been happening. Don't leave anything out. I don't think you're crazy and I don't think you're a suicide risk, okay?"
"Just give me as much as you can remember." Gerard squeezed his elbow encouragingly, the best painkiller in the world, Frank was sure. "In your own time."
Frank told him everything, starting with the weird pain in his wrists, right through the phantom whipping and the miraculous Wolverine-speed healing, to the bizarre alleyway scalp-needling and finally his experience in the bathroom that morning.
"The worst part isn't even that it hurts," he told Gerard, who was frowning and scribbling away in a little notebook with a unicorn on the cover. "It's that…"
He trailed off, not knowing how to explain the emotions that had gone through him while it was happening.
Gerard kept scribbling for a second, then looked up. "Go on," he said gently. "What's the worst part, Frank?"
Frank looked at the ceiling. "It's this feeling like everybody hates me," he admitted, closing his eyes so he wouldn't have to see whatever expression Gerard was making. "It's like - I don't know. It makes me feel really sad, like I'm totally alone. I've never felt like that. It's horrible. It's like being totally helpless. Or hopeless. Both. I don't know."
Gerard was silent, just the sound of his pencil scratching across the paper, and the muted bustle of people in the hall outside. After a few moments, Frank felt Gerard's hand on his again, and opened his eyes to see Gerard examining his angel tattoo.
"I told you this is a seraph, right?" he said, tracing the angel's blank face with a fingertip. "It was a seraph who appeared to Saint Francis in his vision. You know that story?"
Frank shook his head. "It rings a bell, I guess?"
"Saint Francis of Assisi," Gerard explained. "He was the first person to receive the stigmata."
"Francis," said Frank. "Is this a joke?"
Gerard laughed and shook his head. "No. He was like this crazy party animal, right, a real hedonist, and then when he was twenty-three-"
"I'm twenty-six," Frank interrupted, before Gerard could try to tell him he was a reincarnated saint, for crying out loud.
"- he had a crisis of faith, visions and everything. God was calling him to service."
"And that's when he saw the angel?"
"No, that actually didn't happen until he was in his forties, a couple years before he died." Gerard passed his palm over the angel and Frank dug his toes into the sheets for how good it felt. "He was fasting in the mountains and the seraph appeared to him. Actually some reports say it was a crucified seraph."
"Like this one," said Frank.
Gerard nodded. "Just like this one. And the seraph gifted Saint Francis with the wounds of Christ."
"Some fucking gift."
"Saint Francis was pretty obsessed with the suffering of Christ. He was really into mortification of the flesh as penance, you know, manifesting his repentance physically?" Gerard looked up at Frank. "To receive the wounds of Christ was a huge blessing in his eyes, because it brought him closer to understanding what Christ went through."
Frank turned that over in his head. He didn't have anything against Jesus, but he had no desire to walk in his shoes or whatever, either. "So did he have what I have? Like, the whipping and everything?"
"No," Gerard said thoughtfully. "He only received the Five Wounds - one for each of the nails used to fix Christ to the cross, and one for the spear in his side."
"A spear." Frank looked up at the ceiling. "This is awesome."
Gerard put his notebook aside and gave Frank a weirdly timid look. "Would - could I see your back?"
Frank sat up and turned around so he was sitting sideways on the bed, back to Gerard. He felt Gerard's fingers undoing the ties of the stupid hospital gown, pushing the material aside and leaving Frank exposed.
"Nice tattoos," Gerard said, startlingly close to Frank's ear. The bed dipped slightly as Gerard leaned against it.
"They used to be," Frank sighed, reveling in the relief of Gerard's touch. "Got all fucked up, as you can see."
Gerard touched the back of Frank's neck. "What does this say - 'Keep the Faith'?"
"Bon Jovi," Frank told him. "Not the Bible."
Gerard clicked his tongue. "I know that. You think I listen to hymns in my car?"
Frank grinned down at his lap. "You don't?"
"No." Gerard's hand settled between Frank's shoulder blades. "I listen to eighties hair rock like everyone else. Why the pumpkin?"
"My birthday's Halloween."
"Really?" Gerard sounded ridiculously excited, and when Frank craned his neck to look at him, he was grinning crazily. "That's so cool!"
Frank grinned back, and turned around again. "I guess. So what's with the whipping, anyway?"
"The scourging," Gerard murmured, passing his hands over Frank's skin. Frank bit his lip and dug his fingers into his own thighs, desperately fighting the urge to lean back into that touch, ask Gerard to wrap his arms around him and never let go. "Christ was whipped pretty mercilessly before the guards put the Crown of Thorns on him. I've never heard of anyone manifesting these wounds before."
"I didn't manifest shit," Frank said. "I didn't do this."
"I know, I didn't mean that," Gerard said hurriedly. "I just meant - well, like I said, the wounds usually appear in the way that particular stigmatic imagines the suffering of Christ, I guess. The scourging isn't nearly as iconic a part of the Passion as the marks of the crucifixion."
"I thought Jesus was nailed through the hands and feet," Frank said, tucking his chin into his chest as Gerard's fingers moved across his shoulders. "But it's my wrists that are all fucked up."
"That's inaccurate," Gerard said. He let Frank go and Frank heard the click of him opening his camera back up. "The hands would have torn with the weight of the body. Historians have more or less proved that people were crucified through the wrists, between the bones."
Frank looked down at his own wrists, at the neat, white bandages hiding the blood and spider-black stitching from view. "Oh."
"The thing is, crucifixion wasn't usually a death penalty," Gerard went on. The room flashed brightly and rhythmically with every picture he took. "It was meant as a punishment, like an extreme version of the stocks, right? So part of the problem was, hanging someone by the wrists causes something called, uh, suspension asphyxiation. Nailing the feet to the cross as well supports the body, and lessens the risk of accidental death."
Frank bugged his eyes at a poster of a man with no skin, just bones and muscles, on the other side of the room. "Accidental death? I would have thought nailing a dude to a cross was pretty much throwing the health and safety book out the fucking window."
Gerard hummed. "Like I said, it wasn't usually meant to kill people. Sometimes they even nailed people through the genitals, to support the body even better."
"What?" Frank whirled around, almost knocking Gerard's camera out of his hands. "You're telling me any minute now I could get a nail through my dick?"
Gerard wrinkled his nose. "It's extremely unlikely. I wouldn't worry about it."
"Easy for you to say, you don't use yours!" Frank scrambled back on the bed, pulling the blankets back over his lap like they could protect him from invisible psychopaths with a hammer and an eye on Frank's crotch.
Gerard blinked a couple of times. "There's no record of it happening to Jesus, if that makes you feel better?"
Frank buried his face in his drawn-up knees and moaned. "This is so much worse than I thought."
Gerard made a bizarre noise, and Frank looked up to find the motherfucker was laughing at him. "I'm sorry," he stumbled out when Frank gave him a furious glare. "I'm sorry, it's just - don't you think your penis is the least of your worries?"
"I don't believe you're a priest at all," Frank said in his most murderous voice. "Priests are supposed to be nice."
Gerard laughed again - he was a little pink in the face from the effort of not cracking up all to fuck at Frank's misfortune. It would have been annoying if it weren't so - god, shut up, Frank told himself furiously. Priest!
Gerard had put his camera away and was looking at Frank's angel tattoo again. "You said your back healed right away," he said slowly. "Didn't you tell me you just got this tattoo a couple days before we met for the first time?"
"Yeah." Frank drew his hand up to his chest and held it there. "Why?"
"Well," Gerard tipped his head to the side. "I don't know much about this stuff, but doesn't a tattoo usually take longer than this to heal?"
Frank nodded. "I guess I figured this…weird stuff must have already been happening, or something, so it healed up my tattoo, as well."
Gerard scrunched his mouth up thoughtfully. "And what made you choose that design?"
"I don't know." Frank looked down at her. "I just liked it."
"Hmm," said Gerard. "Do you think-"
Brian and Mikey came back in, then, Brian making an immediate beeline for the bed. "How's he doing, Father?"
For a minute Frank couldn't figure out who Brian was talking to, but then Gerard was nodding and putting a hand on Brian's shoulder. "He's fine. He's lucky you found him, though, I spoke to the doctors before."
Brian scrubbed his hands through his hair, looking miserable. "I was going to fire him."
"You saved his life," Gerard told him. Brian just shook his head and looked at the floor.
"Why are my doctors discussing me with you anyway?" Frank said to break the awkward silence that followed, and totally not because he wanted Gerard's attention back on him. "Doesn't doctor-patient confidentiality count for shit anymore?"
"It's the collar," Mikey piped up. "It's better than an FBI badge for getting people to talk."
"Not that I would ever abuse it," Gerard said earnestly to Brian. "But it does come in useful."
Brian grabbed Gerard's hand and shook it. "Thank you for coming, Father. I'm sorry I was, you know, before. Things are a little fraught."
"It's no problem."
"I'm still here, you know," Frank said, looking between Gerard and Brian, who were demonstrating their 'you-can-trust-me' faces to each other.
Gerard started gathering up his things. "I'm going to do some research," he told Frank, coming around to the other side of the bed. He took Frank's hand in both of his own and squeezed it gently. "You'll call me if anything else happens, right?"
"Yeah. Thanks." Frank squeezed back a little bit, trying to wring out as much good feeling as he could, as if he could store it up somehow.
Gerard smiled at him, and snagged Mikey's arm on the way out of the room, leaning close to talk quietly to him. Frank watched them go, feeling like he was being abandoned or something equally stupid. Why was he so desperate for Gerard to be around him? None of it made any sense.
"Hey," Brian said when the door closed, squeezing Frank's other hand. "Hey, Frankie."
If there was one thing Frank really couldn't stand, it was people feeling guilty at him. Over him. About him, whatever - the point is, if he wasn't making them feel guilty himself by giving them the big eyes and putting on a coughing display worthy of an iron lung, he didn't want to hear it. "Forget it."
Brian did a hilarious full-body writhe of bad feeling. Frank could relate. "Frank-"
"You saved my life," Frank told him, "Gerard just said so. And you're not gonna fire me now, right?"
"Of course not," Brian snapped. "But why didn't you tell me you were feeling so bad, Frank? We could have worked something out."
"Brian," Frank rested back against the pillows, suddenly exhausted. "For the last time, I didn't do this."
"Right, your wrists just spontaneously exploded all by themselves," Brian said, folding his arms. Brian always got mad when he was worried - Frank tried to remember that now, so he wouldn't brain him with a bedpan.
He took a few deep breaths instead, and asked calmly, "Have I ever seemed depressed to you?"
Brian sort of shrugged. "No."
"Have I ever given you any reason to believe I might want to kill myself?"
"No," Brian admitted, "But-"
"If this hadn't happened, and someone had asked you to make a list of the people least likely to ever kill themselves ever, would my name have been at the top of that list?"
"Frank," Brian said heatedly, "This isn't-"
"Did you see a weapon?"
Brian blinked. "What?"
Frank held his wrists out. "Did you see anything I could have used to make these?"
"Well no, but-"
"So what?" Frank said impatiently, "I punched holes in both of my wrists, got rid of the evidence, then arranged myself on my bathroom floor and waited to die?"
"What's the alternative, Frank?" Brian had raised his voice and was windmilling his arms around. "I walk in and find you bleeding all over the fucking place after you threw a hissy fit at the shop last night, what the fuck am I supposed to think?"
"I don't know!" Frank yelled. "I don't fucking know, Brian, all I know is the universe has it in for me big time and you thinking I'm a headcase doesn't help!"
Brian stared at him red-faced for a minute, then deflated and put his head in his hands. "What does the Father think?"
"He thinks I have stigmata," Frank said, because what the fucking hell, it couldn't get any worse. He might as well just lay it out.
"Oh, well," said Brian into his hands. "Of course."
"I'm serious, you guys, you have to get me out of here."
Ray looked at Bob and then back at Frank again. They both had their arms folded, looming over the bed like sentries, one on each side. "I don't know, Frankie, if the doctors think you should talk to someone-"
"I'm with you, Frank," Bob interrupted him.
Ray made a pained noise. "I'm pretty sure smuggling suicide risks out of the hospital is frowned upon, Bob, you wanna rumble with hospital security?"
"I could take 'em," Bob replied. "And don't say 'rumble'."
"I'm not a suicide risk," Frank insisted. "But no shrink's gonna believe me, Toro, look at me." He held out his arms.
Ray sighed and raised his eyes to the heavens. "Give me strength."
"Trust me," Frank said darkly, pulling at the strings of his stupid gown. "That won't help."
Bob said, "Hospitals are such bullshit, man." Everyone knew Bob hated hospitals almost as much as he hated commercial breaks in stupid places during televised movies. Frank remembered one time when Bob was clambering around trying to encourage a rogue pigeon to fly out of rather than around the shop, and he fell awkwardly and managed to smash a mirror and slice his thigh open, and then he wouldn't go to the hospital for like three days.
" - and you almost died," Ray reminded Bob heatedly now. "And I don't ever want to see anyone's leg turn that color again, Bryar, I mean it. I think Frank should stay here and-"
"There's nothing wrong with his leg," Bob frowned. "And it's Frank, dude, he's not going to stick his head in the oven."
Frank tugged on Ray's sleeve. "I won't," he promised.
"You don't have to help," Bob said, bringing Frank's stuff over so he could get dressed. "You can say you didn't see a thing."
"Of course I have to help!" Ray shrilled, throwing his hands in the air. "If I leave you two alone you'll wind up getting accidental vasectomies or something!"
Frank finished yanking his pants up and slithered off the bed so he could jam his feet into his shoes. "We have to hurry, they said the shrink was gonna be here soon."
"Fucking hell," Bob said. "They won't give you Medicaid so you can get a fucking oxygen tank when your puny little lungs throw a fit, but they can find you a shrink when you don't need one."
"God bless America," said Frank, pulling on his shirt.
The problem was that they didn't know what the shrink looked like, so Frank had to hide every time a doctor walked past, which was kind of a lot, because - hospital. Luckily Frank could hide behind…well, anything bigger than him, which was most things, so they did okay until they reached the emergency room waiting area, and then suddenly Ray wheeled around on the spot and hustled Frank into a chair.
"Durning," Ray hissed, him and Bob forming a human wall behind Frank, shielding him from view.
It was depressing, Frank thought, that all his friends knew what his favorite emergency room doctor looked like. He was about to point out that Durning probably knew what Ray and Bob looked like too, but then the girl in the seat next to him said,
"Hello, dancing boy."
Frank looked up in surprise and saw it was the podium girl he'd danced with at the club. She was wearing jeans and a shirt, but it was definitely her. "Dancing girl!"
She smiled. "You are sick?"
"Me?" Frank pulled his sleeves down over his hands. "No, no, just - visiting someone. Are you okay?"
"Okay, yes," the girl looked down at her lap - she was clicking through pictures on her camera, Frank noticed. "I fall at school, hit my head. They want make sure I don't have…how you say…percussion?"
"Concussion," Frank corrected her, smiling when she frowned and repeated it to herself. "You go to school? I thought you were, you know."
The girl gave him a look. "I dance to pay tuition."
Frank said, "Oh, I didn't mean-"
Suddenly Ray reached behind him and shoved Frank's head down so it was practically in the dancing girl's lap. "Stay down!" he hissed.
"Um," said Frank, finding himself eye-to-eye with the girl's camera, which was pretty much the only thing separating his face from her crotch. "What - what are you looking at?"
"Pictures from party," the girl said. She clicked through a few. "Wait, I show you man with head in condom."
Dudes with their heads inside condoms were always entertaining, and it wasn't like Frank had anywhere else to be, with Ray's hand like a ton of fucking bricks on the back of his neck, so Frank watched obediently while the girl clicked through endless pictures, telling him who everyone was and who had slept with who.
A familiar face flashed up on screen, then, and Frank said, "Wait! I know that guy, go back." The girl obediently clicked back a few pictures, and there was Darren Haywood's smug fucking face smiling up at Frank from the inch-wide screen. "Motherfucker."
"You know this man?"
Frank grimaced. "Unfortunately."
"Is asshole," the girl said dismissively. She clicked forward and there he was again, sitting in a fucking hot tub of all things, surrounded by girls. His asshole friends were there too. "He try to make my friend Yelena give blowjob and he has, how you say, metal through-"
"His balls?" Frank said, way too loudly, making the elderly lady sitting opposite shuffle disapprovingly in her chair. "Uh, I mean. He had a piercing? In his-"
"Ya." The girl made a face. "Yelena, she tell him no way, and he call her whore." Her face darkened and she swore in a language Frank didn't know.
Frank looked closer at the picture. "Yeah, sounds like the kind of thing he'd - wait a minute." Frank grabbed the camera and stared at the date stamp on the screen. "When was this?"
The girl gave him a curious look. "Some weeks ago?"
"Motherfucker," Frank said again.
"Frank, we gotta go," Bob said quietly from behind him.
"Wait, what's your name?" Frank asked the girl.
"Maria," she said, sticking her hand out formally.
"Frank," said Frank, shaking it. "Listen, Maria, do you have email?"
She rolled her eyes. "Of course."
"Now, Frank," Ray urged.
Frank ignored him. "Can you send these to me?"
"What for?" Maria's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You put on internet?"
"No, no," Frank started scrabbling around in his bag for a pen. "I'm not a creep, I swear, I'll - I can do something for you in return, okay, but it would save my ass so much if you could send me these pictures, please?"
He scribbled his email address on the back of an old flyer for a gig and held it out to her along with his most angelic expression.
She hesitated, and the next thing Frank knew he had Bob's arms around his waist and was being lifted up into the air. "Bob, what the fuck."
"We have to go," Bob insisted, and started hauling Frank off in the direction of the doors, where Ray was hovering anxiously.
Frank screwed the paper up and flung it at Maria. "Please!" he begged as he got carted away. "Seriously, what do you want, I'll do anything-"
"You make Mikey Way call me!" she called suddenly, standing up and spilling everything onto the floor. "He call me, I email you pictures."
"Done!" Frank yelled, and then they were in the parking lot and Frank was getting jiggled all over the place as Ray and Bob started running for Ray's car.
"That shit wasn't cool!" Frank yelled from the fucking back seat - Frank hated being the short one - when they were speeding away. "I was having an important discovery!"
"You were about to be importantly discovered by Durning, bitch, quit your fucking whining!" Bob slapped at him from the front seat. "What the fuck were you doing, anyway, you think now is the time to mack on chicks?"
"Can we not hit the person with stitches in his wrists, please? I don't want blood on my seats," Ray intervened, slowing down to his usual Granny-drive mode now the hospital was behind them. "And what the fuck was so important, Frank?"
"Fucking Darren fucking Haywood was in a fucking hot tub fucking five minutes after I fucking pierced him," Frank said, bouncing around as much as he could with his seatbelt on. "And probably having fucking sex, too - she has pictures!"
"Are you serious?" Bob thumped the dashboard. "Fuck yes!"
"All I have to do is get Mikey to call her, and she'll send me the pictures." Frank threw himself back in the seat and just reveled in the balloon of relief swelling up inside him. "Oh, thank fucking God."
Ray checked his mirrors and signaled to change lanes. "That's awesome, Frankie, but good luck convincing Mikeyway to do anything he doesn't want to do."
"Oh, don't worry," Frank said smugly. "I got a secret weapon."
"You slept with someone and never called them again?"
Mikey sat on Frank's couch with his head in his hands, Gerard standing over him with his hands on his hips. "Mikey, I can't believe you would do that!"
"I never said I would call her," Mikey explained. "She never asked me to. It was just a hook up."
"Mikey," Gerard said earnestly, "When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not."
Mikey looked at Frank. "This is because I didn't back you up the other night, isn't it?"
Frank just grinned at him and gave him the thumbs up.
Gerard gave Mikey a sorrowful look. "Playing with someone's feelings is wrong, Mikey, you know that."
"I had sex outside of marriage," Mikey said flatly. "I think I'm already in the sin bin."
"God doesn't care where you stick your dick," Gerard waved his arms at Mikey. "He cares about you playing with someone's heart. That's the sin!"
"Oh, for - I wasn't playing with her, Gerard, she never even asked if she could see me again."
"Of course she wants to see you again, Mikey!" Gerard said incredulously. "You're you." There was a silence, eventually broken by Ray saying, "Aww."
Gerard sat down next to Mikey and put his hand on his knee. "Even if this wouldn't help Frank," he said quietly, "I know you would call her because it's the right thing to do. The fact that your friends' livelihoods could depend on it is just a bonus, right?"
Mikey sat up and looked at Gerard. "They give you classes in how to be right all the time?"
"Nope," Gerard grinned. "I get that from Mom."
"Fine," Mikey said. "Fine, I'll call her."
Brian made everyone jump then, by slamming both his fists into the table, then flinging them over his head and yelling, "YES!"
Everyone stared at him. "Sorry," he said sheepishly, "I'm just so fucking relieved, Jesus Christ, oh thank fucking God."
"Dude." Ray made the cut it out gesture at Brian. "Ixnay on the asphemy-blay."
Bob rolled his eyes. "I'm pretty sure the Father speaks actual Latin, Toro."
"He does," Mikey said proudly.
Brian looked abashed. "Sorry, Father."
"Absit iniuria verbis," said Gerard. Then he turned to Mikey and said sternly, "Magnum frates spectat te."
"For fuck's sake," said Mikey, pulling out his phone.
Frank was watching all of this from his bed, where Brian had insisted he stay until further notice. He wondered idly if the Romans had sounded sexy when they spoke Latin. Then he freaked out that God might have heard that, and coughed loudly as if that would cover it up.
Brian sprang up immediately and came rushing over. "Are you okay? Do you need water? Anything?"
"I'm fine, Brian, I keep telling you," Frank said, waving him off. "Especially now we know Haywood infected his own damn balls."
Brian perched on the edge of the bed and touched Frank's wrist lightly, over the bandage. "Does it hurt?"
"No," Frank shook his head. "That's weird, isn't it?"
"This whole thing is weird," Brian said fervently. "But at least we're not going to jail."
"I think I'd take a night in the cells over this crap," Frank said, closing his eyes.
Brian's fingers moved back and forth, the pads of his fingertips rasping slightly against the bandage. He rubbed his thumb over the back of Frank's hand. He said, "I didn't think you believed in God."
"I don't." Frank opened his eyes and looked at Brian, who was staring at Frank's wrists. The blood had soaked through the bandages slightly, just enough to make a perfect red circle in the white on either side.
Brian cleared his throat. "The Father-"
"Call him Gerard, dude," Frank said, but Brian ignored him.
"The Father really thinks this is stigmata, Frank."
Frank looked over at Gerard, who was explaining something to Bob with a lot of hand movements. Bob was nodding thoughtfully. Ray was sitting apart, watching Mikey on his phone. "What do you think?"
Brian didn't say anything. He looked really upset, Frank though, like something really terrible was happening. He supposed it was. He felt weirdly at peace, for some reason. It was hard to think that a few days ago he was bleeding to death in Brian's arms, for fuck's sake. That kind of thing didn't really happen in real life.
He turned his hand over and squeezed Brian's thumb. "I'm okay, man."
"Yeah." Brian took a few deep breaths, his chest rising and falling slowly. "Okay, look - whatever happens from now on, whatever this is? Whatever it turns out to be? I'm on your side."
Frank squeezed his thumb again, not sure what to say. Brian had a heart of gold but he was usually more of a 'suck it up' type than a 'here, let me tend your fevered brow' or whatever. "Thanks."
"No, no," Gerard was saying to Bob. "Of course I think women should be able to be priests, of course I do, I'm just saying, I think a person can do more to change an institution from the inside, that's all."
Bob made his thinky face. "But if everyone just refused to enter the priesthood until things were changed, they'd have no choice."
Gerard shook his head. "I used to think that too, but I really-"
"All right," Mikey interrupted him, coming back and snapping his phone closed. "Brian, I gave her your email address. She's gonna send you the pictures too."
Brian made victory arms in the air. "Halle-fucking-lujah."
Gerard folded his arms. "And the girl?" he said snippily.
Mikey rolled his eyes. "She just wanted to hear from me that Frank wasn't running an upskirt website or whatever. She's not looking to jump my bones again."
"Why not?" Gerard frowned.
"Oh, my God, shut up," Mikey said, putting his hands over his eyes. "Look, I called her, she's sending the pictures, my work is done."
"Thanks Mikey," Frank said.
Mikey looked uncomfortable. "Least I could do."
Frank waved his hand. "Whatever, man. It's cool."
"No it isn't," Mikey insisted, and then he folded his own arms and looked at the floor.
There was an awkward silence, then Brian tapped Frank's knee, stood up and said, "So! Who feels like cleaning up the blood in Frank's bathroom?"
"Me," said Bob, standing up immediately.
"Oh my God, I'd love to," said Ray, doing the same.
Gerard frowned up at them from the sofa. "But Mikey said you already cleaned it."
"We could probably use another pair of hands, Father," said Brian, moving over to herd everyone into the bathroom, Gerard throwing Mikey a confused glance over his shoulder as they went.
"But it's totally clean in here," Frank heard him say, and then the door shut behind them all.
Frank caught Mikey's eye and they both cracked up. "Your brother, man."
"I know," Mikey laughed, hunching over a little. "We shared a room as kids, right, and once I was trying to get him to go away so me and my girlfriend could make out, and he just kept sitting there. It's like dropping hints into a black hole."
"Maybe he was trying to save your soul," Frank suggested. "Pre-marital sex and all that shit."
Mikey snorted, coming over to perch on the edge of the bed. "Hardly. Gerard didn't think about anything but pre-marital sex when we were in high school."
Frank laughed. "If only I'd known him then."
"I knew it!" Mikey pointed at him with a long, skinny finger. "I knew you had the hots for him, Jesus, Frank."
"Okay, first of all, who the fuck says 'had the hots' anymore?" Frank grabbed the finger and shoved Mikey's hand away, grinning to cover his embarrassment. "And I'm kidding, come on. He's a priest."
"He is," Mikey said in a long-suffering tone. Then he said in a new, serious voice, "This isn't like when you decided that the kid from the coffee shop being straight was no obstacle, you know."
"I know!" said Frank, appalled. "God!"
Frank flipped him off. "Look, can you just apologize so I can get some fucking sleep already?"
"Apologize for what?"
"Not backing me up when Ray and Bob were trying to stage their little intervention?"
"You told me not to say anything!"
"That was before!"
"Before when I thought I was going crazy too!" Frank said, throwing his hands up irritably.
Mikey just glared at him.
Frank glared back for like thirty seconds. As their fights went, this was actually a really long one.
Mikey broke it by rolling his eyes. "Fine," he said in a bored voice. "I'm sorry God's wrath is making you an asshole."
"I'm sorry you have no heart, just an empty space in your chest with a fucking rock in" Frank retorted, and they glared at each other for another thirty seconds.
Brian yelled, "Are you done? The Father doesn't like bathrooms."
"Call him Gerard!" Mikey and Frank yelled back together, and Mikey gave him a small smile, and Frank knew they were okay.
The others came out of the bathroom, and Brian started to make noises about getting back to work.
"I don't want to leave him alone," he told Mikey anxiously. "But I need to call the lawyers, and Ray and Bob are both booked up-"
"I'll stay with him," Gerard said, and Brian shook his hand gratefully.
Frank rolled his eyes. "Everyone has to stop talking about me like I'm not here."
Bob patted Frank's head. "How could we forget?"
"Try not to puncture yourself while we're gone," Ray added. He touched Mikey's elbow. "Are you gonna stay?"
"No, I'll come along." Mikey shook Frank's foot through the blankets. "I'll come around after work, okay?"
"Okay," Frank said, waving them off. "Go, go."
Mikey gave Gerard a hug, then followed the others out of the door. Gerard pulled a chair up to Frank's bed and crossed his legs, his hands hooked around his knee. "I really like Ray and Bob."
"Yeah, they're awesome," Frank agreed. "Hey - can you pass me a smoke?"
Gerard put his hand out, then hovered it over the pack, making a doubtful face. "Are you allowed?"
"It's not exactly heavy lifting."
Gerard shrugged, lit a cigarette and passed it to Frank, then looked shifty until Frank said, "Help yourself."
Gerard lit up and inhaled happily. "Mmm. Thanks. I left mine in my car."
"With your CD of hymns."
"Right," Gerard grinned.
"It's so weird that you're a priest," Frank blurted out suddenly. "You're like a normal dude. I can't believe you've never, you know. Done it."
Gerard exhaled smoke sideways. "I wasn't born a priest."
"So you have had sex," Frank clarified, laughing when Gerard rolled his eyes. "So what, man, you didn't like it?"
"What's not to like?" Gerard rolled his cigarette in his fingers. "There's more to being a priest than celibacy, Frank. Nobody takes Holy Orders because they don't want to have sex."
"So why did you take them?"
Gerard was silent for a long time, so long Frank thought he wasn't even going to answer, but then he said, "I wanted to save people."
Frank laughed. "You're not serious."
"The Church saved my life," Gerard said quietly. "I was all fucked up before, Frankie, like you wouldn't believe. Then I found God, and He saved me. Suddenly I had a purpose in life."
"You're like someone out of a documentary," Frank marveled. "You found God and he saved you? Do you hear yourself?"
Gerard squinted at him. "You're weirdly skeptical for someone with stigmata, you know that?"
"We don't know what I have," Frank corrected him. "And how did you wind up investigating holy toast and…me, anyway? You want to save people, wouldn't you be better off actually, you know, preaching?"
"I wanted to!" Gerard said. "I wanted to get into youth ministry, you know, at-risk kids, that kind of thing? That was my goal. Still is."
"So why don't you do that?"
"I did," Gerard frowned down at his cigarette, chewing his lip. "I did, and I loved it."
Gerard sat back in his chair and sighed heavily. "I tried to - kids would ask me for advice, you know, and I'd tell them what I thought was right, and it didn't always mesh exactly with the official teachings of the Church, and…well, some of the parents didn't like it, and then the Bishop found out, and he really didn't like it, and I was a stubborn idiot and wouldn't back down, and now they keep me as far away from the kids as possible and I swear, Frank, if you make an altar-boy joke right now I will recite Psalms until your ears are bleeding, never mind your wrists."
Frank held his hands up. "I wasn't even thinking it, I swear to God."
Gerard folded his arms grumpily. "I'm glad to hear it."
"The thing is, I get wanting to help people, man, especially kids. But why a priest? Why not be a social worker, or a teacher?"
Gerard look confused. "There are times when I am those things."
"Yes," said Frank patiently, "But those people are allowed to have sex."
"The vow of celibacy isn't even really about sex," Gerard explained. "If a priest has a family, a partner, kids, then they're gonna be his priority, right?" Frank nodded and Gerard went on, "A priest's priority has to be doing God's work, that's all."
Frank thought about it. "I guess."
"Anyway, what about you?" Gerard gestured at Frank's face. "How'd you get into body piercing?"
"I was Called," Frank said solemnly.
Now it was Gerard's turn to look at the ceiling. "Lord, grant me patience," he said dramatically.
Frank grinned. "What should I say, man? You just told me you were chosen by God to save the children or whatever. I pierce people's nipples."
"Wuargh," said Gerard, folding his arms.
"You're not into that look?"
"It's so weird," Gerard made a face. "It freaks me out."
"It's really easy to get it wrong, too," Frank agreed. "You know, if you slip and the needle goes through the nipple instead of underneath it-"
"Stop it!" Gerard clapped his hands over his eyes like Frank was going to bust a nipple ring out right in front of him. "I can't deal with pierced nipples at all."
"How often is that a problem for you?"
"More often than you might think," Gerard muttered darkly.
Frank laughed some more, then took pity. "I don't know, I've just always been into it. You know what, like, piercings - and tattoos, but I'm only just learning those - they're like, a lot of people get them on a special occasion, like a present to themselves. So they'll always remember passing their driving test when they put in earrings, or whatever. I like that, that's cool."
"So we're both in the business of making people feel better," Gerard smiled. Then he said, "You know, there's body piercing in the Bible."
"Oh yeah. In fact, the golden calf, you know, the false idol that pissed God off so much, that was made from melted-down gold earrings. Oh, and there's a part about piercing your servant's ears to mark them."
"Way to cast body-mod in a positive light, Bible," Frank muttered.
Gerard laughed and shook his head. "Back then the only people with pierced ears were slaves and pagans. There's also a part where one of Abraham's servants gives Rebekah a nose-ring." Gerard touched the back of Frank's hand. "Hey, do you have any other religious markings?"
"Not that I know of," Frank shrugged. "Besides, if body-mod's a no-go in Heaven, I'd say I'm pretty much screwed."
"I don't believe that."
"You don't think Jesus minds a little ink?"
"I think we come to Jesus how we are. We're all marked, Frank. Some of us more visibly than others, that's all."
Frank didn't know what to say to that. He had never met anyone like Gerard, who would just spew out these sentences that should be embarrassing but mostly made Frank want to sit at his feet and listen forever.
"I think we're not that different, you and me," Gerard said.
Frank laughed, too loudly, to cover his confusion. "I don't know, man, I think I would have a problem taking a job where the handbook tells me I can't jerk off."
"The Bible doesn't say that."
"What?" Frank made a face. "Sure it does."
"No it doesn't," Gerard shook his head. "The Catechism does, on the grounds that it perverts the sacred sexual function, but the Bible doesn't say masturbation is a sin."
"Of course it does!"
"Okay," Gerard made a come-on gesture with his hands. "Where does it say that?"
"Thou shalt not spill thy seed upon the ground," Frank said triumphantly. "Leviticus or some shit, I don't know."
"Leviticus is the crazy book that tells us to stone people to death for eating shrimp cocktail," Gerard said, smiling a little bit. "The book you're mangling so impressively is Genesis, and that's not what it says."
"Fine, holy man, what does it say?"
"Then Judah said to Onan, 'Lie with your brother's wife and fulfil your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother.'" Gerard rattled off immediately. "But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord's sight; so he put him to death also."
Frank gave him a look. "So the withdrawal method is punishable by death? Because I know a lotta Catholic couples who're up to their necks in shit if that's true."
"That's not really the point of the story."
"And what the hell, why's this Onan dude sleeping with his brother's wife anyway? I haven't swallowed the Bible like you, man, but I'm pretty fucking sure it's fairly clear on adultery."
"It is," Gerard nodded a little, conceding the point. "But his brother's dead, and at the time it would have been customary for Onan to take his sister-in-law into his home, so she wouldn't be cast out to strangers, and to give her a child on behalf of his brother."
"What'd he die of?"
Gerard looked uncomfortable. "The Lord put him to death."
"Being wicked in his sight," Gerard mumbled, sighing when Frank bugged his eyes at him. "I know, I know."
"God's pretty scary in the Old Testament, you know that?" Frank said, giving the ceiling a wary glance.
Gerard waved his hands irritably, dismissing God's scariness. "Look, the point is that God wasn't mad at Onan for spilling his seed, okay, he was mad at him disobeying his father, therefore violating the fourth commandment, and for-"
"Shooting on the floor instead of inside his dead brother's wife?" Frank folded his hands on top of the blankets. "Wow, yeah, what a douchebag."
"It's not the - the 'shooting', Frank," Gerard thumped the bed for emphasis. He was getting all red, it was fucking cute. "Onan refused to give his sister-in-law the gift of a child because he had some masculine pride bullshit going on, but he still fucked her, still used her for his own, selfish pleasure. So he took this act which should have been a really beautiful, solemn thing, this gift of joy and life, a continuation of his brother's line, and instead he turned it into using his grieving sister-in-law as a big sex toy, and that is a motherfucking sin, okay, no doubt about it! I'm not saying the dude deserved to die, but you don't think that makes him a giant asshole?"
Frank plucked at the blankets, feeling like kind of a giant asshole himself. "I hadn't thought about it that way."
"Nobody ever does," Gerard said hotly. "Look, you can find evidence for pretty much anything being a sin if you want to. The Bible's ambiguous, it's open to interpretation. I choose not to interpret it as 'God hates orgasms.'"
Frank turned that over in his mind. "That crazy Leviticus guy have anything to say about shooting on the floor?"
"He has a lot to say about a lot of shit," Gerard said grimly. "If we lived by the rules in Leviticus we'd have to kill kids for talking back to their parents, and men would be considered unclean for having an orgasm in bed with a woman."
"Seriously?" Frank cracked up, harder when it made Gerard look even more irritated. "Did his mother not explain to him where babies come from?"
"Apparently not," Gerard said, a tiny smile starting to tug at the corner of his stern-set mouth. "I told you, he's the crazy one."
"So there's nothing about jerking off in the Bible," Frank stated.
Gerard tipped his head to the side. "Nothing I would want people to take to heart."
Frank apologized to his mother in his head and said casually, "So…do you?"
"Do I what?" Gerard opened his unicorn notebook again.
"Jerk off," Frank said, curling his toes and holding his breath a little at his own daring.
Gerard shrugged. "Sure."
"Seriously?" Frank squeaked.
"Of course." Gerard flipped a page, then looked up at Frank. "I don't make a big production out of it or anything."
"Oh," said Frank faintly. "Oh."
Gerard was talking again, something about Frank's tattoo and the history of stigmata, but Frank totally wasn't listening, he was trying his level best not to imagine Gerard touching himself, all naked except for his collar, oh God, Frank was going to Hell.
"I'll be right back," Gerard said, the scrape of the chair when he stood up pulling Frank out of Guilty Pleasure Fantasy Land.
"You're going?" Frank said, grabbing Gerard's hand before he could stop himself. They stared down at Frank's fingers for a minute, wrapped around Gerard's wrist.
"Just to the bathroom," Gerard said slowly.
"Oh." Frank forced himself to let go, steeling himself against the wave of discomfort he knew was coming. "Um."
"Try to relax," Gerard said gently, still looking at Frank's hand. "Frank - do you…?"
Frank lifted his chin. "Do I what?"
Gerard frowned at him, not in an angry way, just thoughtful. "Is there anything you're not telling me? Are you feeling anything…anything new?"
Frank shook his head. "No," he said. "Nothing new."
Gerard let him off the hook and went off to the bathroom. Frank lay on his back and stared at the ceiling and thought about how there was no good way to say, 'Hey, could you just get in bed with me for a minute so my headache goes away?'
"The light on your machine's flashing," Gerard called through on his way back. "You want me to hit it?"
"Yes," Frank said, allowing himself to grin at the pun. He heard the beep, then there were a couple messages from friends asking why Frank had fallen off the face of the Earth recently, and then -
"Frank, this is Doctor Durning. I thought I saw you getting carried bodily out of the emergency room by your friends the other day, but that can't possibly be the case because I know I told you to stay the hell away and take care of yourself for once."
Frank rolled his eyes at the ceiling.
"Anyway, I thought you might like to know that I got the results back on that goo your new tattooing friend gave you. You'll be pleased to hear, no doubt, that you were right. It's just herbs - uh, some rosemary, cyclamen… and this looks like it says mistletoe. Oh, and some hellebore, and hemp…that's about it, the base is some kind of oil."
There was a pause, during which Frank pumped his fist weakly in victory, and then Durning pissed all over his parade by adding, "The really exciting news is that it also contains belladonna, which is poisonous, isn't nature awesome? So my advice to you is to stop putting the shit on your skin and don't eat it, for the love of God."
Another pause, and finally, "Take care of yourself, Frank. You know where I am."
The machine beeped again, and Gerard appeared in the doorway. "A lot of people care about you, Frank."
"Yeah," said Frank, feeling unaccountably shy. "At least now we know what's in that shit Luke gave me."
"Yeah, that's good news," Gerard agreed, sitting back down by Frank. "Hey, I have something to show you."
He got up and dug around in his bag, then came back and pushed his chair even closer to the bed before sitting down. He was holding a giant book, which he opened and settled over Frank's belly, flicking a few pages until it opened on a double-page spread.
"This is The Legend of Saint Francis," Gerard said, pointing to a monk with a halo, kneeling by a mountain that was totally out of proportion. "And here's the seraph."
Frank's angel hung in the sky, blurrier and pinker and less battle-worn than she was on his hand, but still unmistakable. "That's my tattoo."
"Yeah," Gerard said softly, leaning a little closer. His hair brushed against Frank's cheek. "What do you think?"
Frank's fingers clutched the bedclothes and he had to swallow a few times, working some moisture into his dry mouth before he cracked weakly, "I think that mountain is either really small or really far away."
Gerard laughed, nodding. "I think we'll allow Giotto di Bondone to know a little bit about painting religious art, but I take your point." He turned a few pages and showed Frank another picture. "He's usually pictured with birds, like this."
Frank traced a finger over the man's face. He looked totally peaceful. "Why?"
"He loved animals," Gerard said warmly. "He's actually the patron saint of animals. And the environment."
"Really?" Frank grinned. "That's so awesome."
"Yeah, I thought you'd like that. Mikey says you're a big animal lover too."
"Yeah," Frank enthused. "I had a dog before, Ella. She was awesome, but - but I lost her."
Frank shrugged and touched the page where Saint Francis had a halo around his head. "Is there a Saint Gerard?"
"There actually is," Gerard smiled. "He was an Italian lay brother."
Frank grinned at him. "What's he the patron saint of?"
Gerard hesitated, then sort of rolled his eyes and sighed, "Expectant mothers."
Frank cracked up, trying and failing to cover his laughter with his hands. "Dude! That's hilarious."
"He was a counselor for nuns," Gerard added. "And he could levitate."
"What?" Frank laughed for another minute, then took some deep breaths to calm himself down, hands on his stomach. "Oh, man. Levitation, what the fuck."
Gerard clicked his tongue. "O ye of little faith."
"Whatever." Frank looked at the picture again, then looked up to meet Gerard's eyes. "Um, remember before, you asked if I had any more religious tattoos?"
Gerard took the book back, nodding. "Uh huh?"
"Well, I didn't think anything of it before, but - here," Frank pushed the blankets down and lifted his T-shirt up, exposing his belly and the birds inked into his hips. "They kind of look the same as the ones in the picture, don't they?"
Gerard moved so he was sitting on the bed by Frank's knees, his forehead wrinkled in concentration. He grabbed his camera and waved it at Frank. "Okay?"
Frank nodded, and Gerard snapped a few pictures, leaning in at one point to get a close-up. Frank held his breath, and held still, and held onto his sanity as best he could with a hot priest staring at almost-his-crotch.
Gerard tossed the camera aside after a moment and put his hands on Frank's skin, splaying his fingers out to bracket the birds. "Okay?" he muttered again.
Okay was a fucking understatement. Being so close to Gerard had dulled out the pain enough that Frank couldn't even really feel it anymore, and the feeling of Gerard's hands sliding across his belly and hips wasn't like taking a painkiller at all, it was like getting dropped headfirst into a giant glass of…something that fizzed, and was awesome. Frank felt a ripple of euphoria spread outwards over his entire body, every inch of his skin tingling and aching for more. He bit his lip and screwed his eyes shut and threw his forearms over his face, but nothing was enough to keep him from pressing up into Gerard's touch, and he couldn't help the noise he made, a rough gasp wrenching itself from his throat.
Gerard's hands stilled immediately. "Am I hurting you?"
"Nnn," Frank managed, shaking his head. He forced himself to still again, holding the air in his lungs until it burned. He could feel sweat prickling along the back of his neck and stinging his upper lip, and it took every ounce of strength he had not to wrap his legs around Gerard and pull him down.
He couldn't stop his toes digging into the bed when Gerard's hand swept warmly across his hip, though, and he couldn't hold back another gasp, either, and in about another second he was just going to lose it and either start crying or laughing hysterically or just grab Gerard and tie him to the fucking bed and wrap himself as closely around him as possible. It wasn't a sexy feeling, exactly, he wasn't hard or anything, but it was addictive and maddening and not-quite-enough, and right when it got to feeling like he was going to explode into a thousand tiny pieces, he let the air out of his lungs in a violent whoosh, and turned over suddenly, pushing Gerard's hands off him with a whine and curling up into the smallest ball possible, still covering his eyes.
"Sorry," he gasped. "Sorry, it's just - I don't know, I feel really weird."
Gerard was silent for a second, then he cleared his throat. Then he cleared it again. When Frank peeped up at him through his fingers, he was bright red and staring at the floor. "Should I-"
"Let me sleep," Frank rushed, pulling his shirt back down and trying not to look like he'd just come within three inches of some sort of weird skingasm. "You should - I need to sleep. And you probably have better stuff to do than hang out here."
Gerard cleared his throat a third time and looked around crazily. "You shouldn't be alone."
"Mikey'll be back soon." Frank sat up and pulled the blankets up around him, keeping his hands busy, keeping them to himself.
Gerard looked like he wanted to argue, but he also looked like he wanted to bolt for the fucking door. And no wonder, considering Frank had just put on a fucking floor show for him.
"Gerard," Frank pressed desperately. "Please, it's fine."
"I guess I could do some research on those herbs," Gerard hedged. "I don't know, though…Brian didn't want to leave you."
"Let me text them." Frank got his phone out and fumbled at the keys. Gerard hovered anxiously in the doorway, shooting nervous looks at Frank and then staring at the floor. "I'll - Gerard, it's fine. I'll let them know."
Gerard didn't exactly bolt for the door, but he moved pretty fucking fast. "All right, I'll let myself out. You'll call me if you need me?"
"Okay!" Frank said, as cheerily as possible. "Later!"
Gerard hesitated for another moment, then left.
Frank waited until he heard the door click shut to burrow down under his covers, pull the pillow over his head, and groan.
Bob came over later, and he brought dinner with him.
"You're an angel from heaven," Frank told him, and then stopped. "That's sort of weird to say right now, huh."
Bob just gave him a look and turned on the portable TV which he had also brought with him, because, "You can't be without a TV, Frank, it's just not right. You need some fucking normality."
Frank loved Bob, so he patted his shoulder and thanked him and when Bob put on Big Brother, Frank only gave him shit about it for like five minutes.
Screaming housemates aside, it was exactly that: normal. They watched the news and yelled at it, and then they found an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition marathon and both pretended they weren't misty-eyed when the weeping designers presented the wheelchair-bound dad-of-nine with a giant scholarship fund check.
In the next episode, this one kid got a fucking awesome room tricked out like a space lab, and Frank commented, "Maybe I'll send them a video letter, man, I've been through pain and misfortune. Where's my pimped-out crib?"
"What are they gonna do," Bob said around a mouthful of chips. "Install a fence of crucifixes? Bandaid dispenser?"
"They could give me a lifetime supply of Holy Water," Frank suggested. "I could have window boxes with garlic in."
Bob snorted. "You're not being attacked by vampires."
"Whatever, you come up with a plan to ward off stigmata," Frank told him.
"I already have one."
Bob spread his arms wide. "Do you see any inexplicable punctures on me?"
"Then my plan is working," Bob said comfortably.
They watched Queer Eye for the Straight Guy next.
"I would love to be best friends with a chef," Frank said while they watched Ted the food guy make…something delicious looking. "Mmm, chefs."
"Chefs," Bob agreed, and then he sat up and yelled, "You can't wear those shoes with that shirt, you fucking moron!"
Frank laughed, doubling over when the guy ignored Bob and Bob threw a chip at the screen.
"Shut up!" Bob told Frank. "Dude, he - god, my eyes."
"You'd be good on this show," Frank grinned, dodging Bob's half-hearted swipe at the back of his head. "Maybe you should send in a resume - ow, Bob, no, come on, I'm hurt!"
"Little shit," Bob complained, then yelled at the screen, "The brown shoes, brown!"
The evening passed pleasantly, more TV and more of Bob yelling. He was in the middle of telling Frank about the drum kit he wanted to buy when the pain in Frank's wrists suddenly flared and Frank hissed, bringing them both close to his chest.
"What is it?" Bob said immediately, dropping his cigarette in the ashtray half-smoked and leaning forward to grab Frank's shoulders. "Frank?"
"I don't know." Frank shook his head and started peeling the bandage on his left wrist away for a closer look when another spike of pain shot down his leg and burned sullenly in his foot for a minute. "Oh, fuck. Oh, no."
"It's okay," Bob was on his feet. "I'm gonna call an ambulance."
Frank shook his head no and bit his tongue hard when a sick bolt of pain bloomed at the back of his head. "Gerard. Call Gerard."
Bob grabbed his cellphone and opened it, but then Frank changed his mind and started scrambling off the couch, falling awkwardly onto his knees when his legs wouldn't hold him up. "Oh, shit, Bob, this is gonna - I don't know what to do."
"What's going to happen, Frank?" Bob asked urgently. "What comes next?"
"Fuck," Frank rested his head against Bob's knee. "Feet. Feet are next."
Bob looked around quickly, then shoved his cell in his pocket, scooped Frank up and headed for the bathroom. "Tub," he said calmly, turning sideways to get through the door. "At least this way you won't bleed all over everything."
Frank laughed despite himself, clinging to Bob's shoulders. "You just like carrying me around, Bob Bryar."
"I live for it," Bob agreed, bending to set Frank down in the tub. He pulled the shower curtain aside, tying it into a big knot and hooking it over the rail, out of the way. Then he knelt and pulled off Frank's socks, and rolled his pajama pants up to the knee. "Okay," he said, and grabbed a towel, folded it and set it behind Frank's head. "Okay?"
Frank gazed up at him. "You've done this before, haven't you?"
Bob smiled a tiny bit. "My secret past, uncovered."
Frank tried to answer, but everything started to hurt at the same time so it came out as a strangled stream of vowels. Bob grabbed one of Frank's flailing hands and held it tight, pulling out his cell with the other hand. "Take it easy, Frank, it's gonna be okay."
Frank concentrated on trying to brace himself somehow, his toes already curling up in anticipation, his lungs struggling to expel enough air to take a new breath.
"That's it," Bob said, cellphone pressed to his ear. "That's it, man, just breathe, in and out, slow, in, out, that's good, that's it."
"I'm not giving birth, you fuck," Frank gritted out, "Fucking get Gerard here, man, I fucking mean it."
"God, you're such a whiner," Bob said, holding Frank's hand tighter. Then he said, "Hey, it's Bob. You need to come back to Frank's place, his feet are about to explode or some shit, I don't know. Attention seeker."
"You're hilarious," Frank gasped out, and then the first slam of hammer-on-nail rang in his ears, and Frank was too busy crying out to say anything else.
He didn't actually pass out this time. Well, not totally. He was out of it for a while there, dimly aware of Bob talking him through, of his calm, constant voice keeping Frank tethered vaguely in his bathroom instead of on a hill somewhere getting martyred. He only really came back to himself when it was over, though, when the pain stopped and his bare feet were slipping against the floor of the tub in what Frank knew without looking was his own blood.
Bob said, "Come on, let's get you into bed."
Frank rolled his head towards him. "I'm not that kind of girl."
"I'm not that kind of gore fetishist," Bob replied, gathering Frank up and heaving him onto the side of the tub. "Your toenails are really gross, by the way."
Frank just leaned heavily on Bob's shoulders while Bob ran water over Frank's feet, then wrapped them in a towel. Frank was, he realized, going to have to buy a whole set of new ones when this was over. Providing he survived, of course.
"You probably don't need towels in Heaven," he told Bob, and then started giggling crazily.
"If you get blood on my shirt," Bob said grimly, "You're going to Hell."
The bleeding had pretty much stopped already, and Frank was trying to convince Bob to let him see the damage - Bob's theory of injuries was that if you didn't look at it or talk about it or acknowledge it in any way, it probably wasn't there at all - when there was a knock at the door and Gerard's worried voice going, "Frank? Bob? Bob, is he okay?"
"He's fine, just a second," Bob yelled back, gathering Frank up again and taking him into the bedroom.
"I changed my mind," Frank told Bob's collar. "I'm so over walking. You can carry me whenever you want."
Bob set him down on the bed and re-wrapped the bloody towels quickly. "Well, shit, Frank, now I gotta find a whole new life's ambition."
"Let's get married," Frank called after him when he went to get the door. Bob ignored him, of course.
Frank closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing. He heard Bob letting Gerard in, heard a hushed exchange and then, weirdly, Bob saying, "Oof," and Gerard apologizing.
He thought about asking what was going on, but he was too wrung out to lift his head, even. He heard Bob move into the kitchen, heard Gerard's footsteps coming towards him and his whole body started tingling, a sense-memory of what it had been like to be touched by Gerard earlier, like it was trying to remind him that all the pain and discomfort would magically disappear if he could just get close enough to Gerard, and then the mattress dipped and Gerard said softly,
"Hey, Frankie. I'm so sorry I wasn't here."
Frank opened his eyes, and Gerard was kneeling next to the bed, leaning on it with his elbows. His hair was damp, and mussed like he'd gotten dressed in a hurry, and there were streaks of something grey down the side of his face, and he was wearing a Misfits t-shirt, and jeans.
And that was it. No collar, no black shirt, just a regular guy in regular clothes, and Frank didn't know if it was that, or the pain, or the blood-loss, or if he was just too tired of fighting, but before he could stop himself he reached out, fisted his hands in Gerard's shirt, heaved him up bodily onto the bed and rolled forward, pressing his face into Gerard's chest.
"I'm sorry," he said, even as his arms wrapped around Gerard's waist and tried to pull him closer. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but it hurts, it hurts so bad."
"Frank?" Gerard squeaked. He had gone completely still. Frank didn't think he was breathing, even.
"I lied to you," Frank admitted, rubbing his face against Gerard's shirt and letting himself wallow in the relief flooding through his limbs. "Before, when you asked if I was feeling anything else, but I didn't know how to tell you without sounding like a creep, and I know it's weird, okay, but if you could just let me stay here for a few minutes, just for a minute, Gerard, please."
"It's okay, Frank," Gerard said, twisting around a little. Frank moved back as many inches as he could bear to let Gerard sit more comfortably on the bed, then latched back on, burrowing under Gerard's arm to get as close as possible. "Just tell me what's going on."
"It kind of looks like when you touch him it doesn't hurt anymore," Bob observed from the doorway. Frank peeked out at him from under Gerard's elbow. Bob raised his hands. "But that's just a layman's opinion, of course."
"Oh," said Gerard. "Oh! Frank, why didn't you tell me? I wouldn't have left you alone!"
Frank held on tighter, heaving a shivery sigh when one of Gerard's hands settled on the back of his neck and the other squeezed his shoulder. "Because it's weird."
"Seconded," Bob agreed. "I'm making coffee, try not to rupture an artery while I'm gone."
Gerard said, "Thanks, Bob," and put his arm around Frank properly, hugging him close. "You gonna let me look at your feet?"
Frank clung and shook his head. "In a second, just a second."
"Come on," Gerard said, rubbing his neck lightly. "We don't know if you're gonna need stitches, or what. Let me see."
Frank let go reluctantly - it didn't hurt, exactly, because Gerard was careful to stay in contact, but it still sucked. Gerard moved down to the bottom of the bed and unwrapped Frank's feet carefully, balking a little at the blood.
"And it doesn't hurt?" he said, pulling his ever-present camera out of his jeans. He looked up at Frank, big eyes and messy hair and looking for all the world like a normal dude. A really pretty normal dude with magical healing hands. The asshole. "They're not even bleeding anymore, it looks like they're closed. Did it happen the same as before, with your wrists?"
Frank told him quickly how it had happened, and Bob came back in with coffee and bandages, and sat at the bottom of the bed wrapping Frank's feet up while Gerard told them both about the research he'd been doing.
"I looked up those herbs your doctor mentioned, and from what I can gather, some of them are used for, you know, not nice things."
"Like dark magic?" Frank said, cheek pressed against Gerard's shoulder. He felt warm and cared for and like nothing could hurt him at all - which was total bullshit because there were holes in his feet, but whatever. "Like a spell?"
"I don't know yet. I was making notes before-"
"In pencil?" Bob wanted to know.
Gerard frowned. "Yeah. Why?"
Bob shook his head and smiled into his coffee. "No reason."
"Don't be an asshole, Bob." Frank reached up to rub at the smears on Gerard's face, then realized that maybe he shouldn't, and put his hand down again, blushing.
"I was in the middle of reading about it when you called," Gerard went on, oblivious. "But I just got here as fast I could. I brought some of my books, though."
"Oh, is that what those things you threw at me were?" Bob finished with the bandages and squeezed Frank's little toe. "I thought they were lead bricks bound in leather."
Gerard's forehead creased. "How would they help us fight evil?"
"We could throw them," Bob said gravely. "At it."
"Wait a minute." Frank struggled to sit up properly, pulling away from Gerard as much as he could without it hurting, because clinging to the dude was kind of humiliating, as nice as it felt. "Evil? There's evil now? What about Saint Francis?"
"I just think we should explore all possible explanations," Gerard said in a voice that totally failed at soothing or reassuring or any of the things Frank thought he might be going for. "We don't know anything for certain yet."
"If it carries on, what happens?" Bob wanted to know. "People live with stigmata for years, right?"
Gerard nodded. "Yeah, but - they usually only have marks in their palms, or feet. There are no documented cases of someone bearing more than one or two Marks of Christ."
"What else is there?"
"There's - there's only one left. It would be a wound where Jesus was stabbed with a spear," Gerard touched Frank's side lightly, which felt nice but didn't do anything to alleviate the sinking feeling in Frank's stomach, like he'd swallowed a giant rock that said 'DOOM' on it. "Right here."
Bob thought about that for a minute. "Would he survive that?"
"There aren't any documented cases," Gerard repeated. "I don't know."
Bob stood up, his mouth set in a hard line, and marched out of the room.
"Where are you going?" Frank called after him, patting Gerard's hand because the dude looked like he'd just run over someone's dog. "Bob?"
"I'm getting those fucking books," Bob yelled back. "Nobody's stabbing you in the side on my watch."
By the time Ray, Mikey and Brian arrived, the pile of Books We Haven't Checked Yet was getting kind of small, and the No Fucking Use to Anyone pile was alarmingly huge. Frank had absorbed a lot of information about incubi and succubi and the many different guises under which the Devil could appear, but none of it seemed like it could actually happen in real life, and none of it mentioned stigmata as anything other than a gift from above.
"Hey guys, how goes study party?" Ray said, shrugging off his jacket.
Frank waved hello. "Apparently saving my life involves a lot of reading."
"Can't you just call your guys?" Bob asked Gerard, as Brian took a book and settled onto the couch next to him. "The Vatican, or whatever?"
"Frank's an atheist," Gerard said, not looking up from his book. "I tried, but it's a no go."
"They're gonna let him suffer because he doesn't believe in God?" Mikey made his most disapproving face, which involved him pursing his lips and moving his eyebrows until they formed one crinkled, annoyed line across his forehead. "Wow, Jesus would be so proud."
"Mikey, don't even start," Gerard said, turning a page. "I said I tried."
Ray moved past Mikey and skirted warily past the bed. "How are, you know."
"My feet?" Frank looked down at them. They looked really stupid, all wrapped up like that, like Mickey Mouse feet or something. "You wanna see?"
"No!" Ray said hurriedly, turning away.
Mikey hadn't moved from his spot in the doorway. "Mikey, you okay?" Frank asked him.
"What are you doing?" Mikey said.
Frank held his book up. "Reading about," he checked, "Saint Teresa's holy wet dream."
"I wasn't talking to you," Mikey hadn't taken his eyes off Gerard. "Do you cuddle on the bed with everyone you investigate?"
They totally weren't cuddling, they were just sitting next to each other, but Mikey looked like he'd walked in on them flying around in a sex trapeze or something.
"It's my fault," Frank said quickly. "It hurts less when - when he's close."
"Dude, for real?" Ray was leaning forward, elbows propped on his knees. "Are you like a healer?"
"No," Gerard said firmly, his eyes on Mikey. "I think it's part of whatever's been done to Frank. And I'm just trying to help him. That's all."
Ray gave him a weird look. "Okay, man. Hey, Mikey, come sit next to me, come on."
Mikey stayed where he was for a second, staring at Gerard with a peculiar blank expression that seemed to be saying a lot in a language Frank didn't understand, then finally went over to sit by Ray.
Brian cleared his throat and spoke over the awkward silence that followed. "So, what are we even looking for?"
Gerard told them about the herbs, about the possibility of magic being involved. "The thing is, it's kind of confusing, because some of the herbs are like, evil herbs, or whatever, but the rosemary and cyclamen-"
"Are used for protection," Ray interrupted, blushing when everyone turned to stare at him. "What, you think I just make hair products with whatever I have in my kitchen cabinets? I do research, guys, I know my shit."
Mikey leaned against Ray and grinned at him. "You're a wizard, Harry!"
"Shut up," Ray snorted, shaking his head so his hair went in Mikey's face.
"Well, then you'll know that mistletoe isn't just for kissing under at Christmas," Gerard said, mostly to Ray.
"Yeah, it's uh, don't they call it the vampire plant?"
Gerard beamed at him. "Yes!"
"Why do they call it that?" Brian was leaning forward, chin in his hands.
"Because it's parasitic," Gerard told him, flipping to a page in one of the books and handing it over for Brian and Bob to look at. "It can get under the bark of other trees to get to water if there's a drought - but the really interesting thing is, there's an old Christian tradition that suggests mistletoe actually used to be a tree, and that's what they used to make the wood of the Cross."
Frank sat up, suddenly more interested in mistletoe than he ever thought he would be. "That would tie in with what's happening to me, right?"
Gerard nodded at him. "Right. The legend goes that God punished mistletoe for its part in the Crucifixion by shriveling it up into a weird little vine."
Mikey rolled his eyes. "Way to be merciful, God."
"So, anything you can find in the books on these herbs, or stigmata, and then we've been making some notes," Gerard went on, ignoring Mikey. He picked up the pieces of paper they'd been using and shuffled them around, frowning at them. "Uh. These are kind of confused. Bob, what's this about a chicken?"
Bob looked up. "I didn't write anything about a chicken."
Gerard squinted, then held the paper really far away from his face, and then really close. "Oh. Maybe it's your handwriting - "
"Father," Brian cut him off, "I'm not going to tell you how to do your job, but maybe it would be better if we divided this up a little bit."
Gerard blinked at him. "I don't understand."
"Wait - I brought some stuff with me." Brian stood up and went into the other room. He came back with a huge pad of paper and a bundle of thick pens. He put the pens down on the end of the bed, then started ripping poster-sized sheets out of the pad. "Bob, help me with this?"
They stuck the sheets to the wall, then Brian got Gerard to name everything they should be looking for, and wrote one item at the top of each sheet in big letters.
"Give Mikey the notes, he can read anything, including Bob's handwriting," he said, and then he got Mikey to dictate to him while he wrote up everything they'd found, in bullet-pointed lists.
"Wow," Gerard smiled. "I bet you never have odd socks, do you?"
Brian rolled his eyes and started dividing the books up into equal piles.
"I already looked through those," Frank protested as Brian handed Ray three books from the 'No Fucking Use' pile.
"That was before the system," Brian said determinedly. "The system cannot fail."
It was sort of nice, Frank thought, albeit nice in a really surreal way, to have everyone around him, reading and murmuring to each other. Occasionally someone would pipe up with a find, and Gerard would take the book and check it over, and sometimes it went up on the wall and sometimes it didn't. They called out for pizza, and the air turned thick with smoke. Bob and Brian had spread their books out over the low table, and Ray and Mikey were poring over a giant book which they'd laid out over both their laps.
"This is like being in Buffy," Mikey said at one point, looking over his glasses at Frank. "You know, like in the library, where they all research and make puns?"
"I call Giles," Brian said immediately, raising his hand.
Gerard sputtered indignantly. "I'm Giles! I have all the books!"
"I did all the organization!" Brian jerked his chin at the lists.
"I have the superior knowledge of the subject matter!"
"I brought order to the chaos!"
"Order through stationery," Bob agreed. "It's Brian's way."
"You did provide the school supplies, it's true." Gerard tapped his pen against his teeth thoughtfully, then pointed it at Brian. "You can be Joyce."
"Don't Joyce and Giles sleep together?" Ray wondered aloud.
"Blargh," Mikey said, covering his eyes. Frank really agreed.
"It's not Giles," Gerard shook his head. "It's Ripper."
"Same thing," Bob piped up.
Ray bugged his eyes out. "It's not the same thing, that's like saying Angel and Angelus are the same person - "
"That's a totally different situation, Angelus is a demon and Angel is a human soul," Gerard argued.
"I know that," Ray said haughtily. "I'm not a newcomer to the subject of Buffy."
"Oh my God, you're all loser dorks," Frank told them, and lasted a whole ten seconds before adding, "I wanna be Oz."
"Oz is quiet," Brian said in a pained voice. "And a redhead."
"He's short and he plays guitar," Frank said stubbornly. "I'm Oz."
"I think Bob's more Oz-like than you," Mikey said thoughtfully. "He's quiet, and he has a beard."
Frank rolled his eyes. "What the fuck does Bob's beard have to do with it?"
Mikey looked at him like he was stupid. "Oz is a werewolf."
Gerard whipped around to stare at Bob, wide-eyed. "Are you a werewolf?"
"…No," said Bob.
"Oh." Gerard looked down at his book, the bridge of his nose turning slightly pink. "No, of course not."
Bob shrugged. "Wouldn't be the weirdest thing going on in this room, right?" he said, and Gerard smiled at him.
"You're really more like Buffy, anyway," Ray decided, pointing at Frank. "Weird shit like this always happens to her."
"Guess that makes you Willow," Frank told Mikey.
"No," Ray said flatly. "I'm Willow."
"How are you Willow?" Frank scoffed, and then jumped when Brian slammed a book shut. "Dude, what the fuck?"
"None of us are characters in a show on the WB," Brian reminded them. "All of us have work to do. Can we concentrate on reality, please?"
There was a chorus of sheepish apologies, and the library-hush settled over the room again. "Maybe he really is Giles," Frank whispered to Gerard. Gerard smiled at him sideways, and Frank had to force himself to look away from Gerard's pink mouth and strange, pointed, tiny teeth.
"Gerard can fly," he announced to the room.
"Frank, ugh," Gerard made a grumpy face, but he was totally smiling. "I should never have told you that."
"He can't fly," Mikey scoffed. "I'd totally know."
"Not him, his Saint," Frank teased. "Saint Gerard could levitate."
"For real?" Ray grinned at Gerard.
"And he's the patron saint of pregnant chicks!" Frank crowed, collapsing into giggles at Gerard's exasperated face.
Ray laughed. "Do I have a Saint?"
Gerard paused, still making his fake-annoyed face at Frank, then caved. "There are a few Saint Raymonds, actually. My favorite is this guy from Spain who was a really famous teacher, like a really gentle guy, and then he sailed from Majorca to Barcelona on his cloak."
Ray blinked. "On his cloak?"
"God made it into a magic raft for him," Gerard said matter-of-factly.
"Aww!" Mikey tugged on one of Ray's curls. "If you were a Saint, maybe God would make a lifeboat out of your hair!"
Gerard went on, "There's another Saint Raymond I really like, though, Saint Raymond Nonnatus? He was this guy who was all about freeing slaves, right? And he is also the patron saint of expectant mothers, just like all the best Saints are."
Ray leaned over and gave Gerard a high five. "Awesome, man."
"What about Bob?" Frank wanted to know.
"Oh, there's a whole bunch," Gerard said, holding up all his fingers to demonstrate. "But my favorite is Saint Robert of Molesmes, who was all about shunning fame and shit. He was really deeply spiritual. Kind of a hardass, though."
"A man of substance," Bob said. Brian smiled at him and thumped his knee. "I approve."
"There's no Saint Brian," Gerard said apologetically. "But there is a Blessed Brian, who was martyred in London."
"What for?" Brian squawked.
"Uh," Gerard cleared his throat awkwardly, then admitted, "Helping out a priest."
Brian sighed. "Figures."
Frank laughed, and turned to Mikey. "Don't you wanna know, man?"
"I am the Archangel Michael," Mikey said flatly, peering out from under his stupid beanie hat. "I am the Field Commander of God's Army. You all lose."
Gerard beamed at him. "That's right."
It wasn't much later when Ray looked up from a book Frank had already read from cover to cover, pushed his hair back from his face, and said, "Um."
"What is it?" Gerard looked over at him.
"It's probably nothing," Ray said anxiously. "It's not any of the things you told us to look for, but I just thought, you know, maybe it might help."
Gerard nodded. "It's okay. What did you find?"
Ray gave Frank an odd, nervous look, and got up, bringing the book around to Gerard. "See, there's this passage on the use of marks, and it says here that-"
"Purity of blood," Gerard read, "Can be achieved by marking the sacrifice with a sign or icon representing…" Gerard trailed off, his eyes moving back and forth quickly over the page.
"What?" Frank pressed. "Representing what? And - wait a fucking minute, sacrifice?"
Gerard launched himself off the bed all of a sudden and ran over to Brian, yanking his book out of his hands and leafing through it frantically until he found what he was looking for. He ran his finger down the page, then stabbed the book with it and rushed over to the sheets on the wall, where he paced back and forth, switching between the two books and muttering to himself.
"Gerard," Frank tried again, because his stomach was tying itself up in knots and his spine was prickling and he didn't feel like sitting around waiting for the cogs of Gerard's brain to grind slowly into place. "Sacrifice?"
Mikey was sitting forward on the edge of his feet, watching Gerard intently. "He's got it, Frank."
On cue, Gerard turned around and beamed at Ray. "You did it. You found it, Ray, I can't believe it. You figured it out."
Ray threw his arms over his head. "Willow, motherfuckers, what did I tell you?" he crowed, and then sobered, letting his arms come down slowly. "Figured what out?"
"You're a sacrifice," Gerard said to Frank, just straight out like that, no fucking around or trying to spare anybody's feelings. "He's - for want of a better phrase, he's cast a spell on you to force the Marks of Christ to appear. He's offering you up to God."
Frank scrambled up on the bed, got his knees under him because he didn't feel like taking this news while he was sprawled out against the pillows. "But why?"
Gerard hesitated for a second, then when Frank growled, "Gerard," he sort of rolled his eyes in a panicky way and said, "Because - because according to this, if he drinks your blood at the moment you receive the final wound and - and die, he'll become one with Christ."
"What the fuck does that mean?"
"I don't know, exactly," Gerard started pacing back and forth, flicking through the book. "If I had to guess, though? I'd say it means he's a crazy person."
"You don't think it's a real spell?" Brian put in.
"Do I think there's a way to become one with Christ by putting a total stranger through the same torture he suffered at the hands of humanity and then drinking their blood? Uh, no. Really not. But do I think he's really capable of killing Frank?" Gerard stopped moving, looked up and met Frank's eyes. He didn't look panicky at all, now, just determined and really fucking pissed off. "Absolutely."
"But how is he doing it?" Frank asked, rubbing his wrists where they were starting to throb again. "How is he making this happen?"
"The book talks about a mark, fuck, this is so fucking obvious, I can't believe I didn't think of this before." Gerard came over to drop the books on the bed and take Frank's hand between his own. "Frank, it's your tattoo. We have to get rid of your tattoo."
"You just have to hold on," Gerard was saying. "Bob's gonna be back soon, just hold on a little longer, Frank."
"I'm such an idiot," Frank said, hand over his eyes. He pressed until he saw red sparkles inside his eyelids. "Such a fucking idiot. I can't believe I did this to my fucking self."
"You didn't do anything to yourself, Frank, nobody's to blame but this Luke asshole, okay." Ray sat opposite, his hands on Frank's knees.
"I still say we call the police," Brian said.
Frank took his hand away and rolled his eyes. "And tell them what, Brian, oh, Officer, this guy gave our friend a cursed tattoo, can you arrest him for invoking the Holy Ghost?"
Brian sighed. "There has to be something we can do."
"I'm back," Bob called. He came into the room and dumped his bag down by Frank. "Okay, what do you want me to do, just cover it up with solid black, or what?"
"I don't know," Frank considered his hand. It was weird - he knew it was an evil angel, now, obviously, but she still looked beautiful to him. He felt the same instant draw he'd felt in Luke's shop, the first time he saw her. "Isn't there some way we can just modify it? I don't like the idea of a giant black circle on my hand."
Bob was pulling his supplies out from the bag. "Maybe I can add detail around the edges later, work it into your sleeve?"
Frank sighed. "This is gonna throw the whole balance off."
"Jesus, Frank, priorities!" Brian snapped. "How important is that gonna be if you're bleeding from the eyes?"
"There's nothing in the Bible about Jesus doing that," Gerard interjected, then hurried to add, "But I agree, in theory," when Brian glared at him.
"Frank," Mikey said quietly. "She's hurting you."
Frank looked down at her again. "Yeah," he admitted. "I know."
"All right," Bob said, pulling out his needles. "Solid black it is."
"Oh," said Gerard faintly. When Frank turned to look at his face, he'd turned distinctly green. "Oh, that - that's a needle, all right."
"You gonna be okay?" Frank asked him, then startled when Gerard scrambled away. "Where are you going?"
"I can't," Gerard said stiffly, wringing his hands. "I can't - I'm sorry, Frank, it's just, I can't deal with needles, I can't, I can't."
"He's dealing with a lot worse than a fucking needle, Gerard!" Mikey said incredulously. "God, don't be such a pussy!"
"It's okay," Frank tried to say, but it came out as a moan and he folded forward, resting his forehead on his knees. The pain lurked sullenly at the edges of Frank's consciousness, making its presence known with the occasional brutal stab to the nervous system. Frank closed his eyes and tried not to throw up. "Fuck."
"For fuck's sake, Gerard," Mikey said, sliding in behind Frank and putting his arms around him. It was nice, it was comforting, but it didn't dull the pain.
Frank leaned back into him anyway, turning his face into Mikey's shoulder. "Bob, man, whenever you're ready."
"Going as quick as I can," Bob confirmed, snapping on gloves and grabbing the alcohol to wipe Frank's hand down. "Don't get your panties in a bunch."
Frank felt Bob taking his hand, then pain sliced brightly through his skull and he jerked upright, his head snapping back involuntarily. "Fuck."
"You gotta hold still, Frankie," Bob warned, and Frank heard the buzzing of the needle start.
"I'm trying," Frank told him through gritted teeth, and then the pain rolled right down his spine and bloomed in his lower back and he spasmed again, this time lurching forward.
He heard Ray's voice, and Brian's, and Bob saying, "I can't do it like this, he's just gonna be criss-crossed all to fuck," and then Mikey snapping, "Gerard, would you get the fuck over here right the fuck now, he needs you," and then there was more pain, this time in a sharp splash behind his eyes, echoed by tiny bursts in his wrists, and then he felt Mikey moving away.
He was alone for a long, terrifying second, and then two arms came around to hold him and Frank cried out again but in relief this time, pressing blindly back into Gerard as much as he could, into the warmth of his touch and away from the pain.
"I'm going to do my very best not to pass out or throw up," Gerard said grimly into his ear. "And you're gonna hold still for Bob. Deal?"
"Deal," Frank gasped, and he felt Gerard turning his head, resting his temple against the back of Frank's neck. "Just don't look."
"I'm not," Gerard said, muffled. "I'm not even here. I am far away in a place with no needles."
Mikey rolled his eyes. "Yeah, Gee, this whole thing must be such a nightmare for you."
Bob took Frank's hand again and set the needle firmly against the back of it, right in the center of the angel's face. "Ready?"
"Ready," Gerard whimpered, arms tightening around Frank's waist.
Frank shared a look with Mikey, and nodded. "Ready."
Bob nodded back. "Rock and roll."
It hurt, of course, but the pain was so reasonable, so muted and understood and normal that Frank wanted to cry. He followed the line of the needle eagerly, leaning forward when Bob wiped his hand off for the first time, wanting to see…nothing.
There was nothing there.
"It didn't work," Ray said, leaning over Bob's shoulder. "Bob, why isn't it working?"
"I don't know." Bob tried again, and it was working, Frank could feel the sting, he'd gotten inked hundreds of times, he knew what it fucking felt like, but again, when Bob wiped him off - there was nothing. The angel stared up at him unblemished, just the same as before.
"What's going on?" Gerard wanted to know, still hiding behind Frank.
"See for yourself." Bob held up Frank's hand and Frank felt Gerard sit up. "Our boy's a man of steel all of a sudden."
"This is really bad," Brian observed to nobody in particular. "This is really bad, right?"
"I know," Frank said. "What if I can never get another tattoo again?"
"Jesus, Frank," Brian sighed. "How many tattoos do you think you're gonna be able to get when you're dead, anyway?"
"I'm not dying," argued Frank.
"That's not how it looks from here!" Brian shot back. His voice cracked on the last word and he looked away, folding his arms around himself and hunching his shoulders. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."
"Yeah, you did," Frank said, closing his eyes. Gerard rocked him back and forth a little bit.
The silence stretched out, heavy and hopeless, until Ray offered timidly, "Frank…do you think it's Gerard?"
Frank looked up. "What?"
"You said it doesn't hurt when he touches you, right?" Frank nodded, and Ray went on, "And that day in the shop, when you guys met - you shook hands, and then your tattoo was healed all of a sudden, remember?"
Frank swallowed. "Yeah. I remember."
"It wasn't healed before that?" Gerard asked quietly.
Frank shook his head. "I cleaned it just that morning, and it hadn't even scabbed."
"Oh," said Gerard. "Oh."
"So the needle can't penetrate his skin," Brian said slowly. "Because Gerard's holding him. But if he lets go…"
"Don't," Frank folded his arms over Gerard's, holding them to him. "Please fucking don't."
"I won't," Gerard promised him. "But this sounds a little, like, we're just speculating. What if it's the tattoo itself? What if it's just on your hand?"
"Can't ink over it," Bob said urgently. "No time for removal - shit, what the fuck are we supposed to do?"
Frank could feel the answer all the way down in his stomach, he could feel it make its way up through his lungs, into his throat, forcing his mouth open and he tried not to say it even as the words were tumbling out hurriedly from between his lips, because of all the stupid ideas Frank had ever had in his life, this was the worst. And still he found himself saying, "Let's cut it off."
"Are you out of your goddam mind?" Brian said dismissively. "We're not going to cut off your fucking hand, Frank."
"Why not? If we get rid of the tattoo, the spell or whatever'll be broken, right? Mikey, there's a cleaver in the second drawer in the kitchen."
"Why do you even have a cleaver? You're vegetarian - Mikey, don't do as he says!" Brian said exasperatedly as Mikey turned to go get it. "Frank, you can't be serious!"
"Serious about not dying and getting my blood drunk by a religious nutjob?" Frank raised his eyebrows at Brian. "Yeah, I'm pretty serious."
"But it's your hand."
"You were the one talking about priorities," Frank reminded him, nodding at Mikey when he came back holding the cleaver. "Well, I'd rather learn to live with one hand than learn to be dead with two."
Ray was staring back and forth between them with his mouth hanging open. "Frank, I really don't think this is such a good idea."
Frank ignored him and moved around to lay his arm, palm-side up, on the table. Now he'd thought of it, he couldn't fucking wait to get rid of it, it was like he could feel the bad magic moving up his veins like poison, traveling from his hand all the way to his heart. "All due respect, guys, I'm not taking advice from anyone who doesn't also have a cursed hand, right now."
"Mikey, you can't do this," Gerard warned over Frank's shoulder. "If something goes wrong, you'll never forgive yourself."
"Nothing's going to go wrong," Frank said firmly, meeting Mikey's eyes as steadily as he could. Inside his heart was banging frantically against his ribcage and his stomach was in uproar, a mess of anxious twists and acid. "Mikey, I trust you."
Mikey took a few uncertain steps forward and raised the cleaver slightly.
"You're not actually going to cut off his hand," Bob said disbelievingly. "Mikey, you can't. He could die from blood loss!"
"Doesn't matter," Mikey said tightly. "Gerard's here. He can heal him."
"We don't know that!" Gerard said urgently. "Mikey - Frank, tell him not to!"
"I don't feel any pain if you're here," Frank said over his shoulder. "I'll be fine. You can just let go for a second while he - while he does it, and then grab me again and do your healing thing." Frank looked up at Mikey. "On three."
"Oh, Jesus," Ray moaned, covering his eyes.
"One," said Frank, curling his other hand into a fist and shoving it into his mouth to give himself something to bite down on.
Bob shoved his chair away and backed up, shaking his head. "This is a really fucking bad idea."
"Two," Frank said around his knuckles.
"Frank, no," Gerard said desperately.
Frank took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "Three."
"PUT THE FUCKING CLEAVER DOWN RIGHT THE FUCK NOW."
Frank opened his eyes. He still had two hands. Brian was standing between Mikey and Frank.
The cleaver fell to the floor with a harsh clatter. Mikey took two stumbling steps backwards and collided with Ray, who caught him and held on.
"Everybody sit the fuck down!" Brian shouted.
"You are," Brian seethed, "The stupidest motherfuckers I have ever come across in my whole goddam life, do you know that? I don't know how the fuck I managed to work with you assholes in a place where we're surrounded by sharp objects and not lose a limb every other week, you crazy bastards, you are all motherfucking certifiable and I swear to God the next person to suggest something so fucking insane it could land us all a fucking Darwin Award is going to feel my wrath, never mind The Almighty's!"
"I agree with Brian," Gerard began, but was cut off by Brian whirling around and pointing a finger right in his face.
"You're a priest! You of all people should fucking know better, but no, you're the worst of all! It's not enough that you show up in our lives and suddenly we're fighting God or the Devil or some crazy renegade tattoo artist who thinks he's the Devil, but now you've got my staff pointing knives at each other? I don't know how you roll in the Vatican, Father, but this is not how we live our lives!"
Gerard opened his mouth. Frank shook his head furiously. Gerard closed it again.
"This is totally out of our league!" Brian yelled, whirling his arms everywhere. He was bright red in the face. "Ray is a hairdresser!"
Frank started to laugh. Just a little at first, the stupid inappropriate giggle that always fought to escape him when someone was yelling, or he was hurt, or something terrible was happening, but then another followed, and another, and then he caught Bob's eye and Bob was pressing his mouth together in the way that meant he was about two seconds from cracking up and Frank was just gone, laughing so hard it hurt and he had to struggle to breathe, drawing in choked gasps of breath and making a stupid noise and laughing even harder, and then Ray was laughing too, and Mikey, and even Gerard, although he was trying to hide it in Frank's shoulder.
"I'm a hairdresser!" Ray wailed, collapsing against Mikey, and then even Brian's mouth twitched at the corner and he sat down heavily, dropping his head into his hands.
"I hate you all," he moaned, making Frank wheeze and clutch at Gerard's arm because Gerard was squeezing him so tight he really couldn't breathe at all. "I should just let you all stab each other to death and have done with it."
When they'd calmed down a little, Mikey admitted, "Okay, maybe that was kind of a dumb idea. But we still don't know if Frank can get hurt when he's with Gerard, or if it's just his hand."
Brian rolled his eyes. "May I draw your attention to the bag full of needles at Bob's feet?"
Bob looked down at it. "I'd totally forgotten that was there."
Gerard started giggling again, but he shut up pretty fucking fast when Bob pressed one of the needles to the inside of Frank's arm. "Aargh."
"Aargh yourself," Frank told him, and looked down at his arm. "Oh."
The needle was penetrating his skin, just like normal. He couldn't feel it, but it was definitely there.
"I don't get it," frowned Bob. "But I guess it's not Gerard after all."
"Guess not," Frank agreed. He didn't know whether to feel relieved or disappointed, so he tried to keep his voice straight down the middle of the road.
They went back to the books after that. Brian suggested they look online, but Gerard vetoed that idea.
"All you'll find is ten million Geocities pages with sparkly purple font at the top," he sighed. "Trust me."
So there was more research, and more coffee, and Brian trying to narrow down the location of Luke's shop based on Frank's description of, "It was on a street? And…I think it was raining."
"Can I just say that I don't really want to go looking for Luke?" Frank pointed out. "I'm all for facing my fears, guys, but seeking out the crazy person who wants to use me as a human sacrifice isn't exactly on my list of fun stuff to do."
"What I don't get," Gerard said suddenly, gazing over at the notes on the wall. "Is why there's all these protective herbs in the ointment he gave you. That doesn't make any sense."
"But it does!" Ray piped up excitedly. "I mean, that ointment's for your tattoo, right? Isn't it possible that it could be doing two things at once?"
"What do you mean?" Frank frowned.
"Like, okay. Sometimes I want one of my products to do two things that might seem to work against each other, like I want to give the roots body and smooth down flyaway ends."
Mikey nodded seriously. "Like that Moonchild stuff you made for me."
"Exactly!" Ray bounced anxiously in place. "It's just about finding the right balance. So like, maybe the evil herbs are there to boost the spell mojo or whatever, but the protective herbs are there to stop anything happening to your tattoo, and that's why Bob couldn't tattoo over it. It's the ointment. It's working like a shield."
Brian stared crazily at Ray. "And you couldn't have mentioned this when Frank was trying to convince us to cut off his hand?"
"I only just thought of it," Ray muttered, looking down. "It's probably stupid."
"No, no." Gerard was nodding enthusiastically. "Ray, that totally makes sense. I think you're right."
Frank rubbed his eyes. "Actually, you know what, fuck it. I changed my mind. I wanna find this son of a bitch and I wanna knock him the fuck right out."
"Fuck yeah," Bob agreed.
Gerard was biting his nails, looking troubled. "I know we have to stop this guy," he said worriedly, "But I can't condone violence, you guys, what are we gonna do, kill him? I can't be part of that."
"How else can we stop him?" Mikey asked, pushing his glasses up his nose with one long finger. "What can we do, Gee?"
"I don't know." Gerard stood up and started pacing around. Frank had noticed that if Gerard broke contact but stayed relatively near, and Frank wasn't freaking out, the pain wasn't too bad. "There's gotta be a way to break the spell."
"The problem is, Father, even if we figure that out, we still have to deal with him afterwards," Brian explained. "The police aren't going to be able to help. We don't have many options, here."
"I know. I know. But we can't go in there and - " Gerard stopped, visibly frustrated, and turned to face the notes on the wall. He laced both hands behind his head and stood in silence for a few moments, finally announcing, "If we can find a way to break his power over Frank, we can turn him over to the Vatican."
"The same Vatican who refused to help Frank in the first place?" Mikey didn't look convinced. "What the fuck are they gonna do, Gerard, pray about it?"
Gerard gave Mikey the finger without moving his hands off his head. Ray and Frank exchanged a dorky, excited glance - a priest! Flipping the bird! Frank would never get used to it. "There's a faction of the Vatican that deals with this kind of thing."
"But I thought that's what you did," Frank said, leaning forward. "The congregation of the…thing."
"Causes of the Saints," Bob filled in, then rolled his eyes when Frank stared at him. "Oh come on, don't tell me you haven't seen that movie."
"What I do is investigate miracles," Gerard turned around to face them, folding his arms. "This is…something else. Darker. I'm not really supposed to know about it, but I met this guy, Father Crealy, and he's a drinker, right, and I guess he let it slip one night when we were both in Rome - oh, by the way, did I tell you guys about this dude I saw fishing pennies out of the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi?"
They all looked at him blankly.
"The Four Rivers Fountain," Gerard explained. "It's a really famous fountain? In the Piazza Navona? By Bernini?"
"Gee," Mikey cut in. "Stop being a tool and focus."
Gerard blinked. "Oh! Right. Well, that's really all I know. Stuff goes on that the Church needs to deal with, but doesn't want all over the headlines because it's bad press, or whatever. There's a Cardinal I speak to a lot, I can probably get him on our side."
"How do we know Frank's not going to - I mean, you know." Ray made a hand movement that could have been Frank's side exploding, or an aborted attempt at the Macarena. "How do we know he's safe?"
"I'm okay as long as Gerard's here," Frank reassured him.
Gerard looked at him, surprised. "Do you know that for sure?"
"I just - I can feel it." Frank bit his lip, and tried his very hardest not to feel as lame as he thought he might sound. "I can't explain it, I just know."
Gerard nodded awkwardly and looked away.
"So let me get this straight," Brian said, spreading his hands. "Either we need to find this Luke guy, get him to stop torturing Frank, and turn him over to the Vatican, or…one of you needs to make a serious lifestyle adjustment."
"Pretty much sums it up," Gerard agreed. "I can call the Cardinal in a few hours, but he won't be in his office yet."
Bob cleared his throat. "You don't think this is worth waking him up?"
"He's not asleep," Gerard said tiredly. "He's at Mass."
"It's fine," Frank said, "Like I said, I'm okay for now. And to be honest, guys, I'm pretty fucking beat."
He was lying. He wasn't tired, he was exhausted. Frank had been sick so often for so many years that by now the worst part wasn't finding out something was wrong with him, it was waiting to discover exactly what it was. Knowing what the deal was made him feel - okay, sucky, because cursed tattoos weren't exactly at the top of his Christmas gift list or anything, but not worse. The adrenaline that had been running through his veins for the last few days had suddenly gotten tired of keeping him in fight-or-flight mode, and all he felt was heavy and headachy and in desperate need of some sleep.
Brian wasn't keen, though. "I think we should all stay together tonight."
"Yeah, we can protect you," Mikey said. "We can…burn some sage, or something."
"That's paganism," Gerard said.
Mikey frowned. "Well then, so are the herbs in Luke's spell, dumbass."
"We can make a salt circle around the bed!" Ray said. "I saw that in a movie."
"You saw that on Supernatural," Bob corrected him.
Ray flipped him off. "Whatever, man, they have AC/DC on the soundtrack, that show's awesome."
"I don't know, it's not very accurate," Gerard said, wrinkling his nose.
"You didn't care that Buffy was inaccurate," Mikey reminded him.
"Well, duh." Gerard rolled his eyes. "Buffy was good."
Ray gasped, like, actually a gasp, and stared at Gerard. "I can't believe you would say that!"
"Oh, please, their theology alone is completely-"
"I'm going to stop this before it starts," Brian said decisively, standing up. "And focus on figuring out where we're all going to sleep."
"Shotgun," said Mikey immediately.
"What do you mean, shotgun?" Bob frowned. "We're not in a car."
Mikey rolled his eyes. "In an apartment situation, the bed is the driver's seat and the couch is shotgun. Everybody knows that."
"No, the driver is whoever owns the bed. Shotgun is who gets to sleep in the bed with them," Ray argued. "The couch is like, deputy shotgun."
"You're wrong," Mikey told him, "But okay. Deputy shotgun!"
Ray groaned. "Fine. You're so goddam skinny, you'd probably wear holes in Frank's floor anyway."
"Wait a minute, so nobody's actually calling shotgun?" Frank wondered. "I don't think it's catching, guys."
Brian said, "Well, Gerard's gonna need to sleep with you, right?"
Frank blinked. He looked at Gerard. Gerard was looking determinedly at the wall. "Oh." Frank hadn't thought about that. "I hadn't thought about that."
Gerard left the wall alone and started staring at the floor, instead.
"I'm sure I'll be fine," Frank said, and really wished everyone would stop staring at him, God. "I'm okay now and we're not touching, right? You can sleep in the living room with Mikey and I'll, I'll call you if anything happens. I got a little warning this time, right, Bob?"
Bob nodded, but Gerard was wringing his hands.
"If anything happened to you because I wasn't here," he started, then stared at the ceiling, because…he didn't want it to feel left out, how the fuck should Frank know. "It's fine. It's fine. I need to stay up for a couple hours until I can call the Cardinal anyway. I'll just hang out here."
Mikey said, "Gee," but Gerard cut him off.
"It's fine, Mikey. Stop worrying."
Mikey rolled his eyes. "Never gonna happen," he drawled, making Gerard smile and look away. "Frank, you need to go to the bathroom."
"What?" Frank actually did, but he was used to announcing it to Mikey, not the other way around. Mikey made his eyebrows move in the way that meant, 'private conversation right now!' though, so Frank said, "Oh, uh, yeah, I totally do," and started squirming towards the edge of the bed.
It didn't hurt nearly as much as it should have done to walk on feet with holes in them. Mikey had to help him stay upright while he was pissing and brushing his teeth, which was sort of embarrassing but nothing they hadn't done for each other before on any given Friday night.
He helped Frank change into fresh sweats and a clean T-shirt, and then folded his arms and fixed him with a serious look.
"What?" Frank said, trying not to look nervous. It was just Mikey, for God's sake.
"Dude," Mikey started, and then he stopped for a really long time and just looked at Frank really seriously.
"What?" Frank asked again.
Mikey sighed. "Look…dude, you and my brother." Frank opened his mouth, but Mikey made a frustrated gesture and went on, "He's not. I mean, you can't. I don't want…you know?"
"I really don't." Frank shook his head.
Mikey made some more gestures, and rolled his head on his neck a little bit, and sighed some more. Frank just waited. Eventually Mikey would get to the point, it was just sometimes you had to suffer through some nervous calisthenics first.
"He's been thinking about leaving the priesthood," Mikey admitted finally, in a low voice.
"Oh my God," Frank whispered back. "Why?"
Mikey shook his head. "A lot of stuff. Mostly he doesn't feel like he's helping anyone, and there's…like, political stuff. He's progressive, or whatever. I don't know."
Frank eyed him. "You do know."
"All right, I do know," Mikey smiled a tiny bit. "But I'm not telling you. The point is, he's really confused right now. And he's…he's lonely, Frank, and…"
"And you're," Mikey waved his hands at Frank's general being. Frank raised an eyebrow and Mikey sighed. "You're persistent."
"I'm - Mikey, Jesus!" Frank hissed, shoving at him as best he could without falling over himself. "I'm not gonna try to get in his pants, for fuck's sake, who do you think I am?"
"I know you!" Mikey hissed back. "I know what you look like when you're really into someone, Frank, I'm not an idiot!"
"And I'm not a," Frank couldn't think of a word for someone who would try to seduce a priest. Even if that priest was totally hot and had magical hands. "A harlot," he finished finally.
Mikey's eyes almost fell out of his head, they rolled so hard. "A harlot, seriously?"
Frank clicked his tongue irritably. "Look, Mikey, your brother's an awesome dude, and - okay," he said quickly, holding his hands out to placate Mikey, who was practically grinding his teeth. "If things were different…but they aren't. Christ, Mikey, I think I should be offended, here! What am I, faking all of this just because I've got designs on your brother's virtue?"
"I'm not just worried about him," Mikey said carefully, searching Frank's face with his eyes. "You're all needy and shit."
"Oh, well." Frank folded his arms. "Thank you, Doctor Phil."
Mikey made a face. "All right, I'm sorry. I'm just trying to look out for you, fuck."
"Whatever." Frank leaned against the door, rolling his forehead against the grain. He needed to get back; the pain was starting to lap at the edges of his consciousness like a really horrible wave. "It hurts, Mikey. It hurts, and he helps. That's it. I promise."
"You promise," Mikey said, but not in his doubtful voice. He touched Frank's shoulder. "Okay."
Gerard went off to the bathroom after Frank came back - whether or not he was getting his own version of The Talk from Mikey, Frank didn't know, because he was too busy listening to Ray, Bob and Brian argue about who got to share the couch with Mikey.
"I'm short," Brian kept saying, "And I'm your boss."
When Gerard came back in, Frank had already turned off the lights and burrowed down under the covers.
"Hey," Gerard said quietly, inching onto the mattress. He sat back stiffly, as far away from Frank as possible, and Frank felt bad for putting the dude in this position, really he did, but not as bad as he felt about maybe getting stabbed, so he reached out and curled his hand over Gerard's wrist. Gerard jumped a little bit, even though he could clearly see Frank's hand coming towards him, what the fuck, and cleared his throat. "Um."
"Um," Frank agreed, rolling forward to rest his forehead against Gerard's forearm. He kept the rest of his body away from Gerard's and sighed, closing his eyes and enjoying the respite from pain. "Is this okay? Not too weird? We can maybe work out some kind of thing with the chair, and…I don't know, we can hook feet or something."
Gerard made a funny noise that might have been a laugh or a strangled cough, and patted Frank's head clumsily. "It's fine. I'm going to call the Cardinal in a little while, okay?"
"Mmph," Frank told him, completely unwilling and unable to form words. He was already mostly asleep - he was vaguely aware of Gerard getting something out of his pocket, and then he was asleep.
He woke up because something rattled. He was warm and comfy, and when he forced his eyes open he realized Gerard had lain down at some point, and Frank must have burrowed up against him in his sleep because his head was on Gerard's shoulder, and he could see Gerard's hand moving vaguely in the dim. He was holding something and worrying it in his fingers, but Frank couldn't see what.
Gerard took a breath, and - he was whispering, Frank realized, so quietly Frank could barely hear him, and Frank closed his eyes and kept still and concentrated until he could make out the words.
"As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end," Gerard whispered. "Amen."
"You're saying the rosary," Frank realized aloud, and Gerard startled under him, making Frank's head bounce and connect painfully with the headboard. "Ow."
"Sorry," Gerard apologized, shifting so Frank could roll up onto his side and see his face. "I thought you were asleep."
Frank stretched and settled back down again, careful to put a few inches of space back between them, but keeping his knee pressed against Gerard's calf. "I was."
"I didn't mean to wake you," Gerard said softly.
"S'ok." Frank yawned. "Did you speak to the Cardinal?"
Gerard nodded, fingers still moving on his rosary beads. "I think he can help us. He's gonna call me tomorrow after he's figured some stuff out."
"Cool," Frank smiled. He reached out and touched the back of Gerard's hand. "Can I see?"
Gerard handed his rosary over without hesitation. "It was my Grandmother's."
"It's beautiful." Frank rubbed his thumb over the wooden beads, feeling their little carvings press into his skin. "Did she want you to be a priest?"
Gerard chuckled. "Actually, she wanted me to be in musicals."
Frank grinned and shook his head. "You're weird."
"Yup," Gerard nodded. "That I am. I'm surprised you recognized the prayer. Must be a long time since you said it."
"Once a Catholic," Frank said ruefully.
They lay in silence for a few moments. Frank could hear the others guys breathing in the living room; the occasional sleep-noise or rustle as someone turned over. He handed the rosary back to Gerard. Their fingers touched.
"Were you praying for me?" Frank asked. "I'm sorry, that's - it's just I've never seen you pray before."
"It's all right," Gerard re-wrapped the beads around his fingers. "Usually I'm more of an informal prayer guy, to be honest with you. Lots of conversations in my head. Or out loud, if I'm making pancakes or whatever."
Frank smiled and tilted his head back to look at Gerard. "Pancakes?"
"Or whatever," Gerard repeated. "I don't believe in separation between humanity and God. I just talk to him like he's right there."
"Does he ever answer back?"
Gerard scrunched his mouth up, thinking about it. "Sometimes. But never in the way I expect." Frank made what he hoped was an encouraging noise, and Gerard went on, "Sometimes it's just, you know, you've been out investigating someone's Big Mac that they swear looks just like the Holy Mother, and you come back to your motel or wherever, and you're watching Jeopardy, and you want someone to yell out the answers with."
"Jesus isn't good with quiz shows?"
Gerard grinned. "For someone who's omniscient, his general knowledge sucks."
They laughed together, giggling and shushing each other in the warm, dark room. Frank felt dizzy with it, drunk, and he asked Gerard,
"Don't you miss it?"
Gerard paused, then admitted quietly, "Not the sex. But the other stuff, you know," he waved a hand and trailed off.
"Yelling at the TV together?" Frank supplied, and Gerard smiled tightly.
"Yeah. Yeah, I miss that." Gerard's eyes were huge and dark in the gloom. "I'm only human, Frank."
They were curled up facing each other. They were very close.
Frank kissed him.
He didn't mean to, really, it just happened, like his body had finally decided it was done doing anything Frank wanted once and for all. But that wasn't really true either, because Frank wasn't locked in his own head shouting in horror, he was right there on the bed with Gerard, their lips pressed together, Frank's hand on the side of Gerard's face.
Gerard didn't move at all, he was so still, he wasn't even breathing, until Frank swept his thumb over the rise of his cheekbone and Gerard's mouth moved, ever so slightly, pressing back infinitesimally into the kiss. His lower lip caught between Frank's, and it was so sweet Frank ached with it, for one, long second.
Then the part of Frank that was shouting in horror somehow grabbed the reins, and Frank pulled back, staring at Gerard, who was staring back with giant, disquieted eyes.
"I'm sorry," Frank breathed, pulling further back until he was balanced right on the edge of the bed. "I'm - oh, God, Gerard, I'm so sorry, there's no excuse, I can't believe I just did that. Please don't - I'm sorry. I'm sorry, okay?"
Gerard still wasn't moving, or breathing, Frank didn't think, just staring at Frank for a really horrible, endless moment, before he shook his head slowly and let out a long, shaky breath. "Frank."
"I know, I know." Frank curled up and buried his face in the comforter, clutching it around his ears as if he could stuff it through one and scrub out the memory from his brain. "God, I'm such a fucking moron, I'm such an asshole. I promised Mikey, I promised him."
"You promised him what?" Gerard sat up a little bit, frowning. "Did you talk to Mikey about - did he tell you I -"
"No, no, God, no," Frank rushed to reassure him. "He just knows me, he knows I'm - oh, God, Gerard, please, is there any way at all you could maybe not tell him about this?"
"I can't lie to Mikey," Gerard said flatly.
Frank rolled onto his back and covered his face with his hands. "Not even by omission?"
Gerard sat up and started rubbing his hands through his hair, back and forth until it was all standing up on end and he looked like kind of a punk Doc Brown. "I can't give…that, I can't give that to you, Frank."
"I know," Frank scrambled up to face him. "I know that. Gerard, I'm not asking for it. I'm not," he insisted, when Gerard just looked even more worried. "Look, things have been so crazy, and I'm so fucking sick of hurting all the time, and it just, you have this walking Advil thing going on, and it got away from me, just for a second. Please don't tell him, please. He'll be so mad."
Gerard sighed and brought his knees up to his chest. "This is my fault too, Frank."
Frank shook his head vehemently. "No, you were just trying to help me."
"I was careless," Gerard argued. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry too," Frank insisted. Fuck. He was going to throw up, and not just because his body was protesting the stress and the separation from Gerard with sharp spikes of pain behind his eyes. "Please, Gerard. I'm sorry. You're sorry. Can't we forget it ever happened? Please?"
Gerard turned to face him and held his gaze for a long moment. Frank met his eyes and tried not to sweat or shake too obviously, wringing his hands in his lap, and eventually Gerard took pity and reached out to lay his hand on Frank's shoulder.
"It's okay," he said, and he actually looked like he meant it. "It's okay."
"It's not," Frank shook his head. "Shit."
"Shit," Gerard agreed, and squeezed Frank's shoulder. "Come on, lay down, you look like you're gonna pass out, or hurl."
Frank folded back down onto the mattress. Gerard lay apart from him, but kept his hand on Frank's arm.
"You didn't mean it," he whispered when Frank had managed to slow his breathing down to a regular in-and-out pace.
Frank shook his head. "I didn't."
Gerard nodded thoughtfully. "Okay, Frank. Okay."
Frank heaved a giant sigh of relief, and closed his eyes. "You know, yelling at the TV is totally a friend thing too. I yell at the TV with Bob all the time. You're allowed friends, right?"
He heard Gerard's rosary clacking slightly. "I'm allowed friends."
"Deal, then," Frank said hopefully. "You get me out of this alive, and you can come yell at the TV with us anytime you want."
Gerard was quiet for a minute, but when he spoke, his voice was smiling. "Deal."
Frank woke up to his cellphone chirping. He fumbled to answer it, pulling it to his ear and managing a groggy, "'Lo?"
"Frank Iero?" a weirdly familiar male voice said.
Frank rubbed a hand over his face, blinking away the creepy dream he'd had about lizards. "Yeah?"
"I'm sorry to call you so early," the voice said. Frank felt too sleep-fogged to place it, but he knew he'd heard it before. "I hope I didn't disturb you, but I believe I have something that belongs to you."
In the background, a dog barked. Frank sat up so fast his head swam and clutched the phone tight. "Oh my God, you have Ella? Where did you find her? Is she okay?"
"Can you give me your address? I'll bring her right over."
Gerard was sitting up next to Frank, and he cocked his head when Frank started rattling off his address. "Good news?" he mouthed, and smiled when Frank gave him a big thumbs up.
"I'll be there right away," the dude on the phone said. It was only after he hung up that Frank realized he hadn't given his name - but then, Frank hadn't asked for it. Whatever.
"My dog!" he told Gerard, bouncing a little in place. "Someone found my dog!"
Gerard held his hand out for Frank to slap. "Finally some good news."
"Right?" Frank started moving tow ards the edge of the bed. "I gotta tell Mikey."
"He's not here." Gerard got up and helped Frank get up, then let him go slowly so Frank was standing - albeit a little unsteadily - on his own two feet. "The guys all left to get fresh clothes and stuff a little while ago. They said they'll be back soon. Plus I think Brian wanted to follow up on a lead he had about that tattoo parlor."
Frank's feet had healed enough for him to make it to the bathroom on his own - thank God, he thought fervently while he was in there. The last thing he needed was to ask Gerard to get up close and personal with Frank's bodily functions after the giant fuck-up he'd already caused last night.
"I made coffee," Gerard called from the kitchen when Frank hobbled back out to the living room and eased himself down onto the couch. "I hope that's okay."
"More than," Frank called back. "I can't believe someone found my dog! I had completely given up hope."
Gerard came out holding two mugs of coffee and wearing a giant grin. "I know! See, it just proves that you should always have faith."
Frank winced, taking one of the mugs. "It's too early for puns, man."
Gerard scoffed. "It's never too early for puns."
They were halfway through a cigarette each when Gerard said casually, "So, I stayed up last night reading about exorcisms."
Frank swallowed a mouthful of coffee and raised an eyebrow. "Holy water and yelling?"
"And a shitload of prayers, yeah." Gerard shrugged and tapped his nails against the side of his mug. "I don't know, it might be the way to go."
"Have you ever done one before?"
Gerard grimaced. "Not exactly. But I did take a course."
"A course," Frank repeated. "Man, your life is so not like mine."
"Tell me about it."
"Anyway aren't exorcisms for like, people who're possessed? I'm not possessed. No pea soup vomit on me." Frank gestured at his shirt to demonstrate.
"I know." Gerard sighed and drank some more coffee. "It was just an idea. I thought maybe in theory we could treat the curse like a demon, I mean, evil's evil, right? And Ray found some stuff about herbs we can use that are supposed to help. At this point I am open to any and all suggestions, whether Church-sanctioned or not."
Before Frank could answer, there was a knock at the door and Frank practically fell on his face trying to get up.
"Take it easy," Gerard balanced his smoke on the edge of the ashtray and put a hand on Frank's shoulder, pushing him back down to the couch. "I'll get it, man."
Frank watched him go to the door, his stomach and chest and…all his insides bubbling up with excitement and joy. He leaned forward so he could catch Ella in case she threw herself at him and ended up trampling on his feet, and moved his coffee out of harm's way.
"Hi," Gerard said enthusiastically as he opened the door. "Thank you so much for coming!"
"No problem," said that voice Frank had heard before, and then Gerard jerked forward suddenly, out of sight.
Frank heard his voice, muffled, saw his feet kicking out from behind the door. He pushed himself up off the couch, heart battering inside his chest and stomach rolling over, but before he could take a step forward Gerard slumped down onto the floor in a heap, and there was Luke, standing over him.
"Oh, God," Frank breathed.
"God's not listening to you, brother," Luke said grimly, and came towards Frank with one of his hands raised high.
Frank turned around, scrambled, felt Luke's hands yanking him back and pinning him against Luke's chest. Frank scratched and fought; he saw the coffee table overturn, heard the mugs and his ashtray smashing on the floor, and then Luke's hand clamped down over Frank's nose and mouth.
When Frank tried to breathe in his head filled with fumes that made blood-red circles spin before his eyes, and he heard Luke saying, "Easy, easy, don't fight it now," and then everything went black.
When he came to, he was tied to a table, and stripped of everything but his underwear. His head swam and everything was muzzy somehow, and when he tried to say Gerard's name it came out as a slur.
He turned his head, tried to; he hurt, it hurt to move but he needed to find Gerard. He needed to keep his eyes open.
Time passed. Frank swam in and out; saw a figure moving nearby, felt hands on his skin. He thought he heard Gerard's voice, once, saying his name.
When he forced his eyes to open again, his head pounded and he was almost glad that the room they were in was so dark. It was dark in a way that felt like they were underground, but not so dark Frank couldn't make out the weird symbols painted over the walls in huge strokes of red and black.
There were low candles burning on a small table in the corner, their guttering flames casting weak licks of light over a picture of what looked like the Virgin Mary, only - wrong, in some horrible way Frank couldn't define, and more pictures stuck up on the walls, icons and portraits; some Frank recognized, some he'd never seen before.
And on the wall behind him, when he craned his head back and rolled his eyes up in his head, was a giant crucifix with something scrawled on the center point of the cross beam - Frank squinted and read upside down as best as he could, but he didn't think it was English.
He turned his head to the side, instead, gritting his teeth against the way it made his brain swim inside his skull. Gerard was slumped in a chair, right next to Frank. His arms twisted awkwardly around the back, out of sight, but his head was slumping forward, chin resting on Frank's arm, so Frank couldn't see his face.
"Gerard," Frank mumbled, pulling weakly at his bonds. "Gerard, wake up."
Gerard didn't move. He was breathing, Frank could feel it against his arm, but he didn't even twitch when Frank said his name again.
Frank really didn't want to start yelling - God knew where Luke was, he could be back any second, but he needed Gerard to wake up, they needed to get the fuck out of there. He jiggled his arm as much as he could and hissed Gerard's name again, and eventually Gerard stirred and muttered and looked up blearily at Frank, blinking bloodshot eyes behind the tangle of his hair.
"Frank?" he said thickly. He swallowed audibly and sat up, wincing and rolling his head on his shoulders. "What happened? Where are we?"
"I don't know, Luke's place I guess. You don't remember him coming to the apartment?"
Gerard closed his eyes for a second, visibly working to stay focused. "Um, yeah, yeah, I think so. Fuck - what the fuck was that, chloroform?"
Frank shook his head. "I don't know. I feel like I lost a fight with an anesthesiologist, though."
"Me too," Gerard groaned and blinked his eyes open, looking around the room and then back at Frank. "You're - why did he take your clothes off?"
"I really don't want to think about it," Frank said fervently. "Look, can you get your hands free and untie me?"
Gerard tugged a few times, but his wrists stayed put behind his back. He shook his head. "They're tied pretty tight. Wait," he started shuffling his feet on the floor, eventually turning the chair around and pulling away enough that Frank could see his wrists. "What are they, cuffs?"
"Rope," Frank said. "It's pretty thin, too. Can you like, I don't know, is there something sharp lying around?"
"Let me - fuck, I'm tied to the fucking chair." Gerard tipped forward slightly and stood up as much as he could with a chair tied to his thighs. He hobbled around like a cross between a crab and an old man, banging into the walls with the chair legs and swearing every fifteen seconds. Then he paused suddenly, hovering over a low table on the other side of the room. "Uh."
"Good news?" Frank craned his head, trying to see.
"I don't know if I'd call it that." There was a loud metal clattering sound and they both froze for a second, then Gerard hobbled his way back to Frank and turned around. He had a scalpel clutched in his fist. "There's a whole tray of medical instruments and crap over there."
"Great," Frank muttered, stretching his fingers out until he could lever the scalpel into his own hand. "That's fucking great."
Gerard held still while Frank forced his sweaty fingers to keep hold of the scalpel, and worked it up and down against the rope around Gerard's wrist as much as he could. Eventually it came apart with a pressure-pop, and Gerard was able to shake his wrists free and start working on the ropes around his thighs.
"Thanks," he said when he could stand up. He looked a little wobbly on his feet, but he got straight down to working on the ropes around Frank's wrists. "This is a lot thicker, I think he wanted to make sure you didn't go anywhere."
"Great." Frank repeated. He looked up at the cross looming over him again and asked, "What does that say?"
"What?" Gerard looked up from Frank's wrist and followed his. "Um, 'sitio', it's Latin for 'I thirst'."
Frank closed his eyes. "Why does that sound extremely not-good?"
Gerard finally worked through the knots on one hand and Frank pulled his wrist up to his chest while Gerard moved around the table to start on the other one. "It's part of what they call-"
"The Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ," Luke said, making them both jump as he emerged from the shadows. "The phrases uttered by Him while he hung on the cross, dying for our sins."
Frank forced himself up onto his elbow to watch Luke make his way towards them. Next to him, Gerard had gone totally still. "We know what you're trying to do," Frank told him, trying to sound braver than he felt. "We figured it out."
Luke just nodded; shuffled closer to the table and laid his palm over Frank's eyes.
The pain exploded at once - Frank jerked his head from side to side but Luke leaned heavily on him, put his other hand on the side of Frank's face, holding him still. "Easy, brother," he murmured as Frank felt the cuts in his forehead start to reopen and bleed. "You'll be at peace soon enough."
"Stop it!" Gerard yelled, pushing at Luke over the table, trying to pry his hands off Frank. "Stop it, you're killing him!"
Luke let go of Frank and backhanded Gerard across the face with enough force that Gerard went crashing into the wall and slid down it, looking stunned.
"Leave him alone!" Frank shouted, struggling uselessly against the ropes around his wrists and feet. "He hasn't done anything to you, he has nothing to do with this!"
Gerard wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, smearing blood over his cheek up to his ear. He stared at his hand for a second, then pushed himself shakily to his feet. "Let him go," he told Luke. "There's still time for you to do the right thing."
Luke laughed; a rusty, painful sound that forced its way through his grizzled mouth, stretched into a thin smile. "The right thing? Like you? Was it the right thing to spend the night in his bed?"
"I was helping him," Gerard said, holding his hands out like Luke was a crazy dog or something. "I was helping him, and I can help you, Luke."
"Help me?" Luke smiled his twisted smile at Gerard, hand trailing over Frank's stomach and chest. Pain flared everywhere he touched and Frank bit down hard on his lip to keep from screaming. "What are you going to do, Father, pray for my soul?"
"Someone needs to pray for you, you sick son of a bitch," Frank spat at him, sucking his stomach in and writhing to get away from Luke's fingers. "What do you think you're gonna get for killing me, a fucking reward?"
"Don't take it so hard." Luke traced his thumb over Frank's eyebrow. "It would have been over long ago if you hadn't deceived me."
Frank jerked his head again, dislodging Luke's rough hands and glaring up at him. "Decieved you? What, did I mistakenly give you the impression that I was in the market for a cursed tattoo?"
"You were supposed to be alone!" Luke yelled in his face, and grabbed Frank's face again, bashing the back of his head hard against the table.
Frank spat in his face. "Take your fucking hands off me!"
Luke didn't even blink, just ran one hand down to Frank's wrist and dug his thumb hard into the wound there, making pain rush sickly up Frank's arm. "I didn't come looking for you, brother," Frank heard him say over the yell Frank couldn't hold back. "A good soul in a bad place, you came looking for me."
Frank flashed back to that night, to the way he'd sat in Luke's chair and spilled his guts to the man. He felt sick. "I was just having a bad day, you crazy fuck."
"You were supposed to be alone," Luke repeated, grinding his thumb into Frank's wrist until Frank felt the wet rip of the wound tearing open under the pressure.
"Stop!" Gerard shouted, running around the table and grabbing Luke, trying to wrestle him away from Frank. "Stop it, Luke, listen to me, God is forgiving, I can help you -"
"Don't talk to me about God!" Luke screamed right in Gerard's face, and he let go of Frank to whirl around and punch Gerard in the stomach, laughing when Gerard doubled over and dropped to his hands and knees.
"God's warrior," he sneered, then delivered a vicious kick to Gerard's ribs.
"Oh, shit," Frank moaned. Gerard lay gasping, motionless on the floor.
Luke advanced towards Frank and grabbed his shoulders. "The last of the wounds will be upon you soon," he hissed, spit flecking his grizzled chin. "I will take His essence into me through you."
Frank shook his head frantically, shrinking away from Luke's touch. "What the fuck, you crazy motherfucker, you really think God's going to be down with a murderer?"
"Shh." Luke stroked Frank's hair, a grotesquely gentle gesture, and leaned in close to murmur, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him."
Frank cried out, the wounds in his body all clamoring at once, pain and blood flowing out from him in what felt like huge waves.
"I will know Christ," Luke whispered in his ear. "And your soul will be my sacrifice."
Frank shook his head weakly. Luke stood up and smiled down at him. "You will receive the final wound, brother. And when you do, I will - "
Gerard's hand shot out and latched on to Luke's ankle, making him stumble and fall awkwardly to his knees. His forehead connected loudly with the edge of the table and he fell awkwardly to the ground with a groan that trailed off into silence.
"Sorry," Gerard gasped, hauling himself to his feet.
He limped over to Frank and finished untying his wrist; he helped him sit up and Frank immediately turned to clutch at his shoulders, pulling him close and letting him do whatever it was he did that made the pain go away. Frank buried his head in Gerard's throat and just tried to breathe as the feeling came back his limbs and his head stopped feeling like it was going to explode.
"It's going to be okay," Gerard promised him, stroking his hair. "You're going to be all right."
Frank couldn't do much more than moan and shake and cling to him until a sudden rattling bang outside the room made them both jump and stare at the door.
"Jesus, what the fuck is it now?" Frank wondered, and then Luke rose up in the corner of his vision and Frank just barely had time to shout, "Gerard, look out!" before Luke lunged at Gerard and took him down to the floor with a crash.
"I'll take your life too," Luke growled, flipping Gerard over and slamming his knee into his throat. "I'll take yours too if I have to."
Frank struggled desperately with the knots around his ankles - his hands and the ropes were slick with blood, and his vision swam in and out with every pound of his head, and the banging outside the room was getting louder and louder and on the floor Gerard was struggling for breath, slapping weakly at Luke's thigh and choking for air, and then the banging stopped and someone yelled,
"Frank? Are you guys in there?"
Brian. Frank had never been so glad to hear his voice in his entire fucking life. "We're in here!" he yelled back. "Hurry, he's going to fucking kill Gerard!"
"Just hang on!" Brian yelled back. "Just hang on, Frank, we're coming to get you!"
Frank yanked harder at the ropes - the pain in his wrists made it hard to use his fingers, and now every time he hunched over there was an ominous, sickly throb in his side. On the floor, Luke had his hands around Gerard's throat and Gerard's thrashing was starting to get weaker.
"Just fucking hit him!" Frank yelled at Gerard, his head pounding dangerously hard. "Just fucking punch him in the fucking face, Gerard."
"Pacifism," Luke said mockingly, squeezing Gerard's throat tighter. "The meek will inherit a world of pain."
The door burst open right at that moment; Bob came tumbling through it, closely followed by Brian, Mikey and Ray. Bob ran straight over to Luke; hauled him off Gerard and punched him in the face so hard Frank heard the sick snap of Luke's nose breaking under Bob's fist.
Luke howled and fell backwards; Bob grabbed him and slammed him up against the wall, holding him there while Mikey knelt by Gerard, helping him to sit up.
"Are you okay?" Mikey wanted to know, but Gerard couldn't speak, just wheezed and leaned heavily against Mikey's shoulder.
Ray rushed over to Frank and slid his arm around his waist, supporting him while Brian tugged uselessly at the knots around Frank's ankles. "Fucking hell, Frank," Ray said raggedly, his hands on Frank's skin coming away wet with blood.
Frank shook his head, and concentrated on breathing; huge shaky gasps of air which hurt his lungs. On the floor Gerard was coughing roughly, already climbing to his feet.
"Hold still," Brian told Frank; he was holding the scalpel Gerard had used in his hand, and he started sawing through the ropes with it. "Father? What do we do next?"
"There's nothing to be done at all," Luke answered for him. His bloody teeth showed when he smiled. "You're too late, Father."
"What does that mean?" Bob said, shaking Luke roughly. "Too late for what?"
Frank's back arched suddenly and painfully off the table, and the headache cranked itself up to eleven and he could feel his skin splitting, feel the cuts lengthening, ripping themselves open wider and wider and the blood running down the sides of his face. "Gerard," he choked. "Gerard, it's coming, I can feel it coming, oh shit."
"Tie him up," Brian ordered Bob, moving away so Gerard could get in next to the table and take Frank's hand.
"Frank," Gerard said urgently, touching Frank's face, "Frank, it's okay, I'm here."
Frank shook his head, clutching tightly at Gerard's hand. He felt Mikey on his other side, taking his other hand. "It's not - fuck - it's not working, Gerard, you can't help me anymore."
Gerard glanced over at Mikey - some sort of communication passed between them, and Gerard got a hopeless look on his face which made all of Frank's insides freeze up. "Frank," he said desperately, meeting Frank's eyes. "Frank, I don't -"
"Gerard," Ray cut him off, rushing over to the other side of the room and picking up a bag, which he brought back to the table. "I brought some of your books and things - I didn't know what you might need, I brought everything we talked about this morning."
"You're a genius, Ray Toro," Gerard said fervently, grabbing the books and tossing all but one aside. He flipped through the pages rapidly and then stopped, muttering to himself as he read whatever he'd found. "Did you bring the herbs?"
Ray nodded and spilled some little packets out of his pocket onto the table. "I think we just mix them together and burn them."
"Your petty magics can't help you," Luke hissed from corner.
"Oh my God," said Bob. "Shut the fuck up."
Gerard handed Ray a little dish and Ray emptied the packets into it, then lit the contents with Gerard's lighter. Gerard delved back into the bag and brought out a candle, a small vial and a crucifix on a chain. "All right. Mikey, take this and stand here, opposite Ray."
Mikey looked down at the cross, frowning. "Me? But I don't know -"
"No time," Gerard interrupted, pushing him into place. "Hold it over Frank's heart, and when I tell you to, you say, 'Crux sancta sit mihi lux, non draco sit mihi dux.'"
Mikey nodded, and Gerard moved to the head of the table. He passed his hand over the candle next, murmuring something Frank couldn't hear, then handed it to Ray. "After Mikey speaks, I want you to light this and say 'Vade retro satan, nunquam suade mihi vana', got it?"
"Got it," Ray said grimly. He looked down at Frank and squeezed his hand. "We got you, Frankie, Gerard's gonna figure it out, you'll see."
Frank wanted to answer, but he was so hot all over and so tired, and he hurt everywhere, the sharp throb of his wounds chiming in against a deep, wrenching ache in his shoulders and spine. He tried to nod anyway, and he thought maybe Mikey understood, because he squeezed Frank's other hand before he looked back up at Gerard.
"Brian?" Gerard called, tipping the vial up on his fingers and shaking out some of the liquid inside. "Is he secure?"
"He's not going anywhere," Brian confirmed.
"You can't save him," Luke crowed.
Mikey looked over sharply. "Yes we fucking can."
Gerard grabbed the chair he'd sat in earlier and sat down so his face hovered closely over Frank's. "Hold on just a little longer, Frank," he murmured.
"I can't," Frank confessed, writhing when the pain flashed brightly in his side. "Gerard, I'm going to fucking die."
"I promised you, didn't I?" Gerard said grimly, and then he pressed his wet fingers to Frank's forehead and closed his eyes.
"O God, come to my assistance," he murmured, making the sign of the cross with his other hand, "O Lord, make haste to help me. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, Amen."
"Amen," Mikey and Ray murmured together.
Gerard wet his fingers again; pressed them to Frank's lips and forehead and went on, "By the intercession of St. Michael and the Celestial Choir of Seraphim, may the Lord make us-"
Frank was plunged into silence, suddenly - he could see Gerard's lips moving, feel Mikey and Ray standing over him, but his ears were filled first with nothingness and then with the sound of wind, rushing past his ears and carrying on it the sound of women weeping.
He tried to tell Gerard what was happening, but his limbs wouldn't work and tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth; he could do nothing but lie there and listen to the women crying, to the murmur of hundreds of people watching him, thousands, and to the pained moans coming from either side of him.
He was furious at Gerard, suddenly, furious at him for not realizing what Frank was going through, for being so far away, for not being able to help him, for thinking that some stupid prayer was going to save him when Frank was bleeding to death right underneath him. Furious at the unseen crowd for watching him go through this, furious with himself for not being stronger.
The pain rolled over him in surges; Frank almost welcomed it because as long as he was hurting, he was still alive. It gathered in his side each time, the pressure there building, throbbing under Frank's skin, and Frank concentrated on that; held onto it like a drowning man clutching at a straw.
The crying got louder - it was his Mom, Frank realized, he knew that voice, he'd know it anywhere, he knew what she sounded like when she cried for him. She'd done it often enough, scared by his sickbed or furious with worry, and he looked for her, tried to call for her, but before he could get the words out he was yanked back to himself with a rush and the sound of Gerard's voice filled his ears.
"This we ask through the merits of Jesus Christ Our Lord," he said. "Amen. Mikey, now."
"Crux sancta sit mihi lux, non draco sit mihi dux," Mikey intoned, holding the cross out in front of him and watching Frank with worried eyes.
"Vade retro satan, nunquam suade mihi vana," Ray went on, lighting the candle with a hand that only shook a little.
"Sunt mala quae libas," Gerard finished, touching Frank's forehead, lips, and both cheeks with his fingers. "Ipse venena biba."
Luke screamed, the pain in Frank's side exploded, and everything went white.
Frank woke up slowly, blinking as the anxious faces hovering above him came slowly into focus.
"Oh," he said. "So we won?"
Gerard let out a big, relieved breath, his fingers digging into Frank's arm. "Welcome back. How do you feel?"
Frank thought about it. He felt like he'd been hit by a truck, but he was alive, and that was pretty much the best surprise ever. He struggled to get up, groaning and clutching at Mikey's shoulders for support. "I feel like this whole regaining consciousness thing is getting really fucking old."
The guys moved back so Mikey could help Frank sit upright, swing his legs over the side of the table. They were all staring at him with these giant eyes, it was fucking disturbing.
"Cut it out," Frank said. "Do I look that bad?"
"You look like you got thrown in a blender," Bob told him.
Frank looked down at himself; pretty much every inch of skin he could see was streaked and splashed with blood. "Oh."
There was a bowl of dirty-looking water with a washcloth floating in it on the end of the table. Mikey moved to it and wrung the washcloth out. "I started to clean you up a little while you were out. Hold still."
"I thought I was dead," Frank said, watching Mikey wipe the cloth over his forearm. "It didn't hurt anymore, so I thought I was dead."
"You probably should be." Mikey turned Frank's arm over and started cleaning up the other side. "You must have lost a shitload of blood, Frank, but here you are."
"You always were a stubborn little asshole." Brian came over holding Frank's clothes, which he laid on the table in a little pile.
Frank caught Mikey smiling at him, and let the corners of his own mouth twitch up in response. "What was that stuff you burned, anyway?" he asked Ray.
"Peony, snapdragon, rue," Ray rattled off. "Well, and Holy Water. I can't believe it worked. I guess that was mostly Gerard doing his priest thing, though."
"I guess so," Frank looked over at Gerard, who was moving around the room, touching things and frowning.
"Brian figured out where you guys were," Mikey said to Frank. Frank looked over; Brian just shrugged.
In the corner, Luke was rambling crazily to himself, Bob standing over him looking stern.
"I need to get to a phone," Gerard started, and then was cut off by the sound of one ringing. He looked around, confused. "Wait - that's mine."
"Oh." Mikey plucked the ringing cell out of his pocket. "Here. You left it in Frank's apartment; I picked it up."
Gerard took the phone and pressed it to his ear. "Hello? Cardinal, oh, it's so good to hear from you." Gerard listened to whatever the Cardinal was saying, nodding and frowning to himself, then said, "Actually, the situation has progressed significantly since we last spoke."
He ducked out of the room; Frank could hear him talking in a low voice. He turned back to Mikey, who set his fingers against Frank's jaw and tilted his head so he could wipe the blood off Frank's face.
"All your wounds are closed," he said quietly. Brian leaned in to inspect them himself. "Like, completely. They're not - you don't even have scabs, just scars."
"How's your tattoo?" Brian wanted to know.
Frank looked down at her. She looked the same as before; sad, faceless, beautiful, but she was duller somehow, more mundane.
"You could get it removed," Mikey suggested, but Frank shook his head. Mikey made a humming noise, and washed out the cloth in the bowl. It was reddish and murky; Frank looked away.
"I have to wait here for a while," Gerard announced when he came back into the room, closing his cellphone. He jerked his head towards Luke. "The Cardinal is sending some guys to pick him up, and they'll want to talk to me."
Ray stared grimly down at Luke, arms folded. "What are they gonna do to him?"
Gerard furrowed his brow. "I don't know exactly. The Cardinal used the word 'rehabilitation', whatever that means. The rest of you can probably get out of here, they won't be long."
"Like we're leaving you alone with this maniac?" Brian scoffed. "I seem to recall the last time ended in a slight case of attempted murder."
"If you want to get that punch in, Frank," Bob said, looking over, "I'd say now's your chance."
Frank looked at Mikey. "Can you help me get dressed?"
Back in his clothes again, Frank moved slowly over to stand in front of Luke. He thought Mikey was right - he probably should be dead. He was dizzy and numb; there were invisible weights tied to his hands and feet, and his whole body ached with remembered pain. His wounds were closed but the way he'd felt, tied down at Luke's mercy, was still fresh in his mind like a wide, deep cut, and as he stood there looking down at the crazy bastard, twitching and muttering and heaving sporadically against his bonds, he expected to want nothing more than to beat the guy's face into a bloody, thin pulp on the ground.
"Frank?" Bob prompted. "You don't want to knock this motherfucker out?"
Frank looked down at Luke, sitting there waiting to be shipped off to have God only knew what done to him at the hands of the Vatican, and he looked around at Mikey, Ray, Brian and Bob, and at Gerard, who was carefully looking away.
"No," he said finally, leaning down and looking into Luke's face. "You're going to go to Hell," he said quietly, feeling a creepy buzz at the way Luke twitched at the word. "Brother."
The guys from the Vatican arrived a few moments later, their dark suits and sunglasses incongruous but weirdly comforting, like a police officer or - Frank would have said a couple months ago - a priest.
"Father Way?" One of them said, flashing some sort of badge at Gerard. Gerard nodded. "You'll be accompanying the perpetrator back to the Vatican with us."
"Of course," Gerard said immediately. "Do you need to talk to Frank?"
The suit turned and looked at Frank. "You're the victim?"
Frank bristled at the word, he couldn't help it, but when he felt Mikey's hand on his arm he swallowed his pride and said, "That's me."
The other three suits had already moved over to Luke; one of them pressed…something to his temple which made him slump, unconscious, in his seat, and the others set to work untying him and strapping him into the weird stretcher/wheelchair they'd brought with them.
"We'll need a complete statement," the suit told Frank. There were tattoos peeking out of his collar; a full color piece wrapping around his throat and up under his chin. Frank leaned in, curious, but the suit busted him staring and gave Frank a Look over the top of his sunglasses. "There a problem, Mr. Iero?"
"No," Frank shook his head. "But - look, I already told Gerard, uh, Father Way, everything, he got it on tape. And he's been here for everything since. I just wanna go home, man, don't make me go through this again."
"We need to-" the suit began, but one of the others, a little guy with long hair pulled back in a ponytail, interrupted him.
"Just get them to sign the papers, Howard, let the kid go home. We got what we need."
Howard gave Frank a long look, but then produced a bunch of papers from a briefcase and handed them around. "Standard disclaimer form stating you won't speak of these events to anybody without our express consent."
"Or what?" Brian wanted to know.
Howard looked at him. "Or bad things."
Brian had a face like thunder. "Is that a threat?"
"Wait a minute," Frank clicked open the pen the suit handed him. "We sign these and this never happened, right?"
"Right," Howard nodded.
"Count me the fuck in," Frank muttered, and signed his name.
Mikey signed too, after Gerard nodded at him. The others followed suit, although Brian didn't look very happy about it.
"Is there anybody else we need to contact?" Howard asked Gerard. Gerard shook his head. "All right. Father Way, you'll come with us, please."
"Right now?" Gerard said anxiously. "But - I don't have any of my things with me."
"We'll make a stop for you to pick up anything you need." Howard stepped back to let the other suits wheel Luke out of the room. "We don't have much time, Father."
Gerard hesitated for a minute, looking annoyed, then sighed and ran his hands through his hair. "Fine, fine. Just give me a minute, will you?"
Howard looked like he wanted to argue, but Gerard pulled out a don't-fuck-with-me face out from somewhere, and Frank realized in that instant that Howard was Gerard's subordinate, not the other way around. Gerard was a priest, this guy was just a hired hand.
"Please meet us outside as soon as possible," Howard said in a low voice, and ducked out of the room.
"So that's it?" Mikey said as soon as he was gone. "The bad guy goes down and now you're leaving again, just like that?"
"Mikey, it's my job," Gerard said tiredly. He looked at Frank, and then quickly away again. "Don't you think I want to stay?"
Mikey wavered visibly between pissed off and understanding, and landed somewhere in the middle. "Fine. But you better call me as soon as you land, motherfucker."
"I will," Gerard promised, and Mikey relented and went over to give him a hug.
Frank watched as Gerard went around the other guys, hugging them all and thanking them for everything.
"You're pretty good at this stuff," he said after he released Ray. "I mean, all of you are, but - you're sure you haven't been secretly dabbling in mysticism?"
Ray gave a shocked laugh. "No, man, just…organic hair products."
"Okay." Gerard smiled at him, and then came over to Frank. "The Cardinal might insist on speaking to you," he said seriously. "I'll do my best to keep you out of it, though."
"Thanks," Frank nodded. "And - for everything, man. I thought you were gonna have to say the Last Rites over me for a minute, there. You saved my life."
Gerard gave him a tiny smile. "Well, I'd say it was a group effort."
Frank looked down at his feet. "Yeah, everybody had a part to play but me."
"Hey." Gerard put his fingers under Frank's chin, tilted his head up to look in his eyes. "You're the bravest person I've ever met, Frank. Most people would have given up a long time ago."
Frank didn't know what to say. His face was hot and his insides were churning. More than anything he just wanted to lie down and go to sleep. Gerard's face was all perfect and two inches away from his own, and then it all got worse because Gerard put his arms around Frank and hugged him tight.
"Take care of yourself," he said quietly in Frank's ear. "You know how to reach me."
Frank nodded, and let himself cling a little bit. It didn't feel the same to touch Gerard anymore; there was no pain, and whatever strange effect Gerard had had on Luke's magic obviously wasn't there anymore, but he still found that he didn't want to let go.
"Oh," said Gerard, pulling back a moment later. "There's nothing else, right? No more - no more visions, or anything? Because most stigmatics report that-"
"I'm not a stigmatic," Frank reminded him, forcing himself to let go. "It wasn't a gift from God, just a whackjob with a spellbook."
Gerard gave Frank a long look, and nodded. "Guess so."
"Father Way," Howard said, poking his head around the doorway. "The cleanup team will be here in two minutes. I really need to get you all out of here. There's another car waiting to take your friends wherever they need to go."
"Okay," Gerard told him, moving completely away from Frank. He tugged Mikey in for another hug, kissed his cheek, and followed Howard out of the room.
Mikey came and put his arm around Frank's shoulders. "Come on," he said, squeezing gently. "Let's go home."
Dust motes danced in the light spilling in through the windows; Frank watched Gerard lift his arm and lazily try to catch them.
"Why didn't you let me go?"
Gerard let his hand drift back down to the bed again, back to Frank's skin.
Frank covered it with his own, lifted it to his mouth and kissed Gerard's knuckles, the ball of his thumb, his palm. He rolled them over so he was on top again, moved in the tangle of sheets to rest between Gerard's thighs.
"Frank," Gerard whispered, hand on the side of Frank's face. Sweat had gathered in the hollow between his collarbones; Frank ducked down to taste it, salt-sting on his tongue.
He kissed up the side of Gerard's throat, lingering at the soft place under his jaw. He felt Gerard's arms come up around him, and then just like that Frank was inside him again, with Gerard's thighs tight around his hips, and his breath coming fast and helpless against Frank's ear.
"Why didn't you just let me go?" Frank was obsessed with the bare skin of Gerard's throat, he couldn't hold back from sucking kisses in a ring around it, marking it for his own. He felt Gerard's moans under his lips, felt his hands tighten on Frank's shoulder, his back, in his hair.
Frank pushed forward and Gerard arched his back, eyes closed, gasped, "I'm too selfish. Frank, Frank, please," and Frank said, "Yeah, anything," and kissed him deep as they rocked together in Frank's bed.
The phone rang.
Frank woke up.
"Fuck," he breathed. The ceiling was blurred and his vision swam, and he closed his eyes against it, against the traffic noise outside and the beam of sunlight that sliced through the gap in the drapes and lay across Frank's face, too-hot and insistent. His head hurt and his mouth was dry. His dick throbbed and his skin prickled all over with remembered sensation.
"Fuck," Frank said again, and shoved his hand down under the sheets so he could wrap it around his cock and jack himself off as quick as possible, kept his eyes closed so he could hang onto the dream for another moment and come while he was still confused about being in an empty bed.
He lay there panting for a while; wiped the sweat off his face with the back of his hand. When he heaved himself out of bed, he walked to the bathroom on shaky legs and stood in the shower for a long time, head bowed under the spray, hands braced against the tile wall.
The phone rang again while he was changing his sheets. He didn't pick up.
Ella was picked up a few days later. Mikey borrowed Ray's car and drove Frank out to meet the family who'd found her eating something out of their trash. It was a real nice neighborhood, Frank thought, watching the trees on either side of the wide avenues go by. The sort of place his Mom had always wanted them to live when he was a kid, even though Frank preferred someplace a little dirtier, really, and had never felt like his life sucked because he couldn't run out to the ice cream truck and then play in the sprinklers with Jimmy and Susie from next door, or whatever.
He couldn't do that shit anyway; dairy made him sick and his lungs were such a mess when he was small that he might as well have run under a sprinkler shooting pneumonia out over the lawn, but his Mom still always got a wistful look on her face when they showed those fake families on TV.
The family didn't have kids called Jimmy and Susie, they had two small daughters and a big house with a safe backyard. Frank sat in their dining room and drank their coffee and watched Ella running back and forth between the daughters, barking happily at the ball they were throwing around.
"They fell in love with her pretty much right away," the Mom said apologetically.
Frank nodded and put his cup down on the coaster she'd passed him. "Yeah, so did I."
He refused the Dad's offer to pay him for Ella, just told them what she liked to eat and promised to send her veterinary records along.
"She looked real happy there," he explained to Mikey on the way home, more to stop Mikey shooting him worried glances than anything else. "I can't give her that life, Mikey. She's better off."
"But she's your dog," Mikey insisted, hands tightening on the wheel.
Frank looked out the window as the trees rushed by in reverse. "Not anymore."
"So we don't even need to go to court?"
Brian shook his head. "Nope. They dropped all the charges and agreed to pay our legal costs. Isn't that awesome?"
"Yeah." Frank stood up and started setting up his room for the next day; fresh paper towel over the bench, instruments clean and dry and back in their drawers. "Awesome."
In the mirror, Frank could see Brian deflate, confused. "I thought you'd be happy about this."
Frank stacked the boxes of gloves in their niche by the counter. "I am, man. It's just - I don't know, I thought we'd get to say our piece."
"But now we don't have to. Haywood doesn't have a case at all, Frank, that's what I'm telling you."
Frank nodded, and just concentrated on cleaning the counter until Brian went away. When he looked up, though, Mikey was standing there instead.
"Come out with us tonight."
"Not really in the mood," Frank told him, dumping some dirty sharps in the sterile bin. "And I'm still broke, too."
Mikey followed him out into the main room. "It doesn't have to be anything big, we could just go see a movie or something."
"Yeah, you should come out," Ray chimed in. "You're gonna rot in that apartment, Iero."
"I'm not in the mood," Frank repeated sharply, and gritted his teeth when he felt them exchanging concerned looks behind his back. "Look, can you guys stop acting like I'm gonna fall on the ground and start crying if you look at me wrong? I'm fine. I'm not a fucking china doll, you don't have to keep up this fucking tip-toe act."
"Maybe if you stopped acting like such a bitch, we would," Bob said, rolling his eyes when Ray made a shushing noise at him. "What? He just said he doesn't want us to be nice!"
"What Bob is trying to say is that you don't exactly seem yourself," Brian put in.
"Seems like himself to me," Bob grumbled. "Little pain in the ass."
Brian ignored him. "Frank, do you think maybe you should talk to someone about what happened?"
Frank clenched his hands in his pockets and kept his eyes on the floor, because he felt like if he looked at Brian he might put his fist through his face before he could stop himself. "I said I'm fine. I gotta go."
"Why, you have a busy night of moping ahead of you?" Bob needled him, but Frank ignored him and walked out the door.
"Gerard called Mikey yesterday," Ray reported as they were walking down the street on Sunday. "Apparently Luke is definitely no longer a threat, and you should relax."
Frank squinted in the sun; fumbled his sunglasses out of his pocket and slid them between his eyes and everything else. "I was relaxed, Toro. Then some douchebag came over and started nagging me to take a walk."
"It's good news, though, isn't it?" Ray pressed. "I mean, you don't have to worry anymore."
Frank shrugged. He needed new shoes; he could feel the cracks in the sidewalk through his soles. "Who's worrying? I don't have any problems sleeping at night."
"Or any other time of day." Ray stopped and jerked his head at the store they were passing. "Hey, I just gotta run in here real quick."
"Okay." Frank dug his smokes out of his pocket and lit up. "I'm gonna hang out here, man."
Ray went inside, and Frank lurked by a rotating magazine rack and smoked his cigarette. He counted six people wearing crucifixes, three yarmulkes, two women with crimson dots between their eyes. The air was cold and he jammed his free hand into his pocket, rubbing his fingers together to warm them up.
Someone pushed past him, suddenly, making Frank jump and drop his cigarette. He flailed into the magazine rack, sending it toppling over onto the two dudes on the other side.
"Sorry, man," Frank started, but the bigger of the two dudes got up in his face right away.
"Watch what you're fucking doing, asshole!" he yelled, and Frank saw red, he didn't even know what happened, just that one moment the dude was shouting at him and the next Frank had him up against the wall, his arm twisted behind him, wrist grinding in Frank's fist, and Ray was trying to pull him off.
"Take it easy," he said urgently, yanking on Frank's shoulders until he reluctantly let the dude go and stepped back, curling his hands into fists to stop them from shaking. "Sorry," Ray apologized to the dude, who was all slack-jawed and stupid-looking with surprise. "Come on, Frank, let's get out of here."
Frank let Ray steer him away, then shook his hands off and dug in his pockets for his smokes again. "I didn't need your fucking help."
"He did," Ray said mildly. "I thought you were gonna break the dude's face."
"He started it," Frank muttered, pulling his shoulders up around his ears. He felt like everyone was looking at him; he narrowed his eyes at a hippy-looking chick who held his gaze too long. "Fucking moron."
Ray glanced over at him. "You're kind of an asshole right now, Frank."
"I've always been an asshole," Frank argued. "Where are we even going, anyway?"
"You wanna go someplace in particular?"
"No." Frank dragged on his cigarette; the smoke felt gritty and good in his lungs. "I don't care."
"I'm getting that," said Ray.
"When are you gonna let me fix your Keep the Faith, man?" Bob leaned in the doorway to Frank's room. "I got some free time this afternoon."
Frank shook his head and went back to disinfecting his clamps. "No, that's all right."
Bob came into the room and settled on the edge of the bench. "Come on, it's not like I'm gonna charge you."
"I said it's all right." Frank wiped around the edge of the counter, taking deep breaths. His stomach cramped anxiously; Frank ignored it.
"How is it all right? It's all fucked up. Come on, it won't take me long to fix it up. I can't let you walk around with my work looking like that."
Frank gritted his teeth and stood up. "Nobody can see it, Bob, relax."
Bob caught his elbow before he could leave. "All right, well, how about we start thinking about your next piece? You're gonna want some kind of 'I Survived the Stigmata Experience' thing, right?"
"Like this?" Frank pushed his sleeves up and held his arms out to Bob, turning them slowly to show both sides of his wrists. The scars stood out against his skin; too-pale circles, slightly raised, four of them in total. "I got some matching ones on my feet, if you're interested, by the way. Oh, and yesterday some fucking kid asked me where I got my super-cool Crown of Thorns scarification done."
Bob held his hands up. "Chill out, okay. It's just usually you get ink to remember big stuff that happened to you."
"Do you think I can forget it?" Frank yelled, his fucking traitorous voice shaking all over the place. "I don't need a fucking tattoo, okay, I need a…a fucking memory-wipe or something. I need - I need-"
"What?" Bob got off the bench and glowered down at Frank. "What do you need, Frank, what the hell do you want from us?"
"I want you to stop acting like everything can just go back to normal now!"
"A few days ago, that's exactly what you wanted us to do!" Bob reminded him, scowling. "Look - you went through something, all right, I get it."
"How can you possibly get it?" Frank shoved his chair out of the way and advanced on Bob, hands flexing by his sides. "None of you have any fucking idea what it was like!"
"We did everything we could to help you, you ungrateful little shit, don't think we'd do anything now? But you won't let us because you're too busy being a fucking martyr!"
Frank wasn't really aware of throwing the punch; the first he knew of it was his fist connecting with Bob's cheek, and Bob staggering backwards for a second, shocked into losing his balance, before he immediately rocked back onto his feet and punched Frank right back.
It wasn't hard; Frank knew that, he knew he wouldn't be standing if Bob had really let go, and that made him so angry, for some reason. He ignored the ringing in his ear and the first metallic tang of blood on his tongue, and pulled his arm back again, but Bob's hand shot out and folded around Frank's entire fist, forcing it back behind his back.
"Bob!" Frank yelled, furious; he struggled, but Bob just put his other hand on Frank's shoulder and pinned him face-first against the wall. "Let me go, motherfucker, what, are you scared?"
"It's not me you want to fight," Bob said quietly. "And I sure as hell don't want to fight you."
Frank struggled some more - he could still feel his face throbbing where Bob punched him, and he wanted more of that, he wanted to run at something solid and beat it with his fists until it bled, but Bob had him pinned so he couldn't even hurt himself. Eventually he sagged against the wall, breathing hard. His eyes prickled and he closed them, swallowing. "Let me go."
Bob paused for a few seconds, then did as Frank asked, stepping back so Frank could push off the wall and bring his hand up to touch around his jaw, poke his fingers into the tender places which would swell and bruise.
"There's some ice in the back," Bob began, but before Frank could answer, Brian appeared in the door.
"What the fuck is going on?" he said, looking between Bob and Frank with suspicious, narrowed eyes. "Are you two fighting?"
Bob started, "It's not what you-"
"Get out," Brian said grimly.
Bob blinked at him. "What?"
"Not you, Bryar, Jesus. I'm talking to you." Brian turned to Frank. "I want you to get your things, and go home."
"Are you firing me?" Frank demanded, his hands automatically curling tight again. "I can't believe that you would-"
Brian sliced his hand sharply through the air. "Of course I'm not firing you, you dumb fuck. I should, but I won't. I'm putting you in a time-out."
Frank stared at him. "I'm not a fucking toddler, Brian."
"You're not a fucking safe person to leave in charge of a bunch of sharp objects, either." Brian came into the room and put his hands on Frank's shoulders, holding him still when Frank tried to twist away. "Frank," he said seriously, looking right into Frank's eyes. "We love you. And we're so sorry this happened. And it is completely reasonable that you need some time to adjust."
"But I don't-"
Brian shushed him. "Mikey's really worried about you, we all are. I think it's better if you go home until we can all figure out together what's the best thing to do."
Frank's eyes were burning and his throat was hot and tight. He still felt so furious he could taste it, slick and bitter on the back of his tongue, but it was tempered with the aching feeling of impotence he was carrying around everywhere like a fucking ball and chain. He sighed and looked at the floor. "Brain - I just want to forget about it."
"I know." Brian squeezed his shoulders. "But you can't."
Frank shook his head; he raised his hand to wipe his face and was surprised when it came away wet. He felt Bob's hand on the back of his neck; he couldn't believe he'd just thrown a punch at the guy, great, now he could feel the self-loathing seeping into his veins along with everything else.
"We'll figure it out," Brian promised him.
"Yeah," Frank agreed, but really he wasn't so sure.
Two days later, Frank opened the door, and Gerard was standing there.
He was so completely the last person Frank expected to see, that when Frank groped around for a reaction, he couldn't find one at all. When he thought about it, he supposed he'd been waiting for Gerard to show up ever since he left with the creepy suits, but now he was here he had absolutely no idea how he was supposed to act.
"Hi," said Gerard, after they'd stared at each other for a minute. Gerard looked really good. He had sort of a tan, and he'd cut his hair. "Can I come in?"
Frank stood back dumbly and let Gerard pass. He took his time closing the door, putting the chain on, straightening out the mat with his foot. If he'd known Gerard was coming - but he hadn't, and what the fuck did you say to a dude you'd only met during the worst and weirdest period of your life? He had a million questions; what happened with Luke, was Gerard sticking around this time, would Frank ever stop having bad dreams, was life ever going to get back to something Frank didn't have to work so hard at every day?
"Do you want some coffee?" he said in the end, twisting his hands together, and escaped gratefully to the kitchen at Gerard's nod.
He concentrated on stirring and pouring and tried to just breathe, tried to slow down the crazy dance his insides were doing, trying to go in all directions at once, just like his mind.
Gerard took the coffee from Frank and brought it up to his face, blowing on it a little before sipping carefully.
Frank couldn't stop staring it him; he felt better just looking at him, not in the way he had before, but…with Gerard there, he felt less like it was all in his mind, or something.
Gerard looked up and cocked his head to the side. "How're you doing, Frank?"
"Fine," Frank grumbled into his coffee.
"That's good," Gerard said mildly. "I'm amazed you've been going to work, even, I'd be rocking back and forth under my bed if I was you."
"No, you wouldn't." Gerard would be finding a way to fix it, Frank was pretty sure, not just blundering through the days, hoping it would get easier and not doing anything to help himself. "So - what happened with Luke?"
Gerard grimaced and put his cup down, then twisted his hands together, palm to palm, fingers fanning out like a bird. "I really can't tell you."
"What? But I'm the one he-"
"I know," Gerard nodded quickly, reaching out to touch Frank's knee. His fingertips made a rough sound against the material. "I know, but I can't. I promise you, though, he can't hurt you anymore."
"I wasn't worried," Frank said roughly, and he'd thought it was true, but hearing it straight from Gerard made something shift inside him and he felt the relief start, like a giant block of ice in his chest was slowly melting at the edges, making it easier to breathe. "You really can't tell me?"
Gerard shook his head. "I really can't. I'm sorry."
Frank shrugged and sat back against the couch. He crossed his legs so one foot was resting on the opposite knee, and bounced it a little, watching his shoelace swing where it had come untied.
He startled when Gerard's hand came up to touch his forehead, trace over the scars. Frank allowed it for a second, frozen by the press of Gerard's fingertips to his skin, then jerked back a little more roughly than he meant to.
"Sorry," Gerard muttered, dropping his hand. "I was just going to say they look better than last time."
"Yeah," Frank shrugged, "Ray made me some herbal stuff to put on them, marigold or some crap, I don't know."
"Ray's a good guy," Gerard said and then he got a weird look on his face and blurted out, "I want to thank you."
Frank looked at him in surprise. Gerard was sitting turned towards him, his hands clasped in his lap. He wrinkled his nose when Frank didn't say anything, and went on, "Look…I've been having a lot of…a lot of really confusing feelings, about the Church, and about my place in it, and-" he broke off suddenly, shaking his head. "You know what, I don't need to lay this on you, forget it."
"No, no." Frank sat up and caught Gerard's sleeve, tugging until Gerard met his eyes again. "You can tell me. I wanna know."
Gerard shook his head and looked at the ceiling for a minute. "Before - before all this went down, I was wondering whether I'd made the right choice, you know? I mean - I had to be away from Mikey, from everyone I care about a lot of the time, and I wasn't really helping anyone, I felt like an insurance claims adjuster, going around telling people their miracles weren't real." Gerard's voice was low and bitter, and then he looked up at Frank and smiled, sudden and soft and real; it was like having a front-row seat to a mood swing, and Frank felt kind of dizzy with it. Gerard took a deep breath and continued, "And then I met you."
Frank swallowed; his throat was dry. "Oh."
"And you made me see that I was in completely the wrong place." Gerard was warming to his subject now, touching Frank's arm insistently and leaning forward, eyes intent. "I don't have to serve God that way, Frank, I don't know how I could have gotten it so wrong - well, except that if I'd been on a different path I might never have met you, and then we wouldn't be having this conversation, so I guess it was something I had to go through in order to realize-"
"Gerard," Frank prompted him, wiping his hands surreptitiously on his pants because he could feel his hands sweating - his heart was beating so hard he wondered if Gerard could see his pulse in his throat. "What do you mean, you were in the wrong place?"
Gerard gave him another one of those smiles that made Frank feel like reaching for his shades. "I was so unhappy before, Frankie, I felt - I felt so trapped. And now - now there's so much possibility, and it's all because of you."
Frank held his breath. "So - what's changed?"
"The Cardinal's offered me a new position," Gerard announced, grinning the whole time. "I'm going to be helping people like you. I mean, not specifically like you, because I don't know how many Lukes there are in the world, but people who're in that kind of trouble and need help. I can save lives, Frank, isn't that amazing? It'll mean more traveling, but-"
Frank couldn't hear him anymore; his ears were ringing too hard with relief that he hadn't made a complete fool out of himself by throwing himself on Gerard, and the sick, swoopy embarrassment that comes when you realize you've been a complete fucking moron, even if you're the only one who knows it. What the fuck did he think Gerard was going to say, 'Oh, I dumped God, wanna run away with me?'
He was just getting his teeth into some serious self-loathing when Gerard must have realized he'd stopped listening, because he said, "Frank?" and touched Frank's arm again.
Frank pulled his arm away in what he hoped was a casual manner, and forced a smile onto his face. "That's great, man. I'm really happy for you."
Gerard smiled back, but it was a little wavery, a little unsure. "Well, like I said, it's all down to you, really. Not that I would ever have wanted anything to happen to you, but if we hadn't met…"
"I'd be dead," Frank finished for him, tucking his hands under his knees in case they were shaking. "And you'd still be looking at toast in Maine."
"Yeah," a frown flitted briefly across Gerard's face. "Frank - you know that night we all stayed over here, and you and I…you know."
"What about it?" Frank forced his voice to stay light, forced his face to stay neutral.
Gerard hesitated, then took a breath and said in a rush, "I don't want you to think that…that I…"
"That you what?" Frank widened his eyes slightly, gave a tiny shake of the head. It was a pretty masterful I-have-no-idea-what-you're-talking-about face, if he did say so himself, and Gerard might see God's plan everywhere, but he couldn't see through that, because he relaxed and shook his head.
"Nothing, I'm just - I'm really glad you're okay."
I'm not, Frank wanted to say, but he bit his tongue and forced himself to chat with Gerard about things that didn't matter; the shop, the lawsuit, Mikey's stupid new hair that Ray came up with and Mikey loved more than anything else in the world.
"Will I see you before I leave?" Gerard asked when Frank was seeing him out. "I think Mikey wants to do something tomorrow night, if you're free."
Frank rolled his head on his shoulders like he was thinking about it, when really he was trying to get his voice under control again. "I don't know, maybe. I'll give Mikey a call when I know."
Gerard's face fell a little bit; Frank pretended not to notice. "Oh. Well…I guess I'll see you around, then."
"Guess so," Frank agreed, holding the door open.
Gerard gave him a look somewhere between sorrowful and confused, and stepped outside. "So…'bye, Frank."
"Bye," Frank replied, and let the door swing shut.
He waited until he heard Gerard's footsteps recede, then thought, what the fuck are you doing, yanked the door open again and ran down the hall, skidding into the top of the stairwell just as Gerard was about to round the first bend, half a flight down. "Wait!"
Gerard blinked up at him, surprised. "What is it?"
"Of course I'll be there tomorrow," Frank told him, the feeling of being a prize asshole sinking into the background a little when Gerard grinned up at him. "Of course I will, I don't even know what I was - I'll be there."
"Awesome," Gerard smiled. From this angle Frank could see his collar peeking out from underneath all his scarves. "So I'll see you tomorrow?"
"See you tomorrow," Frank said firmly, and ignored the way his chest ached as he watched Gerard walk down the stairs.
"You're doing what?"
"We're going with him," Mikey repeated, his fingers curled in the shoulder of Gerard's jacket. He was perched on the arm of the seat, eyeing Frank a little warily. "We're going with him to save lives."
Frank waited longer than he usually would for the punchline, even one of Mikey's punchlines, which you sometimes didn't notice at all unless you were paying attention, but none arrived.
"You're going with Gerard to save lives," Frank repeated slowly, just to make sure it sounded just as stupid when he said it. It did. He looked at Bob. "Don't tell me this 'we' includes you, man."
Bob shrugged, but he looked a little uncomfortable. "If we can stop what happened to you happening to someone else, then…yeah."
Frank stared at Gerard. "Was this your idea?"
"Sort of," Gerard shifted in his chair, knotting his hands together and then pushing them through his hair. "I mean, I mentioned it to Mikey, but I didn't really think he'd say yes."
Mikey rolled his eyes so hard they almost disappeared. "Of course I said yes."
Gerard smiled minutely, but stopped when he caught Frank's eye again. "You're upset," he said in a puzzled tone.
"Obviously the 'we' includes you as well!" Ray piped up suddenly, sitting up straight in his chair.
"Oh!" Gerard looked enormously relieved and nodded vigorously at Frank. "Yeah, of course it does."
"It does?" Frank clasped his hands under his chin and fluttered his eyelashes at them. "You guys! You're so sweet to think of including me in your completely fucking insane plan to go out looking for more crazy assholes who like to bleed people to death. I'm so fucking touched I could just shit."
Ray waved his hands hurriedly, and he sat forwards in his chair. "Frank, you don't understand, okay - when you were - when you were suffering? It was awful, completely terrible, of course it was."
"But you're hungry for more?" Frank demanded.
"No," Ray rolled his eyes in the way that meant he was trying to keep his patience. "But the part where we kicked that guy's ass, and you didn't bleed to death? That part was pretty awesome, Frank, I gotta tell you, and now it's like - I cut hair. I just cut hair. How can we go back to that when we know what it's like to really matter?"
"We mattered before," Frank told him, and Ray kind of ducked his head.
"Not like this," he said quietly. "This is something that - I think I can really do this, Frank, and I get why you're upset-"
"None of you get why I'm upset!" Frank yelled, slamming his hands on the table. "Not a single fucking one of you understands anything about what I went through. Yeah, maybe it was awesome for you to run around playing with magic spells, but that guy tried to kill me, and he very fucking nearly succeeded, and you want to go looking for more? How could you possibly want that? Was it fun for you, watching me go through that?"
"Shut the fuck up, Frank, don't be such an asshole," Mikey said quietly. "It was the worst thing in the world, you gotta know that."
Frank couldn't even look at him.
"If we can keep other people from going through it," Ray went on, "Then we have a duty to-"
"How are you even gonna pay for it?" Frank cut him off, gesturing at Gerard. "I don't know how much the Vatican pays, but I doubt it's enough to keep all five of you alive."
Brian cleared his throat. "I'm selling the shop."
Frank felt like he'd just been slapped in the face by a superhero; he was pretty sure his head was actually spinning on his shoulders. "You're what?"
"You heard," Brian looked over at him. "It won't be a huge amount, but it'll be enough to keep us going for a little while."
"What happened to 'this place is my life'?" Frank asked him, even though he knew when Brian was decided on something, and he knew you could rarely if ever change mind. "What about the shop being your whole world?"
Brian wiped a hand over his mouth and looked away. "World's bigger now."
Oh. Well. Of course. Frank looked over at Gerard. "You want anything else?"
Gerard looked at Mikey uncertainly, then back at Frank. "What?"
"You want I should open a vein? Bleed some more? Because I gotta tell you, Father," Gerard actually winced at that, and it just wound Frank up further. "I lost my job and my friends to you in the last five minutes, and I don't really have much else to give."
"He saved your life, Frank," Mikey said, standing up, but Frank wasn't listening.
"You did this to me," he told Gerard, a shock of nasty pleasure going off in his stomach when Gerard looked like Frank had broken his heart. "You and your precious fucking Church. You tell people to come along every Sunday morning and drink Christ's blood, you tell them - you tell them to eat his flesh, you sick motherfuckers, and then, what, you get all shocked when some crazy son of a bitch takes it a step too far?"
Gerard's face had gone white. Brian said, "That's enough," but Frank wasn't about to stop now.
"What are you guys even going to do, anyway? You gonna walk into rooms after all the shit went down like those creeps in the suits, and get people to sign away their right to talk about the worst thing that ever happened to them? Brian," Frank stabbed a finger in his direction, "Brian wants me to see a therapist, did you know that? But even if I wanted to, I couldn't, because if I tell anyone what happened, some dude in a pair of fucking Ray-Bans is gonna come and slit my throat while I'm sleeping."
"I can arrange for you to see someone inside the Church," Gerard began, and then he stepped back quickly, his arm coming out to cover Mikey when Frank kicked the nearest chair as hard as he could across the room.
"Fuck the Church," Frank said wildly, "And fuck all of you."
"You need to get a fucking grip on yourself, Frank," Gerard said into the following silence, folding his arms. "Shit happens. You deal with it. That's how life goes on."
Frank laughed and threw his hands up in the air. "Oh, you're not going to tell me to turn the other cheek?"
"A bad thing happened to you," Gerard talked over the top of him, in a tight, angry voice Frank had never heard before, "And you're mad, and I get that. Maybe you should have punched Luke in the face when you had the chance. But I'm glad you didn't, because it wouldn't have fixed anything, and yelling at us isn't going to fix anything either - if you want to fight something, then come with us and fight."
"You don't even know me, you can't just expect me to-"
"Yes, I do just expect you to. Because Mikey is, and Ray is, and Bob and Brian, and because the idea of you wasting your life being bitter and helpless makes me sick to my fucking stomach, and if you want to know the truth," Gerard held Frank's eyes for a minute, "If you really want to know the truth? I don't believe that this was 'just a whackjob with a spellbook'. I think this was supposed to happen."
"Luke didn't need just anybody, he said that to us, he said he needed a good soul in a bad place. And he needed the kind of person who might get a tattoo to make themselves feel better. And what, you just happen to be in his neighborhood, fresh from the worst week of your life? Two days before I show up? That's not a coincidence, not by anyone's standards," Gerard said urgently, coming over to grab Frank by the elbows and look into his face. "And what about your bird tattoos, and your name is Frank, okay, I don't know how much more evidence you need!"
"Evidence of what, that God was using me to make a point to you?" Frank shook Gerard off and glared back at him. "Because that doesn't exactly make me feel special and treasured by my creator, and also? Not everything is about your grand spiritual journey, Gerard. You just said it yourself: shit happens."
Gerard folded his arms and raised his eyebrows. "Mulier, ecce filus tuus."
"What the fuck does that mean?" Frank shot back immediately, ignoring the spark of recognition that went off in his mind.
"It means 'Mother, behold thy son.' It's another one of the Seven Words of Christ." Gerard looked at him steadily. "You didn't understand that?"
Frank shook his head and held his hands up. "You know I don't speak Latin, man."
"Then how come you said it when I was praying over you at Luke's place?" Gerard said triumphantly, eyes gleaming.
Frank's stomach turned over; for a second he was back there, helpless and hurting on the table. "I couldn't have-"
"But you did," Gerard insisted, all pink in the face with excitement. "I heard you, and so did Mikey and Ray."
"I didn't understand it either," Ray offered. "But yeah - you did, Frankie."
"If it was just Luke, if it was just some sick mockery, how would you know to say that? How could you possibly know?" Gerard was right up in Frank's face again now, searching Frank's eyes with his own. "You saw something," he said, hushed and serious. "I know you did."
Frank closed his eyes, remembering. The hushed murmur of the crowd, the familiar voice. Finally he admitted, "I heard my mother crying."
When he opened his eyes, Gerard was still there, still watching him. Gently, he said, "I don't think that was part of the spell."
Frank pushed away and paced up and down, holding his head to stop it exploding with all the thoughts that were barreling into each other at a hundred miles an hour. "This is bullshit. It's all bullshit."
"You don't believe that," Gerard protested.
"I don't know what I believe anymore," Frank said sharply. He dropped back into his seat and covered his face with his hands, grinding the heels into his eyes until he saw orange sparkles. He counted to three, vaguely hoping that when he looked up they'd all be gone, but they were still there, staring at him like a sideshow. Frank shook his head. "A month ago, I didn't even believe in God, and now you tell me he's trying to ask me to throw down for him. And by the way, how do your bosses feel about having a bunch of godless heathens on their side?"
Gerard shifted uncomfortably. "I haven't exactly told them. We're not supposed to let outsiders get too involved."
"Again," Frank said, "Throat. Slit. Sleeping."
"It's the Catholic Church, Frank," Gerard sighed. "Not the Mafia."
"You're damn straight it's not," Frank said heatedly. "The Mafia never led me to a psycho's door as a really weird way of saying they wanted my help. I thought God was supposed to deliver us from evil, not deliver us to its fucking doorstep."
Gerard made a strange, abortive movement in the air with his hand, and kind of rolled his eyes at himself before saying earnestly, "We don't have to understand everything He says to us. We just have to listen."
Frank let a small, uncertain laugh escape him, scraping his throat on the way up. He thought about that night on his bed when Gerard had talked about prayers. "He never answers back in the way you expect, right?"
"Right," Gerard said ruefully. Frank knew he was remembering too.
Frank scrubbed his hands over his face, through his hair, down the back of his neck. He laced his fingers there and looked up at Bob. "And the rest of you just accept this?"
"I don't know about the God part," Bob admitted. "But I think, you know..."
"There's an opportunity here," Brian supplied.
"And it would be really dumb not to take it," Ray finished.
"It took all of us to help you, Frank," Gerard pressed. "It'll take all of us to help other people, too."
Frank sighed and leaned back in his chair. There was a crack in the material and it rubbed against his back through his shirt; he thought about his ruined tattoo, underneath. "I don't know."
He heard someone moving around; then Gerard was sitting down in the chair next to him. "Will you at least think about it? Please?"
Frank looked up at the ceiling. He thought about the roof above it, the sky above that; he thought about the Heavens and how thinking there might be somebody up there was way fucking scarier than being sure there wasn't.
Gerard touched his arm. Across the room, the others waited.
"Okay," Frank said finally. "I'll think about it."
Mikey came over, and sat in Frank's windowseat with him, drinking Frank's coffee and smoking Frank's cigarettes. Mikey didn't really smoke, but if Frank was smoking roll-ups, Mikey liked to share.
"Why don't you wanna come with us?" he asked, blowing a thin stream of smoke against the glass of Frank's window.
Frank shrugged and wet the edge of the paper with his tongue. "Because I don't wanna take another turn as Satan's pincushion, I guess."
"He wasn't Satan," Mikey scoffed.
Frank lit his smoke and tossed the lighter to Mikey, because the dude couldn't keep a roll-up alight for more than two seconds at a time. "Whatever."
They smoked in silence for a little while; it was raining and Frank traced the patterns of the raindrops in the condensation.
"Are you scared?" Mikey wanted to know.
Frank thought about it. It wasn't that he didn't know the answer; yeah, he was scared, he was fucking terrified, of going through that again, or worse, seeing one of the other guys go through it. Of leaving the shop, his apartment, the city he'd lived in all his life. Of fucking up, being useless, being nervous about tattoos instead of excited. Of the secrecy, of dying, and his Mom having no body to bury.
In the end he just said, "Yeah."
Mikey nodded. He pushed his glasses up his nose. "Me too."
Frank tucked his hands under his knees and put his head down. He was getting another hole in the seam of his jeans; he'd have to sew it up or he'd end up with the leg flapping open everywhere again.
"The most scared I've ever been was the day Gee was ordained," Mikey said. Frank looked up sharply at that, but Mikey was looking out of the window, his jaw set in the way that meant he wouldn't say anything else about it, no matter how much Frank asked.
Mikey went on, "I don't wanna go without you. I will. But I don't want to."
Frank put his head down again. He could feel his thoughts rolling around in his head like marbles, or like those little ball bearings you had to get to sit in the dents. He tilted his head this way and that, letting them move around and settle, and once they had, he took a shaky breath.
"Oh," he said, when he was sure. "Oh, fuck you, Mikeyway."
He felt Mikey rest his toes on top of Frank's, and press, twice, through their shoes. Frank pressed back. The first little tendrils of excitement started moving inside him, and Frank tried to concentrate on those, tried to breathe in a way that would make them weave into something solid.
"We're gonna need a van," Mikey said.
Frank laughed, and sat up. He rubbed the side of his face and wrinkled his nose at Mikey, who was smiling back without moving his mouth. "We're gonna need a shitload of miracles."
Mikey's cigarette had gone out; he lit up again. "Yep. Those too."
One Year Later
"When you asked us to come and fight evil with you, you never said anything about it smelling this bad."
Frank looked up from taping a bandage over his knee to see Mikey making a face at the stack of rune things Gerard had just dumped in his arms.
"It's the brimstone," Ray said apologetically, combing his fingers through his hair and shaking dust out all over everything. "It's a powerful hex-breaker."
"It's a stinky hex-breaker," Mikey grumbled.
Gerard piled more runes into his hands and jerked his chin towards the door. "Can you put these in the van with the other stuff before the Cardinal's guys show up?"
Mikey went off, and Gerard came over to crouch by Frank on the gritty floor. "You okay?"
"Yeah." Frank tore off another length of tape with his teeth, and used it to splint his ring and middle fingers together. They throbbed angrily at him, but then calmed down once he had them in place. "Just a couple scrapes."
"I can't believe you still have all your limbs. You could have been blown to bits."
Frank smoothed the edge of the tape down and shrugged. "You said someone needed to bring that sacred flame thing into the center of the circle."
Gerard made a strangled noise. "I didn't mean that you should grab it and throw yourself in too!"
"How was I supposed to know it would explode?" Frank demanded, trying to tear off some more tape but mostly just succeeding in getting it stuck to his face.
"Because it always explodes, Frank," Gerard said exasperatedly, grabbing the tape from him and tearing it himself. "If I have learned one thing over the last year, it's that everything always explodes."
"Whatever, I bet it looked cool." Frank rolled his sleeve up and pressed another bandage over the raw, bloody place on his elbow, taking the tape from Gerard so he could secure it. "Where's Bob and Brian?"
"Bob's loading the van up, and I think Brian's trying to find somewhere for us to sleep tonight." There was a tramping noise outside, and Gerard stood up, dusting himself off just in time for Howard and the other suits to come into the room. "Howard."
"Father Way," Howard greeted him coolly, looking around. The place was kind of a bombsite - literally, Frank had to admit to himself, there was actual rubble in one corner and a whole lot of dust floating around, and Ray was still picking drywall out of his hair, but whatever. "We'll take it from here."
"Yeah, now there's no more actual evil," Frank muttered under his breath, shutting up when Gerard nudged him.
Howard handed Gerard a stamped, addressed envelope, which Frank knew by now would contain a tiny Dictaphone. "You'll send your statement as soon as possible."
Gerard nodded and folded the envelope up, tucking it in the inside pocket of his jacket. The suits were already moving around, bagging stuff up and talking to each other in low murmurs. They never seemed to get dusty; their suits were always pristine, and Frank was actually convinced that behind their ever-present sunglasses, they didn't even have eyes.
"I assume that you and your," Howard gave Frank a long, expressionless look, "Your…associates, have received instruction from the Cardinal as to your next assignment?"
"Yeah," Gerard said. Howard kept looking at him, like he thought Gerard was going to give him details, but Gerard just kept looking back until finally Howard nodded and stepped back.
"We'll take it from here," he said again, hands in his pockets. "Good to see you, Father Way."
"You too!" Gerard said, in this bizarre fake-cheery voice. Frank and Ray followed him out onto the street, where Bob was leaning against the van, smoking and listening to Mikey talk. "You guys ready?"
Bob nodded and pulled the sliding door back. "Brian called, he's got us some floor to crash on a couple blocks from here."
A weak cheer went up. Frank clambered into the van; Mikey, and Ray piled in after him, and Bob slid the door shut and climbed into the front with Gerard.
"I don't suppose the Lord is planning to provide us with some money any time soon, is he?" Ray wanted to know, leaning over the seat. "Because when sleeping on someone's floor seems like a luxury, I'm pretty sure we're in vow of poverty territory."
Gerard slid his own sunglasses on. "Things'll get better, Ray, He's just testing our faith."
"Test this," Bob muttered, making a gesture that Frank couldn't see, but which made Gerard snort and shake his head.
The van started up; Frank leaned against the side and felt the vibrations running up through his spine and skull. Opposite him, Mikey was already folding all his skinny limbs into a tangle, head tucked into Ray's shoulder. Ray laced his fingers together on his stomach and leaned his head on Mikey's. He closed his eyes.
"Hey, did you say you'd spoken to the Cardinal?" Frank remembered, leaning forward to tap Gerard's shoulder. "Where are we going next?"
Gerard gave Bob kind a funny look, then turned around to smile at Frank. "Chicago."
"Are you serious?" Bob looked over in surprise, almost driving into the back of the suits' creepy black Humvee as he was pulling out into the road.
Gerard nodded, smiling; his weird little teeth sunk into his bottom lip. "Yup. Apparently there's something really weird going on down there. He's gonna call me with more details."
"Chicago," Bob said happily, flipping his sun visor down. "I don't know what the fuck I'm going to tell my folks, though."
The van choked and rumbled as Bob forced it up through the gears. Frank thought about having a cigarette, but he didn't know when Brian would let them buy more, so he left the pack in his pocket for now.
"I want coffee," Mikey said sleepily from under Ray's hair. "Coffee and hash browns."
Gerard settled back in his seat, tipping his head back against the headrest. "Coffee sounds really good."
"Coffee," Frank agreed fervently. "Coffee, hash browns, shower and sleep."
"Don't forget we're going to Mass tomorrow," Gerard reminded them, laughing when they all groaned. "Sunday follows Saturday every week, guys, I don't know why you're always surprised."
"Just get me to the coffee," Mikey said, reaching over the back of the seat to tug on Gerard's ear. "Then we can discuss the rest."
Gerard sighed, pretending to be annoyed. Frank watched the way his hair curled around his ears; the stubble on his jaw that was barely noticeable even though he hadn't shaved for days.
He ran a hand over his own face, sandpaper against his palm. Fuck, he wanted a shower so bad his mouth practically watered when he thought about it. His elbow stung, and his knee, and his fingers twinged when he flexed them. There was dust in his hair, and his ears, and his nose. He was exhausted, and he couldn't remember the last time they slept somewhere not the van for more than two nights in a row, and Mikey's toes were digging into his shin, and the whole van smelled like unwashed dude.
He looked down at his wrists; pressed his thumb experimentally over the pale scars he didn't think were ever going to go away. They didn't hurt.
Mikey's toes dug into him again, more insistently, and Frank looked up to see him making his question face.
Frank made the OK sign with one hand and did a thumbs-up with the other. Mikey smiled, and closed his eyes again.
Bob grumbled at someone who cut out in front of him. Ray hummed quietly under his breath.
Gerard's phone rang; Frank listened to the sound of his voice, and thought about Chicago.